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Monday, March 30, 2009

Race Report: Johnny Cake Lane Series, Race 1

Spring is here. Time for all of us cyclists to put on our game faces, take our bikes off the trainers, and feel the sharp sting of the wind as it comes across the fields of beautiful Greene County. It's race time!

I pull into the parking lot at the school, and am greeted by bikes and riders milling about, along with perpetually grumpy USCF commissaires and assorted family members/friends/significant others who have been drafted into supporting roles.

I suit up and get the bike ready, as I surreptitiously eye up the other riders. I head out to the course, and pedal a lap the wrong way to recon the course. I know these roads. Small rises, mostly flat, gaping potholes helpfully marked by orange spray paint.

Just a bit of nerves now. I ease into the group at the start, glance around, see super-fit riders, collegiate team kits and thousands of dollars of bike tech. Whoops, the pro/cat 1-3 field. I sneak out, back to the "C" group, cat 5s and first-timers. OK, that's better. I recognize a couple riders, and try to guess at the abilities, style and potential dangers of others.

We ease out onto the course for a neutral start. One of my Tuesday-night buds, Dan, is driving the pace car for our group. "I'll look for you in the mirror," he says. Cool. I make small talk with other riders as we roll out. "Stay loose," I say to everyone and no one. It sounds corny, but I like it when other guys say that. And, considering my only experience in a pack recently was the previous night's critical-mass ride, it's good for me to hear it, too.

Lap one is thankfully uneventful. Small accelerations that I can mark, no problem. Little rises, some wobbly riders. I'm at fifth wheel on the back side of the course, in the catbird seat. This lasts for all of 20 seconds before the amorphous blob of the peloton shifts, and I'm ten more places back, boxed in along the road's edge. Don't crash, stay loose, I say to myself. OK.

Got this crazy idea to attack, try a solo breakaway. Never have had the chance. My usual M.O. in races is to hang on for dear life to the wheels in front of me. I feel good, heart rate's decent, and I want out of this group. There's a nervous energy that could lead to shoulders--or worse, wheels--touching. OK, I think, end of the first lap.

Mid-pack, I click up three gears, swing out so that I'm right on the double-yellow, rise out of the saddle, and step on the gas. "Who's going with me?" I yell, as much to my surprise as anyone's. We'll see what happens. I hazard a glance back--no chasers yet. Come on, guys, I'm your rabbit. Not that I want to get caught, but I can't stay out here alone for two laps. Heart rate's redlining, and I'm feeling great. I'm gaining on Dan in the pace car. You see me now? I think. Wow, what a rush.

This rabbit's getting tired. Riders behind me are stretched out, but closing on me. I may be a sacrificial rabbit, but my move woke up the pack.

The rabbit metaphor deflates as my heart-rate monitor holds steady at 171 while my speed drops. Now I'm a piece of celery, going through the Cuisinart of the peloton. Shredded--pureed, even--and spit out the back. Whoa, I think. Were we all going that fast before? No, the pace has picked up.

I hook up with a few other guys on the back side of the course, and we work together, however raggedly. Do these guys think they have a better chance riding me off their wheels? Our numbers thin, until it's just one other rider with me. The main field is way out of sight. We pass some dropped B group riders. We're working together, but it's still competition--particularly on those small rises.

One kilometer to go. He's on my wheel, no intentions of coming around. We're looking at a sprint for, what, 20th place? Game on. I try to ride him off my wheel, but it only works momentarily, and he shoots by. I let him go.

This is a very low-budget race, with guaranteed results for the top five finishers only. I have no idea where I finished. In the pass/fail scoring of my mind, I call it a pass. Hey, a solo breakaway. One or two minutes of... glory? Pain? Surprise? A bit of all of those? Pass.

Tragicomedy, Act 4 out of 5

Forget basketball. Ask anyone in this building--child or adult--and they'll tell you the true March Madness is going on within these walls.

March. What other month commands in such strident fashion? I mean, please. "May" is much more gentle. May I? But it's not here yet.

We've been teaching full weeks since the end of February break. That conference day we were supposed to have last Friday? Well, thanks to that ice storm a while back, it was a regular school day. Kids and teachers crankier than usual. Mostly--I'll get to that in a minute.

The dark clouds hovering over the faculty room have taken on a particularly bruised, angry hue recently. The rants are familiar: students with poor attendance/word choice/fashion sense/grooming habits/sentence structure, etc. Parents who don't care or--worse--actively enable behavior that works against us. Administrators who clearly don't understand What It Is That We Do. Deadlines. Piles of papers.

And, of course, this is a good time for everyone to get their schedules for next year. I'm teaching a level I've never taught before, and I'm doing another course I seem to get every few years or so, thus preventing me from establishing any kind of rhythm. (Those who are not teachers will vouch that such changes keep me fresh.)

Cranky. Cranky. Cranky.

Yes, I said to my colleague. But predictable. So predictable. How would the review go? The cast obviously knows their parts inside and out, and all deliver their lines with passion and verve, but the plot is a bit hackneyed, reducing the characters to flat stereotypes: the teacher martyr, the spoiled sophomore princess, the boy who throws worms and stuff, the text-addled junior with her hands constantly in her purse or her lap, the barking administrator.

Yawn. There's something better nearby... There's life outside these walls, even in that courtyard just outside my classroom window, where things actually grow. The grass will soon be lush and green, and gentle breezes will surely, um, stir the darling buds of... May. (Forgive me. I've read that sonnet too many times.)

See the humor in it, I enthused to my patient colleague. The deus ex machina, even. Invisible strings are tugging at us. We ARE reading scripts, and this is a restless falling action, hopefully leading to some sort of cathartic denouement: papers graded, boards washed clean, exams bundled neatly, students reduced to GPAs and class rank. Me, caught up for the first time all year. Yes, but we are stronger than those strings.

We can improvise. We must.

Another trusted colleague and I fall back on our favorite rhetorical question that gets us out of this rank-and-file March: "What's really important?" Well, it sure isn't the duct tape on the faculty room carpet. It's most definitely not the Regents exam. And no way is it the faculty meeting agenda.

March is gone. March on? Nah. Amble, sidle, sashay, and remember what's really important.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009



Beauty is in the eye of the beholden
A bountiful burden that lightens
Silence is silver, but speech is golden
Fan the fire ‘til it brightens
We willfully carry each other
A musical voice, a dimpled smile
New and old to one another
Sinuous, twisted roads of years and miles
Show your dark places, I’ll show mine
Trust, jump, be honest and true
Your hands at the base of my spine,
We’ll find the words our hands just knew
The sweet touch of laughter
Lightens, enlightens ‘til hereafter.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Light Romance

Right now, I miss her. The last time I saw her was Sunday. How appropriate. Only a couple of hours, though—if that. She called to me through the dirty windows, coaxed me outside like I was a cautious cat, then hid herself behind gray walls. What a flirt.

OK, so this time of year is a lean time for this sort of radiant romance. But even so… We are all sunlight and stardust, all solar powered if you trace it back far enough. It’s an elemental pull, something deep within us. How could I resist?

I’m gaining two minutes a day with her, supposedly. She still hides herself, comes out obliquely and diffused, shades of gray, indirect, casting no shadows. Meanwhile, rain seeps into my sun-colored room. Keeps me awake, makes me rearrange things when I should be sleeping.

I miss her energy, heat and passion. The kind that I’m sure I thought was overbearing six months ago when she locked me in. Or did I shut her out? But I missed her then, too, in my dark and breezy prison. I’d sneak out as she began to leave, follow her as my shadow lengthened, chasing her through the Rensselaer County hills, always wanting a few minutes more. Just a few.



take off your shoes,
one, two—
let one fall, hold the other
in that pregnant pause
now you hold control
you say when the other
will drop

wingtips, chucks, boots,
uggs, flip-flops,
let 'em go

no living on the rack—
no stretching or fearful waiting
but like a dog hearing a
clinking leash,
barking, anticipating

naked feet,
now that’s the way to meet—
unfurl your toes, see where
the road goes—
close to the pavement
feel the heat

shed your fears
those old socks
one, two, however many
you got,
let ‘em drop

it’s hard to be serious
when you shake your toes
all business ends with
the hem, the cuff and calf
a strong suit and bare feet--
who wouldn’t laugh?

Monday, March 9, 2009


I've read her blog. We've chatted on Facebook. There's this strange sensation of a real person rubbing shoulders with a finely polished myth. A myth with many layers, sedimentary if you will. Now there's this contact. Plate tectonics. Sending seismic ripples through the hills and valleys of my mind, especially the remote and darker parts.

I just read her entry on her first kiss. Thirteen, Halloween night. What a great time to have it. Costumes provide that security, that other identity, and, along with that, a chance to become someone else. And act like someone else. She described it beautifully, his hands surprisingly soft and vulnerable, the air scented with wood smoke.

He died a few years back of a drug overdose.

Deep breath. Wow. She wanted him to know that he matters, but never got to say it. Isn't that just the way life is? Missed connections and chances. Knowing and feeling that only goes so deep. Uncertainties about others' feelings. Everyone matters. We are all those multi-layered myths, even to ourselves. Sometimes I dig forcefully, and sometimes I can simply see.

My first kiss? It was she, about three years after her first. I'll try to do it justice.

We were in her father's car, parked out front of my parents' house. (She drove before I did, too.) I don't even remember how we got there. Where had we gone? Maybe she had come to my house, and we had an extended goodbye? Some privacy in a warm car on a February night? That's probably it. I'll bet she suggested it, and had a plan in mind. We were talking, our faces turned toward each other, lit by the soft glow from the dash, her brown hair framing her face, her tweed coat open. She said, "I'm going to kiss you." Simple as that. Five ordinary words, rendered magical at this moment, to this boy, still riding high just from her attentions.

And it was good. Electric, even. Completely new. She drew me in, our hands moving into an embrace, her lips warm, her mouth opening. Did she know that this was my first kiss?

I try my best to be in the moment these days. Be real, be aware. I can get there if I am mindful. At that moment, it simply was that.

We kissed lots, that night and other times, but not much else. I simply wasn't ready.

Complicated. Still. You matter, Jenn. I hope I do, too. I'm grateful to be able to say that.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Shortest Entry Yet

Serial monogamy sounds like a crime. A felony, at least.

Big shout out to all you lurkers.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Up All Night

Since the band's lineup changed drastically, we decided it was time for a new recording. The backstory: We're a "cover band," meaning we play mostly mainstream songs that veer across genres, hoping to please most people most of the time. It's the soundtrack to drinking, fried food and hookups. I'm not saying this disparagingly--it's a blast to play in front of people. I've figured out that I seek attention, and this is a positive way to do it. I might even make a few bucks. My bandmates are my friends. I'm not really a rock star. I schlep my own gear. But I always look forward to gig nights. I REALLY look forward to recording. It's when we find out exactly how we sound.

So. Friday. We make our way through the late-night fog to Tony's studio, just outside Saratoga. He's got a basement full of gear, which means we just walk in and start. I love the intricacies of recording: a small forest of mic stands surrounding the drums, cables running everywhere. The mics capture physical vibration and alchemize it into electric pulses that somehow come back out as sound. (Don't ask me too much about physics. I'm an English major.)

We start playing. The rhythm section (drums, bass, guitar) cuts their tracks first, and I'm singing the horn parts in my head, trying to conjure some kind of mojo while standing next to the furnace. The sounds are happening and we get some good takes, except for Julie's "scratch" vocal--aptly named, as she's working her way through another cold. No worries--we'll do the "keeper" vocals some other time.

We stop for a break, listen to the playback, and then listen to Tony's tales from the road. I learn that I'm only like two or three degrees away from Sir Paul Himself. Then there's riffs on music theory, other studios in the area, great guitar players, and all the hardcore kids and singer/songwriter types who've passed through here.

Time for the horns. I'm in the catbird seat in the control room, behind the board, relaxing on the couch, and enjoying the sound of the bass drum, which Tony has sculpted into a most righteous thump. Mark, Amy and John are laughing between takes--and even between mistakes. This has to be the most laid-back recording session I've ever done. The horns are nailing their parts quickly, and the tracks are building nicely.

The tuner on the board lights up, blinking out random notes, an A here, an F# there. Tuning... how close is close enough? I've learned that it's never perfect. My B and E strings need to be a bit flat in order to sound better further up. Getting a sax in tune with two brass instruments is tough, too. The horns soar from unison into stratospheric harmonies, and I realize that it's those little wobbles, that slight shift in pitch that the tuner says is flat or sharp, that makes the music leap out of the speakers into an impressionistic splash of notes hanging between, above, below and behind the speakers. It's like stepping into a scene. That little wobble, the music leaping out as you leap in.

There's an infinity in the space just shy of perfect, the repeating decimal, the swing in the earth's orbit, the shimmy in her step, the drummer who's on time to practice but lagging just behind a chugging beat that makes me drop a shoulder and sway in time before I know it.

It's all deceptively simple, these instruments, these chords, these hands. But, there it is. We hear the playback. We shuffle around, groggy after nearly a full night. I step outside to a lightening sky, tired, but already thinking about what's next.

A Letter to My Students

I don’t say it enough, but I care about you. Each of you. That’s why I’m here. It’s too much work to do it for the money, so there must be ...