Friday, July 10, 2009

The Angel Gruppetto

It's been a tough week. I lost a dear friend after a brave struggle with ovarian cancer. She was in hospice, so the outcome wasn't unexpected. I have learned, though, that expecting grief does little once it arrives.

Riding my bike helps me process my feelings, and, given the volume and complexity of emotions, a ride was in order.

I try to not believe in the pathetic fallacy of weather influencing mood and vice versa, but it's been that kind of summer, with these low-pressure weather systems moving in, silent gray troops looming a way off, but looking like they mean business. I set out on Thursday, right around noon, under generally sunny skies. I was following an old cue sheet from a club ride.

I quickly got into the open country, and noticed a tiny, beetly bug perched on my bike computer. I did not flick it off, but instead carried this creature, and thought about involuntary relocation. Where would he/she end up? Somewhere more remote, and at a higher elevation, if I followed the cue sheet. That's life, right? We all get relocated, physically, but also emotionally. Sometimes we have a say, but often we don't. This year feels like one of those times for me.

Taborton Road rises from Sand Lake, up into ever-thickening pine trees. The scenery up there is like riding through the cover picture of an L.L. Bean catalog. I found my pace on the climb. I ascended, as the brown, foamy water in the creek to my side descended. Overhead, the sky turned to that popular if not fashionable color for the summer: mottled gray. Reminded again that weather changes like my moods.

I rounded a corner and saw two riders ahead on the hill. I gradually caught up, and chatted with them. Both retired, it turns out--more time to ride. We chatted about routes and climbs, dirt roads getting paved, and, of course the Tour.

Sprinter David Millar got within two kilometers of a win today before getting gobbled up by the mass of riders in the peloton. Not what he wanted, for sure, but heroic nonetheless. These breakaways in races go that way more often than not, yet everyone cheers for those bold riders who attempt it. Millar, totally spent, passed through the peloton backwards, out of contention for any notable place for the day. In my own racing, I'm not much of a breakaway artist--more like a hang-onto-the-wheels-for-dear-life type. But I am that man, in other areas. Trying, falling short, occasionally making it. We're all the breakaway hero sometimes, and other times we're the hungry peloton.

Further along, riding alone, I felt the presence of some departed friends around me. Sharon was there, my "bartender" at the school library who would always lend a sympathetic ear. My friend George, who showed me so many great roads. A former student, whose exuberance in life won't be forgotten. My dad, who had come to my rescue so many times when I'd gone out for a ride.

I'm not so quick to dismiss this sort of thing as the ramblings of an overworked body, with more blood flowing to the legs than the brain. No, there's something there. Something safe. High up into the woods of Rensselaer County, I prefer to think of this as my angel gruppetto, others riding close, keeping me in sight, pointing out hazards and highlights, helping me pick good lines as I ride on.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Goodbye to my cassette tapes

I threw out my cassette tapes tonight.

It's been a long time coming. I had been carting them around in my old car, which had a cassette deck, and the tapes were fabulous little nostalgia packets. The car is no more, having been supplanted by Sweet Potato, a car with an iPod-ready glove compartment.

That's clearly a sign.

I have 4,000 songs on my iPod, which is way more than I ever had on all of the cassettes I've owned. I have one semi-functional cassette player, in the stereo cabinet next to my computer. I can't remember the last time I used it. Most of my music comes out of my computer these days.

Okay, so, then, why is this such a big deal with the tapes? Nostalgia, maybe. But the tapes are real. I can remember staying up past my bedtime in 1982 to record The Who's (first) farewell concert, broadcast live from Toronto. I recorded it all, on one gray and one black TDK cassette, and I scrawled labels on them.

Now, 27 years (!) later, they don't sound so good. I'm not a scientist, but I know that cassettes house long, thin pieces of plastic, coated with magnetic metal bits. I know that these things deteriorate over time. Cassettes lose the high frequencies first. Sometimes the cases warp, and the pitch of the music ebbs and flows. All this means they're not the best listening now. The tapes are gone. We'll see how CDs and iPods hold up.

I had two cases of tapes that I threw out without even looking. I knew that if I looked, they'd be spared, only to sit for a few more years before this ritual would be repeated. There were some loose ones, so I had to look. I started a list of albums I need to get to replace the tapes: The Queen Is Dead, Californication, Pump, Rastaman Vibration, Rumor and Sigh.

I'd already set aside some other tapes: my college radio show with my old friend Chip (who promptly disappeared after graduation), and a couple of mix tapes from an ex-girlfriend. These are totems, talismans, tickets to parts of my past. Sure, I could copy them, digitize them, warts and all, and put them onto my iPod, right next to that song by Moxy Fruvous that I downloaded last night. But it wouldn't be the same. These are not just the songs, but THE tapes. They've moved with me--aged with me, too.

(I keep my old record albums for a similar reason. But that's for another blog post.)

The blue box below where I'm typing just flashed: "Save Now." This blog is saved. As are some of my tapes.

Having a birthday that ends in "oh" this year has a lingering effect. I've collected lots of things in this life. I'm looking back and ahead right now. I guess life is like this tape ritual, sorting out, setting aside, throwing out. I have a small house and a crowded mind. Some space is a good thing. I'm blogging now, choosing words, maybe reaching for some of these worldly analogies and metaphors from the clutter around me. But, saving and letting go seems like a good m.o. for now.

Off to bed, and my ritual of music before sleep. It's much easier with that iPod.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Climbing, ripping, growing

It is the highest point in Massachusetts. The road was recently paved. Its profile closely resembles the Col D'Aspin, a fabled climb of the Tour de France. Its peak was shrouded in clouds all day today. Forty percent chance of rain.

I happened to be in North Adams, with my bike. Of course, I had to ride up Mount Greylock. I just hadn't gotten around to it, until today.

I took a nice warm-up out Massachusetts Avenue, to Williamstown, about 40 minutes or so. Raindrops mixed with patches of sun. I took the right turn on Notch Road, a surprisingly nondescript spot from which to begin such an epic climb. I left busy Route 2 behind, and the road immediately began to rise. My legs felt rubbery, and the thick, humid air seemed to stick to my lungs. I was out of the saddle on the very modest rise, passing people cutting lawns, kids playing.

I soon turned right, and started into the park, and the road pitched up even more sharply. I put my head down, and slowly turned my lowest gear, trying to keep my breathing even. My heart rate monitor wasn't working, which was just as well. The relevant information was all there, in the form of my labored breaths, the creaks of my cleats, and the sound of the tires on the new pavement.

Climb inside yourself, I've read in more than one place. Go at your own pace. But there's often another meaning to that phrase. Climb inside yourself--scaling a grade on a bike allows me to climb into my mind. It's a narrow focus. It's an elegantly simple proposition: keep the wheels moving, stay upright. Sure enough, my mind opened itself. I thought about how I haven't been riding that often or that hard recently. I thought about how the muscles of my legs were hosting little explosions, as the glycogen burned, as the fibers of the muscles were being stretched and torn. I'll be stronger because of this, I thought. I'll feel it in a couple of days. That's good.

I continued riding, fairly straight, but my mind was turning corners. I thought of Monday, when I was helping a dear soul make some sense of her yard. We'd cleared a small patch, turned over some soil, and planted a few things: hosta, astilbe, tomatoes, basil, and tiger lilies transplanted from my own yard. I've learned that it's best to be a bit rough with plants: tear those root balls a bit, really separate them. So I did. My friend, pulling weeds, was aghast when I urged her to do the same. "It's alive--I don't want to hurt it!" It does seem counterintuitive, but I assured her that it's the way to go. She and I are transplants, too, and we both know a lot about ripping and tearing, then growing. It's humbling and empowering at the same time.

My muscles continued their quiet fusillades as I rocked the bike a bit to get more leverage around the switchbacks, the hairpin turns designed to make the Greylock road more manageable for motorized traffic. The switchbacks began to take on the appearance of a jester's lopsided, sinister smirk, sharp and steep on the low, inside corner, flatter toward the outside.

Twelve switchbacks in all, and I was seeing clear sky and tiny landscapes to my right, and increasingly scrubby pines on my left. I got a small wave from inside a Williams College van, a nod from a descending cyclist, and a bemused glance from two chipmunks. More clouds than sun. I avoided checking my mileage, and kept focusing on the road immediately ahead. I must have checked my jersey zipper (already unzipped) and rear derailleur (still in the lowest gear) at least twenty times. I got the distinct sensation that I was riding into a cloud. It was hard to imagine that this same piece of pavement started in gritty Wednesday-morning North Adams.

The road flattened out a bit, and I began to see sky on both sides. I rounded a corner, feeling a surge of energy, and saw the sign for the summit: elevation 3491 feet. I circled the monument, originally intended to be a lighthouse. That seemed appropriate: as I looked out over the railing at the top of the mountain, I felt that I might have been at sea level, looking out over a very low fog over a calm shoreline. No matter: my legs and lungs knew the deal. My breathing took on that deep, slow rhythm that tells me all is well in my body and mind.

I rolled past a rock, noticed a stanza on it, and went back. Words from Henry David Thoreau:

"As the light increased, I discovered around me an ocean of mist, which by chance reached up exactly to the base of the tower and shut out every vestige of the earth, while I was left floating on this fragment of the wreck of a world, on my carved plank, in cloudland. . . .

I lingered for a few minutes, inhaled some bits of clouds, zipped my jersey, and set off for the long, speedy descent. I knew my legs would carry me home. I knew I'd be stronger for my effort. Cycling tells me again and again that I can. I can, and sometimes it takes climbing and ripping in order to grow.

Why do people put on silly clothes and propel their bicycles up ridiculously steep slopes, dawdle for a while, then descend in a breathless, 40-mile-an-hour isometric rollercoaster? Well, why do people do anything?

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 ...