Sunday, July 24, 2016

One Down

About two months ago now I stopped using Facebook. Maybe you noticed. Maybe you didn't. I had a lot of reasons—lack of productivity, a hatred of everything and everyone, depression about the state of the world, a fear of telling you what I really think. Others have listed other reasons in other places—an inability to keep up with the Jonses, addiction, decreased attention span. I don't know if those things have affected me. Maybe.  Probably.

Two months in I have no plans of going back. I don't miss it. I am less connected. I am less in touch. Perhaps I've even got my head stuck in the sand. Probably so. Especially now. But as someone once said, I don't care anymore.  

PS.  I still get personal messages.  You can contact me.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Iron Knee 25k: a race report

Years ago, on the way home from the Arrowhead, I stopped by a ski shop in Minneapolis to try on ski boots. I knew I needed a new pair, a pair that fit, and since the shop had a good selection, I took advantage of it. Since I had no intention of buying—I knew I could get them at cost elsewhere, but was just using the shopI bought a ski mountaineering magazine as a sort of “thank you.” Now I've never done ski mountaineering, I can't truly claim to have done downhill skiing or mountaineering, but the magazine had some amazing photos. The writing on the other hand—every trip report was exactly the same:

It was a long trip in the (car, boat, helicopter) to (exotic location). We were really excited to be in (exotic location). We got one last good night's rest then (skinned, snowshoed, dogsledded) as far as we could before setting up camp. We were nervous about (avalanches, crevasses, overhanging seracs, rock face), but tried to sleep anyway. We got up before dawn and skinned up as far as we could go. Then we had to face the (avalanches, crevasses, overhanging seracs, rock face), but we made it. It was beautiful from the top. We could see all the way to (other exotic location). Then we shredded the pow on the way down. The end.

I was bored. The genre was dull.

Now I admit that not every trip goes according to plan. If something went wrong then you've got an interesting story, but that's not good writing, that's a lucky break for your narrative (unlucky for the folks involved). I've written my share of “something went wrong” stories. They're fun to write. They get a lot of hits. They can be the most useful to read too. But, all happy trip reports are alike; each unhappy trip report is unhappy in its own way.

What can I say about the Iron Knee 25k? The race was beautifully managed by the Mountain Madness folks. There weren't too many people. The aid stations were well stocked. There was even a long climb called “The Powerline” that, yes, ran along a powerline right-of-way. There were rocks and roots. There were smooth, fast sections. There were views of mountains and water.  I had a good run, but I was out of shape. I was more sore afterwards than I wanted to be. It was too short. It was a happy race.

But maybe that's not all there is.

This was my first glimpse into a community of runners here in Vancouver. It was my first time seeing people who I felt like I knew. Who I connected with. I struck up conversations with folks at the start line. They seemed to understood how hard it is to get out and do something in this fenced in city. They understood that it isn't the outdoor paradise that is promised. That long trip to the start wasn't by boat or car or dogsled, it was two hours by foot and train and bus and it started at 5:30 in the morning. That long powerline climb featured signs with each runners name and a message for each of us. Mine read, “If it got any easier, it wouldn't be a challenge.” Did I get any names; did I make any friends? No. But for a little while I felt like I was home.   

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Shoe Shopping

Yesterday, I needed a new pair of shoes.  'New' is the wrong word here, of course.  I can't really afford new shoes, but I did need something dressier.  All I had were old running shoes, and with two conferences coming up, I decided I needed to look a little more professional than neon-green and orange.

I've never been stylish or trendy.  I don't want to be.  For years I refused to wear jeans because they were too cool, and I didn't want to be that.  Take that as you will.  But here in the land of conspicuous consumption, I stick out.

Which brings me to my main point: If you want a pair of really nice leather dress shoes for a great price, Value Village in Coquitlam is the place to go.  There is an entire rack of men's dress shoes in all sizes.  The least expensive I saw were $9.99, the most expensive, $24.99.

Now you should probably take this with a grain of salt.  I wouldn't know a nice dress shoe from a cheap one if it kicked me in the face.  All I know is that the men I see wearing these ridiculous pointed toe shoes—elf shoes, almost—seem to be the sort of well-dressed people you're supposed to want to be, and that they had scads of these shoes at Value Village.

Of course, no one would want to say that they bought them at Value Village.  That kind of ruins the effect.  The point of these shoes seems to be that they are expensive.  But as I've said, that isn't me.

I thought about it for a minute, but decided that if I got a pair of these shoes I'd have to get a decent suit and all to go with them.  I'm not going to do that, not even at a thrift store (though the last suit I did buy I bought at Goodwill—for a LARP costume).

So I went over to the opposite side of the rack and looked through their sport and work shoes.  After some thought, I picked out a pair of slightly scuffed Adidas Sambas for $6.99.  Very professional.

Monday, January 25, 2016


It's a good thing I like school. When I started talking to my professors about going to grad school, one thing they all said was, you have to be willing to sacrifice everythingfamily, friends, hobbies, homesto philosophy. I didn't listen. So it's a good thing I like school, because I sacrificed all that other stuff.

The past six months have been the hardest since about a decade ago. I don't know if I'm worse off or better than that time. I don't think that's relevant. But if you do some digging you'll notice something about that decade ago mark. That's the time I started this blog. It's also the time when I started racing ultras. Those were my ways of coping with my problems and they worked pretty well.

Unfortunately, I've sacrificed those things and now I'm paying the price. Luckily, I've learned a few things in the intervening time. The big one is, keep busy. I'm okay when I have something going on. Two days of my week I'm so busy I forget to feel terrible. Those are my favourite days. Then there are weekends. Weekends are bad.  Weekends I don't have anything going on and I haven't found anything yet to take the place of the kind of mind-numbing bike ride that made training for ultras so satisfying.

So I've had to find things to fill the time. To that end I've started going to the gym. I hate gyms and I've railed against them in this blog before, but they're saving me now. I can thrash myself on a rowing machine, go through my lifting routine, and then take a few minutes to relax in the sauna (not as good as a Finnish sauna, but it'll do). Biking is out, I tried one final time and—just no. Skiing is out too—too expensive and far to travel.  Running still has potential, but I need to get back on that wagon. We'll see if I can find some races to work toward.

I've also started writing. I got a good taste of it in my last two semesters at ISU and I've gotten too much encouragement to let it drop. I like it in much the same way that I like ultras, but really it's more like working on bikes. To write a story you have to take something apart—whatever that core idea is, the thing that must be told—see how it works and then put it back together. And if it's put back together in the right way you'll find that it works better than before. I won't claim that I'm any good at it. Others will have to make that judgment. But I've found a writing group, a place to workshop. They seem to like my stuff so far—even if it isn't their usual romance and thriller fare.

As the semester progresses and I become busier I'll probably become happier. Sometimes I think this is what it's all about, jumping from one distraction to another. If you're lucky those distractions are positive and lead to better and more fulfilling distractions. If you're not they compound and grow in on themselves in a sneaky hate spiral.   

Saturday, January 09, 2016

Working Man's Hero

Moving to Vancouver has been tougher than expected. I'm not sure what I expected, but I had been told, and had been expecting that it was a more bike friendly city. Oh, sure, I can see the mountains from my office (when it isn't foggy). And there are bears and trees. But riding my bike, riding the way I used to ride, is out of the question.

When I trained for Trans Iowa, Arrowhead, Dirty Kansa, and Tuscobia, among others, I trained daily, but it wasn't a burden. I was always shocked by the time and money that people would throw into their workouts, as though they had to become a martyr to the race. All I did was go out for an hour ride after work. This wasn't a big deal. I'd cycle home, change clothes, and head out for fifteen, or so, miles of gravel. It took me about ten minutes to get out of town and then I could really go. I never considered getting in a car or taking the bus to a destination and then riding.

But I can see that this isn't realistic here. Riding in the city isn't something done lightly. There are few trails, the trails that do exist go nowhere, and, while there are bike lanes on some roads, I felt safer riding on highways without shoulders back in Iowa. I was reminded of this when I was back in Ames over the break. I rode from my old apartment to the movie theater, in the dark, through the snow, without a helmet, in the part of town I would never go to when I lived there because it was inaccessible by bike (South Duff, for those who know). And I was able to do it without ever having someone cut me off, honk at me, or box me in: three things that often happen to me in Vancouver.

One might defend this city by pointing to all the beautiful mountains and all the great mountain bike trails. One might mention all the bike lanes downtown, or the trails in North Vancouver. But these are destination rides. Getting there would mean an hour+ on the bus or a long ride through the 'burbs. Sure, there are fifteen-year-olds who use the 145 bus as a shuttle up Burnaby mountain, on their $5k downhill bikes. Sure, I see folks driving their carbon wonders around on top of their Audis. But I don't have the time or money for that kind of “riding,”

This adjustment has been the hardest thing about coming to this city. Maybe I am beginning to understand why the martyr attitude is normal.   

Monday, September 28, 2015

A Livelier Post

Things are looking up here in Vancouver. I mean, I was looking up at the moon earlier and that was kind of cool, though it wasn't as cool as you had it back in the Midwest. I thought that maybe I could get a photo of the moon and Mt. Baker in the same shot, but sadly, no. By the time the moon was visible, Baker was invisible, not to mention the two of them being in different parts of the sky—er, horizon (in the case of the mountain). My biggest accomplishment of the evening was not telling the woman standing behind me to leave her negging, braggart of a boyfriend. Maybe that wasn't an accomplishment, maybe that was cowardice. 

Now that my cold has abated I've been able to get out running again. And any running here is a workout. I live at the top of a mountain and, if I want to go anywhere, I have to run down. Then I have to get home somehow, so I run up. Yesterday I did 300 vertical meters (984') and about 12k, today I did 168 vertical meters (550') and about 5k. No long runs just yet.

School is fine and all that, but I am trying hard to keep it in its box. I don't want it to take over my life and make me miserable. Thus the running, and also some reading.

I finished Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle: Book One. It's an astounding book. I wasn't sure exactly how he would pull off a rambling autobiographical non-fiction novel, but he did it. (Hint: it's not actually rambling.) He uses sentences like, “The sky was blue,” and “The grass was green,” and rather than roll my eyes I'm like—YES! The sky is blue and the grass is green! That's exactly how it is. Like any good literature though, meaning is more than literal. If a novel could be summarized in a few sentences then it should have been said in a few sentences. Luckily, for the art lovers among us (and un-luckily for the literalists among us) there is much that can only be said in metaphor. A great novel, I believe, is just as long as it needs to be to get this metaphor across.  A six-volume memoir-novel? I believe that Knausgaard knows what he is doing.

I also picked up Stephen King's On Writing. This is the first book of King's that I've read. Some very good essays, but never a book, and oddly enough, never any fiction. I'm convinced that King is an impressive writer. He knows how to get out of the way of a good story, and maybe that's what's most important. But this is a book about writing and, despite many attempts to become a memoir, it succeeds. He has serviceable advice about writing. I don't agree with him on every point (apostrophes, for instance), but he does give good reasons for why he does what he does. And really, that's what I want and need. I want to know how to make informed decisions on writing. He's best when discussing revision. Every writer repeats Strunk & White's advice (and every writer has repeatedly heard) “Omit needless words.” What King does is show, by example, how to use that advice. Then again, I think that King could take his own advice and lose some of the snarky asides and vaguely sexist remarks that pepper his writing. He needs to get out of his own way, take T. S. Eliot's advice, and extinguish himself in his writing.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Vancouver Rain

Last night I had a headache so bad that it made me wonder whether, were I stuck with that kind of pain, could I go on living? I say this because years ago I remember saying that I thought I could deal with most any hardship so long as I could read and communicate. Such a level of function does presuppose that I'm some way up Maslow's hierarchy, but still, I didn't think it such a high standard. But this sinus headache made me wonder. For the past few days I've had a nagging cold and, while it hadn't stopped me dead, it had slowed me down. I could read, but only fitfully and reading philosophy was out of the question—when I read φ, I ψ-ed.

Since I arrived in Vancouver two and a half weeks ago I've been eating beans & rice and peanut butter & jelly. I'm used to a pretty boring diet, the same veggie sandwich every day for thirteen years, but these particular foods have become disgusting in short order. The peanut butter & jelly is cloyingly sweet and the beans & rice is just a bowl of fiber. However, as my expenses total about 150% of my income—before food and entertainment—I don't feel inclined to splurge. Today I decided I had to splurge. After three days of leaving my room only to go to class, I had to get out. My headache was significantly improved and I was neither coughing nor snuffling constantly, so I went for a walk all the way to the Starbucks on the other end of campus where I bought a coffee for $2.25.

I thought that I would sit and read a sci-fi novel for a while, but that wasn't to be. Every once in a while I would give a snuffle, I'm still recovering from a cold, after all, and when I did the woman two tables over would glance over her shoulder and give me a look that said, “This is a nice coffee shop, you don't belong here.” Maybe so. In Ames, Iowa, my look said, grad student, bike mechanic, or bartender, but here it says, hobo, drunk, guy-who-yells-racial-slurs-on-the-bus. The fact is, I haven't seen a single person with long hair and a beard here except for people sleeping on the streets and, yes, yelling racial slurs on the bus. I've seen more fist-fights and heard more hate speech here in two weeks than I did in Iowa in a lifetime. Perhaps I've just lived a sheltered life.

When I arrived I had a plan. I planned that I would get up each morning, go for a run or a bike ride, write for an hour, then go and do my eight hours at the office. I did pretty well the first week, but I still don't have a bike and since I came up short of breath—the first signs of this cold, I expect—on my run last Saturday I've had to take it easy there too. Writing is sporadic. I have two blog posts 90% done, but that last 10% is proving too much. Some days I've managed 500-600 words—blog, essay, or story—easy, others it's too easy just to go in early and get a start on my day. Hopefully this has just been an off week and I'll settle in to the routine, but today it feels like it's all falling apart. Campus looks more like a damp parking garage than a benevolent futuristic utopia. The rains have just begun here in Vancouver and will likely not abate until next summer.