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.  

Friday, July 17, 2015

Books Read: June

Tim O'Connor, In the Lake of the Woods

If you read last month's books read you might notice a theme, another war story by O'Connor. Here's the thing, these books were recommended to me, not as war stories, but as stories of failure, and honestly I'm not sure how to deal with failure—in literature or life—which, as it turns out, is exactly what I'm interested in. Failure is dear to my heart. It's something I'm good at, experienced at, and so it's what I want to explore philosophically and through creative works. I expect to fail.

O'Connor makes it clear early on: there will be no definite conclusion to his story. We'll never find out what happens. And this isn't so far removed from the idea of failure; uncertainty, skepticism, and doubt figure in as well. There are times, probably most times, when the situation is just too complicated and cloudy to allow us a the satisfaction that we crave. It is no coincidence that I am skeptical of simple answers and distrustful of certain people. I am not sure we ever know the truth. I'm not even sure it's something we should be worried about. Rather, in the face of uncertainty what should we do?

But there's something else about failure in this story: the failure to control one's life and destiny. Perhaps this is the more profound failure, the one that makes this story interesting. The protagonist, Wade, like many of us has a script for how he wants his life to go. One thing will follow another—war hero, perfect wife, political career—but all these turn out to rest on a rotten foundation. All turn out to be illusions that he creates to get others to love him. His failure to deal with reality leads to...what? His downfall, death, escape, love, tragedy, freedom, or more illusion?

Neil Nakadate, Looking After Minidoka

I know Neil as the nice guy who stops by my workplace from time to time. I knew he was an English professor, but really I didn't, still don't, know much about him. What I do know (a little) more about is the Japanese-American experience. Nakadate describes the struggles and paradoxes of a generation both interred in camps and serving on the front lines in World War II, the ways in which they both fought for their rights and lived with injustice. More to the point, he is bringing to the surface those things that have been hidden—for many reasons, by families and governments—and ought to be seen.

The book is part US history, part family history, and poetry. Maybe it's best understood as a new genre (or new to me anyway): the situated poem. Interspersed through the text are poems that bring us around to a more personal wondering about the experiences of that generation. But these poems would be meaningless to us, most of us, without some knowledge of who Hirabayashi, Korematsu, and Yasui were, the differences among issei, nisei and sansei, and what Minidoka was.

Lewis Hyde, The Gift

I've had a passing interest in gift economies for the past decade or so, but the relationship has been troubled. To begin with I'm really bad at giving gifts, even at the expected times. I question what and whether the gift is appropriate and what it will make the recipient think about me. Simply put I'm bad at thinking of other people; it is hard for me to get out of my habitual self-consciousness. And gift giving is, above all, an act of—not other-centeredness—but group-centeredness; it brings the focus of the economy to the whole of the group and the group's needs, not the needs of the individual.

The first thing I read on gift economy, a long decade ago, was The Personalist Manifesto by Emmanuel Mounier. True to self-centered form, I pretended to understand it. Actually, to say that I didn't understand it would be charitable. I read the words, but comprehended nothing. Still, from the little I understand about personalism, it fails to be a group-oriented account, or if it is group-oriented it is a group that includes the entirety of humanity. A group that Hyde dismisses as too diffuse and too heterogeneous for a healthy gift economy.

What is needed for a working gift economy is a small group of people who share some goal. In Hyde's case: artists. Artists become part of a gift economy when they accept the influence of others in their tradition and seek to incorporate, increase, and give back to the community of artists. It's an argument that suggests our current understanding of intellectual property and creativity is misguided. Now, before you get all high and mighty on how artists need to make money note that Hyde does recognize this fact. But he also suggests that simply viewing art as a commodity, part of a market economy, is inadequate to the discussion. The book is an attempt to navigate these waters.

Art, as it turns out, is not simply a sack of grain. Art and other intellectual property gains value by being appreciated, commented on, quoted, and stolen. One reason that Shakespeare is still relevant today is that we are still using his works, still building on them. Similar things happen in all arts, visual, music, literature, film and so on. Some level of fluidity in the art community is necessary to creativity. Now art can certainly become a commodity, but this reduces its value as art either through dilution or, more likely, through excessive restriction. How can we recognize the necessity of homage, quotation, and outright theft, without denying the artist a living? It turns out, to almost no one's surprise, to be a difficult question. What isn't particularly difficult is that to be creative we need to turn to the tradition we inhabit and enter into a reciprocal gift relationship with it.1

Saul Bellow, Henderson the Rain King

Bellow has been hovering around the edge of my reading list for a while now. It only took the suggestion that he is an author of failure to kick it to the top. And talk about failure he does. In fact he does it so well that I'm starting to wonder if he meant it, if the whole thing wasn't a failure in itself.2 One might think that Bellow, having explored mistakes so intimately in his writing, would be aware of his own potential for making them and thereby gain some humility. But then it wouldn't be a failure would it?

Regardless, it is fascinating to watch Henderson make wrong decision after wrong decision based on his own simple understanding and certainty of the world. He believes himself smarter and wiser than he is. He believes he can help, can give the benefit of himself to the world. He wants to be a doctor, but can't seem to get the “first do no harm” part of the Hippocratic Oath. A man who wants to be a doctor to the world? Who desperately wants something to fix? Where have we seen this hubris before?

Alongside this is Bellow's use of metaphor. I found myself walking down the street, looking up and wondering: how would Bellow describe this? Would he turn the usual metaphor about the freedom and possibility of floating clouds into, “the clouds reached down to claw the earth?” I don't know. That's just what struck me now. It gets me thinking.

Thomas Harris, Red Dragon

I could criticize this book on the basis of genre—I don't like psychological thrillers, they violate my insistence on underdeterminacy in literature—but that isn't the point or why I read it. I read this because of Lewis Hyde and David Foster Wallace. Harris is a master of pacing, readability, and dialogue. Wallace respected that, saw what he was doing, and emulated it (and occasionally stole it. DFW was a fan of Hyde as well).

Most of all, I noticed that Harris' dialogue was always immaculately readable. He never suffers from the problem of confusion over who is speaking, however difficult the exchange. I could simply read a line and know, without any other textual help, who was speaking it. I would know that Jack Crawford was speaking rather than Will Graham just by the tone and attitude of the quote. And this is done without feeling stilted or unnatural. It's an incredible skill.

Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

I like literature. One of the reasons I like it is that it offers up multiple interpretations and spurs conversations about, well, anything and everything. The reason I point this out is that it would be really easy to make this novel into a morality tale; most readers do and most criticisms of the novel assume that it is so. But I think there's more going on. There are two things I'd like to keep in mind here. First the story is from the point of view of a young girl, a young girl who adores her father and thinks that he can do no wrong. I think most of us are like that in our childhoods, assuming that our parents are smarter, stronger, and more moral than anyone else. In my opinion this novel is the story of how Scout finds out that her father isn't the divine being she thinks he is. This leads to my second point: this is a story about how Atticus fails.

There are three values that seem to drive Atticus: the rule of law, the innate goodness of people, and non-interference in others' business. But these three values3 are bound to come into conflict and he is bound to fail. Atticus fails in the courtroom (note that Scout does not understand what is going on, in spite of her protests to the contrary). Atticus fails to be the head of his household; he lets his sister dictate what is right for Scout. And perhaps most tellingly, Atticus' values fail in the last scene of the novel; his faith in the rule of law and the goodness of other people is challenged by the events of the night. Ultimately he ends up compromising his values in order to keep the peace.

While I have not read, or read much about, Go Set a Watchman, I don't think we should be surprised by what an adult Jean Louise reveals about Atticus. Remember, the trial and verdict, while important to the story, are not its conclusion, rather it is the reminder that it is a sin to kill a mockingbird. Think about how robust—or more to the point, how weak—Atticus' values are, especially given their time and place. What do they entail? What do they allow?

1 For the most amazing example of this I recommend Jonathan Lethem's “The Ecstasy of Influence,” which I first read on the toilet. http://harpers.org/archive/2007/02/the-ecstasy-of-influence/

2 I know that one of my favorite authors, Ray Bradbury, completely misunderstands himself. Many claim his worst work as his best (Farenheit 451 is awful. Sorry). Bradbury doesn't write about the oppression of totalitarian governments, he writes about the soft oppression of culture, even if he can't see it.

3 You could probably generate an I Robot like series of stores based on these three values, or really any list of values.