Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Tunnels of Darkness and Gasping for Breath

Weeks ago, we rode through Monroe County, Wisconsin's bike path -- the Elroy-Sparta Bike Trail, which was the first "rails-to-trails" conversion in the United States.  A railway becomes a bike trail: technological-regression and eco-progress.  3 tunnels mark this trail, the last of which is a long, dark rock-tunnel of nearly a mile.  We were advised to walk our bikes through, turn on our "head-lights," and walk along an uncertain path.  Some riders did not heed this warning and charged through.  It might have been thrilling for them to ride blind, but I could do no such thing.  I carried no lamp or light and the ground fell quickly off a central, narrow corridor.   Cautiously, I walked my bike along, though every step seemed unsupported, and there was little means to discern the walls, floor, ceiling, or end to that dark.

Is such a confinement similar to the psychic terrain of the bullied?  Bullied by body, by rumor, by on-line attack: it must all seem without perimeter, without light, without end.  I have been trying to imagine the thoughts of a thousand girls and boys under such duress, but it's akin to holding a crashing wave with fisher's net.  Still,  I need to hear such thoughts -- the thoughts of teens who dread waking each day for fear of what might happen in class, or traveling a long-leg of hallway, or surveying an unwelcoming lunchroom, or merely booting up and logging onto their computers.   I worry such darkness turns to self-torment, and these kids, bullied as they may be, become masters of avoidance, of hesitation, of the suppressed voice.  They become a sketch of what they might be, a slighter version of their true-self.  And I worry that they may feel that it would mean nothing to leave, to exit. 

Kids like Amanda Cummings, a Staten Island teenager who was bullied for her dark-dyed hair, her nose-piercing, her differences from the norm, who had hinted at suicide on-line, and who one day threw herself into the path of an NYC bus.   Or 12-year old Joel Morales from East Harlem, who hanged himself after being physically bullied for months.  Two kids who had been perceived, by friends and family, as lively and happy.  Did the perimeters of their lives become so dark as to be unbearable? Did they view their actions as the solution to unsolvable problems? Or did they see it merely an escape from unrelenting pain?

One rider on the trip, a kind-hearted man, told me this high school bully-story; Over 40 years ago, he had been transferred into a new school and, at just over 5 feet, was one of the shortest, if not the shortest, boy in his class.  He was also slightly built -- an easy target for bullies.  He recalled how one boy repeatedly made his life hell: 

He wouldn't stop and I knew it would continue unless I did something.  But the only thing I could do was swim, and the one thing I did better than anyone else was hold my breath underwater.  So one day in swim class, I dragged that boy down and held him on the pool's floor.   I held him there a long time, long enough to see him struggle.  Beyond the surface of the water, I saw the gym teacher, his hands folded across his chest, doing nothing.  Watching.  I eventually let that bully go, but not before I told him that if he or anyone else ever bothers me again, I would drag him under again and not let go.  

No one bothered him again.

Part of me cheers the underdog victorious; part of me feels that turnabout is fair play. 

But the teacher intervenes.  And I want to figure out some non-violent means to a peaceable end.  And I know that there are a thousand girls and boys who can't fight back and who can't hold their breath 'til they breathe again once more safe and sound and whole. 

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Part 3 of 3 -- The Flip-Side of Interdependence: Mean Girls and Prank Boys

So we form tribes and establish relational interdependence; and while such reciprocity is predicated on equity, shared gestures, shared work, they are tempered by judgement, judgements which weigh human distinctiveness against equity.

In cycling and other team sports, the tribe bands together for a mutually beneficial effect.  But the school tribes of lockers and staplers, of hallways and paper clips are different.  Presumably, school is a place for academics, in which kids drive themselves (or not) to succeed, and as a teacher, I grade and, sad to say, "rank" kids by their performance.  But there is a second school within each school -- a school of cool, with classes on social standing, and  bookshelves with thousands of pages of "like."  Kids are cued to this at a very young age and are driven to achieve (or perhaps rebel against) social rank.  Robert Wright writes that the pursuit of social status is a zero-sum game.  Not every kid can claim cool or popular.  And to capture such a title is to take it from another.  To this end, kids jockey for social order, and the means to do so can be, well, just mean.  And this is the flip-side of the interdependent tribe: the individual who bands with others and by any means necessary, captures the flag of cool and medal of power.  When bad boys and mean girls plan and plot, this initial, individual urge of self-interest is magnified exponentially:  the end, social slaughter for the victims and social currency to the victor. 

I once tutored a bright, young Park Avenue girl.  The mother felt ambivalent about the tony girls' school her daughter attended and confided to me that her 8th-grade daughter was caught in a complex web of social politics.  8th grade, mind you.   So I sat with this clever, quick girl and asked her about her courses and interests.  At one point, she turned to me and made the following admission: 

When I first get to school on Monday, I meet with my friends for coffee in the cafeteria.  Each Monday.  Early.   Other girls are there as well.  Each of us finds out from the others just what happened during the weekend, and then my friends and I meet and discuss just how we can use this information to our advantage.   

I was speechless.

Her mother, a very good parent, pulled her out of that girls' school and enrolled her into an experimental school downtown.  Her daughter balked, "The kids are sort of weird - really creative.  I don't know if I'll fit in."  I thought, sure, those kids are "weird," if we understand weird to be kind and silly and gifted and strange -- a tribe to redesign a brave, gentle world.   In this new world, she would be far, far away from the coffee-clutch of hounds fighting over the same boney-bit of gossip.  

So when my students tell me that middle school or high school is hell, I no longer doubt them.  

In this tale, a mother saved her girl from the fashionable trend of becoming cruel.   But other kids don't have anyone looking out for them.  Some are raised on entitlement and conformity and secure their power by taking out anyone who might upset the order.  They fight for power and the status quo; and it's not always a fair fight.

When I began to write this entry, I was 54 miles away from The Cranbrook School, the Michigan prep school Mitt Romney attended in 1965.  Cranbrook was the site of his "hijinks and pranks."  Upon his return to school, Romney took note of a new student, John Lauber, who had bleached his hair blond and cut it to fall over one eye asymetrically.  One of Romney's friends recalls the future republican front-runner commenting, "He can't look like that.  That is wrong."   Soon thereafter, Romney huddled together 5 friends to pursue, tackle, pin to Lauber to the ground, as Romney, scissors in hand, sheared Lauber's hair.   These five men, a judge and a lawyer among others, each regretted the incident separately.  But Romney, the pack leader, told a different tale.  At first, he denied the incident, and then, after media pressure I suspect, he offered a vague, generalized apology.  

As many have commented, this was years ago, when such "hijinks" were considered a part of the rites of initiation in schools across the country.  Bands of brothers ganged up on other boys to reconstitute a social order they determine to be "right."  And, of course, these boys could rule the school and elect a governor's son king-of-the-hill.

But none of this would fly today.  My hope is that teachers would see it, hear about it, and question it.  My hope is that other students would report it.  My hope is that a parent would intervene.  My hope is that those boys would be punished, regretful, and reformed.  

It is said of John Lauber that he never reported this incident to his family.   Of course, he didn't.  And it is said that he continued throughout his life to bleach his hair that same blond.  I guess he knew it looked "right."

Monday, July 30, 2012

Drag and Draft, Part 2: Dead Weight and the Wake of Great Widths of Being

Some tribes operate with the tacit social contract of shared work.  Yet thinking through this simple division of work only opens the door to more questions. There are complications with an even distribution of work, aren't there?  Not all riders are built the same, and not all riders have the same tolerance for work.  One French-Canadian rider in our group drafted for 5-10 miles one day, and while the three men alternated the front position, she rested in the back.  She referred to herself -- all 90 pounds and 5-foot nothing of her -- as "dead weight."  A fair statement?  On the one hand, we were "pulling her" along.  But that seems imprecise, in that we exerted no additional effort in shielding her from the wind.  So there was no literal burden on our shoulders.  Yet one might claim that there was a figurative burden, that this rider was not "pulling" her own weight.  And so our sense of fairness, rather than our body, is burdened.  Thus among the tribe, the tacit, shared presumption -- the "warrant" in rhetorical argumentation --is that each member of a group must carry equal burden, an equal load.  

But is this warrant correct?  It presumes that work remains quantitatively understood and divided like a tray of brownies in a 1st-grade classroom.   In cycling terms, such a warrant would dictate that each rider should, for example, lead for 2 miles.  But does this directive -- a sort of "flat tax" for cyclists -- consider differences in stature, weight, and ability?  Should equity be predicated on the assumption that we are all the same or should our understanding of tribes and communities take into consideration the vast differences in our capacities?

When I think of the riders among us -- some pushing along with bikes both cheaper and heavier than most, some riding well into their 70's, others riding with 80, 60, or 40 extra pounds (it becomes less and less as we ride!), and still others riding with knee problems or scoliosis or back pain or on a tank-and-a-half of lung, I am overcome -- hit hard by some recognition of fight, and with this epiphany, my sense of riding and living seems more expansive.  Truth be told, my simultaneous fear is that this hard hit of truth is short-lived and that I will quickly return to some redundant paint-by number thought, where I applaud the fast and fit and first one in.  In my better moments, I know that so often the fight from the back of the pack is fought with greater grit and grace. 

Hannah Arendt, in her work The Human Condition, writes about plurality, inherent in all action of the world.  Plurality is an idea predicated on the dual paradox of human nature: that while we are equal, we are also distinctive.  Equal does not mean interchangeable, as each of us are distinct - in mind, body, and spirit.  The complexity of the world is a network of action which balances of equity with some awareness -- even celebration -- of distinction.   She writes that we are all "the same, human, in such a way as nobody is ever the same as anyone else who has lived, lives or will live" (HC 7-8).

Years ago, I had a wonderful Shakespeare professor who pointed out Jaques's speech on the stages of man in As You Like It.  In soliloqy, Jaques cynically defines the last stage of life as "[t]he last scene of all/That ends this strange eventful history"  He continued to characterize the end of our days as a "second childishness and mere oblivion/Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything" (II.vii. ll. 164-6).  In response to this moment, my professor questioned whether these words are the last word -- a born alone/die alone trajectory in which we move toward some oblivion of "without."   
She then asked the class what happens next.  And what happens is this: Orlando enters with the aged and "venerable" Adam -- the youth Orlando carrying the weary Adam -- Orlando must be carrying Adam, for the Duke says, "Welcome.  Set down your venerable burthen/And let him feed" (II.vii. ll. 167-8).

When this tiny, powerful Quebec woman told me she was "dead weight," I thought "pas du tout, pas du tout."  Instead, I said, "not at all.  Ride behind us.  We are wide men."   I wanted to fold her into our wake -- the wake of three men who can block wind.  I wanted her to follow us.  I knew we could carry her until the wind died down. 

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Drag, Drafting, and Tribes: Part 1 of 3

Riding into the wind is a rider's trial.   It's like pushing a mattress up a NYC walk up.  At first, wind is gentle, but into the ride, it gathers an invisible heft.   And while the weight of the wind is felt acutely by the rider, to others it may remain unmarked.  By its very nature, wind materializes in its contact with solid objects; only then are its effects seen and heard.  Only then does the observer comprehend just how the wind overcomes a rider.  It billows the loose jersey, it whistles through the gates of one's helmet, it accumulates as a soft thunder through the cavities and canals of the outer ear.   What you hear is the sound of resistance.  What you hear is drag.  In response to potential drag, many riders are wind gaugers, checking cable channels or flag poles for the wind's direction and speed.  Pairing this knowledge with the map of the ride, cyclists begin a calculus of pain.  And so the numbers unfold: one, two, four hours of headwinds.  

Drag is made bearable by drafting.  Drafting is when a rider rides in the wake of another shielding oneself from the onset of wind. The V-formation of a flock's migration serves the same purpose. By working together -- be it flock or band of cyclists -- the burden of drag is considerably less.   With three other riders, four hours of hitting your head against the headwind wall becomes one.    And so, the tribe of Peloton is formed.  Like some tribes, this group bands together in interdependence for survival.  This is not a win-lose game, as with card games like poker, but win-win.  Robert Wright observes that interdependence,  or "non-zero-sumness," is evident in humanity's evolutionary core.  In his work, Non-Zero: The Logic of Human Destiny, Wright suggests that society has evolved, in civilization's long arrow of development, through interdependence, rather than competition.  Interdependence emerges from the big-game kill of the hunter, rather than the gatherer culture.  For when you have more than enough from the day's kill to feed your family, it is a double benefit for you to donate the left-over meat, likely to spoil anyway, to a neighbor.  The neighbor benefits immediately, as will your family on a future date, given the tacit expectation that your neighbor will return the favor when you are in need.   

A variation of this dynamic is true of the lead rider, who relieves the drag for those who follow in tight formation behind.   As with big-game kills and neighbors, where the positions will soon shift, the lead rider of the peloton will drop to the tail and drag.  Each of the trailing riders, in turn, will then take the lead and thus, the burden of wind.   For riders, to leave such work unreturned can cause insult.  Game theorists, interestingly enough, call this "free riding." To draft behind, allowing the front rider to "do all the work" is not only inconsiderate, not only insulting, but an affront to our sense of justice. We sense the imbalance of it; and if such acts go unnoticed, unremarked, and unreturned, the balance of justice is disrupted, and the workings of tribe Pelaton falter. Our response is indignation, as with any act of injustice.  Curiously enough, our discomfort from such imbalance is not cultural, but biological.  Scientists in the past 10 years have identified the area of the brain that processes, judges, and becomes outraged by injustice.  When the the scales have been tipped, when our social interactions possess asymmetries, our brain responds.  When we exchange favors, we unfold an inkblot of kindness, and the balance of the tribe is restored.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Rolling the Rock and Necessity Made Beautiful

Cyclists love to suffer.  When you cycle regularly, you learn to endure, and the pain you endure is physical and psychic.   At the end of each ride, someone invariably asks me, "Did you have a good ride?"  or "Did you have fun?"  My brow knits, and a sigh prefaces my qualification, "Well..." 

So why continue?  It's not simply that the joy outweighs the ache.  The answer lies not in the ride's ease, as with the decline, where the rider descends upwards of 40 miles an hour with little effort.  The answer is not in descent;  the answer is in the climb.  

Sisyphus, that mortal Greek who defied the Gods, was punished to push a boulder up a steep hill, only to have the stone escape his grasp, accelerate downward to its point of origin, and there await his return to repeat this task.  A symbol of futility, Sisyphus suffers from acute, chronic upset. In the mid-20th century, Camus reframes Sisyphus as a modern hero.  His task is set, yet his relation to the task is not.  He may, at first, dread his punishment, but his dread is his to change.  According to Camus, he must not merely bear the task, nor master it, but learn to love it.   For cyclists, can we love the climb as easily as the descent that follows?   

The labor of the climb lays before us.  To walk the climb prolongs it.  To walk away is shameful.    So as with other undesirable, but necessary tasks, the common wisdom advises us to "get on with it," to "get it behind you."  Still, the climb is a nuisance, a devil, a kill-joy, an adversary.  And from riding among others, I have noted that we each have our tricks to manage discomfort.  Some take the pain slowly, as with one couple on a tandem who rides a mile and breaks, rides another and stops, for each mile of the 5-mile climb.  Other riders make the pact of the unbroken ascent, to avoid the disgrace of break and the shame of pause.  Some charge the climb, as they would battle.  Before the ascent, a band of two British brothers cry "For Queen and Country," fist to sky.  Prior to another climb, I overhear King Henry's charge, "Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more."  Indeed, the climb is war-like, which, though I may never master, I must learn to love.   And I wonder if I learn to love the climb, will I transcend the burden?  

My trick is this: I imagine my future mastery in each climb, a smooth ascent, an unbroken cursive stroke.  I remind myself that each climb leads to such grace.  Each push, heave, grip, and release has a metrical pull which my pulse begins to beat to.   The climb may not change, but the climb may just change the rider.   Nietzsche writes of amor fati or the love of fate -- that one should not "want anything to be different, not backward, not forward, for all eternity....not merely bear what is necessary, but love it."  He continues, "I want to learn more and more to see what is beautiful in necessary things.  Then I shall be one of those who makes things beautiful." 

So the climb is neither my adversary, nor my means to avoid shame.  The climb is my project -- a necessary thing I will make beautiful.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Close Encounters -- Exit Pursued by Bear

A week ago, I was at the foot of Devils Tower, a land mass rising out of the earth like the upturned hoof of a giant horse. It's a geological fascination,inspiring Sioux legends and even the film Close Encounters. Devils Tower is what drives Richard Dreyfus to sculpt his mashed potatoes into a monument; Devils Tower is the site of his meeting with aliens.  Unlike most close encounters, these aliens are benign, and Dreyfus ascends with the ship to safety.   

The Sioux recount of tale of what we now know as Devils Tower; and they might mention that Devils Tower is the white man's name, as most Native-Americans know it as bear rock.  As told by Lame Deer, the legend recounts the tale of two boys, who venture out into the prairie and get lost for 4 days   On the fourth day, they are pursued by a giant grizzly who chases them for miles.  The boys pray to  Wakan Tanka -- The Great Mystery -- asking for pity, asking to be saved.  And the God responded.  He shook the earth, and the land thrust itself upwards of 1,000 feet, carrying the boys into the clouds.  Ever in pursuit, the giant bear clawed around the side of this tower, etching deep grooves into the rock still visible today.  In this version of the tale, the bear relinquished his pursuit, vanishing into the horizon, and the boys were lifted to safety by an watchful eagle.  In other versions, the boys are young girls and are transformed into stars.  In still another, several girls are slaughtered, while others are spared. So the tower of rock invokes a rite-of-passage story.  The mad, man-child or the young venture out from the safety of family and are threatened by forces they cannot combat.  They call out to be saved.  And, as is the case with legends and film, they are. 

 Last night,  the teen son of one of the cyclists, a rider himself, recounted the recent suicide of Lennon Baldwin, a 15-year old boy from Morristown, NJ.    Lennon was bullied by three students from his high school.  One assaulted him -- an assault caught on surveillance tape.  When suspended from school, the assailant harassed and then coerced Lennon to tell school authorities that the assault was a prank.  Lennon did just that.  Three days later, as a warning, the boys assaulted and robbed Lennon.   Weeks later, the boys were charged, but then released under house arrest; one day later Lennon took his own life. In the legend, the good, great spirit and kind save and protect, and I am again reminded why legends are told again and again.  Tales tell us what we must do.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

3 Boys, 2 Buffalos, 1 State

Wyoming: from the Delaware Indian meaning "at the big plains."  Wyoming is empty like high-school hallways in summer.  There is space everywhere in this square state -- the 9th largest and the least populated in the nation.  It's easy to be alone here. In the past week, we have ridden across the northern, top-half of Wyoming.  Tomorrow, we will ride out of the state and into South Dakota.  Tomorrow, I leave this state of big plains -- a state of fences and flatbeds, of guns and ammo, and of vast miles of uninterrupted farmland, giving way to a town of 50, 500, or 1,000.  I have mixed reactions to this territory of cattle herders, bacon cheese burgers, national parks, and guns.  I rode by a gun range and ammo shop, and the hotel I rested at one week ago hosted a gun-and-rifle show.  My sense is that weapons are just out-of-sight, but always within arm's reach.  When I arrived, I learned of Alexandre Frye, a 13-year old from Cheyenne.  A precocious kid, he enjoyed the company of adults and loved trains, which he could speak about with great expertise among rail veterans.   I've ridden by several trains here, some of the longest trains imaginable, carrying God-knows-what to who-knows-where.  I imagine Alex would have answered the what and where of such trains.   Quiet, short for his age, and with the demeanor, according to one adult neighbor, of an "old-school gentlemen," Alex was slow to make friends and had become repeatedly bullied in school.    He had told his parents he would handle it, that everything was "cool," but his grades were dropping and was staying home to avoid the daily taunts and attacks.  In January, Alex  shot himself at the tracks of the Union Pacific rails.   I pass by trains and think of Alex. The same is true of Wyoming fences and Matthew.  Matthew Shepard, an openly-gay college student at the University of Wyoming, was beaten repeatedly by two adult teens, pistol-whipped, tied to a fence, and left comatose and unrevivable by the hospital staff.  Matthew's face was unrecognizable, covered with blood, save for the areas wiped clean by his own tears.  This was 1998, but for me as for others, such events are indelible warnings of thoughtlessness, cruelty, and neglect.  I ride along these road-side fences and think of Matthew. Days ago, I rode into Buffalo, Wyoming.  I thought only of my hometown, Buffalo, NY, and of Jamie Rodemeyer, who hanged himself earlier this year after bravely coming out as bisexual.  Like Alex, Jamie was in middle school.  Like Matthew, Jamie was gay-activist amid a homophobic culture.   Jamie attended a school just miles away from my own middle and high school.  I feel I know those kids; I feel I know that school.   3 boys separated by vast space and time.  Still,  I feel that Matthew, Alex, and Jamie are interconnected, casualties of a culture of loud and rude and cruel -- bent on an impulse to degrade at any cost -- from reality TV to political pundits.  Ours is a culture of the quick kill -- a hunger game of words, lies, texts, e-mail, and social isolation.   The attack-or-be-attacked state-of-mind spreads virus-like, taking its casualties -- the nerds, rebels, throwbacks, anomalies, the gentle-kids. So I am in Wyoming within a year of one boy's death and thinking of another in 1998: in one Buffalo thinking of another, and why I ride and what can be done.