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.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Picnic Kabuki and Literal Legs

At noon, several women at picnic stay in the shade. It's sunny, and the heat will bear down on any lateral skin surface: heads, palms, kneecaps, calf ledges, or neck napes.  They escape from it.  They protect themselves.  I watch as they apply sunscreen like wedding-cake ganache.  In the end, they are Kabuki cyclists.  Silent, they sit amid wedges of watermelon and dark cherries, awaiting some call to the daylight drama of the bike.   There is a group of men of a certain age, old enough to have adult children, on the cusp of retirement or semi-retirement, who are riding with us across the country.  They are tough, as is their skin, which has a tawny, jerky-like sheen.  They strike me as modern-day cowboys on wheels.  I watch them ride, thinking they will all fall behind, but on the steepest hills they charge up steady on their carbon-framed steeds.  Cyclists say these men  have "legs," not the  "sea legs" of sailors, mind you, who learn to recalibrate their balance amid the uncertainty of the ocean.  Their legs are more than sturdy; they are solid, thick, and heavy.  Their legs are literal -- built up over years from by the rise and pitch of each hill.   I imagine if I dissect one, Damian Hirst-style, I could count the rings of their years.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

3 Flats, Retiring, and Karma

Points of contact are the most vulnerable.  In biking, its the tires to the road.  And the road is rough: gravel and glass and wire and nails.  I spy as a ride, looking for chips of renegade road and glimmering shards of glass.  But no one's eyes are that sharp.   Flats happen, and learning how to repair the bike is part of my "learn-as-I-go" education of the road.  I've fixed a tire maybe twice in my life, and in the past three weeks, I've had three flats.  I've needed assistance on each one.  

First Flat: A puncture, the size of my small-toe nail bed.  The blow was audible from a distance and a quartet of riders behind me from Ohio heard it, pulled over, and coached me through the flat.  I write that I was coached, but, truth be told, they did most of the work.  "We leave no one behind in our cycling club," offers one from the Cincinnati Cycling Club.  Within minutes, the tube is changed and inflated, and the tire reinforced at its tear.  5 minutes off the road.  New Yorkers would have left me in disrepair on the side of the road.  People are just more helpful in Ohio, swing state be damned.   

Second Flat: Just 10 miles later.  Same day.  Same place on the tire.  Ohio is no where in site.  I call the bike-ambulance van, and they bring me home.  I buy new tires.   

Third Flat:  This time I thought I might be able to figure it out myself.  I heard the hiss, that exhaust of air escaping, and pulled over.  I set myself up on one of those Idaho fences that keep the animals penned or the people away and prepared for intestinal surgery on the bike.  I lay out my jack-knife and inner tube.  I deflate the tire,  coax the tire off the rim, and score my fingers along the inside of the tube scavenging for detritus of the road.  One, a second, and one more cyclist rides by, but I wave them along with an "It's all good" and "I've got it."   But, of course, I didn't "have it," nor was it "all good" at all.  One helpful couple -- both practicing Buddhists -- knew better than to heed my dismissal.  They turned about and returned my tire to its rim and the air to the tube.  What goes around comes around -- for both my tire and karma.   

No doubt some good will come around their way.