Archive for July, 2007

Second Draft

I will write more about this later, but I am in one of those burning up the keyboard modes right now and thought I should say something.  I have been working on the second draft of my novel lately.  I knew that most of the original draft would work fine, but the ending of the first draft was not what I wanted it to be.  Actually, the ending sucked.  So I have been working on cleaning up the first draft and setting up the new and improved ending.

Today I finished it.  98, 075 words.  Done.  In the past two days I wrote or revised 15,000 words.  Not bad, if I do say so myself.

One more draft to correct any of the nagging slips, and it should be ready to query.

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Don’t Even Ask

…how my race went.  Muscle spasms in my back forced me to abandon after one lap.

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More doping news from the Tour.  Rabobank fired team leader and Tour de France maillot jaune Michael Rasmussen today and then withdrew the entire team from the race.  Cofidis also withdrew the entire team after one of their riders tested positive for testosterone and then admitted to doping.

How stupid can you get?  These guys are all getting caught–if you dope, you’re gonna get nailed.

I still love bike racing, and I will continue to watch the Tour.  However, I’ll be watching as a disinterested observer, watching for the drama of the race rather than as a fan of any particular racer.  Last year I got caught up in Floyd’s drama, and we all know where that ended up.  This year, I was excited by Vino, since he had a great attacking style (and we ride the same brand of bike), but that has ended badly as well.  I am almost afraid to cheer on any particular rider for fear that I’ll look like an idiot when he gets himself in trouble.  “Hey!  Look at him go–he’s a great rider!  What an awesome race!” I will shout at my computer screen.  Then, fifteen minutes later, after I check Velonews, I’ll see that the guy was transfusing radioactive mutant blood or shooting himself full of genetically modified Tibetan bee venom.  “Oh, well, never mind,” I’ll mumble as I grab my bike and go out for a ride.  Alone.  With no evil mad scientist doctors following me with syringes.

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Sans Dopage

What is it with these guys?  Another Tour de France, one that is exciting, with dramatic stage finishes, spectacular attacks, great highs and lows.  But then doping once again threatens the foundations of the sport.  Today, Alexandre Vinokourov got nailed for failing a blood test after Saturday’s stage, so his entire Astana team left the Tour.  And then the maillot jaune is racing under a cloud of suspicion and has, according to another racer, “ruined the Tour.”

Fortunately for racing fans, there is an alternative: Me.  I race every Tuesday night.  I fight hard in the races.  My races are filled with drama, sheer guts, and sweaty glory.  And, best of all, I do not dope.  I drink Gatorade (the strawberry-orange flavor), half strength, with some electrolyte powder added.  I also down a gel right before the race starts.  Oh yeah–I also take ibuprofen.  But that is as close as I get to doping.  I race clean.

Take tonight’s race as a perfect antidote to the Tour debacle.  I was tired and feeling a little out of sorts because my front wheel is messed up so I had to borrow Dorothy’s front wheel.  To make matters worse, it was a points race night, meaning there were five sprints, with points going to the first four finishers in each sprint.  Points races always hurt a lot.

But we lined up, about fifty strong.  We represent a good cross section of southern New England/Eastern New York: A lot of middle-aged professionals (and I must count myself among them, alas!), a few college kids, some twenty-somethings, and a sprinkling of veteran racers.  Doping in our ranks would be silly, sort of like counterfeiting one dollar bills.  It could be done, sure, but why?

Our races are always fast.  We all do this race once a week, so we could probably ride it in our sleep, and our comfort with the course and with each other is obvious.  We take the corner leaned over as far as we can go, and we bump elbows as we gently jostle for position.  The usual attacks leap from the front, and they are always caught by the hard-charging pack.  I stay near the front so that I can cover any attack.  Pawling always sets up their long blue lead-out train for the sprints, and someone always comes tearing past the strung-out peloton, trying to whip past Pawling.

I almost always start my sprint too late.  I can pass almost anyone on the hill, but if I start too late, I find myself stuck behind someone and can’t easily move around them without sacrificing speed.  This happened in the first of the five sprints.  In the second sprint, I took fourth, good for one point.  In the third sprint, I was good for sixth, out of the points.  Ditto the fourth.  I was beginning to get annoyed with this pattern, and I realized that I had two choices:  1) I could try to squeeze my way up in the lead out train so that I had better positioning; or 2) I could start my sprint before everyone else and try to hold on as long as I could.  I chose option 2.

In the last lap, the peloton was strung out in single file as the lead out racers built the speed up to an insane 30-35 mph.  A Target Training racer came by on my left, so I jumped on his wheel to advance in position.  I tucked back into the train about half way through the last lap.  As we approached the final turn, I could see Josh at the front, head down, really putting in a huge effort.  Everyone was waiting to get closer to the finish before jumping.  I decided to go.  Using the centrifugal force of the pack screaming around the final corner, I launched myself wide to the left, accelerating as fast as I could.  I was spinning my top gear as I passed everyone.  Once the hill started I stood up and gave it everything I had.  Standing on the pedals, head down, I dug deep, found the energy I needed, and forced even more speed out.  I could feel the back wheel bouncing with the effort as I poured energy into the pedals.  Coming up to the line, I felt elated–I was still ahead of everyone.  But wait!  I could see out of the corner of my eye, someone on my left.  We approached the line side by side, with my bike still slightly in front.  Finally, at the line, I threw my bike in the classic Davis Phinney maneuver and won by the width of my tire.

That was exciting.  But to make it even better, everyone is all grins as we coast on our cool down lap.  We are panting, wheezing, and coughing, but we manage to gasp out “good race,” or “awesome sprint” as we reach out and bump fists.  All of us are happy to have finished the race, and we are happy with our efforts.  We raced hard, we raced for fun, and we raced clean. I am not really the solution to doping, but I do think that the real heart of the sport is us–guys who are never going to race in the Tour, who race for bragging rights or maybe a few dollars.  We buy our own equipment and drive ourselves to the races.  We are our own soigneurs, or, if we are lucky as Dorothy and I are, we trade the soigneur duties.  We fill our bottles with various fancy sports drinks and cram energy bars in our jersey pockets–but that’s it.  No homologous blood transfusions, no EPO, no testosterone patches, no HGH.  We–the champions of the Tuesday Night Worlds all over the country–we are the heart of cycling.

My first place points in the final sprint were good enough to get me second place overall in the race, which is my highest finish ever.  I’m pleased.

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Dead Voice

A month or so ago, my mom sent me a journal that had been my dad’s.  It is one of those Tolkien-themed journals with the heavy paper that looks like parchment and little watercolor sketches in the margins.  My mom gave it to my dad for Christmas in 1978, and he started off strong, with an entry almost every day for a week or two before it faded and the journal ended up stuck in a bookcase or at the bottom of a box.  I was not so sure that I wanted to read it, but I took it out this afternoon and looked through it.

When my dad wrote the entries, he had just turned 34, six years younger than I am now, and that is a strange feeling.  His voice is young, yearning.  He speaks many times about his writing, and I remember that he always wanted to be a writer, but he frequently grew frustrated with the slow progress, with the pressures of life, and with his own doubts.  He says that he is confident in his ability to write, if he could just get around the “logistics problems” that keep him from writing.  This journal shines a little–very little–light on his process.

He speaks of a short story called “Cloudmaster” that he is working on, and he expresses his eagerness to get “the boys” into the woods.  He says:

The hike and the description of the trail should be the bulk of the work.  I hope to get them to the campsite and then I will be able to take Sean on to the discovery of the hidden canyon entrance.  The bulk of the story–the heart really–will begin there with Sean’s discoveries of lost civilizations and of course Cloudmaster on his ancient perch.

I have never seen this story, and, knowing my dad, it is likely that he destroyed whatever fragments he had written.  He speaks of working on his novel, and, from what he says, it sounds like it is done–he thinks the chapters seemed confusing and his characters need more development.  This novel, which he thought of calling Unknown Soldier, is likewise missing, as far as I know.

Just as touching, for me, is his frequent worry about doing what he wants to do.  He writes several times, days and even months apart, something to the effect that not doing what you want or need to do in life is a horrible fate.  His inability to find what he wanted to do–or, more accurately, his inability to find the time to do what he wanted to do–constantly gnaws at him, and weeks go by with only short, perfunctory entries in the journal, snippets that speak quickly of “dull depression” and not much else.

One of the last entries is from March 25, 1979.  He laments that months have gone by with so few entries in his journal, that his writing is not going anywhere, that his life is “uniformly boring.”  Then, at the end, he gives a quick rundown of the family, something that he does not do anywhere else–I am struck by how absent everyone else is in the entries.  He says that my sister is as “sparkly as ever,” but that I am “another story” and am “going through a bad time.”  That’s it.  Nothing more.  I wonder about this “bad time” I was having as an eleven-year-old.  I wonder that this struck him enough to serve as the only time I am mentioned.  Most of all, though, I wonder what would have happened if he had been able to finish his story or his novel.

More than anything, this pushes me to work even harder on my own writing.  Do I sound like my dad when I say that?  Yes, I do.  And now I can write that without thinking it’s a bad thing.

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Tuesday Worlds

I am too tired to do any sort of in-depth post, so I’ll just give a quick race report.  It was a straight scratch race, not a points race, and the pace, as usual these days, started out fast.  After about three laps a couple of guys from another team had a gap, and I decided to play to the video camera again and performed a masterful sprint to bridge the gap.  One of the guys in the break quickly dropped off, leaving only two of us.  We stayed ahead for four laps or so–the only break of the night that did anything–before we got caught by the peloton.  After that, it was a typical crit, with lots of small attacks and counter-attacks, but nothing spectacular happened.  I positioned myself well in the final sprint, and I read the gaps and hazards much better than I was doing in the early season.  I managed to get sixth in the sprint, which is about where I feel I should be–I’m a top-ten racer but not a superstar.

I decided to look up my earlier races in my riding journal.  In March, racing on the same course, with most of the same racers, our average speed was around 21-22 mph.  Today, we finished at 25.5 mph.  At one point we slowed down, and the pace felt really easy.  I glanced at my cyclocomputer to see that we were going “only” 25 on a straight, flat section.  In short, it was fast.

After the race, I hung out and chatted with some of the other racers for a while.  When I first started racing again a few years ago, I often felt like an outsider and was shy around the other racers.  The atmosphere around races can be very clique-ish, with the specialized jargon, equipment, inside stories, and the aura of known racers.  Now that I have been racing for a while, I no longer feel that way.  Other racers know who I am, and they know my abilities.  I’m one of the “diesels”: a big, strong rider who can put out some power for a long time.  Having a racing identity is part of the fun.

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American Gods

I finished Neil Gaiman’s American Gods a couple of days ago, so when Dorothy and I were wandering around town earlier today and dropped into our local bookstore, I of course had to buy another Gaiman book.  That’s both a good thing and a problem having a couple of good bookstores in town–the TBR pile grows and grows.

I like Gaiman’s style.  He comes across as witty and smart and his voice is engaging.  He is also not afraid to take on some big ideas, but he manages to present them in a realistic and approachable manner.  In the climactic battle scene of the novel, for example, he presents some Big Questions about gods, creation, myth, and humanity, but he never pushes the scenes so far that they become overwrought, sloppy special-effect extravaganzas.  In a post a few weeks ago, I talked about the problem with confronting evil in fiction is that the temptation to melodramatic excess can become too alluring; Gaiman manages to avoid temptation.

The main character of American Gods is a big lunk of a guy who goes by the name of Shadow.  He is suitably complex; everyone assumes that, because he is a huge, muscular ex-con, he must be stupid.  Sometimes, he seems to fulfill everyone’s expectations, but there are depths to his character that are extremely satisfying.  Shadow’s unexpected depth (he’s not just a shadow, after all) is emblematic of the novel as a whole.  The surfaces are never all the story.

Shadow has been recruited by a mysterious conman named Wednesday.  Shadow soon starts to realize that Wednesday is more than just an old guy who is adept at bilking gullible marks out of their cash.  He is, in fact, a god.  The central conceit of the novel is that as immigrants journeyed to America, they brought all of their own gods (and various other supernatural, mystical creatures) to the new courntry with them.  Some of them survived, but others succumbed to the weakness engendered by dissipating belief.  Gods need their believers or they fade away.  Wednesday–who is Odin, also known as Wodin, from whom we get the name for that particular day of the week (Wodin’s Day = Wednesday)–has hired Shadow to help in a huge battle that is about to be waged between the old gods and the forces of modernity.  Modernity has the advantage, since it has such alluring figures as Media on its side, but the gods are not going gently into their good night.

Gaiman’s re-creation of mythology is fascinating and fun.  He casually drops in characters from various cultures, giving them a short description and then letting his readers figure out some of the details.  This is, in many ways, one of Gaiman’s big strengths.  He writes a very fast-paced popular novel, but he refuses to talk down to his readers as he presents his big ideas.  The manner in which Wednesday chooses his name, for example is not mentioned–he just lets us know at some point that Wednesday is Odin, and we can figure out on our own how he picked that name.  He trusts his readers to get swept along in the narrative without too much hand-holding, and this is greatly to Gaiman’s credit.

His style seemed very familiar to me, and I could see a lot of things in his novel that I try to do.  He is much, much better at it than I am, but I can see that our ways of writing–the tone, the language, the themes–have some similarities, which is very exciting.   Up next:  Neverwhere.

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This Is Me?

You’re Ulysses!
by James Joyce
Most people are convinced that you don’t make any sense, but compared
to what else you could say, what you’re saying now makes tons of sense. What people do
understand about you is your vulgarity, which has convinced people that you are at once
brilliant and repugnant. Meanwhile you are content to wander around aimlessly, taking in
the sights and sounds of the city. What you see is vast, almost limitless, and brings you
additional fame. When no one is looking, you dream of being a Greek folk hero.

Take the Book Quiz
at the Blue Pyramid.

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The Permanent Period

But first, a cycling update:  Last night I finished fifth in the Tuesday Night World Championships.  This will probably boost my overall standings up to the top ten.

I finished Richard Ford’s The lay of the Land a few days ago, and I find that my respect for Ford’s talent has grown with each book I have read.  I posted earlier on The Sportswriter and then on the second book in the life of Frank Bascombe, Independence Day.  Both of these books are well-written contemporary novels in the same tradition as John Updike.  This latest novel leaves me feeling uneasy and anxious, but I still liked it.

Not a whole lot happens in any of the three books in the trilogy, as I said in my post on the second book.  But then again, a whole lot does happen.  In the latest, Frank is preparing for Thanksgiving, but he is not really looking forward to it.  His life has entered the Permanent Period, but the things that he has to confront make his position seem anything but permanent.  His second wife (married between books two and three) has left, his ex-wife (divorced before book one) is hinting that she wants him back, his children are coming to visit and bringing along various life difficulties, and he is enduring treatment for prostate cancer.  On top of that, his real estate partner, a fiesty little Tibetan capitalist, is trying to expand his empire, and his agitation makes threatens to disturb Frank’s equilibrium.

In some ways, that does sound like a lot is going on.  But again, much of this is background, and many scenes consist of Frank driving around New Jersey, thinking about where he is going and what he is going to do when he gets there.  His thoughts about his journey are, on the surface, pedestrian, mundane, typical, but symbolize his larger quest for something that is never really named.  Some sort of happiness that seems to be reachable despite its intangible and indefinable nature.

Frank’s quest is what makes the novel, and all of the novels in the trilogy, really, so powerful.  The power is quiet, and the effect of the novel is to sneak up on you and insinuate its unease in between the cracks of your imagination until you, too, feel vaguely restless, vaguely worried, and vaguely philosophical.  Although Frank never asks the question–it would be completely out of character for him to ask so bluntly–he really is searching for something as big, as stereotypical, and as profound as the meaning of life.  When I sit down and think about it, this is exactly what we are all doing to a greater or lesser extent and with more or less self-awareness.

I realize that I have said a lot of nothing about this novel.  My words are not really making a whole lot of sense as I stumble to try to pin meaning to the narrative.  Frank, too, stumbles around, trying to pin meaning to the mundane events of his life.  When the mundane inexplicably gives way to the strange and even surreal (a fox in an old house, a teenage assassin on a motorcycle), Frank seems to step back, afraid to place too much meaning here, but knowing somewhere that these events are too big to be nothing.  The big events, which happen with Frank’s usual deadpan, dry narration, seem to serve up the rest of life in hard, sharp relief.  Ultimately, what has more meaning?  Watching the Thanksgiving day fun run begin?  Seeing your neighbor walk his dog?  Getting into an argument at a bar?  All of the above?

All of it.  Life is positively overwrought with meaning.  This novel haunts me, strangely, uneasily.

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Two words:  Streaming.  Video.  Go here to get live TdF coverage.

Today’s stage was a heartbreaker for the three riders who rode their hardest in a breakaway only to get caught about three miles from the finish.  The real drama, though was the crash less than three kilometers from the end.  The pack was raging as the sprinters’ teams tried to get their men to the finish.  Suddenly, about thirty places back, someone went down, causing a chain reaction crash that left a swath of destruction across the entire road.  Those in front of the crash (maybe 20 riders) kept going, while everyone behind had to stop–there was simply no where to go.

It is terrible to see the bodies and bikes flying, and to see the riders limping in, holding their arms at awkward angles.  I do feel better, though, knowing it is not just in the stupid, squirrelly Cat 4 races where getting caught behind a crash is part of the game.

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