Archive for February, 2008

Going South

Tomorrow night I leave for El Salvador for my spring break adventure.  I am a little nervous about this, since I’ve never gone on such a trip before, but I’m also looking forward to it.  There will be four faculty members and fifteen students making the journey.

A delegation goes every year at spring break, and the students who have gone before have passionately explained how it is a life-changing experience.  One of the things that makes me happily anticipate the trip is the enthusiasm and joy that the students are expressing.  One girl going said that she made the decision to take the trip because she will turn 21 during spring break.  At first I thought that sounded like a rather strange thing, since El Salvador is not really a typical college spring break party destination.  But she explained that she wanted to do something different and memorable for her birthday, something where she could come away with a meaningful experience.

Most of the students have similarly earnest desires.  One guy is going partly because of his father, who visited the country during the civil war of the 1980s.  His father, a peace activist and social justice theologian, runs a peace center in Massachusetts.  Another girl wants to be an English teacher (so I’ll be her prof next year when she’s a sophomore) and work in underprivileged areas.  She has dreams of maybe teaching through the Peace Corps or Americorps.  In short, it is a good group of kids who exemplify the best of their age and tear down the stereotypical image of the drunken, solipsistic college student.

I don’t know if I could express my reasons for going that clearly.  Part of it is a desire to have some sort of adventure that I did not have while I was in college.  Part of it is the idea that I should never, ever turn down the chance to see and do new things, even if doing these new things makes me feel nervous or anxious.  Part of it is the shameful knowledge that I, a comfortable middle-class American, do not come anywhere close to giving back to the global society the things I owe it.

Whatever my ideas are now, I am sure that the week I spend in a dusty little Salvadoran town will help clarify things for me.  I’ll have a lot to say, I imagine, when I get back, and I’ll probably post a picture or two as well.  In the meantime, adios.

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An Open Letter to BMC Bicycles

Dear BMC Bicycles:

I’ll get straight to the point:  I would like you to send me a 2008 BMC Pro Machine (blue) built up with Campagnolo Record components.  I understand that this request, coming from a 40 year old college English professor probably makes little sense.  It may come across as outrageously presumptuous, or even recklessly arrogant.  Let me explain, though, and I’m sure you will see the wisdom and, more importantly, the marketing value of such a move.

I first saw a BMC bike in VeloNews when Tyler Hamilton left CSC to ride for Phonak.  I instantly felt a heartsick longing for that aluminum lugged carbon frame, the SLT Team Machine.  The frame was incredibly beautiful in that purposefully engineered, industrial sublime manner.  The feelings it evoked reminded me of my first view of the Porsche 959 prototype when I was in high school.  Both machines exemplified the thrilling promise of serious-minded technology coupled with adrenaline-drunk exhilaration.  I knew that the Porsche was an unattainable dream, and, for a time, the BMC felt that way as well.  Although I never realized my dream to own, or even drive, a 959, the next time I was in the market for a bike, I knew without equivocation that I wanted that BMC.

My trusty Team Machine has served me well.  It is an awesome bike in every way.  I am a large, strong rider, yet I cannot make the bottom bracket flex.  It rides beautifully, and I can enter a race knowing that my showing will not be compromised by my equipment.  However, the sight of that new Pro Machine in blue, the color of my first ten speed, makes my heart ache with longing.  I recall the feeling of the wind in my nine-year-old hair on Christmas morning when I pedaled off on that blue Centurion, and the sparkling blue of the Pro Machine takes me back to that moment.

But I still hear you wondering, “Why should we give this guy a bike?”  Three words:  Tyler.  Floyd.  Vino.  Your company got burned three times by three different riders.  Your sponsorship dollars seemed to call down a curse of French testing labs.  People on bike discussion forums were making jokes about how every BMC bike came complete with a vial of EPO.  Here is the solution:  I ride clean.  The strongest thing I take before a race is Advil.  Sometimes I’ll smear some Ben Gay on my legs.  I will never embarrass you with a bad B sample.  Plus, I can write.  Tyler, Floyd, and Vino could not even hope to come close to me in the sprint to the dramatic metaphor.  And the mountain of gorgeous prose?  Forget those guys with their weak grasp of grammar and hackneyed sports cliches.  I ride and I write.  I would write pages about the wonders of the Pro Machine.

But there’s more.  Every single time I go to a local New England race (and I go to several dozen every year), I get stopped by someone who wants to talk to me about my BMC.  I sing its praises and smile at the naked longing on their faces.  Imagine how that response would increase exponentially if I were riding that blue Pro Machine instead of my gray Team Machine.  There would be no better advertisement.

Consider my offer carefully.  I may not have the notoriety of Floyd or the boy-next-door charm of Tyler or the fierce stare of Vino, but I am a real rider who can truly appreciate the importance of a fine machine.

If you decide to go with this, we can discuss the size and specific component selection over e-mail.

Thank you for your time.  I look forward to riding my new bike very soon.


The Hobgoblin

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Good Clean Living

The past couple of weeks have been more than usually stressful. Last fall, the university president’s office decided to co-sponsor with the faculty governance council an intense retreat to discuss our school’s retention issues, and I volunteered to serve on the planning committee. It’s an issue that interests me, and, politically, it’s a good committee to be on. Then I was invited to join the annual spring break service trip to El Salvador, which begins at the same time as the big retreat. I decided that I could do both and got special dispensation from the president’s office to cut my time at the retreat short so I could go on the trip. This is the big week: the retreat begins Thursday, and our flight leaves JFK at 3:30 Friday morning. As anyone might guess, I am more than a little nervous.

Then, last night I went into the basement to get something for the trip, and I discovered water trickling out of our water heater. Just what I needed–very expensive plumbing nightmares on top of everything else. I only slept three hours last night out of worry.

Faithful readers will remember my mention of Apu, my Stanley Tucci fan cycling friend. He’s a contractor, and when I called him for advice, he put me in touch with a good plumber. Today the plumber dropped by to check out the ailing water heater.

Instead of needing a new water heater, we simply need to replace a corroded pressure relief valve. Instead of $1000 for parts and labor, we will only need to pay $85. I’m hoping my good clean living has finally begun to reward me with some karmic points.

Finally, I’m going to mention again that if anyone wants to buy me the bike I described in my last post, you still can since Cam decided that she couldn’t do it. Since it is a fairly expensive bike, several of you might want to get together on this. My birthday is the end of May. Here’s a picture:

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A New Bicycle

No, not really.  If I really got a new bicycle, I’d put the title in bold, all caps, and finish with at least five or six exclamation points.  What I’m really talking about is a funny little internet meme that I just discovered.  A guy in San Francisco was thinking about how he was gently teasing his wife about her dedication to Obama.  She was an enthusiastic cyclist, but her volunteer campaign work for Obama was cutting into her ride time, so her husband said to her, “Barack Obama is your new bicycle.”

He then went and sent up a funny, but utterly simple website called, appropriately enough, Barack Obama Is Your New Bicycle.  When you go there, you see a silly but nice little thing about Obama, such as “Barack Obama wanted you to have some cupcakes.”  If you keep hitting refresh, you get other nice messages.  This, of course, has spawned variations, such as “Hillary Clinton Is Your New Bicycle,” which plays with the whole “Hillary is mean” image.  For example, “Hillary Clinton thinks Shakespeare was Francis Bacon.”  My personal favorite.  Now you can play the game with Michelle Obama as well, and a few others.  Check them out for a laugh.

By the way, if anyone does want to get me a new bicycle, I’d like a 2008 BMC Pro Machine (61 cm) with full Campy Record parts and Fulcrum Racing 1 wheels.  I like the blue one.  Thank you.

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Tagged and Time

I haven’t had much time to think about blogging or reading or writing or anything else, really.  To give you an idea of what’s going on, I have three meetings this week and at least six next week and four the following week, one of them an all-day thing.  Plus, I’m leaving for El Salvador at the end of February.  At the same time, I have a book review due any day now, and I have been writing an average of three letters of recommendation a week since classes started again in January.  So it is with some relief that I see I have been tagged for three memes, which means that I do not have to think too hard about coming up with a topic so I can keep this blog lurching along.

I am going to begin with the one that seems easiest, which is the meme that comes from Dorothy.  I have to list ten signs that a book was written by me.  Since I have written a book, I can easily do this one.  Here we go:

  1. It’s a novel.
  2. It moves from a very realistic to bizarre, Gothic fantasy.
  3. The tone is relaxed to a fault.
  4. The narrative plays clever games that too frequently make that deadly transition to stupid.
  5. There are academics in it, and they come to bad ends.
  6. It is set in a place I have lived, like the Bronx.
  7. It reads like a bad Stephen King knockoff.
  8. The grammar is impeccable.
  9. The formatting and document design are first rate (I used to be a tech writer).
  10. The title–how do I say this?–sucks.

And that’s it: the ten signs that the book you are reading was written by me.  By the way, if you do find this novel, let me know so I can start getting my royalty payments.  If you haven’t been tagged, jump in and play.

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Storytelling and Dinner

I have always been fascinated by our fascination with telling stories. We all like to hear them, and many of us also like to tell them. In one of my classes, I am teaching The Odyssey, and I point out to my students all of the times Homer makes explicit references to the importance of storytelling. On Phaeacia, Odysseus encounters the blind bard Demodocus, who tells the story of Troy and the heroic actions of a certain Ithacan named Odysseus. Later, Odysseus himself takes center stage as he regales his hosts with all of the gory details of his many adventures from Troy until his shipwreck and discovery by Nausicaa. As he tells the story, he stops a couple of times. The first time, the Alcinous insists that Odysseus must finish telling the story soon, and the second time, the audiences sits in hushed awe as they think about the wonderful narrative their unexpected guest has finished.

Homer’s example is not the only one, of course. In another work I am teaching, I again ask my students to consider the power of storytelling as they see what happens when Scheherazade teases Shahryar by slowly telling him only one story a night, using the king’s undeniable compulsion to hear more to prolong her life. Scheherazade knew that stories are addictive, and I also understand their power. I was one of those boys who stole hours of sleep by reading under the covers with a flashlight, and my inability to shut the book led me to wonder what made stories so addictive.

This morning I heard a story on NPR that might help explain, or at least helps me to form a new theory about the magnetic power of stories. I have provided a link to the story, so I won’t explain it in great detail, but the quick version is that researchers have figured out that families that have dinner together and have real conversations and stories at that meal produce smarter children with better vocabularies and reading scores.

So this made me wonder if there is an evolutionary reason for our attraction to stories. To go back to Homer for a moment, Odysseus listens to stories and tells his own at big feasts, and other narratives that emphasize the importance of stories follow similar paths. The stories reinforce cultural values while teaching thinking skills and social interaction. The communal meal that sets the stage for the story fulfills the same purpose by forging social and cultural connections. Any society that values storytelling and communal meals will strengthen social bonds and pass the cultural material down very effectively while also building the intellectual power of the children and increasing their critical thinking skills. These strengthened cultural bonds would then help that culture remain strong enough to survive and pass the cultural DNA on. In other words, there is an evolutionary advantage to storytelling.

So when someone criticizes us for spending too much time reading, we are really doing what evolutionary biology tells us to do. I like it–it’s a theory that makes sense to me.

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Stephen King Plagiarized Me!

In 1992 or ’93 I wrote a poem called “Lanakila Homecoming,” in which I described some storm clouds looking like “brains thinking bad thoughts.”  In Stephen King’s Duma Key, published in 2008, he says:

The thunderheads stacked up, huge flatboats black on the bottom and bruise-purplish through the middle.  Every know and then lightning would flash inside them, and then they looked like brains filled with bad ideas.

Looks a little close, doesn’t it?  Mr. King, just tell your publishers they need to publish my novel and all is forgiven.

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Reading and Relating: A Rant

“I just can’t relate to the story,” several students complained.  “The characters’ problems just aren’t real to me.”  I tried.  I worked harder in front of a class than I have in years.  I dug into the story.  I pulled in historical context.  I explained the political situation.  I outlined the social constraints.  I agreed that this novel is a difficult and problematic text, but said that we just needed to probe a little more carefully to get it.  Still.  “I can’t relate.”

What does this mean?  Why do students sometimes shut down when they can’t “relate” to the story?  Reading is about making an effort, about trying to reach out and touch someone who is not you, who is different from you, and find understanding.  Not relating simply means you were not willing to approach the story on its terms.  Not liking a story is one thing; giving up on it because you can’t “relate” is simply lazy thinking.  There are a lot of books I don’t like, books that don’t work for me on any number of aesthetic and intellectual levels, and I am not saying that we have to like everything we read.  I am saying, though, that we do tend to blame the failure on the book far too often.

My area of scholarship is 19th century American women writers–the domestic and sentimental stories.  There is no way that I, a white male born in the late 20th century, could “relate” on a superficial level to the characters in these stories.  I am not an orphaned nine-year-old girl who is taught to deny herself for Jesus.  I am not a young mother transplanted to the wild woods of Michigan.  Yet I can understand and appreciate their stories because I took the effort to understand these characters and their conditions.  In other words, I found a way to relate to them.

The all too common “I couldn’t relate to the story” complaint is sloppy, lazy, and arrogant thinking.  It demands that the characters be like you or you won’t make the effort to meet them on their own ground.  It demands that the stories accommodate you instead of the other way around.  It insists that reading is a passive instead of an active skill.  Reading is not TV.  Reading is not American Idol, where your vote counts!!!  You need to get up off your lazy ass, and get in the author’s face.  When something confuses you, you are supposed to scream at the author, “What the hell is going on here?”

Because when you do that, you will get an answer, and you will find yourself relating.

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Celebrity Cycling

A few weeks back on our Epic Tuesday Ride (TM), we stopped at a bakery in Westchester county. One of the riders, Apu (more on his nickname in a minute), went back into the bakery for more and, while he was in there, made a celebrity sighting. He came back out with a huge grin on his face.

Stanley Tucci is in there!” he exclaimed.

“Stanley Tucci? Really?” we replied.

“Yeah! He was in The Devil Wears Prada! I love that movie–I’ve seen it twice!”

At this point, we were all howling with laughter. Apu does not seem like the kind of guy to like a movie like that. “Isn’t that…a chick flick?” one of us asked. “Nah, nah,” he insisted. “It’s really good. It has a great soundtrack!” It wasn’t the movie that had us all laughing, though. The really funny thing was just how excited Apu was about the movie and his celebrity sighting–he was gushing like a twelve-year-old.

Of course, the rest of us had to find an excuse to go back into the bakery so we could get a glimpse of Mr. Tucci. You could tell he was a celebrity because he kept his sunglasses on inside. It was sort of dumb, but fun–I loved him in Big Night.

Apu was glowing the rest of the ride, and every time he brought up Stanley Tucci, we all started laughing so hard we nearly crashed our bikes. Apu is that way, though–he gets more enjoyment out of something like that than anyone I know.

Now, here’s where his nickname came from: Later that same day, we were rolling along a relatively flat section when someone said he was hungry. Apu immediately offered some of his food. “I have Junior Mints, and some chips, and a Power Bar, and some Clif Shot Bloks, and a gel…” And he went on and on. Again, we all started laughing and weaving all over the road, and I asked him if he was a rolling convenience store. Fender Nazi immediately said, “That’s it! That’s your nickname–Apu!” Apu, the proprietor of the Kwik-E-Mart on The Simpsons. Apu didn’t seem to be as happy about his new nickname as he was about the Stanley Tucci sighting, but the name seems to have stuck.

And so has his Tucci-obsession. Last week, we were on another ride and stopped at another bakery. Three nice old ladies were sitting in the bakery and started chatting with our group–where did we come from, how far were we riding, how long would that take us, and so on. Apu walked up from purchasing his chips and other goodies to restock his rolling convenience store and turned on his charm.

“How are you ladies doing this fine day?” he asks. I should mention here that it was not a fine day–the temperatures were hovering just above freezing and it was threatening to rain and we were thirty miles from home. But for Apu, nearly every day is a fine day. They were immediately taken by his charm and chat with him. He then launches into his celebrity-sighting story. When they don’t immediately recognize the name, he helpfully tells them, “He was in The Devil Wears Prada, with Anne Hathaway and Meryl Streep.” The rest of us start laughing, and I seriously worry that Trigirl is going to fall out of her chair and have convulsions, she is laughing so hard. When Apu tells the ladies that the movie has a great soundtrack and he likes to listen to it in spin class, Trigirl snorts some coffee out her nose.

When you’re doing four or more hours on the bike in January and February in Connecticut, you need all the laughs you can get.

On a related note, I did four hours today, bringing my weekly total up to over eleven and a half hours and 193 miles.

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Rolling Meditation

Sometimes I don’t know where I am going to ride.  This does not happen very often, since I tend to be more than a little bit obsessive about knowing my routes, but there are times when I surprise myself.  A few weeks ago I went out with a fairly clear idea of the roads I would take, but there is one intersection where I can turn right and head home, making a 23 miles ride, or I can go straight and make a 30 mile ride.  Up until the point that I had actually gone through the intersection, I did not know where I was going to ride.  “Oh,” I thought after I crossed route 58, “I’m going on a longer ride today.”

My ride today was a little bit like that.  I knew I was going to go on a longer ride, but I didn’t let myself think about it.  I would just ride and let things happen.  On this ride, I could turn home at the one hour mark (for a total of about 2 hours or 35 miles) or I could keep pushing northeast a little longer (for 42 miles total).  Until I kept straight instead of making the turn on Hut Hill Road, I had not thought about my route.

In instances like these, it feels as if my body knows what is going to happen, or what needs to happen, before my mind does.  Today that was very helpful since there are long stretches of road that I do not remember riding, though I know I must have.  My mind went into that soft-focus zone where the thousand things I have to complete before March all have that fuzzy, Vaseline-on-the-lens quality that makes them insignificant.  I don’t know if the bike forces me to put things in perspective, or if the bike makes it easier for me to block out things I should be thinking about, but it does help.

So far this year, my riding has been much better than last year.  I am getting some serious miles in my legs and am building a solid base.  Last year, my epic Tuesday rides were sometimes the only miles I could get done.  This week alone, I will have about 200 miles if I go on the long shop ride tomorrow.

But I won’t plan on it.  I’ll just let my bike and my body decide what we’re doing when the time comes.

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