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Archive for January, 2009

Well, Hell

Feel free to skip this one; I’m just whining and sniveling.

It’s time to face a sad truth: my spring racing season is going to be terrible.  I am officially writing it off.  I will race, but I know I will be nothing but pack fodder if I’m lucky, and most likely I’ll be OTB and DFL.

The weather seems to have conspired against me, with snow or icy roads on every day I have been free to ride, and nice, bright, sunny days when I have to be doing anything but riding.  I have done a couple of rides on the trainer, something I hate more than poison, and that shows both determination and desperation in equal measures.

The worst blow fell today, though.  Somehow I have ended up sick, with an aching head, sore throat, and a fever over 100.  Clearly I’m not going to be doing any serious training for a while.  Maybe by the time I have recovered, the remnants of this bad snow/slush/ice storm will be gone and the roads clear enough for riding.

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The Afterlife

The first semester of college was a disaster.  Dorms were auctioned off in a lottery, and my number was so high, there was no hope I would get one, so I lived in a seedy motel for the first two weeks of classes.  I finally found an apartment in the basement of an old Victorian house in the hills on the north side of town, a little over a mile from campus.  It was a nice place, but I was isolated, an 18-year-old who didn’t know what he was doing or why he was doing it.  Complicating all of this was my major: I had enrolled as a mechanical engineering major, but I wanted to switch to English as soon as I could.  In the meantime, I was barely enduring the engineering courses.

My landlord had been a comparative literature major, and he had a huge collection of old paperback books, many of which he kept in a closet in my apartment.  He seemed to like mid-century modernism, and the closet overflowed with Cheever, Barth, and Updike.  I had read “A&P” in high school, and I liked that story a lot, so I pulled out Rabbit, Run one day when I did not want to do any more homework for my engineering graphics class.  I went on to read several other Updike novels, including The Centaur, and there was something I couldn’t quite define that captivated me.

The books saved me, though, from despair.  I was alone and lonely.  I didn’t have any friends in the engineering program.  I was 250 miles away from my girlfriend.  I once went two entire weeks without having any occasion to speak to another human being.  It is not stretching the truth to say that Updike soon became something more than another author to me.  He became a family member.

A year or so later, I was safely enrolled in English classes, one of which was a creative writing class.  We had an assignment where we all came up with an opening line for a short story.  We voted to select one of the lines, and then we all had to craft a short story around that opening line.  The was this: “People get the darkest tan right around their armpits.”  I wrote my story and was very pleased with the results.  The professor made copies (mimeographs, even) and the whole class read it.  One of the girls in the class said it reminded her of Updike’s “A&P.”  This remains the highlight of my writing career–a comparison to Updike’s short story!

I have continued to read Updike since then, and some novels–Roger’s Version, the Rabbit novels, and The Witches of Eastwick–have demanded multiple readings.  The strange thing about my relationship with Updike’s writing is I have never met another person who likes his writing.  Not one.  “Stuffy.”  “Effeminate.”  “Rambling.”  “Prissy.”  I’ve heard many words of condemnation, and they have left me feeling hot and scratchy with indignation and frustrated outrage.  I never could seem to muster up the courage to defend my author in the face of such implacable, insistent, and smugly positive criticism.

For me, Updike’s prose has always been crystalline, sharp and hard-edged.  He managed to induce fits of jealousy in me with his keen ability to find precisely the perfect phrase to capture a moment, an idea, a picture.  The things that we see every day but do not know quite how to describe unless we ramble on incoherently for pages Updike can nail in one well-turned phrase.  Some critics hated his attention to mundane details, and torched him for wasting his elegant, eloquent phrases on things like the irritation of a rough spot on your thumbnail, but the poetry of the minutia always made me smile.

When I heard today that Updike had died in hospice of lung cancer, I felt blindsided.  I was expecting to read his new novels for another decade at least.  I lost an old friend.

EDIT:  Here is a great essay in Salon by David Lipsky that says what I was trying to say but says it better.  He says this about David Foster Wallace’s charge that Updike is a narcissist:  “But to call Updike a narcissist (and this charge has gotten around) misses the point, since the impulse behind his self-examination is so basically generous:  Our smallest encounters and realignments of feeling are worthy of inspection; if Updike’s life is a story, everybody’s is.”   Exactly.

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Some Dark Wanderings

I wrote a post about our new president’s inauguration speech, where I analyzed it and made some facile comparisons to John Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity,” but I decided not to publish it because it was turning into a mess.  Let me say this, though: unlike a few of the early reviewers I have read, I felt this was an amazing speech, though perhaps in a darker tone and in a more minor key than some of the critics may have wanted.  The speech seemed to be written for adults, grown-ups who could handle hearing real things without fainting away.  The rhetoric was, for the most part, tight and controlled, with some sharp lines.  It did not soar, but it was focused and direct, more like the flight of an arrow than that of an eagle.

But what I wanted to talk about today was Alan Lightman’s short novel Ghost, before I forget the points I want to make about it.  It is a quick read, and not nearly as frightening as the title might lead you to believe, but it left me feeling deeply uneasy.  The action has a distant feel to it, as if we were watching the events take place on a small television screen all the way on the other side of the room, and someone has draped a thin veil over the screen.  There are some moments that call to mind Kazuo Ishiguro’s difficult novel The UnconsoledGhost does not have the same complicated plot or maddeningly opaque dreamlike sequences, but it did have a similar sense that things might not be happening as they appear to be.

The novel begins with a short introductory chapter where a demented-seeming narrator rambles almost incoherently about the thing he saw.  He voice becomes frantic as the panic threatens to overcome him and he sees his reason wavering precariously.  Like an obsessive lunatic, he keeps circling back to the thing he did or did not see.  Was it real?  Was it a trick of the light?  Was it his imagination?  Ultimately, he begins to ask a much more fundamental and even more terrifying question:  What do any of these things mean?  He convinces himself that the best solution is to do what “she” told him to do and write his story down.

The narration then shifts to a very tight third-person.  The prose is stark and austere, but in that austerity it conceals as much as it reveals.  We are introduced to Davide Kurzweil, a man who does not seem to have left a huge impression on the world so far.  He had been a competent, but ultimately redundant figure at his bank, and he was fired.  Desperate for a job, he becomes an apprentice at a mortuary.  There, in the “slumber room,” he sees something.  What he sees is never clearly revealed, and we do not even have David’s description of his vision until two-thirds of the way through the book.  Our belief or disbelief in his vision thus hinges not on what he tells us but on what we already believe.

David tells a couple of acquaintances what he saw, and the story eventually finds its way out into the world, where it stirs up interest among the tabloids, those desperate to speak to their dead relatives, and a group of quasi-scientists calling themselves the Second World Society.  He eventually agrees to submit to some tests to determine if he is directing energy, a so-called “intentionality force,” that can be measured by a computer.  One of the tests suggests that he can creates a strong force, and his story becomes even larger and louder.

The controversy over his “powers” reaches a critical point when scientists at the local university feel that his notoriety is threatening rational scientific discourse.  They argue for another series of tests, and David again agrees.  The results are cloudy and show a distinct pattern when you tilt your head just so; in other words, both sides of the debate feel vindicated.

While all this is going on, David is haunted by memories of his ex-wife, Bethany, an ethereal presence who seems just as disconnected and vague as David himself.  She longed for passion but settled into a boring, joyless second marriage for no discernable reason.  David’s obsession with her parallels his obsession with his ghostly vision.  Both the ghost and Bethany are pale apparitions who perhaps represent some unfulfilled desire but might also be nothing more than damaged old memories.  David’s most vivid memory of Bethany is the time the two of them stumbled across an abandoned boxcar in the middle of a field.  Inside the boxcar were huge bags of flour.  Inspired by some inchoate desire, Bethany strips and rubs the flour all over her body until she is all a ghostly white except for the pink of her mouth and her nipples.  The story is so remarkable, so unlikely, that, as David remembers it again and again, it begins to seem less and less like something that really happened and more and more like a dream.

As all of this is happening, we are encouraged to think about the nature of belief and our trust in our own perceptions.  How do we know that what we see is real?  How do we separate possible phenomena from impossible?  When David talks to an old friend who is a chemistry professor at the local university, he tries to get the professor to admit that it is possible that David saw a ghost.  The professor adamantly refuses to give any ground to such a belief, and we come away with the sense that the scientific rational mind may be just as trapped by its own belief systems as the superstitious, irrational mind.  If it does not fit his understanding of the possible, the professor tells him, he will not believe it, even if he were to see it with his own eyes.

It is easy to categorize this novel as one that frames the debate between science and belief, but it is more complicated than that.  It is also about the complexity of our perceptions and how they are both influenced by our surroundings and influence them in turn.  Even more, it is about the singularity of our experience, the utter impossiblity of escaping our subjective positions and the miraculous nature of that web of imperfect perceptions.  “The seconds and years stretch into infinity,” he writes in the last paragraph, “but a thing might be felt only at one moment.  It might be there, the world underneath and the miracle, but felt only in brief, fleeting stabs.”  The final lines take this further, and end with this haunting image: “This instant, this light falling, this table, this chair, it is all more than it seems.  But how can he put the thing into words.”

This novel ultimately offers a fascinating secular and even scientific (Lightman teaches theoretical physics at MIT) interpretation of the line from Corinthians, “through a glass darkly.”  Or, to paraphrase Emily Dickinson, we cannot see to see.

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My Blog Is…

ESTP – The Doers

The active and playful type. They are especially attuned to people and things around them and often full of energy, talking, joking and engaging in physical out-door activities.

The Doers are happiest with action-filled work which craves their full attention and focus. They might be very impulsive and more keen on starting something new than following it through. They might have a problem with sitting still or remaining inactive for any period of time.

Thanks to Dorothy and Litlove for this link.

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It has been very cold around here lately. Yesterday I saw the lowest reading I have ever seen on my front porch thermometer: -0.6F. If you’re in Minnesota, that’s not very cold, but I’m a transplanted Californian living in New England, so that’s plenty cold. The larger problem for me is the road conditions. We have been receiving snow storms every third day or so, and the plows do not seem to worry all that much about actually, you know, plowing. Many of the back roads, the roads I usually ride on, have a lot of ice on them, making riding very hazardous.

Yesterday, instead of going for a long ride in the deep freeze, Dorothy and I headed down to New Haven, where we met the Suitcases of Courage at the Beinecke Rare Book Library on the Yale campus. If you have not seen the Beinecke, it is an architectural wonder. Built in the early 1960s, it has that sort of self-satisfied, clean almost to austerity look of modern architecture, but, like the best of modernism, it really transcends its time period. From the outside, it is a very severe looking rectangular box, a pale sepulcher with large pale panels of marble forming the facade. As you approach, no windows are visible. The five-story main part of the building floats in a sunken plaza above a ground floor faced with dark glass. Inside, a glass enclosed column rises the entire height of the building; this houses the main stacks, and you can see shelves upon shelves of old, leather-bound volumes. A reception desk is flanked by twin stairways that rise to the main exhibition area.

Once you walk up these stairs, the full effect of the building’s design hits. The marble panels on the facade are translucent, and, on a sunny day, they glow with a dark, creamy, textured light. The architect who designed the building, Gordon Bunshaft, wanted the structure to be plain and even harsh on the outside but a jewel inside. He compared it to a cathedral that has a forbidding appearance but a bright, welcoming interior. It truly is an amazing building, and well worth the trip.

Even better than the architecture were the treasures inside. The library is about to open an exhibit called “Book of Secrets,” an installation featuring important works on alchemy from the early modern period to the present. The books were fascinating, with illustrations of the strange mixture of occult speculation and rudimentary attempts to unlock the mysteries of chemistry. Drawings of dragons covered with emblems representing salt, mercury, and sulphur appeared next to diagrams of laboratory apparatus.

After browsing the collection, we headed for the Book Trader Cafe, a used book story on Chapel Street. Dorothy and I had been here once before, and I remembered finding many good books on the shelves. A used book store in a college town in a great thing, and I found dozens of books I could take home, but I limited myself to just a few. After this, Dorothy and Mrs. Suitcase went to Atticus Book Store and Cafe, while Mr. Suitcase and I went to College Street Cycles, the local bike shop.

The bike shop is a tiny storefront with room for a workshop area and a couple of bikes. The walls and ceiling fairly drip with bike things–tires, saddles, tubes, locks, and on and on. Basso, a large black Labrador, takes his job of greeting customers seriously, with a solemnity not often found in a Lab. He took a great liking to me, partly because I seemed to know just what parts of the Labrador ear to rub. We chatted with the guys in the shop for a while–we knew a lot of the same racers–before heading back to Atticus. After buying a couple more books, we were hungry and walked back across campus to Wall Street Pizza, where the battered, graffiti-carved booths fail to hint at the great pizza that comes out of the ovens.

Here are the books I ended up with:

  • The Tortilla Curtain, by T.C. Boyle
  • Sisters of the Earth, edited by Lorraine Anderson
  • Turn, Magic Wheel, by Dawn Powell
  • The Naming of the Dead, by Ian Rankin
  • The Autograph Man, by Zadie Smith (the UK edition, no less)
  • An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England, by Brock Clarke
  • Ghost, by Alan Lightman

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I was very, very disappointed to learn that Campagnolo 11 speed cassettes will not fit on Flashpoint wheels, but of course I did not learn of this until long after I bought the wheels. The cassette does fit my Fulcrum wheels, though. So, if anyone wants a set of Flashpoint FP 60s, Campy freehub, completely unused–I never even put tires on–I’ll make you a deal. If you ride Shimano, you can replace the freehub for about a hundred bucks.

Now I’m back to only one set of wheels for my new bike, so I have to figure out what to do about that. This bike build has been one enormous pain in the ass, and I’m just about sick to death of it.

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Some Cannondale Coolness

As you know if you scroll down a little, I have a new bike. Alert readers will notice that it a Cannondale. Because the weather has been so awful lately, I’ve been taking out my other bike, which has now been relegated to bad weather bike status. It, too, is a Cannondale. Dorothy’s new bike is likewise a trusty ‘dale.

One of the reasons for having so many Cannondales in the house is that they sponsor our club. It is especially cool because their corporate HQ is about two miles away, and we frequently see Cannondale people on the roads or at races. Tonight, we had a special club presentation at Cannondale, where Chris Peck, the VP of engineering, talked to us about bike design, particularly how weight, stiffness, comfort, and aerodynamics are factors.

Chris told us that for road riders, aerodynamics is not as much of an issue as it is for triathletes and time trialists, since nearly 80% of aerodynamic drag comes from the rider and not the bike. Other factors, weight especially, are more important, and he provided some calculations that showed in the stage 12 time trial in the upcoming Giro, a 500 gram weight deduction would mean a 13 second time advantage for someone like Ivan Basso. That’s some pretty impressive number crunching.

He went on to explain the most important factors in aerodynamic efficiency. If you are a racer on a budget and cannot afford a separate bike dedicated to time trials, there are many other, more important things to do. These are the big aero factors in order of importance:

1. Position. This is the most important factor. Clip-on bars make a huge difference.
2. Helmet. An aero helmet is key.
3. Wheels. Deep section wheels and discs make a big difference.
4. The fork. Because the fork is the first thing to encounter the wind.
5. The frame. The last bit of gain comes from aero improvements here.

He then showed us several video clips of various Cannondale sponsored riders in wind tunnel tests, and he showed how the aerodynamic drag numbers improved when the rider’s position was altered. He was quick to point out that the numbers do not tell the entire story, however. Small details can throw off the accuracy of the results; for example, a rider holding his head at a slightly different angle might change the results dramatically. For some riders, the wind tunnel tests might stipulate a bike position that is too uncomfortable to ride in or will somehow compromise power output. There seems to be a bit of art mixed in with all of the science, which I liked.

It was fun to meet the engineer who had a hand in designing my bike and to see the testing procedures Cannondale uses to build their frames. I also came away with enough Cannondale decals to plaster them on every surface I find.

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