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Absolutely Mental

I ride a lot.  Like any racer hoping to stay in a race and not get spit out the back of the peloton, I train at varying intensities, throw in a lot of hills, do some speed work.  My physical stats are not bad, except for being about 10 pounds overweight, with a resting pulse and blood pressure that always makes doctors and nurses stare (40, 100/60).  Last year, in the weekly training series B races, I was top dog.  This year, racing with the fast guys–category 1 beasts–I’m mostly pack fodder, sweating, drooling, crying in agony pack fodder.  However, in the transition from fast guy in a fast race to fast guy in a blindingly fast race, I have noticed that the physical aspect is a relatively small part of racing.

So far, I’ve raced in three of the A races.  In the first, I got gapped and finished 20 or 30 seconds behind the leaders.  In the second, I hung on for dear life as the leaders sprinted for points.  Last night, I tried to stay in the middle of the peloton, missed the 6 man breakaway, but managed to take second in the main field sprint, good enough for 8th overall.  My physical conditioning in each race allowed me to stay more or less with the pack (I never had to drop out, and I never got lapped), but by far the hardest part of racing turned out to be the intense mental strain.  My body hurt–in one race, my heart rate stayed in zone 5 (the highest zone of exertion) for the entire 44 minutes of the race–and my legs burned and ached all of the following day.  The real fatigue, though, came from the concentration necessary to ride at that level.

At one point in last week’s race, I was riding as hard as I could go when I realized the bike in front of me was pulling away.  If I lost that wheel, if that guy got too far in front of me, I would not longer have the benefit of the draft, and I would have to work harder, and I would probably end up out of the race.  Instead, I concentrated every particle of my focus on that wheel and more or less willed myself to stay in the draft.  Everything else ceased to exist for me except for that wheel.  My awareness narrowed so much that it was very much like tunnel vision: looking back, it was almost like I was staring at that wheel through a cardboard tube, with everything outside of that small circle of light at the end just a dark blur.

Last night’s race hurt in a different way.  I had eaten my lunch a couple of hours later than I usually do–2:30 instead of noon–so I felt a little sick during the race.  The other physical pains were not so prominent; my heart rate, for example, was slightly lower than the previous week, and my legs hurt a little less.  I kept thinking about dropping out of the race, though, as my stomach cramped and my late lunch considered making an unwelcome reappearance.  A big part of me did not want to end the race prematurely, and I kept reminding myself that racing with the fast guys was a great way to get faster myself.  Most of all, I just did not want to give up and then stand around after my race, watching Dorothy’s race, knowing I had quit.

Somehow, then, I managed to stay with the group, sometimes hanging off the very back of the peloton, forcing myself to work just a little harder, pedal just a little faster, climb that hill just a touch more aggressively.  When the bell rang for the last lap, I felt as if I had already won something: I was going to make it to the end!  The pack stretched out the way it does when someone is really pushing at the front, and small gaps appeared bewteen the bikes as racers started to crack.  I slipped in behind Pat, and thought I should have a good chance in the sprint.  Then, right before the last curve, I noticed that Pat had cracked and a large gap between him and the lead group was growing larger.  Without hesitation, I went around him and did a short sprint to catch them.

Just as I latched onto the group the final sprint began.  I shifted into my highest gear (a 53×11) and stood on the pedals with all my force.  As I started to pass people, I concentrated on keeping my form solid and my sprint perfect.  Nearing the top of the hill, I did not let up or fade as many racers seem to do.  Instead, I looked into myself and found a little more to pour into my legs.  I knew I would have the room to pass all but one of the guys ahead of me, and I caught the last guy two feet before the finish, taking second in the field sprint, which was good enough for 8th overall.

In the sprint, I did not feel my body at all.  This is probably a very good thing, because my heart rate in the sprint hit 183.  My maximum heart rate is 185.

It is far too easy to say something like “90% of any sport is mental.”  It has, after all, become a well-worn sports cliche to talk about the “mental game.”  The truth is that it is always mental.  We have nothing else.  I also don’t mean to suggest that anything we can think of we can accomplish, or any other stupid and cheesy motivational poster piety.  Like many, I still tend to think in that Cartesian mind/body split, where my body takes care of all the physical, while my mind deals with the more important matters.  But there really isn’t a ghost in the machine.  The ghost is the machine.

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Teaching Abroad

I’m currently buried in papers and exams to grade. but I am so excited by the latest news that I decided to jump back to my sadly neglected blog and talk about it a little.  A couple of months ago I ran into one of my friends from another department on campus and he was bubbling over with his latest plan to teach a course on Irish film next year at our school’s study abroad program.  He suggested that I look into the possibility of teaching a course myself.  Naturally, I loved the idea, so I contacted the campus coordinator for the program.

Every year we offer short term study in January and May as well as full semester programs in Dingle, Ireland.  I met with the coordinator today, and I will be teaching a course in Old Irish literature next May.  It’s a two week program, with many opportunities for field trips and visits with guest scholars and speakers.  We will be able to see archaeological sites and get a very real taste of the scenes I’ll be teaching.  We will be reading, for example, Brendan’s Navigatio, and Brendan was born just a little east of there in Tralee, so we will have some geographical points of reference for the story.

It gets even better, though.  The faculty stay in small cottages separate from the school, both so we don’t infringe on the fun of the students’ pub crawls and so their pub crawling doesn’t infringe on our sleep.  I can have guests stay with me, so Dorothy will fly out and stay during the second week of class, and then we will go off to see more of Europe after the class is over.  Right now we’re thinking about going to London for a few days and then hopping over to Paris for a few more.  If I can teach the class again in a couple of years, we’ll go visit other places, like Edinburgh, Vienna, and Rome.   I can’t wait–this is going to be so much fun.

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Scenes from Campus

Setting:  An annual campus social event.

Dramatis Personae:  Hobgoblin, Biology Friend (who also went up for tenure this year)

BIO FRIEND:  Hey!  How are you?

HOB:  Good!  How about you?  [Shaking hands.]

BF:  Good.

There is a short silence as the two look at each other carefully.

HOB:  So you’re good?

BF:  Yes.  And you?

HOB:  Good.

BF [looking out of the corner of his eyes]:  Hmmm…how good?

HOB [Grinning]:  Really good.  You?

BF [Grinning back]:  Yeah, really good.

They shake again and laugh the laugh of the recently tenured.

Cut to another part of the same event.  HOBGOBLIN is standing next to the hors d’oeuvres table.  The university VICE PRESIDENT approaches.

VP [Extending his hand]: I want to offer my congratulations.

HOB:  Thank you.  I’m very happy and very relieved.

VP: I have a very funny and touching story about one of your students.

HOB:  Oh, really?

VP:  I teach a class on Mondays, and one of your students, a girl named Brittany, is in it.  She came up to me Monday, very timidly, and said that she and many of her friends were very concerned about you.  She said, “You aren’t going to be the one to call him, are you?”

HOB [Laughing]:  Oh no! [He blushes, remembering he told his students that the VP calls with bad news but the President with good news.]

VP:  I said to her, “Well, I can’t really divulge any information, but I can tell you this: I don’t know if he’s received his call yet.”  That satisfied her.  [He laughs again and shakes his head.]  So you should know, your students really do care about you.

HOB:  Thank you.  They are a good group.


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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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Happy Solstice

Because all dogs are pagans, Muttboy would like to wish everyone a Happy Solstice, one day early.


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For the past several days, I’ve felt very tired and achy, with chills hitting me every hour or so.  Then I had a fever that spiked somewhere around 101 degrees.  My knees hurt.  My back hurts.  My head really hurts.  I went to the doctor today and she diagnosed me with Lyme disease.  It’s not terribly surprising, really, considering how much time I spend in the woods around here.  Muttboy has had Lyme twice this year alone, so I am very much overdue for my own bout with the ticks.

It is not a lot of fun, and it is a particularly bad time of year to get sick, what with hundreds of papers to grade and a semester to wrap up.  If I can just make it through the next two weeks or so, I’ll be fine.

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Just What I Needed

I’ll probably write more about the Blogger meeting in NYC, but first I need to tell you about my books.  We met at the Hungarian Pastry Shop before heading downtown to The Strand.  If you haven’t been to The Strand, well, I’m terribly sorry for you.  It is a huge bookstore (18 miles of books) with lots of old books, new review copies at half price, and other deeply discounted books.  After a late lunch, we headed even farther downtown to the Mysterious Bookshop, one of the best mystery bookstores around.

Here is what I dragged home;

  • James Fenimore Cooper: The Early Years, by Wayne Franklin.  This book was only half price, so I had to grab it.  I’d been looking for it for the past several months because it really is a crucial book for someone in my position.  Plus, I’ve met Franklin at some Cooper gatherings.
  • The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman.  I read the first couple of chapters on the train home, and it is a fascinating book.  The book speculates, using scientific analysis and a lot of imagination, what the earth would look like if humans suddenly disappeared.
  • The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth, by E. O. Wilson.  I remember wanting this when it came out a couple of years ago, and since the hardcover was only six bucks, I grabbed it.  It is a plea for the earth’s biodiversity and environment meant to cut across the cultural boundaries that needlessly, foolishly make some people think they cannot be environmentally conscious.  I might use this in my freshman honors seminar next year.
  • The Last Man, by Mary Shelley.  I am embarrassed to admit that I did not know anything about this book.  It appears to be a future dystopia, one of my favorite genres, so I had to buy it.
  • Notre-Dame de Paris, by Victor Hugo.  I’ve been planning to get this book for a long time, and a bargain-priced Oxford convinced me.
  • Resurrection Men, by Ian Rankin.  I’ve been reading Rankin lately, and I like him a lot.  This DI Rebus mystery comes right after The Falls, which I read for my mystery book club.
  • The Maltese Manuscript, by Joanne Dobson.  I took several classes from Joanne, and I have the first four books in the series (in hardcover, autographed), so I had to get this one to complete my set.

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A Good Day

Obama Pictures and McCain Pictures

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I just returned from an academic conference in Massachusetts.  I was not presenting a paper this time, which made for a different sort of conference experience: a conference without the anxiety of performance, where I could feel like an insider and outsider at the same time.  Because I am an area chair, I had to select paper proposals and invite presenters, and, once the conference started, I had to chair my panel.  The focus is never on the chairs, so my only worries are about making sure the AV equipment works correctly and hoping that a couple of people will wander into the session, so it is not just the presenters and me sitting there. The organizers had arranged for a musician to perform after the first sessions ended Friday night, so we got to listen to Cape Breton Celtic fiddler Kimberley Fraser, who was very talented.  I bought her CD and got her to sign it for me.

The topics presented at the conference ranged widely across many different academic disciplines, providing an opportunity to find something of interest.  I realized that professional academics, like the students we teach, have very widely varying talents.  The presentations in my panel were both interesting, well-done, and professional.  I sat in on another panel where the papers were mostly interesting, but the presentations were a little flat, and the writing not especially scintillating.  I wish scholars would realize that the obscure references to meticulously fastidious points of theory, while they may be important and significant in a written work, do not soar in an oral presentation.  I, too, appreciate Fredric Jameson, but by the fourth reference, my eyes began to glaze over.

This was not the most egregious difficulty, however.  In fact, academic conferences typically feature more obscure references per mile than anything outside of a monograph proudly trumpeting its allegiance to the Frankfurt school.  No, my most tedious experience was listening to the most disjointed, rambling, incoherent thing I have ever had to sit through without the power to grade it at the end.  The scholar began reading her paper, but for some reason gave up on that about a page into it and just started talking, apparently about whatever vaguely related thought popped into her head.  I was so embarrassed for her, I could not make eye contact, and started writing on my little yellow pad to make it look like I was paying attention and following along.  Here is what I wrote:

What is she saying?  She appears to be rambling & doing a lot of plot summary & only makes passing references to crticis or any other sort of analysis.  Jumping from bbiographical material and back to plot summary gets very confusing.  Does she have any idea at all of what it is she is trying to say?  I have no idea where she is going with this.  Is there a thesis here?  Is there any clear, sustained argument?  She appears to be making this up as she goes along.  I do not understand what point she is trying to make & it is driving me crazy!!  What is the point of the maps [she projected images of maps for no reason at all]?  How does the pilgrimage relate?  Why is the culture significant?  I do not see her point!  Ramble ramble ramble.

The panel chair, peace be upon her, managed somehow to find some sort of question to ask the woman at the end of her presentation.  Fortunately, we ran out of time before the silence became unbearable.  What a mess, though.

The high point of the trip was the chance to meet with one of my former students.  I had not seen her in a couple of years, and, even though we keep in touch on e-mail, it was very good to sit down across the table from her and have a real conversation.  She was, without doubt, my favorite student of all time, and has become a very good friend since the first time she sat in my classroom almost five years ago.  As a bonus, she is, naturally, a true book geek, and we hit a couple of her favorite bookstores before going out to get something to eat.  Clearly, the basic requirement to become my friend is to cherish a love of small bookstores.

I picked up four books:  Tara French’s In the Woods (my friend’s recommendation), Chet Raymo’s The Path, Charles Norhoff and James Norman Hill’s Men Against the Sea, and Jed Rubenfeld’s The Interpretation of Murder.

Going to conferences is a bit of a pain, but the way this trip ended made up for that.

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