Sunday, February 22, 2009

She's a beauty, eh?

My Canadian girlfriend.

Remember the Adam Sandler skit from SNL some time in the mid '90's--the one about the game show for High School liars? The kid has an alleged Canadian girlfriend, parties with Eddie Van Halen, etc, all of course on vacation and out of verifiable range of his peers.

I have a Canadian girlfriend. No, really, she's awesome. She writes books, is finishing her PhD, she's beautiful and brilliant, hell she even rides a bike. I know, sounds like I made her up, right?
Well I didn't, she's real, and I'm lucky.

But the Canadians, they struggle with irony, you see. They're a sincere bunch, and I say that to their credit. I am constantly teasing Charmaine about her inability to lie convincingly, so clearly gleeful and giggly does she become any time she begins to successfully, as the Brits say, take the piss. I have, however, been had.

This past week we got into a conversation about what constitutes good music to work out to, specifically for riding bikes on indoor trainers. I am a life long musician, I play guitar and mandolin, I compose, I sing, I have spent a long time studying music in various forms. As a kid I was in punk rock and hardcore bands, I devoted myself to jazz for a period of years before totally burning myself out; I play Old Time Appalachian music--diverse is a fair word to use to describe my record collection. I really don't think there is much to be gained by trying to correct a person's aesthetic choices, really. As Duke Ellington said "if it sounds good, it is good". I do think, though, that there are some fairly empirical do's and dont's when it comes to workout music, mainly having to do with tempo, energy level, aggression, groove factor and general ability to make you want to move, try, sweat and be distracted from the business of trying real hard on a bike that don't move.

The girl, she begin to give me the eye, yes? She begin do you say? Take the piss. No hardcore, she says; no post-hardcore Emo, no Samiam, no nothin'. No metal, no cruncha-cruncha, no rockin' out with angst. Rod Stewart, we both agreed, is awesome (I will fight for Rod, don't talk shit.) But I maintain that there is good, and then there is good and suitably aggro for working out to. She remained unconvinced. The tension mounted. It was clear that this was not, for either of us, a free-to-be-you-and-me moment, but a moment of stark choices: a potentially relationship-defining moment.

Then she hit me -

Lionel Ritchie: Dancing On The Ceiling.

It took me a week to find out whether she was messing with me or not. She was. Chapeau. Canada - 1 : USA - 0


Thursday, February 19, 2009


Not up there, but around you, me.

"I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America"
--Charles Olson Call Me Ishmael

No surprise I find myself thinking about space given my studies of Charles Olson's poetry and essays of late. Better still, I discovered a bit of a missing link for myself between early 20th century pedagogue and guru of progressive education, John Dewey, and Olson's geographic language art borne of the individual's movement through space.

Says Dewey "The unity of all the sciences is found in geography. The significance of geography is that it presents the earth as the enduring home of the occupations of man. The world without its relationship to human activity is less than a world." - from "The School and the Society".

Also in my mind is Michele de Certeau's The Practice of Everyday Life particularly the essay "Walking in the city". What I think of, more so than the act of an individual moving through urban space becoming textual--the individual inscribed up on the landscape and the landscape shaping the individual--is the way I have come to relate to space through life on a bicycle. Though I suppose it's the same thing.

In many ways I feel like I didn't really know the area in which I live until I started riding bikes seriously. Things are both much nearer and much farther than I had imagined them to be, more accessible and less, too. The immediacy of the Self to art, to politics, to society at large, as experience by the pedestrian is what de Certeau is getting at. From the perspective of the cyclist, though, it is different yet again in that the physiological transformation that equates to greater fitness allows spatial relationships between geographic points to become diminished. So my world is larger as a competitive cyclist in that I can ride my bike from Albany, NY to visit my brother in Northampton, MA, for instance--a ride of roughly 85 miles--and at the same time it is smaller. Smaller in the sense that an average day's training ride has the potential to bridge a social and emotional distance, and larger because what this amounts to is a choice. And choice amounts to social mobility.

What I feel I am moving closer to, as I move closer towards completing my current degree, and as I commit myself to an ever-greater training load on the bike, is some sense of cogency of self. How do I find myself, musically, athletically, intellectually, mapped throughout the space I inhabit? And how can I move toward living some harmonious balance of these elements of self as a practice?

I have been thinking a lot about the necessity of public education as a means toward social mobility and fluidity of social roles, thanks to Dewey. And thinking, of course of space from Olson.

I sit and wonder what I want to be when I grow up, when it will make itself apparent to me, and there is some self-satisfaction in realizing a personal and developmental, as well as a sort of proto-professional connection between my bike racing and my love of/belief in education via literature.

An American

is a complex of occasions,

themselves a geometry

of a spatial nature.

I have this sense,

that I am one

with my skin

Plus this-plus this:

that forever the geography

which leans in

on me I compell

backwards I compell Gloucester

to yield, to



is this

--Charles Olson, from Maximus to Gloucester, Letter 27 [Withheld]
(forgive the formatting, Blogger doesn't like the tab key)

For the cyclocross folk among you, the significance of Gloucester will not be lost. Olson's life's work was grounded in the geography of Gloucester, this poem from the perspective of Stage Fort park, where we race each October.

And it's a rest week. After 20 hours and 500+k on the road last week my body needs a little bit of rest. So this week I am mostly at home with my daughter who is on school vacation. The weather is shiite, I ride the trainer. I think the trainer is something of an antithesis to all of this mapping of self through space. It's like an intellectual and artistic vacuum.



Sunday, February 8, 2009

Man in Motion

Me, that is.

In motion on my bike. 17 hours this week, all but 90 minutes of it out on the road, as opposed to the trainer, capped off with a rollickingly windy 4 hours today around Southeast Ontario while I'm up here at C's folks. This past Friday afternoon was the toughest one yet--it was 18 degrees when I left the house and had only warmed up to about 21 when I got back 4&1/2 hours and 120k later. I didn't used to have the sack for that.

It's not like 17 hours on the bike is all that much, really, but for me, for the first week of February, it's a lot. And it feels like more than that because it has been accompanied by generally good sleep habits, better food habits, and pretty damn good study habits, as well. Killing it is a strong term, and I'm not sure if I'm killing it, but I'm certainly wrestling it...It.

Every Spring I intend to ride monstrously big weeks of base miles, and every year I fall short, get excited by the Spring training races, start doing intervals and racing in early or mid March on a barely adequate base after a not long enough layoff following cyclocross season, and every year I get fast, race well for a bit, and then get tired in May or June. The rest of the season is typically spent watching my resting heat rate rise, feeling fatigued and wishing for a do-over. Somewhere in there I usually race God Forsaken Fitchburg and that tends to hurt more than it helps. Last year I really overcooked it and the fact that I was able to salvage any kind of 'cross season at all is likely thanks to the two weeks I took off from any training at all in early September. Unfortunately, that should have been when I was putting the finishing touches on my Fall form, and I found myself playing catch up all season once again.

This year I have really committed to doing things differently and for now that looks like 4&1/2 hour rides even if it's only 21 degrees outside. Wahoo. I'm also going to delay the start of my racing until the very end of March or possibly early April, which seems late but is having the effect of making me very relaxed at the moment.

See, the start of every racing season is akin to flipping an hourglass, for me. And every Friday night of changing tires and cleaning bikes, laundering kits and making PB&J sandwiches; every Saturday of waking up early, weekends of no schoolwork attended to, weeks without talking to non-racing all ads up. And as much as I love the crazy whirlwind nomadism of my racing life, I need to sit still (see earlier post on focusing) and fill my tanks for a couple of months. So right now, I feel like I am in the best possible place: I am really motivated and really excited about racing, I have only been training for 3 weeks, and I have a solid 4 or 5 more weeks of piling on the base miles before I need to feel obligated to time a single interval. And if (when, dammit) I follow through? If I stack up 3, 20 to 25 hour weeks the last three weeks in March? I could...well who knows what I can do. Maybe a little, maybe a lot. But I feel like I owe it to myself to find out, and that's the point. This year I plan to.

It's nice to feel like I finally know my body, too. I started this adventure as a heavy, recent ex-smoker simply looking to fashion myself into a body I could live comfortably in. And today I have been noticing how my metabolism is changing once again, making its annual transformation toward more efficient fat-burning, leaning out. And all of this breeds confidence so, no power data this year, no complicated software, just me and a heart rate monitor and a degree of confidence and focus I haven't had before.

I can't wait to see what happens.

Zoom-zoom, see y'all at the races. Kenda/Spooky/NCC is gonna be on it!!


Friday, February 6, 2009

Facebook in Focus: Some Thoughts on Learning how to Learn.

This will be long, and it is more musing than argument, more reflection than rhetorical performance. If that sort of thing is irksome for you, or if you like whizz-bang conclusions and "points" and stuff, well, this may not be the post (or the blog) for you.

I have been thinking a lot this week on the schism between the rhetorically celebrated, as opposed to the actually demonstrated values of American life. In particular I've been thinking about the role of education in society and the extent to which it is devalued and viewed as only a means to an end, that end being the accumulation of more dollars. Yes, of course more dollars are important, and I realize that, from some perspectives, critiquing the pursuit of wealth as an end unto itself might seem a hopelessly privileged stance. But it seems pretty clear that the accumulation of wealth hasn't given America its dream back, right? What I hope for from public education is that it can do something in the way of improving the right now--the immediate circumstances--of enough people that lasting change, critical-of-the-status-quo change, is possible. Obama seems like a good start.

It's a little bit hard to justify--in some respects, anyway--wanting to set out into the world as an English teacher. The idea of divining meaning from books and teaching writing in an increasingly digital and impersonalized world of truncated communications seems kind of quaint sometimes. And I occasionally get all insecure and think that people like my friend Marco and his f&!#$%g independent study in linear algebra (Sheesh...) are the really smart ones...because they are, but that ain't the point.

The thing that has begun to be most central to my thoughts these days regarding the importance of teaching, in the Humanities in particular, is the simple and difficult process of learning to focus. And in a sometimes indirect, sometimes not sort of way, I think that blogging, Facebook and digital socializing in general contribute to this, even as we practice these modes of communication in a distracting medium that is constantly reminding us that there is something else we could be doing, something else to watch.* Despite the fact that the default mode of communication through instantly available means--chat, Facebook, text-messaging, etc--is abbreviated, non-unique and in many ways lacks the personality of person-to-person speech, there are happenings like the recent "25 things" chain letter on Facebook that really offer an opportunity for composing one's self, literally, in an extended, written format. The opportunity to deliberate on what you write, and yet to experience the relatively instant gratification of friends' comments and such is great, and I think it is one of the things hinting at online social utilities actually beginning to live up to their name. The sense of community on Facebook has been a little more intimate this past week.

Obviously this is a choice, and OMG the reality of, like, wait brb.....ok, umm what was I saying? Oh yea, got 2 run, wcb l8r. Sure, we can do that if we want to. Or we can read one another, our profiles, pictures, notes, preferences and status updates, like we would any other text, and be changed in the process. Changed not only personally but as a member of a social group, learning collectively and from each other that there is room in our busy days to reflect, to emote, to celebrate, to compose.

The reason I think this is important, and the reason I think it belongs in a conversation about education is that the opportunities for extended reading and writing--long form written interactions--are becoming fewer and fewer in many areas of modern life. There is an "efficiency" expected of work-related communication and even social messaging that is the death of creative speech acts. And, back to focus, I really believe that the opportunity for complex, frustrating, time-consuming thought presented by textual learning is a singularly important aspect of learning to focus and to analyze. The moment of aporia, of not getting it; the experience of experiencing yourself, with a book, being confused*, is the foundation of research skill, and more complex thought. It is the initial hurdle of understanding one's self as a learner. Removing the time-consuming and sometimes frustrating parts of the process of textual learning from that process is like removing the sore muscles from weight lifting. I think there is a real danger in becoming so accustomed to understanding what we read and having our own ready answers so quickly that true understanding of complex subject matter, which takes time, is endangered.

Learning is slow, it takes time. And I think that to a certain extent the deeply ingrained strain of American anti-intellectualism points to a seemingly irreconcilable tension between the capitalist drive for efficiency and the need for the individuals learning how to function as members of that system to sit still long enough to understand their roles in society and the broader implications thereof.

I struggle all the time, in a cage match with my inner Calvinist sort of way, with the notion of thought-labor. I get restless and develop niggling, guilty inner narratives about what I ought to be doing instead of reading and writing for work as a grad student. I never felt the need to justify my labor to myself as a fry cook, or dishwasher, or day-laborer or counselor, because I was preoccupied with the business of task performance. And when engaged in the business of task performance, it is really easy to be duped into thinking you're actually up to something.

One of my favorite teacher quotations comes from Mary Rose O'Reilly in her book The Peaceable Classroom where she describes her pedagogical philosophy as having derived from the moment she asked herself the question: is it possible to teach English so that people will stop killing each other? Any attempt, sincere or theoretical to answer the question rhetorically is beside the point. The question makes meaning for each new class, each new assignment, each new act of service. I haven't found my mission statement yet, but I want to believe, in fact may be coming to believe, that teaching focus--teaching the ability to sit still with new, uncomfortable, hard-to-reconcile-with-what-you-already-know sorts of information--may in fact be one of the more direct means toward bringing a pedagogy of personal and communal reflectivity-toward-change into the world.

Thanks for reading,


* Statements marked with an asterix are conceptually attributable to Richard E. Miller. Many of my thoughts on the subject of focus as an educational value, and on what Miller calls the New Humanities stem from presentations I have heard Miller give or participate in. Such is the inspirational character of conferences, when they're flowing well, that one idea gets hard to distinguish from the next. So I have attempted to credit Miller for the bits of my thoughts on these various subjects that seem more or less directly attributable.