Wednesday, November 27, 2013

For All of This

My cat loves me. For that I am grateful.

Kind people populate my days. I have enough income to buy food, have a roof, and educate my sons.

I do not fear for their lives when they walk the streets at night. I don't have to listen for mortar shells falling from the sky while I sleep.

I do not spend my days asking if there are openings or whether or not businesses are taking applications. I have enough money in my pockets for a burrito whenever I want one, which is a little too often. I have a nice cushion around my middle. 

I have not been displaced by events beyond my control, but have been free to migrate for work and play.

I am not tied to an IV pole. My body is not in constant pain. I can hear people when they talk to me, look them in the eyes, decide how best to respond. My brain can focus and gives me too much to think about. My heart seeks connection.

I do not have to join the indigent because I can't pay hospital bills.

I have not been robbed or been the victim of crime for a long time. I do not fear that I will be raped, nor do I stay in at night for dread of harassment. I walk around stores and clerks smile at me rather than follow me. I would make the perfect shoplifter.

I only get punched playing soccer, and injured riding my bike. I accept the risks.

And no, I am not a Republican. I do not take credit for my good fortune. I know that I am privileged beyond what many of my brothers and sisters on this planet can imagine.

My heart longs for companionship, meaningful work, affection, and peace. I love the longing. I still know desire.

I feel that I can act, that my limitations are as much mine as outside of me.

Social structures impede me no less than anyone else. I have been told I can do whatever I want.

I am not a slave.

I am not incarcerated.

I know that I am not free unless I help others to be more free. 

I get to consume. My choices matter in a small way. My dollar can be a vote for quality, responsibility, and fairness.

I know that I am brainwashed by advertising, that I judge others by what they wear, how they talk, when they are selfish pricks. But I know that they are not just their actions and mistakes. That it is not my place or power to find fault with anyone other than myself, that I only have power over my own actions and attitude.

I know the 12 steps.

I know that I have f*&$ed up big time in my life, and I have many amends to make.

I am human and alive for a little while.

I will remember.

For all of this, I am grateful. 

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Keep Moving

I leave the truck door slightly ajar so the dome light will stay on. I put on my cycling shoes and peel off all the extra layers of warmth before re-entering the rain. The streets are slick and dimpled with raindrops. Light from the streetlights gives the darkness a shimmering aspect.

As I unload the bike, I feel the first cold drops run down my back. Surrender to being wet, I say to myself.

And I will be wet, totally wet, until afternoon. But I won't be cold because I will be working, making my own heat, a rolling furnace.

I hop on the bike and it feels good and right. We fly down Sixth Avenue toward the start of El Tour de Tucson. I roll through rivers of runoff. The spray traces the stripe up my back that will be filled in as the day goes on.

I am riding with Team Colleen. We are domestiques for a stage four lung cancer patient, Micheal Ferlen. He will be on a tandem with Darien Newman, a super strong captain. Michael is no slouch either. Before his diagnosis, he finished a full iron man -- 2.2 mile swim, 110 mile bike, and full marathon. He is a tough dude.

We meet and line up in the rain in the platinum group. Others -- Reg, Scott, Ben, John, Todd, Elliot, all gather to finalize the plan. These are elite cyclists, and I don't really belong in the group. They are professional, some of them champions of state, or even world, in their disciplines and age groups. I will do my best to hang.

We will ride out fast, but not so fast as to contest the front, where crashes are more likely.

The start proves to be fast and the rain covers the roads with a glistening film. Rooster tails of spray fly off the rear wheels. We have to ride to the sides to avoid water in the eyes. I lower my glasses so I can see over them but under the brim of my cap. I taste grit and get it in my eyes. But we roll and protect the tandem as groups jockey and settle into a rhythm.

Scott and John lead while the rest of us keep open space around the tandem, blocking other riders who might crowd it as we roll south into the wind. Michael hunkers down and jams on the pedals as we move along at 20 -- 24 miles an hour.

After forty miles or so, we pass the Saguaro National Park and head down Freeman Road. The tandem is a rocket on the downhills and we follow it in a tight line, cutting wakes through runoff, rooster tails flying off the wheels.

Then we turn west on Speedway. After several water-filled dips, John hits a hole and goes down. I wobble when he bumps me but don't lose my balance. Todd, too, hits the deck, hard. Michael and Darien and several others are ahead and keep rolling.

Several of us stop to check on John and Todd, who are up but hurting. I see torn jackets on elbows, shoulder, and hip. Hands work; elbows bend; wheels still turn. They decide to continue, but slowly for a while. The rest of us -- Elliot, Ben, and the other John -- chase the main group. Ben and Todd catch the tandem at the Sabino crossing, but I fall off the back and don't see them again.

I ride hard and alone for the next 40 miles. Just as I top the climb on Tangerine, my chain jams between the cassette and the frame. The lock-ring for the cassette is stripped and unfixable. I can't ride, can't walk, and am stranded. I look at the seven mile long downhill ahead and know that it will have to wait another day. 

My day is finished when my rear wheel seizes up about 82 miles in.

After some well chosen profanity, I give it up and begin to shiver. it gets worse over the next hour. I want to keep moving, but have a broken bike and shoes that are useless for walking in the mud.

Friends Kathleen and Tim drive by on a mission to deliver hot chocolate to stranded riders, see me, stop and offer me a ride.

I heard that Michael finished, that John is OK, and that the rain only made the ride more memorable.

I am left with knowing that I did what I could, that I am grateful to friends, and that I stay warm as long as I am moving.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Flushed With Possibility

Rain is coming to the desert. Rejoice. And dig in. The timing will affect all kinds of events this weekend -- the Fall Festival at Megan's school, a memorial service, and El Tour de Tucson. Wind will likely accompany the rain. Wind, rain, low temps. It will be a long hundred and ten miles. The pre-ride pucker meter is in the high end of red. Good and flushed.

I hate to say it, but I like it. This will be an "interesting" day. It certainly has people buzzing with anxiety and a sudden desire for neoprene booties.

Pull out the rug of routine and the adrenaline starts flowing. Given the uncertainty, I have to adjust expectations. If they are low, I won't be disappointed, as they say. But having a vision that holds anything as possible can't hurt.

So here is the mantra: May the rubber grip in the corners, and the wind be warm, if in my face. May the food be tasty and the road grime out of the eyes. May the glasses stay unfogged enough to see the wheels in front of me and the pot holes something other than a direct hit. May the clock be kind but honest and my heart valves stay open when necessary, closed when that helps keep things moving.

More than anything, I hope I don't disappoint my companions, that I will pull through in the clutch, be strong when the fatigue moans in cramps. May I bring it all to the table and leave nothing to take home. May I meet and sidestep my fear, looking it square in the eye. May my steed hold together under the mechanical stress and my voice call out hazards in time.

May the day fulfill the vision of limits unraveled, time shared, bonds created, and may satisfaction fill the blood that colors the cheeks. May I throw myself into the fray with all the carbs, electrolytes, and nervous energy in my body and then accept the outcomes, whatever they be. All choices have consequences, after all.

May the world glow with the effort of trying to do it right while knowing that things can go wrong.

The preparations are done, the hay in the barn, the stage set. Time to surrender and let the day live its own life, make its own mistakes, graciously accept its gifts. May I learn from the blush, embarrassed to the core by all my desire.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

There and Then (another rant)

            The left hand turn arrow has been green for several seconds as we enter the left hand turn lane and approach the intersection. It turns yellow just as we enter, so I am in a hurry to complete the turn and exit the no man’s land between lights. A car is following closely, trimming the yellow light a bit too closely.
            Then, there he is, a driver running the red, speeding through the intersection. I see him closely as I apply the brakes -- hard. He does not see me, but looks straight ahead. He is talking, animatedly, on his phone. I doubt he realizes he is running a red light.
            I am exasperated, lay on the horn, and hear the squeal of tires behind me as the following car almost rear-ends us.
            No one collides, this time. No one is hurt, though I am left wondering why it is that we so aggressively pursue distraction, even when we place our own and other lives in peril. The lament has become cliché: drivers are texting, CD jamming, DVDing, I-Podding, reading, crosswording, applying make-up, and generally running from the here-and-now task of driving.
            And this is not limited to driving. The most dangerous stretch of road in Tucson, to my eyes, is the block in front of the Memorial Union at the University of Arizona. Here, pedestrians, cyclists, long-boarders, skateboarders, roller-bladers, Frisbee throwers all walk, run, glide, stroll while wired, plugged in, tuned out, ear-budded, and generally distracted. The result is a kind of unconscious chaos of movement in which collisions are common. A pedestrian was hospitalized last semester after being knocked unconscious by a distracted cyclist. She had to take a medical withdrawal and eventually dropped out entirely.
            In spite of incidents like thins, no one seems to mind.
            I think it raises some questions: Why are we in such a hurry to be distracted, to flee from the reality of the here and now? Why not just focus on what are doing at any given moment and do it well?
            If driving, then focus on driving. If cutting across traffic on the mall, then watch and move mindfully across traffic on the mall.
            I am just as guilty of distracting myself as anyone. I just do so with my old-fashioned brain. It can serve up enough fantasy, worry, and fear to keep me distracted for a lifetime. I have decided to work a bit at quieting the “monkey mind,” as Buddhists like to call it, for the sake of focusing, especially writing.
            As a writing teacher, I am particularly concerned about the social lack of focus. Writing, for me, requires that I observe, or at least pay attention in order to sustain a train of thought. I see students having a harder and harder time doing this. The result is weaker problem solving ability, and shorter attention span.
I admit that this is anecdotal, but do count sometimes. On campus, I sometimes see 60% or more of students either on the phone, texting, or wearing ear phones as they walk to class. They seem unable to stop and continue to do so – in class.
            What is wrong with enjoying the actuality of November in the Sonoran Desert?

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Totally, Like... Dude!

A long time ago, something happened.

Lots of people try to understand it, but nobody does, really. For lack of better words, the smartest among us called it the Big Bang. Light years, billions of billions, dark matter, black holes -- all concepts beyond comprehending, and more, just popped into existence.

Big Bang. I  like that. Simple. Sensory. Kind of mysterious. Something a bored kid would do just to rattle the cage of boredom.

Well, after the BB, things just floated around for awhile, not knowing how to work together. But then they started to flirt and swirl and coalesce into clouds of matter that, miraculously, heated up, then glowed with fusion.

That was incredible in itself, but the universe wasn't done. Far from it.

Atoms started combining to make elements when these globs of gas collapsed in on themselves in catastrophic super novae.

Heat, explosions, flashes visible within billions of other burning clouds hanging out in galaxies forged the building blocks, the elements we now list on the periodic table. One by one, protons built on neutrons to join in cores of atoms, orbited by electrons, with polarities that would allow them to combine with other atoms that would then form molecules.

Then the elements started to circulate through space and collect in new forms. This took a LONG time and the amounts were just traces carried by comets, asteroids, and other astronomical flotsam.

These minute collections of matter, themselves rare and unlikely, found other itinerant matter and formed alliances. These things -- planets -- cooled and orbited new stars. These little guys started to do things of their own.

Against unimaginable odds, the heat and atmosphere and energy catalyzed into yet another system. Within that, atoms "cooperated" in systems that worked together.

In what may be the worst bet ever made, if you were to put money on the odds before it happened, life began.

There, in a remote corner of nowhere, out of nothing, a jewel more rare than the rarest diamond in terms of universal likelihood -- a neuron -- in the first brain, fired. Then an ego formed, and this ego made itself the source and force of all things.

It held tight the passing gift of light and life and grew afraid of losing it.  

It tried to remember a time before fear, before it had grown apart from forces beyond imagining.

Only fragments of stories about the source remained, and they spoke in low voices, in the dark, close to the running river of constant change.

One by one, fingers relaxed into memory, and the hand of mind began to open. As it did, stardust stirred and rubbed sleep from its eyes.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Four Thirty in the Morning -- November

The house is cool, quiet, and dark. To my right, my wife's hair sleeps between my fingers. She slumbers on her side, and I can see her ribs rise and fall with breath.  I want to run my hand along her hip, but decide not to wake her.

Simone, the cat, lies on the other side. She is awake too, and purrs. We keep company in these early hours.

She has stayed close lately. A bobcat took our chickens and gave her notice that the fenced-in yard is not the safe territory it might have seemed before. I come home sometimes, and her hackles are up as she stares through the plastic cat door.

November waits outside for me too. In five days I will ride another El Tour de Tucson. I have lost count, but it has been close to thirty times that I have engaged in this fall ritual that serves as the center axis of my physical life.

Friends I have ridden with are now gone. The ride is reminder of finality, limitation, mortality. And it is full of life, the body operating to its fullest capacity. It is hard for my brain to hold the truth of this paradox, with all of its equally true, contradictory facts. I fear the danger. I love to feel fully alive. The danger seems to grow as the years go on, and my strength begins to wain.

As I sink into the cycling community I see how limited my abilities are. So many have gifts that I will never know. They can sustain intense efforts of high heart rates, and the speeds that go with them, for hours on end. I red-line long before they do and fall off the back. I watch the gap between us build until they are out of sight.

This year, I am part of a group that will serve a cancer patient in what might be his last cycling event. He wants to go fast, and we will help him. He wants to finish with elite level cyclists, the platinum riders, who will ride over a hundred miles in under five hours. I want to help him, but doubt my abilities. I have signed up to do something I may not be able to do.

Fears and worry surface at four thirty for some reason.

Then, there are the other phantoms that want attention. My work as a writer has not been going well. I have not fed the ideas, put in the time, surrendered to the projects in the ways they need to thrive. Time is passing. I know that opportunities are limited. I fear I have let myself and my students down.

Four thirty marks the pivot point of the day. How I frame my role, imagine how it will go, determines, in part what will happen. I am tempted to run away, to go back to sleep.

I know my heart sends these fears as messengers and reminders of what it is that my heart desires. They have grown large because I have missed the mark in how I have acted in the light. In the light, I have avoided these questions because they interfere with the world of rent and work. I have compromised, at best, or betrayed, at worst, my heart's desires for comfort. I am afraid to immerse myself in the restless sea of my life's callings. I have been told too many times that it is impossible, that I have to be practical. Because I can, I believed the in no. 

Here in the quiet darkness the desires some come again to visit. They have not given up.

I have the choice to turn away, to leave the work to someone else, to push aside the questions and to rationalize or distract or hope for a miracle pill, or to turn toward them. They loom large and appear bigger now, in the dark. But it is here where we meet.

Thank you for waking me dear friends, visitors from someplace as necessary to my soul as it is forgotten. 

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Broken Door Handles, Flat Tires, and Other Disasters

He worried the handle. No use. Broken again. Now, he would have to take the truck to work, or maybe his son's car. That would set off a ripple of hardships: no workout or steam after the cupping at the new coffee place. And his wife would miss yoga. She would not let him forget that for a while. Ding dang door. At least the electric window worked, so he could roll it down and open the door from the outside. Stepping out, he saw that the rear tire had gone flat. Have to call the tire warehouse and get that replaced. He still had the receipts. They were nearly new, weren't they. Oh, yeah, and the check engine light came on last night. Now he was really in it. What next? Then there was the charity group meeting and dinner for Fred. Man, this was turning into quite the day. If only people didn't want so much of him. The house, the car, the summer place, the retirement plan -- all of it was getting to him. Keys to the son's car. Leave him a note. Socks don't match. Pants have a shiny spot. What about those circles he sees every morning in the mirror? Have to do something about that. The boss said something about my "getting on" the other day. What did that mean? Cut back on the health insurance now that the boys are almost out of college. He hoped it wouldn't rain. That would change the weekend yard plans. He took his Xanax. The grill needed propane too. And the dog had torn the screen in the porch door. Would the tire place charge for a new tire? And what about the door? He'd have to call about that. Maybe he could do that at the office. If he ever got there. Going to be late now. No time for coffee, or even toast. Too cold for tennis. Would she love him if he lost the job? Where had he gone wrong? What happened to the boy who dreamed as a red sun rose over the cat tails on an October morning, first frost on the stems of dying grasses? 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Discernment (A Meditation in Progress)

Students often ask me if there is a state of mind -- a way of being -- that contributes to writing that adds up to more than the sum of its parts, that cultivates empathy and connection, that conveys a writerly awareness and courage not to look away from unpleasant fact.

They ask, I think, because they have been taught that there is no such thing as a "poetic life," and that writing is all about style, about technique, about playing to your audience, giving it whatever sells.

I think they ask too because they want to know if there is more to writing than producing clean copy for a market hungry for distraction.

They ask what the difference is between writing that serves to manipulate and oppress and writing that empowers and liberates. They ask: To whom do we, as writers, owe allegiance? Who do we serve? Which masters command our talents and minds?

These are tough questions to answer, but if I sit with them, I know that to be effective at writing that meets my criteria for "meaningful writing" I have to write from a place of what I will call truth.

Let me be more specific. This place has moral and ethical overtones that are rooted in my "subjectivity," my inner conscience, my way of understanding things. But that is not to say it is the same as my ego. That is different. Writing primarily for recognition, self gratification, or for ridicule or revenge, all contribute to separation.

This ethical sense is different, and sometimes runs contrary to what "I", this personality likes or wants. This voice is quieter than the rowdy top dogs of sensational entertainment. It is a voice that I hear only when I am alone, when the din of scrambling for a living is on break.

Quiet, solitude, and I might as well add darkness, all help me to hear a voice, not exactly my own, but one that comes through me, that speaks from the peripheries.

To get past the day-to-day, egoic "I", in other words, I have to detach from it, and to inhabit a kind of reflecting, observing location. This is a different I.

This I works at being mindful, pays attention, observes, and then draws on whatever writing repertoire I have amassed over the years to find what will work best for a given situation to create common ground, peaceful dialogue, and owned experience.

The best writing comes from an interplay between inside and out, between emotions and information, between heart and mind. And the experience is primarily an aesthetic one; it involves beauty and truth as well as form and precision.

Laziness is not an option. But free association is. I have to speak junk to find jewels.

I have to learn to ask the right questions and to get past the noise of unrelenting distraction. I have to simultaneously detach and engage, detach from the noise and engage with what matters.

I write to awaken from my dream. 

Mindfulness of the here and now and detachment from the interfering noise. Attention and invitation to join the universal hum of things.

Lately, I have to confess that I have been discouraged. I have lost touch and been slammed with distractions and responsibilities that squeeze out any possibility of focus and quiet..

In these times, I want to throw in the towel, to check out, and give it up. I lose the thread and fall into a narcissistic slump. It is the zone of the walking dead. Zombies, monsters, grotesque expressions of humanity all thrive in noise and separation, bitterness and cynicism, parasitism and advertising. it is entertaining fluff.

But I know that blame is only an excuse. This choice rests with me, and me only. It's an expression of character

What do others say about this?

Well, Pat Conroy, for one, writing about art and basketball in My Losing Season, states that "we [writers] need to be alive in the moment, open to every possibility and configuration, and make that moment yours only, again and again.... I needed to open myself to all the possibilities around me, to hold nothing back, to live in the moment at hand with my art and game on the line." He contends that the sum of all experience comes to bear on choices we make here and now, and that one must be open and alert enough in that moment to receive and then express the right thing at the right time.

Greg Ames, in his short story, "Nothing To Do With Me," describes the world seen through the eyes of a poet as "new and interesting. For once I was really looking at what was going on around me." He sees the details of a "pink gum blob, melted on the sidewalk skillet, clinging in long, delicate strings to a fast-walking business man's wingtips." The act of noticing precedes writing. Paying attention, being present, is part of what makes his writing seductive for his girlfriend.

Luis Urrea talks about "lending attention" and getting a story for your trouble.

The list goes on, and the point that mindfulness accompanies meaningful writing is a message lost in many of my writing classes, where lack of personal engagement reigns.

Writing that comes from and appeals to the noise of the world encourages me-me hungers, fears, and sometimes a violence-prone anger at how things are. The false self lashes out in the belief that that will get what it wants. Domination rather than empathy.

Writing that comes from quiet reflection melts borders and cultivates compassion, presence, intelligence, and acceptance. One learns to live in a crazy world with serenity and curiosity.

So, words are not magic in and of themselves, but if they combine with a focused, open, generous heart that has detached from the egoic fear and greed, they can change the quality of and vibrations of the moment.

They can tell the story that needs to be told, that is whispering in the ears of the writer open and skilled enough to hear it. they wait for the story that serves, that turns the beam of attention onto that which matters in the long-term  interests of the soul.

I wish I could say I acted on this and used my life to shine light on a truth that few care about, but I have not. I have done my best to make a living, have caved in to the desire for security and comfort. I lowered my head and stepped out of the wind.

Knowing that I have not yet arrived or attained my freedom, however, can help derail learned complacency. There is not much time left to leave the small gleanings from this life that I want to leave. I don't want to delay the inevitable or continue to run away from what is, so I might as well open my eyes.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Serving Two Masters (introspection to distress)

Yes, I am skewered with chaos and confusion. My life is out of whack. I am not a happy camper and reside as much in depression and avoidance as in joy and achievement. This pinch between the rock and hard place is not a place to hang out.

It's my fault. I just can't seem to make choices. On the one hand, I want to be healthy, have a community that shares an interest, or, as some say, the same disease. This is the land of serious cycling. On the other, I have agreed to a life of the mind, of letters, of reading and writing.

The problem is that, given my status as a full-time worker bee, each of these requires all of my free time if I am to do them well. (I don't want to do things half-slow or half-fast.)

I love both of them equally in different ways. Each feeds my soul. Each carries its rewards and drawbacks. One provides me with a livelihood, the other a heart throb. One a deeply satisfying creative outlet, the other wind, rain, sun, and rushes of dopamine. In both I feel at home at times, outside myself, suspended in time, realized. Yet they compete with each other for time and attention.

I feel like Solomon holding a child in the air, knife poised.

If I were really good at one of these, that might help with the choice, but I am fair to middlin writer and a so-so cyclist. This is personal. (Well, maybe it is between me and God, but I can't go there.)  

If I could just sit here and not make any choices, I would do that forever. But the tension is wearing me out, sapping my days of energy, banging a tin cup on the bars of its urgency. Time is always tight and I am aware that it is running out. My body an brain both are retreating faster than glaciers in this age of climate change.

If I want to do something with either of these, I need to act, and soon. commitment and focus and follow through all require sacrifice and energy.

So what do I do?

I guess for now I'll just go teach and then follow my feet as they take the rest of me into the next moment. And the choice may be made for me by fate or circumstance.

More practically, I need to juggle and move back and forth. Expect nothing. Show up and do what you can and want and let the results follow.

Beneath both of these lies the demon born in my childhood -- fear of loss. I don't want to do what I love for fear of failing and losing. There it is. My passion is starving because I strangle it with my fear. That is the monster under the bed and perhaps the real master.

The Mountain Bike Racer (Fiction -- sort of...)

           The "A" line was a risk, but he took it. It led straight down the nasty incline and was laced with hazards: cracks that could trap a front wheel, ledges that might stall forward movement, and drop-offs that might buck a rider forward into space. It was the path of broken bones but also of speed.
         As he approached, the path appeared above the lip of the outcrop of granite. Too late to bail he thought to himself, stretching his arms to full length and dropping his butt off the back end of the saddle.
         The line was steep and let the bike drop into a descent along the primitive, harshly sharp granite wall. From this point of entry there could be no retreat. As the front wheel fell away over the lip, he could feel the rear un-weight and threaten to rise forward, potentially throwing man and machine into a cartwheel down an unforgiving slope of naked rock. He feathered the brakes so the front would not lock up and pitch him forward. He sat further back and dropped his butt down lower, almost scraping on the rear tire as his abdomen rested on the seat. This was it, the balance point, beyond which any steeper angle of descent would toss him into space.
            The bike rolled forward, the front fork absorbing the impacts of ledges, and he steered clear of the wide fissures running down the ramp; he kept the bike and rider from stalling.
            Now he could see the line around the steepest section and took it, nailing the curve perfectly as the rock leveled out onto the packed dirt of the trail. He could hear others behind him clicking out of their pedals, shouldering the bikes and making their way down the drop on foot, sliding when their cleats caused them to lose purchase on the exposed edges of stone.
            He caught his breath and settled back into his rhythm, cutting through the tight curves of the fast, rolling, packed trail. He cut the corners close, just missing the overhanging cholla that, if touched, could attach itself to his shoulder or knee and burn there with its spines that pulled the skin in a tug-of-war, stretching it too many directions to easily dislodge.
           Finally, it was just the trail, the line of the trail, and his breathing as he hunted for the zone, the zone that would heighten the dangers and his reflexes, would let him breathe through the pain rising and falling in his neck, his triceps, the burning in his legs. He had to move fast, that much was a given, but better, he had to move as fluidly and gracefully as water running through a gauntlet of boulders.
            Yes, it was here that he was at home, oddly and paradoxically, moving, at speed, dizzy with exhaustion and endorphins. He could see nothing but the trail in front of him, hear nothing but his breath and the pounding of his blood in his ears, feel nothing but the desert terrain traveling through the aluminum of the bike frame in the form of shocks to his hands, wrists, feet, and butt. His body shook as it absorbed the vibrations, muscle flapping slightly in spite of being tensed to control the trajectory of ground flight along the desert crust.
            He thought of nothing in particular, but scraps of love, longing, and loss drifted in and out of his awareness. Sometimes the world faded behind the insistent drone of necessity and became a kind of harmony. He could see his life in perspective. It made more sense. This was the moment, the ongoing moment of utter focus and presence. The here-and-now communed with the passion of pushing hard against the terrain, the wind, and gravity. He almost caught something so elusive as to be ineffable, but there it was, just out of reach, the fulfillment of a contract written sometime before birth, signed in his DNA.

            He chewed away at the miles and lost track of time. The angry gnawing in his belly told him that he had been out for a while – an hour? Two? It didn’t matter. As he progressed he noticed spectators along the edge of the trail. He was approaching the finish. Cowbells clanged and women leaned in toward the trail, eyes behind him, looking through him for their lovers. He pushed hard and nobly. The chute grew large as he closed in on it and then it was done.
            He wheeled the bike out of the lane of finishers and bent over the bars to breathe. The air came hard. He was more tired now than on the bike. He knew he had not won and no one was waiting for him at the finish, so he walked his bike away from the flags, banners, and time clocks back into the solitude of the road where his ancient Subaru wagon waited.
            Spiffy SUVs with expensive racks, windows and bumpers covered with the exotic, splashy, mountain bike decals, lined the road leading up to the staging area. The long line vehicles stretched over a rise in the road and reappeared where the road rose again, further toward the vanishing point, beads on an undulating wire, shrinking into the distance. He ruminated on the how the numbers of people had grown over the last few years, at how the races were more professional, high-end, increasingly exclusive, with higher entry fees and more corporate sponsors.
He reveled in the euphoria that followed any hard ride, the glow of muscles that have worked hard but now got to rest. Hey old paint he said to the sway-backed wagon as he unlocked the door and threw his helmet onto the passenger seat.
            Then it was business. He flipped open the skewer of his front wheel, popped it off and lifted the frame onto the fork mount on his roof. He could do this in his sleep and he liked the mechanical efficiency of his task. The front wheel joined the helmet in the cockpit of the wagon before he lifted open the hatch to extract some clean clothes for the trip home. He sponged off with some camp soap and rinsed with cold water from a jug he placed on the bumper. The cotton shirt and cargo shorts felt good as he re-entered the anonymity of everyday costume: he was now just another guy on the road, heading home, back to life.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

On the Spot

Well, today might be the day it gets out. I am scheduled to give a presentation for which I am unprepared and unable to prepare. It's one of these lecture format things, and I am the one who is supposed to talk.

I can't get a handle on what to present, how to organize it, or where to take it. The body of information is chaotic in my head, overwhelming. I just want it to go away. But it won't. Plus my socks don't match.


I have known about this for seven months and planned to work on it over the summer. I even brought the books to New Mexico. But, of course, I did not, and left the books there.

Then I was going to work on it when I had free time this semester. You know how that goes.

I will try my best to get through, to hide it for another day.

It's a losing battle that I don't fight, but rather slide into by default. I don't know what else to do.

I will walk into the room filled with graduate students later this afternoon. They will be sitting obediently, just a bit surly at being required to attend a large group presentation. The fluorescent lights will shine just a bit too brightly.

The scene will all soon fade into a dream that I entered with eyes straight ahead wondering how it would go. 

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Solstice At the Prison

Standing in the cold, beneath a half moon, wind blowing from the north, waiting for a bus, Dick and I make small talk. I want to tell him I am in awe if what he does with the inmates in the writing workshop. He would not think it appropriate and would shrug it off. We are carrying empty plastic tubs. When we came in, they were full of books, pads, pens, and magazines.

Dick’s hair has grown out and started to curl. It’s the color of a baby’s, the lightest shade red hair can have; but Dick is no baby. He has been at this for a long time.

We met earlier tonight in the parking lot in front of the Main Gate at the Arizona State Prison Complex in Tucson. He gave me the heavier of the two tubs, explaining that he had pulled muscle along his rib cage and could not breathe all that well. We make small talk as we pass through the metal detectors and then entered the sally port. We had badges from our photos and names and expiration dates. A bus wearing a sign for Santa Rita sped, an apparition out of the darkness, and screeched to a stop. It exhaled hot air as the doors opened and an inmate greeted us.

The race with invisible competitors began and I hung on to my tub, glad that I had seat. A barren, raked plain streaked past the windows, white under the moon.

Santa Rita’s doors are right next to the bus stop making it look more like a hospital than a prison. We entered and were let in to the visitors room through electric doors. The lighting was bad, but the tables were set up in orderly pattern, on the diagonal, with plastic chairs.

“You think we could get more light?” I asked, noticing that about half of the inmates would be sitting in the dark.

Dick tried the switch. All of the lights went out. He turned it back on. They stayed off. “Oh Shit,” he said, “now we’re really in the dark.”

I tried the switch. Same result. I asked to be let through the electric doors back to the control room and was given permission to do so. “Do you know how to turn on the lights?” Shrug.

I went back and we searched but to no avail.

Then I noticed that one of the bulbs was flickering back on. Must be one of those half-dead fluorescent lights, I muttered. As a few of them came back on we noticed that there were no inmates.

Back though the electric doors. “Of they’re under ICS. Someone found some clothes in a dumpster, so they have to do a count.”

“How long will that take?”


OK let’s wait I think to no one in particular.

Dick and I sit and talk about this and that. He tells me he visited Emily Dickinson’s house while on tour with his new book. “She lived in a mansion. Twenty acres at least, and a huge house.”

We go on about Whitman and Simic and Mary Oliver and Sam Hamill. I won’t tell you what he said about Sam.

An hour passes. I am relieved to think we might be leaving.

Then the first of the inmates shows up. Then a flood of orange jumpsuits and jackets comes through the door. “Good evening Mr. Shelton.” Hey Mr. Shelton.”  “How you doin Mr. Shelton?” The air is immediately congenial, relaxed, almost playful.

The guys take seats around the table. Dick calls out names and distributes folders. The inmates talk about the assignments they have done. Take one line, it is raining and us that to compose some vignettes. 

After that initial draft, they will economize, will cut some of the repeated phrases. Let them be suggested. 

He asks if some of them want to read. They do. They read well. John and Steve and Mr. Garcia.  After the reading there are comments. Dick puts me on the spot a few times. I zero in. They seem to think it’s OK, but I am not so sure. Doesn’t matter anyway. I’m just going to do the best I can.

“Let’s hear that again.” “Pass that up here and let me take a look at it.” Take that back and re-work and bring it in again.”

Then a man reads about his crack cocaine addiction. The piece ends with some “Glory to God” comment, more fitted for a revival meeting than a writing workshop.

“The ending might be unnecessary,” Dick says.

“I knew you were going to say that,” the inmate laughs. “I knew it.”

“Well it is rather abstract and maybe unnecessary.”

“It is an important piece though, a breakthrough of sorts.” What I hear is that the content for the man is much more important the quality of the writing here. This piece requires a different kind of response.

Another man reads. This one is lovely, is read as a poem and takes the term from temperature, to emotional state, to spiritual hunger and soul’s despair.

“Let me see how that is written,” Dick says.

The man passes it to the front of the table. All eyes are listening. Dick reads them again. He points out that the lines of the poem are really sentences and that the piece might be better read as a prose piece. He mentions “The Bus to Vera Cruz” as an example of something he was working on, but that would not fit as a poem.

“I am convinced that any piece of writing can be successful if you can find the right form.”

Silence. I think we are all aware that there this is some great advice. I am taken by the simple profundity of the line and its implications for any student of writing.

“Take this back and re-work it as a prose piece and then let’s look at it again.”

A man reads a piece he has written before. It is a scene of domestic tension, of trying to stay out of a spat with an irate wife. The men laugh at places that ring too true, maybe too familiar.

“It’s a nice scene. There is some tension there, some good dialogue.” What do you think Erec?

“I like it when Steve tells us his thoughts about wanting to avoid conflict, and how it seems inevitable given the portrayal of the woman.” Then changing track a little, I go to the content. “It’s a good idea sometimes to just head for the bomb shelter and close the hatch until the destruction is over.”

“You know,” says Dick, “Some men can avoid the conflicts by stepping aside, others by leaving, and still others attack.” He makes a gestures of surging forward with a sword. The guys nod in agreement.

“When I was doing the women’s workshop, the one I did for about seven years, I had one woman who was very flirtatious, very good looking and I was taken with her.”

“I bet Mrs. Shelton didn’t hear about this,” one of the guys snickered, conspiratorially. A few others nodded.

“Then, two other women took me aside one day and said ‘Dick, you know that she did not just kill one, but TWO of her husbands.’ “

The table laughed and deep laugh of delight. There was more at work, of course, than humor here.

“Shall we continue? Who else wants to read?”

Another man reads a poem that stops us all in our tracks. It is about love and self deception, about helplessness and sleep. “Beer bottles fall from our drunken hands and crash to the floor. We do not know if they fell or if we dropped them.” The lines drift out into the circle of men and then hang there in a raw truth and sharp beauty. I am stunned. All of us are stunned.

“I think it is brilliant,” Dick says. “What do you think, Erec?”

“I think it’s ready to publish.”

“Give that to me and I’ll get it re-typed.” The Holy Grail of the workshop, the destination, the ringing bell of accomplishment usher in the moment of royalty. This is magic I think to myself. Our surroundings are poor. Materials primitive. Yet, the atmosphere of learning, motivation, and collegiality is charged with intensity.

“Can you help with the tables?” Dick asks when it is time to go. I join in moving the tables. We set them back into the ordered pattern, under the dim lights. We are again back in prison, but not before shaking hands, wishing a happy holiday, and gathering up the sign up sheets.

The electric doors slide open to let us out into the cold night air. A wind is building out of the north. A cold front is coming in. I carry the warmth of the room, the excitement of the talk with me into the night. We stand under a light, hoping the driver will see us, will appear of darkness, surge to a stop, swing open the door with its blast of heat.

I want to tell him that I see. I am still trying to find the words.