Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Joke That Isn't Funny Anymore (Note to Self (Whatever That Is))


It happened while I wasn't watching, which has been pretty much my whole life.

I became that guy I used to make fun of -- the doddering, far-sighted, rumpled old teacher. He is not so quick, out of touch, as dated as a corded phone.

It's a new experience, this deferential condescension from 19-year-olds. They roll their eyes and share sidelong glances at my lack of familiarity with Tumblr, Snap-Chat, even Twitter. I am dismissed as having little cred in the world of flash living, one scene morphing into the next before I can focus on the fading image.

It's cliche to say I thought this would never happen to me, but that is true.

And I don't mind the change of the guard so much except that I have to be the joke I used to tell.

It would be a fine thing to be let out to pasture and not have to continue to relate to this brave new digital world, but it is quite another experience to be the walking, talking anachronism in a sea screen-obsessed adolescents, to be relegated still to the trenches of teaching freshmen. Anachronism and incongruity.That's me.

I didn't spin the right dials or play the best cards in my career, so am stuck teaching first-year comp even though I "should" have moved on to bigger stuff. Now, it would be easy enough to point fingers at bosses and department heads who made it their business to block my advancement, but that is not helpful.

I didn't do the right work. I tried to balance the personal with the professional; I didn't schmooze with stars and the check writers; I wrote memoirs and personal essays when I "should" have been doing scholarship and research. I based a career on magical thinking. I thought if I did what I felt called to do that I would get recognition. Ha!

So now I am stranded in a digital world, not a native, but a refugee, or a hostage.

My ideas of writing and teaching, of language and politics, of face-to-face interacting, of trying to capture life in words, words crafted and won by sustained attention and patience and quiet all see so quaint.

I want to call it tragic, but just think it's part of living and letting go, of meeting one's impermanence in a changing and somewhat indifferent universe. The word is part of, but subordinate to bigger, louder, more flashy media. 

I hope that someone sends out my ransom note soon. I want to be with my people, my tribe. It's not so funny anymore being who I am, here.

Monday, September 28, 2015

King Snake, Blood Moon, Escapism (A Fall Meditation)


The sun lit the Baboquivari mountains as I slowed for the Border Patrol checkpoint. The agent asked me what was going on with all the cars on the road with bikes in them. I told him about the bike race up Kitt Peak, an 11.7 mile time trial that would climb 3700 feet. He nodded, utterly elsewhere.



As an afterthought he said that these bike people seemed pretty serious. I told him most of them were more serious than I was and left it at that as he waved me through.

The mountain grew as the distance between it and me decreased. The radio droned on about the loss the University of Arizona has suffered to UCLA the day before. This was serious talk. What did it mean for Arizona? Where would they land now? What about us and our standing on the national stage? It was an embarrassment. That's what it was, an embarrassment. How would we recover?

The ride up Kitt Peak was dreamy with heart pounding hypoxia. I relaxed my arms, neck, back, and shoulders as I jammed on the pedals, an old guy fighting gravity just working to stay in the moment. The road snaked up the mountain, around the western flank. It went on longer than I thought was fair, given my condition and lack of climbing prowess. But that was what it was, and it was a thing between me and me, an extravagance of time, money, energy, and attention. So much happening in this world that more deserves attention.

I was beat by the time I descended back to the car. One of the younger guys was on his way back up. He and the elite racers were doing repeats. Repeats.

The rez around the mountain is like most reservations -- open, wilder and less developed than white cities, harshly poor, and, today, blindingly bright. Too much for me.

Football was still all the news on the way back to Tucson. Now it had moved on to the NFL. College ball was so yesterday. Who was on the rise, or on the skids.

The saturation of football, especially on Sundays, even out here, on the rez, far from city life speaks volumes of how it works to keep us glued to the dramas of the gridiron. Football is our modern mythology, its players our god and demi-gods. In it our modern gladiators keep us from thinking too much about a world in flames with migrant crises, financial inequities, environmental calamity.

The simple puzzle pieces of the game are enough to keep us occupied and pacified.

As the city closes in, I feel the Gulliverian ropes begin to tighten. I have classes to plan for, home maintenance to attend to, bills to pay, decisions to make.

When I return home, I hang up the bike, the bike that is way beyond my abilities to fulfill its potential, drop my kit in the wash, and begin the work of the householder. First things first though. I fill the hummingbird feeder. Those creatures are high on my list. Then I fill the fountain with a bucket I carry from the pool. Our water main is broken, so if I want the fountain to run, I need to carry water, like much of the rest of my fellow humans.

Simple stuff like making a living is too mundane to make it to the news. I would rather escape into the dramas of consuming, of winning and losing, of big breasted cheer leaders whose phony smiles get tired as they gyrate their pom-poms for the camera, shaking their heads in a come hither move for the cameras.

It gets so empty, though, the constant and mind numbing sameness of grinding collisions in the hope of big play, the highlight, the "moment."

But I do the laundry in front of the TV, fold the clothes as the Colts come back against the Titans. "It's a miracle," says the commentator.

Then the rug needs vacuuming; herd of T-shirts needs thinning; the cat needs feeding. I need to cook dinner.

At sunset, I take a bike down to the river, where I have a clear line of sight to the mountains to the east. There I wait for the moon. It is a harvest moon, a super-moon, a blood moon. It rises, huge, with a bite taken out of it by the shadow of the Earth. It cuts at me, an unforgiving witness of my heart's betrayals. I watch as it rises, the bite getting bigger while the backdrop of sky darkens.

It turns reddish brown, a rusty orb hanging over the ragged slash of the Rincon ridge line.

When it is full I return home, climb up on the roof, and sit with Megan to study it with the binoculars. I drink a beer to calm my jitters.

This is it, the reality of planets spinning, hearts pumping, the cool of a new season delivering its first touch.

When we tire of the sight, we descend the ladder from the roof and find Simone the cat fixated on a black whip of a snake in front of the back door. She is queen of the yard and doesn't know what to make of this interloper.

It shines like it was lacquered in the beam of the headlamp. It looks lean and hungry. I see its eyes as its reverses course and heads back into the tangle of ivy along the house.

It is reality, life on a hunt to survive, a being in a web of birth, life, death, utter uncertainty about when and how all these things will happen. The snake comes from the darkness, the shadows of the yard. He is what we don't want to look at, work so hard at avoiding and denying.

No wonder the snake is portrayed as the messenger and form of the devil.

The moon's dimmed redness doesn't help. 

Simone moves to follow, but I pick her up and we all go back into the house.

The moon is still up when I leave for work just before 6:00 AM. It is an enormous platinum disk suspended over the mountain I rode up the morning before.

The hum of human chatter is quiet still, but is coming. It's Monday, Moooonday after all, and it's time to get to work, to attend to the business of making, getting, wanting, selling, buying, of adoring the winners and forgetting the losers. 


Saturday, September 26, 2015

What the Office Says


A hammered copper bowl faces the door on its display stand. It's crowded by a globe. Both of them rest on top of a four drawer file cabinet that is covered by posters of past readings done at the Poetry Center. Portraits of writers stare out between Post-Its and taped sheets covered with to-do lists.

Then there are the boxes. Lots of them. Still unpacked since the last move out of his bigger office. They stand in witness to the steady shrinking of university work spaces, at least in the English Department.

On top of them sit stacks of prison magazines. He hands these out to students who come in for conferences. They look at them with a "what?" expression. "Inmates write?"

The book shelves make no sense and would drive any librarian mad with the compulsion to arrange, to put into some semblance of order. Memoirs keep company with anthologies of composition theory. Poetry bullies nature writing. Novels dance with political diatribes. Folders full of inmate writing on loose leaf paper ride a breaking wave of paper backwash.

Then there is the desk. Stacks of student essays wall in the keyboard. They look tired and grumpy.

The computer screen sits at the end of a clean line of sight and is the center around which the entire office solar system rotates.

The office speaks to the priorities of its occupant. Here all is pushed to one side for the ad-hoc projects of writing and teaching. It says this guy will never go anywhere in the world of academic climbing. He is too much absorbed by the immediate, short-term rewards of flash composing. He never finishes anything.

All of it says old-school, pre-digital, hand-written, creativity over tidiness, shaggy dog, procrastination, not exactly sloppy, but frumpy and unkempt. 

There is no discernible line or arc that might result in professional success or recognition. This guy is all over the place, ADD, a loose cannon, and disorganized as hell.

He stumbles along spreading piece-meal nuggets that never add up to a meal.

No wonder this guy is all but invisible when roll call is taken at the faculty dinners. No wonder he is still at the bottom rung, living the life of the lecturer, the temp, the cheap labor of academe.

If he would only get his act together, clean out his files, find a niche to master and turn into an ongoing polemic, if only he just let go of the potentiality of  free association. If he could just overcome the character defect of not focusing on or committing to anything, he might just achieve some feng shui of both space and mind.

When it becomes too embarrassing to sustain, or when time runs out, or when he is given the bum's rush, then maybe he will answer the call that a universe is sending, whispering, as it stands expectant, on tip-toe.



Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Inner A**hole


I learned a long time ago to be the "good boy." Good boys aren't lazy, greedy, pushy, selfish. They work hard and follow the rules. They don't weave in and out of traffic on their way to God knows where in such a hurry that they leave a string of brake lights flashing as drivers react to the cuts, lane changes, and aggressive space grabbing.

As the good boy, following the rules of the road, I see that jerk and go nuts. I want to throttle the little peckerwood. Occasionally I even chase the little f-er and get on his bumper, just to let him (usually, but not always "he") know that I know he's a prick.

Yes, I can hear the snickers out there. I am just as bad as he is.

But there is a bit more going on here.

I am he. Or, more precisely, he reminds me of the part of me that I have pushed away, disowned, denied. He is the part of me I don't want to own, but that is still there, just off the list of preferred identifying characteristics.

And the more I insist that he is not me, the worse he gets. That is the more he rises to the surface of my behaviors. I get angry, lazy, mean, greedy, selfish -- the whole kit and kaboodle of flaws I want nothing to do with. They come out sideways, passive-aggressively.

The honest part of me is better off admitting that.

I don't have to act on those things, but I do need to see that they are part of me.

Doing so can free up the energy I use keeping all those defects of character down there in the basement of the psyche.

Free it up. Feel the bump in energy I say.

You are the jerk, the tailgater, the road rager, the outcast, in part. Or rather, you are capable of those things. Welcome to the human race.

Now, I don't need to start dancing around like Donald Trump. He is a man run by the shadow, an unformed, Darth Vader of a man. Beneath his grotesque mask and imposing stature is a broken and wounded soul, not unlike Charles Foster Kane, the "big man" who just wanted his beloved Rosebud as his dying wish.

If I can make peace with my inner asshole, I might escape the fate of living like the outer one. Knock on wood; cross my heart; hope to live.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Older I Git, the Better My Kit


An email from Pactimo, a custom bike clothing company, tells me that Arlene Pederson (only one letter removed from Marlene Pederson, my mother's maiden name) has a new line of designer bike togs. It tells me that I can click on the link to view these lovely, wearable works of art. I look at my watch and see I have a few moments to steal and take a look.

Yikes! They are gorgeous. One of them is called "Peridot," which happens to be my birthstone. Yes, it is really nice I say to the screen. And it is beyond my bike budget, so I return to work. I thought that would be the end of the story. Hah!

I am not a clothes horse, fashion plate, or style conscious devotee of hipster trends. My students astutely notice that I wear the same pair of jeans (Costco -- $12.99) every day of the semester. I wear sandals (with socks!). It takes me all of seven minutes to dress for work. People in the English Department refer to my herd of Hawaiian shirts as "Erec shirts," not in a flattering tone. Some gay friends despair at my lack of style when we meet for coffee. They shake their heads and lament "straight guys..."

Bike stuff, though is different. I do dress up just a bit, but tentatively. The whole tight-short-bright-jersey thing is just a bit too flashy and audacious for my Lutheran frugality and humble sensibilities. My extravagance is limited and sober.

Some history:

I met Arlene several years before. I told her I loved her work, especially the "Day of the Dead" jerseys and shorts. I told her that her designs captured something elusive and defining about Tucson's personality and bike scene. I told her that her work was some of the best local art happening. Of course, I was not alone in my praise. Arlene had done pro bono work for BICAS, designing their 25 year anniversary jersey. She nailed the design for one of the hippest things happening in art, bikes, and community building.

She was a rock star of design, a drop-dead gorgeous athlete and spirit. Everybody agreed. She is a going concern, a bright light. 

I told other people about her work. I bought jerseys for Megan and for friends. On a bike tour in New Mexico, a bunch of us held an Arlene Pederson Day and wore her jerseys as our peloton kits.






That went well. It proved that Arlene's fans are legion. Her work is worn far and wide, not limited to the Southwest.

She has continued to evolve into new levels of expression. Her designs now draw more on spirituality as well as nature and Tucson culture. The work keeps getting better and better.

Back to the office and the email... So I am working away when I get a message to call Arlene ASAP. I give her a call and she says, "I want to give you a kit."

I say, "I was just looking at your stuff on line, and think it is fabulous, but it's out of by budget right now."

"This is for free. I just need your address so I can drop it off."

No kidding.

So the Peridot kit from the woman whose name is one letter different from my mother's, who is also a kindred spirit, a woman on a creative path, a woman fueled by a passion for beauty, play, and style, says, "No strings. I just want to thank you for your support over the years."

And that is how this old guy ended up with a fancy kit, a kit way beyond his means and abilities as a cyclist.

But, hey, it looks sharp, I think. And it's my birthstone.

Most of all though, it goes with my crazy shoes.




Thanks Arlene. Even old guys can learn new tricks.  

Monday, September 21, 2015

That Desert Rat in September Feeling


A kiss sends the first spark down the stem of a neuron that, in turn, fires another one, and an eyelid flutters open. It is the kiss of sunlight shifting a bit lower, of breeze coming through the window a bit dryer, of the mountains popping back into relief, of Orion rising into view. The kiss of late September -- the high water mark of the desert year -- can only work if the rat is the true love of things bright cool and Sonoran.

Moldy clothes hung in the wet breath of the swamp cooler will have to be aired out. Boots forgotten back in June when the sun ignited its seasonal inferno will have to be dusted off and broken in. The walking staff, left in the corner, when fellow desert dwellers took cover from the crushing heat, moves to the front door and then the back seat of the car that now travels to the trailhead.

Colors change. Bricks that were flat and dead in July now warm with pleasure, terracotta grace.  There is a poignancy to things. Mornings bristle with a crisp coolness. Clouds wink and pinch butts as the "come hither" sun rise promises a rendezvous worth making. You will not be disappointed says the wind, the runoff of the last of the monsoons.

It's time to wake up, to pay homage, to the waiting desert. She is receptive and open to your wooing, your passes, and she will return your love in kind. But you will never possess her.

For she will grow bright and searing again. It is her way. You know that, and that you too will follow the lead of the other subjects in the desert kingdom and go back underground when the time comes.

But now, she is here, and says, come with me. Grow lean and let the sun mark your devotion with the flush of color, the deepening lines around your eyes and knowing smile. Put your faith in the drying grass and the points of stars. Take your lessons and sustenance from firelight.

Your pulse quickens, your palms sweat, a drop of adrenaline sharpens your reflex, your attention. You anticipate what autumn might bring in its bag of treasures. The days spread before you, like shining stones lacking only the weight of your step.

Impermanence (A Meditation)


Sand is pulled from beneath my feet as the backwash of a wave retreats down the beach. I sink as the firmament that holds my weight is suspended and carried by the ebbing surf. I lift my feet to get a better hold, back on top of the sand, where I think I should be. All the time. In a way I don't believe that the ground beneath me is moving. Instead I tell myself that I have footing to stand on, and that I deserve a place solid and permanent, that I can rely on it to always be there. I ignore the evidence to the contrary, the evidence that is right there below me, that the ground on which I stand is in flux, constant change, movement, on its way to somewhere else. Rather than accept and admit the truth of it, I sink my teeth and feet into an illusion that this shifting world is solid, dependable, trustworthy. I attach to that in the belief that doing so will make my illusions true. When the sands shift I feel betrayed and suffer, and the aversion that is the change makes me angry enough to fight against it. You know how that works. Might as well fight the tides. But the mind is an ornery beast with inflated sense of its power. It doesn't see that the sand both supports and washes away, gives and takes, blesses and extracts, that there are great kindnesses in those passing grains of sand. A friend buys you coffee, asks how you are, surprises you with a great generosity that goes to the secret of your being. Such a gift sustains and then passes. The passing opens up an opportunity to reach to someone else who is sinking and afraid. A kindness given can help deepen the fact of passing, the beneficence of seeing a truth head-on. It is only in the act that the mind can learn. Kindness received. Kindness given. A cycle of departure and return, a swirling violence of peace, grief, and joy, all of it contained in the simple gaze that sees the sand as it is.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Bars. They's Bars in Them Woods


A link to an article that made it to e-print, the glory of publication.

http://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/PzMsHfnjy7gguxwc7jPY/full

Check it out if you so desire.

I just didn't know where else to put the link.

Onward,

et

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Ode to the Chapel


 I can't see. If something is close and small, it might as well be invisible for all I can make of it. Like many others of my age with my condition, I carry reading glasses. Always. Unless I forget. Which is often. It is then that I look to my friends -- like the women of the Little Chapel -- who usually have extra "cheaters" lying around. Then, with help, I can better see what is close in proximity and close to my heart. But I am still clumsy and a bit selective about what I notice.

As I stumble through this life, it's easy to focus on the obstacles that trip me up. What is harder to see are the forces that help to keep me upright and moving. I have to admit that I have covered some ground over that last decade, even if the path has been fraught with frustration.

Of the help I have been offered, one source stands out today. That is the Little Chapel of All Nations, the people who work there, and the cats who have comforted me, especially when I walked with the black dog.

It's a modest, attractive place, a jewel set in the showy hubbub of frat row. It is an island of calm surrounded by a vortex of self-importance, pettiness, and university stress. It is the beating heart of humanity and sanity in the hurried body of my work life.

But why, you might ask, do you say this about a place I don't know, have never heard of?

Well, I might answer, because it is the hub of just about everything I have done with my days that has lasting consequence in the world of heart and soul.

A few examples.

A while back a friend was released from prison. Now being released into the free world is a wonderful and terrifying thing. This man was met with a halfway house full of the things that would pull him back to the streets and likely to his heroin addiction. He was desperate to get a toe-hold in a life outside of hustling, prostitution, drug dealing, and convict thinking.

I mentioned his situation to one of the women at the Chapel and she mentioned it to a friend of hers who happened to have a guest house. That friend ended up offering the inmate a place to live. That place was the toe hold he needed.

He's been clean and making it for almost two years. His life is not easy, but it is working.

Another time I was sitting at the desk in the homey parlor of the Chapel after hours. I was thinking about another fairy tale of sorts. An inmate in the writing workshop had written a story about kindness and how he had been softened by the kindness of a stranger. It had quieted his anger and his violence. That story I read on the radio, and a film maker heard it. He decided to make a short film.

So I was thinking about this and how the student paper had shown no interest in the story when I suggested it as an article idea. In walks a couple of young women and they sit and talk at the couches of the parlor. We strike up a conversation and I mention the story and the lack of response by the Daily Wildcat. One of the women says she is reporter for the paper and is looking for just such a story.

She writes it. The movie gets made. I send the inmate a copy of the article. He is released the day the film opens at a film festival. He gets paid for his creative work.

http://www.wildcat.arizona.edu/article/2013/10/professor-inspires-filmakers-story-on-acts-of-kindness

The stories go on and on. K. and his meditation sessions. C. and  her help with the prison magazine. R. and her empathetic ear, her wise counsel. D. and his stories of Brasil, Peru, Chile, and the deserts of the world. The music, the images, the quiet calm. The Chapel hums with behind-the-scenes connections. The work is the selfless kind, not so much my will as Thy will, less about "me" than about the shared spark of "us." It is a quiet teacher, with words that are few but the ones most worth hearing.

The Chapel works its magic, its alchemy. It takes normal life and turns it into wonder. The chapel speaks the language of soul. It offers what is needed when it is needed to those pilgrims lucky enough to stumble into its comfort.

I have my problems. They loom large on my path, but  my feet step forward, pulled by the help I receive along the way.

What I know is that I would be poorer without this quiet place, this diamond in the rough of the university. I want to hold it close, tell it how grateful I am, put it in a jar to carry with me.

The second I try to hold the spirit of the Chapel, though, it slips away, mercurial as mist, off to the work that needs to be done. As it does, I take off those glasses and put them back in the drawer so they will be there I need them again. 

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Wrench in the Works Not Always Regressive


A clerk in Kentucky refuses to issue marriage licenses for same sex couples because doing so runs against her deeply held convictions. That triggers a storm of indignation, much of it claiming she should just "do her job," because that is seen as a higher moral imperative.

Whether or not one agrees with Kim Davis's conviction, one has to admit her tactic has worked to gain attention. 

The internet has flooded with examples of people disagreeing with their duties but doing them anyway as a way to show how "wrong" Kim Davis is. Even Han Solo didn't believe in The Force, but still flew the Millennium Falcon. The line of reasoning has a kind of populist appeal, but is incomplete, dangerous if carried to excess.

Refusing to work or slowing work or going on strike are all great ways to protest some social practice or policy. The sit-down strikes in the 30s at US automaker's plants ended up helping workers get better conditions. Thoreau's civil disobedience drew attention to taxes used for unjust wars.

It's not Davis's not working that bothers me, it's her reasons for doing so.

She supports beliefs that limit and exclude people from rights and freedoms that other people enjoy. She wants to maintain an exclusive, narrow, privileged definition of legitimate love relationship.

She is not a Martin Luther King Jr. refusing to support the bus service in Montgomery Alabama. She is a vestige of fear and bias. She is not a Ghandi refusing to buy manufactured textiles from an Imperial power. She is saying no to people wanting to commit to love. She is not the Sanctuary volunteer who goes to jail because he believes a refugee should be given asylum. She is saying no to broadening the images of what love looks like.

She is in good company. There are many who want to restrict changes that open and broaden acceptance and opportunity of all kinds. We live in an economy with one of the least egalitarian distributions of income on the planet with billionaires that want to keep it that way. We work more, with less time off than much of the rest of the world. We don't give leave for mothers to care for new-born children. We let people go bankrupt when they get sick. We let schools implode for lack of funding. We keep people at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder from rising out of poverty by limiting opportunity and education. We build prisons rather than schools. The list is long, and all of us keep it going by just "doing our jobs."

In a system where going to work might be perpetuating an injustice, it may not be a good idea to make "doing one's job" the highest good. That's what the big powers want us all to believe. Corporations want workers to park their values at the door and get to the work of increasing the bottom line, no matter the consequences.

Saying "no" to the big machines may be one of the few tactics remaining because it is a way to say "yes" to bigger freedoms, more inclusion, more opportunity, and more equality.

So, Kim, I don't agree with your reasons, but do respect your tactics.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Sneakers, Safety Pins, and the Inescapeable Realities of Hay in the Barn


The metal chairs were stacked and secured with a thick cable next to the locked door of the cafe. I could see the baristas bustling around inside getting ready to open. It was just a bit before 5 a.m. and they would open soon.

It was still cool before the sunrise and I still had my headlamp on over my Cabela's cap. Today would be hot, in spite of being in the middle of September, in the high 90s by late morning. The heat sticks around in southern Arizona. That would be a factor in the race.

I was going up to the Arizona State Championship for the Individual Time Trial. I was not going up with any hope of winning, but I felt compelled to do it anyway. I would be the oldest rider in my category and had little real talent as a bike racer.

I like the time trial because it is an exercise in focus and is a race against one's self. No one knows whether or not you might have pushed harder at any given point. No one knows how "honest" you are with yourself when it comes down to pushing through pain. It is the event in cycling that is the most about truth -- no drafting, tactics, team help. I am riding in the "open" Merckx category -- no time trial specific aerodynamic equipment -- and will be against riders much younger and faster than myself. There is some element of luck in terms of wind, heat, and mechanical issues, but most it's just about the clock and the effort.

The barista opens the door. I order my red-eye and hit the road up to Picacho. It's a short fast drive along the interstate. I don't listen to the radio but do visually rehearse what is coming.I put myself on the bike and anticipate the urge to sit up when the pain gets to be too much, to back off when the heart feels like it is about to burst from beating so hard, to relax the legs when the ache sets in. Yes, it is hard, not a sprint, but not far from it, and I will have to both push and pace myself to keep from blowing up too soon.

I pull off beneath Picacho Peak and make my way to the parking area. There are already about a hundred cars filling the overflow truck parking of the Picacho Travel Center. Lean men and women are spinning on stationary trainers behind their cars, their bib shorts loose at the shoulders, the suspender straps draped along their hips. They wear heart-rate monitors and glisten with sweat, even though the first rider will not go off for over an hour.

I find a spot to park and go check in. I have to show my USA Cycling ID to get my race number and safety pins. My start time is written on the back of the number  along with instructions to pin the number on the right side. On the way back to the car I stop to wish some riders from El Grupo luck on their rides, not that they need it. They are seriously trained, hardened cyclists. The program takes disadvantaged kids and gets them bikes and training in exchange for community service. It's become a top-tier youth cycling team and has sent riders into pro ranks. They are a force. Here's their web address: http://www.elgrupocycling.org/.

One of the riders will eventually win my category today, and I couldn't be happier to see them here. Cycling is an elite sport in many ways. In order to be here, riders need the equipment (expensive), transportation, time, and the support of others. Also, cycling has tended to be a "white," male, and European sport, but that is changing. This year, for the first time, there were African teams in the Tour de France, and the peloton saw more diversity in terms of race. I am delighted to see the changes. Women too, have gained better footing in terms of pay and access to the big stages, like the TdF. The World Tour now has events in the Middle East, Asia, and South America. I hope the cycling "tent" continues to grow with participants coming from more cultures and backgrounds.

There is still a long way to go. No rest for the good guys. 

I head to the car, open the hatch, extract the bike, and set up the trainer.

The car next to me is occupied by a couple from Hermosillo Mexico. We talk some about the course and about people we know in common from Hermosillo. He and she both race regularly in Arizona. They are both young, fit, and look like real contenders.

The sound of trainers and quiet conversations mixes with the crunching gravel of new arrivals. A few sun shelters pop up. They have bright tops with logos of various teams and shops around the area: Team Aggress, Southwest Hand, Team Vitesse, Strada, and others. I see a young rider from the UA who forgot his cycling shoes. He tells me he plans to ride in his sneakers. Later I will hear that he achieved a personal best of twenty seven miles per hour. He won the state championship in his age group wearing tennies. Not bad. Sometimes you have to improvise, most times, in my case. I just work with what I've got, and today, for once, I seem to have my ducks in row. I thank the gods of cycling for having been so generous to me, so supportive in letting me fulfill an athletic dream.

As a kid I was one of those weirdos who  followed the Tour de France, who dreamed of riding high into the knife-edged snow-caps of the Alps, rolling through fields of sunflowers, and rocking the bike in a bunch sprint down a narrow avenue in a French village. Nobody in my small Wisconsin high school even knew what the Tour de France was or who Laurent Fignon, Bernard Hinaut, or Eddy Merckx were. I wore black wool shorts and rode a skinny tired bike while the other kids watched the Green Bay Packers and drove burly four wheel drive pick-up trucks. When I finally got a nice bike, it cost more than some of their cars. That's another story.

After enough time on the trainer to work up a sweat I decide to take a spin out on the road. I set my jersey on a day pack and pin on my number. I usually glue it on with spray adhesive, but I don't have that today, so have to do the best I can. The safety pins remind me of changing diapers. That was not such a long time ago. Life is like a race in many ways. You have only yourself to answer to ultimately. Did you do what you could or not?

Out on the road it's quiet. The two lane highway is a lightly traveled frontage road along I-10. The view of Picacho Peak in the rising sun is spectacular. The air is still cool, but has warmed up into the 80s. A breeze has picked up out of the south. That means I'll be fighting wind for twelve and a half miles before turning to return with the wind at my back.

I feel a rush of adrenaline as I imagine the start.

Then I am there. I clip in while a holder steadies the bike. I hear the five second count -- four, three, two, one -- and I am off. The road is rough and dips in and out of arroyos. I don't see much as I settle in to a hard effort. I ride at about ninety or so percent of my maximum heart rate. Into the wind, this is about twenty miles per hour. I have to be careful not to go out too "hot," and blow up from the excitement of the start and the adrenaline.

I feel good and pace the intensity. I settle in and listen to the dramas of the mind. I hear the voice of aversion to pain that begins to whisper "slow down, take it easy" and the reality czar with "you are the oldest in your category; you are not going to win, so what's the use?" and the others who take their turns. I hear too the coach reminding me to be smart. "Ride hard, but settle in. Feel the zone, the paradox of calm in the heat of battle." It encourages relaxing while working hard, the way to sustain over an hour of hard effort.

Almost never do I sustain my heart rate this high for so long. I don't know if I can do it, but I let the body take over. It either will or it won't. Either I have trained well or I haven't. The "hay is in the barn" or it isn't. This is the hard and inescapable truth: you can't spend what you have not earned.

And the truth is that the El Grupo rider, who started behind me, comes around fast, way faster than I could even dream of going, and pulls ahead slowly, inevitably. He recedes like a fading galaxy into to distance, a shining light dimming in an indifferent universe. 

I see another rider who started a minute before me up ahead and close the gap as we cover ground. Three miles, seven, ten, and I pass him. He is still behind me at the turn-around and a race official penalizes him for pacing and drafting. He gets mad and passes me. On the return trip I see him struggling. He is no longer smooth but is bobbing and tightening up. I can see that he is bonking.

I am the bug and the windshield for whatever that is worth. 

I pass him again with about three miles to go. He falls back. The body doesn't lie. I have been lucky today and the long rides up Mount Lemmon have paid off.

I see the finish though a tunnel of oxygen debt. My body is tingling from lack of blood, ears pounding with my pulse. I manage to stand and sprint across the finish. That sends me into the red zone, and I have to coast for a long way to get my breath back.

It was a good effort. I did not win, not even close. I was minutes slower than the El Grupo rider. No state champion jersey for me.

I still have some coffee left for the drive back home. The cafe has been open now for hours and the sun has taken on the intensity of Arizona in late summer. I have done it, met some of my demons, and come out satisfied with the outcome. I have the rest of the day to enjoy the fruits and euphoria of having chased a dream no matter the result.

I hang the bike on its hook and staple the race number to the wall above my tool bench. The bike and number stand ready to testify that I joined the race, that I was lucky enough feel the heat of the fray, the place where no one can hide.




Thursday, September 10, 2015

Party Time


Yesterday, in my two English 101 classes, I asked students to look around the room and tell me what they noticed, and how what they saw revealed something about us as a group. The exercise was about looking, about what it takes to observe closely. Writing, I told them, requires observation, and just a bit of suspension of distraction. It's a mind thing as well as an eye thing. Writers look for the surprising particulars as well as the big sweep of ideas. I wanted to hear what they saw in our little gathering.

They did a good job naming the things in the room -- the big teaching station, the VPU, the screen, the US Constitution, the American flag, the cramped feel of a room too small for our numbers, the industrial beige walls.

Then I asked them to speculate about the underlying values, beliefs, desires, fears, assumptions, and motivations of us as a group. Their responses were not surprising, but did reveal a divide between them and me. 

They are practical, likable freshmen, and I think they trust me enough to be frank. The great majority of them said they were at the university to get a degree and then a job. They were in this specific class because it is a required course. The upshot was that they expected nothing and did not plan on really learning anything. It was even acceptable that the class was boring to the point of torture.

They were amused when I told them I went to college because I wanted to learn to think, to learn about the world, and become a different person, one who could see things I didn't see before. In short, I wanted to wake up my mind and heart. Really.

They thought that was quaint and bit outdated.

I told them that the life of the mind requires cultivation, focus, fertilizer of ideas, and learning to see the life in all things, the life beneath the surface of things. Critical thought and observation presupposes effort, intention, curiosity. You have to work at it.

They nodded off, not unkindly.

I observed that they wore, almost to a student, some type of UA logo, that they were almost all white, that the boys dressed one way, the girls another. I also noted the patterns to their stories about education and what it is supposed to do. I tried to get them to see that we, our little classes, are a construction. We work within a context. That context includes the course, the department, the university, the state, and a corporate economic model that wants them to be good workers first, good citizens maybe later.

One of them looked at me and said, "It's OK," like I was some pitiable, doddering old man.

A lively, bright-eyed young woman with a pierced nose said, helpfully, "We just want to have fun." She sits in the front row and is one of the students who leads, who speaks up.

That summed it up, I guess. University education is, now, more about an entertainment package than it is about challenging academics. There is the business of the credential, the grade, and students are very mindful of their grades, but the end game is utility and recreation. The UA, in particular, with its nice weather, research and business emphasis, caters to the career-minded children of the out-of-state elites.

Just what is.

In some ways, I am in their way, interfering with what they seem to be here to learn. They want to make social connections, build a career community, get what they need to enter a shrinking job market. They are smart and practical. I can't blame them at all.

I have to say that the new curriculum caters to this technocratic practicality. The assignments are skills-driven. Get in. Get out. Head off to the game. College is more of a glorified high school.

The decades, to me, have had a flattening effect on teaching. The scope of practice has narrowed to skill and drill and test. The messiness that is writing has been ironed out into nice little hermetically sealed units.

I have to say that I have been mostly blind, in a self-protective denial, about these changes. I'm making it a point now to notice them, to sustain a cold, clear gaze until it surrenders its truth.

It's my job, what I do. I can take a page from my own playbook and put it into practice. We'll see what it is I find.




Wednesday, September 9, 2015

My Pathway to Fame, Wealth, and Irresistibility to Stray Dogs (Bibliotherapy)


I have had my eyes on a shopping cart that I saw down at the local Safeway a few weeks back. It's a sporty model, with a shelf that snaps into place. The wheels aren't bad, just a little wobbly when it has a load of Ding-Dongs and diet soda.

That's the first thing I'll need for my next chapter of life.

Other stuff -- the big plastic garbage bags and floppy hat -- I'll have to acquire over time.

I figure my downward mobility and lack of marketing savvy will make this jump in social status possible. My interest in creativity, social responsibility, spiritual attainment, the health of the planet, and my decision to teach in the high-demand area of the humanities have all propelled me to these dizzying heights.

It's just market forces at work, though I do understand your envy. 

Yes, friends, I can see the path from here. It is paved with free time, abundant stimuli, entertainment, and never-ending life lessons. It is down there by the river, the bridges, the camping spots in the tamarisk thickets.

I may finally realize my dream of writing all day, staring off into the clouds, and brooding on the opacity of being.

It will be nice to let go of that academic spotlight, that assault on my privacy. It was glorious, all those years of teaching English 101, thirty of them, more or less. All the screaming and flash photography everywhere I went got to be old though. My hand is arthritic from signing autographs. And the demands from my publicist that I do all those interviews -- Letterman, Charlie Rose, The News Hour -- I can't wait for the phone to go dead, for the phone to be disconnected.

I had to beg the university not to give me a Regent's Professorship. I had no room for another diploma to hang on the wall. In fact, I now have no wall. And I waived the offers of a six-figure severance package, continued health insurance coverage, and use of a state car because all that seemed a bit excessive. Granted, my service has been faithful, but the heavy lifting was done by administrators and policy wonks. Their "poor me" laments elicit pity, but I have been hard-pressed to figure out how to help them. For now, I'll defer to those more deserving. I just want a clean break.

Liberation. Sweet liberation.

When life comes so easy, falls into your lap because you do everything just right, and you are so talented at doing what people need and want, it's a little draining. Doors just open and people usher you in to greater and greater appreciation.

Your department head gives you release time to just sit and think because you are that good.

But it feels empty, if you know what I mean, all that attention.

Better to just drop it, drop out, accept the fact that the pinnacle of achievement is not the pinnacle. It is the strength to accept one's destiny, the yoke of powerlessness, the great responsibility to do nothing.

Now this is living, dear friends.

I am known to the lizards, worshiped by them, have more plastic bottles than I know what to do with, and a pack of dogs vying for my smallest glance in their direction.

Yes, this is living, freedom from making a living.

The way is clear. The fight now won, the Morphean aromas of success fill me with reverie.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Connections


The Greeks believed there existed a "spirit" of poetry. This spirit would sometimes visit a human and deliver what was needed to compose a work of art, a thing of truth and insight, a thing, as my friend Tom says, of beauty.

This spirit did not care a whit for social class, wealth, achievement, power, or pride. In fact, too much ego or pride would send the muse packing. It sometimes visited the humblest of places and people, but did not easily find its way to the page.

Drudgery, lack of education or literacy, want of materials or physical restraint all kept the words from record. The genius was there, but the images, ideas, and language languished.

The spirit moved on.

When the poetry of the outsiders did make it to a song or a memory or a tradition, it did not meet with much welcome by the powers that be. Stories that exposed greed, exploitation, grotesque sides of humanity fell on the point of a spear.

But the poets persevered, often in obscurity. Women, like Hildegard of Bingen, Sapphos, Antigone and more contemporary writers like Jack London and Theodore Dreiser all looked to the realities of social hypocrisy rather than deliver genial, titillating little bon-bons and back slapping for the elites.

And so it goes still. The muses come with me to the prison, not because of me, of course, but because there are hearts waiting and opening with the prospect of telling a truth well. There exists, sometimes, a quantum shift of energy change when the efforts blend, merge, and weave into a synergy of communion and connection with something much bigger than the individuals in the circle.

Often, when a new man comes in, it takes a while for the respect of words to gel enough for synergy to generate. The other men are patient and lend their wisdom. That either works or it doesn't, depending on the willingness of the new guy.

When I despair that the work I have done in obscurity has come to nothing in the way of publication or promotion, I think of the ocean, of the mountain. They are made up of small drops and stones. There are forces at work that add up to the impression of eternity and infinity. The small, necessary component pieces become more than the sum of their parts.

It is like that with any creative work done for the sake of itself, but that might  feel wasted or isolated.

As long as it is done with care, the work reaches out, its tendrils eager to grasp onto the work of others. The creative contributions, in increments, organize into a critical mass of desire.

It then wanders the corridors of the mean places and knocks quietly on doors, inviting to dance the words that might chip away at the fearful dream that we are alone.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The Surface of Things




You notice that she turns away when you kiss her. Things are OK you say to yourself. She is stressed out by classes, trying to get that internship. It's understandable and it will pass. That's what you say again and again when she doesn't return your calls, begs off from meeting or taking a walk. Then she goes cold when you find a night to spend together. You ask what's wrong and she says I just need some space. That makes sense and you keep on wondering, maybe denying. Then she says it: I want out. And you get mad, maybe mean. You say things like I always thought you were a bitch. But it doesn't work to bring her close. Just the opposite. You don't know what else to do. You cry on the phone. She says you are not grown up or successful or confident enough. That goes straight to that terrible secret place in yourself that is sure you are a shit. It sticks there, like an arrow on fire. But you can't look at it because it’s too hot, too close. You just know it and know that you are less without her. Then she leaves for her semester abroad to France. A year later you see her mother at the grocery co-op where you stock shelves and run the register. Her mom says she is getting married. She says she hopes you are getting on with your life. You smile and lie that you are. You bag her broccoli, kale, and hard cheddar cheese. Then you wave to her as she passes through the sliding door out into the hot summer sun. You begin ringing up the next customer. That customer says something you can't hear, but you nod and say something like I hear you. Inside you're burning. It feels like your guts are tied up in a skein of snakes. When you get off work you want to call her and congratulate her on destroying your life. The urge is so strong you want to do it right now, two seconds ago. But you wait. After a few days and a talk with your counselor, you get it: The surface of things never tells the whole story. There are forces at work beneath a comforting veneer that will break your heart, steal your innocence, leave you stripped and defenseless. It is then that you know that nothing will turn out the way you want it to and that the way out is closed so you just have live with it, your territory in flames. You rub your eyes and take one breath at a time, put one foot in front of the other. Years later she finds you on Facebook and says she is sorry it turned out the way it did. You say that's OK. There was no way to know, nothing to do, nobody at fault. It is then that the words you didn't say take wing and you feel light, peaceful, broken though you are.
 



Letter to the Bear On His Late Life Homecoming From Viet Nam


Dear Dad,

You will be reading this after "Mail Call" on your flight back from DC where you got to tour the monuments with other Viet Nam veterans. I hope the flight is a calm one and that you can read this and other letters in peace and comfort.

Those days of the Viet Nam conflict were tough ones for us. I was the rebel teen with long hair and hard rock. My favorite album was "Kick out the Jams, Mother-Fucker" by the MC-5. You were either overseas or home working at the Pentagon.

We didn't get along all that well because we saw the war very differently. We also had father/son issues.

But those days are past, and I want you to know that I now see things differently. We are at the point in life when it is time to stop arguing about things not being the way we want them, what we wanted but never received from each other.

I see that you did what you had to do, what you were ordered to do. It has taken me a long time to learn to discern the differences between individuals and "the system." You didn't cause or escalate the conflict, but just did your job, supported your family, tried to do the honorable thing. I remember that, on your own time, you reached out to kids living near the base and you befriended them. I remember photos of you and them, you seated in the middle, big grin, them grinning too, a soccer ball in front of all of you. You were proud of that and spoke of it often after you returned from your first deployment.

You were then, and still are now, a good man.

I want to thank you for being a good father.

And I ask forgiveness for being an angry son who took his frustrations out on you. I apologize for getting into so much trouble, the juvenile court, the drunken binges, the harsh words.

I did not have to tools I needed to cope with my anger and grief and confusion that comes with adolescence.

We both did the best we could in the moment, and my part wasn't much to be proud of.

But here we are now, and you are coming home a second time. I want to get it right this time.

You went into hell, sacrificed your time and energy to support your family, your country. That is what a man does. I see that now. I see you now and owe you a better homecoming than the last one.

So, you are a hero, a good father, a good man, and I will say that out loud to anyone.

I just want you to know that I know.


With Great Love
Your Son,

Erec