Monday, November 30, 2015

Reflections on “Sneakers, Safety Pins, and the Inescapable Realities of Hay in the Barn”

Sneakers, Safety Pins, and the Inescapable Reality of Hay in the Barn

Note: The Italics are my reflections on the choices I made to fulfill this assignment, which was to observe, describe, and reflect on an event and a community. The reflections will form the basis of a letter that details my plans for revising this essay.

This title incorporates some of the telling details of the event. The sneakers speak to the need to improvise, to show up with what you've got, while the safety pins represent formally joining the bike group, abiding by the rules, the numbers, . "Hay in the barn" refers to the limitations of the body. They all add up to the ingredients of the story, which is about desire and obstacles. I want to be the great racer but live in a reality of age, lack of conditioning, and genetic gifts. I like to use specifics in titles because they can suggest, predict, or cause readers to wonder how the detail will show up later in the essay. “Sneakers,” and “Safety Pins,” are concretely specific while “Inescapable Realities” are abstract. I also like combining concrete details with abstractions to forecast a larger significance. “Hay in the barn,” is an endurance sport metaphor and serves too to predict some of the focusing idea here. It’s a reference to the “realization” that will come later in the essay. It also gives readers a taste of the “lingo” of this community. I want readers to get a good "look" at the place, the people, the rituals, the guiding shared values of this community. I want to serve as a kind of observing witness here. The title is just a place to set that tone.

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.

Narrative essay introductions tend to use some kind of scene, or action. It’s a convention that serves to put readers into the place, the time, the action. I wanted to set the stage here in the early, predawn morning, when everyone else is sleeping. I wanted the description to be sharp, but just a bit puzzling too.  

Even though I like the introduction, I don't know if it works as well as it might to set up the specific event here. The chairs at the cafe might come across as random or incidental rather than purposeful. 

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.

An observation essay is supposed to tell a story of some kind. The first draft was merely a collection of details. This is a second draft and has something of a focus. I want to illustrate the desire to do well being thwarted by the realities of talent and training. I don't know if that is coming across here. Up until this point, I have been setting the stage, easing readers into the event without overwhelming them. I want them to feel some of the moment, the “cool” the coming heat. In this kind of writing, description, with its use of concrete and sensory detail help to create an “experience” of the event. This is some of the classic teacher exhortation to “show”, not just tell. The last line of this paragraph introduces some tension, some anticipation and provides a reason for being up so early.

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.

At this point I want to give the reader some context for the event. I also want to enter the essay as both narrator and participant. My persona, the voice of the narrator, here is neither a star nor totally removed from expectation. This kind of self-aware reflection helps to anticipate the coming conflict and larger significance. That is important for readers to know as the essay progresses.

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.

I used this paragraph to provide some background about this event, some information that readers who are not cyclists might find useful to better understand the event. I call this kind of development the “situation” or the “circumstance.” It is the bread and butter of a narrative essay. The story and the larger significance hinge on a situation that readers can see or feel. The place is a kind of vehicle that caries the meaning of the essay. Without it, the larger significance can feel un-grounded or unearned. I do not want readers to “take my word” for anything, but to see, feel, hear, taste, maybe even smell the circumstance.

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.

Here I go back to the opening scenario. The "coffee" angle will form one of the treads that runs through the essay. Toward the end, I plan to return to the now cold coffee cup when I am done with the race and starting the journey back to Tucson, to home life, the "usual" routine. I am not sure why I include the coffee reference here and may cut this out if it isn’t helping the story. Aside from this little time and information skip, the structure of the essay will be chronological, a weave of actual events and my commentary on those events. The event lends itself to chronology because the tension rises as the day goes on, before dropping off at the finish, the return home, the resolution.

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.

Abundant sensory detail here helps readers see some of the defining features of this community and event. Participants are trained endurance athletes, so the “heart-rate monitors” the leanness, and the stationary trainers all help “show” that. I might have to add some more here.

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:

Again, I want to emphasize the community here and some of its rituals. We have ID numbers, and organized groups. I also want readers to be able to get more information if they want, so embed the link in the draft.

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.

Now, I feel it is time to give some of my commentary, some of my reflections on this community. I point to areas of change, improvement, and hope. I also offer up a bit of personal perspective and critique. I wonder here, if I should mention issues like doping scandals, that plague cycling. I also wonder about the cost of equipment. Racing bikes cost many thousands of dollars, keeping talented athletes from taking up the sport. It's also a bit snobby sometimes. People are very ego-invested and want glory at all costs. I'll think about this. Any new information would have to help move the story along.

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

I just wanted to add some of my voice here, to put a human face on the narrator.

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

Action. This is a sentence of verb clauses to underscore the actions. Actions are part of the story, the scene, and help to make the circumstance one readers can connect with. I try to use active verbs, vivid verbs, like “extract” whenever they seem to fit.

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.

Specific people here illustrate some of what I was talking about earlier, in terms of the growing diversity of the cycling community. I also tie the description back to the values of the community, some of the defining traits of fitness and youth.

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.

Another portrait of participants helps to flesh out groups and individuals. The “sneakers” detail helps to provide a telling example of what individuals at the event are going through. It also shows the need to go with what you have, to improvise. I name specific teams to give readers a taste of some of the “color” and variety of the groups. The sponsors, use of other languages, the mention of “team,” and “road” show some community values.

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.

This paragraph I devote to my background, my perspective. I want readers to identify some with want this means to me, why I am here. This type of commentary, or point of view helps readers to find the significance that I am beginning to locate in the event.The names of the legendary bike racers I hope helps readers feel some of the romance that surrounds cycling. These names to me are an invocation. I don't know if they will work that way for readers. Perhaps part of my implied audience is other cyclists here too. I have to sort that one out.

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?

I want this section to crank up the tension some. It’s time to enter the breech and heat of testing and competition. This community shares a value of testing oneself and of placing that test, and the results, up against the results of others. This is a race, after all.

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 want to recreated some of this moment because it was important to me and to the story as a whole. I decide to name the highway here and to reiterate the mountain name. I think maybe I have repeated "Picacho" too many times and might have to cut some of the references. The verb "fighting" fits how I want to convey the adversity of having to ride all-out into the wind.

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.

This is combination of narrating the specifics of the event and providing information. Present tense is my choice here because I want readers to be as much "with me" as possible. Present progressive might seem like too much.

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.

The “inner voice” here, I use as part of my reflection on the moments of intense effort. Part of telling this story is recording what happens “inside” as well as “outside.”

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.

I want to spell out some of the significance here. My realization is that my results are tied both to my talents and to my training. I have hit the wall and can hang there, but can go no further.

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. 

The particulars of the other riders help to tell some of the story here.

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. 

Voice and perspective.

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.

I want to come to a resolution here, some finishing thought or realization. I don’t want to overstate a larger significance. This event did not “change my life.” It was, however, important to me. I feel satisfied about having done my best, even if I did not win. I can live with that. 

The overall purposes of narrative essays and reflection are, to my eye, to look at human concerns, big issues like desire, love, loss, mortality. I think the subject matter here is coming to terms with limits, with aging. The narrative as a form and the strategies of narrative and reflection all help to fulfill looking at those questions. The purposes of the essay fit the form pretty well. 

This, however, is not the same as an analysis or an essay whose primary function is to inform. The personal material would get in the way of that.  

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