Saturday, October 31, 2009

Don't Let Me Down

To continue today's Beatles theme.

"And no lay vee she got bee blu gee goo," indeed.

An Ambivalent Kiss-off Note in 78 Beatles’ Titles, 3 'Buts,' and a 'So.'

Martha My Dear,

Hello little girl. I don’t want to spoil the party, but I want to tell you something. You like me too much. You can’t do that because everybody’s trying to be my baby. Slow down. Dig it? Let it be.

Things we said today: I need you, you’ll be mine, I wanna be your man.

I should have known better.

Ask me why? BABY, it's YOU! What you're doing is bad to me. If I need someone crying, waiting, hoping, I'll get you.

I’ve got a feeling you won’t see me. I’m looking through you and I love HER, another girl, Sexy Sadie (Ain’t she sweet?). SHE'S a woman.

I saw her standing there, free as a bird, the night before yesterday. She came in through the bathroom window. I’m just happy to dance with her any time at all. Hallelujah, I love her so!

All things must pass, Martha my dear, wild Honey Pie. If you’ve got trouble, you’ve got to hide your love away. Honey, don’t cry, baby, cry.

Wait. I’ll cry instead. I will. I'm gonna sit right down and cry over you, cry for a shadow. Help. We can work it out. I got a woman, but I NEED YOU, girl!

Do you want to know a secret? I want YOU (she's so HEAVY!).

Tomorrow never knows, so don’t pass me by. I’ll be back. When I get home, why don’t we do it in the road, come together? You know what to do: The Hippy Hippy Shake! Thank you, girl. Good night.

All my loving, Martha my dear.

Besame mucho,
You know my name (look up the number)

P.S. I love you. Don't ever change. But, please, no reply. Don't bother me. That means a lot.

Friday, October 30, 2009


The summer after my sophomore year of high school--a year before my parents rightly demanded that I get a job--Joe Hackett and Helen Chapel were a big part of my life. These weren't neighbors or friends or even authors. No, Joe and Helen were the main characters on Wings, the NBC sitcom that's considered a farce in both the technical and critical sense.

During those days, I customarily woke up at noon, watched a couple hours of Comedy Central, played a baseball game, and then settled in for unceasing re-runs on USA Network. I look back on this time as one in which I should have been learning guitar or a foreign language or the way to play with a girl's hair until she kissed me. Instead, I learned about eating cereal out of a mixing bowl and the soothing pattern of setup-setup-punchline.

Setup: "Listen, something terrible has happened. It's Brian and Casey."
Setup: "Oh my God, were they in an accident?"
Punchline: "Worse. They're having sex."

Kablowwie! Borscht-belt brilliance, misdirection at its simplest. Add a sprig of the randy and the comedy stew's a-boilin'!

Never was a show more reliant on the quick joke. Characters entered to deliver their wit--call, response, payoff--and got off-stage. Puns, jabs, wild exhortations--if they didn't happen within three lines, they didn't happen. I loved the formula like I love a song that goes "na na na" (perhaps the best-used lyric in all of pop music). (Stay tuned to for a comprehensive list of the best "na na na" ditties).

And I loved Joe and Helen. I had a crush on their relationship and stayed up, often until 2 a.m., to see what would happen for them. Between commercials for hilariously low-budget phone-sex lines, Wings offered just the innocent, silly, histrionic love I was looking for.

I've never quite understood, though, how we can become so involved in dramatized partnerings. Kevin and Winnie, Ross and Rachael, Jon and Kate. The obvious answer is that we put ourselves in place of the characters and vicariously feel some of the thrill they're feeling. That doesn't seem right to me, though. For one thing, I never found Helen all that attractive.

Could it be that we like to watch people succeed? That doesn't really pan out either considering the popularity of death-and-dismembertainment. We seem to love watching anxiety and pain (possibly to feel good about the fact that we're not currently in that situation, but that's a different topic).

Maybe, then, we sense that the beginning of a love relationship is a perfect dramatic ending (as in Shakespeare comedies that conclude with weddings), and we pine for, yearn for that ending.

Maybe romance--even the scripted variety--osmoses in such a way that when we hear and see certain cues we feel amorous ourselves. Just like contagious yawning. Could it be that love unbalances the inner ear?

This unbalancing is sometimes so powerful that we end up rooting for characters who aren't even likable. We need them to get the girl the way we need to close out eyes when we sneeze. Why, though? Because we want the girl, or we want an ending, or we've been duped by theatrical patterns?

What if it's simpler than all that? Maybe Joe and Helen made me feel like life would continue as it was, down a safe path, that plots would winnow to happiness, all as I sat wasting my burgeoning virility in a lights-off basement. Just like setup and setup yoke to make joke, people would couple and mankind would continue, the implied baby like a vaudevillian laugh-line.

Joe-and-Helen was my last TV crush before I started dating. But like Don Quixote influenced by too many adventure stories, I'd clearly been influenced by too much Wings. By turns melodramatic and irreverent, I blundered through my first relationships, expecting that my girlfriends would be the response to my call. I was too easily disappointed when they didn't follow the formula. We were definitely a joke, but the laugh track was busted.

Now that I'm married (and out of the basement), I remind myself pretty often that the show doesn't stop here. After the season finale of the wedding, after the jumping of the proverbial shark, we have to find whole new twists to move the series forward. I have confidence that we'll carry-on, highly-acclaimed.

And if something goes wrong, we'll be sure to befriend an amusing little Italian man.

To be continued.

Thursday, October 29, 2009


A few years ago, I bought my current car from my dad for $1.25. This was a fun continuance of tradition because he'd bought an early car of his from his uncle for $1. (I added the 25 cents for inflation). This sort of low-stakes transaction seemed old-fashioned to me--like walking uphill to school or having a malt--and so I was glad to take part.

I grandly took out my wallet, after signing a post-it note contract, and, thrilling to the idea of my own ride, found that I was way short.

I had to borrow cash from my sister and, as far as I know, the loan is still outstanding. With interest, I probably owe her a decent-sized panini by now.

The car--a 1994 Chevy Corsica--had belonged to my Great (honorific and adjective) Aunt Edith. When she died in 1999, it sat around for awhile, and then, six years later, came to me.

Edith was one of my favorite people. She always had jelly beans for me when I was a kid, and she thought everything I said was just a plain delight. (I don't think it's a crime that I like people who like me.) By the time I was a cheeky teenager, we chuckled about everything together, primarily her pristinely-poofed lady hair.

I blame Edith for my addiction to trying to make people laugh. She had that perfect giggle that, since it was funny itself, extended a moment of humor; I would crack a silly joke, she would laugh causing me to laugh, and so on.

Laughter is believed to be a mode of communication that pre-dates speech. Cave folks, it's thought, may have laughed to express relief after they were no longer in danger of being eaten.

Some think laughter is an unconscious way of organizing a group; some suggest that it's a way to "make others know who is in charge."

The Russian author Gogol wrote of one of his characters that "Like so many blessed with the gift of making others laugh, he was himself an extremely unhappy man whose comic vein was both an escape from, and a consequence of a profound melancholia."1

According to all of this, laughing seems like it's a negative thing. Like it comes from danger, dominance, sadness.

I like getting people to laugh because it's the surest way to know what someone's thinking. In most cases, it can't be faked, and so it's an expression of immediate experience. Then, bada-boom, a shortcut to intimacy. Laughing with someone means they've seen you and you've seen them.

(Fake laughter is tremendously odious. It means, in essence, no I don't want to share an intimacy with you AND I'd like to make fun of the attempt you made at that shared intimacy. Let those who fake laugh have their faces frozen in fake joy. [And also they should only be able to eat veggie burgers]).

Before we were together, I tried to get Megan to laugh all the time, in the most shameless ways. She knew this was her soft-spot, and so she'd nod her head at me suspiciously. Maybe she wasn't ready to share that with me yet. Maybe I was heinously unfunny. I kept trying.

I was just talking to my friend Zach and I told him that instead of Halloween Candy, I would have preferred something savory, like Halloween Steak Umms. Why did I have the impulse to make him giggle by saying that? I wasn't feeling threatened by a mammoth, or trying to dominate him, or feeling super-sad.

Maybe I was trying to distract him from the fact that the other things I was saying were boring. Getting people to laugh, then, could be my re-assurance that I am interesting.

I also felt myself on the defensive about my dislike of Halloween, so, instead of explaining my unpopular opinion, I made a joke about it. This was humor as a way of distracting him from my real thoughts, my real thoughts being unvetted and over-earnest.

I think that sometimes, as a secretly grave person, I'm just afraid of what's serious. Half the jokes I tell are only meant for me, as a kind of pumping up. To me, a joke is like REM sleep; we'd go crazy very shortly without it, in an insomnia of sternness.

Arthur Koestler said that "we laugh at the juxtaposition of incongruous things in order to point out that something is wrong." (Incidentally, he wrote Darkness at Noon, which title is incongruous, which book is decidedly humorless.)

I'm not ready to say that we josh 'n jest to recognize the bleak absurdity of things or that those who make light are desperate and lonely people; but there is something about whimsy that suggests that the rest of non-whimsical existence is not quite good enough. So, I won't say we laugh because things are wrong, as Koestler said, but because things could be better.

At my Aunt's funeral, a relative came up to my brother and me and said, "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, don't add water or the urn will bust."

We all laughed irreverently at that for a long minute. Later, I cried really bitterly at the church while I tried to get through a scripture.

The Chevy Corsica has no sideview mirrors, no gas cap flap, no functional door to speak of. It is filled with copious amounts of garbage.2 Thick layers of nasty trash. That refuse piles up near an old stuffed lion that belonged to my aunt.

There is a prehistoric bug in the back seat I don't like to approach.

I once left the keys in the Corsica as it sat in an airport parking lot while I flew to Washington DC from Columbus. I found out later that I'd also left it running. "Oh honey," said the airport official whom I'd called to talk to about it.

I'd destroyed the radiator.

And for this car, this heap, this lovely piece of steel called Edith, I still owe my sister eleven dollars? Worth every not-mine penny!

Laughter is caused by the epiglottis constricting the larynx, causing respiratory upset.

1 Name-dropping is not often considered a way to make someone laugh, unless you are Dennis Miller, as in the sentence, "He's name-dropping like Dennis Miller."

2 The prize piece of this garbage is a coffee cup chewed and left in the back seat by U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins, himself a pretty funny guy.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Bleeding Heart Show

On today's high school theme, and much more uplifting (eventually). Thanks to Zach Kessler for turning me on to this song, which he named the best of the 2000s.

Here follows his list:

1. The Bleeding Heart Show – The New Pornographers
2. Crown of Love – The Arcade Fire
3. All My Friends – LCD Soundsystem
4. Dinner at Eight – Rufus Wainwright
5. Gideon – My Morning Jacket

(This also goes out to a red-head I know who likes Dunkin' Donuts and Space Cadets.)

An Unnatural Rebellion

It's so hard to know for sure.

Passion leads to misjudgement and hypocrisy; better to eschew passion.

"I think people my age are embarrassed by too much enthusiasm," wrote Susan Orlean, "and believe that too much passion about anything is naive."

Yes, and taking a stand is grotesque, seems somehow unconsidered sometimes. So I'm too much the Devil's Advocate. 99% against violence, but what if violence is necessary and saves lives? Better shut up and let someone else take care of it.

Pretty damn sure that gays should be able to marry, but with 5% reservation that "marriage," the word, has specific physico-spiritual meaning that just can't be easily discounted. Quiet, then.

Plus, there's the question of self-righteousness. Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and be thought preachy.

But on this there can be no doubt. In Jacksonville, FL, there is a school called Nathan Bedford Forrest High. It is named after the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

How can this stand?

(Nota bene: there is another Forrest High School in Tennessee, w/o the N.B.)

He was a man of his times, some might say, and a military genius. Well, let him be that, let him have a corner of a museum and a plaque with copious, condemnatory footnotes. Don't make a bunch of young black kids root for the Rebs.

From a news article: "'As students, (the name is) not a big deal to us,' said Jamal Freeman, a black student, who noted it would cost a lot to change uniforms for the band and sports teams, nicknamed the Rebels.

Sabrina Lampp, a white student, said a change 'takes all the memories away.'"

Really, Sabrina? Really? Wouldn't it be great if all your memories didn't rest on the legacy of a racist fool, if you didn't have to honor that hooded history every time you donned a basketball uniform?

(And now I'm stopping to think--What if he wasn't a fool? What about his redeeming qualities? What about Sabina's? She just wants to give a rebel yell at homecoming just like last year's senior class did. Is that so wrong?)

Jamal's right, too, I guess. There is the money.

In a recent school board vote that kind of rationalization won, 5-2. The name stands. All the white members voted for it. The two black members against it.

My outrage is unoriginal. And, truthfully, the fear of that unoriginality would usually be what really stopped me from saying anything. Outrage is a collective response. I like my emotions untethered.

I like the idea of getting rid of Nathan Bedford Forrest High School even more.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Grandpa Chair

In the sixteen years since he died, I haven't really delved into the stories that make up Don Miller, my grandfather. But I have sat in his chair. Constantly.

It's a 1986 La-Z Boy Reclina Rocker, purchased as a Christmas present for him by my parents at Landry's Furniture in Easthampton, Ma. It shipped on January 20th (I just tipped it upside-down and found the slip still tacked on). It's gold, it's corduroy, it's the world's greatest.

“He spent most of his waking moments when he wasn't out of the house in that recliner,” my grandma tells me. I'm glad to follow in his footsteps on this point.

“Nature's way to relax,” the company called it. We call it “The Grandpa Chair.”

I have two extant memories of my Grandpa Don. In the first, I'm telling him about Hank Gathers, the Loyola Marymount basketball star who died on-court in 1990 after an alley-oop. At seven, I was surprisingly knowledgeable about intercollegiate athletics, and I remember this conversation being the first in which I felt like a grown-up, involving death as it did. Sports and Geography are kids' stuff: The Red Sox and the capital of Arkansas. But death? I had hit the big-time.

My grandpa had heard of Gathers, “yes,” he said. He wasn't a very untalkative person I don't think, but I'm sorry to say I can't remember any other words of his besides the "yes." That night, my family played Trivial Pursuit. I was included and answered “milk” to some question or another. I sat on a white ottoman at his feet. My answer was not correct.

In the second memory, I am sitting in his chair, which I was usually cautioned not to do. I didn't understand why I couldn't sit in it. I only visited his house once a month, and it was so, so comfortable. My family didn't have a recliner, and the whole venture was such a luxury to me--the rocking, the ratcheting of the footrest, the adjustable back. It was also situated, in all its La-Z glory, next to an intense woodstove that over-heated me to the point of my absolute elation.

Of course, my Grandpa had pretty awful Rheumatoid Arthritis. He'd had to give up work as a contractor in his early fifties because he couldn't hold a hammer anymore. So I should have immediately vacated. I like to think he enjoyed me enough--because of the ultra-mature Hank Gathers talk, of course--to share it with me that day.

He walks into the room and takes a seat on the couch.

Cheers is on TV. Woody's trying to sneak into Kelly's room on a ladder the night before their wedding. It's Season 10, Episode 25--at least that's what I can figure. It aired on Thursday, May 14th, 1992. I wouldn't have been at my grandparents' house on a school night, so it must have been a summer re-run.

Yes, it was. I don't feel the heat from the woodstove!

I'm embarrassed because there might be kissing in the show. He's embarrassed because there might be kissing in the show. So he changes the channel.

It's the most utterly meaningless memory to have and it's ushered all the others straight out the window. There is one hug by his front door that's still there, sketchily. (I feel that memories from the early afternoon may not have as long a life-expectancy as others. I should research this.) Regardless, I cultivate the hug: my hip-level height his hands on my head. I didn't see him again after that.

Death, the big-time, meant that my grandpa belonged solidly to my childhood. I heard about his goneness in our living room--early afternoon, blank-white-paper February light--and I grew up. A few months later Leanna Barlow grabbed my arm while we were dissecting a shark at school and my eyes were opened to the world of women the way a baby learns to talk. Something had changed.

My other grandparents lived on, saw me awkward. And my feelings about them changed, too. Their aging was my adult concern. And some of the blanks of their lives got filled in for me. Meanwhile my grandpa stayed unchanged with his feet up; and a sliver of me stays with him when I lean back into childhood, eased by that old, gold, corduroy relic.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Green-Hooded Sweatshirt

I just found out that my favorite thing—a neon green Ohio University sweatshirt—was made in the Sub-Saharan Kingdom of Lesotho, a country that has the highest low point in the world, a legacy of rulers named Moshoeshoe, and a teeming garment industry.

I don't know much about labor issues, and so I don't presume to condemn the manufacturer Jansport like I'm some sort of sentimental Sally Struthers; I do feel uneasy, though, that an object I set out to rhapsodize today—this hoody that was Megan's first Christmas present to me—probably came from the hands of the put-upon.

46,000 women work in Lesotho's clothing factories, mostly in the capital of Maseru. Most make less than a dollar an hour and 43% have HIV.

I probably shouldn't have looked at the tag.

I could have written instead that, missing Megan while we were apart for those three years, I used to wear my sweatshirt for an entire weekend at a time.

That the gift made me feel comfortable about being in Ohio at all, gave me a small bit of ownership of it.

That the hoody has a bleach stain that looks like a bobcat's paw.

That I like to hold Megan's hands in its front pocket on Fall (and non-Fall) days.

That I slept in it all through the winter I lived in the drafty Grosvenor St. house with the defective heat.

That it's the first thing I put on out of the wash.

I could have amusingly digressed into a discussion of what I want to be buried in. About how I'd like to go to my eternal rest (in, say, 2077) laid on my side instead of my back, stocked up with snacks, ensconsced in neon green.

I could have discussed the rhetorical device I've been using throughout this post.

I could have even included this video, since I do, in fact, love you, sweatshirt.

And it's okay, of course, to bring up those things even in light of my new knowledge about the woman—in bright bandana and day-dreaming—who machine-stitched the shirt six years ago.

“The test of a first-rate intelligence,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald, “is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

As you can tell, I'm a second-rater at best, but I do like to function, so I prefer to think that the gift still has its original heft. Only now, instead of reminding me of one person, it will sometimes remind me of two.

The Outlasted

Megan and I bought bikes yesterday. We rode for 24 minutes.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Outlasters (Part 4 of 3)

Meanwhile, back at base camp, Dave was so hopped up on coffee that he was threatening to bite off our fingers. Usually cool and almost pulseless, Dave exuded excitement about his sister's possible victory. He'd been her support crew for quite a few races and this was the closest she'd ever come to a National Championship.

There was ample reason to worry, though, about Sarah's status in the race and about her health.

Unbeknownst to Rob and me, her stomach problems had gotten worse. During her most recent pit stop, she'd had to go out behind the tent to relieve herself, and she was medicating with anti-diarrheals as well. (Though there were porta-potties 200 yards away, Sarah's legs were not land-worthy at that point and so she'd had to make-do).

Dave was beating himself up about her nutrition problems.

“We started the fruit too early.”
“Maybe,” I said, solemnly.
“Or maybe people shouldn't ride their bikes for 24 hours,” he said.

I remembered Sarah's travails the year before when she'd finished third. And what she said about her biggest challenge as a top-tier outlaster.

“Nutrition is the biggest thing. It's the hardest thing to manage once you get tired. You're eating drink mixes and gels. Your stomach usually turns into a mess.”

That, unfortunately, had come to pass. After about 5000 calories of intake and 15 hours of riding, her basic physiology was beginning to break down. To make matters worse, her light faltered on lap 11 and she began to, in her words, “crash around the course.”

I tried to get unnumb around the campfire. When I'm cold I pace, and when I'm tired I pace, so I was double-timing it around the tent, achy and ornery. I couldn't give my pain much respect, though, especially when all around our pit, riders were giving in, packing up, and going home.

They'd been felled by the roughness of the course, the difficult technical sections of the first half, the beach-like sand of the middle, the curves and shock-rattling rocks of the end. One of our neighbors, Sterling Ford—bearded and on some kind of spirit quest—had fallen asleep half-way into his first 24-hour attempt.

And our other neighbor, Steve, who had claimed that he would actually be the sun at 1 a.m., was turning to stone as well.

At 4, I was standing with Bryce, Sarah's boyfriend and an all-around sweet guy. He claimed he'd never been up for 24 hours, and it was showing. Despite all the excitement of only a short time before, we now felt like we were playing out the string. Bryce had internalized Sarah's ultra-competitive streak, though, and we were both trying to will her to a win.

In a flash, Steve pedaled up and said, “Is Sarah in first place?” We perked, desperate for word of our racer. Even hearsay-victory tasted so sweet.

We all liked Steve.

“Pua's on the side of the trail, crying," he said. "Her crew's trying to tell her she can catch up but she's saying she can't.”

I felt so good, then so ambiguous, then so bad. I moved from an “Oh how the mighty have fallen” kind of schadenfreude to a pretty deep pity for Pua in about five seconds. I was a Sarah-partisan all the way, but it's hard to route for someone else's demise. In order for Sarah to win, Pua had to crumble—hard.

When Steve gave us the news, we shared some applause. Three seemed an appropriate amount of claps. Anything more would be a celebration of someone else's suffering. Some supporters and friends, though, had long since brushed past my watery morals. Someone had to win, and they were thrilled for Sarah. I think I counted sixteen hearty claps. Maybe I was in on some of them, but for each one I was conflicted, I promise.

There was a new focus in the pit. When Sarah came in, she was a triage case, but she'd been heartened by passing Pua—a feat that outlasters dream about all race, all season.

“This race was billed as a fight between Jari and Pua,” Sarah said right then. “And Eszter and I have basically dispatched of them both.” This was uttered in the heat of the race and, after all was settled, Sarah did evince a deep respect for her competitors. At the time, though, her remark seemed super-bad-ass, coming as it did from a five-foot-tall woman, who, to use some boxing lingo, could barely answer the bell for the twelfth round at this point.

I was caught up in it and made anxious by it at the same time. I can't, I suppose, be quite that cutthroat.

Earlier Sarah'd told me that she likes all of her rivals, to a certain extent: “I would consider the women I race against friends. I don't like to get super close to them, though. It's a weird feeling when you're out there trying to crush somebody. You don't want to be that close to them.”

(Portions of this blogpost have been brought to you by Orange Crush. When blood needs bubbles. Orange Crush).

She didn't seem in a state to crush anyone, but we sent her out for another lap with the promise that the sun would rise by the time she came around again. With her experience—this was her tenth race—it seemed like she was going to pull this one out.

When she finally came around again at 6 a.m., her digestive situation had not improved, she was dehydrated, exhausted, and, worst of all to her, 25 minutes behind. Eszter, who'd come out of nowhere to be the steadiest rider on the course, now led by a wide margin with only six hours left.

Dave held a sleeping bag around his big sister. He was giving her advice with the voice dads use with small daughters. Just be yourself at school and you'll make friends. Just keep pedaling and it'll all be over soon.

Her swollen legs looked like comically-oversized whiffle ball bats.

Bryce rubbed her feet. Rob and I were somber.

“Every time you go to take a sip of water, take two sips,” said Dave.

“No,” countered Sarah before giggling. We all started giggling. It seemed like she had reverted to childhood. She was the bravest toddler we'd ever met, but I wondered if the bike was starting to play tricks with her mind.

“Once I was hallucinating flying squirrels at the end,” she told me about a previous race. “They just seem to be around. And I've taken naps on the side of the trail and I can't remember making that decision to do it.”

She set off unsteadily. Stay awake, I thought. And look out for airborne rodentia.

I thought about punishment again, and the idea that these racers were trying to stretch the limits of what they could do. Is the race really about achievement, though? Or is the whole ordeal about building up tolerance, about people brashly declaring “nothing can hurt me more than this.”

A feeling of self-reliance is the prize for finishing the brutal therapy, I think. And in the meantime, riders move past distraction to an essential kind of selfhood. They outlast themselves.

“It's like a drug,” Sarah told me. “You just can't help it.”

Compulsion drove Sarah through the last hours of darkness, but new light offered nothing but a phony hope. As the sun poked over the La Sal Mountains, she pitted for the last time and seemed ready to shut it down. Eszter had extended her lead, and Sarah's coordination had completely abandoned her. Because she'd done one more lap than the other racers, Sarah seemed to be comfortably in second; there was an outside chance that she might be caught, though, so she weighed her options.

Stay in and risk falling to third or go out again for another two hours to grab that silver medal. Second in a marathon like this must be the most bittersweet sports accomplishment.

She cracked for a moment and Dave with her. I couldn't tell if they were mirthlessly laughing or exhaustedly crying, but the difference at that point was meaningless. I gave Dave a one-arm man-squeeze.

After twenty minutes, she decided on her own to go out for one final lap. We got her seated, got her equipped, and ran along for the first fifty yards. Her opening lap had taken an hour and eighteen minutes. This one lasted two hours and thirty-five. There would be no photo finish.


Sometime during the early morning, some vandals stole Pua Sawicki's tent. For the great champion, it had been a discouraging weekend. She finished fifth, but didn't come to the podium. She'd vanished from the premises like a mirage, turned from invincible to invisible in the course of an hour.

Eszter took first overall and made back her $400 entry fee. In her first 24-hour race, she claimed the National Championship. “This is so stupid,” she yelled defiantly as she started her final lap, but, by the end, she was elated.

Sarah won $300, or $12.50 for every hour of riding. But it's definitely not about the money; for the outlasters, for Sarah, the race is a kind of purification.

“The fact that you can experience panic, elation, fear, pain—which I guess is an emotion. The fact that you will experience every emotion in the spectrum in 24 hours. It's cleansing.”

And so Sarah Collins, cleaned out, finished the race intact. Finishing is what's important, they say, and we all agreed. Then, mere hours after shouting “never again,” strengthened by a beer and a bratwurst, Sarah started planning for one more race, that next fix.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Outlasters (Part 3 of 3)

Edward Abbey, the naturalist and veritable poet laureate of Southeastern Utah, loved the land surrounding Beyond the Rocks Trail. “This is the most beautiful place on earth,” he wrote to begin his book, Desert Solitaire. “The slickrock desert. The red dust and the burnt cliffs and the lonely sky—all that which lies beyond the end of the roads.”

Rob and I saw what Abbey meant as we hiked out to support Sarah, and we saw that the arid dusk was a sort of reflection of the inner landscape of the riders—on fire, as they were, with thirst, solitary as the faded sky.

People were burning juniper for campfires and the riders had switched on their bike lights. We could smell the fires, then, and look out at the baby cacti and feel a sense of the primal.

But we could also scope the hundreds of lights hopping over the horizon; we could look out over the dune-ish, hardscrabble hills to imagine ourselves in a sort of lunarscape.

I felt like we'd gone backward and forward in time, to the mesozoic and to Mars.

There is an atavism about the event: outlasters seem to rely on ancient instincts to keep them running, and they revert to our basic characteristic—desire. They can only speak in the language of need: need for water, food, rest. After many hours, they are bare-bones human.

Conversely, there's something futuristic about dozens of muscle machines--on strictly calibrated contraptions, donning head lamps, riding through a fine powder of red dust toward a lit-up tent city--who are fueled primarily by energy gels and Excedrin.

It all took me out of time.

Until, that is, Sarah'd pedal up and we'd all key in to the here and now. When she set out again, we'd wander again.


I'd been telling Rob about last year's race, about how a few outposts out on the track were bound to be teeming with supporters. At Wausau, there'd been tiki parties, meat roasts, and whooping.

As I hiked on, I looked forward to that sort of scene, to the frat party of the fit. We'd have an all-night Bike-hanalia!

We reached the spot. We dropped our gear. But Bacchus was nowhere to be found.

For some reason, Rob and I were the only ones who'd decided to tromp out there. Our only company would be Randolph and Lawrence, the seemingly stoned Medical Service guys. They were a couple of characters out of Beckett. Always awaiting the imminent arrival of their boss Todd, a sort of medically-trained Godot, they argued hilariously about proper procedure and whether or not they were allowed to sit in their truck during the race.

This point became moot after we heard the following from Lawrence:

“Dude, press unlock, dude, fuck.” They'd shut themselves out. But no matter. Todd would be by soon with the key.

The outlasters, it seemed, were in shaky hands. We heard that some riders—facing injuries at evocatively named trailmarks like “Nose Dive” and “The Ledge,”—had been waiting for three hours for treatment. Others, though, pulled into the checkpoint with cramps and sprains and, thanks to Randy and Larry, things went smoothly.

The race was also going smoothly for Sarah, who kept riding steady laps into the night. We saw her at 8:20 and she had no complaints, didn't need the paper cup of sweet potatoes we'd hauled out there, didn't need anything at all. This was a breeze, we thought. She was only going to get stronger and we were, we told ourselves, an essential part of that. Team Sarah was on the move.

Prematurely, Rob and I shared an echo-y high-five. We'd had a purpose for those four seconds of delightful panic.

But then there was blankness.

(photo by Rob Strong. For more excellent visual documentation of this race and other things, please visit BlogStrong).

It was a no-wind night, and because a bike came by with its light every twenty seconds or so, our eyes never adjusted to the dark. We got cold. We paced. We discussed the habit-forming properties of Chap Stick (I'd never needed the stuff more than when I was in Moab).

Three times a minute, the hard-breathing, bouncing-light presence of an outlaster.

Punch-drunkenness is contagious and so, after watching riders struggle past us for an hour or so, we got silly. Each person, we decided, needed a specific yelp of encouragement.

“Go, go, go,” I began.

“Marry me,” shouted Rob to a shocked competitor (we weren't really sure who was a man and who was a woman, but he went for it anyway).

“Looking good, looking good,” I'd say.

“Do it for the first person you ever kissed,” Rob would add.

Most seemed buoyed by this. For hours, we kept it up, partially to help the riders and partially to warm ourselves. They began to expect it and so we tried to oblige.

“You're my favorite guys to see,” one said. “I love to see you guys, cause it means it's all downhill from here,” said another. Lest you think I'm praising myself by including their responses, I should say that their incommensurate gratitude for any distraction we offered speaks to the torture of the event. They would have appreciated a tree with glasses at that point.

“You're an animal,” shouted Rob at a rider and I thought it was an apt description.

“You're a machine,” he told the next, and I agreed with that too. I was learning quite a bit by seeing what became of each rider out in the night, alone.

At a slow spot, we both laid down and, motionless, tried to Zen ourselves out of being freezing. I thought I might fall asleep, but I'd pledged that I would stay up as long as Sarah did, and that meant all race, till noon the next day, forever. It was 10 p.m.

She doesn't need you, said sleep-coaxing me to responsible me. Responsible me ate a ham sandwich to keep alert. She can do it on her own, said sleep-coaxing me.

But then she was there and, suffering, cried for her vitamin box and dried fruit, having disintegrated noticeably in the last hour, in obvious stomach pain, drawing on years of hard rides to keep on going—filthy, breathless, soul-struck.

“Tell the pit I need my Useless Shit box,” she told us, referring to her most unuseless shit, her supplements and medications (because outlasters do need to medicate during the race).

(A portion of this blogpost is brought to you by Excedrin. When your blood hurts. Excedrin).

“We'll see you in five miles,” we said urgently.

“Do you need sweet potatoes?
“Half a banana?”

We'd clearly become like Pua's people with our tone of emergency. Maybe they weren't so bad, after all. At 10:30 p.m., it seemed, we all cared a whole helluva lot.

We got on our phone (somehow there was service in the desert) and reported in to camp. She was in trouble, and not even halfway through. But there was nothing else we could do.

Rob proposed marriage to a few more riders and I fashioned a turban out of a blanket we'd brought. Sarah, we realized, had to go it alone. I counted her laps on my fingers. She'd lost eight minutes to Pua in each of the first three so, now that she'd gone through seven, we could expect that she was 56 minutes behind, if not more. Things seemed bleak. We made plans to head back in for the rest of the night.

And then I got a phone call from a number in Southeastern Ohio, where I'm from.

“Who's this?” I asked.
“Who is this?”
“You called me, bro.”
“Yeah, well where's Bronc at?”

I didn't know a Bronc.

“I don't know a Bronc.”

A pause.

“C'mon, man, go get Bronc.”
“Alright, that's it. Goodnight dude.”

It seems certain to me that a guy from SE Ohio who's unwilling to identify himself and is desperately in search of a shadowy character named Bronc probably has a vested interest in Crystal Methamphetamine.

This story has little bearing on cycling, but, though it's a sad reflection of a place I love, it cheered me. And the strangeness of it seemed in keeping with the adventure of the bike-racing night. Where's Bronc at? indeed. It became my rallying cry.

Heartened by Bronc and his friends (and by another necessary ham sandwich), I started to think we could stay out there all night. At least a few more laps. Rob agreed.

By midnight, we were able to shout to the riders that they were halfway through. Some seemed encouraged, others incredulous. Sarah loved it, started riding faster when we told her, demanded caffeine for the decisive push. She'd had a fourth wind and, as far as we could tell, was steadily in third place.

She took a blueberry juice from me, drank, and hucked it into the scrub. We are in the presence of greatness, I thought. I only hoped that greatness wouldn't be lapped by the irrepressible Pua, whom we hadn't been able to track.

Between 12 and 2, a thick crescent moon appeared in the northeastern sky, a dismal rider had to reassemble his bike right in front of us, and the cold attacked from all sides.

Dave had promised us bratwurst and soup upon our return, and the thought of the food heating over a campfire lured us home. This would be our final lap. We'd hiked miles to bring our rider a cup of dried fruit, and now we were headed back.

On the hour-long journey in, I surveyed the area again, this moonlit Mars. The land, crusted and soft, snatched my heels. I imagined what traveling that ground must have been like for the tiring riders.

And I thought about walking by a window at night, the fear that can bring. Essentially, the riders were all encountering that fear for twelve consecutive hours, from sundown to sun-up. I picked up my pace.

From a mile off, we could see the tent city and its thousands of people settled in for the night. It was inspiring that so many people had collectively decided to buy into this nomadic peculiarity. We cut off the trail and straight for it.

“I feel like I'm approaching a moon base,” Rob said. It reminded me of Dagobah from Star Wars, and I only wished we had a land cruiser.

When we finally made it, we went straight for the Results Tent. The standings were available on computers there and we wanted to see how far behind Sarah was. An hour? Two?

At 3:30 a.m., two full work days after the riders began, the lead had shrunk to a mere 25 minutes!

Where's Bronc At?!

The “Other Racers” were advancing unstoppably, like dawn, on grey-eyed Pua.

P.S. Stay tuned. There will be a part 4 of 3. This is a long-distance blogpost.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Outlasters (part 2 of 3)

At that point, after a lap of one hour and eighteen minutes, Sarah was eight minutes behind and tied for second with two other racers—Eszter Horanyi and Jari Kirkland. Eszter was a newcomer, but Jari had been in this position before.

“The hardest part is really the first hour as far as mentally keeping it your own race,” she told me.

Jari had a plan for this weekend. She wanted to defend her crown, beat most if not all of the men, and ride farther on this course than she's ever ridden before.

“I put the pressure on myself because I would like to do well. I just have to keep telling myself that I've trained my best and that I've done everything that I could possibly do.”

In years past, she certainly has done everything within her power to excel. An adventure racer based in Colorado, Jari devotes large parts of her life to extreme sports and to extreme challenges during those sports. In one particular race, she was stung by a bee, which in itself is not particularly high on the list of problems that can take down an outlaster.

Except that Jari is allergic to bees.

And she got stung while riding her third lap, with twenty hours left in the race.

“It got really cold, but my body temperature escalated so much [from racing]. I'm kind of stupid to keep riding, but if I really go into Anaphylactic Shock, there will be someone out there to help me.”

She laughed.

When I asked her why she continues to go through the difficulty of racing for this length of time, bee stings and all, she said, “It's insane. But once you get a taste of it you just want to do better.”

I understand the kind of obsession that leads to possibly unhealthy attempts at the same challenge (I've written this sentence nine times), but I'm curious, too, about her word 'insane.' It's a word that's been bandied about a lot in my conversations with solo riders.

Before the race started, I asked Jari to expand on her insanity plea, to tell me one more time her rationale for riding.

“Why would I want to do this race? To exorcise the demons," she said. "You get a lot of time to think out there and I really think that you come out a better person. Sometimes the best growing parts are painful.”

I've noticed that often when people try to describe intense, even insane experiences, they come very close to revealing intimate details about themselves, but then move back toward safe platitudes. Jari was no exception. Sure, pain is a character-building event, but what of this exorcism? I'd like to hear more about that.

She wasn't forthcoming.

If she'd told me what her demons were, though, I guess I'd have less reason to indulge my curiosity about the inner workings of these racers, about what they're really facing when they look out into their short beam of light at 4 a.m. and see only a band of earth advancing back at them. If she'd told me, I'd know and then there'd be no reason to speculate.

I thank The Man Upstairs for half-answered questions; turns out Jari sometimes gets spiritual too.

“I'm pretty religious and there are times when I have pretty good conversations with God,” she said, describing tactics she uses to push through late-night laps. Others make deals with themselves to keep them going, or they imagine the potential shame of quitting, or they get angry at the world. Jari talks.

During an activity as distressing as 24-hour racing, it is good, I think, to recognize the authority of a higher power.

“After you experience [a race] once," she continued, "It's almost like an addiction. The first time, I got third and I thought 'Omigosh, I'm the shit.' Even though I wasn't the fastest, it was the single most important day of my life.”

That startled me, this suggestion that a bike race was Jari's crowning day. And it made me wonder why attempting the hard thing is so important to us.

Do we do these wild, agonizing things to validate who we are? I overcome, therefore I am? Or is there a sense that we need to punish ourselves, that we don't yet deserve our good lot and so need to scrap for it?

Punishment is always at play during a 24-hour race. On the way to the course, I stopped at a small town post-office to send a card and encountered a Wilfred Brimley-esque man who asked me what I was doing in Utah. I told him about the race and he replied, “Hang out with masochists a lot, do ya?”

I laughed, but he was right.

Jari understated the punishment when she told me that “24 hours is a long time to put your body under duress and have nothing go wrong.”

In fact, here's a list of things that notably go wrong during a race, from least to most dire (subjectively judged by me):



Blurry vision.

Buzzing of the ears.


Muscle pain.

Bee sting (as we've seen).



Joint pain.

Number 11: Much worse chafing. (Whatever your gender, please imagine the evil machinations of a bike seat working on your body for an entire day, and how much that might make you want to never ride, or sit, or ponder your genitals, ever again). 1

But please don't forget about:

Muscle sear.


A mix of six or seven of the above. (Go ahead and choose. It's a fun exercise!)

Blood poisoning.

Joint break.

Kidney failure.

This is by no means an exhaustive list.

“There was one race that I dropped out of,” Sarah recalled to me. “I was a wreck. I couldn't stand up, I couldn't walk. I definitely couldn't pedal my bike. Throwing up. Not in a good way at all.”

“You have to fight your normal biology,” said Chris Eatough, the most celebrated male 24-hour solo racer. “You're doing something totally foreign to what your body is normally set up for, and you have to fight your way through it.”

Since they know that these strains are inevitable, I'm amazed that so many outlasters still attempt these rides. Self-validation through punishment, I think. And an assertion of rebellious freedom: many of them seem to have the same attitude as the neighborhood kid who'd eat a spider just to let everyone know she was not to be pinned down, not to be defined, not to be told that she couldn't do what she wanted, and even what she didn't want, to do.

We attempt the hard thing because some shadowy other, most likely a less courageous part of our self, says that we shouldn't. Dr. Jekyll urges, “Ride an easy lap, then rest.” Mr. Hyde says, “Up yours, Jekyll. I'm doin' this.”

A lot of it's mental and, as Jari said before she started, “If I say I can, then probably I will.”

On her second lap at Moab, after months of intensive training, Jari suffered a knee injury and had to pull out of the race. She would not repeat as champion and those demons of hers would have to wait another day to be exorcised.

* * *

After two laps, Sarah had found her riding rhythm. Though she was sixteen minutes behind, she was doing well physically and held onto a tie for second place.

To hear it from the Public Address announcer at the course, though, you'd have thought it was a one woman contest.

“Pua Sawicki has this race firmly in hand with 21 hours to go,” he said, laughably.

To him, Sarah and Eszter were merely “other racers.” And thus continued what the pit-crew and I called "Pua-stroking."

It's hard to write about Women's 24-hour mountain biking without heaping praise on Monique “Pua” Sawicki. She wins races by hours, appears indestructible, and seems to be backed by the entire machinery of corporate sponsorship that cycling has to offer.

She is primarily helped by Ellsworth, maker of handcrafted bikes. But she also enjoys--for everything from gloves to pedals--the patronage of (deep breath): Byekyle, Ergon, DT Swiss, ControlTech, Genuine Innovations, NiteRider, Magura, Hutchinson, Shimano, Lake, Lazer, Nomad, Park City RV Resort, WTB, i.e.bikes, Okole Stuff, Squadra, PureFit, Pedro's, FuelFactor, MaxMuscle, Crankbrothers, Wobblenaught, and HeadSweats.

(I like to think about the meeting the Sawicki people had with the Wobblenaught people).

Essentially, Pua is the Tiger Woods, the Roger Federer of this sport. That clearly holds true for number of endorsements, but she's also just about as dominant as those guys. And as targeted. The general atmosphere around the Moab race was cordial, but when there's a king of the hill, as Pua is, people get shove-y: the palpable sense was that Pua needed to be taken down.

Since the gates opened, we'd heard it up to here about Pua. She was trying to set a world record, she had a film crew following her, Wasn't it great that she had decided to come defend her title?, Could we all give her another round of applause?, she has the race in hand, she can't be stopped.

Besides all this, there was her entourage, which amused us by shouting very seriously at each other about some food they hoped she would eat.

“We need another banana!”
"Go, GO."
“This one's broken. She needs a different banana.”

If you've ever been around roadies, you've seen what these guys were like. If you haven't I'll describe both groups for you: overzealous, and lacking in perspective, these black-clad key-luggers treat whatever they're doing like it's the Yalta Conference. They have a slight disdain for everyone else, all while being pretty decent guys. Above all, they're ultra-competent and ultra-confident.

In the minds of the entourage, there was no doubt that Pua would dominate. And to make sure of this, they'd rented ATVs so that they could be at her beck and call on the course.

We all hated them. (And, no, it didn't have anything to do with jealousy. Of all the ideas!)

To make matters worse, there was a big picture of Pua's face on Sarah's giant sack of Infinit energy powder, watching us all the time. Sarah is sponsored by Infinit. Guess who else is?

(Portions of this blogpost have been brought to you by Infinit. When the blood gets tired. Infinit.)

Rob and I started getting into the rivalry. If Team Pua had ATVs to go out and bring their outlaster food, couldn't we hike out there and do the same for ours?

Most of the 15-mile course was unreachable for us, but there was one place, about a three mile walk, that, because of the way the trail doubled back on itself, was both mile seven and mile twelve for the riders.

If we got ourselves out there, Sarah would have two extra pit stops per lap, two extra chances to grab water or communicate what she needed. As night fell, we embarked. It was 62 degrees and would be 38 within the hour. Rob and I were going to weather the night in the Utah desert.

We were seven hours into the race. Jari was out. Pua led by a third of a lap. This Eszter was hanging tough.

But our Sarah was still in the race, still pumping at sunset. All we could do was hunker down and see what dawn would bring.

1 Jari: “The general consensus is that girls are a little more complicated down there than men in some aspects, so rubbing and chafing, yeah.” Jari: “I've felt like my butt hurts so bad, if I hit another bump I just might burst into tears.” Danielle: “The most miserable time I ever had in a twenty four hour race—all of the skin on my butt had worn off. And my crew put chamois cream with menthol on me. It felt like a hot iron searing on my skin.” Sarah (directly, as always): “There's the crotch issue.”

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Outlasters (Part 1 of 3)

Sarah Collins staggered into her pit-stop and sat down gingerly.

She'd been sick to her stomach for the last three laps and, because of that, she'd had to stop twice out in the desert to steady herself. Though she was wrapped in a sleeping bag, and though she'd been straining physically for hours, she was cold and shivering. It was 3:30 a.m., and passing out seemed to be her only healthy option.

And then she rode her bike fifty more miles, five more hours, three more laps. “This is so bad,” she said. “Harder than it's supposed to be,” she said. And then she rode her bike fifteen more miles, two more hours, one more lap. As she neared the end, her brother Dave and I held out a makeshift finish line. She broke it (barely); she was done.

24-hour solo mountain bike racing is questionable at best, idiotic at worst. Doctors advise against it. Supporters shake their heads at the pain of the racers with an equal mix of admiration and contempt.

Racers themselves say “never again,” say “this is so stupid,” say “I can't go on.”

Staying upright becomes the paramount challenge. They transform from racers to outlasters, winning only by attrition as others fail to outlast. Riders drop by the dusty wayside in tears and frustration after two or eight or nineteen hours of riding. And someone else wins.

For those who finish, or come close to it, much has been lost: fluids first and foremost, but also balance and sanity. It will take them a month to recover fully. They will have dropped ten pounds. Some will hallucinate.

Has the outlay of energy been worth it?, they wonder, as they stand wobbling at dawn, too exhausted to wipe their crusty faces. Their legs circle on phantom pedals, and they confront again the phantom visions of nighttime riding.

Why did I do this?, they think.

Ignoring the part of themselves that said 'stop,' they have ridden their bikes—over steep buttes and through soft sand, over uneven rocks and through stinging sagebrush—for 24 hours.

Having never done anything, let alone exercise, for 24 hours straight, I came to Utah to witness this fiasco at the Behind the Rocks Trail in Moab.

I'd been in Wisconsin the previous year—at 24-hours of 9-mile in Wausau—and I'd recognized the compelling breakdown that outlasters endure. I had theories. About our common attraction to pain. About addiction and competition. About how personalities vanish so easily in the face of extended adversity.

I'd seen the way the riders start out intact and then begin their slow dissolve into pain, need, insolence. This descent spoke to me about something beyond sports. Look what we can do, I thought. Look what we encounter, and look what we become.

* * *

The Moab race began at noon as a gaggle of perfectly fit people ran toward their bikes like a proverbial horde of lemmings, attracted to their own demise. Cowbells rang. Pump-up music blared from the loudspeakers. Dozens of spectators scurried to snap the quintessential photograph—the one that would capture the chaos and promise of the beginning of a 24-hour race.

The festivities begin this way to ensure a staggered start. Those who are riding as part of a team sprint out and begin their lap first. The solo riders tend to come next. This time, an immediate crash slowed the works. Eventually, though, everyone was off, a mass of cyclists followed by their support crews, all of them shouting instructions at each other.

In a race like this, the excitement level for the onlookers peaks so quickly, and then falls off. Sarah was there, a flash of yellow jersey, and then she was on her bike and gone for the next hour and a half. But it had begun.

Dave and I, with our friend Rob, hunkered down in her pit—an easy-up tent stocked with food, tools, and firewood. It was time for predictions and a recap of the pre-race jitters.

Though none of us are particularly knowledgeable about cycling, and though none of us follow Sarah's brutal training day-to-day or even month-to-month, we felt like immediate aficianados.

“She's going to win this race,” I said, and we all agreed.

“Nutrition's key,” Dave added. Oh, of course.

“She just needs to take in 300 calories an hour,” I said. Yep, yep.

“And race her race,” said Dave.

“And race her race,” we choired back.

Rob chewed sunflower seeds and spat. We were like farmers at a country store who'd just glanced the almanac and so were experts on tomorrow's weather; but we were know-nothings, too, just trying to catch ourselves up in the glow of these excellently foolish athletes doing what we all thought was a heroic thing.

The racers take it all very seriously—detailed training regimens, guru-ish coaches, color-coded meal charts—and so we did too, handicapping the race and jotting what we thought might be helpful notes.

Before the starting gun, there'd been a feeling of militaristic drill.

Sarah's water needed to be prepared with the proper amount of energy powder (“three scoops, three scoops!”). Both her bikes needed to be tuned and re-tuned. The food she might consume had to be laid out in carefully-aligned paper cups. Someone, dear God, someone had to find out whether she could wear an Ipod (turned out she couldn't).

(A portion of this blogpost has been brought to you by Infinit Energy Powder. Infinit. For tired blood.)

There was an air of espionage around our tent, too. Sarah would approach us with a surreptitious “There's Jari,” referring to the defending champion of this race, Jari Kirkland. “Watch out for Monalee,” said another racer through a cupped hand. The static of walky-talkies and the slang of cycling heightened the spy-thriller mood. I pulled on my ear lobe.

The Ipod question emerged again as one of our neighbors indulged in a conspiracy about secret speakers through which pit-crews could illegally communicate with their racers. Another wondered about Inspector-Gadgety water bottles that might afford an unfair advantage of some kind. The cock flew at midnight. And the code on everyone's tongue was “Pua,” “Pua,” “Pua.”

It stood for Pua Sawicki, four-time national champion and all-around superstar. Oh Pua. Say it loud and there's music playing. Say it soft and it's almost like praying. More on Pua later. Watch out for Pua.

We were all tense. Sarah was in a trance, trying to drown out all the hype about Jari and Pua (especially Pua) with repeated mental mantras. She was like a pitcher carrying a no-hitter into the eighth inning and none of us wanted to approach her and jinx it.

We circled her like rookie matadors. Like altar boys during consecration. Like emasculated newlyweds looking over the shoulder of a grudgingly-hired plumber.

She needed to focus, but we were relying on her. We'd come all this way and we, too, were about to stay up for 24 hours. We wanted some assurance that she was going to go all the way with this race and make it worthwhile for us. So I asked her how she felt.

“Honestly I'm just kind of dreading this,” she said. “But no. It's going to be great.”


While we small-talked about whether the sun would be too hot, our next door neighbor, a solo racer named Steve, chirped in:

“At about 1 a.m., I'll think I am the sun.” We all liked Steve.

Sarah's laughter, though, didn't hide the strange mix of dread and optimism that exudes from the endurance cycling crowd. Before the race, they seem to consider the pain and the joy of it all, and then they quickly blend the two. Pain is pleasure sort of thing.

Danielle Musto, a solo racer who finished second at last year's nationals, told me that “no one wants to ride a bike for 24 hours. But crossing the finish line is such a good feeling. You just forget the pain very quickly. During the race the highs are so much better than the lows.”

I was skeptical.

But then Jari Kirkland, of “There's Jari” fame, told me that she likes to “encourage people when they're out there. No matter how bad it is, when you finish it's a ten-times-better feeling than how lousy you're feeling right now.”

I will not linger on the obvious comparison to childbirth that these remarks elicit. I do question, though, whether cessation of pain at the end of doing something is a valid reason for doing it. The accomplishment is one thing, but relief seems to be at the front of everyone's mind during a 24-hour bike race. And the consensus is that the easiest path to that relief is to not do a 24-hour bike race. Ever.

Outlasters don't listen to this advice.

The attitude of the women I spoke to also reminded me of a debate I often have about going on adventures for the sake of having the story to tell. Is 24-hour racing an investment for which the future return is a crisp little narrative? Do they do it for the glory and the story?

People will go through a lot for the warm feeling they get when they can finally utter the words, “Did I ever tell you about the time I. . .”

An associate of mine once smoked crack with the justification that he had to go to the edge and live to share the tale with others who would not go there. What edge he was talking about, I'm not sure, but I, too, always find myself saying, “At the very least, it'll be a story.” This mitigates hassle and frustration for me. I get a good yarn no matter what happens.

I wonder, though, about our instinct to be living out stories in order to tell them later.

In some ways, what could be better? It's like reminding ourselves to be interesting all the time, every freaking day. Of course, on the other hand, it also leads to a devaluation of the present, to falsification, to crack-smoking, to 24-hour bike racing.

I think the outlasters want more than a relief from pain, though, want more than to have done the thing and have a story. They all tackle the race, in Sir Edmund Hilary's words, “Because it's there.”

But it seems to me they compete—against themselves and others—because, after the worst of the fatigue has set in, when the legs and the head are set to automatic, there's nothing to distract them from being fully in the present.

And then Sarah'd finished her first lap and we were all up trying to change the back-pack which carried her water (she'd hucked the old one at my feet), and trying to ask her about the course, and how she was doing—“it's hard out there”—to get her food, get her pills, get out of her way, all while feeling none of the anxiety—and this is the key—that we'd felt in the four minutes before when all we could do was anticipate, because this was now and need was need and there's no room for self-consciousness and

She'd started pedaling again. We were a few yards into lap two.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Astral Weeks

Continuing today's Irish theme, I present Glen Hansard singing Van Morrison. Careful now, pure joy at 2:10 and 2:50. (Oh, and at 3:05).

Craic on the Head

"[T]he words of their tumultuary discussions were difficultly understood and not often nice" - James Joyce, Ulysses

Megan and I took our honeymoon in Ireland and, on one of our last nights there we were both hungry to talk to some real Irish folks of the kind, let's be honest, that we'd read about in books and seen in movies. They were to be outgoing story-tellers, frank, funny, a little bit drunk. They were to be rotund and ruddy, colorful in a slightly bawdy way. They were to be perfect caricatures of themselves.

We went into a place called Dick Mack's which is noted for its craic. I'd thought this term for good old fashioned conversation stretched back centuries, but it seems to be a recent invention popularized as a way to make tourists think they are experiencing an authentic Irishness. Joke was on us, I guess, but the pub seemed to be full of locals and the craic was flowing.

(Imagine the space above with 80 people in it, many of them crooning "Singin' in the Rain" for some reason).

Barflies Megan and I are not, so we got pinned by the door, both wearing the scornful, over-sober look of the lonely. We huddled over our drinks and mumbled. We glanced this way and that for a chatting partner. I, upset with my own shyness, got cross with Megan for hers.

Somehow we'd both expected Maureens and Liams to befriend us immediately, bring out the best in us, and share the best of themselves. But there was no fireplace, no hearty soup, and no Maureen or Liam.

I was stymied! Here, at the emporium of chat, the palace of prattle, the birthplace of Blarney.

But some middle-aged sauce-bags clambered up on top of the table next to us and we both thought things might be heating up. Maybe if they spilled some beer on us they'd be forced to apologize, and we'd start exchanging stories and phone numbers--we'd have friends in Ireland!

I maneuvered my way into the path of their Guinness splash; turned out they were from Massachusetts.

But, oh, best of luck, I heard the fellow say this, step 1, impressed him by knowing the mascot of his local high school, found out he was there with his wife on their anniversary, and told him I was there with mine on our honeymoon.

Step 5: he, overstimulated, shouted my good news to his brand-new Irish friends, and Megan and I were as good as local. Follow those simple steps and you're in!

Quickly, we found ourselves embroiled in a bachelor party for a drunk Muppet named Patrick. Clearly the script was now being performed.

A leering Alan Rickman look-a-like teetered behind one of the tables, within breath-shot of a bevy of birds. They didn't care for him in the least, the birds didn't. All of this seemed fitting, though, if slightly unsavory.

Each member of the wedding party toasted Megan and me; we were bought beers, had them spilled on us; we laughed at jibes about my manhood, my ball-and-chain, my life being over, my stupid decision to hitch up, my inferior looks, my really stupid decision to bring my pretty wife to Ireland where the men are the horniest in the world, my future cuckolding as performed by Patrick the drunk Muppet, (I stopped laughing), his friend Brian, and their friend Steve; they laughed at my stupid decision again, and, finally, had one last jibe about the series of STDs I'd presumably carried home after my own stag party.

I got my shoulder between Megan and the Irish as if I could defend her from their quickly snowballing rudeness. She held her own, of course, shaming the lads with her charming mix of pluck and poise. They were traditional Irish pudding in her hands and a tense fun was maintained.

Then someone wetly whispered to me that a woman across the table was a "mangirl." I took no notice until Alan Rickman started hitting on her. Why Alan Rickman was interested in a Mangirl, I couldn't know.

Eventually, our Stag Party mingled with Mangirl's Hen Party (we learned this term when Brian covered my ears--four times--and asked, "Maygan, Maygan, whatdidyadoo atchyer hen partee?")

I had my eye on all these roosters.

Then Alan Rickman British-swore at Mangirl, Mangirl poured her Murphy's on Alan Rickman, he returned the favor with Guinness, she smashed her glass right on his face, and the shards--of face and glass--landed on Megan's shoe.

General conversation continued uninterrupted.

I grabbed Megan's hand and said, "Let's go." On the way out, as the police approached, we told a couple in their 70s what had happened. The husband, with thick accent, said, "What else is new?" and they both stepped in for a pint.

That night, the line between exactly-to-plan and disastrous was thin indeed for Team David and Megan.

We looked at each other in the doorway and, with newlywed invincibility, followed the 70-somethings straight back in.

Maybe the elderly lady's name was Maureen, I thought, and maybe she'd be our Irish Memory.

Turned out, she was from Massachusetts.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


A theoretical cardboard cutout of The United States balances on a pinpoint that corresponds to the real-life, non-cardboard town of Lebanon, Kansas, in Smith County U.S.A., the heart of America, at which there is an abandoned motel, a pillbox chapel, and a flat-handed wind.

The wind threshes the surrounding fields, cold-cocks the chapel--itself there for those tourists hoping to meditate on what exactly they are at the heart of. It's a big land, they might think. And I am grateful for it.

The chapel and the motel seem to have sprung from a missionary's mind, a mind that may have seen this arbitrary center as a booming pilgrimage site.

Some writing suggests that the chapel was built as a wedding destination, a sort of Niagara Falls of the Great Plains. (Its four pews would allow only a small party, but the bride's five-foot walk down the aisle could prove quite dramatic.)

It would take an unlikely mix of quixoticism and blandness to plan a wedding or a vacation at the center of America. This place is like the New Year's Eve of tourism--it's a one-second event: move onto the center, have a vague feeling about it, move off of the center.

Perhaps, though, the same missionary envisioned an entire marketplace built up around this space the way shops crowd Four Corners State Park, the political junction of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah. There, Navajos sell images of the ubiquitous kokopelli. Couples sneak in late at night to canoodle in four states. The most intrepid visitors do headstands. All of it a lively bazaar.

It's not hard to imagine a mall like that in Kansas called Center Center. A drive-in movie theater that shows the most patriotic films--The Best Years of Our Lives, Yankee Doodle Dandy. Maybe even a mini-golf course with an 18th hole Jayhawks's mouth marking the exact spot. Sink this putt and you're a true American, Junior!

People might put their chests on a magic stone to have a little heart-to-heart. They might send their penny-shaped romantic wishes into a crystal fountain. Or climb to the top of a tower to see--five dollars please--America as far as it goes in all directions.

And so a motel was built. By a wide-eyed man named Virgil, or an earnest veteran named Frank, or a misguided opportunist named Elroy. Maybe it flourished for a short time, but the dim novelty of the place couldn't support it for long.

Someone must have decided it was too sad to demolish it.

When I tried them, I was surprised to see that the doors of the motel were still open. Inside one of the rooms hung two used towels on bunked beds. I worried that I was intruding--on vagrants or ghosts from 1936--worried that I was about to be shot.

I closed the door and shuffled away in a curved line in order to evade the imaginary bullet. Then I left the park, headed off-center where I belong.

It's easy to joke about the symbolism of the place, the idea that the middle of the country is out of business.

But I'm happier to say that in Lebanon, Kansas, in Smith County U.S.A., at the heart of America, big ideas sometimes falter, but there remains an unbent, if naive faith that we can be drawn together by nothing more than a notion.