Sometimes, you just know…..

The best education is one that teaches you…encourages you…to ask questions. I have said before that I have been the benefit of a world class education…BA, MA, MM, DMA…I’ve studied at some of the world’s finest institutions, with some of the leading professors and experts in the fields of music, theatre, humanities, history, education, policy analysis and formation, etc. – The University of Michigan, Boston University, The Julliard. Every single stop along the way I was taught to question everything. Everything. The truth of what I was reading/being told. The usefulness of the same. How any of it applied to the past, present, or future. And, most importantly, why.

As a cyclist, I am still learning what questions to ask. The first major bike purchase I made as an adult came in November of 1995. Before that point in time, I had only owned cheap, department store bikes that were heavy and normally mountain bikes with straight handlebars. I had no idea about fit, saddle position, weight, components, etc. I, like my wife, based a bike’s usefulness on appearance, and, number of gears available.

At that point in our lives, I was enjoying a bit of a physical renaissance. I had put on some weight in the late 80’s and ballooned from the 185 pounds I weighed when we got married up to about 260. In 1988 I started my career in education by accepting a job as a junior high wrestling coach. It got me physically active again, as I had learned to never ask anyone under my leadership to do anything that I wouldn’t/couldn’t/didn’t do myself. So I did all of the drills, conditioning, and other physical demands I asked of my wrestlers. Over the course of the next few years, the weight came off until I was back to within a few pounds of that weight again. That fall one of my paternal uncles became seriously ill. He had been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, a pernicious disease which he has fiercely battled over the last quarter century. We wanted to do something to help, and we took note that an organized, two day bike ride from Phoenix to Parker Dam, California, was being organized as a fundraiser to battle MS. Somehow, I knew this was something I wanted to do.

Unfortunately, I didn’t ask the right questions…like “should I? What physical demands is this going to place on me/my body? What kind of equipment is it going to require?” I did know that fundraising was going to be expected as a condition of registration. I knew that literally thousands of people were going to be taking part in the event, and that one of them was a professional cyclist who lived in the Valley and had already made quite a name for himself – Michael Secrest. I, like other people who rode bikes in the 80’s had followed with joy as Greg LeMond became the first American to win Le Tour de France in the late 80’s, but I followed his exploits in the sports pages – there literally was no television coverage of Le Tour in the US back then. So I didn’t/couldn’t appreciate the speed generated by, and the physical demands placed on, these phenomenal athletes. The fact that Secrest just a few years before had won the Race Across America (RAAM) – a 2,816 mile, time-chipped race from Huntington Beach, CA to Atlantic City, NJ – for the second time, finishing in a record time of 7 days, 23 hours and 16 minutes, really meant very little to me or my wife. What DID matter was that Secrest was a native of Flint, MI – her hometown – and she wanted to see me in action for the first time in our married lives against competitive athletes.

All we had at the moment were a pair of department store mountain bikes. To that point, I had been doing rides around the neighborhood and surrounding desert of between 25 and 35 miles. To be sure, these rides were relatively easy as there was little real climbing in that area of the Valley we lived in. My knees, however, had issues towards the end of these rides, and I knew the first stage of the “MS 150 Best Dam Bike Ride” was going to be a shade over 100 miles and would end with some major climbs out of the Valley and towards the Colorado River Plateau. I knew I would need a better bike. So we went shopping the night before, once I had finished my share of fundraising and knew I would be able to participate.

The shop was located just a few blocks from our house. We informed the shop owner, with all four of our daughters in tow, what I was doing and what we were looking for. I can’t tell you just how far his eyebrows were raised when we were finished, but I can tell you that to this day I never knew that eyebrows could recede into your hairline! He asked questions himself. What’s your longest bike ride to date? What kind of physical activity have you done in the last year or two? What is your athletic history like? How much do you weigh? What’s your height, inseam, and reach? Following our answers he started to round up a few bikes for me to try out and muttered something like, “I should have asked about your life insurance policy….”

The first bike was a brand new Diamondback carbon fiber bike. White. 20 speed. Light. Gorgeous. I started to get on it when I noticed the price tag and gulped. I embarrassingly had to inform him that our budget was much smaller than that. He then had me try out another bike, an aluminum one as I recall, also a 20 speed, new, light. This one was about half the price of the Diamondback, but still out of our price range. Once we cleared up what we COULD afford, he showed me a Centurion Accordo – a 1987 lower tier touring model that was 12 speeds and he had taken it in on trade. It had a price tag of $300, but, looking at our girls and noting that I was a teacher and my wife was finishing her education degree, he said he would cut the price by taking my cheap mountain bike on trade (he was just going to cannibalize the components, he said – I had no idea what that meant), and customize the Accordo and make sure it was ready to do the ride.

My wife and I loved the color scheme. Like all Centurion models of the mid and late 80’s it was a two-tone. In this case, blue and silver. It had ram handlebars, downtube friction shifters, handlebar brakes, and 27 inch Araya wheels. I believe the components were a Shimano RX gruppo. He had me climb on the bike while it was mounted to a trainer in his shop and adjusted the saddle height for me – something I didn’t previously know was a consideration. Then I took off around the parking lot. It was rush hour in Phoenix, and 59th Avenue and Bell Road is NOT a place, then OR now, you want to ride a bike on in those conditions. So he gave me a crash course on how to get into and out of the toe straps, shift gears and brake. The bike was smooth, and although significantly heavier than the other two I had looked at, was still the lightest bike I had ever owned by far. Pedaling it was smooth and enjoyable. No pain. But I felt very unsteady in the forward position with the ram style drop handlebars. We agreed to a price of $200, if he transferred my mountain bike handlebars to the Accordo. He threw in a pair of thorn guards (a hard tire liner that protects against tube puncture) – one for each tire. I added a purchase of mountain bike bar ends (an attachment that sticks out 90 degrees from the handlebars and allows you to change hand position) and a water bottle. He told me to take the family out for pizza next door while he made the swaps, adjustments, and added some extra cleaning and lube to get me ready for the race.

The details of how that ride went I shared in an earlier post, crash and all. Secrest finished the entire 190 miles before sundown on the first day. Despite the crash, I managed to finish the ride among the first 500 riders out of over 2500 – even with broken thumb and road rash. The following year, Secrest would set the world record for a 24 hour period by cycling 532.74 miles in a velodrome at Cal State University. I will say that that ride to California taught me how many questions I needed to ask. How many water stops? What kind of medical and SAG support is there? What is the pace expected? Is it a shotgun or individual start? How much climbing is there? It also taught me to ask questions about bike weight, fit, components, etc. Most importantly, it gave me the opportunity to learn what I was physically capable of and see/hear the admiration of my wife when she and the girls greeted me at the finish line in California!

By the way, I still have the Accordo. It served as my only bike for almost 17 years, and countless fundraising events for the MS Society, American Diabetes Association, American Cancer Society, etc. Our oldest daughter was so impressed with the event in ‘95 that the following spring, she took part in her very first bike ride for the ADA Tour de Cure in Scottsdale. She pedaled 25 miles on her own at the age of 11. My wife and her sisters pretty much followed her along the route while I pedaled the metric century route. She finished about an hour before I did. It was my turn to be so proud! The following year, our three oldest did the Tour de Cure along the Lake Michigan shoreline while my wife SAG’d them, and I did the century route. So proud of them all! We biked several times through their childhood. They had cheaper bikes, my wife still had her mountain bike (why we brought it from AZ I’ll never know!), and I rode the Accordo.

After my bariatric bypass, I knew I wanted to ride for causes again to regain my health and teach my students that community comes first. I knew that I probably should begin to look for another bike – a lighter bike. This time, though, I could afford one. After some research, I settled on a 1987 Centurion Dave Scott Ironman Expert. About three pounds lighter than the Accordo. Better components (Shimano 105). Still had ram style drop handlebars, down tube friction shifters, and was a 14 speed. I was stunned when my average speed went from 14 mph to nearly 17 mph.

The following fall, when I was forced into teaching a double overload – effectually a single year, $32,000 raise – I said to myself “If they’re stupid enough to pay me that kind of money, I’m stupid enough to spend it.”

Armed with cash, and a series of well-informed questions, I began the search for a top end bike. Centurion had been bought out by Diamondback in the 90’s, then collapsed. So I had to find something else if I wanted new and ultra light. I was looking for fit, body geometry (determines body position while riding – some bikes’ geometry stretches your body into a long and low position, while others put you more upright), componentry, weight, road absorption, etc. We traveled to several retailers and tried most major brands – Cannondale, Raleigh, Giant, Bianchi, and Trek. The one that I liked the best was a Trek Domane. It was similar to many of the others that I had test ridden, but additionally it had a dampening system (not shock absorber in the manner of mountain bikes) that made the ride more comfortable. Before I could tell the shop owner that I would be paying cash for the bike and while I was out test riding it, he ran my driver’s license through Trek credit for preliminary approval. When I got back, he asked to see more ID and informed me what he had done by saying, “According to this report, you’re dead!” I informed him that my father had just passed away a couple of years prior, that we had the same name, and how dare he run a credit check without my authorization? He informed me it was a matter of procedure when loaning out a $6000 bicycle. My wife and I left, but I noted the model and size. The bike was the closest thing I had found to what I wanted to be my dream bike, and I made up my mind that I would find another Trek dealer to purchase it from.

The next week, we were informed by my local club that a dealer had just agreed to be a club sponsor and was giving special discounts to club members. He was a Specialized dealer and we headed over. I knew immediately. The body geometry was so comfortable, the fit was so perfect, that it felt as though I was pedaling through air. The bike was four pounds lighter than my Dave Scott, about $1000 price difference for each of those four pounds! After a round of adjustments, I laid out the cash and I pedaled that bike the 44 miles home on an early fall afternoon. The only discomfort I felt was the sweat rolling down my face. Not from the exertion, but from the sun and warmth of the 80+ degree late afternoon. I was shocked again when I got home and discovered my average speed had now moved from 14 to 17 to 21 mph! Not in the league of a Mike Secrest, but definitely a pretty fair amateur speed for 44 miles! Sometimes it pays to ask the right questions. And sometimes, it’s too late.

Over the past two years, I have kicked myself in the arse for not asking the questions I should have of my mother and paternal grandmother. These were two of the strongest women I ever knew. My grandmother raised a family of nine children, while simultaneously housing a daughter and her husband after my grandfather died in 1942. Three of my uncles enlisted and fought in the Pacific in World War II. Grandma never remarried. Never dated. Yet she managed to keep a roof over all of their heads despite the fact that my grandfather left almost no life insurance and had only worked in low-skilled, hourly jobs. Grandma lived for another 41 years without her partner. Similarly, my mom lived seven years after my dad passed. Due to some financially irresponsible advice from a family member, she was forced to leave her home of 55 years six years after his passing. It is no surprise to me that she passed within a year after we moved her to another home.

Missed opportunities to learn the source of their strength. How did they deal with the loneliness? How did they deal with that ache late at night and first thing in the morning? What memories carried them through? What goal or goals kept them going? Was there something they learned during their marriages that they felt they should pass down to help us in the tough times? Sometimes it pays to ask the right questions. And, sometimes, you just know.

Thirty-seven years ago tomorrow night (February 12th, 1983) we went to our first dance together. We had gone on our first date on January 15th – we saw “Tootsie” and, when I dropped her off at her home and turned away to go, she spun me around and kissed me! I was shocked (I never kissed on the first date) and so was her younger, 15 year old brother, who was peeking through the curtains at us! This dance was going to be our first, all day long, romantic date. I had already begun to develop some serious feelings for her. She was funny, highly intelligent, more talented than I (see last weeks’ post with a video of her singing), and stunningly beautiful. She was also kind and loving to everyone she interacted with. Dancing, though? It was my weakest area. I was terrified and didn’t know how she would respond to my klutziness! She, after all, had taken years and years of dance as a kid (one of the first things she told me when I noted how gracefully she moved on stage). She was teaching an aerobics class in her complex every night. God, she was stunning in that leotard and tights! I took the class just so I could enjoy the view, and I wasn’t the only one!

The dance was a disaster at first! She was so damned beautiful she glowed when I picked her up. She was wearing an intoxicating perfume – at least it seemed like it to me at the time – and I couldn’t get my head straight. I couldn’t get my sense of rhythm or beat, and, after a few attempts at faster dances I asked her if we could sit down. Tears started rolling down my cheeks, only making matters worse, as I felt the shame. I knew I had blown it. She saw. She always saw. She left her chair, came over, put her arms around my neck, sat on my lap, looked me in the eye, and said “It’s ok. Really. I love you.” At that moment, the DJ spun his first ballad – Lionel Richie’s “Truly.”  We got up, danced, and I knew. I still know. That became the song we first danced to at our wedding reception ten weeks later. It was always our song.

I didn’t pop the question for another few weeks. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the exact date. But I do remember the exact date we both knew because it was Valentine’s weekend. And I know she knew then, because she kept these for our entire marriage. Sometimes, you just know.

Valentine’s Day is horrible for a widow/widower. I haven’t looked at my phone or been online other than to post these updates in over a week. Between her dog passing, the anniversary of her death, the anniversary of our first dance, and Valentine’s Day…just too much. But love is indeed stronger than death. Sometimes you have to ask the right questions to find out if you are the right fit. And, again, sometimes you just know. Truly.

Where do I begin?

January 1971. An 11 year old boy snuck into his father’s room after school to stare in fascination at the calendar he had hanging on the wall. I – ooops…HE….(hahahahaha) had first observed the object of his current fascination a week before when bringing his dad a cold bottle of 7-up on a Saturday night while he was listening to the radio and reading. Unsure of whether or not his dad had forgotten the calendar was there, the lad couldn’t get those pictures out of his mind! So, over the next week, he snuck into the room to try and burn the images into his mind! Well, maybe THAT’S where I developed my photographic memory! (Of course it was me!) Regardless, THAT was the week my fascination with the opposite sex began…oh, Miss June!

Oddly enough, it was also about the same time I began to be prepared for the heartbreak that comes with the territory. In early 1971, the hottest movie of the year hit our local theatres. The commercials were all over the airwaves…the song was equally omnipresent, and, in my opinion, Ali MacGraw was just as beautiful as Miss June! Love Story is one of the greatest chick flicks of all time and inspired several imitations (Steel Magnolias for example) and spoofs (see Family Guy and the “Chick Cancer” episode). I didn’t actually get to see this movie for another 13 years until it came out on video disc (no, not DVD…video disc – look them up!), but it was one of the first movies my wife and I rented for our new technology. I surprised her by singing words to the instrumental theme. She didn’t know they existed. I, however, lived in a house where music was king! Dad loved his country and bluegrass, mom loved big band, jazz, swing, and gospel, my oldest sister loved Broadway, and my brothers enjoyed rock. Andy Williams took the “Love Story Theme” to #1 on the Easy Listening chart, and as high as #9 on the Billboard Hot 100!

How the hell was I supposed to know this movie and song would define my life?

Where do I begin
To tell the story of how great a love can be
The sweet love story that is older than the sea
The simple truth about the love she brings to me
Where do I start

With her first hello
She gave new meaning to this empty world of mine
There’d never be another love, another time
She came into my life and made the living fine
She fills my heart

She fills my heart with very special things
With angels’ songs, with wild imaginings
She fills my soul with so much love
That anywhere I go I’m never lonely
With her around, who could be lonely
I reach for her hand, it’s always there

How long does it last
Can love be measured by the hours in a day
I have no answers now but this much I can say
I know I’ll need her ’till the stars all burn away
And she’ll be there

How long does it last
Can love be measured by the hours in a day
I have no answers now but this much I can say
I know I’ll need her ’till the stars all burn away
And she’ll be there

Even more fitting is the fact that the brilliant poet who wrote the lyrics for this song, Francis Lai, was born the same week as I, but 28 years earlier, and died just nine months after my wife. Damn.

Yes, I’m having a rough week. After Ginger passed, I did go out and ride. I rode for five consecutive days, (my first rides outdoors in over two weeks) running my streak of consecutive months with at least one ride of a metric century (62 miles long) to 22 months on Saturday in brutal cold and wind. I thought it would help. It didn’t.

I took to the treadmill as well, running two miles every day for over a week at increasing speeds. My cardio vascular system and muscle tone responded well. My mind did not.

My kegerator is empty because the three Scotch Ales I normally keep in stock are out of production at the moment. Probably a good thing. Instead, I have turned to the remaining bottled store I have in my basement – Robert the Bruce from 3 Floyds in Indiana, Brewers Reserve from Central Waters in Wisconsin, Backwoods Bastard from Founders in Michigan, Sheep Shagger from Tyranena in Wisconsin, 90 Shilling from BelHaven in Scotland….and, of course, some 14 year old Single Malt Glenfiddich Scotch Whiskey and some 4 year old Templeton Rye Whiskey from Templeton, Iowa (a distillery I once visited on RAGBRAI). Of course I didn’t drink them all at once, nor more than three in a single day. Regardless, there was no respite to be had in my bottled friends either. Apparently my tolerance has significantly increased, or my pain is off the charts. I believe it is a combination of both.

On Saturday, at 4:12 pm we were in the middle of dinner, trying to celebrate her life on the second anniversary of her passing. I literally had to choke down my food, recalling those final moments as she gasped for breath, fighting to the last. Recalling the final “I love you” she spoke to each of us over the last week. Recalling Ginger’s final moments as she rolled over and kissed my face, thanking me for releasing her from pain.

My parents are dead. My grandparents are dead. All but five of my aunts and uncles (out of 26!) are dead. My dogs are dead. And my wife…my best friend…my comforter in chief is dead. Who the HELL is going to release me from my pain?

As a cyclist, I learned to use cue sheets – a typed out guide to where you are going, with distances and turn by turn directions marked to make sure you get there. I then learned to use GPS on my Garmin or smartphone to check my position and the best way to get to where I wanted to go. Invaluable tools. In the past nine years since I started cycling “hardcore” I have mashed out nearly 51000 miles. I have logged nearly 1100 rides. In all of that mileage and all of those rides, I literally got lost precisely….once. Once.

In 2014 my wife and I were proud to travel to the UK to help plan, organize, and take part in our daughter’s wedding to a lad from Newcastle. We spent well over a month there and actually got out to ride in between times. My God it was marvelous! I was able to ride around my ancestors historical holdings in Scotland and North Umberland. We spent a night in a castle my ancestors built and VERY distant relatives still own – turned now into a Bed and Breakfast overlooking a historical battlefield! I have pictures of me carrying her across the threshold and reminding her that I had promised to give her a castle someday!

One of those off days, I left an inn we were staying at and asked my wife to meet me at Hadrian’s Wall, approximately 65 miles to the southwest. Soon after I left, my phone lost signal…no big deal, as I knew signal was weak in that area. What I DIDN’T plan on was losing GPS support. Approximately 15 miles out of that rural village my Garmin started spinning. I lost all support! The road was narrow. There were few signs, and NOTHING that led to a major landmark. In rural England, the country roads are based on old livestock paths. They twist, and turn, changing names and sometimes come back onto themselves. It did not help that it was nearly mid-day, so using the sun as a guide was of no use. There was no official language barrier, but finding anyone to get directions from was problematic, as there were no businesses out there, and most residents were either farming, or employed elsewhere. When I was able to find a soul or two, that Geordie accent had the effect of speaking a foreign language, however.

Eventually, more than five hours later, I found a sign pointing towards an abandoned Roman fort along the wall. I reached back and found that my phone was now getting signal. I checked to find several texts now appearing from my very concerned wife. I messaged her back, explaining where I would meet her…approximately 15 miles to the west of where we had originally planned! I started out for the fort, and within a mile or so, the Garmin sorted itself out. I have NEVER felt so alone. NEVER felt so lost. NEVER been at more of a loss for direction and future. Until now.

As I near my 60th trip around the sun, I ask myself “why?” We had a fantastic 35 years together. We made a life. We made a home. I FOUND that love that I had always craved since hearing that song and reading that book 48 years ago!

The answer, simply, is we are in a VERY different world (or at least I am). 48 years ago we also had a criminal in the White House. But we had a Congress that had the stones to stand up for what was right. That president also had a hit list of political enemies. Funny, because today the POTUS FINALLY announced to the media something I believe when he said that “everybody is a threat” to him. Nixon also lied. Nixon also lashed out against the media. But the Congress as a whole STILL stood up to him as a collective and drove him from office. As a society, we had begun the drive to turn back the dark clouds of racism and hatred following the riots of 1968. Now?? The rise in racism and hate speech has more recalled the days of the 1920’s with the rise of the KKK as our president passively looks to assign blame on both sides of the racial divide. As a society in 1972, we were beginning to open our borders to those fleeing oppression in Eastern Bloc countries, South East Asia, and Central America. Now? We have begun to be the xenophobes that seemingly echo Senator Joseph McCarthy and his HUAC! “Are you now, or have you ever been a Mexican/Muslim/Democrat???”

My wife and I became teachers to change the world. This week I feel we lost. I feel we sacrificed our performance dreams for nothing. She had the voice of an angel. She ALWAYS had more talent than I…I was just better educated. I feel she gave up her dreams for nothing…and I am to blame. The clip below shows us performing at our oldest daughter’s wedding 11 years ago. Yep. I was fat. Just goes to show how much of an angel she really was, because she literally stuck with me thru thick and thin! This was two years before my bariatric bypass and three years before she started announcing to everyone that she felt like she was cheating on me with ME!

So, I’m sorry. It has been a horrible, no good, very bad week. Death. Taxes. I can’t even do my effing taxes without help (and there is none that I can afford – and TurboTax isn’t helping). Student loan renegotiation. Failed impeachment due to refusal to perform your constitutional duty. Continued gun violence. Continued sexual assault on women and little children. A former district that seems hell bent on destroying the legacy my wife and I built by condemning their current students to mediocrity.

I have no idea what the hell I am doing here anymore. I feel as though I have been blindfolded, transported to Outer Mongolia and summarily deposited. No phone. No GPS. No credit cards/money. A language barrier when/if I do find other souls (I can speak and read several languages, but none of them are Asiatic!). No car. No bike (the horror!). Not a single soul to talk to that understands or even really cares.

That, in essence, is the problem with grief. “I’m so sorry. But hang in there. It will get better in time.” Bullshit! It’s been two years. The pain is as wrenching now as it was when I screamed “No” as she took her last breath. “I’m so sorry. I’m here if you want to talk. Just call.” For crying out loud. I struggle very damned day to get out of bed, then struggle with the thought of going to bed at the end of the day. You think I have the energy or the courage to call anyone? Especially when they can’t be bothered to phone/e-mail/PM/text me???? Seriously, no one going through this feels like they can make that call because when or if we do, often the response makes us feel as though we are a burden. I WILL NOT BE A BURDEN!

So that’s it. Thanks for bearing with me while I bare my soul.

Now it begins. Now it starts…

One of my favorite past times has always been reading. My dad has a book in his hand when I picture him in my mind’s eye, it is always the same….laying down on the couch in a pocket tee and his work pants, with a Mickey Spillane, Doc Savage, or Nick Carter novel in his hands, and the Grand Ole Opry blaring from the stereo. My parents were more than happy to indulge my own interests, believing it (rightly so) to be a method of bettering myself through education. I shared his interest in Doc Savage to the point that I own one of the very few complete collections of the original pulp magazines that sported those stories that exist in the world. That interest started as a nine year old when I began to read the Bantam paperback reprints of those stories (with some incredible cover paintings by James Bama that only helped fuel a young boy’s hero worship!). But I branched out swiftly. As a family, we typically spent every weekend from mid-April to mid-October on the road camping somewhere, and the entire month of July when the factory my parents worked for shut down during maintenance and updates. While we enjoyed fishing, swimming, and other activities, we were also told to bring along other things to do to keep ourselves entertained when it rained. For me, that meant books. I read The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Ivanhoe, Robinson Crusoe, Swiss Family Robinson, Kidnapped, Treasure Island, and so many other classics on these outings during rainstorms pounding on the canvas of our tent, by the light of a Coleman lantern – all by the age of 9! By the time I was through high school, my repertoire had expanded to include authors like Tolstoy, Somerset Maugham, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, and started to include poetry by Frost, Keats, Yeats, Whitman, and others. Over the years since my wife sometimes snorted in derision when she noticed me reading for pleasure academic works on philosophy, history, hermeneutics, and spirituality. Life got in the way a couple of years ago and my reading all but stopped as I shifted primarily to caretaker for her, and then our dog Jasper shortly after her death.

After Jasper’s passing on Thanksgiving weekend of 2018, I once again started reading. While she had light heartedly poked fun at my pleasure reading list, I did the same for hers. She mostly read what I termed historical and sci fi “smut” novels! One of her favorite series that I particularly took exception with – out of ignorance, and what I now realize is a bit of toxic masculinity – was Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander. I began with that series in an effort to understand a part of my beautiful wife that I had ignored. And thru it, I began to connect with a side of her that I wish we had explored and enjoyed together. Over the last year I have also reconnected with my expanded interests in historical nonfiction – Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, for example – and, especially, poetry such as the works of John Donne (see my Abler Soul post of a several weeks ago). This week, however, one of my recently discovered favorite poets has been front and center in my transitioning life. Hermann Hesse was one of the most influential poets of the 20th century and authored this poem, which has become the center of my life this week:

Stages

As every flower fades and as all youth
Departs, so life at every stage,
So every virtue, so our grasp of truth,
Blooms in its day and may not last forever.
 Be ready, heart, for parting, new endeavor,
Be ready bravely and without remorse
To find new light that old ties cannot give.
In all beginnings dwells a magic force
For guarding us and helping us to live.
Serenely let us move to distant places
And let no sentiments of home detain us.

The Cosmic Spirit seeks not to restrain us
But lifts us stage by stage to wider spaces.
If we accept a home of our own making,
Familiar habit makes for indolence.
We must prepare for parting and leave-taking
Or else remain the slave of permanence.
Even the hour of our death may send
Us speeding on to fresh and newer spaces,
And life may summon us to newer races.
So be it, heart: bid farewell without end.

Two years ago tomorrow (February 1st) at 4:12 pm she died in my arms and my life as I knew it began to unravel. Yesterday, a precision and surgical strike took place to drive home the real meaning of Hesse’s words. My beautiful bride’s dog Ginger succumbed to cancer and left me to join her. Last night I spent the first night totally alone in a home I lived in for the first time since 1981. The silence was deafening. The lyrics of One Hand, One Heart from “West Side Story” came immediately to mind. Not the romantic promise of the modern Romeo and Juliet, but rather the important reminder that Hesse mentions above of transition moments throughout life’s stages. I will be alone for the remainder of my physical journey in life. Totally alone. “Well, why not get another dog?” you ask. For the same reason I will never date another woman…it wouldn’t be fair. I cannot date because I would be constantly comparing whomever I would be spending time with to her. I would feel like I was cheating on my wife with this other woman. Thanks to her, I have realized over the last two years that she made me a better man than to treat another woman that way. It’s not that she would want me to be alone – she explicitly feared she hadn’t prepared me for life after her and wanted me to find someone. I just have come to know that I don’t need or want anyone else and that by attempting to give in to such curiosity would be to treat another woman in a manner that I now abhor. A partner should be the principal focus of your attention. That is something I cannot give. Similarly, another dog would deserve my presence and care. My lifestyle over the past two years took me away from the dogs for hours at a time…sometimes weeks at a time as I went on bike tours. This summer I am planning on a 4200 mile, 60 day bike trek across country. Not fair to a dog when I would have to find someone else to care for them for such an extended period. “Why not take the dog with you?” Because the only way that is feasible is with one of those little yappy dogs. I can’t stand yappy dogs! No way am I lugging a Labrador through Glacier National park on my bike. Not sure the bike would remain upright at the speed I would be forced to take towing my gear AND an 80 pound dog on those climbs!

So, today, now it begins. Now the rest of my life starts. Now I have to find another watering place on life’s journey. My meditation over the past several months has involved extensive time with Cynthia Bourgeault’s Love is Stronger Than Death. In this fantastic work and study of spirituality, Bourgeault speaks of her love with a man that mentions we enjoy several “watering places” in life’s journey. Focusing on positive moments and memories, we tend to enjoy these oasis places and metaphorically milk them for energy along our path. He cautioned, however, that we may spend too much time in these watering places out of fear for moving forward, without certainty of where and when we will find our next watering place, never realizing that all of our watering places are interconnected by one massive, underlying source of water. As a cyclist, this goes against the grain. I have been on rides where I either forgot to bring a water bottle, could not find a watering place, or simply went too far without a drink or food. My first ODRAM (One Day Ride Across Michigan) was nearly abandoned when, at the 120 mile mark I had been out of water for some time, there was no water stop remaining on the route, and my wife and daughter were at lunch. I was shaking…sucking wind…and had at that point ridden 15 miles farther than I had ever ridden in a single day’s ride in my life – with another 40 miles to go.

Bourgeault’s love was correct however. The water spot sprang up to catch me in my time of need. My wife and daughter showed up soon after, and I climbed off the bike for a few minutes to collect myself while they cared for me. Literally filling up my physical and spiritual water bottles. My daughter pulled her mountain bike off the back of the car and joined me for the final 40 miles. To that point, I had been averaging almost 21mph. What she did by pacing me on her mountain bike at a much slower 13-14mph, was EXACTLY what my body and spirit needed. We had a much more enjoyable experience and weekend after that. Similarly, five years ago, I rode in El Tour de Tucson – a 110 mile time chipped race – for the benefit of a charity organization that supported a cause near and dear to my family as well as the son of a former student. I knew I would never have a chance at a podium finish, but they had podium, gold, silver, bronze, and “participation” award levels for the thousands of cyclists taking part. I wanted to finish in the silver level as an inspiration to those I rode for, so I did the entire race on a single water bottle in almost 80 degree heat – a dry heat, as people like to point out, but the operative word there for a cyclist using only a single water bottle is DRY! I arrived at the finish line with about 15 minutes to spare for a silver finish, in the top 25 percent of all racers (including the pros), in the top 10 percent of all racers in my age division, and, of course, shaking like a palm frond in hurricane season. Again, however, I was refreshed when my wife called and expressed pride and love for me as well as in the feat…and connected me with the former student and her son who was literally aglow. He now has the medal I was given. I now have that watering place to return to when needed.

This past two years I have been trying to learn that lesson my wife lived and was so sad that I hadn’t….what Bourgeault calls “last year’s language.” This is when we tend to cling to our needs and life patterns to the detriment of inner growth. When we literally embalm those people and things in our lives that we cherish by our clinging and not allowing them to grow. This, of course, is the opposite of love. As a couple, we had started to overcome this about four years prior to her diagnosis, but, like all couples, continued to struggle through this until just a few days before she passed – when all I wanted was for her to be free. As a person, however, I continuously struggled through the last year’s language problem…getting frustrated when I felt things were defining me negatively, such as my inability to meet mileage goals on my bike(s), or financial problems, or family issues….This year, Bourgeault (and TS Eliot and Hesse) has truly helped me focus on the futility of last year’s language while concentrating on the present.

I haven’t ridden outside for over two weeks, and my mileage in October and this month were woefully short of what I had hoped to accomplish. But it’s okay. I had more important tasks to rise to. Caring for those you love…spending time…QUALITY time…with them, is never a mistake and will most assuredly refill your water bottle and leave the oasis point indelibly stamped on your life’s roadmap. This is something I want my children, and grandsons, to know and live. Never spend too long at one watering spot, as there will be others along the journey. Always continue to move forward and don’t become complacent. Sometimes you need that inner growth that comes from reading and expanding your horizons – just like a camel needs his humps!

As a coach, and as a competitive music teacher, I always taught my athletes and students the importance of understanding that last lesson. One of my favorite sayings that most of my teams and classes took to heart was that whoever told you practice makes perfect LIED TO YOU! Practice makes permanent. The only thing that makes perfect is PERFECT PRACTICE. Slow down. Focus on fundamentals. Get it right first and foremost. Then speed it up until you can do it better than the other people you are likely to come up against. Even then, there is ALWAYS going to be somebody out there who is better than you. More committed than you. This is the nature of human existence. Achilles had Hector. Saul had David. Grant had Lee. Custer had Sitting Bull. McEnroe had Connors. Palmer had Nicklaus. Evart had Navratilova….

I refuse to mourn the time I supposedly lost on my bike the last month because I, and Ginger, needed that time to transition. I woke up to a memory this morning on my social media account. Six years ago, I had posted the meme below to capture the relationship between my wife and her dog. What a reunion that must have been for them yesterday!

Again…I have rediscovered my love for poetry this past year…Donne, Eliot, Hesse, the Carmina Gadelica, and especially Rumi. Today and tomorrow I mourn and celebrate simultaneously. Yes, Scotch Ales will be flowing freely at my house for the next 48-72 hours. I mourn leaving one watering hole, filled with trepidation and fear for the unknown path that lies ahead. I know I will die alone…probably on a road side somewhere. But this poem by Rumi

There is no salvation for the soul
but to fall in Love.
Only lovers can escape
out of these two worlds.
This was ordained in creation.
Only from the heart
can you reach the sky

And the following setting by Carrie Grossman have helped me realize that I need to focus on next year’s language. That my watering holes are all interconnected by a constant stream underground of her – of OUR – love. That just as Vera Lynn expressed in 1943 “We’ll meet again.” Fly my beloveds! Fly!

“Second thoughts make liars of us all” and other useless high school remnants

What the hell does she mean? This crazy old battle axe has really lost it this time, and now I’m down to forty minutes to concoct a two page response to her craziness. Old people just don’t get it….oh, wait….

We had just finished reading Sophocles’ Antigone in my high school sophomore English and grammar class the week before. I was having a difficult time adjusting to Mrs. Gladys Youngs’ teaching style. She was about five feet, four inches, built like a Panzer tank, and came across that way in her drive to educate us in the college prep track. We had a vocabulary test every Friday in which we had to spell, define, and utilize 25 new words in a cogent sentence. We had grammar tests at least every other week, emphasizing everything from sentence structure, verb conjugation, and parts of speech to punctuation. We read poetry to analyze subtext – Ozymandius comes to mind. We read Greek tragedies by Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides. We read classic literature such as Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. The most draining, and terrifying, however, was the Wednesday essay. Every Friday as we would leave class, she scrawled a topic on the chalkboard. Every Wednesday we were to turn in a two page written response to her assigned topic. There was no minimum word count – no one ever DARED pull the typical stunts on Gladys – you know, large writing, wide margins, etc. She was one of the singular most powerful women in the community and was never afraid of making phone calls. She had been teaching at my high school long enough that I was convinced Moses gave her the Ten Commandments for proofreading before disseminating them to the Israelites!

The topic in question, due after my lunch period that day, was “Man’s Inhumanity to Man.” To be fair, I hadn’t given it a great deal of thought over the weekend. I had a wrestling tournament on Saturday, Dad and I had gone ice fishing on Sunday and I spent most of Sunday night trying to get feeling back into my extremities. Then there was musical rehearsal for Oklahoma on Monday and Tuesday night. Procrastination had always been a skill of mine, but now I was in serious trouble. I remember the panic as I snuck into her vacant classroom to try and generate two pages during my lunch period (I was a wrestler – we NEVER ate lunch!), and, in the middle of it, feeling that I was being beset upon by this woman, and the school. Snippets of Antigone railing against the injustice of Creon against her brother….bits of Sydney Carton as I read him (we read aloud in class) “I care for no man on earth, and no man on earth cares for me,”….and it somehow weirdly seemed to mesh with the fall of Saigon and what we were learning in government class about Wounded Knee, My Lai, and the Civil Rights movement. I did not know that this quote, taken from Robert Burns’ “Man Was Made to Mourn” (1784), was quoted by Dr. King. But I did know the last “White Only” drinking fountain signs at a supermarket in Grand Rapids had just been torn down within the last year.

I don’t remember exactly what I wrote, or anything other than the pen flowing out from my mind and my hand. When the lunch bell rang, I was scribbling the finishing touches. When it rang again to announce the beginning of class, the essay was finished and I turned it in with all the others. It was a first and only draft – no corrections – no deletions – and, most importantly, no spelling or grammatical errors. Gladys graded our work on a multi-tiered scale, with spelling and grammar each counting for ten percent of the overall total. She was ruthless that way.

I’ll bet you think that I mention the paper because I got an “A” on it, right? Wrong! Oh, you must have failed then, due to procrastination and cramming too much in in 40 minutes? No. I actually got a B+ on that paper. It was my highest grade from her on an essay to that point in the year. Gladys had scribbled down in the margin at the end “Finally, something from your heart. Something that is connected and makes sense. You just made some connections that didn’t altogether make sense with the evidence you provide. You should think about becoming a lawyer.”

I had always written well. I had also always had a pretty vivid and active imagination, so everything that I had written up until that point had been fiction. I had won a short story contest the year before with a twenty page tale about a family on vacation, driven off road by a gang of motorcyclists. The father leads them to shelter in a cave, and, as he explores the cave, he falls into a pit of rattlesnakes. It is then up to his teenage son to save him, and get the family to safety. Other stories I had written included cave man time travel (closely similar to Edgar Rice Burrough’s The Eternal Savage), evil Nazis plotting to enslave the world, etc. All inspired by what I was reading at the time…mostly old pulp reprints of “Doc Savage,” “The Shadow,” “John Carter,” and other hero stories that featured a social outcast who developed his intellect and used his physical strength to save the planet, save the girl, punish evildoers, and so on.

This essay, however, turned the tide. It proved to me that my ability to use language was not necessarily because I had a good imagination. Instead, what I did here was analyze, process, synthesize, and make meaningful connections that applied to my life, as well as life in general. Little did I know then that it would form the basis for my dissertation research. But it did show me that the best way to change the attitudes of those around me was to persuade, by building a case.

The next year, I joined our school newspaper and learned how to write succinctly, using specifics. An art which I have long since abandoned, some of my family and former professors would say! It also taught me the value of asking the right questions and how to follow those questions up to get to the real truth of the matter. This, in turn, helped me to learn to be persistent and develop a list of questions/issues for further probing, or dismiss if the narrative led in a different direction. By the way…what has happened to these traits of a true journalist? Why are today’s reporters allowed to get away with asking softball questions of politicians, business leaders, sports figures, etc.? “How did it feel when you came from 10 points down with three minutes to go in the game? What does it mean to you?” Seriously? You have nothing better to ask, like why did you make that specific play call? What did you see in their defense that made you choose that play? Or how about forcing a politician to specifically answer a question, and if they refuse, call them out on it? Ugh!

Anyway, these abilities closely aligned with my burgeoning imagination that was also being developed by my musical theatre pursuits.  In college, I continued to work on school papers, but my biggest area of interest was, of course, musical theatre. I took every form of interpretive course I could. Lessons in Stanislavski acting technique took my imagination and attention to detail to heights that paid dividends, not only on stage, but in regular classrooms as well. During my junior year at The University of Michigan, I took a Shakespeare class. The final assignment was to develop a ten page paper (by now there were word counts and margins and point size to deal with!) that presented an insight for a character in one of the plays we had covered, and provide an in depth study on how that character impacted the story development. I chose to argue that Polonius had schemed to have Hamlet fall in love with Ophelia, setting up control of the throne for Polonius should something tragically go wrong. I further argued that he had schemed to break up the marriage between Hamlet’s parents and have Hamlet’s father murdered. I knew it was a stretch, but the professor enjoyed the paper tremendously. He pulled me aside after the course was finished and asked what I had received in the second semester English composition course all freshmen were required to take. When I told him that I hadn’t yet taken the class because I transferred in from another university, he laughed and said “Well, don’t bother!” And he escorted me to the records department and waived the requirement for me.

This, of course, only enabled my excitement to see conspiracy theories everywhere! Within two years, I had written, and published, non-fiction research projects that outlined the impact the Florentine Camerata had on the Medici court in 16th century Florence – as well as the intrigue that played a role in the excommunication of Galileo for heresy. This was preceded by works which explored how Tolkien’s work was influenced by Wagner, which was influenced by the Viking mythology, which was descended from tales traced to the Baltic, which could be further traced back to the Visigoths as they migrated from the Steppes of Central Asia over 2500 years ago, interacting with, and adapting/assimilating various legends and myths from cultures along the way.

I had found my voice….sort of. But there was no place to use it. Other than for my beautiful wife, who at this point began her own college completion journey – but with three girls to nurture and care for. She hated writing. Always. Had developed some sort of a block, which I think came from being forced to journal in the middle of her parent’s divorce. She literally could only begin to write if she had consumed a wine cooler or two. Sometimes, not even then, so she turned to me for help. I would take her notes and synthesize them to put together a paper for her. Her longest required paper was 7 pages – took me about two hours, where she had been agonizing over it for more than a week. She read it, made a few changes to fit her verbiage style, and submitted. She felt guilty, of course, until I pointed out that it was her support that enabled me to get through undergrad, so I was just using my expertise to help her do the same.

Graduating from college with a degree in music education at the height (or depth) of one of the most serious economic downturns to ever hit the State of Michigan (1987) left me with few options. Nobody was hiring music teachers back then. Indeed, most schools were eliminating choir, band, orchestra, drama….

It was out of desperation that I finally turned to an employment agency and convinced them to send me out to a newspaper for an interview. I covered the circumstances of that job in an earlier post, but let me say here that it again renewed the fire of asking questions…but now coupled with a deep desire to right some wrongs. I developed a column, eventually, and won a Press Association award for a human interest story I did on a tiny baby, born prematurely to a very young set of parents who were unemployed and without health insurance. I told their story by interspersing details and circumstances with brief passages from the mother’s diary. The story was picked up by the wire service. The family soon after received all of the help they needed.

Unfortunately, sometimes conspiracy theories are not just theories. I uncovered a massive toxic chemical dumping program from a local manufacturing company. After investigation, and refusal of the company president to respond, I informed him that I was going to have to print the story without his version. He informed ME that the story would never be printed in the local paper. I wrote the story, submitted it to the typesetter, and was fired the next day. Turned out the manufacturer was also a part owner of the newspaper….no longer a silent partner! And my story didn’t run until a couple of weeks later. After a local television station did an expose on the dumping. After said television station received an anonymous tip about what was going on.

So back to education it was. By now the economy was on the rebound, and schools were hiring music teachers again, thanks to educational reforms that insisted music and the arts are core subjects. Unfortunately, for my students, they received a teacher that always believed in making connections across the curriculum and life in general. So they all had to write. Every year. And I graded them just as Gladys graded us. Much to the chagrin of several parents over the years. Some of them insisted I was not an English teacher and had no business correcting their baby’s grammar, spelling, syntax….One parent went so far as to suggest, in front of her daughter, that if I wanted to be an English teacher, I should put in for a transfer from music (she had no idea of the certification requirements, of course). The daughter, panicking, snapped “Mom! NO!” The mother turned and asked why – not politely, and making it clear that she felt she knew better than her daughter. “Because (he) grades harder than the AP English teacher and catches more stuff. We can’t not graduate because we fail choir, but they can hold us back if we don’t pass English!” End of argument!

This is, in essence, the failure of our educational system today. Not that we don’t teach them what they need to know, but rather that we fail to insist that they master it, apply it, and transfer that knowledge to other areas. In my classes, when we sang sonnets, my students learned sonnet form and I required them to write one. Why did they not learn this in English? In my classes, when my students sang a coffin song, they learned about societal traditions regarding death. When they sang a song in another language or from a particular text, they learned all I could teach them about the source and they were assigned to write an essay applying the universal characteristic expressed in that song to their own life. For final exams, essays were assigned (as 50% of the final exam grade) that required them to address physiological processes involved in singing and how their lifestyle had impacted their abilities that semester. Or how historical events shaped the composer or the lyrics of a selected piece from their last concert. Topics were written on the white board (we have evolved now!) the week before final exams. The students were told they could think about it, jot down notes on a 3×5 card, and do all the research they wanted ahead of time. But the essay was to be written in class on the day of the final exam. Yep. I was a hard ass!

This is why blogging is so important to me now. While I am very good at interpreting a script, I stink at improvisation. Always have. Even jazz. Especially jazz. Love listening to it. Hate performing it. Similarly, I can’t just get up and extemporaneously speak. There has to be a plan. I know I could never go see a therapist about what I am going through. Writing helps me work through this. It also flows better. I still write in a single draft, although I am better about proofing for spelling! Indeed, my first Master’s thesis was written in a compilation of first drafts! The work was 204 pages long – divided over six chapters. Each chapter was written in a single draft, in a single setting. Changes were only made after the committee reviewed it and insisted on…two! (Both were typos!)

The title of this post is a line spoken by the Sentry in Antigone…a minor line. But in re-reading the play this week, I realize it may have been more significant than I realized and became a sort of mantra for my life. My wife and I always told our daughters and our students that they needed to learn as much as possible so they could make informed decisions about their lives. Once those decisions were made, however, they needed to trust their instincts and never second guess themselves.

So the writing Gladys finally opened up in me…writing from the heart…is still helping me 45 years later! Who says you never use that high school English stuff years later???

Man was made to mourn: A Dirge

Many and sharp the num’rous ills
Inwoven with our frame!
More pointed still we make ourselves
Regret, remorse, and shame!
And man, whose heav’n-erected face
The smiles of love adorn, –
Man’s inhumanity to man
Makes countless thousands mourn!


And man, whose heav’n-erected face
The smiles of love adorn, –
Man’s inhumanity to man
Makes countless thousands mourn!

I am one with the Force…the Force is one with me

I reorganized my DVD collection last week and ran a Star Wars marathon first thing afterwards. To paraphrase Master Yoda, very fortunate I was to have a partner whose interests in entertainment closely matched my own! Seriously, it was a rare occasion when she was interested in a movie that I just did not care to see…and vice versa. She was into sci fi before there was a sci fi channel…she was into fantasy/dungeons and dragons before the abundance of board games and Game of Thrones knock offs….she was into alternative history and historical fiction…the list goes on. So we built a Star Wars collection…and Star Trek…and Stargate (SG-1 and Atlantis)…and Harry Potter…and Game of Thrones…and Tolkien…and….

Anyway, one of the last Star Wars films we saw together was “Rogue One.” Like the rest of the franchise, this movie disappoint me it did not! Sorry…so easy it is to slip into Yoda-isms! What I’m trying to get at is the abundance of quotable lines from the various movies…”Luke, I am your father…”…”So this is how democracy dies…with thunderous applause….”…Don’t believe me? Re-watch the movies and keep score every time a quote pops up you have seen on social media or in everyday language usage. I dare you, because…”I find your lack of faith…disturbing!”

What struck me in Rogue One was not so much a quote but a mantra…”I am one with the Force. The Force is one with me.” Here is this blind character in the midst of a heavy firefight, calming his mind and summoning inner strength by chanting this mantra before he goes out to try and turn the tide of the battle. Impressive to me because I’ve seen it before on the road…and I use the same Jedi mind trick myself…maybe not that exact quote, but….

Yes, I ride a lot. And when I do ride, I cover a pretty decent amount of mileage. Last year, I went on exactly 200 rides outdoors, covering 9634 miles, for an average of just over 48 miles each ride. That is fairly consistent with what I have done in the past, the difference is primarily that I went out more frequently last year than in years past. My wife used to marvel at how I kept from getting bored out of my mind, and how I could will myself to the finish. She, herself, loved the IDEA of exercise. She loved how she LOOKED in her matching kit on her aero, high-end carbon bike. She loved the admiration she got from students and colleagues when she would come back and tell them that she had knocked off 25 miles on a fundraiser ride for charity over the weekend. But she hated the work! I couldn’t get her to ride indoors at all, and rarely would she climb onto the treadmill (just in winters a couple of times each week because it was too cold to walk outdoors!) Then she witnessed first-hand one day how I did it…how many of us do it, actually.

In June of 2015 we had just finished our second PALM (Pedal Across Lower Michigan annual week long bike tour) that covered 425 miles over six days and immediately hightailed it to Hershey, Pennsylvania for a two day bike tour for the American Cancer Society Hope Lodge network. These facilities are intended for usage by cancer patients and their families while undergoing treatment at a local hospital. This was a cause very dear to my wife, as she had lost almost every female in her family – grandmother, mother, aunts – to cancer. She had just been diagnosed as BRCA-1 positive and was undergoing prophylactic surgeries to eliminate the threat (or so we thought). How could I not do this ride? It was “just” another 180 miles – that started the day after the 425 mile trip had ended! But…rather than tent like we had been, there was to be an overnight stay in the dorms of a university that graciously donated usage and meals to the American Cancer Society for rider benefit. Besides, as my wife pointed out, she would be far from bored on the trip…while I was escaping Hershey with the other riders, she would take the opportunity to explore her own version of “the happiest place on earth!”…the Hershey chocolate factory and museum!

We arrived late Friday night, checked in, and I fell asleep immediately. The next day, we went to the starting line and picked up the final map for the day, filled my water bottles, grabbed a few snacks, and she started writing dedications on a huge banner that was to be kept in the Philadelphia Hope Lodge for the following year. Tears rolled down her face as she wrote the names of all her loved ones. The morning was already emotional…it was chilly, raining, and a strong wind coming in from the east….I would say it was a classic Nor’easter, but it was the last week of June, for crying out loud! Regardless, how could I be a wimp while she was grieving her losses? Then we (the riders) were each handed a personal note. People who were currently staying at Hope Lodges had written personal thank you notes to each one of the riders, describing what the Hope Lodge network meant to them. Oh, God! Now I was crying reading this note from a woman about her fight to keep her husband with her and her children. No way on this earth was I stopping or abandoning the ride after such an emotional send off.

I’d like to say that it got better. It didn’t. According to my Garmin, the average temperature that late June day was 44 degrees (we were headed into the mountains). The wind speed was a steady 15mph out of the north east (guess which direction we were headed into?). There was over 5000 feet of climbing in my 101+ miles that day, and the rain was constant and heavy. I had to change my kit in Rehrersburg, after meeting my wife there for a brief rest, lunch, and a warm-up in the car.

She tried talking me into abandoning and letting her SAG me and a friend I had made along the way into Kutztown. I was shivering like Han Solo coming out of the carbon freeze, and I was just as soaked! She told me that most people were abandoning on the road, or had decided to take the shorter route to Kutztown (a 67 mile route was available, but most hard core cyclists wanted the 101 mile route due to the climbing and the distance). There were less than 30 of the more than 150 century loop riders that opted to stay with the original plan. She told me I had nothing left to prove to anybody…that she was beyond impressed when she saw me motor up a Cat 2,  8% grade climb, leaving everybody in my wake while her little Kia Soul struggled at times to do the same climb! Sobbing and shaking, I told her I couldn’t. How could I? Her family didn’t call it quits midway thru treatment. The woman I got the note from wasn’t calling it quits. And she, my badass, beautiful wife wasn’t calling it quits when she got her diagnosis. No way was I giving up. Besides, I had learned a trick from this guy, who was just pulling in to the Rehrersburg church we were at for the moment.

This man was an oncologist. He was of Indian descent, and he also had been doing the 101 mile route. I had passed him twice that morning. I stopped for a break each time afterwards and he passed me by while I was recovering and re-orientating my priorities. I noticed each time I passed that he was chanting. The third time I caught up to him, I pedaled alongside for a while and struck up a conversation. He said that the mantra he was chanting helped him to maintain a cadence, focus on something other than the wind, rain, and pain of climbing, and helped him maintain a connection to the conscious circle of humanity he was pedaling for. Wow. Being relatively new to the art of long distance cycling, I thought I would give it a try myself.

Prior to this, I had been using music to get me thru the longer rides. I have a custom built 240 GB iPod that is full of music (yes, I own all of the CD’s that are on it!) and I piped this through a speaker on the front of my bike, or had earbuds. As I rode more frequently and on roads that were more heavily traveled by cars, I quickly realized this was a dangerous practice that interfered with my ability to hear/notice approaching traffic. The rhythm/cadence my doctor friend was speaking of, I was well-familiar with, of course. This practice goes back millennia to military usage – the Romans were particularly adept at using music and rhythm to pound out a cadence for the oarsmen as they entered a naval battle. There is an abundance of sea chanteys and railroad work songs that were used by workers to unify their efforts and complete tasks. Of course, in modern times, even The Big Bang Theory acknowledged the usefulness when Sheldon helped Penny improve her manufacturing efforts for her “Penny Blossom” hair accessories!

What I didn’t have, though, was a mantra of my own. Or did I? Just before Rehrersburg, knowing that my wife was waiting for me there, I applied this lesson. You may recall that my mother had read to me “The Little Engine That Could” as a child while I was overcoming a crippling leg injury. For some reason, “I think I can, I think I can” popped into my head as I was trying to figure out what to use. At that point in my life, I was aware of Buddhist teachings, the practice of mindfulness, etc., but had not yet begun to apply them myself. This was as close as I could come. So I started with each rise on the road. Each time the wind came up in velocity. And as I greeted her for lunch after 10 miles of this, I knew it was working. So I explained to her what my plan was…she wasn’t going to let me leave without one, as the wind and rain were not letting up and my shivering had her concerned.

She pulled over about every 7 miles to wait for me along the 34 miles to our overnight destination. It worked. The length of the phrase matched perfectly with my cadence/pedal stroke. The reminder of making it through impossibly difficult times helped focus my energy to overcome the present circumstances and calm my mind. It was the single roughest day in the saddle I have EVER known….but it ended well, and she was able to observe me doing it.

I believe anyone can apply this lesson, but it is important to understand what and how it is useful for, and then discover your own mantra/chant that works for you.

First, the mantra must connect with your breath. If the mantra is too long, it will not help on a task that is so physically demanding that the breath is significantly strained and shorter than the phrase.  “I think I can” is still my go to for climbing hills and mountains. It matches my cadence and breath intake/output very well, and the syllabic stress matches my pedal mashing tendencies!

Second, the mantra must focus and calm your mind. If you are struggling for words, or if the mantra is too complicated or not suited to the task, then you will allow the circumstances surrounding your task to overwhelm you. I have a couple of chants I like to use depending on the situation on the road. Earlier today, for example, I was approaching an area where I have been chased multiple times by a dog whose owner who allows it to run free. I have the dog on video, snapping at my heels, and have confronted the owner about this with little support or concern on his part. It has gotten to the point that I have found alternative ways of circumventing this property to avoid the conflict. Today, however, it was cold (26 degrees F) and windy (10 mph) and I wasn’t in the mood to compromise. I found myself tensing up as I came within a mile of the property. When I noticed I started having an imaginary confrontation with the owner, I checked my mind and convinced myself to not buy trouble before it happened, so I started chanting “Om shanti om” (a call for universal peace) to myself. Yes, it matched my cadence and breath. It helped me focus on what I wanted and off from what I was afraid might happen. And it worked. Not saying the dog was inside because some Buddhist deity heard my prayer. But what the chant DID do was help me relax and enjoy the ride. The tension in my shoulders lessened. The death grip on the handlebars eased. My breath came back under control, and I was able to enjoy the ride.

Finally, I believe as my oncologist friend does, that a mantra should help you connect with the conscious circle of humanity. This is really important for me. It is very easy as a cyclist to get pissed off at motorists who zoom past you with a foot to spare…who call you vile and filthy names due to your kit or the fact that you slowed them down for 0.5 seconds…who roll coal…if I were to respond to each of these instances, I would be lowering myself to a baser level, and increase the anxiety I feel. I get to go outdoors and ride my bike because I want to. Not everybody can say that. I do feel that there is hope for the human race, even though we are apparently going through some rough times as a species right now! I saw a meme yesterday that said “The best way to ease communication between you and another is to realize that many people are just born stupid!” Funny…not true…but funny. However, many of us are indeed ignorant of others’ needs and as a cyclist, I hope to change that dialogue.

As a reminder, I was nearing home late yesterday afternoon. It had been a particularly gloomy day, but warm for January (40 degrees F). It was not dusk, but, of course, I had all my lights going…my helmet was on…and I was wearing bright clothing with a reflective vest outside my jacket. Pedaling down the road, I was feeling pretty good. First ride on my cyclo cross bike in a while as my dog has been seriously ill and our roads were just recovering from a heavy ice storm. It was a flat stretch of the road, so I start chanting “Om mani padme om” to increase my cadence (wanted to make it home before dark) and express a oneness with the world I had felt during the ride. Then it happened.

A red SUV made a turn shortly after I had and sped up to overtake me. About a quarter mile down the road, I noticed it pulled off into the driveway of an abandoned house and the driver got out quickly. I’m thinking “Crap!” My mantra instantly changes to “Om shanti om” as I have been assaulted before by drivers before who overtake me, pull off the road, and attempt to pull me off the bike simply for impeding their desired speed. Just before I get there, however, the driver starts applauding. I cocked my head and thought “Sarcasm?” Nope. She and her passenger, a young girl who she was taking out for a practice drive on her learners permit, shouted out “Thank you so much for making yourself visible and noticeable!”

Faith in humanity restored. I am one with the Force. The Force is one with me!

We can never go back to before

It’s actually a popular theme in literature. Our innate desire to return to a more idyllic setting or time. “The Twilight Zone” highlighted this with two episodes in the first season…A Stop at Willoughby and Walking Distance. Both episodes featured a man in middle age, seeking to escape the pressures and stresses of an overly hectic modern lifestyle. One finds a mental escape to a mythological town from the previous century, replete with bandstands, ice cream socials, etc. The other takes a walk and finds himself back in the hometown of his childhood…confronted by a much younger version of himself and his long deceased parents. It doesn’t end well in either case.

Most religions stress that all human suffering is impermanent. The Buddha is credited with comparing time to a river “You cannot touch the same water twice because the flow that has passed will never pass again.” In doing so, Buddha teaches that not only is our past suffering impermanent, but our past joys as well. Stephen Flaherty puts it a bit more bluntly in the song “Back to Before” from his Tony Award winning musical Ragtime. In this song, and at this point in her life, Mother is acknowledging all of her past joys and yet is stating that she has grown and must move on from these. That in order to live…truly LIVE…we can never go back to before.

So here we are on New Year’s Eve. I have just finished my last ride of 2019, and, like the rest of you, are reflecting on the past year and wondering what 2020 will bring. Many resolutions will be made this evening. Most will be broken by the end of next week. Some will be kept throughout the year. Does this mean that those who keep their resolutions are better, or more successful than the rest of us? And what goes in to planning those resolutions? Are there ways to construct resolutions that have more of a chance of success? Most importantly, perhaps, is the question of why we even bother.

As for the inventory of my goals and resolutions from last year – see “What Now Carl?” blog post #2 – I can only state that I gave them the old college try. Some were kept – my mileage goal that was my last promise to my wife was surpassed in November. The goal of 8500 miles translated into 9634 miles on the road. Man, are my legs tired! Also, last year I had mentioned that I wanted to keep alive an active streak of consecutive months of earning a STRAVA Gran Fondo badge – earned by completing at least one ride of 62 miles or longer in the course of a month. That streak now stands at 20 months and is ongoing, as I completed 51 such rides last year – including at least one in every single month. I had also stated that I wanted to earn the STRAVA monthly distance challenge badge (1250km or 777.5 miles in a single month) at least seven times (one more than my previous record for a year). I met that goal in November, and almost made it eight in December, but fell just short.

But not all was a bed of roses. While I did participate in some RUSA events…completing two and forced to abandon a third due to a severe electrical storm with a blinding downpour…I did not, after all, complete a 100, 200, 300, 400, and 600k series of events. In fact, I found the truth of Buddha’s teaching in that the RUSA I had been so enamored of before my life was turned upside down, was not the same that I had come back to. I had changed. Leadership had changed. Rules and expectations had changed. The waters had quite literally moved on, and I have opted for the time being to no longer participate in RUSA activities. Does this make me a failure? It sure doesn’t feel like it. I did enough 100-200k rides this year to know that I am capable of doing the distance in the time frame. I also know how frustrated I was with the changes and how miserable/grumpy I would have been had I chosen to participate more in RUSA events. By stepping back and focusing on my riding experience and mileage, I gained more enjoyment from my time in the saddle.

In fact, the decision to drop RUSA and explore more on my own led to a few happy discoveries! One July day I decided to ride to my hometown and visit my parents’ graves. I chose to do this on a very long stretch of a seldom used gravel road. It was peaceful. It was glorious. Upon my return, and while looking at the route in my STRAVA heat map, an ad suggesting the app “Wandrer.earth” came up. This app, like STRAVA, tracks your rides and displays them on a map. That is where the comparison ends! The app is also a game. Unlike the STRAVA heat map, which changes colors as you ride a particular route more frequently, this app will give you points for riding a particular road…but only the first time you ride it! The goal is to see how many different roads you can ride in a given area, state, country, or the entire earth! One point per mile…bonus points for completing certain percentages of a city or town. Bonus points if you have covered the most unique miles (the first time miles on roads) in a county, state, country, or earth for a given month! Challenge accepted!

Did you know that there are 32,260,997 miles of roads on earth? (well, roads that are not marked private or designated as freeway/motorway only) At this writing, I have earned 9976 points for riding different roads on the planet over the course of the last 7 years (yes, they will go back and upload your previous rides from STRAVA), have covered 0.03% of the earth’s public roads, and rank in the top 170 users of the app! My ranking in the US and State of Michigan is much higher! Actually, I have covered over 3.5% of all roads in Michigan, which has over 169,000 miles of roads. That ranks 1st among all app users…as does the 51.5% of the roads I have traveled down in my own county (out of over 1600).

By inspiring me to explore, I have used this app as fuel to travel over 1425 new miles of roads this year…better than one out of every seven miles I covered was new (to me) road! I daresay the RUSA experience would not have generated that kind of excitement or sense of accomplishment for me. I know this would have excited my wife. Again, although we enjoyed our invitationals over the years, she was concerned about the cost. So far, all of the exploration has been free! And breathtaking!

Invitationals…yep. Did my share again this year, albeit fewer than in years past, and not all that I had mentioned in my post a year ago. I did the Pumpkin Pie Ride in Ottawa, and the Angie’s Angels Legacy Ride in Grand Rapids…but I also did a new one in Indiana to benefit public school STEM programs. The ride route was literally designed to look like a giant Space Invader, and thus constituted my first STRAVA art! (see pic below!) It inspired me to redesign the route for the Angie’s Angels Legacy Ride into a pair of angel wings, if a rider opted to do the entire route! Good thing I never went to art school! It didn’t turn out as well as I had hoped. I needed more diagonal roads! Even the designer of the Pumpkin Pie Ride got into the act and designed his route to look like Snoopy as the World War I flying ace atop his dog house…scarf flying in the wind! Three pieces of STRAVA art for the year…not bad!

But what’s next, you ask? You can guess at a few goals fairly easily, I am sure. Another year, another increase in overall mileage – just as I promised her. 9500 miles in 2020. I did it this year, so I am actually hoping to cross 10000 miles by a year from now. The basic goal will require 26 miles/day. That should be easy enough to average. I had a total of 11 different periods this year where I did no riding for seven consecutive days. Some of those were back to back. If I can cut down on the time I spend sitting on my all too expansive rear, I might even hit 11,000 miles by year’s end! The coolest thing about this year was that I set personal bests for mileage in a month during January, April, May, June, September, November, and December! If I can just come close to those, and set new personal records in February and March, I know I’ll have a great year in the saddle.

Obviously the Gran Fondo streak is something I would like to keep going. As I said a year ago, December, January, and February are the hardest months to log one of these in the State of Michigan. I did, however, just acquire my first set of studded tires for my fat tire bike! Road conditions will no longer be a viable excuse! Along the way this year, I started paying more attention to the mileage accrued on my various bikes. I rotated through them more often to help limit the wear and tear, but it also provided a great deal of enjoyment as I rediscovered the feel of each. This year, of course, I put more miles on four of my bikes than I had ever put on them in a single year before. I came very close to doing so on my cyclocross bike as well. I’d like to continue with that somehow next year, but haven’t quite made up my mind about how to go about it yet.

Other than those, I have only one new goal for the year. Several years ago, again, as I said in my What Now post last year, my wife and I had started to plan long bike adventures for retirement. The initial trial run was going to be in the summer of 2020, because that was the year I was going to retire. The trip was going to be from Vancouver or Seattle to Bar Harbor. Of course, such a trip would have been fairly easy to do with her acting as SAG (when she wasn’t shopping or stopping at cafes) (with my blessing) (like I would have had a choice!) and carrying the camping equipment and gear. I know she would want me to do this. So I will spend this winter refining my packing list, speaking with local, provincial, and state organizations about the best possible routes and camping facilities, and my children about who is going to house sit for me while I pedal 4000 miles between June 10th and August 13th. The beginning date was to be the week after my last day ever in the classroom. The end date would have been her birthday. I wanted her to be able to relax and be waited on by me on the ocean shore that day.

Over the last month I have written about what drives me…what keeps me going…so you can see how I go about this whole goal setting thing. Since I pedaled 9600 miles-plus this year, you might very well ask “Why not go for 10,500?” The answer is, of course, that I will most assuredly strive for that total. But it can’t be the goal. Goals and resolutions have to be grounded in realism. This does not mean you must set the bar low, by any means. But setting the bar too high only sets one up for failure. At this point in my life I am not set up well to deal with failure. I failed to keep her alive. I failed to keep my dog Jasper alive. And as I write, her dog Ginger is struggling with the after effects of a November surgery that I believe will result in her death at any point…losing yet another piece of my beautiful bride. Much like the Detroit Lions, (or Detroit Red Wings) (or Detroit Tigers) (or Detroit Pistons) (see a pattern here?) I need wins…however inconsequential they may seem.

I once took over an inner city junior high choral program that had literally been laughed off the stage by their peers and relatives the previous year. My first day I sat down with them and asked them what their goal was for the new school year. What did THEY want to get out of choir? Almost to a person, they said they just didn’t want to get laughed at anymore. Fair enough, although a low bar. We worked on setting their sights a bit higher. They swore to me they would do anything I asked as long as they didn’t get laughed at. The band directors were shocked when I told them mid-year that I was taking them to a competitive festival for the first time. They cautioned that a Division III (out of IV, with I being the highest) would be a major feather in my cap (their exact words), but that I might want to take them (the ensemble) for comments only to “protect them.” We earned a Division II, just a few points off from a Division I. Those kids needed a win. Within a few years, they were posting I’s, earning All-State Honors Choir spots, etc.

They never went back to before. Neither did I. Every district I ever taught at was the same story. The kids needed a win…inner city school kids don’t give a damn about educational outcomes, scope and sequence of instruction…they just want to have some pride in their lives. Every district, although starting from different perspectives, obtained the same results. Not because I am such a great leader…again, I think I am just a herder of cats!…but because they were committed to never going back to before.

Too many resolutions and goals focus on restrictions…what you shouldn’t do, or want to stop doing. This is why so many resolutions fail, in my opinion. When your focus is on the negative it is all too easy to quit when the habits just don’t magically go away. I was able to get my students to focus on new abilities that matched some of their own interests…to get them to trust me as their biggest cheerleader as well as their biggest critic…to focus on acquiring new skills as opposed to stop perpetuating poor behavior. It turned their focus outward as opposed to inward.

In the last month or so, my abler soul has truly begun to work that magic in me. Yes, I slip from day to day and get depressed, etc. You think I didn’t have to assign detentions or referrals? Please! I was simultaneously the most hated and most loved teacher in my buildings…which meant I was doing my job!…. SQUIRREL! …. Sorry .. my point is that I know that for me to stay alive, keep my promises to her, that I must daily approach life the same way I did for those kids. My life – OUR life – going forward has to be about those grandsons and being there for them to learn from. To do so, I cannot expect to touch the same water twice. I am focusing on wins…minor skirmishes…and moving forward with goals that will help me do just that.

I hope the same for you!  

Dear Santa…..

I’d like to sing along with the Carpenters…”Greeting cards have all been sent…” but I’d be lying! I was NEVER good at sending out cards…at Christmas, birthdays…doesn’t matter…I am horrible at it and always have been. My wife was never very good at it either…

The shopping, however, IS done. And the presents are wrapped and under the tree. This year I actually initiated the decorations! Last year, the first without her, our girls got together and did it a couple of days before the holiday, knowing that I wouldn’t/couldn’t, but they needed to do it for a sense of normalcy and continuation. I knew it was an important part of the grieving process, but I just wasn’t there yet. A few days ago, I clearly heard her voice telling me to get off my rear and start decorating! We acquired a pretty decent collection of decorations over the years –  whether they be large, moving and inflatable, or indoors moving and musical – all purchased by us to be used to decorate the stages of our inner city music programs, and then brought home to continue the holiday feel around our home and neighborhood. Yes…it WAS difficult for me, but cathartic as well. Like the rest of you, I was flooded with memories of how, when, and where we acquired each…bittersweet, but I dealt with it and knew she was right behind me telling me what to put up where, etc.

Impermanence. That seems to be the lesson this week. Nothing in this life will remain the same forever. And that includes my aversion to the Christmas holidays without her here to share with. So before this becomes maudlin….

Let’s see if you can remember some of the items from your Christmas lists in years past…

My favorite memories are the big family gatherings before and after Christmas Day itself. My dad was the youngest of 10…my mom was the oldest of 6…HUGE family gatherings. My dad’s family Christmas gatherings were all about food and presents for Grandma…who was widowed 17 years before I was born. My mom’s family Christmas gatherings were also about the food…but we also drew names and exchanged gifts, and, of course, football! Those celebrations were most often held on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day. It didn’t hurt that Grandma and Grandpa T literally lived over the river and through the woods from the house I lived as a child. True story!

In my own immediate family Christmas celebrations, we were always amazed that Santa brought my paternal grandmother and dropped her off with the presents. (Grandma never learned how to drive, and obviously had no car) We awoke Christmas morning, and there she was! No tracks in the snow…just grandma snoring in the extra bed in my sisters’ room. Magic! Especially in the blizzard of ’67…snow was measured in feet and we couldn’t get out of the house for weeks!

Presents…Like the kid in “A Christmas Story,” I’m sure I wished for a BB gun (gun culture was important in our house as we were all hunters), but I don’t remember ever having one or any accompanying disappointment from not getting one. In fact, I don’t ever remember being disappointed by a missing wished-for present…except one year in 6th or 7th grade when I REALLY wanted a football helmet and probably ruined my parents’ holiday when it didn’t show up under the tree. As I recall, I got one at my mom’s greater family Christmas celebration.

I do remember lots of very cool things…one year was a football game Christmas…I got one of the Tyco Electric Football games – possibly the worst toy ever invented, but we all wanted one! It worked by having plastic football player pieces lined up, and the human players would press a start button that in turn began a vibration under those plastic player pieces. When the player with the ball was touched by the opposing team, the button was pressed again and play was stopped. God it was cool!

That same year, I received a Monday Night Football game that I didn’t even know I wanted, but I became quite popular when it was discovered by friends at school that I had one! The game operated by having players choose an offensive play and a defensive scheme from their stack of plays that were programmed on cards. What looked like a mini vinyl record was slid into a machine, a button was pushed, and Howard Cosell’s voice came out to announce the result of the play! Awesome experience!

Finally, that same year, I opened one more football game…one that worked a lot like checkers. I don’t remember much about that one…except I loved the pieces! And I could play it on my own. That was the “football” Christmas for me! In my stocking was a book that contained a synopsis of every NFL Championship game from 1932 to the present (1972?). There was also a fictional novel about a New York Giants quarterback that was the football version of the Cinderella story. And, of course, an official size and weight football.

There are, of course, other gifts I remember…a leather jacket (torn by mid-February much to the chagrin of my rear end when my parents found out about it!)…a tin toy robot that I seem to recall was sold at Sinclair service stations…a Billy Blastoff…ice fishing equipment…endless snowmobile suits and boots (I was NEVER warm enough as a kid, and it drove my father NUTS that he had to cut his ice fishing short because my feet or hands were freezing!)

Curiously, I never wanted a bike. I know, right???!!! Not even as an adult! My adult gift lists have almost ALWAYS been from the categories of pulps (Doc Savage or Operator 5), pipes (the more unusual shape or carving, the better), or music (CD’s or actual written scores). It has only been about the last eight years since bariatric bypass changed my lifestyle that I started requesting bike equipment – lights, accessories, tires, base layer, etc.

The base layer requests literally floored my wife. I hated getting clothes for Christmas and birthdays. I know I got the obligatory socks, pajamas, underwear, etc., as a kid, but I probably resembled Ralphie (again The Christmas Story reference!) receiving those bunny rabbit jammies! My poor parents! I’m sorry Mom and Dad!  So I refused to buy clothes for our daughters for Christmas…I felt the same for my wife…except lingerie, because lingerie for the wife is NOT the same as buying clothes! No, these were NOT always my idea…we were quite taken the year “Bad Santa” came out. Enough said. Yes, I feel her punching me right now!

So…what did my Christmas shopping look like this year? For our girls and their partners, it is as it has been for several years – cash! I was told about six years ago that I was a horrible gift giver in that I only bought the presents I wanted to give people, not things from their lists…message received. They know what they want, and I really don’t want to be that person. Green goes with everything.

For our grandsons, however….Toys. They all have so many toys…everywhere. Too many toys! In keeping with my recent blog posts about what I want for them, I gave it some thought. It helps that I have brilliant daughters and sons in law that continue a tradition my wife and I started when they were very young. We read every night to them. My wife read them the “Little House on the Prairie” books. I read them “The Lord of the Rings.” Our grandsons are read to every night as well, but they get shorter stories. So, one grandson is getting a beautifully illustrated “The Fables and Stories of Rumi” from Rumi’s Masnavi. These are all very entertaining and highly moral stories that will also introduce him to another culture that is too often portrayed in our society as violent and amoral. His brother is getting an illustrated and age appropriate version of Aesop’s fables…for the same reasons! Our other grandson is getting an equally  beautifully illustrated “Sitting Still Like A Frog” meditation and activity guide to help him as he goes thru the chaotic changes of shuffling between continents half a world away! This boy has logged more flight miles in his three years than I have in my entire life…and I was in the USAF Band for crying out loud!

Each of the boys is also getting…yes…another bike! But wait! This isn’t just another bike…these are SMART bikes! Yep, I was stunned that they make smart bikes for kids, but they really do. Playskool makes a bike that the boys can connect their tablets (the last gift they got from Nana when she was still alive) to and play games. Think of it as Zwift for toddlers! I hope this keeps them active during the winter months, off the TV, and, although on screen, at least they are getting exercise!

Unfortunately, the brothers will have to share the smart bike, while the other grandson will have his all alone. Not to worry…to compensate, I got the brothers each a superhero! They will be moving into a new house soon…a brand new house built just for them. Again, not wanting to focus on toys, I opted for room décor….they are getting a huge fat head of their favorite superhero for their wall space, that apparently (and please don’t ask me to explain how because I don’t understand it myself!) is also a 3D interactive thing as well….

So, what about me? What am I asking Santa for? Well….this afternoon as I was picking up a prescription at Wally World, I made the mistake of walking past the slipper aisle. Damn. I was doing so well…decorations up. Tree is up. Trying really hard to live her number one mantra “Happiness is a choice.” But the slippers. From our first year together she received a pair of slippers (the crazy animal/character shaped ones) every year, and I got a pipe. Every. Single. Year. For the last 20 years, it was always the last gift she would open, and the one she looked forward to the most. I know it sounds stupid, but I loved shopping for those because it reminded me of how poor we were that first year, and that’s all she wanted for Christmas that year, and how far we had come. Over the years, my pipes became more expensive and intricate, while her slippers always hovered between $20 and $40. Last year I ugly cried when my children surprised me with a pipe and informed me that she had made them promise to continue the tradition when she was gone.

Damn the slipper aisle! So, Santa, this year I know you can’t bring her back…physically. But I would love to have her back every night in my dreams. That should be easy enough, Santa. Even Apple has a holiday commercial that gets in on the act (I HATE that commercial and would never buy one of those new iPads that commercialize grief in that manner!).

If that isn’t possible…I wouldn’t turn down a Centurion Dave Scott Ironman Carbon, a Pinarello Opera Degasado, an Eddy Merckx Mourenx ’69 (all size 56 or so), a pair of 700x35c winter studded tires (all of these are available on E-Bay, Santa), a couple of two bar front and/or rear racks from Kaddy Rack, an extra eight cell battery for my NiteRider Pro 3200 head light, or, a half barrel of: Scotty Karate from Dark Horse, Sin Eater from Dragonmead, Ocular Love from War Water, or Weirdo With A Beardo from Big T. I’m really not picky about the color!

Seriously, however, I have reached the age where I know full well that I have too much crap under this roof. My kids don’t want any of it. My grandsons wouldn’t have a clue. I don’t need any more stuff.

Two years ago was maybe our best Christmas. We had been told in January that she had 3-6 months without treatment, and maybe as much as 9-10 months with. We were told in November that we had exhausted all options and she had maybe a month. We were told the same thing on December 7th. So we just focused on each other and our family that year. My God it was glorious. Yes, she got slippers. I got a pipe. We splurged and bought tickets to see the Trans Siberian Orchestra do their Christmas program in Detroit (she had always wanted to see them). But that was it for gifts between us. The biggest gift was the gift of time.

That is my Christmas wish for all of you this season. Time. Time away from screens (he says to the people reading this on a screen!). Time away from the stores and malls. Time away from the stresses of career and societal demands. Time with each other…family and loved ones. Bask in it. Notice everything. All of the colors of their iris when their eyes are captivated by something new and exciting. The sighs. The postures. The smiles. The wrinkles and crinkles on their faces when they laugh. The changes in timbre of the laughter. Notice everything.

Because that is all that is really important anyway, isn’t it Santa? That’s why we are reminded of the holiness of the season by the scarcity of the elements in the history…a child born in a cattle stall…a lamp that never runs out of the tiniest bit of oil… It isn’t material abundance that is important in any of these stories. It is the abundance of love and presence. And THAT is what we too often neglect or do not appreciate…until it is no longer there.

Greeting cards have all been sent
The Christmas rush is through
But I still have one wish to make
A special one for you

Merry Christmas Darling
We’re apart that’s true
But I can dream and in my dreams
I’m Christmasing with you….

Herding Cats…and other seemingly useless skills

So I went to my oldest grandson’s first ever school music program this week. I know it doesn’t sound like a big deal, but as a retired music teacher whose late wife was also a music teacher, it was a HUGE deal! Our daughter and I both took the time to make sure my late wife was there for Rhett….she wore a necklace formed with my wife’s thumbprint, while I wore a peacock necktie that I have worn for all important family gatherings since she passed – she loved peacocks, and rather than mourning colors for her funeral, we stressed bright colors with peacock shades. The kids found this tie on Amazon, and I wore it as we celebrated her life that day and every special family moment since. We told Rhett that Nana was an elementary music teacher and that she would be there watching him.

Understand that I also taught elementary music – for the longest three years of my life! I just never seemed to be able to relate to the little ones the way I saw others do it. And when presenting them for a performance, well, it was like herding cats! Which is probably why my wife was so good at it (she was a cat person…I am a dog person). I mean REALLY good at it. Yes, I know I’m not exactly objective, but I always felt – and told her so a number of times – that she was the greatest elementary music teacher I had ever seen. She could elicit participation, musicality, and unity from these masses of kids that I just couldn’t believe! She had an innate ability to take a herd of cats and produce a Rossini “Duetto buffo di due gatti” every single time! Not literally, of course, but I should have known decades ago after we first met and she wanted to do that duet with me as undergrads that cat music would somehow be involved for the rest of our lives!

Rhett’s concert took me back to those days. The kids coming on stage each immediately struggled with their attention….so many lights….so many people…Hi Mommy! The show was the thing, though….the kids and their director marshalled their way through the music, choreography, and instruments with a showmanship that belied their years. I know my wife was beaming as she watched. This is what she so desperately wanted to live for!

Two days after the concert, I did a bit of showmanship myself. I managed to ride 64.5 miles to earn the STRAVA Gran Fondo badge for the 20th consecutive month…a considerable feat for someone who spends the winter months entirely in Michigan – AKA Elsa’s Playground! I have earned so many badges/digital trophies this year (I’ll recap in a couple of weeks when 2019 is at an end), that I fear they may be losing their meaning. Seriously, what (or who) am I doing it for? My children don’t really ride. My grandkids have no clue about STRAVA, or what the accomplishments mean in real life. My friends have badges of their own. Although most of theirs are for drinking on UnTappd!

When my wife was still with us, I used to think – and openly admit – that I was doing these things to show off for my girl, much like a high school boy! She had never seen me as a competitive athlete. Early on, we would go to the gym and she would admire the free weightlifting I would do, but she never got to cheer me on from the sidelines or grandstands. When I coached football, wrestling, basketball, baseball, volleyball, etc. for the different schools I worked for she was always there, but it wasn’t the same. Later, some of my favorite memories were when she would greet me at the end of a grueling, long distance ride by throwing her arms around me and saying “I’m so proud of you!” God I miss that! It is a deep need in the human psyche to be noticed…to be appreciated…to feel accomplished. I know EXACTLY when that particular gene in me was triggered.

In 1967, just a few weeks shy of my 7th birthday, I was pushed off a porch onto a broken Pepsi bottle that proceeded to slice through my knee…the damage was extensive and required three layers of stitches – literally hundreds of stitches – months in a cast, and extensive physical therapy and rehab. Fortunately we had a fantastic surgeon in my hometown at the time, and although he wasn’t sure I would ever again be able to walk normally, he proscribed a regimen of treatment and oversaw my recovery. That is when it started. I remember my mother sitting by my bedside reading “The Little Engine That Could” every night. She also bought me a musical teddy bear to hug when the pain or the doubts became too strong. I still have them both. I also have the intense need to prove to myself, and others, that I am the embodiment of that little engine.

Born the fifth of six children to a lower middle class family in the 1960’s, and growing up in a town that was one of the wealthiest per capita in the State of Michigan, the pressures and expectations for my future were intense. I didn’t have the right name….the right genes…the right looks…the right clothes…I didn’t have a chance to excel because of physical, financial, and mental limitations according to my peers, church, and most of the town. But, in the words of Morales from “A Chorus Line,” I dug right down to the bottom of my soul! I became a starter in football and wrestling, a state champion powerlifter, earned the leading roles in musicals and straight plays, and headed off to college on scholarships….all the while with taunts still ringing in my ears….and my face and soul burning with the heat of shame and rage.

I’ve been fortunate and driven all of my life. My education has been obtained at the very best academic institutions in the world. During those years my wife and I struggled to keep food on the table, a roof over our head, and our children’s heads held high. I can’t begin to tell you the number of different jobs I have held over the years…factory work, dairy farming, short order cook, chef, newspaper reporter/photographer/editor, business owner, nurse, ICU EKG technician, just to name a few outside of my life in the arts as well as education. Throughout, I knew, because of those days in 1967, that I could overcome any obstacle, rise to any challenge. I once convinced a newspaper editor to hire me as a reporter/photographer based on writing samples, knowledge of sports, educational background, and by telling him I knew all about 35mm photography and personally owned a Pentax SLR camera. I didn’t…own that camera or even had any knowledge of photography…but I knew I needed that job because I had a three year old, a one year old and another on the way. I went to the public library, checked out every book they had on the subject, went to Sears and spent the last $100 we had in the world on a Pentax camera (much to the chagrin of my mother in law, and the frustration of my wife). I had that job for two years! Won a few Press Association awards and met/interviewed some fantastic people as I worked my way up from a beat reporter to Assistant Editor!

My students all became familiar with our stories of struggles as we started out. I wanted them to know that it was possible for them to also overcome their obstacles. I wanted them to know that with the right determination, preparation, and dedication that they too could have the things they wanted out of life. Mostly, I wanted them, my children, and my wife to know that the human mind and body are amazing things. I wanted them to understand that life is too short to be limited by others expectations of you, let alone your own expectations of yourself! My wife, of course, got used to this and applied her own acquired set of skills and thirst for learning to our needs and goals. She took a tiny bit of sewing knowledge passed on to her from her relatives and used it to create incredible things for us…dresses, coats and blankets for our girls, fabric covers that turned basic three ring binders into fancy trapper keepers that were the envy of their classmates…and even a new canvas and windows for an old used pop up camper that we rehabbed!

One of my most gratifying moments came four years ago during my first RAGBRAI tour. I am not a terribly fast rider, but I was averaging about 20 mph pretty consistently that year on the flats. Pretty good for an old amateur. Mostly, I could maintain this speed for much longer distances than many younger than myself. I was riding along one afternoon about 40 miles into the ride when a pace line of younger men came up beside me averaging about 22-23 mph. I fell in at the end of the line and rode with them for a couple of miles when one of the group dropped back and informed me that I was welcome to join them, but I had to take my turn at the front “If you think you can handle it, old man” he said in a condescending voice that took me right back to high school. I glared at him and said, “I would, but I don’t think you all could keep up.” He literally laughed out loud and shouted to the group “Hey guys, the old man says he is willing to lead but we need to keep up with him!” My psyche and my legs snapped to the task! I entered another zone and averaged about 28-30 mph for the next several miles, shredding the pace line and leaving them in my dust. There was a set of train tracks in the next town where my wife was waiting for me with an ice cold beverage. While we sat there, the group finally arrived, panting heavily. “That is some acceleration you have in those legs, buddy!” the young would-be Lance Armstrong said, shaking his head and limping off. My wife beamed with pride…she loved my legs! She also laughed at me and said “Showing off because you got challenged again, huh?”

I realized this week with the badges, the goals, the mileage…it isn’t really about showing off. It is about proving to MYSELF that I am still alive…that I am worthwhile…that I can rise to any challenge. As I complete this journey physically alone (mentally and emotionally she is still with me as part of our Abler Soul), I realize that once I stop striving, I will start dying. I’m not out to prove anything to anybody. The only person I have to be better than is the man in the mirror that I saw yesterday. My wife is part of the journey with me, so she knows. My cycling accomplishments do not matter to my children, as they have their own lives to lead…and have frankly probably grown weary of their old man’s exhibitionism on a bicycle. The older I get, the fewer people there are around me that remember those days growing up and what it was like. Very few people understand the stigmatism of growing up with a pigeon-holed future…except our former students in inner city schools. They get it. They aspire to it. They believed without having the scrap book clippings to read. And many of them have responded accordingly – teachers, music therapists, performers, nurses, writers, business consultants and motivational speakers… I am always gratified when one reaches out and says that my wife and I had even a small part of their success, because they, like Morales and we, “reached right down to the bottom” of their souls!

I feel this is one of the critical elements missing in our modern culture. We live in an era where life is watched or observed rather than actively lived. Where knowledge is sought out on the internet, rather than sought out to acquire and retain on our own. Where we too often settle and compromise rather than dig right down and test our mettle. My wife and I built a phenomenal life together that I am grateful for every day. This is not to say that we always got along. Quite the contrary. We brought out the best and worst in each other, but, in my opinion, that is how you grow as individuals and as a couple. She truly made me a better man every day of our marriage by supporting me, pushing me, questioning me…

And that is what I want for Rhett. And Clark. And Theo. I want them to know that they, too, can reach down and dig deep to achieve their dreams. I want them to know that there are so very many things that they can aspire to and enjoy in this life that will captivate them and satisfy their needs – like waving Hi to Mommy on stage at a Kindergarten music program. I want them to know their Nana and Papa did the very most with what they were given and explored ALL of life’s possibilities. In the words of Jacob Boehme in Forty Questions of the Soul, “For it is a young tree grown out of the old root which shall discover what the old tree hath been in its wonders.” Actually, the word Boehme used in his original German text for “discover” was “verklarte,” which could also be construed as “transfigured by.” Yeah….I want their future to be transfigured by the roots of their Nana and Papa in a constant thirst to understand their world and live an active life in it.

I want them to have the knowledge, stamina, and desire to be able to herd cats.

Lights….Camera….Action!

Like every kid my age, I lived for Saturday morning cartoons on television when I was growing up. Aquaman…Superman…Johnny Quest…Peabody and Sherman…Fractured Fairy Tales…Deputy Dawg…but most of all, The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner hour! I memorized the snappy comebacks, the classical tunes and received my first exposure in the world of opera from Bugs. But, most of all, I loved Foghorn Leghorn! Foghorn always had a way of pointing out the intellectual deficiencies of an individual without actually calling him stupid! Sayings like “That girl is like Paul Revere’s ride…a little light in the belfry!” Or “That boy is so bright he thinks a Mexican border pays rent!” I’m fairly certain, although I can’t find a direct reference to these, he also said “That boy is about as bright as the Tunnel of Love at midnight,” and “That boy is about as bright as a burned out light bulb.”

Our grandsons are getting to the age where they are now enjoying and can appreciate cartoons, and I have purchased a 24 DVD set “Looney Tunes: The Golden Collection” to enjoy with them. Indeed, they have reached the age where they now are beginning to experience true “schadenfreude,” the pleasure one derives of someone else’s misfortunes, and, while it is somewhat amusing to sit back and watch them become overwhelmed with paroxysms of laughter, as a grandparent, former educator, and human being, it is my responsibility to help them navigate their way from schadenfreude to empathy. I think Looney Tunes…and especially Foghorn Leghorn…can help me do this.

It is indeed the season of lights. As our days become increasingly shorter and nights become increasingly longer…and with the gloomy and overcast skies during the day becoming further complicated by the presence of rain, freezing rain, and snow, it is tremendously important as a cyclist that one is prepared for the season by having the right amount and type of equipment to insure a pleasurable and safe ride in the harsher elements of winter. As I pointed out last week, I feel that it is critical that cyclists focus on being NOTICED, rather than seen. While some may have looked at the pictures of my cockpit as well as the back of my bicycles as lighting overkill, I feel that safety dictates erring on the side of caution.

Let’s start out with a few definitions and legal expectations.

Stopping distance – What is most important here is that the cyclist is aware of a motor vehicle’s minimum stopping distance. At 55 mph, a motorist needs a minimum of 300 feet to react to and safely come to a complete stop in optimum road conditions. In winter, obviously, that distance is lengthened and may be almost doubled. At a slower speed, obviously, less distance is required. Three hundred feet…the distance of a football field. In the state of Michigan, county road signs warn road users of upcoming intersections and stop signs at a distance of a tenth of a mile…approximately 500-550 feet. For a cyclist, then, you need your lights to be able to be NOTICED at a minimum of a tenth of a mile, in my humble opinion. This allows oncoming and trailing motorists to notice you in front of them and adjust their speed, trajectory, and possible braking distance appropriately. A single light, especially if it is in flashing mode, is not sufficient for this purpose. A vehicle traveling at 35 mph covers 51 feet in a single second…at 55 mph, the distance increases to 81 feet. With the demands placed upon a motorists attention, it is imperative (again, IMHO) that a cyclist have enough lights to become the center of motorists’ attention as soon as possible. While you may have a very bright tail light or headlight, if it is just a single one, it is competing with other factors for that motorists’ attention…other traffic, road conditions, nature, other occupants of the vehicle, etc. As motorists, however, we do develop early on a natural sense of priority for multiple flashing lights (emergency vehicles), and so multiple bright lights are far more likely to demand notice of motorists sharing the road with you.

Lumens – A lumen is a unit of light measured by the distance illuminated in a given space. Lumens are not the same as watts, but can be compared to them. For cycling purposes, most head and tail lights are measured in lumens. It is important to recognize the need for each type of lighting – headlights are critical not just for recognition by oncoming traffic, but for clearly seeing the path your bike is traveling ahead. Your headlight must be strong enough to cast light far enough ahead that your bike speed does not exceed the distance illuminated. Believe it or not, this does happen. No, you are not traveling at light speed, but rather the light/lumens diminish in strength the further it travels from the source. Rear lights have the advantage of being a different color spectrum (red), and do not need to project light for the cyclist to see by, but rather the motorist who is constantly closing the gap between themselves and the cyclist. For equivalencies’ sake, think of a 700 lumen light as providing the same amount of light as a 55-60 watt light bulb. While an oncoming motorist is likely to spot you in the dark, think of how far you are likely to see ahead of you in a hallway illumined by a single 55 watt light bulb. Assuming that hallway is about 30 feet long, you have reached the limit of what you can realistically see ahead for one second if you are traveling at 25mph.

What do I use for lighting? I use several different brands and strengths of lights. Again, the purpose is to provide a wide spectrum of lights that will tend to have a motorist notice the variety and automatically enter emergency vehicle mode! (Thanks again, Don!)

Up front, I always utilize a minimum of two headlights. One on steady, and one on flashing. I also have lights embedded in my helmet, which I will get to later. After a great deal of experimentation and experience with different brands…Serfas, Cygolite, Bontrager, and NiteRider, I now exclusively utilize NiteRider lights. These lights are compact, light, easily transferrable, charge rapidly, impervious to the elements, strong battery capacity, charge easily, and NiteRider backs up the best warranty in the business (again, IMHO). They have several different price points as well as lumen ranges. I have a NiteRider 220, 450, 600, 750, and 3200 Pro that I use every day. I only ever use the 220 as a flasher for daytime riding, and then only during the summer. On flashing mode, it is likely to last for an entire ride of less than six hours. The 450 is used for riding at dusk on steady at the brightest setting, or in flashing mode at night during most of the year. The 600 and 700 models are used mostly as steady sources of light and the setting depends upon the time of year. Lower settings are used during daylight hours, while the brighter settings are used at night. The 3200 Pro is used for extended rides during the day and I put it on flashing mode because the battery will last 14-16 hours easily. During longer night rides, I will keep it on as a steady source of light. Bear in mind that a vehicles headlight varies in power from 700 on dim to 3200 on bright beam. My 3200 Pro will only last two hours on bright, but the amount of light it generates creates an almost daytime effect in the gloomiest of nights! I once completed a 400K ride around Michigan’s Thumb, with the final two hours after dark and in a driving rain storm. About four miles from the finish line my front tube blew. While I wasn’t thrilled about having to dismount and change the tube in the rain, the light enabled me to see clearly enough that it was though I were doing it in daylight and thus completed the task in just a minute or two!

In back – I have a variety of lights that I utilize here. Each light produces a minimum of 50 lumens, with my most powerful generating 260 lumens. Remember, the purpose of the tail light is for the cyclist to be noticed by those approaching from behind. The tail light does not need to generate light on the roadway, so lumen capacity does not need to be as bright. That said, a single 50 lumen tail light only generates about the same output as a single 10 watt light bulb. How likely is THAT to be noticed by a vehicle coming up behind you at 55 mph in time enough to brake safely? On the other hand, if you have multiple 50 lumen lights, each flashing at different speeds, or on steady, the display itself is likely to grab a motorist’s attention!

I use two Cygolight Hotshots in the back…a Hotshot Pro, and a regular Hotshot. The Pro generates 150 lumens, the other 50. The Pro, however, has a less secure covering for the charge port, and thus I fear is more likely to incur water damage. Be careful when using this light in inclement weather. I always have my HS Pro mounted at the top of my rear rack, and, preferably, charge port located above the mud guard. I also use two NiteRider tail lights… Sabre that generates 80 lumens and is very cost effective, and a Sentry Aero that generates 260 lumens with an incredible surface area for the light itself! Each of these lights have a very secure charge port covering, unlike their NiteRider Solas counterparts. I did have two Solas tail lights, but these lights died after three days of touring in constant rainy weather last summer and would not recharge. If you are going to purchase NiteRider tail lights, I highly recommend the Sabre and the Sentry, although the Sentry does take up a good amount of space! I also use a Lezyne Strip Light that generates 150 lumens and has a wide variety of flashing options. Unfortunately, the battery life is the most limited of all of my tail lights, and thus I will not use if going on any ride of three hours or longer. Additionally, I have an embedded tail light in my helmet, along with turn signals (yes, you read that correctly), that generates 150 lumens and will flash for over five and a half hours, and I have flashing lights on my rear facing Cycliq camera. The camera can be charged while in use, so theoretically, the battery life on this is as limited as your source of portable power.

Most bicycles, of course, lack the space on the seat post and handlebars to place so many lights. My friend and mentor Don utilizes his seat post and chain stays for his tail light display, and employs bar extenders/accessory bars up front for his cockpit. I tried that configuration. The roads in MI are so decrepit that the bar extenders began to fail after just a few months usage and I would lose lights, or they extenders would fall off the bike completely! I now use the Kaddy Rack system both front and back. These were patented by a friend in Iowa and are the most secure form I know of to keep my lights and accessories secure and me safe. Let’s face it, that tail light (and camera) collection you see above would cost over $450 to replace. Up front, between Garmin, camera, and lights, replacement costs are closer to $1000! Andy’s Kaddy Racks will keep this all safe and secure so you can enjoy the ride without undue fear, and come back to laugh along with your grandkids while Foghorn goes after the dog, Sylvester goes after Tweety, or Elmer serenades Bugs as Brunnhilde!

Finally, a word about my helmet. I first began seeing advertisements for the kickstarter Lumos project as I was recovering from surgery in 2016. In February of 2017, as my wife and I were leaving the Mayo Clinic, we saw one of these at dusk on a cyclist battling a snowstorm. It was stunning. Two months later, as we prepared for our 34th anniversary in a hospital, she ordered two of these helmets…one for me and one for her. She told me when she surprised me with it that she needed to know I would be safe for our girls and grandsons. This helmet has a strip of white lights up front, and a triangle of red lights in the back. These lights can be set to steady, or rapid or slow flash. Additionally, it comes with turn signals that are remotely activated by the push of a button on the handlebars. Every time I signal a turn…every time I put the helmet on, I feel her presence. It was her last anniversary gift to me. And consequently, the most precious.

I am including links for the various companies discussed today. You, of course, can go any way you choose. Just remember, like anything else in life, there is strength in numbers! Dee, bededee, bededeee…That’s all folks!

www.lumoshelmet.co

www.kaddyrack.com

www.niterider.com

www.cygolite.com

www.lezyne.com

www.serfas.com

www.bontrager.com

The only thing we have to fear, is….

Winter is coming (actually it arrived here in Michigan on November 11th…or October 13th…). And the night is dark and full of terrors….but the roads are worse.

Fear is a tangible thing for most true cyclists these days. Every time I go out on the road I wonder if I’m going to make it back. I’ve been honked at, sworn at, swerved at, flipped off, had cups and garbage thrown at me, etc., all by angry drivers who don’t believe I should be on the road. Mind you, I always ride as far to the right as practicable (as required by Michigan law), and I ALWAYS obey traffic laws, lights, and signs! Although I did get a speeding ticket on my Roubaix once for doing 35 mph in a 25 mph zone…which the officer graciously tore up after I let him take my bike out for a spin! “They wouldn’t believe me anyway” he said! Every cyclist’s proudest moment is a speeding ticket!

Further infuriating to me, however, is the fact that the state of Michigan enacted a law two years ago, requiring motorists to give a minimum of three feet when passing a cyclist on the road. This is quite probably the most broken, and least enforced law, in the Michigan vehicle code, based on my personal observations and experience. If you think three feet is too much space to leave a fellow human being when overtaking them in a much swifter vehicle then please, take your child or grandchild and stand within the yellow line in a train or subway station sometime. Feel that draft wanting to suck you in? Smell that fear? Welcome to my life on the road!

Today I am celebrating my eighth year post bariatric bypass. A life changing, lifesaving procedure that has seen me lose over 170 pounds and keep it off…as well as losing all of the meds I was on at the time….insulin, metformin, Actos, blood pressure….I have been drug free for eight years – except for pain relievers I take for arthritis developed as a fat man! Regardless, in those eight years I have pedaled over 49000 miles in order to keep the weight off, remain as physically and mentally healthy as possible, and, most importantly, to enjoy life. Those miles have been put on in 18 different states, eight different countries, and three different continents. Amazingly enough, I have been struck by a motorist only twice in that time….and each time was within 12 miles of my front door!

In addition to always riding within the proscriptions of the law (yes, I know several people who ride bikes do not, but most of them are not cyclists – you can seriously tell by their equipment, or lack thereof), I do try to make sure I am noticed….not seen, NOTICED (there is a difference!). This involves wearing brightly colored clothing – yes I am a true MAMIL (middle-aged man in lycra) and more than once my former students and even my own children have vomited a little in their mouth when I arrived in my kit at the end of a ride! Most importantly, however, and the point of today’s post (I know, took me long enough), is I use lights. Lots and lots of lights. Front lights. Back lights. Lights on the front and back of my helmet. Lights.

Now, when I first started riding after surgery, I had one headlight, and one tail light on my bike. Several close calls on early morning rides and rides at dusk and later had me concerned that I might have to find another form of exercise. Then I went riding with a club I belonged to in Ottawa, IL…the Starved Rock Cycling Association (SRCA) …. one night on their Monday night ride. Things were going well on our way to dinner, as they should because it was still light out. After dinner, however, my friend Don and I headed out to return to the city, some 15 miles away. I got on my bike, powered up my headlight and tail light, and was ready to hit the road. Don, however, was not. Don was still turning on his lights. He had TWO headlights up front, one flashing, and one steady. More impressive, however, was his rear end! Wait…..that came out wrong! Seriously, however, Don had EIGHT tail lights going at the same time! Some flashed, some steady, but all were being powered up. I chuckled and followed him back to Ottawa. Then the chuckling stopped. Every motorist that came from behind us was slowing down and swinging far over to the left to pass us. Every. Single. One. Not sure if they thought he was an emergency vehicle, or a UFO, but his ploy worked.

My lesson was learned. I returned home from that trip and purchased more lights. Lots. More. Lights. I never had a close call at night again after that. The key word there is “night.”

My cockpit
The point is to be NOTICED!

The first time I was hit was in broad daylight. It was a Saturday morning. A nice spring day. I was heading west. So was the minivan that hit me. I was riding almost on the fog line as I saw the van approach in my rear view mirror. There was a vehicle coming in the east bound lane, but it was more than a quarter mile away when I felt something strike my left elbow…hard! How I managed to keep my bike upright, I’ll never know. I remember looking at the van and watching its passenger side mirror flying in the air. The oncoming vehicle had to do some fancy maneuvering to avoid hitting the debris as it rolled around the asphalt. The van driver? Never stopped.

Fortunately, nothing on me, and, most importantly, my bike, was broken. My elbow was swollen for weeks after, and, emotionally, I still get antsy pedaling that stretch of road. Don, my mentor, asked me when he heard about it, how many lights I had turned on at the time. I was stunned. “Well, none. It was broad dayl…”

“Well, there’s your problem,” he said. “They didn’t notice you. I use my lights at all times, Night or day. Make them notice you.” I’ve been using them ever since…day and night.

Of course, not all drivers will notice you. That is because they are too busy noticing other things. Like their cell phones. The second time I was hit was just a year and a half ago. Yes, I had all my lights on. It was broad daylight, in the middle of the afternoon in early summer. I was in the right lane, and she turned into a convenience store from the left lane….coming from the same direction! I was T-Boned! This time, there was damage. About $1000 worth of damage. She cried to the officer “I didn’t see him! I swear I didn’t see him!” The officer and I pointed out the number of lights I had on at the time, in addition to the two that fell off the bike and were smashed by her wheels, but were still flashing!

That, fortunately, was the last time I was hit. I remember thinking that our daughters had just lost their mom a few months previously and were not ready to be orphans yet. I also remember thinking I was very lucky to not have any serious injury to my person, and, so, their mother was probably whispering in God’s ear (like a child that just wants five more minutes of sleep), “No, I’m not ready yet! Keep him there. Just five more years. PLEASE???”

However, this is not to say that I am infallible. My most serious injury on a bike came this summer. Yes. I was running all of my lights. Yes it was day light. Yes, my brother-in-law and I were following all of the rules of the road. No, I didn’t get hit. This time, it was my fault.

We had finished dinner after a day of touring and we were headed back to our camp site. The road we were on was a four lane highway, and featured a freeway exit ramp. We were in the right lane, riding two abreast (legal in Michigan as in most other states), and when we noticed cars approaching from behind, I would drop back and we would ride single file. This worked out fine. Until it didn’t.

This is all second hand information from my brother in law, as I don’t remember any of it. Apparently, just as we approached the freeway exit ramp, and were about to turn off the road into a convenience store for night time…snacks…, a truck approached us from behind and laid on her horn. There were no other vehicles in the east bound lanes of traffic at the time, but she was dead set on having the right lane to herself. I went a bit closer to the fog line. Spencer said he looked back and saw her almost upon me and laying on her horn continuously. I tried to move over to the right more, and my wheel got caught in a crack in the asphalt and I went down. Hard. He said he looked back and saw me laying on the roadside absolutely still and thought I was dead. My Garmin 820 detected the incident and sent out an alert to our youngest daughter, who tried calling and got no response. She thought I was dead or seriously injured also.

I remember coming to in the ambulance, where they had been asking me all kinds of questions, which I was answering correctly….for the most part…which concerned Spencer even more. God I was sore, but I refused to be taken to the hospital. Organizers from the tour showed up and transported Spencer and I back to the camp site. It was a really rough night…hot, humid, no wind, but plenty of pain! You know the kind! However, the next morning, I managed to tear down camp, load the bags into the baggage truck (with Spencer’s help), and he and I finished the tour with a 40 mile ride the next day.

I got home and decided to take Saturday off to overcome the stiffness. When you’re old, it takes a bit longer for the muscles and joints to recover (remember, I have arthritis as a former fat man!). Sunday morning arrived bright, warm….and painful…worse, rather than better. So I took Sunday off as well. By the time my sister, a Nurse Practitioner, arrived for lunch on Tuesday, she confirmed what I had already suspected….she felt cracks in at least three of my ribs and something going on with my scapula.

So my season was done, right? WRONG! Although the current medical practice is to not use a cast or binder for broken ribs, I decided to wrap my ribs anyway. Years ago, I had compressed some vertebrae in my lower back in a fall off from our deck and had discovered that riding my bike actually helped alleviate the pain due to a shift in posture. I thought it was worth a try, so I wrapped up the ribs good and tight in an effort to also stabilize the scapula. Four miles that day on smooth pavement were pain free. 25 miles the next day, the same thing….after that I didn’t ride at all in July without the ribs wrapped.

So why was all of this my fault? Because I gave up the lane to a pissed off motorist. She noticed me. Obviously. The lights did their job. My mistake was forfeiting MY RIGHT to the road. She may have been annoying, but she wasn’t stupid. She wasn’t going to hit me. She just wanted to force me off the road…by any means necessary without incurring violence. Never surrender your right to the road, as long as you are abiding by the law otherwise. There have been numerous researchers who have come to the conclusion that a cyclist who moves farther over to the right – to the point of riding on the fog line or narrow strip of shoulder – is more likely to be squeezed or forced off the road and incur injury than cyclists who maintain their path, slightly to the left of the fog line. Let the motorist honk. Let them flip you off. Let your kids and grandkids keep you around for a while longer. Those birthday bikes I spoke of in my last post wouldn’t have happened this year if that accident had been any more serious.

So, winter is here. The road is dark and full of terrors. How do we prepare? Here in Michigan our elected “representatives” cannot agree on funding for road maintenance and repair, resulting in an acceleration of crumbling infrastructure over the past few years. There are numerous stretches of road that I ride in my area where the asphalt has literally been worn or plowed over and the road bed is exposed for 50-100 yards. Last winter, an ice storm resulted in between 1-3 inches of ice. Normally good for a day off bike, but due to the state and county’s abject refusal to apply salt, this ice built up and clung to the dirt and back roads for over a month! Even with my fat tire and air pressure lowered to 8 psi, I crashed twice within a half mile stretch, and ended up not riding at all for a six week period! Our snowfall just two weeks ago also resulted in a foundation of ice on all but state highways. I gave it a day, then took my fat tire out and crashed about a mile from home, while still on city streets! Again, no salt or treatment from the state or county, but the ice had worn down and melted within two days. What is the solution? Our state Senate Majority leader has simply thrown up his hands and gone on record as stating that Michigan has too many paved roads and we should let many of them return to gravel/dirt. Of course, he didn’t address how quickly the remaining paved surfaces will deteriorate with the added traffic, not to mention how he would address maintaining those gravel and dirt roads which are as rutted in many spots as the old Lewis and Clark trail I remember stumbling across as a kid while on a family vacation!

Next week I will review winter riding gear, lights, equipment, and tips to get you through. Just because its winter doesn’t mean you have to quit riding. Just because the weather and Mother Nature are being uncooperative, doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the sights and the sounds of the season. There is an awful lot to be said for the sound of snow fall…or the sound of a bicycle tire crunching through freshly fallen snow…or seeing the holiday light displays at a leisurely pace.

Ride safe. Ride hard. And don’t give up your rights. FDR was right. The only thing we have to fear, IS fear itself. And running out of Scotch Ale. I’m terrified of that eventuality!