Monday, September 16, 2013

Corbie-Crow: The Writer Needs to Swim Upstream

Short, sweet reminder of what it takes to call yourself a writer by a friend of mine:

Corbie-Crow: The Writer Needs to Swim Upstream: I was reading some of Wallace Stegner's thoughts on writing this morning and came across this: "...talent is very common. It's...

Friday, July 19, 2013

When Looking Back Is Better

Hunched over my handlebars, eyes fixed on the road inches in front of my tire, mouth hanging open to capture as much of the arid air as I could with each heaving gasp, I watched the asphalt crawl by.  I was making slow progress three minutes ago when the older biker passed me.  I was making slower progress now. 

A shadow passed over the road ahead, so I glanced up into the punishing sun.  A single raven circled and came to rest atop a boulder near a road sign beside the bike lane about 30 yards ahead, and watched me approach.  He was a big one.  At least two feet from tip to tail.  I had talked myself past the last few logical stopping points, so this looked as good a place to stop as any.

When you climb a hill on a bike, it’s a battle between your legs and gravity.  Wheels roll backward as easily as they do forward.  You stop peddling, you stop making forward progress.  Gravity wins.

I pulled to a stop beside the sign and the raven hopped down for a closer look at me, head cocked slightly to the side.  With one hand, I reached back to retrieve a hand towel from a rear shirt pocket and with the other pulled my sunglasses off.  The light was painfully bright, but after I wiped away the rivulets of sweaty sunscreen stinging my eyes, I squinted one open and scanned around to make sure the well-fed scavenger was alone.  He probably wanted a hand out.  But I didn’t like to think that he sensed something I didn’t and wanted to beat the lunch rush. 

Photo by HotBlack at
I returned my glasses and stooped to pull up one of my water bottles.  I squirted a long blast into my mouth, swallowed, and repeated.  My heart and lungs were screaming in unison.  What the hell are you doing to us?  But my breath was settling enough that deep inhales through me nose were enough.  I am always surprised how quickly I can catch my breath when only a minute before I was sucking wind.  Maybe that’s a sign of conditioning.  Maybe I’m getting better at this.  Maybe.
I looked ahead, evaluating the age and fitness of the older biker who was continuing to pull away seemingly without effort.  That could be me in 20 years if I kept at this.  It occurred to me more as a question than a statement of confidence.  Could that be me?  Ever? 

The road up to NCAR (The National Center for Atmospheric Research) is a little over 1 mile from its entrance up to the laboratory on the mesa during which you climb about 400 feet in elevation.  My house is a little over 3 miles from the entrance and another 240 feet lower.  So that’s roughly 4.3 miles, a distance that is really nothing on a road bike even in the heat of summer for someone who rides even a modest amount.  But that 640-foot climb, that’s another thing altogether. 

NCAR sits atop a mesa in the foothills above Boulder with the Flat Iron mountain range, literally the front range of the Rockies, framing it behind.  It’s an impressive sight.  And for a biker, at least for this biker, it is a beckoning objective.  Countless runners and bikers have made the journey up the mesa and back down again.  Scores do it every day.  Some do it multiple times in a day.  But I had only attempted it a couple times and always turned back, making it no further than halfway.  I told myself it represented a milestone for me.  If I could make it up NCAR, then I had attained something as a biker – some badge of accomplishment. 

To serious bikers, NCAR is probably little more than a warm-up.  By “serious bikers” I do not mean the elite international athletes who compete in the Tour and Giro.  I’m talking about any old committed road-biker around Boulder.  And there are loads of them.  But to me, making it up NCAR meant something.

So there I was, catching my breath, rivulets of sweaty sunscreen running into my eyes, hoping the electrolyte mix in my water bottle could somehow renew my strength, agreeing with my inner voice as it told me that my heart and lungs were making a lot of sense.  I made it this far and this was far enough. 

Beyond the older man ahead of me, I could see a more conditioned athlete coast down the final stretch, then turn around and sprint back to the top.  He had passed me about half a mile back and he was probably already on his third or fourth sprint cycle at the top. 

Have you ever experienced that optical illusion when you’re stopped at a light and the car next to you glides forward a little and, for a split second, even though you know you have your foot on the brake, your brain tells you that you are rolling backward not that he’s moving forward?  Yeah.  That’s about what it felt like when he dashed past me.

I took another gulp and watched another fellow who had already successfully crested the top whiz by as he flew back down the hill.  The road is steep enough that it’s easy to get above 30 on the way down.  In fact, you probably can’t stay under 30 unless you’re on the brakes.  Road bikes don’t have disk brakes, they have the style of rubber-shoe rim brakes that most people are familiar with.  On a long, steep grade you can pick up so much speed downhill that, if you stay on the brakes and don’t alternate pulses between the front and rear, you can easily overheat the brakes, cooking the rim and melting the rubber shoes. 

I did good.  Halfway is good,” I told myself.  This is far enough for today.  It’s a milestone for me to pass next time.  Yeah.  Let’s join that guy on the flight back down.  It’s the best part, after all.  The voice told me the last half was the hardest half.  I looked back up to the top and agreed.  Then glanced over at the raven and he agreed, too, though maybe for different reasons.  Take a load off, man.  Just lie down here beside the bike lane and I’ll take of the rest.” 

I had already been talking my way through each pump of the peddle for the last few minutes.  Just make it to that pull off and we can rest… okay, we still have a little something left in the tank so let’s make it to the next flat and take a breather… alright, still going, still going… this is good, this is good because when you finally do stop you can take comfort in the fact that you made it that whole way without resting.  It really is amazing, the self-talk.  I’m not really exaggerating about this – some part of my brain is trying to use reason to win an argument with some less-reasonable part of my brain that is determined to prove something.  Reason was winning.  And then I looked back.

The blistering sun brilliantly lit the entire valley and the cloudless sky provided a clear view down the hill, across the whole of Boulder, and out into the plains beyond.  We can overuse and misuse the word, literally, but this view was literally inspiring.  

Photo by HotBlack at
To my surprise, I saw that I was well past halfway.  I was at least two-thirds of the way to the top.  I had been so absorbed in just keeping my legs going that I didn’t realize the progress I had made.  I looked up from where I was, then back down, up, and back down and again and, wow, did it look so much steeper looking down than looking up. 
From the bottom, your perspective is different.  When you begin, the last half looks the steepest.  But, looking back, it’s clear that the toughest leg is already behind you.  How many of those who set out surrender too soon thinking they barely made a dent in the NCAR climb?

I had already completed most of the work.  I stuffed my drink back in the cage and my towel in its pocket, clipped back into the pedals, and bid the raven adieu.

I’d be lying if I said the last leg was a cakewalk.  It was work, but it was doable work.  For a couple minutes back there, the raven and reason nearly talked me into believing it was insurmountable, not worth the continued effort on that day feeling that way.  But I can say with complete candor that the final hundred yards were surprisingly easy.  I felt stronger, as if the exertion of the miles behind me fell away.  Like there was a wind at my back.  I had been grinding it out in my lowest of 30 gears for most of the climb, but toward the end I clicked up one gear then another then another then another.

When I stopped – no, when I paused, because that's all it was – when I paused, if I had focused exclusively on the work that awaited me, I probably would have quit.  Like I had every time before.  But looking back allowed me to appreciate how far I had already come.  My own progress, the results of my own hard work, inspired me on for that last push.  And where did that get me?  It got me to the top.  I accomplished the goal I had originally set for myself five years earlier and had stopped even attempting because it had defeated and humbled me the first few times I tried.

I used to say the race back down was the reward for the grueling haul up - the wind in my face and especially the speed meter flashing at me at the bottom to let me know I was going well beyond 25mph.  I wanted to shout encouragement to every person still huffing their way up.  It was fun.  But the real reward was at the top.  I made it.  I looked down at where I had been, at how far I’d come.   

I took well-deserved pride in overcoming a truly difficult obstacle – not the mesa climb itself, but my own internal urge to give up.

Sometimes looking back is better.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Melting The Pounds Away

I've abandoned even the pretext of writing short, snappy blog posts.  Everything grows in the telling for me.  I can only hope to make these longer ones entertaining enough to engage you through to the end.

Alphonse Mucha's Woman With A Burning Candle
We’ve all heard the words – Melt those pounds away.  Like it’s just as easy as that.  The promise of that swimsuit body in a few short weeks melts away billions of dollars from our wallets every year. 

I’m thinking about this because I recently got back to exercising after several months of storing up fat for the winter and testing the elastic range of my abdominal skin.  I can report I succeeded smashingly in both regards.  Now it’s down to the difficult work of reestablishing a consistent exercise routine so I can recover my youthful physique.  Confession:  I was a stickboy in my youth, so I’m not really aiming for that specific physique, but it’s just an expression, like sick as a dog, piss like a racehorse, or throw someone under the bus.  We say the words even if they aren’t literally true.

As we all know, it is far easier to blame external forces than to correct internal shortcomings, but I can’t help wonder if my challenge is more than one of mere laziness and procrastination.  The very laws of nature conspire against me.  Against us.  I don’t just mean the inevitable wasting effects of age – the aches & the pains, increased recovery time & diminishing returns for your efforts – I am chalking this up to the inescapable truths of Newtonian Physics.

You know where I’m going with this – Newton noted, in simplified form, that natural objects possess a natural desire is to resist change:

  • An Object in Motion tends to remain in motion unless acted on by an outside force.  With regard to exercise, this is the state in which you have established a regular and satisfying routine that is self-perpetuating because it calls to you every day.  You may feel sore, but it’s a satisfying soreness.

  • On the other hand, an Object at Rest – one that is gradually boring a bum-shaped crater into the couch – tends to remain at rest unless it too is acted on by an outside force.  Picture a pool ball and a cue.

It’s this outside force that I am in search of.  I asked a circle of writer friends recently if any would be willing to help hold me accountable to establishing a regular writing routine and, to my surprise, I received no takers and no small measure of scorn for the very suggestion.  I intended to set my own goals - goals I truly wanted to achieve.  I simply wanted their help to remind and prod and encourage me to work toward them.  If interested, maybe I could do the same for them.  Iron sharpening iron.  Perhaps that was the unspoken deal-breaker.

I don’t fully understand what the push-back was about.  Maybe it was my own uneven history of accountability with them.  I do think some writers believe the creative process is so inviolate that they can be uncomfortable with the very idea of externally imposed requirements.  I have come to view writing as more an act of will and intentional creative expression rather than one of transient inspiration, but I’ll leave that for another discussion another time.

Regarding accountability, I understand it is the inner drive that ultimately matters most in whether we remain at Newtonian rest, physically and figuratively, or we get ourselves in motion and create habits and and environment that keeps us motion.  Establishing that supportive external environment that motivates you to fulfill your inner desires produces more results than relying on your own will alone.  External accountability and motivation never hurts.

So, to that end, I began tracking my food intake via Weight Watchers online AND I also got a Nike+ Fuelband activity monitor that I wear all the time.  Both of these tools provide regular reminders of whether my present choices are contributing to or detracting from progress toward my goals.  They are external forces of accountability to support me when my inner drive is having an off day.
With weight loss I’ve had more success than writing thus far this year.  It’s been two weeks and I am down 4 pounds, 2 per week.  I am very pleased with that progress – it is both healthy and sustainable.  Crash, fad diets usually turn out to be neither healthy nor sustainable.
But, it’s not all rainbows and roses.  The physical and dietary work itself isn’t as hard on my body as my self-judgment is on my psyche.  We are usually our own worst critics.  The mirror is a daily reminder of our past choices and it can be easier to focus on regrets rather than your present course. 

For anyone who has lost weight, perhaps you can relate to the following experience.  Two weeks into successfully shedding pounds I actually feel and look flabbier than when I started.  I'm serious.  I am physically going in the right direction, but aesthetically I am literally sagging. 

I’m not repugnant, at least not any more so than I was two weeks ago, but I feel less… alluring.  The scale assures me otherwise, but we haven’t yet established a rapport, the scale and I, where I have confidence he’s entirely on my side.  He must know that once I reach my goal I won’t consult him every morning like I do now and, between you and me, I worry he may become a bit clingy.  We are still working through some trust issues – like how over the course of the week I can be up a pound one day, down a pound and a half the next, even, up, down, and so on.  It’s like watching the astronauts in Apollo 13 try to keep the Earth centered in the window as they hurdle back from the moon with no steering on their booster rockets – it swings wildly back and forth until it finally settles on the money shot for the weekly Monday weigh-in.

Picture from
Weight loss products enthusiastically claim they will Melt The Pounds Away.  Sounds great.  But have you ever seen a candle melt?  That might be exactly what you want for a romantic dinner, peaceful bath, or secluded monastery, but not what you want to see reflected in the mirror.  Melted wax rolls over the edges, slides down the sides and puddles around the bottom.  Picture that on a human body, if you will.  

As my fat thins it no longer presses my skin taut so that everything now sags and swings like never before.  My belly used to protrude a bit above my belt.  Now, as they’d say in the South, it done laps right over.  It’s like an abdominal waterfall breaking over my waistband.

In the past, I joked about maintaining My Girlish Figure.  But now that I have bouncier man-boobs and a bowls full of jelly gyrating around my hips and caboose, I can say with certainty that the classic hourglass shape is not exactly what I was going for.  Nor is the pear-shape, which is probably closer to the truth for me.  Have you seen an elephant seal shimmy-flopping up a beach?  Yeah.  Then you know my hidden pain.

This is a transitional period, I know that, but the watch-it-wiggle-see-it-jiggle phase does little to encourage me back into the gym where I must wallow amongst the typical crowd of hard-bodied, tri-athlete Boulderites that populate the gyms around these parts.  But I know I have to look past this present hardship to a brighter future and accept myself along the way.

In one of my favorite Seinfeld scenes, Cosmo Kramer has been coaxed by a big tobacco company into the role of a rugged Marlboro Man-type ad model and he has literally taken to smoking like it is his job.  He sets up a smoking lounge in his apartment, where he chain-puffs away on a pipe all day long.  Jerry confronts him about how he has crammed an entire lifetime of smoking into just a few short days and it is ravaging his face.  He comments that Kramer’s skin now looks like a worn-out catcher’s mitt and his teeth are stained a repulsive shade of brown.  Horror-struck at what he has done to himself, Kramer laments:

Jerry, you know my face is my livelihood.  Everything I have I owe to this face!  It’s my allure.   My... my twinkle.

Then he famously concludes with the imminently quotable line, “Look away, Jerry!  I’m hideous!

I hold no misgivings that my face is my twinkle, but I do understand his remorse over regrettable choices.  I have become Cosmo Kramer.  Please avert your eyes awhile.  I feel hideous.

Getting older is really getting old.  And if aging has taught me nothing else it is this - in pretty much everything in life, it is always easier to Keep Up than it is to Catch Up.

Picture from Red Cross of Argentina

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Peckers and Baloney Ponies

In the next few paragraphs, you will note the frequent inclusion of [_] within the text.  This is for my more delicate readers.  Please feel free to insert the expletive of your choosing wherever you see a [_] and just know that the saltier version is exactly how I recount this story in my head.  But my mother and wife read this blog, so I’d never hear the end of it if I let that filth appear nakedly in print.  So insert expletives or don't as you like.  Then take a moment to marvel at how I can make you mentally insert a word you’re not actually even reading.  Try to read past the [_] and see how that works.  The mind is a magnificent mystery.

For a couple weeks every [_] spring, some damnable [_] Woodpecker piece of [_] drums away on my metal [_] chimney cap like it’s his [_] job!  He starts banging at around 6:30 right outside my window!  6:30!  No joke.  What kind of [_]-up mother-[_] has the energy to repeatedly slam his [_] peabrain against a sheet of metal at the ass crack of dawn?  I mean, really!
Photo from

He usually takes a break for a couple hours only to resume his [_] provocation – because that’s exactly what this is; it’s a [_] provocation!  That [_] Woodpecker is calling me out!  He’s [_] mocking me because I’m stuck to the [_] surface of the Earth while he flies [_] circles around my head taunting me and my impotent [_] broom!  

And he’s a wily son of a [_], to boot.  Somehow he knows when my preschooler or my wife (who works nights) lays down for a nap!  He [_] knows!  Every [_] time!  How does he know?  How the [_] do I know?  I just know he knows, the insidious pecker-head!
And here’s the kicker – he also knows that I can’t [_] shout because that would only add to the noise disturbing my family’s sleep.  He just looks down his [_] beak at me like I'm some [_] dancing marionette, whisper-shouting like an idiot.  

So I wave a [_] broom in the air like a [_] trained monkey and toss stones and all he does is flutter to a nearby tree where he’s above it all, that superior [_].  He just waits for me to go back inside then returns to his torture.  Sometimes he doesn’t even bother leaving for a tree when I harass him, he’ll just fly around the other side of the house and hammer away on a downspout or a gutter or some flashing.

I was raised in the suburbs.  As much as I understand some of the costs to society of being so far removed from the sources of our food on the farm, I appreciate the fact that I don't have to butcher my own livestock.  But I tell you, if I could get my hands on that little pecker-head, I would ring his [_] neck like a hardened farmhand and not lose a wink of sleep over it. 

I asked an animal control guy about it one time and he said there’s usually two related reasons a woodpecker knocks on metal – it’s either a territorial display to impress rival males or, most likely this time of year, he’s trying to attract a mate.  Can you believe that [_], he’s driving me ape[_] crazy in order to impress a girl!  It’s just a [_] booty call! 

This [_] pecker has a high hard one and my family gets to suffer his [_] machine-gun serenade until he gets some satisfaction.

My roof is just his hook-up spot.  The expert assured me that, once he gets a little yum-yum, he’ll move along and lose all interest in emasculating me in front of my exhausted family.  Until next spring, that is, when the horny pecker gets another hankering for a honey pot.

So, this morning, I’m cursing and waving my broom around and, naturally, I got to thinking about the space program.  

Did you ever wonder what scientific value there was for shooting men at the moon?  No doubt that it was totally awesome.  That’s undeniable.  But what did we find there that was so vital we needed to do it six times?
There was the space race, of course.  The Soviet Union was eating America’s lunch and we’d had about enough of it.  But there had to be more to it.  The space program is such a noble enterprise – the highest example of mankind’s fundamental drive to shine a light on the dark parts of the map. 

I always assumed the space race was just the cause célèbre that rallied support, but that a greater scientific purpose lie behind the mission.  Kennedy just needed something to inspire the American people and prove to the world that we took a backseat to nobody.  So he looked around, found a bunch of astronomers with a dream but no funding, and tapped them to carry the baton of American exceptionalism awhile.  Right?  Nope. 
Turns out the awesomeness of it was pretty much the whole story.  The scientific value of landing humans on the moon was minimal; certainly nothing that couldn’t be accomplished far more easily, safely, and cost-effectively with probes and robotic rovers.  Whatever scientific value the moon landings did possess was secondary, at best, and completely insufficient to justify the enormous expenditure of financial and intellectual resources.

So why did we go to the moon?  As George Mallory famously answered in response to being asked why climb Mount Everest:

Because it’s there.

In effect, we did it to win a pissing contest.  It was a cockfight.  A territorial display.  Bragging rights.  It was America beating its chest to its rivals and, frankly, to itself.  There are few symbols more phallically fitting than a rocket blasting into space or planting our flag in virgin soil.

Fix bayonets, boys, we’re taking that trench.”  [double-entendre intended]

Photo seen on

This reasoning doesn’t sound particularly noble, but it is distinctly human.  No, that's not right.  It is more than human, it is universal to the sexual fabric of life on Earth. 

A boy will do unpredictable things to impress a girl. 

A man will attempt feats of insanity to prove he’s a man.  

How many great stories begin right there?  How many adventures?  How many wars?