31 January 2011

I get the joy of rediscovering you

As anyone in the Midwest or Northeast can tell you, there is one advantage of having a real winter: It's hard to get tired of your favorite trails. When you can only ride them for a few months of the year, and then they become impassible or inaccessible for a good amount of time, you really learn to appreciate what you've got. When you add in wind, ice and snow, the same thing even applies to your favorite road routes.

Well, we have a real winter here in WNC ... only it just doesn't last as long. And the trails recover faster. And the roads are more-often ridable, and in better condition with fewer freeze-thaw cycles to destroy the pavement. Regardless of its length, though, the cold weather, black ice, snow, and sand on the roads do limit our choices for a bit.

And so it is that I'm in a period of rediscovery. And not just about riding -- it's extending itself throughout my life right now. This weekend was huge:

It started on Friday night, when I finished Umberto Eco's The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana. Without giving too much away, this wonderful novel dealt with rediscovery in an interesting way ... but I'll be the first to admit that it may not have been the best choice for me right now. Or maybe it was.

Saturday I had an awesome road ride with Mike from Greenville -- I soloed on some roads I'd not been on in a year, heading down the Watershed to meet up, only to climb back up toward Saluda, halfway down, and then back up. Mike completely shattered my legs, my will, and my desire to ever race a bike again ... but yeah, it was a great ride.

Saturday night was fun hanging out with friends, not much to "re" discover there, other than my love of a good bean dip ...

Sunday was more rediscovery, with a fantastic trip through Pisgah on some old favorites, with some really good company in the form of Mike, Dave and Meghan. Mullinax was a blast, and Squirrel dished out its requisite amount of roadkill in the form of what remained of my humanity, before I was able to turn it around, make that frown upside-down, and begin to almost -- almost -- feel like a mountain biker again. Only to slip on the last bit of ice we were walking and crash-land on my hip. Dang it.

Today was more of the same, hitting an old standby for an easy-climb recovery loop at lunch. It's nice to see the same roads again for the first time.

The biggie, though, was last night. I've always sort of wondered how I turned out the way I did, so different than my parents, my brother, the kids I grew up with. Last night, I found the answer.

See, when I was about 8 years old, Terry Gilliam co-wrote and directed a little film called Time Bandits. It wasn't Monty Python, but it might has well have been -- it was a completely warped, totally wigged out take on Creation, God, the Devil, world history and toaster ovens, and I loved it. At least, I remembered loving it, and now, thanks to technology, nearly 30 years later, I got to see it again.

Talk about a rediscovery. But then again, we all need the clowns to make us smile, right?


27 January 2011

(Getting) Up to speed

There are few things in life more thrilling than bombing down the side of a mountain on a road bike. Whether it's the crazy off-camber, gravel-strewn switchbacks of the Blue Ridge Mountains, or the wide-open, sweeping vistas of the American West, cresting the top of a climb and hurling yourself over the edge really is a feeling that can't be beat.

As most of my competitors know, I'm not much when it comes to descending. In fact, I'm rather ... um ... cautious? Is that the right word? The term "Nancy boy" comes to mind more readily.

But that's on descents that are curvy, or on narrow mountain bike trails without much of a sight line or run-out. When the pavement points downhill, though, in a straight line and with a clear vision of what's to come, watch out. Maybe it's my childhood desire to be a downhill ski racer (years spent perfecting my tuck before "skiing" down the stairs in my house), or the one benefit to an off-season of gluttony (greater mass equals greater speed), but no matter which way you slice it, I love to get low and fly.

Today was the first good day to get back out and do that -- a steady wind out of the north/northwest, sun shining through blue skies, and a not-too-chilly temperature had me out the door and climbing Terry's Gap before I even knew I had escaped. I was solo -- the small group of coworkers had rolled out a few minutes before I could -- which was exactly what I needed to extend the ride over to Fruitland and head back via the long slopes of Bearwallow.

I've mentioned Terry's before, as it's part of my regular commute -- when I have the chance to ride to and from work, that is. On good days, like today, with a bit of a north wind, I can jam up the twisty north face in the big ring, and by the time I clear the last curve on the south face and tuck into the straightaway I am cruising. Today was no exception, as I clicked through the gears, spun up the legs and launched ...

50kph. 55. 60. 65. 67. 68. 69. 70.

The speed limit on this stretch is 45 mph, about 72kph. It's a constant goal of mine to go faster than I'm supposed to, and my best on this short section is a screaming 80kph set some day last year. Today I only topped out at 70 -- about 44mph -- but gawsh darn did it feel good to be going fast. The legs are still heavy, the belly is still an unsightly mess, but slowly -- or in this case, quickly -- I'm getting myself back up to speed.

And that's pretty thrilling too.

26 January 2011

I don't believe in coincidence

There are a couple of things I could count on every Christmas in the past few years, when it came to gifts from my Mom. One, was that she would be able to find a book or two that I would put on a shelf and not read -- until a year or two or five later, when I'd pick it up, leaf through it, and be immediately sucked in. And two, she and my Dad would re-up our subscription to Netflix, offering Kim and I our other outlet for escapism.

And here's the deal with both: I have come to realize that I don't believe in coincidence. There's a reason my copy of Water For Elephants waited patiently, surviving donation purges and the box-and-move to NC, with its inscription from my Mom written inside the front cover, for me to read it within a week of my grandfather passing away this September. Same with The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, an incredible work by Umberto Eco, which I started on the plane back to Chicago a few weeks ago ... and only just last night arrived at the pivotal and eerie third act. So much for trying to fall asleep.

Or that we finally watched Guess Who's Coming to Dinner in November, and when we told them we got to hear the story of my parents' first date to that movie from both of them. Not to mention that I had unknowingly chosen music from that movie when we celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary last Christmas. Or in a bittersweet turn, that I was then able to use it again for my Mom's memorial.

Another one is the on-demand of the most recent episodes of How I Met Your Mother -- because of Netflix, we have been completely smitten by this sitcom, so much so that we have impatiently watched this season's episodes on-line before the DVDs are available next September. And if you've been keeping up with the show, you know what I'm getting at.

Similarly, but not so much, Kim and I watched The Big Lebowski last weekend. I watched it a year ago when I first moved here; it was Kim's first go-around with The Dude. Now I know what you're thinking: What the hell does that have to do with Chris' life right now? Well, thankfully, I have absolutely no idea, except to note that it's uncanny the number of times Lebowski references appear once you're turned on to them. It's freaky, really. Just ask Dicky.

... And so you get a glimpse into my mind right now. I'm sort of bouncing between thoughts, between emotions, between associations. The littlest things will send me on a memory jag, or the biggest things will completely bounce off me in a way that's probably not all that healthy. Except it is -- I'm trying to accept this, but I don't want it to define me. My only desire is to take some good from this, from her, and apply it to my new life. There's a reason this happened, a reason it happened now. I just can't believe it's a coincidence.

24 January 2011

Insomnia

It took about a week for the exhaustion to wear off, but now I sort of have a new issue to deal with: I'm having trouble falling asleep.

I'm tired during the day, I'm beginning to exercise again, I'm watching my caffeine intake, I'm "ready" for bed; only, as soon as the light goes out, I'm wide awake. I try to calm myself, try to turn off my mind, but nothing really seems to help -- on Saturday, I laid there for more than 2 hours before I finally relaxed enough. Last night was a little better, closer to an hour I think.

Try as I might to change the channel, I find myself rehashing the past couple of weeks and months. Some are good memories, which make me sad; others are more recent, which make me ... I'm not sure. Mad sometimes (damnit, I gave at the LiveSTRONG office, didn't you get the memo?), frustrated others (was that thing a sign 6 months ago that we missed?), lost still more -- the jumble of emotions is difficult to put a finger on, which just sort of feeds the ceiling-gazing going on. And despite my best efforts, the stories all pretty much end the same way.

Those of you who know me know that my emotions affect my sleep even in the best of times -- I mean, how often have you seen a 3:30 a.m. Facebook update the morning of a race? But I'm usually able to put tough stuff behind me as soon as my head hits the pillow each night. It's been years since I had trouble getting to sleep as a teen, and I'm hopeful that getting back into a routine and doing everything "right" physically will help stem the tide emotionally. Every little bit helps.

And on that front, things are beginning to move. After a long solo ride on Saturday, I joined a couple of coworkers for a tour of the Mills River valley yesterday -- though windswept road rides are more Midwest than WNC, I felt right at home as we kept it "flat" and meandered over toward Brevard and back. There were flashes -- at times I almost felt like a bike rider again. Every little bit helps, right?

22 January 2011

Riding rough

I got out for my first long road ride today. Kim and Kate let me sleep in, after I tried to get up and had fun with a bouncing two-year-old only to fall back asleep soon after. I took advantage of the relative warmth of the afternoon hours to head over the Eastern Continental Divide to the edge of the Watershed and back. It was a good reintroduction to my bike, and despite being chased by two big, hungry-looking dogs way out in the boonies, all systems were relatively go.

It was nice to have the time to myself, and my route -- through Flat Rock, down to Tuxedo and Zirconia, and out along Green River Road and back via Bob's Creek Road -- gave me plenty of space to enjoy it. Traffic was light, the roads were good, the sun was out ... and for the first time in weeks, I had a block of time alone.

I let my mind just wander, and for the most part I was OK. About 2 hours in, though, I went through a pretty rough patch -- I began to think about Mom, just as I hit the border with South Carolina and the intersection of Old U.S. 25 and Gap Creek Road. See, Gap Creek is a book on my Mom's shelf back in Chicago, and I only just recently discovered that the author was from this area, and that his stories are written about that small part of the world which I now frequent. I made the connection over Christmas, and I never got the chance to tell her.

It's been kind of strange these last couple of days. My brain is in full free-association mode, and I'm in some stage of grief in which the littlest thing sets me off on a tangent. I'm able to hold it together for the most part, and I just try to embrace the times when I can't -- though the climb back over the Divide wasn't the easiest as I struggled not to sob, I'll admit. I got some pretty great advice from two completely unrelated sources, both of whom have been through this: Accept whatever you feel, no matter how banal, and forgive yourself for it. It's the only way you'll make it through.

So I'm riding a bit rough right now, which in its own way is good -- I still don't think I've fully come to accept what's happening. I'm not denying it, I'm just having trouble adjusting -- but with every day comes a small step forward, and I'll be forever grateful to all my wonderful friends for helping me along.

21 January 2011

"On"

I had my eyes opened a few years ago when I learned the real definition of introvert vs. extrovert: It's where you get your energy. Extroverts draw from other people; introverts need some alone time to recharge and get going again. So even though the office loudmouth may seem very engaging and "extroverted," it's entirely possible that he needs to sneak off to some secluded mountain trail sometimes just to be able to function.

So it is with me. I'm an outgoing introvert -- I can function pretty well in a social setting, but only for so long. Once I hit my limit, I'm done -- I get tired, a bit cranky, quiet. I need some me-time to get going again.

The reason I bring this up is that I'm going on three straight weeks of being "on," capped by a presentation and late-night "sales meeting" at one of my biggest customers yesterday. I drove there with a coworker, so was without even the few hours of quiet car time that sometimes is enough; instead, it was New Years Day when a solid 3-1/2 hike on the Shut-In Trail gave me my last chance at solitude. The next day was a group ride, and the day after that ... well ...

That hike was pretty great, as I worked my way up from 191 to Sleepy Gap in misty, rainy weather. The nature of the trail was such that I was sheltered from the worst of the wind and water, so though it wasn't warm and the footing was often slick, I was comfortable enough to let my mind drift and to talk through the outline of the writing project I'm working on. It felt really good to be out, and gave me enough energy to enjoy pushing the pace the next day as the Sycamore Cycles crew took us down the watershed and back up to Brevard via Caesar's Head.

Since then, though, it's been an emotional rollercoaster, and I realized on the drive back today that I'm needing a bit of a break. Some small thing or other wiggled into my consciousness on the way home, and even as my coworker told a story about his friend from somewhere nearby, my mind had drifted back to the hospital room in Illinois, and the past three weeks started to catch up to me in a big way. Jumping right back into work hasn't helped this afternoon, but thankfully it's almost the weekend, and I think I can carve out just a little bit of time for myself ...

This week has been kind of weird too, as Kim and I got caught up on a couple of episodes of How I Met Your Mother. If you've been watching the show, you know what I'm getting at -- I don't want to spoil it, but holy crap. Seriously. Holy crap. I mean ... really? Really?

On the other hand, I fired up our old computer the other night, and there among the early weekly photos of a certain really-cute, dimpled, now-two-year-old I found evidence of my last serious go-round with the writing bug, some four years ago before I started with World Bicycle Relief and the world got all sorts of busy. And the thing is, it wasn't half-bad -- not the project I'm working on now (though there was a file started for that too), but another project that's been rattling around for a few years, with a fully developed beginning that I hadn't realized was there. It was encouraging, and gave me a small measure of hope and confidence that I've been lacking for a bit. Maybe with a bit more "me" time, who knows?

I guess I'll just have to head to the mountains to find out.

18 January 2011

Monochrome

So.

First things first: Last month was a lifetime ago. Literally. As those on Facebook might already know, my Mom passed away on January 7. Though she had been sick off and on for about a year, it was never anything "major" that we thought we couldn't fight, despite a couple of days in the hospital in late September and again at Thanksgiving. First it was swine flu, then it was bronchitis, until ultimately we thought it was pneumonia.

As it turns out, we were wrong.

What do you do when you've never met the enemy? When the enemy is sly, cunning, clever? When what looks normal is in fact completely the opposite, a wolf in the guise of not a sheep, but of the very thing you need to survive?

The answer is, you do the best you can. And you keep doing the best you can, until it is clear that you can do no more. The emotional and physical roller-coaster is not buffered by that knowledge, is not made easier in any way, but there is a small measure of comfort in believing that every effort was made. Even if those efforts were unable to save her.

Her memorial service was beautiful, and it was incredible to meet so many folks whom my Mom touched in such profound ways. Wonderful people whom she set on their life's course; friends, family and even distant acquaintances brought together because my Mom influenced them in some way. Her 61 years were far too short, but it cannot be said that she squandered any moment given to her. I just wish there were more to have.

As you can imagine, the events of the past couple of weeks have thrown us all for a pretty big loop. I realize now that part of me still needs this space, that although I plan to devote much more time to other writing pursuits, this blog is a vital outlet that I'm not ready to give up. I appreciated hearing from some folks who enjoy my writing here, but more importantly I was stopped short when I discovered that my Mom had this page bookmarked on her iPhone -- I had no idea that she read it. That alone is enough for me to keep going here.

We're in recovery mode right now, and at this point stuff just feels ... mechanical. I answer emails, make phone calls, move forward with tasks. But it all feels so surreal, like the last two weeks never happened. Even as I describe events to people who knew her, it is clinical, detached -- partly the legacy of growing up in a medical family, partly the distance now that I'm back in North Carolina, and partly I'm sure the period of rejection that I seem to be in. I know that it is real, but somehow I cannot believe it in my heart, like I just expect to get an email from her, signed in all caps "Love, MOM," at any moment. And still I go on.

So I'm not done here yet after all, and though of course the concentration will still be weighted heavily toward exploits on the bicycle, I think the focus shift that has been happening for a while now internally will likely find an external voice as well. Because ultimately there is a lot of life to live, and to write about and observe, and the monochrome of today will give way to the beautiful blooms that now are just a small sprig struggling to break through the snow.