Monthly Archives: April 2010

Bike maintenance and a reading slump

Let me just say that as much I love riding my bike, I do not love taking care of my bike. Cleaning it is always an ordeal, one that leaves me with cuts and scrapes on my hands and black grease under my fingernails (and often on my arms and legs as well). Tonight I needed to put two new tires on, and the whole thing was an utter failure. After some struggle I pried the tires off, put new tubes in, and pried the tires back on (and banged up my knuckles in the process). That was okay. But when I tried to pump up the tubes, they wouldn’t hold air. It turns out I punctured the tubes at some point while trying to get the tires on. In one case the tube got pinched, and in another some mysterious small, sharp metal object got in between the tire and tube and ruined everything. Sigh. Poor Hobgoblin got tired of listening to my complaints and curses and finally stepped in to finish up the job for me. Poor Muttboy was so stressed by the whole scene that he couldn’t eat his milkbone. I got grease on my jeans and on my t-shirt and had to scrub my arm so hard to get the grease off that I practically made myself bleed.

I should be better at this by now, but I’m just not.

I did go on a great 75-mile ride yesterday, however, with two other women on my racing team. We are well matched in terms of strength, and we had fun riding hard and enjoying the beautiful, sunny day. I have now made a good start on my summer cycling tan: I have an inch of burnt skin on my wrist, the part that’s exposed between my arm warmers and my cycling gloves. I also have about five inches of tanned skin on the lower part of my calves and shins, the part that’s between my knee warmers and my socks. I’m working on a pretty sharp line on my arms below my shoulders as well. I’m ready for the beach, right?

As for reading, it’s been up and down. I finished Jane Gardam’s novel Old Filth and was disappointed. When I last wrote about it here, I was enjoying it a lot, but immediately after I wrote that post, I hit a section where there were a number of odd coincidences, the plot took a turn I didn’t like, and all the sudden the characters felt unfamiliar. I never quite recovered after that. I was knocked out of the world of the book, all the sudden wondering whether I was reading it properly. The story just didn’t ring true to me anymore.

That said, though, the premise of the book is very interesting, and I’m guessing not everyone will have the reaction I had above. The novel deals with the vestiges of British colonialism, telling the story of a young boy growing up in Malay and left to the “natives” for his upbringing. His mother died shortly after giving birth and his father did his best to lose himself in his work, so it was only his aunt who paid him any attention. Eventually he was sent off to England to be raised by strangers, unfortunately, as it turns out, cruel and abusive ones, and after that he went to boarding school. It’s an absolutely awful childhood, one full of neglect and abuse. It seems like a fairly common one, however, since many British children growing up in the colonies were sent back to England by their parents who hoped they could get a good education and learn how to be properly English.

The main character, Edward Feathers, grows up to become a lawyer and then a judge, working for a while in Hong Kong (hence the “FILTH” acronym: Failed in London, Try Hong Kong), and then retiring in England, which is where we meet him. The present-day action of the novel takes place during Edward’s retirement, with lengthy flashbacks to his younger years. Gradually, we discover the full extent of everything that happened to him.

I liked the back-and-forth narration (in fact, it’s when the novel paused for a lengthy period in the present day that it started to falter), the gradual revelation of Edward’s life story, and the glimpse the novel gives into colonial culture. I just wish the narrative pacing had been better and that the characters had remained convincing throughout.

Because I seemed to be having a hard time with literary fiction (Old Filth and Vertigo leaving me underwhelmed), I decided to try a mystery novel and picked up Elizabeth George’s Payment in Blood. I did much better with that one, enjoying it a lot. Then this afternoon I just finished Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which I surprised myself by totally loving. At this point, I’m hoping I’m out of the short reading slump I was in, and now I have the fun of choosing something new.


Filed under Books, Cycling, Fiction

A Supposedly Fun Thing

So, yeah, I’m not posting as often as I usually do. I’m not sure where my energy has gone. I used to post regularly even when I was busier than I am right now, but these days I just don’t seem to be able to. I think I may have had things in a delicate balance for a while — I was busy, but I managed life just well enough that I had enough energy left over to write a bit here — and now that balance has gotten out of whack. I’m riding more than I used to, going to yoga more than I used to, seeing friends more than I used to, and that’s been just enough to make me grateful that blogging is optional, and that I can skip posting as often as I want. I think I’m also, slowly, becoming a more relaxed, less driven person (thanks to those yoga classes, perhaps?), so I’m more likely to conclude that the world will be just fine if I don’t write that blog post I was thinking about writing.

But I don’t want to go too much longer without writing about David Foster Wallace’s book A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, even if it’s in a short and summary fashion. Because the book was just SO good. I’m sad now that I’ve read Wallace’s two essay collections and there aren’t any more out there to read. I’m imagining that there will be more collections of Wallace’s work coming out eventually, but they won’t be books he’s put together himself.

The book surprised me by being 350 pages long (and they are long pages with relatively small print) and containing only seven essays, one of which is less than ten pages long, and another of which is less than 20, which means that the remaining five are quite lengthy. Many of the pieces were first published in magazines (three of them in Harper’s) or journals, which makes me even more surprised that they are so long. But thank goodness people let Wallace publish long essays, because when he’s given room to explore a subject thoroughly, he really digs in deep and reports back in a most satisfying fashion.

Several of the essays are of the “explore an event or a subculture and describe it for the rest of the world” variety, and he takes his time to describe not only what he sees, but what he’s experiencing personally, so it’s an essay about the subject and also about the writer. They are very much personal essays, not purely journalistic ones (in fact, he sometimes makes fun of himself for the ways he plays at being a journalist).

I’m tempted not to mention the essays’s subjects, for fear that you will lose interest, because frankly I wouldn’t normally want to read about some of the things he writes about. And the truth is that Wallace is worth reading no matter what his subject. It’s the combination of journalism and personal essay, along with his distinctive witty, honest, self-deprecating, super-smart-but-low-key-about-it style that makes his essays so great. He has such a companionable voice that you are willing to read whatever he wants to tell you about, because surely he will have something interesting to say and will make the whole thing fun.

But I’ll tell you about the subjects anyway. The more journalistic essays are about the Illinois State Fair, David Lynch’s films (and the set of Lost Highway), the tennis player Michael Joyce, and a cruise. There is also a personal essay on Wallace’s experience growing up in the midwest playing tennis (which also touches on math and midwestern winds); an essay on television, irony, and fiction; and a short book review essay.

What really matters, though, is the voice in these essays. I think that Wallace tends to write in a similar voice whether he’s writing fiction or nonfiction. The fiction (well, Infinite Jest; I haven’t read his other fiction yet) is less personal and more varied, perhaps, but all of the writing has a similar sensibility and a similar use of language — wildly inventive, exuberant, funny, self-aware, playful, brilliant.


Filed under Books, Essays

Crazy weekend bicycle racing

Okay, now I’m tired. I did my super, awful, horrible, extremely long race yesterday, and then I got up this morning and went out to race again. And I got two top ten finishes!

Yesterday’s race, The Tour of the Battenkill was the hardest ride I’ve ever done. I’ve been on more difficult courses before, but I’ve never worked that hard for that long. The course was 62 miles with some long hills and something like 10 miles of dirt roads, and it took me 3 hours and 30 minutes to finish. Much of that time I was working as hard as I could.

I started off in a pack of something like 40 racers, and we rode together for the first five miles or so, until we got to the first dirt section (the first of eight). At that point somebody in front of me crashed; I don’t know what happened exactly, but I was far enough behind it to be able to swerve off to the left and ride around the fallen riders. It always feels cruel to ride around people who have just crashed, but that’s what you do, if you’re lucky enough to be able to do it. I found myself a bit behind the main pack at that point, but with some effort I caught back on, and on we went.

Things were fine for the next five miles or so until we came to the first big hill, at which point a group of about six riders opened up a gap on the pack. I left some slower riders behind me, and as I crested the hill, I looked around to see who was left to ride with. I’m not entirely sure how things happened, but eventually I ended up riding with three other women, one of whom was my teammate, and then we caught up with two women from the front group who were starting to fall back, and the next thing I knew I was in a group of six and there were four riders up the road. That’s how things stayed for a long time after that. Eventually my group of six got a paceline going (where riders ride in a line, and one person leads for a while before moving to the left and dropping back to take their place at the end of the line to let someone else lead before they, too, drop back, and so on), and we rode that way for miles. For a little while the leading group of four stayed within sight, and we tried to catch them, but we just couldn’t do it.

The race stayed that way until one woman dropped away on a hard hill, and then another woman’s chain fell off and she had to stop to fix it, and I was left with a group of three other riders.

I think the hardest part of the race was watching the miles go by, slowly. I was happy to get to the halfway point, around 31 miles, but that left me with another 31 to go, which would take me over an hour and a half. Hitting mile 40 was great, but there was still another 20; hitting 50 was wonderful, but at that point I was beginning to get seriously tired. Around mile 55 my calf muscles were threatening to cramp, and around mile 60 my quad muscles were going. Thank God I only had two miles left at that point. I was still with the three other riders, including my teammate, going around the last corner into the finish line, and I would have loved to finish ahead of at least the riders on other teams, but I had only enough left to get me to the finish. Still, that got me 8th place, and let me tell you, I’m happy with that. Once I stopped riding, my muscles let me know just how unhappy they were, and I realized that I hadn’t had enough to eat or drink on the ride. So when Hobgoblin, who had just finished his own race, bought us cheeseburgers, I ate mine as fast as I could, and it was probably the best-tasting burger I’ve ever had.

Oh, and 8th place was enough to win me some prize money, so I came home $20 richer. The scenery we rode through was gorgeous — upstate New York hills — but, sad to say, I didn’t see much of it. I was too focused on staying just behind the rider in front of me and on looking out for potholes to take a moment to glance at the hills and farmland. Perhaps someday I’ll ride up there again, and this time do a more leisurely tour of the area.

Last night I tried to decide whether to ride in this morning’s race, which I had already registered and paid for, and I thought, well, I might as well try, and if it doesn’t go well, I can always drop out with a very good excuse. So I got up this morning and set out on my warm-up ride. I felt okay — a little wobbly on the small hills near my house, but okay. When the race started, my plan was to stay in the pack and draft as much as possible to conserve energy. That’s basically what I did, although at one point when the field was riding a little slowly I launched a short attack, just because I felt like I could. The further I got into the race, the looser my legs felt, and the more I thought, hey, this isn’t so bad! And then the last lap was there — surprisingly fast, only 45 minutes into the race after yesterday’s 3 1/2 hours — and I found myself in a decent position at the bottom of the hill leading into the finish line, so I passed a few riders on the hill and ended up in 9th place.

Phew! I’ve never raced two days in a row before, although this something a lot of bike racers do regularly; I had always thought I would be too tired the second day, but the truth is, it wasn’t so bad. If I tried to race tomorrow, things might not work out so well, but tomorrow is a rest day. And I need it because now I’m tired!


Filed under Cycling

Reading and riding notes

First about cycling: yesterday I went on a wonderful, epic bike ride with Hobgoblin and eight or so other people, up north into an area with all the hills and dirt roads you could want. All the hills and dirt roads you could want if you happen to be looking for those things, which, amazingly enough, I sort of am. Just to be clear — this wasn’t a mountain bike ride; instead, we were seeking out dirt roads to ride our road bikes on. I heard one person yell out “road bikes?!” in an amazed voice as he passed us in his car on a particularly nasty stretch.

The reason we were looking for such a course to ride on is this, the Tour of the Battenkill, a fairly well-known Pro/Am race that people travel from all over to compete in. It’s famous for being a brutal course — hilly, and with long sections of dirt roads. The race is this Saturday, and I’m a little frightened.

The ride yesterday was tons of fun, though; I love how after going over a horrifyingly frightening stretch with deep gullies and large chunks of gravel that send my wheels sliding all over the place, the regular sections of dirt roads with just plain old dirt come to seem easy. I was zipping down the hills at 20 mph or more, flying over potholes and feeling okay.

BUT, the forecast for the race this weekend calls for rain, both the day before and the day of the race. What will it be like to ride in mud? I’m frightened, as I said. Very frightened. I’ll let you know how it goes. Secretly, I’m hoping to come down with the flu or something between now and Saturday.

Now on to books: I’m happily in the middle of Jane Gardam’s 2004 novel Old Filth. A look at Wikipedia tells me this is her 23rd novel, after publishing her first in 1971, and she also has eleven collections of short stories. She is someone I wouldn’t have known about if it weren’t for blogging, though; I can add her to the long list of writers I’ve learned about that way. The term “Old Filth” refers to the main character, Sir Edward Feathers, who made up the acronym FILTH, which stands for “Failed in London, Try Hong Kong.” The novel is set in contemporary times, when Filth (as people consistently call him) is an old man. The present-day setting becomes a kind of frame narrative, as the novel takes us back in time to tell of Filth’s childhood and adulthood, spent partly in England and partly in Hong Kong. So far the story is interesting and well-told, and the writing is sharp and funny.

I picked this up after setting aside Rebecca Goldstein’s book 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction, which sounded very interesting as an idea-driven, philosophical novel. The chapters are each named after an argument for the existence of God, and the story is about a psychology professor who unexpectedly finds himself famous after publishing a book on religion that hit a cultural nerve. All this sounded good, but after reading the first chapter, I wasn’t hugely impressed. The story and the main character didn’t captivate me, and I got a little worried looking at the 400 or so pages left to read. So back to the library it went. I do want to read some of Goldstein’s nonfiction, though; she has a book on the philosopher Spinoza that sounds interesting.


Filed under Books, Cycling, Fiction