Wednesday, February 20, 2013

UPDATE: Writing Competition

Last November I entered a national writing contest. Well the news is out and I did not win, I know it's shocking. The winner is a professional writer, also shocking, right. Winning wasn't the point but merely entering was what I wanted to accomplish. Below is the story I entered. I took several parts of different stories and combined them into one. This year I plan to enter again but will have more time to craft a better story. Thanks to everyone that gave me words of encouragement and support. So here it is:

I look down at my right hand, palm facing up. It's covered, uneven, blotchy, and dripping. Drop by slow-motion drop, on my pants, my shoes, the floor. I see red. My fingers are so coated that my index and middle fingers stick together easily. I test the tackiness by moving the two fingers out and in, out and in, like I'm cutting thin air with my crimson soaked finger-scissors. I can feel it drying on my skin, making it tight. I'm entranced by the glossy sheen and I get lost in thought. 

My dad and I had an arrangement. The sort of thing that just kind of happens. No one sets out to make a pact. It developed naturally, I guess. Although, I know him; he yearned for moments to teach, to impart his vast knowledge, experience, and passion. To watch over someone as he pushed through a problem under his own power was a sweet victory. It brought him the kind of joy that turns the monotony of day-to-day living into something cool. 

Teaching moments crowd around me like weeds, so he never had long to wait. Just around the next corner, another stupid mistake, and another wonderful opportunity for him to teach me something. Dad didn’t dish out lessons on a whim. He was not the sort of man that stood on a soap box with a bull horn to declare his mastery of this or that. Quiet, reserved and patient to a fault perhaps. He would wait for just the right moment, a moment like this. 

I’m frustrated. I’m perplexed. I stare at my hand and then back at him, my brows pinned together like two rams with their horns locked. Every one of my questions to him was answered with a question. 

Argh! “Just tell me the answer!” I blurted. 

Nope. Not yet, it wasn’t time. I hadn’t walked far enough down the path. I kept asking questions, but I failed to bend them into the right shape to hook the ring of the lynch pin and yank it free of its burden. I was bad at asking pointed questions. One of his greatest skills, I think, was his uncanny ability to ask the right question at just the moment it needed to be asked. I'm too impatient for that nonsense. Plus, I know he knows the answer. He just does; certainly he must. Why should he make me suffer through finding just the right question? Why does it matter so much to him? 

To him the lesson wasn't really the one I thought it should be. The problem, the one at hand, is rarely the real problem. Not the one that needs fixing, a remedy, or a sternly taught instruction to prevent it from happening again. 

No. Not this problem: red hand, red pants, red shirt, red shoes, and red floor. The resolution to this sticky situation will not prevent its reoccurrence. He quietly looks at me, waiting. Softly. Breathing deeply, I smell the unmistakable muskiness of our garage; a mixture of truck oil, wheel bearing grease, dirt, hammered metal, and cut wood. Eyes closing, I mentally back track, tight-rope walking along the train rail, following the hardened steal line in my brain that leads me back to where the train left the station, to that moment, the one where I must have jumped the rails. The spot I made the wrong choice. 

AH HA! I got it! 

I look at him eagerly. He sees it in my face, the confidence streams through my 7-year-old body. I smile up at him. He smiles back, slowly opens his hands towards me as if presenting me with a gift and asks, "What is your question?" 

Into his two clean hands, I hold out for his inspection, my red right hand. I ask him my well-thought question, proudly, "How do I hold the can of spray paint so it paints my bike and not my hand?" "Ah!" he says thoughtfully, as if I had just asked him to explain the nature of blue sky, "Excellent question, let me show you how to do that AFTER I show you how to get this paint off your hands". 

And so it went, year after year, I would screw up, he would teach, and I would learn. The lessons became more complicated and problems turned into projects. For Christmas my friends would get bikes, fully assembled and ready to ride. Not me, dad would give me bikes, but they each came as a box of parts, pieces and bits. We’d spend all day putting them together. Year after year, bike after bike, until, it seemed, I didn’t need his help any longer. 

I was fixing my friends’ bikes now; the ones that got to ride their bikes as soon as they got them. The same ones who would ride past my garage, chasing each other, popping wheelies, hitting jumps and doing cool power skids while I sat there trying to figure out how to pack wheel bearings. I was seven and my dad just smiled at them and waved, “Hi boys, nice bikes ya got there.” 

The years went by and we sort of settled in to this arrangement where he would ride the hell out of a bike and then give it to me. He would go off and buy a new one for himself. I would spend all my spare time in that garage tearing the bike apart, sanding the frame, painting and putting it back together like it was brand new. Every once in awhile he’d walk past the garage and wave at me, “Hi son, nice bike ya got there.” 

The funny thing is, I don’t remember ever riding with him, just fixing and rebuilding. Weird. He rode every day and so did I. I guess that’s just the way it was. He and I and bikes. 

He had a great passion for cycling. Riding a bike was something very different for him. He was into cycling like a fish is into swimming. It was just simply something he did, no clubs, no nonsense, and no matter what. He rode to and from work (6 mile round-trip) year round, in Colorado! 

He owned countless bikes over the decades and the deal was: I got his old bikes after he rode them into the ground. I would then disassemble, paint, and rebuild them to make my own bike. But since I moved to Washington 20 years ago, I no longer got his old bikes. The deal just kind of fell apart. Distance is a difficult thing to bridge sometimes. 

Well, a few days ago my brother delivered to me the last bike he ever rode, a Specialized. Technically not the last bike he owned. A few years back he retired the Specialized and dropped some serious cash on an all carbon-fiber bike, which he rode despite being almost completely blind from macular degeneration and his body riddled with cancer. How he managed that, I'm still not sure. There came a time when even his strong-will could not keep him balanced on a bike. He reluctantly traded it in on a three-wheeled recumbent, which he rode nearly to his last day. 

This bike, the Specialized, now standing proudly in my garage, represents the return to the old system: he rides, gives to me, and I rebuild it into something of my own. That's what he wanted, that's why he wanted me to have it. 

Resurrection, Dr Frankenstein style. 

I look down at my hands, they remind me of how his looked when I was 7; wrinkled, torn, cut, damaged. I grab his bike and close my eyes. Over the past few months I’ve held myself together. Bound up a million broken bits with a wafer thin veneer, sharp corners and crumbling pieces pushing the limits of the shallow skin. But now I feel it tearing and a small hole starts. Tighter and tighter I squeeze the handle bar grip in my right hand and the seat in my left but to now avail. I’m breaking apart, shredding into ribbons and a million pieces shatter and tumble like an avalanche of rocks: bouncing, crashing, and bashing each other as they fall across the floor. 

It’s like Christmas morning and I’ve crumbled in to a box of parts, pieces and bits. No instructions, no dad, and worst of all no questions. I don’t even know where to begin. So I just stare at my hands, palms up in front of me, flushed red from the blood rushing back into them after releasing the death-grip on the bike. From the bike, to my hands and back to the bike I stare. Blank, thoughtless, numb. 

For now I think I will let it rest, peacefully.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

4 in the morning

Now, suddenly I’m awake. Moments before I was fast asleep, dreaming of unicorns, banana splits and rainbow sprinkles. Not now. Now my eyes are open. Now it’s darkness, peppered with soft light from the suburbs that surround my house. The trees outside my bedroom window sway back and forth pushing the light across my walls like a paintbrush smearing muted watercolor. Now it’s 4 o’clock in the morning. Now is not good. 

I close my eyes and try to breathe deeply. I can’t. I gasp and gulp. I wince and worry. I can feel my face tighten under the strain and pressure. The furrows of my forehead deepen with each attempt to inhale. I hold my breath, instinctively I guess, hoping that the pressure will somehow subside. It doesn't  It’s getting worse. I roll onto my back for relief. Better? No. Right side? No. Left again? No. Stomach? Oh gawd, hell no!

I roll back to my right side, my favorite sleeping position, and I focus. I can do this. I can calm the rising panic and simply breathe easily. Eyes closed gently, forehead relaxed through sheer will power. Floating into my happy place. I’m shallow breathing on purpose like I’m trying to grab the reins of a wild horse. If I can just seize control over the lizard part of my brain then I can slowly increase the depth and quality. I have it, I think. I pull in the cold, fresh air pouring from the whirling fan perched in the open window. Ach! I stutter – I clinch – I gasp.

The muscles on my back that encase my rib cage have clamped down tighter than a dog on a gravy covered bone. Their jaws are locked down and they refuse to loosen their death grip on my ribs. My breathing is short and choppy. My fussing hasn't gone unnoticed and so the dogs are up now and Alex is stirring. I can’t bear it and the only thing I can think of to relieve the pressure is a hot shower. Probably not the best idea but it’s always been a default cure-all for whatever ails me. With her help I manage to shuffle myself into the shower and stay there until the water runs cold.

Now? Now what? Several days later and the pressure is still there but significantly better. Merely a reminder now that my body is telling me something isn't right and I need to fix it. Finding the source of back muscle pain is nearly impossible. It basically breaks down to two options: Strain due to overuse or injury. I didn't injure it, recently. So overuse then. My constant bike riding is most likely the culprit but since I am loathe to stop or alter that in any way I will begin building and strengthening other parts of my body so that my back doesn't have to bear all the strain. I’ll start with my core.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Threshold

I'm so sick! My brain is fighting with my body. I wanna puke but my pride won't allow it. I'm the middle rider in a group of three: Crash is leading us through our typical Wednesday ride around Paradise Valley, in the dark. His 16 year old son, Panic is riding at his best just behind me. He is so close that his front tire periodically roughs up my back tire. It's a sharp reminder to keep pedaling despite my desire to stop and purge my last three meals all at once. I can't stop, I mustn't. If I do, I've convinced myself, that I will never get better, I will never improve. 

I'm not sick in the sense that I have a cold or flu or anything like that. No. My body is revolting, kicking and screaming against the harsh task master of extreme exertion. We're cranking our bikes through one of the most difficult and physically punishing sections at Paradise - "Two Trees". It's dark, wet, and everything is covered with sloppy mud and ice. I can taste it in my mouth, I'm covered in it. 

I've ridden this section of trail dozens of times yet somehow it never seems to get easier. Tonight it seems particularly grueling. Lactic acid crashes through my legs like a hurricane. My back aches and my hands would probably hurt if they weren't so numb from the cold, wet air. That cold air, by the way, I can't get enough of it. I'm breathless and it feels like I'm wrapped tightly into a straightjacket. I bite and gobble the air. My heart is red-lining and it feels like it's teetering on the edge of exploding. 

And then it happens. Almost like clockwork. Usually some time between 35 and 45 minutes into a ride I pass through the doorway. I cross the threshold. It's a transcendence of sorts. I reach a point when the storm subsides, my breathing calms and my heart settles into a steady cadence. It feels like this massive weight is lifted from my body. 

It's an odd feeling because it was only moments earlier that I wanted to be put out of my misery and now I am lifted. I don't know if it's a mental breakthrough or a physical one but I find a renewed energy and determination to push myself. Lee's son who was just hot on my trail is now 10 feet back, then 20. And now that I've noticed it, I expect it. I drag myself along knowing that I will eventually hit the tipping point and my energy will gush out the other side. Not that it diminishes the crushing pressure that leads up to that moment but now I have hope. And sometimes that's all I need to keep myself from puking. 

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Love Letter to the Pacific Northwest

Skookum Flats draped with moss
Paradise shrouded in fog
Greg "Caution" approaching the mushroom stump at Duthie

Winter in the Pacific Northwest is cold and wet. It's continuously moist climate has it's drawbacks and it's many detractors and haters. Not me though because unlike any other region in America it also stays green year-round. Not sparsely green either. Trees that are usually dense with leaves most of the year; alder, ash, birch, and maples drop their vibrant plumage to reveal that their trunks and branches are not bare and twisted bones but are flowing arms elegantly draped in moss, peppered with lichen, and flaunting the most extraordinary array of colorful mushrooms. 

Early Saturday morning we stood in my driveway chatting and loading our bike gear. The aluminum frame of my bike is cold to the touch. It's just above freezing at 7:30 AM and I think about putting my gloves on and how that might feel; much better than frigid metal of course. Greg breaks my train of thought with a blunt observation: "Thick fog this morning". It sure was, I hadn't given it much attention until then. I paused and looked around to notice that we were socked in. The sky, or more accurately the space above us was an endless fluff of light grey dog-toy stuffing, yanked out and scattered to every horizon. It floated and hung in the air and it wrapped itself around pine trees, connected eaves between houses and obscured lamp post tops.

I felt the smile on my face moments after the subconscious, involuntary reaction put it there. I am smiling, kind of smirking actually because I love it here and I know that most people don't, they can't stand the grey and I'm okay with that. They long for July when it's hot and sunny whereas I'm thankful that the heat only lasts a few short weeks. And so I soak it all in. I inhale deeply; the cold damp air fills my lungs and surrounds my heart with the same blanket of fog that surrounds the trees. I am energized by it, lifted by it, strengthened and inspired by it. 

Some of my close friends and family have referred to me as a die-hard mountain biker, or hard-core, or some other similar moniker meant to describe my tendency to head off into the forest on my bike in spite of the sun-less weather. They are almost right. I do enjoy mountain biking and all the side-effects that bubble up because I'm active. I can't deny that riding twice a week improves my physical health and mental well-being. I have more energy and it gives me yet another great item to add to my list of wonderful things in my life. 

The truth is, I simply love living in the Pacific Northwest and mountain biking has been the best way for me to enjoy it. I get to go out with my close friends that not only share my passion for biking but also share my love of this region. Sometimes getting out and riding with my friends ends up not being at all about riding but more about the camaraderie, the shared experience, the common passion and sometimes it feels like we share a secret that no one else knows about or understands. And so it is. As I give our bikes a final once-over before we head off to hit another favorite trail, I catch a glimpse of Greg: he's smirking.