Friday, August 24, 2012
in the summer of 1997, i moved to virginia to work for a landscaping company. the heat was sweltering, the ground-level ozone at an all-time high, and i was working for six dollars an hour, averaging 14-hour days. as usual, i was in for a hard-ass learning experience, and my one big saving grace was my family.
my family dropped me off on a humid june night, just a day after my last high exam. i watched with a heavy heart as the tail lights of the beat-up suburban faded into the dark, and i was left with two people i didn't really know and a summerful of the hardest work i hadn't yet done.
i would come to grow up in that house, living with my boss and his beautiful, pregnant wife, fighting it out in their newlywed year, making a business take and grow, tolerating the heat, and me, and that endless seeping humidity.
about an hour and a half away, somewhere up the 270 corridor, my uncle was hashing out his life with his young family. he had been my favorite uncle growing up. we had spent summers together. he taught me how to draw and he gave me my first road bike frameset, a glorious fat-tubed cannondale with red paint and a steel fork and enough acceleration to kill a horse. every weekend, my uncle would pick me up, and take me to the washington d.c. area to be around the rest of my cousins and aunts and uncles. this saved my life.
we were sitting on the floor of my uncle tom's house one weekend, watching bits of the tour de france highlights, talking the interspersed talk of people who get interrupted by chubby children and the proceeds of dinner melee, and my uncle asked me if i had heard about lance armstrong. i told him i had, that i had seen his picture on the cover of bicycling in the world champion's jersey, that he was barely older than i was. my uncle told me that lance had cancer.
i was floored.
this was not the first time i had heard of cancer. this was not the first time i had heard of cancer affecting someone i knew of, or even knew. this was the first time i had heard of cancer affecting someone so young, someone who did the same thing i did, on two wheels, as much as possible.
obviously, i didn't know lance. he is just a bit older than i. he was the most naturally talented adolescent athlete america had seen since greg lemond. maybe the most talented because he could do so many sports so well. i happened to ride bikes, slowly, and had grown up with the names merckx and lemond. lance was new and brash and interesting, but not a classic, not yet. and then he was diagnosed with cancer. i remember feeling a sense of despair at the time, a vague sense, at the way that a lot of stars seemed to hold a great deal of promise, and then have that potential taken away by one force or another. AIDS. Cancer. things that shouldn't happen to anyone. (and i only really knew a little bit about the privileged developed-world people to whom these things were happening, to say nothing of the rest of the world and its large-scale tragedy.) people were dying.
lance didn't die. in fact, he went on to become the most successful cyclist ever to come from america. he raced hard, and dominated the field, in a charismatic and flashy and exciting way, in the dirtiest years of a doped-up sport: professional cycling in the 1990s and 2000s. blood doping. EPO. dirty doctors and webs of lies and covered up controls and bags of blood. HGH. everything everywhere, race horses and 'trainers', careening through the dark. the rest of us cheered in ignorance, adopted or true. and on top of it all, on top of the world, lance armstrong took his handsome face to the primetime view and told us all that he was doing it clean.
just yesterday, news broke that lance was giving up his handsome face fight, that he is done with the courts and allegations and legal proceedings and WADA and USADA and tygart and non-believers. i figure he probably doped. i was never there when it happened so i don't know for sure. i figure there were once dinosaurs. i wasn't there when it happened so i don't know for sure. and i haven't built my cycling passion on armstrong and his charisma. this is important, because armstrong was a huge kick in the ass to the sport of cycling in north america. i know people who started riding because they saw him do it, and do it with the panache and boldness unique to american pride. armstrong was not subtle. he went big, american big, and he commanded the attention of millions. he had heroic qualities, he was born-again, he was a survivor of one of the most widespread diseases of our time, he shaved his legs and wore spandex, he wore oakley and nike, he rode a bike made in wisconsin. he was an all american hero, and he used this to his advantage, and to the advantage of his cancer-fight-funding foundation. he became an american celebrity, something generally unheard of for athletes not in the major leagues sports like baseball or football. for people who shave their legs and wear spandex and get things thrown at them from the windows of passing pick-ups while they practice the sport they love, the celebrity and machismo of armstrong was a bit of a beacon. and now, here we are, faced with the fall of the hero.
lance didn't get me into cycling. my dad did. and then my uncle gave me his hand-me-down kit. and that beautiful red cannondale. and my dad built it while i worked for it, hour for hour, him inside stringing cables and housings, me outside catching rough-cut lumber off a portable saw mill. i built my first wheels for that red cannondale, and they're still rolling today, almost 20 years later. i learned to wrench bikes from my dad. our first christmas in canada, my dad got up with us at 5 in the morning and set to work unboxing and assembling four brand-new bicycles i'm almost positive he and my mom could not remotely afford. i will never forget his blue coffee mug, the stubble on his chin, under the profound smile that only comes from giving someone a bicycle.
it sucks that lance probably doped. it sucks that everyone in the peloton at the time was probably doping. it sucks that positives must exist among negatives in order to be positive. but i know that my children want to ride like their mama, like emily batty, like clara hughes. they want to ride the ride for heart and the tour for kids, because the money they 'get' goes to people who need it. and i want to ride because i love bikes. i love remembering rides with my dad. i love riding with my girls. i love the sound of tires revolving over pavement, the wind in my ears, the feeling of sweat dripping off the end of my nose, the washing off of road grime from my shins. i love the ker-chunk of my chain dropping into a faster gear. i love leaving and arriving, each moment at a time. and none of that is tainted.
Thursday, August 23, 2012
when my cousin jake died there was nothing i could do.
jake was an exemplary young man of interesting talents and diverse pursuits. he chopped wood. he made movies. he wore his hair long and his mouth in a smile. he adored his nephews. he was formerly a talented wrestler. he could draw and sing and dance. all this to say: i didn't actually know jake. he was younger than i by a few years, but not many, and our paths crossed less frequently than with those of some other cousins. i only came to know him through his passing. and when someone is so young and full of the about-to-happen, death is not just a tragedy; it is a full-on crime.
i mention all of this because there was nothing i could do. i had no stake in the guy's life other than being a blood relative who knew him vaguely and genuinely liked him. we hadn't talked much. and i think the last time i had seen him had been with his hand in a canoe full of icewater and kegs, participating in a willpower test with my brother. i don't know who took his hand out first, but jake was the first to be taken from all of us, and for no goddam reason. jake died of heart failure two decembers ago.
when there's nothing i can do, i resort to the normal process of making something for myself to do. my brother and i fuelled up his truck, installed the snow tires at 2 in the morning in knee-deep snow at minus 20, slept for three hours, and started driving south. what the hell were we going to do? help out? with what? we got to maryland just in time for the wake, changed in the cab in the parking lot, and walked in to cry.
crying was something i could do.
i realized at some point that although i could do nothing to console a family who'd had a son stolen from them, i could feel. i could stand there, in the funeral home, and weep like a man obliterated. i could stand, in honour (and lack of seating for the honouring of such a great man), soaking the lapels of my suit. i could rage at the injustice of the death of a young man so full of possibility. i could see his simple, perfect coffin, remember the grandfather who started our whole family and seeing him in just such a coffin, and i could drip these memories hot and salty down my cheeks. i could see my family ruined. we were undone. and i felt it, bleeding from somewhere very red and very deep.
i do not believe that i did anything helpful by feeling all of this. i merely felt, and i believe this to be a valid, important thing. somewhere on the spectrum of feeling, i am on the further side of rather. i feel rather a lot. maybe it's an artistic thing. maybe i just can't help myself. i temper this tendency, daily, with a good dunk in reality, and hear my afterthoughts and should've-saids hissing away in steam clouds. regardless, i still feel quite a lot, and i think the world needs people who do this. we all, of course, need people to feel less and do more or feel lots and do lots and think and dream and all that other great stuff. but this feeling must not be let to waste. it must not be shut off. i may not drown in it either. it is important, and it must be done.
Monday, August 13, 2012
it is possible to be flat broke in the bank and utterly filthy rich in the heart. i know this, because this is where i am today.
apparently, one of the stupid habits of poor people is to know exactly how much money we have at all times. another is to spend it before the new instalment gets in. i am guilty of both of these, frequently. today, however, i had the privilege of spending hours and hours, from a little after dawn to early evening, with a wonderful child. the child is mine, of course, and it probably helps that we had the weekend away from each other so i was really in the mindset of appreciating each second with her, but she is a great kid, and our day of wonderfulness dwarfed any debt i have.
i was walking from the kitchen to the front closet, glancing at the wall of bikes, stepping on the worn-out hardwood cracks that will never sweep clean, and all of a sudden, i was overwhelmed with happiness. it was like christmas or my birthday or somehow something wonderful had just burst into my consciousness, and i was shining. all the moments of the day had added up, and i was struck with wonder.
there was nothing overtly special about the day. we did the morning routine. we drove downtown to collect documents and then uptown to submit them. i may even have earned a raise this summer. we ran errands at bike shops for my lady friend. we got groceries, filled the pool, and went for a ride. she asked me, with her toothless lisp, if i was going to wear bike clothes for the ride. i could tell by the question and tone that my answer would dictate whether she would wear bike clothes for the ride. we had been planning this ride since this morning. i figured she really wanted occasion to wear her bike clothes. we agreed to wear bike clothes. we rode almost 20k. she ate a bar and finished two bottles. she rode singletrack and ruts and gravel and paved path. she lifted her bike, the heaviest one in the house, over obstacles and gaps and kept riding. she smiled the entire time. and so did i. i rarely come back from a ride sore in the face, but i had smiled so much and so intensely and for so long, that my mouth hurt from the exertion. that's what happens when you set out to just ride with the world's greatest 7 year old. we came home and changed and she ate an egg that i boiled for her and we picked up her sister and i made dinner. we vacuumed the car. we set the table. nothing special.
now the children are fast asleep, dreaming about magic wands and railing turns on their bikes, and i am dreaming, right here in my chair, amazed at the immediacy of things come true.