Good Work

Go to bed now,

a dozen lines tossed

to the near infinity?

 

Laughter is only arriving

into the night of the city,

while you are shutting down

 

everything.

You put so little in the glass

and gulp it down, like medicine,

 

and dream of selling your books

for a toolbox.

There is no answer

 

at the end

of the line

or …

 

You, you, you,

I want to be angry

because no one else is:

 

stay up

until the light is tired

and the blood

 

has been sucked

from your bones.

I said

 

sucked from your bones.

 

 

 

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Good Work

I Recall a Look

The look of a great aunt, or a retired neighbour

as I sat with them at a table when I was young:

I felt it but ignored–the look of loss, of the awareness

of loss, of the faculties, the life-force, the appetites,

madness, creativity, strong sensations, violent emotions,

violence, bringing a quiet, strange peace,

looking at me then, unwrinkled, green, golden.

I understand it now. The young speak,

and you hardly listen. You look at them, politely smiling,

like a victim to a thief.

I Recall a Look

The Problem of Marking Student Writing ( part 1)

All of my English teacher colleagues would agree that the hardest part of our job is marking. It takes up a lot of time and concentration. It’s also frustrating, in that I always feel as if there is more I could do to improve each essay if I had more time, and so putting a mark in the top corner and placing an essay on the “marked” pile is a compromise. Given the unsatisfying effort that goes into marking, I find myself often questioning the standard approach to teaching and evaluating student writing.

Marking feels like a lot of work, but it is not easy to quantify. At my college most of us assign three essays to each of the three classes of 40 students that we teach. This means that we mark about 360 essays per semester. If we spend ten minutes with each essay, the total time spent marking essays each semester is 60 hours. This doesn’t include recording marks, staring into space, brewing coffee, tracking down the sources of suspected plagiarism, etc. Ten minutes per essay works out to 6 essays per hour, which is possible at times, in the perfect environment, with a well-rested brain. Often, though, 4 per hour is a more realistic. At this pace, it would take 90 hours to do all of our marking.

Let’s settle on 75 hours as an average. How do we work with this average, though? It implies that we could mark a semester-worth of essays in two weeks. During the semester, though, we don’t have two empty weeks to devote to marking. We have classes to prepare and teach, as well as administrative tasks. Even if we did have two weeks in which to do nothing but mark. I don’t think anyone is capable of marking for 8 hours per day for 5 days straight. My guess is that after four hours of focussed marking most people’s brains are mush. Let’s assume we do some marking on weekends (we do), twenty-five hours of marking a week strikes me as the maximum that most people would be able to maintain, semester after semester, year after year. Given a 75-hour per semester total, that works out to three weeks of intensive marking.

 

As with any repetitive task, minor changes to methodology will have a significant overall effect. Saving one minute on each essay adds up to 360 minutes saved in total. With so much time at stake, it is worth thinking about efficiency.

Obviously, we don’t just want to save time. We want to teach. Therefore, we need to think about what students can learn from marked essays and what else they might be able to learn if teachers were to use the time they currently spend marking on other educational activities, like preparing classes, or working with students during the writing process. I’ll attempt to tackle these issues in part 2.

The Problem of Marking Student Writing ( part 1)

Excerpts from a Black Notebook

Sometimes he woke up in the morning with bruises on his face. Or dried blood beneath his nose.

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His father was an actor. Once he went to see him in a play. During an emotional scene, his father looked into the audience, straight at him, into his eyes, in character, without any sign of recognizing him (his son). He found it troubling–being regarded by his “father” without any sign of recognition–and never forgot that moment for the rest of his life.

Excerpts from a Black Notebook

Competition and Cooperation

I’m working on a theory. I’m not sure exactly when this started percolating. I found myself talking about it on the weekend, but maybe my brain was working on it even before then. I sometimes ride with a bunch of other guys indoors. We each set our bikes up on Computrainers and then watch avatars of ourselves on a screen riding together. There are various courses to choose from, each with their own characteristics. There are always quite a few climbs, some of them really steep. None of them are usually that long, no longer than five minutes. These sessions almost always turn into quite fierce races. Usually the pace picks up too soon and a few guys will not be able to finish the course, which is usually about 50 virtual kilometers. The races unfold much like real races, with breakaways and attacks.

On Sunday two guys went off the front and got about an 800 meter lead on the pack. At that point those of us in the pack decided that we’d better work together to catch up. We tried for a while, dropping a few guys in the process, but we didn’t make much progress. Eventually, I cracked too, then another guy gave up. Finally, only one guy was chasing, but he didn’t close the gap and eventually slowed down. After the ride/race came the post-mortem. Someone said that we should have organized sooner. I agreed, but I said it was hard to work well together unless everyone is in cooperation mode rather than compete mode, and we’re often in compete mode in a bike race.

Thinking more about this, I’m tempted to suggest a “there are two types of people” statement: there are two types of people: those who flourish in competitive mode and those who flourish in cooperative mode. Personally, I think I’m more likely to dig deep in cooperative mode. (This doesn’t imply that I’m altruistic. There are just as many rewards for helping your team as there are for beating others.)

I wonder if there is something useful here for coaches when it comes to motivating a team. They might want to consider providing two types of motivation. Competitive motivation is about beating the other team, and to be honest it is also about being better than your teammates (I can think of players like this on my son’s hockey team). Cooperative mode is about helping your team. Some players don’t respond well to competition, but perhaps if battling the other team is seen as helping your own team it might allow some players to find more motivation to play with greater intensity.

I think about the tennis player Tommy Haas, who (if I’m not mistaken) over the course of his career might by some standards have under-performed. However, he had a good record in the Davis Cup. Haas always struck me as a nice guy. Perhaps it was easier for him to dig deep when it was a matter of helping his team, rather than beating the other guy.

I doubt any of this is original, but it does maybe give me a few tools to experiment with when it comes to self-motivation. I think I am more likely to put an effort into activities that will help my family than activities that are more individualistic, but perhaps if I think of these individualistic activities as also helping my family (in some way), I might be more likely to tackle them with all of my ability and determination.

A few other thoughts related to this. The line between helping oneself and helping others can be blurry, but the line between cooperating and competing is clearer. Also, team sports are able to wrap cooperation inside competition, which might explain why we tend to turn our individual sports into team sports quite often. Track and field is for the school or country. Cycling is organized into teams. Other sports that are even less team-ish often nonetheless require a “team” to support the athlete (coach, trainer, mechanic, etc.)

Hm …

 

Competition and Cooperation

Writing from Inside the Pro Peloton

A review of:

Pro Cycling on $10 a Day: from Fat Kid to Euro Pro

Phil Gaimon
Velopress, 2014

Draft Animals: Living the Pro Cycling Dream (Once in a While)

by Phil Gaimon
Penguin, 2017

Reviewed by Tom Abray

Phil Gaimon went to university to get an English degree, but while he was there he also learned how to race bicycles. He made up for his late start in the sport with his natural aerobic capacity and a lot of hard work on and off the bike. Gradually, (mile by mile) he climbed through the ranks of professional road cycling in the United States until, in his late twenties, he signed a contract with Team Garmin-Sharp to race on the World Tour, the highest level of men’s road bicycle racing.

Gaimon has made a second career (or maybe third; he also started a biking apparel company) out of recounting the behind-the-scenes life of a post-Armstrong era professional cyclist. His first book Pro Cycling on $10 a Day follows him from high school, to his introduction to bike racing at university, until he finally secured an offer from a World Tour team. In addition to being a huge accomplishment in his cycling career, moving to the World Tour also provided a climactic ending for his first book, which was published while he was still a pro.

Both books are engaging and well-paced. Gaimon recounts the action of many of his races, capturing the experience of being on the bike for hours, suffering, asking more of his body, finding a second-wind, being barked at from the team car and taking risks on descents. He writes about interactions with teammates, rivals, directors and support staff with wit and energy, as if the race had taken place just a few days ago. He either has an excellent memory, or he took notes, or he’s good at breathing life into what for many former racers must be mostly a blur of pedalling, punctuated by a few near-death experiences and, if they’re really good, the occasional moment of glory.

Compared to most sports writing and celebrity autobiography, the writing in both books is refreshing. Careful not to let the action lag, Gaimon still manages to include concise passages of self-reflection and to sketch in enough of his life outside of cycling to raise the stakes of his athletic adventures or place his sporting life in a larger perspective, where there is love and loss and more important issues than who wins a bicycle race.

The books, which are not ghost-written, give the impression that Gaimon enjoys and cares about the literary craft, and that he has read some good books. It seems that he has taken some pride in his work, his writing work, and that he isn’t motivated solely by an opportunity to cash in on a career in pro sports, although, given the modest financial rewards he received from a decade of racing, that would be understandable.

The “$10/day” of the first title is not much of an exaggeration. Despite being a contender in some of the biggest road races in the U.S., Gaimon was being paid less for riding his bike than he would have been for working at the local bookstore. He supplemented his income by selling sportswear and writing articles for cycling magazines, and he made himself valuable to sponsors by developing a following through the emerging world of social media. He lived out of his car much of the year, commuting across the U.S. to races and training camps. During the off-season he shared a house with other riders, often brought together more out of necessity than domestic compatibility.

On one level the first book is a survival story. Gaimon had to make important decisions almost every day: which race to go to, how to train, how to get there, how to race. Most of the time the looming question was, “Who would he ride for next year?” Good results were a means to an end, a way to impress team directors, so that he might move from a $15, 000 to a $25, 000 contract. A bad day of racing could mean future unemployment. A freakish crash, a flat tire, a stomach bug could undermine months of relentless training.

There is something romantic about it—travelling North America, living out of a car, scraping by, free to be a slave to a hopeless dream. Early in the first book, Gaimon says that he has always liked the word “precarious”, and it certainly seems that one has to half-embrace the race-to-race lifestyle and laugh along with the cycling gods in order to keep up morale. One also needs a lot of raw, perhaps—Gaimon acknowledges—reckless, will.

Although the story has a romantic side to it, Gaimon does not romanticize. He had just achieved his dream of racing on the World Team Tour when $10 was published and yet in the introduction he says he is hesitant to advise young cyclists to follow their dreams. Unfortunately, added to the list of challenges facing all athletes— like relationship sacrifices, self-discipline, and injury—was the current state of his sport.

As well as being a kind of quest for elusive athletic success, Gaimon’s two-volume story is to some extent an exposé of the underbelly of professional road cycling. In Gaimon’s view pro-cycling is still righting itself after being knocked off course by the drug-scandal era that disgusted many fans and scared away sponsors. To complicate matters, a lot of Americans of Gaimon’s generation were drawn to the sport at a time when it was energized by the successes of Lance Armstrong. With positive tests and overdue confessions, early heroes were turned into despised villains.

It was an era filled, understandably, with strong emotions. In a kind of pious rebelliousness Gaimon and a few similarly-minded riders made a trip to the tattoo parlour to have “CLEAN” inked into their skin, swearing that if any of them were ever caught cheating the others would track down the offender and scrub the tattoo off with a wire brush. However, the clean vs. dirty = good vs. evil equation was soon complicated.

Gaimon ended up training with Tom Danielson, a reformed EPO user, and couldn’t help but like and respect him, although the friendship earned him disparaging comments from less forgiving peers. Gaimon continued to view former cheaters warily, but he tended to give them a begrudging chance to prove their redeeming qualities. By the end of Draft Animals, having spent most of his twenties trying to carve out a living from bike racing, he almost seems half-ready to allow for the slight possibility that even Lance Armstrong might be an okay guy on some level, which suggests an incremental change of opinion (a maturation perhaps), given that he began $10 with a mock dedication to Armstrong’s “famous missing testicle”.

At the beginning of $10, Gaimon says that cycling transformed him from an overweight, underachieving, sarcastic teenager into a fit, keen university student. The sharp-tongue of his sarcasm, however, stayed with him. This gives the books an edge that mostly contributes to its engaging style, though at times it seems slightly gratuitous.

Despite his impressive athletic skills and achievements, Gaimon never comes off as a braggart, which can definitely be a pitfall in books about success stories. As an autobiographer he does not hesitate to laugh at himself and the humble sport of cycling. He also laughs at others, sometimes maliciously. Occasionally, he is a little self-righteous, playing the role of a kind of good bad-boy who doesn’t filter his often critical, sometimes petty judgments of others.

Some readers may be a little surprised to see Gaimon take the time to raise suspicions about fan favourite Jens Voigt’s “clean” status and to portray him as a bit of a flake. Gaimon shows even less love (for various reasons) for stars of the sport like Ryder Hesjedal (a teammate), Bradley Wiggins, Peter Sagan and Fabian Cancellera. It’s not about envy, though. He expresses admiration for his teammate, the successful rider Dan Martin. And even though up-and-comer Mike Woods outclimbed Gaimon at training camp, Gaimon praises his talent and character.

Gaimon’s retelling of jokes and high jinks can amount to “had to be there” moments. Perhaps they are best taken as a symptom of the desperate monotony that needed to be relieved on long drives and five-hour training rides, or the byproduct of living in close quarters with half-starved men who spared the best of their mental and physical energies for pedalling up mountains in the rain. The sense of humour works better when it’s observational. When a woman sitting next to him on a bumpy flight rushes off the plane toward the smoking area to soothe her anxiety, Gaimon asks the reader which is more likely to kill her, flying or smoking?

Stylistically, the books are similar. In fact, his whole career could have been covered in one book. (A couple of chapters at the beginning of Draft Animals, which recap the main events of $10 would have been unnecessary.) But this would have changed the author’s proximity to his “early years”. When it comes to sports writing a front row seat is usually more entertaining than fading photographs.

After assessing his contract options after his second year on a World Tour team, Gaimon decided that he had gotten all that he could get out of pro cycling. It is no weakness of the book that the final pages feel less like an ending than a new beginning. If there is a final “scene”—a last passage where Gaimon sets us down in time and place—it is when he is sitting on his porch, writing, and it feels just a little as if his decade-long cycling adventure has been given new value as material for a book. The adventure of becoming a pro cyclist is wrapped inside the adventure of becoming a writer.

In the Afterword, as Gaimon ponders for a final time the wisdom of chasing one’s dream, he observes, “Most people who chase a dream don’t get a happy ending. The best I can do is ride off into the sunset.” In fact, he’s done more than ride away. Out of his experiences, he has created two engaging books that offer an intelligent account of a young American pro cyclist chasing his dream in a transitional era of pro cycling.

Writing from Inside the Pro Peloton

I Don’t Want to “fail better”

A few minutes ago I was on the verge of writing a different sort of post than this. I was going to write about the number of rejections I’ve been getting from literary magazines. I would have included a screenshot of my Submittable account, which shows the twenty-four submissions I’ve made in the past few years and the word “declined” beside all but the two most recent, which are still under consideration. I was going to laugh it off and maybe speculate about whether or not I should give up writing because I just don’t have the natural talent for it. But just as I was about to take the screenshot, I thought, This is really pathetic. I felt a prick of self-respect or reason or something and almost started to blush at the idea that I was on the verge of pseudo-celebrating my own failure.

Perhaps there is a time and place for that kind of attitude, but you also have to take yourself seriously. If you’re just laughing about your failures, you’re not learning from them, you’re not giving yourself the opportunity to actually develop and start to write for a real audience, even if that audience doesn’t exist yet.

For me, laughing off failure is a kind of perverse acceptance that has left me feeling as though I’m on the sidelines, out of the real game. I took up residence in the land of failure. I even started to write for the land of failure. In this land there are no real readers, no opinions, no ears, no hearts, no hope. It’s a ghost land.

Think about how you might call across a field to someone who might hear you. Compare that to calling across a field to someone whom you know is out of the range of your voice. One voice is full of urgency and power, the other is not. In the land of failure you write like the person who is calling to no one.

Becoming stuck in the land of failure is not entirely the writer’s fault. It’s an occupational hazard. There are not enough readers for all of the writers. There are not enough spots on the team. Not enough jobs for all of the applicants. And yet one goes on writing–but into a void, where the words reach no one. They are never stress-tested, fact-checked, or refuted. They exist in their own la-la land where irrelevance and insignificance can persist without any reality-check.

If I were to read through my texts that received twenty-two rejections on Submittable, and if I were unflinchingly honest, I think I would find many examples of these land of failure characteristics, which are sometimes the result of self-indulgence but more often laziness (which is probably at the root of self-indulgence anyway). The tendency for land of failure writing to have these weaknesses is somewhat understandable. To put it in psychology-textbook terms, there is no reward for the artistic effort when there is no reader, whether from pay or from praise.

But looking at the reasons why writing is a challenging occupation is not all that productive. It might be true that those writers who have a readership are, indeed, fortunate to have the motivating rewards that come with a readership, but envying them doesn’t help me write better. Similarly, while it could be helpful to realize when I’m in the land of failure, spending too much time looking around, half-admiring it and painting it, only prolongs the amount time I spend there. I really just have to pack up and move back over to where the action is and elbow my way back into the game, cheesy metaphors and all.

The Samuel Beckett quote “fail better” is often used to inspire people to be more determined, and I have consciously espoused it a few times myself, but looking at it now I wonder if it’s such good advice. I always thought of it as ironic and humorous, which is probably why it appealed to me. It laughs off failure. Perhaps, there are times when it’s constructive to laugh off the current failure, but then you have to get serious. Maybe instead of “Try[ing] again. Fail[ing] again. Fail[ing] better”, I should “Do it again. Do it better. Succeed.”

But I’m making myself cringe with these inspirational quotes and I’ve spent enough time writing about how I should be writing. I think now it’s time to go and do it.

I Don’t Want to “fail better”