Cries and Whispers (fiction)

Adam arrives at the breakfast table wearing Winnie the Pooh tops and Spiderman bottoms. He pulls out the chair and sits. He casts his eyes downward, between the table and his stomach.

“I feel bad eating in front of you,” I tell him.

“That’s okay.”

“They’ll probably give you a snack after.”

He nods almost imperceptibly and then he starts to cry. I go around to the other side of the table to give him a hug.

“You know we love you more than anything and would never do anything that wasn’t going to be good for you?”

He doesn’t answer.

“You’ll be asleep, I tell him. You won’t feel anything.”

“But after?” he asks.

Fortunately, his sister answers before I have to:

“It was like the day after you scrape you knee. You hardly notice it.”

Hannah had the implant two years ago.

“And then it’s so cool,” she says. “Mental video games. No more keyboards.”

She was twelve when she got hers so it’s not as if she’d done a lot of typing. Not like her mother and me. We were in our thirties, with many more years of translating thoughts into words, then letters, and then tapping them through our finger-tips. I suppose it does seem like an inefficient way to communicate. Still, I miss it. Sometimes I’ll still sit at the computer to write an email—not at work (the younger staff would snicker), but at home.

I get Adam a half cup of juice, but he shakes his head. “I’m not supposed to,” he says.

Gina is watching, but I say, “Sips of juice are okay. The surgery’s not for a few hours.”

Gina sighs quietly, but when Adam reaches out and takes a sip, it is so tiny that the disapproval in her eyes eases.

For a moment the token drops of juice seem to cheer him up, if cheer is the right word. I go into the kitchen and guiltily pour myself a second bowl of cereal. Gina sends me a G-wave message: Maybe it’s best if we try to change the subject.

She’s probably right, so I G-wave the message on to Hannah as I walk back into the dining room.

I wasn’t the one talking about it, she replies.

I know. I didn’t say you were.

When I re-enter the dining room, Hannah glares at me fiercely. She likes to play with dirty looks.

“Are you guys whispering?” Adam asks. He calls it ‘whispering’. In fact, he invented the term and it has stuck. We use it all the time.

“Just a little G-waving,” I say.

“What about?”

“About having another bowl of cereal.”

“You’re not talking about cereal,” he says.

I put a spoonful of Rice Crispers in my mouth. As I chew I see the tears running down his cheeks. “What’s wrong?”

“But we won’t talk anymore!”

I look around the table: a glance toward Hannah, a glance to Gina. “We will,” I say.

“No, we won’t!”

“I still talk to Mom and Gina,” I tell him. I expect him to say it’s only because he doesn’t have his implant yet, but he just hunches over and his face turns pink, and I start to feel so helpless it makes me angry. I pick up my dishes, carry them to the sink and go down the hall to get dressed.

Gina takes over with Adam. I hear her consoling tone, but the words don’t carry this far.

I’ve told myself there are no real options. We need the implant. Everything is G-waved now. There’s no decision to make. Some people delay it a year, but they always get it, unless they can’t afford it. What would you do without it? Couldn’t go to the best schools and then he wouldn’t get into a university. He wouldn’t know what’s going on in the world. Likely would find it hard to make friends. Wouldn’t qualify for credit. Would have to pay more for everything because he wouldn’t be eligible for the brand-stream plans.

Gina got it first. She had to for work. It was more expensive then, but her company covered it.

After the surgery I noticed that she was in her own world for the first half-hour of the morning. She was catching up on all the G-wave activity during the night. I would sometimes make a comment about it so she started hiding in the bathroom.

I suppose I was jealous, curious at the very least, about that other life she lived, and envious of her new role as the family’s sole fount of knowledge. The kids stopped asking me what the capital of Slovakia was, how hydro-electric dams work, or who won the hockey game. They asked Gina instead. She always had the answer. I was even asking her for directions.

I became enamored with the idea of accessing all that knowledge. I already had it at my fingertips, but what a bottleneck the keyboard is, or the tongue, or the ear even, compared to a clean flow of data directly in and out of the brain. When our company offered to pay half for the procedure and the implant hardware, I pretended to wrestle with the idea for three days. Then I got in line.

Does it change you? I think it must. It’s hard to say how much. Maybe it changes you so much that you can’t say, because you’re not the same you. Other people are the best judges. Or science. There’s a lot of research, preliminary though. It’s too early to know all the effects. One thing I read recently was about when to get it. Early has advantages because the brain is still growing and it will more fully adapt, but scientists have already noticed that verbal skills develop more slowly once children get it. It makes sense. They talk less, listen less. I could be wrong, but I think I see it in Hannah.

They say the children of parents who have the implant also develop language skills more slowly too. I’m glad Gina and I didn’t have ours when the kids were babies. It’ll be different for Hannah, though. She’ll fall in love implanted, have children implanted. At what age will her children get it?

Are you thinking about me?

Maybe.

I was thinking too intensely. That’s the thing about adults. We’re not great at closing channels. There’s some bleed, “spillage” as Hannah says. Children aren’t good at it either, but they improve quickly and almost all of them will attain full G-wave accuracy and continence within three years.

I was just remembering when Hannah got her implant. I don’t remember this much drama.

Nah! bursts out Hannah. I wanted it.

Yes, you did, Gina recalls.

It’s strange. I imagine I can hear a thoughtful, almost hesitant tone of voice, but I cannot. The fact is that the tone markers in G-waving are still pretty crude. That tone I hear is imagined, or rather I’m able to imagine it, since I know Gina’s voice so well.

I try to quietly close the channel. I hear them—I mean actually hear them—moving, starting to clear the breakfast table. I go into the washroom and stand before the mirror. You can’t see the implant. It’s thin and pliable and branches out into numerous filaments, all slipped neatly beneath the scalp, but I wonder for the two hundredth time if I look different.

 

Adam breaks down as we try to get out of the house. His sobbing turns into hyperventilating. “Oh, sweat pea,” says Gina, “it’s really nothing to be worried about. Millions of children have had this procedure this year alone. If it was dangerous at all we would have heard about it.” Realizing she should not have mentioned the word “dangerous”, she says, “And we’ll be so close by the whole time. We won’t leave the hospital.”

He is a good boy. He forces himself to get in the car, though he is still gasping for air between sobs.

I watch him in the mirror. Dutifully, I console him, pep talk him, all the while on the verge of turning off the car. A voice tells me the procedure is for his own good, that this is one of the scary moments in life that you have to pass through if you want to thrive, and if you don’t, you will be left behind, unlikely to ever catch up. But I’m not sure I believe it.

I don’t know what I believe, but we pay $30 to park and sticking close together we walk toward the hospital. Perhaps out of respect or fear for the six-story institution, Adam has stopped sobbing. I put my arm around him and pull his body against mine, half congratulatory, half protective. Gina runs her fingers through his hair. I look ahead at the rotating doors.

We don’t stop at the front desk because we already know which floor. Hannah walks ahead purposefully. I’m puzzled for a moment, until I realize that she has connected to the hospital’s inter-nav system. We let her lead us to the Children’s Implant Procedure Facility, where we give Adam’s name and take a seat. The waiting room here is small with dark, wood-like paneling and spongey carpet.

Soon we’re approached by a young man in a suit with perfectly styled hair. “You must be Adam. My name’s Tray. Would you like to come right this way with me, Adam?”

“Okay.” Adam slips off the edge of his chair.

Gina rises and smiles at Tray. I stay seated and put my arm around Hannah.

We know the rules. One parent at a time until they take him to the operating room.

“Bye, Dad,” says Adam, looking back at me over his right shoulder. It catches me off guard.

“Bye,” I try to say, and then they are gone.

I look over at Hannah. I can tell by the look in her eye that she is already occupied with something, a message from a friend, or a new chapter in one of the fantasy tales she is currently following. This is just a boring family outing for her. I suppose she might be like this–indifferent–whether or not she had the implant.

 

Gina is back in twenty minutes. I cannot tell much from her expression, which looks worried but composed. She casts us a reassuring smile.

“They gave him a tour of the acclimation room and then got him set up in his bed.”

“How is he?”

“Fragile. They just gave him something to calm him.”

 

He is heart-breakingly calm. I talk to him to assess his level of consciousness and to discern whether he is subdued by chemicals or fear. He is sitting up in bed, quite still, except for his eyes, which flit around the room as if they are following invisible butterflies. I put my hand on his shoulder and leave it there, holding him firmly. I ask questions, which he answers in one sentence or less.

“Are you feeling a little better about the implant now?”

He responds with a slight, quick nod.

And then they come in. They sweep in, with a breezy authority, denying doubt or alternative.

Powerless, I take a step back as they surround him.

 

After the surgery he will need 48 hours in the acclimation chamber. People ironically call it “booting up”, but that’s not really what it is. It’s recuperation for the brain, time to adapt to the new feed. We’re allowed to see him for two minutes every four hours through two thick panes of glass. They make it so the sound can’t travel through, so you’re less tempted to speak (with your mouth, I mean), though you still are. And you can’t G-wave him yet. They’ll restrict him to one channel, I-bilical. It delivers a brain training program that, among other things, teaches him how to operate the device. No doubt it has evolved since I had the surgery. I have to admit I found it very stimulating, like travel, like getting a new gadget.

After a few weeks, the ads begin to flow. Just one a day at first, but they become more prevalent. I remember my first one. It was for Coke. I was riding my bicycle on a hot day and had forgotten to bring a water bottle. I was thinking about where I could find a water fountain and then the world lit up in red and the word “Coke” floated … somewhere, not before my eyes exactly, but behind them, and then a moving image of bubbly soda being poured into a glass of ice cubes. I swore I could taste it, but they claim that is just an “illusion”. The current generation of implants is not supposed to stimulate taste, smell or touch, although it can “perfume” its casts by tickling certain emotion centres. Apparently, it works better for some people than others.

It is the ads that bother a lot of people, but the activists say the people who worry about the ads are missing the point, that they don’t appreciate the profound consequences of the implants. “If all you worry about is obnoxious ads, you will soon be a fully content consumer,” they say. They are alluding to OOSIM tech. Out of Sight, Into Mind, a new implant technology that will appeal directly to the unconscious, so we won’t have to “see” the ads. We will just find ourselves attracted to those brands that have paid the most to access our brains with their synapse-altering algorithms. Some people say OOSIM is already here. I don’t believe it, but I have to admit I find it hard to think about, which sometimes makes me think I’m wrong—that it does exist, because surely if it existed one of the first things they would do is reprogram you so you can’t think about it.

 

I pace down the hallway. I’m not sure where I am going, but I need to move. Ahead of me an orderly with a cart stops by a door. He takes a box from the bottom shelf and disappears into a room. I notice a stack of metal dishes on the top. One is labelled “ER6”. I could snatch a scalpel and cut this implant out of me right now. How painful would it be? What damage would I do to myself? Would my life be ruined?

 

Are you guys finished eating?

Yes. We’re back in the waiting room.

I’m on my way there, but the woman behind the desk looks at me as I’m passing by. I swerve toward her.

“I’m just wondering,” I say.

“Yes?”

“Do they remove implants here, or just install them?”

“Now and again, some people need an upgrade, if they had one of the earlier models.”

“Doesn’t anyone have them removed?”

She smiles at me tolerantly.

I return to the waiting room and sit next to Hannah. The three of us are quiet. Gina and Hannah are browsing. I am just plain old thinking–thinking and thinking, until I can’t sit still any longer. I’m not sure that I’m supposed to take the stairs, but I do–down to the lobby. I walk through the front doors out to the street–to wind and trees and clouds. Small drops of rain are flung down by the breeze. I look up, tempted to holler toward the sky.

 

I see Hannah, her fists in the front pocket of her hoodie, her elbows bent close to her body for warmth. She is standing tall, to see better, gazing left, along the sidewalk, then right, until she spots me. A moment to take me in before she calls out. I can barely hear her voice through the noise of the rain.

“What are you doing?”

She watches me carefully as I walk toward her. She is fourteen years old and this is the first time I have ever seen her look at me with concern. Thankfully, there are already raindrops on my cheeks.

“Was I spilling?” I ask her.

“Yes!”

“A lot?”

She looks rattled, in her own, poised way. If she wasn’t, she would say something, or G-wave. She’d ask, “Why were you freaking out?”

So I tell her: “I was worried about Adam.” And you, and me, and your mom.

“Why?”

“We’ve mangled ourselves.”

She shakes her head. At this point in her life she has absolutely no qualms about the implant, none. She doesn’t like to see me upset, but the substance of my doubts are insignificant to her. She tilts her head pedantically. “You’re the one standing in the rain.”

 

A few minutes later, as we’re sitting side-by-side-by-side, I’m fed a new ad, well-produced, big-budget, engineered to trigger a mild serotonin excretion as the message “Lifft Anti-depressant makes it all better” is sky-written across the inner surface of my forehead. I try to brush it away, but it must run its course.

“I’m going to get my implant removed,” I tell them.

“Really? You’re going to be stupid again,” Hannah says.

“Did I used to be stupid?”

Hannah makes one of her faces. Gina listens tolerantly. She thinks I’m all talk, that I have silly ideas sometimes but that I usually do the right thing in the end, thankfully.

“So when are you going to do this?” Hannah asks.

“I can’t do it here,” I say. “They only treat kids. I’ll look it up. I’ll–”

“You’re going to use your implant to get rid of your implant.”

“That’s right.”

“How ironic.”

 

In his short hospital gown Adam moves toward the window and then stops. He studies us for a moment and then he gives us a thumbs up. He doesn’t want us to worry. The three of us make the same sign back at him. I see his eyes move from Gina, to Hannah, to me. He watches me with searching eyes, the same eyes I saw on our first visit to the barber, his first swimming lesson and bicycle ride. He’s looking for assurance that everything is fine, that he’s done alright, that he’ll be okay.

He is innocent and trustful and I have betrayed him. I was too weak. I hid in fatalism. He is looking at me, waiting, uncertainty tingeing his gaze. I cannot bear it. I raise my other fist and pop up my thumb, not one but two thumbs up.

He grins and points to the white gauze on his temple. His joints move stiffly, zombie-like. His mouth opens wide into a mask of horror.

We mime our laughter to show that we’re amused by his antics. Amused, and so pleased to see that the old Adam is back.

 

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Cries and Whispers (fiction)

A Book in the Hand is Worth … A Blog Post

My novel has been “out” for over a month. We had two launches–one at the college where I teach and one at the Blue Met Literary Festival. Small presses don’t have much of a budget for marketing so there have been no steps taken to thrust the book into the spotlight–either by subtle or bold methods. I don’t even think my press sends out review copies. So the book’s reputation is going to have be propelled by word-of-mouth/finger/thumbs.

IMG_1925

There have been no published reviews yet, but I have received kind notes from a few professors who work at my college, as well as a writer friend who is halfway through the book.

I’m not sure I’m particularly eager to have the novel reviewed. I guess it depends on the review–not whether the review is glowing or critical–but whether it is superficial or serious. Thoughtful reactions to art give the art some identity. At the moment the books is floating–like a newcomer arriving at a party, wondering what role it will play in the gathering.

My own feelings about the novel are probably fairly typical: they vacillate. Some days I think it is a poor effort and that the time I spent on it was wasted; other days I’m satisfied that I hit the mark that I was aiming for; ocassionally I read a few pages and think, “If someone else wrote this I would be impressed and wish that I could write like this.” (I know this last sentiment is a little vain, but I can assure you that I experience it very rarely.)

It’s a concise, third-person novel about a family living in present-day Montreal. The focus is mostly on the main character, Will, a project manager at a plastics company who receives a poor performance evaluation at the beginning of the story. He spends the rest of the novel coping with the challenges of fatherhood while attempting to redeem himself in the eyes of his boss. Along the way there are temptations and conflicts.

After one of the readings I gave, an audience member, who happened to be a poet, said that there was something mystical in the scene I’d read. I was glad to hear this reaction. I’m not sure “mystical” would be the word that I would use, but I think I know what he was referring to. I mention this because, to me, the story is about more than career challenges in the twenty-first century. It’s also about, or it’s supposed to be, courage, forgiveness, salvation, beauty, self-awareness and empathy–to invoke a few hefty themes.

I tried to create beautiful, honest music with a few, simple, quiet instruments. I hope there are a least a few pages in this short novel on which I was half-successful.

The novel should be available through the usual online mega-retailers, or you could go straight to the publisher’s website.

If you’d like to stay tuned for writing-related news from me, you can of course read this blog, or you can follow me on Facebook or Goodreads.

A Book in the Hand is Worth … A Blog Post

On Flashbacks

There’s a movie in which Chevy Chase plays a wannabe writer. I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen the entire movie, but there is a scene at the beginning that I will always remember. Chase’s character has given his wife his novel to read. When he asks her what she thinks, she starts to cry and says that it is terrible. She says something like, “In the first five pages there are three flashbacks, two flash forwards and I think there’s even a flash sideways.” Ouch.

I imagine that most writers can sympathize with this scene insofar as handling time can be tricky and we all get ourselves into trouble sometimes. Hopefully, we tidy up the narrative before publication, though.

How tidy should the narrative be, though, in a novel? My own novel currently relies on flashbacks (for lack of a better word). It’s hard for me to keep track of them at this stage of writing, when I still haven’t settled on what exactly my story is, and I have been very tempted lately to restructure the novel to avoid the flashbacks. I would just start it in the past and tell everything in chronological order. That would keep it simpler for me and the reader.

But there are arguments against this approach. First of all, there may be important backstory that doesn’t really fit into the dramatic structure. A character’s childhood is important, but every hero’s story doesn’t have to begin at birth (or before). Sometimes it is better to focus on the main action and use a flashback to fill in a detail as needed.

At first this argument struck me as the most important, but I actually think there is an even better defence of flashbacks. At any moment we are influenced and propelled by something that happened before. Our pasts are alive within us. When a character walks around in this moment, she is also carrying the past inside of her. Backstory is always present and the past and present speak to one another. This I think is why using flashbacks (and again there is no doubt a better term) seems to suit my novel. My character has in some ways re-started his life but his old life hasn’t left him. The challenges that he faces in this phase of his life are heightened because of the significance of his past.

The flashback, looked at in this way, is I suppose related to stream of consciousness. The novel, way more than the film, can capture inner life. One way to evoke this inner life is through stream of consciousness; another is by using clearly demarcated flashbacks. Flashbacks are a little more methodical, but overall, they have the effect of charging the narrative with the significance of the past.

Or so I am hoping, though I am doing my best to avoid flashing sideways.

On Flashbacks

Why I Care about China

If you were to tell someone that in the future the world would be ruled by a totalitarian state in which there would be no democracy and in which human rights lawyers would be tortured, artists placed under house arrest and the internet heavily censored, they would rightly be heartbroken and horrified. The fact is that a significant portion of the human race lives in such conditions right now.

The population of China is 1.4 billion, which means that one fifth of all humans live in a totalitarian state, without freedom of speech, where human rights lawyers are tortured, artists live under house arrest, and the internet is heavily censored. I find this incredibly disturbing for multiple reasons and so I do what I can–my one tiny little part–to help shine a light on the reality of human rights in China, with the distant but firm hope that some day in the future Chinese people will live in a democracy.

When the media publishes an article about China’s poor human rights record, a strange reaction from Chinese diplomats and anonymous internet commentators soon follows. For the most part the gist of their comments is “mind your own business”, which is a feeble response, one that to me confirms the pervasiveness of the ideology that fuels totalitarianism. “Mind your own business” is to me an admission of culpability, and it leaves me more convinced that it is important to be aware of and engage with all forms of totalitarianism, both in China, and elsewhere.

The other common response to oppression by the Chinese state is that China is so powerful that we’d better be careful of upsetting its leaders. This is the cowardly, the-emperor-has-no-clothes-syndrome. Some of the cruelest, most repressive and destructive acts of humanity have been allowed to take place because onlookers feared reprisal. There is no logic to the argument that says, “Just leave them alone or you will suffer”, when they are already causing people to suffer and will continue to do so if unchecked.

China’s control of the internet and their strange response to references to their human rights abuses shows that they are afraid of the truth. The truth is only threatening to those who have something to hide and to those who want to hold on to positions of power at all costs, even if it oppresses and harms other people.

Education (not indoctrination) is the antidote to totalitarianism. The literacy rate in China is rising quickly. Of course, “literacy” signifies only a very basic level of education, but it is promising sign. As eduction continues to improve and become more widespread in China, attitudes and practices will change. In the meantime it is important that bystanders–neighbours, fellow humans–not allow ourselves to be lied to and not to lend moral support to an oppressive state, either explicitly or by endorsing the normalcy of oppression through an approving silence. We can do our tiny part for humanity simply by being aware of the situation, remembering and keeping the truth out in the open.

Why I Care about China

Quick tip: repairing a road tubeless tire

See Below for an update.

When a tubeless tire is punctured it will ideally be sealed up quickly by the sealant poured into the tire when it is installed, but what if, for some reason, the sealant doesn’t work? Is the tire garbage or can it be salvaged?

I bought a set of Schwalbe Pro One tires for my road bike about a month ago. On my very first ride I got a puncture in the front tire. It was a tiny puncture (I couldn’t see it with my naked eyes) and it seemed to seal up pretty quickly. Some white stuff (sealant) flew out of the tire for two seconds and then it was fine. I only lost about 20 pounds of pressure and was able to ride home without adding air. Everything seemed great. This was my first puncture on my first pair of tubeless tires and, while I wasn’t too impressed that I got a puncture after 20km, I was very impressed with the way it had fixed itself.

Unfortunately, that is not the end of the story. The next time I went for a ride white sealant shot out of the tire from time to time. It seemed as if the sealant was clogging up the hole, but then, perhaps due to the stretching of the tire it would become loose, air would escape, and more sealant would have to seal the hole.

Obviously, this was not a situation that I wanted to live with. I hadn’t got stuck out on the road, but it was bound to happen. I also didn’t want to be starting races and having to abandon because the hole had re-opened.

I really like the Schwalbe Pro Ones otherwise. They seem to roll well and they are easy to install tubeless. I can do it with a regular, manual floor pump and mostly bare hands: just a little tweek from the tire lever on the first install was needed. So, I like them and they are also expensive, so I didn’t wanted to have to throw a new one away without trying to save it.

The first thing I tried was uninstalling the tire, dumping out the little remaining sealant, drying the inside of the tire and placing a sticker patch over the inside of the hole. Those patches are made to stick on the outside (convex-shape) rubber tubes, not the inside (concave shape) of tires, which are also textured and rather slippery, almost like linen, so I wasn’t sure how well the sticker would stay on.

I re-installed the tire and tested it out. It seemed good for a few rides, but eventually it started leaking again. I had pumped up the tire pretty hard for a race and then put my bike in the back of a hot van. My guess is that the tire pressure built up and was too much for whatever was blocking the tiny hole. On the way to the race, we heard pssssssss. I rotated the tire so that the hole was at the bottom, where it would get covered in sealant, and the leak did stop for a moment, but when I rotated it more, the pssss started again. As soon as we arrived at the race, I pulled apart the tire, dumped out the sealant and installed a tube. It worked fine for the race, and I suppose I could live with it, but why buy a tubeless tire and then run it with tubes.

My second attempt to fix the tire was slightly more complicated, but still pretty simple. I marked the hole with chalk, took out the tube, dumped out the sealant, wiped the inside of the tire dry, washed around the hole, and wiped it dry again. I have a tube that I’ve been saving as a back-up. I got a puncture in it last year and sealed the puncture with a stick-on patch, but I haven’t actually re-used it, so I sacrificed it. I cut a 1″x1.5″ piece out of it, rounded off the corners, scuffed up the outside to it with one of those little scuffers you get with a patch kit, smeared rubber cement all over it, and then stuck the outside of the homemade tube-patch to the inside of the Schwalbe tire, right where I had marked the hole.

One side of the tire’s bead was still on the rim, so a balled up a dry rag and pushed it into the tire and then sat the wheel upright so that the weight was right on the patch. The rag, I hoped, would push against the patch and make it bond well. Then I left it overnight to dry really well.

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The glued-on home-made patch.

Today I added new sealant (just a little more than 2 tablespoons), thumbed the tire into place and pumped it up. I let it sit for an hour, just to see what happened, and it appeared to be fine. I’m now back from a one hour ride and am happy to report that the tire seems perfect so far. If it doesn’t lose air overnight, I’ll race on it this weekend. I’ll report back if I have any problems with it in the future. I’m pretty hopeful that it’ll be okay from now on. I’d really like to avoid replacing a new $80 tire.

Update:

I’ve now put about 400km on this tire and it has worked just as well as the unpunctured rear tire, in other words, perfectly.

 

Quick tip: repairing a road tubeless tire

The Races Thus Far

Saturday was my third bike race of the season and it went reasonably well.

But let me begin by reporting (briefly) on the first two races.

Race One was a road race on a flat course. There were something like a hundred and ten guys in my category, Masters 2 (for 40-49 year-olds). I got thirty-third or so. There was a break-away of six, I think. Thirty seconds back was the main group, including me. Going into the final turn, which was really two quick turns, I was about sixtieth. Then I made my move, the same move I’d been making for a few laps. I took the inside line over some bumpy asphalt and accelerated up the overpass, passing quite a few guys, then turned through the final half of the final corner and started to push hard to hold the advantage that I’d gained, which I more or less did.

After the race, I kept telling myself that I had more in the tank and I regretted not trying to get to the front sooner. I told A., my teammate, that we should have chased down the breakaway, but he said we wouldn’t have caught them. I think it was worth a try, though. I mean, I was happy with thirty-third because I hadn’t been dropped in my first M2 race (last year I raced M3, because I’m getting younger every year), but maybe it’s worth tiring yourself out, chasing after the breakaway. You risk getting so tired that you later get dropped, but what have you given up? A thirty-third? It’s probably better (I mean more fun) to die out there in the wind.

Race Two was a gravel grinder, known as the Rasputitsa, in Vermont. It’s a hilly course consisting of gravel, mud, snow and a lap of a cyclocross course. Last year I got something like one-fifty out of five hundred. This year I got eighty-second out of seven-hundred. So, improvement.

Gravel races are pretty different from road races. All categories start together in a gravel race. In fact, you don’t even know who’s in your class. Because of the variety of riders and I think, too, because of the gravel surface, which forces you to watch your line, the race is less about sticking with one peloton. Riders are spread out for miles, each one racing the clock as much as one another. From time-to-time you work together and draft, but often you are passing or being passed by stronger or weaker riders. Because “getting dropped” is not fatal the way it is in road racing, pacing (budgeting your energy) is important. In road racing, in contrast, you would never let the peloton get away from you in order to save your own energy for later in the race, because once the peloton is gone, you will never see them again. The peloton is a rowboat with forty rowers, while you are a lone canoeist.

Anyhow, race two was good, and fun. I went with a neighbour who is getting into racing so I had some company, which was nice.

Finally, to Race Three, a road race, by far the hilliest road race I’ve done. There wasn’t quite as much climbing as the Rasputitsa, but it was close. Also, the Rasputitsa had long climbs; Race Three, which was northwest of Quebec, had numerous medium-length climbs. It was also the longest road race I’ve done: a hundred and eight kilometers. I’m not too confident in my climbing abilities, so I really had no idea how I would do. My mission was just to hang on. In endurance events, I’m usually pretty good at pacing myself. Road racing goes against my nature. There is no pacing. If you have to kill yourself on the first hill to stay with the peloton, do it, because once you’re dropped, you’re a solo canoeist. Your race becomes a ride.

The first climb was a few meters after the start line and I had to work hard to stay with the group. Riders slid past me and soon I was last place and hanging on for my life. Once over the top of the climb everyone eased up and I latched back on and recovered. Five kilometers up the road we hit the next climb and the process was repeated. I almost got dropped but not quite. And on it went.

Sometimes I looked back, hoping to find someone who was slower than me, but I never did. Was no one else suffering more than me? Why wasn’t anyone getting dropped? (I compassionately wondered.) Eventually, I was too tired to turn my head, and too disappointed by what I didn’t see, so I stopped looking and only hoped.

One of my teammates, A., dropped out because of a problem with his brakes. He didn’t like the idea of going downhill at seventy kilometers an hour with shuddering brakes. My other teammate was up ahead, jostling in the middle of the peloton. After the third lap (of five) I lost sight of him. Had he joined a breakaway? On the way to the race we had debated about who was the better climber. I said he was better, and he said I was better. I guess I was right.

Or was I? The lead car was still with us. Wouldn’t it have followed a breakaway? Maybe there was no breakaway, in which case, where was my teammate K.? Had he been dropped? How had I missed it? I would have had to pass him, but I hadn’t noticed, even though, I was still at the back of the pack.

I was pretty sure a few people had been dropped, but I wasn’t sure. Was the group smaller now? Sometimes I thought it was. Other times it seemed like there were still a lot of us. How many riders had started? A. said that there were fifty on the sign-in sheet but that others were showing up without having pre-registered. How many were there now on lap four? I tried to count. One, two, never mind. I put my head down and pedaled.

My legs were going. I wasn’t out of breath or energy (I had been eating throughout the race). But the muscles just above my knee were spent. At the beginning of lap four, at the first hill, I had been dropped, along with a few other guys. But we’d caught back on. At the fifth and final lap, though, the first climb was too much for my legs. I had to shift down. Looking at the road as I fought the pedals I saw wheels move past me quickly. In a matter of seconds I was alone with one other rider and the peloton was cruising away. We were like two men who had been thrown overboard.

We worked together to chase. He said they would slow down, but they didn’t, not enough, and we eventually eased up. Now, finally, it was a matter of pacing. We would at least get to the finish and place ahead of the guys (how many?) who had been dropped earlier and had abandoned.

I was surprised to see two guys coming up behind us. Apparently, they had been dropped too. We had been dropped at the top half of the hill and they had been dropped at the bottom. But they’d caught us. Now four of us worked together. Soon we caught a fifth guy. He had held on one more climb than us, but then he had been dropped, and now he was moving like a weary canoeist. He swerved onto the back of our paceline and we all pushed toward the finish line, which we crossed, ten kilometers later, as a group, the second group, five minutes after the peloton.

Final result: something like thirty-eight out of something like sixty. There were only one or two other finishers after us. All the other guys who had been dropped abandoned (including my teammate K., who pulled out after lap three).

Next weekend (that is, in three days) there is another tough race, longer (120km) and with much more climbing, and I’m still feeling tired from Race Three, so I’m not sure how it’s going to go, but there’s only one way to find out. At least the sun is supposed to be shining. That’ll be a first for this season.

The Races Thus Far

Rubber to Paper

My novel will be launched in a couple of weeks and I still haven’t entirely committed to a new project. Last summer I wrote about eighty pages of a new novel, but this past semester and a half I’ve been too busy to work on it. That kind of time away from a project is, for me at least, deadly. I’m having a hard time imagining myself picking up the thread in a few weeks when school is finished. I find myself getting more excited about fresh ideas instead, perhaps even a nonfiction project. One crazy idea that I’ve been mulling over for a couple of weeks is to take a year to drive around North America following the bicycle racing season and then write a book about it. It’s the kind of book I’d enjoy reading, I think. It might start something like this:

The car is loaded. My wife and kids come out of the house to say goodbye. I’m about to commence my year as a full-time non-professional middle-aged bicycle racer. I will race my way from Montreal to New England, down the east coast, over to Colorado, then Nevada, California, up the west coast, dipping back through the midwest, then wending my way back up to Canada and across Ontario to Montreal. I will race on asphalt, gravel, dirt and sand. I will train between races in some of the most popular cycling areas. I’ll sleep in hotels and campgrounds and perhaps, if I’m lucky, on a few couches. I’ll try to become a stronger cyclist, learn everything I can about racing and life, and have as many adventures as possible.

I feel selfish and sad as I hug my wife, daughter and son goodbye. But they’ve told me repeatedly that I should do this trip. We’ll talk a lot, and if everything goes according to plan, I may be able to fly home around Christmas time.

Something like that, maybe. But I wouldn’t head off for a year and leave the family. I’d need to keep my home base here and just drive to the races as they came up. Perhaps in the winter I would go down south for a month or more. The family could join me at Christmas and maybe March break … in Florida or California, during the cyclocross season. Hm … Now I just need to find a publisher that will give me a nice advance so I can afford to take a year off work.

Oh, well, it’s nice to think about.

Rubber to Paper