Worst Day of the Year Ride

With a name like that, how can you not love it?

The Worst Day of the Year Ride is planned for mid-February, and is the earliest entry in what’s shaping up to be my yearly biking calendar. It’s a testament to Portland’s wackiness not only that people would get out in such a cold, rainy month, but that many do so in full costume. This year’s favorite was a family of four, two adults, two trail-a-bikes, all in full body felted dinosaur costumes, complete with spiky helmet covers.

I haven’t dressed up, but I’ve ridden the 45-mile challenge course twice now. Both times, contrary to the name, the weather has been spectacular–cool but dry, bright winter sunshine.

The long route goes from downtown, up over Washington Park, out into Beaverton (around Rock Creek), before doubling back along Germantown Road (with a significant dip down Old Germantown Road for extra hilliness). After climbing, you get to zip down Germantown (brakes please!), cross over the St. Johns Bridge and then mosey back into town.

The first year the hills were pretty rough, especially up through Washington Park. Apparently my base fitness has improved though, since this last weekend it got me sweating, but wasn’t the struggle I remembered.

There is a shorter, urban course (around 15 miles or so), part of which overlaps with the challenge course. They stagger it, letting the challenge riders go early, but everyone ends the ride together. Surprisingly, I didn’t find the shared part of the course to be unduly congested, and it didn’t much impact my overall average speed.

There’s a lot of support, especially on the urban segments. Tasty soup is served at the end, although the portions aren’t huge and the beer from Lucky Lab is an extra charge.

Overall, highly recommended. If you want an organized ride before spring’s even arrived, well, you don’t have many other options do you?

The Numbers: 2012, 2013

Riding Away

In the time since I last blogged, a lot has happened. Another big item on the list is that I started biking.

I’ve never been much of a fitness person, but this change had its roots in our family bikes. We purchased family bikes in the summer of 2010 to help us keep healthy and get out in the evenings. Unfortunately, the first few rides threw Amber’s back out. My inner cheapness came to the fore then, as I looked at the bikes waiting there, unused. I decided I’d cycle to work, at least a few times, so they wouldn’t just be stalled on the porch.

I fell in love.

Since then time, I’ve traded in my lovely 7-speed hybrid for a full road bike (thanks Andrew!), wrote a website for tracking my stats, started obsessing over my Strava segments, and ridden over 5000 miles.

Along the way, I started to participate in longer organized rides. With that in mind I’m going to start jotting down my thoughts on the events, in large part to keep track of things myself, but maybe someone else will get useful ideas about rides to join in on around the Portland area.

Authors: J.D. Salinger

Among the goals of my summer non-genre reading list was covering works that many people read in high school or college that have slipped past me. A top entry on the list was The Catcher in the Rye, that canonical volume for high school novel classes everywhere.

Mentioning this to some good friends while I waited my hold on Catcher at the library, they loaned me Franny and Zooey, which I added to the pile. A short book, I opened it with little notion what type of author Salinger was, why he was well known, what to expect in the least.

Turns out Franny and Zooey was a slightly odd place to start. In many ways it draws on characters Salinger developed elsewhere (specifically Nine Stories). As I read I kept feeling I was supposed to already know bits of back-story, or at least have passing familiarity with events in the life of the Glass family.

The style–much as I would later find with Catcher–was conversational. His narration flows over you. Franny and Zooey especially resembled eavesdropped on an extended conversation. Salinger’s ability to capture dialog, and even to make a long debate over religion and philosophy engaging, seems a key to why he retains his reputation so long after he’s stopped publishing.

I’m not sure exactly what I expected of The Catcher in the Rye. Much like Franny and Zooey it portrayed an East Coast world of private schools and city life very different from my own experience. The world-weary jadedness of the youths both books strikes a chord, but also evoked sadness for me. So much discontent and isolation coursed through those the books.

Again, the tight description, dialog laced with implications and relationship dragged me along. I read Catcher in a day (at the excellent recommendation of my good friend Brian), and it wasn’t tough to do.

Both Franny and Zooey and Catcher obsess over authenticity. Catcher in particular reverberated with Holden looking down on others who he viewed as phonies. However, the view-points of characters in both books seemed equally as “inauthentic” in how they demeaned those around them, in how they set themselves apart and judged. Catcher left me wondering how sad of a life it must be to live so constantly concerned about everyone else’s authenticity that you miss tending to your own.

All in all, I like Salinger’s style, and I will probably read his other books at some point. But for now, I’m glad to move onto something a little less self-conscious.

Books: Love Medicine

Yet another recommendation came to me from my good friend Nate. Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich is a story about family, about Native American life on the reservation, about accepting those aspects of life we can’t change and shouldering on through.

The book is structured more as a series interconnected of short stories rather than a novel with a small number of viewpoints. Many different characters get their point-of-view story throughout, and we see a broad swath of history through the lives of a couple different Chippewa families living in North Dakota.

A large part of the book centers on a love triangle between the characters Marie, Nector and Lulu. We see these characters from their teenage years falling in love, through to life in a retirement home, with all the difficultly and strife between. Along the way Erdrich gives us glimpses many other branches and tributaries of these Chippewa families, building for the reader a strong sense of the broader reservation community.

Erdrich’s prose is incredibly lush and descriptive. Reading a bit about her, I wasn’t surprised to find her background is in poetry. There is a lyrical sense to the book that verges on poetic. It is also a very conversational, hearkening back to the oral storytelling of Native American culture. That richness of imagery often contrasts with the world she’s describing–the bleak, forsaken backwaters of North Dakota that the Chippewa are increasingly forced to by the government, away from their remembered homelands.

Yet again, I wouldn’t have typically picked this book up on my own, but I’m extremely glad to have read it. Erdrich’s going on my “to-read-all-of” list for sure.

Books: Ballistics

Ballistics by Billy Collins qualifies so far as the greatest departure from my normal reading. It’s a poetry book. And I enjoyed it. Weird…

I haven’t read any poetry since high school except the odd scrap in fantasy anthologies, and a couple by the esteemed Neil Gaiman. I think poetry has always baffled me. Most of the older material from school required effort to unpack and understand. You didn’t read a poem, you analyzed it. While I enjoy reading that requires attention and mindfulness, those experiences were too much even for me.

But Collins has opened my eyes to the possibilities of poetry. His language, wit, and insight make it a pleasure to simply read.

Another big issue with poetry revolves around the subject matter–what’s a poem about? There’s a lot of history that makes me at least assume poetry must be about something deep and serious–the purpose of life, love and death. But Collins writes on all sorts of things, and even when he writes about those more “traditional” poetry topics, it’s rarely what I expect.

Poetry itself is a common focus in what I’ve read from Collins so far. It’s fascinating to read poems like “The Poems of Others,” “January in Paris,” “The Great American Poem,” and “Ballistics” weighing in on the form itself (from “The Great American Poem”):

But this is a poem, not a novel,
and the only characters here are you and I,
alone in an imaginary room
which will disappear after a few more lines

His eye toward poetry has its lighter moments too (from “The Effort”):

Would anyone care to join me
in flicking a few pebbles in the direction
of teachers who are fond of asking the question:
“What is the poet trying to say?”

as if Thomas Hardy and Emily Dickinson
had struggled but ultimately failed in their efforts–
inarticulate wretches that they were,
biting their pens and staring out the window for a clue.

Yes, it seems that Whitman, Amy Lowell
and the rest could only try and fail,
but we in Mrs. Parker’s third-period English class
here at Springfield High will succeed

Often his language is starkly beautiful, lush without being too flowery, perfectly balanced (from “The First Night”):

This is where language will stop,
the horse we have ridden all our lives
rearing up at the edge of a dizzying cliff.

But most of all I love his wit and playfulness. From “Adage” where he sculpts poetry from the cliched phrases, to “Tension” where he skewers the overuse of the adverb “suddenly,” when Collins wants to be funny he’s hilarious. This leads up to one of my favorite poems in the whole book “This Little Piggy Went to Market”:

What always stopped me in my tracks was
the middle toe–this little piggy ate roast beef.
I mean I enjoy a roast beef sandwich
with lettuce and tomato and a dollop of horseradish,
but I cannot see a pig ordering that in a delicatessen.

His mock seriousness as he dissects the famous children’s rhyme had me in stitches, and made a fan of me if I wasn’t already by that point in the book.

Ballistics is highly recommended. If you don’t like poetry, haven’t ever read it, don’t know what it’s about, give this book a try. You won’t regret it.

Books: All the Pretty Horses

From my good friend Nate, I got a recommendation to read All the Pretty Horses, by Cormac McCarthy. I’ve had intentions to read The Road by McCarthy, but I was only passingly aware of his prior work. Since The Road was 1) post-apocalyptic and 2) already on my list, I decided to give Nate’s suggestion a try.

I am so glad I did. This has got to be one of the strongest books I’ve ever read in the construction of the language. It’s set in the 1940’s west, from Texas down into Mexico, and McCarthy paints such effective pictures of the stark, beautiful terrain. His wording is often short and simple, not flowery, but he strings them together into these long, loping sentences that carry you on and on. The economy of the language fits perfectly both with the physical surroundings and with the main characters–tough young men looking for ranching work.

The story is tightly built as well, with nothing wasted in it. It’s an interesting read for me as a writer because much of the plot isn’t at all surprising. In the hands of a less remarkable writer, it would even be cliched, telegraphed from miles off. But even though you know where elements are headed–a character from the first half will cause trouble later, things will sour in the seemingly good place they land–that knowledge doesn’t get in the way of the story.

McCarthy is now firmly on my “read-everything-by-him” list, although I will hold off until the non-genre summer is passed to make room for other discoveries. If you have a book you’re dying to have someone read, the one thing you’d recommend to anyone, lay it on me!

Books: The Circumnavigators

With this summer’s plan to read books outside my normal lists, I’ve decided to occasionally post some thoughts about what I’m reading as well. Per the advice of the excellent Justine Larbalestier, I’ll only be writing the nice things–there’s just no upside in ripping something I didn’t happen to enjoy.

On that note, the first major book I’ve tackled was The Circumnavigators by Derek Wilson. As a pure history book–not even historical fiction–I probably never would have picked this up. While my appreciation of history has been growing, it’s still difficult to locate books that aren’t too dry and academic.

My friend Nathan put me onto The Circumnavigators, though, and this is definitely not one of those history books. The tales of how humanity learned to sail around the globe are varied and engaging. The book is packed with interesting details about the passages around the world. For instance, I never knew that if Magellan hadn’t been killed in the South Pacific, they would likely never have continued on westward to complete the first circuit of the globe. Nor would I have believed a story in which crews of hundreds set off, but as few as seventeen men returned. However all of these things actually happened, and Wilson captures them in stunning detail.

If you have any interest in history or enjoy a good maritime tale, I’d definitely recommend The Circumnavigators.

The Non-Genre Summer Spectacular!

I love science fiction and fantasy. I grew up reading them, and they still have a lock on my attention and taste. There’s nothing better than digging into a book that creates a world unlike our own.

Not to say that’s all I read, but at times the genre dominates my reading list a bit too much. I know there’s tons of other good stuff out there that I haven’t given the time to find. To remedy the situation, I’m declaring this Jason’s Non-Genre Summer Spectacular! (well, maybe that overstates it, but there you go.)

For the next three months, I will eschew science fiction, fantasy, mystery, westerns, horror… Non-fiction, literary or mainstream all the way! Classics or contemporary, as long as it doesn’t have a rocket-ship on the cove it’s all good.

If you have suggestions, drop a comment. What books have impressed, moved, dazzled or otherwise changed your life that I ought to read? Don’t know how many I’ll get to, but I’ll keep on updating my reading list as I head on into non-speculative territory.

One more rough draft in the bag

It’s done!

Well, the rough draft of the new novel anyway. I’ve been working in fits and starts (for various reasons) since last February, and finally it’s sitting happily on my hard drive in its entirety (and on the backup drive, and the online backup, and the backup backup FTP site). Just getting it typed up has taken a couple months since concerted computer time is sometimes harder to come by than time with a notebook at the table.

So how did it go? It’s been long enough since I completed any other rough draft, I honestly can’t compare much. In all that editing between I must have mistakenly deleted those rough draft completion scenes. Hmmm.

But I do feel like this draft gives me a lot to work with. I’m feeling solid on the plot, and have gotten to know the characters much better than has happened in previous books. All the time I spent outlining and thoughtfully laying out the chapters–both up front and as I went along–paid off.

But by the time I hit the last third, I also knew massive revisions will be in the works. The first big target is the world-building. The world in my head is strange, the magic elements pervasive throughout the everyday lives of the characters. On the page, it’s ended up much more sedate, so I’m going to have to fix that. Not sure how yet, but unless the world in the book takes on a lot more texture, it won’t possibly fly.

For all my friends reading the blog (hi you two!) the real question is, “Can I read it?” The unfortunate answer is “No.” I’m normally not shy about spreading my work, but things are still too undone. I’d end up with lots of comments about the gaps I’m already painfully aware of. I’d rather hear what folks think when I’ve got something I’m happy with on the table.

Next up is letting it marinate for a couple months. I’m going to get some short fiction down on paper, not least to shake loose the book from my brain. I’ll pick it up again after my birthday in September, and we’ll see where it goes from there.

Finishing is hard

With the recent time alone and many snatched moments here and there, I’m drawing into the last couple rough draft chapters of the new book. This is fantastic, since I wasn’t expecting to get this much done in the first year of our beautiful daughter’s life.

It’s weird, though, because as I conclude each of the three POV characters’ chapters, I’m feeling a bit of hesitation that I doffed a long time ago in the book. I realized earlier that if I agonize about getting everything “right,” I’ll never get it done and it still won’t be perfect. Since then I have managed to put aside concerns about the quality of the rough draft in favor of getting it done.

But oddly these last few chapters there’s that sneaking sense that I need to nail it. Which is strange, since endings are among the harder parts to get right. Beginnings may be the only harder thing. That and middles. Well, I guess it’s all hard and expecting anything to drip flawless from my pen is unreasonable.

Besides, it’s not as if anyone will see this first handwritten scribble anyway. There’s a full round of typing and polishing between me and anyone having the chance to critique. So why am I worrying when I should be writing? Why am I not writing now? Oh right, because it’s time for bed.