Thursday, September 13, 2012

Naked teaching

We interrupt our regularly-neglected programming to bring you thoughts on "what I’ve learned from our week of small-group schooling (in brief)." (Future generations and foreigners reading this may want to know that this is occasioned by the Chicago Teachers' Strike of 2012.) When you have a classroom full of kids, it’s fairly easy to get them all to do the same thing. You put on an air of command, say “sit down,” they all sit down. You say “listen,” and you can even get them (yeah, it may take some barking and nipping at the heels of the wanderers) all to sit quietly and look up at whatever you’re showing them. When you’ve only got two or three, they’re a lot harder to control. They each want to talk more—no, they all want to talk, all the time. Except for the one(s) who never want to talk (but with them, you can’t say to yourself, well, he’s quiet and not disturbing the class; he must be doing ok). You have to get them all to buy in to what you’re doing, because there’s no pressure to conform working in your favor. You have to work harder. You can tell when they’re not learning, when their attention is wandering, when you just haven’t got the right tone or metaphor or explanation. You work harder, you re-pitch what you’re saying, you have to reach each of them individually. You have to work harder. They learn more. They work harder (Evidence: Nellie has been completely exhausted every night this week.). There’s no hiding in a class of three: they can’t hide behind a superficial conformity; you can’t hide behind public persona, and, more importantly, the group pressure to conform that can make it look like they’re all learning. Differences between kids stand out. The ones who get whatever you’re talking about get it, and want to move on. They can’t—they realize they don’t have to—slack through something they can do quickly. The ones who don’t get it on the first go-round—you can’t move on until they’re ready, because you can see it in every part of their bodies when they haven’t got it yet. You have to figure out how to resolve this. It’s exhausting and great. It’s not scalable (though the really great classroom teachers come close).

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

E is for Every Day

Ahh, resolutions. The problem with them is that when you resolve to do something Every Day, and you miss a day, you've flunked. I've been riding every day this month (even if just the 1-mile round trip to the office and back) but manifestly not posting to the blog. Belated catch-up, this is, then.

But a bit more on self-motivation. I resolved this year to attempt to ride 100 miles a week. Resolve to attempt? sounds week. But it keeps the resolution fresh and renewable; if I miss 100 miles in a week, there's no reason not to come back at it next week. Keeping track of my mileage, I've had a week of 33 miles (just commuting and errands) and a week of 233 miles. Average is a bit under 100/week for the year, but no matter; as summer comes, we'll do more biking out to picnic for dinner.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012


Getting dropped is a common occurrence for a lousy bike racer like myself; this morning it wasn't due to an inability to maintain the speed of the pack, nor even the mechanicals that plagued my last two races. No, I can admit that my beloved spouse, riding along on what she refers to as her "granny" bike, with big 'ol front basket and (I'm embarrassed to admit; we have the same mechanic, Dr. Fledermaus and I, and he is me.) squeaky chain (it just started squeaking, honest!) and 8-speed hub gear that only reaches 4 gears, and unreliably at best (I've been working on it, honest! I replaced the crunchy cable housing but that didn't solve it; the shifter ring is sticky for some other reason.) dropped my sorry ass like a bad habit about seven times as we trundled the smaller of the Batchildren to his 2-year check-up and back home.

And she scoffs when I tell her she'd be good at bicycle racing.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

A, B, C

I heard (belatedly) about the 26-days-of-April blog posting challenge. And it seeems like a good idea: to post every day except Sundays in April, with a theme inspired by the letters of the alphabet. I'm late to the party so I'll slink in by the back door and quick, try to catch the bartender so I can catch up. I know, it seems like three or seven martinis in a row will do the trick, but it so rarely does.

But we make announcements like this to hold ourselves to some sort of standard: to keep ourselves honest. It's one of the reasons I race: to be sure that I'm actually doing the best I can.

Base mileage:
One of the things on my mind recently is training, and the big picture of the bike racing season. Most training plans for bicycle racing involve a period of lots of long slow distance: the mid-20th century saw a yearly arc for a road racer that consisted of long rides across the winter and early spring, and, essentially, "racing into shape" across the season, by taking part in the spring classics one-day and three-to-seven-stage races, followed by the summer tours. Cyclocross in the fall or early winter was a way to "burn off excess fitness" as I've heard it said (alas, no citation).

Starting in the 1980s, a few developments converged to change this practice. In no particular order: the invention of wearable heart rate monitors and power-measurement devices made the quantification of effort and the rationalization of training easier. Meanwhile, the economic background of the sport brought cyclists to focus harder on fewer events (world championships, Le Tour). And after the fall of the Soviet bloc, the methods of eastern European trainers (both licit and il-) were revealed to the rest of the world. All these things were distilled in a few now-seminal books, Joe Friel's The Cyclist's Training Bible and Tudor Bompa's Periodization, for example. Periodization approaches changed the racing season approach by sharpening the focus on fewer races, with a more specialized lead-up to those races, but the idea of putting in a lot of long, slow miles fairly long before the racing season was confirmed.

In essence, what you're doing with LSD (long slow distance, you hippies!) is building aerobic capacity in your muscles--capillaries, the delivery system for blood (oxygen and glycogen) to the muscles. This is a long (not just months but years) process (there's a reason why there aren't 17-year-old world champion marathoners). Additionally, higher-intensity efforts (racing as well as the higher-intensity efforts of a periodization program) actually break down--or "use up"--this aerobic base.

But that's not (exactly) what I've been up to. Based on a few different training plans, I've done a more compressed training schedule for the past couple of months, with a mix of short and medium-length efforts, intervals ranging from one minute to twenty or thirty minutes. This is the sort of program that, for example, Chris Carmichael pushes in The Time-Crunched Cyclist. The basic idea behind Carmichael's "time-crunched" approach is that it skips a certain amount of base-building in favor of improvements in top speed.

I suspect that I'm seeing both the positive and negatives of this approach--in the past two weeks I raced Barry-Roubaix, a 62-mile gravel raod race, which I finished near the bottom--it was a four-hour effort--and one day of the Gapers' Block crits, a half-hour race where I hung with the pack much better than I did a few years ago (my last racing season).

So the question I'm wrestling is what to do over the coming months, given that I've got a couple of races coming up, Leland Kermesse on the 21st, and either Monsters of the Midway or Gravel Metric in May) and then basically no racing until fall (cyclocross and 24 Hours of Moab).


Kent Peterson is one of my favorite bicyclists and bike writers; he's the one who turned me on to the Blogging-from-A-to-Z thing, and he's aiming to bike to an interesting destination daily with his acrostic focus. Today, for me, naught but a commute, and even the simplest of commutes, as I didn't have to drop kids off at school. A mile. Would love to get more riding in today but I'm sporting an awful crick in the neck, a Colossal Cervical Crick, if you will.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Emmet Larkin, R.I.P.

Emmet Larkin has passed away. He may have been the finest professor I had in my time at the University of Chicago; he taught me what it means to be a historian: to discover, interpret, and, perhaps most importantly, to maintain mental access to, a massive body of knowledge, and then to synthesize new understandings from that knowledge. It was an old-school sort of history: as Mr. Larkin said, you can't do really good history until you're in your forties; you just can't know enough until then. Such an approach doesn't fit well with the "publish two groundbreaking works by the time you're up for tenure" requirements of the modern academy, it hardly needs to be said.
But Larkin was of a different generation, the one that came to college (for him as for many, the first ones in the their family) on the GI Bill, with an understanding that work was central to life, achievement, recognition, awards were secondary. Ora et labora. He set his sights higher, no, broader, than merely slogging through archives and finding unpublished letters between bishops and cardinals (and translating them, contextualizing them, and, most importantly reading between their lines, knowing whose brother had married whose cousin seventeen years before…)
Today's scholars seek new interpretations, and crunch vast amounts of data in their databases, and do things, above all, quickly--someone else may be working on this and you might be scooped! No, Larkin's project was simple, vast, and, as he foresaw, unachievable: The History of the Catholic Church in Ireland. This was the work of a lifetime and more; even in 1997, he knew that he probably wouldn't finish.
But the inspiration to work, to toil in the library, to learn and to know and to know what you know--This was inspiring to a would-be historian. To think historically and precisely on any topic--to know why you know what you know--this was an achievement beyond the scale of his nine (excellent) books.
He challenged us on every front: "Who was the greatest American President?" he asked us one day (I can't remember the context), "and why?" Larkin's own answer was Lincoln--for he excelled in magnanimity. This story has a classical ring about it, as if from Plutarch or Aristotle; perhaps Larkin was already a Great Man, of the Sort They No Longer Make in his own generation, as much as he was to mine. Virtue and knowledge; ora et labora.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Barry-Roubaix 2012

The mud'n'the blood speak eloquently of the great fun had romping 62 miles across the back roads of central Michigan. The grease? 9 chain-drops. A man who is his own lawyer has a fool for a client, they say, and I suppose that applies to bike mechanics, too. At 39 seconds per (the schleck, the universal measure of time lost in a chain drop), that lost me five places. Sorry to say, it wasn't my mechanical fumblings that kept me off the podium but my climbing and my ability to stick to a paceline. The micro-pops of power that give a racer even the chance to compete for wins. Back to the workout schedule, back to the workouts. (Photo by Avi Schwab who had a damn fine day himself, top-halving the field in his first race.)

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Myth is the material; tragedy is what you make of it

The world of professional cycling saw two news stories of no small import this weekend. Alberto Contador was stripped of his 2010 Tour de France title (as well as all his professional results since then) for a positive blood test at the Tour, having been issued a "retroactive ban" from racing, which will expire this August. In other news, the federal prosecutors investigating Lance Armstrong's alleged doping announced quietly that they were dropping charges against Big Tex. (Why were the feds interested? Your US Postal Service sponsored his team, so government money was involved in supporting his racing.)

One case of the other shoe dropping (well, the other fuzzy red slipper dropping quietly as the UCI crawls back into bed with its sponsoring businesses, hoping that they didn't notice anything. Successfully, it seems; love is indeed blinding), one case of a ball dropping (there being no instant replay, we can argue for months over whether Armstrong's legal team should have been called for defensive interference or given credit for a blocked pass).

Such is the stuff that myths are made of. And epics and tragedies are made from. Red Kite Prayer had a somewhat pedestrian retelling of Lance Armstrong as Oedipus, but it aims too low--dragging the story of Oedipus down from myth, from the things a culture just knows and attempting to nail it to the facts (such as they might be [re]constructed) of the Armstrong case. No, the point is that Armstrong is already a myth; the facts---facts are for prosecutors when they have balls and institutional support and no political armtwisting to leave them the fuck alone; it's World Cancer Day, and cancer is a trump suit and…where was I? ... Armstrong is a myth. Contador is a myth. They're bigger than life, bigger than facts. Creations, created through words and culture (and money, but hey, this is modernity, we don't create our myths by annual animal sacrifice anymore).

Now take the myths and spin out tragedy and epic and, if you can, comedy.

Some enterprising Aeschylus can tell of Armstrong's cancer as preemptive punishment for the wrongs he's about to commit; the final act in the trilogy can redeem the character through "selfless"--thinly veiled penance--cancer work. Redemption and closure are options in drama, after all; this isn't real life--maybe like a sweet formulaic Shakespeare moment, the redemption can ring hollow (don't tell me that the Montagues and Capulets weren't slaughtering each other in the streets again before the star-crossed lovers' blood had dried). The broken family echoing across generations, that's just the icing so you know what kind of cupcake you're getting.

A Sophocles can treat Contador--the Spanish enemy, dark-skinned of course, with a stupid finish-line post-up and bad teeth, to boot--and force us to confront his humanity, make us all complicit in his crime and bring us through the muck to come out feeling smugly better on the other side of it (I'm sure if the New Yorker doesn't pick this up, then the Atlantic will; liberals love that shit).

This leaves Greg LeMond, Tyler Hamilton, and Floyd Landis for a Euripides, and a sophisticated (ah, sophistry, thy name is WADA) romp through philosophical oppositions: the clean and the dirty, the wet and the dry, the high and the low, the rich and the poor, the north and the south (of course; what's an American tragedy without north v. south?). LeMond, Hamilton, and Landis--each of them spinning, tumbling, but in orbit of Armstrong's gravity. LeMond crashing Lance's ("Cancer! I win. Cancer cancer cancer cancer.") press conference, melting into incoherence, every fiber of his being tied up in opposition to Armstrong; if LeMond is to be the greatest American cyclist, Armstrong can be nothing; if LeMond is clean Armstrong must be dirty and if Armstrong clean, then LeMond dirty--only narrative logic can explain LeMond. He has transcended humanity and entered myth.

Hamilton, equally twisted, and perhaps the most colorful of the bunch, bringing the brawl to an Armstrong bar (how West Side Story!), and opening a himself-themed restaurant (one gapes in adimaration of the heroic ego) whose centerpiece, no, whose omphalos, is its bathrooms--Armstrong bathrooms! Tread upon the symbol of my enemy while you defecate! Here is a master of the symbolic shambolic act.

In comparison to Hamilton, (how can you compete with a drinkin' man persona on the stage or screen or epic campfire telling?) Landis seems almost brutally pedestrian; he's the John Henry of the bunch, going up against not a mechanical steam engine but something more powerful, a story. Landis can hammer at facts all day and all night, in exquisite and heartbreaking detail. His soul slipping away is all subtext, of course; he's busy naming names and telling how it works.

This isn't the stuff for journalists anymore. Matt Rendell told the death of Marco Pantani, and for 320 pages, the story doesn't get out of the dirt; the facts are so… known. Cocaine, EPO, iron supplements, yeah, yeah, yeah, names dates times amounts.

The domineering Italian mother still convinced of his innocence; the girlfriends and "doctors" and psychologists and coaches, of whom Mama Pantani thought Marco innocent--now we're gtting somewhere, for they all tell stories, their stories all make sense only as stories, not facts. But the stories are better than the facts, and stories are what we make of myths, the things that we do to make the larger than life understandable while still larger than life. The Death of Marco Pantani, the Passion of Greg LeMond, the Twisted Saga of Tyler Hamilton, and the Ballad of Floyd Landis must be sung, not written.