Monday, May 8, 2017

Giro D'Big Mountain

This past Sunday found me all too aware of being at least 10 pounds over the weight I would like to be
so many days after the start the cycling season ever. I was climbing up “Big Mountain” pass after just having shot down the southern/eastern side of “Little Mountain” pass. I was willing myself to relax as I subconsciously tensed up in preparation for yet more uphill road. The gates down at Little Dell reservoir were still closed, and half the cyclists west of the Mississippi were taking advantage of this wonderful day to wheeze up this hill.

The Mormon pioneers had come down this way in the summer of 1847. The official LDS church history website describes big mountain pass (1,279 miles from Nauvoo) as: “really just a hill among the surrounding Wasatch mountain peaks, was nevertheless, at 8,400 feet, the highest elevation of the entire Mormon Trail.” Big Mountain pass would be the highest point of my cycling trip on Sunday as I would turn around at the Morgan county line, and head back down towards the State Capitol and my starting place.

I was still about a mile or so shy of slowing to an unsteady four miles an hour when I heard a spirited conversation coming up behind me. Loud and relaxed enough to hear over my wheezing it sounded as if one of the conversants may have had an English accent. They whipped past me as if I was standing still (I almost was) and disappeared up around a bend in the road.

One of the cyclists was at least the second person I had seen in full Team Sky kit, and like the other was riding a black Pinarello that might have been one of the hugely expensive ($13k) 2017 F10 Dogmas like those that another squad from Team Sky is racing in the 100th edition of the Giro D’Italia right now.

While I was climbing on Sunday, Fernando Gaviria (a Columbian sprinter on the Quick-Step Floors team) would battle severe crosswinds to take the flat coastal stage 3 (and get the pink jersey) that ended in the capitol of Sardinia. Tuesday sees the first big climb of the Giro as the race will finish on the slopes of Mount Etna in Sicily. There are informed hunches pronouncing that Gerent Thomas of Team Sky may pull on the pink leader's jersey after that stage.

If I was dusted by actual members of Team Sky they were probably the squad getting ready for the Amgen Tour of California that starts in Sacramento on 14 May this year.

 I pulled over to stretch to keep from losing the battle with the tension in my legs, and my riding companion shot past me. I was momentarily distracted by the almost erotic power her spandex coated thighs were delivering to the pedals, and I decided that the rhythmic swaying of her rear on the seat of her carbon fiber bike would pull me up the mountain in her wake. Unfortunately she was just a little too far up ahead after I climbed back on my bike and began to chase. I huddled into my pain cave and never got to within 50 meters of her before we hit the top of the pass.

Big Mountain Pass looking west



On the way down every ounce of excess personal mass turned into speed. I went way too fast, and the bike shuddered from braking as I approached each corner in the road.

"The descent down the big mountain (as it is called) is very steep, a regular jumping off place, worse than Ash Hollow.” -- William Clayton’s Journal description of the Mormon pioneers traveling down from Big Mountain pass in 1847.


A year ago on Saturday I was battling rain-tinged headwinds on a metric century called “The Front-Runner Century”, and complaining to myself that I was a little too heavy for where I wanted to be
so many days after the start of cycling season ever. I also had a very different view of what I wanted my life to be like.

One year, and things are exactly the same only completely different.









Thursday, May 4, 2017

Zen and the Art of Chariot Maintenance

Because the radio was long dead I was making do with tinny plinkings from the iPhone’s internal speaker. These sounds were losing a competition with the rush of speed wind through the open window as the dead carcass of the air-conditioner was also over a decade in the rearview mirror. Pandora wanted to help a much younger Brian Ferry tell me how he was a “Slave to Love” and I worried it would lose data signal before the end of the song. My new cellphone carrier worked out this road much farther than my last one, but the invisible communication borderline was right around here someplace. I might resort to listening to an audiobook version of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” I had locally stored on this phone. Listening to something helps to take my mind off the spiral negativity of boredom that can sometimes color a drive that lasts for more than an hour or so; especially if it is a drive I have done a few hundred times.

The trouble with just popping Zen into the player was that I was still fidgeting some realizations that had surfaced the last time I had been listening to it.  I had also read Zen a few times when I was young.  It was so popular, and so many people I knew had read it, that the title had shortened to just "Zen" and most people would know exactly what one was talking about.   I had gotten to a part in this latest listening about remembering the process of forgetting something, but in an exquisite detail made horrific by the application of technology. I wondered why I had forgotten this part from back when I was re-reading it, and "Zen" was becoming "Zen". The whole metaphorically fractal design of knowing the organization and patterning of knowledge was the texture I remembered from the book, but some of the critical elements of the narrative were lost for some reason.

I was especially taken by Pirsig’s recursive application of systems engineering principles to the process of knowing anything of value. The complete title of the book is “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values”, but the “An inquiry into Values” part is usually written in a smaller font on the cover or lost entirely to the tittle page inside. “Values”, when placed on the same page with a word like Zen, sounds like a purely moral construct, but Pirsig manages to dancethrough every possible meaning of the term within a single unified context.

I had not forgotten a casual element of the story. I had forgotten the identity(s) of Phaedrus. As Phaedrus was slowly introduced through the first six chapters I could remember a much younger me discovering the Phaedrus dialogs of Plato that featured descriptions of madness and love and knowledge, and which are perhaps best known for the Chariot Allegory (Phaedrus 246a-249e). The Chariot Allegory is arguably a close second to the Allegory of the Cave in the pantheon of Platonic allegories.

In order to avoid disrupting the flow of this blog post by forcing you to look up the Chariot Allegory I will paraphrase it here; if you still want to look it up you can laugh at how foolishly simple I make it sound here.

The idea of the Chariot Allegory is that understanding can be gleaned from picturing the human mind as a soul (the chariot) pulled by two winged horses. One of the horses is noble and godly, and the other is ignoble and base. The charioteer is reason and the when the animals pull in harmony the chariot can take flight into the immortal godly realms of existence. However, driving the two horses is terribly difficult because of their different natures, and so they often act as if they have no wings at all.

It is easy to misinterpret this as being a version of the dialog some animated characters have when they face a moral dilemma; a conversation with an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the opposite shoulder. That is a type of over simplification which misses many of the riper intellectual fruits of this allegory, and is linked to the reflexive desire to label a "value" as some sort of moral construct.

Values can be numerical or the stuff from which adjectives are crafted. Values can be the information our senses choose to use to craft everything we call knowledge of the world. In a parallel way the ignoble base horse is not just morally bad as it also represents appetites for substances like food and water and air which are critical for survival. Let that horse do all the pulling and the chariot gets into a bad place, but let that horse be pulled by the noble godly horse and things get pretty bad too.

I remember the younger me being awed by the simple parallel between the Phaedrus of Plato’s chariot and the Phaedrus of Zen; the parallel being that both a chariot and a motorcycle are vehicles with just two wheels. There is also the self-referential parallel. Pirsig recounts the story as a journey; a journey where the prose itself is pulled in one direction by the mundane requirements of a cross-country road trip, and in a slightly different direction by the philosophical musings of the ghostly memories of Phaedrus. When the two competing elements are driven in harmony the story whizzes across beautiful landscapes.

As Phaedrus was revealed I remembered more of my understanding. I re-discovered the allusions, and they felt new.

For a short time I tried to graft some misinterpretation of the Nancy Sinatra/Lee Hazelwood duet called “One Velvet Morning” onto my re-immerging knowing, but the fit was disharmonious; like I was being distracted into a strange unproductive direction.

-Lee-
Some velvet mornin' when I'm straight
I'm gonna open up your gate
And maybe tell you 'bout Phaedra
And how she gave me life
And how she made it end
Some velvet mornin' when I'm straight

-Nancy-
Flowers are the things we know, secrets are the things we grow
Learn from us very much, look at us but do not touch
Phaedra is my name


The song I was listening to transitioned into another so I didn’t need to fumble with the phone to load up the audio book. It was the meandering lead-in to the three cord march of Lou reed’s “Sweet Jane”. It would turn out to be only partially buffered though, and it would cut off just as the Lou informed me that the “roses seem to whisper to her”.

The day had warmed to the point where I could open the windows all the way and still not be cool enough. So I opened the windows and sped up till I couldn’t have heard the iPhone even if it was still making noise.

The Dodge always seems to be such a large truck after I’ve spent too long driving the Corolla. The reason it can go fast at all is because of the V8 pulling me along. It is not a big V8, but it is still a big powerful engine as engines go; it puts out 230 horsepower. I was being pulled along by 230 horses.

Two-hundred-and-thirty horses, and I was flying.






Robert Maynard Pirsig - 06 September 1928 - 24 April 2017