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Please Support My Latest Fundraising Ride

1779132_10202777097685404_297078677_nYikes!  I’m about to start training for my third “century” ride with Team In Training, raising money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.  The event — “America’s Most Beautiful Bike Ride,” in Tahoe — will be on June 1, and I need to raise at least $2,700 before then.  If you can donate any amount for this wonderful cause, I (along with numerous people with blood cancer, and their loved ones) will be eternally grateful!

After each Saturday’s training ride (and my epsom-salted recovery bath) I’ll be posting a blog entry, describing the experience and giving the vital statistics from the ride, along with a map of the route.  No doubt, as the rides build in difficulty from week to week, the tone of these posts will gradually morph from wry bemusement to raw anguish — which should give them the kind of dramatic arc that I’ve been trying for years to get into my theater pieces.

You can make your donation by clicking here or in the cool little purplish rectangular thingie on the right side of my blog page.

Thanks so much!!

On Writing

SeaofReedsI have a mini-run coming up in January of my latest theater piece, Sea of Reeds, at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco.  (For tix & info, click here.)  We had the initial run this past summer (at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley), and it was a blast — but I felt (I think everyone involved felt) the show could go deeper.  I’m sure you could say that about all my shows … but there’s something in the subject matter of this particular show — growing older, coming to terms with my Jewishness, the complexities of the modern state of Israel — that seems to call especially loudly for more self-questioning.

A challenge at this stage of the piece is that I actually have to write.  In the past couple decades or so, I’ve developed all my shows through improvising — to audiences, and to my director-collaborators.  This has turned out to be a cool way for me to generate material, as I never have to do it alone (like a real writer); also, this method has resulted in shows that sound like me: Since I develop them through talking, they tend to sound (and be) very natural — not too literary, or stilted (I hope!).  But there’s another side to that coin: developing shows this way can also be limiting.  For one thing, it’s hard to create non-monologue material in this manner.  This was a big deal with Sea of Reeds, as Patrick Dooley — artistic director of the Shotgun Players of Berkeley, who commissioned the piece — specifically asked me to create a show that would have other performers on stage with me.

What ended up happening is this: For a year or so, I followed the usual process for developing a new monologue: improvising to small audiences, while doing research, taking notes, etc.  But then, when it came time to “open up” the piece for the other performers (one actress-musician and four musician-actors), I didn’t know what to do!  I’d never created a script before the run of a show — only transcripts that came after the run.  But with multiple performers, you need to let them know, in advance, what you want them to do — so they can, you know, rehearse and memorize stuff.  Fortunately, my director-collaborator, David Dower, saved the day — writing up material for the actress (the fabulous Amy Resnick) and the musicians to say (some of it adapted from videotapes my son did during our family trip to Israel).  So I kind of developed my own lines in my usual, monologuing way, and the other material came from David (also, Amy improvised a bunch of great stuff).

Now, as we prepare to re-mount the show in January, David is far away, doing fantastic things that, alas, are not focused on me.  And Patrick has made it clear to me that, especially given the restraints of time and money, I can’t indulge in my usual process (improvs, and more improvs).  So I need to actually, you know, write stuff. …  And, in truth, there’s another reason for me to try this (to me) novel approach: the subject matter is so difficult that it’s been really hard for me to try to work it out on my feet, in front of people.  When I have an audience I feel protected — but also, I suppose, I feel a compulsion to try to entertain.  Which, often, is a good thing — I want my shows (even the improvs) to be entertaining!  But what if a subject raises strong mixed feelings in both me and my audience?  Then what can happen is that my performer’s impulse to seek approval can get in the way of reaching a deeper truth.

I learned long ago that an audience in the theater is capable of holding much more complexity than I am capable of delivering.  It has been my asymptotic goal to try to give them that deeper truth, as best I can.  Now, with Sea of Reeds, I’m finally trying to get there the old-fashioned way — with written words.  With Patrick’s and Amy’s help and encouragement, I’m generating an actual script, which we will then rehearse from.  I cannot begin to tell you how terrifying this is to me!  (Though I guess I’m trying to.)  Words on a page (or screen) are, like Fredo to Michael Corleone, dead to me.  But I am working on having the faith that they (or at least some of them) will come alive in performance.  Or, to put it another way, I am trying not to visualize audiences rejecting this new stuff.  Because now, for the first time (for me), the audience won’t be present at the creation of the lines — and thus won’t be able to validate any of the many choices that a writer has to make.

This feels appropriate for a show that (I think) is about the passionate need for dialogue.  But try telling that to my frightened mind!  Maybe when we say we want dialogue, sometimes what we really mean is that we want to feel evolved?  Maybe real dialogue involves more discomfort than we’re willing to experience.  I get older, and I see all the ways I have learned to make myself comfortable — this is who I am, these are the things I believe.  Now I have a chance, a rare chance, to question those habits, maybe even change some of them.  Will I be able to get myself to do so?  I suppose writers — real writers — come up against this question all the time.

Yikes!

 

My Second Century

At the finish line, with one of my prizes.

At the finish line, with one of my prizes.

There’s a guy at the gym who seems to be a bit competitive with me.  This is weird, as no one else at the downtown Berkeley Y feels this way: if anything, I serve as the person upon whom everyone else may look and think, “Well, at least I’m in better shape than that dude!”  But this guy … well, there’s an edge to him.  Like me, he is middle-aged, stocky, and bald — so that might have something to do with it.  But for whatever reason, on the rare occasions when we interact, I kind of stay on my guard.

Well, yesterday I was coming down the stairs from spin class — my first in a long time — and I was feeling jazzed about getting through it.  And this guy is going down the stairs next to me, and he asks what I’ve been up to lately.  (It’s not like he’s aggressively mean to me — more like a friendly/creepy duality.)  So I told him that tomorrow (which is to say: today, as I’m writing this) would mark a month since I’d ridden my second cycling century.  And he must have heard the pride in my voice, because his reply was undercutting: “Century?  Is that some kind of long ride?”

I mean, come on!  How hard is it to figure out how long a “century” ride is?  But no, he couldn’t just say something like, “Cool!” or “Good job!” or “Wow — that must have been tough!”  No, he had to come back with a sneering kind of pseudo-putdown.

Well, in case he’s reading this — which, I realize, is quite a long shot — let me just spell it out: a “century ride” is 100 freakin’ miles long!  And I finished it — the Solvang Century (my second) — though just barely, and with lots of help.

*          *          *

It was a dark and stormy night when my wife and son and I arrived at Solvang, Calif. …  Well, okay, not stormy, but dark.  I’d had to teach my last class of the quarter at Stanford (on “The Ethics of Storytelling”) that morning, so we couldn’t get down there in the early afternoon, as had been recommended.  In fact, it was 11 p.m. or so when we arrived at the hotel.  I’d missed the “inspiration dinner” with my teammates from the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team In Training (TNT); now the question was whether to try to find some dinner or just grab a bit of sleep.  I went to sleep.  And an instant later it was early morning, and I had to get up and get ready to cycle.

I won’t belabor this point, but pretty much my entire daily schedule is built around the sizable amount of time I spend in the bathroom (on the plus side, I’ve gotten a lot of reading done — a lot).  The challenge of accomplishing this in an efficient manner is exacerbated when I haven’t slept very much — when, so to speak, even my internal organs are sleepy. …  Okay, I think I actually have belabored the point — but what I’m trying to say is that by the time I had finished my various processes and ablutions, there was no time for me to look for breakfast — so I began the Solvang Century on (if you will) two empty stomachs.  Which is not recommended, as food — besides being, of course, a tool for human self-loathing — is fuel.

Also, unlike last year (my first with TNT), when I hewed closely to the recommended during-the-week workout schedule (brutal) and missed almost none of the weekly training rides (brutal-er), this year — with many creative projects (and one or two nasty colds) to juggle, along with my first-ever teaching gig (which I loved, by the way) — I missed most of my daily workouts and many of the weekly rides.  So I wasn’t in the (relatively) excellent shape I’d been for my first Solvang Century.

Add to the above the fact that my bike — a “hybrid,” built to take the lumps and bumps of city riding — is considerably heavier than the “road” bikes most of the riders were on … and, well, I was looking for trouble.

And I got it.

This was a hard ride!  I mean, hard.

For one thing, there was quite a headwind.  And when there’s a headwind, I essentially become a sail — especially as my bike has me sitting straight up, rather than hunched over as on a road bike (for which, admittedly, my ultra-tight hamstrings thank me).  So basically, what the physical world wanted me to do was to go backwards; whereas, I was quite eager to try to go forward.

Also, the Solvang Century’s organizers had altered the course from last year, and this new route — which took us through the Vandenberg Air Force Base — had much more climbing in its early stages, while still having the famous “wall” (followed by the less-famous “second wall that no one talks about but is really a pain in the ass as well”) in the last 30 miles or so.

So that by the time we got to the 55-mile mark, I felt done.  There was no springiness in my muscles; I had no energy; Kornbluth was kaput.

But here’s the thing: there were still another 50-or-so miles to go!  And a bunch of really, really nice people had donated over 3,000 cancer-fighting dollars ($3,531, as of this writing — today’s the last day for donations, by the way) based on my pledge to complete this century ride!  So I was in kind of a Biking for Godot situation: I must go on.  I can’t go on.  I’ll go on.

But no one said I had to go fast!

That’s been kind of my ace-in-the-hole, cycling-wise: the fact that the century isn’t a race, per se.  All you have to do is finish. …  Well, that isn’t totally true: there’s a point at which the Solvang Century folks shut everything down, and that point is, roughly, nighttime.  So you have to make it to the end before it gets totally dark.  Which is quite easy for most of the riders at Solvang, for whom cycling a century is just a smidge more strenuous than taking a warm bath in Epsom salts.  But for me — on this struggle-icious day, especially — it would prove to be quite the challenge.

At one point I was pedaling up a rather gentle incline when my TNT coach, Coach Lisa, pulled up alongside me and noted that I was in my “granny gear.”  The granny gear is the lowest gear on my bike — the one that makes it easiest to climb hills — but also the slowest: you can pedal really fast in the granny gear, and you still won’t get very far.  Usually you (and even I) save the granny gear for really steep ascents — but here I was using it to climb a relatively gentle grade. …  A word about Coach Lisa: Recently she rescued a kitten that had somehow gotten stuck in the engine of a (non-running) car.  (The kitten is doing great now.)  Well, at that moment I was arguably more helpless than that kitten had been.  And though I said that Coach Lisa “pulled up” to pedal beside me, actually what she had to do was circle back around and then slow way down.  Coach Lisa pointed out that if I continued biking at this tortoiselike pace, I wouldn’t make it to the finish line before curfew.  And here’s the thing: We’re a team — all of us with TNT.  But within that team, there are sub-teams that are organized by how fast you ride.  I was in the next-to-slowest sub-team — Coach Lisa’s sub-team — and the idea was that we were all going to try to finish together.  So Coach Lisa wanted me to go faster.  And I wanted me to go faster.  But I was feeling like Dead Man Riding, and the granny gear was the best I could manage at that time.

So … a conundrum.

Fortunately, there was also Barb.  Barb isn’t technically a coach with TNT, but she always seems to be keeping a watchful eye on us stragglers.  And for pretty much the whole rest of the ride, Barb hung back with me and distracted me and kept me company and cheered me on.  We talked about our respective children, and our spouses, and how much we love them.  We discussed politics.  Every once in a while, I would urge Barb to leave me in her dust, to just go ahead and finish at her normal pace — but she wouldn’t do that. …  Even when, out of exhaustion, I reverted to my essential New Yorker-ness and began cursing the universe with a stream of invectives — though I could tell that Barb was a bit scandalized, she took it all in stride.  (At one point — it was cute, really — she even got herself to emit a quiet, supportive “Shit!”)

And thank goodness for downhills!  With the combined weight of my bulky body and my stolid bike, I can build up a great deal of momentum on descents.  So between Coach Lisa’s coaching and Barb’s encouragement and my occasional friend Gravity, I was able to finish the Solvang Century with the rest of my sub-team, just before total sundown.  My wife and son were there — a beautiful sight, as always.  The finish line was actually a few miles from our hotel, so my sub-team and I (our nickname was “Lisa’s Loafers,” by the way) cycled back there together, through the gathering darkness.  Which is why I actually biked 102.2 miles that day!  (Though who’s counting?)

As I happily wolfed down my “celebration dinner” with the rest of the team, I resolved a few things:

  • To make sure to eat well before my next ride.
  • To save up for a lighter bike.
  • To try to keep up my training and cycling, even without the incredible support of being part of a team.

Which is why I dragged myself to that spin class yesterday, even though my mind and body were united in silent protest.  And why no amount of snarkiness from competitive chunky guys at the Y will get me down.  And why, from now on, whenever I meet a rescue kitten I will raise my paw in solidarity.

Below is a map of my ride.  You can click on it and get more-detailed info (though not my pedaling “cadence,” as my cadence meter got busted somehow).  You may note that on many segments I received an “award” for my second-fastest time ever — an impressive achievement, perhaps, until you realize that this was only my second ride at Solvang!

The Running of the Lines

I’m about to start running lines for tonight’s performance of Love & Taxes, benefitting the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.  (A few tix remain! Click here for details.)  Every time I do a show that I haven’t done in a while, I run the lines — usually, just to myself, in my motel room, or wherever.  (Today I’m home!)  And it always feels as though I am entering another world: the world of that particular piece, with its rhythms and connections (and dumb jokes). And crossing that border — from civilian to story-warrior — at first comes as something of a shock: Who am I in this place?  Then, at some point, I’m finally back inside the story — and I’m no longer the daily person reeling from past to future, but a character, who lives in a story, and who gets to share that story — which has a shape (of sorts) — in the sacred space of a theater.

So … here goes!

(See you when I’m back.)

Of Oboes & Jews …

Just posted my second entry as a guest blogger — offering more notes on the process of developing my new show, Sea of Reeds — over at 3200 Stories.  It’s titled “An Ill Wind,” which should give my mom — and any other Danny Kaye fan — reason to smile. You can read it here.

More Blogaliciousness!

3200 StoriesJust in case you might wish to read more of my neurotic ramblings than can be found in this space, I’ve just started guest-blogging for 3200 Storiesa website run by the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco — where I will be performing my next theater piece, Sea of Reeds, early next year, after premiering it at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley this summer.

They’ve asked me to do occasional reports from inside the process of creating the new show — and I just posted the first one, which can be found here.

By the way, it would be more accurate to say that I will be performing in my next theater piece — as Patrick Dooley, artistic director of the Shotgun Players and commissioner of Sea of Reeds, has challenged me (and my longtime director and collaborator, David Dower) to include other performers onstage.  You know, as in a “play.”  A weird concept for a longtime monologuist like me to grok, but I’m getting there!

Truck Left!

A Man, A Plan, A Port-O-San.

A Man, A Plan, A Port-O-San.

So on last Saturday’s training ride, a truck hit me.

Well, to be a bit more accurate — at the cost of some dramatic effect — a truck clipped me.

I was cycling uphill along a winding road near Pt. Reyes when all of a sudden: BANG! — there was this loud noise, which I soon realized was from the impact of a speeding truck slamming into my left elbow and the left edge of my handlebars.  The truck — a dirty white pickup — was going really fast (at least, compared to me — so admittedly, that might not be incredibly fast), and by the time I’d absorbed what had just happened, it was already way ahead of me.

I didn’t fall off my bike; I didn’t even stop pedaling — though I imagine that if the truck had just swerved a smidge more into me, things might have ended unhappily.  It turns out that my elbow had flattened the truck’s passenger-side rearview mirror.  This leads me to think — and I’m not normally a boastful man, at least about my joints — that I have really strong elbows!  Maybe my ancestors, when pondering the futility of their lives, assumed a particular position — elbows on desk, say — that, over the generations, led to an unheard-of toughness.  In any case, I can assure you that I feel totally fine!  My elbow has a little bruise, but it doesn’t hurt at all.  Although, as they say, you should see the other guy!

I caught up with that other guy — the truck’s driver — eventually.  At first, after he’d hit me (and let me mention that I wasn’t riding in the middle of the road or anything: I was as far to the right as I could go without falling off) and I’d watched his truck zoom away without stopping, I was pissed.  You know, New York-style pissed!  As I continued pedaling, as fast as I could go, I gestured after him with my hand, as if to say, Are you effin’ kidding me?  I tried to make out the license plate, but couldn’t.  By the time the truck disappeared around a curve, I assumed that I’d never see it again.

But then it stopped, at a turnout — and right away my anger at this apparent clip-and-run evaporated.  When I finally pulled up alongside the truck, and the guy rolled down his window, I found that I couldn’t be upset at all.  Because here was a big man with a little chihuahua on his lap.  I mean a really big (and bald) man, with this little tiny scared-looking chihuahua!  The man looked scared, too.  He kept asking me, again and again, “Are you okay?  Are you sure you’re okay?”  And instead of saying something snippy (like “No thanks to you, Mr. Erratic Truck Driver!”), all I could do was emit the little babyish sounds that I tend to make whenever I encounter cute little doggies (and even big doggies): “Oh, look at you!  Look how sweet you are — yesh you are!”  Etc.

Finally, the driver — having been unable to get me to say that I’d been hurt in any way (I hadn’t) — drove off.  And I had a fairly impressive story to tell my Team In Training teammates at the next SAG stop.

SAG stops are cool.  I believe the term is an acronym for Support And Gear — but in my experience with TNT they tend to be food-and-drink stations, usually run by volunteers.  (Often there are also Port-O-Sans.)  All SAG stops are magical and lovely things, but the best I’ve experienced have been set up by Jim Fenolio, whose daughter Jennifer was one of my teammates last season.  I believe Jim was going through (successful) treatment for cancer as we trained last year.  Here are some of the things that I remember being available to us weary riders back at my first-ever Jim Fenolio SAG Extravaganza:

  • Numerous, carefully sliced peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich wedges, with many different varieties of preserves (e.g., rose-petal-and-guava), which were labeled so you knew what you were getting.
  • Peet’s coffee.
  • Hot chocolate.
  • Teas, herbal and caffeinated.
  • Many types of pretzels and chips.
  • Eggs prepared in a number of ways.
  • Water.
  • Sea salt.
  • Steaming, hearty soup.
  • Manna from Heaven (or maybe Dublin).
  • AC/DC blaring from a boombox.

I’m sure I’m leaving out a ton of stuff — but you get the idea: It was the kind of SAG stop that makes you think it would be pretty cool if you could just live at a SAG stop.

Well, this time, among Jim’s offerings (and don’t get me started on the delicious meatballs!) were these rice-patty things that contained crab meat and a type of mushroom whose name I don’t recall but I know is popular among connoisseurs.  Jim explained to me that at one of his SAG stops on an earlier ride (one that, tragically, I had missed, as I had a gig in Florida that weekend), he had prepared a similar dish, but with another kind of fish (halibut, maybe?) — and that someone had mentioned to him that, well, it might be even better with crab meat.

Who the hell requests fancier ingredients at a SAG stop?  It put me in mind of these two little girls who happened to be playing “ice-cream truck” at the “tot lot” in Berkeley that I used to take my son to, years ago.  One of them said something like, “Welcome, customer!  What would you like?” and the other one said, totally seriously, something like, “Um, I’d like a scoop of cappuccino-mint gelato and also a lychee-lemongrass sorbet, if you would.”  Perhaps we have reached a point — and I am speaking here specifically of Bay Area bourgeois culture — where there are just too many choices.

In any case, Jim’s food (and the food of all the other SAG volunteers) was yummy.

Overall, the ride — nearly 61 miles in length, and 4,329 feet in elevation (but who’s counting?) — was quite challenging.  But I made it to the end (at Stafford Lake, in Novato) and was able to return home in triumph and experience the hot bath I’d been fantasizing about for lo, those many miles.  I’ll admit that — especially when the road got particularly narrow, and the winds became especially gusty — I sometimes got a bit jittery when one of my teammates called out “Car back!” (or, more bracingly, “Truck back!”), or when some skinny hotshot cyclist (not with TNT) came brushing past me without first calling out a helpful “Bike left!”  But that dirty white pickup truck hadn’t killed me, so it must have made me stronger.  Who knows?  Maybe, even now, at truck stops throughout Marin County, a legend is spreading — about a mysterious, indestructible cyclist with Elbows of Steel.  Mark me well, truckers of Marin: I will be back.  So drive carefully, keep your chihuahuas close, and keep your passenger-side rearview mirrors even closer.

I am training with the Leukeumia & Lymphoma Society’s Team In Training (TNT) to cycle the Solvang Century on March 9 — both to try to shrink my pendulous tummy and (more important) to raise money to fight cancer.  You can contribute to my ride by clicking here.  (As of this writing, I am 42 percent of the way toward my goal.)

Below are maps of my two most recent rides.  If you click on them, many additional details will be revealed to you.

Handlebarista™

IMAG0149

The silence of a lamb (or sheep).

On our ride yesterday I got really excited about the idea of an espresso-maker that you could operate while cycling.  Someone — I think our head coach, K.Sue — had noted that it was a beautiful day (at that point — later, just after the ride, it would get yucky) and the surroundings (in Pleasanton, or maybe it was Livermore just then) were lovely (rolling fields, distant hills, cows, horses, vultures [!]) and asked, rhetorically, how it could possibly be better.  I thought: a fresh, hot espresso drink!  A drink that we could prepare and consume even as we continued to ride!  But how?

My first idea was a kind of modified Beer Hat.  I’ve never actually worn a Beer Hat (I don’t drink beer very often), but as a slothful person I’ve always admired a device that could deliver beer (usually to a fan at a sporting event) without requiring even the exertion of one arm.  The problem with that plan, as best I could tell (I have no engineering background, nor in fact do I have any documented relationship to the physical world), was twofold:

  • The tubing (rubber, I’d imagine) might melt from the heat of the fluid.
  • The device (especially the tubing) would probably get gunked up with espresso residue, and might be difficult to clean.

So I moved on to what seemed like the next natural idea: An old-fashioned espresso machine that could be secured to one’s handlebars — a Handlebarista™, if you will.  To be sure, there would be challenges, among them:

  • Keeping yourself and your bike in balance while operating the machine.
  • The risk, as you frothed your milk, of some of it getting windblown into a fellow biker’s face.
  • Running out of sugar or tiny lemon peels.

But people probably brought up just as many objections to the Wright Brothers.  And sometimes you just have to show the world that something new can work before anyone will believe you.

As I tried to mentally hash over various capitalistic issues relating to the Handlebarista™ — how to fabricate all the parts locally, finding a fair price-point, permitting the Sur le Table chain to rename it Le Handlebarista™ — we finished a long stretch of flatland and began our ascent along the Altamont Pass.  Now, as often happens when I’m climbing, I thought mostly about the unfairness of our economic system, the shocking apathy of our universe toward human suffering, and how mean James Blount was to me in the sixth grade (though, from all reports, since then James has become an exemplary person).

Then came a brief, exhilarating descent, and all was (briefly) right with the world.

But that’s wrong, what I just wrote: Yes, all was right with the world when I was zipping (carefully) downhill — but really, it was just as right during the previous climb (and the tougher climb that followed).  Because I was alive, and my teammates were alive, and my loved ones were alive, and the woman our ride had been dedicated to by her law partner — a woman whose bone-marrow transplant is apparently not taking, and who faces enormous and terrifying uncertainty — is still alive.

At the top of the most difficult ascent, two of my teammates had paused so one (Lisa) could take a picture of the other (Chris) in front of a lamb.  (Maybe a sheep — I’m iffy on this stuff.)  I asked to have my own photo taken in front of this same lamb (or sheep).  (Mostly, I was grateful to be able to stop for a few moments and catch my breath — the last little stretch of climbing had been a doozy.)  And though the lamb remained silent (as is reportedly their wont), I thought I could feel it beam its spiritual encouragement of my Handlebarista™ concept.  Creatures know the importance of comfort.

I’m biking with Team In Training to raise money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.  By March 9 — when I do my second Solvang Century (near Santa Barbara) with TNT — I hope to  have gotten at least $2,250 in donations.  If you’d like to contribute — which would be awesome! — please click here.

We do our training rides every Saturday (weather permitting), and after each one I post a description here on my blog.  Below you can see a map of yesterday’s ride; if you click on it, you can get all kinds of details (like speed and altitude) — though I forgot to wear my heart-rate monitor this time, so no pulse data (but trust me, my heart was beating the whole time).

Claude

claudelopezMy friend Claude-Anne Lopez — “Claude,” to pretty much everyone who knew her — died last week at the age of 92, after a long period of suffering with Alzheimer’s.  That this cruel disease would have ravaged such a brilliant mind puts even more in doubt the possibility that a benign deity guides our lives.  Claude was a refugee from the Holocaust, a self-created scholar who became a transcendently great writer — mostly on the subject of Ben Franklin — a woman who possessed a regal and ironic wit, and a flirt.  Though she made me a wonderful risotto (from a recipe, she said, by the mother of her late husband), she insisted that she had been a terrible housewife.  But her husband had been a professor at Yale, and even a “faculty wife” was permitted to perform such relatively menial tasks as transcribing some letters to and from Ben Franklin from the great man’s years in France.  (The Franklin Papers are housed at Yale.)  Those letters became the basis of her first book, Mon Cher Papa: Franklin and the Ladies of Paris — which received (deservedly) rapturous reviews and launched her (much more successful) post-housewife career.

I met Claude when I was researching a stage monologue about Franklin, Ben Franklin: Unplugged.  I was on the road, performing another piece of mine in Hartford, and realized that the author of Mon Cher Papa (still my very favorite book on Franklin) lived nearby, in New Haven.  I got her number from the editor of the Franklin Papers, called Claude, and found myself invited to meet with her at her home.  So on an off-day I took the Amtrak train from Hartford (where, by the way, Ben’s son William — who had become an ardent Loyalist — was once imprisoned; I think I know the feeling), and Claude picked me up at the station.  (I had explained over the phone that, like numerous other New Yorkers, I didn’t drive.)  As we got into her car, Claude cheerfully mentioned that, since a recent eye operation, her driving had become particularly erratic — an assessment with which I fully concurred after just a few swerves down the street.

Somehow we both survived that short ride, and after a restorative bowl of her mother-in-law’s risotto, I found myself in one of the best situations that a person could possibly experience: in conversation with Claude-Anne Lopez.  It was, I imagine, like being at one of the famous pre-Revolution French salons that Claude described so well — except that, instead of speaking in French (which I don’t understand, despite having studied it for several years back in grade school), Claude was using her delightfully French-accented English.  Claude had a love affair with Franklin that suffered only slightly from the fact that they lived centuries apart.  She met him through his letters — particularly those he exchanged with the many women who, despite his (mostly self-generated) reputation for sauciness, he largely celebrated for their intellect.  She did not idealize the man — see her book The Private Franklin (coauthored with Eugenia Herbert) for some dirt on his thorny family relations — but celebrated that self-schooled genius in all of his contradictions.  And she was passionate about rescuing that complexity from the caricature that Franklin’s icon had largely been reduced to in popular culture.

But above all, to me, Claude was a writer — a glorious prose stylist for whom the life and work of Ben Franklin had provided a sustaining creative spark.  Ben gave Claude a reason to express her own genius, and she returned that favor with her meticulous scholarship.  That a Jewish girl from Belgium could end up as a historical life-partner with “The First American” is — like much of reality — a tale that would be hard to imagine.  That I got to know her is one of my life’s great blessings.

Cycling Again To Fight Cancer

I’m thrilled (and, okay, a bit nervous) to say that I will once again be training to ride the Solvang Century — a 100-mile cycling event — with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team In Training (TNT)!  The Century will take place on March 9, 2013, and I have committed to raising at least $2,250 by then.  These funds will go to help blood-cancer patients — finding cures, improving treatments — and also to their families, offering much-needed support.

Each week, on this blog, I will post a map and stats from my latest training ride, uploaded from my cool little GPS device.  So you can keep track of my progress — even including such minutiae as my heart rate and pedaling cadence from moment to moment!

I would be so grateful for any donation that you might be able to make!!  You can donate by clicking here to get to my TNT fundraising page.

In my first TNT ride, this past March, I raised way more than I’d originally asked for — and I cannot tell you how moved and gratified I was!  It’s so incredibly tough to fight cancer, and your contributions did so much to improve the quality of life for so many cancer patients and their loved ones.  I’m hoping to do even better this time!!

Below — if I have successfully navigated through the murky swamps of http coding — are the maps and stats for the few training rides that I’ve already done this season.  (If you click on any of the maps, you’ll be shown all sorts of details about that ride.)

Again, you can support my cancer-fighting efforts with Team In Training  by clicking here.

Thanks for reading this, and be well!!