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How I Celebrated “Josh Kornbluth Day” in Berkeley

What one intersection in Berkeley looked like while experiencing Josh Kornbluth Day. (Photo by Sara Sato)

What one intersection in Berkeley looked like while experiencing Josh Kornbluth Day. (Photo by Sara Sato)

A few months ago I got an email from a very nice woman asking me whether I would like for a day to be proclaimed “Josh Kornbluth Day” in Berkeley.  I was pretty sure she was kidding, but I wrote back and said, “Sure.”

A week or so later I got another email from her, asking whether April 29 would be a good day for me.  I wrote back, saying, “Sure.”

Then she send me a third email, asking me to draft the proclamation for Josh Kornbluth Day in Berkeley.  This threw me for a loop, as I have spent about a quarter-century writing in a style that leans heavily on self-deprecation.  So I did what comes naturally to me: I procrastinated.

Eventually the woman wrote back to me, asking (nicely) how my proclamation draft was coming along.  I read that email, clenched internally, and moved on.

Then, about a week ago, she wrote back — this time with more urgency.  Was I having a problem coming up with a draft?  Might I want someone to help me with it?  After all, Josh Kornbluth Day was rapidly approaching, and Mayor Tom Bates’s staff would need something to work with as they crafted the final proclamation wording.  I replied, somewhat testily, that it seemed weird to me that a city that was offering me the high honor of a day would not already know stuff about me; but of course, this was just some more procrastination on my part.

Later that evening, I finally wrote a draft of the proclamation.  I wrote about my love for the city of Berkeley, and about my pride in Berkeley’s progressive heritage.  I resisted the impulse to add a passage about the sense of entitlement that we in Berkeley often seem to fall prey to.  I also chose not to mention the feelings of dread and self-loathing that have, of late, frequently spiked my waking hours.  It just seemed to me that a “Josh Kornbluth Day” Proclamation should be more, you know, upbeat.

And then I sent in my draft proclamation to the nice woman, and she said it was great — and that now all I needed to do was show up at the City Council chambers by 7 p.m. on April 29.

So yesterday, April 29, my wife and son and I showed up at the Berkeley City Council chambers at 7 p.m.  And it turns out that, aside from that nice woman (who was there), no one else was aware that it was Josh Kornbluth Day.  Apparently, the task of finalizing the “Josh Kornbluth Day” declaration had been the task of an aide to Mayor Tom Bates, and that aide had spaced it out, and in any case had left the building for the day.  Mayor Bates and the nice woman told me that Josh Kornbluth Day would be rescheduled — and possibly even be extended into a Josh Kornbluth Week.

And so my wife and son and I walked home.  And I have to tell you, I felt great!  It was a beautiful evening, and as far as I knew all my loved ones were safe.  Plus, there was an overall vibe of disorganization, of fucked-up-ness, that — come to think of it — felt perfect for Josh Kornbluth Day.

So, okay, maybe in a week or so there will be another, official Josh Kornbluth Day event — but what I’m telling you is, it really was yesterday, April 29, 2014.  And it went off without a hitch.

Training Rides #6 & #7: Speed 3

[For the next couple of months, I will be posting dispatches from my weekly training rides with Team In Training (TNT), as I prepare for the 100-mile “America’s Most Beautiful Bike Ride”  (AMBBR) in Tahoe on June 1 — all to raise money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.  If you’d like to donate towards my ride, you can do so here.]

So there I was last Saturday, going downhill in or around San Leandro (see map below; click on it for ride details), and I realized that I was going really fast — for me, at least.  When I hit little things in the road, my bike seemed to kind of launch into the air for a bit, and also my helmet (which I’d thought was really on tightly) started flopping up and down.  I found this interesting.  Then my front wheel went over a manhole cover, which has a swirly pattern on it (I think), and all of a sudden my bike was acting like a drunkard: trying really hard to swerve, alternately to the left and to the right.  I held on for dear life, as traffic zoomed by to the left of me; it felt as though there was a very good chance that I would lose control of the bike and find myself on the pavement, going (at least initially) 34.4 mph.  But — within seconds, probably, though it felt much longer at the time — things were back to normal and I was moving forward again, under control.

All of which is to say that I’ve been riding a bit faster lately.  I’d already moved up from the slowest group (my hangout in the past) to the next-fastest group, and on Saturday I’m going to move up yet another notch.  (Just to be clear, I’m still way slower than lots and lots of the riders on our team — I think maybe they have secret electric motors somewhere.)

But unlike last week — a “Buddy Ride,” not organized by speed groups — on this next ride I’ll be with a coach and teammates, which should be much safer.

Psychologically, it’s an adjustment not being in the slowest group, where my only goal was to — please, dear God! — finish each ride.  Now my identity is in flux, and my goals are less clear: I mean, I still want to finish, of course, but I also want to see improvement each time I go out.  So I’m kind of competing with myself, which I wasn’t doing before.  And the thing about competing with yourself is that, no matter what, one version of yourself will always lose.

Hey, this is great — I’m finding new ways to humiliate myself!!

*     *     *

My previous ride (see map below) was in and around Walnut Creek.  It was both beautiful and full of pain and heavy breathing (which is how I hope critics receive my erotic novel, if I ever write one).  I see from (click on the map) that my highest speed that day was only 31.3 mph — so apparently between that speed and 34.4 my bike and I enter a new state of being — one that involves floating in the air and swerving and some helmet mishegas.

This coming Saturday I will try to test my theory (based on hearsay) that, if I can get myself to descend with my hands down in the drops, instead of on top of the bars (as I currently do), my lowered center of gravity will give me more stickiness on the road.  Also, I will try to avoid swirly-topped manhole covers — which, dear reader, I recommend you do as well.

Training Rides #4 & #5: The Descents of Man

[For the next couple of months, I will be posting dispatches from my weekly training rides with Team In Training (TNT), as I prepare for the 100-mile “America’s Most Beautiful Bike Ride”  (AMBBR) in Tahoe on June 1 — all to raise money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.  If you’d like to donate towards my ride, you can do so here.]

Our training ride — in Vacaville — was rained out today, sadly.  So I’ll take this time to catch up on recounting our past two rides.  Both were lovely, though at the time they seemed — alternately — scary, exhilarating, and painful.  It’s still so weird to me to find myself road-cycling — something that just seems like an activity I wouldn’t ever do.  At the start of each ride there are always moments when I wonder at the strangeness of what I’m doing, on a Saturday morning when God had originally intended for me to be sleeping in.  Then we hit the first real climb, and the lactic acid kicks in, and I’m there: there is no more speculation or theory, only experience (and the occasional — okay, more than occasional — daydream of the post-ride bath and guilt-free cheeseburger).  To my surprise and relief, I have found long-distance bike riding to be a depression-stopper — though not, fortunately, an introspection-killer.

Dang! — as I type up this blog post, I’m missing today’s ride more and more!  But I’ll admit that at 5:45 a.m. this morning, when the email from head coach K.Sue came in announcing the ride’s cancelation, there was an element of temporary relief as my head quickly went back down to the pillow (and stayed there for some time).

A couple of weeks ago I had a non-weather reason for missing the Saturday ride — Sara and I went to Sacramento to join thousands of others in beseeching Gov. Jerry Brown to reverse his incomprehensible (and indefensible) pro-fracking stance.  It was a beautiful day in Sacramento — by which I mean to say it was friggin’ hot.  It’s the kind of weather that normal people — those less insulated and less bald than myself — tend to rhapsodize about.  Sara helped me find some semblance of shade, from which I could more comfortably listen to the speakers.  I guess it’s ironic that I’m for solar energy but also for standing in the shade, but what can I say?  I am complex, and contain multitudes.

We demonstrators then spread ourselves into a big circle that surrounded the Capitol Building.  I don’t think Jerry Brown was in there at the time — in fact, I’m not sure anyone was in there.  And then we dispersed.  And nothing had changed, at least not immediately: not Gov. Brown’s stance on fracking, not the (I hope) somehow exorable overheating of our planet.  But it felt really good to be expressing our views, with like-minded others — much better than staying home and doing nothing.  And it felt super-great to be back in Sara’s air-conditioned car — even though, yeah, car and fighting the fossil-fuel industry would seem to be somewhat incompatible concepts.  You know: complexity.

Fortunately, my pal Richard Blevins graciously had offered to join me on Sunday and help me re-create the ride I’d missed the day before.  Richard and his wife, Sue, were a big part of what made my first two seasons with TNT so much fun, as they drove me (and my bike) to and from all the training rides that weren’t BART-accessible.  They’re both terrific cyclists, longtime TNT-ers and coaches, but they’re not on my AMBBR team this year — so it was a special treat to get to go riding with Richard this time.  Plus, it was just him and me, so it was like having my own personal cycling coach.

Here’s our ride that day:

For the most part, you go up and up and up, and then you turn around and go down and down and down.  I was having so much fun chatting with Richard on the way up that when we got to the top, I felt a bit of a letdown: the ride, thus far, hadn’t felt epic enough.  So when Richard asked me if I wanted to do the “Wall,” I surprised myself by saying yes.  I’d been on this ride twice before (once in each of my first two TNT seasons).  The first time, when we got to the top, I was pretty sure that I’d reached the limits of human endurance.  The second time, it felt maybe a smidge less punishing.  But I’d never had any thought of taking on the mysterious and forbidding Wall, which all the really bad-ass cyclists on the team always made a point of doing, and which I’d always imagined as … well, a wall — a rock face going straight up — though I realize that such a thing probably wouldn’t be practical for even the best cyclist.

Well, it turns out that I was almost right: the Wall may not have been straight up and down, but it was … well, wow.  After that summit we went on a steep descent — which, when we turned around at the bottom, turned out to be the Wall.  Suddenly my leg muscles didn’t just sting; they screamed.  And my breathing became this super-loud thing — so much so that a woman, ascending ahead of me, turned back in apparent alarm that she was about to be overtaken by a steam engine.  It was almost — almost — un-doable for me, and each pedal-stroke began as a stubborn act of faith and defiance.  But then we were back at the summit, and somehow I’d done the Wall, and I felt like a superhero.

Then we headed (mostly) down, and my overarching thought was, Whee!  Though also, sometimes: Yikes! …  Now that I have my cool new road bike, I have the stirrings of a desire for speed (rather than my previous goal, which was pretty much only to survive).  Richard, after watching me descend a few times, suggested that I make a few adjustments — including relaxing my upper body and (dauntingly) going down into the drop bars.

Drop bars, as they exist in nature.

Drop bars, as they exist in nature.

My other, older bike, a “hybrid,” doesn’t have drop bars, so this was never an issue before.  So far, on my sweet new Roubaix, I mostly ride with my hands at the top of the bars, by the “hoods” (I think) over the brake levers.  In this position I’m already leaning over quite a bit more than on the hybrid; to get down into the drops I have to lean over even more — which is unlikely to happen, if my tummy has anything to say about it.  But Richard explained how much faster you can go when you’re down in the drop bars — much less of you for the wind to resist — plus how much more control you have, and he urged me to start experimenting with that more-extreme position, for maybe 30 seconds at a time.  He intended, I think, for this to be something I’d experiment with on future rides, but on one of our big descents I decided to give it a try. …  It was some scary shit.  I felt like I was going way faster, my nose seemed to be just centimeters from the blurry ground, and I had the sense that the slightest twitch could send me flying off the road.  But I have to say: it was also kind of fun. …  After a little while, I nervously climbed my hands back up to their usual, safer-feeling position at the top of the drops.  But I was no longer a down-in-the-drop-bar virgin, and the future was full of promise.  Now, if I could just afford liposuction. …

The Great Nibali (tummy not included).

The Great Nibali (tummy not included).

I realize, of course, that no matter how good I get at descending I will be no Nibali.  Pro cyclist Vincenzo Nibali is the greatest descender in the world.  My friend Karen worships him, kind of the way the Pope worships God, only with more justification and fervor.  By his own reckoning, Nibali has gone as fast as 105 or 110 kilometers per hour while descending.  (I don’t have the mental power to convert that into miles per hour — and I don’t feel like opening a new tab and Googling it — but I think it’s something like a billion mph.)  Karen sent me an article from a cycling magazine in which Nibali gives descending tips — strangely, not once does he mention how difficult it is to bend over when you have a potbelly, which for me is the starting point of any discussion of drop-bar-related technique.

After we finished the ride, Richard insisted on driving me all the way home to Berkeley (rather than just dropping me off at the BART station where he’d picked me up, which was right by where he lives).  He’d brought an extra bottle of water — with ice in it! — and asked whether I wanted to stop at In-N-Out Burger on the way back. …  Now, in order to communicate to you how happy this made me, I need to explain that the day before — as Sara had been driving us back from the demo in Sacramento — we’d seen an In-N-Out Burger and I’d suggested that we stop there for a post-protest bite; but Sara wanted something less In-N-Out Burger-y, so we just stuck with the raw almonds we had in the car. …  So when Richard made that suggestion, he was offering me nothing less than a gastronomic redemption for that earlier deprivation.  And let me tell you, the experience of eating that burger (okay, double-burger) and fries, after a fun but strenuous ride, was one of those rare situations where the reality transcends the anticipation.

Shortly thereafter, I began a truly steep descent — one that I am sure I can do even faster than Nibali: into a deep sleep that was only briefly interrupted by the practical matter of getting myself and my bike from Richard’s truck up to my apartment.  And no — I don’t let my Roubaix sleep with me and Sara in the big bed!  I mean, even road bikes need to know there are limits.

*        *        *

For last week’s ride, I was back with my teammates.  On a couple of descents I again experimented with going all the way down into the drops — and again, the experience was both exhilarating and just-on-the-edge-of-terrifying.  But I’ll keep trying!

Here’s that ride (you can click on any of these maps to get all sorts of exciting granular details):

This ride was accessible via BART, so In-N-Out Burger wasn’t an option for me.  Not that I’m all about the post-ride rewards.

Okay, I’m mostly about the post-ride rewards.

But afterwards, what I like to write about are the in-the-moment experiences — the ones I futilely try to resist living in while they’re happening.  Because I’m not Nibali — I’m Kornbluth.  And that’s how I roll.

Training Rides #2 & #3: Roubaix, Mon Amour

[For the next several months, I will be posting dispatches from my weekly training rides with Team In Training, as I prepare for the 100-mile “America’s Most Beautiful Bike Ride” in Tahoe on June 1 — all to raise money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.  If you’d like to donate towards my ride, you can do so here.]

My second and third rides were both in Marin, and were both lovely and pretty relaxing, so they’re kind of mixing together in my mind.  Here’s the first one, on March 1 (you can click on the map to get more details):

Last Saturday’s ride took us along the Paradise Loop, which left me feeling paradisiacal and loopy:

Neither ride was very challenging, so both gave me plenty of time to daydream about how incredibly hard the rides were soon going to get. After a few years of training on my hybrid bike, riding my new bike — my lovely Roubaix — feels like almost a different sport entirely: this bike wants to go forward.  I think my new bike might secretly look down on me, as perhaps it was hoping to be ridden by a pro — or at least one of those road-biking bad-asses who un-secretly look down on me.  (Last season, at a brief stop during a long training ride, I found myself walking directly towards a gentleman who was perhaps in his 60s.  Clearly an excellent and seasoned biker, he wore his stretchy biking clothes like a second skin; and of course he had the wraparound shades.  I was feeling proud and happy to have gotten to wherever we were in the mountains, and I gave him a big smile and wave and a “Hi!” — you know, as one road-cyclist to another.  He didn’t even acknowledge me — didn’t smile or wave back or even pause.  And I knew why: He was a cycling bad-ass; I wasn’t.  Maybe one day, when I’ve gotten really good and have begun to wear wraparound shades and have zero-point-zero-one body fat, he will finally acknowledge me.  Of course, by then he will be over 100 and the world will all be underwater.)  But I think I can win over my new bike.  When it sees how hard I work, how determined I am to improve, it will — at first begrudgingly — cut me some slack.  Eventually, it may even come to admire me, the way Sherlock came to admire Dr. Watson.

But here’s the thing, no matter how many bad things my bike may think about me, it treats me royally!  There were a few times, in the last two rides, when I had to stop at a red light and fell behind some of the other riders.  On each occasion, I … well, what it felt like is that I just thought about going faster.  I must have been pressing the pedals a bit harder as well, but it felt more natural, more organic and magical than that.  It felt as though, once I’d had the thought that it would be really nice to catch up with the folks ahead of me, my bike just started zooming forward.  This linkage — of intention, to power, to speed — was exhilarating.

Now, don’t get me wrong: climbing is still really hard.  This isn’t an electric bike!  And the climbing is only going to get harder on our upcoming rides.  But it’s quite a feeling to be riding a machine that is so exquisitely designed for the task of zipping along roadways.  As you may know, I don’t know how to drive a car (yet!), so this is my first inkling of what all you normal people are talking about when you rave about how it feels to drive a great car.  My new bike makes me smile, and I can’t wait till 2097, when I will finally have paid it off!

P.S.: Apropos of nothing, here’s a bike-related secret thought that I can share with you: Every time a teammate calls out “Gravel!” as a warning to us fellow cyclists, I think “Gravel agent!”  You know, like travel agent, only with gravel.  This delights me.  I don’t know why. …  That is all.

Training Ride #1: Amuse-Route

[For the next several months, I will be posting dispatches from my weekly training rides with Team In Training, as I prepare for the 100-mile “America’s Most Beautiful Bike Ride” in Tahoe on June 1 — all to raise money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.  If you’d like to donate towards my ride, you can do so here.]

Our first training ride (after the previous week’s had been rained out) was yesterday morning.  As is my habit before most training days, I woke up intermittently during the night before, shot up in bed, noted that I still had more hours to sleep, gratefully collapsed back into my pillow; repeat, etc.  Until one time, when I shot up and — hoping that I’d still have more hours till the alarm — realized that it was only a minute away from ringing!  This felt like a betrayal: how dare the universe wake me just about when I was supposed to get up. …  I got a measure of passive-aggressive revenge by moving from the bedroom to the living room and lying down on the couch for another 15 minutes.  Didn’t actually go back to sleep, but felt groggily smug that I hadn’t totally gotten up yet.

My plan had been to make “No-Bake Granola Bars” (from a recipe that my wife, Sara, had forwarded to me) to bring along on this ride.  But the prospect of cooking tends to panic me, and I kind of froze.  Also, I’d been scarred by an earlier attempt to cook on-the-bike food, when during the week I tried to make a recipe from the much-recommended The Feed Zone Cookbook: Fast and Flavorful Food for Athletesby Biju Thomas & Allen Lim.  Pretty much randomly, I’d picked “Rice & Banana Muffins.”  Sound comforting, right?  Well, maybe when someone else makes it: mine came out like soggy, slimy lumps of Elmer’s Glue, only less flavorful. …  I probably did something (or many things) wrong — though it’s a pretty simple dish, in theory.  Last night I mentioned this calamity to an actual chef (who also happens to be a rabid bike-racing enthusiast), and she remarked that rice flour (one of the key ingredients) can be very tricky to work with.  In any event, I plan — in the fullness of time — to attempt another recipe from The Feed Zone Cookbook, but first I need to try meditation and hypnosis so I can perhaps un-taste those horrible banana-rice globs I made.  (As for the granola bars, I’m feeling strangely optimistic about them, and will try to make them this week.)

Happily for this non-driver, yesterday’s training ride began and ended at the Orinda BART, just a few stops from our place in Berkeley.  K.Sue, our head coach, told us to self-select which of three groups (based on how fast we planned to go) we would ride with.  I was kind of torn, between the middle group and the slow group.  (The fast group was made up mostly of hyper-fit, tall, skinny gazelle-people.)  Opting for caution, I went with the slow group.  As I moved to join them, a voice called out, “Josh, you’re going to the wrong group!”  This was presumably a reference to my spiffy new road bike, on which I might be expected to improve on my usual snail’s pace.  I smiled, and kept moving towards the Slowies.  Later, during the ride, someone told me that it had been K.Sue herself who’d called me out — so for much of the ride, I felt as if I was kind of going against God’s will. …  But later, when I saw K.Sue herself, I asked whether she’d been the one who’d called out to me, and she said she hadn’t.  Which got me to reflecting on how the narratives that so affect our lives can be based on inaccurate (or at least shifting) details — and on how jarring it can be to learn that a crucial, life- or even world-changing incident didn’t really happen as we’d previously thought. …  By the end of the ride, I was working on a theory that the key to solving all the world’s problems is not to believe everything we hear about K.Sue (though, in my experience, all the good things are true).

The ride itself was quite easy — very short (by TNT standards) and mostly pretty flat, with just a few climbs that gave my legs twinges of that familiar burning that (with much greater intensity) will be my pal for these next few months.  It was kind of a training-ride version of an amuse-bouche: a little morsel to get us started on an extended cycling buffet.  Sometimes I thought about wanting to go faster, but I also worried that if I joined a faster group and couldn’t keep up with them, they’d be pissed at having to wait for me.  (The look that you get from teammates who have been getting cold at the top of some windy incline as they’ve waited for you to struggle and catch up with them — well, it’s not pleasant.)  I guess sometimes you have to just take a chance and go for the greatness.  Maybe next Saturday, fortified by successful no-bake granola bars, I will find the strength within myself to do so; then again, maybe these thoughts will end up like those misbegotten rice-and-banana muffins: a nice vision that ultimately collapses into gloppy suckitude.  Only time — that trickster and flirt — will tell.

Below is a map of my training ride.  You can click on it to get all sorts of details, graphs, and whatnot.

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.



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.