Date: June 26, 2011
Score: New Hampshire Fisher Cats 7, Portland Sea Dogs 3 (box score)
Someone has started a blog – or perhaps it is a Twitter feed – that combs through other blogs and presents as its sole content the excuses people use for not blogging.
That’s funny (if not quite as funny as The Blog of Unnecessary Quotation Marks.) But it does hit kind of close to home, as I haven’t blogged in almost two months.
I promise that my excuse is a good one: for the early part of this summer, I spent my weekends training to ride my bike 50 miles to raise money for cancer research. This annual ride in New Hampshire is called The Prouty, and I rode not only to fund-raise for the cancer center at the hospital where I work, but to support a co-worker who recently went through cancer treatment.
I also rode in honor of three different family members who have each battled cancer. One of them, my stepmother, Betty, did not survive.
Maybe 50 miles on a road bike doesn’t sound like much to you. At one time, it wouldn’t have been much for me. But consider that I stopped playing in an adult hardball league five years ago, and that my exercise since that time has consisted of walking from my car to minor-league baseball stadiums, where I consume beer and chicken tenders and sausages with peppers and onions, and you’ll understand that training for The Prouty involved a lot of sweating and swearing and heavy breathing.
With the significant motivation of not embarrassing myself in front of some of my co-workers, I logged about 200 miles in preparation for the event. I got in the best shape I’ve been in for at least five years.
And in the process, I ended up falling in love with bike riding all over again, a rekindling that parallels my rediscovery of baseball in my mid-20s. If going to minor league baseball games is like shaking hands with my 13-year-old self, riding my road bike is like shaking hands with my 19-year-old self. And although my teenage baseball glove is long gone, I still use the same bicycle I rode 25 years ago.
That sky-blue League Fuji was the first nice thing I ever bought, with earnings from my job fixing flats and doing tune-ups at a bike shop in Leola, PA, the summer after I graduated from high school. My father got me that job – the bike shop owner wagering that the son of the Industrial Arts teacher at the local high school would be handy with the wrenches – but everything I learned about bikes came from Jon, the manager of the shop.
He was a Mennonite, like myself. A little wilder than I knew I would ever allow myself to become. He had a slate-gray VW Scirocco, tuned for racing, and he was fond of closing the shop early so we could go riding on the buggy-rutted back roads on sticky afternoons. He schooled me not only on how to adjust a bottom bracket, but on the finer points of biking style: wear your bike shorts without underwear, and your shoes without socks. Shave your legs. Remove all of the reflectors from the bike – they add extra weight – and replace every possible part with a lighter version, preferably Italian.
He was from Texas, via Virginia, and lived by himself in a one-room apartment in the nearby town of Gap. His place was so close to the town’s clock tower that the storm windows vibrated with the chimes every quarter-hour. You could barely make out his mattress on the floor, underneath a litter of biking and car magazines and the charcoal sketches of airplanes he drew late into the night.
He had dropped out of college, and had no plans to return. He was the first smart person I knew who did not have a plan, and who was unperturbed by what many people considered failure.
But to me – someone who was desperately afraid of failure – his apartment proved that while you could leave home, and you could make your own way independent of your family, you’d have to accept a solitary mattress on the floor of a dingy apartment as part of the bargain.
That summer, I rode my Fuji to and from work, and again in the evenings after supper, setting out from our house in town to ride past the chicken and dairy farms, past where my mother and I bought raw milk when I was a little kid, past the homes of church friends where I had slid down toboggan hills on tractor inner tubes in happier days. I learned to love the ache in my calves and my lungs, even craved the physicality of that pain, so unlike my inchoate feelings inside.
My best friend’s mother, who I adored, had died unexpectedly in our senior year. I soon lost that friend as well, as he become more interested in drinking warm screwdrivers from a Mason jar while sitting in the bowling alley parking lot than in giggling about Monty Python routines, or listening to the Clash, or all of the things that had previously knitted us together. We had arranged to go to a Mennonite college in Indiana, but now he didn’t want to be my roommate, and so I wasn’t sure that I wanted to go to Goshen College after all. But my parents wouldn’t consider non-Mennonite schools, and Goshen was the one tolerable Mennonite college, and I desperately wanted to leave Lancaster County, so I had no choice.
I returned again and again to a particular hill, about ten miles outside of town, a sharp climb from the road heading south to Delaware. I’d ascend, standing in the saddle, sweat rolling down my forehead and dripping off my nose onto my front tire, and steal glances at the gorgeous farmstead that stood at the apex of the hill: stone walls, a red barn, a small orchard. A fine porch upon which to sit with someone you loved and watch the sun set over the flat expanse of Amish farms across the valley.
I ached for that farmstead the way I had yearned after girls in high school, the ones I never asked to roller-skate with me, the ones I never asked to the Junior-Senior banquet. The idea that I might someday own a place like that, the idea of finding someone who understood that same yearning, was incomprehensible. The farm instead stood as a symbol of what I would leave behind if I went out into what everyone in my parents’ circle referred to as “The World.” Yes, I could leave the Mennonite track laid out for me, could drop out of college like Jon, could put a halt to everything that was expected.
But I would be trading stone walls and a red barn for a mattress on the floor.
I rode my Fuji a lot my first year of college, out on the flat, windy roads of Indiana. But then I went to Costa Rica on an exchange program, and stayed with an amazing, accepting host family. I started to like myself, and stopped thinking so much about failure.
I returned to Indiana and began dating the woman who eventually became my wife. After we got married, I moved the blue bike from apartment to apartment, from our back-woods cabin to a rented farmhouse to our own place on this hill, with our own row of fruit trees and our own patio that looks out over the mountains. I never bothered to re-tape the handlebars or adjust the bottom bracket, until now.
I’ll admit that I started this blog last year in part to give myself some time alone. I missed the time I had for daydreaming, back before our daughter was born, back before I worked at an intense, all-consuming job. And I don’t think I’m the only one who needs this sort of break: more than one father has told me that I’m a genius, not because of what I write, but because I’ve figured out a way to get out of the house on summer weekends without the weight of familial obligations.
But something has been different this summer. For one, our daughter is getting more and more interested in baseball, even picking out her own favorite Red Sox player (Youk!) And I’ve realized that we’re more than halfway through our time of having a kid in the house. She’s 9-1/2, and in nine years, hopefully, she’ll be getting ready for her own freshman year at college.
Which is why she’s attended three of the first four games I saw this summer. And why, on a warm Sunday in late June, when I needed another baseball fix, I found myself inviting my daughter and wife to take in a game in Manchester, New Hampshire, where the Fisher Cats were hosting the Portland Sea Dogs. On the drive to the park, our daughter wondered aloud if the Sea Dogs players would remember her as the girl who won the free passes to the water park, back in April.
The Sea Dogs are the Double-A affiliate of the Red Sox, and the games they play in New Hampshire can get sold out. In anticipation, I had bought my own ticket earlier in the week – a nice seat a few rows behind the visiting dugout, in prime photo-taking territory. But with three of us coming down without tickets on Sunday afternoon, I had to settle for bleacher seats, well down the left-field line.
I won’t lie to you. It wasn’t the same. I didn’t achieve my Zen-like Perfect Moment, didn’t lock in on the game, was too far from the action to pick up on the one or two little things that remind me why I love baseball so much. I resigned myself to chalking this one up to building my daughter’s own Love of the Game, and escorted her to the concession stands, several times, trying to put down the niggling thought that the reason she likes going to baseball games is because I’m liberal with the sodas and ice cream in a ballpark setting, unlike at home.
One of the nice things about seeing games in Manchester is that they don’t mind if you stand on the concourse, between the field and the concessions, and watch the game. And it was there, standing with my daughter behind home plate, that I did see something that was worth the trip: four Dominicans, three guys and a woman, chatting away in Spanish, commenting on the action, telling jokes. They were dressed far too stylish for New Hampshire – crisp jeans, bleached-white shoes, a little gold – and I assumed that they had traveled with the Sea Dogs from Portland for the series. Perhaps they were family members of some of the players, as several of the Sea Dogs are from La Republica. Or maybe they were just from the neighborhood around the ballpark in Portland, the neighborhood with advertisements for calling cards in Spanish in the bodega windows, with the smell of pupusas and sofrito hanging on the sea air.
In any case, they were there together, enjoying the game in each other’s company. They weren’t hunched over notebooks, scribbling away, alone.
The Prouty bike ride took place two weekends ago. I did well. I averaged over 15 mph, above my goal, if well below the pace I rode at during long-distance rides in my teenaged years. A bunch of us from work met at the start, and stuck together for a couple of miles, until the first significant hill.
It was there that I took off, tapping into that old pleasure of pushing my legs and lungs until the sweat dripped down my face. I again enjoyed the physical manifestation of any angst that I have inside – which now is job-related, instead of parent- or religion-related – and again found myself alone, midway through the ride.
There’s a concept in bike racing called the peloton, coined by the French. It’s based on the fact that a group of riders can move far faster than any solitary rider, as the mass of bicycles forms a kind of wind tunnel. And in a long-distance ride like The Prouty, everyone takes turns at the head of the peloton, where the work is the hardest. You pound away for several miles, then drop back to the rear of the crowd, where you get pulled along by the wind of the leading riders. Over time, you work your way back up the chain, until you are again at the head, doing the hardest work.
25 miles into my ride, I found my peloton, a group of three other riders, two women and a man. And, without talking much, we worked together, eating up the miles, working the chain like pros, like socialists, each taking his or her turn. We cruised, and all of the worry I had put into my performance, into being strong enough for the ride, dissolved into the simple pleasure of spinning the pedals of a light, familiar bicycle.
It reminded me of the way I used to ride, 25 years ago, on my $375 bicycle, the first nice thing I could ever call my own. It was like riding among the farms, spoking out from my parents’ house, that locus of love and frustration and grief, pushing myself up those hills because I believed that my life would contain more grief than love, that I would never obtain the things I wanted, that my essential difference would always keep me apart.
It was like all of those rides I did when I was 19, when I was 20 pounds lighter, but it was much different, now. Because now I belong, and am no longer alone.
Not even at the ballgames.