Wednesday, May 28, 2008

bikes...and $4/gallon gas

actually, it's way more than $4 now. it's currently $4.19 per gallon (er, note...make it $4.25).

this is in Los Angeles, which is admittedly above the national average. but still, the numbers are a little shocking.

and that's not even the apex of what they're predicting. some sources are holding to a summer peak of around $4.25 for the national average (reference: BloggingStocks). others are arguing that if petroleum prices surge to $200 per barrel (as opposed to the current ~$120-130 per barrel now), that we may see gasoline prices as high as $6-7 per gallon(reference: New York Times). there are even some claiming that high prices will not be just a summer phenomenon this time, but will be permanent as a result of a confluence of factors--fuel demand in emerging markets, trade imbalances, current economic policies, etc. (reference: Wired).

whatever the forecast is, all i know is that the run-up has been painful. here's the trends in gasoline prices, as compiled by the Department of Energy--which at the very least, provides info on their data collection and measuring:
it's no wonder that i'm seeing more bikes on the road...which is a big thing for Los Angeles, since this place is pretty much the mecca of the American car culture (both by choice and, courtesy of this region's history, by necessity)--trying to live without a car in this godforsaken town of weak public transport (and despite what the politicians say, it is weak. trust me, i know. i've lived in Europe, and i know what real public transportation really looks like) is tantamount to amputating your life.

i'm guessing that the gas prices have finally hit that economic tipping point where the internal cost-benefit analysis of the average LA resident is finally forcing them to re-evaluate the return-on-investment of gasoline (i.e., the value derived from driving a car that needs $4.19 per gallon gas) versus the return-on-investment of alternative modes of travel (i.e., the value derived from riding a bike that needs only time and physical exertion).

i've been seeing people that i've never seen before on bikes. and not just for recreation. but increasingly for errands, social meetings, and even commuting. i know they're not training, because 1) their body types are nothing even close to resembling anything remotely athletic (i.e., they're a bit on the rotund side, and so clearly not professional athletes or elite amateurs), 2) they're not wearing cycling gear, but instead are dressed in pants, and 3) they're not riding racing bikes, but instead are rolling on mountain bikes, hybrid bikes, beach cruisers, or quite possibly their parents' forgotten rides retrieved (still-dusty-and-long-forgotten) from the attic.

and Los Angeles isn't the only place. it appears this is a national trend. check out the CNN article:
if that doesn't work, i've included the full text below. but the link also has a video that i think is worth seeing.

is this good or bad? well, you won't hear me complaining. i'm happy to see any signal showing that this city is finally thinking about any alternative to cars--it's just my pseudo-Eurasian childhood rearing its memories in me. and i'm happy to see any movement towards more environmentally-friendly choices. and of course, i'm happy to see anything that increases healthier lifestyles.

including me.

i'm looking into buying a fixed-gear bike. something that's cheap, nothing special, and that'll 1) get me around my neighborhood to do my errands (and avoid spending $4.19 per gallon on gas), 2) make it over the awful pot-holed streets of Los Angeles and its surrounding environs, and 3) not get stolen (which in this town, seems to happen about every second). the last part is kind of crucial--it's the major reason i don't use my race bike for anything other than training.

hopefully i can find something useful. cuz these gas prices are just ridiculous.

and all you people in Europe can laugh (all my friends and relatives always do) and tell us spoiled Americans about your ~$9-11 per gallon (reference: Time). but think about this: at least you have public transportation systems that offer a viable alternative. here in the U.S., especially in Los Angeles, the system is such that we're pretty much pressured to be reliant on cars.

which is why it's such a big deal to get a bike--and ride it. and not just for training. but for living.

yeah, imagine that: living. on bikes.

what a concept!

iReporters change lifestyles to dodge hefty gas bills
By Kate Taylor

As rising gas prices leave drivers with ever-heftier tabs at the pump, Americans have started looking for ways to reduce the drain on their budget. For some, transitioning away from a one-person, one-car lifestyle has proved rewarding.

Janaki Purushe, a 22-year-old genetic researcher living in Rockville, Maryland, bikes just about everywhere she goes. "When I had the opportunity to finally plan my own life after I graduated college," Purushe explains, "I took into consideration where I was going to shop, where my friends live, where my boyfriend lives, and I definitely tried to plan the location of my home around where I was going."

Now, although she still has a car, Purushe bikes to work every day. It's a 10-mile round-trip commute, and she carries a change of clothes for when she gets to the office. She says she loves it. "When I'm riding my bike, I really pay attention to what's around me, and the weather's been great. I feel like I'm getting more out of my days."

Purushe also enjoys biking to the grocery store, and the bank. She admits that such convenience came at the price of living in a costlier part of town, but maintains that by not driving, she's made up for the extra expense.

"I know I'm lucky to be able to bike everywhere," she says.

The Department of Transportation said Monday it had seen the sharpest monthly drop in driving since it began keeping records. In March, Americans drove 11 billion fewer miles than in March of 2007.

When rising gas prices coincided with a baby on the way for Lucas and Naomi Smith, they knew they had to make some quick changes help keep life affordable. The first move the Smiths made was to sell one of their cars. Between insurance, gas and the depreciation of the car's value, Lucas Smith says the couple saves about $350 a month.

Another benefit of sharing the car is that the Smiths, Herndon, Virginia, residents, now spend more time together, in the car and at home.

"We have to plan out our weeks," Smith explains, "When are you going to pick me up? What days am I going to work later? It actually facilitates conversation."

In making room in the budget for the baby, the Smiths each also gave up their cell phones and cable TV. Smith thinks the change has been nice.

"We've found that there's just such an emphasis on having things, that you don't realize there's a stress cost, the cost of maintaining those things. Although it seems like you have less convenience," he explains, "you also have less stress."

Besides a drop in stress, the money the couple has saved will allow Naomi Smith to stay home with their new baby.

If he had all the money in world Smith says the one thing he might do differently is buy a fun car. "There's something different about having a fun car than having an efficient car," he muses.

Bethany Dietz of Baltimore, Maryland, is the stay-at-home Mom of two daughters, ages 1 and 3. Dietz says her husband works 20 miles from home, so his gas tank gets first priority. "If I stay home all week with the kids," Dietz says, "so be it -- it saves us on gas."

Dietz waits until Friday, when her 3-year-old goes to school, to run all of her errands. The rest of the week, she and her daughters don't really go out.

Although she doesn't mind not driving, Dietz says, "It can get kind of hairy sometimes because my daughter's 3 years old and she likes to go out and do things. She gets a little stir crazy."

Dietz says the family's gas bill is encroaching onto the food budget. "You just have to make the choice," Dietz explains, to conserve money on gas in order to afford food.

With respect to the gas prices that show no sign of leveling, Dietz says, "I see a lot more complications in the future."

Friday, May 23, 2008

playlist: my graduation

i woke up this morning, the 1st day of the rest of my life, and i'm not entirely happy. i'm weak, i'm tired, i'm sore, i have a headache, and haven't really slept all that much.

i'm feeling lost, disconnected, somber, sad. maybe even depressed. the way you feel when you've lost something important to you and you know you'll never find it again, the way you feel when you're looking for direction and you know there's none to be found, the way you feel when you want things to make sense but you know they never will.

the weepies, world spins madly on :

i know the reasons why...part of it was exhaustion, following a string of tough days of workouts marking a progression in duration and intensity. part of it was being drained, from a weekend of 100+ F (38+ C) temps during which i was outside almost the entire time. the major part of it, however, was the fact that this past week marked my graduation.

it was for my JD/PhD, meaning both a Juris Doctor (law school) and PhD (political science/international relations) from USC. technically, the graduation was just the PhD hooding ceremony, since i finished law school some time ago, but the occasion marked the conclusion of both programs in their entirety, and so served as the end point of all my graduate school life.

to some people, this might mean something.

but for some strange reason, it doesn't seem that way to me.

kina grannis, down and gone :

the typical perception is that graduation is a celebration, with the occasion identified by its alternative title of "commencement" as the start of a person's life, and thus one meant to be a joyous initiation to unexplored vistas of limitless promises and untapped possibilities. as so many people hear tell, it's supposed to be a time that is ostensibly happy, perhaps exultant, daresay even triumphant. shared by the graduate with friends and family and all the world for what it's meant to be: victory.

but it doesn't seem that way to fact, it seems anything but.

ben harper, walk away :

they say that graduate school changes you, and that you finish a different person than when you started. for many, these changes are reflected by the hallmarks they accumulate during their time in school: they find love, they find a career, they find new horizons that beckon them forth to explore. and the end result is the culmination of a degree carrying them into their future.

but it doesn't seem that way to me. i don't feel any different from when i started. and i did not experience what so many others have: i did not find love, i did not find a career, and i did not find new horizons beckoning me to explore. and the end result, while it did have the culmination of a degree, is not carrying me into any kind of a future that i can tell.

it's not a feeling of victory. if anything, it's one of defeat.

and unlike victory, defeat is not shared, but instead is held very much alone.

ben harper, another lonely day :

admittedly, my experience with graduate school probably wasn't the most ideal, and didn't quite hold the same lessons for me that it did for so many others.

make no mistake, i learned all the things associated with the classroom: there was no end of material in the readings, class assignments, papers, journals, books, databases, libraries, speakers, and lectures to suggest anything to the otherwise. and there were all the things associated with them, and included in the experience of teaching assistantships, research assistantships, fellowship grants, field studies, laboratory tests, theoretical analysis, screening exams, qualifying exams, dissertation work, and the final defense.

i fulfilled these lessons.

but there were all the other lessons unrelated to the classroom; ones yet so invariably critical to the graduate school process: the ones that dealt the more poignant, invariably profound, arguably real aspects of life and living, and the never ending conflict between the banality of mundane existence and the significance of the sublime in a universe of ultimately supreme mysteries...the lessons that show you there can be--there is--a better world, and that there was meant to be more than this we see to the true nature of our creation.

and it was these lessons, the most important ones of all, that i was not able to fulfill.

because my heart was broken. so many times, by so many people, in so many ways, for so many reasons...intentional or accidental, by fortune or by fate, inane and important, petty and profound, selfish and selfless. sometimes careful and compassionate, sometimes simply cruel and cold. but always painful.

and this is why i feel incomplete.

because i was forsaken.

because i waited for an angel, but she never came.

because i learned of the classroom, but i learned not of love.

and unlike love, the classroom is not shared, but instead is held very much alone.

ben harper, waiting on an angel :

i'm trying to be positive as i can. i'm trying to be as happy as i'm supposed to be at a time like this. i'm trying to believe this really is just the commencement, the beginning, and that school was just a prelude, and that real life and real living is starting now, and that there really is something special and profound and significant and sublime to come ahead.

i'm really trying to believe.

but after all the heartache, i'm finding it hard. and at my graduation, all i could do was go through the motions.

i'm really trying to believe.

and unlike graduation, belief is not shared, but instead is held very much alone.

ben harper, happy ever after in your eyes :

i'm telling myself graduate school meant something. i'm telling myself it all meant something. the hours. the weeks. the months. the years. the lectures and readings and papers and exams and labs and committees and clubs and meetings. it all was supposed to have meant something.

but all i can think about is what i have lost.

in people. in hearts. in souls.

in me.

and what i have lost outweighs whatever it was that graduate school was supposed to have meant.

and i can only dream of what might, what should have been...and wish things could have been otherwise.

kina grannis, stars falling down :

i feel no sense of victory. nor triumph. nor achievement. nor fulfillment.

truth be told, i felt more fulfilled after Ironman. each one. there, at least i felt a sense of accomplishment, a sense that i'd done something people could appreciate, something that i could look back on with a sense of significance and grace for what i'd done and what i'd had to endure to do so. a sense that it had meant something.

in contrast, now, all i'm feeling is emptiness.

and it wouldn't be so bad were it not for the feeling that this is one of those turning points in time, more than just a milestone, more than just a memory, more than just a moment in the mind, but a point, about which existence turns and reorients itself to a new perspective through which i'm supposed to see the world...for better or for worse.

a point in time, about which the world will pivot, forever. irreparably. completely. finally.

and i can't control it. i can't understand it. i can't see where it leads. and i don't know if i even want to. there just simply is no clarity.

because i am empty.

shaenon, time after time :

i know i can't relive the past. i know i can't undo the things that have been done. i know i can't find the things that have been lost.

in people. in hearts. in souls.

in me.

and so all i have is whatever it was that graduate school was supposed to have meant...and whatever graduation is supposed to be.

meaning that all i can do now is to look forward, and to do so with some level of clarity that allows me to find a life that was better than the one i had i can make something of my time in this creation before it's all over, and make the universe a better place than when i first arrived, and hope that somehow, someway, some day can fill the emptiness that i've been left with by what my graduate school really meant...and by what my graduation really is.

a search for something better.

a search for the sublime.

so that i may see creation clear, and have its mysteries at last displayed.

chasing kimbia, every color :

and unlike the mundane, creation is not held alone, but is very much shared.

i'm waiting on an angel.

just one.

and the distance goes on and on and on...

waiting on an angel
one to carry me home
hope you come to see me soon
cause i don't want to go alone
i don't want to go alone

now angel won't you come by me
angel hear my plea
take my hand lift me up
so that i can fly with thee

and i'm waiting on an angel
and i know it won't be long
to find myself a resting place
in my angel's arms

so speak kind to a stranger
cause you'll never know

it just might be an angel come
knockin' at your door

and i'm waiting on an angel
and i know it won't be long
to find myself a resting place
in my angel's arms

waiting on an angel
one to carry me home
hope you come to see me soon
cause i don't want to go alone
i don't want to go alone
--ben harper, waiting on an angel

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

crimanimal mass (or, critical mass w attitude)

well, following on the theme of bicycles as alternative transport for car-culture cities like Los Angeles, i figure i might as well give note to Crimanimal Mass.

Crimanimal Mass is a small protest phenomenon here in Los Angeles, created as a more vocal offshoot of the larger Critical Mass rides. most of you know Critical Mass as the global movement that holds monthly bike rides around the world to remind people of cyclist rights to roads (reference:, and Crimanimal Mass apparently came about as a response to perceived police harassment, with a small group of riders choosing to escalate the profile of their group rides as a means of more aggressively representing the interests of bike riders (reference:

there's been a series of Crimanimal Mass rides--to my knowledge, 3 so far. the latest one was the most audacious, with a pack of about 30 riders taking to the 405 freeway in Santa Monica during afternoon rush hour traffic on Friday, May 9. no one was injured, and no one arrested (although, this may have been because it was so unexpected, and people were so shocked, that the ride was over by the time anybody managed to contact the police). you can see video of the ride: or

the ride was given a front-page article in the May 10 issue of the Santa Monica Daily Press:

for those of you who don't know, the 405 freeway is one of the most congested freeways in Los Angeles, and one of the multitude of Southern California freeways that has given the region its reputation for horrendous traffic jams (and not just for the road rage, or the density of cars, but for the sheer scale in geographic scope). through the city of Santa Monica, the 405 essentially becomes a massive parking lot during the 3-7pm hours every day, particularly Fridays.

this is why cycling is realistically a faster means of commuting than car on the Los Angeles westside. friends have told me that during rush hour, the dangers normally associated with riding Southern California streets become minimal, as motorists literally sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic crawling at around 2-3 mph (literally, walking pace). bicyclists during this time can speed blissfully by.

which is why, i suppose, Crimanimal Mass decided to stage its protest during rush hour, and why they took to the 405 freeway in Santa Monica: they meant to give a vivid lesson in just how insane the L.A. car commute culture has become, and remind everybody of the relative benefits of cycling.

of course, riding on the freeway (any freeway, anywhere in the U.S.) is completely illegal.

also, i have to point out that i have some issues with the confrontational nature of Crimanimal Mass. i don't know if their kind of "in-your-face" attitude is the kind of posture that should be taken in the constant give-and-take of negotiations over rights to the road. personally, i've always believed that escalation of conflicts to extreme positions tends to only polarize parties into opposing sides, making compromise tenuous--and sometimes, less likely.

i'm not the only one with these kinds of feelings. a review of posts on cycling discussion groups, as well as within Critical Mass itself, will show a divergence of opinions as to the nature and value of Crimanimal Mass. not all riders hold them with high regard.

having said that, i have to concede that so far Crimanimal Mass has avoided violence, and eschewed damage to property or people. with the rides they've done to date, the only thing that's happened is that they've done some very highly profile rides with shock value, and have done so in style (with masks to cover their identity, to avoid prosecution by police). so long as they hold to this, i'm willing to view them as just another protest group...and as along as they actually protest based on some argument with a rational logic to explain their cause (i.e., that cycling is an effective alternative means of transportation)--as opposed to be behaving in petty or vindictive ways (i.e., like damage to property or people for its own sake)--then i'm even willing to pay attention.

on a side note, i should point out that i think i may know several of the riders in Crimanimal Mass. but to protect their identity, and to protect myself, i'm going to avoid asking questions for the sake of plausible deniability. i don't want to know...i just don't want to know.

Friday, May 16, 2008

oil prices, bikes, and life in Los Angeles

well, it was bound to happen given the continuing surge in oil prices. the rise in fuel prices is apparently driving a rise in bicycle sales...and not just in the U.S., where the increases in gasoline costs have been a shock to most Americans and their monthly budgets, but around the world.

check it out:
if the link doesn't work, i'm including the full text of the article below.

of course, any statistician will tell you that correlation does not mean causation. but i have to say that based on what i'm seeing here in Los Angeles, this relationship is entirely plausible.

the last time i filled up the gas tank (which was yesterday), the price here in South Pasadena was $3.95 per gallon. and now the story on the news is that they're speculating the cost may go up to $6.00 per gallon by the end of the summer, especially if crude oil approaches the $200 per barrel number that some economists are speculating.

these numbers aren't anything new to people outside the U.S. i know friends and family in Europe who have lived years with petrol prices equivalent to $4-5 per gallon (and now, worse, given the weak U.S. dollar). ditto for people i know in the Asia-Pacific region.

but for Americans, who've never seen these kinds of numbers, it's a real stunner. particularly for people commuting in cities like Los Angeles, it's been difficult, since the long drives typical of so many suburbanites (anywhere from 20-80 miles 1-way) translates into triple-figure weekly gasoline bills. let's just say people are being forced to really evaluate the value of driving in their SUVs, luxury sedans, muscle cars, or even just driving in general.

the result has been a trend towards less driving. local news has been reporting noticeably less congestion on L.A. streets and highways, even during rush hour:
apparently, people are using more mass transportation, or looking to alternative modes of travel.

for me personally, i'm all for it. i've always been appalled at the level of traffic in Southern California, and the paltry state of public transportation here, especially compared to the European cities (or even other American ones) of my youth. i've always insisted that Los Angeles has no idea how good a mass transit system can be, simply because they've never experienced anything like the subways, railways, and bus systems in London, Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, etc., etc.--and just how much investing in construction of a mass transit system is worth. i keep saying this, but i'll say it again: Los Angeles is in a Catch-22, where people don't use public transportation because the system is too inadequate, but the system is too inadequate because people don't use it enough for government to justify investing in it...well, i guess now there's an external factor that may shake up this conundrum, and maybe ridership on the mass transit system will rise enough to pressure government to finally start investing in it.

i also hold these same sentiments with regards to alternative transportation on bikes. there's just too many things and too many occasions that can be accomplished on bicycles around here (i.e., quick errands to the grocery store, or bank, or post office, etc. etc.) that would otherwise be a waste of gasoline and traffic in a car. and the benefits to personal health and the environment would be so much better with less use of cars. again, the Catch-22 in Los Angeles has been that people don't ride bikes because it's too inconvenient and dangerous, but the reason it's too inconvenient and dangerous is that there are too few bicyclists to represent themselves against the greater number of drivers...but again, given the cost of gasoline, maybe now people are feeling the pressure to make decisions they ordinarily would not have made, and finally start looking at bicycle transport.

as for me, i'm all for it. where's my bicycle?

As fuel prices climb higher, so do bicycle sales
By Ralph Jennings
International Herald Tribune
Wednesday, May 14, 2008

TAIPEI: The row of gleaming bicycles being assembled on the factory floor of Giant Manufacturing, one of the biggest bicycle makers in the world, will soon hit streets from Seattle to Beijing.

Rising fuel prices, a growing awareness of environmental issues and the popularity of cycling as a recreational sport has fueled a rise in demand for bicycles around the world.

Giant, the maker of international bicycle brands like Boulder, Yukon and Iguana, is reaping the profits. The company, which produced 5.5 million bikes in 2007, expects to pull in $1 billion in sales this year, up 10 percent, it says.

Giant's story is typical of the $61 billion global bicycle industry, which is enjoying unprecedented growth as cycling becomes a major recreational sport and lifestyle option in many Western countries.

"There is a general renaissance and interest in bikes," said Jack Oortwijn, editor in chief of the monthly magazine Bike Europe. "Parts suppliers are struggling to keep up."

Mainland China leads the world in the number of bikes produced per year with about 73 million units of a total 100 million annually, according to the Earth Policy Institute, an environmental information network based in the United States.

The rest come mostly from Taiwan, Canada, Russia, Ukraine and the European Union. Taiwan makes about six million bikes per year and they sell for an average domestic wholesale price of $222 per unit, according to a local manufacturing association.

Bicycle sales have increased by 14.6 percent over the past five years among European Union nations, which buy 70 percent of the bikes worldwide, according to Bike Europe. In the United States, sales have increased by almost 9 percent in the same time period.

But it is not all good news.

Price hikes in metals - especially steel, aluminum and chrome, the main metals used in bikes - have cut into profits and pushed up prices as manufacturers seek to maintain margins.

The key to greater margins is high-end bikes built with carbon-fiber frames, which earn higher margins per unit because they sell on brand cachet as well as quality, offsetting steep raw materials costs.

"If you want to compete, you've got to raise efficiency," said Giant's president, Tony Lo.

Giant, which is based in Taipei, also manufactures battery-powered bikes that are popular in mainland China, where the company operates three factories. Battery-powered bikes are a big hit as China's economic boom helps provide more money to even the poorest factory workers, who almost immediately upgrade their bikes.

Chinese consumers snapped up more than 20 million battery-powered bikes in 2006. The bikes, powered by a 36- or 48-volt battery, can travel at around 25 kilometers, or about 15 miles, per hour. They sell for around 3,000 yuan, or $430.

Giant's crosstown rival, Merida Industry, expects profit to be flat this year due to rising material costs.

But Merida forecasts that revenue will rise 5 percent to 10 percent this year from 2007, roughly meeting analyst expectations, on growing demand for battery-powered bikes in China and mountain bikes in sports-driven markets like the United States.

Taiwan competes with France, Germany and Italy in the high-end bike arena.

In the push to increase margins and win market share, Giant and its main competitors - Cycle Europe in Finland, and Trek and Specialized in the United States - are racing to develop the world's lightest bike.

Giant is in the lead with a bike that weighs 6 kilograms, or 13 pounds, 20 percent lighter than earlier models, according to cycling experts. Called the TCR Advanced, these carbon-fiber ultra-light bikes sell for about $7,100.

But Giant, with its competitors close on its heels, is working hard to develop an even lighter bike.

With oil prices at record highs of $126 per barrel and some analysts predicting they could hit the $200 mark, it is no surprise that bicycles are becoming a popular form of transport, especially among a growing breed of fitness fanatics.

"Driving cars is expensive nowadays. Oil prices are going to remain at a high level," said Fabian Kuster, a spokesman for the European Cyclists' Federation in Brussels.

For short-distance commutes, he added, "a bike is faster in the city and takes up less space."

Paris, Barcelona and other cities in Europe have introduced bicycle loan programs that allow commuters to pick up bicycles at stands outside train stations. All that is needed is a swipe of a credit card to guarantee the bike will be returned.

Users return the bikes to the stands and with another swipe of their credit card get their deposit back minus a small fee for use of the bike. There are about 20,000 such bicycles at around 1,450 stands across Paris alone.

"With bikes you don't need any gas, so there's a new awareness of cycling," said Giant's president Lo, 60, who rides 80 kilometers, or 50 miles, to and from work every day on his bike.

Europeans increasingly pedal to work on bike-friendly streets planned by city governments that encourage cycling, while a growing pool of commuters in China use battery bikes and Americans ride mainly for sport or to work off calories.

"I have been racing mountain bikes for a long time and would like to think that cyclists like myself increase bicycle sales," said Steve Tam, an avid cyclist in Redding, California, where riding bikes on the weekends is a favorite recreational sport.

Would-be riders in newly developed regions like Taiwan still see bikes as a symbol of a poor past, while riders complain worldwide of inclement weather, unsafe traffic and rampant theft.

Still, cycling is cost-effective and often relatively fast on Taipei's congested roads. "I've got just a 10-minute ride, and you don't need to spend any money on gas," said Hu Li-wei, a student.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

A Triathlete's Mother's Day

note: in the U.S., this year Mother's Day is Sunday, May 11.

She didn't always approve of your involvement in triathlon.

Her appreciation of sports was limited. For her, it was just a past-time, a means to other ends: alleviation of boredom, making new acquaintances, attaining a medically desirable level of health. Beyond that, it was a luxury, an extravagance, and ultimately a waste of time. To her, it was by necessity secondary to the other priorities of life and living. No one, at least in your family, had ever demonstrated that there was any other justification for it. As your mother had once so quintessentially observed: "You're not a professional athlete, so why are you pretending to be like one?"

Which is why you didn't tell her about your decision to do triathlon. You didn't tell her that it was actually 3 sports in 1. You didn't tell her that it meant training for swimming, and then biking, and then also running. You didn't tell her that it meant hours per week, and months, or years. You didn't tell her that it meant equipment, which meant money, or the equipment maintenance, which meant even more money. You didn't tell her that it entailed an increase in your food bills, or the cost of club memberships, or the price of race entry fees, or the charge of insurance dues. You didn't her it meant a change in lifestyle, or outlook on life, or the nature of who you were.

And you certainly didn't tell her about the risks of drowning, being eaten by sharks, catching water-borne illnesses, getting hit by cars and trucks and bikes or even pedestrians, or being attacked by assorted wild animals and plants and even people on the running trails, or skirting hypothermia in winter and heat exhaustion in summer, or sustaining chronic repetitive-motion syndromes with bizarre names, or just simply becoming injured in freak accidents with no explanation whatsoever.

You didn't tell her these things, because you already knew what she would say.

Which is why you weren't surprised when you finally did tell her. She made it clear to you that she did not approve. At best, she could offer only a grudging acceptance...and with an air of resignation, at that.

Which is why you weren't surprised when you then told her you had decided to do Ironman. Being a medical professional, she made it known to you that there were dangers associated with extreme endurance sports, including risks of permanent debilitation and possibly even death, and gave you the full litany of the reasons why this was not supposed to be physically possible. Being herself, she also made it known that this was also pointless, and served no purpose, and constituted an activity several orders of magnitude beyond that required or recommended for healthy living by any normal, perfectly sane individual.

Which is why you weren't surprised when you invited her to join you on your trip to Ironman New Zealand, and you noticed very clearly that she glossed over the Ironman part, and that she made it a point to describe it as just a family vacation, and that she insisted she was really just going to see a country she'd never visited and explore a culture she'd always wanted to learn, and that she fully expected you to be traveling with her, and not the other way around.

You accepted this as being as much as she could offer, and satisfied yourself that she had given you this much.

But then came race day.

And you noticed that even though she had told you she wasn't going to be able to wake up in time to see the swim start, she was standing on the shoreline as the pack turned the first buoy by the shores of Taupo Lake.

And you noticed that even though she had said she wasn't going to walk all the way into town to catch the swim-to-bike transition, she was there at Taupo Domain to see you off as you got out of T1 and started your 112 mile ride.

And you noticed that even though she had mentioned that she wasn't sure if she could stay out the entire portion of bike leg, she was there at the Lake Terrace roadside in front of the hotel for each of the 2 loops you went by.

And you noticed that even though she had talked about retiring before you made the bike-to-run transition, she was there at Kaimanawa Street as you struggled into your running shoes and staggered out of T2 and climbed over the girders of the temporary steel street-bridge and stumbled off to start your marathon.

And you noticed that even though she had been adamant about not staying for the run, she was there by the same spot on the grass under the shoreline tree by Rifle Range Road in front of the hotel each of the 2 times you went by.

And she'd been there. The entire day.

And she'd been cheering for you, calling your name. The entire day.

And it had been cold, and wet, and rainy, and windy, and miserable. The entire day.

So when you crossed the finish line, you thought you understood why she wasn't there: you accepted this as being as much as she could offer, and satisfied yourself that she had given you this much.

But then you made it back to the hotel.

And you saw that sometime as night had begun to fall, she'd gone into both transition areas, and had retrieved all your equipment: your bags and bike and helmet and shoes and glasses and goggles and bottles and gels and bandages and sunscreen and shirts and shorts and jacket and hat. And she'd pushed and pulled and carried and dragged it all--all miniscule 95 pounds of her--the entire distance from Taupo downtown to the Tui Oaks hotel.

And she'd done it alone.

And you saw that she'd cleaned everything. All your clothes. All your equipment. The entire room. She'd wiped it down, run it through the wash, laid it out to dry, packed it away for the next morning check-out. And she'd left a fresh set of clothes, and a fresh set of towels, and a fresh blanket, along with a canister of deep heating massage creme and a bottle of ibuprofen.

And you saw that she'd left a plate of hot food to eat and a bottle of water to drink and a letter letting you know there was more in the refrigerator.

And in the silence of that moment, as you stood there reading her note, you realized everything she'd done.

And it was then that you began to truly understand the depths of love.

And you understood even more the next day, when, as you sat at a table over a cup of coffee gazing listlessly across the lake, tired and broken and sore and numb and as profoundly lonely as the solitary tree you saw below you standing alone on the barren shore of a featureless sea, an empty shell of a wreck of a human being pretending to be this thing people somehow find within themselves to ironically label Ironman, she reached out and took your arm and held your hand and leaned over and whispered to you:

"This was one of the best experiences of my life."

And even though it had been cold, and wet, and rainy, and windy, and miserable, and even though you'd finished with one of the worst times of the day, and even though you'd woken up with some of the bloodiest and ripped-up feet you'd ever had, and had been so beaten up and worn out that you'd barely been able to hobble out of bed to get to breakfast, you then--in the silence that always accompanies the most profound and moving and unique and meaningful and deep and sacred moments of our lives--suddenly felt like a champion.

Because what she said meant more to you than all the victories in all the races of all this world...or any other.

Because you knew what they really meant.

Because it was then that you finally understood the depths of love.

Happy Mother's Day, Mom. Thanks for everything.

This was one of the best experiences of my life.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Ironman is not a superhero

they tell us Ironman is a superhero.

they tell us Ironman has super powers, with super strength and super speed and special armor and the ability to fly.

they tell us Ironman is super special, being a figment of the imagination, a fanciful creation, a character in comic books and video games and animated television and blockbuster movie theaters. someone we can read, and play, and watch, just for the price of a purchase. someone that we can dream about, but never actually become.

but, you see, here's the deal: they're wrong.

Ironman is not a superhero. Ironman is real.

Ironman is she and he and us and we. Ironman is mom and dad. Ironman is grandma and grandpa. Ironman is young and old and small and big and healthy and sick. Ironman is rich and poor and office and street and city and country and mountain and beach. Ironman is rolling in a wheelchair and walking around on crutches. Ironman is overweight with high blood pressure and cholesterol and type 2 diabetes. Ironman is debilitating illness and degenerative condition. Ironman is sad, depressed, overstressed, overworked, unhappy, unfulfilled, lost, and confused.

Ironman is anybody who's ever dreamed of becoming more, who's ever wanted to become better than what they are now, who's ever desired to find out the kind of person they were meant to be.

Ironman is anybody who's then decided to act, and picked themselves up, and opened the door, and gone outside, and taken the first step of many steps...towards the number of 140.6 as marked in miles, on a journey that will ultimately last a lifetime.

Ironman is anybody.

Ironman is you.

someone that you can dream about, but also can become.