In which I reaffirm my belief that it’s better to be a work horse than a Wunderkind

May 20th, 2011

Several years ago, I wrote this about Jan Ullrich, which isn’t really about Jan Ullrich at all. It’s about sports, and why I’ve always believed in the virtue of athletic endeavor, and this article reminded me of this old piece of mine.

Jan Ullrich always frustrated the hell out of the cyclist in me. He could have been, he should have been, the best cyclist of his generation, Lance Armstrong notwithstanding. At least one of Lance’s seven Tours should have been Ullrich’s – 2003, at least, should have been Ullrich’s. Ullrich was brilliant, the real deal; but he was the guy who seemed to think that being the real deal was enough. In a world where guys like Lance Armstrong go on training rides on Christmas day and count their calories in the off-season, where Ivan Basso spends the winter in a wind tunnel breaking down his time-trial form and putting it back together again, being the real deal wasn’t enough. Natural talent was never going to be enough when you have Lance Armstrong redesigning his water bottles to shave off an extra ounce. Ullrich was a Wunderkind, he really was. He could time trial like nobody’s business. He could climb, he could tear mountains apart. (And as the Tour de France wore on and he popped out in freckles across the bridge of his nose and into his sun- and wind-reddened cheeks he was cute as a button, to boot.) When he won the Tour de France in 1997 everybody – including Lance Armstrong – assumed it was just the first of many Tours in Ullrich’s future. But it didn’t work out that way. Partly because Lance Armstrong recovered from his cancer and Lance is, well, Lance. But also because Ullrich had been a Wunderkind and it took him too long to catch on to the fact that that just wasn’t going to cut it in the new world forged by Lance Armstrong’s iron will.

When I cycled in college, I was quite good. I had a certain level of athletic ability, but nobody would have confused me with a natural talent. But I was stubborn. I put in the hours and the miles. I rearranged my academic schedule to maximize track time. I took every tip my coach ever gave me, did everything he said, and he won me races that I wouldn’t have won on strength alone. I was never great, but I was really good. And I got as good as I did precisely because I was willing to accept how very far from great I was. Had I been better naturally, I suspect that I would have turned out marginally less successful. But the gap between me and the top girls was just visible enough to me to drive home the need for a little extra effort on my part. And the link between my effort and my results was clear; we kept training logs, after all. In autumn we’d do a ten mile time trial out on Flat Bottom Road to get a base-line and then in the spring we’d do a few more. I got faster. AJ would teach us about rolling through our gears, how to make a U-turn in the fastest possible way while still staying upright, how to dole out our energy. I got faster still. It was exhilarating, getting faster. More exhilarating was the knowlege that I was making myself faster, that all the tools for my success or failure were in my hands. I was never the very best, but the women who could beat me made up a small crowd; two of them were my own teammates who knew my tricks. For the specific event I trained for, I was top-tier. I did not start out top-tier, but I ended there. I forced my way into that circle by sheer will. And I was never the very best, but I was proud to have gotten so close.

Jan Ullrich. He stood on the very edge of greatness, of once-in-a-generation, once-in-a-lifetime larger than life greatness. Season after season he frustrated the cyclist in me so. So close, so very close, just a few calories, a few more hours on the road away from blinding greatness. But the gap between him and the small handful of guys who could beat him was too small for him to see. He was too good, far far too good, to see for himself how much harder he still needed to work and the people around him failed him by not driving home the point. For a person like me to be a step away from great (within my little universe, of course) was a tremendous success. For a person like Jan Ullrich to be a step away from great was a profound failure. He could have been, he should have been so great. Just an ounce, just an hour more effort. But Ullrich had been a Wunderkind and it took him too long to catch on to the fact that that just wasn’t going to cut it in a world filled with work-horses.

Because no matter how good you are, somewhere out there lives somebody just as good. But she’s trying just a little bit harder.

I’ve been around sports long enough to know that there are natural talents. There are people in every sport who have something special. But you know what? Even those people spend hours training, pushing their talents to the very limit. You can have all the natural talent in the world, but if you don’t take your coach’s advice, research the opposition, train regularly, hone your skills, learn some new tricks and keep up with the competition that natural talent can only take you so far. And you learn things about yourself as you bump up against your limits, as you find within yourself the desire to be the first one in the training room and the last one out, as you learn to see the connection between effort and outcome. You learn about effort, about will-power, about mental strength. You can apply those skills to schoolwork, to the job, to running a marathon because you want to, to saving money so that you can quit your job and travel for six months.

In February, at the end of the hockey season, R and I made a point of seeking out the trainer who had worked with Small Boy to help him overcome a bad habit that was interfering with his skating (he bent his right ankle out so that he was constantly on the outside edge of the blade, and to skate you need to push off the inside edge). We thanked him, and he said that Small Boy had done the work and we said but you took the time to teach him how to fix it, and M said he could see how hard Small Boy was trying and how fixing that little thing would help so much. M said, he has such a will.

I’ve written before about my little work horse, my Most Improved Player. You couldn’t pay me even to want to know if Small Boy has “the athlete gene.” I couldn’t care less. Actually, that’s not entirely true. I suspect Small Boy would be better off without it. Maybe, given my own experience and given the kind of hockey players my father taught me to admire, I’m biased towards work horses, but give me a work horse every time. Wunderkinds come and go. Work horses are in it for the long haul.

Walk with me outside the comfort zone

February 8th, 2011

The boys’ hockey school is losing some trainers at the end of this season. The two trainers – husband and wife – who work with the littlest kids, with the kids who have maybe never been on skates before and who begin the year unable to stand up and who end it at least able to walk across the ice on skate if not to properly glide across it, are leaving. She has been trying to leave since Small Boy started, actually, but the school has always begged her to stay and for two years she has but now she is standing firm. He is leaving at the end of the year; I don’t know if he has wanted to leave before this. The school is losing a third trainer as well, my favorite trainer, and I don’t know if that is common knowledge yet; I won’t even get into what a blow that will be. He’s an amazing trainer. I only know he’s leaving because the woman who trains the littlest ones called me to ask if I am interested in taking her place next year, and it came up in the conversation.

I’m interested. Hockey has given my family a lot over the years, and this school in particular has given Small Boy some wonderous things, and I’d like to give something back to the sport.

I’m also kind of terrified. My natural tendency is to curl inward and to stay in my comfort zone. I like to live in my head but this. This is out there. This is public. This is way outside my comfort zone. This is in Swiss-German. This is important. This is scary.

Tell me your stories about the time you went outside your comfort zone. How did you do it? How do you psych yourself up for it? How did it work out? Were you glad you did it? If it went badly, how long did the I Can’t Believe I Did That moment last? If it went badly, did you try again? Tell me your stories. I think I want to do this, but I’m awfully good at talking myself out of things. Help talk me into it.

Why I Write (stolen from a better writer than I)

January 20th, 2011

Critical theory is full of discussion of the inadequacies of speech, and it’s true that words are arbitary things, assigned to their objects in slippery ways, and that we cannot rely on words to convey to another person what it is like to be ourselves. ‘What proof do we have,’ writes Craig Morgan Teicher, ‘that/when I say mouse, you do not think/of a stop sign?’

But we have nothing else, and when words are tuned to their highest ability, deployed with the strengths the most accomplished poets bring to bear on the project of saying what’s here before us – well, it is possible to feel, at least for a moment, language clicking into place, into a relation with the world that feels seamless and inevitable. If that is a dream, so be it. At that instant when langague seems to match experience, some rift is healed, some rupture momentarily salved in what Hart Crane called ‘the silken skilled transmemberment of song.’

Mark Doty, The Art of Description: World into Word

When grief ages

July 29th, 2010

I have been writing this post for days; I have been writing this post all month; I have been writing this post for twenty years. My father died twenty years ago today of lung cancer. He didn’t even live a year past his diagnosis, the diagnosis he received while I was in my junior year of college. The diagnosis he and my mother weren’t going to tell me about until my brother threatened to tell me himself if they didn’t. They told me when I came home over the long Thanksgiving weekend, and he was dead the following July. Eight months. Eight months, more half of which I missed finishing out my junior year. My father wouldn’t hear of me taking time off and coming back home. He wanted no part of me putting college on hold. (I can’t recall if I actually suggested doing that. If I did, I can well imagine I said it knowing he would refuse.) It was the pride of his life that he, a high school drop-out, put both his kids through college debt free. He didn’t live to see my senior year, but by the time he died he knew the tuition had been covered; he knew I’d be able to finish without having to work. He was quietly but implacably opposed to me holding a part time job during the academic year. “No, you won’t get a job,” he told me when I said I could work part time to help make up the difference between in-state tuition at the University of Illinois, where my brother went and where I could not, would not follow, and the out-of-state tuition at Indiana University where I wanted to go. “Your job is to be a student. My job is to pay for it.” He wanted me to be a student. He wanted me to take classes and study and make friends and play sports and have the time to do whatever it was that kids did in college. (Things he didn’t get to do; I’m well aware that he needed me to have the full co-ed experience because he never had it. There are worse dreams to pin on your children and god knows I don’t hold it against him. I found my best self in those four years, and I owe that to him.)  

So I went to Indiana, with its collegiate cycling tradition, and I had the time to be a cyclist in college because my father was an old-fashioned mid-Western man who believed that putting his kids through college was a man’s job; and being a cyclist in college was the best thing I did in those four years. It was where I found my best self. It was also the thing that carried me after he died. The spring of my junior year, when he was dying, and my whole senior year, when his death was raw and unbelievable, cycling saved me. Racing saved me. I rode my bike hard that year and a half, grinding out time trials on Flat Bottom Road, climbing Firehouse Hill then coasting back to the base to climb it again. Riding full of sorrow and anger and self-pity, riding as if I could leave first his cancer and later his death behind me. Riding with my team, who were the only ones who knew what was going on with me. Who were the ones who knew that I wanted it to hurt, I needed it to hurt, I wanted to finish those workouts, those sprinting drills, those team time trails, those spinning drills, and fall over on the side of the road and throw up from the effort. Because if it hurt, if I was gasping for breath, I was still alive.

Now, unbelievably, it’s been twenty years – twenty years! I have been fatherless almost half my life – and the sharp and jagged edges of grief have been worn away; I don’t have loose pieces of glass rattling around inside of me anymore, cutting me anytime I make a sudden move. I don’t wake up from dreams of my father believing for that first confused second that he’s still alive. I don’t miss him every day. I probably do miss him every day but it’s not all-consuming; it’s background music. A kind of emotional white noise. What I miss now are the things I miss on my father’s behalf. The things he missed. He never met my brother’s wife, or my husband, or any of his grandchildren. My father coached hockey, and of his four grandchildren my Small Boy is the only one who plays. My father missed that, his grandson learning to skate. He would have liked my father-in-law. Sharing no common language, they wouldn’t have understood a word the other had to say, but my father-in-law would have taken my dad to an SCB hockey game and they would have been great friends. He would have thought R was a fine man and he would have enjoyed teaching him to fly-fish. He would have laughed when I moved to the farm last year, the laugh of a father sharing with his daughter a private thirty year old joke about living on a farm. I miss these things on his behalf, I mourn for everything he missed and not, I think, for myself anymore. I have had, after all, twenty years to get used to his absence. Grief and I have come to terms.

It still sneaks up on me though. I expect it on days like today, on my father’s birthday or on Thanksgiving, but grief sneaks up on me sometimes, too, at the most unexpected times and in the most unexpected places. In the locker room lacing up the Small Boy’s skates. Racing popsicle stick boats in the creek with the boys. Catching a whiff of coffee beans grinding at the grocery store. It’s there, suddenly, over my shoulder, like a cyclist I can’t drop. It’s not fierce and urgent anymore, though; it’s not racing me to the mountain top. We don’t grind it out, grief and I. It doesn’t taunt me, and I don’t need to beat it. I don’t need to push, and push, and push. I no longer need to be the fastest girl on the track, racing away from my loss.

You can’t out-race grief anyway; it’s got a better bike.

There were also lobster rolls

July 18th, 2010

There wasn’t just poetry. There were also lobster rolls. I ate lobster rolls from the day I landed in Boston to the day I left. I also ate whole lobster, and crab cakes, and fisherman’s stew, and fabulous egg dishes and homemade scones, and pizza by the slice while watching the tide come and go at Duck Creek. I had lattes in the afternoon with individual sized cherry cheesecakes while writing my poems for the next day. I had a beer now and then and, on one occasion, margaritas. (Several.) I ate constantly, wonderfully, deliciously. I ate and ate and ate. I ate much and well. Much more and much more well than usual. I love my boys, but sweet Foxy Brown they manage to take the sheer selfish sensual pleasure of eating from the dinner-time experience and my god how I loved stuffing myself with lobster and crab cakes.

I need more of that in my life. More food, more good food, more grown up food.

Football, American style. And boys.

April 14th, 2010

There is an American football league in Switzerland and on Sunday I took Small Boy to see his first American football game. Judging from the amount of Small Boy mock tackling that went on immediately after kickoff, I may live to regret this, but it was kind of fun. I haven’t been to an American football game in – fifteen years? I went to a Big Ten university and went to some games in college, and at some point after I graduated but before I came to Switzerland I went to a Bears game with my brother, but  that’s been about it in the past twenty-odd years. So it’s been a long time.

It was surprisingly fun, sitting on the hill watching this little piece of Americana and trying to teach Small Boy about American football: my knowledge base was exhausted after about three minutes, for I have never been a football fan. I’m more of a hockey girl. I’ve been to my share of hockey games as a player and a fan, and practices, and Small Boy trainings and I know my way around a hockey rink. I don’t think anybody would say that hockey isn’t an intense game; I don’t think that anybody would say that hockey isn’t seriously physical. But I was struck by the difference between hockey players and football players. Don’t tell me hockey players don’t need to get geared up to play at top intensity for sixty minutes, but man, there is some sort of tribal testosterone-fueled intensity to football players, even these adult-league Swiss football players, that you just don’t see in other sports (and that I can’t say I’m all too keen on), including other hard-hitting sports like hockey. I’d forgotten that about football, that chest-thumping, ball-spiking (yes, even in Switzerland there was ball spiking), head-butting über-guy atmosphere. Even the fan culture was different, though that may have had more to do with the fact that the football game was being played in a public space with no security control (that bottle of Jim Beam would have been confiscated on the way into the hockey stadium): there was the alcohol in the plastic cups and there were the cheerleaders.* (They tried, bless their hearts, but I think I need to slip a copy of Bring it On into their warm-up gear at the next game.)

Small Boy was much taken with the tackling (to my credit I did at least see that coming) and after watching the game for about ten minutes he wanted to play. I play plenty of games with the boys that I’d really sort of rather not: I’ve logged a lot of hours in lawn hockey in all sorts of weather and I’ve gone “hunting” with bows and arrows, I’ll wrestle on the floor and pretend to be a dragon, but I draw the line at being tackled in the grass while wearing my only pair of jeans that doesn’t already have a hole in them as a result of all the aforementioned activities. I convinced Small Boy to play touch football with me, but he got bored with that pretty fast and he really wanted some tackling. I saw some boys playing further down the field and suggested to Small Boy that he see if he can play with them.

Bless him, and I don’t know where he gets this from because it sure doesn’t come from me, he walked right up to those boys and asked “Darf ig ou mit?” – can I play too? They said yeah, sure! (and I know it could have ended badly with a No) and the three of them spent the next 45 minutes throwing each other down on the grass (it seemed pretty no-holds barred stuff, too), chasing each other around, and playing some sort of game with knees and feet that from a distance looked a bit like “Let’s see who can break whose leg first.” They had a blast. 

Boys. I know by writing that I’m invoking all sorts of gender stereotypes and inviting comment on my invocation thereof (and comments are open as always), but seriously: boys. No, not every boy wrestles and I know some seriously dare-devil girls, but the more I watch the Small Boy with his peers, the more I watch him rough-house with his uncle and ask his grandfather to make him a bow and arrow, the more I find myself thinking about boy energy and how different it can be and how I don’t always know what to do with it, how very much these boys take me places I never imagined.

What do you think? Is there a “boy-energy,” am I gender-stereotyping, or is there a little bit of both going on? And what do you do when your kids’ favorite thing to do/play/read/watch (Thomas the Train, anyone?) makes your teeth itch?

* Okay, our hockey team has cheerleaders too.

We now return to our regularly scheduled programming

March 7th, 2010

I spoke too soon. I always do. The first warm day always does this, the first buds, the first bees. We saw bees on Monday, bees greedily visiting our pocket of crocuses by the rose bushes, and my mind turned to spring, turned sharp and sudden. It couldn’t last, of course, this is March in Switzerland; we can get – have gotten – snow on Easter, after all. I know that, after all these years I know that a warm day can be followed by snow. But that first day, that first post card from spring, always sets my head spinning.

I’ll take it

January 1st, 2010

2009 was the year I decided to take myself seriously as a poet. 2009 was the year I gave myself permission to try. 2009 was the year I made some writing goals, made them specific and public the better to hold myself accountable to myself.

By my reckoning I made a good year of it. I did not write fifty-two poems but I wrote forty-six things that I am able to call poems under my bizarre internal standards and I’ll take that. I wrote a lot of things that went nowhere, and I’ll take that too, and in the process I learned something about saving the two lines that seem worth saving and moving on and I’ll take that most of all. I sent out fifteen packages and in the end had eight poems published in five journals (with two submissions still pending): my novice self will very much take that, thank you. I subscribed to or requested sample copies of a few new journals, and though I’d love for it to be journals-a-palooza around here, the logistics of the back-and-forth communication about how much extra the journals cost when shipped overseas (because I know journals run on tight budgets and want to be sensitive to this point), and the growing on-line availability of back issues, made it easy for this one to slip by the wayside. I lost count of the poets I added to my collection and am too lazy to go to my studio shelves to figure it out. Suffice it to say I am better read now than I was one year ago. I did not attend a writers’ workshop.

Now it is 2010 and my writing goals are much the same:

  • Write (at least) fifty-two poems this year
  • Send out (at least) twelve packages
  • Attend a writers’ workshop (I’m already registered for this one am applying to one very ambitious one and one slightly less ambitious one Stateside). 
  • Continue to read, read, read. Read more, read more widely, read more critically, read more openly. Read more stuff I never thought I’d read. Read more stuff I’ve already read. Read more stuff I don’t like. Read.

My writing life had a good year. My writing life passed the test I had set up for myself: give it a year and if at the end of the year something from the year is still glimmering, then give it another year. And things are glimmering. I’ve published some pieces that I’m proud of, pieces I think I’ll still be proud to have my name attached to a year from now and a year from then. I’m reading more poetry, and that’s just good for a person’s heart. I’ve found a thing outside of me, outside of my small boys, that is hard and shiny and good. That is mine. This is me, now, this fresh-baked stumbling poet. Maybe not, as Bethany so perfectly put it, for a living, but for a life, yes. For a life, this stumbling poet is me, and I’ll take that.

Mortar and pestle

October 17th, 2009

Last night Small Boy and Boychen were taking turns smashing crackers in my mortar and pestle – I was not cooking anything that required the mortar and pestle but they wanted to use it, so I put some crackers in for them – when Small Boy asked me which was the mortar and which was the pestle. In twenty years of using a mortar and pestle, it never occurred to me to wonder this, though somehow I knew, when I thought about it for a second, that the bowl is the mortar and the stick is the pestle. But I have never actively considered it: it has always simply been my “mortar and pestle” and I use it to make pesto and crush walnuts and grind up a masala.

But of course the Small Boy would ask: there are two words, and there are two things, and he wants to know which noun belongs to which object. He wants to know these things. And so he makes me slow down and look actively at the objects around me and name them. With precision. Which is what I am supposed to do as a poet; yet it takes a four-and-a-half year old to make me look down at my moss-green mortar and pestle set that came across the ocean with me, really look down at it, and make sure that I have a clear picture in my head of which is the mortar, and which is the pestle.

* * *

In other news, Small Boy has crafted his first couplet:
Fly away
bird of prey

He got meter and rhyme in one fell swoop.

Down on the farm

September 16th, 2009

It didn’t take long before we were in each others’ pockets; it’s the boys, mostly, who promote this by running up Grossmütti’s walk and through her front door at all hours. They want to play with Grossmütti, and they want to play with her dog, and they have made their grandparents’ house an extension of their own.

I see my brother-in-law J more than ever, just about every day in fact, and hear myself inviting him to dinner. The Boychen has fallen utterly and completely in love with his uncle’s horses (the first words out of his mouth in the morning, after his brother’s name, are “Lay-dee. App-uh.” and he will not rest until we have brought apples to the horses) and J is kind and patient and gentle explaining the horses, showing the boys how to hold out an apple flat on your palm with your fingers close together and bending towards the ground. The boys sit on the steps and watch their uncle lead the horses from their stalls to the pasture to graze; they help him give them their hay in the evenings. They become part of his routine and he accepts these little boys running tag behind him.

But it’s not just the boys knitting these houses together. It’s me, too. Half-way through cooking dinner one night I discover that I don’t have any tomato paste and I send R over to his parents’ house to borrow some. When my mother-in-law goes away for a weekend, I invite my father-in-law to dinner. Sometimes the boys and I eat lunch over there. This morning I sat in their living room and watched the Bundesratswahl (election of a new member of the seven-member cabinet that heads the Swiss Parliament) with them. They knock on our door for something, I go in search of J about a truck that has arrived to pick up a construction container. We borrow their car when I break the driver’s side rear-view mirror on ours, I ask them if they need anything when I make a dash to the grocery.

I’m enjoying this, this being part of an extended family, learning how to do it for the first time in my life. I like getting to know my brother-in-law. After being married to R for a few weeks shy of ten years now, I feel like I am finally getting to know his brother. I’ve seen him nearly weekly for years, at Sunday dinner or Sunday brunch, but this is different somehow, this calling out hello as The Boychen and I take our morning tour around the farm, this watching him muck out the stalls, drive the fork-lift back and forth to organize the barn, this seeing him come and go and live his life. 

I love seeing my sons with their grandparents. I love that they can have this, their grandparents across the drive, their uncle a huge part of their lives, and through them a connection to the rest of R’s family – cousins in his mother’s home village – that I would never, on my own, cultivate. Two weeks ago I sat with my mother-in-law in the garden of R’s aunt, with one of R’s cousins and her children, and Small Boy played with his first cousins and chattered happily in Swiss and I was happy to be there, part of this big messy family. To my great surprise, I am having such a good time getting all tangled up with this big messy family.