Sunday, June 8, 2008


I took my bike out of storage last week and have been riding it around Carmel in an effort to get myself into reasonable aerobic shape. I haven’t been sleeping well the last few weeks, more so than usual, and so I figure that some physical exhaustion might also help me to wind down better the evenings. Reclaiming said bike required a lot of unpacking. My Giant Yukon had been shipped to Bucharest in 2006, ridden twice in 2007, and then shipped in 2008 to Indianapolis, where it sat in storage for several months, wrapped in brown packing paper, cardboard, and tape. It fared well for all of the travel. The people at the bike shop said it was in good condition, didn’t need any work, and so I should ride it around for the summer and bring it back in if anything doesn’t seem right. So far so good.

There is something positively adolescent about donning a t-shirt, cargo shorts, and helmet, and setting out across the suburbs for a long ride. Fountains of Wayne plays on the mental soundtrack. The setting and associations suggest an oversized BMX dirt bike. I think this is why so many of my fellow adult male cyclists wear spandex (often with Italian racing endorsements patched across the body, and up and down the thighs). One rarely mistakes a middle-aged man in neon yellow and black Lycra, hunched forward and aerodynamically sipping water from a fluted plastic bladder, for a teenager. This is one difference I notice between living in the Midwest (which I’ve done most of my life) and visiting the Bay Area (which I’ve done twice). In the Midwest, there are fairly rigid ideas of fashion, which fall within reasonably conventional patterns of identity: hip mom, slacker dad, disaffected teenager, cyclist, etc. When we lived in Miami, I prided myself on wearing a “Transplanted Midwesterner” daily regimen of canvas shorts or linen drawstring pants, running shoes, a solid-colored t-shirt and a Cubs hat. In photos, the outfit suggests something between “Margaritaville!” and “Hey, I just got married—I’m gonna let myself go!” but at the time it seemed like a conscious rejection of high-end Miami fashion whatever. I guess you can take the boy out of Kansas, but the Kansas follows you wherever you shop.

Katie bought me the bike as a 2004 Christmas present. I had been riding around on her brother Richard’s old Cannondale, which was a great bike, but was also entirely too small for my prodigious frame. We had found these great mountain biking trails in North Miami, right near the FIU campus, where I undertook a daily habit of riding during my mid-afternoon writing breaks. There were only four or five actual trails, but accessing them via short-cut (rather than riding out onto Route 1, heading north a couple of miles, and looping back in at the entrance) was a great adventure: navigating a long gravel trail, passing a State Trooper station, winding through a brief stretch of mangrove, and finally trekking up a short hill, around a fence, and down a longer hill to where the “diamond” trail began. Katie once lent her bike to a guy we knew, who crashed it trying to navigate the diamonds, so I generally steered clear. I wasn’t much for the challenging trails, anyway, instead making the long outer loop, over and over again, until I felt exhausted enough to head home.

I love getting lost in the subdivisions of suburban Indianapolis. They are not nearly as complicated as they seem, which is a plus. Less to wizard out, more reason to sort of trick myself into thinking that I’ve gotten involved in more than I really have. I used to love this about biking Overland Park, KS, and then later, Rye, NY: setting out alongthe well-manicured lawns and impeccable driveways of a new stretch of repeating houses, following block after block as they gradually slope in one direction, then coming out, a mile or so later, right back where I started. Then, as now, it is the illusion of being lost that I can handle much better than the real deal.

Ben and I were walking around Chicago last weekend and we got to talking about how much Katie liked Cat Stevens. We went on for a while, arguing the relative merits of his songs, the incarnation as Yusef Islam, the soundtrack to “Harold and Maude” (also one of Katie’s favorites). We were up in Andersonville, and we tried to make a short-cut east from Clark St., back towards the Lake, when a car coming from the street caused us to jog down a different alley, so that we got turned around. Coming back out to Clark St. we passed a party going on from one of the balconies, four or so stories up. Some rock song ended, there was the usual party chatter, and then, clear as could be, “Moonshadow” started up. I know that it’s not like discussing Berlioz and then hearing the “Symphonie Fantastique”—it’s conceivable that Cat Stevens would be on the playlist for a Chicago shindig—but man was I glad that Ben was there to witness what was, for me, a meaningful synchronicity.

I’ve been cycling through iTunes, trying to find new and/or overlooked songs that remind me of Katie, sort of like a “Greatest Hits Vol. 2” or one of those re-release compilations that got Willie Nelson out of hoc with the IRS. Katie received an iTunes gift certificate at the beginning of last June, and we used it to download “Free To Be You and Me” and “The Judds Greatest Hits.” The former is closely associated, for me, with the memorial services of last July, and of the latter I really only know “Mama He’s Crazy,” which Katie used to play around the apartment. In many of the songs that Katie loved, there is optimism and a heartfelt, if guarded, romanticism, which is quite endearing. I’m thinking of songs like Randy Travis’s “Forever and Ever, Amen,” John Prine’s “All The Best,” Iris Dement’s “Let the Mystery Be,” and Susan Werner’s “Barbed-Wire Boys.”

Last week, I was looking through some boxes that came back from Romania, and I found this Sudoku book where Katie had worked most of the puzzles. Whenever she finished one quickly, or finished a challenging one, she would write all over the puzzle in this exuberant, loping script, things like, “YES! TWO DAYS!” and “FINISHED!!!” She would also write messages around the puzzles, when we were in the apartment, passing them over my way, if I was really caught up in writing, if she was off doing her own thing, if one of us was talking on Skype, etc. Finding those puzzles was like writing a poem and coming upon a really good metaphor for what was great about being married to Katie. It’s one of the great things about writing poetry: you write and write the lines until, eventually, a few clear and precise images (or even one) carry a multitude of meanings. In grief, I’ve found so many extreme moments to settle my mind on—fights or trips, job stress or movie marathons, big nights out or quiet nights in—trying to make sense of a senseless event, trying to understand how one enormous, tragic moment can make sense in the context of the years of a life. Maybe time quiets these louder moments, lets the smaller ones slowly come out. The representation of a life can’t really be the collection of a few anecdotes, any more than it can be one thing we want to see in exclusion of everything else. I used to find finished Sudoku pages torn out of the book, all over the apartment. We even used them for scrap paper.

I came up with this haiku a couple of months ago, which I wanted to use for my “12 Months” poem, but recently I’ve undertaken something I like more, that may or may not bear out by the 23rd. Thank goodness, I guess, for ambitious projects that distract from the day-to-day. Anyway, here's that haiku:

Green apples—

are you fucking kidding me?

Green apples.


Stephanie said...

You know I'm a sucker for a great haiku.
You should listen to the new Yusuf Islam CD - I have it - there are a couple of songs that you will really enjoy, I think - seem very John and Katie-esque...


Anonymous said...

Hi, John, Enjoyed reading this entry, and it's good to hear you're doing some biking. The key thing, more than getting exercise, is "just say no to spandex."
See you,

Anonymous said...

Bring your bike up to Minneapolis! We can go for miles and miles on the trails up here...and maybe karaoke some mindy smith or patty griffin.