Extreme Sports

0009997_Haiti_Diagram_Paul_Fallon_101103Last weekend I bicycled 200 miles as part of the Courage Classic, a fund raising event for the Colorado Children’s Hospital. It was my fourth year participating in the three-day ride that traverses four major passes, crosses the Continental Divide, and includes over two miles of vertical climb. Riding the Courage Classic makes me feel fit. But as feats of strength and endurance go these days, 200 miles through the Rocky Mountains on paved trails with aid stations every 12 miles is, well, for charity cases.

At one aid station I met a volunteer who was insanely jacked. His arms were as big as my legs; his legs were thunderous. “Why do you volunteer instead of riding?” This guy could ace the course. “Volunteering is a good way for me to help at this gig.” His answer was over-polite.

The next day I ran into him again. He mentioned doing a 100-mile off-road mountain bike ride after his shift. The subtext of his story was clear – he went too far and too fast to bother with the middle-aged dawdlers who ride the Courage Classic.

There are a few hot dogs in the Courage Classic. They start each day at 6 a. m. and finish just after 9 a.m., when some of us are just shipping out of the first rest stop. They are the ones who wear the Double Triple Bypass jerseys (240 miles in two days with 20,000 elevation climb). They never drop to their lowest gear and descend, brake-free, in excess of fifty miles per hour. I ride with the same steadiness I exercise in life. I average about 10 miles per hour, inclusive of breaks and lunch, which through mountains means 6 mph up and no more than 25 mph down.

But just as the Double Triple guys keep me from swelling my head, bigger guns of extreme fitness eclipse them. Iron Men leave marathoners in the dust. Riding on pavement, running on tracks, and swimming in pools is eclipsed by grueling off-road run/bike/swims where the athletes carry all their gear with them the entire way, (NY Times: It’s Entirely Natural: Off Road Races Grow).

What propels this desire to push ourselves in ever more demanding ways? Articles point out our need to counteract sedentary lives, connect with nature, and exorcise primal drives to run from danger and swim to safety. No doubt that’s all true.

I believe there is another motivator in the ceaseless quest to go further, higher, faster: the desire to set ourselves apart from the rest of humanity. We want to do something that puts us in a group of 700 rather than seven billion, or 7 rather than 700, or ultimately, to do something so unique we are the only one. Being in an extreme race makes us part of an elite group, a natural human aspiration. Winning the extreme race makes us special within that group, fulfilling the ultimate human goal of both belonging and triumphing. Trouble is, what it takes to be set apart keeps getting more and more difficult. The races get more extreme; the winning times get faster. We compete against every other individual on the planet as well as the personal bests of everyone who ever competed. What it takes to be number one grows harder every day.

The Courage Classic has no winners; the ribbon I get for finishing about 3 p.m. is the same one as the guys who finish at 9 a.m. I will never compete in an Iron Man or any off-road madness; simply reading about them exhausts me. I will never be the best at any one thing in life. But I am good enough to be content with my lot, and grateful I have the strength and endurance to cycle over the Rocky Mountains at my own pokey pace.

After all, what’s the rush? The landscape is breathtaking.

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Stop by a brook.

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Smell the flowers.

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Enjoy the vista.

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My Handyman

vitruvian_man-001My handyman is coming over tomorrow to check out some rickety windows.  I won’t tell you his name because if you knew it, you would call him to be your handyman.  He hates getting phone calls, and I want to keep first dibs on him.

My handyman does (many of) those little things that are too small for a real contractor.  He reinstalled my deck lights when their wooden bases rotted out.  He fixed a minor dormer leak that persisted after $3000 in roof repairs.  He replaced the crank on a persnickety awning window in my tenant’s bathroom. Replacing the crank required at least three visits plus a special order for an out-of-manufacture part.  The total job took three weeks to complete. His bill was $140.

My handyman is a middle-aged guy who fiddles for fun.  He’s lived in Cambridge forever and remembers the days when we actually made stuff like soap and candy in this city and didn’t just sit around thinking all day. He owns couple of houses that he keeps in shape and works on other folks’ places when the mood suits.

imgresMy handyman has an unpredictable attitude. He turns away every friend I refer to him and often decides my own need is unworthy.  We have a cup of coffee and he explains that I can rewire the light switch and replace the dimmer in my den myself.  He’s right, of course; I can replace them myself.  I only wanted him to do it to free my time for other things – like thinking.  He suffers no patience with such nonsense.  My handyman is a stern teacher. If I can do something myself, I should.  If I can’t, he might.  If he doesn’t want to, I’m stuck and have to search elsewhere.

I always start with him because when he takes on a job he is does it very well, though he’s amusing even when he refuses. I hope my handyman will take on my window repairs. Their condition seems beyond me. But if he refuses, well have a good chat and he’ll give me enough pointers for me to tackle the job.  Or not.

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The True Test of Being Passé – Launching my Middle-initialed Website

vitruvian_man-001No one would call me trendy.  Anti-trendy overstates my level of trend awareness. Trend-ignorant is more like it.  All I know is that for the past fifty plus years, when I begin to favor a restaurant, it’s on its way out; if I like a dance club, its doors are soon to close, and by the time I’ve seen a movie, the rest of the world has already videotaped the sequel. Videotape?  See what I mean.

So with great, irrelevant, fanfare, I am launching a website.  I know, I know, the world has moved on.  There’s Pinterest and Tumblr and Instagram and more obscure, infinitely trendy modes of communication. But I’m branching out with something that complements my grey hair and aging Toyota – an old fashioned website.

imgresEven worse, my site has an archaic name: www.paulefallon.com.  The day before NY Times writer Bruce Feiler officially pronounced the middle initial dead, I bought a domain that inserted the oddball letter ‘e’ into my moniker.

 

imagesI have a rationale for the middle initial; the world has many Paul Fallon’s but I seem to own the Paul E. Fallon market.  A few years ago I started inserting the ‘E’ everywhere, so it makes sense it is now passé. I could have used my entire middle name – Eric. But let’s face it; an Irish guy named Eric is nothing more than the lifelong burden tacked on a baby by an exhausted woman who had too many children too close together. The simple ‘E’ might induce someone to think my middle name is Eamon or Emmet, which are respectively Irish enough.

So, if you want to expose yourself to last century’s cutting edge technology, visit www.paulefallon.com.  It’s simple: a few pull-downs; some links; tidbits about my upcoming book; my yoga teaching; my projects in Haiti.  Nothing flashy. Nothing trendy.  Just me.

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Amour and Puppy Love

vitruvian_man-001Here is a maxim to live by: Never watch a depressing French film with a puppy.

My friend Chuck raved about Amour. It won lots of awards. I decided to set aside my distaste for subtitles and watch it.

My son has a black lab puppy, Baxter, three months old.  He was going to a wedding and needed someone to watch the pup. My first opportunity to be a grandparent.

Andy arrived on a hot July afternoon laden down like any new parent. Baxter had a crate, a blanket cover, a tin of food, a packet of treats, a leash and a toy.  Andy set him up in the basement, where its cool. The puppy eyed his master with love and longing as he exited.  Then Baxter gave me a dismissive glance and oozed his furry body over the cool concrete.

imgres-1Three hours later I took Baxter for a walk.  He was fine with the idea, except I forgot to bring the treats he is supposed to get as a reward every time he goes to the bathroom outside.  He peed, moved to the side, sat obediently and looked to me for his treat.  When none was forthcoming, he gave me a dismissive look and moved only when I tugged his collar.  More disgust when he successfully pooped. He liked the spray fountain in the park, but it hardly compensated for my lack of treats.

After our walk I put Baxter in his crate and went to yoga.  When I returned we took another walk – this time with treats.  His attitude was much improved.  Afterward I gave him dinner and became his BFF.

I turned on Amour but there was no turning off Baxter.  He was no longer content to chill in the basement. He had to be with me.  He raced around the den during Emmanuelle Riva’s initial stroke, struggled to climb on the sofa when she returned from the hospital, succeeded in getting onto the cushions as she mastered her electric wheelchair, chewed on my sandals when she was getting her diaper changed, licked my ears while Isabelle Huppert fought with Jean-Louis Trintignant, and flopped his hot and sweaty belly over my lap when the old man finally smothered his deteriorating wife. Puppies lack gravitas.

imgresAlthough it is hardly fair to pen a critique of anything more serious than Turner and Hooch with a puppy cavorting during a film, Amour made two impressions on me. First, I loved their apartment. So did the director, whose lingering stills of the quiet rooms and the severe art made the sumptuous, Parisian living space an integral character.  Second, I realized the importance of a movie title. Amour. We know, going in, that they love each other. Imagine if the movie had been called Smothered, which is actually what happens.  No awards for that movie. Nada.

When I put Baxter back in his create he whimpered, sorry to see me go. A few treats and a bowl of dry food were all it took. Baxter loves me for life.  Dogs are so much easier than people.

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Which Would You Prefer – Sit Still or Experience a Shock?

awkward_pose_3-001This is a reposted blog essay from on of my favorite bloggers: yogibattle.

Here is some disturbing news from the Western front: many people can barely tolerate to be alone with themselves. At least those were the findings in a series of research studies done by Harvard and the University of Virginia. In one case, subjects had preferred to give themselves an electric shock break to tolerate the silence of having to sit for 15 minutes without any form of stimulation.

Should this be alarming? Some may argue that this is the consequence of the electronic age. Even I have a hard time not checking my WordPress stats a few free moments in the day. But on a deeper level, this means that many people are going the exact opposite direction to knowing their true selves, which is the lofty aspiration set out in the Pantanjali Yoga Sutras.

sittting-in-painFirst we must ask what the value is in sitting alone without interruption. Most of my regular readers would gasp at that question, but for the lay person in the Western world, this is a perplexing question. As a yoga teacher, I have to “sell” the idea that sitting for prolonged periods is the only way one can get to “know” themselves truly.

Yoga practice cultivates not only the ability to be alone with yourself for prolonged periods, it makes it so you have a hard time tolerating that which keeps you away from that silence, then transcends that “intolerance” into being peaceful and silent inside no matter what the world throws at you.

screen-shot-2014-07-07-at-3-31-53-pmMy mentoring teacher took this picture during her last trip to India. She said this man sits here daily for hours on end and “disappears” into the bench. This man has not only embraced his silence, he may have even attained the Siddhi of turning himself invisible!

 

 

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Our Shrinking Engineering Legacy

usa-001This essay was published in WBUR Cognoscenti on July 2, 2014.

I took a walk with a friend through Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Mass., last weekend to enjoy summer’s long days and pleasant weather. Some of the cemetery’s most striking features are directly descended from retreating glaciers: Consecration Dell is a kettle pond; Indian Ridge Path follows an eskar; and Tower Hill is a kame. The picturesque hills, the mammoth specimen trees, winding paths, manicured gardens and ornately carved stones look like they’ve been there forever. But they haven’t. The cemetery’s landscape was embellished by extensive earthwork and ambitious plantings to create a nineteenth century vision of perfect harmony between nature and man. A vision engineered to look like eternity.

When we climbed Washington Tower to take in the view, our first impression was Boston as a city of trees. Except for the high-rise spine that stretches from the Financial District through Back Bay – a man-made esker, if you will – the view from a few hundred feet up is of undulating green, punctuated by steeples and the occasional tall building. Like the cemetery itself, the tree canopy gives a naturalistic veneer to a heavily engineered landscape. IMG_0731

From Washington Tower’s vantage, Boston’s main attributes appear fixed. The Charles River winds between clear banks, with highways and structures on both sides. The infrastructure of our city, however, is more complex than that ordered image appears. Much of Boston was indeterminate tidal marsh that our forebears shaped into dry land and discreet water paths. They filled in the Back Bay with gravel imported from Needham. Eventually, they solidified the South End and the land where the MIT campus stands, as well. With certainty of purpose, they crafted the face of the city.

Civil Engineering – creating the land, water and transit ways that define Boston today – reached its heyday in the nineteenth century, when our desire to reshape the environment was at last matched by our ability to do so. Major construction was not limited to pyramids and palaces; we shaped the neighborhoods where everyday people lived.

Today, our visions are less grand. Perhaps it’s because our processes of construction are more complicated; we have more regulations, more input by neighbors and more environmental concerns. Perhaps it is because, having moved so much earth, there is no joy in moving any more. Probably, it is the logical evolution of a more complex society that yearns for new challenges.

Grand projects are still feasible, but their rewards seem less inspiring. Boston’s Big Dig was on scale with filling in the Back Bay. Instead of building a railroad and leveling gravel hills in Needham, we built the Haul Road and expanded Spectacle Island with the earth we removed. Building a highway beneath the city was more technologically complex than filling Back Bay, but it lacked equivalent civic pizzazz.  The Zakim Bridge, the Big Dig’s sole landmark, is visible from Mount Auburn Cemetery’s Washington Tower, but it’s not as majestic as the sweep of Back Bay.

When my friend and I descended the tower, I felt tiny in the shadows of former engineering triumphs. I realized that two hundred years from now, Boston will look different than it does today, but not so different than it looked two hundred years ago. The fundamental engineering moves that define our city are in place.IMG_0733

As we wandered, our conversation wandered as well, from the latest apps on our iPhones and starting a new website, to a friend’s minimally invasive brain surgery and Skyping with overseas coworkers. Our ramblings made me realize that contemporary engineering wonders occupy a different scale from civil engineering. We transform our world with tiny things. When we bounce electrons into space, we bypass the need for roads or railways. We don’t have to climb a tower to appreciate today’s engineering because it fits in our hand. Our pocket wonders have reshaped daily life, but ubiquity renders them ordinary. It’s hard to find magic in something that is everywhere.

A climb to the top of Washington Tower made me pause and consider the audacity and gumption that shaped our city. We deserve an equivalent burst of awe when a doctor threads a scope through our arteries, when we see a face we love from the other side of the globe appear live on a screen, even when the web leads us to a terrific Mexican joint in an unfamiliar neighborhood. But our electronic marvels don’t deliver an inspirational spike on a summer afternoon walk. Our ancestors’ legacy surrounds us in steel and stone. Our legacy ricochets, invisible, through cyberspace.

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Free Stuff – It’s Moving Season

usa-001I am sitting in my study on a warm summer Saturday afternoon.  My third floor tenant is moving out.  I have offered to help, but he’s a big guy, as is his boyfriend, so they’ve got it covered. They load the basics into a U-Haul, drive it off to their new place, then return and unload miscellaneous items on the sidewalk. A pair of white chairs, a microwave, an air conditioner, a few fans.  They put signs saying the items are free, and that they work.

I decide I could use the white chairs in my bedroom, since my old rocker has had a broken cane seat for going on ten years.  By the time I make my way downstairs and out front, a Volkswagen has parked and a couple has claimed the chairs. No matter, I take a fan.  An extra fan is always handy.

IMG_0772By the time I return to my study, my tenant has added more stuff to the sidewalk. An end table, a few lamps, two bookcases.  I decide the floor lamp could replace the broken one in my bedroom.  My bedroom has become the repository for broken household goods.  In a big house there is no need to get rid of broken things, and since I hate to shop, only essentials are replaced. Since I never actually sit in my bedroom, a broken rocker and lamp hardly matter.

I get to the sidewalk in time to claim the floor lamp. It looks great in my room. I throw the broken one out.

IMG_0773Back in my study I watch the steady stream of pedestrians and cars that stop, analyze, and tote treasures away.  The bookcases go fast, but the microwave has no takers. Some things, even when free, are not worth the responsibility of transport and redistribution. As for the lamp with the feather shade?  It might get snatched up in a second in the South End, but here in Cambridge, it gets passed over time and again.

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