Reaching Out

In my current quest to regenerate my knee, I first reached out to a long-time friend, who went through arthroscopic surgery last year for similar issues. Here’s what I said:

Since the first of the year, my R knee has been swelling to a greater or lesser extent, so I went to see a Sports MD, and got an MRI.

The key paragraph in the report:

Lateral meniscus degeneration is present. The lateral meniscus 
demonstrates a posterior horn, faint, inner one third, horizontal, 5 
mm in length meniscal tear. Extension identified to the inferior 
articular surface. The lateral compartment cartilage demonstrates 
mild grade 1/2 chondromalacia. The lateral collateral ligamentous 
complex as well as the posterior, lateral corner stabilizers of the 
knee remain intact.”
 

So, a small (1/4”) tear in the meniscus, which is fraying; and pretty bad degeneration of the cartilage on the outside and under the patella.

Is this anything like what you have/had? And if so, exactly what did they do, if anything, to the cartilage? Did you consider platelet or stem cell injections?

My discussion with the SportsMD guy left things pretty much in my hands. I’m going to keep biking and swimming full bore. I’ll run what I can, but give up speed, volume and frequency and (for now at least) going up or down hills. I’ll see an orthopedist when I get back from Spain end of April/May, but I’d rather not consider any surgery unless I can’t run at all AND that would give me a chance to keep shuffling for another year or two, until I turn 72 or so.

And, down the road, if it ever comes to not being able to ski, I’d consider a new knee, as that would probably let me keep sliding around.

I’m looking for thoughts, ideas, not sympathy…

And he replied:

I would defer any decisions until you get a good orthopedic opinion.

I’m surprised you characterize the results as “pretty bad degeneration”.  The fraying or tear is pretty common for our age ( see my MRI).

Stem cell or platelets injections have never been seriously peer-reviewed and in my research pretty much BS.  Certainly not evidence based standard of care.

I would not dismiss the value of PT if so recommended by orthopedist.  I had chondromalacia findings a long time ago, and PT made a huge difference.

Knee replacement, I would guess, is a very long way off.

Cutting back a little in light of the swelling makes sense for now.  But I would avoid any major compromise in your training until after an orthopods opinion comes in, unless the swelling or pain becomes problematic

And my reaction:

Two things in this note…

First, thanks for your measured and dispassionate to my current gnarly knee. When I was in medical school, the one part of the body I never wanted to see during pro-sections was the knee… it looked and felt so complex and important, that I developed a variant of medical student’s syndrome about it, having a fear and worry that I would somehow damage it. I’ve carried that all my life, so this current episode feeds on that adolescent emotion.

Everything you say is consistent with what I’ve seen while obsessively googling things. Back to this after the second item I want to share with you:

I hope you are reading this week’s New Yorker, the one with the eye on the cover, analyzing the brain on a couch (on my iPad, the eye rotates). Among the three mind-centric articles (I don’t count the one about Scott Pruitt, which I am assiduously avoiding), be sure to read the one by Larissa MacFarquhar on a philosopher named Andy Clark.

Remember my enthusiasm about the U of WA neuroscientist who combined musings on the origin of our brain/mind development with his trips down the Grand Canyon? He felt that the need to throw accurately to kill megafauna required immense brain power and neuronal coordination, selecting for larger and larger brains. The brain thus grew bigger, and since we weren’t continuously throwing spears at saber tooth tigers, we had a lot of free time to think up stuff like wheels, cooking, and the theories of evolution and relativity, etc.

So Dr. Clark has taken a journey over the past 30 years about artificial intelligence, robots, the purpose of the brain and its role in the world. The whole article is fascinating, but two steps along the way particularly interested me. First,   after watching how difficult it was for robots and artificial intelligence to be easily functional and plastic, he realised that “the line between action and thought was more blurry than it seemed. A creature didn’t think in order to move; it just moved, and by moving it discovered the world that then formed the contents of its thoughts.” Hmm:  I move, therefore I think?

The second idea which struck me: “Each step…took him further away from the idea of cognition as a disembodied language and toward thinking of it as fundamentally shaped by the particular structure of its animal body, with its arms and its legs and its neuronal brain.”

I’ve long resonated with both those ideas, that our mind is not separate from the body, but ultimately arises from the totality of the organism (Clark has some interesting ideas concerning just where the boundary is between mind and the world around it…) You can see how this loops back to my reaction to finding damage of any sort in any part of me – how is it going to change not just my anatomy, not just what I am able to do, but ultimately, who I am.

But you’ve probably noticed that a lot in this second phase of our friendship. Luckily, I have several traits which serve me well: I’m pretty good at assessing and analyzing; I’m basically optimistic; and I am obsessively goal-driven. Right now, I’m using the first two traits to get me towards the third.

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Rotten To The Core

“When did that tree fall over?” Cody asked. He had driven down from Seattle for one of his periodic visits with Cheryl’s perpetually overloaded computer. She takes literally 1,000s of pictures at a time, and has a tenuous hold on the finer points of file management. He’s forever chaining on new hard drives, and trying to make sense of her naming schemes.

I assumed he meant the alder that had crashed down two or three years ago, the one I cut up into firewood which warmed us for two winters. “A couple of years ago?” I ventured.

“No, this one looks like it was rotten.” He guided me onto the porch, and pointed. “That one was tall and skinny; only had branches at the very top. Must have been some wind while we were gone.”

I grew a little anxious. Among the goliaths in our “back” yard stood a very thin and very tall Douglas Fir, endlessly seeking light above the maple tree which it was forever racing to the sun. I’d always worried it was too rickety to stand, that one day it would come crashing into the house, being only 25 feet away and at least three times that high.

Cody went on: “I bet it was getting rotten inside; it always looked a little sick.” He fancied himself a tree doctor, or at least diagnostician. As a boy, he’d spent a lot of time in our forest. He’s been predicting the demise of a new growth hemlock outside the glass block window for several decades now. It does sport fungal growths on its needles, but keeps getting stronger and fuller every year.

But he was right. That Doug Fir had indeed fallen over. Luckily, either the wind or its own internal tilt away from the maple had caused it to topple due south, uphill towards the sun. The deeply furrowed bark, and absence of any branches along the trunk, gave its identity away.

The base of the tree was visible. Not a root ball, pulling up great clods of earth, but rather a clean shearing, almost as if someone had cut, a few inches below the soil, the tree away from its foundation. I remembered seeing that a few days earlier, thinking it was one of the leftovers from an actual tree felling.The base looked a bit like one of those artisanal mesquite table tops, and whorls, gnarls, and knots, neatly smooth, sanded, and lacquered.

The next morning, I walked across the lawn (actually, the bed of moss which has replaced most of the grass there) to the moss-covered semi-circular concrete wall which  protects our house from the hillside above. Within its confines rise – rose – an ancient maple, and the slender fir, now supine. I struggled up the trunk of another fallen giant, resting near the wall at least since we arrived here, 35 years ago. It has shrunk a bit since then, decomposition relentlessly paring it down from three feet to 18 inches in diameter.

I was struggling, as right now I’m only able to fully use one knee. For the past three months, my right knee has been more or less swollen, depending on just how much I abuse it. A star-crossed attempt at one-upmanship in the weight room on January 8th was the first insult. In preparation for every ski season, for the past five decades, I have been grinding away at my knees with heavy weights on a squat machine, or something similar. This year, I had been slowly working my way up to 360 pounds (plus my own weight), or four 45# plates on each side. This was working well, but I had only ten more days left until I returned to the ominously barren slopes of Snowmass for another attempt at downhill glory. Sharing the small “leg room” with me was a young man, whom for some reason I felt I needed to impress. So after the 8 repetitions at 360#, I added another plate on each side, four more reps. I felt no immediate discomfort, but the next day, I noted in my training diary, “Right knee swollen.” Since I almost never add anything other than time, distance, effort, etc., this must have really impressed me. Also, my running sort of fell off the cliff. I had been going out almost every day for nearly 4 months, but I ran on the 11th (a two day rest), the 12th…and then not again until after I returned from skiing, February 3rd. I went back to daily running until leaving again for skiing, two weeks later.

While skiing in January, I did notice a little bit of strain in my right knee, when trying steep or bumpy slopes. But on March 5th, the best ski day of the year, I insisted on spending the morning chasing after Cody in the new snow, then spending the afternoon with Cheryl cruising through the chop. About 1:15 PM, we stopped for a break, and I found I could not walk up the stairs without my knee crying out in pain. I kept skiing though, going about 50% more than my usual day.

Ever since then, running has been pretty much of a non-starter, walking downstairs an adventure in agony, and the swelling giving me aches and restricted movement. I already had an MD appointment a few days after returning, which led to an MRI two weeks later. It showed, in technical terms:

“Medial meniscus degeneration is present. There is some abnormal signal within the posterior horn of the medial meniscus, but no definite extension identified to an articular surface. Therefore, this is likely related to meniscal degeneration. No definite signs of a medial meniscus tear. Medial compartment cartilage demonstrates mild grade 1/2 chondromalacia. Medial collateral ligamentous complex remains intact.

“Lateral meniscus degeneration is present. The lateral meniscus demonstrates a posterior horn, faint, inner one third, horizontal, 5 mm in length meniscal tear. Extension identified to the inferior articular surface. The lateral compartment cartilage demonstrates mild grade 1/2 chondromalacia. The lateral collateral ligamentous complex as well as the posterior, lateral corner stabilizers of the knee remain intact.

“Patellofemoral joint alignment is adequately maintained. Severe, grade 3/4 chondromalacia is present within this compartment, with a large chondral ulcer along the lateral patellar facet measuring 1.3 cm in diameter. Osseous edema is present within the lateral femoral condyle, with an epicenter at the femoral trochlear groove. This is likely related to subchondral fibrovascular reaction, from the patient’s severe chondromalacia. Also identified is a chondral rest within the lateral femoral condyle measuring 1 cm in diameter, as an incidental finding.”

Put as simply as I can, the bony undersurface of my knee cap has been worn down where it meets the femur, or upper leg bone. The cartilege which is supposed to protect those bones is pretty threadbare. My body’s chronic attempts at healing this insult to its integrity has resulted a lot of fluid showing up everywhere, particularly in the bone itself. That excess fluid fills the space between the bones, the knee joint, and pooches out in a sac behind the joint, called a Baker’s (after the men who described it) cyst.

The pain and stiffness comes from the swelling itself; further sharp pains flare up when the bone finds itself grinding out of the groove it has worn for itself over the years.

This has been a long time coming, and these findings did not erupt overnight. First, years of doing the whip (“frog”) kick as a youth swimming breast-stroke for various teams, then annual ski adventures since age 18, weight lifting most of my life, mountain biking and long cycle trips in the ‘90s, and finally 1,000 miles of running every year from 1999-2016 have taken their toll. I am slowly rotting from the inside, and need to make some decisions and changes to avoid toppling over.

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The Monk of Mokha

Within the space of 8 months in 1991/2, Dave Eggers lost both his mother and father to cancer. At the time, they were in their 50s, he was 21, and he had a younger brother, Christopher, who was 8. His two older siblings were unable to care for Toph, so Eggers dropped out of his journalism studies at University of Illinois, moved to the Bay Area, and, struggling with sudden parenthood, began taking care of Toph. Eight years later, he produced his first book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, an account of that struggle, which became an NYTimes number one bestseller and received multiple best book of the year awards.

That book was somewhere between a non-fiction novel and a memoir of pain and growth. It included a number of stylistic pirouettes, and was deeply engaging with its post-adolescent manic energy, whipsaw perspective shifts, and uproarious tangents.

While he has written several novels, it’s become clear over the subsequent two decades that Eggers is still a journalist at heart, with Dickensian story telling skill, and a poet’s mastery of language. In 2006, he wrote what he termed a novel, What Is The What: The Autobiography of Valentin Achak Deng. Deng came to Eggers, seeking help to write his story, an odyssey as one of Sudan’s “Lost Boys”, who traveled for years from the war-torn land through refugee camps to America. Deng realised he was not up to the task, and Eggers, after immersing himself in the details, ended up writing the tale. By calling it a “novel”, he felt he was able to imagine conversations, and weave the narrative more tightly than a pure chronological recitation would produce.

In 2009, Zeitoun took a similar tack in the story of a Muslim-American family dealing with the aftermath of Katrina’s devastation to their home and community in New Orleans. Eggers, while doing research and talking with others involved to triangulate the story he was hearing from the title character, retained his journalistic roots. But again, he remained committed to finding a powerful story within the constraints of real life.

After several works of pure fiction showed that making up a story and telling it well don’t have quite the punch of a well-told, nuanced real life drama, he has returned to non-fiction with The Monk of Mokha. Again, Eggers has made the wise (or lucky?) choice of starting with a compelling lead character: Mokhtar Alkhanshali, a Yemeni-American. Mokhtar, born in California, at first seems to be sliding through life on charm, wit, and episodic superficial commitment to grand plans and failed dreams. But a chance encounter with an ex-girlfriend leads him into the rabbit-hole of coffee’s history, with its almost forgotten origin in Yemen.

Yemen, a land he is from, but not of. Nonetheless, Mokhtar develops a fervor for bringing coffee from that country into specialty shops in the US. He envisions restoring Yemeni coffee to a place of eminence, despite its reputation as sludge fit solely for the lower classes in Saudia Arabia. He creates for himself an almost impossible goal. He knows nothing about coffee: its cultivation, processing, transport, and retail sale. While he does have relatives well-placed in Yemen, they know nothing about coffee cultivation. The farmers there have converted most of their crops from coffee to the mild narcotic plant, khat. He has absolutely no business experience. He has no background with which to judge the quality of coffee anywhere along the supply chain. The venture capitalists he finds within the Yemeni-American community pull out at the last moment, once the civil war in Yemen heats up.

But all this is mere prelude to the final third of the book, a driving narrative of escape from that war as improbable as it is heroic. Even though we know Mokhtar lived to tell the tale, Eggers keeps the suspense at full throttle through to the end, as he holds out the answer to the key question – “Will Yemeni coffee finally make it to the market?”

Mokhtar is more complex than any imagined, fictional character could be. At once comic, tragic, and heroic, he ends up being someone worth rooting for. And there’s no one better than Eggers at getting us on the side of someone like that.

Posted in Reviews: Books, Movies, Music, TV | Leave a comment

Gondola Stories – I

The mid-day sun warms up a gondola cage, even on a cold day in January. Skiers fresh from the shuss down Little Nell, then removing skis, carrying them up to the loading dock, and hoisting them into those racks on the side of the car, sit down, and immediately start removing gloves, hats, scarves, anything to cool off.

The guy opposite us, a friendly-looking chap, took off his helmet and balaclava, revealing, in addition to a blond and grey beard, twinkling hazel eyes, and a smiling, wrinkled gaze, an old-line cycling cap, the kind with a small brim and logos across the sides – “Ajax Cycling Club”, in his case.

“Oh, you’re a roadie!” I offered with a grin. He fumbled at his topper, ready to take it off and look, but instead, he launched into a quick explanation.

“Oh, yeah; no. I’m mostly into mountain biking these days.” A crisp hint of a fading Aussie accent. A chuckle, “Yeah, I was at a race last summer, I kind of lost it, I think. It was back in Hunter Creek, near the end where it drops onto Red Mountain Road. My Garmin bike thing” – here he makes a rectangle with his thumbs and forefingers – “my Garmin showed I just stopped dead. When I got to the bottom, end of the race, I saw my daughter, she said I looked OK”

He continued in an elliptical fashion for a few minutes, the gist of which was this: He was riding dead last in this race, got off his bike to ford a drainage ditch, and the next thing he remembers, he’s at the bottom, talking with his daughter – “I must have lost 30 minutes”. His Garmin showed a four minute stretch when he wasn’t moving. He thinks he must have fallen, passed out with a concussion, and then started riding again, but without any memories being made. Pretty common for a concussion. He daughter was a nurse, he used to work ski patrol on Ajax, so they knew to keep an eye on him for signs of decreased awareness and other symptoms of a worsening sub-dural hematoma. He did not go the ER at Aspen Valley Hospital.

I responded, “You know, every since that lawsuit a few years ago, you come in with a loss of consciousness, they do a CT scan on everybody. The one time I had a concussion skiing, couple of years ago on my first run of the year, at the bottom of Funnel on Snowmass, where there is this large bump in the run from where the lift used to be, I decided to go up and over it. Fell down, knocked my head, and lay there for 6 minutes, all recorded with my camera here” – I showed him the Contour on the side of my helmet – “without moving  until somebody came along. They took me to Aspen Valley Hospital, found some blood in my brain, and I got to fly to Denver on a helicopter for observation.” I’ve always found this story pretty amusing, so I said it with a full smile, and he went along with the good humor.

The Aspen Silver Queen gondola is a bottom-to-top affair, a full 3300 vertical foot, 14 minute ride. This gave us time to share more war stories, which of course had to include my encounter with a pick-up truck at while biking at 25 mph. “You can see that one on my bike computer real easy.” I moved my left hand flat across in front of my face, then dropped it 90 degrees straight down. I just stopped like a crash-test dummy hitting a concrete wall when I hit the tailgate of that pick-up” I couldn’t stop there, so I had to tell him the story, 12 days in the ICU, lost Kona trip. I left out most of the gory details, only admitting to losing a few teeth.

“But did you lose consciousness; what’s the last thing you remember?”

“Oh, I remember everything as it happened. You know that sound you hear, when two cars collide, and you’re inside, kind of like metal crunching or crumpling? That was the first thing I heard.”

“That was your bike hitting the truck?”

“No, that was my jaw! Bent my neck back, knocked out my teeth…and it’s funny, the only thing going through my mind was how can I get on my bike, get back up and start riding!”

“So how old are you?”

“Sixty-nine.”

“Hmm,” he mused, “just a little younger than me.”

By this point, we were thoroughly bonding over bike accidents. He seemed to know the area very well, saying he’d been here over forty years, so I asked his name.

“Ed Cross…”

“Ed Cross – yeah, I’ve seen your name on Strava segments – you’re always near the top there in our age group.”

Again a rowdy chortle. Ed, though much Americanized, still had a lot of Aussie in him. “Yeah, but it’s mostly on the downhills! I think as guys get older, they get a little slower going down. Not me, I guess.”

Since I’d mentioned Kona, he brought him his swimming background, in a round-about way: “So, I’m curious…how much do you slow down swimming. I used to be a swimmer. How fast can you go, say, 800 yards.”

I tried doing some calculations in my head, and figured I would say, “For a short course tri, we go maybe 750 meters, I do that in 14 minutes.”

“Wow, that seems pretty fast. I can’t do that any more. Back in Australia, I was on the national team, had a shot at the Olympics. I did pretty well in both the short course races, and the surf lifeguard championships.” I wanted to throw in some respect there. Australian beach lifeguards are well known as the baddest of the bad-ass when it comes to open water surf swimming. But Ed was on a roll. “Yeah, when I was young, I was doing the sprint in 26 seconds.”

“50 meters?”

“Yeah; but now I can barely make 46, 47 seconds for 50 yards in the pool here. That’s all out, just one time. ‘Course, it’s at altitude, and I’m not in shape, but still…So I was wondering, just how fast do you slow down?”

“Well, I swam on teams when I was a kid, but never that fast, not near as fast as you. But right now, even here in Aspen, I can go 46, 47 seconds for 50 yards, on the minute” – meaning, I started a new 50 every 60 seconds – “for 20 repeats. And an Olympic triathlon, that’s 1500 meters, I’ll do maybe 29-30 minutes. But that’s open water, with a wetsuit”

“That’s pretty good.”

“You’d think, with swimming being so technique-dependent, that you wouldn’t slow down as much, But I’m not slowing down nearly as much biking and running. I guess it takes a fair amount of strength to hold that proper technique”

Ed had an idea. “You ought to come and do our races with us, if you’re ever here in the summer. Every Wednesday night.”

“Sure, I know those races. I’ve never done a bike race, a stand-alone bike race. I used to do Xterras – you’ve heard of them?”

“Sure, one of our guys here” – he points vaguely up the mountain – “Alex Gonzalez, he’s one of the champions.”

“Xterra – I was good at swimming and running, but I never did learn to really race on a mountain bike.”

“Well those Wednesday rides would be good for you. We get a lot of older fellas doing them. And of course, there’s the climb up the Pass, in May – but that’s probably too early for you.”

“Oh, no, I do that every year. Not the ride, I’m too cheap to pay for it, I just go by myself to the top the day before the road opens.”

This earns a hearty laugh from Ed, who must be a life-long sports bum – surfing, swimming, skiing, biking. We are apparently brothers in our cock-eyed view of what constitutes fun.

At this point, he finally admits what is slowing him down. “I’ve got two fake knees”, he says, as the gondola approaches the unloading dock, doors, swinging out and back. I wish we had more time to explore that bombshell. But we have to go skiing down, and he’s meeting folks at the Sundeck, so I just wish him, “Stay safe, Ed.”

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The Long Way Home

It was twenty years ago today…that Linda Tripp contacted the office of Independent Counsel Ken Starr to talk about tapes she had made of conversations with Monica Lewinsky, allegedly detailing an affair she had with then-President Clinton. A week later, the Drudge Report web site would reveal those allegations, which were picked up by other news services within the next few days. When I first heard the reports, my heart sank. The last thing I want from our President, especially one whose political beliefs aligned with mine, is to be embarrassed. Leaders are role models; Presidents dominate the moral tone of our country. The next three years, while robust economically, were a minefield of prurient disclosures, with parents worrying about, “How can I tell my children what a ‘blow-job’ is?”

The next two Presidents, no matter their political beliefs, managed to uphold a public face of rectitude and good behavior. Times were tumultuous economically, and US-led wars in Asia boiled and simmered. But at least the man in charge was attempting to display a positive attitude for the rest of us to model. Recall George W. Bush’s comments after the destruction of the World Trade Center, and terrorist attack on the Pentagon by 19 Muslims from Saudi Arabia: “These acts of violence against innocents violate the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith. … The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam.”

Barack Obama, after the horrific slaughter of black parishioners at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, SC, said, “I am confident that the outpouring of unity and strength and fellowship and love across Charleston today, from all races, from all faiths, from all places of worship, indicates the degree to which those old vestiges of hatred can be overcome.”

And now…now, we are once again faced with disgrace and embarrassment from our leader. According to the New York Times (and Washington Post), “President Trump on Thursday balked at an immigration deal that would include protections for people from Haiti and some nations in Africa, demanding to know at a White House meeting why he should accept immigrants from ‘shithole countries’ rather than from places like Norway, according to people with direct knowledge of the conversation…When Mr. Trump heard that Haitians were among those who would benefit from the proposed deal, he asked whether they could be left out of the plan, asking, ‘Why do we want people from Haiti here?’ ”

Two Democratic Senators at the meeting, and one Republican confirmed those remarks and his attitude. Two other Republican Senators could not recall the details, and would not confirm the language or nuance.

Labeling Africa as full of “shithole countries” is not simply politically incorrect nor is it good immigration policy. It’s RACISM, and THERE SHOULD BE NO PLACE IN THE REPUBLICAN PARTY FOR IT. Watching Republicans try to defend the thinking and beliefs of their party’s leader is …sad.

Many Sub-Saharan African countries have the fastest growing GDPs in the world, thanks in large part to Chinese investment in infrastructure. Are we going to abandon all those new consumers coming online to Chinese businesses? Bad deal for America!

Here is a list of all the Sub-Saharan countries with GDP growth more rapid than Norway in 2016: Ethiopia, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Tanzania, Kenya, Central African Republic, Eritrea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Rwanda, Malawi, Sao Tome and Principe, The Gambia, Togo, Zimbabwe (Zimbabwe!), Uganda, Cameroon, Madagascar, Ghana, Djibouti, Mauritania, Somalia, Dem Rep of Congo, Gabon, Botswana, Namibia, Swaziland, Sudan, Comoros.

The list is equally long for Central and South American countries, including Haiti. Norway is tied (with North Korea) at 87th on this list of 120 countries from the International Monetary Fund.

Somebody is making these countries grow. People who grew up there, live there, and want desperately to see their friends and neighbors succeed in this world. Smart people, productive people. We should be the place smart Africans, Haitians, and others want to come for their education, their MBAs, not China.

A businessman in the White House should be helping “the people who talk that way in bars all across America” [the Fox News excuse for Trump’s language] see the economic advantages of inclusion, not assuaging their reptilian ids.

After the Second World War, we had visionary leaders who knew that helping Europe and East Asia recover from the ravages of that time would be good not just for them, but for our country: more people making more money means bigger markets for American goods. To that end, we held out a welcoming face to peoples just recently seen as the embodiment of evil (Germans), and even  supported the resurrection of a country whose American citizen descendants had been incarcerated during the war (Japan). We showed our better nature to the world, and we all benefited from that. We’ve done what we can in Europe and East Asia; we need Latin America and Africa to keep us growing and Make America Great Again. Calling them names, disparaging their homes, not recognizing the progress they are making is counter-productive in the extreme.

It is beyond ironic that I am writing this on the eve of the Martin Luther King, Jr. national holiday. Nothing can be done about the racism in Donald Trump’s heart. But the rest of our leaders – Republicans and Democrats – can still get on with the project of helping the world improve itself, starting here at home.

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Zapotrek, Part II

“We’ll drive out to Tule, and start our ride from there,” Eric continued, once we’d left the chaos of downtown Oaxaca. We were slowly making our way along a crowded street, rather than taking the main Carretera Internacional a few blocks north, the same highway I had been running beside the past week. Soon, we merged onto the local version of a freeway, but immediately left when it dipped south. We landed on a shaded, divided boulevard, with a small path down the center median.

“This is the bike path you can take from Oaxaca to Tule, but we’ll stop there, Israel will find a place to park, and we’ll get something to eat. Oh, and there’s a local attraction in Tule, the Tule Tree.”

“Right, we saw that on our tour last Sunday,” I offered. At first, it had seemed a little odd to be taken to see a tree. I mean, sure, there are Sequoias and Redwoods which are massive, or tall, but I doubted anything like that grew around here. However, in a protected greensward, part of a larger plaza next to the local cathedral and mercado, stood a quite impressive tree, looking something like a cross-between a cedar and a banyan. While it rose about 75 feet up, and had a full head of evergreen needles, it was the girth of the trunk which astounded us.

Probably wider than any Sequoia, it seemed to take up an entire city block. Simply circumnavigating the thing took several minutes. It was definitely worth a stop. Luckily, though, Eric had as little desire to return to the Tule Tree as we did, and took us instead to a deserted restaurant just south of the church. So far, this bike trip was getting off to a rather slow start, and things did not move any more quickly once we’d finished eating, as our next stop was to a local healer’s shop.

“Her mother was the healer for my family. When it came time to have babies, or just make a big decision about something in our lives, she was the one we went to. Now, her daughter has learned those ways, and keeps up the tradition.”

The shop was dark and narrow, but a beaming Zapoteca, thirty-ish, led us past the little skeleton and skull knick-knacks she had on display. Eric continued, “She knows how to tell you all about yourself, by consulting her charts based on your day of birth.” Which she proceeded to do, in Spanish, with an instant translation by Eric. I think they had done this bit before. Sort of like a pre-Aztec astrological reading.

It worked, at least enough for us to buy some local tea and spices from her. This seemed to please Eric enough, that he led us back to the van, where Israel had our bikes ready for us.

And off we went, following level dirt roads from village to village. Each small town had its own church and market which Eric dutifully pointed out. But the main pleasure at this point was simply pedaling along the gentle Oaxacan country-side. Past farms and canals, through groves of pea-green brush, snaking beside stands of cacti, with the ever-present mountains ringing the valley, grabbing clouds to grace their crowns.

The hamlets had not yet been restored or razed, so the buildings sported a decaying artifice which Cheryl found irresistible.

About an hour into the ride, we headed up the only hill of the day, to a cache of ruins, the Dainzu archeological site. Oaxaca is littered with the remains of pre-Columbian cities, from a variety of cultures, not just Aztecan. Monte Alban, within the city limits, and Mitla, a large complex which has been thoroughly surrounded by gift shops and street food vendors, are the largest and most famous. This little site, however, was deserted. We spent an hour climbing up the stair-stepped pyramid, where Eric claimed human sacrifices had been documented. We explored an underground grotto, said to be a tomb for royals. And we imagined playing the local ball-game on the rectangular playing filed, surrounded by what looked like a seating gallery.

“Actually, the people watched from up on top. Those stair-step walls were really part of the field. The best players could make killer bank shots using those blocks. It must have been maddening trying to get a carom right – a lot harder, then tennis,” Eric laughed.

The day, though mild, was still drying, so we finished off several of the water bottles Israel had loaded, and off we went on the final leg of the trip – to the village of weavers, Teotitlan. To get there, we went about 5 kilometers more up a gradual double track gravel road, and into the cobbled streets of town. Every store front, it seemed, boasted of the woven goods within, and Cheryl was eager to stop and look. It was getting past 6, near sunset, and she worried the shops would close, and she would not get her goal for this trip – photos of women working on hand-woven rugs.

But Eric seemed determined to get us to the top of town, where, naturally, another church awaited. We managed to convince him we really didn’t need to spend long on the interior, no matter how alluring the hand-painted scenes within.

So we walked down the street half a block, and entered the first open door we saw. The large space within belied the modest stucco exterior. Based on old Spanish colonial hacienda architecture, the place was filled with rooms, open courtyards, and, most of all, brightly colored textiles full of the Zapotec-inspired geometric patterns.

“Which one of these do you think I should get?” Cheryl showed me a couple of narrow rugs, or various widths and lengths. Some were earth-toned, some were brighter blue pastels, and some a deep blood-red. But all featured patterns reflective of the carvings we had seen across the arches and roof beams in the local ruins, a distinctive jagged image which embodied the past and present here in Oaxaca.

Cheryl managed to limit her purchase to several rugs, hoping that one would be the right size of our dining room table. It was now past dark, and we still had an hour’s drive home, so I became anxious when the cheery abuelita insisted she had to finish the textile by tying off the decorative white strings at each end, “so they won’t un-ravel.”

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Zapotrek, Part I

“Maybe we can go on a bike ride this weekend,” Cheryl ventured. We’d seen a few cyclists in a group rambling through the valley floor on our excursion the previous Sunday. Lonely Planet listed a few local outfits which visit the outlying villages via mountain bike. It seemed a perfect blend for us – Cheryl would get to see the weavers in Teotitlan, and I would give my legs a break from all this hill running I’d been doing every morning.

About half way home from the Instituto, we passed every day through a nearly deserted plaza, towards an archway which led to the narrow streets surrounding La Betulia. The day before, I’d seen a sandwich board set up outside a tiny office, advertising “Zapotrek”, one of the companies recommended in the guide book. The office only seemed to be open in the middle of the day, so when it appeared again, I suggested, “Let’s go in here, and see what this is all about.”

The interior was dark, but not cluttered like so many other Oaxacan establishments. Right inside the door, a round-faced man, young in affect, but rather worn of face, sat smiling in front of a computer. We practiced a bit of our new-found Spanish on him, but it quickly became apparent his English was as colloquial and unaccented as ours.

“We’re thinking of taking a one-day mountain bike trip, and wanted to see what you have.”

A bit of negotiation followed as Eric, the owner of Zapotrek, took his time learning just what we wanted: Do some mellow riding, nothing really hilly, see the local villages, and maybe include a trip to the weaving town of Teotitlan, for Cheryl. Oh, and we wanted to leave between noon and one, so we could go to the Instituto in the morning, tomorrow.

Zapotrek usually did their day trips starting at sunrise, or 7 AM. But Eric probably had no clients for the next day, so decided he could flip things around, and take us on a spin in the afternoon, “When it’s hotter, so we usually take a siesta,” he said, laughing. He wanted to pick us up at La Betulia, which was only about 600 meters away, on foot, that is. The combination of the one-way streets and the traffic meant it was way easier for us to come to him then vice versa.

So we showed up about 12:20, and found a 12 passenger white van gleaming under the tropical mountain sun. A lean older man had just finished polishing off invisible dirt, and started to load four bikes. His right pant leg was tucked into his sock, a tell-tale sign of a serious town cyclist.

Eric came out, smiling as always, and introduced Israel, who would be our driver. He threw a few water bottles and helmets into the back, and invited us to hop in.

We headed East out of town, immediately getting trapped in a “pop-up” demonstration. A small articulated truck was jack-knifed across the main highway. “The city workers don’t like how they are being treated by the government,” Eric noted, “so they stage wildcat strikes every now and then.

“How do the people feel about the government?” Cheryl asked.

“Well, about ten years ago, things were very bad here. The government was so corrupt, the people literally threw them out. For six months, no one was in charge. Local neighborhoods started providing their own protection. Everyone recognized the value of having a central authority, that actually cared about the needs of the people. Oaxaca is 80% indigenous, Zapotec, mostly, like me. So the new government is more in line with that, not the mestizos like before.”

“You’re Zapotec?”

“Yeah. I was born here, in Tlacolula. My parents, when I was ten, went to the Untied States, took me with them.” Eric said nothing about how they entered, whether it was legal or not. “I grew up in Anaheim, just a regular kid. I forgot how to speak Spanish right, and just wanted to be American. I did good in school ‘cause my parents made me, so I ended up at UCLA, graduated there. But a few years later, when my parents had gone back to Mexico” – again he said nothing about why or how – “I went back to visit them. I was old enough to understand my heritage finally, that I am Zapotec. I saw how the local people here don’t necessarily get the best deal or opportunity in their lives. So I decided I would come back and see what I could do to combine a lot of things. I’d learned to like being outside in California, biking and hiking. I wanted the world to know about the Zapotec people, their history from before the Europeans came. And I wanted to do what I could to bring some of that wealth which was coming into the state, from the tourists, to the local people, not just the big corporations. So we founded Zapotrek, to do all that.”

As Eric was talking, Israel had found a way around the blocked roads, and we were driving by one of the innumerable churches which pop up everywhere in downtown Oaxaca City. “Look, there, that’s the church of San Matias Jalatlaco. They’re having a special night tomorrow, a Day of the Dead contest for dogs. The dogs dress up like everyone else does for Dia de Los Muertos. It’s really something, maybe you want to come see it.”

(To Be Cont’d)

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Christmas, 2017

It’s been a quiet year in Gig Harbor, our hometown. Mostly because we were here so rarely. Skiing in Snowmass January and February. Early March, a trip to California: Sebastopol, Morro Bay, and LA for Cheryl’s 50th HS reunion (Pacific Palisades version).

For three weeks at the end of March/early April we joined the first (and possibly the last) collection of Americans to bicycle Cuba, end-to-end. 1000 miles, 600 on bike, the rest on bus, in 12 days, with time at either end to enjoy Havana. Cuba is truly a socialist paradise, complete with fake economy, free education and health care, and no corporations to bring wealth and misery to people’s lives.

In May/June, another road trip down to California, staying on our old street in Venice. We got to visit with Annie who’s living in Los Angeles while she commutes to Seattle (and around the world) for her band, Chastity Belt. Cheryl attended her 50th HS reunion (Westlake School for Girls version), and Al biked & ran along the littoral. On to San Diego for brother-in-law Craig’s 70th, and through Utah to Colorado. There, several weeks of bike camps for Al with Endurance Nation team-mates. Cheryl wisely went home early, before cruising the Oregon and California coasts with lifelong friend Sylvia to celebrate her retirement.

July and August are always best in the Northwest, so we took a breather (Al did go to Lake Placid to spectate at the Ironman there). The solar eclipse drew us to Madras Oregon, where we marveled at totality for over two minutes, with 20,000 other campers. End of August found us in Penticton, BC for the ITU World Championships. September, once again back to Snowmass for more cycling.

In October, our second Latin American trip, this time to Oaxaca, Mexico (home to the scenes found in Pixar’s stellar Coco). We both tried our hand at Spanish language immersion school for five days, while Cheryl stayed on for an intensive photography workshop centered on Dia de los Muertos. Al spent the first ten days in December back in Snowmass, trying to stay out of Cody’s way while he feverishly finished his work on the family home there, preparing for winter guests. This Christmas, Shaine and Stacy, along with beloved fur-babies, are hosting the celebration in their Pioneer Square condo.

We remain optimistic for the future despite what the daily news may tell us.

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The End of The Road

The Western tip of Cuba angles towards the south, pointing directly across the entrance to the Gulf of Mexico at Cancun, 250 kilometers away. Twelve days on the road, 1600 kilometers total, from Baracoa at the far Eastern end of the island. The final 12 km of our cross-country bike trip followed a deserted beach road through the Reserva de Biosfera Guanahacabibes. This extremity has the appearance on a map of a steelhead trout, with its curved over-hanging snout. We were on the upper portion of the lower jaw, so the water of the Bahia de Corrientes was to our right, or northwest, as we cruised towards Maria La Gorda, our final night’s hotel. This is not the absolute western end of Cuba. That would be Cabo de San Antonio, on the Northern peninsula (the upper snout of the steelhead). But apparently, the land there is swampy, the roads are terrible, and there is no acceptable over-night casa. So we head for “Fat Mary”, named for a large, accommodating lady of the pirate era. When the sailors she was servicing grew tired of her, so the story goes, they dropped her at this lonely spot, and named the place in her honor.

The placid, deserted waters within the large Bahia formed by the steelhead’s upper and lower jaws protect one of the region’s most extensive and best preserved coral reefs. The only activity along this otherwise vacant beach is found at the eponymous hotel, where scuba divers from Europe and Canada congregate for the low prices, uncrowded waters, and superb submarine environment. Bikers were clearly an afterthought, if the quality of the road was any indication. It seemed to have been chip sealed decades earlier, and the subsequent years of rain, wind, and waves had washed away much of the surface smoothness, leaving a pebbly, jarring tarmac, with frequent potholes. Those holes were not a real hazard, as they could be easily seen. Still, the road was rough on my shoulders, and after 75 miles of riding that day, distinctly unwelcome.

I had been covered the previous 20 miles by myself through the scrub jungle of the Reserva, equally uninhabited. The Racer Boys had sped ahead, the stragglers were being picked up by the bus, and I was left in No Man’s Land. But the day was still Cuba Perfect. A temperature in the mid-high 80s (F), a breeze at my back, unthreatening puffy cumulus clouds drifting in from the northeast, every now and then shading the sun, which was filtering through the trees hugging the road’s edge. The bus caught me at the junction separating the northern from the southern peninsula, and I learned Cheryl had gotten back on her bike, determined to ride the final beach stretch.

I slowed down, waiting for her to roll up, which she did after about five miles. We slowly pedaled the last 5 km together, feeling relief, gratitude, and a bit of sadness, marveling at what we’d done. THe road ahead curved to the left, a harbinger of the upcoming resort. We were nearly there, not one flat tire, not even a spill…

Suddenly, the bike hit an unseen bump in the road. The front wheel kicked, the back wheel skidded, but I felt I could control the beast, stop pedaling, re-orient my weight, and return to forward motion. Somehow, all the usual maneuvers wouldn’t work, and I ended up ass over tea kettle, lying on the road, cursing unintelligibly, frightening my poor wife a bit too much.

“Are you all right?” she shouted.

I held my my left elbow, which I knew had taken the brunt of the fall, and would be bleeding from the usual loss of skin on the forearm just in front the the funny bone. Yep, blood was flowing there, along with my leg, where I’d encountered the handlebar as I flew forward after the bike was jerked down.

She did a slow walk-around, and announced, “Uh, your front wheel is taco’d. Or potato-chipp’d. I don’t know what you call it. The wheel won’t turn”

This thought, that my bike might have been damaged as well as my skin, roused me out of my still blubbering oaths, into some sort of action. First, make sure I wasn’t bleeding too much. Cheryl, the nurse, assured me it would be all right.

“Yeah, what do you know,” I grumbled, having suffered way too many gouging holes in my arms in precisely that spot, including one set of stitches. I knew it would be weeks, months, maybe, before it healed over, and I was left with a jagged penny-sized white slab of scar tissue. Oh well, at least I can’ t see it easily in that location.

I turned my attention to my bike. Nope, the front wheel would not turn. But it was not bent. Something odd here…Oh, the handlebars are askew! I must have been stopped with so much force that my tight grip had torqued the bars to the left. Imagine your bike, with the wheels both pointing to the front, but the handlebars above the front twisted to the left about 30 degrees.

“How can you ride like that?” Cheryl wondered.

“Yeah, don’t worry,” I mumbled, as I faced the bike head on, gripping the front wheel between my knees. Grabbing the bars, I gave a good strong yank, and twisted the bars back to normal. The right gear shift was also turned sharply inward. Another application of brute force brought that back out, and the bike was once again rideable. I set about wondering just what had happened.

I walked back a bit to where the whole episode started, and discovered an unseen dimple in the road surface, about six inches around, and three inches deep. The afternoon sun had struck the pavement at an angle which obscured this depression from view, so I had not avoided it as I would have a more sharply demarcated pothole. Apparently, as the wheel got momentarily trapped in there, I twisted the handlebars with gruesome force attempting to regain control, and pedaled forward, thinking they were pointed in the direction of my travel. Which, of course, they were not. My poor brain did not grasp this, and so I steered myself right into a fall. Every bike crash has its own unique odd origin story; if things were normal, the fall would never have happened. So every few years, I fall down, lose some skin near my elbow, and soldier on, Luckily, I’ve never broken a collar bone; I think I must know how to fall with at least some grace.

The hotel was indeed only a half a klick away. We rolled into the open air lobby, and found both the early arriving riders, and the later arriving bus crew all there, happily enjoying their standard complimentary Cuba Libres in the thatched-rood shade. War stories were told, plans for evening swims arranged, and a final group photo choreographed.

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Valle Viñales

Leandro Malagon, or at least the top half of him, rose monumentally above the deserted plaza. A stray hound emerged from the base, and I squatted to get the correct perspective on the heroic statue which jutted incongruously from the dense forest of Parque Nacional Vinales.

Joany and I had been biking 45 minutes west from Viñales when this memorial erupted near the entrance to Caverna de SantoTomas – supposedly the second largest cave complex in the Western Hemisphere. But we had no time for spelunking. Alejandro had fully occupied our morning with a visit to a tobacco farm.

“Today, we rest. First we go to the tobacco. Viñales is where the greatest cigars in Cuba are made.” Not grown; made. Apparently, growing tobacco is the easy part; making the cigars, of the correct shape, width, length, and taste, is the real art. It was from here that both Winston Churchill and Fidel Castro were said to get their favorite stogies.

Juan angled the bus through another impossibly narrow slot, and parked adjacent to a drying hut. The lecture on growing, cutting, and drying was mercifully short. The main attraction was a demonstration of cigar rolling and smoking. First, the cigar master cut, rolled, and wrapped a perfect cylinder. Then, he sought volunteers to check the quality of his product. Cheryl, of course, volunteered her lungs. I bought a box of ten for US$10.

Viñales is certainly the most scenic spot we toured in Cuba, snuggled in a protected valley abutting the eponymous national park. Large humps of rock rise 1000 feet or more from the valley floor. These “mogotes” bring to mind the sharply etched hills of classic Chinese paintings, covered with lush trees and vines. The valley floor is home to a multitude of tobacco farms, and small houses to service the crops. The town itself is not large, but has recently realized its tourist potential; scores of casa particulares have sprouted throughout the narrow residential streets. Seemingly every other family is now in business for themselves, so we had our pick of lodgings. With 15 in our group, we occupied three domiciles on the outskirts of town.

We would stay here two nights. “Today, you no ride, you need a rest. Tomorrow is a big day,” Alejandro asserted. Of course, being new to bike touring, his idea of a big day, and ours might be at some variance. A few of us took his offer to go on an afternoon explore; the tandem went East, Joany and I headed West. I hoped to make it as far as the St Tomas cave.

But I got sidetracked by the Malagones. The parking lot was empty, and I struggled to let Joany know I wanted to get through the chain blocking entrance. He rousted a middle aged woman out of a small guard booth; she appeared glad for some business, and finally let me know it would cost about US 25¢ for me to enter. The whole time I wandered the site, taking a few photos and video, she kept a very close eye on me, almost as if she suspected me of intending damage.

With my rudimentary Spanish skills, supplemented by 3 years of Latin in high school, I pieced together the basic story. There were twelve local farmers who fought a great battle near here. All but two were buried in tombs on-site, none of them dying in the battle itself. They seemed to serve as a great role model for patriotic Cuban behavior. Pretty mysterious, until I returned home to easy internet access, and learned the full story.

In August,1959, Fidel and his commanders, in power for only 6 months, visited the Caverna de Santo Tomas, and met with some local peasant leaders. The Revolution was still young, and pockets of resistance (“counter-revolutionaries”) remained, mostly hiding is isolated locales such as this. One such group was marauding amongst the nearby villages, and the local peasants, led by Leandro Rodrigues Malagon, asked for help. Fidel, whether on the spur of the moment or with great foresight, anointed Malagon as the head of the first cadre of the Revolutionary National Militia. Castro saw that sustaining his revolution required deep and full commitment by the masses of the people. They were already predisposed towards that, after the perditions of the Batista regime. But if their lives weren’t safe, if they could not farm without fear of losing their crops or even their life, they would not see Castro’s rule as any better.

So he asked Malagon to pick 12 men to become the local militia. He gave them 90 days to find and deal with the “fugitive from revolutionary justice”, “Corporal” Lara. He sent them to Managua for training. Once equipped and ready, they returned to their home hills. Using easily available local intelligence, they surrounded Lara’s hideout, and commenced a shoot-out, which seemed destined to end in a stalemate. Until Malagon, at the front of the house, shouted to his crew blocking the rear entrance, OK, now we bring out the Thompson [presumably referencing a machine gun, which they did not actually have]. This frightened the Lara group, who surrendered immediately.

The Malgones become Heroes of the Revolution, and were paraded around the country, serving as an example of how others could help defend and expand the revolution. They all lived to ripe old ages, and as they began to die off, Fidel’s brother Raul decided a memorial to them in the home valley, where Fidel had the idea for the National Militias, would be fitting. Now, 10 are entombed amidst fountains (which have a curiously similar sound to machine gun fire) and cobbled walkways. Two are still alive, their resting sites still waiting.

 

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