Tuesday, October 13, 2015

orange sofa

The idea of lugging an orange sofa up a mountain in the Swiss Alps and riding it back down is a strange one even to me – and I have ridden a bed down Third Avenue in Salt Lake City, its tiny caster wheels burning hot by the end of it.  I was helping a friend move into the duplex we would share, and using the bed to carry us sounded more sensible than doing it the other way around, traffic and baffled residents notwithstanding.

On Friday, in a feeble attempt to recreate the race Flucha and I had done a few years back, I drove from Zurich to Montreux to meet my former flat mate Sean who was on the train from Grenoble.  More closely matching the drama of a genuine Top Gear challenge this time, I parked the rented Renault only minutes before my friend stepped off the train, just early enough to be the first on the platform.

Montreux is surely nice, even when the jazz doesn't play.  The town sits by Lake Geneva and oozes French charm, despite being Swiss.  Away from the water, mountains towered thousands of feet above it, their tops dissolving into the haze of fall.  It must be a fine place to spend time away from work, linger in cafés all afternoon or amble along the lakeshore promenade.  Lots of people probably did exactly that.  We chucked Sean's enormous Europe-in-a-week bag into the car and drove off without much looking left or right.  We had set our sights elsewhere.

It was the first time we've seen each other in more than six years.  The previous time we had met in Lake Placid, for memories as much as for convenience.  Sean lived in Massachusetts back then and I was on a conference-sponsored road trip in Canada.  Lake Placid minimized driving for both of us.  We camped by a lake, excavated stories and rode mountain bikes through the woods.  This time, the plan was much the same, except that we traded the canvas cabin of six years ago for a hotel on the south-facing slope of the upper Rhone valley, just below the mountain resort of Crans Montana.

Checking out the town upon our arrival, we happened upon a bike shop full of serious kit.  The owner, friendly, talkative and, it turned out later, full of hot air, filled us in on the place.  Crans is more hard core than anything you've ridden before, he warned.  This is where the first mountain bike world cup was held, and the trails live to tell the tale.  Suitably impressed, we went for a Marmotte, the local beer, at the Bar au Lac, to catch up and gather our wits.

The next morning, at breakfast, I was still debating the sense of renting downhill bikes.  Why not go for an easy cross-country ride, a bit of climbing, a bit of descending, lots of single track with great views and assured survival at the end?  Sean had other ideas, and shortly thereafter we stood at the base of the Cry d'Er lift.  We had rented enduro bikes, bought day passes for the lift and proceeded to go up the mountain and hurl ourselves back down repeatedly, the bikes inserted between us and the ground.  It was madness.

I'm not one for downhills.  Back in Utah, Sean and I could climb for hours, he always slightly behind me but never letting go.  Every ten minutes or so I would test the waters with a little show of force.  The breathing in my neck got a bit harder but stayed close.  The clanking and creaking of his aching bike were the soundtrack to endless suffering.  Up on the hill, the tables turned.  Now Sean was leading, but I could never keep up.  I would chicken out quickly and roll down without much drive.  I lost a few races this way.

This time was different because this time, there was the sofa.  Bright orange, with more travel than a national sales rep and so plush that I failed to register discomfort even after 13,000 feet of descending, it was entirely different from anything I've ever ridden.  The tires stuck to the ground no matter how loose, the yardstick of a handlebar made steering a snap, and huge disk brakes brought the wildest madness to a quick stop if necessary.  The result:  I was having an absolute blast.  Four red runs later, we went for black.

Deep into the afternoon, my body was trembling from exhaustion and anticipation.  Wrong mindset!  I walked the first hairy section, but then recovered confidence and got back on.  Halfway down, I had found my groove and was reminiscing of how my Fuel back in Utah compared (full suspension but not a sofa) when the trail suddenly got worse, with sharp rocks sticking out, narrow and not exactly straight.  I did the first part all right but lost focus.  My mind wandered back to when Sean and I explored Moab on steel hard tails and how I cleared nosedive hill when preriding the 24 Hours of Moab and then failing to do so three times during the race.  I was in similar territory now, though on a very different bike.

Awash in memories, I didn't realized that the trail had got even steeper, with more of a turn and bigger rocks.  This was now way beyond my abilities, but I was too deep in thought to react.  Fear tried to catch my attention but failed.  By the time reality reconnected, I had made it through most of it.  Adrenalin then got me through the rest before I could formulate an escape strategy.  Another corner, and Sean was waiting by the side of the trail, looking at me with incredulity.  Instead of limping out bloodied and broken, the bike in pieces and my clothes in shreds, I blasted out with a grin on my face.  Hysteric laughter precluded his question of whether I'd ridden this.

Shortly before five, we had to return the sofas.  Sean's got similar kit in his garage, but for me it was a sad farewell.  I would have happily taken the Kona Process 153 home with me.  There was room in the Renault but they had kept my ID.  I might buy my own for next summer, not necessarily orange but plush, comfy and hilarious.

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

turning pages

It's been a while since this blog has been updated with any sort of regularity. It could have been considered dead. Yet there are apparently still people out there who patiently wait for new posts and read them promptly. For them as much as for myself, my vague efforts will continue. I've been all over the place, mentally and physically, over the past half year, with excuses for silence that seemed sufficient when I didn't think about them hard enough. But it was just laziness.

As a stark reminder of this laziness, the annual summary of books I read in the previous year is published in October this year, not in February or March as in the past. With this delay it's impossible to say whether what's about to be written has any connection with what I perceived when I read these books. Many of the corresponding memories have been supplanted by more recent ones.

Because I kept a list I know that I read 18 books. I think I bought a fair number more. At least it felt like it when I moved to Switzerland in March. My library constituted a good half of what I shipped, by weight.

  • Mr Phillips by John Lanchester – Mr Phillips is dissatisfied with his life and, on a whim, decides to drop out for an afternoon. He ambles through London, pointlessly.
  • Landesbühne by Siegfried Lenz – I've read plenty of Lenz novels and I've always liked their peace and quiet pacing. This one might be no different but it seemed a bit inconsequential.
  • Stories by Tobias Wolff – This books came thanks to an episode of the New Yorker fiction podcast where Akhil Sharma praised Wolff's frightening intensity. I can't remember a single story, which means, at the very least, that none stood out.
  • Viva South America! by Oliver Balch – This travelogue is cleverly set up. Each country visited gets its own chapter, each focused on what Balch identifies as the peculiarity of that country. It's a nice change from the ordinary Riding in Che's Tracks and quite illuminating, though the writing was sometimes a bit too one-sided.
  • American Wild by GRANTA – A GRANTA collection is always worth my money. You never know what you get but can count on quality, in whatever guise. These stories and assays show the US as it's rarely seen in the news.
  • The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro – In the first chapter, when the main character has a 15-minute conversation with the butler in the lift to the third floor, I almost put the book down for good. I should have done it; it would have preserved weeks of my life. But I struggled on through time that expands, space that contracts and sense that's always absent. It's vaguely Kafkaesque, and I still haven't made up my mind whether it's great or a stinking pile of bull.
  • The Island of the Colour-Blind by Oliver Sachs – Sachs, the recently deceased practicing neurologist, travels to the South Pacific to explore medical curiosities, the congenitally color blind people on Pingelap and sufferers from lytico bodig on Guam. The writing is clear, the stories are riveting and the digressions always spot on. Great book!
  • Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami – Murakami is a superstar, but this book isn't much. Cortazar achieved the gradual inversion of reality and imagination in The Night Face Up much more breathtakingly.
  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – The story of a Nigerian getting a foot into America, becoming famous of sorts, returning home and getting the boy, against all odds, is dissatisfying for its Disneyesque happy-endiness for everyone involved.
  • The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño – The adventures of the visceral realists in Mexico City and a road trip that's possibly a quest for a beautiful girl frame endless snippets of pseudo-biographical ramblings that are, it seems to be the theme of this year's selection, entirely pointless. I skipped the middle part.
  • Best American Short Stories 2008 – Too long ago; don't remember.
  • The Periodic Table by Primo Levi – Ever since encountering Bear Meat in the New Yorker, I've had Levi high on my list. In this moving memoir, Levi takes chemical elements as anchor points for events, behaviors and characters. It's nothing short of brilliant, the best thing I've ever read about chemistry, and I studied it in college.
  • Bruce Chatwin by Nicholas Shakespeare – If I were more of a loner or more selfish, I would like to be like Chatwin, traveling the world on a whim, pompously full of myself, with a hurried curiosity for everything and a knack for writing. There's a nomad inside me as well, but it's not a solitary one.
  • On the Eve by Ivan Turgenev – Turgenev was a favorite of Bruce Chatwin's. He was impressed by the finely drawn characters. Maybe Turgenev is a writer's writer. I'm not a writer and I didn't like the book too much, though for being an old tale it had a nice flow.
  • Letters from London by Julian Barnes – These collected columns from The New Yorker (a common theme in my literary preferences) give a highly subjective history of the UK from 1990 to 1995. There's even a bit of chess in it.
  • Tales of Ordinary Madness by Charles Bukowski – A riot of a book, absolutely hilarious. The tribulations of a failed writer/poet who finds that drugs, sex, booze and betting on horses are all fine stimulants for his literary ambitions.
  • Die Brücke im Dschungel by B. Travens – An publishing oddity. A book written sometime in the 1930s and then forgotten, it was published in the 60s and languished on my mom's book shelf until I rescued it. Now it's back.
  • Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer – This is my book of the year - and it was the first one I read. Foer goes out to win the US Memory Championships and describes his training (interspersed with scientific and personal digressions) with such confidence that I tried some of the approaches myself. It is indeed possible to remember 20-item lists for weeks or months, but it is not easy.