Monday, July 1, 2013

Nobody blogs anymore... From the hills of Almanzo to the pelting torrents of the Dirty Benjy

88% of one's physical suffering is 95% mental.

Between the particularly long winter and an early March gravity falls event (separated shoulder & lingering contusion on left hip), not much riding occurred this spring. Thus, I haven't been riding much; my endurance and speed and 'legs' aren't likely to be ready to power over long, hilly distances. My mental condition is weak, as I haven't spent enough time riding to get used to long hours riding.

I've been talking with Flann about goal setting in sports, particularly when one has no base reference. We can say, 'Gee, I'd sure like to ride/run X% faster next time,' but w/o opportunity to train, recover, practice, develop, etc, it's about the same as wanting to fly or hit the Lotto.

With the variable weather we've had mid-May, it was hard to mentally prepare for what I hadn't physically prepared (well) for. I sweat profusely, regardless the weather. In the cold, I get myself hyperthermic fairly fast. In the heat/humidity, I drain myself, no matter how much fluid I take on. This year, too, with the record number of people due, I worried it would be a mob scene. Long way to go to get nudged into a ditch at mile seven...

But it was for naught: great weather, awesome crowd, great event. Chris is making goodness for all of us as he makes sense of his purpose on this earth. I'm grateful and impressed by him & his example.

I made progress in terms of my actual time and when the mental block/bonk hit me.
First time: eight hours and twenty some minutes. It was my first century and first gravel ride. I bonked hard around mile forty, but once I remembered to eat, the body continued.

Second time, with foreknowledge of what was to come, far more mental bailouts, despite having great company in Martin Rudnick and C. Strate: twenty minutes slower, caused by my mental/physical walls.

Third time: the grand hypothermia-fest, bailed at Preston when I could no longer feel my hands.

Fourth time, last May, in the heat, I did great and only got drained in the later miles, pedaling along hating cycling, vanity, the utter stupidity of riding great distances, humoring myself like the rummy at the bar that, Of course, any reasonable fellow would quit and/or NEVER do something this stupid again. I made necessary extra stops and came in just over eight hours on the 99.xx mile course. As I approached the end, spying the water tower approaching, all the squashed emotion of a long medical/psych challenge with my daughter came ripping up through me. I was gasping for breath but releasing horrible croaks of anguish. I turned the final corner toward the (well attended) finish area, and collapsed into Chris. I know he's a hand-shaker more than a hugger, but I could do nothing else.

Fifth time, this year, despite the crowds and my lack of preparation, I squeaked in under the goal of eight hours on the 101 mile version. Riding alone, with packs for spare miles, chasing another lone straggler...the time goes and goes. I forgot/neglected to eat when we hit the deep gravel, and consequently burned whatever was in the reserve tank. The final twenty miles were ugly as can be. This was when my mind pulled the plug: Fuck this, dumb event, moronic imbeciles wasting time and money, I'm too old, too weak, bleah blah bunk. I didn't take care of my machine and there I went, downward spiraling. I knew I needed to eat but mentally couldn't make myself reach into my back pocket or the lovely little bento just in front of me. Nothing seemed appealing--my mouth was a corpse.  I could pedal three or four strokes at a time, then had to coast or drift or teeter in those final miles. I watched the clock fight the miles, motivated only by some arbitrary challenge of arriving under eight total hours. I was passed by several dozen people in those torturous last miles.

Missed spooning sweatily with Chris' long midsection this year, but was thrilled and humbled to shake hands with his wife, with the rest of the admirable volunteer staff running the finish smooth as can be. I was road-addled like everyone else. It was a great day. Sure, as always, the fast people were long done; the slow people were still struggling; others were having days just like mine, with minor or major variations. I enjoy the hardship, even if it's (almost entirely) self-created, and purely voluntary. I could be far faster; I could actually ride enough miles that it isn't a stretch EVERY time I depart from Spring Valley, but, it's also plenty good enough. Mid-race, I entertained delusions of 'just' adding the Royal next year--sure, what's another sixty miles? Until reality crushed me. Much respect to the Royal and Alexander monsters. I love the Almanzo in its entirety. The people are great almost to a person, the scenery is tops for the midwest, the event's sparkling rep is well-earned.

I did a bit better the week prior to the Dirty Benjamin, but nothing substantial. Perhaps 130 miles combined, which is better than some got, but not enough I could post a report about 'I knew I wanted to really attack & drop them around mile 77...'

I had someone work for me the Friday before Westside, because, given the odds and whims of the Emergency Gods, one gets pummeled nights before needing to be well rested. Great, except I took advantage of my night off to hit the Astronautilus and Sims show at First Ave. Discretion is better form of valor or what-have-you, except, whatever, I'm choosing to drive to Chaska and ride my fucking bike. It's not as if I'm performing open-heart surgery or anything. And, it figured to be a really cool event. So, I tried to prep my stuff, pare down my normal five-times-excessive amount of road provisions, get everything set before I hit the show.

And what a show it was, one of those events that stick with you for years, that make seeing music worthwhile. Mixed Blood Majority were tight--and a great pleasure to see them work it in front of a decent crowd, unlike Soundset, where scheduling snafus had them playing opposite Atmosphere (Slug should have shown love & ordered the back-most five hundred fans to march to the smaller tent where Joe, Alexi, and Beak were working their asses off for forty of us). Sims and Andy with a backing band and Lazerbeak and spare drummers: W-O-W, fucking WOW. It was an inspired evening. I was highly gratified I made it. Got home late, ears and mind still ringing. Fell in bed near two-something, just in time for that 0600 alarm.

My warm up for the 107 miles was riding my bike post-haste from parking lot to the start line (37 yards) as Martin was finishing his instructions. I was too close to the front as he said go, and I found myself at the front tenth of the group. Where I stayed, tucked in behind the main leaders all day, until a well-timed attack along Hwy 10 proved decisive and...sorry, what was I saying? Oh, I was too close to the front and in the first fifteen minutes, I was both riding too hard AND getting passed violently by hoards and hoards of aggressive 'contenders'--the real racers had started at front and disappeared before the second turn.

It's interesting to ride the psychological waves of starting further up than one should: rather than watching everyone's back from the outset, and then picking one's way forward, to start ahead and lose ground steadily. Does this help one's time or does the mental damage of everyone whizzing past undermine whatever slight lead one's claimed? I don't know.

What I do know is that I was tired for lack of sleep, unwarmed-up, antsy, and wearing my camelback for only the second time, which began giving my back fits shortly after we hit the gravel. I went out way too fast, and I started a race/ride with little in reserve. By mile 18 I hit a wall. This wasn't a marathon. It was eerie to feel flattened within an hour, but there I was. I struggled lamely for twenty miles. I truly was ready to pack it in. It was an out-of-body experience: knowing, telling myself, that I'd only just started--that it was almost impossible to be so physically drained so early in the morning. Yet that's where I was, which meant the prospect of another eighty miles of the same was beyond daunting. I tried to hold a wheel here or there, but with my single speed, it was hard to match cadences or sustain anything. Plus, you know, I was a ghost.

Here is the lesson I tell myself to remember EVERY time: no matter how far back I think I've slipped/fallen, there's always someone still coming (unless, actually, I am DFL). I was feeling very sorry for myself, rolling ineptly with other dudes who'd burned everything too fast, and much as it seemed very likely that every single other rider had disappeared into the unrelenting horizon, there were people unviewable behind me yet. We came across the Spirit of Almanzo himself at the turn at mile 37, and I glugged half a coke and gnawed a beef stick, pissed, cleared my mind, and Boom... Off to the races! Not quite, but I recovered and felt normal again.

I found a pace that worked and moved through the day. I spent fifteen miles with a rotating crew, two guys who'd yo-yo ahead or backwards in surges, and another single speeder. It was nice to chat or not-chat while riding alongside another. At some point, though, he cracked, as did the yo-yo'ers, and I found myself alone, no one in sight either direction, for almost twenty miles. That was pretty impressive, totally alone on the road for over an hour WHILE riding with 250 others.

I really pity those poor fast cats who finished in five-plus or six-and-change hours. They were changed and chilling at the base when the storm came through. Their BBQ sandwiches might have sustained water damage. I was nowhere near anything when the changing skies broke apart and we were pelted, bombarded, pasted, drenched, you-name-it with hard rain and high winds. The people I was riding with quickly fell behind, disappeared in the horizontal attack. The wind was more absurd than the rain, except when they were in cahoots. I was laughing madly throughout it. Where I'd been ready to drop out in the first hour, I was now having a childish ecstasy at having fun & playing in ridiculous conditions (lightning was, fortunately, far off).

I gripped the bars, lowered my head, and pedaled as best I could. What was in my mind? The image of Duclos-Lasalle powering through the muck in Roubaix when he couldn't defend it the final time. His hair is miles better than mine, not to mention the difference in our riding abilities, of course, but he was my spirit animal through the storm, which isn't a bad thing.

The rain ended, my legs were beat, the numbness of the final fifteen miles was a challenge, but I kept on keeping on, and soon enough (except not before groaning up the final two fucking gravel hills) I took that glorious right onto Hwy 10 and pointed my nose for home. Again, it had been over an hour since I'd seen anyone. I quit looking over my shoulder, realizing no one was close. I kept hoping to spy someone ahead to chase down (try to) but I was alone. My goal of sub-seven proved out of reach again this year. Last time, I bonked after botching the rest stop. This time, my struggles early proved costly, as well as being tired. I can't tell if there was any notable difference in my gearing. Last year was 42/16 (or maybe 17) and this year was 46/17. My legs, lungs, and mind were more of an issue than the gearing.

Crossed the line and felt like I'd arrived (very) late to an office party: everyone had eaten their cake, loosened their ties, and was chatting in small groups before slipping off to home. I felt slow. Really, so fucking what? I finished 88th out of 170, 7:19 total time.

There's always next year... As Randy said, 'We're not getting paid for this.' Nope. It's a choice. A privilege to be able to spend a day pushing ourselves in whatever way we do. Good people put lots of time, effort, money, and sweat into making these things happen. We get to perform our own little/big adventures, majority of which are in our minds, against these backdrops. Hell, does it beat golf.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

'I did not have sexual relations with that woman' and other convenient American lies.

I dated an awesomely horrible woman in college. She was local Boston, Irish Catholic as fuck, and totally devoted to herself. To wit: for the first months we hung out, she was adamant that she was a virgin. Other girls—‘dirty Jews’—were sexually active, but not her. Literally, that was her dichotomy. I pointed out that a. lots of Jewish women were not raunchy sluts, and, b. lots of Catholics, Protestants, etc were sexually active, and, c. sex is sex; calling other women sluts for what she chose not to do was poor sport and shitty. But no. She was pure & they were whores.

She had a serious boyfriend at another school, her high school boyfriend, presumed husband to be. I was her platonic friend, and we spent time studying and hanging out, met her parents, etc. It was funny how free our range was, specifically because I was not a sexual threat at all—utterly desexualized, like her gay best friend, except w/o sass or wardrobe hints (and, given her cro-magnon father’s racist, sexist, homophobic diatribes, an actual gay best friend would not be). I was manly enough to drink beer and watch the Celtics with him.

Funny thing was, she fully embodied the ‘It’s not sex if there’s no cock involved,’ and I spent hours and hours getting her off with non-conceptional limbs. I was sworn to secrecy, at penalty of banishment from her bed, and maintained the façade. I didn’t mention much to my buddies, who assumed I was dopey and pussy-whipped (without the actual skin to make it final/fatal; yearning trumps having it, I guess, in the control of a dude’s mind/body/heart).

She was smart, funny, and horrible. A profound hypocrite who seemed to believe her own lies. I’d challenge her assertions of purity and sanctimony, and she would shrug and say she KNEW she was righteous. I went to church w/ her a few times, and told her I wasn’t reassured that we weren’t struck down by lightning. To me, proof of non-god; to her, proof she was holy. I’d argue w/ her about the hypocrisy of us grinding the hours away while her boyfriend was ostensibly pining for her up north. ‘What would he say if he found out?
She laughed it off, humorlessly. ‘Who would he believe, you—a dorky stalker—or me, his faithful girlfriend? Lie until you die—remember that. I will lie until I die. I’d never admit anything.’

Jesus taught me that, too.

I went to London to study and she hooked up with one of my close friends. Word got back to me that, a. she wouldn’t fuck him, either (except he was an actual devout Irish Catholic, with oodles of guilt and repressed desire, so dry humping was probably bliss enough), and b. she went with the narrative that we were just friends and I was a pathetic crushee.

I came back and we reunited, in a stealthy sort of way. She was also not-fucking several much larger football players, resulting in me having to jump out a window to escape a pounding several times. Ultimately, she confessed she was, in fact, sexually active. Quite sexually active. With many of her other dudes and her high school hero. So the lies were for her parents, her sense of cultural identity, and some inflated sense of self. And she really believed it. We started fucking, too. Whatever, it’s kids knocking in the dark.

I understand people deceiving themselves, telling mild fibs to remain within social boundaries. What we do in the dark is our own deal. Except when there’s an overarching, relentless, aggressive assertion of something wildly contrary to the truth. Then, my sympathies or understanding burns to ash. She was a lie, a liar, a roiling hypocrite, a bully. She was too ‘blessed’ to pity. Until the end, she propped up her ego-driven games with that mantra, ‘Lie until you die.’

Which brings me, obviously, to Lance Armstrong.

I knew nothing of bike racing when Armstrong won his first title. I’d wandered into a mountain bike race in Colorado years ago, been utterly overwhelmed and finished DFL. A couple other firefighters were cycling fans, and I started watching the Tour with them. The story was compelling, of course. Even so, I could tell there was a fair amount of excess and bullshit attached to it. ‘Superhuman stamina’; ‘biggest heart in the peleton (literally & figuratively)’; ‘tough like Texas’; ‘he’s faced death, so no amount of suffering on the bike is too much.’

Years passed, more victories—until we tuned in lazily, with typical American short-attention superficial interest & knowledge. ‘Lance won this thing yet?’ ‘So, he’s like the fastest guy ever, right?’ ‘Those other suckers can’t ride like our boy—fucking Eurotrash pussies.’

‘The Lance Effect’ was cited in the growing attention Americans paid to cycling, to the growing number of bikes purchased, to the growing number of us doughy middle-aged men squeezing ourselves into lycra shorts. The two Brits, Paul Sherwin and Phil Liggett, were the voice of the Tour for most Americans, and they bandied about a growing litany of hoary clichés about Lance and his band of brothers. A cottage industry grew: Livestrong, Nike, yellow wristbands, Lance the brand—all of it fed by, enriched by, predicated on the mythic heart and legs of the stoic Texan.

Rumors of doping were widespread. The peleton was rife with dopers. Again and again, riders were popped. The 200(6?—Rasmussen & Landis, I think) Tour was ridiculous, rider after rider getting nailed after superhuman efforts. So the publicity machine rebooted, ‘Reclaim OUR race!’ ‘It’s new, better, cleaner.’ Etc etc. Those busted were ostracized as pathetic, lazy, greedy cheats. Ignoble sneaks. Accusations (and, frankly, logic & common sense) tagged Armstrong. When every man he beat in the top five for seven years was connected or convicted or admitted to doping, and it was clear that doping provided nearly unconquerable advantages, HOW were we able to suspend our collective disbelief? HOW could we accept that the onliest motherfucker to ride clean managed to beat an army of doped-to-the-gills killers up the most horrific mountain roads, out-rode them over the most grueling three-week endurance death march? Because he was Lance, and he’s got it like that, Jack.


Lie until you die.

Bill Clinton categorically did NOT have sex with that woman.
I never doped.
I have no idea how that gun/girl/drug got in my car.
I never doped.
These stocks will be just fine. Trust me.
I never doped. I never failed a test.*
I am a virgin because I say I am.

Cognitive dissonance seems to waft thickly on the currents of American (human?) air. We breathe it in, inhale deeply, hold it, ingest it with the oxygen and carbon dioxide.

Running parallel to Armstrong’s success story was the equally manufactured, shaky, and desperately believed (clung to) narrative of American righteousness after 9/11. We were attacked by hateful, ungrateful, scared/scary, jealous Others. They feared our freedoms, we were told. No need to consider the larger issues, nor the history lessons, nor our role in the world’s maelstrom. Nope: we are the free and the brave; they attacked us for no reason, and we will fight back. In a different country than the one that spawned the attackers, but no matter…

To point out flaws in Bush and his compatriots’ arguments was to be labeled treasonous, un-American, terrorism-loving, weak. The news vessels totally fucked up, ran & hid, swallowed the press briefings wholesale. Several years later, there was much shallow reflection and soul-searching—the embarrassed murmuring of the callow and chicken-shit. Those who stood their ground did so at great expense, socially and politically.

There were no WMDs. It was not Al-Qaida/Iraq. No yellowcake uranium. No imminent threat to US soil. But, never mind that, let’s get that Patriot Act running hard. Guantanamo Bay detentions. Tribunals. Domestic wiretap. No-bid contracts to cronies and shareholders. All in the name of Freedom, the Defense thereof. Don’t mention our actual politicians’ actual edict against French fucking Fries. Freedom Fries—they fill your heart with glory and grease in a truly American death march.

People wanted to believe something. Needed a direction, leadership, clarity. Instead we got jerked, lied to, clumsily manipulated, fucked & fed beans. But the blind, desperate fervor with which people clung to Armstrong’s myth—many, many people are, even now, still tearing themselves free of the foggy dissonance: ‘Wait, so, does this mean—are you saying—are you sure?—did he really dope?’

Duuuuuuuuh. Even to the bitter end (Weds., 10 October, 2012), when the USADA released their mountain of testimony providing the bitter-strong coffee many of us need to wake the fuck up & pull our heads from our Nike-sponsored (yet consumer-purchased) Livestrong denial shelters, multitudes of people who should have known better, or to have put two and two together eventually, continued to believe the most-dubious explanation conceivable: ‘I am a virgin. I did not dope.’
A great many Americans don’t want to do the critical legwork about the legacy of 9/11—even though it’s actually quite easy to do—and the effort of their denials and refusals to acknowledge what’s stinking on their living room floors makes the act of admitting their error all the more psychologically difficult. Bodies and billions have been wasted, with far-reaching consequences, yet many persist in refusing to look at what makes sense and what’s patently ridiculous (to someone not bound & determined to see only one outcome).

Many brave and honest riders and writers have suffered before the Armstrong machine. That is unforgivable. My horrible ex could lie to herself all she wanted, but her active smearing of others’ virtue & reputations had consequences—and it was both mean and predicated on utter bullshit. Small example. Armstrong is small potatoes compared to invading another country and costing thousands of actual lives, yet the number of people who’ve profited obscenely from his chicanery and the lives, careers, and reputations of those who’ve suffered to perpetuate his machinery are significant.

It matters. What you say matters. What you swear is true, matters. Lie until you die is a shitty doctrine.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Growth Opportunities and Lessons from the Universe.

Fuck that.

My computer died.
My computer died before I correctly backed up all my data.
My computer died & I was slow to save my photos, my music, all my documents.
My computer died.

This is not a neat little miracle from the cosmos to free me from the burden of things, or of possessions, or a growth opportunity--to renew, re-envision, etc. It is what it is. My expensive toy hardware died & I failed to do what was necessary to prevent the loss of many things.

I am not uninterested in pondering the options here, though. What do I actually need? What is my attachment to files I may never open again? It doesn't alter the base stupidity of not covering myself.

The date recovery place in Eden Prairie resembles a Pentagon-type security fortress. They must be digging into things far more important than my bundles of family pictures.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Westside Dirty Benjamin, '12

First year, I rode it as my second-ever gravel ride & second-ever century. Last year, we had a wedding to attend, so I helped out, which was great, but not the same as riding. This year, I went for the singlespeed century. Instead of Almanzo's blistering heat and winds, this race pelted us w/ rain for the first hour+, then left us to squish along somewhat drying out until next squall rolled through. Only a couple patches of unpleasant heat; unfortunately for me, the highest temps came right as I bonked. So be it.

In my worried weather planning, I nearly short-shrifted myself for food. Rain jacket? Change of socks? Short sleeve jersey? Sure, I packed all three.

Martin Rudnik, Jason Stukel, and the crew put their backs into making this low-fi event a smooth, interesting, positive challenge. High praise and thanks to their efforts and sacrifices.

We rolled out and, literally, within ten minutes the rain arrived. No major first-miles' wipeouts that we saw. Reminding myself not to push too hard, to go out too fast, to get sucked into the adrenalin at the outset, particularly with only one gear. I fell in with a group that by and large held together for twenty plus miles, then as people rubber-banded up and down the road, trying to find their best pace, a group of fifteen to twenty rolled together for a little while, and then the majority of them gained a gap (due to a guy who was struggling but wouldn't pull over). They rolled over hill and dale, we pursued but were losing ground steadily. Four of us started to bridge up to them...and then we didn't. I realized it would tax me hard just to reach them, and once there, I'd get spit out the back shortly. So four of us fell in together, and we covered the next thirty plus miles together. One was Ken from Cat 6 racing, whom I'd met back at the Slick 50* (64). He was single-ing it, too. The other was a woman training for Lutsen 99 next weekend; she was geared and pulled us a good deal. The fourth guy fell off, leaving the three of us to roll, picking up or passing various stragglers. Good company, good working together.

We were running on collective and individual vapors in the final miles to the checkpoint (mile 61+). My cue sheets fell out, so I was relying on those around me. I had another bottle of water in my trunk but no one wanted to stop so I pushed on. Bad move. We had bad navigator and went 1.5 miles wrong way from checkpoint, then turned around--bringing total miles at finish to 110. At the place, I swapped my drenched, sweaty, dirty pocked long-sleeve jersey for a clean one. I should have taken more of a break but my companions were itching to make up time lost on detour so we pulled out after perhaps five minutes.

In my haste, I left all my second-leg food in my drop bag. And I didn't get enough water on board before starting up. As a result, I downed one of my three bottles in first five miles, and I found myself short on caloric intake. And then, the bonks came raining down. I pulled a while through Luce trench, but right after that were rolling, sun-exposed hills, and I just dropped away. The other two hung back for a bit, but I was broken, so they went on.

I rolled solo, slowly and more slowly. Beautiful countryside out there. I found a convenience store, grabbed some stuff, felt better, and faced the final 25+ miles.

Martin made it good with the trail section at outset, including the large fallen tree; the woods after the checkpoint; the sudden Brrap section of mud and vegetation; the backside course was far hillier than the front, and though small, the hills were unforgiving on tired legs.

I missed sub-seven hours but had a great day. Hard and fun. Great seeing so many now-familiar faces out there.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

No Such Thing as the Death Fairie

This is older but the song remains the same...

Killing My Dog  

Several years ago I took a community creative-writing class. It was swell, largely innocuous, a gaggle of adults who had the time and money to sit in a room discussing stories they’d written about themselves. The first meeting the instructor apologized for being a bit distracted; she informed us she was struggling with a serious personal crisis. Her dog was sick. A pall fell over the room. We were empathetic and respectful of her possible loss. We were writers, after all. The specter of sick-dog trumped everything and we all mourned, uncritically. In subsequent weekly meetings, class discussion circled back to her dog. Always. Before class, during the break, afterwards: One or two people would hover and bend her ear with their sympathies–which flowed seamlessly, and quickly, into their own personal sick-dog stories.
Everyone, it seemed, had lost a faithful companion. Here was a universal theme.
The class became less about writing than about communal canine grief. No matter the topic of discussion, the mention of a dog crisis, or the sentimentally righteous testament to the unassailable Truth about Noble Dog, and literary merit be damned. We had a circle of nodding, knowing heads filled with love for man’s best friend. 
Now, I’ve had dogs all my life. Likely I’ll force dogs on my family forever. I love dogs, prefer them to most people. But I had some issues with the class: Hey, what about Writing? The word dog isn’t a substitute for critical thought or feeling.  Spending seven grand to replace an eight-year-old beagle’s hips is NOT a given, not in my world. I felt like Scrooge, or a seal-stomper. Parading the images of dead, sick, or suffering dogs around a room does NOT make one more compassionate, nor a better writer. 
My objections had plural roots, the first of which was my childhood dog. She was a great, sweet, goofy, wholly untrained Golden retriever, the first to make it more than a year with us. Our first three or four met untimely ends before Holly, who arrived when I was in seventh grade. She lived fourteen years, but she should have gone at twelve. My family loved her too much to end her misery. Nothing complicated: We couldn’t bear to be the instrument of her death, so she struggled on, limping, wasting–suffering. It takes a deliberate mental jump to collectively ignore the sick dog in the living room. She fell at twelve, breaking her leg. Yet instead of ending it then, mercifully, in the vet emergency clinic, we spent hundreds of dollars to ‘save’ a dog who dragged herself around for another nine months. Embarrassing. And by the end, when we could accept it was time, the painful truth was that it was far past time. More embarrassing. 
I swore I’d never be so lovingly blind again–not for a dog, not for a person.
Another issue I had with the uncritical support group was that I’m a Minneapolis firefighter and EMT. Most every shift for the past twelve years, I’ve seen, heard, touched, and smelled the undeniable truth of life’s end. Death. Not only death: dying. My job–the human suffering and loss I encounter and must deal withclarifies my perspective on life and death. Thrust suddenly into the ghastly or tragic or absurd points on the spectrum of human experience, we do what we can, absorbing the victims’ or the survivors’ grief, fear, and pain. Then we leave and wait for the next call. 
It’s a great job, an honor, but it changes how one views the world.
My first day in the stations, early summer of 2000, I was a wreck. More nervous about fitting in than the emergencies to come, to be honest, I sat at the table listening to the coarse rhythms of station banter. I leaped into a conversation about dogs. A safe topic, men and their dogs. We commiserated with a guy whose prize lab pup had gotten plowed by a three-quarter-ton pickup out in North Dakota. Though my dog wasn’t trained to chase buck-shot fowl, Watt was a husky, macho and impervious to the elements. So, dogs. The guy and another firefighter had been scouting for the upcoming bird season. Three dogs in the back of the truck, two guys chewing Skoal and telling tired jokes. The pup had bolted. Smushed right in front of dogs and men. 
‘Sad,’ we said. ‘That really sucks.’
The guy shrugged. ‘Would of been a good bird dog, dumb son of a bitch.’ He shook his head. ‘Then Lucky got cancer. Had to put her down, too. Just got back last night.’
More commiseration. ‘Two in a month. Fucking sucks.’
‘Yeah. Kids won’t stop crying. The wife’s upset, too, like it’s my fault or something.’
I asked about the older dog, how old she’d been. Lucky was only six. Watt’s ten, I said. I dreaded the day he got ill. The guy shrugged again; he said his dog took it pretty okay.
‘The ride to the vet?’ I asked. ‘Watt hates the damn vet. Gotta beat him into the truck to get him there.’
He stared at me a moment. ‘No, the whole thing. We were up to the cabin, I took her for a walk along the lake. I knew which clearing I wanted, back from the shore and any kids playing.’ He chuckled to himself. ‘She took it easy on me.’
My turn to stare. ‘How so?’
‘Didn’t look back. She sat, I stroked her head a couple times, then that was it. I had the pistol under my shirt. Luck didn’t turn around. If she had, one look and I’d have shot myself.’ He stared through me, his face tight. ‘One shot, down she went.’
Everyone murmured firefighter’s version of condolences:  ‘She was a good dog.’ 
‘That sucks.’
‘Well, too bad.’ 
‘Always hard.’ A pause. ‘So, who’s cooking dinner?’
‘That’s you, Rookie. Better be good.’
Dinner. My next biggest fear: Cooking for this devoutly meat-and-potatoes crew. A grown man with a college degree and a decade working as a professional, I was keenly aware that at this job, one fits in, or one doesn’t. It mattered what these folks thought of me. Not that the crew would let me die in a fire, butthe shifts are long. A hostile crew could make life hard. Yet all I could think was, ‘Oh, I see. They shoot their dogs here. We shoot our dogs.’ 
It wasn’t the time to debate arms control or my fervent opposition to the NRA. These guys owned guns. They used guns. They shot, cleaned, and ate animals. I shopped at the organic market. They put their pistol to their dog’s head and ‘put him down clean.’ My family had ignored our dog’s misery while waiting for the Death Fairy to come in the night and leave a puppy on the hearth. 
This was a new world for me. I sipped my coffee and tried imagining shooting Watt. And because it’s the fire department, without missing a beat someone built on this story, ‘Better than what happened to Smith.’
‘Same deal. Old dog, deaf and half-blind, couldn’t drag itself to piss. The bastard finally admits it’s time, takes him out to the woods. They stop and right as he puts the barrel against the dog’s head, the damn dog turns and looks at him. Smitty starts to bawl. He pulls the trigger, Bang! but he just wounds it. Dog goes screaming through the bushes. Smitty has to chase it down. Fat fuck nearly had a coronary. So he catches the dog, it’s a bloody mess.’ The guy paused, snorted, ‘He was so gassed from the chase, he ended up shooting three more times to kill that poor mutt.’
People chuckled and cursed Smitty’s bad aim and Bud’s worse luck. I nodded again, half-wondering who in the room was armed. I decided it wasn’t the best time to mention I was a vegetarian.
Three years later, I’d survived rookie probation and landed with a good crew in a bad area. Poverty, ignorance, despair make for hard living; violence is generally the first resort. The majority of our calls were ugly. Seeing the dregs and dross, the endless despair, I came home hungry for my family–I cherished my wife and daughters. We’d adjusted to the schedule. Life went along, busy but good. Except, my dog was failing. 
I bought Watt from a sled-dog guy in the backwoods of Colorado. I was living there while looking for teaching jobs. Got a sled dog, then promptly moved to Chattanooga, TN. Not much dog sledding in the Bible Belt. I was twenty-three and trying to get my life together. The name is from a Beckett novel and the bass player from the Minutemen–not Reagan’s toady. The dog ran me ragged while I got sober and became either my new self or just my better self. Tennessee was hot, and full of ticks and fleas. And poison ivy. And snakes. We survived, though, and I moved to Minneapolis largely to make it up to him. Watt certainly thrived in snow and sub-freezing temperatures–which meant I did too (sort of).
A gloriously stubborn prick for 13 years, there was no reason to expect him to go peacefully, in his sleep. He couldn’t reliably manage the stairs. His life was limited to lying on a rug near the door, lying in the dirt outside, eating, sleeping, waiting. He could walk up the block, but much more and his hindquarters would fail him.
I worried that, despite my vows after Holly’s death, I’d become one of those people, the desperate dog people who refuse to admit Time has claimed Fido. We’re so adept at rationalizing, at denying what’s right before our eyes, limping and sighing along. ‘Oh, he’s just tired today...’ Those people who construct sleds, carts, and hoists, dragging the all-but-deceased canine around, steely in their grim determination to stave off death. Dropping thousands on supplements, homeopathic remedies, holistic massage, Chinese herbs, crystals, steroids, amphetamines, voodoo–anything to keep the dog going. ‘I owe it to him,’ they say. ‘Seven grand is nothing if it gets us another year.’
These people love their dogs–without question. But that love and its blinding sentimentality can overwhelm humans’ humane logic. The more technology advances, the more distorted our understanding of–our connection to–the natural process. Buying a pet is not an obligation that supercedes the bounds of nature.
Watching the old boy totter across the yard, I told Annie it was time. Meaning, we had to admit Watt was close to dying; meaning, we had to prepare to put him down. Annie found the concept–putting him down, deciding it was ‘time’–disturbing. ‘It seems cold,’ she said. ‘Heartless. How can we just decide when he should die?’ 
I shrugged. 
‘Well, what if we weren’t around?’ She stroked his head. ‘In the wild, what would happen?’
I pointed at him, splayed on the ground. ‘He’d get eaten.’ 
She frowned, ‘Or left for dead. Starving would suck.’
She couldn’t lift Watt alone. If he went down hard while I was working–what then? He’d shriek in agony, lolling on a failed haunch until Annie could find a neighbor to help hoist him. But what about the girls, she couldn’t leave them alone to run for help. How could she get howling dog and terrified kids all the way to the vet? What could the dog, or Annie, endure? What about our daughters?
Talking over this scenario that night, and I muttered, ‘I’d strangle him. End it fast.’ 
Annie looked at me. ‘You’re joking, right?’
‘Well–’ I shrugged. ‘What else?’
‘He’s your dog. After so many years...’ She frowned, tracing an idea in the air. ‘The last thing he’d know or feel would be you–his beloved master–choking him to death. That’s just horrible.’
‘If his leg’s snapped, or his back, he won’t know a thing. It’ll be the most awful, the most gruesome noise imaginable. What’s better for him: ending his suffering fast or driving all the way to the vet, him insane in pain and fear, just so they can stab him with the fatal needle?’ At work, I’ve held people’s hands as they take their last breaths. Natural causes, where they drift away, and trauma cases, where their life blood literally drains away. I stroked his head. ‘If he’s that hurt, broken-hurt, he won’t know anything, only pain.’
Hmmm. We were in ugly-truth territory. I got a “just how well do I know this person sharing my bed?” look from Annie. We left it unresolved; I promised not to garrote anyone overnight.
How could I kill a dog that wasn’t obviously suffering? Euphemisms abound, but they are weak: put down, assist to die, mercy-kill. I was waiting for the catastrophe that would justify the needle–the final accident that rendered permissible, necessary, the ending of his life. That galled me. Needing a near-fatal fall to justify putting him down, so I could call myself humane. Watt himself was the final reason I objected so strongly to the class mantra of Holy Dog. Watt: I’d raised him by myself and traveled the country with him and gotten sober with him and become a ‘real’ adult with him. He was old, he was failing. It was time. If anything, the bromides and emptily universal truths about dear-old-doggy clarified my belief that we are too disconnected from life, that we think medicine should cure everything. In that writing class, one man made a point of stressing the mercy part of mercy-killing. He said it frequently, with the emphasis heavily up front. I objected, finally, observing it’s killing regardless. Irked, the man tried to bludgeon me with good-will semantics, ‘That’s utterly different! Killing is bad. Mercy-killing is an act of mercy, of love. It’s merciful. Don’t you understand? Mercy!’
‘I understand that, to you, it’s important to stress the merciful part,’ I replied. ‘But you’re taking a life–thus, killing–no matter your motivation. The dog is dying, however you choose to label it.’ I wasn’t calling him a murderer; I also wasn’t accepting the avoidance of responsibility for a hard decision. He was the one needing benediction for his guilt.
As firefighters, we show up and deal with what we find. It takes common sense, focus and calm. We are trained to expect the worst-case scenario; disaster is inevitable. Life is precious, although for many, many people it’s brutal and squandered. Death is certain. I am privileged–and forced–to see life as a process, a cycle.
There’s still no antidote to death, yet we act surprised. 
I doubted I could actually strangle Watt, either physically or emotionally. In the moment, it would be too much. Yet, imagine enduring the canine equivalent of someone begging to be killed. My various dog-owning friends agreed the equation was a balance between Watt’s pain level, his quality of life, against our patience and resources. Wait and watch, basically, knowing the circle was closing ever tighter. 
While I conducted my polls about what constituted or justified a mercy killing, one point came up: ‘Man, it’s hard, but do it before he’s miserable with suffering. That’s one thing you can do for a dog that we can’t for humans. End it mercifully. Better than with my –’ And each person would tell of a relative or family member’s horrible lingering end. 
Many have experienced the agonies of a long-suffering relative’s decline. Daily our crew visits the hellish limbo of understaffed, underfunded nursing homes, where we provide absurdly irrelevant care to festering souls. They are alive technically, but suffering until the release of death. Their families endure months of agony. The person who once-was is long-lost; what remains is the shell. We’re raised to think that doctors, that ‘medicine’ will help. The reality is, medically we can keep a body functioning. But is that Life? 
People are surprised by death so frequently, it’s startling to me. Recently, we had a call where a 54-year-old man with terminal cancer fell into a seizure. His anguished family hovered about, devastated, while we looked at this poor fellow. No paperwork had been completed: no living will, no advanced directive, no DNR/DNI. We were required to work this body. It was horrible, ghastly, inhumane. The family mourned and wailed, their grief massive and palpable. We asked why no one had done anything preparatory. ‘He’s been doing all right,’ the wife said. ‘We didn’t want to upset him.’ 
We nodded and continued our pointless, invasive, distressing ministrations. What we didn’t say was, ‘It’s TERMINAL cancer: There’s no mystery, only a clock. What do you gain by denying it’s coming? Have you made him feel better? How about yourselves?’ Not to be cruel, but when one sees it repeatedly, the stalling and denying and ignoring just get tired. Wholly avoidable abuse. Sparing his feelings, at what expense? 
Nobody intends this.
When it comes to a pet, it’s easier, perhaps–a clearer decision, but then so naked it’s painful. We can act for them; they can’t say what they want, ever.
I doubt I’ll want to live when I should be dead, when I’m half-dead. I hope Annie or our kids will have the courage and sense of humor to cut me free sooner. They won’t ‘spare’ me the awkward conversation about my imminent demise. My wishes will be in writing, in triplicate, stapled to my chest.
I took Watt up north later that autumn, deep into hunting season. I wanted to see the top of Minnesota–International Falls, touted as the ‘Nation’s Icebox.’ I grew up in DC, where a five-hour drive got me to NYC. Here, that’ll get me to the Dakotas, Iowa, Wisconsin, almost to Canada. I had to lift Watt into the truck now, and he could descend only with difficulty and my encouragement. Open trails would be a good change. It would be, I knew, our final trip.
We were going for a three-day jaunt, driving, hiking, roaming the woods. The trees were radiant with fall foliage, the land mostly open and flat. I could see a storm coming and I drove on, hoping to get somewhere before it settled in. I had a tent, and the truck. We’d be fine, like old times.
Every mini-mart was festooned with wind-whipped plastic banners proclaiming Hunters Welcome! and product placement for beer, chewing tobacco, or ammo. I had nothing in blaze orange or tree-toned cammo; Watt certainly wasn’t a retriever. I had no weapons to speak of. I didn’t stock up on beef jerky and Skoal. I failed at standard hunter chit-chat. Inability to make hunting jokes while perusing munitions called me out as a fraud. Just a guy passing through.
A couple hours along, I realized I wasn’t going to find anyplace that wasn’t wet and chock full of hunters. Hunters and deer hiding on all sides of me. I was just dumb enough to get shot in the woods–dumb enough to go for a ‘nature hike’ without a speck of orange on my body. Serves the bastard right, I imagined them saying at the firehouse, dumb-ass vegetarian takes a slug to the lung, drags himself five miles into the brush, then his dog eats him.
We pulled down an old logging road with No Hunting signs posted (Yeah, right, I thought). I drove in a mile or so. By the map we weren’t far from several unincorporated towns, small hamlets amid the trees. It felt like fifty miles from anything. I parked in a clearing and coaxed Watt out of the truck. We stood knee-high in scrub bushes. In the drifting cold rain. He stared at me with that familiar enduring contempt: ‘What now, you idiot?’
‘Okey-doke,’ I said, laughing at myself. ‘Let’s go get wet.’ I began walking vaguely north, thinking, This is dumb. I looked back. Watt was unable to get his balance on the knotted shrubs; his legs couldn’t support him. I waited for him to come my way. We looked like two turtles pacing ourselves in a marathon. 
Ten minutes later he got close enough to me that I could pet him. ‘Good boy.’ I turned west. ‘C’mon, old man.’ He sort of followed, lurching and limping. I stopped again, waiting. ‘Okay,’ I announced to the cloud-mottled sky, ‘this really sucks.’ I cut back southeasterly. In thirty minutes I’d completed a fifty-yard circle. A decade previous, he and I had climbed Mount St. Helens. Watt barely made it to the logging path. His face was blank, eyes neither unhappy nor engaged. Pain and exertion drained his expression. I watched him, forcing myself not to look away. It was awful.
It didn’t matter if we walked five miles or five feet. We weren’t going anywhere. I knelt, stroking him. ‘Sorry, boy. I’m so sorry.’ He didn’t respond, too spent to lick me or move away. I spied the carcass of a mid-sized creature, a racoon or woodchuck perhaps. Only slightly scavenger-torn, its bones retained their basic imprint in the ragged grass. Watt sniffed it but couldn’t investigate further. He looked at me vaguely. My dog, I thought. Oh, my dog.
We were alone under a rainy sky in late-autumn. Snow would come soon, the long brutal winter inconceivable to people not from cold places. Watt used to thrive at five-above to fifteen-below, making me suffer for his pleasure and birthright. He wouldn’t get any pick-up this year. With the ice and snow, just getting down our front steps could be lethal. I sighed. My old man limped toward me. ‘I’m sorry. Sorry, sorry, sorry,’ I cried. I pulled his head to mine. That familiar, pungently unwashed smell. What did he have left? My head was pulsing. Should I put him down, now, here, far from everyone and everything? I was dizzy with the weight that he would die–that certainty–and the cold truth that I could do it now. The shift from thought to action. We could end it now. Be free, skip the painful, grotesque end-game. No human would witness the act.
Had I been planning this? I must have known we’d end up like this, far from anything, just me and him. How could I not? My friends had even jokingly warned, ‘Don’t you come back alone.’
Was dying in the woods better than on a vet’s bleach-scrubbed linoleum floor? Would I be doing him a service putting him down out here, rather than dragging him home to wait for him to slip and crack his hips?
Maybe I had intended to kill Watt. I didn’t run from the thought. I sat with it, wondering at the perversity of human behavior that could half-conceal such a plan. I tried to figure out how one would do it. Not ‘one,’ but me. How I would go about killing my dog. Mercy killing: it held both parts, the mercy and the killing. 
No gun. I had a knife–which seemed a messy, low-percentage option. 
I could try talking him to death, but if he’d survived 13 years of my blather, not likely. 
Tie him up and drive away fast? I laughed at myself: Why tie him? He couldn’t walk more than fifty feet. 
I looked down at him, hoping he might offer some suggestion, even a nod that let me know it was all right. He’d rather go this way.
Was I more worried about the implications on me as a supposedly compassionate person than about the practicalities of the act? You’re cracked, I decided. Ditching the dog is cowardly. Either do it or don’t: You planned this shitty trip into the woods in the rain, what else could you have been thinking? I looked at my battered, slumped old friend. ‘Oh man, it’s a hard road.’ 
Maybe because I’d tricked myself into being ‘surprised,’ I wouldn’t do it. I hoisted him back into the truck and we went home. Screw the state parks. It was raining and my dog was hobbling. We would wait for whatever came along, so-called natural causes.
‘How did it go?’ Annie asked, knowing it hadn’t. What could I tell her, that I almost killed him? That there’s no point to any of it? That we kid ourselves, both about our virtue and our courage?
He made it another four months. I found a vet who did at-home euthanasia. Funny initial call. ‘Hi, you don’t know me but I want you to come over and kill my dog.’
‘Okay,’ the woman said, ‘well, hmm. Generally we like to, you know, meet the dog first. Have some experience with him–before, you know, before we just...’ 
We arranged to meet, and she agreed on the severity of his condition. Final plans were drawn up. And here things got complicated. Try explaining death to a three-year old. My older daughter is sharp, scarily astute the way kids are. Like dogs, they can smell fear and deceit. ‘Watt’s old, and soon, one day real soon, he’s going to go to sleep and never wake up.’
‘Grammy’s old. Will she die, too?’
‘No. Well, yes. Not yet. See, we all do, but not any time soon.’
‘I don’t want Grammy to die.’ Fair enough, who does? But that became, ‘Are you gonna die tonight? I’ll be sad when you die. Who’ll be my new Papa when you die tonight?’ Which became, ‘I don’t want to go to sleep–I don’t want to die!’ 
And we tried to parse that semantical sandwich, doggy-death foretold vs. parents won’t die tonight. Then the pickle of explaining to her how Watt was going to die. You can’t say Vet, Doctor, Shot, Needle, Pills, because any connection–literal or figurative–between the vet euthanizing an old dog would wreak havoc on any future trips to the pediatrician. Plus, we’d gotten a puppy, both in expectation of Watt’s passing and to give him some puppy love at the end. Wouldn’t the pup be traumatized by the scent of the vet showing up to kill her big brother? 
Soon we were talking about Annie hiding with both the pup and the kids upstairs in the bathroom so we could put Watt down without triggering long-term mental anguish for pup and children. I balked, finally. ‘For all this, why not just do it at the vet?’
  Which we did. We gathered around him at home, gave him the sedatives, let him loll in the snow until I trundled him into the truck one last time. He was pretty much out already, and the shot took him quick. I held his head, saying goodbye. For once, Watt took it easy on me. Within a minute he was gone, the tremendous body drained of life. I sat a while holding him, smiling through my tears. I wasn’t sad, though. He got a good end. No mystery, no myth: He’d lived a good life, he got old, he was dead. It hurt like hell, of course.
The vet was solicitous, asking how I was, reassuring me Watt was in a better place.
‘Well, that’s for sure.’ I laughed. ‘We had a great run,’ I said. ‘C’mon. He was old and hurting. I couldn’t have asked for more time or a better dog. I’m lucky.’ 
Driving back from the vet I stopped at the dog park, a sudden impulse. I kept to myself, not wanting to bring dead-dog juju around the dog-lovers. I definitely didn’t want strangers’ heartfelt but generic sympathies. I wanted to see their dogs. Amid the canine frenzy a young husky ran wild. Gorgeous, lanky, almost feral–blissfully ignoring his owner as Watt had ignored me. I recognized the beyond-frustrated tone in the owner’s futile commands. And the dog was beauty in movement. I had to smile: That was a husky. My dog had been gone a while. He’d limped and shuffled about long enough that the ‘real’ Watt was a memory: a memory contained in the aged body. I’d looked through the hobbled flesh and fur to the living ghost of my youthful dog. Now, he was free, too, and it was all memory.
Biographical: Jeremy Norton lives in Minneapolis, MN with the performer Annie Enneking and their two daughters. He is a Fire Captain for the Minneapolis Fire Department and trains dogs as a hobby. He has an M.A. in Fiction Writing from Boston University, which certainly comes in handy on emergency response calls.