Thursday, August 30, 2012

EVOLUTION OF A BLOGGER



Back when I was in high school,  I was given a writing assignment that was required to get a diploma.  The project was called "The Grandfather Theme."  We were told about this when we were freshmen, so I had four years to write a story about how my Greek grandfather fled his bombed out village during the war and made his way to America with five children and a wife in tow.   In those days I was more interested in American Bandstand and wearing some guy's class ring than giving the teacher my full attention, so when the time came to turn in our writing project,  I was woefully unprepared.   After watching my friends three-hole punch and bind their masterpieces, I pulled an all nighter and concocted a story that my mother said would make my grandfather proud, even though some of it was made up.

 In college I joined the staff of the school newspaper, and learned what a deadline meant,  but I took it more seriously this time around.   One of my first stories was about a deliberately-set  fire in my college dorm room,  and how all the beautiful clothes my mother bought me for school were pretty much destroyed.   After that sensation,  most of the stories I wrote were about trivial things.  As Stephen King implies in his famous memoir, a newspaper writer I'd never be.  

After moving to California,  I enjoyed documenting my new life out West  in typed letters I wrote to my family when things were slow at work.    Off and on over the years I filled up several spiral-bound notebooks, now called journals, and documented my tears over two painful divorces and my bitterness over nasty comments from egregious bosses.   And yet, I never wrote about the joys in my life, falling in love or  being recognized for a job well done.  


 In one of my first positions out of college I struggled to learn how to take weighty minutes of controversial meetings in the university hospital where I worked.   After a nice promotion,  I was challenged even more with assignments to write complicated position papers, lofty letters of recommendation, and extensive documentation justifying faculty tenure decisions.  When I became a university development officer,  I blew way past my comfort zone and wrote marketing plans, solicitation proposals, strategy memos, and talking points for the university president to use when he asked a potential donor for a multi-million dollar gift.   One of the best things I ever wrote was my speech in celebration of my retirement after 35 years of writing, talking, writing, and talking.

So there I was a retiree who really missed the challenges and enjoyment of writing,  so I engaged in an extensive daily email exchange with a high school girlfriend that continues to this day.  I also wrote unsolicited restaurant reviews on foodie websites and a Christmas letter which probably no one ever got around to reading.   After traveling to a few exotic places, I thought maybe travel writing was in my future, but that notion was quashed when I attended a travel writers' conference  and learned that you weren't accepted for writing a compelling story but were evaluated for submitting a clever pitch.   This process seemed too business like for me, after all I'd been making pitches for years when I was a fundraiser, and now that I was retired, I didn't want any pressure.   So,  I enrolled in a creative writing class that seemed less daunting and more fun.      The teacher suggested writing a story on a subject we knew very well.   For weeks  I spent polishing a 2500 word essay about how I fell apart when my second marriage ended.  Writing about love and all its complicated endings was what I knew best and had years and years of journal entries to prove it.   I thought my essay  was pretty good, but was stabbed in the heart by my classmate critics who told me it needed a lot of work.   After taking their severe criticisms to heart and implementing some of their suggestions, I boldly and foolishly submitted it to the New York Times not knowing that they only accept published authors.

A few years after that I began reading a blog  -- one written by a Hindu friend of mine in collaboration with a Christian and a Jew.  That was the name of their blog "Hindu, Christian and Jew."  They drilled down on heady topics like American politics,  and less heady topics like Things Oprah said in her show that day.    

This year someone suggested I create a blog to document a 2000 mile bike ride I was planning to take with Womantours from New Orleans up the Mississippi River to the Canadian border.   I played around with Google's Blogspot website and created a design, found some wild photos and came up with a catchy name.   BIKER CHICK GONE CRAZY went live with my first post in March, 2012.    

A medical emergency had me off the bike after five days going up  river, so I had to think of other stuff to write about, but I was so consumed by my painful condition that this was all I could think to say.   My topics were pitiful ones, like how sad I was not to be riding my bike.  Then I remembered something  my friend Helen Page at Daily Writing Coach said in one of her instructive posts:   "Stay away from feeling sorry for yourself.  Don't be self-absorbed."  She was talking to me!   I knew I had stories to tell.  I just had to learn how to tell them in my own voice.  In the old days writing minutes of meetings eventually became easy and fundraising proposals and marketing plans were formulaic, but writing a story with a beginning,  a middle and an end and a piece that someone might actually enjoy reading has truly been a creative outlet for me.   I even feel my heart skipping a beat when I click the orange publish box on my Blogspot draft page,  knowing that in a few minutes my story might be read by a stranger in Malaysia, Thailand, Germany or the Middle East.  

A good friend of mine read one of my early blog entries and said, "Your  comfort zone post  is the best thing I've read in a long time.  Keep writing honestly like that and word of your blog will spread."  I had no idea what he meant by "Your blog will spread," but as of today Biker Chick Gone Crazy has exceeded 5000 hits in five months.      The way I look at it,  5000 hits is like making the best seller list -- an unusual form of notoriety that quite frankly bowls me over, and I suspect my posts are mostly read by people I don't know.   Now that I am back on my bike and no longer feeling sorry for myself,  I want to write about topics that lift my heart and not drown my sorrow.   I guess I can now call myself a published writer, but I'm not planning to submit any more stories to the New York Times.  







Tuesday, August 21, 2012

WHY I RIDE A BIKE



A little more than 18 years ago I was about to turn fifty.   It was not a pretty picture.  I was getting older and needed to do something about my sagging muscles and my mental fatigue from a stressful job.   I found an old bike in the garage I hadn’t ridden in many years, but after a little spit shine and some elbow grease,  I went for a short ride around the block and was relieved I didn’t crash.  I rode eight miles and decided to ride the next day and the day after that.   A few months later I bought a new bike, a sturdier helmet and some stylish spandex,  joined a bike club, made new friends, rode a metric century, then another, took an international tour, and became a cyclist.

Before I rode a bike, I didn’t know I had it in me to be athletic.  I flunked softball and field hockey in high school.   I didn’t know I could be anything I wanted to be and that’s how biking changed my life.  In my early forties I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia.  My joints ached and I hurt most of the time.  Walking 18 holes on a golf course was impossible.   Eventually I was put on some new medication and with that I gained some self confidence.  I wanted a new life, so I started to push myself, have fun, and exercise.   Then I found the old bike in the garage and the rest is history.    For years I was a weekend warrior and now I’m considered hard core.   Eighteen years later I have ridden my bicycle thousands of miles in some beautiful places,  like the South Island of New Zealand, Hawaii, the national parks of Utah, the challenging Oregon Coast and parts of bucolic New England where I grew up.  My body feels good most of the time, I’m off the medication, and when asked, I say my fibromyalgia is no longer  

Someone once asked me what was the most interesting thing that happened to me on a ride and this is what I said:


"I fell in love" 


This is the story.  We were just dating at the time.  Wanting to be my constant companion, he bought a bike, a helmet, spandex, the whole fancy retail package.  One day after a wonderful ride together out in the country,  I discovered after we got home that I had left my front wheel by the side of the road after loading the bikes in the car.   We quickly drove back to where we had parked, but the wheel was gone.   I was really upset because wheels are expensive.  When I went to my bike store the next day to buy a replacement, the clerk said,  "A nice man called ahead and gave us his credit card to pay for your new wheel."   This gesture showed a kindness that was totally unexpected but truly appreciated.   Two years later we were married and his kindness remains today.


When I am on my bike, I easily focus on everything around me -- the beauty of being outdoors, how the air smells, the cool breeze blowing on my cheeks, the clicking noise my gears make, and the silence that comes with riding on quiet country roads.  The feeling is hard to describe without sounding cliche.  I wouldn't call myself an athlete, but I love feeling athletic, like the way my body works hard and is under my mental control.  I even like to sweat.  My legs are toned and my friends comment on my muscular calves but are nice enough not to ask me why I'm not faster.  Bike coaches say,  "Pretend you are wiping your feet on a mat and start pulling up at 4 o'clock."  My legs are like pistons, making smooth circles as I push and pull in the clips.  At the beginning of most rides my breathing is deep, loud, and irregular,  but after catching my second wind, my breathing is quiet, smooth, and shallow.  It's almost like I'm not breathing at all because I'm in the zone.   I'm conscious of my surroundings, but at the same time I'm in a meditative state of bliss.   How this happens I really don't know.  Maybe endorphins in the brain or something like that.  



The best part of riding a bike is the feeling of authenticity, being my true self.  No judgment, no self criticism, just being free.   I love when I feel one with the bike and riding in the zone. 










Tuesday, August 7, 2012

REMEMBERING TIMBUKTU

A Mosque in Timbuktu
I don't remember the first time I heard the word Timbuktu, but I certainly didn't know it was a place, as in a city or a town.   I also didn't know Timbuktu was a special place, an ancient city, situated on the Southern edge of the Sahara Desert in the West African country of Mali.   I thought it was just slang for in the middle of nowhere or out in the sticks.    So, when a friend asked if we wanted to travel to Timbuktu and attend the remotest music festival in the world,  I thought she was kidding.  But she wasn't kidding, she was serious.   Always searching for the exotic, we had no hesitation in saying Yes,  even though we had no idea where Timbuktu was or what to expect.   So that's how I came to visit the ancient city of Timbuktu, a special place which acquired mythical status synonymous with inaccessibility and an end-of-the-world allure.  It was definitely not easy to get to and you felt like you were on another planet. 

I want to tell you about my trip because the ancient city of Timbuktu is in peril as I write.   It's heartbreaking to see what is happening over there.    A few months ago certain military officers overthrew the democratically-elected Malian government allegedly because the government had not adequately dealt with an uprising by nomadic Tuareg tribes in the northern part of the country.  Ironically, shortly thereafter, a struggle erupted in the north between Tuareg rebels and Islamic extremists affiliated with Al-Qaeda, and the ancient city of Timbuktu was caught in the middle.  This insurgency has devastated the city, one of the world's great UNESCO World Heritage sites:  cultural icons and thousand year old religious shrines have been destroyed and people have been stoned to death for violating Shariah law.  Timbuktu will never be the same, certainly not how I experienced it when I visited there in January 2008.


The changes occurring in Mali and specifically Timbuktu make me appreciate the travel philosophy my husband and I adopted when we started traveling in early 2001 -- to visit places that are on the brink of change, whether it be environmental, social or political.  


The three-day Desert Music Festival was the anchor for a 17 day adventure seeing many parts of this extraordinary country.  The trip will remain in my memory as one of the most unusual experiences I have ever had.


Excerpts from my travel journal dated January, 2008......



"Our heads are filled with impressive images of the West African Country of Mali, a place that is struggling on almost every front.  At the same time we are struck by the beautiful spirit and the dynamic of the people who live here."  

"In the capital city of Bamako we experienced the Grand Marche, which offered exotic shopping with fettish stalls of shrunken monkey heads, highly embossed camel saddles, rank-smelling healing herbs offered by medicine men with wild hair do's, and the ubiquitous "Mr. Good Price" who greeted us at every merchant's booth.  Loaded donkey carts wobbled as they weaved their way through the crowded streets along with the masses.  Amid the market din, we watched the constant parade of stunning women dressed in colorful caftans with matching turbans.  Despite their lowly status in life, these elegant women take enormous pride in how they are dressed."


Children of Mali
"A major portion of our travel in Mali was in SUVs,  and we bounced around for many hundreds of miles, much of it over badly rutted dirt roads.  We stopped in a number of small villages and observed a way of life that has not changed much in a thousand years.    Hoards of barefoot children with encrusted noses swarmed around us and grasped our fingers as if to say "Please be my friend."   

Dogon Country
We visited the legendary Dogon people, including a major trek down the rocky escarpment to their unique villages tucked into sandstone cliffs that in centuries past protected them from Muslim invaders and slave traders.   We treasured our conversations with smiling vendors selling coveted Dogon masks and elaborately carved doors, and  we politely declined their generous offers to taste whatever mush was cooking in their heavy iron pots.  We were shocked to learn that women are victims of genital circumcision at age ten by an older woman with a razor blade  and no anesthetic."  

"It seems as though every trip we take tops the last one and Mali  was no exception.  Traveling from Dogon Country to Timbuktu on very rough terrain took over 16 hours.   Dozing and reading were impossible because it felt as though we were driving on a washboard.   The trip involved crossing the Niger River on a small ferry that was only able to carry two or three vehicles at a time, so our wait in line was lengthy but definitely not boring.   Observing the frenzy of a poor life in a tent encampment located on the water's edge was heart wrenching.  Mali is considered one of the poorest countries in the world, and this situation was a validation of the statistic"


One of the beautiful doors in Timbuktu
"In Medieval times Timbuktu was a major commercial hub in a vast camel caravan route for the gold and salt  trade that linked West Africa and the Mediterranean.  It was also a rich intellectual and spiritual center where religious scholars were instrumental in the spread of Islam throughout Africa.  Timbuktu's sandy streets are lined with architecturally interesting 14th century mud mosques with massive wooden doors decorated with silver studs.   Libraries in run-down buildings contain thousand-year-old Islamic manuscripts that sit unprotected on dusty shelves and document Timbuktu's significance in centuries gone by.   The city's isolation from the rest of the world was important in that it served as a seasonal encampment for Tuareg nomads whose traditions and lifestyle have been impeded by recent border and migration rules." 


Pam & Bruce heading for the Desert Music Festival
"To travel from Timbuktu to Essakane for the music festival was a 33 kilometer adventure we will never forget.  We left in the  morning and arrived late at night.  There were no roads, only undulating tracks in the soft deep sand where others had traveled before us.  Much to our dismay only one of our SUVs had a functioning four-wheel drive train even though all four were supposedly guaranteed to work.  As a result,  it was no surprise when three of our vehicles got hopelessly stuck in the deeply rutted sand time after time.  We were within shouting distance of a few passing travelers, but no one had the brawn or the tools to get us unstuck   Up until this point I wasn't too concerned, after all I grew up in the deep snow of New Hampshire where getting stuck was par for the course, but now I was beginning to get a little scared.   The sun was low in the sky, we weren't making much progress, and we were truly in the middle of nowhere.   With no working cell phones, we were very happy and surprised when the AAA of the desert arrived in the form of the Malian Army.  

While my sister-in-law and I  watched the burly guys work on getting our vehicles unstuck,  a man we hadn't seen before appeared right out of the blue.   He was very stooped and his face and body were covered by a well-worn robe.   The only physical feature I could discern were his glazed eyes, and they told me he was pretty old.    He walked slowly towards us not making a sound and extended his bony arm in our direction.  He was holding a metal vial in his hand,  and  I knew from previous travel experiences, he was asking if we had any medication.   Since I usually carry some analgesics in my bag,  I pulled out my Ibuprofen and put a dozen or so pills in his hand.  I pointed to the tablets and held up two fingers hoping he would understand.   "Two pills every four hours," I repeated over and over, although I knew he didn't understand a word I said.  He nodded, and I could tell from the look in his eyes that this was what he wanted.  I dug deep in my purse to see what else I could spare, but when I looked up, the old man was gone, nowhere to be seen.  He vanished as quickly as he appeared.   "Was he a mirage?" I asked  my sister-in-law.  She shook her head and said he was the real deal."
  

Festival Goers
"It was dark by the time we arrived at the desert camp where we were greeted by heart-pounding sounds of rhythmic African music and thousands of indigenous people all wearing their traditional garb.    The scene was pure magic.   Surely this must be a dream.   The next morning after a restless sleep in our group tent, we discovered that we were among a handful of Westerners (mostly Europeans) and surrounded by ethnic groups representing the Tuareg, Bella, and Fulani tribes.  

Tuareg nomad
The Tuareg nomads are often referred to as the blue men because the dark dye from the fabric rubs off on their skin.  They were certainly the most notable wearing their fancy robes and riding exotic white camels.  Their diaphanous head scarves protected their face from the sun, wind and sand, and they sat high on the saddle while riding their white beasts with determination and pride.   The spitting camels were decorated with brightly colored ribbons and gorgeous turquoise leather headbands.     They too traveled for hours to attend the festival but never worried about getting stuck in the sand like we did." 



video
Bruce's video of Tuareg women dancing 
(sorry for the quality of the video which was challenging to embed)


Dancing at the Festival

What a feast for our eyes.  During the day we wandered around the large campsite with hundreds of white tents and mingled with an array of music lovers and performers.    A market had been set up in the sand where sellers displayed  beautiful Tuareg necklaces, earrings, and silver bracelets,  soft fabric for turbans, and hand-woven spreads and heavy rug-like blankets.  What a shopping bonanza!   There was a small stage and an impressive sound system that had been transported on flat-bed trucks.   Everything here was basic except for this small piece of high tech.    The festival was founded in 2001 as a way to bring the Tuareg culture to the outside world and to expose talented Malian musicians to the masses.  Under hot daytime skies we enjoyed impromptu jam sessions of cluster groups cultivating their individual tribal sounds and dancing hypnotically to the intricate haunting rhythms on indigenous instruments we'd never heard before.   Music is their life and their environment.  I was spellbound. 



As I read through my travel journal, what grieves me most is that the Essakane Desert Music Festival no longer exists.  Mali and Timbuktu have been devastated.   It is too dangerous to live there, let alone to visit.   Music is an expression of freedom for Malians and the Tuaregs, and the festival was its manifestation.  But now their freedom has been ripped from them by terrorists and murderers.  Their culture is being destroyed.  People are dying. Their stories will never be heard.  When you were at the Desert Music Festival, you were one with the people and the people were one with the artists.

Vivid images of what I saw and what is now lost will be embedded in my memory forever.  I will never forget the people of Mali, the beauty and flavor of Timbuktu or the spectacular Desert Music Festival in Essakane. 



"As the sun goes down behind the dunes, we watch the traditional camel races* where thousands of people cheer for their favorite camel galloping across the sand.     Hours later the temperature drops thirty degrees, and we shiver on the cold sand beneath the star-studded sky and listen to the haunting music of these fascinating people.  As you sit on the dunes and take this all in,  something inside of you changes."

*

Thursday, August 2, 2012

THINGS I THOUGHT ABOUT SAYING AT THE GYM BUT DIDN'T


"OMG,  your entire body is covered with tattoos.  Arms, legs, chest, and back.  Do you have a tattoo somewhere under those shorts?   You must not like yourself very much."  

"Stop snapping your gum!   You're driving me crazy.  Even though I'm listening to my iPod and there's loud music pumping out of the club's speakers,  I can still hear that gum."  

"You know what?  You are going to end up with a cervical disc problem like I did if you continue to whip your neck back and forth on the elliptical machine."  

"Wipe down the stationary bike, asshole.  No one wants to use it after you've sweated and slobbered all over it."

"OK, we all know you are beautiful.  We also know that you are French, that you speak another language besides English and that you want to impress everyone.   Your exercise partner looks embarrassed.  It bugs me that I don't know what you are saying."

"Ooo-eee,  you stink.  How often do you wash your workout clothes?   Well then, you need to either take a shower before the gym or start using  deodorant.  I can't stand being within 30 feet of you."  

"Hi,  Fun seeing you again today, but I can't waste another hour talking to you.   By the way, I'm tired of hearing about your Morton's neuroma and how you had to sell your stilettos and start wearing old lady shoes."   

"Are you planning to lay there on the hamstring stretching machine all day?  I mean, honestly, if you need to make a phone call, can't you wait until you are on someone else's favorite machine and not mine?" 

"I'm sorry, but this is my spin bike for today's class.  I reserved it with my water bottle and towel before I left to go use the restroom.   Well,  if it's your favorite too, then maybe you should have reserved it before I did."

"If you are a personal trainer and being paid $100 per hour,  shouldn't you be paying attention to your client and not looking at all the hotties working out?"