Beastiful 

I don’t think I’ve thought about what it might be like to be an animal for decades – probably since I was a little kid. Well, maybe I do a little imagining now and then. Swooping down a long hill on my bike, I might wonder if I feel anything like how a hawk might feel as it dives out on the clouds onto a hapless rabbit. 

That imagining pales next to the deep and deeply weird imaginings and the even weirder doings that British writer Charles Foster describes in his book, Being a Beast. Concerned – obsessed – with the experience of being an animal, Foster states on the first page of the book, “I want to know what it is like to be a wild thing.” He not only tries to think about what it must be like to be a badger or a fox or a swift, but even tries to be a badger and a fox and a swift, going so far as to eat earthworms like a badger, to skulk through urban streets like a fox, and to – well, he can’t be much like a swift, which spends weeks aloft migrating between Europe and Africa. Mindbendingly bizarre, these experiences are also – thanks to Foster’s human command of language – entertaining examinations of the biology and psychology of being a beast (all of which include scores of engrossing facts about the natural world) and a set of cases in which Foster tries to be those different beasts. 

Charles Foster, Being a BeastIt’s safe to say, I think, that very few people – at least in the industrialized West, where we have so safely and brutally segregated our lives from nature – are willing to go to Fosterian lengths in imagining an animal’s existence. Hunters, as he shows in the red stag chapter, might come closest, trying to duplicate aspects of wolf-ness. I like certain kinds of extreme fun in nature, but I don’t think I’d sleep in a cave in a riverbank like Badger Foster, belly-surf down a river like Otter Foster, run through the fields like Stag Foster, or eat trash scavenged from a garbage bin like Fox Foster. 

Maybe because most of us aren’t willing to go one-twentieth as far toward animal-ness as Foster, Being a Beast serves as an extended essay on a wild kind of human eccentricity and a moving consideration of a human kind of longing for the wild. For many of us, segregated in our cars and houses, this longing is imagining the freedom that we think is at the core of animal experiences. Animals experience more than freedom, of course: hunger, exhaustion, terror, as well as satiety, restedness, calm – and maybe even a sense of happiness in doing the things that make them what they are. Foster writes:

I can’t always be in the wild. Sometimes I have to be in places that smell of fear, fumes, and ambition. When I’m there, it helps very much to know that badgers are asleep inside a Welsh hill, than an otter is turning over stones in one of the Rockford pools, that a fox is blinking in the same sun that makes me sweat in my tweed coat, that a red stag is cudding among ghost trees by a stone circle near Hoar Oak, and that there’s a swift, hatched above my Oxford study, hunting, almost beyond human sight, in the high hot blue over the Congo River. That these things should be a comfort is strange. They should taunt. They should say, “You’re not there. Ha, ha, ha.”

This knowledge that animals are leading their unknowable lives while we lead ours is a comfort to me too. I find my own mind wandering, when I’m tired or stressed but also when I’m satisfied or calm, to visions – experienced directly, stolen from photos and films, and fully imagined – of bison, my favorite unknowable animals, out there in America, doing bison things. It’s a relief and a pleasure to know they’re there while I’m here. That there are wild beasts that I’ll never become. 

Teton Bison, January 2015
Teton Bison, January 2015

Into the Woods

One aspect of cycling that surprises and pleases me is how a bike ride will sometimes – by accident or by subconscious arrangement – bring me to a place I didn’t know I needed to go. Fatbiking has done this figuratively and literally, creating or at least heightening a passion for being in the snow. Riding the Arrowhead literally changed my life.

But this happens often enough on regular old rides too. A mindless drift down a favorite road brings me at just the right moment to a view of a prairie landscape that shocks me with a feeling of being small but in just the right place.

Isaacson Corner
Isaacson Corner

A ride with the girls creates a sense – rare but welcomed – of being possibly okay at parenting.
Lebanon Hills
Lebanon Hills

Or yesterday: a careful plan for a pretty hard training ride delivered me to some wooded trails, just a few miles but a world away from home, that dripped with rain and a feeling of home – of my actual childhood homes in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and my ancestral homes in the woods of eastern Belgium and central Finland. Even barrages of mosquitoes couldn’t detract from my sweaty happiness at being deep in the trees and ferns and mud. 

Caron Park
Caron Park

Custer the Bastard

On our family trip to the Black Hills in South Dakota, I was – but should not have been – surprised by the volume of stuff related to George Armstrong Custer, famous for getting killed with all his men at the Battle of Little Bighorn by a massive Native American army that was, among other goals, fighting the encroachment of white settlers in places like the Black Hills – Ȟe Sápa in Lakota

As it happens, I’d seen T.J. Stiles’ new biography of Custer at the bookstore back home in Northfield, so I picked it up, eager to learn more about this famous figure, whom I only knew as a Civil War officer and an Indian fighter. Understanding Custer as more than those two roles is Stiles’s task and accomplishment. 

Stiles expertly structures the book around a series of “trials” (including several actual trials: courts martial for various offenses) that Custer precipitated and endured over the course of his full but short life. (Custer was only 36 when he was killed and mutilated at what the Indians called “Greasy Grass.”) Beyond Custer’s undeniable skill as a battlefield commander in both the Civil War and in various theaters of the Indian Wars, the man was, in brief, a bastard: a vicious disciplinarian, a philandering husband, an inveterate gambler, a preening dandy, a failed stock speculator, a Confederate sympathizer, an scheming careerist, an out-and-out racist… 

Stiles makes clear that in all these things, Custer was both a product of his times and a producer of them – as everyone is, though not usually to such an extreme and often appalling degree. Custer shaped and was shaped by a rapidly-changing America where what we might call a rugged individual (at least if he was white and male) was being submerged in an increasingly sophisticated, urban, and anonymous society, one more familiar to us, 150 years after Custer’s ignominious death, than the one into which the man had been born.

By the end of the book, I at least was eager to see Custer get what he had coming. And there Stiles dodges, holding Little Bighorn at arm’s length by examining the disaster through an official inquiry into its cause. Fittingly, part of that cause was Custer’s impetuosity and bloodlust: he wanted to exterminate the Indians whom he saw impeding the rightful expansion of the United States. Instead, the Indians forestalled that expansion, at least a little, by exterminating Custer’s force – and in a neat trick of history, assuring that he would never be forgotten.

Fat Pursuing

Today I registered for the Fat Pursuit, the fatbike race that Jay Petervary stages in eastern Idaho each winter. I was registrant number two for the long race – a 200 mile affair that starts on January 6.

After completing the 120-mile distance in 2015, I had to skip the race this year, which only stoked my fire to go back in 2017. Now the race is on the horizon again – 158 days away. It’s hard to overstate how much I’m excited to train, to prep my bike and gear, to travel out there, to see the mountains again, to hang out with race friends, and to ride those amazing trails on the Buffalo.

The Buffalo in its summer garb

Octopus Life

A while ago I asked for recommendations of natural-history and science books to read.
The Soul of an Octopus
Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus was heartily recommended by several people, and very much worth my time. The book is so beautifully and transparently written that it can be read quickly, which for me heightened its effect. Like an octopus using all eight arms to take in everything it can all at once, I wanted to gorge on everything the book has to offer: wonderful science writing on these utterly bizarre creatures; learned considerations of how humans can connect to wild creatures and, especially, what forms animal consciousness might take; and wonderful stories about her own relationships with several octopuses in a Boston aquarium.

The book contains too much of all that and more to summarize, so let me just say that anyone interested in animals or a nature beyond humans should read it. The closing passages were as moving as anything I’ve read this year, but every other page contained astounding stuff like this litany of octopus mythology:
Octopus Religion

Grandma Cat, RIP

Grief drove me to spend a couple hours tonight combing our digital photos for the best shots of Sabine, our wonderful grandma cat. I was surprised by how few there were, but the photos we do have are nicely representative of her beauty and calm. “Beaner” was quite a cat, even leaving aside the fact that she lived 21 wonderful years (nearly half my life!).

Sabine was a stray, adopted by Shannon and me with her “brother” Snowshoe (also a stray but not her actual littermate) from a shelter in Chicago. When Shannon and I – newly married – adopted the two cats, we were making a real home for ourselves. In the contract with signed with the shelter, we promised to always keep them both indoors and to never declaw them. We were silly kids, but we kept both of those promises! “Schoobie” died of cancer when he was only five, which felt until tonight like an impossibly painful event. “Beaner” lived another 16 years! I asked her, at the vet’s tonight, to make sure she told Schoobie that we missed him and that we did a good job with her.

The defining aspect of Beanie’s life was being the object of the girls’ inexhaustible love. She sought out their love, and paid them back richly. Genevieve, especially, enjoyed a special bond with Sabine, whom she called by a million names, including “Benobi.” How many hours did Sabine spend with Julia and Genevieve on the sofa, snuggling into a blanket or draped over their laps?

She was a surpassingly gentle cat. I can’t remember her ever being truly angry, except when I trimmed her claws. And even then, she relaxed when Vivi would help me by cooing to her and stroking her back. She loved peace and quiet and sunbeams. Like most cats, but more so.

In the last couple years, as life with not-little kids calmed down, Sabine made a point each morning to come over to where I was eating breakfast and paw at my leg, reminding me that she wanted some of the milk from my cereal. I’m sorry that I wasn’t always patient with her begging, but I always gave her my leftover milk, which she happily slurped up. She often then waited at the door to the garage to go and inspect the situation there – but not if it was too cold. She liked to lick the spokes on the girls’ bicycles, bizarrely. Back inside, especially in these last few years of her life, she would find a sunny spot in the living room and make herself comfortable as I was leaving for work.

Even more than those weekday mornings, Sabine and I enjoyed each other’s company every evening, after the rest of the household went to bed. She and I had a little routine. When I came downstairs after saying goodnight to the girls around 8:30, she’d expect me to top off her food bowl. Then she’d sit with me or maybe sleep behind the TV in her “nest.” If I had a snack, she’d come over to check it out, dipping her paw in my water glass, licking salty chips if I looked away, and enjoying the last shreds of cheese from my nachos. Around 10, she’d come back for her bedtime snack, which I’d give her in the utility room, where she’d sleep overnight. If I fell asleep on the sofa or simply forgot, she’d politely come over from wherever she was and tap me on the knee or chin with a reminder. God how I’ll miss all of our evenings together, but god how I’ll treasure the memory of them.

I’m gonna party like it’s 1999

Two quick Prince stories.

I think the first time I really liked a song of his was when I started hearing “Raspberry Beret” on the radio while traveling by bus to a Catholic youth camp in Wisconsin in 1985. Prince was big by then, and I knew some of the classics off “Purple Rain” and earlier albums, but “Raspberry Beret” stood out. “If it was warm/she would be wear much more” seemed so *dirty* to twelve-year-old me. And to this day I sing “In through the out door out door” whenever I see a door marked for exit only. Wait, was that line dirty too?

Second story: On New Year’s Eve 1998, Shannon and I went to a party thrown by my grad school friend Michael and his then-girlfriend Julie. It was probably the first time I’d ever had whiskey – knowing Michael, probably Maker’s Mark. It hit me like a ton of bricks.

A drink for Prince

At midnight, I was still tipsy when Julie put Prince’s “1999” on the stereo, because can there be a more perfect moment than NYE 1998 to sing along to “I’m gonna party like it’s nineteen ninety-nine”? No, there cannot. Listening to the song, my buzzing mind went back to that bus trip in 1985. Two loops of my life tied together with Prince.

I’ve still never seen *Purple Rain*, though.

Mallets, ready to hammer

My preferred fatbike pedal is the [Mallet by Crank Brothers](https://www.crankbrothers.com/product/mallet-3-new) – technically a downhiller’s pedal, but perfect for winter riding because the big platform supports your foot even when you can’t or don’t want to clip in.

I’ve been using a pair of Mallet 3s for about a year and a half now, through at least four fatbike ultramarathons plus untold snow and gravel training miles – tough use, but without any trouble at all.

Till a ride about ten days ago, when the left one failed on a short ride near home. I limped back to the house and wrote to Crank Brothers to see about repair or replacement. They told me to send the pedals back. Today, I received the repaired pedals – rebuilt at no charge. I like that they still look worn, but aren’t now worn out. Pretty sweet. Great customer service.
Mallets, ready to hammer

March Gladness

The girls love playing basketball, which is great, and that love of playing it has lately extended into loving to watch it too. We attended a bunch of Northfield high-school games this winter and even went to Minneapolis to see a Timberwolves game in February.

This week, they’ve been getting into the NCAA men’s tournament, which they both simply call “Marchmadness,” as if it were actually a different sport than basketball. We filled out tournament brackets, which was fun and a little bit educational, and have watched bits of a few first-round games, including both of the overtime periods that Little Rock needed to beat Purdue.

All day today, I looked forward to sitting on the sofa tonight with the girls and watching whatever game came on. In one of those all-too-rare cases of parenting where the reality matches the expectation, we did just that, taking in Stephen F. Austin’s upset of West Virginia. The game was full of hard defense, good shooting by SFA’s amazingly-bearded Thomas Walkup

Mar 18, 2016; Brooklyn, NY, USA; Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks forward Thomas Walkup (middle) drives to the basket against West Virginia Mountaineers players Elijah Macon (45) , Esa Ahmad (23) and Jonathan Holton (1) in the first half in the first round of the 2016 NCAA Tournament at Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports
Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks forward Thomas Walkup. March 18, 2016; Brooklyn, NY, USA; mandatory credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

and enough steals by SFA to make WVU look like tourists who had wandered into a pickpockets’ convention. We also had an unnecessary bowl of popcorn, some fizzy drinks, and lots of crazy conversation. It was a blast.

Parenting by Bike

If there is one downside to my love of winter cycling – and there isn’t – it would be that my girls can’t join me out on the snowy trails. So as bummed as I am to see winter go (especially a short, mild winter like this one), I’m equally happy to go riding again with the girls, and even more so after we had so much fun last summer.

My spring cycling fever spiked on Friday when I learned that Northfield’s in-town mountain bike trails were scheduled to open for the season on Saturday.

But! When I told the girls this news, Julia said that she was too nervous to ride the trails again – and specifically that she was afraid of falling off the bridges at the trail. (This happened once last year, so it’s a semi-real fear.) I didn’t say much except that I hoped she’d change her mind, and went riding by myself on Saturday.

Sure enough, this morning she announced that she did indeed want to go riding – which made Genevieve upset because she couldn’t come along, being already committed to going to a party. Kids!

I calmed Vivi down by promising to take them next weekend to a nearby mountain bike park (what a burden!), and then Julia and I hit the trails.
Shooting the gap

She did great, riding the bridges without any problems and re-conquering several features that she’d learned last year. She even insisted on posing for a picture:
Semi-scenic overlook

Altogether we rode ten miles in about 90 minutes, which is a great first outing of the season. In addition to the planned trip to other trails next weekend, we decided at dinner to sign up for a short gravel race near Northfield in May, and are thisclose to convincing the non-cyclist in the family to let them do a MTB race in the fall. Yay bikes!

Whatever Floats Your State

Vivi’s fourth-grade social studies project was a “report” on one of the United States of America. Kids could choose among various forms for this report, and she chose to make a “float,” which is in principle and reality a pretty cool alternative to a poster or even a paper. For whatever reason, she selected Idaho as her topic, which was nice since – after two trips out there – I feel like I know a little bit about the Gem State. It’s called the Gem State, for instance.

Predictably, the effort of assembling this float was a bit overwhelming for my smart little perfectionist. Some tears were shed on the way to making the final product resemble the image in her head. I tried to avoid doing much to help her, and wound up mostly just scaling back some of her overly ambitious ideas. But the final product was pretty neat, displaying all the required info (capital, date of joining the Union, nickname, state bird, etc.) as well as some other cool stuff about Idaho and a very realistic paper potato.

Idaho Float
Idaho Float

The Pitchy Blackness

I’m finally reading *Danny the Champion of the World* by Roald Dahl, which both family and friends have said is great. It is, not least because the book includes paragraphs like this one, which stopped me as cold as an unrideable hill in the middle of a fatbike race.

The Pitchy Blackness
The Pitchy Blackness

Scareading

For several months now, the girls have been encouraging me to read some Neil Gaiman books. Okay, maybe *luring* me into etc. etc.
Creepy Tomes

Earlier this week I finally picked up *Coraline*, expecting to read a few chapters before bed. Three hours later I finished it, thoroughly creeped out.

After giving myself a few days to recover, I started *The Graveyard Book* on Friday evening. I was able to stop reading at midnight, which gave me the pleasures of some creepy dreams that night and of enjoying a little whiskey while finishing it tonight. If anything, Bod’s ordeals were even scarier than Coraline’s, though nothing can top this exchange between Coraline and her eye-buttoned other mother:
I Put Her Back

*Shudder*.

Shoulder Season

I feel, I think, the same way about the end of winter that many people do about its start: a little depressed, kinda crabby, grouchy about the change in scenery.

With spring now on the way – early, in my view, and tentatively, in all likelihood- I am nonetheless trying to find some beauty in the melt and gray and muck. These two views of the same field east of town do include some things worth looking at.

Looking West

Looking South