Thursday, September 24, 2020

The Dreary World of Edgar Allan Poe

The Raven:

A brief commentary, for a book club I belong to.

Edgar Allan Poe was an American writer, poet, editor, and literary critic. Poe is best known for his poetry and short stories, particularly his tales of mystery and the macabre. He is widely regarded as a central figure of Romanticism in America, and he was one of the country's earliest short story writers. He is also generally considered the inventor of the detective fiction genre and is further credited with contributing to the emerging genre of science fiction.

            As a youngster, I became obsessed with Poe, and read all his works. “The Raven,” of course, was his most famous poem, and I learned it by heart. I also read one or two biographies of the man, and those works helped me understand the particularly tragic nature of his poetry. Born Edgar Poe, he was orphaned at age two and raised by a couple named Allan, which was the source of his middle name.

            In high school, I wrote a paper titled “The sources of The Raven and a note.” I don’t remember much about the paper, but I do recall suggesting that the idea of a speaking Raven came from a British poem of the day, in which the bird in question said “Mortimer.” In retrospect, that seems funny.

            When he was in his early 20s, Poe married his 13-year-old cousin, Virginia Clemm, in 1836, and she died of tuberculosis in 1847 – two years after he published “The Raven” to instant success. He died in Baltimore two years later, at age 40. The cause of his death is unknown.

Without exception, his poems are tragic tales of love lost. I’m not going to read all of The Raven today. Just enough to give you a sense of how tragic life can be, and how the bird became the symbol of death.

 The Raven

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,

Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—

    While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,

As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.

“’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—

            Only this and nothing more.”


    Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December;

And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.

    Eagerly I wished the morrow;—vainly I had sought to borrow

    From my books surcease of sorrow—sorrow for the lost Lenore—

For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore—

            Nameless here for evermore.


    And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain

Thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;

    So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating

    “’Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door—

Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door;—

            This it is and nothing more.”


    Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,

“Sir,” said I, “or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;

    But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,

    And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,

That I scarce was sure I heard you”—here I opened wide the door;—

            Darkness there and nothing more.


    Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,

Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;

    But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token,

    And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, “Lenore?”

This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, “Lenore!”—

            Merely this and nothing more.


    Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,

Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before.

    “Surely,” said I, “surely that is something at my window lattice;

      Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore—

Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore;—

            ’Tis the wind and nothing more!”


    Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,

In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;

    Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;

    But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door—

Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door—

            Perched, and sat, and nothing more.


Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,

By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,

“Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,” I said, “art sure no craven,

Ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the Nightly shore—

Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore!”

            Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”


    Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,

Though its answer little meaning—little relevancy bore;

    For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being

    Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door—

Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,

            With such name as “Nevermore.”


    But the Raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only

That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.

    Nothing farther then he uttered—not a feather then he fluttered—

    Till I scarcely more than muttered “Other friends have flown before—

On the morrow he will leave me, as my Hopes have flown before.”

            Then the bird said “Nevermore.”


    Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,

“Doubtless,” said I, “what it utters is its only stock and store

    Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster

    Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore—

Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore

            Of ‘Never—nevermore’.”


    But the Raven still beguiling all my fancy into smiling,

Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird, and bust and door;

    Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking

    Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore—

What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore

            Meant in croaking “Nevermore.”


    This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing

To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom’s core;

    This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining

    On the cushion’s velvet lining that the lamp-light gloated o’er,

But whose velvet-violet lining with the lamp-light gloating o’er,

            She shall press, ah, nevermore!


    Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer

Swung by Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.

    “Wretch,” I cried, “thy God hath lent thee—by these angels he hath sent thee

    Respite—respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore;

Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!”

            Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”


    “Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!—

Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,

    Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted—

    On this home by Horror haunted—tell me truly, I implore—

Is there—is there balm in Gilead?—tell me—tell me, I implore!”

            Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”


    “Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!

By that Heaven that bends above us—by that God we both adore—

    Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,

    It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore—

Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore.”

            Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”


    “Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!” I shrieked, upstarting—

“Get thee back into the tempest and the Night’s Plutonian shore!

    Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!

    Leave my loneliness unbroken!—quit the bust above my door!

Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!”

            Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”


    And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting

On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;

    And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,

    And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;

And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor

            Shall be lifted—nevermore!



Monday, July 27, 2020

Book Review: Iron Will

Iron Will:
The heart and soul of the triathlon’s ultimate challenge

Triathlon began as a sport in California in the early 1970s, but those events involved fairly short distances: Typically, a 1,000-metre swim, a 40-kilometre bike ride followed by a 10-kilometre run. 
    An Ironman Triathlon is 'way tougher. It consists of 2.4 miles of open-water swimming, 112 miles of cycling and 26.2 miles of running – slightly more than 140 miles in all. The Hawaiian event was the brainchild of Navy commander John Collins who was stationed in that state. First held in 1979 with a handful of contestants, it soon began drawing hundreds. Then, the demand was so great that applicants had to qualify to participate. 
    In this book sports writer Mike Plant, who has written other books about triathlon and competed in the race himself, shows vividly how grueling an event the event is. . Some athletes literally crawl to the finish line – a reality which provides for great TV coverage, of course, but he made it grueling on the printed page.
    I personally have completed the Ironman 11 times – nine times in Penticton, Canada, and twice in Hawaii, where it all began. I suppose that is at least part of  the reason I find this book so fascinating. The characters are vividly portrayed, and my memories of that crazy period in my life are happy ones. There are the portrayals of many of the well-known characters of that period – especially the men we called the Big Four: Dave Scott, Scott Tinley, Scott Molina and Mark Allen. 
    I received training from Dave Scott at one time in my life and, by good fortune, he won the event in 1988 when the book was being launched. He autographed my copy of the book, wishing me “health and happiness always. Stay fit.” The author also signed my copy. He wrote, “Congratulations! The finish line is everything. Good racing,” and dated it October 23rd, 1988.
    The distances for the Ironman all originated in Hawaii. They combined the Waikiki Roughwater Swim (2.4 miles or 3.9 kilometres), the Around-Oahu Bike Race (115 miles or 185 kilometres, which was originally a two-day event) and the Honolulu Marathon (26.219 miles or 42.195 kilometres). These activities start at 6 am, and must be finished by midnight.
    The following is a brief segment from the book, slightly edited, to give a sense of what a terrific read it is.

“On a normal day, the headwinds near Hawi blow steadily at 15 to 25 miles an hour. At the Ironman in 1983 the winds howled through the town at more than twice that – gusts of up to 55 mph were reported, strong enough to stop cyclist’s dead in their tracks, strong enough to blow others right off the road. Some competitors simply got off and walked, and even the strongest were afraid to let go of their handlebars to take water bottles from the aid station near the top. 
“The aid station at the turnaround is one of the most exciting on the course because there's always a big crowd of spectators and media people. It's a high point, a big psych, especially after the wind on the hills. Turning to the left, grabbing a pair of water-bottles and perhaps a banana as they go, the triathletes are reasonably sure that for a few miles, at least, the wind will be behind them they fly through this part of the course, spinning their pedals furiously until they run out of gears to push, hunching low over their handlebars, hissing through the warm air in a rush of sparkling chrome and blur of bright colour, moving easily for the first time all day. But that lasts for what seems only a few precious seconds before the wind charts shifting, gusting back and forth. The cyclists are still going fast, but their knuckles are white and in their minds is the thought that if one of those big gusts catches them from the wrong angle, it's going to whip them off the island and into the ocean. The race in ‘83 was the worst in that department, too.

“Finally, at the bottom, with their hearts settled back into their chests, the cyclist take a sharp left turn it, high then climb a short steep Hill and turn right which puts them back on the highway. From there on it's a straight shot back into Kona. 
“Or rather, it's a straight, long shot. The race has just begun, actually. With the exhilaration of the turnaround a distant memory, the 50 miles back into town begin to soften and stretch like taffy under the hot sun. The winds, while not as strong as they were up north, are far more frustrating, and the hills have grown bigger somehow than they were on the way out. The triathletes begin to fight not just the cumulative physical effects of the long swim in the hours of hard riding, but also the inevitable impatience to be off the damn bike period to sum, first timers mostly, or fools who have forgotten, the marathon actually starts sounding good 80 or 90 miles into the bike ride. It's a stupid thought. They regret it quickly once that part of the race starts. 
“I never thought that, said [Ron] Smith, who has ridden his bike as much as 25,000 miles in a single year of training. He's a good runner with a marathon best of well under 3 hours, but it's never been his strong suit. Looking ahead to the Ironman marathon is, for him, like looking forward to jumping off a building.
“The toughest part of the ride – outside the damn wind – Is knowing that after busting your hump out there for five hours it's going to be 1:30 in the afternoon, you're on asphalt, and God Bless America if you're going to be climbing that stupid Hill and heading back out onto the lava fields again.” 
“All good endurance competitors learn that patience is a precious, irreplaceable virtue. About the worst thing for a triathlete to do during the Ironman is to anticipate the end of anything, be at the swim, the bike ride, or the run, or any segment of the three. Pacing and strategy are important, but a certain psychological, is critical. Putting the miles behind you, one mile at a time, is the key. Thinking ahead makes you anxious, eager to be there instead of where you are, and you have to be where you are because there’s little you can do about it except keep pedaling or running. An anxious triathlete, impatient with the pace, thinks the hills should be easier to climb than they are, thinks the bike should weigh less than it feels like it does. Getting mad at the Ironman is never a good idea, but it happens frequently, and the nagging wind often speeds the process along. The final, critical step for a frustrated competitor is pushing too hard too soon – It's as sure a recipe for disaster as any.”

    If you can find a copy of this book, give it a read. It might inspire you to put your pandemic time into training - and maybe competing in the 2021 event. This year's, for the first year ever, has been cancelled.