Life is short and everyone wants to feel as if they've led a fulfilled life before they shuffle off this mortal coil, to one extent or another. We've all ready stories about macho masculine heroes, but rarely do we ever read about women who get out there and kick ass (delicately described in Hawaiian as being a 'Tita', or 'tough wahine') with elan and verve. Here's some information about a woman who gives as good as she gets and lives a very interesting life, as well.
DOWNHILL: The Life Story of a 'Gravity Goddess'
Last year I picked up a fairly recent book titled 'DOWNHILL: The Life Story of a Gravity Goddess', an autobiography by 35+ year old mountain bike downhill racer Marla Streb. At 325 pages, it is not particularly a difficult read, but it is interesting because it gives some insight into at least one Gen-Xer’s dawning awareness that life's somewhat fleeting thread should be used as meaningfully as possible. Typically, this sort of insight comes with age and is most often forged in the furnace of experience, but usually well after it's really too late to do anything about life's false starts, missed opportunities, or errors in course & direction. Of course, this is the same basic dilemma faced by all reflectively aware Gen-Xers; that is, those of that generation that are gifted intellectually struggle with the proposition just like every generational front-runner, while their peers that were dished out vanilla custard instead of grey matter simply further their addition to material consumption (or settle for jacking up the pick-up truck another 8 inches).
On the one hand, you could sum Streb's autobiography (the story of her life up to about her mid-30s) as being merely the product of a more substantial ability to articulate the angst of growing up than that possessed by most of her age group. However, since human life above all remains just a great and continuously unfolding mystery (with no owner's manual and no set of intrinsic Standard Procedures to follow handed over at birth), to my way of thinking, ANY interpretative glimpse into another's mind is invariably a rewarding experience.
Streb first caught my eye when she appeared on the cover of an OUTSIDE MAGAZINE issue, featured there due to an emerging preeminence as a kick-ass, no quarter asked-or-given downhill mountain bike racer. The cover image shows her in a stylised pose on her state of the art Santa Cruz V-10 Mountain Bike and several large scrapes and bruises are apparent on her legs. The message that is suggested by the cover picture is clear: this is one tough (but attractive) and very COOL competitor! The reality is that Marla is simply further along on the scale of peer perceived 'cool' lifestyle status than most others in the same age group who are preoccupied with how to be 'cool' in an otherwise VERY uncool era. And Streb has written a book about it.
Obviously a different take on life, and that prompted my initial interest in her, but being the typical shallow-minded male that I am, I was also taken by the fact that in the cover picture she has what appears to be an Asian-American look (actually a sort of 'Korean' look that is probably the result of the dark hair and the Oakley shades). This provoked further curiosity on my part, since although I have known many Asian-American classical violinists, mathematics whizzes, doctors, pharmacists, ice-skaters, and other types of Asiam female overachievers, I admit frank puzzlement at an Asian-American female mountain biker. Given the usual stereotypes, it is still hard to think of an Asiam woman in this capacity (although I am NOT saying, mind you, that there's anything more right or wrong with this than there would be with say a Caucasian woman).
Turns out she is not Asian-American at all, but descended from German ancestors (family name: Streb), and she is the only girl in a family of 5 sibs. From my perspective, 'Tom-boys' have always been a subject of interest to me, since they often seem to have lots of formidable qualities tied up in one fascinating package: a mix of male/female attributes that can result in some formidable combinations of proclivities. Coincidental is the fact that I have frequently found myself attracted to women of this type (nice looking females to be sure, but with somewhat boyish lifestyle qualities that sets them apart from the typical 'Barbie-doll'), although this strange 'draw' has in past also created some embarrassment for me when I found (belatedly) that one or two of them were what gays apparently call "Lipstick dykes" (that is, attractive females who prefer other females). [Actually, you'll have to work with me on this, in consideration of the fact that I am not at all well-versed in the subculture of gays, homosexuals, and/or lesbians, being firmly on the heterosexual side of the sexual spectrum (where I have remained all my life, thank you very much!).
At any rate, Streb is relatively young in her mid 30s, has a graduate degree in marine biology (this should not be construe d as suggesting that she dates a lot of US Marines, needless to say), and studied piano (12 years) and several other instruments earlier in life (having been born with perfect pitch and an uncanny ability to read musical notes as if they were words). Her father is an engineer, hence she undoubtedly inherited much of her analytical ability from him. Streb is, I suppose, quite typical of many other brighter-than-usual products of her Gen-X, since the common decision about what to do with one's life after graduating with an undergrad degree usually invoked a path of least resistance, in view of the fact that there were few worthwhile occupational opportunities available in the late 80s and early 90s (i.e. grad school).
However, after finishing up her graduate degree, Streb suddenly discovered that rather than spend her life as a biomedical researcher or a pianist, she found intense fulfillment in getting bruised and dirty on a high-tech mountain bike, plunging down steeply pitched hillside trails in raw, sometimes bloody, and always intense competition with others who are more often half her age. This is where the plot gets interesting, for she is a woman competing in a more or less all-male milieu (how convenient for a woman who feels somewhat awkward and inexperienced as a woman, and finds a nifty niche among all sorts of handsome, hunky stud-muffins, and almost entirely free of gender 'competition' to boot!) As a physiological type, Streb is a thinnish feminine Mesomorph, and looks to be in excellent physical condition. Although spare and slender, Marla is quite attractive after a fashion, as her wiry strength is not without its shapely feminine appeal and all the basic bumps are in the right places (overlying solid muscular strength).
Among the things I found of particular interest about Streb is the fact that she had 4 brothers, each of whom was outwardly directed and athletic. This seems to fit the typical 'Tomboy' profile, from what little I recall reading in academic studies on the subject. At any rate, one can only wonder at the interplay of a girl with 4 older and vigorous brothers that results in a girl forsaking the 'traditional' feminine socialising influences and embracing the sort of vigorous activity that would more suitably fit the male stereotype in early mid-life.
Streb apparently got started in this direction thanks to the interventions of a boy-friend she had who got her to participate in a team-triathlon bicycle competition and later tackle Europe on a road-bike. Here's where I started finding the book even more interesting, as a life-long 'bikie' myself. As perhaps useful background here, I should state that my own interest in vigorous recreational activities got a slightly late start in my 20s. As a child, I absolutely hated running, and having to do 'laps' around the track for the coach was absolute anathema to me in high school. It was only later, after having returned to civilian status upon discharge from the Air Force in the late 60s, that I discovered both running and bicycling. My first 'serious' bicycle was a 1971 Peugeot PX-10 road bike (left), with Simplex gearing, Reynolds 531 tubing, Mavic wheels and Mafac brakes. At the time, this 21 pound French bike was fairly sophisticated, even at a cost of only $175 (today it is now considered a classic and I still ride it every week). Before that, while still in the Air Force, I bought a Schwinn Super Sport (see above right, which in 1966 was just a spit under the top of the line Schwinn Paramount at $ 96.50) on which I ambled around the nuclear missile strewn North Dakota countryside (in those 'Cold War' days we had three squadrons of MIRV'd Minuteman II ICBMs on 24-hour nuclear strike alert at the Minot base I was stationed at) in summer time. I pedaled around the flat Minot ND farmland area mindful that at any second the very ground beneath me could split wide open and discharge enough nuclear death and destruction to bring the earth to a complete stop on its axis.
From that start, I have acquired over the past several years a stable of 4 'serious' bikes--three road bikes and a mountain bike. This includes a 1987 Pinarello 'Cyclocross', my faithful old Peugeot PX-10 (albeit now vastly upgraded with modern components), a 1987 Eddy Meryx custom and a KHB Montanara Ascent mountain bike. Since I am stuck in the City of Sacramento, a fortunately flat if podunky little berg that is the capitol of the most powerful state in the USA, I use all of these bikes for daily commuting to my 'day job' at the State Treasury Office. All have been optimised for street use, including the mountain bike, with the addition of special 54 tooth chain-rings and 11, 12, & 14 high gear rear sprockets, although the mountain bike with its substantially heavier frame is used mainly for wet, windy rides through the sort of serious debris that winter storms leave on the local roadway bike lanes. When the weather is fair and the winds favorable, I use my thoroughbreds to better 'enjoy the ride' at higher speeds. One other bike I previously had was a Korean made mountain bike that I bought while working in Saudi Arabia in the early 90s. The fact that I am still alive today is partly attributable to cycling skill gained in evading wild eyed Bedouin motorists while in Riyadh. I left that bike in Riyadh, giving it to a Marla Streb clone I fancied there.
Returning to Marla Streb, the autobiography she has written is interesting for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that she spends at least a chapter or two describing her boyfriend as a thick-set, lumpen, average guy of no special or noteworthy merit at first, other than the fact that he 'amused her'. If I were "Marc" (as that is his name), I'd somewhat resent the less than flattering tones of casual frankness that set the tone in this part of her book. She even admits that Marc is 'not her type' and references a far more striking and buff ex-boyfriend as her original preference (prior to meeting Marc) in men. Poor Marc! However, despite his physical shortcomings (she's even taller than he is), Marc ends up getting the goodies, so we can't be all that dismissive of his eventual substance, can we? Marc also plays philosopher to Marla's stoic, as we shall see.
The section early on in the book, wherein she describes how she was introduced to bicycles, casts her as decidedly as a somewhat lost (typically Gen-X material) but determined and capable individual to which Marc initially serves as a convenient foil. Casting aside for the moment that her parents were reasonably well off Baltimore Republicans, she still fairly well fits the ‘Gen-X’ profile (another post-Cold-War ‘Lost Generation’ refugee). I don't know about you, but as a person who has always had a million reasons to want to believe in absolutely nothing at all strongly (philosophically), there has simultaneously been a consistently strong erotic attraction for me in vigorous women who have a strong, but directionless determination to follow a not fully identified personal muse. This seem to contain a contrast of the basic differences between the philosophic person and the person of action, since whereas the former type can easily spend a lifetime speculating idly and intellectually dismissing without the need for actual experiential sampling, the latter wastes no time at all on the off-putting 'whys' and 'wherefores' which a person of the 'active persuasion' naturally views as merely wasteful nuisance obstacles to experience itself. The 'Zen' of this process demands rejection of philosophy's circumventual hypothesising and tedious speculation in an embrace of actual present-moment living energy; as stated earlier, this presents itself as the essential equivalent of a wildly erotic quality to some of us lifelong armchair philosophers (who have already figuratively lived three lifetimes without having even left the armchair to take a whiz). Semi-spoiled and searching Gen-X’er or not, Marla seems to have this quality in spades. However, just because someone is alive with restless and unchanneled energy doesn't presuppose knowledge of a focus or direction. Still, that energy is a sort of catalytic aphrodisiac for some of us more reflective types; I well recall the prime example that completely absorbed my full attention throughout my 20s and 30s.
Of course, this argument always makes me mindful of my own lifelong internal schism concerning the nature of life and its meaning. As rational creatures of the Western Empirical tradition, there is a pre-programmed and palpable tendency for white folks like me towards ascribing meaning to all things. While this process coexists well enough with the hard physical delineations of physical science, it of necessity shrinks away in fright from the ambiguous 'Bigger Questions' (silly stuff, of course, such as "Is there a God?", "What is the ultimate meaning of all human life?", or "Does anyone really understand these expressions of opinion, anyway?"), as well it might. Actually, by my reckoning, Douglas Adams comes about as close to the status of explaining reality plausibly as any of the more seriously stuffy philosophers. Talk about Infinite Improbabilities! A quote remains fixed in my mind long after the source has faded into oblivion: "Between the time of birth and death, each of us is faced with the need to fill up the space between those two fixed events; it really doesn't matter how you kill that span of time, as long as it preoccupies you as fully as possible." A distraction from inevitable death of self? Perhaps only...
But returning to Marla Stebs personal quest after the Holy Grail of personal fulfillment, I find that I actually very much enjoyed getting into her head a teensy, weensy bit, since her attitude presupposes that a certain bit of knocking loosely about the bounds of physical reality (including risk-taking, sustenance of non-lethal injuries, and pushing the limits of personal capabilities) is a preferred necessity and this somewhat mirrors my own preferred outlook. Of course she still has the margin of time on her side at mid Third Decade, unlike those of us who at late Fifth Decade are practically staring the ghastly dark visage of Death in its Nazgul-like ocular orbits, and I readily admit that the older I get the more I question a purely sang-froid take on the life experience. Reflecting further on this particular tangent, I well recall my conviction back in my 20s that I was of the opinion that the life of a starving artist was infinitely more meaningful than that of a wealthy and ‘successful’ banker (for example). While I still believe that today, my moral conviction is not half as strong as it formerly was, given the predictable decline into abject helplessness that all human beings enter prior to death and the moral anxiety that pre-attends this decline. But simultaneous with this peek into Marla's cerebrations, of necessity we also see how Marc, the philosopher con-man (he just wants, after all is said and done, to get into her pants and heart--although not necessarily in that order), dovetails nicely into Marla's search for personal identity and meaning as a 'lost' Gen-Xer, taking a symbiotic catalyst part in her outlook on life.
Streb, in her discovery of self in a mostly male activity, has become known in the mountain bike racing world as 'The Gravity Goddess' due to her willingness to plunge down apparently suicidally steep mountain trails in competition and this begs another consideration: namely, the nature of mountain biking itself. Mountain biking is a relatively new form of recreational sport, having originated in Marin County near Mount Tamalpais, several decades ago. Since those earliest mountain biking days when ordinary old cruiser bikes of the 50s era were stripped of non-essentials and used to careen down Mt. Tam foot trails for thrills, the sport of mountain biking has taken off and been further refined in any number of directions. As such, the sport is well in keeping with the spirit of Gen-X times that demands 'extreme' moves at any cost, in order to be considered 'fun'. The more extreme the limits, the better the return...or so goes the operative theory which is characterised by the single word ‘Xtreme’. This is the same quest for kicks, highs, and stimulation that every generation undergoes, but each time under new sets of rules, new interpretations, and within newer aesthetic qualifications that are specific to that generation.
As a person who has never entertained an unquenchable thirst for raw speed and extreme limits, I personally find preoccupation with speed and sensation intrusive and annoying. This is probably buoyed-up by my upbringing to appreciate the natural peacefulness and beauty of a natural setting refreshingly free of the smoke, din, and disruption of machines, also by my past enjoyment of mountaineering, and a lifelong appreciation for the 'indifference' that Marla's Marc makes a point of setting out (i.e. Eastern philosophies). Moreover, pushing the limits for the sake of kicks simply results in the limits being pushed back further and further, but for what? Bragging rights...or a successful filling up of that previously alluded to personal allotment of 'space'? However, despite my personal taste in things such as this, this doesn't keep me from being able to respect what Marla has accomplished...or the fact that she has been able to articulate the process interestingly for my (and others') edification. Marla is, after all, a 'complex' woman (i.e. more than just boobs and a brain).
Seen from within a certain perspective, 'man' (figuratively speaking, of course, since we are discussing a woman competing with men here) is simply a slightly wiser animal, subject to the same constraints and categorical imperatives that all biological life forms are subservient to. Survival of the fittest and maintenance of the gene pool is, after all, the ultimate name of the game. Even though humanity's 'gift' of rational aesthetic interpretation frequently serves to hide that basic and hard natural bottom line in the course and conduct of world-wide human affairs, in the end it really is all about natural selection. Thus, the function of sex and biologically driven, gender-specific urges--even in the confused and dintzy hoity-toity spin of human aesthetic considerations--is still ultimately about adding up the most desirable attributes (academic, economic, social, intellectual, physical, etc.) available in any given population pool and matching them among the highest qualified candidates. This explains why Joe College usually gets Susie Cheerleader (instead of Norman Nerd) and why sex and gender perfection is so remorselessly rammed down our throats (no allegorical humor intended here) by exploitative advertising media. This also explains why females with Marla Stebs' attributes (WASC, bright, attractive, competitive, driven, good family, ‘correct background’, focused, etc.) are looked up to and celebrated rather more than anxiety-ridden, overweight, woman Walmart shopper clones might be (for example), who enjoy watching Martha Stewart and Oprah more than they would spraining an ankle on a steep and wooded downslope of gravel and rocks, or studying Rhesus DNA patterns. It further explains why so many colorless, dreary, drab, and thoroughly mundane 'little people' in our American society fawn so enthusiastically over which Hollywood celeb is dating which. However, we must not fail to remember that good old out-of-shape and slightly overweight Marc wins Marla not from being buff and a specimen of economic, intellectual and physical perfection, but by being amusing and ever diverting. What does this tell us (don’t ask me!)? Is Marc the joker in an otherwise well shuffled pack of lifestyle cards?
OK, and changing tack for a moment, each day when I ride home from the office on my bicycle, I can't help but feel somewhat like what I would imagine a hunted quarry feels like, as I dodge the homicidal jinks and potentially lethal (to a bicyclist) spasmodic course alterations of motorists. While this is not on the same par as possibly falling over a steep trail edge on one's bike to rocks twenty feet below (hazards Marla faces every time she races), it can be just as lethal--perhaps more so, since on a mountain you don't face the substantial inertial hazard of 6000 pound, motorised deadly weapons careening carelessly at your person in a heartbeat. Something Marla remarked upon, relating to that first bicycle journey of exploration she took with boy-foil Marc through Europe, sticks with me as I sit here wondering where this monologue will lead me next. She observed how wonderfully refreshing it was to ride a bicycle in the Netherlands, that perfectly flat nation reclaimed from the North Sea where there are far more bicycles than motor-driven vehicles, describing how in the Netherlands bicyclists are in the majority and how their rights are respected MORE than those in automobiles. Keeping in mind that in Holland everyone owns and rides a bicycle, and that many bicycles (those that are painted yellow) are considered common public property that can be taken up and ridden anywhere one happens to find one lying about, contrast that situation to life in a place like automobile-ridden California, where a person daring to ride a bicycle on a city street might as well first paint a huge bull's eye on their back. Pathetic contrast, eh? Consider further that whereas in Saudi Arabia I could make excuses for the child-like, uneducated and wild-eyed Bedu, fresh from their tribal tents, who consistently tried to take me out with each pass-by, in California automobiles are driven by theoretically intelligent individuals who have at some point in their lives definitely been informed that bicycle and automobiles must coexist peacefully ("...because we have a democratic society where everyone is free to chose their preferred mode of transportation, all of which are legally entitled to operate on public streets and roadways with the same legal rights, privileges, and responsibilities"). And yet, each day on the trip home down the bike lanes I myself feel not unlike a fox being tracked by a pack of baying steel hounds. I have discussed this with other bicycle riders and discovered that I am not alone in this reflexive feeling of being a hunted creature, living on borrowed time. Sad, to say the very least, but that’s life in the US.
Marla brings up some interesting questions that I have myself asked and I am sure virtually everyone has. Such as, “…if I try to eat right, stay fit and healthy, give what I am doing at any given moment my utmost effort, will anyone really care? Will they laugh. Or will they be completely unmindful?” What is being asked here is, does it really matter that each of us strives for some sort of personal perfection? Or does none of it really matter, as any Zen devotee will hasten to remind you, since everything is equally empty and meaningless? For an action figure made of flesh and blood (rather than plastic and colored polymer), who wastes about as much time pondering universal imponderables as an amoeba undergoing meiosis, these are fairly important philosophical questions, methinks! So, in addition to drawing us all in to her still emerging unconventional XX worldview, Marla manages to toss out more than a few aesthetic teasers—remember, she has a graduate degree in Marine Biology, but finds more fun nearly breaking an ankle on a mountain than breaking down marine mammal genetic codes.
I suggest this book as a refreshing and perhaps even penetrating insight into an alternate outlook on the conventional mainstream quest for the vaunted ‘American Dream’ (if you know what that means in this confused 21st Century ‘American world-wide hegemony’ we are submerged in, let me know, eh?). I think it could easily be a unrequited dream of many of us slightly Bohemian XYers who never quite connected with a woman this formidable (but came tantalisingly close a number of times) to find a person like Marla with whom to throw off the shackles of bourgeois bondage and live life with all the vital energy of a Roman Candle burning at both ends. There are ladies out there like this, guys. Somewhat far and few between, admittedly, and certainly not enough to go around…but still out there!