It was into this politically volatile situation that our friend Spartan Pete, through a series of events far too complex and extraordinary to explain here without further narrative digression, found himself riding as a full-fledged member of Sweden’s Team Gustav Cycling Club. This was to be Pete’s first (and only) professional bicycle race. In fact, he hadn’t ridden a bicycle in over a decade.
This is not to say Pete was by any means a poor bicyclist. Despite decades of unrepentant chain-smoking, a greasy lunch counter diet, and his somewhat advanced age*, Pete proved to be a popular addition to the team and an adept rider. And, as we shall see, despite his short tenure with them, he became integral to the success that has followed this now-storied cycling club throughout the decades.
*Spartan Pete’s age has always been somewhat of a mystery to us. When pressed, he tended to answer vaguely or jokingly, and one would find no clues in his appearance. Pete was one of those men who was outwardly robust until that day late in life when seemingly overnight, he’d been transformed into a strikingly decrepit old man, barely capable of shuffling down the street. In 1970, At the time of this particular anecdote, Pete could have passed for a haggard 25 year-old, a somewhat leathery 36 year-old, or an amazingly well-preserved 48 year-old. We tend to think the latter was closer to the truth.
In those days, Team Gustav had the distinction of being Sweden’s only all-divorced professional competitive bicycling team.
The martial status of the racers was a marketing ploy concocted by their sponsor, a Scandinavian pharmaceutical company that had just released a new brand of deodorant aimed at aging bachelors.
Before Pete joined the club, the members of Team Gustav were an exceptionally moody lot. Never were a group of men more ill-suited to the contemplative state of mind that repetitive aerobic exercise, sustained wind exposure and staring at long stretches of open roads will engender in the human psyche.
As a race would move forward from hours into days, Team Gustav’s reluctant bachelors–instead of reaching a state of endorphin-induced enlightenment–would sink deep into endlessly circular interior dialogs of regret, loss and heartbreak.
To an outsider like Spartan Pete, it was immediately evident that his team needed new energy and inspiration. Adrift in their collective miasma of despair, Team Gustav’s members had not only lost their competitive edge, but to his eye, they had become monumentally boring people, either silent mopers or self-indulgent depressives.
In a letter to his (and our) friend Franzie, Pete remarked that he “can’t tolerate stunted and starchy conversation for long stretches, and long stretches are all I have to look forward to with these cheese-eaters. What these boys need is a distraction. Normally, I’d say a good night or two with a friendly schatze might do the trick, but these fellas already have enough women trouble. What we need is a thinking-man’s solution.”
special thanks to my coworker Johan for the Swedish translation
What then, was the solution that Spartan Pete had cooked up for his teammates’ crippling romantic depression?
Like any man who’d been through as many marriages as Pete had (at the time of this story, Pete had recently separated from his third wife), he found that he had become prone to a philosophic outlook on the ups, downs, and general nonsensical whimsy of everyday existence. Most importantly, Pete had come to understand that we as a species are at our best when engaged in fantasy.
A few weeks before the start of the TGICT, Spartan Pete introduced his new strategy to Team Gustav with a speech remembered as much for its high-toned capitalist jingoism as for its unrelenting inspirational quality:
“Old Ben Franklin once said you should behave like Jesus, or pretend to behave like Jesus until the acting becomes believable to you and your community. At that point, what’s the difference between pretending and truth? Truth is written by those who pretend to know it. That’s what I have to say to you, lads. Play. Broadly-speaking, it’s how we learned to come down from the trees and run across the savanna, with the damned baboons and lions in bloody pursuit. It’s why we thought to follow the north star and why we picked up a sharp rock with which to cut up the antelope. Play breeds action. Whether you’re building a suspension bridge or a hummingbird feeder, or planning a murder or getting over a girl, it takes a monumental output of make-believe and sharp-headed concentration. And now is the time for the entire lot of you to get off of your collective sad-sack laurels, put the needle back on the record and start using your god-given brains towards a purpose you’ll find useful and gratifying.”
And so began the storied Team Gustav tradition of the mid-race chess match. It was simple enough: One cyclist playing against another, using standard algebraic chess notation to indicate their moves. For Team Gustav, keeping the ever-changing chess board in their minds required–as Pete had promised–a tremendous level of imagination and concentration. Speeding across the European continent, lost in the aerobic rhythms of their bodies and in the wonders of the chess board, they soon found their minds happily far removed from their self-induced misery and loneliness.
In the early stages of the race, as Team Gustav tackled the vagaries of their new chess-related tasks (the visualization of the game board with all its countless potential moves and counter-moves, the intuiting of the wide range of projected outcomes for their respective games) it seemed that they were almost instantly cured of the most topical symptoms of their collective malaise. They were more cheerful, more intellectually engaged, and riding with an energy they didn’t know they possessed. But the playing of the game (and specifically the way in which they played–on bikes, in their heads) soon became more than just a remedy for depression. Team Gustav began to develop a genuine worldview–an overarching ethos that surprised even Pete with the variety of its practical applications. The thematic contents of this philosophy, as well as its somewhat prosaic name, will be revealed to the patient reader in the coming episodes.
Team Gustav’s new outlook was a straightforward enough philosophy, and one borne out of necessity. How best to visualize a game board that exists only in you and your opponent’s mind, and to be able to remember where precisely each piece was at the start of one’s turn, especially over the course of a long bike race?
Their solution to this particular hurdle was to engage in a mental exercise that was often just as strenuous as the bicycle race they were speeding though. At the start of each turn, instead of trying to remember the board at its present state of play, each player would return in their mind to the beginning of the game and “replay” each successive move until one reaches the present round.
As the reader can imagine, this act of memorization and imagination had an adverse effect on the pace of the chess matches, with single games sometimes taking several days to conclude as the players traced each and every move over and over again from start to checkmate. However, like star baseball pitchers watching and rewatching film from their recent starts, Team Gustav began to see the game as a living creature–one capable of being bent to their purpose.
The constant replay of each game’s twists and turns revealed patterns in their opponent’s play, brought past mistakes to glaring light and more keenly focused their strategies. Chess became muscle memory.
It’s perhaps easy to see how this discipline can be applied to life in a larger capacity: if one accepts that every action in the present is based on a complex series of previous actions, turns of events, random moments and counter-reactions, an acute understanding of context is sure to follow. Those who look backward to decide how to move forward often see that every bad moment carries the seed of a good moment, and every good moment is born of previous tragedy. Wars, forest fires, knock knock jokes, family reunions, acts of charity, sandwich recipes, seductions, betrayals, first dates, oil spills, clerical errors, none of it can ever happen independent of anything else.
This broad view of the machinations of life proved invaluable to the team as they applied their new discipline to their personal lives. Being aware of the bald facts that live within one’s history are the best way to act with a clear head. Normally, we only pretend to know our pasts. We sting from hurts and cherish joys and try to act accordingly to bring forth more of the latter and less of the former, but we very often get their causes, durations, and true nature confused. Just as in chess, the obstacles to a richly-led life tend to be hidden behind misdirection and crossed purposes.
And so Spartan Pete, hoping to do nothing more than distract his team from their romantic disaffection, soon found that their collective despair had been melted down and recast into another emotion entirely. Within the complexity of their chess matches, a winning racing team had been born, but so had a philosophic movement.
A Note from the Proprietor:
Recently, more than a few trusted and concerned readers have offered us some friendly advice. They have reminded us that, much like an old man’s bowel movements, a serialized story works best when the forthcoming segment of said story can be expected in not only a timely manner, but with a scheduled regularity. Same Bat Time, Same Bat Channel, next week on LOST, and so forth. We here at Golden Circle HQ, otherwise engaged in the process of staying out of the hobo camps and Hoovervilles, sometimes get distracted from the drawing and the doodling and the dawdling required to belt out the next installment of our tale. We understand that delay plays havoc with dramatic gravitas and comic timing, and such havoc pains us. The Poet reminds us that the play’s the thing, and we intend to live by that oath, both on the page and in our day-to-day life: so, every two weeks? How does that sound? Set your sundials and we’ll see you later this month.
From the outset, it was clear that the team’s new philosophy had the potential to benefit not just divorced Swedish bicyclists, but a wide array of the (often lonesome, often depressed, often yearning) population across the globe. It was just a matter of spreading the word. Perhaps a little ahead of their time, Team Gustav saw it as a question of marketing–they needed posters, slogans, and–first and foremost–a catchy term of art for their new discipline. Not being men prone to poetic turns of phrase, this endeavor proved difficult.
To their credit, Team Gustav understood the power of a name. There was no question that the right name would make or break their burgeoning movement. After all, what if, instead of A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway had titled his first novel A Sad Time in Italy? Or what if 21 Jump Street had been called 25 Year-Old Undercover High School Cops? And suppose Cary Grant had stayed with his given name of Archibald Alec Leach? You get the idea, and so did Team Gustav.
As the TGICT continued across the Western reaches of Germany (with Team Gustav in a dead tie for second place with a team of Italian widowers), Pete and the boys toyed with and abandoned several potential titles, including How to Keep on Keeping On, Aerobic Memory Training, Introspective Peace Exercises, The Game of Life, Experience Contextualization for Happiness, and Chess Jammin’.
Even Spartan Pete, generally a man steeped in eloquent phraseology, found the right title eluding him. Every night found Pete pouring over the dictionary, writing down random collections of words from magazine headlines and advertising copy and pasting them to a bulletin board he kept in the team’s tour bus, all to no avail. It was not until the team had a weekend off in the Alsace-Lorraine that Pete came up with a name that–while not as evocative as Dianetics or Sacred Hoops–captured the imagination of his teammates.
Many of our readers may remember the self-help book from 1978 of the same title, written by former Team Gustav member Georg Hultmann, who after his stint as a professional divorced bicyclist, moved to the states and founded a highly profitable hotel art distribution business (and later, a less successful chain of 3-D pornographic movie theaters). The first edition of the book features the dedication “For SP. You taught us chess, and the rest followed.”
Next time: an unexpected event in the Alsace-Lorraine.
It was in the French Alsace village of La Tenatrice that Spartan Pete’s short-lived professional cycling career came to an end. As with most of the tales so far-related regarding the ups and downs of Team Gustav, this one too inadvertently hinged on the actions of a woman.
La Tenatrice roughly marked the halfway point of the TGICT, and the newly reinvigorated Team Gustav (holding a steady third in the race) had been invited to a cocktail party in their honor. The party, held in a well-appointed banquet hall above the village’s most exclusive clothier, was quite typical of affairs of this kind. It was a stuffy room full of halfway decent food and less decent booze, peopled with plenty of glad-handing public officials, decrepit town elders and moneyed socialites, along with a smattering of actual cycling enthusiasts who had snuck their way in to see the Swedish and Yankee curiosities. What ended up setting this soirée apart was the gusto and frenetic grace that Team Gustav brought to the event.
Cured of their romantic despair and bursting with confidence, Team Gustav were winners for the first time in years, and it showed–perhaps a little too readily. Their innocent guffaws at poorly told jokes, their exotic accents and their endless succession of boisterous toasts gave the party a youthful, democratic air. And as the highball glasses continued to be refilled, and a few enterprising party-goers left with shouted promises to bring back more wine, it seemed to all that the women began to grow more beautiful and the men more charming. Only the the true sourpusses were unmoved.
One such sourpuss was La Tenatrice’s Minister of Culture, Guy Magiot, who stormed out of the party after a particularly inebriated reveler–drunkenly pontificating on the uselessness of rain wear, attempted to pour an entire bottle of port into Magiot’s galoshes.
Spartan Pete, for his part, was deeply enjoying this break from the routine of the road (and the ever-present games of chess that had come to define Team Gustav’s success), but more than anything else, he was doing his best to enjoy the company of Helen “Kitty” Piraeus, the one true celebrity at the event. Kitty, the daughter of a well-known Greek shipping magnate and a less-well-known Parisian cabaret singer, was possessed of particularly fantastic level of beauty and charm, and like all beautiful women, she was part evil.
From long experience, Pete knew that he was most likely stepping into a giant heap trouble, but found that he didn’t quite care. He half-hoped and half-expected that it would turn out to be the good kind of trouble. Of course, if there’s a lesson our tale has thus far attempted to impart to the reader, it’s that the forces of chaos particularly enjoy paying visits to those fools who expect one thing to happen over another thing.
Special thanks to Isabelle La Place-Sacher for the French translations. Any grammatical errors are purely mine…
The party had reached its inevitable end. The last of the booze had been consumed, 17 glasses had been broken accidentally, and 12 more had been purposefully thrown into the fireplace, something had gone horribly amiss with the hi-fi, two lovers lay entangled and asleep on a couch, and the remaining bleary-eyed guests wandered–in pairs or singly–out into the fading Alpine night.
In the pantry, three drunken party-goers were busy making sardine and hard boiled egg sandwiches, in the stairwell, a man had passed out and was deep into a fevered dream about a fistfight on his grade school playground, and in the foyer, our particular friend, Spartan Pete, exited the building arm in arm with Kitty Piraeus.
Pete and Kitty strolled down Rue de Cassé Rêver with flirtatious amiability. Pete was a practical man, but there was something about the way Kitty’s arm felt in his, something about her high and generous giggle fits–so at odds with her striking beauty, that sent his mind off on romantic flights of fancy: Kitty and Pete on a sailboat in the Mediterranean in bright white swimsuits, Pete and Kitty at the theater in dinner wear, in a Manhattan jazz club smoking tea, “Dear friends, we cordially invite you to the wedding of Helen Piraeus and Peter Waleska,” ol’ gramps and Ma Kitty, and so on, all the way down to matching gravestones in a quaint New England town. Pete knew it was foolish, but it had been years since he’d even pretended to let his heart go a’flutter–it felt better than he remembered.
It is here where the story takes a turn. Pete’s hotel, The Ulysses, was the new couple’s final destination. He had a bottle of bourbon in his suitcase, and it seemed like an inevitable and easy extension of their canoodling to watch the sunrise over the Alps and call it a day. Instead something else, something quite unexpected and slightly tragic, occurred.
Indeed, Pete did not awake to the delicate perfume of his new French lass in a soft and luxurious bed, but instead he found himself groaning in a rum-soaked alley behind The Hotel Ulysses. He was covered in dew and shivering, he had no memory of how he’d ended up there (his last memory was of opening the door of his hotel room as Kitty kissed his neck), and his right ankle was bleeding profusely–in point of fact, his tendon had been severed with a knife.
On the wall he was slumped against were various messages, written in his own blood, including this one: “Crois-moi, je pense que c’est pour le mieux.”
Next time, the final chapter in the protracted tale of Spartan Pete and his brushes with the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
And so it was that the summer of 1970 found Spartan Pete not racing in the T.G.I.C.T. with his team of all-divorced Swedish chess experts, but instead convalescing in Santa Cruz, California, his right tendon having been sliced open–for reasons unknown–by a beautiful French socialite. Pete spent most of July in the exclusive Kerner Bachelor Athlete Sports Medicine Sanatorium (motto: “Never will our food contain saltpeter, always will our nurses be fetching”).
Oddly, perhaps, Pete felt content. He spent most of his time wheeling down the polished corridors of Kerner’s Joe E. Lewis Knife-Wound Wing with a transistor radio on his lap, flirting with his nurse and listening to Team Gustav’s progress in Europe. His Swedish friends eventually finished the race in a respectable fourth place, and Pete left Kerner with a clean bill of health, although he did suffer from a severe limp for the rest of his life.
Not long after his release from Kerner, we asked Pete about the cause of his limp. We asked, quite pointedly, about that strange night in the village of La Tenatrice with that strange woman. What happened, really? Did she drug him? Was she a psychotic, a sadist, a grifter? Had she robbed him or was she innocent? Was he, perhaps, to blame? Had he done something wrong? And then, the larger questions: Was it all worth it? His time with Team Gustav, the optimism he instilled in those broken men, the life he had begun to build, was it all real or was it just a fantasy? There he was, undone and scarred by a malicious act, his profitable cycling career and the promise of international fame come to an end. Was he bitter? Was he angry? Did he feel he’d been treated unfairly? In short, did he still believe in himself and the universe at-large? The Second Law of Thermodynamics, the mysteries of which began this yarn, had risen its unfathomable head yet again. If all things decay and fall into disrepair, if all hopeful things can sour, and if all lovely things can wilt, where then, Spartan Pete, is your wisdom and your optimism? Give us an answer to the whole kit and caboodle.
We were at a downtown lunch counter. Pete ordered liver and onions and we sipped coffee. We placed a recent copy of the French society paper, La Folie Quotidien, in front of him. We wanted to get a reaction out of our friend. There on the page was a photo of a beaming and smiling Kitty Piraeus, sharing a romantic dinner with a blandly handsome would be-matinée idol.
Pete stared at the photograph for a bit, and then handed the paper back to us. He smiled and lit his pipe, and then Pete gave us what we might call a koan, and what you might call the overriding moral of this long-winded tale. “You raise some good questions, kid.” he said, “But you know, I’m as confused as you. And I got the wounds to prove it. Nobody likes being a fool, but frankly, that’s what we all are–from day one until check-out time. The only positive aspect to this entire situation is that life is far too short to wait for answers.”
In our next episode, we return to the present day and to the Golden Circle Doughnut Shop to discuss some of the ups and downs of contemporary rock music.