Thursday, November 7, 2013


Mr. G is stronger than you. Mr. G is a real runner. I've been hearing this for years now. As my kids grow into opinionated humans, I'm forced to listen to comparisons with other adults, and repeatedly, with Mr. G, their popular gym teacher. Mr. G is 20 years younger than me. He probably is stronger than me. I know that he's a faster runner, I've heard him talking about his half-marathon time. Remember, 20 years younger! My response is typically "Mr. G should take my spin class, then we'll talk." 20 years ago, I could run a full marathon at a faster mile pace than Mr. G's half, but my kids aren’t impressed by the past.

If this seems like an immature topic to write about, well it probably is. But also, if it seems immature, it's likely that you’re not a runner. This isn't really just about Mr. G's running pace or comparing athleticism, but about garnering credibility from my kids in areas where I am actually credible. I hear it all this time. A guy bikes past my family looking like an advertisement for Pearl Izumi and Sophie says "Dad, that guys a real biker". As if fashion makes the athlete. Perhaps it does.
Each year, my kids' school holds a "Race for Education". It's a fund-raiser that culminates in the kids running laps around the school track – I like that part. The rest of the fund-raiser is particularly annoying. There are several incentives that keep the kids actively asking for money for weeks. It is so prominently discussed during the school day that Eli, 8 years old, wants to donate his own money to ensure that his school meets their goal and earns a bounce-house party after the race.

Last year, Eli ran the whole “race” with Mrs. W, his second-grade teacher. Mrs. W was a brand new runner. She had been at it for about 6 months, after she got the idea that she and her husband should run a half-marathon. A week or so after the fund-raiser, Eli and I were running around our neighborhood; I complimented him on his sustainable pace, and he said that Mrs. W, the real runner, taught him how he should pace himself. Never mind that I had given him the same advice 20 times. I could go on and on with these stories, but you get the point. For some reason, everyone else is a real runner, a real cyclist, and I'm a hack.
At 51, I've been a 'runner' for 35 years. Cycling seriously for 30 years. I've participated in running races of all distances up to a marathon – aged grouped many of the smaller ones, raced biathlons, ridden my bike across the United States, commuted to work for years. As a spin instructor, I research cycling and running workouts to help my participants grow and develop. Dammit, I would think I'm about as real as it gets. But my kids don't see it.

It wasn't always like this. Several years ago, I was discussing the Tour de France with my kids' babysitter. After listening for a few minutes, Sophie asked me why I wasn't in the race. Ah, those were the days when Dad could do anything. So how did I fall from world class athlete to beginner in a few short years?
I'm starting to learn that everyone else's parent seems nicer, cooler, worldly, exotic. Coaches and teachers are the ultimate authority on everything. It stands to reason. These other adults aren't harping on my kids to clean their rooms, eat their vegetables. My kids only see them at their best. Never under the sink working on a clogged drain. Trying to figure out how to assemble a new toy. If familiarity breeds contempt, it is surprising that our kids take anything we say seriously.

While I want my kids to respect the adults in their lives, I do get concerned about them giving too much credibility to those adult's beliefs. Many ideas my kids bring home from their teachers are in direct conflict with the belief system I've developed. I'm not trying to mold my kids (probably), but I want them to consider both sides of every issue, not be told what to think. A couple of weeks ago, one of Sophie's middle school teachers was ranting on the debate to change the Washington Redskins name. Mrs. H, a Skins fan, pointed out that only one in ten American Indians are offended by the name – obviously not enough to worry about. Sophie came home parroting this statistic, seemingly in agreement with Mrs. H.
I pointed out that one in ten didn't seem like a big deal, but 100 of 1,000 started to sound like a real opposition group, and that got Sophie thinking. By the time I researched some numbers on the internet and I found that 10% of all American Indians equals 38,000,000, that the fan base of the Redskins probably didn't exceed15 million people, Sophie had altogether lost interest in discussing the topic. Wished she never brought it up at all. Maybe some of it stuck.

I first seriously started questioning the credibility of adults around me in 10th grade. I had a Human Development teacher (remember, this was the 70s), who was primarily interested in looking good in front of the class. Everyone called him Ken. Class "lessons" would involve breaking into small groups to discuss various topics and issues. At the end of the period, we would report what we learned to the rest of the class. Ken always joined a group with the popular kids, and the popular group always presented the funniest, the most intelligent responses. All of the other kids would listen with the feeling that they somehow didn't measure up.
Once, towards the end of the year, I wound up as part of Ken's group. As my group-mates and I tried to participate in the exercise, Ken would shut us down and force in responses that he knew were winners from previous years. He did the exercise, and we watched. As we gave our responses to the class, everyone was howling with laughter, nodding at our insightful understanding of human nature. I felt dirty, fraudulent. Ken ultimately lost his job due to an inappropriate relationship with a teen-age girl, and I was left with a growing disdain for authority figures.

From discussions with my father, I know that I had a rebellious streak from the start. A desire to do my own thing, be my own person. Question everything. As I matured, it solidified into a cynical, counter-cultural ethos. This wasn't a conscious decision. I didn't strive to be unique or unusual. I just felt that I was different from everyone else. As I looked around, anything that seemed normal, established, conventional, was beneath me. The jocks, the brains, the popular kids were sheep, following a societal shepherd telling them where to go, how to act. I even harbored contempt for the stoners, living their stereotype. By making myself different from everyone else, I could not, cannot be compared, cannot be measured. I still do this today.
As I sink into middle-age, I appear more bourgeois. A senior manager at a mid-sized non-profit, a husband, father, home-owner, scout-leader. It is hard to consider myself anything but normal – until I notice how my opinions differ so radically from those around me. I think the conservative trappings of Scouting are ridiculous, narrow, constricting. I harbor a natural distrust for work-place authority figures (even though I am definitely one of them). I am a socialist thinker in a libertarian town. And for my kids, I want the opinions of teachers, coaches, and even their parents to be questioned, analyzed.

A friend suggested that when Sophie brought up the Redskins topic to me, she may have, consciously or subconsciously, been uncomfortable with the conclusion. With the hundreds of events and conversations that take place during the school day, possibly it wasn't chance that she would bring up a topic that would set me off, send me to internet-research to prove my point. Possibly, my kids give my opinion a bit more credence than I suspect.
While they no longer believe I'm capable of joining the Tour de France, my kids do still come to my races and cheer. And they genuinely like spending time with me, hearing me tell stories from my childhood, listening to my thoughts on various topics. I know they will be exposed to ideas and opinions throughout entire lives. As they grow, their ethos will form into something unique. I don't want them to turn into me – fueled by skepticism, hobbled by feelings of outsiderness. But I want them to develop the tools to filter the information they receive, To determine if it requires more thought, more research. And in the meantime, I'd like them to let me coach their running – at least a little bit.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Mix Tape

Becoming a young adult in the 1980s gave me a front row seat to a unique and short lived societal phenomenon – the mix tape. Typically 90 minutes on two sides of a cassette. 20 to 30 carefully chosen songs. Each side a unique theme.

In an era of digital music where playlists are created in a matter of minutes, where an 80 minute CD can be burned with minimal effort by any 10 year old, and individual songs are readily available for purchase (cheap) or for swapping (free), the mix tape concept loses its short-live glory. Or, maybe it doesn't.

In the mid-eighties through the early-nineties, tape mixing was an all evening affair. It would often take 2, 3 hours or more, lots of planning, erasing and re-recording. Because of the time investment, much more thought went into the song choice and order than a playlist of today. The mood of an entire side of music could be scuttled by a poorly chosen song. A sloppy recording job – missing an intro or cutting off a fade-out – could take a brilliant tape and turn it into a hack-job.

By the mid-nineties, most adults' music collections had not transferred completely to CDs, and certainly not to MP3s. Songs were often recorded off of LPs (now referred to as 'vinyl'). Because individual songs were not readily available, one needed access to the entire album that contained the wanted song. This usually entailed borrowing albums from friends, buying 12 inch singles, and in some cases buying entire albums to record one or 2 songs to tape.

In movies made after the 1990s, there are from time to time disparaging references to mix tapes. They are viewed as a relic of a bygone era and seem worthy of disdain. In truth, the mix tape was at times a modern equivalent of a suitor writing poetry. A several hour introspective commitment scouring your music collection, looking for songs that demonstrate where your relationship is now and where you want it to go. The songs must be ordered to flow well for listenability and of course there needs to be the perfect blend of pop & edge.

Prior to the mid-seventies, the fidelity of cassette tapes just wasn't up to the task of capturing the music in a form worth recording. As a result, the length of tapes available for purchase was generally more geared to other activities. Being an early adopter of the mix tape phenomenon, I first started packing my favorite Beatles and Doors songs on 60 minute Memorex tapes. Initially, my motivation was to cut out the 'clutter', simply flooding the tape with my favorite songs, the hits. But quickly, I learned that 20 hit songs in a row becomes boring. Carefully chosen clutter improves the tape immensely. Eventually, my tapes would include only a handful of favorites. These songs became the pinnacle, the apex. The rest of the tape was the art. The intentional backdrop required to elevate the pinnacle songs to soaring new heights.

As I became more adept at tape mixing, I began to record a brief snippet of a song to enhance the tape. My most impressive tape introduced Sonic Youth's "Youth Against Fascism" with Frank Black's brilliant and bizarre "you f---ing die" diatribe, and I plugged Public Enemy's "You're Quite Hostile" refrain into the silence after Fugazi's "Waiting Room" introduction. The power of the mix tape. You engineer the music better than the producer. And then you listen to it so many times that 20 to 25 years later, the songs still seem to belong together.

I have a paid hobby as a spin instructor. Because of this, I still have the opportunity to mix 60 minutes of music twice a week. Obviously, this is all done digitally now, and decorum requires that I avoid phrases like "you f---ing die". While I still pay attention to song combinations, I'm often looking for contrast in addition to flow. Where my mix tapes would be rolling hills of sound, mood and energy, my spin mixes are much more likely to resemble plateaus and valleys. Slower, more mellow songs often followed by fast, angry songs. The idea is to shake up the workout with the music. Irony helps lighten the mood. I'll throw in an odd, old pop song – Afternoon Delight or Summer Loving – just to get a laugh and give people a break after a long segment of hard-driving beat and tempo.

The shuffle features common with digital music, first with CDs and now MP3 files, have made us desensitized to music flow. I suppose the radio has always been guilty of throwing disjointed songs together, but the artists' LPs were often carefully crafted to create a mood, to tell a story. Unlike the hours of effort to create a mix tape, the ease of working with digital music has made us lazy. While taping, the time investment made us want to be sure we got it right the first time. When burning a CD, or simply dumping music onto an MP3 player for a run or a workout, it is so simple and cheap (free) that if a song doesn't fit into the mix, we can either re-burn the CD or delete the song from the playlist and get it right second time around.

For years now, I have wanted to learn the ins and outs of music engineering. Essentially giving myself a skillset that I had with cassette tapes. There are so many things that I want to do, so many
songs I want to blend, trim, edit. Fade-outs & fade-ins, eliminate F-Bombs. Here's one of my "things" – I am almost completely incapable of reading directions to learn how to do something. I either need to work through trial and error, or someone needs to show me how to do it.

I've downloaded DJ programs and tried to work through the process of engineering a song, and I just can't do it, I can't figure it out. And as a 50ish adult, I don't know anyone who can show me how. Because my kids are almost teens, in a few years they will likely possess an innate ability to navigate these software programs. If I can just hold off a couple more years, maybe they can show me how. But without this skill, I will never fully recapture the music mixing style of my early adult years.

Like so many of the conveniences of the modern world, something special is lost when activities become too easy to do. Tape mixing was truly an art form, and it has become lost to all but a few – including me.

Possibly, I'm overthinking this – a habit of mine. In the eighties, cassette tapes were the best technology available. The Sony Walkman was the iPod of the time. A few years earlier, we were still listening to AM frequencies on transistor radios. Tape mixing was our attempt to control the flow and order of music – something only a DJ could previously do. But the medium grew. Tape mixers truly cared about the final product. And to this day, I've yet to hear a home-crafted CD that comes close to the top five tapes I’ve mixed.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Elephant in the Room

This essay was written in January 2010 -

Public option, death panels, Blue Dogs, rationing, Group of Six… A recent Google search on “Health Care Reform” returned 27 million results. Like many Americans, I’ve reached my saturation point on this issue, but at the same time, I know that reform is crucial to the budgets of middle class Americans.

As the finance manager of a large community center, I spend an excessive amount of my time and energy worrying about and working around the high cost of medical plan premiums. I appreciate the efforts of our government representatives, and I truly hope that reform provides better quality and less expensive insurance for more Americans.

But throughout this whole health care debate, public officials are avoiding the elephant in the room. No one is talking about the most controllable driving force in our escalating health care costs… Health.  

Most adults understand what it takes to live a healthy lifestyle. We’ve been hearing it our entire lives: eat your vegetables, minimize alcohol use, don’t smoke, buckle-up, exercise. More recent messages include: monitor your blood pressure and cholesterol, minimize stress, lose weight, maintain a healthy Body Mass Index.  

Americans are a pretty savvy bunch. Two-thirds of us own our own homes; we hold down jobs; manage our households; get kids to school, soccer games and birthday parties on time; and despite financial pressures, we find ways to enjoy luxury items like gaming systems and HDTV. Yet most of us are unable to take care of ourselves.  

More than two-thirds of all American adults are overweight, and half of those are categorized as obese. One-fifth of adults smoke cigarettes. One sixth of us still don’t use seat belts. The list goes on.  

These behaviors have a direct impact on the cost of health care. Being more than 10 pounds over the optimum weight range increases one’s chances of developing heart disease, diabetes, cancer, musculoskeletal conditions and a several other health problems. Smoking promotes cancer, high blood pressure, weakens bones, increases the risk of diabetes and can even contribute to male impotence. Meanwhile, only one-third of adults get the minimum recommended weekly amount of exercise.  

I believe that many people don’t make an effort to improve their health because they are overwhelmed by the number of changes they feel they need to make to live a healthy lifestyle. But instead of swinging for a homerun, I believe that by making small, incremental changes, one at a time over the course of a year, each one of us can totally transform our own health.  

Fifteen months ago, I decided it was time to work on some of the issues that plagued me for years. Through diet and exercise, I was able to lower my blood pressure and cholesterol, both slightly elevated, into the healthy range. I also lost 15 pounds that brought me squarely into the center of my optimum BMI range.   

I didn’t do this all at once, and I didn’t do anything radical. To lose weight, I ate less, exercised more and went to bed a little bit hungry every night. To lower my cholesterol and blood pressure, I took the things out of my diet that everyone knows are unhealthy – chips, fast food, egg yolks, excessive coffee, and pretty much all of the excess salt. Also, by working with a holistic health practitioner, I added some foods that promote health – more filtered water, herbal teas, a high fiber diet, certain supplements and enough almonds and walnuts to keep a family of squirrels smiling for years.  

Through this process, I found that most of these changes are just habits. After a few weeks, it became reflex to reach for nuts instead of pretzels, for celery instead of chips. I found that I really could live with just one cup of coffee each day.  

So go ahead and stress about the cost of health insurance, but at the same time, do something to reduce it. Quit smoking, wear your seatbelt, alter your diet, or start exercising. It may be the most patriotic thing you can do for your country.


Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Food Fight

This Cartoon was a family effort - my concept (pun really), my daughter's art, and my son's idea to use hamburgers and hot dogs,

The Worst Generation?

“To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected. This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.” Franklin D. Roosevelt said this in 1936 as the primary elements of World War II were falling into place. The generation to whom FDR spoke has become known as the Greatest Generation. Sometimes I worry that we will be known as the “Worst Generation”.

If generations can be classified as givers and takers, we are clearly the biggest takers in the history of the nation. Sixty years of American prosperity taught us some ugly habits. We value “stuff”. We feel entitled to luxury. And we try to emulate the rich and famous. We fight any effort to raise taxes, yet we continually expect additional services and benefits from our governments. Rather than looking out for our neighbors, we grasp what we can for ourselves. While this is not exactly a new American trait, it has become pronounced, even respected. As the nation's financial resources become more scarce, the rhetoric becomes more hateful. We are truly a nation of us v. them. Again, not a new phenomenon, but more evident, especially from our elected leaders. The nation known for its safety net of social security and medicare has now decided that it no longer wants to afford it.

Further, we seem completely incapable of tightening our belts to weather a tough time. Like an irresponsible family, we continue to rack up debt with no thought to when, let alone how, we can pay it back. From 1980 – 2008 our deficit spending averaged more than 2.5% of Gross Domestic Product. Since 2008, 8.5%. Clearly, this trend is building. Many, including me, believe that the on-going economic stimulus is needed to help those who are hurting, but no one seems willing to pay for it.

Beyond debt, the United States has wracked up trillions in deferred maintenance. Our highway system alone, with its decaying bridges and crumbling roads, needs to be addressed in the next handful of years, but the American populace reacts with knee-jerk instincts whenever additional taxes on gas are suggested as a funding source.

We are experiencing first-hand one of the great events in American history. The financial meltdown of 2008, and the resulting economic turmoil, gave our country an opportunity to shine. This is our rendezvous with destiny. And our rendezvous, so far, has been fully squandered. Rather than soldiering through a truly difficult period, we point fingers at those less fortunate in our own society. We demonize those requiring help, and we cry 'foul' whenever we are asked to give more. 

At some point, we as a nation will need to sacrifice to pay back the debt. The trillions of dollars that we have borrowed has a steep price tag. The interest on our debt in 2012 was $360 billion. Compare this with the much publicized and universally maligned annual sequestration savings of $85 billion per year, and it is almost laughable. We continue to put off big decisions with finger-pointing rhetoric because taking action is too painful. Social Security, Medicare, and our national debt all need attention, and need that attention now. Each year we put off action on these compounding issues exacerbates the problem in the future.

Our grandparents' demons, Hirohito, Mussolini and Hitler, were despised en mass by the American public. It should have been relatively easy to generate a national response against fascism, yet even then, it took an attack on our Naval fleet to generate the necessary popular and political support to enter WWII. But once committed, the United States was unstoppable. We instituted laws that ensured the basic necessities to those in need. We raised taxes, significantly, on almost all Americans – with the highest tax rates topping 90%. Everyone rationed goods regardless of their ability to afford them, and consumerism, buying goods just to own them, was virtually non-existent.

Our national 'can-do' mood lasted decades. We built the United States into the global model of what a nation can achieve. But over time, we seemed to lose our focus. What started as a concern for the national, and even the global, good subtly shifted to concern for individual good. By the 1980s, yuppies, junk bonds and the 'me-generation' dominated the headlines.

Pre-WWII, the Greatest Generation doesn't strike me as all that different from who we are today. Although when pushed, they sprang into action and impressed the world. Today, we are being pushed from all sides. Rather than wring our hands, too fearful to take action, let's follow the example set by our grandparents and great-grandparents. It is time for collective sacrifice; time to stop the long slide we are experiencing; time for all citizens contribute what they can.

Monday, September 30, 2013


Lather was thirty years old today. They took away all of his toys. His mother sent newspaper clippings to him, About his old friends who’d stopped being boys.

How appropriate that this Jefferson Airplane lyric has been stuck in my head for the past few weeks. Grace Slick’s haunting melody of man/child Lather pretty much sums up a recurring feeling I’ve been having off and on for my entire adult life. Lately, the feeling is very “on”.

For 7 years I’ve been working in a job that has a not-so-serious feel  – working as a finance director at a community center. It is challenging. It requires a good deal of technical knowledge, creativity, determination, but it also seems like a place holder while I’m waiting around to get a real job. Some things you should know – I wear shorts to work, my salary is about $30,000 less than my last job, I’ve felt ready to move on for 4 years. My coworkers are as young as 16, and my peers in  managerial positions tend to be 15 – 20 years younger than me. The older ones are entrenched employees that I consider dead-wood, maxed-out beyond usefulness.

This isn’t a job that I stumbled into without thought. I actively moved towards this position for years. In my early thirties, I looked around at my corporate life and cringed. I didn’t think I could continue working in a company with 30,000 employees making weapon systems for the rest of my life. So I started an effort to move to a smaller, more human focused field. This entire process took 8 years, and 3 job changes but here I am, working in a human-services non-profit, and wondering if it was the right move. Of course, my identity struggles are not just about my profession.

I love music. As a teen and young adult, my identity was tied to my musical tastes. Stoner/hippy in high school – Neil Young, Doors, Beatles. In college, this morphed into amped-up punk – Sex Pistols, Clash, Ramones. To this day, I still have a tendency to think of myself as a hippy/punk. While my musical tastes have expanded considerably, Those 6 bands remain in my top 10 (well maybe not the Pistols, but I still enjoy hearing their ‘music’).

Bored – with life, with my workout, with my lack of hobbies. I decided to start an indoor cycle class using primarily punk music. Most of the classes offered at my work-place were heavily pop and country influenced, and those that weren’t leaned towards classic rock – think Bob Seger not T-Rex. I quickly found the format of all punk, protopunk, post-punk, neo-punk, to be stifling. And although no one ever complained about the music, I felt that it was annoying to the class participants. I started expanding into other genres.

Of course I use lots of classic rock, but also folk, pop (new wave, really), blues, reggae, and alt county. The result is a raucous, eclectic mess that leaves my participants confused, surprised, and hopefully enlightened. In college, I longed to be a DJ at my college radio station, but it was shut-down midway through my freshman year due to ‘funding priorities’. It reopened the year after I graduated. I missed my chance to spin tunes for the masses – until now.

Probably no one really cares about the music I play in my class, but I do. Over the past 2 years, I’ve worked to push the boundaries of my musical knowledge. I’ve read biographies of bands and producers, I’ve sought-out music lauded as great that I never ‘got’ (Bob Dylan, for instance – still don’t get it). And I’ve mined my musical past for lost ‘classics’ that I think those in my world cannot live without. I’ve even cyber-stalked some small-time DC artists from the 80s - who long ago abandoned the music industry for corporate jobs - to see if I can get MP3s of my favorite old songs.

About a month ago, I found a copy of the newly revised (1995) Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll in a lending library. This has been living in my bathroom ever since. And I’ve completely devoured it. I’ve made notes of bands to research, try out and ultimately incorporate in my cycle class. I try to learn about bands’ influences, roots & history. When I take time to reflect on this academic exploration of music, I think I’m trying to legitimize my interest in music – make it something more than just thinking about songs and bands – or I’m just trying to find some new music that I like. I have trouble understanding my motivations. Regardless, I’ve become deeply immersed in the topic of rock.

And then I read Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity (again).

High Fidelity’s lead character is going through a life-crisis of relationships. But it was the under-lying theme that resonated with me – he questions whether he is a ‘serious’ adult. Are his priorities immature, is his job a placeholder, is his desire to paint record label logos on his apartment wall an expression of his interests or just stupid? This is me.

Now back to the Airplane’s Lather. At times, I feel like an upstanding member of the adult community. I have 2 bright children, I’ve been married for 16 years, own a house and have been somewhat gainfully employed my entire adult life. But then I look around and start the comparisons. My principal hobby involves long hours making music-mixes. I have a tendency to dress like a teenager. I got another tattoo as a 50th birthday present. My pleasure reading genres are sci-fi and rock. I’m working to fully bumper-sticker my truck. My principal form of transportation is a bicycle. It all seems so adolescent.

My friends are doctors, lawyers, educators. I work at a fitness center. My friends are high-achievers with serious hobbies – farming, researching history, writing & publishing. Me? While mixing spin-disks, I worry about whether I can follow John Prine with the Who (yes, with the right song). Last week, I was meeting with an attorney. He is an impeccably dressed older man, staid demeanor, careful diction, big office with lots of oak. Me, shorts, sweater, hiking boots, careless speech, tattoos. I essentially felt like a kid in the Principal’s office. During the closing chatter of the meeting, it came out that he is 53. Only a couple of years older than me, Lather.

The Airplane song ends with the GraceSlick’s lament: “And I should have told him, ‘No, you’re not old.’ And I should have let him go on… smiling…”

Listen to "Lather" on You Tube