Friday, November 14, 2014

Pre-Apocalypse

I'm going to live forever. Everyone knows it. By everyone, I mean my wife and kids. And any friends who happen to have heard my wife and kids poke fun at my absurd proclamation. It's become my mantra of late. As I slipped out of my forties. When the subject of death comes up, which it does from time to time, I remind my family that I plan to go on living and living… forever. Do I really want to live forever? I have no idea. I've never spent any time thinking about it, until now.

For all its allure, immortality is not something modern people are drawn to. Back in the day, that would be centuries ago, explorers launched extravagant quests in search of the Fountain of Youth. But life was less certain, more tenuous. People died from ailments considered minor today. Infections, injury, even child birth was a large risk. Now, we are much more likely to live a long life, seventy or eighty years unless we are unlucky. Perhaps that's all people are looking for. They don't want to live forever, just enough time to complete the bucket-list.

There is a fairly limited list of movies and books on the topic of immortality. As entertainment genres go, Science Fiction tops my list. Not outer-space and fantasy world stuff. But character stories rooted in science and the fantastic. If immortality books were common, I'd be reading them. I can only think of a few. Jitterbug Perfume, The Thief of Time, Sacre Bleu, Doctor Sleep. Movies? Highlander... anything else? I must be missing dozens, but the point is that these stories are scarce, certainly not mainstream.


We as a society are much more obsessed with dying. Zombies, economic collapse, nuclear war, alien invasion, plagues. Post-Apocalyptic. It's everywhere. I've read it all. I was reading PA before it was even a genre. Earth Abides, George Stewart's 1949 masterpiece on how a community moves on after a mysterious ailment kills all but a few. This is still the best of the class, and I have read it four or five times. Lucifer's Hammer. Thirty years old. Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle's tale about the preparation and aftermath of a comet strike. Now every other book I see on the new fiction shelf has apocalyptic themes. But these books really aren't about dying, they are about surviving. And that is somewhere on the linear curve towards immortality, I suppose.

It is easy to be obsessed with the apocalypse. It is ingrained in our thinking. Christianity and Islam both predict end-times, a period of tribulation, a judgment day. Especially prominent in the Mormon Church, each LDS family is expected to store a year of food to help ride out the tribulation. Predictably, I've read about that tribulation. Tim LeHaye and Jerry Jenkins wrote a twelve book series about the non-believers -- those too late to Christianity to participate in the Rapture -- surviving through the final years of earth. It's no party. Plagues, earthquakes, the anti-Christ. But it's exciting. Most of the series, I found myself feeling sorry for the Christians who were spared the trouble of the tribulation. They missed out on a lot of the cool stuff.

I know that this is a funny perspective, but that's why we read the books in the first place. I've read about communities rebuilding from disaster. Over and over. Similar themes, similar stories. All this reading, some of it sticks. These aren't just tales. They are blue-prints for survival. Survival of a disaster that will ultimately come. And it will come. It has come in the past. Disease, comet-strikes, super-volcanoes, ice-ages. Sooner or later, eventually, in the future, it will come. My future?

My mental health issues, OCD and Anxiety Disorder, cause me to dwell on events I cannot control. The Apocalypse is one of them. For years, I would lie awake at night planning my survival, my family's survival. Like the Latter Day Saints, I stored food and water. I made elaborate plans to stock-pile cash. During a bird-flu outbreak half a world away, I bought a huge box of surgical masks. I still have them. They are at the top of my closet. Unopened, probably dry-rotting. I've considered buying some guns. I hate guns. They scare the hell out of me. I hate them almost as much as I hate cigarettes. But I started thinking that no one can survive tribulation without a rifle and a shotgun.

I never finalized my disaster preparations. Reality intervened. I bought a book called "When All Hell Breaks Loose: Stuff You Need To Survive When Disaster Strikes" At first I found it depressing. I learned that I wasn't prepared. There was too much to do. And then it became enlightening, freeing. Reading that book made me realize that the only thing that will help my family and me survive the apocalypse is luck. My wife and I, we have no skills in a post-apocalyptic world. We can't fix machinery, we've never hunted, we're crappy farmers. Our property, a shady quarter acre could never support a family. Our kids are just getting to an age where they would be of any useful help. If we ever lose power for an extended period of time, even our basement will flood. Our house sits on an underground lake. Sump pumps run regularly. We’re just not cut from the survivalist mold.

It took a while to realize it happened. I started branching out in my reading. Still skews towards sci-fi, but much less PA. I stopped worrying about every new disease outbreak in Asia. Stopped freaking out when CNN reported new enteroviruses and brain eating amoebas. I acknowledge the coming environmental catastrophes, but I no longer worry about how I can mitigate them.

And when Ebola inevitably made it to the United States, I was no more worried than my wife. Certainly not losing sleep over it. I've come to realize, even to embrace, that death is part of life. My spiritual beliefs tell me that we've all died before, and we'll all die again. And each life we live is one step closer to Nirvana, to perfection. Which is where true immortality exists. 

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Friends

I'm a crappy friend. I never reach out, get in touch. I don't remember what is going on in your life. I make no effort. My friendships start out well enough, but I have no staying power. The getting to know each other phase is typical enough, but the connection rarely matures, never solidifies. And then the friendship simply dwindles away. If we are friends today, the chances are high that in five years we won't be anymore.
At this point in my life my only successful relationships are with my wife, Susan, and my kids. I manage to stay cordial with my father though weekly phone calls, but after that, it is mostly a void. A long string of people who were once my friends. My brothers included. There are many people I consider friends, but in a very surface way. Friendly at the gym, friendly at the market. More of a "hey, how ya doin?" Not an attempt to catch up on their lives. I never make plans to hang out, get together.
I wasn't always like this. For thirty-some years, friendships came easily. As a teen, I had a tight group. A motley crew of geeks, stoners and second-rate athletes. Hanging out at school, after school, nights, weekends. Constant connection. Into college, a large circle of friends, spending time together in the way only college students can. We moved as a unit. To class, to meal time, to parties. I know that this level of connection doesn't last. Isn't supposed to last. It is what made the show "Friends" so popular. Adults hanging onto the high school/college friendship-model through their twenties, into their thirties. Proof that many adults feel isolated, living vicariously though their TV chums.
Susan is much better at this relationship game. She works at it. Makes plans to see her friends weekly, plans for us to get together with other couples. I'm a liability. Along for the ride, but no effort in the planning. When we are out with a group or entertaining, I probably do my share, an enjoyable presence. But then I shut down. I practically ignore those same people in any other situation. A warm evening of discussion, jokes, drinks, connection. The next day I run into them at the gas station, all they get from me is a smile and a nod.
I'm not rude, just awkward.
For the past few months, I've been working to improve my ability to mingle. To fit in and be friendly in unscripted encounters. With people I know, but don't know well. I joined a runners group – the beer runners. A short to mid-distance run then an evening in the bar. I thought that this would help me make some new friends, sort of start over. And to develop some ease in social situations. Maybe some of these new friendships would mature. This has been partially successful. I have actually gained some skill at chit-chat. I'm much better with one or two people, but passable in a group. But as I delve into the topic, I realize that this approach is misguided. My problem is less about making the friends but fostering the friendships once I have them. These new friends at my runners' group, we'll never get together except for a run and a beer.
It's much easier hanging out with women. I'm a one-on-one communicator, and women seem to be more comfortable with this. Also, guy-talk typically revolves around sports, and I'm uninterested. I haven't watched a football game in years. Baseball is relaxing at the ballpark, but we don't live near one, so I'm ignorant on that topic too. Basketball and Hockey? No interest at all. I can't even fake it. I don't know the players names. I like to talk about books, kids, societal issues. But I'm married. These women are married. It comes off as weird. I was in a writers' group with two women. The three of us would get together to discuss each others' efforts. When one woman dropped out, the meetings had to end. It was too much like a date. Unfair to our spouses.
Last weekend, I received a letter from a friend. My oldest friend, Brian. We met the first week at college, and we hit it off immediately. He got married on Saturday, and the take-away gift for the guests was a handwritten letter from the couple, really a letter from each of them. They each took a side of the sheet. Over the years, I've been surprised that my friendship with Brian has lasted. True to form, I make limited effort. Months will pass without communication and then Brian will reach out to me. Give me a call at work, send a catch-up email. And when he does this, he makes it seem like we are continuing a conversation from yesterday.
Brian's life has been one of actualization. Divorced at twenty-four and never had kids, he has made it a point to continually learn, continue to grow. Employed by an impressive university, he is able to take classes for free. And he hasn't wasted his time pursuing a program that tacks fancy letters to the end of his name, bolsters his resume. Something like an MBA. He takes scatter-shot courses on whatever topic interests him at the time. And all of these interests, all of this education makes him a fascinating person. He is filled with knowledge, but more importantly, he is filled with curiosity. Talking with him is like talking to a sun-rise. He seemingly glows with excitement.
For the past few years, Brian has repeatedly commented that my friendship is immeasurably important to him. Hard to believe. I would expect our friendship to be one of the most frustrating things in his life. He does all the work. I seemingly take him for granted. We live about ninety minutes apart. He is the one who calls to make plans. He is the one who travels to get together. I always have an excuse. Kids, vision problems, work events. And when we do get together, I can't believe it is very rewarding. Our kids are just getting to the point where they can take care of themselves. For the past twelve years, most of our visits with Brian have included the presence of children. Very distracting. Hard to have a meaningful conversation. When he leaves, I feel dull, ordinary. I feel like I've let him down, again.
But here's the thing, twenty-five years ago – before I lost my skill at friendships, when deep personal relationships were still second nature for me, before I lost my ability or desire to connect with the people close to me – I stood by Brian during a hard time in his life. When Brian was getting divorced and coming out as gay, I remained his friend. This is what Brian wrote in his wedding letter to me. He referenced a time when I took him out for dinner and drinks when I learned he was home alone on his birthday. Apparently, I've earned a lifetime of of marginal effort by simply taking advantage of a fun party night on the spur of the moment.
I'm not completely sure what my problem is. When I became aware of the decline in my ability to connect, two significant changes had taken place in my life. I had recently survived a serious bike accident, and I changed the way I drink alcohol. The crash got the blame. Massive internal trauma and a serious concussion. Eighteen hours with no memories. More than a year of recovery. Convalescence, follow-up surgery, physical therapy and PTSD. A lonely, painful, uncomfortable time. It's easy to point to this as a personality changing event. A head injury so severe, it changed my essence. But with years behind me, lots of thought on the subject. I think it is the alcohol. Prior to the crash, I was a partier. Nightly drinking, several nights each week completely drunk. Lots of time out with friends. Mingling in bars. Funny and fun. The life of the party.
I'm an introvert by nature, but an extrovert with a drink in my hand. I leaned on alcohol for so long that I forgot how to be comfortable without it. Too self-conscious, not funny enough, sharp enough. It's not surprising that I do fairly well after the beer-run. I'm relearning the skill of being engaging while drinking. Chatting up strangers over alcohol.
I don't remember Brian's birthday incident. I told him he put way too much significance on my behavior that night. But he says no, it was just an easy to write example of my non-judging, unquestioning friendship. An anecdote to show how I put our relationship above all else. This isn't me anymore. Or at least this isn't me right now. I'm not talking about the judgement, I'm still pretty good at not judging, or at least accepting. But the importance of friendship? I feel it, for sure. And I miss it. But I just can't find it. It is something I want to regain. I want to connect with the people in my life.

I realize that standing around soaked in sweat and downing beer with acquaintances isn't the way to find soul mates. BFFs to replace the ones I've squandered over the years. But these new surface-relationships are easy. At least easier than reaching out and making an emotional connection with the people I already know.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Social Media

‘cause we zig and zag between good and bad
stumble and fall on right and wrong
‘cause the tumbling dice and the luck of the draw just leads us on

A beautiful lyric from Camper Van Beethoven’s "When I Win the Lottery." A Christian lyric. Calvinist. An attestation to John Bradford's "But for the grace of God go I." God is in charge. God sets the agenda. We're along for the ride. "Lottery" is a clever song about a ne'er do well who dreams of buying glory though his predestined lottery winnings.
… Or…

"No Fate but what we make."
The theme of Linda Hamilton's "Terminator 2". The future is unwritten. Destiny is in my control. I set my path. I create my lot in life. In complete opposition to the CVB lyric. Empowering, but also frightening. Makes us feel small and alone. T2 was the high-point of the Terminator series. After a twelve year hiatus, T3 came along and showed us that the future was in fact already decided. I realize this was necessary to continue the franchise, but it nullifies the whole point of T2. It destroys the essence that set T2 above the action movie genre as something unique, something deep.

I fall squarely in the No Fate camp. I believe in God, but I believe God is irrelevant to the world around me. The intelligent designer who set things in motion a bazillion years ago with the big bang - and then off to other projects. Maybe checks in every few millennia to see how we're doing, but not in control, except maybe in some macro way that only an astrophysicist could understand. Impossible to track or steer the quadrillions of lives in all of the various universes, dimensions.

There is a danger using pop culture references to guide our philosophy. Pop culture it trite. It keeps things simple, easy. It is almost always black and white, but that appeals to me. The Yin/Yang should be my symbol, but not in the positive balanced way it is intended. Good/bad, light/dark is the way I see everything. I try to remind myself that there are no clear lines, that everything contains various shades of grey. But at my center, at my base, my knee jerk reaction is always right/wrong.

One of my yes/no lines in the sand is Social Media. I have studiously avoided it from the start. I never saw the point. Platforms like Facebook seem to give people the impression that they have relationships where none exist. Connecting with long lost friends, but not in a direct manner. Not like a exchanging emails, or a phone call, or getting together. More like a voyeur, peaking in on each other's life. Connected, but without any real connection, any effort. I created a LinkedIn account a few years ago. A nod to convention during a job hunt. From time to time I get "connection requests" from people I know. And after we connect? Nothing happens. When people ask to connect with me, I always accept. I'm now connected with dozens of people, but nothing has ever come of it. LinkedIn is constantly sending me emails suggesting connections with other people. I ignore them. LinkedIn reminds me of people I knew in the eighties. A desk drawer full of business cards mixed in with used plastic forks and spoons. Social Media, in my mind, is a giant waste of time.

Without realizing that it was happening, I got sucked in. Google+. It started with my blog. Ponderous essays on a variety of topics. Not slapped out in twenty minute bursts, but wrought through several sessions – hours of work each. And a lot of what I write is pretty good. Some of it is very good. This is not just my opinion, feedback from my writers’ group, feedback when I publish an Op Ed in my newspaper. I created my blog page. I posted an essay that I just completed. I posted a couple of older ones that I thought were above average. And then I waited. No one visited my page. I added labels, tags. More essays, good essays. Still no one visited. And then I learned about Google+ communities.

Bicycling, running, mental health, punk music. These are the topics that interest me. When I created a presence in these communities, people found my blog. Actual followers. Small chunks of readership in a variety of countries. Turkey, Germany, Russia. Ukraine is the biggest and most consistent. And I'm not sure why. Ukrainians have been reading my months-old blog-post "Validation" steadily for weeks. I would think folks in Ukraine would have more important things to worry about right now than what I have to say. My kids think this is cool. They are of Ukrainian descent. My wife, Susan, a first generation American.

But those Google+ communities. This media actually is social. I'm not hanging onto old, dried up relationships, I'm creating new ones. Back and forth commenting. Reading updates on people's lives. Joking, sparring, some honest-to-God arguments. I know their kids names, the city where they live. Their goals, their interests, their achievements. It's a platform that no one ever talks about. Not in the news like Facebook, twitter, et al. And because my communities are one-dimensional, focused specifically on trail-running, or fixed-gear bikes, or OCD, or Tourette's Syndrome, the people I'm connecting with are far more diverse than my flesh and blood friendships. We intersect and bond over a narrow band of interest. The remainder of our lives, our hobbies, our activities, our professions are varied and random.  

I spend a lot of time looking for well written blogs. Blogs on topics meaningful to me. Mental health, broken spirits, that sort of thing. Many of these bloggers are Christian - very. Not surprising, folks struggling with problems often need someplace to turn. These blogs are primarily on the community’s subject matter, but they often include the theme that God is in control. God has a plan. If I put my faith in God, everything will be all right. I've never tried to do this. I have a natural distrust of authority figures – those in a position to set the rules. And who could possibly have more authority than God? But these bloggers, they are some of the people I’m meeting, my new friends, the ones I’m just getting to know.  

A year into the game, I now find myself worrying about offending some of these new friends. I am accepting of others beliefs, but are they accepting of mine? Like the new kid in school, I want to fit in, but I want to be myself. In my essays, I lay it all out. Nothing is hidden. My deepest thoughts and secrets. It is so personal that only a handful of my friends even know about my blog. It isn't information I'm comfortable sharing with the people I see every day. People at my work. My family. Long lost friends.

The comparison of quotes at the start of this essay gets to the heart of my fear. Will Calvinists accept my No Fate philosophy? Can Christians accept my beliefs in reincarnation, my rejection of Christianity? Can anyone in Europe accept that I'm an American? Many of my connections revolve around rock music, bicycles and running. What do these people think of my OCD? Tourette's Syndrome? Past drug use? Do they care? My tendency in the flesh and blood world is to avoid unpleasant topics. They make people uncomfortable. I don't stand on the street corner and rant about my kids' teachers. Or bemoan my struggles with alcohol. On-line, as Charley Rider, I tell the truth, my truth. For the past year, it hasn't mattered what anyone thought. If someone was offended, well, I didn't even know who they were. I'm starting to know. I'm starting to worry. It has begun to matter. I'm starting to care about the faceless people I'm meeting on Google+.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Slowdown Throwdown

Eli, AKA DJ-E, has taken the Hannah Montana pop classic Hoedown Throwdown and slowed it down by about 30%. The resulting song, The Slowdown Throwdown is fantastic. I think that this pays nice tribute to Cyrus' voice because it does not sound weak or watery at the slower speed. The whole thing works.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T0h08Y5PyvU

Listen to half of it and you should be hooked.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Robin

For years and years, I had a boss that I really didn't like very much. Al was funny and capable, but not a good person. Married with two small boys, he would spend every weekend on overnight scuba diving trips or camping at a minor league NASCAR track. Working pit for his friend. He said these trips were reward for being the bread-winner. His wife sat around all week, so she didn't need a break on the weekend like he did. When the inevitable divorce came, Al started buying gold bars. He embezzled as much money from the relationship as he could get away with. His wife deserved nothing. He cringed at the thought of her taking the money that he earned. Al's favorite movie was "Good Morning Vietnam". 

At first blush, Good Morning Vietnam seems like the sort of movie that cheese-balls like Al prefer. The sort of movie that they can quote over beers with their friends. Like Top Gun or Stripes. And it is. GMV is loaded with quotable lines. The sort of jokes that immature men can tell one another when they cannot think of anything witty to say. I have seen GMV a dozen times. I won a copy of the VHS tape on a radio call-in contest in the late eighties, so I have owned it for twenty-five years. Comedy and action, a movie to watch when restless, late at night.

There is a depth and warmth to the movie that transcends the cheese. It paints a human portrait of residents of Vietnam that has nothing to do with war. It shows their life of poverty and striving. It shows humor and hardship. The movie is a roller-coaster. From comedic to heartfelt to tragic and back. And the reason it works is Robin Williams. His character makes each section of the movie believable. His humor is undeniable, but it is the acting that makes him special. His facial expressions tell most of the story. His wonder, his joy, his pain.

It would probably be hard to find an American who couldn't think of a Robin Williams movie she or he loves. The body of work is vast and varied. He was prolific (three movies in post-production right now) and unpredictable. I looked through his filmography on www.imdb.com and I was shocked to see the number of films he starred in. Most of them were unfamiliar to me. But many of them are in my list of favorites. Funny movies that made me think. Thinking movies that made me laugh. Movies about broken people trying to find their way in life. The Fisher King, Dead Poet's Society. Even RV.

My favorite in the list is Good Will Hunting. When it came out, I watched it twice. A movie about a troubled young man wrestling with his demons. But when I watched it a few months ago, the first time in a decade or more, I found it to be about an aging therapist. A man trying to get his life back on track following loss. Clearly, my perception has changed because of my age and my maturity, but there is something else there. Something that is consistent in every Robin Williams movie that appeals to me. While he is completely overbearing on screen, the star of the show, he somehow lets the other actors leave a memorable impression. My most vivid memories of GMV, et al, are not of Williams telling jokes, but of another character's crisis. Every Robin Williams movie I can think of, that I love - where his character grows, adapts, improves - is also about someone else.

I'm sure that my old boss, Al, is throwing out Good Morning Vietnam quotes these days. Me, I'm thinking of Robin's trademark sad-smile. His warm but resigned eyes. The evidence that there is always a bit of pain beneath joy.   

Friday, August 1, 2014

Why Fixed?

"The bike cannot coast. The pedals never stop turning. Can't stop. Don't want to either." - Premium Rush (movie 2012)

"That's stupid. Coasting is the best part." - My brother, David.

Two disparate quotes, polar opposites. A starting place that indicates common ground will never be reached. That's fine. It isn't an important topic. Doesn't affect society, not worth arguing about. Not like climate change, gay marriage or Lady Gaga. It really only impacts the rider. It is about aesthetics, purity, preference. It is riding “fixed.”

Fixed gear bikes have gained in popularity over the past two decades. Their simplicity is undeniable. Fewer moving parts, less to break down, to maintain. Less to rust. Less to steal. The design is straightforward. The bike has no freewheel. A device invented more than a century ago; it allows the back wheel to spin without moving the pedals. On a fixed gear bike, a fixie, as the hipsters call it, the pedals, the chainring, are essentially chained to the back wheel. If the wheel is spinning, so are the pedals. If the pedals are spinning, so is the wheel. Frontwards or backwards. The pedals and the wheel move as a unit. Pedal hard, the bike goes fast. Stop the pedals, the bike stops. Not much is simpler than that.

I began riding fixed when my kids finished child care, started grade school. No more drop-offs and pickups on my work commute. It had been eight years since my last stint as a bike commuter. I was itching to resume riding to work. Hell or high-water. Hot enough to fry an egg. Rain, sleet, dead of night. Any other clichéd adverse riding description. Any weather, any time. As early as 4:00 AM, as late as midnight. I didn't want to ride my 'good' bike. I had to park outside. I would ruin it. Or it might get stolen. I had a decades-old Trek 1200 in my attic. Nice frame, light, aluminum. It was all I needed. I stripped off the gears, the derailleur. Ditched one of the two chainrings and all other extraneous parts. Cut my dropbars into bullhorns. 'Flop & Chops' they call them. Shortened the chain. The only money I spent was on a cheap back wheel with a fixed hub. And then I rode it for years. Back and forth to work, all over town. Pretty much rode it until it was worn out, too hard to maintain.

The bicycle isn't as old as many people think. Barely older than the automobile. I once read on a bike-shop website that "for centuries Americans have enjoyed riding bicycles..." Not correct. The first pedal-propelled bike wasn't invented until almost 1860, and the first chain-driven bikes became available in the mid-1880s. But five years later, bikes included pneumatic tires and the familiar diamond design. And there it was. Just 30 years after the first pedal-bike was created, the bicycle was perfected. Materials have changed. Lighter, more durable metals, more pliable rubber for the tires. Improved machine techniques make everything sleeker, stronger. But the basic design was set. And they nailed it from the start. My brand new Specialized Langster is conceptually identical to a bike I could have bought in the late 1890s.

With proper seat-height and alignment, a bicycle is the most efficient means of human transportation. Least calories expended per miles covered. And on this machine, the engine gets stronger the more it is used. I would argue that the bicycle is the most perfect machine ever invented. In the past 125 years, engineers and manufacturers have tried hard to improve on the design. Adjustments made to the geometry. Shocks, disk brakes, and gears, lots of gears. Some of the changes have merit, some are just stupid and don’t last. But in the end, the basic 1890s design will work adequately for many if not most riders.

Langster with custom Hot Wheels track fender
I have two bikes right now. The Specialized Langster I mentioned earlier and a 2012 Giant Seek. The Seek is marketed as an "urban-influenced sport bike." Sort of a cross between a mountain bike and a road bike. Geometry-wise, it looks and feels more like a mountain bike, but it is road bike through and through. Sort of a bad-ass hybrid. It has 24 gears. I'm not opposed to gears, or even a freewheel. Both are nice on a long hilly ride. But for popping around town, I find them extraneous and in the way. One more thing to worry about. Am I in the right gear? Much more satisfying to just dig in and ride the gear I have. Attack the hills, control the descents, stand dead-still on my pedals at traffic lights. Trackstanding. Like a unicycle, fixies are far easier to keep upright when stopped. Imperceptible rocking, forwards and back. An inch or less. Riding fixed is fun. Aesthetic. Artistic. Human and machine working as a unit. Zen.  No need to switch gears and ride the brakes around every corner.

And for me, that's really what it comes down to. Connecting with the bike. Riding fixed pays homage to the roots of cycling. Recognizing that the bicycle has been perfect for well over a century. I find happiness in fixed-gear riding. It leaves me feeling peaceful. In touch with a bygone era. In touch with my favorite machine. For years I have been striving for simplicity in my life. So when asked why I ride fixed, I forego this long explanation. I usually answer "Why not?"

Sunday, July 27, 2014

What if people purred?

Last Saturday morning, we adopted a cat. A kitten from our local shelter. A teeny male tabby that meows incessantly and purrs even more. Affection-starved from spending his life in a cage, this cat wants constant attention. This works well for us, Roz, our other cat, isn't all that interested in affection. She loves petting, head-scratching – for about twenty seconds. Then she gets up and walks away. How does Roz like the new cat? She's pissed. Lots of hissing. Paw up, claws out, ready to take a swipe.

I keep writing the "cat." I'm not certain he has a name yet. When we met him last week, we started calling him Moxie. He has plenty. Bold and playful. Spunky and fun. It was the perfect name. But at the time, the cat was a female. Or so everyone thought. On the intake form at the shelter, he was tagged as a female, and no one checked since, including us. We went to the shelter looking for a female cat. I've only had one male cat in my 51 years of life, and he was a bit of a let-down. Not very affectionate, mean to our other cat. I assumed all male cats were like this.

Eli and I talked about the word moxie about a week ago. His cousins from Maine had just concluded their annual visit. Ben, a high-school student, loves to drink Moxie soda. He wears a Moxie t-shirt almost every day. Moxie must be an acquired taste. Or something Mainers tolerate to be different from everyone else. It's terrible. During their visit, the family took Eli with them to the Air and Space Museum at Dulles Airport in Virginia. The Amelia Earhart exhibit included the word "moxie" several times. Apparently, in conjunction with Ms. Earhart is the only place in modern lexicon that the word can be found. The coincidence was notable to Eli, and we looked up the etymology of the word Moxie. It appears that the word derived from the brand – how American.

We're all in agreement that Moxie is too feminine a name. Possibly because of its association with Amelia. Maybe because it ends in "ie" – I can't say. Regardless, when we tried to call the cat Moxie, we kept referring to him as "she."

*****************************

Five days have passed. The cat now has the name Tommy. We toyed around with several names. Moxie, Mojo – really "Mr. Mojo" shortening the name "Mr. Mojo Risin’"  from the Doors' L.A. Woman – and Bob. The name Bob is a huge joke with my kids. For some reason Sophie and Eli think that Bob is the funniest name a person or an animal can have. Every time the name comes up, they dissolve into fits of tear-inducing laughter. I cringe at the eventuality that they meet an adult Bob in real life. It isn't going to be pretty.

While Moxie/Mr. Mojo/Bob was still being confused by all the names we threw at him, Susan had made a veterinary appointment for the obligatory parasite check that shelter cats need. The appointment was scheduled for the next day and we needed to settle on a name. Tommy Ramone, the last of the four original Ramones had just died, and his name had been thrown into the mix. A true outlier. Not really something any of were talking about, considering. But suddenly, it all gelled. Eli and Sophie simultaneously said they preferred Tommy and we were done. It's a nice name. It fits him. We now all refer to him as "he." I think he has started to respond to the name. He meows a bit less now but still purrs all the time.

*****************************

All this purring. I never question where I stand with my cats. Their emotions are on display. Tommy, climbing all over me, poking me with his head. Roz, she sits a few feet away, other side of the couch. A satisfied smile on her face. Allowing twenty-second pet-fests. And as soon as she gets enough, she walks away. Or twitches her tail. Or bites me (gently). I was getting a massage the other day. Susan, my wife, is a massage therapist. And since I'm an aging fitness freak, this works out well – at least in my opinion. It occurred to me that the nicest compliment I could pay to Susan during the massage would be to start purring. So primal, so spontaneous, so honest.

Purring humans would make the world simpler, better. Even when animals don't like me, I prefer their honesty. I ride my bike to work. This is something that our neighborhood dogs hate. They go nuts when I zip by. Barking, growling, lunging at the end of their rope. Our relationship is clear. It's never like this with people. We are allegedly the intelligent animal, and therefore more complex, nuanced. People get along for myriad reasons. Of course there's friendship and amiability, but then the deception starts. People strive for harmony, for reciprocation, for advancement, to simply be polite. But many of us aren't very good at this. And some of us suck. Purring with a twitchy tail. Smiling with claws out. Mixed signals. Party small-talk is often like this. Are we getting to know one another or just doing time, a societal duty. Those of us prone to anxiety get anxious. I'd rather the person hissed at me and walked away.

There is a joke within my group of friends about niceness, who's nice, who's not. "Nice" – it's such a weak, insipid word. This is intentional. In this joke, nice is an insult. An implication that the person is tepid and bland like the word. A few months ago, chatting with my boss, I mentioned something about my friend Doug. She knows who Doug is, but doesn't know him at all. But she knows Doug's wife, Annie, well. And she pretty much hates Annie. They have clashed in the past, claws out and in this case, not much pretense of amiability. Their relationship often causes me discomfort at work. So mentioning Doug was a stupid move on my part.

Me: Blah blah blah, Doug, blah blah.
Boss: Oh, Is Doug nice?
Me: <Pause> I think he is the smartest person I've ever met.
Boss: I asked if he was nice, not smart.
Me: Hmmm.

And so this five second exchange started a huge analytical round of what motivates me to be friends with people. Niceness isn't on my list. Doug actually is a pretty nice guy. He is genuinely interested in what I have to say. Caring. Remembers when there is something big going on in my life. He's like this with everybody. But many of my friends aren't all that nice. They are smart, witty, driven, interesting, honest, but not necessarily nice. I'm not that nice either. If you want real feedback on your new haircut, the outfit you just bought, I'm the guy to ask.

And this probably gets to the heart of my aversion to polite, societally-accepted human interaction. I'm not looking for fake smiles and uninspired chit-chat. It leaves me feeling disingenuous and dirty. Like I just told a lie. My friends, although many of them fantastic at the small-talk game, share my sentiments. Our conversations are much deeper, wittier, intelligent, sarcastic and rewarding. I spend an evening with them and I know nothing about how their job is going, what they think of the weather, their opinion of the last Pirates game.

*****************************
 
As time has passed, Tommy and Roz are getting along better. I won't call it friendship, but certainly a relationship. They fight. In the sort of way that only cats can fight. Hissing, batting, but lots of back and forth chasing. It seems kind of harsh, violent. But it is honest. And at least they are spending time together. Meanwhile, as a member of the 'advanced' species, I spend my evenings out talking with acquaintances about gas mileage and mortgage rates. 

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Tommy

They're piling in the back seat
They're generating steam heat
Pulsating to the back beat
The Blitzkrieg Bop

That back beat – Tommy Ramone. Stark, simple drumming that perfectly complimented the magic of the music. Fast, direct and flourish-free. The fourth and final “original” Ramone was taken from us yesterday. Sixty-two or sixty-five years young (no one seems to know), he outlived his band-mates by years. They gave us so much that they wore themselves out, used it all up. Nothing left to live on.

It seems odd for a middle-aged man like me to be upset by the death of a rocker thirty-five years after his prime, but I feel it. Like a pit in my stomach. Perhaps because he was only eleven or fourteen years older than me. Because I identified so much with the music when I was a teen. Regardless, I hope his life was rewarding, peaceful. I hope he felt like a king. I hope he saw himself as the visionary that he will one day be considered.

Months ago, I wrote a tribute to the original Ramones line-up. I was just starting my blog and not many people have read it. I would like to think that Tommy read it and smiled.

The Ramones were PERFECTION. ← Please take a minute to read about it. For Tommy. 

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Stuff

Toys, expensive toys. Seems to me that most men my age have a bunch of these. A set of golf clubs appropriate for an emerging pro. Latest phone, tablet, laptop. In-home theater. A comprehensive wood-shop. Carbon fiber bike (or two). Motorcycle, kayak, sports car, boat. Status symbols, reward for a successful career, for raising kids. Akin to ordering decent wine at dinner, at some point in adult life, most men make a switch. Change from Budweiser to craft beers. Quality over quantity. No more making do with what's OK. Wanting better if not the best. These are their hobbies. Do them right.

I might have missed this gene. I'm not very "stuff" oriented. Sure I've got a garage full of bikes and bike crap, but almost all of it is old, really old, and none of it is high-end. A couple of refurbished fixies – built from discarded frames and spare parts – one twenty-five years old, the other almost forty. A bike trailer made from an old running stroller and wood scraps out of my attic. A pair of old mountain bikes that I cannibalized for parts. Even my "good" bike, my performance bike, was well under $1,000. Other than bikes, I don't really own much. No cell phone, no tablet, I have a laptop, but it isn't fancy. No stereo. A low-end running watch. A bit of sport-specific exercise apparel, but most of it is ancient. Fifteen year old cycling shoes. Twenty year old running shorts, and so on. I exercise in old, cotton t-shirts. Other than drinking too much mediocre wine. I really don't spend money at all.

People get satisfaction from treating themselves. Validated by their stuff. Retail therapy. The term seems to be associated with women, shopping for purses or shoes. But men do it too. Expensive stuff, larger purchases. We need more therapy.


This is pervasive in America. But it doesn't work for me. Buying nice stuff makes me feel fraudulent. Showy. Spoiled. It stresses me out. I worry about the expense. How else I could have used that money? Will I make the right choice? What if I'm let down by my purchase? My hobbies are free. Reading (library books). Writing. Instructing spin classes (I actually get paid for that one). I can't really tell if this has been intentional, but the result is that the things I do, the the way I spend my time, it's all free. But last weekend I bought a new bike.

Background: My two home-made fixed-gear bikes frustrate me. The old one, a 1975 Sears Freespirit, looks awesome. I stripped it to the metal. A flashy paint job. Rebuilt wheels. All recycled parts. The only expense was paint and handlebar tape. But it rides like crap. The geometry is a mess. Weighs a ton. Creaky. My newer bike, a 1989 Trek 1200, rides beautifully. Fits me like a glove. But the frame style is inappropriate for a fixed-gear rig. I can't adjust the chain tension. After a few months, the chain will stretch a millimeter or two. Fly off when I'm spinning 90 RPM. Dangerous in traffic, a pain in the ass when I'm a few miles from home. I need a wrench to reset my wheel, and I never have one with me. Long walks with a bike on my shoulder.

So last weekend, I bought a bike. A Specialized Langster. Fixed-gear. Not a high-end bike, but a huge jump from the antiques I've been riding. It shipped form California, so I just got it yesterday. I'm hoping I fall in love with it. Right now, it seems a bit above me, like dating a model. I tell myself that I deserve a decent bike, something that works, doesn't breakdown in traffic. I ride to work all year. Snow, rain, heat. But I can't make myself believe it.

Because I don't need a car to get to work, Susan and I have just one. That and a 20 year old beater truck that we hardly drive. But getting this new bike leaves me feeling like I'm cheating. In my mind, the things I own are supposed to be second rate. Refurbished. Home-made. Used (like my truck). I'm not sure where this came from. I grew up in a frugal family, but when we got stuff, we got it new. Even cars. And I'm not that handy, not really that capable of making stuff myself, keeping it working No one expects this of me anyway. Susan is constantly telling me to buy new clothes, new shoes. But it just doesn't feel right. The stuff I have, it works. My shorts are old and stained, but they fit. My shoes are worn, but no holes. I can make do.Why buy something new?

And when it comes to luxury items – like a a new commuting bike when I already have two (that suck), the word "deserve" comes up a lot. Why do I deserve a new bike. I'm so unaccustomed to buying stuff that when I think about replacing anything old, I agonize over it. A new MP3 player - $12 from Walmart – replacing the one with the broken clip. Can't attach it to my clothing. But it still plays. I tuck it into my underwear when I run. A luxury purchase! I need to convince myself that I'm worthy. I need to explore all options on how to make the old one work. I can only move forward once I'm sure that I can't fix it. At one point, I was even researching a home-made tattoo. Alcohol and ash. Fortunately, my brother talked me out of it.

The Langster needs work before I can truly own it. It's over-geared. 48/17 for folks who talk like that. Too heavy for in-town riding, for the southern Pennsylvania hills. By the time I get a decent spin going, I'm at a traffic light. I've got legs, but not those legs. After I adjust the gearing, I'm positive that this will be my last major purchase for years to come. There is nothing else I want. Nothing that I wish I had. Like Sean Penn's "Jeff Spicoli"character in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, my needs are simple. Books to read, time to write, roads to ride, trails to run. What more do I need. It's the adult version of "a cool buzz and tasty waves."

But even Spicoli had a surf board. Hobbies take gear. And I need to respect the fact that performance often takes better gear. Things wear out, and most stuff we buy today cannot be fixed. Plastic MP3 players, Lycra exercise gear. When it cracks, when it tears, it is done. Duct tape has it's limitations. Sometimes I need to suck it up and buy something. And when I do, I need to allow myself to enjoy it.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Validation

Me: Like a teenager waiting for the phone to ring. Right, teenagers don't talk on phones. It's all texting, Facebook, tweets, other medium I haven't heard of yet. I don't use any of these. I use email, but no one else does. The spammers and me.

I don't get out much. Maybe a bit reclusive. My "public appearances" are infrequent. Everyone knows who I am, but few people actually know me. Twice weekly, I instruct a early morning spin class. I brief my company's board of directors monthly. I run a handful of road races each year. Recently I added a Wednesday night outing with a running group. This is pretty much all. The only times when I'm on display, out in my community. Well, this and my blog. But that's anonymous. And every week or two, we'll get together with another family for drinks, dinner, that sort of thing. Quiet life. Not a ton of social interaction.

When I do something in public and do it well, I want someone to notice, to comment, to validify. Great spin class! You smoked that 5K! Excellent briefing! Wow, you really nailed that! How do you grill your hot dogs so perfectly? I'm looking for that pat on the back. The affirming email. An acquaintance to approach me, tell me that people are talking about how great I was. Seriously. This has to be some sort of mental illness. If I was on Facebook, I'd be tallying "Likes".

On Sunday, I posted an essay to my blog. Beer Running. I loved it. I started writing it as a promotion piece for a fitness oriented council I serve on, but it morphed into a heartfelt piece about my inability to connect with others. And then... Silence. These postings don't come easy. Lots of work. Heart and soul, innermost thoughts, all that crap. I'm looking for a nod. A "plus-one". A positive comment. "Your essay changed my life." This doesn't happen. And why should it? I don't do much of that either. I don't even know why people read my blog. It's all over the place. Fitness, mental illness, ranting about society, technology, teachers. In truth, I don't even know if anyone reads my blog. Lots of page views. From all around the world. But how long do they stay? Stumble in, think "what the hell is this?" Then quickly click out. 

And why do I care? I blog for myself. To work through my issues. Give myself space and a backdrop where I can ponder. To improve my writing. And it works. On the days I write, I feel better. More at peace. I've purged my demons. Opened a valve to let out some steam. But once I post the essay, the peace is gone. Now I'm just looking for someone to prop me up. Acknowledge that they read the essay. Argue a point. Anything. 

I have the same issue with spinning. I instruct the class that I want to take. The workout has purpose, the music too. But the workout and the music are unlike the other classes at my fitness center. Especially the music. Hard driving classic rock and punk. A bit of Reggae. Some middle-eastern folk music, weird kids' music. Anything. Except the radio pop and country the other instructors use. I started my own class because I was sick of other instructors calling off, sleeping in. This way I knew that if I showed up before dawn, the class would happen, the instructor would be there. Initially, I said I didn't care if anyone came. The point was the workout. Now I'm disappointed if only five people or six people show up. Disappointed if they don't walk out of the room mumbling "best.spin.class.ever."

And then I wait for the feedback. The feedback that never comes. An email. A phone call. "I never understood a balance sheet until I heard you explained it!" Or a link to someone's Facebook post. Telling the world how great I am. "Guys, you have to read this blog!" "... take this spin class!" It's pathetic, needy, high school.

I confessed this to my wife, Susan the other day. My need for external validation. BTW – Susan doesn't like it when I write about her on my blog. She feels that I make her seem too together, too evolved. But the fact is that she is more balanced and thoughtful than me. I am more instinctual. Primal. Impulsive. Childlike. And of course she told me exactly what I needed to hear, and what I already knew, but needed to be reminded. The only one who will give me the validation I need, the props I crave, is me. I am the only person I need to impress. Peace comes from actualization. Not from pats on the back. When I do my best, nail something – a run, a class, an essay, grilled meat – I should just soak it in, feel proud. And strive to improve next time. An audience of one.

A stupid validation joke from my past.

Me, handing my parking stub to the bartender: "Can you validate me?"
Bartender: "You're a wonderful person!"

Everyone is looking for it. I know this. I see posts on Google begging for plus-ones. To be circled. At work, I see posturing in meetings, bragging about achievements. This is the result of a lifetime of conditioning. Feedback from parents, teachers, employers. We are supposed to impress others. It's the American way. It might be the Malaysian way as well, I've never been to Malaysia. But I've learned from my below average educational achievements and my above average career that how others perceive me has a direct impact on how I feel about myself. How standards set by others dictate my self-worth.

Susan reminds me that I can only do my best. Once I've done that, I can coast. I don't need to worry anymore, I'm maxed out. Actualized. If it sucks, so be it. If no one else cares, so be that, too. I don't need to be awesome, better than everyone. Just as good as I can be. If I think I rocked a spin class, nailed a briefing, smoked a race, that's where peace lies, not in praise from others. But still, the phone doesn't ring. My email is full of spam, and I don't know what people write on Facebook. Wish they were writing about me.  

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Beer Running

I'm a solitary dude. My hobbies are reading, writing and trail running (alone). I work at a large community center. Pool, fitness center, child care. A hangout for kids, teens, adults and seniors. It is arguably the most public workplace in the county. And I have pretty much the only job that does not routinely interact with the public. On a quiet day, I can sit in my office for two, three, four hours without talking to single person. But I like people. At least occasionally. Once or twice a day I'll leave my office to walk around to enjoy a quick "dose of humanity." And then I'm good. Had enough people-time. Happy to be alone again.

A year ago, a handful of runners, runners who actually like to run with others, started a local Beer Runners chapter. The idea is that a group of people can bond over a run – three to four miles, and then bond some more over a beer (or two). Because my co-worker, Nancy, is close friends with one of the founding members, I've been receiving Beer Runner teaser emails for about forty-eight weeks. But because the Beer Runners run in a group, I've completely ignored them. For me, running is a meditative process. Silent, serene. Plus the Beer Runners run on roads. I keep to the trails. Easier on my joints, tougher on my muscles.

I used to be a very social person. Twenty-five years ago, I was the guy that everyone would call to see what was going on that night. Out with friends most nights a week. Lots of friends. A big group. We'd take over a bar. Mingle, joke, drink (lots), sometimes hook-up. Back then, beer running would have been one of my favorite activities. A social run, and then a chance to drink, mingle, hook-up. This is actually the sort of thing I commonly did. Lots of adult-league soccer. We'd play and then we'd party. Sometimes three nights a week. And that didn’t include the weekend, the big party nights.

But my personality has changed. I don't like big group get-togethers any more. Married and happy, I’m not looking to hook-up. I don't get drunk. I work hard to control my drinking. Two drinks, maybe three. Not six, eight, fourteen. Large parties annoy me, intimidate me. Mingling is a waste of time. Too shallow, too fake, too much effort. I'm much more of a one-on-one discussion person. I'm not sure what caused this radical personality change. It happened fairly suddenly. A four-month solo bike tour? Possibly head-trauma from a bike accident? These life-changing events happened within a year of each other. Regardless, since that time I’ve been much less of a people-person. Not a likely candidate for a social running group. Plus, they pound pavement. I run trails. I run alone.

Until last week. For a variety of reasons, none of which have anything to do with wanting to run in a group, I finally gave in and went for a Beer Run.

For the past year, my running schedule has been one moderate distance run on the weekend. Seven miles on the trail behind my house. A tempo run with short walking breaks when I pass horse-riders. This isn't laziness. I'd love to be a fifty mile per week runner, but things hurt. Knee bursitis when my mileage creeps above ten to twelve miles per week. Tendon issues, aches and pains. But improving my form has helped. Recently I noticed that after my seven mile run, things felt good. So I've decided to add an extra weekly run. Short and fast, mid-week. Which is when the Beer Runners run.

Last month, I ran a five mile road race. My first in a couple of years. I was happy with my overall time, but not how I got there. Stupidly, I left my watch at home. It had been so long since I ran on a road, I had no idea what pace to run. I figured that I would be better off pacing by feel, by breath than trying to use a watch. Ugly. Out fast with the lead-pack. Fast first mile split and then I fell off from there. (Disclosure: this is a small community race. I'm talking high sixes, not high fours). People passed me the rest of the race. I hit the time I was shooting for, but every mile was slower than the last. I've completely lost my concept of pacing during a race. Weekly beer runs will give me a chance to work on my pacing at a variety of distances. And gutting through the final miles after going out too fast.

But the primary reason I've started beer running is the beer. Well, the social part after the the run. I read an article in a old Runners' World magazine about running tribes. How group runs are a growing phenomenon. In all the pictures, everyone looks like they are having a blast. They look cool, connected. This is something I wanted to join. I miss my social days. The easy conversation over a beer. Meeting new people. Taking over a bar with a like minded crowd. Part of something big. But I don't miss getting drunk, hooking up.

Two weeks now and I'm hooked on the Beer Run. And surprisingly, the thing that has hooked me is the group-run. It was motivating, much like running a race. The first week I was planning on a light workout, a slow pace. I had already instructed a spin class that day. My legs were spent. But I went out thirty seconds faster than planned, and mid-way through the run, I caught two women pacing off me. I had to step it up - too competitive. Attack the hills. Hard tempo on the flats. No breaks on the downs. The three of us knocked another 30 seconds off our pace for the next mile and a half.

The social part is painful. Group situations shut me down. I know many of the runners, but not well. We don't hang out, aren't close. This is a mingling situation, and I don't remember how to do that. I'm sure that many of the beer runners endure the run for the social-time afterwards. For me it is more like I endure the social-time for the run. I'm socially awkward, sort of weird. I need practice, and I've decided the beer runners will be my training ground. We all have something in common – running, beer. It's an entry point.

After two weeks, my future-inclination is to complete the run and head home. End on a high-note. But I won't allow it. At some point I need to address my lost social nature. Now is the time. I plan to stick it out. Get to know people by the routine of my presence. Once I get past the mingling, friendships will form. I'll be part of the tribe. Cool, connected? Doubt it. But more social, less awkward. Looking forward to the run and the beer.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Moab

"Why do we live here?" We asked each other this question over ten years ago. Susan and I had recently returned from yet another trip to Moab, Utah. A small desert town surrounded by red sandstone mountains on the edge of Arches National Park. Susan was showing me some Moab properties she found for sale on the internet, dreaming about retirement. Truly dreaming, we had a two year old daughter at the time, and it would be another year before her brother was born. Retirement? We were just getting started. In Washington, DC, we were living a yuppie life. We had a senior, well-paying job at our respective companies, money for travel. Extra money for gadgets, toys. A nice, modest house on a semi-urban street. We were bored with it.

Each visit to Moab reminded us that we prefer open-space and small towns. Our hobbies were running, biking and hiking. Our friendships were tired. The only thing holding us back from moving away was fear – and jobs. Moab is remote. Hours from any metropolitan area. A continent away from our families and friends. Once a bustling mining town – uranium, primarily – now it is essentially a tourist destination. Not the sort of place to capitalize on our managerial careers. Not the kind of town to raise a family.

"So, why do we live here?" Before we had kids, DC was our playground. Great restaurants and bars, gyms, cultural activities. Rock creek park, a giant swath of nature in the middle of the city was a mile from our house. But with a toddler, it was all simply annoying. The noise, the crowds, hunting for street parking to go to the grocery store, driving to the suburbs to shop for anything else -- to use a decent library or go to a swimming pool. Going for a bike ride was like an urban war-game. Certainly not relaxing. Plus, the mosquitoes were intolerable. Asian Tiger Mosquitoes. They are truly demons. Out all day, eight months of the year. Ten minutes in the yard watering our garden would result in a dozen bites.

Looking at a map one evening, we were searching for a Moab-like town closer to DC. My job was flexible. A tech firm, we all communicated with instant messaging, even to the next office. It wouldn't matter if I was down the hall or two states away. But if I wanted to keep my job, I needed to maintain a presence in the office. My boss telecommuted from Los Angeles. He came to town for a week a month. Slept on the office floor, showered in the building's gym. It seemed pathetic, unsustainable. Rather than a week a month, I was planning on a day or two per week. My new home needed to be drivable from DC. Three to four hours max.

Moab is our center. The place where we feel at peace, whole. A secular dude-ville in the middle of Mormon country. A mecca. For hikers, bikers, and unfortunately 4X4 enthusiasts. A completely unique landscape. A geological oddity that exists no place else on earth. Undulating sandstone flats, towering "fins" of rock. And arches, thousands of them. Natural gaps formed in the rock. They create an arch of stone. The town is a mess. Nestled between two ridges, it is a meandering strip. If zoning exists, it isn't obvious. A haphazard splatter of commercial, industrial and residential abutting each other in coexistent tolerance. The irony is hard to miss. Natural beauty adjoining man-made blight.


Our map-quest was challenging. Many of the likely candidate-towns quickly dismissed. Asheville, NC? Too far. Mountain towns in West Virginia? Already turned into mini-DCs. The Delaware shore? Not really the life-style we were seeking. Eventually, we noticed Gettysburg, PA. Practically in our backyard. Less than two hours away, maybe a bit more in rush hour. An unlikely choice. Certainly not dude-ville. Conservative. Aging. Overweight. Yet, it had many of the attributes that appealed to us about Moab, and some extras as well. Small town, largely blocked from sprawling growth by a national park. Long vistas. Open-space. Runnable, bike-able. A family-town, well planned, too.

When Susan and I met, we each harbored an interest in living in a small town. We were both fans of the TV show Northern Exposure. It featured the interwoven and (figuratively) incestuous relationships in fictional Cicely, Alaska. A disparate cast of characters. Each celebrated for their flaws as well as their strengths. Relationships formed out of proximity. More like family than friends. And amenities? One restaurant, doubled as a bar. One grocery store, one radio station. You get the point. City life offers choice. And choice, at times, can be stifling. My friendships, all left over from college or from my adult soccer team. Everyone the same age, college educated, working professional jobs. Shared interests, backgrounds, race. A metropolitan area of five million people and I'm hanging out with clones of myself.

Last week, we were in Moab again. This was our sixth or seventh visit. It is a pain in the ass to get there. We fly on Southwest with credit card points. Undesirable flights into a less than ideal airport. With Southwest, our choices are Denver or Vegas non-stop and then a 6 hour car ride . Or Salt Lake with a Chicago layover and then 4 hours in the car. This trip to Moab, we brought our kids. We opted of the shorter drive and longer flying time. Still, it is a full day of travel. Longer and more complex than going to England or France. This was Sophie's third visit and Eli's second. But neither of them can remember being there before. Just what they've seen in photos. Perhaps kids catch their parents’ energy and interest, or maybe Moab is really that awesome, but as our trip was winding down, Sophie asked "Why don't we live here?"

While not Northern Exposure's Cicely, Gettysburg certainly offers a small-town experience. If you don't know someone, one of your friends will. Personality quirks are accepted, sometimes respected. Everything in my life is within a five-mile radius of my house. My job, my friends, shopping, library. We know our neighbors. Because Susan and I work at the town's primary community center, we know pretty much everyone. Every road is bike-able. Miles of running trails start at my back door. Obviously more than one restaurant, more than one grocery store, but the choices are pretty limited. It can be frustrating, but it is also freeing. My son Eli's friend "L" is from Namibia. Last year, "L" and his mom spent the whole summer there. Upon returning, "L" was complaining that the United States offers too much choice. Too many options. Too much stress. He missed the simplicity of his Namibian village. Like "L", we see limited choices as a positive. Make do with what you have, keep it simple.

The draw of Moab is strong. Every visit helps cement the feeling that we are going to retire there. The landscape, the desert, the rock. It appeals to us aesthetically. The hiking, without parallel. If there is a deal-breaker, it's the car culture. Tourists in RVs. The 4X4 crowd. Dune buggies. Lots of revving engines. Macho-men (and women). But it is a short walk to silence, to beauty, to that undefinable Moab-aura that sinks into our soul and gives us peace. And as near as I can tell, no Tiger Mosquitoes. At least not yet. 

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Portrait of a Runner

It all starts with the feet. The birth-place of injuries. I'm a life-long heel striker, and I've paid the price for it. When I started running in the seventies, proper running form didn't exist. Well, this isn't true, but my cross country coach never once mentioned form. He talked about strategy. "Crest the hill" was his favorite saying. But form? Nope. He never mentioned nutrition either, except one time after a Friday practice, he said "Don't drink too much beer tonight, kids, we have a meet in the morning." This was the seventies. Things were different.

My long, loping stride, launch from the toe, land on the heel was common, fine with my coach. And the result was nasty bouts with shin-splints and twenty years of knee bursitis. I can be stubborn. I always think I know what's best – for me, for others. I could never be convinced that my running form was related to my injuries. Running partners would complain about my foot-slapping gate. Running on a treadmill was an embarrassing racket. A recent reading of Christopher McDougall's "Born to Run" changed all of this. His early chapters talking about form and injuries caught me off guard. Made me think of myself. And his descriptions of trail running reminded me that wooded trails were my favorite place to run.

Eighteen months ago, I set out to work on my foot strike, my stride. Move to a mid/front sole landing, with a tight, gliding stride. And I think I've finally got it. I have the evidence. A few weeks ago, I ran a five mile road race. My first in two years. Since coming off an injury (knee bursitis, again), and rebooting my stride, I've stuck to the trails, even in races. Nothing on the road for 24 months. But this race is special to me. I was its first race director, and I had the privilege of laying out the course. A simple out and back with nothing but hills. It's not a very popular race, too hard for the 5K crowd, not long enough for the half-marathoners. 8Ks and 10Ks seem to be out of favor these days. At least in my region.


At the home stretch of this race a photographer was shooting the runners as we finished. He got a couple of good ones of me. One head on, and one from the side. With these, I'm able to evaluate my stride, my posture. And because it is the end of a race, when I'm tired, the data is more pertinent than when I set out – when proper form is foremost in my thoughts. Looking at these two photos of my finish, I'm elated but surprised to see good form. Upright posture, a perfect foot strike. Right on the ball of my foot. This success has been hard won. Switching strides thirty-five years into your running career takes effort, pain. Relearning what you know. Building new muscles. Back to basics, back to the start. Every run felt like my first. My calves hurt all the time. My foam-roller was my most important running equipment.

My pace took a two minute hit while I learned my new stride. Everything I ran was at a ten-minute pace. Not my normal eight. Short, long, it didn't matter. All runs came in with ten-minute splits. And my pace has been slowly creeping back down ever since. My overall time for this race was about thirty seconds off the time I posted four years ago. This race was 8:10 per mile, so I'm going to call myself done. I'm as fast a runner as I used to be, pre-switch, and now I have proper form.

Two years ago, I ran the same race and did fairly well. I can't compare times because the volunteer who set up the turn-around point missed by a quarter of a mile. Still, it was one of my faster race-paces since I left my thirties, down in the sevens. The same photographer was taking pictures at the finish and he got a clean one of me. I looked like hell. In pain, terrible form, and somewhat emaciated, skinny, old. Fast, but sickly.

I work at a community center with an awesome fitness center. Huge floor, comprehensive selection of weight machines and free weights. But I never used them. My exercise routine was spinning and yoga. I was disdainful of people who pumped weights. I didn't see the point. I was strong, flexible and fit. Most people at a fitness center are trying to lose weight. I couldn't have been any thinner, more lean. I felt that I was everything that everyone else was trying to achieve.

The guy who finished the race immediately after me was Brad, my co-worker's boyfriend. We were in the same age group, and he trash-talked me a bit before the race. There is a good photo of him finishing the race as well. And the contrast between his photo and mine is sickening. He is upright, buff, confident. Pumped up, almost cartoonish – like Captain America. He looked great. It doesn't matter that I beat him. He looked better losing. Much better. I was so shocked by the difference in the photos that I started lifting weights again.

Fitness-wise, this has been a ground-breaking two years for me. My entire adult life, I've exercised, a lot. But I've never really had an exercise program, a clear idea of what I was trying to achieve, (other than fitness). Running, mountain biking, soccer. Weight-lifting, swimming, yoga, spinning. I've been fairly fit, but without a plan. In and out of fads, focus areas. Essentially working however I wanted, whatever felt right. Without thought to an overall fitness goal. Imbalanced muscles – especially my quads – countless injuries.

After comparing myself to Brad, I wanted some muscle mass. I wanted to look fit, not just thin. And I'm a much healthier person for it. I began to put as much mental effort into my fitness program as the physical. I began researching workouts, proper form, muscle balance. I incorporated plyometric drills and compound lifts a la Crossfit. Stole bear-crawls and power-ups from Parkour. I inserted intensity drills into my spinning class after completing a HIIT certification. And I added body-weight exercises from www.bodyrock.tv (I go to that site for the workouts, really). Gone is the split-system weight training I used twenty years ago. My exercises now are much more in line with real-world activities, not just pressing weights.

The results have been remarkable. Not only do I look more fit, I am more fit. Better muscle balance, fewer exercise injuries, faster recovery. A stronger runner, more of an athlete. Body awareness, tighter, sturdier, stable. This all helps my trail running, and it helps me age. Now in my fifties, I feel that my fitness is still improving, or once again improving after a long break. It gives me hope that in ten or twenty years, I'll still be running trails, working out, instructing spin classes. My current retirement-career goal is to be a personal trainer to the over-fifty crowd. Not for people just wanting to tone up or lose some weight. Folks who are looking for true fitness. Setting new goals, stretching to achieve them. But for now, I'm working on myself.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Racism

On the day I ran in my town’s “Race Against Racism”, the big sports news was that Los Angeles Clippers’ team owner Donald Sterling chastised his girlfriend for hanging out with African-Americans. To him, this was embarrassing. To paraphrase his comments, "fine, hang out with them in private, but don't do it in public, people will talk." From an eighty-one year old rich, white dude, this probably shouldn’t be all that surprising. Undeniably, this attitude was common a half a century ago. Walk into any affluent country club in the United States and my guess is you will be able to find at least one racist octogenarian.

I have always considered racism as a crime of ignorance. To believe that a group of people, a specific race, a descendant of a different national or cultural origin, is inferior, I’ve assumed the racist must have limited encounters with people from the group he is stereotyping. This isn't the case with Sterling. He is constantly surrounded by African-Americans. They are his employees, his critics, his marketers, his peer-group. Sterling is surrounded by some of the smartest, most successful, accomplished African-Americans in the country. Even his girlfriend, the recipient of his racist remarks, is of African-American descent.

In this case, Sterling simply seems to be a jerk. Full of hate. I'd like to think this is a generational problem. A point of view that will eventually die-out with the handful of older people still harboring racist view-points, but I know this isn't true. I went to college in Lynchburg, VA in the 1980s. Not exactly the deep-south, but southern enough, remote enough to seem that way. Strong racism was prevalent. At parties within the community, I continually met racist people. I met Klan members. I met a guy my age who tried to argue that the downfall of slavery was unfair to white people –slave-ownership was our God-given right.

But it isn't just a southern problem either. A large portion of the students at my school came from northern states. New York, New Jersey, Connecticut. There was heavy recruitment from that region. I found that many of these people were just as racist as the folks from Lynchburg. The only difference is they were less public about it. While growing up in the suburbs of Washington, DC, I didn't realize these attitudes still existed. My high school had a small population of African-Americans, but no one I knew treated them differently from anyone else.

Since leaving my naïve, sheltered upbringing, I've learned that racism is still prevalent throughout the country, the world. In this country, religious intolerance is on the rise. Just this morning, I read a quote from popular tea-party pol, Sarah Palin: “Waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists.” The queen of clever language. Is she saying that we will not coddle terrorists, or is she saying that we intend to torture people into becoming Christian? I’d like to put forth the reminder that not all terrorist organizations are non-Christians. Our homegrown terrorist group, the KKK, morphed into a Protestant organization during the 1900s. Persecuting, terrorizing, attacking those who were Catholic, Jewish, immigrant or black.

The world is growing smaller. We are more interconnected than ever before. We interact on social media with people from all cultures, people around the world. Yet many are still holding on to their old stereotypes. Donald Sterling is entitled to his beliefs, but he is also entitled to the fire-storm that has flown his way. Only by holding accountable those who spout bigoted, narrow views, will society continue to make strides against prejudice. There can be no “they”, no “them”. Each individual must be judged on his or her own merit. When this is ignored, racism persists. We each have a responsibility to speak out against bigotry. To challenge those who judge without basis. This is true for Donald Sterling, for Sarah Palin, the guy at the country club, the guy down the street.