Saturday, June 28, 2014


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


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


"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.