Monday, July 27, 2015

Tidal Wave City

A crashing wave, packing unusual force and energy. The water hits the beach and runs. Walls breached. Houses swamped and washed away. A senseless loss. Built too close to the sea. But it's expected. Tidal Wave City has run its course.

This is a beach game. An extravagant sand castle built just below the high-tide mark. Moats, roadways, out-buildings, walls. Walls, decorated with sea shells. Hours to complete the city. Until it gets washed away.

This game has been going on for centuries. Probably millenia. When prehistoric tribes came to the beach to fish, to collect salt. And played with the name Tidal Wave City? For at least for forty-five years. My brother Dana and I might have made up the name. Or possibly we got it from some older kids or even my father. Regardless, now I play it with my kids. And they will probably play it with their kids. At least if parent/child interactions don't change too much.

My father didn't play with me on the beach. Sometimes we would fish together, but we wouldn't play. I don't remember any other dads playing with their kids either on beach vacations. People have changed. Parents playing with their kids is no longer unusual. Especially digging in the sand. Either the adults are less mature or less inhibited. I'm guessing the latter. We are saddled with a much smaller sense of propriety today than our parents and grandparents were. Personally, I like digging in the sand, building Tidal Wave City. It's more fun than fishing, especially since there are no fish left in the ocean.

I'm at North Carolina's Outer Banks right now, Nags Head Beach. We are as far south as possible before it is no longer considered Nags Head. It's pretty quite here. This is where development turns into national seashore. Pennsylvania schools let out exceptionally early, the season hasn't even started yet. The shops are still hiring and many of the rentals are empty. We pretty much have the beach to ourselves.

The last time I visited was twenty-five years ago. Approaching this vacation, I was told time and again that I wouldn't recognize the Outer Banks, things have changed so much. This is true, I don't recognize anything. But the last time I was here it was truly a beach vacation. And a drinking vacation. Up at ten a..m., volleyball on the beach until three or four, beers until bedtime. We didn't get out much to explore the town.

I'm sure we went to some restaurants, but I don't remember which ones. I don't remember how the town looked. But at the time I was in marathon training. I needed to log a shortish “long-run.” Something less than ten miles. I don't remember having any trouble finding a quite place to run. My recollection of that outing is a sleepy beach-town. Half built neighborhoods and a wide sandy shoulder. It isn't like that now. Every inch is of these islands is developed, right down to the park. A bike path adjoining the road is pretty much the only running option now. This vacation, all of my runs have been on the quiet, almost empty beach.

One of the constants in Tidal Wave City is that a portion of the population pushes closer to the sea. They are the 'smart' ones. The outliers. The ones with the prime real estate. The best view. All human building is temporary, but some is more temporary than the rest. Although Tidal Wave City is a child's game of destruction – a game with a certain and inevitable outcome – it is also allegorical for humanity. It is human nature to want a home in the most beautiful spot. Or the most useful spot. But it is foolish to think that our ever evolving planet is not going to change. It is the responsibility of humanity to hedge its decisions with knowledge. Those outliers are always the first to go.

When I look at a map of the Outer Banks, I see a real-life Tidal Wave City. It's a thin strip of land, and it hasn't always been here. And undoubtedly, it will be gone again. The other day I was watching a documentary about the changing nature of the Currituck Sound – the body of water that lies between the northern Outer Banks and the North Carolina mainland. In this documentary, they showed how inlets opened and closed over time in the peninsula. They showed where the last inlet closed up “for good.” This change was so recent, it is remembered. “For good” implies forever, and this is simply wishful thinking.

The next time an inlet opens on the Outer Banks, billions of dollars in property and infrastructure will wash away. It will be national news. People will blame the government for not taking the proper precautions. The Governor will appeal for disaster relief. And the insurance companies will get a financial bail-out. This will be an unforeseen act of God. Except we already know it's coming.

Tidal Wave City happens again and again. The rebuilding New Orleans; the houses littering the slopes of Mount St. Helens since it's last eruption; San Francisco; New York City. It is all temporary. These are places where nature will ultimately win. It may be next month or it may be next century, but calamity is as certain as the next high tide.

Humans are destined to repeat this mistake. We posses an innate ability for optimism, especially to get something we really want. Maybe we just secretly enjoy the destruction that comes at regular intervals from the choices we make. I know I enjoy watching the waves inch closer and closer to Tidal Wave City. And when that exceptional wave breaks and runs, I always feign disbelief. My kids and I shout out “Ugh!” As if we are all bummed out that our hard work has washed away. But really, this is the point of the game.

Friday, July 3, 2015


"The address is underCRUST... no, it's a "dot" not an "at"... UNDERcrust, it's a play on words..."

I should have a card.

I rarely give out my blog address verbally – thank God. My blog isn't intended for local consumption. It's not something that I talk about around town. I'm opinionated, counter-culture, irreverent, pissed-off, outspokenly not-Christian. I have a checkered-past – mental illness and substance abuse; It's all there in my writing. Easier to keep private than to explain. My town is small, judgmental, very Christian. Like a small town from a sixties-TV show. Only it's bigger. But everyone still knows each other. Or knows of each other. And the latter makes things far worse from a gossip perspective.

I've been blogging for eighteen months. Writing consistently for a bit longer. And I've improved. A lot. Writing better, cleaner, clearer. Taking esoteric topics and poking at them until they tell a story. In that story, I include reflections about culture, about life. But mostly, reflections on myself. It's intensely personal and often revealing. Best offered to an anonymous crowd. On-line people I'll never meet.

Undercrust isn't for everyone. My posts are long, sometimes deep, or raw, or sad. They are crafted to inspire thought, evoke emotion. The social-media population prefers short and easy. Pictures, sound-bites, video-loops. Reading my blog takes time and introspection. There is an investment. And a possibility of wasted time. I believe that reading Undercrust is worth the effort, but of course, since it's my blog, it's natural for me to think this.

I joined a writers' group. It's a loose group with dozens of members, and a core of eight or ten who show up on a somewhat regular basis. We have a standing Wednesday night meeting in a bar. But only one person drinks alcohol. Everyone else has water. I'm not sure why we don't meet at the library. I suppose I'm part of the core, even though I attend less than half the meetings. The members enjoy my writing, and seem to respect my commentary. This is important to me. I see these people as real writers. Writers of achievement. Writers who have completed novels, have worked in the industry. They actually earn money by writing. Professional writers. My twelve-year-old daughter has won prize money in three contests. She's made $125 dollars with her writing. That's $125 more than me.

"So, it's What's that mean?" It's a valid question.

When I first built my blog, I was mostly writing commentary. I envisioned parlaying my blog-posts into a weekly syndicated column called Curmudgeon. I would be that old guy with bushy eye-brows in the Sunday paper who complains about everything. I'm not that old, but my eyebrows, if left unchecked, will bush with the best of them. Fortunately for me, every URL playing off the word "curmudgeon" was taken. I was forced to do some actual creative reflection. To come up with something unique.

Who am I? Or really, who am I not? Not the upper-crust. The wealthy people with a sense of propriety and decorum. A group that gains status from hanging with a uniformly affluent crowd. This isn't me. I'm polite, but I'm disdainful of protocol. Rules should be questioned before followed. Status from wealth is snobbery. I'm the opposite of the upper-crust. But "lower-crust" isn't right. It is too obvious. It implies low class. Not the image I wanted to convey.

Undercrust: It suggests something hidden. Inaccessible. Protected behind a shell. The flavorful part of a baked good. The part that isn't on display to the public, but is anticipated all the same. Something to be excavated, to be mined. Plus, the word is barely in use. It is word that I made up, that I own. Less thought went into the name than all this. It just felt right. But it is the perfect name for what my writing has become. Which is not as much societal commentary as I expected. For the most part, I'm engaged in self-analysis. Also, I keep my eyebrows trimmed.

Over eighteen months, I've generated a boat-load of content. Probably 200,000 words. Enough for two full books. Each essay stands alone, so there is no need to read my entire blog to enjoy a post, to get the point. I haven't spent any effort on web-metric tracking, so I don't really know who reads my blog. I've had thousands of page hits, but I don't know if these people actually read anything. Or how many ever come back. Based on comments and discussions, I'd estimate my readership at somewhere between four and seven consistent followers. This includes my wife. Pretty lame. Not much pay-back for a thousand hours of work.

At my writers' group the other night we talked about blogging. I'm the resident blogger, so I made sure I was there. Actually most of the more experienced writers have blogs, but as far as I know, I'm the only one who writes exclusively to blog. And even this isn't true. Principally, I write to understand myself. And I write to try to create something beautiful, or worthwhile, or interesting, or even funny. But with the exception of a few pieces winding up on the Op Ed page of my local paper, the only place my writing is ever published is on my poorly followed blog.

I'm frustrated with my writing career. Like Ray Kinsella in Shoeless Joe (aka Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams) I overly subscribe to the "they will come" mindset. The only requirement is to provide a quality product, everything else is handled by the universe. Faith, hard work and skill are rewarded. Of course, this is bullshit. There are a bazillion talented musicians, writers, dancers and artists who never make a ripple in the pond of society's collective awareness, while Ann Rice – of vampire fame – becomes a household name.

Exposure includes an aspect of luck, but it is mostly due to marketing. At my writers' group session on blogging, one of the real writers suggested that my lack of marketing is holding me back. She says I need to be on Facebook and Twitter at a minimum. Google as a social media platform is limited. This is all probably true, but I lack the energy, the interest and the understanding to do anything about it. I can't even figure out how to link my blog to a Facebook page. It isn't how I want to spend my time. I'd rather write. Or hike with my family. Or go running. Or read. Maybe I'm too lazy to "make it" as a writer.

I'm not supposed to care about followers. When I started blogging, I wrote for myself. Creating something I was proud of, creating art. My writing was inspired. My web page was beautiful. Clean and sparse, just like the essays I published on it. This was enough for me. But somewhere along the way, I started looking for props, for praise. Really I should say craving it. Page hits and followers are an obsession. I don't use this word lightly. I suffer from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, I know obsessed. A lingering buzz in the back of my brain. Distracting me from being fully present in the rest of my life.

A couple of weeks ago, heading out on a beach vacation, I changed my Google and Facebook passwords. I created a random string of characters and posted them on my desktop. They cannot be memorized, at least not by me. I spent my beach week without social media. And since I've returned, I haven't touched my passwords. The only computer I can use to access my Google and Facebook accounts is at home. At home where I have my wife and kids to distract and occupy me. Where my hobbies – writing and running – keep me balanced. Where I have chores and responsibilities and limited time at a computer. My social media presence is collapsing.

I still don't understand how social media is supposed to launch me as a writer. I don't really expect to be discovered on Facebook, to be offered a book deal. But at the same time, everything I read tells me that this is a crucial step. There must be other formulas for success. Preferably one that involves simply living my life, and then writing about it. Not obsessively posting it and reviewing it on internet platforms. So far, this formula is elusive to me. I suspect that building a writing career includes networking and submitting manuscripts – just like the old days. With my new-found space, the time recouped from breaking social media's grip, I intend to revisit these options, again and again. I'll find the method that works for me. Works in a way that – like my blog name, Undercrust – just feels right to me.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Jenn, Lance & Me

Jenn Shelton keeps popping up in my life. You might be thinking "Who's Jenn Shelton?" She's a minor celebrity. A world-class ultra-marathon runner and a pretty good writer. She had a bit part in Christopher McDougall's massively bestselling Born to Run. Mostly as comic relief. The book made it seem like when she wasn't winning races, she was either lost, or drunk, or wiping out. I read an interview with her once where she said she was unfairly portrayed in Born to Run. To paraphrase: “Maybe everything written about her was technically correct, but it still wasn't fair. And not great for her career.”

Possibly, it wasn't fair, but I doubt it was bad for her career. The very fact that I read an interview with her suggests that Born to Run put her on the map. Maybe not in the ultra community, but definitely for the rest of the running world. I read Born to Run years ago, but suddenly I'm bumping into her left and right, figuratively, of course.

Last week, on a beach vacation, I read Scott Jurek's Eat & Run, his 2012 autobiographical account of his unlikely ultra career. In this book, he name-drops Shelton three or four times. As if he's trying to capture some of her status. The irony of this is that in McDougall's 2006 book, Shelton is portrayed as a star-struck kid when she meets Jurek. Now Shelton is the star. Wholesomely pretty, always smiling in pictures. Self-deprecating, acting like she doesn't have her life together. Living day-to-day, but on her own terms. She represents everyone's wild little sister. She's one of the few marketable ultra-runners.

When I returned home from the beach, I had two Trail Runner magazines waiting in my mailbox. Six weeks ago, I grabbed one in a book-store. I loved it and decided to subscribe. This always ends the same way. I'll buy a magazine at a newsstand for an absurd price. I'll see that I can subscribe for a whole year for a few dollars more than I just paid for the one issue. I wait and wait, and when the magazine arrives, there are two of them. The new month and a copy of last month, the one I've read three times while waiting for my subscription to start. Not only did I overpay for the first copy of the magazine, but I wasted eight percent of my new subscription on a magazine I've already memorized.

Jenn Shelton is a contributing editor for Trail Runner. And so far – two magazines worth of content – a pretty good one. An engaging, clean, thoughtful writer. In the July issue, she writes about a Grand Canyon running adventure with Lance Armstrong. If I have a hot-button, Armstrong is it. OK, I have more hot-buttons than I can count, but Armstrong is high on my list. Before I even started reading the article, I was crafting a letter to the editor in my head – full of contempt and smug self-righteousness. This kept my mind occupied on a scorchingly hot eight mile run.

Armstrong isn't a hero, he's a cheater. "Everyone else does it" isn't an excuse. He has no place in competitive sports, even for recreation. Gains made on performance enhancers don't disappear when the cheating stops. He dumped his wife after she nursed him through cancer. He dumped his girl-friend, Sheryl Crow, when she got cancer. I'm a counter-culture type – disdainful of those embraced by mass-media and the rest of the masses. Lance Armstrong was the anointed "prince of the fitness crowd." With his EverythingSTRONG brand and his stupid yellow bracelets. It made my eyes roll, and my head shake every time his name was mentioned, which, at his peak-popularity, was several times a week. I enjoyed his fall from grace. His clipped wings, his plummet from the clouds.

See? I'm really down on this guy. Judging him without really knowing anything about him. Unfair? That never stopped me before.

Eight miles is a long time to mull over a single subject. Eventually I softened a bit. The trail racing community hasn't banned Lance, so he has joined it. And why not? It's a perfect fit. The sport is littered with broken souls and checkered pasts. Substance abusers trading one addiction for a (questionably) healthier one. Runners who have hit the woods, not just for solitude, but to escape society. The mentally ill, the lonely souls, ex-cons, the chronically injured. It seems like every time I read something about the trail running, I'm reading about redemption.

I fit right in. A long history of alcohol abuse, social anxiety, OCD, and Tourettes. I've been a lifelong runner, but as a trail runner, I feel like I've finally found my sport. I might even say I found my identity. But this is something I work to avoid – gaining identity from activities. I've spent too much of my life putting myself in boxes : a runner, a writer, a drinker, a liberal, a guy with OCD. I took these definitions, I drew a circle around each of them, and I said "these are me". Over the past few years I've worked to switch my thinking. To see myself as something more than the contents of these circles.

There is something about trail running that appeals to the beaten-up crowd. The misfits who feel uncomfortable in polite company. Those who prefer to compete against themselves rather than against others. Pace is all but meaningless on an ungroomed trail. Speed is sacrificed to technical-ness. The ability to navigate through a rock-garden without turning an ankle. Crossing an ice-glazed stream without dunking your feet. And of course there are the hills. Hills on the roadway are rounded down to save gas, to protect car engines. Natural wooded trails tend to follow the most efficient route. Sometimes this includes switchbacks, but usually the trail is a straight line up a hill. The fastest way to the top.

The hills and terrain can be brutal, even scary. And for many (most?) trail runners, this makes a running path even more appealing. There is an element of metaphorical self-flagellation in the trail community. Embracing punishing routes as preferable, maybe even enjoyable. As if the purpose of the run is to serve penance for our weaknesses, our vices. Society won't punish us, so we need to punish ourselves.

My beach trip last week was to North Carolina's Outer Banks. There is a park there that consists of nothing but sand dunes. All of my runs in North Carolina were run barefoot on soft sandy beaches. Uneven foot-strikes and poor traction. An attempt to toughen myself up. But my favorite run of the week was hill repeats on the dunes. Simultaneously burning my quads and calves with effort. And the soles of my feet with scorching sand.

I saw hundreds of runners in North Carolina. Virtually all of them on the bike path adjoining the main roadway. I saw a few on the beach, but in hard-packed sand down by the water. None in the soft, uneven sand where the tide rarely reaches. And certainly no one running the dunes. I have to believe that if Jenn Shelton or Scott Jurek or even Lance Armstrong were there, they would be blowing past me with a big grin on their collective faces. Running away from – or possibly chasing after their demons.

After reading Shelton's essay, I'm unable to write a rebuttal. There is nothing to rebut. Jenn is not apologetic for Armstrong. In fact she's kind of mean. She calls him a prima donna. A guy motivated by a soft bed and a good meal. Not as mentally tough as the trails-heads in her circle. But she also calls him a friend. She is not judgmental of his past sins. They have nothing to do with their relationship. They like to run, to joke, to poke fun at one another. Besides being a great runner and a fine writer, Jenn seems to be a pretty good person as well. I'm glad I'm getting to know her.


Sunday, June 14, 2015

Teresa Gunn

“Hey Teresa, can I buy you a beer?” This was a safe question in the mid-eighties. Beer was cheap. Miller or Bud, maybe a Heineken for an extra fifty cents. No getting blind-sided with a Dogfish Head IPA or a Troegs Mad Elf at eight bucks a bottle. It was a simpler time. Beer was refreshing, maybe a way to a buzz. For flavor, you ate food.

Teresa was a rock-star – at least to me. A staple of the DC punk band circuit. Leader of the Teresa Gunn Group. She was hot. Pretty, womanly, worldly. Eight or ten years older than me, in her mid-thirties. I had a huge crush on her. My ex-girlfriend had shared a joint with Teresa in the bathroom at her most recent show. Now this was my moment to bask in Teresa's glow. It didn't matter that I was on a date. That date was disintegrating anyway. I was drinking too much.

Part Blondie, part Patty Smith with a sprinkling of jazz thrown in. I never understood why Teresa didn't break out into a national act. Her recordings were clean and professional. Her stage presence, charismatic and assured. She was the real-deal. And she was playing in a shitty little bar to forty people. Half of them the group I came with. She was about to call it quits. But right now, she was having a beer – with me.

Before she packed it in, she rebooted. She took one last shot at stardom, at a music career. She created Urban Burlesque. An attempt to catch that metal/punk wave swelling at the end of the eighties. Bands like L7, an all-girl heavy metal group with a strong punk following. Joan Jett, rising from her ashes with yet another hit and now a heavy metal sound. Teresa put out a single, a pair of songs clearly worthy of airplay. She moved to California to make it big. And I never heard of her again.

Until recently.

And not for lack of effort.

Once the world wide web was up and running, anonymity became difficult. Everything is on the web. Anyone with any notoriety at all is on Wikipedia. My father, a mid-level government appointee for a few years under the George H.W. Bush administration has a Wiki page. Anyone who ever recorded anything, including my 9 year old son, is on Youtube. When I google myself, my life comes up. Past jobs, my resume, road-race times, quotes made to the newspaper. But not Teresa Gunn. Until very recently. It took almost two decades for her to show up.

Four years ago, I was certified as an indoor cycle instructor. I started an early morning spin class at a local fitness center. This entails coaching a one-hour workout two mornings per week, plus uncounted (and uncompensated) hours pulling together play-lists of songs for my classes. Mining through thousands of songs from my music collection, trying to create a fresh and motivating set of music. At age forty-eight, I was suddenly re-immersed in music in a way I haven't been for decades.

In the eighties – in my twenties – tape-mixing was one of my favorite pastimes. Hours spent splayed on the floor in front of my stereo. Recording songs from diverse bands in unrelated musical genres that nevertheless flow. Songs, once paired, seem as though they they have belonged together for eternity. Mixes to distract me on my morning commute. Mixes to keep me company on road-trips. And mixes to energize me on the way to races.

Over the past four years, I have sifted through and incorporated a vast and eclectic library of music. Pop hits, punk classics, country twang, classic rockers, show tunes, even kids' music. It is only natural that I would want to include some of my favorite songs from the eighties DC club scene. Songs that few have heard, yet remain some of the best music I know. The Slickee Boys' Jailbait Janet; Tru Fax and the Insaniacs' King of Machines; Martha and the Muffins' Echo Beach. These songs I've used. I bought them on Teresa Gunn? She's not out there. The only Teresa Gunn songs I listened to for more than twenty years was the music I owned – that one Urban Burlesque single. And I've only listened to those two songs over the last few years. After I grabbed a turntable out of a recycling pile.

So she's been lost – at least to me. Each time I googled her name, I wouldn't find anything useful. A couple of old reviews, positive reviews, from DC's city paper. That's it. No videos on Youtube. No followup band. No greatest hits CD. Not even songs for sale on

My assumption is that at the promising start of her career, Teresa expected fame and fortune. She expected to become a rock star. A real one, with more than a small local following in Washington, DC. She was doing more than creating art, more than jamming with her friends in a bar. She was living a lifestyle. Creating an image. She was hard at work, and watching less talented acts “make it” instead of her.

I know this feeling. My “art” is writing personal essays. Taking an arcane topic – like Teresa Gunn – and poking at it until it gels. Until it paints a picture. Often a picture of society, or a bit of society, but invariably a self-portrait as well. It's a popular format for long-form magazine articles, which is what I aspire to write. Frequently, I'll read an article and think “I can do better than that. I have done better than that.” Like most artists, those of us who never transcend the art-as-a-hobby-phase, I wonder why a few break out, while I'm forced to keep my day job.

I'm not looking for fame or fortune. But I would like to make my living doing something I truly love. Change my avocation into a vocation, as the saying goes. I won't do this as a spin instructor. The ten or so people who regularly take my class cannot possibly support me and my family. But as a writer? Maybe that is a reasonable goal. And so I write.

This is about more than making some money. At age fifty-two, I'm feeling mortal. I'm wanting to leave a mark on the world. My footprint so far is very small, and not so deep. A wife, two children, small extended family, a handful of friends. Some, especially my wife, would argue that my dedicated career as the finance manager of a non-profit community center is enough of a mark to leave behind. That I have impacted a whole town. But to me it feels more like a job than a calling. Maybe I'm important to the organization, to the town, but I'm certainly replaceable. So I write.

A year or so ago, I found Teresa. Well, I found her website, and then I found her. We exchanged a few emails. I asked her where I could find her digital music. During this exchange, I learned about what she was now doing with her life. Because it is well written, I'm not going to try to improve on her biography:

In 1998 Teresa turned her artistry into social action through the founding of Musicians for Education, a collective of artists of the same heart and vision. She developed an original music program called "Street of Dreams". Street of Dreams has become a fully accredited high school to college bridge program for kids who are trapped in the juvenile justice system due to the generational effects of drug addiction, alcoholism and poverty. The children served by Street of Dreams come from homelessness, incarceration and foster care. Gunn's devotion to providing creative and educational support to children in the "system" has produced a highly innovative and successful arts-education model.

Failing as a rock star has let Teresa become a true star. The most important person in the lives of the kids who have graduated from her program. I still love her music, the few songs that I can find. Teresa pointed me to a handful posted on Youtube. One of my favorites, Sister Digs the Sharpies, has made its way into my spin class. My riders haven't commented on it yet, but in time they will. One of them will ask about it, and I'll spout off about how the great Teresa Gunn Group was the best that DC had to offer in the eighties. I might even mention Street of Dreams.

The lack of Teresa Gunn Group and Urban Burlesque on the internet is proof to me that Teresa has found something more important to her than her music. As a blogger, I understand self-absorption, self-promotion. This is where I live. Teresa doesn't do this, not with her prior rock-star life. She has moved on to something bigger, more important, more impactful. I doubt this is where she thought she would land, just as working in a community center isn't where I expected to be at this point. While I would love more Teresa Gunn music to listen to, Street of Dreams is clearly more important.

Check out the Music for Education/Street of Dreams website.

Friday, May 29, 2015

A Girl and a Band – my memoir of finding Sonic Youth

Sonic Youth – so cool, they’re hard to like. The band started in 1981. But it took eleven years to catch my attention. Before the internet, discovering a new band was hit or miss. DC's one 'alternative' radio station, WHFS was gearing up for its corporate sellout in 1983, and its ultimate twenty year decline. The least commercial rock station in town, I had it on all the time. To the best of my knowledge, they never played a Sonic Youth song.

A common way to get hooked on a new band was to hear it at a friend's house or in their car. Of my friends, I was the most avant garde, the most experimental. Many liked the post-punk alternative music we heard on WHFS, but they were also still stuck in the seventies and sixties. Hippy music and classic rock. Until I caught on to Sonic Youth, it was unlikely that any of us were going to hear them.

Or you needed to read about a new band in a music magazine. For me, Spin Magazine was the most likely source for this. I now know that Spin wrote about Sonic Youth, and they even had a band member, Kim Gordon, write articles about other artists. But in the eighties, after reading about a band, if you wanted to listen, you still needed to buy the music, typically a whole record album from a store, to give it a try. I was never sold.

And every now and then you might hear a new band in a bar or a club. Played as filler music before the band came on, or in between sets. But Sonic Youth was a New York thing. The DC bands and clubs just weren't into them.

So it took me eleven years to actually hear the band. Long after they stopped representing the 'youth' in their name. In 1992, most of the band members were well into their thirties. By this time their name was familiar to me. In fact, my brain made a mis-connection. I thought they were the same group as Musical Youth. The early eighties pop-reggae band who had a hit with "Pass the Dutchie." So in truth, Sonic Youth was not a band I was seeking out.

* * * * * *
I met Stacey in Spanish class. Yes, as a thirty year old, I decided to retake Spanish. I took it in high school, but none of it stuck. I struggled with the language, and I battled with my teacher, Mrs. Eddy. I even managed to get suspended as a result of some verbal sparring I engaged in with Mrs. Eddy. She called me a baby, I called her a bitch. My excuse is that I was seventeen.

I was bored. I wanted to meet some new people. I was looking for some redemption from my horrible high school experience. In a language class, not only would I be exposed to a new crowd, make some friends, but I would do something useful at the same time. It worked out well. While my Spanish skills only improved marginally, I met the woman I would date for the next five or six months.

It was never a great relationship. It teetered on the edge of something pretty good and something terribly awkward. We didn't fit together at all. She was hard for me to read. Large areas of her ‘being’ seemed off limits, behind a fence. She was a feminist in a way that I didn't understand. Talking about sex seemed verboten  I felt like she thought it was disrespectful towards women. She also seemed hipper than me. Only two years out of college, she was still building her life, still deciding who she was going to be, what she was going to do. But around her I felt pedestrian, a sellout with my corporate job. Lacking control – I often drank too much, and became embarrassing at parties. She hated my friends, she thought they were yuppies.

The relationship wasn't going to last, so I broke it off. Poorly. Over the phone. There were many aspects about dating Stacey that were positive, but for me, two things stand out as her lasting legacy. One is how she sat me down after the break up, when I was getting my leather coat back from her. She gave me some feedback on how immature it was to call off a half year relationship over the phone. I think her exact words were "Sit down, I'd like to give you some feedback on that breakup..." One last time, proving that she was more together than me.

Her other legacy is turning me on to Sonic Youth.

We saw the documentary The Year Punk Broke in a small, grungy , independent theater in DC. It was a sunny Saturday afternoon, and simply going into this empty, dirty, beat up theater felt like a very punk/New York thing to do. I rarely went to movies, and I never went to documentaries. I saw being in a theater on a sunny afternoon as blasphemy.

To "sell" the movie to me, Stacey said there would be lots of scenes with Nirvana. The movie is made from footage of a tour that Sonic Youth took with Nirvana in 1991 – the year Nirvana released Nevermind – the year punk broke into mainstream rock. Watching this movie turned me into a Sonic Youth fan.

I guess I’d call Sonic Youth a punk band. But not in the way that any other band is a punk. The music is noise. Artfully crafted noise. It appeals to some, but probably not to many. At times it is musical, even poppy, but mostly it is dissonant, scraping, agitating. There are melodies, but usually they are subtle. For me, the music is about energy.

When I think of Sonic Youth, I think of fire, various types of fire. Songs that remind me of uncontained house-fires – burning with building intensity until they explode into mayhem. Songs that are like igniting a charcoal grill with far too much lighter-fluid – a flash, a roaring flame until the fuel is spent. And then settling into a simmer. Or even songs like a campfire on a very wet day. Smoldering, on the edge of combustion, creating ash, but never making the leap into a real fire.

I'm rather unimpressive as a Sonic Youth fan. My intersection with the band was brief. I only own a few albums. The most commercial albums they made. The three albums released just prior to my 'discovery' of them – Daydream Nation, Goo and Dirty. But these three albums are fantastic, and probably represent the high-point of their career. I'm sure they are dismissed by real Sonic Youth fans as their sellout albums. Their attempt to reach a broader market. A mistaken desire to bask in some corporate cash. But typically what appears to be a sellout is an acknowledgment of greatness. The band hits stride, the world notices, and major labels are attracted. A chance for the suits to cash in on all the hard work. The hard work already completed. Like Nirvana's Nevermind. Like Green Day's Dookie.

Most of my music listening today is centered around my spin class. Twice per week, I pull together an hour of music designed to motivate, educate, shock and appease a cross-section of athletes. They range in age, backgrounds and musical tastes. The Sonic Youth songs I use most frequently, Dirty Boots, Tunic and Sugar Kane, are not typical material for spin class play-lists. At least where I live. But they are long songs that build in intensity and have enough musicality in them that no one ever complains. Some other songs I have used, Kissability, Mildred Pierce and Orange Rolls, Angel's Spit, are a little rougher. When I use these songs, I expect, and I receive, some push back.

I only saw Sonic Youth in concert once – a 2004 show at DC's 9:30 Club. Thinking back, I remember enjoying the show, but a decade later, all I really remember is the volume. A night that remains in my mind as the loudest, most uncomfortable concert I ever attended. Loud enough to make me dizzy. Loud enough to cause muffled hearing for days. Today, my hearing sucks. Ask my kids, they'll say my favorite word is "WHAT??" I've been resisting much needed hearing aids for a few years now. When people ask if my hearing loss is genetic, I always say no, it's Sonic Youth. But this is a wasted joke. In my small, rural town, no one has heard of Sonic Youth.

* * * * * *
I started writing this essay because I just read Kim Gordon's memoir, Girl in a Band. I wanted to write a review. I didn't like the book and I wanted to bash on it some. The book started well. The first chapter about Sonic Youth's last show was a clever way to set up the book. And then as expected, it went to Kim's backstory. In every biography I've ever read, the early years, the section before fame and wealth, is my favorite part. Learning about influences, family members, defining experiences. I got none of this from Girl in a Band.

What I got was a bunch of self-promoting and pretentious name-dropping. Long passages about artists that no one knows. And quick mentions of artists that no one knows. There must be four hundred people mentioned in the book, but to tell this story only a handful are relevant. I felt as if Kim was trying to give a shout-out to everyone she ever met.

I was also offered several confusing, contradicting points:
In one passage, she applauds an artist for her outspoken views against DC's straight-edge ethos of shunning drinking, drugs, sex and consumerism. But the next paragraph goes on to describe the straight-edge movement in such glowing terms, it isn't clear why she appreciates the artist for bashing it.

I was also confused about her romanticism of New York in the seventies. She spends a whole page describing the disintegrated state of the city. The rampant crime and drug use. The inability to walk the streets because of the danger. Then she spends the next paragraph ridiculing the clean-up of these problems. Complaining that New York is no longer real. A Disneyland version of what it once was. As if the only real city is one that you cannot use for fear of your life.

Towards the end of the book, Kim lost me altogether when she stated that a man cannot be a full partner in raising a child. Using her ex-husband as an example – the man she has spent a couple hundred pages describing as a self-absorbed, selfish man – she says that "no man can can feel the necessary urgency" required to properly comfort a crying child. And then she tries to prove this point by suggesting that she was the only one in her house who could handle the family's laundry.

Kim Gordon's inability to write a compelling memoir has not fouled my appreciation of Sonic Youth. Reading this book, despite it's flaws, was a worthwhile trip into my past. It gave me a chance to reminisce about people, events and songs that don't get much of my attention any more.

Undeniably, Sonic Youth is cool. They essentially invented a genre, and they challenged fans of punk to appreciate it. They transcended the hard driving beat of the Ramones and Black Flag. They stuck a finger in the eye of the bands who rely on melody or image to hook an audience. They created noise, energy, tension and anxiety with the same instruments that the Partridge Family used to play "I Think I Love You."

And if nothing else, they created the prototype for the hot-punk-girl-bass-player. 

Friday, May 22, 2015

Well...How did we get here?

We had a plan.

Recently married. A senior administrator at a growing technology firm. A modest stock portfolio. A home owner – an adorable house in Washington, DC. Small, but pretty. The sort of house you live in until your kids start school. Before bailing to the suburbs. Chasing after better schools, community swimming pools and nearby soccer programs.

I made a spreadsheet. I plotted our planned financial growth, right into retirement. Best and worst case scenarios. Either way we were set – a life of wealth. Not mansion and horse farm wealth, but enough for antique furniture, gadgets, international travel, and a comfortable, early retirement. A step or three above where our parents settled out.

Eighteen years as a government contractor. Repeated success at implementing financial databases, and more importantly, creative, thoughtful proposal-pricing that helped my companies acquire new contracts. Susan, equally or more successful as a fundraiser for a large environmental non-profit.

There was no question that we were set. Educated, hard-working, respected. Pegged as the next leaders of our companies. Clearly upwardly-mobile, Yuppies personified. Until it all started to unravel. Or really, until we unraveled it.


(This image was stolen off of the internet)
Neither of us were satisfied. Susan, constantly stressed, under continual pressure to be perfect. The high-end, celebrity donors to her organization requiring relentless maintenance and care. Me, bored with my work, disdainful of my co-workers, of my government clients. I called them the Fat-Old-White-Guys. Livers of narrow lives. Content with a nine to five job, a long commute, nightly TV and weekend grilling. The real work of life behind them, now coasting through to the finish, to retirement. I harbored secret fears that I was rapidly becoming one myself.

Susan reduced her hours to part time. And I moved to a new company, one outside of the government contracting industry. And then we moved away all together. Out of DC. Out of the area. With our two year old daughter and a baby on the way, we fled city-life. It's luster long worn off. We moved to a small town in Pennsylvania.

An abrupt change in some ways. The time lapse between first toying with a move and listing our house measured in weeks rather than months. In other ways, a very slow process. I telecommuted back to DC for over a year. Susan consulted with DC non-profits considerably longer.

But the change continued. I found a local job with a non-profit community center. Susan switched careers, and became a massage therapist. These changes included a painful reduction in our income. Over the course of three or four years, our income dropped by more than half.

I no longer know where my spreadsheet is, and I don't really care. Barring a sizable lottery win (which we don't play) or inheriting a fortune from an unknown rich relative, our planned life of wealth is out of reach. We have become the bourgeoisie, the hoi polloi, our own little chunk of "the masses." Except we haven't. These phrases are often used pejoratively to describe material striving. A desire to improve one's financial situation, one's station in life. Improvements through the acquisition of stuff.

This isn't us. As we've settled into our small town life, we've switched focus. We've stopped looking for that better station. Study after study shows that wealth doesn't bring happiness, happiness and financial security are mutually exclusive. We're a solid middle-class family, and that should be enough. Instead of material gain, we are working towards contentedness. Or really self-improvement, which we believe will bring contentedness.

I don't want to give the impression that we sat down together and made a conscious decision to alter the focus of our life. It wasn't a holistic change. It was a sloppy and incremental, with lots of hand-wringing and second guessing. But what started as a series of questionable choices has solidified into an intentional life-style of actualization. A desire to understand ourselves and our world, or at least how we interact with the world. And the mark we leave on it.

Since I've known her, Susan has dabbled around the edges of Buddhist spirituality. An intense focus on mindfulness. She is interested in yoga and meditation, and a long-time participant in Tara Brach's Insight Meditation Community. Her interest became a practice, and that practice is now a daily way of life. She radiates a calmness that is not lost on those around her. It is part of what makes her a great massage therapist. She is also a great teacher for me. She lives what she learns, and I try to follow her example.

My path was less intentional and less obvious. In my twenties, I wanted to write for a fitness magazine. But there is a deep gulf between wanting something and doing anything about it. I enjoyed writing, I thought I had something to say, but I never wrote. My dream akin to a non-musical teen's plan to become a rock star.

A few years ago, I set aside two hours per week to sit in a local coffee shop and craft essays. Initially, these focused on society, and my disgust with the world around me. Resistance is Futile railing against intrusive technology. The Worst Generation unfavorably comparing my generation to those before.

One morning on a bike ride, I started composing an essay in my head. I found myself comparing my current life to a character in Jefferson Airplane's song, Lather. I had never written specifically about myself, my life. As Lather found its way onto my computer screen, I learned a bit about who I am. And I wanted to learn more. This launched two years of self-analytical writing that has left me a truly changed person (and a much better writer). Each time I caught myself obsessing about a problem, a fear, an incident in my past, I wrote about it. And each time I did this, I became more aware, more in control, and ultimately happier.

We all have our nagging thoughts, our obsessions. Our regrets, our grudges, our embarrassments, our fears. I saw a life-coach for a while during my career change. She recognized that I was a grudge-holder. She suggested I write down the negative thoughts I harbor from my past – those things I obsess over – and then stick them in a hole, burn them with gasoline. I never did this, but what I do is better for me. I spend time with those thoughts. My wife's Buddhist teacher, Tara Brach suggests that like the Buddha, we must face our problems. She tells a parable of the Buddha facing is principal rival. A figurative and literal demon named Mara. One of Tara's favorite sayings is 'invite Mara in for tea.'

By avoiding our demons, we never resolve anything. A head in the sand approach to life. Tara suggests that by confronting problems, insecurities, obsessions, we begin to understand them. I found myself doing this through writing. By intentionally spending time with the topics that bother me, by writing about them, meditating on them, analyzing them, by inviting them in for tea – I gain power over them. I gain an understanding of myself.

Two years later, two hundred thousand words blogged, almost entirely about me, I'm in a position to take stock, to reflect on my success. My problems aren't gone, but they have all improved. I am less obsessive. I'm no longer embarrassed by having Tourette's. I'm in control of my drinking. And I'm now more comfortable with the choices I've made throughout my life.

I'm certainly not done. Actualization is a life-long process. If the Buddha was correct, the work of many lifetimes. I'll surely continue to second-guess our life-choices. Retirement, though still off in the distance, is visible on our horizon. And before we get there, college tuition for our children. The wealth we haven't accumulated would be helpful over the coming years.

One of my father's favorite sayings is "you made your life, now you have to live it." Meaning there is no point in regret. The past is fact, it doesn't change. Look forward and make the most of it. And so far, no regrets for Susan and me. When we look to our future, the things we want don't cost money. We want intelligent, self-supporting children; jobs that help people; a space to create art; access to the outdoors for running, hiking, bicycling.

But mostly, we want to keep improving ourselves.  

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Party for your Right to Party

The organization where I instruct spin classes had a recent complaint taking offense at the use of “Ghetto Rap” music in classes. The writer called it misogynist.

I take offense at this complaint. I call it racist.

Ghetto: a section of a city, especially a thickly populated slum area, inhabited predominantly by members of an ethnic or other minority group, often as a result of social or economic restrictions, pressures, or hardships.

By calling it "Ghetto" Rap, the implication is that Rap music is offensive when it is made by poor, urban, minority populations. However if the music is made by wealthy, white people, A-OK. Or the writer might just be suggesting that misogyny is only a problem in the "Ghetto." The complaint was unsigned so it wasn't possible to start a conversation with the writer on biased language.

Today, I thought I’d acknowledge that complaint by playing the Beastie Boys “Fight for your Right (to Party)” followed by Public Enemy’s “Party for your Right to Fight”. Neither song is misogynist, but both are certainly rap. Regardless, I'm sure I'll ultimately get slapped down. The Public Enemy song praises the honorable Elijah Muhammed. That's a big no-no in my small, super-christian town. The Beastie Boys talk about your Mom finding your porno-stash, but I doubt that will push any buttons. 

Saturday, April 18, 2015


Thursday morning, late winter: "Hey! We need some more up-beat music!" Cara, she's been taking my indoor cycle class for years. She often comments on the workout (always good) and occasionally praises a song. Usually something by the Who or the Stones or Neil Young or the Doors. She's opinionated, but not critical. In fact, she is one of the most polite people I encounter on a regular basis. Her outburst surprised me.

"Those last two songs were Nirvana, so I'm not really sure what you're talking about." This got some chuckles. It lightened the mood. My next three songs, a block of sixties garage rock – Louie, Louie, Wooly Bully and Double Shot of my Baby's Love – actually got people singing along. All was forgotten. Until I introduced a set of speed-work with Sonic Youth's "Purr." This started a mini-rebellion. I closed out the workout with a pair of live Clash cuts and Nirvana's "Molly's Lips.” Then I cooled everyone down with the Cure’ s ”Fire in Cairo.” The room was alive with tension. My music selection had pissed people off. As if I was challenging everyone with my play list. And I probably was. “Deal with it or leave.” As everyone mopped up their sweat at the end of class, I felt guilty. My class starts at 5:30 AM. They get up early for this. This is their workout. "We'll start next week with Pop-Music Monday." I got a little cheer.

I was in a crappy mood the rest of the day. A great spin-class is tricky to achieve. I can rarely tell when the class is going to gel into a something memorable. But that's the bar I set for myself. I want every class to astonish. To elicit a dazed and satisfied “OMG!” as we're walking out the door. But many factors make or break a class. The music, sure. The drills. But it's also the mood of the class, the mood of the instructor. Even the weather plays a role, even though it's an indoor class. I often go into a class knowing it will be good, but will it be great? It will be fine (I hate that tepid word). It will get the job done (not crazy about that phrase either). On occasion, I go into a class with a workout so perfect, I know it will change people's lives.

That Thursday was one of those days. I had already used this workout the week before and I loved it. A twenty-four minute series of three-minute songs – two minutes hard, the last minute, all out. Sucking wind. Each song with more tension than the last. Slowly catching our breath for two minutes, and kill it again. Rocking songs! They needed to motivate. Drawn heavily from my punk/alt-rock library. Clash, Pixies, X. The rest of the workout, hard flats interspersed with sprints, climbs and jumps. Well-choreographed, well-paced. Intense, but doable.

The first time I used the workout, It was a very snowy morning. A shut-down-the-town sort of day. Only two riders showed up. This was an A-list workout, wasted on two people. So I reused it a week later – Thursday. I made some song changes, improved the play list, I thought – swapped in the Nirvana, the live Clash, a Gang of Four song. And you know the rest.

I’ve been leading this cycle class for 4 years. The music clearly isn’t for everyone, but most people seem to like it. Older people primarily, people whose tastes range beyond pop. My class, initially branded “Punk*Cycle” started as all punk, all the time, but that got boring. Not enough variety, the songs too short. My class, usually two or three people. So I started adding in other genres: roots rock, blues, classic rock; Some reggae and alt-country; Even a bit of pop music now and then – generally, eighties new wave. For the most part, not radio music, but I choose songs that are tuneful. Music that should have been popular – if anyone ever heard it.

A rocking mix, songs that grow on people. The reviews are mixed, but mostly positive. I've heard many times that I have the best music of all the instructors. I've also heard that I have “the weirdest.” Once or twice, "the worst." It all comes down to taste. And I'm not very accommodating. I play what I prefer. Now and then, I push to see what I can get away with. Seems like Thursday was one of those mornings.

Music. I spend much of my time thinking about it. There is always a tune bouncing through my head. And the music I like, much of it I love. When looking through the prism of love, you see only the good. You somehow overlook the ugly. I've done this in past relationships, and I do this with songs, too. A good example is the Gang of Four's “I Found that Essence Rare.” I listen to that song and I hear energetic dance music. A song with a clever tune and a catchy beat. My wife hears it and says “WTF?” It is dissonant and grating. She's a good barometer. She loves the Ramones, the Clash, Green Day, but she was raised on Sheena Easton, Michael Jackson and Prince. She can tell me which songs are going to bomb, so I try to avoid asking her.

That fateful Thursday morning was about four weeks ago. Since then, I spend more time tweaking my playlist. More time trying to balance and evaluate songs. A shift in perspective. Will the songs appeal to conservative riders like Cara. Can I still use Blast's cover of “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue?” Maybe. If I lead in with Bruno Mars and chase it with Taylor Swift.

I seem to be entering a new phase in my relationship with spin. More mature. More realistic. Like a courtship that is getting serious. I am finding that I need to compromise a bit. Give up Blast to avoid Taylor Swift. Or recognize that three Nirvana songs in a one hour workout is expending weeks of goodwill. Thinking like this takes extra effort. It even erodes a bit of the fun. Compromise, maturity. Blah. Maybe I should return to my roots. Return to Punk*Cycle. My raw, head-banging class. My almost empty room. 

Now seriously, listen to Molly's Lips. This song rocks.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Don't Believe the Hype

Packet pickup, the day before a race. Old acquaintances see each other and nod. "Hey, are you running the half?"

"No, I'm running the 5K."

"Well, at least you're running."

This didn't happen to me. I read it in Runners' World, in the "Ask Miles" section. He gives advice on how to avoid running faux pas. And this was a faux pas. He eloquently pointed out why. All distances are hard. Hard if they are raced, not run. Anyone who has trained specifically to do well in a 5K knows this. Speed-work, hill-repeats, striders, mile pickups. Four mile high-tempo runs. None of this is as fun as going long on a warm, breezy Sunday morning. But this "Ask Miles" response is practically the only place I see this acknowledged in Runners' World magazine.

With the exception of a rare article about the new collegiate runner to watch, the message I get from Runners' World magazine is that the 5K is an entry-level race. Real runners race longer distances. Specifically half and full marathons.

This has pissed me off for years. Probably because chronic knee and calf problems have limited my runs to under five or six miles for a couple of decades. My only marathon was in the early nineties. At that time, half-marathons barely existed. The next common distance-race was the ten- mile. Which happened to be my strongest distance. Something about the way I'm designed allows me to hold a high tempo-pace for just over an hour. Everything after that is guts. Or at least requires some conscious pacing earlier in the run.

Runners' World is a magazine for the masses. And the masses of runners are in it for enjoyment, not actualization. And a surprising number are in it for weight-loss. Just look at the popularity of the Blerch franchise (also heavily plugged by Runners’ World). I might even suggest that many runners are lazy. It is far easier to build distance than speed. And building speed at longer distances is easier than building *fast* speed for a 5K. For most runners, non-elite runners, improving at the half-marathon or marathon is about gaining comfort with the distance. Not so for 5K. Most runners are already comfortable with the distance. A strong performance means shaving seconds off of a your last time. This comes from strategic training, diet, drills, and the grueling speed-work that even the most hard-core runners hate.

With my injuries, I've raced a lot of 5Ks over the years. And every now and then I decide I want to push out a good time. This makes for a rough month or so. I live in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. For a strong race here, performing well on hills is mandatory. Training includes long hill repeats with quick active recovery. This simulates pretty much every race I've done in my county. Every hill you hit, there is another one right behind it. Some are long, some are short, and they all hurt when cruising at a barely sustainable pace.

It's funny that I'm thinking about this now. I'm running a trail-half on Sunday. Through changes to my form, my diet and my other workouts – and sticking exclusively to trail-running – my knee and calf problems have improved. I won't say they are gone, but they are letting me increase my mileage at a slow but steady pace. I noticed this in January, and I've been pushing my weekend long-run all winter. And I love it.

Just like all of the other runners I know, for me the lure of longer races is omnipresent. After my half marathon this weekend, I'm contemplating training up to a 50K. The shortest "ultra" race. The thought of racing 5Ks just doesn't appeal to me. It isn't that I don't respect the distance. There is just a limited return for the effort and the cost. Why commit twenty-five dollars and an entire morning for twenty-two minutes of racing. Twenty-two minutes of all-out effort, suffering and pain. And that doesn't even take into account a month or two of nasty training.

The other problem, I hate to admit, is the lack of "cred" I get from racing shorter distances. A fast time for me isn't fast enough to impress anyone but me. After a recent race, I was packing up my stuff to head home. A spectator asked me how I did. I said I didn't really run as well as I planned. I missed my goal by almost a minute. She shook her head and said, well you finished, that must make you feel good. Whoever she came to watch – her husband, her child, her sister – for them, finishing was the goal. For me, there were splits to consider, my age-group ranking, my overall time. I came in sixteenth, second in my age group. But I ran a very bad race.

When running a long, technical trail race, to some degree, there is some joy generated in simply finishing. Or at least joy in finally being done. And after two or more hours in the woods, there are many race segments to look back on and evaluate. How did I run the flats. Am I happy with my performance on the hills, on the technical sections. Did I finish as strong as I could have. There will be parts where I can improve, and parts where I impressed myself. It won’t be all good or all bad, but something will be good, pleasant to reminisce. Later, people will see my name in the rankings, and look at the distance, and think "Wow!" And none of it will be as hard for me as a twenty-two minute 5K.

So while I completely discount the Runner’s World mantra that the 5K is an entry level race, now that I’m again physically able to run longer races I will. Not because the 5K is too easy for me, but because it is too damn hard.  

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Coffee Break

Eli, my coat and me cooling off in the "Stripey Hole" at
Eastern State Penitentiary 
"Wow, that is an orange jacket." The check-out lady at the IGA, commenting on my raincoat. I stopped in to buy a coffee on my way to a meeting.

The jacket is orange, but not obnoxiously. More like pumpkin soup than a traffic cone. People comment on the color frequently. Enough for me to have a prepared response.

"Right, I rarely get shot at when I’m wearing it." This flippant statement will seem incongruous to most readers. I expect this. I grew up in a close-in Washington, DC suburb. As an adult, I relocated into the city. Orange as a safety device is not understood by city folk. But ten years ago, I moved to this rural setting. In my new town, hunting is a popular sport.

I own three coats. A heavy winter coat, worn a handful of times each year – on very cold days when I'm outside for long periods – sledding with my kids, on snowy hikes, at the New Year's Eve fireworks. A mid-weight fleece jacket for all other cold weather occasions, layered over sweaters or flannel, depending on my destination. And my raincoat. Which, besides being orange, is completely waterproof, even in summer-time cloud-bursting thunderstorms. Primarily though, I wear it as a windbreaker. My go-to jacket for any weather that doesn't involve frozen precipitation or woolen caps.

As the cashier gives me my change, she says "Well, I like it anyway." I walk out into the early-spring morning wondering if I received a complement.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Broke on Through

Jim Morrison – right, the singer from the Doors. They're on my mind recently. Specifically, it's Morrison that is on my mind. I read a Jim Morrison quote about fear, and that got me started. It's been more than a month, and I'm still on-topic. Still mulling it over. We have a long history, the Doors and me. Hooked in 1978, at age sixteen. Their self-titled debut always on my turntable. It's practically a greatest hits album. Like many bands, many artists, their first published work is their best. The stuff good enough to get the world's attention. After their debut album, their library is spotty. Some songs are good, some great, and a lot of crap. Crap like Crystal Ship and The End – two cuts they should have left off of the first album. Back in those days, before everything was digital, there was effort involved in skipping songs.

The quote: “Expose yourself to your deepest fear; after that, fear has no power, and the fear of freedom shrinks and vanishes. You are free.” It's a nice quote. Accurate, but over-simplified. Step-one in a long road to overcoming phobia. But at least it is a step. Morrison's image was being in control, worry-free. He liked to appear above the concerns of the ordinary. Uncaring about what people thought of him. Part of this persona was that he was better than everyone else. This quote plays right into this image. He is free because he is unafraid. He faces his fears head on.

The word often used to describe Morrison is narcissistic. When listening to his lyrics, reading his poetry, reviewing interviews with him, this is an easy assumption to make. Self-centered, it's all about him. When looking at photos taken of him during his heyday, he is brimming with confidence. He loves himself, or so it seems.

I'm not a Doors scholar. I'm more of a fan. I've read the popular biography “No One Here Gets Out Alive.” I own the DVD of the movie “The Doors” based on that book. And I listen to the music, but not in an analytical way. But I'm enough of a fan to have opinions about Morrison. I embrace the criticism that he was sophomoric, that his 'deep lyrics’ were adolescent. But at times the Doors really gelled. Morrison had a strong voice, well-suited to the rocking-blues his band played so well. They left a legacy of some phenomenal music, and Morrison, despite his silly Lizard-King image, was a person of some depth. He reminds me of myself.

I've never read anything about Jim Morrison suffering from social anxiety. The Doors are an old group and Social Anxiety Disorder is a new term. But this disorder is as old as humanity. Essentially, a socially anxious person is overly concerned with others' perceptions. So concerned, that they develop behavior patterns and personality traits to minimize their anxiety. Shy, awkward, weird, aloof. These are adjectives often applied to the socially anxious. Another common adjective is 'drunk.' These days, there are safe medications to help overcome social anxiety symptoms. But throughout the years, many found relief in alcohol and drugs. They still do today. I should say we still do.

Morrison's quote about facing fear is a give-away. His tell. He overcompensates. He is too confident. The iconic image of him, shot by Joel Brodsky, a photo steeped in Jesus imagery, shows a man who is so present, it's eerie. His focus on the camera is intense. He seems to be seeing the soul of the photographer – or the viewer – of the picture. This is part of what makes the photo so great. And it plays a lasting role in Morrison's image as a direct, confident person. But this is the same Morrison who was so over-come with stage-fright, he was unable to face the audience as he performed. Initially needing to sing facing his band-mates, his back to the crowd. Later, singing to the audience, but making sure he was seriously f***ed up every time on stage.

I never met Jim Morrison; I was six when he died. And I'm not a mental health professional. My only qualifications and expertise on diagnosing this disorder stem from my own experiences. Possibly, I'm over thinking this – a habit of mine. Looking for deeper meaning where none exists. But as they say, “my blog, my opinion.” My teenage and young adult behavior mirrors Morrison's so closely, you would think he was my role model. I feel like I knew him. Or at least I know how he felt in this world. Socially awkward and self-conscious when sober, out-going and confident when drunk or high. Like Morrison, I was a daily drunk, and I was a confident person. Over-confident, in fact, sometimes to the point of being obnoxious. But during this period, I was popular. Fun and opinionated and always ready to party. I had dozens of friends, scores of acquaintances. The more I partied, the more popular I was.

That was years ago. And the farther I move from that drunken lifestyle, the more I've struggled with awkwardness. It was a slow progression. A new girlfriend who was a light drinker, and completely drug-free. I tempered my alcohol intake to a level that wouldn't scare her away. Gave up illicit drugs entirely. Marriage, home-ownership, continually finding more self-control. New experiences – like actually driving home from a night out. Not leaving myself with the chore of picking up my car in the morning.

Since my daughter was born, I've been sober. Sober meaning not drunk. Drinking, but never enough to slur, to stumble, to blackout, to be hungover. As I gave up intoxication, I lost my edge, my confidence, my comfort level in my group of friends. It seemed like I had less to talk about. Nothing in common, no shared interests. Not only with my friends, but pretty much with everyone I met. In conversations, my brain seized. I had nothing to say. Nothing that I thought was interesting anyway.

This has been going on for thirteen years, but I continued to drink daily. Usually, two glasses of wine, sometime three. To the edge of a buzz, but never crossing that line. To be relaxed, as a reward, a way to cap my day. Maybe just to hold on to part of my self-image. I'm overly reliant on self-image. Using labels to define myself. A drinker, a runner, a writer. Losing a defining activity felt like losing a piece of myself.

And to some degree, this was true. Giving up drunkenness affected my lifestyle, my relationships. Because I feel less confident in social situations, I'm less social. Almost reclusive. And this weighs heavily on me. Something I lie awake at night regretting. While I no longer drink to get drunk, I've certainly been drinking – a lot. Not at once, but a moderate amount every single day. I've used red wine like a junkie uses methadone. A safe daily dose. Just enough to offset the need. Enough to avoid being a drunk.

Until January. Seventy five days ago. I quit drinking... except on weekends. I'm not trying to give up alcohol, I'm trying to break the habit, the dependence. It's gone well. Two and a half months with no falters. Some weeks are more challenging than others. At times I find myself counting down to the weekend. Knocking about the house or going to bed early because I don't know what to do with myself without a glass of wine. Alcohol still has a hold on me. Yesterday I bought a bottle of Cotes du Rhone. I went to bed anticipating the enjoyment I would get from it on Friday night. Sort of the way I might anticipate seeing a new movie I've been awaiting for months.

The benefits of this change are easy to list. I'm more clear headed. My aging body feels better. I weigh less. I'm spending less – decent wine is not cheap. All obvious and unsurprising. But what I didn't expect: I'm happier without any alcohol than with a small amount of alcohol. A weight has lifted off of me. I don't spend my days anticipating a glass of wine after work. I don't spend my evenings measuring out my dose, feeling regretful when it's done. I don't wake up every morning with harsh judgment of myself – beating myself up because I had an extra drink.

And even less expected: My comfort in social situations has improved. I feel less awkward, less self-conscious talking with people in chance encounters – at the grocery store, at the gym. I'm joining new groups, I'm making new friends. I'm becoming social again.

There's truth to Morrison's statement about fear. It has to be faced directly. I started doing this three years ago. I do it with writing, and I do it with therapy. When I immerse myself in my fears, I begin to understand them. Their power erodes, some. My fears don't disappear, I don't overcome them. But I know them, I understand them, they don't surprise me any more. None of it is comfortable, but ultimately it is all rewarding. It is a long-term process with break-throughs, plateaus and set-backs. A rough ride, but so far, the general direction seems to be up.

Alcohol and relationships are two problem areas I've avoided. Too hard and too scary to attack. Intertwined in ways I'm just starting to understand. There are no quick-fixes for psychological problems. They take effort, tenacity, courage. Now that I've started on this path, I intend to continue. To ride the ups and downs. To find comfort with alcohol, or without alcohol. And to find comfort with people.

Jim Morrison? He was a bright and creative guy. With more time, it's likely that he would have truly faced what he feared – which I believe, was himself.  

Friday, March 6, 2015

World War Three

Today' s blog post is from my heart, not my head. This is written on a topic about which I have very little academic understanding, but I do have strong feelings and opinions. Typically, not the best combination. I welcome feedback, debate, and education. But not with shouting, posturing and belittling comments.
You need war to achieve peace.” This gem dropped by the pool manager at my work, Carla. It was during a staff meeting. I work at a non-profit community center – child care, fitness, swimming and enrichment programs. Looking around the table, several heads swinging a slow, shocked “no” just like mine. Part of our mission-statement says we are to promote peace, but it doesn't make any suggestions on how we should do that. Apparently we need some guidance. We have differing ideas.

I'm not close with my co-workers. But we've been working together for years, so I think I know them pretty well. I certainly know when they'll excel, and when they'll fail at company-directed initiatives. Because we don't share many personal interests, I rarely spend my off-work time with them. So while I know their work-skills, what I don't know is their personal opinions on political topics. I live in a rural community in Pennsylvania, the patriot-zone. An area where being a war-veteran is cooler than being a brain-surgeon. It surprised me that so many of them would take offense to Carla's statement. It surprised me much more than hearing her make the statement.

This was years ago. Carla, a mother of two young children, is so Christian that once during an all-staff briefing, she said our organization's primary purpose was to glorify God. She's a devout follower of the “prince of peace.” But she has bought into the myth that war is the proper road to peace. Even though I can’t find a Bible verse where Jesus says that. “No, you need war to achieve submission, that isn't the same as peace.” My response to Carla. And then the conversation was over. But tension lingered for the rest of the meeting, and maybe still today.

The God and Country set, prevalent in my area, enthusiastically supports military action against the shifting shape of “haters of America.” To my neighbors, it is a holy war. Christianity against Islam. Citing passages from the Koran to prove Muslims simply want to kill us. And of course many of them do. A growing number, it seems. But it also seems like it is the United States' intention to kill all of them first.

After the September 11 attacks, many Americans suggested that it was time to reevaluate our national positions on the Middle East, on Israel. These questioners were immediately branded unpatriotic. Shouted down as unsympathetic to those who were killed. 9/11 was a time for unity, for a response. The air-liner attacks killed three thousand Americans, the vast majority, civilians. This was reprehensible, it was murder. Likewise, our response - vast bombing raids. Indiscriminate and lethal. An eye for an eye. In the two years that followed, the United States led military coalition killed as many Afghan civilians as were killed by the 9/11 terrorists. But we were just getting started.

We've been at war for fourteen years. We have not achieved peace. We haven't even achieved submission. All we've managed to do is seriously piss-off a substantial percentage of the world's Muslim population. And this isn't just by our actions. The Islam world is rallied by our rhetoric as well. Our vow to light up the sky with a “shock and awe” campaign against Iraq. As if the war was nothing more than a fireworks display put on for the American public. And our threat to “bomb Pakistan back to the stone-age” if they didn't get with our program against Al-Qaeda.

I used to think World War Three would start over scarce resources – flooding coastlines, the lack of potable water and food in our post-climate-change world. Now, I believe WWIII has already started. It might seem like we're battling over religion, but the real issue is respect. The Christian west, especially America, has attempted to rule the world for decades. Dictating who's in and who's out with alliances and policies. Policies that bow to the desires of lobbyists. In the middle-east, the Arab world, this means Israel and Saudi Arabia. The rest of this region has been marginalized – or declared evil. It is human nature to feel like an outsider when you are different from those in power. And in the west, power rests fully with the Christians.

Americans are all too ready to brand the violence against us as Islamic Extremism. That's a short-sighted convenience. Using religion to motivate an army is hardly a new strategy. It has been the default for millennia. From the crusaders until modern times. I live near a civil war battlefield. The park is littered with monuments that contain Christian imagery. Avenging angles and crosses are everywhere. The prevailing rally-cry during that war? “For God!” It works - an army with divine sanction has an edge in battle. What we are seeing now is only different in that Islam is the motivator. When Al-Qaeda, ISIS, et al, invoke Islam, we respond with our own religious dogma. And the appearance of a war of religious ideals continues.

It clearly isn't helping. The recruiting pool for our adversary is massive. Almost a quarter of the world practices Islam. And many western Muslims find our rhetoric to be racist and anti-Muslim. Not an attack on the violent doctrine and actions of these groups, but an attack on their heritage, their religion. For some, it spurs a response. Suburban kids from the United States, Canada, France, roots strongly set in western culture, are walking away from their lives to join to fight against a bully.

This trend will increase. As it gains traction, we will be fighting civil wars all around the globe. A war with no defined boundaries, and no way to label the enemy except by their religion. And this will only intensify the rhetoric and the response – on both sides. The only way out of this situation is maturity and empathy. Accept each other's differences.

As long as Americans like Carla remain in the majority, with their belief that the only path to peace is through killing our enemies, peace will elude us. You cannot shake hands with a clenched fist. I didn't make this up, Indira Gandhi did, and it is necessary to embrace. In the sixties, sober adults mocked the live and let live ethos of the hippy-youth. Fifty years later, it clearly has merit.

So while that inevitable climate-change war, World War IV now, still simmers. We have our current war to end. Not with bullets and bombs, but with understanding and respect. And not from only Christians or Muslims, but from everyone. Perhaps the place for me to start, the place to gain some understanding, is with Carla.