What Fresh Hell Is This?


My physical therapist tells me I should be glad that I made it to age 49 before experiencing significant back pain.  I am not glad.  I am annoyed and hoping this isn’t a harbinger of more frequent lumbar misery to come.  It started last Saturday morning after completing an unexceptional six-mile run.  I felt fine until I got out of the shower and started dressing for the day.  My back began spasming enough that I involuntarily audibilized my discomfort, and by the time I had dressed and walked downstairs to the kitchen, I decided moving was not a great idea.  Each step was breathtaking, as I felt the pangs surge through my torso, causing me to stop, try to remember how to exhale, and wait for the agony to subside.

I didn’t know what caused my pain, but I was relatively certain, despite the presenting symptoms, that these were not contractions related to childbirth.  I decided to sit on the couch and hope the pain went away.  Stillness provided relief, but it isn’t a long term solution, so the rest of my Saturday was filled with pain whenever I rose from the couch and hope that it would subside after a good night’s rest.

By Monday afternoon, I was feeling better overall, but the pain was still present.  I hadn’t worked out since it started, and when I ran a few steps in place to test my road readiness, I felt my back tense up.  I messaged my physician to inquire whether it would be appropriate to make an appointment.  She recommended a visit with a physical therapist, and I scheduled it for Wednesday afternoon.

While I had eschewed exercise for three days, I decided to give running a try before I went to the appointment, thinking it would provide additional data about how quickly I was recovering.  The results came quickly, as each stride on the pavement brought a small wave of pain.  I managed to cover 1.5 miles at a reduced pace, but I didn’t enjoy it.  I knew the physical therapy appointment was not an event I should cancel.  The road to better back health was longer than I anticipated, and I needed a guide.

The physical therapist was a stocky thirty-something man with facial hair and a kind face.  He shook my hand and invited me into his exam room where he had me take a seat.  After a series of questions, and related data entry on his part, to establish exactly why I was seeking his services, he asked me to stand and face the door.  He had me bend to the right and lean back, which was pain free.  I figured I was acing this test until he asked me to lean to the left and back, which sucked.  At this point, I presumed he would suggest a few stretches and exercises I could employ to work out the kinks, but I was mistaken.  Instead, he asked me to lay down on the exam table.

I have no personal experience with massages, chiropractic therapy, laying on of hands, or any other practices in which strangers apply physical pressure to my body.  I grew up in a loving family, but we were not demonstrative.  After about age ten, there was very little hugging happening in the Baker house.  My body is a temple, and it’s closed to the public.  Being unaware of my expectations for personal space, my physical therapist felt no compunction and spent the next fifteen minutes grabbing, bending, and pulling my arms and legs while laying across my body.  It was a gentle bear mauling, which is why I mentioned his facial hair.  I recognized his intent was to fix the problem, but I considered the possibility that my anxiety at being kneaded so forcefully might be aggravating the condition.  Whatever the reason, he was unsuccessful cutting my Gordian Knot and told me what I could do to help untie it on my own.  He gave specific instructions, but, as I was still reeling from having been, literally, manhandled, I forgot to ask some questions.  For example:

  1. He told me not to sit longer than 30 minutes.  I should have gotten clarity about how much standing  is required between seatings.  I made an assumption that he intended me to alternate in 30 minute intervals, but I discovered standing for 30 minutes is a long time even under ideal conditions.  Since the appointment, I have been trying to stand for at least five minutes at a stretch.  As a result, I have been that guy rising from his seat with a pained expression and looming menacingly in the background of meetings at work.  At home, I set a timer so that I don’t, ironically, spend the entire weekend in a seated position while watching the world’s greatest athletes compete in the Olympics.  I have also begun to wonder if this is a prescription for the rest of my life, or if the 30 minute limit will be extended as my back improves.
  2. He told me to avoid running.  I refuse to accept the possibility this is a permanent change, as I am addicted to running.  He said it is too jarring and causes the problem to worsen.  I forgot to ask if any other workouts are verboten, but I’m assuming cardio is not a good idea for the same reason.  Weight lifting might be an option, but there is often a back-component involved in raising heavy objects from the floor.  For now, I’m going full couch potato, but for no more than 30 minutes at a time, until I can get some clarity from my therapist.
  3. He told me to walk a lot.  I am trying, but as a long-time lunchtime runner, walking feels like cheating.  I am not opposed to walking, and it provides a bit of same the mental relief from intellectual activities, but I hope I can pick up the pace soon.
  4. He told me to use cold or hot pads as desired.  According to him, it doesn’t matter which as long as it feels good.  This seemed arbitrary and capricious.  How can both be equally useful?  I would have expected a more definitive ruling on which approach is more therapeutic.  He also told me I had a problem with what I heard was a “fa-SET” joint in my spine.  When I Googled it later, I discovered the word is “facet,” (I.e., “FA-set) the same word for one side of a many-sided thing.  I was concerned he was mispronouncing it, indicating he really didn’t know what he was talking about.  Combined with his indifference to hot and cold therapy, I have lingering doubts about his qualifications, but I will follow his instructions; just not happily.  If it doesn’t improve, I will be checking his credentials before I allow him to hug me again.

For now, I’m grounded, and it’s frustrating.  Not being able to exercise makes me realize, and appreciate, how much I enjoy it.  The good news is I’m feeling much better, and I suspect the twinges of back pain I’m feeling at the moment are mostly a result of my heightened awareness of my back.  That is, I’m thinking about it so much I may be worrying over what would otherwise seem like normal aches and pains associated with aging.

I’m scheduled to meet with my ursine therapist again on Wednesday.  I’m not sure I will wait that long before going for a trial run, but whatever happens, I will be bringing a list of questions to the appointment.  I am not going gently into the good night of my advancing age.


Deleting Yourself


My son is producing a documentary about the cinematic history of science fiction, from its inspirational roots in ancient Greece to the 1902 film A Trip to the Moon by cinema pioneer George Méliès to The Matrix and beyond.  He and a friend have written the script, recorded narration, filmed interview segments – with my son playing the expert – and are weaving in film clips to illuminate their thesis.  I’ve seen the rough cut, and it’s well-written, well-performed, thoughtful, insightful, compelling, and fun.  And it’s too long.  The movie is a project for their Film Lit class, a delightful elective course available at their high school, and is required to be no more than seven minutes in length.  The current running time is closer to 30 minutes.  They asked the teacher for an exception to the seven-minute rule due to their passion for the project, but the teacher held firm: the assignment is a seven-minute film.  My son, and his co-producer, will have to sacrifice much of the content to satisfy the requirements, and they are in the throes of editing, in which the artist is forced to decide which of their children to give up or which limb to remove.  It’s not simply an intellectual challenge, it feels personal and emotionally taxing.  While my son has railed against the arbitrary limitation, I appreciate the teacher for offering an important lesson: Brevity is the soul of wit.

I wrestle with that lesson whenever I sit down to write one of these posts.  It’s up to you to decide if I successfully pare my musings down to the essential core that entertains and enlightens without becoming a burden.  I am sure some posts are more successful than others, but I do try.  Next weekend, I will be faced with another editing challenge, as I receive feedback on the manuscript of my European journal, copies of which I gave to my family members – those who traveled with me to Europe five summers ago – as a Christmas present.

It shouldn’t have taken five years to write the book, but I spent much of the time dreading the editing process. The first draft was frequently plodding, and it took months to figure out how to cut it down to a literary size and shape that someone outside the family might enjoy reading.  That process involved two challenges that wounded me.  First, I had to decide which of my witty remarks about sightseeing in Europe weren’t really all that witty and then delete them.  It’s never pleasant to be told your jokes aren’t funny, and I can assure you, it’s equally unpleasant to give yourself the news.  Second, and with more reluctance, I had to decide which parts of my life weren’t worthy of being published.  Writing memoirs involves a certain degree of arrogance that assumes people would care about my life story, so the notion of deleting some parts of it from the narrative is not unlike deciding which of my fingers I don’t need.  After five years of writing, self-flagellation, and metaphorical finger removal, I was ready to have my family tell me how well I did capturing their European adventure through my eyes and keyboard.

I know my fellow travelers will be the easiest audience, as they will naturally enjoy the written reminiscences of our grand tour.  I hope they will let me know of any factual, grammatical, or attributional errors; any essential anecdotes I neglected to include; or witticisms that fell flat.  With their feedback in hand, I will begin the second round of editing in an effort to get closer to the metaphorical “seven minutes” of essential content, though I assure you it will take more than seven minutes to read.  After that, I will turn the manuscript over to my beta-readers – close friends who I trust to give me honest, and occasionally brutal, feedback on my writing.  That will result in more finger-removal and, hopefully, a final draft that is worth publishing.  Brevity may be the soul of wit, but it’s a long, dangerous road getting there.

My son and his classmate are planning to meet their seven-minute requirement by scaling back on the overall scope of their history lesson, but they aren’t giving up on their masterpiece.  They plan to complete the full version of the film and label it “The Director’s Cut.”  I suggested they also release a version with producer commentary as a DVD extra.  As a writer, I don’t have the luxury of DVD extras, just this blog.  I hope I didn’t blather on too much.  I didn’t have much time to edit.

Uber Squats


I could blame Sally for my crappy run last Saturday, but I won’t.  She’s my regular Saturday morning running partner, and last weekend she opted to run an Elvis-themed 10K instead of running with me.  I could have run the race with her, but I am not a big fan of Elvis fan or entry fees, so I skipped it and decided to run nine miles alone.  Choosing to run that distance was a bit surprising, since there was no pressure to do so.  Without Sally there to decide how far to run, I could have opted for just six miles, four miles, two, or I could have just stayed home and binge watched season 2 of Travelers on Netflix.  Instead, I decided to challenge myself by running long, even if I had to keep myself company.  Running longer than I wanted to is part of my New Year’s Resolution to try old things in new ways.  It’s also part of my fervent desire to fit into my pants more comfortably.

In addition to the long runs, for the past three weeks, I’ve been eating a high protein, low carb diet – not counting the pizza I had tonight – and I’m not entirely pleased with the results to date.  I’m excited about the process, as I love having bacon and eggs every morning even if I can’t wash it down with toast, but I was hoping the dietary changes would result in pounds tumbling away from my frame in a more rapid manner, like a brick facade in an earthquake.  So far, the weight loss progress has been agonizingly slow, not unlike my nine-mile solo run on Saturday.

It’s possible my less than stellar running performance was due to physical exhaustion.  Continuing my Resolution theme, I’ve changed my morning workout routine by trying out circuit training programs I find on Pinterest.  Based on the names – including the “Brazilian Butt” and “Bikini Shape Up Circuit” – and accompanying photos of yoga pant-clad women, most of the pinned workouts appear to be geared towards females.  While they are every bit as strenuous as male-oriented ones, they generally don’t feature a lot of heavy weight lifting.  Instead, they focus on core and leg work, and, a result, I have done more squats in the last two and a half weeks than I have in all the previous years of my life.  I had no idea there were so many ways to lower oneself to the ground.  I’ve done goblet squats, split squats, walking squat lunges, sumo squats, wall squats, lateral squats, and squat jumps.  Hundreds of them.  I would have thought I had mastered the act of sitting down after 49 years of experience, but now I whimper in pain when I plop down on the couch at the end of the day.  When I headed out for that nine-mile run, I think my legs were worn out from two weeks of vigorous crouching.

The first two miles felt great, but the third mile was a struggle.  Once I started the fourth mile, I thought I had broken through “the wall” and would have a good finish, but that positive attitude lasted two minutes before fatigue washed over me.  I was just over four miles in, and I was exhausted.  I told myself to keep running for ten-minute stretches and take a one-minute walking breaks, but I rejected the idea.  Alternatively, I suggested five minutes of running between walk breaks, but my body was in the mood to haggle.  My final offer was two-minute runs, but my body was firm on no more than a minute and a half at a time.  I considered pulling out of the negotiations and just calling home to have someone come pick me up along the route.  I even contemplated the possibility of calling an Uber to hide my failure from my family, but that would have been raising quitting to a whole new level of shame.  Instead, I gutted it out and alternated running for 90 seconds and walking for 30 seconds for the last five miles.  It was a long run when I started, and it felt even longer when I shifted into the lower gear.  While I kept my phone handy in case my metaphorical wheels fell off at some point, I was pleased, and somewhat surprised, that the miles went by and I remained upright, arriving at my door only about fifteen minutes later than I had originally planned.  Surviving those lonely miles was a good reminder of two classic aphorisms:

1. Don’t quit.  Carrying a smart phone during long runs gives me every opportunity to call for help, and it was tempting to phone home to be rescued, but I’m glad I didn’t.  I would have felt worse about stopping than I would have if I had to walk the entire second half of the run.

2. Don’t sweat the small stuff.  Instead, I recommend the following to help you feel better about a bad run:

  • Be happy with what you do accomplish.  When I finished and arrived at my door, I felt great.  I’ve had enough crappy runs over the past twenty-something years to know that it’s not fatal.  I finished, and the next run will feel better.
  • Pick an excuse and stick to it.  While I considered the possibility that my new diet wasn’t giving me the proper fuel for running, I quickly abandoned that hypothesis, as I don’t want to give up eating bacon every day.  Instead, I’ve decided the tired legs thing is what slowed me down, and I will start mixing up my circuit workouts a bit more.  As much as I hate lifting heavy objects with my arms, it’s more conducive to running than lowering heavy objects, specifically my torso, via squats.
  • Run with a friend.  You can encourage each other through the tough miles, and it decreases the odds you’ll tap the Uber app on your phone.

By the way, Sally, I can’t run on Saturday, so you’re on your own.  Good luck.

Hot Sauce and Vulnerability


The locker room at work was noticeably empty leading up to the Christmas holiday.  For weeks, when I would go there at noon each day to change for my daily run, it was just me and steadfast runner Ron.  We discussed how the absence of others was unusual, but we expected the new year would bring in several people full of resolutionary zeal.  We also expected that the newbies would clear out by February, which is about how long New Year’s fitness resolutions seem to last.  It’s been five years since I made a exercise-related New Year’s Resolution, when I added a morning circuit training workout to my daily routine.  In fact, the last big resolution of any kind I made was three years ago, when I decided to eat better, and for 90 days, I added veggies to the menu and cut back on everything else.  Over those three months of two-a-day workouts, green smoothies, salads, and a dearth of salty snacks, I lost twenty pounds and felt great.  I figured I was in the best shape of my life, but, unfortunately my doctor disagreed, informing me that I had developed high blood pressure and high cholesterol.  I added two new medications to my regimen and swore off resolutions for a while.  I was bitter, and I had no interest in resolving to do anything but eat more salty snacks, even if just for spite.  Finally, this year, I decided to give it another try, but in a very moderate way.  My resolution this year is about trying old things in new ways.  I got some practice for this in the week after Christmas.

A couple days after Santa’s visit, I partook of a new hot sauce.  I love hot sauce, and there are very few dishes I don’t add it to, but even that has become routine.  I use Tabasco Garlic Pepper Sauce for pasta dishes and pizza, Thorp’s Hell’s Kitchen Habanero Sauce for burgers, and Yucatan Sunshine for everything else.  This new sauce is called The Last Dab, and it was given to me as a present by my brother-in-law.  It came with a warning of sorts, in which the manufacturer asked consumers to post video on social media of the first time they try it.  That’s a hint that the sauce tends to evoke a memorable response.  All three of my go-to sauces are relatively hot, but I haven’t challenged myself in a while, so I was eager to try this fresh hell.  I also received corn chips for Christmas, but this was no ordinary bag of chips.  My brother gave me a bag of Paqui brand Haunted Ghost Pepper Chips, purportedly among the hottest chips available on the market.  When my friend Sean, who – in addition to being a metal head – is a fellow chile head, joined us for dinner, it was the perfect opportunity to give these new culinary treats a go.  After I went live on Facebook, Sean, my son, and I started with the chips, and we were not impressed.  Yes, they were spicier than your average Dorito, but there was nothing painful in the experience.  My daughter suggested adding a bit of the new hot sauce to the chips, and my son placed a small dollop of the thick sauce on each of three chips and handed them out.  We popped them into our mouths and, after a moment of calm, like being in the eye of the storm, during which we noted the good flavor of the sauce, worlds collided and stars went supernova.  We traveled to the sixth circle of the inferno to suffer with the heretics.  Beer offered no comfort and milk’s salve was fleeting.  Only ice cream offered some moments of relief before the flames returned to torture our palates.  We survived with the only permanent damage being to our psyches, and I am stronger for it.  Of course, I will return to my normal menu of hot sauces, and The Last Dab will remain sealed in the refrigerator, like a bottle of drain cleaner kept under the sink.  Should the need arise, I have it available, but I hope I never have cause to open the bottle again.

The next day, we took our annual Christmas-time day trip to a town called Poulsbo, which maintains a Scandinavian theme in the downtown area.  According to the analysis of a gob of my spit, I have a lot of Norwegian DNA knitting me together, so visiting Poulsbo feels like a homecoming.  Being very Scandinavian, Poulsbo doesn’t offer much in the way of hot sauces, but it does have a plethora of coffee, pastry, and viking-themed merchandise, and I like to think I come from good viking stock, albeit the near-sighted, asthmatic branch of that family tree.  While we go almost every year to wander through town, stop into gift shops, and load up on coffee and pastries, we tried to change things up a bit by trying a different restaurant for lunch.  On the drive up, the kids searched the Internet and found a place called The Slippery Pig, a brewpub that offered various sandwiches, including haute cuisine-style grilled cheese.  As we perused the menu, I noticed an older couple was getting up from their nearby table, preparing to leave.  My wife asked my daughter what she was going to get, and when she said the pulled pork grilled cheese sounded good, the woman I had seen turned to my daughter, looked her in the eye, and, with no humor in her voice, said, “Don’t get the pulled pork.  Or the soup.”  Her proclamation struck us like a witch offering a prophecy of doom, and we took it as a sign that, perhaps, this new restaurant was not the best option.  We quickly retreated to the familiar confines of JJ’s Fish House and enjoyed more reliable fare.  I give us partial credit for trying something new, even though we didn’t taste the offerings of The Slippery Pig.  According to my literature degree, when a crone offers a warning, it’s best to heed it.

The second attempt at something new in Poulsbo was caffeinated coffee.  It had been nine months since I had caffeine, but the eye condition that necessitated giving it up had resolved itself, so I wanted to treat myself.  Our favorite Poulsbo coffee shop, Hot Shots Java, offers a delightful brew called “A Shot in the Dark,” which is a cup of drip coffee with shots of espresso added.  The larger the cup you order, the more shots you get.  I opted for the 16 oz double shot, to ensure I would feel the rush, and hoped I wouldn’t overdose.    I sipped the black nectar and let the warmth flow into me, and the rest of the afternoon’s meandering through shops passed blissfully.  I did have some trouble focusing on any of the merchandise in the stores, as the caffeine felt like an electrical current humming through my body.  This was a much more pleasant new old thing than The Last Dab.

On New Year’s Eve, I tried to firmly establish a new tradition at home.  Last year, we invited friends over to ring in the new year by standing over our backyard fire pit, raising glasses, toasting the year that had passed, and praying for the year ahead.  We had a grand time, and I wanted to make the New Year’s Pyre an annual event, at least until the next presidential election.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to generate a conflagration as much as a smoldering heap, so I gave up, and we drank effervescent beverages around the kitchen table.  While the fire didn’t work out, I was glad to have given it a try and happy to be surrounded by old friends.

On January 2nd, I made a more overt effort to try something new.  I’ve been following the same morning workout routine since that resolution I made five years ago, and I decided to mix things up to see if I could get some better results.  The bathroom scale provided increasing evidence that I had reached a point of diminishing returns with my old workout.  I logged onto the Internet and learned that, in addition to party decorations, recipes, and crafts projects, Pinterest is a great source of brutal workout routines.  I found one that appeared challenging but not too much more so than what I’ve been doing for the past five years, so I figured I could handle it.  The workout included five repetitions of a circuit of five different exercises, each performed for 50 seconds, with ten seconds rest between each.  It started out well, but by the fourth round, I could barely remain standing for the 50 seconds of bent-over rows.  My legs quivered like Santa’s belly, and I am pretty sure I was weeping, though it was hard to tell due to the sweat pouring down my face.  I was experiencing the calisthenic equivalent of eating that hot sauce.  Hurts so good.

After the savage workout, I started another new twist on an old thing.  I’m consciously changing my eating habits for the first time since that resolution three years ago.  This year, I’m trying a paleo-ish diet in hopes of slimming down a bit.  My pants have been feeling snug enough that I wasn’t comfortable putting my phone in my pocket for fear that I would overtax the seams and experience a “Bruce Banner turning into the Hulk” moment.  So far, I’m loving eating eggs and bacon for breakfast.  I’ve already lost a couple pounds, but that may just be a reflex reaction to no longer shamelessly consuming vast quantities of cookies and crackers during the holidays.  I’m hopeful the trend will continue so that I don’t need to do any clothes shopping for a while.

Of course, the biggest new old thing in my life is my job.  I recently started a new position in the same agency, working in our technology division.  I admit, I have been confronted with a number of challenges.  For example, I spend a great deal of time using Google to look up technology terms that get dropped like cracker crumbs around here. I’ve been involved in IT projects for many years, but I am now in a full immersion language course.  I’ve been quieter than usual in meetings, as I don’t want the locals to discover  exactly how technologically illiterate I am.  The bigger challenge, however, has been determining what I’m supposed to be doing every day.  I’m learning a lot of new words, but I haven’t figured out what exactly I’m responsible for yet.  I confess, I’m a little bit scared, but it’s a good kind of scared.  I haven’t been the new guy for a long time, and it’s exciting.  I’m aware that some of my colleagues are readers of this blog, so I’m feeling a bit uncomfortable divulging my confusion. However, I’ve long believed that a bit of vulnerability is a good thing.  As researcher Brene Brown taught me (Google her TED Talk), being vulnerable isn’t weakness, it’s strength, and I hope that strength will get me through this bewildering time.  I’ve already found that confessing my ignorance to my new colleagues has helped me build some relationships.  I’m making new friends, and I’m beginning to feel accepted into the tribe.  They’ve even given me some ideas of what I should be working on.  While I’ve got a long way to go before they teach me the secret handshake, I think it’s going well.  I am grateful for the opportunity, and I’m eager to put my old skills to work in a new setting.   While the pulled pork grilled cheese was potentially deadly, the hot sauce was painful, and the workout made me cry, I have higher hopes for the job because I have really cool people around me, ready to help.  It’s like working with tubs of emotional ice cream.

So far in this new year, the locker room at work remains empty.  There aren’t a lot of New Year’s Resolutions crowding up the place, and it’s still just me and Ron.  If you are among those who haven’t committed to a New Year’s Resolution yet, or are considering changing the one you chose because exercise is hard, I encourage you to consider being vulnerable from time to time.  Tell somebody what scares you.  In my experience, people will help you.  Then again, it doesn’t have to be confessing your fears to co-workers if you’re not ready for that.  Being vulnerable is just about being willing to take a risk that may not work out.  For example, you might try a dollop of The Last Dab hot sauce.  You can borrow my bottle.  Just be sure you have ice cream handy.

Happy New Year.

Remember Me, I’m Gone

It’s been two years since Lemmy died, and I’m remembering him and the others we lost this year. RIP, Chris, Chester, Warrel, Andy, and others who moved and inspired me. Cheers.

Todd Baker

lemmy-624-1379698016A few nights ago, I was sitting on the couch in the living room crying: full on, shoulder-heave crying, like a little kid.  I don’t weep a lot, so this was unusual.  I’m not opposed to crying, in concept, but I don’t often find myself in such an extreme emotional state.  I cried from time to time when I was a kid, but the older I get, the less I find myself brought to tears.  Despite that emotional reserve, I was sobbing at the end of the Disney Pixar movie Inside Out.  Yes, I was crying over an animated movie.  A key theme of the film is that sadness is part of life and, for example, it’s o.k. to cry.  My daughter was sitting with me, and she hugged me through it and brought me Kleenex.  I love that kid.  The movie wasn’t the primary cause of my outburst, but…

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Tom Petty played a show in Seattle this summer.  A friend from work had two extra tickets, and I told her if she didn’t find somebody to go, my wife and I would be happy to be her last resort.  That didn’t pan out for me, as she found some other friends to go, and six weeks later, Tom Petty was dead.  While it was never on my bucket list to see Mr. Petty, it would have been cool.  For thirty years, he was that voice on the radio singing the background music to my youth.  My friend said she felt terrible she didn’t give me the tickets, but I assured her it was o.k.  I was happy she got to see him before he died.

I wrote about Malcolm Young’s death a couple weeks ago, about how I missed my best chance to see him because of George H.W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq.  Malcolm’s band, AC/DC, were an even more important part of my musical upbringing than Mr. Petty.  Not only were they on the radio, they were in my record collection.  Starting with Back in Black, I amassed AC/DC’s entire catalog over the course of my teenage years.  Those albums were treasure chests, filled with rhythm and riffs, and I would listen again and again, delighting in every note.  I’m disappointed that AC/DC, and Malcolm Young, don’t have a spot on my rock concert resume, but I’m glad I still have those records.

Every year we say goodbye to artists like Tom Petty and Malcolm Young, and with these passings, we are saddened at the news of another light going out, and we reflect on the gifts they gave us.  We listen to those songs and feel comforted, remembering the times when their music elevated a moment and provided the perfect backdrop to whatever was happening in our life.  Once in a while, though, it gets a bit more personal.  This week, Warrel Dane died of a heart attack at age 56.  If you’re not a metal head, you may not know the name.  He was the lead singer of the bands Sanctuary and Nevermore.  I knew him, and this one hurts.

Just like Tom Petty and Malcolm Young, I first heard Warrel while listening to the radio.  It was 1988, and I was in my college dorm room listening to KISW when they played “Die For My Sins” from Sanctuary’s first recordIt was a razor sharp ripper with a thrash riff that sunk its claws into me and Warrel’s soaring vocals taking the music to exciting heights.  He was classically trained as an opera singer, and he had an impressive range that is rare in metal.  I leaned in closer to the radio as the song played, physically drawn to the music.  This was something special.  When the  song ended, Warrel was interviewed, and I listened intently, trying to learn what I could about this singer and band.  I needed more, and the next day, I went to Tower Records to pick up a copy of Refuge Denied.  I became a big fan of these thrashers from Seattle.

Two years later, I was interviewing Warrel Dane.  Along with my brother in metal, Sean, I was a college radio jock, and Warrel was our first real rock star interview.  Sanctuary had just released their second album, Into the Mirror Black, and he was visiting our studio at KUPS to promote it.  I have a recording of that show, and while it proves we were among the most mediocre of radio personalities, we had fun getting to know Warrel.  He was generous with his time and gracious enough to answer every silly question we could come up with.

I saw Sanctuary perform three times, the last time in 2014, when they were promoting their third record, The Year the Sun Died.  The band had split up in 1992 and only recently reunited to record and tour again.  Sean and I went to the show together.  We, too, had reunited after twenty years of losing track of each other, and seeing Sanctuary together felt good.  We banged our heads and sang along like it was 1990 all over again, brothers in metal with our old friend Warrel presiding over the festivities.  After the show, we lingered in the bar, waiting for the band to join our party.  As I wrote in my book Metal Fatigue:

Warrel was the last to make an appearance in the bar.  When he did, we patiently waited our turn to speak to him.  When our moment came, my mind went blank as it always does when I am confronted by a celebrity, no matter how minor his fame.  Sean had no such problem.  He stepped up to Warrel and said, “You probably don’t remember this, but about 23 years ago we interviewed you on KUPS radio when Into the Mirror Black came out.” Warrel looked puzzled.  He was attempting to recall the moment.  Sean tried to help jog his memory by telling him I was a lot fatter back then.  To be equally helpful, I pointed out that Sean was always this bald.  Warrel gave up trying to remember and acknowledged that, as a metal musician who had spent many years punishing his brain cells with various substances, his memory of the last 23 years was a little fuzzy.  We assured him we were not disappointed he couldn’t remember us.  We told him how much we appreciated the chance to talk to him back then and to see him still performing.  Warrel expressed gratitude for our support.  We were all well into middle age, but we were still proud to be musicians and fans appreciating each other.  There are downsides to getting older, but the chance to reflect fondly on the past, appreciate the gifts we have given and received, and recognize there’s still fun to be had is a blessing. 

We didn’t know him well, but we knew him, and we’re going to miss him.  As I write this, there is a copy of Metal Fatigue sitting on the table.  I had set it aside for Warrel, and I was going to present it to him the next time Sanctuary came to town.  I wanted to thank him, again, for the music that has given me so much joy.  That’s not going to happen, but I’m grateful for the time we did spend together.

We know from Tom Petty, Malcolm Young, and Warrel Dane that life is short, so listen to the radio, spin the albums or CDs, click on Spotify or Pandora, and go to the shows if you get the chance.  Listen to the music, move your body, and be inspired.  And don’t miss the opportunity to tell someone what they mean to you.  I know it’s awkward sometimes, and I don’t always make the effort, but if you can find the courage, tap that person on the shoulder, and tell them how cool they are for that thing they did.  Tell them how it made a difference for you.  A few kind words will make you both feel good.


The Truck That Launch’d a Thousand Ships


It’s getting cold here in the Pacific Northwest, and that means my truck’s windows get foggy.  Leaving work one evening this week, I sat in the cold cab of my pickup truck, listened to NPR, and waited ten minutes for the condensation on the windshield to dissipate enough for me to see the road.  I love my truck, Helen, but she’s getting old, and she doesn’t de-fog a windshield like she used to.

I wrote about Helen – an ’88 Dodge Dakota – earlier this year when I recounted the tale of getting into a bumper bender on my way to work.  She survived the collision without the need for any repairs, which is good since I don’t have collision insurance.  Her face got pretty banged up, but she keeps on running, steady as a rock.  Her problems are largely cosmetic: the front bumper is now more abstract art than functional device, the seat cover is worn out and requires me to put down a towel to avoid getting foam rubber cushion dust on my butt, and I had to remove the cab’s ceiling liner as the adhesive stopped adhering, causing the liner to sag and generate static electricity when it rubbed against my head.  Also, the control knob for the heater fan fell off.

The first sign there was a problem with the knob was two years ago, when I grabbed it to turn up the fan and noticed it was hot – scalding, even – to the touch.  I knew that wasn’t normal, but I chose to ignore it, which is how I approach most automotive problems.  As long as I didn’t hold on to the knob, I could avoid getting singed.  That worked fine until the knob snapped off a few months ago when I reached to adjust the fan.  It made sense the plastic switch, having been heated up repeatedly over two years, had finally succumbed to thermal fatigue.  I solved that problem by inserting the tip of a small screwdriver into the slit in the dashboard and moving the adjustment mechanism up and down.  I didn’t leave the screwdriver inserted, as I learned my lesson and wanted to avoid the chance of burning myself on a hot screwdriver handle.  I’m no dummy.

Last month, the fan stopped working altogether, so I was forced to take it to the automotive shop where I get oil changes.  The worst part was recounting the history of this calamity, in which I was forced to confess I had largely ignored the problem for years and jury-rigged my way to avoid paying a repair bill that would now, of course, be higher due to my neglect.  The repair guy didn’t flinch, or laugh, when I had finished telling my story.  He must be inured to negligent vehicle owners weaving ridiculous tales, and I’m grateful he allowed me to maintain some small shred of undeserved dignity.  He said they would take a look, and I got a ride to work.  An hour later, he called to let me know they had replaced a resistor, or some such doohickey, and the fan was now working fine.  Better yet, it was not a costly procedure, so I was pleased.  They didn’t replace the knob, but I wasn’t expecting it.  The screwdriver was still required.

The next day, the blower didn’t work when I started the truck, so I returned to the shop.  He suspected there was a problem with the motor, which would be a much more significant repair.  Again, I got a ride to work, and, again, they called an hour later, this time to say it was working for them and there was nothing to fix, so I should pick it up.  I was relieved I didn’t have to pay another bill, but later that day it stopped working again.  I knew the next repair was going to cost a lot, so I considered my options.  After an extensive Internet search, I found an auxiliary heater with a 12-volt power cord, and my truck comes equipped with a cigarette lighter.  While vehicles now come equipped with 12-volt outlets for smart phone charging cords and such, I can still light a cigarette in my truck.  I wondered whether if I was a smoker, the heat of the cigarettes might help with the defogging, but other problems would undoubtedly arise from that course of action.

I have learned that 12 volts is not a lot of power.  While it’s adequate to light a cigarette, substantially more volts are required to run a proper heater.  The auxiliary fan I bought huffed and puffed a pathetic zephyr of tepid air onto the windshield, requiring constant readjustment to de-fog more than a small pinhole.  As the weather got worse, I decided this was unworkable.  Once the temperatures dropped below freezing, it would take a good 30 minutes to thaw out the windshield with my asthmatic auxiliary fan.

I returned to the shop and, $300 later, had the blower motor fixed. Or replaced. I don’t pay attention to details like that.  I don’t know how to change the oil, so why would I concern myself with the specifics of my blower motor maintenance.  If it blows, I’m happy.  It takes ten minutes for the air to clear, but at least it does clear, and I have ten extra minutes to listen to “All Things Considered” on my way home from work.  It could always be worse.

I named her Helen, after my grandmother, whose passing resulted in an inheritance that gave my parents the money to buy a truck.  When my dad died, I inherited it from him eleven years ago.  All these years later, in addition to the problems I mentioned earlier, the seat adjustment is broken, so I am the only licensed driver in the family tall enough to drive her.  She’s all mine.  She delivers me to and from work every day, has made countless runs to the dump, waited patiently outside venues while I moshed it up at metal shows, and hauled several tons of rocks and dirt, the raw material for several backyard projects.  We’ve had good, occasionally exciting, times together.  Once, my dad and I transported a refrigerator from Portland to Olympia, an adventure in which we learned the importance, and difficulty, of properly securing the load so that the refrigerator doesn’t fall into a prone position while driving on Interstate 5.  Miraculously, no one got hurt, and the fridge worked fine when we arrived.  I love Helen, and I hope we have more years together, but I know it can’t last forever, especially considering my lackadaisical attitude towards maintenance.  Helen is going to turn 30 next year.  Perhaps I’ll get a birthday cake and throw a little party in the cab.  I can light the candles with the cigarette lighter, but I don’t think Helen will be able to blow out the candles without a little help.

That’s The Way I Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll


On January 16, 1991, coalition forces began an aerial bombardment campaign in response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.  I was senior in college, and my girlfriend – now wife – and I gathered with friends to watch the coverage offered by CNN.  We listened to Bernard Shaw broadcast from a hotel room in Baghdad while the bombs fell throughout the evening.  We were too young to remember Vietnam, so this was our first “real war,” and we didn’t know what to think, say, or do about it.  Aside from nervously joking about whether any of us would try to hide in Canada rather than be impressed into military service, we mostly just listened to the TV.  Meanwhile, across town at the Tacoma Dome, AC/DC was performing.  As the heavy metal programming director at my college radio station, I had a ticket to the show waiting for me at Will Call, but I didn’t go.  Spending time with my friends as war was breaking out seemed like a higher priority.  I don’t regret my decision, but it left a gap in my rock concert resume.  I never got to see AC/DC.

Two weeks ago, Malcolm Young, founding member of the band, died.  He was 64 and had been suffering from dementia for several years, which caused him to leave the band in 2014.  Malcolm was one of the finest rhythm guitarists in the history of rock and roll, and I’m sad I never got to see him perform.  His brother, Angus, gets all the attention as the flashy lead guitarist dressed in a school boy uniform cavorting about the stage and shredding heavy blues solos, but Malcolm was the beating heart of the band.  His simple riffs propelled the music forward, making me want to bang my head and dance at the same time.  Some people say AC/DC just kept putting out the same record, but what a great record it was.  To me, AC/DC is the definitive hard rock band, and Malcolm’s blues-based rhythms are the reason.

I tried to do some Christmas shopping today, but I failed miserably.  The parking lots were full, the rain was incessant, and the stores were packed with people I didn’t really want to be with.  I wandered up and down the aisles of a Barnes & Noble and a Target and found exactly nothing I wanted to give to my loved ones.  I stopped at Five Guys to smother my shopping sorrows in a burger and went back home to hide from humanity.  So, here I sit at my little writing desk, clickety-clacking away at my keyboard, trying not to think about Christmas shopping, and feeling guilty for not having posted to my blog for more than two weeks.  I was getting stuck in my head, letting the fretting thoughts consume me, when it occurred to me that a little music might soothe this particular beast.  Johnny Mathis’ Christmas records will have to wait.  Instead, I called up AC/DC’s Fly on the Wall and let Malcolm’s Gretsch Jet-induced riffs shake my foundations.  Ah.  That’s better.

I wish you all better luck in your Christmas shopping efforts.  Remember, if you’re nice, Santa might put a copy of Back in Black or Highway to Hell in your stocking.

Preflight Checklist


I’ve never been a Boy Scout, but I do appreciate their motto: Be prepared.  That’s why, when I’m going to a metal show, I always make sure I have my ticket with me.  Throughout the evening, I double and triple check that it’s safely tucked away in my pocket.  These days, it’s not uncommon for concertgoers to use an electronic ticket, which the venue can view and scan from your phone when you arrive, but I don’t trust in the availability of a good cellular connection to guarantee my entry, so I prefer to print out my ticket.  I’ve been carrying paper tickets to shows for thirty years, and they’ve never let me down.  “Bring Your Ticket” has always been on my pre-show checklist, but based on my experience going to a show with my brother-in-metal, Sean, last Tuesday night, I’m adding a few things to my metal show preparedness checklist.

2. Check the Address

Sean and I had done the concert math, in which we estimate what time each of the four bands on the bill will take the stage, to ensure we would arrive in time to see our favorites.  We are too old and crotchety to sit or, more likely, stand through sets by bands in which we have little interest.  Enjoying pre-show beer in a seated position at a comfortable pub, and discussing exactly what time we should leave, is a far more agreeable pastime.

We made it to the venue at our estimated time, and I was glad for it, as I had an urgent need to relieve myself.  We found parking nearby and entered the club after a brief pat-down search at the door to ensure we weren’t carrying any weapons.  As I walked in, I was confronted by a gruff man who demanded to see my ticket.  He was exasperated right out of the gate, annoyed that I didn’t immediately present it to him.  My hands were full of my wallet, keys, and phone following the search, and I had to refill my pockets before I could unfold my ticket.  I moved as quickly as I could, wanting nothing more than to be granted access to the restroom.  When I did present my ticket, he scrutinized it carefully, nodded with approval, and crumpled it up  to dispose of it in a large garbage can behind him.  This venue did not have a bar code scanner, so throwing my ticket away ensured I wouldn’t pass it to someone else to gain entry.  I love keeping my tickets at souvenirs, but I wasn’t going to argue the point.  Meanwhile, Sean presented a piece of identification so the angry ticket taker could look him up on the Will Call list.  He informed Sean he wasn’t on it.  Frustrated, Sean went to look up the email on his phone, and after a moment of staring at the small screen, he looked and me and asked, “Where’s your ticket?”  I said it was in the trash, and he told me to get it. When I asked why, he said we were at the wrong venue.  Crap.  I rummaged through the garbage barrel to recover my crumpled ticket, which was easy to find since it looked nothing like the others.  It’s good to know, for future reference, that the doorman at Studio Seven will accept any document as a valid ticket, regardless of what venue or band name is printed on it.  That should save me a few bucks in the future.  With my ticket safely back in my pocket, we returned to the car to drive across Seattle to the correct venue, El Corazon.   Sean offered to wait if I wanted to pee in the parking lot, but I decided the possibility of getting arrested for public urination wasn’t worth the risk.  Even if I could afford the ticket, I’m guessing the arresting officer wouldn’t be supportive of letting me finish.

3. Buy a Tour Shirt.

While El Corazon did have a scanner to validate my ticket, thereby allowing me to keep the paper copy, I wanted a more substantial souvenir: a tour T-shirt from the headlining band, Finland’s Children of Bodom.  The main tour shirt with the band’s Grim Reaper mascot was sold out in my size, so I opted for one that stated, in big, block letters, “I SURVIVED LAKE BODOM.”  I realized this could lead to a lot of questions, since very few people outside of Finland or metal fandom would understand the reference.  Children of Bodom, in true extreme metal fashion, named themselves after three teenagers who were murdered near the shores of Lake Bodom in Espoo, Finland in 1960.  The shirt is a pun, implying that attending a Children of Bodom concert is like surviving a murder attempt.  To a metal head, it’s a clever reference.  To normal humans, it’s confusing and, potentially, disturbing.  To the families of the actual victims, it’s probably quite offensive.  If I should ever visit Finland, I will leave the shirt at home.

4. Bring Your Sense of Whimsy.

The opening band we so carefully timed our arrival to see is called Carach Angren, named after an obscure J.R.R. Tolkein reference to a pass into the mountains of Mordor.  It’s not even the one Frodo and Sam used to get into Sauron’s stronghold.  That was Cirith Ungol, which is also the name of  metal band, of course.  The members of Carach Angren wear “corpse paint” makeup, popularized by Norwegian black metal bands, and,  in the darkly lit club, the singer had a skull-like appearance.  They play symphonic black metal, with the symphonic parts played on a keyboard.  At one point, as I was admiring the swirl of sounds generated by the keyboard player, I noticed his instrument had moved such that the musician was playing as if it was hanging on a wall.  It continued to move throughout the set, apparently connected to a servo motor, causing him to play in a number of awkward positions.  When I told a friend about it, she wondered if it was an ergonomic keyboard designed to prevent carpal tunnel syndrome.  That’s funny.  The band didn’t have a bass player, which is unusual, but it didn’t take anything away from the powerful music.  Carach Angren have five albums, all of which are concept records, each of which tells a complete horror story.  Their set list included selections from each record, thus resulting in the musical equivalent of going to see a Shakespeare play and being presented with random scenes from different plays.  I was glad they played my favorite song, and when the titular chorus came around, I screamed along “Charles Francis Coughlin!”  It’s not too often I get to scream a full proper name.  If that all sounds absurd, you are correct.  Heavy metal is, in many ways, a silly genre that metal heads take seriously.  To be a devoted fan and maintain your dignity, you have to have a sense of humor about it.

5. Bring Your Inner Child.

When Children of Bodom took the stage and shredded through songs from their first four albums in a tribute to their 20th anniversary of being a band, I grinned for all 90 minutes.  Lead guitarist and vocalist Alexi Laiho is a true metal god, and I banged my head, cheered, and fell more deeply in love with metal music.  I was surrounded by hundreds of fans, packed shoulder to shoulder, and nothing else mattered.  This is the place I play.  I was caught in the moment and wallowed in the pure joy of the music.

6. Bring a Friend

After a night of brutal, silly, technically precise, and perfectly performed metal, Sean and I returned to his car to make the drive back to his apartment 30 miles to the south.  On the way, he dialed up a classic metal record, Painkiller by Judas Priest, on his car stereo.  We listened straight through and sang all ten songs at the top of our lungs in a pale imitation of Rob Halford’s powerful shrieks.  Side by side, we banged our heads and reveled in our metal brotherhood.  To be 48 years old and share this evening with a friend who doesn’t judge me for my bad singing voice, who appreciates the silliness of it all, and who has the same passion for the music, the bands, and live performance, well, that’s just about as good as it gets.  Cheers, Sean, and everyone else who remembers to be who they are, like what they like, and do cool stuff.

The Reset Button


On Tuesday afternoon, I carried two boxes from my spacious first floor office of the last nine years to the cubicle in the basement that would be my new workstation starting Wednesday morning.  Believe it or not, the job is a promotion.  To quote the genie in Disney’s Aladdin, “Phenomenal cosmic power…itty bitty living space.” I may not have that much power, but my facility footprint has shrunk by a factor of, at least, four.

I’m not upset about the smaller space, but I was a bit concerned about loneliness.  When I first arrived at my new desk, it seemed as though I had been stationed in a vast desert of vacant cubicles.  The space was formerly a server farm that became obsolete, so the facility elves quickly turned it into dozens of workstations to be used by project staff.  I presumed the apparent lack of people was due to a recent dearth of project work, but, after two days in this new environment, I realized I was not alone.  I heard occasional murmurings, noticed a few heads popping above cubicle walls, and every so often, someone would walk by my desk.  I’m not alone, I’m just surrounded by quiet people.  They seem friendly, but there isn’t a lot of chit chat going on in this habitat.  As a result, when I’m at my desk, I am forced to focus on my work, at which I’m not particularly adept.  I was accustomed to frequent interruptions and hallway conversations in the old job.  With so few distractions around me, I’ve been very productive in the first three days.  I’m curious how the native fauna will respond to musical stimulation, but I’ll wait a while before I start playing metal music over my computer’s speakers.

When I wasn’t sitting in my Hobbit house, I was in meetings, talking to my new colleagues.  I’m learning – a lot – and loving it.  It’s been a long time since I’ve been the new guy, both in terms of tenure and topic, and I feel like Samwell Tarly in Game of Thrones quickly trying to become a learned maester.  While Sam stole books from the forbidden section of the library to learn about dragon glass, I sneak furtive looks at my phone to Google words like “SSIS” and “WebSphere.”  I had been the most senior manager in my old division, so being woefully ignorant again is exhilarating.  Some people like to play to be reminded of childhood, but nothing makes me feel like a kid again as much as the simple act of learning something new.

When lunch time rolls around, I go for my usual run, but it’s taken on renewed meaning.  For the last couple years, my run has been routine, but this week, it has been a refreshing respite from the time spent in my head. I came back from those runs renewed and ready to learn more.

Friday night, after my third day on the job, we went to a party at a neighbor’s house.  I was tired when I arrived and thought about how I would like to be home doing absolutely nothing.  However, as an accomplished ambivert, I rallied and spent the evening talking to friends, and I’m glad for it.  We ate comfort food and laughed ebulliently.  When the giggles subsided, just as I thought I was done for the evening, the hostess approached to ask about my new job, and we talked for a long time.  She is an executive coach, and we had an energizing exchange of leadership jargon.  She offered to help me with my LinkedIn profile, pro bono (I hope), and mentioned a book about “design thinking” that sounds amazing, and I was emotionally transported back to the time early in my career when I was a management consultant, learning about ways to help my clients be more effective.  When the festivities finally came to an end, I smiled on the walk home, reflecting on the simple joys of talking and laughing with friends and gaining a fresh perspective.

I am going to a experience another simple joy on Tuesday, when I go to see the Finnish melodic death metal band Children of Bodom play a set of songs from their first four records as a salute to their twenty year career.  It’s a retrospective on the records they put out before the larger metal world discovered them; a refreshing return to the beginning, when they were a young, hungry band ready to take on the world.  I’m excited for this show, as a metal head and an old guy who just got a chance to press the reset button.

This blog is all about encouraging you to pursue the things you love with passion, but it can be easy to forget why you loved those things in the first place.  If you have the opportunity, I hope you can take a step back from what you’ve been doing and remember why you love to do it.  It’s a pretty cool feeling.