What a Long, Miserable Trip Its Been

Run

A friend at work, one who is relatively new to long distance running, approached me to ask what counts as a marathon: the distance or the event.  He completed his first marathon event at the end of last December, and I’m proud to say I was the one who suggested it to him.  He had been training, and I encouraged him to register for the race.  I was already planning to participate with my long-time long-distance running buddy, Sally, and I asked him to join us.  It was a thrill to be there at the start with him, though I didn’t get to see him finish, as he beat me by about thirty minutes.  Since then, he has traveled 26.2 miles six or more times all by himself.  No course volunteers, no port-o-pottys along the way, nobody standing on the sidewalk saying, “Looking good!” or “You got this!”and no finish line with an oversize clock letting him know his unofficial time.  It was just him and his chronograph, and he wanted to know from me if those runs “counted” as marathons.  The question caught me off guard, as I’d never thought about it before, but I knew what he wanted to hear.  I assured him that a marathon is 26.2 miles, so his solitary journeys certainly count.  Since then, I’ve been thinking about it quite a bit, and I’ve decided that, for me, a marathon is about the event.  I’m not trying to take anything away from my friend, and I won’t metaphorically strip his non-existent finisher medals from those solo flights.  He covered the distance, and that’s an accomplishment to be proud of.  But for me, I like the officialness of crossing a finish line and getting a medal.  It’s an unequivocal symbol of accomplishment.  It’s proof that a screen shot of my chronograph posted on Facebook doesn’t quite provide.  I’ve run 26.2 miles more times than the six events would suggest, as my early training routine had me completing the full distance before I toed an official starting line, but I’ve never counted those training runs in my personal running ledger.  If I did, I could certainly add significantly not only to my marathon total, but also to my total number of half marathons completed.  I’ve covered 13.1 miles dozens of times while training for marathons.  I’m probably close to a hundred 10Ks by that reckoning.  Hmm.  Maybe he’s on to something.    

While, personally, unofficial 26.2 mile runs don’t count as official marathons — or halfs, 10Ks, 5Ks, etc. — the miles I put in certainly count for something.  To me, they symbolize perseverance, determination, and, on occasion, absolute misery.  My twenty mile training run last Saturday is a good example of the latter.  I’m deep into preparations to be a pacer in the upcoming Capital City Marathon, and rarely have I been as miserable on a long run.  

I headed out on the cool morning with a light rain falling and hoped for the best while fearing the worst.  I joined up with Sally about a mile in and learned that she was tired from a long week of travel that included lots of walking and pushing her temporarily wheelchair-bound husband around the streets of Southern California.  I was weary from a week of trying to get over a cold.  It was just a head cold that, thankfully, did not creep into my lungs.  By Saturday morning, I was largely decongested, if a bit drained from a week of sedentary nose-blowing.  The first few miles passed uneventfully, as we distracted ourselves from our respective weariness with conversation about work and family, but by the time we reached mile eight, we were starting to wonder if it would ever end.  To add to our distress, the previously light rain had started to fall with conviction.  It wasn’t a cold, biting rain, but it was preternaturally wet, like standing in a shower.  Rivulets of water tumbled from the bills of our caps, and puddles formed in our shoes.  If we had felt better, it might have seemed funny, but our mutual exhaustion had us questioning our life choices.  

It was around the halfway point that it occurred to me I had a song stuck in my head.  Once in a while, I’m blessed with an ear worm that I enjoy, such as a good Slayer song, but on Saturday, it was the Bee Gees singing “How Deep is Your Love.”  I have no idea why that particular ditty was on replay in my mind, but it was unshakeable.  I won’t deny an appreciation for the Bee Gees music.  Saturday Night Fever was an important movie from my youth, and the soundtrack is undeniably danceable, but I haven’t intentionally listened to that music in thirty years.  Despite my general avoidance of disco, ten miles into our soggy run, I couldn’t even think of another song.  Again and again, for the entire almost-four hour trek, the Brothers Gibb inquired about the depths of my affection, and I found that those waters were getting shallower with each step.  Four miles from the end, in desperation, I called up a YouTube video of the song on my phone to see if getting the song out of my head and into my hand might be a way to cast the disco demons out, but to no avail.  I was living in a world of fools for twenty miserable miles.  

The ark-inspiring rains did finally stop after mile fourteen, but not before my rain jacket had lathered up with laundry detergent that clearly had not been sufficiently rinsed out of the garment in my washing machine’s rinse cycle.  I was foaming, and Sally found it quite amusing, but I was too tired to be embarrassed.    

At mile fifteen, I was ready to quit.  I considered suggesting to Sally that we could stop and call one of our spouses for a ride home.  I thought we could run the last five miles the next day and call it good, but I figured she either wouldn’t accept my reasoning, or, perhaps worse, she might agree with my proposal.  Despite my anguish, I knew that if we quit now, we would be pissed at ourselves for giving up.  We had a twenty mile training run to complete in preparation for the marathon in which we would be official pacers, helping others achieve their goal of a five hour finish time, and no excuses would make up for a lack of training.  Our long forced stagger continued.  

Approaching mile sixteen, I was getting disturbingly close to running out of water, and Sally suggested we stop in to a 7-11 along the route to see if I could refill my water bottle.  We stood in the store looking, I imagine, like homeless tweakers, waiting for the cashier to help a chatty young woman buy a pack of cigarettes.  When the transaction was finally complete, he said the soda fountain didn’t have any water, but we could use the sink next to the coffee machine.  It was one of the least convenient water stations I’ve come across in a long run, but thankfully, there was no charge, and I thanked him for his generosity.  Nice people rule.  

The last three miles were a mix of excitement and depression.  We were finally running towards our homes instead of away from them, which gave me an emotional boost, but I was in pain.  My muscles were clenching and my shins felt like they were going to shatter.  I said it would take a team of medical and psychological professionals to assess my overall health in that moments.  I wasn’t sure if I was actually dying or simply desirous of death as an alternative to putting one foot in front of another for three more miles.  

With one mile to go, we parted ways, and I was on my own.  My only goal was to get home. Whether I walked or ran didn’t matter, as this was a matter of survival.  When I did arrive at my house, it was all I could do to climb the steps to my bedroom to strip out of my clothes — which was no easy feat given my physical condition — get showered, dry off enough to collapse on the bed, and hope I wouldn’t die.  My wife asked how it went, and I asked her to order me a pizza.  Pizza was what I needed, and I spent the afternoon eating slice after slice while sitting on the couch.  The only time I rose to my feet was to walk out the cramps in my calves that plagued me the rest of the day.   

On Monday, at work, I complained to a friend with significant marathon experience, and he said, “Oh yeah, I saw you Saturday morning…running.”  His pause made it clear that he had seen me near the end of my adventure when my form was somewhere between running and crawling.  He was driving by and worried that I might trip over a curb based on my inability to raise my feet in anything resembling a running stride.  

So why do we do this?  Why do we suffer these occasional bouts of misery voluntarily?  It’s because the miles matter, and the payoff is pretty huge.  Perseverance, determination, and accomplishment are ideas that we sometimes forget about when staring at our phones or TVs.  It’s good to be reminded what we are capable of as humans, even if it hurts sometimes.  I’m looking forward to getting another medal hung around my neck and, hopefully, to see the smiles on the faces of the people that follow Sally and me, the official five-hour pacers.  Pretty cool.  

My running habit is not unlike the way I feel about writing.  Sitting at my keyboard clickety-clacking my ideas onto the screen is a much less physical human expression, but it usually features similarly long stretches of misery capped off with elation at having accomplished something.  Completing another book or clicking publish on this blog site or is a sweet reward.  This is my 200th blog post, five years in the making.  If you’ve been along for the whole ride or are new to this forum, thanks for joining me.  Let’s go for a run sometime, and I’ll tell you all about the journey.  

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Motorbikes, Metal, and Misery

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Driving to Seattle on Sunday night to attend my first metal show of the year — the first I’ve been to in seven long months — I thought about the motorcycle riders that occasionally pass me on the freeway.  Those leather clad road warriors astride their magnificent iron horses always catch my attention when I hear a Harley-Davidson roaring up from behind my car.  They are the embodiment of freedom and rebellion, which appeals to my metal head nature.  As much as I admire what they represent, I don’t aspire to become a Harley rider.  I am far too cheap to invest in a vehicle that wouldn’t accommodate grocery runs to Costco.  I also believe that a Harley deserves an owner who has at least a rudimentary understanding of the workings of an internal combustion engine.  I am entirely dependent on others to assess the condition of my car and change the oil as needed, so a vehicle designed for power should be owned by someone who can better appreciate and care for it.  In addition, I was never particularly adept at riding a bicycle when I was a kid, and I never did learn how to shift gears on a bike, so a motorcycle with dozens of horsepower would be a dangerous increase in the degree of difficulty.   

I’m also aware that a long ride on a Harley can be physically exhausting.  I get tired just thinking about holding my arms outstretched while gripping high handlebars, and I’ve spoken to a few riding friends who have confessed they get saddle sore on long runs.  So, when I see a cooler-than-me leather clad guy or gal ride past with their arms outstretched, I hope they are headed somewhere that’s worth the effort, and I give thanks that I don’t have a hobby that is so physically exhausting.  Then again, on Sunday night at a metal show in Seattle, I was reminded that I do. 

I love live metal music, but it’s no walk in the park.  I’ve largely retired from the mosh pit that is the source of many of the aches and pains I’ve experienced over the years as a headbanger, but that has not brought an end to my suffering.  When I got to the venue with my metal compatriots, Sean and Abigail, I was reminded that the metal head’s version of saddle soreness from a long ride is to stand on a concrete floor for several hours waiting for and watching the show.  

We were at El Corazon, a 800-person capacity club where I’ve been going to see metal bands for thirty years.  Back in the 80s, it was known as The Off Ramp due to it’s proximity to Interstate 5.  The club is perhaps best known for having a floor-to-ceiling metal post on the front of the stage at right center, which typically means the view of the bass player is obscured.  It limits just how rambunctious the band can be without risking a collision with the structural member.  On Sunday, rambunctious band members weren’t a concern.  We were there to see Uli Jon Roth, the legendary guitar player best known for his work with the German hard rock/heavy metal band Scorpions in the 70s.  Scorpions are one of the most important and enduring metal bands, and Roth’s signature lead playing has influenced generations of musicians.  He was touring to commemorate the fortieth anniversaries of the release of his last recording with Scorpions, Tokyo Tapes, and his first album with his band Electric Sun.  He was also celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the first time he took the stage as a guitarist when he was a thirteen-year-old prodigy.  This was a special evening of digging deep into his catalog of riffs and licks, and we were excited and grateful for the opportunity to see the legend and his current band of great players.   

Roth is sixty-four, but he still has a fabulous mustache and long hair, held back with his signature bandana.  He has consistently maintained a hippy-ish style throughout his career, but there’s no Summer of Love in his playing.  His riffs crunch and his leads soar and dive-bomb with great precision, beauty, and metal noise.  The band played a complete set of Electric Sun material, which I am not as familiar with but enjoyed nonetheless, before retreating for a brief intermission.  Perhaps it’s my own advancing age, but I was feeling weary at the mid-way point and wanted nothing more than to sit down and rest my aching feet.  Sadly, there are no chairs to be found in El Corazon, and the floor has accumulated many years of spilled beer and sweat that dissuaded me from reclining on it.  Sean was unconcerned with the microbial miasma and sank down to the floor to rest.  I started to question my lifelong love for live metal music and the physical misery that is an undeniable part of it.  My doubts lasted as long as it took for Uli and company to return to the stage and play a ripping set of Scorpions songs that had us back on our feet, banging our heads, and singing along to delightfully broken English lyrics of the classic “Catch Your Train”:  

And you like the Rock’n’Roller

A different life and Whisky Cola

But don’t be low, keep your own style

And catch your train!

Over the course of the evening, we were the recipients of many musical gifts, including a rendition of the 1960 rock hit “Apache” by the Shadows, a classical piece by Uli played on his eight-string custom “sky guitar,” the symphonic metal of Electric Sun, and the proto-metal of early Scorpions.  Three and a half hours on my feet was a small price to pay for this momentous evening of music.  I suppose the suffering makes it all the more worthwhile.  

On my drive home late that night, I realized I have another physically demanding hobby: long distance running.  It’s such a routine part of my life, that I don’t typically think of it as a pastime, but it is something I’ve chosen to do of my own free will despite the exhaustion that it causes.  It’s not quite as energizing as a good metal show, but I wouldn’t want to give it up any more than I would stop going to see bands play live.  When I do the math, my leisure pursuits may add up to more physical suffering more than the average motorcyclist.  Maybe the next time I’m out on a long run, training for a ridiculously long race while listening to old Scorpions records on my MP3 player, a Harley rider will pass by me on the way to a glorious sunset in Sturgis and think to herself, “I’m glad I have a more sensible hobby.”  Whether it’s running, riding, or listening to your favorite music, always be who you are, like what you like, and do cool stuff.  You can rest later.  

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Not on My Bucket List

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If I had to pick a theme for the past week, I would say it was a Week of Firsts, as in “the first time I ever…”  They were rather mundane firsts, but even the mundane can be worth noting.  The first first was my volunteering at a running event.  I have participated in dozens of races but always as a runner.  While I have always been grateful for the folks who staff water stations or monitor traffic, this was my first time returning the favor.  I should probably be ashamed of the fact that it’s taken me more than twenty years to offer my services, but I’m a bit addicted to running while volunteers cheer for me.  Call it a character flaw, which I’m only just beginning to address.  

The Donut Dash is a local race, with a one-mile kids-only event and a 5K race.  My running partner Sally had recruited a few friends to help out as course volunteers.  I arrived early and was put to work with my friend Amanda to serve as crossing guards.  We were stationed at a cross street equipped with reflective vests and traffic control signs, the kind that say “Stop” on one side and “Slow” on the other.  We had three duties: ensure the kids running the one-mile course, stayed on the sidewalk, ensure those running the 5K safely crossed the road to get to the longer course, and stop any cars that might inadvertently plow into either group of runners.  I can report that no one was injured during our tour of duty, as we successfully detained the single driver who made the mistake of trying to get somewhere just as the pack of runners was crossing our street.  

As we were stationed near the start of the race, our work was done early, and we returned to the race headquarters area to drop off our signs and reflective vests.  I lingered near the donut station trying to decide if standing around for thirty minutes holding a Stop sign had earned me the right to a free pastry.  There didn’t appear to be a rigorous screening process, so I stepped up to the table with as much authority I could muster and claimed one half of a glazed donut.  I decided it was a good way to celebrate my first experience as a race volunteer.  I’ll keep my eyes open for future opportunities, preferably at food-themed events.    

The second first came at the same event, when I was encouraged to get a massage.  A local massage therapy firm was offering free rubdowns, and as the first race finishers had yet to arrive, the masseuses were trying to drum up business.  Amanda was happy to take her turn in the chair, but I was more hesitant, as I’ve never had a massage.  Of course, my wife has rubbed my shoulders from time to time when I’ve had a particularly troubling crick in my neck, and I appreciate it, but I have never had a professional place their hands on my body.  I’ve always been nervous about such physical manipulations, and my experience last year with a physical therapist — a stocky and hairy man who contorted my torso and leaned into me with great force yet provided no relief for the intense lower-back pain I was experiencing — only served to confirm my fears.  The masseuse on duty was decidedly less stocky and hairy than my physical therapist, which was encouraging, and she asked me to fill out a form to indicate if there were any particular problem areas to address.  I checked the boxes for Neck and Shoulders, and she asked if I had pain in those areas frequently.  When I said, “All the time,” she looked alarmed.  I have always assumed that everyone has a constant stiffness in their neck and shoulders, but her reaction let me know that is not true.  Before I had time to think about how long I have been suffering without treatment, she told me to get in the chair.  As this was my first time, I wasn’t quite sure how to approach the somewhat backwards piece of furniture.  She told me it was just like getting on a motorcycle, but that was not helpful guidance, as, in addition to never being massaged, I have also never mounted a Harley.  I figured it out, though, and soon enough I was leaning on the inclined seat with my face resting on a cushy vinyl donut awaiting her ministrations.  She put her hands on my right shoulder and asked me to let her know if she caused me any pain, but I decided I would take whatever she had to offer.  It started out pleasant, but she dug into my shoulders in a few spots that took my breath away.  Given that this was a free massage, I knew it would be brief, but I appreciated the effort.  While I had always assumed my constant shoulder tension was simply the price of being alive, she told me that I was, in fact, “really tight.”  She could have just been trying to encourage me to sign up for a full, and paid, massage, but I suspect I could benefit from a longer session.  

Thursday morning, I was ruminating about whether to bother sharing those two firsts in a blog post.  Long-time readers know that I’m not afraid to write about the mundane, as humdrum peculiarities, mixed with a bit of humor or insight, make up a significant percentage of my writing, but the list felt a bit too short to share.  As I prepared my breakfast, I was gifted with a third first.  I was ready to cook two fried eggs — because I choose to believe the more recent research that casts doubt on the dangers of dietary cholesterol — when it happened.  The pan was hot, and I cracked an egg to carefully deliver its contents onto the stainless steel cooking surface.  A thick stream of albumen dripped from the shell and began sizzling on the pan, but no yolk joined the culinary party.   I looked into the two now-empty half shells and glanced to the floor to see if I had somehow misplaced the yolk, but it was nowhere to be found.  I was stunned.  This was the first time I had ever cracked an egg that didn’t have a yolk, and I wondered if it was a harbinger of some good or ill.  I Googled the phenomenon and was relieved to find no evidence this mysterious egg was presenting me with a karmic dilemma.  Rather, it is a very normal occurrence in the egg business, but they are usually screened out before delivery to the grocery store.  It’s so common, in fact, that, according to Atlas Obscura, egg white-only eggs are known by a range of cute names, including fairy egg, witch egg, rooster egg, oops egg, dwarf egg, wind egg, and, most commonly, fart egg.  My first fart egg may not have been a true omen, but I took it as a sign that I should make note of these firsts.  We shouldn’t miss the little things that remind us of the value of giving of yourself, taking care of yourself, and learning that even chickens make mistakes once in a while.  

With Great Influence Comes Great Responsibility

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I want to be an influencer.  According to a two-part definition I found after an exhaustive twelve second online search, an influencer is:

  • an individual who has the power to affect purchase decisions of others because of his/her authority, knowledge, position or relationship with his/her audience.
  • an individual who has a following in a particular niche, which they actively engage with. The size of the following depends on the size of the niche.

I could make an argument that I meet the second criterion, though my niche is rather small: bureaucrats who aspire to a career in writing but while away most of their time listening to heavy metal, barbecuing, and running long distances.  In the industry, I think they’d refer to that as micro-marketing, if not nano- or pico-marketing.  Regardless, I’m not sure I have the ability to effect purchase decisions of the five or six running metalhead writer wannabes who have found my blog, and that seems to be crucial for getting lucrative sponsorship deals.  

I had only a vague understanding of the influencer business model until this week when I learned about actress Lori Loughlin’s efforts to get her daughter Olivia, a “Youtube Star” who offers fashion and makeup advice, into USC.  Olivia had, and subsequently lost, a deal with a makeup company, and she had a clothing line.  That’s what I’m shooting for.  I want a contract with a digital meat thermometer company or with Nuclear Blast records, so I can at least get some free stuff.  Any companies that are considering signing up with me can rest assured I got into college, albeit not USC, the old-fashioned way: decent grades and lots of student loan debt.  My parents didn’t have the means to bribe my way into an elite school, nor did they have the inclination.  They had the, apparently, misguided notion that college admission should be based on merit.  Perhaps if they had made an effort to get me into Stanford, I would have given up this foolish notion of a writing career and focused on important stuff, like makeup and fashion.  

I have never watched Olivia’s videos, so I’m not overly familiar with Influencer techniques.  I have a friend who is sponsored by SkirtSports.com, and she gets a discount on running gear as long as she posts lots of pictures on Instagram.  I suppose she counts as an Influencer, as she has influenced me into running ridiculous distances even after I swore I had retired from marathons, but I have yet to purchase one of the running skirts her company sells.  It’s just not a good look on me. 

I have another friend who recently started posting contrarian notions on Facebook under the banner “opinions nobody asked for,” which seems like a clever way to launch an influencer career.  Jamie’s provocative opinions, accompanied by my comments on those opinions, include the following:

  • “Avocados aren’t good – Salty and mushy, I just don’t get it.”

I concur.  I don’t like the texture t’s a texture I can’t get used to, and a flavor I can do without. 

  • “Endorphins aren’t real – Elle Woods lied.”

I have mixed feelings about endorphins.  I have never felt high from exercise, but I do know that if I don’t run every day, I experience a mild depression.  I imagine it’s like a heroin addict who no longer feels the euphoria but can’t function without a fix.  Just like a junkie, I run to get well.  By the way, I have no opinion on Elle Woods or her honesty, because I’m not entirely sure who she is.  

  • “I loved Destiny’s Child but can’t stand 98% of Beyonce’s music. I’m sure she’s a lovely person but I die inside every time I hear Single Ladies.”

I don’t know much of Beyonce’s music aside from “Single Ladies,” and I admit that I love that song.  There’s more to life than metal.  Not much more, but an occasional well done pop song is good ear candy.    

  • “The movie Up isn’t THAT good. I love Disney but this one is just okay for me. The house/balloon visual is dope though.”

I’m glad she called out Up, as it’s bothered me for a long time.  There are some lovely sentimental moments, and Carl Fredericksen, the old man character, is a dead ringer for my uncle Wendell, but in terms of storytelling, the movie is a bit of a mess. 

  • “Nutella is meh.”

I concur.  I don’t eat Nutella, as I think of chocolate as a treat, not a sandwich spread.  I also avoid chocolate cereal and, thanks to a appalling free sample experience at a chocolate shop in London, chocolate pesto.  The horror, the horror.    

  • “Panera is overrated.”

I agree that Panera, the bakery-cafe, is overrated, but I panicked when I thought she had said Pantera is overrated.  Pantera, while not my favorite band, is incredibly important to the heavy metal genre.  RIP, Vinnie and Dime.

Inspired by Jamie’s musings, I have a few negative opinions of my own to offer, including:

  • Shiitake Mushroom Crisps are nasty.  My wife handed me one of the “lightly cooked and seasoned” pieces of fungi she found at the grocery store, which are packaged like a bag of corn chips, and said, “Try it. It’s nothing like what you’d imagine.”  She was right, insomuch as I could not have imagined it would taste quite so vile.  To be clear, I like mushrooms.  On pizza, in soups, and other culinary applications, mushrooms are a delight, but as a snack chip, I would pay money not to eat them.  
  • Omaha Steaks are overrated.  I have received Omaha Steaks gift boxes on two occasions, and while I appreciate the gift of meat, these slabs of expensive protein don’t live up to the hype.  I’d rather marinate a discount chuck roast and grill it to fatty perfection.  Mmmm…fatty perfection.  The mind drools.  
  • I don’t like getting ripped off via online purchases.  I recently came across on ad for a Star Trek clock that I knew my brother, a fellow geek, would love, and I was excited to think I had found his Christmas present nine months early.  That’s a good way to beat the late December lines at the mall.  The photo of the clock showed the dial decorated with twelve small metal figurines of various Star Trek universe ships: the Enterprise, Romulan Warbird, Klingon Battle Cruiser, etc.  Very cool.  I placed the order and within a few days, I was the not-so-proud owner of a clock with a photo of twelve small metal figurines of various Star Trek universe ships laminated to the face.  Caveat emptor. Don’t worry, Mike, I’ll find another gift for you, but, as a gift shopping procrastinator, I may be buying it Christmas Eve, so options will be limited.  Somebody will become the owner of this sci-fi white elephant gift, but I wouldn’t want to put my brother in the awkward position of pretending to like his Christmas present.  

In terms of becoming social media Influencers, I don’t think Jamie or I will get any big endorsement deals with avacado growers, the Pixar corporation, or Omaha Steaks International with those viewpoints.  I think I need to endorse a few commercial enterprises to cash in.  To that end, I offer the following to my pico-niche barbecue-loving metalhead road warrior writer followers:

  • I’ve been wearing Brooks Addiction running shoes for twenty years.  Not the same pair, of course.  Every few hundred miles I fork over my money to get another edition of the shoes that have helped me manage my over-pronation and gotten me across dozens of finish lines.  
  • Anaal Nathrakh’s album A New Kind of Horror was my favorite metal release of 2018.  As my fried Sean put it, this is an angry record.  Sometimes angry is just what an occasionally-suffering bureaucrat needs to get his mind off things.  
  • Maverick Redi-Chek wireless BBQ thermometers are an indispensable part of my slow-cooking grilling rig.  With one probe for the meat and another to monitor the ambient temperature of the smoker, the Maverick makes me a better pit master.  My public endorsement of this product is only partly due to the fact I am in need of a new one.  
  • Serrano ham should be on your bucket list.  My extended family was gifted with a jamon serrano (see photo above) for Christmas by our newly adopted brother Kurt, which is a whole other story.  This leg of pork hung in a Spanish cave for close to two years before it was delivered to our kitchen.  I’ve been shaving off thin slices in the three months since, and I’ve enjoyed every bit of its salty, porky, fatty perfection.  Mmm…fatty perfection.  I’m down to the final remnants, and I will miss it when it’s gone.  It costs more than a box of meat from Omaha, but it’s worth it.
  • As I wrote about in my last post, I love Johnson’s Smokehouse, a local purveyor of encased smoked meats.  Sadly, since I wrote that post, Johnson’s has burned down.  A terrible fire has closed their storefront and smokehouse.  I stocked up on what Johnson’s products I could find at another local retailer to tide me over until they can, hopefully, reopen.  I’m not sure they have much stock left to sell, but you might try placing an order online.  It’s yummy, and it might help them out.   

Last week, I might have also have endorsed Lori Loughlin.  While she’s still beautiful, and I was  a bit in love with Aunt Becky on Full House, I am no longer as smitten due to her decision to spend half a million dollars to get her influencer daughter Olivia and her sister admitted to USC as members of the crew team, even though neither of them participate in the sport.  It wouldn’t bother me if she liked avocados, shiitake mushroom crisps, or Omaha steaks.  My followers know that, above all else, I endorse being who you are, liking what you like, and doing cool stuff, but there is nothing cool about privileged bribery.  All that money could have bought Brooks shoes and serrano hams for all the homeless shelters in Los Angeles.  Oh, Aunt Becky, what were you thinking?  

Wish You Were Here

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The snow has mostly melted now, but at the peak of our recent winter storm, my wife and I were housebound for four days.  If I needed to leave for some emergency, like running short on beer or snacks, I could have made it out of the neighborhood, but the fourteen inches of snow that fell combined with the fact that my office was closed for a couple days made it logical to stay hunkered down at home.  Aside from going outside to, once again, shovel the driveway in the event the aforementioned beer emergency arose, we spent our time catching up on DVR recordings.  I rationed my supplies carefully, and the closest we came to a crisis was when the cable went out.  The TV went dark for a total of about ten seconds, but during that time, my wife asked, “What the hell do we do now?” to which I replied, “I want a divorce.”  Fortunately, she got the joke, and we both laughed and soon rejoiced when we were once again on the grid and dialed into Netflix.  

I had a personal crisis due to the snow-covered sidewalks.  Specifically, I couldn’t run outside.  The only way I could get in my usual daily run was to mount the treadmill parked in our entry room.  I despise treadmill running, but desperate times call for desperate measures, and, over the course of the four days at home, I logged a total of twelve stationary miles while looking out my front window longing for the day I could return to the street.     

I missed other forms of outdoor movement, too, including driving.  The most I drove during that stretch was to roll in and out of my driveway trying to cut through some of the icy ruts in the road in anticipation of a deeper freeze coupled with the fear that I might need to venture forth to the grocery store or to Mom’s house to rescue her.  I even missed the drive to work.  There are several routing options for my trip to the office, and, on occasion, I take the long way.  In part, it is an attempt to delay getting to work because, well, it’s work.  It’s only a symbolic protest, however, because I dutifully adjust my departure time to ensure I arrive on schedule.  Another reason for the longer drive is that it takes me a bit into the country.  I depart my suburban homestead and head for the more rural realm of East Olympia  The journey past fields and farmhouses is usually a salve for my metropolitan soul, but, as the winter deepens and the temperatures tumble, the drive has been an uncomfortable reminder of other things that I’ve been missing lately.  

Three miles into the journey, I pass by Johnson’s Smokehouse, a local purveyor of encased meats that normally sets my heart aflutter with thoughts of racks of salamis and landjaeger being kissed by woodsmoke.  These days, it just makes me long for my own season of meat smoking to begin.  To make it worse, a little further up the road, I pass by a farmhouse that is apparently heated by a wood stove emitting a lovely blue smoke that on particularly cold mornings hangs motionless in the frozen air.  Fire, smoke, and meat makes me wistful and fills me with thoughts of tending my grill as spare ribs, a brisket, or a pork shoulder rests comfortably above the coals and wood chips while my son stands by my side asking questions about the barbecue arts.  I miss that kid, away at college learning about physics, including the finer points of transference of energy, which is entirely relevant to good barbecue.     

When the drive to work returns me to a more industrial part of my community, I pass by a recycling company that features large banners on it’s yard fence proclaiming “We Buy Metal.”  While I tend to get my metal from a friend who may or may not illegally download pirated copies of the latest heavy metal albums, the sign is reminder of something else I’ve been missing.  I haven’t been to a show in almost nine months, and not being in the middle of a large crowd moving together to the deafening roar of a metal band is starting to get to me.  My advancing age may suggest I’m getting too old for such shenanigans, but I’m not ready to give up the one thing that makes me feel like a kid.  

Fortunately, the snow is almost gone, barbecue season is almost here, and my son will be home for Spring Break in two weeks.   A week later I plan to attend a metal show, where I can gather with my tribe and celebrate the glory of heavy music.  The long winter’s reminders of that which is been absent has just about maxed out my heart’s fondness, and I’m ready for what comes next.  Welcome, Spring; I have missed you.  

Facing Fifty

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I was mopey all weekend.  Aside from participating in a 10K relay run with my wife on Saturday morning, I did little else besides binge watch The Americans — a series about Russian spies living as ordinary Americans during the early 1980s — on Prime Video.  I think I was having a bout of existential dread.  I turned fifty recently, and that means I was due for my first colonoscopy that was scheduled Monday morning: President’s Day.  That put a crimp in my three day weekend plans and gave me the opportunity to wallow in self-pity about what fresh hell awaited me.  

After the race, we went to breakfast with friends who had also participated so we could celebrate our accomplishment with lots of carbs.  It was my last big meal of the weekend, as the pre-procedure protocol demanded that I eat a bit lighter, especially avoiding seeds and corn, two days ahead of the procedure and switch to a liquid diet twenty-four hours before I faced the gastroenterologist.  I read the fine print in the instructions he had provided and found that Sunday’s liquid diet did not include alcohol, so I enjoyed a couple cocktails Saturday evening in an attempt to ease my growing anxiety.  

When Sunday dawned, I breakfasted on coffee, lemon Jell-O, and a 7-Up.  Lunch and dinner each featured a hearty cup of chicken broth along with more Jell-O and 7-Up.  Aside from that, I drank water.  It’s not a culinary combination I would recommend, but it met the requirements.  

Since I didn’t exert myself much beyond tapping on the TV remote and filling out the required medical history forms, I wasn’t particularly hungry throughout the day, but I missed solid food.  Every time I passed by the pantry filled with pretzels and crackers, I felt a surge of frustration.  My wife reheated pizza for her dinner, and the smell was annoyingly divine.  Most of the day was a long, slow grind, and my mood was not improved by reading the fine print in the material provided by the clinic explaining the remote, but real, possibility that the procedure itself could injure or kill me and, even if I survived it, might reveal that I was dying of something.  Reflecting on the dismal possibilities, I was in no mood to do anything productive of my own volition, so I spent the better part of the day sitting, watching TV, and quietly pouting.

I perked up as 3 p.m. approached, when I could begin the the more active part of the  “cleansing” process.  The printed instructions said I had to take two laxative pills at 3.  The pills were tiny, but I was afraid of them nonetheless.  I anticipated intestinal distress to set in quickly, but almost an hour went by before I felt the slightest urge to go to the bathroom.  Even then, I had to pee more than poo, undoubtedly due to the significant quantity of water and 7-Up pressing on my bladder.  

Starting at 4 p.m., the instructions had me ratcheting up the process by adding a bottle of laxative powder to the half gallon of Gatorade I had chilling in the fridge.  Every twenty minutes, I drank eight ounces of the GatorLax until I had downed thirty-two ounces, which triggered my culinary instincts into thinking that I was basting myself.  Despite the warnings I had been given by friends who had been through the process before, the flavor was not a problem.  It tasted like Gatorade to me.  Granted, it was a lot of Gatorade, and, as I normally only drink it when running, I was not thirsty for it, but I had feared it would be a far less pleasant experience.   

By 5 p.m., the laxatives began to take effect, and I started making regular trips to the porcelain throne.  Now that I had reason to move on a regular basis, if you’ll forgive the pun, the evening, much like the contents of my colon, passed quickly, and by 10 p.m. I was ready for bed.  Unfortunately, I had to roust myself at 2 a.m. for another thirty-two ounces of GatorLax.  

When the alarm sounded, I rose from bed, donned my sweatpants, hoody, and wool socks, and made my way to the kitchen to pour myself the first of four cups of my yellow elixir.  I moved to the couch and dialed up yet another episode of The Americans, and, within an hour, I was back in bed, shivering.  My chill was not caused by the thought of Russian spies living next door.  Rather,  the quart of cold GatorLax served to reduce my core temperature significantly.  Fortunately for me, my wife is experiencing her own version of getting older that, in her case, manifests in occasional hot flashes.  When she felt my cold feet, she snuggled up to me.  She was steaming hot, and we achieved a pleasant body temperature equilibrium.  I drifted in and out of fitful sleep until the alarm sounded again, this time indicating it was time to get dressed, drive to the clinic, and face my mortality.  

The check in process was routine, and it was all over but the waiting.  After a few minutes of thumbing through issues of Better Homes & Gardens, a nurse approached and confirmed that my wife was there to be my driver, as I would be anesthetized for the procedure and not be allowed to drive myself home.  I said goodbye to my wife and followed the nurse through the door to the prep room.  

She had me sit on a surgical bed and posed a series of questions to confirm I was who I claimed to be.  I got the impression that mistaken identity might be a problem for them, but I couldn’t imagine anyone voluntarily and illicitly trying to undergo a colonoscopy.  I answered her questions, donned a hospital gown, stripped down below the waist, and waited for the doctor.  

My gastroenterologist appeared to be in his sixties with white hair and a well worn face.  This was clearly not his first rodeo.  He assured me that the worst of it was behind me, and I laughed despite realizing that was a joke he had undoubtedly made thousands of times before.  He gave me his spiel about the procedure, the reason for it, the risks, and what to expect.  His prepared remarks included an apparently off-script comment, spoken with great disdain, that colon cancer was on the rise “probably because of the American diet.” I felt guilty despite the fact I try to eat healthily for the most part.  He spoke quickly, as if he was a 33 1/3 record playing at 78 rpms, and asked if I understood what he had told me.  I smiled and said he was good at that speech.  He returned the smile and said he had given it about 30,000 times.  I took some comfort in his experience with colons, knowing that whatever the outcome, he was likely to be thorough in his work.  

Next, I met the anesthesiologist who asked if I’d ever had problems with anesthesia, and I said, “Nope.  I love it.”  I’ve had three surgeries, and I have always enjoyed getting knocked out by a professional.  I have never been good at falling asleep, so the opportunity to be put into a coma quickly has always appealed to me, assuming I would wake up some time later.  He told me he would be administering propofol and that it was a relatively safe drug.  I pointed out that it’s the same stuff that killed Michael Jackson, but I assumed he would be more careful.  

The bed I was reclining on was wheeled into the darkened operating room, where I was wired into the equipment with a lead on each forearm, a blood pressure cuff on my left bicep, a heart rate monitor on my right index finger, and an oxygen tube affixed to my nostrils.  Despite the fact that, due to the cleansing process, my colon was empty, shit was getting real.  

The next thing I recall, I was having a great dream about being in a science fiction film in which I was on the bridge of a ship like the Nostromo in Alien before everything got scary.  I was surrounded by my crewmates and beeping electronics and we were about to embark on some adventure when I woke up and realized I was still in the operating room.  Captain Dallas and Ripley faded back into my subconscious, and I realized the medical professionals were just finishing the procedure.  I had the distinct sensation of the equipment being removed from the, ahem, point of entry.  I’m glad that hadn’t been part of my dream, as it would have put a whole different twist on the face-hugger scene in my Alien fantasy.  

I was moved to the recovery area and told I needed to pass gas, as the colonoscopy process includes injecting air into the rectum.  I am not often encouraged to fart, so I took advantage of the opportunity, and it was delightful.  A few minutes later, the doctor came to my bedside to inform me that he had removed three polyps, none of which were cancerous.  As it turned out, my mortal fears were unfounded, at least for three to five years, at which time I will undergo the procedure again.  Relief washed over me, and, thanks in part to the propofol, I felt good, like a three-beer buzz that quickly faded.    

My wife drove us home, and, upon arrival, I immediately toasted up two pieces of the cracked wheat bread my daughter had baked the day I began my frustratingly restrictive diet.  It’s my favorite bread, and I relished every bite of thick slices coated with butter.  I spent the rest of the day eating with reckless abandon and being thankful for the doctor’s reassurance that I would indeed live to fart another day.  

I have a friend who, over the course of the last year or so has had a remarkable streak of bad medical news.  Every time she goes to the doctor, she is diagnosed with some new life-threatening malady.  She has little time to wallow in self-pity while binging shows on Prime Video.  She is too busy getting treatment and fighting to stay alive.  I admire her strength and determination, and I appreciate her frequent posts on Facebook.  In addition to being wickedly funny, she reminds her circle of friends that what you don’t know really can kill you, and it’s important to get yourself checked out even though you might fear having a medical instrument inserted in places you’d rather not think about or getting your boob smooshed in a mammogram machine.  It will probably be o.k., but even if it isn’t, well, I’ll leave you with Katie’s wise words:  

“What I have learned: when you’re having a really, really shitty day, just remember that when shit happens, you are allowed to freak out (a little or a lot, and probably more than once!), then deal with it and do what you need to do to move on. For me, there is no choice to do otherwise. And no feeling sorry for myself, either – there’s still too damn much to be grateful for.”

A New Car for Christmas

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2018 ended with a bang.  Actually, the bang happened in late October, when my wife was rear-ended on Interstate 5 while driving our minivan.  Thankfully, no one was hurt, but the rear hatch door was crunched just enough that it would no longer open, which increased the degree of difficulty on grocery day.  In addition, with a son going to college, we appreciated having easy access to the storage compartment to transport his luggage and living supplies a couple times each year.   Despite the load/unload challenges, we considered keeping it.  Our Honda Odyssey had served us faithfully for eighteen years, and we still loved her, but the insurance company had other ideas.  Without any regard for sentiment, they crunched the numbers on our crunched tailgate and decided it would be cheaper to total the van than to replace the gate.  As a result, we had to surrender our minivan.  On a weekday afternoon, she was unceremoniously loaded towed away behind a flatbed truck.  In truth, the accident was a blessing of sorts, as, shortly after the crash, the transmission, coincidentally, began to fail.  The van groaned and lurched when switching from Reverse to Drive, and our mechanic advised us to keep her off the freeway.  Accident or not, it seemed that our old Honda’s life was coming to an end.  It was time to go shopping.

I hate car shopping.  I have no interest in haggling, and, truth be told, I would be inclined to pay a bit more if I simply didn’t have to spend three hours in a dealership waiting for something, anything, to happen such that I could drive away in a new vehicle.  That’s one of the reasons, in addition to my chronic cheapness, why I only buy a car every eighteen years. 

 My wife did some research online and found a couple of vehicles that would meet our requirements, and it was time to begin the test drive dance.  Our first stop was the Honda dealer to look at the CRV.  We have driven Hondas as long as we’ve been together.  We’ve been fortunate enough to inherit Honda sedans from my parents over the years, and the Odyssey was the first, and only, vehicle we purchased as a married couple.  We are brand loyal but budget conscious, so we also visited the Subaru dealer to learn about their small SUV.  It felt like a betrayal when I sat in the Forester and realized I liked it more than the CRV, and not just because it was less expensive.  I’ll spare you the details of how we sealed the deal.  Suffice to say it was, in fact, a three hour “waiting around” process that ended with us not even being able to drive away in our new car.  We had to wait for it to be delivered a week later.  The only good part of the car buying experience was that it greatly simplified the question of what my wife and I would give each other for Christmas: a shiny charcoal gray 2019 Subaru Forester with lots of bells and whistles.  

To be honest, there are no bells and whistles in our new car, but there are a lot of technological marvels.  It turns out that cars have changed over the last eighteen years, and our  new car is smarter than I am.  For example, the headlights turn off automatically when the engine is off, which is a technological marvel from my 2001 Honda perspective.  It also lets me know if I’m drifting out of my lane by ever so subtly nudging the wheel.  The automatic motion is almost subliminal, and I’ve tested it enough that many drivers behind me have probably gotten nervous that I keep drifting to the right.  It also promises to save me from fender benders by sensing when I’m getting to close to an object in front of the vehicle and applying the brakes whether I do or not.  I haven’t tested that feature, which I’m sure is comforting for those driving in front of me.  The Forester also came with two months of free satellite radio, but I don’t think I’ll keep the subscription.  The heavy metal station is sketchy, and the audio system allows me to connect my phone.  My personal metal playlist will be just fine.  No more CDs for us.  It’s podcasts and Slayer from here on out.  

 The only other vehicle in my life is my Dodge Dakota pickup, Helen, and I think she’s starting to feel the pressure.  She’s thirty-one years old and doesn’t have any of the crash prevention features, as evidenced by the smashed bumper and dented passenger door.  The lights don’t turn off automatically, and she no longer warns me that I’ve left the lights on.  It used to have an alarm, but it stopped working about ten years ago.  I could probably get that fixed, but, of course, it would cost money.  Since then, I have left the lights on a number of times and learned the battery will drain after little more than two hours with the headlights illuminating a parking lot.  Further, even though I had the blower replaced last year, it’s still a somewhat asthmatic heating device.  It’s been cold this week in Olympia, and yesterday I scraped ice off the windshield.  Specifically, the inside of the windshield.  Even after a ten-minute warm-up, she was still chilled to the core, and both of us shivered all the way to work.  Having spent time in the new Forester, marveling at its advanced technology and hyper-efficient heater, I admit I’ve contemplated the idea of having a newer commuter car that gets better than ten miles per gallon.    

I’m not giving up on Helen, though.  I didn’t buy her. Rather, I inherited it when my dad died thirteen years ago this week, and she is a reminder of the times we spent together hauling dirt, rocks, garbage, Christmas trees, and, on one occasion, a refrigerator.  She’s a part of the family.  

Helen lives outside.  The garage is reserved for the family vehicle, which is now a brand new Subaru Forester.  Despite the fact the Forester has a new, highly efficient interior heating system that warms up the cockpit in just a minute or two, it sits in our insulated garage.  Meanwhile, Helen sits on the curb in front of the house.  Rain or shine, she quietly waits for me to take her to work, and every morning she starts up like a trooper.   

Despite any shortcomings, Helen continues to prove her worth.  For example, a couple weeks ago, as I was heading out of the office, I realized I didn’t have my keys in my pocket.  If they aren’t in my pocket, odds are good they are in the trucks, and on more than one occasion in the last year, I have locked my keys in the truck as I headed into the office.  That evening, after I called my wife to have her bring me the spare key, I headed out into the darkened parking lot to confirm I had left the keys in the locked cab.  As I approached Helen, I could hear an NPR reporter broadcasting the news.  It has become my habit to leave the radio on when I am sitting in the cab gathering my belongings for the day.  I figured it would be unlikely I would leave my keys behind if I could still hear the radio while exiting the vehicle, but apparently I had other things on my mind that morning.  While the headlights will drain the battery in two hours or less, Helen hung in there listening to NPR for ten hours without dying.  That’s a nice feature, and a decent argument for keeping her around.  Of course, I have no intention of breaking off the relationship.  We’ve been together for twelve years.  She’s like a faithful old dog, and you don’t just get rid of a friend like that.  

It’s my hope the new Subaru is the last family car we will need to buy for the next eighteen or more years.  I suspect, however, that Helen will run out of steam before then.  If, or when, that time comes, I will grudgingly return to a dealership to buy another car.  Presumably it will have more modern features, like automatic locks, headlights that turn off automatically, and maybe even a blower that clears fog from the windshield in under five minutes.  Can you imagine?  It will be nice, but driving to work in twenty degree weather without shivering just won’t be the same.  

The Great Erythromycin Shortage of 2019

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These are not terms I come across every day:

  • Nasolacrimal duct obstruction with epiphora
  • Dacryocystorhinostomy with stent
  • Radiofrequency ablation

When I read those words on the page, I thought they could be the names of songs by Carcass, an extreme metal band known for using obscure, and generally disgusting, medical terminology to title their tunes.  In fact, they were terms on a medical chart that featured my mother’s name at the top, and, to be clear, she is not an extreme metal musician working on a solo album.  Rather, she suffers from epiphora, which is an excessive watering of the eyes.  For her, it means constantly dabbing the moisture from her eyes with a tissue.  For those of us who spend time with her, it means constantly wondering if we just said something that made her sad.  

Her epiphora is caused by nasolacrimal duct obstruction, which means her tear ducts are clogged up.  As diseases go, it’s more of a nuisance than threat to her well being, but she wanted to get it fixed.  That’s where the dacryocystorhinostomy comes into the picture.  That nine-syllable beast of a word is the name of a procedure to create a tear drain between the eye and nose.  Mom’s tear ducts weren’t functioning properly, and, in order to put an end to her tearfulness, she needed to have new ducts manufactured.  The surgery involves putting a stent, a tiny plastic tube, in the spot where your tear duct should be doing its job to create a new drain for the tears.  

Mom had the procedure done on her left side last Tuesday.  A year and a half ago she had her right tear duct stented, and now it was time to repeat the process on the left side.  Last time, my brother was on duty as her caregiver following the procedure, and this time it was my turn.  I didn’t object, as it meant I got to take an extra day off work, turning the  three day MLK holiday weekend into a four day break from the daily grind.  

We checked into the eye clinic at noon and were quickly escorted to the back room to prep for surgery.  The staff were charming and funny, and they got Mom I.V.d and wired into the vital statistics monitor in short order.  Mom said she was feeling o.k., but the blood pressure monitor suggested otherwise.  Her pressure was higher than normal but not high enough to call off the procedure.  They knew that the anesthetic would cure that particular symptom.  Watching the blood pressure number hold steady at the higher numbers, she admitted she might be a little anxious.  

After an hour of waiting for the surgeon to finish cutting up another patient, she was wheeled back to the operating room, and I retreated to the waiting are and found a spot on a cozy loveseat. After an hour and a half during which I blissfully read a crime novel in the quiet and comfortable waiting room, wallowing in my time off work, I was called back to collect Mom and get the post-surgery care instructions.  

The bad news was that she isn’t allowed to blow her nose for three weeks following surgery.  Doing so would result in a bloody nose that would be as difficult to stop as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.  The good news is it was only three weeks.  Mom was shocked and somewhat annoyed, as the first time she had the procedure done, she was told not to blow for two and a half months.  The nurse was surprised and impressed with her self-restraint and said the longer the better.  That may be true, but I’m guessing Mom will be cautiously blowing her nose starting on or about February 12th at 3 p.m.;  three weeks to the hour, post-surgery. 

She was also given prescriptions, including one for pain medication.  The scrip was for oxycodone, the notoriously powerful opioid pain killer, which was what they prescribed the first time.  She had taken a grand total of three pills then, so it seems clear she managed to avoid a debilitating addiction.  In fact, she still had the remaining pills, which she had handed to me the morning of the surgery.  I pulled the amber-colored plastic container from my pocket and asked the nurse if she could take the pills from her previous surgery to relieve pain this time.  The nurse reviewed the fine print and said they had expired, and, while they might still be fine to use, she couldn’t officially condone it.  I took the new prescription and told her I would just sell the remaining pills.  My joke drew a lot of attention from the medical staff standing nearby.  They don’t know me or my sense of humor, so they were on high alert for potentially nefarious activity.  I assured them I was kidding, but it did occur to me I could make a tidy profit if I was willing to risk incarceration for the illicit sale of a controlled substance.  I didn’t have any buyers in mind, and if I did know someone who would be interested in such a purchase, I doubt I would trust them to keep me out of it if they got arrested.  If you are interested, you can find the leftover pills in front of the county courthouse.  They are in a white drop box labeled “Thurston County Sherriff’s Office. – Pharmaceutical Disposal”  Good luck with that. 

Once we had been fully briefed on the recovery procedures, the nurse loaded Mom into the car, and we made our way home by way of the pharmacy.  While I wasn’t planning to fill the prescription for more oxy, as Mom decided Tylenol should suffice, I did need to pick up erythromycin ointment that would serve as an antibiotic for the incision near her eye.  When I checked in at the pharmacy desk, they told me they were unable to fill the prescription as they didn’t have any of the ointment available.  They told me they left a message with the doctor to have a different medicine prescribed.  I was frustrated, but I wanted to get Mom home to rest, so I decided to call back later to find out if they had heard back from the doctor.  While I was content to wait for the pharmacy to sort things out, my mother and my wife (via text) both suggested I call a different pharmacy to see if they had the ointment in stock.  I don’t like talking to strangers, especially over the phone, but when both of the matriarchal figures in my life tell me to do something, resistance is futile, and, as a result, I called another pharmacy.  That’s when I learned there truly is a nation-wide shortage of erythromycin ointment.  After a few more calls to pharmacies and the doctor, I managed to get a new medication prescribed (bacitracin) and have the prescription switched to a different pharmacy, since the first didn’t carry bacitracin, either.  I wondered if they had any medicine in stock at all and considered asking if they had any Venezuelan beaver cheese (and if you get that joke, we can be friends).  

Once Mom was comfortably ensconced on her couch with an ice pack over her left eye, I went to the pharmacy to pick up the ointment and, on the way back, I picked up a burger and fries for myself from Five Guys.  After all, from my perspective, I was still on my mini-holiday from work, and a greasy burger sounded like a nice vacation treat.  When I got back, I set about writing down the schedule for Mom’s pain medication, eye ointment, and icing.  We watched TV together and talked through the evening, expressing our mutual disdain for the current administration.  I love these moments with Mom, occupying the same space and enjoying each other’s presence. 

Mom gave me a $100 for my troubles.  Of course, I didn’t ask for nor expect to be paid to be her nurse for twenty-four hours, but it’s her way.  My brother and I, who are both gainfully employed, have learned not to fight with her about her cash payments for menial tasks that are simple familial obligations.  She had also given me her credit card to use to purchase her bacitracin ointment, and she tried to reimburse me for the burger I bought for dinner, but I refused.  It was a small financial victory.  Of course, she insisted I sleep in her king size bed, while she slept in the double bed in the guest room.  Mom will be Mom; there’s just no way around it.  

When she retreated to the guest room to sleep off the last of the anesthetic, I watched TV and relaxed in the living room.  I would be going back to work later the next morning, but I had enjoyed my four-day weekend.  Playing nurse to my mother is not a chore.  I am grateful beyond measure for the opportunity to repay her for all those nights she stayed up with me as I suffered through asthma attacks as a kid.  It was those nights when Mom and I got past just being mother and son.  Sitting close together and sharing stories late into the night until I caught my breath, we became friends, and she’s still my BFF.       

By the way, that third term, radiofrequency ablation, is a fancy way of saying she had some eyelashes permanently removed from her right eyelid.  The lashes had a nasty habit of growing into her eye causing discomfort.  It could make for a pretty good metal song.  Maybe I’ll suggest it to the guys in Carcass.  

If you have the opportunity, call your Mom.  She loves you.  

To Boldly Sew

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To wrap up 2018, I took advantage of my employer’s generous vacation leave policy and spent eleven days — including two weekends, Christmas, and New Year’s Day — at home, and during that lengthy stretch, I rarely left my house, only journeying out into the wild to re-stock my stores of snacks and beer.  If you want to be nitpicky, we did travel to my brother’s house for Christmas Day, and there were two running events, including a five-mile fun run, and a marathon.  That all adds up to about one day of travel by car and on foot, and the rest of the time I was camped out on the couch watching TV and doing cross-stitch.  

Cross-stitch, for the uninitiated is a form of “counted thread embroidery,” in which thread is woven through even-weave fabric (Google it) in a particular pattern to produce a picture or words.  I’ve most often seen cross-stitch tapestries in the form of “bell pulls,” a long and narrow rectangle that hangs vertically and features some message like “Happy Holidays” or a family name along with flowery images.  The project I worked on over my Christmas was based on a pattern my daughter found featuring Star Trek uniform insignias for Command, Sciences, and Engineering.  We are a family of geeks, and my daughter made the Star Trek tapestry for her brother as a gift he could hang in his college dorm room.  When my brother saw it, he expressed his admiration, so she decided to make one for him, too.  Life got busy for her, and I ended up taking over the project.  After all, I had lots of time on my hands, and cross-stitch is a wonderful pastime.  

I have been doing needlework since I was a young child.  My mother, practiced in many of the textile arts, decided I should learn to sew and taught me how to do a basic stitch in order to hold two edges of fabric together and how to sew on a button.  Thanks to Mom, I am prepared for any garment emergencies, which is good because I lose an inordinate number of buttons from my shirts.  My clothes dryer seems to enjoy eating buttons, and I am loath to spend money on new garments.  I have a massive collection of buttons, passed down from my mother and prior generations of my family’s seamstresses, and I can always find one that almost matches the other buttons.  

While my hand-sewing skills have never progressed beyond the basics, Mom also taught me how to use a sewing machine.  I am adept at operating such a device, as long as it was manufactured before the year of my birth, 1968.  I learned on my mom’s 1961 machine, and I inherited my aunt’s 1967ish Kenmore.  I know more about the components of a sewing machine — including the bobbin winder, presser foot, and feed dog — than I do about internal combustion engines.  I can’t change the oil on my car, but I can thread a sewing machine like nobody’s business.  

Sewing has always been a practical matter, but for creativity, I learned how to do needlepoint: the beginner’s version of cross-stitch.  I was more of an art kid than an athletic kid, and needlepoint was an outlet for my aesthetic interests.  It was like drawing with yarn, and I created colorful drink coasters, a Christmas scene — with a tree, fireplace, and stockings hung with care —that adorns my mother’s home every holiday season, and a three-dimensional recreation of a Rubik’s cube that served as a pin cushion.  

 Mom reassured the young, impressionable me there was nothing sissy about needlepoint.  She pointed out that Rosy Grier — the NFL Hall of Fame six-foot five-inch, 285 pound defensive lineman for the Los Angeles Rams — was a needlepoint aficionado who even wrote a book about it.  I thought that was interesting, but I was never overly concerned about having my masculinity challenged because of my love for needlepoint.  I just thought it was cool.  

It had been many years since I picked up a needle and thread for creative purposes, but sitting on the couch each evening during my Christmas break with the even-weave fabric mounted in a wooden stitch frame in my lap and a needle in my hand was just the break from the daily grind of work that I needed.  While I toiled, there was no email, no Facebook, and I even lost track of what was on the big screen TV.  My focus was singular, carefully counting spaces on the even-weave, poking the needle through the back of the canvas, and pulling the colored thread as the image slowly formed.  It’s close up work, and I pushed my glasses up onto my head so I could focus my aging eyes on the tiny holes. It was a meditation of sorts and deeply relaxing.  From time to time, the thread would snarl, and so would I, as I was forced to “frog” a few stitches and begin again.  There is no art without a bit of suffering.  

The tapestry is now complete, and I love the subtle irony of the symbols of Star Trek’s futuristic technology being illustrated with humble embroidery floss.  I’ve been on Pinterest all week looking for my next project, which will probably be a rendering of some extreme metal imagery, of course.  Whatever it is, it will have to wait a bit, as I’ve returned to the busy-ness of work and I’ve got a book to finish, but some day soon, I will retreat to my couch, push my glasses back on my head with needle in hand and escape into the cross-stitch universe to seek out new imagery and delightful meditation, to boldly go where Rosy Grier has gone before.  

The Last 26.2 and the First 50

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I turned fifty last week, and I marked the occasion by running my sixth marathon.  It was Sally, my running partner, who suggested it.  I thought I was officially retired from full marathons, but she talked me into it by pointing out two things: 

  1. It would be cool to run a marathon to commemorate my fiftieth birthday.
  2. The race was free.  

The fiftieth birthday marathon idea wasn’t overly compelling, but the fact there was no entry fee tipped the scales.  Sally knows I am cheap and avoid paying race entry fees whenever possible, so a free marathon was too good to pass up.  To be clear, while there was no entry fee, participants were encouraged to make a donation to a charitable organization, which I was happy to do.  The Last 26.2 Miles of the Year was a small event, with just eighty-five runners touring the streets of Seattle.  The run was on Saturday, and I’ve been recovering ever since, which has given me plenty of time to contemplate how running a marathon is like turning fifty. 

I have aches and pains in places I didn’t know I had.  

A third of the way into the run my hamstrings were hurting, which meant I was in for a long day.  At about the halfway point, I stopped worrying about my hams, as the tightness in my calves grew increasingly vice-like.  By the end, it was my toes that hurt the most.  The lower body suffering made sense, as I was on my feet and moving my legs for five and a half hours.  What I didn’t expect was the pain I felt when I went to bed that night.  I assumed I would lapse into a coma of exhaustion, but instead, my upper body decided to get in the misery game.  As I tossed and turned, my arms, shoulders, and back screamed with anguish.  What fresh hell was this?  I’ve always been achy after running a marathon, but the full body agony was a new sensation, and I hoped this wasn’t a feature that comes with turning fifty.  Hobbling down the stairs the next morning, grunting with each step, I was keenly aware of the irony that, in an effort to make myself feel younger, I engage in an activity that makes me feel like I’m 85 years old.  

The stuff I worry about isn’t necessarily the stuff that gets in my way.

My biggest concern about running a marathon in Seattle on December 29th was the possibility of rain.  I didn’t experience any soggy runs while training for the event, but I figured my luck might run out by the time the race started.  I was not excited about running twenty-six water-logged miles, and I was prepared to back out of the race if the weather forecast included significant precipitation.  As it turned out, I didn’t need to worry about the rain.  Rather, I should have worried about the wind, which gusted up to fifteen miles an hour, often straight into our faces.  We spent much of the course running along the shores of Puget Sound, and the gales repeatedly tried to rip the hat from my head.  Sally wondered aloud how much extra effort was required to run into the wind, and I’m willing to believe it was substantial. 

I also should have worried more about the course itself.  I knew that a marathon in Seattle would involve hills, but I had no idea there would be so many and that they could be so steep and long.  We had made a conscious decision to walk up the hills to conserve energy, but there were a few inclines that came close to requiring climbing equipment.  Surprisingly, while running downhill is usually the reward for going up, the descents on this course were at least as taxing as the ascents.  The pounding of gravity on my shins, ankles, and aforementioned toes was brutal, and the rare stretches of flat ground were sweet relief.  

Another unanticipated hazard awaited us in the first mile.  We started the run in the dark, one hour before sunrise, and Sally wore a headlamp to supplement the street lights along the way.  All the runners were beginning to hit their stride when we came to a bottleneck while running on a narrow sidewalk.  The runners in front of us slowed to a walk leaving us confused until we came upon a large black cable lying across the concrete.  It had apparently been blown loose from the utility poll on our right.  I hope it was a telephone line, rather than a power line, but, regardless, it didn’t stop any of us.  We each stepped over the downed line and shouted to those behind us to be careful.  Our behavior contributed to the chagrin of the cop who had arrived to deal with the hazard but was unable to clear the area of marathoners.  

Over the course of 26.2 miles and fifty years, it has been my experience that I often worry about the wrong stuff.  It’s not that bad stuff won’t happen, but since I usually guess wrong about how it will manifest, there’s not much point in fretting about it.  I should just keep running.  

I’ve covered a lot of ground.

I don’t think there is much dispute that 26.2 miles is a considerable distance, just as fifty years is a significant span of time.  I was reminded last week that on the day I was born, the astronauts of Apollo 8 were beginning their 200,000 mile journey back to Earth having spent Christmas Eve orbiting the moon.  I haven’t gone that far in my travels, but I’ve had the opportunity to cover a lot of ground in the past fifty years.  While I’m happy that I’ve had the chance to visit some far off lands, like Hawaii and Europe, I’m at least as happy about the places I’ve seen while wearing shorts and running shoes.  I’ve run the streets of Olympia for twenty-five years, and I’ve seen and experienced a lot.  As Lao Tzu said, the journey of a thousand miles begins with the ground beneath your feet.  While it certainly means that a long journey begins with a small step, it also means that we should appreciate where we are before we head off on that journey.  

To that point, I also realize…

There’s a lot I haven’t seen yet. 

Over the course of 26.2 miles last Saturday, I saw a lot of the greater Seattle area.  We ran by the boats moored at Shilshole Bay and listened to the rigging clang like discordant wind chimes.  We ran across the Ballard Locks, which carry more boat traffic than any other lock in the U.S.  We ran over the Montlake Cut where the UW rowing teams pull the last 500 meters of the 2,000 meter course.  We ran by Husky Stadium, which is the closest I’ve ever gotten to it before.   While these are not particularly exotic locales, they are places I have heard about ever since I’ve lived in the Pacific Northwest but never visited.  Now that I’ve run past them, I want to go back and spend more time.  As much as I’ve seen in fifty years, there’s always more to take in, and while I want to go back to Europe, too, there’s a lot of cool stuff in the backyard waiting to be explored.  

I can always be more prepared. 

I trained for the race, but only up to a point.  By the time I learned about it, there was only enough time to train up to twenty miles, which wasn’t enough preparation.  As a result, I walked a lot and suffered more aches and pains than I am accustomed to.  I know I can do better.  I am planning to pace the Capital City Marathon in May, and I have every intention of putting in a better performance, which will require some adjustments in my training, not to mention dropping a few pounds.  In fifty years, I’ve learned the value of reflecting on the good, bad, and ugly in order to ensure the hard miles ahead go just a little bit smoother.  

I can help others reach their goals. 

Sally and I were joined on the run by a co-worker who was running his first marathon.  Jason had been training and was planning to run the Capital City Marathon next May, but I encouraged him to take the leap and run with us.  He had put in the miles and was physically ready, so why wait, I told him.  It reminded me of a conversation twenty years earlier, when I was in Jason’s position, fully prepared to run my first marathon but putting it off until better weather in the spring.  My friend Jonathan was having none of it and encouraged me to run the Seattle Marathon that Thanksgiving weekend in 1998.  I did, and I’m grateful for it.  It was a cold, wet, and miserable morning in Seattle, but I finished and proved to myself that I could achieve something that few have even considered.  I was a fully certified couch potato for the better part of my youth, but I traveled twenty-six miles under my own power.  I always give thanks to Jonathan for pushing me to that first starting line, and I’m glad I gave Jason a little nudge.  When I crossed the line on Saturday, he was there with a finisher’s medal around his neck and a proud smile on his face.  Pretty cool.       

I have had a lot of help along the way.  

While I could say it’s Sally’s fault I entered this marathon that caused me so much suffering, I would prefer to thank her for helping me finish.  I did more walking in this marathon than I have ever done before, and by the end, even on flat ground with less than a mile to go, I couldn’t manage to run for more than a minute at a time.  She had more in her gas tank than I did, but she stuck with me, and for that, I’m grateful.  Early in my running “career,” I was a loner.  I did all my training runs solo and in silence, and when I ran my first marathon, I was annoyed with all the people around me chit-chatting mile after mile.  Twenty years later, I can’t imagine going it alone.  Fifty years into this adventure, I’m blessed with family and friends who have guided, encouraged, cautioned, and directed me to get where I am today.  Thanks to all of you.  

I can still do cool stuff.

If I can still run marathons at age fifty, I can certainly finish writing another book.  On this New Year’s Day, I hereby resolve to face up to the challenges I’ve been putting off for far too long.  I will shed a few pounds, eat a little better, train a little more, and write my way to a publishing date.  There will be unforeseen challenges along the way, but I’ve got lots of people willing to help.  Just keep running, together.  

Happy New Year!