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.  

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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!

The Last Unicorn

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Our Christmas tree this year is a bit shorter than usual.  It’s also not a noble fir, which has been my preferred species for many years, but all that mattered last Saturday afternoon was that the tree was tall enough to not be mistaken for a Christmas shrub, skinny enough to fit into the corner of our living room without blocking the TV, and available at a reasonable price.  My son and I had been on the hunt for several hours, and we were running out of daylight to look for a better one.  

Christmas tree hunting has been part of our family tradition since the kids were able to join me in wandering through U-cut tree farms looking for the “perfect” tree to sever from the earth, drag into our house, and adorn with lights and baubles.  This year, the tree hunt took place a bit later than usual, as I was waiting for my son to return from college to join me on the quest.  My daughter had other plans, so it was just the two of us.  

I love spending time with my son, but we often struggle with logistics when we are not accompanied by one of the women of our tribe.  Neither of us has an inherent sense of direction, nor do we possess a significant degree of common sense.  We depend on the girls for those qualities, and, as a result, we often face challenges in our tree hunting endeavors when left to our own testosterone.  But we usually get a good story out of it.  

Through experience, we have learned to depend on our smart phones to provide directions to and from the tree farm.  For the past several years, we have visited the same farm near the small town of Tenino, about fifteen miles from home.  Despite traveling to the same location every year, my son and I have gotten lost going to or coming from the Riverbend Ranch tree farm on at least half of our pilgrimages over the last eight years.  I simply cannot be trusted to navigate somewhere based on a memory that is twelve months old, and my son is not geographically aware enough to offer assistance.  So, we rely on the nice women that live in our phones to act as a surrogate for my wife’s ability to retain geospatial information.  When I tapped Riverbend Ranch into the phone, the mapping app defaulted to a location in Tucson, Arizona, and I might have started following the directions had I not noticed that the estimated travel time was twenty-two hours.  I didn’t have that much time allotted for this errand, so I tapped in the actual address in Tenino, and we were off on what promised to be a much more reasonable twenty-minute drive.  

Upon arrival at the Riverbend Ranch, we were confronted with a heretofore unencountered obstacle: the ranch was closed for the season.  This was inexplicable, as we could plainly see fields of noble, grand, and Douglas firs all around us.  My emotions ranged from annoyance to concern.  After so many years of successful tree hunting at the ranch, we had come to think of the proprietors as friends, despite never learning their names, and I worried that some tragedy had befallen the family such that they had to close down the operation early.  My worry would have to wait, though, as we needed to find another tree farm.  My son dialed up a map of evergreen purveyors in the surrounding area, and we climbed back into the truck to head east towards one that had good reviews.  

Upon arrival some thirty minutes later outside the town of Rainier, we saw some promising firs beyond the parking lot fence.  We dismounted the truck and made our way to a house-like structure to learn about the particulars of their u-cut process.  I stopped short of entering the office, though, as I noticed the pricing information stenciled onto the front window in large white capital letters.  At this tree farm, noble firs of any height were offered at a flat rate of $50.  I flinched at that price, as it was $15 more than I was accustomed to paying for a seven-foot tree.  I would have to get a ten-foot-tall tree to take advantage of the per foot price, but I had no need nor space for such a coniferous behemoth.  I told my son not to make eye contact and simply get back in the truck and start looking for another farm.  

Following the directions given by the voice on his phone, we drove west towards Maytown for another thirty minutes, going deeper into the heart of the rainforest darkness.  The roads became narrower and more circuitous, the giant cedars loomed, and we giggled nervously about the possibility the online advertisement for this tree farm could be a front for a serial killer who likes to lure unsuspecting Christmas tree aficionados to their doom.  Just as we were about to give up, fearing we were once again lost, we arrived in the driveway of the Beaver Creek Tree Farm, and the bearded and smiling proprietor was walking towards us.  He seemed too nice to be a murderer, so I decided to get out of the truck and say hello.  I told him about our journey through Thurston County, and he explained that his friends at Riverbend Ranch had met their sales quota for the year and shut down early, which provided me some emotional relief.  He also explained that noble firs are getting to be more expensive as they are difficult to grow in this region and have been increasingly affected by a disease, making good ones harder to find.  

He told us his trees topped out at about six feet, and I said that would be just fine.  We walked to the edge of the parking lot and looked down.  There was a shallow hillside that, after a hundred yards, flattened out into a larger grove of trees in the distance.  He encouraged us to start at the top of the hill to the right of the parking lot and make our way down the hillside in a switchback manner to see all the trees.  Once we arrived at the bottom, we could explore the larger field.  He pointed out that he had a few small nobles, and he was starting to grow a newer variety called Nordmann, but they wouldn’t be ready for several years.  The majority of his stock were grand firs — the variety we ended up with — and blue pines.  He pointed out how the blue pines were distinctive in their silvery shine compared to the typically green trees around them.  He said the largest trees were down there in that grove, and the tallest of them could be ours for $35.  That was all I needed to hear, but he had one more bit of information to offer.  He pointed towards the center of the grove and asked if we could see the blue pine with a yellow streamer tied to the top.  I said I could, and, leaning in close and speaking to us almost in a whisper, as if sharing a secret, he said that ten years ago, a customer asked him to hold that tree for him, but he never came back to claim it.  Since then, he had watched it slowly mature and become the most beautiful Christmas tree he has ever seen.  He told us it was the largest and bluest of his blue pines and, if we wanted it, well, we could have it for $40.  We were intrigued and eager to explore. 

I grabbed a saw, and we followed the instructions to wander down the hill from right to left.  We were accompanied in our hunt by the two dogs that live on the farm.  One was a small Boston Terrier and the other seemed to be a mix of Pointer and Labrador Retriever.  The terrier sprinted ahead of us, while the retriever was steadfast by my side.  These dogs clearly adopted whoever arrived to venture into their territory, and we were happy for the company of those familiar with the terrain.  

The trees on the hillside were too short for our needs, so we quickly made our way to the larger grove of firs.  We had gone through several rounds of “How about this one?” and “Let’s look over there” and found a number of contenders for our family Christmas tree, when we saw, in the center of the evergreen copse, the legendary blue pine, and I have to admit, it was a beautiful tree.  We looked at it and each other several times.  My son wanted this tree, but I was reluctant.  I told him that the whorls were so thick with the giant blue pine needle cones they wouldn’t provide space for ornaments to be hung.  But that wasn’t the real reason I couldn’t cut it down.  This magnificent tree glowed.  It had a story that had been whispered to us.  It was singular, like the Golden Fleece, and possessed an almost supernatural quality.  I couldn’t bring myself to be the hunter who took down the last unicorn.  Instead, as the gloaming began, we settled for a six foot grand fir to serve as our family tree.  

I knelt down in the muddy ground and cut through the trunk, and my son began dragging the grand, if not noble or shockingly blue, tree up the hill, so we could make our way home.  We loaded the tree into the bed of my truck and settled up with the proprietor.  We even bought a handmade wreath for our front door.  In addition, we also almost got a free cat, as Roscoe, the resident feline, climbed into the back of the truck to cuddle up inside the fir tree now deposited there.  We said our thank yous and goodbyes, and I made a mental note to return to the Beaver Creek Tree Farm next year.  I’m sure it will be gone by then, but I want to see for myself if the legendary blue pine is still there. 

Every year my wife asks if it’s time to get an artificial tree to simplify the Christmas decoration process by eliminating the need to venture out into the cold, often rainy, Pacific Northwest weather to wander through muddy forest fields and labor over the cutting down of an over-priced evergreen with an under-sharpened saw.  Every year I tell her no, not yet.  I will bring home a fresh cut Christmas tree until my kids are no longer interested or available to join me in the hunt or my now 30-year-old pickup finally shuffles off its mortal coil.  I don’t want to tie a seven-foot noble fir to the roof of the fuel efficient commuter car that will inevitably become the successor to Helen, my ’88 Dodge Dakota.  Until then, I want to go out into the woods with my kids and find a good story.      

Merry Christmas.

It Was Hardest on the Dog

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Nothing focuses attention like a deadline.  It was late September when my eighteen-year-old son was just days away from leaving for college, and I was feeling a heightened sense of emotion.  I’m proud of this kid.  He is planning to double major in Physics and Computer Science (or Math, if the comp sci program is too competitive for him to find a spot) with the intent of becoming an astrophysicist, and it’s all his idea.  His mom and I got degrees in studio art and literature, respectively.  We’re smartish and firmly pro-science, but this kid loves science and math, and it’s all of his own accord.  His educational choices weren’t dictated by a tiger mom or high pressure dad.  While he’s got his sights set on a PhD, I’m still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up, since there aren’t many lucrative careers involving poetry reading.  My son is pursuing what he loves, and that feels good.  What didn’t feel so good was the growing awareness that he would be leaving soon.  

I didn’t think it would bother me, but I was feeling disquieted at the realization my son wouldn’t be around the house every evening when I returned from work, and while he spent much of that time cloistered in his bedroom, I took comfort in knowing he was there and available to help me fix a setting on my phone or to discuss a plot point in the Alien movie series.  He had been a largely permanent fixture in our home for the last eighteen years, and now he would be gone for long stretches.  In those last few days before we drove him to school, three hours away, the time spent together had an increased intensity.  The number of available moments together was diminishing by the day, and, as a result, each was infused with greater meaning.  

On one of those last late summer evenings at home, my young barbecue padawan grilled our dinner.  I am proud that he excels at mathematics but even moreso that he has become a young man capable of preparing a meal over an open fire.  Physics may answer the ultimate questions of life, the universe, and everything, but it won’t fill your belly.  Well, I suppose physics plays a part in the grilling process, thermodynamics and all that, but you get my point.  The bulgogi he cooked that night was especially delicious with the knowledge it would be the last time I would taste it for a few months.  It is his specialty, and I will reserve it’s preparation for his presence.  

That same night, I discovered I wasn’t the only one sensing the impending absence.  I was washing the soy sauce, chile pepper, ginger, and rice remnants of our meal from the plates and asked for his assistance.  Miraculously, he stepped up to help without a sigh, a word of complaint,  or hint of procrastination.  I believe it was the first time in eighteen years he said, “Sure,” and grabbed a towel to dry the dishes I washed.  He, too, knew these opportunities to occupy the same space on a daily basis were running out, and while we worked, we talked.  After the dishes were done, the whole family gathered around the TV, ignored it, and continued talking to each other.  We spoke comfortably, not just as parents and children, but as old friends.  After all, we’ve known each other for eighteen years — twenty-two for my daughter — and we have a good relationship.  It was one of those perfect moments that might have made for a good Norman Rockwell painting.   

Another night we gathered at the home of old friends so they could say goodbye and wish my son well on his new educational adventure.  Our hosts that night were friends that we know because of our children.  Tracie was the child care provider for both of our babies, and her husband Mike was one of their high school teachers.  It takes a village, as they say, and Mike and Tracie are beloved figures in our family’s hamlet.  We filled our stomachs with homemade chili, garnished with generous portions of Fritos and cheese, and laughed about the last time we had shared this meal, when my son and I gormandized such that we ended up lying supine and gently moaning for the remainder of the evening.      

One of the last nights before school was to begin, the four of us sat around the living room, again ignoring the offerings on TV, listening to my son read trivia questions from his phone.  Harry affected a ridiculous version of an English accent to attempt to sound like a proper quizmaster.  We answered, puzzled, confessed ignorance, and laughed. We laughed hard.  It occurred to me that as the anxiety of his departure increased, we were much more quick to end up in jubilant laughter than tears.  It’s one of my favorite things about my family: we laugh our love as much as we cry it.    

Finally, the big day was upon us, and we packed all of my son’s essentials in the minivan.  While the human members of the Baker house had been anticipating this moment and working through it with laughter and hugs, the dog was only now becoming aware that a big change was imminent.  As we readied to depart, she climbed into the back of the van and snuggled between suitcases and plastic storage boxes to be sure she didn’t get left behind.  She was experiencing a panic attack, unable to laugh her way through it.  Harry gave her one last hug, and said goodbye.   

A few hours later, we deposited my son in his dorm room without much drama and returned home.  For the next nine weeks, the house was quieter, and the energy was different.  I missed him deeply, and I gave thanks in November when he returned for a turkey dinner.  No one was happier to see him than our labradoodle.  Now, he is back again for a long Christmas break during which I can watch him stare at screens and nag him to help with the dishes.  We will laugh, too, and the hugs will last a bit longer.  I got my Christmas present early this year.  Thanks, Santa.    

I am keenly aware of the blessing of my son’s return home.  His absence was temporary, and we are as grateful for that as we are for the opportunity he has to pursue his passion for physics.  I am also aware some are not so fortunate, having experienced unimaginably painful loss, and they are in my heart as I write this.  Please, laugh with and hug your loved ones every chance you get.  

Carried on the Voices of Angels

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Last week, appropriately enough, I was reminded that I have a lot to be thankful for.  As a starting point, I was thankful to have a few days away from the craziness of a workplace undergoing organizational sea change.  I went largely off the professional grid over the four day weekend, though I admit to checking my work phone once or twice to see if any provocative emails had arrived.  I was pleased to find that my colleagues had also gone radio silent in honor of the Thanksgiving holiday.  It was reassuring to know that bureaucratic insanity can go dormant from time to time.  

I also gave thanks for my body.  Not only was I able to consume large quantities of avian protein and complementary carbohydrates without any ill effects, I managed to go for an eighteen-mile run on Saturday morning.  For some reason, I am training for a marathon that takes place at the end of December.  I have told many people in no uncertain terms that I am retired from running marathons, and I’ve stuck to that declaration for almost three years, but I have a friend who somehow convinced me that running 26.2 miles in the Seattle winter would a great idea.  She’s like a long distance running drug dealer whispering, “C’mon, it will be fun.” I don’t remember saying yes, but I have spent the last few weekends running increasingly long distances.  After each long run, I spend the rest of the day sitting on the couch, nursing my tired body and wondering what happened, like, I imagine, how it feels to wake up from a three-day drug fueled bender.  

On Saturday, I spent more than three hours running the streets of Olympia, Washington.  Instead of being annoyed that I had yet again succumbed to my long distance addiction, I marveled at my body’s ability to travel that far without the aid of a motorized vehicle.  As a recovering asthmatic kid who, I kid you not, grew up with an exercise allergy, I am grateful for the ability to remain upright and moving forward for such long stretches.  I chafed, and my right ankle started to lose structural integrity towards the end, but I kept going, running through it all.  What a wonderful machine the human body is. 

Of course, the real test will be the marathon itself.  I’m not sure I will go on any training runs longer than eighteen miles before the event, which is not my typical training regimen, but my drug dealer thinks it’s enough.  On one hand, it seems crazy to me that on race day I will have to tack on another eight miles after the first eighteen to finish the race.  On the other, my body has been there before, five times, and I know that I can go 26.2.  Yes, it will hurt, and it may involve a lot of walking, but I know I am capable of it.  I know this, in part, because I won’t be alone.  

I’m at a point in my life where I have no interest in running these absurd distances by myself.  When I first started training for a marathon, I did it solo.  It was a personal test of will.  As I approach my 50th birthday, I have much less interest in personal tests of will.  I’ll take all the help I can get, and, on Saturday, I ran with my dealer and another friend who also suffers from the long distance affliction.  I wouldn’t have made it without them, and that reminded me of something else I am thankful for: the human voice.    

When Sally, Amanda, and I met up one mile into our trek, I took position behind them on the sidewalk and listened to their lively banter as we ran.  Mile after mile, they talked about family and friends, about races they have run, about aches and pains, and about nothing much at all.  I occasionally offered a comment or question, but they did most of the talking, and it kept me going.  Instead of succumbing to my own inner dialog of misery about how much my ankle hurt and whether I really needed to pee, I listened to them.  They kept talking, and we kept running.  It sustained me through three hours of forward motion, and, for that, I am thankful.  

Theirs weren’t the only voices I was grateful for last week.  On Wednesday night, as I lay in bed, I also heard voices that moved me.  My wife and I had retreated to our upstairs bedroom, which is situated directly above our living room.  That feature of our house’s floor plan has been  problematic over the years, as the big screen TV is in the living room, and when our children stay up later than we do, the sound of whatever show they are watching carries into our bedroom.  We developed a simple method for quelling the noise, which involves stomping on the floor, sending a clear signal to turn down the damn volume.  

Wednesday night, as my wife and I were cozying up under the covers, we heard muffled voices rising up through the floor.  However, these weren’t the usual voices from the cast of The Big Bang Theory.  Rather, these were the voices of our kids talking to each other.  My son had returned home from college for the holiday, and this was his first chance to hang out with his sister and talk.  The thought of stomping on the floor occurred to me, but I decided to listen for a little while.  I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but I could tell that it was a happy conversation.  They were enjoying each other, even laughing.  The beautiful voices of my full-grown adult babies lulled me into a peaceful sleep, and for that, I am thankful.  

Japanese Girl Making Chinese Food

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Since the rains have returned to the Pacific Northwest, I have packed away the grilling gear and returned to cooking in the kitchen.  On the menu last Sunday night was Yu-shiang Pork, a stir-fry recipe consisting of, obviously, pork, bamboo shoots, green onions, dried chile peppers, garlic, and ginger.  Despite the fact that I’ve been making this dish for more than twenty-five years, my first step was to retrieve a cookbook from a shelf in the kitchen.  This is one reason I will never be a great chef: I am dependent on recipes.  I know the basic ingredients, but I am unable to remember the specific measured amounts of each.  For Yu-shiang Pork, I need the recipe to remind me how to make the marinade for the meat and the cooking sauce.  I know I need combinations of corn starch, sugar, soy sauce, sherry, vinegar, white pepper, and water to make the slurries that flavor the food, I just don’t remember how much of each, and it seems critically important that I get it right.  It’s a belief impressed upon me by my mom who taught me how to bake.  When baking cookies and cakes, it tends to matter whether the recipe calls for a teaspoon or a tablespoon of baking powder.   Such details are somewhat less important for Yu-shiang Pork, but I am compelled to review the instructions.  

I took the simply named Chinese Cook Book from the shelf and held it for a moment.  It was produced by the editors of Sunset magazine, and it shares shelf space with several other cookbooks in the Sunset series, including Fish and Shellfish, Mexican, and Italian.  We also have the Scandinavian Cook Book, which includes a recipe for Krumkake, a dessert treat we make at Christmas time.  There is a little else of interest in that tome, as we have no desire to try Pickled Herring and Egg Yolk or Creamy Liver Loaf.  

The Chinese Cook Book has an orange cover with a photo of two savory plates of food along with a dish of mandarin oranges.  The spine is cracked and worn from years of being laid open on counter tops, and the cover has several small tears and bent corners.  Like many of the cookbooks in my kitchen, there are only a few recipes in this one that we make on a regular basis, and when I flipped through the pages, it naturally fell open to the one on which the Yu-shiang Pork recipe is printed.  The paper is sepia-colored and wrinkled from decades of handling with soy sauce-stained fingers and errant drops of cooking sauce that escaped from a nearby bowl while being vigorously stirred.  It’s in rough shape, and my wife says we should transcribe the recipe before it becomes illegible.  

As much as I depend on the recipe to remind me how many teaspoons of sherry are required in the marinade, the truth is that the Yu-shiang Pork I make these days bears little resemblance to the recipe proffered by the editors of Sunset magazine.  In addition to the ingredients they recommend, I add a variety of items, depending on what’s available in the refrigerator, including carrots, broccoli, peppers, and peanuts.  I have even recently started adding tablespoons of hoisin, chili garlic, and chili black bean sauces to the requisite cooking sauce ingredients, just to make it a bit more interesting.  Those are ingredients I have discovered in the intervening decades since I first acquired Sunset’s Chinese Cook Book, and I try to expand my flavor palate from time to time.  

While Sunset magazine may not be the ultimate authority on all of the world’s cuisines, they provide helpful and inexpensive overviews for a young couple learning how to cook for two.  My girlfriend, now wife, and I bought several of the Sunset cookbooks when we first started living together twenty-nine years ago, and we inherited others from our respective families.  Going back to the cookbook provides consistency and comfort.  The recipes remind me of the basics and provide the basis for expanding and trying out new flavors.  

A long time ago, fresh out of college when I fancied myself a budding poet, I wrote a poem that began with this line:

Japanese girl making Chinese food

I’ve always loved that line, with its witty incongruity (if I do say so myself).  I don’t remember the rest of the poem, except that I know it was an expression of love inspired by watching my half-Japanese girlfriend cook something from the Sunset Chinese Cook Book.  This last week, we celebrated thirty years together.  We’ve only been married for twenty-six, but we’ve been a couple since we went on our second date.  After the first date, she gave me the “Let’s Be Friends” speech, but I persisted, and within a year she had relented.  We’ve been cooking Chinese food and other cuisines together ever since.  The recipes have changed a bit, but the basics are the same.  When I look at our tattered copy of Sunset’s Chinese Cook Book, I am reminded of the last thirty years together.  We’ve got a few wrinkles, too, but the food still tastes good, and we are always willing to try a new recipe.  As long as it’s not Creamy Liver Loaf.  

By the way, that first date, the one that could have been the end if I hadn’t been so smitten, was at a Chinese restaurant.  First loves.  

There Goes My Hero

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I think I need to lock myself in a room and watch heavy metal concert videos.  It’s been three months since I’ve been to a metal show, and I’m starting to get edgy.  I love to see metal bands in their natural habitat — playing live — and I try to see a few shows every year to satisfy my passion for the music.  The biggest challenge I’m having lately is the bands I want to see tend to play in Seattle, an hour or more away from my home, and they usually play on a week night.  The older I get, the less I want to drag myself into work the next morning after being out until the witching hour.  As much as I love live metal music, I value a good night’s sleep even more.  It’s hell getting old.  

I did see the Foo Fighters play in September, but they are not a metal band.  On the plus side, I like the Foos, I went with my wife, who is also a big fan, and they played on a Saturday night.  We even got a hotel room near the stadium, so we could get to bed at a decent hour.  It was a great night.  

In contrast to most of the shows I go to, which take place in small clubs where I can get up close to the band, the Foo Fighters’ concert was a “Big Rock Show” held at Safeco Field, the home of the Seattle Mariners, and our seats were in the upper deck of the ball park, far from the madding crowd at the front of the stage.  If it weren’t for the giant video monitors, we wouldn’t have been certain that it was, in fact, Dave Grohl playing and singing the Foo Fighters’ big hits.  

Dave is one of the reasons I became addicted to attending live metal shows.  Some day, I hope to meet Dave, and, if my plan comes to fruition, we will become best friends.  Let me explain.

I can make a case that I’ve been following Dave’s career since before he was in Nirvana.  In 1987, when I was a freshman in college, I was being mentored by a Southern Californian classmate named Tom who took me to my first punk rock shows at a club in Tacoma.  My live music experience was limited at that time, comprised mostly of high school musicals and talent shows, and I was enthralled by the punk experience.  The first show we saw together was a band called Dag Nasty, and I fell in love with their music and the scene.  It was unlike anything I had experienced before: a little dangerous and a little rough around the edges.  It was the first time I ever moshed, though we called it slam dancing in that punk setting.  Simultaneously terrified and exhilarated,  I danced my way around the eye of the punk hurricane, skipping and stomping my feet and waving my arms in a crazily exaggerated march, propelled by the fast, raw music.  From that first taste, I was hooked. 

Another night, Tom took me to see yet another punk band I had never heard of called Scream.  I don’t remember much about their music, as I was focused on slam dancing in the pit.  The pits at these shows were mild in comparison to the metal mosh pits I would experience a bit later, partly due to the sparsely attended shows, but it was a good training ground for my career as a metal head.  After those first punk experiences, I started attending Big Rock Shows in large venues with bands like Motley Crue, Scorpions, Def Leppard, Judas Priest, and Metallica.  In the late 80’s metal was the most popular music around, and I was all in.  I soon graduated to more extreme metal performed in smaller venues, but I loved those Big Rock Shows, full of elaborate production values, including smoke machines, fireworks, and enormous stage sets. 

In 1991, when Nirvana became the biggest band Seattle ever produced, I learned that their drummer, Dave Grohl, had previously been the drummer for Scream, and he was there that night in 1987 playing the drums that set the tempo for my slam dancing.  I still have the flyer from that show, and some day, I hope to meet Dave and present him with it.  I would like to get his autograph, of course, but I would be happy to give him the flyer if he wants it for his personal collection.  And that’s when we will become besties.  That’s the plan, anyway.  It needs a little work, including figuring out where I will meet him.  Standing in the upper deck of Safeco Field didn’t give me that opportunity.

The Foo Fighters show was the first Big Rock Show I had been to in more than twenty years.  In comparison to the shows in the 80s, the production values were minimal.  It was just the band, a good lighting rig, and big screen monitors to broadcast what was happening on the tiny stage to those of us in the upper reaches of the stadium.  The only part that made my stomach turn was the television advertisement for credit cards that played on the big video monitors between the opening bands’ sets.  That doesn’t happen when I see Death Angel play at a 500-seat club.   Aside from the commercial breaks, the Foo Fighters show was all music, performance, and raw energy.  I loved every minute, singing along, badly, to each song.  I even shed a tear, thinking about my dad, when the band played “My Hero.”  Thanks, Dave, and the rest of the Foos, for putting on a great show.  I can’t wait to meet you.  Until then, I’ll be upstairs in the bonus room watching Kreator and Amon Amarth concert videos.  

Keep it Simple

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On a recent trip to visit my son at college and participate in a half marathon in the same city, I confronted one of my fears.  It wasn’t the fact that my youngest child is old enough to be in college, which is a bit of an existential crisis, nor was it the fact I would be running 13.1 miles the next morning.  I’ve done that many times and it doesn’t scare me.  The thing that triggered my anxiety was the toilet in our hotel room.  We had stayed in this facility several times over the last year, and  I was aware they were undergoing remodeling.  During the previous trip, for example, they were upgrading their reservation system.  Between that visit and this one, they had made some changes in the rooms.  Specifically, they had affixed electronic bidets on the toilets.  My name is Todd, and I am afraid of bidets.  

For the unaware, a bidet is a plumbing fixture intended to wash your butt.  It’s my understanding that a jet of water squirts up while you’re seated, cleaning out your nooks and crannies.  I can’t say for sure how it works, because I’ve never used one.  After making a deposit, I’ve never had a desire to hose off.  Toilet paper has always served my needs adequately.  

We checked into our room after a long drive, and I took the opportunity to relieve the pressure on my bladder.  When I entered the lavatory, I saw the new addition perched atop the toilet bowl.  The lid was slightly larger than the average seat cover, providing some space for the washing mechanism, and featured a control panel on the right side of the seat.  I sighed at the sight.  My in-laws have had this type of bidet attachment affixed to their toilet for years, but I have never made use of it.   To me, a toilet is a one-way trip, and the idea of it expelling its contents is a bad thing.  I have, over twenty-five years of home ownership, cleaned up many overflow messes.  In my defense, I was not the cause of all of the mishaps, but I am typically appointed as janitor to swab the decks.  I prefer the water to stay below the rim.

It’s not just the idea of water squirting up that bothers me.  The electronic bidets I have encountered have complicated control mechanisms that I find intimidating.  It’s like the panel of buttons on the arm of Captain Kirk’s chair in Star Trek.  If a seat is going to have that many control options, I want them to be for important stuff, like raising shields or calling down to engineering to get a status report about the warp drive.  I don’t want to be equipped to fend off an attack by Klingon warbirds when I’m in such a vulnerable position, pants down.  This bidet even came with a laminated 8.5” by 11” instruction card that outlined all the features and options, featuring terms like: rear, soft rear, cleansing, drying, oscillating, temperature, and pressure.  This could be the instruction manual for a clothes washer/dryer unit.  It’s just too much to process.  The toilet is a place of evacuation and, occasionally, quiet contemplation.  I don’t want to have to read a user manual when I’m taking care of business.   

My basic fear is that if I did engage the washing mechanism, I would instinctively leap from the seat, either from my own nervous anxiety or because I accidentally hit the oscillating high pressure button, crash into the bathroom door, and fall to the floor while the stream of water cascades down onto my back.  I can’t stand the thought of calling for help because I was spooked by a bidet.  

Maybe some day I will give it a try, but it’s not a high priority.  Instead, I will make sure there is a roll of toilet paper available while I sit quietly and contemplate things like my advancing age or my next race (Rock’n’Roll 10K in Vegas!).  There’s no need to overcomplicate things.  

Meet the Author

'Me signing it doesn't make it a better read.'

I’ve never done a book signing.  The closest I’ve come is when I attended a party at a friend’s house to sign a couple copies of my first book, Ten Year Run, for runner friends.  I relished the opportunity to inscribe my work for people who were excited to receive it.  As much as I appreciated that moment of personal glory, I have always wanted to be set up at a table in a bookstore, so my adoring fans – of which I’m certain there are at least four – could line up with looks of anticipation as they waited their turn to tell me how their name is spelled.  Alas, that writer’s rite of passage hasn’t come to pass.  

In fact, my books have never been on sale in a bookstore.  I took modest steps toward achieving that goal by taking a copy of my book to two different local shops in hopes that the proprietors would find it a delightful read and choose to stock a few copies on their shelves and, perhaps, invite me to do a public reading and then have me take my place behind a small table in an uncomfortable folding metal chair with a Sharpie in hand.  Unfortunately, I never got the call.  Life goes on, and I keep writing, though not much lately.  Ugh.

On Wednesday at the office, I was on my way to a meeting when a friend saw me coming down the hall.  He asked if I had a minute, which I did, and he told me to wait right there.  I was puzzled, as he hustled away towards the elevator lobby.  I watched as he reached into a cardboard box on the floor in the lobby and retrieved a book.  The box was designated for donations to an upcoming book sale.  Employees had been encouraged to drop off old books that could be sold at a steep discount to raise money for various charities.  I recognized the book my friend picked up right away, as it was a copy of Ten Year Run.  Specifically, it was the copy of Ten Year Run my friend had purchased online last year.  He had read it and sent me a lovely email complimenting my writer’s voice.  I had taken it as high praise, as he is a writer by trade, working in our communications department.  He handed the familiar paperback to me and asked me to sign it.  I found this request odd, as he had obviously dropped it in the donation box some time earlier.  I looked at him quizzically, and he again encouraged me to autograph the book.  I took his pen, scrawled my name on the inside cover, and handed it back to him.  I was confused, as it didn’t make sense to me that he wanted my autograph in a book that he was giving away.   He explained that a signed copy would be more marketable and fetch a higher price at the book sale.  I was happy to do my part for charity, but I felt the need to express my disappointment that he wasn’t keeping my book for himself.  I told him I enjoyed the mental image of it resting on the mantle in his living room along with his copy of The Riverside Shakespeare and first edition Moby Dick.  A boy can dream.  We laughed and he promised he would give the now signed copy of Ten Year Run to the book sale organizers to do with as they would.  

The next day, I saw him in the locker room.  In addition to being a writer, he is a runner, and we occasionally cross paths in the locker room or on the road.  I asked him if the book was a featured item at the sale that took place that morning.  He confirmed it was, and he believed it had sold quickly.  It was then I realized I missed a chance to sit at a little table in a conference room filled with books and await an adoring fan to come purchase my book.  While it’s true there was only one copy for sale that day, it may have been a satisfying facsimile of the book store book signing experience I have always hoped for.  I could have even done a public reading.  

Perhaps at next year’s book sale I will make more of an effort to be the featured author.  I probably won’t, but it’s fun to think about.  In the meantime, I should get back to work on my current project.  With a little luck, it will be done in the next couple months.  It would make a great Christmas gift, so I’ll keep you posted.  By the way, if you own a bookstore, I am available most weekends.  

Too Close for Comfort

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I’m not sure how near it has to be to qualify as a “near-death experience,” but on Friday, I got as close as I want to come.  I was enjoying my last run of the summer—as the autumnal equinox was due to arrive the next afternoon—when I was almost hit by a car.  I’ve been running for more than twenty years, but I have never been this close to being a casualty in a head on collision.  I hope I make it another twenty years without incident.    

I was running along a busy street near my office building, and it was a lovely day.  The late summer sun was shining, taking the edge off the cool air, and I was listening to some metal music on my MP3 player.  I had recently decided to take a break from distraction-free “mindful running,” as I was falling behind in my daily metal intake, and I wanted to use the two-mile run to re-charge my metallic battery.  Lamb of God’s debut album was punishing my ears, and, while I was enjoying it, I decided to skip ahead to my favorite track.  I pulled the player from my pocket and tried to read the song titles on the tiny screen while maintaining my running stride.  I clicked ahead a track or two on the interface when my attention was suddenly drawn to the vehicle moving towards me.  I run against oncoming traffic all the time, but, normally, the cars are in the street.  This one was on the sidewalk, and, as far as I could tell, it was moving at full speed.  The speed limit on this street was 35 mph, but I don’t think that applies to the sidewalk.  I was traveling about six miles per hour, which means our closing speed was probably forty-one miles per hour.  The math and science, specifically Newton’s laws of motion, were working against my survival.  

As the vehicle got closer, my life didn’t flash before my eyes, but I did think to myself that I was about to get hit by a car.  I felt a cold flush of panic and stopped running, and I had not yet formulated an escape plan by the time the car veered a bit further to my left and smashed into a utility pole.  I was less than ten feet from the now totaled car.  I remained in my frozen stance for another moment, letting it sink in that I was not, in fact, going to be hit by a car.  When I regained the ability to move, I decided to see if there was something I could do to be helpful.  After all, I wasn’t the only person involved in this crash.  The car was sitting at a forty-five degree angle to the sidewalk, with the back end of the vehicle sitting in the street blocking any traffic.  I approached the driver side door that was opening and found a man who seemed eager to get out of the car.  He appeared to be in his 70s and was having a bit of trouble extricating himself from the wreckage.  In addition to the seatbelt, he was partially entrapped by the airbag that had deployed.  I remember the smell of smoke that I presumed was related to the airbag’s explosive discharge.  

I encouraged the driver not to rush, but he was not interested in remaining seated.  I told him to move slowly, and I kept my hands close to his body to help support him if needed.  He appeared uninjured, but he moved slowly as I guided him to the sidewalk.  I talked him into sitting down in some grass near the utility pole he had smashed into.  I told him my name and asked his.  He responded quickly that his name was Frank, and I was relieved that he seemed okay.  I suppose I should have been more upset that he had almost killed me, but I was more focused on ensuring he was unhurt.  Considering the amount of damage to his vehicle, I think the airbag performed admirably.  

Moments after I had learned his name, two people approached.  The first was a man was carrying a first aid kit and the other was a woman on her phone speaking to the 911 dispatcher.  A minute later, a police officer arrived and took control of the situation.  I gave my name and address and told the officer what happened from my perspective.  Fifteen minutes after I had almost been run over, I was finishing up my two-mile Friday noon last-day-of-summer run.  When I got back to the locker room, I found a fellow runner who had just finished his post-run shower.  I shared my story, and he provided the appropriate amount of sympathy to make me realize I was a bit shaken by the experience.  He also told me he would wait a couple days before making jokes about my not-quite-near-death experience.  Thanks, Patrick.  

The rest of the afternoon passed quickly.  I didn’t feel especially different, but my head was busy processing.  Sometimes, when the emotions run the risk of being too much for me to process, I focus on thinking, and my thoughts included gratitude that neither I nor the driver was hurt.  He needs a new car, which is a shame because the car appeared brand new, but he can return home to his wife.  I was glad I would be able to see my wife, too, and I left work a little early to do so.  While my near death experience may not have been near enough to have my life flash before my eyes, I figure it was close enough to take a couple hours off work to go hug my wife and kids.   

Stay safe, friends, and be generous with hugs.