Be Teachable

58666112497__2238DA4C-0DC1-4D36-8287-6A0EDED247A1On Sunday, my son and I took on the challenge of making my father-in-law’s grilled soyu* chicken recipe.  It’s not a complicated dish, but I’ve never made it as well as Papa K, which is the honorific bestowed upon my wife’s Japanese father.  I am still learning how to make it “right,” and my son was eager to further his pit master apprenticeship by giving it a shot.  I have fond memories of enjoying  the perfectly sweet and salty umami chicken pieces Papa cooked over a kamado grill, which was his barbecue weapon of choice when he lived on Maui.  We would sit on Papa and Nana’s lanai with plates full of chicken and rice, watching the sun sink into the Pacific, feeling the warm breeze kiss our cheeks, and relishing every bite.  When Papa and Nana moved to the mainland, the kamado stayed on the island.  I was disappointed, as I thought there was a chance it could become an  addition to my fleet of grilling rigs.  Apparently, he thought paying to ship a 200-pound barbecue oven was exorbitant, and I was too cheap to cover the transportation costs.  Despite his current use of a gas grill and the lack of Hawaiian sunsets as a backdrop, which can certainly enhance the flavor of many mediocre dishes, Papa still makes better soyu chicken than I do.  There’s always more to learn. 

The recipe starts twenty-four hours in advance of cooking with a simple teriyaki-style marinade for the chicken parts.  Papa K’s instructions forego conventional units of measurements for the ingredients.  Instead of tablespoons or cups, the respective amounts are apportioned in “parts,” such as “One part sugar, two parts soy sauce.” This unconventional set of instructions left my son baffled.  To be fair, as a student of math and physics, he understood the concept of ratios, but without a base unit, he was adrift.  Based on my experience, I advised he assume one part equaled one cup.  Because we were making a large batch of chicken breasts, his inclination was to go big on the marinade, and he thought a part should be at least two, perhaps even four, cups.  As a compromise, I suggested starting with a cup per part, and if that proved insufficient to drown the chicken breasts, we could scale up with an additional batch of marinade.  Despite the large amount of chicken, the modest amount of marinade was adequate.  While my degree is in literature, I took some pride in teaching my son a little something about the practical application of Archimedes’ displacement principle.  My physics-minded boy learned a handy lesson about about marinades: start small and add as needed, lest you find yourself marinading chicken in a bathtub so as to accommodate all the brine.  

We used a clear plastic four-sided container to soak the chicken.  Because the breasts had a certain amount of natural buoyancy, some of the pieces were floating on the surface of the marinade.  My son asked how we could keep the chicken submerged to ensure an even brining.  I suggested we do what I have always done: occasionally stir the pot to ensure everybody spends an equal amount of time under the waves.  Being inherently lazy, not unlike his father, he felt this was far too much work and, instead, proposed putting something into the receptacle to hold the chicken below the surface.  Once I got over being annoyed that he was too lazy even to stir chicken every few hours, I had a thought.  Specifically, I thought he might be on to a good idea.  What if we put something on top of the chicken, something like a zip-topped plastic bag full of water?  My son did the engineering, and our solution for the breaching breast problem worked perfectly.  The weight of the bag was sufficient to hold the breasts beneath the surface and assure their drowning.  We both learned something.  I learned to be open to possibilities of a new way to marinade chicken, and we both learned about the conservation of energy.  By eliminating the need to stir the chicken occasionally, we were able to spend more time on the couch binging Amazon Prime Video (side note: The Boys is an amazing tonic for those growing weary of the Marvel Universe of heroes). 

Over this weekend of culinary education, there was one more lesson to learn about marinaded chicken.  Specifically, we learned how not to cook it.  During this summer, which my son and I have dubbed GrillFest, we have been experimenting with natural lump charcoal as grilling fuel.  I have been a Kingsford loyalist for a long time, but I’m starting to try a different approach to expand my area of expertise and round out my son’s barbecue education.  So far, we’ve sampled three different brands, and Sunday was a mesquite night.  Harry loaded up the charcoal chimneys and got the fire started.  I didn’t realize until it was time to put the embers into the grill that he had included a large log of mesquite amongst the smaller lumps of charred wood.  I was annoyed that he hadn’t ensured more homogeneity in the pieces of charcoal, but I decided we would learn something regardless.  I wouldn’t have used the big piece of wood, but that was based on my slightly obsessive-compulsive need for things to be equal and even.  I had no actual data to back up my choice, so I was curious to find out what would happen.  What did happen is the grill quickly reached a high cooking temperature, but the inferno was short-lived.  For the most part, once the smaller embers had flamed out, the chicken cooked over a smoldering log of mesquite.  We cooked the breasts in two batches, and by the time the second batch went on the grate, the temperature had plummeted.  The fire was barely adequate to roast a marshmallow, and as a result, it took twice as long as expected to get the breasts up to a sufficient salmonella-exterminating temperature.  In the end, they tasted okay, but the chicken lacked the magic of a good Maillard reaction.  A friend reminded me recently that there is no greatness without failure, and I appreciate that my son gave us both the opportunity to learn a little something about cooking with lump charcoal.  I recently saw a meme that read, “Be teachable.  You’re not always right.”  Wise words from the interwebs.  

 

* ”Soyu” is a synonym for soy sauce.  I have most often seen it spelled “shoyu,” which is how it’s pronounced, but in our house, we spell it without the “h.”  Family tradition occasionally wins out over correctness.    

The Thrill of the Fire

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The alarm went off at 3:15 a.m., a bit early for a typical Thursday, but such is the life of a backyard pit master.  It’s time to get to work on America’s birthday.  I set fire to the chimney full of charcoal I set up last night and went about preparing the brisket.  This massive cut of cow chest will cook twelve hours—fingers crossed—until it reaches the magical 203 degrees that signals it has yielded to the gentle heat and smoke of my grill and will surrender to my santoku blade like warm butter.  I’ve got guests coming at 5 p.m.  Wish me luck that this magnificent beast will be ready in time.    

My grilling season is well underway, and it’s time for me to step up my game and prove my pit master credentials by smoking the most challenging cut of barbecue meat: a sixteen-pound beef brisket dressed simply with S&P.  This time, just for fun, I will be cooking a small hunk of pork shoulder and a half rack of ribs at the same time.  I had the pieces of pork in the freezer from my son’s recent, and delightfully successful, efforts to produce a delectable ramen broth, so it seemed only logical to smoke them and present my family with a bit of barbecue for lunch before the main event this evening.    

The 2019 grilling season started simply enough in April with racks of pork spareribs, my traditional first -of-the-season barbecue smoking exercise, and I’ve been working through the fundamentals for a few weeks.  I’ve cooked filets of salmon with a hint of smoke as another reminder of the flavors that we must do without in the off-season months.  I’ve cooked a few rounds of chicken thighs with bones-in and skin-on to prove to myself I can still manage the fundamentals.  Chicken thighs demand constant attention with frequent jockeying and flipping to ensure the skin crisps up but doesn’t burn while the internal temperature rises to a safe yet succulent temperature.  Of course, there have been many sessions of burgers cooked on cast iron over the fire, along with bacon, onions, shallots, mushrooms, tomatoes, and fried eggs, because why not.  Those burgers border on the obscene, appealing to the culinarily prurient interest.  These grilling sessions have been delicious, but I consider them training runs, like building up my mileage to prepare for the longer distances.  Brisket is the marathon of barbecue.  

Recently, my fires of grilling enthusiasm were stoked by coworkers.  There were rumors circulating around the office about good quality natural lump charcoal at a remarkably low price.  We turned to our phones to find stores that had supplies of the fuel in stock.  We compared notes, shared leads, and I even sent my daughter out into the wild to find the magic beans of barbecue.  She acquired two bags of the carbon, while my boss picked up sixteen of the thirty-pound bags.  I am brand loyal to Kingsford, for its consistency and dependability, but there is some magic in lump charcoal.  Lighting it in the charcoal chimney provides a little fireworks display as it burns, and the sight thrills me, like a child holding a sparkler.  It’s a sign that good food awaits.  The thrill of live fire cooking.  

Last summer went by too fast, with my son’s college preparations consuming large parts of my attention.  We didn’t do as much grilling as normal, but this summer, my son and I intend to make up for it and delve deep into the fire arts.  We’re working on a calendar of cooks, and I’m taking two weeks off later this month to try some things.  For example, we have rib experiments planned, including testing the results of applying the rub at different times.  I typically let the racks sit for four hours with the rub on before applying heat, but we’re going to find out what happens to pork that bathes in seasoning for eight or even twelve hours.  Science matters.  

For now, I am sitting on the couch, watching the remote thermometers and sipping coffee while the brisket and pork shoulder slumber in their warm bed of coals.  For the next many hours, I will tend the fire, occasionally adding coals and wood chips, and, when my son rises from his repose, pass the time by watching season three of Stranger Things.  It’s going to be a good day.  Happy Fourth of July. 

The Ultimate Government Bureaucracy Fake Book

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I love my new teammates.  Five of my colleagues and I were recently asked to work together to take on certain responsibilities.  We are still debating whether we are a work unit, task force, or some other organizational designation, but, whatever we call it, our new team has a lot of work to do.  Of course, rather than getting the work done, we’re spending time discussing our respective roles and responsibilities in doing it.  It’s classic bureaucratic avoidance, and a project manager who is helping us get started decided that forcing us to tell people what we’ve been working on might spur actual accomplishments.  

She told us we would be giving a presentation at the upcoming management team meeting.  We had little time to prepare, so I offered to create a set of “talking points.”  The idea is to provide a list of key points and messages—an outline—to help keep a speaker on track.  Since I spend the majority of my work life in meetings in which presentations are given, I’ve been writing talking points for myself and others for many years.  Over those years, I’ve learned there are three potential outcomes from the use of prepared talking points:  

1. It’s rare, but the speaker may use them as intended, like a fake book for musicians that provides the melody line and basic chords, allowing the performer to quickly learn and play a new song.  The presentation isn’t exactly what is written on the page, but the outline allows the speaker to communicate meaning the way a good song communicates emotion.  

2. A more likely option is that the speaker will ignore the carefully crafted talking points and speak extemporaneously.  That can be good, in terms of learning what the person really wants to say as opposed to what was agreed to in advance, but it’s super frustrating because I thought we agreed on what you were going to say, damnit!  Our current U.S. President provides an extreme example of this phenomenon.  I’m guessing his few remaining staff have given up on drafting talking points for him. It’s wasted effort, as he gets his cues from Fox News.  

3. The worst case is when the speaker reads the points verbatim.  Since talking points are not intended as a script, they don’t typically work well when treated as such.  This is especially problematic because it signals the speaker has not read the talking points in advance and has no idea what the key messages are.  It’s painful to listen, particularly when you are the author of the points.  It makes the speaker look like an idiot and doesn’t reflect well on the guy who was supposed to help him or her prepare.    

My team didn’t have any time to rehearse or give input on the points.  I drafted them, shared them via email, and the project manager gave us our assignments of who would read which points.  I knew this could go badly, and I worried that some of my teammates may not even have a copy of the talking points in front of them when the meeting commenced, let alone have read them in advance.  

I opened the presentation with brief remarks and to explain we would be taking turns sharing information.  I said I would now hand it over to teammate #1.  It was the moment of truth.  There was a pregnant pause as all eyes turned to him.  He looked at me and then to the audience.  With talking points in hand, he said, “Thanks, Todd” in an awkward corporate training video way, and it made everyone laugh.  I cringed, waiting for him to begin reading verbatim, but, instead, he set the document down, and began his presentation.  And he nailed it.  In his own words, he covered the key messages perfectly.  Sweet relief.  When it was time for #1 to handoff to #2, the pattern was set.  Each team member took their cue and customized their remarks based on the points they had been assigned.  It was a glorious bureaucratic jam session.  After #5 concluded, I briefly summarized and asked if there were any questions.  The song was over, and the audience was digging it.  

It was a great debut performance, and I thought maybe we could call ourselves a band instead of a task force.  Talking points, like fake books, are not intended for novices, and my new bandmates demonstrated they are a solid group of players.  I am excited to jam with them, as soon as we figure out what kind of music we’re going to be playing.  If we should fail in our assigned responsibilities, we may be able to take our act on the road as an improvisational theater troupe.  It’s good to have a backup plan.  Wish us luck. 

Happy Father’s Day, Bake

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Last Tuesday would have been my dad’s eighty-first birthday.  It’s also King Kamehameha Day in Hawaii, which Dad appreciated, especially when he and Mom were visiting the islands during the celebration.  Just as I like to pretend the whole world is celebrating my birthday, which happens to be on Christmas, Dad enjoyed the attention of the Hawaiian people on his birthday.  

I’ve been thinking about him a lot recently.  I dedicated my new book to him, because he never got to hear the stories I tell in it.  He died thirteen years ago, not too long before I got to tour a US Navy aircraft carrier and several years before Mom took the family along for a Grand Tour of Europe.  In the book, I mention that he grew up in Juneau, Alaska.  When he was a kid, playing in the ponds behind the runway at Juneau Airport, his friends called him “Bake,” which is the archetypal nickname for a person with the last name Baker.  My older brother was also dubbed “Bake” by his friends, and as I advanced through my elementary school years and beyond, I was eager to pick up the proud family tradition of bearing the title, but it never happened.  For the most part, I was just “Todd,” which I’ve never particularly liked.  Todd is the name of the goofy neighbor in a bad sitcom.  It’s also Lisa Loopner’s obnoxious boyfriend, played by Bill Murray in old Saturday Night Live sketches.  It doesn’t have gravitas.  “Bake,” on the other hand, is cool.  Of course, I couldn’t have asked my friends to call me “Bake.” You don’t get to choose your own nickname, and trying to influence that decision could ensure that you’re given a nickname you don’t want.  Kids can be cruel.   

I was explaining this to a friend at work whose last name is Frost.  I chose to tell him the story as I was interested to know if he had been referred to as “Frosty” during his formative years, which seemed the most obvious choice of nickname, and he confirmed he had.  Much to my delight, ever since that conversation, my friend Frosty refers to me as Bake.  If we were cooler people, we agreed that “Frosty and Bake” would be a great title for a buddy action movie.  As it is, it would be a buddy movie about two slightly nerdy bureaucrats who are scared of getting hurt.  It would have to be a comedy.   

As much as I like it as a nickname, I never referred to my father as Bake.  To me, he was just Dad, and that’s a nickname I am proud to have been given by my children.  I am the dad of two great kids—neither of whom are Bakes, by the way—who will be home tonight to share in some grilled delights and maybe tell some stories that Dad would have enjoyed hearing.  

Happy Father’s Day, Frosty and all the other dads out there.  I hope your kiddos shower you with all the love and attention you deserve.  

Third Time’s a Charm

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I’m taking the weekend off.  Yes, I know that’s how weekends are supposed to work, but I’ve spent the last few editing my new book instead of lounging.  Editing requires me to, in effect, read the book more than a dozen times looking for different glitches, such as unnecessary adverbs, missing commas, and excessive use of the word “that.”  Reviewing my writing with the purpose of finding everything wrong with it is mind-numbing and demoralizing.  I’m left in a confused mental state, unsure if my book is the very best it can be, thanks to my attention to detail, or the worst thing I’ve ever written, based on the number of errors I found.  I can no longer be objective, so I’ve turned it over to the readers.  That may be the best part of publishing: I don’t have to read it ever again.  

Long Way From Home is a collection of two travel adventures.  In 2013, eight members of my family traveled to Europe for a Grand Tour through Switzerland, France, and the United Kingdom.  I was moved to tears and laughter over the course of the three weeks we were on the road, and I jut had to write it all down.  The other story is about the opportunity I had to fly to, land on, and be catapulted off a US Navy aircraft carrier.  In between, I got to spend twenty-four hours touring the ship, learning about Navy operations, and meeting some remarkable people.  The book includes pictures from each of the trips, and I can only hope the photos will distract readers from any gratuitous adverbs or misplaced punctuation marks I may have missed.  

I’ve been working on this book for one month shy of six years.  Of course, that’s not exactly non-stop work.  I have a full-time job, an addiction to television, and a propensity for sloth.  Frankly, it’s amazing I got it done this quickly given the amount of content available on Netflix and Amazon Prime Video.  This is my third book, and they’re not getting any easier to write, with all the available distractions on TV.  Then again, they are coming faster.  The first book took about thirty years to write, not counting the first few years of my life before I learned how to put words on a page.  The second took almost ten years.  At the rate I’m going, the next book should be done in two or three.  I should probably get started on it, but, for now, I’m going to kick back and do a little grilling while I wait for the royalties to roll in.  That was a joke.  Let me assure you, I’m not getting rich from writing.  While I wouldn’t be upset if I were to end up on the New York Times bestseller list or to sell the film rights—I’m looking at you, Matt Damon—that seems highly unlikely based on  my sales from the first two books.  I’m just hoping to earn enough to pay for another tattoo. 

5:17 Pacer

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I think I need to invent the three-quarter marathon.  Half marathons are popular, but for those who want to step up to the full, there’s no interim event.  Running 13.1 miles is hard enough, but doing it twice is ridiculous.  The preparation is intense, filled with increasing double digit mileage training runs over the course of a few months.  It’s exhausting work.  I think an official 19.65 mile event — the mid-point between 13.1 and 26.2 — would be a useful milestone for the aspiring long distance runner.  It would provide great validation and positive reinforcement, and, more importantly, it would give me a chance to get more race swag without ever having to run another full marathon.  Last Sunday, I realized that twenty miles is my limit.   

Sunday was the day of the Capital City Marathon.  It was my seventh marathon overall, and the second time I’ve run in that particular event.  This time, along with my running partner, Sally, I was participating as an official five hour pacer, which means I was responsible for holding a steady pace for anyone who was hoping to finish in five hours.  As it turned out, I was, in reality, the pacer for those who were hoping to finish in five hours and seventeen minutes.  Ugh.  

The run started great with overcast skies, a gentle rain, and an ambient air temperature of 55º.  While most people think that weather is ideal for staying inside, runners recognize those are Goldilocks conditions for a 26.2 mile journey: not too hot, not too cold, just right.  Wearing bright yellow singlets and taking turns holding a wooden dowel topped with a yellow sign that read “PACER 5:00,” we were mobile beacons for other runners.  Our pace was steady, and we hit our split times as planned.  At the halfway point, we had banked about two extra minutes, which was part of our strategy, knowing that the dreaded Eastside hill was lurking at mile twenty-two.  The Capital City course designers have a sadistic bent that led them to decide a mile-and-a-half uphill stretch in the last quarter of the race would be a delightful punishment for weary runners.  It was our intent to walk most of that hill, and the extra time we saved would be cashed in on that awfully inclined stretch of pavement.  In the end, I did walk up Eastside hill, but I did it without Sally.  My wheels came off at mile twenty, and I asked Sally’s forgiveness as I handed her the yellow pacer sign.  She was understanding and reminded me to take off my yellow singlet so I wouldn’t mislead anyone who might be inclined to  follow me, only to discover I was guilty of false advertising.  She continued on at a steady eleven minutes and twenty-six seconds per mile, while I shifted into first gear and walked at something closer to a fourteen minute per mile pace.  

It was a depressing moment.  I had every intention of finishing at the appointed time, but when we crossed the twenty mile marker, I was done.  I had nothing left physically or mentally to carry me forward at the expected pace.  My slower rate of travel gave me a lot of time to reflect.  

I thought about those first twenty miles and was astonished at how unfamiliar the course seemed.  I had completed this marathon three years ago, but it all seemed new.  I had certainly forgotten about all the hills along the way.  I had also forgotten how lonely the stretch from mile four to twenty is.  Those miles are located largely out in the country, and for most of them, Sally and I were running by ourselves.  We weren’t exactly the Pied Pipers of Hamelin, as there were no rats, children, or runners interested in a strict five hour marathon pace.  It was just the two of us, and after fifteen miles, we were out of things to talk about.  We were left with the sounds of our footfalls and breathing.  Regardless, I don’t think a scintillating conversation would have bolstered my spirits enough to overcome the enervation I felt at mile twenty.  

I thought about the other people on the course, few and far between as they were.  As I walked up Eastside hill, I came across a woman who had started an hour and a half earlier than the rest of us, because she knew she would be walking most of it, and the race organizers accommodated her.  She told me she was recovering from a bad cold and facing up to the fact she hadn’t trained enough, but she was still there.  Later that day, I saw her at the finish.  By my math, she had spent about seven hours on the course.  One could argue that she was very slow, but I think she was the embodiment of perseverance and determination.  Very slow and very cool.  

I thought about failure, and I rejected the idea completely.  While it was incontrovertible that I had failed to maintain the five hour pace, I was not a failure.  It took a little longer than I planned, but I still finished my seventh marathon.  I was disappointed I let down Sally, but I was proud of myself.  

I also thought about the wall I hit at the twenty mile mark.  Reflecting on my training, and further back into my marathon memory, I couldn’t remember a time when I was still having fun running after crossing the twentieth mile.  With that data in mind, I think I need to officially retire from running full marathons.   Of course, I’ve said that before, so I’ll never say never.  For example, if someone gave me the chance to run in the Boston Marathon — the Super Bowl of marathons — I would do it in a heartbeat, even if I had to walk up Heartbreak Hill, conveniently located at mile twenty.  Aside from that, I don’t plan to run any more full marathons.  It’s sublime to cross the finish line, but I don’t have a lot left to prove.  In fact, I’ve got nothing to prove.  Running marathons doesn’t make you amazing, but working hard and seeing things through is pretty cool, even if you have to take off your metaphorical yellow pacing singlet along the way.  

I bet running three quarters of a marathon would be pretty cool, too.  I can picture the finisher’s medal now, in the shape of a pie with a quarter slice taken out and the words “Just 6.55 Miles Short of Greatness” printed on the back.  You have to have a sense of humor about these things.  

A Tight Five

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I really need to get my act together.  I have become the go-to host for all-staff events in my division at work.  I got the job because I was willing to do so, and I work in IT, where shyness is a common trait.  Many of my co-workers just want to write code unmolested by the threat of having the attention of a large audience.  I, however, enjoy public speaking.  I do get nervous before I take the stage, but it’s not existential dread.  The anxiety I feel stems from the fact that I don’t always nail it.  I’ve given some terrible presentations, but, in general, I like having the attention of a group of people.  It’s no secret that I like attention, as I do write about myself and obsess about the number of views on my posts.  Public speaking is an opportunity to get a more immediate response from an audience, and since I have no musical talent, I try to use humor to convince people I’m charming.  Eliciting laughter from an audience is intoxicating, and I relish the opportunity.  

Last Thursday, I had the chance to get some laughs at work.  I was the emcee for a gathering of about fifty technologists who were there to learn about SharePoint versioning, diacritical marks in coding, and other geek material.  I  was expected to make a few opening remarks before introducing the speakers, and, as I had no responsibility for any meaningful content, I went for laughs.  I offered up a few wry comments, including some good-natured jibes at the presenters, and got some chortles and guffaws in response.  The feeling was delightful, like the alcoholic rush from knocking back a shot of whisky.  

I’ve always fantasized about being a stand-up comedian and getting that laughter-fueled rush on a regular basis.  I’m far too practical to pursue it as a career, as I know it’s a tough way to earn a living.  I’m not cut out for life on the road with no retirement plan, so I’ll settle for the occasional hosting gig at the office.  In fact, as I spend the majority of my time in meetings, I think I have an opportunity to step up my game.  On a regular basis, the meetings I attend are delayed as we try to get a conference or video call set up or diagnose the reason the smart board refuses to display some PowerPoint slides.  I need a “tight five” – as the comedians say – ready to go at a moment’s notice to break the tension and give the meeting organizer time to get the equipment working.  

I was never a Boy Scout, but I like to be prepared.  I’m already an ordained minister of the Universal Life Church, which only required filling out my name and address on a postcard, so I’m prepared to preside over any emergency weddings.  To date, that’s never proved useful at the office, so I’d like to add Stand-up Comic to my curriculum vitae.  Of course, the hard part about being a comedian is having the material, and writing comedy is hard.  I think I’m reasonably funny in casual conversation, but coming up with jokes is no mean feat.  I’m working on a bit comparing new-fangled smart refrigerators – the kind that keep track of the contents and help make shopping lists – with the HAL 9000 computer from 2001: A Space Odyssey.  (“Open the refrigerator door, Hal.” “I’m afraid I can’t do that, Todd, you’ve had enough cheese for today.”).  I’ll keep working on it.  

While my motives are a bit selfish, I figure trying to make people laugh isn’t such a bad thing.  Getting an audience giggling is good for my ego, but we all benefit from a chuckle.  Life’s hard enough when you’re stuck in meetings all day.    

Twenty-Five Year Run

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Seven years ago, I published my first book.  I titled it Ten Year Run as it is a record of the first ten years of my running habit, including how I got from being a fully committed couch potato to running four marathons and having the honor of carrying the Olympic Flame on its way to the 2002 Winter Games.  It’s a good story, if I do say so myself, but I haven’t thought about it much recently, as I’m obsessed with working on and, to be honest, avoiding working on finishing my third book.  However, I did pick it up a couple weeks ago.  I don’t actually read my own books very often as that sort of behavior seems a bit too self-involved.  I do think highly of myself, but I don’t need to go full on Narcissus and stare into that reflection pool for too long.  It’s embarrassing.  

The reason I decided to read the first couple chapters of Ten Year Run was to recall just how it was I got started running on a regular basis.  I am remarkably bad at remembering what I have written about.  Once the words are committed to the page, they seem to be deleted from my mental hard drive.  On the rare occasion when a reader tells me how much they enjoyed some part of one of my books, I smile, say “thank you,” and make a mental note to go back and read that part because I have no memory of it.  The most extreme example of this forgetfulness occurred after I had published my second book, Metal Fatigue.  I was going through some old files and came across a manuscript that amounted to a rough draft of the first half of the book that I had written at least five years before I began the Metal Fatigue project.  I had completely forgotten about it.  That’s right: I wrote the same book twice.  I think the second version was better, but I was annoyed at the unremembered duplicate effort.  Just think of all the TV-time I missed while re-writing the same book.  

The reason I wanted to remind myself what precipitated my running habit was because I was helping organize a wellness workshop at the office.  My colleague and running buddy Sally wanted to invite people who were thinking about starting an exercise habit to come to a brown bag lunch to hear stories and information about taking the first step towards a healthier life style.  She asked me to tell my story, and I honestly couldn’t remember the initiating event.  In order to have something compelling to say, I decided to revisit the text.  Thumbing through the pages, I made an interesting discovery.  My memoir pointed out that my running journey began exactly twenty-five years ago when I attended a wellness workshop intended to encourage people to start an exercise routine.  I smiled at the coincidence and made a few notes for my brief presentation.  When I entered the conference room where the event was held, I realized it was the very same room in which I had sat as a participant in a wellness workshop twenty-five years earlier.  As they say, I had come full circle.    

During the intervening twenty-five years of, almost, daily runs I’ve logged thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of miles.  In fact, my very rough math suggests I have logged mileage that equates to the circumference of the Earth.  Of course, that’s not a viable running route due to the vast stretches of ocean, but I have gone for runs in a dozen states and several countries.  I’ve run in sun, rain, snow, and wind, and sometimes all four at once.  I’ve run at sea level, mostly, and at altitude that took my breath away.  I’ve run alone in my thoughts, and I’ve run with groups of people who buoy my spirit.  Short runs, long runs, fun runs, and miserable runs.  I’ve completed dozens of races with crowds cheering me on, and I’ve run alone in the dark with no sound except my shoes hitting the pavement beneath my feet.  I’ve symbolically circled the earth, and now I was back in that same room.  This time I was on the other side of the table, hoping to encourage someone to take their first step.  I’ve made, and continue to make, a lot of questionable decisions in my life but strapping on shoes and going for that first sweaty, breathy run was a good one.  

The book tells the story of the first ten years, but there have been fifteen more years of running stories since that didn’t get written down.  A few of those anecdotes are captured in these posts — like the recent one about a miserable 20-mile training run, and the classic, according to those who were there with me, tale of running in the ninth circle of Hell — but most are lost to my questionable memory.  Today, I’m nursing a sore knee after a twenty-two mile training run yesterday, and that may become part of the story of my next marathon in three weeks where I’m planning to be a pacer for people hoping to complete their first (or maybe fiftieth) marathon in five hours.  I’ll let you know how it goes.  In the meantime, take care of yourself.  Maybe strap on some shoes and get outside.  It’s a beautiful day.  

   

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.  

Motorbikes, Metal, and Misery

Uli

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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