Beavers and Blackbirds

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I flew to Columbus, Ohio a couple weeks ago for work, which included changing planes in Chicago.  After I found my seat and listened to the safety briefing, I thumbed through the pages of the latest edition of Hemispheres — the United Airlines magazine — to figure out what type of airplane I was on.  I’m guessing that’s not the first thing most people do when they fly, but I’m weird like that.  I found the list of United’s aircraft in the back of the magazine and learned that it was an EMB 170.  That’s when I started missing my dad.  He died twelve years ago. 

Some kids’ fathers teach them about cars, but my dad liked airplanes.  His father had run the fuel service at the Juneau airport in the 40s, and he worked there as a kid.  He grew up around pilots and became an amateur historian of military and commercial aviation.  He loved to share his knowledge and liked to test me whenever an airplane flew overhead.  He could often identify a plane just from the sound of its engine, but I always had to look, and I often got Cessna 180s and 185s mixed up.  The 185 has the swept tail, but I always forget.

Airplanes are a part of life in Juneau, Alaska.  You can’t drive away from Juneau, and if you want to leave, you either need to take a boat or a plane, which makes it hard to be a rebellious teenager trying to run away from home, as ferries and flights are expensive.  One of our neighbors was a bush pilot, and many of our summer camping trips began with a flight on an amphibious de Havilland Beaver to some remote lake in Southeast Alaska.  I spent more time in airplanes as a kid than I did in cars.  

So, as I sat on board the plane in Chicago waiting to take off, I wondered just what the hell an EMB 170 was.  I had never heard of this airplane before, and the EMB designation made it clear this jet was not built by Boeing or Airbus.  I wanted to talk to Dad about it.  

I’ve thought about him a lot this week.  This past Monday would have been his 80th birthday.  He loved the fact that his birthday fell on King Kamehameha Day, a Hawaiian holiday in which they celebrate the most famous Hawaiian monarch.  We visited Hawaii several times as a family, and on one of those summer vacations, Dad found himself watching the King Kamehameha festivities in Waikiki and vicariously appreciating the affection and admiration of the  Hawaiian people.  It’s good to be the king.  

Wednesday was my son’s graduation from high school.  We attended the event held in a crowded, humid college gymnasium, in which we sat on bleachers, and I giggled to myself about Dad.  He attended my high school graduation, but, four years later, he decided to skip my college ceremony.  It pissed me off at the time, but I don’t hold a grudge.  That was just Dad.  He didn’t skip the ceremony because he didn’t care, he just hated big crowds and uncomfortable seating.  I know he was proud of me, just as I am of my own son.  

Thursday was Flag Day, the day we commemorate the adoption of the flag on June 14, 1777, and when I saw the notation on my wall calendar, I retrieved the stars and stripes from the closet and hung it at the front of the house.  He gave me the flag when we bought our first house.  Dad felt it was important to post the colors on holidays, and I have tried to follow his lead.  I don’t always remember, but when I do it reminds me of how much I appreciate our democracy and how much I appreciate Dad for teaching me about it.  

Friday, I took the day off to prepare a feast of smoked meats for the graduation party we hosted on Saturday.  My son requested barbecue, and I was happy to oblige, even though it required two days and minimal sleep to cook the brisket, pulled pork, ribs, and pork belly.  I spent thirteen hours Friday worrying over a brisket and two pork shoulders as they slowly surrendered to the heat and smoke.  The grill in which the pork shoulders cooked was Dad’s.  He bought it in Juneau about 35 years ago, and it is a thing of beauty.  Dad didn’t do any true low and slow barbecue cooking— he didn’t have the patience for it — but he cooked salmon steaks on that grill that I still dream about.  I admire his ability to simply cook the fish until it was done perfectly.  He didn’t use a timer, he just knew when it was ready to serve.  I’m a slave to my timers and thermometers, carefully measuring and monitoring every aspect of the cooking process.  While I take a more high tech approach to my pit mastery, my love for grilling, just like my love for airplanes, started with Dad.    

This weekend is the 20th annual Olympic Airshow hosted by the Olympic Flight Museum.  My dad was one of the early members of the museum, which houses a collection of some of the most beautifully restored warbirds in the world, including a North American P-51D Mustang and a Vought F4U Corsair.  We went to the airshow together many times, and he got to tell his grandchildren all about the cool airplanes.  I miss hearing his voice as he talked about the airplanes he loved.  

I would like to walk around the airshow today with Dad and talk about airplanes.  I want to hear those same old stories about old Alaskan pilots like Fred “Bax” Baxter and Shell Simmons.  I want to remind him of the time we saw the SR-71 Blackbird fly at the Abbotsford Airshow.  I want to ask him to remind me what kind of airplanes the Canadian Snowbirds aerobatic team flew (CT-114 Tutor jets; I had to look it up).  And I want to ask him if he’s heard of an EMB 170.  He would tell me it’s a twin-engine jet by the Brazilian company Embraer, and they first started flying in 2004.  He always knew.  He was my own personal aircraft wikipedia.  I miss you, Dad.  I’ll do my best to identify the planes as they fly overheard today.  Remind me, does the Cessna 185 have a swept tail?  

Happy Father’s Day.  

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The Great Train Robbery

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Last Saturday, three of my friends and I got in a Lexus SUV for a twelve hour road trip, during which we wallowed in our own accumulating filth, listened almost exclusively to gangsta rap, and, in a twist on the classic literary motif, got robbed by a train.  It was an unusual day.  

The impetus for this journey was the Rainier to Ruston relay in which teams of between three and six people take turns running twelve legs of a 50-mile course from the base of Mt. Rainier to the tiny town of Ruston on the shores of Commencement Bay in Tacoma, Washington.  We were a team of four — Sally, Jason, Jennifer, and me — and dubbed ourselves the “Middle Aged Mafia.”  We were each responsible for running three of the twelve legs, which ranged between 2.5 and 7 miles.  After one of us started running, the rest of the team piled into the SUV and drove to an exchange point to await the runner’s arrival so the next team member could start their leg.  We were never in one location for more than 45 minutes, making for a busy “lather, rinse, repeat” sort of day, with a notable lack of rinsing.  As there were no showers along the way, we put an aromatic strain on the interior of the Lexus.  Hopefully Sally and Jason were able to adequately air it out after the race.

This was my first team relay event, but, more significantly, it was the first time in several years I have paid full price for a race entry.  The last half dozen races I participated in I’ve done for free or at a discount either as a volunteer pacer or in the guise of a friend who had to bow out.  I’ve run as three different women, including twice as Jill, in an effort to avoid paying exorbitant registration fees.  I take a certain amount of pride in maintaining a lack of gender bias in my frugality.  I’m not sure why I was motivated to pay the full amount for this event, but I’m glad I did so that I could experience running as a team sport.

We climbed into the SUV at 5:30 a.m. to drive from Olympia to the starting line near the Carbon River entrance to Mt. Rainier National Park.  It was somewhere along that 90-minute drive we settled on Sirius radio’s 90’s hip hop station as our soundtrack for the day.  I didn’t complain as — full disclosure — I had a brief dalliance with rap culture in the summer of 1984 when, inspired by the cinematic masterpieces Breakin’ and Beat Street, I wanted to become a break dancer.  I soon learned that being a heavy-set white kid from Alaska with no discernible sense of rhythm were limiting factors to my hip hop aspirations.  Fortunately, I like metal music more and the associated dance moves require less coordination.  While I proposed picking a metal station, I was riding with three people who’s musical tastes diverged considerably from mine.   Hip hop would suffice, especially given the alternatives of contemporary country or 90s boy bands.  The horror.

I was runner number one, and my first leg was 4.9 miles.  It began like any other race, with a crowd of runners amassing at the start, except we found ourselves off the social media grid.  In this remote location, there was no wifi or cell service, and it was disturbing to be unable to post starting line selfies.  No one would know that I was about to embark on a 50-mile journey until we made it back to civilization and cellular service.  First World problems of the highest order.  

In addition to the media blackout, another unique quality of this race was that the starting line we had to cross was a bell standard – a narrow metal archway with a bell affixed to the top.  Each runner ran through the standard, like walking through an airport metal detector, and pulled a string to ring the bell.  This resulted in the mass of runners quickly dwindling into a long parade of individuals running to the first exchange point, at which we would again run through a bell standard and tag up with a teammate.  As we settled into our respective paces, the space between each runner grew, and this became the norm for the day.  I ran each of my legs mostly alone, only occasionally passing, or being passed by, another runner.  

When I got to the end of my first leg I discovered another feature offered by relay events.  Since I was only finishing the first leg of the race, instead of running a gauntlet of cheering supporters towards a finish line, I found myself running into a garden party of runners milling about a forested parking area, sipping from water bottles, and looking at their watches.  When I reached the middle of the crowd, I had to stop and ask where I was supposed to go to finish.  Someone pointed to the bell standard set up nearby, and that’s when I finally saw my teammate, Sally, in the crowd waiting for me to tag up.  I crossed the threshold, rang the bell, and sent her on her way.

As it turned out, I got the easiest three legs of the course.  The first included a long uphill stretch, but the air was cool and I was running on fresh legs.  My only concern as I started the second leg was that I didn’t know where to go.  Runners were spread out such that I didn’t have anyone to follow, and I worried I would be the team member that got lost.  Fortunately, the course offered only one path and getting lost would have required making a conscious decision to go astray.  My third leg was the most difficult simply due to the increasing heat and the fact it was the final segment of what cumulatively amounted to running a half marathon.  

The running, lonely as it was, is just a small part of the allure of the event.  The constant travel between and the reunions at each exchange point were good fun.  The camaraderie that comes from being tired, smelling bad, and sharing a confined space over the course of twelve hours is, perhaps surprisingly, something I will always think back on fondly.  There was a fair amount of decidedly unsexy disrobing and robing over the course of the day, mostly the changing of socks and tops, and our laundry accumulated on the floor boards along with empty water bottles, protein bar wrappers, and McDonald’s french fry boxes.  Yes, we ate french fries between runs.  I’m not ashamed.  

We kept busy on the drives by alternatively apologizing for our respective stench and cowbelling runners along the way.  Cowbelling is the act of ringing a cowbell as runners go by.  While I am generally opposed to the modern propensity to turn every noun into a verb, in this case, I was tired and in no mood to argue grammar and usage.  In the running community, the ringing of cowbells is a rousing acclamation and encouragement.  We enjoyed firing up our fellow road warriors as we drove past them by rattling the small cowbell that Sally and Jason brought.   

 We also kept busy singing along to the music on the radio.  While hip hop was not my first choice, I did appreciate that the satellite radio station broadcast uncensored versions of the songs.  As a fan of extreme metal music, I am not easily offended, and, in fact, I enjoy a well used curse word.  That enjoyment was enhanced due to my increasingly exhausted state leaving me highly susceptible to juvenile humor.  The first round of giggles happened when the dashboard display of the song titles truncated the title of an Eve song called “Let Me Blow Ya Mind,” cutting off the last three letters.  Never having heard it before, I asked if, in fact, the song was called “Let Me Blow Ya, Mmmm.”  Giggle.  It got worse from there.  For example, we probably should have rolled up our windows when pulling into one of the exchange points so as not to upset the other race participants when I found myself shouting along to a Ludacris song featuring the chorus “Get back, motherfucker! You don’t know me like that!”  The puerile low point was when Jennifer taught me the chorus to Lil’ John’s song, “Get Low”:  “To the window, to the wall, to the sweat drop down my balls.”  This became the Middle Aged Mafia theme song, and, as the day wore on, the giggles became gales.    

Sally got the toughest legs of the course, being forced to run on technical trails and through sand.  She was our warrior.  Jason’s segments were similar to mine, but he was our ringer, putting in fast finishing times to keep us on schedule.  Jennifer, though, suffered the most.  Her misery began on the second leg, which was a long stretch in sweltering heat with no shade, and the third was even worse.  It was supposed to be a three miler, but due to some course changes, it ended up being a five mile slog through an industrial area between Fife and Tacoma.  While I came across a pastoral scene on one of my legs when I passed a woman riding a horse along the sun-dappled trail, Jennifer came across a homeless person convulsing on the sidewalk.  As she slowed and considered whether she might need to render some assistance, he got up and became insistent that he was “like  Christopher Moltisanti, like Michael Imperioli” of The Sopranos fame.  While he was obviously not entirely of sound mind, at least the spasming had stopped, so she pressed on.  

Her last leg was also interrupted by a train.  The course materials explained that there were a couple spots where runners would have to cross train tracks and to be cautious when doing so.  They didn’t tell us we might have to wait 45 minutes for the train to pass before we could cautiously cross the tracks.  Jennifer was halfway through her last leg when she and dozens of other runners stood in the heat wondering if the locomotive would ever get out of the way.  A few runners climbed over the train, but Jennifer decided to keep her feet on the ground and try to be more productive.  She got a pad and pen from a Pierce County employee who was standing at the crossing and began recording arrival times of runners who showed up and got stuck.  Like a boss.  While many teams were robbed of their goal finishing times by the train, Jennifer made sure we would all have documentation to prove when we should have crossed the finish line.  That’s pretty cool.  The train eventually left the station, and Jennifer made it to the last exchange point where she tagged up with Jason who ran the final leg along the Tacoma waterfront.  We made our way to  Marine Park, and, as Jason approached, we gathered to cross the finish line together.  We had started running almost ten hours earlier and were happy to be done.  We were back in civilization, and we took pictures to commemorate our accomplishment on Facebook.  Standing at the finish line, I looked southeast to the now 50-miles distant Mt. Rainier and smiled. We had covered a lot of ground.  

We hung our finisher medals around our necks and queued up for the spoils of victory.  The event organizers promised beer and grilled cheese sandwiches for those who made it to the end, and we were hungry for both.  The beer was good — thank you Georgetown Brewing — but the grilled cheese did not live up to expectations. According to a photo on the race website, we would be getting sandwiches as big as a 90’s hip hop album cover, but these were closer to CD-case size squares of white bread with American cheese that I would expect to find in a prison commissary.  Of course, they don’t generally serve beer in prison commissaries, so I can’t complain too much.  

Thank you, Middle Aged Mafia, for another great day of running.  Sorry about the stench.   

The Good, The Bad, and The Guy in the Mirror

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Last week, through a series of events, both fortunate and otherwise, I was presented with opportunities to reflect on myself, and, being an over-thinker, I never squander such an opportunity.  During the workweek, I was reminded of the following not so great qualities about me:

1. I have a fragile ego.  I have appointed myself the Occasional Goodwill Ambassador in my office, and each week I send an email announcing the theme for “Theme Shirt Friday.”  It’s my attempt to bring a bit of merrymaking into the workplace by encouraging my co-workers to wear something fun, such as aloha shirts, concert shirts, or super hero shirts.  I work in IT, so it’s fair to say that every day is Casual Friday, so I try to up the ante on Fridays.  After sending one of these email notifications last week, I received a response early the next morning from someone asking to be removed from the distribution list.  I was heartbroken.  Because I am not immune to anxiety, I began to think there must be more people who find my emails to be nothing more than an annoyance.  I convinced myself that my attempts at fun were bothersome, and I should cease and desist immediately.  Of course, when I arrived at the office, I was rescued from my pit of despair by half a dozen people who stopped by to thank me for Theme Shirt Fridays.  My self esteem was restored for the moment, but self loathing always lurks nearby.  

2. I am at my worst when I am convinced I’m right.  I got in an argument with a close friend and colleague based on an incorrect assumption.  Of course, she set me straight, pointed out my error, and I retreated with my hubris left in tatters.  It was a good reminder that in those moments when I am certain I have the correct answer, it is time to proceed with caution and gather more data.  An untested belief is not much to hang on to.  In my experience, proceeding with humility is a much better way to navigate dangerous organizational waters. 

3. I sometimes fail to notice when someone is trying to be a friend.  It was a rough week, and it took me several days to notice that a co-worker stopped by my desk each day to remind me to take deep breaths.  I was too caught up in my own drama to appreciate that gift the first time it was presented.  While there are still emotional dragons around the office, now I know I have another comrade in arms to help with the slaying, and for that I am grateful. 

It wasn’t just my character flaws that came to mind last week.  There were a few things I liked about myself, too:

1. I assume people have good intentions.  Of course, I’m not always right about that, but, according to my math, it proves true more often than not.  It’s a lot easier to assume the best than to speculate on ulterior nefarious motives.  It gives you a point from which to build a good relationship.  

2. I don’t, for the most part, hold grudges.  This is a corollary to the previous observation.  Yes, I get frustrated and angry by other people now and again, but I don’t hold onto those feelings for long.  I prefer to try to figure out why an otherwise decent person might be behaving in a rotten way.  

3. I am inspired by the accomplishments of others.  A co-worker recently completed an Iron Man Triathlon, and we celebrated his outstanding physical achievement by dedicating Theme Shirt Friday to being his cheering section.  He spent twelve and half hours swimming (2.4 miles), biking (112 miles), and running (26.2 miles), and I’ve rarely been so impressed by someone’s dedication to achieving a goal.  Very cool, indeed.  It was an honor to gather his colleagues together and pose for a photo in which we held up signs encouraging him to Swim, Bike, Run!

The emotional roller coaster of the work week came to and end, and I jumped headlong into a more physical endeavor.  On Sunday, I had the opportunity to run the second half of the Capital City Marathon as a pacer.  It was my job to help runners hoping to finish the marathon in four hours and forty five minutes by running at a steady pace so they could follow me.  I did it last year, and it was a great experience to help people reach their goal.  It’s no Iron Man triathlon, but it did give me another chance to reflect on myself.  Oh, how I love to reflect.  This time the reflections took the form of some good reminders:

1. Don’t assume you’re the coolest kid.  As I ran my somewhat slow pace with my brightly colored racing singlet and golden balloon trailing behind me (signaling others that I was a pacer), I thought I was pretty special.  As I caught up to other runners, I assumed they weren’t as accomplished as I was in terms of running ability.  I engaged one woman in conversation and learned that her leisurely pace was due to the fact she had completed a 50 mile race the week before.  That’s almost twice as far as I’ve ever run, and I certainly never strung together two ridiculously long runs within a week.  Another, who I also assumed was a slowpoke told me she was a three-time Iron Man finisher but has lost a step since she had kids.  To top it off, she told me about an old guy she met on the course who was running his 404th marathon, the second since his bypass surgery.  People are amazing, you just may not know it yet.  Whether they are physically gifted or have other talents and stories, try to appreciate what they bring to the world.  Don’t feel bad about yourself in comparison, either.  You are cool, but so is everybody else, and we’re all in this together.  We need each other.   

2. Do the right thing even when nobody is watching.  For most of the race, I was pacing by myself.  I didn’t have any racing remoras hanging onto me, so I was running alone.  Despite that, I stuck with my pace, hitting my split times according to plan.  As I started the last mile, a young man I had met ten miles earlier, and had left behind after he fell off the pace, passed me and shouted, “I caught you!” and kept on going at full tilt towards the finish.  Even if it was just for that kid, I was pleased I could help him achieve his goal.  After the race, I saw him gathered with his family as they celebrated his accomplishment.  I stepped up and shook his hand.  His smile made my tired body feel better. 

3. Say thank you.  The Capital City Marathon features hundreds of volunteers along the way, some official and some not.  The two aid stations featuring cups of beers were decidedly not official, but much appreciated.  I asked them not to tell anyone I was drinking on duty.  As I passed each aid station and cross street where volunteers were holding back traffic, I shouted out my thank yous for keeping us safe and hydrated.   More often than not, I received cheers and thank yous for being a pacer.  It was a delightful mutual admiration society.  The thank yous can be more personal, too.  For example, I ran in honor of Andy Fritz, the guy who got me into pacing who tragically died last year.  My running partner, Sally, ran for a friend who also died too young.  Our thank yous came too late, but they were still worth doing.  We honored their memory and the way they touched our lives.  Do your best to appreciate the people in your life, the ones who remind you to keep breathing and the ones who inspire you by their coolness.  With that in mind, let me say thank you to my cheering section, both family and friends, who gathered at the finish to cheer for me as I crossed the line.  Great photos, Russ.  Thanks!  

It’s been an interesting week of activity and reflection.  I enjoyed the opportunity to be reminded of myself: the good, bad, and ugly.  You should try it some time.  Cheers.  

Emotion Recollected in Tranquility

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It’s early Sunday morning as I write, and the house is quiet except for the drips and groans of the coffee maker turning decaffeinated beans into a reasonable facsimile of a good cup of joe.  By doctor’s orders, I have been drinking unleaded coffee for a year.  Last year, I wrote about being diagnosed with an eye condition called central serous retinopathy, which caused me right eye to go out of focus.  I was informed that the cause is unknown, but it correlates to stress, steroid use, and caffeine consumption.  My doctor told me to quit all three, which seemed absurd.  My job was highly stressful and not likely to become a source of relaxation by sheer force of will, I had been taking corticosteroids for almost twenty years to treat allergy and asthma symptoms, and drinking a tall cup of high octane java was as much a part of my daily routine as showering.  The thought of quitting the latter two only added to my stress.  I assumed it would be a rough transition punctuated by headaches, nasal congestion, and wheezing.  

Imagine my surprise when the detoxification process turned out to be uneventful.  Aside from a couple days of feeling a bit lethargic in the morning, I could still breathe deeply without any headaches, allergic sniffling, or asthmatic rasps.  I waited a few weeks before I accepted the fact that, as it turns out, I wasn’t as addicted to those substances as I thought.  In fact, I was somewhat annoyed to discover I had been taking corticosteroids for some number of years for no reason.  As for the caffeine-free lifestyle, I actually prefer it.  I feel clearer in the mornings and steadier throughout the day.  Who woulda thought?  I also changed jobs resulting in a dramatic decrease in my stress levels.  Well, except for last week, which kinda sucked, but it’ll get better.  On this one year anniversary of my lifestyle change, I’m feeling contemplative about the comings and goings over the past twelve months.  When I do the math, there are more silver linings than clouds.  

Of course, whenever I reflect, I start with heavy metal.  I’ve seen a lot of great shows over the past year — Kreator, Blistered Earth (Metallica tribute band), Metal Church, Testament, Second Sting (Scorpions tribute band), Venom Inc., Exodus, and Udo Dirkschneider (former lead singer of Accept) — and did so with good friends at my side.  I also had to say goodbye to a metal icon and personal acquaintance, Warrel Dane, but I did so along with a few hundred of my metal brothers and sisters, including Sean, at a memorial ceremony in January.  RIP Wally, your music lives on.

I missed out on my 30th high school reunion last summer but rebuilt old friendships by connecting with classmates through this blog and social media.  I didn’t know how much I missed my fellow Juneau-Douglas High School Crimson Bears until we started chatting online.  It culminated in a St. Patrick’s Day reunion with one of my closest childhood companions over a shot of Jameson at a bar he co-owns with another high school friend.  For almost thirty years, these guys were just memories and pictures in a yearbook, and now I’ve got a new favorite watering hole where the bartender is glad to see me.  

I have a new job that I admit is not stress free, but I’m having a lot of fun learning new things, meeting new people, and doing important work.  There is drama — sometimes big drama —  but there is also fun.  I instituted Theme Shirt Fridays to encourage my colleagues to lighten up and laugh with each other, and it seems to be working.  My cubicle is in the basement of our building, with little natural light available.  The workspace has a certain buried alive quality, but it has made me appreciate the moments of levity and my daily lunchtime run outside all the more.  

When I run these days, more often than not, I run with a friend.  What used to be a solitary experience has become a social event, and I love it.  In a couple weeks, I’ll be pacing the second half of the Capital City Marathon, helping people achieve their goal of finishing a marathon in four hours and forty-five minutes.  I’ll be doing it in honor of Andy Fritz, the organizer of the pacing team, who died tragically last year.  He was an inspiration to me, and I’m glad to have had the chance to run with him.  Next month, I’m running a 50-mile relay event with a team of friends, which will be a new experience for me.  It will also be an interesting challenge trying to minimize the amount of olfactory damage I inflict on my teammates after I run my leg and climb into the van to be transported to the next drop-off spot.  Yesterday, I ran a 10K with Ainsley’s Angels, a group that helps those who can’t run on their own participate in racing events.  I didn’t do any of the work pushing the jogging stroller for Team Maverick, but I enjoyed supporting the two cool ladies that propelled the adorable six-year-old Maverick (great name, huh?) to the finish line while he ate snacks and watched cartoons on his tiny laptop.   My left knee hurts all the time, and I experience occasional chafing on my long training runs, but I’m so grateful for the sweaty miles spent running with my fellow road warriors. 

Tonight I’m smoking ribs, the first of the season.  I will force my Master Forge grill to work as a smoker, which requires constant attention: feeding the fire, adding wood chips to keep the smoke going, and managing the temperature.  I could make it a lot easier on myself by buying a true offset smoker, but I like the hard work that produces delicious results.  I will serve three racks of ribs to my family and, hopefully, a couple friends.  I will be tired as a result of getting out of bed too early and spending the day tending the fire, but it’s all worth it when the guests quietly savor the slow-smoked slabs of porcine protein.  

It’s been twelve months since I said goodbye to caffeine and  steroids, and my right eye is back in focus.  I can see clearly now.  As you go about your days being who you are, liking what you like, and doing cool stuff, remember to pay attention to the little things, the dark and the light, the things you left behind, and the things you added to your life.  And enjoy some barbecue on a sunny day.   Cheers.

A Boy and His Dog Ignored

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On Tuesday, I took my dog for her first official run.  It was a beautiful late afternoon, and I had skipped my usual lunch time run, so I used the opportunity to go home early and run a couple miles with my dog at my side.  This was something I had been looking forward to since we got her, but I had been putting it off until she was past the puppy stage.  At eighteen months old, I knew she was ready.  

It was a bit awkward for both of us.  She had to adjust to the idea of not stopping every few steps to sniff something, and I had to adjust my pace to match her slower gait.  Make no mistake, she could easily outrun me if given the opportunity, but my running pace is a brisk walking stride for her, so we had to get used to each other.  We covered about a mile and a half before returning home.  I could have gone further, but once she saw our house, she dragged me with some urgency towards the front door.  I’m sure she was a bit shaken by the experience.  As this was the first time she had been forced to keep a steady pace for more than a couple minutes without stopping to smell the roses, she must have wondered what I was up to and whether it would ever end.  

When we reached the porch, I decided to sit down with her and take a runfie to commemorate the moment.  “Runfie,” of course, is the term for a selfie that is taken before, during, or after a run to provide evidence of your ambulatory accomplishment.  I quickly uploaded the picture of Autumn’s tongue-wagging smile and my sweaty grin to her Instagram account and my Facebook account.  Yes, my dog has an Instagram account.  Most of her followers are other dogs, so a perusal of her account’s feed would suggest that Instagram would more appropriately be called Instadog.  Within seconds, several hearts popped up on the account, letting me know that her canine social network was delighted she had gone on her first run with “Dad,” which is how I am known on Instagram.  

Over on Facebook, the results were less than enthusiastic.  I checked every few minutes, but after several hours, the adorable photo of me and my dog, had received zero responses.  No comments, likes, loves, nor wows.  Not even a laugh.  I went to bed that night despondent.  I would have even tolerated a crying emoji or an angry face from someone thinking I had been treating my dog badly by running with her in hot weather.   I had assumed this would have been one of the most popular Facebook posts of my social media career, but I came up empty.  The next morning, I slavishly checked my phone and found a singular like, from my friend Kurt.  I was pleased to know that the picture had been seen, and there wasn’t some glitch in my account, but I was disappointed.  

I spent far too much time privately pouting about it.  I considered the possibility that all of my Facebook friends finally had enough of my shameless self-promotion, annoyed that this time I had even used my cute dog to try and tickle their heartstrings, and chose to shun me by refusing to react online.  I also contemplated whether they had decided to prank me.  It would have been difficult to pull off, but I could imagine the large group email stating, “Here’s the plan: the next time Todd posts on Facebook, we all ignore it.  It will be hilarious!” 

The next day, I didn’t post at all, as I was still licking my social media wounds.  Instead, I sat on the couch and petted Autumn, who demonstrably loves me.  It wasn’t until Thursday that I posted again.  It was a low-key, humble message about how happy I was the weather was good and I was able to grill dinner outside.  I didn’t include a photo of the meal, as there’s nothing so pretentious as food pics – a cyber crime of which I am chronically guilty.  Again, aside from Kurt, there was no reaction.  I love Kurt, but man does not live on Kurt alone.  

I decided to focus on finding personal validation in the real world, and Friday provided a good opportunity.  For the past few weeks, I have declared “Theme-Shirt Fridays” at work.  On Wednesdays, I announce the theme to give everyone a chance to dig through their closets before Friday rolls around.  Two weeks ago, it was Band/Concert Shirt Friday, and it was a big hit.  I was delighted to see the number of people who came to work wearing shirts from a wide variety of bands, including Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty, Peter Frampton, Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, and a range of metal bands.  I was proud of my co-workers – especially pleased to discover a few more metal heads – and had us pose for a group photo.  When I put that picture on Facebook – a few days before the boy-and-his-dog runfie disaster – it was a massive hit, possibly the most “liked” photo I had ever posted, and I was elated by the attention.  

This Friday’s theme was Super Heroes/Comics, and since I work in an IT shop, the response was epic.  I was suddenly working in the middle of the much dreamed about Marvel/DC crossover universe.  I had no doubt this group photo would prove to be my redemption on Facebook.  Last night, I put the picture up and waited for the emoji-based adulation to unfold.  Thirty minutes later, there was no response.  While I had been silently feeling sorry for myself for three days, I finally gave voice to my frustration and called out, to know one in particular, “WTF!?”

Despite working in IT, I am not particularly adept at technology, but I began tapping through the settings in my Facebook account to figure out what was going on.  It wasn’t long before I discovered that, somehow, my privacy settings had been changed such that my posts were only being sent to Kurt.  I don’t know how it happened, but I’m confident it was by my own clumsy hand and not a prank.  I had undoubtedly sabotaged myself.  I changed the settings back to “public” and watched the love start to roll in.  My Super Friends were suddenly a big hit on Facebook, and all was well with the world.  

This social network snafu has given me a lot to think about.  Clearly, I have somewhat desperate need for external validation, but that’s not new information.  I have previously admitted in these blog posts that I’m keenly aware of the fact I write this stuff in hopes that people will read it.  The bigger lesson, during the dark days online,  was how much I value the genuine human interactions at home and at the office.  I am fortunate to work with smart, fun, talented people who are willing to don super hero and other apparel for a bit of fun after a long week.  There may come a time when the reactions on Facebook really do start to decline, but I’m grateful for every chance I get to collaborate, sometimes struggle, and often laugh with my “Super Friends.”  I’m also glad I figured out the glitch with my Facebook settings before I live-streamed myself eating a Tide pod in a truly desperate attempt at attention-seeking.  That would have been embarrassing, if not life-threatening.  I’m guessing even Kurt wouldn’t have “liked” it.  

Pacing and Chafing

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My legs are still a bit sore, but, happily, the chafing has lessened.  Yesterday, I ran fourteen miles, and, as it was the farthest I had run in about a year, I experienced some significant abrasion between my thighs.  Throughout the rest of the day, when I wasn’t laying on the couch, I did my best to look cool while walking bow-legged.   

The friction-generating run was in preparation for my second appearance as an official pacer for the Capital City Marathon next month.  I will be responsible for setting a steady 10 minute 52 second per mile pace for the second half of the event, as I help runners who are hoping to finish the full marathon in four hours and forty-five minutes.  

I paced the second half of the race last year, but I did so at a faster pace for those hoping to finish in four hours and thirty minutes.  I learned that day that, while I have finished many half marathons at a faster gait over the years, I’ve recently lost a few steps, and I can no longer be confident in my ability to string together thirteen miles at a 10:15 per mile pace.  Slowing down to 10:52 per mile should be quite doable.  Of course, this means my hopes of qualifying for the Boston Marathon are slipping away.  To qualify for Boston, runners must finish a marathon in a specific amount of time based on their age.  Based on my personal best marathon time, I would qualify for Boston when I hit age 75.  Of course, that depends on my being able to maintain my PR for the next 26 years.  As I’ve already lost about 15 seconds per mile, it’s not looking good.  

The training run yesterday was great.  In part, my positive attitude about it was due to the nice weather.  My previous two Saturday morning long runs were conducted during record-setting rainstorms.  While I experienced some pride in persevering through extreme conditions, they were mostly miserable runs.  In addition to yesterday’s drier conditions, the run was pleasant because I was running with two friends, Sally and Amanda.  Sally is training for the full marathon, so she had run six miles before I joined her, and we met up with Amanda a little further along.  For the next eleven miles, we ran together, and the miles passed quickly, filled with idle chatter about work, friends, family, pets, and running.  We also spoke enthusiastically about what we were going to eat after the run, much like prisoners of war longing for a special meal after their hoped-for liberation.  Our torment was self-imposed, but the longing for pizza and donuts was intense nonetheless.   

We also talked about Skirt Sports, a line of athletic garments for women that, according to my running compatriots, has solved the chafing problem with built-in shorties underneath the brightly colored skirts.  I am intrigued but uncomfortable with the idea of wearing a skirt, especially with names like the lioness, spanky, and flirt.  Until Sport Skirts comes out with a line for men, I will have to explore other, more masculine, options to keep my thighs from assaulting each other.    

Thanks, Sally and Amanda, for keeping me company on our run.  A little chafing isn’t so bad if I don’t have to suffer alone. 

Soundtrack

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I listened to the rain fall heavily through the night, I knew my running partner was out of town, and I was aware that my training schedule wouldn’t be seriously jeopardized if I skipped the six-mile run slated for this morning.  I had every reason to spend a quiet hour lounging on the couch and sipping coffee instead of slogging through the storm.  There was only one thing that got me out of bed, suited up, and running: music.  As I lay in bed contemplating all the reasons I should skip my run, I remembered I had recently loaded my MP3 player with some albums I hadn’t listened to in a long time and was looking forward to hearing with fresh ears.  The promise of a good soundtrack inspired my decision to put one foot in front of another a few thousand times.

Many years ago, a friend suggested that I pick a theme song for myself.  It’s an interesting thought experiment, but I’ve never settled on a single song that appropriately represents me.  I recall a time in high school, when I was becoming increasingly obsessed with rock and metal music, I thought the song “Let the Music Do the Talking” by the Joe Perry Project was my personal anthem.  I appreciate the sentiment of the title, but, upon reflection, I realize I like talking too much to let music have all the fun.  Nonetheless, music is enormously important to me.

While I haven’t selected a theme song, I often turn to music to capture a mood or moment.  For example, given my favorite genre, I have a long list of metal songs that work well when I am pissed off at someone, some thing, or some institution.  Overkill’s “I Hate You,” Machine Head’s “Game Over,” or “Exodus’ “Salt the Wound” are all good  anthems to anger that make me feel better when I shout along to the chorus while driving away from whatever encounter left me incensed.  A year ago, feeling disconsolate about my job situation, I was enamored of a song by Death Angel called “It Can’t Be This,”  which includes these lines:

Don’t know what I want

But I know it can’t be this.

Another restless soul about to lose control

Of a life that I just won’t miss.

While I wasn’t as depressed as that last line implies, I found shouting along to the chorus while out on my lunch time run helped improve my sour mood, like listening to the blues.  It gave me enough strength to go back to the office and face the rest of the day.

In addition to providing a healthy outlet for my occasional anger and misery, I find heavy metal, particularly the thrash metal sub-genre, to be a perfect antidote to overthinking.  My new job is expansive in scope, and it can get busy in my brain, a sort of mental Grand Central Station of noisy ideas getting on and off different thought trains.  My version of a calming meditation these days is to go for a run and dial up something speedy on my MP3 player, maybe something by Slayer, Testament, or Exodus.  The loud and frenetic music matches the volume and tempo of my thoughts and, thereby, silences them, like a super-charged version of white noise.  When the run is over and I turn off the music, there is a moment of pure silence, with no sound and, blissfully, no thoughts.  It’s fleeting, as the busy-ness of my brain soon resumes its processing, but the thoughts come a little slower, at a pace that I can manage more comfortably.

This morning, as I ran through the incessant rain, I listened to music by Danish heavy metal band Volbeat.  While they could be considered a rock band with metal tendencies, I confess their music is one of my guilty pleasures.  The metal-ish riffing grabs my attention, and the bombastic, soaring vocals of front man Michael Poulsen demand that I sing along with his broken English lyrics that express feelings more than any particular meaning.  It’s, dare I say, happy music, and that’s how I’ve been feeling these days.  Running the six soggy miles with Michael and the boys playing “Sad Man’s Tongue,” “Fallen,” and “A Warrior’s Call” made my heart swell.  Is it too sappy to say it feels a little like falling in love?  I’m not giving up on Slayer or Cattle Decapitation, but I’m going to enjoy this moment of positivity and be grateful for all the gifts in my life, including this cool job that sometimes makes my brain a little too busy but also makes me put a twist on that Death Angel lyric: I may not know what I want, but I think it might be this.

Aside From That, Mrs. Lincoln, How Was the Play?

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It’s Easter Sunday, and I’m getting ready for the annual neighborhood Easter Egg Dash, in which a swarm of kids will sprint around our park screaming and picking up over 1,000 candy-filled plastic eggs.  The entire event lasts about four minutes,  and for the past 14 years, I have been the organizer and emcee, supported by my family who does the work of filling the eggs.  The event is always successful and the air is filled with the delighted squeals of happy kids, even on the days when the rain falls.  I now suspect that my success as leader of the Dash can be attributed to the fact there is no technology involved.

Last week, my boss was going out of town and asked me to take over for him.  He runs the IT division for our agency, which meant, for three days, I would be responsible for the work of 250 software developers, architects, business analysts, and network and database administrators who ensure the successful operation of all the technology in our agency.  Putting me in charge was an ironic choice, since I still require the assistance of my teenage son to change the settings on my iPhone, but I told him I would be happy to step up to the challenge.

It started out great.  I brought in home made scones and jam to feed the troops and used my authority to declare Friday “Aloha Shirt Day.”  I haven’t written a line of code since I was 14, when a friend and I would try to make his Apple IIe run basic programs that often resulted in a disappointingly infinite loop, so I decided baked goods and novelty shirts were my best chance to relate to the technologists under my command.

All was going well until the third day when, at 8 a.m., I was informed there was a problem with our agency’s primary system.  It was bad enough that by 9 a.m. we decided it was necessary to shut the system down to stop the technological bleeding and work on a solution.  As a result, the entire worker’s compensation organization for the state of Washington was brought to a screeching halt.  Several hundred staff spent the day catching up on their email instead of serving their customers, since they were unable to use the software on which they depend.  My third day of IT leadership was not off to a good start.

Later that day, I was told that, for still unexplained reasons, Microsoft Word had stopped functioning.  That’s right, in addition to breaking the workers’ comp system, I had somehow managed to destroy Bill Gates’ bread and butter application.  To cap it off, later that evening, another software implementation, unrelated to injured workers or electronic correspondence, also failed.  It was a trifecta of technological devastation.  I considered baking more scones, but there isn’t enough flour, cream, and sugar in the world to get the bad taste of these failures out of my mouth.

Friday morning, I was reflecting on the damage with an old friend who reminded me that, thirteen years ago, I had overseen the implementation of a software application that went terribly wrong.  It was the first time I had responsibility for making the “go/no go” decision, and, at 4 a.m. On January 19, 2005, I said “go.” Shortly thereafter we had to shut it down, causing our agency’s electrical inspection program to resort to paper and pencil processing for three days.  This was not a happy memory, and my friend pointed out that I appeared to be the common denominator in all of these failures.  In gambling parlance, I was the “cooler,” an individual who’s mere presence causes all the other players to experience a string of bad luck.  We got the giggles thinking about it, and I laughed almost until I cried.

Tomorrow, I’ll return to my regular job and hope that my boss forgives me for my less than stellar performance.  The damage has been repaired, thanks to some truly impressive technologists who took the initiative and worked through the night to get our agency back in business.  As is my usual approach, I will stay out of their way and focus on what I do best, which is encouraging them to do their best and have some fun along the way by, for example, wearing Aloha shirts,  eating scones, and laughing about that time when everything went wrong.

When I was a kid, my dad told me I needed to learn to laugh at myself.  If I could take a step back from my failure and see the humor in it, life would be much easier.  He was right, and I’m grateful for that lesson.  It’s the reason I tell you these stories.  There’s a lot in life to beat yourself up about, but it’s more fun to laugh about it with friends.

Well, I need to get back to my preparations for the Easter Egg Dash.  I’m confident it will be a success, but if this event is ever goes horribly wrong, it’s probably going to happen on April Fool’s Day.  That would be hilarious.  Wish me luck.

Middle Aged Test Anxiety

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I suffer from test anxiety.  That may seem unusual for someone who’s been out of school for more than 25 years, but it’s true.  It happens, for example, whenever I go to the eye doctor, and he straps me into an elaborate set of diagnostic binoculars.  When he asks if the eye chart is clearer with #1 or #2, my blood pressure rises.  I worry I will give an incorrect answer and end up with the wrong eyeglass prescription.

I have a similar reaction when it’s time to get blood tests, but the stakes seem higher, as blood tests can provide evidence of a wide range of life-threatening conditions.  A few years ago, after having spent 90 days improving my diet (i.e., no alcohol, less fat, and more veggies) my blood test revealed high cholesterol.  Upon receiving that news, I proceeded to fail my blood pressure check and ended up with two new drug prescriptions to help manage both conditions.  Instead of doubling down on my dietary efforts, I decided to wash down my new medications with beer and pizza along with the green smoothies I had been drinking.

This year, with another blood test in my near future, I decided, again, to try cleaning up my dietary act, especially since I’d gained weight and my pants were reaching their structural limits.  I’ve read that the main factor in losing weight is actively changing your diet; it doesn’t matter which approach you take.  I decided to try “low carb” based on the experience of a friend.  She had seen a nutritionist who wanted her to increase the amount of fat she was consuming, and that sounded just ludicrous enough to work.  She offered me some recipes and suggested I start my day with two strips of bacon and three fried eggs, and I was eager to get started.  The trade-off was no carbs, and I admit it was hard to say goodbye to toast, but drowning my sorrows in bacon and eggs was a good salve.  For almost eight weeks, I persevered, limiting my carbohydrate intake drastically, while increasing the amount of protein I consumed.  I also reduced the amount of alcohol, but I was no teetotaler.  Sometimes, a beer (or four) is what I crave, and I rationalized that liquid carbs were preferable to toasted ones, but I knew I was cheating.  After 53 days, I had eaten a lot of bacon and eggs, had a fair amount of beer, and hadn’t lost much weight.  Needless to say, I didn’t anticipate getting an A+ on my blood tests.

From past experience, I knew that once I had my blood drawn, it would be only a few days –  perhaps just hours – before I would receive email notification from the lab that my results were available for viewing.  I would know before my doctor whether I was near death.  While eye exams get me worried about whether I would get the right glasses, blood tests make me worry if I will live through the night.  It was Friday afternoon when I submitted to the tests, and I vowed to not review the results until the weekend was over.  I had every intention of living it up for a couple days, presuming I would get a batch of bad news.  There were four tests in all, including, for the first time, a PSA test to determine whether I might have prostate cancer.  Delightful.

The email notification arrived Friday night, but I avoided opening it.  Instead, I focused on severals delicious IPAs.  However, by Saturday night, I could no longer resist, and I opened the email about the swill of bacon, eggs, and beer swirling through my veins.  The email provided my numerical results along with a comparison to the normal range of data.  My attention was grabbed by the fact that the acceptable range for PSA was from 0 to 4.  I don’t remember the units, but that didn’t seem relevant.  What fixed my eye was that my result was a 5.  That is, I was one more than normal, and I understood that, in this case, being above average was not a good thing.  I closed the email, and decided another beer was exactly what I needed.  For the next 24 hours, I thought a lot about prostate cancer.  I’m not 100% sure what a prostate is, but I was growing increasingly concerned that mine was one more than it should be.

I didn’t sleep well that night.  I imagined a difficult conversation with my doctor about the next steps for me.  I worried about telling my wife, and I couldn’t imagine telling my children.  I kept it to myself and waited for the follow-up email from my doctor that would, inevitably, tell me I needed to schedule an appointment to talk it over.  At the height of my anxiety, I went back to the test results to learn more about my situation.  I wanted to know exactly how bad it was to be a 5 instead of a 4.  I looked again at the normal range: 0 to 4.  Then I looked again at my result and noticed a decimal point.  I was .5, not 5.  That’s almost a zero.  I was on the low end, the good end, of normal.  It might even be an A+ as PSA tests go.  For the first time in 24 hours, I exhaled.

In addition to the great review of my prostate, the rest of the blood test results showed my blood was within normal ranges for cholesterol, triglycerides, and a number of other factors.  Apparently, I will live at least until next year’s blood tests, assuming I don’t get hit by a truck.  Ironically, my friend who had recommended the bacon and egg diet got a bad result on her test.  Her blood sugar was too high.  This seems impossible as she hasn’t consumed a carb in months, and she was understandably annoyed with me.  C’est la vie.

My test anxiety increases with each year that goes by, and I know many people who don’t get such good news when the results come in.  Life is too damn short.  I have friends who are currently struggling with life-threatening illnesses.  Their numbers are outside the normal range, and there is no reading of the fine print that will make it all better.  I am grateful that my numbers are good now, but I don’t pretend that I’m guaranteed of a long and healthy life.  There are other tests I haven’t taken that might reveal some bad news, and things could change.  The bacon diet may not pay off.  This living thing isn’t easy, and the instruction manual is confusing at best.

In the meantime, I’ve been celebrating my passing grade by enjoying some of life’s simple pleasures.  On Saturday, after watching my son compete in the state high school Knowledge Bowl tournament (Go Bears!), my wife, daughter, and I went out to raise a glass in honor of St. Patrick and, in the process, I reunited with two childhood friends after almost thirty years (who happen to own the tavern we visited).  On Monday, I went to a metal show with old friends and wallowed in the music of the great German band Accept, performed by the legendary Udo Dirkschneider, who, by the way, is holding up well as a 65-year-old metal front man.  Seeing my kids pursue their interests, spending time with family and friends, and listening to live metal music make me appreciate my test results even more and brings to mind a few items for a to-do list I offer for your consideration:

1. Take the tests.  It’s scary as hell, and the news isn’t always good, but it’s better to know and try to do something about it.

2. Love your family.  They are the ones that will be there when the test results aren’t so good, so keep hugging them.

3. Appreciate your friends.  As I said in my last post, I’m grateful for my friends who prop me up and commiserate with me.  I’m especially delighted I was able to reconnect with one of my oldest and best friends and increase the circle of support.

4. Go to a metal show.  Or a country show, Comic-con, a play, a quilting bee, or whatever type of cool tribal gathering works for you.  Spending time with others who share your passions is good medicine.

Taking life’s test can be daunting, and it helps if you don’t have to go it alone.  To my friends who are struggling, I’m thinking about you, I love you, and I always have a batch of fresh baked cookies ready for you.  Keep fighting.

Friendship Confirmation

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I was 14 when I was confirmed in the Lutheran church.  I have no specific recollections of the confirmation ceremony, but I do remember there was homework required before the big day.  My pastor gave me cassette tapes of a few of his sermons and asked me to outline them.  I wasn’t excited about the task, as listening to his sermons on Sunday mornings was tedious.  This was not merely the opinion of an easily bored teenager.  There was general agreement in my family, if not the entire flock, that our pastor, while a good man, was not a good public speaker.  I shuddered at the thought of concentrating on the recordings enough to outline the main points.  Despite my reluctance to repeatedly rewind and replay his remarks, I found the exercise enlightening.  I discovered that, while he couldn’t hold the congregation’s attention through his oratorial acuity, he had some thoughtful things to share with us.  I learned his sermons were not mere recitation of scripture followed by random ramblings but were, in fact, a carefully prepared argument.  I realized he had written his sermons, carefully crafting them to make whatever spiritual point he was trying to convey.  I employed my outlining skills to document his theses, main points, supporting evidence, and insightful conclusions.  The exercise illuminated the meaning of his words, and I was fascinated by the craft of language.  My pastor had encouraged my love of the written word.  He was probably hoping I would develop a specific affinity for the words in the Bible, but I wasn’t interested in stopping there.  I was on a path to learn more about  appreciating a well-composed piece of writing, regardless of subject matter, and creating my own structured arguments, often in defense of decidedly sacrilegious matters such as heavy metal music.  He inadvertently taught me the joys of the largely solitary process of reading and writing more than he taught me the joy of sharing the peace with my fellow churchgoers.

My attendance at church these days is limited to weddings and funerals.  Yesterday, I attended the funeral of a woman with whom I had worked.  She was a delightful character, and I was saddened when I learned that she lost her long fight with cancer.  We weren’t particularly close, but I knew many of my friends and colleagues would be in attendance, and I wanted to show my support for the family.  While most people in the small chapel were contemplating their loss and grief, I admit I was contemplating the composition of the chaplain’s sermon.  His thesis was about working through our sadness by relying on friends and family.  He artfully described, through beautiful verbal illustrations, the importance of leaning on each other to get through the difficult times.  His words were simple, clear, and compelling.

After his sermon, the family exited the chapel and formed a receiving line.  I waited my turn to greet them, feeling increasingly awkward as the line advanced.  I didn’t know her family, and I wasn’t sure what to say.  I hadn’t taken the time to write down my remarks, and therefore felt completely unprepared for the moment.  When it was my turn, I told her husband that I had worked with his wife and that she was a great lady.  He shook my hand and thanked me.  I moved down the line and shook hands with her son and sisters, and each of them thanked me for coming.  To each of them, I replied, inexplicably, “Thank you.”  Ugh.  I’m not great with spontaneous human interaction.  I do much better if I can write down my thoughts in advance, like a pastor preparing for a sermon, and practice what I will say.

After I made it through the receiving line, I gathered with friends and co-workers.  We shook hands, hugged, shared stories, and laughed together.  The chaplain’s sermon – which I had critiqued and outlined in my head like I did 35 years ago listening to my pastor’s cassettes – quietly unfolded in front of me.  I saw and heard the connections that existed between my friends.  They know each other well, they have shared experiences, and they are there for each other.  They lean on each other.  It was a beautiful thing.

Most of the people in my life seem to think I’m a pretty nice guy, but I feel like I’m not always the best of friends.  For example, it takes me a long time to learn about someone’s personal life.  It’s not that I’m uninterested, but I feel awkward asking a lot of questions.  I love learning about their lives, but I don’t like to inconvenience people, and asking personal questions feels like an imposition, as I don’t assume they want to share their stories with me.  I don’t mind when people ask me questions about my life, but I don’t take for granted they want to hear the long version, so I tend to keep my answers short unless I get a clear sense they want to hear more.  Of course, I’m most comfortable telling stories I’ve already written down in one of these posts or my books; stories that I’ve carefully outlined and edited.  As a result, it can take a long time for me to get to know someone and for someone to get to know me.

Before the funeral, I had gone for a run with one of the people who’s put in the time to get to know me over the past ten years.  Our runs together are therapy sessions when we can vent our frustrations without any polite filters in place.  We ran nine miles, the farthest I had run in more than a month, and her presence at my side helped me stay upright and moving.  We were running together, and we kept going for each other.  That’s a good friend to have.

After the service, another friend I’ve gotten to know well over the past fifteen years, asked if I wanted to join her for a beer at a nearby pub.  We sat in the sun, sipped our porter (her) and IPA (me), and shared stories of work and family.  We know some of each other’s joys and pains, and the conversation came easy.  We lean on each other, and, for that, I am grateful.

I appreciate the people who have managed to break through my tendency to keep answers short and gotten to know me.  When they share their stories with me, I feel I’ve been given a gift.  These long-term friendships are among my greatest treasures.  In those moments when I’m feeling particularly alone with my reading and writing, I think about those people running or sitting beside me, asking when the next post or book will be done, listening to me whine, and propping me up.  I hope they know they can lean on me as much as I lean on them.  Ideally, they’ll give me time to write it all down first, but I’ll be there.  Thank you.