Friday, October 31, 2014

The story of 26.2 miles (Or how Thomas Magnum and I are the same person)

Shortly before the race.

My official time in the 2014 Dublin Marathon was 4:05:45. That's an average of 9 minutes 22 seconds per mile.

I'm recording my time because I sense my older self will be interested in that information. Though I know my present self is not. Indeed, my present self gets annoyed at the idea of paying attention to anything other than the simple fact that I ran really far and I doubt I could have run much further. Or much faster.

Well, maybe a little faster. In training for the race I had been clocking pace times of roughly 8 minutes 30 seconds on long runs (and as speedy as 7:15 on runs less than 3 miles), which led me to assume it possible to complete the marathon in 3 hours and 54 minutes (i.e., a pace of 9 minutes per mile).

"Oh, sub-four and I'll be happy," I'd say when asked what time I wanted to achieve.

In truth, I hoped I could do better –– something along the lines of 3 hours 45 minutes. So, I'll admit there was a feeling of disappointment on the day. Or, rather in a very specific moment. At mile 25, my back was radiating with pain; my mouth and lips were tingling from dehydration; I could find no energy to put into my legs. I was propelling myself forward mostly through chant-huffing: "I can. I will. I can. I will. I can. I will. I can. I will. I can. I will. I can. I will. I can. I will..."

Jenn and I had only decided to enter the marathon a few months before, in mid-August. We had been toying with the idea of running such a distance together for a long time, even going so far as to sign up for the 2013 Twin Cities Marathon.

That fell through when urgent roof repairs ate up the cash we would have needed for flights. However, with the exception of being annoyed at having thrown away money in paying the exorbitant entry fee I wasn't terribly upset to have missed out. Hitherto, I had not run a long-distance race since 2005 (a) and my memories of such events were not terribly positive. That is to say, my memories of my performance in these events weren't positive.

That is, to a large extent, because I didn't know how to train. I had always figured that if you want to prepare yourself for running a lot, you should do so by running a lot. Turns out this isn't entirely correct. But therein you have the reason I didn't see any problem with signing up to run the Dublin Marathon about two months before the day.

Jenn, fortunately, was more realistic about the work ahead of us and produced myriad charts and graphs identifying when we should run and how much, along with advice on what to eat, and, most importantly, on what other exercise we should be doing. Which explains the whole DDP Yoga thing.

I still found myself suffering serious fatigue as race day neared, but overall Jenn's system made preparing a lot less sucky.

Our friends, Donal and Isobel, put us up while we were in Dublin. Well, actually, that's something of an understatement. They basically served as super awesome surrogate parents. They fed us, gave us a place to sleep, ferried us around town, served as cheerleaders during the race, and were otherwise all-round amazing hosts. They even clothed us. On the morning of the race, Jenn discovered she had not packed her running tights; Isobel saved the day by lending a pair of her own.

Friends from the internet are the best kind of friends, yo.

Signing the wall full of good wishes for runners.

The last mile of a marathon is the distance runner's two-minute drill, I suppose. It's the point that all the other miles have led to, the moment when all you do is push. And afterward, it is the thing you remember most vividly. Not that the other miles are throwaway, of course.

There is an episode of Magnum P.I. ("Home from the Sea") in which Magnum finds himself alone in the middle of the ocean, forced to tread water for an implicitly long time. As one is wont to do in such a scenario, Magnum passes the time experiencing a number of semi-hallucinatory flashbacks, many of them related to water-treading experiences both with his father and in the Navy SEALs. It is a surprisingly gripping episode and one that I often think about when running.

Some people think really deep things when they run; I think about Tom Selleck. Don't judge me. Anyway, somehow it is partially from that episode of Magnum P.I. that I get my belief that you can always run another mile. You can always push just a little more.

Mimicking Magnum checking his father's Rolex whilst treading water, I checked the £12 Casio on my wrist as I drew even with the Mile 25 marker. I realised that if I wanted to finish the race in less than 4 hours I would need to somehow run this last 1.2 miles in roughly 3 minutes. The slight twinge of defeat at knowing I would not achieve my arbitrary and irrelevant timing goal mixed with the exhausted relief of knowing that I would finish –– that I could and would survive the final mile –– and served as a sort of pinprick to the balloon of emotion that had been swelling up since I had gotten out of bed that morning.

I had not slept well, suffering anxiety dreams that I would arrive at the start line too late or that my notoriously unstable stomach would sabotage the day. As Donal had driven Jenn and I to the race my mind had been spinning with worries: Had I eaten enough? Was I hydrated enough? Was I too hydrated? Was I wearing the right gear for the weather? Would I be too cold? Would I be too hot?

All this minor panic affected my thinking to the extent I lined up at the start line with the wrong pace runner. Thinking I was standing next to the guy running 3 hours and 50 minutes I instead queued up near the bloke wearing a 4:50 banner. It was only as the crush of runners oozed toward the start that I realised my mistake. Agitated panic ensued and I spent the first part of the race trying to get beyond those runners who were planning to finish the race an hour after me.

In my head I wasn't trying to catch up with the 3:50 pace runner –– I recognised this would be impossible since he was now so far ahead of me –– but that information wasn't communicated effectively to the rest of my body. Filled with nerves and agitation I just sort of lost control and covered the first 3 miles in 22 minutes. Way too fast.

Keep in mind, too, I hadn't covered this distance in a straight line. Roughly 15,000 people turned out to run the Dublin Marathon, so in moving away from slower runners I had done a lot of zig-zagging around within a dense pack. I was expending far too much energy for so early in the race. Figuring this out, I spent the next few miles telling myself to calm down, sometimes even making little "whoa" gestures to myself.

"SMILE IF YOU'VE ALREADY PEED A LITTLE!" announced a sign being held by a woman in Phoenix Park. This was around mile 6, and I was finally calming enough to be looking around and taking in the incredible support of Dubliners. They were lining the route, banging drums, singing and shouting encouragement. To be a recipient of so much goodwill is a reason in and of itself to run a marathon.

You can see from the picture at the start of this post I had chosen to wear a shirt with the University of Texas Longhorns logo on it. Ireland is a long way from Texas but a surprising number of supporters knew the logo's significance.

"Go on, Texas! You're doing great!" people would shout. "Hook 'em!"

I wrote "Go Go Super Jenn!" on the wall of support.
The size of the crowd increased or decreased depending on what part of the city we were running through, of course. In some places supporters were shoulder to shoulder, in stretches through park there might be just one or two people, but always, all of them, cheering and clapping and ringing bells and shouting and making the whole thing feel like a 26.2-mile party. I saw a man dressed as Elvis dancing with a woman dressed as a toilet. A little girl had set up a full drum kit and was playing with full gusto. Countless children offered high fives. One man stood on a wall playing guitar and joked with runners in his thick Dublin accent: "Ye's wouldn't happen to have some water? I'm really thirsty from all this singin'."

The hundreds of volunteers at the water stations moved at full speed to hand out drinks to runners without any of us having to break pace. They shouted and whistled and whooped support as we stomped through.

Many of the runners themselves were supportive, too. They were dressed in costumes or wearing wigs. They blew whistles or cheered at mile markers. Others inspired just by being there: some carried pictures of loved ones who had passed away. One man ran pushing his MS-crippled brother in a wheelchair.

Wearing my University of Texas shirt had been a good idea in terms of making me slightly identifiable within a crowd, but it was ill suited for the weather. I had trained expecting the sort of windy, grey, cold misery that all of us in the Soggy Nations experience in late October. But in a fit of climatological freakishness weather on this day was sunny and warm. The temperature rose to 20C (68F). The heat, combined with my unnecessary wasting of energy at the start of the race (many runners also complained of strong winds but I honestly don't remember this as too much a problem), began to affect me just past mile 19.

By now I was going through water more quickly and unable to fully quench my thirst. The two pieces of toast I had eaten for breakfast felt like not nearly enough. All around me, a surprising number of runners had broken into limping walks. I felt weak, and some part of me started to wonder where I was going to find the energy to push on.

At mile 20 there was a family handing out bags of Jelly Babies, a soft candy. I had seen a few other supporters offering sweets and bits of fruit but to this point had paid little attention because, well, you know: candy from strangers. But in this case the stranger offering me a clear plastic bag of candy was a 6-year-old girl.

"Thankyouthankyouthankyou," I wheezed, giving her an enfeebled high five and trundling forward.

I accepted candy from a few other people further on, and by mile 22 was back to feeling confident I would finish the race. To underscore this and to resist the temptation to join the increasing number of people walking I had fallen into repeating to myself, in the style of the Team USA "I Believe" chant: "I will not fucking walk."

After a time it occurred to me I was speaking to myself in negatives and the personal chant morphed into: "I can. I will."

At mile 25, when that emotional balloon burst –– filled with anxiety and joy and people's cheering and laughter –– I started sobbing uncontrollably. It was a strange sort of sobbing because my body was too dehydrated to produce tears. My lungs were too overtaxed to hyperventilate. I suspect that to an observer I just looked like someone who was trying hard to push through the last mile. And I was.

In that last mile the support of Dubliners increased exponentially. The crowds now heaved on each side of the route. Their noise was deafening. The race winner, Kenyan Eliud Too, had finished almost two hours beforehand but people were screaming as if I were in the lead. It was one of the most life-affirming things I have ever experienced first-hand.

When I crossed the finish line I discovered my back and shoulders had tightened so much I could not straighten to walk. I fell into a hopping limp as I moved along, breathlessly saying "thankyouthankyouthankyou" to the volunteers who ushered me along, put a medal around my neck, and gave me a bag full of post-run drinks and foods.

A little further on I found a place to stop and go through my post-run stretching routine. I did so gingerly and without much grace. Bending over to touch my toes I almost fell over. Doing a hip stretch required I lie down, so I eased to the ground and lie flat on my back, my arms outstretched.

I looked up into the blue sky and thought about the all-but-defeated skinny man in a University of Texas shirt now lying in the middle of a Dublin street. I listened to the crowd still roaring not too far away and the happy-exhausted chatter of others who had finished. I thought of Donal and Isobel, who I knew were somewhere nearby to take us back home to shower. I thought of Jenn and how happy she must be to be nearing the finish of her first marathon. And I realised that this, most peculiarly, was one of the best moments of my life.


(a) EDIT: Actually, no, I forgot about running the Cardiff Half Marathon in 2007.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

The physical and the mental

The Dublin Marathon is in less than four weeks. The sooner those weeks pass the happier I'll be, because training has brought on oppressive fatigue. It is not just that I am sore and tired all the time but that I am mentally exhausted as well. And as such, I get too easily overwhelmed by life. Little things unpick me, as if I were one of Jenn's sewing projects.

That's Jenn in the picture above, of course, wearing one of her sewing projects: a cape she made for a fancy dress dinner party last weekend. For those of you playing along at home, "fancy dress" in the United Kingdom means "costume." Imagine my disappointment when I first learned this many years ago; I had envisioned a soirée with people in tuxedos and evening gowns. Anyhoo, the dinner party was one of those murder mystery things in which one of you is the killer and everyone has to figure it out.

The setting for said murder mystery was London in 1961. In black and white, with Jenn sitting on a train platform and the grim rowhouses of Grangetown just barely silhouetted behind her, she looks like part of the rebellious element that was bubbling beneath the surface at the time –– like a girl who might have ridden with the ton-up boys.

We had run 15 miles that day, but Jenn has inexhaustible talent for getting up for an event. Whereas I find that as I get older I am damned boring on even my good days. Fortunately, Jenn's friends have taught themselves to expect little of me.

On that 15-mile run I had failed to stretch properly either before or afterward and had developed an oh-so-slight pain in my right hip. Add it to the radiating pain in my knees, the ache in my toes, the shin splint in my right leg, the lower back pain and the mysterious and inexplicable pain in my hands. I didn't think much of it until this morning. 

Last night I had come home from work and run 5.6 miles around Cardiff Bay, again without really taking the time to stretch. I had assumed my cycling home from work enough of a warm up. But through the first miles my right foot wasn't striking the pavement right. My shin ached and my hip ached and my legs felt heavy. I imagined myself tied to and dragging a boat down a canal. Because that's the way my mind works, yo.

"Golly, I'm tired. I feel like an 1840s canal pony."

Things evened out by the end of the run and I finished OK, but afterward was hobbling around the flat because of the ache in my hip. Overnight, the pain was such that I kept waking up. And that has pretty much taken all the wind out of my sails. I have fallen into a comedy Eeyore-esque moroseness and I feel utterly defeated.

My mind jumps quickly to worst-case scenarios. Jenn and I are planning to run 22 miles Saturday as part of the training, the peak before winding down to ensure we are ready for the actual race. I have lost faith in my body, though, and wonder if I will be able to complete this weekend's run. I wonder if it will cause damage that won't heal before the race. And instantly I envision myself dressed in normal clothes on the day of the marathon, sick with myself and limping, able to do no more than cheer Jenn's efforts.

Meanwhile, if you happen to be looking at this site on an actual computer or laptop you'll notice the look has changed. In hindsight, I wish I had taken a screengrab of the blog before changing everything –– just for posterity's sake. C'est la vie. I can't remember, but I think I had been running the previous since 2010.

The new look is considerably simpler, with less sidebar information. Simple is the new hotness, it seems, and I guess it makes sense. Quite a lot of people –– if not most of them –– surf the internet via mobile devices these days. Filling a page with sidebar columns is cluttersome and pointless since many mobile browsers filter them out. I'll admit, though, that I struggle to commit to simplicity. I could probably stand to apply even more minimalism.

My inspiration for the redesign comes from two people: Chris Phin and Chris Phin. Ever since we sat around on the floor of his and Jenny's bare-bones flat in not-so-fashionable New Cross almost exactly nine years ago I have held strongly the view that Chris Phin Is Probably Right when it comes to things tech/internety. You know, the way Neil deGrasse Tyson is probably right about astronomy, or AC/DC are probably right about how to play a kick-ass guitar riff. Other people might have equally valid and possibly better opinions, but if you're looking for a safe bet these dudes are the ones who are probably right.

Jenny, me and Chris. Chris is holding up a London A-Z so "we'll remember where we were."
Nine years ago we were sitting on the floor because, like all people in their 20s living in London, Chris and Jenny could only afford a single piece of furniture: a futon. It felt awkward for us all to be sitting on the futon at once having a conversation, and there were no tables upon which to set our drinks, so we took to the floor. Despite the fact I was in their flat and planning to stay a few days it was my first time to physically meet them; we had formed a friendship through our respective blogs. The wonders of technology, y'all.

Anyhoo, I'm wandering from the point. Chris and I stayed up late drinking and talking about said wonders, and it instilled in me a sense that he was probably right in his opinion of them. This is a feeling since reinforced by his professional career; he's written for and been at the helm of numerous tech-related publications.

His website is simple. Which means that simple is probably right.

Meanwhile, if you look at his simple website at the moment you will see a post talking about his recent decision to step down as editor-in-chief of MacFormat. The plan, it seems, is to go into business for himself, doing freelance, consulting and all the other things media professionals do when they come to their senses and decide they need to step away from the day-to-day slog.

Personally, I applaud this move, if not simply because the last few times I've seen Chris, chatting with him has been just a tiny, tiny, tiny bit challenging. Not because he's dull or any such thing but because he has for the past few years been so tremendously overworked. I had this feeling I was competing for his attention against the bazillion other things he had to do and felt guilty about it. You don't want to add more stress to your friends' lives; you don't want to be another thing they have to think about.

Going into business for himself won't necessarily reduce his workload but it will give him greater control of it. And hopefully that will result in less stress overall.

Aiding him in his freelancing effort, Chris' simple-design website also serves as a tool –– a shingle, to use old-school British lingo –– to communicate who he is, what he can do, and how to contact him. And again, here's me totally copying his moves.

In the past few weeks I've had a chance to write a few freelance articles for some motorcycle websites. Which is awesome on two levels: 
1) People are paying me to write about motorcycles, yo.
2) It's a real step toward one of my major goals in The Five-Year Plan.

I don't think I've mentioned The Five-Year Plan before. It's a 12-page document I wrote up in July, outlining the myriad steps I need/want to take in order to get myself from what I am right now to something more like what I want to be. Effectively, it's an extension of the whole 183 Days idea, which fell flat because it lacked structure beyond just really hoping my writing career would take off.

The Five-Year Plan is more focused and includes just about every aspect of my life: career, relationships, health, etc. The part that deals with career sees me building incrementally toward professional writerdom and sets earning goals in terms of percentages of annual income. It's boring stuff if you're not me.

These recent freelance gigs –– which will likely help me achieve my earning goals for 2014-2015 –– pretty much fell into my lap. I am hugely grateful for my luck, but it occurs to me this won't always be the way things happen. Sometimes people will come from nowhere to offer an opportunity, more often, however, I will need to find them.

So, in simplifying my website I'm also trying to rejig it to serve as a little more of a tool. You'll notice, for example, the blog no longer has a title; it's just my name. Though, I have kept the "Dancing the polka with Miss El Cajon" sentiment in the subheading/description. I've added a portfolio section (which may or may not be a good idea). I'll add a contact section soon. It's all a work in progress; I'm not happy with it yet.

All this is quite exciting and feels very much like those happy moments when you are actually living up to the expectations and ambitions of your younger self. But then hip pain keeps you from sleeping for just one night and you wake up feeling that all is lost.

Training for the marathon is beating me up both physically and mentally. I find it so hard to recover from tiny little things, so hard to push myself through the molasses of tiredness. Here's hoping the 27th of October comes soon, and that I can survive all the way there.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

May contain adult content

Jenn and I are trying to sell our flat. Or, well, technically, it's Jenn's flat. She bought it before we met; hers is the only name on the lease. But it's the nature of marriage that you don't pay much attention to ownership specifics. It all blurs together. You don't sit down and say: "OK, I'll buy these oranges and you can buy those apples and we'll split the cost on this milk."

In Ye Olde Days, that was, of course, one of the primary motivations for marriage: a pooling of resources. Two adults working together to improve their general condition. Practicality, you see.

And it is indeed for practical purposes that Jenn and I are keen to sell the flat: to get ourselves into the position of being debt-free. Which will/would be of benefit when/if we move to the United States in a few years. Or just of benefit in general. Being debt-free, y'all; it's the new hotness. And I've worked out that if we could get out from under all our debt we could rent a two-bedroom flat/house (our flat is one-bedroom) and still have a quantum of funds each month to put into savings. 

Simply using the profit of this flat as a deposit on a larger place won't work because the mortgage on such a place would be more than what Jenn could shoulder on her own, and my status as a Damned Dirty Immigrant (who is working and paying taxes to fund the housing and welfare of natural born citizens who stand outside the Jobcentre with their hands down their pants, drinking Stella Artois and shouting obscenities) prevents me from being eligible for such a loan or co-signing onto one with my wife.

If you're not terribly interested in my personal financial situation, I don't blame you. I get bored even thinking about it. Or, well, panicky-bored. That feeling where your brain simultaneously says: "Ugh, dude, I don't wanna think about this," and "AAARGH! I DON'T WANT TO THINK ABOUT THIS!"

Selling a flat, even though it is technically not mine, is, I think, the most grown-up thing I've ever done. And it induces a tremendous amount of stress. 

Firstly, it consequentially results in my thinking about money all the time. I don't mean thinking about it in a City trader sort of way -- "I'm making the moolah right now, baby! Woo!" -- but more in the way Ukrainians think about Russia. I spend all day trying to work out various scenarios and solutions and equations, but at the end of each of them is the reality that I have extremely little wiggle room. There's a 17-gallon bucket to fill and I've got just 17 gallons of water. Things are OK unless someone gets thirsty.

Thoughts on how to handle money lead, of course, to thoughts on how to earn money. Specifically, how I'd prefer to be earning money. Cue the large Sweetums-esque monster of my mind to sing the same old lament of my writing career not being anywhere near as profitable or prolific as I'd have hoped it would be by the time I was 38 years old.

These anxieties stack on top of each other and mush together. It's like ice cream on a hot day. Life becomes the challenge of sitting there in the sweltering heat trying to tackle a 4-scoop cone without having any of it spill onto your hands or, worse, topple to the ground. And in the great quadruple-dip waffle cone of life the additional challenge comes in the fact the flavours are not terribly complimentary. It would be far easier to tackle them one at a time. But you can't. They are on top of each other and as time goes on they become more difficult to distinguish.

Panicky-bored. Panicky-bored. I don't wanna talk about this, man. I DON'T WANT TO TALK ABOUT THIS. Where I'm going with talking about it is that strange feeling of realising that I'm an adult and not feeling terribly happy about it. I think because I am fearful that I am not terribly good at it.

And here Sweetums steps forward again to sing the Middle-class Woes: the feeling that I am a disappointment by scale. Do you get what I mean? Objectively, my life is pretty good; I have achieved some good things. But I feel that if you take into account the tools I've had to achieve those things I am ultimately a letdown. 

I imagine myself in a large room full of mechanical parts. That is my life. And at the end of my life, God is going to walk into the room and say: "Well, what'd you manage to make, Chris?"

"This bicycle," I'll say. "It's pretty sturdy. I rode around on it quite a bit and it's held up. A few flat tires but pretty fun overall."

"Good, Chris. That's fine," he'll say. "But, uhm, well, you know... this room. All the parts and tools are in this room for you to have made a fighter jet. The parts and tools are here for you to have built a fleet of motorcycles. You've always had most of them. Then there were the times -- remember? -- that you put a lot of time and effort into developing some of the others. But you never really used them. A bicycle is good, Chris. And there are many people up here that, if they had presented me with even a drawing of a bicycle, I would have been very proud of. But you. With you, a bicycle is kind of disappointing. I think you've let yourself down a little. Ah well, you've got all of eternity to dwell on it..."

The fact that these feelings spiral from the simple act of trying to sell a piece of property convinces me even further that I am really not doing a very good job of being an adult. Or maybe I just don't like being an adult and resist it to the point of incompetency. I sense that I would be more enthusiastic about the whole thing if Jenn and I were planning to use the money to go on a massive road trip.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

I may not be a dog person

We're spending the week with these bitches.
Jenn and I are this week house-sitting for her best friend's mother. We are in a quite-large house in West Sussex, providing company and food service for three golden retrievers, a small cat and a handful of chickens. 

It is, unquestionably, an enviable situation to be in. Literally within a stone's throw of South Downs National Park, we are in one of the most English of English landscapes. There is a garden from which to pick fresh fruit and vegetables, a grass tennis court on which Jenn and I have been doing DDP yoga, and a large patio where we eat our meals outside. 

Thanks to the power of the internets we are both working remotely –– able to be here without having to take off time from work –– but with the rest of our time we have been running country lanes, eating massive pub meals, hiking the South Downs Way, and just lounging on the sofa reading.

The latter activity is probably the most idyllic because it is then that the dogs and cat (the chickens stay in their coop) will come to lounge with us. The cat nuzzles a place next to my thigh and occasionally headbutts my elbow for fun. The dogs lie near our feet, expel the heavy sighs of canines and fart shamelessly.

They are delightful and stupid, the dogs. All females, they are aggressive only for attention. If you pet one, another will muscle in and demand that your giving of affection be a full-body affair: left hand scratching behind the ears of one dog, right hand rubbing the belly of another, legs squeezing a third.

They are fun to be around, fun to go on walks with, and –– if you can get used to the smell –– emotionally comforting on a level that is sort of hard to explain. But, oh my gosh, are they a bunch of trouble.

These dogs are pretty well trained, but still much of our routine revolves around their pooping and peeing. I make sure they get a chance to go out and do their thing before bed, then I need to be up at about 6:30 in the morning to let them out, else they'll start barking. And still, twice so far we have been greeted in the morning with a special doggie present on the floor –– of which all three of the dogs have disavowed any knowledge.

"Which one of you pooped on the carpet?" I asked this morning.

They looked at me as if I had said, "Which one of you wants a steak?"

Effie was suspicious when I claimed to not have any food.
Meanwhile, they will bark at anything –– especially things that are not there. One in particular, Effie, barks ceaselessly at the unknown. Perhaps there's poetry in that, but not at 7 in the morning. When not barking they are searching for food. Or finding some mud they can track into the house. Or strategically placing their hair on EVERY SINGLE THING.

I have always thought of myself as a dog person but in now actually living with the beasts I can't help but wonder if it's something I could put up with on an everyday basis. Because things only get worse when you take them away from the house.

On Sunday, Jenn and I took the dogs on a walk to a nearby pub for lunch. If you read just that sentence it probably sounds awesome, and for one or two fleeting moments –– watching these golden-haired dogs run across a field in the late summer sun –– it definitely was. But the rest of the time, I found myself emitting a constant soundtrack of reproach:

"Effie, get away from the road. Phoebe, come on, let's go. Sophie, leave that little boy alone. Effie, stop biting Sophie in the face. Phoebe, come on, let's go. Effie, leave that horse poop alone. No, I don't have any food. Sophie, leave that horse poop alone. No, I still don't have any food. Phoebe, come on, let's go...."

The responsibility of being a (temporary) dog owner was wearing me out. I had to pay attention to each little aspect of the world around me and consider how the dogs might respond to it, how it might respond to them: cars, people, other dogs, horses, woodland animals, the smell of faraway barbecues,  tricks of the light, and, of course, all kinds of things that were not there.

It's exhausting. I'm not sure I could live this way. After all these years of thinking otherwise, it turns out I may not be a dog person after all.

Though, having said that, it's probably worth noting that in writing this post I twice found myself getting up and seeking out the dogs just to be able to pet them.

Friday, August 15, 2014

What country is Ferguson in?

I'm glad to see that the mood in Ferguson, Missouri, seems to be improving. Though, I find it frustrating and troubling that it took so long and such upper-level intervention (i.e., the state governor and the president of the United States) to do the totally obvious thing of, you know, speaking with protesters about their grievances.

Generally, if people are protesting something it is because they feel their voices are not being heard. So, the way to calm them down is not necessarily to march a load of storm troopers at them, choke them with tear gas, and tell them to shut up and go home. I thought most of us already knew this. I find it distressing that an entire police force in America didn't know it. 

But extending forward, beyond the specific issues of Ferguson, the thing that frustrates me most about this embarrassing episode is that it effectively vindicates the batshit crazies.

You know all those people who shoot up schools and movie theatres and workplaces in America? The reason they are armed to the teeth is that a number of other people have worked very, very hard to protect (and, in my opinion, misinterpret) their right to own such hardcore weaponry. Each time one of these mass shootings takes place, however, the rather obvious question comes up: "What American actually needs these kinds of firearms?"

After all, you don't hunt deer with a TEC-9. And, arguably, a good ol' fashioned shotgun is a more effective tool in protecting yourself against intruders because the scattering nature of buckshot takes some of the pressure out of having to aim properly. Machine guns and semi-automatic handguns are really only good for a military-style assault.

Publicly, the gun nuts will talk around these points and try to hold to a philosophical argument about the nature of freedom. We're free, they say, and we shouldn't give away freedoms just because something bad happened. Because bad things always happen, and eventually you'll find yourself completely without freedom.

But pull a gun crazy aside, into a private conversation, and he or she will often say that one of the reasons it's important to interpret the Second Amendment as broadly as they do is so they have the means to defend themselves against a tyrannical government. That's certainly the view of Cliven Bundy and the whole sovereign citizen movement. Those dudes are ready, yo. Ready to stand their ground against the unmarked helicopters and faceless jackbooters that haunt their dreams.

I used to live in the American West, so I've encountered a number of these dudes, or, at least, dudes who sympathise with them (it is almost always dudes, by the way). And when they would tell me they needed high-powered rifles so they could defend themselves against a an evil police state my reaction was usually along the lines of: "What? You are a paranoid nutcase. We live in America, man. We live in a functioning democracy. It's not some strange, terrible dystopia where you need to protect yourself against everyone, especially your protectors."

I mean, really, those guys are crazy, right? 


Scenes from Ferguson, Missouri, offer vindication to every batshit crazy, confirming their belief that the government has detached from its purpose and turned against its citizens for reasons unknown. Because, honestly, where's the reason behind responding to unarmed protesters the way Ferguson has done? 

Look at that picture above. Click on it to make it bigger and take the time to examine it. I'm counting no less than seven faceless officers stomping toward a single individual. At least two of the officers have their weapons trained on the guy. One is brandishing a nightstick and has a pepper spray cannister. All of the officers have more body armour than the soldiers who invaded Iraq. All have weapons holsters on their thighs. The single individual, meanwhile, has long hair and a flowery man bag.

Who wouldn't think of arming themselves against this kind of thing? Hell, to be honest, I am surprised by the incredible restraint shown by the citizens of Ferguson. And I am enraged by its police, who have given people good reason to fear and distrust them.

On a somewhat related note, I wonder how those Open Carry boneheads who flaunt their "rights" by shopping at Target with a rifle over their shoulder would respond to the sight of dozens of black people doing the same thing...

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The guy I wanted to be

"There's three things in this world that you need: Respect for all kinds of life, a nice bowel movement on a regular basis, and a navy blazer." -- Robin Williams (as Parry in The Fisher King

One of the stories that holds strongly in the canon of childhood memories is of the time I got sent to the principal's office for wanting to be Robin Williams.

I was in first grade and our teacher was having us draw a picture of what we wanted to be when we grew up. We were drawing these pictures to then have them posted in the hallways of the school for an upcoming parent-teacher night. As almost always happened when given an assignment that required creativity, I found myself sitting at my desk, stumped, and staring at a blank piece of paper.

This isn't because I lacked creativity as a child but because I was egotistical and competitive; I wanted my idea to be better than anyone else's. I wanted the parents wandering the halls on parent-teacher night to look at my picture and think: "Lord, I wish this were my son. Instead, I produced an idiot who wants to grow up to be a cowboy."

One of my biggest challenges in this task was that I had no interest in growing up. My father was a newsman and I had already picked up that quite a lot of grown ups are dicks. Many others, I knew, were unhappy with how being a grown-up had turned out. Growing up meant going to work, and work was the thing that prevented my parents from taking me swimming all day. To some extent, I saw my parents having to work as the reason I had to go to school. I didn't like school; I didn't want to have to grow up; I didn't want to have to go to work.

Still, I sat there at my desk, forcing my 7-year-old brain to tackle the great and burning question of What I Want To Be. My initial thoughts were that I wanted to be Superman. Because, you know, Superman. He is the best. I love Superman. One of the great tragedies of the modern comic-book mindset is that seemingly no one understands Superman. In films and such they're always trying to make him edgy, or desperately relying on kryptonite to portray some element of weakness. The quintessence of Superman, what he is and should be allowed to be, is Better Than Everyone. Always.

And that was essentially why I liked him. Sure, he was strong and could fly and shoot lasers from his eyes and create wind storms with his breath (every time I blew out candles I imagined myself as Superman extinguishing a forest fire), but the thing to love about Superman is that he is really good at what he does. His only real flaw is the fact he doesn't exist.

Robin Williams, however, did. I had seen him on "Mork and Mindy" and Johnny Carson and some other things. At that age, there was, of course, quite a lot of his stuff I had not been permitted to see but somehow I was aware of his reputation -- that he was the guy no comic wanted to follow. That he was better than everyone else at what he did. He was frentic and funny and those were things I liked being. So, I told my teacher I wanted to be Robin Williams and asked for guidance on how to convey this in a drawing.

"You can't be Robin Williams," my teacher told me.

Well, yeah, obviously. I couldn't somehow inhabit his body and be Robin Williams, but "stand-up comic" wasn't a part of my vocabulary and "actor" seemed too broad and inaccurate -- television was littered with actors I had no interest in being like. My attempt at explaining what I meant was ignored and my teacher stood fast to her conviction that I could not be Robin Williams.

"He's a filthy person," she said. "Why not be something else? Like a fireman."

Firemen don't get to be guests on Johnny Carson. Besides, what's creative about being a fireman? I stuck to my guns and said I wanted to be Robin Williams.

So, I got marched down to the principal's office. Mr. Green. A strange, spindly man whose belt was too high up his waist and whose favourite joke/nugget of wisdom was to point out that a way of remembering how to correctly spell "principal" is to think of him as your "princey pal."

He stressed to me the importance of choosing something else to be when I grew up, so I could draw a picture of it and have it up on the wall like everyone else. Because I wouldn't want to upset my mama and daddy, now would I? I have never once referred to my parents as "mama" or "daddy," and something about those terms annoys the hell out of me, but I couln't help but concede to Mr. Green's logic. I went back to class and claimed I wanted to be a pilot, solely because I was good at drawing airplanes.

Robin Williams, Bill Cosby and Steve Martin have always been my holy trinity of comedy and storytelling. Unquestionably, the Cos has had the greatest influence on my own style, but no one would argue the fact that Williams is the better actor of the three. Put a pint in my hand and I will happily spend the next hour or so explaining to you, in excruciating detail, why Good Morning Vietnam is one of the best films ever made. Popeye is considerably better than people give it credit for being. Williams' role in Aladdin singlehandedly re-defined what we expect of a Disney film. The pathos is so well done in What Dreams May Come that I wept for a solid 40 minutes after seeing it. And if you haven't seen The Fisher King you are a damned, damned fool.

There were times when Williams missed the mark, but the truth is that humans often do. Babe Ruth is famous for hitting homeruns, but he also struck out a fair few times. Overall, Williams hit a lot of homeruns. A lot. In his acting, in his comedy, and in his ability to be a guy you wished you could be.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Veinte años

That's right, y'all. I've always been this awesome.

My 20-year high school reunion is this weekend. The cliché of life makes me feel I should have something to profound to say about that, about the passage of time or some such thing. I'm not sure I do, though. I think this is primarily because I remember so little of high school.

Not because I was on drugs or anything; I just have a really bad memory. Or, well, no, that's not true. I have a limited-space memory -- only so much can fit in there. These days, my brain is being used primarily to store useless information about pro wrestling story lines, the technical aspects of various motorcycles I will never own, and some dying bits of the Welsh language. To make room, I have jettisoned most of my knowledge about life and experiences from 20 years ago.

Over the past few weeks, people from my high school have been posting to Facebook various embarrassing photos of themselves and others with captions about hair or awkward declarations that those days were the "best." Occasionally I get tagged in one of these photos, thereby allowing me to look back in admiring wonder at my incredible style foresight, having come up with Macklemore's haircut decades before he did.

Mostly, though, I tend to feel a sense of confusion. I'll look at pictures and not have any idea of the stories to which they are tied: Where was the picture taken? When, exactly? Who took the picture? What are we all doing? And so on.

The above picture, for instance. That's me, my best friend Paul, and Steph, a girl both of us dated at different points in our lives. We're at a restaurant; that much I can guess from the soda and chequered table cloth. TGI Friday's, perhaps? We used to go there a lot. 

I'm making that face because I've got hard candy in my mouth, a strange addiction I carried through high school for fear of bad breath. And because it struck me as quirky. That's what you do as a teenager: you find something no one else is doing it and own it as part of your personality simply because you're the only one doing it. The candy. The hair. The tendency to wear purple. The pen around my neck.

I always wore as a necklace a pen hooked to a bit of leather shoestring. You know, because I was a writer. I felt the need to communicate this visually. Had tattoos been within my personal aura of acceptability I probably would have had the word "Writer" emblazoned on my forearm. The necklace broke in my senior year when someone used it as a means of tackling me in a pick-up football game, so I'll place the picture as having been taken in my junior year. 

That makes sense. That was the year I was pretty hot for Steph. I'm willing to bet this pose was instigated by me -- not because I wanted to throw an arm around my best buddy but because I wanted to achieve cheap physical contact with Steph. If that's correct, I'd guess the picture was taken in spring 1993, during the height of my infatuation with her. And I'd suspect the photographer was my friend Sara -- primarily because she's the one who posted it to Facebook.

OK, well, perhaps I remember some things better than I thought. But all those are generalities. I can't tell you the story of this picture. I can't tell you anything about what any of the people in the photo were thinking/feeling at or around the time it was taken. Who's Paul looking at? Who else was there? Why were we there? I don't know.

So, I look at these pictures and feel confused. I feel a sense of amnesia, as if someone has shown me these and said, "Look, here's us when we were young." And I am left to nod befoggedly, feeling these pictures are not helping to fill in the gaps, but instead create new gaps. Silently thinking: "I recognise the faces but I don't know who any of these people are. Including the person who looks like me."

There is, too, a feeling of sadness. That is more a reflection of my present self and present circumstances.

I live today 5,000 miles away from where these pictures were taken. These pictures reinforce my feelings of disconnectedness, that others look at the silly-haired kid in the photo and think: "Well, I recognise the face but..."

I won't be at the high school reunion, of course. Check the cost of a flight from London to Minneapolis for a clear understanding as to why. Many of my old friends will be. And I suppose the appeal of the thing is that it is like Thanksgivings when all of us were in college: everyone rolling back into town at once. All these faces come back to collectively help piece together the tales of old pictures, to help you piece together who you are by reminding you who you were.

And I wonder if perhaps that's part of why I sometimes feel I can't figure out who I am. Because I'm so far away from anyone who can remember who I was.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

No va

I guess it must have been the same summer Eric gave me mono, the two of us drinking from the same large jug of Gatorade as we paddled my parents' canoe down a section of Nine Mile Creek. It had rained a lot that summer, and the same rise in water that had allowed Eric and I to even make it to the bends through Moir Park –– let alone get turned over in them and almost drown –– had flooded a road further upstream.

I had come across the flooded road while taking a particularly circuitous route to summer school. 

Summer school is a cruel thing. The fact that you are even there is an indication of how you feel about schooling during the regular school year. So being there when all your friends are not is even worse. Especially when it's not even your school. In summer, the idiots and slackers of both Bloomington's high schools were corralled into a handful of classrooms at Kennedy, the east-side rival to my west-side Jefferson.

Through a cruel twist of fate, I actually ended up earning my high school diploma from Kennedy –– a truth that still burns my soul. Though, I take solace that my unintended alma mater has a place in the Harley-Davidson Museum.

Back to the flooded road, though, which was a good 5 miles northwest of my house. Whereas the drive to Kennedy should have taken me 4 miles east. In taking such a route to summer school, one that put me on the other side of town with just 10 minutes before classes were set to start, why, it's almost as if I had no real intention of showing up that day. Though, I hadn't admitted this to myself. And, in fact, I used my lateness as an excuse for "needing" to ford the flooded road.

Hindsight being all that it is, I suppose it's not surprising at all that a kid too stupid to keep himself out of summer school wouldn't be very good at guessing floodwater depth. But, by golly, was I shocked to hear my father's Chevrolet Corsica splutter to its death in the middle of that impromptu lake. Well, perhaps "shocked" isn't the right word. Baffled. Bemused. Something of a feeling of: "Well, hey, what do ya know? Cars and deep water don't mix. Fascinating. You learn something every day."

I at least had the presence of mind not to open the door. I rolled down the window and saw that water was lapping at the door's bottom edges. Had I opened the door, water would have spilled into the car and flooded the floorboards. Not more than four months before this I had totalled my father's Chrysler LeBaron, and although he is an infinitely forgiving soul I sensed it would be in my best interests to extricate this car from the water as soon as possible. Parents are like that: they'll only let you damage so many cars per year.

I climbed out of the window and managed to muscle the car back out of the water. Once I had ensured the car would not roll forward into the flood again, I tried to start the car. Nothing. No va. Internally, this was met with a perfectly even mix of concern and content. On one hand, I now had a perfectly good reason for not being at summer school. On the other hand, my father would be expecting me to pick him up from work that evening.

This was more than 20 years ago, of course. There were no mobile phones. And though I was only 5 miles from home and no more than 300 yards away from an office building where they almost certainly would have let me use the telephone, I felt I was in the middle of nowhere.

And it was in this moment that I was embraced by the great zen of unknowingness. I had no idea how to respond to this situation. So extensive was my lack of knowledge, so immense was my inability, that I could not even begin to think of how to respond. My mind just let go.

I took off my boots, poured out the water and set them on the car's roof. The morning was warm and humid and my jeans were soaked to the knees. I found a blanket in the trunk, spread it out on the hood, then lay down and became one with not doing.

I don't know how long I sat there, just staring at the sky and listening to the world around me –– birds, the heat-softened muffle of summer, occasional airplanes and traffic in the distance. Long enough for my pants to dry. Long enough for me to get hungry.

Eventually I climbed off the hood, meticulously folded the blanket and put it back in the trunk, and put on my slightly damp boots. I know now that I had stumbled upon the correct means of dealing with an engine that's gotten wet: wait for the starter to dry. Had I thought to call a tow truck, they just would have hauled it to a garage and done exactly the same thing. I wasn't a mechanic, I just had not heard that Albert Einstein quote about the definition of insanity being that of doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

But, of course, Einstein never actually said that. Maybe because he, too, had driven his father's car into a flood, tried unsuccessfully to restart it, sat on the hood for an unknown number of hours, then tried starting the car again and had the thing fire up straight away. So, sometimes you can try the same thing over and over and suddenly get a different result.

That's what happened to me. I turned the key; the Corsica started up; I celebrated by going to get a donut.