How to Screw Up Your Knee with Winter Running: Trust Me, I’m an Expert

Faithful blog readers, let’s play a fun game I like to call, “Let’s All Pretend There’s Not a Global Pandemic Shattering All of Our Senses of Well-Being and Keeping Us All on Edge.” Shall we?

If you live near me, this winter you may have seen me running around town with two beer cans in my hands. I told my lovely wife Jen that she should prepare for comments from co-workers and neighbors: “Was that your husband I saw with a Schlitz in one hand and a Truly hard seltzer in the other?” To clarify, I did indeed have two cans in my hands, but not for personal consumption.

First, some backstory: Around the time my older brother joined cross country in high school, my dad started running. There was a private country club in our town, and my dad would run on the street along the chainlink fence outside the golf course. (This is of course a metaphor for how close we were to being members there.) After every run, he would come home and exclaim, “You won’t believe how many golf balls I found today!” He would have balls in his hands or his pockets with random logos: Harris Bank, Schmerler Ford. He would place them on the kitchen counter, where they would roll all over and annoy my mom. Then he would pile these into his golf bag and use them when he golfed. My siblings and I would be like, “Can you believe Dad does that? Just leave the balls there and buy new ones! I hope nobody recognizes him as our dad!” I swore that I would not grow up to be the type of oddball who grabbed stuff from the roadside on his runs.

Flash forward 35 or 40 years: Because of all the winter snow and ice on the canal towpath I frequent, I ran most days on paved roads. You have to be careful of black ice and other hazards, but I feel safer doing it. The main route I took got me quickly out of the city and into the country. I run against traffic so that I can step off the road quickly when vehicles are coming toward me.

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Here I am on a long winter run, before injuries wiped out my spring running plans. Oh, happy day!

Anyway, the particular route I took is, I’m guessing, the perfect dumping ground for teenagers who don’t want to get caught with beer cans. I have a neighbor who takes his aluminum cans to a recycler for cash, so I started collecting the cans for him. Each day, if I was wearing a jacket, I could stick one or two cans in the pockets, but at the very least, I would have two cans in my hands. Which made it awkward to wave to drivers: “Hi there! It’s just friendly old me, hydrating on my long run with a Four Loko and a White Claw!” Like an oddball. Or my dad.

One day, I counted the number of cans I saw on the side of the road. Really only a 3-mile stretch was in the country on my run. Do you know how many cans I saw? Take a guess. Higher. No, even higher. I saw 186 cans! Ridiculous! That’s about 62 cans per mile! That’s just crazy. So I picked up 2 to 4 cans per run, but I never got close to gathering them all, and more were added every weekend. To be fair to teens, it could be anyone of any age throwing cans out their vehicle windows. (Looking at you, White Claw-loving thirtysomethings.)

Also on this route is the Catholic cemetery. To add mileage to my runs, I would go in there and run on the paved path. There were a few headstones for people I know who are still alive. I guess it’s a thing to prepay for a plot and have everything but the end date added to your headstone. Um, creepy!

Some of you might recall that late in the fall of 2018, I injured my hip while “Griswolding” the crap out of my house with Christmas lights. That little niggling injury turned into a major setback from which I didn’t fully recover until September of 2019. I ran two marathons in the fall and wanted to use them as a springboard for more: more running, longer winter runs, possibly longer races.

The main problem that I have is that I’m not a high-mileage guy. Whereas elite marathoners average 70 to 100-plus miles per week, and runners at about my level average around 40-60 per week, I usually struggle with injuries if I exceed 30-35. But there’s that little voice in my head that keeps telling me that I should ignore my own experience and bump up the mileage. So every year, typically after my last fall marathon, I try it, and every year, I develop a new injury, probably related to my increased mileage.

So here’s what I did: I increased my mileage, eventually averaging 43 miles/week. I sometimes ran on ice and snow; the towpath is well marked and relatively straight, and I didn’t want to run on country roads on my longest runs, which were 19 and 21 miles.

I shouldn’t have been surprised when an old injury flared up: my iliotibial (IT) band became excruciating on March 6. By March 11, it was clear that I should shut things down for a while. The IT band is a fibrous band runs from the top of your hip to the outside of your knee; when the pain is worse, your knee kills and is tender to the touch. It hurts to run, it hurts to walk, it hurts while sitting. It’s difficult to sleep; it loosens up after about half a day of movement, so it is worse in the morning. What causes it? Lengthening or altering your stride (typically, in winter while on ice or snow); running on unstable or uneven surfaces, which causes your leg to be unsteady with every step (ice or snow); and not being careful while gradually increasing mileage (I thought I was).

I swear I was even deliberate with my physical therapy, but now I know that I need to add some extra exercises to help it. What helps in the recovery? Rest is the most important step. When I first injured my IT band, in 2013, I had to take 2 solid weeks off, and then limit my runs to 2 or 3 miles a few times a week. It took 9 weeks (yikes!) to get back to normal.  What else helps is strengthening your glutes and your core.  (It seems that everything goes back to the core when it comes to injuries.)

When it first flared up, I decided to use a foam rolling tube. I was lying down on the tube on my left side, rolling my leg up and down the tube. Jen walked in and was like, “What are you doing?” It hurt a lot, and I said, “I’m (argh!) rolling out my (grr!) IT band because (ouch!) I read on some guy’s website that (ow!) rolling is beneficial (aagh!).” Jen said, “That doesn’t look good.” I said, “Trust me (argh!). I know what I’m doing (grr!).” The next day, I read on an actual medical website that maybe you shouldn’t roll it while it’s flared up. Oopsie!

(This might be a good time to mention my shoulder injury. Last September, I was digging out the rootball of a dead peach tree in our yard. I kept jamming the pointed blade of my shovel into the thick roots, over and over again. The next day, my shoulder killed. It felt, oddly enough, the same as when I tore the labrum in my left hip. It turns out I tore the labrum in my left shoulder. Instead of going for physical therapy or surgery, I chose to rest it. Seven months later, it’s better, but I still have limited range of motion. Take your left hand and reach it behind your right shoulder; you can probably touch your back, right? I can only reach over to the top of my shoulder. There go my dreams of being a major-league pitcher.)

So, no running for a while. Time to heal. I had signed up for 4 marathons this year, and so far, one of the spring ones has been moved to the fall; no word yet on the other one, but I would be shocked if it gets staged in early May. Which, as sad as that is, means that my rest time corresponds with this pause on all my planned races.

If you see me around town now, I’m the guy on the bike, riding alongside my daughter or Jen as they run. And definitely no beer cans in my hands. At least not yet.

The Best Films I Saw in 2019

My lovely wife Jen and I had some people over for dinner a few months ago, and one of them noticed a red envelope sitting near our TV.

“Is that a Netflix DVD?” he asked.

“Yeah. Why, are you not a Netflix member?”

“I didn’t even know Netflix still did the DVD-by-mail thing! I thought they ended it years ago!”

I asked him, “Then how do you watch new movies?” and he catalogued a bunch of different ways: Redbox, streaming through Xfinity, Hulu, Vudu, Amazon Prime, iTunes, etc.

“Jeepers!” I said. “I can barely keep up with regular TV shows; do you think I’m with-the-times enough to subscribe to all those?”

“Not if you’re still using words like ‘jeepers.’”

Anyway, my point is, there’s too much out there, and too many ways to watch it all. (And no one gifted me the Disney+ subscription I asked for over the holidays, so I’m missing out on baby Yoda!) So you might notice that my best movies list is a little Netflix-heavy. Here’s my annual disclaimer: This isn’t a list of the best movies of 2019, but a roundup of the best films I saw, no matter what year they were released. Here we go:

91rKEgY1qDL._SY679_10. “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” 2019 sci-fi directed by JJ Abrams, starring Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Kelly Marie Tran, and Kerri Russell. Okay, that’s a wrap on 40-plus years of Star Wars films shaping my worldview. If I had to rank Episode 9, I’d put it at fifth-best in the series. If you don’t know the major plot twist, I’ll ruin it for you now: Rosebud was a sled.

Unknown9. “Fyre,” 2019 documentary directed by Chris Smith. I first became aware of the Fyre Festival when one of my favorite bands, blink-182, announced that they were headlining the weekend music festival/experience. Then they pulled out at the last minute. Then the (mostly wealthy) customers who bought the pricey tickets started posting on social media how much of a ripoff the trip was turning out to be (e.g., the “gourmet meals” they were promised were cheese sandwiches). Then came the lawsuits, the accusations of financial misdeeds, and the jail time for one of the founders. A fascinating, funny look at how a few social-media influencers drove the initial success of what was essentially a house of cards.

Unknown8.  ”The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” 2007 Western directed by Andrew Dominick, starring Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Rockwell, Mary-Louise Parker, and Sam Shepherd. This film reminded me of another one based on a real-life outlaw, 2009′s “Public Enemies,” with Johnny Depp as John Dillinger, in the sense that both criminals, Dillinger and James, brought about their own downfalls when they had to rely on less and less trustworthy partners to continue their robberies. Really two separate character studies, one of Jesse James and the other of Robert Ford, a wide-eyed fan of James’ who becomes a minor player in the James Gang but hopes for greater glory in bringing down the outlaw.

Unknown-17. “Someone Great,” 2019 romantic comedy directed by Jennifer Kaytin Robinson, starring Gina Rodriguez, Brittany Snow, DeWanda Wise, Lakeith Stanfield, and Peter Vack. A star vehicle for Rodriguez (“Jane the Virgin”), we follow one day in her life as her two best friends try to cheer her up after her breakup with longtime boyfriend Stanfield, and we see their relationship through flashbacks. Great soundtrack and great female friendships.

Unknown6. “Always Be My Maybe,” 2019 romantic comedy directed by Nahnatchka Khan, starring Ali Wong, Randall Park, Daniel Dae Kim, and Michelle Buteau. Terrific story of a successful chef returning home to San Francisco and running into her childhood sweetheart (Park). Also with a very special cameo of a certain actor who parodies his own public persona mercilessly.

Unknown5. “Booksmart,” 2019 teen comedy directed by Olivia Wilde, starring Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein, Billie Catherine Lourd, Diana Silvers, and Molly Gordon. Some have called this the girls’ version of “Superbad,” and that’s not far off (Feldstein’s character is very much like that of her real-life brother Jonah Hill), but there’s more heart and depth in this film, even though it follows the teen-movie trope of two kids deciding to finally have fun and party on the last night of high school. Teen life in all its awkward, embarrassing glory. If you were a nerd in high school (hint: if you were one of my friends back then, you probably were), you will watch along in painful self-recognition.

Unknown-14. “Unicorn Store,” 2017 comedy/fantasy directed by Brie Larson, starring Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Joan Cusack, Bradley Whitford, and possibly a unicorn. I don’t even know where to start with this. If you are looking for another Marvel-type action movie with the “Captain Marvel” co-stars here, you’re in the wrong place. Larson plays Kit, a lost-soul artist living in her parents’ basement, who receives an invitation from a store purporting to have available to her the purchase of a unicorn. Jackson plays the Salesman, the unicorn-store’s only employee. This will leave you confused as to where this film is going, in a good way. A sweet, big-hearted film.

Unknown-13. “Plus One,” 2019 romantic comedy directed by Jeff Chan and Andrew Rhymer, starring Maya Erskine, Jack Quaid, Beck Bennett, and Rosalind Chao. Erskine and Quaid are best friends who find themselves single during high wedding season and agree to be each other’s plus one for every wedding invitation. We know where this is leading, but it’s a fun ride getting there. Quaid is the son of Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan, but he looks and acts more like a younger Joel McHale. Erskine is a revelation of the less put-together adult of the duo; she had a few moments that made me laugh out loud.

Unknown2. “Eighth Grade,” 2018 coming-of-age film directed by Bo Burnham, starring Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Emily Robinson, Jake Ryan, and Luke Prael. This unflinching film about the growing pains of life in the social-media age is painful. There’s no glossy Hollywood sheen over this story, and Fisher is almost too real as the eighth grader struggling with depressive tendencies, boy crushes, FOMO caused by Instagram, and a father who is trying a little too hard to be liked by her. I happened to be living through this story (from the dad’s point of view) when I saw it, and I loudly recommended it to all of my daughter’s parents. Watching this actress bravely play out the pool-party scene was amazing (also very hard to sit through).

shopping1. “Three Identical Strangers,” 2018 documentary drama/mystery directed by Tim Wardle. What an amazing, “this can’t possibly be true, but it is” story. In 1980, a New Yorker named Bobby Shafran goes to a community college and on his first day on campus is constantly mistaken for another guy who had gone there the year before named David Kellman. One of David’s friends calls David and says, “You have to meet this guy, he looks just like you.” So they meet and discover that they were both adopted and are indeed brothers. After the story runs in New York papers, another New Yorker, Eddie Galland, sees their photo in the paper, and thinks, “I look just like them, and I was adopted…” The story that ensues is at first celebratory and uplifting. But then things take a darker turn as we learn about the reasons for their separation at birth and how their different upbringings affect their adulthoods in tragic ways. A sometimes sad, sometimes heartwarming documentary that stayed with me for a long time afterwards.

Movies that just missed the cut: “Juliet, Naked,” “Free Solo,” “The Tomorrow Man,” “A Simple Favor,” “Studio 54,” “All Is True,” “Under the Eiffel Tower,” “Echo In the Canyon.”

Best Books 2019

Let’s get right to it: I didn’t read many books last year. A total of 23, or 1 every 16 days. That’s embarrassing. I got bogged down in some books that I didn’t really like but felt obligated to finish, because I’m that kind of reader.  (And yes, I’m also a member of the clean plate club.) I have many, many other excuses. I promise to do better this year, faithful blog readers (hi, Rossi family!) . Anyway, here’s my top ten list:

shopping1. Nothing to See Here, Kevin Wilson. Wilson’s hilarious novel is about Lillian, a twentysomething slacker whose successful best friend from high school married a U.S. senator and needs a nanny for her twin stepchildren while she cares for her own son. The twins are a handful, and oh by the way, when they get agitated, they spontaneously combust. Somehow, Wilson makes this seems plausible, and we are rooting for Lillian and the flaming twins. The best thing about this book is that I didn’t know where it was going and it was exciting to see where the next chapter led.

shopping2. Very Nice, Marcy Dermansky. Rachel Klein seduces her college creative writing professor, Zahid Azzam, who then leaves his dog in Rachel’s care while he returns to Pakistan to care for his ailing grandmother. Rachel brings the dog from New York to her mother Becca’s Connecticut mansion. Sooner than expected, Zahid turns up at the house and falls into a relationship with Becca. Funny and smart and dipping its toe slightly into the current political situation, this novel has the feel of a film where connections between characters are made that seem conveniently coincidental (e.g., Zahid’s NYC apartment is being sublet by a woman who works for Rachel’s father in investment banking, and this subletter also happens to casually date a female friend of Zahid’s, etc.).

Unknown3. High School, Sara Quin and Tegan Quin. These twins, better known as the indie-pop duo Tegan and Sara, co-wrote this memoir about growing up and rebelling in Calgary, Alberta. The cover of the book is supposed to look like a mirror, as in, we can all see ourselves in their stories. Even though I have almost nothing in common with them (that is, I didn’t drop acid and attend raves, struggle with my sexual identity, or form a band before graduating high school), I totally related to their tales of being outsiders and outcasts in their teen years. An especially good book for LGBTQ kids looking for stories of how two kids found their voices and turned out okay.

Unknown4. Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back): A Memoir of Recording and Discording with Wilco, Etc., Jeff Tweedy. I was interested in this memoir by the founder and lead singer of Wilco (and co-founder of the late, lamented Uncle Tupelo) partially because we have mutual acquaintances and I wanted to see if Tweedy talked about them. Very honest, very funny, very entertaining. In the opening, Tweedy says that he is not going to stoop so low as to discuss his prescription drug addiction battles and that he is only going to talk about the songwriting process and art. Then he says something to the effect of, “Just kidding! Of course I’m going to talk about the addiction stuff! Why else would you be reading this book?”

shopping5. Tough Luck: Sid Luckman, Murder, Inc., and the Rise of the Modern NFL, RD Rosen. Rosen grew up a fan of the Chicago Bears, and in a lucky happenstance, one of his neighbors during his 1960s childhood was the retired Bears great Sid Luckman. (As any diehard Bears fan knows, the Bears haven’t been able to find a QB as successful as Luckman, who last played in 1950.) The book was only going to be about Luckman’s playing career, but then Rosen saw an interview with a former teammate who said, “It’s too bad about Sid’s dad.” It turned out that when Sid was in high school, Sid’s dad, who was mob-connected in New York, was sent to prison for the brutal murder of a family member, and somehow the Chicago media buried this story so that it didn’t follow Sid around. A great read for football fans and for true-crime enthusiasts.

Unknown6. Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, Carrie Brownstein. Yes, another musician’s memoir. This one is by Brownstein, a founding member of the Seattle punk group Sleater-Kinney and one half of the creative team behind the great TV series “Portlandia.” This is less to do with “Portlandia” and more about her musical background. Like the others on this list, a fun way to see how someone goes from outsider teen to successful rock star.

Unknown7. Talent, Juliet Lapidos. Anna Brisker, a graduate student in English at an Ivy League-type university, is struggling with writer’s block on her dissertation, a treatise on the intellectual history of inspiration. She establishes a friendship with the niece of the famous author Frederick Langley, a JD Salinger-type author who struck literary gold early in his career but apparently never wrote again. Or did he? Anna discovers unpublished work of Langley’s but also uncovers a plot by his sole surviving heir to cash in on her uncle’s fame. A modern take on the Biblical parable of the talents.

Unknown8. The Adults, Caroline Hulse. It starts with a frantic emergency call; someone has been injured in an archery accident at a family vacation destination. What plays out is differing explanations of all involved in this comic holiday trip gone sideways: Claire and Matt, exes who decide to spend Christmas together for the sake of their daughter Sophie; Claire’s uptight boyfriend Patrick; Matt’s sensible new gal Alex; and Sophie’s imaginary friend, a human-sized bunny named Posey.

Unknown9. A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan. Sprawling, darkly funny novel that bounces back and forth in time from the 1970s to the present about Benny Salazar, a record company executive who got his start as a teen in a punk band, and Sasha, his self-destructive assistant. This Pulitzer Prize winner weaves several characters’ inner thoughts into one story; sometimes the reader doesn’t find out the connection between seemingly random characters until many chapters later. A book that I had to flip back through and reread.

shopping10. I Am C-3PO, Anthony Daniels. The English actor’s tales of portraying the iconic Star Wars droid for over 40 years. Daniels almost exclusively details his C-3PO years, with only a few stories about his early childhood and his other acting roles (and practically no stories about his personal life, an oddity for a memoir). Not always a flattering portrait of life in the Star Wars universe.

Other books that just missed the cut: Thanks a Lot, Mr. Kibblewhite, Roger Daltrey; Past Tense, Lee Child; The Parade, Dave Eggers; There’s a Word for That, Sloane Tannen; Wham! George Michael and Me, Andrew Ridgeley.

 

 

The Best Laid Plans…

I ran into an old running buddy a few weeks ago. The first thing he said to me was, “Where are your blog posts?” I was like, “Oh, crud, somebody noticed that I’ve been in silent mode with the blog!” I gave him about 99 reasons why I hadn’t been writing, and even tossed in a few health problems to throw him off my scent, like my hip impingement, and the tinnitus and hearing problems I’ve developed.

He shut me down with a recounting of his life at the moment: working 10-hour days driving a truck; commuting 2 hours one way, so he’s gone 14 hours most workdays; an adult child boomeranging back into the family home, this time with her spouse and a Siberian Husky whose shedding is so prolific that the cloud of fur trailing it looks like Pigpen from “Peanuts”; knee and back problems that ended his running days; and, in case I thought I was special, tinnitus and hearing loss. Oh, and he’s a living kidney donor who was literally on death’s door from complications after the surgery. (He’s a regular Mother Teresa, this guy. Jeez, and I feel like a saint when I let my lovely wife Jen eat the last piece of mushroom pizza.) “So tell me again,” he said, “what’s so important in your life that you haven’t been writing?”

In my head, I was quoting the late, great Carrie Fisher from her role as Marie in “When Harry Met Sally…” when her friends would tell her that her affair partner was never going to leave his wife: “You’re right, you’re right, I know you’re right.”

Time to dust the cobwebs off the blog and start anew in 2020. Let’s look back at my 2019 running, shall we? Every year since 2013, I’ve kept a running journal, a little notebook in which I scribble my daily mileage and time, notes on how I felt or what I wore for future reference (you would not believe how easy it is to forget how to dress for spring weather, say, the first 50-degree day of the year: “Do I wear pants or shorts?”), and I map out my training schedule so I know when my races are and when I should be doing long runs, speed workouts, etc.

And yes, Mr. and Mrs. Smartypants, I am familiar with a little thing called the internet and Strava and all the web-based training sites; I just prefer the little journals so that if I take trips, I can pack them along and not worry about web access.

I use a Garmin GPS watch to track mileage. Specifically, a purple Forerunner 220 that I won at a local 5K. It’s a little clunky on my dainty bird-boned wrist, which is why I used to wear the women’s version in lime green, but when I won this one, I decided to upgrade. (Also, I saw a picture of Meb Keflezighi wearing one, and he’s my size, so why not?) For each run, I write down distance, time, average mile pace, and mile split for every mile. I then add up weekly, monthly, and yearly mileages to see how much I’ve run. (I keep a running tally of how many miles I’ve put on my shoes so I know when to retire them as well.)

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Me, when I am adding up my yearly mileage.

The yearly goal is always a minimum of 1,000 miles. That works out to just over 19 miles a week, which should be easy peasy lemon squeezy, considering that I run about 30-35 miles a week when training for marathons. Faithful blog readers (looking at you, Dave) might recall that I run very few miles for a marathoner; most marathon experts will suggest 50-70 miles if you are serious, and elites will put in over 100 miles a week. But they are also a little “insane in the the brain,” as the guys in Cypress Hill sang back in 1993 (“Insane in the membrane; crazy insane, got no brain!”).

Before I added up my 2019 mileage, I looked back at the previous years:

2013: 879 miles (approximate; I didn’t wear a GPS watch yet)

2014: 1,144.19 miles

2015: 814.59 miles (missed the first 2 months of the year with anterior tibialis tendonitis on both feet; ouch!)

2016: 1,593.45 miles

2017: 1,546.77 miles

2018: 1,214.28 miles (and this was with missing all of December with hip pain)

Knowing that I had not run at all in January and February of 2019 with my hip issues, I was still hopeful that the rest of my year made up for it and that I broke 1,000. My lowest weekly total, obviously, was zero miles. My highest was 41.06 miles, which is a little misleading: it was the third week of September, and I ran the Fox Valley Marathon that week, so if you remove the 26.2 from that, I only did runs of between 2 and 4 miles on the other days.

Anyhoo, the total. I knew it was going to be close, and as I calculated the sum on my phone, I realized it was going to be really close. Really, really close. Keep in mind that, on almost every run, I start from my house and finish on the corner of our street. Some days, I tell myself that I have to make it all the way to the street corner and finish the run as preparation for finishing races strong. Some days, I think, “Screw it! I’m tired and I will stop half a block short and walk home!” Well, those days came back to haunt me.

2019 total: 999.59 miles.

ARE YOU FREAKING KIDDING ME?!? 0.41 mile short of 1,000?!? That’s about three blocks in my neighborhood. If I jogged to my daughter’s school just once, I would have surpassed that! If I ran to the fast-food joints down the street from us, I’d be good. When we went on a 2-week vacation last summer, I said to Jen, “Remind me to bring my running shoes so I can run.” And did I run? Of course not! We were on vacation! Aargh!

Lesson learned. Finish the run. I know 1,000 miles is an arbitrary number, but it sounds a lot cooler than 999.59.

Literature nerd’s side note: I titled this “The Best Laid Plans,” which is of course the beginning of the saying, “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” Which is itself an English-translation paraphrase of the original Scots-language quote, from the poem “To a Mouse,” by the Scottish poet Robert Burns: “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley.”  I find that things frequently gang aft agley for me. Especially when I don’t finish the run!

Running Marathons After Injury Recovery: Is It For Me? (and by “Me,” I Don’t Mean “You,” I Mean “Me”)

I was already nervous about returning to marathon shape after having injured myself so severely that I couldn’t run for 3 months (more on that later). Then things got weird.

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This is me the last time I ran the Fox Valley Marathon, September 2017.

About 4 weeks out from my first marathon in a year, I was gearing up for my last long run, a 22 miler that would give me an idea of what kind of condition I was in and help me practice my pace and other race-day logistics. A few days before the long run, my lovely wife Jen said casually, “Have I ever told you the story about how my friend convinced her boyfriend to shave his armpits because he had bad body odor and shaving your armpits keeps BO at bay?” I said, “Huh, no,” and she said, “Yeah, and here’s the kicker: Even after they broke up, he thanked her for that piece of advice! Isn’t that funny?” Then, a few days later, Jen said, “I was just laughing to myself about that story I told you, about my friend who convinced her ex-boyfriend to shave his armpits. And he thanked her for it after they broke up!” And once more, the next day: “You know my friend, the one who convinced her ex to shave his pits?” I said, “ARE YOU ASKING ME TO SHAVE MY ARMPITS BECAUSE I STINK?!? IF YOU ARE, JUST SAY IT!!!” She said calmly, “Oh, I mean, sure, if that’s something you’re interested in doing…”

So I found myself slathering shaving cream on my armpits and taking a razor to them that day. (Mind you, Jen and I first met in our teens on our high school cross-country team, and this issue had never come up in the ensuing 30-plus years. Maybe I should check if I have bad breath while we’re at it.) Now, I don’t know if you remember the first time you shaved a part of your skin; I have a hard time recalling because the only thing I’ve ever shaved is my face, and I was 13 when I started that. It’s been a long time. Anyway, what I wasn’t ready for was how freaking painful it was. Ouch! I cut myself pretty badly.

So then I ran the 22 miler. Oh, the chafing! It was not fun. But now I find myself a few days out from the race, and it’s too late to let my armpit hair grow back out to its natural, luxurious length. So I am stuck shaving. I said to Jen, “How often do I have to do this?” and she said, “Oh, not much, only every couple days.” “EVERY COUPLE DAYS?!?” So here we are.

Anyway, my injury. Last year, I ran three hard marathons, two in the spring (cough cough, Boston qualifier here), and one in October on a flooded course that messed with my stride as I high-stepped through multiple waterlogged parts. My recovery was fine, though. And then I did something stupid.

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Actual photo of me getting the lights ready for Christmas.

My son was coming home from college the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. I thought it would be fun to surprise him by Clark Griswolding the crap out of our house. To get to the high peak above our garage, I decided to step out of a second-floor dormer window onto a sloping part of the first-floor roof. As soon as I did, I felt a twinge in my left hip. (Handy tip when listening to runners talk about running: when they use the phrase “I felt a twinge,” nothing good follows.) I scooted out to the edge of the peak, did the lights, then spent another 2 or 3 hours finishing the lights on the roof, some bushes, and a few trees. It looked great at night when the timers kicked them on.

The next day, I had to drive 8 hours round trip to get my son at college (Go Green! Go White!), and my hip felt sore after the drive. The next day, I ran 10 miles. The day after that, Thanksgiving, I did another 8 miles. And then my hip was so sore that I couldn’t run more than 5 miles without pain. I had trouble lifting my left leg, and when I ran, I slightly turned my knee outward to compensate for the pain. I was limping by the sixth mile each day. The limping became constant, and I couldn’t sleep at night because of the dull, aching pain. It felt as if something was out of place in my hip socket. There was also groin pain, rear-end pain, calf-muscle pain, and hamstring pain. So I decided to shut things down for a while.

“A while” went from 5 days to 2 weeks to the rest of the year. When I couldn’t start running without pain on January 1, I started to get concerned. By February 1, I was alarmed. By March 1, I said to Jen, “I think I need to see an orthopedic surgeon.” I was still eating a high-calorie diet in the winter, since I usually burn it off with running, and I gained some weight, too. It wasn’t like I ballooned up, but it was all in my belly to the “I can’t button any jeans, so I guess I will wear sweatpants everyday” point.

We have neighbors whose son had a similarly described injury when he was in high school, and they had told me, “As long as the doctor doesn’t say it’s a hip impingement and a torn labrum, you should be okay.” Their son had surgery for it, and it was awful: the hip had to be immobilized for a month, then physical therapy was challenging, and he wasn’t able to run at full speed for 12 to 18 months.

The surgeon examined me, took some x-rays, and said, “Well, I have good news and bad news.” I said, “Give me the bad news first; that’s the kind of guy I am.” He said, “You have a hip impingement and a torn labrum.” I said, “That’s terrible! And the good news?”He said, “You’re too old for the surgery to work!” I said, “I’m too old? That’s good news?” The surgery is effective up until age 45 in men, and after that it causes degenerative issues that lead to an earlier need for hip replacement surgery. Ugh.

Basically, the hip joint is a ball and socket, and the labrum is this material that stretches around it to keep it together. My labrum was partially torn. Usually, you’ll hear of torn labrums in the shoulder socket, like with baseball pitchers and football quarterbacks. It’s a repetitive motion injury. Obviously, pitchers and quarterbacks don’t run as much as marathoners, so they don’t typically tear their hip labrums. (If a QB is running a lot, it’s because his offensive line is bad; that’s another issue altogether!) And the hip impingement is sort of like the ball is partially popping out of the socket (and as I put this all together, I could feel my labrum then slipping into the socket and getting caught).

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Actual photo of me receiving physical therapy.

My best course was physical therapy and hopes and prayers. So I went through a month’s worth of physical therapy. If you’ve never undergone PT, picture the torture machine from the film “The Princess Bride.” PT was only slightly less brutal. I’m exaggerating, of course; my physical therapist was a lovely guy whose goal was to help people get back to their normal range of activities, and the fact that he enjoyed watching us suffer through his exercise routines was beside the point.

Armed with these routines, I was released from restrictions on my running, and I slowly started building back up to my normal speed and weekly mileage (emphasis on the “slowly”). I brought those PT routines home, along with some large rubber bands to help with the exercises, with the promise to do them at minimum twice a week. And how many times a week have I averaged doing them at home in the last 5 months? Zero. I’ve done zero. It’s pitiful, really. I like to do the running, but I am not a faithful stretching or workout routine guy.

Jen and I do a yoga-and-light-weights workout twice weekly, and I have had to drop a few of the yoga positions and stretches because of the stress they put on my hip (looking at you, Downward Facing Dog). And even moving the weights is a problem: I can do the shoulder presses and lat pulls and curls with the free weights, but when I put them back down on the floor, I have to be careful to turn my left leg so as not to pop the hip out of place again. (I don’t mean to brag, but I’m working with 17.5-pound weights here. I’m a regular Arnold Schwarzenegger.)

But there was a problem: before I injured myself, I had signed up for two fall 2019 marathons, a full year ahead of time. And they are nonrefundable. There was no way a cheapskate like me was going to miss out on running them. Plus, I need to run three more marathons to get to 20 overall. So I cranked up the training, but I have done hardly any speed work, and I have run literally no shorter races. I typically fit in several 5K races to test my speed and keep things fresh.

Here’s the schedule: Fox Valley Marathon, one I have done twice already, this Sunday. Then a local 5K, which I have won twice, 6 days later. Then the Chicago Marathon 2 weeks after that. This will be fun.

I am currently in the carbo-loading phase of my runner’s diet. (And by “carbo,” I mean m&ms, chocolate chip cookies, and ice cream.) I had been eating lots of protein these last few months, with the goal of (in the words of the writers for Men’s Health magazine) getting “ripped!” and “shredded!” and “jacked!” I don’t think it worked. But I did lose the belly fat. And my armpits are shaved like all the men in the magazine’s photos.

On Sunday, I go for it. The plan is to run a steady 8-minute-mile pace for the first 20 miles, and see how I feel in the last 6 miles. Unfortunately, I may have done some yard work that exacerbated my hip issue this week; I felt a twinge. Or maybe I am just paranoid. Either way, I am running this sucker. If you see me limping around town next week, you’ll know why.

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Boston Marathon 2018: Squishy-Shoe Running

A week before the 2018 Boston Marathon, I started checking the weather forecast for Boston: 100% chance of rain the morning of the race. “Come on,” I said to my lovely wife Jen, “how can weatherpeople be 100% certain of rain a whole week out? They can’t even predict the next day’s temperature correctly, amirite?” Jen said, “Still, you might want to pack your rain jacket for the day of the race.” (Editor’s note: Stop with the blatant foreshadowing!)

Leading into Boston, I had an amazing streak of my first 14 marathons without having bad weather. “Bad weather” being a relative term: I’d run in extreme heat, wind, cold, and slight drizzle, but never rain. Every marathon, I’d prepare for rain but hope for sun. Actually, clouds; for me, the perfect race conditions are about 40 degrees with a cloud cover.

This would be my third Boston Marathon. My first, in 2013, was all kinds of bad, namely because of the horrific bombings. My second, in 2016, was relatively uneventful as big-city marathons go. Jen’s brother had moved to Cambridge, just across the Charles River from Boston, so we stayed near him and had a good visit.

A little background on Boston: It’s the oldest continuously run marathon in the world, dating back to 1897, and also the hardest to get into. You have to run a qualifying time, based on your age and gender, that works out to about the top 10 percent of marathoners in your age group. Then, you have to get an entry: over the last few years (especially since 2013), the entry standard is actually stricter than the qualifying times because so many people are trying to get those entries. This year, for example, you had to run 4:52 or faster than your qualifying time. That’s ridiculous. It’s getting harder and harder, so they just moved the bar and tightened the standards for 2020 by 5 minutes.

Some other unique things about Boston: It’s run on a Monday, specifically, Patriots Day, celebrating the beginning of the American Revolution and a Massachusetts state holiday. It’s a good thing schools are closed that day, because all those yellow school buses are needed to transport the runners on race morning: the Boston course is basically a west-to-east line, starting in the suburb of Hopkinton and going through several other towns (Ashland, Framingham, Natick, Wellesley, Newton, and Brookline) before getting to Boston. The Boston Marathon only spends 2 miles in the city of Boston. Consequently, runners board school buses in Boston Common to be bussed out to Hopkinton, where they camp out on the high school football fields at the “Athletes’ Village” and have free snacks and drinks.

Because of the logistical challenges of getting everyone out there, the buses start leaving at 6 a.m. Another strange thing about Boston: the race starts at 10 a.m. and the runners get sent in waves every 20 minutes or so. Potentially, you could arrive at the athletes’ village 4 hours before your start time. (Also, the athletes’ village is a 0.7-mile walk to the starting line, so have fun with that extra distance!)

Are you following so far? Monday 10 a.m. start, 26-mile bus ride several hours before you race, athletes’ village quite a distance from the starting line. Oh, and it’s a really hilly course.

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My Boston Marathon “celebration jacket,” from the 2013 edition. Note that I had the other two years I ran embroidered onto the jacket. Fancy!

Jen and I flew in on the Saturday before the race and were taking the free public bus to the marathon expo (the place where runners have to pick up their race packets; they make you wade through literally hundreds of sponsor/vendor booths to get to the packet pickup, so I always end up buying extra commemorative gear). Boston is famous for its celebration jackets, issued every year in different colors. It’s common for someone to buy one in their first year and then embroider subsequent years onto the breast and back of the jacket, so people can see how many times they have run it at a glance.

I was wearing my 2013 jacket (in its garish blue-and-yellow color scheme) when a guy on the bus gave me a head nod. It was a safe bet that most of the people on this bus were going to the expo, so he introduced himself as Allan and struck up a conversation with us. The typical “how many have you run,” “where you you coming from” questions. He mentioned that he was returning from a work conference but lived in Cambridge. We said, “Oh, really? We are staying in Cambridge, at a bed and breakfast.” Allan said, “Which one?” We told him, and he said, “I live half a block from it!” It turned out he was a professor at Harvard, in a field that we were familiar with, and Jen and I had all kinds of questions for him. (I also dropped my little “my 10-times-great-grandfather Thomas Dudley was a founder of Harvard College” tidbit on him; that went over better with him than it does with most people.)

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Here we are at the marathon expo! Let’s go spend some money! (Question: Does this photo make my nose look big?)

We went to the expo together and waited in line to go through security. Just before we entered, Allan wished us luck and whipped out his business card. He said, “My wife and I usually host a few other runners at my house on Monday morning, and then we catch a cab to the starting line. We’d love to have you. If you are interested, give me a call.” Then we parted ways.

“Wow!” I said to Jen, “that was generous of him!” She said, “Or creepy. Let’s check this guy out to see if he’s legit before you commit to going to his house.”

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The dreaded Porter Square escalator. The trip to the top takes approximately 17 hours.

We took the Boston subway system (the “T”) Red Line up to Cambridge to check into our bed and breakfast. We exited at the Porter station, which at 105 feet below ground is the deepest in the T system; there’s a frighteningly long escalator ride to the top, wherein when you get on at the bottom, you can’t see the top of it. It’s scary; it’s common to see whimpering little toddlers clinging to an adult’s hand with their eyes closed the whole escalator ride up. (And by “whimpering little toddlers,” I mean “me.”)

We walked to our B&B. It had your typical B&B features: whimsical yellow exterior, creaky floors, antique doorknobs, excessively large and heavy keychains, cramped rooms. One exception to the rules of B&Bs at this one, though, was the unusual number of children running the halls. And at breakfast the next morning, we found out that most of the guests were European. Ooh-la-lah! (Actually, they were from Belgium and Germany. Ich lieben!)

We crashed in our rooms for most of the rest of Saturday, venturing out only for food (it was cold). Checking on the forecast, they were now calling for 100% chance of rain the morning and afternoon of the race. Aw, come on!

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This must be a sign!

On Sunday, it started raining. Jen said, “So, let’s see that raincoat you are going to wear for the race.” I said, “Um, I didn’t bring it.” “What?!?” I explained that I was so focused on packing the celebration jacket and the gear that I had used for the previous 14 marathons, which I would like to remind everyone included no heavy rain, that I didn’t think it would be necessary. I also had my trusty black baseball cap that would keep my head dry. Jen about went through the roof. (Which wasn’t hard; the B&B’s ceilings were low.) So we turned on the TV to check the local Boston weather folks. Now they were calling for 100% chance of heavy, driving rain from midnight Sunday to midnight Monday (remember, the race is run on Monday morning), sustained 30-mph headwinds with gusts of 40 mph (remember, we run in one direction the whole time, which in this case would be “into the wind”), temps in the upper 30s, and generally dangerous running conditions. I believe the words “squall,” “monsoon,” and “historic in a bad way” were bandied about.

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Our room at the B&B had the coveted blowhole. Hang on, my editor tells me the word I am looking for is “porthole.”

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I believe the correct architectural term for the interior floor plan of the B&B is “hodgepodge.”

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I roam from city to city, running races and drinking smoothies. They call me Nomad. (Incredibly, this store called “Nomad” had a sign in the window that said, “We’ve moved 2 blocks north.”)

We had noticed a Goodwill store a few blocks away, so we went to look for throwaway clothes that I could wear to the starting line. It’s traditional at big-city races to wear extra clothes/jackets to keep warm before the race, and it’s especially important at Boston if you are sitting on the football field for 4 hours. When we got there, it was packed with like-minded runners. We picked through the men’s, women’s, and children’s sections (I have no shame) and cobbled together an outfit that included an outer layer ski jacket that would keep me dry and warm, a vest for extra warmth, another light jacket, and a pair of relatively water-repellent pants to cover my legs before the race.

The only thing we couldn’t find was a pair of tights; even though I’d never run in them, Jen thought they would be useful in the cold and that they would shed moisture in the moments when the rain would let up. We headed over to Jen’s brother’s place, and he happened to have a pair of UnderArmour tights that he was looking to jettison. “You’re kidding,” I said. “No, why?” he asked. “Well, for starters, you are 1 foot taller than me.” Jen said, “Just try them on.” So I did, and amazingly, they weren’t completely ridiculous.

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Getting ready at 5 a.m. on race morning! This would be the first of what I assumed would be many pictures Jen would take of me throughout the day, as she traveled the course getting action shots of me.

Jen added one last item to my gear: her lime-green women’s lightweight rain jacket. I really didn’t want to wear it, but she insisted. One reason I had always hesitated to bring a running jacket to a race is that you have to wear the race bib on the outermost layer, which would mean zipping up a jacket and then pinning the bib over the front, which would mean I wouldn’t be able to easily remove the jacket in case of rain. We solved the problem on the morning of the race: I also had a lime-green tank top, so we put the bib on the tank top and then pulled it over the outside of the raincoat. I looked strange, but it would (hopefully) keep me dry.

That afternoon, I decided to call my new friend Allan. I told him that I was in and that Jen would come with me to his house for the prerace visit. (We had Googled him and saw that he was quite well-known in his field and in the running community, so Jen wanted to chat with him some more.) Allan said that we were welcome but that now it turned out that perhaps only one other runner would show. Also, his wife wouldn’t be there. Neither, it seemed, would his college-age daughter. In addition, I’d be welcome to look through his closet for any clothes that I needed. We set a time and commiserated about the weather; he assured me that we’d be fine. “I’ve run it for the last 8 years; the 2015 race had rain, so it will be manageable.”

I got off the phone and filled Jen and her brother in on the next morning’s plans. Jen said something like, “Aww, look who’s got a new best friend. Do I need to walk you to your playdate?” Also, she did not want me to raid his closet.

That night, we chilled and had my usual prerace pasta dinner. Jen’s morning plans were to walk me to Allan’s by 6 and then go back and have breakfast (the “&B” part of our B&B that I would unfortunately miss out on). Then her brother and she would watch for me at Heartbreak Hill (about 20 or 21 miles into the race; there’s a convenient T stop near it) and at the finish line. When we went to bed, it was pouring hard.

When we woke up at 5 a.m. on Marathon Monday, it was pouring hard. Things did not look good. I got dressed and decided at the last minute to wear a throwaway pair of running shoes that I had brought instead of my nicer, newer ones. The race organizers had announced that everyone could bring a pair of shoes to the starting line to change into, but I figured whatever shoes I had would be soaked within 5 minutes of stepping outside, so having dry shoes at the start really wouldn’t matter. (As it happened, I was off by about 4 minutes and 45 seconds; it took 15 seconds outside for my shoes and socks to get drenched.)

As we walked down the block to Allan’s, I told Jen that I was really nervous. I don’t like surprises on race weekends. I have a system that seems to work: same clothes, same meals and snacks, same waking and arriving times, etc. This was all new: unusual clothes, unusual weather, and now I was about to go to a stranger’s house and meet other strangers instead of just relaxing and thinking about the race. (Boston is already a routine disrupter with the bus rides, but at least I had done those twice before.)

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Actual photo of how Jen spent the rainy, windy, freezing marathon day. Remember, at this exact moment I was braving 30-mph winds, torrential downpours, and bitter cold. I understand tea and snacks were consumed while I was gone, too.

When we got to Allan’s, it was just him. I turned out that all his other friends decided not to do the early-morning meet-up routine at his place. So he offered us food and drinks and we chatted while he got ready. He showed me his triple-tying method for his shoelaces; guaranteed not to untie, he said. He told me that a student of his would be meeting us at the bus, and that he had a friend in Hopkinton whose house we could hang at before the race. This is one of those mythical things about the Boston Marathon: you gather in the sleepy New England town of Hopkinton, which comes alive one weekend a year for this race, and if you are lucky enough to know someone in town, you can go to their house for prerace festivities. I couldn’t believe my luck!

Allan had called us a taxi ahead of time (yes, some people still haven’t transitioned to rideshare apps), and we said goodbye to Jen. We got into the cab from Allan’s home; he reiterated, “In 2015, we ran in the rain. This is doable.” He told me not to worry about the cab fare; it was his treat. (Which was convenient because I didn’t have any money or credit cards on me.)

It was a quick ride from Cambridge to Boston Common; when we got there, however, traffic was a mess. We kept trying to get the cabbie to just let us out anywhere, but he had a particular stop in mind in front of a hotel. Finally, when we got there, the fare was only $5 or something. Allan handed the cabbie a twenty. “Oh,” the cabbie said, “I don’t have any change.” What?!? He said he could leave us in the cab and step inside to make change. After discussing with me (the guy with no money), Allan just decided to give him a big tip and leave. The cabbie was overly thankful and promised to name his firstborn after Allan.

As we walked over to the buses, Allan said, “Eh, not bad; in 2015…” We met up with his student, Gus, at the bus. Gus was 20 and had run only one previous marathon; his time, 2:59, was about 25 minutes faster than Allan’s and mine. Gus said that he would stick with us for most of the race, but Allan made him promise not to drag himself down by hanging back with us two middle-aged guys. Gus was nice enough (or concerned about his grade in Allan’s class enough, one or the other) to say he didn’t plan to drop us too soon. Allan admonished Gus and me to triple-tie our shoes; he was worried that our shoes would come undone and slow us all down.

The bus ride was uneventful. The most common topic on that 45-minute ride to Hopkinton is how many marathons people have run. Even at 14, I was on the low end of the scale. (My first Boston was only my third marathon ever, and the people around me on that bus had run 50, 100, and even 150+ marathons; there’s definitely a little OCD in marathoners.) The driving rain continued all the way down the highway to Hopkinton.

When we got to Hopkinton, the buses let all of us runners out behind a fenced-off area around the high school. When we stepped off the bus, the rain was so hard that I could barely keep my eyes open, and it was so loud that I could hardly hear what anyone was saying. I had been living and dying on Allan’s assurances to me that everything would be fine because of how everyone handled it in 2015. After standing in the rain for 15 seconds, he turned to Gus and me and said, “Oh, this is much worse than 2015!” Crap.

We entered the Athletes’ Village because they wouldn’t let us walk back out the bus entrance to get to Allan’s friend’s house in town. There are two football fields that each have massive tents that cover half the field, so runners can gather (on sunny years) in shade or in the grass if they want, while they wait for their starting waves to be called. This year, everyone was crammed under the tents. The fields were complete mud; just to traverse the 10 yards from the paved path to the tents would have meant instantly caking our shoes in mud. People were packed like sardines against each other; the unlucky ones on the edges of the tents were still being drenched by the rain. It looked like Woodstock without the music. Or drugs.

There was no way we were going to wait in the tents with the masses. We went all “Hogan’s Heroes” and looked along the fence line for places we could slip through to get to Allan’s friend’s house, without luck. “Come on,” Allan yelled, “let’s go to the exit.” The way it works is, you can’t leave the village to walk the 0.7 mile to the starting line until your wave is called. Allan and I were in the second wave; Gus was in the first, but he was going to start with us. As we walked toward the exit, there were all kinds of volunteers telling people to show them their bibs; if your bib wasn’t the color of the wave being allowed to exit, you had to stay back.”How are we going to get through?” I yelled to Allan. “Don’t worry!” he said. When we got to the exit, he gave me a grin and covered his bib, and I realized that his plan was to just hope that the driving rain would allow us to sneak past the hundred volunteers trying to prevent this very thing. Bizarrely, it worked. We just bent over as if the rain was so heavy that we could hardly stand up (which it was) and plowed through.

Of course, there was a fence the whole walk to the starting line, but we just found an amenable volunteer to let us out along the way. We walked another half mile to Allan’s friend’s house. As we approached the house, Allan said, “I hope they are here.” “What do you mean?” Gus and I asked. “You see, I don’t actually know the people who live here, but some friends of mine told me to come here and they’d be here.” Hmm…

When we knocked, an elderly man answered. “Is Bob here?” Allan asked. “You just missed him,” the man said. Dejected, we turned to leave, but then the man said, “Come on in and get out of your wet clothes and warm up a while, guys.”

The man and his wife were well prepared for the conditions and had towels laid out on all their furniture. We stripped off our shoes and socks and outer layers and relaxed for a half hour while they plied us with hot drinks and snacks. It was the strangest prelude to a marathon that I had ever experienced. Then, too soon, we put on our soaked gear (Allan triple-tying his shoes) and headed out for the start.

When we got to the start, Gus, who was wearing short-shorts, said, “Can I ask you a weird favor?” I said, “It depends. How weird is it?” He explained that his hands were frozen already and that he couldn’t get his phone to fit back into his (really tiny) fanny pack over his shorts, and would I mind pushing it in for him? So I struggled mightily pushing his phone into his groin to get it into the pack. After a few minutes, he said, “Another favor. My fingers aren’t working and I can’t press play on the phone. Can you press against my fanny pack?” So I got intimate with Gus’s groin area again to get his playlist started.

Then the race began. It was as bad out there as the forecasters predicted. If you have seen “The Perfect Storm,” you know what I’m talking about. Have you ever been driving and it starts raining so hard that you have the windshield wipers on full blast and you still can’t see, so you have to lean forward to look out the windshield, and you think “it can’t possibly rain harder than this”? Well, it would do that, and then rain harder. The whole race. Every step of the 26.2 miles. Amazingly, Jenny was right about the tights; they would get soaked, somehow feel as if they were wicking moisture away, and then get soaked again. And her lime-green jacket worked like a charm.

About 2 miles into the race, Allan said, “My shoes are untied! I have to stop and re-tie them.” Oh, the triple-tied irony! Gus and I couldn’t believe it. Also, I had rocks in my shoes, so we went to some random person’s driveway and fixed our shoe situations. Gus said, “Are we seriously stopping this early in the race?” I told him, “If you’re going to take a trip with two middle-aged men, be prepared for frequent stops!”

I was surprised at how many spectators there were along the course. Boston is famous for its vibe: people put their grills in their front yards and have parties while the runners pass. It’s not uncommon to be offered food, drinks (alcoholic and otherwise), and other random things along the course. And there they were, a little wet but still cheering us on.

About 5 or 6 miles in, I noticed that Gus was having a problem with his short-shorts. It seems that he couldn’t tie the drawstring tight enough to keep them from falling down. Periodically, he would have to use both hands to pull them up (like, literally pull them up because they were sliding down his waist and legs). By mile 10, he was in full-blown crisis mode and ran the last 16 miles of the race, I kid you not, with his right hand clinging to the waistband of his short-shorts. I do not recommend this one-armed running stride.

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Racing up Boylston Street to the finish line in Jen’s jacket, soon-to-be-discarded shoes, my brother-in-law’s tights, and a ridiculous grin on my face.

Finally, we arrived in Newton, the suburb that is home to the “hills of Newton,” a series of gradually larger hills from mile 16 to mile 21, leading up to the infamous Heartbreak Hill, the longest and steepest. At the top of each hill, Allan and I would regroup, look back, find Gus, and forge on. When we got to the bottom of Heartbreak Hill, I said, “I can’t see Gus!” Allan said, “I’m afraid we’re going to have to leave him and his falling-down pants behind.” So regretfully, we moved on. I looked on the sidelines for Jen and her brother, but I never saw them, which is common in these big races.

The last 5 miles were a soggy slog. We didn’t talk but continued side by side. That last stretch is always half a physical battle and half a mental battle. Physically, you are destroyed, so the only thing that is going to get you to the end is your mind. You just have to keep positive thoughts, which in this case for me was, “When I am done, I can get out of these clothes!” repeated over and over in my head. Allan and I crossed the finish line near each other, at about 3:42, not bad considering the conditions. Then we got to meet up with the medical director of the whole race, who was a friend of Allan’s. We were not surprised to hear that they were seeing a higher-than-usual rate of hypothermic runners. About 2,500 runners, including 25 elite athletes, had to seek medical treatment.

Allan and I waded to the gear check area, where he had a change of clothes. There was an insane crush of runners at the gear check; I was pinned against a security fence waiting for Allan for a long time. At one point, Gus stumbled past me in a daze; he had finished about 15 minutes after us. Allan and I said goodbye, with the promise to meet up if I ever run Boston again, and I went to find Jen and her brother.

They were standing under umbrellas at Boston Common. “Where were you at Heartbreak Hill?” I asked. They both looked at each other sheepishly. Jen said, “We decided to stay in and watch it on TV.” Oh well. I couldn’t blame them; I would have done the same.

I Frankenstein-walked back to the nearest T stop and we headed back to our B&B. After a quick shower, Jen’s brother picked us up and took us out for pizza. Getting into his car, it was raining so hard that we got soaked. Of course.

A month later, I ran another marathon, the Chicagoland Spring Marathon, and the start was delayed by 30 minutes as we huddled in a parking garage to avoid the heavy rains. It rained on and off during the race. Later that year, I ran on a flooded course at the Des Plaines River Trail Marathon. What I’m saying is, I’m prepared for the rain now. But I still don’t bring my raincoat.

 

The Best Films I Saw in 2018

It’s Oscars weekend, so time once again for my list of the best movies I saw in the previous year. (Annual disclaimer: This isn’t a list of the best movies of 2018, but a roundup of the best films I saw, no matter what year they were released.) I saw 66 films in 2018, an average of 1 every 5.5 days. I’ve noticed a pattern over the last few years: I watch a lot of movies in the early months of the year, then I slow down in the summer months (kids are out of school, I’m doing yard work, a seasonal job that takes up my time), then it picks up in the fall. One exception is that my viewings spike in the 2 weeks after a marathon, when I am in recovery mode. (And by “recovery mode,” I mean “sitting on a couch and eating from a bag of chocolate chips.”)

Anyway, the films (Sorry, there’s 11, not 10. Also, because of a tie, there’s 12, not 11.):

Unknown11. “Everything, Everything,” 2017 teen drama directed by Stella Meghie, starring Amandla Stenberg and Nick Robinson. The first of three movies based on a young-adult novel (also one of two starring Nick Robinson, see below), this film is about teenager Maddy, who has an immune disorder that leads her physician mother to quarantine her in their house, for fear that contact with the outside world will kill her. She develops a texting relationship with Olly, a new neighbor boy, and we see how far she is willing to risk her health to explore this friendship.

Unknown10. “Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things,” 2015 documentary directed by Matt D’Avella. This film could change your life, if you are open to it. It’s about compulsory consumption and why we (Americans, Westerners in general) are driven to buy things we don’t need. Specifically, we see two guys called The Minimalists, who have a podcast and have written books, talk about how to refocus your life on what is important (hint: it’s not the stuff you own).

Unknown9. “Nowhere Boy,” 2009 biographical drama directed by Sam Taylor-Wood, starring Aaron Johnson, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Anne-Marie Duff. This story is loosely based on the early years of John Lennon, pre-Beatles fame. Although we see him meeting schoolmates Paul McCartney and George Harrison for the first time, it’s more focused on his messed-up family life (i.e., absent father, unreliable mother, strict aunt who acts as his guardian). You don’t have to be a Beatles fan to appreciate this film.

Unknown8. “Wonder,” 2017 comedy/drama directed by Stephen Chbosky, starring Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson, and Jacob Tremblay. This touching film (another based on a young-adult novel) is about Auggie, a boy with a rare facial deformity that has required 27 surgeries, who is about to enroll in a school after years of being homeschooled by his mom. It’s that rare film that you can see with your whole family and everyone will get something out of it. It deals with bullying, accepting people for who they are, parents struggling to let their children grow up, and confronting our fears. Stellar supporting cast, particularly Mandy Patinkin as the school principal and Daveed Diggs as the teacher.

Unknown7. “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,” 2012 documentary directed by Alison Klayman. A great film about the Chinese artist, architect, and activist Ai Weiwei and the increasing hostility he faces from the Chinese government, as he is harassed, beaten, surveilled, and eventually arrested, all while his brand-new art studio is razed by Chinese authorities. What were his crimes, other than artistic provocation? Printing on his website the names of all 5,000 children who died in an earthquake in Sichuan, a disaster that the Chinese government had hoped to cover up. Inspiring story about true bravery.

Unknown6. Tie: “I Am Your Father,” 2015 documentary directed by Marcos Cabota and Toni Bestard; and “Elstree 1976,” 2015 documentary directed by John Spira. These movies go together. They are definitely for the Star Wars fans among us. One focuses on the filming of the original “Star Wars,” at Elstree Studios in London in 1976, and captures the indie feel that the film had before it became a worldwide success. More specifically, it follows Unknownextras and ancillary support crew, who had no idea what they were signing on for. Similarly, “I Am Your Father” is about actor David Prowse, a fascinating former world-champion bodybuilder who portrayed Darth Vader in the original trilogy, and his falling out with George Lucas over the making of the movies. Essentially, he’s been persona non grata to the Lucasfilm folks ever since, and the directors would argue unjustifiably. If you saw “Solo: A Star Wars Story” and were disappointed (I liked it, but I’m sure you’re getting tired of seeing these movies on my best-of lists), you might want to check these out.

Unknown5. “Crazy Rich Asians,” 2018 comedy/drama directed by John Chu, starring Henry Golding, Constance Wu, Awkwafina, and a large ensemble cast. This was the “La La Land” of the year for me: a film that I heard so much about that I didn’t think it would live up to the hype. Well, I was charmed. It was funny, romance-filled, gorgeously filmed, and hit all the right notes on family and obligations in the face of love. One downside for me was that there were so many characters that we didn’t get to spend time with some people I would have liked to see more screen time of.

images4. “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse,” 2018 animated sci-fi directed by Peter Ramsey, Bob Persichetti, and Rodney Rothman, featuring the voices of Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Nicolas Cage, John Mulaney, and many others. This isn’t your typical cartoon. Not sure where to begin with the plot: Miles Morales gets bitten by a radioactive spider and becomes Spider-Man. Wait, I thought Peter Parker was Spider-Man. It turns out this is in an alternate universe, and when the bad guy (Kingpin, voiced by Liev Schreiber) creates a machine that rips open the fabric of the universe…okay, I’m losing the plot thread here. Just know that there are several Spider-Mans (and girls, and, um, pigs) from different universes involved. Visually amazing; I felt as if we were watching 1970s-era NYC graffiti come to life.

Unknown3. “Get Out,” 2017 satirical horror directed by Jordan Peele, starring Daniel Kaluuya, Alison Williams, Lil Rel Howery, Bradley Whitford, and Catherine Keener. Oh man, what hasn’t been said about this movie? I’m not a fan of horror movies, so I was surprised that this one got to me. While there were some horror-movie tropes (jump scares, bloody violence, “wait, didn’t he kill that guy already?,” things like that), the psychological suspense and cultural commentary parts were strong. This one will stay with you for a while afterward.

Unknown2. “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected),” 2017 comedy/drama directed by Noah Baumbach, starring Ben Stiller, Dustin Hoffman, Adam Sandler, and Elizabeth Marvel. I’m a fan of Baumbach’s movies. Stiller, Sandler, and Marvel play siblings dealing with their aging father, the not-quite-respected artist and retired professor Harold Meyerowitz, played with aplomb by Hoffman. Stiller is the successful son, and Sandler (in his best dramatic role since “Funny People”) is the sad-sack who can’t seem to please his dad or live up to this father’s wishes, while dealing with his college daughter (Grace Van Patten). As with most Baumbach films, I’d describe it as painfully funny.

Unknown1. “Love, Simon,” 2018 romantic comedy/drama directed by Greg Berlanti, starring Nick Robinson, Jennifer Garner, Josh Duhamel, Alexandra Shipp, and Katherine Langford. The third movie adapted from a YA novel on my list, this one is sweet and uplifting. Simon is a teenager who starts an online relationship with another boy. A third boy finds out about the relationship and blackmails Simon into helping him get a date with a female friend of theirs, for fear of outing Simon. I thought of the John Hughes movies of the 1980s, and not because of the topics, but the “of its times” feel of the film. Example: the high schoolers swing by Starbucks to get coffee drinks on their way to school everyday. Another example: Well-meaning, loving adults who support but can’t really solve problems they don’t understand, specifically Garner and Duhamel as Simon’s parents and Tony Hale as the trying-to-be-hip vice principal.

Movies that just missed the cut: “Brad’s Status,” “Jeff Who Lives At Home,” “Solo: A Star Wars Movie,” “Game Over, Man,” Springsteen On Broadway.”

Best Books 2018

Here in the Great Midwest, we’re all hiding away indoors, under the spell of the polar vortex. (As I type this, it is 22 degrees below zero, with a windchill of 50 below.) A good time to review the books I read in 2018! I read 24 books last year, less than the year before, for one main reason: a health scare in the family limited me to reading waiting-room magazines amid daily doctor visits for 2 months. So I learned a lot about Meghan and Harry’s wedding. Anyway, here’s my top 10:

s-l6401. Ghosted, Rosie Walsh. Some novels stick with you. I kept telling Jen, “You have to read this book,” but I couldn’t tell her why because I didn’t want to spoil the plot. At first, I thought it was a simple romance, but it took a turn for the thriller genre midway through. In a nutshell, it’s about Sarah, an English woman who meets Eddie while visiting her hometown; they have one of those whirlwind weeks where everything is perfect, and at the end, when he is leaving for a business trip, he promises to call her from the airport before he boards his flight. And then, he doesn’t call. And never responds to her texts, calls, emails, etc. She’s been “ghosted,” and if you’ve ever had this happen to you, you’ll know how hard it is to tell when to give up on a person. I won’t say more, only that I thought I knew where this was going, and I was wrong, and I couldn’t stop thinking about this book after I read it.

s-l6402. Small Fry, Lisa Brennan-Jobs. In this memoir, Brennan-Jobs focuses on her mom’s struggles raising her as a single parent and her fraught relationship with her dad, who initially denied paternity. You might have heard of her dad: Steve Jobs, the founder of and creative force behind Apple. Brennan-Jobs is unfailingly honest about her father’s (and her own) shortcomings. Although she has been criticized in the press by Jobs’ widow and his sister, he also showed how he loved her (example: the first personal computer he invented, the Lisa, was named after her).

41K0Q5O20IL._SX350_BO1,204,203,200_3. Failing Up: How to Take Risks, Aim Higher, and Never Stop Learning, Leslie Odom, Jr. Odom originated the role of Aaron Burr in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton; he won the Tony for Best Actor in 2016. In this motivational book/memoir, he offers stories that showed how he found success in acting and music, and how the lessons he learned can help anyone looking for success in life.

Unknown4. You Think It, I’ll Say It, Curtis Sittenfeld. Sittenfeld’s first short-story collection (she has written five novels and numerous nonfiction articles for magazines) is at times hilarious and biting. Mostly about middle-aged and middle-class women grappling with some aspect of their former selves, I felt like I was overhearing conversations at a backyard barbecue.

5. Thanks for the Money, Joel McHale. Unknown-1McHale, an actor who was the star of the sitcom “Community” and the host of Comedy Central’s “The Soup” (and of the short-lived Netflix show “The Joel McHale Show”), is a smart aleck, and if you think he’s funny, you’ll like this book. Not so much a true memoir as a mix of exaggerated stories of his youth and gossip about Hollywood, it had me laughing throughout. And yes, there are stories about Chevy Chase and his infamous blowups on the set of “Community.”

Unknown-16. Always Look on the Bright Side of Life, Eric Idle. I’m a casual fan of the Monty Python comedy group, meaning that I know all of them as “John Cleese and those other guys.” Eric Idle is one of the other guys, and this is his funny memoir. Actually, I like Idle for his Beatles sendup, the Rutles. Like all great autobiographies, this one’s a name dropper: his best friends were George Harrison, Mick Jagger, and many other rock stars who seemed drawn to the Monty Python guys.s-l640

7. This Will Only Hurt a Little, Busy Philipps. This bubbly memoir is from the actress known for “Dawson’s Creek,” “ER,” and “Cougar Town.” Bizarrely, it reminded me of the comedian David Spade’s memoir, probably because they both grew up in Arizona. The book caused a stir because she accused James Franco of being an a-hole on the set of “Freaks and Geeks.”

8. The Story of Arthur Truluv, -JdnDQAAQBAJElizabeth Berg. This bittersweet novel is about an octogenarian widower who befriends a 17-year-old girl who is going through a rough patch in life. Try not to cry.

ycEKAgAAQBAJ9. 10% Happier, Dan Harris. The subtitle of this book says it all: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help that Actually Works. It’s about a guy who tamed the voice in his head, etc. Harris is a newsman who had a panic attack live on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” This is the story of his search for methods to calm himself (legal and illegal drugs among them) that led him to meditation. The “10% happier” part is what he tells people when they ask him why he meditates, usually with a “that’s weird” tone in their voices: because it makes him just that much happier.

Unknown-110. The Art of Forgery, Noah Charney. I know you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but this nonfiction work had me with its cover, a reproduction of a painting by my favorite artist, Jan Vermeer. Charney, an art history professor and world expert in art crimes, delves into some of the most famous forgeries of all time and analyzes not just how forgerers attempt to recreate masterpieces but why (it’s not always for the money).

Books that were close but just missed out on the Top Ten: The Big Rewind, novel by Libby Cudmore; Love Life, memoir by Rob Lowe; I’m Keith Hernandez, memoir by Keith Hernandez.

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The Trip to Italy Episode 5: The Wedding

The last leg of our trip through central and northern Italy found us on a 2-hour train ride from Florence to Venice, before another 35-minute commuter train took us to the location of the wedding, the midsize city of Treviso.

At the Florence train station, the Santa Maria Novella (even the train stations in Italy have fancy church names), we found the counter for the rail we were using. In Italy, there is one state-sponsored rail company, but now there are a few private ones; we went with Italo, one of the private lines. Their message board did not list our train yet because it hadn’t arrived. To board the platforms, you have to pass through a security gate and then show your ticket to armed soldiers; based on my experience while lost in the Rome subway system at the beginning of the trip, I was looking forward to not having one of them point their weapons at me, thank you very much. You can’t enter the platform area until your train has arrived. We kept checking the Italo board and the general board for the whole station; our train kept not being there. It was a 10 a.m. train. 10 a.m. came and went. No one seemed alarmed or surprised. I asked one of the Italo ticket agents: “Scuzi, dove il tren?” as I pointed to my ticket. In English, she replied, “It won’t appear on the board until it arrives at the platform; it will get here soon enough, sir.” Just an FYI if you travel to Italy, the whole country runs on the “soon enough” method of things happening. Our guidebook suggested a slogan for the country: “Things always seem to work out in the end somehow.”

So my lovely wife Jen said, “I guess we just wait here until we see our train appear on the board?” We looked around and saw about 20 other people staring at the board, so we assumed as much. After a length of time that could reasonably be described as “soon enough,” the board was updated, and our train was on it. Yay! We rushed to the security gate, where I calmly showed my ticket to the soldier; he grunted and waved me through. We jogged to the platform, settled into our seats, and approximately 20 seconds later, the train departed. Jen and I were like, “Che due palle!” (We were getting cocky with our Italian.) If we hadn’t rushed over there the minute the train appeared on the board, we would have missed it. How many others missed the train because of this? Oh well, as they say in Italy, “Non e el mio problema” (not my problem).

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Rush hour on the Grand Canal in Venice.

Ah, Venice. You arrive by train at the Santa Lucia station (of course it’s named for a church) right on the Grand Canal. Whenever anyone found out we were heading to Venice for a day, they either said a variation of “you’ll love it, it’s the most gorgeous city in the world” or “ugh, Venice, it’s smelly and crowded and sinking into the Adriatic Sea and did we mention how bad the canals smell?” After spending the day there, we sided with the “gorgeous city” group. Maybe it was the day we were there, but it wasn’t stinky (except for when we stumbled upon the Rialto Fish Market; that was indeed stinky).

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Heading outbound on the Grand Canal. Wait, is the whole city sloping toward the sea?!?

Jen had planned for us to take a vaporetto up the Grand Canal to St. Mark’s Square. The vaporetto is a commuter boat that holds about 250 people, mostly packed like sardines in the center cabin, but there are a limited number of seats at the front of the boat, maybe 20, that offer the best views. Jen found one, and I hovered near her like a creep and snapped photos. Line 1, the most direct line, takes about 20 minutes, passes the best sights on the Grand Canal, and costs about 7 euros. Compare that to a gondola ride: a friend of mine rode on a gondola for 40 minutes in a tiny canal and paid 80 euros. Yikes! Jen and I like each other, but we’re too cheap to spend that much on a romantic boat ride.

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Romantic views from the sardine-packed vaporetto with 248 strangers.

The architecture in Venice is unlike that in most of the rest of Italy, and definitely unlike Renaissance-heavy Florence. Because Venice is in the northeastern corner of Italy, and because the Venetian Republic was a major port of entry for trading partners to the east, there is much more of a Byzantine, Moorish, we’re-not-near-Rome-anymore feel. When the vaporetto approaches St. Mark’s Square and you can see the Basilica de Santa Maria della Salute on one side of the canal and the Doge’s Palace with St. Mark’s clocktower behind it, it’s like nowhere else you’ve been in the world. (Unless you’ve been to the Venetian in Las Vegas. I don’t judge.)

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I said to Jen, “That’s St. Mark’s Square, or Piazza San Marco. The campanile was built in the 1100s but collapsed and was rebuilt in 190s. Napoleon called this ‘the drawing room of Europe.’ The square frequently floods.” The great thing about being on a vaporetto was that she couldn’t walk away from me when I turned on the tour-guide act.

We disembarked and joined the masses of tourists storming St. Mark’s Square the way Napoleon’s troops did in 1797, the only difference being most of us were wearing flip-flops, sunglasses, and Bermuda shorts instead of blue jackets with epaulettes and fringes, plumed shakos, and white breeches. But otherwise exactly the same. After wandering around, we skipped out on the expensive cafes in the square and the fees to enter the palaces and the Correr Museum and found a little side street to explore. You might notice a pattern that we skip out on things that cost money. That’s because (as previously mentioned) we’re cheap. Every year for our anniversary, I give Jen a big box of “I got you nothing this year,” and she likes it. On family vacations, our kids are constantly saying at the end of the night, “Wait a minute, did we only have two meals today?” Also, I give myself haircuts. And so forth.

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We’re here!

Venice is known for its glassmaking. Venetian glass has been made for over 1,500 years, and if we had more time, we would have visited the island of Murano, a 40-minute boat ride from St. Mark’s Square, where the glass-blowing industry is centered. We found a shop with all kinds of glass objects and lingered there. I really wanted to get my father-in-law a knife with a glass handle, but Jen talked me out of it by reminding me that airport security would probably remove it from my carry-on backpack, toss it in the garbage, and beat me with loaves of prosciutto. We did get my mother-in-law a necklace. Then we started wandering down the streets of Venice.

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Now we’re here!

Here’s the great thing about the city, especially for those of us whose every blog entry could be titled “Lost in (Enter Italian City Name Here)”: You can’t get lost in Venice if you are walking. Sure, you could stumble over the edge into any of the more than 400 canals in the city, but here’s their trick: although the streets are winding and there are tons of small piazzas, called campi (by some counts, there are about 700 campi, some as big as the Piazza San Marco and some as tiny as the bathroom in our hotel back in Levanto), nearly every intersection had directional signs pointing toward major sights. Jen and I decided to spend the day heading generally in the direction of the Santa Lucia train station, and there were signs saying “All Ferrovia” (to the train station), “Per S. Marco” (to St. Mark’s Square), “Per Rialto” (to the Rialto Bridge). It was awesome.

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The fish market. It reads “Mercato del Pesce Al Minuto,” translating as “Market of the Fish of the Minute.” I have no idea what the heck that means.

The only sad-face-emoji moment I had in Venice was when I decided to have a gelato. Jen passed; good choice. We were in a tiny campo, and there was a small shelter with a man selling gelatos. My first clue that it probably wasn’t going to be of the highest quality was that it was a small shelter, so clearly he wasn’t making fresh gelato on-site. The next clue was something we saw all over Italy: even though there’s a ban on smoking in public places, the country is lousy with smokers. My friendly gelato guy was smoking in his shed, or just outside of it. Although I didn’t order the cigarette-flavored gelato, I might as well have. Boo.

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One of hundreds of tiny canals. After a while, it’s like, “Yawn, another gorgeous view.”

Venice was also the first (and only) time we broke down and paid to use a public restroom. We made it almost the whole trip without having to, but we weren’t sure how long our train to Treviso would take (or if we’d miss it, like we almost did in Florence), so we paid the 1-euro fee at the train station to take care of our business before the train arrived.

On to Treviso: The commuter train dropped us off around 7 at the Treviso train station (no fancy name here: Treviso Centrale). When we exited the station, you might not be surprised that we were lost. The train station is just outside of the city center, which is roughly where its old city wall stood. Portions of the wall remain, as do three of the 12 original gates. Again, since there is no grid system to the old portion of the city, we were back to our “let’s try this street here–nope, that’s not it” method of navigation. In JRR Tolkein’s The Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf writes in his letter to Frodo: “Not all those who wander are lost,” referring to Strider (Aragorn), leader of the Rangers. I’d like to see a corollary to that statement: Sometimes people who wander a lot are usually lost a lot. We couldn’t find the bed-and-breakfast that we randomly chose online, knowing nothing about Treviso. It took us 20 minutes to do a 5-minute walk. Acquaintances of ours staying nearby, in town for the wedding, opted for a taxi: the driver looked at them curiously when he picked them up from the station, then drove for approximately 90 seconds to their rental.

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Along the Treviso city wall, with a moat that used to keep out Barbarians but nowadays keeps out suburbanites.

When we arrived at our B&B, we had to be buzzed in. I use the term “B&B” loosely. I’m not sure what else to call it. Imagine a building filled with lawyers’ and doctors’ offices. Then take one of those on the third floor, slap up a few drywall partitions, put locks on the doors, add bathrooms in the closets, and presto, you have a B&B. After the host checked us in, he left for the night, and until we checked out, we never again saw anyone on staff in the 2 days we stayed there. Jen was fine with it; I felt as if I was locked accidentally in an accountant’s office for the night.

Starving, we headed out to the one restaurant our host recommended. The streets were abandoned, and judging by the graffiti, we couldn’t tell what kind of neighborhood we were in. Italians love their graffiti; it was literally invented there–the word comes from the Italian graffiato, or scratched. When we got to the restaurant, it was completely empty except for a few servers; 150 open seats in the dining area. One of them asked us if we had a reservation, and when we said no, he said, “Then it’s impossible to seat you! It can’t be done. We are fully booked.” I looked at Jen, then out on the street. Tumbleweeds rolled by. I didn’t know if he was pulling my leg or just sniffed out that we were cheapskate Americans, but we left. We found a grocery store and had a thrown-together meal of cheese, crackers, dates, nuts, and chocolate. Back in our accountant’s office.

The next morning, at breakfast, it happened: We met the Spaniard! But we didn’t know it yet. At breakfast in the employee lounge-turned-dining room, there were two tiny tables. We took one, and two gentlemen came in and took the other. We didn’t speak to them; frankly, we were a little exhausted from trying to communicate with people and just wanted to be left alone. We heard them speaking English under low voices; one of them had an accent. He was taller and handsomer than me, he had an operatic voice, and his beard had its own Twitter account (probably). We didn’t talk with them then, but we would run into them again later.

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The River Sile.The Sile runs for 95 km (that’s about 59 miles) and flows into the Venetian lagoon. (Am I doing the tour-guide thing again?)

We had a free day to explore Treviso before the wedding craziness consumed us. Treviso is a midsize city (pop. 85,000) with its own pretty canals; its nickname is the Little Venice of the Mainland. The River Sile runs through it, and in Dante Alighieri’s 1320 narrative poem Divine Comedy, the town makes an appearance as the place “where the Sile and the Cagnan accompany each other.” Its city walls date to the 1500s, and like most of the places we visited, it contained buildings much older than that. There’s a cathedral with long stone steps out front that is popular with teenagers as a hang-out late at night. The most famous native son is Luciano Benetton, founder of the Benetton Group, the clothing company. There are no longer any United Colors of Benetton stores in The United States, but anyone who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s would remember their colorful clothing and ads; they are all over Italy and Europe. I told Jen, “The flagship Benetton store is in Treviso, and we have to go there.” She was not on board with that plan. “What are we going to do, buy a bunch of clothes and jam them into our carry-ons?” Still, I planned on visiting at some point. The other claim to fame for Treviso is that it is where tiramisu was invented. I was still drooling over the tiramisu we had back in Rome, so this meant a lot to me.

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Treviso has its own canals to rival Venice. All it was missing was the hordes of tourists to overrun it. Let’s keep the town our little secret, okay?

We strolled around the city and had a good lunch at Pizzeria “da Roberto.” I don’t know who this Roberto is or why they had the parentheses in the name of the restaurant, but the pizza and salad were tasty. A little fancier than what we were accustomed to, and once again we couldn’t get the attention of the servers when we wanted to leave. I body-blocked a busboy as he walked by and tossed a wad of euros in the air to let him know we were ready to pay. That seemed to work.

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This is the coat that Jen had to have from the Benetton store. Amazing, right? She has worn it zero times since we returned home. Zero! Come on, little sweater coat, make that leap into her rotation! (Editor’s note: Jen claims to have worn it one time, to a play that her daughter starred in. The author doesn’t remember that.)

We hit the Piazza Independenza and came upon the two-story Benetton flagship store. “Jen,” I said, “there it is!” She let out a “meh” and grudgingly agreed to go inside with me. (Italian-film buffs might recognize this area of Treviso as the filming location of the 1966 Cannes Film Festival Grand Prix winner “Signore e Signori,” or as it was known in the United States, “The Birds, the Bees, and the Italians.”) Once we entered the store, however, Jen’s mood changed. She got this hypnotized look in her eyes and was drawn to this multi-colored, knee-length knitted coat hanging on a rack off to the side. “Ooh, I like this,” she kept saying, then tried various ways of justifying buying it and lugging it back to America in a carry-on. Meanwhile, I went upstairs to check out the menswear and came up with nothing. We were short on time, and I was realizing what Jen said was right: How would I jam anything else in my carry-on? So went back downstairs, and I saw that look in Jen’s eyes. No, not that one; the one that said, “I am going to buy that coat, carry-ons be damned.” So we bought it, and she just added a carry-on bag to the pile. I call it Jenny and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

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We look like a Benetton ad: “Benetton: even Spaniards love it!”

Randomly, we ran into some acquaintances from Australia on the streets; they were on their way to visit other in-town wedding guests, so we joined them. (Three-quarters of the wedding guests would be Italian, and the remaining quarter was mostly Australian with a few of us Americans in the mix.) We were invited to the rental apartment of an amazing Australian woman in her 80s who had basically traveled the world several times over and was still doing it late in life. Her son-in-law accompanied her on the trip; his wife couldn’t make it. I asked him if it was weird traveling with his mother-in-law; he looked at me like I was crazy. “No,” he said, “she’s great. I love her.” Boy, did I feel small for assuming all the in-law cliches applied to them. They served us an awesome spread of meats and cheeses and drinks that Jen and I turned into a free dinner.

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Ah, Treviso!

The next day was the wedding. Jen had to be picked up early with another out-of-towner from Australia, so I walked her over to the rendezvous spot, and off they went to do whatever women do with the bride on the morning of a wedding. I met up with some friends, and we waited for a shuttle van that took us to the church. Across the street from the church was a nice restaurant that hosted the wedding party and out-of-towners like me; pizza, meats, cheeses, desserts, and drinks were laid out for us. I could get used to this.

The bride (who is like a sister to Jen) and groom have a toddler son who I get to babysit every summer; he spotted me in the courtyard at this restaurant and immediately demanded that I get on the ground and play with his trucks with him. So while all the other adults enjoyed delicious food and sparkling conversation, I was on my knees in my wedding clothes going “vroom vroom” with my little buddy. I’m sure I made a great impression on all the Italian relatives.

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Let’s get this wedding started!

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Not a bad getaway car.

The wedding was magnificent. The bride lit up the church when she entered, and the groom was the only person in the room who could match her. The priest spoke in Italian and English; I was asked to do one of the readings (it was a tough call, but I opted for English). Then, halfway through the ceremony, the Spaniard stood up and sang. From deep within his beard that has its own Twitter account (probably) came a voice of such command and presence. Picture Pavarotti, or more accurately, Placido Domingo or Jose Carreras. Wow. After the wedding, Jen and I introduced ourselves to him and his partner, and we all recognized each other from the B&B.  Bizarrely, like Jen, they thought it was a “nice place.”

We all crowded into shuttle vans to head into the mountains for the reception. Initially, there wasn’t enough room for Jen to squeeze in, as she hadn’t been in the van on the way to the church. Desperate, I ran over to the best man, Francesco, and explained our dilemma. “Ah, Jenny,” he said, “I am the best man and she is, how do you say, the best woman?” He calmly walked over, spoke to the driver in Italian, smoothed things out, and 5 minutes later another van appeared from out of nowhere. That dude was being a best man like a boss.

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Heading up to the villa for the reception.

Almost an hour into our drive, the van driver pointed into the mountains to show us where the reception was: there were two separate villas in the heart of the Prosecco region (that’s an Italian white wine), one where most of the guests were staying, and then another about 10 minutes further up the mountain where a large house contained only three rooms and the large outdoor garden where the reception was held; somehow, Jen and I ended up with one of these rooms, allowing us to stumble into our bed after the reception ended.

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Hanging with our amazing octogenarian friend from Australia before the reception.

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Waiter! More Prosecco!

On the grass outside the villa was a long table that sat 100 people. When we went to be seated, I was supposed to be sitting across from Jen, who was next to the bride. A cousin of the groom started speaking in heated Italian to Francesco; clearly, by her arm movements, she was unhappy that she had to sit next to me instead of her husband or whoever. Francesco would listen to her screaming and yelling, say something to her, then turn to me and say, “Everything’s okay. You sit there.” Then she would yell at him some more, pointing at me, I’d say to Francesco, “Is everything okay?” and he’d smile and say, “Yes, yes, everything’s fine. You sit there.” After about 5 minutes of this, he yelled something at her, talked with about five people on the other side of the table, then smiled at me and said, “How would you like to sit on the other side of the table, next to your beautiful wife?” Perfect; he was killing it best-man style.

This being an Italian wedding, there were approximately 187 courses of food served during the dinner portion.

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Twelve days into the trip, and we still had those “can you believe we’re in Italy?!?” looks on our faces.

The side of the table that I sat on was backed up to the edge of the mountain. We had a gorgeous view over our shoulders of the surrounding valley that only got prettier as the night went on. Also, our chairs sunk deeper into the grass, and because of the slight slope, people would periodically lean back and fall over. I was talking to the woman to my left, and she tilted back laughing at one of my many witticisms, and down she went. We helped her back up, and not 2 minutes later, the man on her other side took a tumble. We could just stare down the table and predict who was going to fall next based on the number of Proseccos they drank. There was a fence protecting us from falling over the cliff, but I’m hoping someone did a headcount on our side of the table at the end of the night.

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I tried to get a picture of the sunset, but I found out later that we were facing east. I guess the sun sets in the west over in Italy.

My little babysitting buddy was having a blast, but he was all riled up. By the time the dancing started, he was looking for me. I picked him up and started dancing with him, and within a few minutes, he fell dead asleep in my arms. I laid him down in the building on a couch, where he slept for the rest of the night. The groom’s Italian relatives hugged and kissed me for this; whatever they were saying in Italian, I’m assuming they were calling me the toddler whisperer or something similar.

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Cocktail hour. This being an Italian wedding, “cocktail hour” meant “burgers, meats, and cheeses hour.” I was stuffed before dinner began.

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“Hi, I’d like to make a reservation. Do you have a table for a hundred? Oh, good, we’ll take that one.”

At about midnight, I was exhausted. Jen checked with the bride about how late the reception would go. She laughed and said it was just getting started; she promised that pasta would be brought out soon to rev people up for more dancing. So we danced; a little-known fact about me is that I can clear a dance floor with my moves. Invite me to a wedding and you’ll see what I mean. Anyway, at about 2 in the morning, Jen and I dragged ourselves upstairs to our room and collapsed on our bed. From what we heard the next day, the party raged on until 4:30.

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After-wedding brunch in the villa.

Late the next morning was a lovely brunch with the wedding party and out-of-towners; we got to say goodbye to all of our Australian friends and talk some more with the Spaniard. We hitched a ride with some of the groom’s relatives back to Treviso, where we spent one more day relaxing and recovering from the wedding. We found a different hotel this time; it was called B&B Hotel, which was a strange name because it wasn’t what you’d normally call a B&B but rather a chain hotel. The first “B” part was great; it was clean, modern, and comfy, probably the best hotel we stayed in on the whole trip, if lacking in uniqueness. the “&B” part was good, too, but breakfast was an extra cost, so it was more like “B plus B if you want to pay more.” Still, if by some miracle you find yourself in Treviso, I recommend it.

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The last photo I took in Italy: another Treviso street scene.

Our 80-something-year-old friend called us up and invited us to dinner with her son-in-law and her, so we hung with them for a really nice evening. We walked over to a pizza place, had good conversation, and said so long in the night. We wandered down the streets of Treviso, and amazingly, we ran into the Spaniard, his partner, and a few other Australians from the wedding. They took us to a gelato place, then we sat on the steps of the cathedral with about 50 teenagers and ate our treats. At one point, I was complaining about the state of the world to the Spaniard, and he said, “Let’s not worry about that now. Right now, just think: we are here, in Italy, with new friends and old, eating gelato on the steps of a cathedral on a wonderful evening.”

Perfect. That was a nice summary of what the trip was all about for Jen and me. I could go on and bore you with the details of the next day’s bus ride to the Venice airport and the 9-hour flight back home, but let’s leave it at this sweet gelato-fueled moment, shall we?

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The Trip to Italy Episode 4: Florence and the Three Davids

Before we visited Italy, I didn’t have much interested in going to Florence. I would have ranked Florence, Italy, as my third- or fourth-favorite Florence, behind Florence Henderson (Carol Brady in “The Brady Bunch”), Florence and the Machine (British indie rock), and maybe Florence Nightingale (sure, she basically created the whole field of modern nursing in the Victorian age, but what has she done in the last 120 years?).

Way back in Rome, on the first day of our guided tour, the 26 of us sat in a circle on a rooftop deck at our hotel and named the one thing we were looking forward to doing on this trip. The vast majority chose the Cinque Terre. There were some votes for Tuscany, wine, food, and some of the sights of Rome. (I said that we left our kids behind with my in-laws, so the rest of the trip was gravy for me.) Exactly zero people mentioned anything in Florence as their top choice.

But then we got there. And it was spettacolare! 

Before we arrived, though, we had one last trip on the luxury tour bus. Every time we got on the bus, our guide would balance letting us snooze with lecturing us on any topic that popped into his head. We’d be cruising along the Autostrade, in and out of sleep, when the intercom system would click on and he’d start speaking in a voice-of-God manner: “Let’s devote some time to the history of Tuscan cuisine.” And off he’d go. Sometimes he would provide us with our room numbers for the upcoming hotels, but usually he’d stare out the front windshield, not even checking if any of us were awake, and ramble on about Italian politics, history, art and architecture, wine and cheeses, etc. He loved giving Italian language lessons: “Lesson one: Grazie does not rhyme with Yahtzee. It’s three syllables: Grot-see-ay.” He’d point out sights from the window: “There’s Andrea Bocelli’s childhood home;” “Those are the mountains where Cararra marble is harvested;” “There’s Pisa, see the leaning tower?”

He surprised us on that last bus ride with a stopover at something none of us knew had even existed: the Florence American Cemetery and Memorial, the last resting place for over 4,300 U.S. military dead. We spent an hour walking around the hillside 70 acres of headstones, and our guide filled in for the cemetery superintendent to provide us with a history lesson on the Allied invasion of Italy, a mission that happened a year before the Normandy invasion and offered lessons on how to better prepare for that excursion. (The superintendent was not available for anything other than a quick 5-minute talk because he was with family members of a soldier buried there, and that’s his first priority.) Humbling and quieting.

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Poor Duplo! I never got to taste your sweet goodness in your true form! (I did lick the melted chocolate off the wrapper, but I’m sure it wasn’t the same.)

Before we stopped there, we had made a pitstop at a rest area, and I bought an Italian candy bar, the Ferrero Duplo Nocciolato, a chocolate-covered hazelnut candy bar. I stuck it in my pocket and got back on the bus. “Aah,” I said to my lovely wife Jen, “time to enjoy a little Italian sweetness.” She said, “Um, no, you have to wait until we get off the bus. No food on the bus!” I looked at the other bus riders: they were busy passing around bags of m&ms and packages of biscotti, chocolate and crumbs spilling on the floors, and sloshing their coffees all over the seats. But sure, we’ll be the rule followers here. “When can I eat it?” I asked. “When we get to the cemetery.” That’s ridiculous, I thought, and maybe a little disrespectful to eat at a cemetery. But I waited anyway.

So after we toured the cemetery, I said to Jen, “Now?” She gave me the nod. I opened the packaging, and as anyone with even a cursory knowledge of what happens to a chocolate bar kept in one’s pocket for 90 minutes (did I mention it was 80 degrees out? Sorry, I should say 27 degrees Celsius for you Europeans, meaning really hot), It was a melted, yucky mess. “Gosh, that looks awful,” Jen said. “You probably should have eaten it earlier.” Oh, you think? Thanks a lot, lady! You’d think that would be the last time I listen to her about food. You’d be wrong. (See the bollito sandwich section below.)

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I was trying to get a shot of the pizza place in the background, but this gorgeous Italian bride and her groom had to ruin the photo. Thanks a lot, Florentines!

One thing you notice when you arrive in Florence is the lack of autos. The roads are narrow, cobblestoned, winding, and clogged with walkers. Our bus had to drop us off a few blocks from the hotel because it was too wide for the hotel’s street. (Rolling Thunder 2018 was back! The tour group’s wheeled suitcases were put to good use on this trip.) The city center purposely makes it a hassle for drivers: the only vehicles allowed on the streets are taxis, limo services, some tour buses if they are dropping off passengers, police, and delivery vehicles. It’s bizarre to be in a city that prioritizes pedestrians. You’d be walking, and you’d feel something hovering behind you: there would be a taxi or three, silently and patiently creeping behind you. But nobody honks. I got the feeling that if a driver honked at walkers, he’d be pulled from his car and beaten with slabs of prosciutto by a crowd of angry Florentines.

Our hotel was 720 years old. It was called the Torre Guelfa, or the Guelph Tower, named of course for the centuries-long power struggle between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, two factions in Italy that argued about the supremacy of the Pope vs. the Holy Roman Emperor. (It’s not often that a hotel promotes its charming, welcoming aspects with the words “papal supremacy.”) It was imposing, with a tower that can be accessed by a steep staircase with amazing panoramic views of Florence. It was very dark; I pulled the drapes back in our room and it seemed as if I was the first to do it since the 1500s. Plus, bonus, there was this wide, square staircase that went up and up with an opening in the center, where a glass elevator shaft was added; I kept waiting to see Jason Bourne either ride a motorcycle down the stairs or jump to the elevator shaft and slide down the side of it.

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View of Florence from the Altrarno neighborhood.

The first thing we did when we hit town was head out in search of these special Florentine sandwiches at the Mercato Centrale. Our guide suggested we go there for shopping and lunch, and if we were brave enough, he recommended a certain deli counter that had two particular sandwiches: the bollito and the lampredotto. We kept hearing people say that Tuscany is known for its meats, and Florence is known for its own particular meats. (Town motto: “Florence: Come for the Meats, Stay in a Papal-Supremacy Hotel!”) Here’s what you need to know about the bollito: it means, roughly, “boiled meat,” and as far as anyone would tell us, it’s the meat from the back-fat of a cow. But it could be any meat from anywhere (on, I guess, any animal). It’s sort of like roast beef. And the lampredotto: that means “like a lamprey eel,” but it’s actually (are you ready for this?) the fourth and final stomach of a cow, sliced up and cooked in a broth. I don’t know why the “and final” part is added to the description of the cow stomach from which it is taken; does that make it more appealing? “Oh, it’s the fourth and final stomach of the cow? Give me two!”

We walked around the market; the first floor was concrete-floored, lots of meat and fish counters, many other food products, and generally a little dirty/gritty. There’s one counter that everyone gravitates toward, like flies to a rotting carcass. (“Rotting meat carcass” would be another accurate translation of “bollito.”) Jen said, “Why don’t you get the bollito and I’ll get the lampredotto?” I said okay, not so much because I was looking forward to the bollito but because I was starving and it sounded better than the fourth (and final!) cow stomach.

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Our first glimpse of Michelangelo’s David.

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This David statue is a Goliath! (Heyo, Biblical humor!)

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This guy really doesn’t have a bad angle.

Here’s the problem with being from the Chicago area: I know what a Chicago-style Italian beef sandwich tastes like. (Shout out to Little Joe’s in LaGrange for one of the best!) The bollito that I had tasted like…boiled meat. It was okay. Then Jen said, “I can’t finish my lampredotto; do you want some?” I should have said no, but we were in Florence, other tourists were eating it, so I thought why not. This is why not: I couldn’t chew the stomach meat or fat or folds, whatever they were, enough to get them to a small-enough chunk to swallow. I’ve never gagged on a food before, but I couldn’t choke this stuff down. If you visit any food-centric website discussing Tuscan cuisine, they all mention the lampredotto and the bollito and how this “authentic Florentine street food” is a must. I’m here to tell you, however, that it’s okay to say, “No thanks, I’m saving room in my first (and only) stomach for the gelato.

Florence is easily walkable, and we were getting better at not getting lost in Italy. We walked with purpose back from the Mercato Centrale to the hotel and definitely got lost, but since we knew our hotel was near the Arno River, we pushed onward until we hit a body of water, hoping that it wasn’t the Mediterranean (which is 92 kilometers away, so that would have been embarrassing).

Our morning walk brought us to the Piazza della Signoria, the heart of Florence. This square has some impressive sights in it: the Palazzo Vecchio (the “old palace”), which is the town hall; the Loggia dei Lanzi, which is a triple-arched alcove containing an open-air sculpture gallery containing a dozen or more statues from up to 500 years ago; and, on the corner, the Uffizi (“Offices”) Gallery, a museum housed in the Medici family’s former offices. As our guide pointed out sights and we walked toward the palazzo, I couldn’t help but noticing…wait, that can’t be…is that…Michelangelo’s statue of David in the front of the palazzo?!? What the heck? I thought it was in a museum somewhere!

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At Piazza della Signoria, with the creepy Cellini statue showing Perseus with the head of Medusa. Note the replica statue of David in front of city hall in the background.

Turns out the original is in a museum somewhere, which we’d be visiting the next day. This replica stands, however, in the exact spot where the statue first stood in 1504. The original was moved indoors in 1873 to the Accademia (“Academy”), after having suffered a broken toe, a broken finger on the right hand, damage to the base from lightning, and, not surprisingly considering Italian politics, an arm broken off in three pieces when rioters occupied city hall and threw furniture out the windows at it.

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Our first glance at the Duomo, behind the nave and the bell tower. A few days later, we climbed to the top of that sucker; if you look closely, you can see people at the railing, just above the orange of the roof tiles. If you listen closely, you can hear a few of them screaming, “Get me the frick off this thing before it collapses!”

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The narrow staircase between the two domes to get to the top. Whose idea was this?!? (Hint: not mine.)

We continued our walk to the Duomo (officially the “Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, or “Cathedral of St. Mary of the Flower”). Fun fact about Florence: nearly all of their most-visited sites have boring names: the Dome, the Offices, the Academy, the Old Bridge, the Old Palace. Anyway, the cathedral and its dome are so remarkable that it’s hard to peel your eyes off of them. The architectural specifics behind the construction of the dome are fascinating, and not to get too much into the science of it here (because I have no idea what I’m talking about, even after reading the Wikipedia entry about it), but basically, the Italians had forgotten the technique by which the ancient Romans had built domes such as Hadrian’s Pantheon (I talked about it way back in my Rome post), and the concern was that no self-supported dome would stand. The original architect for the dome, di Cambio, proposed his plan in the 1200s, then died before any work was begun. About 200 (!) years went by before anyone else decided to take a crack at it. Enter Filippo Brunelleschi in the 1400s. He worked out the math behind it, creating an inner and an outer dome, called upon his friend Donatello (of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle fame) to build a wood-and-brick model with him to explain it, and only 60 short years later, the dome was completed.

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This walkway on the inner ceiling of the dome leads to the last, curved staircase to the overlook. Jen: “Only 15 more minutes to the top!”

We visited the dome and church several times over the next few days, including climbing between the two domes to the top of it. For those of you who are afraid of heights and also don’t trust the laws of physics and math, I would suggest not squeezing your way up the 463 steps to the top of the dome and outside to the viewing area. It was dizzying. Also, on the inside, at one point you walk along the inner side of the dome and see, worryingly, massive cracks in the ceiling of the dome. Our guide said that engineers don’t really know what’s happening or how to counteract it, so it’s best if we visit it while it’s not under renovation (or collapsed). So we spent a good 10 minutes on the top, looking over the whole city, while in my head I was having a mini panic attack and was ready to get the frick off of it as soon as Jen was ready.

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Me at the top of the Duomo. I just kept telling myself, “I’m brave like a Spaniard!”

One night, we had another outstanding, one-of-a-kind view of Florence, this time from the tower back at our papal-supremacy hotel. Halfway up the walk to the tower, there was a tiny bar with beers and wines that you had to carry the rest of the way up yourself. There were about five tables on the open-air rooftop; we spent a pleasant hour there chatting with our tour mates before heading down for bed.

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View from our hotel’s tower. Those Guelphs really knew where to place their papal-supremacy hotels.

The second full day in Florence, we visited The Accademia (so called because it’s a gallery connected to an art academy), where Michelangelo’s original David now stands. It really is incredible to approach this perfect-human-specimen statue down a long corridor, be able to walk around it, and study it closely from any angle. You notice the veins on David’s arms and how realistic his muscles look. Of course, for me it was like looking in a mirror. People would say, “This is amazing!” and I’d reply, “I know! How lucky Jen must be to look at a body like this every day!” Then they’d walk away slowly as I stared off into space, smiling at my own humor.

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Carabe! Nothing like a tasty gelato to clear the palate of the lampredotto.

Our guide had suggested two gelaterias in Florence: Gelateria Edoardo, near the Duomo, where there was always a long line, and Carabe, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shop a little bit harder to get to near the Accademia. Most of the people on our tour chose Edoardo because it was easy to find; Jen was feeling confident about our chances of finding Carabe (mostly because we already stumbled upon it while leaving the Accademia). I can’t speak about Edoardo because we skipped it, but Carabe was out of this world. So good. We went back the next day. It was definitely the best gelato we would have in the whole country. The flavors were inventive, the creaminess was tongue-pleasing, and I am starting to sound like a snob describing it so I will stop. Just, if you find yourself in Florence for any reason, seek it out. And tell them the Spaniard sent you.

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She wasn’t even this happy on our wedding day.

There were tons of leather shops in Florence. (Not those kinds of leather shops, you sickos.) Our guide, who had misled me about finding wood and alabaster in Florence, was right about one thing: if you like shopping, Florence will please you. High-end retailers, the world’s best clothiers, jewelers along the Ponte Vecchio, and, if you’re into cheap leather goods, so much leather. There was one shop across the street from our hotel. And when I say “across the street,” the street was only about 10 feet wide, so we’re talking within spitting distance (but don’t spit in Florence, that’s rude). Jen kept circling back to the window every time we passed. I knew where this was heading. “Hey,” she said casually one evening, “maybe we should pop in there and take a look. You know, for souvenirs for the kids.” Sure, for the kids. I was on to her. Ten minutes and one fancy leather strapped shoulder bag later, we left with one thing for her and zero things for the kids.

Two other great museums that we saw: the Uffizi and the Museo del Duomo. The Uffizi was crowded with paintings by Renaissance Masters. I couldn’t spin a fancy leather bag above my head without hitting a Renaissance painting. (Seriously, I couldn’t. Their crack security squad wouldn’t let me.) I’d turn a corner and be like, “Hey, it’s Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus,” or, “Oh, look, there’s another da Vinci/Titian/Caravaggio/Bronzino,” etc. There were almost too many great paintings that it got boring. Just kidding, it was awesome.

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In the Museo dell’Opera, original statues from the exterior of the Duomo and cathedral.

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Jen in Florence. Looking like the Spaniard that she claims to be.

Jen and I ducked into the Museo del Duomo, which a lot of our fellow tour mates were skipping. It’s next door to the Duomo and is devoted to the construction and planning of the cathedral. I know that sounds uninteresting, but maybe you’re uninteresting. Sorry, I’m a little testy and probably suffering from gelato withdrawal now that I’m back in the States. Technically, the museum itself is called Museo dell’Opera, I have no idea why. Anyway, it has a neat layout that allows you to see the artwork of the cathedral up close, including some originals that have been removed from the sides of the buildings. Spread out over three stories and in 25 rooms, the artwork (mostly sculptures) highlights the history of the cathedral, and there’s a bonus on the top floor: an exit leads you to a balcony that overlooks the Duomo.

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They do like their Vespas in Italy.

Our last night in Florence was spent at a feast at a nearby restaurant. Our guide knew the owner, so the food and the wine flowed nonstop. This being Florence, the menu was mostly meat-based. Sorry, vegetarians! The meal was bittersweet; after instantly bonding with the few dozen people on our tour and spending a week and a half with them, we were about to say goodbye and never see most of them ever again. (I assume I’m going to keep in touch with my wife. But other than her…) The late-night walk back to the hotel, and the conversations that continued in the hotel lobby and up on the tower, were like graduation night; no one wanted to be the ones to end the party.

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Ciao, Fiorenze! (Inside joke; I don’t drink wine.)

The next day, we had until mid-morning before we had to catch our train to Venice. I convinced Jen to go on one last side trip, this time across the Arno River and to the Piazzale Michelangelo. It’s a park in the Oltrarno district with a panoramic view of the whole city. We walked across the Ponte Vecchio, with its fancy jewelry shops not yet opened for the day’s business, and into the funky Oltrarno neighborhood. Up a hill and several steep staircases, we found ourselves looking at…could it be?…yes, another statue of Michelangelo’s David, this one a bronze reproduction. Criminy, those Florentines love their anatomically correct naked-man statues! The view was magnificent, looking out across the river (not looking back at David’s anatomy, although that was fairly magnificent, too).

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The third and final David statue in Florence. I laugh at the number of Davids there are in Florence, but there are at least 12 in the United States, including in Philadelphia; Sioux Falls, South Dakota; and, of course, Las Vegas.

I said to Jen, “A pretty good way to end this part of the journey, eh?” She said, “Give me a gelato and a lampredotto sandwich, and I could stay here for a long time.” I knew it was the right time to move on when Jen started waxing philosophically about the fourth (and final!) stomach of a cow.

Bear with me, faithful readers, we have one more leg of this adventure: a quick stop in Venice, then out to the lovely town of Treviso and our friends’ wedding! (You do remember that this whole trip was about a wedding, right?)