All posts by Rick Dudley

The Trip to Italy Episode 2: Under the Tuscan Sun (and Rain)

Faithful blog readers, if you know anything about me (and let’s face it, if you’re a faithful reader, you know A LOT about me; I earned the nickname “Ol’ Too Much Information” Dudley for a reason), you’re aware that I like to run. And then brag about it. So why, you’re wondering, haven’t I bragged about all the running that I did in Italy? Here’s the shameful truth: I did not run a single mile in Italy. Not even a kilometer. (Heyo, metric-system humor!) Here’s why: our tour company preferred putting us up in historic hotels in downtown areas. The cities we visited are about 2500 years old with narrow, winding roads. Plus, many of the streets were cobblestoned. Have you ever tried running on cobblestones? I wouldn’t suggest it, unless you want to break both your ankles. (Or if you are fleeing from Visigoths sacking Rome, however unlikely that may be, seeing as the last time they sacked Rome was the year 410; then by all means run!)

Anyway, I didn’t run. We walked down many, many uneven cobblestoned streets. Which was why cruising up the Autostrada A1 from Rome to the heart of Tuscany was so thrilling. Honestly, being on a highway felt like home. The 4-hour drive to the mountaintop walled city of Volterra was done on a luxury tour bus. Volterra is known for a few things: (1) its intact city wall containing the historic cobblestoned (of course) old city section within; (2) being the center of Etruscan culture, a pre-Roman civilization from whence the name “Tuscan” came; (3) a Roman theater built in the 1st century BC; and (4) being the center of alabaster artisans, owing to close proximity to alabaster mines.

Now, some of you are saying, “Where have I heard the name ‘Volterra’ before?” You’re probably thinking of the “Twilight” series of books by Stephenie Meyer, in which Volterra is the home of the Volturi, a coven of powerful ancient vampires. And you’d be revealing yourselves to be fans of teenage vampire romance novels; you weirdos.

Version 2

In Volterra, you can always tell what neighborhood you are in by the flags flying on the houses. For example, in this photo we were in the “neighborhood with the red and yellow flags.” (I’m sure it sounds more romantic in the original Italian.)

After winding its way through the hills of Tuscany, our bus went up the steep road to Volterra. There’s a turnabout just outside the city walls for tour buses to deposit passengers. We all unloaded our luggage from the storage area, and then the townspeople got a taste of what I liked to call “Rolling Thunder 2018″: other than my lovely wife Jen and me, everyone in the group had rolling suitcases. (As mentioned in the previous blog post, Jen and I like to travel really light, so we had only backpacks. Maybe that’s why we were mistaken for Spaniards?) Anyway, we rolled down the main (cobblestoned) street, Via Giacomo Matteotti, and had to walk about 400 meters to the hotel. The noise from the suitcase wheels was deafening; the locals were like, “Oh no! Is it the Visigoths? Close the city wall gates! Wait, it’s just American tourists. Raise the prices at the restaurants!”

IMG_7929

Our hotel is on the right. If you go straight through the gate at the end of the street, you would fall over the city wall and into the Roman theater. I don’t recommend it.

Our hotel was this charming old place with narrow hallways but updated features called “Hotel La Locanda.” “Locanda” is Italian for “inn.” So we were staying at the “Hotel Inn,” or, as I liked to call it, “Hotel Hotel.” (In Rome, we stayed in the Hotel Museum. It was going to be either a hotel near a museum or the lamest museum ever.) Our room was luxurious, and I couldn’t wait to shower and get ready for our evening dinner. Unfortunately, as is the case in quirky old hotels, some rooms have showers, and some have slanted walls that preclude shower fittings. Ours had two separate bath areas: one had double sinks, and the other was a step up and had a massive whirlpool tub with jets and also a massaging spray nozzle but no shower. I went to take a quick bath then. Except I couldn’t figure out how to close the drain. It didn’t screw in, it didn’t pop down and plug, there were no visible switches or lifts. So instead of asking for help at the front desk like a normal person (“Mi scusi, dove il…drain plug?”), I took the shower head and…slipped all over this enormous tub because there weren’t any nonskid slip guards in the tub! Plus, the water from the shower head was bouncing off of me and spraying all over the bathroom. Jen took a peek in there to check on all the commotion, and she was like, “Are you washing up for dinner or cleaning the walls?”

Did I mention that there was a step between the tub room and the sink room? I missed it that first time and went flying through the sink room and out the doorway to the bedroom. That’s the type of thing you only do once before learning your lesson. (Or twice if you’re me.)

The town of Volterra is gorgeous. The city walls date from the 1300s (incorporating portions from the original built in the 3rd century), and many of the buildings, including the stunning Palazzo dei Priori, date to the 1200s. Every sector or neighborhood of the city has its own flag, so you’d see different flags and banners and could tell which neighborhood you were in. And the great thing about it for Jen and me was that it’s so small that it was almost impossible to get lost. Every town should have city walls; we’d come upon the wall on one side of the town, then turn around looking for our destination, only to come upon the opposite wall. I wouldn’t call that “lost” exactly, just “not sure where we were going most of the time.”

IMG_8108

The Tuscan countryside as seen from atop the Volterra city wall.

On our first evening there, we ate at a restaurant where we were served a many-coursed Tuscan feast. Our guide suggested that we mix up our seating arrangements for each meal, so we sat at a table with three siblings from Kansas in their 20s (by far the youngest people on the tour) and a couple from Georgia in their 60s. The older couple offered us a lesson on not judging a book by its cover. The husband, we’ll call him “David” (because that was his name), was an ardent Georgia Bulldogs football fan and seemed at any minute to be on the verge of barking, “Go Dawgs! Sic ‘em! Woof woof woof!” He was large, gregarious, and always laughing. An hour into the meal, however, he was in tears. (It might have been the Chianti.) He was explaining that he was thinking about our day at the Vatican, and specifically St. Peter’s Basilica. It turns out that he was an art major in college and visited Italy for the first time in 1970. At the time, you could walk right up to and behind Michelangelo’s sculpture “La Pieta,” of Mary holding the body of Jesus after the Crucifixion, and reach out and touch it. However, now it is behind protective glass and not approachable because, in 1972, a crazed man attacked it with a hammer, leading to extensive damage and a long renovation. David was crying thinking of what we have lost by not being able to see it up close the way he did when he was younger.

IMG_8085

Narrow streets, outdoor cafes, and centuries of history. Perfect. Except for the hordes of tourists.

The next day, we had a tour of the city with a local guide. We saw the Etruscan arch, built over 2000 years ago; the Roman theater that served for hundreds of years as a garbage dump (it lies just outside and below the city walls, so townspeople would fling their trash into it); an alabaster artist at work in his studio; and the Guarnacci Etruscan Museum, celebrating a culture that predated and was eventually absorbed by the Romans (the Romans developed their arches based on the Etruscan design). In our free time, Jen and I went to an archeological park highlighting an Etruscan acropolis. Right next to it is a Roman cistern that you can climb down into; to be honest we weren’t sure if we were allowed to because the guard spoke only Italian. There was a lot of pointing and shrugging; we started to walk down the circular metal staircase to get into the cistern, and he didn’t seem to mind (or point a weapon at us), so we assumed it was okay.

IMG_8094

In the 1400s, an ambassador from Florence was flung to his death from the window of this town council chamber. The Florentines, ruled by the Medicis, quickly dispatched their army to overtake Volterra and place it under Florentine rule. Jeez, you throw one guy out a window and a whole city freaks out.

Then it started to rain. At first, we were all, “How nice, a refreshing sprinkle to cool us off on a hot Tuscan day.” Then, after about 2 minutes, we were screaming, “Let’s get out of this gullywasher!” Of course, because the town was cobblestoned, we couldn’t run, so we slowly plodded in the rain to another museum, the Pinacoteca. This museum was housed in a 14th-century villa and contained works of art from the 14th to 17th centuries, mostly by Volterran or Tuscan artists; the standout was the “Deposition from the Cross” by Rosso Fiorintino. We then headed over to the Palazzo dei Priori, the city hall (the oldest municipal building in Tuscany). When we got to the second floor, we paid our fee and were allowed into the town council’s chambers. All the guidebooks mention that going to the bell tower is a must, so we went to the stairwell that led to it, but it was roped off. We asked the man who took our entry fee about it in our broken Italian (“Dove il...bell tower?”), and we were back in our shrugging-and-pointing routine as at the cistern. The man spoke rapidly in Italian to us, presumably about not wanting to bring us up to the bell tower in a lightning storm, but we really had no clue. So we hung around for a while, and when a few other people inquired about it (in Italian), he went over and undid the rope for them. So we tucked in behind them and went to the top. Unfortunately, because of the storm, we weren’t able to get to the very top of the bell tower, so that was a bummer.

IMG_8055

The “mezza luna,” a half pizza/half calzone concoction at the best pizza place we encountered in Italy: Risto-Pizza Margherita. Jen had a traditional pizza but wouldn’t share any with me. What a jerk!

The storm passed quickly after that. We were able to enjoy the best pizza we had in all of Italy at this tiny place down the street from the Etruscan museum. I had the “mezza luna,” which was a half pizza and half calzone. Hard to explain but delicious. The place was minuscule and packed with people from our tour. One problem: the servers are not in any hurry to get you out of there. Seriously, most of the restaurants in Italy were like this: you’d be done, you’d obviously have nothing else to do, and still they wouldn’t bring you your bill. It’s just not in the culture to rush people out of their restaurants. I learned early on to say “il conto, per favore” (check please) to anyone passing me at a restaurant: waiters, front-of-the-house staff, fellow patrons. If all else failed, I’d say, “Hurry up, please, we’re Spaniards!” or “Please, before the Visigoths sack the city!”

You might be thinking that the main focus of this trip was to find the best pizza and gelato places in Italy. You would be correct.

That evening, Jen and I watched the sun set over the Tuscan countryside from atop the city wall. The tour group then headed into a creepy, dusty basement for a wine tasting. As we were descending the stairs, I told my fellow travelers, “This has ‘horror movie’ written all over it.” It turned out fine, except for those of us who don’t drink: an hour of discussion about Tuscan wines and tastings of four different types from cheapest to most expensive. There was a meat and cheese platter and some bread, so Jen and I, always looking to save a euro, called it a dinner.

While our tour mates all wandered off to actual meals, Jen and I took a stroll over to the Roman theater. One of the mysteries of Volterra was the fact that they had a theater but not an amphitheater. (A Roman theater was for plays and was semicircular in shape, very Greek. A Roman amphitheater was oval; imagine the Colosseum in Rome.) As the Roman Empire expanded, there were certain requirements for a city to survive, one of them being the addition of an amphitheater for gladiator fights and wild animal shows. (One of the others, seriously, was regular bathing; the Romans wanted their subjects to think of themselves as more civilized than the Barbarians, who could be smelled coming from a mile away.) A city of a certain size or political might, such as Volterra was when it was taken over by the Romans, simply had to build an amphitheater, or power would be taken away from them and given to a nearby city. And yet Volterra survived without one. No one knew why. Until 2015, when, during a construction project on the outskirts of town, the foundations of an amphitheater were actually discovered. The excavation is ongoing and so new in fact that we didn’t get to see it (and it’s not even shown on Wikipedia’s list of all 230 of the Roman amphitheaters in the world.)

IMG_8160

Ah, there’s that Tuscan sun everyone’s been talking about!

One last thing I wanted to do in Volterra was shop for souvenirs. In Volterra, every other shop was selling alabaster figurines and items carved from cedar wood. I drooled over the cedar stuff. Our guide said, “If you think the shopping is good here, wait until we get to Florence! This place has nothing on Florence!” So we passed up buying many things in Volterra and got just a few nicknacks for our kids. Lo and behold, we got to Florence, and there were absolutely zero shops selling alabaster or cedar carvings. Grr…

On our last morning in Volterra, we barely had time for breakfast before “Rolling Thunder 2018″ cruised up the cobblestone streets to our tour bus. I’m telling you, those cobblestones were brutal: a wheel on one person’s rolling suitcase exploded off of the bottom and sent its pieces flying. “Don’t worry,” our guide said, “There will be plenty of suitcase shopping in Florence!”

Next blog post: Rolling Thunder (and actual thunder) hits the Cinque Terre.

The Trip to Italy Episode 1: Lost in Rome

Faithful blog readers (hi Judy!), I have a confession to make: I’m not as worldly as this blog makes me sound. (That’s the vibe you’re getting from my posts, right? Not neurotic, indecisive, and generally inept? Good, good.) I have barely traveled out of these United States. Frankly, I’ve been bragging about a 2-week trip to Australia from 9 years ago to cover up an embarrassing dearth of visits abroad. I’m assuming the 2 hours the Dudley family spent on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls doesn’t count. What about the World Showcase at Disney’s Epcot Center? Because I spent 40 minutes waiting in line to ride the “Maelstrom” log flume at the Norway Pavilion in 1990. (Don’t try to find it there; it’s been replaced by “Frozen Ever After.”)

Imagine my surprise, then, when my lovely wife Jen was asked to be the matron of honor at a wedding in Treviso, a midsized city in northern Italy, less than an hour from Venice. After several months of me doing research and updating Jen on my progress (“There’s too much to do! I can’t figure anything out! The gelato places alone will take us months to sift through!”), Jen made the command decision that we’d sign up for a tour with a travel group. There was a 9-day, “Heart of Italy” tour that would take us from Rome to Florence with stops in Tuscany and the Cinque Terre in between, and we’d have to figure out how to get to the wedding site after that.

We took a direct flight from Chicago to Rome. We left on a Monday afternoon and touched down at 9 in the morning on a Tuesday; it was a 9-hour flight with a 7-hour time zone difference. (I’m not saying we time-traveled, but did we just time-travel?!?) We spent a lot of time in the months before the trip learning the most basic of Italian, but you never know what words or phrases you’re going to need until you’re there. Example: How do you say, “Where’s the freaking exit to this airport?” The airport in Rome goes by three names: Rome, Leonardo da Vinci, and Fiumicino; that’s your introduction to how confusing the country can be. When we disembarked from the plane, we followed the rest of the passengers out of the international terminal, past security, and down this narrow, windowless corridor to a T-stop at another corridor. Since there was a bathroom there, we stopped while everyone else turned left and went…somewhere; we didn’t pay attention. After the bathroom, Jen wanted to sit down and have a chocolate bar. (It was 9 in the morning and we had just eaten a breakfast on the plane, but there’s never a bad time for chocolate.) So we spent 15 minutes eating and resting.

Did I mention that we always travel light, so we only had three carry-on bags for the whole trip, wedding clothes included? So there we sat with our bags and our chocolate, when an older American couple walked by, the wife berating the husband, “There’s got to be a way to get out of this airport!” After we finished, we went to the left like everyone else did, and we couldn’t find anyone. Anywhere. No passengers, no workers, a janitor or two but that was it. We came upon these trains that looked like they went far away, but the signs were unclear. So we stood there and waited. And waited. A train came and went, but no one got off of it. So we waited some more. I said to Jen, “Well, we’ve done it: we have failed at traveling. We are going to be stuck in this airport like Tom Hanks in that movie ‘The Terminal’.” She said, “Calm down; we are getting on the next train regardless of where it goes.” And of course, as anyone who travels knows, the train took us from the international terminal to the rest of the airport, where we hustled through security and took a bus to Rome. Whew! Otherwise, this would have been a short, sad blog post.

IMG_7472

View from Castle Sant’Angelo of Tiber River and St. Peter’s Basilica. In front of St. Peter’s and just outside the entrance to the head of the Roman Catholic church is a massive blue 4-story ad for the Samsung Galaxy. Welcome to the Vatican!

Our neighbors had visited Rome a month before we did, and they suggested that we go to the Castel Sant’Angelo for great city views. We dropped our bags at our hotel, near the entrance to the Vatican Museums, and walked the half mile over to the castle. Built around the year 130 AD, it was originally the tomb for the emperor Hadrian. Subsequently, it’s been a fortress, a castle, and now a museum. It’s right on the banks of the Tiber River. Jen noticed a nice bridge with Baroque statues on it (the Pons Aelius, also originally built in the 100s but with the statue additions in the 1500s) that was heading east toward the city center, so we walked across it and kept walking through Rome’s winding streets.

IMG_7503

The Altar to the Fatherland, also known as the “Wedding Cake.” There were soldiers and guards all around it; anytime someone went to sit on a portion of it, a guard would start blowing their whistle repeatedly while another would yell something in Italian, presumably, “Get off the cake!” or something similar.

Our neighbor had warned us that it’s easy to get lost in Rome, so we should take taxis or the subway (called the Metro). Oh, come on! Did he think we were two rubes who couldn’t even find their way out of an airport? So we promptly got lost. Seriously lost. Lots of stopping and consulting a map, staring at my phone, which never seemed to work, and wandering aimlessly. We didn’t even know how to ask where we were in Italian. We did, however, walk with purpose. That was something a friend told us, to avoid pickpockets and thieves: walk with purpose! (Also, to avoid pickpockets, I bought a money belt that went around my waist and tucked under my pants, so I kept hundreds of euros in my groin area at all times.) We walked with purpose in circles around the same buildings. Honestly, until we got home from the whole trip and did some research on the city, I couldn’t figure out where we had gone. Turns out we were in the Capitoline Hill area; we walked by the original Circus Maximus (very cool), the Theatre of Marcellus, and the 20th-century structure the Altar of the Fatherland, or the Victor Emmanuel monument, honoring the first king of a united Italy. Its nickname is the Birthday Cake because it’s the only bright white monument in an area of the city where all the buildings are brown.

Eventually, we found our way to the Baths of Diocletian, which was high on my list of must-sees. It’s the largest of the imperial baths, and one of the last still standing, built around 300 AD. The enormity of it is hard to explain, and a portion of it was converted into a church designed by Michelangelo in the 16th century. Frankly, we were underwhelmed. The main building is like a large, empty warehouse with a few statues scattered about, and a section of the original mosaic floor was protected under plexiglass. It was hard to imagine what it was like when in use. I kept saying, “Where’s the really cool part by Michelangelo?” but we couldn’t find it. We went home disappointed. Later on the trip, I mentioned this to some people in our tour group, and they were like, “You had to go around the block to a different entrance.” So we went back, and it was definitely a highlight.

IMG_7777

It’s difficult to snap a few photos and do justice to the enormity of the Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri, which, as massive as it is, is housed in only one portion of the incredibly huge Baths of Diocletian complex.

IMG_7778The second day of the trip was the official start of the tour. If you’ve never done a group tour, you have to get used to being shepherded around like cattle. When we went out on the city streets or into museums, we were required to wear these listening devices with earbuds so that we could hear our guide at all times. We’d be walking in a neighborhood, and our guide would be giving a running commentary: “That church building over there has a Giotto painting in it; there’s a great gelato place two blocks down. Now we are going to cross the street, so everyone crowd together. The car that took out the last four stragglers of our group is a 1984 Fiat Fiorino.” Etc. I thought I wouldn’t like being on a tour, but it took a lot of guesswork and stress out of the trip. We just showed up in the hotel lobby in the  morning, and the rest of the day was laid out for us. All breakfasts and half our dinners were included; the rest of the time, we were on our own for meals.

Jen and I were acquainted with a couple on the trip who was also going to our friend’s wedding; they signed up for the tour based on our recommendation. We made the mistake of trusting their restaurant choices the first few times we were on our own for meals. They invited us out to dinner to a restaurant near our hotel that had really high Yelp reviews. We were thinking, great, an authentic Italian restaurant, not one aimed at tourists. When we got there, the name of the restaurant was “Spaghetti.” Yes, “Spaghetti.” You couldn’t have chosen a more ridiculous name for a restaurant in the whole country, unless you were looking to attract American tourists: “I wish there was a place to eat that was bland and had food that I would recognize as watered-down Italian-American fare. Hey, wait a minute, look at that neon sign…”

IMG_7530

Villa Borghese, built in the 1600s by Borghese family, houses an extensive collection of art and painted ceilings. The park itself is massive; yes, we got lost trying to find our way around it.

IMG_7538

One of the ceilings in the Villa Borghese gallery. Note two things: (1) the edges of the painted ceiling look like statues that hang over onto the wall, and (2) I just shaved my nose hairs, thank goodness.

Was it the worst meal I’ve had? No. But we got a little spoiled on this trip by our tour guide’s choices for restaurants. After a day full of walking around Rome seeing amazing sights (Villa Borghese, an amazing museum in a massive park; Catacombs of Priscilla, an underground labyrinth of burial chambers with frescoes, including the first depiction of the Madonna and child in the history of art; the Spanish Steps; the Trevi Fountain; the Pantheon, built in 126 AD by the emperor Hadrian; and the amazing Piazza Navona), our guide took us to this tiny little family-owned restaurant hidden away on a dead-end street. The meal’s courses kept coming at us, and the red and white wines kept being replenished. (I don’t drink, so it was wasted on me.) Dessert was tiramisu. I’m not a fan of tiramisu, and I don’t like the flavor of coffee. This extra-large piece was placed in front of us, and I picked up my fork and said, “Well, I’ll try just one little piece; it’s not like I’m going to enjoy it or any–OH MY GOD! This is the best thing I’ve ever eaten!” Yes, it was that good. It slipped down my throat like nothing I’ve ever had; there was less a coffee flavor and more of a strong dark-chocolate taste. I was ready to finish off Jen’s piece because she also dislikes coffee and hates cakes, but she ate her own piece all by herself and didn’t save any for me. What a jerk!

IMG_7742

Me in Vatican City. They refused to stamp my passport. They had all sorts of excuses, like “only the papal authorities can authorize that,” and “you must request an extended-stay visa to obtain the stamp,” and “sir, this is a gift shop.”

The next day was a tour of the Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s Basilica. (Vatican City is another country altogether! Strange, it looked just like Italy.) When you walk in the neighborhood around the Vatican, there are all these people trying to sell tourists on “special” tours of the Vatican (or of any touristy sites). They try talking to you in whatever language they think you speak; they usually know several languages. For some odd reason, they kept guessing that Jen and I were Spaniards and would sidle up to us speaking Spanish. In a restaurant, too, a waiter spoke to us in Spanish, so we had to ask him if he spoke English. Why the confusion? We’re not sure. Was it because we weren’t dressed like slobs? (To fit all our clothes in carry-ons, we went dressy-casual.) Because we were skinny? Because we weren’t belligerent? Coincidentally, at the wedding, we met a Spaniard. He was taller and handsomer than me, he had an operatic voice, and his beard had its own Twitter account (probably). Other than that, sure, we could have been twinsies.

After our Vatican visit, we had the night to ourselves (i.e., they weren’t providing dinner for us), so Jen and I headed out for some sightseeing on our own. This was when we actually found the Michelangelo-designed portion of the Baths of Diocletian that was turned into a church (official name: Santa Maria degli Angeli), and we wandered into the National Museum of Rome, which had some amazing statuary, plus a whole wing devoted to a 2000-year-old home found preserved in mud along the Tiber River; the walls were sliced off and reconstructed in the museum, so you could walk into, say, a girl’s bedroom with its birds and flowers on the wall and see what it was like to live in the time of the Roman emperors.

IMG_7637

The Piazza Navona. This fountain is the Fontana del Moro, or Fountain of the Moor. The center statue is of a Moor wrestling with a dolphin. Sometimes we’d be listening to our guide and think, “Fascinating. Wait, did he say ‘a Moor wrestling with a dolphin’?!?”

That evening, we went to a restaurant in the Sallustiano neighborhood. The restaurant, recommended in our guidebook, was memorable but not for how good the food was. Jen ordered “potato-crusted salmon,” wondering aloud how exactly the crust would be formed with potatoes. When the waiter (who thought we were Spaniards and began the meal with a torrent of Spanish words we couldn’t follow) presented the dish with a flourish, we both burst out laughing: a more accurate term for the dish would have been “potato chip-encrusted salmon.” And the potato chips weren’t even crumbled: there were about 15 of them placed on top of the fish. Ponderous.

IMG_7803

The infamous potato chip-encrusted salmon dish.

Instead of taking the Metro home, we decided to take an evening stroll. Two things about walking at night in Italy: (1) everyone eats dinner later than in the States, so there are a lot of people on the streets at night, and (2) crime is much less common than in the States, so the safety/comfort level is higher. Anyway, after about 10 minutes of walking (with purpose!), we passed through the Piazza Barberini, with its Bernini-designed fountain, and saw a Metro stop. “Should we take it?” Jen asked. “No,” I said, “even though we’ve gotten lost in Rome during the day, I’m feeling confident about our sense of direction now.” So on we walked. And walked. After 30 more minutes, I was like, “Where in Jupiter’s name are we?!?” The streets are so winding, and there’s no grid system; you want to go west, so you take a narrow street that curves southwest, then it dead-ends onto a street that heads northwest, then you come to a crossroad, and you’re not sure if it’s north-south or east-west (or which direction left and right will take you anyway).

IMG_7753

How to look like a Spaniard in Europe: (1) dress more nicely than if you were washing your car in your driveway; (2) wear stylish shoes (even if they are New Balance); (3) dangle a strawberry from your belt.

To compound matters, I drank a lot of “acqua naturale” (bottled water) at the restaurant, and I had to pee really badly. Here’s a fun fact about Italy: they don’t have free restrooms, unless you pay to get in somewhere, such as a museum or restaurant. Everyone told me to be prepared to pay a euro at a public restroom or buy something to eat or drink at a restaurant in order to pee. Also, don’t just walk into a hotel and ask to use their restroom. Well, this was an emergency. Now it was dark, we were exhausted and lost, and I had to go to the bathroom. We came upon this ancient wall. “Is this the old city wall that we saw near the Villa Borghese?” Jen asked. “Or is it the old wall near the Vatican?” I said, “I don’t know, but I’m thinking of peeing on it.” Jen said, “Absolutely not! I do not want to see you get arrested for public urination in another country!” So I held it. We walked on (well, I skipped and danced along; you know how it is when you need to pee). We followed the wall one way and then another for a while before abandoning that idea. We had earlier walked along an S-curved road for a bit and passed some ritzy hotels; I suggested that we head back that way. After an hour of trudging through Rome, on the way past one of the hotels, I made the command decision to bolt inside and ask to use their bathroom. (It was either that or the dumpster in their alley.) I think the concierge thought I was a hotel guest (or a Spaniard), so she ushered me down a flight of stairs and to this exclusive, richly detailed private restroom. When I came out, she asked if there was anything else I needed assistance with, and I said, “Can you point me to the nearest Metro stop?” “Sure,” she said, “just go down this S-curve and you will come to the nearest stop, which is–” I interrupted, “Don’t tell me: the Piazza Barberini stop.”

Here’s the thing about the Roman Metro: It’s fairly efficient and clean, but there aren’t many branches of it. Apparently, when you spend 5000 years building a city on top of itself, you’re not going to have an easy time tunneling through the previous versions of the city when it comes time to build a subway. But it was convenient for our purposes. We fell into this pattern where we would walk to a Metro station, Jen would purchase tickets with coins at the ticket kiosk, then she’d hold them until we got to the entry gates, then give me a ticket just before we entered. Anyway, one time she bought tickets, then we rode two long escalators deep into the bowels of the station to get to the gates. When we got there, she pulled the tickets out of her pocket, handed me one, and used hers first. I went to use mine, and it got rejected; the gate wouldn’t open. I tried again: nothing. She tried to walk back and reach over the gate to me, but, as was common throughout Rome, there were two members of the Italian army standing next to her with semi-automatic weapons. They told her (in Italian) that she couldn’t approach the gates. She explained (in broken Italian) that I was her husband. They pointed to another ticket kiosk behind me. Luckily, I had a few coins in my pocket (and hundreds of euros near my groin, of course), so I bought another ticket, which worked. While we were sitting on the subway train, Jen pulled a bunch of used tickets out of her pocket, and one unused one. “Oh,” she said, “it dawned on me that I gave you an expired ticket. That is funny.” I said, “Hilarious. I’m sure the army snipers with their itchy trigger fingers found it just as humorous.”

IMG_7841

The Colosseum. Note the earbuds we were forced to wear throughout our walking tours. Right then, our guide was saying something like, “In order to respect local customs and historical-site rules, please do not take selfies on the floor of the Colosseum.” Or something like that, I wasn’t really listening.

On our last day in Rome, we did a tour of the Colosseum and the Roman Forum area. We were one of the select groups allowed to process through the gladiator’s entrance. Then we found out that, for the most part, the gladiators were more like professional wrestlers and that they didn’t really battle to the death. That was a buzzkill. Anyway, it was neat. Then, after I used the free restroom (several times, to be safe), we were herded onto a touring bus and rolled out of Rome, headed for the hills of Tuscany. That’ll be covered in my next blog post (spoiler alert: we get lost there, too).

Amazing: I made it through this whole retelling without once resorting to a cheap “when in Rome” joke. I’m not saying that three paragraphs about my peeing issues was a step up from that type of humor, but still…

Best Books 2017

This may come as a surprise to my faithful blog readers (both of you), but last year was a down year on the book-reading front. I usually get in about 30 to 40 books a year, providing me with a good sample from which to choose my top ten. In 2017, I was only able to get through 22 books, or 1 every 17 days. Ugh. Ask me for my 50 favorite TV episodes of the year, and we’re solid.

(An acquaintance of mine gave me a list of four books I should read. He said, “These were my favorite books from last year.” I asked him why he didn’t round up to a top ten, or at least a top five; he said, “These were also the only four books I read last year.”)

Here are my suggestions for you:

Unknown-11. The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit, Michael Finkel. I first came across this unbelievable true story in an article Finkel had written for GQ magazine in 2014. (Read it here.) In 2013 in Maine, a 47-year-old man named Chris Knight was captured after having repeatedly broken into and stolen food and other items from a summer camp. Knight’s capture ended one of the more bizarre episodes in rural Maine history, since he was the “North Pond hermit,” a local legend who frustrated cabin owners by taking things from their unoccupied buildings for 27 years. Yes, 27 years. The book is a gripping account of the how’s and why’s that led Knight to abandon his life at age 20 and survive in the woods without being caught. Any preconceived notions you’d have about someone capable of this are probably wrong.

Unknown2. Today Will Be Different, Maria Semple. It’s hard for a comic novel to pack emotional depth, but Semple manages it with the story of one day in the life of Eleanor Flood, a Seattle mom struggling to deal with a sports-doctor husband who told his staff (but not his wife) that he would be out of town for the week, a quirky 10-year-old son and the private school he attends, and a past that includes creating a cult animated show about four pony-riding girls. There are too many good surprises in the story that I don’t want to ruin. Eleanor starts her day by saying to herself, “Today will be different. Today I will radiate calm. Kindness and self-control will abound. Today I will buy local. Today I will be my best self, the person I’m capable of being. Today will be different.”

Unknown3. Where the Past Begins, Amy Tan. This is one of the more unusual memoirs I’ve read. Tan, whose work I’ve loved since reading The Joy Luck Club when it came out in 1989, lays bare her family history and explains in detail how her real life and those of her parents influenced the novels she plumbed from it. She also weaves fiction into the memoir, showing how she was influenced. I don’t know if I’ve read a more honest assessment of family; her mom’s struggles as a Chinese immigrant and a mentally ill person, and her father’s attempts to soothe her, hover over Tan’s writing and life.

Unknown4. Smile, Roddy Doyle. This slim novel is haunting. Victor Forde, a Irish man in his 50s, moves back to his old neighborhood in Dublin, seeking a pub where no one knows him. His marriage, to the most successful businesswoman in Ireland, fell apart, and he is trying to land on his feet. After establishing a friendship with the regulars at a pub, he bumps into a childhood classmate, Fitzgerald, there. There is something menacing about his interactions with Fitzgerald that sends his life into a tailspin. This is one of those books that you finish reading and think, “Wait a minute, did I just miss something?” and you have to reread certain sections to figure out what just happened. In a good way.

Unknown5. The Phenomenon: Pressure, the Yips, and the Pitch that Changed My Life, Rick Ankiel. On October 3, 2000, Game 1 of the baseball playoff series between the Cardinals and the Braves, the Cardinals were cruising in the third inning, when their pitcher, Rick Ankiel, threw a wild pitch. Then another one. Then another. It was embarrassing to watch; he couldn’t find the plate and had to be pulled after throwing 5 wild pitches (no pitcher had ever thrown that many wild pitches in a postseason, let alone the same inning). His career got derailed as he tried to solve “the yips,” the mysterious condition that can wreck the career of an athlete (usually a baseball player or a golfer). Ankiel spent the next 5 years seeking treatments, everything from meditation to psychotherapy to alcohol. Eventually, remarkably, he saved his career by converting to an outfielder. In this autobiography, Ankiel recounts his playing career and also his difficult relationship with his father, which may have played a role in his problems.

Unknown6. I Think I Love You, Allison Pearson. This chick-lit novel took a deeper turn a few months after I read it when the subject of the book, one-time teen heartthrob David Cassidy, passed away. In this story, Petra, a 13-year-old Welsh girl, and her best friend crush on Cassidy in the 1970s in the way that anyone who lived through that era would get immediately (picture Teen Beat magazine and listening to LPs on a record player). Flash forward 20 years, and Petra, now dealing with raising a 13-year-old girl herself and in a failing marriage, gets the chance to meet her fangirl crush.

Unknown7. George Lucas: A Life, Brian Jay Jones. This huge tome is an unauthorized biography of the creator of the Star Wars universe, as well as the early force behind Pixar and too many filmmaking technical advances for me to mention here. Not just for Star Wars fans. (But here’s a fun Star Wars fact: Lucas had a high school classmate whose last name was Vader.)

Unknown-18. No Middle Name, Lee Child. There’s always a Lee Child book on my list. Another in the series of books about Jack Reacher, a former Army MP and man with no home who roams the country looking for trouble to solve, this is a collection of short stories exploring Reacher’s early days. A quick read, if you’re looking for crime stories that you can read on an airplane.

Unknown9. Meb for Mortals, Meb Keflezighi with Scott Douglas. Keflezighi, or Meb as everyone calls him, is the most decorated American marathon runner of all time (winner of the 2009 New York City Marathon and 2014 Boston Marathon and silver medalist in the 2004 Olympic Marathon). In this book, Meb lays out all his training methods so that anyone who wants to learn from him can. He covers not just his running schedule but diet, strength training, mental preparation, family life, sleep patterns, travel schedule, and any other lifestyle issues that affect his performance; he then translates his plans to a manageable level for the rest of us. A great resource for someone who wants to see what it takes to be an elite athlete.

Unknown10. Birding for the Curious, Nate Swick. It’s hard to believe that I’d put a birding book here, but this one was a fun read. Swick, the editor for the American Birding Association blog, provides a framework for how to learn about birding. Not so much a guidebook with photos and drawings (but he recommends many of those), this book shows you where to get started, how to find birders in your community, what questions to ask, and many other aspects of birdwatching.

Other books I recommend that just missed the cutoff: Mrs. Fletcher, Tom Perrota; The Animators, Kayla Rae Whitaker; The Cyclist Who Went Out In the Cold, Tim Moore; The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell, W. Kamau Bell.

The Best Films I Saw In 2017

Faithful blog readers! It’s time once again for my list of the best movies I saw in 2017! Why am I yelling?! Just a reminder: These are not the best films released last year. These are the best movies I saw in the last calendar year, whether they were new or old. I saw 72 movies in 2017, or 1 every 5.1 days. I have mentioned in past posts that I screen movies for my lovely wife Jen. See, she has a real job. And a life. I sit through hours of bad filmdom so she doesn’t have to. (When she catches me sitting on the couch munching on dark chocolate M&Ms and watching “Ted 2″ at 1:30 on a Tuesday afternoon, I tell her, “But honey, I’m doing this for you!”)

Unknown

I put this photo here to get Jen to read my blog post.

Actually, I found out that I’ve failed Jen in one crucial aspect this year: I thought I was doing a good job of weeding out the bad films from her life, but one day we were having a casual discussion about the movie “Baywatch.” I was telling her that, other than Zac Efron’s and Dwayne Johnson’s ripped bodies, she didn’t miss much. She said, “Hold up. You are hiding another shirtless Zac Efron movie from me? This is like the fourth one this year! And in most of them, you said he gets fully naked!” (For the record, in the past 2 years, I’ve seen 5 naked-or-nearly-naked Zac Efron films: “Neighbors 2,” “Dirty Grandpa,” “Baywatch,” “That Awkward Moment,” and “Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates.”) I hadn’t been keeping track, but apparently, she was. So I have learned my lesson: the wife would appreciate a little Troy Bolton with his shirt off. But who wouldn’t, if we’re being honest?

Anyway, the list (sorry Jen, no Zac Efron to be seen in these films):

139ba3eecd2df4d6fa438634bb3e50fadbdc845310. “The Incredible Jessica James,” 2017 romantic comedy directed by Jim Strouse starring Jessica Williams and Chris O’Dowd. Funny, surprising, sarcasm-laced film about a woman coming out of a bad breakup who reluctantly agrees to go on a date with a guy getting over a bad divorce, and the fits and stops their friendship takes. Williams (“People Places Things,” incidentally my favorite film from 2016) runs this flick; when O’Dowd (you’d recognize him as the cop/love interest in “Bridesmaids”) tells her character, “I really like you,” she responds, “Of course you do, everyone does, I’m freaking dope.”

Unknown9. “Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru,” 2016 documentary directed by Joe Berlinger starring Tony Robbins. If you’ve ever seen infomercial star/entrepreneur/life coach Anthony Robbins and thought, Who is that giant man with the self-confidence to match his height? (He is 6’7″), this movie is for you. It follows one of Robbins’ “Date With Destiny” 5-day seminars in Boca Raton, FL, where people shell out $5000-plus to learn how they are screwing up their lives and what they can do to fix it. He is brutal, honest, and to the point. Does this come off as a drink-the-Kool-Aid promotional video? At times. But he is very open about his own shortcomings, and it’s fascinating to see someone explain how they got their sh*t together and turned their life around, and to watch others try to do the same. It’s quite emotionally deep, actually.

Unknown8. “The King’s Speech,” 2010 historical drama directed by Tom Hooper starring Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, and Helena Bonham Carter. The story of King George VI’s unexpected ascension to the throne, his struggles with stuttering (and self-confidence; he should have talked with Tony Robbins), and the speech therapist whose unorthodox methods helped him overcome so much in his life. This deservedly won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay (David Seidler), Best Director (Hooper), and Best Actor (Firth).

Unknown7. “Captain Fantastic,” 2016 drama directed by Matt Ross starring Viggo Mortensen, George MacKay, and Samantha Isler. Heartbreaking film about a guy struggling to raise his children away from the civilized world after the death of his wife. The trailer made it look more like a comedy; don’t be fooled. Very thought-provoking; watching him butt heads with his in-laws about his wife’s wishes for her burial versus what societal norms would require is tough.

Unknown6. “Don’t Think Twice,” 2016 comedy/drama directed by Mike Birbiglia starring Gillian Jacobs, Keegan-Michael Key, Mike Birbiglia, Kate Micucci, Tami Sagher, and Chris Gethard. When does a person give up on their dreams? What if one of their best friends is better than them at something? And how much do we owe our mentors for our successes? This movie follows an improv ensemble as they struggle to pay the bills; when a few of them get a tryout at a “Saturday Night Live”-type variety show, the reactions of the individual members of the group threaten not just their careers but their friendships. Very funny and poignant.

MV5BNzg1MzQyMjI4Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMDMzNzQyNjE@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,674,1000_AL_5. “She’s Funny That Way,” 2014 comedy directed by Peter Bogdanovich starring Imogen Poots, Owen Wilson, Kathryn Hahn, Jennifer Aniston, Will Forte, and Rhys Ifans. This movie was fun. At times it approached farce; like the plays “Noises Off,”  ”What the Butler Saw,” or “You Never Can Tell,” this movie has love triangles, doors opening and closing while people try to hide their trysts from their partners, and great comic timing. Ifans plays a director whose latest play is upended by the addition of a call girl-turned-actress (Poots).

BREAK FOR ANNUAL STAR WARS MOVIE: I feel as if there should be a special place on my list for all of the Star Wars films that Disney will be releasing annually for the next decade. Last year’s “The Last Jedi” should be on my list, but let’s just assume that I’m going to like it (I did) because I have a blind spot for Star Wars movies and thus am incapable of objective criticism. Moving on:

Unknown4. “La La Land,” 2016 musical comedy/drama directed by Damien Chazelle starring Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, and John Legend. There’s always a movie that receives universal praise that I want to dislike. I thought I wouldn’t like this one. A musical? About Hollywood? Where a white guy saves jazz? And did I mention it’s a musical? But I liked it. Gosling and Stone have chemistry, and they make us want to see where they are going. I don’t want to give anything away, but there’s a scene at the end of the movie, no talking, just music and pictures, and it reminds me of the scene in the Disney film “Up” when the old man is thinking about his long relationship with his wife, and…well, you have to see it.

Unknown3. “The Fundamentals of Caring,” 2016 comedy/drama directed by Rob Burnett starring Craig Roberts, Paul Rudd, Jennifer Ehle, and Selena Gomez. Rudd plays a struggling writer going through a divorce and trying to get into a new career as a home-health caregiver. He gets hired to take care of a young man (Roberts) who is wheelchair-bound. Turns out the kid’s a smartass (picture Bubble Boy in that episode of “Seinfeld;” he’s pissed that everyone wants to feel sorry for him, so he acts like a jerk). The two guys decide to take a road trip and pick up a few stragglers along the way, including Gomez, who is a wonderful surprise in this film. A very funny and very touching movie; you will laugh and you will cry (unless you’re an unfeeling jerk).

Unknown2. “The Edge of Seventeen,” 2016 comedy/drama directed by Kelly Fremon Craig starring Hailee Steinfeld, Haley Lu Richardson, Blake Jenner, Kyra Sedgwick, and Woody Harrelson. My God, are all of my favorite movies comedy/dramas? Yes. This hilarious coming-of-age film follows a girl (Steinfeld) whose high-school problems are compounded by the fact that her best friend is now dating her older brother. Her closest confidante is an English teacher (Harrelson) who can barely tolerate her. It reminded me of “Juno.”

Unknown1. “The Big Sick,” 2017 comedy/drama directed by Michael Showalter starring Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, and Ray Romano. This is really three movies in one: a comic romance between Nanjiani’s and Kazan’s characters, a drama about a health scare, and a relationship film between them and each of their parents. Hunter is great, and Romano is way more understated than I expected. Nanjiani, who co-wrote the movie with his wife, carries the film; if you have seen him, it’s probably from “Silicon Valley” or his frequent minor roles in “Portlandia.” This film is like “While You Were Sleeping” if Sandra Bullock was an Uber-driving son of Pakistani immigrant parents who were trying to arrange a marriage for her/him. I feel like I lost the thread there somewhere.

Movies that just missed the cut: “The Last 5 Years,” “Song One,” “Scott Pilgrim Versus the World,” “Bad Moms,” “Hello My Name Is Doris,” “Starter for 10,” “The Martian,” “Good Night and Good Luck,” “Other People,” “Table 19,” “American Teen.”

My Gridiron Glory Days (All Two of Them)

It’s football season once again, time for me to reminisce about my one year of tossing the ol’ pigskin in high school. Now, I know what you’re thinking: “You played football?!? Was this two-hand-touch or flag football? Was it a league for boys 5 feet 7 inches and under? And what about cross country; didn’t you run that in high school?”

Look, I’m as surprised as all of you are to find out that I played football back in the day (not really, because I know this story already). And I honestly don’t remember the whole thought process that led me to join the team my freshman year. I think it went like this: my older brother really, really wanted to play football, but my parents said no, so he became a cross-country star. Since we shared a room and hated each other in the way that brothers do (sample conversation from the year 1984: My brother: “Shut up.” Me: “[incoherent mumble under my breath]” My brother: “What’d you say?” Me: “Nothing.” My brother: “I didn’t think so.”), I decided to go in the opposite direction, which I guess would have been to whine to my mom until she got so annoyed that she agreed to let me go out for the team if I would just stop.

IMG_E5758

The only picture of me in a football uniform that has survived. That’s me, third row, third from the left. I was number 45, after my favorite player, Gary Fencik, the Chicago Bears safety. The dazed look on my face is because I removed my glasses for the photo and couldn’t see anything.

I didn’t do any summer conditioning before the season began. Unless riding my bike around and playing video games at the 7-Eleven counts as conditioning. (It doesn’t.) I just showed up on the first day of practice and got in line with the rest of the freshmen to pick up our pads and helmets, waiting and hoping that some adult would remove me and tell me I was in the wrong place. When that didn’t happen, I looked around and noticed two things: (1) I was tied for shortest boy on the team, and (2) I definitely weighed less than everyone else. I had a “growth spurt” over the summer to push my height up to 5 feet 3 inches, and I tipped the scales at about 110 pounds.

I realized pretty quickly that my size wasn’t going to intimidate anyone, so hopefully the look on my face would. Unfortunately, my parents got me sports goggles that didn’t fit under my helmet, so I had to wear glasses during practice and games. Yes, glasses, with a strap to keep them from flying out of the helmet. Any chance of scaring opponents with a sneer was lost.

We had to choose positions on both offense and defense. It was obvious that I should get with the smaller guys as a halfback on offense and a safety on defense. My basic goal on the field was to try and hide somewhere and not get killed; probably not the best strategy for winning, but I’m sitting here writing for you, so the not-dying plan worked. I played way more defense than offense; it turned out I was better at tackling than I was at taking the handoff from the quarterback, holding the ball in my arms, and figuring out what the 5 hole was and running through it. Early in the first week, I was playing deep safety (that’s not something I was told to do; I just figured I’d be most out of the way if I went really far back), and the offense ran the ball; the fullback, who outweighed me by about 60 pounds and clearly was dealing with some personal issues that he thought could be resolved by hitting people, blasted through the other ten defenders and had a head of steam coming at me for approximately 40 yards. I had enough time to go through the tackling checklist: feet squared, helmet to the side, hit with the shoulder pad, etc. I also had some time to wonder why the fullback hated me so much; steam was coming out of his helmet by the time he reached me. I went low, but he went lower and pretty much abused me on the field. I laid on my back for a little while and stared at the sky, thinking, “I wonder if anyone noticed how bad that looked.”

Apparently, the coaches noticed because I was placed on the C team. Our school was huge, and there were about 90 boys on the freshman team, so we had A, B, and C teams. It shouldn’t take you three guesses to figure out the talent levels on those teams. Anyway, we all practiced together, and our head coach, Mr. Curby, was a nice guy. The assistant coaches were monsters; we got called all kinds of female names, and we were publicly denigrated in new and creative ways on a daily basis.

One drill that haunts me to this day is Burma Road. Basically, we would split up into lines of eight and spread out about 10 yards apart from our line mates. The first person in the group would be given a ball and turn to face the next person in line; he would then try to run past that person, either by juking around him or running into him. Then get up, find the ball (and, for me, my glasses), and run at the next guy, and the next guy, until he reaches the end of the line. Then the second guy would go. So even when your turn was over, you still had to tackle seven other guys coming at you. To make matters worse, there were about nine of us who were small, so whenever Mr. Curby yelled, “Burma Road!” it would be a game of musical chairs to see which one of us ended up having to move on to a group of bigger boys. Mr. Curby could say anything that started with the letter B and the small guys would start huddling together.

I got stuck in the bigger-boy group only once, about midway through the season. I survived. But it was horrible. I had a friend on the team, we’ll call him Dave (because that was his name), and Dave was a nice guy but had a lot of rage, perhaps more than most 14-year-old boys. He was in a thrasher metal band called the Dead Youth. I still have their first demo cassette, with songs such as “Stonehead,” “Parental Abuse,” and “Smell My Butt Please.” He seemed particularly gleeful when someone my size ended up in his group for Burma Road. Dave loved contact so much that he craved it and missed it when he wasn’t at practice. He was right behind me in the Burma Road line, and every time we would tackle someone and move up one place in the line, I would glance back at him and see the gleam in his eyes, knowing he was that much closer to separating me from my helmet. The funny thing was, when it was my turn, he hit me so hard that getting tackled by the other six guys was relatively painless.

Something flipped after that. I, too, became fueled by rage. Rage and the baloney-and-mustard sandwiches my mom packed me for lunch every day. And I became a much better hitter. It led to my one defensive glory moment, which then led to my one chance to shine on offense, and two lion stickers. Our team was the Lions, and big plays would earn a lion sticker on your helmet. The A and B teams would play on Saturday, and the C squad would carry over to Monday. I got promoted to the B team and started, playing the whole game. I was even called on to return one punt. Near the end of the 4th quarter, our team was leading by 4 points, so the other guys had to score to win. They got to first-and-goal. We stopped them on the first three downs. On fourth-and-goal, they had to go for the touchdown. Our coach called a safety blitz; I was supposed to run between two of our lineman and get into the backfield. The quarterback hiked the ball and was going to do a bootleg to his left. I went to blitz, but my teammate on the line had his leg stuck out, so I tripped on it. I tumbled forward, threw my arms out to catch myself, and landed at the feet of the quarterback, who promptly tripped over my body and fell to the ground, ending the game. All my teammates yelled, “Great sack, Dudley!” I said, “I meant to do that.”

After that, I found myself on the bus to the C game on Monday, confident that I wouldn’t have to play. Mr. Curby, who usually only coached the A squad, decided to see how bad the C team was, so he was at the front of the bus with index cards and a pencil, calling out, “Who here is a safety? A cornerback?” etc. I raised my hand when he called my positions, but for whatever reason (perhaps my arm wasn’t long enough to go over the front of the bus seat), he didn’t see and didn’t write my name down. Again, I assumed that I wasn’t playing anyway because of my star turn in the B game. I spent my time on the sidelines chatting with the girl who was the student trainer. At some point during the second half, Mr. Curby noticed me on the sideline and yelled, “Dudley! What are you doing? I don’t have you on my index cards! Why didn’t you raise your hands on the bus?” I said, “But I did,” and looked around for support from my teammates, who all averted their eyes and pretended to tie their shoes. Mr. Curby yelled, “You’ve been spending the whole game flirting with the student trainer, haven’t you?” Oh, the truth hurt. Mr. Curby said, “Get in there, and run the 44 Dive!”

The 44 Dive was one of the only plays I ran on offense; it was the running back (the number “4″ person on the team) running through the “4″ hole, which was between the tackle and the end. Or something like that; I just know that Mr. Curby was using it to punish me today. So I ran up the middle and gained about 5 yards. Usually, our coaches would send in another player, who would relay a new play for a different person to run, to keep us fresh and switch it up. New player came in with the play: “44 Dive. Sorry, Dudley, Coach must be mad at you.” I ran it, gained another 4 or 5 yards. Next play: 44 Dive. The play after that: 44 Dive. This time, I broke free for a 50-yard run and used my blazing speed to get tackled from behind by a 200-pound linebacker at the 3-yard line. Surely, Mr. Curby would take me out to catch my breath and recover. Next play: 44 Dive. I ran up the middle and scored the only touchdown of my playing career. All because my coach was punishing me.

That Tuesday, we had our team meeting, where all the best plays were recounted and lion stickers were handed out. I received two: one for the sack on Saturday, and one for the touchdown on Monday.

At the end of the season, we had a team banquet. I remember my dad telling me on the way there, “I’m surprised you made it through the season. It reminds me of when I was in the Marines: I hated it at times and didn’t always want to be there, but I’m glad I did it.” The cafeteria was filled with all the players from the freshman, sophomore and varsity teams. The freshman coaches got up first and handed out awards: most valuable, most improved, etc. Mr. Curby had a few special awards at the end; one of them, for two players, was what he called the Cobra Award: silent but deadly, to two boys who didn’t say a lot when they were on the sidelines but were the hardest hitters when they were on the field. I was so shocked when he called my name that I didn’t go up right away and had to be pushed up there by my teammates.

There were some other moments on the practice field I won’t forget: I witnessed our star tight end get his leg snapped in half and have his season end by a teammate during a routine drill; I mistook a rare-for-our-area earthquake for just another ground-shaking hit from my teammates in another practice; and I landed on both elbows breaking up a pass on defense once, sending a numbing, tingling pain up both my arms to my shoulders. When I tried to raise a hand to get taken out for the next few plays, I couldn’t lift either arm, so I had to run three more plays covering a receiver without using my arms.

I switched to cross country after that. Purely from a social standpoint, it was the best decision I could make because I met my lovely wife Jen at a cross-country team get-together (future blog post). When my kids don’t believe me when I tell them about my football days, I break out the yearbook to show them the one picture of me in shoulder pads that has survived. And I break out the Dead Youth cassette.

Road Trip Playlist 2017! (Dad Pretends to Be a DJ)

I was driving with my brother, playing him my summer road-trip playlist and explaining the rules that I follow when creating it:

Me: “This first song is by Prince; I like to incorporate songs by artists who passed away in the previous year.”

My brother, scrolling through my list: “Green Day? Did one of the guys in Green Day die?!?”

Me: “No. I also include songs by artists who someone in the family has seen in the past year.”

My brother: “CeeLo Green? When did you see him?”

Me: “I didn’t; I just like that song.”

My brother: “Why is there so much ‘Hamilton’ music?”

Me: “JUST LISTEN TO THE PLAYLIST!!!”

So I should probably explain for you, faithful blog follower, and definitely for my brother. For the last few years, I have made a playlist for each of our family vacations, following an increasingly elaborate set of rules that I totally made up and that I thought would mean something to my family but apparently matters only to me. Not that I am bitter. Here’s how I choose songs:

1. First, I start with an overall theme. For example, in 2016, my son was graduating high school, so the obvious choice was songs from the Disney Channel “High School Musical” movies. This year’s theme was “Hamilton” because (a) three of us saw the show in Chicago, and (b) our youngest child obsessively listened to it at home and knows all the lyrics.

2. I also include artists who have passed away recently. This year’s list included Prince, Glenn Frey, Chuck Berry, David Bowie, and George Michael.

3. Musicians who we have seen in concert in the last year make the cut.

4. Songs that have a connection to the places were are traveling to are in the mix.

5. Songs that have a connection to our family,  for example, from a TV show or movie we’ve viewed.

6. Songs that have no obvious meaning but that I like are included. (Hey, I’m the DJ.)

vacation_large

It wouldn’t be a blog post about a road trip without a “National Lampoon’s Vacation” photo.

Those are the main rules. Broadly speaking, there will be mostly fun driving songs with a few slower ones at the end, there will be songs that not everyone in the family enjoys but that someone will love, and there will be Taylor Swift (personal preference; my wife knows about my Taylor Swift obsession, so it’s not creepy). Sometimes, songs just don’t work with the rest of the list. In 2016, I included a new song called “Her Mercy” by Glen Hansard, one of my lovely wife Jen’s faves, and for whatever reason, it didn’t fit. The song before it was from “High School Musical,” the song after it was loud and fast, and it just kind of sat there in the middle. I really like it and would recommend Glen Hansard to anyone, but that was a screwup on my part.

This year, we went to Colorado. Our son stayed behind to work a job and earn some money for college, so it was Jen, the girls, and me. We started in Denver and moved up through Boulder to Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park.

Here’s the list. (I still slip and call it a “mixtape” and get ridiculed mercilessly for being old. I remember a time when creating a mixtape involved having a double-cassette-deck stereo; I’d elaborate on the process, but I’m sure nobody under age 40 cares.)

Colorado 2017 Playlist!

1. “Let’s Go Crazy,” Prince & The Revolution, Purple Rain. So sad to see such a talented artist die relatively young, especially because he did us short people so proud. This song has a great start (“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life”), but frankly, it kind of drags on the playlist when it settles into the rest of the song.

2. “The Story of Tonight,” Lin-Manuel Miranda, Daveed Diggs, Okieriete Onaodowan, and Anthony Ramos, Hamilton. “Raise a glass to freedom, they’ll tell the story of tonight…” Still setting the mood for the road trip. A great little song about the beginnings of the American Revolution.

3. “Welcome to New York,” Taylor Swift, 1989. Our middle child spent a week in NYC with the high school drama club; this was for her. Also, I’m a big fan of Taylor Swift; this is no secret.

4. “Castle on the Hill,” Ed Sheeran, Divide. Just because I like this song. I placed it after the Taylor Swift song because they have toured and recorded a song together (“Everything Has Changed”).

5. “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” The Clash, Combat Rock. This was the theme song to Season 1 of Stranger Things, a Netflix show that my kids forced me to watch. Not to get too deep here, but I put it after the Ed Sheeran song about longing for our childhood because the TV show takes place in 1983, when I was 12 years old, the same age as the main characters in the show. Plus, I got to see one of the Clash’s founding members in concert (Mick Jones when he was in Big Audio Dynamite).

6. “Move Along,” The All-American Rejects, Move Along. Great pop punk song that everyone can scream along with on a car ride. Our youngest daughter and I saw them open for Blink-182 within the past year.

7. “Still Breathing,” Green Day, Revolution Radio. I took both of our daughters to see Green Day earlier this year (my ears are still recovering). This new song off their latest album keeps me going, when I’m running and in life generally. Another pop-punk car-ride screamer.

8. “Say You Won’t Let Go,” James Arthur, Back From the Edge. Zero connections to this song; I just like it. A love song to my wife. Turned out, though, that our youngest hated this song because all the kids in her class at school would request that the teacher play it when he allowed them to listen to music. Well, too bad, Dad’s in charge.

9. “Rocky Mountain High,” John Denver, Rocky Mountain High. Too obvious? This is required listening for a trip to the Rockies. Interesting side note: John Denver’s real last name was Deutschendorf; an LA club owner recommended that he change it to Denver. He didn’t actually visit Colorado until 7 years after he picked up the stage name. (“He was born in the summer of his 27th year…”)

10. “Rocky Mountain Way,” Joe Walsh, The Smoker You Drink, the Player You Get. Also too obvious. Pretty sure Joe Walsh is not talking about the mountains here (“couldn’t get much higher…”). We did see a few marijuana dispensaries while in Colorado. Jen and I got to see Joe Walsh in concert when he was touring with the Eagles about 10 years ago.

11. “You’ll Be Back,” Jonathan Groff, Hamilton. One of the King George songs on the soundtrack, definitely the comic relief of the show. (“You’ll be back, time will tell, you’ll remember that I served you well; Oceans rise, empires fall, we have seen each other through it all; And when push comes to shove, I will send a fully armed battalion to remind you of my love!”) Jonathan Groff is a family favorite; he was the voice of Kristoff in Frozen and Jessie St. James in Glee. 

12. “On Hold,” The xx, I See You. Another song with no connections. I like the way it sounds, and when a song samples Hall and Oates’ cheesy ’80s tune “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do),” I’m in.

13. “The Weekend,” Modern Baseball, Sports. This song and this band remind me of my high school and college days. Hard to believe, kids, but there was a time when I went out to parties and had girl problems.

14. “In a Drawer,” Band of Horses, Why Are You OK. Before our middle child got her drivers license, I would drive her and her friends home from school. When this song came on the radio, she would complain about it (“It’s about a guy finding something in a drawer!”), but I knew that secretly she loved it and that it was destined to end up on our playlist. That’s the kind of keenly attuned dad I am.

15. “Good Help (Is So Hard to Find),” Death Cab for Cutie, Kintsugi. Great song with a good beat. Also, it sounds to me like a political statement (“You’ll never have to hear the word ‘no’ if you keep all your friends on the payroll”).

16. “Wish You Were Here,” Pink Floyd, Wish You Were Here. Taken at face value, this one was for our son, who couldn’t make the trip, the first time one of our kids missed a vacation. Personally, this song hits me because it reminds me of a childhood friend who introduced me to Pink Floyd who died while we were in college. Surprisingly, this song doesn’t work on the playlist; there’s too long of a buildup, and it’s too slow.

17. “All We Ever Knew,” The Head and the Heart, Signs of Light. Another popular song on the drive home from school (thanks, WXRT!). I hear about three or four distinct songs within this one every time I listen to it: there’s a slow part at the start of each verse, a pickup at the chorus, and a nonsensical singalong portion (“La la la la la la…”), plus a bridge that sounds like another song.

18. “Best of Wives and Best of Women,” Lin-Manuel Miranda and Phillipa Soo, Hamilton. I didn’t include any of the Hamilton songs that actually make me cry, but this one comes close. Alexander is about to go off to a duel with Aaron Burr, and his wife Eliza asks him to come back to bed. He tells her he’ll be back soon, and as she turns away, he calls out, “Hey, best of wives and best of women.” That’s an actual quote from the letter Hamilton wrote to Eliza on the event of his death.

19. “Mom,” Meghan Trainor, Thank You. Jen had been thinking and worrying about her own mother as we left for the trip. It’s also a fun song for moms and daughters to sing together (and I got to hear mom and daughters singing together loudly on this trip).

20. “F@#k You,” CeeLo Green, The Lady Killer. Well, ahem. Yes. We allow swearing in our family if you are singing along with a song. This is a great tune for a windows-down drive, except you might want to keep the windows up when the chorus comes around.

21. “Already Gone,” The Eagles, On the Border. Glenn Frey’s passing caught me off guard. I had seen him solo in a very strange setting: my brother-in-law’s company picnic up in the Santa Monica mountains sometime in the early 2000s. I saw Don Henley solo in the early 1990s, and I got to see the reunited Eagles about a decade ago. Frey was a great showman and a solid musician, and it can be argued that the Eagles are America’s greatest rock band. But that’s a story for another blog post.

22. “Johnny B. Goode,” Chuck Berry, Chuck Berry Is On Top. I was lucky enough to see Chuck Berry in concert before he passed, back when I lived in St. Louis. He was in his 70s and would play about once a month in the basement of Blueberry Hill, a restaurant in University City, MO. I had been told that he was very hit-or-miss; some shows were great, but in others he was disinterested, ornery, and ready to bolt early. I got a great show. What was fascinating was that he would start with a guitar riff (and if you know Chuck Berry songs, you know there are basically two riffs that his songs start with), and the other guitarist would figure out what song he was playing and yell it out to the pianist and drummer. Fun stuff.

23. “Modern Love,” David Bowie, Let’s Dance. Seriously, it’s getting harder to take, this aging and having all my music crushes die. David Bowie? Come on. Was there anyone more willing to reinvent himself and be different at the risk of ridicule?

24. “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” George Michael featuring Elton John, Duets. Okay,  I get it, everyone dies. But George Michael? I don’t have to remind my faithful readers that Wham! was my first concert experience. I could have chosen any Wham!/solo song, but I went with this one because it’s a fun singalong and the video was recorded live in Chicago, my home base.

25. “Miles Away,” Goldfinger, Goldfinger. For years, I had this album on a poorly-recorded cassette, and I had practically forgotten about it. Then our youngest child, who fell head over heels for Blink-182, Green Day, and Fall Out Boy, started agitating for more pop punk music. I finally broke this album out for her and rediscovered how good it was. Plus, we were literally going, ahem, miles away from our home on this trip.

26. “Cynical,” Blink-182, California. I took our youngest to see Blink-182 in concert, and my ears recovered just in time for us to see Green Day. The reconstituted Blink-182 is unfortunately missing Tom DeLonge, their great co-lead singer, but Mark Hoppus makes this song off their most recent album sound as good as any of their early stuff.

27. “Packed Powder,” Blind Pilot, And Then Like Lions. How many indie bands can Portland, OR, produce? Here’s another. Love the feel of this song. “I started working as a tour guide, I thought it would make me believe my own words…” I am purposely winding the album down with softer songs at this point.

28. “Set ‘Em Free, Pt. 1,” Akron/Family, Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free. This one was a holdover from the previous year’s playlist, when our oldest went to college. I heard it (of all places) in a tire commercial. I interpret it to be about letting our kids grow and go. “Set them free, set them up, and let them be their own release, And when it’s time you can begin to let them breathe…”

29. “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story,” the cast of “Hamilton,” Hamilton. I lied: I did include a song from the musical that brings me to tears. It tells the story of Eliza and Alexander, but it’s also a message about our limited time in this world from Lin-Manuel Miranda to all of us: “And when you’re gone, who remembers your name? Who keeps your flame?”; “And when my time is up, have I done enough?”

30. “Nightswimming,” R.E.M., Automatic for the People. I always planned on ending a playlist with this quiet song. There was a time before iTunes and Spotify when record companies would release albums, often on Tuesdays, and fans of a band would line up (yes, line up!) outside of record stores on release dates to buy the latest albums. When I was in college, R.E.M. was one of those bands for me; the band has retired, which is a bizarre thing to do for a band that produced so much vibrant music over the decades. The song “Everybody Hurts” got more airplay off of this album, but this song meant more to me. I think of Jen and me when I hear it, about how lucky we are to have known each other since we were teenagers. “Nightswimming, remembering that night, September’s coming soon, I’m pining for the moon; And what if there were two side by side in orbit around the fairest sun?”

 

The First 10 Marathons: How “Never Again” Turned Into “Well, Maybe Nine More”

Before I ran my most recent marathon, I was reviewing my last several marathons’ training plans and their outcomes to see what I could learn from them. (Lesson 1: When grabbing a Gatorade and a water at the same aid station, dump the water on your head and drink the Gatorade, not the other way around. I made that mistake around mile 20 of a hot race when my brain wasn’t firing on all cylinders, and I spent the rest of the race wiping the Gatorade from my eyes and feeling sticky in the head area.)

My original goal with marathons was a general notion that I would attempt to run a marathon before I was 40 years old. I worked with a guy who had done one for his 40th birthday, and I thought that if he could find the time to train for it, I could too. Then my lovely wife Jen and I started to have children, and I figured I should try it before the family was too big. I ran my first when I was 32. It was such a difficult experience that immediately after the race, I told Jen, “I am never going to run a marathon again.”

However, I was running a 5K several years later, and this guy showed up wearing a Boston Marathon jacket. I was only somewhat aware that Boston was unique because of its qualifying times, but I didn’t really know what that meant. So I looked it up and saw how fast I’d need to go, and I thought, I might be able to do that. (Boston’s qualifying times are age- and gender-graded; broadly speaking, if you are in the top 10% of runners in your age group, you will qualify. The times are listed at the Boston Athletic Association website.)

Because the Boston Marathon has a 10 a.m. start time and starts 26 miles west of the finish line, the participants have to be bussed out to the starting line, starting at 6 a.m. On the 45-minute bus ride during my first time running it, I was talking to a group of runners who were asking everyone how many marathons they had run. One runner: “This is my 25th.” Other runner: “I’ve done over 70.” Third runner: “I have completed 152 marathons.” Me: “I’ve done 2.”

So I started to think about long-term goals and the whole “Why do I run?” question. The short answer about why I run marathons is twofold: 1. Because I can. I don’t mean that glibly; I know people who can’t or won’t run, and I am truly grateful that I’m able to get out there and do something that I enjoy. I don’t take it for granted. 2. It’s gotten me through some pretty low points in my life. Recently I was talking with someone who had a bad marathon experience, and we were  marveling at how you learn more about yourself and your character from your worst races than you do from the easy ones. And I’ve had to lean on “this isn’t as bad as the time I had to walk-jog the last 12 miles of that one marathon” several times in my life.

I told myself I’d finish 10 marathons by the time I was 50 years old. That seemed reasonable enough that I could justify the time and expense to Jen: “I’ll only be crabby about 16 to 20 weeks per year if I spread it out over a decade!” Then I started accelerating the timetable (and controlling the crabbiness).  Now I’m working on new goals; nothing super-crazy like Dean Karnazes‘ 50 marathons, 50 states, 50 days plan, but a teeny bit of crazy sounds about right.

Here’s a quick look back at my first 10 marathons:

1. 2003 Chicago Marathon, 3:28:00. I always have about three levels of goals for a marathon. For this initial one, I had two: first, to finish, and second, to break 3 hours 30 minutes. It was a relatively warm October day, I had no idea what to expect, and at the end, I was seriously dehydrated. Jen found me after the race with blue lips and lethargy (“Blue Lips and Lethargy” sounds like the name of an early Cure album) and nursed me back to health with chocolate and gummy candy.

IMG_4489

Yes! I’m in 1,940th place!

2. 2012 Chicago Marathon, 3:14:14. Note the 9-year gap between marathons. We went from one child to three, and it was getting harder to find the time to train. This was a cool October day, and I was attempting to reach my Boston qualifying time of 3 hours 15 minutes. I “banked time,” wherein you run a little faster at the beginning to build up a cushion (no one seriously recommends this method). I had a cushion of about 2 minutes with 6 miles to go. Then I ran 10 seconds slower than I should have. Then 30 seconds slower. Then another 30 slower.  It was panic time; for a fleeting moment, I had the thought that it would be okay if I didn’t reach my goal, but I refocused and pulled myself together for the last few miles. Incidentally, this is still my personal best.

IMG_4487

I was told that it would be cold. Turns out it was sunny and 50 at the starting line; I was hot the whole race.

3. 2013 Boston Marathon, 4:02:17. In the weeks leading up to the race, I had a nagging injury in my right hip that I couldn’t pinpoint. The whole Boston experience was great, and I was enjoying the first half of the race. Somewhere around the Wellesley scream tunnel (Google that), it felt as if someone stabbed me on the outside of my knee. The immediate, severe pain caused me to stop. It turns out I was dealing with iliotibial (IT) band syndrome; the IT band runs from the top of your hip to the outside of your knee, and it’s a very common running injury. I’ve since dealt with it on multiple occasions, but that first time is the worst. I ended up walking and jogging for the last 12 miles with a guy who owned a shoe store in California. If I had known how close I was going to be to 4 hours, I would have pushed it harder at some point.

IMG_4486

They were handing out toasted ravioli, cracker-crust pizza, and frozen custard at the finish line. That’s St. Louis style.

4. 2014 Go! St. Louis Marathon, 3:28:30. St. Louis was our home for 7 or 8 years, and the marathon ran right past our old hangouts. After running in two of the largest marathons in the world, I was surprised by how  mentally challenging it was to run a smaller marathon: there were 11,000 runners in the combined half and full marathons, and around mile 10, the 8,000 half marathoners split off and headed for the finish line; there was an immediate vacuum of energy and crowd support after that. It really felt as if I was running alone for the next 16 miles. I would periodically latch onto people, but I didn’t really know how to run a marathon without a large group around me. Plus, there are tons of small hills throughout St. Louis, and I faded in the last few miles.

IMG_4484

Look at the grit and determination on that face! (I had to go to the bathroom.)

5. 2014 Chicago Marathon, 3:20:10. This was the first time I attempted two marathons in one year. I was going for another Boston qualifying time; I had moved up to the next age group, so I was shooting for 3 hours 25 minutes. In the days leading up to it, I told Jen, “I feel good, as if I could go for 3:10.” She said, “Why not go for 3 hours?” So, casting aside all of my training and mental preparation, I decided on a whim to latch onto the 3-hour pacing group. (Many large marathons have pacers for certain time goals.) So I fell into a 6:52-per-mile pace for the first 13 or 14 miles and felt great. At mile 14, I slowed for a second to take in some GU gel and water; when I tried to catch up with the pacer, I had nothing left in me. The rest of the race was a slog; I ran the second half a full 20 minutes slower than the first half. Amateur hour. But I still qualified for Boston.

6. 2015 Naperville Marathon, 3:27:18. This small race had very few hills, but they came at inopportune moments. The last one was a steady rise coming out of an underpass, and it kicked my butt. I was starting to accept that I was a mid-3:20s marathoner, and that the one sub-3:15 was an outlier.

IMG_4491

Jen made me wear the shirt so that she could pick me out of the crowd. The whole race, I heard, “Go Captain America!” from the spectators.

7. 2016 Boston Marathon, 3:28:53. An acquaintance who had done Boston several times told me, “Just take it easy and enjoy the sights and sounds until after Heartbreak Hill (mile 21), and then see what you have left.” So I decided to try that, and it felt much better than running at breakneck pace. Perhaps my most enjoyable marathon to date.

8. 2016 Starved Rock Country Marathon, 3:27:53. This was 26 days after Boston, and I signed up because a friend told me the race organizer was considering not holding it anymore (which turned out to be untrue; he was looking for bigger sponsors and found them for the next year). Strangely, this course was hillier and harder than the famously difficult Boston course. I handled it well, though, because the hills are over by mile 15, and the last 10 miles are truer to Illinois’ flatlander reputation. By far the smallest race I’ve run: I came in 10th place out of 100 runners total. Talk about running alone out there.

9. 2016 Fox Valley Marathon, 3:24:38. Definitely the hottest marathon I’ve completed. A few thousand runners take part in this mid-September stroll along the paved path that lines both sides of the Fox River. The one part of the course that threw me off was from about mile 7 to mile 15, when runners are going in both directions of the out-and-back part of the race. Passing becomes a near impossibility. I had hoped to get under 3:25, and I barely held on during the last few very hot, very sunny miles. I did not order any of the official race photos because some dad invited his kids to run with him for the last 50 yards to the finish line, and my photos show me appearing to struggle keeping up with a 5-year-old girl and a 7-year-old boy.

IMG_4490

Probably the most relaxed I’ve felt at the finish of a marathon. And yes, that’s the same hat in each of the pictures; it’s pretty disgusting by now and should be burned.

10. 2016 Naperville Marathon, 3:17:11. Note that this was the fourth marathon I did in a 6-month span, and the fastest of the four (my 2nd-fastest overall). Sadly, this was the last running of this fan-friendly course. Serendipity helped me at this one: at the starting line, I bumped into my childhood best friend who grew up across the street from my parents’ house, and he asked me to pace him to a 1:40 half marathon. We ran together until he turned toward the finish (he broke 1:39), and I continued on. Frustratingly, some young runner wouldn’t let me catch up to him around mile 16; every time I tried to run next to him, he sped up. I settled in behind him until he started fading at mile 23, so I picked up the pace and ran my first successful negative-splits marathon (in which I ran the second half faster than the first). I thought I’d be around 3:19, and I was surprised to be nearing 3:17 at the end.

 

My Indoor Track Career: Thank God No One Documented It With Cell Phones

I’ve been watching a lot of indoor track and field on TV and the Internet lately (it’s a cry for help, really), and it’s making me nostalgic for my indoor track days. And when I say “nostalgic,” I mean that I never want to relive the embarrassment of being a 14-year-old in 1980s short shorts again.

IMG_3880 (1)

Who’s that  handsome fella in the middle? The “L” on my singlet does not stand for “loser.” By the way, I am thrilled to be a freshman.

First of all, I didn’t even want to do indoor track, and definitely not distance events. My older brother was a distance runner, so I wanted to carve my own mark. (I ended up switching to distance my junior year because it was clearly where I belonged.) Plus, indoor tracks are notoriously small, and I didn’t want to run in so many circles. A standard outdoor track is 400 meters per lap, or about 4 laps to a  mile. However, indoor tracks are always much tinier. I’ve never seen a 400-m indoor track; good ones are 200 meters, or 8 laps to a mile. My high school looped a track around the main gymnasium, and it came out to something ridiculous like 11 laps to a mile. I’ve seen worse.

(Note that I use “mile” when I refer to 1600 meters; in the 1970s, most states switched to metric distances in high school events, and nowadays most high schools are running 1600-m races instead of the mile, which is 1609.3 meters. Just to clarify for you statistics nerds.)

So I decided I was going to be a sprinter. My best friend on the team, Keith, also wanted to run sprints; we went to the first practice as freshmen together, all wide-eyed and hope-filled in February. All the sprinters gathered along the wall as the sprinting coach, Coach Turnbull, stomped in to deliver his opening remarks. (His last name was actually Turnbull, and he was terrifying. I probably don’t need to mention that he had a crewcut and coached football in the fall.) Unbeknownst to us, the best sprinter on our team, who was a senior, had just informed Coach Turnbull that he was skipping track to focus on his studies because he was going to be a quarterback on an Ivy League football team after graduation. Coach T was not happy about it and took it out on the rest of us. The welcome speech went something along the lines of, “Brian doesn’t want to hurt his precious little fairy arm and is going to sit at home on his computer doing homework instead of being a real man!” and got worse from there. We ran extra laps, apparently to punish Brian for his selfishness.

Boys and girls shared the track, and on cruddy-weather days, even the distance runners were stuck inside running endless loops around it. It got crowded. Generally, the faster runners are given the inside lanes and the slower runners stick to the outer lanes. One day after a grueling workout, Coach T told us to get off the track and hit the showers. I was chatting with Keith, walking from the infield (the inner part of the track) to the exit doors, when I heard some girls yelling, “Track! Track!” I thought, That’s strange, we all know we’re at a track; I wonder what that means. After more screams, I turned around to find about 15 girls barreling down on Keith and me, hair flowing, determined looks on their faces. One of them lowered her shoulder into my chest and sent me sprawling across the track. She kept running and yelled at me over her shoulder, “When we yell ‘track,’ it means you get off the track, freshmen!” Duly noted. On the bright side, at least I got the ladies to notice me.

Here was something unique about our indoor track: It was made of this rubbery material that I guess helped make the basketball court in the middle of it be bouncy, but it was really slick. Since we couldn’t wear spikes on it, we had to have shoes with good traction to keep ourselves from slipping around turns. We had to practice block starts for the sprints. The starting blocks are these metal thingies that have one long piece of metal in the middle and adjustable foot pedals on which to push off your feet at the sound of the starter’s pistol. There’s a whole science of blasting off from starting blocks; see Usain Bolt for details. (Not to toot my own horn, but I was a  pretty good block starter; I was the fastest out of the blocks and for the first 10-15 meters compared to everyone on my team. If only the sprint races were 10 meters long instead of 50 or 100.)

The starting blocks came with spikes that kept them in place on outdoor track surfaces; but because we weren’t allowed to use spikes in the gym, the starting blocks had to be supported by another person. Keith and I paired up and grabbed some blocks. I went first. Keith braced the block by standing on top and putting all his weight on it. I took off from the blocks and got used to them.

Then we switched. Here’s where we ran into trouble: Keith was about 6 feet tall and 180 pounds, and the freshman version of me was 5’3″ and 110 pounds. (Don’t worry, I’ve filled out over the last few decades and added an inch and a half and 10 pounds to my frame. I’m huge now.) Even a basic knowledge of physics would have come in handy: large Keith could nonchalantly stand on the blocks and my small force in driving off of them with my legs didn’t make them budge. What I should have done was sit behind the blocks for large Keith and put my feet and all my small weight against the back sides of the blocks. But I didn’t; there I stood on top of the blocks like the grinning idiot that I was, waiting for Keith to push off. I can only assume that it was a coincidence that the whole girls track team was looking over when Keith started. Or tried to start: When he pushed his legs back on the blocks, there was very little resistance from my weight holding them in place. Consequently, his feet slid straight back and he ended up on his stomach. Meanwhile, his force whiplashed me sideways, and I hung in the air for a split second like Wile E. Coyote hovering over a cliff, my body in a perfect line parallel to the ground, before I came crashing down on Keith’s backside.

I looked over at the girls track team and gave them the most relaxed “Well, hello, ladies” look I could muster before my teammates started in with a slow clap and someone said, “Nice job, freshmen!” I clambered off Keith, who said to me, “We must never speak of this.” (Sorry, Keith; readers of my blog deserve the unvarnished truth.)

We also practiced relay handoffs. A relay team consists of four runners, and each one has to carry a metal baton. The baton has to be handed off in an exchange zone marked on the track. Any sooner or later than the zone, and the team is disqualified from the race. In sprint relays, this exchange has to be carefully choreographed, and the person about to receive the baton usually times his takeoff so that he runs and reaches back with one hand without looking at his teammate. The onus is upon his teammate to say something aloud to indicate when he should reach his hand back. (Our team yelled “blue!” and hoped that no other team used that word.) I was practicing with another big guy (look, I know they were all bigger than me), a football player named John who loved to be cool for the ladies. Since I was going to be the leadoff runner on our relay and John was second, we were getting the timing right.

IMG_3881 (1)

Izod polo? Check. Feathered hair? Check. Jeff Spicoli facial expression? Check. Must be the 1980s! My freshman yearbook picture, 1986. Oh, what the ladies were missing out on.

After a few halfway-decent tries, Coach T told us to really turn up the heat and do it as close to full speed as we could. The thing about indoor tracks is that they are so small that you feel as if you are constantly turning left. So every time I came flying around, I was coming out of a turn, calling out “blue!,” and giving John the baton. So I got a running start, kicked into high gear, and ran as fast as I could toward John, who took off and waited for me to say “blue.” What I failed to do was to wipe the dust off the bottoms of my shoes, so that when I came off of the turn, my legs slipped out from under me on the rubber-surfaced track and I slammed down onto my side. Because the track was slippery, I kept sliding along the track, looking ahead of me at poor John. In his confusion about why I didn’t call out the signal and give him the baton, John came to a complete stop and looked back behind him. I can still see the look of shock on his face when he first saw nobody running toward him and then looked down to see me just as I swept under him and took his legs out, sending him crashing down on top of me. We slid together for another 10 meters or so. Another round of slow claps from our teammates, another special show for the ladies.

(Strangely, the only two girls that I dated in high school were runners; one of them witnessed all three of these events and still agreed to go to two dances with me. The other one transferred to our school a few years later, and I can only assume she wouldn’t have eventually married me if she had been on the track back then.)

Several years ago, our high school built a fancy, gleaming fieldhouse with an indoor track that puts their old one to shame. I only know this because some former teammates of mine told me about it. I’m surmising that the school purposely didn’t invite me back for the dedication.

Best Books 2016

I’m about to quote an article that quotes an article. That seems reliable. You can quote me and take it even further away from the truth. A blurb in the November/December issue of WebMD magazine reads, “Books could add years to your life. In a study of 3,635 people older than 50, book readers were 20% less likely than their peers to die during the 12-year study. (Source: Social Science & Medicine.)” So, the message is: Read books or you will die in the next 12 years. I might be misinterpreting, but you get the idea. Books = good.

Which brings me to my annual review of the books I read in the previous year. My tastes run toward a few types of books: memoirs, biographies, and humorous fiction.  Why memoirs and biographies? I like to learn about famous people for two reasons: 1. to learn how they were just like me when they were young (because it’s always, “I was just like a normal person when I was young!”), and 2. to learn the whats and whens about them becoming extraordinary. And why humorous fiction? Because the world is cruel and the bastards are trying to grind us down, so humor keeps me sane.

I read 34 books in 2016, a letdown from the 49 I read the year before. My excuses: my son graduated from high school, and we sent him off to college; I didn’t want to neglect my daughters’ needs; volunteer work got in the way; having a strong relationship with my lovely wife Jen is a constant work in progress; and I spent too much time watching TV and streaming movies. Mostly the last excuse. I read a book every 10 days and saw a movie every 4 days. (No comment on the TV viewing.) Anyway, here are some suggestions for you:

The_Martian_2014-21. The Martian, Andy Weir. First on my list is this sort-of sci-fi novel set only a little bit into the future. Mark Watney is an American astronaut who, through a series of incredibly unlucky events, is left behind on Mars by a crew that presumed him dead. Using only the few supplies abandoned by his fellow astronauts and his wits, he has to figure out how to “MacGyver” himself a way to survive until he can communicate with NASA. I haven’t seen the film version, so I can’t comment on it, but man, this is one thrill ride of a book with a surprising amount of humor. I couldn’t put it down. I’m not a huge fan of sci-fi, but this really isn’t anything other than a story of a guy trying to overcome his surroundings. Strangely, the main character reminded me of my father-in-law, a scientist by training with a curiosity for how things work and, more importantly, how to make workarounds when things stop working.

Unknown2. Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of Your Fist, Sunil Yapa. Up next is this fictionalization of the real events of November 1999, when 50,000 protesters descended upon the streets of Seattle during the World Trade Organization meetings there. This book is serious (a rarity for books that make my list), and I couldn’t shake it from my mind. Told from the viewpoints of several different fictional characters (the police chief, a protest organizer, a runaway, a diplomat, and others), this book weaves together their stories as they move toward a violent and potentially avoidable conclusion. The author doesn’t take sides, and everyone involved is shown as a human being whose motivations we can sympathize with.

Unknown3. The Emperors of Chocolate, Joël Glenn Brenner. Chocolate! Chocolate! Chocolate! In July of 2016, I was reading the obituary of Forrest Mars, Jr., the eccentric billionaire co-owner of Mars Inc. and the grandson of the company’s founder. This book was quoted in the obit to highlight the Mars family’s slavish devotion to two things: chocolate and secrecy. And eccentricity. This book is a combination history of the development of chocolate and history of the rivalry between the Hershey and Mars companies. Both companies have traded the title of “World’s Largest Candy Company” over the last several decades, and the top-level espionage between them would be unbelievable if it weren’t true. (Coincidentally, Mars’ headquarters is within 2 miles of CIA headquarters.) A fun read, although it’s pretty long and the last third gets slow.

Unknown-14. A Hologram for the King, Dave Eggers. King Abdullah Economic City is a technology hub being developed in Saudi Arabia (that part is true), and Allan Clay is a consultant for an IT company trying to win over the good graces of the king’s nephew for a major contract (that part is not true); the nephew may or may not be jerking around Clay, whose 2 days in Saudi Arabia stretch into several weeks. This novel deals with culture clash, the frustrations of a middle-aged man dealing with family dysfunction and relationship problems, and the economic downturn of the 2000s. I read most of what Dave Eggers has written because I worked with him at our student newspaper in college (I’m 100% sure he doesn’t remember me), but he’s also insanely talented. The tension and frustration of dealing with politicians and not getting answers will remind some readers of “Waiting for Godot” and anything by Franz Kafka.

Unknown-15. and 5a. Quench Your Own Thirst, Jim Koch, and Shoe Dog, Phil Knight. This is cheating, I know, but these two memoirs are like bookends (I’m all about the wordplay) to each other. Koch, the founder of Samuel Adams Brewery, and Knight, the co-founder of Nike, have a few things in common: they were innovators in well-established industries that looked to freeze them out, and their personalities shaped the direction of Unknownthe company. Where they differ: Knight was hell-bent on making Nike the biggest shoe company in the world (he succeeded), and Koch wanted to bring craft brewing back to a beer industry that had foisted big-name beer with little regard to flavor on the world. Knight’s book was more than a business book: he was a runner first, and I appreciated that aspect of his life story. Koch’s book is for anyone who wants to know how to run a successful business and still be considered a nice guy.

Unknown-16. and 6a. Petty, Warren Zanes, and Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen. Rock legends and their stories. (And yes, I’m cheating again by adding an extra book to the list.) Tom Petty allowed Warren Zanes full access to tell the story of his life, warts and all; Zanes even interviews Petty’s exes and bandmates with whom he had a falling-out. Springsteen’s autobiography is way more of a fever dream by a poet-troubador recalling his younger days. You don’t have to Unknownlike either the Heartbreakers or the E Street Band to like these books, but it sure helps. The one takeaway from these books: a brutal upbringing can lead to some great art.

7. Mister Monkey, Francine Prose.  Under the guise of a straightforward story about the theater, this is a bizarre, funny, thought-provoking novel. Margot, a middle-aged actress stuck in a long-running, wacky off-off-Broadway play for children based on a Unknownbeloved children’s book called Mister Monkey (picture Curious George), has an awkward on-stage run-in with Adam, the 12-year-old boy who portrays the monkey in an ape suit. From there, we get glimpses into the lives and thoughts of Margot, Adam, the costume designer, the director, the original book’s author, an audience member, and others. “It kept me guessing” would be an understatement.

Unknown8. The Sherlockian, Graham Moore. Moore’s rollicking, funny historical novel/modern-day murder mystery starts in 1893 with Arthur Conan Doyle contemplates killing off his invention, Sherlock Holmes, having grown tired of the character. Flash forward to today, when Harold White, a copyright lawyer and Holmes enthusiast, is inducted into the Baker Street Irregulars, one of hundreds of Holmes-obsessed societies. When a colleague suggests he may have found the long-rumored, presumed-lost Doyle diary from 1883-1901 that may have explained why Doyle killed off Holmes only to resurrect him 8 years later, an unexpected death and the search for the diary lead White on the trail of Holmes and Doyle.

Unknown9. Thomas Murphy, Roger Rosenblatt. Poet and raconteur Thomas Murphy battles against aging in this poignant novel. Murphy, a literary giant, feels his mind slipping from him but doesn’t want to give up his freedoms. His daughter, Maire, is onto him and tries to get him to the doctor. The reader jumps back and forth from his present-day Manhattan life to his childhood on the Irish island of Inishmaan.

Unknown-110. Nutshell, Ian McEwan. This modern tale of deceit and betrayal is told from the extremely unusual viewpoint of a highly, highly precocious 9-month-old fetus growing in the belly of Trudy, a woman who plots the murder of her husband John with her lover, John’s brother Claude (shades of Shakespeare in this one). The baby, whose college-level education and erudite thoughts are thanks to his mother’s tendency to listen to BBC Radio (just go with it), struggles with his feelings of hatred for his uncle, compassion for his father, and a mixture of both for the woman who is keeping him alive and growing. Gripping and provocative.

Other books I recommend that just missed the cutoff: Almost Interesting, David Spade; But Enough about Me, Burt Reynolds; The Bronte Plot, Katherine Reay; The Math Myth, Andrew Hacker; Modern Lovers, Emma Straub; Disrupted, Dan Lyons.

The Best Films I Saw in 2016

“Hey Dudley, when are you going to post your list of favorite movies from 2016?” is a question that exactly zero people have asked me. Well, too bad, it’s my blog! Just a reminder: These are not the best films released last year. These are the best movies I saw in the last calendar year, whether they were new or old. I’m almost embarrassed to say that, of the 87 movies I watched in 2016, only one was in a movie theater, and that was in late December. This means I streamed a ton of films into my living room and watched them by myself (I like to call it “Netflix and no chill”). See, my lovely wife Jen would rather spend her time reading books or going to work than sitting and staring at a screen (she’s weird like that). So it’s usually me alone, watching a movie and thinking to myself, Great job on another 2 hours well spent, Dudley! Add that one to the list for the blog!

But I’m okay with that if you are. Here is my list. Remember, just because I liked them doesn’t mean that you will. And vice versa; I mean, you probably liked some of the films I left off the list (e.g., “A Walk in the Woods,” “Ant-Man,” “Neighbors 2″). Clearly, we have different tastes. I’m not saying mine is better; I’m just mumbling it behind your back.

10. “My Architect,” 2003 documentary directed by Nathaniel Kahn. Louis Kahn, a celebrated architect who died in the early 1970s, had three separate families that he kept from one another. His son travels the world visiting his father’s colleagues, family members, and buildings he designed, trying to find out more about his father. Sad and redemptive; at one point, a relative challenges him to prove that he is his father’s son, and Nathaniel Kahn, obviously used to this sort of questioning from his father’s family, pulls out the birth certificate that he always carries with him.

9. “What If,” 2013 indie comedy directed by Michael Dowse starring Zoe Kazan and Daniel Radcliffe. Harry Potter in a romantic comedy? Yes please! Radcliffe is a medical-school dropout moping about his failed engagement; he meets Kazan at a party, and they hit it off. The only thing standing in their way is her boyfriend. Wizardry won’t save you now, Harry Potter! Yeah, he’s never going to outgrow that.

8. “Super 8,” 2011 sci-fi directed by JJ Abrams starring Kyle Chandler and a bunch of child actors you’ve never heard of. Abrams wanted to make a film in the spirit of early Steven Spielberg (who is the executive producer). A group of children spend the summer of 1979 running around and making movies. Late one night, they sneak out and accidentally capture a military train crash on film, leading to an investigation of unexplained events happening in their town. I remember seeing “E.T” in a Texas theater in 1982 while on vacation; this movie brought a lot of the memories of that movie and that time back.

7. “Gravity,” 2013 sci-fi drama directed by Alfonso Cuaron starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. Every year, there are movies that I hear so much about that I’m like, Screw that, I know everything about that flick and won’t want to sit through it. I don’t know why, then, that I watched this much-talked-about film, but I did. I couldn’t get it out of my mind afterwards. I’ve always hated thinking about deep space; it makes my brain hurt. Still does, but what a powerful film.

6. “How To Be Single,” 2016 romantic comedy directed by Christian Ditter starring Dakota Johnson, Rebel Wilson, Leslie Mann, Damon Wayans Jr., Jake Lacy, and Anders Holm. I am a sucker for twentysomething, “I don’t know what I’m doing with my life,” relationship movies (see “What If” above). This ensemble comedy follows Dakota Johnson’s character as she navigates the wacky world of dating in New York in the 2010s. It’s better than I describe it; and for the second year in a row, Jake Lacy fills the nice-guy role with great comic timing (last year’s “Obvious Child”).

5. “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” 2016 sci-fi directed by Gareth Edwards starring Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Donnie Yen, and Riz Ahmed. Look, I get that people who don’t like the Star Wars universe hate hearing about it all the time. And I’ll be honest, after first seeing this, I said out loud, “That wasn’t my favorite Star Wars movie.” But then it stuck with me, the way “Gravity” did and the way other movies that aren’t exactly all rainbows and sunshine can. It effectively carried the story up until the moment the original “Star Wars” began. And now during trying times, I find myself muttering under my breath, “I am one with the force, and the force is with me…”

4. “Mortdecai,” 2015 mystery/action comedy directed by David Koepp starring Johnny Depp, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Ewan McGregor. I watched this silly movie and immediately made Jen and my daughters watch it. I’m not usually a fan of all of Depp’s goofy voices, but to hear him with a marble-mouthed upper-crust British action, and to hear Paltrow’s accent, made this movie worthwhile. Based on the late Kyril Bonfiglioli’s novels about Charlie Mortdecai, art dealer and scoundrel, this one follows Charlie as he and his wife attempt to solve a crime caper involving stolen art. I giggle thinking about Paltrow gagging when she attempts to kiss Depp with the handlebar mustache that she hates.

3. “Love & Mercy,” 2014 drama directed by Bill Pohlad starring Paul Dano, John Cusack, Elizabeth Banks, and Paul Giamatti. I didn’t think it would work having Dano and Cusack play Beach Boys singer/songwriter Brian Wilson at different ages, but it does. I thought I knew the story of how Wilson suffered from mental illness and then lived under the control of his psychologist, Eugene Landy, but I didn’t really understand what was going on. Effectively shows what it’s like inside the head of a haunted musical genius. This is a truly American story of love, loss, and redemption; we love a comeback tale.

2. “The Nice Guys,” 2016 crime comedy directed by Shane Black starring Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, and Angourie Rice. Gosling and Crowe have great comedic chemistry in this action movie set in 1977 Los Angeles. They play private investigators working on a murder case that involves porn stars, government conspiracies, and eccentric hitmen. Rice plays Gosling’s preteen daughter, clearly the more mature of the two of them. I’m not one for bloody violence, but I could put up with it here to see Crowe and Gosling knock heads.

51PQ9syugdL._SX200_QL80_1. “People Places Things,” 2015 romantic comedy directed by Jim Strouse starring Jemaine Clement, Regina Hall, and Jessica Williams. This movie came and went quickly. If you recognize Clement, it’s probably from the TV series “Flight of the Conchords.” Here, he plays a newly single father of twins in Brooklyn struggling to raise them while dealing with the breakup of his marriage, teaching art and animation to college students, and working on his own graphic novel. Funny and sad. Sometimes very funny, sometimes very sad. It’s my favorite movie of the year because it was so unexpected.

Movies that just missed the cut: “Dope,” “The Social Network,” “Ex Machina,” Mr. Holmes,” “Pride,” “About Time,” “Man Up,” “10 Years,” “Hail, Caesar!,” “Before We Go,” “Bottle Shock,” “Indie Game: The Movie.”