All posts by Rick Dudley

The Best Films I Saw in 2014 (Okay, That’s Misleading)

I feel as if I need to start this post with a caveat: This is not a list of the best films of 2014. This isn’t a list of Oscar contenders. So what is it then? I’m glad you asked. This is a list of the movies I saw in 2014 that I liked the most. I wouldn’t recommend them for everyone. Also, they are not even all made in 2014; I just happened to see them this year.

The last time I saw a large-enough sample size of new releases to make a “Ten Best of the Current Calendar Year” list was before my lovely wife Jen and I had kids. In those halcyon days when we were young and gorgeous (well, one of us was) and had all the time in the world, Jen and I would breeze into theaters to gorge on double features, then stay up late with friends discussing the meaning and message behind the films we had just seen. I had a friend who would see as many new releases as he could on their opening weekends. I told Jen, “I want to be him.” She said, “Well, good luck with that.” Subsequently, she stopped going to the theater with me as much. Then we had a son. Then a daughter, and then another. Soon, the only new releases I was seeing had cartoon characters or talking animals or, just to mix things up, talking-animal cartoon characters.

I’m rambling. (Also, I think I just blamed my kids and wife for making my life less enjoyable.) Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, I still managed to see 56 films this year. That’s about one every 6.5 days. Most of the movies I see are about a year after they were released, when I can see them on DVD or instant streaming. I’m only counting the first time I saw a film; if I counted subsequent viewings of “Frozen” alone this year, the list would be past 70. Here are my ten favorites, in no particular order. I keep my descriptions brief because about 800,000 other people could do a better job than me of analyzing these movies.

1. “The World’s End.” 2013 comedy directed by Edgar Wright, starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. Hilarious British film, part of the Cornetto Trilogy of tenuously tied-together movies (“Shaun of the Dead,” “Hot Fuzz”) but not as gory as the others. I loved watching the “what the heck is going on here?!?” looks on my wife’s and kids’ faces when they first saw this.

2. “Before Midnight.” 2013 romantic drama directed by Richard Linklater, starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. The third film in another trilogy, this one including “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset.” Revisiting these characters is like sitting in on conversations with old friends. Old friends who are more attractive and smarter than me.

3. “The Lego Movie.” 2014 animated comedy directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. I would have liked this movie even if I wasn’t forced to watch it several times with my kids. Funny in a way that works on many levels, and somehow corporate and subversive at the same time.

4. “Drinking Buddies.” 2013 comedy/drama directed by Joe Swanberg, starring Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick, and Ron Livingston. I’m a sucker for Swanberg’s movies, low-low-budget films where very little happens to move the plot along.

5. “Enough Said.” 2013 romantic comedy directed by Nicole Holofcener, starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini. I did not see this film coming. I’ve always liked Holofcener’s films (particularly “Walking and Talking” and “Friends With Money”), but I wasn’t sure about Tony Soprano in the male lead role. It would have been interesting to see where his career went after this one.

6. “In A World…” 2013 comedy directed by Lake Bell. What a bizarre little movie. Bell is a vocal coach competing with, among others, her father and her father’s protege for the coveted role of resurrecting the “in a world…” voice-over for a movie trailer. Awkward and funny.

7. “Robot & Frank.” 2012 drama directed by Jake Schreier, starring Frank Langella, Susan Sarandon, and Peter Sarsgaard as the voice of a robot. Yes, a robot. What I like about this near-future science-fiction film is that it is just a few years or a decade beyond us now, which makes it seems all the more real. Langella is masterful as an ex-con who may be suffering from some form of dementia, and the unlikely friendship he strikes up with the robot helper forced upon him by his children centers the film.

8. “The Way, Way Back.” 2013 comedy/drama directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, starring Liam James, Steve Carell, Toni Collette, and Sam Rockwell, among others. I’m a sucker for coming-of-age films. (Or the adult version, what-am-I-going-to-do-with-my-life films; see No. 10 below.) Rockwell is at his suave but goofy, one-liner, early-Chevy-Chase best in this one. Carell plays a jerk.

9. “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” 2013 romantic comedy/adventure/drama directed by Ben Stiller, starring Stiller and Kristen Wiig. I like this movie because I am Walter Mitty. I’ve always lived most of my life in my head. The first time I read James Thurber’s 1947 short story upon which this was based, it was as if Thurber had been reading my mind. Very loosely basing this on the story, Stiller retains the heart of it but goes off in a whole different direction.

10. “Wish I Was Here.” 2014 drama/comedy directed by Zach Braff, starring Braff, Kate Hudson, and Mandy Patinkin. I liked Braff’s first film, “Garden State,” and I liked this one even more. It deals with faith; death; a man’s relationship with his father and his children; and the notion of being present or living in the moment, a great concept that I struggle to put into practice. Plus, it stars the voice of Olaf from “Frozen” as a stoner.

Other movies that just missed the cut: “We Bought A Zoo,” “Stuck In Love,” “Safety Not Guaranteed,” Liberal Arts,” Hamlet 2,” The Trip,” “Begin Again,” and “Inside Llewyn Davis.”

 

A Short Fashion Story. (That’s a Height Joke.)

You might find this hard to believe based on my marathon braggadocio, but I am actually a tiny, little man. I have been since I was tiny. And little. I must have had a growth spurt at some point, but I don’t remember it. I am still the same size since I was when I was a ninth grader: 5 feet 4 inches tall (and three quarters of an inch!), 125 pounds (rounding up, while fully clothed). I know what you’re thinking: “How in the world did you  fend off the ladies back in high school?” It was not easy, folks, let me tell you.

My lovely wife Jen and I have a comfy oversized chair in our family room. Once while we were sitting in it together, Jen said, “We are crowded in this thing because you are bigger than me. But not by height, obviously. Or weight; we’re about the same.” I said, “Is there another measure of size I’m not aware of by which I would be considered larger than you?” She said, “Density. You are denser than me.” I cannot really argue with that one.

Her point, I hope, is that although I am a tiny guy, I am a little wider in the chest area than one might expect for how skinny I am. That combined with my height makes it difficult to shop for clothes. Let me clue you in on a little secret: the fashion world is biased against short people. Up until a few years ago, when the topic of designing clothes for short people came up, the fashion industry stuck their collective fingers in their ears and hummed a few bars of Randy Newman’s “Short People” (“I don’t want no short people, I don’t want no short people round here,” and so forth).

So it’s up to me to stand up for short people. Wait, I am standing up.

Sometime in the late 1990s, Jen and I were visiting a friend in San Francisco. She worked in the Financial District, and while walking to her office, Jen and I stumbled upon a store called The Short Shop (Fashion Clothing for the Shorter Man). I thought it was hilarious. We went inside to see what kinds of magical shorter-man clothes they sold. It was mostly dress shirts, suit coats, and slacks. One of the employees asked me, “What size coat do you wear?” I said, “I’m a 38 Short.” He said, “But in here, you’re a 38 Regular!” Frankly, the “you’re one of us!” vibe spooked me, and I left without buying anything. In the ensuing years, when it dawned on me that I was never going to grow to 6 feet tall, I wished I had supported their efforts with a purchase or two. I’ve been to San Francisco since then, but I haven’t been able to find the store and I think it’s gone.

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The Short Shop in SF. I know, you were expecting a Hobbit hole.

Seeing as there aren’t short-man stores in every community (someone get on this, pronto!), where is a short man to shop? I was wondering when you’d ask; otherwise, the 3 minutes I spent doing research for this blog post were a complete waste. First and foremost, I want to thank the fashion industry for removing those collective fingers from their ears long enough to introduce the term “slim fit” to the American man’s style palette. Before slim fit was common (I’m talking 2 years ago), many guys, and short guys especially, had to wear shirts that were blousy and pants that were baggy. We all walked around looking like Seth Green in “Can’t Hardly Wait.” Nowadays, thankfully, you can’t swing a short guy around by his tiny feet in a men’s store without hitting a slim-fit item of clothing. (Please, do not try this.)

Before I mention my go-to places for stylish short-man clothes, I should say that you can always use a tailor to make clothes from whole cloth for you. I assume you are rich if you go this route.

Also, if you have no shame, you can shop in the young men’s section of a department store. I have done this, and I will continue to do this, and I will continue to claim that I am looking for something for my son (even though he is currently 6 inches taller than me and still growing). Then again, I have no shame.

Which is why I have also on rare occasions shopped in the women’s section of clothing stores. Specifically, I bought a women’s windbreaker/rain jacket from Eddie Bauer that has come in handy over the years; I wear it all the time, but most importantly when I run in cold or inclement weather. It is black, so no one can tell that it is for the ladies (except, of course, I just told everyone, so if you see me wearing it, pretend things are normal, okay?). Now, when I mention “women’s clothing,” I’m not talking about walking around in stilettos wearing a pencil skirt. (But if you’re a guy and that is your thing, hey, I don’t judge.) I’m mostly thinking of outerwear.

For pants and sweaters, the Gap is very friendly to short men. (Wait, is it The Gap or just Gap? I’m old enough to remember when they had an ad jingle that went, “Fall into the Gap.” But they seem to downplay the “The” these days.) They carry jeans and other pants with a waist of 28 and, very rarely in stores, you can find an inseam of 28, although usually 30 is their smallest inseam; I could go down to a 26 or 27 on the inseam. The 30-inch waist is the cruel cutoff at most stores; I’d like Eddie Bauer, LL Bean, and some other stores a lot more if they went lower than 30. Anyway, Gap clothes have traditionally run slimmer than clothes at other retailers, it seems to me. I do wish they had shorter sleeves on their dress shirts.

This is probably redundant, but Gap’s partner store Banana Republic is another great short-man store. They carry a little higher-end merchandise than Gap (and it shows on the price tag), but it’s where I go for suits,  V-neck sweaters, and dress pants. (Again, you’re more likely to find shorter inseams online than in stores.)

I love Levi’s. Stores with extensive Levi’s collections will carry narrower waists. I wish they were made with a shorter inseam, but I’ll still buy Levi’s jeans and hem them myself, although the knee break is off then. (I don’t know if “knee break” is a real term, but I do know that the proportion of the leg is thrown off when you cut several inches off the bottom and hem the pants. I made up “knee break” to shorten the length of my explanation, but now I just screwed it up by explaining anyway.)

J. Crew, like Gap and Banana Republic, slims it up and shortens it for the little fellas out there. They are also pricey. (When I say “pricey,” I mean that their jeans cost over $100, in some instances well over it. I understand that you get what you pay for, but I don’t really like paying that much for a pair of pants.)

If I’m feeling lucky, I will go to a Nordstrom Rack and look for Ben Sherman polo shirts. I love Ben Sherman. If you can believe it, Ben Sherman sizes their polos down to extra small; that’s awesome because it makes me feel gigantic when the extra small is too small for me and I have to move up a size to the actual small. Whereas the Gaps and Banana Republics are more classic American in their style and color scheme, Ben Sherman spices things up more. I have a sweet black and bright pink striped polo and another purple and black polo that are not as garish as the colors suggest. Plus, I like their fitted sleeves; they show off my guns. (By “guns,” I mean “tiny biceps the size of a ripe plum when flexed.” [I had Jen read this blog entry before I posted it, and when I asked her if I should use another metaphor for my biceps, she said, "No, they are about the size of a ripe plum."])

Truly, however, the short man’s savior for clothes with appropriate proportions and comfortable fit while retaining the style that I love is a guy named Peter Manning. Mr. Manning is someone in the fashion industry who recently saw a need for clothing aimed at the 25% of the population 5 feet 8 inches and under who didn’t want to drown in blousy clothes or shop in the teen section. The first time I ordered a pair of American-made denim jeans from Peter Manning with a 29 waist and a 27 inseam, I was in love. No cuffing necessary, no hemming required. Where has this been all my life? I also own a sweater that fit right out of the box, a button-down with sleeves the right length, and a comfy weekend sweatshirt that doesn’t hang below my rear. Mr. Manning, if you are reading this (and I’m pretty sure you’re not because you’re busy making clothes and solving other short-man problems like how to reach the top shelf of the kitchen cupboards), I salute you, sir.

For more in-depth (and probably more accurate) info about fashion for short guys, go to The Modest Man, written by an Actual Fashion Blogger named Brock. He knows way more about style than I do. Plus he’s taller than me, and I know that matters to some of you out there. He’s probably also smarter than me. But I’m pretty sure I’m denser.

Randy Newman sings “Short People” (Warning: explicit anti-short-people lyrics)

Peter Manning NYC

The Modest Man, Style Tips and Advice for Short(er) Men

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Dealing with Wild Animals While Running, in Three Easy Steps

Step 1: Avoid them.

(This is also steps 2 and 3.)

Most days, I run on an old crushed-gravel canal towpath that has been converted into a hiking and biking trail. It is relatively close to my house, and every mile is clearly marked, which comes in handy on the days that I forget to charge my GPS watch battery. The mile markers also have interesting tidbits about the canal; I came across one the other day that seemed like a taunt directly aimed at me: “Even a slow marathoner can run faster than a mule, but try doing it while carrying a canal boat and 100 tons of goods.” (Strangely, that is how I feel in the last few miles of a marathon.) It’s also a great way to get out into nature without wandering too far from home. I’m not exactly Mr. Nature. Early in our relationship, my lovely wife Jen asked me to go camping with her. “Like, in a tent?” I asked. “Oh brother,” she said. As Evan Dando sang in the Lemonheads’ “The Outdoor Type,” “God bless the great indoors.”

Just to be clear: I love nature. Some of my favorite things are from nature (the redbud tree, purple coneflowers, chocolate). It’s just that I also love a hotel bed. And television. And an Internet connection. And modern plumbing. But Jen has forced me outdoors many, many times over the years, so much so that I now enjoy, or at least tolerate, the vacations that we plan around the outdoors. (She has rubbed off on the kids: I asked my son where we should take our next trip, and he said, “Anywhere away from a city.” Well, that limits things.)

On the towpath, it is inevitable that I run into animals. I’m not talking about domestic pets; I can (and probably will) devote another whole blog post to the fun I have had with dogs while running. Let’s just focus on wild animals for now. On the towpath, I have seen squirrels, chipmunks, raccoons, beavers, muskrats, minks, rabbits, opossums, foxes, coyotes, deer, snakes, turtles, frogs, and toads. And that’s not counting the birds: great blue herons, ducks, geese, turkeys, cardinals, bluejays, bluebirds, crows, red-winged blackbirds, and dozens of species I can’t identify.

Most of the wildlife is smallish, which is great, except when I come upon them rapidly and surprise them. My go-to move when noticing a small animal directly in my path is the high-kicking, one-legged leap over the animal, bounding about 3 feet in the air to avoid stepping on it. So far, it has worked, although I don’t recommend it 20 miles into a long run; that has a tendency to suck the energy out of you. In the last decade, I have had to leap over about a dozen snakes, usually in the spring and summer months, when they slither onto the towpath to lie in the sun. Honestly, I was so freaked out by them that I’m not sure how many of them were alive or dead. Some of them might have been sticks.

I used to run ridiculously early in the morning on the weekend to get my long runs in before my kids’ sporting events got started. As the summer turned to fall and the days got shorter, however, running in the dark on the towpath was probably not the smartest thing. There were early mornings when the sun wasn’t even close to being up and the only “light” I had was the white of the gravel on the path. Anything that was remotely dark was cause for concern because it could have been an animal or a leaf. Or poop. (Dang it, I promised myself I wouldn’t use poop jokes in my blog!) At 5 a.m. on one run, I was staring at the path when I saw something round like a dinner plate and about a foot in diameter moving almost imperceptibly across the path heading toward the canal water; I had about 3 seconds before I was on top of it, so I leapt high in the air to avoid it. It was a painted turtle; about an hour later when I returned and passed the same spot on the towpath when things were visible, it was on the edge of the water. The worst things to try to hop over are the toads and frogs. They do the hopping for a living. I attempted to leapfrog a toad once, and it hopped at the same time, striking me in the upper thigh. I twisted my ankle on the landing from that one.

Herein lies the problem with the animals on the towpath: they are not loud. About the only things that are loud are the “chip-chip” chipmunks and the squirrels, who are so quick to get to a tree that they don’t care about the noise they make scrunching through leaves to get there. As a general rule, if you are on the towpath and you hear something that sounds like a bear crashing through the trees, it’s probably a squirrel. (Unless it’s a bear. Sorry for the confusion.)

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The great blue heron, pretending you can’t see it. (Source: Kozarluha.)

Great blue herons like to play a game I call reverse freeze tag: when they hear you coming, they stand perfectly still on the edge of the canal, hoping that you don’t notice that 4-foot-tall bird with the 6-foot wingspan standing practically next to you. As soon as you get to within a yard of them, though, they take off with their awkward, gangly flight, skimming the surface of the water. The white-tailed deer are the same way. I once stumbled upon about 15 of them at the forest edge, and only when I coughed did they put into motion their tail-wagging zigzag escape strategy.

The time to worry, though, is when I encounter complete silence. That means that something threatening to the other animals is around. The late, underappreciated writer Vance Bourjaily put it this way: “The quietness of cows is not like that of foxes.” Foxes, for the most part, avoid humans and won’t be walking around in broad daylight. But get out early or late enough, and you will see them stalking prey. (Run, squirrels, run!) Foxes are only dangerous to humans if they feel cornered or if they are rabid, so it’s best not to approach them. I came upon a fox stalking something in the forest, and the look it gave me scared the heck out of me.

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I am a coyote, and I will eat you. (Source: Billie Cromwell/PGC.)

The worst is the coyote. When I see coyotes, the hair on the back of my neck stands up. One of the benefits of winter running is that there are few (usually no) other people on the towpath, so I get some alone time while running. Less humans means more coyotes, and they can be mean and nasty. (Google “coyote attacks on humans” if you don’t believe me.) One winter run, with snow on the towpath, my crunch-crunch footsteps attracted the attention of a coyote, who came out of the woods about a hundred yards ahead of me. Fortunately for me, he thought I was chasing him, so he started trotting. Every once in a while, he would stop, turn around to see if I was still there, and then trot on. I know you’re thinking, “Why didn’t you just turn around and leave him alone?” The problem was that I had run about 10 miles out from my house, and now I was working my way back. Eventually, by no fault of my own (I was going as slowly as I possibly could in hopes that he would pick up his pace), I closed the gap on him. He stopped for a longer period at one point, and I got to within about 20 yards of him. This whole episode lasted for about a mile. Finally, it ducked into the woods, staring at me as it went. I slowed down and tried to see where it was but could not find it. Nothing makes you pay attention to the world quite like knowing that a wild animal is watching you unseen.

Paying attention to the world is what I love about seeing wild animals while running on the towpath. If I ran on a treadmill or on city streets all the time, I never would see the 10 cardinals (five female and five brilliantly red male) congregated at the same spot along the path every time I pass. I never would have encountered literally thousands of Canada geese on the towpath over a half-mile stretch where the canal meets up with a large wetland area; every step I took caused dozens of them to honk and take off, darkening the sky above me. It’s much better than sitting in front of a TV or computer all day. Oh my gosh, maybe I am the outdoor type now. Quick, somebody call my wife and tell her to read my blog!

The Lemonheads “The Outdoor Type”

It’s Halloween Again; Do My Kids Hate Me Yet?

My kids must hate me. It’s either that or they trust me blindly. Here’s why: Every year as Halloween approaches, I ask them what they plan on dressing up as, and it is a tradition for them to come up with a costume that will be impossible to find. Even in the Age of Amazon. So I must make it from scrounged parts myself.

This year, our youngest, light of our lives, said that she wanted to be a Hobbit. “Oh?” I said. “Like a female Hobbit in a dress?” She looked at me like I was an Ent who had lost a few too many branches in the Battle of Isengard. (I have no idea what that simile means; ask a Tolkien scholar.) “No, I want to be a Hobbit like Frodo or Bilbo. But I don’t want a store-bought costume; I want to you make it.” Of course, I thought. Because that would be the hard way. Did I mention that this was 12 days before Halloween? My kids love to wait until the last minute to brainstorm their costume ideas with me.

It’s my own fault. I raised the bar too high with our oldest, the boy. When he was younger and would ask to be something that only a select group of his friends would recognize, I should have said, “Here’s a black garbage bag with a neck hole and two arm holes ripped in it and filled with pillows, kid; you’re going as an olive.” But I didn’t do that, because I’m a nice guy. So I would spend hours racking my brain figuring out exactly what it was the boy wanted.

Example: One year, he announced that he wanted to be Ash Ketchum. I can tell by the stunned looks on your faces that none of you has had an aspiring Pokémon trainer in your household. Ash Ketchum is a character from the original “Pokémon” TV shows and video games, a 10-year-old whose dream is to one day be considered the world’s greatest Pokémon Master. He has worn various outfits over the years, but my boy wanted to look like this:

I took an old St. Louis Cardinals cap, covered the front above the bill with white felt, cut out and glued a black logo, made a blue vest for the boy, and found him some green fingerless gloves.

Which brings up the problem with many of my kids’ costumes: There is a balance between having a costume that nobody else has and having a costume that nobody else recognizes. No one wants to be the 701st Elsa from “Frozen” to come to someone’s door with a trick-or-treat bag, but trust me when I say that your child will quickly tire of answering the question, “What are you supposed to be?” That whole Halloween, nobody knew what the boy was. “Are you a baseball player?” they would guess. He’d reply, “Yeah, right, lady; I’m a baseball player with fingerless neon green gloves and a Poké ball in my left hand. Sheesh, doesn’t any adult watch my favorite show?” (Answer: no.)

One year, our eldest daughter, the patient one, went as a mummy cheerleader. “Because why?” I asked. “Because no one else in a cheerleader costume will also be a mummy, Dad,” was her cool response. You can’t argue with a 9-year-old’s logic. To her credit, this child of ours has put up with more “mainstream” (i.e., available at Walmart 1 week before Halloween) costumes than the others. She has graciously gone as: a Disney princess (I can’t remember which one; does it matter?), Tinker Bell, a black cat, and a bumblebee. She is also a more go-with-the-flow person than the others: this year, to help a friend who temporarily finds himself wheelchair-bound, she dropped her other costume idea and is going as a doctor who will push him up and down city streets so he won’t miss out on the candy.

Did I mention the candy yet? It’s the main reason I tolerate Halloween. My strategy for stocking up on Halloween candy is to buy twice (or five times, let’s be honest) as much chocolate as we need, and then when the hordes of trick-or-treaters don’t materialize at our front doors like I promised my lovely wife, Jen, I act shocked and appalled and say, “Oh, darn! Now you and I will have to eat all of these Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. And Kit Kats. And Twix. And York Peppermint Patties.” And so forth. It never gets old. Then she gets mad at me for enabling our bad habit. But secretly, she’s the worst offender and will eat more than me. Which is why she gets mad.

Back to our boy: He often is an early adopter for costumes. When the Harry Potter books came out and the world went Hogwarts wild, he didn’t want to be Harry. That would have been too easy. He wanted to be Draco Malfoy. Nowadays, you can find a Draco costume in stores or online, but initially, only the Harry costume was available. So, nice dad that I am, I bought the Harry costume and proceeded to stitch, by hand, the Slytherin colors over the Griffindor colors on it. Then I made a “Potter Stinks” button for him and, because I was going insane with love for my child at that point, whittled a piece of found wood into the shape of Draco’s wand and painted it. (Frankly, I owed him the effort; when he was a newborn and then a year later when he was 1, we dressed him as a clown and a pumpkin, and somehow his tiny developing infant brain absorbed this knowledge and still resents us for it.) Wouldn’t you know, everyone still thought he was Harry.

Last year, our youngest came up with a very original costume that was easy, instantly recognizable by all age groups, and yet amazingly also not worn by anyone else: Sherlock Holmes. It was awesome. We went to a thrift shop, bought a woman’s long skirt with a houndstooth pattern for 3 dollars, cut a slit up the side and tossed it over her shoulders like a cloak, found a Holmesian deerstalker cap for 5 bucks, stuck a magnifying glass and pipe in her hands, and voilà. That could not have been easier or cheaper.

I should explain that I had an unusual relationship with Halloween costumes as a child: My mother worked, for several years, at a party supply store. It had Halloween costumes year-round but also stocked anything you could possibly want for any holiday you could think of. Need an Uncle Sam costume in July? They had it. How about Honest Abe in February, or gag gifts for dear old dad in June, or a racy “Adults-Only” gift area? Yes, yes, and yuck. What creeped me out the most was the wall of rubber masks. There were probably hundreds of masks displayed on this back wall, including every popular President, horror-movie characters, and bizarre clowns. I hated it. On days when I was sick from school or otherwise had to go to work with my mom, I would hide out in the break room drinking soda from a vending machine that still stocked bottles or I would wander the  aisles of the store and try to avoid eye contact with the wall of masks.

Strangely, I remember only two of my own costumes from childhood: One year, I went as a monk. Who knows why. My mom dyed a robe brown, put a rope belt on me, and bought a glue-on bald spot for my head; the label on the glue bottle promised that it would not do damage to the hair upon removal. That day ended in disaster when one of my friends thought it would be funny to remove my bald spot. Maybe he thought it was being held on by magic or tape or something, but he essentially ripped off about a hundred of my hairs while grabbing the bald spot off my head.

The other costume I remember, even more vividly, is from the year that my older brother and I dressed in identical outfits. This never happened. Mostly because I always wanted to be like him, and he never wanted to be associated with a child 4 years younger than him. But my mother convinced us that we should go as matching hobos. I’m not sure why dressing as a homeless person from the 1930s became popular, but it was huge in my neighborhood when I was a kid. From the party supply store, we found a plastic crumpled hat (because actual crumpled hats were rare?), a plastic oversized bow tie (did hobos wear ties?), and a plastic oversized cigar. My mom then painted facial hair on us and had us wear some of our dad’s ripped-up clothes such as sweatshirts and flannel. He was not happy about this, since these were the clothes that he would actually wear when he returned from his office job and fell asleep in front of the TV while watching “Barney Miller” or “Welcome Back, Kotter.”

Oh, how I loved that stupid plastic cigar. I played with it all week leading up to Halloween. I imagined that it made me look cool somehow, not based on anything I had seen in the real world. On Halloween, I brought it to school, waved it around like a sword, and made plans for its post-Halloween usage. That afternoon, my brother, sisters, and I went trick-or-treating. At some point, tired of holding the cigar, I put it in my back pocket. At the end of the night, when we arrived home with our candy bags, I reached back for it and it was gone. Gone! I cried like a baby that night, so my mom made my brother trace our every step searching for that stupid cigar. We never found it, and I returned home a crushed little boy. My brother sized me up, looked at his own cigar, and did what any big brother would do: lorded that thing over me and teased me mercilessly. I wept softly every time I saw his cigar for weeks after that. Ah, brothers.

So. The Hobbit costume. We found a green cloak, a white dress shirt, brown pants, a leather satchel, and the one thing that will allow every self-respecting adult to recognize what she is: a ring on a necklace around her neck. Our youngest child tested it out at a Halloween party the weekend before the big day; everyone knew what she was. Nailed it. And, theoretically, she will have a harder time losing a ring attached to a necklace than, say, a stupid plastic cigar in her back pocket.

Plan Z, or How I Nearly Wasted a Perfect Day to Run a Marathon

I have seen “The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie” somewhere between 50 and 9,000 times. That’s a conservative estimate. Anyone who has been forced to watch a movie over and over and over (and over) again with a small child knows what I am talking about. Along with two thirds of America, I recently went through the same thing with “Frozen.” (“Let it go, let it go…”) After the first 10 viewings, my ability to critically analyze the SpongeBob movie was worn away. I can now reflexively recite lines from it, even though it has been a few years since our family’s last viewing. (There was a period when the DVD disappeared for TWO WHOLE YEARS, but miraculously, one of my kids found it deep in the bowels of an oversized green chair in our den, and then we got to watch it hundreds more times before my kids outgrew it. My lovely wife, Jen, never fully explained her role in its disappearance.)

Anyway, there is a scene near the beginning of the movie when Plankton, the rival restaurant owner to SpongeBob’s boss Mr. Krabs and his Krusty Krab restaurant, is agonizing over how to finally steal the heavily guarded Krabby Patty secret formula. In talking with his robot wife, Karen, Plankton complains that he has tried everything from Plan A to Plan Y. Karen asks, “What about Z?” Plankton says, “Z?” Karen says, “Z, the letter after Y.” Plankton looks into his file cabinet and says, “W, X, Y…Z. Plan Z! Here it is, just like you said! It’s evil. It’s diabolical. It’s lemon scented. This Plan Z can’t possibly fail!” And off the movie goes with Plankton’s Plan Z.

In the weeks leading up to a marathon, people stop me and ask me this question more than others: “So, what is your goal?” (That’s a lie. People generally avoid eye contact with me when they see me coming, and only after I track them down in store aisles or at the library do they say, “Oh, hey, guy, I didn’t see you. What’s new with you besides your running?” Then I talk about my marathon training, and they feel obligated to ask me something about it, so they usually ask about my goal.) I feel the need to come up with a specific time. Since my personal record (PR) is 3:14:14, I stick close to that and say that I am aiming for something close to my PR.

Secretly, though, there is a more fully developed plan in the back of my mind. I have several levels of goals mapped out, each one a step back from my long-shot dream time all the way to my last-ditch effort to salvage the race.

P1050560

The 2014 Chicago Marathon shirt, for those people who dislike clothing that is colorful. Or attractive. Actually, it kind of works in that “Urban Bike Messenger Gray” way. But it seems as if they just wanted us to buy the more colorful (and attractive) shirts available at the marathon expo.

Going into the Chicago Marathon this fall, I had a fairly successful training season. I had been doing long runs with regularity, my speed work was consistent, and the times that I was able to run shorter races were all pointing toward a time that would be slightly better than my PR in the marathon. There are websites devoted to converting your race results in one distance to a potential result in another, using complicated algorithms and results from previous runners. Or maybe some guy in a singlet and running tights is sitting at a computer randomly typing numbers on his keyboard. Whatever the method, some of the sites are fairly accurate with their predictions. (I particularly like HillRunner.com, but Runner’s World and McMillan Running also have decent converters.) And my predictions were coming in around 3:05 to 3:10.

These were my goals, then:

  • Plan A: 3:05, or 7:03 per mile
  • Plan B: Around my PR at 3:15, or 7:26 per mile
  • Plan C: My age-group Boston Marathon qualifying time of 3:25, or 7:49 per mile
  • Plan D (my Plan Z, really): Just finishing the marathon

The night before the marathon, Jen and I were talking about my race-pace goal. She said, “But what about your ultimate fantasy?” I said, “Do you mean the one involving Keri Russell, America’s sweetheart from the WB Network’s ‘Felicity’? I’m not sure how that applies here.” She said, “Um, no, I was talking about the marathon. And yuck.” “Oh, that,” I said. “Ultimate fantasy: Run a 3-hour marathon.” “Then why don’t you just go for it?”

Not having had trained for that particular goal, I thought it was a reach. A month before, I had run a half marathon in 1:29:02, or 6:48 per mile; a 3-hour marathon requires twice that distance at roughly the same pace, or 6:52 per mile. But the more I thought about it (the marathon thing, not the Keri Russell thing), I wondered what was holding me back from crushing the marathon in under 3 hours.

So on the morning of the race, as I was standing at the starting line with 45,000 other runners getting ready for my wave to start the race, I saw the 3:00 pacer standing there with his sign. These pacers run with a sign on a stick that must be balsa wood to be so light, and you can follow them the whole race to meet your target pace. (But only if they are good at pacing: in that half marathon that I did, the 2:15 pacer was running all by himself a few yards ahead of me, at 1:29 pace.)

On a gorgeous October morning, with temperatures a marathon-perfect 45 degrees, with a light wind and a mixture of clouds and sun, I found myself running with a massive army of 3-hour dreamers crowded around the pacer. Every mile we clicked off, I felt more empowered. “This could be the day,” I’d think. “I can do this!” At mile 5, as we ran through Lincoln Park, the crowds of spectators along the course cheered loudly as we passed. As the miles wore on, the cheers kept going. I could hear people say, “What does that sign say? Oh, these are the 3-hour marathoners!”

One of the 3-hour dreamers was a guy dressed in a Minnie Mouse outfit. I have no idea why people wear costumes to marathons. I get the idea: they want to lighten the mood and entertain the crowd. I just don’t know why they choose certain costumes. A person in a cop costume chasing a person in a robber outfit, okay, that makes sense. But in one marathon, I got passed by a guy in a hot dog costume. Why? And why, 30 seconds later, did I get passed by a guy dressed as a hamburger? So along with Minnie Mouse was someone dressed like Alien. Not an alien, mind you, but Alien, the character portrayed by James Franco in “Spring Breakers.” And yet the crowd cheered more wildly for him than for Minnie Mouse.

Anyway, I approached the halfway point (13.1 miles) on pace. I couldn’t believe I was where I was. The crowd is particularly large and loud here, as the marathon course makes a famous right turn at Franklin and Adams Streets. Jen was going to be near the 14-mile mark with one of our children, and I was nearly in tears as I got nearer to where they would be. When I saw them, I gave them a big thumbs-up and pressed onward. Just after 14, I slowed to take a Gu Gel and drink some water; when I went to pick the pace back up and catch the 3-hour pacer, I thought, “Uh oh.” I didn’t have anything left in the tank. I kept trying, but I watched the massive gang of 3-hour dreamers pull away from me. And just like that, I hit the proverbial wall. Way too early.

I had hit the wall in previous marathons at miles 18, 20, 22; heck, in the one Boston Marathon that I ran, I had an injury flareup at mile 14, but I managed to walk-run the last 12 miles. This, though, was a shock. It reminded me of that Ernest Hemingway quote from “The Sun Also Rises”: “How did you go bankrupt?” “Gradually, then suddenly.” I then realized my mistake in trying to race faster than my training would allow. But all the should-haves in the world were not going to help me in those last 12 miles.

I have a lot of mantras that I try out in the more difficult parts of long runs.  They are mental cues to keep me going and to make sure that my mind does not convince my body that it’s time to stop. Sometimes I have said, “Find another gear,” until I actually do. Sometimes it’s, “Fight and scratch and claw through every step.” Sometimes I dedicate each mile to someone in my life who means something to me. This time, though, my brain was too focused on the negative. “How am I ever going to hold on for 12 miles?” I thought. Then it was, “Well, there are 10 long miles left; what now?” But I kept going, even as my calves tightened and my quads ached. And even as everyone passed me.

By mile 18, I thought, “At least the 3:05 pacer is still behind me.” And then he passed me. “Okay,” I thought at mile 20, “I’m still in front of the 3:10 pacer.” And then he passed me. “All right,” I thought, “I still have a lead on”—then the 3:15 pacer swept by me—”are you freaking kidding me?!?”

So it was down to Plan C and Plan D/Plan Z. Get the Boston qualifier (BQ) or just finish the race. A few times, I stopped for hydration and found myself lingering near the aid stations. “It would be so easy to sit here for awhile,” I’d think before starting up after 15 seconds passed. My 6:52 pace fell to 7:30, then 8:30, then 9:30. But then I got to mile 23, which is around the point where the course turns back north almost 3 miles straight up Michigan Avenue to the finish, and I thought, “This is it. Right here, finish strong, or at least finish not-weak.” Not exactly by best mantra ever, but I like to say that whatever works for you in a marathon is what works. So “finish not-weak” it was.

And somehow, despite everything that I did to thwart my own efforts to get that BQ, despite ignoring what my training told me, going out too fast, forgetting my mental cues, and turning all negative at the least opportune stretches, I managed to avoid Plan Z and finish not-weak with a time of 3:20:10. That’s under my BQ and hopefully good enough to get me into the 2016 Boston Marathon (the 2015 one is already full).

“Finish Not-Weak.” Is that a thing now?

 

http://calculators.hillrunner.com/raceconversion.php

 

Another Marathon Approaches and I Am (Not) Freaking Out

I do not handle the stress of an upcoming marathon very well. Outwardly, I exude calm and cool, and I hold casual conversations with acquaintances about how my training is going (e.g., “great, I am in the tapering stages and continuing my speed work blah blah blah”), but as marathon morning approaches, I lose it all. My lovely wife, Jen, has to put up with my incessant worrying about my training, my knee pain (there is always knee pain with me), my sore muscles, my diet, the logistics of marathon weekend, etc. It all comes to a head the night before the marathon, when we are lying in bed trying to sleep; we have variations on this conversation every time:

Me: Please don’t make me run this marathon tomorrow morning!

Jen: I am not making you do anything. You voluntarily paid money to do this.

Me: We can pretend that I ran it! We could tell people that there must have been something wrong with my timing chip! We can sneak off the course and see the sights of this wonderful city! I’m not promising anything, but donuts and/or chocolate might be involved!

Jen: You are running the race. Go to sleep.

Me: Please, no! I’ll do anything! Here’s a thought: I’ll quit my job, become a stay-at-home dad and freelancer, take care of your every need, and do all the housekeeping, yard work, child care, cooking, home and car maintenance, gardening, and anything else you want so you can focus on your career!

Jen: You already have been doing that. For the last decade.

Me: Then I’ll get another, nicer, better-paying job, and then quit that one in a more dramatic fashion than the last one! Just don’t make me run!

Jen: Now you are embarrassing yourself.

That’s generally how most of our conversations end. The night before the marathon, then, for me, is not fun. I hardly sleep, I use the bathroom 5 (or 10) times, and I can barely hold down my pasta dinner. If you talk to me 1 or 2 months before a marathon, that’s when I am in my sweet spot. I am almost overconfident in the way that slightly-better-than-average runners are, talking to anyone who will listen about my race strategy and speaking as if I will be just a few strides behind the Shalanes and Mebs of the running world. (See what I did there? I even act as if I am on a first-name basis with elite runners.)

One week out is when things start to change. There is an ego balance between “Oh, you run 5Ks? How quaint” and “help me mommy!” between which I fluctuate. I assume that Shalane and Meb manage to keep their thoughts on the positive end of the ego balance. Me, not so much.

Do you remember the last hard exam you had to take, or the presentation or speech that you dreaded? That’s where I am in that last week. Simultaneously, I want time to stop so that I don’t have to go through with the race and I want time to speed up so that I can be at that point where it is already done.

This is where one of you reminds me to live in the moment. A strange thing happens on the morning of the race, though: I am so wrapped up in the logistics of getting to the starting line (where I have to enter my corral, when I should use the portable toilet for the last time, etc.) that by the time I kiss and hug my lovely wife and wade into the sea of runners, most of my nerves and fears and worries about injuries have washed away. An unusual calm comes over me, and as I approach the starting line and get ready to press the start button on my GPS watch, I am as relaxed as a spectator. All is well in my little world, and I am right where I want to be, about to run a marathon that I have trained and planned for over the last half year.

If only I could get that across to my one-week-out-from-the-race brain.