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The Trip to Italy Episode 3: Cinque Terre (“The Five Terrys”)

Where was I? Oh right, on a tour bus in Tuscany, having escaped the Visigoths and Etruscans in the walled city of Volterra, my lovely wife Jen at my side. We were heading for the Cinque Terre, the beautiful cliff-clinging towns strung along the Italian Riviera. If I’m not mistaken, “Cinque Terre” translates to “Five Terrys,” named after five guys named Terry from Passaic, New Jersey, who first came up with the idea of dragging their wives and kids to the small towns of the Mediterranean; the area has been jammed with baggy-shorts-wearing American tourists with rolling luggage every summer since. Hang on, Jen is telling me that “terre” means “land” in Italian. So, five lands, or villages. That makes WAY more sense than what I came up with.

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The Lucca city wall. Note the grass and trees on the wall itself. It was originally built to keep enemies out. Now it’s used to keep tourists in.

Before we arrived in the Cinque Terre, however, we had a quick 2-hour stop in Lucca, another Tuscan walled city. Their city wall was wide like a boulevard: on top, there was a crushed-gravel path that you could walk or ride bikes on, grassy areas, and trees lining the path. Lucca’s central plaza, the Piazza Anfiteatro, was oval, with curved buildings lining it. There was once a Roman amphitheater on the spot, and as the walls of it crumbled, new buildings went up to replace those sections.

Each neighborhood had a tower that the wealthiest family in that area built, dating to the 1300s. Torre Guinigi is the most notable for the trees that grow at the top of it. You can walk to the top for city views, if you are up for the 230 steps (and the hordes of tourists at the top).

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Piazza dell’Anfiteatro, or Amphitheater Square. Misleading because (a) there is no longer an amphitheater there (note how the buildings are curved because they were built around the original amphitheater walls), and (2) it’s not square. Ah, geometry humor!

We had a local guide who told us colorful stories about the history of Lucca while walking us around town. She peppered her talk with comments about the long-standing rivalries that Lucca has had with other Tuscan cities, such as Pisa (“nasty, stinky, dirty Pisa,” she’d say) and Florence (“those filthy, lying, double-crossing Florentines, worse than the Pisans, ptooey,” she said, while spitting on the ground). I’m going to be generous here and assume she was joking.

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Terre Guinigi. The only tower in Lucca that has trees growing on it. Originally grown for the fruit for the family’s kitchen, the trees are now used to attract tourists. It works.

We were on our own for lunch; our guide recommended that we try a local delicacy, a sort-of pancake made out of chickpea flour and olive oil called either “farinata” or “cecina.” After getting lost trying to locate a restaurant (but we walked with purpose!), we found a place that sold farinata. Reflecting our growing comfort in speaking Italian, we walked up to the counter and said, “Um, due (two) della…” and then pointed at the farinata. Really smooth; we were practically native speakers at this point. The farinata was good, but I kept thinking, shouldn’t we be eating healthier food than just this bread for lunch? Jen agreed, so we found a gelateria. While we were strolling with our gelatos, someone asked us for directions, mistaking us for locals or, more likely, Spaniards. I pointed them in the general direction of where we got lost, and then we found a bench in a piazza.

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How were we not supposed to get lost when Lucca’s streets were this beautiful and confusing?!?

While we were sitting there, the winds picked up and started swirling around the piazza. There was a restaurant next to us, and they had this fancy outdoor seating area with umbrellas that had glass lanterns hanging from them. The wind kept getting stronger, to the point where I said, “We should really move further away from that stuff in case it gets blown toward us.” Jen laughed at me and said, “We’re fine.” First about 2,000 napkins blew off of the tables and went scattering about the piazza. Then a few metal chairs were overturned. “Now?” I asked. “We’re fine,” she said. Then some glass lanterns came crashing down and shattered. “How about now?” Jen dug in her heels: “We’re fine!” Then, alarmingly, the umbrellas were being lifted along with their heavy support bases and slammed down on the ground over and over. I said, “Okay, that’s it, I’m moving, I don’t care what you say!” So we moved to a bench further away from the umbrellas, and miraculously, the winds died down. “See, I told you, we were fine,” Jen said, and nonchalantly finished her gelato. Plus, she didn’t share any of the gelato with me. What a jerk!

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Is that a Spaniard resting from his bike ride across Europe? No, it’s just me at a canal in Lucca. Also, I don’t know whose bike that is; I hope they didn’t mind that I dragged it from their backyard out onto the street for the photo op! Grazie!

I had promised myself that I wouldn’t pay to use a bathroom in Italy, but I couldn’t help myself as we waited for our bus to the Cinque Terre. Our tour guide had mentioned that, although there was a toilet on the bus, it was a hassle because the driver had to turn on a separate power supply to get it functional, so to use it while the bus was moving, you had to tell the driver and the guide (and basically everyone on the bus) that you couldn’t hold it until the next stop. I did not want to be that guy, even though the likelihood was high that if there was a that guy on the bus, it was going to be me. There was a cafe next to our meet-up area, and several of our tour mates were in line for the bathroom. So I bought a bottled water and got in line. Not exactly paying for the bathroom, but that was the quid pro quo. (That’s Latin for “can I pee here?”)

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One of the beautiful Cinque Terre cities. I believe this is Corniglia, but I’m not 100% sure; I was drunk on limoncino when this photo was snapped. (There might be 35 blurry selfies on my camera roll from this day.)

Our bus driver, Giorgio, was a native of Tuscany and handled the twisting mountainside roads down into Levanto with aplomb; for someone like me who gets motion-sick just looking out the side of a moving vehicle, it was much appreciated. Levanto is actually not one of the Cinque Terre villages, but just north of the northernmost of them (north to south, the cities in the Cinque Terre: Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore). Levanto was pleasant and tourist-filled, but it was a flat seaside city with its own beach, not one of the picturesque mountainside villages worthy of the “Cinque Terre” label.

The first thing we did when we got to Levanto was to have a feast in the lobby of our hotel. The hotel owner used to run a fancy restaurant in Levanto, so he wanted to host dinner for us with all sorts of Tuscan specialties, including rabbit. (Tuscan cuisine is known for its meats.) Our guide kept talking it up, how much we had to try the rabbit and how the Tuscans love their rabbits. (Not like a pet, presumably: “I love Fluffy! Let’s cook him for dinner!”) Giorgio the bus driver (picture Bruce Springsteen with a thick Italian accent, and you might get a sense of why all the ladies and some of us guys in the group wanted to sit with him) ate near Jen and me, and we noticed he wasn’t eating any of the rabbit. We asked him why. He shook his head: “Nobody from Tuscany eats the rabbit in Levanto. Now, if you want seafood, then yes, come to Levanto. But the rabbit here is…” (he made a sad frown) “…so you eat rabbit from the mountains and forests away from the coast.” Not exactly our Lucca guide’s “nasty, stinky, dirty” comments, but definitely more of that Tuscan provincialism.

At the meal, our host filled shot glasses with a local version of the fluorescent-yellow Italian hard liquor called “limoncello,” or “limoncino” as it is known in northern Italy. I decided to try it even though I’m not a drinker. Have you ever tasted paint thinner? Well, you shouldn’t because it could kill you, but I’m sure it would taste a lot like limoncino. I stuck with the “acqua naturale” the whole rest of the trip.

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This is definitely Corniglia. We could have stayed there forever. (But they have a strict “tourists can’t stay here forever” rule.)

The next day was a free day to explore the beaches and villages, so Jen and I decided to take the train that connects all the coastal towns down to Corniglia and hike back to Vernazza. There’s a nice, challenging hike connecting the Cinque Terre villages (called Cinque Terre National Park); our guidebook said that some of the stretches were closed because of rockslides and that we shouldn’t attempt it on wet or rainy days because most of the trail is rocky and mountainous and gets very slippery, so the risk of injury is high. It was a cloudy day, but there was no rain in the forecast, so we decided to give the 90-minute hike a go. (This is called “foreshadowing,” folks.)

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“I can see a tiny boat from here!”

At the tiny town of Corniglia, we had another one of those “how do we get out of here?!?” moments. The train drops you off…somewhere. There didn’t appear to be a town anywhere. There was a stairwell across the street from the station, so we started walking up the steps, until we realized it was private property. So we walked back down the stairs and noticed a few other people on a different, steeper set of stairs. So we took those up, and up, and up, until we reached the town proper. Corniglia is cute and colorful, with a few standout cliffside ocean views. We didn’t attempt to find beach access (we just looked over a stone wall and said, “Hey look down there, it’s the Mediterranean,” and moved on), so we headed for the trail. When we got to the trail, there was a college-aged guy sitting in a hut. He was there to collect fees and let us know how the trail looked. He said, “Everything’s great out there. Just know that you don’t want to be on the trail if it starts raining. It’s difficult enough already without being wet, but when it is wet, you could basically die with each step.” (I’m paraphrasing here, but you get the idea.)

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The aforementioned tiny boat.

I didn’t even bother trying to talk Jen out of the walk; I’ve been on enough treacherous nature hikes to know what she was going to say: “It’s fine,” “we’re experienced hikers at this point,” “you’re just being a wimp again,” “I haven’t managed to kill you on a vacation yet.” And so forth. The walk was lovely, and the views were apparently stunning. I say “apparently” because it was so cloudy and misty that it was hard to see anything. Most people return from trips to the Cinque Terre with amazing photos of these gorgeous, colorful towns; us, not so much because of the clouds. And then 10 minutes into the walk, it started to rain. We had raincoats, of course, but after a few minutes we were completely soaked. It was the type of rain that causes guidebook writers to suggest that you schlep your raincoats across the continent just in case there’s that one horrible day when you need them. After an hour, we had to laugh. (After an hour and a half of slipping and sliding with every step, we had to cry.) We saw other people on the trail, and they all had that “we paid a lot of money to come to this place, and by golly we are going to get our money’s worth” look in their eyes.

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Looking back at Corniglia from the hiking trail, just before the clouds turned “brutto” (that means bad).

The rains really picked up as we approached Vernazza. Vernazza is (again) usually stunning, but it was raining so hard that we just wanted to get to the train station. You approach it from above; as you come down from a mountain, there is a fork in the trail, and you can see the train station straight down from the fork, but you don’t know which path to take to get to it quickly. So we went left. We chose wrong. It did take us into the heart of Vernazza, but we were trudging and slipping and clinging to doors of private residences trying to make our way to that train station, which turned out to be just a few steps down from the fork if you took the right path. When we got to the train, we looked like two wet puppy dogs who had had enough of living on the streets and were ready to be adopted by any family that would take us in. We left puddles on the train seats and squish-squished our way back to the hotel.

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Jen: “Look at all the treacherous rocks on this trail. This should be fun!”
Me: “Oh brother.”

After hanging up our clothes to dry, we hit the tiny shower in our hotel. Again, our tour guides like to pick unique hotels in the center of town, so you never know what you’re going to get with the bathrooms. What we got was a shower about the size of half a phone booth. (Editor’s note: For millennial readers, insert explanation of what a phone booth is here.) It was made for a person three quarters the size of an average adult, which conveniently I am. Still, I couldn’t lift my arms above my head for fear of knocking a hole in the wall with my elbows. There was a guy on the trip who was about 6-foot-4 and muscular, and we asked him how he showered in that hotel; he said, “First I backed in and did the rear side, then I came out and reentered headfirst and did the front.”

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Arriving in Vernazza, we were completely soaked and exhausted, and we couldn’t find the train station. That’s vacation-blog-post gold!

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Gorgeous Monterroso al Mare. That’s Italian for “red mountain on the sea.” Or “land of overpriced restaurants for American tourists,” one or the other.

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The beach in Monterosso al Mare. Nice! I dipped my hand in the Mediterranean, just to say I did it. It felt like water.

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Levanto, the not-quite Cinque Terre city where we stayed. This was on our hike up the “Certain Doom” trail. I managed to survive only by convincing Jen to turn back when it got dark.

Later that same day, we went to Monterosso al Mare, and it was comically sunny as we walked along the oceanfront street and watched crowds at the beach. We decided to do another hike that would take us back to our hotel in Levanto, but as we approached the trailhead, a sign said, “Warning: Trail closed until further notice. Do not attempt to hike it or you will face certain doom.” (Paraphrasing.) Miraculously, Jen agreed not to try it. After a train ride home for dinner and a gelato, we went for a sunset stroll along the boardwalk in Levanto. We came upon a stairwell and decided to take it on a whim. It went past ritzy mansions and then stopped at a road that led up toward the cliffs. We started walking it and realized it was the opposite entrance to the trail marked “Certain Doom.” Here, there were no signs, no obvious reasons why it would be closed, and beautiful overlooks of Levanto, a city so gorgeous that it rivals any of the official Cinque Terre cities; I’d argue that you’re better off staying there because it is less crowded, less hilly, has tons of restaurants and shopping, has a jewel of a beach, and is still on the train line to reach the other tourist-overrun cities. Because it was getting dark, we couldn’t walk far enough on the trail to find where the Certain Doom parts were. Lucky me.

The next morning, we boarded the bus and headed for Florence, which I’ll cover in my next post. Ah, Florence: birthplace of the Renaissance; a city of romance, political intrigue, and way, way too many statues of naked men in public places. I mean, seriously people.

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.

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.

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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.

Not Enough Time

I was going to write something glib and funny this weekend. Then I got word that an old friend from grade school died suddenly in an accident.

I would be doing John an injustice if I tried to give a biography of him. Honestly, I didn’t know the man in full. We were good friends from the time he moved into our neighborhood in early grade school until high school. After that, we went to separate colleges and rarely crossed paths in adulthood.

Facebook is a wonderful thing, though: A neighbor of mine recognized John’s name on my Friends list and said that she worked with him occasionally and that he visited our town on business. I invited him over to my house, and he obliged me with a 2-hour visit. We reminisced, but mostly we spent the time filling each other in on the last 20 years of our lives and finding out who we became after we grew up from who we used to be.

P1020019smIf I had more time with him, I would have told him about these particular things that stand out in my mind: First, when we were in 6th grade, I somehow convinced my mom to let me walk to John’s house every morning before school so we could hang out. (John was a latchkey kid, so I don’t know if he even bothered telling his dad that I was doing this.) We’d listen to his record collection (Supertramp’s “Breakfast in America” was a particular fave of his at the time, before he got into Led Zep) or watch TV, but what John really wanted to do was call into a radio station to get the DJ to play a joke of ours on the air. He’d talk about doing it on a daily basis. I was too chicken to do it, so one morning John dialed the number to the station, actually got punched through to the DJ, and promptly handed the phone over to me. I stammered through possibly the lamest joke the DJ had heard that month (something about a dog getting shot in the foot, then later tracking down the shooter in a saloon and saying, “I’m looking for the guy who shot my paw.”)

I learned from John that not everybody shares the same worldview as me. Walking home from school once, he asked me, “If you could change your name to anything in the world, what would it be?” I didn’t even have to think about it; I blurted out, “Bruce!” John looked at me like I was an idiot. “BRUCE?!?” he yelled. “That’s worse than your actual name!” (In my defense: Bruce Lee, Bruce Springsteen, Bruce Jenner, Bruce Willis, Bruce Dern.)

One summer, John, a few friends, and I decided to build a clubhouse behind his dad’s garage. We spent weeks riding our bikes to a lumberyard, buying as many two-by-fours as we could afford, and balancing them on our bike handles for the ride back to his house. The sawing, the hammering, the sweat equity, and the lack of parental supervision made us feel all “Lord of the Flies.” I remember we didn’t finish the project, and that his dad had to take over for us.

On one of those working days, John thought it would be a great idea to cool ourselves off by filling up gallon milk jugs with cold water from the hose; then we could climb a ladder onto the garage roof and dump the water on each other’s heads. (Did I mention the lack of parental supervision in our childhood?) John’s only rule was, “You have to stand under the whole gallon of cold water; no chickening out!” I convinced him and our other friends to go first; I got to  dump the water on John’s head. He screamed throughout. When it was my turn, he gleefully climbed the ladder. The problem with this was that it wasn’t like the Ice Bucket Challenge that was so popular in 2014, with one quick dump and you’re done. The stream from a milk jug takes about a full minute to empty on one’s head. (You can see where this is going.) I chickened out. “Not fair!” John yelled. “I didn’t chicken out!” Yeah, well, perhaps I taught him a lesson about fairness in life. Or just that I was a chicken in most things.

When I think about the stuff that we got into as we moved on to junior high, I cringe. Say this for helicopter parenting and overstuffed schedules for kids these days: I know for sure that, because I rarely let my son out of sight until high school, he and his friends weren’t opening up a manhole cover, dumping gasoline down it, and flicking matches in it to see what would happen. (Do not try this at home.) John was there when we tried our first cigarette (sixth grade) and when we convinced some random stranger to buy us alcohol for the first time at a liquor store (eighth grade; we didn’t know what to ask for, but I remembered Bruce Willis in a Seagram’s Golden Wine Cooler commercial, so that’s what we got).

We had one fight that I can recall. John was a competitive kid who you loved having on your side but hated playing against. He was a great goalie and the biggest Chicago Blackhawks fan that I’ve ever known. Baseball was my sport growing up, along with running (which wasn’t really a sport for me but something I did to get away from the neighborhood bullies with much success). Strangely, it was a volleyball game in PE that put us over the edge. I don’t know what in particular led us to start taunting each other from the other side of the net on this day (keep in mind that I was so short that I could barely reach the bottom of the net, let alone attempt a spike at the top of it), but my team won a game and I razzed John (completely out of character for me and for him), and then his team won and he got after me. After we won the tiebreaker, John had had enough of my being a sore winner and called me some names, one of which was “shrimp.” Again, why on this day of all the days of my life that I’ve been called a shrimp that I went over the edge, I can’t say, but I flew at him in such a rage that our PE teacher, who had never seen me so much as raise my voice at another kid, stood there in shock as John and I wailed on each other for half a minute. He only separated us when we both looked at him mid-fight and asked, “Are you going to break this up before one of us hurts each other?”

One thing John and I had in common as adults: we both grew tired of the daily grind of a desk job. I left my job to become a stay-at-home dad, and John followed his passion and spent the last 8 years as a dog trainer. Chris Jones, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, wrote an article on Sunday, April 19, 2015, and touched on the challenges we face as we grow up and older: “…the dreams of youth have a way of clashing with harsh reality in middle age, when many of us feel like we are what we are, have done what we can do and struggle to see the way forward. Our novelty has worn off. Our interest in positive change has a way of dissipating.” In other words, it dawns on those of us in middle age that the dreams of our youth will go unfulfilled. We also start to see people our own age pass away too soon and, sadly, we find ourselves standing at a wake, telling our friend’s wife and kids how sorry we are for their loss.

There is so much to be disappointed about in life. It’s not fair, people chicken out, our friends fight us, clubhouses go unfinished. When we are children, our parents and teachers tell us, “You could grow up to be the President!” But even those people who do grow up to be President find that half the country hates them and that their grand visions will most likely go unfulfilled.

We all want to know that our lives matter in some way big or small. Well, John mattered to me. When someone we know dies, the standard warning we have for those still living is, “Tell your family that you love them.” I tell my wife and kids I love them daily. I tell my dad and my siblings I love them every time we end a phone conversation. Maybe, though, I should be extending that circle out further. So yes, tell your family you love them. Reach out, though, and tell your friends that they matter to you. Tell your neighbors that they make your life richer. Find an old teacher and tell her that she changed you in ways that no one else was able to. And please, track down grade-school friends on Facebook or however you can and tell them, before it’s too late, that they mattered to you, and still do.

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”