Animal Encounters: Attack of the Birds!

Note: This is the third in a series of super-short stories about animals.

The first time I was attacked by a bird, I was running on country roads. I went onto the frontage road next to a highway. On the fenceposts, I noticed a few birds; they were black with red and yellow coloring on their wings. Cool, I thought.

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The evil red-winged blackbird. He’s a jerk. (Photo by Bryan Pfeiffer, www.bryanpfeiffer.com.)

As I passed a small tree, I heard a bird making this noise: “Chit. Chit. Chit-chit-chit!” And then one of the birds swooped down and smacked me on the head! I was wearing a baseball cap, so I took it off and started swinging wildly at it while yelling, “Hey! Hey!” I looked up, and two of the birds were flying over my head, corkscrewing around in the air, and then divebombing me; there was something dizzying about the way they set me up for the attack. My long, slow jog turned into an all-out sprint as I swung my cap.

I’m picturing a family on a vacation in their minivan, driving down the highway. A child looks out her window and says, “Mommy, Daddy, there’s a man waving his hat at us, and birdies keep landing on his head.” And her mom says, “That’s nice, sweetie. Now go back to the movie on your iPad.”

When I got home, I said to my lovely wife Jen, “I was attacked by a vicious pack of birds!” She said, “What? Wow. How many were there?” I said, “At least two. Or maybe it was one, but the way it was spinning, it seemed like two.” Jen said, “Ohh-kayyy. Are you bleeding or anything?” I said, “No, I managed to fend them off with my hat.”

Needless to say, no one believed me. We have a friend who lives with us each summer, and she said, “I’ve been bicycling for years, and I know the birds you are talking about, but they don’t attack. You’re crazy.”

So I looked it up: the birds are red-winged blackbirds, specifically the males. And they do attack. (And I’m not crazy.)  From Wikipedia here: “Males have been known to swoop at humans who encroach upon their nesting territory during breeding season.”

We took a vacation out west, and all through Iowa, Kansas, South Dakota, and Wyoming, I kept seeing these evil birds sitting atop fenceposts, taunting me, waiting for me. “They’re not evil,” Jen said. “They just defend their nests.” “Oh, they’re evil,” I muttered under my breath.

A few years later, our summer friend reported that a red-winged blackbird bopped her on the bicycle helmet when she rode past its nest. Who’s crazy now?

I see them all the time on the canal towpath where I run. From mid-May to early July, they are aggressive. If they start “chit-chitting” as I approach, I clap my hands or cough loudly to scare them off. I also swing my cap.

Last year, I was running in the opposite direction of where the blackbirds normally are (not because I was afraid), and as I was trotting along, I felt this massive claw grab the top of my head. “Hey! Hey!” I yelled and started sprinting. I took my cap off and swung it around. After about 50 yards, I turned around to see what it was:  a huge owl was sitting in a tall tree above me.

I ran home. “Jen! Jenny! I was attacked by an owl!” I had her examine my head; there was no bleeding, just a scratch. I gave her the blow-by-blow account. She suggested that I need to put on a little weight because the owl could probably carry a tiny human. Ha ha, so funny I forgot to laugh.

When I shared my story with friends, I heard back that an acquaintance was also attacked by this same owl, but she actually was bleeding from the talon scratches. I saw her on the towpath a week later. She showed me her injuries. We both avoided that stretch of the path for the rest of the year. And I put on a little weight over the winter. Just in case.

Animal Encounters: What’s the Buzz?

Note: This is the second in a series of super-short stories about animals.

I was mowing the lawn one day when a bee flew by me. Yikes, I thought. On my next pass by the same spot in our yard, a few bees swept past me. “Creepy,” I said. The third time around, several chased me, so I abandoned my lawn mower and ran. “Holy bleep!” I yelled.

I went inside and said to my lovely wife Jen: “There are bees swarming me in the backyard!”

“Oh,” she said. “And are you planning on leaving the lawn mower running out there all day then?”

I went back in the yard to see where the bees were coming from: Our air conditioner’s condenser had two coolant tubes that went into our house. There was a circular hole cut out in our siding so that the tubes could enter, and the bees were going in and out of the house freely.

I managed to mow the lawn like this: I approached the condenser slowly, and as the bees got annoyed with me, I ran backwards as fast as I could with the mower. I had a nice little dance going with the bees, but I knew that wasn’t sustainable. (Also a little embarrassing, if any neighbors were watching.) I had to get rid of them, and I knew just the person to take care of it.

“Randy!” I yelled as I banged on my handy neighbor’s back door. I’m sure he was thinking, Now what with this guy?!? after the raccoon incident, but he has the patience of Job, so he came over to help.

“First, those aren’t bees you got there; those are wasps,” Randy said.

“Right,” I said. “I knew that.” Later, I Googled “difference between bees and wasps.” Turns out bees are beneficial pollinators who rarely sting, and wasps are aggressive, mostly non-pollinators who like to sting.

Randy explained that as long as you stay out of the path of where the wasps (or yellow jackets) are going for their food source, they won’t harm you. He showed me: we noticed that they would exit the hole and turn to the left, so he eased his way next to the hole on the other side to peek in it.

“I see hundreds and hundreds of wasps in there. And I don’t know why the builder didn’t seal up this hole in the first place.”

I was starting to wonder that myself. How many other holes in the house were there for animals (raccoons, wasps, etc.) to enter? Why don’t I just leave the doors wide open to make it easier for them to stroll in?!?

Randy’s plan was, we wait until dark, when the wasps are at their least active and most of them have returned to the nest. Then we stand next to the nest and spray the crap out of them with wasp killer. (And by “we,” I mean “Randy,” while I stand a safe distance away, holding the flashlight.) Then, in the morning, I seal up the hole with foaming sealer.

That night, after dark, we went out there, and that’s exactly what we (“he”) did. And the next morning, I sealed it up with the foamy stuff.

Here’s the thing I didn’t count on: not all of the wasps died immediately, and they had to find another exit spot to get away from the spray. So over the next several months (!), we had wasps come out from behind the basement drywall and spend their last hours and days in our house. Fortunately, they had no food source, so the wasps would basically die on the concrete floor. I swept them up once a week and kept checking the sealed hole, and we’ve been wasp-free ever since.

A few years later, we had to get a new condenser, and we decided to move it to a different part of the yard. I made sure the installers sealed the new tube hole well. They thought it a little strange, but I take no chances.

 

Animal Encounters: The Thing in the Basement

Note: This is the first in a series of super-short stories about animals. 

When we first became homeowners, I was paranoid constantly about any little noises I heard in the house. “What was that?!?” I’d hiss when something creaked in the middle of the night. My lovely wife Jen would soothe my worries with her calm words: “The furnace kicked on,” or, “It’s the sump pump again,” or, “Stop waking me up with these dumb questions!” Etcetera.

One night, before bedtime, I heard a bump in the kitchen. “Don’t even say anything,” Jen said. The next night, same thing. Then I started hearing a similar sound early each morning. After about a week or 10 days, I would stand in the kitchen and try to locate the noise. I got up before sunrise and hovered near the door that opened up to our deck; the door is in a little bay with a window on either side of it, jutting out from our house’s foundation.

I heard the bump. It sounded like it was coming from inside our floor vent. I popped off the vent cover and didn’t see anything. Then I pushed against the metal sides of the duct and held my hand there. And something pushed back against my hand! I ran downstairs into the basement to see if I could find anything down there, but part of our basement is finished, with drywall blocking access to where the duct runs. I ran outside but couldn’t see anything.

That night, around bedtime, we heard the whatever it was rustling around again. It seemed as if it was coming into our house and then leaving in the morning. Or vice versa. So again I ran to the basement. About 10 feet across from where the vent is, the finished part ends, and I could get on a chair or ladder in the unfinished part and look between the kitchen floorboards and the basement ceiling. I set up a ladder and glanced: I saw something moving but forgot a flashlight, so I ran back upstairs to tell Jen: “I saw either a cat or a kitten, or maybe a tiny rodent. But it was dark.”

I sprinted downstairs with the flashlight, whipped through the finished part, through the doorway into the unfinished part, and around to the ladder. And there, coming out of the crawlspace, about to place one paw on the top of the ladder, was the biggest raccoon I had ever seen in my life.

I screamed at the top of my lungs. Not a manly scream, and not intelligible words either; one of those “is someone strangling a goose?” noises. I scared the bejesus out of the raccoon, who hightailed it back through the crawlspace, out whatever hole was in our house, and out from under our deck. I went outside and piled a bunch of stones over every conceivable opening into the base of the deck.

The next day, I called Randy, my handy neighbor. Randy came over, and we (and by “we,” I mean “he,” while I handed him tools) tore my deck apart and looked under the bay: the house builder had stuck some insulation under the bay but had never installed any sort of wood to secure it. So animals were free to enter our house, which obviously this raccoon had been doing. I got a large piece of  plywood, and we (“he”) cut it with a circular saw and hammered it in place. There have been no raccoons in the house since then.

Also, Jen listens a little more intently when I say, “I heard something!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Best Films I Saw in 2019

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

“Is that a Netflix DVD?” he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best Books 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

The Best Laid Plans…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Me, when I am adding up my yearly mileage.

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

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

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

2014: 1,144.19 miles

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

2016: 1,593.45 miles

2017: 1,546.77 miles

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

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

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

2019 total: 999.59 miles.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Actual photo of me getting the lights ready for Christmas.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Actual photo of me receiving physical therapy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Boston Marathon 2018: Squishy-Shoe Running

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This must be a sign!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_0382

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Best Films I Saw in 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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