Tuesday, September 29, 2009


Years ago, when I was about 13, I started running. Our next door neighbor, Hal, was a slightly overweight guy who liked to run. One day he invited me along. He was a fun guy with a collection of campaign memorabilia from the sixties and seventies - some of it extraordinarily valuable. He'd even been McGovern's state campaign manager for Kansas. He was well read, married to a beautiful ceramic artist, had a great dog, and didn't once ever treat me like a kid.

When we started to run, I was in pretty good teenage shape. Back then, there wasn't a lot on tv, and the internet, let alone computers, weren't even on the radar. Papers due in school were still typed out, and White Out was a best-selling product. So I hadn't yet developed the bad habit of sitting in front of a screen for hours, sucking down soda and popping chips into my mouth (that would come later).

Anyway, Hal was into LSD... that's Long Slow Distance running - get your mind out... So each day after school (me) and work (him), the two of us would set off on a run averaging 2-4 miles. On the weekends, we'd do a run that was a bit longer, and then take the following day off in order to let the lactic acid that had built up over the week diminish.

I quickly fell in love with the sport. Running is so basic. All you need is a good pair of shoes. It is also a sport where you mainly compete against yourself going for longer distances or better PRs as you progress. And progression is rapid. You might start out running and walking a mile and finishing the workout completely exhausted, dripping with sweat, and feeling as though you're about to do a Linda Blair from that one scene in the Exorcist. But within a couple of weeks, that mile seems easy, and you've gone onto two, then three... I view running a lot like painting a house. It is one of the few things in life you can do where you can see the results of your work.

Hal and I ran for years. We started to run road races. My first one was a 4th of July race in Lenexa, Kansas. It was a seriously hot day. I was a bit overwhelmed by the number of people there. I ran a crappy race, was ditched by Hal and our other partner, Steve, by mile three, and finished the race about as ill as I've ever been in an embarrassing time - 6.2mi in 54 min. For a teenage 'athlete,' that was demoralizing. By the time our next race rolled around, I was wary, but I did a lot better. On the final 6.2 I did during that time, I had my best race ever. There were a lot of serious track people in that race. The course was as flat as a pane of glass. When the race started, I kid you not, every single runner except for six of us took off and was out of sight by the end of the first mile. The follow car, even pulled in front of us at one point, and gave us a half mile of sucking in its exhaust. But that day I felt great. I told my partners I was going to run ahead. So I set out on a 6 min/mi ish pace, and started to see some people ahead of me. By the race's end, I had caught every runner I could see. And, while still finishing in something like 89th place (out of 120), I considered this my best race ever. I had shattered my previous PRs, and could have gone around the course a second time.

Horrible races, for me, came when I changed distances. I once did the Hospital Hill run in KC. It is a nine or so mile run that goes up and down some serious hills. We arrived at the finish line before the start of the race, and boarded buses that took all of the runners over the course to the start - nine+ miles away. I remember very well at age 16, sitting in the back of the bus and getting scared about the hills and the distance. It didn't help that Hal, who had done the NYC Marathon a couple of times by then, and Steve, were both in seats next to me psyching me out by talking about how hard the hills were, how long the course was, and how hot the day was going to be. I won't go into the gory details of the race. But, at one point an emergency service worker looked at me as I ran by and shook his head. At another point, I was passed by a very overweight girl running along with a hairbrush in her hand (she'd accidentally taken it on the bus to the start, and didn't want to lose it). It took me a loooong time to get over that experience.

When I went to college, my runs with Hal ceased. I had moved across town, and ran a bit with friends, but had lost the fun, kindred spirit that I had in Hal. I entered a couple of races. Dnf'd one, and actually won my age group in another - a 3.1 mi race in a downpour that I completed in 16min and change. After that race though, I never really ran again.... until about two years ago.

When I took up running again, now 20+ years after I ran my last road race at age 19, my pant size was 40. I worked out a lot, but I also ate a lot. I biked a great deal and played some tennis. For the past decade, though, biking had been my main sport, with huge rides completed across several states and, in one case, France. A bicycling coach and I recently had a conversation. When I mentioned that, while I still bike a bit, I had switched to running, he said that he could tell because I'd lost a lot of weight. His thought was that biking, while a great sport, makes one hungry, while running seems to suppress the appetite. Only speaking personally, I tend to agree with that comment. While I had been in great shape, I was pretty overweight before I took up running.

And, the years were not kind when I started to run again at the high school track near my house. I jogged each day for 1 mile. Each time I finished, I'd be absolutely exhausted and drenched with sweat. The jogging wasn't fun at all. I felt this huge mass of flesh from my groin up to my neck jostle up and down with each step. I went through a bit of self-loathing when I thought about where I used to be in the sport, and compared that to where I was now. But you know, something happened that was wonderful. Each day for a couple of weeks, I did the same thing; jogging a mile and then slowly adding a walk/jog of a quarter mile at the end. Pretty soon, I was jogging a full two miles, which for me was (and I still think is) a major accomplishment. The mass that I carried with me slowly began to diminish, along with an appetite for large meals. Pretty soon, to make the jogs/runs more interesting, I got in my car, and began mapping out 2, 3, 4, and (gasp) 6 mile routes in my neighborhood and the surrounding countryside. And over the course of the next year, I was able to do them all. Pounds fell off, and my waist size went to 32.

I now have a certain joy when I run. It is a joy of self-knowledge, of limits being tested, being self-sufficient, and being proactive. While it was fun to run for year with a partner, I rarely go out with anyone else these days. The solitude I am provided each day allows for some real me time. There's no bullshit when you run. It is just you and the road. You know your speed, strength, and stamina. When I go out around 5 in the a.m. I have a chance to look at a calm world on an equal footing with it (not glazed over by the windshield of my car). It really helps me get through the day. I'm a bit ADD(my friends reading this are probably laughing at the words a bit), so if I miss a day I kind of freak out. But it's a trade I'll take. It is rare to find something so basic that one can enjoy so much. Running brings solitude, contemplation, and a sense of well-being to me, while bettering my health. There is little else that can match it.

I'll certainly have more on running in the future, but for now....

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Pahking Cahs In Hahvad Yahd

Tomorrow, I'll be flying out of the flyover states, heading to the East Coast. The plan is to spend a few days on Cape Cod, followed by a few days in Boston working a trade show. Everything about the Cape is lovely this time of year - the trees changing colors as Fall descends, beautiful beaches returning to long flat plains of deserted sand as the Summer tourist season ends, lighthouses flashing along the coastline. The only drawback to the place is the people.

... and I used to think New Yorkers were rude. Well, they've got nothing on the Cape Codders. What a passel of grumps and curmudgeons! Last year when two friends and I rented a place on the beach in Orleans (a freaking gorgeous town), the dashing Christopher and I got yelled at by the rental's owner for picking up fallen branches from the backyard of our own cottage. Later, Chris' spouse, the ravishing Marisa, got a tongue lashing (and not in the good way) from a local who was upset that she had tagged along on a free tour, and was taking pictures of a lighthouse. Finally, the three of us got hissed at by an angry queen for walking across a parking lot in Provincetown. If I'd met him in a bar, we'd probably have gone home together; but cut across his restaurant's parking lot and look out, because this cat's not declawed. It was all a bit disconcerting. By the time we left, we were actually looking forward to our arrival in Boston so that we might experience a level of civility (a characteristic not generally associated with that city).

As I stated earlier, Cape Cod is lovely this time of year, so we're heading back for more. Now that I know which parking lot to avoid (seriously not even a toe will cross that property line), we three have rented a pretty little place in Provincetown. I'm really looking forward to visiting the array of excellent art galleries on (or near) Commercial Street. There is good biking, running, OK dining, decent clubs/bars (so I hear) and views to die for. We've got wheels, so we'll be able to hit some of the other towns (I love Wellfleet, Hyannis, and Chatham).

Then it's on to Beantown - a city I'm beginning to like.
This will probably be the last posting for the next week or so. I don't know when I'll have time to write. House-sitters and kitty watchers have been hired (if one can call dumping one's cat at the parents' house 'hiring'). We're ready to go.
One final note: Apparently a senator from Mississippi has introduced legislation to allow passengers to have guns in checked luggage on Amtrak. The guns must be in a hard case, unloaded, and be declared by the passenger (much like with airlines today). If Amtrak doesn't comply with the bill when it becomes law, the railroad will lose federal funding. What makes this bill even dumber than the usual Mississippi-stupid, is that I can't recall a time when riding Amtrak where any bag (checked or carry-on) was even given a glance by an Amtrak employee. So it seems pretty meaningless and very costly as Amtrak will have to implement new procedures and hire and train new staff to comply. It seems that the senator, you guessed it, a Republican, is defacto expanding a federal program needlessly and thereby creating more government spending. But, on second thought, maybe he's right. We all know how well guns and trains have mixed historically. Why I can barely think of trains (or cars, or boats, bicycles, and Segways) without thinking of guns...

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

To take a step back from politics and health care reform, I've decided to devote this blog to the many fine series available on DVD. I am a huge fan of foreign films - mainly French, Spanish, Belgian, and Mexican/Latin American. Some US indie films, and a very few 'major motion pictures also float my boat. I do, I'll admit, prefer to watch most flicks on DVD rather than go to a theater. When I'm in LA, and have a chance to see a movie at the Arc Light, Mann's, or the Egyptian, I do enjoy that immensely. But otherwise, unless there is some quirky arts theater nearby I stay home. The flyover states are full of box buildings with multiple screens (usually disappointingly small), garish lobbies, pricey sugar and fat that has been manipulated into different forms to add value, and a general vibe that makes film-goers feel like cattle at a feedlot being ushered into separate pens. The one good thing I can say about the 'plexes' is that they usually have pretty comfy seats.... But then again, so does my living room.

Whenever I feel that I've spent too many hours reading subtitles or translating in front of the little screen, I have a tendency to look for series - usually from places like HBO and Showtime, but sometimes from other places like the BBC. I love series because if I find the right one, I can fall into that world for a period ranging from several days to weeks. I don't have to learn new characters, read subtitles, judge new camera work, direction, or film editing. I also am absolved of the chore of picking out new movies from Netflix, and screwing around with the queue. I simply move the entire series to my top picks, and they show up in order. OK enough about that. Here are some of my favorite series in no particular order. They're all good for different reasons.

Shameless - A British series about a family that somehow functions despite their dysfunction. Funny and touching. Only the first season is available in the US (at least formatted for our types of DVD players). I rented this on a whim, and am glad I did. I've made a bunch of inquiries to see when other seasons will be available, but have no answer at present.

Entourage - One of my most recent favs. Watch it after the kiddies are in bed (those of you that choose to overpopulate our planet). I think I spent more ass-time on the couch watching episode after episode for this series that any other. It is such a special show that I even overcame my previously visceral reaction to Jeremy Piven (I now see what others see in him) who's character is one of the two most interesting on the show.

Curb Your Enthusiasm - What can I say. As good as Seinfeld. The supporting characters are perfectly suited as foils for Larry David.

The Office (UK version) - As much as I like the folks in Scranton, the blokes in Slough are better. Disturbing and funny as hell.

Queer as Folk (UK and US versions) - While the shows have nothing to do really with gay life in Manchester or Pittsburgh, they are hot, topical, and unashamedly gay - showing things you might not have seen outside of a pron theater ( and by outside, I mean inside). Watch the UK version first. You can then blow off the first few shows of the US one which pretty much copies the UK content before splitting off on its own direction.

Band of Brothers - I watched the whole series one Christmas Holiday break when I was flu-ridden. It is a wonderful historical story that everyone should see. It gave me a real appreciation for the feel of the time and situation, and more respect for my elders who served. A couple of great movies to watch in conjunction dealing with the Japanese theater rather than the Atlantic are: Flags of our Fathers, and the truly amazing Letters from Iwo Jima.

Danger UXB - So let's continue on with WWII. This amazing series follows a team who work with bomb disposal in the London area during the war. It is very British and very tense. There is a new movie out this year dealing with bomb disposal in Iraq. I'd suggest seeing UXB first. It first aired in the US on Masterpiece Theater. And as a kid, it was the first Masterpiece Theater thing I'd ever watched - back then, I though Masterpiece Theater was about as exciting as staring at a white wall.

The Sopranos - Who could leave this off a list? It's a hard mob life for us. Tony and his crew strong arm their way into our hearts with each episode. Brilliant scripts, shooting (the film kind) and acting make this one of the best series ever.

Weeds - There is nothing ticky tacky going on in the little boxes that make up the characters' homes in Agrestic, a So Cal planned-development community. In each episode you root for Nancy to be able to make her deals, grow her crop, improve its quality, and be a good mother to her family. The characters all develop and grow as the series move along (not always in a completely realistic fashion). I'm through season 4 at the moment, and am looking forward to #5.

Skins (UK series 1) - Bad, bad teenagers. They do so much drugging, fornicating, and partying, that it is hard to believe that they have time to make other poor choices as well. Yet the always seem to find the time. This show is a bit of a guilty pleasure. Skins is kind of like a British version of Saved By The Bell - if Zach and Slater spent their days getting it on with their women and each other which high on whatever prescription drugs were in their parents' cabinets. The jury's still out on series 2 which still is in the character-development phase in the US airings.

The Black Adder Goes Forth (UK) - This short series set in WWI may be one of the funniest things to ever grace tv. Don't get up to go to the bathroom during an episode or you'll miss some pithy bon mots and set ups.

Others you might want to watch:

Sex and the City - I have to be in the mood to hang with Carrie and the gang.

Extras - Love it, just not as much as the above.

The Tudors - Haven't seen it, but I have friends clamoring for me to watch it.

Project Runway - Bravo, Bravo for coming out with this reality show. One of the few that is informative and begs to be mimicked by all watching during each episode.

If anyone has suggestions, I am always looking for more of these to watch. I'll try never to do spoilers on any shows, films or series I write about (unless I hate them - watch out Titanic and The English Patient).

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Health Care Reform

Recently, the older brother of a friend of mine died after heart surgery. With the exception of a heart condition, he was fit, ate right, and didn't smoke. He was in his late 50's, and for some time his doctor had advised him to get surgery to correct his condition. But he waited until it was really too late, hoping to hold out until he was old enough to qualify for Medicare to cover the cost of the operation. When he finally collapsed, and was too weak to weather the surgery. He died waiting to grow old enough to have coverage. So, he died years early and with a hospital bill. Nice.

As a self-employed person who was a relatively successful artist, and quite a successful landlord/property owner, he was never able to afford good insurance coverage. With a pre-existing condition, I doubt he would have been covered for what he really needed if he had gotten a policy.

What bothers me is that we Americans all know someone who has made a hard medical decision because of the cost of care and difficulties with insurance. Yet many of us choose to do nothing to fix a system so broken that we need only to look at our friends, families, or neighbors to see those victimized by the status quo.

It's the added government bureaucracy...It's the cost...It's the infringement on our freedoms,
people whine. They are wrong, however for several reasons:

First, if people are worried about a bureaucracy, it seems to me that having one government agency (which could be incorporated with Medicare) overseeing a public option, would have a much smaller bureaucracy than the multiple insurance companies and state insurance commissioners and their own bureaucracies which oversee the current system.

Second, the cost would not necessarily go up. Due to large-scale rate negotiations, increased competition, fewer emergency room visits, and more preventative care, the public option might well cost less, and cause those of us paying high premiums for private coverage to see our rates fall.

Third, and most absurd, are the arguments about socialism and fascism (they really need to make up their minds which one of these it is) going hand-in-hand with increased government involvement in health care. I notice that the people making these arguments never take the opportunity to discuss in any detail Medicare, Social Security (other than to say it's failing - even as they cash their checks), the postal service, our armed forces, fire departments, police departments, you get the idea...

The truth is that the government is deeply involved in all of our lives, usually for the collective good. To get to an anti-public health care rally, I'm guessing that most of the attendees rode over publicly-funded streets, lanes, and highways; drove in vehicles that were filled with government-mandated safety features; breathed air kept relatively clean... you guessed it, by government mandated clean-air regulation. I've noticed that there has been a bit of discussion about the postal service's rates rising as it is going broke. My response would be that a) other major parcel services have also raised their rates during this same period, and b) due to email/internet communications (oh, dear, another government creation), that we have collectively saved a bundle on postage over the past decade using this new form of seriously cheap communication. Government is not a business. Government, when it is working correctly, is an entity that should exist to enhance and protect our lives. And on most levels, it does a very good job.

Ultimately, health care is something so basic and so necessary that government should ensure that we all have access to it whether or not it is publicly-funded for those of us who haven't reached our sixties (where the current government program starts). Frankly, I'm much less concerned about a few illegal aliens getting a medical freebie than I am about my friends, family, and neighbors having access to quality affordable care. If we'd had this option even a year ago, maybe my friend's brother would still be alive.