Monday, January 8, 2018

A Nod to Rick Bragg- A Re-Re-Re Repost

In honor of Alabama playing in the BCS , FBS Championship game tonight in, PasadenaNew OrleansMiami, Atlanta... I thought I'd put this out there for everyone again.  And in case anyone is wondering, yes, I'll be watching, and cheering my heart out for Alabama...but I just might be wearing an orange shirt...

“Who are you for?” is usually one, of the first of two questions a person is asked, when they relocate to Alabama from out of state.  If you reply with an SEC team other than Alabama or Auburn, you may or may not meet with approval, but you are automatically granted a degree of respect.  Mentioning a team from up north like Syracuse, Nebraska or Oregon will get you a head tilt and some cocked eyebrows, but folks will at least know where you stand. 

Answering with “Well, I didn’t go to school in this state and I don’t really care much about football ”, is a common, though ill advised, answer.  Alabama folks have heard this before from multitudes of displaced Yankees, who seem to get some wicked thrill, pretending not to notice that down here, football is important.   It’s not an original answer.  It is, however, equivalent to declaring atheism when asked the second of the two questions, which is usually, “Where do you go to church”?

If you declare an SEC team, that’s at least like answering the church question with Baptist, Methodist or A.M.E.  It may not be their church, but they know where you stand and will honor your beliefs.  Proclaiming loyalty to a team from an “up North” conference will buy you slightly more suspicion, say on the order of claiming that you are either Jewish or Mormon,  but you will still be welcomed with open arms to the brotherhood of Monday morning quarterbacking.

I know this from personal experience.  I used to be that ugly Yankee that feigned ignorance to the phenomena of southern football.   After a while, it just becomes tiresome for everyone involved.  What I’ve also learned, is that it’s much more fun, to join in the fun. 

I’m going to pass along a little personal advice to any future Yankees that may be locating to Alabama in the future.

Pick a team. 

You don’t have to run out and buy season tickets; just be polite.  

Pick a team.  Any team.

 I know you probably don’t care, not yet anyway.  It doesn’t matter.   Watch a game, or at least pay attention to the highlights on the news at night.  Be able to name a player or two, and the coach.   Pick a team whose colors you wouldn’t mind adding to your wardrobe, then wear those colors to work on Friday with everyone else and talk a little trash.  Who knows, after a while, you might find yourself at a local sports bar watching the game with a bunch of rabid fans.

 You will tell yourself that you are not really there for the football. 

You will rationalize your presence by noting that the place does have a really good selection of your favorite microbrews. 

Oh and by the way, the game is on and you are wearing the right colors.

That’s how it starts…

Talking about football is the sacred, social grease in the wheels, down here.  In most places, people talk about the weather when they need to break the ice with a stranger.  Down here, weather is no benign, neutral topic.  People live with constant, tragic reminders of deadly tornadoes and storms. No one opens a conversation with a stranger by saying, “nice weather we’re having lately?”.

No, they ask each other how they think their team is doing, they question whether or not the coach made the right decisions the previous week, or they may even ask for prayer to heal an injury to a key player.   I have seen shared football stories, memories of triumph on the gridiron, or even playful needling by rivals, create smiles, in the saddest of times and places.  

After living nearly 25 years down here, I’ve learned to fit in.  I love Alabama.  Nowadays, when someone asks me “who I’m for”, I tell them Auburn.  They don’t have to know I picked Auburn merely because their colors happen to be similar to one of the teams I left back home, the N.Y. Mets.  I like orange and blue more than I like crimson and white but that’s ok.    I suppose if any of the team uniforms in Alabama had pinstripes, this N.Y. Yankee would have to, “be for them”, as well.

In a recent article in ESPN magazine, Rick Bragg remarked that “In order to understand football’s place in the south, you first have to see it from the inside”. 

He’s right.

 I have also discovered that in order to understand Alabama’s place in the world, you have to see it from outside the United States.    

10,000 miles away at about 14,000 feet of elevation was where I caught that glimpse. On the slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro, 2 degrees of latitude below the equator, one of the Tanzanian guides asked me where, in America, I was from.  Back then, I wasn’t completely comfortable with the notion of saying that I was “from” Alabama, but I didn’t want to have to launch into a long, complicated explanation about the difference between where I was born, versus where I currently live.  I also figured he’d probably never heard of it and so it would be something unique to discuss.

I was wrong. 

The word “Alabama” had barely finished resonating, when the guide punched his hand in the air and yelled, "Rolllllllllll Tide!" with perfect inflection.  I was stunned and amazed as tears suddenly filled my eyes.  In that instant I became proud of my adopted home.  Several days later a security agent at the airport in Amsterdam, struck up a conversation with me at the gate access.  After asking me where I was heading, she sealed the deal for me right then and there by launching into a lovely, a cappella, version of Sweet Home Alabama.  

For outsiders, I could see that it might get a bit confusing, because sometimes the word “Alabama” refers to the State of Alabama, and at other times, it is a reference to the University of Alabama, and more specifically, the football team. 

In my travels around the world, I managed to learn what the rest of the world somehow already knew about Alabama.  It just took me a little longer than most, to figure out. The whole world knows that down here, Alabama is football, and football is Alabama.

Auburn fans understand about that.

They smile and forgive it.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Last Cowboy in Paris

“Don’t worry about me, I’m an American. Have gun, will travel.”
–Lady Grantham "Downton Abbey"

Apparently Americans travel pretty well these days, with or without guns.

I will admit that, I, along with the rest of the country, swelled up more than a tiny bit with pride when the news broke about “3 U.S. Marines” stopping a terror attack on a French train. Later, as the press finally bothered to sort out who they actually were, the story changed.  

 The heroes were composed of a group of three friends, only 2 of whom had military backgrounds, all dressed in civilian clothing: a U.S.A.F. medical technologist, an Army national guardsman from Oregon, and a civilian college student.  It struck me as odd as to why they presumed the heroes to be marines in the first place, particularly since no one was wearing a uniform of any kind.  It should be noted that since so few reporters these days, have ever served in the military, most would probably not know the difference between a soldier, sailor, airmen or marine if they were standing before them in full dress uniform.  Regardless, getting the story right has never been much of priority for the press, and now it seems, inventing the stories is pretty much standard procedure.

My guess, is that the press presumed that only a marine would have the guts, as well the capability, of taking down an armed assailant.  I am a big fan of the U.S. Marine Corps and hold a soft spot in my heart for all of them.  Marines are legendary for being among the most highly skilled, dedicated and selfless warriors and quite deservedly so, but they hold no monopoly on courage.   

Furthermore, having  had combat training is no guarantee of heroism (though of course it helps).  I can tell you first hand, that Air Force basic training does not entail any combat training other than shooting an M16 at a target for qualification.

Unlike the press, I believe that many, if not most of us, have the capacity to take the same sort of courageous action, with or without specialized training.  The instinct to protect is embedded in the human psyche.  It is further enhanced by a society that values and encourages a spirit of independent thought and action. 

Skarlatos, one of the three Americans, when interviewed, mentioned that their training “kicked in after the struggle”.  What mattered, what came first, was the instinct to act. 

So why was it, that only the 3 Americans on that train took immediate action? (There were 2 Europeans who did pitch in once the terrorist was engaged-but I am focused here on the Americans because they were the first to immediately and reflexively respond)

Admitting my bias, I’d like to think it is a uniquely American trait, but it is more specific than that.   It was “cowboy”. 

A hundred years ago, the myth of the American Cowboy as an archetype was acclaimed; a bit rough around the edges and coarse, yes, but free from the societal constraints that governed the lives of the aristocracy. The independent spirit, resilience and self reliance, was admired by many Europeans, and held in high regard. 

Even the dialogue from a Downton Abbey episode manages to convey the international admiration of the period:

After Mary Crawley breaks her engagement to a cruel, malicious fiancĂ©, her father, Lord Grantham consoles her and says, “I want a good man for you, a brave man. Go find a cowboy in the Middle West and bring him back to shake us up a bit.”

These days, the spirit of the American cowboy is often mocked around the world, portrayed as a boorish, unintelligent dinosaur, somehow out of step with modern values.  

This does not surprise me.

One does not have to look far back in history to find the negative, cartoon caricatures of George Bush or Ronald Reagan- both often portrayed as Neanderthals or chimps wearing cowboy hats. 

An increasingly politically correct, European culture has most people convinced that, outsourcing responsibility for our personal safety and security to governmental authorities, is the more noble and prudent thing to do. 

Standing up and fighting back is branded as being brutish or uncultured; that to cower and beg for mercy from our adversaries is somehow morally superior and infinitely more civilized.

Remember the images of the Charlie Hebdo attacks?  

Someone please explain to me what was noble or civilized about the images of that unarmed police officer, begging in vain for his life?

Is it any wonder that when a situation does arise, they tremble in fear?  

People that do not depend on the collective, or rely on the presumption that it is someone else’s job to save them, tend to act, rather than wait to be told what to do in any given situation.

Sadly, our current cultural elites look to Europe as a fountain of inspiration.  They work tirelessly to have us emulate into law, these so called "progressive" and presumably enlightened, European ideals, forgetting the fact that the majority of our current population consists of the descendants of people who fled that continent, in bold rejection of its principles.

Today's progressives bear the shameful legacy of the Berlin coffeehouse intellectuals of the 1930's. The same ones who discounted and dismissed the growing menace of the Nazi's rise to power, because in their collective minds, "Germany, was much too civilized for any of that nonsense."

I now see our values under a similar sort of attack by hysterical, pearl-clutching urbanites who swoon at the mere mention of the word “gun”.  If these people have their way, we would all be cast into the fantasy world of their imaginings-that happy place where we can always count on a terrorist's love of humanity to keep us from harm.

Thankfully, not everyone is buying that message. 

Incidents like the one that took place on that Paris train, restore my faith in America, and more importantly, my faith that the cowboy spirit still lives on in each of us.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Radio Blah Blah

"I'm well past the age where I'm acceptable. You get to a certain age and you are forbidden access. You're not going to get the kind of coverage that you would like in music magazines, you're not going to get played on radio and you're not going to get played on television. I have to survive on word of mouth".

"Music itself is going to become like running water or electricity".
-David Bowie

I do not get too bent out of shape when celebrities die. There’s no way I could feel emotion for someone I never knew.  

 I may momentarily pause, and, if I was a fan of their body of work, if they were some sort of artist, I take note and acknowledge that they have performed their last.  There’s no grief involved; perhaps a touch of nostalgia as I recall the period in my life that coincided with whatever it was they were famous for.  If I do mourn at all, it will be for death of all that is, or was, original.

 David Bowie’ death will be the constant hot topic of conversation for the Twitterati for about 5 minutes, then everyone will share someone else's something about it on Facebook.  
Again, I don’t really care.  I liked David Bowie. I would consider myself a fan.  I liked several of his songs, I owned several LP’s, but I have never been someone who idolized celebrities.

Why should I? Why should anyone?

Even David Bowie himself mocked celebrity worship in his music.  “The papers all want(ed) to know which shirts…” Major Tom wore, but in the end, he rode that spaceship away from all the insanity on earth. 

Everyone will say all the appropriate things, there will be numerous tributes about what a great artist he was, how he was so important for reasons x, y, and z,  and then everyone goes back to the silence.  It will serve as historical back fill for millennials because they weren't yet born during the years when he'd released a great deal of his music.

I am old enough to remember the day Elvis died.  Almost every radio station in New York City switched over to playing his music, talking about him, reminiscing.  I managed to record nearly 3 hours worth of Elvis music and memories on to some 8 track tapes during this time.  I also remember the death of John Lennon.  Same thing happened.  Many radio stations played only Beatles music for days, indulged us with some concert and interview memories and it all seemed appropriate, whether you were a big fan or not.  We all commiserated together, or so it seemed.

Now?  “The circuit’s dead, there’s something wrong…”

“All we hear is “Radio Gaga”, as Freddy Mercury predicted.

Only since the news of David Bowie’s death did I also hear it mentioned that he had a new album out.
Where was it?  I guess it was available on some trendy satellite or internet station, but I was not in that loop. 

When was the last time anyone heard or played one of those influential, groundbreaking David Bowie songs on a local radio station?
When was the last time anyone heard a DJ actually mention the name of the song that had just played?  

Do we even have DJ’s anymore?

I’m sure I could conjure up a Pandora station consisting exclusively of David Bowie music, but who else would be listening along with me? 

People experience music in isolation now.  Everything is so compartmentalized.  It's even getting harder to share a freaking pot of coffee because most of it now comes in individually wrapped, single serve pods.  This leaves us little choice in how we may prepare it. 

What if I like mine stronger, damn it?

Now, I’m surrounded by zombies with head phones, tuning out the world, as they pick and choose every song.  We possess the power to create our own personal radio stations, with endless options and a million choices. We don't own any of it and we listen to it all, in perfectly noise canceled silence.


Who is really doing the programming?

The few radio stations remaining are so tightly formatted and predetermined, that other than a mention of David Bowie’s death on the news, you’d never know a pop star had died.

I don't "Heart" radio.

Then there’s the matter of which format he would fit into now. Which station would play his new album? The old AOR format was quite broad, but now…there are a thousand shades and flavors of “rock”.

Classic Rock?  Modern Rock? Genuine Classic Rock? Top 40? Soft Rock? Hard Rock?  Adult rock and roll? Adult contemporary music? Adult oriented pop music? Progressive rock? 

The options are mind boggling and I have no idea how to figure out what music would be played on which station. 

 Words and time are twisted and bent. 

Would Bowie's old song, “Modern Love” be played on the Modern Rock format?  

How old is too old to be modern? How old is “oldie”?

Are oldies classic? Are classic hits oldies?

There’s a code here, where's the key?

What’s the alternative? Oh, Alt Rock? Adult Alternative?

Alternative to what? 

How did that happen anyway?

 In the early 1980’s, pirate and college radio stations played a wide variety of music by artists that were relatively unknown, not yet successful, as an “alternative” to what was commercially available.  
The whole point of “alternative” was that there...WAS NO FORMAT.

The DJ’s were free to play anything they wanted.

Now, nothing breaks through the airwaves that is not first filtered by a rigidly constrained, deliberately designed, marketing demographic that satisfies the database masters.

Radio is dead.

We are not free.

Can you hear us Major Tom?

We can’t hear you.

"And there goes the last DJ
Who plays what he wants to play
And says what he wants to say
Hey, hey, hey
And there goes your freedom of choice
There goes the last human voice
And there goes the last DJ"
-Tom Petty

Apologies to Freddy Mercury for the title.
I know he'd agree.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Say It Ain't So, Joe!

“Always go to other people’s funerals, otherwise, they won’t come to yours.”
-Yogi Berra

Dear Yogi,
I've thought about you, on and off over the past few years. I’ve wondered how you were. I’d reread the bio on your website because it was comforting to know that you were still on this earth.

Until today.
Everyone always managed a good chuckle at your famous quotes and they get thrown around the internet every so often. You were always so gracious when people poked fun at you for the crazy things you said.
Except I never thought they were crazy; they made perfect sense to me.
I got you, Yogi.
I always knew what you meant.
I was a huge baseball fan as a kid and because I grew up in N.Y, that made you a part of my childhood memories. I loved the Mets AND the Yankees.  They were my teams and part of my city.  I didn't understand rooting against either.  Maybe it was because I did not grow up during the days of the cross town rivalries and subway series of the Yankees vs. the Dodgers or the Giants.  I can’t really speak to that, but, dear Yogi, that doesn’t really matter.  I’ve moved away from NY, and been gone a long time.  I’ve drifted away from baseball too, although deep down I still love the game.  Baseball is part of me.  It’s part of this country in many ways and I know that as a WWII veteran, as a man who faced the guns and blood on the beaches of Normandy, you knew that too.
You knew what was important.
Then you came home and found yourself playing baseball. I can’t imagine how much easier it must have been to stand at the plate against a Bob Feller fastball, compared to Normandy.  Anything you did after that must have been a joy by comparison.
And so it was for you, because it showed. We could see it.
Everything you did in baseball, was done with gratitude.

You were a real screwball but you loved the game, and you played it well.  But there was more to it.  It was as though, every time you stepped up the plate, or caught the ball, you were amazed that you were able to make your living doing something you loved.  It showed.  Your joy and wonder, yes, wonder is the right word, was ever present. Every time you stepped on the field, to hit, to catch, to coach or manage, your sense of wonder was palpable. Everyone could see it and feel it.  That’s what made you special.
You loved the fans, and they loved you back.  You acted the way most of us would like to think we would act, if we suddenly found ourselves in your place, with your special gifts. You were not the slick, handsome celebrity-type, like Joe DiMaggio. He was a great Yankee, and everyone admired him, but you Yogi, were beloved. Your down to earth manner, humility and sense of humor endeared you to everyone, including your rivals.
We saw ourselves in you, Yogi.  
You never disappointed us.
Baseball is full of metaphors for life and they are so much a part of our language that most people probably do not realize just how pervasive, how embedded in our thought processes, “baseball speak” is.  Every time we “swing for the fences”, or ask for a “ballpark figure”, because we want to make sure we have “all our bases covered”, or we pray never to get “thrown a curve” because” there’s two strikes against us”, that’s baseball talk.

We know we have succeeded in life when we are “ready for the majors” or someone calls us a “heavy hitter”.  When we want to “touch base” with someone because we haven’t heard from them in a while, or we decide that some crazy idea came from “out of left field”, we are speaking your language.
You taught us many things.  You were notorious for being a "bad ball" hitter. You always said, "If you could see it, you could hit it".
It’s true, that in baseball, as well as life, you don't always get the perfect pitch to hit.
Swing anyway!
Always go down swinging and never watch the 3rd strike go by.
To be honest, in some crazy way, I never thought you would or could die.  Strange I suppose, but true.  Perhaps I do not want the wonder of it all to disappear.  It’s been hard for me to watch baseball lately.  The game has changed. Not entirely, but change is always inevitable and baseball fans are known for their reluctance to evolve.
I’m proof of that.
It’s been over 40 years, and I’m still bitching about the designated hitter.  Maybe I need to let that go.  I was sad when they built a new Yankee Stadium and I cried when they tore the old one down, but life is constant change and it’s all happened before.  
Maybe I’m the one that needs to make a few adjustments.
I need a reason to watch baseball again.
I’ve been looking for one.  Every once in awhile I flip on a game.  I don’t even know who the players are anymore.  I used to collect all the baseball cards. I used to know everyone’s batting average, but now, I don’t even know their names. Doesn’t matter really.  The moment the pitcher begins their windup, I still hold my breath.  It’s one of the greatest dramatic moments in sports, and it happens over and over, every inning of every game.
After the shock and horror of 9/11 we looked to baseball as a way to heal.   We knew we were going to survive as a nation because we started to play ball, once again.  Maybe I’m being foolish. It’s only a game. But it’s more than that, isn’t it?
Just a few short weeks after the attacks,when President Bush threw out the first pitch at the first World Series game in Yankee stadium, I’d like to think that for that one moment in time, that we as a nation, united in our emotions-set politics aside, and began to recover.
Why does baseball have such a dramatic impact on us?
I can’t speak for everyone, but it always brings tears to my eyes whenever I hear the National Anthem before a game. No one will ever convince me that the words “play ball” are not officially the last two words of that song. It doesn’t matter who plays or sings it, I still cry, because you see Yogi, it’s all jumbled together for me, baseball and childhood and America and you, and I don’t want to lose any of it.
“It ain’t over til it’s over,” you said. You were right.  

It never really is.
You knocked this life out of the park Yogi; I hope your game goes well into extra innings.
Maybe baseball still has something to teach me. Perhaps that’s the excuse I need to start watching again.
I suppose it’s time I got out of the on deck circle and stepped up to the plate.

Monday, March 30, 2015


“Security is mostly a superstition.  It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer, in the long run than outright exposure.  Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing”.

--Helen Keller

After every tragedy that involves numerous casualties has been analyzed from every conceivable angle; after it has been Monday morning quarterbacked to death by the 24 hours news cycle, a mantra is born. It is always the same question, over and over again.  Whether it’s a school shooting or the crash of an airliner, the chant has become: How can we keep this exact circumstance from happening again?

The truth is; it is only possible in retrospect, for every decision to be circumspect.

The litigious society we live in now sees negligence at every turn, demanding that somehow, someone should have seen it coming.  Every tragedy is boiled down to a mere lack of vigilance, the implication being, if somehow we could “increase” our vigilance enough, fate would be assuaged and safety assured. 

Risk management is an oxymoron.

This is dangerous and superstitious thinking.  The scary truth is, we can't foresee or prevent every calamity, no matter how cautious, no matter how many rules, regulations and government security organizations we create.  Our anger and our pain drive us to demand that some “one” or some “thing” be held accountable. We demand action for the future, because in our arrogance we presume that it will tip the scales in our favor. 

In the end, no amount of dancing for lawyers will prevent heartbreak and catastrophe.

We could never fully account for the unintended consequences of every precaution we implement.

Newton’s third law explains this phenomenon better than superstition ever could.

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. 

Terrorists busting down your cockpit doors? 

Make the doors stronger, unbreakable from the outside.

So unbreakable, that a suicidal co-pilot may now effectively lock a pilot out of the cockpit.

 No amount of desperate pounding on the now impenetrable doors will gain him entry in order to save the plane and the lives on board.

It’s an ever escalating arms race of impossible-to-anticipate circumstances. The airline will still be held to task about why they didn’t anticipate this scenario and plan accordingly. 

Perhaps if the doctors had reported his issues we’d all be safe now.  Why stop at pilots?  Why not bus drivers, truck drivers, taxi drivers, architects, construction workers, chefs, teachers, data entry clerks, train engineers, everyone who drives a car, doctors, nurses, lawyers… Why specifically call out pilots? Is it because of the high profile nature of the event?  On any given day, aren’t we all personally responsible for the safety and well being of others we encounter?
Do we believe there will now be an epidemic of this type of behavior in the future that we must act to prevent, or can we view this as the one off, terrible tragedy that it is?

Do we really want to give up all personal privacy to combat the off chance that someone, somewhere, will do something, stupid?

 Will it help?
It’s been said that we always fight the current war with the weapons and strategies of the previous war.  That is a testament to the concept that we cannot anticipate every scenario.  We can only plan for things we are familiar with.  For every strategy we devise, whether for the battle field or personal safety, there will always be a way to countermand it.

Whether we choose to admit it or not, we rely upon strangers every day of our lives.  Sadly, there seems to be an increasing number of people who do not concern themselves with how their behavior impacts others.  Narcissistic, me first, “selfie culture” seems to permeate everything. While this may be mostly benign, or harmless, there are some seriously disconnected, mentally ill people out there.  We want try to understand and be forgiving when someone commits suicide, but we are completely horrified and dismayed at the utter selfishness of taking innocent victims along for the ride.  Will greater societal restrictions impart greater empathy or a stronger moral compass in these people?  Will they rescue us from the depraved souls walking around the edge of acting out their maniacal fantasies?

Probably not.

Almost all of the school shootings in the past 20 years have involved psychotropically medicated, socially maladjusted boys, acting out in ways that, while there may have been “signs” that something was amiss, could not have been accurately predicted.  This doesn’t stop the media from pointing fingers in every direction and demanding to know why a tragedy was permitted to happen.  In the case of the Germanwings copilot, a doctor did eventually declare him unfit for work, but ultimately it was up to the pilot to obey the orders. 

He chose not to.

Regardless, living in a free society requires a peculiar type of faith. We are obligated to trust that the car coming towards us does not cross the double yellow line, whether due to negligent behavior, accident or malicious intent...that the bus driver doesn't drive the bus off a cliff, that the truck driver isn’t falling asleep at the wheel, that the person entering our medical information does not confuse us with someone else, that the food we eat is safe, that we get the right medication, or that the pilot flying our plane isn't suicidal that day. 

These heartbreaking instances, while rare, make us fully aware of our powerlessness, of our lack of control. The first knee jerk reaction is to reach for more control, more restrictions, and legislation.  If we were to be truly honest we would realize that more laws do not put us more in control, nor do they increase safety.

While it is important to learn from our mistakes, none of us may predict the future.

The problem is that no one in the public realm will admit this.

We have always had to rely on our fellow human beings to do the right thing. 

Human beings are flawed creatures and therein lies the problem.  
We demand perfection from imperfect beings. 

Thursday, August 7, 2014


“The real difficulty is to overcome how you think about yourself.  If we don't have that, we never grow, we never learn, and sure as hell we should never teach.” 
-Maya Angelou

One Sunday morning, not too long ago, I noticed some runners were still circling the parking lot after they had already finished their weekly long run, or so it seemed.  They kept glancing at their watches and I began to wonder if they were impatiently waiting for others to finish, when it suddenly dawned on me what was going on.

It was not so long ago, that a runner wanting to plan a route would have to get in the car and drive it.  The odometer was the gold standard and a tenth of a mile, here or there, off of the desired distance was not a concern.

Now, thanks to gps watches, everyone knows down to the hundredth of a mile, the exact time, pace and distance they are travelling at any given moment.  Folks who used mapping software to plan their weekly long route of, oh say, 10 miles, will continue to circle the parking lot until the discrepancy between what they charted, matches what their gps watches tell them they have actually covered. 

Perhaps there is something inherent in human nature that gives rise to the desire to finish things off with round, even numbers.

Thanks to a special kind of mental math, claiming a 10 mile training run somehow lends more credibility and a sense of completion to the accomplishment than does claiming a 9.87 mile run.  Not to mention that uploading and sharing 9.87 miles to social media simply screams “unfinished business” to the world. 

Unfinished business is messy and unsettling.

The same is true for race results. Finish times may be disappointing, or they may be a point of pride; a reward for hard work invested. 

Ask anyone involved in racing and they will always prefer a finish time, any finish time, no matter how awful, to the alternative; a DNF.

Did Not Finish.

DNF did not sit well with me.

Several years ago, I climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro. Twice. 

Why twice? Because the first time I took a crack at it, I did not make it to the top.  I vowed to return someday because not completing the journey disturbed me so deeply.  Three years after the first attempt, I returned with a friend and successfully completed the climb.  I cannot begin to describe the feeling of satisfaction other than to remark that the issue was settled and the itch was scratched.

Some say, that a DNF opens a wound that may only be healed by returning to finish another time.

As a newly minted cancer survivor in the spring of 2001, I knew all about wounds.  I was also determined to prove to anyone that cared to notice, that cancer had not diminished me in any way.  Having already been involved in sprint distance triathlons prior to my illness, the Ironman® became my focus and fixation, because it had been billed as the “ultimate test of personal fitness”.

My plans were set to go further and faster than ever before, thus figuratively flipping off anyone, and everything, that haunted me.
In my mind, it was going to take something big to shake off the yoke of victim status.  The medical profession that had completely dismissed me was going have every expectation of failure and catastrophe they threw at me, slung right back in their face.

Ironman® was big.

 After my recovery, rage fueled a ferocious return to my comeback training.  Entire days were spent out on the roads, dividing the hours between running and riding my bike.  Early morning master swim practice was somehow crammed in there as well.  

It was a singular existence. Eat, sleep, train.  Outside of work, it occupied most of my time.

What I discovered out on the road, is that retribution is a fickle motivator and it does not guarantee success. 

I made it to Ironman® but I DNF.  Somewhere around mile 70 of the bike segment, about 40 miles short of the run transition, the pain of a herniated disk in my neck forced me to abandon the race.  As emotionally painful as it was, I rationalized quitting as the safe and prudent thing to do, which it was. 

At that moment, I knew, or thought I knew, that I would be back to prove myself another time. 

After neck surgery to repair the damage, training started all over again, but not to the same degree as before.

As the years passed, I found that was I was left frequently feeling anxious and disappointed because I never did return to Ironman®.  I’d resolve to train more and work my way back to previous levels of intensity, but it never quite materialized.  I’d train some, but never enough.  I’d stress about it and yet was unable to get myself up to speed.

I could make a million excuses as to why - different job, not as much time to train, all legitimate excuses…reasons and yet, not enough. 

Eventually, I recognized that my motivation had shifted and the time had come to make peace with that.

I had nothing to prove to anyone, any longer.  I had accomplished so much, physically, and managed to dismiss all of the negative expectations.  So why was I still anxious?  There was something else I could not quite name banging away at my brain.

In addition to all the indignation I was venting through my training, I discovered I had also become entangled in a compulsion.  I had completely bought into the mentality that endurance sports confirmed that you could, as a matter of fact, “endure” anything.  I had stepped into a world in which stopping was an unacceptable option.  Further and faster was all that mattered and whether or not this contributed positively to one’s well being was never a concern.

Looking back, it was easy to recall the exact moment, over 15 years ago, when the obsession started. My most immediate thought as I crossed the finish line of my first long distance event was:

 “If I can do this, I handle anything that comes my way”. 

I was diagnosed with cancer 5 months later.

I suppose it is a useful metaphor to take into battle, whether it’s a cancer diagnosis, or a tour of duty in Afghanistan, but the ability to "endure" a particularly grueling race doesn't necessarily correspond to improving one’s health or fitness.  This is particularly true, especially when one considers other elements of good physical conditioning such as strength, power and agility. 

Ultra events, into which category the iron distance triathlon belongs, are more properly classified as suffer fests, rather than true tests of overall, personal fitness and health. 

Keep in mind, the iron distance itself, was not developed as a scientific benchmark of health or wellness. 

It is random.  

Worse than random, it is the result of a drunken argument among a few runners, swimmers and cyclists about whose sport was the toughest; which athlete among them the fittest.  They selected the longest distance races of the three local, Hawaiian events for each of their respective sports and threw them all together sequentially.  Scientifically speaking, this experimental endeavor would not even answer the questions they themselves raised.

There’s a vain, egotistical side to all of this as well, that is a bit tougher to own up to, but I’m doing it now.  Most will not admit it, but deep down inside, every triathlete gloats and preens just a little bit when someone calls them out as an overachiever.  I confess; I enjoyed it.   Perhaps it was because I am physically small, but people were often astounded when they heard that I did triathlons.  I’m not exactly sure why, but I imagine it has something to do with the way triathlon is mythologized by society.   It was quite the ego stroke, kick in the pants and pat on the back all rolled into one, whenever someone acknowledged it for me. 

There was an ugly, elitist attitude that went along with it as well.  Snide banter triathletes would engage in when other athletes were around often went something like this:

“Oh you are a runner, that’s nice, how cute.  I run too, after I swim and bike, of course…” 

You may have even seen that crap on a bumper sticker. 

I could have been their poster child.

Reading books by Dean Karnazes did not help the situation any.  I was simultaneously drawn in and repulsed by, everything he describes in Ultramarathon Man. There was something strangely appealing about running all night and ordering a pizza for refueling to be delivered to a street corner in the next town.  I also found myself thinking that he was an annoying, narcissistic jerk as well, and that didn’t bode well for my own self image. Reading his description about his experience at Badwater, kicked something loose.  It had me thinking that perhaps something about extreme endurance racing was not quite right.

 A line had to be drawn somewhere, between healthy activity and insanity.  I had to decide for myself when or where, the finish line of “that’s enough” was.

Badwater, The Ultra-Marathon, claims to be the world’s toughest footrace.  According to the race website:  “Covering 135 miles (217km) non-stop from Death Valley to Mt. Whitney, CA in temperatures up to 130F (55c), it is the most demanding and extreme running race offered anywhere on the planet”.

I suppose that the mental fortitude required to complete any ultra event is admirable, but nowadays I struggle to understand what sort of accomplishment it is to suffer the potential consequences of severe dehydration, kidney damage, heat stroke or death, in a race that someone else dreamed up as a challenge?  

What benefit could it possibly impart to my body? Or anybody’s body?

What is to be gained? Prestige?  Pride?  Bragging rights?  At what cost?

Is it worth it?

To some it must be, but the answers to those questions are ultimately, quite personal.

Was everyone else who participated in these races as furious as I had been?  What drives them? What compels someone whose life is not being threatened, to push themselves to the very edge of survival?

For me, and certainly many other athletes, participation in sports is an avenue of self-expression.  It’s an old clichĂ© that a true artist must suffer for their art, and in that sense, all athletes suffer, to a certain extent, for their sport in various ways.  It’s also been said that a little suffering is good for the soul, but at what point does the suffering become counterproductive?  

I have dubbed myself a "reformed" triathlete.  Years of pushing myself to go further and faster never got me anywhere.  The compulsion to spend endless hours riding the same training routes, eating energy bars and sucking down Gatorade in the hot sun, to the exclusion of all other activities, was gone. 

Once the anger that had been driving me dissolved, once I came to appreciate that stopping, or slowing down was not failure, extreme racing became an unfulfilling, open-ended treadmill.  It was easier than expected to step away.  

It was a relief.

Who’s to say that 140.6 miles imparts better longevity, health or mojo than 70.3 or 26.2, 13.1 6.2, or even 3.1 miles.

Is more of the same, always better?

I suspect the answer will be different for each of us. Everyone needs to seek their own, healthy balance.  For me, that balance has to involve not being so involved, in any, one thing.  Others thrive on the singular focus, so for them it works out. 

I know I’m not alone when it comes to the need to “step away” from triathlon culture.  Recently, while out running with some friends, a guy wearing a souvenir Ironman® singlet struck up a conversation with us out on the road. 

“You guys training or maintaining”? he asked.  We told him we were training and which marathon we were training for.  I gestured to his Ironman® shirt and said, “which one are you training for”?  He threw up his hands with a dismissive wave and said, “Oh I don’t do those anymore.  In fact, I’m thinking about taking up smoking and bull riding instead”. 

I completely understood the sentiment.

Ridding myself of the obsession to be constantly training, or feeling guilty when I wasn’t training, was liberating.  I had forgotten how much fun it is to do other things.  Reading, working in the garden, hanging out and drinking beer with friends and gasp… even playing golf,  are now back on my list of things to do. They are not necessarily focused on improving my VO2max, but what’s the point of being fit, if you can’t enjoy the fitness? 

It had become difficult for me to enjoy these things because even when I allowed myself to partake in those other activities, I was constantly thinking about, how much training time I was losing, how far behind I was falling.  Gradually it dawned on me that training had become more of an obligation in my life and not all that much fun anymore.

It was time to ask myself some hard questions:

Why was it important to go so far? I no longer remembered.

Was killing myself racing the best or most appropriate way, to honor my body and the battle I fought with cancer? Probably not.

It’s been 12 years, have all the wounds healed yet?


Thanks to years of training, I can still swim a mile or 2 or 3 if I need to.  I’m not the fastest or the slowest out there but it doesn’t really matter.  

In this part of the country, riding a bicycle out on the roads is a particularly risky undertaking and I’m no longer willing to endanger my life every time I go for a bike ride.  Riding a bike here is way too stressful for me and certainly not fun.  If we lived somewhere more conducive to bike riding, or if we go on vacation somewhere bike friendly, I’ll ride.

 It is still fun to plan vacations around a destination marathon now and then, for the shared experience and exotic location.  Why not? After all, it is "only a marathon".  That's fun.

By no means should it be construed that I think ultra events shouldn’t exist, or that they are inherently bad or wrong.  I’m glad other people can participate in and enjoy them.  If "enjoy" is the right word for that experience.

What’s different now, is that it’s finally acceptable for me to sit back and marvel at other people testing the limits of human endurance.

Their endurance. Not mine.