Monday, July 30, 2012

Garden and Gun

Dear Garden and Gun Magazine,

Years ago as a member of the U.S. Air Force we would have fun breaking in the newbies by asking them to fetch some “special” items.  We gave them names that made them seem as though they were tangible objects but were actually imaginary and impossible to find.  We would have them running all over the base asking people where they might find a “box of grid squares” or a “spool of flight line”.  The joke was always on them but provided an opportunity for some fun at minimal expense to anyone’s ego.

I am obligated to inform you that you now bear the distinct honor of creating a new item for similar amusement. A true and new oxymoron indeed.  The recipe for Strawberry Moonshine Fried Pies from your  Fried and True article, calls for 3 teaspoons of   “commercial moonshine”.  By its very definition “moonshine” is an illicit distillation so throwing the word “commercial” on it is an affront to the heritage of all of those Appalachian distillers who produced and distributed their whisky by the light of the moon.   I realize you probably meant the legal product that would be similar in proof to the high percentage generally found in moonshine.  You could have mentioned it rather that over extend yourselves in an attempt to make a proud, off the grid product more accessible to the masses.  You extend the outrage further once you listed grappa as a possible substitute.  Grape residue could never stand in for corn squeezin’s!  As a magazine that seeks to uncover the best of the south and southern heritage, I hereby formally wag my finger at you for it even being mentioned.   I’m sure there is a good story behind the reasons for it, and I’m happy to listen.  To quote your editor in chief from the same issue, “Because as any good Southerner knows, some of the best stories get told in the kitchen”.  I dare David DiBenedetto to find “commercial moonshine” or grappa in a traditional southern kitchen.

That would be some story!
-- Keep up the otherwise stellar work!

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Virtual Actuality

"A neighbor is a person who can get to your house in less than a minute and takes two hours to go back home."

-----O.A. Battista

At their core, I believe most people are essentially lonely or live in fear of being alone.  I do not confuse being alone with the more comfortable and peaceful notion of solitude. Social media now provide the intrusive opportunity for us to be reached constantly, instantly and effortlessly.  When we get an email, a twitter, or a posting on our Facebook page, it is an external acknowledgement of our existence and reassurance-that we are not alone.  We are starving to feel connected. Cell phone and text message chimes trigger a Pavlovian slobber response to the arrival of each small tidbit of attention. They are the equivalent of mental cotton candy for the soul that craves a full meal.  A text is fast food cheap and easy but hardly satisfies compared to the feast of a handwritten letter arriving in the mail.

How did this happen? What makes us feel so isolated?  Part of the answer will become immediately apparent if you look closely.  I discovered it by casually observing the change over the years, in architecture and design of neighborhoods.  Well, we haven’t actually built a neighborhood lately.  Older cities still have grids of inter-woven and connected streets.  There is a mix of people and activities available all within walking distance. 
We don’t plan this way anymore though. Developers have unwittingly and negatively contributed to great, cultural change. They have managed to create spaces that have no sense of “place”.   As property values soared within cities and their immediate environs they pushed the suburbs further and further up the interstate into less costly rural areas.  Now, instead of building neighborhoods, they threw up isolated, dead end, cul-de-sac subdivisions along what used to be two lane country roads.   Unlike some of the originally designed bedroom communities like Levittown in NY, these are built completely without access to any mass transit or connection to the city other than the interstate. Most of the two lane roads do not have adequate shoulders, much less sidewalks that could be safely negotiated by cyclists or pedestrians.  These unconnected neighborhoods ensnare their residents into the trap of having to drive everywhere and this is further reinforced by zoning restrictions that forbid locating things like grocery stores, restaurants and other commercial amenities anywhere convenient.  There’s no “there” there and no “place” to be or go without spending endless hours in a car.  Furthermore, since everyone else’s poorly planned subdivision also dumps out into on the same meandering country road, left turns become impossible and the road is rapidly choked beyond its originally intended capacity. Do we have to wonder why traffic has become unbearable in these regions?  

What about the houses in the subdivisions themselves? Take a good look.  What’s missing?  Any kids in the front yard?  How about front porches? Do you see ANY people outside?

I am fortunate to live in one of the older neighborhoods in my city.  While out walking my dog I noticed that in one particular area, not only did some of houses have front porches; these same sections of the neighborhood also had sidewalks- the original social networks.  When I researched further I discovered that the area that had the houses where porches and sidewalks coincided happened to be in the section of the neighborhood that was designed prior to WWII.   Once the boundary is crossed between pre and post war construction, sidewalks and porches mysteriously and simultaneously vanish. What happened? Was there some conspiracy after WWII to eliminate sidewalks and front porches or was something else going on?

Here are a few theories…

1.  We weren’t going to need to walk again.  Neighborhoods were being designed with the automobile rather than pedestrian in mind.  The Jetson’s were the personification of the idealized, sci-fi family for which the new neighborhoods were being constructed. 

The “FUTURE” (insert full echo effects here) was envisioned as a time for humanity to become labor free. We were going to zip around in our flying cars, no fuss no muss, never having to lift a finger again.  What little exercise we might require could be had by running endless treadmills, completely removed from the environment.  “Outdoors” had somehow become a dirty word. 

What has happened to the state of our health since this mentality became pervasive?  Huge leaps in morbid obesity for one thing.  Of course there are many contributing factors but I’m certain this is one of them. We travel everywhere in our climate controlled vehicles because even short distances are too difficult or dangerous to negotiate on foot. We travel removed and insulated from our surroundings, just like the Jetson’s except they still haven’t managed to invent the flying car yet.

2.  Central air conditioning in homes became standard equipment... 

Obviously this had its practical application especially here in the south.  But what did we lose once we gained climate control? The front porch had always served as a cooler place to sit after dinner until bedtime, while the rest of the house was cooling down.  It was an essential part of the house.  Someone must have decided that since we had air conditioning we no longer had a reason to build porches. These days we would call it multitasking but out on the front porch a family might have spent their evenings doing one of any number things. A few things come to mind:star gazing, sewing, reading, telling stories, playing games, listening to music, enjoying a cool drink or any combination thereof. While you were out there it was only natural that you might wave to or even strike up conversations with your neighbors that happened to be walking by.  It was how genuine connections were forged and reinforced.  All of that is mostly gone now.  Not entirely, but it’s much less common than it used to be.  People are feeling the effects of the isolation from our fellow human beings and are instead turning longingly to digital surrogates. 

I’d like to offer a suggestion. How about instead of “friending” our next door neighbors and chatting virtually on Facebook, we all make the effort to restore our sidewalks and front porches. At the very least, get outside and wave to your neighbors. 

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The “Barefoot Contestant” a Long, Running series…Part 1

“Success isn't how far you got, but the distance you traveled from where you started.”-Steve Prefontaine

You know who they are.  You have seen at least one.  The oddballs that show up for races-barefoot.  I saw one running The Mercedes Marathon in Birmingham this past February when the starting temperature, if memory serves, was about 19 degrees.  I just rolled my eyes.    

Back in the 80’s barefoot placekickers in football were all the rage, even in the snow. People were astounded that they could generate enough force to kick the ball powerfully without hurting themselves.  It didn’t seem unusual to me at the time because I had been involved in martial arts for years.  We broke boards with our bare feet all the time. We never wore shoes to work out.  It was more concerning to me that the kicker had to run and tackle opposing players with one shoe on and one shoe off.  That seemed infinitely more awkward than merely kicking the ball barefooted.  That was a long time, lots of miles and many pairs of running shoes ago.

Now, thanks to Born to Run, Christopher McDougal’s runaway best seller (pun intended) more and more of those unshod oddballs seem to keep appearing. 

I must admit, when I read the book back in 2010 I enjoyed it immensely. It was a fantastic and motivating story that has spawned a new school of thought in the running industry-Minimalism.  Well maybe it isn’t new but had been drowned out by all of the technologies screaming for our attention. I thought that the minimalist perspective made so much sense and appealed to the paleobiologist side of my brain. I came to the realization that it probably explained much of the pain and difficulty I was experiencing that had caused me to nearly give up running.  I will also confess that the moment I finished the book, I was so hyped about it that I immediately ran out the door and down the street barefoot to test out the theories.  It was incredibly liberating-for about 20 seconds.  And then along came reality. The book also does mention that those of us that were raised with shoes on our feet are not ready to shed our shoes quite so quickly and completely. I must have glossed over that part.  It was 95 degrees outside and the blacktop on our street was probably hot enough to fry eggs, not to mention my tender tootsies.  I hot footed it to the curb and tiptoed through the crabgrass in order to limp back to the safety of our driveway.

I was mildly distraught.

Had I devolved?  Was I not “born to run” like the author described? Well, to quote Lady Gaga, I probably was “born this way” but after years and years of wearing shoes I no longer was, “that way”.  If my enthusiasm for the concept of barefoot running hadn’t overwhelmed my good sense I would have also realized that my feet were not ready to take the full plunge and that returning my feet to their original state needed to be a more gradual process.

 As I stood there picking gravel out of my rapidly blistering feet, I thought about what sort of transition I’d need to make. 

I decided to start by purchasing a pair of Vibram Five Fingers (most folks refer to them as the “toe shoes”) whose development had also been described in the book.  After all, we may have evolved to run barefoot, but our Paleolithic ancestors didn’t have to deal with all of the urban hazards that we do.  Broken glass, hot asphalt, harsh chemicals and especially that unidentifiable sticky stuff in the road were not part of their equation.   Christopher McDougal described at length, the type of leather sandal that was developed by the tribe of Tarahumara people to use for protection between the bottoms of their feet and the punishing terrain of Copper Canyon.  I considered the Vibrams to be my modern, urban adaption of the same.

I couldn’t help but note that the notion of spending a bunch of money on something “minimalist” was more than just a touch ironic. Caught up in the pursuit of running pain free, less shoe, was supposed to be more beneficial, though just as expensive. In addition to Vibram, other companies have since jumped on the trend and have managed to flood the market in such a way as to ensure that you may now maximize your credit card usage in pursuit of minimalist nirvana.

Brushing away any conception I might have had about becoming some kind of financial hypocrite I pulled them (can I call them shoes?) out of the box and attempted to put them on.  I thought they would slide on like a pair of gloves for my feet.  That is what they look like, right?

After nearly 10 minutes of struggling, sweating and cursing I finally managed to get each of my toes into their designated slots.  After a workout like that a run seemed almost anticlimactic.

I walked out the door, down the driveway and hit the road running.  I should explain that I had always been somewhat of a shuffling runner, a bad heel striker and all the other negative habits about modern runners that I’d read about in “the book”.  

According to Christopher McDougal, running barefoot (or as close as reasonably possible) would encourage proper mid foot striking and all my problems would magically dissolve.  Well he didn’t exactly say that but it’s what I read into it.  I can honestly say that there was no magic on that first run.  There was no great change in my running motion and as I heel-toed hard through my stride I heard the thud/slap, thud/slap, thud/slap of my heel rapidly followed by my fore foot hitting the pavement more loudly than it had with regular shoes.  In typical runner fashion I carefully heeded the instructions to “start gradually” and I ran a mile that first day.  I felt ok so the next time out I ran about 6 miles on a local dirt trail with a small group of runners.  The next morning I could barely move.  My calves had seized up so badly from too much too soon.  It took several days before I could consider any type of running again, shod or unshod.   From then on, I could not go very far before the calf tightness reached out and grabbed me.  McDougal does mention the part about starting VERY gradually, but I couldn’t imagine running less than a mile each time out.  It would take me longer to put the damn things on than I would spend running in them. 

Eventually, I lost patience with the entire process and the Vibrams ended up somewhere in the back of the closet where they remained, until….

Stay tuned. Part 2 will coincide with its release in the August edition of the Birmingham Track Club Newsletter...

Author’s note-The Barefoot Contestant-A Long, Running Series will document my long running experiment, so to speak, with running in Vibrams. My current goal is the Talladega Half Marathon.  

Also-if anyone can provide some grammatical guidance regarding why/how/where I should use the word barefooted vs. barefoot I would greatly appreciate it.