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October 31, 2006

Have You Seen This Statue?


When I moved to the Monterey Peninsula more than a decade ago, my wife couldn’t come with me. She had committed to finishing some obligations with her employer, so I traveled here by myself and crashed at my in-laws’ house for two months before my wife arrived.

I didn’t know anybody, didn't know of any local hangouts, and had lots of free time on weekends and after work. I figured I may as well get some training in.

Being unfamiliar with the Peninsula, I had no idea where to do my long training runs, and used a map to survey potentially scenic areas. Scanning such well-known tourist locations like the Pebble Beach Resort, 17-Mile Drive, and Carmel Beach, I knew there were a lot of fantastic options.

Then my eyes fell on a lesser-known, but seemingly more inviting name: Dennis the Menace Park.

The site was too intriguing to pass up. I drove my car to the 5-acre playground situated next to a paddleboat lake just one block from the ocean, and the park became my home base for several weeks of 2- or 3-hour runs.

Cartoonist Hank Ketcham was a longtime Monterey resident, and the park he designed (and named after his most famous character) is the kind of place where adults wish they could be kids again. Large climbing structures and steep slides are challenging and exciting enough for kids of any age. A bouncy, swinging, 100’ rope bridge traverses two hillsides on either side of the main entrance. A full-sized Southern Pacific steam engine parked in the sand is almost always swarmed with kids climbing over, under, and inside of it.

There’s even a snack shack that sells popcorn and snow cones if the mood strikes you.

Each week I filled my water bottle from the lion’s head drinking fountain, and headed towards the ocean and Monterey’s coastal recreation trail. Since I was a newcomer, whenever I passed by locations like Fisherman’s Wharf, Cannery Row, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, I took them all in with the wide-eyed delight of a tourist.

The Peninsula’s coastline is quite convoluted, and it’s easy to get disoriented when heading inland from the shore. Consequently, I got lost on many of these runs. But whenever I asked somebody how to find Dennis the Menace, I was easily redirected to my starting point.

Those first long runs were exactly what I needed to get my bearings in my new home. And the more familiar with the area I became, the more I knew that the Monterey Peninsula was a place I would surely fall in love with.

As we became settled in the area, my wife and I frequented the park many times together. Each of our children has climbed on the locomotive and drank from the lion’s mouth. Our parents have visited the park as grandparents, and our daughter had her 3rd birthday party there. We’ve also bought a lot of snow-cones from the snack shack.

It’s one of those places that you hope can stay the same way forever, because there really isn’t any way to improve upon it. Which makes it very sad to hear when the park suffers damage like it did last week.

The lead news story in Monterey during the past week wasn’t the upcoming elections or the Iraq War or the Southern California wildfires. It was the theft of our city's beloved Dennis the Menace statue away from the park. It disappeared in the dark of night, and no clue was left as to its whereabouts.

I know, I know - as far as crime goes, this is completely juvenile, small-town stuff. But to the many people with a soft spot for the park, the offense feels like a collective punch in the stomach.

Local authorities are taking it almost as seriously as a missing persons case. They’ve put out APBs, interviewed potential witnesses, addressed the perpetrators on television newscasts, and – most morbidly of all – assigned scuba teams to drag portions of Monterey Bay in attempts to locate the statue.

(They’re also patrolling eBay and similar sites, but it doesn’t hurt to restate the obvious here: if you see a 125-lb Dennis statue up for auction somewhere, please contact the police!)

Everybody is hopeful that the theft is some sort of pre-Halloween prank, and that the statue will eventually turn up relatively unscathed. But so far there’s no indication that any of us will ever see it again. In the meantime, a lot of local residents with a lot of fond memories of the park will feel a little twinge of sorrow the next time they go there and see the empty pedestal where the statue once stood.

It will remind them that nothing can stay the same way forever. And no matter how much we want our beautiful places to remain unblemished, we can’t completely shield them from the periodic residue of human indecency.

But it won’t prevent my family or anyone else from using the park in the future. It will only increase our appreciation of places like this, and our desire to pass along such good memories to the children and loved ones around us.

(I’m still hoping it’s returned safely, though.)

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October 26, 2006

View From the Curb

Before I start today's post, I want to say thank you very much to everyone who has contacted us with prayers, encouragement, and words of support. They mean a lot to us. I'll post updates on my wife's condition here as events warrant.

Otherwise, I'm still working on my new blogging manifesto. And by "still working", what I really mean is that I haven't actually started it yet. But I'll get to it soon, I hope. In the meantime, Mike and I had to write a Monterey Herald article for this weekend's Big Sur Half-Marathon, and I figured I'd post it here for a space-filler.

Since I'm not running the race, the spectator's guide seemed like a good theme to write about. Here is the article we submitted for today's paper.


***

Running Life 10/26/06 “Spectator’s Guide to the Half-Marathon”

As much as the two of us love races, we realize that running doesn’t rank very high on the list of popular spectator sports.

Part of the problem is that races take place early in the morning. A typical 7AM start time automatically disqualifies at least three-quarters of the population from attending.

It’s unfortunate, because large road races are excellent places to find inspiration in everyday life. In fact, many runners first become interested in the sport after volunteering or observing a friend or family member in a race.

So if you’re one of those people looking for motivation to improve your fitness or shake up your daily routine, you’ve got a great opportunity this Sunday, as the Big Sur Half-Marathon takes to the streets of Monterey and Pacific Grove.

And to help you get oriented, we’ve put together a spectator’s guide for the race. Read on, slackers.

Tip #1: Wake up early

Unfortunately, this one is non-negotiable. You certainly don’t need to be there for the 7AM start, but the men’s winner will be done by 8:05, and the first woman a short time later. Most back-of-the-packers will be done before 10AM. If you take too much time to get rolling, you might miss the whole thing.

So you’ll have to drag yourself out of bed earlier than usual. We know this is asking a lot. But there are several coffee shops in Monterey at your disposal. Think of it as supporting the local economy.

Besides, when you’re at work on Monday and somebody asks why you look so tired, you can just say “I was up early for the half-marathon” and sneak away before they ask a follow-up question. If you’re clever enough, they’ll never know that you weren’t actually, you know, running.

Tip #2: Pick a convenient spot

The nice thing about watching a race is that you don’t have to be at the finish area to feel the excitement of the event. It’s more like a parade, in that you can set up camp anywhere you like. (Except that it starts at 7AM and there aren’t any marching bands or candy throwers or Shriners on horseback. But other than that, it’s JUST like a parade).

The race winds around Lake El Estero, down Alvarado Street, through the Custom House tunnel and onto Cannery Row towards Ocean View Blvd and Lighthouse Avenue in Pacific Grove.

A long out-and-back stretch from Lover's Point to Asilomar Beach allows you to see the runners twice in that area. The race’s final miles are on the Coastal Recreation Trail toward the finish at Custom House Plaza.

If you live in Monterey or Pacific Grove, just enjoy the show from a spot close to home. That way, it will be easier to find a bathroom after all that coffee you’ve drunk to wake yourself up in the morning.

Tip #3: Watch for Olympians

Here’s a hint: they’ll be the small, skinny ones running in a pack way ahead of everybody else.

This year’s race features the best elite field ever assembled locally. If you watch the frontrunners, you’re almost certain to see some of the bodies that will perform at the 2008 Olympics. Americans Jen Rhines, Kate O'Neil, and Ian Dobson are among the top names scheduled to race on Sunday.

Reach out and offer them a high-five, and if they slap you, bottle that sweat – because you might be able to sell it on eBay someday.

Tip #4: Look for smiles

No, the Olympians won’t be smiling. Neither will the small percentage of amateur runners toward the front of the pack (usually including a couple of Herald columnists) who take the sport way too seriously.

But for the vast majority of runners, the race is a celebration. They’ve paid their dues with months of training. Race day is when they have fun and reap the rewards of their efforts. Many runners smile and talk to each other, and treat the event like a giant party.

Watch for the looks of pride and accomplishment on their faces. Sure, until runners reach the finish line, “pride and accomplishment” often looks a lot like “pain and suffering”, but almost every person on the course will tell you they are happy to be there. Really. Trust us on this one.

And we guarantee that you’ll get a LOT of high-fives from this group if you offer them.

Tip #5: Identify with somebody

No matter who you are, chances are you’ll see somebody in the pack of runners who could be you. There will be runners older than you, heavier than you, leading busier lives than you. The farther back you get in the pack, the more likely you are to find somebody who has overcome significant limitations to participate in the race.

Watch them and say, "That could be me. I could be doing that." Because there’s really almost no reason why you can’t.

There are plenty of people and resources to help you once you set a goal for yourself and make the decision to start training. The running community loves newcomers – we’re kind of cult-like in that regard. And we won’t make you get a funny haircut.

So do yourself a favor, and wake up early this weekend to watch the race and encourage all the people taking part. Who knows - maybe next year YOU will be out there in the pack, inspiring others to follow in your footsteps.

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October 23, 2006

The Rest of the Story

“Just when I thought I was out … they pull me back in.”
- Michael Corleone, from The Godfather, Part III

I’ve mentioned something in this space a few times previously which bears repeating now: quite often, I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about.

And so it is that I’m resuming this blog. It seems almost ridiculous now, but five weeks ago, this writing gig became such a low priority in my life, so quickly, that I didn’t think there was any way I’d ever consider it remotely important. I got caught in a bit of a whirlwind there for a while.

Remember all that stuff I wrote about my new job, my fellowship, life getting busier, etc? Well, that was all true - but there was a bit more to the story.

It’s complicated, but here it is in a nutshell: last month, my wife was diagnosed with cancer. A pretty bad variety. So bad that we spent a week envisioning a very different future for our family.

We gathered a few additional consultations and eventually saw an expert who assured us that her tumor wasn’t malignant, and a subsequent biopsy confirmed his thoughts. And lately we’re feeling much better – but we’re not finished with it yet. She’ll have surgery very soon, and a recovery that will be challenging, and we still aren’t 100% certain that someone won't come back and tell us that the more ominous diagnosis was really the correct one.

So in the space of several days, blogging seemed remarkably inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. Walking away seemed like the clear decision.

But we're in a better place now. We're at peace with the course of action we're taking. We're very hopeful for a positive outcome. And after the dust of her situation settled a bit, my wife brought up the idea of reviving the blog.

We had a conversation that went something like this:

Her: So how come you’re not blogging anymore?

Me: I felt like I wanted to stop. Seemed like the right thing to do.

Her: You’ll miss your writing. It might be a good outlet for you to maintain.

Me: I don’t know … it's not really that important.

Her: I think you should keep doing it.

It surprised me a bit, in that things I’ve written here have made her uncomfortable at times, to say the least. (Put it this way: let’s say you’re married to a sociopath. Would you want that person running uninhibited all over cyberspace proving exactly how twisted he is – or would you prefer to keep him on a short leash and hope nobody notices? It’s not that different in our case.) But once she said the word, it seemed to make sense. And that’s when I wrote that interim post.

However, like I indicated there, I’m changing my methodology a bit, which I’ll explain more next time (and yes, the comments are turned off intentionally). Even before this whole deal went down, I had been contemplating ways to go about blogging differently, both in terms of content and style. What better time is there to try a new approach than after something gets turned upside down?

Here’s a snapshot of how crazy things have been lately: I haven’t watched VH1 for almost four weeks. That’s like a nun going for a month without saying the rosary. In fact, it was only thanks to last week’s rerun of Saturday Night Live that I realized the guy from My Name Is Earl apparently doubles as the drummer for The Killers.

(What’s worse is that nobody wrote to notify me of this. Can’t there be some sort of pop cultural Amber Alert system to tell us when a new Green Day video is released, when Jon Stewart is a guest on The Late Show, or when a celebrity has to withdraw from a reality show after finding out her husband is at home boinking the nanny? Don’t tell me you wouldn’t sign up for this. Sorry, I’m rambling again …)

I’m guessing that posts will be quite sporadic and even more off-topic than usual until I settle into some sort of groove. I’ll try to maintain the running/tri- related context, but consider this fair warning that the subject matter could be all over the map here for a while. In other words, you have no idea what you’re in for.

Even more frighteningly, neither do I. But I guess that’s what makes things interesting.

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October 15, 2006

Call It a Comeback

OK, I've had some time to think about it ... and I've decided I'm not quite ready to completely abandon this blog yet.

While this isn't exactly "Michael Jordan returning and wearing number 45" caliber news, I thought that anyone who still checks this space might be interested to hear it.

But here's the catch: things are going to be different. They have to be. And I'm still sorting through a lot of thoughts and ideas about what I want from this forum. It's complicated, but I'll explain everything in a future post.

In the meantime, just know that I haven't entirely given up here. I'll be back.

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