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December 31, 2008

Even Better Than the Real Thing

Admin note: I’m still tinkering with the new template, so you’re getting a random quickie today for your viewing pleasure. Keep sending feedback as you see fit.


I’m reaching pretty far back into the video vault again today – but it’s a clip that represents one of my favorite developments from 2008.

Last summer, my son accompanied me to a showing of U2 3D at our local IMAX theater. It was his first taste of the rock concert experience (actually … in many ways, it was better than a real concert – but that’s a separate discussion), and a baptism of sorts into the vast community of U2 fandom.

He completely loved the movie, and I burned him a CD of the playlist from the concert. His favorite song was “Vertigo”, which he played in a repetitive loop for hours on end during the next several weeks (needless to say, my wife wasn’t thrilled about this development).

In my true audiophile (not to mention obsessive-compulsive) fashion, I made sure that several of the songs I included on his CD were live versions, as a reminder of the energy he saw on the big screen. Which led to the following exchange one day while we listened to the CD together:

Me: Hear all those people cheering? I’m one of them.

Son: What do you mean?

Me: This song was recorded at a concert a long time ago, when I lived in Colorado for a while. I was at the show that they recorded.

Him: Really?

Me: Yeah. It was awesome. They even
made a movie out of it.

Him: Cool.

Later, I showed him a couple of clips on YouTube - and just like that, my rock star cred with my son jumped about ten notches.

Since then, he has continued listening to his concert CD, and asked me to burn other U2 songs for him. He’s well on his way to becoming a full-fledged fan – and as silly as it sounds, I’m kind of proud of him for it. I know there are far more important parenting responsibilities to worry about in life – but if I can instill a bit of music appreciation in my kids, I’ll consider my job at least a partial success.

So here’s one of the songs that started it all for him, just as it started it all for me more than twenty-five years ago: U2’s "Sunday Bloody Sunday”, live at Red Rocks, under a blood red sky: (click to play)

And, in honor of the day, and to see how far the band has evolved in a quarter-century, here's another one: "New Year's Day", from the Vertigo Tour:

Happy New Year to all.


December 29, 2008

Running and Rambling 3.0

“He knows changes aren’t permanent … but change is.”
- Rush, “Tom Sawyer”

(I know … the song selection is totally old school, but this band had one of the most devoted fan bases in the history of rock music, who remain fiercely loyal to this day. Think of it as a “one foot in the past, and one in the future” type of post.)


So … notice anything different around here?

I was planning to roll out a new template sometime after the first of the year, but since 1) things have quieted down a bit more than I expected lately, and 2) my community college pool is closed for another week (preventing me from swimming at midday), I figured I’d cut the ribbon on the new layout a few days early.

I’ll have more to say about it soon – probably a whole post of administrative notes, if history is any indication. Until then, I’m still tinkering around with things (like sidebar links) quite a bit, so don’t be shocked if something is here one day and gone or relocated the next. Also, please let me know if things aren’t loading properly or if the format fits your monitor poorly. This is only the second time I've given the blog a makeover, so I'm not nearly as efficient as I'd like to be when it comes to identifying unforseen glitches.

In the meantime … here's a vintage MTV-era video from the aforementioned Rush, who were the greatest band on the face of the Earth for countless uncool, misfit, solitary dreamers – and yes, I counted myself among them. (Click to play):


December 26, 2008

Let it Shine

"This little light of mine -
I'm gonna let it shine ..."
- Negro spiritual

At first glance, you might not even notice it:

It’s just an average-looking evergreen tree in a small-town park. It doesn’t have the prominence of Carmel Valley's tall pines, or the asthetic beauty and majestic strength of its abundant oaks.

Eleven months of the year, there’s nothing to really distinguish this tree from its more distinctive, more impressive cousins who share the little plot of open space where families hold barbecues and kids play soccer. Even during the 12th month, if you pass this tree in daylight hours, most people wouldn’t even give it a second look.

But in the month of December, when the sun sets behind the ridgeline and the sky grows black, a brand new tree emerges:

The average-looking evergreen assumes a brand new, unmistakably important identity. It becomes the Carmel Valley Christmas Tree. It’s visible to everybody who drives past the park, and serves as one of the few reminders of the holiday season in our laid-back, warm-weather village.

Now, the tree doesn’t decorate itself, and there’s no reason why another tree wouldn’t work just as well for this task; but year after year, this is the tree that’s chosen. And perhaps – because it is just an average tree – there’s something to be taken from its presence in the community park. If we look really hard, maybe we can see something of ourselves in the tree.

Despite how we sometimes feel, none of us are ever just average. There’s a radiance we can display, even if it’s only at particular times or under certain circumstances. We rely on help from others, but in doing so, we become more vibrant than we ever imagined. In doing so, we might inspire others to seek the important things in life as well.

Be proud of who you are. Don’t fret about your standing in life. Accept the goodwill of others. Share your beauty with the world.

And never be reluctant to let your light shine.


Postscript: as strange as it seems, you may not find a more stirring, more uplifting version of this old Negro spiritual than the version Bruce Springsteen - white, working class, rock hero Springsteen - performs in concert. Click and enjoy:


December 23, 2008

What It's All About

If the video in this post looks familiar, there’s good reason: I posted the exact same thing here last December.

However, since this is the season to celebrate traditions, I figure that I could embed the clip once again, in hopes that it might become an official Running and Rambling holiday tradition.

The clip is the centerpiece of A Charlie Brown Christmas, which - for reasons I described last year - stands head and shoulders above the crowd as the most meaningful and entertaining holiday special of all time. It’s the scene where Linus describes what Christmas is all about:

Nearly every time I’ve watched the video in recent years, two thoughts stand out …

First – what are the odds that anything approaching this clip would be made today? It seems almost incomprehensible that a proposal featuring a popular children’s character quoting scripture would be green-lighted by any major network; it would be seen as too polarizing, or controversial, to risk offending people and alienating sponsors. We live in a much more politically sensitive society than existed 40 years ago; generally speaking, that’s probably a good thing – but in the case of this cartoon, I’m not so sure.

Finally … No matter how many years may eventually pass me by, or how mature I might someday become - I don’t think I’ll ever feel the meaning of Christmas any greater than I do during those sixty seconds when I see Linus standing under the quiet spotlight, reciting the Gospel of Luke while holding his security blanket. It’s an important reminder of the meaning of it all - one that’s just as necessary today as it was in 1965.

Here’s hoping that we remember what it’s all about this year. Merry Christmas, everybody.


December 19, 2008

Letters to Santa

By this point, Santa’s probably had just about enough of me.

For the past four years, I’ve written a “Runner’s Letter to Santa” for my Monterey Herald column; 2008’s version follows below. However, it’s not enough that I besiege the guy with requests in our local paper (which, of course, I’m certain that he reads) – because for each of the past few years, my 7-year-old daughter faithfully submits requests on my behalf also.

Last year, I described how she lobbied St Nicholas for a new flashlight that I would eventually use to get me through the night of my first 100-mile trail race. This year, when she asked me what I needed, I realized that I’m pretty well equipped for an attempted encore performance next summer.

However, she recognizes that there’s always a particular necessity that I’ll need in ample supply – so she scribbled the following lines into her annual wish list:

"A pair of men's size 11 trail running shoes for Dad"

Yes, she’s sweet. Yes, she knows me well. And yes, I know how lucky I am.

So I think I'm taken care of for Santa's visit next week. Here’s my letter from the Monterey Herald.


Running Life 12/18/08 “Gifts of Giving”

To: Santa Claus, North Pole
From: Donald B., Carmel Valley
Re: Wish List

Dear Santa –

Hi! It’s your favorite Monterey County running columnist again. You’ve been great at giving me the stuff I’ve asked for in years past.

Honestly, Santa, I know that 2008 has been a brutal year. You’ve probably got people asking for jobs or retirement funds that have vanished, or for help paying mortgages and medical expenses. So I understand if the requests of one crazy runner fall pretty low on the list of priorities.

But you know what, Santa? Things are actually going OK for me. I’m fortunate to still have those things that are most dear, and I’ve enjoyed another healthy year of running. So I thought I’d help you out by sharing in the gift-giving this year.

Under the right circumstances, runners can be a pretty generous group – but we sometimes need a little bit of help. This year, the following gifts would allow runners to help others:

1. Continued success for local races

Almost all of our local road races were created as fundraisers for charities or nonprofit organizations. The more successful the race is, the more the charities benefit.

Unfortunately, in tough economic times, it gets harder to justify paying $30 for a 5K or $80 for a half-marathon, so a lot of races struggle to survive. I hope that more runners can still afford to help these races stay successful in 2009.

2. Second life for old shoes

Santa, I don’t have to tell you how quickly runners go through running shoes. Frankly, I’m kind of ashamed to admit how many pairs I wore out in the past 12 months.

However, just because a shoe is too broken down for training doesn’t mean it’s not good for anything. Most of the shoes that runners discard can still be used for many months by people less fortunate than us.

Luckily, both of our local running stores – The Treadmill in Carmel, and Fleet Feet in Monterey – accept used running shoes, which they redistribute to charity organizations. We’d like for those old shoes to serve others for as long as possible.

(Online addendum: there are plenty of national organizations who do this as well. Click here for starters.)

3. A Just Run program in every school

You know all about our Just Run program – right, Santa? It teaches elementary students all about healthy eating and exercise, and is an easy way to promote fitness and combat childhood obesity.

The program has had great results, but I’d like for it to do even better. Could you please help the adult volunteers in each school get the support they need to succeed, and help any interested parents to implement the program in schools that don’t have it yet?

And if for some reason you don’t know about Just Run, go to this website and learn all about it.

4. Shared blessings

New running programs aren’t just about kids, though – and I’d like to see the gift of running shared with more people next year, Santa.

Like I said before – running has been good to me. And since Christmas is supposed to be about giving, here’s what I’d like most of all: to inspire one person, or maybe two, or even 100 (but I don’t want to seem greedy) to start a running program for their own health and enjoyment. If you could somehow help me to do that next year, Santa, you will make this runner very happy indeed.

Thanks a lot, Santa. Best wishes and safe travels next week!


Donald B.
Carmel Valley, CA


December 16, 2008

Fools in the Ra ... What?!

Actual conversation between a running partner and me that took place in pitch darkness shortly after 5:30AM yesterday, on the first major climb of our weekly 12-mile trail run:

Me: Hey – does this rain seem strange to you?

Him: What do you mean?

Me: Well, I can tell that it’s hitting me, but it feels different than usual. It has a different impact when it lands or something.

Him: I hadn’t noticed.

Me: And I know we’re getting wet, but there’s kind of a delay to it. There’s definitely something weird about this.

Him: Hard to tell – it all looks the same in the headlamps.

The confusion was ultimately set aside - to my partner’s relief, I’m sure – and we soon found ourselves at the top of the climb.

About 45 minutes and 700 feet of descent later, daybreak arrived with an easily recognizable rainstorm, soaking and chilling us for the last few miles of our run. We hit the parking lot, and only paused for a quick fist bump before jumping into the shelter of our cars and heading off our respective ways.

It wasn’t until later in the day that I looked back towards the hills we had run on that morning – and this was the sight I saw:

That would be snow, on the slopes of Mount Toro, rising above Steinbeck’s Pastures of Heaven. Our run was on the opposite side of the valley, and at a lower elevation - but suddenly the oddity of the morning’s precipitation became clear: we had been running through a snow flurry! It wasn't quite cold enough to stick to the ground where we were - although at 30 degrees, it was plenty cold for me - but the flakes were definitely falling on us while the storm headed toward the top of the mountain.

Monterey County typically gets snow about once or twice per year, but sometimes several winters will pass without the necessary ingredients converging at the right time to create measurable snowfall. Last Monday night and Tuesday morning, all the conditions came together for one of the earliest snow storms that most people around here can ever recall.

And I can say that I was running in it. How awesome is that?

However, lest you get the wrong idea about any of this, let me be clear: running in the snow isn’t something I want make a habit of. Prior to yesterday, it’s been more than ten years since I’ve done it – and while the memories are vivid, I’m not exactly nostalgic for the ghost of cold, snowy winters past. So I’m hoping to chalk this up as a very cool fluke of circumstance, then return to the regular 65-degree December days that are the reason I live here.

In other words: Welcome, Winter. Please go away soon.


Finally, since I’ve been musing about John Steinbeck lately, here’s another snow picture I took yesterday, featuring one of his favorite spots. In Travels with Charley in Search of America, he described Fremont Peak this way:

“This solitary stone peak overlooks the whole of my childhood and youth, the great Salinas Valley stretching south for nearly a hundred miles, the town of Salinas where I was born now spreading like a crab grass toward the foothills.”

And there you have it - Steinbeck Country under snow. Here's hoping this is the last time I have to write about this.


December 15, 2008

December Ramblings

Actually, these aren’t so much ramblings as they are follow-up notes from previous posts – but for some reason, “December Follow-ups” didn’t have as catchy a ring to it. So to stay true to the rambling spirit, I’ll throw in a new item at the end of this post.

OK then. On with the updates …

* Last week, during a water break on our weekly bike ride, my son and I got to see a coyote. It spotted us from about 50 yards away, but didn’t show any apprehension about our proximity – in fact, he stared at us for a minute, and came as close as about 25 yards before he disappeared into the brush.

Here’s the take-home lesson I learned that day: if you ever want to get a 10-year-old boy excited about mountain biking, you should arrange to have a coyote walk up to you during a water break someday. My son was already scheduling our next ride before we even reached the car.

And before you ask … no, I didn’t get a picture of the coyote – but here’s a shot of the area we ride in, with my son doing his best Lance Armstrong at Leadville impersonation:

Not a bad place to spend a weekday evening, huh?

* Remember how I set a goal to swim 25 yards of underwater dolphin kick after watching Michael Phelps do it against Anderson Cooper? Well, last week I got 'er done. On a degree of difficulty scale, I’d say the challenge ranks higher than the “25 underwater - single breath - 25 freestyle breath holder”, but not as tough as a straight underwater 50.

Actually, I was kind of disappointed that the feat wasn’t a bit more difficult to accomplish. Instead of feeling proud of myself, I couldn’t help but wonder: if I could do 25 yards after practicing for just a couple of weeks, how far do you think a guy like Phelps could go? 50 yards seems like a slam dunk. How about 75? 90? I wouldn’t even think that 100 yards is out of the question for him. It’s simply mind-boggling how much talent that guy has, and how hard he works to optimize it.

* The article about running on the Pebble Beach golf course was something of a tempest in a teapot around the Monterey Peninsula. I was still receiving e-mail about it several days afterwards – far past the usual 24-hour shelf life my column enjoys before becoming a bird cage liner somewhere. It was the top-viewed story on the newspaper website for more than 48 hours (ahead of things like gang shootings and public layoff notices), and was also picked up by a couple of golfing websites. Sometimes it stuns me how much publicity you can get by stirring up a little controversy.

Sure, the attention was nice for a while – but after it was all said and done, you know what I felt best about? Getting to know Mark, the Executive VP at the Pebble Beach Company. He turned out to be a completely stand-up guy, and I really enjoyed talking and exchanging e-mails with him. In fact, we've kept in touch since the article came out, and realized that we share several mutual acquaintances, and our kids will attend the same school next year. Since our paths will inevitably cross one day, I’m especially glad I decided not to do a hatchet job on him in the paper.

* In regards to the Steinbeck items, and the possibility of a series of blog posts about him: that might not happen for a while. I meant what I said about feeling woefully inadequate to do the whole story justice; it’s something that I would want to devote some time and research to, and I’ve just got too much on my plate to attempt that right now. However, the Salinas Valley – in particular, one novel mentioned below - has been at the forefront of my thoughts lately, so it’s probably inevitable that I’ll try to illustrate it in small doses on this site after the first of the year.

Salinas Valley sunrise, last week

In the meantime, my recommendation for anyone who has a thirst for Steinbeck and Salinas is to do what I did this fall: read his epic novel East of Eden. It’s a complete tour de force, as significant a monument to the author’s collective work as any statue or library can ever symbolize. In fact, Steinbeck himself once said of the book, "I think everything else I have written has been, in a sense, practice for this."

And if for some reason you thought I was exaggerating the conflicted emotions between city and author, consider the following two historical footnotes to East of Eden:

1) Its working title was The Salinas Valley, and Steinbeck often referred to it as his “love letter” to the region he called home, but …

2) When he first imagined writing the “novel of Salinas” in 1930, he said “It should be left for a few years yet, because I hate too many people there.” It took him 21 more years to make his peace with the community and begin writing the masterpiece. Lucky for us that he finally did.

That’s all for the updates. And now for something completely different …


It seems somehow curious that a band made up entirely of blind men would invest time in making a music video. On the other hand, the Blind Boys of Alabama have been defying conventional standards for nearly seventy years.

Among their landmark albums is 2003’s Go Tell It on the Mountain, a Grammy-winning collection of holiday songs in their typical soulful, majestic style. The album is equal parts classics that you know and love, and renditions that are like nothing you’ve ever heard before.

In that latter group is a song called “Last Month of the Year,” which kicks off the holiday album. It’s become our kids’ favorite holiday song, and it’s always the first song that pops out from the CD player once the boxes of Christmas decorations are brought down from the attic.

As you can imagine, I was pleasantly stunned to learn that a video for the song exists; it’s embedded below for you to enjoy. You have to wait about 45 seconds (and through a 30-second ad - sorry) to get to the good stuff – but trust me, it’s worth the wait.

Blind Boys of Alabama – “Last Month of the Year” (click to play):


December 12, 2008

My Offseason Is Officially Over

"Bright is the moon high in starlight -
Chill in the air cold as steel tonight -
We shift- call of the wild - fear in your eyes -
It's later than you realized"
- Metallica, "Of Wolf and Man" (video after post)


Look what arrived at my house this week:

It's mostly the same as last year's version; it doesn't even include an updated disclaimer that "You may train for this race for seven months only to have it cancelled by wildfires 48 hours beforehand." Not that I'm still disappointed from that.

Anyway - I guess this means I should start thinking about the 2009 race, which means that I should probably start, you know ... training for it. Which is why I'll be lacing up my shoes in the dark, cold December morning tomorrow to take on my favorite back-breaking climb. And why I need to start going to bed earlier. And eating less. And about 50 other things that I've happily forgotten about since the 100-mile weeks of last spring and summer. It won't all happen overnight, but it will happen.

At least, I'll do my part - and then I'll just hope that the fates decide to cooperate next year.


Finally, in reference to the intro quote ... Metallica's back! I never thought I'd say this, but their new album is as good as anything they've ever done. I need to write a whole post about this. In the meantime, here's a sorta-old school concert clip featuring "Of Wolf and Man". Such great memories:


December 10, 2008

Banned From Pebble Beach

Let’s say you happen to live near one of the most famous and beautiful golf courses in the world – a course that’s nestled along the most spectacular ocean shoreline that anyone’s ever seen.

Let’s say that you also happen to be a runner who wakes up early to do long weekend training runs, and this majestic vista provides the most perfect backdrop to a long run that you could ever imagine. And let’s say that on the other side of this golf course is one of the most scenic roads in America, one where drivers are charged $10 per car just to get past the gate and travel through paradise.

Finally, let’s say that the alternative to running across the beautiful golf course is that you have to run on a narrow, winding, heavily trafficked road where drivers are often paying more attention to the scenery than to potential hazards nearby. And if you start your run early enough, you can usually make it across the greens and off the course before the first golfers of the day have completed their first few holes.

Oh, one more thing: the golf course is kinda, sorta, technically ... private property. The question now is, would you run across it?

If your answer is yes, you’d fit right in with the Monterey Peninsula’s regular Saturday morning running group. Shortly after starting at Carmel Beach, the group cuts across the 11th fairway of the esteemed Pebble Beach golf course to avoid running on the most frequently traveled portion of 17-Mile Drive. Once you get through the course, 17-Mile Drive is very quiet, and it’s the kind of road that makes you want to run forever. Runners have been crossing the Pebble Beach links to begin their Saturday morning long run for more than 30 years.

At least, they did until a few months ago.

This summer, the Pebble Beach Company hung a sign at the access point declaring that trespassing across the course was prohibited. Of course, nobody paid the sign any attention – so shortly afterward, the PBC hired a guard to deter runners from crossing.

We took a couple jabs at the PBC at the end of a Monterey Herald column in October – and that’s when things got interesting. Last week, we devoted a whole column to the situation, trying to present both sides of the issue without appearing too biased towards our own interests. The article follows below; the only change I made here was to take out the PBC guy’s last name, in case he's concerned about increasing his Googlibility (Has anyone invented that word yet? You knew exactly what I meant, right? Can I get credit for this?).

The article generated the most e-mail we’ve ever received in response to a column - I'll leave it for you to guess whether or not the feedback was favorable. And later, after reading the article, ask yourself the question again: would you run across the course? That’s the dilemma facing Monterey runners nowadays.

Running Life 12/4/08 “Banned From Pebble Beach”

You may recall a recent column when we took some shots at the Pebble Beach Company for restricting our running club from an access point to the Pebble Beach Golf Links, even though the club had been using the route for nearly 30 years. They even went as far as stationing a guard at the crossing, which – in light of the PBC recently issuing nearly 30 layoffs – seemed quite excessive in its severity.

Needless to say, the crackdown made very little sense to us. So you can imagine our shock when, shortly after our column ran, the PBC constructed a giant fence at the crossing that says “access prohibited” in large red lettering. The guard was gone (perhaps one of the layoffs?), but the message remained clear: runners were personae non gratae around the Pebble Beach links.

That's when we shifted into attack mode. We decided to do a little bit of muckraking, and sharpen our journalistic teeth on the meat of the soulless corporate monster. It would be an investigative report to make Woodward and Bernstein proud.

It was a great plan, until we actually picked up the phone and started talking to people.

In particular, we had a long conversation with Mark [omitted], an Executive Vice President at the PBC. He’s a descendent of a legendary Monterey County general – which is mildly impressive – but more impressive was that the first thing he told us is that he’s a runner. He runs in local races and exercises with his kids, and enjoys running and hiking the roads and trails of Pebble Beach.

What was MOST impressive (to us, anyway) was that he actually reads our column – and he was aware of the Headwind razzie we gave the PBC last month. So, while we felt a little guilty about that, we were happy to have apparently found a sympathetic ear to our running club’s plight.

Then Mark started telling us the difficulties he’s dealt with from the access point just inside the Carmel gate. Golfers – many of whom travel here from all over the world, and pay several hundred dollars to play a round on the famed course – frequently encounter runners, off-road bikers, and equestrians at all hours of the day.

Most of this public traffic crosses the 11th hole fairway, sometimes as golf patrons are playing on those very same holes. Tournament play doesn’t deter some headstrong folks, either – as Mark reported that runners took to the Pebble Beach course during last month’s Callaway Tournament.

As a result, the PBC now enforces a rule that has been on its books all along: no foot traffic on the links while the course is open to golfers. Since the course opens at 7:30, and the running club departs Ocean Avenue in Carmel at 7:15, there’s no practical way for runners to cross and exit the course by 7:30.

There are also liability concerns from runners crossing the links, as they pose unexpected hazards for golfers and runners alike. The thought crossed our minds that a runner hit by a car on 17-Mile Drive could still leave the PBC potentially vulnerable to a lawsuit - but Mark disagrees with this, as standard rules of the road (sharing the roadway, staying alert from others, etc) apply within Pebble Beach borders as they would in any neighboring municipality.

As a runner, Mark appreciates our dilemma – and during our conversation, we discussed some practical suggestions for the Saturday running club. Since he’s a trail runner, his main recommendation was for runners to get off of the roads, and onto the 26 miles of public trails that crisscross Pebble Beach.

The trails are a combination of fire roads, equestrian trails, and single track, offering steep climbs and breathtaking views within a few miles of Carmel Beach. There is a trail entrance close to the intersection of Carmel Way and 17-Mile Drive, so runners can avoid the shoulderless road that leads to the Pebble Beach Lodge.

Another option is for runners to run south from Carmel instead of north. The views are still quite impressive from Scenic Drive to the Carmel River Beach area. From there, runners can head past Mission Ranch to the Mission trails, or across the river (except in high water, of course) on the trails to Monastery Beach and Point Lobos and back.

We understand that there’s no substitute for running along one of the most fabulous roads in the world, so we’re not saying that runners should stay out of Pebble Beach. Realistically, it’s only the half-mile stretch of 17-Mile Drive between Carmel Way and Live Oak Road (or the quarter mile between Carmel Way and Crespi Lane) that is especially dangerous – so if you’re cautious, there’s no reason to deny yourself the pleasure of running amidst the mansions and majestic beauty of 17-Mile Drive.

Unfortunately, crossing the golf course links at the 11th fairway will likely become a thing of the past. We don’t have to like the decision (honestly, none of us do – let’s just say we’re not revoking their Headwind award), but we should abide by it. Hopefully, the change of routine won’t detract from what is an otherwise perfect way to spend a Saturday morning.


December 7, 2008

Salinas Stories

Well, that was easy.

It was only a matter of hours before the statue in yesterday’s post was correctly identified as John Steinbeck; what will take substantially longer is for me to describe its significance – about both the man, and to the city that shaped him.

To say that the relationship between Steinbeck and the city of Salinas is troubled is an understatement of the highest order. He has been equal parts reviled and praised, hated and adored. Although the pendulum has swung in recent years towards positive regard, a large percentage of locals still feel disdain for the town’s most famous native son.

In fact, it’s no coincidence that people’s comments after the last post suggested that the statue looks like either 1) a notorious dictator, or 2) a grouchy old guy; local legend has it that the sculptors purposely made him look wrinkled and ornery, to reflect the animosity between the writer and the town. (In the sculptors’ defense – have you ever seen a picture of Steinbeck with a carefree smile? By nearly all accounts, the man was definitely a brooder.)

Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that the city of Salinas has struggled with its own legacy ever since the days of Steinbeck. There’s no better example of the troubles the town has faced, or the difficulty it has encountered in the shadow of its literary giant, than the building that frames his statue: the John Steinbeck Public Library. That’s just part of the tale I hope to tell someday – but honestly, it’s a bigger story than I’m currently equipped to take on.

The saga of Steinbeck and Salinas is one that should be told in books, not blog posts. The author was far and away the city’s most outspoken critic – but he always saw the possibilities amidst the problems; the beauty obscured by the grime. Many of those issues – as well as plenty of new ones - persist today, just as they did when the author walked its streets.

Salinas remains a city that inspires mixed emotions. It’s also the city where I’ve spent the majority of my adult years. It’s where I work, and where I train, and where I ponder the larger meaning of my life in relation to the world around me.

This town has inspired me and infuriated me; it attracts me and it breaks my heart. It has provided for me and left me longing. I’ve spent many years wishing I didn’t have to be a part of Salinas - but when I look back now after more than a decade, I realize that it has shaped me much in the same way it influenced one of my favorite authors.

That’s the story I hope to write someday - that is, if I ever summon up the courage to take the whole thing on.


December 5, 2008

Name That Dude

Earlier this week, I was tagged by Pamela to take the sixth picture from my Flickr account and use it as a post. Since I don’t have a Flickr account – and since I’m always so delinquent in responding to tags – I figured I had an easy way out of this one: no account, no tag.

I told Pamela as much, and she sent me this reply:

“Then pick a picture - any picture. I know you have them and it gives you a free blog day - no thinking required!”

In her typical common sense way, she was absolutely right – so I’m playing along in a modified fashion. In the absence of a Flickr account, I plugged my camera’s memory card into the computer, and picked the sixth picture from a series of shots I’ve been taking recently:

It actually works out pretty well, in that I was intending to use this picture for a post - or, more likely, a series - that has been a long time in developing (which should surprise nobody). And sure – I could just tell you who the sculpture depicts, but that would be too easy.

So it’s audience participation time: identify the person in the sculpture, and I’ll write more about it at some point in the future. Actually, I’m planning to write about it anyway, but I’m curious to see how obvious the answer is.

It seems like a no-brainer to me – but I’m not always the most perceptive person when it comes to these things. If the first commenter could guess correctly, that would be remarkably reassuring.

No pressure or anything. And … go!


December 3, 2008

*Lack of Oxygen to the Brain

By now, I’m guessing that everyone has either seen or heard about last weekend’s 60 Minutes segment featuring Olympian (and recently named Sportsman of the Year) Michael Phelps. Among other things, we learned that Phelps doesn’t really eat 12,000 calories per day (it’s closer to 10,000 – as if that’s any less remarkable), that he can fall asleep in less than one minute (I can relate), and that his high-rise condo features piles of laundry and cupboards of cold cereal and snack foods much like any other 23-year-old bachelor would acquire.

The interview took a strange turn towards the end, when Anderson Cooper challenged Phelps to a race, with some conditions. That’s also about the time that I got really interested in watching.

The ground rules were that Phelps had to swim underwater, using only his legs for propulsion. Cooper took a diving start and swam freestyle. The result is the video below: (click to play)

The clip gave me a great idea for a swim workout – but first, a few thoughts on the journalist:

1) Did anyone get a watch on Cooper? By the time marks on the video, he covered a length of the pool in 14 seconds. Even if it’s just a 25-yard pool, if the dude spins a tight flipturn and hammers the return length, he’s swimming a sub-30-second fifty. And he wasn’t even wearing a Speedo Lazer suit. Sure, the tape could be edited … but if not, don’t be surprised to see AC show up at your next masters meet.

2) This is the second time in recent memory that Cooper has challenged one of the world’s best athletes to a skills competition. Last spring, he played goalkeeper and tried to defend a free kick against David Beckham. He’s like the high school kid who reports for the school newspaper, but secretly longs to be one of the jocks on the field instead of the person who helps make them popular. I know he’s the most famous newsman on television, but I sense that there might be a hint of insecurity to him. Just remember I said this if you ever see him playing a game of HORSE with LeBron James or table tennis with Venus Williams.

3) Cooper’s hair looks nearly as good after swimming 25 yards as it does when he’s in the anchor chair on CNN. Seems worth mentioning.

Despite the items above, the intent of this post wasn’t to poke fun at Anderson Cooper (although I must say, I sort of enjoyed it). Rather, what I took away from the video was how easily Michael Phelps covers a length of the pool underwater.

You may recall that I have this thing about swimming underwater. I worked for several months to make it fifty yards beneath the surface, and I’ll periodically attempt the feat every now and again just to see if I still can. However, it’s starting to take on the feel of a carnival trick – especially when other people are watching - so lately I’ve been experimenting with different breath-holding challenges just to keep things interesting.

My two favorites are 1) swimming a continuous 100-yard freestyle with 3 breaths on the first lap, 2 on the second, 1 on the third, and none on the final length, or 2) swimming 25 yards underwater, then taking a quick breath at the wall before pushing off for a freestyle breath-holder on the way back. (I know, I find pleasure in strange things. I’ve even come up with a name for these games: Fun With Hypoxia*. I’m basically a Darwin Award waiting to happen.)

After watching Phelps do a length of the pool with nothing but a butterfly kick, I knew that it was something I wanted to try. So this week, after a regular swim workout, I ducked under the surface, pushed off the wall, and made like Flipper for all I was worth.

I made it less than 20 yards.

Unsurprisingly, my main limitation wasn’t my air capacity, but a complete loss of momentum from my notoriously anemic butterfly kick after about 5 seconds. I spent almost as much time underwater as I do with the other challenges, but covered less than half the distance. When my shoulders started moving more in the vertical direction than horizontal, I figured it was time to surface and start breathing again.

Obviously, I didn’t expect to be as good as Phelps - but I didn’t expect to completely suck either. Regardless, I now have a new challenge to conquer – you KNOW I can’t just leave something like this alone - not to mention a new trick to add to my hypoxia catalog.

It’s also another reason for me to keep going to my swim workouts – and at this time of year, anything that inspires me to exercise is a welcome distraction.


December 2, 2008

Pretty Is As Pretty Does

A couple of nights ago, while clicking through some post comments, I ended up finding a video of Sinead O’Connor on this post. Since I was recently nostalgic about Sinead, I clicked to play the song.

My 5-year-old daughter was sitting beside me, and approximately 30 seconds into the video, her 7-year-old sister stopped by, where we all had the following conversation:

7-year-old: Is that a girl?

Me: Yup. Her name’s Sinead.

7-year-old: But where’s her hair? Why does she have a buzz cut?

Me: That’s the way she wanted it, I guess. She’s still very pretty.

5-year-old: Yeah. I really like her singing.

The older daughter wasn’t quite convinced, so I dusted off my old I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got CD, and we listened to it during dinner. She didn’t say anything at the time - but the wheels are always turning in this girl, whether it’s apparent on the surface or not. So I wasn’t surprised by the conversation we had while I tucked her into bed later on:

Her: What was that girl’s name again?

Me: The singer? Sinead O’Connor.

Her: I like her songs. She has a nice voice.

Me: Yeah. Pretty isn’t all about hair, you know.

Her: I know.

Truthfully, she probably knew that before our impromptu lesson, but it was nice to hear her recognize the fact. Hopefully she’ll tuck that piece of knowledge away for the time being, and pull it out sometime when she’s having any hint of self-doubt.

In the meantime - since embedding videos is easy and I'm still feeling a bit nostalgic - here's Sinead's heartbreaking, yet incomparably pretty "Nothing Compares 2 U": (click to play)

(We'll get back to training stuff soon, I promise ... )

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