My Miserable Marathon, Part I

Marathon3

When I turned 51 several months ago, it suddenly occurred to me that I was unlikely to live forever. With that miserable realization hovering overhead like a personal black cloud, I found myself making a bucket list.

Having two kids in college pretty much removed the Corvette, the beach house, and the trip around the world from the list. And, as for more prurient pursuits, I’m not even sure Cheryl Tiegs is alive anymore. So, that really left only one thing: This loyal citizen of Recliner Nation would take the tattered remnants of his knees and ankles and try to run my first marathon.

Because I was going to do all my training in Corpus Christi, which is like running on a pool table, the course had to be flat. I figured the Houston Marathon must be about the flattest around. But, incredibly, even though there are slots for 11,000 runners, there are far more people who want to run than there are slots. That’s why you have to enter a selection lottery and submit your credit card number, which is immediately charged a $115 fee if you’re selected.

Naturally, the only lottery in my life I prayed I wouldn’t win, I won, and, also naturally, it cost me money. In Ireland, they say if you want to climb over a very high wall, throw your cap over it. That $115 was my cap sailing over the wall. I found an 18-week training schedule free on the web (so you know it must be great) and, ignoring my wife and kids’ good advice, took to the roads.

At first, it wasn’t so bad; my creaky joints seemed to be holding up well. In the middle of a 14 mile run, I’d look down at my knees pumping as reliably as pistons and wonder whose they were. In my mind, I’d ask them over and over, “Why didn’t you guys tell me you could do this before?” And they’d always answer, “Because you never asked.”

But, the 18 miler killed me. My right ankle swelled up and both Achilles tendons blew out. I laid off the next six days and then set out on the longest training run on the schedule, a 20 miler. I finished, but it hurt. The next day, it was worse. So, with visions of heated, buzzing machines and blonde, Swedish masseuses dancing in my head, I happily went off to see a physical therapist.

It was pain the likes of which I’d never experienced. The treatment consisted of the therapist locating the sorest spots, and then pressing on them with both thumbs as hard as he could. My response to the treatment consisted of spouting curses loud enough for those scared, cowering souls in the waiting room to hear. Weirdly enough though, the therapy seems to be working.

The Houston Marathon is next month. Thanks to all the injuries, I will have run only a total of 4 miles in the 3 weeks before the race. I suspect that’s not going to help me finish. But I’ll be at the starting line, no matter what. Because I’ve discovered a place about 12 miles out where all your troubles and broken dreams fade away, and it’s just you and a sunny day and the open road, like it used to be all those years ago.

Merry Christmas, Albert Einstein

Einstein3

Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.
– Albert Einstein, 1940

As the skydiving school’s plane climbed toward the setting sun, I nervously checked my 16 year old brother’s antique, rented parachute and groaned, “Do you realize that when this plane lands, we’re not going to be on it?” We both turned a whiter shade of pale, and I wondered again what I’d tell my parents if anything happened to him.

Almost 20, I’d fallen for a girl like a safe out of a 5 story window. Desperate to regain control and stop thinking about her , I figured plummeting from 5,000 feet just might do it.

A mile up, I shuffled slowly to the open cargo door. Staring down into grinning death, my fingers dug into the doorframe like a bulldog’s teeth into a T-bone. Our “instructor” yelled something unintelligible in my ear, scowled, grabbed the back of my pants, and hurled me out of the plane.

Spread-eagled, screaming, and accelerating toward sure annihilation, I consoled myself with the thought that at least I’d stopped thinking about her… which, of course, amounted to thinking about her. (Thirty-two years of marriage later, and I still can’t get her off my mind.) Just then, the static line popped my chute open, and with a savage jolt I was jerked back among the living.

My brother and I whooped to each other as we swirled happily back to earth; right up until we realized we were headed for a hard landing on the asphalt runway. We both yanked on our steering cords, which our “instructor” had neglected to mention causes you to fall much faster, and crashed into the weeds. My brother badly sprained his ankle, but we’d survived. All in all, yet another convincing demonstration of the reliability of Newton’s gravitational equations.

In high school, we tested those equations by dropping balls off tables and rolling them down inclined planes. We learned that just as they predicted the motion of the balls, they could also predict the orbits of the planets around the sun. It all made for an orderly, predictable universe that left no room for parting the Red Sea or walking on water. My scanty science education left me with that signature gift of the Enlightenment: disbelief in the possibility of miracles.

But several years ago I learned that my Newtonian universe had become a quaint anachronism. Trying to find equations that accurately describe everything from the Big Bang to the behavior of subatomic particles, many eminent physicists now conclude that our universe has not three, but ten spatial dimensions, and that there are many, perhaps even an infinite number of, parallel universes. Also, in order to make their equations work, 96% of the universe must consist of dark matter and energy, which no one has even detected yet. (For a good summary of the science, watch The Elegant Universe at PBS.com)

My belief in the universe as an elaborate clockwork was blown to bits. And with all those dimensions, universes, and quantities of dark matter and energy out there, about which we know virtually nothing, there is no way science could plausibly deny the possibility of miracles. And for me, Enlightenment cynicism gave way to the possibility of faith.

Weirdly enough though, there have been several recent bestsellers questioning the existence of God and the intelligence of those who believe in miracles. Christopher Hitchens, the deceased author of one such book and a certifiably brilliant guy, in an attempt to explain Mother Theresa’s long dark night of the soul, wrote, ”Now it might seem glib of me to say that this is all rather unsurprising, and that it is the inevitable result of a dogma that asks people to believe impossible things and then makes them feel abject and guilty when their innate reason rebels.” Impossible things? It’s hard to imagine how someone so well informed could roll out that old Newtonian canard. But he can -if he chooses- ignore the scientific progress of the last 30 years; he can take his leap of faith, and I’ll take mine.

Face it, Einstein was usually right. So, next Thursday give your heart a little rest: Have a Merry Christmas.

Why I Hate Alzheimer’s

IMG_0816

He was a tall, good looking seller of printing supplies with a killer smile, a joyful laugh, and a quick, self deprecating wit. He grew up on the unforgiving streets of NYC, served honorably in World War II, married my mother, and raised the four of us. He lived a long, happy life with the exception of one dark cloud that dogged him: He had no mechanical ability whatsoever.

Our possessed garage door opener was a frequent recipient of his inept ministrations. I’d often see him standing on a rickety wooden chair puzzling over its latest malfunction, multicolored wires dangling down around his head, the tip of a table knife (he didn’t believe in screwdrivers) being ground into a Celtic cross as he tried to loosen a factory tightened screw. He’d always get it to work, for a while, but his faith in the power of shoelaces to hold metal objects in proper alignment and the inevitable loose and “extra” wires created the impression of a large, inverted New Years party favor presiding over the garage.

We moved from New York to Houston in 1973 when I was 13. My father took us to Lake Livingston to show us the wonders of the greater metropolitan area. We rented a very small boat with an outboard motor to tour the lake. My younger brother and I sat on either side of the motor as dad tried to start it. For some reason, the starter rope was very hard to pull. We could see that dad sensed there was something wrong with the motor and would have loved to attempt a quick repair, but, having no table knives aboard, he grabbed the rope with both hands and gave it a mighty heave. My brother and I watched dad fly overhead and pinwheel into the water as our boat shot out from under him: He’d started the motor in gear.

One Christmas Day my parents were visiting, and my wife gave me an electric drill. My father, who’d never held one before, hefted it wonderingly and held it up to the light at various angles. He asked me if I had any projects we could try it out on. His eyes lit up when I told him the latch on the fence was broken, and I’d recently bought a new one to replace it.

They were long screws that would have to be driven deep into the fence post, a two hour, three table knife, miserable job if ever there was one. My father held the screw in place with one hand and fitted the phillips head drill bit into the screw head with the other. He pulled the trigger and an instant later took a step back in mute bewilderment. From the expression on his face, you’d have thought he’d made the screw disappear. He turned to me, his eyes still wide, and said, “So that’s how they build all those big buildings and bridges.”

A few years later, the inevitable slide began to take its toll. He wound up in an Alzheimer’s facility. The first time I visited him there, he didn’t know who I was, but he knew I was someone he cared about very much. He wept and said over and over again, “It’s so sad.” I was basically in shock when I left and wound up in a Houston mall walking in a zombie-like stupor. Eventually, a kind security guard checked on me and led me to a fast food place where I sat for a long time thinking about how sad it was.

He died in April 2004. People had told me that his long illness would make his death easier on the family. It might have been easier, but it was nowhere near easy. I was in bad shape at the funeral mass.

Afterward, as his hearse was pulling out into lunch hour traffic on Bellaire Boulevard, it crashed to a stop when the driver cut the curb and the right rear tire fell into a large rut. It was such a sad sight that not even Houstonians could bring themselves to honk their horns as the hearse blocked the right lane of traffic.

Several of us grabbed the bumper and, with the driver gunning the engine, futilely tried to lift and push it out of the hole. Others ran to get large chunks of concrete from a nearby construction site to put under the tire, but that didn’t work either. Finally, someone driving by in a large pickup truck stopped, hooked up a tow chain to the hearse and pulled it free. As I watched it drive off, I whispered to myself,” My God, how he would have loved this.” And then, I swear, I heard him laugh for the last time. That is, until we meet again.

How To Survive A Bad Baby, Volume I

dinosaur

Erin, our first, came along as welcome as a spring rain and as gently as the morning dew. She slept through the night, rarely cried, and gave us a smile when we needed one. Matt, our second, not so much. Among the many long, horrible nights he put us through, one still haunts my fading memory.

I was torn from a deep sleep at 4 a.m. by the blare of a 7-month old mini-siren and the mournful sound of my wife crying. Claire was standing beside the bed holding Matt, who had begun wailing when the obstetrician smacked him on the rear and hadn’t stopped since. Tonight, he was really rocking the house. When he was like this, we both knew the only way to calm him down was to take him for a drive. But I was too exhausted to get behind the wheel, and a co-worker had recently shared a brilliant scheme that she swore always worked with her baby.

I got out of bed, threw on some shorts, staggered out to the Subaru, returned with Matt’s car seat, put it on top of the clothes dryer, put the screaming kid in the car seat, and turned on the dryer. Miraculously, he immediately quieted down. I stared in prideful wonder at the vibrating baby, like Edison at his glowing bulb. Claire gave me a little hug, and we smiled contentedly at each other. Matt instantly saw that for the first time in his life he’d done something to make his parents happy, so he reared back and doubled the previous volume and intensity of his screams. Just then, our long-suffering neighbors in the apartment next door began banging on the wall.

Resigned to my fate, I carried Matt in his car seat to the Subaru and strapped him into the back seat. The tiny car’s acoustics gathered and focused the kid’s screams like a funnel; it felt like he was shrieking inside my skull. I cranked up the AC/DC- to make it a fair fight- and drove aimlessly through the moonlight.

I was dreaming of soundproof rooms and sleeping pills when I dimly perceived a tapping sound growing louder and more insistent. Squinting in the bright sunlight, I slowly woke from a perfect sleep the likes of which I hadn’t known since Matt arrived. A police officer was rapping on the driver’s side window. I quickly turned around to check on Matt; arms and legs splayed out, snoring softly, the little guy was sound asleep. I turned to the officer, put a finger to my lips, made a shushing sound, and rolled down the window.

The cop very softly whispered, “Are you OK?”

“Yeah.”

“Do you know where you are?”

“Uhm.” I had no idea. I looked around, discovered I was in a Whataburger parking lot and, staring straight ahead, answered, “A Whataburger parking lot?” After hearing the whole story, the officer strongly suggested I take Matt home.

Pulling out of the parking lot, I realized I had absolutely no memory whatsoever of pulling into the parking lot: a clear-cut case of sleepdriving.

My sympathies to those dads being driven to sleepless despair by their own mini-sirens. But, if you can resist the natural impulse to head for the hills, in 20 years or so they may, as Matt did, grow into one of the finest people you’ve ever known.

Golf Is A Genetic Disorder

2013-01-01 00.27.24

Heaven knows we can’t help what we love, and my father was helplessly in love with golf. He naturally assumed that his teenage son would be too. But, as much as I liked being with him, I’ve always loathed the game, and it showed in the quality of my play. Of all our misadventures on the links, one lives on in my most vivid nightmares.

For the thousandth time, I stood forlornly over the ball as dad began his tireless litany, “Head down, eye on the ball, left arm straight, hips loose as a goose (then he’d shimmy like Shakira), backswing low and slow, swing through the ball.” It was like driving a car while reading the owner’s manual and resulted in a herky-jerky swing that produced a ball flight consistent only in its absolute unpredictability.

I was just about to hit my drive, when I noticed a course employee had stopped his maintenance cart on the path about 100 yards ahead of us. I waved him on, but he motioned for me to go ahead and hit. My father told me to swing away, there was no way I’d hit him.

Like a dimpled laser beam, the ball’s trajectory varied nary an inch in any direction. The worker dove head-first from the cart, like Pete Rose sliding into second. There was a loud clang as the ball hit the metal fender inches from where he’d been sitting. He quickly got to his feet, yelling and angrily gesturing at me.

I’d fallen to my knees as I’d watched the horror unfolding before me. Dad and I looked at each other in wide-mouthed wonder. I slowly collected myself and said from my knees, “If I’d wanted to hit him, it wouldn’t have gone anywhere near him.” My father, the astonished look still on his face, nodded in mute agreement to the absolute truth of what I’d just said.

Cynics say that parents, like my father, who push children in the direction of their own broken dreams are trying to live through their kids. The truth is, they want their kids’ lives to be perfect. And those childhood dreams of playing centerfield for the Yankees, dancing on Broadway, or playing on the PGA tour are still our ideal of perfection. So, push them we do. I ruined tennis for both my kids when they were little by doing just that.

And then one December day when he was 15, my son, Matt, announced he was going to try out for his high school golf team, despite the fact that he’d never played a round of golf in his life. I went into full parent freak out mode and bought him a specially weighted, caution-tape yellow, training golf club I’d found on the web. When I proudly gave it to him Christmas morning, he looked at it like I’d just handed him a new algebra book.

The next day, I dragged him to a driving range. As he stood forlornly over the ball holding the ridiculous yellow club, I heard myself, as if from a far distance, instructing him, “Head down, eye on the ball, left arm straight, hips loose as a goose (and then I shimmied like Shakira), backswing low and….” I stared out at the horizon for a few seconds, told him I wasn’t feeling well, and walked slowly to the car where I sat and watched him flail happily away at the whole bucket of balls using my old clubs.

To Change A Tire

cars

Like Alice through the looking glass, the real world is disappearing through our computer screens. Work, play, education, shopping, dating, banking, books, letters, and conversations are all vanishing around us; all shoved aside and replaced by their cold, spindly, digital avatars.

And because of the increasing scope and power of the digital world, we’re becoming conditioned to pay more attention to it than to what’s actually happening around us. Just try having a meaningful conversation with someone holding a smartphone. Or try sitting next to them at the movies. This also helps explain why so many of us are suddenly insane enough to text and drive.

This mass migration to the digital frontier is also widening the divide between those of us who pondered the mysteries of building blocks in our playpens and those who surfed the web in theirs. Millenials seem largely unaware that they live in Wonderland, and they appear to prefer it there. That’s why I was almost glad one sunny summer Sunday morning to discover I had a flat tire.

Have you noticed cars don’t break down as often as they used to? Their onboard computers do a much better job keeping things going than the brainless vacuum and gravity fed contraptions of the past. And for reasons probably related to automated manufacturing techniques and computer-aided design, flat tires are also a relative rarity.

As I stared down at the flat, I felt young again. I’d rolled through the 70s on retreads, and every time I was late or on a hot date I’d have a blowout. I got to where I could change one blindfolded. So, here at last was a chance to teach my millennial son one of the hallowed rituals of the pre-digitized world: we’d change a tire together.

He emerged from the house blinking in the analog daylight and in a hurry to reinsert himself back into the matrix. “Where’s the spare?” he asked. I had no idea. We eventually found it, cleverly hidden by the manufacturer underneath the car.
I’d been looking forward to showing him how to work a big old bumper jack, until I noticed the car had no bumper. We eventually found a teeny toy jack, cleverly hidden by the manufacturer behind a seat. But the dinky little crank that turned the teeny toy jack was nowhere to be found.

It was hot outside by now and the siren song of ESPN was calling me back to my recliner. “Where in the world are we going to find a little crank like that?” I whined. My son whipped out his smartphone and, after a few finger swipes, said, “It will be here Tuesday.” So much for my lesson plan.

Two days later, we jacked up the car and unscrewed the lug nuts, but the wheel wouldn’t come off the hub. And each time we yanked on it, the car rocked perilously on the teeny toy jack. Hot and frustrated, my son ran to the garage and came back with a mallet. He proceeded to maniacally whack away at the tire until the wheel broke loose and fell off. I looked at him and smiled proudly: If all the lights ever go out some crazy day, he’ll be fine.