I’ll probably never be an Instagram star because my brain doesn’t work through algorithms or abide in the Principles of the One-Trick Pony. That is, my mind is too random and perhaps too creatively obsessed to attract the types of followers that love consistency and central messaging. Plus I don’t have cleavage.
As for this blog, I produce it not for fame, but for therapy. It releases the bubbles of thought, anxiety and hope that rise from the depths of my mind to reach the surface of existence. Sometimes I gain followers because those bubbles resonate. Other times I lose followers because they make people foam at the mouth.
I took the photos for this blog on a wetland out behind our house. I was wandering around the ice covered surface with our dog, and grew fascinated with the plasticine patterns visible under my feet. In a few short weeks the ice will be melted away and the voices of chorus frogs will burst forth as the first fifty-degree days in March arrive. But for now, the world of the wetland is all sullen bubbles trapped beneath the frozen water.
The other realm of bubbles consuming my brain is the swimming pool. Perhaps you’ve not thought about the bubbles you make while swimming in a pool, but there are millions of them. Turning the head side to side every stroke, we release CO2 and take in oxygen with every stroke. Sometimes we’ll go two or three strokes in a row, head just below the surface, no bubbles to be seen. It even works that way while running or riding. Periods of bubbling presence followed by silent movement. We breathe.
Recently I heard a Sirius radio host interview an author who began talking about the meaning of life. To my surprise, he used a bubble as an example of how life does not necessarily have meaning, on its own. He suggested it has value instead.
Think back to those days creating soap bubbles in the summer sun. If you’ve ever used a really big wand, you grow to understand the delicate nature of surface tension at work. Slowly moving your arm, the bubble inflates with air, takes on delicate colors and then floats away on the free will of the universe. Like a dream. Then it pops and is gone. We are all alone again.
Such is life, is it not? I recall being a young man with a crush on a girl in our neighborhood. I liked her hair and smile, her brown eyes and the way she moved. I was smitten. Then some rough boys from another town made her acquaintance and started showing up on her porch. I overhead one of them talking about her. “She’s got such a bubble butt,” he murmured. “How would you like to grab that?”
I felt protective of her, but powerless to do much about it. So much of life is like that. Some coarse event comes along to burst our bubble and the only thing we can do is watch it burst. The hopeful among us go out and create more.
And have you ever had someone turn to you and say, “I hate to burst your bubble, but…” That’s typically not a fun moment. Well in my case, I now have a bubble butt of own. So fuck all that. Here’s to convergent evolution and showing your ass to the world in protest.
Putting it out there
My mind creates bubbles without really trying. I’ve often been accused of oversharing on social media, and that’s the cause. I can’t stop thinking about everything I see.
Then there is so much injustice and abuse and disgust toward the creative in this world, that putting it out there seems like an act of defiance. So I put ideas and bubbles out there and see who views the world the same way or differently. I’ve even taken a look at tar bubbles that way.
That’s what we’re all doing on social media. Sending out bubbles and sometimes popping them. Laughing at the way we look through them. At the same time, we are trapped in a bubble of our own making.
Algorithms will do that. We can’t always discern where our information is coming from, or where it goes. So it is best to pop your bubble now and then. Get outside the flubbering void of your own existence and dip your wand in the soapy world beyond. It’s not always pretty, but it is often interesting.
Or you can just stare down at your feet. Those bubbles may be calling you home.
Walking our dog in the morning is like being back in field biology class looking for signs of wildlife everywhere. On a typical morning we’ll cross the tracks of numerous animals left in the snow. There are coyote and fox tracks, cottontail rabbits, squirrels, voles and deer mice, juncos, tree sparrows and cardinals, or the large padding feet of Canada geese. Also the occasional opossum trail. Always ponderous, thick and slow.
All are identifiable. But this morning I had a funny experience in finding my own tracks in the snow. The day before, I’d started my five mile down the asphalt path that passes behind our house. The snow was fresh on one side of the path so I enjoyed padding down the soft surface on the way out to the road.
Going way back to my first years in running, I read an article in Sports Illustrated about the proper way to run. It talked about pointing your toes forward rather than running splay-footed. Some people are built that way by nature and can’t point their toes for the life of them. But not me. I took that straight and narrow advice to heart. Even with a slight bow in my lower legs, I run with feet pointed straight ahead. You can see proof of that in the photo above. That tactic has carried me many miles. At least 50,000 or more.
Most days I travel with a mid-foot stride. But once in a while I let heel-strike take over. I consider that a luxury on most runs.
It was interesting to encounter my own human tracks among the dog prints and other critters we normally see on our daily walks. Lucy sniffs all of them. Her nose picks up scents that we humans never know. She’ll follow rabbit tracks into the brush if I let her. Or she’ll stop transfixed by the recent urine stain left on a snow clump by either another dog or coyote. She’ll even sniff the footprints we’ve left from the day before. I imagine she’s saying, “Huh, this smells familiar.”
Sometimes the footprints we leave last for weeks. A month ago the snow compacted easily, then it rained a bit on top of everything. Our footprints were outlined in icy relief. They became treacherous as the snow around them was scraped away. Then it began to melt. I found one of my ice sculpture footprints sitting all alone on the trail. I’d watched it change forms from the day I made it. It served as the grave marker of days gone by. All so ephemeral. Like life itself.
Back when I competed for every inch of advantage in the world of running, I was a bit merciless in my regard for other competitors. In the first mile of a five-mile race I would ultimately win while setting a personal record of 24:49 for the distance, a runner next to me inquired, “What pace are you running today?”
I answered, “Faster than you.” And I took off for the victory.
That was an asshole move, I’ll admit. Lots of us competitive runners were assholes in the heat of competition and beyond. The well-regarded Bill Rodgers once characterized most of what he saw on the marathon course as “graceless striving.” He later apologized for the remark, but it was indicative of his attitude toward the quality of effort he sought to bring to running. He once remarked that while winning the New York Marathon, his instincts told him to do everything right, even down to the position in which he carried his hands.
That’s not being an asshole. That’s honoring the sport. And when I got to serve as a race escort for Bill Rodgers at a local 25K years ago, I was amused when a plodder of some sort stuck his head in the window to ask Bill, “What advice do you have for a four-hour marathoner?”
Rodgers graciously smiled and said, somewhat incredulously, “You can run for four hours?”
I’d say he came a long way from his original statement about graceless striving to the point where he was able to entertain the earnest inquiries of the masses with a response like that. At one point, people could probably categorize him as an elitist, someone that has the attitude their insights are superior to others. The fact of the matter is that Bill Rodgers was an elite runner at the time. He should have high standards and expectations when it comes to the honesty of a performance.
Are you not entertained?
I think that’s a good way to look at life. All of us are called to compete in life in one form or another. It might be at work. Or it might be focused more in our avocations including triathlon or any of the sports we selectively choose from running to riding to swimming. We compete because we love the challenges it provides. And are you not entertained by it all?
Largely, we’re nice about it. And largely, we all choose to play fair. But sometimes we see people that don’t abide by those principles. In those moments, we can be real assholes about it. Elitist even. People who take cut the course or do performance-enhancing drugs to win or improve their performance illegally are rightly frowned upon. People who use cloying political skill to earn positions they don’t deserve. Emperors who slaughter their father and demand fealty or you and your family face death.
But then there are people who don’t cheat but are still relative assholes. I think of Steve Jobs, the late Apple corporation genius that transformed the digital world and everything about our lives. He was known to be a bit of an elitist asshole. But his profession and industry demanded that sort of drive to draw innovation out of his proteges. Or so the story goes.
On one hand I relate to that brand of creative urgency and on the other hand, I’ve suffered in having tried it in life. As a young man I read The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. It presented the notion that pure talent should not be diminished or compromised in any fashion. The architect at the center of the story would rather go off and pound rocks than have to suffer dilution of his creative powers or ideas. Perhaps that character was based on the likes of Frank Lloyd Wright, another notable asshole if there ever was one. When called about leaks in the ceiling of a house he designed for SC Johnson, Wright reportedly replied, “Don’t you own a bucket?”
I read about people like that because I’m fascinated by how people choose to live their lives. Much success in this world is created to what human resource experts love to call “emotional intelligence.” That means choosing how and when to engage with people, and in the right way. Some of us have it, while others struggle knowing how to navigate company politics or even who gets to sit where in the cafeteria. It can all seem like a vast mystery at times, as if you’re locked in a Matrix and don’t know whether you should get in or get out.
That’s part of the reason, I suppose, why I both loved and abhorred running as a sport. It is so absolute. You either run faster than someone else, or you don’t. Yet during my peak years I was so hard on myself about winning races there were times that I’d still be dissatisfied after having beaten three thousand people to the finish line. In some ways, I was being an asshole to myself. Years later, during a period when my late wife was going through cancer, I sought counseling to handle the stress of multiple caregiving responsibilities for her and my late father, a stroke victim. The counselor listened carefully through a couple of sessions and realized I was beating myself up for things that had even happened long ago.
“You seem to be good at forgiving others,” she quietly observed. “But how are you at forgiving yourself?”
That question both struck me down and raised me up. After that I took a hard look at my internal dialogue. I stopped writing every negative thought I had down in journals. While it wasn’t the same as always looking at the bright side, I found ways to be less ruminative about my troubles. Even in my relationships with friends and family, I sought authenticity somehow. One of the things that drove me crazy was people complaining in real time, all the time. So I shared a perspective with my wife that offered a hierarchy I’d identifed. “Complaint is a lack of respect. A lack of respect is a lack of trust. And a lack of trust is a lack of love. So let’s be more loving toward each other. If you have complaints or worries, let’s write them down so we can look at them together and talk about them. Otherwise we’re always stressing out over things that don’t get solved.”
That might have been an asshole’s way of approaching the problem. I don’t know. But it worked. We figured out ways to discuss money and other sensitive topics. Then one night during a period when I was out of work and taking care of her full-time, we ran low on money. “We need $3500,” she told me.
We sat together and prayed at the dinner table that night and the next morning, an envelope was dropped through our front door that contained $3700 in cash. We never knew where it came from. That approach is a different form of emotional intelligence. It’s called letting go of what you can’t always control. Be humble. Let that be the right kind of pride in what you do. I wrote a whole book about that subject.
This past week I was visiting the Facebook group from a city where I once lived. I posted an old baseball team photo and it generated a load of memories from other people that had played in that league or for that team. Then a classmate from the school I’d attended back east said “Hi Chris” in the comments. I reached out and asked if he kept in touch with other classmates. “Not too much,” he replied.
Two days later he posted a comment on an article I’d written about the fact that Rush Limbaugh has lung cancer, yet the controversial conservative once bragged that America should be thankful for people that smoke because the taxes they pay contribute to social causes. I pointed out in the article I wrote that 10% of all medical and healthcare costs in America are the product of people smoking, an amount that adds up to hundreds of billions of dollars. (Source: Reuters) My old friend did not like what I’d written. “Now I know you’re an elitist asshole,” he posted on the article comments.
The cancer of Rush Limbaugh
How interesting, I thought. Pointing out the hypocrisy of a smoker dying of cancer after having bragged about it, or using his own words to chronicle his bigotry and hate, or mocking women as “feminazis” and calling Barack Obama a “magic negro” makes me the elitist asshole in that equation? And challenging the perspective of a jerk who denies climate change just because it might cause lazy people to change one iota of his behavior? I’m the elitist for that?
I resisted the temptation to write back with a simple insult, but sent him a private message congratulating him on having a son who is a great runner, since I’d visited his page and learned that his kid had just run a personal mile best of 4:02. Then I closed my comment by saying, “If you like Rush Limbaugh, you probably ought to Unfriend me.” That was the emotionally intelligent thing for me to do. Because I wouldn’t want to give him any more reason to call me an elitist asshole, other than the fact that speaking the truth these days tends to draw that kind of criticism from all the wrong quarters.
In the middle of the night I woke up from a dream in which I found myself in charge of a large crowd of people trying to check out of a grocery store. The lines stretched back and doubled and tripled up to the point where I started staging people in pods with the promise that I’d help everyone get through and checked out.
Then I made my way through the crowds to check on the people working the checkout counters. One was a frazzled gal physically at her limits, working hard to pass things along to the baggers as she methodically punched the grocery items into the digital register.
All the while I sensed that things were ultimately going to be in control. Perhaps that’s because I’ve been in situations before where crowd control was in my hands.
Hot Dogs for Summer Reading
I think of a day at the Kane County Cougars minor league baseball park. All summer long I’d been in charge of a reading program that I conceived and implemented. More than 1500 families had registered to accept the final prize, a free admission for their child that came with a hot dog, chips and a beverage for completing the program. That afternoon I called to inform the General Manager of the ball club that we had 1500 families arriving at 6:00 p.m. to check into the ballpark. He must not have believed me.
The system for checking the folks into the game was not working. They only had one attendant going through the passes, so the line of families stretched back through the parking lot like a human snake. I corralled the GM and said “Come with me!”
We stepped outside the stadium and I told him, “See those people? They’re all here to attend the game because our reading program worked. We don’t want bad publicity. You’d better get some more people assigned to the gate.”
“And cook a few more hot dogs,” he blurted back.
“Yes,” I told him. “A lot more hot dogs.”
Fortunately we got people through the gate fairly quickly and the stadium crew fired up a couple more grills and started cooking hot dogs.
Calming the crowd
In the meantime, I walked the line of people to assure them there was a plan now being implemented. I was honest with everyone. “They weren’t quite ready for the success of this program,” I told one disgruntled parent. He seemed to appreciate the truth.
Then I noticed a child sitting on a parking lot curb reading a book. I stopped to talk with his mother. She told me, “We agreed that I’d submit his final book on the chart, but only if he promised to finish it before we got in the gate. So he’s reading like crazy.”
I walked off smiling at that one. A week later I was standing with the General Manager at another ballgame when a pair of men that had entered a fan contest to entertain the crowd jumped up on the dugout roof and stripped off their sweatpants and shirts to revealed a matching set of black lingerie underneath. They danced and gyrated to the music blaring over the stadium sound system while waving their excess clothing like a pair of cheap-rate strippers. I turned to the General Manager and asked, “What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever had happen at the ballpark?”
He turned to me with a grim grin and just a bit of admiration for the performers and said, “You’re looking at it.”
You can never quite tell what some people in the crowd will do when the rules are relaxed a little.
Oscars Night at the Movies
I once organized an Oscars Night at the Movies in collaboration with an antique local movie venue. Nine hundred people showed up, including a rather drunk quintet of middle-aged gals falling out of their dresses and determined to get the best seats in the house. I made that my first priority of the evening.
Then a determined guy with bad shoes and an even worse wardrobe started badgering me about when and where the prize drawings were going to be held. He followed me around the venue everywhere I went, darting in to ask the same question. I finally pulled him aside and said, “Guess what? You just won!” Then I took him to the back of the hall, handed him one of our provisional prize packages in case there was a mixup, then shook his hand feverishly as if he’d just won the lottery. He was ecstatic.
Then I called the company vending the event, our local Panera Bread, because the crowd in attendance was much larger than we anticipated. I’d worked with their organization for several years as they were the lead sponsor for an even larger summer reading program that I’d organized. It grew from 35 public libraries and 50,000 kids to 175 public libraries and 375,000 kids. From the get-go Panera was the lead incentive to encourage kids through the early stages of the program.
Yet they also stepped up for special events outside that commitment, hence their partnership with our Oscars Night at the Movies event. We’d ordered food for the estimated 500 people we expected. When 900 showed up, Panera swung into action and delivered the increased order with only a few minutes delay. I have forever been impressed by that. Staring at crowds of hungry people eager to have fun and expecting it on demand is not all that fun. Thank you, Panera Bread. I dine there regularly and have visited nearly every store in the Chicago region over the years, both franchise and corporate.
At the Races
During my time as a runner, I’ve also had occasions to organize road races, including one event where approval was given by the City Council to send a race through a local city park. Only they misplaced our permit and on race day, I showed up early in the morning to find our race coursed covered by an art show with tents and artist displays parked all over the trail where the race was supposed to go.
It was too late to change the course, so I walked through the park to let the artists know what was coming. As an artist myself, I felt for the folks drinking their coffee on a quiet summer morn as the sun was just coming up. I walked tent-to-tent explaining the situation, and most folks were understanding. But one panicked woman was adamantly against the idea. At that point, frustrated by the city’s snafu, I had no mercy left. “Well get ready because in two hours there will be five hundred runners coming through and they’ll be on the the trail for about two hundred meters.”
Following the race I took quite a bit of grief from the running community. “How could you let this happen?” one of my close associates asked. “I didn’t. The City misplaced our permit and we were stuck. Everyone got through. That’s what’s important.”
He was not consoled. “I could have had a faster time,” he chided me. I just stared at him. All I could think of to say was… not nice things. So I walked away.
In the Lead
Over my years of racing I experienced several races where logistics got massively screwed up. One race that I won turned out to have measured the course wrong. I ran the additional mile past the prescribed 10K in the lead but was running out of gas by the time I crossed the finish line. A few weeks later I was again leading a 10k when the lead police car slammed on the brakes in the middle of an intersection. I couldn’t stop in time and flopped over the back of the trunk before standing back up to start running again. Talk about an adrenaline rush!
As the returning winner at the 10K race in a Chicago collar suburb, I took the lead after one mile and was cruising to a repeat victory through five miles when the course took a sudden unexpected left, then a right and another right. I emerged from the three block detour to find the entire rest of the race was sent straight rather than having to follow the three block loop I’d just run. Instantly I’d lost my 200-meter lead. I had to kick like mad to preserve the win, and was later told the race director apologized for the “misunderstanding.” Apparently they’d lengthened the course to compensate for some construction work that never materialized before race day.
It’s all about communication in the end. Things sometimes get screwed up between the planning room and real life. Even well-established events can be screwed up and people never know it. As the two-time winner of a local road race that had a 20-year history, I got a call one day from a former track and cross country coach that had walked the course several times with a measuring tool and determined the 10K course was more than 200 meters longer than it should be. “So you can take forty seconds or so off your winning time,” he informed me.
That was 31:52. That race involved a one-on-one battle with a competitor with whom I matched strides until the absolute end of the race. Learning to deal with pressure like that comes in handy in life.
A week after that race I confidently ran a 31:10 10K for second place in a flat and fast 10k with eight other teammates for pacing. It goes to show that even our best efforts may be better than even we know.
All told I’m glad that I had the speed at one point in life to truly control the crowd, err, the race. For that I have always been thankful.
Today I felt good in the water. Perhaps you know the feeling too. After weeks or months or years of swimming, running or riding, you reach a point where things come together a bit. You feel the flow.
My wife Sue has been feeling the flow in her running lately. Her training times have dropped. Her pace has been steady and strong. Even her best mile time has improved.
I’d say that she and I have had similar paths to success with her running and my swimming. When we first started running together, her stride was overly long and uneven. Her footstrikes were heavy. She struggled. But over the last two years especially, she’s smoothed out thanks to some encouragement and great guidance from her coach Steve Brandes.
In fact, if you’re looking for someone to guide you in any aspect of your triathlon journey, I strongly recommend Madison Multisport: Steve Brandes, his wife Cindy Bannick, or Justin Gustafson. They’re all great coaches.
I”m not a “paid” athlete. I just take a more casual approach to the sport than some. And last year my racing schedule was wiped out with illness due to matters unrelated to training, and I did not race anything but a 10k in April. The rest of the year was an unfortunate bust.
Yet through it all I kept working on my swimming. Now I’m finally feeling like an actual swimmer, not just a lump of flesh thrashing along in the pool. My catch is cleaner. My pulls are stronger. My kick is confined and concerted. And it’s getting fun.
The most significant change made to the swimming enterprise has been my breathing. I was breathing too heavy on the exhale, and too soon. Basically I was blowing out all the oxygen I needed to swim. I’d been started to breathe out hard the second I turned my face back under the water. It’s subtle difference now, but a major change.
The heavy breathing is cured (LOL) and I swam my five 200s in well under 4:00 today. My hundreds dipped below 1:50 and my 25 time got down to 21 seconds. I’m not fast yet. But I’m getting strong, and that counts more in my book. The day I break 20 I will (yes) be a happy man. But I think it’s coming. I’m improving. I can feel it. I’m no longer a fool in the pool.
I’m even eager to increase the length and frequency of workouts now. I swam almost 2000 yards today when typically it’s been 1000 and done. Along with adding a couple days per week, the confidence will build and soon summer will be here. Time for open water success!
I hope you can find the flow where you need it too. Would love to hear your tales of breakthroughs!
I’ve written previously about a 1973 newspaper article in which a local sports journalist branded me a “junior sensation” for leading our high school cross country team to a few early-season victories. That pulp fiction title cost me dearly the next meet when a far superior runner from another school stood on the line next to me and muttered, “Junior sensation my ass.” He left me in the dust.
That’s competition for you. But as the years went by I had some relatively sensational moments to cheer the spirit along the way. Yet looking back, I realize the more important thing in life has been the sensation of running, not running sensationally.
These days, when I typically cover the miles in exactly twice the time it took while racing in my prime, I still enjoy the sensation of running. Running along at ten minutes a mile is not the same tempo or pace as racing at five minutes per mile, yet the sensations are happily the same. Granted, I no longer feel the wind in my hair and the shorts I wear now reach halfway down my thighs, or more. The concessions of age and a changing world have had their effects.
Yet in conversing with friends and associates that continued running all these years, they express a similar appreciation for the ability to still enjoy the sensation of running. It is also true that every time I see a woman out for a run I think back to the girls and young women on the high school and college cross country and track team who found the sensations of running pleasurable enough to suffer through the pain it sometimes brings. Their example launched the massive popularity of women’s running that continues to expand.
Here’s to all of you that enjoy the sensation of running. You don’t have to be sensational to gain so much from the sport. Most of us aren’t. Yet we share that “one foot in front of the other” journey with the likes of the world’s best, and that vicarious sensation puts a form of wings on all our feet.
As a child growing up with three brothers in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, I learned to compete in multiple sports. When we weren’t out throwing baseballs or shooting baskets, tossing a football around or kicking soccer balls, we headed down to a dusty basement to play ping-pong, officially known as table tennis.
There are plenty of sports in which concentration is key, but none more than table tennis. While I could barely keep my eyes open in math class, the angles and geometry of table tennis was riveting. Every shot or block was an instant calculation. One learned by losing as much as by winning points.
Our table was built by my father, who somehow figured out a way to building a folding ping-pong table, paint it a proper if slightly lighter shade of slightly shiny green, and line the edges and center with tape as well. It was a fine table, made of wood thick enough to make the ball respond appropriately when so many ping-pong table tops in that era were built with thin composite materials on which the ball did not bounce truly.
A mushy ping-pong table is an affront to the game. So are players who wittingly or unwittingly play the game outside the domain of the rules. But we learned the rules and lived by them. Each of my brothers had success in playing the game across the spectrum of occasions afforded us. My next eldest brother Gary proved to be the most exceptional of all with his superb reflexes and hand-eye coordination that for years he also employed in the sport of fencing.
I certainly did not beat my older brothers much in the game of table tennis. But we’d play in that basement despite the pipes jutting out from the wall. Laughingly, we named these difficulties the “Water Meter Shot” and other such attributions to impediments to play.
When we moved to a giant house in Elburn, Illinois, the ping-pong table was hauled up several flights of stairs to the massive A-Frame attic. There were played matches without interruption of any kind. Our patented “loop” shots could tower feet above the table and coming singing off the surface with a jump of spin. Our only infrastructure challenge was a six inch gap along the entire perimeter between the floor and the wall. If table tennis balls went down the gap they were mostly gone forever.
That was another aspect of the game we treasured and understood in terms of playability and performance. Some ping-pong balls were light and feathery. They turned the game into a pitty-pat that was insulting to the senses after playing games with a heavier ball at high speeds.
Friends had often challenged us during our years in Pennsylvania. We’d head over to the Arnold’s house where their commercially-produced table was a pleasure to play upon. But the ceilings were lower and certain aspects of our collective games were eliminated. That meant fighting it out in table-blocking matches that were intense, but not nearly so athletic or thrilling as open space table tennis where agility comes into play, not just stubborn racket practice.
Over the years of playing and in so many basements, one learned how to adapt in all kinds of playing conditions. From footing on carpet or slippery tile, or carpet on slippery tile, to bad lighting and cramped quarters, it was often a question of how to adjust to the limitations of the playing quarters in order to figure out how to win.
When I was fourteen years old, our next-door neighbor in Elburn was a pastor of the Congregational Church where I was confirmed. Hearing that I liked to play table tennis, he openly challenged me to a match, so I invited him to play a few games upstairs in the attic. During the warmup I measured his style and reasoned that while he was a steady player, there was no real threat in his game. So I played defensively in the early stages of the match until my hand-eye confidence felt strong enough. Then I started smashing point after point when his return service came floating back from my volleys.
At one point the ball struck him smack in the gut, and he blurted out an audible, “Shit!” I almost laughed, but was shocked as well. He didn’t apologize, but tossed the ball back to me to continue the game. And I won.
That was the only match we ever played. But it taught me a lesson in theology that I never forget. It made me realize that the holiest of men is still a human being. That made me respect him even more in some ways. I knew then he was making an honest effort, and I thanked him for playing me.
Sooner or later we all branched out to play in park district, high school and other tournaments. I won a few of these age-group competitions, and was not afraid to take on anyone that came my way. I’d still get trounced sometimes back at home, but with age the matches became closer and perhaps I even won a few games against my brothers.
My brother Gary won the title at Kaneland high school and we were four years apart in age, so I never had to play him there. But I followed in his shoes and made a bit of a splash as a sophomore beating older players. The same held true in my running career at that school, making the varsity team as a freshman and leading the cross country team to its first-ever conference meet victory.
Those were big deal accomplishments to me during high school, and then our family moved ten miles east to another town and it was akin to starting over. The ping-pong table occupied space in the basement of a split-level house that barely contained the four grown boys in our family.
And after that, we brothers hardly got to play table tennis any more. But when I moved off to college I found a playing partner in a classmate named Jim Nielsen, who loved the game as much as I did. We also happened to be teammates in cross country where the competition level was fierce all the time in practice and meets. But Jim and I would still beat on each other in the Ylvisaker hall freshman dorm table tennis room, playing match after match even when our legs were tired from long running workouts.
Jim and I made it all the way to the doubles finals as he once recalled in an online conversation. We lost to a pair of Laotian players as I recall. I made it to the singles finals against the Luther College tennis ace named Jeff Renken. Though I held my own against the senior, he beat me for the title.
For some reason I never entered the Luther College table tennis tournament again after my freshman year. And following college, the main occasions to play were against my brother-in-laws in the 1950s basement of my wife’s grandparents.
Those were competitive matches in a different sense than the tournaments. Usually they’d come in the wake or a big meal, and it was everything one could do to muster concentration after chowing tons of turkey or ham and desserts along with a few beers. But we fought it out and had some laughs all those years. But I still hated losing, especially to my wife’s sister’s husband, a player whose game involved crowding the table. I was somewhat defenseless against that strategy without room above the table to send soaring loop shots his way to back him up. So he erased my advantages and I’m suspecting I lost more than won most of those games.
Then one Christmas my wife’s brother invited me to join him to play some matches over at a longtime friend’s house. I wound up playing match after match against the family aces until the dad finally stood across from me at the table. He was clearly there to defend the family pride and protect the name of his household. Part of me felt mercy for the gentleman, but he wasn’t a terrible player, so I felt it fair to play him full out.
I played all those years with a foam rubber paddle with a smooth face to it. It has one blue side and one red side. The science of paddle rubber and the art of using it had begun to evolve in the 1970s and I hated using those hard pebbled paddles without any foam in them. Much worse were the sandpaper paddles found in so many rank basements. Yet many’s the time I’d pick up even those dull instruments and wipe the table with the player opposite. Faced with such rude tools, one has to turn to the basics of cut backspin and angled shots. It’s a mental game as much as physical at that point. But table tennis always is.
I defeated the Old Man that day but it was an epic battle of sorts. One of the challenges of basement ping-pong is always lighting. On top of dealing with shitty paddles, the other object to overcome was glare from basement windows or low light in general. Both can turn a table tennis match into a squintfest.
Which is why the set up at the Vaughn Center this weekend for the Aurora Open was so impressive in terms of its detail. The organizers even hoisted sheets of black plastic up to the roofline to block out southern window exposure. It would not do to have nearly world-class players trying to see through glare on the tables. There was plenty of room around every table for players to retrieve or set up shots. The new style of table tennis balls is plastic, I was told, not comprised of the same flammable material from which they were once constructed. I’ll admit to burning a few table tennis balls for the fun of it back in the day. The chemical flames had a liquid lick to them, perfect foil for a childlike pyromaniac.
But my brother informed me, “The plants where they made the tennis balls kept blowing up.” I agreed that is never good.
Watching the matches was an instruction on how far the game has come and perhaps on how far I’ve been left behind. My paddle grip is tradition with two fingers flat on the backhand side. Most good players now use a pen-like grip and the result is backhands that are as devastating as forehands. The serves are now a ceremony of body position and paddle angle.
The rules are largely the same. The ball cannot bounce twice on the opponent’s side to count as a legal serve. That’s a big difference from how basement table tennis is played. They must also leave the table within the end of the opponent’s side and between the two white lines marking the table edge. Again, that is never enforced in basement table tennis.
Nor is the requirement to toss the ball into the air on each serve. Many’s the time when players I met sort of smacked the ball right out of their hand, a tactic that makes serving much easier and can result in really deceptive play. But having principles and enforcing the rules when playing pickup table tennis or any other sport is an unpopular ideal and even frowned upon as lacking a sporting instinct in situations where Bro competitiveness is one the line. “Deal with it!” I heard one asswipe yell at me for calling a serve illegal when it bounced two times before leaving the table.
Watching the high level of play and witnessing the focus of the young players on the floor made me realize my table tennis days are fairly much over. Probably ten years ago I joined my brother at his table tennis night and barely won a match against the worst player in the large group of forty-some players. I realized that climbing the ladder and earning some sort of ranking, especially with a torn ACL as I had in those days, would take more doing than I wanted to do.
What I most admired in watching the tournament was the diversity of people in terms of age, race, gender and more. Young kids played old aces. Women played men. Heavy dudes with guts faced off with lean prodigies and you know what? The matches were all closely contested. There is something to greatly love in that kind of sporting even. While soccer may be the world’s game, I’m willing to say that table tennis comes close in terms of its national diversity. Who knows, I could well find myself playing the game again. One should never be afraid of trying something new, even when it’s an old hobby.
My wife’s coach recently made her chuckle while discussing her training. “You’ve got a diesel engine,” he told her. “We want to spread your speed and energy out over the whole race.”
That got me thinking about what kind of engine I have.
My top end as a runner was about 56 seconds for 400 meters. That explains why I never ran a 4:00 mile. Running four consecutive quarters at four seconds above your fastest pace is fairly hard. The only way to overcome that narrow gap between top end speed and sustainable pace is to repeat the ever living shit out of the sixty second pace and hope to build a sub-four out of that.
I once went through three-quarters of a mile in 3:09, which is sixty-three seconds per lap. Then I slowed the last lap, tightened up and finished in 4:19. I wasn’t quite there in terms of speed training for the full mile because my primary race was the steeplechase, a competition that required more strength than raw speed.
So my engine was like a four-cylinder running at top-end rather than a six or eight cylinder cruising along at speed.
It used to be believed that really fast engines like four-minute milers could not step up to run the 5000 or 10,000 meter distances with success, much less the marathon. But today’s world-class runners often can run a sub-four-minute mile and yet cash in that speed by running sub-13:00 for the 5k or even sub 27:00 for the 10k. Their speed enables them to run more efficiently at faster paces.
While training with a running club out in the Philly area, we did 800 repeats on the track and were nailing them in sub-2:15. That next summer I trained with a group at University of Illinois-Chicago and ran a sub 4:30 mile in practice. Those drills build confidence and callous the body to faster tempos and all-out speed.
Post-collegiately I ran only one or two competitive miles. One of them was a pickup meet where I literally coasted to the win at 4:22. That same season I raced a 5K and set my PR at 14:45. My PR in college for three miles was 14:45. So I’d improved by some thirty seconds at that distance.
So I wish that I’d raced a hard mile that summer because there was clearly a 4:12-4:15 in my legs and body. Alas that is a lament for the past.
But it showed that my four-cylinder engine had improved in running at the top end. My PR 10K that year was 31:10, a five mile at 24:47 and a four mile at 19:49. It was a fun year because whenever I raced there was a feeling of being able to push the gas pedal and the engine would roar into action.
That September I ran a 25K on a whim after training days of fifteen miles on Thursday, ten miles on Friday and another ten miles on Saturday. Obviously I was not planning to race that Sunday morning, but circumstances opened up and I jumped in the race and took third in 1:25, feeling relatively relaxed the entire way. That is the weekend I wished I’d raced a competitive marathon, without the 35 miles of training in advance. I’m pretty sure sub 2:25 was possible.
I once owned a stick-shift Subaru four-door Sedan with four cylinders. That car once got 450 miles to a tank of gas, and I think there were twelve gallons or so in a fillup. That always made me feel great, getting the most out of that car. I kind of feel the same way about my running body. And I’ll admit to shifting my stick knob a few times along the way.
One of the species that wildlife biologists and hunters sought to protect in the early 1970s was the Canada goose. This familiar species is now so common as to qualify as a pest, but that was not the case five decades ago. The species known as Canada goose is actually several ‘races’ ranging in size from the duck-sized Cackling goose to the Greater Canada goose, the largest of its kind. These all evolved in their own distinct range, but human influence changed all that.
Goosing the population
One of the efforts to give the Greater Canada geese a leg up in population size was an introduction program in Rochester, Minnesota where water remained open all year round thanks to some sort of industrial activity. Flocks of Canada geese quickly adapted to the year-round availability of food and fresh water. Their numbers escalated.
The same thing happened at Fermilab, the scientific research center west of Chicago in the suburb of Batavia. Cooling ponds from the national accelerator research facilities offered inviting habitat to geese. A few began to hang out year-round and over the last few decades a massive population of non-migratory geese fanned out across the suburbs to breed in local marshes and take over golf courses and corporate campuses where short green grass mimics the growth typical of tundra landscapes where Canada geese once migrated for breeding.
As a lifelong birder it has been interesting to watch this evolutionary phenomenon in real time. Back when I started birding, it was a real treat to see a flock of migrating Canada geese each spring. Their honking in the distance heralded the arrival of spring. That was good news to this young man after training in cold weather through Januray and February. Long skeins of geese were a sign of better things to come.
These days there is hardly a run or a ride in which I don’t hear or see Canada geese along the way. We live next to a wetland and all winter the flocks of Canada geese have ebbed and flowed, sometimes covering the entire march with their brown, black and white bodies. While feeding, they tip their bodies up and expose the white undersides of their tail.
The large flocks of Canada geese in Illinois also attract other species including white-fronted geese, snow geese and its race variant the Blue goose. Walking our dog in the morning, I walk past the large retention pond above the marsh and scan the resting flocks of Canada geese for the odd field mark that indicates another species.
A few weeks ago there were so many geese resting on the water overnight their voices could be heard through the walls of our house. At first I thought they were the sound of a TV or radio left on by my stepson in the bedroom next to ours. I got up to check but it wasn’t the source. Heading downstairs, I poked my head out the back door and listened to the chuckling sound of thousands of geese keeping each other company through the dark night.
I find their feathers on our lawn after they waddle up to gorge themselves at our feeders.
A day or two later the remains of a Canada goose were scattered along the shore above the retention pond. We have coyotes that frequent the wild places behind our home and wander the bike paths looking for rabbits and other prey. A year ago they took a small dog behind a house five doors away from us. The neighbors all freak out when they hear that coyotes are about. They’re always with us. That much I know from the tracks they leave in the mud and the snow, depending on the season. We can hear the pack howling some nights across the wetland.
I’ve met up with coyotes in the forest preserves while running and riding, or spotted them crossing the road in front of me. Some people hate these wild canids, but I find them fascinating.
Fast food for hawks
There’s a third species of wildlife that has made a comeback in our area as well. That is the Cooper’s hawk, an accipiter species adept at snatching birds in mid-air, and willing to pursue them by foot to chase prey out of a bush or thicket. These beautiful birds are dreaded by some folks that lose feeder birds to the clutches of such an able hunter. But I welcome them and enjoy seeing them flap and sail along the wood edges scaring up prey to live another day.
We humans not so different from any of these species of wildlife. We’re as populous as geese, as stealthy as coyotes on the prowl and ruthlessly opportunistic as hawks on the hunt. All are part of the evolutionary process. It’s only when people mess with it that things get out of whack. Then nature sort of whacks back.
There’s a lesson in that for all of us. We’re not so different from these wild creatures as some might like to lead us to believe. Plus I find inspiration in the flight-sharing duties of Canada geese in an echelon, the loping running style of a coyote and the burst of speed coming from the breast muscles of a Cooper’s hawk in pursuit. It’s all wild.
This morning while walking the dog before dawn, I had one of those moments where the mind suddenly snaps to attention in a way that makes you realize you’re still alive.
So much of life is getting through the moments of our existence. Processing things the best way we know how. Using experience to weigh the significance, or lack thereof, in every waking moment.
But the mind works in fits and starts. I stood there for a moment looking at the veil of trees silhouetted against the sky lit by distant towns. It gave me a snap of awareness. Made me think of how many times I’ve been doing something like running or riding or even swimming in a pool only to ask, as if I just woke up, “What am I doing here?”
What are any of us doing here? Or anywhere? A few minutes later during our walk, our dog stopped and stared into the darkness. I bent down to look into the murk from her perspective, but could see nothing. She let loose a low growl. Could it be a coyote?
She’s a cautious pup, rescued from who knows what sort of existence under a year ago. Now she views the world through eyes that have likely seen things we don’t want to imagine.
Awareness is a strange thing. I recall a long bike ride several years ago in which I covered fifty miles on country roads. The route was familiar and the conditions tolerable, so it didn’t take much thought to cover ground. On a shallow descent toward home my mind caught up with the effort. It frightened me that I could not recall anything about the miles I’d just covered. Could not remember if I’d paused at stop signs or crossed through many intersections. It wasn’t even a blur. It was…nothing.
I vowed not to let that happen again. Yet it does now and then. And worse. One morning while riding a bike trail at a brisk pace I looked up to find a fallen tree across the path. All I could do is react in some way. Turning the front wheel at the last possible second, my body slammed into the tree and my face grazed a thick limb sticking up from the trunk. Seconds later I lay on the ground bruised and bleeding from the face. Nothing makes you feel alive like seeing blood pouring from your own face and dripping on your clothes.
This past spring a similar thing happened when a man stepped out from between two cars and before I could react, I hit him square in the ass. There was no time to react and no way to have seen him before he popped out from between those two vehicles.
A friend of mine from high school keeps reminding me, “We have more life behind us than ahead of us these days.” He’s always been a sage of sorts, in colloquial fashion. His point is that awareness is a precious commodity. So is a sense of wonder. And conscious existence. So make the most of it. Love your friends. Keep in touch. Live.
Sometimes it takes a dog growling in the dark to help us realize there are things we need to consider in this world whether we like to or not. All we can really do is growl back in whatever fashion we choose, and keep moving.