Dad unplugged

Father in the 40sIt’s coming up on two years on October 17, 2016 that my father passed away. I served as his caregiver for more nearly thirteen years after my mother died from a combination of cancer and stroke in 2005.

No one figured my father would outlast my mother given the severity of the stroke he experienced back in 2003. But the day that my mom called to tell me that dad was in the hospital after collapsing the night before, I turned to my (late) wife and said, “Well, my life just changed.”

Role playing

Because I knew in that moment there would be a massive role for me to play in supporting my mother in her role as caregiver for my father. Two years earlier, I’d helped her through the period when dad went through multiple bypass surgery. That’s because I was the son who lived closest and had the most capacity for involvement in their long term care.

That said, after a year or so of handholding dedication, I realized that my mother needed something more than my support for the in-life grief she was obviously experiencing in what amounted to the real time loss of her companion. My dad was being moved from one rehab facility to the other as his recovery proceeded, but at some point the therapists warned, “This may be about it.” And that scared my mom. And she felt alone.

So I got her set up with a family counseling therapist that genuinely helped her come to grips with her fears. We ultimately hired a live-in caregiver to help when my father came home to live after more than a year in various facilities.

He’d lost his ability to speak, and that was never recovered. He also lost use of his right leg and right arm. The effects of stroke tend to be one side or the other, depending on which side of the brain is affected.

Learning to converse without words

I rather quickly learned how to guide discussion with my dad using questions. Sometimes I’d fail and he’d get frustrated. My father was a bright and curious man, but he also did not always think in linear fashion.

Yet when he did literally, and I still couldn’t parse out what he was trying to tell me, he’d get genuinely angry and show his frustration through scowls and even physical actions. The problem with that pattern is that it called up some of the difficult aspects of his parenting style when we were young.

My own psyche bore some scars from a beating I’d witnessed him carry out on my brothers. That incident affected me all through my elementary school years and likely beyond. At twenty-seven years old I awoke one night literally pounding my pillow in anger about something I did not understand in the moment but over time gained perspective on the fact that there were unreconciled veins of anger living residually in my subconscious self.

On the border

So it took considerable self control to manage my father when he got really upset, often bursting into choruses of “NO NO NO NO!” issued in rage and frustration. Part of me would empathize, thinking “I can’t really blame him. It must be terrible to not be able to talk.” But a part of me also admitted, “This is the same stuff I dealt with as a kid. Control by anger and exasperation.”

My father tried to live as normally as he could, but from the perch of a wheelchair it isn’t very easy. Still, he planned vacations to Florida with his ultimate caregiver Leo, a former Belarussian soldier that had fought in Afghanistan for the Soviet Army. So despite my father’s sometimes rough treatment, Leo in many ways brought out the best in my dad and supported him through all sorts of adventures.

But one trip when my father planned was supposed to make big loop to Niagara Falls, then Upstate New York and all the way down to Biltmore in North Carolina and back.

Well, when they got to Niagara after an overnight stay in the Cleveland area with my younger brother, my dad tried to force Leo to take him over to the Canadian side of the falls. Leo had not brought the paperwork necessary for his entrance to another country. He called me in a panic as my father was going ballistic, because my dad refused to understand that if Leo crossed the border, he might never be allowed back in the country. At that time Leo had a Green card, but eventually he earned his citizenship.

I tried to talk to my dad to explain the Leo situation but my father was adamant about going over to Canada. Then he literally threw the cellphone down the sidewalk so Leo had to retrieve it. I heard footsteps and then Leo’s thick Eastern European accent as he picked up the tossed phone. “Hello?” he asked.

“Leo,” I told him. “Take my dad to the car and turn around. Come on back home. You don’t have to put up with this.”

And that’s what they did. Then Leo and my dad stopped in Cleveland to visit my brother and his wife, and by all reports that evening turned out to be wonderful. Leo picked up a guitar and sang old Russian folks songs by a campfire. My dad was happy and they came home the next day.

He’s like that

But that meant I had to call all the relatives, mostly my father’s sisters, to let them know he was not coming to visit. One lived in Endicott, New York. Another north of Philly. When I’d called them initially to ask if they even knew my father was planning to come east his sister Helen blurted out, “Isn’t that just like your father? He never let anyone know when he was going to show up. He’s done this his whole life.”

Years before that aunt had commiserated with me about my relationship with my dad. “It would have helped if we’d have been around to tell you what he was all about.”

Indeed, our family had moved to the Midwest leaving all our eastern relatives behind. That meant very little contact between cousins as well. My mom once admitted that she’d thought we (meaning her four boys) didn’t care that much about all our aunts and uncles and cousins. But what we’d really lost was a better understanding of our own parents. In many ways that meant we were unplugged from the sources of what made our father into the man he was.

Life history

He’d lost his own mother to the effects of treatment for breast cancer. The year was 1933. Then his father lost his farm to the Depression, and another venture failed as well. That sent my grandfather to an institution for treatment of acute depression. My father and his sisters were situated with two aunts and an uncle who raised them. That’s the best understanding of family history that I have. There was much difficulty in life for all of them. And perhaps people never really wanted to tell the next generation about all that. But in many ways, that lack of tangible evidence left a greater mark on all of us than any facts about death or loss or depression could ever have done.

Much of my life has been lived in compensation for that lack of understanding. I quite truly admit that much of my running and riding has been a search for meaning in the moment. What is life really about? Because lacking a decent explanation of your past and its effects on you, the best most of us can do is to invent a narrative for ourselves. Then live that out to the best of our abilities.

But that manner of engagement also flatlines the meaning of those we lose along the way. And on that day that my father breathed his last at the hospital where he’d been kept for a week after falling and breaking his hip in a stubborn attempt to wander his stroke-ridden body around the house, I walked in to find him pallid and gone. I kissed his forehead and took a few photos that will never see the light of day because they are intended only to remind me that life truly does come to an end. And I will be just another dad unplugged.

Hopefully I’ve told and shared my story well enough that my children can understand where their father was right and wrong in life.

 

 

 

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Making life harder than it needs to be

Thumbs DownYesterday’s blog offended a few people. The number of followers dropped by 20 overnight. It’s happened before. Whether it was the topic of excrement, my treatise about crap-spattering baboons or the political criticism leveled at certain political figures… that eclipsed their interest, I’ll likely never know.

But there’s one thing I’ve learned from sports, and I learned it early on. People will form their view of you based on their own prejudices and insecurities.

The old ballgame

At the age of eleven years old, I played on a baseball team that won the Lancaster New Era (newspaper) city championship in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. It was a prestigious deal to win that tourney. I played in the first game that we won 26-0. At one point during the game, the coach was putting in the second string to take it easy on the other team. He pulled me aside before going to the plate. “I won’t ask you to do this again,” he whispered. “But I want you to strike out.”

Double up

Well, I admired that coach and would do anything he told me to do. So I attempted to swing at a high pitch and as luck would have it, the bat struck the top of the ball as I swung up and drove a liner right up the middle. It rolled out to the fence and I trotted around the bases for a double. Then I looked in at the coach and shrugged my shoulders. He gave a quiet nod and knew that I’d tried to miss.

The next game was far closer a contest. Midway through the third inning of a six-inning game, the coach walked out to the mound to make a pitching change. As he stood there, my teammates whispered among themselves. “Is he going with Tommy?” they asked. Tommy was our left-handed first basemen. He could throw hard but was a little wild.

Pressure situations

UFC guys.jpg

Painting by Christopher Cudworth

The coach turned to the bench and signaled for me to come into the game. As I was trotting out I overheard the voices of my teammates second-guessing the choice.

We won the game 8-6. I pitched us out of that third-inning jam with men on base, then held the other team to fewer runs for the victory. The next game, we pitched our lead guy Rob and we won the entire tourney.

After that game, the coaches took us all to the Dairy Joy for treats. He told us, “You won! You can have anything you want tonight.”

I ordered both a shake and a cone. I was hungry, mostly, because it was late. As I stood there sipping the shake, a teammate muttered, “Look at that. He bought two things and he didn’t even do anything in the tournament.”

I looked up in surprise. What about the game I won for the team when I came in as the pitcher when we were down by a run? That was nothing?

Important lessons

It taught me an important lesson though. Even your supposed friends or teammates can turn out to be opponents when you least expect it.

Later in the sport of distance running, the competition between individuals was even more intense. It was either run faster than the next guy or be relegated out of the top seven in cross country. Same with track and field, where opportunities to compete in the big meets were based on being in the top three in your event.

As a freshman, I’d already chosen the steeplechase as my event. But the conference was not yet including that event in its meet schedule. That would come the next year, and I won conference championships for successive years after that. But without my event on the schedule, I still wanted to compete at the conference meet. So I participated in a run-off for the 400-meter hurdles, a tough event in its own right. Despite not having run the event all year, I clocked the third fastest time on our team with a 59.2. That bumped one of the regular 400 IM guys off the squad, and I felt a little guilty about that. But then again, I did the same thing in the high jump at 6′ 1.5″. I didn’t place in either event, but that’s sports.

Higher standards

In high school, I was typically the best runner on the team. That came with leadership responsibilities. The pressures of leading a team refined my understanding of what it meant to be prepared, set an example and push forward even when the odds seemed against you or the team. People typically need something to believe in, and setting a higher standard is part of the job.

But taking on a leadership role can also cause resentment when you pressure others to step up. Friends can bristle with anger if you’re hard on them. There were times when I failed in managing the balance of encouragement versus harsh expectation. My own struggles to compete as an individual were projected onto others. There are important lessons to be learned from that too.

Life pressures

IMG_8997 2The overall pressures of life can be tough for everyone to handle. Even day-to-day existence delivers a long list of things to do, places to go and people to please. Then when real crisis comes along, it’s tough to be strong. “I’ve already got as much as I can handle!” we tell ourselves.

But here’s the other tricky part of this life survival formula. Sometimes it feels like we make life harder than it actually needs to be. We speak up when it might be better to listen. We take on jobs the wrong way and wind up isolating ourselves in those ventures. All kinds of things can go wrong when we least expect it.

Sports as rehearsal for life

In that respect, sports truly are a rehearsal for life. In triathlon, for example, even the transition zones challenge our ability to be prepared. To make things even harder, it’s tough when you enter transition exhausted from what you’ve just done in the swim or the bike, and still you have to muster the mental acuity to think clearly and keep moving. Don’t dawdle. You’re wasting time! I missed a podium place by one second earlier this summer in a sprint triathlon. One Second. Do you think I could have perhaps gained back a second or two in transition? You bet I could.

One of the principal things that sports teach us is that we have to live with the results of everything we do. It is a practice for dealing with small crises in real time. It does not help to engage in coulda-woulda-shoulda after the fact. Better to say, “Okay, I learned how NOT to do that.”

Big crises

When things come along in life that appear far beyond our ability to handle them, that is when the layers of life experience come into play.

A job loss can undermine self-confidence.

A divorce can gut the people involved.

A death can make one believe it is impossible to go on.

But we all have a wellspring of experience to build upon when a crisis hits.  In 2005 when my high school coach found out that my late wife was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, he called to tell me, “Your whole life has been a preparation for this.”

And that was true. He inspired me to consider all the ways that adversity had been overcome in life. He’d known me since I was thirteen and played baseball for him. Then he coached me in high school track.

So his broad perspective inspired me to open myself up through vulnerability. Because while life can make you cynical when people criticize you for bad reasons, in the end, it is trusting in the goodness of others that builds strength.

Self-management

Personal brand highlighterStill, outside times of crisis, I’m also my own worst enemy when it comes to creating problems without need. I tend to get too political on social media. And on occasion, I write a blog that offends the very people that have chosen to follow my work. And really, what’s up with that? Wouldn’t it be safer and less complicated to just write happy things?

Well, we can’t live all our life as if it were an apology for existence. When I worked as an editorial writer in the newspaper business. I learned that people read into your words whatever offense they are trying to find. Now social media has turned that into a daily habit for billions of people.

When I encounter that brand of habitual criticism or engage in it myself (I’ll admit), I think back to that moment when my teammates forcibly ignored my real contribution to the victory in the second game of that tournament. The thing that motivated them to discount my effort was elective thinking. They were actually the players that had not played in the most important second game. Their compensatory reaction was to try to bring someone down to their level. That would happen again and again over the years I competed in sports. You have to shove that stuff aside and be bold in what you’re doing. Otherwise you wind up being stuck among the nutters.

Not bagging it

I was eleven years old when I first realized those things. But there were still hard lessons to learn. The very next season when our team had lost most of the guys that led to that city championship, it left me as one of the sole leaders of a much weaker squad. I overhead one of the assistant coaches tell a bystander that we were in a “rebuilding year.” That angered me despite the fact that I knew it to be true. But I was not ready to accept that reality off the bat. Pun intended.

So I pitched like a maniac, winning a series of 5 or 6 games early int season. I also clearly recall the determination and focus I felt in winning a game where we were two runs down with two men on base. I looked down the third base line and saw a gap near the bag. I ripped the next pitch down the line and ran the bases while the ball rolled far into the outfield grass toward the Armstrong plant far past the outfield. I can still see that hit as clear as a day. I knew when I hit it that it was a home run.

Hard times

But two games later I was in the middle of pitching in the third inning when my arm suddenly went sore and dead. I’d pushed past my ability to carry that team. My father had noticed the loss in my velocity the previous game and was asking if my arm was okay. But I imagined myself invincible. My competitive fury knew no bounds. Plus I was also trying to prove myself tougher than everyone else. Some of that was in response to our own tug-and-pull father-son issues. Such is life, as they say.

Harder than it needed to be

Personal brandIn the end, I was definitely making life harder on myself than it needed to be. Yet that’s what leaders are sometimes forced to do.

Thus if I lose followers of this blog because my beliefs conflict with someone else’s view of reality, then that’s a price I’m willing to pay.  After all, I confess my flaws here on a regular basis. But I also argue my points in original fashion, and that’s leadership.

To arrive at those viewpoints, I absorb material from all sorts of political viewpoints. Just like my sometimes contrary views on things athletic (like the current obsession with hydration…) I’m not afraid to express an opinion that goes against ‘popular opinion’. And a lot of popular opinion in America right now is full of cognitive dissonance. Just like those jerky kids on my baseball team fifty years ago, the perspectives of many people are skewed, selfish and uninformed.

What the hey?

Some might ask, “What does politics have to do with running and riding and endurance sports anyway?”  That would be missing the point of this blog entirely. For five years I’ve written about how all these endeavors relate and translate to life. I’ve written about topics ranging from fairness to competition, and from corruption to inspiration. I’ve also interviewed many people who build this stuff into their lives and try to make sense of their world through their avocation or vocation as endurance athletes. If people reading this blog take such quick offense at things that tend to contradict their sensibilities, then they never got the thrust of this blog in the first place.

Because I’ve also dispensed quite a bit of practical advice on how to get faster, run longer, ride better and learn how to swim. If that doesn’t suit those who want to find ways to enjoy this stuff more and perform better, I guess they can go find a blog that tells how to run a 5K in under 22:00. Because I’m sixty-one years old and can still do that, and ran much faster in earlier years. I’d say that counts for something in terms of life experience all around.

 

 

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What passes for normal in a mixed up world

IMG_7136.JPGI drove down to the gym in darkness today. My wife left early for a business trip, so I was up and at’em at 5:00 a.m. Time to make use of the day.

Last night we practiced yoga at the same facility. For once my mind was relatively calm. Achieved some sort of focus. That was a shred of sanity in a mixed up world.

Yesterday morning I ran as the sun was coming up. For once I felt great going out the door. More often I feel creaky at the start of my runs. My Achilles are tight. My left knee without the ACL and a snip of missing meniscus talks to me too. Finally after a mile or so there’s a feeling of relative bodily cooperation going on. But by then I usually have to take a dump. So I plan for that. I point my route toward the forest preserve where there’s a potty. Or swing back around the house and get things done. And if things really get desperate, I know where to hide in the deep woods and find grape leaves for toilet paper.

Because no one should go where the Pooperintendent chose to go.

Pooperintendent

IMG_2162That poor dude they now call the Pooperintendent must have had the same bowel rhythms that so many runners experience. Ten or fifteen minutes in, you just gotta go. Granted, he used immensely poor judgement dropping his pants to  repeatedly defecate next to the high school track.

But I bet there are millions of endurance athletes who at least understand the urgency of that matter. Every big event from triathlons to cycling races to running races to swim meets provides porta-johns for that exact reason. The Pooperintendent was just unfortunate enough to lack those facilities when he needed them most.

Mixed up world

So it would be a sign of human decency for a school district or any facility that owns a running track to set up a portable toilet knowing that people who run often need to go to the bathroom. More often these days, running tracks are surrounded by eight foot fences to keep people out. That means the very people who pay for the facilities through their taxes are not allowed to use them.

I find that a mixed up situation. And in this mixed up world it is far easier to pick on the bad judgement of one individual with a problem than take responsibility for the fact that millions of Americans are obese as hell doing nothing about it. So our public track facilities are locked up while America grows fatter and fatter. Makes no sense.

Fast food grandiosity

maxresdefaultMuch of the America’s elective grandiosity (is it to Make America Great Again?) is the result a fast food diet compounded by bad habits and sheer laziness. The President of the United States even claims that exercise shortens your life. The Atlantic carried excerpts from a book titled Trump Revealed, that stated: “After college, after Trump mostly gave up his personal athletic interests, he came to view time spent playing sports as time wasted. Trump believed the human body was like a battery, with a finite amount of energy, which exercise only depleted. So he didn’t work out. When he learned that John O’Donnell, one of his top casino executives, was training for an Ironman triathlon, he admonished him, “You are going to die young because of this.”

Trump also believes that fast food is the most desirable option on America’s menu. Thus the President of the United States regular chows on McDonalds both out of appetite and also out of fear that he might be poisoned to death if he doesn’t order pre-made food.  This is now what passes for normal in a mixed up world.

Trump Mcdonalds.pngBut Trump also seems eager to hedge his bets and cover his tracks on the exercise and diet front. In 2015, sensing that his rotund shape and odd appearance with an orange face and combover hairdo to hide his baldness might be a detriment in his campaign for President, The Donald ordered an actual raid on his personal physician’s office to steal his health records. he then forced the doctor to issue a public opinion that he would be the “healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.”

The baboons take charge

Perhaps you’ve noticed that it’s hard to even get away from insane and questionable stories like these. We’re splattered with weird and bad news every day. It batters us like baboons smacking shit on the logs at the local zoo. I watched that very thing take place at the Brookfield Zoo near Chicago. Members of the baboon clan would crap on a log, wait for groups of people to walk close enough to be in range, then smack the poop hard with their hands. The shit would splatter in all directions, and the humans would shriek and run. That amused the baboons quite a bit.

Those animal instincts are alive and well in America. Some citizens seem to thrive on smacking shit for the sake of what it does to society. They love the reaction, the chaos and the drama it causes. Mass shooters enter schools and fire into crowds at concerts and churches and public places for the same reasons that baboons smack shit. They’re bored and have some redirected aggression to assuage.

The same holds true for avowed racists who gather in public places to splatter their hateful shit over the rest of society. It’s all a matter of ugly tribalism. A civilized society knows better. But when the baboons take charge, smacking shit to attack society on tribal grounds (blood and soil!) is considered fine art and good politics.

But the more disturbing sign is when the zookeepers actually encourage the behavior of such baboons through praise and support in their attempts to divide society.

Getting back to normal

It’s a mixed up world that confuses all that shit for truth and roots for the baboons because they deserve a ‘voice’ like the rest of us. To be sure, it’s time for a shakeup at the zoo that is America, but throwing shit around like there’s no tomorrow is not the answer.

Yet that’s the world we live in right now. We’ve all been dragged down to the level of a spiteful baboon using his small hands to smack shit on a Twitter feed in aggressive attempts to smear the world with what comes out the back end of a life spent smacking shit and telling people “You’re fired!” on reality TV.

It’s the same damned thing.

Back to normal 

RioOlympicsswimmingpool-GettyImages-519838356-59c09963054ad90011cf5247Which is why this madness will soon pass. Like the kid who slipped into the deep latrine in the movie Slumdog Millionaire, America will step outside the range of the shit baboons soon enough. Perhaps we needed the story of the Pooperintendent to realize we’re all just a video away from having our own shitty habits exposed. “There but for the grace of God go I,” some wise person once said. Because would we rather swim in a daily shit pond or spend our time in a relatively clean, clear pool like normal people do?

So we’ll have to watch our President drive on the golf greens for a while, and smack shit on Twitter when he gets back to the clubhouse. In the meantime, those of us with common sense will make use of the potty at the local gas station before showing up to the high school track to run. We’ll hide behind a group of trees while taking a whizz during a long bike ride. We’ll simply refuse to pee in the pool, instead hauling ourselves out to do our business so that others won’t have t swim in our piss, or be pissed when they find out what we’ve just done.

We’ll take care of business in fine liberal fashion by resorting to respectful, considerate, normal behavior in a world full of selfishly absorbed baboons who think that chaos is the only way to get things done.

But as the Pooperintendent and the President of the United States both now know, when you air your shit in public it eventually comes back to haunt you.

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A comma in the sentence of life

IMG_4864We all have a history about ourselves that we carry around in our heads. Some of it is based on clear and definitive moments in our lives, our own memories. Yet some of it is created from things people tell us about our own past. We assimilate that information, insert a picture of some sort to go with it, and plunk that into the run-on sentence of our lives.

But here and there along the way, we insert a comma or two. For emphasis. As we all know, the meaning of a sentence much depends on where we insert the commas. For example, if we take the following sentence at face value, it reads like a plain enough statement:

I love triathlon and think I could have been a pro. 

But add a comma and the meaning seems to slightly change.

I love triathlon and think, I could have been a pro. 

That comma changes the nature of the statement from a casual observation that may or may not be true to something that reads more like a definitive claim. Of course it also sounds like a woulda-shoulda-coulda claim. And that’s never pretty.

Let’s do one last experiment to illustrate the point about commas and how they change the meaning of sentences. This comma turns out to be for emphasis only, and it has no grammatical foundation.

I love triathlon and think I could have been, a pro. 

Now that statement sounds cocky doesn’t it? The fact that the placement of that comma doesn’t come around until the end of the sentence sets turns the last two words into some sort of triumphal statement about the nature of what surely might have been.

But that triumphalism also raises the question of what really took place. If the person making that statement never actually became a pro, what stood in their way? Was it circumstance? One bad race? Did life intervene?

Life stories

IMG_ADE08C63BD84-1Well, these are questions that we all apply to the resume of our lives in some way. The act of creating an actual resume of work experience or filling out a Linkedin profile forces you to put ‘commas’ of time and place on the things you’ve done. For some that’s easy. But for others it is a painful wrestling match with self-image.

Yet even those who seem to breeze through life with successful job transfers and work promotions do not necessarily have it easy. None of us is a pro at everything we try.

A real pro

IMG_7E9A3539EB42-1But there are people who “go pro” and can teach us much about the challenges of competing at a top level in anything.

Take the career of Gwen Jorgenson, the Gold Medalist in the Olympics in triathlon. She is shifting her focus in sports to pure distance running and is training to do a marathon one day. Her competitions in shorter races on the track have been a massive learning experience. Some of that has a been hit and miss. She aims to run 10K with times in the very low 30:00 range.

Gwen is also a relatively new mother. Mixing all those life changes together can’t be easy. Granted, her husband has held down responsibilities on the daily side of life to make it possible for Gwen to achieve what she has.

But this new venture of pure running is in some ways harder than the three sport regimen of triathlon. Where her running skills once gave her such an advantage, now they are immersed in a world where the other gals are just as intensely focused and able. Winning ain’t so easy any more.

But the point here is that Gwen Jorgenson is bold in taking the sentence of her life and inserting some commas of experimentation. It’s a safe bet most people would have just stuck with the success she was already having in triathlon.

Other commas

Bo Jackson.jpegMichael Jordan tried the same ‘comma’ thing with pro baseball after the first stage of his career in the NBA. He made it up to AAA ball with the White Sox organization, but ultimately went back to playing basketball.

The most successful two-pro-sport athlete was likely Bo Jackson who excelled at both pro baseball and pro football.

But unlike Bo or Mike, most of us are not faced with decisions on whether to choose one pro sport or another. There was a point where I had to make a tough choice between playing baseball and track in high school. I pitched the coaches on the idea of my doing both, but the academic advisors saw things from a different perspective. “You’re grades don’t indicate you can handle one sport, much less two,” said the high school guidance counselor. And they were right. I’d have flunked out of school and not been able to play either sport.

It only proves that we all face choices and interpret our experiences as we move through the sentence of life. People even insert commas into the sentence of our lives when we don’t know where to put them ourselves.

Revisions and edits

Sometimes we come to a point where new information arrives that either encourages or forces us to change the image we have about ourselves. For years after a national track meet in which I’d gotten deathly sick the night after a steeplechase in hot and humid conditions, I believed it was the heat that got me. But after a really great 10-mile race on a hot July morning I realized that whole “I can’t run in the heat” was a falsehood.

So I went back and thought about the events of that day running in the heat and realized that the real cause of my illness was not heatstroke, but food poisoning. I’d eaten an entire medium pizza from a national restaurant chain that was obviously tainted. These days there is an entire website devoted to such instances, called Iwaspoisoned.com. But back then in the 1970s, I’d never even heard of food poisoning.

That realization encouraged me to revise and edit the narrative of my life in a significant way.

Moving on

Some commas get inserted for unexpected reasons. Back when I was a sophomore in high school, my father up and announced that we’d be selling our house and moving to a town twelve miles away. At that time, I was the class president and the top runner on the cross country team. But like a good son, I went along with the change as best I could. It meant changing high schools and starting all over making new friends. That all worked out fine. But at the time, it was a harsh change.

Cud with Maravich skillsYears later, I asked my dad why we moved. Was it the gas shortage? Was it money?

My dad told me, “Nawww. I just didn’t want your younger brother to play basketball for that coach with the slow-down offense.”

I stood there with my mouth open for a moment, not quite believing what I’d just heard. “But what about me?” I asked my father. “I gave up so much that I had at that other school.”

My father just smiled and said: “I knew you were a social kid. I knew you’d survive.”

That made me move another comma in the sentence of my life.

August days

IMG_6510When August comes around each year and I hear the fine little voices of goldfinches gathering nesting material for their late summer rush to make nests, lay eggs and release young into the wild, it is hard not to want to fix the comma of life into place. If I had my way, I’d stay this age and condition forever. I’m doing well, yet my body shows signs of age, and some of those come on suddenly. Age spots. The texture of skin grows wrinkled. Even the shape of muscles in the chest, the legs and calves. They are less taught.

But I long ago lost my hair and have been silvery grey for years as well. In some ways it is an advantage to get some of the commas of life out of the way early. That way you can relish the feeling of “going pro” at this aging thing and face it like a boss.

So I’m going to become a pro at that. Own it. And put the darned commas where I want in the sentence of my life.

 

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On writing and the light within

chicago-skyline-4a.jpgI remember well the jury-rigged IBM Selectric typewriter that I used to write in the summer of 1983. I’d purchased the machine from a friend for $100 and it worked fine except for the fact that the carriage would sometimes stick on the automatic return.

The Chicago apartment we rented sat on Menominee Street at the corner where Lincoln Avenue angles back into Wells Street in Old Town, right by Lincoln Park. My roommate was a high school and college friend enrolled in graduate school at the University of Illinois-Chicago. He also worked nights as an orderly in the CAT scan room at Rush-St. Luke’s Hospital.

That meant there was considerable time for me to be alone and write. I was working on a book titled Admissions, much of which I’d originally written on legal paper (by hand) while commuting to the city by train. The typing process became the editing process. It was quite the discipline.

Training sessions

Road sunBetween writing sessions, I’d go out for training runs morning and night. I’d just moved back to Chicago after having been sent out to Philadelphia in a work transfer the year before. The newly formed marketing department at the investment banking firm lasted until April of 1983. Then the company closed it down as fast as they’d formed it and sent the bulk of us packing. We got severance checks and a pat on the back.

So I was feeling a bit disjointed and trying to figure out what comes next in life when the offer came from my buddy to come back and live with him in Chicago. Having never lived in the big city before, I didn’t really know what that meant. But I wasn’t quite ready to move back to the suburbs and the house I’d  rented back in Geneva had new occupants. So I moved in with my friend to find out what Chicago had to offer.

Life in the city

IMG_5419Those summer days of 1983 were hot and filled with the sound of traffic rolling down Clark Street, the noise of garbage trucks unloading dumpsters across the street and the hiss and roar of buses stopping and starting their journeys.

And the smells. The textures. Every day the waft of tar from roofers working on apartment buildings filled the air. When the windows were left open a fine grit from the city air would seep through the screens and gather on the surface of the typewriter and the paper left on the roller.

Clean start

I’d brush it all off in the morning and start writing again. Page after page I worked on my novel. Th editing process was intense as I tried to identify and clarify the voice and pace of the novel. The characters were well established, and I mapped out the plot lines and twists on a sheet of paper to keep it all straight.

In the morning I’d run six miles on the lakefront. In the evening I’d run 6-10 miles up to Montrose Point and back. Building fitness, racing occasionally and keeping an eye on the fall calendar. In between I was writing stories for a small publication called Illinois Runner, working freelance graphic design jobs and serving as a running consultant for a company my former track coach ran called One On One Fitness. Scratching out a living, in other words.

Reality checks

Slowly the severance money drained away. I’d kept it all in traveler’s checks and paid my share of the rent and fed my skinny body when necessary.

And most days I would write.

The novel centered around a fictitious college called the University of Wisconsin-Dells. The concept was that every student enrolled in the school would work in the tourism industry to fund their education. That model has come true in a number of ways, specifically at Disney. But my prediction was made in 1983, well before Disney went through its massive change from moviemaker to media juggernaut.

I made other novel observations that came true in the future as well. For example, I predicted that a conservative movement called The Mandate would take over most of AM radio and turn it into a massive talk show network to influence politics at the national and local level. This was well before the likes of Rush Limbaugh came along, but I saw it coming back in 1983 during the height of the Reagan adminstration. I predicted in my book Admissions that The Mandate would use media to target and harass those who disagreed with conservative policies. In many ways that presaged the concept of InfoWars and Alex Jones. Even then I saw back then how conservatives operate, filling vacuums of social commentary through propagandistic media strategies designed to capitalize on ideological opportunities at the street level. That has come true with Fox News and now, even more powerfully, with Sinclair media buying up media properties across the nation.

So the time has come to complete my novel Admissions.

Novel thoughts

IMG_5417But it wasn’t all serious stuff. I wrote a chapter called Doing the Icons about a woman who develops a sex fetish for costumed mascots. And a chapter about a motel owner whose deep Wisconsin property becomes a hangout for swingers. That’s pretty much come true as well with the Don Q Inn in Dodgeville.

The chapters were all written as free-standing sections with the plot line woven through them. The main character Sean and his girlfriend Charise wander through these adventures much like the novel Candide, where both and good things happen, but the final lesson was simple, “We must tend our garden.”

Life tectonics

I invented a term in the novel for the things that happen to us in this world. I called it “Life Tectonics,” the crashing together of continents of self and others. That idea was taught by an iconic professor named Jith Lakota, an East and American Indian descendant whose studies on the topic were being carried out at the University of Wisconsin-Dells. When I first heard the song “Crash” by Dave Matthews band it also made me jump out of my car seat to yell, “I thought of that first!”

The good professor in the novel also preaches a practical philosophy: “Sometimes you have to be smart enough to admit your faults, and stupid enough to know what’s good for you.”

That aligned with the fictitious idea that the UW-Dells made use of a voice recognition technology for recruiting that could identify deep personality traits and intellect just by making a recording of a person’s speech. That would eliminate the need for an application process, as the analysis would produce an accurate portrait of your worst faults in learning ability, personality and character. These became front-end learning points in one’s education.

I still believe that’s going to happen someday.

The novel today

The novel Admissions sits on floppy disks that I’ve kept all these years. My brother sent me a drive that allows you to transfer information from a floppy disk through a USB port to a contemporary Mac. It requires me to convert MacWrite files into plain Text files, but these can then be opened in Word.

So I’m in the process of doing just that, as my son and I are going to take that novel and finish it off. There are many other predictions I made in 1983 about the future that were to come true. Some of them seemed outlandish at the time, like the concept of an all-Beatles channel on the radio. But now that exists too.

Whether my thoughts on auto technology will come true remain to be seen. The novel proposed that cars would someday be propelled by opposing magnetic coils that would be charged up electrically and wound into an opposing force that could drive an “engine” much like the rubber band on a balsa wood glider. Perhaps I’m wrong about that one, but this is a novel, after all. Some fantastical ideas are allowed.

Back to the Future

IMG_5347So it feels like time travel for me to work through these chapters and turn them into modern forms of text that can be edited. By the time I got it all written I was a young father with a job to hold down and kids to raise, so the novel faded into the older technology of my Powerbook 540c Mac.

But I so well recall the feeling of typing those words on the IBM Selectric in that Chicago apartment as I dreamed up the characters and the plotline. I’d run those four to six miles in the morning and run even more in the evening. Between, I’d write what I hoped would someday become a novel predicting some much about the world.

Life interceded as it always does. But you know, the process of being a writer is a marathon, not a sprint. And that process continues. I have two other books in the works already, and a conference call with a literary agent next week to plan next steps.

Someday I hoped the book titled Admissions truly gets to see the light. Because writing has kept the light alive within me all these years.

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Washed out but not up

Lifeguard two.pngI’m still new to triathlon in many respects. But like so many (other) things in life, it is sometimes the early experiences that teach us the most.

Bike racing 

For example, the first time I tried racing bikes in a criterium, I stuck with the main bunch through a lap or two and thought I was in a good, respectful spot at the back of the peloton. Then riders in front of me began peeling off en masse. These were guys that had shot their wad and had nothing left to give.

I watched the carnage for a few seconds and suddenly found myself twenty yards back from the pack going into a straightaway. At that moment I should have sprinted like made to catch on. Instead I said (and this was the rookie mistake) “Be calm and catch up over the next lap.”

Wrong. Idea.

The pack quickly pulled away and I was left to pedal the rest of the entire race on my own. Lesson learned. Catch on right away or give up all hopes.

Out of control conditions

041618marathonnl08.jpgBut that lesson was about racing tactics, not race conditions. Last spring’s Boston Marathon was a wet, cold, sleeting mess of a race because the spring weather turned things into a chilly hell for all enrolled in the race. The dream of competing in the Boston Marathon was turned into a nightmare of trying to finish the race.

Even the women’s winner Des Linden was going to quit at six miles or so. But true to her steady form, she stayed in the race, got into a groove and wound up winning the thing.

I’ve run in similar conditions. We once did a three-hour run in 43 degree temperatures on a January day in southeast Pennsylvania. It rained the entire way. I weighed 140 lbs at the time with 3% body fat. All I wore was a long sleeve tee and a tee shirt over that. And shorts. All were soaked through. That was a hard day.

Lake Michigan roars

Life Savers.pngBut few conditions are more daunting than a choppy lake and an open water swim. This past weekend’s Maytag Steelhead Half Ironman offered up a breezy morning and waves tumbling onto the shore at two feet tall.

Lifeguard.pngThe pros and age-groupers all took off into the chop and those of us standing on shore were left to imagine what conditions were like out there. After the race, I spoke with Amanda Marek, a top-level age grouper and victor in several state-level triathlons last year. She’s just coming off an arm injury that required surgery, but if nothing else, the young woman is a competitor. Her take on the swim portion of this past weekend?

“That was the scariest experience of my life.” She still finished in 4:50. Yeah, baby.

Then there are the studs who don’t seem to let anything daunt them. This guy emerged from the surf looking like a freaking god. You are very welcome ladies. Thank me later for the visual orgasms.

Life Stud.png

And still, the water was not wetsuit legal, and for many less godly competitors that meant staying safely on shore. “You could give me ten wetsuits and I wouldn’t swim today,” said one woman while firmly ensconced on shore. Her family laughed.

The outcome

Life Brandes.pngThose who dared the surf did so with resolute will. Here Madison Multisport coach Steve Brandes pops up in shallow water at last.

The conditions in the water still shook the daylights out of people swimming through a chop worth of the Maytag name affixed to the race. It looked like a washing machine out there and from all reports, it felt even worse. Some took the safe way back.

Lifeguard Three.png

My wife emerged from the water with a big bruise on her face and a loose contact lens inside her goggles. Standing on shore, she reorganized her physical self and her wits, then trotted off to ride the bike.

So it was a case of being washed out but not up for many competitors. We all have our days when conditions whack us good. Some of it is random luck, good and bad. One day goes great in the heat. The next time, cooked. Or the swim goes well and the bike sucks. Or the bike goes great and the run, not so well.

It’s a relatively rare thing when we don’t wash out a little in some aspect of the triathlon. But catch a wave and you’re sittin on top of the world.

May you all catch the wave of your dreams.

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The Rule of Threes in triathlon

I’m not a triathlon coach. No certifications. No real credentials except the fact that I regularly podium in my age group.

But that’s the objective of most triathletes, is it not? As in any endurance sport, especially the three involved in triathlon, the category of ‘elite athlete’ is reserved just for those with the talent, time and drive to lead races.

The rest of us find our goals in the many layers of achievement well below those of the world’s elite. Yet even standing on the podium isn’t possible for many. So how do we measure the relative amount of training we should legitimately apply to reach our goals?

The rule of threes

IMG_6118A few years back when I was struggling with Achilles tendon problems, I managed only ten miles a week in training. That usually consisted of three three-mile runs during the week. One of these I would do fairly quickly, actually spending time on the track doing intervals. These I did fast, usually at 6:00 per mile pace. A typical set would include 6-8 X .400 at 90 seconds each.

If that type of workout sounds contradictory given the tight and sore Achilles issues, all I can say is that it didn’t hurt any more running fast than it did slow. Ultimately the Achilles problem was cured by a fortuitous change in shoe models. I was given a free pair of Saucony Triumph ISOs whose heel counter did not dig into my Achilles. That was largely the end of that.

Along with all the riding I was still able to do, I ran 43:00 for 10K that fall. About 7:00 per mile pace. That’s pretty decent on 10 miles of running per week.

So my formula was simple: three runs each week with 30% of it done faster than race pace.

Applying the Rule of Threes on the bike

The same system can be applied to racing on the bike. Getting out the door for three rides a week is often sufficient to race a Sprint, Olympic or duathlon. Two longer rides of 2-4 hours on the weekends and one hard and fast ride during the week is a minimal yet still effective strategy. I personally use a 20 mile distance to do a hard ride. My goal is to ride a 20 mph average. That includes some very hard intervals where the speed is over 25 mph for stretches of 800 yards or so.

The average speed naturally drops when hills or wind impinge, and that is part of the gig. You have to learn to deal with those issues in a race, so there’s no better way to practice than riding hard and fast in all types of conditions.

If you’re fortunate enough to have time for a second weekday ride, a nice strategy is to ride quite easy overall but choose a few Strava segments to really blast and try to beat your best effort. That way you get empiric feedback, much like running intervals on a track. But the overall ride from 25-35 miles should be easy.

The rule of threes in the pool

It seems the theories on how to swim faster and longer are shifting toward doing longer sets of short, fast intervals. I read the swim magazines and online stuff and that strategy, along with form drills focused on efficiency, are the current trusted method for swimming better.

And speaking from personal experience, swimming three times a week really can build fitness quite fast. I haven’t done that much all that often. Even two times a week if the swimming is done hard really helps. But the goal of threes in all three sports is a wonderful way to transfer overall aerobic training with far less risk of overuse injury than bulking up in one sport or the other.

Specificity is important, and doing intervals hard and fast in the pools is important to making yourself a faster swimmer. Choose one day a week to push yourself past your normal limits and “swim to fatigue” even if it means a bit longer rest intervals between.

That’s it. The Rule of Threes is a dependable and sustainable approach for most triathletes. It’s easy to plan and track your efforts, and know you have three hard workouts built into your swimming, cycling and running each week is a true confidence builder.

I may not have coaching certifications and this system of threes requires a bit of upward tweaking to achieve proper Half-Ironman training, but frankly there are only so many hours in a day and so many days in a week. If you live by the Rule of Threes you won’t likely die in the race.

Ironman reality

An Ironman training program requires considerably more  volume in each of these categories. The weekend rides need to build to 6-7 hours and cover 80-110 miles. Longer runs of 15-20 miles are necessary for marathon training. Open water swim training must be incorporated to prepare for the two-mile distance.

Most people planning to compete in a full Ironman distance event hire a coach for perspective and application of training principles. The fatigue and commitment are considerable, and the depths of training render athletes unable to judge for themselves how much they should do.

But you honestly could depend on applying the Rule of Threes if your goal is to finish. Allow 16-20 weeks to prepare.

Or enjoy yourself a Sprint. You’ll recover three times faster. (LOL)

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The swim champion in lane two

RioOlympicsswimmingpool-GettyImages-519838356-59c09963054ad90011cf5247.jpgI swam next to a state champion in the pool this morning. She’s just graduated from high school and will be going to the University of Cincinnati this fall.

One of the coaches in the Master’s swim program described her this way: “For a small girl, she pumps out a lot of power.” I can vouch for that.

It was fascinating watching her swim butterfly, the event at which she’d placed first and third in successive years at the Illinois State Championships. Her shoulders surged and her arms came round with strong precision.

Yet there’s always room for improvement. “You were a little long on the walls,” the coach said after one of her intervals, “but otherwise looking good.”

Dolphin time

At the start of the session I was standing on the deck as the state champion pushed away from the wall to start her workout with a long underwater dolphin kick. “That takes a lot of core strength,” my wife noted later. She’d been watching our state champion from two lanes over.

What impressed me most, however, was the young woman’s ability to propel herself with just her kick. Using the foam kickboard, she tooled along nearly as fast as I could swim in full freestyle mode. “Geez,” I thought. “It’s like she’s got an inboard motor.”

Swim strokes

All the parts of a swim stroke matter of course. The catch. The pull. The rotation. The kick. Some people never truly complete the picture. They pull strong but don’t kick. They raise their elbows but don’t rotate. They bob their heads on every breath or drop their hips and legs in the water. Or all of the above. Swimming can be hard to learn.

Real swimmers work on far more subtle improvements. After the workout was over, our coach was talking butterfly form with my wife and demonstrated how not to hunch the shoulders during butterfly. “I still have problems with that,” he admitted.

“That’s because the butterfly was invented by Satan,” I joked. He rolled his eyes and turned away. “Nawww,” he groaned.

Improvement

I’ve gotten faster this year, and can actually now sense the reasons why. My swimstroke has come a long way since the days of that straight-armed windmill technique where I’d wind up cashed and gasping at the end of 25 meters. Blessedly, those days are long gone.

My 50 time has now dropped below 50 seconds. I swim a 25 in 20-21 and expect to dip below 20 soon. My hundred time is down to 1:45. It’s coming together.

It was also important to me that I didn’t get upset being passed repeatedly by the state champion swimming one lane over. That’s because I’m no longer so frustrated and embarrassed by my own lack of progress. Ego is often the worst enemy to ultimate improvement. The more you worry about people going faster than you, the slower you will likely go on your own. Relaxation is critical to efficiency and speed.

Talent rules

At the end of the swim session when everyone was gathered near the edge of the pool, I told our young state champion, “I appreciate your talent. It’s been an inspiration.”

It’s almost as if we live in different worlds. She’s eighteen years old. I’m sixty-one. She’ll be a Cincinnati Bearcat in a couple weeks and I’ll still be an aging Master’s swimmer and triathlete.

But you know what? I’m fine with that. The champion in lane two has her whole life ahead of her. Yet so do I. Might as well strive to be a champion in lane three.

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Winging it with monarchs

Monarch Milkweed.png

Photo by Christopher Cudworth

In the early 1970s, I recall running along the roadside of Illinois Route 38 just north of Elburn where we lived. The east-west orientation of that highway with its raised road bed made it a perfect monarch-killing machine. Over just a milelong stretch between the intersection of Route 47 and 38 and the Elburn Forest Preserve a mile to the west, dozens of dead monarchs could be found lying in the gravel. They were all hit by speeding cars.

My brother and I collected them. We’d gather shoeboxes full of the insects. All that carnage was an indication of several likely scenarios.

1) there were more monarchs alive in those days or

2) our little town was right in the path of an important monarch migration route

Monarch migration patterns

Likely both scenarios were true. In all cases, the numbers of these insects was stunning. It is also amazing how far this species travels in stages from Mexico up to Canada and back.

Perhaps you’ve become familiar with the lifecycle of the insect called the monarch butterfly. Millions of monarchs that breed in the United States and Canada overwinter in the mountains of Mexico. That’s where conditions typically favor their survival during the winter months. But monarch lifecycles are changing.

As the linked article on phys.org describes, many monarchs have ceased journeying to Mexico and are hanging out in the southern United States where a certain species of non-native milkweed survives all winter. That has attracted monarch breeding, yet set the monarch population up for increased risk of disease.

The article states: “Long distance migration can reduce disease in animal populations when it weeds out infected individuals during the strenuous journey, or when the migrating animals get to take a break and move away from contaminated habitats where parasites accumulate,” she said. “Our non-migratory monarchs don’t have those benefits of migration, so we see that in many cases the majority of monarchs at winter breeding sites are infected.”

Changing climes

Some of this may be the product of climate change. As global temperatures continue to rise, the range of existence for a wide diversity of life forms expands and contracts. At climate extremes, such as high mountain terrain, alpine species are forced higher up the mountain face as increased temperatures alter the zone in which they can survive. But ultimately, they can run out of vertical and the adaptations of many species to their climate zones are formed over hundreds of thousands of years, not just a century.

When the “norms” no longer apply, human beings typically turn to technology to solve such problems. But other livings things aren’t always so fortunate. This much we also know:  even technology can’t always compensate for the habits of greedy, stupid or stubborn people. We’re typically born with a fine brain, but survival all depends on how we use it.

So we depend on beautiful things at times to remind us not to be wasteful with creation.

Monarch scales.jpg

Photo by Christopher Cudworth. Female.

Monarch ranchers

The facts are in across the land: monarch numbers are down these days for a number of potential reasons. The chief problem appears to be the agricultural eradication of the native milkweed plant species upon which monarch butterflies depend for breeding. They lay their eggs on the plants. Then small caterpillars emerge and munch out on milkweed leaves. It helps to “ranch” them to protect them from natural and unnatural predators.

Thus to help the monarch population, our family planted and grew milkweed in our garden. First, we’d search for eggs and pluck sections of the milkweed to bring inside and put into a water-filled jar.  Soon the eggs would hatch into tiny caterpillars and those would start eating the milkweed leaves. They grow quickly into fat striped caterpillars and wind up reaching 1.5″ long. Then they’d climb to the top of the aquarium and affix themselves with tough silk to the screen top and curl into a tight ball. It all happens fast as the insects change from pudgy caterpillars into a bright green chrysalis with shiny gold flecks.

MonarchPoster

All rights reserved. No copies of this image may be made without permission.

My daughter Emily is an incredibly observant and patient photographer who documented all these stages in a series of images. She built a poster from these images. You can order one by contacting me at cudworthfix@gmail.com.
Payment is $21.60 by Paypal only. Size is 16″ X 20″ in high-res imagery. Shipping is $4.50. Total $26.10.

Watching the insects develop is a fascinating treat. But the real reward comes when the chrysalis form turns dark black and transparent after ten or so days inside the green chrysalis. That means the insects are ready to hatch into a full butterfly.

One year we ranched 50+ monarchs. There was a day when I released seven brand new butterflies outside in a period of several hours. The experience of watching these insects hang on their empty chrysalis shells while their wings pump into full form is incredibly inspiring. Being present for the “birth” of a living thing is both a humbling and affirming moment.

Holding a fresh new monarch as it clings to the end of your finger truly lifts your heart. Watching it hang a few minutes on a flower stalk in July with sunlight striking its brand new and colorful black and orange wings can be breathtaking. When the insects flap their wings and take off into a blue sky, it truly gives you a sense of wonder.

That’s a rare gift in this world where cynicism and the habit of taking the natural world for granted is so common.

The light in our eyes

Monarch Light.jpg

Photo by Christopher Cudworth. Male monarch (black spots on lower wings)

So you might be asking, what does all this monarch talk have to do with running, riding and swimming? Well, I’ve known many endurance sports coaches who get the same sense of joy watching their athletes go through stages of development. That’s the literal take on how this all relates to running, riding and swimming.

“WE’RE ALL BUTTERFLIES!” 

Okay, now that we got that one out of the way, let’s talk about a deeper perspective.

The richer meaning rests in all those days my brother and I spent walking the roadside during the height of monarch migration 40+ years ago. For it’s always hard to know, as young kids, what we’re supposed to recognize and know about the world. But when we grow into adults, it is important not to become jaded to what the natural world has to tell us. Because in that pattern of existence, we can begin to harm ourselves and others without ever knowing it.

We knew even back then that piles of monarchs along the road was not a good thing. But multiply that times how many east-west roads across the country? That meant millions of monarchs dead and wasted.  So we collected them, and pondered that, and an environmental ethic began to form. Being nature-loving kids, we recognized that obvious lesson.

Butterflies aren’t free

But the deepest lesson of all is that monarchs are fortunately still with us. They have not gone extinct, as yet, and they are not “free” in the sense that their existence does not come without a cost. That would be protecting them. Advocating changes in agricultural policy. And even ranching them by hand.

Thus the arc from collecting those dead monarchs to raising and releasing them as grownups into the wild signifies a connection between ourselves and the earth’s systems. Even the Bible recognizes this important relationship. The parables told by Jesus were often founded on deeply organic symbols in a literary device we call metonymy, “the use of the character of one thing to represent the nature of another.”

We find this method of communication throughout the entirety of scripture. It is the organic foundation of the Word of God. Those who ignore that deeper symbolism do so at their own peril, for they miss the critical nature of what God is truly trying to tell us when we’re warned that life and creation are gifts from the universe. We’re not the center of it. Instead, it resides at the center of us. That is the heart of God.

Generations

Monarch Milkweed Dusk.jpg

Photo by Christopher Cudworth. Monarch on milkweed at dusk.

Passing something of value along to the next generation and the generation after is the greater gift of existence. Some of the monarchs that migrate north to Canada stop to breed, and the succeeding generation is the foundation of what travels south to Mexico. There is altruism even in nature, the sacrifice of one individual to pass along life to another.

This is a lesson important to human beings as well. Even if it’s the simple act of protecting what already exists, or at least not squandering creation on selfish grounds of greed or neglect, that is the basic responsibility of all human beings. Because despite the fact that some religious people see themselves as specially created and thus separate or superior to nature, they live in denial of what scripture actually tells us. Jesus saw beyond the legalism of such literal notions of relationship to God. His parables launched listeners into a greater spiritual connection, but they worked by using everyday examples from life and nature to do so.

So it’s not the end-all, be-all to simply say “God made this and I love it.” We have a duty to discern the greater patterns of nature and how they reflect creation as a whole. I personally embrace the notion of God but I also welcome the insights of those who do not. Wisdom comes in many forms, and butterflies can talk to us if we listen.

All a person has to do is hold a monarch butterfly on the end of their finger to know that life connects to life. Yet lacking that immediacy, we should at least appreciate that the insect fluttering over the fields has a long journey to make, and that our running, riding and swimming is a pale yet important imitation of the real thing.

That should be both a humbling and inspiring lesson to us all.

 

 

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Did someone say cycling commute?

IMG_0128Iiiiiiiii rode my bike to work today. Not on purpose, mind you. The vehicle I normally take to work needed service. More than I thought. Took longer than I thought too. Soooo the option was hopping on the Specialized Rockhopper and pedaling up the Fox River trail to work.

It was fun. No calamity to report. No skids on wet bridges where my shirt gets covered with green moss. No squirrels jumping into my spokes. Not even a chipmunk to run over in gory anguish.

Just a bike ride on a somewhat cool, somewhat warm day depending on how long one spends in the sun.

Blessedly my ride was mostly in the shade along a beautiful river sinking low in its late summer state. Egrets stood bored on the rocks jutting out of the water. Their guts were likely full because the fishing is easy when the water gets this shallow. Or so you’d think.

IMG_3831I even found a bike trail along a road that normally takes me to work. But like all bike trails in this world that are tied to subdivision development, it came to an abrupt and immediate and all encompassing end. Just like that.

Which is the terminal answer to people who yell out the window at me while I’m on my road bike, which I ride on the road because it’s a road bike.

And still they yell: “Get on the bike trail!” Did I tell you that they yell?

The problem with their Philosophy is that their vision of how the bike trail works is limited to that 800-yard space where it actually runs along the road. So many of them end just like the one I found today. Plus they’re often lumpy, covered with glass or rife with thick cracks that can take a skinny tire guy down in el segundo. 

There’s never an actual time to explain the realities of cycling in this world. Not to people obsessed with their own timeframe and mental model of getting where they want to go unimpeded. In their cars. With nothing and no one in their precious way.

IMG_1319.JPGWhich is why the Fox River Trail along the river is a quite nice way to commute to work by bike. No idiot drivers. Just me an the fat tire bike rolling along.

It took me 20 minutes to get to work today by bike. Not that much longer than it takes to drive. I have a bit of sweat on my back and my forehead is shiny. Other than that, no damage to report.

Perhaps I’ll do this again. Soon.

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