True stories. Strange tales.

ralph-lauren-white-cowboy-western-shirt-product-2-6942564-461243900_large_flexI’ve seen a lot of strange things while out riding and running over the years. But the strangest had to be the tall guy dressed in white cowboy gear from head to toe.  And blood spattered down the front.

He was standing at the top of a rise on Ice Cave Road in Decorah, Iowa. As I was running up the hill, he walked to the middle of the road and gestured toward me to come look at something he was eager to show. Obviously, my self-protection radar went up when I saw the bright red blood down his shirt. This had all the makings of a horror movie, I thought to myself. And I don’t even like horror movies.

He was jumping around now, to the point where I was not sure that I could get past him on the road if I tried. So I stopped about fifteen feet away and asked, “What’s up?”

Sorry, that wasn’t more insightful or compelling. It was all I could think to say at that moment. Then he gestured wildly again and pointed at a tall tree. “Want to see my snakes?”

And that’s when I saw the snakes. Each of them nailed to the trunk of a tree. And there was blood running down the length of their bodies.

Being the naturalist that I am, my first instinct was to ask. “Why are you killing snakes?” There were several kinds of snakes, you see. It was the month of May, and warm outside. So the snakes that live in the many burrows and dens of the limestone bluffs around Decorah were very active that time of year.

Canaebrake rattlerThis guy somehow knew how to find and catch snakes. And kill them. I noticed there was a long canebrake rattlesnake nailed to the tree. What a shame, I thought. The bright cinnamon stripe down its back seemed to glow in the late spring twilight. There were other kinds of snakes as well. The guy had killed an entire snake rodeo.

The ring of snakes nailed to the tree was macabre. So were the blood-stained white clothes of the cowboy. See, there is no real need for cowboys in that part of the country. The cows that live on the farms around Decorah are largely kept for dairy, not bred for meat. So the cowboy was dressed like a cowboy by choice, not profession. He was living some sort of strange cowboy fantasy. Or perhaps he was just ahead of his time.

But seriously, what goddamn real cowboy would dress in an all white outfit anyway? I supposed the Lone Ranger was pretty close. But that’s because black and white TVs back then couldn’t handle contrast very well. Every outfit on the tube looked either black or white in those days.

I decided that the cowboy I’d encountered was at least unstable, if not downright dangerous. A few nights before I’d seen another guy dressed in cowboy gear at one of the local bars. He was drinking heavily and started to lean toward his boots on the barstool as the night went on. Finally, after one too many drinks that evening, he simply pitched forward and sprawled across the floor. Mission accomplished, I guess. Drunk as shit and no need to listen to that complaining wife anymore. If that was the issue.

Sinister truckSo I took stock of the bloody cowboy dude in my general path and started to run towards home. But he jumped in front of me, so I used an old basketball fake to get past him.

He called after me but I was running fast back toward the college campus. I took a glance behind me to make sure the cowboy hadn’t gotten into a sinister old truck to try to run me down. I’ve had that happen before. Several times in fact. The townies around Decorah hated runners.

But mercifully for me, the cowboy in white was standing there by his blood-covered snake tree as if I’d just stood him up for a date. He looked so pitiful. And alone.

When I got back to campus I told my buddies  about the blood-covered, snake-killing cowboy. They all shook their heads and laughed. “Sure, Cud,” they teased.

So I convinced them to run the two miles back out to the spot on the road where I’d seen the cowboy. Of course he was gone. So were the snakes. But the ring of bloody spots where he’d nailed the snakes to the tree were still there. So I thought I was vindicated. “See?” I told them. “Look at the blood!”

They all laughed. The blood had no effect in convincing my running teammates that I’d had an encounter with a guy dressed in white cowboy gear that had been killing snakes.

But it’s a true story. I know what I saw. I just can’t explain why. I won’t even make any jokes here to cast doubt on the verity of what I’ve just related. It’s not the only strange thing I’ve seen over years of running and riding. But it is one of the strangest.

There was also that guy I met while running through the campus of Fermilab National Accelerator Laboratory near my home. The guy rode up next to me on a beat up bike and started jabbering away about voices in his head. He was literally wearing an aluminum foil hat because he thought it protected him from whatever government mind control was emanating from the bowels of the tower. This lasted for a couple miles, so I picked up the pace and finally dropped him. He yelled after me to insist that get a hat just like his if I planned to continue running near the facility.

I’ve written about some of these incidents before. They just crop up now and then when I read or here strange things on the news, or see them on the Internet. Perhaps there’s some great conspiracy behind the things we experience. It’s all puzzling evidence, but about what?

All I know is that I’ve never heard any voices while running and riding through Fermilab. Nor have I developed the urge to kill snakes since my encounter with the White Cowboy covered in blood.

I do still run, and some people have always considered that strange behavior. I still ride too. But I don’t wear a tinfoil hat while doing it. Just a helmet. Supposedly that actually does protect your brain.

Who knows if it’s true? True stories.

What’s are some of the strange things you’ve ever seen out there? 


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You don’t say

therevenantdicapriohardy.pngEarly in my career, I worked two years for a non-profit organization. Our job as District Executives was to increase membership and raise money to provide programs for youth. That meant we had to set goals and make projections based on what we thought we could attain.

I already knew a few things about setting goals and achieving them. I’d just come from 10 years of distance running success in which the plan was clear and simple. Set your goals, do the work and compete to the best of your ability. Those experiences taught me that setting goals is no light matter. But you do it with the best information you have and then commit to the project.

But my supervisor was a much more conservative character named Mo. I liked Mo personally. But his Big Phrase in making projection was far more benign than visionary:  “If you don’t see it, don’t say it.” 

Now granted, that’s a bit of wise advice in some sectors of this world. Mo didn’t want to stick his neck out. We both knew from direct experience that the organization was harshly structured to penalize anyone that missed their goals. So his idea was, “Set ’em low, and take what you can get.”

Ghost units

There was just one problem with that philosophy. We were already working against goals that were falsely standardized. The non-profit employees that had preceded us had long engaged in shady practices designed to inflate the numbers of youth enrolled in the programs. This was done without saying a word to anyone else, but it was “business as usual” even if it was corrupt. To cheat, District Executives would take their own money, falsify memberships and turn them in to create “ghost units.” Then the new unit would show up on the membership rolls. The non-profit would gain support from other funding sources and the cycle would continue that way year after year.

Instead of engaging in such practices, I believed we should “take the hit” by letting ghost units lapse, then start from an honest baseline. But the field director was having none of that. “You had better hit your numbers,” he warned. “There is no going backward.”

It wasn’t that easy to go out and generate all new units to replace the ghost memberships. First one had to secure a presenting or host sponsor. Then volunteer leadership had to be recruited. These people had to be trained. It all took time. There simply wasn’t enough time to get that type of recruiting done in a short space of time in order to cover the difference between the ghost units and the level of membership the non-profit demanded in order to pitch its case to the funding organizations who wanted to see growth, not regression. It was a circular cycle of corruption.


Thus the cycle perpetuated itself. But my response was not to give up. My background in distance running would not permit me to adopt that type of failure. I’d learned that if you at least go at challenges incrementally, success will come.

So I went out and started units and ran them myself until I could find someone to take over. When confronted by staff leadership about my unorthodox manner of attaining membership, I stared them in the eye and said, “It’s going to get done the right way.”

So in some respects, I abided by the same philosophy as my partner Mo. But where he preferred to take the conservative route in projecting membership, I wanted to put my numbers up and go for it. But Mo wanted no part of it. He stood by his “If you don’t see it, don’t say it,” philosophy. So we set our numbers low, as he decided. And we made them, but only because I stuck my neck out.

Putting it out there

Two years later I was working in sales for a media organization. We had a big sales contest for what we called our Progress Edition. Those ads were meant to be sold “above and beyond” the daily advertising we placed for advertisers. And in my fashion, I set projections that were aggressive and I met them.

Each day the new ads came in, I posted them as instructed on the daily tally sheet. The top salesperson would earn some extra money and other perks. I led the contest for several weeks.

But on the last day of the contest, a fellow salesperson walked in and posted a slug of ads he’d been holding back on posting. He’d been sandbagging and he beat me by a few column inches. The other salespeople laughed and slapped him on the back. Such is the way of the world.

I was stunned at the cynicism however. Here I’d been trying to provide leadership by posting my ad sales. That honestly clearly helped others find reasons to sell, because the sales manager used those numbers to urge our team to keep pushing. We blew past all our projections.

The Sandbagger still won the award for top salesperson. Sure, one could say that he won it “fair and square.” He sold more ads than me. That’s the empiric fact of the matter. But I thought he was a chickenshit for winning the way he did.

Bully pulpits

It wasn’t losing the award so much that bothered me. It was the “If you don’t see it, don’t say it” approach that was so underhanded. Where’s the courage or leadership in that?

Yet we all know that much of the world operates that way. Part of becoming an adult is the realization that so many people prefer to act in their self-interest rather than trying to effect true leadership or give of themselves in ways that would require sacrifice or any kind.

The flipside of all this can be found in ways that people use very public statements to intimidate and coerce others into complicity. That’s called being a bully. And the fact that so many people consider bully pulpit leadership a sign of true character is just as sad as the claim that the underhanded approach and sandbagging or cheating to “make your numbers” is in any way admirable.

Justice served

Thus I’ve seen firsthand how corruption works against those trying to conduct themselves in an honest fashion.

Yet I’ve also stood on the starting line in just a thin pair of shorts, a tiny singlet and light shoes waiting for the starting gun to go off. In those moments, there is no hiding our intent or purpose . There is no room for chicken statements or underhanded tactics. There is only you, the road, and the distance between two points. You either have what it takes or you don’t.

So whenever I hear people who speak in support of the conniving and underhanded crap going on these days; the Russian interference, the fake claims of wiretapping, the harsh dismissiveness of health care manipulations, I know from whence they speak.

It is not from honest intent. They may think they’ve taken the shortcut to success, or been so smart they have gotten away with the bully pulpit tactics. But that’s where the lessons of eternal patience kick in for me. Because while earthly success may seem rich, and where victory feels like a mandate for those proud of earning approval through dishonest means, it is also true that justice has a way of sneaking up on them.

It bloody well does. At the end of the movie The Revenant, the lead character played by Leonardo DiCaprio engages in a brutal knife fight with the man who clandestinely killed his adopted son. For most of the movie, the killer thinks he’s gotten away with it. But as blood sinks into the snow and the evil killer sinks into the icy stream, a band of ghostly Native Americans comes by horseback up the cold stream. DiCaprio lets his rival go, acknowledging in that frozen moment that final justice was not his to administer.

And the universe seems to mutter, “You don’t say…”

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On strategies for the long run

In 2005 I took a swim lesson or two with plans on becoming a multisport athlete. The swim lessons were interesting. I lost a contact lens in the pool and did not make much progress. That was in late April, and I’d just been given a road bike on which I was starting to put in miles in hopes of doing a triathlon.

IMG_9983I did not know exactly what I wanted from the sport. My sense of purpose was focused on diversifying the sports I do in anticipation of later years when it seemed like being a one-trick pony was a bad idea. If I couldn’t run, for example, how would I stay fit?

Time passes

That was twelve years ago. Unfortunately, that same spring I re-tore my ACL playing outdoor soccer. That halted any near-term plans for becoming a triathlete.

But it did push me onto the bike more, and in 2007 I purchased the Felt 4C carbon fiber bike that enabled a lot more training. I raced the Felt in criteriums and did some long rides like the Wright Stuff in SW Wisconsin where the hills provide a test of character.

A lot happened in life during the twelve years since I first showed interest in triathlons. Eight of those years were consumed by caregiving for a wife with cancer. My rides often turned into difficult therapy sessions trying to deal with the stress. I wondered to myself if there was a form of PTSD going on. I’ve never looked it up before, but just now I checked online for a definition and this is what it shares about the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

“Symptoms of PTSD usually develop within the first 3 months after the event, but they may not surface until months or even years after the original traumatic event. Symptoms may include:

  • Intrusive thoughts recalling the traumatic event
  • Nightmares
  • Flashbacks
  • Efforts to avoid feelings and thoughts that either remind you of the traumatic event or that trigger similar feelings
  • Feeling detached or unable to connect with loved ones
  • Depression, hopelessness
  • Feelings of guilt (from the false belief that you were responsible for the traumatic incident)
  • Irritability or angry outbursts
  • Hypervigilance (being overly aware of possible danger)
  • Hypersensitivity, including at least two of the following reactions: trouble sleeping, being angry, having difficulty concentrating, startling easily, having a physical reaction (rapid heart rate or breathing, increase in blood pressure)
  • Headache
  • Disrupted sleep, insomnia

There are some who might deconstruct those symptoms and say, “Everyone deals with stuff like that.” But the truth about PTSD is that it feels like a form of brain injury to those going through it. I’ve interviewed a number of military veterans with PTSD symptoms. One of them sat next to me on an airplane coming back from Florida. He told me that he felt like permanently damaged goods.

Concussion of life

But soldiers aren’t the only people who can experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. There are all kinds of events that can disrupt the mental capacity for perceiving order and controlling thoughts. A violent car accident can do the same thing. So can childhood incidents of abuse, emotional or physical. There are no rules about who can experience PTSD, or how.

Long-term difficulties and shock from dealing with emotional, financial or health challenges can also induce forms of PTSD. Often these are associated with a person’s relative disposition toward anxiety or depression.

Running and riding or swimming can help us all cope with unstable emotional foundations. Physical exercise changes our brain chemistry just like an anti-anxiety or anti-depressant medication.

Stress and commitment

PP Clicking In.png

The real challenge is when the source of stress never really relents. To some degree, it has taken me a few years to heal from the emotional stress of caregiving for my wife and others in my life. Some of that was held over in caregiving for my father after my wife passed.

The problem with long- term caregiving commitments is that you literally cannot run away from them. The needs of that person are there no matter where you go.

I have friends now in similar situations to my own. They are taking care of aging parents or spouses. A part of me wants to tell them it will all be okay. But I know that doesn’t necessarily help in the moment.

Over the last ten years, a wide range of people in my life have died. I’ve had a caregiving role in each of their lives. My late wife. My father-in-law. My own father. My mother passed away in 2005 before all of them. I was present when she passed away.

The profundity of death is its ultimate quietude. From all the hubbub and fear and change and distraction and stress that come with caregiving someone who is about to die, there is always the profound quiet that comes in the end. Sometimes I’ve wondered why my grief seems in some ways to be so rational. I’ve learned to accept death. Is that some kind of dispassionate personality trait, or a rational response to the unavoidable?

Other people

I stood in the hospital room alone with my father after he died. I was the first one to be called, and I walked in and heard soft music playing. The hospital rather prefers that people would die at home. Perhaps it is a black mark on their books to have patients die. But people have to die somewhere, and it’s not always convenient or possible to get them back home after a major health failure. So when death happens hospitals have a definite plan in place. Still, they never know how people will react.

An hour after my father passed away, my father’s caregiver Leo arrived. I had called to tell him that Stew had passed away, but Leo did not always understand English perfectly. So when he arrived he was under the impression that Stew was still alive.

I watched the shock of realization cross his face, and knew that his attachment to my father was as real as any family member. Leo had been “The Man” for five years in caregiving my father. 24 hours a day. Seven days a week. 365 days a year.  He took my dad on trips and tended to his every need. Truth be told, my father could be a difficult, demanding man. Unforgiving at times, and impatient at others. Yet he also had an amazingly tender side to his personality, and loved people.

So I knew that it hurt Leo deeply to lose my father as well. It also meant that Leo would have to find a new gig. Never an easy deal for anyone, but even more difficult for a former tradesman with no degree and a Green Card Visa.

So we gifted Leo with a couple months pay, and as it happened, I found him a new caregiving assignment. Now I see him occasionally and he is full of warmth and thanks. He is grateful, in other words, both for his time with my father and for the opportunity I helped him find.

Do for others

Mountain bikingSometimes that’s the best thing we can do for others. Help them find that next stone on the path of life. Keep them from a complete dropoff and the massive stress that can take over people’s lives. No PTSD.

But it’s also true that it is nearly impossible to help everyone. When I commute to the city there are homeless people on every other block. One man sits against a wall just north of Tribune Tower on Michigan Avenue. A couple weeks ago I was walking back to the train from the office. I was feeling good, grateful there were positive things happening. As I passed the homeless man,  I looked at the sign next him and read it: “Military veteran. PTSD. Bi-polar. Need help for wife and family.”

A wave of compassion washed over me. I took $20 from my wallet, looked him in the eye as I walked over and said, “Hey man. Here you go.”

I’ve been helped

I don’t know if it helps, but I know that I’ve been helped. And it mattered. People have reached out to my family and I in hundreds of ways. It took a few years to get over the relative effects of PTSD as they impacted my life. That’s not an official diagnosis of PTSD by any means. I just know how I felt, and it matched many of the symptoms described. They were part of my life for a time. I am happy to say that they are largely gone now.

There are still moments when I feel a pang of guilt about the fact that my late wife died. I feel pain for my children as well because losing a parent is so difficult.

So the best thing I can do is remain aware and sensitive to their needs. It was confusing for a while, I’ll admit. But when I’m out running and riding or swimming I try to let the thoughts flow and try to figure out if their potential to heal is real.


oil-3So I sat in church last Sunday and let a few prayers loose in the universe about all these things. Somehow it helps.

I think back to that moment four years ago in April when I attended church on Good Friday the week after my late wife passed away. My brother asked me why I thought that was a good idea. “I’m walking right into the pain,” I told him.

Walking out of church that evening, I felt a calm that transcended human thought. There was a plausibility to death that I could not explain to anyone else at that moment.

We all go there eventually. Somehow knowing that has been a baseline for finding new love and loving life as a result. This worldview accommodates both the facts of reality and the hopes and dreams of time now and later.

It is a strategy, as they say, for the long run.


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Running those personal oxbows

“When I look back, boy I musta been green, bopping in the country, fishing in the stream, looking for an answer, trying to find a sign, until I saw your city life, honey I was blind…”

Elton John, Honky Cat



The bank of this oxbow stream at a local forest preserve is one of my favorite places to run. The clear water enters Nelson Lake Marsh, and Illinois Nature Preserve. 

I’ve written in the past about the fact that I’m a hayseed at heart. As a small kid, I spent a week each summer on a farm in Upstate New York. I liked shoveling the manure into the troughs behind the cows and rattling around the dusty hay mow. Mornings I’d catch leopard frogs hiding in the water-filled troughs left by tractor tires. Evenings we’d fish in the Susquehanna River. I was in my hayseed glory.


By the time I was twelve I joined my brother Gary for fly-fishing ventures on Octoraro Creek in Southeast Pennsylvania. That cold, clear water rushing over the feet of my waders felt like life itself. Pulling brown trout out of the stream by fly rod and reel was a pure and vital experience.

I kept at the nature thing once I became a birder in my teens. For this hobby, I took merciless ridicule from running teammates. “Birdman,” they’d chirp in a derogatory fashion. But I did not care. Being outside in nature was a soul-soothing adventure. Running was a big part of that.

Outside and loving it

Running kept me outside for long periods of time throughout my teens and early 20s. I attended Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, where nature bumped right up against the campus and a National Wild and Scenic River flowed right next to the school. My 100-mile weeks were done on winding dirt roads that rolled in oxbows through the hills and bluffs that rose above. It all felt secret and wonderful to pass through those deep valleys running as fast as we could go. Sometimes we’d move as silent as a stream, our footfalls echoing softly off the limestone walls beside us.

The natural world beyond

When I joined the working world I’d ache to be outside on nice days rather than sitting inside some office building staring out at the natural world beyond.

Sometimes I’d sneak outside for lunchtime runs. The delicious escape often resulted in problems solved in my head while I ran. Often these would present themselves as some faster way to get a problem solved. Before the run, I’d be thinking about all the obstacles or bureaucracy that stood in the way. During the run, I’d get an idea that would break through the bends and twists in front of me.

This concept has a precedent in nature. It’s called an oxbow. That’s the process by which a stream or river pushes against at an opposing bank until it erodes away. Eventually, the stream cuts right through to the next section and leaves the former streambed behind. That’s an oxbow.

Personal oxbows

We all have oxbows in our life. Sometimes these are work-related. Other times they exist in terms of relationships or islands of grief or anger or personal difficulty against we bump like a swollen stream.

But in every case, they typically have something to do with what we believe about ourselves, or some situation. As a result, we might blindly work against that personal obstacle under the assumption that it will never go away. Then one day the preconception falls away by choice or by chance and we wonder why we ever let it stand in our way in the first place.

I’ve had these feelings of liberation many times in life. I wonder if you have too? Some believe these revelations to be the product of divine grace. Others are just happy that circumstances finally changed. In either case, when the time comes to move along, and the dam or oxbow breaks free, the sense of personal freedom can be overwhelming.

But first…

Often it is self-doubt that holds us back the most. As endurance athletes, we might dream of going up in distance or pace, but some bank of worry or fear stands in our way. We might go weeks or months or years bumping up against it and never work up the courage to break through on our own. “I can’t run a half-marathon,” we might tell ourselves. Or:  “I could never do a half-Ironman,” our fearful brain ruminates. “An Ironman is just beyond me,” the self-doubt mutters. These beliefs may have nothing to do with reality, but they have everything to do with how we perceive ourselves. So we keep following the same old streambed. Taking the long-way-around. The long way home. The long way to personal enlightenment and actualization.

Oxbow triumphs

But take a minute to think through the things that are holding you back. And think about what you see when you attend any type of race. What you’re seeing when athletes cross the line with arms raised in triumph is a breakthrough on a personal oxbow. It is nothing less and nothing more. They have crossed an oxbow and come out ahead.

Of course, the oxbow process just starts all over again. That’s the nature of nature. These processes never end. They just take on new forms. New challenges. New oxbows to rub against and navigate.

And just like the former paths of streams that broke through the oxbow, we can see traces of our former selves in the landscape we leave behind.


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You may be the athlete of the future

brand1I read a compelling bit of business journalism yesterday. The piece featured an interview with Mark Cuban, the wealthy entrepreneur and sports team owner with a knack for making money off future trends. Here’s what he said about the future of the working world, and how things might change.

Cuban — We’re going to see more changes in technology over the next five years than we have in the past 30. We’ve seen processing speeds really accelerate and that’s allowed tech guys to start to really talk machine learning and artificial intelligence. Because of that, we’ve evolved from automating manual steps to connecting things together. We’re going to be getting to the point where we’re automating the process of automation.

So, jobs like writing software and programming that seem like great jobs, at the lower end, they’ll be gone. We’re going to come back full circle where the valuable crafts are going to be teaching, liberal arts, philosophy, math and science. Because once all the machines are doing all the work of calculating, someone’s got to interpret. You have to be a thinker. You have to learn how to learn.

What a fascinating observation. But now, what has that got to do with running and riding and swimming? Let’s connect some dots and see where this leads us.

Automation nation

Consider the first paragraph. Cuban is talking about a world in which people are replaced by automation. I just wrote this piece yesterday on Linkedin Pulse about how a woman who works at the Metra commuter station selling train tickets just got replaced by an app that does the same thing. Technology has a tendency to wipe out jobs in one place while adding jobs, perhaps not as many, in another.

But at what point does that process reach a zero sum basis on the horizon?

Some people speculate there may come a day when no one has actual jobs, of any type. To some people, that notion is abhorrent and smacks of big government. But what if the free market drives us there? What then?

The economy may indeed gravitate toward replacement of all but the most granular bits of human labor. We’re already moving toward a scenario in which self-driving vehicles will replace human drivers. There go jobs in trucking and shipping. The Uber dynamic is automating warehousing and logistics as well. Jobs by the thousands are likely to disappear. This level of change will not be “adapt or die.” It will be “find something else to do or forget about it.”

Cuban warned that technology is also revamping concepts of energy and efficiency. “The coal jobs are not coming back,” he intones. If he’s right, it sounds like the 25%  of American who voted for regressive economic and social policies are frankly pushing in the wrong direction. The push may last a while, but market forces will blast right through those walls of denial. Buggy whip salesman just don’t have much use these days.

It’s a harsh reality in some ways, but a brilliant opportunity awaits. The things we credit of supposed value will change before our eyes. Work itself will be commoditized. There may come a time when most people simply live off the merchandising of products created by technology.

Don’t laugh. We’re already halfway there.

Personal branding

brand2These days on Instagram and Twitter and Facebook, people create personal brands focused around what they can show off, not on what they can do. The more someone can funnel these impressions out to other people in ways that entertain or compel them to buy, the more Followers they attract. It’s a Share To Be Shared World.

Which means that runners or swimmers or triathletes or cyclists that have an interesting story to tell are becoming key merchandisers for companies looking to present their products in the best light. It’s not about the direct sell anymore. It’s about advocacy. And like it or not, you’re an advocate for the products you buy. There is no escaping that fact. Which is why so many people have outright chosen to embrace it as part of their lives.

Everyone’s a celebrity now

There have long been models for this dynamic in top level sports merchandising. Celebrity sports testimonials have a long history in marketing. People still like celebrities, but the notion of what defines a celebrity or a sports star have been changing rapidly.

Now there is stardom for the mom who can balance training with raising babies and holding down a job or starting her own little company. People line up online to follow such exploits. When that gal hits 50,000 followers, other merchandisers want to share her network. It rolls on out from there. Personal advocacy is the way of the future.

All over Instagram and other social media, there are one-trick pony triathletes marketing themselves, posting their goals, training times and overall commitment to the sport. These people are models for what may become the future of marketing through personal brands.

New paradigm

brand4It’s not quite the same dynamic as slapping logos on the kits of pro cyclists, but it may be close to that. There is a lot of expensive junk that goes along with the sports of swimming, cycling, running and multisports. Ironman branding now covers everything from watches to tattoos people put on their bodies. Some people hate Ironman for that. But it works.

So future athletes may have some role to play in merchandising. That could be a bit disturbing in some ways. We all cringe when an insurance salesperson slides over to make a sales pitch at a party, or some multi-level marketing zealot calls with an offer to “join my business.” And God Forbid some religious cult shows up at our front door.

People don’t like the creepy stuff that goes with some types of personal marketing. But the smart ones make it fun. Those who follow these mini-celebrities choose to do so willingly. There may come a giant “opt-in” moment in the future when people liberated from the traditional work world, through force of automation and technology, are called upon to translate the meaning of brands and get themselves involved in doing that as part of the process.

And mind you, this is not some liberal pap I’ve invented to justify a hopeful ideology. This is what tech and businesses are warning us about the future. The work world is contracting, both literally and figuratively. You can hate it all you want, but it’s still likely to happen.

Which raises the question: How many brand logos can a fit body hold? Well, it’s more about what you represent than what you can show off.

As for me, I’ll look forward to that second paragraph by Mark Cuban. That’s the part about creative people and critical thinkers becoming more valuable in the future. For a couple decades I’ve sat in rooms with people using Post-It notes in an attempt to wade through the creative process.That brand of ‘creativity’ is really nothing more than using bits of paper to do mental spreadsheets. It usually results in committee-think and results such as TRONC, the Tribune company’s lame attempt at repositioning themselves as an online content organization.

It will be up to each of us and those in the future to figure out what our roles will be when the world of work gets turned inside out. Certainly, the anachronistic attempt to yank America back fifty years is not going to get very far in this business climate of global competitiveness and worse yet, global warming.

So get out there with your selfie phone and swim, run and ride for all you’re worth. It may how you go to work each day in a few more years. You may be the athlete of the future.

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How long until the Smoking Cars come back on public transportation?

Smoking Car.jpgRiding home in the 5:05 Metra commuter train from Chicago to Geneva, I glanced up to see the sign that said NO SMOKING. I’ve been a commuter long enough to remember when Smoking Cars were commonplace. Typically, they were the first two cars in line as you boarded the train.That way all those smokers would not die on the platform from congestive heart failure from having to walk too far. But we digress.

If you were a non-smoker that had the misfortune to find yourself sitting in the Smoking Car because there were no other seats on the train, you could count on smelling like an ash tray when you got off at your stop. And that was tough luck in the good old days. Because you know, people had the right to smoke back then.

Smoke heads

The same situation reigned at the newspaper where I worked. All those hard-bitten journalists puffed on ciggies as they banged out stories about corrupt officials and sex-starved mayors. Or was it the other way around? Never mind, it’s all the same.

Smoking cigarettes and cigars was also allowed in any bar or restaurant you visited. Smokers dined with panache while they clogged up the air with glee and fervor. How was a little cigarette smoke going to harm anyone?

According to the Center for Disease Control, these are the harmful effects of secondhand smoke:

  • Secondhand smoke causes numerous health problems in infants and children, including more frequent and severe asthma attacks, respiratory infections, ear infections, and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).1,4
  • Smoking during pregnancy results in more than 1,000 infant deaths annually.4
  • Some of the health conditions caused by secondhand smoke in adults include coronary heart disease, stroke, and lung cancer.1,


So it’s hardly a Pro-Life stance to defend public smoking. The fact that people are willing to kill themselves by smoking in their own homes or driving around in their cars is obviously a matter of private fatalism. It’s true that the United States Constitution does not ban people from engaging in habits so deadly they can result in death.

But it does not guarantee that people can cause other people harm through their own stupid habits.

Which is why that darned research about the health effects of “second-hand smoke” was used to ban smoking in public places. People had a right to question whether it was reasonable to be forced to breathe the cancer-causing smoke of people who smoked in public place.

And thus the move to ban public smoking began. 

Smoke-free comedy

It didn’t take long for smoking bans to spread throughout the nation. Even our local Zanie’s Comedy Club hosted a Smoke-Free Comedy Night. I know this for a fact, because I hosted and promoted the smoke-free evenings. It wasn’t a bust, but it was hardly a success either. The comedians complained that the crowds were harder to entertain, and house bartenders complained that non-smokers didn’t drink that much.

Smokers dread

Smokers found little humor outside the realm of indoor arenas either. Smoking at work became taboo, leading to groups of smokers huddled outside in the freezing cold or blazing heat to suck on their ciggies. Smokers have been chased to the corners of society by the health-conscious concerns of political liberalism.

But all that might be changing very soon. The politically correct world of smoking bans could very well be overturned by Donald Trump and his minions. All those smoking regulations might succumb to the anti-government movement led by Donald Trump and that snarky little Ayn Rand puppet Paul Ryan.

Smokers could well be the next faction to demonstrate against the restriction of freedoms forced upon them by liberals. We could soon see memes of Jesus holding a cigarette in one hand and a Bible in the other.”JESUS I COULD USE A SMOKE! NIKE MISSILE TRUMP SAYS JUST DO IT!”

Brain dead and proud of it

That’s about the level of intellect engaged in most of the public policymaking going on these days. It’s braindead conservatism run amok. If it’s education you hate, go ahead and gut the Department of Education by installing a religious nutcase who thinks enforcing prayer in public schools is better than teaching biology. And as Steve “Darkness is Good” Bannon loves to claim, it’s all about turning government inside out.

And the results of the Trump administration so far resemble the inside-out product of a prolapsed uterus. Millions of American will soon be cast out of their health insurance plans like aborted fetuses from the womb of conservative doctrine. It turns out the GOP is not so Pro-Life as it loves to claim. Just lump those pesky people with pre-existing conditions into a “high-risk” pool and be done with them. No different than drowning baby rabbits in an aquarium. It takes a truly braindead politician not to realize that healthcare coverage is a complicated issue.

Not dead yet

Yet the move to liberate smokers from public bans seem to line up perfectly with other Trump efforts to relax regulations about public health and welfare. For example, Trump and his anti-government buddies plan to gut the EPA. That’s the government agency that has acted in the public’s interest to reduce air and water pollution since the early 1970s. It has accomplished great things such as reducing the release of toxic metals into the air, water and soil.

But according to Trump and company, those are trifles compared with the benefits of employing a few hundred more workers in polluting industries. It’s all about “Make America Gasp Again!” That should be the Trump motto.

Because without the EPA’s enforcement of environmental laws, polluters will be free to release toxins of all sorts into the air and water. Already the coal industry has won the right to dump toxic tailings closer to streams and rivers. What possible harm could come of that? Aren’t coal miners good people?

Good people. Bad ideas. 

Plenty of smokers are good people too. But their habits are definitely harmful to other people who are forced to breathe the toxic product of their filthy habits. As a runner for 50 years I’ve somehow managed to avoid the need for nicotine. Yet people who daily suck on cigarettes seem to think they are indispensable to their purpose in life. About 20% of Americans still smoke. I consider them all dumb shits, and unapologetically so.

I think the same of the 43% of the American population who still think Donald Trump deserves a favorable rating as President. It’s all proof that otherwise smart people can choose to do really stupid things and make really stupid choices.

Smoking causes cancer, and Donald Trump is a cancer in the politics of America. Which means one can fully expect the Trumpster to life all smoking bans sooner than later.




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Far from washed up as a runner

Glacier.jpgI well remember the first time I thought I was washed up as a runner. During vacation I was running slowly down a long incline at Glacier National Park. My left hip felt sore. It really hurt. I was in my early 40s at the time and deep into the business of fatherhood and coaching kids in soccer. But I still ran 3-4 times a week and things had begun for the first time to feel like I was getting old.

By “things” I mean those connective tissues that hold together the ankles, knees and hips. But let’s be real: Aches and pains are always part of running. If you go far or long enough (and those are not the same issue…) things do start to tweak and throb.

So I finished up my run in that beautiful park and stood there looking at the mountains in every direction. I turned slowly like one of those camera scenes in the movies where the cinematographer is trying to depict a person figuring out where they are in life. And that was pretty accurate.

That aching in my hip felt like old age. But that was only partly true. The real source of that ache was due to a general weakness of the surrounding muscle. I was, in a word, deteriorating. But age alone was not to blame.

Key learnings

It was a lack of strength that was the problem. That became evident once I tore my ACL playing soccer a year or two later. That led to physical therapy that revealed where all the weak points were hiding.

From that point on, I adopted a strength routine that was simple yet very effective. It involved standing knee dips and lunges. I’d do these with 50 lbs of weights in my hands to accentuate the amount of weight necessary to build defenses for the knees and hips. And as long as I do those things daily, knee and hip problems generally stay away.

I’ve added weight work on machines now, doing a routine in which I start with 190 lbs on the leg press and work up to 350, with 20 reps at 20-pound increments all the way up. At that point, I honestly worry that my feet can’t take much more! But I am experimenting…

How it works

Yesterday morning we did a two-hour run at Morton Arboretum. The route was rife with hills and for 1:45 I felt good. During those last 15 minutes, my hips did tighten from fatigue and it was wise to pull over. Sue finished her last two miles for the 13 he coach had prescribed. She’s doing a hilly half marathon on March 19 and her training has added up to much more assurance on the hills we’re running at the Arb.

I was not disappointed that I “only” ran eleven miles. Thinking back to those days before the physical therapy learned from the ACL repair, I was only running four miles at most and aching a bit in the hips for that. So I’m far from washed up as a runner.

Closest thing to the Fountain of Youth

Glacier-National-Park-Montana.jpgWeight work is not truly a Fountain of Youth. But it’s the closest thing you’re going to find. Now understand, I don’t have aspirations to run the marathon distance or do an Ironman. I didn’t even race marathons when I was at my physical racing peak in my early to mid-20s. Back then, I wanted to race 10K or 5K as fast as I could go. I have those same relative goals to this day. The Sprint Distance Triathlon involves a 5K at the end. The Olympic Distance is a 10K finish. My goal is to run sub-7:00s in the 5K and 7:30 or under for the 10K.

So to run eleven miles as aerobic base training is sufficient for me. The run yesterday felt tremendous even as the stiff, cold winds of a late February day did their best to make us feel like popsicles in lycra. By the time the sun rose far enough to warm us in the open fields between the forested hills, we were almost done with the run.

Then I stood alone in the parking lot and did that little turn like I was in the movies. It was a good time and place to take stock of my surroundings and current station in life. Granted, there were no mountains to be seen this time. But the feeling of being far from washed up as a runner was something I could really enjoy.

Are you doing weight training to complement your swimming, cycling and running? Share you story if you’d like. Email


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Training partners or laundry mates?

Laundry.jpgI’ve always done my own laundry for the most part. Ironing too. I’m no pro mind you. Sometimes I forget to separate the darks and lights. Things like that.

But I have learned to separate the performance running, cycling and swimming gear from the everyday laundry. Some of those fabrics don’t do well in a hot dryer. And of course I’d never throw a wetsuit in the laundry. Everyone knows you can only dry clean a wetsuit.

I’m just kidding about that. 

Right now our house is shared with some of Sue’s 20-something young adults. And that means competition for the laundry space. We purchased a new washer and dryer when we moved bought this house. Each has capacity to do a lot of laundry. So we jam it in the washer and yank it out when it’s done. Then repeat the process in the dryer. In and out.

Finally, the loads make it into some sort of bin that can be hauled upstairs and spread out on the bed. For the most part, Sue and I keep our laundry separate from the kids for the reasons mentioned above.

But now they’ve all begun working out more to get fit for the weekend of May 6, 2017 when Sue and I have planned our wedding.

So now the girls have borrowed some of Sue’s athletic gear on occasion. She found a treasure-trove of sports bras in the kids’ laundry the other day. And socks. Let’s not talk about tracking down socks. Nigh impossible.

Oldies but goodies

I have a few pieces of running gear that I’ve owned for more than twenty years. That might sound gross, but they are still in very good condition. Back when I received them as gifts for Christmas in the 1990s, I was a bit disappointed that there were from LL Bean and not from Patagonia. But I must admit they have lasted this long in fine style. The gray base layer has a white ring of worn fabric around the collar, but the garment still works. I know what I’m getting every time I put that thing on. Same goes for the purple midweight garment. Those two items of clothing have probably been washed 200 times each. And that’s a conservative estimate. Because that’s what conservatives love to do. Make estimates. Most of my other cycling and running gear is much newer. I’ve lear

Most of my other cycling and running gear is much newer. I’ve learned the hard way that cycling shorts have a shelf life of about two years, max. After that, they tend to show through in key spots. No one wants to see that. So I pitch them. Cycling shorts aren’t very good for shining shoes, and you can’t wear them casually to the grocery store as you might with an old pair of running shoes. Like I said: No one wants to see that.


When I haul up a full load of laundry that includes gear from Sue and I, it can be relaxing to go through the laundry sorting out her stuff from mine. I will confess to the small thrill of tossing her fine little panties in their own pile. Yet that makes me laugh because the other day she rifled through her panty drawer while saying, “You know, I have all these panties and there’s only one pair that I really like for running.”

I lovingly mentioned this story to other women in our triathlon group and they all nodded and laughed. “I get that,” said our new friend Heather. “Totally,” said another woman named Emily.

Panties I’ve learned are a winsome object. They are given away as loss leaders at stores such as Victoria’s Secret. They know if you arrive with that offer to get two free panties you will not leave otherwise empty-handed. The store where I shop for Sue also employs a saucy British gal who flirts with male customers and gets them to buy all sorts of extra stuff for their wives or girlfriends. She is, in a word, the most powerful sales tool that a store of that nature could every employ. Who can say no to the offer of buying seven panties for the price of five when there is a winking British woman holding up the hip-huggers and going, “These are every gal’s fayyy-vorite.”

Helpless. But willingly so. Cause it’s fun for everyone to buy panties. They are the candy of the clothing world.

But let’s get back to laundry. Because then there comes the pile for sports bras. I’ve learned to buy them for her as well. Know her size and preference. For Christmas last year, I’d hunted down and purchased her a nice running bra from Victoria’s Secret. A few days before Christmas Eve, we were getting ready for a run and she could not find a sports bra in any of her clothes drawers. “I think it’s my daughterzzz…” she said wryly. But she was clearly frustrated. So I reached under the bed and opened a package and pulled out the warm gray sports bra with the raspberry lining and handed it to her. “Here,” I said. “Merry Christmas.”

Some of my laundry duties are far more practical. I’ve learned to keep an eye out for those frothy little bits of nylon she sometimes wears for work. You know those, right? They’re clingy little buggers that can stick to other clothing if you don’t pay attention. Then they get separated. And if that happens, they are essentially lost forever. There is apparently some law in the universe that says matching bits of nylon must be kept together or their nylon ions turn into opposite forces, like anti-matter.

I guess what I’m trying to say here is that I feel a bit of love when doing our laundry together. It makes me think of all the things she does. The running. The riding. Even the swimming. Her suit always hangs by the towels in the bathroom. She loves to swim, and that’s her second skin.

When I got home today from an appointment she’d salted all her things away in the proper drawers. Sue likes things organized and that’s why it makes me feel good to help in some small way, however I can. Life is busy and training is tough, which is why doing the laundry is one of the things I like to do, but never enough.


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Taking on challenges

Challenge river.jpgIn Batavia, Illinois where I lived for 20 years, there is a set of old buildings that were constructed from river bluff limestone more than 150 years ago. Granted, that’s not long time ago in terms of world history. London has pubs that are far older than that. But in this Midwest river town, those old buildings represent the foundations of

But in this Midwest river town, those old buildings represent the foundations of local history. They were built to manufacture the types of large wooden and iron windmills that were shipped across the country and around the world.

Challenge.jpgOn the north end of town by the dam stands a long structure called the Challenge building. It was built in 1846, which is 171 years ago. Back then the riverbanks were still wild, but small industrial communities were forming up and down the Fox River. To the south was Aurora, which is now one of the largest cities in the state. Fifteen miles north the City of Elgin was growing.

In between sat three other towns that center along the river. Batavia was the southernmost. Geneva came next, and once hosted an agricultural feed mill on its banks. St. Charles had a giant piano factory that was later turned into Howell Furniture. When the Howell company went out of business, developers put an outlet mall into the building. When that failed yet again, the city let another developer knock it down to build upscale condominiums. Such is the process and pace of change.

Trains to trails

For many years leading up to the 1970s, there were still trains that ran along the banks of the Fox River. A trolley system once traveled some of these rails as well. As late as the 1980s, there were still trolley rails embedded in the asphalt of Anderson Boulevard where I lived for eleven years.

A single train track now pokes into Batavia on the East Side. By law the engines have to honk their horns every time they cross a road. During the night when many of the trains come and go, they honk and blare like a deranged goose let loose in the suburbs.

That lone train line serves the industrial parks and remains a valued asset for certain businesses. The rest of the railroad beds have been converted to bike and running trails. This occurred with some controversy back in the 1980s. A County Board and Forest Preserve Chairman named Phil Elfstrom, a Batavia resident, was an advocate and early leader in the ‘rails to trails’ movement. Politically, he was a bit of a blunderbuss. But he got things done and there is now a system of trails that runs along the Fox River 40 miles long from Aurora to Crystal Lake. In terms of supporting fitness and public recreation, his legacy remains one of the most important political choices in the last 100 years.


Ultimately he ran afoul of some wealthier residents along the west bank of the Fox River that did not want bike trails running through their backyards by the river. A political movement was formed against the taking of private land for public purposes and Phil Elfstrom was deposed almost solely on that issue. He’d also made some interesting suppositions about buying up properties in a downcast residential area named Valley View. That did not win him any support either.

The admirable aspect of Phil Elfstrom is that he was visionary in his ideas and not afraid to take on challenges. It’s always one thing to talk about ideas like trading rails for trails. It’s entirely another to get them done. During his tenure, I sat in his office one day and advised him that the County could really use a public relations person. He said he’d think about it. But by the time he did, the election was lost and it was too late.

Trails today

These days there are thousands of people who use the river trails to ride their bikes and go for runs or walks. The popular Fox Valley Marathon is conducted on the Fox River Trails, making it one of the most scenic races in the Midwest.



Runners compete in the Fox Valley Marathon on the Fox River Trail. 

At mile 18 or so, the marathon passes by the Challenge building with its tall chimney. The building is a bit of a brooding structure these days. There are companies that use part of its remodeled spaces, but the giant water structure that perches on its roof is slowly rusting through.


It is safe to say that the people who worked in those windmill factories could scarcely imagine how Batavia would look someday. The old dam is crumbling, falling into the river chunk by chunk. It holds back the river and deepens it above the dam for nearly two miles. Someday that dam might break, and water will go rushing through and the river will sink into its natural limestone channel. It would be quite an experience to be present if that were to happen somehow, and suddenly.

Every time I run or ride on the river trails that pass by those old buildings, I am grateful for that opportunity. It honestly all came to pass because one man was willing to take on the challenge of making it happen. You can argue all you want that there is no “i” in “team,” and sound like the best corporate soul that ever existed. But I still admire the initiative of a person with a vision and the will to make it happen. Without that, nothing ever gets done.


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These Texas mornings in Illinois

foggy-runIn the early 2000s, I was invited to create artwork for a race called Brazosport Run for the Arts in Lake Jackson, Texas. Every year I’d create some artwork that was turned into posters for the event. One year we earned the Cream of the Crop Award from Runner’s World Magazine.

My focus in attending the race each year was to sign posters and help raise money for the Arts Center. The hospitality of the people in Lake Jackson was always great. It also felt great each year to get a break from the Illinois winter weather.

It was never super warm in Texas that time of year because the race was held in January. Typically it was in the 50s of 60s with a breeze coming off the Gulf. Some years there was a moist feel to the entire event, with morning mist darkening the roads before the race.

I had not been racing much in those days. Mostly I played basketball all winter and ran a few days a week. So the idea of racing all-out in the 5K event never took hold in a big way. Plus the guy that organized the race was in my age group and I’d have felt awful beating him out of an award if I’d had a good day.

The feel of waking up to a Texas morning in the middle of winter was worth the trip. Those big great-tailed grackles that live along the coast would be squawking and tooting their calls from the live oaks. Somewhere a mockingbird would dish out a medley of bird songs from a telephone pole. Texas is very birdy in the winter months. Due to its location, the Brazosport region hosts millions of birds that head south as far as they can without having to cross the Gulf to the Yucatan or some other point of migration.

I was a snowbird of sort for a few precious years as well. The chance to get the smell of the earth in your nose during winter was so uncommon just twenty years ago. Between the southern bird songs, the communal feeling of warmer weather, and the earthy smell of dry fields licked by salt air fog, the Texas experience each year was so distinctive.

run-fogThis morning felt just like one of those Texas mornings here in Illinois. The temps have been in the sixties for days. The day broke with fog, and I trotted out into the dark with a light affixed to my arm to keep the cars whizzing past from ignoring me. I ran a couple miles south and turned east. The wind was at my back and the sidewalk was clear. So I picked up the pace a couple miles.

Along the way, my hat brushed the overhanging branch of a Scotch pine tree. The mist gathered on the needles collapsed over the brim of my hat and washed over my face. That water felt so soft and fresh I laughed out loud. I even licked my beard clean and the hydration actually felt good.

It made me think of another one of those mornings in Texas after the race. I’d stayed an extra day to do some birdwatching along the coast. An ocean mist rolled in and the birds were obscured for a couple hours. But I’d met up with a kindly older birder who escorted me to the estuaries where we found wading birds by the dozens. Then a peregrine falcon flew past us, and I called out the identification. The field marks were clear. The dark mustache on the face. The barred belly. My field partner was a bit taken aback by my quick ID. But then the bird veered toward us again and he could see that my call was correct.

“Huh,” he admitted. “It was a peregrine.”

Another year the weather the day following the race turned cold. My walk along the morning beach turned up one frozen-looking Golden plover and a forlorn-looking bunch of Laughing gulls in drab winter plumage. Depressing.

Yet I drove the coast to Aransas and stood on the bow of a boat looking for that prize Texas winter bird, the Whooping crane. I was essentially frozen in place on the bow of that small ship. The temps were in the 20s and my running gloves were not thick enough to keep my hands warm as we plowed into the cold breeze. I clutched my binoculars those first few hundred yards hoping like hell that my twenty bucks and time on the boat would not go to waste.

Whooping cranesThen we pulled around a corner and there were several Whooping cranes in sight.  We saw more every mile or so during the boat ride. I was the only nutcase willing to stand out on that bow and suffer the cold. It helped that I hailed from Illinois where the cold winter wind was nothing new.

One doesn’t quite realize in those cold moments how unique an experience like that might turn out to be. I gave thanks that my artwork had afforded me the opportunity to go south, meet those great people and see so rare a species of bird. It no longer mattered that I was cold. I’ve been to Texas several times over the years. Found a painted bunting in a park south of San Antonio. Studied roseate spoonbills and red egrets in the bays of Galveston. Listened to bands of heat-addled grackles calling from the light poles of the Houson Astrodome parking lot. Texas is a unique place. A big-assed place.

And I still want to get to Brownsville. Austin. A few other places too.

The real holdover memories center on that mild Texas weather when the rest of the world seemed so cold. This morning as I ran, those feelings came rushing back. I arrived back home happy that I carry those memories around in my head. They are evidence that running can carry us places even when we’re not far from home.

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