Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Thirty Six Years

Suzanne and I were married thirty-six years ago today.  All the kids were thrilled to have a blog post dedicated to them so I'm sure that Suzanne will feel the same way if I dedicate this page to our partnership that has survived several hairstyle changes. I thought this would be a great opportunity to share with the blog world another of my unpublishable poems. 

The poem below describes how Suzanne and I met back in 1970. It is cleverly titled, "Rochester - 1970" because I noticed a lot of famous poets title their poems that way.

 Rochester 1970

The Kids asked how we met.
The Spring of ’70 – that’s what I said.
When you threw that Frisbee
across the Quad and called my name.

But I already knew who you were.

Freshmen guys get no action in the fall.
So we studied the “Pig Book”
(they probably don’t call it that anymore).
and waited for spring.
Checked out the girls
from Rye and Red Hook,
Scarsdale and Corning.

We all noticed you.
The little Asian girl with no eyelashes.
That smile of innocence.
You looked like you were twelve.

Remember Mike Dattoria
(who drowned that summer)?
He was in your math tutorial.
Said you were beautiful and nice too!
For him, you were to die for.

And George Walker - the smug Sophomore.
Bragged about all the girls he’d had.
Said “Suzy Sawada’s pretty as sin”
Called you “Suzy” – he didn’t know you.
George was an asshole.

Then I saw you at the Homecoming Ball
with that blond ROTC guy from Glens Falls
Surprised me when you said “Hi”.

And then it was Spring
and you threw that Frisbee
across the Quad and called My name

and I caught it.

June 14, 2004

The 70s

The 80s



Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Driver

I started taking writing classes at night at the University of Chicago's Writer's Studio in the fall of 2003. For my third course in the spring of 2004 I took a Poetry course. The first exercise we had was to "steal" a line from another poem and write a poem around that. Then we were supposed to take out the stolen line. I used the line "I think about my father..." but I forgot the part about taking it out. I enjoyed the course, but I knew that I lacked the poet's skill with language. However a year later when the Tribune was soliciting stories about family vacations I sent them the poem and they used it as their lead in the front page of the Tempo section along with my Dad's color photos of our iconic summer vaaction.

Published August 26, 2005

Take a look at these photos from the car trip Len Joy and his family took across the country and back in July 1960, and they're likely to trigger your own memories of family auto journeys. And read the poem that Len, now 54, wrote about his father as driver then and today.

There's a mythic quality to the stories families tell about their long car trips together -- about breakdowns and June bugs, about wrong turns and queasy stomachs, about rubber-armed dads keeping order in the back seat (while still driving) and suitcases flying off the luggage rack onto the highway. These are experiences that carve deep lines in the memory.

Len was one of nearly 200 readers who wrote in with their accounts of car trips past, after Tempo writers shared theirs on Aug. 10. below are excerpts from some others:


I think about my Father.
It is 1960. I am 9 and we are on the vacation
we have talked about my whole life.

We have a mint-green Chevy Wagon pulling a canvas tent trailer.
No radio, no seat belts, no AC. We add an air-cooler in Albuquerque.
They say we'll need it for the run across the desert.

Six of us in that wagon.
Mom and my three sisters and Me and Dad --The Driver.
I always sit up front because I am the Boy.

From Canandaigua to Chicago, then south.
Missouri . . . Kansas . . . Oklahoma. . . .
We miss the twisters at Roman Nose, but catch the rain in the Panhandle.

On to Gallup where Mom and Dad fight.
Up to Angel Lake in the Rockies. The car overheats.
The road is narrow and winding. I am scared.

We drive through Vegas at midnight. So many lights.
We don't stop. I sleep through the Desert.
I wake up at the Flamingo Motel in Pasadena.

Disneyland is cool.
Knott's Berry Farm is boring.
I like playing shuffleboard at the motel pool.

My Uncle takes us to the Beach.
The ocean's too cold. It knocks me down.
I can't get out. I like the motel pool.

Then we turn around.
Wall Drug, the Corn Palace, Mount Rushmore (where I get lost).
Back through Chicago and all the way home.

Four weeks to California and back.
Seven thousand five hundred and forty-nine miles.
Dad drives Mom keeps track.

We come home and I grow up.
Dad goes to every lousy basketball game (home and away)
Even when we lose 18 in a row.

Last summer my Father turned eighty-five.
I ask him to give up driving his car.
My sisters choose me because I was the Boy.

He says he can drive better than most of those
Yahoos on the road today.
I agree. But . . .

I can't say what I need to say.
That he's in the final chapter of a great life.
Why risk it all?

What if you fall asleep or pass out
or just lose control?
What if you kill someone?

But I can't say that.
He's the Driver.

-- Len Joy, Evanston

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Running in the Snow

My daughter has a part-time job at CVS so her hours vary from week to week. I usually give her a ride to work and I’ve been structuring my workouts around her schedule. For instance on Mondays she has to be at the store by 6:45 AM, so yesterday I dropped her off and drove on to the Y for the 7 AM spin class. After spinning I did about forty minutes of stretching and weight training and was home by 9 AM.

I used to take Mondays off because I play basketball on Sunday night and in the morning my body is sore. But since I have to get up to drop her off, I’ve been doing the early morning spin and I have found that I’m less sore than if I take the day off.

Today (Tuesday) she had another early morning start. That’s not so convenient for me because I wanted to take my early morning Masters swim class and then go on to Pilates, but the swimming starts at 6 AM so I can’t go there and drop her off at work. So I made an alternative plan.

One of the disadvantages that us Midwestern triathletes have compared with our brethren in those hot dry places like Phoenix or San Diego is that we have to deal with weather. Since I’m planning to extend myself this year to a half-Ironman I know that I need to build up my running endurance. I’ve never run 12 miles at a time, let alone run it after a mile swim and 56 miles on the bike. I still consider this to be the offseason, my formal training with Craig won’t start until February 1, but I wanted to report in good shape so I need to start running longer distances.

I have several variations on my neighborhood course – the longest version is six miles. So today I planned to run that and then finish with an extra mile to push my run to seven miles for the day.

It had been low 20s when I went to bed so when I got up I dressed for sub twenty temperatures: Under Armour nylon running pants, tee shirt, cotton turtle neck, nylon shirt, and a Nike cotton hoody unlined. I should have checked the temperature because it was close to thirty and that was too many layers. Also I should have worn the Under Armour top that wicks the sweat away instead of the cotton tee. I knew better, but the cotton is so much more comfortable. When I get up out of the nice warm comfortable bed I don’t feel like having that cold synthetic stuff next to my skin.

When I walked outside to start the car I discovered it had snowed last night. Not a ton, just about four inches, but that meant I had to shovel the driveway. It’s not a big deal, snow was light and it actually probably helped me get warmed up.

I’ve been concerned that I’m slowing down quite a bit on the run. Years ago I could run six minute miles and in the last five years I’ve read a 5k at a pace that was under But since I’ve started doing the international distance triathlons, my minutes per mile has been just over eight minutes. I have plenty of endurance, but last season when I pushed myself to go faster I pulled hamstrings or strained calf muscles or faltered somehow.

I decided not to take my watch today, because conditions were bad and when I wear the watch I push myself harder. I didn’t want to take foolish chances. With the conditions as bad as they were, I just wanted to average less than nine minutes per mile. With the icy and snow (nobody seems to shovel on this route) and the traffic lights, I figured that wouldn’t be a bad pace.

I left the house at 7:30. Spent a minute or two stretching my calves and then I started off. The footing was great for the first part. There were a couple of inches of powder and I had good traction. Snow was drifting down and it was really neat out. Sort of a ghostly, quiet grey dawn. Not much traffic on my mostly north-south route. But as I turned off Lake Avenue in Wilmette and headed back south on Ridge, the conditions worsened. The sidewalk had rough ice, covered with snow and I had to slow my pace, taking little mincing strides so I didn’t sprain my ankle stepping in a hidden pothole.

My legs felt good and I know I could have run farther, but by mile five I was sweaty. I had taken off my gloves and tucked them in my pants, but with the wet snow soaking me from the outside and the perspiration soaking the layers from the inside I decided to stick with a six mile run.

I had hoped for a 54 minute run, but with the not great conditions I told myself to be satisfied with anything under an hour. I sprinted up the driveway (saving at least five seconds) and ran into the house. The time was 8:29 – I’d been gone an hour. No wait – only fifty-nine minutes. With some time to stretch, a few traffic lights that held me up and the crappy footing in places I decided it wasn’t a bad performance. I definitely could have run farther, but I wasn’t ready to run the entire course again, which is what I’ll have to do for the half-Ironman.

Weight: I only post the weight when it’s under 190. Haven’t been many postings lately. Today 189.4 pounds. I was hoping to be down to 180 by year end, but hoping hasn’t proven to be a very effective diet plan.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Nicole is 22

Happy Birthday Nicole!

Nicole, our middle child, was supposed to arrive before Thanksgiving. When she hadn’t shown up by Pearl Harbor day, the Doctor decided to schedule an induced delivery on the 14th. Personally, I found that a very civilized approach – no plans interrupted, no having to race off to the hospital at three a.m., no long emotion-draining labor. It had been three years since Stephen’s birth, and I was a little rusty on all those Lamaze breathing techniques, but it all happened so quickly they weren’t really needed.

Nicole was not a smiley baby. She wasn’t fussy, but she didn’t smile much for those first few months. I think she was annoyed that she hadn’t been the first-born. Nicole liked to be first. Her brother had been a starter baby. Starter babies are a promotional item to encourage population growth. It’s like a drug dealer who gives out free samples. We figured we had discovered the magic formula for childrearing so we decided to have another kid and then we immediately discovered you have to start from scratch with each kid.

None of our clever manipulative tricks worked on Nicole. Threats were useless. She would just lock her jaw and stare at her plate and refuse to eat those goddamn peas no matter how much I ranted. Looking back now, I have to admire her determination. At the time my admiration was somewhat muted.

Ever since she could talk, maybe even before, Nicole wanted a dog. Suzanne was working two hundred hours a week, I was commuting back and forth from Phoenix and we had three little kids, one of whom was Nicole, so I said: never, out of the question, you’re too small, not this year, when you get older, when I sell my business, when all the hamsters die, when you're in high school, when… okay I give up. It took her ten years, but we got Sammy, The Wonder Dog. It’s one of the best decisions I ever made...

Nicole liked sports and she is a very good athlete. A good team player. She was on her high school’s volleyball and soccer teams. I loved watching her play. It was fun to see all that determination focused elsewhere.

Now she is in her 4th year at the School of the Art Institute. Her concentration is in fashion accessories. I could spend many blog pages bragging, but I know that would embarrass her, so I will just post pictures of some of her creations:

Friday, December 11, 2009

Christie is 20

Our youngest child, Christie was born December 11, 1989. Somehow she managed to squeeze her birthday in between Stephen’s birthday on the 9th and Nicole’s birthday on the 14th. Appropriate, as she was usually the one in the middle – a sweet-dispositioned buffer between her sometimes contentious older siblings.

By the time Christie came to be I was a veteran at this baby stuff. I probably could have delivered her myself and if the nurses had ignored Suzanne’s claims that she was ready for a few more minutes, I would have. We were still in the labor room and they had to hustle us into the delivery room. It was the only one of the three pregnancies where the delivery doctor actually almost broke a sweat.

Christie was born a year after my brother-in-law Tom and I bought our engine reman business in Phoenix. Suzanne sometimes claims I was gone 300 days a year, but it was more like a hundred days, although I guess that would equate to three hundred kid-days per year. She also insists that I was never home when it snowed or the car broke down.

In those early years, when I was home, I worked out of an office in the basement. Christie would draw pictures on my discarded fax paper rolls. She promised me that she would never grow up, but I’m glad she did. She grew up to become a very talented artist and last year she went off to Pratt Institute in Brooklyn to study fashion. They gave her a half-tuition scholarship.

In high school Christie had done well in any class that held her interest and not so well in all the others. I knew she would do well at Pratt, and she did – she made the Dean’s list for her first year. But she wanted something different – something with more of an art focus.

So she is sitting out a year, working on her portfolio. Her Pratt professors have given her some recommendations – schools in London, California and even Chicago. I’m pulling for Chicago, but I know that it is more than likely that she will leave after this year. But for now she is back at home working at CVS and selling stuff in her ETSY store: Rotten Tapioca

She doesn’t drive yet (she went off to Pratt before we mastered the left turn) so I drive her to work and to visit her friends. Sometimes it seems like all her friends live on the other side of town and only want to visit at rush hour, but whenever I find myself getting annoyed I remind myself that soon she will be gone again and I will wish I could drive her somewhere.

Christie is twenty today. Our last teenager has left the building.

 Happy Birthday Christie!

Below are photographs of some of Christie's Portfolio:

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Stephen is 25

Today is my son Stephen’s 25th birthday. He’s a graduate student (Chem PhD) at NYU. I’ve been wondering what I should give him for his birthday. Money or gift cards are practical, but let’s face it – he’s living in Manhattan and barely surviving on a TA stipend. Any money I give him is just going to go for stuff like food and rent. So instead of cash, I am devoting an entire blog post just to him. Long after the few hundred dollars that I might have given have been consumed, this blog page will endure.

Happy Birthday Stephen!


My son was born on Sunday, December 9th, 1984. On the Friday before he was born I went out for drinks with my work colleagues as we often did on Friday nights. We usually started at Alcock’s on south Wells. After a couple of hours someone suggested, as they always did, that we migrate north to Hangge Uppe’s on Rush Street. That was a fun place for thirty year olds with no responsibilities. Suzanne was about ten months pregnant at the time and with every beer I was more and more certain that the baby was not going to arrive for at least two or three more days. But as we gathered up our coats to grab a cab for Rush Street, I decided I’d better go home just in case.

I count that as my first parental sacrifice.

The other day I got off the el at Clark and Division to meet a friend at Barney’s and I walked right by Hangge Uppe’s. I hadn’t been back there in twenty-five years.

We went into the hospital early on Sunday morning. Too early. They put us up in this holding cell for the rest of the night and we moved into the labor room about mid-morning. Fortunately they had a television. I was watching the Bears game – I wouldn’t normally do that while someone was in labor, but this was the game where Walter Payton had to play quarterback because McMahon and Rusty Lisch were injured. Not a game that anyone would want to miss. About midway through the third quarter, Suzanne started yelling at me. She’s never really been much of a Bears fan, so I had to turn off the set. The Bears lost the game.

Stephen was born at 9:31 PM. We’d been in labor for hours and hours and hours. I was really tired.

So was Suzanne.

The first thing Stephen did was pee on the Doctor. For many years I felt as a metaphor that didn’t work, because Stephen was such a good kid, fun-loving, but studious and definitely not a rebel. But now that I have taken all of these writing classes I realize that he was being IRONIC.

I try to keep these blogs under 500 words and I am already there and Stephen’s only three minutes old. I still have tons of embarrassing stories to tell, but I guess I’ll have to wait until next year. Happy Birthday Stephen! See you on Christmas Eve.


  Five days after Stephen's 3rd birthday Nicole arrived. In this picture they are not being ironic.
Christie was born two days after Stephen's fifth birthday. We were great tax planners.  >

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Old Fashioned Christmas Spirit

No adult should ever have to spend more than an hour of his life in a Chuckie Cheese Pizza Parlor. Our kids were all born in the second week of December, which meant three birthday parties two weeks before Christmas. When I was growing up, our family birthday tradition had been you got one birthday party with maybe six kids coming over to the house when you turned ten, if you insisted. After that you were on your own. My wife’s family had fancy invite-everyone go-someplace parties every year for ever. So when it was our turn to establish a birthday party tradition we compromised and did it her way.

I didn’t really like these birthday parties when we started having them, but by the time our youngest was five, I hated them. I refused to buy the Christmas tree until we had survived all three birthday celebrations. That was my tradition. On the Sunday morning after we celebrated my son’s twelfth birthday with six hours at Laser Zone, which had taken place right after the four hour party for our seven year old daughter at my favorite pizza parlor, which had followed our nine year old daughter’s Friday night bowling party, I headed out by myself to visit Bob the Tree Merchant.

It was peaceful in Bob’s Christmas tree forest. And quiet. I walked through the rows. Bob had a good selection of blue spruce, but the Douglas fir looked good too, and the needles didn’t make such a mess. Spruce or fir? I walked back and forth between the neighborhoods. I took my time. Breathing in the cold, fresh, pine-scented air and savoring the absence of screaming kids, Disney songs, dinging arcade games, and the cloying stink of sweaty kids, hot buttered popcorn, cotton candy, and fries drowned in ketchup. When my toes started to numb in the near-zero temperatures I knew it was time to return home and start the Christmas season.

I let Bob know I had decided on one of the blue spruce. He complimented me on my tree-buying perspicacity. The finest tree on the lot he said in a whisper so as not to offend his fir-buying customers. I accepted Bob’s offer to give the tree a “fresh cut”, which required him to saw an inch off the bottom of the tree. I’ve never figured out what that does, but I knew Bob would be disappointed if I said no. After I paid him, he summoned his assistant to take the tree to my car.

His helper was about twenty, not tall, but solid, with broad shoulders and chest that made his red-black flannel shirt about a size too small. He had on a Bears baseball cap and insulated boots, and I pictured him up in the Wisconsin woods, like a miniature Paul Bunyan, tending to his crop of firs and spruces.

When Bob was running the lot by himself I would assist him with tree-carrying, but with this kid, I was just in the way. He grabbed the six foot tree, and swung it on to the car roof, like it was balsa wood. Feeling useless, I asked him how business had been, that being my usual conversation starter when the weather has not been exceptional.

Business had been pretty good, he said. Then he asked me how I was doing. He seemed interested. I shook my head like guys do when they have something really important to say, and I was about to tell him about my birthday weekend, but before I could actually open my mouth he said, “Well that’s to be expected. Fucking people! Everybody wants everything right away. Nobody’s willing to wait for a goddamn thing! What ever happened to the Old Fashioned Christmas Spirit?” He finished tying down his side of the tree and snapped off the twine with his bare hands. Try that someday.

I decided he probably wasn’t interested in hearing about my kids’ birthday parties. I busied myself with getting the front end of the tree tied down. He came around to my side of the car and stared at me while I fumbled with the cord. “Woman problem, am I right?”

I couldn’t think of anything to say to that. I doubted that the weekly fight with my daughter over Sunday School could really be considered a Woman Problem. As I opened the car door to drive off, the young man draped his arm around my shoulder and said, “Don’t worry buddy, everything will work itself out. Try to have a good Christmas.”

With those words of inspiration I headed for home with my tree, determined to preserve that old fashioned Christmas spirit.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Half-Ironman?

I’ll be 59 next year – the top end of my age bracket. When I started this blog, my goal was to chronicle my progress/efforts to finish in the top 10 of the USAT National Age Group Championships in 2011, when I turn 60. I have been competing in the International Distance events:  Swim - .9 mile; Bike 24 miles; Run 6.25 miles; sorry all you metric purist, but I think in miles.

After talking it over with my tri coach, Craig Strong (definitely a good name for a coach), I’ve decided that this year I will try to get myself ready to compete in a Half-Ironman race. Okay, that was a really passive sentence – probably because I’m wondering if my body will hold up for the longer distances. Also because I’m recalling my son’s efforts in the Steelhead Half-Ironman last summer where he spent some of his six hours face down on the course trying to uncramp his legs.

The first step, and the easiest one, in developing my plan, is to figure out what races I might want to compete in. That would be easy, except I also want to attend a writing conference for two weeks in the summer and so I need to work around those dates or find an event close to the conference. Last year, I applied to Sewanee Writer’s Conference in Tennessee and they turned me down. I was going to punish them by not applying again, but I’ve decided to give them one more chance. I also plan to apply to Breadloaf Writer’s Conference in Middlebury, Vermont. I won’t go to both of them, and it’s possible that Sewanee could continue to make bad decisions and reject me again and even more possible that the Breadloaf folks won’t find me worthy in which case I’ll stay home and supervise Suzanne who will be in her first year of retirement and will undoubtedly need my help.

March 20, 2010     Lake Havasu Triathlon Lake Havasu, AZ     (International Distance)

Two years ago I competed here and finished the swim in twenty minutes, which is a world record. Unfortunately I apparently missed the third, fourth and fifth buoys which helped my time considerably. Last year, I swam the whole course and it took me 34 minutes and I had a decent time going until the run. The runners were well-spaced and with two miles to go I was gaining on a somewhat portly gentlemen a few hundred yards ahead of me. I caught him with a mile to go, but realized as I passed him that he wasn’t in the race and he wasn’t on the course either. I had to run an extra three miles to get back to the course. Next year I plan to run the actual course.

May 16, 2010   Tempe International     Tempe, AZ     (International Distance)

I’m going to leave my Tri bike in Arizona after Lake Havasu (at my sister’s house) and I’ll train with my other bike. Then I won’t to have the hassle and expense of shipping the bike to Arizona twice.

June 6, 2010     Keuka Lake Triathlon    Keuka Lake, NY    (International Distance)

I competed here last year and the water temp was 58 degrees. That was not pleasant, but I bought thermal socks and a thermal swim cap and it wasn’t unbearable, so I need to give it another shot. This is one of my Visit Mom and Race trips.

July 11, 2010      Musselman Triathlon      Geneva, NY        (Half-Ironman!!!!)

This will be first attempt at a Half-Ironman and my second trip home to visit Mom. She loves to have me visit because I’m so helpful around the house. That’s sort of an inside joke.

July 13 to 25th           Sewanee’s Writer’s Conference                     Somewhere in Tennessee

Last year I went to the Squaw Valley Writer’s Conference. They put us up in private ski lodge houses. Really nice. Sewanee is that the University of the South and we stay in dorms. That part doesn’t thrill me.

July 31, 2010          Steelhead Half-Ironman                   Benton Harbor, MI   (Half-Ironman)

This is a qualifying race for Foster Grant 70.3 National Championships in Florida. To qualify I will have to finish Steelhead in under six hours. That’s not impossible, but it will take a lot of training. We’ll see.

August 8, 2010       Lake Dunsmore Triathlon                Salisbury, VT         (International Distance)

I probably won’t compete in this race, but if I somehow end up going to Breadloaf this race is two miles from there and two days before the conference starts, so it is a possibility. I would drive here from my Mom’s place – that’s 250 miles.

August 11th to 21st              Breadloaf Writer’s Conference                  Middlebury, VT

Probably won’t be going here.

September 19, 2010                 Syracuse Half-Ironman      Syracuse, NY     (Half-Ironman)

This would be my third trip back to New York and will qualify me for Son of the Year awards. This race is also a qualifier for the National championships.

November 13, 2010            Foster Grant 70.3 World Championship            Clearwater, FL

I like the idea of having something to aspire to that is in Florida in November.

Note:  70.3 is the distance in miles covered in miles in the Half-Ironman  (I think)

This is all subject to change.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Back Attack

Sunday morning I got up from my desk to refill my coffee cup. My dog, Sammy got up from his strategic location right behind my chair ready to escort me to the kitchen. But first he stretched as he always does – the “downward dog” as we say in Yoga class. I told him he should try the cat stretch where we bend forward and “blow up” our back. I demonstrated for him and he looked at me quizzically but didn’t attempt it. Then, as I straightened up, I was stabbed with a searing pain at the base of my spine, sort of like what I imagine it might feel like to be tasered.

This seems to happen to me about once every year. It never happens when I’m doing anything athletic – it’s always something routine, like tying my shoes. One minute I’m feeling great, ready to run five miles and the next I can’t even move.

By Monday morning I still had difficulty standing straight and my whole back ached because all my muscles where tensed. I decided to go to spinning class anyway, just to get some exercise. I made it through the class, being very careful on the transitions from sitting to standing. I tried swimming, but it hurt to kick, except when I swam on my back so I gave up after a few laps.

I called my chiropractor, Tony Breitbach who runs the Wellness Revolution  in Evanston. Tony’s a triathlete also and that perspective is really helpful in treating endurance athletes. He understands our motivations.

After a few minutes on their mechanical massage table – I’m sure that’s not the right term – it’s a table with a roller built into the mat that rolls up and down the spine. It helps to stretch out the back and feels great, although not quite so great after being tasered.

After the table workout Tony worked on my back with various stretches and adjustments and by the time he was done, I was much more upright when I walked out of the office. He told me that every two hours I needed to lay on the ground and work on arching my back as much as I could tolerate, which I’ve done. Today, I am much better, but it still takes me about three times as long to tie my shoes.

With Tony’s help I hope to be back to normal workouts by the weekend.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Swimming: Can Old Dogs Learn New Tricks?

When I started this blog back in July, I wrote that one of the purposes was to chronicle my efforts to achieve a top-ten finish in the USAT Age Group Championship in 2011 when I inexplicably turn 60.

Soon after that I competed in the 2009 National championships in Tuscaloosa. I figured that would be a perfect way to frame my quest. When I triumph in 2011 I could point back to 2009 and show how much I’ve improved. In that sense I guess the 2009 race was a huge success, as I have amply demonstrated how much improvement is needed since I wasn’t able to even finish that race.

My problems all started with the swim. It was in the Black Hawk River – a lovely eight-four degrees and eighty percent of the course was swum against the current looking into the sun. I had expected (maybe hope would be a better word) to finish in thirty-four minutes. It took me fifty-eight. My legs started to cramp from dehydration before I finished the swim and by the time I got off the bike I couldn’t run.

If I am going to be competitive in two years I have to make huge improvements in my swim time.

In October I resumed taking Masters Classes at the Y. Each week we would work on different drills. A couple of weeks ago the drill was “one-arm freestyle.” Nobody liked that drill until the following week when we did “no-arm freestyle.”

Actually both drills are much worse than they sound. I figured waterboarding might be next so I stopped going to the classes.

Instead, I’ve been doing research. My tri coach, Craig Strong has written a series of articles called “Take Your Swim to the Next Level.” As I read the articles I found myself nodding my head as he described various problems. It turns out I am the perfect “before” swimmer: Float-challenged, poor balance, no rhythm, weak ineffective kick, improper breathing technique. I’m not even sure I’m wearing my goggles correctly. Maybe they’re upside down?

So next week I’m going to go back to the pool. The first step will be to learn how to float. According to Craig everyone can float. He says the key is to become               
                                                                                     a kayak:

not an iceberg. 

We'll see.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Basketball and My White House Fellowship

In 1982 I applied for a White House Fellowship. The White House Fellows program was established by President Johnson in October 1964. The mission of the program was "to give the Fellows first hand, high-level experience with the workings of the federal government and to increase their sense of participation in national affairs." White House Fellows typically spend a year working as full-time, paid special assistants to senior White House Staff, the Vice President, Cabinet Secretaries and other top-ranking government officials. Each year there are over a thousand applicants for the nineteen fellowships. Approximately 100 of the applicants are selected by regional panels of prominent local citizens. Based on the interviews the finalists are selected.

I survived the first cut and was invited to participate in the Midwest regional interview process. Each candidate met with a panel of five questioners. My interview was rolling along until one of the women panelists asked me what was the most traumatic or life-changing event of my life. I immediately, without even thinking, said, “When I tore up my knee playing basketball at the Y.” I can remember the look on her face as she tried to not roll her eyes. “Basketball at the Y? Did this affect your career? You’re not a professional athlete are you?” I’m not sure if she asked those questions or I just thought that’s what she wanted to ask. It didn’t matter. I was so flustered that when the next questioner tried to bail me out by asking me about my avowed interested in working with the CIA, all I could do was babble incoherently.

I didn’t make it to the finals. Ronald Reagan had to rebuild America without my help. Too bad, because I could have really helped them in the CIA. For years I beat myself up for giving such a stupid answer, but eventually the kids came along and I had other things to think about.

Last year at Squaw Valley Writer’s Conference I was part of a “finding the story” in our lives seminar and the question came up again. I had a second chance and a day to think about it, before I gave my answer to the class.

And when I had time to think about it, I realized it was a good answer, just poorly explained. All through college I played intra-mural basketball. And after graduation for the next ten years I played in local leagues, and pickup games at the Y. We’d play for hours. I was getting better every year. Then, when I was 27, on an all out fast break drive to the basket, I was hit just as I planted my left foot. My leg buckled and I can still remember the sick feeling as the top half of my leg turned outward in a totally unnatural movement. I can also still remember the pain, so much so, that it hurts to write these words. I crawled off the court.

I had torn my ACL. That was 1979 and I had never heard of that injury. The orthopedic surgeon explained that repairs of the ACL were iffy and it was unlikely I would have the same stability I’d had before the accident. I was in a leg cast for eight weeks and it took me a year to recover. The knee was never the same.

As I prepared my answer for that writer’s conference, I realized, with the benefit of three decades of hindsight, that the reason it was such a life-changing event for me was that it was, literally, the end of my youth. I was in my prime, each year getting faster, stronger, more skilled. And then it was over. There was a new world order. I had to be careful, take care of my body – work harder just to stay even.

Of course, even if I'd had the insight to give an articulate answer during that interview, my interest in the CIA probably would have killed my chances anyway.