Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Bad Kitty

I woke up this morning to Conor Oberst’s song “I Don’t Want to Die in the Hospital.” This would be an amazing, significant coincidence if it were on a clock radio, not a CD that I’d cued up myself a few hours earlier. Instead, it’s just significant.

Our oldest cat died in her sleep the night before last. Fiona. Fiona the Terrible, the one with the “Bad Kitty” pendant dangling from her collar like a combat medal from her own personal war with the world. The cat who lived 12 years with me describing her as a stroke waiting to happen and one moment letting me be right for once.

I don’t think Fiona hated the world as much as she felt a need to control it, and lacking opposable thumbs, language or a business degree, did what she could with hissing, spitting, growling and swatting. If it didn’t gain her control – other pets and guests were forever taking it as an invitation to tease, which, in turn, was my invitation to be ready the next 24 hours with the paper towels and Urine-Off – it seemed to give her a measure of satisfaction. Real control came when the house emptied and she settled down and turned into a purring, affectionate, even loving Dr. Jekyll with just enough Hyde to remember the physics of two solids occupying the same space at the same time. The control that she never achieved via tantrum was hers to be had through kindness, robbing the bed, the chair at the drawing board, the newspaper on the table, of their most useful real estate and equally excising our desire to move her and enjoy any measure of comfort or efficiency or control of our own.

There’s probably a lesson there, but not one that any of us ought to be learning. The better lesson is not one of how she gained control, but that she seemed to need it so badly and then threw a clot when she was roughly the cat equivalent of my own age.

She did maintain one crucial, final measure of autonomy. She hated her veterinarian along with the rest of the world, and she didn’t die in the hospital.

Me, I’ve finally got control of my drawing-board chair. My emotions, not so much. 24 hours out, and I miss the little shit terribly.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Steps and stumbles and cross-channel somnambulism

What's that line about the longest journey starting with a single step? In my case, it's a bit of a stretch, that's what it is. Replace "step" with "series of stumbles" and you're getting closer. I just don't have a talent for bolting strong out of the gate. Good thing I'm in it for the long run.
This week officially began the training program for my Martian Marathon, April 10. It was hardly my first week of running, but there's something significant about the first week of the plan.

Significantly disappointing. I was swamped with early holiday deadlines and barely made the first run -- an easy 4-miler -- before I went fully under and missed the second run, another 4-miler. Then I was good until Sunday, when a deep cough and an unprecedented spasm of perspective had me calling off a 12-miler with good friends on a lovely day. Oy. We'll see how Week 2 goes. Today's task is another easy 4-miler, supposedly to recover from the run I didn't do yesterday, but just as useful for seeing if taking the day off nipped the cough in the bronchial bud.
So let's catch up on returning a few comments.

I got a lot of support for my eagerness to set goals, which tells me I'm writing to the right crowd. It's also interesting to see that no one really cares too much what my goals are -- a 7:30 500 freestyle and a 3:30 marathon fall, after all, within an enormous field. And that field is the one between two fields that are impossibly small (elite) and impossibly vast (people who would rather make excuses than efforts). This week I'm closer to the latter group than ever, but it's rare to butt heads with a deep cough and come out on top.

Matt suggests I find a documentary called "Gizmo" (this one?) to put my goals into perspective. I shall. La Professora suggests even shorter films from the "Simon's Cat" series for when I'm busy ignoring my goals. I am familiar with Simon's Cat, and hereby forward the recommendation on to everyone -- it is truly extraordinary animation.

And I got some truly brilliant feedback on my lack of sleep and lack of desire TO sleep. Brilliant, in this case, defined at least in part as "agreeing with jef." First, La Professora cites an article that supports my theory that not all sleep is created equal -- that if you can sleep more intensely, maybe you don't need to spend as much time in bed. And then Elaine mentions that SHE doesn't get enough sleep, either. This is significant because Elaine is hampered by her sleep issues so much that she SWAM THE ENGLISH CHANNEL this summer. After warming up by doing the Catalina Channel swim AND the around-Manhattan swim. This is one piece of unscientific, anecdotal evidence I'm clinging to with all my sleepy might. (And Elaine's own blog is worth skipping a little sleep over yourself, if I may recommend so.)

And, oh, just in case anyone is looking for gaps in my logic (Patty), I'll reiterate that I opted not to run yesterday. And that I slept 9 hours Saturday night and 8:30 last night. "I'll sleep when I'm dead," say the neurotic. "I'll sleep when I need it," says Jef.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

No gifts, please. Especially not that one, Uncle Bonehead

Patty and I are forgoing Christmas gifts this year. We wrote a check to the Food Bank instead. I’d love to say somehow it’s our higher morals and self-denial for the greater good, but the motive is just as likely to be the polar opposite. If, closing in on 22 years of marriage, we have trouble knowing what to get each other, the choice of causes is troubling. Either we’ve quit paying each other as much attention as we should, or we’ve paid such good attention over the years that there’s nothing left to get, let alone a place to put it. An even less attractive possibility is a dwindling talent for self-restraint and deferred gratification such that few needs or wants remain vacant by the end of Advent.

Between my own bad habits and decadent coincidence – can I be held responsible if I pre-ordered a nifty aero helmet in August and it arrived somewhere between the lords-a-leaping and the maids-a-milking? – I’m going to give myself credit for higher morals purely out of need to save what dignity remains.

What dignity remains, that is, after I broke the gift embargo at a cookies-only Christmas celebration at my parents’ house Saturday. I received and I gave. I received a sore throat from who knows who, and I gave a boxed set of nightmares to my 4-year-old nephew.

My older sister was taking family portraits, and a 6-year-old nephew was too tired to cooperate. A smile was roundly unprofferred. Some weird-uncle clowning around was in order. My mother had interpreted her own cookies-only edict somewhat loosely and filled the house with the inventory of a small arts&crafts chain. Part of the make-a-reindeer-out-of-candy-canes station featured a stock of those self-adhesive googly eyes – exactly what I needed. I grabbed a couple eyes, peeled off the backing, stuck them to my closed eyelids and pointed my nose in the direction of the Stubborn One. Giggles ensued, the shutter was tripped, the younger nephew ran into the room to see what was so funny, and you could hear the scream as far as at least three of the Great Lakes.

Patty and I will probably continue our gift-free theme for future Christmases. Still not because of any high moral standing; rather, because psychiatrists are expensive, and I owe somebody a good one.

Monday, December 21, 2009

A man's reach should exceed his gasp

Saturday was early Christmas at my parents' house. The place was packed with family and friends, and two in particular were telling stories on me. Patty, who married me 21 years ago, was talking to Kristi, who baby-sat me 21 years before that.

Kristi was explaining that she asked me back then what I wanted to be when I grew up, and that I had had it narrowed down to two options:

Either a cartoonist or a Harlem Globetrotter.

So I've never been terribly realistic. But hope trumps reality half the time, apparently, and that's enough.

I'm still setting goals in pairs. Triathlon training 2010 begins today. Not that I've been loafing all fall. I've been cycling for fun, running for maintenance and fun, and swimming for maintenance and fun and dramatic improvement of my form and speed. But if we want to assign it some official date, today is as good as any. It's the first day of my 16-week build-up to my spring marathon, the Martian Marathon in Dearborn. And that's one of my two goals for this winter: I'd like to finish in 3:30, which would qualify me for the Boston Marathon. It could be as pointless as wanting to be a Harlem Globetrotter -- this year's Boston is full, and I have no idea if it qualifying in April 2010 would get me into the race for May 2011 -- and probably as realistic.

My other goal for the winter we've already discussed, which is to swim the 500-yard freestyle in 7:30. There's a Masters meet in Grand Haven, a couple hours away, on Feb. 21 that ought to time out about right.

I don't know if there's any kind of a parallel here. Will I meet those goals? Will I meet half of them, the way I became a cartoonist but not a Globetrotter? Will anyone be talking about it 21 years from now?

I don't know. But I suspect after I told Kristi my plans, I wandered off either to dribble a basketball or draw pictures, and now I'm off to go for a swim and a run.


Friday, December 18, 2009

These woods are lovely, dark and deep

I don’t sleep enough. I’m told this. I know this. There will always be some dispute between what I’m told and what I know in terms of just how much I’m in arrears. When I do sleep, I sleep deeply, continuously and instantly, a talent that can be, and is, viewed just as easily as efficiency or desperation. Advocates of the two accounts don’t concede much ground to the other, but I notice we both tend to fade during the occasional mid-afternoon at similar rates.

I’ve read the articles. I’ve seen and read Fight Club. I know the science. I know that sleeping more will make me race faster at this point than training more will. I want to sleep. I don’t like to sleep. I feel like crap all day after I get what people deem enough sleep. Is it because I need less sleep? Or because I wait until I’m exhausted before I sleep that long?

One of my favorite poets is Robert Frost. One of his best lines is from Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, a line I adore because I surely interpret it all wrong:

“… I have promises to keep
And miles to go before I sleep.”

It’s the central paradox of my life, it seems. Or at least my nights. The three – promises kept, miles logged* and sleep enjoyed – are not mutually exclusive, not at all. But I have yet to reconcile them.

And that’s probably why I just now found myself following a friend’s link to a very interesting e-book called What Matters Now and reading a page by Arianna Huffington on the importance of sleep, at four o’clock in the morning, laughing out loud a little and hoping it didn’t wake Patty up in the middle of her longer hours of shallower sleep.
* The logo on Frazz's shirt in today's strip (the one about my promises to keep): Training Peaks, the program I use to log the miles I go.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Taunt the gods Monday, get a good smiting Wednesday

As the solstice nears and days get shorter, time compresses and expands in other, less galactic ways. This morning I spent four hours making a 20-minute speech and took two seconds to learn a public-speaking tip I hope to remember for a lifetime.

I was speaking to the winter all-staff meeting of the Michigan Department of Education. The crowd was not only standing-room, it was overflow; my presentation was simulcast into other rooms. (A secondary, kind of warm-up lesson: If you want to pack the house, you can't beat mandatory attendance during work hours.) First I drew a picture while people watched -- I draw pictures all the time, and it still looks like a magic trick when I watch somebody else do it -- and then I unleashed my PowerPoint. Or PowerPoint Lite, I suppose. I don't do spinning letters or fade-ins or anything. I just project comic strips up on the screen and let them build one frame at a time. That way, I can read the strip aloud without people skipping ahead and wondering if it's OK to laugh yet because Mister Slow Narrator is still two balloons away from the punch line.

Hey. These are all educators, it dawned on me. So I did something I've been wanting to do since first grade. I forced the teachers to take turns reciting the material. Each frame I opened, I'd point to a new member of the audience, and they'd read it in the same tentative tone, with the ever so slightly exaggerated diction I remember using when I was called on to do the same thing. It was novel, it brought an interactive touch to the speech, and I dare say I noticed a little excited "pick me, no, pick her, oh, please don't pick me I'm lost" vibe. It was fun. It worked great, until it didn't. So here's your lesson:

If you're going to point to people and command them to read aloud, learn in advance where the delegates from the Michigan School for the Deaf are sitting.

Huge thanks to my friends in the Department of Education; the ones who put on a great program, the ones who enlighten and entertain with their own presentations, and the ones who graciously suffer certain fools. The guy I called on didn't miss a beat. He signed the dialogue flawlessly.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Exit 93, to Hell in a handbasket, recalculating

Patty and I saw an old friend yesterday. We were headed home from the Trizophrenia book-signing at Kinetic Systems (it was wonderful, thanks), on I-75 just this side of where it crosses over Dixie Highway, and there He was: No-Pest-Strip Jesus. It’s a giant portrait, the familiar version of him, all Aryan and earth tones and neatly trimmed beard and long, flowing hair, as if he were modeling for an advertisement promoting the new, myrrh-scented product from Bath & Body Works. The portrait is suspended from a curiously Islamic-looking arch, below a glowing, red, elongated cube that’s probably supposed to be a lamp but looks for all the world like a No-Pest-Strip; and above the neatly lettered, sans serif (and ironically Roman) boldface query, “Are you on the right road?”.

It’s a legitimate question. Sure, you’re viewing it from one of the busiest, best-marked stretches of limited-access Interstate in the Midwest, but you’re also a half-hour from Flint, so you can’t be blamed for having your doubts. And as far as evangelism goes, it’s refreshingly non-pushy. Note that the sign frames it as a polite question, compared to the vaguely bitchy “recalculating” remark I’m forever hearing from the GPS navigator on my dashboard. If the owners of the sign were to ask me for advice – and I’m a little insulted by how rarely the religious world does – I’d suggest they update their technology just a little and replace that lowermost sign with the kind that lets you change the message, so that “Are you on the right road?” might alternate airtime with “Should you really be on the phone right now?” and, say, “What’s with the tailgating, there, Dr. Procto?”.

If this author-cartoonist-illustrator thing doesn’t work out, I might have to think about the evangelism consulting business. I wouldn’t need to put my address on my business card. Prospective clients would need only to follow the lightning bolt.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Odds and ends and underpants

Let's see if I can actually be quick for once, and then get some dreadfully overdue books signed and ready to ship before the mailman gets here. The plan is to catch up on some commentary (that's part #1) and finish with a funny story that's almost as overdue as those books (that's #2, and that was enough of an excuse to link to today's Frazz -- which, you'll notice, is now readable without clicking).

To all the kind folks who encouraged me to print a poster of the strip that was cited by Brian in his Carnegie Teacher of the Year acceptance speech, efforts are under way at United Feature Syndicate to do just that. So now the strip itself will be a product.

Speaking of flattering mentions by impressive people, don't miss the interview and review of Trizophrenia in the RunnerDude blog. Then read more of his blog. It's very good stuff.

VeloBen and La Professora  assure me that I'm on reasonably safe legal ground by borrowing St. Lawrence University's seal for Frazz's shirt. I don't know if any jokes that begin with "A librarian, a professor and a cartoonist walk into a legal briefing," but one needs to.

Because this weekend's book-signings at Great Lakes Books in Big Rapids (Saturday) and Kinetic Systems in Clarkston (Sunday) can only accommodate so many people, we have Helen asking if I'm going to be signing books in Ann Arbor soon and PurpleState asking something similar about the Washington, DC area while Noel offers to get me into the pool at George Mason University. Noel has a good radar, because I'm in talks, as they say, with the director of a triathlon just west of DC. And I'm also pretty much confirmed to be a part of an Ann Arbor event in late March. I'm being all cagey and secretive because I don't want to usurp the promoters' right to have a little control over information about their own events. I'll update you as things become official.

Jim Smith II adds to the pile of much-needed and gratefully accepted swim encouragement. Let's lay it out in the open right here and now: My I hereby declare my goal for this offseason (can an off-season have goals? Is that fair?) is to hit that 7:30 500-yd freestyle, a feat experienced swimmers like to call "warming up." I did it at practice just this morning, but I don't think it counts when you do it in 100-yard pieces with generous rest intervals. But it's a start.

Which brings us to the part you've been waiting for, the funny story. After last Saturday's swim meet, I was talking with friend who had had a pretty good day in the water himself, breaking several records, personal, pool and otherwise. I don't remember the exact events, records, or even the guy's name, if only for his dignity's sake. In fact, the only detail I was able to pay much attention to at all is that as he was telling me about all this, he was wearing his towel and blotting the water out of his ears with his underpants. Good to know I'm not the only one affected by cerebral oxygen deprivation after a hard swim.

Okay. That'll do it. Circling tidily to the Frazz episode we led off with: Gotta go.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

One bright Frazz episode

Today’s Frazz comes from real life, and it’s not what you think. Sure, I get as annoyed as the next guy by drivers who seem determined to get their money’s worth out of their bright lights – it seems so selfish, like their ability to drive employing functional vision trumps your ability to drive employing functional vision – but I try to the very wise credo, "Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.” (This supposedly coined by none other than Napoleon Bonaparte, though it sounds an awful lot like Goethe’s "...misunderstandings and neglect create more confusion in this world than trickery and malice. At any rate, the last two are certainly much less frequent." I’m tempted to say he stole it, but I’m kind of locked into considering that he probably just thought he made it up and didn’t get around to checking it out.)

No, this came from my friendship with Eric, who is way faster and smarter than I am in spite of (he claims) the world’s worst training and study habits. Maybe he’s right; at least he stands to have inherited some very good genes. I know his mother and she’s brilliant, and his father or uncle or somebody worked with the NIH and was one of the early pioneers in light therapy for seasonal affective disorder. The research timed out such that when Eric was in college at St. Lawrence University, which is as far north as it sounds, he made it through the long, dark winters with the aid of one of those super-bright therapy lights. Unconfirmed reports from NASA suggest you could see his dorm room from space.

So that’s the inspiration for today’s Frazz, and why Frazz’s t-shirt is sporting the St. Lawrence University seal. I hope they don't mind. I didn't mean anything by it. I'm just really incompetent at checking whether there might be any restrictions.

Comment catch-up, the Swim Meet Edition

Many thanks to those – there are tons of you, enough that I have to rudely condense it here (though Anonymous has been oddly silent as of late) – for the encouragement before, and mix of encouragement and sympathy after, my Masters Swim Meet Saturday, particularly my come-up-short 500 freestyle. I’m sad to say I settled no scores in this morning’s time trial during swim practice, coming in at a sorry 8:02. I wore a little timer under my swim cap that beeped at 45-second intervals to remind me to stay on a 1:30 per 100 pace, though what it really did was point out that I can hold that pace easily – and I truly do mean easily – for 200 yards, at which point things get ugly. Maybe it’s lactate, maybe it’s focus, but however murky the causes, the results are pretty cut and dried. So, then, is the plan for much of this winter’s pool training: Lots of short repeats focusing on the form that makes the first 200 go easy, and regular 500-yd time trials to force my brain to learn to concentrate and my blood to clear lactate.

I do owe one commenter a more specific answer, though. Nöel asks about the cat in the photo atop Monday’s entry “Old Doo-Dee-Doo-Dee-Dooteronomy goes swimming.” Something about suspicions of irrelevance and kitty porn. That’s actually one of my own cats, Mars, who sits that way a lot. Who pretty much just sits a lot, if you couldn’t tell from his figure. I needed a cat photo because of the T.S. Eliot references. Eliot wrote "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats" -- the musical was based on it -- and Old Deuteronomy was one of the key cats in the poetry collection and the play. And Mars had just the gratuitous “What are you looking at?” visage I needed. As far as porn goes, I'm not sure what neutering or obesity or furriness or alternate speciesness do to one's prospects as an actor in that profession. Word is there's something out there for everybody. And a hyperlink for no one, at least not on this blog.

Trizophrenia book tour information

The Trizophrenia Book Tour is coming together. This weekend I’ll be at Great Lakes Book & Supply in my hometown of Big Rapids, Mich., Saturday from 1:00 to 3:00. And in Clarkston, north of Detroit, at Kinetic Systems on Sunday at 3:00.

I’ll be speaking right here in Lansing again at the Tri-County Bicycle Association meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 23.

At Schuler Books Feb. 25 at their 28th Street location in Grand Rapids.

And scheduled, with details to come, we’ll have a grand old party at Century Cycles in Cleveland on March 5, and I’ll be speaking at the Seattle Bicycle Expo March 13 and 14.

More information as it comes.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Old Doo-De-Doo-De-Doo-teronomy goes swimming

I began my racing season, swim phase, Saturday. Before we go any further, let's note the wording of that. "... began my swim season" is a world apart from my previous approach of simply going to the Masters Swim meet near my home as a one-shot deal.

Results were mixed. I can't remember my times specifically, because they only post them on the scoreboard for a few seconds until the next heat starts, so by the time you're done in the cool-down lane, you have to rely on your oxygen- (and in my case, congenitally competence-in-general-) deprived brain to remember it until they post the results online, which they haven't yet. I was hoping for a breakthrough showing so my coach -- who was there, of course -- would know beyond a doubt how much impact his coaching had made, but it was something short of that. Something well ahead of disappointing, though. To borrow from T.S. Eliot in a way I'm sure he never dreamed of, far short of a bang but well short of a whimper.

I can't remember my 200 time, other than it brings to mind an earlier section of that same Eliot poem: "Paralysed force, gesture without motion". Especially during the final lap, when the pool somehow lengthened by 20 yards. I got some great advice from a couple of my heroes in the sport immediately, though(this is where you really get your money's worth out of Masters swimming). I had a better plan for my next event, the 100, and I wasn't even done dripping.

My 100 was 1:15.something, which I think is a personal best, and it felt pretty good. My deckside coaches told me I looked a million times better in the 100 than the 200, until of course it fell apart in the last lap or so, right on schedule. Actually, one of them told me I fell apart on the last lap. Then the other one told me my first half of the race looked great. Then Rich, my coach, congratulated me on my first lap. Fortunately, I ran out of coaches before I ran out of good laps. Also, in general, word was that my body positioning is good -- a huge improvement from my sinking, dragging cyclist's legs as recently as summer.

 My 50 was also a PR, about 33 seconds, but of course in that one my technique was mostly just thrashing. Rich seemed very pleased by that one, mostly that my splits were pretty even. I was surprised to see the improvement in the sprints after stinking up the middle-distance event. And yet to come was the longest one, the event that mattered most to me.

And my 500 saw me come in at 7:50, which was 2 seconds off my best but still disappointing, partly because I was aiming for a 7:45 minimum and a 7:30 as celebration-worthy, but mostly because I finished feeling like I didn't swim hard enough. I can point to a couple of key causes, but they're boring and sound like foolishness or whining or both, so to hell with that. I'll just keep going to more swim meets and see if my typical pattern of stinking up the first race of the season before getting into a groove holds true. At swim practice this morning, Rich said I'm doing a time trial Wednesday. 500 yards. Cool. I've got a score to settle with myself. The groove begins day after tomorrow. Bang.

Side note: My swim-team affiliation, C.A.T.S. (Capital Area Triathlon and Swimming), joined forces this year with the Grand Rapids-area Rays to become the Stray Cats. I didn't have a Stray Cats t-shirt, but between events I wore a fleece from the Humane Society. I hope that was close enough. Thank you very much. I'll be here all week.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Suspense? Oh, THAT suspense.

Tomorrow is my annual butt-kicking at the Masters Swim Meet just up the road in Dewitt. Generally, that meet is a complete no-pressure sort of thing. Suspense? What suspense? I get my butt kicked. I can hold my own in the water against other triathletes, at least on a local or regional age-group level (have I hedged enough yet?), but against people who swim first and foremost, forget about it. Until this year. Now there’s pressure. I've been coached all fall by a guy I've really been happy with. And I should be. If I’ve got my facts right (that’s optional in the blogosphere, right?), he's on the varsity coaching staff for Michigan State University after retiring as head coach at Lansing Community College, where he’s been national coach of the year. He has three sons, all of whom were (I believe) collegiate All-Americans, one of which (I know) is an Olympian, another of whom holds records in Masters Swimming on the national level. He knows swimming. He’s a great guy on top of all that. We click, which is hardly a guarantee with any coach/client combination, and he’s worked very hard with my limited talent. I know I’ve made serious progress in that it’s a whole lot easier to swim the same speed. Tomorrow, we’ll see how well I can suffer and swim faster. I don't want to let him down.

I'll just swim the freestyle events -- any effort at another stroke makes people laugh out loud, really. So, the order is 200 yards, 50, 100 and then 500. I care most about the 500, since there aren’t a whole lot of triathlons where you swim 200 yards or less. My previous best in the 500 is 8 minutes and two seconds. I think I can break 8:00. I already have, during practice. I would love to break 7:30. Mostly, I would like my goggles to stay on when I dive into the water. Pressure. But happy pressure. We'll see how I do.

When I’ve gone under 8 minutes for 500 yards during practice, it was after not having swum 200, 50 and 100 yards flat-out. We’ll see how much of a difference that makes. For the record, and logically, in those events I look like even more of a triathlete who earns most of his goody bag on the bike. My seed times are 2:52 for the 200, 1:17 for the 100, and 35 seconds for the 50.

What’s all that mean? To put my 50 into perspective, at the last meet I raced, Alec Mull – one of said coach’s sons and one of my heroes in this sport – took 10 seconds longer to go twice as far.

To put my 500 into perspective, at that same meet only a few of us did that event. (Seems like more, but that's what's on the results sheet.) One of them finished two minutes faster than me, or, put another way, when I was still only three-quarters of the way done. The other one finished four seconds faster than me, and she was 65. Sure, she skipped the freestyle sprints, but I don't think she was hustling me since she also showed up early and raced the 1000.

So that's what I'm doing tomorrow morning. And that's why I own running shoes and a bike. And a very tiny ego that is nonetheless feeling a little bit of pressure this time.

Catching up on comments

TriGirl Kate O writes that she didn’t have to wait until middle age to live out the happy Saturday morning I had last week: “My uncle was chief of the Dearborn, MI firefighters. Following the remodel of the firehouse, he installed the brass pole in his own house and my cousins and I would have such fun sliding from the second floor to the basement!” Now, that’s cool. Dearborn, huh? I wonder if I’ve raced against Kate. Or if I will. I’m looking forward to meeting in person.

Maybe next weekend! I’ll be signing books at Kinetic Systems in Clarkston Sunday, Dec. 13 at 3 p.m.

VeloBen not only was part of my target audience for this month’s cartoon in VeloNews, he was my quintessential audience. Ben is a cyclist and a librarian. He said more of his fellow cyclists got it than did his fellow librarians. I’d like to assure Ben’s co-workers that I’m equal opportunity. I make all sorts of jokes that nobody gets.

In the education department, David adds to the chorus calling for me to reach for the sky and print up the strip from Brian’s Professor-of-the-year acceptance speech, while Anonymous, a retired teacher with a suddenly lower net worth, thanks me for going after the low-hanging fruit that is Wall Street. I’ll try to do the former, and was happy to do the latter.

Noel writes that I’m not just about gear and races with Frazz’s t-shirts, reminding me that I’ve dressed Frazz in a few shirts promoting non-profits, like his favorite cause, the American Diabetes Association. I also have a tendency to tout some favorite musicians, which I suppose doesn’t stray too far from the non-profit category sometimes.

Jim Smith and Jacob reassure me that sometimes inside jokes are more inclusive than exclusive. Nobody doesn’t get a Frazz joke because they don’t get the t-shirt, but if you put in the miles, or at least look at the right ads in the right magazines, there’s a little extra bonus for you on Frazz’s shirt.

So I’m feeling pretty good right now. Fortunately, we have La Professora to bring me back to Earth. I wrote about La Prof a previous entry, “I think I’d love taking his classes. Wouldn’t be easy. But I tend to screw up the easy stuff anyway." To which La Prof replies: “Like gender?”

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The product-placement edition

First things first: There's another great interview with me out there. This one is on the delightfully named "Steve in a Speedo" blog. Not only is it chock-full of great questions - I'll let you judge the answers - it features a contest. Comment on the interview and/or sign up to follow my Twitter tweets (which, note to self, probably time to start sending out some of those tweets) and you're in the raffle hopper to win a signed copy of Trizophrenia.

Onward from there:

Frazz is a triathlete. Readers of my comic strip know this because - duh - I make triathlon jokes from time to time. Readers who are triathletes, or runners, or swimmers or cyclists themselves, are in tune with a more subtle and yet just as solid clue: Frazz's t-shirts. People who pay good money to get up early, drive somewhere and go race under their own power tend to amass t-shirts like the pizza guy amasses parking tickets. We're unlikely to be seen in a t-shirt that doesn't tout an event or a product. Thus whatever shirt Frazz is wearing under his coveralls is likely to have some kind of logo on it.

What started as mere attention to detail has become a fun sideline for me and a lot of dedicated Frazz fans. Those shirts are a great way to nudge friends, indulge in a lame visual pun, or both. Or neither. Readers love to scratch their heads trying to figure out what shirt is wearing. And, given the fact that there's a certain gap between drawing and publication and a similar chasm between my short-term and long-term memory, I'll confess to occasional puzzlement myself. I'll try and remember some of my recent ones, and then I'll try to use this blog with future t-shirts to confirm your guesses, correct your errors or broadcast my own bad memory.

The series on Gourmet magazine coming a cropper had Frazz wearing - fuzzy enough that I'm probably the only one who knows this - a Zingerman's shirt. Zingerman's is a deli in Ann Arbor that must be visited to be believed. Belief, hell. It simply must be visited. New Yorkers travel to Ann Arbor to visit this deli.

Jane's running jacket says "ARC," which is A Runner's Circle, which is a store in Los Angeles. While my cramps and I were hobbling through the last few miles of Ironman Louisville, I met Derek, one of the owners, who was having similar issues. Instant friends. Sure hope his store is as cool as he is, or I'm going to feel silly. Somehow I'm not worried. Frazz is wearing a vest from Schwab Cycles. I met Bruce not limping in Louisville but riding in Italy, and we've been friends since. And I know for a fact his store rocks.

This features no t-shirt, but it's worth posting because it appeared the same day I got to slide down the fire pole (see previous post). I love it when things just fall into place.

53x11 is a brand of coffee AND a bicycle thing. Double whammy! Cycling and coffee have long been intertwined, and 53x11 (the numbers refer to what's the top gear on most road bikes, meaning the chainring with 53 teeth on it and the rear cog with 11 teeth; trust me, it takes some drumsticks to get that ratio up to speed) continues that tradition in style - they sponsor a strong racing team - and deliciously. Also, they have the good sense to hire a friend of mine to do some very fun illustration work for them.

And I don't know why Frazz is wearing a Speedo shirt in today's. Sometimes you just grab what's in the top of the drawer. Or maybe I had a premonition about Steve-in-a-Speedo's interview.

One last series of notes on Frazz's shirts: Yes, I've met some great people after I've nudged them via shirt. Yes, some of those have developed into lasting friendships. Everybody should have a job as good as mine. Yes, most shirts could be an endorsement of sorts; I likely have used, own, have raced in or would love to have owned or raced in whatever shows up there. No, the absence of a logo is not a condemnation of any given product. It may simply be the wrong shape for the opening in Frazz's coveralls. (For example, my longest-running favorite bike shop is called Assenmacher's. I do occasionally fit it into the strip, but I have to wait until I can put it on a bike jersey or jacket.) And while gifts of art and swag have been known to change hands - that's one thing friends do, after all - I never use the strip to troll for favors. Much to the dismay of my father-in-law, who thinks I ought to dress Frazz in sailboat and sports-car shirts until something works. I mean, I'm no Bill Watterson, but neither am I any given pro golfer.

Also, I'm a lousy driver and a little scared of boats.

Monday, November 30, 2009

The brass pole edition

Two boyhood dreams came true this fall. One was a disappointment. The other was well worth the wait. There’s a third, becoming a writer, that’s mostly just a pain in the butt when it prods you to look for connections and patterns when you should just tell people about something that stands perfectly well on its own.

So I won’t say much about learning to scuba dive after all, other than it costs a whole lot and encourages holding still, the first of which raises the necessary fun threshold to near-impossible levels while the other (for me) lowers the fun potential about as much.

Then there’s the other dream. I’d all but forgotten it. I got to slide down a fire pole this weekend. Admit it, if you were any kind of boy at all, and most kinds of girl, you wanted to slide down a fire pole. I mentioned as much a couple weeks ago, when I spoke at the Lansing Tribute to Veterans. One of the stops on my spring USO trip was an Air Force fire station at Ramstein AFB in Germany, where I got to admire their fire pole and even watch it in use – there was a call for a fuel spill while the other seven cartoonists and I were taking the tour – and even take my favorite photograph, one that shows how fast firemen move and how slow an old-style digital camera’s delay (and a middle-age cartoonist's reaction time) can be.

But I didn’t get to slide down the pole.

Shortly after that speech, a friend and neighbor called to thank me and mention that, gosh, his son is a lieutenant with a nearby fire department and that maybe I might want to be available when he rotated to a shift command at one of the area’s only two-story fire stations, if I could catch his drift. Saturday it came together, on a slow holiday weekend no less, and Patty and I got to tour the station, crawl all over a brand-new million-dollar truck and, yes, slide down the pole as many times as we wanted.

I’d say it was everything I expected as a boy, but I have no realistic memory of what I expected as a boy. I probably expected it would make me feel special, would give me a little bit of a thrill, would have me making multiple repeat trips back up the stairs, and would be just plain fun. Check. I’m sure I couldn’t expect anything like my future wife’s Facebook page or my own blog and the sort of lewd, socially marginal comments about brass poles that the photos would invite.

But if I could, I’d have looked forward to that, too.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


I’ve always been better at dialogues than monologues (and even better at multilogues, if that were a word, which it’s not), which may be one reason my book is a whopping one-third footnotes. (No joke: Velo Press actually had to change the shape of the book to accommodate my digressions. It’s an inch taller than originally planned. We’ll make you skip around on the page, but we didn’t want you having to skip from page to page.) So today, let’s catch up on some comments.

Getting right to the footnotes, in an earlier post I asserted that if my digression-laden writing style invited comparisons between me and David Foster Wallace, those comparisons ended short of the clinical-depression part – or the genius part. Anonymous helpfully adds, “or the being-dead part.” To which I can only add: So far! I probably can’t avoid that part any better than I avoided the being-born part, but I fully aim to continue avoiding the depression part while I’m between the two poles. The genius part, well, I think we’ve established that’s just as far out of reach. Anonymous, by the way, is one of my smarter readers, and I’m happy for him that they finally found his fingers and teeth. I hate when I lose those.


Thomas asks: “I read Sunday's comic about Caulfield visiting the hardware store. I'd like to know if you know a store that actually works in the manual way.” I loved doing that strip, because yes, it’s from my own life. There was a store near my house in Lansing called Dexter Hardware that did business the old-fashioned way, right down to the dust and cobwebs on whatever part of the cash register it is where the math takes place. It was a tiny place, but they never, not once, failed to have what I needed. And they sold me exactly the amount of stuff I did need and then showed me how to use it. If I needed one screw, they sold me one screw, not a shoeboxful. As a result, I would sometimes find myself there having planned on a credit-card purchase but with a bill that wasn’t worth the fees – and me without cash. They always sent me home with my purchase and my word that I’d pay for it the next time I stopped in. That store is empty now. I think it was simply a retirement issue, not competition from the megastores, but I still make a face at the giant warehouse outfits when I drive past, just in case.

Jim Smith thanks me for my work with the USO and for sharing the story about the tough-as-nails corpsman. And then Jim adds that it’s humbling to be thanked, that it was his honor to serve. It sounds preposterous at first, but I’m getting smarter as I get older. I’m still the humbled one – I am not a veteran – but as time goes on, it feels less like a shirked responsibility and more like a missed opportunity. Still, I identify a little too much with a line in the title song of Lyle Lovett’s new album, “Natural Forces:”
And now I sit here safe at home
With a cold Coors Light and the TV on
All the sacrifice and the death and war
Lord I pray that I’m worth fighting for
Paul twists things around the same way Jim did, thanking me when I ought to be thanking him, this time for the book-signing event at Schuler Books. Paul knows a thing or two about art and writing, so his compliments mean a lot. He tells me he shot some video of me speaking and posted it on YouTube, where either I can’t find it or I just got distracted by the Simon’s Cat videos. Like I’m doing now. Man, those are good.

La Professora echoes my gushing over the newly recognized Carnegie Professor of the Year, noting that he enjoyed the same strip Brian cited, cut it out and taped it to his framed strip about Machiavelli. This is why I love my job. If a cubicle wall or refrigerator door is like the Louvre for cartoonists, then professors’ doors and walls are like having your art hanging in the Louvre curator’s living room. Through the anonymity of the Internet and/or my incompetence at working it, I don’t know exactly who La Professora is, only that he is indeed a professor and that he posts some of his assignments online – and that I think I’d love taking his classes. Wouldn’t be easy. But I tend to screw up the easy stuff anyway.

Amanda posted a review of Trizophrenia on her blog, Kick Asphalt, and I still have goosebumps. Wow, was that nice. I’m a happy guy. And a big fan. Now more so of each.

And Patty reminds me that while we inevitably disagree on a few things, we’re in lockstep with our impression of The Corrections: “you're not alone. Your wife also thinks the Franzen novel sucked." Whew. I’m glad Amanda reviewed "Trizophrenia" and Jonathan Franzen didn't.

Have a great Thanksgiving. I believe I’ll take Friday off … back at you Monday.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The early leftovers edition

This weekend, we'll be enjoying Thanksgiving leftovers. I say: Why wait? I'm still enjoying leftovers from last Thursday, and I'm happy to share them with you now.

The aperitif:

I mightily appreciated all the comments about last week's dietary triumph and Trizophrenia book-release party. You'd think it couldn't get any better than that, although, wait a couple paragraphs. But Mollie gets special recognition for continuing the food theme (while being less gratuitous than I was when initiating it) with her "… you're like Sara Lee; nobody doesn't like Jef Mallett." Well done, Mollie. You, uh, take the cake.

The main course:
If there's anything more gratifying than having a night like I had at Thursday's book signing, it's knowing that a friend is having an even better night. It's hard to picture, but I think Brian Coppola pulled it off. And if there's anything better yet, it's knowing that you got to play a part in both.

Brian teaches organic chemistry at the University of Michigan. He does this very well, so well that the Carnegie Foundation named him Professor of the Year in the Doctoral and Research Universities division. Organic chemistry has a not entirely unearned reputation as the ultimate inflexible, unfun, black-and-white, endure-or-die crucible. Brian serves it spiked with imagination, wonder, thoughtfulness and even enjoyment. At the same time, he doesn't pander to his students. It's harder his way; it hurts. It needs to; there are no breakthroughs without suffering. Brian has long been adept at walking that line between inviting wonder and enforcing rigor - the Carnegie Foundation is hardly the first institution to recognize him for such - but his field is about explaining phenomena as much as creating it, and that part he struggled with. He found his solution - though I would claim catalyst at the very best - in a certain comic strip. He told me this directly, and he told the world, essentially, in his acceptance speech Thursday. You need to read it, and you can here. Assuming his lectures are anything like his remarks, I hope the awards committee for his division met on a nice day. Because I have to believe this year's decision was easy enough to adjourn early.

Bravo, Brian. I'm humbled.


Back at the Trizophrenia party at Schuler Books, while Chef Marc was treating my readers like royalty, he was treating my wife Patty like a goddess. He had brought a special and memorable treat he'd introduced her to when he was pastry chef at a Birmingham, Mich. restaurant called Toast: an impossibly rich version of the Hostess Ding Dong. Marc told us how rich, and I'm going to tell you. But I'm going to take a page out of Brian Coppola's notebook and use real-world, tangible data that's far more vivid than mere numbers:

Yesterday I went for a 12-mile run. Had I fueled solely by a single one of Marc's gourmet Ding Dongs, I'd have finished that run with three and a half miles worth of calories still in the tank.

That's rich. But no richer than my week. Which was, unlike the Ding Dong, cholesterol-free. Good thing, or I'd be back at square one on that game board.

Friday, November 20, 2009

More Songs About Book-Signings and Food

So let’s review this Very Good Day in 2-part, chronological order.

Part 1: The cholesterol.

The blood was drawn, the results were in, the time was up. I went into my doctor’s office yesterday morning to review my lipid profile, and then I went home. Straight home. No stopping at the pharmacy to begin a lifetime sentence of expensive drugs that would predispose me to certain kinds of tissue damage -- or arguments about the power of drugs vs. the power of an elevated level of activity and fitness that's difficult to maintain when you can pull or tear a muscle doing what you used to call warming up.

I had dropped my total cholesterol by almost a quarter, from 239 to 184. Triglycerides and risk ratios dropped as well. Every single category is now well within the safe range. My doctor was astonished: “I’ve never seen anything like this before.”

Even better is that I did it entirely by changing my diet. (Well, almost entirely. Fully entirely if you consider psyllium, i.e. Metamucil, a food group.) Such an approach had what you'd call side effects if they were less desirable. My weight dropped without my muscle mass dropping, which means my body-fat percentage went down. And I feel much better in general, and I run and bike faster (I would probably swim a little worse, with the lost buoyancy, if not for the swim coach and program that coincided almost exactly with the new diet). All this without any fancy program, or diet pill, or, really, even professional advice. I just quit eating some foods that were largely unhealthy and nearly completely optional. I also reduced my overall intake, which is logically easy when you consider that most of the foods I quit cold-turkey are foods that fall under the category of "convenient." And when the diet began just after Ironman Louisville.

But easy doesn't necessarily mean pleasant, and the fact is there are times when I miss my cheese, my butter, my Oreos (not that I ever buttered my Oreos, but only because it didn't occur to me until just now). So in a weird way, I'm almost grateful for the cholesterol diagnosis. Clearly, I had weight to lose but didn't know it. Clearly, I could feel better but didn't know it. Clearly, I could run faster but didn't believe it. Now I know. But knowing it and maintaining the willpower are two different things sometimes. It's easy to think that an El Azteco pig-out this evening can be corrected in time for a race six months from now. But now it's also easy to believe that that same, isolated meal will set off some kind of alarm at the pharmacy that I've violated my cholesterol probation and I'll be shackled to Crestor without a trial. That's equally illogical, but it might just be the external motivation I need when the internal motivation wavers.

Part 2: The book-release party

Mega thanks to everyone who came out to the Trizophrenia book-release party and signing at Schuler Books. You guys took care of the party while I signed and signed. I don’t know exact numbers, but I know standing room only when I see it, and I have to say I love how it looks. The store’s event coordinator told Patty it was a bigger crowd than a recent book-signing with my hero Elmore Leonard, and bigger than the crowd for the event going on simultaneously at their partner store across town with best-selling (and also awesome) writer Anthony Horowitz. The store closed at 9:30, but I didn’t get the last book signed until after 11:00. Incredible. Touching, really.

The odd thing is, among all the wonderful emotions, I felt guilty. A lot of friends – proving what good friends they are – interrupted their lives and traveled, quite a ways in a lot of cases, to the party. And I got to spend very little, and in a lot of cases, no time with them. But that’s because they know they can find me any time and I’ll happily sign their books without making them stand in a slow-moving line that snakes back past Science Fiction. And even better, they still stuck around after they bailed out of the line. Part of that was because Marc Barringer, my friend and fellow racer who also happens to be a preternaturally talented chef, had catered the event and given everyone a spread worth sitting through anything. And part of it was because, however it happened, I’ve got really cool friends, and they seemed to enjoy talking to each other every bit as much as talking to me. Which is perfect. The best parties are the ones where the host could disappear and no one would know. Sort of like I did.

That was a nice day. In two parts. If we’ve learned anything from either, it’s not to underestimate the power of food.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Forgetfulness is bliss

Fifteen years ago (!), there was a line in a movie about life being “like a box of chocolates.” Because you never know what you’re gonna get.”

And how. Who knew that Forrest Gump was gonna get that year’s Oscar for Best Picture over Pulp Fiction and, for God’s sake, The Shawshank Redemption? That Tom Hanks was gonna get Best Actor in the title role over John Travolta and Morgan Freeman in those other two films, and Paul Newman in Nobody’s Fool? That Tom Hanks would not win Most Hamfisted Mentally Handicapped Person’s Accent Since The Guy Who Does The Menard’s Commercials? (And the fact that such an award, and probably Menard’s itself, didn’t exist then is no excuse.) Or that Forrest Gump won Best Adapted Screenplay over the aforementioned Nobody’s Fool, an adaptation of what is easily one of the truly great American novels?

For that matter, somebody didn’t know what they had in their hands when they didn’t give Richard Russo the Pulitzer Prize for Nobody’s Fool after he wrote it in 1993, though to their credit they gave it to him in 2003 for Empire Falls, which is still a giant of a book but certainly no Nobody’s Fool.

But Forrest Gump did give us one of the most over-used painfully obvious aphorisms since “candy is dandy but liquor is quicker.” As with a lot of theorems, the real truth is in the axioms. Here’s mine:

“You never know what you’re gonna forget.”

Not that forgetting is a bad thing. An entire cheap-liquor industry is based on the desire. This morning, I managed to achieve blissful forgetfulness without a single drop of George Dickel; just travel, unsympathetic deadlines and sleep deprivation (cue that Dorothy Parker line back up). I stumbled into swim practice having, at some point since Monday, become newly and completely unaware we were scheduled for a lactate-threshold workout. The details are unimportant; it’s just as unpleasant as it sounds. A lactate-threshold set is about as pleasant as, even if a good deal shorter than, Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, which I’m happy to say was hip-checked off the Pulitzer podium by Empire Falls, so at least that turns out okay. (note: I seem to be alone in my distaste for Franzen's masterpiece.)

Anyway, I’m glad I didn’t have to spend my drive to the pool worrying about a lactate-threshold workout.
Sometimes ignorance really is bliss. No wonder I’m such a happy guy.

Don’t forget tomorrow evening’s Trizophrenia book-release party at Schuler Books and Music in Lansing. I know I won’t. Not before, and not after.

Angels in the cornfield

Monday’s entry, “The Good, the Bad and the Sticky,” generated a lot of interest within the comments section, and via my e-mail, and scattered throughout most of my conscious moments since. Rick is doing well – let’s get that said right away.

A few people close to Rick have been accusing Jim and me of being, to use their words, angels. Rick’s wife, Jeanie, serves up in her blog, The Marmalade Gypsy, an argument so well written that I’d be half inclined to believe it if I didn’t know myself better. But I have to admit there are similarities. She posts photos of stone statues of angels, and then a couple photos of me, and we have pretty close to the same amount of hair.

Seriously, it’s all very much appreciated, and if I’m any kind of an angel, I’m just one of however many it is that were dancing around on that particular pinhead (which, between professional rescue personnel and good Samaritans, was a lot, bringing us closer to finally answering that old puzzle). I feel overwhelmed by Rick’s loved ones’ kindness. Which gives you a little insight into Rick’s desire to keep breathing during those nasty initial moments.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The good, the bad and the sticky

Jim and Rick and I were flying along on our bikes, the wind at our backs, the road straight and flat and empty, wide open before us like some kind of Irish cyclist's blessing. We were making the most of one of those irrationally nice November days you know could be your last good ride of the year when Rick glanced off a chunk of dried horseshit, lost his handlebars, lost his balance and sealed the deal.

It was bad. Jim and I both knew it before we could turn and see it. Too much silence after the impact. Rick was a rag doll. The first sounds were small comfort: gurgling, a serious fight to breathe through a compromised airway. Rick would finish his ride in an ambulance and his weekend in neurological ICU, and we'd honestly be relieved he made it there.

Rick is a very good cyclist. All three of us were. Nobody screwed up. It was bad luck, that's all. But it wasn't all bad luck. Help arrived practically as soon as I called, a swiftness as freakish as it was fortuitous. We were a quarter mile from the corner of nothing and nowhere. I'd learn later, while picking up Rick's bike at the township hall and fire station, that the rescue crew and ambulance had been on a training exercise only a couple such intersections away.

When I finally looked at my own bike, I noticed that one of the three bottles I'd had mounted on it was missing. Huh. I wasn't the one who crashed; there's no reason I should have lost a bottle. Except … of course. We had a lot of generous and competent help from passersby even before the ambulance arrived. There was a lot of blood. No doubt someone had taken a bottle from its cage to flush out some of Rick's wounds. There was an exactly 33.3 percent chance they'd grab the bottle filled with water instead of a sticky, mildly acidic sports drink. Rag doll Rick got lucky again.

The story ends well. No broken bones. No brain injury. No deep regrets to look back on, and a few good habits reinforced.

I would never ride without a helmet. I'm not an idiot. But I am dumb enough that I used to carry my cell phone grudgingly, graduating only to inconsistently; I'll now carry it religiously and gladly. I could be prone in the past to forget to carry identification; much less so now.

Replacing all my opaque bottles with clear ones might be overkill. But I won't say it didn't cross my mind.

Friday, November 13, 2009

The heads-up edition


Today's Frazz isn't much of a lead-in to today's topic, but I'm going to force it anyway. It's about marathons and walking funny. And maybe about what you can see and what you can infer, or at least a chance to talk about how drawing cartoons is even more fun when you make it harder than it needs to be. Drawing Frazz trying to dig his britches out of his nethers: Funny. Drawing it convincingly from only the shoulders up, if you do it right: Funnier. What you don't see is what you get. It's like the Blair Witch Project, only with chafing.

Life has been a marathon for me for the past few years, indeed. Although, with a few exceptions, it's been a marathon of the metaphorical variety, so I don't walk funny. But like Frazz up there in today's comic, I'm guessing you don't have to see everything to get it. That old like about a duck paddling furiously below the surface while looking calm and still above the waterline isn't me. No mystery man here. Look at the smallest segment of my life and you've got the whole picture. What you won't see is me complaining. Well, not legitimately or convincingly. Most of the stress is the kind of stress I spent a lot of years wishing for. Two noteworthy examples are coming up this week:

Tuesday (Nov. 17), I'll return to the Bob and Tom Show, a syndicated morning radio show -- no, make that THE syndicated morning radio show -- famous for its boob jokes but known for its underlying intelligence, though you won't get any of them to admit it. Check local listings; the show runs 6 a.m. to 10, though guests don't typically come on until 7. I suspect they'll keep us on as long as we're interesting, which, the three previous times I've been in the studio, has been for the duration. Now, I said "we." I'll be on the show with good friend and superior cartoonist Dave Coverly, of Speed Bump fame. Dave and I both illustrated CD covers for The Show this fall. He designed their commercially available release, "Dead Air," while I did the one that goes to overseas troops via the USO, titled "Radio Waves" (apparently still not released so you can look at the cover I did for last year's "Welcome to the USA").I think this means when we stop for gas on the way down, Dave buys the coffee.

Two days later and a few hours closer to home is the book-release party for Trizophrenia! That's Thursday the 19th, at Schuler Books and Music in Lansing at 7 p.m. Come on out -- this is going to be fun. And not because of me, but because, whatever talents I may or may not have in whatever amounts, my favorite one is my ability to somehow attract the smartest, most interesting friends this side of the Round Table at the Algonquin and that side of the Ironman World Championships. One of those friends put out every bit as good an invitation as I can, plus her blog, Kick Asphalt, is well worth checking out, so here you go. In addition to all those good people and interesting books, we're looking as having some great food there as well. Watch what I eat and see if you can guess how my cholesterol-report doctor's appointment went that morning.

Speaking of that cholesterol, reader la Professora tips me off that "My father had to have annual physicals for his pilot's license. For a month before, he'd take a kelp extract to keep his cholesterol numbers down to the FAA approved levels." Hey, I'm a lapsed pilot; maybe I should try it if I bomb this blood test and can beg m way into another one. Much appreciated, La Professora.

And David asks what kind of secret diet I'm on that has me dropping 10 pounds after registering a low body-fat number at Ironman Louisville. The open secret is that I just quit eating crap. No junk food. No cheese. Easy on the dairy and meat. When you start out with bad habits, it's easy to improve, and my habits were worse than I thought. The super-secret secret is that I wouldn't be surprised if I registered a falsely low reading in Louisville anyway. They weighed you at sign-in so they'd have a baseline if you showed up in the medical tent dehydrated. They measured your body fat because, I suspect, the big sponsor who made the scales makes a model that measures body fat. And it does so buy running an electric current through you, electricity running one speed through fat and another through muscle and bone and, in the case of some of those guys, steel. It goes from foot to foot and takes, as electricity is wont to do, the shortest path, up one leg and down the other. And my legs are the leanest parts I've got. (See "long torso," in the above comic strip.) So who knows? (And, now that I review all that, who cares?) No, the big thing is, I just quit eating junk. Sure wish it had been something else sometimes ...

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The 6 percent solution


Now we’re coming up on crunch time. No, I don’t have a big race coming up. It’s something bigger. I have a blood test.

Stop. Wait. There are blood tests for some pretty dire and scary things out there, and this isn’t one of those. But it’s big enough.

Back in August, I had my annual physical (for the second time since I turned 40; no one ever said cartoonists and writers were too good at math). I scheduled it for a week before Ironman Louisville, thinking I was smart. I mean, you don’t want to embarrass yourself at your physical. (Actually, it was profoundly stupid, since the last thing you want is to get sick just before the big race, and in terms of germ habitat, doctor’s office lobbies rank third, behind only kindergartens and Howard Hughes’ imagination.)

Anyway, I was healthy enough except for one thing: I was 6 percent body fat, and apparently all of it was in my bloodstream. My cholesterol levels had reached a crisis point. It was time to go on statins, cholesterol drugs. Now, make no mistake, I’m happy we have drugs. I just don’t want to use them. Especially drugs that list muscle weakness among their side effects. I’m still using mine. So I cut a deal with my doctor to give me three months to make whatever tweaks remained available to make with my diet.

Surprise! Upon closer inspection, it turns out I’d been eating a lot worse than I thought. I had visions of going to a dietician for some highly expert and expensive modifications, but the difference between what I’d been doing and the basic Michael Pollan mantra (1. Eat food; 2. Not too much; 3. Mostly plants) was good for a seismic enough shift on its own.

What I can see so far is good. I’ve lost 8 or 10 pounds from my Ironman weight. I go faster easier without that extra weight. (Der.) And I feel terrific. And while I’d much rather look better, go faster and feel terrific without giving up cheese, freezing in the pool and having to go shopping for smaller pants, it all has to be taken as good news. But that’s all relatively superficial stuff. The linchpin of the whole thing is about to come down. Blood draw Friday, office visit and results next Thursday. It’s my new priority-A race for the year. Let’s hope I make the podium this time.

Comments and conversation

Reed points out that Jimmy was incorrect with his assertion that Chuck Klosterman may have me shot for threatening his world record for gratuitious footnotes. He says David Foster Wallace has retired that trophy, and I’m inclined to agree. I like to say I’m just like David Foster Wallace, only without the clinical depression. Or the genius. (Note: If you read nothing else this week, read the interview I linked you to. It's a great interview of a great mind.)

As it happens, this isn’t the first time Reed and Jimmy have crossed paths. Reed is my editor at United Feature Syndicate; Jimmy is Jimmy Doom, lead singer of the seminal Detroit punk band The Almighty Lumberjacks of Death. I recently drew Jimmy into a Sunday Frazz strip, which of course was then handled by Reed. That’s my purpose in life: To bring cool people together.

Scott asks: “Given all that you do (triathlon training, writing Frazz, eating, sleeping) and that there are only 24 hours in a day, how do you manage it all? Any tips for the rest of us?” Now it’s Scott’s turn to be incorrect. He probably shouldn’t have put “sleeping” on the list. I don’t do enough of that, which is even dumber than sitting in a doctor’s waiting room a week and a half before an Ironman. I’m not proud of this and I’m not endorsing it as any kind of solution. It’s my own deal with the devil, and as soon as I can weasel out of it, I will. The more flattering answer is that you adapt to your conditions, and if you give yourself abusive conditions, you adapt to that. If you leave yourself time to waste, you learn to waste time. The axiom has to be reversible. Plus, you’re more efficient when you’re fitter, and wider awake when you’ve been active. Until you pass out.

But mostly, I … uh … I don’t really manage it all. I’m constantly off the back, in the weeds, deficit spending. But, hey. That’s the new economy.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Jef Mallett is good for the Jews

Trizophrenia: Inside the Minds of a Triathlete has been out long enough now that people are actually getting beyond Peter’s foreword. And while I’m glad they’ve enjoyed the foreword, I already knew Peter was terrific. I was a little more nervous about my own stuff. People seem to be liking it, though, which is gratifying news right there. But the even better news is that I somehow ended up with such smart readers and friends, and their feedback is just plain fun to read.

I’m intensely uncomfortable with the whole self-congratulation thing (also, I invariably leave someone out who deserves to be mentioned), but I’ll share some of it with you anyway.

Bill writes, on, “…pure Mallett. It's fantastically funny, brilliant, observant and entertaining, even if it is about triathlons. Plus, it's filled with lots of hilarious cartoons by one of the most talented and meticulous artists in cartooning today. That would be Jef as well. Get it.”

A different Bill has a reading protocol we can all learn from: “… of course, my first read employed the same technique I use to tackle the New Yorker: I look at the cartoons first. Love your illustrations. Now, on to the text.”

From my coach, a truly elite athlete who has the chops and experience to call me out if I got any of it wrong: “WOW!!!!!!!!!!!!!!  I just love it.  As I was reading through it, I kept telling myself...."Yup, I've done that"..."Yup, I felt that way too"......and....."Yup, that's exactly what happens!" Your illustrations are classic too.  You bring a whole new, comical, dimension to a sport that so many of us "stone-faced" triathletes take so seriously.  Interesting style, too, with the added footnotes.  Footnotes bring perspective and deeper understanding to the quirky world of triathlon.”

Mollie, on whythissiteisdifferent, maybe leaves some context to be found – and it's findable, right there on her blog – but I like it strictly on its own merits: “Jef Mallett is good for the Jews. Return the favor by reading his new book, “Trizophrenia.”  It’s a mechiah!”

And not to prioritize, but anyone who wants to top Jimmy’s phrasing has their work cut out for them: “Beyond the evangelical and motivational nature, the wide array of references and metaphors are mind-warping and never dry even while I'm learning something I thought I had only fleeting interest in. If it was a sex manual, you'd be drawing Frazz in limos and airplanes from talk show to talk show. At the very least, I hope it makes you a rock star on the triathlon circuit before Chuck Klosterman has you assassinated for shattering his Guinness World Record for footnotes. I am now going back to my comfy place and finishing the book.”

There’s more, lots more. But I’m starting to feel self-conscious, we’ve all got work to do, and I wasn’t bright enough to start a file of all these and have run out of time to go hunting them all down.

I hope you get a chance to read the book, whether you buy a copy or read it over Bill or Jimmy’s shoulder. But don’t get it because I’ve guilted you into it. Read it because it’s good for the Jews.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Thank a veteran

Tomorrow I'm speaking at a Veterans Day Tribute here in Lansing. My friend and superior cartoonist, Dave Coverly of Speed Bump fame, will team up with me to be the keynote speakers. This sounds odd, because neither Dave nor I are veterans of any military service, let alone combat. But last April, he and I joined six other cartoonists on a USO tour that visited military hospitals in Washington DC, Bethesda and Landstuhl, Germany. It was an eye-opener. Not that we went into it blind, but you really can't be prepared. It's like seeing the giant redwoods in California for the first time. You think you've studied up on it, but until you see it in person, you have no idea. The trees are so big. The soldiers are so impressive.

I can't send the audience there, but maybe I can help them study up a little more. When I got back, the Lansing newspaper City Pulse interviewed me and did an incredible story about the trip. The reporter, Bill Castanier, asked for a quick description of a memorable moment. I must have written about the right one, because it still gives me goosebumps when I read it back. I'll read it tomorrow. You can read it now.

One more note first, though: Whenever you get a chance, thank a veteran. It's impossible to do too much, or to do wrong. I'll confess I feel awkward every time I do, given that I'm a perfectly able-bodied and able-minded American who's enjoying the benefits of their military service while having provided none of my own. But none of them seems to hold it against me. Indeed, they act like the humbled ones. And we both go on our way feeling a whole lot of good. Any veterans reading? Thank you for your service.

Here's one little piece of why:

This Navy corpsman was third man in, with two Marines clearing an abandoned house when a booby-trapped refrigerator blew up and cut them down. He couldn't get to his feet, didn't even have both of them anymore. So he dragged himself to the squad leader and applied a tourniquet to what was left of the sergeant's leg, then gave him orders: I'm going to save the other guy; I need you to keep yelling "I will not die" at the top of your lungs.

As long as he could hear his leader screaming, he knew he was clear to attend to his other squad member. Same tourniquet application, same orders to scream. He dragged himself back and forth between the two men several times before he took the time to put a tourniquet on his own leg. He remembers cutting open his squad leader's pantleg and watching a shin roll away like a fireplace log, neatly sheared off at the knee and ankle. He remembers being a little surprised at the trail of blood-mud that described his path between the two men. He remembers, just before passing out as he was being hoisted onto the medevac, being able to see the sun shine clearly between two perfectly cauterized holes through his foot. Had he had a better angle, he could have seen the sun shining through most of his lower leg that way.

A year later, just about all of it spent in the same room on the same floor at Walter Reed, he was showing a bunch of slackjawed cartoonists the scars on that leg. The other leg was gone, and this one was still touch and go. Somebody called him a hero, but he snorted. He just did his job, that's all. Give the Navy credit for training him so well, he said. But he did allow that he was up for a Silver Star for valor. Someone else snorted. What does it take to get a gold one, for crying out loud?

Stay dead, he said. He had died, for two minutes, but his timing was good. His heart stopped while surgeons were already inside his torso clearing out shrapnel, so it was an easy reach to massage the heart back to silver-star status.

So, what was next? This guy seemed capable of anything except what he wanted, which was to return to the fighting and save more Marines. But he would get his nursing degree and return to that same floor at Walter Reed. Nobody knew the floor better than him. Nobody knew what the patients had been through better than he did. Nobody, but nobody, was going to tell him no.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Another great interview, and getting back to Uncle Fester

I could take a few lessons from ShirleyPerly and her blog The Humble Triathlete. She just posted an excellent interview with me. It’s well worth checking out. I sure enjoyed the interview. She’s interesting and fun and asks great questions. And you’ve still got time to post a comment and be eligible for a free copy of Trizophrenia. Because this particular blog entry is titled – and now we’re getting to the part where I can take a few lessons from her – “Creator of Frazz Giveaway.”

I could use such a lesson, and maybe eventually I’ll remember to write the header after I write the blog entry. I’m easily distracted, and this past Friday I wrote the title “Uncle Fester Runs a Marathon” and then spent a little too much time on Catch-22 and decided I wasn’t going to be able to share my race photos without going on longer than a blog ought to (another thing I have trouble with). So back to Uncle Fester.

I mentioned I don’t photograph well when I’m running. See for yourself. Link here to my Grand Rapids Marathon photos from Action Sports Images. These not only continue the trend, they may retire the trophy. For even more fun, compare them to the relative supermodels in the photos from the finish of the New York Marathon. I don’t know what it is, but it’s always this way. Action Sports Images is blameless. Given that I signed up for the race spontaneously, and with supremely casual run training in the six weeks since racing Ironman Louisville, I was asking for disaster well beyond bad photos. Here is a glimpse of how my mind was working less than two weeks before the race. Be warned, it’s no prettier than my photos:

1) I'll be speaking on Saturday at a book event in Grand Rapids
2) Patty and her sister and mother are attending a concert in GR Saturday evening, so we're staying overnight.
3) Oh, hey, my friends Brian and Jenna are racing the GR half-marathon on Sunday.
4) Maybe I should race it, too.
5) Sheesh! The entry fee is $93 at this point. Forget it.
6) Oh, look, it's only another $11 to enter the full marathon
7) ...

It turned out better than I deserved. I finished safely within that vast range between impressive and embarrassing. I felt good throughout the race except in the final mile and a half, and even then I felt what seemed to be the right level of bad. My first- and second-half splits were dead even, which is incredibly promising. And the 3:43 I posted is only 13 minutes off a qualifying time for the Boston Marathon, which I know I can find if I take drastic measures like, you know, actually training. So now I’m looking at a Michigan winter of serious run training for another attempt in the spring. Maybe I half knew that during the race. That might explain the photos.

And keeping up my end of the conversations with those who were lucky enough to get through whatever wall GoogleBlog or whatever is putting up:

Mollie makes fun of my photo, specifically the wheel I’m using as a prop: “… you’ll rack up more miles if you sit on the seat of the bike instead of leaning against the wheel.” A good point. That photo is on the “about the author” page of Trizophrenia, too, and has prompted the question of how much Zipp paid me to lean on their wheel. Put it this way: They’re willing to double it in my next book. Or triple it. Same difference. I just like the wheels, and it beat putting on a wetsuit for the photo shoot.

Ellen celebrates her first triumph in guessing Caulfield’s Halloween book, and her first time carving pumpkins without a local newspaper handy. “I can read the important parts (Frazz and very little else) online, but nothing beats a newspaper for catching the pumpkin carving mess,” she writes. I appreciate her priorities, and I miss my daily newspapers, too. And I’ll be on the lookout for tips on how to get pumpkin guts out of your laptop computer.

Finally, Steve finds he has to correct me again. Not only do I not know my algorithm from my logarithm, I called him an actuary when he is, in fact, a computer programmer. I fault my mnemonic skills – they both rhyme with “herd.” Yow. Did I make that joke? Lucky for me, Steve is cool enough to prove it inaccurate, and even better, cool enough to forgive me even if it were true.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Questions and answers and hotties and algorithms

I get more interesting when other people ask the questions, especially when a reporter like Herbert Krabel is asking them on behalf of, one (I have to be conservative with my superlatives, if that’s grammatically possible) of the original, and one of the very best, sources of triathlon information and journalism. Check out his interview with me, posted this past Friday. We talk about my book Trizophrenia plenty, so I can shamelessly link to that, too, but we covered a little of my history and personality and motivations. It's good stuff. Bonus: On Slowtwitch’s home page today, my photo ends up directly below a photo of triathlete Desiree Ficker en route to her 10th-place finish in yesterday’s New York Marathon. Media-wise, this is the closest I’ve gotten to a known hottie since the liner notes of Fountains of Wayne’s 2005 release “Out of State Plates,” when Frazz’s picture showed up just below the Playboy Magazine cover with Rachel Hunter.

If you’ve still got time after that, I’ll clear up a few odds and ends.

I’m not sure why this is – I’m not the most fluent computer guy, and I’m new to this blog-site business – but a lot of people , including but not limited to Mollie, Anonymous, my wife Patty and yet another Anonymous, were not having any luck posting comments. Mollie finally found a work-around, Anonymous and Anonymous went back to their busy weekend duties making faces and scaring people, and Patty just took it up with me directly. I’m currently addressing the problem by wishing really hard that it will go away and that you'll be patient and keep trying.

Speaking of Anonymous, my triathlete- and actuary- and generally more competent friend Steve went straight to e-mail and corrected me in that the proper term for the mathematical programming thingamadoo I’m trying to scam with my links to who I suspect the anonymi really are is algorithm, not logarithm. Much appreciated, Steve. I’m of North Atlantic heritage and very pale. If certain rude racial stereotypes hold any validity, I’m lucky to have any rithm at all.

Saturday I ran the Booathlon Duathlon in nearby Potterville, a town that’s just about the size its name suggests. I did the 5K run – 10 mile bike – 5K run with my friend Fran. Fran is blind, so we did it with the use of a tether and a tandem. It was a great match. She ended up Women’s Masters Champion, and I got to spend 10 kilometers racing right next to someone who still has no idea how bad I look when I run. Hold tight, folks, and hope for a boring couple of days. If nothing more urgent comes up, I’ll post the link to my Grand Rapids Marathon Uncle Fester photos Wednesday while Halloween is still top of mind, while there’s still uneaten candy. And odds are we know just what kind of candy it is:

Friday, October 30, 2009

Uncle Fester runs a marathon

And so we finish off Halloween week in Frazz -- hopefully as a lot of people run out to the bookstore or library and begin reading Catch-22. Today's Frazz trivia, or arcana or whatever, deals with his shirt. Frazz's shirts often add an extra twist because they'll feature the logo or name of some race or event somewhere, or the manufacturer of some kind of gear that I like (or that somehow meshes with the theme of the strip, however slightly, or that somehow did their logo in a shape that lends itself to showing up between the lapels of a janitor's coveralls) or a musician I'm enjoying, or whatever. Today, though, Frazz is in costume for Halloween, and he's wearing a clerical collar. That's in honor of the chaplain in Catch-22. True, the chaplain is an Anabaptist, whose clergy may or may not wear that kind of shirt, but whatever hell I catch for that will seem pretty mild compared to the Auto De Fe invitations I received from a few angry Catholics after a strip I drew a couple of Sundays ago about Galileo and leisurely apologies. Oops. Didn't mean to offend. I should apologize now, before some nerd does a strip about me in another 400 years. I probably won't have as many fans around to defend me.

In less controversial correspondence, Chas asks why Frazz strips are showing up truncated at the top of the blog page. That would be because somehow the strips don't fit into the way I've got the page laid out, and the format just chops them off instead of resizing them. Until I get this figured out and fixed, you can click on a strip and see the whole thing.

Reed writes in to say that my earlier comment in The Peter Principle, Oct. 29, regarding Peter Sagal's and my inability to nail down modeling contracts while running, is dead on. At least about me. I'm not sure if he's seen Peter run or not, though he might Sunday, since the New York Marathon passes not too far from his home. Reed, I'll interrupt myself to say, is my editor at United Media, which is to say Frazz Central. It's his job to make sure my strips get where they're going on time (no small feat with me these days), with no errors, and offensive to as few Catholics and Anabaptists as possible. Let me say right here that Reed is to editing what Rich is to swim coaching. And that Reed's comics eye and his running-photo eye are equally keen. I'll show you those photos later when I write about my Grand Rapids Marathon adventure. You'll see enough scary images Halloween weekend anyway.

And speaking of my swim coach, "Anonymous" asks if Rich has a Web site. He does not. I've seen him and his sons swim, though, and I wouldn't be surprised if they all have webbed fingers and toes, if that counts. And who is "Anonymous" today? Why, it's none other than the director of one of Rich's favorite movies. Which Rich was honoring today by wearing a Humboldt Water Dogs sweatshirt, which is still a good 7 hours from Salinas, but they look close enough together from Michigan.