Friday, July 30, 2010

Geez, it's been 20 years since 10 years got behind me

Aging is a disconcerting thing, I'm told. I agree, because it's one more damn thing to illustrate how bad I am at math.

When I was in my early 20s, I subscribed to Rolling Stone magazine, which had a feature in the back listing music that was popular 10 years prior. Those songs and albums were ancient. Sure, I liked some of them, but in a distant, oldies sort of way. Then they started listing ones that I had rushed out to purchase when they were brand new.

One of them was Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon." That remains one of my favorite albums, and it includes "Time," one of my favorite songs, and one line from "Time" remains one of my favorite guideposts:

"… and then one day you find
Ten years have got behind you
No one told you when to run
You missed the starting gun"

When I first heard that, I thought it was as preposterous as it was profound. Ten years? No way could that amount of time just get behind you. Reading that those thoughts were suddenly, exactly, 10 years old rattled me.

I guess it didn't rattle me too much, though. Seven years later, Iggy Pop released "Brick by Brick," with a song called "Candy" about a long-lost love. How long lost? One of the first lines goes, "Geez, it's been 20 years," and there I was again, confident that I'd never see that kind of time slip between the cracks.

Tomorrow I'll go to my high school class' 30-year reunion. Now, though, thirty years sounds accurate, and more to the point, it sounds just about right. Apparently I'm over the whole bad-math issue. Or not. When I was busy not believing in time passing by in 10- and 20-year chunks, time meant deterioration. Going back to Pink Floyd, each day was supposed to put me "shorter of breath and one day closer to death."

Okay, Pink Floyd is great, but that song turns out to be a lot of crap. For one thing, death is not a scheduled event. We don't know when it's coming. The best we can do is study large groups and make actuarial tables for it, and as we've established, I'm terrible with math, so the hell with actuarial tables. For another, I'm hardly shorter of breath, literally or figuratively. I'm still pretty quick on a bicycle, I run a little faster, and I swim, uh, at all. I weigh the same. I still draw silly pictures, but they're a lot better now and I get paid a living wage for them. I still don't date teen-age girls, but now it's because I'm a happily married non-pedophile, not because I'm pathologically shy. I still don't drink Budweiser, not because I'm underage but because there's no point when there's perfectly good stout, porter and ale out there. My funny hair has merely been replaced by a funny tan line.

Satchel Paige famously warned not to look back because something might be gaining on you. I took his advice but not his point. I've never been much for looking back, but because I was always afraid there'd be nothing there at all. Or at least that the future was much more interesting.

Talk about crap. They're both full and they're both interesting. In fact, the future and the past are pretty close to the same thing, except when you try to change the one it's called "ambition" and when you try to change the other it's called "lying."

When you try to change them both it's called "writing."

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

KOM, meet MOM

The Tour de France wrapped up Sunday. Anthony Charteau's Tour de France essentially wrapped up Thursday. He was there to win the King of the Mountains jersey, and they were headed for the flats. All he had to do was finish.

My parents' tour wrapped up Friday. They finished the Michigander, one week and about 275 miles of riding in the hills of northern Michigan. They do have some hills up there. My folks made every mile, every foot of elevation, under their own power. In my mind, they, too, can wear Charteau's polka-dot jersey. Also the yellow jersey for the overall winner and the green points jersey. The only one that's open to question is the white jersey, the one awarded to the best young rider. My mom and dad are 73 and 74 years old, not that it matters. It doesn't matter to them.

Actually, it does matter to them in a way. It was when my mom hit 70 that she decided to make it an exciting decade. She promised herself to do one thing every year that she hadn't done before, and if it was something no one expected a 70-something lady with high blood pressure and porous bones to do, so much the better. It began when she went to Battle Creek to watch her son and daughter and son-in-law and granddaughter racing the Shermanator triathlon. Turned out there was an option to just enter the 5K run/walk portion, and she did, on the spot, pushing her 2-year-old twin grandkids over the mostly gravel, hilly course while the triathletes showered her with compliments, back pats, fist pumps and no small amount of second-hand sweat.

The next year she went parasailing over Mackinac Island on the same trip we all celebrated my parents' 50th wedding anniversary. Last year, she knocked off Lansing's Hawk Island Tri sprint triathlon (400 meter swim, 16K bike, 5K run), finishing dead last and winning her age group. This year was the Michigander. She had to push her bike up a few hills, but so did a lot of people. My dad tootled up every one of them - he's got the build and endurance of an oceangoing albatross - right alongside her. Several times he offered to ride off and get the car or hail the broom wagon, the support vehicle for riders with mechanical or exhaustion issues, but Mom would have none of that, which I think Dad knew full well. He also knows that it's impressive enough to succeed when you have no choice, but that it's exquisitely satisfying to look back and know you've persevered when you had the opportunity to bail. I'm sure Mom enjoyed that when she looked back, which she probably did for about 10 minutes before she focused forward again. I wonder what she's pondering for next year.

I'll ask her this weekend. I'll see them Saturday when I go to Big Rapids for my high school class's 30-year reunion. That really isn't my thing - I, too, find the future more interesting than the past. But I'm not embarrassed by my past, and I've got an interesting career and some cool adventures to throw in there if the conversation lags. But it won't lag, because everyone will be talking about my parents. I'm just more of the same. Or so I can hope.

Monday, July 26, 2010

That's what I think

Here’s a way to start your Monday: I showed up on Google’s Quotes of the Day page.

They have me down as saying “An opinion should be the result of thought, not a substitute for it.” Which, in fact, I did say, or at least have one of my Frazz characters saying. And I have to admit, if I want a lot of people to remember me for something I said, I’ll go with that line any day.

I’m listed first, which doesn’t mean anything. Right below my quote is Robert Frost’s path-less-traveled line, proving that point about as emphatically as it can possibly be proven. It also makes me feel a little queasy, since I write about Frost a few times in Trizophrenia (have I written the only book about triathlon to mention Robert Frost repeatedly? I might) and even, at some point, portray him as a cranky old fart, which sounds a lot like an opinion and a not well thought-out one at that.

But I don’t think that really is an opinion. Nor, necessarily, a fact. An interpretation, yes, based on a lot of historical accounts and the statements of others who knew him and on his epitaph, which he wrote for himself and reads, "I had a lover's quarrel with the world."

A fact would go something like this:

     Frost understood the English language and the human condition better than I could ever hope to.

An opinion would go something like this:

     Frost understood the English language and the human condition better than anyone could ever hope to.

And I’ve given that some thought.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Tempting the godmongers

So today I go get a fitness assessment.

No, it's not one of those judicial ones to see if I'm fit to stand trial, but thanks for wondering. The community pool in my new town, so tantalizingly located two blocks from my house, is very much a community pool, which is great for a million purposes but not always the best situation for swimming laps. So I joined a big, luxe-looking club that's actually pretty reasonable and almost as conveniently located. In addition to having a nice pool that's almost always available (though curiously has no pace clock; what's up with that?), and the usual weights and treadmills and people-watching opportunities and of course the free and enthusiastically pushed fitness assessment, they've also got some pretty spiffy stationary bikes for their Spinning classes. And you can use them any time there's not a Spinning class going on.

Better yet, those bikes have power meters! A power meter is what you get when you hybridize athletes and nerds, and they're perfect for bikes. Unlike running or especially swimming, bike conditions vary so much that it's not terribly precise to gauge your effort by speed. Doing 6-minute repeats at, say, 24 mph can be somewhat easy or near-impossible depending on wind, hills or road surface. A device that simply measures how much energy you're putting into the drive train ignores all that and just shows you what you're doing measured in watts, which are a little harder to understand than miles per hour but way more consistent.

Anyway, I was delighted. I hate training indoors, but I also know that it offers the kind of controlled conditions that allow for a really precise workout, especially in my new, much more urban, environment. I have a training stand that I can use with my own bike and my own power meter, but there's a certain appeal to sweating all over somebody else's bike in return for your membership fee.

The health club's bikes and power meters still aren't ideal. The one on my bike records the whole workout so I can upload it into my computer and analyze it like a true nerd. These don't. My bike has a normal Q angle (essentially a measure of how far apart my feet are), while the club's bikes are set up more for Clydesdale riding or a gynecological exam. But the funnest part is that the power meters seem to be a little off. They have my output at lactate threshold (more nerdiness; it just means the effort level I can hold without going into oxygen debt) at around 360 watts - about what the pros generated yesterday on their way up the Tourmalet. I appreciate their contributions to my self-delusion, but I think I'll recalibrate.

The fitness assessment ought to wipe out most delusions of competency anyway. Sure, I'm decent at going in a straight line for a long time three different ways, but I bet they're going to test for things like strength and coordination, and I'll be reminded of my first weeks in the dorm at nursing school just about 30 years ago. I was racing bikes then and pretty good at it. My classmates invited me to join them for an aerobics workout, and while I had no interest in that sort of training, I had a strong interest in nursing students dressed to exercise, so I joined them - and found that the two or three muscle groups I used to make a bike go were about the only ones that were all that fit. I could hardly move for two weeks.

I was wondering if I should wear one of my Ironman Finisher t-shirts to today's assessment, but I don't think I will. This whole free assessment, I'm well aware, is a personal-trainer sales pitch as much as anything, so they have a vested interest in finding similarly underused muscles on my frame. Best not to tempt the gods or those who wish to shape me into a Greek one for a fee.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

What is

Last week was a bit of a milestone. It was the first time since April that I made it a full week without putting in at least one 24+ hour workday. That sounds like I’m boasting, which would be a little bragging about going without bathing. It’s not a good idea, no one's impressed with you when you do it and it doesn't help to tell them why you did it. But sometimes it’s what you have to do to get things done, just like you have to go through the Death Zone if you want to get to the top of certain mountains. Above 8,000 meters, there is simply not enough oxygen to think clearly, perform well, even heal the tiniest injury or even extract sufficient nourishment from whatever foodlike substances you can haul up there. Life in the Death Zone is a downward spiral that, when necessary, must be made as temporary as possible.

Put that way, it sounds a lot like sleep deprivation, except sleep deprivation is easier to come by than thin air, and it generally makes your body add fat instead of eating its own tissues. At any rate, I don’t like it and I was happy to be done with it.

My streak lasted as long as the typical Detroit Lions winning streak, except I blew it mid-week instead of waiting until Sunday. But it’s a start.

There are positive signs in other areas. I’m starting to train again, as opposed to working out, following a plan designed to ramp up my fitness instead of just getting tired on an opportunity-by-opportunity basis. It will be a while before my physiology adapts, but at least I’ve succeeded in ruining my cell phone. I try to carry it with me on workouts, especially solo ones. That’s easy on a bike, not applicable in the water, and always the source of much internal debate on a run, especially the kind of medium-to-long run I should most have the phone along for. Like Sunday’s 13-mile run in the heat. I survived just fine, and it turns out it’s the phone that needs rescuing. I guess I overestimated its ability to withstand sweat and underestimated how well I’d protected it.

One of my wiser friends (I have more of those than you’d guess from looking at me) mentioned a line in Harry Middleton’s book The Bright Country that goes, “What is, moves.” Isn’t that elegant? Middleton more or less consolidated my whole life into three words, and without even asking me. Now I have a phrase to follow when I lose my way.

It’s not as simple as three words, of course. What is, moves. But what moves must rest, and I’m still trying to work on that. What moves also consumes. It demands nourishment and wears out gear and ruins electronic devices that hardly existed a few years ago but now seem to require immediate replacement. I’m told that’s not a lot of fun. Those stores have a reputation for making you feel like you don’t exist. I’ll have to remember to move around.

Monday, July 19, 2010


Watch Your Head
I'm not big on What-If scenarios, at least not in retrospect. They're too daunting and too trivial and too irrelevant all at the same time. What if I'd taken a different route the day I had that accident? What if I'd stayed in nursing school? Or finished college in general? What if I'd thought twice about that one (one?) joke that bombed so irreparably?

Who cares? I didn't, and here I am.

But there's one What-If that I do wonder about. What if I had drawn Frazz the way I had originally sketched him - with curly hair instead of straight?

My comic strip gets compared a lot to the great Calvin & Hobbes, sometimes with a sneer and sometimes with a hurrah and always with way more credit than I deserve. The compliments feel good, the anger kind of hurts, and I don't let myself believe the compliments too much because then I'll have to believe the insults, too.

For the record: I learned a ton from reading Calvin & Hobbes, and I use it. If we want to give my plagiarism accusers some credibility, I'll steal and rephrase a quote from George Bernard Shaw: 90% of cartoonists my age are influenced by Bill Watterson and the rest are liars. I try to draw Frazz cleanly and expressively, like Watterson drew Calvin & Hobbes. I try to write it smartly and give my readers credit for thought and ambition, like Watterson did. From there, I do it my way, and if similarities happen they happen. I neither steal nor conceal.

But that's not what a lot of people zero in on. Many of the people who notice similarities, and nearly all of the angry ones, go straight to the hair. Calvin had spiky hair; Frazz has spiky hair.

What if I'd stuck with my first sketches? (Again, the whole Plan-B-In-Retrospect is laughably moot; his spiky hair wasn't as Calvinesque then as it's grown to be. Characters do their own thing over time a lot. You can create them but you can't control them. Ask any given god.) Frazz had to have messy hair - that was a given. He's just the kind of guy who wouldn't spend a lot of time fussing with his hair, for one, but the main thing is that messy hair never goes out of style. But I first drew him with a darker, curly eraserhead mop. It looked great. But I already had him idolizing a certain Texas singer-songwriter who did his hair much the same way, and I thought that might be overkill. That's right - I didn't want it looking too derivative. So I went with light and straight and messy, and who knows where the strip might have gone had the proverbial butterfly flapped its wings that way?

I enjoyed the nod from Cory in Watch Your Head. Enjoyed it very much. He's a terrific cartoonist, so to be sent up by him is a real honor. In a nice bit of circular symmetry, his editor at the Washington Post Writers Group is Amy Lago, who signed me to United Feature Syndicate more than 10 years ago and got Frazz of to such a solid start. She's a terrific editor with impeccable instincts. She never got to see the sketches of Frazz with the frizzy hair. If she had, I wonder. What If …?

Friday, July 16, 2010

Mussel up

Oh, hi. Sorry for the false "resurfacing" hope a while back. Let's try it again. Here's part of what distracted me.

When I was drawing editorial cartoons, I liked to call them "sanctioned graffiti." I didn't predict that someday I'd be doing a much more literal version of sanctioned graffiti, but that's what I did last weekend.

This was part of the Musselman, a triathlon festival in Geneva, NY, up in the Finger Lakes, that just may be the best-run triathlon - hell, best-run event of any kind - anywhere. I did race, but the main reason I was out there was to paint the town, so to speak, or one specific part of it. And it wasn't just me. Hardly.

What we did was a big paint-by-number. On Friday, I sketched out the picture and painted the outlines in black and the color-area boundaries in gray. Then I raced the sprint Saturday morning and headed back to the wall. Mostly then I signed books and talked to people while the racers painted in the colors. The idea was that you were assigned color according to the last digit of your race number, but we quickly scrapped that because, well, it didn't really matter. Grab whatever color you want and paint seemed to work just as well while seeming a lot less anal-retentive. Saturday evening, I touched up whatever colors needed touching up (not much), and then Sunday I and however many hundred or thousand racers ran right past it with about three miles to go in the half-iron.

Pushing 10 years after the debut of my comic strip, it's still a trip to see my work in the newspaper. Running past it at the end of a great race is a whole 'nother kind of a trip. I recommend it highly.

Oh, the race: In spite of my whine-worthy spring and summer of very little training and sleep, my very busy week in which we closed on our former house the day before I left for the race, my abundant non-racing hours of painting in the sun and my meager portion of natural talent in general, I did OK.

I did Saturday's sprint (750 meter swim, 16 mi bike, 3.2 mi run) in 1:23:00, good for 5th in my 45-49 age group. The half-ironman (1.2 mi swim, 56 mi bike, 13.1 mi run) went down in 5:23:38, good for 10th in my age group. That gave me 12th overall male or something for the Double Mussel, and I believe first in my age group if they'd had age groups for the double, which they didn't, which is quite fine. What I like is that I was expecting epic suffering and humiliation and enjoyed just the right amount of suffering and the same humiliation I always get from not having a single photogenic cell in my body to show the race photographers on the run course.

Now maybe I can start training and see what happens then. You know, like I started blogging again two weeks ago. I'll keep trying, and either I'll get it figured out or I'll get lucky. I enjoy either, and not just racing.