Wednesday, March 31, 2010

I like big portions and I cannot lie

I suspect you've read the news and heard all the jokes, so I won't go on too much about the article in the International Journal of Obesity last week where a couple of researchers analyzed 52 paintings or otherwise artistic renderings of The Last Supper and established that from the year 1000 to the year 2000, Jesus and his disciples appear to have, shall we say, lingered a little longer in the buffet line. The size of the entrĂ©e - who even knew they used that word back then? - went up a Biggie 70 percent. The bread only bumped up 30 percent, which makes sense, because everybody knows that just fills you up. Plus, when it's the host's body and all, you really want to mind your manners.

As usual, the fun is in the details and digressions. I was delighted to learn simply that a magazine called the International Journal of Obesity even exists. And an international edition, no less! You'd think the United States could pretty much run that show on its own. (Then again, the N in NASCAR stands for "National," when I get the impression all those guys come from the same two counties in South Carolina.) I've seen a more specialized magazine called Big Butts on one of the higher shelves at the barber shop, so I shouldn't have been surprised by a more general International Journal of Obesity, but there you have it. Even better is the research methodology. Apparently very few painters worked from such an angle that you could see the nutrition information on the labels, and different paintings come in different sizes and approaches, not to mention food had to evolve a bit over the course of a millennium. The researchers needed a constant. But what? Use your heads, someone said. Use your own head, someone responded. Use the apostles' heads, they compromised, and they compared meal size to mug size, and next thing you know they had themselves an article.

But really, we could have expected the supersizing. It's the nature of art to exaggerate serially. Each auteur slightly, subtly outdoes his predecessor, and before the community catches on, Jesus is eating at Old Country Buffet, Spinal Tap's amplifiers go up to 11, and the women in the Rumple Minze schnapps ads are slung with breasts like dirigibles.

All in all, the news of this study made me think less of food than of another art-world truism: There are really only a few immortals, but the business is crazy with goof-offs taking Drawing 101 for an easy credit. I had a chance a few years back to knock around Italy and managed to tear myself away from the bicycling long enough to check out some art as well. Of course, the Last Supper was everywhere. But what struck me was not how much they were eating, but what. More often than not, it was some kind of barely identifiable, plucked rodent-like creature, resting supine on the platter with its feet sticking cartoonishly in the air. All the main course lacked was little X marks where the eyes go and tweeting birds circling overhead, but apparently that had to wait for a later enlightenment. And by that time, maybe the cooking had improved as well, which offers a pretty workable hypothesis to explain the increase in portion sizes.

Maybe I should write a paper on it. If the International Journal of Obesity won't run it, I'll try Big Butts.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Pissing in

When Lyndon Johnson became president and decided not to fire the (to put it mildly) aggressively difficult J. Edgar Hoover, he summed it up with, "I'd rather have him inside the tent pissing out than outside pissing in," maybe the second-best presidential quote since Reagan survived a long battle getting some arms sales through Congress and declared "I feel like I've just crapped a pineapple."

But, as usual, I digress.

As a, uh, whatever I am, bloggist, I guess, I'm used to standing inside the tent pissing out, as it were (though I don't wear dresses, but then, maybe J. Edgar didn't shave his legs, so we're even). But this past week, Bob pissed in, and with some very worthwhile and supremely readable thoughts. He writes:

First, I love both Frazz and your blog. Second, please don't be an idiot.

You talk about not being impressed with overuse injuries like stress fractures because they're usually a result of bad judgment, yet you're exercising really bad judgment yourself. You've got soreness, which you ignore, followed by a severe shooting pain, which you're going to ignore in a different way by working around it.

Do yourself a favor and go to a good orthopedic surgeon who specializes in sports injuries, get a diagnosis, and then find a good physical therapist and get it taken care of. If you don't nip this in the bud, you may end up with surgery and restricted motion and you won't even be able to do the freestyle.

Orthopods and physical therapists are getting more and more specialized; really good ones are often hard to find. Look for someone who regularly treats the problem you have, keeps up to date on research, and is willing to try different approaches to solve your problem. Don't be afraid of switching doctors or PTs if you aren't getting results.

If you end up with an MRI on the shoulder, make sure the radiologist who reads the MRI does lots of shoulder MRIs. Believe it or not, this is more or less a specialty and can be a problem.

Four decades ago, my podiatrist sent me to the best orthopedic surgeon in town with the admonishment "Always remember, there is no minor surgery, only minor surgeons." This is a great rule of thumb to follow with all medical treatment. Treat yourself to the best, and get that problem taken care of.

Bob is right. And hopefully my response reassures Bob more than it makes it think I'm arguing. I haven't had my sports doc look at it. Not because I don't want to, and certainly not because he's anything but the very best, but because he's a little busy at the moment being one of the most important people in the state of Michigan right about now. He's the team physician for Michigan State University basketball program. But I did talk to my swimming coach, who, as an Olympic and long-time world-class IMer, has seen probably as many shoulders as my doctor. And a friend of mine is physical therapist to a number of world-class athletes himself, and he's weighed in as well. And everybody knows I'm an old fart out to have fun, not some elite ready to risk all for some brass ring. I'm resting the joint, correcting the faults that caused the problem and carefully making sure all systems are go.

And while one of my strongest desires right now is to not be the blowhard cartoonist-author-guy who pulls out of the event because his shoulder hurts, that's exactly what I'll do if I have to. Because an even stronger desire is not to be the one that had to get pulled into the boat with a bad shoulder in the middle of the San Francisco Bay.

In spite of Bob's plea, I can't promise not to be an idiot. But I sure don't want to be THAT idiot.

Thanks, Bob. You're number one in my book, so to speak.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Do as I ... something ... not as I ... now I've lost track

Sandy is one of my best friends and favorite people. We've known each other since high school, and I still can't run faster than her. She's smart, too. She runs this line at the bottom of her e-mails:

If you can't be a good example, then you'll just have to be a horrible warning.

I'm remembering that now, because I apparently haven't been the best example this week in the comics.

Right off the bat, there's today's strip (above) popping up right in the middle of my rotator-cuff issues, which have to be in part due to a certain acceptance of pain. But mostly it's due to some bad form, and when I put bad form in my strips, it's a horrible warning rather than any kind of example. But I love this strip. It's already a classic in my own mind.

Even if I stole it. I spend a lot of time explaining to people that creativity is a matter of making something in a new form, which is totally liberating, and not a matter of making something from nothing, which is totally impossible. Years ago, Sparky Anderson, manager of the Detroit Tigers and the rare linguistic bumbler in Yogi Berra and Casey Stengel's league, said, "Pain don't hurt." He didn't mean it like I took it, I'm guessing, or even like he said it, but it's been a great code to live by as long as I can remember which types of pain really do and don't hurt.

But that just caps off practically a full week of subversive stripping.
After Sunday's strip, a new friend admonished me:

Taking a marker to a UPC code like that with the idea that it will code for another item is wrong. The UPC system has internal controls and check digits to prevent this. A general misunderstanding of this technology is what led former MI AG Kelley to get "item pricing" laws enacted. We all pay more in the long run for that.
Duly noted, though I defend myself thusly: I'm good at thinking up funnies, but I'm a little slow with other innovations. Don't look to me to invent the next Velcro. (Though I did come up with this: Tear off a piece of a tortilla; smear it with almond butter; either drip honey on it or dab it into a pile of brown sugar, and tell me if that doesn't beat anything that comes in cellophane.) Anyway, there's no way I can be the first to think of this, and clearly I wasn't if the UPC system has those safeguards in place. And if we were saved by Frank Kelley, who retired as Michigan Attorney General 12 years ago. But such a spirited defense makes it sound like I don't appreciate the feedback, which I truly do.

Not that it looks like I heeded it, when the very next day I begin a series on destroying appliances:
and then
Now people everywhere are going to have to shop for new dryers while their kids run through Big Willie's Appliance Mart with Sharpies finishing off what's left of the economy.

Please, parents: Let your kids keep reading Frazz. Just be sure to teach them the difference between a good example and a horrible warning before they destroy everything.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Backstroking without backsliding

I used to be impressed by stress fractures. How could I not be? They sounded so tough. When you're a teen-ager, your coaches tell you it's all about effort and toughness, and they're right. Young people have varying degrees of talent, of course, but they have no idea how much. Everybody else's talent is clear enough and on high-def display on the track, the ball fields and to a certain extent in the showers, but nobody knows his own limits, let alone gets close to them, so the coaches urge effort and toughness, effort and toughness, effort and toughness, and Jim McKay fills The Wide World of Sports with stories about effort and toughness, and the Nike posters say "there is no finish line," and the underlying premise is that if you're average you're just not trying hard enough.

So when someone has a legitimate overuse injury, the impression is that they're trying very hard indeed. And that the coaches will finally leave them alone while they rest up guiltlessly. It's like the ultimate excused absence.

These days, decades of my own overuse injuries later, I'm not so impressed. They're usually not a sign of toughness so much as tangible evidence of bad judgment, and anyway, the last thing I want to do is rest up.

That's why I'm really hoping this pain in my shoulder is from trying to learn the backstroke. Not that it changes anything in the judgment category, but maybe it means it's not exactly an overuse injury with regard to my freestyle. Then I won't have to rest as long and maybe it won't mess up my Alcatraz/Golden Gate swim too much in two and a half (!) weeks.

I've been trying to become a more well-rounded swimmer and learn the other three strokes, and I was fine with the process being uncomfortable and humiliating if it ultimately improved my freestyle. But I'm about as flexible through the shoulders as a marble statue (float about as well as one, too; if only I were sculpted as nicely as one), and was no doubt overreaching in all sorts of wrong directions. This past Monday morning, the typical soreness turned to a shooting pain, and immediately it was time to change over to side-kicking, head-leading, fist swimming and otherwise focusing on my body position instead of my arm strength.

So far, so good. The pain is still there, and still pretty acute, but it only takes place with specific arm motions and stresses - happily, arm motions and stresses that are not consistent with proper freestyle. I'll switch over to the slow lane and concentrate on form, keep my cardiovascular fitness up through running and cycling, let the rest of the group mess with those other strokes, consume my weight in ibuprofen, and see where it goes from there.

Or rather, how it goes from there. Where it goes is Alcatraz. Whatever it takes.

Monday, March 22, 2010

A pace for radio

Three weeks ago, I announced to the world, or at least the part of the world that reads this blog, that I would lead off every week with a six-word memoir, or mission statement or whatever seemed appropriate. Then I evidently dropped off the face of the earth for a while. Not too impressive a start, but then, lots of room to improve. So I'll jump back in with:

"That negative split looks promising already."

And things haven't exactly let up.

Well, then. I'm told that when things get this busy, the effective executive delegates. I am neither effective nor executive, but I am still tied up, so this would be a pretty good time to try the delegation thing. Or maybe it's a recycling thing, but here is the link to an interview that just aired on NPR station KPCC in Pasadena. Sharon McNary, an Ironman triathlete herself, talked to me about my book Trizophrenia and did, I thought, a stellar job of making me look good, which is no easy feat. Indeed, Scott Pohl from WKAR in East Lansing did his best and fell short. Scott came to my house and manned the microphone (bonus: you get to hear our dog make an appearance) and shot a few quick photos for KPCC's Web site (visuals for the radio; the future is here). I modeled my aero gladiator helmet, as Sharon described it, and mostly just proved the old joke about having a face for radio.

That's OK. The dog's got a voice for print.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Back from Seattle, back in the saddle, back to the prattle

The downside of … no, wait. Let’s take the positive approach here.

The upside of a string of missed opportunities is that it’s at least hard evidence of a string of opportunities, and you could certainly do worse than that.

I rather wish I hadn’t blown my streak of staying on my M-W-F blog schedule, but instead I’ll whistle a happy tune and be grateful that I’ve amassed a substantial enough collection of regular readers who wonder what in the world happened to me for the past … oh, Lord. Week.

What happened was more opportunities. Too many to keep up with, I suppose, and it’s not that I didn’t see it coming. Two entries ago, I was raving about what a great time I had, and everybody had, at “Friday Night with Frazz” at Century Cycles in Cleveland. Then a brief lament about how much I had to do in a short week before I took off for a similar opportunity at the Seattle Bicycle Expo. Would I be able to keep up? Turns out I almost would. My apologies for the broken promises and tested patience.

And regrets for the lost opportunities to write about stuff. I lacked for time, not timely material. When I followed up my Flo & Eddie cartoon with a CAKE cartoon,
I missed the opportunity to shout about what a terrific band they are (supremely talented musicians and writers with that rarity of rarities, a truly original and yet not jarring sound), it somehow seemed important to mention that when saw them in concert recently I couldn’t help notice that lead guitarist Xan McCurdy was a dead-ringer for Steve Prefontaine.

On St. Patrick’s Day, I missed the chance to tell the story of the year I got to join a friend and march up Fifth Avenue in the New York St. Patrick’s Day parade, taking in sights that included a gentleman who was, according to my flash assessment as we walked by, happy, kindly, somewhere in his eighties and resplendent in a black vest with a bright green print that to this day still has me wondering if he knew were not shamrocks but marijuana leaves.

And I’m really just about past my opportunity to gush about Seattle. It really is one of America’s great cities, not least because it’s a city of great neighborhoods, and I was staying with friends (great friends, not to overuse the word) in the one called Fremont, home to a funky, artsy mentality, Speedy Reedy’s Triathlon Shop, the exquisite Theo Chocolate, and one of my favorite bridges (I just love bridges), complete with troll.

And starting point for a run worth gushing about. While working a bike expo somehow kept me too busy to bicycle, I did find time to get up early and run a while with a friend. And I have to say, running a number of miles along Seattle waterfront watching the sun rise into a perfectly clear sky behind Mt. Rainier’s craggy neighbors is an opportunity missing a couple weeks of sufficient sleep over. And maybe a few blog entries and a reputation for rock-solid blog reliability. I might be able to regain some of my fine name – trust me, I’ve had to do it before – but I don’t know if I’ll ever see another sunrise like that.

Meanwhile, I’ve miles to go. More opportunities. If you have the opportunity this weekend, I’ll be signing books tomorrow in Ann Arbor (Mich.) at Running Fit’s Trizomania expo from 11-2:00, and again in Okemos (Mich. again, haw!) Sunday evening at the Playmakers Triathlon Team spring kick-off. I’m sure looking forward to both. And tomorrow’s sunrise, even though the gray freezing rain will be a far cry from an orange sun climbing a magenta-to-blue gradient from a jagged, purple horizon. Sunrises are opportunities, and you’re only dead when they quit coming.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Altogether happy

Back in the 1980s, just out of high school, I was already fully into my ethic of taking on whatever I could (with a few trivial exceptions, like, oh, college). I had nosed my way into the Grand Rapids Press as a full-time freelancer, primarily doing illustrations but gradually taking on whatever writing assignments I could talk my way into until I managed to land myself an actual beat of sorts as a tragically underqualified concert reviewer.

Reviewing concerts isn't as glamorous as it sounds. The gems are there, but there's a lot of ore to sift through. Or sediment, I was thinking as I headed to yet another Parade of Oldies festival. It was kind of funny in a sad way, watching whichever member of any given one-hit wonder had managed to secure the naming rights to the band and put together some backing musicians and try to re-live, or cash in on, the glory years. Or, more often, glory week-and-a-half. I know. I was snobbish AND underqualified, which is a good deal less attractive than a whole row of aging doo-woppers in white leisure suits, gold chains and shiny toupees.

Then The Turtles took the stage to close out the show. Did I mention I was underqualified? I didn't know who The Turtles were. But just a few bars into their opening song, I was a fan. These guys - Flo and Eddie; what's up with that? - could play, and they had a stage presence and joie de vivre that brought me out of my coma for good. When the concert ended - too soon, which I wouldn't have predicted during Paulie and the Passingthroughs - I stayed a Turtles fan, but I remained ignorant.

Turns out it's easy to remain ignorant of just how much Mark Volman - Flo, the Phlorescent Leech - and partner Howard Kaylan - Eddie - have done, since they've done so much of it under the radar. But you'd be hard pressed to find two people who have played a larger role in modern pop music. Their nicknames come from when they performed with Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. They sang backup on Bruce Springsteen's "Hungry Heart," as well as on only the greatest rock and roll single ever, "Bang a Gong" by T. Rex. They also enjoy the distinction of having one of their songs - "Happy Together" - not only hit #1 on the Billboard charts, but bump a Beatles song off the throne to get there ("Penny Lane"). And there's more, much more.

I didn't know any of that stuff - I just liked their music - until a couple of months ago when I used their band and their nicknames for a Sunday Frazz strip that wrapped around a dreadful pun the way an old comics section might be used to wrap up the remains of last night's walleye. I was doing my research to make sure I didn't spread any misinformation and stumbled across all that information. I was a fan all over again.

And then Monday I got the phone call from Mark Volman, Flo, the Phlorescent Leech, my new hero and new friend. He had seen the strip and liked it a lot. We had a nice, long conversation, and we both enjoyed it enough that we must have started to hang up and failed a dozen times. I was honestly a little intimidated, because, like I said, he's had his hands in more of American music than most people, notably me, know. I'd still make a terrible music critic. Especially if I ever had to review The Turtles again. I know a little more about them, but I can't think of a thing to criticize. And if I could, I wouldn't.

I'm happy, if not completely together. I love this job.

Monday, March 8, 2010

It's all timing about

If humor … you know what? Hold on.

Digression #1: Is it just me, or has the word "humor" come to be so earnest and academic that it puts you on guard more than it relaxes you? You see it up there and right away you're ruined for anything like a joke. You start girding your funny bones for a clinical discussion about how something "amusing," like an "anecdote," eases stress and lengthens your life and realigns your synapses when all you really want to do is crack up. Humor relaxes you abstractly; comedy, done right, makes you pee a little, right then and there. Anyway,
If humor or whatever is all about timing, I'm going to have to find a new line of work. I've got a whopper of a week ahead of me as I squeeze a week and a half of work into a shortened week between Cleveland's Friday Night with Frazz and this weekend's appearances at the Seattle Bike Expo. Which is all well and good and entirely expected and, I really have to point out, entirely worth it on the basis of the Cleveland event alone.

Digression #2: Oh, man, what a great evening. (Check out photos here.) Century Cycles' Rocky River store absolutely packed the house with very cool people who were extremely nice, really bright, universally good-looking, passionate about cycling, very generously enthusiastic about Frazz and Trizophrenia and my other work, and tolerant to the point of sainthood of digressions and slow-moving lines while I carried on more conversations than Johnny Carson, David Letterman and Tony the Paranoid Mailman (another digression for another time) combined. Plus they had great food and drink (some of which was prepared in a bicycle-powered blender) in a truly beautiful space (a refurbished post office, in fact). When I recommend that you ever check the place out if you're in Cleveland, it's not shameless product endorsement - it's a tip, a favor to you readers. I know I'm headed there the next time I'm in Cleveland, and partly because it was such an adrenaline-filled, busy-till-the-wee-hours night that I did just about everything except actually shop. Maybe I could have done that Saturday morning, but instead I went for my first outdoor bike ride of the year (I'm the one in the red and yellow), and that was awesome, too.
So I'm fine with working full tilt, and I'm even fine with sacrificing some training to get it done, because that's life and I'm not a pro triathlete and I can deal with it. My timing problem is that, one week after the biggest, heaviest, wettest snow of the year, it's supposed to get up into the 50s and sunny for the next few days. That's bad timing. That, or delaying whatever gag I had in mind with two long digressions until I forgot whatever punch line I had in mind in the first place. I think maybe it was something about "… so a nearsighted gymnast walks into a bar." It all too often is.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Hey, big-ass spender

Friday, you get nada. Today, you get pants.

Friday, I won't be adding a blog entry because I'll be traveling to Cleveland for Friday Night with Frazz at Century Cycles in Rocky River. I cannot wait. This is going to be good.

Come to think of it, next Friday I'm traveling to the Seattle Bicycle Expo -- I cannot wait, Part II -- where I'll be through Monday, so I'm ditching you all left and right temporarily.

But at least I'll be wearing nice pants.

In Monday's entry full of 6-word memoirs, mission statements and mostly comments on turning 48, one such tome went,

I bought some khaki pants voluntarily.

There's something very middle-aged about khakis. I don't know if there's anything middle-aged about reading Esquire magazine or not, but I think that's what brought it on more than middle age itself. When I was younger, I used to read Esquire once a year for its Dubious Achievement Awards. Now I subscribe to it because it is, in my opinion, the best-written, best-designed, most forward-thinking magazine out there, on any topic. The fact that the topic is so often overpriced clothing is but a minor distraction and easy to ignore; the fact that another prevailing topic is beautiful women wearing somewhat little of it is a less minor distraction, one I don't bother trying to ignore. But apparently I don't always ignore the fashion stuff so well, either, because I decided I needed some khakis.

I don't buy pants often - I work at home and haven't gained weight - but when I do, I tend to buy them from one of two places. Either I go to this one department store where I can spend a perfectly good afternoon sifting through piles of attractively priced Levis that mostly don't fit, or I can go to a Lansing menswear store called Kositchek's and ask for Mark, who will have me in expensive but perfect-fitting pants in just a few minutes.

It's not like Mark is the only guy there who can do that; he's just been my go-to guy ever since I set foot in there 15 years ago and he had the guts to acknowledge that I had a cyclist's build (without, in fact, using the words "big" or "ass") and the talent to outfit me in pants that allowed for that build, and not the mega-pleated bloomers I'd been wearing around looking like an extra on the set of "Chariots of Fire."

I always blanch a little when I see the bill, because it doesn't look like the bill from the department store where nothing fits. But that doesn't last long, while the pants do. I believe I still own and wear every item of clothing I've purchased from Kositchek's, while none of my pants from the department store are more than a year old.

Food researcher and writer and hero Michael Pollan recommends that you buy expensive food because it's expensive for a reason, and that you end up eating less of it because it's more satisfying. Turns out expensive pants are expensive for a reason and you buy them less often. And if it's a stretch to thank Pollan for economic insight into trousers, I know we can thank him in part for the fact that Mark is finding me a whole lot easier to fit than I was back when Esquire still ran Dubious Achievements.