Personal Inventory

Our college coach, the estimable Elliot Noyes had a style and understated humor that still tickles. Or stings. After one of my even-worse-than-normal cross-country performances, he wandered over, got not too close, gave me his sidelong look, and said, “Alvarez, that was a rather genteel pace you set today.” He loved rococo language constructions. Beards and mustaches, for example, were “hirsute facial embellishments” He always called time trials “personal inventories.” I’ve lately been chuckling at how much more useful a term that is for creaky old guys staggering around the roads. A time trial would be ludicrous and bizarre, but a personal inventory is perfect: left knee okay, right knee not so hot, belly jiggling in ¾ time, whimpering moderate….

There was also a wonderfully silly joy of running for Ellie. Freshmen couldn’t compete in varsity sports in those days, so the student newspaper would report on the freshmen teams separately. The college teams—the varsity teams—were called the Big Green, but not the poor frosh. It’s pretty hard to take yourself seriously once you’ve spent a year being referred to in sportspeak as one of the “Peagreen Noyesmen.”


Mt. Cabot Mud

In the Whites, the rocky trails go straight up the fall line, so stretches are sometimes essentially brooks. [For a good laugh, read this letter from an Alabama hiker to the Concord (New Hampshire) Monitor.] But on Cabot yesterday, the whole walk felt like wading. Or mudlarking.

This gets tiresome after a while. I’d have to say this was one of the least enjoyable walks I’ve had among the 4,000-footers. Except—and this is a major point—that I was with two of my favorite people.

H and A are escorting me through my late-life surge to top all 48 of these big (by New England standards) mountains. I wandered up Mt. Lafayette—my first 4,000 in 1966, so you can see I haven’t exactly been in a hurry to check off the list. (I kept going back to the ones I liked.) But now I’m focused on completion, and Cabot was Number 40. Three of the remaining eight are a cluster, and we’ll do those as an overnight. Three more are a natural single long day for a strong walker, but for me it will be two days with a good sleep in between. That leaves two, one of which—Mt. Isolation—actually scares my elderly self a bit. But there’s a decent chance that by fall we’ll have ‘em all.

Party on Mt. Carrigain. You’ll all be invited.


Knucklehead Running

My general reaction to what seems to be a reprieve from prostate cancer has been to try to claw back at least a little control over my own body. I eat way less and much better (mostly veggie). Alcohol is largely off the menu, though the occasional beer is inevitable and a toast for cause is still a joy. I work out with a trainer at the gym twice a week. I’ve lost a lot of weight, and I’ve been running regularly again since November, with a mind to do a little age-class racing.

I’ve been operating under some general rules:

  • Think of the people you love. Be grateful. Be positive. Stay happy.
  • Eat right.
  • Get good sleep.
  • Don’t run if you’re sick or overtired. (Better yet, don’t get sick or overtired.)
  • Warm up thoroughly.
  • Warm up carefully.
  • Make every workout count. Have a purpose. No wasted miles.

 

This is fine as far as it goes, but I’d been fussing a bit to come up with a training schedule that would work for a determined but creaky old man. I can’t really train hard anymore, and I can’t run every day.

After lots of thought, experimentation, the shameless theft of other people’s ideas, and, of course, a great deal of whining and complaining, I think I’ve got it: a basic every-other-day schedule based on the old man’s highest priority:

“Don’t hurt yourself, Knucklehead.”

It’s a two-week cycle of running every-other day (seven efforts every 14 days). Every second workout is a long easy run. In between are alternating tempo runs (my favorite kind of training long before they were called that—I knew it as steady-state or lactate-threshold running) and controlled speedwork, either standard repeats on the track or strong efforts up my favorite shallow inclines in the cemetery.

So: Long run, day off, Steady state, day off, Long run, day off, Speedwork, day off, Long run, day off, Steady state….

Appropriate warmups and stretching, which I used to more or less ignore, I now realize are urgently vital for this creaky old bod.

No peaking or freshening included yet. But I do have a racing goal (it’s a secret, so don’t tell, okay?): A 7:00 mile right around my 70th birthday in January. I may not get there, but it’s a useful target. And it’s not utterly ridiculous, if the Knucklehead doesn’t get hurt.


Annual Blast from the Past

 It’s Bat Day again!

I was raised an only child by kind and supportive parents. Sound middle-class values were expected, but discipline was gentle, love and respect evident, and abuse non-existent. This is the excuse I make for my inability to write good fiction.

Occasionally, though, stuff happened.

When I was in my early teens, the only thing that mattered in my world was baseball. School had always been a waste of time. Other sports were filler. Music was something I murdered on a dented trumpet. My idea of a terrific girl was one who could throw like a boy. (Come to think of it, that’s still my idea of a terrific girl.)

One spring back then, I got a new bat. They were still wood in those days, and this one was a 34-inch, flame-tempered, Jackie Robinson model Louisville Slugger. I carried it around with me, hoping to fall into pickup games here and there. One Saturday my parents, on their way to a wedding, dropped me off in the center of our little town, where I was supposed to get a haircut. But some friends were playing ball on the North Green, across Pleasant Street from the barber’s. Naturally, my bat and I diverted to the game and played until it broke up. Then I wandered over to read ancient comic books at Kenny’s and wait my turn. Got my ears lowered ($1.25) and walked the two miles home. My parents had recently returned. My mother was in the kitchen working on supper. My father, oddly, was stretched out on the padded built-in next to our fireplace in the living room, talking to himself. Vehemently.

“Well,” I thought after a quick look, “I’ll go out in the yard and take a few swings.” It was then I realized I’d left my bat at the barber’s.

Now, my father was (and remains) a kind and even solicitous man. An oath would occasionally pass his lips, but only for good cause, and never directed at family. And although he made a mean whiskey sour and loved a cold beer on a hot day, and a good party anytime, he wasn’t a big drinker. I’d never seen him wobbly, let alone delirious.

But on this warm Saturday, one of his boyhood friends had married a woman dad profoundly didn’t approve of. So, as I was to learn, he’d drunk deeply at the reception to keep his mind off the horror before him, and he had now settled into this rude, high-decibel, semi-conscious, horizontal raving about the all round awfulness of the lady in question and the unfathomable blindness of the groom.

But I needed my bat. And as a monomaniacally preoccupied innocent I returned to the living room and made the request I would have put to him on a normal Saturday afternoon. “Dad, I left my new bat down at the barbershop. Could you drive me down to get it?”

This gave him the chance to utter the sentence that, precisely because it was so toweringly uncharacteristic, has rung down the years in our family to the present day, a kind of facetious epigraphic standing joke that we and our closest friends savor, a line I’ve told him I’m planning to inscribe on his gravestone. “Ah,” snarled my kind father, my partner in hundreds of twilight catches, the man who had taught me how to hit and field and throw. “Ah,” he said, sounding frighteningly mean. “Ah, go get your own goddam baseball bat.”

Stunned almost to tears, I retreated to the kitchen and told my mother. She laughed, which was characteristic and therefore reassuring, explained the situation, and took me to get the bat. Which I broke a week or two later hitting a weak one-hopper to short.

Cut to the present. Mom’s gone (and, my God, we miss her so). Dad’s now living in the apartment over our garage. Paul, in the cottage in the back yard, is not only my daily walking partner, but has put his expertise in genealogy to work on the families of many of his friends (gleefully disproving  treasured myths about Indian princesses and narrow escapes from Titanic tragedy). One day last week, he was talking at tea to my dad and me about the recent release of the 1940 census. This gradually brought us around to my father’s youth, his old neighborhood, and his old friends. He began to talk about this particular friend, and, inevitably, his horrible wife. My contribution to the conversation was the inevitable banderilla, “Ah, go get your own goddam baseball bat.” We all laughed, and Paul asked me, “When was that?” I said I knew it was in the early ’60s, but I wasn’t sure which year.

Then we had a flash. If Paul could use his tracking skills to dig up the date of the wedding, we’d know exactly when this famous family event had occurred. Tap, tap. Nope. Wait a minute. Tap, tap. Birth and death records, but no marriage record. Let’s try the woman’s name. Tap, tap. Birth and death, mention of marriage, but no date. Hang on. Tap, tap. Got it. The date on which my family’s own Gettysburg address was uttered: June 2, 1962.

So we have a 50th anniversary coming up. Party? You bet. You’re invited, dad. Just be sure to bring your own goddam bottle.


Use It Up

My memory is shot, but I’m pretty sure that 50-odd years ago my high school class chose as its motto, Carpe Diem: Seize the Day.

Over the last year or so, I’ve been granted something of a new lease on life (physical life, anyway—I’m fading fast upstairs), and I’m being pretty aggressive about taking advantage of it. I’d become used to husbanding effort (or being lazy—pick your point of view), but a few months ago—mostly, I have to admit, to get me out the door on those dark cold winter mornings—I started telling myself, “Use it up,” and I’ve been more or less living by this little phrase ever since.

I’ve been surprised that whenever I mention it to friends, reaction has been negative. They seem to think it reflects some sort of death wish. No, no, no. To me, “Use it up” is just a slightly down and dirty version of Carpe Diem, which could reasonably be construed as, “Don’t waste time.” It recognizes the end is somewhere out there in future, but it’s not rooting for it to arrive anytime soon.

For me “Use it up” means something like,”Push it.” Or, more concretely, “Do the stuff you love. Cherish family, travel a lot, reconnect with old friends, run hard, walk far.” In other words, be aware of and aggressive about taking advantage of this reprieve, this temporary gift of physicality.

Of course, in its penumbra, as the Supreme Court might say, is this: “Don’t worry if your friends don’t like your mantra.”

 

 

 

 


Shrug and chuckle

Getting old is a revelation. Stuff happens. Some of it is even good. Better yet, some of it is kind of funny.

My general condition is actually improving. I’m down under 160 lb. (72kg), approaching my proximate goal of 155 (We’ll see what happens once I get there…I ran at 143 in my 30s.) I’ve been staggering around in the dark over the winter, getting in a fair amount of slow mileage. Paul and I are still walking every morning, and I often sneak in another plod in the afternoon.

But a few days ago, it was warm enough to imagine the coming of spring, and I headed out for a shuffle unburdened by long pants and jackets and hats and gloves and buffs. I just went. And for a while it felt good. And then it didn’t. Somewhere just past 2.5 of a projected 3, I stopped, realizing my old bod must be operating under new rules with regard to how long I should wait to run after eating.

Stopping, except for a necessary equipment adjustment or an actual injury, is something most runners just don’t do. I certainly don’t. This was a major personal embarrassment, a failure of character, a Real Flaw.

Then I got home, did some digital button-pushing, and discovered that my first mile had been a 7:17. Well, 7:17 used to be a warm-up pace, but these days it qualifies as blinding speed. It’s both way faster than I thought I could go (Wow!) and—obviously—way faster than I should have been going (You idiot!). The real issue, though, is that I seem to have lost all sense of pace. People who run a lot develop a pretty decent built-in feel for how fast they’re going. But though I’m working on it, I’m no longer a person who runs a lot, and my ability to do this has clearly atrophied. Why wouldn’t it…every other part of me seems to have. (My brain’s been fried for years.)

What can you do?

Basically nothing. Just shrug and chuckle.

 


Image

Coffee Hound

I’ve always been a tea guy. Un-American, I know, but since high school, I’ve been drinking highly sugared tea, usually with lemon rather than milk. Lots of tea. Lots of sugar. Coffee, which my mother drank black and very strong, never appealed. Like everybody else in those days, she made it in a percolator. And the coffee itself was probably whatever was on sale at the grocery that week. I didn’t like it at all, even with the standard milk and sugar she eschewed.

Last winter, after I got home from Mayo, I realized two things: how flabby-assed fat I was, and just how much sugar my multiple large mugs of tea were delivering, I stopped cold turkey. It was hard, and the unsweetened herbal tea I tried to replace it with did not satisfy. I turned to my friends for help.

A few of them had gotten in early decades ago on what’s called “second wave” coffee, the movement that spawned both the excellent Peet’s and the unfortunate Starbucks. They’ve moved on to “third wave” roasters, mostly small outfits with maniacal concern for proper sourcing, roasting, and brewing. I began to ask questions, and to taste. The rituals that accompanied their coffee brewing intrigued me. A Chemex here, a french press there, here a cold brew, there a miniature espresso machine, EIEIO.

And then some of the coffee itself began to grow on me.

…and a year or so later, here I am, brewing cups of Yirgacheffe in one of these:

Aeropress

Gosh, what I’ve been missing! Especially that first sip every morning! Black, of course…Here I am, mom.

And I’m down just shy of 30 pounds.

Woof!


Hispanic am I

My grandfather’s name was Bonafacio Alvarez. He was born in the town of Aviles, in the province of Asturias, Spain, in 1890. Times were terrible and his family was dirt poor. As a boy of 14 or so, he came by himself to Cuba, where everyone spoke Spanish, and found work there in a sort of general store. In 1917, he got on a boat and then a train, again alone, and came to the United States, where nobody spoke Spanish, and made his way for reasons I’ve never known to Waterbury, Connecticut, where he met and married my grandmother and got a job at the Anaconda American Brass on Freight Street. He was a maintenance electrician there for 40 years. He spoke English with a heavy accent, took all the overtime he could get, helped raise two boys, learned more about American history and geography than most natural-borns I know, and like millions and millions of others did his best to be a good, solid American. 

By the time I was in my last two years of high school, he was retired, and I remember that he came to a few little dual cross-country meets with my dad. In the summer of, I think, 1964, I was asked to run in an invitational high-school mile at some sort of athletic festival they were putting on at what was then Central Connecticut State Teachers College. My dad brought his dad along to watch. There was a big crowd—by far the biggest I ran in front of while I was in high school—and it was a good race. In the last lap, I made a move on the final turn to try and steal a win from a couple of guys who I was pretty sure had better kicks. It didn’t work. I couldn’t separate myself enough, they did have better kicks, they overhauled me in the final straight, and I finished third.


When I eventually climbed up into the stands to find my two fans, my grandfather was smiling and chuckling and doing everything but dancing a jig, incluidng uttering his standard phrase of amazement, “Jingoes, boy!” This was very uncharacteristic behavior from a very reserved, stoic man. Especially, I thought in my self-centered way, because I had lost.

I looked at my father, who said, “They announced your name.”

It turned out that when I took that lead going into the turn, the PA announcer did what PA announcers do, he got all excited and essentially narrated my kick around the curve. I didn’t hear it. But my grandfather did. And the marginal, hard-working, heads-down immigrant who had missed  the hoopla surrounding his son’s football games because of work, had never before heard our family name, his name, announced publicly like that, let alone accompanied by a cheer or two. It was a kind of validation for him. At the time, I thought this was amusing. Sweet, and undeniably cool for me, but mostly funny. 

I find it funny no longer. A hard-working grandfather with a heavy Spanish accent?

Who came here, like tens of millions of others, without permission?

Probably should be sent back where he came from, no?.

No. Rational immigration policy? Yes, of course. Family-splitting mass deportation? No. I know which side of the metaphorical wall of decency I’m on. It’s in my bones.

And my name.

I stand with los abuelos.


Skinny speed-demon

So. I’m going to try to get back to regular posting, if only as a discipline.

The big news this week is that I’m within striking distance of breaking the 160-lb. barrier. Devoted readers (both of you) will recall I came home from Mayo at the end of 2015 weighing in at 186, wearing Levis with the flabby and embarrassing waist measurement of 36 inches. But the cancer was gone, and I was determined not to remain fat.

Two things happened this week. I weighed in at 160.1. And I bought two new pairs of 501s. 32s.

I’m running every-other morning, weather even remotely permitting. I was doing it in the pitch-black of January, and I’m doing it now. Only three miles for now. It doesn’t feel smooth yet, I don’t push it, and average mile times are closely related to the weather. Yesterday morning it was 9:11.

I have a goal I’m not at all sure I’ll reach: to run a competitive mile indoors next January under 7:00. Lots more on that to come.

I’ve got some other goals, too. They’re for the next post.