Home Run

An eviscerating op-ed piece in the NY Times last Saturday, precise and disdainful. It has to do with baseball, but even if you know nothing and care less about the game (I’m looking at you, you Challenge types), it’s worth a look for its elegantly remorseless demolition work.

Until I was in my mid teens all I wanted to do was play baseball. I hated school for all the usual reasons, but especially because it wasted good ballplaying time and was run by people who at least affected to believe the game—The National Pastime!—wasn’t important. Buffoons.


It finally dawned on me that I wasn’t going to make the big leagues at about the same time I discovered previously unsuspected, if ultimately limited, abilities as a distance runner, but while I’ve believed for decades now that running far fast is the best sport, it’s still obvious to me that baseball is the best game. I was eventually able to make part of my living writing about baseball, and editing, packaging, and publishing what other people wrote about it. The result is that I have, not a lot of inside information, but a strong sense of the game’s history and development dating back into the 19th century. I’ve always been especially interested in the relations between players and owners, which have been difficult since the game first went professional a few years after the Civil War. The “reserve clause” the writer mentions is shorthand for an agreement among owners that for almost a hundred years kept players from selling their services to the highest bidder, thereby keeping salaries artificially low.

The Baseball Hall of Fame referred to in the column’s title enjoys shrine-like status as a repository of mementos of the game’s history and as the location of almost 300 plaques honoring baseball’s greatest players, executives, umpires, and others. It is an almost transcendent honor for any baseball figure to be elected to the Hall. But inclusion depends on election, and I agree with many writers, historians, and plain fans that there are many people in the Hall who don’t belong there, and some not there who do. This belief is the basis of many American barstool arguments.

At its simplest, this column is one of those arguments. But that’s certainly not all it is, and the sheer brutal honest outraged accuracy here is refreshing. I’ve always liked Fay Vincent. Pusillanimous he ain’t.


Tea


To Americans, this isn’t a meal, it’s a drink. But Americans don’t drink it. Older ladies sometimes think they drink it, but what they raise to their lips is a cup of hottish water lightly colored with a briefly dipped teabag. Younger “tea” drinkers often sip an infusion of herbs and flavors.

I’ve been a tea drinker since high school, but my cup doesn’t hold what a Brit would consider “proper” tea, either. I drink good black tea properly brewed, but with sugar and lemon—“Russian” tea. So I’ll be the guy on the Challenge pulling the little yellow squeezy thing out of his food pack.

Within the last few years, my very fit, very slender, very coffee-drinking father has begun to drop by most afternoons at about the time I take my tea break. And he has begun to drink tea. Since he thinks that only sissies use milk, and only weak characters indulge their sweet tooth (teeth? tooths?), he takes it straight. But he has come to enjoy it quite as much as I do mine. We have a nice chat, I head back upstairs to work, and he watches out the window to see who’s walking up and down Main Street and, if possible, why.

There’s also iced tea, which is no longer necessarily a summer drink over here, and which is what a lot of folks, especially down south, mean when they say “tea.” Below the Mason-Dixon line, they drink it pre-sweetened with enough sugar to make your teeth buzz. My mom made wonderful iced tea, using a recipe she got from the mother of a girlhood friend. We still make it (but like good New Englanders, only in summer), and we sometimes use mint from a transplanted bed that traces back to the original that Mom’s friend’s mom had in her backyard in the 1930s and ’40s. This gives me great pleasure.

Our daughter (who normally is one of those herbal people) and I have over the years developed a tea-related ritual. When we come off the hills (assuming the hills are in our part of the world), we aren’t yet finished. The perfect success of the outing depends on our securing bottles of Snapple Peach Iced Tea and a bag of Cape Cod Potato Chips, and we’ll drive for miles to find a store that sells the right stuff.

I’m a fan of Alexander McCall-Smith’s Precious Ramotswe books, which are set in Botswana. In The Full Cupboard of Life, there is a chapter entitled: “Tea is Always the Solution,” an assertion closer to universal truth than most of what I hear from pulpits or podia.

Of course, everyone at the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency drinks Rooibos.


Japanese blogging

There is a fascinating article in the Washington Post this morning about Japanese bloggers. Apparently, “[a]lthough English speakers outnumber Japanese speakers by more than 5-1, slightly more blog postings are written in Japanese than in English.” The reasons for this—many technological—and the different style of the Japanese make for a really interesting read. Among other things, according to the reporter, “Japan’s conformist culture has embraced a technology that Americans often use for abrasive self-promotion (What? Us?) and refashioned it as a soothingly nonconfrontational medium for getting along.” Getting along? What’s the matter with these people?


Yuck

Today’s morning walk was a moderate version of the crummiest kind of New England winter weather…temps around freezing, “winter mix” falling, cars encrusted, a little dicey under foot. Public Works (headed by a high school classmate who held our discus record, since broken but not by much) does a good job on the roads, but the drives through the cemetery don’t get the same kind of attention. At the bottom of that slope, there is a depression that tends to catch and hold water. I was on my own this morning, but my usual walking partner, Paul, and I have christened it “Lake H,” in honor of my daughter, who as a young runner got immense pleasure out of the otherwise illicit act of splashing messily through it. The caretakers have filled it in a bit with crushed stone, but it still becomes something of a pond when it rains. Not paying attention this morning, I managed to walk right into the middle of it, and immediately felt my walking shoes let in what felt like every icy drop they could hold. When you’re running, or even walking with some purpose, you don’t care much about this sort of thing. When you’re gathering wool while spending iPod time on a tropical island with Jack Aubrey and Steven Maturin, you do. Killick! Killick there!


Wildcat wedding

We’ve always done most of our walking in the White Mountains of northern New Hampshire. There, as in the rest of the northeast, a mountain over 4,000 ft. (1,219 m.) is big. There are 48 of them in New Hampshire, known simply as the New Hampshire 4,000-footers (there are others in Maine, Vermont, and New York). As with Munros in Scotland, it is a goal of many to have climbed all of them, and you can get a badge and certificate. I had a friend, a legend, who climbed them all. In winter. From each of the cardinal points of the compass. A true hard man, and a man so proud of his Scottish heritage that he invariably wore a Tam O’Shanter in the mountains, and carried it off with aplomb. Although I summited my first 4,000 in 1966, I’m only a little past half-way through the list. Of course, it doesn’t help that I like some of them enough to climb them over and over. Lafayette, I am here!

A few years ago, though, our daughter, her fiancé (now husband) and I embarked on a project that had more to do with trying to spend some outdoor time together than with finishing off all our 4,000s, but that used the list as an organizing principle. Looking at some pix to illustrate this post about what I think of as my home mountains, I was reminded of the story of one of these walks. The photo is of the two younger members of our expedition posing across Pinkham Notch from Mt. Washington, the highest mountain in the Northeast at 6,288 ft. (1,917 m.).


They are standing near the end of our day on a platform near a peak called “Wildcat D,” which is near the south end of a rugged, wooded ridge graced also by the summits of Wildcats A-E. We had come south from A, which like D qualifies as a 4,000-footer. The platform is perhaps 200 yards away from, slightly above, and out of sight of the gondola station at (naturally) Wildcat ski area. The gondola runs all summer, and tourists can ride up the mountain for some cool breezes and a great view.

We were deeply involved in the usual rest-stop fiddling about when a kind of calliope-style organ began playing Here Comes the Bride over the ski area’s big PA system, and what has become one of my fondest, if weirdest, mountain memories began to take shape. It had everything: the gondola, the calliope, the giant commercial PA, and a schizophrenic combo of 1970 hippie and 1930 Methodist, including a poem and a kind of prescriptive essay (“In marriage, each must care more about the other than about one’s self…”), both of which must have been clipped from some ancient, yellowing ladies’ magazine. At one point somebody recited the Boy Scout Law (“A Scout is brave, clean, Republican,” and so on).* All this while hikers and tourists stood agape (or whatever the aural version of agape is). Once we got down to the lift, we averted our eyes and passed reverently by on our descent toward the notch, leaving behind our very best wishes for long and happy years together perusing Readers’ Digest while listening to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young played on a Hammond organ set to “chimes” mode. And as we gradually moved out of range, we knew we would never forget the girl group offering its utterly white-bread rendition of Ain’t No Mountain High Enough. Right across the valley from Mount Washington. Wonderfully, superbly, delightfully surreal.

* I love the Scouts. I was a Scout. Scouts got me started in the out-of-doors. Some of my best friends were Scouts. Some of my best friends still are Scouts (you might just be able to see that one of the shirts in the photo above is a Scout T). It’s just that the National BSA needs to adjust its compass a little to the west.


Route


I had my route pretty well planned out before The Envelope arrived. I was looking for a good intro walk that included some celebrated Challenge highlights, a chance for plenty of social interaction, and the possibility of frequent company along the way. I’m not averse to steep climbs or rough terrain (that’s pretty much what there is in the Whites), but I’m not especially interested in Munros. I read all the diaries and journals I could (many of them collected by Phil Lambert at Doodlecat), and listened to Bob Cartwright’s top-notch TGOC podcasts and all the interviews he (and Andy Howell) did along the way. I read lots of blogs and other journals (which will be the subjects of a future post). I talked with my wonderfully enthusiastic and tremendously helpful countrymen Lou and Phyl LaBorwit, who were just about to head for Scotland, the West Highland Way, and the Challenge Reunion in Ft. William. I dove into Scottish Hill Tracks, ordered a set of OS maps, changed my mind and ordered the second set that will do the trick. (We all agree, don’t we, that you can never have too many maps, no matter how battered, arcane, or outdated?)

What I settled on is the opposite of original, but I think it’s just right for me on a first crossing: Mallaig to St. Cyrus, by way of Knoydart, the Corrieyairick Pass, the Lairig Ghru, Jock’s Road (which I learned without much surprise is NOT a road), and all the slogs and beauties in between. A little under 190 miles, not counting side trips to the pub (including the first one, “the remotest pub on mainland Britain”).

Challenge coordinator Roger Smith, who has been remarkably kind and helpful, vetted my route sheet in the blink of an eye, made a couple of recommendations that I’m certainly going to take, gently suggested that my “elevations gained” were a little off on two of the steepest days (which I’m still trying to figure out, not that I entertain the slightest doubt that he’s right), and told me I needed to work out a Foul Weather Alternative (FWA) not just for Jock’s Road but for the Lairig Ghru as well. So that’s what I’ll be amusing myself with as time allows over the next few weeks. I know my route is standard stuff, but researching it, working it out, and planning it have been great fun and deeply satisfying to a map-lover and all-purpose obsessive like me. Getting to “know” various posters, voices, and correspondents has been terrific, too, and I’m looking forward to meeting as many as possible of my benefactors in the goose-bumped flesh. (In one of his posts or podcasts, Bob tossed off the comment that “it’s always about the cold wind in Scotland,” which was a relief, because I’d been afraid I might get wet.)


“Reading” on the Challenge


I read on one of her terrific posts or journals that on a long boring TGOC slog, Shirley Worral, “Peewiglet,” listened to a recorded version of one of Patrick O’Brian’s wonderful Aubrey-Maturin books. These are my favorites, too, and Patrick Tull’s spectacular acting sells them completely to me as a listener.

I went out for a longish walk the other day, tucked my iPod in my pocket, plugged in the earbud, and sailed away with Jack and Stephen for a couple of hours. Readers of the series will know that there are moments, and sometimes long sections, that are irresistibly comic, usually based on sometimes not-so-lovable character flaws and weaknesses displayed again and again by the main characters. Headed home, I found myself walking along laughing out loud. Not smiling or chuckling, mind you. Laughing out loud. The writing is so perceptive, so sharp, yet so genuinely and generously humane, it’s irresistible. Marvelous stuff.

I think I’ll follow in Shirl’s footsteps (literally in some cases), and bring an iPod on the Challenge. I’d use it mostly in the evenings, I think, but I’ve got a few slogs to get past, too, and I’d probably plug in then, as well. I’ve got what’s now called a Classic, with O’Brian, lots of Alan Furst, some Donna Leon and, optimistically, a bunch of language courses, among other things. And music, of course…mostly, but not entirely jazz. I wonder if I dare bring this mechanical device on the Scottish hills with me. I do also have a tiny Shuffle, which I sometimes shuffle with, but as far as I know, it can’t be recharged except by plugging it into a computer, and besides, it has no way to let you see and choose. I’ve never carried music or spoken books in the mountains, so I don’t have much of a feel for this.

(The Shuffle is my second. I returned the first, having apparently sweated it to death—right in the middle of Little Richard’s Tutti Frutti—on a steamy day last summer by clipping it to the top of my running shorts with the control wheel and its little interstices directly against my glowing back. A wop bop a lu bop, a wop bam boom. “Should have known better” has been my motto for years.)


Weather layers

When we went out to walk at 7:30 am today it was about 19° F. (-7° C.). This is about the point at which I’ve always begun to think it’s pretty cold, rather than just pretty chilly. I add a midlayer between baselayer and jacket, I trade the Buff for a Turtle Fur neck gaiter (made in Vermont, our likely future home, to protect you from the Wicked Itch of the North), and I swap my earmuffs for a watch cap. I also change from light gloves to mitts. The usual shorts covered by SportHills (similar to Tracksters). I won’t switch to warmer trousers until it gets a bit colder or is really windy. I use really horrible weather to try out different combinations.

My baselayer is new, a GoLite DriMove Cocona long sleeve T. I haven’t been a big GoLite fan, but I bought this top because it has an Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) logo on it, and I must say I’m very pleased. Most of my outdoor clothing and gear is solid and tested, but not exactly cutting edge. This top has a very smooth finish, which makes it easy to wear under things, and it doesn’t stink after a day in the hills…or a week walking Loops.

My midlayer was a gift from my daughter some years ago, and it’s been my favorite. It’s an Eastern Mountain Sports (EMS) Bergelene Zip-T with thumb loops. It’s been many miles on my back, both walking and running, and it will be many more.

My mix of layers also includes an old black Patagonia Zephur windshirt, similar to but lighter and a little less bulky and more packable than a Marmot DriClime. It has no handwarmer pockets, but it does have a bigger and more useful breast pocket, which is important to me in this sort of top. The Zephur enters the morning walk wardrobe when the wind is biting or the thermometer really takes a plunge. I also wear it in the hills when it’s raining but not pouring. It’s a really versatile piece. But ugly. Ugly.

Some of this stuff I’ll bring to Scotland, but I haven’t yet decided on the right selection. And I’m pondering the best waterproofs, which riveting topic I’ll cover soon.


Scotland’s dark waters…and dark times elsewhere

Yesterday morning I had the NPR news on in the background, and I jerked my head up when I heard the reporter say, “The once light amber lochs found in the Scottish Highlands now look more like dark Guinness Stout.”

It turns out that this is part of a phenomenon noticed all over northern Europe and North America…and it’s not a bad thing. Here’s the link, if you’d like to listen (a little over three minutes).

It doesn’t taste like Guinness Stout, does it?

Yesterday was Thanksgiving here in the States. It’s a holiday that for many Americans is inextricably intertwined with football. Along with the televised games that begin in the early afternoon and go on well into the evening, for high schools it’s frequently the morning when the last game of the year is played, often against a traditional rival. (My father still has the ball—adorned by the now disappearing autographs of his teammates—that he was awarded as captain of the winning team in the 1940 Wilby-Crosby Thanksgiving Day game.)

Despite dad’s youthful skill in the sport, we tend not to be one of those football families. We gather, drink decent wine, eat vast quantities of turkey, stuffing, and fixin’s, catch up with each others’ lives, meet the new boyfriends and girlfriends, and welcome guests who couldn’t get home to their own families.

An evening or two before Thanksgiving every year, our town has an ecumenical service in one of the five white clapboard churches lining our New England main street. I’ve been asked a few times to read the Governor’s proclamation formally appointing the date of the holiday. It’s almost always a version of the words written in 1936 by one of our state’s great governors, Wilbur Cross, in which he noted our need to be thankful, among other things, “…for the brotherly word and act; for honor held above price; for steadfast courage and zeal in the long, long search after truth; for liberty and for justice freely granted by each to his fellow and so as freely enjoyed; and for the crowning glory and mercy of peace upon our land….”

It’s sobering to read those words these days, and impossible to be thankful for that which does not exist. So this year I could only express joy and gratitude that we could be together, faith that things will change, and hope that enough of us will have the determination to make it so.


Walk, don’t run


The elegant gent standing next to the phallic cairn is Paul. He was my high school social studies and earth science teacher. (I am now his landlord. The worm turns.) We’ve been friends for over 40 years, and these days we walk three miles or so together every morning, solving along the way many major national and international problems. We have a couple of regular routes, known to us as “River” and “Loops.” Our fondest hope every day is to meet an early dog or two to pat and scratch. Then Paul starts looking forward to his Quaker Oats, and I to my Wheaties. How the mateys have fallen.

This photo was taken on neither “River” nor “Loops” here in Woodbury, Connecticut, USA, but on the Welch-Dickey Loop, a classic, beautiful, half-day stretch of the legs in New Hampshire’s Waterville Valley area. Distance is about 4.5 mi. (7.2 km.), total elevation gain is about 1,800 ft. (550 m.), and much of the walk is on open slab. Terrific walking, fine views, and at least on this September mid-week day, no crowds.

The smiling paunch in the red shorts is me, overlooking the unfortunately obscured Nancy Cascades, on a different walk during the same week, this one west of Crawford Notch and on the way to what I suppose is my favorite single spot in the Whites.


After our morning walk, I sometimes run (or, more accurately, shuffle) a few miles, and when Paul the cosmopolite is away in exotic locales, I often dump the walk altogether and just shuffle a little farther. In fact, this is how the “Loops” route was born. I used to be a runner who could actually run. Then I became a runner who thought he could run. I persisted in this delusion despite regular and unmistakable signals given out over time by all parts of both legs. The result was that I kept finding myself grumpily limping home from miles away. This happened over and over again. I’d strain an achilles, say, offer the excruciating penance of rest, gradually build back up to running, stretch the mileage, raise the pace and…boom…grumpily limping home again from miles away. It took only a dozen or so of these cycles before the brilliant idea of local loops flashed into my quick and supple mind. So, making use of the Main Street sidewalk (pretty much the only one in town), part of my old high school cross-country course, and the cemetery where I ease quietly past a number of gently resting relatives and friends, I put together a set of loops that could be modified, linked, reversed, repeated, and short-circuited to give me essentially any distance I could sanely hope to manage, without ever being more than a mile or so from home. The “Loops” Paul and I walk many mornings is a basic version. Of course, when I do whatever that is that I repeatedly do to the outside of my right knee, it’s always at that mile-away-from-the–house point.

Now that all I want to do is to be ready for the TGO Challenge in May, I’m going to be walking more and running, even shuffling, less. I do NOT want have to limp grumpily back home from deepest Knoydart.