Two Books

(Skip now or forever hold your peace).

I’ve been on a sort of English-major kick over the last few days. (I’m blaming this on my 50th college reunion a couple of weeks ago.) Number 1 was What Blest Genius, by Andrew McConnell Stott, about—as the subtitle puts it—“the jubilee that made Shakespeare”— the famous 1769 Shakespeare Jubilee in Stratford, promoted and dominated by the actor/director/producer/empresario David Garrick—a near-disaster (many would say an actual disaster) that became a historic triumph, placing Shakespeare irrevocably at the center of British literature and turning his home town into the pilgrimage site it remains. The book is stupendously well researched and written. It’s also absolutely hilarious. (To a 20th-century sensibility with my particular character flaws, a great deal about 18th-century cultural history is hilarious, but Stott is really very funny.)

Number 2 was The World Broke In Two: Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot. D.H. Lawrence, E.M. Forster, and the Year That Changed Literature [Whew], by Bill Goldstein. The year was 1922. NOT hilarious, and not remotely up my particular street, but wonderfully researched and beautifully constructed, interweaving these writers, their work, their personalities, their muses, their urgencies and neuroses, their relationships and interrelationships and jealousies. (Also, the author calls them all by the names their friends used: Virginia , of course, but then “Tom”, and “David”, and “Morgan”—a little unusual, but it works well in this context.) I’ve read all these people, of course. (English majors do.) But not for over half a century. I was reminded of a lot, learned a lot more, and it was excellent exercise for my lazy and increasingly flabby brain. I may even have a late-in-life go at Mrs. Dalloway. I couldn’t possibly understand it any less than I did in 1967.

Skinny pants

We’ve been traveling outside the country a bit, and the world is full of young men wearing skinny trousers. Thank God I’ve almost never had to dress for work, and I’ve been wearing button-front Levi 501s since college in the late ’60s, when my roommate had to bring them to me from Colorado, since effete Eastern 501s came with zippers. Not too skinny, not too fat. Before that though, I wore trousers with not much more room than the ones you see everywhere now. (I remember a chat with a sportswriter well over 50 years ago whose greeting was, “Jeez, your pants look painted on!”) Recently, because I’m an incredibly hip guy who is also cheap, I’ve begun buying trousers at Uniqlo. It’s 1965 all over again.

Mom and Dad

I had two stupendous bits of early good fortune in life: my mother and my father. I was well into my teens before it dawned on me that not all marriages were happy.

We lost my mom far too soon, to early-onset Alzheimers, a cruel, cruel disease under any circumstances, but particularly painful to watch in such a vivid personality. My dad died on Easter morning five years ago, so I’ve been thinking of him particularly these days. Which, of course, makes me think of mom too.

She once told me that she had early on said to my paternal grandmother, “Dick has such wonderful manners.” Nana gave a characteristically waspish reply: “Of course he does. He was raised at my table.”

Partly because of those manners, and partly because of the luck of the genetic draw, my father was a popular young man. He captained the football team, was elected class president, and as his high school yearbook had it, “Dick’s fascinating charm and bashful manner have caused many a female heart to flutter.” Even a half-century later, the newspaper article about his class’s 50th reunion led with quotes from female classmates gushing about his handsome wonderfulness. (All of us, naturally, razzed him silly.) 

My mom, a class younger, once purposely dropped all her books in the school hallway just as he was passing. “He picked them up, I said, ‘thank you,’ he said ‘you’re welcome,’ smiled, and went on his way. I could have kicked him.” She eventually broke through that bashful manner, and dad spent the rest of his life believing he’d won the lottery.

Neither of them went to college. Dad could probably have gone on the G.I. Bill, but he’d  gotten a decent job and really had no interest. Mom, on the other hand, would have killed for a college education. She made do with reading. She read everything—from poetry to history to cheap detective fiction—everywhere, all the time. She read, for example, at the table. Which meant I had permission to do the same. And my father took it up, too—primarily Louis L’Amour westerns. “Out of self-defense,” he always said.

Together, though, they agreed  that their only child was definitely going beyond high school. They started saving before I actually appeared, using the cost of a Yale education as their guide. In the late 1940s, that came to a breathtaking $1,000 a year. So. Used cars (very used cars), no big vacations, and the cheapest possible house in a town with a good school system. All this seasoned, thank goodness, with love, kindness, and good humor. We laughed a lot. A lot.

Mom and I often played word games. I remember sitting outside, looking at the stars in the summer sky. She’d say a word. I’d say one—preferably a better one, preferably a funny one—that rhymed or that I could make rhyme by pronouncing it wrong. She’d sometimes read or recite to me a short poem, often comic. And in the process of all this, I learned about the rhythmic possibilities of language, not just in poetry, but in good prose, too. And have I said we laughed a lot?

My father was, of course, my model for what a man should be. As a partial result, along with knowing how to go back on a fly ball, I have, and still reflexively deploy, the manners of an earlier time. I learned that men look people in the eye, shake hands firmly, walk on the outside, open doors, stand when ladies come into the room, take off their hats when they enter a building, deflect gracefully any praise that might come their way—and (he was a lower-middle-class man of his time) don’t wear pink.

He may have had something there.

Sweetness remembered

My grandfather, who’s name was Martin O’Brien, thought that Bridget would be a great name for my mother. My grandmother, an old Yankee named Anna Lewis, was having none of that. Bridget O’Brien, indeed.

But her dad won in the end. The name on her birth certificate may have been Marilyn, but he never called her anything but Bridget. So her siblings called her Bridget. And her friends called her Bridget. As a girl, pretty much everyone close to her except her mother and her teachers called her Bridget.

As I was growing up, I could always tell her old friends from her new friends, because the people she’d known from childhood all called her Bridget, or Bridgy, or Bridge. And these people, not surprisingly, showed a special affection for me, too. It was sweet then, and it’s sweet for me to think of now.

Maxing Out

Shortly after I staggered back home after a stumbling shuffle a few weeks ago, my Garmin gizmo had this to tell me: “Your VO₂ Max is 49 which is superior for men ages 70-79. Your fitness age is that of an excellent 20 year old. That’s the top 5% for your age and gender.”

This is a lot like being told by your old auntie that you are such a handsome boy. You appreciate the thought even though you know it’s not true. I have a vague memory of what it feels like to be a fit 20-year-old, and—believe me—this ain’t it.

Chuffed all the same, of course.

Heavy, man.

Like most runners in the ’70s, I went light, often in just shoes and shorts with a damp facecloth tucked into the back of the waistband. In those days, I knew pretty much everybody around here, and pretty much everybody knew me, so I never gave a thought to ID. Never gave a thought to cash, either. Or water. And in those days, the idea of listening to music during a run would have seemed bizarre. I did keep track of my pace, but I did it in the most basic way: I had an early digital watch, I knew my mile marks, and I just glanced at the time as I went through them, noted it, did the math in my head, and held the results in my memory for later transcription into a paper training diary. The whole deal was pretty stripped down.

Things are different now, and even in warm weather I often feel as encumbered as a lineman up a pole. The hearing aid, of course, without which I can’t even make out my own footfalls. And given the existence of the iPhone, an old man running without a communications is an idiot. I need something to carry the phone in, so I wear the flattish, unbouncy Amphipod waistpack, which also has  just enough room when I travel away from home for a credit card, hotel info, a few bills, and a room key or card. Since it’s nice to be able to recognize all this stuff, I also cram in the pair of glasses I never used to need.

Of course, if I croak by the side of the road, I’d like whoever shovels me up to be able to break the news to the family, so wearing a Road ID on one wrist is considerate. On the other is my Garmin gizmo which, if I can remember which buttons to push, tracks with ludicrous but wonderful accuracy route, distance, speed, cadence, temperature, weather, and the color of the hair of the guy who passed me 126.51 yards short of  the 3-mile mark.

Still don’t worry about water.


I’ve been on a YouTube kick lately. It’s been keeping me from going stir-crazy on these frigid days when I can’t get out to exercise. Here are the subjects I’ve been digging around in most.

  • Coffee. A relatively recent interest…I’d always been a tea man. I’ve learned a lot about sourcing, processing, roasting, brewing. Here, here, here. I try not to be a bore about it. I fail.
  • Fitness/Fitness tech (mostly running, some strength and flexibility, including a little yoga). Some of the yoga, especially, has been really helpful. On the other hand, there are a zillion running sites. virtually none of which speak to the issues of an old guy like me. But I keep looking. And the tech stuff astonishes. (I do like this guy, not because of any great tips, but just because he’s cool. And Australian)
  • Baseball. I watch instructional videos, mostly for teenage players. This is a nostalgic exercise. I’m weirdly delighted that, by and large, they teach the same things I was taught, in pretty much the same way. The main difference is that modern infields aren’t filled with rocks. (As with the running stuff, all these guys seem to call themselves Coach. “Coach Bob, Coach Fred, Coach Michelle.” I have to say that, to me, the fact they’ve awarded themselves this minor honorific, and have then stuck it in front of their first name seems simultaneously pretentious and smarmy. I know… I’m old and crotchety.)
  • Travel/Outdoors. Interesting walks. Useful gear. Eccentric opinions. Colorful personalities.
  • Music (especially jazz). YouTube was made for this.There is so much wonderful stuff out there. Even not jazz. Along these lines, I’ve especially been enjoying this guy.
  • Obsession (the presenter’s, not mine). I’m fascinated by people who are really into something and whose energy makes it at least theoretically interesting to me. And I’ve always appreciated oddballs and harmless maniacs.


We were out and about a bit not long ago, and I took the opportunity to measure some roads. Woodbury still has a few dirt ones left, and now that I’ve built my mileage up a bit, I’m planning to get back to running on them. Decades ago I had a set of back-road routes that I could play with, adding a little mileage here, cutting some off there, hitting long flats for speed, and working my favorite just-right hills. Not all dirt, but mostly quiet and leafy. The sorts of things any runner lucky enough to live in the country does. I sort of remember the loops, and I sort of don’t. And some of the roads have been developed beyond recognition. So an ongoing survey is in progress, and I’ve already put in some reasonable mileage on a few old favorites. But it’s going to be really great come spring.

New North

Woodbury has three burial grounds. The oldest dates back to the 1670s. It’s the smallest, and though it’s well-maintained, to me it’s always  felt crowded with fallen and haphazard stones. If you’re say, at the library, it can make a good shortcut to the local swimming, ball diamonds, and playgrounds down in the Hollow.

Our North Cemetery, a half-mile or so up the road and also on the small side, had its first burial 150 years or so later. One of its boundaries meets the edge of the fields where I played baseball as a boy in the ’50s and ’60s, and we occasionally stepped into the brush-line there for a necessary moment.

The New North, across Washington Avenue (which is much less grand than it sounds), opened in the 1870s and is a different matter altogether. At about 20 acres, thanks to an extension a few years back, it’s by far the biggest of the three. It slopes west, down toward the river, with a dirt lane around the three of its edges not bounded by the road. Four more-or-less east-west lanes cut down the slope, with a number of cross-lanes connecting them. Perhaps a third of it is still open land, where no one has yet taken up residence.

New North is a cemetery. It’s seen a lot of tears and has regularly hosted sorrow, sadness seemingly beyond bearing, and utter despair. Some of those emotions have been mine. But time heals, and for me it’s mostly a familiar, comfortable, and even comforting place. There are lots of trees and other plantings in its older section, but it feels open, and because of its slope and orientation, it catches and holds the sun during the day. My parents are here. One set of grandparents. An uncle. An aunt. School classmates. Friends and parents of friends, and colleagues of three generations. The spot where my dust will eventually be sunk, preferably by slightly inebriated friends and family members.

Down in its southwest corner is an area I call Lake H., after our daughter. Before they improved the drainage, a foot-deep puddle would form here after every significant rain. Once, when H. was a young runner, we went out for a shuffle during a deluge, and when we got to the corner, the water was halfway up to her knees. We just thrashed on through the deep for six or seven strides, which she thought was a wonderful upending of usual behavioral norms, and we chortled the rest of the way home, where we topped it all off with a splash fight in a driveway puddle. I miss old Lake H.

New North has been a part of my running for a long time, much more so after its expansion. It’s quiet and safe: no cars blowing by. The terrain offers almost everything you need. You can just cruise around enjoying the day, doing up-and-downs or figure-eights, or just big circuits. I often use convoluted loops as part of a longer road run. And during periods of more-or-less serious training, the terrain is perfect for fartlek and Lydiard-style hillwork. The best slope for this, 200 yards or so and just the right pitch, is a lane that runs close by the grave of a great old friend and teammate, so in my mind it’s become David’s Hill.

I’m nowhere near alone in enjoying New North. Lots of locals walk here, many with their dogs. Unless the snow is deep, Paul and I wander through—dogless—a little after 7:30 on our morning constitutional. In season, fisherpeople park at the bottom of the slope and head for the river. In the fall, the cross-country teams from the nearby middle school do some of their training here and race the lanes as part of their competition course. I love seeing their somewhat eccentric limed directional markings appear every fall. There’s a man who parks against the southern boundary every Sunday morning and reads the paper. (We’ve decided his wife’s at church, and he’s…not.) Especially on long warm evenings you often see family members adding plantings and tidying graves. Of course, spring through fall, there’s a crew out mowing and trimming and keeping things neat. And digging and refilling the occasional hole as required. After all, as my grandfather, now in residence, used to say, “People are just dying to get in here.” 

Dermatology, gowns, and green legs

A few weeks ago I had a little growth on the front of my right thigh that I wanted the dermatologist to take a look at. My longtime derm guy has retired, and the practice is now run on an entirely different basis by a crew from Yale. I used to go in and Sal would say, “Ok, strip down and let me take a look.” Now I’m escorted into a much more modern space and the tech says, “Would you like a gown?” A gown? I had to ask what she was talking about. Anyway, they decided that whatever it was had to be sliced out, and I’ve been wandering around for a few days with a piece of gauze taped over a small incision. I’ve had to renew it several times, and this adhesive action has reminded me that as a runner in college I had to shave my legs below the knees to be taped every afternoon, and the trainer would spray on Cramer Tuf-Skin to make the tape adhere. Tuf-Skin over time would turn your flesh green unless you scrubbed it off with rubbing alcohol, which I seldom bothered with. So I spent my late teens and early twenties with stubbly green legs. I looked like a diseased tomato vine.