Thursday, October 7, 2010

Tension is who you think you should be, relaxation is who you are. ~a fortune cookie

I have a theory that the reason there are so many geeks fascinated by the medieval time period is because of the peaks and valleys of stress in the technical industry. For many, either you are utterly stressed or bored out of your skull. We (and I say “we” because I consider myself part of this group) long for simpler times. In Utopian terms, there were two main phases you were in.

1) You were putting on armor, grabbing a long stick with a deadly bit on the end of it and dealing with your problem.
2) You were celebrating the fact that your problem was dealt with, feasting on whole animals, and listening to musicians sing tales of your courage and strength.

The reality is, there was plenty to stress about. To name a few: disease, foul odors everywhere, Vikings showing up and wreaking havoc, frightening medical practices- and, worst of all, lack of instant access to reliable information on any topic. Also, being under siege for years is a whole new level of boredom and stress.

My point here is that computer geeks often have stress which leads to odd ways of dealing with it – I know I did. It was based on a technique that Native Americans would use when they were suffering from grief or anger or any emotion that they could not get under control.

First, he would fast for a day or two just to let his body know that he meant business. Next, he would go down to a riverbed and search for a rock that "called to him." After that, he would take this rock and go far out into the woods, grip the rock as tight as he could and visualize himself pouring all his negative emotion into it. Finally, he would bury the rock and walk away, leaving whatever was troubling him behind.

If you are an insomniac like me, this may make more sense. The goal is to have a memory of something you can latch onto instead of whatever is bothering you repeatedly forcing itself into the forefront of your mind. You just remember burying the rock when the emotion pops up and eventually it fades away.

I was not about to fast or bury a quarry’s worth of rocks to deal with stress, but here was my procedure. On my walk home at the end of the day, I would press my hand against a certain cement pillar and leave my work stress there. If I started to think back about my job, I would remember the pillar. And, believe it or not, it worked pretty well for me.

When we moved houses I needed a new pillar. After giving it much thought, I decided on a weird sculpture-thing I would be passing by every day. The next evening, following my pattern, I placed my hand on it and, to my surprise, it moved. I grabbed it and experimented and realized that it was meant to spin and, also, the main pieces rotate on their own while the base is spinning.

This is way cooler than the pillar. On particularly bad days I would get the whole thing spinning as fast as I could, nearly slamming myself in the head a couple of times.

I still don’t know what the sculpture-thing is or what it’s supposed to represent. I’ve included a short video below – if you have any idea of the true meaning of my stress totem, I’d love to hear it.

Friday, August 27, 2010

San Francisco Marathon - Part 3

Everything starts to fade out for the second half of the race – I am noticing less and less of what is going on around me and can only focus on the rhythm on my feet. Haight street is lined with dread-locked people lazily watching us trickle by. I keep mentally repeating the same phrase:

Walking hurts way worse than continuing to run.

And it’s true. The few times I slowed to a walk, I started to feel the pain in all my joints and muscles and would quickly start shuffling forward again.

I never worry about being unable to finish- what I am concerned with is being unable to finish in time. The limit is 6 hours before they officially start opening up the street and forcing runners to the sidewalks. My goal was a 5 hour finish and I know I am behind schedule. Each refreshment table I pass has fewer and fewer people, runners that have already completed are sitting at cafes drinking beer, cleanup crews are already beginning to work the brooms.

A woman passing me must have seen my worried expression. She pats my shoulder, says “Remember, there’s only one speed. Forward!”, and takes off ahead.

Looking up, the Bay Bridge seems miles away – I tune into my headphones, look up again, and I am passing underneath it. Drums are playing in the distance, friends and relatives are snapping pictures, and I can see the finish line.

There is an elderly man directly in front of me and I think to myself, “If Wife is taking pictures right now, he is going to be in the way, but I can’t go faster or slower or veer at this point.”  Only one speed. Forward.

Crossing the finish line, I slow to a walk and my lower body cramps into a solid block. Eagerly grabbing all the supplies I see, I devour scones and energy drinks. A medal gets placed around my neck and I see Wife on the other side of the barrier. She begins the trip around to my side while I sit on the pavement and think.

The one emotion above everything else is relief. I am happy, but disappointed I didn’t make my time. I am excited but want to fall asleep. Above all I am relieved – that I made it, that all the training wasn’t wasted, that I can tell everyone that knew I was participating that I finished, and that I don’t have to have regret hanging over my head until I am 70.

The most frequent question I am asked is : “Will you do it again?”

Answer: Maybe. I need a break from the time commitment of that type of distance running, and the thought of something with obstacles really intrigues me. Regardless, whatever I decide to next, there’s one thing that I know :

I know I can do it – and that made it all worth it.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

San Francisco Marathon - Part 2

In one of my running books it says that one of the most important things to remember, in preparing for race day, is to get a good night’s sleep. It notes immediately after that you probably will not be getting a good night’s sleep because of nerves, excitement and whatever else, so don’t worry about it too much – it happens to everyone.

My sleep is fitful and my dreams are erratic. Ireland, being chased by dogs, riding a trolley car, wandering around airports – a mish-mash of my experiences the past weeks and months. At two o’clock in the morning, I was awoke by a group of girls singing out on the street (incidentally, it was “California Gurls” by Snoop Dogg and Katy Perry. Not exactly what I wanted to be hearing and it’s forever imprinted on my memory now.)

Wakeup time came quickly and I gear up. Feeling strong, we walk toward the start. Slowly but surely we start to intersect others with the same destination. As we approach we see groups of hundreds stretching, slamming a muffin, or waiting for a porta-potty. I kiss Wife and get into the gate – there is definitely a cattle-like feeling to it.

The announcer’s shouts the start and, slowly but surely, the crowd piles through the starting gate. I try to recall words from various books and colleagues explaining that you need to conserve energy:

Run *your* race, not anyone else around you.

If you get to halfway and feel good, hold back; if you get to 15 miles and feel good; hold back; if you get to 18 miles and feel good, still hold back; when you get to 20 miles, you will be tired, then you can start to race.

The Boudin bakery smells fantastic and there are bakers watching us through the huge open windows. I look in and wave, a few bakers smile and wave back.

Familiar tourist attractions pass my peripheral vision : Pier 39, Ripley’s Believe It or Not, the spot where the silver painted guy stands,  the place where I once saw a guy running a three-card-monte game. I am broken out of my reverie by my first hill – it’s a monster.

As the incline steepens, the crowd backs up and some start walking. My legs scream at me , “go! GO! We LOVE this!” and I turn up the speed. Unable to contain the adrenalin inside, I weave in and out of people, huge smile on my face and my lungs starting to burn for the first time of the morning. About 20 minutes later a woman is running beside me and asks, “How are you feeling?”

“Good! How are you doing? You ok?”

“Yeah, I am great, I was in that group of people you passed back on that hill!”

If I wasn’t already red from exertion, I might have blushed. “Yeah, I am sure I’ll be paying for that later.”

“Well, you are looking good! Keep it up!’, and she picks up the pace and leaves me behind.

My iPod mix grabs my attention as a song I purposefully threw in at the last minute begins : Global Deejays “San Francisco”, where the lyrics are simply a reciting of various city names and then a sample from the song “If you’re going to San Francisco”. I listen and think about all the places on the list I have been fortunate enough to visit.

Shortly after, I begin the run across the Golden Gate Bridge – which continues to be the leading suicide destination for bridge jumpers. I see the Crisis Hotline phone which has a sign that reads “There is hope. Make the call.” Underneath the sign, someone had written in Sharpie “Life is good!” and drew a smiley face.

The road is narrow and I try to keep my own pace without bumping into others. I hear someone shout and look up to see my friends that encouraged me to sign up for the race coming the opposite direction – I hold my hand out and they high-five me (I realize at this point that, despite the hills, there is no way I am going to catch and run with them.) There are maybe three miles ahead of me and have a faster pace, so I settle into my own head for the rest of the run.

Finishing the bridge, I wind my way through to Golden Gate Park. People holding signs become more abundant, Harley Davidson riders controlling traffic hold out their hands for high-fives, and, now that it’s past breakfast time, there are actually people wandering around wondering what is going on. I see a sign that appears hastily made that reads, “Holy !@#$, you’re running a marathon! Will you be my daddy?” and wonder what sort of issues would make someone write that. It made me chuckle out of confusion.

Golden Gate Park is the halfway point and the fatigue is taking affect – I am not cramping up but my pace is definitely slowing and people pass me steadily. Slamming down some energy gel, my focus turns to my music as I attempt to tune out the burning in my hamstrings.

Monday, August 23, 2010

San Francisco Marathon - Part 1

Context: This happened in July of 2010.

Encouraged by some friends, and based on my experience in Holland, I signed up in January to run in the San Francisco Marathon. I viewed it as an opportunity to see my birth place in a way that I never had before.

I am not sure at which point between January and July I made the transition to calling myself a “runner”. It might be my tenth time I woke up before the sun rose to get my miles before starting my day. It might be when I recognized the same people along the trail and waved back when they raised their hands to me. It’s most likely when I looked down to realize I was going to lose a toenail – either I was dedicated or crazy -likely both.

There were ups and downs in my training schedule (missing a day, trying to make up for it the following week) and diet (I won’t even go into some of the binges to satisfy some of the strongest cravings I have ever felt.) As the big day approached, I felt ready, but daunted- mostly owing to my strict work schedule that included a lot of travel immediately preceding AND following the race.

The preceding Thursday, I fly out to Richmond, Virginia to participate in a round-table discussion on disaster preparation strategies for a particularly large customer’s environment. After geeking out all day Friday, I fly back to San Francisco and meet Wife at our room at around Midnight.

Saturday, I wake up early despite my wish to sleep (excitement and time zone changes had me bright-eyed at around 7 AM.) We walk to the expo, pick up my bib, and wander back through the city. To satisfy Wife’s hunger, as well as our constant addiction to Irish pubs, we stop in at Johnny Foley’s – where I make the most painful decision of the day : to drink or not to drink. Flashing back to the constant advertising plastered on the side’s of Irish buildings and ask the bartender, “Does Guinness really give you strength? I am supposed to run the San Francisco Marathon tomorrow.”

“Oh absolutely. It is in no way a marketing campaign and will certainly give you strength.”

“Pour me a pint, then.”

Our next stop was another one of our favorite pubs - The Irish Bank (on Bush Street). I order Bangers and Mash for lunch and another pint. The elderly man next to me is from the south of Ireland used to train boxers (he said he was a golden gloves champion, and I believe him.) I said that most runners are “carbo-loading” today, but I am “Irish Loading” which consists of drinking Guinness, eating pub grub, and working myself into an emotional frenzy.

He gets serious and asks “Are you confident in your training?”

“Yeah, I know I can physically do it, I mean I ran most the distance a couple of weeks ago.”

He taps his temple and says, “Then it’s all up here then. If you know you can do it, you need to commit now or not show up – or you’ll regret it for years. How old are you?”

“Thirty five.”

“Well, just remember that, when you are passing mile thirteen, that if you don’t finish now, you will be kicking yourself all the way until you are seventy. You’re at the halfway point in your life and you don’t want to have that on your conscience.”

I stare into my glass, “I’ll remember that.”

He smacks my ribs and say, “You’ve got HEART, lad, leave it all out on the track!”

“I will, sir, thanks for the words, enjoy your visit to San Francisco.”

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

One of these things does not belong

Context: This happened in February 2010.

A friend of mine is visiting from out of town so Wife and I take him around Walnut Creek to enjoy some beer and people-watching. Walking down one of the main drags, we pass a place completely new to us. It's called "1515" which is what I assume is the address, a two story building gives customers the chance to look outside to the street below and it sounds like a good plan for our next stop.

We go inside, walk past security to go upstairs and find a table next to the window. Wife proceeds to the bar to order drinks and I look around the room. Immediately something doesn't seem right. I can't put my finger on it, but I am uneasy.

A few minutes later, the DJ turns the volume up from five to seven and the crowd starts to non-chalantly dance wherever they are standing. Time passes as we chat with each other, catch up on the past couple of months, and watch people passing by below.

We all exchange some confused and worried looks when, later the volume goes from seven to nine and we can't hear each other talk. That's when I realize it : I am in a game of "Which one of these things is not like the others?" and we are the outsiders.

My first thought is "I do not have nearly enough gel in my hair to fit in here."

My second thought is "I also do not have nearly enough hair on my face to fit in here."

I look to my left and one of the girls has written letters on her knuckles with a ballpoint pen. When she puts her fists together they read : LADY GAGA.

I look around the room and it's teeming with guys in their early twenties wearing their plaid shirts and Livestrong bracelets like badges of honor.

We leave immediately. If any readers saw me walking out of there - that's the explanation. It was an accident, please don't assume I have any desire to be around (or be like) that crowd.

In the future, I'll be sure to ask the doorman what the percentage of hair gel to actual hair the clientele usually has and make an informed decision.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Northern Ireland - Part 3

Context: This was in May of 2002.

We wake up on our final day and sign up for a local tour that takes us through some of the grittier parts of Belfast. I wasn’t too frightened, after all, I’ve lived near major cities most of my life and I firmly believe that if you mind your own business, you are usually safe.

The main division in Northern Ireland is along a combination of political and religious lines. On one side you have the British/Protestants and the other the Irish/Catholics. Our first destination is a neighborhood where everything is painted the colors of the Irish flag (sidewalks, fire hydrants, lamp posts, houses, fences, everything.) Shortly after, we pass through one for the opposite side where the theme is the Union Jack.

The driver has a running discourse on the various acts of violence that have happened and I wonder just how much is fabricated just to make things sound more dangerous. We pass by a pub that has a gigantic metal barrier covering the entrance and he explains that, when it became difficult to throw pipe bombs inside, they started to drive cars through the front of the pub to blow it up. The barrier looks new and this is where I begin to get nervous.

Our next stop is a neighborhood where the sides of two-story houses had huge murals – each one describing someone brave soldier fighting for their side of the cause. The driver motions to one in particular which is of a man called “Mad Dog Adair”, whose nickname pretty much describes his behavior and propensity for violence.

He story ends with, “Oh! And there’s your man right there!” and standing on the other side of the street, smoking a cigarette, is Mad Dog himself glaring at our bus. This is where I start to get really nervous.

Leaving the neighborhood, I note a group of about fifty armored police gathering up the street. The driver explains that every year they have a march which proceeds right in front of the other faction’s church – so rather than have the factions kill each other (sparking yet another blood feud), the police step in between and fight them directly. I let Wife know I am ready to go back to Dublin now.

Arriving home, I read the news and there were over thirty injuries but only a few deaths, so it is reported as “relatively calm”. Belfast is definitely one of the most sobering places I have ever seen, but I am pretty sure I would go back to learn more about the city itself. They say that children going to school together is slowly breaking down the division, but only time will tell.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Northern Ireland - Part 2

Context: This was in May of 2002.

Bushmills is not my first choice of Irish whiskey (I am a Jamesons drinker), but I am fascinated by any process of manufacturing – especially brewing and distilling. Every time I order a pint of something bubbly I can't help but think on all the pieces that went into creating it.

After being split into several groups, it is announced that there will be no pictures on the inside. After the initial disappointment, it’s clarified that the spark from the flash is dangerous in an area with fumes that are flammable. Everyone looks around to make sure that no one is thinking of turning us into a ball of flame because they want to add a memento to their photo album.

The guide takes us through the process (the barrels, the mash, the bottling) and this is where I learn that during the aging phase some of the whiskey evaporates. This has been called “the angels’ share” for a long time and I envision an explanation many years ago with someone being called to account for missing whiskey and saying “Don’t look at me, I have no idea. Maybe some angels drank it.”

At the end of the tour there is a tasting and an opportunity to buy a bottle that is specially aged and has a label with your name printed on it – I pass and head back to the bus. (Ten years later, in hindsight, it would be awesome to have it on my shelf.)

Our final stop for the day is the “Giant’s Causeway”, which is a field of hexagonal rocks sticking out varying heights. They were created by the famous Irish giant Finn McCool. He heard there was an even bigger, tougher giant living over in Scotland so he started building a rock bridge to connect to the neighboring coast. When he got close, he saw that there was, indeed, a massive giant so Finn hightails it back the way he came, ripping up the bridge behind him. (This is the shortest variation on the tale. Scientists say that it was actually caused by a volcano erupting underwater a long time ago, causing the instant cooling and shaping magma into hexagons, but what do they know.)

Our finale was a visit to Newgrange - which is a subject for a whole other post. It's an ancient limestone tomb older than the Pyramids at Giza and deserve more than a couple paragraphs.

Getting back to our hotel, we ask the staff for suggestions on where to go the following day (our train doesn’t leave until late afternoon) Over dinner, we decide to take a bus tour of Belfast itself. I knew Belfast’s reputation, but so far it seemed like a normal European city. Nothing different had jumped out at us and the tour supposedly takes you through the “real” Belfast.

Next up, the “troubles”, the colors and a mad dog.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Northern Ireland - Part 1

Context: This was in May of 2002.

After the closing of my previous employer, we packed our bags and flew to Ireland to see if I might be able to get work there.

After going on over a dozen interviews during the course of three months, the reality of our situation in Ireland sinks in – everyone is intrigued about an American techie trying to get work he is over-qualified for, but they are going to end up giving the job to a local.

There is no guarantee that we will ever get back to Ireland so Wife and I make an agreement: we each choose one last place to see before we go back. I decide on the Aran Islands (which is a whole other story) and she chooses the city and surroundings of Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Two days later we are on a train to Northern Ireland. The excitement of seeing something totally new is tempered with a melancholy of knowing that we are soon leaving and may never see the emerald isle again.

Our tour bus picks us up at our hotel and is packed with people (all with cameras at the ready). It’s our first taste of “group tourism” (where you are confined to ride with about thirty strangers) and we decide quickly that it’s not our cup of tea. I find myself really rubbed the wrong way with certain behavior and hated being lumped in with that group.

For example, one lady would be talking loudly about her pets (or job, or new purse) while the driver was describing a landmark we were passing. After he was finished, she would notice the landmark, scream, “Excuse me! What’s that?!”

He would repeat himself from the beginning. After about the fifth time doing this, he would simply respond, “I don’t know.”

She noted she was very disappointed in his lack of knowledge. (In hindsight, I find the whole scene hilarious, but at the time it was torturous.)

Our first stop was Carrick a Rede, the main feature being a rope bridge over a massive gap where fishermen catch salmon. In pictures it doesn’t look like much, but in person it can be quite daunting. The churning waves crashing against the rocks underneath you invoke the stereotypical feeling of danger.

Our tour group slowly crosses the bridge and, as we approach the midway point,  the woman in front of me stops walking and starts screaming.

“I can’t do it! I can’t do it!” she yells. I don’t know what to do, so I ask “Do you want to go back?” and look behind me strategizing on how to get the woman out of there.

“No!” she yells and I am confused. “Ok, well, you’re almost across, just take it one step at a time.”

“No!” she yells again, and the man behind me says “Come on man, get her moving!”

I realize that, for some reason, I have become responsible for this woman’s panic attack. A young boy starts bouncing up and down and the panicked woman screams louder. I lose patience and scream at her “Hey! You can’t just stay here, you have to go forward or go back! Make up your mind!”

She turns and stares daggers at me, she purses her lips and starts moving forward again. Reaching the other side she marches off in a fury. I let Wife know that we are going to cross the bridge before that woman on the way back since I don’t want to get stuck behind her again.

The initial drama over with, I look around and realize it’s gorgeous.

The rolling waves crashing into rock all around us, random shades of green covering the rock and the inland scenery.

Arriving back at the bus without much incident, we set aim to our next destination : the Bushmills Distillery. It’s a good thing because, although it’s only mid-morning, I know I am going to need some whiskey to deal with the group dynamics.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

My authority. Respect it.

I have been traveling a lot for work recently. It’s provided me with a bit of time for writing, but mostly just leaves me exhausted. However, I wanted to get this down immediately before I forgot or assumed I dreamt it. This happened this morning.

I noted last week, as I was en route to Seattle, that getting up at 4 AM for a Seattle flight is like a squirrel jumping onto your face – confusing and uncomfortable.

Getting up at 3:45 AM for a flight to Vegas was more along the lines of a complete stranger walking up to me and throwing a pickled herring at my feet – just as confusing, not as uncomfortable, leaving me asking myself “Did I do something to deserve this?”

One positive thing is that I am becoming extremely proficient in navigating airport security. I have learned that if I start stashing things like keys, watch, etc. into my carry-on backpack before hitting security I can save precious seconds in the “bin assembly line” at the checkpoint.

Even at 5:30 AM, the line to pass through security at SFO in Terminal 3 is large (about one hundred people.) I wait as the line progresses and double-check that I am set : I.D. and boarding pass in left pants pocket. All other pockets empty. Watch, phone, keys, belt in backpack – I am ready to roll.

In order to keep things moving quickly, sometimes they will station what I call a “shouter” near the front of the line. This person’s duty is to scream to the cattle to have their boarding passes and I.D. ready (this is so you aren’t fumbling around looking for ID when the man at the podium simply wants to put a pink highlighter mark on your boarding pass.) Standing about 10 feet in front of the podium is a woman about 5 feet tall assigned the morning's shouting duties.

I approach her and she looks at me and asks “Do you have your ID and boarding pass?”, I respond in the affirmative and make to move past her. She holds her hand out in front of me in the “Stop!” motion, so I assume she is letting traffic get a bit more caught up before letting me through. I stand there looking straight ahead, waiting for the hand to change to “Go!”.

Nothing happens. I turn to find her staring right at me. She looks at me as if I were daft and screams, “Can I SEE them?!” I reach into my front left pocket and show her. She seems a bit shocked that I could produce them so quickly.

I say, “I’m sorry, I thought I was supposed to show that guy.” and point to the man wielding the pink highlighter at the head of the line. She makes a sound of exasperation, turns her head so she is staring straight ahead, balls her hand into a fist and pounds her chest three times.

“I am an officer too!”, she yells and moves on to the next person who has his papers in his hand already.

This makes me wonder if I have ever met a female with a Napoleon Complex before (I have met many males with one, and pray that I never let my 5’6” stature morph me into that.) In any case, I continue to be torn between respecting people trying to do their job and being faced with someone who appears to not wear the cloak of authority appropriately.

I’ll continue to keep my head down, follow instructions and hope that I don’t get put on a list somewhere that will make me late for already stressful travel.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Stealthy, like a jungle cat.

I like to play.

I play card games and sports and board games – I like to think running is a form of play. However, I also like to do random silly playful things for a laugh or just to entertain myself. (Let me be clear, I am not a practical jokester. I am more likely to poke fun at myself than to get laughs at someone else’s expense.) This is context for the next story about going to a Barnes & Noble bookstore.

It's June 2002 and we are visiting the B&N in San Jose on Stevens Creek Blvd, which is huge. Bringing in the fact that there is a video game store right next door makes it a double-whammy when it comes to time and money spent.

Wife was browsing the books, I let her know that I am going into the game store to shop for new Playstation goodies. She nods and we go our separate ways. After browsing the games with a critical eye, nothing strikes my fancy, so I head back into the bookstore.

I search for about a minute and see her from a distance - but she doesn’t see me. That’s when I decide to follow her around the store and see how long it takes her to notice.

It sounds simple, but it was harder than I anticipated for me to guess where she was going to randomly move or look next so I ended up having to take evasive action a couple of times – ducking behind a shelf, hiding behind a pillar, that sort of thing.

While wandering over to the magazine section, a man stands next to her (which I though odd considering the topics of the magazines.) I find out later this is the conversation that transpired:

He says, “Ok, I don’t want to freak you out or anything, but don’t turn around. There’s this guy following you around the store looking suspicious and it’s pretty creepy.”

She is a bit shocked and scared for a split second but thinks for a moment and asks, “Wait, does he have a blue baseball cap on and a black t-shirt?”

He says, “Yeah, he does, do you know him? Is he stalking you?”

She says, “Well, yeah, that’s my husband.” She then turns around and looks right at me and does not look happy.

The man says something along the lines of, “Oh, well ok then.”  He quickly walks away.

She approaches me a bit embarrassed and, deciding not to buy anything, we leave promptly.

I still play this game sometimes which I have named “stalking my prey”. Personally, I think I’d make a great secret agent, if only I could perfect my “inconspicuously hiding behind a pillar” technique.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Seriously, stop the planet. I want to get off.

It appears all my time is now taken up by the following items:

1) Working or traveling for work
2) Exercising
3) Sleeping
4) Eating

Pretty much in that order. Hopefully in the next few weeks I can shoehorn some time for blogging again.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Keep your friends close, your enemies closer.

When I want to do 'hill work' (aka running up hills to make your legs stronger), I usually go to Lafayette Reservoir. It has a very hilly trail that winds around a ridge, but my preferred route is the 2 3/4 mile paved loop hugging the water-line.

Distraction helps me run which has resulted me in naming most of the hills around the loop. For example, the first hill leads to a children's play area with a castle-like structure, so I call it "The Drawbridge".

Increasing my total distance is my main goal for the day so I plan on four laps around the pond (a new personal record.) I pop on my headphones, take a deep breath and start trotting.

On the third lap the exertion catches up with me. My mind starts to go into that state of,  "Why am I doing this, again? Isn't there a computer game you would rather be playing right now?" I mentally slap myself a couple of times and concentrate on keeping pace - then I see it.

Dead ahead is the hill I call "The Beast", the steepest one of the loop. I let up my pace  and promise myself that if I can just keep moving it will be all over shortly. An elderly couple at the top see me panting upwards and move to the side allowing me to pass. I catch movement on my left in my peripheral vision and realize I am being passed.

She is Asian, in her early twenties, about six feet tall and is running like she means business. I assume this is her first lap since she isn't really sweating and doesn't seem tired at all. While training to run I have learned to discard my ego, so I could care less that she is passing me. That is, until I get to the top of the hill.

The couple at the top of the hill is still waiting for me to pass. The husband, who reminds me of Mr Miyagi, is looking at me with disgust. My iPod volume is cranked up so I can't hear what he is saying to me, but I catch the last few words which are " A GIRL!". He scowls, points his finger at me and then at the girl. The message is clear : don't let a girl beat you. (Side note: this song starts playing and is the theme song for what happens next.)

Exhaustion does strange things to your brain- something inside me snaps. Suddenly, my entire focus is inside a mental box. There is no pain inside the box. There is no fatigue inside the box. There is only one thing with me inside the box : "catch the girl."

I pick up my pace and she comes back into view as I turn the corner. The old man laughing behind me, I concentrate on her feet and match her rhythm (tap, tap, tap, tap.) I copy her stride and assessments of the situation bounce around my head : she's younger than I am, she's a more experienced runner, she's just started her run today, she's got a longer stride. My brain processes all this information and spits out the response.

She is history.

I increase my pace a 1/8 count to her rhythm (tap, tap-tap, tap, tap) and slowly gain on her. She turns over her shoulder, sees me and speeds up. I recalibrate the beat and compensate. We approach the series of long winding hills I call "The Dragon's Spine" and I hear a sound that could be me gasping for air or could be the wind.

About a mile later, we approach a flat picnic area I call "The Meadow" and the walls of the box crash around me. Clutching my stomach, I yell, "You win!", and grind to a halt. In response, she turns and gives me a thumbs up and sprints away even faster.

That's when it sinks in: she was never worried about me passing her, she was worried about me giving up without pushing myself to the limit.

I finished all four laps and went home thinking about the lessons I learned: there isn't dishonor in losing to a girl, a perceived opponent could actually be your ally, and if you spend all your energy on the monsters you won't be able to even walk through the meadow.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Run, stressed boy, run!

In August of 2008, my employer asked me if I would be willing to move to Amsterdam for 6 to 9 months to hire, train, and manage a support team focused on EU customers. After several long talks with my Wife, I agreed and we both flew out in November 2008. I hired someone from Hungary, Italy, and France to get a good mix of native languages that they could support in addition to English. Training went well, sales reps are excited to be able to tout local language support and things were generally upbeat.

We were at a sporting goods store and I saw a flyer for a 12K race at a nearby beachfront town called Zandvoort in March of 2009. With a bit of ramping up (and commitment on the treadmill) it sounds totally reachable - so I sign up. This is my first race and I am very excited, we reserved a B&B for the weekend of the race at Zandvoort which about 20 miles west of Amsterdam. I hit the treadmill religiously and learn that I have an ITB issue I need to keep in control, what REAL blisters are, what music gets me pumped up - all the things that you learn as you make a transition from "occasional runner in the gym" to "prepping to run for real".

Most agree that the economic conditions were painful in 2008 and 2009. The CEO of the company was replaced .. and then replaced again over the course of a couple of months. In February I was told that I would not be staying through July as planned but was to come back in April. More importantly, the new CEO decided to shut down EU Operations in my office. This means firing the team I just hired and trained - people who had left their home country just a few months earlier to come work for me.

I was a mess. I stopped working out and pretty much ate junk food all the time. People would ask me how I was dealing with it and I would say "I don't care if you are building a Lego castle for 6 months, if someone comes along and kicks it all down - it hurts. And I am dealing with people's lives here. I'm not in a good place."

After announcing to Wife I am not going to race since we have to pack and I have to close down the office I just built, she reminds me that we have a room reserved and that we should at least go and try to clear our heads- even if I don't run. It sort of makes sense, so I agree and the day before the race we go out there.

She notes that I should at least show UP to the race, just to watch, even if I don't feel like running - and maybe I should wear my gear just in case I feel like running part of the way or something. She continues to make sense, so I put on my running gear and go.

Arriving at the race location I get my numbered bib and look around. There is a lot of energy- dancers, drummers, all kinds of activity so I sit down and start stretching.

The race course is separated into three parts. Zandvoort is known for Formula 1 racing and our race begins on the race track for the cars! It does a loop around the track, then up to a beach where it proceeds for a ways and then back through downtown to finish at the track across the finish line (where the Formula 1 cars would finish with the checkered flag.)

I decide to at least run the race-track portion and get into the starting bin with all the other runners. The door opens and we all go. I am not used to running without music but something about being in a crowd keeps me going. The course leaves the racetrack area and toward the beach - I am hurting but don't want to "just quit" after all - I keep going.

I tell myself that I'll run up the beach and bow out at downtown. I see Wife sitting on a log on the beach snapping pictures and try to smile. I keep going.

I get up a hill leading to downtown and see people everywhere. Dutch is the native language of Holland and I can't understand a word they are saying, but I have my name printed on my bib and every once and a while I can hear someone call out my name in encouragement - it works. I keep going.

With about a mile left my ITB is hurting badly and I start to walk. A woman who had to be in her 60s slows down, pats me on the back and says something to me in Dutch. I have no idea what she said, but the message is clear: "Don't give up." I keep going.

Entering the race track area there is a chaos of sound. I start jogging, and then running. The next thing I know I see the finish line and all the pain is gone. I pick up the pace and smile when I hear the announcer say my name.

I go through the exit area and they give me a medal - something I was not expecting at all since this is my first race and I had no idea that there was swag at the end. I move to the side and put my hands in my face as a flood of emotion brought on by the events of the past five months just slams me.

After pulling myself together, I find Wife who tells me I deserve a pint. It's quite possibly the best idea I have heard all year.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Red light. Green light

(Context note: this was in January 2010, not too long before this writing.)

I've been regular with my morning runs but, due to weather, I opted to run after work instead.

The first thing I notice is that there is so much more activity at 6 PM rather than 6 AM. People are walking their dogs, coming home from work, or going out to dinner - and this all translates to me having to pay more attention. Every driveway and intersection needs to be approached with caution so I don't get clobbered by someone who is on their cell phone.

There are also a lot more distractions such as the smell of one of my favorite Indian restaurants taking me out of the zone and forcing me to dream of diving into a tub of lamb vindaloo.

While in the last mile of my four mile run I press the crosswalk button at an intersection that's one of the run-offs of freeway traffic. The "walk" man on the signal lights up and I take a step into the cross walk, look to my left and jump back quickly as a plum-colored mini-van careens into a right turn through the red. I take a deep breath and thank myself for paying attention.

I start to enter the crosswalk again and see a second vehicle accelerating toward the intersection. I back up and hold my hands up as if to say, "HUH?!", but as the vehicle approaches I realise something: it's a cop.

The cop flips on his lights and siren and goes tearing off after the mini-van. I finish my run strong, knowing that sometimes justice is served.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Brief hiatus from posting

Greetings to whoever is reading this!

Work and life have precluded me from doing much writing lately so I wanted to post a quick update that I am still alive and have this on my to-do list.

I am considering the topic of 'running' in general because in my training for the San Francisco Marathon this summer some strange things have happened.

Stay tuned.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Effective jingle work from the people at Starburst

It’s 2007 in Kusadasi (aka Ephesus) and we are in a group of about a dozen others being led through the ruins by a middle-aged woman with red hair and a loud voice. She talks about the age of some of the buildings, identity of the statues and meanings of the various designs. Most people are listening half-heartedly, but I try to pay attention and soak in as much as possible.

We reach the ancient library and I start to tune into the fact that our tour guide may be phoning it in. She doesn’t mention that this library was actually constructed as tomb, which was unique in that it was within city limits and, well, the guy’s burial chamber served as the repository for thousands of scrolls. It’s at this point that I notice a particular speech pattern in her delivery of: state a fact, ask if you believe that fact, and then repeat the fact. For example, “There were once thirty thousand people living here. Can you believe there were thirty thousand people living here? Well, that’s how many people lived here – thirty thousand people.” I split off from the group.

We walk to the local amphitheater and I eavesdrop on another tour guide. Evidently, only acoustic performances are allowed there after some damage was done by a concert with electric amps. It seems the ancient stones don’t like the massive vibrations of modern rock music.

I hear my wife yell to me from the back row at the top of one of the aisles. I yell back and it’s amazing how the acoustics just carry the distance. She asks me to sing something while she records with her camera. Now, I am not a singer-dancer type. Others turn their cameras on to record the acoustics as well and I freeze up. I can’t think of any songs I know the words too – complete music amnesia.

She continues to urge me to start singing, so I start in on the first thing that pops to my head: a commercial for a type of Lifesavers candy that is berry and cream flavor. They have this kind of creepy guy that plays a 1800s British lad that does this song and dance for berries and cream called the Little Lad Dance. The lyrics are:

Berries and cream, berries and cream
I’m a little lad who wants berries and cream

People seem confused but at least satisfied that someone did something, so I count it in the win column. If I could go back in time, I would probably sing a Brak song instead, but I am still happy I got a chance to perform in a coliseum without being chased by wild animals.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

I may not be there yet, but I'm closer than I was yesterday

(Context: This was around 1996, in the days before airport security was as stringent as it is now.)

We are at Sacramento Airport and my fiancée has her ticket and is getting ready to go through security. She lives in Seattle and I live in the San Francisco area so the parting is emotionally charged – we know we aren’t going to be seeing each other face-to-face again for some time.

The clock ticks and it’s time for her to start making her way toward the gate. We come to a set of escalators and there is a woman stationed there that is stopping people. She is asking them if they have a ticket to board a flight, which I do not.

She says, “She can go, YOU stay down here,” and I wonder why this woman is so angry.

I ask, “I only want to walk her to the security point, are there any exceptions?”

Her lips turn into an honest-to-goodness sneer and asks, “Exceptions like what? Like you’re in love?”

Her words are dripping with sarcasm and disdain. We share a last embrace and I watch my fiancée ride the escalator up and then walk out of sight. I stand there in shock and just stare at the grumpy woman.

I mill around and consider asking for her supervisor’s name. She continues to stop random people, but not everyone. My anger builds and builds until I realize something.

For her not to have a grain of empathy for me, she must not have any similar feeling to relate to. She’s never had to tear herself away from a loved one getting on a plane and flying to a far off place. It’s likely that the only satisfaction she has at the end of the day is knowing that she kept all the lowly non-ticket holders like myself from seeing what lies at the top of the escalator.

Suddenly, I feel bad for her. I walk past her and smile sadly saying, “I’m sorry.”

It sets off something inside her. She yells, “Sorry for what?! Sorry for what?!” but I am already walking away. I turn back to see her eyes turn from anger to a little bit of pain and confusion. It lasts for maybe two seconds and then the shields slam down again, her sneer returns and she purposefully turns to face a long hallway that is completely empty.

I continue back to my car- frustrated, angry and forlorn. I take solace in knowing that, even though my fiancée lives far away, I never have to feel like I am all alone staring down a vast florescent-lit empty hallway.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Good sliding versus Bad sliding

(Context note: This was January 2008.)

After many months of discussing going up snowboarding, I found a great deal through Sliding On The Cheap  and got a package with room, lift tickets and some restaurant coupons. (If you like to ski or snowboard I highly recommend signing up for their email list to save a buck.)

In a previous post, I mentioned that I don’t like driving in icy road conditions and let Wife drive if at all possible. I let her handle the driving and I manage the stereo, snacks and comic relief. We arrive Friday evening, have a blast Saturday and drive back Sunday morning.

After sleeping in and lazily eating breakfast we realize that there is a storm coming in and we will be racing it over the summit. As we approach the grade, there are workers forcing people to pull over and put on chains.

I look to Wife to take care of this since I assume this falls squarely in the “driving in icy conditions” category, which is her domain. She looks at me and asks, “Where are the instructions for these things?”

I do not like the sound of that. My gut starts to churn and my breathing gets faster as I begin the first stages of freaking out. After some messing around, we get the chains on and are waved through to go up the hill. Traffic proceeds slowly but nicely up the windy mountain freeway.

After traffic comes to a brief stop, Wife steps on the gas and the tires just spin in place. She checks that she is in a low gear, slowly steps on the gas again and the tires spin and the car stars sliding toward the mountain. I begin phase two of freaking out which is also known as “wanting out of there so bad that I am contemplating just running for it.”

All traffic in both directions is stopped as we try to figure out what to do next. I feel like I did when I was a city boy that had just moved to the mountains. Two truckers come marching up to the car and assess the situation without asking if they are needed. The one with the Budweiser ball-cap looks at me and laughs. He says, “Those chain monkeys at the bottom of the hill put the chains on the wrong tires! They need to go on the front!”

I could have fessed up. I could have taken accountability for the major mistake, but I ended up saying, “Oh, man. I can’t believe that.”

They take matters into their own hands and get the chains on the front tires even though we are in an awkward position. I had visions of the car suddenly sliding into one of the men and crushing them – thankfully nothing like that happened. We got over the summit and down the hill and the chains started breaking off. At my insistence we just kept driving, ruining the set of chains in the process.

Sunday evening we got to tell people about how great the mountain was – sunshine, new snow, no crowds. People would mention that they heard traffic was horrible and I only mentioned to a select few the full story.

(I’ll say it now, if anyone was affected by the traffic that day, I am sorry. That was me. Won’t happen again.)

Friday, January 29, 2010

Something that was definately not lost in translation

(Context note: This is back when I was 21 and working as a ski-lift operator near Aspen, Colorado.)

The greatest days for skiing are the worst days for working the ski lift. An endless stream of people means more grooming of the lanes, and more complaints about congestion.

It also means more people falling or dropping something in the approach of the lift which means I get to do the most important part of my job – hit the big red button that stops the lift. From there, I am not allowed to assist the customer in any way for fear of the resort being sued for an employee making their injury worse somehow. It was always uncomfortable when someone would look to you for assistance in standing up and I would have to stand there and say, “I’m sorry, I can’t.”

We had received five inches of fresh powder the evening before and the day was clear and sunny. Thousands of people shelled out the eighty dollars for a lift ticket to take advantage of the beautiful conditions. My post was a high-speed quad going to the top of one of the peaks and I was working furiously to keep things safe and moving quickly.

Snowmass Mountain gets travelers from all over the world, many very wealthy. It’s conveyed in no uncertain terms that the resort will fire you rather than lose the repeat business of a good customer. Service is a priority and the team did its best to accommodate whatever the guests wanted.

At about 1 PM, the after-lunch rush sets in. People can see the end of the day in sight and are anxious to get in as much sliding time as possible. There are a few arguments about cutting in line but I mediate and keep things moving – I am in the zone. It’s as if the mountain is a living entity and I am doing my part to pump blood through the veins. The quad hasn’t been stopped for hours and I hear the phrase “best day of the season” more than once.

Then a hitch in the works – a man in a red ski-suit comes out of the single-rider line and speaks to me in a foreign language. I am usually pretty good at indentifying languages, but I have no idea what this man is speaking – let alone trying to say.

Holding my hands out, I shrug my shoulders in what I hope is the universal sign for “I don’t understand you.” This causes him to gesture wildly and talk even louder. I say “Sorry, I don’t know what you’re saying!”

The line is at a standstill since I haven’t waved anyone through to the lift yet. With everyone watching and waiting, the man unzips his ski-suit and begins urinating right next to the walkway.

The crowd of people in line starts groaning and yelling as my jaw drops. A woman screams to me, “Stop him! Do something!”

“What do you want me to do?” I yell back.

“I’LL do something!” screams a snowboarder in his late twenties. He leans over, makes a snowball, takes aim and fires at the peeing man.

Time stops. Everyone is silent as we watch the snowball arch toward the man. It connects and the powder grenade explodes all over the man. Snow covers his entire torso and down inside his ski-suit. The man erupts a flurry of gibberish while shaking his fist. The snowboarder responds, “That will teach you to pee in front of me!”

The man zips up, walks down the ramp and gets on the lift. I get people moving up the lift again and call ski-patrol who arrives shortly. They lecture me about calling in pranks and how their time is valuable. After reiterating that I am serious, they continue to not believe me. Having no other choice, I walk them over to Exhibit A : yellow snow.

I hear they found the man and ejected him from the park, but I am not sure how I feel about that. If anything, it’s proven to me that a well thrown snowball can break any language barrier.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

How about you tell the new kid about "Dead Man's Curve" next time?

(Context: This happened when I was 16. They say that the majority of drivers in the US have their first car accident during their first year of driving. This was true in my case.)

It’s a cold winter Saturday in Placerville and it snowed the previous night leaving about two inches on the ground. I’ve never lived in a place where snow will blanket everything you see, so I am enjoying the newness of seeing the world as a clean blank slate. My plan is to drive down to Sacramento to stay with a friend for a couple of days.

This is the first time I have driven in this type of road condition, but the main route at the end of the driveway is snow-plowed so I am cautious but not overly concerned. I get into my parents’ Mercury Sable, and creep down the driveway, testing the braking and steering. I realize I forgot my razor, throw it into reverse and go back inside the house. My mother is alarmed and asks, “What’s wrong? What happened?!” and I chuckle after telling her about my forgotten item.

I re-enter the car and proceed to the main road. The tape player starts playing a soothing song filled with keyboard synths and layered female vocals. The cassette was the soundtrack for a UK series called “The Celts” and was a gift from a friend who knew I was into Celtic culture. Even though I am not a huge Enya fan, it seems appropriate to the drive and was a gift so I let it play.

I am a half mile from home when the road turns left, hugging the side of a ridge. I press the brakes to slow for the turn and the car doesn’t slow down at all. I press down harder on the brakes which continue to do nothing. The car proceeds straight and hits a reflector meant to guide you around the turn. I think to myself “I dented the front of the car, my parents are going to kill me.”

The next thing my brain registers is that I am weightless. I look straight ahead and there is no road – only the tops of trees.  The car has flown off the side of a cliff and as it tilts I see that it’s about 200 feet to the bottom with an obstacle course of trees in the way.

I think to myself, “Well, I had a good run, I guess. This is it. I am going out with my eyes open.”

I grip the steering wheel, and force my eyes to stay open. There is no sound except the soft purring of the idling engine and the ironically soothing sound of Enya’s voice serenading me during free-fall.

I hear the sound of trees hitting the undercarriage and it reminds me of dozens of people knocking on the floor.

Then the sky is down and the ground is up, then back again, then reversed again. There are crashing and breaking sounds coming from every direction -then everything goes dark.

I have my eyes open but can’t see anything. I smell dirt and a mix of various fluids that I can only identify as “broken car”. I look around and realize the car has stopped and am hanging upside-down by my seatbelt. Forcing open the door, I unlatch my seatbelt and flip and fall to the ground. I take two steps forward and assess the damage. It looks like a giant has grabbed the car, crumpled it into a ball and thrown it aside.

The wheels have popped off and it’s buried upside-down near a creek. I look up and see a path of destruction where it flipped end-over-end down the cliff. The adrenaline hits and I start climbing and running. I sprint the half-mile back home, being passed by several cars who veer wide of the bleeding crazed kid running down the thoroughfare.

I open the door and my mother chuckles and asks “What did you forget this time?” and then looks up at me. I see her face go white and I say “I wasn’t driving crazy, I swear I wasn’t driving crazy.”

They put me in the other vehicle and drive to the hospital. My father asks, “Where is the car?” and I point down the cliff and yell, “Down THERE!” and everyone goes silent as the severity of the accident sinks in.

At the hospital, the doctor pronounces me fit and lets me know I should be dead since people die off that corner every year. A policeman stops by and says that he doesn’t have to file a report since the car landed on private property – he also notes that I should be dead.

I lived for three more years in that house and drove that road many more times. I learned that when you hit a patch of ice, the worst possible thing you can do is slam the brakes harder – a piece of information I wish someone had told me before moving up to the mountains.

I still drive snowy roads, but if I have a choice, I let Wife drive -and under no circumstances will I allow Enya to be on the radio.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

4 + 8 + 15 + 16 + 23 + 42 = 108 Trust me, it's relevant.

I enjoy the show “Lost.” With the premiere of the final season of Lost about to begin, it got me thinking about the recurring themes and especially the numbers that pop up over and over again – 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, 42. (I should mention here that I highly suspect that the show is going to continue in some form. I doubt Hollywood would let such a successful franchise just end without trying to milk it for all it is possibly worth.)

As with most numbers that supposedly have a related hidden meaning, you start to see a mix-and-match of math with those numbers. One thing that popped up several times is the number 108, which is all the numbers added together (4+8+15+16+23+42=108). I spent a couple weeks wondering why that number rang a bell and then it hit me.

(This is the part where I flashback about fifteen years earlier to a cold but sunny winter day.)

From what I can tell from experience talking to people, it usually takes three times on the ski slopes to really get comfortable on a snowboard. I thought I was going to take to it like a fish to water, but it was on the third day that I started having enough control and confidence to take some jumps and have some fun with it. I was with a friend that was at about the same skill level and while riding the lift up, we would pick out a jump that would be our target for the ride back – that way we would have plenty of time to fine tune our speed and what angle we would come at since we still weren’t adept enough to just wing it.

At mid-day we were in the "zone" and cruising down the hill, feeling good. There was a group of kids with the ski school that all had numbered bibs on their back to keep track of them all. Navigating through the waves of children required concentration but wasn’t too difficult.

However, there was one child that was about to ruin my day. I am moving at a pretty good clip when this kid turns over his shoulder, looks right at me, and then cuts me off anyway. I spin hard to avoid him, lose my balance and “catch an edge”. (For the non-snowboarders out there, this means that the front edge of my board has essentially morphed into a hinge between my body and the ground. Almost all my forward momentum gets converted into downward momentum to be absorbed by whatever I choose to take the impact – usually my wrists to be followed closely by my upper body and face.) I go down hard.

My friend rides up and asks what happened, I point at the kid gleefully continuing his ride down the mountain. He goes after him, I am unsure if he was going to give him a "talking to" about mountain etiquette or just glare at him, but it doesn’t matter because I am in recovery mode anyway.

After a minute I get up and gingerly slide down the slope and see my friend sitting down near the bottom of one of the trails. I stop next to him and he says, “He made a sharp turn and hit me in the temple with a ski pole and I bailed.”

The kid’s bib number? You guessed it. 108.

I have harbored an animosity for that kid for many years, but now I am having doubts. After watching Lost, I wonder if maybe it was necessary for him to force us to avoid that jump to circumvent some greater tragedy.

I don’t know, but one thing is for sure. Watch out for the one wearing number 108. Nothing good comes of it.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

You can't escape the weirdness (aka Bachelor Party, part 2)

(Context note: This is a flashback to several years ago, hope I got the details right and you enjoy.) 

Our next stop was Main Street, Placerville. You may have picked up from a previous post that this is a very ‘old-timey’ town and that vibe really comes across when you drive down Main Street with its antique shops, hardware stores, bakeries and other things you’d expect in a horse-and-buggy main street.

For context, once a year, people dress up in 1800s clothing and ride in an actual wagon train down Highway 50 for a week and have things like tomahawk throwing demonstrations. You can read more about it here.

There is a "Lounge" on Main Street called “Gil’s” which is our next destination. It’s a dive bar, but not nearly as much as Irish Pub. There are a few other people mingling about but they all seem friendly and keeping to themselves so we go in and have a beer.

We sit at the bar and chat with each other, the bartender, a few other people in the vicinity and things are going along nicely. The best man stands up to use the restroom and, as if on cue, the conversation takes a hard left turn.

A skinny older man with a grizzled beard is talking about where he lives which is out toward the hills. One of the groomsmen notes that he lives in the same general direction which prompts this question:

“So, you’ve seen them, haven’t you?’, he asks.

“Seen what?”, the groomsman asks back.

“Well, they say they are green, but they’re actually grey. Well, I guess some are more blue, but mostly grey.”

I was half-listening. I sense tension, turn, and am now full-listening. We are confused and look questioningly at him.

“The little men! You know, they come down to the woods out there!”, he explains. There’s a little bit of a desperate crazy look in his eyes.

Then it sinks in – he’s talking about aliens. I am willing to just humor him, but the groomsman sitting closest to him wants to leave no confusion as to how he feels about it and says, “I am turning around and not talking to you any more.” And then, true to his word, turns around and takes a sip from his beer.

The man begins to freak out, he slams his hand on the bar stating that he is not crazy, that they are out there and we all know it is true. I start to get a bit nervous as to what he is going to do next when the best man comes back. It should be noted here that the best man is what you would call a ‘big guy’. 'Physically imposing' would also be accurate.

He stands behind the frenzied man and asks, “Do we have a problem here?”.

The man turns around, looks the best man up and down, turns back to us, back to the best man, to the bartender who shrugs and then angrily says “No!”, after which he picks up his beer and moves to a part of the bar that’s out of eye-sight.

We decide once again that it’s time to change venues. From that point onward the night was pretty uneventful, a few more friends met up with us, we had a few laughs, a few conversations about life, marriage, family and the TV show X-Files.

The next day I took my wedding vows and it seemed downright normal.

Monday, January 18, 2010

We get it, you're as free as a bird. (aka Bachelor Party, part 1)

(Context note: This is a flashback to several years ago, hope I got the details right and you enjoy.)

It’s the day before my wedding and I am stressed.

I don’t have the “pre-wedding butterflies” that I have heard so much about, it’s more of a fatigue with the seemingly endless details that go into having a wedding. The tuxes and flowers and food and location and weather forecast and music and invitations and dresses and THE dress and … you get the picture. The groomsmen in the wedding take me out for the traditional last night out with the guys.

It’s still a semi-secret but I have planned a honeymoon in Ireland, so it seems appropriate that we go to Irish Pub.

That’s the entire name, not Molly Malone’s or O’Neill’s or The Elephant and the Castle or something – simply “Irish Pub”.

We park and the four of us walk past two men having a smoke by a pickup truck parked near the door. One of them laughs and yells to us, “Hey! You guys don’t have any guns on you, do you?” We shake our heads no and exchange confused looks.

Walking into the pub, I realize that it doesn’t fit my stereotypical idea of what an Irish Pub looks like. In fact, it looks like a full-on country-hick back-woods dive bar. There is loud music playing and I look over to see one man on stage singing “Freebird” into a karaoke mike with all of his heart. I look toward the bar and see that all bottles of liquor behind the bar are one of two things – Wild Turkey or Jack Daniels.

Ignoring all the blatant warning signs that this is not what I expected, I approach the bar and order a Guinness.

“A what?”, the bartender yells back. I repeat myself and he continues to be confused as to what I want.

“Ok, what beers do you have?”, I yell. He responds, “We have Bud … and Bud Light!”

I blink and Freebird starts to reach its crescendo. I ask, “Do you have any imported beers?” He looks a little disgusted and says, “I think we have a Heineken in back!”. Right about now I feel committed to at least ordering something so I say, “I’ll have that!”

He comes back with a lukewarm bottle of Heineken that has a nice layer of dust on it. I pay the man and tuck into trying to finish it as fast as possible so we can get out of there. One of the groomsman orders a Bud and I decide to say out loud, "We need to get moving as fast as possible."- just so there is no confusion.

A new song is starting and there appears to be some sort of argument as to who is going to sing Sweet Home Alabama. It sinks in that there are two things to worry about: first, that there may be an altercation over whether this is going to be a solo karaoke night or everyone taking turns. Second and more concerning, we may have a Lynyrd Skynyrd marathon going on and I don’t know of anything good coming from that.

I leave some warm beer in the bottle, put it on the bar and say, “Let’s go.” and walk out. I think to myself that if pubs in Ireland are like that, I am about to give my new bride a severe let-down.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Historic California, Part 3 - Emeryville

Working in Emeryville, I used to take the opportunity to explore my surroundings. I found some pretty interesting things, but this post is specifically about the Bay Street Mall.

The Bay Street Mall in Emeryville is fancy. It’s got condos built into it so you can look out your balcony and watch people wander in and out of any number of the expensive big name stores. Perfumed air comes wafting out of each entrance you pass and security officers go whizzing by on Segways.

Then, one day I heard that Ohlone Indians were protesting the mall and declaring a "don't buy anything day". Thinking that was an odd place to protest, I looked it up and the reason they are upset is that the mall is built on one of their burial grounds.

One thing that movies teach is never build anything on top of an Indian burial ground. However, I never saw any pots flying through the windows of Williams-Sonoma. I never saw any books acting strangely in the Barnes & Noble. No furniture magically putting itself together and taken apart at IKEA. So, I come to the conclusion that maybe it’s the specific store or stores that sit right on top of the burial site that would be the one to avoid.

Bay Street Mall has 65 stores, 10 restaurants and a movie theater, but there is only one establishment that sits right on top of the burial site. One business that risks the vicious anger that movies say will come upon them for their disrespect. And that place is : Victoria’s Secret.

I find the thought of haunted lingerie hilarious. I imagined a storyline of a husband buying something special for his wife and it tormenting the family by showing up in odd places. “Honey, why is there a bra in the casserole?”

So, in conclusion, that is what I think about when the topic of California history comes up: hanging, cannibalism, and lingerie.

Seriously, though, I like where I am. I try to take advantage of being near a wonderful city like San Francisco, and even find great places and people even closer to home in less recognizable cities like Walnut Creek, Concord, Danville, and all the others.

I guess there’s “gold” everywhere you go, not just the mines in the California hills – in the people, the places, and the stories. Personally, I think there’s richer mines out in Europe, but I totally understand when people say they’d rather try their luck in my sunny backyard.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Historic California, Part 2 - Donner Pass

Warning: The following post is not for the weak of stomach, it involves topics such as cannibalism, murder and those hats that are made out of a raccoons.

This story also takes place in the mid-1800s with a caravan of people headed to California to take advantage of the boom after the discovery gold. I’ll summarize, but I highly recommend the book “Ordeal by Hunger” by George R Stewart. The story itself is fascinating and shows that there can be some true heroes in horrible situations. It's when life or death decisions are on the line that shows what type of person you really are.

I’ll summarize the important facts: A caravan leaves Illinois in April 1846, George Donner is the leader. A lot of these people are not prepared for hard travel (i.e. are pretty wealthy and bring things like a piano for their house in California. This sort of thing slows them down because the huge heavy wagons are slower and get stuck more often.) They try a “shortcut” which ends up costing them three weeks. Rather than turn back and wait the winter out in a fort, they decide to race the winter to the Sierras – and they almost make it.

It’s late October, a blizzard hits and they are trapped. They split up into three groups and either build cabins or try to head down the mountain on snowshoes. Historians’ best guess is that the snow got up to 22 feet (that’s almost 7 meters for those on the metric system.) This is where the meat of the tragedy begins. Some try to get down the mountain to form a rescue team for supplies, which results with some people dying and others not able to convince anyone to go back uphill in the monstrous weather. The ones that stay are completely out of food and with people dying from cold and sickness resort to cannibalism. It’s important to note here that during this time period murder is illegal, but cannibalism is not. A lot of the conjecture of what happens revolves around whether or not someone “helped” someone’s passing in order to sustain themselves.

In any case, when February rolls around, relief efforts come to get them. Battle hardened men are getting sick left and right. One camp in particular only has one survivor, fit and healthy, which is suspicious under the circumstances. It’s obvious he turned predator during the winter, but they can’t prove murder so he walks away a free man. He ends up moving down to San Jose and opening a successful restaurant, proving once again that truth is stranger than fiction.

I visited Donner State Park where one of the cabins was built. There is a big statue there with a description of what happened and a list of survivors. I can’t think of it as anything other than a monument to lack of planning, horrible decisions and the depths one can sink to in a crisis.

My friends in Europe always wonder why I start snickering when we go to a kebab restaurant. It’s because of this story and the item known as the “Doner Kebab”. It makes me want to start screaming “It’s made out of people!”

Next up – a Native American burial site!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Historic California, Part 1 - Placerville

The back-and-forth in the comments of this excellent blog spurred me to write a few stories of when I tried to really dig into the historic monuments of my home state, California. I am going to split this into three parts: Placerville, Donner Pass, and a surprise outcome of a Native American burial ground.

There are definitely Native American sites, but they are hard to find, not promoted very well, and few in number. I suspect this is for two reasons: First, the people roamed around rather than build fortified cities meant to withstand attack and last for hundreds of years. Most of my experiences of the culture are paintings on caves and things like divots in a large flat rock used for grinding acorns a very long time ago.

Second, I think there’s a bit of subconscious guilt along the lines of “Um, yeah, there used to be a whole lot of people here.”, so most of the investment in historical preservation goes to “American” history. However, I haven’t really researched this, I may be wrong, but it’s a gut feeling.

I spent four years of my late teenage life in a city called Placerville. It’s also where I met my wife so I have a fond memory of it, but I am not inclined to live there ever again. I am too addicted to convenience and technology to call the wooded hills my home, but it has some historic significance.

Most of the California monuments begin in the mid-1800s when there was a huge influx of population to mine for gold that was discovered in the El Dorado Hills. Placerville is somewhat near where gold was discovered so its stories begin around that time period.

It has the nickname of “Old Hangtown.” The story goes that there were some thugs that were terrorizing the town, killing people that crossed them, hanging out at the saloon gambling and generally being a nuisance. The miners get together and give an ultimatum to the town saying all professional gamblers have 24 hours to get out (translation: Hey, you guys that hang out in the saloon and gamble all day? We are talking to you. Leave.)

One of the leaders of the miners gets mysteriously shot while walking near the saloon. The rest of the miners take this as the answer to their ultimatum, haul out the gamblers and hang them all from a tree outside. The saloon owner comes out and starts yelling that he is going to have them charged with murder for killing his customers with no proof. The mob doesn’t like hearing that, get another rope and hang him too. (Note: I find this an excellent example of a good time to keep one’s mouth shut.)

Now the saloon has a dummy hanging from a noose outside and a bright neon sign that it is a historic monument. I went in and it’s what is known as a “dive bar”. Nothing special. After that disappointment, I decide to up the ante on the California history front with one of the most infamous and tragic stories about a migration to the West.

Up next – Donner Pass!

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Go west, young man

I am 22 and have made the decision to move back to California, leaving my roommate and friends in Colorado. I have worked as a ski lift operator to get a free season pass to the resorts and as a computer geek managing digital photos and property layout designs for a real estate appraiser. After a lot of soul searching I decide to hunt for a “real” job in the California tech industry, which will allow me to propose to my girlfriend with some small measure of confidence that I could actually provide for her.

I had formed a friendship with someone my age that was eager to go with me to California to be my roommate (I'll call him E). The day before we start the road trip heading west he tells me that he has changed his mind – he wants to go with me to check out California for a short time but is coming back to team up with the roommate that I am leaving. He also lets me know that they all think that going back to my home state and settling down with my teenage sweetheart is a backwards move in my life journey.

I’m feeling pretty betrayed and despondent.

I am parked in Glenwood Springs waiting for E to get off work so we can start the long drive. Planning on being confined with him for a huge chunk of time, and having a few hours to kill, I decide to walk off some of my frustration. Picking a direction at random, I start marching.

I pass a sign that says “Historical Monument” and without a better plan, adjust course to where it’s pointing. I trod on, following signs up a hill that gets red mud on my shoes, but I don’t care. When I get to the top of the hill, my haze of emotion fades and I realize I am looking at a graveyard. Obviously, someone famous must be buried here, but there is no one around and no obvious markings so I wander around reading the gravestones. Eventually, I find it.

Doc Holliday. I don’t know much about him besides what I know from the somewhat recent move Tombstone where he was played by Val Kilmer. I walk back into town and duck into a shop that caters to tourists and thumb through a book about Doc.

He died of tuberculosis. He was in Glenwood Springs with the hope that the sulfur springs would help him heal. Modern medicine says that it probably made things worse. The thing I find most interesting about him are his last words. He was a noted gambler and gunslinger and most everyone, including himself, guessed he would go out with guns blazing. When he was on his deathbed, he looked down at his feet, realized he was going to die in bed with his boots off and said, “Well I'll be damned. This is funny.”, and expired.

During the quiet spots on the long drive, I think about how it used to be a measure of daring and courage to travel out west, and now I am being accused of taking the “easy way out” traveling out west to settle down.

Looking back, I think it did take a measure of courage to stand up to my peers and leave the “fun scene” to be a responsible adult. I wonder if I would have felt less like a loser if I had been riding a horse with a six-shooter strapped to my hip.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Weren't we supposed to be welcomed by the lollipop guild?

(Note: I am trying to really apply my goal of appreciating my locality, no matter where I am. First post of the year is for when I went around my home base of Walnut Creek.)

When I have a ‘night on the town’, sometimes I play a game called ‘Follow the Yellow Brick Road’. It consists of having a general plan but basically when we stop at a place, strike up a conversation with someone there and ask where to go next and (if applicable) what to order. I always have a backup plan if I hit a roadblock, but in general, people are more than eager to give their advice about places they like.

This has a few advantages : I often go to places that I otherwise would miss, it prevents me from staying at one place and running up a huge tab, it gives me the feeling that I am actually doing something instead of warming a seat and consuming empty calories.

So, one autumn evening, a friend is visiting so we start at home in Walnut Creek. I ask Wife where we should go and she suggests Shiro (formerly Sushi Groove) and she doesn’t care what we order.

So we walk to Shiro and the place is mostly empty. I recognize the bartender, Blake, and order a hot sake to warm me up. I ask how the economy is affecting business and he notes that it’s really sporadic, but the place is doing ok. One thing I found interesting was the opening of a huge Cheesecake Factory on the other end of town that other restaurant owners were concerned would cause a huge drop in business. Fortunately for them, the "Cheesecake Effect" was a myth and things are the same as ever. I think to myself about all the empty calories I am consuming and know that a different "Cheesecake Effect" is definitely not a myth and I'll have to run some extra miles over the coming week to burn it off.

Blake points us to the next stop: Prima’s bar to order Manhattans. It’s a semi-upscale Italian restaurant a few blocks away. (The line between fancy and casual dining is really blurred in this area. Basically you will have a fancy place filled with people in jeans because they have enough money to buy the place and don't care about dress codes.) The bartender comes over and asks what we want, we say that we were sent there to order Manhattans. She chuckles and says, “Oh, I know who sent you here. Blake.”

We get our drinks and they are excellent. We decide to order some food, ask what’s good, and order the flatbread pizzetta. When it comes, I am shocked. It is quite possibly the best pizza slice I have had in my life. This isn’t a pizza joint, but I make a mental note that if I have a hankering for a top-shelf slice instead of a pepperoni and mushroom monster from a delivery place that I must come back here.

Feeling relaxed and happy, we nurse our drinks. They close the doors and I ask to settle up, but they assure me that there is no rush and we can hang out while they go through their closing work. I offer to help bus some tables but they laugh and decline. They turn up the radio and it’s set to a random download from the Pandora website. (If you haven’t seen Pandora, basically you enter a song or artist and it makes a ‘station’ that chooses random music that it thinks you will like.) After a few 80s hits, I ask what the station is set to, and the manager responds “Eye of the Tiger”. Brilliant.

A short night, but a fun one. Once again, the yellow brick road led me somewhere new and proved that I can still travel in my own backyard.