Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Goals and Objectives

I sometimes find myself musing about the goals we set for ourselves, those silly little objectives we dangle in front of our minds. Actually, they remind me of the treats our dogs expect whenever they come indoors. That is, when you scratch all the way down to the root of these motivational tricks, you find potty training.

I remember, back before I left my daily immersion in the occasionally exciting but typically mundane business world, I was force-fed some hogwash about goals and objectives being two very different concepts, kind of like the “H” at the end of the football field being a “goal” and each ten-yard line being an objective. Maybe a bit of precision is called for here.

Let’s say my goal is to maintain a superior level of fitness so as to extend my stay here on Earth as long as possible, unless a giant SUV or some illness or terrorist intervenes. Toward that end, I realize I’m averaging nearly forty miles of running per week so I decide to keep it up through December. Then, because I need to feel special the week of my birthday, I decide to try to squeeze in a mile for each year. I might also throw in weekly track workouts, to get my fast-twitch muscle fibers in shape. And I choose a few races to look forward to, selecting three target times for each event – one I might be able to attain if everything falls into place just right, a second time I’d be pretty happy with, and a minimum time that would upset me if it weren’t exceeded. I now have a list of objectives....

Being logical for a minute, I realize I should revise my goal. Something tells me my objectives are out of whack. I think I read somewhere, or maybe it was my mother who told me, you can overdo it. Yes, I could revise my objectives. On the other hand, I’ve got to face the truth. Running feels good. I kind of like those objectives – short-sighted, potty-trained me. I want to lope up the mountainside, listen for wildlife, watch for movement far below, and inhale a fantastically varied bouquet of fragrances. I could walk, but walking would fill up half a day getting me where I’d like to be. I also enjoy showing up at the track once in a while and running faster than most people my age can run. Let’s see. Could I change my goal to fit my objectives? Maybe: To feel good until I die, or at least as long as possible.

I guess I really don’t need a goal, just a few objectives I can change and rotate whenever I want some variety. But it doesn’t feel right. I really ought to be able to outgrow the potty-training principles. If I were a truly good person, I would work through this exercise and come up with an admirable goal, to go along with the other goals every good person sets, such as “becoming a man of integrity” or “making a difference in the world.” I might change my life and combine a gentle running schedule with cross-training (maybe swimming or biking and weight training), daily meditation, no red meat, six small meals per day, and abstinence of several sorts. Wait, do I really have to wean myself of all this running?

Nah, I’m going to abandon this project, which may be why I used the technical term “hogwash” earlier in this example of the wisdom I’ve gained since the time it was legal for me to buy beer but I couldn’t vote. I like my little objectives. And, by the way, now I remember it wasn’t something I read or something my mother said, but the fact that almost everyone I know who no longer runs, but used to, thinks I’m nuts. They insist I’m gradually tearing my knees apart so some day in the not-too-distant future I’ll feel bad, very bad.

Now that I've read "Born to Run," I don’t exactly “laugh in the face of danger” (The Lion King), but I don't believe them. My knees and my back don't hurt. Knock on wood. "Born to Run" quotes Jack Kirk, a famous runner who raced passed age 95 and died 3 months after turning 100: "You don't stop running because you get old. You get old because you stop running."

"I like that quote," says Virginia, "not because it's true, although it may be, but because of the refreshing attitude it expresses."

Potty training can get old, but it doesn't have to.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Running Bond

I've decided to recycle something I wrote in January 2005.

I ran a ten-miler in Spencer this morning. Four men who have run together off and on for almost ten years met at six o’clock a.m. on a Saturday, setting out on a route lit by streetlights. One of the runners is almost definitely middle-aged; the other three, to be determined. We’re slower now, a little heavier, less fanatical about speed, but our passions for running still thrive.

One member of the group pointed something out to me. He said he sees people every day, but he wouldn’t care or have much to say if he didn’t see them for five years and then ran into them somewhere. In contrast, he cited an old running friend and noted that after five years they picked up as if they hadn’t missed a day. So it is with this group of four.

It should be that way. After all, we’ve spent hours close together, with nothing to do but run and talk. I may be wrong, but I think it’s different from golfers and bowlers and participants in other sports. Golfers, bowlers, periodically step away from their group to do their own thing. It might be fair to say they don’t actually exercise together, because they have to do it separately. The constant interruptions are not conducive to the types of conversations runners can have. The rest of the group wouldn’t be interested in bringing each person up to date about what happened during his absence. Besides, then John or Mike or Nancy would be gone, taking another turn, and it would be necessary to update another person.

There I go, you may say, doing what you hate to see people do – setting their own choices on pedestals, superior to those of other people. Like the violinist who insists his instrument is the hardest instrument to learn, or the football coach who argues it takes a better athlete to run eighty plays of five seconds each than it does to play a nonstop game of soccer. Let me clarify. I’m not claiming long distance training is the ideal sport. (I could, but I guess I’m willing to admit we’re extremists.). I’m simply suggesting our training is more conducive to a certain type of conversation.

And what type of conversation might that be? Deep-thinking, deep-feeling discussions of useful things. We find answers to the world’s biggest problems in our long conversations. We learn each other’s strengths and weaknesses and may even become fairly adept at predicting the weather within the other runners’ marriages. (Dan Chaon in his short story, “Passengers Remain Calm,” denies this possibility. “Never assume that you know what goes on inside a marriage,” he says. “Because I’m telling you, no matter how close you think you are, you will never know those people like they know each other. It’s like a closed system. The weather inside a marriage is always different from the weather of everything around it.”) (Keep reading. I’m pulling your leg here.)

What goes on between us runners stays between us. Like physicians and lawyers, our conversations are almost confidential. A privilege against disclosure should apply to runners, too. Besides, what we discover while running is notoriously unreliable. When our dopamine wears off, we’re back in the real world. It is, indeed, a different world.

For me, the Spencer run was almost like running a race because I seldom run with a group any more, except at races. I could blame it on our move to the mountains, but that wouldn’t be entirely fair. On New Year’s Day, near our home in Virginia, an SUV passed me and idled at the next stop sign. Something told me it was another runner and not a weirdo waiting to do me in. Sure enough, the driver rolled down his window and hailed me over, “I thought I knew every runner in the valley. Who are you?” This led to an extended conversation, and we promised to call each other. Neither phone has rung, yet. I think I’ll call him, but what risk am I taking? Could this lead to another congenial group like the one I know in Salisbury? Will new friends become relaxed and natural together ten years from now? Will we learn everything and know nothing? Like a teenager contemplating a first date, I’m waiting for the phone to ring.

"You've run with that fellow, haven't you?" asks Virginia.

Yes I have, several times, but I still haven't found a group like the one in Salisbury.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Exercise for Life

Exercise is for life. No matter how much you run or walk or whatever exercise you do, if you stop, the benefits soon disappear. Exercising is not like winning an Olympic gold medal or finishing college or earning an Eagle Scout badge. True, you have to work at these things for a while before you have something to be proud of, but when you finally have the thing you wanted to touch or brag about, the effort is finished. The rest of your life awaits you. Exercising isn’t terminal; it’s forever. Which can make it tough. Some people see this as a depressing truth. Others take it as a challenge and motivator.

A running friend got me thinking about the expression “Run for Your Life.” We see it at running events and on race T-shirts. The friend visited us just before his successful surgery the following Tuesday. He wanted to run right up to the day of his operation, in part because his doctor told him his excellent physical shape would help him weather the hospital visit. Now there’s a motivator that could keep us moving, although we might exercise years and years before we need to recover from an operation.

Some people juice up exercising by running races or competing in events. The short-term goal can make the never-ending process more palatable. It gives you something to grab onto. Reliance on temporary motivators can be risky. Maybe one day you realize you placed in a race simply because not many people showed up. Your mood might be down and you begin to wonder if it was worth it. Or maybe, if times are important to you, you notice your body’s getting older and you’ll never set another PR (personal record). Perhaps someone ahead of you makes a wrong turn, you follow, people get nasty, and the race is a disappointment. If you don’t have long-term motivation, what you view as a failure can hurt your resolve.

While exercising doesn’t come with a guarantee, it generally offers some tangible benefits to motivate you to “run for your life.” One is energy. People who exercise tend to have more energy than those who don’t; stay in bed all morning some time and see how much energy you have in the afternoon. Another is looks. On average, people who exercise look younger than others their age. Well, at least older people who exercise look younger than other folks their age. It’s funny how we want to look older for many years before we realize what that means and start to wish we looked younger.

Another meaning of “Run for Your Life” comes to mind. That’s the obvious benefit to not being the slowest one in a group when a bear walks out of the woods or hoodlums jump from an alley -- not that we’d run off and leave our less fit friends in the lurch. Right.

It’s worth thinking of exercising like we think of eating, something we have to do every day to stay alive. Eating is naturally pleasurable and so is exercising – say it – so is exercising. Like exercising, eating is a responsibility. They both involve control, of different sorts, but control. If you eat too much or don’t exercise enough, you regret it. Those with a spiritual bent can think about taking care of the temple, being a good steward of your gifts. Bless this food. Bless this body.

The best reason to exercise may just be – you’ve got to. You need to and your loved ones need you to.

"What are you doing indoors on a day like today?" asks Virginia. "Go run for your life."

I already did for today. Early this morning, I took our dogs. Rosie did circles around me on the way out, but she sat while Lex and I toured the field. I think a leg is bothering that loved one.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Rain Rain Rain Beautiful Rain

Another beautiful day is well underway. I ran the 4 miles to Arrowhead Lodge this morning and couldn't stop, continuing 2 more miles up Thunder Ridge, where pileated woodpeckers punctuated my climb with their fluttering flutes. Rain clouds hid the other peaks and now and then dropped their bounty on me. Why complain? I was sweating anyway. A little more water didn't hurt. Besides, as a running gardener, I welcome these slow days of "rain rain rain beautiful rain" (Ladysmith Black Mambazo):

Procrastinate and the local paper will contain quotes such as “we haven’t had a chance, the rains never let up” next to a sidebar of you kayaking in warm sunshine during a dry week. Instead, stay on top and a gardener should relish days like today, when his hard work begins to bear fruit as seeds sprout and sprouts flourish.

"You're lucky you can schedule 'work' around gardening," says Virginia. "People who must show up 8 to 5 can't do that."

Yes, I'm fortunate. I vote for a change in priorities, for everyone. After all, two people referred to me as an "idiot" during the last week, so what do I have to lose?

I don’t think I ever mentioned the message I left
on a hospital’s care page for an old friend.
The software censor thought my garden “hoe”
was as profane as words I will leave unsaid;
it had a vested interest in filling every bed
with Splenda, Velveeta, Spam and Pringles.
Mr. President, may I propose a simple
health care plan: “In every home a hoe.”

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Welcome to Arrowhead Lodge

Who's right?  Who's left?  With all the yelling and bombast, it's easy to get confused.  Sometimes it seems civility is a relic of the past.

Switch left and right in this picture and you can see the great room of Arrowhead Lodge, home to my piano and a long history of good times.  Built about 1927 by Bill Burks, the locals referred to it as "Burks' Cabin." A couple octogenarians told us they'd "bring their own" (BYOB) here for weekend barn dances. Someone else said the revelers didn't leave their guns at home.

A log cabin "expert" we hired for suggestions walked into this room and shook his head.  "The fella who built this didn't know what he was doing," he said as he pointed at the 40-foot long wall.  Right, I thought, 80 years after that fella did what he didn't know how to do.

To give you a little geographical perspective, a 16-mile round-trip run takes me to this natural wonder, The Natural Bridge, once owned by Thomas Jefferson:

Here's a view looking up from directly under The Natural Bridge, over which runs Route 11.  


"I wonder what it's like to sing under the Bridge," says Virginia.

"Hey, I bet they'd be glad to have you solo at the Easter sunrise service," I say.

"Sign me up," says she, breaking into Mozart's Alleluia (from Exsultate, jubilate). (I'm hoping she doesn't forget the word(s). Smack!)

Friday, March 26, 2010


I begin each morning with 150 crunches, even before I crawl out from under the covers.  When I threw my back out about 10 years ago, crunches seemed to be the best exercise for making each successive 15 minutes more bearable.  I decided then to make them a habit.  I haven't had a recurrence, so maybe they're working....ouch!  Just kidding.

My stomach muscles have gotten much stronger since then.  Here's a recent picture:

"That sort of looks like you," says Virginia.  "Is it really?"

"Sure," I say. "Well, of course that's a statue, but you can imagine how tough it was posing for the sculptor."

"I'm impressed," says Virginia. "I hope you didn't jump up and down."

"'m the other one."  

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Grover, Elsa and Louise

Karen often hears me talking, as if I'm with someone.  She peeks into the living room, which doubles as my study, to be sure she's not missing out on a visit.

"How are your imaginary friends?" she's been known to say.  They aren't imaginary.

She finally believed me after I asked her to take this picture.  "No one's there but you," she said.

"Please just take the picture," said I.

I made sure she was the first to view and download the picture.  Now she believes me.

By the way, I'm talking to Grover.  Behind us sit Elsa and Louise, who happen to be pretty excited about the Pentagon's new "don't ask, don't tell rules."  No, they aren't lesbian.

"Now why did you add that?" says Virginia.

"I'm old-fashioned, I guess," I say, "didn't want to leave anyone with the wrong impression.  It took me a lot of coaxing to get them to come out for that picture."

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

What's the Point?

You're born.  You go to school.  You get married.  You have kids.  You go to soccer games and piano recitals.  Those kids get married and have kids.  Then you die.  What's the point?

Paraphrased, this comes right out of "Up in the Air," where Ryan Bingham (played by George Clooney) is called on to counsel his future brother-in-law, Jim, who on his wedding day gets cold feet.

This reminds me of a friend of mine who said eventually an interstellar missile will hit the earth, or our sun will die, and our planet will be lifeless, so what we do doesn't really matter.  For example, he said, if the globe is warming, it doesn't matter if we do anything to slow down the warming because the same thing is going to happen eventually.  Everything will be destroyed.

It matters, to me and, probably, to you.  Unless we continue in some fashion to exist after death, which none of us can guarantee, it's all we have.  And for now, for us, it's lots.  If we're fortunate, it's lots of happiness, love, interesting occurrences, or whatever else we find that turns us on.

"Don't you forget it," says Virginia.  "I'm depending on you."

She's right.  How right she is, as I contemplate writing another law-related book instead of her life.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Drama Kings and Queens

I ran to our mailbox this morning, expecting a letter from my health insurance company telling me my premium has risen because, well, "we were going to drop you due to high cholesterol, but now we can't because of the new health care bill," or maybe a notice that I needed to find another insurer because mine was filing for bankruptcy.  I thought I might see a line of panhandlers outside the post office smiling because "now we have health insurance," and waiting at the ATM, a 25-year old who thought he could spend more of his paycheck because mom and dad were adding him to their health care policy (and then he remembered he'd never signed up for a plan after their company dropped him when he withdrew from school).  Maybe the envelope in my mailbox would have a new name in the return address (United State Government Insurance Plan) along with a letter that began:  "Dear fellow socialist..."

Phew!  I was relieved when none of this occurred.  Based on news reports and speeches on the floor of the House, I was worried.  Shoot, I forgot: tomorrow is on its way; these things still could happen.

Andres Martinez, writing "The Next American Century" in the March 22 issue of Time, suggests, with refreshing optimism, "don't believe the prophets of doom."  He says anyone raised in a different country will tell us that the two strongest impressions he or she has upon arrival in the U.S are: (1) what a great country this seems to be; and (2) what a mess it must be, judging by the tenor of news coverage and political discourse.  He goes on to say:  "Overwrought, constant hand-wringing about the nation's decline is one of America's competitive advantages, reflecting high standards and expectations...."  We have little tolerance, he says, for accidents or other calamities; we investigate, postmortemize and litigate bad stuff until it is clear who it to blame and why it won't happen again.  "Then we go on fretting about how the nation is falling apart."

"Don't you think it would have been better if a few Republicans had voted for the health care bill?" says Virginia.

"Yeah, sure," I say, "but they, like the Democrats, say we need health care reform.  In fact, everyone's been saying that for years, so after 8 years of nothing (except wars and bailouts that demolished the Clinton budget surplus), it's about time."

Monday, March 22, 2010


After Karen and I bought Arrowhead Lodge and began commuting from Salisbury, North Carolina to Natural Bridge Station, Virginia for weekends and summers, we bought truckloads of firewood from Catfish Watkins, who would load, deliver and stack for about $50.  After working all week, we didn't want to spend our weekends or vacations cutting and splitting firewood.

One sunny day as we hiked in the woods above the lodge we came upon a couple, Earl and Katie, hauling heavy logs onto the bed of their pickup.  "Would you like some help?" we offered.  "No thanks, we're about finished here."  We stood around, chatting, beginning what would become a long-term friendship.  A couple years later, Earl was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.  A year of struggle followed, punctuated by our almost weekly visits.  When he died at age 83, Katie showed us a bottle full of pain pills.  He had never complained about pain and apparently hadn't leaned on the pills either.

Do the math.  How old was the couple we found gathering firewood in the woods?  Hint: Katie was a couple years younger than Earl.  After meeting them, we felt pretty silly about buying firewood.  We've gathered our own since.  By the way, Katie orders wood delivered now, but she carries it into her garage and stacks it herself.

Those two role models have encouraged us to do all sorts of work ourselves.  For example, Karen rehabbed the house we live in, with a little help from me.  I garden pretty much the old-fashioned way, although I use a pickup to transfer mulch and manure.  We built the goat barn and fence.  Karen designed and we constructed the outdoor kitchen, including the Pompeii brick oven and pergola.

Now we want to fence the garden beds.  I'm itching to grab my Ph.D. (post hole digger) and get to work, but Karen surprised me by calling a couple fence-builders for estimates.  Good idea.  Part of me would like to hire them.  The other part wants to ask them questions and learn as much as I can.  Which will it be?

"Hire them," says Virginia (and my mother).  "They need the work and you may wear yourself out."

Some day we, like Katie, will begin to delegate, but for some reason now seems 25 years too early.

Sunday, March 21, 2010


Are any secrets left?  Ah, heck with it.  I surrender.

I confess.  I mentioned in an earlier blog that I had pruned our fruit trees.  Karen pointed out that I forgot one -- our hardy trifoliate orange, which appears above in the foreground -- so I lied.

Oh, gee.  I can't believe I posted this picture.  It's not even a good one.  Forty years ago my face would be red as a beet.  What's that dangling behind the orange tree, last item near the middle of the clothesline?  Maybe you can see if you click on the picture.  Forgive me, Carson ("Queer Eye for the Straight Guy"), it's so out of fashion, and Christmas was long ago.

Being a lawyer by training, I've often wondered what has happened to our "legitimate expectation of privacy," a test used by courts to determine whether some asserted invasion of privacy was impermissible.  Fifty years ago, we didn't publicly air information that is readily available today.  Now folks post on the Internet intimate details of their daily lives and bodies.  Can we legitimately expect anything to be private?  Someone who can prove a lifetime of caution in maintaining a sphere of privacy might be entitled to expect that sphere to be protected.  The rest of us?  Fat chance.

On the other hand, and quite curiously, the younger generations don't take showers together after participating in gym class or sporting events.  We did.  Yet they post revealing pictures on the Internet and cellphones.  We older folks do not (most of us).  This presents an interesting twist to that "legitimate expectation of privacy" test.

"Yeh, yeh," says Virginia. "Who cares about that stuff other than legal beagles?  What I want to know is what were you doing so long in the greenhouse this morning, door shut and all."

Ah, figure it out for yourself.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

First Day of Spring

This first day of Spring, 2010, found us setting posts for an addition to the goat barn, soon to become home to 20 heritage breed turkeys.  What are we doing, raising birds that must be taught to drink?  We may need to herd them into the barn so they don't stare up at raindrops and drown.  Look at it this way; it's an experiment.  What have we got to lose?  A few greenbacks. To gain?  More stories to tell and a freezer full of Thanksgiving meals.

Look across our driveway and you'll see my garden beds.  But first, a sign suggests we've been living here a long time:

Nearby, some of my early starts are almost ready to be transplanted, midst my thriving winter wheat.  Behind, four varieties of potatoes hide underground near strawberries, asparagus and garlic.

I pruned the grapes and blackberries earlier this week.

Here's my lettuce garden.  If you look closely, you might see corn salad, arugula, black-seeded Simpson, Romaine, and several "gourmet" mixes -- and maybe a scarecrow in the lower right corner.

Finally, here's one of my favorites -- a Wando pea.

"Hot pictures," jokes Virginia.  "Maybe you should have waited another month." 

"Good idea," I say.  "Let's call these 'before.'  I'll post some 'after' later."

Happy Spring!

Friday, March 19, 2010

Letting Go

Tiger Woods has announced he will participate in the Masters.  Eliott Spitzer goes to his office at his father's real estate business and accepts many public appearance invitations, but this former champion of worthwhile causes who saw what was happening with subprime mortgage lending and tried to stop it hasn't decided what challenge will be next (other than the most important, rebuilding his own family).

It may be hard to feel sorry for these disgraced "celebrities."  It may be hard to feel anything other than disgust for them, but....

Virginia says, "Let go."

She's right.  When I think of Woods and Spitzer I also think of many other people, including George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Marion Jones and most famous athletes.  What do they have in common?  After rising to the "top," they enter a purgatory -- a time of temporary suffering or misery; if not that, a time of introspection (even Cheney, while he continues to blow hard).  They deserve to be let alone if they want it (Cheney apparently doesn't), just as you and I do after we hit a high or low point.

Instead, I go off on my high horse, judging as is my custom, even though I might vaguely remember a religious instruction such as "judge not lest ye be judged."  I was no fan of George W. Bush, but I respect him for "disappearing" into the Texas carpet.  His actions have had dreadful consequences, worldwide, and even though his smirk irked me, still irks me, I sort of think (not sure because I haven't met him) he thought he was doing the right thing.  If he asked me to join him on a run, I'd jump at the chance.

Most us can remember at least one thing we've done that might have landed us in jail, or at least that we wouldn't have wanted our grandmother (or spiritual leader) to see.  If nothing worse, perhaps we waited outside an attraction and accepted an unexpired tag from someone leaving, so we got in "free."  We knew we were required to pay, but we "put one over on the man."  Some friends I know condemn people they call "queers," and, instead of doing something constructive I condemn my friends for their bigotry.  We're in this together.

"Let it go," says Virginia, again.

Thursday, March 18, 2010


"I don't have time."  That's a lie; okay, maybe it's not a lie, if you understand the lingo.  When I hear those words, they mean, "I don't want to," which is fine, but why don't we say it?

I'm again reminded of an acquaintance who said, "Take care of the luxuries and the necessities will take care of themselves." (See my previous blog, "Maintenance," December 2, 2009.)  That can work with money if you're not too poor.  It can also work with time.

A colleague reminded me last week that I'm blessed.  I know it.  I sometimes feel bad about it.  If I were superstitious I'd hesitate to say it, "knock on wood," fearful that blessedness would end.  I hope you, reader, feel blessed.  Anyway, I'm blessed in many ways.  The colleague was referring to my having a life partner who props me up and cheers me on.  I'm also blessed in having habits I love.

For example, I love to run.  Many folks don't understand this.  They see running as work, as exercise, as something to be endured because it's "good" for you.  How could something like running be fun?  Well, for me, it is.  I've enjoyed the book Born to Run (thank you, Mary and Phil) because it's full of other people who love to run.

I understand why others don't love it as I do.  That's okay unless it means they (you?) don't do other things they love to do, because that would be sad.  "I don't have time" doesn't cut it.  Make time, please.  I've heard it only takes 6-8 weeks to develop a habit.  If you do something every day for 6-8 weeks, it'll become a habit.  If you choose something you already love to do, but have been ignoring, it'll easily become a habit unless you fall out of love with it.  If you choose something because it's good for you, maybe you'll learn to love it.  If not, maybe you'll learn to love something it does for you or something it enables you to do. Or maybe you'll move on to something else and love it instead.

Our dogs just interrupted me.  First, Rosie rose from a nap and put her head on my knee.   Then, Lex legged into the room, gazed at me with longing and let out a whine.  What did they want?  Dinnertime.  When I say, "Lex and Rosie, how about a run?"  Rosie runs in circles and Lex lopes to the door.  When people feel enthusiastic like these dogs, we know we're on the right track.

Instead, we're often martyrs.  "I've got to go to work."  "The kitchen's a mess."  "Look at that pile of laundry."  Yes, maybe we do have to go to work, but don't forget we might be able to get up earlier or stay up later.  Better yet, we can prioritize.  We supposedly are the highest level of beings (although sometimes I have my doubts), so we can think things through.  Just like preparing a budget for our money, we can budget our time.  All we have to do is pay attention to what we do and begin sifting through our time-wasters and dilly-dallying.  Take laundry, for example.  I've never understood why that's an issue.  Stick a load in the washer.  Go do something else, preferably something you want to do.  Later, move the load to the dryer or clothesline.  What's it take -- a few seconds or five minutes?  Fold it while you talk to a friend or watch television.  There, laundry done, almost secretly, unnoticed.

"That's too simple," says Virginia.

"You think so?" I say.

"Cleaning house takes all day," says Virginia.

"Really?" I say.  "I once knew a woman who cleaned her house every day when she got home from work.  'Why don't you hire a cleaning service?' I wanted to say, before I realized cleaning to her was like running to me."

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Born to Love

I celebrated this St. Patrick's Day with a 520-mile drive home from Ohio to Virginia, listening almost all the while to a book-on-tape, Born to Run.  If I hadn't begun my day with a 6-mile run, I might have stopped halfway home to fit one in, barefoot.  Next on my list, I'm going to try it.  Not quite barefoot, I'll borrow the foot gloves we gave our son for Christmas.  If I can't find them, I might buy a pair for myself.

Did you know running injuries have increased since we started wearing fancy running shoes?  And that the more expensive the shoe, the more likely the runner is to suffer injury?  Some researchers suggest that if we ran barefoot or with slim foot coverings like our ancestors, we'd have fewer injuries, better health and longer lives.  Instead, we've learned to baby our feet, wrap them up in what amount to casts, and ignore the fact that our feet, like our fingers and faces, have highly developed natural abilities to sense their environments and respond with remarkable precision.  "Protecting" them in fancy footwear in fact does not protect them at all.  Some of the coaches of elite runners include barefoot running on grass in their training regimens and buy the cheapest shoes for their athletes, not because they're cheap but because they're safer than expensive pairs.

Most runners have heard the recommendation that we replace our shoes every 300-500 miles because they wear due to pronation (or supination).   Forget that, says one researcher, who keeps his shoes until they wear down on the edges, then switches feet.  That is, he wears the right shoe on the left foot and the left shoe on the right foot, his feet don't complain, and he doesn't suffer injuries!  As they wear thinner and thinner, they're better for the feet.

I like the approach of one of the coaches described in the book, who studied ultramarathoners (runners who cover distances greater than 26.2 miles) and the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico's Copper Canyon and concluded that the best runners run for pure joy, for the love of it, and not for money.  Not only that, they run with love for others -- their co-runners, family, friends and the human race in general.

"Run, James, run," says Virginia, "spread the love."

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Name Game

Fred Steiner, the Iconator (Google "Bluffton Icon"), a/k/a "Mr. Bluffton" because he appears to have succeeded Gene Benroth as the man who knows everything about the town of Bluffton, Ohio, tonight challenged me to mention at least 20 related names in one blog posting.  I'll let you figure out how those names are related.

Two weeks with Wanda Pannabecker, who proved on 5 occasions that one plus one equal three (Phil, John, James, Tom, and Mary), drove me back to sites of my youth.  My first night in her guest room dreamed me to the now defunct Bluffton A&P, where Don LaRoche, manager, hired me at 16.  By the time I was booted out of town 40 years ago, I thought I knew everyone, including Phyllis Diller, whose husband offered me my only tip for carrying out groceries when she returned to have Dr. Travis "remove an old key."  That's beside the point.  In my dream, Marie Snyder and I discussed why the store didn't have a problem with shoplifters (not that we encouraged them).  I suggested that a small town atmosphere helps people feel more responsible, as significant members of a community.  Just before I awoke, Helen Stratton appeared, clear as a bell, at her cash register in aisle number one.  Perhaps this dream was prompted by our stop at the Community Market (formerly Joe Urich's IGA), where Mother introduced me to Tracy Sawatsky, a fellow pianist, whose husband, David, teaches voice at Bluffton University.

This morning, 7 a.m. (and I'm supposed to be on vacation), found me at a First Mennonite prayer breakfast led by Louise Wideman (Canadians seem to be invading the town).  We shared a table with today's version of Mr. Powell (Raymie), Larry Diller, who managed to attend only because fog had delayed his Columbus Grove school bus route by 2 hours.  Jeff Boehr mentioned that while he was touring with college students his water heater blew, making him late to work yesterday.  Speaking of our favorite bus driver, Mr. Powell, when we ate lunch at Jeanne Privite's restaurant, my sister pointed out his daughter-in-law, a former classmate of mine, Peggy Gossard (Powell).  I should have said hello. (Hello.) 

This wannabe farmer and former employee of Russ and Gene Suter heard an intriguing report that their successors, Jerry and Tom Suter, now grow 17 varieties of sweet corn, which they can identify by ear examination (listening?) but not by taste after cooking.

"Stop," says Virginia.  "You've passed 20 and bored me long enough."

"But I'm on a roll," I say.  "I don' want to offend people like Neil and Eileen Kehler, Elaine Rich, Burton and Elnore Yost...."

"I said stop," says Virginia.  "You're rolling in the mud."

OK, but let me at least thank Jean Szabo for turning me on to Schumann.

Sunday, March 14, 2010


To an ear-plugged audience
he might have been playing
Bach or Haydn, suddenly
sky separated

from the piano bench
the key-crunching,
wild man.

"Thanks for something from your weekend at Garth Newel," says Virginia.

"Straight from the mouth of Teresa Ling," I say, referring to the violinist of the Garth Newel Music Center's professional piano quartet.  This poem followed her suggestion upon hearing the Arrowhead Trio's staid performance of the "fast, roudy" 3d movement of Peter Schickele's Serenade for Three.  "Be wild," said she.  Each member of the Garth Newel Piano Quartet coached the Trio, along with all of the other participants at Garth Newel's adult chamber music workshop, held this past weekend.

Would you like a little more?  Andrew Harley, the pianist in the Quartet, advised us to "always know who's on first" (that is, who is playing the most important line(s) at any given moment), Evelyn Grau, the violist, stressed the importance of stage presence, and Tobi Werner, the cellist, suggested starting slower, not faster, than our competence permits.  How's that for an appetizer?   If you want still more, ask or show up next year.

"Dont' you dare poke me," I say to Virginia.  "You'll pop out Randy Wyche's stuffing."  Randy is the Center's gourmet chef.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Farmer's Husband

At 3 AM this morning, I'm abandoned for a goat. This time it's Luti. At 4 AM, my cellphone rings, "I think she's about ready." I jump up and head for the barn. All's quiet, but "there's a bunch of goo," says Karen. Luti stands gnawing, jaw back and forth, back and forth, no baying, pawing, scratching, licking, nothing unusual but "a bunch of goo" and she's obviously "got milk," buckets.

I'm disappointed the sky is clear, full of stars. The seeds I've planted lie underneath, waiting for moisture. I see the prediction is down from 70% to 40% for today. Smile. 90% tomorrow. What does that mean? According to, it's the chance of a measurable amount of rain. A measurable amount is at least .01 inch. So, 90% means that in 9 out of 10 cases where the weather is similar, .01 inch of rain will fall somewhere in the area. Fall here, please.  In the meantime, I'll run the hose.

Not Kidding

Good morning sleepy
name game, he, she,
wonder, walk and wander
not far, don't worry,
no brays, squeals,

eyelids closed, open, close,
goo-looking, udder heavy,
still cool, almost spring
time forward
to motherhood.

"She was kidding, wasn't she?" says Virginia.

See the hoof and bubble announcing arrival?  Sure enough, Number 1, a boy, a Nubian-Saanen, was born about 9 AM. 

Number 1 boy is joined by Number 1 girl, about 9:05 AM this morning.

Way to go, Luti!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Gentleman Farmer

This morning, as I waited for a fellow at the farmer's co-op to weigh my seed potatoes, I felt at home in my overalls until I spied the retired pair of running shoes on my feet and remembered I was wearing a road race shirt. I suddenly realized I was an imposter, and not a very good one. I might spend all day doing gardening-related things, but I must admit I'm not a farmer.

I say this with envy for the folks who buy hundreds or thousands of pounds of oats and spring wheat and need a $50,000 tractor to get their work done, who have augur attachments and sink a hundred fenceposts to my one, who run to the barn for a set of tools when equipment fails, who look at the sky and know what's coming. "Farmer" is a badge of honor in my book, the ultimate Renaissance person. Like Joel Salatin, I want to hear "my son is a farmer" said with the same pride and conviction as "my daughter is a doctor."

Here's how my day went. After running 4 miles, checking emails and eating my usual oatmeal, I loaded our John Deere garden tractor onto our pickup and delivered it to the co-op. Remember, a real farmer would do the tractor's annual checkup by himself. I visited the seed counter and picked up packets to supplement my previous mail orders to Burpees (thanks to my in-laws' Christmas gift certificate) and the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. A real farmer would have bought bags, not packets. Next, I drove to Boxerwood Gardens to get a load of free wood chip mulch. I used a shovel. A real farmer would have used a front-end loader (the wimp!). I returned home and spent the rest of daylight preparing soil and planting carrots, beets, potatoes, parsnips, salsify, and spinach. A real farmer would have waited until St. Patrick's Day to plant potatoes.

"You didn't even touch the piano," says Virginia.

"Not yet," I say, "but I will after I finish blogging."

Let me tell you something. A real farmer plays piano!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Off to Camp

I've been taking a little flak for my plans for this weekend. My son said, "My dad's going to camp." One of his friends asked, "Do you end with a campfire?" Slow on the uptake, I pictured us burning our scores.

What's this about camp? I had been referring to it as a chamber music weekend workshop, but "music camp" is shorter and easier to say. The Arrowhead Trio, for which I'm the pianist, signed up for this a couple months ago. We and five or six other groups begin preparing music in advance and then practice together for the weekend, 2-3 hours each morning and afternoon, with members of the Garth Newel Piano Quartet popping in to "coach" us. All the groups usually participate in a short concert on Friday evening and a farewell concert Sunday, to which the public is invited.

As you can see, it's a stressful weekend. (Right, although some of the participants will swallow their share of beta blockers before their concert appearances.) We don't stay in tents, camp out, or sit around fires, unless a fireplace is lit in the Manor House, where most of us stay. Some will occupy small cottages spread around the Garth Newel estate. All of us will enjoy private concerts by the Garth Newel Piano Quartet, read, run or do whatever else we want, and -- the hard part -- force down fine food prepared by the on-site gourmet chef.

The retreat begins Thursday afternoon, which gives me a little time to work on my Spring garden. I planted nearly 2 pounds of peas yesterday, which I'm hoping will give me something to do near the end of May. Joining the peas were onions, lettuces, beets, carrots and parsnips. I prepared the soil for some more carrot seeds tomorrow if I can beat the rain that's predicted.

"A tux at the piano on Saturday and overalls today," says Virginia. "Which is the real you?"

Some day I'll wear overalls at the piano and a tux in the garden, which reminds me of a stanza from my long poem, Conversations with a Garden, I've excerpted in previous postings:

I hope you remember the day
I wore a coat and tie to kneel
before you and wash your feet.
You, dry, tired, welcomed
the cool well water, for a moment
you seemed happy and content,
but it did not last, nothing beats
rains that too often come too late.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Salem Gold Box

I found this at the end of our driveway this morning.  Do you see anything "gold" in this picture, other than the two words, "Gold Box?"

I don't.   Maybe if I smoked Salem I would.  Do you think perhaps the manufacturers of Salem believe that people who smoke their cigarettes are stupid.  Or self-selected color-blind?

Okay, maybe the cigarettes themselves are Salem Golds and this is their box, which isn't gold, never was, but then I'd think they'd print "Salem Gold" with "box" down below.  Hmmm, do they really think we need to be told this is a box?

Help me.  Am I missing a sharp marketing ploy?

For the moment, although I may change my mind, I find the labeling on this box disrespectful.  I'd say, as an aspiration, everyone initially should be entitled to respect, sort of like "all men and women are created equal."  Of course, some people are no longer entitled to respect because they've abused their positions and lost it.

As a matter of practice, I've learned not to expect respect.  I've changed jobs, moved and been promoted enough times in my life to realize that with each change I must re-earn respect.  It can be frustrating.  It can be hard on the ego.  While I don't necessarily have to do anything, other than be nice to people, some things are no-nos.

People in positions of power and influence have a special trust, a public trust, they must preserve and protect.  Politicians, policemen, teachers and business leaders fit in that category, but so do you and I, as parents, mentors, coaches -- and designers of product packaging.

"Good point," says Virginia.  "I'd better stop calling my home a 'church.'"

"It was a church," I say, "as much as he was a colonel or she was a teacher, but please don't call it red.  I don't see anything red about it, not even the chimney."

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Gift of Music

How should a piece of music be performed?  The answer is as varied as the number of performers.  American Idol demonstrates from time to time how disappointing a performance can be when the performer fails to put his or her signature on a piece.  A judge might say something like, "I wish you would have made the song your own instead of trying to imitate X."  Otherwise, the performer is a mimic, not an artist.  Variety is the spice of music.  Geniuses like Adam Lambert know this.  If we want to hear Elvis, we'll play an Elvis recording.

I attended a fascinating concert this afternoon, of three pianists.  I bet many, if not most, of the audience could now name who was playing if there were a screen separating us:  Pianist number one, the composer-pianist, who takes each piece and plays it the way he might have written it, leaning on the soft pedal, occasionally even saying blast the written rhythms, which I found liberating;  Pianist number two, the modest virtuoso, who isn't afraid to hold onto the sustaining pedal; and Pianist number three, the "young" crisp virtuoso, who lays it on the table like silverware, leaving you to wonder if he's working at all.  I liked each of them for treating me to a vision I had not seen before.

I hope that last night my version of the Schumann concerto, with its warts, wrong notes and missed measures, suggested a new perspective to audience members, especially those who were familiar with the piece, if only that offering someone like me the opportunity to play with an orchestra is a special kind of gift.

I think I've mentioned this before, but so what -- before the invention of television, radios, and recordings, most people relied on local talent for musical events (only occasionally did stars visit from somewhere else).  An upright piano played an important part in many parlors, where folks gathered to listen or sing or play with the family's piano players.  Today we know how "perfect" a piece can be played.  This certainly has its benefits and beauty, but it also spoils us and inhibits our appreciation of music, by raising the bar very high.  An unfortunate side effect has been, I think, a reluctance on our part to support the arts (not just music).  Even though most of us, unless we are tone deaf, consider music essential to our quality of life (we listen to it wherever we go -- in commercials, in movies, on the radio or television, on CDs and IPods, on telephones, in elevators and shopping centers, etc.), we're reluctant to invest tax dollars or personal wealth in the development of local talent, including children who might or might not become the next Pavorotti or Adam Lambert but who will, I guarantee, listen to music and might or might not enjoy a lifetime of satisfaction playing music.  How sad!

Virginia says, "Invest in music.  Almost no matter what, learning math, reading and science will happen, you can bet on it."

And those who choose to learn music will automatically learn quite a bit of math, reading and science.

Friday, March 5, 2010


Today is our final rehearsal for the concert tomorrow.  Due to recent memory faults, I've decided to use a page turner for the Schumann piano concerto and I'll follow the score for the hardest section, even though that means I'll probably throw some notes to the goddess of bad notes because my eyes can't look two places at once, unlike Kim Peek, the autistic savant, the original Rain Man, who could read two pages simultaneously, one with each eye.  Imagine his special motor skills as well as brain cells.    

Meanwhile, I want to prune our little orchard, put organic sulfur on the grapevines, limber up on the keyboard and aim at writing.

Single Man

Winter lingers
nineteen degrees
like a childhood buddy,
a perpetual student,
who finally took a job
on a faculty, never
developed a facility
for using his degrees
among racing rats
nor did he learn
to stay warm
with a lover.

"What does that have to do with anything?" asks Virginia.

"I'm itching for Spring," I say.

"He probably is, too," says Virginia. "Maybe this year he'll be lucky in love."

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Farm Surprises

Our 2-month snow blanket has finally melted.  Guess what I found underneath yesterday.


My root buddies:  Carrots, parsnips and salsify.  After Karen added some of them to her mighty fine home-made chicken vegetable soup, the aroma and gentle flavor of parsnips coaxed me into buying more seeds to plant this year.  They keep much better underground than carrots.  They're perfect while most of the carrots are riddled with lines and grit and are rather sharp in a carroty way.

Today, another day, another surprise.  That's what life on a farm is all about.  Poppy, one of our Mini LaManchas, bayed more than normal overnight and her ligaments loosened, but because she didn't paw the ground or drip mucus we figured she had several hours to go.  I went off to the cabin to practice.  When Karen went out to check on her, she found an extra hoof hanging out.  Boom, shazam, or should I say Shamus?


I returned in time to watch Karen reach inside to pull out our first stillbirth.  Shamus, though, is alive and well.

"What happened to the other?" asks Virginia.

I said last rites and donned my undertaker's cap.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Tour Italia

In September 2008, after studying Italian on Pimsleur CDs, Karen and I vacationed in Italy.  Here's a quick tour.

In Venice, this is the site of the first murder by robots.  A workman was repairing something on the roof and forgot these guys would swing their hammers to ring the bell.  "Ouch!" says Virginia.

Also in Venice, these are the piano movers.  Click on the center boat.  "Hey, it'd be fun to set it on its legs and serenade everyone," says Virginia.

While in Verona, for good luck in love, men must do this to Juliet. "Yeah, right," says Virginia.

I think Burt, filming Mary Poppins, might have found a challenge in Scanno. "Everyday's a holiday with you, Burt," sings Virginia.

Certain orchestra members are not allowed in Scanno.  "French goats?" asks Virginia.

We came upon these Juliets at the National Museum in Rome.  "You seem to have a breast fetish," says Virginia.

This orange Roman fence, if installed on our cabin's deck, would pass inspection. "And it would be beautiful," says Virginia.

Sneak a peak at this curbside scene outside the Church of St. Peter-in-Chains, Rome.  "Rest break?" asks Virginia.

Mamma Mia, look at the view from our room on Capri!  "Nice railing," says Virginia.

Feeding the birds on Capri.  "What's in the bag?" says Virginia.

In Florence, we had to recharge our rental car.  "I thought you said you didn't drive in Italy?" asks Virginia.

This door, in Corneglia, reminded me of the window along the route of the Boston Marathon that urges runners to "check your form."  "CIA headquarters?" asks Virginia.

In Milan (Brera), grocery shopping is not for the blind.  "That's what we need in Sin Valley," says Virginia.

I hope you've enjoyed this tour.  Please come again.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Business 101 -- What Motivates Employees

You may have heard, even engaged, in the age-old debate about what motivates employees.

"The green stuff," says Virginia.

I know she's kidding.  That's what many managers assume.

"A pat on the back?" says Virginia.

That's more like the Virginia I know.  A recent survey of managers revealed this as the number one motivator: "Recognition for good work (either public or private)."

Wrong, according to the Jan.-Feb. 2010 issue of Harvard Business Review, page 44 ("What Really Motivates Workers"). 

The most important motivator is "progress" -- When workers feel "they're making headway in their jobs, or when they receive support that helps them overcome obstacles, their emotions are most positive and their drive to succeed is at its peak.  On days when they feel they are spinning their wheels or encountering roadblocks to meaningful accomplishment, their moods and motivation are lowest."

According to the article, a manager should regard this as good news because the key to motivation is largely within his control and doesn't depend on elaborate incentive systems.  A manager "can provide meaningful goals, resources and encouragement, and ...protect their people from irrelevant demands.  Or they can fail to do so." 

The strongest advice from the study:  "Scrupulously avoid impeding progress by changing goals autocratically, being indecisive, or holding up resources.  Negative events generally have a greater effect on people's emotions, perceptions, and motivation than positive ones, and nothing is more demotivating that a setback--the most prominent type of event on knowledge workers' worst days."