Train in Missoula

Missoula, Montana has a nice ring to it.  A bit alliterative, it is a slightly liberal town in an otherwise very conservative state.  The region of Missoula is a relatively flat area which was once a glacial lake.  Remnants of that large lake exist today, in Flathead lake and Lake Pend Oreille.  As long as 12,000 years ago, people inhabited this area, including Salish, Kootenai, Pend d’Oreille, Blackfeet and Shoshone tribes, although known settlements date from around 3500 BCE (Before Common Era).  French fur trappers discovered it and found that they were not necessarily welcome.  In fact, the eastern valley entrance to the region was referred to as the “Porte d’Enfer” or gate of hell, due to the many human skeletons lying about from killed trappers and explorers, and aboriginal people embroiled in battles.  Lewis and Clark explored this area in 1805.  By 1860, a small settlement was established five miles west of present-day Missoula, with the name Hell Gate Village.  In 1866, the center of town moved east five miles to be closer to a water source for lumber and flour mills.  The name Missoula comes from a Salish word, “nmesuletkw”, apparently pronounced “Nemissoolatakoo”, and meaning “the place of frozen water”.  The area was seen as an ideal route for a train to pass through to the west coast.  In about 1870, construction of the Northern Pacific Railway began and the final golden spike was driven by Ulysses S. Grant in Western Montana, September 8, 1883.  It extended from the great lakes through Missoula and ended at Puget Sound near Takoma, Washington.  The story of the railroad is filled with adventure, hardship and conflict.  The railway led to rapid development along the entire line.

Missoula was granted the right to become the home of the University of Montana by agreeing not to challenge Helena to be the state capitol.  It was established in 1893 on land on the south side of the Clark Fork River.  When I visited in June, 2016, I was told by a number of locals that the university is what makes the town different from other places in Montana.  Of particular note, the first woman elected to US Congress was from Missoula.  Jeannette Rankin, born in Missoula in 1880, was elected to congress in 1916, before women had the right to vote.  She was a pacifist, and during both her first term, and again after election again in 1940, she voted against entering the first world war and the second.  She stated that she could not go to war, and so she would not vote to send any one else.  She was a fighter, though, for the right for women to vote.

I and my whole extended family traveled to Missoula in June, 2016 for the wedding of my nephew, Greg.  I had not been to Montana before, and did not know what to expect.  While there is an airport in Missoula, my wife and I decided to fly in to Spokane, at the eastern edge of Washington.  We drove north from Spokane, around the northern shore of Lake Pend Oreille and the town of of Sandpoint, Idaho.  From there, we drove southeast, following the course of the Clark Fork river all the way to Missoula.  This is a beautiful drive, with scenic mountains in the background, some snow-capped, and the rushing river to our right.

Scenic view of Clark Fork River upstream from Missoula.

Scenic view of Clark Fork River upstream from Missoula.

Even though Greg would be getting married in a couple of days, he was very happy to go for a run with me the morning after we arrived.  Our first run was along the Clark Fork river, and past the campus of the University of Montana, home of the “Grizzlies”.  There is a nice trail along the river which goes for miles, and makes for a great running trail.  There is a very large “M” on a hillside above the campus, with a switchback trail leading up to it.  It is a favorite of visitors to the campus to go for a hike up this hill.  We, my family, considered it, but thought it looked a bit unrewarding just to go see the “M”.  We still wanted to enjoy the trails around Missoula.

University of Montana "M" trail.

University of Montana “M” trail.

Instead, we decided to climb up Waterworks Hill, a not-too-steep trail on the north side of Missoula overlooking the town.  We all gathered together, no small feat for us, and headed through town to the base of the trail.

At the entrance to the Waterworks Hill Trail.

At the entrance to the Waterworks Hill Trail.

The trail goes up a rolling set of hills, with grass and native flowering plants along the way.  One gets the feeling this is a sensitive ecologic zone.  The hillside is covered with these plants, but if they were not there the whole side of the hill could come sliding down in a heavy rain and inundate Missoula.  It is also a risk for avalanches onto the the homes below during the winter months.  Sheep are used at various times during the year as a means of keeping some of the invasive species down.  How the sheep know the right plants to eat, I am not sure.   As we ascended, the surrounding hills came into view.

On the way up Waterworks Hill.

On the way up Waterworks Hill.

A few man-made objects presented an opportunity for the group to look like the cast of a Shakespeare Play.

The cast of the play.

That guy in the middle is the main character.

Nearing the top of the first hill, one is greeted with a great view of Missoula and the surrounding mountains.

Missoula as seen from Waterworks Hill.

Missoula as seen from Waterworks Hill.

This brings me to my main topic.  One can see the train stretching across the scene in the photo.  Trains of several hundred cars up to a mile and a half long pass through Missoula many times a day.  When the Northern Pacific Railway began, the freight was wheat, farm equipment, and passengers.  Since 1970, it was incorporated into the conglomerate known as Burlington Northern, and it carries a different cargo today.  On our way back into town, we were stopped by the train heading eastward back to its origin.  Empty coal cars rattled and screeched as the train passed eastward through the town, and automobiles idled at the railroad crossing.  Finally, the caboose was in sight, passed by, and the gates opened.  I was moved to find out more about these trains and their cargo.  I asked my cousin, George, who moved to Montana a few years ago from Los Angeles, and now lives in Missoula.  He told me the trains were coming from Wyoming, from an area called the Powder River Basin.

Pronghorn, Bison National Reserve, Montana

Pronghorn, Bison National Reserve, Montana

The Powder River Basin is a geologic area in southeast Montana and northeast Wyoming, 200 by 120 miles in size.  It is the largest coal mining area in the United States, and produces a type of coal called sub-bituminous.  About sixty million years ago, this region was largely a shallow sea, and received three meters of rainfall per year.  There was a large amount of plant growth, and due to the geography, dead plants did not wash away.  Instead, they became peat bogs which were eventually crushed under dirt and rock to become coal, as the region dried up.  It is estimated this area contains enough coal to light the U.S. almost to the twenty third century.  It was not of great importance compared with coal from Appalachia, until concern was raised about sulfur dioxide, or SO2.  The coal from this region produces about 8,500 BTU’s per pound, versus 12,500 BTU’s per pound for Appalachian coal.  But the SO2 content of the Wyoming coal is very low compared with the coal from Kentucky and West Virginia.  Sulfur dioxide is widely used as a food preservative, in wine making, and in medicine.  It is considered safe for human consumption, except for young asthmatics in whom it may precipitate an attack.  It is a part of normal plant and animal physiology.  However, released into the air from burning coal, it can become sulfuric acid, the cause of “acid rain”.  As acid rain became recognized as a serious threat to the environment, the US government in 1995 developed the Acid Rain Program, a market-based approach to reducing SO2 emissions.  This made coal from the Powder River Basin very competitive with Appalachian coal, since “scrubbing” costs were much less to burn Powder River Basin coal, even though it had less heat output.  The coal in this area is mined by strip mining techniques, and it is done on a very large scale.  An overview in a website called The Daily Climate describes the operation very well.  Of the one billion tons of coal used each year in the United States, about 400 million tons comes from the Powder River Basin.  The amount exported to Asian ports is relatively small, around 10-20 million tons per year.  However, the price offered can be up to ten times the domestic price of about $10 per ton for Powder River Basin coal.  The cost to the mine companies, though, is very cheap.  The coal is owned by us, the people.  It is sold via the Bureau of Land Management to the coal mining companies for around 20 cents per ton.  Since the price received from Asian countries is quite high, as high as $100 a ton in the last few years, the mining companies are doing quite well.

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Like all energy production, though, these prices can change radically and quickly.  If China or India slow their use of energy due to a cooling economy, as has happened over the last two years, the production of coal exceeds demand.  Also, if prices are high, other producers around the globe including Australia, Russia, Indonesia, India and South Africa up their production.  All this has happened resulting in lower prices for coal in the Pacific Rim.  However, as seen by the steady train traffic through Missoula, the coal from Powder River Basin, because of its low sulfur content among other attributes, is still considered desirable, and is still being exported.  One of the factors in exporting this coal is the limited port availability near San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and Vancouver.  These areas are reluctant to invest in increased port capacity due to the market volatility.  Other factors influencing the building of these facilities include the rights of native American tribes.  In some cases, the tribes come down on different sides of the argument.  Producers of the coal feel limited by the port capacity, and would like to see it increase.  Of interest, too, is that while a large amount of coal is exported from the Powder River Basin, it is a tiny fraction of the coal imported to China, South Korea, and other parts of Southeast Asia, currently about 4% of these area’s imports.  While coal demand in the US is falling due to the increase in natural gas from new production, it is difficult to transport gas overseas, and so coal use is still a major source of energy in Asian countries.

Naturally, Missoulans and others on the paths of these coal trains are concerned about the environmental impact.  There have been a number of protests in Missoula like that seen in the video below.  Diesel fumes and dust from the coal cars are concerns.  The Army Corps of Engineers has been tasked with studying the environmental impact of the train traffic through these areas.

I knew nothing about the Powder River Basin, and very little about coal, before researching this topic.  As I dug deeper into the issues surrounding the use, mining and transport, and sales and world market for coal, the issues and side branches of this topic became exponentially more complex.  I do hope Missoula stays as livable and beautiful a place as it was for my very short visit in June.  For anyone who wishes to do their own reading on this interesting topic I have listed a few of the resources I used.

A very informative and detailed analysis of coal exports from the US, by Sylvie Cornot-Gandolphe, Research Associate at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies:  https://www.oxfordenergy.org/wpcms/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/CL-21.pdf

U.S. coal prices by region, from U.S. Energy Information Administration data:  https://www.quandl.com/data/EIA/COAL-US-Coal-Prices-by-Region

U.S. Energy Information Administration coal export analysis:  https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=11791

The Daily Climate essay with impressive photos on the Powder River Basin and coal production:  http://www.dailyclimate.org/tdc-newsroom/2013/12/western-coal-development

Wikipedia articles on Sulfur Dioxide and Acid Rain:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sulfur_dioxide

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acid_rain

 

 

 

Deconstructing the Sounds of Silence

Last Friday evening I went out for a run on one of my usual routes.  I was running past a local pizza restaurant with outside seating.  There sat a very nice looking young couple, with a partially eaten pizza for two sitting atop a little stand, and a half filled bottle of wine.  The young man and woman were both intently gazing…at their cell phones, texting, or whatever.  They did not notice as I ran by, and they were not speaking to each other.

I had the good fortune to see Paul Simon at the Mann Theater in Philadelphia a few weeks ago.  At the age of 74, he put on an amazing performance.  His backup band of ten musicians, played too many instruments to count, including brass, wind, percussion, guitar and bass, and keyboard.  They all were fantastic.  Very moving, though, was his solo rendition of Sounds of Silence.

Hello darkness my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again.

Running along, alone, I get a chance to converse with myself.  I have running (heh, heh) conversations in my head as I go along.  Passing the couple paying attention to their smart devices and not to each other, I wondered what they were looking at.  Texting?  Looking at a “social media” site?  Checking out what other people are doing?  I don’t know, but they were silent.  Not everyone is like that, and certainly not in every social gathering, but how frequent it is to see, not just a couple, but groups of people all looking at their cell phones (an anachronism, now, to call it a phone), and not connecting with each other.  This conversation I had in my head, and it kept me going for another mile.

In the naked light I saw ten thousand people maybe more.

People talking without speaking.  People hearing without listening.

When I think of these lines, I think about the disconnect between groups of people in our country and also around the world.  I want to delve into a group’s message, to see what they are really trying to say.  What are their goals, their fears, their aspirations?  Why would there be a strongly supported vote in a particular state to enforce laws about who may use a particular restroom?  Are the proponents of such a law just rigid, or do they have some fear that needs addressing?  Do people who support a law promoting “religious freedom” in fact feel their freedom is impinged if they cannot refuse service to a gay couple?  If so, is there a way to address their concerns without denying the gay couple appropriate service?  The NRA and the people wanting to carry a 9 mm Glock on their hips into their local Burger King clearly have a message they want to impart, which is completely missed by the people wanting to ban assault rifles.  And in the USA, I think our ultimate miscommunication is between members of congress on both sides of the aisle who cannot agree to discuss or compromise on anything.  World-wide, there are just too many examples to start a list….

And the people bowed and prayed to the neon god they made.

At the Paul Simon concert, the sun had set and the audience was under the darkened cover of the outdoor theater.  There were hundreds of people holding up their cellphones capturing video of Paul Simon and his band performing.  The light from the cell phone screens reminded me of concerts past, before cell phones were invented, when people held up lighted Bic lighters as a symbol of solemnity and reverence when the song particularly moved them.  Now, the light from the phones is seen only from behind, and is a function of people capturing the performance so they can show their friends how lucky they were to be there.  In the first instance, the light from the lighters is a shared experience of people silently communicating.  In the other, it is all about the individual out of the moment.  From the back, though, I felt a sense of nostalgia.

Hear my words that I might teach you.  Take my arms that I might reach you.

One, an individual, must be receptive to be taught, or to allow an interaction.  We have opportunities to communicate, to agree, to disagree, and to blend thoughts.  Our world seems ever more dangerous and disconnected.  Whatever we can do to make it less so is an improvement.

 

 

 

 

The Proper Way to Ride a Bike

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Vermont Challenge, 2012

I came across a cycling article in the newspaper The Guardian, which was titled “No more hippies and explorers: a lament for the changed world of cycling.”  I think it’s worth a read, because the author, one Tom Marriage, writes about how he perceives cycling to have changed.  He sees it as being taken over by Lycra-clad highly competitive sorts, who have ruined cycling for ordinary people.  Here’s how he put it:  Now it’s different. Road cycling has become the orthodoxy. Tedious, competitive, sports cycling has taken over. Cycling has become the new golf. It’s what men of a certain age, men with money and power, chat about after meetings.  He continues with a few other points, how cyclists were once considered a bit quirky and fun loving, adventuresome types, but are now causing the general population to hate cyclists because of their image in their tight clothing, and their behavior on the road.

I think this is on one hand, setting up a paper tiger, and on the other, stating what has been going on for generations.  People go through different stages with their bikes.  Often, a bike is the first mode of transportation allowing a child, too young to drive, a means of traveling far from home without help.  I will never forget my first bike experience, being helped to get started by a neighbor, amazed at how fast I could go, then finally tipping the bike over in the grass not having mastered the art of braking at that point.  I also recall my son’s first successful solo ride.  He was so thrilled, that at the age of six, he started singing out loud James Brown’s song, I Feel Good! while zooming down the street (check out the linked version, a surreal blast).

Cyclists come in all shapes, sizes and goals:

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Here’s a simplified picture of the variety of cyclists

They vary from the plainly absurd:

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Canadians?  I see a maple leaf there.

To the serious professional competitive athlete:

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Tour of Flanders, 2004 (George Hincapie in USPS kit)

In places like Amsterdam and Copenhagen, bicycling is part of the culture, and they have separate traffic lanes and traffic lights for cyclists.  Men and women of all ages bike to work, often in inclement weather.  The Danes are particularly conscious of their cycling image as in the blog Cycle Chic.

AmsterdamBikes

Bikes parked on a side street in Amsterdam

I’ve always been a cycling enthusiast, from that first ride and spill into the grass to today.  As a kid in the suburbs of Houston, I rode my 24 inch bike to school and to the swim club, and used it to explore my neighborhood, with interesting destinations including trails along the Brays Bayou.  In high school in San Diego, I was given my first ten-speed bike for my birthday, and enjoyed riding it to school and to wherever I wanted to go.  This was in spite of the fact I had my driver’s license and could have driven.  That bike, an Astra Tour de France, carried me through college at UCSD and beyond.  Today, that same bike is used by my son who lives in South Philly and commutes to work on it.

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Astra Tour de France, made in 1970.  The Peugot fork I put on in college because the original was causing a shimmy when I got up to speed on the downhills.

I have gotten into the road riding and road racing scene.  It started innocently enough.  My friend Dan T. and I started riding together for exercise in the mid 1990’s.  He was on his Nishiki and I on my Trek 200, a heavy steel beast with downtube shifters and a basket on the handlebars which could fit a six pack of beer.  A long ride for us at that time was 15 or 20 miles.  One day, Dan felt the need to upgrade, and bought a Cannondale 300, made of aluminum, and quite a bit faster than my Trek.  That wouldn’t do.  Soon, I bought a Trek 2300, which at that time was part carbon, part steel.  We were back in equilibrium again.  Our rides were getting longer, and faster, too.  It was not unusual to go out on a Saturday or Sunday for a 60 mile ride, sometimes in cold or wet weather.  We had adopted the look of the road cyclist, too, with appropriate shorts, jerseys with various European pro teams names on them, gloves, and of course, click in pedals.  Dan upped the mechanicals again, this time going for a very nice higher-end Colnago, a fine Italian maker of racing bikes used in the Tour de France and other major road races.  The game was on.  In 2001, I ordered a beautiful Pinarello Opera frame through a bike shop in Rome, called Romeo Cycles.  I had it fitted with Campagnolo Record components, a Deda stem and handle bars, and Mavic hand-built wheels at my local bike shop, Bicycle Therapy, in Philly.  Dan T. and I wanted a real cycling adventure, though, and so we found a company in Italy that sounded perfect.  In the summer of 2002, we traveled by way of Paris to Venice, accompanied by another friend, Dan B., and went to the Italian Cycling Center.  Run by a curmudgeonly but wise fellow, George Pohl, located in the Veneto about an hour’s drive north of Venice, we were introduced to northern Italian cycling culture.  Daily, we gathered at breakfast and found out what the ride for the day was.  We would then head out, with the faster, stronger cyclists tackling the big climbs, and the others usually heading for some interesting archeological dig or a museum.

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Passo San Baldo, a long hard climb in the mountains.

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Preparing to climb Passo S. Baldo.  The Italian gentleman on the right in front on the red bike, was 72 years old, and kept with me the whole way up.

That was in 2002.  Since then, I have had many other adventures on my bike.  Since my trip to Italy, I have gone cycling with Ride Noho, a camp modeled after the Italian Cycling Center, located in Northampton Massachusetts, and run by a very congenial (the opposite of a curmudgeon) fellow, Aldo, and his wife Elaine.  The concept is to stay in one place and go out on a different route each day.  I have managed to talk a number of my friends into joining me on these annual trips.  I would say our favorite climb is up Mount Greylock, the highest point in Massachusetts.

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Preparing for the Mount Greylock adventure

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At the Greylock Summit

As you can see, Elaine, in the center of the photo, is the only woman in a group of men cyclists.  Why is that?  Do women just generally not enjoy cycling?  Elaine is light, strong, and very tough, and can hold her own in a group of men.  Is that what it takes, or are there other factors involved?  Back to The Guardian again, and an article written by Terry Slavin last year, “If there aren’t as many women cycling as men…you need better infrastructure.”  In it, she points out that cycling, particularly in cities without the infrastructure to protect cyclists from trucks, buses and cars, is dangerous.  As she puts it:  If we have a street environment that’s hostile, that has no facilities, that has fast traffic with heavy lorries thundering past, we will get low numbers of courageous people, mainly men, on racing bikes and pretty well no one else. The article is very well written and researched and I recommend it to anyone interested in the role of cycling in cities.

I’m a cycling commuter.  When conditions allow, I can usually ride my bike three days a week to work from mid March through mid October.  I kind of stand out in this regard, an older guy (one of our “seniors”, as President Bush would say), Surgeon, with a need to get to work sometimes by 6:30.  It takes a real desire to want to do this before any of the other considerations like clothing management, flat tire potential, and traffic.  Our roads are decidedly not bike friendly.  I live in a town in New Jersey with the history of being the first town in New Jersey to ban bicycles (since overruled) a century and a half ago.  Today, one gets ignored, cursed, mocked, and threatened on the road.  Our local bicycle advocacy organization, the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, has been at work for years pushing local, regional and federal government to support cycling for all the great advantages it has for the citizens.  Their work has not been in vain.  An accounting of their victories shows that much can be done to encourage cycling.  This is a very political issue.  Money spent on cycling interests is seen as money taken away from other interests.  If the need for more road capacity, or more buses is decreased due to more cyclists on the road, it means fewer jobs in those sectors.  But, if it leads to a more vibrant city in which people enjoy living, the health of the city and the economy grow.

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Preparing to ride to work on a chilly morning in April, 2016.

Back to the start, about the changed world of cycling.  There have been some major changes, but many are not the kind mentioned in the article.  Pro cycling has had its reputation dashed on the rocks because of all the drug enhancement and doping by all the big names in the sport, the most famous of whom is Lance Armstrong.  Bicycles have gotten better over the last several decades, with handle bar index shifting, lighter materials, and many other technological advances.  Helmets have improved.  More bike lanes and more dedicated bike paths have been built.  A huge impact has been bikes for rent, in big cities like Paris, New York and now, Philadelphia.  In fact, Philadelphia was the 74th community in the USA to start a program, and it has been a big success.  Still, from my personal perspective, the prevailing attitude among my fellow Americans is one of dislike, strong dislike, or downright hatred of cyclists on the road.  The reasons are many, but I feel if there is more accommodation to cyclists, and more separation of cyclists from busy roadways, both cyclists and motorists benefit.  It would go far in tempering the legitimate antipathy motorists can have about cyclists and their habits on the road.  Many of my non-cyclist friends get very aggravated by cyclists not stopping at traffic lights, or blocking the flow of traffic.  This, to me, is not a new problem.  I have seen that often, over the decades I have been riding, that cyclists can be arrogant and unwilling to follow the rules of the highway.  As a cyclist, it is not always a simple matter of waiting for the light.  When the drivers hit the gas, it is better not to be clustering in front of them. In several European cities, cyclists are allowed to go through red lights on roads where the speed limit is 30 km/hr, so to keep traffic flowing more smoothly.  The rationale is that injuries to cyclists would decrease, and drivers would be less impeded. As to the Lycra and close-fitting clothing, it is what works for cyclists.  I don’t feel a need to explain wearing the appropriate gear.  For city commuting, though, most any clothes can be, and are worn, and work perfectly well.  Working with cyclists to provide a safe place to keep one’s bike while at work and providing a facility to make quick repairs, or pump up a tire, are ways companies can encourage bike commuting.  And about that quirky, offbeat style of cycling:

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Craziest bike I’ve seen yet.

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Heading up to Northampton, to Ride Noho

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Men and their bikes.

Looking out; Looking Back

Way back in college, one of my professors, in a class in which I was a bit lost, talked about “signifier and signified”.  Hang with me on this, because it gets confusing before it gets clearer.  This professor, who was French and had an accent, said something about signifier and signified which has stuck with me, and seemed important.  He referred to these concepts as someone looking at another image, whether in a mirror, or another person or thing, and that the image changes the originator of the interaction.  That was probably a misinterpretation on my part.

It turns out, these terms, signifier and signified, are concepts in the large field known as “semiotics”.  Also, the signifier is not a person, it is a form that refers to something else, together making a meaningful sign.  An example would be a written word, like tree, referring to the object which we know as a tree.  But these signifiers are not limited to letters, or words.  They can be body language, facial expressions, clothing, grunts, color coding, and so on.

What the professor meant, and what I took from it, are too far removed from today, for me to say whether he knew what he was talking about (I bet he did), or if I just took from it what I wanted.  But I liked the idea that the message, whether a word, an expression, a gasp, a groan, a sneer, is reflected back and alters the sender, which is where I begin.

I look out from my own eyes, and if there is no one watching, I feel a certain way.  Trees, rocks, the road, my environment, will affect the way I feel or act, but they are not actively answering my message that I am either consciously or unconsciously sending out.  Still, the reflection of that message, say a groan when I see a hill coming up, or a sideways glance at a tree just starting to blossom, will reflect back at me and alter my course.  How we feel starting out on a run is almost never how we feel at the end, likely due to these interactions which change us as we run along.

Adding another person running with me is another complexity altogether in this analysis.  Now, I have someone actively receiving my message, interpreting it, and sending back a reflection with that person’s own message included.  I suppose this can happen with an animal as well, say, if one encounters a deer on the run who gets startled by one’s presence.  Or, if one happens upon a snarling dog in the road.  Or, as happened to me on a run in Wyoming, along the road bordering the National Elk Refuge, a ram in a group of big horn sheep standing in the roadway staring me down.  That was a definite direction changer.  Having a person run with me means keeping up, slowing down, talking, looking strong, looking beat, changing posture, and many other changes in direction, attitude, and feeling based on the reflection from the running partner.  This is not to include direct communication, but rather the meaning of the message sent and the reflection received.  We have these interactions with others throughout the day, but in running they take on a certain impact.

One of the most insidious, and dangerous interactions between messages sent and received, is from our own reflection.  As I mentioned earlier, when I am looking out through my own eyes at things around me, I feel a certain way.  But, seeing my own reflection is a message which can really go deep.  As I run, I can feel athletic, strong, tired, wet, dry, sore, fast, slow, or tough.  I can be distracted, angered, calm, happy, gritty or simply wondering at nature.  Almost never am I depressed or lonely, even when running alone.  One glance in a shop window, though, can change my perception immensely.  Almost always, I feel that I look younger  and more athletic than my reflection in the window.  How does one respond to that message, that you are older than you feel.  For me, it’s a great reminder to pull in the abs, straighten the shoulders, head up, and look more like I’m enjoying myself than look like I’m on a forced march.  Then there is the core of feeling, a sense of inner strength but also a minor sense of inner weakness.  These messages confront one’s sense of self, of ability, and of vulnerability.  All that from a simple reflection, one glance which may take less than a tenth of a second.

In sum, these are all messages and reflections over which we have no direct control.  They are ingrained in the way we interact with our surroundings, and we don’t take too much time to think about them or formulate a reaction.  Recognizing them, though, allows us to consider how we think and act on a basic, reflexive level, and use parts of our brain which are in the realm of the subconscious.

Lemmings?

 

The End is Near, or, "you got this!"

The End is Near, or, “you got this!”

I’m a big fan of cartoons, particularly the ones found in the New Yorker magazine.  Robert Mankoff drew a cartoon a few years back,  “What Lemmings Believe”, which showed lemmings going off a cliff and ascending skyward.  My marathon experiences are sometimes like that.

Pheidippides giving word of Victory, by Luc-Olivier Merson

Pheidippides giving word of Victory, by Luc-Olivier Merson

To runners, the legend of Pheidippides running from Marathon to Athens to announce the Greek’s victory over the Persians is familiar.  The battle took place in 490 BC (although they didn’t call it BC back then).  Pheidippides was said to have fought in the battle, then ran non-stop to Athens and collapsed and died after he delivered his message.  This was the inspiration for the creation of the road race called the marathon.  In 1896, the era of the modern Olympics began in Greece, and the marathon was run with Spyridon Louis winning in 2hr 58min 50sec.

Training for 1896 Olympics

Training for 1896 Olympics

John Graham, who belonged to the Boston Athletic Association and was the manager of the U.S Olympic team at that event, was himself inspired to create the Boston Marathon, which had its initial running April 19, 1897.  In the early days of marathon racing, the number of runners in this and other early marathons was small, numbering in the tens to hundreds per race.  The first Boston Marathon had 18 finishers.  Average times were quite fast, and have gotten slower as the number of marathoners increased.  Running USA, a non-profit company which is a joint venture of USATF and major long distance races in the USA, keeps statistics on number of marathon runners, median finishing times, and many other subcategories.  The most recent marathon reports shows that in 1980, of 143,000 marathon runners in the US, 90% were men and 10% women.  Their median finishing times were, respectively, 3:32:17 and 4:03:39.  In 2014, 550,637 runners, 57% men and 43% women, finished with median times of 4:19:27 and 4:44:19.  Since 1980, there has been a steady rise in the number of marathons in the US and the number of marathon runners.

Number of marathon finishers in the USA by year.

Number of marathon finishers in the USA by year.

What is the attraction for all these runners?  What were they doing before marathons got popular?  Will the numbers keep rising, or have we reached a plateau?  While I was not able to find reliable information explaining the phenomenon of ever-increasing participation in marathons, the trade site RunningUSA does an annual survey of runners which it sells for $159, and includes information from interviewing over 15,000 runners on topics such as demographics, running shoes and apparel, travel, and even sponsor recall.  From my personal experience, and speaking with runners I know, I can take some guesses.  The marathon is a premier event in many people’s minds, which takes guts and dedication to complete.  One who completes a marathon can, with justification, be proud of his or her accomplishment.  Marathons have become big city events, and get a lot of publicity, bring in money for hotels and restaurants, and show off the good side of most cities.  As marathons became more popular, and more of a mainstream athletic activity, more people knew someone who had run a marathon.  It became a sport that, like a ponzi scheme, fed on pulling more people into the fold.  The more people who run marathons, the more profit there is in running shoes, running clothing, GPS watches, books and training programs.  When marathons began selling out, the scarcity of the spots made them that much more desirable.  The fact that median finishing times have gotten much slower over the years shows that many people are joining in who are not elite athletes, but still have the desire to participate.  The marathon is marvelously suited to participation by people of different ages, abilities and fitness levels.  Training for a marathon, rather than being a solo venture, is often a group effort, and a very social one at that.

Struggling to finish Wineglass.

Struggling to finish Wineglass, 2013.

Left it all on the course.

Left it all on the course, Steamtown, 2012.

Yet, the marathon is a very demanding and grueling event.  It is run whether the day is warm or cold, dry or wet.  My first marathon, in Philadelphia, in November of 2008, the temperature did not rise above freezing, and there was ice on the ground at all the water stops.  So back to my initial thought, that to start a marathon, one needs a belief in oneself that is often unrealistic.  We train, but our training is mixed in with the rest of our daily responsibilities.  Like those lemmings, joining in the rush of the start of the race, one believes one will fly, when the sad fact is only a few truly do.  Most of us, myself included, will have a rough time finishing, and will, during the last few miles, ask ourselves why we are punishing ourselves so much.  But then, one crosses the finish line, gets a medal and a commemorative mylar blanket, and congratulations fly all around.  It is a very uplifting experience to finish this great race.  Shortly after the finish, in spite of how well or miserably I may have done, I start to think about my next one.  And, I’m back to the belief that as I start, I will fly….

 

 

 

 

Making Mistakes with Money

Control Board for Maytag Dishwasher

Control Board for Maytag Dishwasher

This story has almost nothing to do with running, but it does have something to do with learning life lessons.

Our Maytag dishwasher stopped working.  It was only about four years old, but one day recently I tried to start it.  It was full of dishes and silverware, soap tab in the soap holder, ready to go.  The start button did nothing.  It would not light, click, nothing happened.  My first thought was that the circuit breaker had tripped, as has happened in the past.  I grabbed my flashlight and headed to the basement.  In the far corner, I opened the panel cover and took a look.  All of the breakers seemed to be intact.  I clicked a few, just to check, and went back upstairs to look at the dishwasher.  All the other lights and appliances were working, but as I recalled, the dishwasher was on a separate breaker.  Never mind that, it still wouldn’t work.  The front panel has two sides, one, on the left, which controls starting the machine and setting the cycle type.  On the right, things like sterilize, heated dry and other options are available.  I pressed the right side buttons and to my surprise they responded.  So, in fact, the breaker was not the problem as electricity was getting to the machine.

Time for a confab with my wife over what to do.  Our first thought was that repairing appliances is expensive, and rarely worth the money.  It usually is cheaper to replace the appliance unless one happens to have paid up front for a service contract.  Of course, those are only usually good for three years anyway, and we didn’t have one, so this was not pertinent to our discussion.  Although, we brought it up.  Should we have gotten one?  Well, we didn’t so why mention it?  But how can it be so expensive to fix the machine, when most of it is in good shape?  With the marvel of YouTube, it is easy enough to search what to do when the dishwasher won’t respond to ones caresses.  The problem is, one is faced with an entire algorithm to go through to figure out where the problem is.  This requires special screw drivers, electric meters, and the time to mess with it.

My wife called a repair man.  He had been at our house before, to fix our dryer, and to work on an old refrigerator, which we ditched shortly after he worked on it.  We still have the dryer.  He came over a few days after we called and did a service call for diagnostic purposes.  I was not at home, but spoke with him by phone afterwards.  He charged $143 for the combined visit plus diagnostics.  He said the control board was bad, needed to be replaced and that would cost a bit over $400.  Adding that to what we already spent on the service call, I decided I could replace this thing myself, and we would have a working machine and still not pay as much as it would cost to replace.

I went back online and looked for a control board, which is a circuit board, a computer which runs the dishwasher.  To my surprise, this was not a cheap item.  I wound up ordering one from Sears Parts Direct for $180.  There was a $10 shipping fee as well.  There were a few places cheaper, although not much, and this way I could be sure it would be the correct part, since we bought the dishwasher from Sears.  Completely tangential to the story of how I learned what I learned, our part did not arrive as planned.  It was supposed to be shipped by UPS.  We received a tracking number.  I checked online and saw it left the Sears distribution place and was headed to Horsham, PA.  This was about a week after we ordered the part.  Then, every day I checked, it was just sitting, or so it seemed, in Horsham, PA.  Meanwhile, expecting it to jump on a truck at some point, I purchased the special Torx screwdriver set and electric meter I would need to deal with this little job.

One day, the tracking information changed.  There was a notation that UPS had turned the parcel over to our local post office, and it would be delivered by the coming Friday, in three days.  Hallelujah! While hand washing dishes is quaint, and a way to have a joint activity with one’s spouse, we wanted to move on.  I found myself rinsing the same plate and coffee cup over and over to not have to wash too many items.  Of course, Friday came and went with no package delivered.  Back online I went, and found there was a USPS tracking number.  Clicking on that, I saw our package wound up somewhere in Cincinnati, Ohio.  There was a little subscript saying it was sent to the wrong post office, and a correction would be made.  Another week went by, and the message from the USPS had not changed.

I finally called Sears Parts Direct and told them of my plight.  They responded quite appropriately.  I was able to speak with a representative without a single menu item to get through.  He looked up my tracking numbers and saw the same thing I did.  He said he would have another part sent out right away, this time directly by USPS, and he would remove the shipping fee from our original order.  Sure enough, five days later my part arrived.  It was packed a little haphazardly, but it was there.

The next day, don’t want to rush into a job like this, I recruited my wife to check the dishwasher while I went in the basement to turn off the circuit breaker.  After finding the right one, I proceeded to make the switch.  It wasn’t too difficult to disconnect all the cables but one did have to keep them straight.  I installed the new circuit board, put everything back together, then flipped the circuit breaker back on.  As you might have guessed, nothing had changed.  The buttons on the right side of the panel worked, but the on/off button was dead.  Either the problem was with the front panel, or my new circuit board was defective.

At this point I decided not to throw more good money after bad, as the saying goes.  A few days later, my wife and I headed out to Sears and bought a new dishwasher.  We got a nice one, a Bosch, which is super quiet and cleans like crazy.  It cost a bit more than our old one, and had to be professionally installed, but it was completely worth it.  Life is back to, no better than, what it was before.  We can have a normal conversation in the kitchen with the dishwasher running and it doesn’t interfere at all.

So, what did my tuition for this lesson get me?  I learned it is expensive to try to repair an appliance, which I already knew, but had to learn again.  I also learned I can do it if I know what the problem is, but figuring that out is the hard part.  I also learned what a Torx screwdriver is, and I now have one that ratchets if ever I need it again.  Perhaps I’ll pass it to one of my children in my will.

Seizing up the Muscles

Christine, one of our Sunday morning regulars, asked this morning, “How do I get rid of muscle cramps?”  Sounds simple, and surely there is a scientific explanation and answer, right?

No one knows.

That’s the answer.  At least, no one who has done the research and looked for a cause, and has evidence to support their conclusions has an answer.  In an excellent article by Kevin Miller, Marcus Stone, Kellie Huxel, and Jeffrey Edwards, sports physiology scientists, titled “Exercise-Associated Muscle Cramps,” (Sports Health. 2010 Jul; 2(4): 279–283), and provided through the National Institutes of Health, the subject of muscle cramps in athletes is reviewed in depth.

There are myriad theories and cures for this vexing problem.  Most of the theories and suggested cures are based on hunches, anecdotes and guesses.  The most common thoughts about why muscle cramps occur in athletes have to do with dehydration and loss of electrolytes.  The thinking goes that if one is dehydrated, meaning a loss of free water in the body, and loss of electrolytes such as sodium, potassium and magnesium, the nerve terminals to muscles are over-sensitized leading to cramps.

Another leading theory is based on neuromuscular interactions.  This theory states that, in overworked muscles, excitatory impulses and inhibitory impulses are not in balance, and the excitation of muscle fibers wins out.

The report mentioned above goes into detail about these theories, looks at the research that has been done in these areas, and the reasons that these theories are not clearly supported by the research.

Most muscle cramps in athletes occur well into a workout or race, or occur after the end of the event.  There is a period during which muscle cramps occur after the event is finished called the “cramp prone state”, and until this period is finished, which may be eight hours or longer, the athlete is still susceptible.  While some cramps may be minor, and not interfere with performance, often the cramps can be debilitating.  Many cures have been tried over and over, with only anecdotal evidence to back them up.  Sports drinks containing (minimal) electrolytes, pickle juice, mustard, bananas, oranges, cold therapy, hot therapy, massage and TENS (trans-cutaneous nerve stimulation) have all been used.  But studies looking at hydration status, electrolyte status and all the above mentioned cures have failed to show statistical improvement in study groups.  Known to work to relieve a cramp, but not for prevention, stretching will stop the cramp.  However, that is a temporary solution, and not one that will prevent a cramp the moment activity is resumed.

I have been plagued with cramps, mostly of the legs and thighs, throughout my athletic career, starting from when I swam as an eight year old.  In my experience, the cramps are less likely to occur the better condition I am in.  When I was a competitive swimmer, the early part of the season was the worst, but as my training went on, they were less and less a problem.  Now, as a runner, and mostly with long distances, I find the muscle cramps hit me very consistently during a marathon, usually around the sixteen to eighteen mile mark.  This is in spite of maintaining good hydration, using salt or drinking electrolyte drinks, and supports the contention that these factors don’t play a role.  My best marathon performance, in which cramps definitely played a very minor roll, was the one where I had trained the best and most consistently.  There are plenty of good reasons to stay well hydrated of course, which have to do with other body systems.  Running in the heat and humidity causes excessive fluid losses, raises core body temperature as the body has trouble getting rid of excess heat, and can lead to hyperthermia and affect kidney function.  Overhydration by consuming too much water to replace losses, can cause hyponatremia, meaning too low sodium levels, which is equally serious.

Kevin Miller, the lead author of the article mentioned above, wrote a simplified version of myths regarding muscle cramps and what to do about them, called “Exercise-Associated Muscle Cramps: Debunking Five Myths”.

While research into the reason for muscle cramps and the treatment has not provided an answer, he makes sound suggestions on how best to avoid them.  If you wish to have a more complete understanding of the research and conclusions, his paper is a good source, and provides many references on which it is based.  I hope your runs are as cramp free as possible.  Happy running.

Animals on the Run

Saturday mornings, my friend Brandon and I usually head out from his house for an early morning run around our local park, the Cooper River Park in Camden County, New Jersey.  We don’t have to go too far before we run into the most populous animals in the region, the so called Giant Canadian Goose.  These animals have learned to call New Jersey home, and long ago gave up their instinctive migratory pattern.  The reason they stay is that life here is pretty good for them.  According to state biologists and naturalists, they thrive on fresh water, grazing areas of tender, mowed grasses, and areas where they have a wide view of potential predators.  They like safe areas to make nests, which they make on the ground, with the goose laying five or six eggs, nesting for 30-35 days in April, and with the gander keeping guard.  All the eggs begin to develop the same day, and hatch the same day.  Once the goslings are out of the shell, they are taken right to the water.  The geese gather multiple nests-full of goslings together, making a very attractive grouping of thirty or forty goslings being watched over by the multiple parent geese of the broods.  It is sort of like how it takes a village to raise a child.  Apparently, our parks and lawns have created ideal places for these formerly migratory birds never to want to leave.  This is just one of numerous species we encounter on our runs.

Non-plussed geese and gosslings along the trail. (courtesy Sue Hamilton)

Non-plussed geese and gosslings along the trail. (courtesy Sue Hamilton)

Geese can be annoying.  They are crowding our parks, cover the trails with goose droppings, and hiss at us as we run by, indicating it’s their park now.  Counter to the geese, much fewer in number, and generally a pleasant natural site are our local ducks.

Ducks looking for a handout at Newton Lake Park

Ducks looking for a handout at Newton Lake Park (courtesy Brandon Hamilton)

I’m not sure of the particular species of these ducks, but I believe they are American Black ducks, common throughout the greater northeast.  Known as a dabbling duck species, meaning they tip bottom side up in the water to find food, they are fun to watch as they feed in the ponds.

Another very common site is the squirrel.  Now, everyone knows squirrels, and they do seem to be everywhere.  Our particular South Jersey squirrels are the Eastern Grey Squirrel, known by their genus Sciurus, a portmanteau of Greek, skia (shadow) and oura (tail), meaning that it is in the shadow of its tail, per the Wikipedia article.  They have adapted very well over a large geographic area, and even have pushed out other squirrel types in places such as the United Kingdom and Australia.  Closely related, but much harder to see for more than a few tenths of a second, are our local Eastern Chipmunks.

Chipmunk gathering seeds.

Chipmunk gathering seeds.

 

 

 

 

I see them mainly along heavily wooded trails in the local parks, darting across the trail to hide in dense roots and ivy.  They live in extensive burrow systems underground, where they store food, and have many entrances and exits.  I also see them darting out from overgrown ivy in my backyard to gather seeds that have fallen from our bird feeder.

A variety of turtles and frogs occasionally poke their heads out, or send a croak out along our lake side trails.

A little larger in the animal kingdom, and certainly more rare as a sighting, is the local red fox.  There are two species of fox in New Jersey, the red and the grey.  I’ve never seen a grey fox, probably because they live in the woods and rarely show themselves.  The red fox we see every now and then, early in the morning, trotting along the side of the water in our local park, looking for rodents.

Red fox.  Wonder what he is thinking....

Red fox. Wonder what he is thinking….

White Tailed Deer have become extremely common around us, which is a bit puzzling to me.  Living where I do in New Jersey, these animals had to cross some major highways, such as the New Jersey turnpike, I295 and US 130 to get to us.  I guess we are seeing the deer that got pushed out from the more desirable locations, or just a population that enjoys suburban living.

Some does have antlers, but this looks like a buck to me, with a fawn.

Some does have antlers, but this looks like a buck to me, with a fawn.  (from Rutgers website)

On a run through a local park not long ago, early in the morning, I was startled by a small herd of six deer bounding across my trail in a wooded area.  According to Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, the deer population in much of the northeast was almost gone around 1900.  This was due to a combination of hunting and natural predators.  Since then, there has been an explosion in the population, due to lack of predators such as wolves and cougars, lack of space for hunting, and increasing habitat in populated areas.  As with any part of an ecosystem, balance is important.  An acceptable herd size is good for forest edge regions.  Too many deer, though, can cause a spiral of decline of forests, as the underbrush is eaten out, leading to lack of saplings, lack of cover for birds and many small animals, and lack of leaves falling from the decreased tree population.  For runners, I’ve yet to hear of someone hit by a deer, but deer also carry the scourge known as the deer tick, a tiny biter which can pass on Lyme disease as well as other illnesses.  Watch your legs in grassy areas.

Looking up, one of the hardest birds to spot is the woodpecker.  In our area, we frequently hear these birds rat-a-tat sound from high in the trees along the trail.  But, the sound is tough to locate, so without spending some time standing still, not what we usually do on a run, we usually don’t spot these birds.  Most likely, we are hearing the tap of the red-bellied woodpecker, the most common in our area, or we could be hearing the marvelously named yellow-bellied sapsucker.

Red-bellied woodpecker (not red-headed, that's another type which is much rarer)

Red-bellied woodpecker (not red-headed, that’s another type which is much rarer) (from NJ Audobon Soc.)

 

Yellow-bellied sapsucker.

Yellow-bellied sapsucker. (from NJ Audubon Soc.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The ultimate wildlife spotting while on a run, in my opinion, was when I was running early Sunday morning a few months ago.  What first appeared to be a large hawk took off from the high branches of a sycamore tree.  As it made a wide, arcing turn, though, we could see it was no hawk.  It was a bald eagle.  I had heard there was a bald eagle nest in this area, but this was the first and only time I have seen one.  It was a beautiful sight, and we followed it with our eyes as it headed along the park lake.

Bald eagle photo (taken from free photos from photobucket)

Bald eagle photo (taken from free photos from photobucket)

There are many other birds and land animals we encounter on our runs.  There are blue herons, red-winged blackbirds, groundhogs and an occasional snake.  On runs outside my own territory, there have been many animals I have spotted, including beavers, skunks, and others.  No bears, fortunately.  I enjoy spotting these animals on the run, and it’s part of the joy of running outdoors.  Very few animals, other than homo-sapiens, are spotted running on a treadmill.

Explain Tango

I recently returned from my first trip to Buenos Aires, accompanied by my wife, Kathleen, an ardent tanguera, and another couple, Roger and Claire, both tango devotees of the highest order.  I will attempt to explain tango.

Not an easy thing to do.  I think it’s like trying to explain Argentina.  That’s where tango began.  It’s why it is called the Argentine Tango.  It is a social dance, since people who dance tango gather at milongas and ask others, not the “one who brung ya”, to dance.  Mostly men ask women, with a certain glance known as a cabaceo, to which the woman responds with a nod, or turns her head away.  This allows two dancers spotting each other across the room, then making their way across the dance floor to each other, assuming the embrace, then starting to dance, with few or no words said.  The music is of three basic styles, called tango, milonga or vals.  Yes, it can get confusing.  One goes to a milonga to dance tango, and might dance to a tango, or a milonga or a vals, which is a waltz, but not danced like a waltz, but like a tango but with a few syncopated steps thrown in.  If a couple want only to dance with each other, that is okay, but they are sat with other like-minded couples.  If the thought is to dance with others, one needs to sit separate from one’s mate, and be available.

Basic tango steps as documented on the floor of a tango shoe store.

Basic tango steps as documented on the floor of a tango shoe store.

Learning tango is like learning another language.  The vocabulary consists of different progressions of movement, and the communication is between the leader and the follower.  In general, the male leads and the woman follows, but men can follow, women can lead, and men can dance with men, women with women.  But a leader and follower are still essential parts.  Done well, it can be quite beautiful, but everyone needs to start at the beginning, so entry-level tango is necessary.  In fact, when one attends a milonga, which is what the gathering of people to dance tango is called, it usually starts with a lesson.  The lesson is taught by masters of tango, who show basic steps very slowly, building on one turn into the next, and then the students try to emulate.  Good teachers will watch all the students and closely interact with them until they get the movement being taught.  They also encourage the students to frequently change partners, so they get the opportunity to learn how different leaders lead, and different followers follow.  Some followers need a very strong lead and move like a barge, while others are like cutting horses; give them a bit of a nudge and they’re off into a crazy boleo or some other risky maneuver.

Practica:  teachers demonstrating for class, to be followed by time to practice without.

Practica: teachers demonstrating for class, to be followed by time to practice without being too formal.

Tango started sometime around the mid-1800’s, in Buenos Aires and Montevideo.  While the origins may be obscure, it seems the early dancers were mainly men, sometimes dancing with each other, sometimes with prostitutes in the poorer neighborhoods of Buenos Aires.  It caught favor with a classier crowd, and towards the end of the century into the early 1900’s it became very popular.  The bandoneon, an accordion-like instrument, was adopted from Germany and became a basic part of tango.  The popularity of the dance spread, first to Paris, then other parts of Europe, New York and eventually world-wide.  But the only true capital, and the place where tangueros and tangueras go to experience the essence of tango is Buenos Aires.

La Casa Rosada, or Pink House, home of the office of the president of Argentina.

La Casa Rosada, or Pink House, home of the office of the president of Argentina.

The music of tango has certain style and sound that make it unique.  For straight tango, it has a very strong rhythm with two or four beats per measure, and a pronounced down beat.  There is usually no percussion, although the bandoneon or the bass can be used to keep the rhythm. The music can change tempo, giving dancers the opportunity for dramatic acceleration or slowing, even pausing.  The most famous tango song, and the one which is often used to wrap up a night at a milonga, signalling the last dance, is called La Cumparsita.  It was written by Gerardo Matos Rodriquez, an 18-year-old Uruguayan from Montevideo, in 1916.

Tango in Argentina has gone through periods of decline, then resurgence several times.  But now it is a world-wide phenomenon, one can find milongas most nights in most major cities, and it is popular with more people now than ever before.  The mystery, though, is what drives the desire to spend years, huge amounts of money, and great amounts of frustration to learn tango.

It is a dance of intimate contact.  It is danced chest to chest, sometimes with a bit of separation, in salon style, and sometimes pressed up against each other in close embrace, feet and legs a bit outward, moving in concert in milonguero style.  This is with any partner one happens to lure to the dance floor.  The intimacy is counteracted by the serious nature and intent of the dancers, in other words, if you are enjoying that close contact, you must not show it.  But, the milongueras know.

Milonguero style, or close embrace.

Milonguero style, or close embrace.

It is also a dance of strict lead and follow, requiring close attention on the follower’s part, and very clear intention on the leader’s part.  The leader must maintain the proper posture and embrace, without using force, to let his follower know what to do.  The leader must also get cues from the follower, to allow her time to respond, to pivot, or to perform embellishments.  The signals are conveyed chest to chest.  It is a dance requiring a connection between two people which is unlike any other social interaction.  Songs are played in groups of three, or sometimes four, called a “tanda”, and are of the same type, tango, or vals, or milonga.  Once a connection is made, one is expected to dance the entire tanda with the partner, then switch partners.  Between songs, the partners may make light conversation, then wait as the next song starts.  They will often wait until a minute or so into the song before starting dancing.  Between tandas, a bit of utterly non-tango music is played, such as swing, or cha-cha, and the dancers chuckle, briefly showing they may know how to do those dances, too, before getting to the next tanda.

Afternoon tango at Confiteria Ideal, a classic tango venue.

Matinee (until 9:00 PM) tango at La Confiteria Ideal, a classic tango venue in Buenos Aires.

Tango has it’s own verbal language.  There’s abrazo, boleo, cadena, desplazamiento, entrada, fanfarron, gancho, lapiz, molinete, ocho, planeo, and many more, all in Spanish, all which one must learn as part of learning the dance.  Naturally, the tango teacher comes from Argentina, speaks mostly or only Spanish, so one either gets with the language or is totally confused.  Tango dancers enjoy learning this secret language known only to them.  The Spanish words by themselves are common, but what they mean in the dance is the key.

Making shoes for tango.

Making shoes for tango.

Particularly for women, there is the excitement of the shoes.  Tangueras (the ladies) get absolutely obsessed by the tango shoes, stylish high heels costing hundreds of dollars, built by hand in the shoe salons of Buenos Aires.  If a woman enjoys tango, she may go to Buenos Aires for the sole purpose of buying shoes.  Of course, they need to fit just right, and be supportive for dancing in addition to making the other women furious with envy.  We spent one afternoon chasing this dream on our recent trip.  The address of the salon led us to a tall, narrow building on a busy street with a locked door and the typical push button list of occupants.  There was no sign indicating a shoe salon, and no labels on the brass plate with the buttons to show which one to press.  We were wondering if we were in the right place, when another customer came up, pressed the right button and got buzzed in.  She indicated we were indeed in the right place.  The building inside was old with a very high ceiling and elegant, but with the look of an office building.  The elevator was a classic ancient elevator, tiny with glass doors.  There was room only for our wives and the other customer, so my friend Roger and I ascended the stairs and met the women on the third floor, which was, English style, three flights up.  Through the unmarked office door we went, and were greeted by a young woman in charge of her shoe salon.  She had samples on shelves around the waiting area, with thin leather straps, colorful combinations of prints and designs, and very long slender heels.  Several other women were there trying on shoes.  This is the ultimate in shoe buying experience.  We went to several other shoe salons during the trip that were not so secretive, but this one topped them all.

One of Kathleen's new pairs of tango shoes.

One of Kathleen’s new pairs of tango shoes.

Tango starts and ends very late at night.  The typical time table starts with a lesson around 9:30-10:30.  The milonga itself does not start until 11:00 PM, and goes until 4:00 AM.  The better dancers don’t even show up until 1:00 AM, and stay until the end.  So if you like to sleep in late, rise say at noon, and hit the dance floor around midnight, tango is for you.  Some people like this.  This life is not for the hard core early riser, the sunrise worshiper, the early to bed, early to rise type.  Nope.  This is for the person whose life runs on their time, who likes to consider dinner at around 10:00 PM, and uses the later morning hours for a good sleep.

Learning tango may take years, and a lot of dedication, but it offers the excuse, if one was needed, to go to Argentina and experience the dance in its element.  Certainly, Buenos Aires has much to offer beyond tango.  The various neighborhoods are very colorful, with beautiful architecture, and a style of painting in many areas known as fileteado.

Building with fileteado painting in Palermo

Building with fileteado painting in Palermo

There is San Telmo, the oldest barrio in Buenos Aires, characterized by small cafés, bodegas, book shops, art galleries, antique shops and elegant old buildings.  It is where we stayed in a very unique apartment while in Buenos Aires.  La Boca, where many Italian immigrants from Genoa settled, has typical tourist shops, and the old port.  Microcentro is the central business district, with office buildings, shopping, restaurants and hotels.  There is a pedestrian-only street in Microcentro called Calle Florida, jammed with shops and shoppers, also young men quietly calling out “cambio”, (“change”), seeking to have you change your dollars for their pesos.

Street tango performers

Street performers on Calle Florida in Microcentro.

Palermo is a chic, upscale barrio, with earth-friendly but costly cafés, expensive clothing stores, and lots of bikes.  It is a very pleasant area to wander in the afternoon, window shopping, and stopping for an espresso, or lunch.  We did not make it to Recoleta on this trip, but it is the highest end neighborhood.   In every barrio, every night, there are several milongas from which to choose.  There is, of course, a smart phone app to help, called “Hoy Milonga”, which will let you know what is happening where.

I will leave you with a link to a video of a typical milonga, but to truly understand tango takes years of practice, lessons, milongas, mistakes, overcoming shyness, brusqueness, close human interaction, embracing the challenge and opening oneself to new friends and relationships.  I am told that once one is bitten by the bug, there is no turning back.  Perhaps I sound a bit on the fence,  but I am enjoying my foray into the world of tango.

Why I Love the Caesar Rodney Half Marathon

Frank nears the halfway point

Frank nears the halfway point

 

I have written about this race before, The Caesar Rodney Half Marathon, in which I described the race, its history, and the particularly challenging profile of the course.  In brief, the first half of the race is relatively flat after an initial downhill first mile.  Then, there is a long and sometimes steep, 2.5 mile uphill climb, a number of turns through neighborhoods, then a downhill stint to the final steep uphill 1/3 mile to the finish.

This race is run the third Sunday in March, when chill winds still blow.  In fact, this year, we had a snowstorm all day Friday two days before the race.  Most of the snow on the streets melted the following day when it rose to 50˚F, but then the temperature dropped back to below freezing that night.  For race day, we had gusty winds and temperatures in the low 40’s.

Dan and Brian Ambrose pumping up for the hill.

Dan and Brian Ambrose pumping up for the hill.

What is good about this race?  It is one of the first races of the early spring, meaning to be in shape, one must train through the winter.  So, it encourages fortitude in training when the weather is frigid, daytime hours are few, and the conditions on the ground can be pretty miserable.

It is a race with a history.  It is one of the first half marathons in the country, first run in 1964 when Browning Ross, from Woodbury, NJ, won it in 1:07:24.  It has been run every year since then, making this year the 52nd running.

It is well organized.  Runners are given permission to use the Downtown Wilmington YMCA locker rooms, to store gear, use indoor restrooms, and provide showers after the race.  Few races I know of have that sort of facility available.  Picking up one’s number and race packet is simple and done on the day of the race.  There is a very friendly bag drop manned by volunteers.  In fact, there is a friendly atmosphere throughout, and senior Delaware Senator Tom Carper, former Delaware governor and congressman, former naval air commander during the Viet Nam war, runs the race with the rest of us.

It is for a good cause.  The money raised goes to support the American Lung Association, certainly an easy tie in with running.

From a personal view, this was my first half marathon, and the race I keep returning to year after year.  I first ran it in 2007, missed 2008, but have run it every year since.  Up to this year, I have been kind of stuck in a rut, time-wise.  My times these past years have been fairly consistent:

2007  1:51:59

Brandon at the finish line.

Brandon at the finish line.

2008  Didn’t run

2009 1:49:45

2010  1:49:48

2011  1:49:40

2012  1:53:35

2013  1:49:16

2014  1:49:34

This year I wanted to break out of my rut.  I ran fairly consistently through the darkest days of winter, through slush and cold rain, enjoyed the occasional cold but sunny morning run on the weekends, and was feeling pretty good going into the race.  Still, I had some trepidation.  I know the course, and how challenging it is.  After running it all these years I know every turn, and know when it seems like the race will never end.

So, I lined up with everyone else at the start, and took off feeling good.  One cannot help feeling good in a race which starts heading downhill for a mile.  Of course, the clever among us will recognize uphill is coming.  Instead of feeling washed up as the road headed up, though, I felt I still had some energy in me, and managed to gut out the 2.5 mile climb mid-race.  I cruised back down the hill towards the finish, and my good friend and running partner, Brandon, came back to encourage me on the last mile.  This all resulted in a very satisfying finish of 1:47:56, my best half marathon anywhere.  I finished fifth in my age group, averaging 8:15 per mile.

After the finish, a new half marathon PR for Frank.

After the finish, a new half marathon PR for Frank.

Now, I’ve set the bar higher for myself, and each year get older.  I’ll really have to turn up the training screws next winter.

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