Lunch at Joe’s

December 17, 2018

I had to pick up copies of my first MRI report at an imaging facility—hard to keep track of all this paper.  It was raining hard and I didn’t have to do it today, but I just wanted to get it done. My chore became Sandy’s chore, as they all do these days, since I can’t drive for three more weeks. But I suggested getting lunch afterward at Joe’s American Diner, and she was good for that.

Joe’s is the kind of place you think “Joe’s Diner” would be, one of thousands across America. We ate at lots of them on our road trip, in Ohio, Missouri, Texas, and so on. But something was off today. We stood for about 20 minutes before getting seated. We waited some more and finally ordered some lunch. Then we waited. So did everyone else. Time drifted by, half an hour, then an hour. This was for a tuna salad sandwich and a chicken club. But we weren’t pressed for time and it was still pouring outside. So we sat.

img_20181216_215055566-18856871527368260807.jpgI finally asked about our order and learned the cook didn’t show up, so one of the wait staff was thrown in to cook. It’s no profound insight, but the real situation we were trapped in (we could have stomped out) collided with our idea of lunch at Joe’s, which was way different. Strangely, it made me think about truth, and Etienne Gilson.

Gilson is the French philosopher who explained the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, the 13th century theologian. Aquinas’ monumental work, Summa Theologica, which he never completed, is the lodestar of Catholic-Christian theology. But beyond that he created a revolution in philosophy by using the teaching of the Greek pagan Aristotle to explain the world we live in, to explain truth. And this Christmas, truth would be a nice gift to find under the tree.

To get to truth, we start by wrestling with the meaning of existence. The way isn’t to quote philosophers or televangelists. It is to use our senses—sight, touch, hearing—to perceive the physical world. We watched the servers frantically carrying trays to the tables at Joe’s. No need to argue that they exist, that they are elements of truth. We know they are real because we see them running around serving people.

Gilson, who died in 1978 at 95, explains that in Aquinas’ and Aristotle’s thinking, anything capable of being defined consists of the physical, which they call matter, and the definition itself, which they call form.  You know your friend Tom not by his height, weight, and coloring (matter), but by his personality and character (form).  He needs both matter and form to exist. But it’s the form that defines Tom, that tells us who he is—what Aquinas called “essence.” Physical things (matter) we know through sense experience go out of existence. Form always exists.

img_20181216_131026395-2404909293807284020.jpgSo the baseline for understanding existence, truth, reality, is what we perceive. We can’t see “justice” or “courage,” but we know they exist because we see people acting justly and courageously. Every idea, every concept, every noble thought, e.g., “truth,” must begin with the objective things or acts that we perceive.

Gilson points out that Aquinas’ use of Aristotle’s teaching transformed the way philosophers thought about reality, or truth—but not for long. Within a few years after St. Thomas died in 1274, a so-called “Back to the Gospel” movement started, led by religious leaders who opposed what they considered an excessive preoccupation with philosophy. They attacked Aquinas’ focus on physical existence. They argued instead that truth is based solely on belief, as with the philosopher William of Ockham’s declaration, “I believe in God Almighty.” As an article of faith, the statement cannot be proved. Yet it leaked over into philosophy, evolving into the presumption that reality is defined by abstract ideas instead of things that actually exist.

That presumption, Gilson explains, reached its tragic culmination in the work of the French mathematician Rene Descartes, who in 1619 resolved to create a universal mathematics that defined existence in terms of mathematical concepts. For Descartes, the definition of the circle and the triangle become the circle and the triangle, rather than any physical representation of them. In Descartes’ mathematical universe, reality, existence, truth, are represented not by the physical world but by a system of abstract formulas. The consequences of Descartes’ attack on truth derived from sense perception is expressed by his devastating announcement, Cogito Ergo Sum—“I think, therefore I am,” declaring that my thinking, my ideas, define reality.

What Descartes did, Gilson says, is to “thingify concepts,” that is, to look at concepts—ideas—in the same way Aquinas and Aristotle looked on physical objects as the foundation of truth. And so it went on down to the 20th century, as philosophers and political leaders relied on rigid, complex systems of ideas to define truth, instead of evidence anchored in the physical world. In time, those systems calcified into fanatical political ideologies. In 1941, Gilson wrote that “millions of men are starving and bleeding because two or three of these pseudoscientific or pseudo-social deified abstractions are now are war.”

How does all this hot air circle around to the present moment, at Christmas? This way: the country today is running on a strain of pure ideology empty of philosophical content, an ideology that feeds political opportunism by trafficking in empty promises, bluster, and lies that no one—no one—takes seriously or bothers to defend. In our nation’s public life, truth—that is, the perception of the world as it exists, as Aristotle and Aquinas explained it, has shriveled into an artifact of old textbooks that hardly anyone reads.

Back to Joe’s. How did our plan for lunch go so wrong? We had an idea, an assumption based on no facts, that lunch at Joe’s would go smoothly—the cook would be working and we’d be served promptly and efficiently. We didn’t know about the reality, and when we learned of it, we ignored it.

Like 300 million other Americans, we’ll look under the tree anyway. But we probably won’t go back to Joe’s for a while.


At Christmas, Planning Ahead

December 10, 2018

The woman from the home health-care service commissioned by the hospital was direct: “Have you been depressed?

Me: “No.”

“Have you felt afraid to go home?”

Me: “No, Never.”

“Have you felt like hurting yourself?”

Me: “No!”

“Have you felt suicidal?”

Me: “Again, no!”

I was seriously grinding my teeth by now.  Can you be suicidal and NOT feel like hurting yourself?

I know medical people have to ask these things, and not only of the old gents they visit. For some folks, men, women, old or young, the answer to those questions is yes.

We ended up dropping the service, not because the woman asked these things, but because the service seemed superficial and unnecessary. She changed my bandage, took vital signs, asked about my height and weight. It was a service the hospital high-pressured me into signing up for, assuring me the insurance would get the bill. Groggy from anesthesia, I didn’t argue much, but wondered why bill insurance when I don’t want the service?

img_20180919_1614072751447794346774053187.jpgMy vital signs are strong. Apart from the pain of the cut, which I endured with Percocet. I feel OK; not great, but OK. In three days at home I was done with the drugs. The worst of it, apart from the uncertainty of future treatment, is the mushy institutional sympathy. Before I checked out of the hospital, two therapists confronted me, almost daring me not to be pathetic and helpless. I nodded but changed the subject.

I wore my Santa’s hat when the surgeon came in to talk about the operation.

So what matters to old guys with some health worries? It depends on the season. Right now, we’re getting close to Christmas: the magic night of the birth of the Savior. We’re in the third week of Advent. Yesterday an old friend from our local running group, the THuGs, drove me up to the finish point for a local trail run I had entered before my health problems, just so I could say hello to the runners as they finished. That’s a friend. Nice.

This Saturday we’ll attend the annual THuG Christmas Dinner/White Elephant Gift Exchange (with wives). Last year the dress was turtlenecks, this year, lederhosen.

Throughout the week, friends have stopped by to visit and bring us meals. Then in ten days we’re heading to South Carolina to visit our kids and grandkids. Of course Sandy will have to do all the driving. But—who’s not having fun?

Through all this weirdness, I work at changing the subject. I don’t want to talk about sickness, hospitals, doctors, treatments, drugs. I especially don’t want to exchange stories about sickness, hospitals, etc. Everybody’s got theirs. Outside of the need-to-knows (family) let’s talk about other things.

A friend still working at the parish food pantry where I worked the past three years says the place is disorganized, management is shaky. I miss that work. The English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program will kick in its second semester next month, I’ll stay on the substitute list. The need hasn’t gone away.

I still need to get registered for the Surface Navy National Symposium in Arlington in January. I go every year, picking up news for the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings magazine. Great way to get caught up on what Navy leadership is saying about that 355-ship Navy they promised. So far, the Navy won’t be guarding the border. That’s what I hear—so far.

Assuming the Trump stock market crash and recession don’t wreck us financially, we want to get out on the road again, I mean, literally. We’re looking to finish what we started in August: get to Ennis, Mont., which says its population is “900 people, 12 million trout”; where we’ve stayed a few times; then Sturgis, S.D., for next summer’s Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. Also Seattle, to see family; back to Austin, to see Scott and Barb and maybe visit Lukenbach, and Harper, Sandy’s favorite Texas Hill Country place.

Right now I’m looking at getting back to the gym to lose the weight I’ll be gaining with all the good food people are giving me. By spring I want to be running again. When I was working out I didn’t worry about raiding the fridge. Since I’ve been sitting on my butt maybe I should start.












For the Rough Patches

 December 3, 2018

“Take the shortest route, the one that nature planned.”

                                                                  —Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (Bk. 4)

Somedays, we all wonder, how do we put up with things? We all hit rough patches occasionally. And it’s a sure thing that someone else has it worse than I do, or you do.  Remember those Christians in the Coliseum. But when we’re in a bad fix, do we make our own rules, or look for those offered by others? This past weekend brought the news of the passing of President George H. W. Bush, a man who gave his country a life of service, who knew what rules should govern his life. Then this week sweeps me into the operating room at Virginia Hospital Center, where I’ll get a “thymic carcinoma” scooped from my chest. That’s where I’ll be when the country is honoring President Bush.

I haven’t measured up to his example. But when we get in a fix we consult the experts. Our faith can get me through these medical things. It sustains us, in mysterious ways, by teaching that those tough stretches are, in a way, a gift: they make our lives richer for confronting them, whatever the outcome.  We get nearly the same lesson from the Greek and later the Roman Stoics, most closely identified with Marcus Aurelius and his Meditations.  That’s doesn’t mean equivalence between the Christian message and human wisdom. One draws us to eternity. Marcus was no Christian. But his Meditations help us focus.

img_20181202_1925231219101040686533617406.jpgLike his Roman contemporaries, Marcus was educated in the thought of the Greek philosophers, among them Heraclitus (c. 500 BC) and a century later, Socrates, both considered, among others, the original Stoics. Socrates left nothing written. The legend of his acceptance of death has come to represent the purest expression of Stoicism.

Marcus led Roman armies in intermittent wars, putting down rebellions until he died in 180 A.D. at 58. He wrote his meditations for himself; he never intended them for publication. It’s uncertain what happened to his notes after he died, but a 4th century history hints that they were in circulation at that time. Then they were lost in the West for nearly a thousand years, as the Empire declined. Sometime in the 10th century copies appeared in the East. Scholars believe that after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, academics fled to the West, bringing hand-copied fragments, garbled and incomplete.

What’s left are the Meditations, in 12 books, that now represent the philosophy of Stoicism (from the word “stoa,” referring to a porch in Athens where the early Stoics taught). Today, we understand the term as the willingness to bear up to hardship. But the Meditations teach more eloquent lessons: that the world is an orderly place, controlled by logic (logos), which governs the entire universe, yet also allowed room for free will. The Stoic world is fundamentally rational. From there it’s not a long leap to see the shadow, although only the shadow, of Christianity, by inserting “God” in place of “logos.”

So we get this in Meditations. Marcus, intent not on teaching others but on understanding his own life, offers a way of thinking that shores up faith. In Book 7 he writes: “Everywhere, at each moment, you have the option to accept this event with humility, to treat this person as he should be treated.” This thinking is a departure—not the cold logic of the early Greeks.

Book 1 is highly biographical: “1. My grandfather: character, self-control. 2. My father: integrity and manliness. 5. My first teacher: to put up with discomfort and not make demands. 9. Sextus: kindness. An example of fatherly authority in the home. What it means to live as nature requires.”

Book 2: “I have seen the beauty of the good and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own … and possessing a share of the divine.”

And on into Book 3: “To welcome with affection what is sent by fate. Not to stain or disturb the spirit within him with false beliefs. Instead, to preserve it faithfully, by obeying God, saying nothing untrue, doing nothing unjust. And if others don’t acknowledge it, this life lived with simplicity, humility, cheerfulness—he doesn’t resent them for it, and isn’t deterred from following the road where it leads to the end of life. An end to be approached in purity, in serenity, in acceptance, in peaceful unity with what must be.”

And repeat, for emphasis: “to live as nature requires.”

Marcus Aurelius, Emperor of Rome, who for 19 years held near-absolute power over nations, had a more muscular take on life than the 12 guys at the Sea of Galilee 150 years earlier. But here and there, their minds and souls meet. When they wheel you into the OR, both work.






The Shenandoahs

November 26, 2018

I missed Vickie’s Death March, the 26-mile trail run in Shenandoah National Park put on by the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club the day after Thanksgiving. The course weaves old Shenandoah trails with the Appalachian Trail, or AT, mixing deep-woods running with steep rock climbs bordered by thundering waterfalls. The Death March was beyond me this year, as I look forward to three medical appointments this week—maybe four. But last night’s rain stopped, the skies cleared, and Sandy and I drove out to the mountains. The point was to be there, to see those peaks, to breathe the air of Virginia’s wild country.

img_20181125_1243556321650006645513765300.jpgWe took U.S. 211 past Sperryville, a rough-edged little place that leads you into the park. I pointed out the trailheads, Buck Ridge and Pass Mountain, from which I started long slogs over the past five or so years, leading to the AT, Hazel Mountain, White Rocks, Hazel River, Sam’s Ridge, and other mountain trails. Some are popular with hikers. Others are too steep for most, or too technical, too suggestive of dangers of exhaustion, injury, or disorientation in the deep forest. Along some of them you recognize the ruins of stone structures erected by the people of the Shenandoahs before they were expelled in the early 1930s through eminent domain, condemnation, and eviction, as the federal government created the park.

Sandy nodded politely. As we crawled up 211 in the van, I wondered whether anyone was slogging those trails on this warm November day.

img_20181125_114242794_hdr4442747230145317125.jpgWe drove through the Thornton Gap entrance to Skyline Drive then headed south.  Sandy doesn’t like heights, and at some points the road brings you awfully close to the edge of the cliff. She stared straight ahead. Looking east, the Shenandoahs fade into the mesmerizing blueness that prompts the name “Blue Ridge.” Today the mountains are in their winter brown, tinged by sunlight. I could not look away.

The Death March crosses Skyline at Hawksbill Mountain, at over 4,000 feet the highest peak in the park. From Hawksbill runners jump on the AT to a commercial spot called Skyland, once a popular resort, now a welcome resting point, where until this past Friday you could get lunch. Today: closed for the season.

img_20181125_1101007891331286351028179881.jpgWe turned around at Skyland, which looks west towards West Virginia, 20 or so miles farther on. Skyline Drive northbound leads to the Stony Man overlook, that points to an eerie human profile gashed from the mountain.  We paused to gawk at overlooks as the road swings from the east to the west cliffs of the Blue Ridge.

I slowed down at the point where the AT meets the Nicholson Hollow trail, which takes you the final six miles back to the Death March finish. The trail passes the Corbin Cabin, a solid log structure in the thick of the forest that conveys (for me) an irrational sense of foreboding.

Skyline Drive levels out a bit beyond Thornton Gap and Sandy relaxed and took in the sights. On this less-forbidding stretch we saw more traffic, cyclists, and hikers. We passed another intersection with the AT, which takes you a tough eight miles to Elkwallow, a popular picnic spot. The Skyline continues to follow the AT, descending gently. Your nerves relax. The overlooks slide by: Hogback, Gimlet Ridge, Hogwallow Flats, Jenkins Gap, closing on the entrance just south of Front Royal.

Then you see it—Signal Knob overlook, but also the name of the dark peak that rises between Front Royal and Strasburg, ten miles west. That Signal Knob, the first (or final) stop on the Massanutten Trail, can be reached by a four-mile trail of knife-sharp prongs of pure granite. Don’t look up or away while attempting it.

Coming down from the Drive is an abrupt, jarring return from the grim beauty of that hundred-mile stretch of countless ancient peaks, gently rounded by millennia, that still promise to deliver men and women momentarily from the drudgery of the city, the suburb, the interstate, the cubicle, the doctor’s waiting room.

We go back to the Shenandoahs to discover in that misty blueness the resolve to overcome, or at least endure, what we face as our time races by: fear, pain, doubt. The peaks speak to us of challenges faced and others still to come. We feel the strength offered by those close to us. And then we feel the pure rush of joy that will come, that God gives us for a short time in the mountains.




November 19, 2018

“You are a rude, terrible person.”

“Good work by General Kelly for firing that dog!”

Who talks like that?

This is Thanksgiving week. Some Americans are thankful that, two years ago, we elected the source of these quotes as President of the United States. That’s one kind of thanksgiving.

But according to tradition, at this time we put aside our differences and express gratitude for the blessings we enjoy. We look about to find the good in our lives: the love of family and enduring relationships with friends, and through those things the happiness we hope to enjoy before we go to our Maker.

Yet every year some have to look harder than others to find those things. We see, every day in America, lives ravaged by tragedy: just last week in Paradise and Thousand Oaks, California; then in Pittsburgh, Mexico Beach, Florida, and elsewhere, only into the recent past. The British poet Matthew Arnold wrote this in Dover Beach:

“Ah love, let us be true to one another!                                                                                            For the world, which seems to lie before us like a land of dreams,                                          So various, so beautiful, so new,                                                                                                    Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,                                                                                  Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain …”

Dover Beach descends into a mood of bleak darkness. Arnold wrote it in 1867, a time of appalling poverty and suffering among England’s working people when, for many English, religious faith was replaced by cynicism and despair.

Reason for thanksgiving

The lesson of his words is an everyday truth: in every age, in every generation, in every life, good and evil impinge on each other. Thanksgiving comes to us as a happy legacy of the Puritans in Massachusetts sitting down to feast, first in 1621, with local tribesmen to celebrate the success of the growing season.  In 1777 the Continental Congress issued a Proclamation of Thanksgiving calling for the acknowledgement of God’s beneficence, to be observed on a Thursday in November.  Presidents Washington, Adams, and Madison issued similar proclamations, and in 1863 President Lincoln declared that Thanksgiving shall be observed on the last Thursday of November.

Meanwhile, white settlers fought bloody wars with Cherokees, Seminoles, and later Apaches and Comanches; Southern planters enslaved blacks; Americans fought the Civil War, some  700,000 died.

Those presidential proclamations express sentiments that connote “Thanksgiving” the holiday as recognition of revered achievements of our history. It’s a national holiday, like the 4th of July, Memorial Day, and others.

Who should give thanks? Surely we excuse the victims of the devastating fires in California, the families of victims of mass shootings, those who endured the Gulf Coast hurricanes. And those suffering from cancer, schizophrenia, drug addiction, other ravages of the body and mind.  What about unskilled men and women with families laid off from minimum-wage jobs?

Yet we all have heard anecdotes of such people who, incredibly, express unique degrees of courage and resolve to triumph over the crises they endure. In nearly every case, they thank others.

We know, instinctively, that thanksgiving has to do with tangible things that evoke ideas and beliefs that matter. Why does a wife thank her husband for bringing her flowers? Not for the flowers. In the same way, why do parents thank God for their childrens’ good health? They love the children but meanwhile they are grateful for the gift—God’s beneficence—which the children represent.

That speaks to a subtle nuance in Christian thought: what is real consists of matter and form. What counts for the wife isn’t the flowers (matter). It’s the form (the love they express). And what’s important about the form is that it’s directed at another.

We enjoy the Thanksgiving turkey, the visiting, and Black Friday at the mall or now, in front of the laptop. Some of us pay attention to proclamations from by the president or the local Grand Poohbah. Some of us go for blessings at church, synagogue, etc.

That’s Thanksgiving the start of “holiday season,” to be followed by bills, too much food, too much traffic, and finally, the mystery of Christmas.

Thanksgiving, the third Thursday of November, does serve a purpose. It can be taken as an invitation to ask and answer that question: am I thankful? For some, the answers are cheerfully natural. “Sure we are,” they answer. Or maybe “Things are basically OK.” Or  “Well, considering the alternative.”

Part of the answer is another question: Thankful to whom? God, we may say, but he always has an agent. Gratitude must have a direct object: Our lives make sense when we connect as human persons, when we recognize others in our lives. Arnold, again, in his Victorian wisdom, recognized this with, “Ah love, let us be true to one another.”

So, thanksgiving (lower case “t”) calls us to ask ourselves if at times we’ve ignored the obvious—the people–who make our lives worthwhile. Most of the answers are mixed. None of us are absolutely content with things as they are. We’d change this, work on that. But we have an idea of what would make us thankful. If we’re honest, we acknowledge that it involves others. Husbands don’t buy flowers for themselves.



November 12, 2018

I got an email from one of the teachers with the ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) program conducted at a nearby parish, seeking a substitute for last Monday’s two-hour Intermediate II-level class. I taught in the Arlington Diocese Catholic Charities ESOL for three years after I quit working. I stepped away from it a year ago, but stayed on the substitute list.

ESOL textbook

I didn’t have anything pressing Monday, so I said I’d take the class. The teacher sent me her lesson plan. She then added a jarring note: only one student had attended recent classes.

I got to the classroom, at the parish school. I leaned against the door frame, waiting, and chatted with the woman who teaches the Beginner course in the next classroom, as her five or six students trickled in. I looked at my watch, 7:10.

At 7:20 Maria showed up, apologizing. She rides a local bus, which was stuck in heavy traffic today, as it is every day. I introduced myself—the substitute. She smiled, adding that she’s been the only student for a couple of weeks.

I gave her some textbook exercises, practice forming the future tense in simple sentences. She answered them all correctly. I added a few on the whiteboard. She got them all right, too. Grammar isn’t why she’s here. The next exercise is more practical: open-ended questions to prompt conversation. She mentioned her two daughters, both with college degrees, who are urging her to buy a laptop. Her pronunciation is passable, but with an accent she’ll never lose. Like the accents of my Appalachian-South relatives.

Maria isn’t a typical ESOL student. Most are new to this country, most are young and struggling. Her English comprehension reflects her 30 years in the U.S., allowing for life in a Hispanic community that defaults to Spanish out of familiarity or cultural loyalty.

One student—seems to undermine the argument of advocates of a compassionate immigration policy that Hispanic people are working hard to equip themselves for life in the U.S. But in the final weeks of my classes, attendance typically dropped from 15 to 20 students to between five to 10, sometimes fewer. This class went the same way.

Why the gap between the theory and the real? Because life intrudes. In my three years of teaching I guess I saw a couple of hundred immigrant adults resolutely sign up for English classes. For the first few weeks they show up with their new textbooks, dictionaries, and pencils. They thank me for the free notepads I hand out.

Then things happen. Some students have young kids who get sick. Many work long hours at exhausting low-level jobs, often far from home. They drive old cars that break down. Like the rest of us, they battle rush-hour gridlock. For some, the sense of being an outsider in a sometimes cruelly prejudiced work culture is a soul-wrenching grind. That over-the-horizon goal—a better job, the confidence that comes with language skills—can seem unreachable. And some fall away from class, maybe only for a semester; others retreat into nearly closed communities of those from their native place who for many reasons never assimilate. Some are deported.

ESOL doesn’t ask students about immigration status. Some are illegal, a challenge for the Catholic Charities lawyers. Others struggle alone to comply with the opaque procedures for obtaining a green card.

Many persevere. They finish their courses, move to better jobs and greater personal and community stature. And who are the immigrants? Unless your ancestors lived in tepees and huts on the plains and in the forests of North America, you’re descended from them. Your name may be Gates or Jobs or Bezos or Trump, but you came from immigrants. Those border arrest and detention statistics that alarm some of us also should prompt one contrarian thought: millions came from Ireland, Italy, Germany, Poland, China, elsewhere. They became us—you and me.

ESOL doesn’t rationalize illegal border crossing or take sides in the grim politics of immigration. But while the feds threaten to deploy 15,000 Army personnel to face 4,000 hungry women and children hoping to seek legal asylum, ESOL and similar programs nationwide offer a solution to this human crisis—language and communication skills, the foundation of education, employment, and, ultimately, pride in being American.


At Prince William

November 5, 2018

Alex met me at the strip mall parking lot along Route 234 in Montclair about noon. It’s a popular spot for jumping off to run Prince William Forest Park trails. Across the highway is the intersection with a fire road that, about half-mile southbound into the park, becomes Burma Road.

We trotted across 234 then onto Burma, set our watches, and Alex took off, as he always does. He’s got 11 finishes in the Hawaii Ultrarunning Team (HURT) 100-miler as well as multiple finishes in such races as the Fat Dog 120-miler in British Columbia, Cruel Jewel 100 in Georgia, Massanutten Mountain 100, an exotic ultra in northern Greece, and others. I like to say that’s because he’s 20 years younger than me.

The photo below shows Alex and another friend, Amir, who runs with us when he’s in town.

The first half-mile down Burma is level and easy. You can then cross a footbridge over Quantico Creek to pick up the North Valley Trail, which in five miles takes you around to a spur up to the park visitor’s center. Or stay on Burma, which climbs gently for a little less than a mile to an intersection with a paved road, Scenic Drive, the main route through the park.

Today we stay on Burma and continue south on Taylor Farm Road, still an easy trail with a few rolls to it. Alex by now is a dot. I’m starting to feel loose. I don’t have those fast-twitch quads, so I take a while to get up steam. But I’m working on my stride, figuring out whether to extend to move a little faster, or pace myself to have some moxie for the return.

In a little less than a mile on Taylor Farm we turn west onto Old Black Top Road, the crossbar of a T-shaped course that would give us a modest seven miles. These are no

Alex & me with Amir

mountain trails, but I know my conditioning is shot. The road trip Sandy and I took (earlier posts), interrupted by doctor’s meetings and biopsies, meant almost no running for close to eight weeks.

Old Black Top, still a fire road, is a nice piece of trail, especially today. A mild breeze sweeps yellow and red oak and maple leaves onto the soft surface as I move at my codger’s pace. I feel a little thickness in my chest, the penalty for being out of shape. Or it could have something to do with whatever I’ve got growing in there.

Still, I feel great. For those who do it, moving smoothly along a woodland trail is an exquisite, spiritual pleasure. Most of my trail running is solitary, either because I usually go when others can’t get away or, in organized events, I fall behind the field. I like it that way. The silence of the woods, broken only by footfalls, is the reward.

Sandy gets nervous when I’m out by myself,  worried about me falling, getting lost, or attacked by a bear. On solitary runs on rugged Massanutten trails, just south of Front Royal, I’ve heard my cellphone buzzing as she futilely sends messages where no cell signal reaches. But the forest is a chapel, the trail the center aisle, the solitude transcendent.  Some of those treks have taken me six hburma road photo4820000116587515953..jpgours plus three hours’ drive time. I guess I’m done with all that.

Old Black Top takes you around a couple of bends and up gentle climbs. The “T” course gives you the up-tempo cardio that in theory reinforces the strength-building of long mountain slogs in the Shenandoahs, the Massanuttens, or on the Appalachian Trail, that serious trail runners need. In theory. Still, the fire-road trails demand more energy than running neighborhood streets. And today I feel the extra drain on my stamina, what stamina I’ve got left, even at the slower pace.

I recall feeling the same back in the spring, when I resumed running after laying off for six weeks to recover from three days in the hospital in late February. I landed there after finishing a long mountain trail event, down with rhabdomyolysis or “rhabdo,” caused by muscle waste inflaming the kidneys.  But I bounced back quickly and hustled to get ready for the Cruel Jewel 100-miler, a tough run in northeastern Georgia in May. I got 80 miles at CJ and felt good about it.

Today I can tell I haven’t bounced back. I ease off my pace, shorten my stride, work on breathing. I recall how good it felt when back in June, only four months ago, I finished a 50-mile night race on these same trails and was ready to go again within days.

The westbound cross of the “T” is a mile out and back, so I meet Alex streaking past after he makes his turn, we yell encouragement. I steam on, make one more turn and see the concrete marker for the Oak Ridge Trail. Passing the marker, you’re as good as finished with the “out” part of Old Black Top.

I make the turn, feeling good. On the return the trail dips slightly and I lengthen my stride, feeling a breeze as I pick up the pace. It’s a fast mile back to the intersection and I push hard past it, then head east toward the Turkey Run campground. I feel the chest thing still nagging. There’s Alex again, heading back now, half-mile ahead of me. We high-five and he’s gone, and—I admit it—I slow down. We’re not racing, after all.

In a way, we are, or I am. I need this slog. I’m moving well, the woods is flowing by, the trail a hazy vision through brilliant fall colors. The not-so-secret truth about these things: keep moving, never stop. A sudden spasm of pain rises from my stomach. I slug some water, then slug more. I wheeze a bit and let up. I’m back on the downside of Burma Road, heading for the bridge. From there, two more turns and a gentle climb to the gate at 234.

When I ran tough trails three or four times each week I flew over these fire roads. Things are different now. Highly unlikely I’ll be attempting Cruel Jewel’s Dragon Spine next May, as I hoped to just a couple of months ago. That’s tough on my ego. But it’s a dose of brute reality. After all, the joy of existence is in recognizing its nature, and its creation. That is, recognizing God’s defiant presence in our lives, whatever our lives mean to us, maybe in a sudden flash of understanding, maybe on a forest trail, somewhere, anywhere.

I see the 234 gate coming to me. Another small finish, another task completed. I settle into a slow, then a still-slower jog, savoring the physical rush, but then taking in the lesson hidden in the quiet of the woods: keep moving, never stop—persevere, face the pain and doubt, complete the mission, reach the trail’s end.