Graduation Day

May 27, 2019

We got a flight out of Reagan National on Monday to Greenville, S.C., to attend a unique event—unique to us, anyway: our grandson’s graduation from pre-school. Pre-school graduations may be commonplace these days, but we never heard of them.  Not to date myself, but it’s only been a few years since I heard of pre-school. I started school with all-day kindergarten. At the end of that year, my classmates and I scattered.

We didn’t just go for the graduation. It was high time for us to visit the kids, our daughter Marie, son-in-law Mike, and the two boys, Noah (5) the graduate, and the little guy, Patrick (2.5). Our oldest daughter, Laura, also is staying with them for a while. The timing worked, too: the week before Memorial Day, when other things seem to slow down. Slow down, I mean, to our pace. We’ve been more or less holed up at home sorting things out for the future, which will start with a PET scan of my chest in two weeks.

Meanwhile I’m taking my pills and trying to regain some fitness, maybe looking to build some irony into the result. Seeing the kids before we get the finding, when we can still guess and joke about it, seemed like a good idea.

Greenville (“Upstate”) is one of today’s hot Sunbelt places: young people and retirees are heading there, construction cranes are transforming the skyline, restaurants, hotels, and churches are booming, the passing interstate (I-85) is getting new lanes. Raleigh-Durham, Jacksonville, Nashville, Austin were in the same place 30 years ago. There’s the traffic and the construction dust, farmland plowed up for new subdivisions of single-family homes, condos, and apartments. Yet the town gets near-unanimous rave reviews both from the natives and newcomers.

The city has economic muscle, with mega-operations of Michelin, Fluor, GE Power, and BMW’s massive plant next door in Spartanburg. The boom will go on, they say.

Future Stanford alum

An abiding feature of these places is families, young families with young kids. Kids everywhere, meaning in daycare, while parents work, doing their part for the local economic miracle. Daycare raised to a science, a caring science. For the past two years Noah met with 20 classmates at a small church daycare,  four days a week, four hours a day, for creative adventures: crafts, reading, playacting, songs, field trips, the works. It’s what five-year-olds do today.

So what do you expect at a daycare commencement? Happy families, check. Pledge of allegiance, check. Program, check. Procession, check. Diplomas, check. Photos, posed and casual, check and check. Caps and gowns, check. Caps and gowns? For kids not yet in elementary school? For sure, blue and gold, tassels hung left, then right. You didn’t have that when you were five?


The kids filed up the church’s center aisle one by one, parents crowding up to get that dramatic photo. I tried, but couldn’t pick out Noah with his cap pulled down, to me the boys all looked alike. They assembled on the altar and belted out some songs. The director called each child up for his or her diploma, adding a special award for each: best reader, best explorer, best smiler, and so on. We were thrilled for Noah, who won “super scientist.” Wow. Next stop, Stanford.

The speaker was the program director, a pleasant lady who cried a little. She didn’t say, “Graduation is like a ship going out to sea,” nor “be true to yourselves,” nor “do what you love.” She kept it nice, thanked the parents, her faculty (faculty?), and the graduates.

We applauded the graduates as they accepted their certificates and listened to the director’s loving summation of their individual performances through the term, another opportunity for photos. That set the stage for the show-biz-caliber slide show, complete with pop-music soundtrack that showcased smiles and accomplishments. Each student received a personal gift.

The wrap-up reception starred a generous buffet built around an enormous sheet cake. The kids pulled off the caps and gowns, which they got to keep, underneath they all were in their everyday playclothes, shorts and teeshirts. I almost expected suits and long dresses.

We met the gracious and friendly staff, all smiles of relief (my guess) that they pulled off this production. I wondered about the planning, the scripting, the ideas considered, the after-hours meetings about getting this right.

It met parents’ and guests’ expectations. It reaffirmed a sense of simple family connection amidst the frenetic, go-go business, get-the-job-done pace in this corner of this reddest of red states. The kids, once they chucked the commencement robes, were kids again, playing, laughing, cutting up, grabbing chicken nuggets, cake, and cookies. They we all were out of there, on to family celebrations of this modern education milestone, designed, it seemed, to brand the experience in the students’ memories until they’re attending their own grandkids’ daycare commencements.

So I wondered: how does first grade top this? What will these young scholars expect when they matriculate from middle school? Then high school, never mind college. Presumably, having turned five, they get the idea—commencement can be fun. Let’s hope what comes afterward for all of them, years from now, here in Greenville or elsewhere, will be worth the party.

Ribbons to Gap Creek

May 20, 2019

Rocks. More rocks. Then mud. Trail-marking boss Kevin gave Brian and me our assignment, a section of the Massanutten 100-mile (MMT) trail-run course called Duncan Hollow that most of the time doubles as a stream bed. The flow moves north on the north-south trail, percolating and oozing, sucking at shoes and hiking poles. The entire trail extends for about six miles, with an intersection at roughly three miles with the east-west Gap Creek Trail, a steep, then steeper stretch of switchbacks up to the Duncan Hollow ridge. The trail then descends in two fast miles to the site of the Gap Creek aid station.

The trail-marking volunteer teams, generally two people, deployed Friday to hang bright plastic ribbons and luminescent reflectors from trees to show the way for the roughly 200 runners competing in the run, held this weekend on the Massanutten trail in Fort Valley, Va. The ribbons reinforce the tree-painted blazes, although most MMT veterans know the course. I think Kevin assigned us Duncan Hollow because the degree of ascent from the trailhead, near a place called Camp Roosevelt, is more benign than nearly all the others on the course and, this year, I’m the weak link on the team. Gap Creek is the 69-mile point on the 100-mile course.

img_20190518_0627446417792840131533317230.jpgFrom Roosevelt the trail weaves through thick forest for maybe a half-mile then, beyond a fast-moving stream, opens up through thinly wooded terrain for easy hiking. Brian and I move well, hanging our ribbons at longer intervals, since this stretch is well-established.  Farther south the Duncan Hollow ridge rises sharply to the east, the summit lost in treetops. We see the results of a controlled burn conducted by the Park Service in recent weeks, singed stumps, charred underbrush, and blackened soil that reduces the spread of growth for just a while.

Farther along, the trail widens and suddenly gets rougher, because the Service used tracked earth-moving equipment, either a small bulldozer or a bobcat, to shear through the growth and tamp down the mud. The tracks left scars that send the stream sloshing towards us. We’re hanging the ribbons and reflectors, slogging at a more labored pace—me, anyway. This is the grim Duncan Hollow trail, the slimy, sticky sluice that runners remember, especially those with the bad luck to traverse it at night. It was on this stretch on a 2016 training run that I stepped on a moss-covered rock and snapped my ankle, putting me in a plastic boot and physical therapy for five months. Now, thighs and hamstrings are aching as I lean forward clutching my package of ribbons. Brian is still moving well out in front. I’ve got ten years on him, but he’s the veteran.

At three miles, the turn onto Gap Creek takes us west, the trail veering sharply higher and out of the water and mud, across a patterned rock floor. It first winds in near-circles, then turns steep and north to the first switchback. As it ascends it narrows in places to no more than a foot wide, here and there, only several inches. To the east the valley falls away, we can’t see the bottom.

MMT Start

It’s been two years since I passed this way on my last attempt at MMT, at around 2:00 AM with my friend Alex, who met me at Roosevelt, mile 63 of the course, around midnight to support me as a pacer. He expected me earlier because I confidently said I’d be there—I wasn’t. That pushed us hard on the Gap Creek cutoff time of 3:45 AM. The cold water stiffened my feet and legs, every step became a struggle on that dark, narrow piece of trail. I crashed at Gap Creek.

Now, two years later, I’m back to MMT for marking. I’m struggling a bit, Brian is well ahead. I tie a ribbon here, a reflector there. Ahead is the deep green of the summit. Another switchback, then another, the trail obscured in the brush. The rocks, now boulders, unstable and loose, require trial-and-error steps to cross without cracking a shin or opening a kneecap.

We’re at the top. Then two miles of fast descent to the site of the aid station.  From Gap Creek the runners face another one-mile climb, called Jawbone, then a five-mile tiptoe across Kern Mountain, a ridge of razor-sharp rocks. But Brian and I are finished. The Duncan Hollow and Gap Creek trails are ready for the race.

Two years. I was ready then, but didn’t finish. Well, maybe I wasn’t ready. The rocks, the cold, the water, the sharp switchbacks, overcame my conditioning, such as it was. So now today—two years older, conditioning shot—I find myself thinking: could I do this? With what I know now? After all, it’s a mind game, getting hydration and nutrition right. I got it right last year at the Cruel Jewel 100 in northeast Georgia, with twice the elevation gain as MMT. I didn’t finish there, but hey, no pressure. Guys older than me have mastered MMT.

Fun thoughts. Delusional, most likely. Lots of bigger challenges coming down the pike that have nothing to do with trail-running fitness: two more docs’ appointments and another scan next month. But the course is still here. It’s a spectacular late-May day, time to think big thoughts. Next training run: July.

SAS, Etc. …

May 13, 2019

You can leave your job, but it may not leave you. Monday and Tuesday I put on a suit and drove across the Potomac to the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in Maryland to tramp around the three-day Sea-Air-Space exposition. It’s a monster trade show at which companies that work for the Navy, or hope to, spend thousands of dollars, some hundreds of thousands, on glittery displays of their products, prototypes, and bright ideas for the few Navy officials who show up.

Being at the show doesn’t win contracts, but it’s visibility.  So company employees, thousands of them, wander like ants through the cavernous convention center trying to generate some buzz.

SAS seems like a big deal, with simulated sounds and product mockups suspended overhead, crowds of marketeers in blue and gray suits swaying beneath them. But it’s just a trade show, like hundreds put on all around the country all the time. Another way for industry to sell, sell, sell.

I’ve attended the SAS for many years. It was work for me, since I published two trade magazines in the field.

Potomac, looking from Virginia woods

But it was harder this time, and I gave up after only a couple of hours the second day and never made it back for the third. I mostly found myself maneuvering past the PR guys and gals who wave fresh press releases at you like rug vendors in Marrakesh. It all seemed less important than it used to be, with other things now more important. It occurred to me that driving 50 miles roundtrip and paying $20 to park to ferret out trade-show news has become an eccentric habit, no longer an obligation.

The convention center squats massively on the Maryland side of the river, across from Alexandria. On Monday I stretched on a bench facing the water and ate my homemade lunch, then for a few moments closed my eyes and enjoyed the warm sun on my face. I looked out over the mile-wide river at the green Virginia side, wondering when, or if, Sandy and I would ever get back on the road.

Sitting there, I remembered writing here that we can let work enslave us, stealing from us more important things and leaving us self-absorbed grinds. So Wednesday I tried to rehabilitate by going for a hike, feeling relief stomping along muddy trails in deep-green woods, although forced to pause a half-dozen times to catch my breath. Thursday I attempted a bunch of yard chores.

This conundrum is fresh in my mind because Sandy and I went to a memorial service Friday for a man five years younger than me who had just succumbed to cancer.  His wife and friends and siblings told lovely stories about him. While he picked up fun things over the years, adding to his portfolio of wisdom, he never abandoned what he did at the start of his life because he staked out being the man he was, and simply grew that.

None of it surprised anyone in the packed church. Everyone knew he was happy in his skin from the get-go. He added to his life but never tried to reinvent himself. He became a bigger man. He taught: love your life, accept it, make it better, never run from it.

And yet—at some point, whether we’re 30 or 70, it can get hard to maintain that delicate balance between being faithful to a life mission we’ve accepted, and the yearning to modify it, or at least freshen it up, by pursuing other things. The trick is that trying to escape the parts of our lives that have trade-stamped our career or character is to understand that whatever we attempt to substitute also may engulf us.

We work, or worked, to earn a living. Do we have to have a second act? Just last week I wrote “have a plan” for leaving work. By plan I don’t mean adopting a new slate of activities to replace the old slate and make us more tired. Maybe the plan is just sticking with we’ve been doing all along, but massaging it around the edges to add a few new features.

Once we understand who we are and get reasonably comfortable with it, we don’t gain anything by throwing it over to achieve some ambiguous personal transformation. The add-ons—the hiking and gardening, and the other novel ideas—landscape painting, teaching, raising money to fight hunger in Africa—should be applied delicately to our lives, polishing and honing them in ways that make us more human, not to pretty up the base product.

Once I started going to the SAS all those years ago I hung in there and kept going, partly because it was work, partly out of habit. I grumbled about it but kept going. After all, the wisdom you gained from simply doing what is expected of you when you started building your life emerges from lots of mundane days that you can’t recall. In the mix were soaring successes, but also disappointment, maybe tragedy.

It’s still wisdom, the track record—a kind of merit badge of hard experience—that reveals truth. What we’ve been doing all our lives matters. Festooning your life with hobbies and avocations can seem exciting and fun. But it may obscure something more important: the person you made yourself, that is, the person you are called to be.

Forward …

May 6, 2019

We went out to dinner at the local Ruby Tuesday’s Wednesday night, after I got a more-or-less good grade from my oncologist on the report of my CT scan of a week earlier. Whenever we go there, not often, we talk about how we had dinner at a Ruby Tuesday’s on our wedding night in Nashville 40 years ago.

Back then, Ruby Tuesday’s seemed a lot cooler than it does today. I guessed that particular Nashville place closed long ago. Sandy said, “It’s still there.”

That probably reflects the strange mood we were in. The doc said I’m stable but added that “we’ll have another conversation” after I have another scan next month. He gave me a copy of the report, pumped full of medical scientism citing every nick and dent in a 70-year-old body.

I like the doc. Medical school teaches them how to guess at the future better than the patient can—but not predict it.

img_20190505_1243317482795200650325628733.jpgThe patient keeps trying, though. I’m guessing this inconvenient life detour will end soon. Thursday I went to early Mass at our old parish, then attempted a pat-on-the-back jog and hike into Prince William Forest Park in Montclair, on Burma Road across U.S. 234 (this blog, Nov. 5, 2018). Just before crossing Quantico Creek I took the eastbound three-hill spur, which had me quickly gagging. I did get the loop, then slogged another two miles before staggering, nursing my radiation cough back to the couch for the afternoon.

The forest is green again. It took long enough for this bleak wet winter to break. It hung on grimly, bringing a rush of sadness as much-loved people passed from our lives. But good friends stopped over and swept up the mountains of dead leaves I left in the yard last fall. Family, friends kept calling and writing. The coughing rashes now are spacing themselves out. The sun showed up, finally.

I tried mowing the forlorn 10- by 12-foot swatch of our front yard where grass grows. The mower seemed a lot heavier than it did last summer, and the swatch didn’t look any better afterward; the rest is mostly weeds. But with so many choices among outdoor chores, I’m getting comfortable with the weedy shade of green. What else could I do with all those hours I used to spend planting, watering, mowing, raking, mulching, weeding?

The truth is I don’t have a clue.  I’m not creative enough to redefine myself as other than the grumbling summer lawn-tender I’ve been for the 32 years we’ve lived here and in the earlier years when we had a much smaller swatch at our Nashville place which, being in the city, didn’t infect me with suburban lawn-care paranoia.

Amir, Grand Canyon

In the middle of this pointless fit of angst, it started raining and I pushed the problem (problem?) out of my head. Instead, we focused on more important things: our friend Amir, a long-time member of our neighborhood running group (THuGs) now working in Saudi Arabia, stopped by for a couple of hours with the priceless story of his 31-mile 14-hour Grand Canyon trail run two weeks ago. He signed on with fellow THuG Scott, now living in Austin, who thought up the Canyon run as a junket for the entire group. They both stepped up, the photos told of a great adventure. I conjured up a scenario for being there.

That same day, my cousin Eugene and his wife Jean dropped in on their way home to Long Island, N.Y., from Florida, where they had raced last week when we learned that his older sister Carolyn passed. The cousins, like those of every family of our age, dispersed over the years such that reunions take place at funerals. Sad occasion, but still a happy visit.

Their travel to our place was itself a gift. Amir, Eugene, and Jean looked bright and happy, not a trace of exhaustion, we were grateful for their detours and the stories they told. Amir sent photos of his trips to Jordan and Israel, to the site of Christ’s baptism, and great shots of the Canyon run. Gene and Jean updated us on their boys, Garrett and Pat, both engineers in Florida.

Our son Michael and daughter-in-law Caroline, en route to Richmond, stopped by and took us to lunch at Silver Diner, another old favorite. They looked great, and Michael, the medical physicist, reassured me: “Don’t bother reading those CT scan reports.”

We did our part by going to Seattle last month to see immediate family, later this month we’ll head to South Carolina to see our kids and grandkids there.

The conventional wisdom about retiring voluntarily is have a plan. If involuntarily, make one up fast. If you don’t have one, all those questions about what you’ll do with yourself will smack you in the head suddenly, and much harder than when you were ignoring them. Bottom line, the plan always should be: keep the people you love and admire close. Figure out the rest later.