Stop the Clock, Please

My mind – which has benefited from three consecutive nights of unbroken sleep, thanks to the incredible success (knocking on wood or wood byproducts) of Operation Get Genevieve to Sleep Without Crying – is nonetheless utterly blown right now by three consecutive days of Julia-related accomplishments.

On Saturday, she picked up a random magazine I’d been reading and started sounding out the words, doing the halting one-letter-and-sound-at-a-time thing that leads, more or less slowly, to whole words. I was astounded, and told her so. “Oh,” she said, casually. “I do this when I read in my mind all the time.” I don’t know if she’s telling god’s honest truth here, but I am inclined to believe that she is indeed at least beginning to read – not just recite – to herself. Testing her at various points that day and on Sunday with things I knew she wouldn’t have had read to her (signs outside, for instance), she batted about .600, which is pretty good.

Sunday, we hit Northfield’s best park. I had to spend most of my energy helping Vivi, which meant that Julia had to either wait for me to get out of the way or find a way around me. As I helped Vivi up a ladder on one side of the play structure, who should pop up on the other side, having ascended a rather tricky and high climbing wall, but Julia. Totally easy for her. Last fall, she was reluctant to even have me help her get up this thing.

Climbing Up

And then tonight, Shannon and I went to the information session on kindergarten at the school where Julia will go in the fall. Actually, on September 8, 2009. There’s an exact date now. And while the orientation itself was prosaic and perfectly pitched to the mass audience, I lost several neurons when the principal welcomed “the parents of the class of 2022.” I can already see  “Seniors Rule! 2022!” soaped on the back window of my rusty 2014 Honda electric minivan.

The Maddening Princess

As I sit here blogging, Genevieve is making her way through the usual bedtime meltdown: calling for me or Shannon, yelling about how she’s not tired, singing angrily, just plain screaming. Julia’s four feet away, in her own bed, enduring it like one of her stoical Finnish descendants might have endured domination by the czar’s troops.

Genevieve, what the hell are we going to do with you? You’re so often charming and funny and wonderful, and you’re always smart and cute, but sometimes – like every goddamn night between 7:30 and 8:30 (if we’re lucky) – you are a horror. Tonight, as I went through the stupidly useless routine of having her teddy bear talk to her about how important it is to go to sleep with “no cry-crys,” I realized that my throat was tight, my heart was pounding, and I had an ache in my jaw from clenching my teeth. Such is the stress of trying to get the maddening princess to go to sleep.

You can see it in her here, right? A certain sense of herself, serving both good and ill purposes? I can’t take my eyes off her, or stop thinking about her, but nobody’s ever made me more deeply or frequently angry than Vivi.
Queen of the Slide


Continuing my goal of achieving convergence between this blog and Facebook, here is my response to the Facebook “meme” on the fifteen (give or take) albums which have been important to my life…

The only albums I can really remember from childhood (ours was not a musical house) are Johnny Horton, “Greatest Hits,” and Kenny Rogers, “The Gambler,” which I played on our giant old record player/stereo. “The Gambler” speaks for itself as a peak of 20th century cultural production, but Horton’s “Sink the Bismarck” is probably the main reason that I was ever interested in history. You can draw a straight line from that song’s opening drumbeats to my dissertation on World War II shipbuilding. I’m not even kidding.

In junior high and high school, I slowly discovered, thanks to WIMI radio in Ironwood, Michigan, and then the Musicland in the Copper Country Mall, Houghton, that many people listened to a lot of music, much of which was pretty damn interesting. In high school, I basically burned out my tapes of R.E.M.’s “Document” and “Green” (only later working backwards to the earlier, better albums) and two rap albums: Public Enemy, “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” and N.W.A., “Straight Outta Compton.” The former album opened me up to all kinds of politics, and put me on to reading everything from The Autobiography of Malcolm X to histories of Marcus Garvey and slave rebellions. The latter album, I played incessantly while driving around and around and around downtown Houghton.

I brought those albums with me to Macalester in 1991, but literally from the first day on campus I started listening to stuff that they didn’t even carry at that Musicland, much less play on the radio in the U.P. The tattooed guy next door lent me his copies of Nirvana’s “Bleach” and “Nevermind,” both of which I immediately bought at Applause in St. Paul – a store that dwarfed Musicland in every important way. From various friends, I discovered, among other music, the Pixies, “Trompe le Monde,” the Smiths, “Louder Than Bombs,” Jack Logan, “Bulk,” and especially the holy quartet of Uncle Tupelo albums: “Still Feel Gone,” “No Depression,” “March 16-20, 1992,” and “Anodyne.” The first two UT albums were the first pieces of music that really spoke to my experience growing up in a depressed, alcoholic Midwestern town that seemed fit only for escaping – and they fucking rocked, too. “March 16,” on the other hand, sent me backwards to classic American music: the Smithsonian folk music collections, Leadbelly (whom, I was happy to discover, was also a favorite of Nirvana), the Carter Family, Johnny Cash, and especially Hank Williams. I never acquired much Hank, but a cheap copy of his “40 Greatest Hits” has been a constant companion ever since.

Moving to Chicago immediately after college, I tried and mostly failed to keep up with the music scene. Coincidentally, the UT successor band Wilco located itself in Chicago around then, as well, which made it easy to follow their development. Just as UT had sent me to the historical record of American music, “Being There,” “Summer Teeth,” and “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” sent me out to weirder contemporary stuff, including especially Radiohead. I had no idea what to make of “OK Computer” when I bought it on the spur of the moment at (oddly) a Musicland store, but my god it was fun to contemplate as an underemployed 20-something and then as an impoverished grad student. I loved (love) all of Radiohead’s later albums (“Kid A,” “Amnesiac,” “Hail to the Thief”) too, but “OKC” was and still is it: “For a minute there, I lost myself.”

Around that same time, I started to discover jazz, thanks to a confluence of forces that included some worldly grad school classmates and friends, a great jazz scene in Chicago, and a deeper appreciation of the heritage on which Wilco and Radiohead were building. A grad school prof suggested that I try Charles Mingus, “Mingus Ah Um” first, owing to its deep connections to the history of 1950s and 1960s, and I was hooked. It was easy to slide over to other great jazz, like Bill Evans, “Portrait in Jazz,” and of course Miles Davis, “Kind of Blue,” and to pick up newer stuff like the Brad Mehldau Trio, “Places,” or the Bad Plus, “There Are the Vistas” and “Give” – all of which are notable not only for being excellent jazz but for covering tunes by the Pixies, Nirvana, and Radiohead. When the Bad Plus cover Johnny Horton’s “North to Alaska,” I know my musical history will have come full circle.

As the Snow Ends

I took the day “off” today to recover from the harried trip to D.C., to spend some time with the girls, and to give Shannon a bit of a break. I say “off” because eleven hours with the girls – as delightful as they are – isn’t exactly restorative.

But the girls did take a good long nap, during which I snuck off to the Lower Arb for what might be the last ski of the season. Though last week’s snow is already thin in many spots, all of the trails were skiable, even over the wet sticky snow. Trying to glide was basically a war with surface tension: I could actually hear my skis adhering to the moisture in the snow, then popping loose. This made movement slow and laborious.

On the other hand, going so slowly made it easier to notice that there are already tiny little buds on some trees and a certain green hue to the fields. As much as I hate to admit it, spring is on the way.

Greatest Commute Ever

Watching the blizzard on Thursday, I was seized by a renewed desire to ski to work. The notion originated in a blog post by Alex, an e-quaintance (and a fast skier) who roller-skied to work in Boston last summer.

The idea really took hold earlier this winter, though, when I realized that my house isn’t too far from the Northfield golf course, which runs close to the Arb, which abuts campus, which contains my office.* Then the snow melted, leaving me to my wheeled devices.

Until today. Yesterday’s “Snowmaggedon” made the ski commute feasible again (as a commenter noted), so I worked out the timing and did it. Owing to an, shall we say, indirect route, I had to budget quite a bit of time, but  I reached the Carleton Rec Center (where, for perspirational reasons, the commute ended) after a solid 55 minutes of skiing.

My route (about 4.2km/2.6 miles altogther) took me out my backyard, along a street, across part of the Northfield Golf Club‘s course, and then through Carleton’s Upper Arboretum. I climbed up and over eight snow berms, sank to my hips in one deceptive drift on the golf course, and made four road crossings, one of which included a satisfyingly odd look from a passing motorist.

It was, in a word, fantastic. Under a brilliant sun and sky, the pure white snow was untracked except by a few critters – deer, rabbits, squirrels, and either a Yeti or a snowshoer. The whole thing was great, but the best moment came as I skied down an incline on the golf course fairway: behind me, the sun suddenly emerged from a cloud, lighting up everything around me and casting my dark black shadow down the hill. Amazing. The view back up the slope wasn’t terrible, either. (Click through for other photos, including one shot by a nice young woman who agreed to take a picture of the dude in the weird hat.)

Down the Fairway I

* My other oddball goal for the winter is to do a 50km ski session in the Lower Arb. It’s harder than it seems, since the trails only let you create 8km or 9km loops. Anyone for a few laps?

Upside of Swinter*

Friday, I biked to work on ice-and-snow-free roads for the first time since before Christmas. Today, I went absolutely nuts and rode home without first donning my waterproof/windproof nylon pants. The Fates missed a chance to get me good, failing to soak my clothes by forcing me to ride through a three-inch mud puddle and soaking. You suck, Fates! Now please send some snow. Any time now.

*”Swinter” was coined today (as far as I know) by a staffer at Carleton. It’s apt.

Winter? I Hardly Knew ‘Er

I’m sad to see all the snow vanish in one 36-hour span of warmth, wind, and rain. Monday morning, our backyard was almost covered in snow – to be sure, a thin layer, worn through in a few spots, but still more present than not. By dusk tonight, only a narrow strip of snow remained, and it’s likely to disappear tonight if this rain keeps up. Thus ends the ski season – or at least this part of it. I hope there’s a second winter coming, and soon, but the forecast doesn’t give me much hope.

February 10-14 Forecast
February 10-14 Forecast

Honestly, I’m not asking for much here: just some reasonable weather for February (and March!) in Minnesota – enough snow for a little more skiing, to make another snowman with the girls, maybe do a bit of sledding. Is that too much to ask?

Senior Year of High School

Another repurposed Facebook “meme.”

1. Did you date someone from your school?
Not really.

2. Did you marry someone from your high school?

3. Did you car pool to school?
I walked to school.

4. What kind of car did you have?
When I needed a car, I borrowed by one from my parents – either a brown Ford Escort station wagon or a Ford Taurus.

5. What kind of car do you have now?
A silver Saturn VUE, but I ride my bike to work.

6. It’s Friday night…where are you?
At home, probably. If the stars were aligned just right, I worked out, then crashed with the laptop.

7. It’s Friday night…where were you then?
Driving around the Houghton-Hancock (MIchigan) metroplex, periodically stopping for burgers or pizza. We would have driven further and longer if we’d known about the power of coffee.

8. What kind of job did you have?
I worked at the local grocery store – bagging groceries, stocking shelves, running a register.

9. What kind of job do you do now?
I’m a grantwriter at a small liberal arts college.

10. Were you a party animal?
The opposite.

11. Were you considered a flirt?
Girls frightened me.

12. Were you in band, orchestra, or choir?
None of them.

13. Were you a nerd?
I suppose so, but I didn’t like math or science and we didn’t have a decent computer lab, so it was pretty much quiz bowl. Upper Peninsula champions, 1991!

14. Did you get suspended or expelled?

15. Can you sing the fight song?
I don’t even know if my high school had a fight song.

16. Who was/were your favorite teacher(s)?
My favorite was my current events teacher, who took a lot of time to help me become a better writer. I also like my biology and French teachers a lot. The most important “teacher” I had, though, was the coach of my cross-country and track teams, who probably did more to reshape my life than any adult except my parents and, later, my wife.

17. Where did you sit during lunch?
In a chair, I suppose. I don’t really remember. We did go to McDonalds a lot for lunch, if someone had a car.

18. What was your school’s full name?
Hancock Central High School.

19. When did you graduate?

20. What was your school mascot?
A bulldog.

21. If you could go back and do it again, would you?
Not unless I was being paid a ridiculously large sum of American dollars. Eight figures at least.

22. Did you have fun at prom?
I didn’t go to prom.

23. Do you still talk to the person you went to prom with?

24. Are you planning on going to your next reunion?
Probably not. My hometown is far away, literally and figuratively.

25. Do you still talk to people from school?
A few, though not enough.

26. School Colors?
red and yellow

27. What celebrities came from your high school?
None, as far as I know. The photographer Edward Steichen was from my hometown, but never attended my high school.

28. Do you have any regrets from High School?
Sure. I wish, paradoxically, that I’d been more serious (taking some hard science and math, just to see if I could have succeeded) and that I’d been much less serious (getting less wrapped up in the drama). Then again, there’s a reason it’s called “growing up.”

City of Lakes Loppet Race Report, or, That Really Hurt

Today’s City of Lakes Loppet took place in warm sunshine under robin’s-egg blue skies. The springlike weather was pretty much the best part of the event, because my race was pretty much a disaster. It was fun in a “the worst day skiing is better than the best day lying around” sort of way, but otherwise, it was a sufferfest. I didn’t so just spelunk in the “pain cave” that racers talk about; I was there so long I practically evolved into one of those eyeless transparent cavern-dwelling fish they show in National Geographic.

And I skied about as fast as one of those fish would. I simply couldn’t go, and for no other reason than the most straightforward one: I didn’t train enough or correctly. (I also missed my wax, but the Swedish national ski team’s wax servicemen couldn’t have saved me today, and I dressed too warmly, but I could have taken off a layer before the race started.)

In more detail: the first half of the City of Lakes Loppet course (which you can see in its entirety here) is very hilly, a relentless rollercoaster of lots of short, sharp “walls” covered (this year) by the deep granular snow that skiers call “sugar” but which is not sweet to ski through. After going up and down the 1,000 hills (plus or minus) between the start and the five kilometer mark, my legs were already screaming, and they never recovered.

On the flats, much later in the course, I was able to pole quite well – indicating that my doublepoling sessions to build upper-body and core strength weren’t for naught – but my legs would not cooperate, and instead alternated between achingly stiff and painfully wobbly. Not a good combination, unless you’re looking to watch people pass you in droves, and neither latch on nor pass anyone back.

The final result wasn’t pretty: a finishing time of 2:10:49, “good” for 450th of 840 racers (putting me in the bottom half), 44th of 83 in my age division (ditto), and 397th of 678 men (ditto ditto).

So I’m chalking this race up to “an important lesson, painfully learned.” Next year, I’ll hit this City of Lakes – and who knows: maybe more than one race in a season! – after many, many more uphill workouts, and a least a dozen sessions of at least 25 or 30km. If I do, CoLL 2010 will be a bigger personal success than 2009 was.

Minutiae of some slight interest:

  • According to my heart-rate monitor, I completed my 130 minutes of skiing at an average heart rate of 161 beats per minute and hit a high of 174 (respectively, 88% and 96% of my maximum heart rate). In the first hour of racing, I only briefly saw my HR under 165. Also according to my HRM, I burned 1900 calories between the start to the finish – that’s roughly equivalent to one large thin-crust pepperoni pizza from Dominos. Snacktime!
  • Last year’s men’s winner, Andrey Golovko, finished in 1:13:15. This year’s winner, Bjorn Batdorf, finished in 1:22:20, 9 minutes or about 12% slower than Golovko over a slightly shorter course. My time this year was about 20% slower than last year’s time (1:48:16). Apparently the course was slower for everyone, my terrible fitness aside.
  • In the first 5km, I saw at least a dozen good crashes (none involving me), including at least two by the same guy, who kept trying to snowplow from a very deep tuck (the Italian-style sitdown, for those who know what I’m talking about).
  • This race is ridiculously well run: the course is superbly groomed and marked, the website and other printed materials are highly useful, and, most importantly, the zillion volunteers are omnipresent and wonderfully energetic.
  • I did get into the photo collection published online by, the Midwestern ski-racing website, though. In this shot of the third wave on the start line (i.e., before the suffering started), I’m on the left side, in bib 3100. Nice shades, huh?
Wave Three on the Starting Line
Wave Three on the Starting Line

Race Report: Crazy Carleton Classic Relay

Today, I started my three-week-long my “racing season” by skiing in the Crazy Carleton Classic Relay, an annual event staged by the college’s ski club. The CCCR sends three-person relay teams out over a rolling 3,000 meter (or so) course in the Upper Arb that’s quite amenable to the classic-technique restriction. The race is always fun, but this year – the third time I’ve skied it – was the best: the organizers had things down pat, the course was well marked, we had good weather, the trails were freshly tracked by our friends at St. Olaf, and a total of ten teams showed up (or, like mine, were formed by skiers who didn’t have full teams). Some of the teams – but not mine – took the costume idea to heart. Perhaps next year I’ll ski in a wetsuit, or a bathrobe. I won’t ski, as one team did, in remarkably thorough garden gnome getups.

Needing to get back home as soon as possible so that Shannon, still sick, wouldn’t have too long with both girls (thanks for letting me go to the race, babe!), I volunteered to ski my team’s first leg. Having neither classic skis nor any decent classic technique, I expected to doublepole the course, but since I’ve skied these trails dozens of times and have done a lot of doublepoling since last winter, I knew this would be fine. And I was surprisingly jazzed up to race, partly from regular adrenaline and partly from doping myself with a Johaug: a can of Coke adulterated with a few shots of espresso. I will definitely drink this concoction before my next race, but never when I need to go to sleep within the next eight hours.

The start was slow, and at least one person fell right on the line, but I managed to doublepole to the front and get away up the course.  At the top of the first, longest hill, about 750 meters in, I was temporarily well clear of the field. Then I hit the ensuing downhill, which was drifted over and didn’t agree at all with my half-assed wax job. I had to doublepole down the slope and then up the steady but gentle rise on the other side. There, at the 1.5km mark, I was passed by a young woman who was doing a great job of kicking and gliding up the hill. I dropped in behind to rest and discovered that my doublepoling could easily keep up with her on the uphills, but that she could easily get away on the downhills. Note to self: put on temperature- and snow-appropriate wax.

We traveled together for the next 1.5km, covering some rolling terrain, a few long flats that were good for recovery, and then out onto the last bit of the course, which went down a short hill, up a longer climb (how this works, I can’t quite explain), and, pretty much from the top of that hill, more-or-less straight to the finish. Again, she zoomed away from me on the downhill, but I got back on her skis on the climb and used some doublepoling to get past and clear again, for good. I tagged my second-leg teammate with a thirteen second lead. She headed out well, and I called it a day.

I had to head out soon thereafter, but according to the final standings, our team eventually finished second, after our anchor was caught by a woman who turned in the second-fastest overall leg of the day (and fastest by a woman) – almost two full minutes faster than my time. Not that results matter that much, but it was nice to finish high! In addition to being a lot of fun, the race was a good intensity session for me. I had my heart rate up over 160 beats per minute for the full 16 minutes, and peaked at 92% of my maximum.  Moreover, I felt like I could have both pushed a lot harder, and would have gone faster if I had waxed appropriately. Coulda, woulda, but I still feel good about the likelihood of being able to ski well in the City of Lakes Loppet, exactly fourteen days from today.

Glowing in the Dark at the Edge of Town

Thanks to the combination of good bedtimes for the girls, decent snow cover, and (relatively) warm temperatures, tonight I could finally ski my all-time favorite trail in the Lower Arb, which runs from the trailhead on Highway 19 near the West Gym out along the river to Canada Avenue. Year round, it’s the perfect length (a 6.8km/4.2 mile round trip) for either a short out-and-back workout or a longer session – out-and-back more than once or out, then back along other trails elsewhere in the Arb.

Blah blah blah, the real reason I like this route is that it’s so beautiful, especially in the winter, especially in the dark, and especially tonight. There was the huff-huff of breathing and the sssssh-sssssh of the skis, but there was also the snow falling continuously, shadowy trees looming above, the bare-looking oak savannah, the iced-over river, a trail shared by raggedy ski tracks and footprints and cut across by animal tracks, a few open spots where the wind happily blasted me, a few glimpses of glinty eyes off in the underbrush… Even the train whistles in the distance contributed to the experience of effort and solitude.

Ski Season

Today was my first ski of the season in the Arb, a nice session tooling around the only good snow in the Upper Arb. I was happy that my arms didn’t fall off, since this suggests that I might have a chance to get in decent skiing shape for the the City of Lakes Loppet. Having my arms fall off would have definitely impeded my ability to ski in the race.

Just as exciting is that tomorrow will see the culmination of the third Tour de Ski, a multi-stage cross-country ski race that is one of the two high points of the World Cup. I’ve blogged embarrassingly extensively on the Tour in previous years on my previous blogs and this year on the “Nordic Commentary Project” that I share with another ski fan. Suffice to say here that tomorow’s last event is the hardest one in skiing, a race up a steep ski hill, the Alpe Cermis, in northern Italy.

Here’s the overall stage, 9k for women and 10k for men:

Final Climb Profile
Final Climb Stage Profile

Here’s the big climb itself:

Final Climb up Alpe Cermis
Final Climb up Alpe Cermis

The first man and the first woman to the top of the Alpe Cermis are the respective winners of the Tour de Ski. Last year’s race was good, but not as good as this year promises to be: for the first time, both the men’s and the women’s titles are up for grabs. I can’t wait to see what happens. (And I can actually see it this year: NBC’s “Universal Sports” service is webcasting the men’s and women’s Final Climbs shortly after the races end.)

Resolutionary Road

Last year’s resolutions were few but good. Exactly one year later, I can say that I achieved each of them, though I abandoned number 1 – “Eat no potato chips” – on July 1 after proving to myself that I could live without chips but chose not to. (I can quit at any time.)

2008 was a good year in every respect. Genevieve, Julia, Shannon, and I are happy and healthy (excepting a lingering sniffle or cough right now) and as prosperous as we can be, given our chosen living arrangements and the dismal American economy. Moreover, we are all pleased with the way our lives are proceeding: through a busy toddlerhood for Vivi, toward the challenges of kindergarten for Julia, to a new avocation as a freelance writer for Shannon, and through a nice set of responsibilities and activities for me. And while local, state, national, and world affairs are even less settled on 12/31/08 than they were on 12/31/07, at least we can look forward to the inauguration on January 20 to commence a literally and figuratively new phase in American history.

So, in a vein of not fixing what’s not broken, my incrementalist resolutions for 2009:

  • Strive to be more “zen” as a father, letting the girls get to me less (or rather, letting myself get to me less about the girls) and trying to just roll with their kid-ness, good and bad.
  • Do more to help at home, creating more time for Shannon to write.
  • Write a journal article based on my dissertation for publication later in the year (culminating a long process that started in 2006 when I was solicited to write this piece).
  • Try and do at least one drawing – pencil, pen-and-ink, digital – every day.
  • Train more seriously as a cross-country skier, doing at least a couple ski races in this and next winter and doing at least one long running race. More on all that as warranted.
  • Get more sleep!
  • Pare down non-required obligations and duties to the bare minimum, saving physical and mental energy for family, friends, and work.

Happy new year to all!