Ted Lasso, track coach

June 3, 2023

Average interval times for my 200-meter-repeat track workouts so far in 2023:

March 8th: 38.5 seconds

March 26th: 37.4 seconds

April 1st: 37.1 seconds

Today (i.e., my first workout since writing yesterday’s post and watching two Ted Lasso episodes last night): 36.5 seconds



Carpe diem!

June 2, 2023

The Ted Lasso finale dropped on Wednesday, but our household hasn’t seen it yet. Due to the difficulty of finding times when three adults and one teen are all free, we’ve only made it through the first four episodes of season 3.

While awaiting episodes 5 through 12, I’ve been contemplating the show’s punchy, adrenalizing theme song, as written and performed by Marcus Mumford of the band Mumford and Sons. The chorus goes approximately like this:

Yeahhhhhhhh! This might be all that you get!

Yeahhhhhhhh! I guess this might well be it!

I don’t know exactly what the ol’ Mumford Dad meant by these words, but what I hear is a restatement of an especially familiar cliche: when you wake up in the morning, the only thing you have for sure is the new day just ahead. The obvious implication being that you should make it the best day possible.

Many Internet memes present this idea as an inspiring call to action, and it certainly can be that — if you’re not paralyzed by the formidable challenge of taking an ordinary day, giving it everything you’ve got, and making it special.

Mumford’s delivery, to my ear, captures this duality wonderfully. He sounds terrified but inspired. There’s a kind of exhilaration in his desperation.

I hope to be able to watch the rest of season 3 soon. In the meantime, I’ll try to make the most of today.

Here I go!



The big 5-0

May 29, 2023

As my 50th birthday approached (earlier this month), I contemplated my recent upswing in fitness (from “deeply dreadful” up to “moderately dreadful”) and wondered what I might do as a celebratory birthday run.

My first idea was what the ultrarunning community would consider to be the obvious option. How about a 50-miler, i.e., one mile for each year? It seemed feasible in theory; I could cover 50 miles in a day if I gave myself long breaks of walking or complete rest. Still, I doubted that I’d enjoy the last 20 miles. Perhaps a voluntary self-prescribed birthday ritual should have less joyless slogging than that?

If 50 miles was too much, how about 50 kilometers, i.e., one kilometer per year? This seemed like a much more palatable distance, probably doable as one continuous run. Still, it would require a huge chunk of a weekend day — probably at least 4 hours to do the run, then another hour to shower and eat, then a couple more hours to nap away some of the exhaustion…

My third idea was even less stupid. What if I celebrated with a pure run commute all the way from my North Seattle home to my Everett workplace, some 20-plus miles north of home? (I had done this commute 10 or 20 times on a bike, but never on foot.) My birthday would fall on a Wednesday, when I didn’t have to teach until 12:20pm, so if I started early enough I could finish at 9am or so (with a carefully contrived attitude of casualness: “Yeah, I just run-commuted from Seattle — NBD…”), enjoy a leisurely Starbucks breakfast next to campus, and let the day unfold from there. And carbo-loading could be accomplished at a birthday dinner of homemade pasta the night before.

As the pieces fell into place, I asked my one semi-regular running companion, Uli, if he’d be willing to join me. Like me, Uli is well past his prime as a competitive athlete; he turned 50 last year. (My present to him was a WHITE RIVER 50 shirt modified to say “the WHITE RIVER guy is 50,” as seen in the pictures below. The back of the shirt lists a bunch of fake sponsors such as Cologuard, Geritol, Viagra, and Old Balance.) Nevertheless he is still fit enough to easily handle any birthday challenge I could dream up. He said yes.

The final logistical issue was the planning of a specific route. Uli determined that if we used Highway 99 extensively, we could cut the total run distance down to 21 miles, but he preferred a somewhat more picturesque route of about 22.5 miles. Since he was giving up several hours of his day to accompany me, I was happy to let him make this decision.

After all of the planning, the run itself was fairly straightforward. Our legs held up fine, maintaining a comfortable pace of about 8 minutes per mile aside from hills and stops; Uli’s navigational skills kept us on track; we chatted about our usual topics (glory days, marriage, kids/dogs, ADA-compliant curb ramps…); and my wife and youngest son gave us a bagels-and-water aid station about two thirds of the way through.

We arrived more or less on schedule at Shuksan Hall, where we posed with some evolutionary forerunners.

“We may be old, but we’re not dead yet!”

Then I changed and headed over to Starbucks, while Uli ran to the bus station to catch the 512 back to Seattle.

It was a nice run with just the right amount of joyless slogging, which is to say none at all.


A beautiful day for a rewrite

April 19, 2023

On the rare occasions when someone asks me, “How do you write so well?” my response invariably includes the idea that my first drafts aren’t much better than anyone else’s, but that I have a superhuman willingness to edit and re-edit and re-re-edit my drafts until, eventually, they become good.

I believe this strongly, yet compelling examples are hard to find. Who wants to track an essay’s changes to see how, in the course of a hundred adjustments, an unpromising narrative gradually gains coherence and forcefulness?

Well, I just came across a blog post — Freddish, the special language Mister Rogers used when talking to children — that gives a wonderfully compact illustration of this editorial alchemy. The original text is only one sentence long and seems OK: “It is dangerous to play in the street.” Yet a careful consideration of the goals and the audience reveals that there is much to be improved!

I don’t love every step of the 9-step process, but I’m not an expert in writing for young children, and besides, quibbles about individual steps don’t really compromise the overall argument that getting the words just right is difficult, yet worth the hassle.


And speaking of Superman…

April 10, 2023

Yesterday’s little flight-of-fancy about being Superman was inspired by the following “classic” column….

* * * * * * *


by Jack Crowther

[from the Rutland Herald, November 23, 1986]

We all need to feel we count. This thought occurred to me recently when 4-year-old Bill from next door approached me on the back porch and asked, “Where’s the other Cruther?”

Actually, there are three other Crowthers besides me, but the boy knew our children’s first names, so he had to mean my wife. I told him she was inside.

He went around to the front door and rang the bell. When my wife answered, Bill informed her that he would be taking a nap presently and therefore was unavailable to anyone who wanted him.

She thanked him for letting her know, and Bill went sleepy-bye, secure in the knowledge that he had the decks cleared for his nap. From such beginnings, chief executives grow.

Bill displayed a healthy attitude, even if he overestimated the effect of his naps on the Crowther routine. He knew he counted, and that’s one of the foundation blocks of a productive life. Without a sense of our own worth, everything we do seems irrelevant.

People’s self-worth goes up and down like the stock market. Sometimes at dinner, people in our family will check up on each other.

“How’s your self-worth?” my wife will ask me.

“Down 2 points in moderate trading,” I might say. “And you?”

“Oh, I had a pretty good day. “Up 3 and a quarter in light trading.”

We include the children. “How do you feel about yourself?” we ask.

“Black Tuesday,” our daughter will say. “I think I did lousy on my science test.”

We try to buck her up. “You’re sure to rebound in the third quarter,” we say.

“And you, son?”

“Unchanged,” he’ll say.

“Unchanged from what?”

“From OK.”

“Just OK?”

“Yeah, my self-worth is fine, OK?”


Unless you’re a trained insecurity analyst, you may not spot the telltale signs of a decline in self-worth. Some people can hid their feelings.

I used to believe in keeping feelings in. I was a card-carrying member of the John Wayne school of psychological survival. If I was feeling down and someone asked me how I was, I’d say, “Fine.”

An exception to that was during my compulsive honest phase, when an extreme truthfulness plagued me. During that period, people would ask me how I was, and, if I was unhappy, I’d say, “Fine . . . physically.”

I soon got over that, thank goodness. Complete honesty was impractical. It spawned too many lengthy conversations that began with the question, “Well, what about mentally?”

After that, I learned to keep some things to myself. I learned to think the qualifying phrases instead of saying them aloud.

“How’s your self-worth?” people would ask.

“Fine,” I’d say, even if down deep I wasn’t. Then I’d continue silently to myself, “Compared to when I wrecked the car.”

Now I’m more open about feelings, depending on how much time I have. One reason is that my wife found a way to get around my deceptions. She didn’t need to ask me what kind of mood I was in. She would tell me what my self-worth quotient was and challenge me to defend it.

“You seem to be at a low ebb today,” she’d say.

This irritated me, and I would sometimes respond with, “Oh?”

I didn’t want people telling me I was at a low ebb and asking for explanations. Sometimes my reasons seemed anemic.

Of course, not all bad moods come from being down on oneself, though many amount to that. We are the authors of our own fates, we tell ourselves. If things have gone badly, we’re to blame for not conquering our problems, we think.

Perhaps I dwell on this subject because, for a couple of hours recently, I lived the illusion of being a super-capable individual whose worth was almost incalculable. On Halloween, I dressed up as Superman, and in my shocking blue tights, blue top and red cape I almost believed I was Superman.

Though I didn’t fly through the air when I stretched out my arms in Superman’s patented flying position, I knew I had the right stuff. All that was needed was just a little bit of magic and off I’d go.

Throwing my right leg up for a vertical takeoff was as natural as getting up from breakfast, and if I failed to clear tall buildings with a single bound, only the alignment of the planets or the air pressure or some geophysical quirk was keeping me from it.

“There’s Superman,” people said as I rode through the streets of the city on a flatbed truck.

I waved. People responded.

At 6 feet, 170 pounds, the illusion of the Man of Steel was a trifle lightweight. I was more suited to portray the Man of Aluminum. Nevertheless, I played Superman and felt super, until a woman on the sidewalk called out, “Hey Superman, did you go on a diet?”

I swelled up my chest in a heroically doomed effort to expand my dimensions, distending my ribs to the point of pain.

“Nice try,” she said.

Ever since then, I’ve been a little down.

Physically, though, I’m fine.


Suburban Superman

April 9, 2023

I have previously lamented the lack of opportunities for amateur distance runners to be action heroes. Today, though, I had just such an opportunity. I enjoyed it greatly, knowing that the chance may not come again anytime soon. Here’s how it went….

My eldest son had been scheduled to help with childcare at our church‘s early (9:30am) service. However, when he awakens at 8:25, he is still fairly sick with the family cold from which the rest of us have mostly recovered.

At 8:45 I reach the director of family ministries. I confirm that she does not want an ill, symptomatic teen to be caring for other people’s children. I volunteer to send myself or my wife in place of my son. She gratefully accepts.

At 8:55 we realize that my mother-in-law will be needing her car to attend her own church service, meaning that we are down to one car, which will be needed for transportation to the 11:15 service. The family volunteer will have to get to church, 5.8 miles away, by bicycle, by 9:30am. My wife is not capable of this. It is down to me.

9:04: Having hastily changed into church clothes, I am helmeted and hurtling down the road.

9:12: Quick stop to take off my jacket and thereby avoid totally drenching myself in sweat. Apparently I’m the sort of action hero who has to maintain a respectable appearance at all times, regardless of the circumstances.

9:16: Reaching the corner of 125th and 35th. 3 miles to go.

9:19: Passing the Nathan Hale track and then the Meadowbrook Community Center. Big uphill still ahead.

9:26: Passing Grand Central Bakery on 75th, smelling the finish.

9:28: Pulling into the bike rack at the church.

9:29: Frantically signing in on a church computer.

9:30: Arriving at child care to find a room full of three babies, seven somewhat older kids, and a couple of grown-ups. Yes, I am needed, and yes, I’ve made it. I feel good. Cue end-credit montage of me making the babies giggle, etc.


Your face or mine?

March 27, 2023

Thanks to some recent rom-com research by my wife’s friend Mandy, we now know who should portray me in a hypothetical big-budget movie.

I vaguely remember Ashton Kutcher as the hunky young actor who dated and married the much older Demi Moore back in the 2000s. These days, if the new movie Your Place or Mine is any indication, he’s a middle-aged guy who looks a lot like me, only with better hair and better clothes.


Breaking: college professor discovers books

March 19, 2023

I have previously lamented my general inability to fit book-reading into my life.

Well, guess what — I’m currently reading an actual book, and I’m learning a lot from it!

The book is Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (2011). It’s about how people make decisions, usually relying on our brain’s fast, intuitive “System 1” while occasionally consulting our slower, more deliberative “System 2.”

Kahneman won a Nobel Prize in economics for demonstrating that humans are often less rational than economists have assumed. He has plenty to teach us about decision-making. However, my biggest “Aha!” moment did not concern the clever psychology experiments summarized throughout the book, but rather the meaning of the word “shotgun.”

Here is the key passage (from Chapter 8, “How Judgments Happen”): “The control over intended computations is far from precise: we often compute much more than we need or want. I call this excess computation the mental shotgun. It is impossible to aim at a single point with a shotgun because it shoots pellets that scatter, and it seems almost equally difficult for System 1 not to do more than System 2 charges it to do.”

The bit about shotguns was meant only as a quick reminder of how they work, but for me, that was quite a revelation in and of itself. “Wait a minute!!!!” screamed my brain. “You mean to tell me that shotguns don’t fire bullets!?!?” I was so stunned that, as a sanity check, I called my dad (who knows about firearms, like most adults, especially in a state like Vermont, which has a relatively large population of hunters).

I realized that, for many years, I had held some contradictory ideas in my head without ever noticing the contradictions. On the one hand, I was vaguely aware of “shot” as being a bunch of little pellets of lead or something — an idea consistent with my recollection of the Dick Cheney hunting accident and my understanding of the term “buckshot.” On the other hand, I had never considered what one might call a gun that shoots shot, and instead had assumed that shotguns shoot bullets, like revolvers, which I pictured as being flatter than shotguns but also somehow synonymous with shotguns.

It was satisfying to (finally, at age 49) resolve these paradoxes in part because my understanding of a bunch of shotgun-related metaphors was instantly enriched. Within my own field of biology, for example, there’s shotgun sequencing, in which chromosomes are blasted apart into many small pieces. Twenty years after the human genome was sequenced with this game-changing technique, the name suddenly makes much more sense.

So, in conclusion: these things known as “books” are really something! Apparently they’re just chock-full of useful information! You all should check ’em out sometime.


A good hard look at pi

March 18, 2023

Like many math-positive families, we celebrated Pi Day (March 14, or 3-14) by eating pie and listening to a pi song — not the Kate Bush one or the Larry Lesser one, but this 2005 masterpiece from comedy rock group Hard ‘n Phirm.

Like certain other songs by this group — “The Carbon Cycle,” “El Corazon,” “Holes,” “Trace Elements” — this one sort of winks at STEM education; its chorus is a recitation of the first few dozen digits of pi.

My six-year-old, Sam, was captivated by the music video’s combination of wizards with wands, kids, a robot, and a number that (like Buzz Lightyear) goes to infinity. And so when it came time to make a birthday card for a friend’s party this weekend, Sam decided that the card should feature the digits of pi . . . and not necessarily anything else. But when I gently suggested that he precede the already-written digits with the line “Happy Birthday — Have Some Pi,” he was agreeable to that.


They Might Be Thieves

January 5, 2023

I don’t know what it’s like to have dementia, thank goodness, but I imagine it to feel similar to how I felt between 5:15pm and 7:15pm today.

4:15pm: I open an envelope from my wife’s dear old college roommate, revealing an eight-page letter hand-written over a period of several weeks. Not having the time to read the letter right then, I set it on the kitchen counter next to the envelope, some other mail, and my laptop.

5:15pm: My wife arrives home and sees the envelope. “Where’s the letter?” she asks. I have no idea. “IT WAS RIGHT THERE!” is all I can say. The remaining mail, recycling bin, garbage can, etc. are all searched and re-searched to no avail.

6:15pm: After dinner, when I get my laptop off the kitchen counter, I discover that my mouse is missing too. Is this a clue? Or is it just the universe mocking me?

7:15pm: The mouse is discovered inside one of the 4-year-old’s toy recycling trucks. The remaining recycling trucks are searched for the letter without success, but the letter is then discovered beneath a pile of the kids’ books in the living room.

In honor of the eventual resolution of this mystery, here’s one of my favorite They Might Be Giants songs — a fierce, defiant ode to maintaining one’s grip on reality.