Friday, May 29, 2009

Challenge 2010?

I began this blog in November, 2007, specifically as a calling card in the hopes that it would introduce me and help me get to know other participants in last year’s Challenge. It has since become the unsatisfactory collection of maunderings its one or two readers now see before them, but it began, joyfully and successfully, as a blog to help me make friends and ask questions for my participation in the TGOC.

Last fall, I attended a local event and ran into a keen outdoorswoman I hadn’t seen since just before I’d left for Glasgow. She asked enthusiastically about my walk across Scotland, and I had to tell her it hadn’t gone as planned. She reacted as if I’d told her we’d had a death in the family. Which, I must admit, is pretty close to the way I felt heaving myself onto that bus at Invergarry.

But time heals all sprained ankles, and I’ve been cheerfully following by blog what sound (and look) like terrific crossings by friends I met on the trail or after bussing around to Braemar and Montrose. Envious congratulations to all, and cheers to director Roger Smith, who showed me such kindness last year. I’m still holding out hope for 2010, but another possibility has opened up. What do you think? Crossing Scotland in May? Or tramping New Zealand in January?

Wednesday, May 27, 2009


I meant to post a few months ago about this lead piece in the New York Times Sunday Book Review. It is George Packer’s assessment of Patrick French’s biography of V.S, Naipaul, A Life Split in Two, it’s a rave, and very much worth reading (something I feel about a minority of efforts there, which are so often more about the reviewer than the reviewed).

Given the excellence of the piece, I was jolted by the banality of Packer’s closing sentence: “He had the capacity in his writing to pro­ject himself into a great variety of people and situations, allowing him to imbue his work with the sympathy and humanity that he failed to extend to those closest to him in life.”

Ho-hum. The “He” here, is, of course, Naipaul. But you run out of fingers in a hurry if you begin counting the writers it could apply to.

Writing is an act of ego, and much of it entails—requires—using people. Journalists do it by creating a false sense of trust and personal connection. Novelists do it by stealing the personalities, characteristics, conversations, and motivations of (among others) their friends and families. The only way to justify any of these betrayals is to plead the preeminence of The Truth, or The Work, or even The Art. This step, once taken, sometimes—often—leads to more direct abuse of others. The Artist and his Art come first, regardless.

Needless to say, I was never in any danger of becoming a great writer. I have done that journalist’s “soulmates” trick many times. But I have never had whatever it takes to bring myself to use the tragedies and eccentricities of friends and family as fodder for fiction, or to elevate creative needs over family requirements. Which may be why the project I’ve been working on mines the experiences of family long departed and circumstances too ancient to wound. (It may also be, I’m afraid, why I left this effort too late. I’m discovering to my surprise that this writer, like this athlete, has lost more than a little with age.)

This reticence—which I think is not altogether admirable in someone who wants to write good fiction—doesn’t, of course, mean I can’t be a monster in a dozen other cruel and dreary ways, any more than it means I can’t swan about in an old tweed jacket and a long scarf. It just means I won’t eventually be receiving what I once heard a professor call “the artist’s absolution.”


Monday, May 25, 2009

Home for now

I’m getting used to being back in Connecticut more or less permanently. I’m sleeping in my own bed, cooking on my own stove, and driving my own car. Paul and I have taken up our morning walk again. All this is very nice indeed. On the other hand, I desperately miss sweet B, and have pathetically and fruitlessly been wandering around the place looking for a little lovey to hug and kiss and snuggle. The tug north is strong.

And I’m grumpy. The property here can be a pain. We have three rentals, known to us as The Garage, The Barn, and The Cottage. In good years, their income helps us pay the bills. In bad years, the balance runs—pourscascadesfloods—in the other direction. This last year has been one of those, and a lot of this I’ve had to try to handle from a distance.

The house itself, shown above in an 1898 photo (and looking a bit different now), was built in the 1770s, old for the States. (I was raised a couple of miles out in what was the country, in a house that is almost the same age, so I’m used to sticking doors, bulging walls, and eccentric plumbing and electrical runs...

...but I have lots of friends who just can’t get their heads around the concept of floor as inclined plane, let alone wave form.)

There are lots of old houses in this old town, but ours may be unique in having not a single fireplace. The owners in the 1830s modernized by removing the huge central chimney mass, which opened the house up and made it much brighter (and—probably the real impetus for the effort—more fashionable). They installed the bow window you can see in the photo, bigger windows all around, narrow floorboards and other up-t0-date features. They also installed stoves to replace the fireplaces, though we can find no evidence that they heated the upstairs at all. (We do have, tucked away in the back attic, the constituent parts of a very elegant marble fireplace surround.)

Like most New Englanders, we heat with fuel oil. We’ve gradually been working to make the creaky old place more energy efficient. A couple of years ago, we had the exterior walls and sub-roof areas insulated with iso-cyanurate foam, and that has been a big improvement. As I alluded to in an earlier post, we now have new roof shingles.We also have a more efficient (and convenient) back door in the kitchen. Those fashionable nineteenth-century windows, though, leak like crazy. Modern solutions—new double-panes, aluminum tracks, etc., aren’t allowed by our Historic District Commission, and we wouldn’t go for most of them, anyway. Old-fashioned, wooden, seasonal storm windows, though, are hard to install on a house like ours with heights to scale. Some universal solution in this area is next on our list. Handling this in a historically sensitive manner without going bankrupt before we realize the energy-savings payback is turning out to be a real issue, and all this is very much on our minds at the moment, though the coming of warm weather and the temporary reduction in oil prices to merely stunning levels has given us a little more breathing space.

No doubt we’ll get this squared away just about the time we decide we can’t stand being away from our babies anymore, and move to a nice weather-tight little condo in New Hampshire. With a fireplace.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Creaky people

The writer of this article on old guys is, in fact, something of a young guy by my standards, though I feel, as he does about himself, that I am still “probably one of the leading outdoorsmen in the world.” Thereby proving that old guys still fantisize ... just about different things.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Little big man

There was an article in our local paper, possibly still available here, that brought back memories that made me grin.

I started competitive running late, as a 15-year-old junior in high school. It turned out I was good at it. But I was green...oh, so green. After I’d won a few little dual meets, the more imposing team from Waterbury’s Sacred Heart High came to town. As we were all milling around, jogging, loosening up, and trying to control our nerves, a tiny old man peering through thick, smudged glasses took me by the arm as I was wandering by.

“You’re Alvarez?”

“Yes, sir.”

“I’ve been reading about you. You’re having a good season.”

“Uh.” (Smooth repartee even then was one of my greatest attributes.) “Thank you.”

He squeezed my arm, turned me slightly, and pointed. “See my boy over there?”

Aha, now I know who you are. You’re their coach. “Yes, sir.”

“He’s the best runner in the state.”

Gulp. “Uh.”

“Good luck, son.” And he walked away.


I hadn’t yet gained any real understanding of running. I hadn’t done any serious training, and had only raced a few times. The wonderful world I soon came to savor, of strategies, tactics, and mind games, was still a mystery to me. The only thing I knew was if that kid was the best runner in the state, I had no chance. So when the gun went off, I ran that way. It didn’t dawn on me until there were perhaps 200 yards left, that I had 50 yards to make up and energy to burn. I lost by 10.

The remarkable Chick Lawson had taken me to school. Eighty-five at the time, he had been—at 106 pounds—a champion all-comers wrestler in the 1890s and early 1900s, and a champ on the bicycle later. He had been, I soon learned, my grandfather’s boyhood hero.

Over the next two years, I ran against Chick’s teams many times, neither of us ever mentioned his introductory psych job, and we came to be quite friendly. I became one of those who would, with a quiet, “Hang on a minute, Chick,” reach out and remove those always-smudged glasses, clean them off, and replace them.

When I was in college, I ran in local meets during the summer, and he was always there. At one, he forbade me from competing for fun in the long jump because he was afraid—reasonably—that I might pull a muscle and ruin my running season. Another time, he told me I’d just run the best quarter mile he’d ever seen. It was certainly the best 440 I ever ran, but a moderately talented real quarter-miler would have left me in the dust. It had been a terrific race, though, and Chick, at 88 or 89 by then, was bouncing with excitement.

After college, I coached my own team against his. In his early 90s, he brought his son, then in his 70s, to one meet. “He can’t get around the way he used to,” Chick told me. “Where can we park the car so he can see most of the race?” Then Chick joined me in wandering from place to place on the course, shouting encouragement as we watched our boys run by. I, of course, cleaned his glasses.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

New Englanders again

We’re home! H and I are fighting off our second straight colds (deeply, cosmically, unfair), the house looks like a bomb hit it (when it was only sweet B), and I’m hoping that this time the plumber has correctly diagnosed the problem and restored hot water in the barn apartment.

The Southwest flights from Minneapolis to Chicago and Chicago to Hartford were okay, though we had to pull a full OJ in Chicago to get from Gate 2 to gate 20 in time to catch the second one. This put H, the baby, and me in the next-to-last set of seats, and occasioned a little kerfuffle with a pill of a guy who wouldn’t shift seats so B in her carrier could have the legally required window seat. A flight attendant, noting the coalescing protest of the surprising number of nearby moms traveling with toddlers, headed off trouble with a little personality and the offer of a drink. Which, after our sprint down the concourse, I thought we deserved as much as the cluck.

We got in the door here about 12:30 AM Wednesday. I’m almost recovered, but am humbled to note that A, his dad A1, and Jasper the Wonderdog last night completed their grind of a journey from Rochester, Minnesota to Rochester, New York, driving a big U-Haul with A’s car trailing behind. I can’t speak for their condition or recovery.

We all meet up back at the Concord, New Hampshire, apartment on Friday. A will start his new job on June 1, H will begin orientation for her residency on the 15th. B will be introduced next Wednesday to the apparently fantastic Annie, who will be caring for her.

I will require coddling, consideration, lots of tea, and the occasional stiff drink as I try to cope with what undoubtedly will be a doozy of a case of separation anxiety.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Doctor is in

H and 37 classmates (it’s the smallest med school in the country) got their diplomas yesterday, to multiple standing ovations and shouted huzzahs from all of us proud parents and friends. Sweet B was more interested in eating the program.

She was a champ, though, all day: at the ceremony, the reception, through the toasting and hugging (she especially liked the hugging), and later at the cheerily, glass-clinkingly celebratory dinner, where she was a lot less impressed by Dr. Mommy than by the beets.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Done. Now fun.

H finished med school today. It was the last day of her last rotation, and the docs she was working with made much of counting down the last ten seconds for her. Many of her classmates had finished up weeks ago and have been enjoying something of a holiday, but the production of sweet B and the necessary time off left H cranking away until today. Corks have been popped (I am perhaps one glass away from having written “pops have been corked”), and the weekend celebration has begun.

H was fortunate enough to have been offered an exceedingly rare full scholarship to medical school, but we think we will largely make up for that in wine, food, and party supplies over the next few days. The grandmothers are already here. A’s dad, A1, is coming in tomorrow (bringing a special cake), along with H’s godparents and our great friends, R and M. We begin with lunch at the best restaurant in town, give a staggering (ha-ha) afternoon tour of the amazing Mayo Clinic; rest gently with a glass or two for a few hours; enjoy, with a nice Malbec, our first communal pasta for many months (if I remain sufficiently functional to cook); then head out to the official graduation bash. Those who can will rise on Saturday morning to attend the ceremonies; to be followed by a reception; more gentle vinous resting; then dinner at the other best restaurant in town, with which I held fruitful negotiations earlier this week about the wine menu.

We’ve always celebrated at the drop of a hat. What’s nicer than a drop of the bubbly after a job well done, even if it’s just a little job? But this is the culmination of brilliant work over many years, and the achieving of a dream held from childhood by a beloved daughter.

Oh, yes, we’ll celebrate.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Sleep Walk

Sweet B has entered a new phase in the last week. My surefire snuggles and songs have lost their effect. So I (and all of us) have been doing this a lot.

“Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise” is the obvious melodic inspiration for the Farinas’ hit, and I think all of us have thought we might be seeing that morning sunrise (as opposed to the rarer evening one) before the little one fell asleep. Maybe we just need a steel guitar.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009


A year ago I was wandering across Knoydart on my aborted TGO Challenge. Today, I was out pushing little B in her chariot as she sweetly babbled away and we wandered along the river on the bike path.

My time as nanny is drawing to a close. H graduates Saturday (Yay!), and family and friends begin to gather here in Minnesota today. As of tomorrow, I’ll have to fight off, not one, but two loving grandmothers if I want so much as a quick snuggle with sweet B. In a couple of weeks, B, A, and H will be ensconced in their New Hampshire apartment, and I’ll be back to my normal life in Connecticut.

When I was a much younger man, the stars aligned to grant me the great gift of time to spend with my daughter. From just about the time she was old enough to go to school, I worked from home and was usually able to jigger my schedule to accommodate hers. It was wonderful, and thankfully, I knew it was wonderful.

Now, as a geezer, I’ve been granted this second sublime gift—time with my oh-so-sweet granddaughter through a great part of her first year. Fierce bonding...without the drawback of her being old enough to pick up any of my bad habits. She’ll have to get them second-hand.

Monday, May 11, 2009





Temporary hibernation to end soon.