Thursday, December 30, 2004

Sack of Wood

sack of wood
sack of wood, originally uploaded by pjdwine.

I told Niko that I had blogged about him reading the book (see previous post). He said, "I didn't know you had a blog." I told him I did. So then, a few minutes later, Niko brought me a sack of wood scraps and said, "Blog this!" OK. Here it is. Sack of wood. Plus, there's a little plastic mouse in the sack, which is actually Niko's newest winter cap -- a Spongebob cap.

Luckiest Man on Earth
It's early in the morning, dawn just breaking. Niko is moving back and forth between the dining room table, where milk and toast sit, and the living room, where a whole world of activities are possible. I tell him I'm going to check my email and I move to the office nook on the other side of the kitchen. As I peck at the keyboard, I hear faint sounds from accross the house. Niko talking to himself? After a minute or two, I notice the talking continuing. I sneak through the kitchen and peer through the dining room into the living room. Christmas lights are twinkling all around. And there, in front of the fireplace, sits Niko, reading a book. Saying all the words out loud. Pausing to ponder the plot. Turning pages. Occasionally inflecting his voice to try to match the characters and their actions. What could be better than your five-year-old, on his own, sitting down to read a book? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Will They Never Learn?
Not a big deal, and certainly nothing new. But must East Coast media always be so clueless about something so basic as West Coast geography? One expects them to misunderstand the culture, and of course they almost always do. The lay of the land, however, is easily attainable, maps being widely available in bookstores, libraries, the Internet -- one imagines even at the copy desk at The New York Times. Alas, the latest offense is one I've seen repeated dozens of times in recent months: The placing of "Sideways," Alexander Payne's brilliant little film about life, love and wine, in Northern California.


The film is set in Santa Barbara County's wine country. Not Napa's. Not Sonoma's. Not Mendocino's. Not even the Santa Cruz Mountains' or San Clara Valley's (there really once was a wine country there). Miles and Jack and the gang cavort a mere couple of hours up the 101 from Hollywood, ferchrisakes. Yet here's Stephen Holden writing (and, worse, nobody on the desk catching): "'Sideways': The story of two buddies on a wine-tasting excursion in northern California ... "

No. No!

Well, the good news is that Holden has "Sideways" on his Top Ten list for the year. But still.

Saturday, December 25, 2004

The Real Action

niko pullying xmas040001, originally uploaded by pjdwine.

What Niko wanted most was a pulley. Not a Sponge Bob Pulley or a Spiderman Pulley or a Superwanker (or whatever the commercial hero of the moment is) Pulley. No, what the lad wanted was a piece of hardware that could be used to raise and lower items of import. Such as: Most of what was in our pantry. Once lowered, it was necessary to "make a display of everything," he said. So that was Niko's Christmas project, late in the afternoon and into the evening. Tomorrow, he wants at the "higher-up cupboards," he says. We'll see.

A Christmas Picture

niko_xmas04, originally uploaded by pjdwine.

My first attempt to add 1,000 words to Whine Country in one fell swoop (assuming that long-standing exchange rate holds in the digital world). This is Niko, celebrating Christmas at the South Montgomery Street digs.

Xmas Pictures
Faithful readers know well that Whine Country has always been a 100 percent photo-free zone. My goal today is to change that. It can't be that hard to figure out, right? Coming later, Actual Christmas Shots of the Kid.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Medals of Failure
Richard Cohen brings it, big-time, in today's Washington Post on the topic of President Bush's bizarre awarding of medals to three men who botched the Iraw effort. The last three paragraphs:

"The White House medal ceremony was really about George W. Bush. It had a slight touch of the absurd to it, as if facts do not matter and failure does not count. The War to Rid Iraq of WMD has now become The War to Bring Democracy to the Middle East. No one is ever held accountable, because the president will not do as much for himself. He admits no mistakes because he is convinced that he has made none. The terrorist attacks themselves, for which Tenet should have been sacked, are no one's fault because they cannot be the president's fault. He was warned. Condi Rice was put on notice. But, still, who could have known?

"To make these awards in the face of failure -- the mounting American death toll, the awful suffering of the Iraqis, the looming possibility of civil war, the nose-thumbing of the still-at-large Osama bin Laden and the madness of making war for a nonexistent reason -- has the creepy feel of the old communist states, where incompetents wore medals and harsh facts were denied. For this reason Bernie Kerik -- three months in Iraq building a police force as good as rhetoric can make it -- seemed as likely and appropriate a recipient of a presidential medal as any of the others.

"Maybe next year. "

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Weekend with Niko
Maybe you have to have a kid to be reminded what Christmas is like for a child. This was the big weekend of holiday decorating for Niko and me, and we went pedal to the metal the whole way. It took several trips to ol' Zeller's Hardware downtown (we avoid Home Depot as much as possible), as well as stops at Target and Rite-Aid. The tree itself was picked out at a corner lot a few blocks from home. I spied a very nice five-footer, but Niko preferred the six. Six it was. A nice specimen, narrow but tight and with no gaps. We had a couple of boxes of ornaments -- more than enough, so we stuffed some snipped bottom branches into a vase and made an arrangement over by the TV, "which needed some Christmas by it," Niko said. Stringing the lights on the house was pretty wild. Niko was flipping out of his gourd with excitement. I just tried to go with the flow, so the arrangement really wasn't much of an arrangement, as arrangements go. In the end Niko pronounced it "definitely the most beautiful Christmas house ever," and I could hardly disagree. Today we did a little touching up (Zeller's and its $1.69 100-bulb light strings makes it pretty hard to say no to the lad), and also much cooking. We made Mardi Gras Chicken with Creamy Polenta, our favorite dish of all time. And we made Maple-Pecan Ice Cream. Niko was skeptical, noting the absence of chocolate in the recipe. But in the end, he waved his hand in the air as he downed a mouthful, his version of thumbs up.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Return Engagement
After banging away at the Tri California server for a half-hour at 8 a.m. this morning and failing to get through, I tried again at lunchtime. Success! I am signed up to do the long course at Wildflower next spring.

A veteran of three Half Vinemans, I did my first Wildflower this year. It was hotter than hell and I screwed up my eating and drinking on the challenging bike leg, taking in too much carbohydrate and not enough water. This left me unable to stomach food or water on the run. Seven miles from the finish I was deeply and irretrievably into full bonkage. I never hurled; perhaps I should have. I couldn't help but walk intermittently just to make it to the finish. My run time was around 2:10, 20 minutes slower than my run-split PR.

Nevertheless, it was great, all great. I learned a ton about racing and, hell, I did Wildflower, famed Wildflower: Such a gathering of a youthful fitness you have never seen. Eight-thousand competitors converging on an isolated lake in the coastal range of California, midway between SF and LA, just as the weather hits the spring/summer crest. Some 1,500 Cal Poly students volunteer to man the aid stations along the bike and run courses. At Mile 5, the do so buck-naked.

Anyway, I'm looking forward to getting Wildflower right this year. April 30. That's the day.

Sunday, November 28, 2004

From the Post: "One senior administration official said Treasury Secretary John W. Snow is free to stay as long as he wants, provided it is not very long."
The Thrill of ...
Every fourth Sunday of the month the Lake Merritt Joggers and Striders put on concurrent 5K, 10K and 15K races. In rare possession of a Sunday without obligations I ventured down to Oakland this morning to check it out. There's not much fanfare to these races. No T-shirts. No vendors or over-caffeinated announcers. No lines for the bathrooms! Now add in the fact that the entry fee is a paltry four bucks ($3 for members) -- and that the lovely course in the heart of the city is certified -- and you've got a big winner.

Did somebody say winner?

That's another thing that's great about the LMJS Fourth Sunday Run: It's small enough -- usually between 50 and 100 total runners -- that you might actually end up a winner.

Most of the runners do the 10K, the benchmark distance for weekend warriors, and I was leaning in that direction right up until the woman doing the sign-ins asked me, "5K, 10K or 15K?" For reasons unknown, I blurted, "15K," joining five others at the distance.

I usually have a well-developed idea of how fast I might go in a race, but today, doing a distance that was both unanticipated and which I had never before run, I was clueless. My last run, on Thanksgiving Day, was miserable, a five-mile, leaden-legged trudge. I guess I was hoping I'd break 70 minutes, but I wasn't overflowing with confidence.

The morning was shockingly clear after some rain early Saturday. A cold wind was blowing hard from the north/northeast. Foolishly, I usually don't do much of a warm-up, but today the bite in the air inspired me to move and I ran a very slow half-mile up the lakeshore, and then turned around and headed back to the starting area. Five minutes later, we were off, running either one (5K), two (10K) or three (15K) laps around the lake.

The first half-mile I worked my way past some slower folk, avoiding the many non-racers winding their way around the lake as well, and bracing against that wind. But I felt good. I was running loosely and easily. It occurred to me that doing a solid warm-up regularly might not be a bad idea.

My first lap split was 22:30. I picked up the pace slightly. At the end of the second lap I was at 44:15. Still felt good. As the last lap began, I could see one 15K runner maybe 30 or 40 yards out in front of me (I figured there were others, farther ahead). I made it my goal to close on him if I could do so without killing myself. About halfway around, I caught him and rolled along.

With a last lap of 21:47, I crossed the line in 66:02.

After finishing I wandered around the grassy area where other finishers were hanging out and yacking or stretching in the sunshine. I sipped some water and did a personal post-race inventory, noting that my knees were utterly ache-free and my muscles felt taxed but not at all shredded. The morning chill had eased under the sun's bright assault and I was feeling good about having come out to do this race. Just then, over at the little card table where the race organizers were tabulating entries and results, I heard a man say, "Is Peter Danko here? Peter, where are you?"

I stepped forward.

"Here," the fellow said, reaching into a plastic bag. "I should give you your award now in case you have to get going."

I said, "Oh, did I get top three?"

"You won," he said.

"My age group?"


I won? I was amazed. I said something self-deprecating, something about being fortunate there were so few racers. The man said, "Hey, 66 minutes is a good run."

That's not a time that wins on very many Fourth Sundays, but the first prerequisite to winning is showing up, right?

So with that I took my first place ribbon and made my way home. Driving up the freeway toward Napa, I couldn't help but think about the year I've had. There has been much struggle, at home and at the office. Doubt, fear, anger, sadness, anxiety -- all of it seemingly always hovering, like clouds, obscuring the many gifts that have come my way. And yet here I was, on a sparkling Sunday in late November, a winner. I shed a tear of joy and laughed at myself. Silly me, I thought: Needing a ribbon to know it's a good run.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

W. B. Yeats: Meru
Civilization is hooped together, brought
Under a rule, under the semblance of peace
By manifold illusion; but man's life is thought,
And he, despite his terror, cannot cease
Ravening through century after century,
Ravening, raging, and uprooting that he may come
Into the desolation of reality:
Egypt and Greece good-bye, and good-bye, Rome!
Hermits upon Mount Meru or Everest,
Caverned in night under the drifted snow,
Or where that snow and winter's dreadful blast
Beat down upon their naked bodies, know
That day brings round the night, that before dawn
His glory and his monuments are gone.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Hell, I've got no real complaints. Roof over my head in a nice 'hood. Never lacking for food or the means to make ridiculous impulse purchases (witness the Garmin I picked up a few weeks ago). Still, some days you wonder what karmic debt you're repaying.

First, this morning Niko leaves a cup of water on the stairs. I step on the cup, go flying headlong to the first floor two steps below and, approximately horizontal, bash the top of my head into the hard frame of the doorway between the foyer and the kitchen. Huge gash, blood, dizziness, blurry vision. The works.

However, I can boast of nothing if I cannot boast of a hard head. I was pretty much OK within an hour. We go out, because we MUST get out.

Wildly breezy bright day. Leaves wooshing down off the ginkos in torrents, racing along, gathering on the other side of the street. Yes, that was a good thing that happened today: the other side of the street. Meanwhile, we're off to the northern outskirts of Calistoga to see the Old Faithful geyser. We see the geyser and it's cool -- we especially like the way the wind carries the water onto the folks standing west of the big belch -- but Niko is looking very uncomfortable and complaining of a tummy ache. I thought he just needed to take a dump. It is his policy to hold it until the very last moment, which sometimes leads to generalized agony. After the geyser, we hit the Palisades Deli in town, with me eating a sandwich and Niko downing a pint of chocolate whole milk and the white of a hardboiled egg. Twenty minutes later on the winding Silverado Trail, his lunch all comes up and out, on himself, on the seatbelt, on his kid seat, on the car seat. We finish the drive with the windows wide open but the stench is still enough to … make you hurl.


Niko races to the toilet for a liquid poop.

Vomiting + diarrhea. This does not add up to anything good (or good-smelling).

I give him one of those electrolyte drinks, knowing that the only real worry here is dehydration. He sips it carefully. And over the course of the next two hours, he does nothing but perk up. I take his temperature. It's 37.5C, which I think is around 98F.

As I attempt to install a new printer for our old Mac, the lad continues his perkage. Now it's 8 p.m. and he should be in bed but he's feeling so chipper, I'm blogging and he's watching Food Network.

OK, so it wasn't all bad. It actually wasn't that bad at all. I've been thinking a lot about how much I let shit get to me, especially hiccups in the day with Niko. I want it all to go smoothly, trouble-free. I'm beginning to understand that, yo, he's five. It may happen, but if it does it's strictly by accident. Chill. Pill. Take.

Much easier that way.

So, OK. No big deal. Typical day.

As you were.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Stopping to Smell the Roses
I haven't been to a Cal football game in 20 years -- since the Saturday before Thanksgiving in 1984, when Stanford won by something like 24-10 down on the Farm (I could look it up, but why don't you, and post a comment?). But like every Old Blue, I'm riding the bandwagon now, woopin' and hollerin' Go Bears, and I'm even contemplating making my way down to Pasadena on January 1, 2005, for the Rose Bowl. Barring something freaky, the Bears are going to be there, for the first time since 1959, when that loveable old rockhead Joe Kapp was throwing, like, six passes (five of them seriously wobbly) a game and otherwise playing quarterback the way Butkus would play linebacker.

Now, some party-poopers are going to note that these '04 Bears didn't win the Pac-10, and that they're in line for the Rose Bowl only because league champ USC appears headed for the BCS championship game (the Orange Bowl this year). Yeah, whatever. It's still the Rose Bowl, it's Cal, and it's been nearly a half-century. Isn't that enough? And who knows, it may be another half-century before they get there again. Because, again, this is Cal, and surely Jeff Tedford will bolt for the big dollars and swank facilities at some football factory, Aaron Rodgers will take off for the pros, Marshawn Lynch will shred a knee playing Ms. Pac-Man at Kip's, and within two years we'll be staring at 3-8.

Friday, November 19, 2004

Important Social Commentary
Garth Patil, studying fashion trends while luxuriating recently on the bucolic Stanford campus on a sun-splashed day, observes with a mix of agnosticism and wonder the rising tide of young female butt cracks, a result of the lowering of jeans, if not societal standards. I've noted this phenomenon as well and as of the exposed-belly-button craze, generally approve. However -- and this is just my own peculiar view, which should under no circumstances be seen as proscriptive by anyone contemplating how far south she ought to hitch 'em -- I find it remains the case that on especially rotund women, this look tends not to work so well, whereas those in the svelte or curvaceous classes seem to fare better. One dude's view.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Careful readers have no doubt noted (but somehow have failed to mention the fact) that there has been no discussion this fall of the harvest, no talk of wily maneuvering to get my hands on killer grapes free, as is my policy; no explications on crushing, stemming, water additions, cold-soaks, enzyme additions, nutrient deficiencies, stuck fermentations or barrel management; no winemaking chatter at all.

I made my first wine in 1998. It was 2000 when I finally had a little bit of knowledge and some good grapes to risk it on. That ended up being 15 cases of better-than-average Knight's Valley mountain Merlot. Oh-One was the year Casey Hartlip gave away the farm, bestowing upon me a barrel's worth each of staggeringly good Sangiovese and Cabernet from Eaglepoint Ranch, high in the mountains east of Talmage. Two-thousand two, another couple of barrels were called into service, filled with Zinfandel and Pinot Noir, thanks to Greg Nelson -- God I love those Mendo farmers -- and in '03 Greg offered up Cab.

So why no 2004s in the garage finding their way through malolactic, nearly ready for racking? Too damn much was going in my life. Too much drama, at home and at work; too much triathlon and marathon. And one other thing, which is going to sound strange, but it's true: the garage is a fucking mess and until it gets cleaned (an interesting use of the passive there) there will be NO MORE GRAPES CRUSHED!
What's Happening Over There
It took my good friend Infospigot just a few quick numbers to make the point about exactly how tough the fight for Fallujah has been. So far. Check it out. Reading the post woke me from a post-election war slumber, so later in the day I made rare forays into the land of TV news. I was damn near reduced to tears as the NewsHour rolled 20 names and pictures past, mostly young men, a few guys in their mid-40s, Marines, Army, fathers, sons, brothers, husbands -- you know the story, all dead. Then I flipped to CNN and without realizing what was being shown, assuming it was more or less random war footage, I saw an American soldier note that an Iraqi wounded might not actually be dead, coldly pump a bullet into the prostrate body, then announce, "He's dead now." And the really scary thing is you know that this ridiculous pointless evil shit is not going to end anytime soon.

Saturday, November 13, 2004

Not Big County
California's least populous county (1,208 residents) led the state in voter turnout earlier this month, with 86 percent of its eligible voters doing their civic duty. (You'll note I didn't say "going to the polls" -- Alpine County is so sparsely peopled, voting is done by mail.) But what I found interesting was that once again, newspapers could not resist calling it tiny Alpine County. Even before this latest story popped up, Google returned 94 instances of Alpine tinization.

By the way, Alpine County was blue, one of the few inland counties in California to go Kerry's way.

UPDATE: Sacramento Bee story avoids use of "tiny"! Calls it "little Alpine County."
A decade ago I couldn't avoid the O.J. trial. I was working on the desk at a tabloid-style newspaper and Ito, Cochrane, Clark et al. provided us headline fodder for months. But like you, Thinking Reader, I tend to find these high-profile, media-soaked celebrity prosecuctions to be debasing to anyone who gets near them. So it wasn't until a couple of months ago that I paid any real attention to the Scott Peterson case. When a colleague of mine explained the situation -- the body found 80 miles from the couple's home, and just where the husband had happened to go fishing on Christmas Eve, the day the wife went missing -- I said: "Of course he did it." For a brief second I entertained the idea that actual evidence connecting Peterson to the crime might be necessary, but I quickly dismissed that thought. Of course he did it, I was surprised to believe, was good enough for me.

In the weeks after arriving at this view I thought a few more times about the case, testing myself to see if I really believed instinct was sufficient to convict a man of murder. To my continued amazement, I kept saying yes. I heard excellent arguments as to the danger of my view, but to me these arguments began to sound like silly intellectual exercises. Yeah, gut reaction is no way to run a system of justice, and going down that path could be mighty dangerous. But what about the danger of ignoring overwhelming human intuition? What about turning our back on what we know to be true? I remained comfortable with the idea that the pure implausibility that anyone other than Scott Peterson committed the murder was enough to convict.

Now, a jury apparently agrees.

My first reaction upon hearing the news yesterday was relief. The election results had left me wondering about my worldview. Twelve people in San Mateo County agreed with me. Excellent.

Then I saw the paper. The crowds cheering outside the courthouse. The glee at the conviction. The treatment of the trial as a sporting event and the verdict as Our Side winning.

Now I'm a bit scared where this might be taking us.

Friday, November 12, 2004

The Internet Never Forgets
Back in 1995 I co-authored an article for the American Journalism Review about journalists leaving the profession. I long ago lost my copy of the magazine, and every nine or 12 or 17 months over the past several years I've found myself Googling the article. Today, suddenly, the piece showed up, right here. It's not a bad bit of work. I actually think it holds up pretty well. You might even say it exhibits a certain prescience. So I'm glad to have found it. Nevertheless, what an alarming development!

Most of my journalism was committed pre-Internet. So I've rested comfortably, sure that my oeuvre, such as it is, was buried deep in the ink and dead tree past. But now I can't be so certain. Busy archivists are clearly at work, exhuming away. They couldn't possibly find their way to the Daily Californian of the early 1980s, could they? One shudders.

Monday, November 08, 2004

Payne in My Brain
Last week I had the chance to see Alexander Payne and his screenwriting collaborator, Jim Taylor, in conversation at the Silent Movie Theater in Los Angeles. I'm tempted to say the event rocked my world, but probably the effect will wear off soon and nothing will be different. I'll stumble along in my prosaic PR position, only occasionally to recall with shame that I ever imagined I'd get off my ass and make some serious changes in my life. Be that as it may, sitting there and hearing two creative men whose vision and sensibilities I find in excellent accord with my own discussing how they approach their craft was exhilarating. It reminded me how inspiring (above caveat still in force, of course) it can be to surround oneself with artists.

Taylor got off some nice lines and struck me as every bit as valuable as Payne in creating the pair's four great screenplays. And yet it was Payne who stole this show. The man is too sharp. I mean it. His sharpness can inflict pain (in addition to hilarity). Ask a question that veers the wrong way and eeek he'll jab you. Only by the least generous interpretation possible did the poor fellow next to me imply that Payne's movies were repetitive in their emotional arc. "So you're saying we've made the same movie four times in a row," Payne answered bitterly. The questioner was shocked and babbled his denial/apology, but Payne stuck the needle in even farther -- not to hurt the guy, but for the great laughs. Finally, Payne did give the guy a sly look of sympathy, and said barely audibly, "We'll talk after." That's Payne: He's got a heart, but he hurts, too.

Anyway, the three things Payne said that I've really been thinking about:

1) That to write is to learn to live with despair. He wasn't talking about that romantic schlocky writerly oh woe is me I am an artiste kind of despair. He was talking about writing and hating what you create and the feeling that comes with that. "A day won't go by when you don't look at something you wrote and say, 'That sucks.' There's the despair. You have to be able to live with that and power through it."

2) Ultimately, the creative process is about "figuring out what's rattling around inside you." Not exactly a new sentiment, but hearing someone who is turning out consistently offbeat and excellent work say it brings the point home.

Number 3? Well, that came when I was introduced to Payne before the event (I was there representing Sanford Winery, and at Payne's request we were providing wines for a post-conversation tasting). "This is Pete Danko. Pete does PR for Sanford Winery," Payne was told. To which he replied: "No,I do PR for Sanford Winery." And he's right, of course; Sideways is the best thing to happen to our winery in years.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Four More Years
One of the standing talking heads asked a bunch of his sitting talking heads if the closeness of the election will inspire the re-elected president to reach across the aisle. By then I'd lost my zeal to get into arguments with the television, so instead of yelling, I just muttered, "You fuckers are so stupid," and walked away.

C'mon. Last time the guy "won" he didn't even carry the popular vote -- and then the only reaching across the aisle he did in four years was to give the Dems the finger.

I don't know. All I really ask of the guy is that he start being honest with us. He's a conservative. I'm a moderate liberal. He's not going to do much that I like and he's going to do quite a bit that I find objectionable. But quit the bullshit when it comes to Iraq and the rest of the foreign policy. Get some straight-shooters in there. Hell, start listening to McCain and Hagel and even Lugar. They're on your side. They support the war. But they aren't afraid to tell the truth about it all.

Time to step up, Mr. President.
Exercising My Right
It's about the only exercising I've done lately, what with this lingering cold. Anyway, I voted. At 7:10 a.m. I was voter No. 14 in our precinct. We've gone touch-screen here in Napa and it was quick and painless.

Monday, November 01, 2004

The Halloween Report: Sick Duck
Niko's nearly two-week-old cold took a surprising turn for the worse Saturday and he was no better Sunday. But we did rouse ourselves late in the afternoon to sacrifice one of our pumpkins at the altar of Jack O'Lantern, don the duck suit and hit about 10 houses here on South Montgomery. By the time we got back the lad was looking weak and the temperature checked in at 102.4F. Today, a visit to the doctor revealed the second ear infection of his life. Antibiotics to the rescue! It'll be great to have him back at full strength and I hope he gets a good long stretch of sniffle-, cough- and ache-free days before the next bug rolls through Sunrise Montessori School. He deserves it -- and so does his mom, who handled the vast bulk of the caregiving through it all.

Friday, October 29, 2004

Night Swimming
Oh, OK. Late-afternoon swimming. Cool REM song, though, eh?

After being on the shelf for a full week with a nasty cold, I finally got in the pool again today. Usually I sneak a swim in during my lunch break (and then eat at my desk); today I never could pull away from the office so the swim came afterward. Ever spent much time at a gym (or health club, or spa, or whatever)? One of the interesting things about your modern American exercise venues is that they can have a radically different feel depending on what time of the day you typically go. I'm at Healthquest around 2 p.m. most days, along with a bunch of retired farts who behave really sweetly toward each other, always saying hello and striking up good-natured conversations that veer off in strange and wonderful directions and which I take great pleasure in listening in on. Those old guys: Another cool thing is, you'll be sitting there getting dressed and some wacky song will come over the gym's stereo system, like that "Nasty Girl" tune done to the old sugar-sugar pop hit. The graybeards don't usually say anything about it, but you can just feel them thinking, "What the fuck?"

Mid-afternoon, the pool crowd tends to be made up of non-swimmer swimmers, old ladies in funny swim caps floating back and forth with random flutters of their arms, maybe a few folks doing a lap of crawl followed by a lap of bad breaststroke followed by a lengthy rest while clinging to the wall. I'm not saying I never see any good swimmers in the afternoon. I do. There's an Asian chick who wears a jammer top and never swims without some sort of device -- flippers, the little buoy thing that goes between the legs, the paddles on the hands, something. She's a very good swimmer and I usually see her once a week. And Mr. Swimmer Stud, a guy about my age who has your classic inverted isosceles triangle swimmer body and races sprints in national-level master's meets -- he makes rare appearances. Often, though, I'm the fastest guy in the pool, which tells you everything you need to know.

So anyway, today, as I mentioned, I couldn't get away until work was over. Around 5:30 on Friday evening, the locker room was full of middle-aged guys getting ready to pump iron. Conversations were sharper, less lyrical, predictable. At the pool, there were three swimmers, two long, lean young guys and a burly gal. All doing flip turns, all clearly keeping track of their lap splits. Nothing wrong with that, just different.

Different, too, of course, was the angle of the sun. Obviously. Over the course of the summer and early fall I became accustomed to the high, hot sun and I usually plastered sunscreen on my exposed pate. And it always took me a lap or two to transition from the warm air to the chilly water, but working hard, the temp was just right, cool and refreshing.

Today, the sun was low in the west, lower than I was ready for. There was only a half-hour of full sun to go. The light, looking across the length of the pool and out toward the sunset, was beautiful. The water seemed to move differently, slower, pulsing instead of pitching and splashing. Getting in out of the mild but cooling air, the water was warm, enveloping.

So with all of that, it felt great to swim. I kept it short, just about 1200 yards, half my usual swim. I was surprised at how comfortable I felt in the water. It took a few laps, but that's all. I guess this is the payoff for swimming four or five days a week for the past three months, and three or four days a week in the four months preceding that. Now I actually kind of understand what the swimming coaches say when they talk about "feel," about moving fishlike in the water. I felt good in the water, at home. Then again, maybe it was just some trick of the time of day, some inexplicable fleeting experience. I'll be curious to see how it goes on Monday afternoon, when I'm back at the usual time.

Monday, October 25, 2004

Those Remarkable Sox
My old college roommate and longtime pal Steve Kettmann, author of One Day at Fenway, had a piece in the Times yesterday. An interesting take on how the seeds for this remarkable Red Sox season were planted in the ashes of last year's loss to the Yankees. Ball fans, check it out.

Saturday, October 23, 2004

I went down to LA earlier this week for a special showing of Sideways, the movie that makes Alexander Payne 4-for-4, may win Paul Giamatti an Oscar nomination, and will probably transform Santa Barbara wine country forever. The movie is excellent (see David Edelstein's review in Slate, a right-on take on the film even if he pushes a bit too hard on the alcoholism theme). Sideways has a fun and easy pace and a warm sweetness without at all being saccharine. It's hilarious, true, but there's a deep desperation to both men that yields truly harrowing moments. I left the theater thinking a lot about the search for love and other transcendent experiences.

It should also be said that this is the wine movie of all time. Payne uses the characters beautifully to capture both the glory and folly of wine geekdom. Of course, the best thing about Sideways is that one of the wineries I do public relations for comes off well in the film. It's Sanford Winery, the first tasting room that Miles and Jack hit on their adventure. Miles introduces it as one of the best producers of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in Santa Barbara County. Yes, we've already obtained the clip from Fox Searchlight!

P.S.: David Denby loves Sideways, too. Here's his review in The New Yorker.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Our [Insert Adjective Here] Democracy
Election geeks and other concerned citizens: If you haven't hooked into it already, get on over to the Electoral Vote Predictor for the latest on the state of the presidential race. Niko and I check it daily (you should have seen the excitement in the lad's face when some outfit finally did a new poll in New Hampshire and the state tipped from its perpetual tied status to the Dems. "Barely Kerry!" he shouted, noting the Granite State's newfound blue outline).

The site's formula makes for some big swings in the total electoral vote count. If the latest poll shows a candidate with a lead in a state, no matter how small the lead or how consistently the poll has been out of whack, the state goes to that candidate. But over time you do see trends emerging. And the happy trend in recent weeks is that many of the swing states seem to be going Kerry's way. Michigan and Pennsylvania now look pretty solidly blue. What's clear, still, however, is that this thing is very, very close. Ohio and Florida, the big enchiladas, remain up in the air (Can you picture the hovering enchilada?). And Nevada, New Mexico, Iowa, the aforementioned New Hampshire and a handful of other less-populated states could be pivotal as well.

One other thing about the Predictor: Don't forget to read the text, updated daily The writer offers important insights into the poll updates, and his dry, straight-ahead commentary often turns quite funny. This morning, I got a kick out of this passage:

"In South Carolina, Republican senatorial candidate Jim DeMint has apologized for saying that gays and unwed mothers should be forbidden from teaching in the public schools. But he didn't retract the statement. His race there against Inez Tenenbaum, the state's school superintendent, is also surprisingly close. In Oklahoma, Tom Coburn has repeatedly tried to unsay things (such as his supporting the death penalty for abortionists -- and this coming from an obstetrician who has personally performed abortions). Finally, In the Illinois Senate race, Marylander Alan Keyes has opposed gay couples raising children saying: "If we do not know who the mother is, who the father is, without knowing all the brothers and sisters, incest becomes inevitable." Republicans are a lot livelier this year than usual. And the liveliness seems to be working. My current projection shows the new Senate with 52 Republicans, 46 Democrats (including independent Jeffords) and 2 tossups, but 8 or 9 races there are very close and change from day to day."

Sunday, October 17, 2004

New Season
We had one scattered shot of rain in September, but otherwise it's been dry since spring. Until now. From this morning's National Weather Service forecast discussion:


Saturday, October 16, 2004

One Day at Fenway
The Sox and Yanks will play at Fenway today, weather permitting. It's always special when these two teams get together at that little old ballpark -- but to really understand what it means, you need to read the new book by my friend Steve Kettmann. He tells the story well.
The Year
Maybe I'll do one more competition this year. I'm contemplating the Death Valley Borax Marathon. I think I'll be well-enough recovered by then -- December 4 -- but most of the literature advises to wait several months before doing a second marathon. That would point me toward the Napa Valley Marathon, right here on my home turf.

Anyway, I set out to do more events this year and I did. Special thanks to Rebecca and Niko for being so cool about me taking the time to train and compete.

Millerton Lake (1.5K S, 40K B, 10K trail/road run)
Uvas (1K S, 18M B, 5M R)
Wildflower Half (2K S, 56M B, 13.1M R)
San Jose (1.5K S, 10K B, 10K R)
Half Vineman (2K S, 56M B, 13.1M R)
Tour of Napa Valley (100M bike ride)
Bizz Johnson Trail Marathon (26.2M R)
Think Nader has faded away as a factor in presidential elections? We certainly haven't been hearing as much about him. And it doesn't appear as though he'll pull the 4 percent or so of the vote he did in 2000. But a recent New Republic piece by Ryan Lizza suggests Ralph could still do in the Dems (and give us four more years of Bush). Here's the key excerpt:

Despite the fact that he is registering barely 1 percent in national polls, Nader is indeed perfectly positioned to cost Kerry the election. Consider Kerry's current road to 270 electoral votes. The number of true toss-up states has dwindled to eleven: Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, West Virginia, New Hampshire, Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico. Nader is on the ballot in all of these states but Pennsylvania and Ohio, where his access is still the subject of litigation. Each of these states is close enough that Nader could make the difference, and the damage he could do to Kerry becomes more obvious when one looks at the combination of states Kerry is likely to need for victory. Assuming Bush wins Florida and Kerry wins Pennsylvania, Kerry must then win Ohio and some combination of three to five of the remaining eight small toss-up states. These eight states have two things in common: in each, the race is almost a dead heat, and, in each, Nader is polling between one and four points. In other words, Nader is doing best in the most closely contested states. For instance, an early October Gallup poll of registered voters in New Mexico showed Bush beating Kerry 47 to 46 percent, with Nader at 3 percent. An American Research Group poll in New Hampshire showed Bush and Kerry tied at 47 percent, with Nader at 1 percent. In Colorado, Gallup shows Bush and Kerry tied at 48 percent, with Nader at 2 percent. As pollster John Zogby noted in a recent analysis of his own numbers, "There is ... no doubt that Ralph Nader is hurting Kerry." 

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Official Results
Everybody says it’s not about the time – it’s about having fun, or getting out, or staying fit. And in a way, that’s all true. Still, one of the best parts of doing races is studying the final results. The Bizz Johnson Trail Marathon results just arrived via email, and they show me with an official finishing time of 3:49:48. That placed me 10th among 28 finishers in the male 40-44 group, and 70th among 267 finishers overall. My per-mile pace was 8:47.

The winner? That would be Michael Fretz in 2:45:54. Other notable finishers: Allan Kerr, 12th overall in 3:14:07 (notable because the man is 61 years old); and Aaron Guerrero, three spots and two and half minutes behind. Aaron was born 45 years after Allan Kerr.

Monday, October 11, 2004

Running the Bizz
Well, it was pretty remarkable. I mean, there was nothing great about my performance -- I finished in just under 3 hours and 50 minutes, which is good for a first marathon, good for someone who has never run more than 16 miles, and good for running at altitude (between 4200 and 5600 feet in elevation). Good but not great. Great would have been sub-3:40.

What was remarkable about my first marathon -- the Bizz Johnson Trail Marathon -- was everything about it. Signing up less than two months before the race, quickly working a few long runs into the busy schedule, being careful not to destroy the knees in the process of getting ready. Not coming up with an excuse to bail -- and not being derailed by work or life. Then getting up there ... the five-hour drive from the Bay Area, the pre-race dinner with all these freaky and cool Western States veterans talking about 100-mile and 100K runs and shit. Waking at 5 on Race Day to get some coffee and food in me, and a dump out of me, before leaving the motel. The bus out of Susanville to the trailhead where we started: I love the conversations that pop up in the hours and minutes before a substantial endurance test. You see pretty far into people. I talked to an young guy from San Francisco who, beneath his cool, seemed to have a burning intensity; and an older woman from Seattle who was looking to do Ironman Canada in '06 and you knew she would. Then there was standing out in the woods in the 28-degree chill before the race began, waiting for the line to the Porta Potties to move, dammit, move already. And then running. Running and running and running. One down 25 to go. Two down 24 to go. Three down, 23 ... it's a long run. Of course, the mind is wandering all over the place while it happens. I must say, however, that I thought almost not at all about my soon-to-be ex-wife, who earlier this year unilaterally decided that her only way to happiness was to destroy our family. I'm tempted to say flat-out that I didn't think about her at all, because I can't remember doing so, but surely I must have. I don't know why my mind didn't go there. It always does on training runs. Maybe this was just too interesting in its own right. Sometimes it's hard not to see divorce and the overwhelming sense of loss and the bigness of the challenge ahead as "real life" -- you know, lots of "real life" going on, etc. But here, on Race Day, was a case of life overtaking life, and thank goodness for it.

About Mile 12 my knees began to hurt and I was going slower than I had anticipated. Beforehand I'd been thinking, oh, maybe an 8:15-8:30 pace. But I was closer to 9. Some serious doubt crept in: If was hurting at Mile 12 running 9-minute miles, what was going to happen at Mile 21?

Turns out I got faster. I hit the halfway mark about 1:57 and ran the second half in 1:53. The fact that we were losing about 80 feet of elevation each mile on the second half surely had something to do with it.

But I really believe the key for me was in accepting the pain and then letting it fade away. This mindset allowed me to just keep running. I wasn't tired. Aerobically and as far as my nutrition and hydration went, I was great, perfectly fine. The question was could I take the sharp joint and muscle pain. That appears to be what doing a marathon is all about, assuming you run at a comfortable pace.

So between miles 13 and 20 I tried to relax and cruise through it, enjoying the scenery as we hooked up with the Susan River and moved through the canyon it cuts in the Sierra. Not New England, certainly, but lots of brilliant yellow leaves alongside the river held between orange and brown walls. Every so often I'd approach another runner and that would give me the chance to fall into his (actually, more frequently, her) pace, think about how she was doing, imagine what she was feeling.

Things only became a little desperate around Mile 24. My big leg muscles were shooting off rockets of pain and were heavy as lead. But they had been performing the same action for so long, it's all they knew what to do, so they kept doing it: One foot in front of the other. One foot in front of the other. Thank God the course -- a hard dirt/gravel road/trail all the way -- was smooth. If I had been required to vary from the sameness of the action, I'm sure I couldn't have kept running. A couple of times I sort of stumbled, after hitting a rock or something, and my leg muscles were so zapped, I almost crumbled to the ground.

But I kept running, never stopped and somehow, I stopped trying to fight or ignore or even embrace the pain, and simply brought it aboard as my companion. I got this idea in my head, crazy as this sounds, that this was why I was hear, on the far side of the Sierra, on the edge of the Great Basin: to run with pain.

By about Mile 23 it had become apparent that I might be able to beat 3:50, so that became my goal. At Mile 24 I was around 3:31, giving me 19 minutes to travel the last 2.2 miles. I tried to pick it up a bit. I figured if I hit Mile 25 by 3:39:30 I'd be in good shape. But at 3:39:30, there was no marker. A minute later, still no marker! I didn't think I was slowing down -- but maybe I was becoming so out of touch I just couldn't judge anymore?

No. There was no Mile 25 marker! This became apparent when I still hadn't hit it by 3:53 or so. Relieved and inspired, I gave it everything I had.

I finally got to Mile 26. Only a fifth of a mile to go. We crossed over the river one last time, went down a narrow trail hugging the side of the hill, then straight down into the finish at Hobo Camp, the trailhead just outside Susanville. A crowd of a few hundred was there and they cheered and said "Good job, great finish" (I finished hard, as always, but they say that to everyone). The clock was somewhere around 3:49:45 as I crossed. They stopped me, asked me how I was doing ("great," I said, and I was -- wasn't even breathing hard), and handed me my medal.

So now I've done a marathon. Twenty-four hours later, I'm not sure if it means nothing or everything.

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Well, that didn't go very well, did it? Here it is, 10 weeks after Half Vineman and I'm only beginning to post again. And I am, really.