Shuffle is Dead; Long Live Shuffle!

On any given day, all that stands between me and running to music is my technology. With my tunes clipped to my collar and my earbuds in place, I am officially ready to run. More recently, however, while my body has had its usual ups and downs, my technology was heading steadily downhill. My precious iPod Shuffle, companion through thousands of kilometres and litres of sweat, was slowly dying. As the death watch progressed, I took special care: wiping the Shuffle carefully post-run; leaving it on a counter to dry; charging it more often. But the inevitable came to pass. The charge was erratic, the sound crackled and cut out intermittently, the volume dipped and soared. After years of happy use, I retired my Shuffle. May it rest in peace in the local landfill.

Every death brings with it a rebirth and my new Shuffle propelled my running into the future. Overshadowed by the launch of iPhone 5, the new model Shuffle was introduced on the same day. It’s a marvel, of course. Smaller than its predecessor and with a bigger memory, this Shuffle even speaks aloud to tell me the name of the song and the remaining battery charge.

I loaded my playlist and hit the road. My new Shuffle and I will need to get accustomed to each other. The signal is strong and clear but the device is so small that it’s a challenge to operate. In trying to advance to the next song, I inadvertently shut it off or prompt the virtual doofus to tell me the song title (And imperfectly. Mr. Shuffle tells me I’m listening to “a-KONEY-bell” instead of “ACK-unny-bell”). I’m sure we’ll learn to love each other as we travel together, running to music.

Post script: For some reason, I let this post languish on my desktop for a couple of weeks. During that time, my shiny new Shuffle died after less than a month of operation. Apple made good, of course, but not before I spent a week or more – horrors! – running without music.

Great Running Track: I tried to ignore Mr. Shuffle as he tells me I’m listening to Bruce “COCK-burn” (should be “CO-burn,” as any Canadian can tell you). Once Shuffle fades away, Bruce has the stage to himself:

Somewhere out there is a land that’s cool
Where peace and balance are the rule
Working for the future like some kind of mystic jewel
And waiting for a miracle.

When A Touch of Grey Turns To Grey

Like most baby boomers, I don’t consider myself old. I look around at others I have known for a long time and think: Gee, they look really old! I admit I’m on the wrong side of middle age but I just don’t feel old on any given day. Lately, I am reminded by my age primarily by the things I can remember: using a typewriter, having to stand up to change a TV channel, world events. The world has changed so much in the last 50 years and I can remember so much of it.

There are upsides of course. I understand my nature better now than I did decades ago. I spend less of my time doing things I don’t want to do. No matter what’s happening in the world around me, I can usually maintain my inner equilibrium.

I have also developed some rules for living – none of which are original. In fact, I’ve read many versions of these maxims. No matter how old you are, here are some tips for staying on the right side of it:

1. Take an objective look at your habits from time to time. It’s easy to go downhill and much harder to climb back up.

2. Keep on learning. I acknowledge that my body is getting older but my mind seems like a more interesting place than it was years ago. I firmly believe that if you don’t challenge your brain, it will fall into disrepair – and it’s easy to go downhill (See tip #1).

3. Keep on moving. This is a blog about running, right? Running’s not for everyone but you have to find a way to use your body or it won’t remember how to move or bend. And it’s easy to go downhill. (See tip #1)

4. Don’t talk like an old-timer. I know so many contemporaries who talk as if their life is just about over. They invoke the past and talk about the present like they’re on borrowed time. And these are people in their 50s and 60s! You don’t have to be in denial about your age – just live in the present.

4. Spend as little time as possible looking in the mirror. If I didn’t shave, I would never look in the mirror. But if I didn’t shave, my face would eventually look like Santa Claus (translation: snowy white beard).

Great Running Track: Jerry Garcia doesn’t have to worry about getting old anymore. He violated Rules #1 and #3 above. The only #1 hit his band The Grateful Dead scored was in 1987, just 8 years before his death at age 53. A Touch of Grey celebrates middle age and offers a hint of what comes:

Every silver lining’s got a touch of grey.
I will get by, I will get by, I will get by, I will survive.

Despite the lyrics, it’s a light-hearted, acoustic tune that’s been on my playlist since my touch of grey turned to grey.

A Sure Sign of Season Change

I love running in the morning. It’s cool and it’s quiet and I love having my run in the books before the rest of the day unfolds. As we draw closer to autumn, running in the morning becomes a mixed blessing. First, the upside. I was on the street by 6am this morning and the temperature was a crisp 8’C. Such a relief from the 18-22’ temperatures that have dragged down my summertime runs, runs that left me sweating for half an hour after I returned home. With today’s fresh temperatures I could smell plant life (and skunks!) and I could see the mist rising off a pond on the far end of my route. I ran faster to get warm. For a minute, I considered heading back home to get my running gloves but I rolled on instead. After all, it is still summer. Shouldn’t be in any rush to reach for the cold weather gear.

But the nip in the air woke me up, quickened my stride and stretched my stamina. In response, my mind told my body to quicken the pace and my body responded. I got around my course faster than I have in a few months. That’s why I love running in the spring and fall!

There is a downside, of course. I awoke at 5:40 and puttered around until 6, until there was a glimmer of light in the sky. Yes, it’s still August and yes, the days are getting shorter. Soon there will be no option but to hit the street in the dark, running to music.

Great Running Track: David Byrne, former frontman for Talking Heads, is one of my all-time favorite musicians. And now he’s teamed up with one of my new faves, Annie Clark, who performs as St. Vincent. The two have collaborated on a soon-to-be-released album entitled Love This Giant. There’s a free track called Who available at lovethisgiant.com. If you don’t know these artists, you’re might be in for a surprise. The sound is unique with heavy brass influence and it’s on my playlist. One more thing: don’t be alarmed by the pair’s promotional pictures. For reasons known only to them, their faces have been digitally distorted but in reality they look like normal musicians!

Remember The Olympics?

Like a lot of people, I spent a great deal of time watching the Olympics last month. I was happy for the Brits – happy because they did such a good job of being hosts in their own formal, gentle way, happy that so many of their athletes found success. I wasn’t as happy about the opening and closing ceremonies. It seemed like a mishmash, what happens when you have a huge budget and years to plan. I understand that the organizers were portraying British history and culture. But dragging out former music stars like The Spice Girls, Ray Davies and Cliff Richards just seemed sad. I put Paul McCartney in the same category. As you might expect, Paul was the headliner in the opening ceremonies and while he’s still capable – and not a grey hair on his head! – I found his Hey Jude singalong to be just …. sad. The lyrics have nothing whatsoever to do with athletic achievement or even national pride. (It was originally written for John Lennon’s son Julian on the occasion of his parent’s divorce) Surely the organizers could have made a case for presenting new music at the ceremonies. While there was a slight nod to newer bands, the lineup was heavily weighted to musical acts from 30 and 40 years ago. The ceremonies wound up feeling a bit dowdy and maybe that’s kind of British too.

Thinking of the Olympics, it’s amazing how quickly the magic evaporates in the wake of the Games. (Imagine the hangover and the letdown in London!) Soon enough, we realize that these made-for-TV heroes are just people, and not always great people. That thought crossed my mind when I saw images of American swimmer Ryan Lochtie celebrating his birthday in Las Vegas immediately after the games. Spraying a bevy of beauties with champagne, sporting his dental ‘grill’ and wearing his gold medals at a craps table. I don’t know if he’s a great guy or not. I do know that the purity represented by his Olympic achievement is long, long gone. In the end, true heroes are the everyday people you meet who show courage and character.

Great Running Track: I hate to wave the Baby Boomer flag but I still miss John Lennon. When I watched McCartney at the opening ceremonies, I wondered if John Lennon would have done the same. Of course, I don’t know but I like to think he would have disdained the big show. To me, John was the radical Beatle and Paul was the entertainer but that was a long time ago. I listened to a great Lennon track as I ran this morning. Starting Over was the first single from his 1980 album Double Fantasy. While the album’s appeal was diluted by the Yoko Ono tracks, Lennon himself was in fine form. It’s still a shame he was cut down only a month or so after the album’s release. Thirty years later, Starting Over is still a great tune, fresh, intimately personal and heavily textured – vintage Lennon.

Introverts of The World Retreat!

I recently began reading a fascinating book titled Quiet: The Power of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. I’m only about one-third of the way through but that’s because I’m digesting it slowly. In terms of insight into the dynamics of extroverts and introverts, it’s as dense as cheesecake. I knew this book was meant for me once I read the questionaire in the introduction – 20 questions to determine whether you’re really an introvert. Here’s a sampling of those questions:
I often prefer to express myself in writing.
I dislike small talk but I enjoy talking in depth about topics that matter to me.
I dislike conflict.
I feel drained after being out and about, even if I’ve enjoyed myself.
If I had to choose, I’d prefer a weekend with absolutely nothing to do to one with too many things scheduled.
There’s no doubt I qualify as an introvert and that hasn’t always been a bargain for the people around me. I try my best to accommodate but ultimately, we have to be true to our natures. And I’m comfortable with my nature.
There’s lots more to consider from Susan Cain’s Quiet but I’ll you explore it on your own. Suffice to say that the extroverts of the world need not worry about the introverts. For the most part, we’re comfortable in our own skins and we have much to contribute – much of it unheralded – to this world.
How does my introversion express itself in running? The most obvious indicator is that I rarely run in a group (aside from competitive runs in which all those around me are the competition.) I do plan to join a running group this fall once the weather calms down – just to see what it’s like. In the meantime, it’s just me and my music.

Great Running Track: I speculate that a lot of songwriters are introverts, too. You need to listen, retreat and let your muse envelope you so that the song can spring forth – at least that’s what I imagine. One of my favorite, (and I assume) introverted songwriters is Daniel Lanois. He was shunned as a teenager, growing up francophone in tough old Hamilton, Ontario. He retreated into music and 40 years later, he is renowned as the driving force (as a producer and musician) behind some of the best music of our time. One of my favorite Lanois songs is The Maker, which has been covered by Dave Matthews Band, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Jerry Garcia Band and Overland. It also appears on Lanois’s landmark album Acadie. Lanois’ hushed, reverent take is the one with a permanent place on my running playlist.

Still On About The Heat

I never thought I would tire of heat and sunlight but that was before the summer of 2012. It seems that each day is hotter and more humid than the next. This unusual weather is shortening my daily running window and dampening my enthusiasm. For me, running the afternoon and early evening is still just too hot. I’m not at my best later in the day when running seems like a chore. That’s why I went out for a run at 5:40am last week. It had rained the night before but only just… You couldn’t submerge a dime in the puddles that remained. I could almost feel the parched ground reaching out for more moisture. Even the asphalt and concrete seemed to be crying out for water even though as the last dark ptatches evaporated. Still …. That little bit of rain finally, finally put a spritz of moisture in the air at that early time of day. I could feel (or I imagined I could feel) just a trace of dew on my arms, legs and face. That’s all I needed. After weeks of cautious pacing, hydration and unending sweat, the cool, slightly humid conditions finally put a spring in my step. I upped the pace around my course and ran home, turning that small lift into a big push. I am eager for autumn! Remind me I said that when the sunlight recedes and the air turns from cool to cold.

Great Running Track: Is Katy Perry more about style than substance? Glam more than heart? Product more than musician? Who cares! Some of her songs really get the party going and there’s one on my playlist: Wide Awake. A real belter to get my blood flowing on an early morning run.

Wasted In The Heat

Last Friday, I golfed for the first time in a decade and it didn’t go well. My game was no worse than it was ten years ago aside from the additional rustiness around the green. I learned (once again) that there is no substitute for practice and I remembered (once again) why I don’t golf anymore. Although we rode in carts, the heat was still unbearable, the air thick as soup. We heard thunder and saw black sky all around us but no rain. Instead, the air grew even closer.

On Saturday, I resolved to stay inside. My runner’s body ached from all the twisting, bending and flailing that bad golf requires. I changed positions often so I didn’t seize up entirely.

I felt better by Sunday. My muscles relaxed and by mid-afternoon I was itching to run. Hadn’t been out in four days and runners will know that feeling. Unfortunately, by 3pm it was 34’C with humidity so high that the sky actually dripped from time to time. But still no rain. I thought to myself: How bad could it be if I went for a run now?

I soon answered that question. After about 3 km, my brain told my body to stop running. I was soaked and dizzy and I thought I could go no further. Of course, I did. I walked, I jogged, I ran as far as I could before the thick air stopped me again. The humidity felt like a force of nature, a strong wind or a wave against which my strength counted for nothing. Still – and eventually – I got around for 8km and retreated, bowed but not broken, to my air-conditioned room.

Great Running Track: Late in the 1980s, my wife and I did a walking tour of England’s Lake District. We enjoyed it thoroughly and I still think of it often. It was physically challenging but not dangerous and the landscape was beautiful in that English misty meadow kind of way. We stayed at B&Bs and one night we lay on the bed watching TV after a long day of walking. We saw an Irish soul band called Hothouse Flowers perform. They were fantastic, their music infused with a sense of urgency that kept me awake long after the show was over. The band peaked too soon but the Flowers’ song Hallelujah Jordan is still on my playlist and at the draggiest, dreariest, worst part of my hot weather run, the Flowers spurred me on, at least for 3:07.

Happy Daughter’s Day

Last month was Father’s Day and for me, that’s no big deal – a Hallmark holiday. You kinda fall into parenthood and from then on, you do the best you can and if you’re lucky, you wind up with a passing grade. Instead of fathers, I think we should be celebrating Daughter’s Day. Certainly, we feel the need to celebrate in our home. Our daughter graduated from university – with distinction – last month and we couldn’t be prouder of the young woman she’s become: honest, ethical, independent-minded, caring and intrepid. Just as Father’s Day celebrates all that fathers do, Daughter’s Day should shine a light on being a daughter. It’s not always easy – bridging the gap between two very different parents, accepting the benefits and burdens of being an only child and living through all the trials, tears and joy that come with growing up.  She’s done all that and done it so well. Now she’s ready for  the great beyond and we can only wish her well. And let her know that our home always includes her, no matter how far or how long she wanders. (Remind me I said that when she’s 40 and still living in the basement.) Long may she run!

Great Running Track: I can thank my daughter for this one. John Mayer has a new album, Born and Raised, in which he appears to be channelling some 1970s folk rock legend complete with buckskin coat and broad-brimmed hat. Of course, Mayer wasn’t alive in the 1970s but the album does evoke the spirit of California at that time and for that I have to give him props. My favorite cut is the title track, in which Mayer is supported on harmony vocals by David Crosby and Graham Nash, two musicians who were there in the ‘70s and still sing sweetly, even though they’re closing in on 70. Good on Mayer for giving them another shot in the spotlight. 

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Single Fantasy

Everyone has a fantasy, don’t they? (I’m not talking about that kind of fantasy). I mean some recurring vision of a pure moment of excellence, joy or achievement. Many people fantasize about sports – about the buzzer-beater, about leaning forward to win at the wire, about a play that unfolds just as it should to win the big one. That fantasy is part of the reason billions of people around the world (mostly guys) lose themselves in spectator sports. On some level, they fantasize that they are the heroes whose clips fill the sports highlight reels.

Not all fantasies are about sport, of course. Business types might imagine nailing the perfect sales pitch to close a deal. Others people fantasize about meeting that perfect someone, imagining love at first sight and a lifetime of bliss. Gamblers fantasize about winning the jackpot.

Relative to these fantasies, my mind is a boring place. The closest I come to a fantasy is music. When I listen to music, part of me projects myself into the song – not singing the lead but filling in harmony, strumming a guitar – just being part of the band. I don’t fantasize about an adoring audience or critical acclaim. I fantasize about what it must be like to perform as an ensemble. I imagine that the band feels some sort of spiritual harmony although I’ve read enough music biographies to know that behind the music, there’s as much petty jealousy and animosity – maybe more – as any other collaboration.

Of course, I don’t think about that. I fantasize about being a sideman the band while I am, invariably, running to music.

Great Running Track: I’m not proud of it but I’ve started and stopped taking lessons on half a dozen instruments. Like a lot of non-musicians, I was too much in a hurry to get to the fun part (see fantasy, above) and I ultimately lacked the discipline. But for tunehounds like me who have projected themselves into the music they love, the movie The Commitments (1991) provides some great fodder. The story follows a group of Irish musicians who start out as a scruffy bar band and end up as, well, a scruffy bar band but not before they have produced some memorable soul music as well as the usual affairs, bad habits and fits of pique. My favorite track from the movie is Try A Little Tenderness, originally a ‘60s hit for Sam Cooke. Tenderness isn’t especially well-suited to running, but it’s on my playlist and I still fantasize about singing backup, part of the wall of glorious sound.

A Humbling Lesson

On our last day in Austin we packed and shipped out early for the three-hour drive to Houston. Before we left Austin, we stopped at a fast food joint for coffee and a snack. We waited in line behind a group of Latino women who worked at the car wash across the street. We had driven by the car wash every day of our Austin vacation and the line of (seemingly) clean cars waiting for a wash never seemed to end. At $16 for a hand wash, how much money do you those Latino women who actually did the washing earned? It didn’t seem to matter to them, at least on this Sunday morning. We sat in our car for a while to eat our breakfast and happened to face the car wash, which had not yet opened. Rather than sulking around waiting for another day of washing cars to begin, the Latino women were dancing to an imaginary band in the service bay, spinning, dipping and turning in an enthusiastic do-see-do. We watched, smiled and laughed. As we drove away, we thought about the lesson these women had unwittingly taught us. No matter how humble the task in front of you, you have a choice to be happy or unhappy. We need to keep the image of those dancing women in our minds on the days when we take a dim view of our ‘creative class’ careers. Count your blessings! Try to enjoy every moment!

Great Running Track: I’ve long been a Lyle Lovett fan – saw him first in Amsterdam in the ‘90s and three times since on this side of the pond – and although he’s not from Austin, he’s all Texas. On our drive from Austin to Houston (where Lovett is originally from) we were scanning the radio looking for something to help pass the miles. One of my all-time favorite Lyle Lovett tunes came on the radio. We turned up the volume for That’s Right (You’re Not From Texas), Lyle’s paean to his home state and his friendly bow to all those who aren’t lucky enough to be from the Lone Star State.

So pardon me my laughter
‘Cause I sure do understand
Even Moses got excited
When he saw the promised land

That’s right, you’re not from Texas
Texas wants you anyway!

With a big band and a bouncy beat, this song was made for running!