Friday, August 31, 2012

The Final Push of Summer

My childhood friend Jeff had a Black Labrador named Ace. Ace was what you called a big-boned pooch, probably pushing 140 pounds. He had a healthy appetite, and would come barreling into the kitchen as soon as he heard the plunking of dog food into the bowl. He was a very fast eater. He'd inhale that food, snarfing and coughing it down, only to chase it with a half minute of slurping from his water bowl. Then, with drool slopping from his jowls onto the linoleum, he'd sweep the kitchen perimeter to find tidbits of snacks that had been missed by the broom:  potato chip crumbs, cracker fragments, a macaroni noodle or random grape, etc...

When the family was away, Ace would help himself to whatever was within reach. Once, he got into the garbage and devoured the shells of four large lobsters. When the garbage was secured, they'd come home to find an empty plastic wonder bread sack in the middle of the family room. When a loaf of bread wasn't in reach, he'd go to the next best thing: baking flour. One time they came home to find Ace covered in a gluten mess of sticky flour paste. Jeff said the kitchen looked like a hand grenade had exploded inside a five pound bag of flour.

But Ace's signature was his pooping. It made sense. I mean, what went in must come out. In the case of the baking flour above, Ace was like a bread machine. First, he ballooned up really huge. The family was worried and took him to the vet to make sure that his bowels weren't obstructed. He was fine. Then over the ensuing 24 hours, he squeezed out a roll of dough about every 45 minutes.

But it really wasn't so much his poops, but how he pooped that made him stand out. Ace was basically a showoff. He'd make a big production of his, um, productions. He'd literally wait until others could see him doing his business. He seemed to enjoy it when another dog was in view. Even better, he'd wait until the neighbor was backing down the driveway and then drop a bomb in their yard. Ace like it best when the garbage truck or school bus came by, causing a minor traffic jam. His timing was impeccable.

When the stage was set, it was go time. He'd walk around in circles to tamp down the grass. He'd turn about a dozen times. It didn't matter if the grass was knee deep or freshly cut. For that matter, it didn't even matter if it was grass -- if the occasion was right, he'd poop on the cement sidewalk or street. When he was finished, he make this huge show out of covering his tracks. Many dogs kick dust over their dirt, but Ace took it to the extreme. He'd kick all four legs about five times each, throwing up an enormous cloud of dust in the process.

The turning and tamping, the squatting and then the high dust kicks. You could say that Ace treated his BMs as performance art and the world was his stage.

Anyway, I thought of Ace recently when I saw that Omaha public pools are doing a doggie dip fundraiser for the Nebraska Humane Society.

Ace went to one of those things once. He was on his best behavior with the other dogs for most of the evening. But when the lifegaurd blew the final whistle, it was showtime. Ace made a trail of wet paw prints to the patch of dry cement directly in front of the exit. As the pool guests and their dogs started heading towards the gate, Ace had already begun turning his circles. At least 50 guests and their dogs had gathered when he began to squat. As I said, his timing was impeccable.

Some say they could see Ace smiling as he made that final push of summer.

Happy Labor Day everyone.

Friday, August 24, 2012

That Damn Hat

I've got this straw hat. It's big and ugly. Some might say it's obnoxious. See for yourself:

My straw hat taking it to the Botanical gardens sunflowers

I don't know what style it is. It's some sort of garden hat hybrid crossing a sombrero with something you'd see in southeast Asia. Whatever it is, it's effective at keeping the sun out of my eyes.

I got it some 25 years ago to protect my skin from the sun while life guarding. I'm not sure where I picked it up. It could have come from the gardening section of a hardware store. Or a neighbor's garage sale. Good Will's a possibility.

Anyway, ever since I've had it, I've busted that thing out just about whenever the sun has shined. After hanging up the life guarding whistle, I've worn it while doing yard work. My dog Emmy gets excited when she sees me don it because it often means that I'll be taking her for a walk. And the hat has also accompanied me to many cycling races. Like it or hate it, it often provokes comments from others.

So that brings me to yesterday's fourth stage of the USA Pro Cycling Challenge. At nearly 41 years old, Jens Voigt was having a quite a performance, soloing away for some 95 of the 97 miles of a monstrous mountain stage that included 87 miles of altitude. After getting away, he built up a six minute lead while climbing Independence pass. He then climbed two more mountain passes and battled through a downpour before emerging in Beaver Creek without losing that lead. On the final climb, just shy of the 1000 meter mark, I could think of no better way to salute his effort than to run alongside him in my MWCC jersey and that signature hat, all the while encouraging him to keep those cranks turning, as the red kite was just over the final crest.

I tend to think that Jens like the hat. He won the stage after all.

Friday, August 17, 2012

My Friend Scott

It was 25 years ago this Summer that my Dad took a promotion that moved us from our home of 17 years in St. Louis to Denver. I had just completed my junior year at St Louis University High School (SLUH) and my parents gave me the responsibility of choosing whether I would stay with them or finish my senior year in St Louis. That decision was a lot of responsibility for a 17 year old!  I look back now and think how supportive my parents were entrusting me with that decision. Thanks Mom and Dad.

St Louis had a lot going for it. It was familiar. My sister was there, as were many friends. And I loved attending SLUH. But moving to Denver had its merits too. My parents and two brothers were there. There was excitement and adventure in exploring the unfamiliar. And there were those majestic purple mountains...

It was on a visit to Regis Jesuit High School earlier that Spring that I had met Scott Alter. I had told the school's Dean of Students, Michael "Mr D" Doherty, that I had wanted to know more about the swimming program there. As it turned out, Mr D was also the coach of the swimming team, and it was a strong program (Missy Franklin goes there today). Anyway, Mr D's eyes lit up as he said that he knew the perfect student to show me around. His voice then crackled over the school's PA system as he called Scott down to the principal's office to be my chaperone.

It was immediately apparent that Scott had well-rounded social skills. He was that kid who was respected by classmates and teachers alike. From the get-go, he was accommodating to me; he didn't ask much -- no needling questions -- but just enough to know a little of my background.  After that, it was as if he simply accepted me as part of his circle of friends. And his circle was wide as it was deep. He had this charisma that just drew people to him. Everybody like the guy.  At the end of my visit, I remember feeling that if I did decide to go to Regis, I already knew that I had one friend there. Thanks, Scott.

Later that summer, I took a job life-guarding and coaching the 8 and unders swimming. My employer was also the same Dean of Students, Mr. D, who ran a summer business managing private neighborhood swimming pools that he staffed with students he culled from his swimming team. It was a good gig. He paid well and there were lots of lifeguard parties to go to. It was at one such party that I caught up with Scott again.

Scott helped me meet a lot of new friends that summer. So much so that when it came time to making the decision to stay in Denver or go back to St. Louis, it was already made. Although I could never replace the SLUH experience and life long friends there, I knew in my heart that I was only looking for a reason to stay in Denver with my parents before going away to college. I was also excited about the challenge of trying something new.  It probably would have all worked out anyway, but I was certainly more confident with friends, thanks in large part to Scott.
Scott's parents were also awesome. They had a cabin on Buffalo Mountain near Frisco, CO where they enjoyed entertaining during weekend getaways. Thanks in large part to them and their hospitality, I learned how to snow ski that winter over many weekends up at Copper Mountain. Thanks, Alter family.

My high school senior year was truly amazing. In less than a year, I went from a familiar and comfortable life in St Louis, to living like a rock star in Colorado. Again, thanks Scott.

Our Regis swimming team did well that year. Scott and I both had strong programs. Strong enough to earn athletic scholarships on Creighton's swimming team. That scholarship is what made Creighton affordable and was what brought me to Omaha. We were roommates three of four years in college.  Oh God, those were some fun times.  I could tell some stories...

After undergrad, Scott went on to Dental School, while I moved to Phoenix for a job. Our lives started diverging on different paths.  But it was okay. We had a friendship that was built on a solid foundation. Though we spoke less and less over the years, our friendship never shifted. When we talked or caught up on email, it was if time had never separated us.


Scott passed away suddenly this past spring at the age of 42. What started out as flu-like symptoms was later revealed to be a massive blood clot that had formed in his leg that eventually got lodged in his heart. He died in his home while the paramedics tried to revive him.

Katherine and I were driving back from a vacation in Santa Fe when I heard the news. In fact, we were on our way to spend the night with my parents in Denver when my Mom called me. I will never forget hearing my Mom's voice break up when she began to utter his name -- Scott Alter. I already knew in my heart the words that were coming next.

Scott left behind a beautiful bride, Jennifer, and two equally beautiful children: Samantha and Jack.

We buried Scott in Aspen on Passover, which was also the day before Easter. I cannot describe the mixture of grief and joy that was experienced that weekend. Heart wrenching. Even now, I am transported to that space and time as I think of that we recounted tales that made Scott such a special gift to those who were fortunate enough to encounter him.

Because his funeral was on Passover/Easter weekend, and in Aspen, it was decided that a second memorial service would be held at a later date in Denver for those who were unable to attend. The memorial service is this weekend, and I'll be in attendance. Lately my mind has been filling up with those bittersweet emotions, thinking again about my good buddy Scott.

It's rare when you meet someone like Scott. Someone that has the ability to dispense with all the formalities and just become your friend in an instant. And not just your friend, but a best friend. He was that way to me and to so many many others.

Thank you for your friendship Scott. You were, and always will be living on in our hearts.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Got Any Grapes?

My younger brother Brendan likes to tell this one.

A mallard duck waddles into a crowded bar. Now this is no ordinary duck. By appearance it looked normal. But it's what happened next that made him stand out. The mallard walked up to the burly bartender, opened his beak and said, "You got any grapes?"

A woman in a black cocktail dress knocked over her drink. The crowd at the bar went silent.

Frank the bartender was astonished by what he had just heard. He stammered, "Ww-w-what did you say duck?"

"You got any grapes?" the mallard shot back.

The bar erupted in laughter.

The duck stood patiently until the din settled. He repeated, "You got any grapes?

Another uproar.  The bartender waved his meaty arms to have everyone settle down.

"No duck, I don't have any grapes. How 'bout a PBR?"

More laughter. In the chaos, nobody seemed to notice that the mallard had waddled out the door.

The next day, and for several days following, the duck returned to ask the bartender if he had any grapes.

Word spread about the mallard. People came by the droves to see it for themselves. Times were good. Frank was selling lots of PBR.

But after a few weeks, the crowds became complacent.  They only came to Frank's place to eat his free peanuts while the duck did his grapes routine. Beer sales were flat, and Frank grew resentful of the mess that was left behind.

Frank's resentment built up. One day, when the mallard came in and asked for his grapes, Frank snapped, "Do you see any grapes here, duck? No? Well that's because we don't serve grapes here. Got it, beak face? Just peanuts, beer and the hard stuff. So next time you come in, ask for one of those or you'll regret it!"

The duck flinched slightly as Frank yelled at him.  Aside from Frank's yelling, the bar was eerily quiet. The party was over. After Frank finished his tirade, the duck turned and waddled back out the door.  Frank thought he had seen the last of him.

But the next day the duck was back. He waddled up to the bar and proudly asked, "You got any grapes?"


The duck turned and waddled out the door.

Again the next day, the duck waddled right up to the bar and opened his beak...

But before he could say anything, Frank interrupted, "Dammit duck, you'd better watch it. You'd better not ask for any grap--

"You got any nails?" the mallard asked.

"No I don't have any nails," Frank retorted.

"You got any grapes?"


That duck is my hero.

Some of you know that one of my favorite novels is Joseph Heller's Catch-22. It's a confusing story, but a theme that pervades is the idea that we tend to get caught in cyclical ruts. In these ruts, we can become complacent and even somewhat comforted to the patterns we subject ourselves and are subjected to.  In Catch-22, the protagonist Yossarian discovers how he has become stuck in one such maddening loop, and then decides to make a leap of faith to free himself of it once and for all.

For a while now, I've become complacent with my career. I don't exactly know when it happened, but over this period, I plateaued and my skills began to stagnate. That, plus the additional stresses in the work environment, and a demanding schedule finally led me to look at making a leap from the trap I allowed myself to fall into.

It took a few months of dusting off the resume and going through interviews, but I am excited to say that after nearly six years in my current role, I've accepted a new position within the company that will shake off the complacency and challenge me. I'm thrilled and can't wait to start.

Granted some of this euphoria is a common reaction to closing one chapter and beginning something new.  But still, I can't help but have a sense of hope that something else has begun.

It's good stuff. Indeed, it's wholesome, steel-cut goodness stuff.

You got any grapes?

Friday, August 3, 2012

Nice Rack

My workplace is friendly to cyclists. They actually encourage commuting by bike in a number ways. A few examples include participating in the federal cycling commuter tax benefit, providing clean locker rooms with showers and free towel service, and by providing ample parking at nice racks installed just outside the main entrance.

Speaking of nice racks...

Anyway, over the years, the committed commuter/cyclists have gone through a number of growing phases. Initially, it was simply exciting to ride your bike to work. Commuting by bike was counter-culturally cool. It was like going under the radar. And in those early days, not too many folks were riding. There was lots of space on the single rack outside.

Later, when the commuter tax benefit kicked in, more folks started riding. Or so it seemed. During the summer months, the number of riders swelled. Space on the rack became sparse. That's when a push was made to install rack #2.  Within a summer, that rack was also over-flowing. A third rack was then installed. Meanwhile, the skeptic in me had long-concluded that most of the bikes belonged to colleagues who parked just outside of the city's metered parking, and then coasted a few blocks on their bikes to avoid paying for parking.

That leads us to the next stage of commuting evolution: contempt. Indeed, I have a healthy contempt for those who take a spot on the bike rack without earning it. Some may say that at least they're getting daily exercise. Bullshit. You don't get squat from coasting twice daily for three minutes.

I suppose it wouldn't be so bad if these fake commuters took a middle spot on the rack. You know, one that's not too presumptuous and stuff. But no, they are flaunting it with their rusty old heaps. They're taking all the good spots, like the end caps that have easy the access. And if they happened to get a crappy bike spot in the morning -- why, they'll snake your good spot while you're out riding over lunch.

I know, boo hoo hoo, it's just bike parking, right? Pfffff. C'mon man, we all learned the same lessons in kindergarten. One of those -- the place back -- is time honored tradition that states that when you leave your spot temporarily, you should expect to resume occupying it when you return, no questions asked. Nope. At my work place, you will be schwinned* when you leave the rack.

*schwinned: transitive verb 1) the act of discovering that while you were out riding your bike more than one mile over the lunch hour, a colleague has moved their POS Schwinn into your coveted end-spot on the bikerack. 2) the negation of the place-back.

The final stage of the commuting evolution is snobbery. I admit it, I've become a snob. I expect things to be in a certain order. And when they're not, I've taken it upon myself to make the necessary adjustments.  Again, take the issue of being schwinned.  To avoid being schwinned, some of us have taken to using a proxy -- or a pit bike -- to stand in our bike's stead while we're away.

typical pit-bike proxy
Snobbery? Yes. Do I care? No. Many times, finding a pit-bike proxy is just a matter of locating and then moving another POS Schwinn that a fake commuter had failed to secure properly. Or, you can do what my good buddy Shim did once: he brought in his own pit-bike in from home to serve as his proxy. It lasted about two weeks before it was stolen. Nice!

And while we're on the subject of snobbery, here's something one shouldn't expect to see at the bike rack: dirty laundry.

Exhibit A: this fella used his handlebars as a clothes rack:

Exhibit B: not to be outdone, here's someone's sweaty chamois.

I mean, in a word: ick.

Whew! It's time for a recap: 1) The work place bike rack should be reserved for those who actually ride their bikes more than a few blocks 2) Place-backs are to be honored. 3) The bike rack is not a place to air your laundry. It's for bikes. And by bikes, I mean bicycles. No motorized vehicles.

So that means one shouldn't expect to see a pink scooter parked at the rack.

There were a couple notes left on the scooter when I arrived. One note said, "this rack is for bicycles -- don't park your scooter here again."

The other one said:

I suppose having a pink scooter motor pace the lunch ride to the taco truck on Vinton Street is a fair trade for a spot at the bike rack.

It sure beats a dirty chamois draped over a POS.