Books: Calico Joe

February 23, 2015

This is not really the kind of book I was looking for to listen to on my iPod. I used to listen to books on tape while riding my exercise bike, but changing technology has put an end to that. I hadn’t thought I had any interest in strapping an MP3 player to my arm as so many people do at the Y, because I had no interest in listening to music while exercising. (The classical music I enjoy just doesn’t have the driving beat that goes with pushing yourself physically.)

Then recently it occurred to me that these days you can listen to books on an MP3 player. Our library participates in a service that makes more titles available to me than just what is owned by our own library. Surely there must be enough out there to motivate me to get on the bike so I can listen to another installment of a gripping story.

It turns out there is less out there than I had hoped, at least of the sort of story I enjoy. I don’t mind a certain amount of violence in mysteries and thrillers (pretty hard to have a murder mystery without some violence) but not as much as a lot of books have these days. I have no interest in most romances or any vampire stories.

But I like John Grisham’s writing. Most of it, anyway – I did not enjoy A Painted House. The description of Calico Joe indicated it was about baseball, which I’ve had little interest in for the last forty years, but as a young child I loved it. I borrowed books from the library about children playing baseball, I slowed my steps passing the baseball diamond on the way home from the pool if there was a game going on, and I practiced hitting a softball in the back yard (hard to do, though, without anyone to pitch it to me). Besides, there was some mystery involved in the story of Calico Joe.

I did enjoy the book. It is well-written, giving out information bit by bit about what really happened when narrator Paul Tracey was 11 years old in 1973 (when, as it happens, I was also 11 years old). It’s about family, and about behavior that can destroy family relationships. It’s about the need to tell the truth, and about the pride and fear and stubbornness that can make it so hard to let the truth be told.

And of course it’s also about baseball. Enough memories of my onetime love of the sport remain that I enjoyed even the descriptions of games. I knew nothing of most of the players mentioned, but Grisham is a good enough writer that my ignorance didn’t get in the way of appreciating the story.

But it’s not such a gripping novel that I felt compelled to ride my bike just to hear what happened next. I did feel compelled to ride it enough to finish the book before having to “return” it to the library, but I really want to be exercising every day that time permits. The library director tells me that soon many more titles will be available, so I look forward to an expanded selection.

5K in 33:26

August 4, 2013

For months I have been preparing for yesterday’s 5K race, hoping to beat my time from last year. Until last week, though, I remembered wrong how long it took me last year, and thought I just needed to finish in about 36 minutes or so.

Then I went back and checked last year’s time: 36 minutes, 29 seconds. How had I managed that? (I remember being equally surprised last year when I was told my time upon finishing.) My best time in my recent runs averaged about eleven and a half minutes per mile.

That would put me under 36 minutes, but not my much. What if I couldn’t push myself nearly to exhaustion as I did last year? (Last year I ran with someone who kept pushing me to keep going, and it was easier to put my energy into complying than arguing I couldn’t do it.)

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5K in 36:29

August 11, 2012

About twenty-five years ago I ran a 10K race. I wasn’t a fast runner then, and I’m a good deal slower now at age 50. But I achieved one things in this mornings 5K race that I didn’t manage then – I did better than the goal time I had set for myself.

I had been training for a good deal longer back then, and I had hoped to average an 8 minute mile. I don’t remember what my 10K time was, but I know it was well over 49.7 minutes.

I just started training for today’s race a couple of months ago, after not having run at all since my mid-20’s. At first it felt discouraging to be so much slower than I used to be, and I imagined what a pathetic old slowpoke I must look like to anyone watching me jog past, breathing hard even at such a slow pace.

But once I could jog over a mile without having to take a break to walk and catch my breath, I started to find some of the satisfaction I remembered from the activity. I’ve never been good at any sports, lacking speed, strength, coordination and – most important – interest.

I did try really hard to get better at basketball my senior year of high school, after having a friend at camp during the summer who encouraged me to play. But getting my arms and legs to work together for a lay-up shot was more than I could manage, no matter how many times I tried.

The nice thing about running is that it doesn’t require much in the way of coordination. As long as I can keep putting one foot in front of the other, I’m making progress. Of course, I don’t always succeed even at that. Two weeks ago, I tripped on a crack in the pavement and fell face-first. But at least I’m persistent. I got up and finished my run, oblivious to the blood dripping down my elbow.

And as I find myself tiring and my breathing comes harder, I know that I can still keep pushing myself forward. I never questioned whether I could finish today’s race, only how long it would take me. The last three runs (or should I call them jogs?), I finished 3K in 24 minutes. I hadn’t gone as far as 5K, and figured my speed could only go downhill after the first 3K. So the best time I expected for today was 40 minutes.

That’s probably about what I would have done if I had been running on my own. But this morning I ran alongside a co-worker, Steve, and his wife for most of the course. Near the end his wife must have gotten a burst of energy because she took off ahead of us. I’m sure Steve could have matched her stride (if not for a recent injury, he estimated he would have been doing a 7-minute mile).

But he stayed with me, constantly encouraging me. Near the end of the race, another co-worker, Jeremy, who had finished already, came back and jogged with us to encourage me also. At the time, I thought I would have preferred to run in silence (except for the sound of my labored breathing). But I probably did push myself more with them on either side of me than I would have on my own.

I did get a nice burst of (relative) speed the last fifty feet or so, and crossed the finish line looking (I hope) less exhausted than I felt. Steve had been telling me I’d finish in well under 40 minutes, but even so I was surprised when he told me my time.

Now I have to decide what goal to set for next year’s race.

Breakfast of champions?

January 21, 2012

I almost never read the back page of the Friday Journal section of the Wall Street Journal. (I bring it home after work to do the crossword on the next to last page.) Sports news just doesn’t interest me – unless it’s about something other than sports.

The weird photoshopped image of a football player (Ray Rice) looking like an overgrown head of lettuce didn’t exactly draw me in either. But then I happened to notice the subhead, which mentions chia seeds.

I first heard of chia seeds from a co-worker a few months ago, when we were doing Dr. Ann’s Eat Right for Life program. I was surprised to learn that the tiny seeds used to grow chia pets were actually useful for something other than gag gifts.

Chia seeds weren’t mentioned in Dr. Ann’s book, but they seemed the sort of food she would recommend. They’re high in protein, soluble fiber, and omega-3 fatty acids, as well as antioxidants and minerals. Plus they absorb lots of water so they should help in reducing hunger cravings.

I bought a bag one day, along with a new jar of tahini to make hummus, from the health food section of the local supermarket. Then the bag just sat in my cupboard for several weeks. Even though I’ve been trying to eat more healthful foods, I’m just not into eating a lot of “weird” foods.

Then one morning recently I decided it was time to try adding some to my oatmeal. I had no idea what it would do to the consistency if I added it before cooking, so I added it after cooking, along with my blackstrap molasses. It had very little effect on consistency or taste, though I noticed a slight difference in texture and taste.

I added a tablespoonful of the seeds to my oatmeal again this morning. I don’t know if the chia seeds were responsible for my not feeling need of any midmorning snack, but they might have been. (Last Saturday, when I first tried them, I didn’t get hungry for lunch until later than usual, so they may be working in that regard.)

A bag of chia seeds seems quite expensive – I paid over nine dollars for 12 ounce bag. But then, when you consider that the bag holds about 28 servings (one tablespoon each), it’s quite inexpensive compared to what I pay for most forms of protein.

I don’t care much whether chia seeds help Ray Rice win football games. But if they help me get in better shape, I don’t mind having that in common with an NFL football player.

Games: Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Winter Games

December 29, 2010

As I mentioned in my post a couple days ago, my first experience playing the Wii was the Mario & Sonic Olympic Games – the Summer Games, that is. When I was at the library today to pick up some books, I noticed the rack of video games available, and promptly added Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Winter Games to my pile of materials to check out.

I was curious how in the world a Wii controller could be used to simulate skiing or skating. Some Wii games certainly approximate the physical moves of the real world better than others do. I didn’t like the way archery worked (in the Summer Games) at all. Unlike real archery, where the action of each hand is naturally linked by the physical bow that both are holding (one by the handle, the other by the string), in the Wii game you held the Wii controller in one hand and the nunchuk in the other. Real archery requires a steady hand to keep arrow pointed the right way, but the rest of it is physical strength, not trying to coordinate unrelated motions between your two hands.

The javelin throw (also in the Summer Games) made a lot more sense. A pumping motion with your hands (one holding the controller and the other the nunchuk) may not be the best simulation of running, but it makes sense – and does tire one out if you keep it up long enough. Then you have to time things right to stop and throw, and while strength doesn’t play a role at least it does feel like a throwing motion.

Swimming felt a lot like running, other than having to periodically press the B button to simulate taking a breath. I suppose any sport that requires alternating left and right feet – or hands – can be simulated by that pumping motion of the controller and nunchuk. But how would you do that for downhill skiing, where your feet stay largely in place as you glide downhill? Or bobsled racing, where your feet don’t move at all once you board the sled?

The winter sports turn out to be mostly about how to make turns. So the forward motion is pretty much taken for granted (after all, once you get on a steep slope, it doesn’t take much to get going downhill, it’s a matter of which way you go). The skill is in taking the turns well so obtain maximum speed – and certainly not going off the path and hitting barriers, which definitely slows you down.

So these games are not at all physically demanding. You stand in place with the Wii controller in front of your chest, and just turn it to one side  or the other to steer your character down the hill. I’m not saying it’s easy – I’ve yet to successfully finish “training” on the bobsled (though I succeeded with downhill skiing). Just that it doesn’t get my heart rate up at all.

From reviews I’ve read at, the games are actually fairly easy to a lot of people. (With the balance board, which can be used with some of these games, it is more difficult. But I don’t have the balance board and don’t plan to get one – knowing my sense of balance I’d probably fall off it. I’ve already fallen off the Active Life mat just from trying to jump fast.) But I’ve said before that my balance and coordination are not very good.

So I think I’ll have fun with this – for the one week I get to keep it from the library. I wouldn’t go out and purchase it, but it’s a fun way to spend part of the Christmas break with my kids. (I’m still getting plenty of more physically demanding play with Active Life Explorer and Wii Sports. I even won two tennis matches this morning!)

And the Winter Games theme certainly fits well with all that snow outside.

Quidditch for Muggles

October 25, 2010

Our older son has told us how much he enjoys playing Zombie Apocalypse Nerf Wars at college. I don’t see the appeal in it myself, but then I never found most sports appealing (I did enjoy playing gym hockey in elementary school, and even in high school in a gym class for the non-athletic). But it sounds like it provides plenty of exercise and fun for a lot of college students.

Another game gaining popularity among college students is Quidditch. J.K. Rowling’s invented sport, playing by the witches and wizards in the Harry Potter books, appealed to a group of students at Middlebury College so much that they wanted to play it themselves. Being Muggles (non-magical), of course, they had to adapt it to be played in the ground instead of in the air.

I imagine it takes a fair amount of practice to learn to run well while holding a bro0mstick between your legs. (Probably no more so than learning to fly on a broomstick, though.) Chasing the Quaffle and dodging Bludgers would probably be somewhat simpler when they all stay more or less in one plane. But of course, when everyone else is on that same plane also, the playing field could get a lot more crowded than the air above the Quidditch pitch at Hogwarts.

Probably the biggest adaptation is making the Golden Snitch into a person (dressed all in yellow), in the absence of self-propelled flying balls. (You can buy a self-propelled ball as a toy for pets or children, but they don’t move very fast – by the third time our puppy played with hers she had learned to catch it pretty quickly.) I can’t help wondering – and the WSJ article doesn’t say – how the human Golden Snitch decides which way to run, and how he (or she – the game is coed) avoids being influenced by sympathy for one team or the other.

The Muggle version of Quidditch was launched, naturally enough, by fans of the Harry Potter books, but it proved to be physically demanding enough to attract athletes for whom the appeal was the game itself. (Which means it would be way beyond my athletically-challenged abilities.) It has spread far beyond the college campus where it started, in Middlebury, VT. I wonder how soon it will show up on my son’s campus, and whether he’ll consider trading in his Nerf gun for a broomstick.

Slow softball games

May 27, 2010

I have watched very few girls softball games in my life. If I had watched more, I might have realized that the ones I saw were probably fairly typical, rather than the unusually poor performances that they appeared to be.

I don’t remember ever seeing any girls softball games when I was growing up, though I suppose the high school must have had a team. I liked watching baseball games, but I didn’t go out of my way to see them. Then after I graduated from college, I got a part-time job teaching French and Spanish at a private Christian school, and when softball season came around I made a point of watching at least one home game.

I may have watched others, but the game I remember was against the Christian school run by the church I had attended as a teenager. Unlike the girls at our school, members of the opposing team were not allowed to wear pants, even to participate in sports. They wore culottes. They also seemed to have spent a great deal of time learning how to steal bases.

I sat on the sidelines, watching in dismay as our pitcher walked one girl after another. The inning seemed to go on forever – until our girls finally came to bat. I don’t remember if they got any hits, but they certainly never got any runs. Soon they were in the field again, and another interminable inning began.

I spent some time looking at the grass I was sitting in instead of at the game. There was a lot of clover, and after much searching I found a four-leaf clover. It did nothing to help our team, however, and the opposing team kept walking, kept stealing bases, and kept scoring. Maybe it was my bias as a teacher at that school, but I thought our girls looked like better athletes – even aside from the uniforms. But they sure couldn’t get a single run.

This evening I watched another girls softball game, probably for the first time since teaching at The Master’s School. My younger son has a friend in 5th grade who invited him to come watch her team play. Since he’s not good at making friends, and I have always liked baseball (and by extension, softball), I gladly agreed to take him, and called her dad to find out where they were playing.

I was amazed at home much trouble their pitcher had getting the ball over the plate. Well, over the plate in the strike zone, that is. It often hit the ground a few feet in front of the batter and rolled over the batter. Or flew over her head. Girl after girl walked. They didn’t steal bases as often as that team I remembered watching almost thirty years ago. But they did keep scoring.

Not that their pitcher was a lot better. She threw a lot of balls also, and several of them came very close to hitting the batter. One of them did hit the batter, and the game stopped for a second time while the coaches examined the girl’s hand. (The same team’s catcher had injured her hand earlier in the game.) Then she jogged to first base, and my son’s friend came to bat. Like the others, she soon walked. And before long, she scored, on one of the very few solid hits of the game.

The whole time I kept thinking how those girls need to learn to pitch better. What’s the point in pitching (relatively) fast if you can’t get the ball through the strike zone? But when I took a quick look at some articles on girls softball just now, I found out why. Pitchers who throw the ball more slowly but more accurately soon lose lots of games, as the batters improve their skills. Pitchers who concentrate on the throwing motion and speed will eventually develop accuracy, while the slower pitchers are too concerned with accuracy to develop speed.

I imagine we’ll be attending some more girls softball games. I won’t say my son didn’t get bored at all, but he paid more attention to the game than he has to professional baseball games, because someone he knew was playing. So I’ll sit through some more slow games – but I can see that the girls are learning to pitch (and getting encouragement from parents and coaches rather than “just get it over”), and eventually they’ll pick up speed.

North to Iqaluit

February 4, 2010

One day last year I started working on a blog post about Canada, having just learned the answers to a couple of questions about Canada’s history that had always puzzled me. But then something else came up that I wanted to blog about, and again the next day, and that blog post never got written. I told myself that I’d work on it when Canada came up in the news.

I’m sure Canada has been in the news a number of times since then, but it was an article I read in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal that got my attention. Why are the G-7 finance ministers meeting in a city so small (population of 7000) that it doesn’t have a single traffic light? (The traffic does pile up three times a day at the four-way stop sign, but with only 700 taxpayers, Iqaluit would have trouble paying for a traffic light.)

The article doesn’t mention why this remote capital of the Canadian territory of Nunavut was chosen for the event, but I quickly thought of a reason. For years I have read about the protests – ranging from merely disruptive to openly violent – that meetings of the G-7 (or is it G-8?) attract. (One novel I read last year had the U.S. host its foreign dignitaries on a cruise ship to avoid those problems.) Situating the event in the far north, where access is only by airplane (except in the summer and early fall when the ocean thaws and boats can approach), will keep most if not all protesters away.

A column in Tuesday’s WSJ confirms my guess – and also points out that “The benefits of keeping these officials far from their normal levers of power even for just a couple of days would be well worth the effort.” I hadn’t thought there was anyplace that global telecommunications could not keep one in touch these days, but apparently a phone-rental system has to be set up for the meeting because “the area lacks coverage for popular GSM cellphones.”

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Extreme sports: yo-yoing?

July 17, 2009

I remember having a yellow yo-yo as a child. It was a decent quality yo-yo, probably a Duncan, but not as expensive or flashy as some of the more expensive Duncan models. I practiced a long time to be able to get the yo-yo to go up and down the way it was supposed to.

It was one of those important childhood skills, along with whistling and blowing bubbles in Bazooka bubble gum. I also tried to learn to do a cartwheel but never succeeded. I admit I didn’t try quite as hard at that one, because I hated being upside down.

I never tried to learn any yo-yo tricks, though. I had heard of terms like “walk the dog” but I had no idea what it would look like (I still don’t). Like cat’s cradle, it seemed a skill that required a level of concentration and practice that I had no inclination to give it.

Today’s yo-yo tricks require a lot more than just concentration and practice. My old yellow yo-yo, even if I still had it, would be totally inadequate today. New materials and new designs have produced high tech yo-yos that do tricks never imagined a generation ago, or even a decade ago.

They also require a higher level of physical involvement, including a tolerance for physical pain. I may have occasionally gotten a bruise from hitting myself with my yo-yo – I get bruises from hitting myself on furniture, doorways, cars, etc. – why not yo-yos? But no scars from string marks, no cuts on my face, certainly no ruined veins or chipped teeth.

If your last experience with a yo-yo was as long ago as mine, you may be wondering how playing with a yo-yo could produce those kinds of injuries. Take a look at this article from the front page of today’s Wall Street Journal, and find out how this old-time hobby has turned into an extreme sport in the new century.

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All eyes on China

August 8, 2008

For at least two decades I’ve read conflicting arguments over the best approach to foreign relations with China. Will increased trade help bring about increased freedom for Chinese people, as they are exposed to Western ideas more and experience a taste of free choice at least in the area of buying and selling? Or is that just rewarding the authoritarian regime, allowing them improved status and power without their having to improve their record much if at all?

These questions have come up for a lot of discussion as the preparations for the Beijing Olympics have progressed. And they’re not any easier to answer. I know some people think it was a terrible mistake for the IOC to award the 2008 Summer games to Beijing. They think President Bush should boycott the games. Some of them will practice their own private boycott by not watching the games on TV.

I have little interest in watching the games themselves, but I’ve many times thought about whether or not it’s good to buy products made in China. Some products are made by slave labor, and others by people working in such awful conditions that it might as well be slave labor. Yet other companies in China provide decent working conditions, and offer new opportunities for prosperity, personal advancement, and contact with Western people and ideas, which bring many benefits to their workers and their families. Reducing trade with China would reduce both.

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