My brief career as a runner.

Not quite sure why I’m writing about this now, except for the fact that it somehow came to mind while I was showering this morning. I get a lot of blog ideas in the shower, but please don’t assume that the dearth of posts lately correlates to a dearth of showers. I’m still maintaining a respectable level of personal hygiene.

This all happened in the distant past, Junior High, so the events may not be quite as dramatic as I remember them, but what fun are memories if you can’t embellish them. In the spring of the yea, still hanging on to hopes of having an athletic career of some kind I was out for the track team. The summer before I had discovered I had a smooth easy stride and since I didn’t have much weight to carry, I could run pretty much forever. Because I was ridiculously skinny and had absolutely no appetite for contact, my last venture into football had been very unpleasant that fall. The words “Keller, what the hell was that?” coming from the coach after a particularly half hearted tackle attempt in practice, are burned deeply in my memory. I tried out for basketball. They didn’t cut many people in ninth grade, but I was one of them. I remember during one scrimmage there was a turnover in my offensive end and the other team got out on a one on none fast break. I ran the guy down and blocked his shot from behind. I thought surely that would put me on the team. But when I looked over at the coaches they were in deep conversation and hadn’t seen it. I made a lot of excuses for getting cut, I thought I was better than some of the players kept, but that they’re families were more prominent in the community. But looking back on it now, given my well deserved reputation as a disruptive influence in the classroom and inveterate goof off (today I think the call it ADHD), if I were the coach I wouldn’t have wanted me on the team either. So I pinned all my hopes for athletic glory (and a cool black and orange jacket with an “M” on it) on becoming a middle distance runner.

My race became the quarter mile (the sixties equivalent of 400 meters) and all though today it’s a sprint, in those days for a ninth grader it kind of qualified as middle distance. I was the third best runner in the event and had some good races where I used my long stride to float the backstretch and then sprint around the last turn, finishing strong and leaving nothing on the track. The coaches took notice. During a pep talk the coach who cut me from basketball deemed me the “most improved athlete” on the team. I was feeling pretty high about myself, even if I hadn’t cracked the top slots on the team.

The final meet of the season was the Fargo-Moorhead Junior High championships, held at the Moorhead State stadium. I don’t know how much the college, now university, has grown up around there now, but in those days the stadium was on the eastern edge of the town, exposed to the viscous prairie weather. I was slotted to run the anchor leg of the sprint medley, a relay consisting of a 110, then a 220 and then another 110 followed by the 440, the last event of the meet. The meet was in the evening, under the lights and the weather just kept getting nastier and nastier. By the time they started calling the medley, the wind had picked up and freezing rain had turned to sleet blowing horizontally down the backstretch. We needed to finish at least second in order to win the championship. There shouldn’t have been much pressure because we were a team loaded with speed and I figured to have a lead going into the anchor lap. But I think most runners will tell you that pre-race jitters well up to the point of nausea, and then disappear as soon as the gun goes off. I was almost double over with stomach cramps by the time the race started. Not to mention that, clad in nothing but my track uniform, I was in danger of frostbite.

The race started and true to form, we opened up a huge lead, smooth handoffs and our superior speed opened up about a 20 yard gap by the time the third runner came around to me. I was thinking, piece of cake, even though Jim Henry, by far the best quarter miler in the area was running the anchor for North Jr. High, our arch rivals. He’d beaten me by twenty yards and more several times already that year, but I knew I only had to finish second to win the meet, and beating them would just be frosting on the cake. Then, disaster. I can’t remember the details of how it happened but I either started too soon or too late as by teammate approached for the handoff. We completely botched it, I think I may have actually dropped it and had to come to a full stop instead of the running start you’re supposed to get in a relay. Henry had passed me, but two other runners had as well. Adrenalin took over.

I realized that there would be no floating down the backstretch, no conserving energy to blow by people coming out of the turn, I had to run like hell just to get back in the race. I started out at a full sprint and passed one runner in the turn, but Henry had opened up a big lead and the second place runner was half way between us, ten yards ahead. Coming out of the turn I hit the wind, and sleet. I put my head down and tried to push through it, the frozen rain was stinging every exposed inch of skin, but I was gaining on both of them. Over the length of the backstretch I reeled them in, catching the number two runner at the head of the turn, passing him as we went around. We came out of the turn and I thought I had a chance to catch Henry. The wind was at my back and I tried to start my kick. But I had nothing. I broke form, started to stagger. Henry had just been playing, he turned on his far greater speed an was pulling away. And the third place runner was catching me. I was at the point where I wasn’t even sure I was going to finish, I wanted to collapse into the infield. I wanted to be home if front of the fireplace with milk and cookies. I wanted to go back to being the know it all nerd that was the laughing stock of the football team. And then I  heard the cheering from the crowd. I bore down, I forced my feet to plant themselves one in front of the other and tried to maintain balance and I made it to the finish line, taking second place. We won the meet. I collapsed on the side of the track. I was spent and puking unable to do anything but sit with my head between my knees as the sweat froze on my body. Then I heard that we’d been disqualified for going out of the hand off box. I remember vividly that I started sobbing, right there in front of everyone. After a short delay we found out that the officials ruled that it was a legal exchange and the meet was ours. I don’t remember much else.

The following summer, I came down with Guillain-Barre Syndrome spent a couple weeks in the hospital and came out with very weakened legs. I went out for cross country in the fall, but I couldn’t get my easy stride back and couldn’t psychologically overcome that first little pain you get before you’re really running. I had a very bad relationship with the coach on a lot of levels, I’m surprised he didn’t just kick me off the team. He was a fundamentalist Christian and a survivalist, he had a fallout shelter and was training his kids to survive the nuclear attack that was always hanging over our heads in those days, so they could continue the fight against the godless commies.  Surprisingly we didn’t see eye to eye and we argued a lot. I continued to go out for track and cross country, but I didn’t make much of an effort and I may have been the only person ever to go out for a sport all three years and not get a letter. I never got to wear that cool black jacket with the orange “M”.

Myth Busted

This morning I got up late after a little run in with insomnia last night. Nothing like a good game of Peggle at 2 am. I decided to hit Caribou for my morning caffeine fix so I headed out in baggy sweatpants, loafers, my hair covered with a cap, bleary eyed and unshaven. Of course I ran into a local businessman that I’ve been trying to snag as a client. I’m sure I’ve been written off as a total goofball. But I guess that’s obvious no matter whether I’m buffed and polished or looking like I slept under a bridge.

So the dime off the drink trivia question was “True or false, Lemmings commit mass suicide?” Well of course it’s true, why do you think they call them Lemmings. But the young whippersnapper behind the counter, the manager of the establishment, informed me that I was wrong. I expressed doubt and said that I’d have to look it up. He started rummaging around under the counter apparently for the corporate trivia question guide and I felt the burn of the collective stink-eye focused on me by the dozen people waiting in line for their morning fixes. I think if I had a smart phone and pulled it out to google it and prove him wrong I would have been brutally beaten by the caffeine deprived mob. “Dude, it’s OK, I believe you, really.”

But of course I didn’t. So as soon as I got home I googled it and found out that yes in fact it’s a myth that lemmings, when there population explodes go nuts and stampede over cliffs into the ocean. I also found out that they don’t fall from the sky either, which was a great relief.

This realization, beyond my regret of losing a dime, is causing a strange dissonance. Once I thought that you could say, “Lemmings literally commit mass suicide by stampeding over cliffs into the ocean.” And you could say that followers of Jim Jones or [your favorite political leader to hate] were metaphorically lemmings. Now it seemed in a metaphorical sense, lemmings literally are not lemmings. This is literally a metaphorical mobius strip. I believe that if too many people start thinking about this the universe might implode.

You know what I wish? I wish that boxelder bugs would commit mass suicide due to overpopulation.

Road Trip Randomness

1300 miles on the car in 10 days. From Minneapolis to Chicago to Traverse City Michigan on the way up, with an overnight stay at Lucia’s on the way up and then straight through via Chicago on the way back, thirteen and a half hours in the car. About an hour in the car had a nice mixture of fragrance, B.O. and ripe melon, which only intensified as the hours passed.

We stayed in a mid-nineteenth century farm house on Old Mission Peninsula courtesy of our friends Charlie and Barb. It’s a big house, still much the same as it was when it was built, with added conveniences like a fairly modern kitchen and indoor plumbing, it’s an incredibly charming place. In front is a stand of giant white pines and then the orchard, first cherries and closer to the lake, apples. And then there’s Lake Michigan and an incredible stretch of beach which we had to ourselves.

Any trip to the Traverse City area turns out to be all about food. Here’s a few highlights.

Ribs at the farmhouse, we improvised an amazing sauce from the braising liquid and some plum jam that had just been cooked up. Barb whipped up a couple of pies, cherry (what else, it is after all the cherry capitol of the world) and cherry raspberry.

Dr. Mary Clemens, my friend and client came out to the farmhouse and made us a great vegetarian meal, shredded beet and parsnip salad, and whole wheat pasta with fresh tomato soup. And Barb came through with another pie.

Dinner with David and Lucia at Blu in Glen Arbor. Amazing space, with floor to ceiling glass looking out over the lake, and on this night five foot waves rolling onto the shore. We had braised pork belly for an appetizer and I had the duck confit.

Lunch at Cook’s House, a tiny place in downtown Traverse City that seats twenty people at most. I had a ham sandwich with fig compote. Remember on my last trip I had the world’s greatest ham sandwich at Frenchie’s? This was the world’s greatest ham sandwich.

Then back to the other side of the Leelanau Peninsula to Burdickville (you won’t find it on the map) and La Becasse, a restaurant specializing in French country cuisine. Another amazing meal, we split a plate of amazing risotto and I had the rack of lamb, maybe the best I’ve ever had.

On our last day Reb and I drove out to Onema to visit the Tamarack Gallery a wonderful little gallery with an eclectic collection of work by artists all over the country.

Scottsboro Boys

We had a great weekend. Lucia and David drove up from Chicago and Quinn came home to celebrate Reb’s birthday. It was great to have the whole family together, even for such a short time.

Lucia and David had to leave in the early afternoon Sunday and we capped the weekend off by attending a performance of the bound for Broadway musical Scottsboro Boys. We went with Quinn and her BF Dave, Quinn had landed free tickets courtesy her server job at Level Five, one of the restaurants at the Guthrie.

When Quinn offered us the tickets, my first instinct was to not go. Scottsboro Boys is a musical based on the story of nine black teenagers who were arrested in Alabama in the thirtys, accused of gang raping two white women while riding a freight train from Chattanooga to Memphis. They were tried and sentenced to death but the Supreme Court overturned their convictions, and in spite of the fact that one of the women recanted, they were retried and convicted several more times. All but one of them was eventually released. But not until they spent years in jail. I didn’t see how a musical about the evils of southern justice would be that entertaining. The theme of social injustice in dramatic presentations always fills me with a level of anger that I find hard to take. I had to be dragged to see Schindler’s List and probably would have walked out if I hadn’t been in the middle of the row. The idea of making a light hearted musical out of something truly evil doesn’t sit well with me.

I’m glad I went. It wasn’t a light hearted musical. They take an outdated form, the minstrel show, and bend it into a cuttingly ironic social critique. Minstrel shows featured white men in black face playing stereotypical blacks for laughs. Here, in all but one case, the black minstrels play the white characters, representing southern justice and biting, black humor. They’ve taken a huge risk presenting this sad story in a comic form that our twenty-first century sensibilities would find appallingly offensive and turn it on it’s head to make a powerful statement. And immensely entertains us in the process. From the spare set, some chairs a few planks and some tambourines, the incredible timing of the choreography and the performances of the cast, you know you are witnessing something really special.

I’m so glad that they chose the Guthrie for their final tune-up before taking the show to Broadway. I’m sure it’s going to be a huge hit. Thanks Quinn.

Rose’s great escape

Yesterday was the 147th anniversary of the murder of my great-great grandparents and their 3 year old daughter at the beginning of the Dakotah Conflict in 1863. Below is a blog post I wrote several years ago after Quinn and I made a pilgrimage to the Minnesota River Valley to look for the site of the massacre.

In March of 1862 my great-great grandparents, Johann and Kathryn Kochendofer with their five children, John, 11, Rose, my great grandmother, 9, Kate 7, Margaret 5 and Sarah 3, to a homestead located in Flora Township in the southwest corner of Renville county, Minnesota, just upstream and on the other side of the Minnesota River from Redwood Falls. The farm sat at the edge of the prairie, where it began sloping down to the river valley. It’s a beautiful spot for a farm, with fertile fields in front, and the backyard dropping off into a wooded hillside. They had spent the spring and early summer living in a tent while they broke the ground for farming and built a log house to shelter them for the winter.

Around noon on August 18th of that year, Johann and John had returned to the house from the fields for lunch, Kathryn was in the kitchen cooking and the girls were doing laundry when a group of Indians armed with rifles appeared. After a short conversation, one of the Indians took an axe that was leaning against the woodpile and threw it down the hill into the woods. Johann told John to get the axe and return it. As he stood speaking with the intruders, he had his hands on Rose’s shoulders as she stood in front of him. Suddenly one of the Indians shot him. Kathryn ran to the door of the house and was also shot. The girls ran into the house and hid under the beds but they heard John yelling for them to run for the woods. They all ran from the house except for little Sarah who would not come.

There is a steep ravine right behind where the cabin was. It’s easy to conceive of young children playing hide and seek in that dark wooded gulch to pass away the summer. The knowledge they gained would save their lives. As they ran into the woods, their dying father motioned to them to go to the Schwandt farm, there closest neighbor, below them in the valley. As the girls ran through the woods they were reunited with John and then started to make their way to the neighbors. When they cleared the woods and looked down, they saw that the Schwandt farm was also under attack and they witnessed the murders of the entire Schwandt family. A pregnant woman was cut open, the fetus pulled from her body and nailed to the barn door. What they didn’t know was attacks like these were occurring up and down the valley. It’s estimated that as many as a thousand settlers were killed in the next few weeks.

John remembered that his father had told him that Fort Ridgley was downstream from them, but they weren’t sure how far. But they decided that they had no choice other than trying to walk there. For the next several hours they made their way toward the fort, hiding in the tall prairie grass and stopping at stream beds to rest and drink. When the little girls were too tired to walk any farther, Rose and John carried them on their backs. Late that afternoon they joined several other settlers who where headed to the fort in ox carts. By nightfall they reached the fort, eighteen miles away, only to be told that they could not come through the barricades, for fear that the Indians would rush through with them. They spent the night hiding under the wagons and in the morning they were allowed to enter the fort.The fort was manned by 180 soldiers, with 250 civilians who had escaped the massacre. The fort was not in a good defensive position, sitting on high ground surrounded on three sides by ravines that allowed attackers to get unseen into rifle range. But it did have six artillery pieces, which were stationed on the four corners of the fort with the two lighter 12 pounders in the central parade ground to be moved quickly where they were most needed.On the 20th around noon they were attacked by a force of about four hundred Indians led by Little Crow, the commanding chief of the Indian forces. After a fierce battle they drove the attackers off. But little crow returned again two days later with 800 men. Out numbered four to one and facing wave after wave of Indians attacking from the ravine the soldiers fought for 6 hours using the canon to break the charge after charge. A final assault came at the Northwest corner of the fort, right were the biggest gun was waiting with a double load of canister shot. As the attackers came up from the ravine the big gun and both the twelves fired simultaneously ripping huge holes into the advancing line. At that point the fighting stopped and the Indians never returned to the fort. Casualties in the fort were three dead and thirteen wounded.

There are many stories to be told about the Dakota Conflict, stories of bravery, cowardice, brutality and sacrifice, on both sides. There were two other major battles, in New Ulm and at Birch Coulee. I haven’t spoken of the events that led up to the conflict, the Indians were provoked by cruelty and broken promises, they were starving and feared that their families would not last through the coming winter. If you are interested in finding out more of about the Dakota Conflict, Over the Earth I Come by Duane Schultz is an excellent read and covers the events very thoroughly.

After Henry Sibley arrived at the fort with reinforcements, parties were sent out to bury the dead. Johann, Kathryn and little Sarah were buried in unmarked graves near the house. In 1891,the man who had taken over the homestead found them while digging a post hole, John, by then an adult returned to the farm and brought the bodies back to St. Paul were they are now buried. The children made there way to St. Paul and stayed with relatives. A year later they were returning from a visit to St. Louis when the steamboat they were on caught fire and sank. Rose ended up going to stay at the Keller farm near Ellsworth, Wisconsin. She took a shine to one of the Keller boys, Ted, and they were married. They moved to South St. Paul where they owned an orchard. Rose lived into her eighties, long enough for my brother and sister to know her. I come from tough stock.

Adventures involving landscape materials

As you may know, I’m working on a garden renovation. It’s a work in progress. My vision is of a fairly primitive look, old rocks and bricks and the proper amount of kitschy gee gaws around. I’ve found that rocks are fairly expensive. So I’ve been making an effort to find free rocks. Those of you with a rural background might be saying, “Rocks? Aren’t those what farmers dig out of their fields and deposit in piles on the roadside? You pay for rocks?” But I’ve found  that in a more urban setting the free market has put a rather high price on rocks.

Yesterday was a beautiful sunny, cool day so I decided I’d start my day with an endorphin blast, I grabbed my trekking poles and set off for a brisk walk. As I wound my way through the neighborhood, I came upon a pile of rocks stacked up  near the street at the side of a corner lot. At a passing glance it looked like mostly useless rubble with a few good rocks. I rounded the corner and saw the owner out front working in her yard and talking to a neighbor. Not wanting to interrupt, I poled past with a neighborly hello, she returned my greeting with a bit of a smirk, I suppose that, in my flat cap, cruising along with the aid of ski poles, she found me an amusing character.

I proceeded up the Boone Avenue hill to 36th Street and then headed East to the first left turn, several blocks down, that put me on a road that wound back down hill to meet up with Boone again. The route took me past the rock pile neighbor once again, she was still out in the yard working so I stopped to exchange pleasantries. After the usual talk about the endless work of home ownership, I popped the question, “Are you planning on doing anything with those rocks piled over there?” She answered, in a defensive tone, that they were going to get rid of them soon, she must have thought I was going to complain about the eyesore. This being Minnesota it wouldn’t actually be a complaint, but a passive aggressive sideways hint that they’d been sitting out there for a long time. I assuaged her fears, “Can I take some of them?”

“Sure, take them all.”

“Well I probably won’t take them all.” I had no use for the broken concrete and other rubble.

“Help yourself, you can take all of it.”

“Thanks, I probably won’t take all of them though.”

“Yah, go ahead and take whatever you want.”

So I went home, showered, had lunch, got some work done and then jumped in the car to pick up what I thought was a few rocks. When I backed up to the pile and examined it more closely I realized it was a treasure hoard. There were nice sized field stones, flat limestone steppers, and old bricks, all the perfect accessories for the eccentric old couple garden. Since I was thinking that there were only a few rocks to move, I hadn’t really come prepared to work, I was wearing loafers, no socks and clothing that I didn’t really want to get filthy. I piled the back of the car with as many rocks as I thought it could haul and headed home. I changed clothes, donned appropriate footwear, grabbed my wheelbarrow and, in four trips unloaded the rocks in the back of the garden.

As I was working on the first load I got the feeling I’d just fleeced the rubes. I’m sure that if they had advertised on Craig’s List with the stipulation that the purchaser would have to take the bad with the good, they could have had it hauled away for free, or even made a few bucks on it. I started to worry about her husband coming home and pitching a fit that she’d given all the good stuff away. I decided that if anything was said I’d tell them they could certainly have them back, but they’d have to come get them. I started imagining all sorts of scenarios in which my rocky windfall would evaporate. For all I knew I was dealing with an insanely jealous husband who would come home and beat me to death with a paver for playing in his rock bed. I remembered that she had mentioned that hubby was in the Naval Reserve, so I thought that I could build some rapport by wearing an old ARMY t-shirt I had. Not that I was ever in the Army, but I have relatives. I could almost say I come from a military family.

Mrs. Rock House came out to the pile as I was loading up my second trip. She was probably even more convinced that I was a goof ball, since I had exchanged my cap for my Panama hat. So here’s this skinny, sweaty old guy hefting rocks into his station wagon wearing a very practical, but not exactly fashionable hat. She still seemed perfectly happy to get rid of whatever I wanted to take. She asked if I was interested in bricks, “We’ve got tons of bricks in the garage.” It seems as if she and hubby were recently married and that he is a retired Navy lifer who’s never owned a home. She said she told him now that he owned a home there would be no more trips and vacations, just working on the house. I knew then that I had nothing to fear concerning him wanting to keep the rocks. I realized she was completely in charge, she’d found someone who was used to having a commanding officer and was more than willing to fill that role.

So I got free rocks, met a neighbor and got way more endorphins than I had bargained for at the start of my walk. Rebecca informed my that I had enough rocks now and I wouldn’t be going back to get the bricks in the garage.

Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory

Way back when I first discovered the internet, one of the first things I did was start playing online chess. I’d been thinking about learning the game and I figured that could most easily be accomplished online. I found a great site, Caissa.com that offered both live and “correspondence” games as we

ll as all kinds of teaching tools. I bought some books, studied a couple of openings. I liked to use Ruy Lopez as white and the Sicilian Defense as black. I learned them out to about three moves (and all the permutations) but that really didn’t matter because playing at the level I was, no one stuck to the book, so you had to improvise. Those two do usually end up with a slight position advantage, if you don’t hose them up.

So it’s what, fifteen years later? And I haven’t learned squat. I was getting pounded on Caissa, but I think that the self limiting nature of the demographic that signs  up for online chess results in some bogus ratings. Bunch of nerds, if you know what I mean. There’s a lot of good players and as time wore on there weren’t many people around who weren’t rated way above me. Plus guys I beat early on were thumping me regularly. I got frustrated and gave it up. Continue reading

One Foot In