Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Elusive Six Minute Mile

This is the time of year I usually write at length and in painful detail about how a 12 year old beat me—again—in the Tour of Anchorage, our local ski marathon. Historically, regardless of the distance I sign up for, I find myself toiling up the final climbs to Kincaid stadium quick on the heels of some kid who, with a quick glance over her shoulder, smirks and accelerates away. I was determined this year to put the trend to rest. But rather than train harder I decided to not participate, which turned out to be a lot easier. Ha, little twelve year olds! Just try to beat me as a I amble back and forth between the couch and the fridge! Your little pre-teen hands will be too tired from all of the skiing to steal the last cookie from me like you have stolen the sweet taste of victory oh these many years!

Really, though, if there was a year to skip skiing the Tour, this was it. While the lower 48 states have been struggling through the coldest winter in recent memory, we transitioned into spring sometime last January. What snow that fell melted to ice, or disappeared all together. The Tour race directors ended up shortening the Tour course, unable to work with the available base over much of the usual trail. And rather than getting in the necessary base miles on skis, I made the early mental transition to running. In this case, that meant signing up for a weekly coached speed session on the track.

I've never run track and never done speed work, so I didn't really know what to expect. What I was not expecting was the 12 year old who weekly leaves me choking on his dust yet still manages the energy on every lap to spring and try to touch the banners dangling from the pedestrian bridge. I just can't escape it. Where do these kids come from?

After a few weeks of intervals at various distances, last week we did a timed mile to check current fitness and better determine what pace we should each be running the workouts at. This was probably my first timed mile since . . . middle school? I was not sure how to pace over such a short distance, but assumed I would figure it out, and I headed off at the gun at what I hoped was a speed I could just maintain over four laps. I finished in 6:11, a few seconds behind the 12 year old. I paced well, doing a one-second negative split over the first- and second-halves of the run. And I feel confident that I could have done it faster. I wasn't at my limit, and next time I know I can push a little harder, shed some seconds, hopefully break 6:00. But I felt good about my effort just the same.

Or I felt good about my effort prior to doing some research that put the whole thing in perspective. The following table may help.

Let me summarize. That 6:11 mile I ran? The one that I think I could improve upon by, say, 11 seconds or so? The pace that left my breathing ragged and in the red zone after one quarter mile? That same pace—if I could have maintained it—would have found me stumbling across the finish line some 23 minutes after the world record holder in the 100 km. But here is the thing. I couldn't have maintained it for another mile, much less another 61. It frankly astounds me what people can do. Some folks run 26.2 miles at an average pace that I can't even reach for fractions of a mile. Mind boggling.

Maybe it isn't fair to compare myself to world record setting runners. Let's face it, if your name appears on the same line as the world record in, say, the 10k, you're orbiting in an elite sphere peopled by a distinct minority. What makes the record special in the first place is the very fact that the vast majority of people—people like me—can't get close to that level of performance. But that is the neat thing about running. A 400 meter track is a 400 meter track the world over (disregarding, if you please, any differences due to elevation), giving each of us an opportunity to measure ourselves against the best in the world each time we set off for a lap.

It also might not be fair to measure myself against younger runners in the prime of their fitness. After all, I would be willing to wager that half or more of those records were set by 12 year olds. And if the last few years have taught me anything, it is that you can't compete against a 12 year old. Best just keep my head up, run my own race, and hope for the best.

Friday, February 14, 2014

All I Want for Christmas is a Coin Operated Horse

Let's face it.  To the extent you come to this blog at all, it isn't to wade through my written words.  You could probably care less if I craft a perfect metaphor describing the vast waste of winter that is fifty degree temperatures and melted snow.  You may not even bother to read my attempts at capturing accurate and colorful dialogue, your eyes glazing over at the first sight of an opening quotation mark.  You certainly don't laugh at the quirks I find funny.  No, if you bother to come to this blog at all, it is very likely because you hope I'll post up pictures of cowboy hats.

And now I have.  That sound?  It is most of my web traffic heading to the door with no reason to stick around any longer. 

But really, why I am going on about cowboy hats at all?  Well, C and I were knocking about the house in early December, unsure of how to fill our days, mindlessly surfing the web, when we saw that the world's largest collection of cowboy hats was descending on Las Vegas, Nevada.  In what appears to be an annual migration, the hats are drawn from far and wide to attend the National Finals Rodeo.  Intrigued, we loaded up the car, drove to the airport, and arrived in the southern Nevada desert ready for the kind of excitement you can only find by combining raging bulls with Wranglers.  But alas, tickets to the National Finals Rodeo were expensive.  And it turned out we didn't really care all that much.  So instead we went and played in the dirt.

In what is becoming something of a frustrating pattern, it was quite a bit colder in Las Vegas than it was in Anchorage at the time of our visit.  Every time in 2013 we tried to duck the cold and absorb some heat, we walked right into unseasonable chills.  Really, how did we get snow in Tucson and temperatures in the teens in Las Vegas?  We under packed, and ended up hiking around Red Rocks in every bit of insulation we had on hand.  At least the sun was bright.  And, as advertised, the rocks were red.

And while the rodeo itself was expensive, a rodeo affiliated Christmas market had taken over the Vegas convention center.  The Christmas market was free.  So we wandered to the convention center, not sure of what we would find.  It turns out, they were selling coin operated bucking broncos.

How cool is that?  I remember the coin operated horse outside of the Super Mart in Socorro.  I would beg off following my mom around the store and sit outside on the horse, pretending I had the kind of cash needed to make it work.  One day, some kind man came out of the store and found a forlorn little boy slumped over on a stationary horse, chin resting on his fist, muttering an occasional and uninspired “Giddy Up.”  The man reached into his pocket and pulled out . . . A quarter?  A nickel?  I have no idea what that horse used to cost.

“Want to take a ride, son?”

“Hell yeah!  Fire this thing up old man!”

The coin dropped into the slot and the horse started its stationary gallop without an ounce of the drama I had imagined.  The man wandered off, probably pleased with himself.  And at that moment my mom came out with groceries in hand, horrified that I was accepting money from strangers.  And so we all learned a valuable lesson that day.

Suffice to say, I did my best yet failed to convince C that we should take a coin operated horse home.  But we did wander the vendor halls, admiring all stripes of western themed bric-a-brac.  The whole thing was a little like visiting a foreign country.  People talked different, dressed different, and embraced a whole different cuisine built around the flavor profile of Coors Light.  It turns out about half of the U.S. population is more exotic then, say, the French.

The most awkward cultural exchange probably occurred at the Ducks Unlimited booth.  A lot of the various vendors had games with promotional prizes: “Step right up to spin the great wheel for your chance to win cheap crap!”  The Ducks Unlimited folks were set up in front of a long row of what looked like a carnival shooting gallery, with pictures of large game behind shooting blinds.  A man was standing nearby with a  rifle in hand, motioning me over, offering me the weapon.  I jumped to conclusions, assuming he was enticing me in to play Duck Unlimited's little game for my chance to win a hat or pamphlet.  And so I walked right over.  I stuck out my arms and he set the rifle in my hands.  It didn't take long to figure by the weight that this was a real gun.  Ducks Unlimited was raffling a limited edition rifle, and I was being given the opportunity to admire it in person before, Ducks Unlimited hoped, breaking out my wallet and buying multiple chances at being a winner.  I stood there for a minute with no idea what a person should do to admire a gun.  Swirl it and sniff, like a glass of wine?  Give it a good shake and see if it rattles?  I did neither, but just stood with the rifle at arm's length, like a young man handed someone's baby for the first time, praying someone will come by soon and relieve me of the burden.  In due course the Ducks Unlimited representative recognized that I am something of an idiot with firearms and wisely reached out to take the gun back.  I thanked him and scuttled off to find someone offering a chance to win a Dodge truck.

I did find a chance to win a truck, by the way, but won neither a truck nor a hat.  I did get a lot of pamphlets to read up on in preparation for the next time I visit the other half of the country.  And I'd be happy to share if your thinking of your own visit.  Just remember to exchange your Euros for Coors, which appears to be the real currency of the realm.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Finding History in the Bottom of my Beer

I recently stumbled across an online repository of digital article reprints collecting local history stories originally printed in El Defensor Chieftain, the venerable twice weekly source of news for the residents of Socorro, New Mexico. I won't bother trying to catalog the maze of hyper-linked rabbit holes that brought me to the website, though I will grant you that I probably should have been spending my time more productively. In any case, I learned some interesting things about what I consider my home town.

Born in Virginia, my folks moved to the high desert when I was three. My first and haziest memories are of scenes and events in the east, but for all practical purposes I grew up in Socorro, completely unaware of and uninterested in the historical significance of anything I saw around me. Sure, I dutifully went on field trips to the San Miguel Mission, built between 1615 and 1626 (the church was founded in 1598, but the original building was replaced starting in 1615), and looked through the glass at the example of the original adobe, but I don't recall being particularly excited by it. I suppose that is the natural order of youth. The significance of the past pales against the prospects of the afternoon.

But San Miguel never held reign as the only historical building of note in Socorro, some of which were never recognizable to me as anything more than blight. Like the multi-storied structure east of California Street on the south side of town? Turns out it had been a flour mill, the Crown Mill, first opened for business in 1893 in an environment dominated by two existing mill operations. The mill flourished for a time, but fell victim to the vagaries of capitalism and the market power of Pillsbury. The Crown Mill closed in 1938. Other businesses operated from the building up until 1965. I only knew the building as an example of industrial ruin, a structure subject to rumor. Kids I knew in turn knew other kids (always several times removed) who had broken into the mill, reportedly finding the place booby trapped and inhabited by a crazy man who leered out at them from behind a pile of rubbish—or perhaps bones. It turns out a local man bought the building in 2003, and has since done some renovation, rebuilding the third story and roof which had fallen into disrepair. I hope he made provisions for the crazy man. You hate to see gentrification chase out a neighborhood's original residents.

I was most interested in an article detailing the long history of the Capitol Bar. The Cap sits today on the plaza where it did when first built in 1896, Socorro's only surviving bar from back when New Mexico was a territory. I had a vague awareness of the place growing up as a den of iniquity near the Junior High and Edward's barbershop, but never saw the interior prior to a remodel following a fire in 1993. Now it has been bestowed the honor of “Bucket List Bar” but none other than YouTube contributor “drunkenhistory.” If there is a higher honor, I know it not. There were two points in the article, however, that I found particularly striking.

First, the article notes that as of its publication date (2010), the Capitol was one of only three bars left in Socorro (the other two being the Roadrunner Lounge and the Matador Lounge at the El Camino, but a quick online search suggests the Roadrunner may have since closed). Are you seriously telling me that Socorro can't support more than three (maybe two) bars? What happened to the rest? And in particular, what happened to that sketchy little bar west of California Street on the south side of town, kind of across from the then-deteriorating Crown Mill? The little rectangle of a building, made out of cinder blocks, with a dark door and seemingly no electricity? This place too was subject to rumor amongst the kids. There it was rumored that murder occurred nightly (most of which must have gone unreported; looking back I do not recall reading about these frequent killings in the Chieftain). Indeed, you were guaranteed to, at the very least, be stabbed, if not shot, within minutes of walking through the dark doors. Maybe the rumors were true, which would account for its closure. It is hard to build a stable clientele if you keep knocking them off soon after they pass through the doors.

Second, the article told the story of the Emillio family, which was involved in the Socorro bar business from the repeal of prohibition until approximately 1960, at which time the son, Willie Emillio, decided to try his hand in other lines or work. Notably, the local college, the New Mexico School of Mining and Technology, made Willie an honorary member of the alumni association, and on his death Willie left the school money to start a scholarship fund in his name. All of which suggests the Tech students were perhaps spending more time (and money) at the Capitol than they were in their classes. Having spent time as a student in geology programs at three different schools, I can just think that, yes, that sounds about right. So, next time I'm in Socorro I'll need to stop in for a beer. And I will expect to see the geology students working away on homework, absorbing (I'm sure) the historical significance of the place.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Top Ten Nude Celebrities of 2013

I looked at the calendar today and realized that time was running short to make my contribution to the valuable body of work that is the collection of annual year end lists. If you are like me, you spend the better part of twelve months ignoring popular culture, current events, literature, film, politics, and the events of your own life, and wait eagerly for the weeks leading up to January 1 when internet content providers of all stripes take cursor to screen and map out the top ten of everything from the prior year. As the lists are published, I am able to catalog all of the movies I should have seen, the books I should have read, the photos that should have moved me, the meals that would have been most memorable, and the destinations I should have visited over the prior year, thus saving me from the work of experiencing any of it on my own. It is a real time saver, and I think we all owe a collective debt of gratitude to the tireless critics and social gadflies who do the heavy lifting for us.

But no longer wanting to take without giving, I have decided I too should help the people of the world and make my own top ten list to guide others.  And, no, the list won't include any nude celebrities.  What do I know from naked famous people?  That was just a teaser to get you to read.  So, without further ado, I present the Cobras In Alaska 2013 Top Ten list, with items presented in no particular order:

1. Puppies.
2. Em7add11.
3. Sipping Pina Coladas, served on the rocks out of citrus rimmed glassware and mixed from fresh pineapple juice and coconut infused rum, watching the sun set, bare feet dangling in the warm salt waters of the South Pacific, while mermaids nibble deliciously at the bacteria under my toe nails, their hair tickling my shins.
4. Cleveland, Ohio.
5. The International House of Hot Dogs.
6. Brownout – Oozy.
7. Akron, Ohio.
8. This guy:

9. Determining the proper influence of science on policy.
10. Learning a valuable lesson about the importance of friendship AND the true meaning of Arbor Day while solving mysteries on a tandem bicycle.

I hope the list proves helpful to each of you as you either map out the details of the coming year or prepare to let chance yet again dictate your fate. Happy New Year.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

On Tour

I like to plan trips around my hobbies, which means I will not bother leaving Anchorage unless I can accomplish one of two things. First, continue my exploration of the artisanal pickle world, perhaps by meeting a producer, tasting product, or volunteering to shepherd free range cucumbers from their summer to winter pastures. Or second, by visiting iconic bridges. Really, other than the satisfying crunch of a perfectly brined and seasoned Kirby, does anything satisfy the soul like a beautifully designed conveyance across water?

To advance my appreciation of river crossings, I launched my Tour of Iconic Bridges back in 2011. You've probably seen my Kickstarter campaign, setup to fund my Tour (although don't think that I haven't noticed that you haven't contributed). The Tour got off to a bang-up start, with an early visit to the Tower Bridge in London.

The Tour slowed significantly thereafter due to lack of activity on my Kickstarter page, but last month I had the opportunity to visit the Brooklyn Bridge.

And now I got to visit the Golden Gate Bridge early this month, hopefully a sign that the Tour's momentum is really picking up.

With any luck, you will find the above photos inspirational, pull out your credit card, and rush to make a donation. Feel free to recommend another Iconic Bridge as a stop on the Tour at the same time. Perhaps the Trenton Makes bridge from Trenton New Jersey?

Since we were already in San Francisco to admire the bridge, C and I decided to make good use of our time and attended Alex and Daniel's wedding. They exchanged vows and then proceeded to impress us all by serving a fascinating selection of artisanal pickles at the reception. Other highlights? The chance to join the hungry crowds on Mission St. at 1 a.m. looking for burritos, stumbling upon a ukulele orchestra playing Sinatra tunes in the Presidio while hiking a big loop through the city, and realizing that the tourist zone in and around Union Square still bumps up against the city's rougher edges when gun shots rang out somewhere outside our hotel late one night. Three rapid shots, followed shortly thereafter by a flood of police cars rushing up Taylor Street. Nothing in the paper, which left me to assume that the gun play involved some dispute over an artisanal pickle sale gone bad. San Francisco's pickle mongers are, by reputation, some of the most territorial and fierce to be found. It will probably be safer to just focus on the bridges from here on out next time we travel.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Get off my lawn!

I did not intend my corner of the internet to be a place to either publicly gloat or complain, but feel compelled here to do a little of both. You see, after coming home from New York (see previous post), we were beset with news both good and bad. First, the good news. It turns out storms dumped snow on Independence Mine State Park at Hatcher Pass, and the powers that be started grooming trails. C and I were able to get in the first ski of the season nice and early this year. The problem with Hatcher Pass is that to get to the ski loop, you must first climb a ¾-mile hill. So, here we are, out of shape and weak, and the first thing we have to do is climb and climb long. It is a rude awakening to every season, but we are happy for it just the same.

And now the bad news. There is no way to sugar coat this, so I am just going to come out and say it.  Slayer canceled their show at the Sullivan arena that had been scheduled for October 22, apparently realizing that it costs a ton of money to ship their tour set up to Alaska. They officially blamed “logistics,” but I expect that means “dollars.” Maybe they thought we were just north of Vancouver at the time they scheduled? What ever the reason, it has brought a dark cloud across the Cobrasinalaska household. “Why? Why must you toy with our emotions, oh Godfathers of thrash?” I cry to the bleak and uncaring skies.

Of course, I use “we” pretty loosely here. As you might imagine, this cancellation has had a bigger impact on me than on C. Indeed, C—by her own choice—didn't even have a ticket to attend. Upon learning that Slayer was (purportedly) coming to town, the conversation went something like:

“Slayer is coming to Anchorage!”


“FUCKING SLAYER!” [Which is, by the by, the universal and officially sanctioned greeting of Slayer fans worldwide, either followed by or preceded by an out-thrust of the arms in a devil-horn salute.]

“What does Slayer sound like again?”

I proceed to cue up and start the 1986 masterpiece Reign in Blood, an album that leads off with the at times controversial “Angel of Death.” Precisely 7 seconds later: “You have got to be kidding me.”

So I bought a single ticket. But as already mentioned and whined about for some length, I never got to use it. And now I wander the halls and wonder if my life will ever have meaning again.

That I have reacted so strongly to the cancellation of a single concert may suggest that we do not get much in the way of nationally recognized live acts in Anchorage (my prior discussion of the Red Hot Chili Peppers being the exception that proves—that's right, proves—the rule). But we did get the chance to watch some of this year's Lollapalooza streamed live. Readers of a certain age (read: mine, plus or minus) will remember Lollapalooza as the brain child of Jane's Addiction's Perry Farrel, a music festival that criss-crossed the country in the early- and mid-nineties. It disappeared for awhile, but has resurfaced as a single three-day festival in Chicago. And technology having reached the point that it has, several of the sets by the festival's top acts were streamed live. And because one of those sets was by The Cure, I decided to tune in and watch. And I walked away wondering, “What is wrong with kids today?”

You see, from time immemorial rock-n-roll has been about two things: repulsing parents and inspiring children. If a kid needed a role-model for debaucherous living, was he going to look to his own parents? Of course not. But the rock star in leather pants, empty bottle of Jack Daniels in one hand, a gold record in the other, with vomit drying on his shirt? That is an image that gives a kid hope that the future will not be bleak and populated with responsibility and the routine of 9-to-5 (or, more accurately, 8-to-6, Dolly Parton movie or no).

One look at some of today's top acts makes clear that something has gone awry. As the following scientifically rigorous graph demonstrates, the social respectability of your typical rock-star had been on a consistent downward slope, but has taken a surprising upswing that brings today's top acts in-line with Please Please Me era Beatles.

Really, what message is it sending our kids when Vampire Weekend (photo at far right of the graph) is made up of a bunch of Columbia graduates and is perhaps best known for a song that is single-handily responsible for teaching an entire generation about the Oxford comma? Do we really want the youth of America to come of age aspiring to an Ivy League education and a comprehensive understanding of grammar?  And what are they wearing, anyway?  Sweater vests?  Suffice to say, not a leather jacket in the bunch.

On further reflection, though, I may be looking at this all wrong. Perhaps rock-n-roll has nothing to do with inspiring kids and everything to do with repulsing parents. I may not have kids, but I fit the demographic. And really, how can you repulse someone who came of age with this?

 (Slayer, circa-1984)

Yup. Sweater vests. Long live rock-n-roll. These kids may be on to something yet.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

A Tale of Two Cities

C has a friend, Heather. There is actually more to this story than that, though, although it requires some background. Heather sings, and sings well. Someone with a background in music and voice could probably describe her singing with more nuance than that, but what do you expect from a lawyer? “Well” is as good as it will get. But you can judge for yourself ( From the layman's perspective, let's just say she sounds professional, which she is. The kind of voice that astounds as an instrument, makes me simultaneously want to break into my own aria and never open my mouth again for recognizing that some things I will never be able to do. Sing an opera is one. Heather can, and has. These days she sings on Broadway. Heather is a cast member in the longest running musical on Broadway, working in the ensemble of Phantom of the Opera. But she also understudies for the role of Carlotta and at times gets to strut her stuff—fittingly—as the operatic diva of the Paris Opera house. A couple of weeks ago, C received an e-mail from Heather announcing her schedule for filling in as Carlotta. C had never heard Heather perform, but always wanted to. As it turned out, C was in up-state New York, visiting family, and as such in the neighborhood for one of Heather's scheduled turns as Carlotta. C rebooked her return to allow a side trip to Manhattan, and I flew out for a long weekend.

We saw the show, which despite its long running tenure had an incredible line at the door 15 minutes before curtain. As I suppose it has several nights a week for 25-years, the chandelier came crashing to floor, Christine Daae was both repulsed by and drawn to the Phantom, and the diva pouted as divas do when younger voices muscle in on their spotlight. After the show, Heather led us backstage to marvel at the wigs (which we learned quite a bit about from another friend in Manhattan; suffice to say, I never much thought about Broadway wigs before, but the hair you see on stage could be the subject of another complete blog post), see the inner workings of theater magic, and stare out at the empty seats of the Majestic Theater.

But the excitement of Broadway and catching up with old friends was only part of the trip. Walking the streets of New York also gave me the opportunity to dabble in comparative urbanism, a school of study in which I am something of a hobbyist. I can't claim any formal training, but have, of course, read the classics. Being in New York gave me the chance to come home and look at my current hometown of Anchorage with new eyes as compared against one of the world's great—some would see greatest—cities.

Clearly, the foundation of a great city is great architecture. Buildings and living space provide the framework upon which a vibrant society is draped. The buildings and structures of New York are true icons, recognized the world over. The Empire State Building, the Flatiron, the Brooklyn Bridge, they are unmistakable symbols of urban America and the pull of the new world.

Well, Anchorage does not have the benefit of long history, but just as New York stands shoulder to shoulder with Paris, London, and other giants of the old world, Anchorage is itself home to inspiring architecture enhancing life in our city despite its relative youth. In just a few short years, classics like the abandoned layer cake church, the Wal*Mart, and that weird shanty like building in the middle of mid-town have been built and inspire Anchorage residents on a daily basis to strive for greatness.

Similarly, great cities have great cuisines. Some of the best restaurants in the world (or, at the very least, the most expensive) are found in New York, but classic eats are found at all points on the economic spectrum, including the classic New York slice.

Not to be outdone, Anchorage too is known far and wide for its food specialties, like the classic waffle, biscuit, gravy, roll, a celebration of carbohydrates smothered in fat.

Great cities often have rich spiritual traditions. Home to famous cathedrals, New York embraces religion at all scales, and it is not unusual to turn the corner and find streets closed to accommodate a procession celebrating the Virgin Mary.

Anchorage's houses of worship similarly operate on all scales, including the humble Wilderness Village Baptist Church.

But a rich and complex urban life is built on contradictions, and just as New York welcomes its residents to worship in its great churches or in the city streets, the city billboards make its residents question the very utility of prayer.

Anchorage's contradictions are evident only in geography. The Wilderness Village Baptist Church is, after all, located directly across the street from the city's most famous strip club. I like to think that gentleman, having spent a night and the bulk of their savings within the dark walls of the Alaska Bush Company, stumble out into the bright light of a Sunday morning and directly across the street to pray for forgiveness. A closer look at the Wilderness Village sign, however, makes me wonder if that is such a good idea.

The Wilderness Village congregation appears to have very specific ideas as to what should be done to sinners. That is a picture of two angels pushing some poor man to an eternity of damnation in the fires of hell, right? I think I would want to make sure I knew what side of the line I stood on before I walked through those doors. Maybe safest to just head back to New York. At least there you have a chance of getting lost in the crowd. Or you can hope that the two angels will get distracted by the bright lights of Times Square and maybe forget about you altogether.