Untitled: The Contentment of Existence

I started this post in 2012.  I’ve come back to it a few times in the intervening six years, to the point that I’m not sure what caused me to start it, where I was planning to go with it, what my intention was behind it. It had no title – it sat as a “draft” known only as ‘Untitled’ as it sat. Writing is an interesting thing: sometimes it takes ideas years to percolate and come to their own meaning. Ironic, really, that it takes so much time and energy to process these thoughts on being present. Sometimes it’s not as ironic as all that: sometimes its the serendipity of finding relevant ideas in a seemingly unrelated book.  This entry is really the result of persistence, coming back off and on over a period of time – enough so that when the right inspiration came along, I knew how to apply it.

And thus it begins with a question: What makes one happy?  I don’t mean a funny joke, or laughing with old friends.  I don’t mean pleasurable. I mean generally happy.  The kind of happiness that at any one moment of clear presence, you realize you’re smiling or content.  The happiness you feel when you’re alone with your thoughts, no one else around, no media to distract, and you realize you’re happy.

I spend a lot of time alone in my head – to the point that a lot of people think I’m aloof, until they get to know that is an outside wrapper and that I can be a warm, engaging and caring person.  Introverts are often like that: larger groups, where the potential for the spotlight of attention being focused on you at any given time can give you the heebie jeebies, but smaller groups of 1:1 interaction on meaningful, deep interesting topics are energizing.  I think I’ve gotten better about that over the years, but it’s still difficult for me to break the ice.  I’d rather mull ideas over, and get lost in my thoughts.

“Some people make the mistake of thinking that they are being mindful because they are focusing diligently on problems. But if they are doing so while subconsciously bound up with their worries and expectations, with no awareness that they can’t see clearly or that others may know more, they aren’t open at all.”

― Ed CatmullCreativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration

In that alone alone time where I do get lost in thought they’re not overly deep thoughts, not pondering the nature of the universe or heavy, complicated concepts. Its actually super easy to just live in that place.  But that’s the issue; its easy. There is no achievement, there is no improvement.

Ed Catmull citing research in his book Creativity, Inc., says that “mindfulness helps us accept the fleeting and subjective nature of our thoughts, to make peace with what we cannot control. Most important, it allows us to remain open to new ideas and to deal with our problems squarely.”  It’s that proclivity to dive inside myself that keeps me from being mindful, and perhaps content. Happy.

Catmull also visits the idea that meditation could actually lessen physical pain by helping people to be in the moment: by being in the moment, you shut off your monkey brain from overthinking and mulling over what the perception of pain should be.  Now, there is a fundamental disconnect between “thinking” and “feeling;” the two don’t necessarily share a vocabulary, and feelings are fundamentally different than rational thoughts, but I do try to think about what I’m feeling.  I spend time thinking about what’s causing me to feel a certain way – it seems almost disconnected, doesn’t it? Like a scientist observing a subject.  And that’s where I’ve been going wrong – I just need to experience, not think about it. Just. Be. In. The. Moment.

While it does seem disconnected, it is important, because its not even really about discovering the why of the emotion, but rather realizing that it’s being felt.  Being present. Looking around, taking myself off autopilot, and observing. When you’re so inclined as to spend that much time in your own head, it becomes very easy to be oblivious to the simplest things going on around you.

When you’ve owned a pair of shoes for a while, you notice a wear pattern on the soles. Yet, it’s not likely that you’ve ever consciously thought about how your feet hit the ground each time as you walk.  Often the greatest release of stress can be just taking that deep breath, coming out from yourself, and looking around; taking in the air, the sights, realizing what you’re doing. Feeling how those feet hit the ground. And you realize, you’re happy.  Content in your existence.

And so there it is: 6 years of percolating these words and the idea eventually reveals itself to be presence.  Not feeling.Not thinking. Not introversion vs. extroversion. Just being present in the moment.


Gun Education & Newtonian Political Physics

I’ve never really been much for guns. I’ve never owned one — never really had an interest in owning one. When I was a kid, my dad had a rifle buried in the back of his closet. I know he had a FID card, but to the best of my knowledge that gun never left that closet. He was an older parent, born in the early days of the Great Depression, and life was very different then. I’ve never hunted, never wanted to.

I grew up in the same town my dad did, some 40+ years later, but it was a very different place. Almost city compared to the suburban town where he came of age. We didn’t go hunting, we didn’t target shoot.  I can’t say I ever shot a gun other than a paintball or BB gun until last year.  They’ve never really had a place in my life in anyway other than in concept.

My own philosophical bent is libertarian leaning, perhaps more of a constitutionalist than a libertarian. I’d prefer the government have less authority and control in our lives, with governmental authority to be strongest at the most local level and radiate outward.  Frankly, I think we’ve come far too far in granting the Federal Government power: we’ve gone from a founding set of principles that granted a limited scope of authority to the government where the people had to grant government authority, to one where now the government grants authority to its citizenry.

At any rate while firearms were tangential at best in my life, my wife’s experience with them was far more clear and present. She grew up at a time and place where the people with guns weren’t the people you wanted with guns. The city was rife with gang conflict and drugs and gunfire, along with all of the foreseeable consequences thereof.

Needless to say, neither of us have had much interest or use for firearms.

Early on in our marriage, we moved to the Central Massachusetts: a place much different from the urban eastern part of the state from where we both grew up.  There is an active sportsman community here: people hunt and fish, the corner store actually sells live bait next to the potato chips, “right to farm community” means that people actually do keep chickens in their yard (a not insignificant issue when your new neighbors decide that’s exactly what they’re going to do, but that’s a topic for another day).

So, we’ve long been settled down in this sleepy bedroom community in Central Massachusetts, raising our family. It’s at the point of no return that we learn that our child is clearly not growing up in the same place we did.  He’s actually interested in sportsman activities: Fishing. Shooting.

This community is Everytown, USA. There are gun owners everywhere.  We had NO idea, I mean like none.  It’s never been a thing, and now…well, now it is.

If the boy is into guns, then we decided we needed to get him (and us) an education. At the end of the day, it is a part of American life and part of an ongoing debate in American life.

But there is where the conflict begins.  We found a training program at a local fish and game club, underwritten by Winchester and the NRA.  It’s a program dedicated to the sport of target shooting, of which gun safety and maintenance is a major component: the safety rules are strict and non-negotiable.  At the end of the day, if your kid is going to learn about guns, these are the people you want teaching your kid how to use a rifle. If your kid spends any amount of time playing Xbox first person shooters, she or he is learning about guns.

Given this is Massachusetts, we’ve gotten some push back from friends and family about exposing him to guns and, likely more pronounced than that, the NRA itself.  The NRA is a polarizing force in American politics.  It hasn’t always been that way, but after the 1968 gun control act, the group’s internal politics began fermenting two opposing groups, the activists eventually took control in 1977, but the sportsman faction remains a substantive portion as evidenced by this program. In the time he’s been participating there have been two mass shooting events, and with each one in the news the questioning of our participation increases in volume and scale.

This irritates me because it’s exactly what I find wrong with our politics.  The argument goes that we’re participating in a program subsidized by the NRA and therefore part of the problem: we’re teaching our son how to use a firearm. Yet, it’s exactly the education he’s getting that would prevent such violence. He’s learning respect for the power of the weapon, how to use the weapon, how to maintain and care for it.  In other words, he’s learning how to be a responsible and skilled gun user – perhaps owner. Exactly the sort of person envisioned in the Second Amendment.

There is no simple solution to American gun violence.  There is no one panacea.  No one law that will fix everything.  There isn’t a pot of money that will fix the problems.  Background checks will not fix everything. Banning all guns wouldn’t fix everything.  Increasing access to firearms, creating incentives for teachers to carry guns would likely make schools less safe, “Hardening” (presumably “soft”) schools would only create a siege mentality and one I’m not interested in engaging.  No, what strikes me is that education is probably one of the most important things we can do.  Respect the weapon.

Which is probably the only thing we do have – a gut feel – because in 1996 Congress (at the behest of the NRA) prohibited the CDC from researching gun violence.  So, without any research, we only have polarizing arguments without facts.  In that environment we can only engage behaviors that seem correct. No one has any facts.  You can’t refute “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun” because there’s no data to support you – but that’s okay, because there’s no data to support the opposite either.  Just anecdotes.

The research that’s out there seems to be studies of the personalities who have gone on mass killings. From an article by Patrick Sauer on Smithsonian.com about Howard Unruh, generally considered to have been the first “Mass Murderer:”

“Unruh really matches the mass murder profile. He had a rigid temperament, an inability to accept frustration or people not treating him as well as he wanted, and a feeling of isolation, all things people accept and move on from,” says Katherine Ramsland, a professor of forensic psychology and the director of the master of arts in criminal justice at DeSales University, as well as the author of some 60 nonfiction books including Inside the Mind of Mass Murderers: Why They Kill. “He had a free-floating anger, held grudges, owned weapons he knew how to use, and decided somebody was going to pay. It’s a typical recipe for internal combustion.”

The Story of the First Mass Murder in U.S. History By Patrick Sauer

Troubled personalities, rigidity, isolationist, anger and access to semi-automatic weapons.  In this case, Unruh was declared to have paranoid schizophrenia.  17 years later, a gunman opened up on the University of Texas, Austin. This combined with the assassinations of John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr, presaged the 1968 Gun Control Act.  Which in turn mobilized a militaristic faction of the NRA as I mentioned earlier.  A bit of Newtonian political physics that hasn’t stopped reacting.

Which brings me around to the original point. We’ve made his participation in this program the only way that he will get the opportunity to use a weapon. He takes it seriously and he respects it. Yet, the push back we get is real. Why would we want him to use a gun? The answer is that we don’t necessarily, he wants to learn how to use one but if he’s going to use one he will learn how to do so responsibly.  Of the people I know who use guns, they are responsible and use them responsibly.  If he is going to use one, he will learn to be responsible.

It seems to me that is the activism the NRA should be engaged in: creating educated, experienced and responsible gun users.  And it is this education that we really should be encouraging, not pushing back against. We’re so polarized that we can’t even see the middle ground that makes the sense, a balance that could possibly slow that Newtonian reaction.  The landscape is complex, the NRA is neither all good nor all bad; its important to remember that ambiguity.

2018 Race Recap #10: Stu’s 30k

This shot in no way conveys what all the previous 10 minutes meant in terms of falling down, but fighting through to complete a goal.

This was a long, challenging race.  It was something I had set my mind on last year: I had been contemplating doing the full race, but friend of mine had said he wasn’t ready to do the whole thing and I did a 2-man relay with him.  As it happened, he was far more prepared for the 15k distance than was I and I’m quite sure I never would have finished or at least wouldn’t have finished in anything approximating a respectable time.

I seem so much more peppy at mile 3-ish than I do later on.  My feet actually appear to lift off the ground. Photo Credit: Kim Gordon

This year, I was sure I was ready for the challenge. This would be my longest street race, and as it turns out my longest street run too, something which even the most uninitiated among us should recognize as an issue: you really can’t properly train for a race when the race itself is longer than the preparation you’ve put into it. I’ve been averaging 35-or-so miles a week, but my long runs have been about 10 miles a piece and a luck would have it, my first 10 miles or so have been pretty good: my 5k times have been really good…my half marathon times alright.  This one? Adequate.  While anticipated, the cramps that hit me just after mile 18 (an official 30k would be 18.6 – this registered on my Garmin as 18.8) were not anticipated. I’d made it this far, what could go wrong?

The course itself loops around the Wachusett Reservoir. Built in the late 1800’s- early 1900’s, it was the largest body of water in Massachusetts until the Quabbin Reservoir was built.  Beginning in Clinton, through Sterling, into West Boylston, then Boylston, returning back to Clinton.  The elevation gain is just under 1100′ according to my watch, but the gain/loss isn’t really the story.  It’s HOW the gain/loss is distributed.  There’s few flat stretches: you’re either going up or you’re going down. It’s not easy.

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Here I am busy not dying and getting ready to kick over the mile marker as I approach mile 12. Photo Credit: Cyndy Curley.

I was generally keeping my pace pretty well through about mile 9, when I began to get markedly slower. At mile 17, I got markedly slower still.  Mile 18 and beyond was my slowest stretch, a good portion of which was uphill and with my poorly planned training it’s not at all surprising.  What was surprising was about 0.4 miles from the end, I got hammered with a cramp in my calf. Down I went. Then my gut.  It took a bit to get back up and moving.

There was never a point when I was feeling good or comfortable, it seemed like it was a personal struggle from mile 4 on.  I consider that to be a personal victory: staying well out of your comfort zone for a long period of time is growth.  I could have done better: I could have trained harder, I could have run harder, I could have been better prepared over and above what I had already done to prepare. But I didn’t.  What I DID do, though, was gut it out.  I wasn’t comfortable up through mile 10. I was downright uncomfortable from at least mile 14. Physically in pain at Mile 18.

BUT it got done.  I stuck with it when it would have been easier to quit. Then again, had I been willing to quit under these circumstances, I likely wouldn’t have come to this point: I wouldn’t have been in position to run this race in the first place.

Results 2:52:05

Overall: 170/319
M:  115/170
M 40-49: 35/47

2018 Race Recap #9: CMS 52-Week 5k

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I like small races because it allows me to say I had a “top 10 finish” despite being slow and paunchy.

As it happens this was also Week 9 of the 2018 52-Week race.  Over the last, we’ll say 30 hours, the weather has been a touch sketchy.  A Nor’easter blew through the area beginning yesterday, with threats of upward of 12″ of snow for Central Massachusetts. Winds whipped around all day yesterday, knocking out power lines, downing trees and on the coast high tides flooded significant swaths. For all the threatened fury, however, Central Massachusetts received some decent winds, but a mere dusting of snow.

By 8:00 AM, it was perhaps 37-38 degrees, a stiff breeze blowing on occasion, and cloudy as though more rain threatened.  Just the kind of day where I look around, look up, and wonder if I really want to run this race.  Chilly, but not cold. Gray,  but not dark.  About as middling as you can get.  Even as I showed up at Worcester State, I wasn’t sure if I was going to run or if I was just going to hang out and volunteer: after all, I do have a bit of a race coming up tomorrow and I’m not entire sure I’m ready for it.

As I walked in the room, the lone Central Mass Striders (CMS) volunteer greeted me, and wrote my name down. Whelp, I’m registered. I guess that means I’m racing today.  I was a little concerned because I woke up a little stiff this morning, so I went and did a warm up mile to shake out the cobwebs and that helped a lot. It was surprisingly fast; I thought I was moving far slower than I actually turned out to be moving, more stutter steps than outright strides, but it felt good.

Today’s race was Counter Clockwise, so that meant rather than finish at the Aristotle statue, we start there.  The first couple of miles felt pretty good. Not only was I moving at an historically fast pace for me, I maintained it pretty well through those first two miles.  Of course, “pretty well” is a relative expression – there’s an 8-second pace difference between the two miles, but for me to maintain that sub-8 minute pace for 2-miles it’s a personal victory.  Mile 3 is the one that ALWAYS gives me fits because it’s uphill and it was especially difficult today with the headwind blowing from the remnants of the storm. Again, I found myself traipsing up part of the hill because I’d burned so much fuel trying to maintain the pace on the first two miles. I’m going to have to get more mentally strong there because I know I missed a sub-24 minute race because of it…or at the very least gave up a shot at a personal record on that course because of it.

Overall, I finished with a 24:30 time – historically a great time for me so I can’t be too upset with myself, but I am upset in as much as I could’ve been faster and I hate that I settled for less.

Counter Clockwise (Last 5):

March 3: 24:30 40-ish degrees, cloudy
February 17: 24:22
October 21, 2017: 25:13
March 18, 2017: 24:42
February 11, 2017: 26:17

2018 Race Recap #8: CMS 52-Week 5k

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Aristotle and me.  We’re tight.  My self timing skills were a tad off this week it seems: the official time was 24:16.

I tried something a little different for myself today. I have been doing some quick warm up jogs recently; before the last race I did a mile around the Worcester State campus. Today, I went out early and ran the entire 3.1-Mile course counterclockwise. I didn’t burn myself up doing it, but I did have a nice little 8:20 pace going which is actually faster than some of my race times so I wasn’t sure how I would perform today.

As it turns out, I gained 8 seconds on my previous personal best in this direction on this course – and 6 second on my previous best on this course in either direction. This one didn’t feel as fast as the previous two races, but it turns out I conserved a little more energy instead of blowing the doors off the first mile. I thought I just felt a little sluggish, but the second and third miles were faster.

Over the last few weeks, my resting heart rate has come down quite steadily as well; by mile 1 my heart rate had spiked far above what might be considered 100% at my age, but came down to a more manageable rate when I slowed down just a little bit. While I knew my conditioning was getting better and I knew it should play out in my race time, I didn’t know how it would play out.  I’m encouraged. Slower first mile made for a couple of faster miles thereafter.

I’m hoping to get a long training run in tomorrow, so no racing, but the weather may have something to say about that (in which case, it’ll be the treadmill). I’m scared and excited about the Stu’s 30k Race next weekend, which will be my longest street race ever.

Relive ‘CMS 52-Week 5k’


Clockwise (last 5):

February 24, 2018: 24:16. Mid-40’s,  clear
January 27, 201824:24. 34 degrees, sunny. Just beautiful.
January 13, 201825:14   53 degrees, cloudy, 22 mph wind, rainy
November 25, 2017: 24:55 Sunny and 28 degrees.
October 28, 2017: 24:53 Sunny and 56 degrees.

2018 Race Recap #7: Old Fashioned Ten Miler

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I’ve known this guy since 1984.  34 years. Hard to believe that there was a time that neither of us had gray hair.

February races in New England are always a crap shoot. Last night, there was a predicted 3-6″ of snowfall expected in Foxborough, Massachusetts but temperatures by race time were expected to be in the 40’s.  Crap shoot.

Come race time, it was as predicted.  Snowfall had been pretty on point, temps had been on point, and therefore the expected snow melt and patchy streets were pretty much on point.  To be perfectly honest, I was actually really impressed with the work the Foxborough Highway Department had clearly put in to street clearing.

The OFTM is but one race today. I wouldn’t call it a “running festival” (like anyone really likes running or considers it a festival), but it is a combination event: a 5k, a 10-miler and a combination event. So you have a choice between the “Flat 5k,” “The Old Fashioned Ten Miler,” or doing them both for a combination half marathon dubbed the “Badass Combo.”  I do wonder how the residents feel about having “Badass Combo” signs plastered about, but that’s not my circus (or festival as the case may be).

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It’s good to have friends .

I did the “Badass Combo” last year: Crushed the 5k for what was then a personal record, but bonked hard on the ten miler.  I hadn’t eaten properly so my nutrition was off, I was cramping up and it felt like I walked far more than I actually ran.  I don’t know if it was the 20-25 minutes or so between races or, more than likely, a combination of a bunch of deleterious circumstances. The end result was a 1:36:00 (or so) finish for the OFTM and just over 2:00:00 for the combo.  I was trying to decide what to do this year, but in the end decided that I wasn’t going to spend $40 on a 5k entry just to get a swanky medal, so I went strictly with the 10-Miler.

I ran at a pretty quick pace for the first 2 miles or so, settled into my pace for the next five miles or so, but at mile 8 I just hit a mental block and decided I had to walk for a bit.  No real explanation: I was running at about an 8:48 pace for the previous 2-miles, the first of which was generally flat, the second was a gain of all of 26′, mile 8 had a gain of 26′ as well, but I just couldn’t carry myself over that hump.  By mile 9 I had pulled myself together back to an 8:40 (downhill again!) and mile 10 was my fastest of the day at 8:05.  It was a struggle at the end though, because I knew I was burning fuel pretty good, but I really wanted to smash the finish.

There were a  few finish line shots I could have used here that were technically better pictures, but this one doesn’t show my pudgy belly quite as ostentatiously as the others. Also, it does a nice job of demonstrating I didn’t finish last.

At days end, it wound up being my third fastest 10-mile effort (according to Strava), so not a complete bomb. Not as fast as I had hoped to be, but even my half-assed effort at mile 8 didn’t keep me from hitting that.  I really needed to be at about 8:20 pace and that wasn’t happening today.  I feel good about it though, I haven’t been running nearly as many long runs as I know I should, so this was a personal victory. My muscles felt good, and I still had some juice after 9 miles to hit that 8:05 pace – no small victory for me.  In the greater scheme of things, I finished pretty much in the middle of the pack. I’ll take it.


Weather: Averaged about 40-degrees, clear, breezy, but sunny.  Some melting snow.

Place:  174 of 435 (39.7%)
Gun Time: 1:26:33.84
Chip Time: 1:26:17.85
Gender Place: 115
Age Grp: M 40-49  30 of 49

2018 Race Recap #6: CMS 52-Week 5k

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This is the first time this year I’ve raced the course counter-clockwise. I’m usually much faster going clockwise: the first mile or so is downhill, and then the elevation gain is slow and gradual. Not to put too fine a point on it, it’s a relatively flat course anyway, but there is some elevation change.  Running clockwise gives me that pronounced elevation loss to get my pace up and just burn through the first half of it.  Running counter-clockwise has always posed me some issues.  It starts out pretty flat, the elevation loss is gradual (the reciprocal of the clockwise course, obvi) and then a half mile of the last .8 of the course it just up.  Again, not “UP”…but up.  Suffice to say, the better runners in the group seem to like the counter-clockwise better; the less well heeled runners, the clockwise direction. As you’ll see below, my track record going in this direction is spotty and erratic.  At least one of the times – February 11, 2017 – was affected by a snowpacked course: I wore obstacle course specific shoes to maintain some traction on the street, but even without that outlier my paces are uneven.

It was pretty chilly to start – about 28 degrees: when you’re standing around a sweatshirt leaves you still a little cold, but warm enough that choosing gear is a bit of a challenge. Should I take off the Under Armour? Will a cold weather shirt suffice?  Gloves? No gloves today, sweatshirt and cold weather shirt.  Athletic pants.  All of which seemed to be the right choice for me as I was neither overheated or cold.  One caveat: while running the Upton State Forest Half Marathon last year,  I wiped out and skinned my knee and (I think) broke my left pointer finger. It hasn’t felt right since, and it has been the first finger to get noticeably cold since.

On the “go” command, I was off at a decent clip.  I had my watch under my sleeve as I was using the sleeve to cover my hands in lieu of gloves so I really couldn’t see the pace or time. I was just running.  I kept up with the fast kids for a short moment, but they were gone pretty quickly.  At the first mile the watch vibrated, so I pulled up my sleeve to see and it was about a 7:20 pace.  That astonished me.  The second mile was about a 7:40 pace, quite astonishing to me.  Ah, but June Street.  That point when running clockwise is a nice shot down, is much less friendly to me when it’s a harrowing shot up.  I just couldn’t maintain my pace, and slowed way down.  I finished that mile with an 8:20 or so pace, so not horrible in terms of my usual pace, but certainly enough to kill my shot at a sub-24 minute race.

The upshot is that I ran a pretty strong race overall, faltered a bit toward the end, but still wound up with a personal record for the Counter-Clockwise direction and truly for the course in either direction overall.  It was a good race day.  Overall, I finished in the middle of the pack, 10th of about 21 or 22.  9th was within my grasp, but I was outflanked by a far better runner – finishing as close behind him is a personal victory to begin with,  never mind having had the chance to finish ahead of him.  So, I’ll add that to my awards case too.


28 Degrees and Clear.

Counter Clockwise Direction (Last 5):

February 17: 24:22
October 21, 2017: 25:13
March 18, 2017: 24:42
February 11, 2017: 26:17
January 28, 2017:  24:48