Monday, December 31, 2012

Asheville, NC: Top-secret Surprise Holiday Trip Part I

I was the recipient of a special top-secret surprise holiday trip this year, planned and orchestrated by Eric. And, as I posted on my Facebook wall when we returned from said special top-secret holiday trip, “There was food.  Much food.   Delicious food that was gluten free.   And art.   Art everywhere.”

Eric planned the trip about three months ago.  I was told the dates of the trip so that I could ask off from work, what the projected weather forecast for our destination was, and what clothing I might want to wear (some walking, possibly some hiking, definitely some eating).  The only other information that I received was clues, one clue every week for the six weeks before the trip, clues that included unmarked maps, anagrams and riddles.  And, as to be expected, I was completely unable to figure out where we were going because the clue-sharing was too much like game-playing (which everyone knows makes my  1) palms sweat, 2) elbows to break out into hives, and/or 3) brain to think that my body is in a fight or flight situation and I have to leave the room or else start biting people).  Yep, Eric’s secret trip location remained a secret (despite all of my trickery to fool Eric into slipping up) until we were about ten miles away from our hotel, that hotel being in the picturesque city of Asheville, NC.

20 December 2012
When we arrived, hungry in the pouring rain (essentially it had rained the entire trip from outside our door in Gadsden to the door of the hotel in Asheville) we opted to check in quickly and find some food in the famed foodie town.  Being late afternoon, most small local dining spots had not reopened yet from lunch, so we opted for a meal at one of our favorite-anywhere restaurants, Mellow Mushroom.  We split a Greek salad which consisted of Romaine and iceberg lettuce, shredded carrots, red cabbage, onions, cucumbers, green peppers, mushrooms, feta cheese, Kalamata olives, Roma tomatoes, pepperoncini and banana peppers covered in the Mellow Mushroom’s signature Esperanza dressing which tastes very much like a bright Caesar dressing.  For entrees, I chose the gluten free Philosopher’s Pie (grilled steak, Portobello mushrooms, artichoke hearts, Kalamata olives, provolone, feta and mozzarella cheese) while Eric ordered a gluten-filled calzone.   There was enough leftover food to snack on for days, so we took the remains back to the hotel and did just that.  I’ve never been opposed to eating pizza for breakfast…

Philosopher's Pie at Mellow Mushroom, Asheville, NC.

Calzone at Mellow Mushroom, Asheville, NC.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Christmas Angel

What I'm about to share is pretty darn nostalgic, but I feel like it is a good and proper time of the year to embrace nostalgia.  This is a piece that I wrote for a senior journalism assignment that I had in high school (Smoke Neck Tech!  Go Panthers!), so, that would make this story about twenty-five years old.

The Christmas Angel

As far back as I can remember, whenever we would decorate our Christmas tree, a little angel would appear on the top.  The angel was dressed all in white with a halo and beautiful gold wings.  My sister and I never knew how the angel got there, but every Christmas we would try to watch and see if it would appear.  But no matter how long we would watch, the angel would never arrive until our backs were turned.  Mom and Dad always told us that God sent the angel to us from Heaven, and in our childish trust, we believed.

One summer while I was looking in my mother's hope chest for some old pictures, I ran across a piece of brown cloth with something wrapped in it.  My curiosity got the best of me, so I unwrapped it.  Lying there in my hands was the angel.  My angel.  Our angel.  The angel that Mom and Dad had said that God sent to us.  I felt tricked and deceived.  Mom and Dad have been putting the angel on the tree while we hadn't been watching.

I was so hurt.  I felt like running up to Mom and confronting her with the horrible truth.  But then I started thinking about how happy Mom and Dad looked at Christmas whenever Vicki and I squealed in delight about how the angel had come.  Yes, it had been magic for us, but it had been magic for them, too.  I started crying.

I didn't have the heart to tell my parents that I knew about the angel.  I wrapped the angel up and put it back into its hiding place.  It was my secret now.

The angel still comes each year at Christmas time.  Even though I know the truth, it still means a lot to me.
It took me at least another ten years after I wrote this assignment before I finally fessed up to Mom and Dad about having found the angel.  And even after my confession, the angel continued to make its mysterious appearance on top of the tree while no one was looking.  I hope that it always does.

Monday, December 3, 2012

The Crystal Springs Community Every Other Year Sometimes Spur of the Moment Christmas Parade

Seeing the recent Gadsden Times article entitled Webster’s Chapel Redneck Christmas parade Saturday reminded me of another Gadsden Times holiday article from 2004, World's Shortest Christmas Parade kicks off Christmas in Crystal Springs.  I remember reading the piece while I was home from Denver for the holidays.  It made me shake my head at the hilarity and the familiarity of the behavior, and it reminded me of just one more reason why I love Alabama so much...we have an abundance of characters.  They may be crazy characters, but they are all ours.

The 2004 "Crystal Springs community Every Other Year Sometimes Spur of the Moment Christmas Parade" consisted of three laps around the Crystal Springs One-Stop gas station and boasted farm tractors, lawn mowers, four wheelers, some crowd-pleasing animals, and over two-hundred folks looking to share the holiday spirit.  It was a year of technology (the first time that a generator was used to allow for Christmas lights on a float...Christmas lights that Carl Owen took down "'for the first time in twelve years so that [he] could finish decorating [his] float.'").  It was a year of larceny (the float of the same Carl Owen carried a snowman that was evidently stolen from the yard of competitor Tammy Parris).  It was a year of bribery ("'it's not unusual for judges to take bribes and not deliver -- that's why they're the first to leave after the parade.'")

Things threatened to not crank and stuff caught on fire.  But no one was hurt. 

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Lawn Mower Wheel Wreath

Eric likes a wreath for the holidays.  I do, too.  But I've been thinking about a different kind of wreath. 

While at Mom and Dad's for Thanksgiving, I found an old lawn mower wheel that Dad had saved.  I asked if I could have it.  He said yes.  Eric manhandled the old tire off and I cleaned and primed it (many years of rust had accumulated).  A coat of gloss black and a shimmer of metallic silver.  Some garland, ornaments and ribbon.  A lawn mower wheel wreath.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Gluten Free Cornbread Dressing

Update:  after making this recipe again yesterday, I discovered that the dressing turned out better when I added an additional cup of chicken stock (4 cups total, instead of 3), and when I had the oven on 400 degrees from the beginning of the cooking time and allowed the dressing to bake for a full 50 minutes (instead of starting off at 325 degrees for 40 minutes and then upping the temp to 425 degrees for five minutes).   This info may prove to be pretty important...

Eric and I get a Thanksgiving redo this year.  Our friends have been at the beach for the holiday, so tonight we plan to serve them turkey and dressing for Saturday Supper Club.  Since there are two gluten-intolerant individuals who will be dining at this dinner (myself and Kris), I will be making gluten free cornbread dressing.  I basically took my old cornbread recipe and my old dressing recipe and replaced or took out any ingredient that was glutenous.  So, for the sake of my gluten free friends, I thought I’d share the recipes.


2T. unsalted butter
1 ½ c. gluten free cornmeal
1t. kosher salt
¾ t. baking soda
2c. Buttermilk (or undiluted evaporated milk)
2 eggs, slightly beaten

Preaheat oven to 425 degrees.  Place butter in cast-iron skillet; put skillet into oven until butter is melted and bubbly.  Combine all of the dry ingredients.  Whisk in buttermilk (or milk) and eggs.  Pour melted butter into batter and whisk.  Pour batter into still-hot skillet.  Bake 25-30 minutes (until an inserted toothpick comes out clean).  Cool for 10 minuets before loosening from skillet.  Turn out onto plate.

Cornbread Dressing

1 pan of cornbread (see above)
8T. unsalted butter, plus some for dish
1 ¾ c. chopped celery (with some tops)
1 ¼ c. yellow onion, chopped
¾ kosher salt
1/4t. ground pepper
1T. oven-dried sage
3 eggs, beaten
3 c. hot chicken broth (Swanson's is safe...may need a little less, may need a little more)

Break cornbread into pieces (crumble).  Preheat oven to 325 degrees.  Melt 5T butter in skillet.  Cook onion, celery, salt and pepper in butter (about 10-15 minutes).  Do not brown.  Stir in sage; set aside to cool.  Once the onion mixture is cool, stir into cornbread.  Stir in beaten eggs and hot broth.  Melt remaining butter and stir in until everything is mixed well. Mixture will be soupy.  Pour into buttered baking dish.  Bake 40 minutes.  Increase heat to 425 degrees for 5 minutes.  Let stand 5 minutes before dishing up.  Serves 12.

Happy two days after Thanksgiving, y'all!

Friday, November 23, 2012

A Porch Presentation

With daytime temperatures in the seventies, there are flowers blooming again.  At the end of November, violets, azalea, and even spirea are blooming along side the nandina berries.  It is the nature of winter in Alabama.

There are children out playing in the neighborhood again, as well.  Even Tex, his shadow long absent from our doorstep because of a late-summer banning by his grandfather from our neighborhood (I believe the charge was insubordination) has been back, knocking for Flavor Ice and attention.

I've just finished giving an impromptu presentation to Tex and the McCall boys on paleontology and archaeology in Alabama, complete with artifacts, pictures and demonstrations.  There were histrionics and lots of “How much will you sell that to me for?”

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Woodland Park II

Eric didn’t have to twist my arm to get me to walk that old road bed back through the trees, and as we walked, I began to recognize more and more of the landscape that had been so familiar to me so many years ago.  We passed a metal equipment shed that I couldn’t quite place, but then I began to talk as we walked, “Now there was an old house up there on that rise…and there should be pond out here to the right, and there would’ve been a field in front of it…”  My breath caught in my throat, for there it was, the pond, all choked around its edge with blackberry brambles and tall grasses.  And the field, yes, it was still there, only it was now edged with old bleachers, and looked as if it had been used (or unused, in this case) a long time ago as a practice field. 

As we walked into the openness of the field, I reoriented myself as to where our units were placed (fine units with straight walls and floors scraped so clean that you could easily photograph any features or post molds) and where our tents would have been set up by the pond, all the while, my eyes scanned the ground for evidence of fire cracked rock or debitage that should’ve been exposed over the years through natural erosion.  Although my eyes strained at every grass-free spot I saw, there was nothing that would indicate an excavation had ever taken place there.  And I was not about to dig anywhere to see what lay just beneath the surface.  I am a former contract archaeologist and that would be unethical, not to mention highly illegal in the state of Alabama.

Making our way around edge of the field, we saw the remnants of a small shed in the embrace of some saplings and some unidentifiable scrap metal. Not much else.  At that point we headed back towards a ditch that ran along the side of the equipment shed.  “I can’t believe there is nothing laying on top…no debitage, no nothing.  I just wish there was something…” And then I saw it sitting on top of a small mound of dirt, a small roughly knapped triangle.  “Got a bird point,” I said.  “We are probably the first people to hold this since its owner dropped it thousands of years ago…” Eric was incredulous, had to touch it to make sure it was real. We kept walking and looking.  Tiny bits of sand and grit tempered plain pottery, bits of sparkly quartz, some chert debris, a small slice of green stone.  Nothing that anyone else would’ve ever noticed, but something to an eye that was once trained to see such.  We were giddy.  I felt vindicated…why I needed that assurance, I’ll never know.  Eric rightly chalked it up to some form of existential validation.  We all need that sometimes.  Now, who to turn these things over to...

As the sun began its descent, we walked the old chert road back to the softball fields where our friends were warming up on the cyclocross course.   Strange to see so much of the modern world in such close proximity to the ancient.  I pulled my phone out of my pocket and dialed my old crew chief’s number to see if he and his wife Angie (a former archaeology crew mate) would like to join us for the evening (they live nearby).  He said they would love to, but they were in Mobile on a college visit for their daughter Jesse.  Could I believe she was old enough to be going to college?  No, I couldn’t.  Jessie was probably conceived on one of our last excavations as a crew together, the Dry Branch dig.  She shouldn’t be old enough for college.  Then Chris asked me if I had taken Eric back to the old dig site, and had we seen the blue hole…

Bird Point



( Upper L, in a circle) Quartz, green stone, bird point, debris, pottery.


And now for some photos from the 1991 dig:

Woodland Park Excavation 1991
The Pond
The Blue Hole
The Old Homestead.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Woodland Park Part I

Back in 1991, as a Jacksonville State University student, I helped excavate a Woodland Indian site near Anniston.  The area was doomed for modern recreation, to be turned into a sports complex.  It was only my second excavation, my first being the excavation of the old Davis Farm (now almost completely obscured by the boom of the Oxford area near I-20).  I was still learning what debitage and debris meant when it came to lithics, what naturally occurring tempers would have been used in ceramics of that area (sand, grit), and how to tell a mound from a regular old hill (I still struggle with that some times). 

For two full weeks that May, I spent Monday through Friday from eight in the morning till four in the late afternoon digging, sorting, and processing at that site which was located back through the woods in a field by a pond (the pond by which I camped for the first time in my life, waking up to the sound of my crew chief Chris Hill frying up his breakfast). There was an old two-story house with a barn close by, and a hauntingly beautiful blue hole within walking distance.  Two mischievous ponies with the names Timmy and Al (aka Evil) lived on the property and they made a point to behave sometimes in ways that would result in their being run off.

It was my first experience of digging a site that I knew was marked to fall under the bulldozer of progress.  Our field school represented the last chance to preserve the cultural artifacts that were left there upwards of three thousand years ago by prehistoric Native Americans.  In the end, the process of backfilling our meticulously excavated units was a painful closure.  We had removed as much as we could.  When we left at the end of June, I thought I’d never see the place again.  And I maybe wouldn’t have if it hadn’t been for Bamacross.

Last weekend, Mellow Mushroom Racing hosted a two-day cyclocross race in Anniston.  It was part of the Bamacross series…and it was held at Woodland Park Softball Complex.  So, after going to my nephew’s skating party at Merry Go Round Skate (which is another story entirely, and involves me roller skating again for the first time in about thirty years), I headed over to Anniston.

Taking the old way that I used to drive back when I was a fledgling shovel bum, I was struck by how little had changed on those curvy county roads.  I could almost swear that the same skinny country boys were still driving the same late-model muscle cars just as fast as they did in the 90s, and the same old trailer park was still filled with the same washed out old trailers.  But the park…when I got to the entrance of Woodland Park, it was entirely different than it was when I last laid eyes on it.  Gone was the farm gate that I had to open, drive through, and then close to get onto the farm.  Gone was the chert drive that I had to drive real slow on lest I stirred up so much dust I couldn’t see where I was going nor from where I came.  In their place were beautifully landscaped grounds with a nicely paved road.   But, as Eric pointed out to me while I pouted, if I looked back behind the far left field, I could still see an old road bed that cut back into the trees…

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Gluten Free Gumbo: An Experiment

I used to love cooking Cajun and Creole cuisine...etouffe, gumbo, jambalaya, blackened fish (or any other kind of meat that would hold still and let me blacken it)...cayenne toasts that guests could smear with just about anything (my favorite anything being a paste of feta, basil and olive oil that was pulverized within an inch of its life).  I even competed in a local Cajun Iron Chef match against my future partner, Eric (He made a legendary chicken and sausage gumbo. I made a crawfish etouffee.).  But then I discovered that I had an allergy to gluten, which meant that I could no longer make a flour-based roux for any of my New Orleans' favorites (or a beschamel sauce for my eggs and asparagus, or a sawmill gravy for the biscuit that I could no longer have).  I was, to quote Albert Goldman from The Birdcage, "betrayed, bewildered" by this terrible turn of events.  But, after two weeks or so of being completely gluten free, I no longer had the terrible stomach issues, the full-body rash, the like-clockwork-at-3PM-lethargy that made me think I was an undiagnosed narcoleptic.  I felt better than I had ever felt (I had a very hard time justifying and quantifying this to was hard to compare the now-self to the child-self in terms of how one felt from a gastrointestinal aspect.  Humans tend to adjust to whatever seems to be normal for themselves.  I thought that indigestion and bloating was something that everyone just lived with.).

Gluten free cooking is not very complicated once you learn which commercial brands of foods and condiments are safe.  If you are like me and many of my GF friends, keeping an online document of  resources as you find them makes it easier to navigate the isles of barbecue sauce, oats, and ice cream (thank the good Lord for Ben & Jerry).

Having said all that about GF cooking, gluten free baking is another animal altogether for me.  Most of the GF baking recipes appear to be an amalgamation of three different kinds of somewhat pricey potato/rice/corn/ or other non-glutenous flour, some xantham or guar gum, and tapioca or potato starch...mixed with some other more recognizable ingredients.  My talented GF friend Lora M., otherwise known as the Bamacross Beer Fairy (she sips on cider while giving beer hand-ups to the cyclists during races...all the while heckling them in the most creative and brutal fashion), has beautifully mastered the art of GF baking.  Her maple bacon cupcakes are absolutely to die for...

Wow, have I digressed, or what?!?  Let me get back to my original intent with this post, which was to describe in detail what I made last night for the first time in almost two years:  a gumbo.  Because of the fact that gumbos require a roux, and a roux is made with equal parts oil and flour, I have given gumbos a wide berth.  Never again.  Last night I tested a roux using Bob's Red Mill All Purpose Baking Flour and it worked splendidly in a gumbo which we will be having for dinner tonight with friends who are for all intents and purposes, gluten free.

Gluten Free Chicken, Shrimp & Sausage Gumbo
Modified from The New Cajun-Creole Cooking by Terry Thompson, which is an out of print softcover, but can be found used through Amazon, pg. 29):

1lb. Hillshire Farms Turkey Kielbasa, cut into bite-sized rounds
2 cups dark-cooked Cajun Roux (see recipe below and double it)
2 medium onions, chopped
2 medium green bell peppers, chopped
4 lg. stalks of celery with tops, chopped
4 med. cloves of garlic, minced
1 tsp. dried leaf thyme
1 tsp. dried leaf oregano
3 quarts (12 cups) of Swanson chicken broth
3 cups cooked chicken meat, shredded
1 lb. shelled raw shrimp
2 cups fresh okra
Salt, black pepper and cayenne pepper to taste.
Cooked white rice
Garnishes:  diced green onions and minced parsley (flat-leaf)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  On a lipped cookie sheet, spread the turkey kielbasa.  Bake to render out the fat for about 25 minutes.  Drain fat off and set aside.  Bring the Swanson's chicken stock to a boil and keep hot.  In a large Dutch oven (needs to be big 'cause this recipe makes a lot), combine already cooked roux (still hot), onions, bell pepper, celery, garlic, thyme & oregano.  Cook and stir constantly until veggies are wilted, about 25 minutes.  When the veggies are cooked, add the boiling stock to the roux/vegetable mixture, stirring constantly to blend.  Add the sausage, chicken and raw shrimp and stir.  If you are serving this immediately, add the okra.  If you are planning to serve it the next day, save the okra to add during the warm-up process (reheated okra is not a pretty sight).  Season to taste with salt, black pepper and cayenne (we prefer to use Nigerian cayenne because it has more heat to it).  Cook on low heat for about an hour.  Serve over rice.  Garnish with green onions and parsley.  8-10 servings.

Gluten Free Cajun Roux Recipe
Again, modified from The New Cajun-Creole Cooking by Terry Thompson, pg. 12):

1 cup vegetable oil
1 cup Bob's Red Mill Gluten Free All Purpose Baking Flour

Caveat:  Get any bathroom trips, iPod playlist changes, or beverage pouring over with before you start your roux.  You cannot leave it for ANY reason during the process unless you have a designated stand-in with you.  Turn your back on it and it will burn.

In a Dutch oven or deep cast-iron skillet, heat the vegetable oil on the upper side of medium temperature (5 or 6 if you have a numbered dial) until it is hot (NOT smoking or you'll burn your flour).  The oil will begin to quiver gently when it is ready.  Add ALL of your flour to the oil, whisking or stirring (a wooden spoon or wooden spatula works best).  Mash out any lumps with the back of your spoon.  Reduce heat to a medium-low.  Cook, stirring or whisking constantly, scrapping along the entire bottom of cooking vessel, until roux is either a dark peanut butter color or a dark mahogany color.  This will take time, so be prepared to spend 45 minutes with the cooking process.  Do not rush the process or leave the pot unattended.  If you see black specks in the roux, it has burned and will need to be discarded.  As with my stovetop, you may have to adjust your heat as you are cooking to either move the process forward, or slow the process down.  To stop the cooking process when you have achieved the desired color, either add the vegetables called for in the recipe you are making, or transfer the roux to an unheated metal bowl (will not hold heat).  Continue to whisk roux for the next 15 minutes to prevent separation.  Yields one cup.

So, that is it.  The roux is the trickiest part as you have to constantly work it while cooking it.  And although you may want to break out your Munsell chart to check, you will know when you have reached the desired brown color.  I went for dark peanut on this batch, but mahogany lends a nice rich flavor, if that is what you want.

Your house will smell intensely of gumbo for a couple of days after making this, but it is a small price to pay for home-cooked, gluten free comfort food that easily makes enough to serve about eight to ten people.

Sunday, October 28, 2012


The weather is changing.  Leaves to be raked, plants to be brought in.  Drastic differences in daytime highs and nighttime lows.  Our northeastern states are bracing themselves for Hurricane Sandy, which the media has dubbed “Frankenstorm.”  The storm is due to hit Delaware on Monday evening.  It will move north from there, dropping rain and snow, knocking out electricity and causing a ruckus just in time for Halloween.  I know my northeastern friends, who are like family, have prepared themselves.  One cannot live in Maryland, New York, or Connecticut and not take a storm like this seriously.

Just finished reading Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain.  I’m fairly certain that I had read this book before, but it would have been a long time ago.  Its publication date is 1959.  The same year that William S. Burroughs published The Naked Lunch, Hunter S. Thompson published The Rum Diary, and Ian Fleming published both Goldfinger and For Your Eyes Only.  My Side of the Mountain is the story of a young boy who runs away from New York City to live off the land in the Catskills.  I enjoyed the resourcefulness of young Sam Gribley, and could relate to his preparations for winter, but was frightened by the absence of a concerned parent (probably due to the horrific news stories recently about children gone missing and unhappy endings).  Sam’s story ends on an unbelievably upbeat note…

I’ve also been reading quite a bit by a New York blogger, 66 Square Feet.  Marie blogs eloquently (and so darned poetically) about gardening on her tiny terrace, cooking and eating the foods she grows there, and navigating, often on foot, her amazing city.  Her blog is a delightful love-letter about New York, her feline friend Estorbo, her spouse the Frenchman, and sometimes about her roots in South Africa.  Marie, Estorbo and the Frenchman are preparing for Sandy’s visit to the coast…carefully tended plants have been moved to safety, ingredients for simple yet elegant meals have been procured, beer and wine are to be purchased to soothe the soul.  I can relate.  If this storm were hitting Alabama, Eric and I would be doing approximately the same thing.

We are having NY strips, roasted rosemary potatoes and field greens for dinner.  Eric is under the weather, so this calls for blood...

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Running & Born to Run by Christopher McDougall

Never make promises while sitting in an emergency room because it is a guarantee that those promises will be made under the influence of some kind of duress AND may be difficult to keep.

Eric was propped on a gurney in the hallway of the ER on a Friday night in August (the 17th, to be exact).  We were there with what I can only describe as the most ill-behaved slice of humanity, for an accident that shouldn’t have happened.  Two hours earlier, Eric had wrecked his bike while training for cyclocross when he hit a foliage-concealed crater left in the park by Alagasco project workers.  His bike was toast (this after having rebuilt it from his earlier crash on May 24).  His body had not faired much better than the bike, what with his ripening black eye, broken nose, multiple facial scrapes, bruised back and wonky collar bone (the same collar bone that had just healed from being broken and surgically repaired in the May crash).  He was mad.  And he was done with cycling.  For good this time.  He thought out loud that perhaps he would focus again on running...

Maybe I wasn't thinking straight because of the stress, but I found myself telling Eric that if he did in fact decide to give up cycling and pick running back up, I would start running with him.

So, after about a month of healing, Eric and I went for a run together.  We ran a little over two miles.  I'm sorry, let me clarify that I did not run the ENTIRE two miles.  I ran one minute, walked one minute, ran one minute, walked one minute.  This seemed to work for me because although my legs kept telling me to go, go, go, my lungs kept telling me to just lay down on the pavement for a minute or two until someone I knew drove by and offered me a ride home.  It has gotten a bit easier since that first run, but I still have to bargain with myself to "just make it to the next fire hydrant."

How does Born to Run by Christopher McDougall play into all of this?  Well, Eric read McDougall's book recently while at the beach, and liked it well enough to share parts of it with me as he read.  I was intrigued, so once he was finished, I decided to read it too.

Born to Run, with its history of the birth of the grueling Leadville 100, its details of the deadly allure of the Copper Canyons of Mexico, and its fascinating scientific data which appear to shore up the idea that humans were indeed born to run, is a page-turner (and also a bestseller).  McDougall introduces us to the legendary Tarahumara, a tribe indigenous to the Copper Canyons region...a tribe known for their superhuman running abilities. He also introduces us to a motley and award-winning crew of American ultramarathoners:  the empathetic and kindhearted Scott Jurek, the intense Kerouac-spouting youngsters Jenn Shelton and Billy Barnett (aptly referred to as the Party Kids), runner/photographer Luis Escobar, the talkative Barefoot Ted (who, as you might guess, runs barefoot for the most part and yes, he talks a lot), and the admirable and unforgettable Caballo Blanco (Shaggy, Micah True, Michael Randall Hickman) whose dream to host an ultramarathon in the unforgiving Copper Canyons between the best Tarahumara runners and the best American ultrarunners becomes his magnum opus.  Even as a non-runner, I found this book engaging, what with its anthropological theories and its sometimes hilarious observations of the colorful real-life characters.

A sobering testament to the beguiling abilities of athletic shoe advertising may be seen when McDougall discusses the "Painful Truth" about feet and running shoes (pgs. 171-177 of the softcover Vintage Book edition):

"So if running shoes don't make you go faster and don't stop you from getting hurt, then what, exactly, are you paying for?  What are the benefits of all those microchips, 'thrust enhancers,' air cushions, torsion devices, and roll bars?  Well, if you have a pair of Kinseis in your closet, brace yourself for some bad news.  And like all bad news, it comes in threes:
Painful Truth No. 1:  The Best Shoes Are the Worst
Painful Truth No. 2:  Feet Like a Good Beating
Final Painful Truth:  Even Alan Webb Says 'Human Beings Are Designed to Run Without Shoes'"

Of course, McDougall inserts compelling information to back up each "Painful Truth," but I'm going to leave that to you to find out what that compelling information is.  It did make me think back to the fourteen years of ballet I devoted myself to, many of the hours in those fourteen years spent practicing at the barre either barefoot or in soft ballet shoes with no support whatsoever.  If McDougall is correct, then my strong feet and ankles should thank me for all those years of unsupported pounding that I subjected them to.  I also think back on my favorite hiking boots that I wore in my early twenties while working as a contract archaeologist, suede hightop Payless work boots with soles so flexible and rubbery, I could actually feel my feet and toes gripping the rocks underneath them when I hiked rough terrain.  God, I loved those boots and still hold out hope of finding similar ones one day...

Another intriguing part of Born to Run was the research on persistence hunting (the running to death of an animal over a period of time) as one of the theoretical reasons for the evolution of the human body into such a perfect running mechanism.  Persistence hunting would be virtually untraceable through the archaeological record if it wasn't for certain bony characteristics in the human body that developed evolutionarily to position a persistence hunter in a place to be more successful.  It is a plausible theory, one that  McDougall fleshes out with Louis Liebenberg's study of one of the few living examples of persistence hunting left in the world, the Kalahari Bushmen of southern Africa (and not all of the Kalahari practice persistence hunting, only a "renegade band" of a few tribesmen).  Liebenberg lived and hunted with these Kalahari renegades long enough to completely change the way he ate and ran, becoming a better runner and a better hunter. And when Liebenberg left Africa, he wrote The Art of Tracking:  The Origin of Science, which is probably another good read.

Born to Run left me with a better understanding of what a proper running diet would be (less is more, and vegan seems to be choice), what shoes would best serve a long-distance runner (not the expensive kind that offer an overly supporting structure), and the best running form (run barefoot and you will figure out your best running form actually is). Born to Run also left me with a great respect for ultrarunners, most specifically those ultrarunners who were mentioned by the author.  These athletes love running.  Otherwise I don't believe they could do what they do.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

New Orleans

Hurricane Isaac is taking out its frustration on New Orleans.  This, exactly seven years after Katrina.

On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit the southern coastal region of the US.  I was still living in Denver at the time, and I watched the news anxiously as Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana were battered and flooded by the storm.  And what I saw happen in the aftermath of the storm…well, that tragedy unfolded over countless days, weeks and months, and frankly diminished my faith in our government’s ability to handle a natural disaster of such a magnitude.

The one and only time that I visited New Orleans was in late December of 2001.  I was there for the Modern Language Association’s annual convention, not to attend the conference myself, but to support those people who were, at the time, a significant part of my life as they interviewed potential job candidates or were interviewed for potential teaching jobs in the field of English.  As with all MLA Convention trips, I was on my own a great deal, which suited me fine as I enjoyed exploring new cities without the constraints of schedules or meetings, especially the constraints of schedules and meetings that were not mine.  I find that it is sometimes much easier to get lost, and then found, when one is on their own…

New Orleans for me was the St. Charles Ave. Line streetcar to Riverbend, Lafayette Cemetery #1, and Anne Rice’s First Street home (her limo idling out front).  New Orleans was also the muffaletta that I had from Central Grocery, the homeless man outside my hotel (who I checked on every day and maybe even gave some money to a couple of times), the little boy tap dancing in the street with his bottle cap taps on the bottoms of his shoes, the frozen daiquiri I had with Satina Smith at the French Market, and later the absinthe I had, again with Satina, at The Old Absinthe House on Rue Burbon as we waited for her then-husband Craig Arnold to finish up with his MLA obligations.  Everywhere I turned, New Orleans was intoxicating green foliage, a preserved decay, and a people who enjoyed seeing you enjoy their city.

New Orleans sits below sea level.  After Katrina hit in August of 2005, eighty percent of New Orleans, not surprisingly, was flooded when the levees that protected the city were breached during the storm surge.  It was difficult to watch the flood-waters rise to the roofs of homes in the Ninth Ward.  It was even more difficult to watch the rescue operations being conducted by other citizens of the city because, as far as I could tell, the government wasn’t sending any help anytime soon.

A few days after Katrina hit, people began to grumble about the rescue effort costing the U.S. so much money, and “Why didn’t those people evacuate in the first place?”  Then there was grumbling about the increasing cost of fuel, this because of Katrina’s interrupting the oil refining in the Gulf…

One morning, as I was pumping gas at a downtown Denver filling station, I was approached by a television news crew that wanted to know if I was bothered by the rising cost of fuel.  I politely declined their on-camera offer of an interview, but I was willing to share my thoughts with them.  I told them that I was originally from the south, and had relatives who were somewhat impacted by Hurricane Katrina.  I went on to tell them that I was less concerned with the price of my gas bill that day but more concerned about was the fact that New Orleans, a city that willingly opens itself up to tourists who gorge themselves on its food, drink its liquor until they vomit, expose themselves during Mardi Gras and even urinate on its streets, was being treated like a third world country where aid has to be approved before it was doled out.  No, that was unacceptable in my book.   The news crew walked away before I could preach to them about how most of the folks who were costing us so much in rescue dollars were people who COULDN’T LEAVE New Orleans because they were the poor blacks and whites whose numbers are so great and their resources so limited that they had nowhere to go and no means to use to get there.  Don’t EVEN get me started.

And then, on September 4, 2005, Anne Rice wrote a NY Times article entitled “Do you know what it means to lose New Orleans?” that said it best:
Now nature has done what the Civil War couldn't do. Nature has done what the labor riots of the 1920's couldn't do. Nature had done what ‘modern life’ with its relentless pursuit of efficiency couldn't do. It has done what racism couldn't do, and what segregation couldn't do either. Nature has laid the city waste - with a scope that brings to mind the end of Pompeii.” 

Seven years later, New Orleans is still struggling to recover from the devastation of Katrina.  Clean-up efforts continue, but it is a monthly, weekly, daily struggle.  Just read this March 21, 2012 article from the NY Times Magazine, Jungleland:  The Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans Gives New Meaning to ‘Urban Growth.’  Does anyone else out there have a problem with this, or is it just me?

Eric and I are fans of HBO’s series Treme.  It focuses on life in a New Orleans neighborhood after Katrina.  We can’t get enough…

One more thing before I go, I found a short documentary that focuses on eyewitnesses who were stranded in a New Orleans hotel during Katrina.  The documentary is made from footage captured by James L. Bills and is entitled Refuge of Last Resort.  Please give yourself about an hour to watch it.  Please watch it. 

Oh, and of course you cannot go wrong with Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, which may be found on Youtube.