Friday, June 25, 2010

Song of the Day: Corcovado (Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars), Stan Getz

One of the best things about having more than 4,000 songs on your iPod is that often something comes up on shuffle that you haven’t heard in a long time. Sometimes, in fact, something comes up that didn’t know you had. Or that you haven’t ever heard.

Corcovado is one of those songs. Its a jazzy number that I have a feeling I got on a mix CD from my friend Tyra. A pretty song, it’s sung half in French, which I’m pretty sure makes it twice as good.

I should probably understand the French portion much better than I do, having taken two years of it in high school and three semesters worth in college as mandated by the University of Missouri. At the beginning of my matriculation there I actually harbored thoughts of getting a minor in the language. That dream, it turns out, was only slightly less realistic than the one I had about playing second base for the Chicago Cubs.

For even after those three classes and the hours spent in the foreign language laboratory practicing my pronunciations into a headset that would have made Judy from Time-Life books envious, the truth is my French is “tres merde-y,” as my friend Matt could attest. He stood next to me at a gas station one night as I tried to get directions out of Athens, Greece, from a woman who spoke French but not English. Our minute-long conversation involved a lot of nodding on my part, as if I was channeling the Bill Murray character from the Saturday Night Live Olympia Restaurant skit. When I sat down in the passenger seat and Matt asked me which direction to head, I sat there dumbstruck.

I was having flashbacks to Bruno Wambi.

Wambi, from Congo, had a name that conjured up images of an African assassin. The freshman French students who had him as their teacher would say that he was. I was lucky. I didn’t land in Wambi’s section for my freshman-year, five-day a week class. I did, however, find my name on Wambi’s hit list when it came time for my oral examination, which had to be administered by someone other than your regular teacher. This ensured that you would be embarrassed in front of at least one more person that semester.

They conducted the oral examinations in the foreign language department, which, on every campus I’ve ever been on, seems to be the equivalent of the high school shop department. That is to say they’re headquartered in dirty places, far out of sight and funded with whatever money is left over after the maintenance folks get paid. Mizzou was no different. Judging by the messy cubicles, they crammed about six teaching assistants into each of them. I imagined the TAs cursing each other in a variety of languages for not maintaining a clean work environment.

It was into this morass that I stumbled in search of Wambi. I was only slightly less nervous than this kid. It was as if I was going to a job interview only it was going to be conducted in a foreign language. And my professor made it abundantly clear that, no matter the circumstances, you weren’t to speak English during the exam. This made my preparation even more difficult because it took me at least 30 minutes to learn to say “I think I’m having a heart attack” in French.

I found Wambi and we exchanged pleasantries, which contained several utterances of my go-to phrase, “Comme ci, comme ca.” As far as I could tell the phrase could be used to answer everything from “How are you?” to “How would you like your steak prepared?”

Then Wambi got to it.

Apparently, the bulk of the exam was going to deal with Wambi asking for directions to places throughout Columbia, Mo. I’m not sure if every examiner asked the same questions, or if Wambi was just new in town. This was a challenge for me, and not just because I was like a 3-year-old when it came to knowing which was “gauche” and which was “droite.”

I’m terrible at directions. I don’t remember street names. I get lost going home on a regular basis. I can’t remember which street places I regularly visit can be found on. My brothers bought me a Garmin GPS for Christmas a couple years ago because they were sick of me getting lost on the way to family functions. You could tell me that something is on the 1000 block of West Addison Street and you might as well be speaking French. I won’t find it.

Complicating matters even more, at least in terms of my conversation with Wambi, was that I didn’t have a car during my freshman year in college, having sold my 1981 Mercury Capri to the junkyard for $50 on the day before I left for school. At that point, I’m not sure that I’d ever been to the mall and if I had, I certainly didn’t drive there. I tried to convey this information to Wambi in my halting French. He, not surprisingly, didn’t understand that while I understood what he was asking, I couldn't tell him how to get to the mall -- in English or in French.

So, Wambi, like anybody who is confronted with an interlocutor who doesn’t speak his language, started speaking slower and louder in French. And here it must be said that Wambi’s mandible seemed to function independently from the rest of his head, almost like Ike, the toddler from South Park. If it was possible to be double jointed in the jaw, Wambi was. So now, as I tried to shuffle through the 40 or 50 French vocabulary words I knew that might help me answer Wambi’s question (“La plage?” Nope, there was no beach in Columbia, as far as I knew. “La bibliotheque?” I hadn’t been to the mall, so I sure as hell hadn’t been to the library. “La fenetre?” The window? Really?), I couldn’t concentrate because I was distracted by this anatomical wonder before my eyes.

I found myself just staring at him in the same way, eight years later, I’d be staring at the woman at the Athens gas station. I could see the disappointment in Wambi’s face as he looked at his clipboard, jotting down notes that I’m sure said something like “Homme est tres stupide,” only in grammatically correct French.

Needless to say, I failed the oral exam. And while I passed the class, my dreams of getting a minor in French, or, for that matter, being able to ask for directions in Paris, died in the Arts and Science building on the campus of the University of Missouri back in the fall of 1992.

I should have taken Spanish.

Running update:

Wednesday: 4 mile recovery run in 37:18

Yesterday: 8 miles (with middle 4@7:06 pace) in 63:40

Today: Off

Tomorrow: 14 miles (Yikes!)

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Song of the Day: Rearviewmirror, Pearl Jam

It’s fitting the first blog entry deals with a story having to do with me and my brother Paul, as he’s the one most responsible for my achy knees and my aspirations of running 26.2 miles nonstop. He came to visit me in Jackson in March with his wife and beautiful daughter and practically made his visit contingent on me running a half marathon with him in Nashville. He’s three years my junior and has run 9 marathons, most recently the Boston Marathon, after which he filed this report.

In spite of the fact that the last race I ran was a 5k in 1991 as a member of my high school cross country team, the Nashville half marathon went off without a hitch. Paul beat me by more than 15 minutes and didn’t seem to break a sweat while doing it. I figured if 13 miles didn’t kill me, I could do 26. Math is not my strong suit.

Anyway, back to today’s song. Lately in Tennessee we’ve been experiencing, like much of the country, some oppressive heat, the kind that has my dog Lou panting the moment we step off the elevator and into the foyer of my building, knowing what awaits him.

How hot has it been? It’s 10:20 p.m. as I type this and it’s still 83 degrees with a heat index of 89. Yesterday was the first day of summer, but the lowest high temperature of the last 10 days was 90 and the rest have had highs of at least 93 and the humidity highs have been at least 93 percent each day as well. But still, it’s got a ways to go before it’s as sweltering as the summer of 1995 in Chicago, where 521 people died from heat-related causes during the month of July. I was interning at the newspaper in Joliet, Ill., that summer, writing stories and sweating in my 1985 Oldsmobile Firenza, a gem of a car whose inability to cool air was rivaled only by its inability to attract women. I still blame the hatchback.

That summer Pearl Jam was on their Five Horizons tour. I had attended their show at Summerfest in Milwaukee on July 11 with my friend Brandon. The lead singer for that show's opening band wore a green frog-like suit and gigantic wings. Other than the time we we spent pulled over on the Interstate 90/94 because the Firenza was overheating, it was a great night.

But one Pearl Jam show just wasn’t going to be enough that summer and my brother Paul and I vowed to get tickets to the show at Chicago’s Soldier Field a couple nights later. This was before the days of Stubhub, so we called around to ticket brokers in a desperate attempt to secure the tickets. We finally found one who said he could get us lawn seats for $120. This seemed like a great deal to both Paul, who was getting ready to go off to college in the fall and was working at my mom’s restaurant, and me, with my $8 an hour gig at the newspaper. Neither of us majored in business.

The ticket broker actually had a window in the back of a restaurant and when we arrived we weren’t handed the ducats, but rather told to have a seat and a drink.

“Don’t worry,” a rather harried gentleman told us as he took our $240, cash. “We’ve got the tickets.”

I immediately started to worry.

Eventually, several more people showed up and were told to join us. We all sat there, somewhat puzzled, awaiting instructions. We soon got them. We were all going to be hopping into a small bus and heading to Soldier Field. I was pretty sure that I’d seen a story on 20/20 that unfolded the same way and ended up with the bus riders ending up being sold into sex slavery. We ran to the bus.

My brother and I were trying to figure out what we’d gotten ourselves into and as we pulled into Soldier Field the answers weren’t forthcoming. Our leader hopped off the bus and left me, my brother and a handful of other really gullible people and told us he’d be right back. He wasn’t. And as the minutes passed, our attitudes worsened. One guy in particular was cursing the ticket broker. He was doing his best to organize an uprising on the bus, as if this were 1955 Montgomery. He successfully convinced at least one other person that rather than sit around and wait and be screwed out of money and a chance to see the most popular band in the world, that they'd demand their money back as soon as possible. When the broker returned they did just that.

“Just be patient,” he pleaded, but the angry dudes weren’t having it and walked off the bus, refunded cash in hand, hoping to find a ticket scalper with a bit more legitimacy.

My brother and I started discussing getting off the bus and trying to find another source for tickets. But we didn't have cell phones, hell, we didn't even have beepers, and for some reason we had faith our ticket broker, even though he had done nothing more than smile, take half my weekly paycheck and give us what amounted to a $120 bus ride to the stadium that would have cost us $1.50 on the CTA .

As hope was dwindling, a guy in a yellow security guard jacket pulled up on a golf cart and talk to our ticket broker friend. Two people were grabbed off the bus, hopped on the golf cart and disappeared toward the stadium. Who the hell was this guy? And where the hell was he taking them? And, most important, was he going to come back for us? At that point, I would have ridden anywhere with this security guy, especially if it meant I was getting off the damn bus and closer to the stadium.

A few minutes later, back he came. My brother and I positioned ourselves so we could be next for whatever next was. We hopped on the cart and headed toward the stadium, disappearing into the bowels of Soldier Field. Our escort started giving us instructions.

“Give me your hands,” he said, taping wristbands on us that he said we’d need to get onto the field. I still didn't believe that's where we were actually headed.

“We’re going to come up to a T up here and I’m going to go left and you’re going to go right,” he told us.

And then, like the 16-year-old in a floppy hat and bow tie taking tickets at the local cinema, his last words to us were "Enjoy the show.”

Sure enough, we made the right turn and walked about a hundred feet and suddenly, almost magically, we were on the Soldier Field turf. The entrance we emerged from seemed to close behind us.

We made our way toward the end zone and got about 20 feet or so from the stage and the opening band, Bad Religion. We did our best to avoid the mosh pits where sweaty, shirtless men were beating each other up while running around in circles. Ah, the '90s.

I’ve always wondered whether those angry guys who took off from the bus ever got in. If they didn’t, they missed a great show, a 155-minute masterpiece that still goes down as the best I’ve ever seen.

The story of the actual concert and the near-death experience Paul and I had there will have to wait for another post. The good news is there’s plenty of Pearl Jam on the iPod and about 16 more weeks worth of runs to hear their songs.

For now, here’s a pretty good rendition of Rearviewmirror, a great song about the emancipating feeling that can come from leaving behind a bad relationship. This footage isn’t from that Chicago concert, but judging by the sweat-soaked Eddie Vedder it may have been about the same temperature at this show as it was in Chicago back in July ‘95.

Oh, yeah. This blog is ostensibly about training for a marathon. Here's what I've been doing lately other than listening to music to help in that quest:

Sunday: 13 miles in 1:44:56

Yesterday: Off

Today: 10 miles in 1:26:26

Tomorrow: 4 mile recovery run

Running on Full

An old friend sent me a message the other day after he’d heard that I’d be running my first marathon in the fall in Chicago. (I write he “heard” it as if it led CNN’s coverage that night. He saw it when I announced it on my Facebook page).

His message: “I once knew a guy named Michael Kapellas who told me this when I was training for a marathon: `Why would you want to do that? People shit themselves.’”

If only I could go back in time about 15 years and talk to that guy. He seems so wise.

By the time I got that message, it was too late to back out. Today marked the start of the third week of the 18-week training program that will have me ready for the race on October 10.

Having survived the first 79 miles of the training program, I’ve decided to begin my blog about the experience. These days I think it’s required of all marathon runners, especially first timers. You get the expensive shoes, the durable headphones, a book on running marathons, the running shorts that would make Daisy Duke blush and then you head over to to stake your claim to your corner of the blogging universe.

Many of these blogs document the painful experience that is preparing for a marathon. I’m not very interested in telling you about how the training is going. Oh, you’ll get some of that, but the truth is I know it’s going to be hard. I know I’m going to be sore. I know there are going to be ups and downs, good runs and bad. But I’m not the first person to do this, won’t be the last and, frankly, won’t know enough about what the hell is happening to me or my body to offer any valuable insight on that front. Focusing on those inevitable struggles and the corresponding aches and pains seems rather uninteresting and I could imagine my reaction to reading day after day of it. I’d be shouting: “Then stop running!” at the screen.

Of course, it’s pretty presumptuous of me to believe that anybody would be interested in reading the personal stories that I’ve decided the blog will focus on instead. My response to that is, of course, “Then stop reading!” (This is, I realize, a great recipe for a well-read blog. Tell the readers to stop reading before any of them have started. Oh, well. I'm new.)

So while you’ll hear that I ran eight miles today, I’m more interested it writing about what I was thinking about while doing that running and, more specifically, just as the blog’s name suggests, what one of the songs that I heard on my iPod made me think about. The blog will be a running musical memoir in several senses of the phrase. You’ll meet people and events from my life as well as any other type of memory that happens to get, uh, jogged by what I’m hearing in my headphones.

Here’s hoping it’s an enjoyable, poop-free journey, all the way to the finish line on October 10.