Archives for the month of: September, 2013

Both the State Police and army were massing troops on the north side of town as I set out for my run at 10 am. As the combi-bus passed I counted 2 big army trucks and a dozen state police trucks in a big parking lot. Every man was wearing black body armor, helmets and masks and carrying M-16s. The trucks were rigged out with tripod  mounted M-60 machine guns. Later into my run I could see that they had set set up check points on National Highway 15 and were re-routing some northbound traffic through my valley. The big guns, black clad guys and all of the extra traffic kinda harshed my mellow.

A very unusual Monday morning for this part of Michoacan. I have seen patrols before. But I had never seen this level of activity. There was even a helicopter involved. I have no idea what was happening to the south of town or anywhere else in the locality. I do know that the little old town of Sahuayo is highly contested territory between 2 different groups of bad guys. One of the local bad guys grew up here and the bad guys from the nearby neighboring state of Jalisco want to take it away from him. This rivalry precipitates periodic murders, shoot outs and gun battles, assassinations, decapitations, and mayhem.

My friend, Mike Loh sent me a big assortment of Cuban cigars from Singapore and they arrived today. And they arrived in such pristine condition that whoever packaged them is a genius.

I am beside myself with joy and happiness.

Smoking a great cigar is a culinary top-tener. A glass of a great Bordeaux Grand Cru is another one of those top-teners. Or a mixed ceviche in Peru. Caviar. Sushi in Japan. Oysters on the half shell. A porterhouse grilled medium rare over mesquite served with butter fried morel mushrooms. To be continued.

Cocktail hour cannot come early enough today to suit me.

I am going to break open my last good bottle of tequila  – Tepatio Reposado – kick back on the veranda, fire up one of those big, fat Cohibas and watch as the late afternoon storm blows in from the east.

It’s okay to be a little jealous.

When I was a little boy I wasn’t afraid of dogs, just the opposite. I’d walk up to a highly agitated barking dog and attempt to pet it; who would – crazy as it seems – generally let me. My grandfather warned me more than once that I was going to get bit but I never did.

At least not until Bart’s rescue bitch of a German Sheppard lunged out the back of his ’65 Ford Econoline van and took a chunk out of the rear end of my Levis. As an unprovoked surprise attack it quite frankly scared the shit out of me. Bart shrugged it off saying she had a hard time after being abandoned on the mean streets of Detroit. I was 19 at the time and it was at that moment when my fearless relationship with dogs changed forever. Getting bit by a dog is scary. And it hurts. Getting bit by a big dog you didn’t even see is something entirely else; terrifying, that’s a good word.

I’ve had several other frightening encounters over the years; never in the US where there are things like leash laws and legal accountability. I had two encounters in Bolivia back in the ‘90s which could have both turned out very ugly, but didn’t. And I’ve had more than one encounter down here in Mexico. The scariest encounter was with three big dogs while I was running up in the hills called the ‘Big Panties’ a few months back. In surviving that encounter I learned a couple of valuable lessons: immediately fight back, be very aggressive and show those dogs just who the big dog really is – in other words, bluff like hell. Big posturing with the help of throwing lots of rocks can save your life in such an encounter. It sure was news to me. I was in reaction mode.  I had no idea it would actually work.

This however doesn’t work with pit bulls. I learned that lesson here too. For example when that white and tan pit bull advanced on me I picked up a big rock only to find out almost immediately it was the wrong thing to do. His owner standing a few feet away looked at me and very matter of factly said, ‘I wouldn’t do that if I were you. He doesn’t like rocks’. I looked at the big shovel headed brute and concluded that it would probably piss him off and bounce off his skull anyway so I sensibly put the rock down and the owner called his dog off.

A problem with pit bulls is you can’t read them. They typically don’t wag their tails or do anything to telegraph what their intentions are. You don’t know if that particular one was raised to be aggressive or what. And you can’t fool a pit bull. He already knows who the alpha dog is and you both know that it isn’t you. Other frightening facts: you can’t see into a pit bull’s eyes and that they come in only one color – stone cold.

I had an encounter with a bad guy here a few months ago. He had the same eyes; unreadable and stone cold. The man was a killer, no question about it. He asked me questions like what was I doing in his neighborhood and so forth. He liked my answers enough that his mouth formed the rictus of a smile but the eyes never changed.

Thinking about killers got me thinking back to ’77 right after I partied my way out of 5 useless semesters of university. The best job to be had at the time was that as a corrections officer in a maximum security prison in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I worked inside for one year (to the exact day) and in that time saw lots of killers. I talked to them too. During that year we took the transfer of one of the very first of the infamous serial killers – the young guy who murdered those 7 or 8 coeds at the University of Michigan back in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Locked up in the Segregation Unit in B-Block with the other protection cases he looked like a baby faced punk who wouldn’t survive a week out in the general population.

Most convicts for that matter look like regular people. It helps that there is this running myth that every last man locked up doing time is innocent. Every last single man in the joint – just listen to them and they’ll tell you – they are there because of some huge mistake. And to keep the illusion and hope alive means that every other convict is working on some stage of an appeal.

There are very few tough guy acts in a maximum security prison. Most everyone just wants to do their time as quietly as possible. And paroles are easier to come by if you play the game and act the nice guy.

But here on the outside – down here in Mexico – bad guys and big dogs don’t have to pretend to be anything other than what they are.

I just got in from an hour and a half run out on the canal and I am extremely happy. What is there about running in just shorts and sandals exactly that feels so positively liberating? Here in Mexico, in this climate it’s the height of comfort. Running here is nothing like taking a jog through Rock Creek Park or doing a run on the C&O Canal Trail; both in Washington, DC. No, it’s a little less sheltered here, also a little more open and a lot less protected. But my running is the better for it. I like wilderness and running places that are off the grid. Places where there are just the primal elements of rock, dirt, sun, and sky. No people to speak of. No traffic. No sounds but that of the wind moving through the leaves and my sandals as they lightly slap the ground. For all I know it could be 1320 and not 2013. Spend enough time in this Mexican valley and you come to realize just how totally indifferent nature is to both man and time. Awareness like this on days like today further catalyzes my joy as I cross its landscape. It’s at these times that I never feel so more plugged in and alive. The running monster self has emerged.

Sounds crazy, right? If you’re not a runner or if you’ve never experienced that proverbial runner’s high from elevated levels of endorphins then you might not believe me when I say running jacked up on endorphins is the best buzz on earth.

I’ll preface my argument with a conversation that I had on the phone this morning with one of my oldest friends, also a runner, where I said that the running blogs or the stories that get published about running are mostly ignorable at best. We agreed that wasn’t surprising given that on the [popular]cultural level the sport of running has been hijacked by the shoe and fashion businesses and subsequently get’s bundled up like just about everything else into a lifestyle that involves buying stuff. Yeah, that tired old rant about stuff but running is so intrinsically simple that it really bugs me to see the magazines and blog articles cluttered with things that ooze ickiliy of lifestyle. Running is simple: shorts, sandals, dirt, and time. Some of the articles about style and technique aggravatingly get tied to a particular running shoe solution. And I love the whole celebrity style trainer shoe thing. Or the articles on how to improve your 5K/10K times which improbably segue into reviews of the latest array of GPS enabled running watches. Some articles are inspirational (or nagging) to keep reminding neophytes that running will help them lose weight and stay slim. Yes, truth be known your cute little neighbor runs for that reason but she’s not a true runner in the sense that experientially she never has done more than 6 miles. And she, I can just about guarantee, has never found that endorphin buzz; which by the way, is the total point of the argument of why some of us run.

To begin with the sport of running is exclusive; it’s an activity that a person can’t buy their way into. And contrary to popular opinion running at the very root is really about an anti-consumerist lifestyle if for no other reason that you never have time to shop. To become a better runner, you have to run more. And to be a distance runner is to essentially commit the entirety of your day(s) to running. It is amazing how much of your day gets sucked up by long runs. And you have to eat healthy. You can’t stay out late. In short, the distance runner’s value system changes because of those huge commitments. The only things that really matter to the serious runner are: how the body feels, what’s on the feet is comfortable, and doing the miles.

So there is that, the commitment and the base level physical state that are yours as a runner. But maybe, just maybe somewhere along the way through your persistence something clicks for you and you discover the heart and soul of running – true running. You’re out for a run and you find that somehow your motion has become effortless, your legs feel loose and all-powerful, and your breath is light. And you are accelerating (!) and you don’t know why except it feels so good.

Welcome to the endorphin buzz – enjoy it – because for the moment, you are a superman.

To me, running is all about finding that buzz; to take the body to that perfectly matchless state where everything is operating in full synchronicity. It’s like God has just lifted the curtain just a wee bit enough to show you the majesty of your physical self. And for me it’s only running that can lift me into that rarified place that I can only describe as transcendent. Running, writing, and sandal-making is my life at the moment and I am pretty happy with the way things are turning out. I’d like to be selling more sandals. I’d like to see more people catch on to the fact that I am making the best sandals in the world. But wait and see and in the mean time, enjoy the buzz.

But I first had to push myself through the pain and put in the miles necessary to get to that magical place. It took perseverance and lots of time. I remember that first time I discovered endorphins. It was while my buddy, Ian and I were up running the fire roads in the California high Sierras training for my first and only marathon back in ’97. We finished sprinting the last 30 minutes of a 3 hour run. Yes, sprinting. The endorphin rush made me feel like monster. With endorphins, in the immortal words of Hunter S. Thompson ‘My heart feels like an alligator’.

It was ironic because when I first started training, my very experienced running partners thought I was a hopeless case. They both said my running form was absolute crap. But I hung in there and kept running. So after 17 years I am still running although I didn’t get started until I was approaching forty. I love running more today at 57 then I ever did at 40. Maybe because after all this time I can still find that monster running self; and when it comes to me I am grateful.

People that run to win things like ultra- marathons, marathons, or 5Ks, or whatever – fine – they’re competitive; my daughter is that way. She ran a 3:07 marathon in May of this year which qualified her for both the Boston and NYC’s marathons next year. And I am very proud of her. She’s a competitor and she admits to love passing people in a race. As for me, I’m not a racer. I run for the buzz.

And running where I live in Mexico it’s a year around proposition; 5000 ft. above sea level, spring like temperatures every day. It’s a runner’s paradise. And I absolutely love Mexico. I live in a town where the people are the nicest in the entire world. And I love living in a place where I don’t understand everything; where day to day living creates an awareness of mysteries the likes of which I haven’t felt since I was a kid. Mexico, as Octavio Paz points out, has multiple cultures living on different historical timelines. If you get off the beaches and away from the resorts and move inland and spend some time here you’ll soon discover that there’s lot’s of shit that makes positively no sense at all. But that’s another story…

And this is the first place I have ever lived in my life where I actually care about what people think about me. Part of that awareness comes from finally growing up but I also think it says something about the people and the place. For example, I use the Gray combi-bus line (Ruta Gris) to get back and forth to the valley that lies east of town. I chat with the drivers some, tease the kids, and try to make myself extra small and less sweaty when the bus is packed. Some of the drivers are reciprocal. They see me making an effort to fit in and so they’ll honk and wave when they see me. Some have taken to tapping on their electronic whistles when they pass my house, just to say hello. If I am home sitting up on the third floor working or hammocking out on the terrace and I hear that familiar toot I know one of the Ruta Gris buses is out front of my house wheezing its way up Calle Victoria.

And another example of the great kindness of these people is while I never buy any of Ramone’s fried pig’s guts he greets me warmly and graciously just the same every morning when I enter the Mercado for breakfast. I say good morning to half a dozen different people on my three and a half block walk down to breakfast and say good morning to another half dozen people when I get to the Mercado. And so it goes all day; there is always someone to talk to and the list of smiling, happy, warm and friendly people that I interact with here just goes on and on.

The local people are very kind and gracious to this old gringo who runs their valley in huaraches and who is also trying to make a go of the sandal business; something that all the huaracheros are struggling with these days. I sense that these people want me to succeed which is a refreshing contrast to some of the more competitive places and people that I’ve known.

And crazy as it seems, I enjoy riding the combi – the poor person’s transport – crowded as it is some days, mostly just to watch the little kids. Coming back this afternoon there was a 5 year old little girl who I saw as the splitting image of my own savage little self at that age. The combi driver had to wait for her mother to chase her down before then having to literally wrestle her on to the bus. Arms and legs snagging first at the door until finally latching onto her brother who she stuck to like chewing gum before getting finally pried off his leg.  But as mom’s do, she won in the end and guided her firmly to the bench on the other side of the bus. There was no screaming or hitting; just mom’s quiet insistent voice. I don’t think I have ever in my entire life seen such amazing and persistent stubbornness in such a small package. It was absolutely so funny I laughed out loud. The mom smiled and gave me one of those knowing ‘you have no idea’ kind of looks. As we passed a cathedral the mom told her daughter to make the sign of the cross. The child looked back and scowled. What was noteworthy is that the little girl wasn’t crying, screaming or throwing a tantrum during any of that. She was just highly independent and very determined to have her own way. Her 7 year old brother on the other hand had boarded quietly and sat drawing pictures the entire way into town with the last nickel’s worth of ink in his chewed up 29 cent blue Bic pen. He reminded me a little bit of me too.