Top ten books — because you asked for it

People on Facebook have inviting their FB friends to list the top ten books that have had the greatest impact in our lives. Some people start naming big-name classics like Cervantes, Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Joyce. This strikes me as rather uninteresting, but maybe I am just envious because I am not well-read in the classics. Others are surprisingly candid — or perhaps, naive — in listing some real crap, self-help junk, various pop-schlock titles. I guess I am somewhere between an intellectual and a moron; ignorant, but a snob.
Problem is, I can’t bring myself to do this top ten list. I have been living 50+ years and reading for so long that I no longer remember very well the books that had a great impact at the time I read them, even where their impact was indeed great. The more recently read books tend to displace the old ones. So most of my top ten would be things from the past five years or so. All right, let’s give it a try anyway:
(1) Nietszche – Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Made a huge impression on me when I was 16 years old, so it has to stay on the list. I may not have understood it deeply, but nevertheless.
(2) Juliet Schor – The Overworked American. I read it in the early 1990s and keep remembering it time and again, so it makes the list.
(3) Duke and Gross – America’s Longest War. Greatly informed my thinking about the so-called War on Drugs, which I have been observing from the perspective of a judiciary employee for the past 20 years.
(4) Mathieu RicardHappiness. Picked up a copy while looking for something to do at an airport in December 2006. The timing was perfect. It actually changed my life for the better, permanently.
(5) Michael Pollan – The Omnivore’s Dilemma. I was already leaning in the direction of a vegetarian diet, but after reading this, I changed the way I eat.
(6) The Gateless Barrier, a/k/a The Gateless Gate. I was a student at a zendo for about two and a half years, studying with a teacher. Maybe some of it was bullshit. But we went through this koan collection, and I did a lot of sitting (still do hit the mat every day). I know the exercise had a profound effect.
(7) Kurt Vonnegut – Slaughterhouse 5. I never read it until recently — a couple years ago. I think it’s one of the finest novels I have ever read.
(8) Haruki Murakami – 1Q84. It isn’t just this novel, but that it introduced me to this writer and I went on to read several more of his books. You talk about a work of fiction grabbing you in the first few pages. This one grabbed me and did not let go for the next 900+ pages. I don’t know what it is about this guy. He sees the world in a weird way that is peculiar to him, and yet… universal? “Remember: there is always only one reality.” Really?
(9) Don deLillo – Underground. The one that begins at the famous Dodgers-Giants game in 1959. Man, that was one fucking good book.
(10) Terry Eagleton – Why Marx Was Right. My father and I have a decades-long history of talking about politics, about which we generally agree, although I have moved to the left of him. He lent me this book, and it had an enormous impact. Hitherto, I had often said I would consider myself a socialist but for the fact that I had not read any Marx or Engels, much less Lenin or Trotsky. I went on to establish contact with some real, practicing Marxists. In a conversation with one of them — a particularly feisty and erudite old bastard whom I’ll call Fred — he scoffed at Why Marx Was Right, saying Eagleton was a “Catholic Marxist,” i.e., something of a joke. But this book got me started reading some of the works of Trotsky, Lenin, Marx, Engels, and finding out for myself what the political theory is. Combining that with readings of countless contemporary articles that use Marxist methods of analysis, attending some lectures, and observing world events unfold through my own eyes, my political education has advanced greatly in the past two or three years. I am a Marxist-Trotskyist. In this capitalist culture, much of what my generation has been taught about history and socialism is utter nonsense. I have developed a reasonable level of confidence in my ability to sort out the truth from the bullshit.

Running another Philadelphia marathon

I never expected this. For over 20 years I was a typical jogger, going out two or three times a week for about four miles at a leisurely pace. With no goal other than fitness and enjoyment, I was unconcerned about going farther or faster. Suddenly I was 55 years old and lacing up my shoes for my fifth marathon.
It started in the winter of 2008, when a friend with marathon experience invited me to join him for a half marathon in Central Park, and I discovered that I enjoyed running nonstop for two hours. The idea of a marathon, hitherto almost inconceivable, became attractive. In the fall of that same year I ran Philly in 3:51, and loved it. I had the appropriate attitude of humility and respect for the distance, running a disciplined, well-regulated race the likes of which, ironically, I haven’t been able to match ever since.
Next was New York in 2009. By now I had moved to South Orange and fell in with a delightful gang of experienced, enthusiastic, and talented distance runners known as The South Mountain Running Collective. I became ambitious, and wanted to meet the Boston qualifying standard of 3:35. Like a fool, I went out too fast, and had to struggle and suffer to hang on over the last 10K, attaining the goal with only seconds to spare. Going out too fast is the classic mistake in distance running, though you might think it would not be so difficult to avoid.
But this performance got me to Boston in 2011, where I repeated the same error, albeit not as drastically: another positive split, but I beat my goal of 3:20 by five seconds, and easily qualified again for Boston in 2012. (Runners call it a negative split where the second half of a race is faster than the first, and it is well established that it is far more effective than the reverse.)
And how could I resist going back to Boston again? I could not, and trained with a view to another personal record (or PR, which is also a verb in runnerspeak) of about 3:17. But the temperatures were in the high 80s that day in April. We were forced to revise our plans and focus on simple survival. Hence my disappointing 3:43, 13 minutes short of Boston qualification (BQ) for my age group.
By now I was thinking it might be nice to get off the crazy train. Marathon training is a time- and energy-consuming pain in the ass, and try though we might to keep it tucked away in its own discreet little compartment, it inevitably has an impact on other people in our lives. And sometimes those people don’t like it. But could I really go out like that, credible excuse notwithstanding? With a 3:43?
No. In November 2013 I was back in Philadelphia again to settle accounts with the marathon gods. This time, however, the training cycle had been more challenging. It is not unusual to encounter setbacks of some kind during 20 weeks of training. Sickness, injuries, family dramas, the demands of work — in short, life — sometimes interfere. I had successfully navigated through bronchitis, a death in the family, and other challenges in previous training cycles. But this time injuries cost me a week and a half in August and several more days in October, and I was not able to get all the mileage I would have liked.
Even so, when I walked up to the line, I felt fit to run a successful marathon. The key workouts in the final stage of training had gone well. My injuries had subsided, the weather was fine, even my pre-race jitters seemed noticeably less severe than in the past. This time I did not have a fixed, specific goal. I thought 3:15 was conceivable, but decided anything up to 3:17:30 would be acceptable. And I had a plan, known as 10 + 10 + 10: go out relatively conservatively for the first 10 miles, i.e., at a 3:17:30 pace; pick it by a few seconds per mile for the next 10 miles; and for the last 10K, be in a position to pick up the pace even more, possibly enough to get me there in 3:15.
Once we got underway, embarrassing though it is to admit, I am not really sure what I was thinking. I do recall making a conscious effort to hold back initially. Over the first mile, traffic was congested, and I decided to go with it rather than fight. My first mile was a 7:42, but that was perfectly OK. A slow start was desirable; there was plenty of time to make it up.
For the next 18 miles or so, it seemed that nobody was in charge. The data on my GPS watch says that mile 2 was 7:18; mile 3, 7:08. For miles 4 and 5 I dialed it back to 7:24, but that was still about 8 seconds per mile too fast. The next few miles included a couple of moderate ones, and my average pace for the first 10 was around 7:30. The pushing and pulling continued over the second 10 miles, but the average overall was around 7:25 — consistent with the overall plan, yes, but too late because I had already blown too much energy in the first 10. By around mile 17 or 18 I was still feeling OK, but tired enough to predict that after 20 miles it was going to be hard to maintain the pace. Miles 22 to 25 were 7:40, 7:44, 7:48, 7:56, 7:55.
Crossing 26 with the crowds screaming encouragement, I was able to pick it up to a 6:53 pace, but over the last 10K I averaged about 7:48 and came in at 3:17:23. (The gory details are published at http://connect.garmin.com/activity/406675139.)
This marathon experience was different from the previous two in which I was seriously trying to reach a goal. In New York, the last 10K were hellish, but my addled mind had enough command of the numbers to understand that I would meet the BQ threshold if and only if I ran like hell. This motivated me to fight hard against the fatigue. The same was true in Boston in 2011: I knew the 3:20 mark was still within reach, but I had to dig. In this race, the goal was comparatively vague: sub-3:17:30, hopefully something closer to 3:15. For the last 10K I felt fatigue, but it wasn’t especially painful — I simply couldn’t convince myself to run faster. But I also felt pretty sure that the 3:17:30, and certainly the PR, was in the bag. That complacency probably hurt my cause; a bit of drama, pressure and anxiety might have provided helpful motivation.
3:17:23 represents a PR by over two minutes, and a Boston qualifier with over 22 minutes to spare; it was also good enough for 16th place among 319 men in the 55-59 age group. Maybe I ought to be happy with that. And although I am not completely disappointed with the bottom line, I am pretty disgusted with myself for not having better discipline. The objective numbers demonstrate that I had the fitness; the subjective experience of how smoothly the whole 26.2 went by, weak finish nothwithstanding, confirms it. I am almost certain I was physically prepared to run at least one, maybe even as much as two minutes faster. But I positive-split it by 1:22 and squandered this splendid opportunity.
Why is it so hard to slow down in those early miles? For me, I think one problem — if it can be considered a problem — is that proper marathon training really works. On race day you are fit, tuned up, but also tapered and rested — not to mention jacked up with the excitement. When the gun goes off and you start running, it is extremely difficult to believe that running can feel this easy and still be fast enough. It seems like you should be exerting at least a little bit. Even the minutes and seconds your watch displays at the mile markers do not convince. So, for me, the lesson is: believe it, bitch. It may even be that I could run a faster marathon next time by setting out to run it slower. Then there might be enough gas in the tank at the end to finish strong enough to get a better result.
Wait — did I just say next time? Uh, yeah, I guess I did. Which brings us back to where we started. I said I never expected to be running marathons, much less running them this fast. I said I would like to get off the crazy train, and maybe I will. But it isn’t easy. When you’re an athlete, you enjoy the challenge of seeing how well you can do, so you keep trying. Eventually the inevitable effects of age overcome the positive effects of training, but that’s no reason to give up prematurely. Another factor is that running marathons (and shorter races as well) is really cool, and fun, and profoundly rewarding. It gets into your bones and becomes part of your identity: you’re a runner. What’s the use of trying to be anybody else?

Remembering Nancy F.


It has been just about a year since a good friend died at a mere 57 years of age. I observe this anniversary by publishing the eulogy that my evil twin gave at her memorial, with just a couple of minor edits. Whereas he spoke of the legendary SDNY Courthouse Follies in the past tense, I have changed it to the present tense. That’s because at the time, Nancy’s colleagues were too stupified with grief to think seriously about doing the Follies without her. Not long thereafter, they came to the realization that the Courthouse Follies is too good not to continue, and that there is absolutely no better and more appropriate way to honor Nancy’s memory than by putting on the show.

Good evening.

We are all going to die. That simple, self-evident fact is perfectly easy to accept as an intellectual, objective proposition; it is much harder to come to grips with on a deeper, emotional and psychological level.

I’ve come to believe that one of our most important tasks in this thrilling, unpredictable, supremely delightful, horribly painful game known as life is not to obliterate our fear of death, but rather to learn to live with that fear — truly live with it — and be free at last from that ever-present undercurrent of anxiety and fear of our inevitable death. If we accomplish that, we have a chance at genuine happiness, and liberation: the freedom to live our life exactly as it is right now, rather than worrying about losing it.

This is much more easily said than done. In Buddhism they have a word for it: they call it Practice.
Nancy was not a Buddhist — not any kind of -ist as far as I could tell. But she surely had a Practice. I am convinced that on some level she understood and embraced the kind of worldview I’m describing — especially as she approached the end of her life, in which she was short-changed by who knows how many decades. Rather than trying to mention her many wonderful achievements and attributes, I will emphasize this: she had a fabulous sense of humor. Underlying that splendid humor was deep wisdom: though she was no stranger to pain and loss, she knew how to live and enjoy life. She knew how to appreciate life’s offerings. She knew how to have fun.

Over the 20 years I worked as one of the staff interpreters in the office she managed so ably, I must have had hundreds of conversations with her that followed a common pattern: they would begin with me poking my head into her office to discuss something or other, usually office business. She would always look up from her monitor and keyboard to greet me with her characteristic warmth. “Yes, mon cher?” Then one or the other of us would say something funny. And the conversation would end with both of us laughing. You know the way she laughed, with lots of nasal involvement.

We’re talking a lot this evening about Courthouse Follies because the deservedly legendary show was one of her signature achievements, possibly the most visible and well-loved. Entertaining as it is, the show is about so much more than just amusement. No, it is a matter of utmost importance to us all. As Nancy sometimes liked to quip, comedy is serious business. (Not sure whom she stole that line from.) Our job can be brutally stressful. We witness suffering and pain every day. We are all duty-bound to remain stuck in our rigidly defined roles, even at those times when our humanity cries out for us to do otherwise. Nothing is more important to our collective mental health than the Follies. At least once a year we need to sit in a room together and just laugh. Nancy was the leader of that noble project. It was she who put it all together and made it happen. (If this were a federal Sentencing Guidelines analysis, she would get an enhancement for being a leader, supervisor, manager…)
I remember one time when she addressed the cast just before a Follies performance, back stage. She gave us a pep talk in which she reminded us to pay attention and be where we were supposed to be at the appropriate time (incorrigibly ragged band of amateurs that we are, drinking our wine backstage before going on, she had to remind us of that!). She closed these remarks by saying something like: last but not least, have fun. Have fun.

Thank you, Nancy. Thank you for making such a positive contribution to the world and enriching our lives.

You know how she loved comedy. I’ll share this with you on condition of the strictest confidentiality, all 200 of you my closest friends, lest I incriminate myself: I sometimes do judge imitations. Especially when I’m just back from a courtroom assignment with a judge’s idiosyncracies still fresh in memory. Nancy absolutely loved laughing at these imitations. She would sometimes come up to me, eyes ablaze with that childlike, gleeful enthusiasm of hers — and urge me to to entertain the assembly with my imitation of Judge So-and-So. I would comply, and she would laugh and laugh, hoot with laughter.

I usually prefered to launch into an imitation spontaneously, that is, whenever the Muses moved me to it. So there were times when she would ask me to do an imitation, and I would decline on the grounds that I wasn’t in the mood, or some such nonsense. I now understand, and have learned this valuable lesson from Nancy: life is too short not to “do” one more judge. Even on demand.

I survived the 2012 Boston Marathon

In December 2011 I started 20 weeks of training for the Boston Marathon on April 16, 2012. For this my fourth marathon my goal time was 3:17 to 3:18, a two or three minute improvement over my person record (PR) 3:19:55 that I ran Boston in 2011.
For those not familiar with the marathon game: this goal represents not a spectacular but a thoroughly respectable time for a man in his mid 50s For context, consider that a world-class male marathoner will run 26.2 in a few minutes over two hours, and the guy who won the men’s 50-54 age group last year ran a 2:34:52 — preposterous, but conclusively demonstrating that it is possible. From my point of view, anything under around 3:10 is seriously kicking ass, and getting much below 3:00 is unfathomable.
At my modest level of experience one has already learned that it is unusual for a training cycle to go smoothly from end to end. Injury, sickness, extreme weather, or a personal or work-related situation of some sort will often present challenges in addition to the expected physical and logistical demands of the mileage. I was therefore grateful that this time my training had gone remarkably well — mild winter, no death in the family, no more than a few days downtime due to a cold in February. Then, in the days just preceding the race, the organizers saw the forecast for temperatures in the upper 80s and began to email dire warnings to race registrants. As the forecast temperatures rose, so did the tone of alarm in the emails. In the last of these they urged anyone who was not extremely fit to withdraw from the race, and those who did not should slow way down, forget about racing and treat it as an “experience.”
I grudgingly revised my race plan. The PR goal was abandoned; instead, I decided aiming for a Boston-qualifying 3:30 would be acceptable, a full 30 seconds per mile slower than my ideal. But fear and uncertainty set in. During the last two days I had an persistent, unpleasant feeling that I could not quite identify — until 3:30 on the morning of the race, when I awoke in my hotel room to the realization that my problem with this enterprise was simple: I did not want to do it. Running 26.2 miles in the high 80s has never been on my list of things to do in this life. I must have understood that while this was unlikely to end in catastrophe, it was certain to be truly painful — even more so than your typical marathon effort. Hence my fantasies about running away rather than running the race.
We have a robust community of accomplished distance runners in the area where I live, and one of my running companions was also in this race — I’ll call him Patrick. When I mentioned to him that I was tempted to bail on the project, Patrick reminded me that we aren’t just in this for ourselves. All of us support and encourage each other so strongly that we are invested in each other’s success. I was never entirely serious about walking away, but this strengthened my resolve. It takes character to be insane.
The nervous early hours of race day morning went by quickly, and then we were in the starting area, already sweating in the sun at 10:00. The Boston Marathon has upwards of 20,000 runners, so the start is staged in three waves which in turn are organized into corrals based on expected pace. My friend Patrick and I were both assigned to the first corral of Wave 2. Patrick is similar to me in age, but a substantially faster runner, so I was pleasantly surprised when we spontaneously decided to run together. And off we went, at a pace a little below 8:00/mile for the first several, largely downhill miles, thinking this sufficiently conservative.
The first 10, 12, 13 miles went by in reasonable comfort. No longer attached to PRs, we made the ride as fun as possible, engaging with the crowds, entertaining ourselves, watching out for each other. We drank copious amounts of water and Gatorade, as did everyone; around the hydration stops we kicked our way through masses of discarded Poland Spring cups. We also dumped countless cups of water onto ourselves; our clothing, shoes and socks were saturated most of the way. And our 8:00/mile gradually gave way to 8:15, 8:30, 9:00, and beyond as we let the conditions dictate the pace.
Our friend and coach — let’s call him Bill Haskins — was monitoring our progress from afar via the Athlete Alert service, which sends to your phone or email address a snapshot of a runner’s pace and time as of 10K, 13.1 miles, 30K, and finish. Every time Patrick and I crossed one of the electronic timing mats together, I drew deep satisfaction from knowing we were sending the signal back home to Bill that his runners were hanging tough, and hanging together.
Around mile 17 the course takes you through about four miles of what are called the Newton Hills, the last of which is known as Heartbreak Hill. We ground our way up the first hill at a moderate but steady pace, and I felt encouraged. I was experiencing some pain, but nothing too extreme.
By the top of Heartbreak I felt like shit, and struggled to hold a pace faster than 10:00/mile. Every step was pain from my hips to the soles of my feet. I wondered if there might be some way of putting my foot down that did not hurt. In retrospect I realize there is indeed such a method: it’s called walking. Thousands of people were doing it, but we never seriously considered it an option.
A couple miles after Heartbreak, Patrick was suffering even worse than me; he bade me go forward without him, and I reluctantly complied. At long last, the right turn onto Hereford Street, then left onto the final stretch of Boyleston. For the last quarter mile I managed to increase my speed to something comparable to the 7:30 I had originally dreamed of averaging, and crossed the finish in 3:43:41. Unable to decide whether to puke or pass out, I did neither. Patrick showed up about a minute and a half later. We greeted each other with the greatest high five of all time, then staggered onward together to collect our medals and head home.
All of our running friends commended our courageous performance. It is gratifying that we had the fitness and the fortitude to get through this with dignity, and the intelligence to manage our pace and hydration well enough to avoid the hospital. But in terms of absolute performance, it was a terrific frustration and disappointment. Nobody wants to train for 20 weeks and 1000 miles just to be thwarted by a one-day spike in temperature (the days following and preceding were of course much cooler). The post-race challenge for me has been to get my head around what happened, accept it, and move on. This too, I realize, is part of this strange and wonderful sport of distance running.

Highlights from 2011

Here are a few salient events from another interesting year:

  • I won myself a trophy for third place in my 50-54 age/gender group in a half marathon in Monmouth County, NJ. This is remarkable because it was not long ago that the very idea was inconceivable. The trophy itself is hideously ugly, but I am glad to accept it nonetheless.
  • I ran my third marathon, in Boston. In short, it was a successful and rewarding venture. See this report if you want the gory details.
  • I won my age group in not one but two local 5K races — small ones, but still… The second was noteworthy because I was actually disappointed in my performance, feeling sluggish and uncomfortable and posting a slower time than I thought I should. Winning my age group and still not satisfied — have I lost my mind?
  • My stepfather died at the age of 93, in March. He was an accomplished astronomer who led a long and productive life, and is remembered with great admiration and affection by hundreds of people.
  • In May I crashed the shit out of my car, with two of my kids in the back seat. It wasn’t good, but could have been far worse.
  • My uncle died at the age of something like 88, in August. He too was a smart man who managed to get through his long life pretty much doing as he pleased, founding and running a successful aerial photography business.
  • One of our cats, Master Lin-chi, used up a couple of his lives. First he disappeared for a full week, during the summer. He had us grieving and stapling flyers to trees all over the neighborhood. Then he walked into the house, skinny and filthy but very much alive. We have no idea where the hell he was.

    As if that wasn’t enough, he then surpassed this performance by surviving an encounter with a car with nothing more than some bruises and abrasions. I took him to the vet (and what a splendid vet he is, Felix Escudero at the emergency clinic in Bloomfield, NJ) who pronounced him OK.

    I don’t remember if it was before or after that incident that I called him to come home one evening, when he hadn’t been seen for 24 hours. When he still didn’t show up I called a little louder, and heard a faint whimper in the distance. Following the sound, I located him in the back yard two houses away, trapped in what’s know as a “Have a Heart” trap — a cage that automatically closes when an animal enters to get at some bait, stepping on a metal plate in the process. It seems that our neighbor had set it to to catch some other creature that had been giving him grief, and then saw fit to leave for the weekend. Thus Lin-chi sat with no food or water, next to a little pile of his own shit, until I rescued him. I got him out and otherwise left the trap as I found it, shit included.Master Lin-chi

    (You may say, obviously this cat should live entirely indoors, and I wouldn’t disagree. But it’s not an easy policy to enforce, and I am of two minds about the issue of letting cats go outdoors — a topic for another day.)

  • Like so many others on the planet,we endured extreme weather, including tough snowstorms, a brush with a hurricane in late August, and a seasonally inappropriate winter storm in October that left us without power for a full five days.
  • Our four kids got a year bigger, all them thriving and developing and fascinating my wife and me.
  • My lovely wife and I observed another wedding anniversary, and are still crazy about each other. It’s a glorious thing.

why?

when you awaken at some ungodly hour
ease your way around your dreaming spouse
to sneak through the house like a thief
and put on your running shoes
and even the cats look at you
as though you’ve lost your mind:
you will ask
why am I doing this?
because.
because when you begin to run
down the street
your footsteps will echo
off the sleeping houses.

My fabulous car crash

post_crash.720x540.jpgSo I’m driving along a two-lane highway in upstate New York on a pleasant afternoon in May, with two of my four kids in the back seat: Josie, my stepdaughter, almost nine years old; and my daughter Gabriela, eight. One of them says, hey my iPod battery has run down. Let me see that, say I, and start to fumble with the iPod and a charging device. Now I look up and see I have drifted into the left lane and say oh shit — steering wheel in my left hand, iPod in my right — and overcorrect to the right. Next thing I realize is that we are going off the road, and I have enough time to think, ok, we are going off the road, what next? Next is that terrible sound and sensation of thud. Then I realize that we are upside down, and I am thinking, ok, this isn’t good, and start trying to figure out how to extricate myself, having forgotten for the time being about the girls. That’s the last thing I remember until an indeterminate number of minutes later, when I’m on my back being questioned by paramedics.

According to what I’ve been told, another motorist driving behind us saw the whole thing and came to our aid. We had gone into the ditch on the right of the road and rolled one and a half times. She helped each of us out through the holes where the windows had formerly been. I am told I was conscious and talking, though I remember none of this. She then got my wife Amy’s phone number from Josie, and called her. Amy set out driving the five-plus hours to where we were, with our other two kids coming along for lack of any child care.

I can remember having trouble reciting my address when asked by the paramedics, and being told that we would take a helicopter ride to a hospital better equipped for head traumas than the nearest place, which happened to be half a mile from the site of the accident. Josie and Gabriela were taken there, and got lousy care. Josie had been briefly unconscious and had a gash on her leg below the knee, good for ten stitches; Gabriela had some cuts on her hand but was otherwise relatively unscathed. The personnel attending to Josie should have had the sense to follow standard protocols for kids who have likely concussions, but did not. We got her proper follow-up care after we got home.
The girls told me that as we were about to be loaded into our respective ambulances, I gave them the thumbs-up sign. It’s gratifying to hear that I tried to give them some proper parental reassurance.

I recall some of the helicopter ride, such as lying on the floor as the paramedics cut me out of my clothes. Have you ever had the thought — or had someone tell you — as you were getting dressed, that you should wear nice underwear in case you get into a serious accident? As we were preparing to leave for this trip — the return trip following a weekend at my parents’ house — I was looking around for clean underwear, and had trouble finding some. So I said the hell with it, and pulled on my jeans. It’s a safe bet that the paramedics were unfazed by the sight of my dick.
As we flew along I said to them that I usually had plenty of snappy jokes but was sorry that I could not come up with anything at the moment. They said don’t worry about it. It seems that when we’re in crisis, sometimes our minds want to cling to normality. I have this image of myself as affable and funny, so I wanted to be affable and funny.

I was thirsty and asked them for water. They said, sorry, we can’t give you any because you might have to go right into surgery. I thought it unfortunate that they couldn’t give me water because I was thirsty; I was indifferent to the prospect of surgery. I asked whether the girls were ok, and recall hearing one of paramedics remark to the other that it was the third time in ten minutes I had asked that same question — the point being not that I was annoying but that I had a head injury.

There came a moment in which I thought, this is what is happening and I do not like it, but I don’t have to like it. Just be present to what is. That’s what we call Practice.

The first few hours at the hospital are vague. Someone gave me a phone and I spoke to my wife, and ex-wife, crying into the phone with anguish at having rolled the car with our kids in it. I was assured the girls were OK. I remember being presented with the standard forms on a clipboard, and a pen. I was trying to read, lying flat on my back with the clipboard blocking my light, and no reading glasses. I was particularly interested in finding the agreement to pay clause so I could cross it out and initial it, this being my invarying practice. I tried to sit up to get better light, and got into a bit of an argument with my handlers, telling them I do not sign open-ended guarantees to pay arbitrary sums of money for yet-to-be-determined services, insurance notwithstanding. (In fact, no one should ever agree to these terms, but should resist in self-defense and as protest against the broken healthcare system.) They finally said forget it, don’t sign.

I had a concussion, cervical fracture and scalp lacerations. The neurosurgeon told me I was lucky, which struck me as rather a strange remark until I realized that he meant relative to what might have happened. Curiously, these injuries haven’t been particularly painful. People kept offering me morphine, and I would say, no thanks, what for? I wanted to be lucid to enjoy my wife’s eventual arrival. Finally she did, no thanks to the utter lack of signage pointing the way to this primitive outpost in rural Pennsylvania. She stayed with me as much as she could, and spent the night on a chair in the waiting area when they kicked her out of the ICU.

A guy punched staples into my scalp, in a scene reminiscent of the movie The Wrestler. It was painful, so I was joking that it didn’t hurt, and was that the best he could do? As he finished the job, he said he was done but he could give me another staple if I wanted. Not really, I confessed.

About 24 hours after I was admitted, some physical therapists got me out of bed, walked me around the ward and pronounced me fit to leave. My wife drove us all back home to New Jersey, where I convalesced for a month.
Staying out of work was a pleasure. The first few days were difficult, because I was banged up, but the rest was a joy. If retirement is like this, I’m ready. My neurosurgeon told me we could not even discuss running for two months. After nearly fainting from the initial shock (I am a devoted distance runner), I recovered almost immediately, resigning myself to reality and realizing that worrying doesn’t help.
I spent my days shuffling around the house, gradually doing more activities like housework, and taking advantage of the free time to do more zazen than usual. Paperwork and phone calls about insurance and medical bills also consumed substantial amounts of time. The financial impact of lost wages, replacing the car, etc., is non-trivial but tolerable.

Spending ten hot summer weeks in a neck brace also sucked, but I tolerated it without complaining overly much. I came out of the neck brace in early August; at the end of September I ran a half-marathon within the moderately ambitious goal of 1:40:00 that I had set, finishing in 1:38:48. This result is far from a personal record, but coming just a few months after being airlifted away from an auto accident, I accept it with gratitude.