Sunday, May 23, 2010

Survival of the Fittest: The Karate Dad

It was an experience that every creaky-jointed, middle-aged parent who takes up a martial art should have. Over the summer I had read that the 1984 "Karate Kid" (movie debut of South Orange's own Elisabeth Shue!) was going to be remade with Jackie Chan playing the role of self-defense mentor to the boy who finds himself in over his head at what must be the School for Insane Bullies and their Victims. The original, starring Pat Morita as Mr. Miyagi, the elderly sage with an awesome back kick and a unique method for combining karate training with automobile upkeep ("Wax on! Wax off! Daniel-san!"), was one of my youngest son's and my favorite movies, and I wanted to be the first to tell him the news.

"Guess what? 'The Karate Kid' is being remade. And guess who's playing the Mr. Miyagi character?" I burst out when I picked him up at Marshall School.

He looked up at me and in all seriousness asked, "You?"

Now I am not claiming that at this point in my own training I could dispatch a group of attackers (at least reasonably alert ones) with quite the smooth precision of Mr. Miyagi. Nor have I figured out a way to disguise basic household chores as martial arts training, though I am working as hard on this as learning how to defend myself. "Load dishwasher! Unload dishwasher!" These moves, I have been trying to convince all three of my kids for some time, are really powerful blocks.

But I'd like to think that my first-grader wasn't entirely off the mark either. Since taking up Tae Kwon Do five years ago and becoming a black belt this year, I have felt a marked improvement in my chances of fulfilling a lifelong dream: a role in a martial arts flick that would allow me to participate in at least one group fight scene.

Now this may seem a stretch for a mature martial artist who does not happen to be Jackie Chan. But unlike other youth-obsessed action genres, where we are all too often relegated to trying to blow up the hero via remote control, martial arts movies do have non-sedentary roles for members of the older generation. There are not many of these roles, and so competition is fierce. But the opportunities for an actor to expand his range are tremendous. Look for the upcoming remake of "The Sound of Music" with Steven Seagal as Captain Von Trapp, high-kicking nuns and Nazis who literally fly through the air while the kids sing "Edelweiss."

We can't of course all be Captain Von Trapp or Mr. Miyagi. I would settle for the role of an airborne Nazi, and those who know me well would probably call it typecasting. Or perhaps, should "The Karate Kid" be remade for a third time, I could play an aging bully, one who, after 30 years of failed algebra tutorials, is still around in 10th grade to torment each year's crop of new students. That is, I could unless it takes so long for this third "Karate Kid" to come about that the filmmakers have to resurrect the character of Mr. Miyagi's father for me. Still, this would only be further proof that the ability to spin on one foot while knocking an enemy senseless with the other knows no age.

When I watch martial arts flicks, I am always on the alert for the white-haired, thoughtful gentleman who has gone unnoticed until a melee breaks out. He is not the brash guy who, already before anything much has even happened in the plot, is to be found snapping tire irons in half with his front teeth. Rather, this gentleman is likely to be minding his own business in some quiet cafe, perhaps in this day and age checking his e-mail for a communication from one of this great-grandchildren. In my case, should the screenwriters go with my actual day job, he would be in the middle of teaching a college seminar on 17th-century poetry. But once the kicks start flying, down goes the laptop and out the window go the notes on John Donne and metaphysical wit. He is soon shaking it up with the best of them.

So though I haven't had much luck thus far, I live in the hope that Hollywood will someday return my own e-mails and calls. In the meantime, I study the classics (Bruce Lee, not Shakespeare) and train hard, not only with kicks and punches but zinger lines like "You have offended my family, and you have offended a Shaolin temple!" or "Time will tell whose fist speaks loudest: yours or mine." There is also paternal wisdom to be dispensed at crucial moments, and I have been working on what I will say when one of the younger, less wise characters in the film seeks my counsel.

"You have lived many more years than I have. What should I do?"

Drawing on my experience as a dad, I would probably advise him to leave his brother's stuff alone and not tell his sister that her outfit looks like something "you'd feed animals at the zoo."

"I mean about the vicious warlord/gangster trying to kill me."

My advice would remain unchanged. Vicious warlords/gangsters come and go—are indeed sometimes interchangeable—but I have yet to see a feud over legos ever really end.

Then comes the inevitable question: "Can you train me?"

"Ah, Daniel-San, can Miyagi train wind to blow when it forget? Can Miyagi train tree to grow when too busy thinking other things to do what supposed to do?"

"Is this," I can see my young Jedi struggling to crack my code, "about the dishwasher?"

Miyagi have hope for him.

I hear that makeup can do wonders to hide a receding hairline and alter other features that might detract from my cinematic appeal. I've also been told that stunt coordinators can make even the most worn-out dad look as if he's able to leap over furniture, fences, and perhaps several parked cars to eliminate villains in a series of fluid, dance-like motions. But with this kind of dialogue, "You?" is a question none of my kids will have to ask when they see me on the big screen. It should be pretty obvious that it's me.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Survival of the Fittest: Black Belt Professor, Or Why Teaching is the Ultimage Martial Art

I do not normally have to wear protective gear or hold my fists in the ready position when I face students. Most of the time, the students are seated or—if I’m having an off day—slumped in their chairs while I go on about the syllabus material or some equally important topic like my own favorite places to sit in the library and cafeteria and how they are sometimes taken. “Is that going to be on the test?” worried students will ask after I’ve managed to inject a lengthy personal note into what otherwise might be a rather dry discussion of a poem or play. But so far there has been no rioting in the aisles.

Now here I was trying to figure out how to distract this large, helmeted guy in his mid-20s long enough to land a punch within shaving distance of his upper lip and thereby win a point in our “no-contact” karate sparring match. Most likely, he was having similar thoughts about me. It didn’t help that, although his face was familiar, I couldn’t remember his name, or the class in which we’d spent so many joyous hours together. This had all the signs of turning into the kind of “non-productive encounter” I had in theory learned to avoid the time I attended an all-day workshop to help teachers improve their classroom communication skills.

Meeting one of your exes in the dojo is the top safety issue for every college professor who takes up a martial art, even if on weekdays that dojo doubles as the gym of Maplewood Middle School and the martial arts program is under the safe auspices of the South Mountain YMCA. Your mind races to recall the grade that you gave the student, and if it is in the “B-” neighborhood or lower, it adds some urgency to your blocks. If you ever made a sarcastic comment about an excuse the student spent days crafting, ducking, though technically not a part of karate, may be in order.

As it happened, though, along with his name, I was drawing a blank about his grade too. C+? A-?

“Professor Baker, right?” the student had reintroduced himself as we waited for the signal to commence hostilities. “Nate Howard. I was in your class on Greek tragedy.”

“Oh yes,” I said, trying to keep things positive, “that was a good class.”

I thought I detected a frown behind the helmet. Perhaps tragedy hadn’t turned out to be all that he’d hoped.

“I wrote this 12-page paper on ‘purgatorial motifs in Hamlet and—"

“Begin!” shouted the teacher. Before I had a chance to find out what the rest of the motifs were or point out that Greece had yet to claim Shakespeare as its own, the fight was on. His first kick, which was aimed right at my groin, made me realize that his paper was not likely to have been in the “B-” range. It had probably been closer to a “D.” His second move, an elbow feint followed by a finger-swipe that nearly took out my left eye, confirmed my suspicions.

“Hey, it’s no contact!” I reminded him. Face moist from exertion, he just glared at me and threw a punch. This time I blocked his arm as hard as I could, trying to send a clear message that, as both a scholar and a professional, I would not give in to threats or intimidation. Still, he did not back off but remained equally determined to prove that I had underestimated his thoughts on “Hamlet” and perhaps literature in general. When the teacher called “Finish!”, we were both sweaty and breathing hard.

“Good match, Professor,” he said as we executed our mutual bow.

“It was, wasn’t it?”

Later I reflected that this exchange, albeit brief, was probably one of our most communicative ever, capping as it did the venting of a host of raw, honest emotions. I also came to a realization about “achieving an even more remarkable dialogue with our students,” as the leader of the workshop I attended frequently encouraged us to do. Achieving this may not be necessary after all—at least not until we have tried arm wrestling or head butting.

I am not suggesting putting on boxing gloves before class and then challenging all comers, though this would definitely wake up the back row. I am merely using what Shakespeare in one of his lesser known Greek tragedies calls an “over-saying” (“Zounds! He talketh much and doth over-say his case!”) to argue that we teachers should recognize what it is we already do. We belong to a profession that all too often forces men and women in their 40s and 50s to spar for grade points against students half their age. That is the real reason we need the summers off.

Maybe it is time to formalize this state of affairs with a ranking system and to start warning off prospective opponents by wearing our hard-earned belts to class. By now, I calculate that I hold about a third-degree black belt in AIM, or Applied Instructional Methods, a fine blend of old-fashioned jujitsu and the kind of crowd-control psychology that has formed the basis of many a successful modern dictatorship. If I were to don my belt to negotiate, say, due dates for an upcoming paper, I would be saving both myself and the students a lot of trouble. “No need to try to locate my pressure points,” the belt would be telling them. “You won’t find any. I, on the other hand, could locate yours in less time than it takes to speed-read a sonnet. Any questions?” No, Sensei.

When I began teaching 15 years ago, I was not so tough, and in fact I am still waiting to receive some of the papers I assigned back then. I was also not much older than my students, and so if someone promised “to mail the paper in from Spain,” my response was likely to be “cool.” Even now the mention of Barcelona or Madrid sparks a faint hope that I will someday receive a thick envelope postmarked from one of these cities full of deep thoughts about dramatic irony.

But I am no longer that same starry-eyed white belt. With increased proficiency has come a willingness to look hard even at claims to be “visiting friends in Metuchen this weekend” or “taking my aunt to her chiropractor’s appointment.”

"Is this the aunt you had to help last month? The one who suffers from agoraphobia and never leaves her apartment?” If the answer to this question is “yes” or even “maybe,” then the paper had better be in my mailbox by Friday.

Some people, as the expression goes, wear many hats. I have no qualms about wearing more than a single belt. One is a sign of my ability to deliver kicks and punches in a timely manner while the other represents all my classroom experience.

Which offers the best self-defense? Depends upon the situation. I wish I had known karate that time two individuals approached me on the New York subway about an interest-free loan with no clear repayment schedule. But more often than not, in the world outside the dojo it’s a different story, not physical intimidation but some kind of line that one is being handed. Survival means being able to tell apart those who do and those who do not really own a bridge that they are in a position to sell for a modest sum of money.

Unless one of the people walking across the bridge happens to be angrily clutching a literature paper with a “C-” on it, I would take my teaching belt most days of the week.

Survival of the Fittest: Armchair Golfer

When I play golf, my biggest handicap is that I am usually nowhere near a golf course. I am ensconced in a chair with a book about a middle-aged guy whose world is upended when he discovers golf. Or rediscovers it after having taken several decades off to have a life. Soon life is taking a distant second to the pursuit of the perfect club head, the physics of the swing (makes quantum mechanics seem easy), and the encouraging thought that, even if he did not get around to turning pro in his youth, the Senior Tour is not too far off.

Golf also provides its enthusiasts with a whole new excuse for travel, and it is at this point–as I read about all the exotic places where golf is played–that I really begin to salivate. Looking up from my book, I become, my kids tell me, distant, even abstracted, and in truth, I am no longer in the same room with them as they battle over whose turn it is to empty the dishwasher or feed the parakeets. I am playing the renowned Old Course in St. Andrews, Scotland. A kind of miracle has sent my ball soaring over a series of treacherous bunkers and landed it on the green. Now it is all up to my short game as I reach deep inside myself and bring the club back ever so gracefully. Out of the corner of my eye, I glimpse Tiger Woods and Tom Watson: they’re taking notes.

Of course, the fulfillment of this fantasy would represent quite an accomplishment for someone who only recently had his first golf lessons through the South Orange-Maplewood Adult School. This was overall a good experience and the instructor a patient man. Mostly, though, I recall the puzzlement and, at times, worry of the deer roaming the Millburn municipal golf course as my classmates and I took turns whacking shot after shot in the general direction of the fairway. (Fore, Bambi, fore!) At least the local fauna could relax with me. My favorite golf shot seems to be one that leaves a large divot of churned-up earth while barely ruffling the zen-like composure of the ball.

There are always more lessons to be had, swing remedies to be sought out, and pricey accoutrements to be purchased. Eventually, I might find myself at one of those clinics where they film your golf game from every possible angle, though in my case the finished product would be more horror flick than educational video: think “'Saw' meets 'Caddyshack'.” But the likelihood is that the rest of my 40s will be neither financially right nor sufficiently conducive to leisure for the kind of conversion experience that seems par for the course with the middle-aged golfer. Having missed the golf boat in my carefree 20s, I do not expect it to come around again anytime soon.

Still, I try not to let this hold me back. Not only do I always make birdies in my daydreams, but I make them in some non-traditional venues, once while standing in line at the South Orange post office and another time in the frozen vegetable section of the Pathmark on Valley Street. Both of these came after reading David Owen’s "My Usual Game," which recounts some of his own post-conversion travels as a correspondent for Golf Digest, and so I did not consider myself confined to my immediate surroundings. I’m not sure about the post-office birdie, but in the case of Pathmark, the icy breath of unsold broccoli had wafted me as far away as Florida’s Walt Disney World, where, sticky with perspiration, I was playing a hole at Eagle Pines. My caddy, a successful neurosurgeon when not moonlighting for me, had just handed me a driver and offered a final piece of advice: “Fade off the tee and draw onto the green!” I had no idea what this meant, but I nodded as if I did and readied my stance. Shoulders relaxed, hips ready to swivel. There would be no craters in the earth today. Out of the corner of my eye I glimpsed Pluto and Mickey, each giving me a big thumbs-up…

But should all this count as “playing” golf? Ultimately, this is a matter for golf’s official rulemaking body, the USGA, to decide. Detractors of the sport, however, would say that I am getting almost the same amount of actual exercise as many of those on the links. (Indeed, though my own experiences as a student of the game were too humbling for me to subscribe to this view, a lack of cardio-vascular exercise relative to other activities is perhaps golf’s greatest challenge to the time-constrained.)

Golf is also supposed to be a mental game, so, in a way, I have stripped it to its essence, avoiding in the process the danger that the reality might not over time measure up to the fantasy. But the bottom line is that I do not entirely trust myself with golf. The ranks of its aficionados seem to be full of those who never thought it could happen to them. If I’m not careful, I too could disappear into the same Bermuda Triangle where so many have disappeared before me. And Bermuda, I’ve read, has some pretty nice golf courses.

Survival of the Fittest: the New Space Race -- How Runners Can Finally Catch up with Golfers

Which group of athletes moves faster—runners or golfers? You'd think the answer would be obvious, since during a typical golf game play often seems to slow to the point where no one is moving at all. But we should not rush runner-like to judgment either. With a four-day Masters Tournament behind us and the Boston Marathon (where four days would be an exceptionally poor time) happening today, it may even be the moment to ask just what kind of race would pit runners against golfers in the first place.

Well, sports fans, there is one. In the race to have the most equipment, or "stuff," that has to be reevaluated and updated on a regular basis, runners have long been struggling to catch up. In fact, the substantial lead golfers enjoy in the technology race has made them pretty confident that, in spite of the pedometer/watches, heart rate monitors and even (I am not kidding) parachutes with which runners can now train, golf will be the first sport to land a player on the moon.

It is hard to compete with a leisure activity where a "vector pro video launch system" is even an option. When I first read about this, I had visions of country club pros being captured on film as they were shot into space. Naturally, I wanted to buy one right away, and I do not even play golf. Alas, running still offers no equivalent propulsive device for overly demanding track coaches or fellow runners who clock your pace and then cheerfully point out that it has taken you nine minutes to do your "six-minute mile."

There is a lot of other golf equipment that sounds so cool I wouldn't be surprised if non-golfers are buying it. Who wouldn't want a "whip swing trainer" or a motorized club-and-shoe brush in their life? The latter would presumably work as well on ordinary household clubs (and possibly whips) as on the more specialized ones used in golf.

The same goes for the Machspeed driver. For those still struggling to master the terminology, "Machspeed" is a physics term referring to the velocity at which a launched golf pro will travel in his or her vector before returning to earth. I have been told but have not been able to verify that, with some of the newer systems, it can approach warp speed. A "driver," on the other hand, is all too often a middle-aged person who finds him- or herself chauffeuring kids from one activity to another. The primitive ones in my house rarely exceed 30 or 40 mph.

The last thing, it may be objected, that we need to do is to arm runners with their own launchers, though the fact that some of them are now training with parachutes somehow makes this seem safer. One point, however, is clear. If running is ever going to rival golf as an outlet for consumers seeking new ways to set fire to their money, a major change in the sport will have to take place: runners are going to need caddies.

"Jeeves, the titanium-based, soft-terrain sneakers!" I imagine myself calling out as my morning run takes me to the gravel path recently installed near the Duck Pond. A car that has been moving alongside me stops, and a man bearing shoes in one hand and a strange upper garment neatly draped across his arm steps out.

"Wind is picking up, boss. Do you want the air-deflecting, self-monitoring thermal parka you got for Christmas?"

"Just the shoes, Jeeves. Don't you remember," I ask, pointing to the parka I have on, "that, in addition to providing me with unnecessary data on my biorhythms, this has an automatically activating sail feature?"

I change my shoes, giving my caddy the ones that have allowed me to run on mere concrete with ease since they were designed with the sides of the Great Pyramid of Giza in mind. Then, parka billowing in the wind, I continue on my way.

But if runners' caddies are going to have far-out stuff to lug around, someone is going to have to invent it. Runners are therefore going to need to lure away all those Nobel Prize-winning chemists and physicists on whom golf has long relied. Once determined to unravel the mysteries of the universe, they now spend their days carrying out mysterious "product tests" on the putting greens of Golf Labs, a large geodesic dome that I would imagine is located somewhere near Florida's Disney World.

Having left their putters behind and now wearing Boston- and New York-marathon T-shirts under their cobalt-blue lab coats, these researchers would have roughly the same role as" Q" does in all the James Bond movies.

"This looks," I say to the trim scientist showing me around the underground factory that represents the future of running, "like an ordinary visor. It's even advertising the name of a popular beer."

"Very lightly test its outermost edge with your finger."

I do and quickly realize that this edge is sharp and metallic. My new visor is some kind of a sword.

"Let's say," "Q" continues, "you're running along lost in your thoughts and you don't see that you're about to crash into the branch of a tree. What will happen is that the edge of the visor will shear through the branch, lopping it off, and allow you to complete your workout without even realizing the branch was there."

"Wow. You people are amazing. I guess we don't want this falling into the wrong hands, though."

All of a sudden the face of the scientist standing next to me becomes solemn. "That's how we lost 004."

You would think that golf, with all its complicated power tools, would have had its own share of tragic losses. (You might also think that a "golf drill" is something to create holes with, but it is not. It is the same thing as a "drill" in any other sport: a series of repetitive motions designed to induce boredom.) But statistically golf is a safe sport, and most of its "accidents" are not accidents at all but are only made to look that way. For example, somebody—oops!—tees into a group of golfers who are holding things up at the next hole. Still, all this may change as Machspeed drivers become more common on the streets of suburbs like South Orange and, along with club-and-shoe brushes, "switchblade divot tools" start becoming motorized too.

At this point some runners may feel, "What's the use? They're too far ahead for us to ever catch up." It is important, though, not to panic. Never mind the annual "equipment issue" of Golf Digest and the likelihood that the human race will someday use this equipment to travel to other parts of the universe. We can all remember a 5k race where at the top of each hill we were struggling to climb, the same runner appeared almost like a mirage, goading us onward by seeming to be forever out of reach. But at some point we passed them. And as the mirage became a flesh-and-blood person, someone's mom or favorite uncle, we wondered how we had ever mistaken them for a high-school track star instead of another weekend athlete like ourselves.

The same holds true for golfers. They look invincible in their plaids and pastels. But don't worry. They're not track stars. We can take them.

Survival of the Fittest: Cooking Light


The sandwich, history tells us, was invented in the 18th century by a guy too busy running the British navy to leave his office for a leg of mutton or some home-cooked calves' brains. Also, he was an earl. So when he asked for two pieces of bread with "something chewy in the middle" to be delivered to his desk, people didn't look at him as if he'd just proposed leasing London to the French. They jumped to it, shouting, "You heard the man! Bread! Sliced meat! On the double!"

Circumstances were not so favorable for the 21st-century South Orange, New Jersey dad who may have devised the single most important modification of the sandwich to date. One day this complex and mysterious figure opened the refrigerator to find that some parts of it were far better stocked than others.

"Looks like it may be bread sandwiches for lunch!" he announced to the three kids peering into the depths of the empty meat tray along with him.

"Don't they always have bread?" one of the kids asked warily.

"Daddy means they only have bread," said his older sister in a tone suggesting she'd been down this sort of road before with Daddy.

"Who ever said that a sandwich has to have something in the middle? If a donut had something in the middle, that wouldn't make it a sandwich, would it?"

There was a pause in which the kids pondered this thought-provoking question. It didn't take long for a counter-proposal to emerge.

"Mommy said we could have turkey burgers."

"That sounds," he said gravely, "like something we'd need to cook."

"You just turn on the microwave. The way you do with those funny, star-shaped things you make us."

"You mean my recipe for Chicken D'etoile?"

History is silent about what exactly happened next. But all the evidence points to the kids continuing to lead healthy and productive lives. Meanwhile the dad was left to ponder why for him "cooking light" does not have to do with calories absorbed from food but those expended by the chef during its preparation.

Still, rumors that it was not always so continue to swirl about him. Hadn't Mario Batali stolen several garnishing secrets from him? Didn't the two of them once sneak into Jacques Pepin's villa in order to cook him a surprise dinner of Pork Shoulder Alla Porchetta? OK, a little more plausibly didn't the Dad in question make crepes for his entire family when he was a mere gangly teenager? Having in a moment of weakness confessed the truth of the last to his wife, she brought it up the next time she caught him opening a can of Spaghetti-O's.

"Let's not romanticize the crepes," he replied. "I left stuff out of the recipe."

"Like what? Aren't they pretty much just flour and water?"

"You had to sift the flour. On top of mixing it with the water. Even at 15 I realized that life is too short."

Such reactions are all too common, driving many a talented chef away from the stove. There really should be a cookbook for people who suddenly find themselves not as hungry as they thought when a recipe turns out to have "steps" or "ingredients." (One of each is enough, thank you!) These are also the people who look carefully at the verbs in each step. "Remove from carton" and "leave alone," or even "abandon," are fine. But it's not a good sign if any part of the process involves both "wringing" and "hammering" as in "wring the bird's neck and then hammer until meat is tender." "Whisk" is a direction to be avoided at all costs unless it refers to the dirty dishes and pans that are to be whisked away by someone else.

Remember that you can always simplify an existing recipe, even if it comes from Julia Child, Batali, or one of the other kitchen greats. For instance, a recipe may in theory call for a "delicate" blanching and then sautéing of bacon before mixing it with braised beef. But already the room is spinning, and you haven't even begun to contemplate all the substances that have to simmer and then be boiled down before sunrise. Fortunately, this recipe can itself be boiled down to the following: "gently pick up phone, allow second or two for it to warm to hand temperature, then order pizza." The cooking time for this Jersey classic is approximately half an hour.

Those who seek to run a more efficient kitchen are sometimes intimidated by fancy names. They worry that a person who has been promised Beef Burgundy will not be satisfied to come home to pizza. But the truth is that, if smart, this person will be satisfied to come home to just about anything that he or she does not have to cook.

Remember too that Burgundy is only a place in France. Behind the dish that bears its name is no doubt a story of a Duke of Burgundy who woke up in the middle of the night craving "a tasty stew flavored with an assortment of herbs and roots from the garden." Since this was a Duke, no one said, "You're kidding? It's three in the morning." They started chopping onions as if their lives depended on it. Which they probably did.

The names "sandwich" and "Beef Burgundy" originated because other people started to ask to have "what Sandwich and Burgundy are having." This soon became abbreviated to "I'll have a Burgundy sandwich; hold the lettuce!"—which was confusing. Eventually, however, the two foods sorted themselves out as it became clear that you should never wrap Beef Burgundy in saran, toss it into a full duffel bag, and expect to be able to wear the clothes in it the next day.

Will the bread sandwich catch on in the same way? The fact that, when its inventor refers to the "family home," he is not talking about a castle may hurt its chances. On the other hand, with all the new culinary ground being broken these days, you never know. Already this sandwich has begun to inspire the next generation of chefs. I recently encountered a 10-year-old boy of my acquaintance eating Nutella right out of the jar. When asked what he thought he was doing, he replied that he was having a Nutella sandwich.

"Where's the bread?" I asked, glancing back and forth between the kitchen counter on which he was standing and the unopened loaf on the toaster.

"Who's to say that a sandwich has to have bread? "

Who indeed? I had come across a reference to Chicken Florentine on the Internet and had been vaguely considering the possibility that it might turn out to be what we were having for dinner. But this thought soon passed.

Life really was too short. I'd have what he was having.

Survival of the Fittest: Running with the Big Dogs

Author seeks advice on canine encounters.

"The only thing we have to fear," Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously said, "is fear itself," but there is a reason why his is not one of the faces on Mount Rushmore. From shin splints to heel spurs, we runners have plenty of dire scenarios to ponder. And let's not forget about the occasional $150 pair of sneakers hurled from close range by a spouse or loved one who claims you spend "all your time" running.

Still, you can always duck these, put in an appearance at breakfast, etc. Harder to elude is the danger that comes not from someone, but something, a creature that seems to rise out of the early morning mists and then go back to sleep on the porch after it is through bringing your worst nightmares to life. In short, it is a large, loose suburban dog.

If you comb through the vast technical literature, you will find a world of well-intentioned advice for runners encountering dogs that have yet to hear of the Geneva Conventions. Even so, I have my doubts about some of these writings. For one thing, they are not generally available those times when you have an urgent need to consult them. For another, they too often disregard our basic "fight-or-flight" response, which in some situations should probably be shortened to include only the second part.

Apparently, I made a big mistake the summer morning I sprinted down Flood's Hill to escape a pit bull with a severe personality disorder. Emerging from behind a tree, my attacker ambushed me as I was nearing the end of what had been a relaxing four-mile run. Jolted into a state of high alert, I responded as prey, which in a sense I was. But, as I later learned, you're not supposed to admit this to the dog.

If I had not been working so hard to improve on Usain Bolt's record for the hundred meters, though, I could easily have justified my giving in to being chased. How, I might have asked, would stopping mid-run and trying to pass myself off as an inert object accomplish anything other than to insult my enemy's intelligence? After all, an object that was truly inert would not need to pay more than $45 for a pair of sneakers.

And the same could be said for wild arm-waving, sudden tango moves and other efforts to convince the dog that you are crazy. Most pit bulls have watched enough late-night cable movies to know bad acting when they see it.

Over the years I have found that negative interactions with dogs can be divided into two kinds. In one the dog is trying to guard its territory or "turf." In the other the dog is looking to expand it.

In most cases where there is a tether-less dog barking at me from its front lawn, the only thing to do is pick up speed and hope those invisible fences really do work. Still, how many of us would feel safe with only an invisible fence between us and the wolves at the Turtle Back Zoo? I imagine the sheep would be pretty nervous too. The point of a fence, it seems to me, is to be visible to both parties. That way if there is any confusion about it later, no one can say they thought all the signs were part of a campaign to promote a more open border with Canada.

In cases where the dog is not protecting its turf but engaged in empire building, you might try pointing out that Canada was once part of the British empire but now seems much happier as an independent nation.

Some thousands of years ago, scientists tell us, dogs became our best friends. No one is quite sure how this happened, or why exactly we first started sitting together at lunch. But the point is that it is too late to go back. The hyenas or whatever it was we socialized with before we became so stuck-up are no longer interested.

As intensely loyal creatures (whatever their other faults may be), dogs have no plans to move on either. It is cats that remain open to a better offer. But when these have long forgotten their human benefactors, dogs will still be patrolling suburbia and keeping a sharp lookout for suspicious behavior. And running is, almost by definition, suspicious. Why are we in such a hurry and where is it we are going that the dress code seems to require so much tight spandex?

Still, all this does not mean we cannot stay aware of our surroundings and, if nothing else works, find a way to use them to our advantage. For instance, in my own case, even as the pit bull was chasing me, I remained alert to the fact that I lived nearby and would be OK if I managed to lose him on the way home, since my phone number and address are unlisted. Admittedly, such quick thinking did not save my life. But it was comforting, and when the dog lost interest in me and began chewing apart some food trash, I had the satisfaction of knowing that, of the two of us, I had had the more focused plan.

We do not have to embark on our runs empty-handed. There are high-pitched ultrasonic dog repellers to be purchased as well as pepper spray, though the danger with these is that the more dim-witted species may think you are not trying to repel them so much as playing hard to get. So buyer beware! One article in The Huffington Post on "Why Runners Hate Dogs" even suggested rewarding dog owners for the good behavior of their dogs. Here I would recommend carrying lightweight treats, preferably tuna sandwiches and beer nuts.

But when all is said and done, the best advice may have come from the Roosevelt whose face is on Mount Rushmore: speak softly and carry a big stick.

Survival of the Fittest: Karate Without Walls- Local martial artist combats his own inhibitions.

I once had a karate teacher who liked to hold class in the open air. On an otherwise quiet street in the general vicinity of Mountain Station, he had me marching outside in full view of the world, blocking and kicking my way from one end of a strip of grass to the other during the early evening hours.

Sometimes a thick wooden staff was involved, and the sound effects could be bloodcurdling. “Kiai!” I would yell when I reached the end of the kata, or form, I was executing. “No, kiai!” he would reply, amplifying my scream tenfold to the point where I thought the furniture in the houses around us had to be rattling. Meanwhile, oblivious to our battle cries, his daughter did her homework under a nearby tree.

Karate, I have come to understand, not only requires considerable self-discipline and hard work but also the shedding of inhibitions. Let’s face it: for all their gracefulness, the forms, which have names like “Capture a City” or “Iron Horse Riding,” are not about settling disputes through tactful negotiation. The time for that has passed. Rather, they consist of pantomimed blows to the necks, groins and rib cages of scores of invisible but no less doomed opponents. Particularly when practicing these on your own without the handy excuse that you are merely following orders shouted in Japanese or Korean (Tae Kwon Do), it's hard not to look like someone who has just walked out of a bad relationship, work meeting, or, worst case scenario, summer movie. Right back at you, G.I. Joe!

The revelation of so primitive a side of the self can also feel a bit like dancing naked in public, something that most of us who are too young to remember the '60s still have trouble doing. When traveling and unlikely to run into people I know, I have practiced (karate, not nude dancing) in hotel fitness centers, parks, and even on semi-crowded beaches. But this does not come so easy to me back in the suburbs of Essex County, New Jersey, where two or, at the most, three degrees of separation seem to be the norm between even perfect strangers.
There I am still most comfortable in the privacy of my own basement, trying to maintain a safe distance between my kicks and the furnace. My wife, who has made no secret of her desire to reclaim the basement “dojo” for more peaceful and kid-friendly uses, often brings up the virtues of the grassy, more or less level training area behind our house, otherwise known as the “backyard.”

“Too exposed. The neighbors will think I have serious issues."

“They’ve already made up their minds about you,” she sighs.

But as it turns out, the time to make up your mind about someone in training to put various parts of his body through one-inch-thick wooden boards is never. “What’s this I hear about you threatening the ref on Saturday?” my wife recently asked me after venturing down into my subterranean training space.

For a moment, I was genuinely stumped, unable to recall a single colorful outburst on my part while watching my youngest son play soccer. Then I realized.

“Oh no,” I assured her, “that was just a few moves from a form. I figured everyone was watching the game. I was nowhere near the ref.”

“Nancy from book group said you were threatening to neck-chop him, then do something weird to his kneecaps.” She shook her head. “I thought you didn’t want anyone to see you.”

Despite our best efforts not to, we give ourselves away. Most of us could write down our few remaining secrets on an index card, and even then it probably would fall into the wrong hands.

After all, what must the neighbors think of the exclamations of “kiai!” that filter out through the open basement window? Yankees having a bad inning? One of my kids’ play-dates gone south? I was only fooling myself to act as if those living nearby didn’t already have some inkling of the would-be ninja in their midst. No doubt, if their tables and chairs began to vibrate uncontrollably, they might even bring it up with me. But so long as I don't let the decibels rise above a certain level, we can continue on with the convenient fiction that my high-stress job has taken a toll on my nerves and that I am so often down in the basement because it's where I keep my ant farm.

Executed well, of course, a martial art is a wonder to behold. I was reminded of this recently when I drove past a cluster of early risers doing Tai Chi outside of the Baird Center. Harmony. Balance. Centeredness. Perhaps some of the other parents at my son’s soccer game had a similar impression of me as I practiced my form. Perhaps they were considering calling the police. The point is that I am no worse off than I was while the ref, I noticed at the next game, seems to have developed a nervous stammer. And better to start preparing for the day when inhibitions are a luxury I can no longer afford. For I can read the writing on the basement wall and know that it's only a matter of time before I come downstairs to find a ping-pong table and a beige carpet occupying the space where I used to decimate multitudes. In which case the neighbors had better look to their furniture.

Survival of the Fittest: Raker of the Year

The other day, as the first leaf of autumn descended onto the front lawn, my youngest child turned to me, his eyes glowing with excitement and his hands fidgeting to be grasping the handle of a tool that was almost an extension of himself. “It’s time for the raking Olympics, isn’t it, Daddy?”

“Soon, son,” I assured him. “We must be patient.”

I wish. Actually, the exchange went more like this: Groan. “We’re not going to do that same thing as last year?"

“The real Olympics happen every year. Why shouldn’t ours?” I don’t mind bending the truth for a good cause.

But I know it is too late. He has already succumbed to the same cynicism and distrust of authority that infected his older brother and sister. How is it, I often wonder aloud as I board the train for work at South Orange station, that the children of America lose their spiritual innocence so soon?

In our house it happened something like this. Last autumn, in a generous effort not to keep all the joys of yard work to myself, I assembled rakes of various sizes on the front lawn. Then, summoning my brood, I announced the start of the raking Olympics. The kids would be raking alongside me, and I would be watching them closely, awarding points for technique, attitude and stamina. The first-prize winner had to have the most points in all three categories. But there would also be a prize for the most improved at raking.

A stunned silence greeted this announcement. Finally, one of the older ones asked, “What is the prize?”

To be honest I hadn’t gotten this far in my calculations.

“The prize,” I began while mentally scrambling to come up with one, “will be a certificate with a gold, embossed pile of leaves on it. It will say 'Raker of the Year' in fancy, silver lettering. Mommy and I will present it to the winner in a special ceremony.”

“What does ‘embossed’ mean?” one of the others asked.

“Look it up,” I snapped.

Our Olympics began well enough. Each competitor was assigned an “event,” piling up the leaves on a sheet, piling them up again after someone walked through them, and then, when this seemed to have gone on long enough, dragging the pile onto the street.

Soon, however, I began to hear murmurs of discontent.

“Raking seems kind of pointless,” my middle child observed. “I mean you rake and then more leaves fall.”

Now this was just the kind of subversive talk we couldn’t afford to have if morale was to remain high.

“Remember,” I warned, “becoming Raker of the Year is about attitude, not just technique.” He shrugged and went back to his piling.

But, once kindled, the brushfires of sedition are the hard to put out, especially when Mommy is not around to back you up. Soon he and his older sister were exchanging eye-rolls, sarcastic comments, and, I suspected, phone numbers of child-labor lawyers.

I pointed to their younger brother, who was using a plastic toy rake to amass a small pile of his own near the front steps.

“Now that is an Olympic champion. He doesn’t complain. Or disappear inside the house for a 15-minute drink of water. He keeps going.”

“I was texting,” explained my daughter. Then, realizing how fishy this sounded, she added, “Mary wanted to know the homework.”

We needed to maintain our sense of purpose. But how? Shifting from the Olympics to a World Series? A yard work “American Idol”?

“What if we didn’t rake at all?”

This question, which came from my middle child, startled me in its simplicity. And because it had often occurred to me.

Still, the last thing for any self-respecting authority figure to do is to reveal his own doubts. “That would be very, very bad,” I told him. “Eventually, the leaves would pile up so high on the front lawn that we wouldn’t be able to see out the windows.”

Eyes widening in horror at this prospect, his younger brother speeded up the pace of his raking.

But I had forgotten that science is part of the curriculum at Jefferson School. “No they wouldn’t,” my middle child told me. “They would decompose and just become part of the grass.”

“Eventually,” I pointed out. “But before they did, the grass would probably die.”

Still, like many a scientific truth, this has to be taken on faith. In fact, over the course of years of raking, I have given serious weight to the possibility that we have it backwards. Maybe the leaves are supposed to become part of the grass, and raking represents yet another example of human meddling with nature.

I could readily imagine some alternate-universe South Orange whose inhabitants had nothing but affection for trees that were on the verge of shedding their foliage. “About time,” they would say in farmer-like admiration of some many-branched specimen, “The grass sure needs it.”

But here my kids and I were standing on a lawn that was very much a part of this universe. We had been going about our task for more than an hour, and it was hard to tell whether things looked better or worse than when we started. So the notion that we were keeping up appearances wasn’t going to fly either.

And now my kids were expecting some other answer that didn’t have “2 plus 2 equals 5” written all over it.

“The truth is,” I said, leaning on my own rake for balance, “ that I don’t really know why we do this.” Then, after a thoughtful pause, “Mommy thinks it’s a good idea.”

“But didn’t Mommy think it was a good idea to drive to Maine that time we all got sick and the hotel didn’t know we were coming?”

“No,” I had to admit, “that was Daddy. Daddy thought that was a good idea.”


We were like some tribe that had lost its high priestess, going through a ritual that we didn’t quite understand in the hopes that she would come home soon and explain it to us. The realization that this was our position slowed everybody down, even the youngest and most enthusiastic of us, whom I had considered a shoe-in for the grand prize. My 5-year-old had a thoughtful, distracted air as he returned to his task.

I thought I knew what was going on in his head. Was it really such a big deal to be Raker of the Year? Or were the others right that Daddy was probably just going to draw some lame certificate with gold and silver crayons? And Daddy wasn’t even very good at drawing.

But I wasn’t at all prepared for how far he’d taken such speculations. “Those e-mails,” he finally asked me, “from Santa about how we should empty the dishwasher every night so we don’t get coal for Christmas: you just write those yourself, don’t you?”

It was the beginning of the end.
In the beginning there was a professor who took up karate, a middle-aged everyman and "everywhere man" whom his watchful suburban neighbors claimed to spot doing his runs at all times of day and in all parts of town, even on streets where he had never set foot in haste. In explanation of this and other mysteries, like whether anyone really knows why leaves need to be raked and why sandwiches have to have a middle part, he took up column writing, which led to his "survival of the fittest" column recently winning the 2010 award for best column from the Garden State Journalists Association.
Through writing about them, he continues to unravel the mysteries of the universe at a staggering rate and will soon have an answer to the question of why snow needs to be shoveled and can't just be allowed to melt away.