2013 Boston Marathon


At this stage they don’t know who is responsible.  Some are pointing to anti-U.S. fundamentalists, and some suggest domestic terrorists.  A suspect believed to be a foreign national who was carrying a mysterious backpack was implicated.  But the fact that the bombings took place in Boston on Patriots Day, and on the day Americans’ taxes are due, has some people blaming U.S. right-wing extremists.  There’s just not enough evidence yet, so it could be none of the above.

The Boston Marathon brings citizens together from across the globe in a non-competitive athletic pursuit (“non-competitive” in the sense that the runners are testing themselves more than trying to outdo their opponents).  Even though world-class runners are involved, the 26.2 is special because it’s open to everyone.  You don’t have to be exceptionally skilled or selected to an elite team, as in most other sports.  You just need to be reasonably healthy and put in the work.  The Boston Marathon is the oldest and most prestigious race, and extremely popular worldwide, so qualifying times are needed to limit the field.  For those who reach the starting line – never mind finish line – it is a special moment.

I did the race back in 1999.  Truthfully, it wasn’t one of my favorite marathons.  Thousands of us were corralled in a large field in nearby Hopkinton for several hours before the start, and the long wait was frustrating.  After the gun went off, I was hoping to run a certain time, but I surrendered this idea when I realized my pace was compromised by the huge pack.  Although the crowd support was phenomenal, the mass of spectators and narrow streets created a claustrophobic sensation.  Forget infamous Heartbreak Hill; I felt like peanut butter smeared between two slices of bread the whole race!  My finish time is still a personal best.  But I couldn’t wait to grab my banana and bagel and get over to Walden Pond.

But maybe I missed the point.  The Boston Marathon, and in fact all distance races, are about feeling good about yourself, celebrating your health and life, and making contact with others: runners, volunteers, spectators…being human together in a community.  The runners all have separate stories, and live in vastly different places and under different circumstances, but we all have a similar, small achievement to be proud of.  The barriers are broken down.  The university kid from Ukraine is on equal terms with the fruit stand clerk from Brooklyn.  It’s  a democracy.   In the “corral,” I met a guy from Germany who shared his background with me.  And I shared mine with him.  I didn’t see him after the race, but I later saw his name in the results brochure and circled it.  He may have done the same with me.

The finish on Boylston Street was extraordinary.  Here, the road widened out.  On either side were hundreds of spectators and family members, seemingly ten feet deep.  The cheering was tremendous.  I knew my wife was there somewhere, but didn’t know the exact spot.  She saw me and took a couple pictures of an exhausted old man (at least that’s how I looked when I later saw the photos).  She’d also made the acquaintance of a couple from Holland, who were there to cheer on their loved one.  I remember stopping to stretch my calves about a hundred yards from the finish line.  I wasn’t pooping out, just wanted to stretch.  But these two big guys came up from behind, lifted me up under my arms, and literally carried me to the finish.  I tried to tell them “It’s ok fellas, I just want to stretch,” but they didn’t hear me due to the eruption from the spectators, who were affected by the scene.

I’ll never understand how humans can be so hateful as to want to take innocent lives.


How NOT to Repair a Lawn Mower

Clip Art Illustration of a Boy Mowing the Lawn

Spring has finally arrived.  With it comes a lot of yard and garden refurbishing.  Something I usually enjoy.  Unless there’s a mechanical problem.

This year it was the lawn mower.  Those of you who have grass lawns know that the first cutting can be an ugly experience.  The fescue grows faster than the ryegrass, and some patches of lawn were fertilized heavier than others.  So it’s like a sea of dark and light green, mounds and valleys, with scattered leaves and twigs everywhere.  I couldn’t wait to attack the mess with some sharp blades.

I did all the necessary preparation.  Last fall I emptied the oil and burned up the old gas for the mower’s winter hibernation.  Then last week I sharpened the blades and replaced the spark plug.  After filling up with fresh oil and gas, I was all ready.  But after a dozen yanks on the cord, I realized I had a problem on my hands.

Unlike a lot of guys, I’m not “mechanically inclined.”  I’d rather crack open a Tolstoy novel than the lid of a toolbox.  My wife constantly reminds me that her father “could fix anything.”  So why did she marry me?!

I knew enough not to keep yanking, or I would flood the engine (whatever that means).  So I let the engine rest, and returned later.  Still no luck.  Suddenly, the prospect loomed of paying for an expensive repair or buying an expensive new mower.  As always, my wife chimed in.  “That mower’s older than the hills anyway, we need a new one.”  This has been a mantra throughout our marriage.  Any time something doesn’t work, it’s time to buy a new one.  But this time I held firm and insisted I would fix it.

A friend recommended buying some ether to spray on the carburetor.  This sounded great!  It only cost a few bucks, and if it worked, I might actually be able to kiss the shoes of my father-in-law.  The only problem was, I didn’t know how to find the carburetor.  What does it look like?  What does a carburetor actually do, anyway?  But I’d better do something, because the sea of grass was at high tide.

The guy at the auto parts store said, “Yeah, just spray a little on the carb and air cleaner.  It’s really flammable, though, so whatever you do, don’t light any matches.”  This scared me a little.  Even though I don’t smoke, what if I created a spark?  Even scarier… where was the “air cleaner”?

Well, I summoned the courage to lift my toolbox lid, and went to work.  Took the plastic cover off the engine.  Removed the spark plug.  Unbolted the thing-a-ma-bobber.  Unscrewed the doo-hickey.  Sprayed inside the holes.  Sprayed the air filter.  Then re-bolted and re-screwed everything (except the gasket thing, which kept slipping out).  Inserted the spark plug.  Primed the engine.  Then yanked.

Nothing.  In fact, it sounded worse than before.  There was a kind of grinding sound.  Was this from the ether?  Or did I really need that gasket thing?

Then help arrived.  It was in the form of my next-door neighbor, who was mechanically inclined, and from the patio guy, who felt sorry for me and was also hoping for our business.     

It turned out I actually did need that gasket thing (something about air and dirt getting in).  I also shouldn’t have sprayed the air filter.  Instead, I should’ve sprayed into the hole behind the air filter (I guess this was the “air cleaner”?).  I also needed a new air filter, since the other one was not only a grimy black, but I’d probably ruined it by spraying it.  Fortunately, the guy at the parts store who sold me the ether was busy with someone else, so he didn’t see me when I returned to buy a new filter.

The joy I felt when I heard that engine roar cannot be expressed in words.  My neighbor gave me a big thumbs up.  My wife smiled at me from the kitchen window (“older than the hills,” huh?).  Best of all, I calmed the roiling sea of grass.

I’m not so dumb after all.  I know a lot more about lawn mower engines than I did last week.  And if anybody out there needs some guidance on prepping his or her mower for spring, just let me know.  I’ll be happy to provide my neighbor’s email.

“Puff, the Magic Dragon”

50 years


Next month will be 50 years since the Peter, Paul and Mary song “Puff, the Magic Dragon” reached number two on the Billboard Hot 100 charts.  What a  neat little song!  It was maybe the first “pop” record I ever owned.  I have a fuzzy memory of it being a 45 rpm yellow vinyl copy.  It wouldn’t be long before music would be all-things Beatles.  But in the spring of 1963, folk music was still very popular, and along with the Kingston Trio, New Christy Minstrels and others, PPM was one of the most popular folk acts.

The song has an interesting history.  According to Wikipedia, it had its start with an Ogden Nash poem, “Custard the Dragon,” about a “realio, trulio little pet dragon.”  A Cornell University student named Leonard Lipton borrowed Nash’s idea.  He penned his own poem in 1959 about a boy named Jackie Paper and his dragon friend Puff, who lived by the sea near a land called Honalee.  Jackie grows up and leaves behind the phantasmagoric world of childhood, leaving Puff alone and sad.

Lipton had a friend who happened to be Peter Yarrow’s housemate at Cornell.  He supposedly used Yarrow’s typewriter to write the poem, then forgot about retrieving the paper when he left the room!  Yarrow found the paper, provided music for the poem, recorded it with Paul and Mary in 1962, and a year later the song became a hit.  It’s just a simple homage to childhood, but it struck a chord in a lot of people (including yours truly, who hadn’t yet left Honalee!).  In a gesture you don’t often see anymore, Yarrow gave Lipton half the songwriting credit, and Lipton gets royalty payments even today.

Discussion of “Puff the Magic Dragon” isn’t complete without bringing the infamous marijuana controversy into the mix, however.  Marijuana??  Talk about leaving the land of Honalee!  Yes, even as early as a 1964 Newsweek article, this simple, uplifting tune was accused of having veiled drug references.  The name “Puff” was said to imply a puff on a marijuana cigarette.  “Dragon” was a reference to taking a “drag” on a joint.  Jackie Paper’s surname was supposed to imply rolling papers.  And so on.  I’m not sure if anyone ever suggested playing the song backwards.  Maybe that came later with the “Paul is dead” rumor.

Yarrow, Paul Stookey, and the late Mary Travers strongly denied the allegations.  And I believe them.  (Not sure I believe John Lennon’s defense of his “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”  If that song isn’t about dropping LSD, then I need to catch a slow boat to Honalee).  As PPM’s concert audience got older, the threesome made sure to do “Puff” at the beginning of their shows.  This way, the kids and grandkids could hear it before falling asleep!

Only a few months after “Puff,” Peter, Paul and Mary scored a number two hit with Bob Dylan’s protest anthem “Blowin’ in the Wind.”   They also performed the Pete Seeger-Lee Hays song “If I Had a Hammer” alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the March on Washington for civil rights.  So 1963 was a very significant year for the group.

I’d love to verify if that little piece of vinyl I once owned was actually yellow.  My mom saved a lot of things, but unfortunately she didn’t hang on to“Puff.”  Maybe she threw him out when she got rid of my Beatles lunchbox.