My distance-running story: the bridge from past to present, Part 3

Sometimes lessons have to be learned more than once, or in more than one context. Or they may be learned incompletely or only in retrospect. There may be many fallow years where little learning at all seems to take place. All of these played a role in my experiences across the years with longer, slower mileage-based running versus shorter, more intense training. Now things have come full circle with the chance to try again and tie it all together.
Go to: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

I cannot now remember the exact reasons why my running began tailing off after college. It wasn’t any single thing, but a number of them. It wasn’t the fact that I was no longer competing, because I had continued running for another three or four years on my own after my first and only university cross-country season as a freshman.

Maybe in part it was the fact that, not long after graduating, I had embarked on my first serious love relationship. But beyond the overwhelming nature of the “new life experience” that the relationship represented for me, I was exploring other new things in-depth at the same time: Eastern philosophy and alternative consciousness, meditation, yoga, organic gardening, the idea of appropriate-scale “small is beautiful” technologies, and so forth. (This was the early 1980s just after the flowering of these movements in the 1960s and 70s.) All of this impacted my drive and motivation for other pursuits.

Then there was the new network of friends and acquaintances I was introduced to through the relationship. As well, without a clear career direction to pursue after college, despite a degree in business (for me, a fallback since I did not know what I wanted to do), I felt buffeted about. To make ends meet, I took a fairly physical job for a couple of summers and the intervening year working as a golf course greenskeeper, which siphoned off some of the physical energy required for a discipline like running.

After that, I got a job in computer operations that lasted the better part of a year, with a huge manufacturer in the area, running room-sized laser printers that spit out incessant financial, inventory, and other reports for the company bigwigs and other white-collar corporate drones, and that paid fairly well. However, it required working third shift, which played havoc with my schedule and put a damper on my energy levels. After a full week off from the job at one point, I felt so much better physically when back on a normal daily wake/sleep cycle that I realized third shift was detrimental to my health, and I needed to make a change.

Partway through this stint, then, I decided to go back to the university for classes in computer programming. The idea was to take advantage of my natural facility with computers — still a relatively new thing at the time — to springboard into a new career like a another co-worker I was friendly with, who was avidly pursuing a burgeoning interest in programming. This way I would be able to lift myself up and out of the looming specter of what could otherwise become a future of corporate dronedom, just like that of the company hacks my stacks of laser-printer output fed.

Unfortunately, the added schedule of university courses loaded me down more, both physically and mentally, of course. After a single semester I couldn’t endure the grind any longer, and lost interest.

Read moreMy distance-running story: the bridge from past to present, Part 3

My distance-running story: the bridge from past to present, Part 2

The initial flush of success that I experienced my first, and only, season running competitively in college turned out not to be worth it, at least on my terms. I quit the team but kept running on my own, and explored longer runs for the exhilaration and satisfaction of it. I also got in great shape, though I had nothing to show for it outwardly. But that was okay by me.
Go to: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

My freshman year in college, I managed to pull off an accomplishment that I was perhaps more proud of than anything I had achieved previously, competition-wise. Paralleling earlier events when I made the high school varsity cross-country team my freshman year (covered here), the same thing occurred when I made 7th and last man on the university varsity cross-country team. This time it was as a walk-on, beating out all the other college freshmen, most of whom had some kind of partial running scholarship.

But it wasn’t because I was any better than them, really. My inborn talent was decent, but except for two or three out of the eight freshmen — one of whom was a walk-on as well — based on our previous competitive results in high school, while fairly close to the others in ability, I was perhaps not quite at the same level.

Whereas on my high school team the previous year I was one of the unelected de facto workout leaders who tended to set the tone by example — unfortunately helping beat most of us into the ground on interval workouts — on the university team it was just the opposite. My body just couldn’t take all the hard-effort, collegiate-level training that the other runners could, even most of the freshmen, so I started sandbagging in workouts when needed just to survive.

By this time, I had learned enough to know when my body’s capacity to absorb punishment was being exceeded, and when to back off and take an easy day with a slow recovery run. But since that wasn’t fully possible in the university team situation, at least to the degree I really needed, some days I would just lag behind as much as I could, whatever the workout for the day might be.

Read moreMy distance-running story: the bridge from past to present, Part 2

My distance-running story: the bridge from past to present, Part 1

Most of my competitive years in high school and college were a time of learning how to train on my own. Simultaneously, I was coping with several different coaches along the way, most of whom did not have a very good idea of what they were doing. It made for a career of ups and downs and unfulfilled potential, yet also fun times and hard-won training wisdom learned along the way.
Go to: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Despite always having loved running for its own sake (see The Earth at My Feet for the story), I was so motivated by achievement and competition when I was younger and competing in high school and college that it sometimes worked to my detriment. Often, I went into competitions having “left my race on the training track,” so to speak.

I was well aware of the value of longer, slower, “mileage”-based training (i.e., what is sometimes termed LSD or “long, slow distance”) to lay a distance base, to be complemented by faster interval-based workouts — either concurrently or later in the training cycle. However, once the competitive season got underway, I/we (my teammates as well) still often overdid the latter at the expense of the former.

This was not entirely of my own choosing, since too much hard track-interval work was thrust upon the distance runners by coaches who didn’t know any better. However, even had I been entirely on my own, I still would probably have overdone it to some degree.

In high school — this being the era of the 1970s when 100 miles per week for national and world-class runners became the holy grail of training — I put in as much mileage as I reasonably could, given my teenage, still-maturing body. At that time I was averaging about 50 miles per week over the course of the entire year, but the weekly mileage distribution was bimodal. I piled on more miles in the off-seasons when training on my own, at least 60 and sometimes 70 or 80 miles per week. But during the competitive seasons (about two and a half to three months each for cross-country in the fall, and track in the spring) I could only manage about 40 miles.

Read moreMy distance-running story: the bridge from past to present, Part 1

Self-made programs at a funeral, and a drink on the road (dream 3)

I am attending a funeral in a town a couple hours’ drive from where I live. Earlier this year, in real life, my sister and her husband and I had made the drive together to attend a funeral in this same town for an aunt of mine who had lived a long life.

But in this dream, my aunt is still alive. She and my sister and I are attending the funeral of another woman, someone I don’t know. It is a bright spring morning.

We are walking on a cemetery sidewalk in a line with the other people paying their respects, toward the graveside ceremony. There had apparently not been the usual memorial service in a church or chapel beforehand. A typical small, foldover program for the occasion has been handed out to everyone attending.

Glancing over the four pages of the program, I notice that the information about the deceased is very sparse to the point of being almost nonexistent. My aunt explains as we’re walking along that each person is to draw and compose their own program for themselves.

Read moreSelf-made programs at a funeral, and a drink on the road (dream 3)

The Earth at my feet: why I ran back when — why I run now

Sometimes, after the spiral has turned many years later, you discover the things that motivated you in the beginning are still what motivate you in the end, after other things have fallen away.

The first day I decided to become a distance runner, when I was 14 years old, I went out and ran four miles around the local lake just outside my small hometown. This was without any prior training, to speak of. It was not an easy effort, but not terribly difficult either — somewhat challenging, but it came naturally.

I had no special experience related to running other than a very active childhood playing outside just about every day exploring the neighborhood, taking part in little league sports, and running short sprint races against friends in local grade school and middle school competitions, or during playground recesses from time to time.

When it came to running specifically, as with these short races, I did nothing much longer than sprinting probably 75 to 100 yards, or playing games like “tag” where one might be continually moving for some time but running or sprinting only for intermittent short bursts. As far as track and field went, I had been more into long-jumping and pole-vaulting in the preceding years during middle school. Golf was also a pursuit, affordable to a wide swath of the middle and lower-middle classes in those days, and all of us except some of the adults walked and carried our own clubs around the course, rather than riding in carts.

Prior to the day mentioned above, I had gotten my feet wet a few times in the preceding weeks, running solo time trials of perhaps a mile and a half around the local neighborhood streets, but no more than that, just to see what I could do.

The second day, I ran four miles around the lake again. And each day after that I continued to run four miles or so, trying out different routes for variety. But immediately I was running almost 30 miles a week.

Starting out with distance running like this did not seem that unusual to me. I had always had more endurance than the other kids, whatever the game we were playing. Others always wanted to quit before I did. I did not have a high energy level, but the ability to endure had seemingly always been there.

Read moreThe Earth at my feet: why I ran back when — why I run now

Emerging online after 15 years of radio silence, Part 3

Why would one stay away from public participation on the internet for so long, after having been so active before that? Why begin writing again online now? The time had come.
Go to: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

An inner imperative for absence

Introversion and peaceful time away

With the internet having increasingly become a roiling and turbid fishbowl, what a lot of the preceding reasons for opting out covered in Part 2 really boil down to is my personality type as a serious introvert. Once I went to the sidelines, it didn’t take long to begin luxuriating in being out of the spotlight.

The internet is a curious double-edged sword if you’re an introvert. On the one hand, with a website or blog you can write and post from the sanctuary of your own home, while still interacting with people from a distance. On the face of it, this is less demanding and stressful than doing so in person. While I do okay in my personal life dealing with people one-on-one whom I don’t know, still, as an introvert, it is always going to be somewhat stressful unless it takes place in an intimate atmosphere with close friends you implicitly trust.

However… with conversations in person, at least people you don’t know tend to demonstrate basic politeness. The internet, on the other hand, seems to invite people to sound off with unbridled opinions and untempered emotions. This inevitably leads to conflict and people just itching to shoot down another person’s statements.

Getting out of practice with conflict. Conflict is something most introverts do not like. With email forums and then the Beyond Veg website, over time I learned to develop a thick skin and not take things too personally. But doing so isn’t a once-and-done thing if you’re an introvert — it doesn’t come naturally, at least not in my case. It’s something that’s an ongoing discipline or practice, as is simply being in the public eye more, and knowing how to handle yourself.

If you’re not keeping a “skill” sharp, you get rusty at it. As I got out of practice being on the sidelines for months and then years, the inertia of staying there took on a momentum of its own. Now that I am “putting myself back out there” online again, I’m attempting to do so in a more quiet, personal way. This is not to say that I am always one to avoid conflict. Push me far enough, and if the arena is something I am knowledgable about, I will respond with as much ammunition as called for. Respectfully so, in most cases, but with no holds barred intellectually.

Read moreEmerging online after 15 years of radio silence, Part 3

WordPress’s hidden hazards for do-it-yourselfers, Part 4

Okay, troops. The final installment in the series here requires only that you slog through another 4,000 words from the master of verbosity, so buck up. Considering you’ve plowed through almost 12,000 words already (at least if you didn’t skip anything, you dirty rats), this is gonna be a cakewalk.
Go to: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Examples of plug-ins to remedy core WordPress deficiencies

Below are some plug-ins I’ve been pushed into using simply because something silly is either missing from core WordPress functionality, or is seriously deficient. Things that you would think would be — and should be — built in as standard, but where the developers are just being obstinate or clueless (pardon my presumptuousness). When it comes to the needs of the average user, code geeks truly are a different species often living with their heads up… er, in the clouds ;-).

  • 404page. Wouldn’t you think that the typically clunky, stock 404 (“Page Not Found”) error page would be easily user-modifiable to your own liking? I, for one, thought that. I’ll bet you think that too. Silly you and silly me for thinking something so obvious should be so easy. It ain’t. I kid you not, the WordPress developers apparently think you are just going to jump up and down with glee knowing you’ll need to larn yerself some of that thar PHP coding and go in like a surgeon to modify or code your own 404.php page to get the job done. And that you’re a chump if you can’t or won’t — so there.
  • The 404page plug-in makes it as easy as falling off a log. Just like it should be in the first place. Create your own 404 page the way you would any other WordPress page, use this plug-in to point to it so it’s substituted for the default version of the page, and you’re done. Slam dunk.
  • Broken Link Checker. If like me, you’ve ever used an application like Dreamweaver to create websites, you probably think broken-link checking is an obvious, standard feature that would be available with any capable web publishing software. Wrong-o. Sorry, the core WordPress developers don’t think like you and me.
  • Evidently you’re supposed to be so accurate that you never cut and paste a link erroneously, and links never go bad. Or maybe they think you enjoy blowing an entire weekend from time to time doing nothing but clicking on the links throughout your site to see if they still work or not. Because, well, because gosh, it’s just so cool that you can, like, click on a link on a web page and it might take you to potentially anywhere else in the cyberverse. I mean, wow, just WOW, think of the possibilities!

Read moreWordPress’s hidden hazards for do-it-yourselfers, Part 4

WordPress’s hidden hazards for do-it-yourselfers, Part 3

What? Didn’t get enough punishment from the first two parts in the series? Good. Let’s continue on, fellow masochists.
Go to: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Plug-in proliferation

So, you’ve decided on an off-the-shelf WordPress theme of some sort or are going to roll your own. But you need extra functionality. What about plug-ins? First, here’s a contradiction you run into all the time. Everybody says to use plug-ins for extra functionality so you avoid theme-vendor lock-in. But at the same time, everybody also says don’t use plug-ins if you don’t have to. Why are people talking out of the other side of their mouth here? Three reasons:

  • Plug-ins are security risks. Many plug-ins are poorly coded, and most WordPress sites that get hacked are compromised by exploiting plug-in vulnerabilities.
  • Too many plug-ins can slow down your site.
  • Plug-ins can conflict with each other. (See above: many are poorly coded.) The more plug-ins you’re running, the more potential for conflicts. Even with plug-ins that are well-coded, conflicts might still occur on occasion.

Obviously, you can’t both use and not use plug-ins at the same time, right? What gives? Part of the problem is admittedly the poor quality of so many plug-ins. This is purely my own personal opinion, but based on the reviews I see on WordPress.org, along with my own experience trying out different plug-ins, just as a rough guess I would say at least 50% of the plug-ins out there shouldn’t be listed. At least. As a minimum. They either don’t work as advertised, performance may be slow, they may have poor user interfaces, aren’t kept up to date, aren’t well-supported, or, well, you get the picture.

Keep in mind this rule of thumb: The more something is democratized, the lower the bar is typically set, and the more crap will be let in the back door — heck, the front door. I’m not saying democracy is bad, but it comes at a cost, often a significant cost. The cost is all the rabble that’s enabled. WordPress is an open-source CMS platform, and the most popular, which means anyone can write a plug-in. Caveat emptor.

Read moreWordPress’s hidden hazards for do-it-yourselfers, Part 3

WordPress’s hidden hazards for do-it-yourselfers, Part 2

Continuing with round two of the complain-a-thon and avoiding-the-pitfalls advice for WordPress do-it-yourselfers.
Go to: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

The WordPress theme landscape: an unorganized polyglot of a mess

N
ow, what about the design of your site? Another initial hurdle to clear when you’re first beginning on the road to a self-hosted WordPress site is what it’s going to look like. It’s basically a three-fold choice:

  • Use one of the stock WordPress themes (Twenty Ten, Twenty Eleven, Twenty Twelve, etc.).
  • Go with either a free or premium theme from a third-party developer (i.e., Themeforest, Elegant Themes, or any one of a boatload of other developers).
  • Roll your own.

The stock WordPress themes: ah, ugh. I think the first observation to be made about themes for self-hosted sites is that the stock themes offered by the WordPress core developers mostly suck. It’s not just that the themes are minimalist, because minimalism can be good, but that they are minimalist in a clunky way that just isn’t visually very pleasing.

Perhaps one shouldn’t complain too much about this since the core WordPress developers are primarily coders, but this is a recurrent issue you typically see with any kind of open-source software: the user interface and particularly the graphic design of things are often a serious weak spot. Coders’ brains are just wired differently than most people’s, and specifically they are wired differently than people like graphic designers who are strongly visually oriented.

But if that weren’t enough, coders for some reason almost seem to operate under the hubris of “we don’t need no stinkin’ visual design,” which of course is just the opposite of the truth. More than any other group, coders should be seeking help with the visual design of things, and yet they seem to be the last to acknowledge the need. Or if they do acknowledge it, are painfully slow to actually do something about it.

Read moreWordPress’s hidden hazards for do-it-yourselfers, Part 2

WordPress’s hidden hazards for do-it-yourselfers, Part 1

Planning to create your own WordPress site and just rarin’ to have at it? Or already in hip deep and dealing with alligators lurking all around? Slow down there just a minute, podner. There are some things you should know that the “experts” may have forgotten to tell you. Consider these words from someone who doesn’t have their identity tied up in cheerleading for the platform, with a realistic view about what to watch out for.
Go to: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Although I am not a WordPress guru, it seems to me for that very reason it would be worth offering my perspective on WordPress’s numerous “gotchas” and unseen hazards for first-timers. Because until recently I, too, was a first-time WordPress do-it-yourselfer — having put together my own site here in the nooks and crannies of spare time I was able to carve out over the last year and a half.

Although I had prior experience hand-coding a couple of previous (small) websites, combined with 30 years under my belt as a typographer and graphic designer, plus an all-around career background in various forms of publishing, there was still a significant learning curve of hard-won trial and error I was forced to go through with WordPress before arriving where I’d been aiming in the first place.

Such a vantage point has given me more of a skeptical eye toward the supposed straightforwardness of the process that I believe most WordPress “experts” may not really appreciate. If they ever truly had to go through it, they have long since passed this learning stage, and often seem to forget what it can be like for lesser mortals in the beginning before you have your bearings, but still need to make decisions about what to do.

Experts giving advice are often coders. Most do-it-yourselfers aren’t. Experts on WordPress tend to have significant blind spots, in my opinion, because of how “close” they are to the guts of how the platform works. Not only that, due to what is often a lack of background in design and editorial matters (WordPress gurus tend to be most comfortable with coding, site function, and site architecture considerations), they often overlook addressing important but unspoken questions everyday users have when it comes to wrestling with WordPress.

With a career rooted in design and editorial concerns, I have expectations for how good publishing tools should behave and what they should offer that may be somewhat different than what’s typically covered on the topic by the mainstream WordPress community of experts. After having built out my site here and finally getting it running on a more or less even keel by this point, I have been struck both by WordPress’s many positive aspects but also its numerous, often unremarked-on limitations, at least when initially used straight “out of the box.”

Read moreWordPress’s hidden hazards for do-it-yourselfers, Part 1

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