The Pocket

My year of running through a pandemic.

The pocket. A hell of a lot of words have been strung together in attempts to explain why people choose to run long distances. Before the pandemic, my explanation had a word count of two: the pocket. 

The phrase comes from music. When the members of a band, especially the rhythm section, lock into the groove perfectly, they call it being “in the pocket”. It goes beyond playing at the same tempo; each beat has a shape. 100 beats per minute can feel staccato, with the band attacking right on the first edge of the beat, or a band can slide into the very last nook at the back of the beat. Listen to pretty much any D’Angelo song to hear a band playing on the back of a beat, and think of “Imperial Death March” from Star Wars to hear a rigid attack. The pocket is a feel, created by all players adding their element at the exact right time and emphasis.

For years, runs were about finding the pocket with my breath and footstrikes. It wasn’t as simple as finding the same mile pace: some days I found the pocket at a 07:12 pace, and other days I’d find it on the other side of 07:45. I’d consider it a good run when got into the pocket within a mile or two. I breathed in through the nose for three strides, then out through a loose jaw for three more. A heart rate broken into triplets.

IN-THROUGH-NOSE

OUT-THROUGH-JAW

IN-THROUGH-NOSE

OUT-THROUGH-JAW

IN-THROUGH-NOSE

OUT-THROUGH-JAW

Once I’d find it, few thoughts passed through my mind. The pocket was meditation, and I could run for hours in it. When I finished, my mind was power-washed. My body: elastic, spent. More than a P.R. or adding a marathon to the count, I ran for the pocket. 

Like everything, the pocket changed last March. 

In the early months, I tried to leave the pandemic at home, but I ran past evidence of it everywhere. Senior hours and lines forming outside Piedmont Grocery. Homemade “wear a mask” and “stay home” signs taped to bay windows of spacious homes I dreamed of affording. I’d run down center of an empty Grand Ave.—a main drag that leads to a San Francisco-bound freeway entrance at 7:30 AM on a weekday. It wasn’t long before the feigns had medical masks hanging from their ears. 

Fear came with me on a lot of those runs. I tried to find the pocket with it, to figure out where it could fit in with my breath and footstrikes, but fear made me pull up and stop on two occasions.

In normal times, stopping in the middle of a run was a no-go. The reason for stopping didn’t matter—an untied shoe, forgetting to silence my phone, even a turned ankle—all of them messed up the rhythm. To stop out of urgency, to make a call that couldn’t wait until I finished, was something I’d never experienced. 

The first time I stopped on the northwest side of Lake Merritt by rowing docks and the Lake Chalet restaurant. The NBA had just suspended its season. As odd as it may sound to future generations, a sports league shutting down sticks out as the first major decision to put the world on hold. Many shutdowns would come soon after, and on that morning on The Daily podcast a journalist was discussing when the borders would closed to international travel. My brother-in-law was in London at the time, on his way to a backcountry ski trip in the Swiss Alps (of course he was: all of his trips are essentially bringing to life the Instagram photos from outdoor apparel companies). 

I called my father-in-law. I told him Jack needed to find a flight home, that day if possible. I’ve recently become marginally comfortable giving my father-in-law feedback on his golf swing, so to call Don and say his son needed to get back stateside was beyond the range of our communication in March, 2020. Yet, to wait the four miles until the run was done felt like a wasting of very important minutes.

I stopped in front of the lamp further back to make the call to Don.

Don agreed, and so did Jack once he saw future flights from the U.S. to the U.K. getting cancelled on dates before his scheduled return flight. He bought a one-way ticket on one of the last commercial flights back to the states, having never made it to Switzerland. Good fortune, as it turned out: they checked passports at the gate to see if people had been outside of the U.K. before letting passengers board. Switzerland would’ve presented an issue. It would be months before commercial flights from the U.K. came into the states. 

Not long after, I stopped a run near the top of the hill on the way to Lake Temescal. The only thing worse than stopping on a run is stopping in the middle of a climb. 

I can’t remember if I called my brother, Tony, or if he called me, but we talked about Mom and Dad. We spoke of the nightmare scenario so many would experience: Mom or Dad getting infected and dying alone in a hospital. We discussed telling them they had to stay home. Although nearly 40, I was (and am) very much getting used to telling my parents what’s in their best interest, although they may not sense my hesitancy.  

I could hear Tony turning over the idea in the silence between my heavy breaths. Even that early, my head was always on a swivel when on runs, ready to pull the Buff over my nose and mouth if I saw someone approaching. No decision was made. It wasn’t Tony’s to make, but there’s still an authority coming from the oldest of the six of us. Least I felt it. We hung up.

I was so far from Minnesota at that moment. I’d felt far from home before, but there on the hill the feeling didn’t come from a distance or homesickness. I was far from home in the sense that I didn’t know when I’d be back. Would I be allowed to go home? Would interstates set up barriers at state borders? It sounds crazy, but at that point last spring Spain and Italy weren’t letting people leave their homes except for groceries. 

I returned to the climb, but it took an extra moment to get the legs chugging again.

Tony called back a half mile later, just past the parking lot at the top of the hill. Yep, he was going to text the rest of the family. It was too much of a risk with Mom’s history of pneumonia and aspiration issues. Delivering food for Meals on Wheels, going to the grocery store, church, bookclub— all of it had to pause until we had an idea of what the hell was going on. 

From that moment until a few weeks ago when my parents were vaccinated, the anxiety of the nightmare kept churning. 

The collective unknown that came with the pandemic took months to accept. I’d check the stats every morning as if they were box scores: positive test rates, hospitalization numbers, deaths. I’d search for any indication that a turn in the right direction was coming. 

When there wasn’t proof, I’d cling to blind faith that things would get better.  Maybe there was something to warm weather helping tamp down the spread, or that the virus would just fizzle out, or the geniuses would figure out a simple treatment that would get us back to normal in a few months. We knew so little (remember when we were scrubbing down out groceries and weren’t super eager to pump gas without a glove?). The collective unknown is the component of the last year I will try and fail to capture for our future kids. 

Now, when I run those routes and stride over those hidden, autobiographical markers, I think of when I stopped.


As spring led into summer, more and more runs were open-ended. An appreciation for the enormity of the pandemic settled. There was nowhere to go, not much to do, and an end wasn’t in sight. Those were the facts. 

So I ran with no route in mind. I looped back in the direction of home when I had enough. Finishing was a release, but it came with a malaise when my stride switched from running to walking.

The pocket became a place to formulate, not to meditate. I bungled the peculiar rhythms of new thoughts and disagreements. Fitting them into the triplet of breaths and footstrikes was a struggle.

I would false start on rebuttals for a brother. I’d privately consider if a sister was right, and I was angered when I was sure she wasn’t. I’d stew over my parents letting it slip that they were still delivering Meal on Wheels. I get pissed at myself for avoiding a disagreement over the phone in favor of a comfortable conversation molded around empty pleasantry. I’d fester at what I assumed they thought about my take on the pandemic, and I’d be quick to note the times they didn’t ask. I’d wonder if we were in a Bay Area bubble of overreaction, and then I’d remember what the infectious disease experts were saying. 

‘Agree to disagree’ wasn’t going to cut it when it came to this virus and how it could spread through people that display no symptoms. Damn right it was personal; how long would it take for me to get over passing the virus onto a stranger who then was hospitalized or worse? Could I forgive the friend, the neighbor, the family member if they got my parents sick? 

Every interaction on any given day had the threat to go there. Everyone was on edge at all times. Over days, weeks, months the reminder was constant: we did not agree on what the greater good meant. There was a corrosion in all of it. 

When I’m stuck, I either write or run. This last summer required a lot of both. 

I’m sure it took hundreds of miles to get my head around the varying points of view held by the people I love the most. I didn’t agree with them—not even close in some cases—but I understood how they got to their outlook. Each of our most pressing concerns before the pandemic were only magnified by it. Since the beginning, we’ve found our COVID lane through circumstance as much as science, and that includes most of us whose opinion falls in line with Dr. Faucci. Of course, therein lies the problem when it comes to COVID. 

Take our circumstance: Natalie and I were lucky enough to keep our jobs through it all. That was never a persistent concern, and we figured out how to work from home. We don’t have kids. We have a little money saved. Of the very few worries we had in our life before the pandemic—and by any measure they were few—the health of our parents was near the top. I worried about Dad’s mobility and diet. I worried about pneumonia with Mom. Natalie’s parents both had their turns with cancer. Of course, those concerns only spread with COVID and how the risk of serious issues increased for those with compromised immune systems. What other reason did we need to wear a mask and stay home if that’s what would help keep the older population around us safe? It wasn’t too much to expected those around our parents to do the same. Anything we could do in order to give the smart people more time to figure out a treatment was worth it. 

For healthy family members that owned or worked at small businesses—where working from home wasn’t an option —guess what their point of view has been? Risk assessment wasn’t as one-dimensional for them. Or how about the folks with kids trying to find their place in school? Or grandparents whose love in life is to be around their kids and grandkids? A year to folks in their 70s is not the same as a year to people in their 30s. 

It took time, but I learned how to run with both my outlook and the realization that many people I respect had an understandable reason for their outlook. Some days I could find the pocket with all of that in my mind, on my shoulders, in my chest. I’d run fast and smooth. I genuinely don’t know if that should be a point of pride. 


Natalie and I joke that our first year of marriage should count for more than a year. 2020-2021 should be a pandemic-adjusted marriage season due the sheer amount of time couples spent together. 

We tried all the COVID distractions to keep our minds busy in that 100-year old rental, with our wisp of a landlord and her never-ending divorce living below us: puzzles, cards, one (and only one) tik-tok dance, Tiger King. At that point, it was unclear if being outside was even advisable, and I waited for the news that the Bay Area would go into full lockdown, meaning limited time outside the house. That would’ve crushed me. 

Maybe Natalie knew that subconsciously, because that’s about the time she became possessed by the idea of organizing a half marathon. 

We can all get caught up in an idea while passing the time watching TV, but the next moment is the crucial one. While most of us let the idea float by, Natalie reached for the laptop. Within the hour, a flyer was designed with flamengo included for strictly aesthetic reasons. She sent out a group text to Chris, Katelyn, and Basma. Chris and Basma were immediate yeses, Katelyn would be closing in on the third trimester come race day on July 11. I was assigned the role of course architect and asked to present some East Bay route options. Elevation change was a chief concern. Natalie does not mess with running hills. 

Natalie went overboard for a race that would feature all of three competitors, and this little project brought an energy that was so needed. We quickly christened it the “Quarantine Crawl”, and for the next twelve weeks there was a familiar old purpose to a run. T-shirts with the aforementioned flamengo were ordered. My wife is the greatest. 

I ran the long runs with Natalie and Basma (Chris was on the other side of the bridge), mostly along the bay between the Emryville and Berkeley marinas. We’d run with Treasure Island, then the San Francisco skyline, then Alcatraz, then the Golden Gate Bridge over our left shoulders.

They would find their pocket on a few of the runs. It would happen in that silent acceptance found far from the beginning and the end. Conversation would slow to a drip of monosyllabic encouragement. They’d sync up their breath and strides. It was cool to watch them get to a place so meaningful to me. 

We’d splay out on B’s stoop afterwards with a cold drink. They’d recap the different phases of the run, proud and exhausted. I would bask in their sweat-stained accomplishment. And after a couple early route mishaps, the Quarantine Crawl was a success, complete with 3.5 spectators: Natatlie’s parents, Katelyn with Emerson in her belly. 

(A quick aside to anyone thinking about a DIY road race: it has been my experience that, when designing a running course, chalk arrows on the sidewalk are not 100% reliable, so limit the amount of turns. Better yet, just bike with the racers).


Then came the fires. 

A dry lightning storm, an event described in The New York Times as a “freakish siege of thousands of dry lightning strikes in Northern California — a weather event on a scale not seen in decades” sunk Natalie and I in late August and early September. Everyone had a pandemic low point, and that was ours. 

Dry lightning? In Minnesota, lightning came with thunder, followed by rain. The only dry lightning I’d heard of prior to August was from Springsteen’s The Ghost of Tom Joad

I ran the morning these pictures were taken before the Air Quality Index spiked. Forget dystopian; as I ran, I wondered if we were entering apocalyptic territory. It wasn’t hyperbole. Didn’t feel that way at least. There was no pocket to be found that morning, and it was obvious I wouldn’t be running in the coming weeks. With ‘outside’ added to the list of closures, my world became even smaller that morning.  

At the time, we had an unhinged president already sowing voter fraud months before the election (not knowing what would follow at the Capitol on January 6), a country in the depths of a racial reckoning, a pandemic, and now flames raged across the western half of the United States. We were trapped under smoke miles thick, amongst other things. 

This is the same lake pictured above when I stopped to call my Father-In-Law. Photo credit: Yalonda M. James / The Chronicle

There was no longer comfort at home. That old house Natalie and I were renting couldn’t keep the smoke out. The windows were old and cheap, and all the window frames were rotted. Smoke came in as easily as the spiders Natalie despised. We went to my in-laws’ house. They had new windows, and we needed clean air. Natalie was six weeks pregnant with our first child. 

I was exhausted. Of course I had reasons to be happy and grateful, but come fall it took such effort to reach those states of mind. Sometimes I felt like a fool to look for the positive. Optimism and obliviousness—it was hard to tell which current was which. 


The smoke cleared (for the season), and I was running the first day the AQI dropped back into the yellow zone. In the winter months, we’ve adapted in this time before we finally beat back the pandemic (as of writing this, over 30% of the country has been vaccinated, with about 3M receiving shots each day). Caution has replaced fear in our neighborhood. We’ve found ways to be happy and be with friends. Turns out, outside is a great place to be in most any weather. Park hangs have long since replaced Zoom calls with friend groups. Beer gardens are heaven, and we all can find the beauty in the orange glow of a propane heat lamp. 

I’ve never run more than I did in the last year, even years training for multiple marathons. Cue the Jackson Browne from the Forest Gump montage.

Along the way, I’ve become familiar with so many other runners in the neighborhood. Each one of them gets a head nod when we cross paths. There is the young dad with his two daughters who would run a lap around Rose Avenue every morning, face shields and all. There is the bearded guy I’d pass near 40th and Broadway most mornings. Always in his red shirt (man, I hope he owns multiples). Dude must’ve lost 40 pounds in the last year. There was the mom with her daughter and son, maybe 10 and 12, heading up that same hill to Lake Temescal where I stopped to talk to Tony about Mom and Dad. There is the old guy – the same shape and stature as Dad, who prefers his afternoon walks with a cigar. I love the smell of his cigars. There is the other old guy – has to be late 70s – who is still running. If you watch his arms, elbows held up high and pumping, he’s running, so don’t worry about his cargo shorts and walking feet.

And then there is this little girl. Our little girl. I want to write her name, but Natalie and I are keeping it close until she’s born. We call her by her name all the time. I’m saying it in my mind right now. I love the full name and the nickname, too. It sounds good sandwiched between laughs, and there’s a nice weight to the full name for when I’ll need to be stearn. She’ll be here in a month or so, but she’s already my running buddy. She’s in the pocket with me, racking up the miles. 

And that would be a sweet end to this look back. Far too sweet for a pandemic retrospective.

The very sound of the word— pandemic— annoys me. Alway will. I’m over it. I’m over talking about it, debating it, having it lurking on the periphery of every goddamn thought. The threat in every conversation to go there. The edge. I’m over it. We all are. 

I want to leave it behind. Yet, even after the vaccines, even if it were eradicated, the pandemic will show up in moments we don’t expect. There’s a shared trauma the scope of which we won’t grasp for years.

I have little idea where life will take us, but I’ll be there running. On some otherwise forgettable run, I might smell a familiar cigar, or I’ll see a line forming outside a grocery store. Something will trigger a memory of the pandemic and break my triplet of breath and footstrikes. I’ll lose the rhythm, but only for a short distance. I’ll remember how to run in a pandemic. I’ll play the rhythm by heart, and I’ll find the pocket again.

-Phil Lang, April 7, 2021

4,560

County rinks in Minnesota resemble oversized garden sheds. Concrete floors, pitched aluminium roofs, little-to-no insulation. They are cold, the ice is fantastically hard, and voices carry, including my dad’s on occasion.

“Pass the damn puck!” 

His voice thundered off the cinder block walls and ice, overwhelming the click-clack of sticks.

Like all dads, mine had a different tone of voice kept in reserve. That ‘enough bullshit’ voice. He went to it sparingly. It was a blunt object, a force used for absolute clarity. The sound of it left me cringing on the bench in its echo. He wasn’t yelling at me, not usually. 

Those hockey games were twenty-five years ago and more. How I now measure anything in that length of time is hard to believe, but here we are. Now, my point-of-view is rotating. My wife, Natalie, and I are expecting a little girl in three months. She’ll be our first, and I fill the in-between moments of the day imagining pieces of her life to come. 

I know I’m 10 years away from any real sports dad moments, as any game played by kids younger than 10 more closely resembles a chaos theory experiment than any actual sport. I’m pumped for that youth sports phase, to be a sports dad. The thought of it leads back to my dad. 

Jim Lang’s run as a sports dad is an all-timer. With some back of napkin math and conservative estimates, it’s fair to say he attended somewhere in the ballpark of 4,560 of his kids’ sporting events over a 24-year run (1980-2004), that comes out to a little more than a game every other day.

Here’s how I got to that number. I started with Tony, the oldest of us kids, and estimated his total amount of games/events played in a sports season, having shorter season game totals for younger ages (10-13), then bumping up for older years. Then I added up the total amount of games I played in (I am the youngest). I assigned the average of Tony’s total and my total for the other four siblings. Everyone played 3 sports when kids, and at least two sports through high school. I added estimated college games for my sister, Angie, and me.

My dad’s attendance record at these games/events is legendary. I said 95% and my brother, Matt, thought that figure was actually low. Put in another way, he remembers the games of his my dad missed, including the first inning of a Little League game in which Matt hit his only home run. 

I don’t know how my dad did this while running a business for many of those years. I’m not even counting the 17 grandkids and their games. The man’s put in his 10,000 hours as a sports dad. 

Adding numbers is one way to measure sports parenting. Games, years, dollars, miles. God only knows how many miles my dad rolled on the odometer cutting across the metro area to find some random soccer or baseball field behind some random middle school in a suburb across town. Worse yet, out-of-town tourneys. There’s also the emotional investment to consider. That’s not as easy to count or weigh. 

Parents are like driving instructors when it comes to their kids’ emotions around sports. They ride shotgun while the kiddos take the wheel. The kids try their best to navigate the highs and lows of the wins and losses, to get the feel for triumphs and slights, all the while mom or dad are ready to take control, slow down, and get everything pointed back in the right direction if things get out of hand. 

Game in, game out. Every drive home maneuvering around every bad call, success, substitution; every interaction and how it proved so-and-so really did think such-and-such. 

The more I think about it, maybe the teenage years are the emotional equivalent of teaching the kid to drive a stickshift. 

We’ve all heard a story or two about unhinged sports parents, and I’ve wondered if youth sports have become an outsized focus for many, not to mention a billion dollar industry. Still, youth sports are incredibly important, and not because they allow parents to help their children realize the dreams their mom and dad could’ve realized if only they’d had a stronger parental guide. And while the life lessons are invaluable, there’s a bigger reason why youth sports commandeer so much of us. 

In sports, parents witness their kid experience success and failure in public. 

Where else in a parent-child relationship is that a more regular occurrence than during youth sports? Where else can a parent watch that play out in real time from the comfort of a folding chair? Algebra tests aren’t exactly a spectator sport, and there aren’t 30 school musicals a season. First kiss, first heartbreak, a nailed or failed summer job interview— all secondhand. Come adulthood, so much success and failure is relayed, discussed with but rarely seen by parents.  

We’ve manufactured elaborate ceremonies to celebrate some definition of success. Weddings (love, family), graduations (knowledge), birthdays (not dying), sacraments (spiritual progress), retirement parties (career), funerals even (you know, all of it). These are the recognition of success, but not the act itself. As for failures, we ignore those at pretty much any cost, and have mercy on anyone who experiences failure in public or has them captured on social media.  

Success and failure. Success and failure. Over, and again. Those early glimpses of how a child will handle both certainties – it must be immensely vulnerable and captivating to watch how both shape a child. 

I try to sense the volume of the numbers and emotions of my dad amassed as a sports dad. While us kids were always his priority at those games, he genuinely cared about how the team played. How could he not? He sat through too many games to watch selfish play, timidity, or mental mistakes.  

“Pass the damn puck!” There was a lot more beneath those words than my dad simply being fed up with having to watch a kid’s failed attempt at an end-to-end rush for the fifth time in the period. I am only just beginning to feel my little girl kicking in Natalie’s belly, and I still need to learn, uh, everything about being a dad, but am I fool to think I can now understand just a bit of why my dad would yell every now and again? 

It wasn’t too much for my dad to suggest the kids play as a team. 

Not so long ago, I envisioned myself as the silent dad at my kids games. I’d played and coached enough youth sports to have made the vow so many have made: I would never be the parents losing their shit at the game. 

All of us have experienced some version of these parents. They are the ones berating an umpire making $30 a game, the ones who can’t go five seconds without frantically reminding kids of techniques from across the field, the ones openly questioning coaching decisions to anyone within earshot. Nowadays, I’m guessing these are the folks starting chat groups online to talk crap and plot like cowardly teenagers. 

Out of fear of becoming one of these idiots, I planned to be the silent dad, and that was a stupid plan. 

My best youth sports experience was my baseball team from 13-15. I always appreciated that we had enthusiastic, young coaches (my brother, Tony, and brother in-law, Jay) that connected with the kids. I’m only now fully appreciating how great the families were. Much of the families were the same every year, and while it wasn’t perfect, there was a genuine feeling that parents were pulling for each kid to succeed on the team. 

We won a lot, which never hurts, but the sports cliches regained their original meaning in large part because the parents cheered when teamwork, resilience, effort, preparation, competition manifested into great play. They would call it out when those qualities were lacking, too. Compliments were often directed to specific kids, critiques rarely were.  

As much as where I was born, those families represent where I grew up. I don’t know where I’ll be living in ten years: here in California, back in Minnesota, or maybe there’s a curveball waiting for us down the line. Wherever we are, the families sitting around us in the bleachers will make up a meaningful part of our community. They will be a part of where my kids are from. 

While I won’t threaten my dad’s career numbers, we’re still talking about many games, many miles, many hours, many emotions. If we’re signing up for all of that, then we have to try doing it right. I gotta do my part as a sports dad in helping create an environment where the cliches have meaning. I want to be a parent heaping genuine praise on all the kids when they deserve it, including mine. And for every ten ‘atta boy!’, I want to be part of community that understands yelling “passing the damn puck!” is not an aggression, but preservation. 

I don’t want to help build community in which our fear of offending means we avoid making any positive impact on each other. Sports parents can create that environment or ensure it never has a chance.

Of course, my daughter might not even like sports. Those in-between moments I brought up at the beginning of this story? When I think about the pieces of her life, the truth is the vast majority of those won’t include sports. That’s why youth sports have to be about the lessons and the community that helps teach them. About learning how to compete, being a good teammate, celebrating success, collapsing into failure, and waking up the next day moving on from both. 

I’ll end with one of my favorite stories of my dad as a sports dad. the concession. 

My sister, Libby, was a basketball player. A good one, too. She was the only one of us kids who had any skill for that game. Plus, the Langs aren’t in the height business. She was a point guard on the high school team, and played plenty on varsity as a junior. Come her senior year, she was a likely starter, but there was this seventh grade phenom. The coach decided to bring the phenom up to varsity. Libby bore the brunt of it, and rarely played. My dad was upset. Plenty of no b.s. voice when that topic came up in the house. 

The phenom was incredible, no question about it. She went on to play and coach at Marquette and now coaches at Penn State. It wasn’t her fault, and it wasn’t about her; my dad couldn’t get past the question as to why a seventh grader had to play varsity, and how that was the reason Libby couldn’t take her final lap as an athlete before going to college (Libby would agree that her participation on the J.V. golf team the following spring was strictly about getting a tan…she played in flip-flops, folks) 

Ultimately, there was nothing to be done. The kid was great, coach wanted her playing varsity, and so Libby sat the bench. Who knows what factors were at play—maybe the coach was worried she’d lose a future star player to another school if she didn’t play the 13 year-old right away. 

My parents still were there in the stands, even though it was clear how the season would play out. At one game, my dad walked down the bleachers, passed behind the bench and told Libby he was going to the concession stand – did she want a hot dog?

Imagining that moment kills every time. I’m laughing as the write this!

My dad has devoted the entirety of his time on building two legacies: his career and his family. That’s it. That’s the complete list of things Jim Lang cares about.  Sports have been a big part of his life because they were important to his kids.

I told my dad about this story last night. His response to when I told him 4,560: “And I enjoyed every one of them.”

My dad relished our sports successes. They made him goddamn giddy. And when the puck ought to be passed, he’d say it. When we failed, he felt it. And if concession was the last option, then he’d give us a laugh as we moved on to the next piece of life waiting for us. 

Phil Lang, 02.17.21

 

Running In Corduroys

Why my mom started running in her fifties, what made her stop, and the joy of watching a parent discover a new part of their life. 

Mom was in her fifties when she took her first run. On a winter night in Minnesota she ran to the snow pile at the end of Farington Circle beneath the yellow streetlight. 500 feet, give or take a few. She walked back home. 

Mom’s workout attire for the run: business casual. Corduroys, a sweater over a white blouse, winter boots, and a parka. 

I think of her first run regularly, often while I’m running through Oakland in the early morning. The story has long been a part of the family canon. Any forgotten details have been covered by the senses of memory undetected by chronology. For one, there’s little doubt her pre-run snack was a sip from a can of warm Diet Coke and a few chocolate chips from the yellow Tollhouse bag forever ripped open on the counter just to the left of the kitchen sink. Her corduroy strides zipped out in the cold as she passed our neighbors homes –  first the Henches, then Bergersons, then Collettis and all of the rest. I can scribble a picture of every house and every bare tree. 

I’ve been a runner since college, nearly 20 years. Most of my five siblings are runners, too (respect for always holding out, Tony). I’ve got the sibling marathon count around 45. Mom and Dad were at many of those races. She’d be on her tiptoes at mile 21 of the Twin Cities marathon, straining to spot one of us coming up Summit Avenue. We’d get in the Suburban after the race, and she’d be energized, thinking aloud about why she was on the curb cheering, not running. Eventually, she gave it a shot. 

Recently, Mom told me that, long before any of us ran, she would be introduced as Monica, mother of six. The number of her children was the most recognizable part of her, and she would have to convince herself that she was still Monica, separate from us. And then there was the part that had been unsaid in Mom’s presence but no doubt discussed—that she was the mom of six who’d had been really sick. Throat cancer. 

Both distinctions —the one said in front of her and the one discussed when she wasn’t within earshot— pestered her for years. Two mosquitos in a tent. No one has ever loved being a mom more than she’s loved it, but goddamn, she was more than a mom, and certainly more than a mom who almost died. More than a wife, too. First, she was Monica. 

Another certainty regarding the night of her first run: Mom visited Grandma and Grandpa on the way home from teaching at the very elementary school she attended. Their home, where Mom grew up with two younger sisters (both of whom began running later in life, too), was halfway between where Mom taught and our house. 

Grandma and Grandpa have been gone for years now, but Mom checks in with them daily. I was shocked when Mom told me only a short time ago that Grandma had not been on board with Mom having so many kids. They did not send her to college to be a housewife, to be introduced as the mom of six. 

Something in me, the bad writer still tempted to make all the pieces fit, wants to say all of those factors— her kids running, the housewife identity, the cancer survivor story she’d grown tired of, or even her hero, Grandpa, taking the time to exercise— pulled on the same end of the rope and finally got her out there to give running a shot. 

That all might be, but not even Mom could know for certain. The real explanation is a mystery, or maybe even so mundane that it was lost as soon as she got to the snowpile. Instead of jury-rigging an explanation, it feels true to let the mystery be. Epiphany has the tendency to be assembled from the evidence that survived long after the happening has passed.

Mom kept running. Cue the montage music (she would request “Diamonds On The Soles of Her Shoes”). Runs to the end of the cul-de-sac became runs around the block. Around the block became around the neighborhood. The routes expanded to much of Roseville, many of the same paths Grandpa walked. 

She ran down the streets and through the parks and around the lakes and through the yards that were the backdrop of nearly all of her life. 

A police officer once stopped her on Highway 36. Mom had veered left down Minnesota Ave over behind Concordia Academy and found herself on the quarter-mile off-ramp. It’s that little stretch of Highway 36 that was part off-ramp, part frontage road across from the Vietnamese Buddist temple on the other side of the high school football field. I doubt she even noticed she was technically on the highway, and I promise she never thought it was cause for police concern. 

To her, the fact that she was on a highway mattered less than the proximity of that particular stretch of pavement to so much of her life. How could that officer possibly take issue? She knew more about where she was than his finger knew about the inside of his nose. 

Mom loved running for what it did to her mind. Aside from a Discman that rarely worked, accessories were absent from her runs. So too were gadgets used to count ultimately meaningless units of time and distance. Instead, she took a special joy in cutting through yards. As odd as it sounds, she would go out of her way to cut through a yard. To this day, she gets a kick out of it. 

One time she complained to my brother, Matt, that her knees hurt. He suggested that it was probably time for a new pair of running shoes. A common issue with regular runners, which Mom had become. That didn’t make sense to her. She was still running in boots in the winter. 

She loved it, and watching a parent find something they love other than you is life-affirming. To see another part of them come to form, to witness them alive in the most childlike way: experiencing something new. 

After her runs, we’d talk. Mostly on the phone, but we would sit on the front porch when I was home in the summer. She’d still be sweating in the white wicker rocking chair, I’d be on the front step, and we’d stare down Farrington Circle. That runner’s gaze—exhausted contentment. I saw it in her, knowing its perfection myself. I loved to see her lost in the gaze. 

In many ways, I think like her. We drift on a similar current. Running gave space to think. A tempo for her to meditate on the people she loved and the ideas that she couldn’t untangle or set aside. She could stride through all of the thoughts with the power of synchronicity, of breath and stride. The idea of faith vs. organized religion, grandpa flying missions as a navigator in WWII, dinner that night, the latest from The White House, a lesson plan, the reading for next week’s mass, and her book club book—all of these thoughts connected within the rhythm of breath and footfalls, and Mom didn’t have to wait for anyone to keep up.  

Mom stopped running maybe seven years ago. She slipped a couple times and hit her head. She’s had seizures in her past, though not as a result from falling while running. Also, the radiation from the throat cancer 30 years prior caused many of the muscles in her neck to begin atrophy. Her neck bends forward, resulting in neck, back, and shoulder pain. There have been spinal fusion surgeries, physical therapy, botox, speech therapy, and more. Recently, the flap  in her throat—the epiglottis— doesn’t work too well anymore, so it became hard for her to get certain foods down. Some would go down the wrong pipe, causing her to aspirate. Pneumonia followed at least two times. 

Mom has always been a petite woman, but the swallowing issues had left her much too thin by my wedding in 2019. She’d always plow through any discomfort. Still, I was scared. She was frail, exhausted, but it was more than that. Mentally, she was loose. 

She was malnourished. A feeding tube was put in, which makes it sound like she’s now incapacitated, and that’s far from the truth. The tube has brought her back, in weight, sharpness, and wit. She doesn’t have to rely on swallowing food to get her nutrition. She still eats, orally, but just can’t rely on it for her nutrition. At night, a they attach packet of her daily dose of nutrients and calories to a tube right into her stomach.  She has more energy than she’s had in years, and she puts it to use.

I don’t put my mom’s health challenges out there for dramatics; I share to underscore just how much it took to merely slow her gait from a run to a walk. She is, without a hesitation, the most resilient person I know. She doesn’t know how to quit. 

She walks most every day, probably as fast as she ran to be honest, but her spirit is not that of a walker. She’s in it, but Mom isn’t ready for a walking life, especially after finding running so late. 

Mom’s a fucking runner. I thought she’d hate that I put it that way, but it’s the truth. Turns out, she wasn’t mad at that description at all. 

There’s absolute strength in knowing that I come from her, the lady that took her first run after 50 on a cold winter night. I’m not foolish enough to presume I have all of her resilience in me, but some of that made it to me. It must have. All of those 45 Lang sibling marathons—the ones before and after—come from the same place inside of Mom that convinced her to run up the cul-de-sac. 

OK, I admit it; I can’t be completely certain on the specifics of her work clothes on that first run, but that’s the story that survived, and there’s much truth in it. And that lady defaults to corduroys in the winter, always has. She definitely was not wearing jeans to teach the kids at Maternity of Mary. Of course there was a sweater, and what mom owns any less than 40 white blouses? 

I often recreate Mom on that run. Her breath finds a pace. Her boots crunch the snow-ice with each petite stride venturing out into the night.

Phil Lang, 02/02/21

The Single, Part I

Observations, guidelines, and stories from my year as the single golfer. 

They spot me coming towards them on the first tee. Ragged bag, hand-me-down clubs, trail running shoes. Their practice swings stall. What the hell are we in for? Brings me a smile every time. 

I am the single. The one guy the group hopes to not encounter.

I don’t take it personally. Golfing with a stranger isn’t preferred, but the muni will get as many paying golfers out as is possible, so the group is stuck with me and I’m stuck with them. Together we embark on a lesson of humility, punctuated by moments of pure contentment*. After four hours (if we’re lucky), or last light, we’ll fold into our respective cars without knowing each other’s last names, but we’ll drive away with an oddly intimate knowledge of one another. How we react to success and failure – our own, that of our friends, and even that of a stranger – these are parts of ourselves we don’t offer up so quickly in most every other scenario. 

I’ve played many rounds as the single in the last year. It’s a fascinating crapshoot with strangers. There’s a communal exchange taking place on the golf course that I’m not getting much of anywhere else these days in this phone-trance, headphone-wearing, socially-distant pandemic existence. Equally as important, golf has reminded me of a truth I never tire of re-learning: the ways in which people are weird is endless. That, and–goddamn–failure is an entertaining unifier.

A trip to Mexico with the in-laws is to blame for my return to golf after 20 years. While I love a pool, a book, and a margarita, I can’t lounge for a week straight. So when my father-in-law asked if we should play golf while on vacation, I didn’t hesitate. That led to some practice rounds prior to to the trip to avoid complete embarrassment on what looked like a very nice course hugging the ocean, which led to a friendly competition with my father-in-law, which led to driving range sessions, which led to twilight rounds as the single, which led to more rounds with my father-in-law, and now the brother-in-law has joined in the fun, too, and so here we are. All because I was worried about hanging out by a pool overlooking the Pacific Ocean for too many days in a row. 

A year into the return, and the layoff still shows. I’ll chunk a couple most every round, and my swing can lose all tempo without notice. My entire rig is second-hand – a hodgepodge pulled out of the back corner of the in-laws’ garage. The magenta, purple, and teal bag has two working zippers and the phrase CART-TECH stenciled on it in white (and to answer your question, I don’t know just how much technology is needed to secure a golf bag to a cart, or how some copywriter in the marketing department hooked the S.V.P. of Bags at Spalding with “CART-TECH”). The clubs are a bouquet of leftovers—paint-chipped off-brands mixed in with household names: Warrior (driver I use), Calloway (driver that shouldn’t even be in the bag), Bushmills (sandwedge), Nitro Power Shot (irons, 5-wood), Odyssey (putter, left-handed), and the shaft of the 3-iron I broke at the range. 

So that group on the first tee, they spot all of that coming their way. I don’t care how gracious they might be, they see triple digits all over me. The thought all but radiates off them – what the hell are we in for? Like I said, it brings me a smile. Not because I’m there to prove them wrong (a round over a hundy is not yet completely out of the question) but because they have no idea how this will go, and neither do I. That not knowing is entertaining, a little exciting even. I’m easily amused.

What follows are some observations, guidelines, and stories from my year as the single. 

First Impressions

A hell of a lot about the group I join can be deducted before introductions. Accessories are a good place to start. As I walk from the proshop to the first tee, I’m looking for bag size, gear, attire. I’m scanning for head covers on irons, copper bracelets, guys wearing more than one item from Pebble Beach, TPC (any of them), the U.S. Open, or Augusta. Any combo of those accessories that adds up to over 2.5 and I might be in for a round of exclusive golf course name-dropping and networking jargon. Of course, there are exceptions, but—come on—not many. 

With the handshake out on I.R. the foreseeable future, I can’t fall back on approach, grip, and handshake duration for first impressions. Regardless of where someone might stand on the pandemic, it’s fascinating—like a bumper sticker—when someone chooses to skip the pleasantries and go straight to COVID on the introduction by saying something like, I mean, I’m fine shaking hands, but I guess we’re not doing that anymore. I can’t remember if his name is Beck or Brock, and yet I’m quite clear on his personal feelings about the global health crisis. I’m at the course to escape that topic for a few hours, my man. 

Right in that response, and how the other dudes in the group react to that intro between me and the alpha, will pretty much tip the hand of each guy’s role. There’s the suck-up sidekick, the fringe guy that’s been considering leaving this group for years; the dad that speaks for his almost adult son, the son that might trade his entire set of irons in exchange for this forced father-son bonding time to be over; the low-key burner, the vaper, the drinker, the dipper; the small-talk machine, the range-finder guy, the cigar dude. All shapes and sizes, folks, but always guys. I’ve yet to be added to a group that included a woman.

And then there is the issue of tees. The mainstay question of the first tee box has hung in the air waiting to be asked from the moment the starter tacked me onto the group: What tees are you playing from? I’m an easygoing to dude – I’ll play with the group – white or blue is fine. I ain’t hitting from the tips, and unless each member of the group has a handicap under 13, they can stop fooling themselves, too. 

All the pre-round routine is pushed aside when it’s time to actually put the ball in play. Of course, that first shot matters exactly as little as every other shot in the round, but goddamn does it feel good to split the fairway to get things started. For the short walk from the tee box to my ball, the group’s wondering how good I might be instead of how bad I might be.

And what about the thirty percent of the time I do shank that first drive into the cattails in front of the tee box? Without fail, and with seemingly best intentions, someone in the group of strangers will no doubt call out Breakfast ball! – the universal invitation to redo the tee-shot. It comes out friendly, encouraging, and most likely is, but make no mistake: this isn’t only about making me feel at ease – this is about how my approach to the game impacts their round. 

Truly, no harm is meant. And yet, take a step back and that interaction is pure insanity. After the first of what will very likely amount to over 90 shots, a complete stranger has encouraged me to cheat. He’s seen enough after one swing to make that call. 

Roles and Responsibilities

As the single, my job is simple. More or less, stay the hell out of the way. I achieve that with some basic etiquette and common sense that bends towards keeping things moving. Of course, I adhere to furthest from the pin shoots next, unless someone is punching out while a player further from the hole is waiting for the green to clear. I’m ready when it’s my turn to shoot – meaning I’ve lined up the shot, took my practice swings and I’m actually ready to address the ball. I note landmarks to errant drives off the tee and help look for the ball when it’s on the same side of the fairway as my shot (but he’s on his own if he sliced in when I’m on the left side of the fairway). I never spend more than a couple minutes looking for one of mine that’s gone deep into the woods or out of bounds. I give the green a once-over as we move to the next hole to see if anyone left a wedge on the fringe. 

While I do have a habit of forgetting a ball marker, I’d say I’m an otherwise solid single to the group. It seems simple, but the distinction is important: we’re in it together, but I am not a part of their thing. I can’t be an imposition to the rhythm of their group hang. I always listen to the conversation, react when something’s funny, and – only if I really got a good one – chime in with a one-liner, then back to the sidelines of the convo I go. Friendly, but not friends.  

The group’s responsibility to me is the absence of discomfort. Just don’t make it weird, man. Politics: let’s not. Don’t expect me to laugh when the alpha makes a crack about sidekick’s wife. In fact, let’s pull it back even further: pretty much anytime someone ends a statement with, am I right, Phil, they are not right and I do not want to be associated with whatever the hell was just said. Similarly, I didn’t pay $70 to be a bystander to fellas working through their rage issues on the course, and I don’t enjoy a walk through the humid silence that is father-son surrender: a dad who gave up on telling his smelly teenager to not swing so hard and—just maybe—try keep his head down, and the son who gave up on considering any idea his dad suggests for the next 5-7 years. 

On the topics of compliments – I keep them understated, and save them for compliment-worthy moments. A birdie putt, a nice up-and-down for par: a simple there is it gets the job done. Don’t fanboy when someone hits a long drive. I am in awe of Tiger Woods, of Dustin Johnson, of the amateurs keeping his composure on Saturday at Augusta; I will not be in awe of the high school kid who finally nutted a drive 290-yards down the fairway after 17 tries on the front nine. If someone does something special – say a chip in – then I let go and maybe mix in a well-placed expletive within the compliment. That’s a helluva goddamn shot sounds a lot more genuine than nice one!

As the single, I don’t want bullshit compliments from the group either. Don’t patronize. Just because I’m a 20 handicap doesn’t mean I confuse a good shot with a not terrible shot. Don’t compliment me when I hit a fat 5-iron 125 yards but straight by saying that’ll work; just leave me the hell alone and let me stew for the short walk to my ball. 

Next week: Part 2 of The Single: Fieldwork: a handful of my more memorable rounds and group encounters from my year as the single.