Friday, June 28, 2013

The Rain

This sign in front of a local Richmond business 
pretty much sums up the rainy weather we've been having.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Nerve-racking Audition

Guitar hero and his audience
I have been on the interviewee side of plenty of job interviews, and -- in my years of snowsports instruction -- have attended stressful tryouts and exams for various PSIA ed staff positions and certification levels.

But never was I so nervous for an audition as I was two months ago as I pulled my guitar and tuner from its case.

I love to sing and play the guitar. Notice I didn't say "I'm really good at singing and playing guitar." Instead, I know a few chords, I'm not tone-deaf, and I notice -- rather than glass breaking -- people tapping their feet when I play. I like to go to the monthly open microphone at the Richmond Bakery, and I like to fool around at campfires and in the living room.

While Ali was pregnant with Gunnar, I sang a few songs to our unborn baby at least a few nights a week. I sang "Feed the Birds" from Mary Poppins, "Rainbow Connection" by Kermit the frog, and "I Don't Know Your Name," by me (for him). She reported (just to be nice, I'm sure) that the baby seemed at its most relaxed when I did this.

Then he was born, and the time came for him to hear me live. Would he like it? Would he cry? I timed the audition for immediately after a diaper change and a feeding; I didn't want him associating my music with starvation or (worse) sitting with a load in his drawers.

Music is an amazing thing. As I strummed the first chord, his blue eyes got huge and penetrating as he stared right at me. He gave me his undivided attention... and then he started to dance: flailing his arms and kicking his feet. Here I am in my Forties, but I have never felt like such a success as at that moment.

Even more amazing is his recognition of the songs I played for him when he was in utero. Even now -- months later -- he responds even more to those. He has new favorites too, but those three are our songs.

I'm sure he'll get sick of me eventually. But for now, making music and playing guitar have become one of our favorite pastimes (right up there with baths and the "Up...Down, down, down" game). For me, it is just a gift that my kid seems to love when I do one of the things that I most love doing... and I'll take that gift as long as he'll give it.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Race Report: Vermont City Marathon

Photo by Jan Leja
The weather leading up to this year's VCM was rainy and cold, but the forecast a week out looked promising -- a dry, cool race day. Each day, however, as we inched towards the start, the forecast changed a little bit for the worse. And when Sunday finally did arrive, several parts of Vermont had declared flood emergencies, temperatures had dropped (Mount Mansfield emerged Monday covered in white), winds had picked up... and it was still raining.

So with the biggest story being the weather... which, with the right clothing adjustments and a few thousand trash bags, didn't seem to dampen (pun intended) spirits -- the race began.

It was a day on which spectating must have been more difficult than running. And there were definitely fewer spectators than normal. But the 2013 VCM crowd report is an A-plus; it was one of the most enthusiastic, active, and boisterous VCM crowds I've experienced.

The race itself boiled down to two directions: south (i.e. with the wind) and north (against the wind). I wore a contractor-weight trash bag for 2.5 miles, then realizing that it would serve as a wind-catch on the Beltline section, ditched it at the Church Street water station. Still wearing a light jacket, I ran north on the Beltline behind two 6-foot relay runners who ran consistent 7:10-minute miles -- a perfect wind-break. I felt that this was a little quick; although I have run the Beltline faster, this year, I tried to dial back my early race pace in order to run a more consistent marathon than in the recent past (also, Alison said she wouldn't give me a post-race hug if I didn't do this). And I succeeded (and got my hug): my total race time this year, despite being a minute slower than last year's personal best 3h11m, included a 1:36 back half (versus 1:39 in 2012). This year's VCM was my most consistent marathon in years.

I ran the Beltline with Marty Courcelle, who shattered his previous PR by 17 minutes (no surprise given his recent training patterns). For anyone looking for crowd support, don't run with Marty in Burlington. Everyone we passed (except my parents and wife) saw the two of us and said, "Go Marty!" This was a big help to a runner from Boston who ran behind me the entire race and finished next to me; his name was also Marty.

My personal spectators were awesome. Alison walked all over the course... carrying Baby Gunnar on her chest, his diaper bag on her back, and an umbrella to keep him dry. Gunnar, meanwhile, let her get away with it. Meanwhile, my dad (wearing similar rain gear to that Bill Belichick wears in similar conditions) and Jill navigated the course so that I passed them no fewer than four times -- and they managed a visit to Bahrenburg's Bagel Shop. Impressive. I should also mention the Pink Panthers -- Jess Cover, Angie DeFilippi, and Kristen Courcelle who provided me with a good laugh biking around the course wearing pink sweatsuits.

I stopped on the Beltline return trip to use the bathroom (aka the bushes) and spent the next few miles slowly catching up to Marty (the one getting all the cheers) -- finally doing so just before the halfway point at Oakledge Park. From there on, it was more or less into the wind for the next 7 or 8 miles. We ran together up Battery, exchanging a high-five at Mile 15.

The turning point in the race for me happened on North Avenue next to the Lakeside Cemetery, where my mother is buried. I always give a wave as I pass, and I try to handle the hill in front of Burlington High School as respectably as possible (don't want mom to disapprove of my effort). This year, for Mother's Day (Alison's & Gunnar's first), we had gone down to her grave site to plant a few flowers. I couldn't see how they're doing (they experienced a week of dryness then a week of downpours), but I got a real lift there after the annual wave. I bounded up the hill and kept a very even pace on North Avenue, Leddy, and the neighborhoods.

By the time I reached the bike path and the home stretch at mile 22, I felt good enough to pick it up, passing 25 marathoners while getting passed by 7. On the bike path, I experienced some angry chafing in my right arm pit -- probably the worst I've ever had. At the finish, I also noticed blood spots over each nipple, although these didn't hurt. I was pretty grossed out by this, and what's worse, Ali had recommended I wear my blue USA singlet instead of white for this reason. As usual, I should have listened.

All in all, it was a good race -- probably the fastest I could have run on this particular day. Positives for me were the fact that I had nearly even splits (front half to back half -- less than two minutes difference) plus a strong kick at the end. More importantly to me, however, was seeing that one can become a parent, still fit in training, and still run a strong marathon. Finally, it was my 9th consecutive Vermont City -- a streak that I am very excited about. Thanks to my training partners, the Run With Jan Sunday group, Sarah Pibram's Thursday morning track workouts, my two dogs (also training partners), and, most of all, Alison and Gunnar (also training partners) without whom I would not be able to run marathons.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

A Tale of Two Sides...

... Of my garden.

No lasagna

It's that time of year: the cold-weather seeds are in, and starter weekend is not far away. Gardening season is here.

As any long-term reader of this blog knows, my green thumb is not a natural green. My stomach is green -- that is, I learned at a young age to love eating home-grown vegetables. I therefore started a garden as soon as I had the space to garden. (Notice I didn't say "...and time" to garden?). And -- probably having something to do with that whole "time to garden" piece -- I've had varying degrees of success.

My gardening nemesis is, without question, weeds. And I've been at this long enough to come to a realization: I'm just never going to make the commitment to beating weeds by weeding. I don't have what it takes.

The alternative? Obviously, I have to out-smart them. But how?

I've tried everything from rugs (they fight through) to ground covers (they grow on top) to threats (they don't take me seriously), but those pesky weeds keep growing. Weeds are tenacious, but there must be a way...

This year I have invoked my inner Italian: I'm trying a new technique known as lasagna gardening. The premise, I believe, is more for those who are trying to establish a garden for the first time. Lay down cardboard then burlap, then more cardboard, etc. Then, in rows, continue layering: peat moss, straw, mulch, leaves, dirt, compost, etc. The idea is that the materials in the rows above the cardboard layers will break down to form a rich soil. Meanwhile, whatever weeds and grass lay covered by the cardboard should break down as the cardboard and burlap breaks down.

And so far so good -- from a "no weeds" perspective. (Although not at first: last fall, the seedless straw bale I picked up for the rows seeded. My rows sprung thousands of tiny seedlings. I dug up the whole operation, moved it behind our row of raspberry bushes, and started over -- skipping the straw.)

Take two. Without straw, the rows did not break down; they came out of winter looking like rows of dead leaves, peat moss, and compost -- exactly what I put into them. The question, of course, will become will plants grow in this stew? But no matter -- the main objective is working: on the side of the garden where I laid down the materials I have no weeds (above, left). None. The other half of the garden: covered with dandelions, goldenrod, grass -- and it's already out of control (above, right). I went out and purchased compost from a local nursery to add to my rows. I didn't want to buy compost, but listen. If it means no weeds, I'll give anything (except weed-killing chemicals) a shot. And -- so far -- the lasagna experiment is working.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Early Track Workout

Two memorable things from this morning's early track workout. First off, for those that don't know, in preparation for the Vermont City Marathon, a group of runners and I have been meeting early Thursday mornings for speed workouts at the South Burlington High School track.

Today's workout was 10x800s. In other words, 800 meters 10 times. Fast. It was a tough workout, but it felt great (expecially afterwards).

Meanwhile, as we were circling the track, I noticed an SBHS track coach working out two student-athletes. One would assume these are elite athletes trying to gain a small edge, right? Not necessarily. As I left, I mentioned to the coach that I thought it was great he was out here at 6AM with these kids. The kids, he said, have all-state band practice for the next two days, so they had been excused from practice.

As for the early morning, pre-school session, he said they approached him, not vice versa. "If high school kids are going to ask me to come in at 6AM to make up missed practices," he said, "then I'm coming in at 6AM."

Great inspiration. And a great morning to run.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Why I Run

A few years ago, our running group made a t-shirt. For the back of the shirt, everyone submitted reasons why they run with the group (for the camaraderie, for motivation, for the post-run breakfast were some of the entries).

As I have for each of the past nine springs, I am preparing for this year's Vermont City Marathon. After signing up in 2005 to run my first and only marathon, it has become "my" race -- the one event that, without fail,  I do every year.

There come times, though -- take for example, this week, when I had to work around pain in my right shin, when I had to get up for my weekly Thursday morning speed workout (6:15AM at the SBHS track -- come one, come all!), and when I'm looking forward to a 20-miler on Sunday -- when one needs to review why. Why do I run? Read on...

10) It's a great way to get around.

9) To wear out my dogs so they don't wreck house

8) Takes less time than hiking

7) Feels great when it's over

6) Feels great while you're doing it

5) Keeps you in shape for hockey (and other sports)

4) Everyone else thinks it's crazy (Note: runners know it's the non-runners that are nuts...)

3) Not much equipment involved

2) It's good for you (unless you read the medical studies out there that say it's not)

1) So I can have seconds AND dessert!

In short, it's just great exercise. And regardless of how much you don't want to run, you always feel better during and after -- and that's a good way to get through a day. See you at the marathon... May 26th!

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

We're Rolling

The Gunny-sack
Well, it took some figuring out, but we're rolling. I am referring, of course, to the adjustments normal people must make when a newborn is introduced to their lifestyle.

For example, some things that have changed are: when we run, we push the baby in a jogger and carry a diaper in case he needs a diaper change. When we sit down to eat, the baby needs a diaper change. When we step out the door of the house to leave, the baby needs a diaper change. In the middle of the night, when we're sleeping, the baby needs a diaper change.

Otherwise, things are pretty much the same.

Meanwhile, the most frequently asked question of new parents is "Are you getting any sleep?" (This closely followed by "Who does he look like?"... the answer to which is, "Who do you think he looks like?"... the answer to which is different for every person who expresses their opinion.)

The answer to the sleep question is yes, we sleep between diaper changes.

Here's the real scoop: when you bring a newborn home from the hospital, there is no pattern. The kid has no idea what's going on having just entered the world. And the only thing more clueless than a new baby is new parents. In fact, I wouldn't call a new baby clueless at all. He senses something amiss, and he cries. Poor guy: now it's up to the clueless parents to figure out what he's crying about. Must be frustrating.

But as we approach the 7-week mark, we are starting to figure out how to integrate a baby into the things that normal people do. This week, for example, the three of us went to our weekly group run, we hiked to Moss Glen Falls and beyond, we raked out some of our flowerbeds, and we pressure-washed the house. Meanwhile, I wrote three articles for various magazines -- and we ate out twice. Sounds pretty close to normal, right? I'd agree... except for all those diaper changes.

Friday, March 22, 2013

How My Wife and her Childbirth Team Are Like Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots

Although the National Football League is not currently in session, all eyes are on free agency and the upcoming football entry draft. And no one doubts that when New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick says he makes the decisions that he feels are in the best interest of his football team, he means it.

Bill Belichick, take notice. When my wife got pregnant, she went to work assembling the best childbirth team she could find. Like football players, the players involved with birthing babies -- the midwives, doulas, birthing centers, physicians, hospitals, nurses, pediatricians, and all of the related support players -- have certain characteristics, advantages, price tags, experience, and ultimately levels of value to the team. Alison surrounded herself with the perfect group of professionals for this Super Bowl of lifetime events. Even Coach Belichick could take a lesson from my wife when it comes to putting together the best possible team for the journey.

Once the team is in place, you wonder how the different parts and pieces will come together. Bill Belichick puts together the best game plan he can, but when the game gets underway, he makes adjustments and his players respond. None of the players on our team knew each other until we brought them together at Porter Hospital a couple of weeks ago. Alison's team showed the kind of flexibility, adaptability, and grace under pressure that Belichick must aspire to.

Finally, not every Patriots game is a blowout; they play some excruciatingly close games where Belichick really works to manage the clock. This requires poise -- even from the least experienced players. Our childbirth, which came a full two weeks after the due date, was scheduled for an induction. Literally in the 11th hour (and I mean, like, 10:30PM!), Ali went into labor. Which meant she didn't have to be induced. Obviously, the rookie on our team (that is, our baby!) didn't want to leave any time on the clock. Truly Belichick-ian. Is there really any doubt as to which NFL team this kid is going to root for when he gets older?

Thursday, March 21, 2013


The newest member of the Aiken team -- Gunnar -- arrived home on March 10th. Through a spokesperson, he says he really likes his new home -- especially his two watchdogs and watchcat.

Sleeping patterns in the Aiken household have changed since his arrival -- many late-night meetings have been held... and more frequent daytime naps. Gunnar has adopted several nicknames, including G-Force, G-Machine, Gunny, and Guppy.

Gunnar was born at Porter Birthing Center in Middlebury, Vermont -- and his arrival has definitely been the wildest experience of my life. I fully expect the rest of his upbringing to be no different.

Welcome Gunnar!

Monday, February 25, 2013

Any Day Now...

Bilguins of Montana
"I don't think I'll be a good mother," Alison Aiken informed me this morning.

Really!?! And why is that?

"Because," she said. "I don't think this baby is ever going to be born!"

She is right, of course, that the kid is about six days past its projected due date -- an arbitrary date set months in advance that doesn't really mean anything. She's wrong about it never coming; that kid will be here within two weeks. And something tells me she'll be rewriting the book on what good mothering looks like!

Meanwhile, as we play this waiting game, we have gotten great support from family and friends from all over. Take the above photo of three bilguins, expressing their support from Montana. Bilguins, as many biologists will tell you, are a cross between the Antarctic penguin and the Australian marsupial, the bilby. Although migratory patterns take them to all corners of the globe, their largest concentrations in North America are the northwestern corner of Montana, some urban centers along the east coast, and, most recently, New England.

Bilguins survive on fish, M&M's, both of which they enjoy washing down with beer.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

You know you're in Vermont when...

Conspiracy Theory

I'm starting to think this whole thing has been a ruse. That's right: a trick to get me to do the cat litter.

The backstory: I made no secret when I married Alison that I was a dog person. Yet when the cat of one of her patients had kittens, I was a good sport when Ali showed up with Waffle -- a cute orange kitten. I said just two things:

     1) when it stops being cute, I might trade it (the            kitten) in.
     And 2) I'm not changing the litter box.

I didn't make good on either promise: at 12 pounds, Waffle is still with us. And -- from time to time -- I changed the cat litter. But make no mistake; for the most part, the litter box has been Ali's responsibility.

Fast forward to this past June. There we are, sitting in the midwife's office telling them we're preggers. Before uttering "congratulations" or "that's wonderful," all eyes turned on me. As if it was the most obvious thing in the world, they said: "A pregnant mother can not change cat litter."

Apparently, there's something in cat litter that's poison to a developing fetus (duh, don't you know?). Again, they all looked at me, nodding in agreement. "Mark," they said (still nodding), "that litter box is all you."

How do you argue with that?

So, yes, it has been nine amazing months of watching Alison grow this new member of the human race...

... and nine months of scooping that box out after the cat.

Thursday, January 10, 2013


We're in the final stretch. The room is ready, and I'm thinking we're up to the challenge. There's only one thing...

Ali mentioned that she had hoped she would be one of those pregnant women who "glowed" throughout her pregnancy.

This morning we met with our birth caregiver. After a brief chat, they put Ali on the table to take her blood pressure and then listen to the kid's heartbeat. As she lay there with her red hair shining, looking exactly the same as she always does, except for a round 8-month bulge where her belly usually is, it hit me: she is glowing.

Nearly 8 months down, and just one to go. And she has been, simply, a complete champion.