The Coffice

The last couple months have left me wondering how coffee shops — Starbucks, Caribou — make money. From my daily visits, they appear to be filled with people such as myself, people who pay a buck eighty for a cup of coffee, then use the coffee shop as an office for the day. Office space — with unlimited refills in the case of Caribou — with Wifi for less than $2 a day? That’s hard to beat even in this commercial real estate market.

Of course ...

There is one drawback to the coffice: Your fellow squatters. They aren’t loud, and that’s the problem. They tend to talk softly, which tends to make you all the more interested in what they’re saying.

Last Thursday my laptop and I camped in an easy chair at Caribou. Next to me was a younger guy, early 30s, computer in lap, Blackberry at the ready, on the arm of his chair. The phone rang: “Hey!” he bellowed. Then, in a barely audible tone, “Oh! Oh really?” I could have left it at that, except that I picked up on a few key phrases: “September launch,” “content managers,” “content editors.”

Did I mention that editing content is among my job skills?

I listened harder, listing in this fellow’s direction. The more excited his tone, the softer he spoke. My ear was practically in his lap before he returned to full bellow and announced, “I’ll be in the office in five minutes,” packed up and was gone. No chance for a casual, “So ... what was that all about?”

The next day a man and woman were sitting two tables away. They were engaged in a civil dispute, the dispassionate tone of which suggested a supervisor and subordinate who’d left the office to work out a personality dispute.

“You’re constantly talking over me,” she said.

“I don’t intend to,” he countered, trying a humorous spin. “I just have things to say.”

“Well, it’s very demeaning.” She didn’t think he was funny.

Then: “If you thought you could change.” That’s an odd thing to say to your boss, I thought. Shortly, they left the coffee shop, walked to her car, got a bunch of his clothes, put them in his car, gave each other a “See ya,” good bye. Turns out it was a couple breaking up.

A little while ago today, at the next table, a business deal was going down. I wasn’t paying much attention until I noticed that they seemed to think I was eavesdropping, which did make me eavesdrop, which made them speak in hushed tones. Again, no idea what was going on, didn’t really care, yet I wasted half an hour trying to figure out their deal.

Now, coffice permitting, I need to spend a little time trying to figure out my deal.


We want you. Of course ...

Of course ...

There’s a “Seinfeld” episode that I’ve only recently come to fully appreciate. The perpetually unemployed George Costanza goes on a job interview with a company that provides supplies to roadside rest stops. As he’s oddly wont to do, he impresses his prospective boss.

“I want you to have this job,” Mr. Tuttle tells George. “Of course” — And just then the phone rings with a call he has to take, leaving George to wonder whether he has the job. (Compounding the matter: Tuttle praised George because “I feel like I, like I don't have to explain every little thing to you. You understand everything immediately.” Like whether George actually has the job. Plus, Tuttle was leaving for a week’s vacation and George couldn’t wait that long for an answer.)

Two days after leaving The News & Observer, I was contacted by a company very much interested in sponsoring a health and fitness blog, much like the one I wrote at the paper. We had an initial discussion, which confirmed we were on the same page. We had a follow-up with the person in charge of their “social media.” That went well, too. We agreed to shoot for a June 1 launch. A contract was practically in the mail.

Of course...

The company had a significant public relations issue pop up that demanded the full attention of the people I was dealing with. It was a bonafide problem; They aren’t using it as a smokescreen to cover second thoughts and put me off. I got a “touching base” email this past week saying a contract was in the works.

I’m 95 percent sure this will happen. When it does, the delay will immediately be vanquished from memory. Until then, until there’s a contract and the contract is signed, this limbo consumes my thoughts. It’s not the only thing I think about, but it’s constantly there, somewhere, lurking beneath the surface. (Hey! You kids! Stop making so much noise!)

George, by the way, solved his problem in a truly Seinfeldian manner. He simply showed up for work the following Monday, claimed an office, closed the door and napped until the 5 o’clock whistle.


Living longer and better: Two approaches

I’m not a big fan of parallel reading; That is, reading two books at one time. (It’s especially problematic with fiction: How come Babs, a happily married mother of three, is suddenly living with a family of anteaters in a South American rainforest?) But I’m finding it insightful in the case of “Younger Next Year: A Guide to Living Like 50 Until You’re 80 and Beyond” and “The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest.”

Both books look at living long, active lives, and both books come at it from a cultural perspective, albeit considerably different cultural perspectives. “Younger Next Year” says anyone — from bored retiree to stressed-out exec — can live a long, active life provided they do an hour of vigorous exercise a day. “The Blue Zones” visits four cultures around the world that have a disproportionate population of centenarians and where people generally live longer and live more actively late into their long lives. “The Blue Zones” concurs with “Younger Next Year” — stay active, you’ll live longer. Though in the case of the latter, that active living isn’t in the form of contrived exercise, it’s in the form of rigorous vocations — from farming to sheep herding — that force a body to stay active to survive.

“The Blue Zones,” as I’m discovering — I’m only 59 pages into it — looks more into the total lifestyle package. The book is the work of Dan Buettner, who became intrigued by why people in certain geographic regions live longer. With the backing of National Geographic and the National Institute on Aging, he assembled a team that visited four areas where people tend to live long, active lives: Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; Loma Linda, Calif.; and the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica. His team descended on these communities and conducted extensive interviews with centenarians, their families and their friends to determine why these people outlive the average Earthling.

So far, active living has emerged as a key factor. A couple other commonalities among the four cultures have emerged so far as well, ones that people in my position — between permanent employment gigs — can incorporate into their lifestyles fairly easily.

One is that people who live long and prosper share a “sense of social connectedness.” Writes Buettner: “Most people enjoy the company of other people, particularly other people who feel they care about them. That seems to give you a sense of well being, whether that raises your endorphin level or lowers your cortisol level. We don’t know why. People have looked for biological markers, and they haven’t been successful at finding them. But something happens that makes life more worthwhile. The days take on more meaning.”

Think about how even a simple exchange with a cashier that goes beyond your transaction can give a boost to your day, let alone having coffee once a week with your best friend, or lunch every month with favorite former co-worker.

Something else that makes us live longer: Doing something we feel is either interesting or worthwhile. It’s a very individual thing, writes Buettner. Some people are passionate about collecting comic books and feel that preserving the entire collection of “Too Much Coffee Man” comics is a worthy life mission. Others truly are committed to their work, and devoting 12 hours a day to it may not necessarily be a bad thing. For some, suggests “The Blue Zones,” it can add years to their lives.

Something more to think about as you contemplate the future.


'The Blue Zones'

One thing I like about not being formally wed to a workplace: When someone says, “Hey, you should read this book,” more often than not, I end up reading it. Not working 10-hour days lets a soul indulge in such things.

Next on my to-read list (thanks to a recommendation from Jeff P.): “The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest” (National Geographic). Working with National Geographic and the National Institute on Aging, author Dan Buettner spent five years traveling the world searching for places where people tend to live longer, happier lives. When he found them, he would search for clues about what led to their longevity. A story on NPR provides a tease that makes me want to learn more.

And look at the time, if it isn’t noon already! Off to Quail Ridge.


Kid cycling 101

Bike clubs such as Triangle-based TORC encourage kids to ride with free mountain bike races.

A key victim of these fearful times: Fewer kids riding bikes. According to the National Sporting Goods Association, there was a dramatic decline in the number of kids riding bikes from 1998 to 2007: the number of 12-17 year-olds riding dropped 16.9 percent and the number of 7-11 year-olds dropped an incredible 29.9 percent. Two primary factors are driving those numbers: One, kids who are allowed to stay in their rooms plugged into an electronic device and two, parents fearful of letting their kids out of their sight. Both reasons are contributing to a growing number of our children growing too much.

My premise is that if kids are ... encouraged to ride, they will love it. And that encouragement must come from one source: their parents, who must overcome their fear factor. Alllll that said, here’s an introduction to the Thursday evening Family Fun Ride Clinics being offered at Performance Bicycle stores nationwide. The clinics begin at 6 p.m., last about an hour and go over things such as safety, bike maintenance, good places to ride in your area, help — of course — on finding the right gear. (Unfortunately, as Clay at the local Performance here in Cary tells us, there is no actual ride. A liability thing, we presume.)

Even if you don’t own bikes, stop by, ask questions. A little knowledge could set you and your family off on a summer of healthy two-wheel togetherness. If you live in the Triangle, you’ll find Performance stores in Cary and Chapel Hill. For other locations, click here

Recommended reading: Billing the right person for health care costs

Looking for a sponsor for, say, your mountain bike team? Go to your boss and tell her it will lower the company's health care costs.

Jeff P. passes along an emerging trend piece from The New York Times: “Getting Healthy, With a Little Help From The Boss.”

As the headline may suggest, employers are getting more aggressive about encouraging workers to live healthier. Lots of reasons this makes sense — healthier employees miss less work, for one. But the main reason is to control rising health insurance costs. Quoting the article: “According to a January survey by the benefits consulting firm Hewitt Associates, nearly two-thirds of large employers planned to transfer more costs to employees. At the same time, one-third planned to put greater emphasis on wellness plans — programs that encourage employees to adopt healthier lifestyles.”

There’s some concern that some employers are using questionnaires about employees’ health habits to gain information that could be used against them on the job. (The questionnaires go directly to a third party, which can initiate an intervention on the unknowing employer’s behalf.) Mostly, the article addresses the growing number of wellness programs being launched by employers.

A good solution, the latter. Ultimately, though, the only thing that will force people to amend their unhealthy ways is direct accountability. In the case of lifestyle and health issues, that would involve people having to pay for illnesses and diseases directly attributable to their behavior. In some instances, because of genetics, that could be a challenge. But if you’re 75 pounds overweight and develop type 2 diabetes, there’s a pretty fair chance that that your lifestyle choices are to blame. And if that is the case, shouldn’t you be the one to pay for your behavior?


An hour a day, an epic a month

Chris Underhill with Friends of the Mountains-To-Sea Trail went with me on the first half of last week's epic.

I’m going to add to Chris Crowley and Dr. Henry S. Lodge’s premise in “Younger Next Year: Live Strong, Fit and Sexy — Until You’re 80 and Beyond” that an hour of good exercise a day is key to living a long, healthy life. Just as vital: Getting in one epic workout a month.


It’s a term mountain bikers know well: A ride that goes on forever, that you don’t want to end, and that you don’t realize how taxing it is until you’re at trail’s end and hoisting — or trying to hoist — your bike onto your car roof rack. But epic is a term that can apply to just about any pursuit, from walking and hiking to paddling to road biking to skateboarding to ... whatever elevates your heart rate for an extended period. Exercise for an extended period and your elevated metabolism will help you burn calories not just during exercise, but well beyond.

I first tapped into this epic phenomenon during the inaugural Cycle North Carolina. For two weeks, a couple hundred of us rode 55 to 70 miles a day. I wasn’t surprised that I could eat everything in sight during the ride; I was surprised, though, that my appetite continued without repercussions on the scale for another couple of weeks. It was like a car’s engine stuck on high idle at a stoplight, continuing to burn fuel without going anywhere. Into the third week, though, my “idle” dropped back to normal and the extra fuel I was still taking on began accumulating as fat. That’s why I try to do an epic a month.

Last year, for instance, I did a 56-mile mountain bike ride (on fire road) in May, a 37-mile, two-day backpack trip in June, a 23-mile mountain bike race (singletrack) in August, and a six-hour endurance mountain bike race in early October. I kept my metabolism revved for most of the summer, averaged a good hour a day of exercise between epics, didn’t pay much attention to my diet and stayed at 165 pounds (I’m 5’ 9”) into Thanksgiving. I’ve been exercising steadily since, but between winter’s lethargic pull, the demands of the job I used to have and, most importantly I believe, the absence of epics, my weight has crept up to 173. And so, I’m reviving my epic-a-month plan. Last week: I hiked 43 miles in two days on the Falls Lake section of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail http://www.ncmst.org/hikingtrips.html , nearly 14 hours of hiking total.

One caveat to the epic: While your body may continue to demand and burn fuel at accelerated levels for several days, it may take a while to return to form. This morning, Alan, also coming off an epic in last week’s Assault on Mt. Mitchell, and I did what usually is a spirited and peppy hour-and-a-half to two-hour mountain bike ride at Umstead. It was neither — but it was still good.

Getting back on the horse always is. Even if you have a hard time getting the horse to move.


Five steps toward being Younger Next Year

So the answer to living long and enjoying it to the end is a modest investment of one hour of rigorous exercise a day, according to Chris Crowley and Dr. Henry S. Lodge in their book, “Younger Next Year: Live Strong, Fit, and Sexy — Until You’re 80 and Beyond.” Do that, they say, and you can feel like you’re 50 into your 80s. But as Jeff P. commented after Wednesday’s post on the book, “The challenge is making it happen, everyday.”

Jeff is gainfully employed, self-employed, and has kids, which makes that one-hour investment a day a challenge. “I am currently at about an hour per session about 3 times a week — if I am lucky.” Another reason for those of us currently between work gigs to count ourselves lucky: It’s the perfect time to begin the routine of incorporating an hour of exercise into our daily routine. Still, as author Chris Crowley, who is retired, acknowledges, that can be tough. He offers a few suggestions to make the lifestyle transition easier.

1. Join a gym. “A lot of you are going to fight me on this, but you have to join a gym,” writes Crowley. Count me among the fighters. I used to belong to the Y and loved it. Then I got claustrophobic. Working out inside — be it swimming, the elliptical trainer or weights — didn’t work anymore. And with a full compliment of Gore-Tex raingear, I don’t let a little — or even a lot — of rain stop me. But Crowley’s logic on this is sound: “You need a place to go, like a job.” And being around other people working out is the added incentive many of us need. Plus, you’ll have access to classes and a big room full of people eager to offer advice. Now, my laid off brethren (and sisteren) are no doubt protesting that they just got laid off, they can’t afford to join a gym. It’s not as pricey to join a gym as you may think. Gyms recognize that the economy has put a crimp in our pocketbooks and have made it easier for us to get in the door. Some have waived joining fees. More significantly, many have dropped their long-term contracts and now allow people to join on a month-to-month basis.

2. Take a class. Two reasons, writes Crowley. “First, you’re more likely to go, because there’s a set time for class and that creates a certain discipline. Second, you’re far less likely to dog it once you get there.” Another reason or two. If you try something on your own and don’t care for it the first time, you’re more likely to give up on it. Commit to a class, though, and you’ll at least go a second time — and maybe discover that you like it. There’s also the built-in support network. Others will be suffering, too. You’ll have company. And, you’ll become proficient at whatever it is you’re taking. Gyms offer classes, but for good variety and a less aggressive environment check your parks and rec for classes it may offer.

3. Pick a workout time. Most of us are creatures of habit. If we drill into ourselves that we walk for an hour every day at 9 a.m. or do yoga at noon or take a bike ride at 3 p.m., after a while we’ll fall, lemminglike, into step. If you’re unemployed, you have the luxury of picking a time that works best for you. Some of us are morning people and thought of running 3 miles at 6 a.m. is just what we need to get us out of bed. To others the thought of an elevated heart rate before noon is anathema.

4. Tap into a passion. Obviously, it’s so much easier to do something you love for an hour a day than something you’re indifferent toward, or worse.

5. Begin with a “jump-start vacation.” This is my favorite idea, and before the unemployed among us say, “But I’m on permanent vacation,” hear Crowley out. The idea here is to take a dedicated week, go somewhere and focus on being active. Crowley suggests a bike tour. A good idea for two reasons. One, if the tour isn’t for another month or more, you have great incentive to train. And even if it’s tomorrow, you’re probably good. Quick anecdote: Ten years ago I did the inaugural Cycle North Carolina, a two-week, 920-mile crossing of North Carolina. I was very curious about how others had prepared for the event and would ask the question at rest stops, at dinner, in camp at the end of the day. The answers varied wildly, but my favorite was Lee’s. “I ride my bike to work every day,” he said. That’s good I thought, probably 20, 30 miles a day. “I live less than a mile from work,” he added. Lee was often the last rider in every day, but he completed the ride. And there are all sorts of cheap “vacation” options out there. I’m a big fan of the camping vacation: Pitch your tent for a week in a national park, a state forest, wherever, and spend your days hiking, fishing, tubing, kayaking, rafting, climbing, mountain biking — whatever. It’s amazing how a week of living like this can imprint on your lifestyle. And if you have basic camping equipment (or can bum some from a sympathetic, employed friend), it’s a vacation you could probably pull off for $300 or less, food, gas and camping fees included.

Got your own strategy for getting started? Share.


Just another day on the world’s highest peak

Chip Popociciu climbing the Lhotse Face.

I was feeling pretty good about hiking 21 miles on the Falls Lake Trail yesterday. Then I went and listened to Chip Popociciu talk.

Chip, for those of you who didn’t tune in Monday or Tuesday, reached the summit of 29,029-foot Mt. Everest at 4:40 in the morning almost a year ago to the day, on May 22, 2008. Last night, he shared his adventure with 40 or so vertically vicarious explorers at the Great Outdoor Provision Co. in Raleigh. He was talking about climbing the highest peak in the world, something only about 2,000 others have done since Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first in 1953. Had you only been able to make out his intonation and not his words, you might have thought Chip was talking about a leisurely hike on Falls Lake Trail.

For instance, when he talked about the Ice Fall that greets climbers first thing out of Base Camp, he showed a slide of a horrific glacier peppered with icy spires. “Now, at first it doesn’t look so bad ... .” He conceded on the next slide that you did need to pay attention on the Ice Fall, the next slide being of his metal crampons atop a skinny metal ladder spanning a deep crevasse. (My head got spinnie just looking at the slide; I closed my eyes for a several moments.) After a while, though, he said crossing the Ice Falls was like “Disneyland for Adults,” a lot of fun. (Among the insidery revelations he shared: Climbing the Ice Fall is done in part to acclimatize to the thin air. He and climbing partner Vance Cook climbed the Ice Fall 12 times.)

Moving on up to camps 2, 3 and 4 presented some challenges, but it wasn’t bad, he said. Summit day went almost too well: He and Vance left a little after 8 p.m. May 21 (they had planned to leave at 9, but didn’t want to get caught in the traffic jam forming out of Camp 4; about 70 climbers reached the summit on the 22nd, about 30 didn’t). They reached the top before sunrise, at 4:40 a.m. (or maybe 4:45), hung out for half an hour, went all the way down to Camp 2. He almost forgot to mention that he developed the dread Khumbu cough that forced him to curl in the fetal position when he felt the cough coming on. He also cracked a couple ribs along the way.

His story was remarkable. Even more so was that it was devoid of ego. It was all about the adventure. And one other thing.

Chip took along, virtually, the students and teachers at Martin Middle School. He provided them, via sat phone, with a front row seat to an Everest summit, they provided him with moral support. According to one teacher from Martin, the kids got something more. Added to their year-end superlatives last year: Most likely to climb Mt. Everest. And the teacher related that, more than once she heard a reluctant student say, “Well, if Chip can climb Mt. Everest, I guess I can do my homework.”


The sweaty fountain of youth

The first time I was ... without work was in the spring of 1989. I was working for a chain of business newspapers, the chain changed ownership, the new owners misinterpreted a column I wrote, I was on hiatus. I did one smart thing during the ensuing three months of R&R: I kept my Y membership. And I did one stupid thing: I failed to replace my oversized road bike.

The Y membership helped me cling to sanity. I swam every other day and got up to 3,000 yards a workout. If nothing else, the time away from my idle answering machine was invaluable. My heart rate spiked not in the pool, but upon driving home in anticipation of seeing the flashing red light — suggesting that a potential employer had called — on my machine.

It was on those off days that I could have used the bike. I realized it at the time but was too cheap to spring the $500 for a decent road bike. I realized it even more after reading the first few pages of “Younger Next Year: Live Strong, Fit, and Sexy — Until You’re 80 and Beyond,” by Chris Crowley and Dr. Henry S. Lodge. The premise of their book: Nothing short of an hour of rigorous exercise a day will do if you want to enjoy life into your 80s and beyond, not simply endure it. By skipping every other day, by scrimping on the bike, I was working myself toward an early grave. (OK, a bit of an exaggeration.)

The duo’s premise is this: We don’t age, we decay. “ ... in our forties and fifties,” writes Lodge, the book’s medical voice, “our bodies switch into a ‘default to decay’ mode, and the free ride of youth is over. ... What we can do, with surprising ease, is override those default signals, swim against the tide and change decay back into growth.” The key to making this happen: exercise, at least an hour a day, vigorously. And this isn’t some newfangled theory, says Lodge. It’s based on billions of years of evolving from primordial slime.

The book’s title should serve as warning to health seekers hooked on the new-you-in-four-weeks “health” philosophy touted by grocery checkout tabloids and TV infomercials. You won’t notice that you’re reversing the aging process immediately, say the two. In a year, though, you will. Keep it up, promise the authors, and you’ll be able to live a vigorous life “deep into your 80s,” possibly longer.

(I heard about the book last week from Joe Lugiano. Joe runs ultra-distance (100 miles) races; Chronologically, he’s 66 years old. Physically and mentally, he’s in his mid-40s. The book rang true with him and after 75 pages it rings true with me. I’m 53 and can outperform — in several respects — the high school athlete me.)

The book is told from two perspectives. One is Lodge’s, who provides the medical backing for why exercising at least an hour a day works. The other perspective comes from Chris Crowley, who backed into a rigorous life of exercise when he suddenly realized he was getting old. Crowley tends to be gabby and repetitive, but his perspective is invaluable because he’s living proof, for those who need it, that sweat is critical to a long, active life. (Among other things, he’s an avid skier in his 70s and does a daily spin class.) Lodge gives the science without getting too scientific. Early on, he makes a critical observation about why this common sense notion comes to most as a revelation. The observation was based on his medical practice and his bafflement over why many of his older patients were in declining health:

“I had done what doctors do well in this country, which is to treat people when they come in with a disease. My patients had had good medical care but not, I began to think, great health care. ... Modern medicine does not concern itself with lifestyle problems. Doctors don’t treat them, medical schools don’t teach them and insurers don’t pay to solve them.”

What Lodge came to realize was that so many of the illnesses associated with “aging” were easily preventable. There was a fountain of youth, he found, a fountain flowing with sweat.

Tomorrow: Priming the fountain.


Chip Popociciu on top of the world.

On Wednesday at 7 p.m., Raleigh mountaineer Chip Popoviciu will discuss his successful summit of Mt. Everest at the Great Outdoor Provision Co. in Raleigh’s Cameron Village. Yesterday, we began a two-part interview with Chip with five questions about his background and preparation for Everest. Today, The Climb.

1. The disastrous 1996 climbing season, chronicled in Jon Krakauer's "Into Thin Air," showed not only the dangers of climbing the world's highest peak, but also hinted at how just about anyone with enough money could get to the top (in some cases, practically by being dragged via short-roping). Based on your experience, do you think that's changed? Is the mountain being taken as seriously as it should be?

One of the reasons I like spending a lot of time in the mountains is the fact that altitude is a good sifter of human characters. The harder it gets the more amazing the rewards; However, more people forfeit the opportunity and prefer the easy way out so they don’t get too far up. Everest, however, has such a draw that ... the commercialization effect makes the sifter less effective. We did see people on various places on the mountain who should have not been there, who already reached the limits of their conditioning. However, they were driven by all those powers which made them successful in one aspect of their life or another.

We had a bomber plan and stuck to it during the expedition but on summit night we had to take off earlier because a lot of people took off earlier than usual just to get a head start. You do not want to get stuck behind people on the fixed rope, so we raced up the triangular face passing people who were already exhausted even though they were on a 3-4 litters of oxygen (we climbed on 2, worried that we would get stuck along the way in the traffic jam) and had a long way up. You could see that the brain was driving even though the wheels were about to come off.

Let me just set the record straight though. It doesn’t matter how much money you have, up there you have to carry your oxygen and nobody is short roping you up (at least not that I have heard, in spite of the 1996 account, which was rather unique). There are plenty of people who will help you down if you are in trouble (even though one should not rely on that, we saw some teams leave partners in a bag, on the face, to wait for them to return from the summit bid). There were rich people on the mountain who afforded to pay for two western guides and a few Sherpa. I must admit, it is hard not to get envious when you see them without a pack and being greeted by Sherpa with hot tea and cookies even though they were 20 minutes away from the camp. BUT … these people had to climb during the summit night like everyone else so it is not fair to take that away from them. One annoying thing, though: guides of high-end expeditions blocking the line so their clients complete sections without the annoyance of us passing them.

Regarding Jon’s account and the fallout. It is said that mountaineering is still a sport simply because people forget so quickly the hard times. Well, same goes for Everest. It served us a lesson and particularly to the folks who climb too close to the edge of their limit and have no resources to deal with changing variables. But give it time, we will all forget the lessons and the Mountain will twist again in its slumber claiming a few overeager lives in the process.

2. What was the hardest part of the climb for you?

Before my final rotation I cracked one or two ribs. Don’t know how, it might have been the Khumbu cough or I rolled over a water bottle in my tent. It bothered me a bit but not a big deal. Heading up the Ice Falls you exert yourself a bit which, combined with coughing, led me to reach Camp 1 bent in half in pain with every cough. I rested a bit in Camp 1 and headed for Camp 2 but every time I had to cough I had to lie down on the snow in a particular position just to reduce but not eliminate the pain. When I got to C2 I was in bad shape, physically but mainly mentally. I was wondering how will I handle the Lhotse Face. Lhotse in those conditions. So I nursed my ribs every way I could imagine (and I must say, the plastic bag with ice applied to the skin was not fun because the cold ice melt would inevitably find its way all over my body). I taped myself up and from there on, including the summit bid, I climbed on 4 Ibuprofen every 3 hours.

It might sound New Age-ish but when I got back to the EBC from that rotation, the worries I still had for my ribs denying me a summit push were blown away by the “Happy Birthday” messages I got from the students at Martin Middle schools. Those kids and teachers were true partners in this experience.
3. What was the hardest part of the climb that the rest of us never hear about?

When you climb is fun, you have a goal, you execute on the plan, you adapt it to conditions, you have fun. The hard part is when you are tormented by the uncertainty of the things outside of your control: Will the weather hold? Will there be a window? Will we be allowed to climb (in 2008)? Climbing Everest is a mental game just as much as it is a physical one.

4. How did you feel when you reached the top? And what was it like up there (I've never read a good description of the top: Is it a spiky peak? Or is it more of a small platform?)

I can send you some pictures or share a video if you are interested. It is a slanted surface of the size of 2, 3 cars, with a pile of offerings right on the top (one person in 2008 left up there an object that belonged to pope John Paul). Vance and I were the second team to reach the summit that day, behind a Korean team. It was rather quiet, no high-fives or raging shouts. At least for me, I can say it was not because of fatigue or the oxygen mask, we got there in great shape and I stayed up there without oxygen the whole 30 minutes. It must be the views, which were spectacular. The moon was setting over a sea of clouds far below our feet. Then the sun came out turning cornice after cornice into a bright silver lining of the summit ridge. As light hoped over the South Col all the great peaks poking through the sea of clouds exploded with light. Ama Dablam in particular seemed eager to stay true to its reputation as of one of the most beautiful peaks in the World.

If I were to try to define the feeling, something I never was keen on doing, I would say it was one of awe at the beautiful and humbling views. We all fly at that height often but … it is not quite the same.

5. What's next?

Well, according to my wife just small climbs and according to my mom, retirement from mountaineering. I want to do a bit more rock and ice climbing, I didn’t do much of it in a while (they are a bit more manageable time wise but still exciting). Vance and I are planning a Rainier trip this summer (Kautz glacier). Beyond that, I have only loose ideas. Vance and I are researching some peaks for first ascents in the Himalayas. Both of us would also love to try another 8000+ meters peak but we did not decide on which one yet or when.

Ohhh, and I would like to go back to school.

Chip shares more on his climb at LearnNC.org.


The view from Mt. Everest

We interrupt our regularly scheduled programming ... . As I've mentioned, I used to write about fitness and the outdoors for The News & Observer. I will soon again be writing about fitness and the outdoors, in a new venue. Until that venue is established — hopefully by month's end — this venue must do double duty. That said, today, MSCL switches to F&O mode ...

Last year, mountaineer Ciprian “Chip” Popoviciu of Raleigh took Martin Middle School to the top of the world. Wedensday, you can hear him talk about the experience at the Great Outdoor Provision Co. in Raleigh's Cameron Village. (His presentation begins at 7 p.m.; Opening for Chip will be Sheri and Randy Propster, of Backpacker magazine’s 2009 Get Out More Tour.

Last year, at 4:40 a.m. on May 22, Chip fulfilled a lifelong goal by summiting Mt. Everest, at 29,029 feet (and growing) the world’s highest and most celebrated peak. Chip, who by day is a technical leader at Cisco Systems in RTP, didn’t make the trip alone. In addition to climbing partner, Vance Cook, he virtually took along the kids and teachers at Raleigh’s Martin Middle School, making the climb not only a learning experience for him, but for hundreds more. He’ll discuss the climb at length Wednesday. He gives us a tease of what to expect, answering five questions today and five tomorrow.

1. Give us some quick insight on you as an explorer: When did your lust for getting out begin and how much do you typically get out now?

I owe my passion for exploration and the outdoors to my dad. Ever since I was a kid I went up and down the forests, hills and mountains of Transylvania [the region in Romania, not the county in North Carolina] to pick up wild mushrooms or just hike with my dad. He always had a few challenges along the way: “What kind of tree is that?”, “Why did the snow melt under that bush and not the other?”, “How much is sin2(x)+cos2(x)? (the last one came up way before I got to trigonometry in school). I did spelunking in the Apuseni, I climbed the Carpathians and found forests and mountains to be my source of inspiration, peace and enlightenment. If I had a dilemma, be it teenager worries or a difficult advanced math problem it seemed I always found the solution during or after a short trek.

I owe my interest in the larger World to my grandfather who was a history professor and who, when I was a kid, used to put me to sleep with these amazing stories of faraway lands and amazing civilizations. As soon as I had the freedom to travel I took every opportunity to discover the world. It is amazing how inexpensive it is to do this if you focus on the “what” and not the “how.”

Typically I make at least one international trip a year (I always take a few days off at the end of a business trip in an interesting place). I try to do a few good climbs and a few camping trips a year. My job keeps me pretty busy so the easiest thing for me is to head out in Umstead for a good loop (I love that park).

2. When did you get the idea to climb Everest and when did you summit?

Well, at one point or another, if you climb mountains this idea comes along. I must say, growing up back in Transylvania I never dreamt of being able to get close to it and took comfort in the fact that the Carpathians are part of the same family as the Alps and the Himalayas. Me and my climbing partner spoke about it as a potential plan but only in 2007 he gave me the nudge with: “My wife lets me go in 2008, can you convince Nicole?” (As you can see, there are other, less known challenges to mountain climbing than risks and hardships.) I am fortunate to have a very supportive wife who said yes to this expedition even though she did not quite believe we were going until I booked my flight.

Vance and I summited at 4:40 a.m. on May 22, 2008. We did a bit too good of a job and got there before the sunrise, not a great idea if you want to immortalize your summit with pictures so we “had” to wait until the sun came up.

3. Describe the program with Martin Middle School and how it came about.

Well, were it not for the students and teachers of Martin, this would have been for me another treasured but very personal experience and for the rest of the World just another of many Everest summits. The folks at Martin made this something much more than either of the two.

It started with a geeky idea to marry my work with my hobby and use communications technologies to share the experience. As it is always the case, a team of good people can always make an idea a lot better than it originally is. Kirsten Weeks who is responsible for PR of Cisco’s RTP site suggested we share this with a school and she contacted Gigi Karmanos-Edwards at MCNC for suggestions. Gigi in turn put us in touch with Martin middle school where, particularly due to the enthusiasm of Lisa Thompson, the support of principal Wade Martin and a truly amazing group of teachers we put this whole thing together in a very short time. I did very little actually. I shared the plans, worked on the communications solution, set up a sensor network at the school and fielded student questions. The teachers and the students are the real contributors here and as time passes I realize that this level of enthusiasm and passion is not the norm but … it should be and could be. These folks introduced the Everest theme into the curriculum, projects and activities.

I wanted to make this as realistic as possible for the students so we exchanged text, pictures, movies, sensors data, voice and video calls. Students blogged on their experience for WRAL and along the way amazed me with the creativity they applied to the project. In the process I discovered a new cause and passion, that of empowering and enabling our talented (and unfortunately by far not sufficiently rewarded) teachers to break the classroom walls and take their students into the larger World for good and true exploration.

4. How did you prepare for the climb, living in the Triangle, and how did you swing time off from work?

I observed a very strict training regimen. I would do 1 hour of aerobic exercise and 30+ minutess of weights in the morning and I would climb for 1-1:30 hours with 45 pounds on my back + 1 hour of weights in the evening. Wednesdays I would do just the morning session and during the weekends I would do long hikes or runs.

5. How hard was it to pull off the climb? Assuming you went with a guide, how did you pick the guide?

The Everest climb is not very technical but it is grinding. It took us a month and a half to acclimate for the 5 days we needed to get to the top and back. You really need to keep it together, execute on the things you control and be fortunate with the things you don’t control. As you approach the summit bid things get stressful as you do not know if the window will materialize. In 2008 things were stressful for longer than that because we were not allowed to complete our acclimatization rotation to Camp 3 until the Chinese made it to the summit with the Olympic torch and we were not allowed to communicate from the mountain during that time either. Precious days were passing by in a very painful way. But in the end all worked out. The Mountain was free to be climbed again on my birthday … quite a present.

Vance and I went unguided but we did pay logistics to International Mountain Guides so we were officially on their permit. We chose them because they offered this option and we knew some people who worked for them in the past.

Tomorrow: The climb, and beyond.


Working at getting younger

I was hiking mid-day Monday at Umstead. It was cool, rainy — not many people out. I looked up the trail and saw headed my way a familiar figure, familiar because of his trademark desert camo pants and because of the saw and loppers in tow.

“We’ve gotta stop meeting like this,” Joe said. The last time I’d run into Joe Lugiano was in the fall, on this same trail, wearing the same pants, carrying the same trail maintenance tools. Joe directs the volunteer group at Umstead, so it shouldn’t be surprising to see him, either working solo as he was Tuesday or with one or two of his fellow volunteers.

We briefly caught up, then Joe mentioned a book he was reading, “Younger Next Year: Live Strong, Fit and Sexy — Until You’re 80 and Beyond,” by Chris Crowley and Dr. Henry S. Lodge. It’s a book, Joe told me, about how ignoring chronological aging and plowing through with a rigorous exercise routine can make you feel like you’re 50 well into your 80s. It’s a book Joe could have written.

Joe is 66 chronologically, in his mid-40s physically and mentally. When he was in his chronological 40s, he ran for IBM’s corporate track team and could run a mile in four and a half minutes. He now runs ultra distance races of 100 miles or more. Like me, his motivation to move came in part from lousy genes and a history of male family members with heart problems. The book grabbed his attention because it offered confirmation of what he already knew: Regular rigorous exercise and good diet can make you feel years younger than the calendar — and society — would suggest.

“ ... the biggest challenge for most people — is exercise,” says co-author Lodge, an M.D. “It is the secret to great health. You should exercise hard almost every day of your life — say six days a week. And do strength training. Lift weights, two of those six days. Exercise is the great key to aging.”

The general wisdom over the past couple of decades has been that you need 30 minutes of exercise a day. That’s a minimum for decent health. “Younger Next Year” says you need to step that commitment up if you want to live a truly vigorous, joyful life deep into your 80s (or 90s). It also proclaims that a gradual decline is not inevitable. That you can live a full life until the end.

I’ll share more from “Younger” over the next few days.


Playtime's last call

I was finishing up some work in the study — it’s actually a home office, but “study” sounds more homey, more ... Cleaveresque — when I became aware of the fading light. I glanced out the window: a rosy tint was kicking in, mixing it up with a yellowish glow that signaled the end of the day was imminent. I recognized the aura from childhood: It was last call for play.

“Basketball!” I yelled, and shortly the middle schoolers and I were in the cul-de-sac working out what energy we had left. We started with pedestrian jump shots, threw in some layups, then devolved into trick shots. “Midcourt baseball shot!” yelled one of the middle schoolers — and the ball sailed over the goal into a neighbor’s yard. “On my back,” he proclaimed, much like a pool shark calling a shot. It took a while, but he made it. Behind-the-back shots, behind-the-goal shots, fade-away-jumpers-landing-on-our-behinds shots. I was the first to run out of steam, surreptitiously collapsing on the lawn. “Dad! Get back out here.”

There’s a long-running debate over how smart it is to exercise before bed. For years, the health community believed that any activity before bed would make falling asleep difficult. Especially, they thought, of activities demanding that your brain get involved — paying close attention to a mountain bike trail, say, or concentrating on hitting a pitch in baseball. Today, the school of thought is shifting. It’s now thought that being active before bed may lessen the anxiety that keeps some people from getting to sleep. Exercise before bet, work out your demons, sleep in peace.

Now, among a lot of you — those of you who exercise before bed — there’s lots of eye-rolling going on. Of course you sleep better after a good workout. (My favorite observation on the topic is this comment posted to the story linked above: “I am flabbergasted every time I see an article about this. I mean, it's being discussed by many of the same people who complain about men falling asleep right after sex — rather strenuous exercise, don't you think?”)

Draining what remaining energy we have is the reason our parents used to shoo us out of the house and into the street after supper. And the reason I yelled “Basketball!” the other night.


No brag, just fact

Thursday night I was at a gathering thrown in honor of our environmental reporter, who also left the paper, and myself. I found myself talking to my buddy Branson. “So how’s retirement?” he wanted to know.

I corrected him on the “retirement” technicality, since most folks don’t retire on a nest egg that wouldn’t cover the down payment on a used car. I had to be more careful about how I answered, and here’s why. He preceded his inquiry with the story of a coworker who “retired” in January. She’d simply had enough of the grind, didn’t have anything else lined up, but suspected there was something better out there. So she took the leap. Once a week, she and Branson talk. When he asks how she’s doing, she tells him about not having to get up at the crack of dawn, about working in the garden, about keeping busy but pn her own terms, about living. “I know what you’re doing,” he tells her. “You’re trying to make me feel bad because I’m still here.” He says this, I think, half jokingly. Still, there’s that suggestion of rubbing it in.

When people ask if I’m doing OK (like I lost a kidney, not a job) I have to carefully craft a response that says “I’m doing great” without the implied “Sucker!” I’m not bragging; I just want people to know that it’s good on the outside. Yes, a steady paycheck is good. But sanity is oh-so-much better. It’s not that I’ve shirked all responsibility; I’m still a husband, still a dad. There’s still trash to be taken out and a lawn to be mowed. The former demand the ultimate in responsibility; They also offer the ultimate reward. A pretty darn good tradeoff. Conversely, the reward at The N&O had diminished significantly over the past couple of years, astoundingly so over the newspaper industry’s last few fire-sale months. I’d always envisioned myself as a newspaper man, nothing else. But when the time came, I was ready, I knew. It was time to move on and I was OK with that.

In fact, over the past three weeks I’ve discovered it was more than OK, it was critical. I don’t know where my next paycheck will come from or when I’ll see it, and yes, that obviously will be a concern in the not-too-distant future. For now, I’m savoring the fact I can now march a little more to my own drummer. As Walter Brennan’s Will Sonnett used to say, “No brag, just fact.”

The leap (since I took a voluntary buyout I feel justified in saying I leapt, rather than got laid off) has been well worth it. The free fall is exhilarating.


Bridging the gaps

I told Marcy I would put a computer on her new bike. I assumed she wanted one because I can’t live without a computer on my bike — any of my bikes (all three are equipped).

“Computer” has always seemed a bit much when describing this slightly-larger-than-postage-stamp-size gizmo that mounts on your handlebar. When I first started riding years ago, they were called odometers, which, frankly, is still their main function. Today, with advances in microprocessing, they’ve been able to add a variety of functions, from heart rate monitors to global positioning systems. But it’s still the basic odometer that I’m obsessed with because it gives me a way to quantify my rides: How far did I ride? How long did it take me? How fast did I go? Numbers that can verify my workouts (not that I need more verification than a pair of dead legs after a three-hour ride).

That’s become especially important in these days of self-employment, that quantifying thing. “Defending Your Life,” as Albert Brooks deftly portrayed it on film.

Tuesday, I wore a telltale furrowed brow and an air of preoccupation. “What is it?” my perceptive wife asked. I didn’t realize it was anything at the time, but as I thought about this vague unease that Marcy had picked up on I realized that I felt like I hadn’t been doing enough. Marcy broke out laughing.

“You ran six miles this morning, then you had a very productive meeting with people interested in sponsoring your Web site. That would be more than enough in a day for most people,” she said. Then she put the situation in perspective, a situation and perspective she understood well having been in it herself. “For years you’ve been a hamster turning this treadmill, a treadmill that never stops. You’ve had no time to slow down.” She was referring to my past life, 17 years of it, as a reporter for The News & Observer. A life I always enjoyed, but a life that had become increasingly demanding as the economy and the realities of new media were fomenting fear and creating chaos in the newspaper industry. How demanding — and demoralizing — I didn’t realize until I left three weeks ago. Until I had a full day of running, of building a business, of going on a family bike ride to a neighborhood park for a picnic dinner — and was spooked by the sanity gaps in between. Gaps of free time that didn’t exist before. Gaps that allowed me to recharge. Gaps I’m relearning how to recognize and appreciate.

That said, I’m still putting a computer on Marcy’s bike. Nothing wrong with a little quantification amid the gaps.


Coffee shop office

I like to go to the coffee shop to work. There’s two or three I frequent, my demands are simple and two: good coffee and free wifi. It’s a nice office-away-from-the-home-office because it gets you out around people, typically without the worry of being driven to distraction by them. (Unless, of course, you eavesdrop into a particularly riveting discussion of why we’re all doomed by the swine flu.)

And it’s a surprisingly cheap indulgence — provided I go alone. That’s because I drink coffee. I go to Caribou, for instance, and for $2 (tip included) I can work and caffeinate for as long as I want (free refills, go figure). But if, say, my daughter tags along after I pick her up from school, my daughter with an affinity for things cold, frothy and chocolate, suddenly we’re moving from change scrounged from my pockets to debit card territory. Suddenly, we’re approaching double digits. A daily habit that runs $10 over the course of a workweek suddenly balloons to a $70 habit (Did I mention the obligatory snack to accompany the cool, frothy, chocolately beverage?) Radically changes the financial attraction of the coffee shop office. Too many of those visits and I’ll be permanently relegated to my distant second favorite office-away-from-home-office.

The public library. More distracting people and the coffee isn't as good.


A moving Mother's Day

Is Mother’s Day about being a mom? Or being a kid?

Here’s how the mom in our household spent the day — entirely at her request.
  • Playing basketball with us kids in our cul de sac court. We’ve had the hoop for at least six months; it was the first time she’d played. (Mean jumper from the top of the key, Marcelle.)
  • Working with us kids in the yard. She pruned and raked while we mowed and swept.
  • Playing on the spinny playground equipment at a park near the house with us. We both get woogy in the head anymore even looking at a swing, let alone the modern day versions of merry-go-rounds. She not only swung, she hung — upside down (followed by a long, internal-gyroscope-resetting rest) from crossbars.
  • Going for a bike ride with us kids. This part isn’t unusual; We try to incorporate rides into our weekend routine. What was unusual, inspiring, was that Marcy was motivated to buy a new roadbike — with clipless pedals! Inspiring because clipless pedals — which essentially glue you to the bike — almost guarantee that on your first ride (and your second and third), you will forget that you are glued to the bike and upon coming to a stop you will fall over easy as Arte Johnson falling off a tricycle. Which she did, skinning her knee, scraping her elbow and ripping her (bike) seat. And complaining nary a bit.
It was a day spent moving, playing with us kids, a day she’ll likely feel for the next several. No breakfast in bed for this mom (in fact, the breakfast the kids traditionally prepare for her was taken on the back deck this year).

Part of being a great mom, she showed us, is not forgetting how to be a kid.


The real cost of cheap fun

Yesterday, I should have mentioned that another advantage of backpacking in my current economic situation is that it’s cheap fun. That said, I would have followed up with the real cost of cheap fun.

Cheap fun: On paper, this trip should have cost about $50. I already have the camping gear; my only expenses would be gas, about $25 (I drive a Civic that gets up to 40 mpg highway if I baby it) and food, about $25 (living on a diet of flat bread, peanut butter and dried bananas, and springing for prepackaged meals of freeze-dried grilled chicken breasts and mashed potatoes for dinner.

A three-day vacation for $50? Talk about cheap fun. Of course, that was on paper ... .

Real cost of cheap fun: I said I already have the camping gear. True, but any avid backpacker who does indeed have all the gear always needs more. I didn’t think I needed new rain paints; the 12-year-old pair I bought when I was 30 pounds heavier still worked OK. But REI was having its annual May sale (“Our Biggest Sale of the Year!”) and Marmot’s spiffy PreCip Full-Zip Rain Pants were marked down from $90 to just $64.99. Alan has a pair of full-zips (there’s a zipper down the length of each leg making for quick ingress and egress, crucial for when a downpour suddenly hits) and they had my size ... . It also turned out that I needed the $29.95 Black Diamond Orbit Lantern for when my tent becomes my office after a day on the trail. So, yes, I did have all the requisite gear, except for about $95 worth. (I should mention that while these may seem like extravagances for the recently self-employed, they proved to be godsends. It rained much of the time I was in Wilson Creek, the rain pants kept me dry. And because it rained the entire time I had more tent time than usual, time in a cheery, brightly lit tent suitable for taking notes and reading.

Tuesday, I hiked as much as I could in the morning, but heavy rains left many of the creek crossings impassable, and in the Wilson Creek area you don’t go too many places without crossing a creek. (Small watershed; the creeks go up fast in a heavy rain.) My stove hadn’t worked that morning, leaving me coffeeless and crabby. Eager to solve that problem, I hiked out to the car — about a mile and a half — and drove 30 miles or so to Blowing Rock and Footsloggers, a regional outfitter whom, I was pretty sure, could help me solve my stove problem. At least that was the plan.

A mile up the road, the engine light went on. Crap. The last time I was in the mountains and the engine light went on I ended up buying a new car (too long, painful and pricey a story to recount). Guessing I was low on oil, I added a quart ($3.95) and got a red-eye ($3.50 — no, it’s not related but the caffeine-addled among you are no doubt wondering how that crisis resolved). That wasn’t it. After consulting the owner’s manual — I’m a guy; Why would I do that first? — I discovered that the engine light could indicate anything from a gas cap not screwed on tightly enough to catastrophic engine failure. I opted for the former, made sure the cap was tight and drove on. By the time I got to Footsloggers, after diddling around with the car, the store was closed. I stopped and got something hot for dinner ($15) before returning to the wilds. The cascading effect of not being able to use my stove to cook dinner the next two nights meant I had to spend an extra $20 on food.

So, the real cost of my $50 cheap escape? Let’s get out the calculator here ... $137.45. Still cheap, I suppose. And certainly worth it.

But you really notice those extra pennies — 8,745, to be exact — when you aren’t sure where your next pennies are coming from.


Escaping, but reachable

Here’s a great way to take care of yourself — physically and emotionally — during times of underemployment: go backpacking. Which is what I did for the past three days, in a rugged area at the base of the Blue Ridge escarpment known as Wilson Creek.

Fellow members of the between-employment ranks may be thinking, “Are you nuts? Isolate yourself from a potential employment contact by sequestering yourself in the woods?” That probably would be nuts, but that’s not what I did. I’m in conversation with three separate parties about various opportunities (my vagueness has a certain underworld undercurrent, I know; in fact, I’m being vague because I don’t want to jinx myself). Before leaving town, I let all three know that I would be gone three or four days and likely out of touch. I would check in upon my return (which I did).

Nor was I completely out of touch, even in a rugged place such as Wilson Creek. Wilson Creek is a 13,000-acre portion of the Pisgah National Forest that was once, somehow, timbered. “Somehow” because the steep canyon walls densely carpeted with ferns, rhododendron, mountain laurel, tulip poplars, hemlocks and just about everything else that can grow in the Southern Appalachians would seem to make the region impenetrable; the area ranges from 5,920-foot Calloway Peak atop Grandfather Mountain to 1,020 feet where Wilson Creek and Johns River converge. The Ritter Lumber Co. somehow found a way and the area was actively logged into the 20th century. Today, many of the old road and rail beds used by loggers have been given over to hiking trail. Deep in these snarled canyons you are indeed isolated, a satellite telephone, maybe, but forget any providers boast of coverage anywhere. Climb the likes of Timber Ridge, however, and from such high points as Bee Mountain, reception is little problem. You can return calls as easily as you could from your living room. (Though good luck explaining the birdsong in the background.)

Physically, the trip was essential because it tamed my urge to explore — at least for a week. After hiking 35 miles in three days, some of it with a 37.4-pound pack, most of it in rain, I’m content to put up with the demands of figuring out how to make money. Again, for at least a week. Emotionally, it was a chance to drain whatever lingering issues I may have had from the layoff. It’s easy and understandable to replay the past, to wonder if things might have played out differently had you been more ... acquiescing to management. Tuesday, hiking up the north slope of Timber Ridge through a fern glade peppered with tulip poplar and hemlock, I realized I was thought free. No regrets, no worries. That wouldn’t have happened had I been sitting by the phone, waiting for it to ring.

Now, blissfully, on to the business of figuring out how to make some money.


Checking out

Our severance checks paychecks were available at 2 p.m. today. Holy cow, what a crowd in human resources! We had to squeeze into the foyer of HR, wait for our names to be called, then sign for our checks. I got three: one for severance, one for my last paycheck, one for unused vacation. An hour later I got a call from HR — they had yet another check for me. Ding! Ding! Ding!

I made a beeline for the bank. Now, to see if the checks clear ... .



Monday night around 8:45 I was on my way downstairs to work on something when I passed through the living room and noticed the youngest on the couch, reading. Everyone else had retired, the results of long days at the office, at middle school. The living room was inviting, dark but for the glow of a reading lamp. Cozy. Whatever I was heading downstairs to do could wait; I grabbed the unread March Bicycling magazine off the coffee table, created another cozy reading nook in Marcy’s coveted Red Chair, and dug into the three-month-old issue for close to an hour.

A notable moment because a week earlier I would have savored the scene, then continued downstairs to a task that no doubt had a work-related deadline attached to it. That happens when you find yourself in a work situation that has turned into a 24-hour survival effort. Even if I had my print obligations under control, there was still — always — the online monster of a blog to fill. And it wasn’t just filling the blog, it was figuring out ways to promote it. Convincing the online folks that it was worthy of a home page tease. Circulating it to appropriate online user groups. Pushing it through Facebook. The paper actively promoted two or three blogs; the rest of us were on our own. If I had a broad topic and promoted it well, I could get up to 1,000 views in a 24-hour cycle. If I had other commitments, which was usually the case, and didn’t have time for marketing I might get 80. And management was very cognizant of whose blogs were getting viewed; pitty the blogger whose views dipped below 10,000 when the monthly report came out.

I eventually did make it downstairs, did what I needed to do, returned to the Red Chair, read a couple chapters of “The River Why,” went to bed.

And slept very well.

Recommended reading: By Wednesday, I had made it up to the May issue of Bicycling and “Big Fat Lies,” a feature by Fit Chick columnist/blogger Selene Yeager disputing the time-honored notion that carb loading is the end-all for fuel-conscious cyclists. In fact, it dispels seven common misconceptions about eating right for an active lifestyle: 1. A calorie is a calorie, 2. Starches are sensible fuel, 3. All fat makes you fat, 4. Food comes from a box, 5. Skipping breakfast is fine if you need to drop a few pounds (frankly, I’ve never heard this theory espoused — at least not in the past 30 years), 6. You can eat the same at age 40 as age 20 (ditto), 7. You’re never hungry or your always hungry. Some of it is common sense, some is theory that’s not exactly new. But the general premise is insightful and should get you thinking.


OK, maybe not all numbers are bad

Yesterday, I said I don’t pay a lot of attention to numbers. That’s not entirely true. There are certain numbers that rule my active life. Here are three:


2 is the minimum number of hours I like to be on the bike, road or mountain, to consider it a workout.
30 is the minimum number of miles I like to ride on a road workout.
20 is the minimum number of miles I like to ride on a mountain bike/fire road workout (Umstead and Lake Crabtree combined, for instance).
1:00:00 That’s actually 1 hour, or 60 minutes, the time I’m currently trying to break on my weekly 6.0-mile training run on Umstead’s Company Mill Trail. (The cartographically anal among you are likely thinking that Company Mill is only 5.8 miles. It is. I tack on the 0.2-mile Inspiration Trail for an even 6.)
This morning, I had no intention of beating that time. Monday, I had ridden 23.2 miles at Umstead/Crabtree, Tuesday I did a 31-mile morning road ride with Alan. My legs were worked. I just wanted a nice, easy run. 1 hour, 5 minutes would be just fine.

And that’s about the pace I was on with about a mile remaining. I was bounding down a modest ridge (after walking up its backside) when, in mid-bound, I looked down and, between splayed legs, saw a 2 1/2-foot copperhead stretched straight, catching some rays.

You know how long jumpers take multiple strides in the air to stay airborne? Or when the Flintstones start their car and their feet go like mad for a couple seconds before the car moves? That’s what I felt I was doing to avoid coming down square on the copperhead. I managed to miss him, and with the adrenaline boost managed to Jim Ryun it back to the trailhead in 1:03:46. No PR. No trip to the ER, either.

Recommended listening: Today’s the State of Things on WUNC featured Barry Popkin, a professor in the Department of Nutrition at UNC-Chapel Hill and author of “The World is Fat,” a look at how not only the U.S., but much of the world, has become fat. (Fact: 50 years ago, 100 million people in the world were overweight; today, that number is 1.6 billion. The show bogs occasionally in numeric minutia, but overall it’s a fascinating listen about how we got where we are. Listen here.


Some numbers going into self-employment

I’m not big on numbers. I’m more into how things are working. That said, however, I will share a few quick numbers.

Age: 52.
Height: 5’9”. This number is periodically disputed by my wife. She believes my age-induced descent has begun, though I’ve noticed she tends to dispute the number based on the shoes she’s wearing at the time. Flats & sandals, no dispute. In her Danskos, however, the number is scrutinized.
Weight: 174. This number came as a surprise today. It should be in the 165-167 range. So my task isn’t to maintain my weight, it’s to lose a little. (Although, again, I’m not into numbers.)
Resting heart rate: 56 bpm.
Blood pressure: 118 / 80.

Now, how I feel. The pants are a little snug around the waist. That’s a recent development. Four years ago I lost about 30 pounds and my waist size dropped to 30 from 34 (it had been as high as 36). I will buy an occasional 32, depending on the brand, but one of my goals is to stick at 30. REI’s big $.83 sale is coming up, and I’m down to two pairs of shorts. (I live in shorts. Even when I was employed by The N&O I wore shorts most of the time, something you can do when you don’t work in the office and the people you interview are wearing speedos and lycra. The sale is the incentive I need to be particularly diligent over the next few days.

Until about two years ago I had a goal to exercise for two hours a day. This typically included walking the dog for 30 minutes, stretching/yoga/weights for 30 minutes and some sort of other aerobic activity — usually riding the bike — for an hour. I had a full plate at work, but managed to make the two hours stick through focused time management. With the stress of work over the past two years, there have been days in a row where I haven’t worked out. I really can’t go more than two days without aerobic activity without noticing it. Physically, I become sluggish. Mentally, I become slow. Emotionally, I’m no fun to be around. So my goal, again, is two hours a day. I’ll report regularly on how that’s going, starting with today’s 31-mile ride with my friend Alan in Chapel Hill and Orange County. Nice.

Here’s a snapshot of what being unemployed so far means. Yesterday, I was on Facebook and noticed I was at 99 friends. I decided to hold a contest to suck in Friend 100. Three people responded fairly quickly. So I decided to turn the contest into a Spring Friend Drive, complete with annoying pleas until my goal of 10 new friends was met. I told Marcy about this. She broke out laughing. “That is so funny. You’re brain is working again.”

So that’s what that peculiar sensation is.


Laid off? Here’s to our health!

Today officially begins the transition of this blog from my wife, Marcy Smith, member of The News & Observer “graduating” Class of October 2008 to me, Joe Miller, member of The News & Observer graduating Class of April 2009. (My posts begin February 19, and while written on the dates listed, were not posted until yesterday.)

This may seem like an American Tragedy, husband and wife laid off within a half year of each other, but it’s not. Far from it. For me, yes, I could have written about health, fitness and the outdoors for The News & Observer for another 20 years, retired, and been happy. I mean, this has been my job for the past dozen years or so: Work from home, set my own hours, ride my bike across the state, snowboard, backpack — do whatever, and get paid to write about it. It’s been work and it hasn’t been all fun and adventure. Still, it has been a dream job. And yet ...

Had I lived out my work life in such a manner I would have looked back and lamented the things I wanted to do — and didn’t. Write books, for instance. Now, I have written books while doing this job: “Take It Outside: A Guide to Hiking the Triangle” in 1998, “100 Classic Hikes in North Carolina” in 2007 and I’m currently working on a backpacking guide to the Tarheel state that’s scheduled to come out in spring 2011. But there is no small amount of irony in the fact that by day I wrote about striving for a healthy lifestyle — including getting plenty of rest and exercise — and by night, a night that on occasion lasted until 5 in the morning — I worked my second job writing books. Not a great combination, nor one that could have continued. Already, my publisher has asked if I can start on a book we casually discussed late last year.

I also find the internet to be a far superior means of portraying the outdoors experience. It’s visual (slide shows, movies), it’s audio (podcasts), it’s written, it’s got the potential to deliver exactly what people interested in exploring the outdoors are interested in. Thus, I’m in the process of starting a Web site that I hope will provide outdoors types — from cyclists to paddlers to hikers to climbers — with whatever interests them. More about that in posts to come.

So what will this blog be about? Losing your job is one of the 10 most stressful events in a person’s life. (This from a random sampling of Web “sources,” not including unemployed bloggers ranting in their pajamas.) Stressful events tend to take a huge toll on our health. The curious thing, though, is that now that you’ve lost your job, you have more time to exercise, more time to plan your meals and eat better. It’s a dichotomy at once perfectly understandable and at the same time without explanation. Why would we rather sit by the phone waiting to hear on a job application and eating a pint of Ben & Jerry’s instead of going for a walk and taking our cell phone with us? Why do we continue to hit McDonald’s for breakfast when we no longer have to punch the clock by 7:30?

Perhaps those questions are easy for me to ask now, just a week into self-employment. (That’s my first key to eliminating post-employment stress, viewing myself as “self” employed as opposed to “un” employed.) Over the coming days, weeks and months I’ll be exploring whether it’s not only possible to maintain your health, but to improve it. To maybe even get in the best shape of your life. And not just me. I’ll be talking with other people who’ve also been given this opportunity to see how they’re making the most of it healthwise, as well as talking to health care professionals to see what they suggest.

Tomorrow : My baseline stats at the start of this venture.

The beginning of the end

Here’s my story so far ...

February 19

Shortly before noon I get an email from the head of our department: "Do you plan to come in the office today? I need to talk to you. I'm here until about 4."

You tensed up just reading that, didn't you? "I need to talk to you" — the six most dread words you can hear from a supervisor, especially when you know a big layoff is coming. Truth be told, if they ask for volunteers to take a buyout, I'm pretty sure I'll sign up. This is, after all, a newspaper. Maybe the car industry is in greater peril, then again, Congress isn't mulling billions to save this industry. Nor should it. Not only is this industry sinking fast, but this newspaper is part of a chain — McClatchy — burdened with a tremendous debt load that is sucking all available resources.

The upcoming layoffs — we've been promised that they're coming — would be the fourth in less than a year. A year ago, we had 238 newsroom employees; after this next round we're expected to have at least 100 less than that. Our news hole has shrunk dramatically (we even axed two pages of our Sunday comics!) and we've been consolidating coverage with our sister paper in Charlotte, never mind that Charlotte is a completely different market than the Triangle. It's getting increasingly difficult to do good work. At this point, a buyout would be akin to a mercy killing.

So ... do I plan to come into the office today? I believe so.

Later that day ...

Turns out my supervisor wanted to talk about problems I've been having with the photo department. When I tell her I thought she was going to lay me off, she's incredulous. "You're kidding!?" she says, jaw agape.


February 27

Once a week we have a newsroom-wide meeting in the late afternoon. It's run by the executive editor and traditionally has been about projects we're working on, changes in policy and other housekeeping stuff. For the past several months, they've been exclusively about our contraction: Cuts in news hole, new efforts to combine forces with Charlotte, layoffs. Today, we're expecting news of the impending layoffs.

The news: No news. The executive editor does, however, say that anyone interested in a voluntary buyout needs to let his or her supervisor know no later than noon Monday, March 2. He moves on to something else; I'm focused on noon Monday.

March 2

At 9:35 a.m., I send the following email to my supervisor and our department head:
"Please ask John to consider me for a voluntary buyout."

I hit the "Send" button with a little more oomph than usual.

March 5

Another weekly newsroom meeting, another report that there's no news to report. "Why do they do this? Why do they keep this hanging over us? Just let us know," our rock critic whisper-asks during the meeting.

Turns out the reason they can't say anything is because there's a law prohibiting layoffs above a certain percentage of a company's employment base within so many days of the last layoff of a certain percentage of a company's employment base.

March 9

Several other McClatchy papers announce cuts.

March 16

At 9:30 a.m. my personal cell rings. The exchange suggests it’s from the paper, but I don't answer. Moments later, the work cell rings. Same number, I answer. It's one of our assistant MEs.

"Joe, you're buyout request has been accepted. You can pick up your packet in my office."

"Thanks," I say. It's a moment that will stick. When he called, I was in the process of writing my editor an email explaining that I'll be out of the office for a week or so. My dad died in Denver over the weekend.

Later that day ...

I go into the office to pick up my packet. The first person I see, in the hallway outside our department, is my editor. "It's a blood bath," he says. All part-timers are being let go, significant in a newsroom that's become increasingly dependent on cheap, talented labor to put out a paper. And 27 fulltimers are being let go. That's in the newsroom alone.

Our rock critic walks up to join the conversation. The look in his eyes is curious. Usually, the still-employed can't help but portray a look of sympathy, a look of pity when encountering the soon-to-be-departed. That's not the look in David's eyes. I know this look. It's envy.

March 18

I often go to the Eva Perry Library in Apex to write. It’s quite, I can stay focused.

Guy behind me gets a call. "And this is about the sales job?" he inquires in a non-library voice.

"Graham?” he continues on. “I have no idea where that is. And let me just make sure this is about the sales job in Cary?

"Well, great,” he says in a lifeless monotone. “It sounds like an interesting position. I'm looking forward to meeting with you guys."

He hangs up, then makes a fluttery sound of exasperation with his lips.

March 27

Today, I get this email from my very wonderful editor at The Mountaineers, who helped shepherd my “100 Classic Hikes in North Carolina” into print:

“Dear Joe,

“I wanted to let you know that today is my last day at the Mountaineers. Due
to the difficult economy, my position has been eliminated. As you can
imagine, this news has been hard to take. It was a pleasure working with you! ... I hope our paths cross again.”

And there was this memo from the front office, sent from the publisher:

“The McClatchy Company has issued a cell phone policy for use by all its papers to take effect this year. At The N&O, company-paid cell phones will be phased out, and employees who use personal cell phones for company business will be eligible for a set monthly reimbursement. The majority of N&O contracts for company-owned cell phones expire on May 31, 2009. The new policy takes effect June 1, 2009.

“N&O reimbursement rates will be $20 a month for regular cell phones and $30 a month for BlackBerry-type devices. The use of BlackBerry-type phones must be preapproved by the department VP. Only BlackBerry, iPhone or Treo brand devices will be eligible for reimbursement.

“Each month, employees eligible for reimbursement will complete a Cell Phone Reimbursement Form and provide a copy of their bill showing the total due. Both forms will be submitted through the T&E system.”

On it goes.

April 2

Today was another Plan B seminar — as in, if this doesn’t work out, what next? — at work. It was put together by one of the reporters who is staying, not management.

There were four panelists all of whom had to pursue a Plan B: A former lawyer now working in corporate development for Kerr Drug who is starting up a business on the side (Food Tours of the Carolinas); another former lawyer who has "reinvented" himself four, five times; a woman who opened a children's clothing store in Cameron Village; and Greg Hatem, the anti-developer who started saving and renovating old downtown properties as a hobby and now has an Empire — Empire Properties.

Their message was encouraging: If you have an idea you're passionate about and you work hard and smart at it, you can make it happen. Also: you people, you reporters, have such a vast and varied set of skills you should have no trouble finding something challenging and rewarding, even in this economy.

The reporters weren't buying.

One, a very adept and savvy reporter was baffled by this whole "networking" thing. How does it work? The panelists looked baffled: You're ... reporters. That's what your whole survival is about — about networking, about finding the perfect person, the perfect source, about finding the perfect person for the information you need.

Greg told a cautionary tale about a recent MBA who he had just hired for a three-month assignment. If that went well, there well could be a full-time position. What would that salary be, for the full-time position? the MBA wanted to know. Because it'll have to be more than you're paying me for this contract. Greg was baffled and irritated, in part because this fellow was a failed lawyer and hadn't been too successful at the other things he'd tried. "Look," he told the MBA, "you haven't done a thing for me yet. I have no idea how good you are. Show me what you can do, then we'll talk." The message completely eluded a business reporter, who grilled Greg on how much he was paying the MBA and how much the MBA wanted.

Later, after the panel had discussed the sacrifice required of going out on your own, the same business reporter complained, "But I've already sacrificed. I feel like I've been sacrificing for the last 20 years."

April 3

I keep getting ahead on work in hopes of carving out time to work on takeitoutsidenc.com. When I do manage to clear space, it seems that more work pours in. And I end up doing it because ... well, because that’s what I’ve always done, I reckon.

April 11

Sign of the times: Typically, people leaving the newsroom get a page made in their honor (see April 16). With 31 people leaving — and with not a whole lot more than that staying — it didn’t seem likely that that tradition would continue. So one of our top outgoing editors suggested we do our own page, all submissions welcome. My contribution was the next three email memos that we won’t get to read (ala the cell phone memo of March 27):

Subject line: Office upgrades
If you're feeling cramped in your workspace, we are now offering various workspace upgrades, ranging from taking over your departed neighbor's space to corner window offices — doh! Sorry, those are all still occupied by top management. Reasonable rates, payroll deduction available.

Subject line: Earn extra cash in your spare time
Got a few minutes between interviews? Suffering from writer's block and need a break? Earn extra cash by replacing light bulbs, cleaning restrooms, emptying trash bins. See your supervisor for details.

Subject: Training on new system
Training on our newest system, Selectric, will begin next week. Sessions should take about 15 minutes. Staff members over 55 are exempt. Bring your own typing paper.

April 14

Today, most of the 31 of us who are leaving were marched to the roof of The News & Observer, taken to the edge of the building, and — had our “class” picture taken just above the “The News & Observer” sign. Lots of waves goodbye, not a bird to be seen (in the official photo, at least) and no one jumped. Pretty successful outing.

April 16

We have a tradition when someone leaves the Features Department that we do a pot luck at noon, say some things about the person leaving, eat a lot of good food and give them a “page.” The going-away page is a tradition at newspapers. It’s usually a mock-up of the cover of the paper (or the section you work for), with incriminating pictures (Michael Phelps is not alone) and stories about the outgoing that are generally irreverent, occasionally over-the-top. Writers who crank out a lede story in 15 minutes will spend days agonizing over just the right phrasing for a sentence in a going-away page. Staffers will check out laptops so they can work on a going-away page late into the night. People who moved on years ago and hear about an old colleague leaving will audition for the opportunity to appear on that person’s going-away page. Going-away pages are some of the best work a paper puts out. There should be a Pulitzer category.

But when you have 31 people leaving at once putting together such a work is a challenge. I knew of only one produced for the Class of April 2009, and that was because the person insisted on it. (She may have even passed on her severance in exchange for a page.)

A year ago in the industry, we did pages. Today, we do books.

April 21

Last day. I went into the office early afternoon. “Weird day,” my editor observed. Indeed, by my estimation roughly one in five people you passed in the newsroom would be gone by day’s end. Like seeing ghosts passing through the halls. Or chalk outlines, like at a crime scene. It was, surprisingly, business as usual, with a couple of exceptions. Late in the afternoon, when people were leaving, they hugged. Even people who didn’t seem to have gotten along over the years hugged.

The other anomaly: Departure emails. It’s tradition, too, that people leaving the newsroom send a farewell email. Here’s a sampling of today’s:

From an editor who started at the paper in the 1980s
Subject line: Heading for the exit
Text: “When I heard about the layoff last month, I figured the next five weeks would be the slowest slog of my life. Instead, the time passed too quickly. Thanks for all of the supportive comments and good wishes.
“I've always been proud to work at The News & Observer, and you should continue to be, too.
“Write on! Fight on!”

From a woman in newsroom support (the people who keep the place running)
Subject line: One last thing ...
Text: “Well at this point all of my ‘co-exiters’ have just about said it all. This place has been so much to me. As have all of you. It has truly been an honor. ... This is my hometown paper and people like you make it what it is.”

From a top-level editor
Subject line: see ya
Text: Stay in touch. Keep the faith.

From another top-level editor
Subject line: adios
Text: “It’s been a great run.”

From a long-time night editor
Subject line: Keep in touch
Text: “Everything’s been said. I will miss you.”

From the biotech and pharmaceuticals business reporter
Subject line: Farewell
Text: “Should you feel lonely, you can reach me at (her personal phone, email). If it involves biotech, pharma or health care, you're on your own.
“Good luck to all of us, laid-off or not.”

From a photographer
Subject line: departing
Text: “Over the last 20 years I have read so many different departure notes & when my time came I thought I would really have this grand speech honed. Well, I don't & I'll just leave you with a sincere thanks for 20 years of working with wonderful talented people.”

From a graphic designer working the lonesome late shift
Subject line: Graphics will depart the premises at 11 p.m.
Text: “And will not return.”

That evening a top-level editor and his wife, a copy editor, who were both laid off, had a pot luck for the departing. No bitterness. No anger. No tears. We were the most upbeat people in the newsroom, perhaps because we could now see a future.

April 22

Day One: I got up and went for a long bike ride.

April 23

Day Two: I got up and went for a long bike ride ...