Saturday, November 29, 2008

Geek Power! Why wussies, dweebs and nerds make good long distance runners

Note: This is a rough draft for a "lighter side" piece for the magazine "Colorado Runner". I started it a year ago, and I keep meaning to finish it and send it off. I'm really swamped with things to do this weekend, so posting this is easier than coming up with something new for the week. I hope it's not too self-indulgent. It's way too long and it needs some serious editing. I'm still working on it....

Wussy: a weak, cowardly, or ineffectual person

Dweeb: an unattractive, insignificant, or inept person

Nerd: an unstylish, unattractive, or socially inept person; especially : one slavishly devoted to intellectual or academic pursuits

I’m a distance runner mainly because I was afraid to take PE class in high school. I had lousy hand-eye coordination, so any game with a ball was a problem for me. I played just one season of little league, and it was pretty pathetic to be the absolute worst player on the team. While I enjoyed surfing and skateboarding as a kid, the aggressive aspect of fighting for waves in Manhattan Beach, California in the late 1960s was a real problem for me. I was a total wussy when it came time to shout “My wave!” to catch the best waves. I usually just chickened out and took the waves that nobody wanted. As if my inadequacies in sports weren't enough, I was a total science geek. When I was in the third grade, I was one of those “kids say the darndest things” kids on the nationally syndicated Art Linkletter Show. Art asked us all what we wanted to be when we grew up and I said, with a cute little lisp from missing my front teeth, “A nuclear physicist.” I got the big laughs on that one. Yup, I was a nerd alright!

On my very first day of high school, while I was walking to school all by myself, I got befriended by a similarly geeky freshman. He was equally scared of all the potential social crap that lie ahead of us. Every day we walked to school together and every day this guy would suggest that we go out for the cross-country team. His main selling point was the fact that if you do cross-country, you don’t have to do regular PE class. This sales pitch really worked for me because I was dreading that hour of the day where I would reaffirm my wussy status. The idea of enduring the pain of running eight miles a day seemed like an reasonable trade-off for the pain of being the guy no one wanted on their basketball team. At the end of the week, we both signed up for the team. A week later, my friend quit cross-country, and I ended up becoming a life-long running geek.

My first season of cross-country was probably the most difficult running I've ever done. At the beginning of my very first race, I went into total oxygen debt after about four hundred yards into that two-mile race. We had twenty-six members on our freshman squad, so there was no pressure at all to have to perform well. It was the exact opposite of standing at home plate in a little league uniform with a bat in your hands and everyone looking at you, waiting for you to strike out. All you had to do in cross-country was show up and run. And social interaction within the group was optional.... such a bonus! By the end of the season, I had made some friends and clawed my way up to ninth man on the freshman squad. I even won a “most improved” award at the sports banquet. That trophy really sealed the deal for me, and I was totally psyched to run track the following spring.

Mira Costa High School had a great distance running program in the 60s and 70s, and coach Frank Carl was a big advocate of high mileage and running year round. Our team was one of those classic sports dynasties driven by a great coach, and it was a rare year that we didn’t win the league championships. I loved hearing all the stories from the upperclassmen about the epic runners from our school’s past. I was particularly intrigued with the guys who had run massive training mileage and turned themselves into champions. Back then distance running was a real outsider sport. We would be on a long run and people would stop their cars and ask us, “Why are you running?” as if they’d never even seen a people out on a run before. I really liked that freakish nature of the sport, so at the end of my freshman year I decided to try a full marathon. It was the yearly ritual after track season for our team get as many runners as it could to run the brutally hilly Palos Verdes Marathon. I don't know how I did it, but I pulled off a miraculous 3:14 to beat all of our varsity runners. I still remember the “what are you doing up here?” look on one of our top middle distance runners when I passed him at the 22 mile mark. It was the first time in my life I ever did something truly exceptional, even if I did get beat by two minutes by Mary Decker. She was eleven at the time, and she was just establishing herself as a true legend in the sport.

One of the greatest freak-geek-nerd distance runners of all time is the amazing Gerry Lindgren. In the early 1960s, he took the national high school two mile record from 9:21 down to 8:40. He was teased mercilessly as a kid, and he says that running away from bullies was the start of his running career. The summer after he graduated from high school, he was one of the favorites to win the 10,000 meters in the Tokyo olympics. A sprained ankle the week before that race put him in ninth place behind Billy Mills' epic win. I had the good fortune of meeting Lindgren in 1974 at the beginning of my freshman year in college at UC Santa Barbara. Gerry and Jim Ryun (former world record holder in the mile) had run in the short-lived "pro track" circuit and were trying to regain their amateur status. They would run some of their long runs with the UCSB cross country team, and I was certainly star struck meeting these two legendary figures in the sport. Jim Ryun was the most shy, mild-mannered guy you could imagine, and I don't think he said much to us at all. Lindgren was the exact opposite: crude and obnoxious with this annoying cartoonish voice that felt like sandpaper on your brain. I know it's mean to say this, but I totally see why he was teased as a kid. In 2004, NPR did a story on Galen Rupp's attempt to break Lindgren's still-standing national HS 5,000 meter record, and they interviewed Lindgren. Hearing his voice on the radio was the weirdest experience for me. I said to myself, "Yup, that's HIM alright!"

I'm not sure if the stereotypical freaks and geeks of my era are still the template for distance runners today. The sport of distance running is far more understood and respected by the mainstream now than is was back in those days. And parenting is a lot different now, too. If a kid has any talent for anything these days, most parents will support and encourage them. I think the pendulum has swung too far in this direction, with all the hovering sports-nut parents putting too much pressure on their kids to succeed. But long distance running will always be the perfect venue for the scrawny and unnoticed kids to transform themselves from the ugly ducklings into beautiful swans. I sure do love that aspect of the sport!

Yeah... I like it but might be a bit too self-centered and nostalgic. I never get any comments on these blogs, so any honest input you out there might have would be appreciated. Maybe I'll polish it up and send it off. Here's a link to another one I did for "Colorado Runner". It's about how guys feel when they get beat by girls. It's called "Getting Chicked".

Saturday, November 22, 2008

My Thanksgiving Rant

I have never liked the adage, "Money can't buy you happiness". It's so absolute and authoritarian. Yes, I understand its intent: to explain why Howard Hughes' immense wealth couldn't save him from his agoraphobia, for instance. But I really think that this phrase is incorrectly worded. Don't you think "Money can't guarantee you happiness" or "Just because you are rich, it doesn't mean you are happy!" would convey the concept a lot better? I suspect that "Money can't buy you happiness" was created when a medieval king commissioned his slogan maker to come up with some effective propaganda to keep the poor folk from staging a revolution. The peasants were getting increasingly pissed off about their standard of living being so much lower than that of the king, so the king used a slick advertising campaign to secure his place on top of the totem pole. With these grand words plus the zinger, "Money is the root of all evil", a peasant uprising was cleverly avoided.

Unfortunately, the economic news of the last two months has gotten all of us a lot more focused on things like money and potential peasant uprisings. Like most of us, I am totally appalled at the sight of some of the richest men on the planet coming to the American taxpayers with their hats in their hands asking for handouts the size of a small country's annual GNP. Suffice to say, things are definitely weird these days. And I'm really feeling it in this year's holiday orders. I sell over 90% of what I produce to a group of less than a hundred fine craft galleries throughout the United States. Every fourth quarter of the year has been roughly the same for me: we get a steady stream of orders in September and October, and we ship them all out by Thanksgiving. Then we get a bunch of re-orders the first three weeks in December and hopefully we have a really low inventory by the end of the year. This year things are way off. A lot of stores that regularly order with us haven't done so, and the ones that have placed orders are down by about half as much as usual. I feel a bit like a canary in a coal mine.... cough! cough!

The main reason I started this blog is to liven up my presence on the web. The sales in my webstore were phenomenally low in September and October, and I attributed it to the economic crisis. This month, my webstore sales have picked up pretty well up due to an email I sent out to all of my online customers. I'm hoping that the next few weeks will see a lot more sales for us through the internet. But the real question is, what is it going to be like in January? If my accounts are laying low during the holiday season, they surely won't order much at all after New Years. By coincidence, my assistant is leaving for a three month "semester at sea" program the second week of 2009. Kelly is an absolutely perfect co-worker, and she will be hard to replace. So if we have a lot of pots still in our stockroom at this time, I probably won't hire anyone new and I will look for other employment. Sounds like fun, huh? I just contacted an incense distributor in Boulder who is looking for massive quantities of hand-thrown incense bowls. This could be a good fall back situation for me and I'm hoping that it works out. I'll still be producing Wallyware, but only to meet demand. You can only have so many pots in your stock room, right? I'm fortunate that my business is out of my house, because if I was renting a warehouse, this would be an entirely different situation. Rest assured, fans of Wallyware. We are far from throwing in the towel at this stage.

OK... that's enough ranting. Now for the things to be thankful for. While my lack of money does make me somewhat unhappy these days, the big things in my life are good. My family is doing really well. I'm married to a wonderful woman who is doing quite well in her career. Lori's job is a lot more stable than mine: she is a tenured professor at CU Heath Sciences and her career continues to thrive. Our teenagers are quite successful, too. Robin is an English major at CU Denver, and she is the editor of the arts and entertainment section of the school newspaper, "The Advocate". She has a host of side projects in other media, as well. This week she got promoted from intern to freelance writer for the print and online version of the A/V section of "The Onion". Check out her latest article. And Monica is having a very nice year senior year in high school. She has excellent grades and test scores, and she has a really great group of friends. It's fun watching her turn into an adult. So we all have our good health and our varying degrees of success, but it would just be nice to get some more pottery sales right now. Because if I'm working at Wal-Mart a year from now, I don't think I'm going to be quite so happy about the state of things.

Friday, November 14, 2008

What's up with that spittoon?

One of the realities of being an artist is that you end up getting asked to donate your work to a lot of various charity silent auctions. I generally enjoy supporting worthy causes, but over the years I've noticed that there is one downside to this process. Namely, it totally sucks to watch your artwork sell for way less than it's worth. This was certainly not the case last weekend, when my wife and I attended the "Champagne and Diamonds" event for Sense of Security, an organization that raises funds for the basic needs for women dealing with breast cancer. I had donated a serving bowl with the "Wally goes to a party and realizes that he is the only one who isn't on anti-depressants and it makes him sad" design, and it was valued at $90.00. To my surprise, there was a lively bidding war and it sold for $175.00. How cool is that? This week I threw some more salad bowls, and they will be in my webstore in about two weeks. So if any of you people out there who missed out on buying the one at "Champagne and Diamonds" happen to be reading this blog, bring your credit card back to my webstore in a couple of weeks.

Undoubtedly the most ambitious item I've ever made for one of these auctions is "The Unsinkable Molly Brown Spittoon", one of the collectable Wallys I featured in last week's blog. I don't know what got into me, but I was totally inspired to make a bizarre work of art for this year's Rocky Mountain PBS auction. I suppose it could have been the lure of seeing my artwork on TV that made me totally knock myself out on this one. And boy was it worth it! I got to see my magnum opus on TV at 3:00 on a Saturday afternoon... woo-hoo! What a thrill. But the problem with this experience was that my assistant and I pissed away well over a day's labor on it and it only sold for $250. It was valued at $500. I guess the process of putting that much energy into one pot was a good experience, and hopefully it's the perfect interior decorating accent for whoever snapped it up at the auction. But next year, I'm going to do something way less ambitious for RMPBS... probably a set of coffee mugs or something. I've posted the pics of this kick-ass ceramic wonder below for your enjoyment. But please... don't ask me to make another one of these ambitious monsters for your next charity auction.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The 22nd Century Collector’s Guide to Wallyware

Permit me to indulge myself for just a bit here and let us imagine that it’s one hundred years in the future and Wallyware pottery has become a collectable item. For the record, I never tell fans of my work to buy it as an investment, so we are just pretending here. But a century from now these pots would certainly make an entertaining feature on a futuristic version of “Antiques Roadshow”. And it’s not unrealistic to think that the tens of thousands of pots I’ve created in my lifetime could be enough volume to warrant a small collectables market in the next century. Only time will tell. One thing is for sure, the topical humor I’m doing now is going to seem like it’s from another planet to people in the distant future. So let’s dig deep into the Wallyware catalog and unearth some esoteric and already ancient Wally adventures that will be the most collectable of the bunch, due to their extremely limited availability and/or their significance to history:

1) “NAPPY! HE AM GOOD BOY!!!” (1983) True fact: There is only one of these, and it is the very first image of Wally that I ever drew. It was a gift to my friend Liz, to commemorate an experience she had as a medical intern. Don’t be surprised if someday there are imitations of this plate now that its picture is posted on the web.
2) “The First Wally Adventures” (mid-1980s) These are the very early Wally pots that look a lot like they are drawn by a child. The artwork is crude, and the jokes are incredibly simple: “Wally sees God”, “Wally meets visitors from outer space”, “Wally eats visitors from outer space”, etc.

3) “Happy Wedding, Julia and Keifer. Love, Wally” (1991) Inspired by the big celebrity news of the day, this joke was drawn on only a couple dozen plates. (Note the painted-on sale price sticker!) A few years after I created it, one of the galleries that shows my work sold it to a friend of Julia Roberts who allegedly gave it to the academy award winning actress. How fun!
4) “While negotiating a labor contract with Zigfried and Roy, Wally encourages his clients to get tough with management” (1990s) I created this joke for a fine craft store in the MGM Grand at Las Vegas and it sold pretty well for them. It was kind of creepy in 2003 when the news broke about Roy Horn getting attacked by his tigers.
5) “Wally and Up with People sing their way into the Guinness Book of records in a ditch in Waco, Texas” (1993) I made less than a dozen of these just one week before the Branch Davidian compound was burned to the ground by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. We shipped the first ones out to Twist Gallery in Oregon, and they arrived the exact same day as the tragedy. The gallery owner called us and said, “We need to send these back.”
6) The “Wally and OJ” series: 1995 was a real boom time for us with the OJ trial. The Geraldo Rivera joke was the first, and Geraldo himself held up a mug with this cartoon on his TV show. We did a series of spin-off adventures about the trial, and the high point of it all was sending a batch of plates off to the prosecution lawyers for a special order from the DA of Los Angeles, Gil Garcetti. I even got to talk to Gil on the phone one day. It was so weird!
7) The Oregon Bach Festival series (1990s): For a string of about five or six years, my account in Eugene, New Twist, would order commemorative Wally designs for the Oregon Bach Festival. They were a big hit with the musicians at the festival, and the subjects of the jokes were wonderfully esoteric.
8) The Provincetown gay theme series: In 2004 I received a really huge order for ten different gay themed Wally adventures for my account in Provincetown, MA. That summer we produced a couple hundred pots with Wally as a drag queen, Wally as a giant ape carrying female impersonator Ray Fay to the top of a skyscraper, Wally cuddling with “The Bears” etc. It was quite the left-wing soapbox tour de force!
9) “The Unsinkable Molly Brown Spittoon” (2008) Every year I donate something to Rocky Mountain PBS station and this year I got inspired and created an epic tale to grace a spittoon. It sold for $250.00… cheap! It’s definitely a one of a kind.10) “Wally creates the ultimate political reality TV show: ‘The Perils of Palin” and “Wally defends Sarah Palin’s stand on hunting wolves with helicopters with some folksy backwoods wisdom” (2008) These two adventures celebrate the overwhelming national spotlight on that spunky right-wing Alaskan governor that dropped into our laps a few months ago. I’m hoping that she will go away now, but only time will tell.
If you happen to have any old Wally ceramics out there that might be worthy of this list, feel free to post the titles below. The really odd thing about doing this line of pottery for as long as I have is the fact that there are pots out there that I don’t even remember making. I have shoe boxes full of photos and memorabilia, but I don’t have records of everything I’ve done. It’s going to be an interesting task for folk art historians of the future to nail down all those esoteric designs out there!

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Tales from the Parenting Crypt

As I recover from my sugar hangover this morning after Halloween, let me share with you a couple of somewhat spooky stories. Don’t worry, they are more sweet than scary…

Spooky Story #1: “The Spirit of the Beloved Author” One of the things that my wife and I enjoy about being a parents is watching our daughters connect with some of the same books, movies and music that we love. Why a person gravitates towards a particular work of art is a real mystery to me and I don’t think it can be explained by any single factor in a person’s life. Is it nature, nurture, neither, or all of the above? Two years ago, my youngest daughter was reading Kurt Vonnegut
books like mad and I realized that I was the exact same age as her when I plowed through Mr. Vonnegut’s entire body of work. There is something intoxicating about the mix of insight, idealism and cynicism in his writing that fit perfectly with the mindset of a teenager. Monica and I had some great conversations about Vonnegut that year as she read a number of his classics. This topic of conversation subsided after a while, but it resurfaced out of the blue the following year on April 11, 2007 when we were driving home from school. Monica was urging me to read his latest collection of essays, “A Man Without a Country”. I distinctly remember that this conversation between us was quite spirited. Later that night, as Monica was listening to the radio at bedtime, she heard for the first time the news that our favorite author had died earlier that day. And so it goes.

Spooky Story #2: “The Curse of the Music Junkie” My oldest daughter, Robin is afflicted with a genetic curse that must have come from me. She is a total music
geek. At the age of four, she was pondering the lyrics to XTC songs, and marveling at the delicate intricacies of side two of “Abbey Road”. This affliction is one of her true passions in life. At the age of nineteen she is a writer and editor for her college newspaper, as well as a contributor of reviews and articles for the “A/V Club” section of The Onion. She also writes for a host of websites and small local publications. She really knows how to follow her muse! Last night she did her midnight radio show on KGNU in Boulder and it was a real treat: an hour and a half of Halloween themed-music that span an amazingly eclectic range of genres. Her shows are archived on the web for just a few weeks after each broadcast, so if you want to listen to this one and you are reading this during the first weeks of November 2008, go to and find her show for midnight of November 1st. It’s a real sweet treat that won’t give you sugar hangover.
Robin in the fourth grade: Her punk rock phase.