31 Aug


This past Sunday, we invited some friends over for dinner. Among the company were a couple kids — two boys — who were a little bored at times with our childless home.

I snuck downstairs at one point and looked through our puzzles and games, which we keep in a big wooden cabinet shaped and painted like a cat. I was trying to move quickly. I grabbed something called the “Log Stacker,” which claims to be the “World’s Most Difficult Puzzle Box,” and a Rubik’s Cube.

I figured the puzzle box would be a little more captivating, so I introduced the poor kids to it and left to go socialize with the adults.

Turns out the Log Stacker really is the world’s most difficult puzzle box. The kids couldn’t solve it, and I spent about 30 minutes trying to figure it out once everyone left.

Eileen kept saying, “Time for bed,” but I had to solve the damn thing. I’m just like that.

When I did finally get it, I pumped a fist in the air and yelled, “yessss!” But before I headed off to bed, I picked up the Rubik’s Cube.

I didn’t do much with it. I just looked at it.

And I had an epiphany: the middle piece on each face of the cube cannot move from the middle! It only has one exposed side, so it will always stay in the middle of a face. And the corner pieces can only fit in the corners. They have three exposed sides. And the pieces on the edge have two exposed sides. They can’t be middle pieces or corner pieces!

Okay, granted, this “epiphany” was a pretty obvious one, but I haven’t looked at a Rubik’s Cube since I was 12.

The next day, I began casually searching “rubik’s cube” on google. I perused a few sites, which were all overly complicated with their explanations. Most of them start by saying something like, “First we need to get some terminology straight. The cube has six sides. In this article I’ll be referring to the sides as front, back, up, down, left, right. A clockwise turn on the front side, will be notated as F. A counter-clockwise turn will be F’ (F prime). And a 180-degree turn will be F2.”

“Screw this,” I thought, and I closed the web pages and started turning the faces of the cube.

I got nowhere.

So I set it down and left.

Hours would pass, and then I’d suddenly get an idea about how the math of the cube works, so I’d pick it up again and try.

I’d fail again and leave.

I went through this process a few times; then I finally broke down and searched “rubik’s cube” again. This time, I understood a little more. I decided to give the notation a try. I struggled with formulas like this one: D L D’ L’ D’ F’ D F. I couldn’t get it to work.

But last night, I couldn’t get to sleep. I kept picturing various permutations of turning sides and having corners line up with middle pieces. It had invaded my head, like Tetris.

So I got up and went back to the computer. I tried just holding the cube and following the formula without even looking at the cube. After meticulously executing each step, I looked down at the cube. It worked!

I followed the other formulas. The final one is a killer. It reads like this: R2 U F B’ R2 F’ B U R2. It took about three tries, but I did it. I solved the Rubik’s Cube.

I could sleep easy now.

30 Aug


This guy named Tunnel Bob used to live next door to us. He was nicknamed such because he used to break into the tunnels underneath the university and under the hospitals — pretty much any tunnel in town, he could get into it. The rumor was that he was so capable at finding his way around the tunnels that the police could never catch him; so eventually they hired him to help them map the tunnels.

I never asked Bob if the police hired him, but he did often bring up his tunneling in conversations. He told me that he’d go to different cities to explore their tunnels. He’d been in Ann Arbor tunnels, Minneapolis tunnels, Milwaukee tunnels. Some of them were really nice, he told me. One even had drinking fountains in the tunnels.

He was a nice guy. Genuinely good-natured. But as you might have surmised by now, he was a little nuts. Eventually, he got evicted from his house.

By his mom.

She owned the place, but lived in a condo or some assisted living place since she was getting up there in age. She warned Bob that if he didn’t keep the place clean, she’d kick him out. And I guess she followed through on that.

This all happened a couple years ago. Bob stopped over to tell us he was getting evicted. Soon afterwards, this guy showed up at the house in a van and started fixing up the place. He was a nice guy, about 60 years old, handy, hard worker. We just assumed that Bob’s mom was getting the place prepped to sell.

We didn’t say much to the guy, since you don’t typically get to know tradespeople who work on your neighbors’ houses, you know? But he was there a lot; he even had a couple helpers — younger guys he’d hired to help him out.

Weeks turned into months, and eventually, he introduced himself to us. One of his employees was living in the house “to help defer the mortgage,” and he introduced that guy to us too. We’d never seen the house for sale, so we assumed Bob’s mom still owned it. And at one point, the man mentioned that he lived 45 minutes out of town.

This was all about three years ago. The guy’s still working on the house; we talk to him more often, though neither one of us knows his name. He told us when we first met him a couple years ago, but I didn’t figure he’d be around so long, so I didn’t bother paying much attention.

The other night, I went out in the front yard with Tember and noticed the guy’s van had its lights on. He’s got two vans — one big one with ladders on top, and one minivan that gets driven more often.

The house was dark, like it usually is at night, but there was a blue light in one of the rooms. We’ve always figured that the low lighting every night is just a timer of some sort to make people think someone lives there. But when I saw the van’s lights on, I tried knocking on the door of the house. Nobody answered, but when I started walking toward the sidewalk, I heard a tapping on a window.

I looked back and saw that the blinds on the front window had been opened a bit. I couldn’t see much inside, but I saw a red digital alarm clock reading 10:30. I waited.

After about 30 seconds, the guy came out of the house and thanked me for pointing out the van lights.

When I came back inside our house, I said to Eileen, “so that guy is our neighbor.” Only took three years to figure that one out.

24 Aug

Pluto’s Out!

A week ago, this worldwide association of astonomers voted to add three new planets to the solar system. Pluto’s moon (or twin planet, depending on how you look at it) Charon would be included, as would some other big floating rocks by the names of Ceres and Xena (named after the Warrior Princess).

Last week’s proposal would have led to potentially hundreds of new planets had it passed. But it didn’t pass. Instead, the astronomers of the world started questioning the definition of “planet.” The simplest one was something like this: “any spherical object that orbits the sun and doesn’t orbit other space objects (thus ruling out moons, which orbit planets).” Way too general. There would have been planets everywhere, for crying out loud!

The alternative to this outlandish proposal was to oust Pluto by setting some sort of size limit and by saying that the object must have cleared everything else out of its path around the sun. Pluto is smaller than our moon and it passes through this big asteroid belt, so its path isn’t clear.

Personally, I was leaning toward eliminating Pluto since its orbit is slow as hell. It takes 248 years for that slow-ass ball of rocks and gas to get around the sun. I mean, in the Tour de France, if you don’t meet the time cut-off, you’re out. And in the Ironman, if you don’t cross the finish line by 12:00 midnight, that’s it. You’re not an Ironman.

It would suck to have to bag the race minutes from the finish line after 17 hours of competing, but hey, if you want to play with the big boys, you gotta meet some standards. Pluto’s been in the race for 76 years, but I’m through waiting for it to get its act together and step it up.

21 Aug

Richard (variably pronounced Ri-shard)

I kinda fixate on names. They get in my head like advertising jingles and bad pop songs.

It’s a useful skill during the school year, but at other times, it’s a little annoying and strange. During the Tour de France, for example, I’m always blurting out names of cyclists.

Recently, I’ve had names of NPR DJs in my head. Daniel Shore, Carl Castle, Shimain Mills, Melba Lara, Michelle Norris. The list goes on. Weird, huh?

The other night, as I was lying in bed, the name Richard Strauss popped into my head, so I said it. “Ri-shard Strauss!”

Eileen responded by saying “Wagner” (pronounced Vagner).

I pondered for a second and remembered that Wagner’s first name was Richard. “Aha!” I thought, “we’re playing a little game.” So I went through my mental catalogue, looking for Richards. Naturally, I came up with Richard (Ri-shard) Virenque, the French cyclist who frequently won the polka-dot jersey. “Richard Virenque!” I said.

“He’s not a musician,” Eileen said.

“Oh, we’re just doing musicians?”

“Yeah. Richard Davis.”

Hmmm. “Keith Richards!”

“You can’t do Keith Richards. It’s first names.”

“Fine.” I could deal with that. I went back to my mental catalogue. “Richard Springfield.”


“Richard Springfield. He goes by Rick.”

She laughed. “I don’t know if that counts.”


“You can’t call Rick Springfield Richard.”

“Ok, then.” I was having a lot of trouble thinking of musician Richards. So I changed tactics. “Richard Davis.”

“No! I already said him.”

“Yeah, but it wasn’t your turn.”


“I said Richard Strauss. You said Wagner. So the next one was my turn. I’m saying Richard Davis. Your turn.”

“Fine,” she said. She went silent, thinking, and then said, “Keith Richards.”

18 Aug

The thin line

So I’ve been gone. Hence the lack of posts.

The first excursion was a three-day “Ride Across Wisconsin,” which my brother-in-law does every year with some friends of his. I joined them this year as we rode from Prairie du Chein to Sheboygan (more or less). I logged 314 miles in three days.

On the second day of riding, which also happened to be the easiest, my big toes went numb. They’ve kinda been numb since. I looked up the problem in a bunch of forums and other internet sites and figured out that it’s a fairly common issue — caused by bad socks, poorly fitting shoes, improper cleat position, or pedaling technique. It has something to do with the nerves in the metatarsals not getting the proper rest . . . I don’t know. I read enough about it to make sense of it, but I can’t really articulate it to anyone else.

I didn’t do much in the days following the bike trip. Just a few swimming workouts. Eileen and I went to Blackhawk Lake to camp. We took Eileen’s boat and she rowed each day we were there.

My toes were still numb afterwards. Yesterday I soaked them in hot water, which hurt. Today, I biked and ran. I experimented with my pedaling, and I wore my good bike socks. My toes didn’t seem to get any worse; in fact, they actually felt best when I was running on them, but my IT band started getting a little irritated on the run.

Afterward, Eileen and I were discussing my problems.

Tim: I’ve had this IT problem before and it’s not gonna go away before the Ironman. It’s an overuse injury.

Eileen: Maybe you should take vitamin N.

Tim: Vitamin N?

Eileen: NSAIDS, like Advil.

Tim: Is Advil an NSAID?

Eileen: Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug?

Tim: Hmm. I guess so. You know, when it comes right down to it, the Ironman is pretty stupid. You know that thin line between tough and stupid? This crosses right into stupid. Now a rowing marathon, that’s tough.

Eileen: Well. . .

Tim: Ok, it’s a little stupid, too. It’s really a thin line.

Eileen: One might even say it’s more of an area.

Tim: It’s transparent. Actually, it’s like a gradient.

Eileen: You never really know when you cross it. You’re always in both.

Tim: Yeah, but on either end, there are pure areas. Pure toughness would be like if you did something tough involuntarily. Or selflessly. Like saving a baby from a whirlpool.

Eileen: Yeeeaaah (Looking doubtful) . . . And pure stupid?

Tim: That’s when you die trying to do something tough, like if you try a Jackass stunt and end up killing yourself as a result.

Eileen: So you do something you don’t really know anything about?

Tim: Yeah.

Eileen: Well, I’m glad we got that figured out.

Tim. Me too.

Message from Eileen: the above is an approximation of the conversation we had. Tim actually brought up taking advil during the race and I told him that might be hard on his stomach (and that he should probably just take it after the race since that’s when inflammation is the worst anyway). I don’t advocate painkillers. I hate taking them – and the vitamin N comment was me quoting some of the sports medicine people I’ve run into who dish out NSAIDs like they are vitamins.