The thrill of finding an open track

When I dropped Colleen off at her travel softball tournament Sunday morning, I was wearing flip-flops. Then I noticed the track next to the softball diamond was open. A couple of walkers were going round and round. A dad and daughter were doing a cool-down. A jogger was adding a set of bleachers to every lap.

I pulled my New Balance Fresh Foams from the trunk. I hadn’t brought a change of clothes, so I didn’t want to get drenched in sweat before settling in with the other parents at the ballpark. But I could at least get in a brisk walk before the game.

“Do they open this track to the public this time every week?” I asked a pair of older men who were finishing up their walk.

“I don’t know that they ever close it,” one of them told me. He said he uses the track two or three times a week, usually on weeknights or Sunday morning.

The track at our local high school stays padlocked unless a team is practicing, apparently due to vandalism concerns. But I didn’t see any signs of difficulty here.

A friend of ours who studies biostatistics at the University of Michigan says that communities that provide fitness trails have healthier populations. That seems like a no-brainer. Removing obstacles to exercise means it probably happens more often, right?

For a long time before I lost weight I kept thinking I would start jogging or biking or even walking “if only” we didn’t live on such a busy road, or if the abandoned railroad behind our house was a walkable path instead of a patchwork of often inaccessible private property.

All during my nine-month weight-loss campaign, I drove somewhere else to exercise. Now that I’ve built up some endurance, the highway no longer seems like such a daunting barrier because I know I can get off it onto quiet country roads fairly quickly.

Still, as I walked a few laps at the New Haven High School track Sunday morning, I kept imagining how cool it would be to have regular access to our local school’s track just a mile from our home. I could jog or bike there for speed workouts. Maybe a small community of runners would form around track time. Heck, maybe we could start a local running club.

Then I made the mistake of mentioning this to one of the other parents at the ballgame, whom I’d forgotten is currently living through the process of having their front yard taken over by city workers building an expansion of Bluffton’s River Greenway. I’m pretty excited by this, because it will make riding my bike into town a little easier and eventually might stretch a few miles north toward our part of the county. But talking to Jamie reminded me that changes in public infrastructure are never easy, that there’s always a downside or some risk to innovation.

Reading this article on school policies toward public track use in Washington state reminded me that in addition to vandalism, schools must consider liability issues. And just recently I was irritated to notice that someone left the gate to the Norwell baseball field open, remembering how it got vandalized a couple of years ago. We had to take the senior banners down after every game this spring because of the potential threat of drive-by spray painters.

I’m not going to lead some campaign to open our local track, but I’m at least going to find out when it might already be open for summer workouts. An extra jogger on an outside lane likely wouldn’t get in anybody’s way.

I’m also going to add the New Haven track to my list of places where I could work out when I’m away from home. But the main thing that comes out of this for me is that I’m always going to make sure I have a pair of shoes and a change of clothes in the trunk, so that I can take advantage of an unexpected opportunity to run.



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Eliminating vacation munching

I’m not one to simply relax on vacation. On this trip, in addition to getting in some good hikes, I wanted to work on something I’ve never been able to master: Not eating between meals.

During past family vacations that’s been a huge problem. At our house I tend to avoid buying sweets and snack food, and I’m careful not to leave overly tempting foods setting out in plain view. But when we get together in the Smoky Mountains with my side of the family, there’s always a ton of decadent goodies on the kitchen counter. .

After snacking like crazy during our whirlwind visit to see our oldest daughter in South Carolina, I resolved to do better once we got to Tennessee. I fasted all day before our evening arrival, then enjoyed a guilt-free pulled pork sandwich with southern green beans and spicy coleslaw at Bennett’s Barbecue in Gatlinburg.

Thinking I might be onto something, the next day I decided to allow myself two memorable restaurant meals, provided I ate nothing the rest of the day. I had an omelet and pancakes at the Log Cabin after our morning 4 ½ mile hike to Alum Cave Bluffs, and a wedge salad with grilled shrimp during an early dinner at the Cherokee Grill.

This pretty much became my routine all week. I’d have a banana with peanut butter before our morning hike, eat a tasty late breakfast, then hold off until dinner, knowing each meal on vacation tends to be memorable, whether it’s at a restaurant or not.

With each passing day my “no snacking” project gained momentum, especially since I mentioned it to others to help hold myself accountable. Given my “abstainer” tendencies, it was much easier to simply not snack in the first place rather than nibble on something with the misguided idea that I could then shut the eating impulse down. All week I marveled at how much crap my relatives were shoving into their mouths, knowing I’d likely be doing the exact same thing if I let myself take that first slippery-slope bite. Instead of feeling deprived, I felt superior.  It was just a mind game, but it worked.

As I suspected, this wound up being a nonscale victory. I didn’t weigh any less upon our return, because I was getting plenty of calories from larger-than-usual meals. But it gave me confidence to know I’m capable of not snacking between meals. (In the past, even during my 90-pound weight loss, I snacked constantly but on low-cal foods.)

I like the way it felt to not give in the nervous impulse to chew on something. No doubt the calm feelings I experienced during a  couple of fasting experiments this spring were a big help here. This feels like a skill I can build on by planning tasty but lower calorie meals that are worth waiting for.


After a 4-mile hike on the Appalachian Trail, the kids crawled up on the monument at Newfound Gap to enjoy the view.  With all the trails in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Appalachian Trail is often overlooked because it doesn’t necessarily lead to a scenic view like a mountaintop or a waterfall. On this trip we met some folks who were hiking the trail from one end of the park to the other over a five-day period. Sounds like fun!

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An awkward moment on the trail

So we’re hiking to Grotto Falls in Great Smoky Mountains National Park when my sister-in-law Dawn spots something in the bushes about 20 feet above us.

“What is that up there – a piece of trash?”

“Hey, it’s moving! Think it’s a bear?”

Next thing you know, seven or eight of us are peering intently into the brush, abuzz with speculation. Until it occurs to us that the activity up above is … somebody taking a crap in the woods.

Even worse, it turns out that just around the bend is one half of a couple we met earlier on the trail. They told us they were their way up to Mount LeConte, elevation 6,594 feet. They planned to spend the night at the summit and climb down on Wednesday.

Now the guy carrying the big pack is not only acting like we’ve never met, he’s trying very hard to pretend we’re not there.

His wife is nowhere to be seen.

As it turned out, we did see a couple of bears on Tuesday’s hike: A mother with three cubs just before we got to the trailhead, and a lone adult just below the trail, not far from the false alarm.

Presumably the black bears we spotted are much more experienced at taking a crap in the woods.


The kids dry off under Grotto Falls after everybody got soaked in a brief rainstorm.

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Hiking tip helps in river incident


Explorers on the Rock Island: Max, Ben, Riley, Colleen, Jessica, me and Rowan. 

The gap between the rocks was too wide.


I knew I could leap across, but I couldn’t tell if the rock I’d be landing on was slippery. Though my son and his long-legged male cousins had taken this route, I turned back. There is always another way across the Pigeon River in Great Smoky Mountain National Park, if you’re patient enough to find it.

Besides, the theme for the day was “three points of contact,” a tip from Rowan’s friend Jessica, who learned it in a hiking class in college. Earlier in the day, when the boys ventured off the familiar trail to Laurel Falls to explore what appeared to be a workable route into the gorge below, I used this method to follow along, always keeping at least three limbs in contact with a solid surface, so that if one gave way the other two would help provide balance.

Leaping across those river rocks definitely didn’t fit my new rules of operation, so I looked for another route that did, and eventually I found one. There’s almost nothing as satisfying as problem solving on the river rocks, and I joined Rowan, Colleen and Jessica on a rock island on the far side of the river to celebrate our perseverance.

Only trouble was, dusk was approaching fast. “Can we please get off this river before a bear comes along?” I said about half a dozen times. Nobody moved.

“Aw mom, we just want to chill for a while,” Colleen said.

“I want to see a bear,” said Jessica, an environmental science major who wouldn’t mind working in a national park some day.

They’d just started to rise from their perch when it began to rain – hard.

Suddenly all our ideas about getting around on this river – honed over decades, in my case –  vaporized. Now every rock was slippery.

We crawled on hands and knees over a few boulders before abandoning that plan and plunging into the river, shoes and all.

“Hang onto the rocks as you go!” I shouted. “Remember, three points of contact!”

We could feel the bottom with our feet, but were wary of blundering into a drop-off. Rowan did step into a hole, but it wasn’t deep enough to pull her under.

A few minutes later we were on the river bank, soaked but laughing. My nephew Riley handed me an umbrella, which I declined. What was the point in trying to avoid the rain now?

“That was awesome!” said Rowan. Scrambling over these river rocks was something she’s done since she was a toddler, and it was at her insistence that we fit this in before she heads back to South Carolina today.

Even I had to admit this unexpected adventure was kind of fun. But as a parent, I wouldn’t mind a little less drama from here on out.

IMG_20160703_091121644 (2)

Earlier in the day at Laurel Falls: Grandpa, Rowan and Colleen; Brian, Jessica, me, Max, Riley and Ben. (With Aunt Dawn behind the camera). 

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An offbeat low-cal, low-fat travel snack

DSCN1282Before heading off to visit Rowan and Loki at their new digs in South Carolina, then meet up with grandparents and cousins in Gatlinburg, Tenn., we picked up a giant bag of fortune cookies at Gordon’s Food Service.

It’s kind of hard to plow through too many fortune cookies at a time. Contemplating the fortune inside each cookie slows down your munching momentum. But even if you did, the damage wouldn’t be excessive: Each cookie has just 27 calories and .25 grams of fat.


Rowan and Loki on the balcony of their apartment in Summerville, S.C., near Charleston. They’re 45 minutes from the beach and about 60 seconds from a trail network along the Ashley River.

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Pondering longevity


Great Aunt Jokie gets a hug during her 90th birthday party in May. As the “baby of the family,” she’s now the 10th of 14 siblings to make it to age 90. Of those 10, three have cracked the century mark. 

On Friday my great aunt Leona became the third member of her family to reach her hundredth birthday. Her brother Sylven, who was still driving a tractor up til age 98,  died in April at age 102.  And my grandma, Annie-Bananie, got within a few weeks of 101 when she died three summers ago.


Leona on her 100th birthday. 

Last month the “baby” of their family, Great Aunt Jokie, turned 90. She became the 10th sibling out of 14 to make it to that milestone. Almost everybody who made it into the “90 Club” lived several more years. Minnie made it to 99. If Great Uncle Gauis hadn’t been killed in a motorcycle wreck at age 94, he would’ve been a good candidate for hitting the century mark as well.

On the one hand, all this longevity just seems like another larger-than-life anecdote about a giant family that looms large in my imagination. (I’ve written before about how hearing stories about the Gerber family often felt like listening to episodes of “The Brady Bunch” meets “Eight is Enough” on the set of “Little House on the Prairie” – like the time Gauis cut his foot with a scythe and his parents hauled him in to see the doctor via horse and buggy, only to have little brother Alvin fall out of the hay mow and break his arm while they were gone.)

sylven with scythe

Is this scythe Sylven is holding the summer after he turned 100 the same one that gashed Gauis’ foot?  I bet one of my 800 Gerber family relatives knows the answer to that question. 

But I like knowing that I share at least part of the same DNA as these folks. I think that’s part of the reason why, instead of feeling like I’m over the hill at age 51, it feels more like I just came out of the locker room at halftime, re-energized and refocused and ready to tackle the second half of my life.

That may be nothing but an illusion (or even a delusion) as far as analogies go, but it makes me want to take care of my health so I can stay active as late into the game as possible.

For those who are interested – primarily a few relatives who check out this blog from time to time – here are a couple of more bits of recent Gerber family trivia:


Jehu and Lydia Gerber and their 14 children, shown here in 1951.

  • The last three surviving siblings are sisters who married brothers – Leona Schwartz, Alice Schwartz and Jokie Schwartz. (Grandma and her brother Ed also married siblings, Ervin and Viola Isch.)
  • When my son Ben graduated from Norwell earlier this month, it turned out that he was among six members of the Class of 2016 who are all descendants of the Jehu and Lydia Gerber family. Nobody realized it until the crowd was starting to dissipate, or we’d have arranged to take a picture.
  • Of those six graduating seniors, two were left-handed pitchers on the baseball team (Ben and Carson Gerber) and two are future college roommates (Ben and Avery Taylor, who both plan to attend Trine University in the fall.)
  • benaverygrad

    Ben, right, with his good friend and future college roommate Avery, who also happens to be his third cousin. 

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Taking the tribe on an ‘Indian run’


My niece Monroe, 12, takes the lead at the front, followed by Colleen, 13; my sister Traci, me, Ben, 18; and Mason, 15. 

We’ve gotten into this habit of trying some kind of fun fitness thing when we get together at my parents’ house for Sunday dinner. In the past we’ve done different kinds of circuit workouts or relay races. Yesterday half a dozen of us took off on an “Indian run.”

This is something the kids have to do from time to time at their sports practices. The idea is to run single file with your teammates, and when you find yourself at the end of the line, then you sprint up to the front.

We took off in 90-degree heat, knowing we were just going for half a mile, to the short end of the road and back. There was a certain amount of difficulty coming up with a pace everyone could agree on. A couple of overzealous types took off way too fast, making it difficult for those in the rear to make it up to the front, but eventually we settled into something halfway workable.

FullSizeRender (3)Just as we hit the turnaround, my sister-in-law Darcy arrived on the golf cart with 2-year-old Kobi, who was determined to join us. Instead of just falling into line, though, he raced to the end of the line at the end of the road – and promptly wiped out on the gravel.

My son Ben, who was wearing a borrowed pair of Grandpa’s dress socks for this excursion, scooped Kobi up and ran with him for a while before depositing him back in the golf cart.

Eventually our “line” broke up into two groups based on pace differences, but everyone finished. There was some disagreement as to whether this qualified as a fun family activity. Needless to say, it will be up to the grumblers to come up with the next new activity. (As long as we’re moving, I don’t really care what it is.)


Mason and Monroe were testing out Enduracool cooling bandanas. Both agreed that their headbands stayed nice and chilly long after having been dunked in cold water.  You can buy them online, but they picked theirs up at Lowe’s. 

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Winning the day-after party leftovers battle

Every morning I wake up and think about what my eating game plan is going to be (if I haven’t already decided the night before). Yesterday’s was easy: We did a baked potato bar for Ben’s graduation party on Sunday, so with an abundance of leftovers, I went with the potato diet.

This wouldn’t have worked if I hadn’t practiced it in the past. Ordinarily a houseful of party leftovers is a huge temptation. But I’ve been doing a one-day potato diet every couple of weeks or so for quite a while now. While more than one day of eating nothing but baked potatoes gets monotonous, as an occasional eating strategy it provides a nice break from tracking everything I put in my mouth. I like knowing I can eat as much as I want, guilt-free, as long as I stick to potatoes.

A lot of times I’ll allow myself up to a stick of butter for the day as well. It sounds way too decadent for a “diet,” but past research with the scale has proven otherwise. I’m almost always down a pound or two the following day (especially if I’ve been overdoing it lately).

Yesterday I skipped the butter and allowed myself guacamole and shredded lettuce as toppings. But of the six (fairly large) potatoes I had yesterday, four were consumed plain. They were pretty tasty all by themselves.

I didn’t hop on the scale this morning, but the important thing is that I managed to stay out of the party treats all day long. 


For a kid who was once a pretty shy guy, Ben did a great job of conversing with all the many friends and relatives who stopped by his open house on Sunday. (Here he is in the back discussing his future plans with an unidentified guest, near a table of my aunts and uncles on my dad’s side.)


I couldn’t resist introducing my great aunt Doris as “the 90-year-old dancer.” She’s been performing with a Fort Wayne tap-dancing group known as the Alley Kats for 34 years now, which is probably why she’s still so sharp.


I didn’t get to spend much time with my nieces and nephews on Sunday, but it looks like they had fun as usual.

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Endings … and beginnings

I haven’t run with my sister in what seems like forever. In fact, I haven’t done much running lately, period, between working on the house for Ben’s grad party and finishing up a bunch of writing assignments. But Traci called Saturday to ask about bringing some tables over, and as we started comparing notes on party plans we decided it made a lot more sense to meet up for a quick run to talk about this stuff rather than just gabbing about it over the phone.

Neither of us felt like running on the Greenway. When Traci remembered that the Indiana State Parks were rolling weekend admission prices back to the 1916 rate in honor of their 100th anniversary, that settled it: Just a dime to get in.

Traci had a new phone app called Running for Weight Loss that was perfect for taking our minds off  how out of shape we might be. It told us what to do when – walk, jog or sprint – gave us encouragement and periodic updates on time and distance, and basically freed us up to figure out the party menu. (We’re doing a baked potato bar.)

Last week I tried a time-crunch running plan of simply carving out 30 minutes a day on the treadmill. The first two days, feeling motivated, I tried to see how far I could go in that time. The third day was complete chaos and I didn’t even get home until late at night, but I made myself walk for 30 minutes even though I could barely keep my eyes open. Unfortunately, that plan got derailed on Day 4. But I’m glad to add it, along with Traci’s app, to my repertoire.

Yesterday Ben graduated from high school. Tonight Rowan leaves for her new job in South Carolina. Tomorrow we take Ben to Trine University to register for fall classes. With all the excitement and nostalgia going on around here, I need to keep up some kind of running plan to keep my stress levels in check.


Our two oldest kids are finishing up one phase of their lives and preparing to start on the next chapter.  


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Another one for the food log hall of fame

Every so often a memorable eating day aligns with a meaningful life event in such a way that I know I’ll always associate one with the other.

For example, I still remember the day in 2012 when the temperature hit a record-tying 106 degrees as “the ice cream diet” day. I had ice cream five times that day while still managing to stick to my diet (I was counting Weight Watchers points at the time) and wound up a pound lighter the following day. Now I usually set up a similar “ice cream diet” day at least once every summer, just for fun.

Friday’s food log was another winner in the “having fun while while winning the diet day” department. And now I’ll always associate this diet “win” with that night’s sectional game in which Ben’s high school baseball team beat one of the state’s best pitchers to advance to today’s championship game.

For three innings Norwell’s batters couldn’t even hit a foul ball off of IU recruit Andrew Saalfrank. Our 22-2 team is ranked fourth in the state’s 3A polls because of our power hitting, but it was ultimately some persistent small-ball tactics – including a crucial steal home on a suicide-squeeze bunt – that earned our guys the win.

I’ll always remember that game as one of the most exciting I’ve ever seen at any level, including childhood trips to see Johnny Bench and Pete Rose and the rest of the “Big Red Machine” in Cincinnati.

And when I do, I’ll also remember that was the day I had FOUR bags of microwave popcorn (94% fat free) and HALF A CARTON a carton of Blue Bunny Sweet Freedom ice cream (fat free, no sugar added) topped with uncooked oats, one of my favorite ice cream toppings. I was doing a retro Weight Watchers Points day, which is kind of unusual for me these days. Even with a 6-inch Subway egg white sub and a celebratory McDonald’s cone after the game, I made my points quota. It wasn’t exactly what you’d call healthy eating, but it was a fun change of pace. And, just like the Ice Cream Diet day, I was down a pound the next morning.


Bob and I with Ben on senior night recently. Today could be his last high school baseball game, as their opponent is one of only two teams to hang a loss on them this season. One of the consequences of being on such a talented squad is that he’s had  to accept a smaller role than he expected. But he’s had a great team-first attitude that makes us both proud.


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