Thursday, September 22, 2016

My First (Official) Ultramarathon

My First (Official) Ultramarathon
Martin Bodek

Tell people you’re running the NYC Marathon, and you’ll get oohs and aahs, and maybe you’ll even get people to donate to the charity you might be running for.

Tell people you’re running the Brooklyn Marathon two weeks later, and they’ll kind of look at you funny (then they’ll say, “There’s a Brooklyn Marathon?”).

Tell people you’re running a 12-hour race in between, and they send for the people in white coats.

So it was that I finally found myself participating in the first official ultra I’ve ever participated in (I’ve now ended two sentences with prepositions, but who’s counting?).

Now sure, I’d participated in many ultras of my own construction before, being careful to have them recognized formally (criteria: a) available to the public, b) 5 starters/3 finishers c) posted results, d) a director in charge, and e) known course), but I’d been bursting to take part in one where I could show up, run, and leave, without the other responsibilities.

Why had it taken me half a decade to finally find one? My criteria are too numerous:

  • Not on family time – I already impinge on that enough, thank you very much.
  • Not on work time – I’m not taking a day off to run. That time is for family. See line above.
  • Early starting – so it won’t impact family or work time. See two lines above.
  • During a high-mileage part of my running season – else I’d bonk.
  • Cool temps – ‘cuz me and heat? We don’t get along, my Badwater ambitions be damned.
  • Local – I’m not hopping on a plane for a long race, unless my family comes with, which they won’t. They have better things to do.
  • Need friends along – in case I get hurt, I want to be in the care of people I know. Also, I like my friends and want to hang out with them.
  • No trails – I hate trails. Trails are for people who wear “sneakers.” I don’t wear those things. I wear Vibrams.
  • Not on Saturday – I am Sabbath observant.

After first putting these demands into the grinder five years ago, the only things the ultra-machine spit out were races of my own design, at a time of my choosing. I put the list into the robot again, and suddenly it came back with quite a find! It’s called the NJ Trail Series One Day. It takes place in November, on the Sussex County Fairgrounds in New Jersey, and stages various races (24-hour, 12-hour, 6-hour, 50k, and marathon) over a 24-hour period. The 12-hour run starts at 9 PM on Saturday night.

Bingo. Notice how the paragraph above satisfies the needs of my criteria list just above that? I found my race. Some friends accepted my invite, and all my needs were met.

Now I can’t really file my usual mile-by-mile report, because that’s impossible. I have enough problems remembering details of the Brooklyn Marathon and reporting them (it’s run on Prospect Park’s 3.35-mile loops) in the exact order they happened, but on a 1-mile course over 12 hours of looping? Are you kidding me? Fuhgedaboudit!

I also can’t even give you an hourly report, much less a half-hourly report or 10-minutely report. What am I, crazy? Nobody’s memory is that good.

So what can I report to you? Let’s try something a little different: I’ll first give you a description of the race grounds, and its elements. Then I’ll give you an overview on how my friends did. Finally, I’ll save a little bit over in the end for how things went for me. We’ll get you home quickly.

The Course

As mentioned above, this took place on the Sussex County Fairgrounds, which is a 165-acre complex that hosts all kinds of interesting stuff. The website says, “This sought-after event venue has attracted many groups seeking powerful ways to integrate their brands with a fully engaged consumer,” but I don’t know what that means. It sounds like a slide from a business meeting. Simply put, they host horsey races, flower shows, craft fairs, farmer’s markets, the New Jersey State Fair, and our little race – with a 3-day version of the same in May.

The course itself is a mostly-flat 1-mile loop that cuts through and skirts around the majority of the complex. Actually, if you can picture it, it’s shaped a lot like a flintlock pistol, facing right. The rounded grip is the long, lonely stretch out in the fields, the trigger and trigger-guard house all the amenities (start/finish line, timing mat, kitchen, bathrooms), and the tip of the barrel represents the “out and back” portion of the course. Or, if you will – and if you are pre-Millennial – it looks a lot like the 1st Pole Position board, minus the tommy gun barrel-grip part.

The runners and their families all set up their tents and conveniences around the gun barrel part of the course, and near the trigger-guard. The rest (an exaggeration, “the rest” is just the .6 miles of the rest of the loop) was just encountering the same runners several dozen times.

Okay, enough firearms metaphors. You get the picture, I’m sure. I mean, shoot.

Okay, okay, done.

The Amenities

The kitchen: Oh my gawd was there food pouring out all over the place. ‘Twas a conveyor belt of goodies being produced through the night. There was fare even cooked up for vegans. Most of the cost of the race must have gone here. Now mind you, I and my friends all keep kosher, so we couldn’t enjoy everything – but there was plenty we could, and I ate, a lot, every time I passed by, every mile. Ahhhhh numnumnumnumnum. Hunger was not a factor at all.

The bathroom: the course had indoor bathrooms. Indoor. Bathrooms. Can you believe it? Of all the amenities ever provided on any of the 200+ races I’ve run, nothing has been as wonderful, beautiful, and kind as this one. It was clean, it was well-stocked, it was warm, it had actual soap (hand sanitizer is not a proper substitute. Look up the difference in your local library - oh, wait, the internet was invented a short time ago. Go ahead and google that).

The timing: every runner was given a house-arrest anklet (I’m guessing it’s not officially called that) to wear. Every time we hit the start mat, we triggered updated information displayed on a large board housed in the little hut/kiosk/gazebo/belvedere structure thingie that served as headquarters. Lap, pace, ranking, and the like. All the good stuff.

Speaking of good stuff:

My Friends

I was so happy to have some good friends along for the ride. I wouldn’t have participated without this crucial criterion in place. I put out a casting call, and these fine people answered. I’ll list them in order of how many miles they covered (what? How else should I list them? By how much I like them? That’s just rude).

Michael: He looked strong for most of the race (he has an impressive and commanding power stroke – like, the opposite of Paula Radcliffe), but after about the 20 mile mark, I encountered him walking during some of my loops, then I saw him seated, then I saw him seated in such a fashion as to suggest he wasn’t getting up anymore. When I noticed that, I stopped looping for a minute to ask him if he was done. He said he was. He had a leg issue he was battling. I looked at his watch: 26.1 miles! I told him to get his butt out there and finish up what he needed to complete a marathon. He did exactly that. Okay, I wasn’t the motivator. He had to walk that distance to pick up his trophy (a license plate! Personalized by the race director! Neat!).

Yisroel: Jolly St. Sruly drove Michael in, went round and round (for a small chunk with me; more on that later), went a mile longer than he ever had (he’s the veteran of multiple 50Ks), then had to call it a night so he could support Michael. That’s what friends are for.

Rebecca: The MVP of the night. I’ll put it simply: Old 12-hour female course record: 63 laps. New record: 68 laps. That’s an 8% increase; the equivalent of a 60-game hitting streak, or 79 home runs in a season, or 108 points scored in a game. Okay, enough sports analogies. She killed it. She destroyed it. She was dy-no-mite!

Ari: No slouch himself, Ari came this close to emerging as champion of the male race. He cleared 71 laps. The winner? 72. The equivalent of missing out due to an ill-timed pit-stop. Oh my, though he is no less deserving of a round of applause.


As for Yours Truly, I had the time of my life. Now this wasn’t in a rah-rah sign-waving roaring-crowd sense, but rather in a dreamlike, trancelike, easy-does-it like sense. That’s the difference between a big city marathon like the one I ran the week prior, and this one, on horsey grounds, surrounded by woods, with only runners and their crewmembers present (and, for part of the evening the wedding party on a secluded area of the grounds in a giant barn-y thing with poor soundproofing).

I arrived, with Rebecca in shotgun, to the most quiet quietness and misty mistiness I’d ever seen on a racecourse. Temps were in the high 40s; they would drop to high 30s during the night.

Uninitiated, I parked in the first spot I saw – at the end of the gun barrel, as I mentioned above – and saw runners looping around a sawhorse at the end. I realized this cohort was closing in on the midpoint of their 24-hour race, while anybody else showing up was doing a “mere” 12.

We scouted the course, reviewed the amenities, picked up our bibs and swag, welcomed Ari and Yisroel and Michael when they rolled in, set up our respective gear (AKA “food”) along the lip of the course and on a little table Yisroel provided, and rested until go-time.

My plan was thus: run four miles, walk one, repeat. Do that for as long as I can, then shuffle along at whatever speed available to me after that.

My nutrition plan: partake of all the tummy-approved foods that I brought with me, plus all the kosher fare that the race offered, plus enjoy some of the newly-tested instant soups that I brought along. I scheduled that for every four hours of the run.

Ari, Rebecca, and Michael bolted out of the gates like they had business on the course to attend to. Yisroel hung out with me for a while.

As was my plan, I ran for four miles with Yisroel alongside me, then began walking. Yisroel wished me well and bounded off.

Doing this repeatedly meant I saw my friends a lot more often than I would had I stuck to a consistent running program. Head-nods and polite waves aplomb, but after a while, I couldn’t get Rebecca’s attention. She was focused and deathly serious about her undertaking. Good!

I kept up my 4/1 program for three rounds. In the middle of fourth attempt, it very quickly turned into a 3/2, and still in the middle of it all, a 1/4. That’s just as well. No regrets about that. This was an entirely new and different experience for me. I reached about twenty miles after around four hours, and it was time for my soup at approximately 1 AM.

Now, I swear, I think I fell asleep for the next four hours, lost in my dreamlike daze, because the next thing I remember after thinking, “Damn, that was some good soup,” was, “Ooh, I think it’s time for another soup!”

The time in between?  I spent it doing these:

  • ·         Shuffling along happily – I was just happy to be there, taking in this fascinating, new experience. I day-, er, nightdreamed a lot. I just kept moving forward. Because it’s such a short loop, people notice each other’s progress. I didn’t get pats on the back until I started shuffling following a long series of walking. In this scenario it’s easy to notice when a fellow runner is gutting things out. Also interesting was the one portion of the course that was sand and pebbles. During the night, these were easy to negotiate – what with my wearing my Vibrams – because of the shadows the large pebbles cast. Once day broke, and the sun moved overhead, the shadows disappeared, and it was more ow-ooh-ow for that stretch for the last few hours. Wasn’t so fun.
  • ·         Watching the sky – I’m a star-gazer by nature, and I don’t think I ever realized how dramatic the movements of constellations are over the course of night. They practically tumbled. For long stretches, I’d just stare up, impeded by nothing except for the curve of the road.  At one point, four superbright stars were stacked up one atop another. Ari passed me, patted my shoulder, and – knowing I’m an amateur astrologer – asked me if I knew what was up with the arrangement (it was that noticeable even to the uninitiated). I did know. They were not stars. They were the moon, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, all neatly queued up. Gorgeous.
  • ·         Making bathroom stops – an indoor bathroom  is such a wonderful favor that I found myself in it even if I didn’t necessarily need need to go. Needing to go sufficed. It was also just a great way to rest my legs every few hours. At one point, I was in a stall between two other runners. The runner to my left said, “Hey, anyone know what time it is?” The runner to my right said, “Yeah, it’s 17:30. Um, I mean 2:30. Wait, holy $#!+, I’ve been running for seventeen and a half hours?” Ha!
  • ·         Watching the leaderboard  - that leaderboard was fascinating to watch, and it was fun to parse out the statistics quickly every time I passed by. Quite often during the night, I’d be in the company of a runner whose status on the course I was curious about. I’d either keep pace, or race after them to see the numbers. Sometimes it got a bit hectic. If I allowed too many runners in between me and the runner in front of me, I wouldn’t get the numbers, so I found myself sprinting on occasion. It was fun chasing after Rebecca every time she passed. She was killing it. It was also funny when I’d chase the leader (who would end up running 135 miles!) but before he’d get to the leaderboard area, he’d pull off to the side to his crew. Doh! All that running for nothing!
As I approached the start area shortly after 8 AM, I decided that would be enough for me. I’d already gone further than I ever had before (previous record: 40 miles, on my 40th birthday), and I still had to drive home. It was imperative that I rest before doing so. So at 8:16 AM, after 11:16:43 of running, I pulled in and called it a day, er, night, having cleared 41.5 miles. The director signed my license plate, and I headed to the car to rest.

I plopped myself down at the foot of the little hill, and inverted myself with my legs in the air. I must’ve looked funny, because some runners started taking selfies with me.

For those who didn’t, presuming they were focused on finishing their races with squeezing out as much distance as possible, I yelled “One more!” People really responded to that.

I also managed to grab a few winks.

A half hour after the race was over, I was still lying there, well rested, when Rebecca came shuffling in, having clobbered the female race record, but now, suddenly, unable to walk straight.

We both managed to clamber into the car, and got home safely.

Then, I began my day.

My name is Martin Bodek, and I’m a biblioholic. It’s so bad, I write them while I wait for my favorite authors to come out with their next books. Help me. I’ve got a fever, and the only prescription is when you enjoy my output:,

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Notes from Our One-Week Dixie Vacay

Notes from Our One-Week Dixie Vacay
Martin Bodek

Tuesday, August 23

I wake up at 4:00 AM, which is an ungodly hour even for the person who created this cartoon:

Ill-advised, to say the least. .1 miles into the run, I realize I’m a lunatic. I step off, head to the couch, fall in, and reset my alarm for my usual 4:45 AM, which isn’t ungodly at all.

I wake up the family at 5:00 AM, and we’re all out of the house with our bags within one hour. Perfect.

The kids have silver-foiled breakfasts, and a truckload of DVDs to amuse them for the drive to Philly Airport.

Why Philly Airport? Because my wife and I have realized that we’d rather drive more time to a regional airport and spend less time parking and going through security than spend more time driving through mounds of traffic to a local airport and deal with all kinds of time-consuming stupidities and aggravations. We prefer to be kind to ourselves. We recommend the same for you.

Also, Dan’s Deals said so. We do whatever Dan says. Dan says where to go, and when. We obey Dan.

The drive down the turnpike is nice, with the sun rising behind us, and giving Newark a gleaming sheen.

Newark, the city that looks great when you look up, but not so much great when you look down.

We arrive in Philly with no problems (I continue to marvel at the city’s building a stadium, ballpark, and arena within one foot of each other). We park, get through security, and we’re on our plane lickety-split. Not a single person gets on our nerves in any way.

Our flight is empty. We pretty much sit wherever we want, and we have maximum comfort.

See what I’m talking about? How many more perks do you want?

When the plane touches town in Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, I delightedly add state #34 to the number I’ve been to. Exciting stuff!

We’re off the plane in a flash, get our luggage in a jiff, pick up our car in a femtosecond (The agency gave us several choices. We went with the one with the DVD player. Trust me, no other considerations matter, except maybe for a functioning A/C), and wheel up to Kosher Cajun NY Deli & Grocery, where we eat like kings (I even try a dish I’ve never seen or heard of before, which is highly unlike me. Rice and beans and sausage and New Orleans stuff. I’m feeling adventurous), pick up food for the road, make Shabbat-food arrangements, and we’re on the road, heading east.

I notice the people are friendly here. One person on foot accidentally cuts me off. He then says thank you, followed by a sorry, sandwiched by another thank you. What is this? I hear it’s “politeness.”

We cross the border of Mississippi and pull over to take a pic under the welcome sign. State #35! Woohoo!

My wife’s a bit tuckered out, so I take over the driving, pull over once we cross the Alabama border, and I snap another family pic under the sign. State #36! Yes!

With that in the bag, I have now visited every state east of the Mississippi (the border of the U.S. before The Louisiana Purchase), save for Tennessee. Tennessee, I’m coming for you.

A short while later, we cross the Florida border, but the sign is impossible to access. Grumble. Been here before though, but never in the panhandle.

We finally make it to Pensacola Beach, realizing that the entire trip from New Orleans was a preview of what we’ll be touring over the next couple of days.

Before we pull up to the hotel, I look up what “Pensacola” means: Choctaw for “Hair people.” I did not see that coming.

When we reach the hotel, despite that we woke before dawn, took a plane to the south, drove hundreds of miles east, and spent chunks of the day in six different states, we’re suddenly in our bathing suits and everybody’s in the outdoor, warm, pleasant pool – which is one of two pools, plus a mini kiddy-park kind of pool, and a hot tub. We picked a good one.

Inspired by the recent Olympics, my daughter shows me how to do the butterfly. I rip several pec muscles.

Two hours is more than enough pooling for now. My wife makes a lovely dinner and we’re out like lights before we even get to chew.

Wednesday, August 24

I head out for a  6:40 AM five-mile run, my first ever along the Gulf of…well, anything. In this case, it’s the Gulf of Mexico. The white sand and green water is gorgeous gorgeousness. Directly south of me, if I could see it, is the Yucatan Peninsula. I’m in another world.

I heard there’s a boardwalk in the area, but can’t find it. I like running on boardwalks. I find a cop exiting his precinct and mounting his bike:

Me: Hi! Good morning!
Cop: Morning!
Me: I heard there’s a boardwalk in the area. I’d like to go for a run on it. Know where that is?
Cop: Sure, see that tall building there?
Me: Tall building? Everything’s flat here except for the hotels.
Cop: Ha! True! Good eye. Okay, see that building with the triangle top?
Me: Are you saying because it has a roof it’s taller than everything else?
Cop: Ha! Yes I am. Anyway, right there is where the boardwalk starts. Goes until the next strip of land there.
Me: Ah! Thanks! Have a good day.
Cop: You too.

Now that’s interesting. The boardwalk here is on a strip of land that connects two landmasses. There is no boardwalk on Pensacola Beach/The Gulf of Mexico itself. I find that a bit odd. I’ll pass. I wanna run along the gulf, not an isthmus (yes, I had to look that up to remind myself what such a formation is called).

While on the beach, I espied a pier jutting way out into the Gulf, and I immediately thought “I ran clear to the ocean. And when I got there, I figured, since I'd gone this far, I might as well turn around, just keep on going.” So I noted to enjoy a run on the pier on my return trip. When I did return from where I kept on going, I found a sign that said this:


What? I turn around. I see a sign that says it’s $1.25 to access the pier. There’s a man in a booth, looking bored as heck. I must be his first fish of the day.
Me: Hi, do I seriously have to pay $1.25 just to run to the end of the pier and back?
Bored: Yes sir, no exceptions.
Me: Well, another time then.
Bored: Okay now.

I’m not paying money for something I should be able to do for free. When I get back to the hotel, I ask the concierge if such practice is common in this area. She says absolutely it is.

Okay now.

I wake the family up at 8:00 AM. I daven, we dress, and head down for the complimentary breakfast. I marvel at how dairy creamer always seems to end up kosher no matter where I find myself. Nice going, kashrut industry!

After that, we spend two hours in the green green ocean, followed by one hour in the warm warm pool and hot hot hot tub.

We have a homemade lunch, and we’re on the road for a quick trip to the National Naval Aviation Museum, which is, allegedly, the world’s largest naval aviation museum, but the place seemed small to us. The boys, surprisingly, we’re unamused and unengaged, but the Blue Angels movie rocked (Shucks, their training sessions bookended our vacation) and any place is great from which I exit with having to read a recommended book (The Raft, by Robert Trumbull).

We have some light snacks, and we’re on the road again, headed north for a three-hour drive to Montgomery, Alabama. It’ll be the fifth state capital our children have visited (after humming Wakko’s 50 State Capitals to myself, I realize I’ve only visited six, and I’m a bit older than my kids).

At a gas station pit-stop I come across another sign I’ve never seen before:


What’s that all about?

My wife pays for the stuff, and gets carded. The cashier has an IQ of a pizza rat, because we have the following conversation:

Me: You think my wife looks under 30?
Pizza: Um, it’s a policy for people, um, y’know, under 30.
Me: Why?
Pizza: Um, it’s, um.
Me: Dude, I’m just complimenting my wife, is all. Help me out.
Me: Okay kids, wheels up, enjoy your candy bars.

As we’re driving, my wife mentions that she hasn’t seen any deer signs this entire trip. I say, hey, different strokes for different folks – or um, different signimals for different animals. Especially in these parts, we keep encountering the rare Homo Sapiens Friendlyus. They seem to be abundant.

Two miles later, of course, we see a deer sign.

We finally arrive in Montgomery. This hotel room has three full beds, three TVs, a stove, washer/dryer. The works, for a song. Wow. It doesn’t have green water and white sand though.

After a nice home-cooked meal, it’s lights out again.

Thursday, August 25

I head out for a 6:45 AM four- mile run through a very empty city, past everything we'd enjoy a bit later in the day as a family. My aggregate time is slow because I snap pictures of plaques, in the event that we’re hurried through our morning. We have a busy schedule.

This is what I encounter:

·         Martin Luther King, Jr.’s house (I’m excited just to be running by. I cannot wait to get inside later!).
·         His children’s babysitter’s house (she’s still alive and lives there. She’s 104. There’s a plaque in front of her house commemorating a person who’s still there. If that isn’t wholly unique, I don’t know what is).
·         The First White House of the Confederacy (How is this place not egged daily, Confederate flag flying and all?).
·         The State Capitol (With the flags of all 50 states in front. I never realized the Mississippi flag has the Confederate flag right up in the left-hand corner. This only compounds my question above).
·         The Civil Rights Memorial Center (Maya Lin’s marble-and-water architecture is stunning up close, but it’s blink-and-you-missed-it from the road just feet away).
·         Troy University (with its cool and imposing Trojan warrior statue. Sprawling college campuses are one of my favorite things to run through).
·         The Rosa Parks Library and Museum (We’ll be back later to learn stuff!).
·         The Alabama River (bodies of water are another item I love running along).
·         The Hank Williams Museum (not my kind of thing, but some people are rabid).
·         Madison Mini Mart (for some breakfast supplies, and I swear this is the only grocery of any kind in this city that I can find. This city is built strangely).

Upon my return to the hotel, the streets are still empty.

I wake the family up at 8:00 AM again. I daven, we dress, have cereal and homemade french toast for breakfast, and we’re out and about The Empty City.

First stop: pictures in front of a restaurant called Mushroom, because the ladies in my life love ‘em, and they can’t pass up this op.

Second stop: The Rosa Parks Museum, where we get an education such that we’ve never had before, with information crammed into our heads that is not available in any textbook any of us have ever read. We learn stuff we didn’t know, didn’t know was available to know, isn’t even googleable, and confirms for us that the only way, really, to learn anything is to be there. We stand on the spot she was arrested. The whole experience is wake-up call stuff. I hope my children realize how enriched they are. When they learn about civil rights in class, I hope they’ll raise their hands and fill everyone in on everything they can’t possibly have known, unless they were there.

Third stop: taking pictures of the lizard our big boy spotted, then pics with the boys under the Trojan warrior.

Fourth stop: The Civil Rights Memorial. For some reason, I’m not very successful in explaining the importance and relevance of the architect and this architecture. The boys are more fascinated by a bug surviving the falling water than they are in my history lesson. Can’t win ‘em all, but at least they were there.

Fifth stop: a quick peek at the First White House of the Confederacy and the state capitol (across the street from each other).

Sixth stop: the grand prize, the reason I’m thrilled to be here, the raison d’etre – at least for me – of our visit to this city: Martin Luther King Jr.’s house. We have the same experience we had at the Rosa Parks Museum: we learn a truckload of things we didn’t know, didn’t know we didn’t know, are now thrilled to know, and are enriched now that we know. I didn’t know about the penknife stabbing, or that he was a private smoker, or that the indentation of the thrown bomb was preserved, or a whole list of wonderful and interesting things that our eager guide showed and explained to us. I was thrilled just standing outside of the house of a man I admire so much. Walking through his space is almost too much joy. Again, you have to be there to know. Textbooks and Wikipedia don’t do these kinds of historical people and events justice. You’ve got to inhabit the space to feel the history.

Thoroughly elevated, and grateful and thankful we came, we break for homemade lunches again – in the park behind the King house where The Man spent meditative moments – before hitting the road again. We’re going south back to the coast.

It should be noted, before we leave, that the city remained empty, and therefore quite eerie. It felt abandoned.

It should also be noted that because of this emptiness, any tours we were given of anything started and were run according to our own schedule. With nary anybody else present, accommodating us was easy.

Anyway, back to the road: we pass a place called Murder Creek, which, I learn, is named for a murder that actually occurred along the creek.

For this, I’m happy to not inhabit the space. Wikipedia will work just fine, thank you very much.

We arrive at USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park, in Mobile. The eponym of the site is not the only showcase here. They’ve also got the USS Drum submarine, tanks, and planes, including Calamity Jane herself!

The battleship is awesome, and sweaty, and the boys love it. The girls? Not so much. Everyone appreciates the submarine though. Cool stuff.

Interesting to note that the ship serves as a shelter for families for hurricane events. Matter of fact, along the coast are constant reminders about the beating Katrina brought down on the area. This will be the first of many such in-person reminders.

The second reminder is on the site itself. A hangar showcasing vintage planes has a picture of what the place looked like when Katrina stormed through. Horrors, really. Contemplative stuff. Look at this:

I’m happy at my newfound ability to identify a few more planes than I used to, as a result of a resurgent interest in books about recovering lost airmen and planes from WW2.

Fully hydrated after our run through the place, we head back to the road and arrive in Pascagoula, MS. The name means “Bread nation” in Choctaw. Interesting.

While my wife fetches dinner and breakfast supplies, I take the kids to the pool, and my wife joins us later.

The kids have some home-cookin’ for dinner. I have a Labriut meal and Tradition chicken soup. Life does not get better.

Good night.

Friday, August 26

6:20 AM 5.4-mile run into Mississippi Sound. Along the way I encounter at least five pallets-turned-into-US-flags, which is a thing I’m seeing more and more.

I also stumble across Camp Jefferson Davis, and President Zachary Taylor’s summer home, because that’s the kind of stuff you come across at random in this area (truth be told, if you pay attention, back home in NJ and NY, there are scores of places where George Washington’s army encamped. I find a lot of ‘em when, yes, I’m out for runs).

I also encounter crazily friendly people (what’s a crossing guard waving hi to me for from across the street?) and a free pier! This one sticks out one-tenth of a mile into the water. Fun fun fun.

On my return trip, while waiting for a red light to turn, I encounter the physical embodiment of Mater from the Cars movies. Seeing this in print won’t do our conversation justice, but it’ll have to do, and I’ll be glad to recreate it for you in person:

Mater: Ha yer doin’ there, young feller?
Me: Hey, I’m alright. Hayoudoin’ today?
Mater: Aw, y’know, hangin’ in there. Ah hear iss goan be a hot wun.
Me: Isn’t it always a hot one around here?
Mater: Aw, y’got that right, son. You have a good day now.
Me: You too, thank you.

Wakeup today is 7:45 AM, because we have to be out the door on time for our 9:00 AM appointment. We got gators to see.

In Moss Point, MS we find ourselves in Gulf Coast Gator Ranch & Tours and have, all at the same time, the most interesting, unnerving, frightening, and wondrous time of our lives. Later, an informal survey would prove this to be the high point of our vacation (so you might as well stop reading now, because it’s all downhill from here. Oh, just kidding).

The first things we encounter are hilarious typos: They sell both souveniers and souviners here. I guess they sell them phonetically.

We’re not here to laugh at typos, though.

No, we’re here to see the…electric chair? Right there, near the cashier. The boys delight in strapping each other in lovingly.

Where did this chair come from? Oh, it just floated in on a Hurricane Katrina wave.

How about that for a serverneer?

We receive our gator food, and head out the back door onto the property.

Immediately, we’re transported. We’re in the bayou, the real deal. In front of us are dozens and dozens of huge algae-covered alligators, sunning and luxuriating. The only thing that separates them from us is a single chain-link fence.

Our big boy is more fascinated by the lizard on the fence. Seriously? Do you see what’s in front of you? Then again, this guy is good at spotting lizards.

While we wait for our guide, we start feeding the alligators their turd-shaped protein biscuits. It’s fun, but it’s mightily scary. Chomp. Gone. These animals are gargantuan too: twice my height; four times my weight. Absolute killers, and we’re just playing with them.

I note a sign on the building that we entered. It’s 15 feet up, and it says “Katrina Water Line.” Whoa. That brings to mind a particular question, which I’ll pose later, so hold that thought.

Real-life Mater’s twin brother comes out, holding a two-foot gator with some black tape sealing his mouth. Each of the kids (that includes me) take turns holding him. Gator Jr. is calm, but tries to give our big boy a kiss. Hooboy.

Finally, it’s swamp time. We meet our guide, Mike, and clamber into an airboat along with an elderly couple, who have this experience on their Bucket List. They sit in front. We have the back row, bookending the children. Basically, we arrange ourselves in gator-eating priority, should this machine tip over. I’m more than a little scared. Our guide sees how we’ve arranged ourselves, and says, “Y’all did good ha you setcherselves up with the kids there’n middle.” A parenting compliment always takes the edge off.

We put our headphones on because it’s going to be loud, and we’re off into actual, literal, really really real gator-infested swamps.

Our guide is a capable hand, eager guide, and fun fella. We encounter a few gators, and Mike feeds them marshmallows. Interesting snack.

The fun, though, is when he puts the airboat through its paces and performs various spins, turns, and glides over solid ground. I swear, it’s the most fun I’ve ever had on a vehicle in my entire life.

At one point, Mike pulls over (Not easy to do! Airboats have no brakes!) and asks if we have any questions. I do!

Me: What happened with your gators during Hurricane Katrina?
Mike: Aw, we lost ‘bout two hunnerd fitty of ‘em.
Me: Uh, wha? Whoa.
Mike: Got back ‘bout seventy,eighty of ‘em.
Me: Huhwha?
Mike: Yeah, we had folks returnin’ ‘em to us, finding them tags we have on ‘em.

I don’t think I’ve ever been more befuddled by a statement that came out of another human being’s mouth – and we’re in middle of the wackadoodliest election season in history.

Imagine if you will: you’re on your roof due to the ocean invading your entire neighborhood, waiting for the Coast Guard, and a gator comes along to keep you company.

The mind boggles, nay, is blown to pieces.

We tour the nursery before we leave, I give Mike a nice tip, and we’re on the road. Our destination? To Infinity, and beyond. Uh, literally.

The Gator Ranch was near the MS/AL border. We’re off to the MS/LA border.

En route, I mention to my wife how interesting it is that we are, at the same time, in what is probably the most racist part of America, but also the friendliest.

She says, “You might have that perspective because you’re white.”

That’s what my wife does: take a statement of mine and restate it with a new vantage point that gives me serious pause.

I reflect on this. It’s true, I escape certain biases because of the color of my skin, but invite others – along with, blessedly, certain graces - because of the nature of my outward appearance. I’m a Member of the Tribe, and often, it’s obvious.

Lots of food for thought.

We arrive at the John C. Stennis Space Center AKA the NASA Infinity Science Center AKA Dork Heaven. It’s NASA’s official welcome center. It’s their largest rocket testing facility. It’s in middle of a 125,000-acre acoustical buffer zone (we saw the signs declaring this but didn’t understand what they meant), and it’s awesome (read this: The tour of the testing platforms is mind-blowing, and the science center is much like the Aviation Museum: small, but very cool (just look at the stuff you can see with your own eyes!:

We have liftoff again. Shabbat awaits. We finally get an opportunity to take a family pic under the Louisiana sign. We’re glad to be back. We’ll spend as much time here as we did all over the road.

Waze takes us along the rim of Lake Pontchartrain, which is actually a giant tidal lagoon (Boy, I’m learning so much about land and water formations!) to our hotel. The lake is named for a French minister, but it’s meaning I simply cannot derive, which is a blow to my onomastic tendencies. Me sad.

It’s 24 miles long, 40 miles wide, and according to the correct formula (PI * SquareRoot of 2 * ((1/2 long axis)squared + (1/2 short axis)squared)) has a circumference of 103.62 miles. I put it on my Bucket List of Things I Want to Run Around. When will I tackle this Bucket List? I don’t know, but that’s what these things are for (I did run around the island of Manhattan earlier this year, though, and that’s a good start).

That small non-land circle you see in the SE corner of the state map of Louisiana? It’s the lake. Across the length of it is a bridge that goes the whole 24 miles. It’s the longest over-water bridge on earth.

I’ve noted, from reading several travel guides, that New Orleans lays claim to several World’s Biggest titles. Some are founded, some not. I’ll note some more as we go along.

We finally make it to our hotel, right on the lake, directly overlooking the bridge. Gorgeous.

My wife arranges for some amenities for our stay whilst I tour the hotel with the kids. Must investigate the gym, pool, and shvitz.

This time I do the supply shopping (they have more than one grocery in this city) while my wife readies the kids for the pool.

I jump in with them, and we frolic until there’s an hour left to Shabbat. We then do quick shower rotations, and in our little hotel room (rated #3 by the kids out of the four we stayed in), we welcome Shabbat.

We’ve got a fridge, a hotplate, full Shabbat meals provided by Kosher Cajun, and a lot of creativity on my wife’s part.

We have a lovely meal, play some games (both “Would You Rather?” and “Garbage” can go on forever), do some reading, and hit the sack. We have to rest up for a long day tomorrow where we can’t get too far out of each other’s personal spaces.

Saturday, August 27

My big boy and I wake up earlier than everyone else, and we create our own little reading nook while we wait for the others to rise. He has Geronimo Stilton. I read J.K. Rowling’s “Very Good Lives” in one sitting (Not hard to do) and continue reading “The Man of Feeling” by Henry Mackenzie, followed by a dessert of more New Orleans travel guides, just in case I missed something that we can cram in before leaving.

The rest of the family slowly opens their peepers, one after another. Finally, we’re all awake. We dress, I daven, I “come home,” we chill, we have a lovely lunch again, we play more games, read more books, take some naps, run around a bit in the hallway until one of the cleaning ladies tut-tuts the kids back, and survive the day in one piece. We head to bed early again (we’ve all pretty much had eight good hours of sleep every night. All of us are well-rested and energetic), because tomorrow’s a big day.

Sunday, August 28

6:00 AM 8.4-mile run along the gorgeousness of Lake Pontchartrain, and in the company of people that are so friendly, they don’t just wave, but actually give full-throated “Have a nice day”s when they pass you.

I get a close-up view of the area’s canals, seawalls, levees, and gigantic locks. It’s quite the education, just seeing it all with my own eyes, and seeing how it’s all laid out. Again, you’ve got to be there to know, as we’ve mentioned earlier. Boy, this city is vulnerable.

A hilarious sight: an “Alligators in area” sign. Oh, really? Gee, back where I’m from, we just have, oh, I dunno, squirrels, and I don’t think they eat people.

I return invigorated from my run, then shower, daven, and wake everybody up at 8:00 AM. We’re off to New Orleans proper.

First though, a ride along the seawall along the Mississippi river, towards kosher restaurant destination #2 (of three): Waffles on Maple.

Oh, we eat well, very well. Gargantuan waffles aplenty, plus a surprise: a slush lemonana. Oh gosh, so good.

Bellies full, let’s do Nawlins.

I studied the transit system carefully before we came. It’s rather simple. Four lines going in specific directions, mostly at 20-minute intervals. Piece of cake.

We board the St. Charles streetcar, the oldest continuously operating streetcar line in the world (Claim: founded). It’s operated by hand, a bell is rung with the driver’s feet, and it goes so slow, that runners go along comfortably inside the tracks, with plenty of time to move out of the way of a streetcar barreling down at them at 2 MPH.

The difference between a streetcar and trolley? For that matter, a tram? Semantic, really. Ergo: none. They’re all one and the same (feel free to call me on that. I have friends who can get hung up on this kind of thing).

We alight onto Canal St., billed as the widest boulevard in the world, which is a lie if I’ve ever seen one. My wife agrees. We’ve seen way bigger, in multiple places. Nice try, New Orleans.

Bourbon St. is directly in front of us. No thank you, we’re with children. Royal Street it is.

The first thing my wife spots on the border of the French Quarter is a Torah Crown, on the shelf of a pawn shop. That’s an odd place for something like that to be. Also: it’s beautiful.

My wife leads us inside and casually asks questions about it, and how it got there. The gentlemen behind the counter is a bit hard of hearing, but we learn that the price is $10,000. I’m not sure that this calls for a rescue of sorts, ala Pidyun Shvuyin or anything, but in case it does, the address is 637 Canal St. It has a sign that says “Expert Jeweler on permises” (sic; then again, everything is sic around here), and whoa, you can actually see the crown via Google Street View. There it is right there on the Royal St. side, next to the chanukiyah: Wow.

We walk further along, and my kids fail to grasp the cultural significance of their surroundings. My fault. We pull over so I can give a quick history lesson. Glazed-over eyes. I’m not successful. Hmmm, still my fault. Okay, we’d better get to Jackson Square right quick, lest we have a mutiny on our hands.

William Faulkner’s house is just a beat away, and I really would like to have a quick look, but the natives are restless. We have to beeline for the Square.

Which is empty. Where’d everybody go? Where are all the bands and street performers and artists? Are they all auditioning for America’s Got Talent (Go Tapeface!)?

My kids are not happy. The one thing they find most amusing is the functional water fountain.

Look, kids! The statue of Jackson!


Look, kids! St. Louis Cathedral! It’s the oldest one in the United States (the gentile version of Touro Synagogue, I suppose)!

No? Oh, man, okay, let’s go to Café Du Monde.

Now here’s why I’ve been so eager to come here: I have noted, and friends have agreed, that all those “75 Things You Must Do When You Visit x” and “23 Things You’ve Got To Try When You’re in x” lists and websites are always 65% filled with stuff for you to eat. The lobster in this place is awesome! The crab here is amazing!

We keep kosher. We can’t do that. We can only check off 35% of these lists. It’s annoying.

Except for Café Du Monde! It’s the first place on any of these lists that we can finally partake in. I inquired about the kashrut with the local Chabad before we made plans, and it checked out. I’m not just happy, I’m all-body thrilled!

Uh gimme some beignets and Café Au Lait!

Now, finally, in New Orleans, I find the first rude people since landing here. I won’t reveal the heritage of the restaurant’s staff who brings this on, because that would be lacist, but they certainly make me feel like I’m right back in New York. Boy, do they have a caustic, impatient “No beignets for you!” attitude.

See what I did there? Okay, not nice of me.

The beignets are indeed delicious, and my iced coffee is very good.

We sit down to enjoy the goodies on the steps behind Washington Artillery Park & Moonwalk, and we watch a sleight-of-hand magician do his thing. His name is Michael, goes by Rooster the Magician, and he’s quite excellent. Since he calms my kids down and entertains them, he deserves some props. This is him:

Once the show is over, and the beignets consumed, we head to the Toulouse (I only speak the truce!) Station of the Riverfront streetcar line. We’re taking it all the way to the end to visit Mardi Gras World.

Except it doesn’t go all the way to the end. It stops one stop short of its destination. Uh oh, we’re gonna hafta walk, which is no big deal for me (despite the 40-lb backpack I’m rucking all day) but the kids aren’t gonna be happy. I do have plentiful water supplies in the pack, though. Let’s roll.

It turns out to be a 1-mile walk. That isn’t bad. It skirts the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, which bills itself as the largest single-level convention center in the world. That might be true. It dwarfs the Javits Center back home. Mocks it, really. I use a running map toy to measure the length of it: .64 miles (Javits: .19). That’s a long building. How does a city even find the space for such an immense thing?

I should note that I’m a bit wary along this way. There are nooks and crannies, that, analogous to back home, would be filled with homeless folk and random ne’er do wells. However, there aren’t any, and I’ve noticed this in other nooks and crannies that aren’t filled with suspicious strangers. I’ve seen the spaces the homeless inhabit in my neighborhood, and on recent vacations to the West Coast and Hawaii. The spaces here are similar, but they’re vagrant-free. Curious. The city is doing something right in this regard. I wonder what that is.

Across the Convention Center, we come across Scrap House: Katrina Memorial. Have a look:

We arrive at Mardi Gras World with our nerves intact and our bodies still properly hydrated.

The tour is awesome, and the kids love it, and I think they finally understand what Mardi Gras is all about, and we each pick our favorite sculptures (Mine: Kiss!). We get complimentary beads, and finally feel like proper tourists.

We have a homemade lunch on the Mississippi River, while we wait for our complimentary bus to shuttle us back to the French Quarter (thank goodness for that. When I asked the guide about transportation options back, I was humming “Send Me an Angel” in my head [Boy, I haven’t that song in decades]. He did!).

Back on the riverfront, it starts raining. No problem. We discuss indoor options. The girls will go to the Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium; the boys will go to the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas.

The girls, reportedly, have a great time whenever a butterfly doesn’t get stuck in their hair. The boys lose their minds with joy (the dad too. There are creatures here he’s never seen before, such as the lookdowns, which school in a fascinating way), most especially with Parakeet Pointe, an exhibit where you get birdseed-covered sticks and coax the birds to land on them (we spend an hour total in there!), and the Stingray Touchpool, over which our little one loses his mind with happiness over being able to touch them.

We all meet up after in the lobby of the Imax theater. We bridge the time-gap by placing a Happy Birthday call to my mother-in-law. Interestingly, at that moment, we’re at the end of the Mississippi River, and she’s at the tippy-top, 2,350 miles away. Happy birthday, Savta!

We see Finding Dory in 3D. It is a great, great heart-tugging movie. Baby Dory is so cute!

We walk back to our St. Charles line streetcar, and take it back to our um, street car, which we use to convey us to kosher restaurant option #3: Casablanca. I love the food, and eat well, and omigosh, they have slushy lemonana here too.

After some quick shopping, it’s back to our hotel, and lights out. Full day today; another one of the same tomorrow.

Monday, August 29

6:30 AM 6-mile run to the left of the Lake Pontchartrain Bridge, as opposed to the right. My Strava synopsis of the run explains everything in full: “2nd run ever across Lake Pontchartrain rim. Saw last levee to break during Katrina, an "alligators in area" sign near a park bench, pelicans in flight, and a gorgeous sunrise (as I did every day).”

I actually saw both the penultimate and ultimate levees that broke; that alligator sign was hilarious in the park bench context, those pelicans looked like those pterodactyls in flight in Jurassic Park, and when I say gorgeous sunrise, I mean it.

I shower and daven, wake up everyone at 8:00 AM for a hotel-room breakfast (in order to get out of our hotel room on time daily, I put on the weather channel – No kids shows! Too distracting! – and ask them to serve as meteorologists for the day), and we’re off to City Park.

City Park is 154% the size of Central Park, and has almost an infinite amount more of amenities and amusements for children. We’re planning for a full day here.

Now then, you’ve heard the English expression “Man proposes and God disposes”?

It’s from the Yiddish expression “A mentsch tracht in Gut lacht.”

Which is from the Hebrew expression, “Rabot machshavot b'lev ish, v'atzat HaShem he takum.”

Which is from Proverbs 19:21.

A few days ago, I noted that a single one of the amusements – which would best target our little one – was closed on Mondays. No big deal. Plenty more amusements left for everyone. The park has that much to offer.

Then last night, while browsing opening and closing times, I notice one more amusement is closed for Monday. Okay, still not a big deal, because on every other website the amusements in question show that they’re open daily.

Not so fast.

We arrive in the park and note that it’s pretty empty. No big deal, that’s been our experience throughout, but we quickly learn that everything that requires payment to enter is closed for the day.

What is up with that? I’ve never seen anything like it. A whole park? Closed? Arrrrrgh! Okay, plan B.

The one item in the park that’s open and looks interesting is the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden. Good. My children love a) art, b) outside. Perfect. We have the run of the place, and the kids are charmed. My favorite piece is “Karma” by Do Ho Suh ( My wife’s favorite is "Window and Ladder - Too Late for Help" by Leandro Erlich ( My children’s favorite is any one from which they have to be scolded to climb off.

In a short time, we’re done, and we’re off to the next Plan B site in the Garden District: New Orleans Glassworks & Printmaking Studio. Besides for public art, we love the artisanship of glassblowing too.

Remember the scripture I quoted above? In French it translates to:

“L'homme propose et dispose d'un dieu.”

The workshop is closed. Some excuse from the proprietor about it being too hot and all.

How can it be too hot when you’re already dealing with temperatures that reach infinity?

Whatever, plan C.

Some in our party don’t want to go to the Ogden Museum of Southern Art; others in our party don’t want to go to the Audubon Zoo. We decide to make everybody both happy and miserable by going to both.

First, the art. My kids enjoy. The graffiti exhibit is interesting, the collage of world-famous Renaissance artworks is gorgeous, but my favorite is this one:, entitled “Computer Printout of Stephen King’s Brain” by Elayne Goodman.

A quick homemade lunch outside of the museum, and we’re off to site B of plan C.

We pass the National WW2 museum (I think my kids need to be a bit older), and the Superdome iImpressive from afar, but puny up close).

We arrive at the Audubon Zoo. I won’t mince words: it’s one of the most disappointing experiences of our lives. The water in every animal enclosure is brackish, the staff seems disinterested, the ice cream carts are all closed, the animals look aged, filthy, tired, and bored. It’s like everyone gave up. My big boy does find several more lizards, and I’m proud of myself and my kids for facing fears on the ropes course, but those are the only silver linings. We’re happy to leave.

Okay, dinnertime. We ask the kids what they’d like, and they choose Kosher Cajun. The place is good. Off we go.

First, we pass a restaurant called “Cowbell,” which we snap a pic of and send to a Christopher Walken-loving friend.

We eat heartily, and dash out early, because we have to go for one more dip in the pool. We can take our kids anywhere, but they love the basics. I like that about them.

Our daughter makes quick friends with an African-American girl playing in the pool, showing off to each other what they can do (her race will be relevant in just a few sentences). We continue to be amazed at the swimming prowess and bravado of our little one (Thank you, Coach Jen!).

Before leaving the complex, I take a pic with my boys in the 170º shvitz (Pfft, my shvitz back home approaches boiling!) that’s one for the ages.

Later, before hitting the sack, my wife mentions to me that she believes the kids minds were blown back in Montgomery when they learned that people can be mean to each other because of the color of their skin. The comment was obviously prompted by our daughter’s free-and-easy play with a friendly stranger in the pool. Indeed, it seems we’ve raised our children free of these horrible biases. We give ourselves some credit, and we’re thankful to their school, too.

Nighty night.

Tuesday, August 30

6:30 AM 4.3-mile run through the Jewish part of New Orleans. I run past the conservative synagogue, the local JCC, and the Chabad in the neighborhood. I pull up to Chabad, and wonder if I might be able to meet the fellow who had given me all the kashrut, travel, and Shabbat advice. I do! My good man Yossi answers the door! I found the guy I was looking for! Ha! I thank him profusely for his help, and he thanks me for stopping by. How wonderfully serendipitous a meeting this is. Fantastic.

I also have a closer look at the city’s canals, and their attendant vulnerabilities. Gosh, will this place survive the next 100 years? Seriously, the deluge threat is ever-present. I could not live here.

I finish again along Lake Pontchartrain, and pass again under the incredible bridge. I have a look at a few of the 9,500 (!!!) concrete columns. What a structure. Again, if this was back home, the homeless would live in several of the crevices I see. None here. Nice job, New Orleans.

As I walk back to the hotel, I note my very first road rage. A car barrels out of the garage, cutting off a person trying to park. Took long enough.

I shower, daven, and wake up the fam at 7:30 AM. We pack and head off to Waffles on Maple for one more memorable and fulfilling breakfast. I’m getting spoiled with lemonana; I try the slushy coffee with a healthy meal. I’ve gorged enough.

En route to the aiport, my wife points out the first honk she’s heard since arriving in these parts. Combined with the road rage I saw earlier, it looks like this city is falling apart.

We surrender our car and its life-saving DVD player, and get to the airport and security with plenty of time to spare.

One dunderhead woman begins complaining to the TSA about all the liquid-filled touristy trinkets and gewgaws she’s stuffed into her carry-on luggage, saying they should know tourists will put this stuff into their baggage, so why can’t she keep them?

Really, lady? Why don’tcha come over to New York and try to pull this stunt?

That’s how chill this place is. People have time to hold up lines. TSA treats her nicely, and patiently. She ends up managing to get her stuff into the luggage she’s already checked in. She doesn’t know how lucky she is.

We are too. A benefit of small airports in chill cities is that the TSA is un-harried, and an eagle-eye screener can catch illegal items more easily. This guy catches everything. Liquids and sundries in carry-ons aplenty are caught left and right.

We again have the flight to ourselves, and stretch out as we want, comfortably. I marvel at the Pontchartain Bridge one last time, lose my mind solving Sudoku puzzles, read some more, SMH all flight at my hilarious, chatty patty little one, and finally, have the worst landing ever.

Our pilot is either a rookie or a stunt pilot, because our plane yaws, pitches, rolls, and does practical figure 8s and Fugoid Cycles before it finally touches down. It’s as close as I’ve ever come to using the barf bag.

Luggage sweet luggage.

Car sweet car.

Home sweet home.

Wednesday, August 31

Treadmill sweet treadmill 5:30 AM 2.4 mile run, after which I step on the scale and find that I gained one singular lb. over our vacation. I ate like a king, but I ran like one too: 34 miles in total.

Work sweet work.

My name is Martin Bodek, and I’m a biblioholic. It’s so bad, I write them while I wait for my favorite authors to come out with their next books. Help me. I’ve got a fever, and the only prescription is when you enjoy my output:,