Everything Old Is New


O Jackson, where art thou? you may ask yourself while stopping by this blog only to see it hasn’t been updated, like, again.

My absence from this blog, from writing, from even my own life has been due to my greatest historical project ever. In June, Mrs. Kuhl was out for a walk when she saw a For Sale By Owner sign. Next thing I knew, we were buying and restoring a dilapidated 1899 Dutch colonial revival. It was a horror movie from the beginning — most banks didn’t want to touch it. So we spent the summer assembling the financing while simultaneously evicting the then-current residents, a tenacious family of raccoons. Only after three months of hair-pulling and tooth-grinding did the real renovation begin. Applications for historical appropriateness. Demolition. Tree removal. Wallpaper removal. New kitchens and baths and windows and doors. Repair of rot and gaping holes in walls. Conversion to natural gas from oil, which had replaced the original natural gas. Painting and trim work. Landscaping and clean-up. And we still have about three months to go.

There aren’t enough hours in the day to do everything needing doing. But at least when I jump out of bed running, I land in a nice house.

Bard’s Tale 3 @ 25

Sit right back and you'll hear a tale.

Twenty-five years ago Electronic Arts released the best video game I ever played.

Picking up right after the original The Bard’s Tale — and completely ignoring the tedious sequel, BT2: The Destiny Knight, which was designed under the theory that if the first game was good, the same game a thousand times longer is great — the CRPG Bard’s Tale III: The Thief of Fate offered a number of innovations, including better graphics, automapping, advanced character classes (meaning you had to reach a certain level before you could unlock them), and most of all, an incredible story.

The first BT ended with the destruction of the evil wizard Mangar, servant of the Mad God Tarjan and scourge of the city of Skara Brae. BT3 opened with Skara Brae atomized by Mangar’s vengeful deity. Gone were the shops and taverns; home base became a campsite among the ruins. After conquering the starter dungeon (you could import characters from previous BT games or start with a fresh crew, in which case the starter dungeon would bring them up to speed — I chose a middle road, importing my BT2 team but replacing weak links) and its boss, the Tarjan lackey Brilhasti ap Tarj, you launched across the dimensions in a quest for the assorted mystical thingamajigs necessary to take down the Mad God.

It immediately became clear, however, that your band wasn’t just traveling across space but time as well, and like the Doctor and River Song, you ended up crossing chronologies by encountering total strangers who had met you before or landing in places long after key events had occurred. Upon escaping his magical prison, Tarjan went on a rage bender across the universe slaughtering the gods who had shackled him, and gradually you pieced together the events that led to Tarjan’s release. Spoiler: one of the gods broke a celestial law against creating new life. Double spoiler: it was a blacksmith god who inadvertently made a robot. The robot — who, IIRC, was depicted as a cross between The Thinker and Hamlet, sitting in Alas-Poor-Yorick contemplation of a skull — was hunted by the gods and their minions to rectify this crime of existence but, being more human than human, ultimately helped you on your mission. There was a forest world and an ice world and even a war world, which was actually a schizophrenic tour through besieged Troy, World War II Berlin, and other earthly hellholes. And if you persevered and killed Tarjan, your party ascended to divinity, becoming a new pantheon to replace the corpses you spent all game stepping over.

But this twisty narrative with its unexpected commentary on mankind’s condition was only half the experience.

Bard's Tale III cover.The summer of 1988 was the summer between my junior and senior years of high school. Usually I hated summertime; my friends went away to relatively glamorous lifeguarding or sandwich-joint jobs down the shore while I was stuck working in the back of the local grocery store or toiling with my old man on the weekends. Unlike, I think, many people who turned misty-eyed at graduation, I chafed at the bit to start life. My hometown was like a waiting room in some municipal building: empty, bland, offering little excitement beyond a few worn and outdated magazines laying on a shaky end table. It was the summer at the boarding gate: still waiting like I had waited every other summer — for friends to return, for a thunderstorm to break the heat, for anything — but knowing that a big change in environment was about to occur. Dumb, cocksure, naive, I had no idea of where I was going or what was needed to arrive there. But it was the first summer I remember where things were beginning to happen.

My besties, Bart and Chris, didn’t disappear that summer. They were also Bard’s Tale fans and when the third title was released, we hit the stores. Bart bought it for his Apple while Chris and I, both Commodore-64 players, pooled our funds to purchase a copy, which Chris ripped for me (the game came with no write-protection, supposedly to make it run faster, but was instead packaged with a special code wheel needed to answer prompts during gameplay; said wheel was immediately dismantled, photocopied, and reassembled). Soon a race developed where the three of us, playing on our own between shifts at various minimum-wage jobs, would meet in the woods at the end of my street, today as flattened as Skara Brae. There we would smoke cigarettes and discuss our individual progressions, offering our theories on the story, trying to unriddle the convoluted timey-wimey plot. What do you think about this? Can you believe that? Got a light?

I don’t recall who finished the game first and certainly I know none of us cared. But I remember that feeling as we each dungeoneered and puzzled our way to Tarjan’s stronghold, the excitement mounting as we stood on the edge, the planes of the multiverse unfolding before us.



South Beach, Miami, FL.

My family and I visited Miami. We had never been.

We went to

Biscayne National Park.

and saw

Biscayne National Park.

and also a manatee feeding alongside a dock but in the photos it looks like a submerged log.

We went snorkeling and saw

Snorkeling in Biscayne National Park.

Snorkeling in Biscayne National Park.

My oldest snapped those two photos with his disposable. The sea fans are every shade of purple and violet you can imagine.

The next day, me and this hot mama

Fire woman you're to blame.

rented bicycles with our sons. We rode them through Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park and saw

Bring us the girl and wipe away the debt.


Go go Godzilla.

Miami is overrun with iguanas. They’re everywhere — climbing palms, sunning themselves in the grass. Not just the darker kind seen here but also bright green ones like you see in pet stores. Once while we were riding, a herd of iguanas stampeded across the sidewalk in front of us. Let me stress those words again: a herd of iguanas.

In South Beach, I went on an art-deco tour.

No gods or kings. Only Man.

Remember that racy Obsession ad from the ’80s?

Could you pass the sunscreen?

It was shot on the — heh — backside of the Breakwater’s sign.

Breakwater, South Beach.

The deco buildings of Miami Beach were originally painted shades of gray, beige, or off-white. In the 1970s when many of them were threatened by demolition, a member of the Miami Design Preservation League attempted to enlist public support for the buildings by concocting a bright palette of pastel colors. Eventually these colors transferred from the buildings to local fashion, both of which were immortalized by Michael Mann in Miami Vice.

We swam a lot in Miami. Ate a lot. Later we went home.

Miami skyline.

But I want to go back.

You Got Me Running Going Out of My Mind

I finished Sunday’s Fairfield Half Marathon in under two hours, shaving more than four minutes off my previous time in 2011 when I ran the morning after Mrs. Kuhl’s big birthday party with a case of the Irish flu.

Never say never but I think that will be the last time I run the course. This year I made sure to train for the hills but I realize now it’s not the elevation (pdf) — it’s the heat. There’s just no way you’re going to run a half in late June and not become dehydrated. I GUed every two miles and gulped water at almost every station but I was a wreck in the last 5K (one old lady hosing the runners by the curb told her friends, “This guy looks like he needs some water,” before blasting me). If you ran the same course in October it would be a completely different race. Although some people can clearly handle it: a friend of mine finished in 1:37, an inconceivable time for me. Then again I have another friend who didn’t finish at all. People were dropping left and right; I saw EMTs assisting a girl flat on her back before mile 4 and I heard that at the end the medical tent was so full, organizers were discouraging people from seeking treatment unless they were in serious distress. I implemented my usual recovery, which is to grab as much water as I can carry and go soak in the ice-bath of Long Island Sound. I swear that sensation makes the entire race worth it.

A huge thank you to everyone who came out to cheer, clap, hose, wave signs (“Worst Parade Ever!”), hand out water, and sweep up our garbage. Thank you, thank you, thank you. We could not run without the volunteers.

Of my four half-marathons, this was my second-best time — and only two minutes longer than my PR. I’m already looking forward to shifting into 5K mode and my first zombie race is next month.

All I need is a week off and a bottle of Advil.


Paul Revere commemoration, North End, Boston.

Mrs. Kuhl’s attendance was required at a conference in Boston, so the boys and I tagged along to experience Patriots’ Day, enjoy the museums, and give what support we could to the marathoners.

We arrived Sunday afternoon and parked in the Copley Square area. The boys like visiting the original Newbury Comics, and afterwards we walked over to the New Balance store on Boylston where I bought a pair of 990s. There’s a special kind of voltaic excitement generated by a big race and though neither of us was registered, it was energizing to be around the runners in their blue-and-yellow windbreakers, collecting their bibs and convention swag in their yellow Adidas bags. We walked past the finishing gate packed with people taking their pictures underneath, past the empty stands, to the store directly across from Copley Square. Runners were buying last-minute necessities — gloves were in hot demand. We wished anyone and everyone good luck. Afterwards we walked through the square, past the white tents and office trailers to the car.

All the boys wanted from the trip was to parkour Boston — which, it must be admitted, is a very parkourable city. So Monday morning the boys and I parkoured or walked, as the case may be, over to the Old North Church to see the reenactment of Paul Revere’s ride to Concord.

Paul Revere reenactment, Old North Church, Boston.

After lunch at Quincy Market, we parkoured down the Greenway to the Children’s Museum.

Hardcore parkour, Greenway, Boston.

It was right after we had gone back to the hotel for a swim when the Twitters alerted me to the bombings. I left the traceurs with Mrs. Kuhl, strapped on my serious sneakers, and black-smoked over to photograph what I could.

I love Boston; it’s so much more navigable and compact than, say, New York. I can blink my eyes and go from the Aquarium to the corner of Commonwealth and Dartmouth, almost two miles away. Runners in their foil wraps streamed down Marlborough, away from the square. None looked especially hurt or traumatized.

Commonwealth and Dartmouth was cordoned off but I backtracked to Clarendon and then through judicious use of the Public Alley, which parallels Newbury, and a private alley, which goes perpendicular, arrived at Newbury and Dartmouth, deserted except for police, a Fox 25 van, and just a few passersby. I spoke to a man coming out of his girlfriend’s apartment building on the corner. He said they had heard an explosion which shook the walls. They were running to the window when the second occurred, within seconds of the first. They stood and watched as people shuttled survivors, some with their limbs gone, along Boylston in the wheelchairs intended for exhausted runners. He said there was a lot of blood. He was clearly very shaken by what he had seen.

The cops manning the barricades had no information, so again I backtracked to Berkeley, where I merged with the general marathon bustle. The runners’ bags were laid out, ready to be retrieved.

Berkeley Street between Boylston and St. James, Boston.

From there I made my way south, west, and north to arrive in Copley Square itself, behind the barricades and next to Trinity Church. It was empty except for a few police and EMTs. I toyed with the idea of continuing to Boylston to photograph the damage. But I reasoned there wasn’t much to see beyond carnage and gore, and it would be distracting to investigators if they had to chase after some jackass who had, somewhat unintentionally, penetrated a hole in their perimeter. I never know if I’m taking too many pictures or not enough. So I walked south on Dartmouth, slipping outside the barricade, to Stuart.

Copley Square, Boston.

I hung around the area, asking questions, but nobody knew anything. At one point my phone service died; people said police had turned off cell service to prevent remote detonations, but as we later found out, it was because the systems crashed from overuse. I went to a hotel and charged my phone while riding their wifi. I returned to Dartmouth and Stuart. Emergency vehicles continued to zoom around. State police arrived. Police in camouflage and tactical gear jogged along the street. A finisher, silver cape clutched at her throat, discussed her experience.

I don’t wear headphones when I run, she was saying. I like to be alone and just listen to my body.

Runners. We are all prophets in the desert of the mile.

Eventually I headed back to my hotel, through the banana peels and foil tumbleweeds and garbage of a marathon’s end zone, past cops armed with rifles on street corners, past at least a dozen Mass State Police assembled in front of the State House.

Massachusetts State House, Boston.

So what does this mean for road racing? For big races like marathons? Bystanders segregated from the course? Security in and out of start/finishing areas, photo IDs, no more garbage cans? Do you know how much trash runners create?

Three dead, over a hundred injured, at least one double amputee — I don’t want to diminish the pain and sacrifices endured by the survivors. But at the same time, I don’t want to give the attackers too much credit. Without listing the reasons why and thereby granting column inches to the latest issue of Inspire, this could have been much worse. The culprits clearly know nothing about road races, and that same ignorance will probably hoist them on their own petard (the FBI has already received thousands of photos from the most photographed fifty yards of the entire course). The explosives appear to be fairly primitive — IEDs, or as a maritime historian might call them, deck sweepers — made with easily procurable components. I suspect that when they catch them, the bad guys will turn out to be one or two men, Faisal Shahzad types: that is, low-level jokers (Shahzad himself, who badly wanted to join jihad, was rebuffed by al-Qaeda affiliates in Pakistan because they thought he was an American spy; they finally gave him basic bomb-making training just to get rid of him). I mean, who thinks they’re going to provoke mass casualties by attacking marathoners? They already have the constitutional fortitude to run over 26 miles. Can you imagine? Half-crazed with euphoria and agony, heads full of endorphins and testosterone, if the police hadn’t ended the race, the wounded would have dragged themselves across the finish; meanwhile the runners halted at Kenmore, even after being told there was a chance of more bombs, still would have proceeded straight into the maelstrom. Look at the video. The explosion occurs and the runners don’t stop.

Because they’re tougher than you.

Put another way: this is no conspiracy orchestrated by some Saudi Fu Manchu in a Pakistani compound. Foreign or domestic, Islamist or lone wolf, the person or people who did this believed it would be bigger than it was. It was an unsophisticated plan using simple methods by outliers looking for attention, for whatever reason. The devil’s best friend, someone who offended all — this was done by losers. Losers hate winners. And anyone who crosses a marathon finish, regardless of their time, is sure as hell tolerant of pain and surprises.

Which is why the 2013 Boston Marathon shouldn’t affect road races. There is no insulator conceived that can dampen the electricity coursing through runners’ veins. Don’t fret about the garbage cans, throw away your bag checks. We’ll show up anyway, bibs safety-pinned to our shirts and singlets, ready to bend and flow over the landscape. Keep your hassles. Mrs. Kuhl is already planning to run Boston for charity in 2014. I’m registered for a few races this year; after Monday, I intend to add more. A bunch more.

Good luck, Boston. Love you. Stay safe. Blue and yellow.

London: kick ass this weekend.

The Incompetent Photographer

Biarritz, 1994.

Over at the WSJ, Kevin Sintumuang tells the story of a young man — a young man who goes backpacking through Europe only to return with terrible photos. Get out of my memory hole, Kevin Sintumuang!

In my quest for frame-worthy shots, I came away with a handful of boring ones: A street. A bridge. A church tower. An empty field. Another church tower. … But years later, flipping through the mix of matte and glossy 4-by-6 prints, I experienced my biggest travel-photography epiphany: The more you document seemingly insignificant details on a trip, the more vivid the memories.

See the top right corner of this website? The part where it says I’m “a writer, photographer, and historian?” I sometimes write stuff that doesn’t stink and I’m proud of my accomplishments as a historian, but I often feel the word photographer should be in air quotes. For years I wasted pounds of silver halide shooting empty landscapes from wide angles in an effort to capture the spirit of a place, only to end with distant and impersonal ghost towns that showcased nothing except my own detachment. I actually studied photography in college and though infatuated with Ansel Adams, somehow still managed to make the view from a summertime beach in Biarritz — populated by topless girls, no less — chilly, gray, and blurry, as you can see in the above taken during my 1994 European rove. I filled whole albums with castles and bridges and cathedrals. Cold stones, cold images.

Like Sintumuang, it took me more than a decade of thumbing through old albums or browsing desktop file folders to realize the most appealing shots were those featuring people or animals and often up close, not from some removed point.

Which isn’t to say landscapes aren’t worthwhile — just that I have to do better. I took hundreds of photos on a 1992 trip through the southwest, and yet the best of the bunch is a snap of my brother, diminutive against the vastness of the Grand Canyon:

Grand Canyon

(I also like, because this is a scan of a print, how age has washed it through a natural Instagram filter.)

And occasionally loneliness is the objective, like this 2001 shot of a foggy early morning hike to Hadrian’s Wall.

On the trail to Hadrian's Wall.

So-so, if you can overlook the way too-dark tree trunks.

I remain a poor photographer. I fancy myself a decent composer, yet lighting confounds me and my post-production editing is atrocious. But these days, my more compelling subject matter often offsets my technical shortcomings.

New Hampshire.