Swag

swag-002This is the haul from my first race in a long time, and (I think) my first trail race ever.  I don’t normally eat energy or protein bars, but they were free, right?  Those yellow things?  There was a giant yellow ball of them on the table, and because whatever it was was free as well, I pulled one out.  Luckily the lady next to me said “oh, they’re shoelaces,” or I would have walked away with just one.  The stainless goblet I won as second place finisher overall, precisely the same prize first place got, so I’m technically better than him because I achieved the same reward for less work.

Still working my way back to becoming a runner again.  Running definitely takes a lot out of me, but like I tell the kids in karate class, if it was easy we wouldn’t need to practice it.  I’m giving myself until the end of March to see how the training goes, with the goal of entering the Grand Circle Trailfest in Utah.

Of course, I don’t run for the swag or a medal, although cash would cut 15 seconds off my pace.  Nonetheless, I was taken aback (I’ve always wanted to say I was “taken aback.”) when I checked out how much my second place prize costs.  The run was organized by REI, and they sell those things for $12.  But the ones they sell have an etched pint mark inside kleenwhile the one they gave me does not swag-002which means they awarded me a reject they were going to send back to the manufacturer.  And a reminder like that, that I run simply because I love to run, is priceless.

Builders of Cairns

GNMPNOV15 046You can be almost lost.

I wanted to thank whoever built this little cairn up in the Mescalero area of Guadalupe Mountains National Park.  It’s not one of the ranger-built ones you find along more heavily traveled parts of the park–too simple, just there, and not part of a series.  But somebody had been on exactly the same windswept, featureless mountaintop I was standing on, not quite lost, but not seeing the trail any more, either.

I haul out to GNMP whenever I really need a time-out and want to get up high.  In Texas, you don’t have many choices, but GNMP is pretty awesome.  Three days up, and the only person I saw was a ranger on his way down near the trailhead.  Before I left, a guy at work asked “but what if something goes wrong?,” which pretty much summed up the whole point of the exercise.

I was thinking of starting a “Brotherhood of Cairn Builders” (if anyone can suggest a more gender-neutral term, I’m all in.  I thought about “Guild,” but that implies an apprenticeship and exams and dues–let’s not forget we’re talking about a well-executed pile of rocks).  All that’s needed to join is an ability to recognize when you are almost lost, but found your way, and to understand that someone else may someday be in precisely your situation, and that you can offer a little bit of help.

Sometimes you need a cairn.  Almost lost, but not quite.

Mene Tekel Parsin

WorldChampAt fifty-seven, I have taken the measure of my life and found it wanting. I have decided to become World Champion.

I’m pretty happy with fifty-seven. More precisely, it could be worse. I’ve got a job, I’m married and have two kids, the mortgage is paid off. At fifty-seven, these are considered lofty goals.  But I want more.

My World Championship is a secret. There’s nothing a fifty-seven year old man likes to hear less than “oh, you’re just having a mid-life crisis,” something my wife has said to me at least once a year since 1997. That is why she does not know I am going to become World Champion. Once her husband becomes World Champion, we’ll see who is having the mid-life crisis.

Do you know the origin of the phrase “the writing on the wall”? It’s a Bible story (Chapter 5 in the Book of Daniel), called Belshazzar‘s Feast. Belshazzar, king of the Chaldeans, hosts a great feast, and drinks from the temple vessels. A hand appears and writes on the wall–“mene tekel parsin.” Belshazzar can’t read the writing, so sends for Daniel. Daniel interprets the writing, explaining that Belshazzar has blasphemed God, and his days have been numbered (mene). He has been measured and found wanting (tekel), and his kingdom will be divided and given to others (parsin). Belshazzar was killed that night, his kingdom was given to the Medes, and look where we are now.

Moral of the story:  never ask someone else to interpret what’s written on your own damn wall.

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Off The Map

GNMP-CDT 2015 070“Don’t either of you guys have a map?”  You may remember this as the beginning of my education in backpacking with experienced outdoorsmen and free spirits Rob Graham and Ed Mahoney during a trip to Colorado’s Front Range last year (see my post “On The Road Day 2” at https://wordpress.com/post/32316380/1028/).  So I was touched to see that Rob had brought along the Ley CDT maps when I met up with him again this year to hike a section of the Continental Divide Trail that passes through New Mexico near Silver City.

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Bullet-riddled trailhead marker on Bear Mountain Rd near Silver City, NM.

I’d brought along my own map.  The National Forest Service’s 1:126720 scale map of the entire Gila National Forest, which opens out to about 4 feet square, and covers the entire forest’s 3.3 million acres.  Rob had suggested we do the trail as a series of leap-frogging day hikes, leaving a car at each day’s trailhead and the other car at the next day’s, avoiding having to carry our tents, sleeping bags, and food.  I’d guessed this was Rob’s plan the moment he brought the trip up months ago, because he’s pretty hardcore and I’d just slow him down, but he’d need two cars for this trip and I guess Ed was too smart to volunteer.  Plus, Rob’s wife probably made him bring along a grown-up.

CDTIt all looks simple on a map.  Just follow the dotted line, and you’ll get from one place to another, so that’s what we planned.  I camped the first night at the Bear Mountain Trailhead, with Rob showing up late at night out in the middle of nowhere like a campfire story axe murderer, hollering “Schools, you out there?”.  We took his car the next morning to the other end, the Little Walnut Rd Trailhead, and started the simple plan of walking back to my car.

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That sign says it’s a six mile hike to that trailhead, but I’d already understood that all measurements in the outdoors are suspicious.  I’d thought about that before Rob arrived, and decided to carry my pack anyway with more water and food than I thought I’d need, enjoy the walk, and see where I ended up.  With Rob, you just can’t know.

Well, we did a fair amount of walking.  One thing that’s always stuck with me from my time as a boat captain is that an average person walking fast travels at about 3 knots (the maximum speed in port), or 3 mph for you landlubbers.  So that six mile walk should have taken a couple of hours, four at the most if you take into account stops and hills and general lollygagging.  Rob and I were already well past that point when we followed the trail to a point where it crossed a dirt road . . . and simply disappeared.

Asking around in town later, we’d learn that there was an “old” CDT, and a “new” CDT, and that “you boys musta been on the old trail.”  I think that means that my car parked at the end point was at the beginning of the old trail, while we had started off at the other end, which was both the old and new trailhead, but that somewhere along the way the two diverged.  All I know for sure is that we walked miles in various directions trying to pick up the trail again.  We had returned to the road to get our bearings, and were just discussing taking off in the wrong direction again, when we flagged down a passing truck and asked them how to get to Bear Mountain Road.  “Well, you’re on Bear Mountain Road,” to which his eyes added but mouth did not utter “dipshits.”

And here is the best part of the whole trip for me, when he asked to see a map and Rob handed him his Ley CDT map, the one that shows the trail and environs, the one that it quickly became obvious did not encompass our present location.  This is where my NFS representation of the entire 3.3 million acre forest came in handy, as the driver opened up its expanse and eventually found us way, way, way down the road from where we wanted to be.  My compassion for Rob did not permit me to look at him and smugly grin, but at that moment I loved my map like my child.

Despite some new blistersGNMP-CDT 2015 098 and black toenails, we made a pretty good couple of days of hiking the Gila.  A minor diversion on a side trail off the Arrastra trailhead that took us unexpectedly into the grounds of a sect of woodworkers, a side trip to visit the Gila Cliff Dwellings and nearby hot springs to soften up some sore muscles, but overall an honest few days of effort.  Coming back south into town on our last full day, Rob suggested we find a Mexican restaurant he’d been recommended, and then find some alcohol.  We didn’t realize it was Sunday until we found the restaurant closed, and so had to settle for food and alcohol in the same spot, the Little Toad Creek Brewhouse (www.littletoadcreekbrewerydistillery.com), a hipster-ish brewhouse (is there another kind?) we’d visited before.

A few pained expressions and back-of-the-room seating is expected when we show up in restaurants after, in my case, a week of not shaving or bathing, but it immediately became clear something weird was going on in this place. We were greeted upon entering, seated amongst other diners, and then quite exaggeratedly ignored.  Other tables within arms reach were served, but no one bothered to even look at us, and suddenly I felt a total peace come over me–in a restaurant, because of bad service.  I had one of those little epiphanies that remind us that we are still truly alive.  Here I was, with no place else I needed to be at a certain time, nothing else on my mind, really no problems at all.  I wasn’t even especially hungry.  My walks and Rob had allowed me to let go of everything, except that moment.  All I wanted to do was sit there and watch how this was going to all play out.

This was not the case for Rob.  I understood gradually that a good locally brewed beer at the end of the day was the soul of Rob’s outdoor experience, just like a good cup of coffee at a pre-dawn campsite is for me.  Normally the most serene person I have ever known, someone I have never seen angry, after 15 minutes or so of waiting Rob’s face tightened up and his eyes narrowed to little reptilian slits.  “Can we get some service?,” which seems like a normal request when you look at it written out like that, but when you see it coming out of the mouth on that face you realize some kind of boundary has been crossed.

We got our beer, and we got our food, and Rob relaxed.  We still had plenty of daylight as we left the brewhouse, and so I wasn’t surprised when Rob suggested we try that first section of trail again, but this time from the other end, just to see where the “old” trail joined the “new” trail, allowing us to leave not feeling we had missed something.  I was game, having no other plans, no place else to be other than right there, for however much time was required.  I couldn’t know then how the hike would turn out, couldn’t know we’d walk quite a distance and never find anything we recognized, well past the last faded CDT trail marker.   I just grabbed my pack, threw in enough water for two, plus a little more if things didn’t go as planned.

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Broken Arrow

With Broken Arrow

With Broken Arrow

broken arrow

This is a picture I took on the morning I came down from the Guadalupe Mountains.  In my hand is Broken Arrow, my last water.  You may know the term “broken arrow” from the Mel Gibson movie “We Were Soldiers.”  Mel and his troops are about to be overrun by the North Vietnamese army, and things are not looking good.  They’ve done their best, all they could, but their training and equipment and bravery have not been enough to get them out of this jam.  So Mel calls out “Broken Arrow!” over his radio, announcing to the world that he can no longer save himself, and American air power swoops in and blows the hell out of the North Vietnamese army.

My Broken Arrow was a bottle of water.  Last time I went to GNMP I let the National Park Service scare me into taking about 500 gallons of water along in my backpack, and things did not go as planned.  This time, fortified with substantial experience and a growing sense of the futility of life if you couldn’t just damn well walk wherever you want when you felt like it, I relied on my own instincts and stripped my supplies down to a minimum.  Very little food (I’m not hungry hiking, anyway), and only enough water to make two cups of coffee every morning–because life is not worth living without two cups of coffee every morning.  Plus my two liter water bladder in the pack.  I was confident that this would be enough, but just in case I created Broken Arrow, my last water if things went really poorly.  I decided that if I had to open Broken Arrow, I had failed and needed to get back down to my car and showers and comfortable beds and just go home and watch TV.

Didn’t need Broken Arrow.  I thought about drinking it on my way down at the end, luxuriating in extra water, but I wasn’t thirsty.  Broken Arrow was the child of an adult life spent always knowing how to get out of a rough spot when things don’t go as planned.  Because things never go as planned.

There’s a lot to be said for planning, for covering the unexpected eventualities, for getting out of a mess.  I have certainly gotten into more than my share of messes in the natural world over the years, and covering those eventualities literally saved me.  It is something to know “I would be dead now if I hadn’t . . . .”  But, you can’t know everything, see it all beforehand, prepare for the truly unexpected.  I’m not sure if you’d really want to .

I saw this thing growing by the trail somewhere up on top.  That stalk growing out of the agave is about nine feet tall.  I have no idea what kind of agave it is, or what’s going to come out of that thing when it finally blooms.  But I think it’s going to be wonderful.GNMP-CDT 2015 006

Time and Distance

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“Everywhere is within walking distance if you have the time.”   Steven Wright

From the top of the Bush Mountain Trail in Guadalupe Mountains National Park, you can still see the trace of the mid-1800’s Butterfield Overland Stage route off to the southwest and just your side of the Gypsum Sand Dunes and Alkali Lake.  Four hundred fifty-eight miles in 126 hours, for just that segment between present day Cook County, Texas and El Paso.

I made the 510 mile trip from Austin in my new Mazda in eight hours.  Eight hours seemed like an incredible undertaking just to find some altitude when I first started these trips, but I enjoyed them and it’s actually quite an easy drive.  First time in the Mazda, so I was pretty amazed to hit my normal first gas stop at Harper with the gas gauge still almost on full.  You even gain an hour crossing into the Mountain Time Zone just before arriving at GNMP, so I still have the best part of a day ahead of me once I arrive.

I felt a lot less awesome about myself when I looked down and saw that stagecoach route and thought “that must have been one really horrible trip.”  As my friend Rob Graham says, “every time you think you’re out doing something badass, somebody else comes along doing something even more badass.”  The people on those stages came through 250 years ago, but somehow out there you feel like it wasn’t so long ago.

A day later, I found this piece of fossilized coral up on top of the Tejas Trail, 8,000 feet above sea level and now about 250 million years away from the ocean it was once under.  We live in an amazing world.  I can stand on a desert mountain trail that was once the Capitan Reef on the Delaware Sea.  From there, I can look down and see the distinct imprint of pioneers passing through two centuries ago in stagecoaches.  Amazing.

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Moments of Perfection

cap“One minute was enough.  A person had to work hard for it, but a minute of perfection was worth the effort. A moment was the most you could ever expect from perfection.”  Tyler Durden, Fight Club

I just swam the fastest 50 of my life, and the beautiful thing about it was realizing the instant I’d finished it that this particular, perfect 50 was gone forever.  I loved it because it was ephemeral.

The clock said 32 seconds; ok, the clock said something less than 30 seconds, but that is not possible.  I did my usual warm-up, started my 50 splits, and as I headed down the pool thought “what’s going on here?”  Every breath is an opportunity to learn, and I was illuminated by the understanding that “training” is not just building endurance, or strength, or speed.  Training is building the ability to maintain technique.  Fifty-six years old, 41 of which I spent “training”, and I just got this.

Cap2K time again, but only because I think it’s a good idea to do things you dread.  If I don’t die of old age, it will be of hypothermia.  I miss my life in the water.

The  best thing about the Cap2K is getting ready for it.  You meet the most awesome people.  There were starting to be way too many awesome people in the YMCA Townlake indoor pool in the morning, so I decided to suck it up and start training in the outdoor pool at the SW YMCA.  The water is warm, but nobody wants to go outdoors and swim at 6 am, so I figured I’d have the pool pretty much to myself.  Because God frequently tests me, my first trip to the outdoor pool was frustrated by a lack of lifeguards–I was ready to swim,but without a 16-year old to watch over me I was obliged to content myself with a karate workout indoors.

The covered outdoor pool on my first disappointing day.

The covered outdoor pool on my first disappointing day.

I’m not one to make a stink, and having actually been a 16-year old myself, and raised two, I understand what might keep one of them from showing up at work at 5:30 on a cold morning.  Once.  So I hit that mother again a few days later–dream realized. 001I had the pool to myself, and went through three different lifeguards–watching over me, my angels.

All that’s really left to get ready for the Cap2K is working on those open water swims–no lane lines, no bottom, nothing to measure yourself against.  You can swim as much as you want in a pool, but if you’re not ready for that open water start, surrounded by a couple hundred pairs of flailing arms and legs, green water beneath, you are in for a difficult few minutes.  I put off swimming at Barton Springs as long as possible, but had no excuse on our cold, rainy Easter, so hit that ice bath for the first of my weekly “open water appreciation swims”.001There is not much I desire less to do than swim in Barton Springs.  As a booster of what used to be the “Austin lifestyle,” I will readily admit that many, many people swim in Barton Springs with no problem.  I am not one of them.  I am a deep, dark blue, almost purple, after swimming in Barton Springs.  Some of you may find this attractive, but for me it is uncomfortable and inconvenient.  But once I’d committed to swimming the Cap2K, I really couldn’t not swim there, because swimming the Cap2K unprepared would be way worse than swimming once a week at Barton Springs.

And that’s the amazing thing about the Cap2K once again:  here I was dreading the cold, the work, the inconvenience, but I came out of the water in love with my place in the scheme of things.  It’s a beautiful pool, surrounded by green and peace in the middle of a crazy, frenetically growing city.  I swam my laps, had the place pretty much to myself, and will even share with you a peek inside the men’s change area, reminiscent of Roman baths from an age long gone.003

It’s worth the effort, an attempt at perfection.. You have to work hard for it, and dread it at times, but it’s worth the effort. A moment is the most you can ever expect from perfection, but one minute is enough.

Product Review: Rubber Bitch

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I own a really nice tent, so we’re not going to talk about how I ended up without a tent in Big Bend this week.  This rainy, cold week.  With gale force winds.  All night long.

But I’d love to talk about how happy I was to improvise my little shelter-half out of a poncho–happy, not because it kept me dry (it did, sort of), but because of the flood of memories it brought back.

Somewhere back in 1978-79, I was stationed on Okinawa in a Marine infantry company, and sort of the point in being in the infantry is that you’re going to spend a lot of time sleeping on the ground.  I realized early that as much as I enjoyed playing in the dirt, I really liked going home and getting clean at the end of the day, which is not how things worked out most of the time.

dll758This is a picture of Flores.  I lived in that little tent with Flores for a solid month, and I never knew his first name.  He was Corporal Flores to me.  Flores had served with the Army in Vietnam, fought in the A Shau Valley, and why he got out and then enlisted in the Corps, he never said.  Found something he needed, I suppose; being that old and experienced and still a Corporal probably explains a lot.  He was a really good man.  Anyway, that tent is composed of two joined “shelter-halves.”  Each Marine carried his own shelter-half, which he could stretch out like a tarp, or join to another Marine’s half and make a tent.  This photo was taken during the month we spent up in the Northern Training Area, and at that point I was the company radioman, which kept me separated from the rifle platoons.  Flores–I don’t even remember why Flores was up there, because he was a supply guy, but I do remember that he was the guy burning the shit.  If you’ve never smelled shit burning in diesel, you’ve really missed out on an experience.  Even on Okinawa, they grabbed the Mexican to burn the shit.

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Improvise–Adapt–Overcome.  There’s so much of the Corps that you will never get out of your system.  Improvising that little lean-to out of my 99 cent poncho made me feel like I was getting ready for a slumber party that I knew was going to turn bad–there was no way that was going to keep me dry, but I wasn’t willing to admit I was screwed.  But once I managed to weigh down the bottom with enough rocks to withstand the wind, and wrapped my feet sticking out the end in a trash bag, it did ok.  I woke up the first morning, sure I was somehow buried under storm rubble when I opened my eyes to a greenish darkness and felt only something cold and wet.  Turned out I was just shoved right up under the bottom edge, which was a relief until I scooted out a bit and hit the poncho’s hood hanging down, which had filled with water during the night and instantly emptied on my once-dry crotch.

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You’ll notice another piece of equipment, my Big Agnes mattress.  I already own a Therma-Rest “Self-Inflating” mattress, but I wasn’t particularly happy with it–wait, that’s not honest:  I HATE THERMA-REST.  “Self-Inflating” means it inflates itself, but even after blowing my lungs out into it, it still feels like sleeping on layered cardboard.  I hesitated to buy the Big Agnes, because it looks so much like another piece of Marine Infantry gear, the Rubber Bitch.  Somehow, Flores and I each had our Rubber Bitches in that little tent, and the rubber smell of that thing lingers almost as thoroughly as diesel-burned shit.

The Big Agnes is a awesome.  Very comfortable, and–best of all–it packs amazingly small, about half the size of the Therma-damn-Rest.BigBendNatandKevin 003

Well, there’s lots of other things I could review about this trip, which is probably my last to Big Bend for a while even though I discovered a whole new aspect to the Park which will definitely make it worth visiting again, but I’ll save that for later.  Happy Trails.

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Alone

No matter how fast I run
I can never seem to get away from me
Jackson Browne – YOUR BRIGHT BABY BLUES

Teddy Roosevelt, when asked about his approach to the outdoors, said “when I go, I go hard and I go alone.”  “That’s me!” I said when I read that, and then recalled that I was not alone on my last outdoors trip, that it totally kicked my assDSCN0145, and that it barely winded my two trail companions, Rob Graham and Ed Mahoney.  Hard is relative.  You’d think “alone” would be an absolute; not really, it turns out.

I was going to head west to Guadalupe Mountains again, but, you know–shit happens.  The point was sort of to “get away from it all,” but, not being able to go, I accepted that I’d just be taking “it all” with me anyway, so why not save myself all that driving and deal with that shit right here.

The older I get, the easier I find it to deal with things by ignoring them, and that usually means I metaphorically kill myself exercising.  It’s a beautiful, spring-like day here in Austin, and after a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation of how far I could go between people who absolutely needed me around in the morning and people who absolutely needed me around in the evening, it turned out I just had enough time to run the Wolf Mountain Trail out at Pedernales Falls SP.  “Hard and alone!”  Awesome, totally badass, except for the little girl and her overweight dad I crossed pretty far out on the trail, just out for a daddy and daughter hike.  From where I met them, I figured their total walk was a good ten miles, and that just offended my sense of hard-and-alone superiority.  Ok, well, I swam 2,500 yards at the pool on my way out to Pedernales, because doing just one of those things wasn’t badass enough, and I better not find out that guy and his little girl were riding bikes back to town.

I don’t really believe I can run away from problems.  A lot of problems are just things happening that keep you from being who you are, and the struggle to remember who you are and act accordingly is what happiness is all about.

Until recently I thought the thing I always liked most about diving (I’ve logged over 10,000 hours of some pretty awesome dives) fra154was that it humbled me.  I was always profoundly grateful just to be able to breath underwater thanks to technology, and to see such incredible things thanks to skill, experience, and luck.  And every time I witnessed these incredible, often life-changing things underwater, I was fully aware of how pathetically un-adapted I was to be in that place, where what I was watching was so beautifully, perfectly suited.  For lack of a better word, I felt “liberated”–everything that counted for who I was above water mattered not at all in that place.  “To be dissolved into something complete and great,” as Willa Cather wrote.  No longer having an ocean to work in, I understand better now what I felt underwater.  The natural world is whole and sufficient unto itself; it doesn’t need me or want me.  It is indifferent to my existence.  All I had down there was pure me.

Here’s a story I don’t tell many people:  the happiest day of my adult life occurred a few years ago.  I woke up in the middle of the night, and had no idea who I was.  Everybody at least once in their life might wake up and not know where they are, but I did not know who I was, which family members in the medical industry tell me is something to get looked at.  Anyway, I lay there motionless in bed, trying to figure out if–wherever I was–I was safe.  The room looked nice, the bed was comfortable, there was a female sleeping next to me with a slim waist and wide hips.  Things looked pretty good.  And during those moments of laying there, having no past, no expected future, no history to define my existence, I was completely at peace.  I was truly happy, alone, with just me.

Goal Number 1

I pointed out earlier that my first tournament sparring match as a black belt was against Andra Allen, who happens to already be a fifth degree black belt (which would take more time for me to achieve from my present level than it took to get through all of the belts preceding black belt) and who is also an experienced national and international competitor.  This match-up came about as I was already trying to figure out where I stood in karate, what my next step was supposed to be.Andra Allen

This may seem stupid to some people, but I had never actually thought about what comes after the black belt until about 5 minutes after I’d obtained it and everyone asked me repeatedly “so what are you going to do now?  Still coming to practice next week?”  But that is actually a perfectly reasonable question.  Technically, being a black belt just means you are now qualified to teach karate, but I don’t feel I’m anywhere near good enough at it to lead a class yet.

You can also just compete a lot.  Karate people are generally a really good group of folks and I enjoy every minute I am around them, so that is something I want to work at.  The skill set for winning in tournament sparring and forms is not the same required for successfully teaching karate, but the good thing is that they’re all attainable by simply practicing.  And practicing.  And practicing.

So my karate goal now is to beat Andra Allen in tournament sparring, and don’t tell Andra but this outcome is inevitable.

First, I say don’t tell Andra because he will simply beat the shit out of me next tournament and that will be the end of my karate career.  My one advantage at this point is the humbling perception that I am harmless because I am really old and not particularly skilled for a new black belt, not worthy of consideration, and I’d like to keep it that way.  But my thinking is that Andra is already at his peak.  He has attained among the highest levels in karate, and has a rich and deep tournament experience, crowned with multiple successes.  He will not get any better.

I, on the other hand, can only get better.  Funny to think that now that I am a black belt, I know the least and have the least experience, but that’s because the kids I am allowed to play with from now on are a different group.  Andra will remain where he is, at the top of his game but slowly, inevitably ageing, slowing, losing his killer instincts while I remain hungry and full of self-doubt, forever young, always working to get good enough to beat Andra.  Anyone think he is in the dojo right now worried about staying good enough to beat George?

I didn’t think so.