Sunday, April 28, 2013


I hang with a fast crowd. Seriously. I know a woman who ran her last 5K in 18:30, a bunch of women who run sub-3:30 marathons and a bunch of men who do that distance in close to 3. If you’re not sure what this means, well, there are times when only one adjective will do: that’s fucking fast.

I also hang with folks who go the distance…and then twice the distance…and then twice that. A friend told me his mother once remarked that he was the only person she knew who had done a marathon. He thought about that for a moment and realized that nearly everyone he knew had done at least one marathon or were about to run their first. The same goes for me, to the point where the marathon distance is entry level and numbers like 30, 44, 50, and 100 are routinely brought up during beer conversations. Car distances, only without the car.
Despite this, the running stories that amaze, astound, and move me the most aren’t the ones about great feats of speed, strength, and endurance. They’re about the other side of things. The goals we didn’t meet. The days we want to quit. The times we feel like failures. DNF.

DNF stands for “did not finish,” and it’s used to signify a runner who began but did not complete an official race and so didn’t receive an official finish time. Runners dread these letters. I did at one time, too. I haven’t DNF’d yet, but it can always happen, and it has happened to many of my friends. They all describe feeling crushed, humiliated, defeated.
Well, not quite all of them. You know those stickers you see on cars with “26.2” on them, signifying that the driver is a marathon runner and is highly desirous that everyone know it? (Yes, like the one I have on my own car.) Well, one of my favorite hard-core runners has a “DNF” sticker on his car. Everyone who knows this thinks it’s the greatest thing ever. You kind of have to know this runner to understand the humor, but the gist is that this guy has run so many crazy races in so many crazy conditions that his DNF seems more like a well-deserved vacation than a badge of shame. As one runner put it, he earned that DNF.

But what about the rest of us? Have we earned our failures? That’s a silly question. Maybe this is a reflection of my negative thinking, but I believe life is far more about losing than winning. Any teacher (or at least any teacher with a negative way of thinking) will tell you that the way to learn is to fail first. Any fan of The Princess Bride will tell you that life is pain. And even though runners frequently pump sunshiny aphorisms out of their asses about never quitting, never stopping, never giving up, the beauty of running as I see it is that sometimes it is necessary to quit, stop, and give up. This is hard. You don’t always succeed. Sometimes it hurts so much you have to stop. And, perversely, sometimes it hurts so much you can’t stop. You succeed not because you cross the finish line but because you experience the intensity of living. Living means suffering, feeling loss, giving up. It also means joy, triumph, and holding on. Who knows what it will be today? I guess we’ll find out, won’t we.



Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Let winter come; I've got plenty to read

Seen this one? There’s a photograph of Sean Bean on the Iron Throne, and the caption is, “Hey, talk to the hand.”

Yes! I get it! I finally get it!
I’ve been on a sci-fi/fantasy kick lately, my reading list heavy with both classic and contemporary tomes (and when it comes to Mr. George R. R. Martin, I do mean tomes, as the man makes Charles Dickens look like a minimalist). This is not the first time I’ve done this, though the last time I immersed myself so fully in such worlds of monsters and magic, I was a nerdy little freckle-faced kid. Now I’m a nerdy big freckle-faced adult with bills to pay, meds to take, and a sinking feeling that once-open doors of potential are being closed and locked with deadbolts all around me. Ah well. At least those dragon eggs are about to hatch.

The appeal of these kinds of books is obvious: they’re fun. Yeah, there are also a lot of serious, weighty issues embedded within, and some of them push questionable politics or simplistic moral equations. After a lifetime of literary analysis, it’s impossible for me to ignore these things, to put on lit theory blinders and simply enjoy the cool robots without wondering what they’re saying about technology’s role in a hegemonic society. But that’s OK, because it still doesn’t take away from the enjoyment of steering that rocketship into space from the comfort of my living room sofa. I’ve traveled Middle Earth, Earthsea, Railsea, and Chicago. I’ve met everything from wisecracking wizards to White Walkers. I’ve gone to wizard school (no, not that wizard school) and gone mad over a ring (yes, that ring). I’ve fought dragons, werewolves, really old women and really big bugs. A girl’s gotta do something to keep herself busy in between marathons.
As a writer I’ll admit I’m often screamingly jealous of the authors I’ve been reading. The ability to create whole words, whole universes, multiple universes if you’re Neal Stephenson—the mind capable of all that would be one big damn party I’d kill to attend for even just an hour. Unfortunately my writer’s mind doesn’t work like that; I’m lucky if I can handle more than two characters in a scene. One recent attempt of mine, a novella titled Redwood, has been serialized in the literary journal Necessary Fiction (shameless plug alert), and while I had a lot of fun writing it, I’m not going to go preparing my Hugo Award acceptance speech any time soon.

And yet I did have fun writing it. Why shouldn’t writing be fun? Certainly reading should be. Maybe that’s escapism, but I prefer instead to think of these books as addressing the question that is central to all fiction: What if? It’s a question that’s central to being human as well. What if I fed this moldy bread to a sick person? What if I drank the liquid bubbling from those spoiled grapes? Partially digested cow’s milk is disgusting, but what if it tasted really amazing? I like to think we evolved simply out of curiosity to see what it would be like. Sure, I could stay like this forever, but what if I started a whole new species? What the hell, it’s worth a shot. Maybe someday someone can write a book about it.



Thursday, April 18, 2013

Do no harm, eat more tacos

I have read a lot of compelling, moving essays this week by people who are writers or runners or both (or neither, for that matter) because of the Boston Marathon. I’m a “both” myself; I write and I run, and in fact I frequently write about running, yet so far I haven’t responded with a Boston essay of my own. I tend to struggle a great deal with covering the Huge, Profound, Meaningful Aspects of Life, and inevitably I end blathering about the small, the trivial, the goofy. Words elude me in the face of tragic loss; instead I go on and on about petty irritations before concluding that yeah, OK, maybe these things aren’t nearly as bad as I make them out to be. It saddens and frustrates me that I can’t make my writing do something truly useful, but I suppose no one knows better than a writer how false and manipulative language can be. Do pretty words really accomplish anything? Of course they do—sometimes. Other times writing is just a lot more blather in a blather-saturated world.

Well, I gotta be me. Maybe this is just me sticking my head in the sand, refusing to look at what’s hard and painful, and encouraging you to do the same, but I don’t know what else to do. What I have to say here is not likely to change a damn thing in this universe, and maybe it’s a cop-out to say that the first item in my writerly version of the Hippocratic Oath is “do no harm” instead of “do good” (much less “do jaw-dropping, life-altering, stunningly brilliant good”). Now that I’ve gotten the disclaimer out of the way, I’d like to tell you about the run I did on Tuesday.
The day after the Boston Marathon, I ran 12 miles. I wasn’t planning on doing quite so many miles—I’m supposed to be in taper mode, as my ninth marathon is coming up in a little over a week—but I felt freakishly strong that evening and just…kept…going. Afterward there were dollar tacos at the Tuesday after-run hangout, which were pretty good for dollar tacos; I had three. Runners’ math: sub-9 pace plus 12 miles equals 3 tacos. I talked and laughed with my running buddies for a while, and one of my runner friends who is also my reader friend loaned me some books that I’m eager to dive into this weekend. Eventually we all parted ways and went home.

Good times, certainly, though nothing particularly momentous. That’s how I got through. My sorrow is insignificant; I wasn’t there, didn’t lose anyone, was only affected as much as I let myself be affected. I had that luxury. I also had 12 miles, and tacos, and fun books and good friends. Of course, I have two black toenails and a big hole in my checking account from doing my taxes as well. But yeah, OK, I guess the good outweighs the bad this time. That’s something. I often wish I could do more good to outweigh the considerable bad that keeps happening in this world, but who am I kidding; sometimes I just wish for a couple of decent tacos after a good run. That’s what I got. I hope it helps.