Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The girl who kicked the hornets' nest...and baked the hornets cookies

Staci-Ann rides the bike she’s had since the third grade. She’s 33 now. Last summer she rode that little girl’s bike, pink and beribboned and be-belled, across Iowa with thousands of other cyclists, many of whom laughed at her until she was no longer in their sights, having pulled far, far ahead of them.

If you met Staci-Ann, you’d probably think she’s just another pretty, bubbly girl from the Midwest who teaches kindergarten and bakes cookies and never has a dark—or particularly deep—thought. That’s if you met her. When I met her, I saw something completely different: a very, very competitive runner. An example? Most runners I know make a big deal about their first marathon; Staci-Ann skipped right over that paltry distance and went right to her first ultra. She runs race after race after race, consistent, steady, strong. But you would never find this out about her if you met her in any other way other than as a fellow runner. This is because Staci-Ann is not merely modest to a fault; she is modest to an active, 9.0-on-the-Richter-Scale-earthquake-generating fault.
A week ago, running trails in Wisconsin, I asked Staci-Ann if I could do a 19-miler with her. She enthusiastically agreed. “OK,” I said, “but as soon as you feel like pulling ahead, do so. I warn you, I’m running this really, really slow.”

“Oh, me too.”
“Uh, not as slow as I am.”

“Oh no! You’re so much faster than I am.”
“Staci-Ann, please. No offense but I’m getting really tired of seeing your backside retreating in the distance ahead of me. You. Are. Faster.”

“Oh no I’m not! I’m so slow! You’re such a great runner!”
“I am not a great runner. I run. Superlative adjectives not required.”

“Oh no…!”
And on and on, until I wanted to take a baseball bat to her shins and watch while she still beat me on two fractured legs.

Here’s the thing, though. When I say these things, I’m not being modest. I’m dead serious. She is faster than I am, at every distance. This is a fact. It therefore enrages me when Staci-Ann refuses to acknowledge this fact, as though she’s pleasantly, cheerfully, modestly arguing that the world is flat and that in this flat world I’m a far better runner than she.
“How fast did you run your last marathon, Staci-Ann?”

“Oh…I…” Hemming, hawing, hesitating.
“How fast?”

She named a time a good fifteen minutes faster than my fastest ‘thon. “But you’re so much faster at the shorter distances!”
This also is not true and I was getting ready to go through all our PRs at every distance—5K, 10K, half—but an intervention was called and I never got to celebrate the triumphant moment when I proved beyond a doubt that I suck at running compared to her. That woulda showed her, huh.

Other runners think it’s amusing that I take such umbrage to Staci-Ann’s perpetual denial of praise. The concept of projection sometimes comes to mind: am I angry at Staci-Ann’s refusal to admit her badassness because I myself have similar self-esteem issues? Nah, that’s not it. The truth is I have a lot of respect for people who are genuinely humble, whose modesty isn’t artifice to garner praise or an act borne of social convention. Humility is in very short supply, it often seems to me, in part because it’s something that can’t easily be taught. If you’re forced to be modest, you aren’t being modest; you’re being oppressed.
But modesty and humility aren’t merely about thinking less of yourself. I don’t believe it’s damaging to self-esteem to recognize what you are capable of and balance that with an understanding of how you are fallible. I don’t think it’s terrible to look at the great things other people have done with admiration and leave it at that rather than tacking on an “I bet I could do that too.” I’m glad there are people who are capable of amazing things I could never do. I’m glad there are amazing things I can do. I’m not terribly glad that I sometimes fail to do amazing things, sometimes even embarrassingly simple things, but I’d be a fool to deny that this happens from time to time. A lot of runners are faster and stronger and better than I am. Hooray for them. Here’s hoping they finish their race and then wait fifteen minutes or two hours so they can cheer me on when I finish. They usually do if there’s beer.

This is not, I daresay, the way Staci-Ann practices humility. She’s perhaps the only person I’ve ever known who I wish would be just a little more cocky and obnoxious. There’s something disturbing about her constant denial of reality—something I daresay tragic, because there’s something disturbingly stunted about her emotional development. Spend any amount of time with her and you’ll be treated to an endless stream of chirpy observations that might be appropriate coming from a six-year-old (“Look at that yellow house! It’s really yellow! I’ve never seen a house that yellow before!”). Usually the people with her take turns murmuring an “uh huh” or a “yep” after her pronouncements, however inane, because even when her chatter is irksome, you somehow never want to tell her this. Staci-Ann gets teased a lot—all runners in this group get their share of jibes—but never to the point of nastiness, never in a way that might really hurt her. Hell, my insistence at her superior running abilities is probably the harshest thing anyone ever says to her.
It would be easy to dismiss Staci-Ann as someone without much more to her than meets the eye. I can’t do that, though. It’s easy to think of other people as shallower than you, to refuse give them credit for depth because you can’t see those depths. In her case, I know there’s something beneath that surface. I am not always sure I want to see it

“How do I find my special someone?”
Staci-Ann posed this question in the middle of camp, while everyone else was brushing teeth or hair or shaking ticks out of sleeping bags. There was an awkward pause. Then one of the guys said he met his wife at work. Another guy volunteered that he met his girlfriend on Match. “Work,” Staci-Ann said thoughtfully. “But I haven’t met any other male kindergarten teachers so far.”

That’s likely because there’s only one in the entire state, and he’s thinking about quitting that gig and getting his EdD, but I didn’t say so. As for Match, Staci-Ann isn’t even on Facebook. She lives at home with her parents, in the same room where she grew up as a child, riding the same bike, only now she rides, and runs, like a mofo in her spare time.
“That’s an awfully serious question all of a sudden,” the Match guy said with an uneasy chuckle. I think we all felt a little odd about it. It’s so much easier to think of Staci-Ann as being contented with her life, even though we have the luxury of finding it slightly ridiculous ourselves.

I didn’t think these unsettling thoughts about her again until later that weekend, at a bar in a nearby town, beer and burgers on the table and hockey on the TV. Most of us were watching the game; Staci-Ann’s chair pointed her toward a TV with something else on. I happened to catch a glimpse of her face, realizing as I did that she’d been surprisingly quiet for some time. What I saw shocked me thoroughly. Her face looked like it had been stripped naked while simultaneously something had collapsed inside of her. I took a surreptitious glance at the TV she was watching but I didn’t recognize the show. I looked back at Staci-Ann but I couldn’t look for long. I was seeing despair where I’d never expected it, and I had nothing to fight it. I could not tell her what a great runner she is and how that should be a tremendous comfort to her. I could not tell her she was sure to find that special someone because everyone does. I certainly couldn’t tell her the things I tell myself, or she’d be just as messed up as I am, which means as messed up as she is now, just in a different way.
In the end what compels me about Staci-Ann is the fact that she and I could not be more different in most ways, and the ways in which we are similar, we are unable to communicate about. But there are similarities. No one is so remote as to be unreachable, even when they run far ahead or drop far behind.




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