Wednesday, October 30, 2013

You can do anything you want ... but why would you want to do that?

People ask me if I’m excited that my book is finally appearing in print in two weeks. I say yes, I am, though that’s not quite accurate. Don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled to the toes, even to the toenails (and yes, I still have toenails; the old, ultramarathon-damaged ones turned black, fell off, and revealed brand new ones yet to be rammed repeatedly into the front of my Cascadias). But it’s a little like being a kid and having your height measured and finding out you grew an inch and some adult asks if you’re excited about it. Sure, if it means I get some Oreos, yeah. But the measurement is just that: a number. The real success has been happening silently, steadily, all along—and, with any luck, will continue as such. Likewise, the publication date is just a day on the calendar. What matters is all the other days combined.

If you used to read my previous blog, “Electron Woman,” you are already very familiar with my disdain for chirpy motivational aphorisms. Sometimes I like to amuse myself by thinking up the second lines to some of the more ubiquitous of these—for example: “Everything happens for a reason … and sometimes that reason is you’re really stupid.” “You never regret taking a chance … until you get that second DUI.” “Always follow your heart … because nobody’s heart has ever been wrong and led them into a disastrous relationship with the worst possible person imaginable.” Yeah, I know, it’s juvenile and pointless … and so am I, at times, believe it or not.
Lately my favorite, if you define “favorite” as “least liked,” is some variation on “you can do anything you want.” This isn’t because I’m a dark-hearted embittered old meanie. The way I see it, the problem with “you can do anything you want” is that it’s far too limiting.

Allow me to explain.
The key word here is “want.” The truth is it’s easy to pursue what you want. You want it, after all. If you’re after a real challenge, you’d attempt to do what you don’t want.

Allow me to explain further.
I always wanted to be a writer. I couldn’t help but be successful at this; after all, if you write, you’re a writer. But that’s not all I wanted in terms of being a writer. You can probably guess what I wanted, because the other thing about doing what you want is that what you want is probably not terribly original.  

Well, I didn’t get all those things I wanted. My success came a couple decades after I wanted it. There was no ginormous advance. Celebrities are not fighting over the chance to play me in the movie version. Twenty years ago if I had known it would be this way, would I have still kept writing? Yes—not because I believe in the purity of the art of writing or some crap like that, but because while I was trying to do what I wanted, I was also taking on what I didn’t want. I didn’t want to be a failure at writing, but I failed a lot more often than I succeeded. I was OK with that. I had to be, otherwise I wouldn’t have November 12, 2013, circled on my calendar right now.
You can do anything you want, but you should also try everything else. Don’t want to be single for the rest of your life? Go on vacation alone. You may hate it. Not gonna lie, you will hate it at least some of the time. But you won’t hate all of it, and you’ll never have that kind of experience in any other way. Don’t want to end up a working stiff in a dead-end job? Settle down in a cubicle and get cracking. If you find you enjoy the steady salary and benefits too much to quit despite the fact that you can’t talk about your job without using the expression “soul-killing,” you know you wouldn’t have made it very far as a free spirit.

You want to be a writer, be a writer. Nobody’s really trying to stop you. No, seriously, who would? Your parents? Grow up. Your friends? You need new friends. The government? Yeah, because they really care what someone with no money and no power does in their free time.
Here’s the thing, though: while you’re going on and on and on about wanting to be a writer and how frustrating it is that you don’t have enough time to write and how terrible it is that the vast majority of writers don’t get respected or even paid for what they do—you could be doing about a zillion other things if you’d just shut up about writing for a minute. You could run marathons. You could get a PhD. You could travel to Riga. You could figure out where Riga is. And lest you think I’m reverting to my snarky Electron Woman persona, by “you” I mean, of course, me.  There was a time when I hated running, when I never wanted to go back to school, when the thought of traveling alone appalled me. Not any more.

Oh, and I did become a writer, by the way. And yeah, I’m excited about the book.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

The asterisk life

My status as an ultra-marathon runner has gotten off to an interesting start. The first ultra I was supposed to run, back in June, didn’t happen; instead that day I lounged around the Intensive Care Unit with a metal filter in my abdomen, put there to catch any of the numerous blood clots in my left leg that might decide to get adventurous and journey upward into my brain, heart, or lungs. The first ultra I did run I hadn’t planned on running. It was a local race in which runners do as many 3-mile loops as they can in 8 hours. The concept sounds kind of awful even to die-hard runners like me, and I originally had not wanted this to be my first ultra. Thirty-four miles and a wrecked Achilles tendon later, it was anyway.

My second ultra was yesterday. It was supposed to be on a trail called Farmdale, and whether or not Farmdale actually takes place on or near a farm or a dale, it’s on U.S. Army land, and the government shutdown put the kibosh on that happening. Instead the race happened in a different park, on a slightly tougher trail, called Jubilee. The race directors took to calling it Jubilee-dale. I think Jubi-dale would have been better, but in any case, it was cause for jubilation because I not only finished it but enjoyed it tremendously. At one point I fell, got up, and laughed. It was that kind of day.
Each of these ultra attempts seems to require an explanation—an asterisk, perhaps. The first one didn’t happen. The second happened when it wasn’t supposed to, and the third happened where it wasn’t supposed to. I suppose that’s fitting given that if ultra-marathon-running had an associated punctuation mark, it would be the asterisk. Doesn’t your heart leap just a little when you see an asterisk? Doesn’t it make you just a little uneasy yet excited? Something’s coming, says the asterisk. Are you ready for it?

Two years ago, during one of the toughest times of my life, I wrote a short essay titled “Asterisk” that I thought up after lying in bed staring up at the ceiling fan for several hours during a bad spell of clinical depression. The ceiling fan reminded me of an asterisk, and it made me wonder if it was marking my life as not quite right somehow. An asterisk as a punctuation mark tends to correspond to some small but crucial explanation necessary to know so that the thing being asterisked has more meaning. Thing is, I couldn’t find what my asterisk corresponded to. Maybe I’d never find out.
Sometimes the asterisk implies that certain events don’t really “count.” Maybe, I thought, my asterisked life is anomalous, one that looks like other lives but isn’t quite right, somehow, doesn’t quite “count” in the same way. The asterisk hovering over it is there to remind me that I’ll never really fit in the way other people seem to. Of course as soon as you say that, as soon as you suggest that you aren’t “normal,” people start in on the what’s-normal-nobody’s-really-normal-Normal-is-a-town-in-Illinois bit. And they’re right, of course, especially the Illinois part, but where does that leave you? You can put a positive spin on it all; you can say maybe the anomalous part was that very bad year. That would have been a lovely thing to believe, that things would get better, that I’d never go through that kind of hell ever again. But I don’t believe that. In running, sometimes the toughest part of a trail isn’t going up a steep hill—after all, most runners will just stop and walk those—but getting to the top of one, because you’re tired, really tired, but you have to start running again. Once you get through hell, you now have to live with the knowledge of what hell is—and that it could come back to you.

During my second ultra, there were quite a few steep hills. I ran it on a cool, damp fall morning, trudging up those hills, skittering scarily back down them, tripping over roots, splashing through creeks, dashing past cornfields, over rocks and under fallen branches. At one point on the third of four loops, a big leaf smacked me right in the face. Maybe it was just exhaustion or low blood sugar playing tricks on my mind, but the leaf looked asterisk-shaped. I wondered if maybe the asterisk doesn’t necessarily correspond to what’s flawed and unfixable, or what’s unknown and never to be known, but rather to what’s unexpected. As it would turn out, this would be one of the best races ever for me. I finished strong, I felt great, and I even came in first place in my age group. Who would ever have expected that, given that just over three months ago I nearly passed out walking from my hospital bed to the bathroom?
The leaf that hit me fell to the ground before my feet. I looked past it for a moment, and saw the entire trail paved with asterisks. I ran toward them. Who knows what they could mean?


Saturday, October 5, 2013

That one killed 'em in Rantoul

When my sister and I were both in college, we used to trash talk about each other’s school’s football team. Yeah, girls do that too. We were both at University of California schools, but whereas she went to Davis—the ag school, as I called it on my more charitable days—I went to Berkeley. Or rather, because nobody who goes there calls it Berkeley, I went to Cal. As in, California. As in THE University of California. The flagship school, the school with more Nobel Laureates than parking spaces for them. At The University of California, our football team was Division I. We played teams from other schools people had not only actually heard of but accorded respect. Stanford. UCLA. USC. Yeah, the Trojan fight song makes you want to stuff condoms in your ears so you don’t have to listen to the damn thing any more, but still, Spielberg, and all. My sister’s school played Chico State. I’m sure there’s some mid-level bureaucrat in an office somewhere who graduated from there and is their most celebrated alum.

Of course, we lost to Stanford, UCLA, and USC, damn near every year. My sister’s aggies, meanwhile, went undefeated.
I am reminded of those days not because it’s football season, but perversely  because I’m planning the book tour for my first novel. A friend of mine, one of the most phenomenal writers I’ve ever been privileged to know, will see her own first novel published next spring; mine comes out later this fall. Her agent is booking her readings in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles. As of right now, I’ve got gigs in Rantoul, St. Joseph, and Cedar Falls, and I’m working on Flagstaff. Flagstaff, people. I may need another folding chair.

My father used to quote a line from comedian George Burns: “That one killed ‘em in Altoona.” Burns would say that every time one of his jokes bombed, the gist being that Altoona was goofy-sounding name for a goofy little town in the sticks. My father is from Altoona, and he liked that his town was made famous by that line, even if the line was derisive. It is not always the case, as big city folk might suppose, that those in small towns are irony deficient. It is also not the case—though this is harder to disprove in many minds—that everything in small towns is drastically inferior.
The first time I won an age group award at a local 5K I was over the moon with joy. Me, the 98-pound-weakling, the girl who came in last for everything involving physical fitness, beat every female runner my age and the vast majority of all of the rest of the runners in the race that day. I’ve since won many age group awards, ripped my diplomas off the wall so I could replace them with plaques, flung family heirlooms from shelves so I could display my cheap plastic trophies. Of course I acknowledge that these races take place in towns where a 5K race course might have to wind through every major street in town, some twice, in order to get 3.1 miles. Of course I realize this means that occasionally I can count the number of people I beat on my fingers and still have a digit or two left over. And because of this, sometimes my pride at having “won” is leveled off with a shrug of abashedness. So I killed ‘em in Arthur, Illinois. It doesn’t exactly put me on the Olympic track & field team.

But wait a minute. Why should this matter? Do people really run faster in big cities? Given how few elite runners come from cities like New York and London compared to other, considerably smaller towns, I’d have to guess the answer is no. The people aren’t faster; there are just more of them. Is it so different with the book tour? Because I’ll be reading in a town that doesn’t even have a Starbucks, does that mean my audience will be full of lip-diddling, mouth-breathing troglodytes? Doubtful. In my travel experiences I’ve found that the places you’d think are lease conducive to the culture of reading are where you’ll find some of the most passionate book lovers. They may be small in numbers and a very distinct minority, but this only makes reading all the more precious to them. Ask an avid reader in a small town what books mean to her. Don’t be surprised if she says they’ve saved her life.
Next week I run Peoria. Next month I read in St. Joe. Next year, who knows—maybe I’ll even get to kill ‘em in Altoona some day.