Friday, July 25, 2014

Move it or lose it...or stick it in a box and worry about it later

I moved in with the BF last weekend, and that statement reflects just as much prospective long-term joy as it does short-term agitation. “Moving” is one of the great one-word oxymorons of all time, isn’t it? Good grief, but you never feel more stuck and stagnant and unmoving as when you have to put every single stupid thing you own into a box knowing you’re going to have to do it all in reverse a little while later. And unlike a lot of tasks that require steady effort toward an ultimate goal, this one gets less satisfying the further along you get. There’s always that moment during packing when you have a lot of weird random shit left that doesn’t quite fit in boxes or else fits but won’t let you put anything else in there with it so there goes a whole box on that stupid whatsit and why the hell do I even have that whatsit in the first place when I should have gotten rid of it several moves ago but then who in the world would want a whatsit so I guess I’ll just put it in a box and take it with me yet again.

I’m not a pack rat compared to genuine hoarder rodents out there, though the BF, having watched me systematically annex every available closet, drawer, and cabinet in the entire house (and it's a big house), doesn't believe this. I will admit that there are a few areas I’m particularly bad about:

1) Books. In my defense, they didn’t have Kindles or Nooks when I acquired most of my current library. Against my defense, I still have no plans to buy one of those contraptions.

2) Clothes. This is embarrassing, I have to say. No one should have this much clothing. Again in my defense, I’ve had several different careers, each requiring a different type of wardrobe, everything from the London Fog trench coat I needed for my Wall Street gig to the pajamas that are required for my online job at home. Moreover, like a lot of people, I’ve gained and lost weight over the years to the point where I have about five different sizes represented in my garb. The biggest sizes are from when I ate out every night in Manhattan because that’s just what you do in a city where kitchens are used as closets. The smallest sizes are from the year I took my running obsession to crazed extremes. That was the year that, for the first time in my life, when I visited my mother (who has always thought my sister and I were overweight because my mother has weighed about 97 pounds most of her life) took one look at me and exclaimed, “You’re so thin!” I hated the way she used to get on us about our weight—way to promote eating disorders, Ma!—and as such I probably shouldn’t have enjoyed hearing her say that as much as I did…but I did. Gist is it's not just clothing; it's, like, identity. Yeah.

3) Outdated technology. I have, I kid you not, a Macintosh Classic. I have a whole box of floppies that go with it. If you don’t know what I just said, congratulations, you’re not yet middle-aged. I also have a typewriter. See previous sentence.

4) Paper. I have phone bills from like ten years ago, filed carefully away. I’m supposed to shred these after a while but shredding takes so freakin’ long compared to shoving something in a file folder and slamming shut a drawer, you know? I also have notebooks of my writing from decades ago. I’m afraid to look.

I had every intention, as I always do, of getting my act together, of throwing out what needs to be thrown out and organizing what needs to be saved. Yeah, that so didn’t happen. At some point I did what I always do: shoved stuff in boxes and shoved the boxes where I can’t see them. “Moving” doesn’t necessarily equal “progress,” it would seem.

This is true of a lot of things, I think. When there’s a goal you want to achieve, you’d like to tell yourself that every day you get a little closer, everything you do is a step in the right direction, blah blah blah, but be honest, a lot of the time feel like you aren’t going anywhere at all. Even—and here it comes, at last!—with running, which would seem to be definitionally all about moving forward and making progress, there are times you start to wonder if it isn’t all just running around in circles.

For this week’s BQ speedwork I moved up to 4-2 intervals, which means 4 minutes at the fastest pace and 2 minutes at a slower, recovery pace. Prior to this I’d been doing 2-2-2, with the middle “2” representing a moderate pace. There was no moderate this week, and while 4 minutes may  not seem like a long time, well, do me a favor and hold your breath. Now don’t exhale for the next 4 minu…you already took a breath, didn’t you.

The 4-2 didn’t go well. It was one of those wet-cement runs where your legs just cannot give you the speed you want. That whole non-runner thing about how they only run if something is chasing them? Yeah, there could have been saber-toothed tigers after me; wouldn’t have made a diff. The last couple of weeks of speedwork have been modest successes, so it was disheartening to go back to a run that was very much off target. Of course the BF reminded me that this was to be expected; this is the next step up, after all, and it took me several weeks to get comfortable with the 2-2-2s. I know this—I know it—but it’s still hard not to wonder, each time a run doesn’t go as desired, whether I’m really moving forward.

Of course, there’s only one way to know if you’re moving forward, and that’s…to move forward. The boxes will get put away, another 4-2 session goes down next week, and a new life on the other side of town lies ahead. On we go.


Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Age before beauty, unless it's a tie

I went to a wedding last weekend for one of the BF’s nephews. The BF has an enormous number of brothers and sisters, a half-dozen of which were in attendance, and yes, there are so many they can be counted by the half-dozen and still not be even close to a complete set. It was a little awkward going to a wedding where I didn’t know anyone, and tough to give any kind of meaningful congratulations to two people I had never met before. “Rock the casbah!” I wrote in their wedding book. Hey, why not.

The wedding was like the majority of weddings going on that weekend all over the country: bridesmaid dresses of a color unflattering to all, an incoherent toast by the already-plastered best man, the bland steak/dry fish/rubber chicken options for dinner (plus a vegetarian pasta Alfredo calculated to prove that vegetarianism does not have to mean healthy), and a band with a predictable—and admittedly enjoyable—playlist. It’s as easy for me to be cynical at weddings as it is for sentimental people to be teary-eyed; the irony of this special day being pretty much the same as everyone else’s special day refuses to be lost on me. And yet it’s impossible not to feel a surge of pure joy when well-dressed people of all ages get out there on the dancefloor and go just a bit wild. This is why we have weddings, after all. I’m perplexed by and uncomfortable with the concept of circus-like weddings—I’m not going to marry everyone in the room, just this one person, so why’s it got to be a big elaborate show?—and yet of course weddings aren’t just personal but social and communal. Two people are getting hitched—hooray! The human species may continue! Now let’s celebrate by Twisting and Shouting!

Watching the dancers, I couldn’t help but notice one woman in particular. It was hard not to notice her; she had to be about 6’4, taller than almost all the men, and older than almost everyone else on the dancefloor. Her smile could have powered a city. Her moves were all grace and lightness. She put all the sweet young things in their more-appropriate-for-a-danceclub-than-a-wedding outfits to shame. I watched her, astonished, and then wondered that I should be astonished. The young don’t have a monopoly on having fun, after all.

It always seems like a bit of a rationalization to say that some things get better with age, but it really is true, and I’m not just talking wine and cheese. In addition to training for a potential BQ marathon this summer and fall, I’m also coaching a group of women who are brand new to running, and of those who have registered so far I’ve counted two or three in their 30s, two or three in their 40s, a whole bunch in their 50s and quite a few in their 60s. Initially this surprised me a little, in a very good way; it’s delightful to see people starting a new activity—a new adventure, even—well beyond what’s at least actuarily speaking the midpoint of their lives. Heck, the only reason I even decided to pursue a Boston qualifying marathon is because I turned 45 last December and the 3:55 time seems just on the edge of doable. There are many advantages to getting older, and even some of the disadvantages—slowing down—can be given a positive spin.

Let’s not kid ourselves: youth is still prized by all living beings, for obvious reasons, the chiefest of which is the fact that the young have more time to be living beings. Youth suggests both health and fertility, attractive attributes because they mean perpetuation of the species on multiple levels. Of course, given our aging population, advertisers are doing their darnedest these days to show that silver hair is sexy and laugh lines mean lusciousness. Of course, they’re doing so in large part to promote pharmaceutical products meant to deter, mask, or circumvent signs of aging, so it’s not like an influx of post-menopausal models has really changed our standards of beauty all that much.

But there I’ve gone and done it, brought up a topic that is distant and un-dear to my heart: beauty. Oh my goodness I am tired of hearing about beauty. To be more precise, I’m tired of hearing how wrong it is to create and perpetuate standards of beauty that make us hate our bodies. Yes, of course this is wrong. Problem is, the “solution” so frequently given to this problem is to spout a lot of aphorisms about how beauty comes in all shapes and sizes, about how being beautiful on the inside is what matters the most, about how we’re all beautiful in our own ways. Yeah, swell, but, um, isn’t that still perpetuating the idea that beauty is something we need to prize above all else? There always seems to be the faint whiff of hypocrisy whenever we complain about standards of beauty. Is it really the fact that there are such standards that bother us—or the fact that these standards don’t always include us? No one’s ever going to mistake me for a supermodel, and you know what? I am OK with that. No one ever going to mistake me for an elite marathoner either, yet life—and pursuit of a BQ—goes on. No matter how you spin it, beauty is always going to imply something that is beheld from without, and as such, the more we emphasize its importance, the more we push the idea that other people’s perception of who we are matters more than anything else. And thus continue our insecurities, and the products that capitalize thereon.

Ah, but fear not, all ye who stubbornly believe in these aphorisms, in circus weddings, in beauty and sentimentality, for cynical me got her comeuppance. As the BF and I were getting ready to go, I pointed out the tall woman, still dancing, still smiling, her gray-haired head bobbing merrily above the others. “Look at her,” I whispered. “No offense to the bride, but I think she’s the most beautiful woman in the room.”

“Really?” he said. “I think you are.”

Well that’s just…I mean… OK, so, yeah, sometimes it doesn’t actually suck to be called beautiful. I concede defeat. Funny thing, it feels rather glorious.


Thursday, July 10, 2014

Scar tactics

People who meet me for the first time these days often do a discrete double-take when they see my right forearm. This makes me happy. I have this scar, see, and it is more awesome than any tattoo I could ever dream up. It’s an ordinary surgical scar, but it doesn’t look like one, and it’s not in a typical surgical-scar place, so there’s an aura of mystery around its ridged pink curve. It hints at danger—knives or motorcycles, sharks or bears, a rumble in a dark alley or an escape over barbed wire. At least I like to think it does, anyway, and the fact that no one who sees it for the first time ever asks about it suggests folks assume something sinister or traumatic. I let them assume. A hematoma may not be a knife fight but neither is it a stroll through a bright dewy meadow.

Funny thing is, I have a weird sort of fondness for both the scar and my memories of the hospital excursion that got me the scar. The whole thing was so out-of-the-blue bizarre—one day you’re training for your first ultramarathon and the next your left leg has swollen to elephantine proportions and the next week your doctor is excitedly telling you he’s never seen such an extensive case of deep-vein thrombosis in his life and it’s kind of astonishing you haven’t croaked from a pulmonary embolism—in such cases, you can really only shrug your shoulders and marvel at the strangeness. Mind you, I would never choose to go back to ICU. I like sleeping in a bed that isn’t surrounded by beeping machines, and it’s always a nice thing to be able to pee somewhere besides a pan placed in that bed. But that’s just it, see: I was uncomfortable, and occasionally in pain, but I wasn’t really suffering—especially since dozens of friends stopped every day with everything from tacos to bourbon to help me recover. If that’s suffering, sign me up for the Masochists Club pronto.

There’s a popular aphorism gracing many a facebook status about how pain is inevitable but suffering is optional. Yeah, I don’t buy it. I don’t ever want to tell someone going through something horrible that how they feel about it is a matter of personal preference. That said, there are painful situations that you get through with a shrug and a grin, just as there are mildly irksome situations that reduce you to pouting, whining, and foot-stomping misery. Not only is it near impossible to predict what good or bad fortune may come your way, it also seems equally difficult to predict how you’ll react. When I go out for a run, I never know which me will show up. Will it be the me who feels energized, confident, and strong, blasting through speed intervals and eager for more? That’s how I was last week. This week, a little different. Not so energized, not so confident, and really feeling rather slug-like. What changed? Hell if I know; all I know is every time I had to hit the faster pace I’d whimper a little, and as I discovered, it’s impossible to make whimpering sound confident.

And yet I got through. I hit my paces just right, went slightly farther than last week, and at least in terms of the numbers ended up successful. In terms of the feelings engendered while producing those numbers, it’s a different story. Nothing about that run felt good—except finishing it. When it was done, there were high-fives from the BFs and happy nuzzling from the dog (and let me tell you, after a hard-fought victory nothing beats congratulations from beings who don’t care what a sweaty gross mess you are). Likewise, I can’t say I actually enjoyed being in the hospital, though you can imagine my joy at getting out (as well as my glee at flashing my fresh-and-gruesome scar at unprepared viewers). Yet I hesitate to say that painful events should always yield positive outcomes. Sometimes they do, but there are other times you just want the whole miserable ordeal over. I’ve had my share of such ordeals, of bad experiences I never want to remember again if I can help it. I don’t show those scars.

When I look down at the scar that does show, the long ugly one on my arm, I want to laugh. It looks so delightfully ghastly, so much worse than the occasion that created it. You just never know, do you, how things are going to be, when you go for a run or for a lifetime, whether something’s going to break you or sustain you. I won’t say that’s what makes life enjoyable—if I could always feel absolutely amazing on every run, you don’t really think I’d say no, do you? But maybe let’s just say it makes life interesting, and occasionally amusing, and leave it at that.




Thursday, July 3, 2014

It's hard to run fast with so much baggage

How did Week 3 of Boston Qualifying Marathon Training go? It’s difficult for me to admit this, but…it went well. Very well. Rather extremely very well. I hit all my interval paces right on target—and even did a few faster than I needed to. I felt great, which is to say I didn’t feel like throwing up, and in the end I did seven miles at an average pace that was just about what I’d need to qualify for the Boston Marathon.

Great. Now I just need to do that for another nineteen miles.

When I said this to the BF, he waved his hand in front of my face and made that “ah dt dt dt” sound people make when they’re trying to shush you because you’re ruining a nice moment. “You did it. You did a great job. You should feel proud of yourself for that.”

I should, and I do, but I also can’t help but put this little achievement in perspective. I haven’t actually accomplished anything new here; after all, a few years ago I could run seven miles at a pace a whole minute faster, and twice that distance at a pace 30 seconds faster. All I’m doing here is trying to get back to reasonable racing form before the real works starts: training to run a BQ marathon pace for an entire marathon. So yeah, this is great and all, but…

I know, I know: Ah dt dt dt dt!

People frequently tell me I’m too hard on myself. I don’t see it. If anything, I think I’m not nearly hard enough. Let me assure you, I do not suffer from low self-esteem. You gotta understand something, though: whereas some people might have an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other whispering in their ears about virtue versus vice, I have the hubris monster on one side and the humility beast on the other. The hubris monster tells me how amazing I am and the humility beast says “yeah, but let’s put this amazingness in perspective.” I don’t think this is a bad thing; it keeps me balanced, keeps me from being an insufferable braggart and, far from being self-defeating, keeps me ever-striving for new goals. In my opinion, if you only listen to the voice that tells you what you want to hear, you’re missing most of the truth. Ignoring that other voice, the one that casts doubt, urges caution, checks irrational exuberance, is a sure way to disaster.

Funny thing, though. That voice sounds an awful lot like my mother’s voice.

I’m in an awkward position here, one that might be familiar to some of you who still carry baggage from your childhoods. You know what I’m talking about: you resent the way your upbringing has caused problems in your adult life, and yet paradoxically you find yourself frequently criticizing other people for not raising their children the way you were. Case in point: one of my ESL students has so enjoyed working with me that she asked if I could tutor her daughter as well. The daughter is ten. That’s less than half the age of even the youngest student I normally tutor, and even though I agreed, I wondered what in the world I was getting myself into. Turns out the daughter is a terrific kid, one with excellent reading and writing skills. I felt embarrassed at the childish books I’d brought to our first session; here I was asking her to read a story about the adventures of Mr. Squirrel (He meets a bird! He meets a frog! He meets a skunk! Oh no! Run away from the skunk, Mr. Squirrel!) when she’s already tackled the tomes of Harry Potter et al. When her mother returned, we were in the middle of a typical ESL role-playing activity with a restaurant scenario and pictures of food items that could be ordered. I was eager to tell her my thoughts about her daughter’s advanced abilities in the written word, but before I could get in a word she immediately exclaimed, “Oh, this is good! She has so much trouble ordering in restaurants. She’s not good at that at all.”

It’s a stereotype, I know, and so not excusable even for me, but my first thought, accompanied by a mental eyeball-rolling, was Typical Asian mother. Next she’ll be telling me I should make sure her daughter doesn’t order any dessert in this pretend-restaurant of ours because she’s getting too fat.  

When I described all of this to the BF, I explained why this little scene was so familiar—and disturbing—to me. My mother was never one to gush over every little thing I ever achieved as a child. She never tore me down, mind you, never said anything intended to make me feel worthless and inferior, but it simply wasn’t in her parental M.O. to praise accomplishments to the skies or rationalize failures as unimportant. An accomplishment was its own reward, and a failure—well, there really isn’t much to say about failure, is there, because you wouldn’t be wasting time talking about it when you could be rectifying it, would you?

Yet as wrong as this mindset appears to me in others, I’ve still managed to retain it as my own credo until this day. As one of my other students now says (as he’s eagerly absorbing all the slang he can), that’s messed up.

Obviously it’s not a bad thing to be pleased with one’s success. I also maintain it’s not a bad thing to temper your pleasure with realistic assessments of how that success fits into a bigger picture. Yeah, that last bit sounds rather soul-deadening, but the thing is, it’s my soul, it’s my voice speaking in the form of the humility beast, not my mother’s or anyone else’s. I’m happy with my speedwork this week. I did what I set out to do and I enjoyed doing it. I also know I’ve got a hell of a long way to go before reaching my ultimate goal—if I reach it at all, which is certainly not a guarantee. These are all things I need to tell myself.

And don’t worry. The hubris monster is still around to ensure that every once in a while, just for a moment, I smirk and strut and believe myself quite the speed-running badass. And then I eat some ice cream. No one can live on humble pie alone.