Monday, June 29, 2015

The summer of our discontent

June has been an interesting month in this world of ours, to say the least, and yet I’ve struggled to come up with a good subject for a new blog post. I’ve focused my blog largely on running because it’s something I feel comfortable writing about, whereas the Big Subjects of the world tend to leave me flailing. A poet friend once told me that big things made her “want to die,” which was why she favored poems that celebrated smallness and tranquility. She showed me one of her favorites, in which slices of lemon are compared to wagon wheels. It was rather lovely, but I still wouldn’t say I quite have the same general feelings she does; smallness and tranquility in poems can sometimes veer too far into preciousness for my taste, and it isn’t the big things in life that make me want to die so much as the really, really annoying things. I want to garrote myself whenever I get embroiled in a pointless facebook debate—which is every facebook debate—but that still wouldn’t give me much of a blog post.

June, oddly, has been a reminder to me of human mortality. The pet phrase that tends to follow such a statement is “the fragility of life,” but the funny thing is life does not often seem fragile in June. It seems fightin’ mad, thrusting claw-like weeds out of cracks in sidewalks to climb out of the earth and battle the storms. The air itself is alive, choked with legs and wings and bodies in motion. Makes the running challenging, to say the least, when you lose as much fluids spitting out bugs as sweating.

Even in the ICU of the hospital, where I went to visit a friend this month, life does not necessarily seem fragile. You hear a lot of sounds in the hospital. You don’t want to know what they mean. You hear what could be sobbing or shouting, which could simply be someone speaking too loudly on a cellphone or could be something else, wonderful or terrible, too close to call. It’s loud, in any case. You hear a man throwing up for what seems like hours, though it was probably only 20 minutes, but then 20 continuous minutes of throwing up is a ghastly long time. You hear violent human noise everywhere because life really wants to keep living and it damn well isn’t going down without a really raucous fight.

I also went to the visitation of a friend’s father, recently deceased after battling pancreatic cancer. I admit I was initially a little freaked out about the prospect of seeing the open casket, but once there, it was strangely a non-issue. Death isn’t just quiet and still; it’s simply nothing at all like life. There is no mistaking dead for anything else; it almost doesn’t seem possible to think of what’s in that coffin as something that used to be alive. It’s like looking at a chair and imagining it once was alive. No, it never was; that’s impossible and ridiculous. It isn’t scary so much as unfathomable.

I guess this is the point where I’m supposed to encourage us all to get out and live life to the fullest, except of course there’s no way in hell I’m going to do that and you know it, given that you’re probably familiar with my disdain for bland aphorisms. Besides, I do not think “living life to the fullest” means going out and doing crazy shit all the time. Life can be small and tranquil and calm and still be full to bursting. For all that I’ve pushed to go faster and farther in my running, the thing I enjoy the most is that moment when the run feels really, really good, regardless of how fast or slow I’m going, how short or far the distance. Thing is, I don’t always get that moment. I’ve had some runs that felt lousy the whole way, and the next time I get ready to run I wonder, is it going to be one of those times again? You just never know which it will be, but you’re still alive, so you get moving and find out.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Mastering my attitude

This past weekend I returned to Wisconsin for the Kettle 100 to run as part of a relay team. If you hear “relay” and think of people running part of a lap around a track and handing off a baton, this being repeated until all four runners on the team are finished, you’re sort of close, except in this case the track isn’t an oval; it’s two out-and-backs. Oh, and the “track” is actually in the woods, up and down hills and over meadows. And it’s a hundred miles long. Other than that, pretty close.

There were four teams from my trail running group, one all male, one all female under 40, one female masters team, and one mixed. I was on the mixed team; I technically qualified for a female masters team but I wanted to be with a group that just wanted to have fun and didn’t care how long it took to finish. The female masters team also said they just wanted to have fun, but “fun” is a deceptive word. It implies that you care more for the experience than the outcome, but let’s be honest: for any activity that involves athleticism, be it playing a ballgame or running a race, it’s almost certainly going to be more fun if you do it well. And when it comes to running, the four women on the masters team do very, very well. 

How well? Of the two women doing the 31-mile legs, one was fairly new to trail ultra running and the other was battling an injury; of the two doing the 19-mile leg, both had struggled with recent injuries as well. And despite this—despite the fact that one of the four was clearly not simply recovering from her injury but right in the middle of it and ran over an hour slower than last year—the group still managed to set a new course record for masters female teams by forty minutes. That is doing it well, to say the least, and the happy smiles and excited discussions they had after the race was over confirmed that they also had a hell of a lot of fun out there.

The women in the female masters team are all in their 40s, divorced, three with children, all incredibly fit and strong and independent. They’ve all run crazy numbers of races crazily fast, they’ve all qualified for the Boston Marathon, they’ve all been hugely successful in their running. At this point it would be too easy to turn this into a piece filled with gushy-but-gungho praise for their toughness, their awesomeness, their sheer badassery. The praise would be deserved—and purposeful; after all, it wasn’t that long ago (certainly within my lifetime) that it would be unheard of to know even one woman who was single, in her 40s and ran ultramarathons, much less for most of your female friends in that age group to fit that description. But since you read this blog, you know that nothing I ruminate about here is ever going to be a recitation of inspirational platitudes—even though there are times that seems desirable. One of those times was Saturday night, when the last of the female master runners came sprinting to the finish line and the four ladies received their first-place plaque from the race director and then excitedly huddled together to exchange stories about their experiences.

One of the women in the under-40 team, Staci-Ann (whom I wrote about two years ago in my post about Kettle), was talking to some of the others about the winners of the overall 100-mile race, who actually beat all of our teams’ finish times running solo (get your head around that if you can). We sputtered our awe at these elite runners, and the masters women, overhearing our discussion, added their admiration as well.

You are all elite as far as I’m concerned!” Staci-Ann exclaimed to the four. “I mean, you all did Boston!”

Hearing Staci-Ann gush about their Boston status is a little like hearing a Pulitzer Prize winner gush about a Nobel laureate. Staci-Ann is uniformly admired by all her running peers for being a consistently solid runner, someone who can just keep going until she’s finished the distance she set out to do, whatever that distance may be. If you told her this, though, she’d insist that you are the one who’s the solid runner, you are the superstar, even if you aren’t. I can’t tell you how angry this makes me. I know how that sounds—for goodness sake, she’s praising you, and you gotta be a mean nasty bitch about it? Well, yeah, I do.

I have always wished I could maintain an attitude like hers or like many of the other people I know who aren’t bothered by nagging insecurities and petty envy. But I can’t lie to myself: I am in fact very insecure and I can be quite petty. Watching the female masters four, I wondered, wistfully, what it would be like to be able to run at that level, to be able to sit there in the “elite” circle and talk about their experiences knowing that they’d just accomplished something pretty damned amazing. Yeah, I know, running double-digit mileage on tough terrain is pretty damned amazing for anyone at any age, I know, I know, I know. But let’s be honest: there’s doing a tough thing at all, and there’s doing a tough thing incredibly well, and there is a difference. This doesn’t mean that the former is a pointless endeavor; it just means that there are some experiences I’ll probably never have no matter how badly I want them or try to get them. And because I’m curious about other experiences, I’ll always wonder what it will be like.

This, I realize, is not a bad thing. The world would be a small and boring place for me if all I cared about was my own self-satisfaction. I’m never going to be a jockey or a horse, but I can still be enthralled when one pretty pony gets the Triple Crown. Likewise I am never going to do the Rice Lake leg in three hours and change or the Scuppernong leg in less than six, even though two each of my female running buddies, who are all within a few years of my age, were able to do just that. It’s a little more complicated in this case, of course, since I’ve ridden a horse maybe twice in my life and may never do so again in my lifetime, but I am right now a masters female who runs long distances—just a whole lot slower than my buddies.

Thing is, there is the experience of struggling through something difficult, and there is the experience of seeing someone else struggle through the same something difficult a whole lot faster, and each experience will engender its own mix of emotions, from frustration and relief to awe and envy. Why deny myself any of that? Why pick and choose only those feelings that are simple and easy to handle? I want it all, baby, and if being on earth four-plus decades has taught me anything (anything that I’ve managed to retain), it’s that you can have it all so long as you remember that “all” means just that, everything. You can believe you’re amazing and you can believe you suck. You can believe in happily-ever-after and you can discover that maybe you don’t want your ever-after to be so dependent on someone else. You can create yourself as a certain person, you can question the creation, and then you can alter the creation completely. You can love the run and you can hate the run. All things are possible even if some of them aren’t always desirable, but hey, you’ve been around a while, you can deal with it.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

What year is pizza, anyway?

A week or so ago I went down to the St. Louis area to attend the 40th wedding anniversary party for the BF’s oldest sister. Once more, for the record, the BF has four older sisters, five older brothers, and one of each category that’s younger. If he were a space alien on a syndicated sci fi show, his name might be Ten Of Twelve (or Welke Rocol, if Star Wars; I’m Mofle Lehon, which I almost like better than my real name). I think I have all their names down, though I get stuck sometimes remembering the string of five boys in a row; I’ll start the litany just fine—“Bobbie, Jimmy, John, Steve…”—but right around “Steve” I start to falter and just end up saying “oh your poor mother.”

The 40th anniversary is the “ruby” anniversary, according to both the traditional and modern lists provided by Hallmark. This makes me doubt just how “modern” the modern list is; after all, rubies may be precious but they aren’t exactly high on most people’s list of desirable objects, male or female, unless we’re talking ruby-encrusted home entertainment centers. In fact, a look at the “modern” list reveals that almost everything from 10 through 60 is pretty much jewelry-oriented, with few exceptions (15, watches, being one of my favorites, so long as that includes Garmins). I imagine the BF’s favorite would be traditional 14, which used to be ivory but happily was changed to, get this, “animals.” Guess I’d better start saving up for that ostrich he’ll be wanting.

It is really too easy to make fun of these lists, which is probably why so many people like to follow them. There’s a whimsical randomness about the whole business that makes it much more fun than a more serious and appropriate list would be. For all that people remark on how the first anniversary gift of paper is a blunt reminder of just how little you’ve been through together so far, this is actually one of the more fun and creative parameters since you can do books, tickets to events, framed prints, or lists of things you promise to do. One of the worst, in my view, is modern 7. Desk sets? Seriously? What is modern about desk sets, and why in the living hell would you get your spouse of seven years a desk set at any point in time much less your anniversary? Maybe it’s meant to coincide with the so-called seven-year itch, and the desk set becomes necessary for signing divorce papers? Man, that’s just awful.

I daresay whimsical randomness may very well be one of the things that make a relationship good. There are jokes the BF and I share that I could not possibly explain to anyone else even if I wanted to—and I don’t want to, because that’s private stuff between him and me. (Besides, much of it is likely to make young folks go “ewww” at the thought of such old geezers as us saying such things.) A relationship takes work, but it also takes play, as well as a certain degree of understanding that a lot of what we do in relationships is an act. I don’t mean that it’s fake; there’s a big difference between acting and faking, because in acting we create ourselves, but in faking we obstruct that creation process. There is no “true self,” in my opinion, no absolute core of a person; there are rather different personae that we have at different times in different situations. If you accept this, you can have quite a bit of fun with that partner of yours.

My parents’ 50th anniversary is this September, and while that tends to make people go “aw” with a sentimental head tilt when I mention it, to me it signifies not quite that they stuck it out and made it work so much as they simply decided it was just easier this way—a triumph of complacency. I have never wanted a marriage like my parents’—so far I’ve avoided having any kind of marriage at all, not because I’m anti-marriage but rather, ironically, just the opposite. I do not believe that marriage has to be forever, especially given that there are significant benefits of being alone, but I do think marriage means, more or less, saying “what the hell, let’s give it a try,” in a way that’s both whimsical and completely serious. As I have recently discovered, it is possible to be both.

The reason I began ruminating on anniversaries wasn’t because of the BF’s sister or my parents but because friends of ours are celebrating their ninth tomorrow. Nine seems paltry compared to 40 or 50, but according to the modern list they get leather, probably the gift most readily adaptable to a certain kind of whimsy, or at least the most likely to provoke smirks, winks, and nudges. Even if your whimsy isn’t of the smirky type, there are plenty of ways the flayed, tanned hide of a dead cow can still symbolize your enduring love. Some of those ways may be a bit of a stretch, but leather is both flexible and strong, kind of like marriage … or, something, I don’t know … hey, you can figure it out yourselves—or, even better, make it up randomly as you go along.