Tuesday, September 27, 2016

We say tomato

I’ve been helping one of my ESL students write her resume, and besides suggesting synonyms and enforcing parallel construction, by request I am also trying to figure out how to transform the piddly experience of a 23-year-old into something impressive and noteworthy, or at least not quite so piddly. “What can I say?” she asks me despairingly. “Those jobs were nothing. I didn’t do anything important. I don’t have anything else.”

So I have her facilitating this and developing that, all the while personally relieved to the skies that I don’t have to go through this particular career phase ever again. To me it’s worth grey hair and less-than-glowy skin never to have to endure a lot of the firsts we face in our youth. That may surprise you to hear—may even make you skeptical; after all, one of the laments people have about growing older is that new experiences are harder to come by. In middle-age it’s rare to do something for the first time, in part because we become more cautious and less likely to try new things, in part because when we do take that chance and try that supposedly new thing, it inevitably reminds us of something we’ve already done. What’s rather grimly more, many of the new experiences still ahead of us are ones we don’t much want to think about, the ones involving permanent loss. 

All that depressingness said, I still think you can have enjoyable firsts at any time in your life. I got married this year for the first time, after all, though so far married life doesn’t seem all that different other than having to get used to calling him the husband. It’s a funny word, husband. I like to drag it out, huzzzzzband, so it sounds even funnier. In getting married, I did gain more than a huzzzzzband; I also got stepdaughters, turtles, macaws, and a dog. And of all these, the most unusual experience, the one I’m still trying to get used to, involves the macaws. I did not think it would be this way. I always had pets growing up, and though parrots had never entered the picture back then, I didn’t think it would be that big a deal to take them on now. 

Another thing that can still happen to you at any time in your life? Being spectacularly wrong.

Before we got Boston and Phoenix, I was always surprised and maybe even a little scornful when people told me they were afraid of birds. Yeah, the Hitchcock movie was pretty vivid, but let’s be realistic: bird attack deaths are, I would guess, as rare as hens’ teeth, and since hens don’t have teeth that’s one more reason not to fear them. And yet the first time Phoenix landed on me, I froze stock still and implored the husband for help. I’ve heard birds are the closest living creatures to dinosaurs, and indeed the way I reacted it was as if T-Rex had suddenly appeared in our livingroom. Thanks, Jurassic Park

Being comfortable in my own body is something that’s taken me a very long time to accomplish, and I’m still not completely there. When I go trail running, there are moments I feel strong and confident and sure, and such moments are almost inevitably followed by my feet catching a root or a rock or each other and my wobbling and stumbling and flailing. Gravity has a way of reminding you how little control you have, and while macaws are a slightly less pervasive force in the universe, they have a similar effect. Around them it seemed I was always standing the wrong way, moving the wrong way, standing still the wrong way; my arms, head, fingers, neck, and eyes were never where they were supposed to be, and I was beginning to feel like some anatomical freak—which, to them, I suppose I was.

When I started trail running and fell down a lot, people told me I’d get used to it. I didn’t. I’m even more afraid of falling now than ever—you should see me in winter on ice, waddling like a penguin. Same thing goes for bites. The fear of being bitten is instinctive and primal; I don’t think you have to be bitten first to have this fear. Moreover, you don’t just put it behind you. The first time Phoenix latched onto my finger with his beak was a terrible shock, one that I never got over. To be fair, the “bites” he gave (for it was almost always the far beakier Phoenix and not the more aloof Boston) weren’t necessarily intended as such. Most of the time he simply needed to hold onto something to get him where he wanted to be, and since wings are useless for all but flying and claws don’t have a very far reach, a macaw’s beak does what hands do for us. At the same time, I still considered arming myself with a falconer’s glove—or possibly a suit of mail.

It wasn’t just bite-phobia that kept me distant from them, though. I simply did not know what to do with them. I could take walks with the dog, run with her, play rope-toy-tug with her, pet her, teach her easy tricks, or just sit quietly reading while she lay comfortably at my feet. The birds, I could watch. That was about it. I enjoyed watching them, but the husband wants them to be more than just the feathered equivalent of tropical fish. They can be interactive pets, he believes, just like dogs and horses, and he’s been able to demonstrate this interactivity with them himself. You never think of a bird as being cuddly the way a puppy or a bunny or some other furry mammalian pet might be, but Phoenix would frequently become a big goo-goo-eyed baby in his arms. Boston, ever reserved, would look on with faint disdain, but even he would permit being stroked on occasion. I knew it could be done, but I just didn’t know how to make that connection.

Now we get to the other thing I tried for the first time this year: gardening. Even though my parents grew a lot of our veggies when I was a kid, for most of my adult life I had no desire to take up this practice myself. Sticking seeds in dirt didn’t sound like much fun, plus I had a strong feeling I’d suck at it. For whatever reason, however, this year I decided I wanted to grow stuff. I went with what I’d heard was easiest to grow: tomatoes, zucchini, green beans, sugar snap peas, lettuce, spinach, and basil. There were some surprise successes (the yield on my sugar snaps was ridiculous, and don’t I just sound the gardener?) as well as some disappointments (some fiend chewed my green bean plants into lace and seems to be starting on my fall spinach), but the biggest surprise was how much I loved it. I loved sticking seeds in dirt. The second biggest surprise was that this brand new endeavor ultimately ended up being the connection to our macaws.

The husband will tolerate vegetables, but that’s about as far as it goes, and there are some types that don’t even make tolerance. Suggest a member of the cruciferous family for dinner—broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower—and you might as well suggest scraping the scum from the shower curtain and serving that up as a side. Boston was a picky eater; he’d clamor for a veggie, hold it in his beak a few seconds and then drop it untouched. It was Phoenix who ended up appreciating my gardening efforts the most. It gave me great delight to hold out a grape tomato to him, watch him take it gently in his beak and roll it around, then grasp one end with a dexterous claw and flip open the top. He would then proceed to scrape out all the insides, carefully, methodically, as if it were a macaw’s version of an Oreo cookie, and finally drop the empty skin. Very clearly he began to see me as the tomato lady, which was fine by me, especially since he took these treats so delicately and consumed them with such obvious enjoyment. There’s an intimacy that comes from feeding someone something you produced, whether it’s a mother nursing a baby, a parent making dinner for their family, or yes, even a newbie gardener holding out a little red tomato to a big red bird. 

I think next year I’ll write the Burpee Seed people and ask which tomatoes they recommend as being the best for parrots. If they can’t answer me, perhaps I’ll delve even further into obsessive gardening and create my own hybrid. I have no idea how to do that; my resume has zero in the way of botanical research. But be it job hunting, trail running, marrying, gardening, or befriending a dinosaur, you might as well give it a try.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Stuck in the mudder again

Midway on the trail loop I ran this past weekend, I saw a nun coming out of the forest toward me. I’d only gone about 9 miles, not nearly long enough to be hallucinating, so I knew she was real, if bizarrely out-of-place. She was followed by a large group of teenagers, so I guessed it must have been some kind of school hiking trip. One of the boys in the front of the group spotted me and shouted to the others, “Runner coming! Please move to the side!” Almost as if they’d practiced ahead of time, the group instantly formed a single-file line so I could pass, cheering me on as I did so. Mind you, at this point in the race I looked, and probably smelled, like something that just crawled out of a fresh grave, so their kindness was nothing short of—well, the phrase “amazing grace” comes to mind.

This was a small moment, and it didn’t really affect any other aspect of the race for me; it was just a nice thing that happened, and stuff like that is worth remembering. This is especially true given that much of the rest of the race was not exactly a religious experience. Grace is hard to come by when you’re crawling up a hill of mud.

In the days before the race, it had poured rain, and if you’re keeping track, that’s four for four this year: four ultras, each with some type of non-ideal race weather. One high winds, two heat waves, and one pre-race monsoon. Scientists have discovered what causes global climate change, and it’s me. Mind you, the weather during the race itself was pretty good—overcast and relatively mild for early September—but there was still the matter of the mud to deal with. The pre-race monsoons had made many parts of the trail more suitable for wallowing than running. I picked out my trail shoes with the deepest treads, though it was a little like choosing a pint glass instead of a shot glass to fill with water to fight a forest fire.

The thing with mud isn’t just that you get dirty. That part isn’t a big deal to me. I’ve never been one of those runners who wears a cute running skirt and full make-up to a race, nothing against those who do, because I figure approximately 2 minutes into it I’ll already be a sweaty mess, so why bother. No, the problem with mud is that like wind and heat, it makes you work a whole lot harder than you were expecting to. On a dry trail, you put your foot down, push off with it, and move forward. On mud, several different things can happen. You can put your foot down, try to push off, and move backward. Or you can put your foot down, try to push off, and realize that in doing so you’re losing your shoe. When you secure your shoe and put your other foot down and push off, you finally move forward a little but also sideways a lot, toward the edge of the trail which also happens to be the edge of a ravine at the bottom of which is a pool of extremely scummy water. You expected to get dirty but there’s fun dirt and then there’s pond scum. Not the same.

The upshot was it took me a good half-hour longer to complete the first loop than I’d been anticipating, and I felt as tired as if I’d already done both loops. It was a good tired, the tiredness that comes from getting through something tough, but the thought of going back out for a second loop made my heart sink just the way my feet had in the muck. Another loop would transform the good tiredness into pissed-off tiredness. I did not want to go out there again. I so very badly did not want to go out there again. What in the world would make me do that? Pride? Determination? The need to uphold my ultra running badassery?

None of the above. I’ve had a lot of bad races over the years, from which I had already learned I did not need to complete a race to feel like a complete person. This was a goal I’d set for myself; no one was counting on me to do this but me, and if I failed, I’d get over it. As I got to the start/finish and the scorers recorded my number, I told them I was done. The race director handed me a 17-mile finishers medal and told me to help myself to the food—“The barbecue brisket is especially tasty!” he said cheerfully.

Quit a race, get a sandwich. Well, OK then. As I made my way into the tent, I saw three other runners, including a friend from my running group, all mud-crusted, all holding medals, all wearing bibs with numbers similar to mine. “Finished my two loops!” my friend joked. We laughed. All four of us had dropped, all four of us wearing the same expression on our faces: disappointment struggling with relief.

For the moment, relief was winning. “No way I was going out there again,” my friend said. “I’ve got a hundred miler coming up. Don’t want to screw that up by getting injured.” I nodded emphatically. This is a solidly built guy who looks like he could bench press an automobile with me in it. Nobody would say he wasn’t badass—nobody who wanted to keep their teeth. I was feeling better already.

Funny thing, too: for the next four hours I kept thinking I should have felt worse about my decision, but every time I thought, “If I’d kept going, I’d still be out there right now,” every time I looked down at my hands and saw the dirt still caked under my fingernails from when I had to climb up those mudhills on all fours, every time I felt the supreme satisfaction that can come from sitting perfectly still—well, I had a hard time feeling anything but delighted.

When you’ve dropped from a race, there are stages. Relief/disappointment becomes rationalization/regret. The heady emotions of the race have waned and now you’re left overthinking everything, trying to come up with a satisfactory explanation for why you decided to quit. It is, after all, the worst thing you can ever do in running, or so a lot of running culture would have you believe. I don’t entirely agree, though; to me there’s something worse than quitting a run, and that’s not enjoying a run. For whatever reason, I am not a person who will decide that this goal means enough to me that I’ll endure many long hours of suffering. That may sound very strange coming from an ultra runner—isn’t ultra running kind of all about long hours of suffering? Eh, not entirely. Hard as it may be to believe, I run for the sense of enjoyment far more than the sense of accomplishment. Maybe if I were a better runner I’d care more about going for glory, and maybe this is all a giant rationalization so that I don’t feel so humiliated telling people about my failure.

But I don’t feel humiliated telling you all this. If I had finished that second loop, people would be congratulating me for toughing it out, digging deep, giving it my all. Since I didn’t, I was praised for running smart, focusing on what really matters, and living to run another day. There’s a spin for everything, it seems, but I guess this time I’m going to say the takeaway is this: this is the race where I stop feeling bad about things that aren’t all that important. I didn’t complete the ultra, but hey, I saw a nun in the woods, and that’s not something that happens every day, is it.