Monday, September 23, 2013

Life, death, it's all good

I went for a run at my favorite trail this past weekend, on the first official day of Fall. The leaves haven’t turned yet, and there was still enough light and warmth after I finished for me to sit in the parking lot at the trailhead drinking the requisite cold beer, but despite these lingering notes of summer, there were definite signs of the changing of the seasons. Gunfire, for starters.

I would have been lousy in combat. I was nearing the end of my 13-mile run and I didn’t see them until I practically ran into them, until I noticed that tree up ahead actually seemed to have a human face like the ones in The Wizard of Oz. Damn. Now that’s camo. I didn’t like those trees in the movie—freakier by far than the flying monkeys, in my opinion—and I didn’t like seeing a similar sight in the woods, especially when the trees-with-faces were armed with shotguns and not just apples. Fortunately, the faces smiled at me. I nodded—that runner’s nod you do because you know if you try to speak it’ll come out as a gasp or a blob of spit or worse—and kept running. Of course, that’s probably what their prey would do, but then their prey doesn’t have cool trail shoes with high-tech inserts.
Fall is the season of contradictions, of life and of death. The leaves are dying, the light is dying, the year is dying, but all the critters in creation are frisky as hell, hoping to get in one last good shag before it’s time to hibernate. The apples are amazing, but with every sweet-tart crunch comes the sickening knowledge that this is just about the only source of fiber you’re going to get for the next seven months. Bu-bye, blueberries. So long, strawberries. Good to know you, nectarines. We’re truly apples-to-apples now.

Fall has the best running weather of the year, in my view. Spring is a mushy mess, summer is a sweatfest, and winter—let us not speak of winter just yet. In Fall I run in the chill-but-not-cold, in the sunwarmed-but-not-roasty, and I feel more alive than ever. And yet I know the end is near. Another year is coming to a close, and where have I gotten in that time? What am I doing? Who the hell am I, anyway?
A writer I know once made a poster that consisted of a photo of himself as a child and the caption, “This Boy Is Dead.” And you think I have a dark side. What he meant by this, he explained, was that if you really thought about it, the caption was true: the boy depicted in the picture does not exist at all at this point in time. Yes, of course he grew into the bleak-humored aspiring author I hung out with in the bleak little town where we went to grad school (the town’s claim to fame being that Twilight Zone's Rod Serling was born and raised there), but the boy in the photo was gone forever. Kind of puts a morbid pall over scrapbooking, doesn’t it.

Sometimes I think about what the person I used to be, the Dead-Me, would have said about doing these trail ultras I do. OK, so, you are running up and down steep hills where there are rocks and roots to trip you and nettles and bees to sting you and holes you could step in and break an ankle and ravines you could fall into and stay down there forever or at least until some hungry carnivore or other starts gnawing on you, and this is supposed to be fun? And yeah, so maybe that’s the worst case scenario, but what’s the best case scenario, you do this stupid thing nobody cares about but you and you get all sweaty and dirty and possibly injured because, what, because you have to do something meaningful before you die so it might as well be this freaky thing only other obsessive freaks do, and this is supposed to be fun?
And Living-Me answers, it isn’t supposed to be fun, it is fun. And because Dead-Me is dead, I win the argument. Always pick fights with those who no longer exist; victory shall be yours.

But maybe Dead-Me isn’t quite dead yet, as a certain too-often-quoted British comic movie might say. Maybe she’s still here with Living-Me, reminding me how much things can change. I’m sure one day everything I’m saying now will seem like dead-speak, like something said by someone else I can’t imagine ever having been. I can only hope it’s because I’ve become an ultra-running-astronaut who can’t believe I used to think running was confined to a single planet.


Monday, September 9, 2013

You can't roller skate in a Buffalo herd

The Ex will never forgive himself for selling Starbucks stock too soon. Some big-deal Wall Street analyst told him SBUX was headed for a tumble, and The Ex took that advice seriously. As a result he missed out on the megabucks, or so he says, in the manner of someone who says “awwww, almost!” when they get two numbers right in Lotto.

I’ve never quite understood the mentality of stock-trading-types who feel greater anguish over money they could have made than money they actually lost. Losses are simply part of the game, whereas missing out on the big bucks is a crime, a sin, an epic tragedy. For me, an epic tragedy is when Starbucks gives me decaf by accident. My God. I mean, my GOD.
Still, though, I’m not immune to the dismay of missing out. I often maintain that we never do graduate from high school, that we sustain certain teenage insecurities and immaturities all our lives, the chiefest of which is the fear that other people are having fun without you. That amazing party everyone’s talking about? You weren’t invited. Walking hand-in-hand with a cute guy across campus so all your friends can slit their wrists in envy? Nope, not today. Think you’re immune? Try walking into a room when everyone’s laughing at something you don’t understand, notice the way they look fleetingly at you, then look away, ignore you, and go back to laughing. And then tell me it doesn’t feel like some burrowing beast is chewing up your insides.

The peak of my missing-out insecurity came when I lived in New York. That, after all, is what New York does best: making you feel like wherever you are isn’t nearly as good as where you could be but aren’t. Your clothes, your hair, your body, your meals, your apartment, your job, your friends, your partner, the art on your wall, the books on your shelves, the vacations you take, the doctors you see, the sex positions you try, the therapist you spill your insecurities to about all the rest of this crap—none of it is ever, ever good enough. And it’s not just that it isn’t good enough, no. It’s that someone else—someone cooler but no more deserving—is doing it all a whole lot better.
Thankfully I’ve gotten past some of that as I’ve gotten older, and now I really, really, really, really, really don’t give a damn when I spend Friday night at home alone reading a book while people on the streets right outside my window are screaming and shouting and laughing their heads off because they’re having excruciating quantities of fun out there. Good for you, kiddies; now pipe down so the old lady can finish this chapter and turn in. And yet, that said, I can’t in all honesty claim to be completely over missing-out syndrome. There are still moments when that left-out, overlooked, picked-last-for-kickball feeling descends upon me, and I resent those people who are enjoying life in a way I can’t, for no fault of my own, for no merits of their own, simply because that’s just how it happened. One of the toughest things in the world to do is to feel genuinely happy for someone else who gets something you didn’t. We can go through the motions—we can congratulate them and “like” their happy facebook status lines and plaster on a smile—but there’s a hardness, a coldness, that grows inside. Sometimes I wonder if my smile will grow so wide it’ll split my face in two and the pieces of it will fall off and reveal the warty little thing inside me that blisters with resentment. Why you and not me? Why do you get to feel loved, and valued, why do you get what I’ve waited for, hoped for, wanted, for so long? What have you done to deserve this? Why am I still left out?

Aw screw it. I’m going for a run.
Usually when I start to feel this way, I do in fact go running. I’m no longer left out; I’m in it, right in it, exactly where I want to be. Thing is, I haven’t been able to run for the past month. Yeah, I did it to myself this time, I caused my own left-out-ness by running my first ultramarathon on an iffy Achilles tendon, and to the surprise of no one, including myself, 34 miles later my Achilles went from iffy to unconditionally wrecked. I finished the ultra, yes, no regrets about that, but I missed out on any number of end-of-summer activities in the four weeks following it.

My second ultramarathon was supposed to be last Saturday. I knew right away that wasn’t going to happen. When you’re scooting around the apartment on your butt because it hurts too much to walk and you’re tired of using crutches and you’re reasonably sure no one’s hidden a camera in the walls and broadcasting your buttwalk on youtube—well, even an obsessive ultra runner can admit that a 31-miler in western Oklahoma isn’t likely to happen.

I went anyway.
Oh don’t look at me like that. I went hoping to run 5, not 31. Of course there were people who frowned at me over even that far shorter distance, but there was no way I was going to be left out of this one. My running buddies were planning a crazy road trip and I wanted to be part of it. There would be beer. There would be junk food. There would be long hours of driving interrupted only briefly by visits to filthy rest stop restrooms.  I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

The landscape of western Oklahoma looks dead as the moon, but only a fool would believe nothing goes on there. Even the rocks, dead as they are, speak of movement and change. Many times this year I’ve felt the way this part of the world looks: nearly empty, close to lifeless, desolate and abandoned. Just wait, though. It’s teeming with life, if you look for it.
I ran that 5-miler and felt great. I then spent the next ten hours cheering on my running buddies, who were uninjured and able to run the longer distances I’d wanted to do. I did not resent them for it, not even a little. It’s hard to be truly, genuinely happy for other people, but when you can do it, it’s the sweetest thing ever—sweeter even, I think, than feeling happiness for yourself. I know what joy feels like, even if I haven’t felt it very often. When someone else experiences it, and I’m there with them, and I’ve helped them get to this moment, it’s like clear, clean water washing the dark, corrosive gunk of resentment and suffering out of your system.

You try to be happy. It isn’t always possible. So you try to avoid pain and suffering. That isn’t always possible either. Eventually you seek, not happiness, but solace. It isn’t the same as happiness, but in some way it’s far more satisfying. It is earned and appreciated. My 5-mile run was solace for the things I thought I missed out on. I still don’t have a lot of those things, and perhaps I never will. I think I can live with that.