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
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.
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
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.
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.