Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Days of long ago...and far ahead

I read something the other day about how the color of the underwear you have on when you ring in the new year is an indicator of the way the rest of the year will be. Unfortunately, the guide to what the different colors mean included yellow and green, of which I have none, but not black, which I have in abundance. From here this blog post can only get better, so hopefully that will make up for my wearing underwear that brings harbingers of year-long doom.

My mother’s version of the underwear prophecy was a little more generalized and, naturally, far less scandalous; she simply said that what you do in general on New Year’s Eve will be reflected in the following year. Like a lot of these kinds of predictive superstitions, this one’s purpose seems to be to encourage a person not to sulk over the bad stuff that happened in the previous months but rather to move forward into a brighter future. What you do now, so it is suggested, will help create that future. Obviously this has just about as much merit as the underwear thing; most people do fairly atypical activities on New Year’s Eve, after all, and since I did not spend 2014 dancing to “YMCA” and rushing out to Schnuck’s to buy mozzarella sticks to replace the ones the dog ate, the prophecy was dead wrong for me.

In fact, I have to believe almost every prediction I’ve tried to make about my life has been wrong. I “predicted,” wishfully, that certain things would happen at certain points in my life, when in fact they either took a whole lot longer than desired or didn’t happen at all. I also failed to predict vast amounts and types of experiences I did end up having. I could not have anticipated how unconventional my life would turn out to be, as I’ve never really thought of myself as a “free spirit” (and frankly I rather despise the way that term is used in popular culture, as it tends to describe women who wear whimsical hats and nose rings rather than women who steadfastly remain spinsters and quit perfectly good tenured jobs). Thirty years ago it would never have crossed my mind that I would run marathons. Athletes ran marathons; I ran away from balls thrown at me in PE.

Like a lot of people, when I was young I was ambitious, I craved adventure. Now that I’m not quite so young any more, I’m more interested in calmness and stability. This is not, as you might think if you’re half my age, because I got old and boring and more risk-averse. If anything, I’m a stronger person now than I ever was before, and I could probably handle risky things a lot better. But at this point in my life, risk-taking often ends up being just another way to pass the time, no better or worse than any other. Sometimes a risky thing ends up totally worth it; sometimes it’s just hard and painful. Maybe the key is to avoid expectations and predictions entirely. But if you aren’t looking back for fear of regrets and you aren’t looking forward because you might be getting your hopes up only to be crushed later, where exactly can you look?

Perhaps the thing to do on NYE isn’t to turn your back on the past or blind yourself to the future. After all, it’s not a bad thing to see how far you’ve come or dream about where you might still go. The trick, of course, is to do it without regrets—or denial. People who say they have no regrets strike me as people who aren’t thinking very hard. Me, I have a ton of regrets. If I had to do it over again, I’d live more conventionally, be more connected, more rooted; years of loneliness could have been avoided. Or, I’d live an even less conventional life, totally rootless, never settling down, always on the move to a new horizon; just think of all that wasted time I could have spent seeing things, doing things, truly living on the edge. Yeah, I have a ton of regrets, but the thing is, there’s no way I could have lived my life any differently than the way it happened because of who I was—and am. To wish things had been different is to wish I had been a different person.

So what is this person that I am doing as she faces a new year? I am looking at cover designs for my new novel. I am planning on cooking something fun for tonight’s festivities. I am…not running, actually, but I will do a fairly intensive strength training workout as I recover from an injury (uh oh…cue ominous chord). I am spending time with the dog. (The dog is eating something gross-looking on the floor…re-cue ominous chord.) I am going to see the BF later and we will go hang out with our friends. Nothing too crazy, nothing to complain about. I’ll take it. Bring in the new year.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014


The BF is on primary call at the clinic this week, which means that he’s liable to receive phone calls, and possibly even have to go in to work, at any time. We got two middle-of-the-night calls last night, in fact, regarding a bunny who may very well be, as the BF puts it, The Rabbit Who Ruined Christmas. The poor critter’s hind legs have been paralyzed for a while, and now it’s going through some sort of trouble with its innards as well. The owners are paying a great deal of money to see to its care. They simply will not let go.

I get it about wanting to keep your pets alive, I do; everyone who has one feels this way. I also know that as soon as you say “wouldn’t it be better to put an end to the animal’s suffering?” someone will fire back, How do you know they’re suffering? What makes you think the animal would rather die? And yet, as the BF puts it, the one thing vets allow themselves to anthropomorphize is reaction to pain. Pain, after all, is not an emotion; it’s a physiological fact. If you have a central nervous system, almost by definition you feel pain, and if a person can feel it, chances are an animal can as well. The Rabbit Who Ruined Christmas is unquestionably in pain—a lot of it.

Oddly, though, what gets at me more than this is a certain degree of anthropomorphization-based empathy. If you’re a rabbit, just about everything in nature wants to eat you. Feeling helpless and vulnerable is probably the worst thing you could feel, knowing that at any moment something could swoop down and rip your head off and you would be completely powerless to prevent it. What physical pain is to the body, the feeling of helplessness is to the psyche: it shuts you down.

I’ve been thinking about helplessness and dependency lately, in large part because first I then the BF have both been injured from running. (Please, non-runners, do not now wag your fingers and exclaim “See? Running is bad for you! I’ll never do it!” Neither you nor I need justification for what we choose to do or not do, so let us move on.) Both of us injured our right ankles, which unfortunately means we can’t even do a three-legged raced together unless one of us runs backwards. Luckily, I’m on the mend; I was able to do my first run in 5 weeks last Sunday, and while it wasn’t pretty, it was 3 miles more than I’d done in over a month, and that felt very, very good. The BF’s injury, on the other hand, is only a week old, and it’s a bad one. When doctors, physical therapists, and other hard-core runners who have seen all manner of injuries take one look at your leg and shriek, you know something’s not right. Uniformly everyone in east-central Illinois agrees, it’s the worst sprain they’ve ever seen. I guess that’s a feather in his cap, of sorts.

Like many people in some branch of the medical profession—and like just about every runner I know—the BF is a bad patient. He dislikes sitting still, resting, taking it easy, doing nothing—hell, I’ve even heard him say he wishes he only needed about 2 hours of sleep because sleeping is such a huge waste of time. (This is one area where we disagree. Sleep is delicious, in my view.) As such, an injury like this has meant a complete upheaval of his life. Obviously walking is a major undertaking, but so is sitting, standing, showering, and even driving. In short, he feels helpless and dependent, and hates it.

Been there. Oh boy have I ever, and I’m not just talking about those times (goodness, how many times have there been, anyway?) when I was injured from running. I also hate the helplessness and dependency that comes from having to ask a question of someone who is an expert in an area I know nothing about. This is a great many areas. Sometimes it can be a learning experience, but much of the time it’s an experience in anxiety, suspicion, and humiliation. Plumbers, mechanics, and anyone involved in anything the least bit technological—they’re all out to fleece me, I’m sure of it, and all they have to do is throw around some random jargon in an unnecessarily complicated way and I’m instantly a bunny rabbit with paralyzed hindquarters.

I like to think of myself as a fairly independent person; after all, I’ve lived more of my life by myself, doing my own thing, than otherwise. Many times I’ve traveled to a place where I knew not one person, sometimes to live, other times just to visit, and I’ve always managed to get by just fine. That’s not to say, however, that it’s always been easy—or even enjoyable. When you come back from a vacation, you have two choices: you can complain about how comically sucky everything was or you can brag about how cosmically awesome everything was. Well, when you travel alone, you have no choice but to do the latter. You don’t want to admit, even to yourself, that the risk you took in going off on your own didn’t pay off, because it was a risk, one that most people decide isn’t worth it. I don’t regret any of my solo journeys, but at the same time, they were often lonely and frustrating. The loneliness is actually easier to deal with; loneliness in a foreign environment can feel weirdly cleansing, because it forces you to deal with the person you are. Frustration, however, is borne of helplessness. You think, endlessly, I don’t know where I’m going, I don’t speak the language, people are staring at me and I can’t make them stop. You start to wonder if you’ve grown long ears and a cotton tail.

But being independent is not necessarily the hardest way to live your life. I’ve learned how to be reasonably self-sufficient (at least until there’s some plumbing mishap); now, in the second half of my life, I’m learning how to be responsible. For a long time I didn’t have a partner, didn’t have children, didn’t even have pets. Now I deal with all of these in one form or another. I had a fun conversation about books with one of the BF’s daughters the other day and I felt like I’d scored a major victory. Yes! I can talk to a child and not scar them for life with my bad attitude! I got the macaws to fly over to me to get treats. Woo hoo! They aren’t just ignoring me or trying to bite my fingers off! The dog needs to be walked (and told, endlessly, “don’t eat that”), the BF needs his foot bandaged (and told, futilely, “you need to rest more”), and even the turtle, silent and still in his Nemo-themed kiddie pool, needs a nice juicy worm once in a while. The trick to dealing with all this isn’t just martyrishly slaving away for all of the above but rather establishing that all of this is not just independence or dependence but interdependence. It is not a sacrifice to help someone; it is an action undertaken to meet a goal. The goal, in this case, is to make life livable. That’s a pretty reasonable goal, yes?

I’ve been injured and alone, and it sucks. I’ve also been injured and gotten help, and at those moments I’ve understood grace and humility like no Sunday school lesson could ever teach. When you’ve been helpless, you never want to be there again, but you will be, if someone else doesn’t get there first; it’s just plain inevitable, like it or not. When that happens, you do what you can, we all do what we can, and when that happens, we do get by somehow.   

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Food rules (it really does)

If I could make a nomination for catchphrase of the year, it would be “You’re doing it wrong.” If I could further make a nomination for catchphrase that everyone needs to stop using, it would be “You’re doing it wrong.” Why in the world do we click on links that trumpet this phrase at us? Why do we want to be told that we are driving, dressing, traveling, exercising, having sex, raising children, and peeling bananas in a way that deserves public berating? But we do want to be told these things, we do. We are terrified of being the rube that can’t tie a scarf properly, wears cotton to go running, pays full price for things that can be had dirt cheap or even free—if we should be such simpletons as to want those things in the first place—so we anxiously await the latest article that shows us in no uncertain terms exactly how we suck.

And in no topic is there as much “doing it wrong” as eating. When it comes to food, we are always doing it wrong. We may not think we are—we probably, smugly, believe we’re the ones doing it right because we read this article or that book or heard his lecture or saw her video—but trust me, give it time, and you too will find out that the meals you thought were splendid displays of your nutritional and culinary superiority have actually been ensuring your early demise. Sucks to be you.

I’m not going to tell you that eating is simple. It isn’t, and because of this I respect people who are thoughtful about their food, whether it’s because they want to be healthy or because they want to take an ethical stance. It is too easy to make fun of people’s food prohibitions, too easy to point out our hypocrisies. I’m not going to do that, even though I was sorely tempted to do so based on a series of comments on a facebook thread I viewed this week. (What did I do for blog post material before facebook? Oh wait, I didn’t have a blog. What did I do when I wanted to express every insignificant thought that ever crossed my mind? It was a darker time, I tell you.) This was one of the most depressing threads I’ve seen lately—and if you’re even remotely aware of the current events being discussed these days, you might think that statement is pretty ridiculous. It was depressing, though, because every comment on it was about how Food X is bad because of this, Food Y is worse because of that, and Food Z, well, hell, you might as well just put Food Z on a cancer stick, dip it in cyanide sauce and roll it in arsenic sprinkles before you eat it. Everything is bad. Everything is something you should not eat.

Yes, I realize that some people genuinely cannot eat some foods without compromising their health. I also realize that taste is not something you can force on people. The BF hates broccoli. This makes me sad. It does not make him wrong. (Don’t tell him I said that, though.) What bothers me the most about all these food rules isn’t what they tell us but how they tell it to us. Everything is punitive. All the rules focus on right and wrong, mainly wrong. Where’s the fun in that? Eating can be fun, and here’s the bonus: you have to do it. How many fun things in the world are mandatory on a daily basis?

Generally this is where I do a running analogy, but given my bum ankle and resulting woeful lack of running activity, I’m going to do a writing analogy. (My analogies tend to be about either running, eating, or writing, and I can’t analogize eating with eating, so yeah, default.) No creative writing activity produces worse writing than giving students a blank piece of paper and telling them they can write whatever they want. Give them a few “rules,” however—write a story in second person, write a story in multiple points of view telling the same event, write a sestina, write a sonnet—and watch their imaginations go wild. The rules are not there to be restrictive; they are there as a challenge, as a way to try something new that you might not have thought of before. Why can’t we have the same attitude about food? Some people do have this attitude, and their culinary experiments end up changing the way we eat for the better. This is not because we’re healthier or more ethical, even though we may very well be. We’re better off because now we have something new to try, a new edible adventure.

The vilification of wheat led me to try quinoa, which I like very much. (It also led me to try millet, which was less satisfying and garnered some chuckles from the BF, who gently informed me that millet is a major ingredient of the unappealing stuff we feed our macaws.) The scorning of high fructose corn syrup prompted me to buy plain yogurt instead of presweetened and experimenting with various flavorings, not all of them sweet. When only cretins and morons were purported to still be on low-fat diets, I found all kinds of cool uses for bacon. I still eat wheat, I still don’t eat a whole lot of fat, and I got to believe there’s still plenty of HFCS coursing through my blood vessels, but now I also have a lot of other options. I like that. So please don’t pissily tell me all the things I’m doing wrong by eating these things or not eating others, and I won’t tell you that you’re doing it wrong either. You aren’t. Carry on and keep eating.

Friday, December 5, 2014

We really don’t need another hero

Maybe it’s because I’m a reader and a writer, but I’ve never been one to believe in role models. After all, a lot of great writers are total shits, and it only takes one time to realize this, one amazing book that changed your life and you lived in a daze from its impact for weeks, months, even years after you finished it and you eagerly sought anything you could find out about the author—your new deity—only to discover their total shitness. I have no interest in meeting any of my favorite writers, whether they give away most of their royalties to charity or use the cash to buy jewel-encrusted yachts powered by cruelly enslaved treadmill-running wombats. I just don’t want to know.

That said, I also don’t want to live in ignorance. People sometimes get angry because the media seems bound and determined to sully every great name in existence, yet is it really better to be in denial? If a great writer is suddenly revealed to be a terrible human being, we have a choice. We can choose to ignore the terribleness; we can decide to esteem the work as perhaps coming from a part of the writer that still is redeemable even if the other parts deserve our condemnation; or we can censure both writer and work. If eventually both writer and work fall out of favor, that tells us something important about ourselves: there are some things, some acts and beliefs and attitudes, that do not justify any amount of talent or accomplishments.

History is filled with great people who were beloved until they proved to be not nearly so saintly as was imagined. You don’t have to look all that far back—in fact, you don’t have to look back at all. My sister and I can still probably recite some of Bill Cosby’s recorded standup routines decades after the fact, though we probably won’t be doing that ever again. And you really don’t need to say more than “sports” to find a seemingly infinite number of heroes gone bad. But did they really “go bad”? Were they always that way but fame disguised it?

I hate facebook brouhahas and have managed to avoid most of them, but I came close to causing one earlier this week when an errant comment about Taylor Swift made it very clear that some of my fb friends adore her while others would as soon stick corncob holders in their ears as hear “Shake It Off” one more time. To me, she’s a shrug; while her music isn’t to my taste, I can certainly understand its appeal. What bothered me a little, though, was when those in Team Tay-Tay noted that she’s been an excellent role model for young women, something increasingly rare in the music industry. Ms. Swift could very well be a lovely person—I certainly wouldn’t know one way or another—but the bothersome thing for me is the fact that what people most revere about her isn’t what makes her a role model. Taylor Swift is rich, famous, gorgeous, and (yes, naysayers) talented. Most people aren’t any of those things and probably never will be, so why decide that this is someone we should encourage our children to be like? “Because they’ll want to anyway”? Not necessarily.

I guess I believe we should do as our role models do, not as they claim to be—or are expected to be. Terrible people do wonderful, kind, generous things all the time. Robber-barons set up scholarships, tyrannical despots fund the arts, and some of a virulent racist’s best friends are the very target of his hatred. One action does not a person make, whether that action is for good or for evil, so the simplest solution is to try to emulate the good actions of a famous person without necessarily extrapolating that goodness to cover everything the person does. Perhaps this is why I find it more satisfying and productive to find heroism in ordinary people. As I’ve said many times, long distance running is not going to create world peace in our time, yet spending time with other runners has allowed me to see determination, generosity, compassion, diligence, and all sorts of other positive, emulation-worthy qualities. Importantly, these qualities exist in runners who may never win races—who may never even enter races, but simply run for the love of it. Of course I’d love to be as fast, as strong, as durable as the best runners, but the funny thing is, it’s actually easier—and more satisfying—to try to be as good as they are in those other ways. I’ll still follow Meb and Paula and all the other elites, but if another revered marathoner falls from grace because of less-than-role-model behavior…eh, it won’t bother me. I’ll just shake it off and go for a run.