Monday, May 23, 2016

Pomp and potties

May is a trying month for introverts, as the better weather it brings means both sunscreen and socialness are required. This past weekend was a busy one that included a trail race, a wedding, and a graduation. The trail race I’ll get to later; first, the wedding, which was only one of a number of nuptial-related events going on in recent months for me and people I know. The last wedding I went to before this one had been your classic non-church wedding and reception. There were the slow walks down the aisle and back, the online-ordained friend acting as officiant, the champagne toasts, the bouquet-and-garter tossings, the bride-and-groom dance, the bride-and-dad dance, the groom-and-mom dance, and the Electric Slide. One more thing, too: it was a hell of a lot of fun. Just because I myself am not going that route with my wedding doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the necessity of ritual. In other words, sometimes you just have to get in a circle and spell out “Y-M-C-A” with your arms.

The wedding this weekend, between two of my ESL students, was quite different: “churchy,” a colleague in attendance whispered to me as we seated ourselves in a pew and surveyed the program. That said, it was still not your usual hymn-and-scripture ceremony, as the groom is getting his PhD in music at the university here and it was as much an organ, piano, and choir concert as a wedding. It also had a distinctly international flavor, with 1 Corinthians 13 read in Japanese, a version of the Lord’s Prayer in Maori, a little Latin thrown in here and there, and the affirmations of the marriage given as both “I do” and “hai”. I studied Japanese a couple lifetimes ago and have since forgotten just about all of it other than words like “futtoboru” (football) and “terebi” (television), but I still recognized the ending of the Corinthians scripture quite plainly even before it was read again in English: The greatest of these is love.

I’m not religious, but I appreciate good writing, and it’s understandable why this verse is read so often at weddings. If I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but I do not have love, I am nothing. Poetic and profound indeed, and yet at the same time I’ve always had mixed feelings about these words. I couldn’t help but imagine some single young person there among the pews—maybe that moon-faced lady in the back, who for a long time would have been me—thinking great, I have no one to love, I’m nothing, I’m going to die alone, thanks Jesus. I realize the verse isn’t talking about mere hearts-and-flowers love, of course, but these words are read at weddings, and it always struck me as sounding just a little smug in that context. Indeed, there’s a faint smugness that imbues weddings, even if unintentionally: Yay, look at us, we are loved, we in our beautiful clothes in this opulent setting, even if it’s a prepackaged opulence that countless others have employed. I know what a perverse and mean-spirited thing that is to think, and I certainly shouldn’t be thinking it now that I’m about to undertake a similar celebration of my own. But this is me we’re talking about. Even if I eschew mean-spiritedness, you’ve got to allow me perversity.

In that church I had the same sensation I’ve had in numerous situations—almost daily, at times—throughout my life: the feeling of standing outside peering into a window watching other people do things I’m not a part of, not sure I even want or need to be a part of, ever the outsider. I looked at the dramatic images in the stained-glass windows, I heard the commanding chords of the organ, I listened to the impassioned sermon by the pastor, and I could easily understand the draw. I could understand it, yes, but I wasn’t part of it in the same way as those who knew they belonged there. 

This feeling was even stronger at the graduation. The fiancĂ©‘s youngest daughter has just finished high school at a private Catholic school in town, so we shuffled into the gym to hear “Pomp and Circumstance” (played with a vaguely oom-pah-ish flavor by the band, for some reason) and watch the kids, gowned and mortarboarded, as they filed in, looking way too young to be facing a world where a reality TV show host might lead the nation. If the wedding was churchy, the graduation was mass-ive. There were only 79 members of the graduating class—about a fifth what mine had been—so I’d foolishly thought commencement would breeze by. I forgot about the Catholic part. It’s been a long time since I’ve been to mass, and I’d forgotten all the appropriate standing and sitting and responding. (When did they change “and also with you” to “and with your spirit”? That’s how long it’s been.) It was a couple hours later when the principal of the school finally, almost as an afterthought, congratulated the Class of 2016, who filed out of the gym into blazing sunlight, blinking and looking momentarily, appropriately, dazed.

And then there was the race. People who don’t run are often appalled when they find out how much registration fees are for races, and they think they’re being clever when they say “pay me that money and I’ll cheer you on while you run around the block a hundred times!” Um, kind of not the same? Not the same at all, in fact, because the runners actually did pay me, in a manner of speaking, so I could cheer them on—and so I could organize the thing. This was my debut as race director; a good friend and I were responsible for all aspects of the 5-mile trail run, and let me tell you it is a lot more than cheering. I had about twenty-seven mini heart attacks before the event. Would there be thunderstorms? Would anyone get lost? Would we run out of water, shirts, or food? What if the chip timing system failed? What if someone got injured? For the love of God, where are those Porta Potties we ordered? (Laugh if you like, but you simply can not have a race if people have nowhere to poop and pee beforehand.) As it turned out, there was no need for myocardial infarction; the sun came out to shine on the gleaming blue Porta Potties, the runners ran, I cheered, awards were given, all went well.

Most people, even those who prize their independence, need to belong to something larger than themselves in some way, at least a little. I run for the enjoyment of it, yet every so often I need my running to be “official” somehow by following a plan leading up to an event all of which is suffused with ritual—special foods, special clothing, special music (i.e., “Born to Run,” the “Pomp and Circumstance” of racing). Likewise, I’m getting married pretty much for the same reason: the enjoyment of it, of experiencing the rest of my life with another person. It’s our thing, and it’s personal. But even I, in my self-imposed outsider status, have elected to commemorate the personal with a ceremony of sorts. It’s what you do from time to time if you’re part of humanity—because you do have to remember this, that you are a part of it, whether you’re the one making sure it all comes together or you’re just sitting off to the side watching or both, at different times in a life of constant change, occasionally paused for a prayer, a dance, or a dash to the finish line.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Are you for real?

There are times during a tough ultramarathon—and I’ve never done one that wasn’t tough in some way—when you try to gain some perspective by thinking of, say, the Bataan Death March. This isn’t that, you remind yourself sternly. No one’s forcing you to do this, and no one’s gonna die one way or another. Suck it up and keep moving. You remind yourself of all that, yes, and yet it does not always succeed in making you feel better. Sometimes all your perspective is reduced to a single view, that of the trail ahead of you, and it’s a view so ghastly you can only think of your own abject misery.

I didn’t actually run an ultramarathon last weekend—I didn’t run any race at all. Instead I paced a couple of friends in their attempt to do a hundred miler. I rather enjoy pacing people in long races, playing a part, however small, in helping them achieve a cherished goal. What’s more, because pacers do only a fraction of the total race distance, they’re always running on fresher, stronger legs than the runner they’re pacing. This means there’s no pressure to push yourself, no danger that you won’t perform up to expectations, because you’re never running beyond your limits. This, at least, had been my experience up until Saturday evening, after it had been pouring rain all day, and continued to do so as I readied for a 17-mile loop on the Indiana Trail.

I had never run this particular trail before, but based on a video one of my runners posted, it looked like the kind of trail I would love. Plenty of trees, a few creeks to cross, a bunch of hills to climb, nothing too strenuous, all of it scenic. I suppose if I go back to run it someday in the future, it might indeed be as enjoyable as I envisioned. As it was, however, trees meant rooty trip hazards, creeks meant deep mud, hills meant mudslides, and as for scenic, I ran most of the way in the dark staring fixedly at the mud in front of me desperately trying to avoid a close-up view. All noble thoughts of helping my runners achieve their goal got washed away in the deluge as my world became reduced to one goal: get through this miserable motherfucking ordeal without going down.

And so there I was, The Worst Pacer Ever. My runners had already done 51 miles in this slop and I could barely keep up with them. They had “hired” me to keep them going and keep their spirits up, and there I was wondering why in the hell anyone would want to do such a horrific thing as this. The rain and the mud were not merely annoying and messy. We were wet and cold, and stayed that way, and the constant sliding and twisting of our bodies with each step meant that we moved almost as much backwards and sideways as forward, and our muscles were being wrung like dishrags. It was as if all of Mother Nature had non-stop diarrhea, and we had to wade through it.

Still I tried to do my pacing duties as best I could. I sang songs, told jokes, and muled as much of their gear as possible—and let me tell you, hundred milers carry a lot of gear, to the point where I found myself shelpping three headlamps, two pairs of gloves, a poncho, a packet of wet-naps, several baggies of food, and a few other things I wasn’t sure what they were, fervently hoping I wouldn’t take a spill and drop every last thing into a ravine. I rah-rah’d. I yay-you’d. I reminded my runners when they needed to eat, when they should slow down or speed up, how much time they were spending at the aid station, how much time they would have to complete the loop if they wanted to meet the cutoff time—as if I really knew what I was talking about, never having run a hundred myself, and not right now having any desire to do so.

None of that was enough. In the end, knowing they weren’t going to make the cutoffs, my runners DNF’d at the end of the loop. It was nearly 1:30am; they’d been running since 6am the previous morning through all that muck and yuck, and nobody with sense would think badly of them for dropping the race. Indeed, anyone with sense would question trying to do this in the first place. This wasn’t their first attempt; each had successfully done this distance before, but as one runner put it, who wants to be a “one and done”? Lots of people do, of course, with even more wanting to be “none and done” when it comes to the prospect of moving quickly and continuously for what usually ends up being around a full day. But I knew what she meant. There’s something intensely irksome to hard-core runners about “bucket listers,” the people who just want to say they did it so they never have to do it again. If we’re honest with ourselves, though, we’ll admit that our irkedness is really insecurity. We want to be hard-core, but we’re afraid that we aren’t, that we’re the worst kind of poseur.

“I guess that one time was a fluke,” my runner friend said wryly at the end of our loop. She had successfully completed the first hundred she’d ever attempted, but since then there had been nothing but DNF’s as she struggled to escape one-and-done status.

I looked at her, both of us shivering, caked in mud, and the rah-rah died in my throat. How in the world could I convince her there was no “fluking” going on here? Most of the time I can’t even convince myself I’m not a complete fraud at life. And anyway, I was sure she’d do what I do in this situation, when a well-meaning and deeply sincere friend assures me of my awesomeness: smile wanly and not believe a word.

I guess the answer to the question “how do we know we’re for real and not frauds?” is to not care one way or another, to just keep doing your thing until you can’t, and when that happens, when you can’t any more, you shrug your tired shoulders, put on some clean, dry clothes and drink some chicken soup. The runners’ tent is damp and smelly, but the chicken soup is deliciously salty and warm, and look, there are your friends, smiling at you, saying good job, and meaning it, and you do feel kind of good, and kind of lousy, yeah, maybe a lot lousy, but whatever it is you feel, you know that’s the for-real part of it all, whatever experience you just had, grand or ghastly, it did in fact just happen to you—and could just happen again.