Sunday, October 30, 2016

The next adventure

The husband and I are going as the Joneses for Halloween—Indiana and Jessica. He’s got the hat, I’ve got the leather jacket and grey scarf, and both of us favor costumes that allow us to dress more or less how we always do. Admittedly I would never have thought to be Jessica Jones if the husband’s kids weren’t fans of the show and I hadn’t caught a few episodes depicting the glumly edgy Marvel superhero. I’m pretty bad about keeping up with TV; most of the time I’m years behind, and if I happen to be watching something currently popular, I almost always forget to watch it one week and then lose interest. (I am also, by the way, possibly the only person in the world who actively seeks out spoilers so I don’t have to bother with watching the whole damn show, and my forgetting that I am in fact the only person like this has gotten me into a lot of trouble for blurting out things like “Abraham and Glenn.” You, uh, already knew about them, right?) 

There are pretty much only three things I watch fairly consistently: 1) Baseball, 2) Animal documentaries, and 3) Home improvement shows. Baseball is just about finished for the season, and animal documentaries are few and far between (the channels that should be showing this stuff tend to feature instead shows about “rugged” people who live “extreme” lifestyles where nothing all that dramatic really happens even though the narrator assures us that death by bear, snake, shark, or avalanche could happen at any moment). That leaves home improvement, which in truth isn’t all that different from much of the rest of television. Impossibly attractive people are put in made-up situations contrived to produce conflict and rising tension all leading to a happy resolution. In this case the conflict involves things like house-hunting couples who disagree on house styles (someone always says they like mid-century modern, even though I’m pretty sure no one in real life has ever said that, because no one in real life knows what the hell that means). 

You might think this sounds unimaginably dull, but you’d be surprised. Even the dullest show provides nearly endless opportunities for snark. A few examples:
  • Curb appeal. Why is this even a thing? How many times you gonna stand on the curb looking at your house?
  • Bathroom size. Why do so many people complain about how small the bathroom is? What are they planning on doing in there, rhythmic gymnastics?
  • Bathtubs. Why do people want them? What exactly is the point? You sit there like a dufus waiting as scalding hot water parboils your body just so you can enjoy the minute and a half that the water is the perfect temperature before you’re left sitting in cold dirty water. This is fun somehow?
  • Subway tiles. Every last designer wants to do the backsplash in subway tiles. Right, because nothing says clean and sanitary like the walls of a New York City subway station.
  • People who complain about “cookie-cutter houses.” You do realize you just criticized the way all these houses are exactly the same by using exactly the same phrase everyone else uses to describe them, right?
  • A house that has a perfectly usable kitchen or bathroom but because the cabinets aren’t white or Shaker or otherwise don’t go with the subway tiles you have planned, you’ve simply got to take a sledgehammer to it and haul everything away. You can’t, like, carefully remove it so someone else can use it, no. It’s hammer time.
  • That one designer who puts the same things on the walls of every single house. A big clock. An antique map. And always, always some insipid tautology like “Today is a good day to have a good day” in shiny metal script.
  • Many materials can be used for countertops. Granite is only one of these. There is no need to pout because a house doesn’t have it, or to shriek with ecstasy because it does. Ditto hardwood floors, stainless steel appliances, and Travertine tiles, which as far as I can tell are just regular tiles with a monastic-sounding name.

After a while my commentary pretty much devolves into a single theme.






The husband finds all this occasionally alarming but mostly amusing, especially when I go all potty-mouthed. To his great credit, he never asks why I continue to watch these shows when they piss me off so much; he just rolls with it, assuming there must be some reason I persist. The truth is I don’t really have a good reason, though I do have a genuine interest in design, paradoxically because I’m not all that skilled in it. Some people are only interested in things they’re good at, and while I’m like that in some respects, there are also things that captivate me precisely because I’m thoroughly mediocre at them. This mediocrity gives me a deep appreciation for those who truly excel at them. I love the idea of taking an old rundown house and fixing it up myself. I love the idea, yes, but lack all ability, which is why my first foray into real estate was a condo that didn’t even require so much as a coat of paint when I moved in.

Five years later, I’m about to enter my second foray into real estate, and it could not be more different from the first. It’s 116 years old, it’s on 4 acres, it’s just west of the middle of nowhere, and it does in fact need to be painted—one of these days, when we get around to it, after the fifty billion other things we’ll need to do to make it habitable, as it’s pretty much a shithole. Projects! Projects everywhere! There are two front doors, a real one and a fake one, but no kitchen appliances, stainless steel or otherwise. There are holes in the ceiling, cracks in the drywall, and a stain on the master bedroom floor that looks like it might once have been cordoned off by police tape. There’s an old deer pen on the property—there used to be a deer farm here, which as I understand it isn’t as much to produce venison as it is to sell deer pee to hunters—and right now it’s thick with brambles that will likely require many hours with a machete. Right behind the house is a pile of junk the previous owners somehow thought would disappear if they moved it behind the house. The pile includes an exercise bike, a filthy mattress (there’s always a filthy mattress), and six TV sets—basically every television these people owned for the past 50 years, dating back to a huge Sears brand the size of a dorm fridge, with big clicky buttons in lieu of a dial or a remote control. It’s like the history of television all in one broken-down place.

The husband and I have had our eyes on this shithole for some time now; it’s a short sale, which has meant no end of runaround and hoop-jumping. It also means we’re getting it for crazy cheap, which further means it will almost certainly turn out to be a money pit. But it has acreage, which we need to fly our birds and possibly expand our home menagerie, and it may allow us to live a somewhat more off-grid lifestyle—growing more of our own food, using alternative energy sources, making and doing more while buying and consuming less, yeah, all that. It’s enormously exciting and absolutely terrifying at once.

“So this is your revenge on me because I made you watch so much HGTV, right?” I joked to him as soon as we put in our offer.

“Are you having second thoughts?” he asked seriously.

Of course I was. Of course we both are, and continue to do so. We’re both too practical and realistic to imagine this is all going to be pure joy from start to finish. I swear a lot just watching TV; can you imagine the concert of cussing that will accompany my attempts to sand floorboards, strip wallpaper, and dig about a million postholes for fencing in the property? I’ve screamed myself hoarse when I couldn’t get the zipper of my rainjacket back on track. This is gonna be interesting.

And that’s pretty much the point. It will be interesting. It will not be easy or predictable, and we’re going into this having only a vague idea of what exactly we’ve gotten into. That’s one of the cool things about living something instead of just watching a show about it: there’s no chance for spoilers. Who knows what lies ahead for the Joneses, but it’s sure to be an adventure.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Common ground, paved or otherwise

During one of the ten 5K loops I ran this past weekend at a trail ultra, I chatted with another runner who so preferred running trails and so despised running roads that for the 50 yards of the course that were on parking lot instead of trail, he went out of his way to run around the asphalt. “Trail running is the best,” he gushed. “Trail runners are the best. They are so much nicer than road runners. If a trail runner falls, others stop and help. That would never happen on roads!”

I smiled, not because I agreed but because I’ve heard it all before. I’ve been both roads-only and trails-4eva at different points in my life, and in my experience each group makes similar claims about the other. Road-running friends of mine have told of being made to feel like non-star-bellied Sneetches when they tried to join a trail group, while trail aficionados will grouse about the road-racing mentality of caring more about beating other people than actually having any fun. So, too, with baseball teams—the other team always has the rudest fans—and politics, and everything else you can think of on this planet that can be categorized and, inevitably, pitted against each other.

As much as I would like to believe in the simplicity and purity of running, nothing in this world is ever free of complication and mess. Yes, it’s true that running can bring very different people together to form a caring community with a shared goal, but it’s easy to do that when the goal is a voluntarily chosen one and the people all have a certain degree of privilege. No, not all runners are wealthy, but we all have enough time to run for enjoyment and enough money to pay for shoes and race fees, and not everyone in the world can say that. And even in our shared goal, we create conflict. Trails vs. roads. Carbs vs. protein. Maximalist vs. minimalist vs. bare. Us vs. them. Even common ground comes in different, seemingly mutually exclusive types.

When we came around to the start/finish, I wished the trails-only guy well and let him go ahead, since his pace was faster than mine and since in truth I’m one of those runners (and here’s yet another divide) who doesn’t like to talk while running and he clearly did. When I started my next loop, I noticed after a while that two runners just behind me were going about the same pace I was. They were talkers, and I couldn’t avoid overhearing, but luckily their conversation wasn’t annoying and didn’t involve me, so I didn’t feel the anxious urge to drop back or surge ahead. I could tell that these two hadn’t known each other before the race but were both friendly, chatty people. I could also tell very quickly that their similarities pretty much ended there and they were about as different as you could imagine.

One was a young woman who was a senior at Purdue, the other was a retired ex-Marine with a “Semper Fi” tattoo, and they were talking about places they’d been in the world. Semper Fi had been stationed in Hawaii for a while, and Purdue asked him what it was like. “Did you get to see anything there? I mean, are you allowed to leave the base?” Clearly she had no idea what military life was like—seemed to think it was something akin to hard labor in prison. She meanwhile had just returned from a summer abroad in Turkey. “Turkey?!” he exclaimed, in a tone that clearly implied why in the hell would you go there? “That sounds dangerous.” “Oh no,” Purdue assured him. “Turkey is a very safe place. I loved it there. The people are so nice, and I never felt like I was in danger, even walking around at night. Crime is very low. The prisons are pretty awful,” she added, “so no one wants to commit a crime!”

There was a pause, and Semper Fi spoke again. “I have to say, I don’t think much of the ways of that part of the world.”

I took a deep breath and let it out. I was running, after all, and breathing is kind of important, but I also sensed something happening back there. There’s a moment during a conversation with someone you don’t know very well when one of you says something that causes both of you to freeze just a bit. Things were pleasant up until then, but now you realize that perhaps this person might be on the opposite side of an important divide. You don’t want to get into all that with someone you just met, so you don’t go there, but your interaction has been changed permanently and you are both likely looking for ways to end it with cool civility. Such was the case, I figured, with Purdue and Semper Fi. Things were different now; there were longer pauses between things each of them said, and it wasn’t because they were getting out of breath. It was early in the race; we all still had a long way to go.

After I finished that loop I got myself a salted potato, quickly filled up my water bottle, and went out again. I was feeling good that day, and in fact I ended up running one of my best ultras ever. This ends up changing nothing in the world for anyone but me, and even for me it isn’t exactly life-altering. I ran hard and did well, I ate a lot and took a nap, and now it’s two days later and facebook continues to be plagued with posts about how evil, immoral, criminal, and just plain stupid the other side is.

I have views. Some of them are strong ones. As such, I’m not going to make some soft, mushy statement about how life should be more like running, where we can put aside our differences and just accept each other as is. It’s easy to get along with people when nothing much is at stake, which is the case when a bunch of runners get together to run circles in the woods all day. When your identity, your values, your livelihood or your very life is at stake, you choose sides, and you fight hard for yours, and you understandably may even come to hate people who represent the side that wants to take all that away from you. A fellow running friend of mine likes to say “Life is hard; running is easy,” and she’s right, not because I ran effortlessly and pain-free last weekend (oh hell no; there was massive effort and tremendous pain), but because I knew exactly what I had to do and no one was standing in the way of my getting it done but me. That’s not true of a lot of other things in life for a lot of people, and the conversation I’d overheard, with its clash of ideologies, reminded me of this. In a trail ultra, that kind of conflict may result in no more than an uncomfortable pause; in the world, it can be much worse.

Funny thing, though: after I started running again, I realized those two were still behind me—still together, still talking. Now they were comparing different races they’d done. “I can’t believe how expensive road marathons are getting to be!” Semper Fi said. “You know New York is like five hundred dollars?”

“Seriously?!” Purdue exclaimed. “Wow. The last trail marathon I did was like thirty bucks!”

I smiled again, albeit wryly. OK, so maybe one divide replaces another and we’re forever us-ing and them-ing. Maybe it’s na├»ve to take any kind of positive message from this incident because after all, it is just running. But I refuse to believe that’s nothing. It is possible, at least some of the time, to accept differences and get along and work toward a common goal. It can happen, which means it can happen again. After this loop, after this day, we go forward together for another.