Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The wilds

Our dog is 15 years old but you’d never know it when we let her out to get some exercise. The way she goes bounding off after rabbits, howling with excitement when she picks up their scent, you’d think she was a puppy again—or something even further back in time: a wolf. Luckily she’s too old and slow to catch anything, so we don’t have to deal with any unpleasant scenes of carnage, but unluckily she’s also quite deaf and thus impossible to call in when the day is done. The other night she stayed out well after sunset, willfully ignoring our attempts to get her attention in favor of cavorting through the field. When one of those crazy summer storms materialized out of nowhere, the winds kicked up and the rain poured down, she remained unfazed. Maybe she’d decided to enact that scene where King Lear rages at the storm on the heath, or maybe she was just too dimwitted to realize she probably shouldn’t emulate a fictional madman particularly in a situation involving lightning.

Eventually she came inside looking like she’d been through the rinse cycle a couple of times. She shook herself off on the rug (hey, you’re welcome) and curled up contentedly to snooze. She’s a domesticated pet, after all, and not truly wild, though living out here, it’s becoming easier to see the streaks of wildness in her.

Farmland is not truly wild either, of course. Rural areas are just as worked over by the human hand as urban ones. But it’s less easy to be in denial about the forces of wildness out here than it is in a city, where critters going through the trash and weeds poking up through cracks in the sidewalk are merely occasional annoyances that can be dealt with by purchasing appropriate products. The fewer buildings, cars, and people per square foot, the harder it becomes to ignore these kinds of unexpected encroachments.

Even the aspects of nature that are within our control—the crops we plant, the animals we raise—are a reminder of the very fact of the natural world. We have six chickens, which eat and drink and poop and cluck, and whenever I appear at their gate they come racing toward me doing that funny chicken run they do. K says they are more like dinosaurs than any other birds he’s seen; I don’t know enough about dinosaurs or birds to make that judgment, but I do know that these creatures are the same as the ones who gave us the Styrofoam-and-plastic-wrapped parts thawing in the fridge. No, I’m not going to go on an anti-meat diatribe right now; I merely point out that it’s a new experience for me, as it is for many people, to be see exactly what the things I eat looked like before they were deemed as food.

Elsewhere on our property, a month or so back we found some slender fingers of asparagus growing—not wild asparagus, a cultivated variety no doubt a remnant from the previous owner’s vegetable garden, but weird and surprising nonetheless. Even more surprising was what happened when we decided to let some of it keep growing, just to see what would happen. Seasoned gardeners will no doubt laugh at us, but I had no idea what asparagus looks like coming out of the earth—and how quickly a patch of it can turn into a grove of small trees.

Sometimes these unexpected moments can be stunningly beautiful. Before the storm came, but after the sun had set, I went out in the yard to see if I could entice the dog in with a handful of treats. I stopped a few feet from the house and looked slowly around me. The fields were glittering with fireflies. I’ve seen fireflies before, of course, but it’s one thing to see them in your backyard in the burbs and quite another to see them when your backyard is the size of a couple of football fields which blend seamlessly with all the other backyards in the area and cumulatively stretch clear to the horizon. It was as if half the Milky Way had fallen to earth and decided to stick around a bit to see whether this place was any good. If I see them again tomorrow night, I’ll know they decided in our favor.

So fireflies are stars, chickens are dinosaurs, the dog is a wolf, and the asparagus has become a forest. I guess it can make a person wonder what wildness might still be inside her, whether it will be beautiful or frightening, and how being here might reveal it in unexpected ways.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The feels versus the thinks

You’ve probably seen those cartoons that feature a bespectacled brain and a wide-eyed heart pulling each other in different directions, the heart generally prevailing as it skips jovially away chasing butterflies and rainbows. They’re cute and funny, though I don’t completely believe in the dichotomy these personably drawn organs represent. I’ve never seen “thoughts” and “feelings” as opposites, nor do I believe we must simplistically choose one over the other. The rational and emotional are not necessarily at odds, despite all the turmoil poor Mr. Spock had to go through on Star Trek; like so much in our world (and in outer space), it’s a little more complicated than that.

Take skydiving, for example. Take it far, far away. While I can very easily understand the appeal—literally no experience on earth could deliver such an adrenaline rush—the idea of jumping out of a plane fills me with loathing and horror. It’s not unreasonable to fear falling, as frequently it does not end well at any height, and there are many rational reasons not to undertake skydiving: it’s a genuinely risky thing to do, as avid skydivers will tell you that accidents are shockingly common and nobody will insure you if you foolishly state this as a hobby. Yet my loathing and horror is an entirely emotional response, not a rational one. Any yearning I have for new experiences and thrills is extinguished by my extreme gravity phobia. In this case, the emotional is at war with itself, with the rational simply a background chorus.

And then, in the realm of people who like their feet to leave the ground for no more than a few seconds at a time, there’s speed work. Every Wednesday my running club conducts speed workouts at a local high school track, and in the interest of training for a Boston qualifying marathon, I decided to participate. Speed work generally entails intervals, meaning that the runner goes fast and hard for a short distance or period of time alternating with an even shorter period/distance going slow and easy, repeating the pattern several times. Though you might end up “only” covering a couple of miles, it’s a grueling couple of miles. There are rational reasons why this is a good thing to do if you’re a runner, most obviously, to the point of tautology, running fast makes you a fast runner. This is the reason everyone does it. No one does it because they think it will be enjoyable. Running in circles until you’re about to throw up really shouldn’t be enjoyable.

Yet speed work is enjoyable, weirdly so, in large part because of the people you run with. We’re all way beyond our high school years (some of us way, way, way beyond them), yet here we are at a high school track trying to defy our years and push our bodies hard. Because of this, even though we are pushing hard, nobody here has left their sense of humor at home and nobody takes themselves too seriously. There are people of all speeds and all but the very fastest get lapped, so we’re always passing and being passed by others—which means always cheering and being cheered on. And of course, we’re all in pain. Nothing breeds camaraderie like mutual suffering.

Last Wednesday there were brutal winds gusting from the south, so the speed work coordinator improvised: 250 meters hard, 150 meters easy, in three sets of three repetitions. The 150 would be done going south, so we wouldn’t have to push hard against the wind for very long. That was kind, but it didn’t really lessen the suffering. Running hard feels like I imagine it would feel to drown in an undertow while wearing a suit of armor. You struggle, you flail, you reach, reach, reach, all the while your lungs are both collapsing and bursting at once. Push push pushpushpushpush PUSH.

It hurt. It hurt nine times. Each time I thought an alien had come bursting from my chest dragging my entrails behind it while I desperately tried to catch it so I could stuff everything back inside. And after the ninth time around that damned track, we turned to each other—gasping, aching, barely able to stand upright in the 40mph gusts—and one of us said, “Another three?”

We did another three.

I don’t know why we did it. It isn’t logical, since we were in pain, and emotion doesn’t quite explain it either since, well, pain. We did it, though, and I’m pretty sure I’m going to see all the same people again this Wednesday. Is it heart or head that brings me back? I don’t know, but I damn well intend to keep both of them inside me so I can go on running.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Mobility challenges

My parents have always been very proud of their mobility in their advanced years. My father refuses to use a cane even though he can’t walk very fast or far these days (and even though I suggested he could get a really fancy one, maybe with a golden lion's head, and wear a top hat, and I could follow him playing a recording of “Puttin’ on the Ritz”). As for my mother, she too scorned the suggestion that she get a walker—until it wasn’t a suggestion any more but a necessity, as it is now, following a recent series of trips to the ER for blot clots in both her legs. Typical of her, when it became a reality, she accepted it with good cheer, joking that she wanted to challenge her wheelchair-bound neighbor to a race. Normally I’d put money on the wheelchair but this is my mother we’re talking about—bet against her and you’re throwing your money away.

I don’t share much of her competitive spirit, I’m afraid; I tend toward an attitude of paralyzing self-doubt (I’d probably bet against myself going up against either walker or wheelchair). Sometimes, though, there are glimmers. Barely a week after my last marathon, I ran seven miles with the fast kids. These are the guys in our running club who battle each other for first place in local races and, when they race beyond our area, are always among the front runners. The fastest mile I’ve ever done in my life would still fall short of their marathon paces by a large handful of seconds—maybe two handfuls. If there were any situation that mandated the use of the letters W, T, and F, this was that. WTF was I doing running with them?

Regardless, I managed to keep up. They were cruising, granted, probably could have done that pace on one leg while I pushed, but the run went surprisingly well. I didn’t die, after all; that’s always a plus in these circumstances. Perhaps it went too well because two days later I did it again, got myself up running with the head of the pack on our club’s Tuesday fun runs. At one point two guys behind me were talking about their most recent 5k race and one noted that he’d done 17 minutes and change. He sounded disappointed. I tried to math that—stupid metric system!—and got as close as “sub-6 mile” before WTF-ing and letting them go by. 

There is no particular need for this abrupt switching of gears to speed mode. Yes, my one and only running goal for the rest of the year is to try to qualify for the Boston Marathon, but my target race isn’t for six months. If I kick too hard now, I’ll probably self-destruct before we even get to summer. Granted, I definitely have to work on speed. I’ve been in ultramarathon mode for a long time now, and I’ve gotten used to thinking of “pace” as unimportant. With super long distances, if you’re moving forward at all, you’re winning. Going from that to training for a BQ, which is all about that pace, takes some transitioning. 

Does it sound callously self-absorbed of me that I started this post talking about some serious health problems my mother is going through before segueing right into running? Well, this is a blog, so self-absorption is to be expected, but I’m going somewhere with this, and maybe you’ve already figured out where. I got the news about my mother on Saturday. On Sunday I ran with the fast kids. Not a coincidence.

I talked to my mother a couple of nights ago. “How are you?” 

“I’m being tortured.”

“Tortured? Well, that’s not good.”

OK, so it was a stupid question given that she was in the ICU and a stupid response given her answer, but it’s hard to know what to say in these situations.

She told me how they tried to push the blood through her leg, how much it hurt. I had a mental image of a leg slowly being rolled up like a nearly-spent tube of toothpaste. If my mother admits to feeling pain, it would probably take something that drastic.

There was a pause, and she added, “Now I know what you went through.”

I don’t ever recall having been tortured in my life other than the sort of mental self-torture I excel at. I figured out what she meant, though; a few years ago I had to be hospitalized with massive deep-vein thrombosis in my left leg. The circumstances were quite different for me, though, and while there had been some pain, there was far more discomfort than anything else. I couldn’t sleep much, couldn’t bathe at all, couldn’t use the bathroom on my own, couldn’t eat before surgery—and there were several surgeries. Still, none of that was exactly torture. But my mother kept saying it: I know what you went through. I know how much pain you felt.

I had a feeling she was really saying something else—an apology. At the time I was hospitalized, my cousin was getting married in Seattle, and my family had to be there rather than with me. I wasn’t bothered in the least; there wasn’t much they could do for me other than just sit there watching me not sleep or eat, and besides I had great parades of friends coming in and out with books for me to read, snacks for me to eat after surgery, and alcoholic beverages for me to drink once I got out (or on the sly while I was in). But I guess my mother felt bad about that now. “I didn’t realize what this was like for you. I didn’t know how much pain it was.”

She was feeling guilty for not being there for me, and the more she said it, the guiltier I started feeling for not being there with her. She feels guilty and I feel guilty and oh goodness, the whole mother-daughter guilt-fest thing, you know?

I could say that I’m going to try to BQ for my mother, but that would be ridiculous. She doesn’t care if I qualify for Boston; while she’d be vaguely happy for me if I achieve one of my personal goals, she’s never really understood this whole running business. I’m not running for her; I’m running for me, though I guess I’m also running because of her, in a way. My body will let me down one of these days, just as hers is doing now. Maybe it’s stupid to run with the fast kids at my age, especially since I can’t really keep up with them for long and my heart might very well explode right out of my chest if I try too hard. But I’m still here, so I guess I won’t bet against myself just yet.