Friday, October 27, 2017

House, mouse, and grouse

The upside of living in a dump like ours is you don’t have to decorate for Halloween. Our cobwebs, scurrying creatures, and scary noises all came gratis with the eccentric plumbing and questionable electrical outlets. Why pay money to see the latest Stephen King adaptation in the theaters when you can go down in our crawl space for free? (While you’re there, could you maybe put up a vapor barrier and seal up some of the holes where the scurrying creatures are getting in? K thanks.)

K and I have already accepted that this will not be a fairy-tale story in which the Cinderella house is magically transformed into a princess-like palace. We have neither the money nor the know-how for that (nor an obliging fairy godmother, for that matter). In fact, we have already accepted the squalor around us as a normal part of our lives, at least until friends stop by and we show them around and I remember that not everyone has an old bathroom sink on the front porch, an old kitchen sink in the back yard, a mousetrap in every room and an orange traffic cone in the bathroom doorway, which has no door and is an unusual size and thus requires something custom-made, which means pricey, and oh the hell with it, it’s just the two of us most of the time and we’re trail runners who regularly pee in the woods, so get over your prissiness, at least it’s indoors.

It’s rather alarming how quickly you can get used to a situation that might have once appalled you. Just like how those bratty English schoolboys in Lord of the Flies shrugged off the veneer of civilization to become violent savages, so too have we become accustomed to twice-a-month garbage pickup and cable/internet service that falters whenever a raincloud forms somewhere in the northern hemisphere. That said, there are limits. The night I heard something scratching around our bedroom and yanked open my sock drawer to find a big grey not-at-all-adorable mouse staring back at me—well, that was definitely one of them. K’s suggestions to solve our rodent problem were as follow: 1) snakes, 2) weasels, 3) burn the place down and live in the truck (calling it a “tiny house” only with heavy sarcasm). I rejected the first instantly because snakes; the second is intriguing though dangerous (weasels are voracious carnivores, so it’s worth considering who they might go after once the mice are gone); and while the third has appeal, the truck lacks room for our exercise equipment, and an outdoor gym just isn’t practical year ‘round.

Yes, it might seem a little odd to be going around the house in a stocking cap and heavy coat and gloves in the interest of saving propane, since the poorly insulated walls ensure that turning up the thermostat means heating the entire county (hey, you’re welcome). Yet I know full well that these really are first-world problems. We chose this lifestyle, after all. People who genuinely can’t afford much in the way of heat or pest control or even indoor plumbing would no doubt find that choice unimaginably foolish, and, well, not gonna lie, they’d be mostly right. But not entirely. What everyone who voluntarily makes choices like this discovers is that you really can go without certain luxuries, easily, once you recognize that they are in fact luxuries and not requirements.

This is hardly a revelation. Human beings have survived through ridiculous privations, both voluntarily and otherwise. While we may joke about the dire consequences of, say, not having coffee in the morning or being cut off from social media for a weekend, we know these things are not necessities. Thing is, they’re enjoyable, so why give up something enjoyable if you don’t have to? Who’s it hurting? Eh, scratch that last question; we probably don’t want to know the answer, though doubtless some killjoy will mean-spiritedly be happy to tell us. Most of what we consume has probably exploited someone somewhere in the past and will likely contribute to environmental ruin in the future. Is that coffee free-trade? Do you know where the plastic lid goes when you toss it in the trash? The water used to make your venti ultrasweet whip-cream-topped beverage—you do know there are people who don’t even get that much clean water to drink in a day, right?

Oy. Sometimes you just want to sit in a room and drink coffee, not wearing a heavy coat, not hearing any scratchy noises coming from the walls, not thinking about the impending doom of all life on earth.

I’m not entirely sure where I’m going with this; perhaps it’s all just your standard rumination on trying to find a balance between personal needs and a sense of responsibility toward our world. There are times I myself feel like playing the part of killjoy and railing at every instance of thoughtless, irresponsible consumerism around. Grocery stores fill me with rage—so many people buying insane amounts of packaged crap that will end up being thrown away uneaten when it gets furry despite the preservatives. Driving home I grind my teeth into a powder at the sight of every high-maintenance lawn full of invasive species of grass that are spelling doom for butterflies and bees. Just mentioning the word “plastic” to me may make you an accessory to your own murder.

But all of this doesn’t make me a superior person so much as a massive hypocrite. Vermin and doorless bathrooms aside, my life is quite comfortable. I drive a car, I occasionally eat meat, and no, I have not checked to make sure everything I have purchased recently comes from independent small businesses that empower their workers. Moreover, the things we’ve “sacrificed” to live out here in our happy little dump are not necessarily going to make a difference to anyone but us. Life without a bathroom door is, after all, more comical and embarrassing than noble. All that said, I suppose every endeavor we undertake gives us an idea of what’s possible. If I can do this thing—running a marathon, caring for macaws, living in a fixer-upper that might never get fixed—whether it brings me great personal satisfaction or considerable personal frustration (but nothing any worse), surely I can do a few other things with an impact that goes beyond my own small sphere of existence.

Keep this in mind if you’re driving through the countryside and you see a house with what appears to be Halloween decorations up—and it’s, like, February. Those aren’t decorations; they’re a symbol of perseverance. Yeah. So keep going; the Casey’s is only 8 miles away and the stalls all have doors.

Monday, October 16, 2017

A tale with a twist

It’s one of life’s minor cosmic ironies that I am very good at motivating other people and very bad at motivating myself. People actually pay me money to inspire them. OK, so they’re also paying for me to teach them the elements of craft in writing, which requires actual knowledge and expertise and not just a rah-rah spirit, but anyone who has ever taken a writing class will probably tell you the teacher who helped them the most was the one who encouraged them the best. I can do that for a lot of people, just not me. Beyond this blog I have a hard time convincing myself there’s any point in trying to write anything anymore. There are times I’m facing a room full of people alternately pondering and scribbling in response to some exercise I’ve given them, as I did this past Saturday at an all-day workshop in a nearby town, when I look around and wonder why in the world I’m here. Why are you people listening to me? You really think I can help you become writers? I can’t even help myself with that. 

Nevertheless, there they were, 30 or so aspiring authors giving up the bulk of a lovely Saturday in October hoping to gain knowledge and inspiration, so as always I brought my A game and my rah-rahs and got to work.

Most of what I had planned involved various simple writing exercises, all of them focusing on the same general process: starting with one idea and then taking a turn or a twist. By “twist” I don’t mean some gimmicky plot twist, like it turns out the first person narrator was really the murderer all along (please, current authors, Agatha Christie did that to perfection many years ago; there’s no need to do it ever again). I mean writing to a point where something changes, there’s the hint of something new, a shift from the direction you thought you were going. The first thing they did, for example, was an exercise in creating a sense of place and time in writing, and it entailed choosing one of the four seasons and describing the main emotion that season made them feel through sensory details. After a few minutes while they scribbled down bits about the scent of blooming flowers that made them feel hopeful or the crunch of fallen leaves underfoot that evoked a sense of exhilaration, I interrupted and suggested the twist: now consider a secondary emotion, one that complicates that first emotion. The crunch of leaves underfoot may be exhilarating, but remember, those leaves are dead, the year is dying, and there’s a melancholy beneath the exuberance that’s hard to ignore. Blooming blossoms may give you hope, but opening yourself up to hope can also expose your fragility and make you vulnerable.

My aim wasn’t to insist that they take nice, pleasant subjects and render them grim and depressing on the page. The idea was to suggest that writing could open up different ways of looking at something. We don’t write merely to reproduce the world; we write in part to understand the world, and because the world is a complicated, confusing place, writing the twist is one way to try to reflect that confusion. Or, something, I don’t know, it sure sounded good at the time, anyway, and it seemed to be working, based on the impressive pieces of writing a few of them shared.

Midday we took a break for lunch and I made a bee line toward the ladies’ room (they had free coffee and I’d drunk all of it). Annoyingly, the two stalls were already occupied.

“…doesn’t tell us how we’re supposed to do that.”

“I know what you mean. I guess we’re supposed to figure that out.”

There was a flush from one of the stalls and a woman emerged, eyeing me briefly as we passed. Once I closed the stall door, I could hear her whispering to the woman in the other stall. There was no further conversation

Shrug. So they were probably talking about me. Well, you can’t please all of the people all of the time, and you can’t teach someone how to write in a single day. That wasn’t what I was here for, anyway; I was here to give them some ideas and a gentle push in the right direction. The rest, I insisted to the stall door with a glare, was up to them.

At lunch with the workshop organizers and a few of the participants, I was warmly assured that the day was going brilliantly and that they’d heard nothing but accolades. What else would they hear, I thought skeptically; after all, private conversations in restroom stalls notwithstanding, it was hardly likely that the morning session had gone so badly that anyone would vociferously demand their money back. If people were going to say anything, it was likely to be praise, deserved or otherwise.

The afternoon session continued along similar lines, with exercises creating multi-dimensional characters and multi-layered dialogue. At the end of the day, I thanked them, they applauded (rather louder and longer than I felt was warranted), and several of the participants came up to talk to me, each one thanking me enthusiastically. “I learned so much today!” one woman gushed. She had written a lovely piece in response to the seasons exercise, starting with familiar ideas of spring suggesting rebirth but then turning the piece beautifully by reflecting that to be reborn, one likely has already experienced a great deal. “This was so helpful, I really must thank you.”

I shook off the praise. “You did the work,” I pointed out. “The writing was yours.”

“But I never thought to write the way you suggested until now. I am so excited to keep doing this!” Then she turned and looked back to the table where she had been sitting. “There was a young man sitting by me this morning, I don’t know if you saw him. When we took the lunch break, he stood up and said ‘I don’t know what I’m doing here. I can’t write.’ I don’t think he came back. I feel so bad for him.”

I stared dumbly, stunned, at the empty seat where she was looking, and it occurred to me I knew who she was talking about. He had approached me before the morning session began, introduced himself, spoke of his eagerness to attend the workshop. “I’m a mechanic. I’ve been a mechanic my whole life. That’s all I’ve ever done. Now I think I want to write.”

“That’s great!” I said. “You probably have a lot of stories from your work.”

He shook his head. “I’ve done the same thing for so many years. I want to do something else. I hope you can help me.”

I must have said something inane like well I hope so too! or maybe just another cheery that’s great! I suppose it hardly matters what I said, because I might as well have said don’t hope; it just makes you vulnerable. Turns out the people who need encouragement the most are the least able to take it. Perhaps that’s the twist in this story, though it isn’t a very good one since I’ve known it all along.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

If at 16th you don't succeed ...

My first marathon was seven and a half years ago, and it was bad. I had developed an overuse injury about a month or so before the race—an odd one, just above the left ankle on the inner shin. I say odd because there aren’t a ton of moving parts right there compared to, say, feet or knees or hips, and there isn’t a well-known malady to call an injury in that area, such that I could have just said “plantar” or “piriformis” or “ITB” and other runners would nod knowingly. Regardless, whatever it was called, it was injured, and I ran the whole stupid race on it. Every step hurt. Ev. E. Ry. Step. A distance of 26.2 miles means roughly in the neighborhood of 50,000 steps. Fifty-thousand needle-jabs to the ankle in five-plus hours—like being a very klutzy heroin junky desperate for a high that never comes. You’d think after that experience I’d have learned a lesson or two. Funny thing about that is maybe I haven’t.

My second marathon was later that same year, in Chicago. I’d recovered from my injury and trained reasonably well over the summer, but it was one of those hot Chicago years, and none of my training had prepared me for hitting that shadeless industrial section at mile 20 when the mercury hit 80. As a result the last 10K was another suffer fest. You’d think I’d have learned that suffering isn’t fun—kind of the opposite, really. Funny thing about that, I ended up doing much tougher races in subsequent years, including an ultra nearly twice the distance with a heat index of a hundred. Granted, I didn’t exactly seek out those temperatures, but still, the point is I had more suffering in store.

My third marathon was back at the hometown race, and this time I trained well, with a great pace group and a cautious avoidance of injury. My group trained at a 9:30 pace, and we consistently hit that pace for all our long runs. Day of the race, we were all feeling confident. Two of my group members managed to do substantially better than where we’d paced and they broke 4 hours together. One group member ran exactly at 9:30. I did neither. I was the only one who ran slower than we’d trained, the only one disappointed, the only one left trying to figure out what went wrong. I mean, I know what went wrong—one again I’d hit the wall at around mile 20—but I didn’t know why. Funny thing about that is, six years later, I’m still trying to break 4 hours.

My fourth marathon was different. It wasn’t in my hometown, home state, or even home country. Just for kicks I had chosen the Reykjavik marathon because, hey, why not add jet lag to all the other obstacles standing in the way of a successful 26.2? The plane was full of veteran marathon runners, including a young woman sitting next to me who once ran the London marathon on a Sunday then flew back to the States to run Boston on Monday. She PR’d in London, in a time so fast I’ve erased it from my mind, the way people who have been traumatized block terrible memories (though she did not PR in Boston—slacker). On the bus ride to the hotel I got to talking to an older woman with several dozen marathons under her hydration belt, and when I mentioned my past 3 frustrating races, she gave me some advice. This time, she suggested, don’t worry about hitting a particular finish time. Don’t even try to hit a certain average pace. Make your only goal to be a negative split. Go out conservatively, at a pace where you know you could easily speed up—but don’t speed up. Midway through, if you still feel you could easily speed up, go ahead. You might not PR, but you’ll be able to run the whole thing without crashing.

It worked, brilliantly, and it was one of the best races I’ve ever done. Didn’t hurt that at the point where I usually crash, this time knowing absolutely for sure that I had this one in the bag, I had a gorgeous view of Reykjavik before me and more than twenty miles behind me.

Since then there have been 11 more marathons and 15 ultras, some great (running alongside my stepdaughter while she crushed her first marathon was a huge highlight), some ghastly (there’s a stretch of sandy riverside trail in the Pacific Northwest that I was certain at the time would become my final resting place). I’ve learned I hate Gu, love salty boiled potatoes, and can’t keep down anything, not even the head of a gummy bear, when the heat index is a hundred. I’ve learned other, non-food-oriented things, too, of course; you have a lot of time to think when you run long distances, which means a lot of time pondering the human condition in all its glory and absurdity, made potently clear in the act of pushing your body very hard for a very long time only to end up where you started.

Marathon 16 is coming up in just a few weeks. I had been hoping to qualify for Boston. My training had been going well. Then I got injured, my first running injury in nearly three years, and it stopped going well. You’d think that—well, I don’t know what you’d think, because I don’t even know what I think at this point. It’s not life or death, all this; it’s just running, but I still want it to mean something, even if I fully acknowledge that “something” is likely my own invention. Do I say that this is all about doing what I can and accepting what I can’t? Do I admit that the biggest obstacle in my life has always been me? Do I recognize that the point really is to keep trying, otherwise you wouldn’t keep doing this again and again and again? Yeah, all that, but none of that is news to me. I don’t really know what the takeaway to this latest endeavor will be, but funny thing is I suspect there’s still something more to be learned.