Friday, November 17, 2017

Food for thought (and macaws)

I do most of the cooking for our household, mostly because I like to cook and K often gets home quite late in the evening (there’s always a last-minute ferret mishap or chicken emergency), but K can hold his own in the kitchen just fine. Our cooking styles are pretty similar—throw a bunch of stuff in a pan, add some sort of flavoring elements, throw it all on rice or pasta or in a tortilla and race each other eating it. I say I like to cook, but the truth is I no longer make any of the elaborate dishes I once attempted, in part to save money but mainly because spending hours on something that will be consumed in minutes no longer seems sensible. This works for both of us, since we aren’t terribly fussy about our food.
The emphasis in that last sentence should be on “our.” Things change when we start talking about our macaws.
            K’s phone is permanently set for a 5:30am alarm, even when he isn’t running in the morning or doesn’t have an early meeting to attend. He needs the time to prepare the birds’ breakfast. It’s a very involved process—ridiculously involved. Sometimes when I’m actually conscious at 5:30am I’ll go downstairs to watch him work; it’s a bit like watching a skilled and meticulous sous chef for an upscale vegan restaurant. One does not simply give macaws food, you see. They have to work for it—forage for it—and they actually prefer it this way, as it’s a whole lot better for their minds and bodies to keep active. Besides their regular pellet food (more on that later), they get a wide range of fruits and vegetables in the morning, all of which require unique preparation. Colorful grape tomatoes are arranged in special little cages; carrots and sweet potatoes are lightly steamed and placed in wire spiral contraptions; corn cobs are cut into manageable chunks and strung on a kebab skewer along with pomegranate quarters and mini bell peppers. If the chunk of cob is an end piece with a bit of stem, he might tie a bit of sisal rope to that to hang, like a sort of rustic pioneer’s Christmas tree ornament. Boston in particular loves his corn; he’ll take a wheel of it and systematically pick off one kernel at a time, ‘round and ‘round.
            And that’s just breakfast. As mentioned, they’ve got regular pellet food, which requires some labor as well. There are some 50-60 different foragers in their habitat, many of them fashioned out of inexpensive materials by K himself, given that the fancy shmancy foragers we’ve gotten from stores tend very much not to live up to the hype on their packaging—and given that the packaging often works far better than the item itself. For a while we were putting the pellets directly into foragers, but pretty soon that ceased to be enough of a challenge, as our boys were extracting morsels as fast as we were dispensing them. So K added another layer of challenge by wrapping the pellets in paper before stuffing them in the foragers. Our typical evening routine now involves eating our own dinner as fast as we can and then sitting with a tub of bird pellets and a pile of junk mail which we tear into squares and twist around the pellets, one after another after another. No, Capital One, I’m not interested in your credit card offer, but thanks for the colorful envelope and inserts; they’ll work nicely wrapped around a nut treat and stuffed in a PVC pipe.
            Why go through all this trouble? I’ll admit, sometimes I’m not sure. It’s a little crazy, what we do for them, and I’ll further admit that there are times I wonder: is it really worth it? We haven’t completely organized our lives around Boston, Phoenix, and Fred, but we mostly have, and the truth is that even pets who aren’t quite so high maintenance as macaws have a similar effect on their people. Anyone with a dog has likely left a party early out of concern for their canine’s bladder relief. Even cats, for all their general aloofness, have needs to be met. Our turtles have gone into hibernation and we are unlikely to see them again until April, but we still know they’re out there, and that still requires us to be mindful of their welfare.
            This, I think, is the real reason why we should have animals in our lives. People may think they want a pet for the unconditional love, the non-judgmental companionship, the endless opportunities to post cute pix on social media. All that stuff is great, sure, but there’s something even more important, and that’s a reciprocation of all those things (well, except for the part about social media). Ideally, the unconditional love given to us means an unconditional sense of responsibility from us. If they are non-judgmental, so should we be. We should not be trying to decide whether they deserve our care, whether they’re “worth the effort”; we make the effort regardless.
            This is crucially important now more than ever. We cannot sit around wondering whether a particular species is cute enough or smart enough or important enough to save, or whether the effort involved in reducing waste and emissions and every other damn thing we make too much of is too much of a hassle. It shouldn’t matter what you think you are or aren’t getting from the natural world for you to try to protect that world. Even if you don’t have pets, hate the outdoors, and would rather watch paint dry than see some David Attenborough-narrated documentary about bugs and snakes—and that was me for a long time, believe it or notyou’re still involved. The natural world is our world. Pay attention to it. And don’t just toss your junk mail in the trash. It’s compostable, recyclable, and makes great foraging toys.

Monday, November 6, 2017

The Big Quit

Second only to “everything happens for a reason” on my list of pointless aphorisms is “failure is not an option.” Like EHFAR, FINAO is actually true, but not for the reasons those who spout it think. If failure were a choice, it would set up a paradox somewhat like “everything I say is a lie.” If you choose to fail, and you do, then you actually didn’t fail. Do you kick yourself or pump your fist and go “aw yeah”? Moreover, as an educator I believe that failure, far from being something to fear and shun, is necessary and even good. If you don’t fail, you don’t learn. Einstein was a colossal failure at one point in his life (or at least he thought he was, though later on it was discovered that he’d been right all along, because Al was a badass that way). Everything from science to the arts has a firm foundation in getting it wrong—a lot.

So failure is not an option, but it’s totally cool. But what about quitting? That’s quite different. Unlike failure, quitting is a choice, usually one made to avoid failure. To err is human, but to quit, if you believe in pithy aphorisms, is a vile act of pure cowardice no one should ever even think of committing.

Perhaps. But in case you’re curious, I can tell you what happens when you do quit.

A brief summary, in case you’re tuning in for the first time: this summer I started training for the marathon that happened just this past weekend, in hopes of qualifying for Boston. I trained hard, which is what you have to do if you have this goal, and for a few months I trained really, really well. Then I injured my ankle, or at least some vague unnamed region just north of my ankle, and all that stopped. I took off not nearly enough time to recover, and the remainder of my training was subpar. I faced the marathon hoping my earlier speedwork would carry me but pretty sure it wouldn’t yet still figuring if nothing else, I could try for a small personal record and worry about the BQ another time. The weather looked to be decent, I had a friend to run with, and I was looking forward to the race because, well, I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t enjoy it at least some of the time.

This was not one of those enjoy times. Fast-forward (a lot faster than my actual pace) to the halfway point. It’s not going well. I’m slowing down, a lot. My left ankle feels only mildly twinge-y, but my right leg feels very tight, and I know I’m not running efficiently and it’s tiring me out. I already feel out-of-breath and we still have 13 miles to go. All my running spirit is getting sucked down a sinkhole of despair, and I can’t even manage a fake smile when my running buddy punches an effigy of the POTUS right in the face. And we still have 13 miles to go, and the thought of over two more hours of this pointless hell is closing the sinkhole over my head.

I stop. My buddy stops with me. “Go,” I command him. “Go on.” He doesn’t. We walk a bit. “GO!” I all but scream. He keeps walking with me. We start running again.

This happens two more times. At one point the 4-hour pace group catches up to us. Four hours is what I need to break to technically qualify, though I’d need to be a good four or five minutes faster than that if I actually want to run Boston. We run with them for a bit and then watch them go very far away.

At the Mile 15 marker I am looking desperately for anyone who seems like an official-type person so I can surrender myself to the authorities. I spot a blue canopy tent by an aid station and head there. My buddy pleads with me to stay with him, but I’m done. It’s a medical tent, there are people with clipboards and one of those clipboards is the one upon which they record my DNF.

So what happens when you quit? At first, nothing too terrible. The aid station workers are incredibly nice. A woman asks if I’d like ibuprofen and gives me two tablets. (A guy who DNFs after me is asked the same thing and says “yes—eight, please.”) She also wraps me in one of those silver-foil blankets and puts me in a chair as much out of the wind as possible. When burritos are delivered for the volunteers’ lunch, she tries to give me one. I tell her I don’t want to take food from the volunteers since they’ve definitely earned a free lunch; she shakes her head with a disparaging glance at said volunteers, who are mostly young kids and mostly throwing dead leaves at each other instead of doing their duties. At least someone here is having fun.

The wait for the Sag Wagon back to the start/finish is long and cold, but I’m still glad to not be moving, so I don’t feel too bad just yet. I chat with the other DNFs with me in the tent, one of whom was hoping, like me, to BQ at this race. “I qualify for 60,” he said, “so I thought I’d give it a try.” He sighed. “I’ve gone to Boston twice already. I think that may be it for me. Half marathons are looking better and better right now.”

After a good 45 minutes of violent shivering, we finally spot the Sag Wagon, which is the most depressingly but appropriately named vehicle ever. It’s filled with sagging, defeated-looking runners. Everyone is silent; the only sound the whole way back is the crinkling of foil blankets. 

The walk back to the hotel from the finish line is bad. I look for K, who was waiting for me to finish, but there’s no way I’m going to find him in the crowds. I do manage to bump into some running friends of mine who had done the half. I’m sure I look absolutely rock-bottom pathetic at that point because they hug me and say reassuring things. “Did you poop yourself?” one asks. “No? Well then you didn’t fail!” (She did poop herself during a big race, and is impressively self-confidence enough to tell people about it with a hearty laugh.) They hand me a beer, which tastes like liquid magic, and get me safely back to my room.

K returns and consoles me as well. He does not consider my DNF a failure either. All along he’d had misgivings about my running this race, especially after seeing me limping around the house following a long run. He’d worried that I might make my injury worse, which would set me back even further in my goal. He himself DNF’d during a BQ attempt when he knew he wasn’t on pace to hit his goal—he’d finished many races before, so it wasn’t like one more was really going to be a feather in his cap when he hadn’t done what he set out to do, and this way he’d be ready to go for the BQ again much sooner. (He did in fact qualify, a couple weeks later.) K does his best to make me feel better, and I do feel a little better, though it doesn’t last.

So what happens when you quit? You meet some nice people. That’s always good. You feel terrible, but for me that’s nothing new; clinical depression means that the part of my brain that houses the factory of good feelings has been massively downsized. Once again, for the cheap seats in the back, with someone like me, I’m not depressed because of something; depression is the something. I don’t enjoy feeling terrible but most of the time I do, so when I can avoid it—when I can stop running at Mile 15 and not be in pain any more—sometimes that’s what I do. I quit.

This is not a rationalization or an excuse. I don’t have an “excuse,” not even my injury, since I’ve run through far worse pain than this; most every runner I know likely has done so. But the fact remains that I wasn’t physically strong enough to meet my goal and I wasn’t mentally capable of being content with a lesser goal—just finishing—so I gave up. The thing is, at the time, it didn’t feel like giving up; it felt like a very good decision. Several years ago around this time, it seemed like a very good decision for me to do the Big Quit, to give up on life entirely. I failed in my attempt (see? failure isn’t always a bad thing), and I’m glad now, but I can still remember the clarity of that choice, the way it seemed absolutely the right thing to do.

That took a grim turn, didn’t it. Welcome to my mind, folks. I don’t have any grand conclusions here. I haven’t given up on the pursuit of the BQ; I still think I’m capable of doing it. There’s a lot I’m capable of, some of which isn’t very pleasant. I am capable of quitting. I am also capable of continuing. I’m still here, after all.