Thursday, June 28, 2012

Don't Tell Anyone

We had been married for six or seven years
when my wife, standing in the kitchen one afternoon, told me
that she screams underwater when she swims--

that, in fact, she has been screaming for years
into the blue chlorinated water of the community pool
where she does laps every other day.

Buttering her toast, not as if she had been
concealing anything,
not as if I should consider myself

personally the cause of her screaming,
nor as if we should perform an act of therapy
right that minute on the kitchen table,

--casually, she told me,
and I could see her turn her square face up
to take a gulp of oxygen,

then down again into the cold wet mask of the unconscious,
For all I know, maybe everyone is screaming
as they go through life, silently,

politely keeping the big secret
that it is not all fun
to be ripped by the crooked beak

of something called psychology,
to be dipped down
again and again into time;

that the truest, most intimate
pleasure you can sometimes find
is the wet kiss

of your own pain.
There goes Kath, at one PM, to swim her twenty-two laps
back and forth in the community pool;

--what discipline she has!
Twenty-two laps like twenty-two pages,
that will never be read by anyone.

(Tony Hoagland, 2012)

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

New York, New York

The Boston Marathon is the holy grail of most distance runners: it's difficult to gain entry, and the course is challenging and competitive.  If you're the proverbial Type A runner (no walking, no chatting, no "good enough" races), once you start doing marathons you set your sights on a BQ.  In recent years they've lowered the qualifying times, making it even more difficult to gain even a chance at entry, which only fuels the fire for people like me.  You're gonna make it harder?  I'll see your qualifying time and raise you 20 miles per week.

But the New York City marathon has always held the most allure.  The crowds, the scenery, the intoxicating spectacle, the idea of running through the 5 boroughs in late's almost too much to bear.  Every year, I read about the elites who will be competing, and I watch the live coverage with an odd mixture of boredom and rapture (not unlike the experience of actually running a marathon).  Sometimes, in the wee hours of my training runs, when the only sound I hear is my own breath, my own footfalls, I entertain myself with fantasies of running NYC: boarding the ferry to Staten Island just before dawn, shivering in my second-hand sweater (which I would discard in the second mile), compulsively checking my bag for adequate Gu and pre-race banana and bagel, standing with the 45,000 other runners at the start, trying not to work off too much nervous energy.  Running through Brooklyn, scanning the crowds for my friends' faces; finishing, triumphantly, arms raised overhead, in Central Park; celebrating with old friends for the rest of that day in the city I love almost as much as my hometown.  It's an almost painful fantasy--one of those that hurts too much to think about never realizing.

Last year, I entered the lottery for the NYC marathon and waited with a profound ambivalence; my previous marathon attempt was an abysmal jumble of injury and disappointment, and I wasn't sure I wanted to wreck my New York fantasy in such a dramatic way.  And so, when the lottery results were posted and I saw that my number hadn't come up, I felt relief: not this year.  At the same time, though, I started searching for other races, and I finally settled on Pensacola--I needed a corrective experience.  My training for Pensacola was riddled with insult and injury, but I stubbornly persisted, and on the morning of the race I awoke at 4 a.m. from a dream in which I'd missed the race by almost 3 hours--in the dream, I'd spent the evening playing the party circuit, and at gun time I found myself at a bowling alley drinking beer straight from the pitcher.  Some faceless person in the dream pointed this out to me and my response was "Oh well.  It's not like I'm running New York."

I awoke from the dream, dressed in the dark in the tiny hotel room where my children snored precariously, brushed my teeth and grabbed my gear.  It was a 3/4 mile walk to the start from the hotel, and it was fucking cold outside.  I headed towards the water, nibbling my bagel and sipping my orange juice, ignoring the pickup full of drunks who tailed me for a few blocks, plotting my strategy, calming my nerves.  At the start, I chatted with a woman who'd had a baby 6 months before: she looked my age, and her goal time was 25 minutes faster than mine.  I wished her luck and turned my thoughts to the road.

Everyone says that the marathon is psychological.  They're right, of course, but it's like childbirth: you don't really know the truth of it until you've been through it.  You can sort of appreciate it, from a distance, maybe you think you can understand the pain and exhilaration of it, but until you do it, you can't possibly know.  I ran the first 17 miles of Pensacola in a pleasant fog; it was a comfortable, predictable pace and pain.  I chatted with a woman who'd shattered her pelvis in a previous marathon and had spent the last 18 months in physical therapy; she seemed resigned to misery.  Since it was Veteran's Day weekend, a strange melange of ROTC kids lined the route, and they were intermittently aloof and frighteningly aggressive; around mile 20, when the terrible despair started to set in, one of them got in my face, ran alongside me for several yards, and yelled, "YOU'VE GOT ONE MORE 10K! YOU CAN DO THAT IN YOUR FUCKING SLEEP!" (Yes, it helped.)

The last 10k of that race were nightmarish; my body was failing me, I felt my right leg disintegrating, my will collapsing.  It was hot and I was thirsty and nauseated.  But at mile 26, when a woman cheered in my face, I didn't want to punch her; I actually smiled, and I cried.  I knew I was close to my goal. I wanted to finish the race in 3 hours and 45 minutes--my Boston Qualifying time--and though I wasn't wearing a watch, I thought I must be close.  And even when I crossed the finish line and saw that I'd missed my mark by just 2 minutes (2 minutes!), I didn't feel anything close to disappointment.  I felt relieved, and proud, and incredulous: my body could actually do this? For real?  Look at that woman, who was going to crush me, limping tearfully towards the aid station--that could be me, but it isn't.  Not this time.  This time, I'm going to enjoy my second place finish.  I'm going to drink beer and eat 3 cookies and some boiled shrimp and collect my prize and take my kids to the beach.  Today, I am whole.

Like most great races, the feeling didn't last long.  After the new year I started the feel the itch again, and thought about running the Mardi Gras marathon.  I ended up settling for the half marathon, and had a great race, and then I had another, and with a sort of fuck-it-all resolve, I entered the NYC lottery once again.

And guess what?

I got in.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Eggs and Fishes

Syd has become a voracious reader in the last several months.  She reads in the car, during meals, before bed--given pretty much any opportunity.  Lately she's been working her way through "Ramona and her Father," which has generated some interesting questions about job loss, family security, tobacco addiction, and religion.  The latter subject was broached after I finished reading loud the last part of the book's final chapter, in which Ramona takes part in the church's Christmas pageant.  There's a lot of stuff about Beezus looking "holy" (try explaining that concept to a 6-year-old at 9:10 p.m.) and bits of some hymns, which I sang with relish (those church songs are transportational--I could practically smell the incense).  As I closed the book, Sydney gave me a shy look and said, "I don't know about the apes and fishes thing, but I definitely believe in God.  I'm sorry, Mama."

It was a strange moment, on several accounts.  At first I had no idea what she meant by "apes and fishes"--until I remembered that we'd had a talk about evolution a few days before. Now that was a loaded exchange, given that a few days before that she'd insisted I tell her where babies come from ("And don't say "the daddy gives something to the mommy," I want to know exactly how") and I'd used the term "fishies" to describe sperm (I know.  Kick me. Hard.) and she had visibly recoiled.  Fast forward to the evolution talk; we can all probably imagine her struggle to understand the intersection between sexual and evolutionary fish.  And the God thing? What do you do with the God thing?

It wasn't that she professed belief; I'm more than fine with that.  Supportive, actually.  It was her apology that threw me--the fact that she clearly sensed a betrayal.  Sure, her Dad is a staunch atheist, but her Mama?  I've always considered myself pretty open with my kids; I'm happy to let them find their own ways, and I'm more surprised when they show similar proclivities to my own than when they digress.  For example, last week Syd came home from her first day at Jimmy Club and told me about a cheerleading class in which they'd learned a cheer that ended with a triumphant "we're number one and we'll beat you!" She told me she felt bad about potentially hurting the other group's feelings and tried to get her group to change the ending to "we're number one and so are you."  She was voted down but said she was going to ask her counselor about it again the next day.  I was insanely touched and proud: talk about strength of character!  But at the same time, I recognized how incredibly different we are; when she'd recited the chant my first thought had been "That isn't hard enough.  It should be more like "we're number one and we'll crush you."

Point being, we're very different people, Syd and I.  And that's an excellent thing.

The religion issue is no different--I'm happy to see her considering the issue, and I'd love for her to find her way into, around, or away from it.  Not only that, but I had an incredibly positive, enriching, and at times life-saving experience with organized religion when I was myself a child, and what kind of asshole parent would discourage her kid from seeking out the same?  When my mom was terribly ill, when we had no money, when I wanted to learn to play music, when I succeeded and when I failed, when I thought no one loved me, when the other kids were asshole bullies, the church community was there--and not in a creepy "come to Jesus and he will heal you" kind of way.  Just a straight up, we-got-your-back, salt-of-the-earth, kind of way.  I'd love the same for Sydney.  My girl is a social animal; she is kind and loving and gregarious, she craves love and affection--and maybe she'll find that in a religious community.  And anyone who dares to suggest otherwise can kiss my agnostic ass.

So why does she doubt my support?  Why does she need to apologize?  In some small ways I must be suggesting disapproval--which is strange, because aside from shit like bombing abortion clinics or doing this, I would enthusiastically support my kids in whatever they choose to do.

It's astounding, the inner lives of children.  Goes to show you never can tell.

Saturday, June 2, 2012


Last night, on the ride home from the mall:

S: Mom, McDonald's must want to make a lot of money.  They have signs everywhere.

M: That's definitely true, honey. 

S: Why do people eat there if it's so unhealthy for your body? 

M: I'm not sure, honey.  I think because they like the taste and because it doesn't cost a lot of money.

S: (thinking)

S: But what makes it so unhealthy? Because it's fried, right?

M: Yes, and other things.

S: Like what?

M: Well, you know the chicken nuggets?  They only have a very tiny bit of actual chicken in them.  The rest is beaks and feet and bones that are all ground up into a paste, which they mix with chemicals and a thing that is sort of like the gas we put in our cars, to make the nugget.  They do this because it's cheaper than using mostly chicken.

S: Wait a minute, wait a minute, can you pause for a minute?

M: Sure, why?

S: Because I have to scream for a little bit.