Friday, March 30, 2012

Known Unknowns

So very recently we will be coming up on the anniversary of one of my favorite moments in recent American politics. The anniversary of a quote, or series of quotes uttered by one of my Mothers heroes, a man who needs little introduction. A man with many titles, but in my parents house he is known simply by the same name that's stitched into the commemorative throw pillow my mom bought in his honor. That man of course, being Donald Rumsfeld... or as mom calls him "Rummy".

"As we know,
There are known knowns.
There are things we know we know.
We also know
There are known unknowns.
That is to say
We know there are some things
We do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns,
The ones we don't know
We don't know."

Well said....

And maybe it was the pending anniversary, or perhaps it was the twenty minute debate over how you can tell if today is, in fact, "opposite day", but either way it got me thinking about this idea of the things we know, and the things we don't know. It got me thinking how sometimes it seems we assume there is some kind of vast difference between the two, when, at least in my case, upon further review the difference seems to be tiny if it exists at all.

So in honor of Rummy, here is a list of things I know, and things I don't...

I don't know why iTunes let's you pre-order albums, as if they are going to be sold out of a digital download?

I know I love to run.

I don't know if I'll ever be able to explain why.

I know what deep fried banana bread tastes like, and I know you should too.

I don't know why it's still socially acceptable for people named Richard to refer to themselves as Dick.

I know that the first step to riding a horse, is watching the movie "Newsies".

I don't know why I waking up at 4:45 AM, or running ten miles seems reasonably easy, but putting the new role of toilet paper on the dispenser seems to take so much will power.

I know running shirtless makes me THAT guy, but I don't care.

I don't know why I thought Wonder bread and Peanut Butter was a good pre-race breakfast.

I know I'll always lose the race if all I focus on is the finish.

I don't know why I would ever check Pepsi out on Facebook, so stop asking me at the end of your commercials. It's a soda, I get it, I don't need more information.

I know waaaaay too much about gym locker rooms.

I don't know where my "I'm saving myself for Kelly Kapowski" t-shirt is, and it's burning a hole in my heart.

I know cantaloupe ruins a fruit salad, and I'll see you in the parking lot if you disagree.

I don't know how a show staring LLCoolJ and Chris O'Donnell is still on the air.

I know I probably shouldn't run tonight.

I don't know why I'm about to tie my sneakers anyway.

I know life will probably never be as simple as it was in 7th grade.

I don't know if I actually want simple.

I know admitting powerlessness is almost always the answer, trouble is I forget... a lot.

I don't know if those ladies on the dance floor know the song is about Mick Jagger... yeah, cause those moves... not like Jagger.

I know you saw me running.

I don't know why you decided not to move.

I know the only way I lose faith, is when I forget I'm just like you.

I don't know what Super Bass is.

I know every step I take that Monday morning is a step towards people who love me.

I don't know if he knows I'm listening, even when he's not talking.

I know I love it when my sister watches me race.

I don't know who keeps sending me biblical quotations at 2:30 in the morning, but I'm gonna go out on a limb and say they don't know who I am either.

I know which part of my wall Bib #1416 is going.

I don't know what happened to the sister of Family Matters.

I know I'm making this all up as I go along.

I don't know why McGraw-Hill's Reading Mastery Program decided to include a series of twelve stories about a Mustard Jar who came to life, as if that is a really easy thing to explain to kids with reading disabilities.

I know saying "you're sorry" is the least important part of being sorry.

I don't know, but Sam Cooke makes sense to me.

I know the most important part about extending your hand to help someone, is to leave it there until they are ready to take it.

I don't know when I learned that.

I know the difference between a ship and a boat.

I don't know why we have laws allowing concealed weapons.

And..

I know most important part of knowing anything, is knowing that it's okay not to know.















Wednesday, March 28, 2012

1,000 People to Meet

My foot eases down onto the brake pedal, slowing to a stop at the red light before me. And as the radio consumes the interior of my car, I turn my head to the corner that lies just outside my window. Cars pass through the perpendicular lanes of traffic and my eyes fix on the man just a few feet away. His knotted gray beard swells down his neck. A quaft of unkempt hair peeks out of a gray hood that descends into a dark green down coat. His hands are tucked deeply into the jacket that bears an untold number of stains. A mass tightly wrapped in a black trash bag is tucked under his right arm. A baggy pair of blue jeans roll down his legs, bunching on a set of untied work boots. My eyes confirm the red light in front of me once more, then return to figure to my left.

I note the hallmarks of homelessness. The glaring cliches, the hood, the beard, the stains, the trash bag. Then I watch as the tell tale sign that seems to speak louder than any of them plays before me. I watch as his feet step aimlessly around the corner, like that plastic bag being tossed around in the wind from the movie American Beauty. I think of that iconic scene in the movie, as the bag flutters back and forth in the breeze. I stare over as the man seems to do the same, stepping seemingly at random, as other city goers race by him with purposeful strides, and I note that it seems to be anything but beautiful.

And in that split second before the light changes, my heart breaks a little.

Then it turns green, and I drive away.

For some reason this man stuck with me.

The man on the corner.

Now I should point out that although homelessness is a somewhat recurring theme on this blog, I actually know very little about it. I can't claim to have any real knowledge of the complexities or intricacies that surround this issue. And that just about anything I write about on here is almost entirely born out of an emotional response, rather than an educated one.

Having said that, there is something about being a runner that gives you a reasonably unique insight into the city you live in. Few other hobbies take you on a tour of the streets you inhabit quite like running does. And I guess as a result of that, I feel a sense of ownership over the things I've see.

And as a result of this, the result of running down the same familiar streets, you begin to get a feel for them in a way you didn't exactly notice before. You notice the tables and chairs that slowly start to emerge outside restaurants as the temperature gets warmer. You notice the construction sites, and the way the new faces of buildings slowly come into focus like someone is flipping a cartoon book day after day. You notice the position of the sun and when hangs just right in between the rows of buildings that flank your course. You notice when the sidewalks are repainted, when the lights are out of sync, and when the sewer grates need cleaning. You notice the new restaurants, the new bus stop enclosures, and the new artwork that pops up.

And somewhere between noticing the new restaurants, and the potholes in the street, you begin to notice the faces of the people you run by.

The face of the young white girl. Her legs curled indian style beneath a blanket. A chaotic intersection of red dreadlocks that wrap down across her shoulder. A pair of gloves without finger tips prop up a cardboard sign with black marker. And the words strewn together in black marker asking for money for food, with an ironic pledge that it won't be used for drugs.

The mess of blankets of all varieties and colors tucked hastily into a large doorway. A jumbled up pillow is pressed against one side of the stone frame. A few trash bags lie at the other end, stacked neatly together. The blankets are twisted in a mass, anonymously awaiting the return of their owner.

The African American man who props himself the outer wall of an IHOP at the corner of Juniper and Walnut. His arms folded across his chest. His eyes wide open, as they stare at the sidewalk in front of him. Two short black braids of hair rest down an inch on his forehead. And somewhere down around his feet an ominous paper bag molds around an undisclosed bottle.

The navy blue sleeping bag wrapped tightly around the unlikely face of a dog that rests in the seat of a stroller. A black knit cap rests atop the man's head as he pushes his friend down the street. His camouflage jacket shows its age, as does the weathered cardboard sign asking for assistance to care for the dog.

Now I'll be honest again, I'm not sure I have any real insight as to why I found any of this to be worthy of a blog.

Except to say this, it seemed wrong not to.

It seemed wrong for, at this point, year after year, month after month, day after day, to run down the same route, the same streets, past these individuals, and treat them as, at best, statues, and at worst, merely parts of the buildings they stand against.

It just seemed wrong.

Not that I think any of this will help. I don't deny the truths, the realities that lie in the contents of that brown paper bag, nor am I ignorant to the fact that those who are hungry don't sit with handmade signs.

It just seemed wrong, in these first few days of spring, when we are all so quick to speak of the beauties this city has to offer, not to acknowledge the tragedy that lies between. Even if within that acknowledgment we get in touch with the sadness that there isn't much we can do.

But the optimist in me would like to believe that it is by looking at this sadness, and resisting that urge to look away, to drive away, to run away, that we can find out the truth that the story doesn't necessarily have to end at the corner of Juniper and Walnut. That in fact, the story can go on. And if we take the time to look at these sad cases, then the hopeful part of me believes that other moments are possible.

Moments like this past Sunday that lasted for all of thirty seconds. A moment where a man wore a race finisher's medal, and a smile you wouldn't believe unless you saw it. And just like that it was over, and he disappeared back into the homeless shelter in which he lives.

And I kept running.

But all the thoughts that raced through my head on my way home. All the thoughts of what it must have felt like to have been where he had been, and to be where he is now. Of how hard he worked, and trained. Of the times we've shared in between. The one thought that stuck with me seemed as unlikely as it did selfish.

The simple thought that above all us, I was glad we met.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Engines

The first steam engine dates back to the first century AD. It was recorded by a Greek mathematician who's name, I kid you not, was Hero. Though at the time, and for centuries to follow, these engines or designs were mainly theoretical, and performed almost no function. They were very crude. Fire heats the water held above, when the water boils it produces steam which is captured above, over time the steam builds up, and the energy of that pressure can then be transferred to do work.

It wasn't until the latter part of the 17th century that these steam engines began to be made to serve some kind of purpose. The first ones that were produced were all practical water pumps, reasonably large, heavy devices that were used to suction water from a lower level and lift it up. From here the technological advances began.

Inventors through out Europe began tinkering with the design of these initial steam engines. They added weighted pistons to the increase the efficiency of the machine. They improved the design of the steam condenser reducing the amount of heat needed to produce the steam. They utilized current advancements in metals to cut down on cracking, and other malfunctions. And eventually they switched from pistons to turbines, which are more effective since they have less moving parts.

But a funny thing happened along the way.

You see, these inventors had put so much into manufacturing the best, and strongest steam engine that they actually out paced their ability to use them. They made them so powerful, that the greatest handicap in using them was building parts and machines to attach to them to that wouldn't break under the pressure. Their biggest problem early on in accomplishing the jobs wasn't the engine anymore, but everything around it.

Simply put, the engine had become stronger than the machine.

But luckily for all parties, I'm a few weeks away from kicking off my newest blog site "Mechanical Engineering as I see it...", so for now, at least, I'll stick to running.

If I had to narrow down some of the most common misconceptions about running, one that would be near the top of that list is the idea of being "out of breath". I have a feeling, from past conversations, that many people assume when we go out for a run that we are gasping for breath each time we do. If I had to guess, I would imagine that this idea comes from when each of us played on a sports team when we were younger. When that teams coach would make us run laps around the field or possibly took us to a track to a timed mile. And since most people can remember running fast enough to the point of being out of breath, they assume the same is true for us.

The truth is, it is rarely the case. I don't know anyone who pushes their pace hard enough to be at that point with their lungs every time they run. And the reason for that, is that most runners know (though sometimes we forget), that once you reach that point where you are gasping for breath, your VO2 max, your ability to sustain exercise plummets dramatically soon thereafter. You become out of breath, simply because your heart cannot keep up with the demand for blood and oxygen that your muscles are requiring. In essence, we can only run as fast as our heart can pump blood.

However, there is, in a way, a slight exception to this rule.

The exception being that, for some, their heart may out grow the capabilities of their body. That despite the training, sometimes you can't hide the shorter legs or impediments of that nature. And yet, they still dream, they still fight. They do the track work, the speed work, the cross training, they do as much as we can to train their hearts. They run and they run and they run. And their hearts grow strong, even as their legs stay short.

And they keep dreaming.

Simply put, their engines becomes stronger than their machines.

And I was thinking about this recently. I've been thinking about this because as a result of my training plan gone astray, I've had to do some recalibration of my expectations for an upcoming race. I've spent probably too much time considering paces and finishing times. And certainly too much time envying those that don't have to.

Cause you see, I have a lot of really fast friends. And by that, I mean, I have A LOT of really fast friends. Friends much faster than me. Friends that I can only dream of keeping up with. Friends with perfectly built machines. Long, strong legs, and hearts to keep up.

And I think about what that must feel like. To be able to go and hammer out these distances at those crazy paces. To be able to drop the hammer, and have your legs just carry you right back. And then I think of my other friends. Friends who all run very well, but maybe not exactly as some of our other friends do.

I think of my other friends and I think about those early steam engines.

I think about how they run. I think about how they run with dreams and hearts bigger than their bodies can carry them. I think about how they grind, and train to be able to run races and times that other friends could complete with minimal effort. I think about how they dream of the unlikely, then work to make it happen, rather than follow the collective thinking of coaches, and past performances. I think about how they run, fueled by the love in their heart, and the love they work so hard to give back. I think about they never cease to want to share this gift, rather than keep it for themselves. I think about how they run in the face of adversity, not away from it. I think about how they are always more concerned with the people they finish with, than the people they finish before. I think about my friends, the people they are, the good they do, the love they share, the people they help, the little they ask for in return. I think about the people they are. I think about the size of their hearts.

And I think about my fast friends again.

Then I think, I'd rather be a steam engine.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Race I Watched

The Race I Watched

Introduction-

I was just having a conversation with a co-worker of mine, a man who is roughly fifteen years older than me. He was telling him about how his wife had been away on business, and the two of them had had an extended conversation through text messaging. He was explaining to me that he was surprised, since he had never had a back and forth through texts before, and he rather enjoyed it. We spoke for a few minutes about the differences between our generations, and how those conversations are actually the norm in my age bracket and younger.

I can recall when text messages first infiltrated my life, punching out letters on the numbered key pad. I can remember how long it would take, how frustrating it would be if they ran over the allotted 160 characters, and how they came one at a time.

Today, like so many of my friends, I have an iPhone. A device that I've used in the past few days to do everything from check the weather in Washington DC, to read a book, to watch NCAA basketball games, to find the best place to purchase bagels, and yes, to send text messages.

Though in the years since I first began texting, the current crop of smartphones have evolved quite a bit. The 160 character limit is a thing of the past, keypads now resemble that of computers, and we now can view an entire text conversation with a friend instead of individual messages. And in the case of the iPhone you can scroll all the way to the top of the conversation screen, and tap on an available icon that reads "Load Earlier Messages", affording you the opportunity to trace back in time to seemingly every text you have sent between you and that friend.

Making me wonder, if the texts you send back and forth with a friend aren't a series of exchanges, but rather, just one long conversation...


The Race I Watched


__________________________________________________________________________
Dec. 9, 2011 4:27 PM
"Ok. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck."
                                          "Haha what were the fucks for?"
"I don't know that's all I 
could think to type." 
________________________________________________________________________________

I place my white buds back into my ears. The length of their long white extension rubs over the half marathon's worth of salt and dried sweat that lines my skin. I take the first stride of a slow jog into the unobstructed wash of sunshine engulfing each inch of pavement around me. My feet bounce heavily along the dark tan sidewalk beneath them. My pointer finger finds it's way to the tap screen of my iPod and the music walls me off from the claps and cheers of familiar voices of friends behind me. 

My eyes lock on the silent stream of runners progressing towards me. I watch as their distinguishing faces of smiles and misery lock onto the sign I now move away from. And for a second I wonder how despite the varying states of emotion of each runner's face, stride, or limp, of all things, a sign is the great equalizer.

One mile to go.

"Mile 25"

And with that thought, I make my way towards mile 24.

__________________________________________________________________________
Dec. 17th, 2011 9:19 AM

"12 in 1:49. Holy Fuck!!!"
                                                  " ;) " 
"Creepy."
________________________________________________________________________________


My legs bend around a slow curve, as the wave of runners continues to pass by me. My body begins to fight back against me, my left and right calves acting like parents asking, "Where do you think you are going?", to a teenage son trying to escape curfew.

I continue to jog back through the course, trading confused looks from runners with encouraging head nods. Their eyes speak back to me, a mix of appreciation with a hint of resentment for the pain that will exist between them and a finish line that lies in the distance. 

The soles of my shoes do the best they can to cushion the impact on tired legs as I descend down an anonymous Washington D.C. hill. My muscles feel the twinge of guilt at the downhill respite as the river of legs around me fight to propel themselves up. 

My eyes stretch from atop the elevation at the course that winds beneath me, for the first time allowing myself to scan for the familiar traits of my friend. I trace each figure, coming up empty when a highway overpass blocks any further searching.

_________________________________________________________________________
Feb 25, 2012 6:39 PM

"If 20 goes real bad... then
what?"
                                            "Then you join the club of 
                                             people who have run 26.2
                                             and had an awful 20 miler
                                             before hand."
"Are you a member?"
                                   "Yes."
________________________________________________________________________________

The sun beats down through the leafless branches of March and I wonder if the trees are just as out of shape and ill-conditioned for these hot temperatures as the runners who pass beneath them. 

A few more imposters pass by me. Their traits slowly giving them away as they draw closer, either too short, or too tall to be my friend. And then, in the distance, my gaze fixes on the unmistakeable stride of a girl in a grey top, and black tights.

An urge to speed up is answered with an IOU for adrenaline who's budget was long since spent earlier that morning. My legs find some last reserve of fuel, or the fumes that linger behind, and a quickened pace draws me over to my friend.

_________________________________________________________________________
Jan 3, 2012 9:12 PM

"Check back in 8 weeks.
I'm going into hiding/a
deep dark depression."
                                  "Sounds like a great plan."
_________________________________________________________________

 Her short stride rolls into a walk. Her hands fall softly onto her hips. Her head cocks to one side as she sees me jog closer, her face curls into a smile. 

"How's it going?"

My voice greets her. I slip along side of her, and as we walk, she breaks down the preceding miles. She breaks down the cramping in her sides, the steady rise in temperature, a course that lacks a scenic distraction, and a decision at the halfway point not to follow the signs for the half marathon finish. We walk for a bit, locked in this surreal conversation as a race unfolds around us.  

And we laugh.

We break back into a slow jog, and I begin to think back to when I first met my friend as she stood under a street light one cool October morning. I think back over a friendship that defies explanation the way only a true friendship can.

I think about the times people would ask or question this particular relationship. Why 3am phone calls would be picked up. Why the same advice would be reused, reworded, and seemingly re-ignored. Why rides home would be offered. And maybe most of all, why I could never explain why we were such good friends.

"This course sucks."

"It gets little better after this."


I'm lying.

________________________________________________________________________
Dec 9, 2011 8:39 PM

"We clearly aren't the same
person."
                                                   "Haha you are just like me
                                                    only with more cable
                                                    channels."
________________________________________________________________________________ 


We walk to the top of a small hill, and we decide to jog again, descending down the spiral on-ramp that I jogged up a few moments earlier. Our feet carry us down into the unforgiving concrete sauna-like straight away that lines the remaining stretch of the marathon course. Our feet move steadily down the modest decline and we take momentary respite from the shade provided by unnamed overpasses.

I begin to wave my arms wildly, attempting to signal our collection of friends that serve as the unofficial cheering section at mile 25. Their voices and encouragement echoing off the walls of the highway and reflecting off the faces of the pained smiles of runners who pass by.

Their raucous excitement temporarily removes the pain from our legs, or perhaps just the thought. Flashes of cameras pop, producing a shy smile from the girl beside me. Our paces carry us through the framed excitement, their continued energy becoming the wind at our back. We continue along the flat pavement and she informs me of her plan.

"Okay, when we reach the incline, we're gonna walk."

"Okay."

And I lie again.

__________________________________________________________________________
Feb 26, 2012 10:30 AM
                                                 "Fuck!"
                                                 "You're right."
"Just giving you back your
own advice."
                                       "I know, I appreciate it."
                                                 "I hate my advice."
"Me too."
________________________________________________________________________________

We reach the edge of the slow hill. The voices of our friends still linger in the background.

"I think we should run to the end."

"I'm not sure I can."

I glance down for a moment. The light colors of her sneakers continue to bounce. Her arms twist quietly by her side. Her eyes squint softly, as the sun and fatigue rise in the distance. Silence wraps around us. The quiet of the lone breeze, the flow of the river beneath us, and the resolve of the task in front of us, are broken only by the noise of the memory in my head.

The drone of my cell phone vibrating atop the wooden edge of my bed stir from my sleep. My eyes alternate attempts to peek through my unwilling eye lids.

3:28 AM.

"Hello?"

"Hi."

Her voice breaks over the staggered sobs and patterned breaths. Her words play out in the song-like rhythm of a cry that's infected your last defenses. I close my eyes and lean back into my bed. I purse my lips. I want to tell her that she will be okay. I want to tell her that I've seen the end of this movie and it will all work out. I want to tell her to get in bed. I want to tell her that tomorrow will be better. Instead I just listen, as her sentences spiral around me. I just listen, responding in the only way that seems honest.

"I know."

________________________________________________________________________
Dec 14, 2011 10:39 AM

"You there?"
                                     "Yeah."
________________________________________________________________________________

"I think I need to stop."

"Don't stop."

Our feet continue to jog, and I point to the finish area that slowly comes into view. We pass a few sets of runners, and we begin to circle around the final turns of the 26.2 mile course.

"I'm gonna stop when we get close. You gotta finish this one on your own."

We run side by side. Each step falling next to the others. We come around the final turn and mine slow to a walk. Her head remains still, pointed at the finish in front of her.

I stop walking, standing on the course surrounded by the swells of onlookers. The trappings of a finish area melt away, music, medals, fencing, speakers, balloons, bodies, sounds, colors, fade away. And my breath grows a little heavier with each step taken to the finish line.

_______________________________________________________________________
Feb 13, 2010 11:28 AM

"Hey Dan, it's Rachelle."
                                               "Hey."
________________________________________________________________________________

I lean over the white metal fencing separating the family meeting section from the finisher's shoot. I let my heels drop a bit, attempting to stretch out the residual tightness in my calves. I strain to peek around the bend awaiting my friend to emerge.

I pause for a moment as my breath grows heavy again. And I allow myself a second to reflect on what led to this place.

I think of the phone calls. The training plans. The weeks she spent in that boot. The marathon advice I gave her, and the advice I made up. The 26.2 miles. The John Mayer quotes. The bridge runs at 6:00am. The hill workouts. The new job. The moments I had nothing to say. The moments I said too much. The jokes that no one else got. The nicknames. The tears. The text messages.

But most of all, as I stand waiting for her.

I think of those steps.

And I wonder how odd it is, that of all the steps she took. The millions of steps she took on this training plan that lead to her finishing this marathon. That I am most proud of those steps she took when she was running away from me.

And I think, maybe for the first time, that those steps weren't the final steps to a finish line, but instead the first steps she took on her whole new course.

"Dan!"

The End

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

A Night with an Old Friend

The irony was not lost on me. The first night of spring, as it would seem, though winter still had a few days of reservations left on the books. Pink and yellow beams were just barely peaking over the buildings that lay across the river to the west. And there I was, walking slowly back to my apartment, stepping gingerly through this night, having finally felt assured that the next gust of 20 degree wind wasn't lurking for me around the corner.

And the irony was not lost on me.

But I guess I'm getting ahead of myself. I guess should probably start from the beginning, though I guess it starts in the same way I left it... with a beautiful night.

It was a beautiful night. Though as I exited my apartment for the nine block walk down to the gym, it;s beauty was lost on me. With my swim gear on my back, I passed an array of bodies sliding up and down the sidewalks. They moved at no particular speed. Their feet pausing at intersections, and turning at random. And barreling amongst, lost in my own head, I weaved my way down to the YMCA pool.

I dropped on a waiting bench with a slight huff. The stifling, thick air settled around me. I peer at the lap lanes, doing my best to guess just how much longer each of these swimmers would be occupying them. The scent of chlorine once again filled my lungs as I attempted a half hearted deep breath, when from across the pool a flash caught my eye.

I spy a young boy in navy blue swimming trunks at the far end of the pool. I like him instantly. The whistle from the nearby lifeguard pierces out, bouncing off the echo chamber that is an indoor pool. The boy looks up, having been whistled yet again for running on the deck. He flashes a mischievous five year old smile, then flops back into the water. A woman with red and blue shoulder straps peaking out of the water lunges forward, swooping the child up in her arms, bringing him back above water. She lifts him under his armpits. His face morphs from focused terror, to sheer elation. His legs kick wildly, even as his mother removes him the rest of the way in the water.

And then, like a wind up toy, faces him back towards the wall, places him back in the water and scoots him towards the wall. The boy muscles himself back up onto the deck. He turns and glares back at his mother, the familiar smile returns to his face as he begins to dodge left and right, sending the mother into fits as to which way he will jump next. He makes a bee line to her right as the whistle splits the air again. He splashes into the water, this time causing his mother to dive forward to pluck him from beneath the water again.

And somewhere I forget my contrived annoyance at the occupants of the lap lane.

I exit the pool. The mild air cools atop my still damp hair. I begin to walk home, again lost in thought or something like it. I think about the work day. I worry about a shin that seems unwilling to heal. I fret over races to come and adjusted expectations. I note the runners that pass by me and feel the twinge of jealously that I can't be one of them on this exceptional night. And somewhere I feel the gravitational pull of the nose dive I seem to have set myself into.

I stop at a traffic light. I take a slow deep breath, and a cool breeze blows through me. A long slow breeze that, just like everything else tonight, seems to be in no rush, and to take it's time.

Then somewhere, in that pause, a visit from an old friend. I hear his voice, soft and clear.

"Why don't you just be here."

The memory, from a few years ago floods back to me. My friend who misspoke. His words stumbling together in an awkward sentence, that somehow managed to be dead on. His phrase settles within me, my body begins to calm from what was enraged a few moments prior, angry at the fact that a commitment was causing me to miss something I intended to do later that night.

And there I was, lost on the corner of the nicest night we've had in five months. Standing in the panic of races to come, stressful jobs, and shin pain of tomorrow.

"Why don't you just be here."

And the irony was not lost on me.

The irony that my friend was not a runner, that he smoked close to three packs of cigarettes a day. That he hated being outside, and he loathed nights like this. That he avoided the City of Philadelphia at all costs.

And the irony, above all, that he has been gone for several years now.

Suddenly, just like that, I was back standing on the corner of 18th and South.

And as I walk home, I think about the boy I watched playing in the pool. I think about how recklessly he would jump into the water. I think about the way his mother would scramble to catch him before he sank. I think about his face when she did.

And I wonder if it was really reckless at all.

This blog is dedicated to the people who dive to catch me after I jump, even if they are no longer here.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Red Heads, Race Tracks, and Carousels

Red Heads

Her hair was the first thing I notice. It was red. A natural, fiery red, pulled back into a ponytail that fell into the back of a black zip-up sweatshirt. Her face was hidden partially by the slips of hair that had eluded the hair tie in the back. Her eyes disappear slightly from view as I sit down in the empty seat between her and the person I came to see. The rubber bottoms of the brown painted, metal folding chair squeak a bit as it slides against the wooden floors. She remains still, either unaffected, uninterested, or skilled at faking both as I settle into the chair, setting the half drunk water bottle down at my side.

I say a quick, quiet greeting the boy to my right. I glance around the high ceilinged church meeting room, serving an alternate purpose. I nod at a few friends seated amongst the other thirty faces in the circle before me. I let slip a smile, part "hello", part apology for being late.

I ease back into the cold, folding chair. I sneak a look over at the red headed girl to my left. Her expression is plain, her soft facial features scream of the face you've seen a hundred times but would never remember. She adjusts slightly in her seat, and she shrinks further into herself. Her shoulders slink over, possibly revealing her mid-teenage age more blatantly than anything else.


The facilitator at the head of the circle introduces the man to his right, and a steady volume of applause relays around the circle.


My fall into a slow, light clap. My eyes fall back to the young girl beside me, her hands remain still. Her head is bent forward, dipped as if unaware of the presence of anyone else in the room. Her eyes focus, locked on her two hands, cupped and resting atop the black denim around her thighs. My gaze follows down a small piece of kelly green, plastic nestled in her hands. Her thumb traces the golden emblem contour popping from the bright green key tag. She flips it over, and her thumb continues to slowly, pass over the text inscribed in the gold text shining in the lights above us. I stare a little closer to make out the letters, as her finger makes another pass.


"Clean and Serene for Sixty Days"


-----------------------------------------------------


Race Tracks


A quick gasp of air fills my lungs, as though they know what's coming before my brain does. My face winces every so slightly, as my eyes stare at the television display before, sensing what I am about to see.

On the screen, a mess of slender legs descending from racing shorts, whip back and forth. Heels of their track shoes flick behind their hamstrings. And then it happens. A runner in a red singlet drops, as if beset by a trap door, disappearing from view. The cluster of runners part to either side, and five more trip forward, rolling atop the rubber of the track.

The blond hair of the lead runner whips back to survey the damage to his competition. A pair of green spikes leaps tantalizingly close to the head of the African American victim as he attempts to return to his feet.

My mind recognizes the man stumbling back to a run, as the man the announcers dubbed as most likely to defeat the blonde currently in the lead.

The pack of the unaffected press on around the next turn of the track. The stragglers that remain in the wake of the wreck, press on one by one to catch up. The African American in the navy blue singlet pumps his arms furiously, catching the pack in a matter of a few strides, and taking up his position back at the head of the mass attempting to stalk the blonde runner ahead of them.

The blonde leader presses forward, unsympathetically pushing the pace to make his main competitor pay, and earn his way back into the race, and in doing so forcing him to expel his kick in the early laps.

The race thins out, what once were tight packs are now dotted singlets strewn across the track like a model train set around a Christmas tree. The blonde runner takes a split second to survey the distance that the African American runner has behind, as the bell to mark the last lap rings out. He puts his head down, and begins to power around the turn.

And slowly the gap between the two favorites begins to shrink. The first wave of grimaces flash across the face of the trailing runner. His arms flail a bit out of sync, and general stress starts to take hold in his once effortless stride. But still the margin narrows.

They come barreling around the last turn. The blonde checks the now rapidly approaching opponent, who's face contorts with pain. The distance grows ever shorter as their feet whip onto the final straight away. Momentum carries the African American runner within an arms length, and I wonder if what I am seeing on TV is actually happening.

And then, as if switching gears in a car, the blonde runner downshifts and breaks away. His stride lengthens, as pulls further and further off into the lead, crossing the finish with a comfortable lead. His chest breaks the modest finish line tape. Small red spots on his cheek linger as the only hint of exertion. His hands rest comfortably on his hips, as he turns back in time to see the desperate finish of the African American runner.

The second place runner barrels across the line, once again tumbling to the track surface. He rolls onto his back, as the handheld camera moves to shoot him from above. His chest heaves up and down while race officials rush to his side. His eyes remain closed for a few seconds before opening. He props himself up, waving off the official around him.

He rises to his feet with the help of the first place finisher. Unofficial results appear on the screen and the announcer remarks a personal best for each racer.

------------------------------------------------------------------

Carousels

The whole thing felt a little silly. I took a small step back, a small autumn wind blew around me. The sound of leaves rolling along the grass, and the flutter of those still stubbornly hanging amongst the branches briefly drowning out the noises of New York City's Central Park.

I look forward as the line of hats, gloves, and scarves that wrap around the brick face of the famous Central Park Carousel. I watch as the old wooden horses pass through the openings of its outer walls. Kids and parents ride around, waving to anonymous faces waiting outside, attempting a well timed flash of their camera.

I stand there and wonder if any of the other figures around me are seeing the same structure that I am. As my eyes and ears take in the sights and sounds of the carousel, my mind harks back to the brittle old pages of a book with a dark red cover. I picture the yellow text of the title, and the way it smelled of my father's old office storage closet.

My mind plays back to my early adolescents where I was, in this most rare of occasions, lost in a book.

The text of the final pages of J.D. Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye" play like an old movie, as I stand in front of the same carousel described in it. The imagery of a carousel, a rusted gold ring, a younger sister, and Holden Caulfield play out slowly before me. And some seed of connection to the character swells inside me, planted years before.

I watch the kids circle around on their exquisitely painted horses, round and around. I note their smiles, and spontaneous bursts of laughter. And within that swelling connection to a character that I once understood with definitive certainty in the way only a fifteen year old can, I admit, like Holden, that I don't want to get on it.

------------------------------------------------------------

Images

I guess this is usually the point in the blog where I attempt to draw the preceding paragraphs into some kind of conclusion or final sentiment. But I'm guessing they made very little sense.

And they made very little sense because these memories, these images will most likely only mean something to me.

A racer fighting to get back into the race, after being tripped off the pace. A red head clutching a small strip of plastic, motionless as though if she stayed still enough the rest of us would disappear. And a fictional character, and a boy who can relate, watching arms on a carousel going around grasping for a ring always a hair out of reach, and deciding that they don't want to get on it anymore. 



And I'm fighting the urge to try and explain. To try and convey why these memories, these images mean something to me. But I'm going to go ahead and conclude that that's not necessary. Cause as meaningful as these images are, they may only be meaningful to me and that's okay, cause I'm guessing you already have your own.


So I guess these last few paragraphs are my way of thanking you for reading, cause sometimes I just need to find a way to help me remember these things. These images that for whatever reason have stuck with me.

Even if I'm the only one I needed to tell.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Can I ask you a question...?

So of all the things random in this universe that I’ve encountered, those stupid word generators you have to type in when trying to buy something online, or a well executed game of Mad Libs, nothing really compares to spending twenty minutes in a car with the most random entity known to man.

A nine year old.

And in honor of this nine year old, who managed to ask me in the span of these twenty minutes, “Why there is a CafĂ© at the base of the Eiffel Tower?”, “How long it takes to drive to California?”, and “Why do they call shoes, sneakers?”, I’ve decided to let out my own inner nine year old.

So to steal a line from my favorite nine year old, can I ask you a question?

"Stop, Drop and Roll"… is the stop part really necessary? I mean, can’t we just drop and roll? Seems like a waste of time, and while I don’t have much experience with being on fire, I would imagine the less time ablaze the better.

Why do they insist on adding ridiculous tag lines to marathons? For instance, the Pittsburgh Marathon "Hard as Steel"? Take it easy there, Hyperbole Sanchez, how about we try... The Pittsburgh Marathon "As Hard as a Marathon". I think that gets the point across.

Why does it seem easier to buy a firearm than it does to buy a pair of running shorts that aren’t navy blue or black? 

If you are going to ask me why I don't run barefoot, don't wear shoes while you ask me.

Is there anyone reading this who doesn't consider themselves to be an expert pillow fort builder? 

If gas is naturally unscented, and they add that smell so you know if it’s leaking. Why can’t they do that in the reverse and make things smell better. I mean are you telling me we can clone animals but we can’t figure out a way to make chlorine smell less like chlorine?

You know that couple? You know the one I'm talking about. The one you see at races. She's usually wearing a North Face fleece with her bib on it, even though the race is in May, and is drinking water out of a blue, glass bottle. And he is rocking those sandal/barefoot running shoes and is stretching his arms like he is about to start a weightlifting competition instead of a 5K. Yeah, where do they come from?

Why do they give an option to leave a “call back number” on voicemail prompts, as if every cell phone made since Zack Morris doesn’t have caller ID and function to save all “Missed Calls”? I mean people who make phones also use them, right? 

Am I wrong? But if "Pre Lives", I'm guessing he's gonna want you to take that shirt off and tell you to shave that ridiculous mustache.
Unibrows… I don’t get them. I mean are we supposed to believe that this person has access to absolutely nothing with reflective properties, or has never had a friend give them a heads up that they, in fact, have one eyebrow? 

The first test tube baby was born in the 70s, and one of the huge points of debate was how hard it was going to be when this child grew up, when they had to tell her that she was conceived in a lab and not the old fashioned way. But lets be honest, does anyone really want to hear the story of how they were conceived the old fashioned way?

Apparently close to 40% of American 8th grade students can't find Asia on a map, 80% can't find Iraq on a map of the Middle East, and 20% can't find the U.S. But all of them know not to take candy from a stranger. My question is, is there some kind of epidemic of strangers trying to give out candy that I am not aware of?

Why don't I have EZ-Pass?

Why do full and half marathons insist on putting signs up for the "20K" mark, as though there are THAT many people who are judging their splits in kilometers? Is it just me or does everyone run by, spend ten seconds trying to do the math in their head and then just gives up and says "fuck it".

Why don't we ask more questions? At what point did I feel as though I had passed that imaginary line into adulthood where it no longer became acceptable for me not to know something. At what point did I come to conclusion that it was no longer acceptable to raise my hand and say "I don't get it", ala Tom Hanks in my favorite scene from the movie, Big. 

And in the course of Tom Hanks stating that he doesn't get it, you find that the rest of the adults in the meeting had their questions/concerns as well. 

So maybe raising my hand and asking a question won't always get me the answer I am seeking, but it might just let me know I'm not the only one looking.

And I'm good with that. 

But for now, I'll stick to being the one answering them... 

Which brings me to my final question...

How did parents live before Google? Don't answer that, cause I have to go tell a certain nine year old that Le 58 Tour Eiffel was opened in the early 1950s, it takes 45 hours of driving to travel the 2,700 miles from Philadelphia to California, and the term sneakers comes from a German man named Angoviele Journer, who annoyed that his cat kept quietly sneaking into various rooms of his house, that he fashioned a pair of rubber soled shoes instead of the wooden ones he had been wearing, which turned out to be much quieter, allowing him to sneak around.

Next question?




Monday, March 5, 2012

Plan B

In 1966, Congress passed the National Traffic and Motor Safety Act. This legislation was in response to the steep increase in motor vehicle deaths over the preceding years due, in large part, to the increase in motor vehicles on the road. This act enabled the Federal Government to set, and enforce national safety standards in design and production of motor vehicles from this point on. This set the stage for everything from head rests and shatter resistant wind shields, to seat belts, and anti-lock brakes.

Since these standards were enacted, the United States has seen a drastic decrease in the number of the motor vehicle related deaths. And, according to many, it is one of the best examples of successful Federal regulations to date.

It is interesting to note, though, that despite the steady progress of car safety innovations, and the declining trend in driving deaths, the number of car accidents per car on the road has not decreased significantly since the 1960s. This data has given rise to wide spread debate as to why this may be true. Some argue the increase in speed limits is to blame, while others suggest that it is due to the lack of driver education/licensing process. Though standard thinking is that, despite the presence of the newest innovations in car safety, that even they cannot protect the car from it's most dangerous aspect.

The driver itself.

Which brings me to the point of this blog...

I'm a bad driver.

And I say that not because of car accidents or minor fender benders I've been involved in, but rather on a more broad level. I say that as someone who doesn't always do a great job when I am at the controls, be it in a car, a classroom, a meeting, or just generally in life. I'm prone to making very poor decisions when left to my best ideas.

To put it bluntly, I frequently find myself standing next to the smoldering wreckage, and like Steve Urkel asking "Did I do that?".

And in the interest of providing some kind of specific example, I need only look my right and describe the current wreckage as it smolders beside me.

Cause I guess if I had to pinpoint exactly where my plan, Plan A, began to unravel it would have been about a month and a half ago when I began this latest training plan. I have a race in April, so in early January I sought out a training plan. And like any good runner I went to a very reputable source, Runner's World Magazine. From this source I was able to gain a training plan specifically geared to me based on my past race performances, and current running data. And then decided to take the aforementioned plan, the one from the leading runner's magazine in the country, the one that was based off the knowledge and experience of some the most prestigious running sources around, and in my own infinite wisdom.... change it.

And that is where my father would say, "The plot thickens".

So today my flaming wreckage looks like a busted right shin that just won't seem to heal. 

Which brings me back to Plan B.

And I could sit here and bore you with what my training looks like today. How it went from running a lot to what it is currently, which is a lot like, ohhhh what's the phrase... not running at all. I could bore with details of things like sprint swimming, and deep water jogging. And I could bore you with attempting to explain how my reliance on swimming, and therefore my upper body has left that upper body feeling like an awkward teenage girl who's father has all of sudden decided he wants to shower her with attention and spend quality time with her.

But I won't do that. I won't do that because all of these things I just mentioned actually have little to do with my new plan, with Plan B.

Because, you see, the problem that needed correcting, the problem with Plan A was that it was my plan. The problem was that it relied too heavily, not on mileage or speedwork, hills, but that it relied too heavily on me, and my best thinking. Cause I guess the mileage, speedwork and hills, in many ways are a lot like the anti-lock brakes, headrests and shatter resistant windshield, in the sense that are incredibly important, but not nearly as important as who happens to be driving.

So because of this, Plan B has little to do with changing how I train specifically, or getting in a pool. It has to do with something much more basic, to let someone else drive, to trust someone else.

It's trusting the girl who schedules an appointment for me to get my calf massaged. It's trusting the 250 lbs. giant who performs the massage. It's trusting the girl who sends me swimming workouts. It's trusting the friend who mentions "Deep Water Jogging". It's trusting reality that I am not the first person to have ever been injured. It's trusting that it is not the end of the world. It's trusting the friend who repeats to you the same advice you gave her a few months earlier. It's trusting that those around you are proud of you already. It's trusting, not only, those simple words, "It's gonna be okay.", but the voice that says them.

And It's trusting the view from March 5th 2012, and being able to look down at a May 31st gone by and remembering how far I've come... and maybe more importantly, remembering how I got here.

This blog is dedicated to those who have gotten me this far, and those who will take me further... that is, when I let them drive...

Friday, March 2, 2012

The Whippersnap in Berry Blue Shoes

In honor of Dr. Suess's Birthday... 

In the city of Wooder, in the block of Bimbame, 
lived a whippersnap boy, and Dan was his name.

He'd blogger and blither and blabber away. 
He'd flipper and flapper and run every day. 
He'd run through the snow and sleet and the rain 
He'd run cross the flukyll, down wizlenut lane. 
He'd run past the young croops at the lippolak school 
 He'd run past the old grackets who'd shout  "you're a fool!" 
"slow down" they would scream, "slow down" they would say. 
 "No whipersnap boy should run every day!"

But onward he ran, and ran on he did.
  Until one blue morning he stopped with a skid. 
 He bumped and he slumped and clutched at his brain.
  He stopped and he hopped and he screamed out in pain.
  "My Leggle! My calvup! My Shinnletop bone!"
  "Ouch!" he exclaimed "in my right Zeppleton Zone" 
 "the pain!" he sighed but could run no more 
So he limped and he scrimped to Coody McGoodius's door.

The whistle he rang with a zoot and flute. 
 And then she appeared in a fancy blue suit. 
"what is it my pal?" she said with a twang.
  "what is it that's caused my whistle to rang?"
  The story he told in utter dismay. 
"that's nonsense, you whippersnaps run every day."
  Dan showed her his calvup and shinnletop bone.
  He pointed his finger to his Zeppleton Zone.
  "alas" and she sighed "alas, I'll explain" 
 "a possible break, or pufflepane strain" 
 "I'm afraid my young friend, you're day is done." 
 "But Coody McGoody, I have to go run" 
 "then wrap it in this" she returned in a tock. 
And handed to him a bobbybock sock. 
He slipped it on, the funny red sash 
He wiggled his toes and took off with a flash.

He bounced and he trounced on his whippersnap way. 
 He tread and he sped past Rittenhouse Bay. 
 Past a Slowen named Owen and a Cat they called Matt. 
Then his fleet feet hit a pleat, and he fell flat with a splat.
  He spelled and he yelled and he let out a groan. 
"My leggle! My calvup! My shinnletop bone!"

Then who should walk by but a lady named Kati. 
And sat did the lady on a bench that was shady. 
"Silly you are, you whippersnap jock, 
to run all this way in one bobbybock sock. 
 Cause bobbybock socks, as everyone knows
  Might help you run fast, but won't cover your toes. 
What you need now is a good pair of kicks, 
a pair I made special, with modified tricks."
She reached in her bag and drew forth a pair,
With berry blue color beyond all compare.
"The soles are fashioned from the leather of Tipptaces,
with thread from a Zed, hand sewn for the laces"

And grabbed them he did, and fastened those shoes,
and rose to his feet, in his new berry blues.
And then in a heat, he flew through the town,
off skipping and skapping, and clowning around.
He ran up the hills, and ran down the slopes.
He ran through the spills of the kids and the mopes.
He ran all the the way to edge of the city.
He ran til he saw a Bimbamous Kitty.

He turned back around and  ran he some more,
But that whipersnap had no idea just what was in store.
He turned a new corner, he turned with a zack.
He turned and he tripped, and fell smack on his back. 
And downward he peered, to this familiar sight,
his Zeppleton Zone, throbbed bright in the night.
He let out a scream, he let out a yell,
"And just when I thought, I was doing so well!"

When down from the trees, a Birdman did fly,
A beak and some feathers, and glow in his eye.
"Greetings, young sir, from the block of Bimbame,
greetings, young sir, Birdman is my name.
It seems you are hurt, and run you cannot,
Your calvup, and leggle, surely are shot."
"But I need to run, it's what whippersnaps do,
I've tried bobbybock socks, and a berry blue shoe!"
"It's rest you need, and rest you must take,
and rest to be had, for your zeppleton's sake.
But follow me" He said with a wave "to the cool of the pool,
where you'll swim and you'll spin in the our city's Frukyll."
So together they went and dove in with a splash,
Dan bobbed and lobbed and kicked with a thrash.
"I love it in here, in the cool of the pool"
He dove down deep, and swam like a fool.
"I love it in here, I'll swim every day,
I'll run to the banks and jump in the bay!"
And that's how it went, for this boy named Dan
and smile he did at this brand new plan!