Monday, May 23, 2011

Gone Fishin'

First off, let me stipulate that were I not wearing gardening gloves I wouldn’t be able to bring myself to pick up a squirmy wriggling unfurling earthworm. But then, up until the last couple of years I didn’t do much gardening either, so for the most part the point was moot.

Inch by inch, I am reclaiming our massive suburban lawn from the ever-thirsty grass, and in its place I am creating (or, trying to create) undulating beds of flowers. While green is actually my favorite hue, my goal is to have as much of the yard as possible be a riot of color. And so, Saturday and Sunday both found me crouched over, sifting dirt off seemingly endless clods of grass and, naturally, encountering hundreds and hundreds of earthworms.

The better part of a lifetime ago, my grandfather tried to introduce me to the wonders of the lowly earthworm, or the Phylum Annelida, as he never ever would have called it. Early in the morning he would kneel in his own garden to pluck unwary worms out of the earth. Back then his yard—a large sloping thing rushing down to the shores of Newton Pond in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts—seemed impossibly huge to me, a little girl who had grown up mostly in army-provided tract houses or apartments in the city. But Grandpa was not gardening on those mornings, he was collecting bait.

Newton Pond—known at Grandpa’s house as “The Pond,” as if the town weren’t spotted with so many others—was idyllic, but fraught with dangers for me. Though Grandpa waded out as deep as his barrel chest to tend the shore, long strings of seaweed lurked just under the water ready to grab my legs (is it still called seaweed if it’s in a lake?). His sturdy homemade wharf gently rocked on the waves, threatening at any moment to buck like an untrained horse and toss me into the water where my bathtub fantasies of being a mermaid would do me no good as I most assuredly drowned.

It wasn’t all foreboding, of course. Me, my little sister and the boy down the street, Matt, used to walk for miles and miles—well, probably just under one mile, really—to the “Sand Pits” at the end of Sewell Street to cadge old truck inner-tubes from the operators there. By the time we got them back to Grandpa’s house we were hot, sticky and completely covered with black soot, three dark little gremlins threatening to track filth into my grandmother’s tidy ranch house. Once Grandpa had patched and cleaned the tubes, we’d pump them up, tie them to the wharf and enjoy hard-earned sodas as we floated contentedly and watched the speed boats go whizzing by, squealing at the wake created with each pass.

But there was also the fishing. Having collected sufficient worms, Grandpa would pull out three fishing rods—little ones for my sister and I and a full sized one for him—along with fishing line, hooks and a bucket. He’d select a worm from the pile, letting that weird pink articulated body curl around his fingers. Then he would spear it onto the hook, showing me how to get it firmly impaled so that the fish couldn’t just make off with it. He’d hold another worm in his palm, offering it to me with an encouraging smile, while I shook my head so fast I risked self-inflicted whiplash. After we pulled in the fish, I refused too to take it off the hook and watched in dismay as each one flopped and struggled on the wharf. I’m not sure if these were sun fish or calico bass that my grandmother later enthusiastically turned into what I seem to remember her calling “kipper soup,” but either way I wasn’t going to eat something I’d seen die. Eventually my grandparents would give in and feed their two exhausted, sunburned, traumatized grandchildren a few slices of cheese pizza.

Now it’s at least 35 years later. My beloved grandfather died of a cancer that robbed him of the muscles and strength of which he’d been so proud. My grandmother followed many years later, slowly drifting back toward her childhood of Lithuanian dances and Depression-era memories. I am told the house on Sewell Street is almost unrecognizable as the little green house I once knew so well, though I suspect The Pond looks much the same.

And our dirt is more clay-like than I feel like "dirt" should be. When I turn shovels full of it over, it seems impossibly dense and heavy. Yet, somehow, these tiny creatures make their way through it until I find them flailing and searching when they are suddenly exposed to the air and the light. I still don’t want to spear them with a fishing hook. Nor do I want to subject them to a quick submersion followed by the attentions of a hungry fish. Nor, frankly, do I really want to touch them.

But they remind me of capacious endless summers past, when I frolicked on palatial grounds, ventured along enchanted paths to reach a mysterious desert, rode atop giant swells and was indulged beyond reason by my doting grandparents. So I gently work these worms loose from the grass roots and carefully place them in an already cleared space so that they can loop and squirm and squiggle their way back to their underground lair.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Buddha says, "All of life is suffering." Buddha must have been a runner.

Tennis great Arthur Ashe once said, "The ideal attitude is to be physically loose and mentally tight." I think that Arthur Ashe never had to try to touch his toes the day after doing a marathon. Somehow, over those 26.2 miles, my legs became impossibly long and my toes moved ridiculously far away.

In the mornings before I run, I roll out the yoga mat and try to stretch out my poor sore legs. I grunt and groan through a few sun salutations, do a few awkward downward facing dogs and spend some quality time with my foam roller smoothing out the tight tendons on my thighs. And not infrequently, I rue the fact that all this is in service to a hobby. I’m never going to make a living as a runner (though I do have a couple of “trophy” beer glasses and a high quality plastic trophy to show for my efforts). I pay for the shoes, for the clothes, for the race entries and for the trips to the doctor. Taking up knitting would be less painful and I’d have a closet full of scarves to show for it.

But as I slowly work the kinks out of my legs, in my mind's ear I hear the satisfying rhythm of my feet hitting the dirt on the trail behind my house. I flash back to those glorious moments (sometimes, fleeting moments) between getting warmed up and being exhausted when my feet, legs and lungs are all working in perfect coordination and I feel like I could just go forever. A good quad stretch functions like a madeleine cake, conjuring up all the wonderful people I’ve met while running: veterinarians, former boxers, policy analysts, aid workers, music producers, carpenters, students, soldiers and retirees. All of us made equal in our determination to cover the miles.

I recall what it feels like to cross a finish line; whether it’s the first time or the twentieth, and no matter if it’s after 3 miles or 30. And I start grinning from ear to ear. Suddenly I’m no longer that gawky kid who tripped over the red rubber ball during Kickball. I’m not the girl who consistently hit tennis balls not over the net, but so high up in the air that my teacher yelled “Skylab!” as they came back out of orbit. I’m not a full-grown woman who struggles with basic math or who forgets to pay the power bill. I’m not a middle-manager sitting at a computer all day writing up memos that nobody will ever read. I’m not getting gray hairs, wrinkles and a shape that resembles nothing so much as a Bosc pear.

I am a runner. (Albeit a sore, tight, mass-of-injuries-and-little-pains kind of runner.) I am a scientist tracking my miles and analyzing what works and what does not work. I am a coach, pushing others to explore their limits and cheering them on when they surpass them. I am a role model for those who have been told for too long that they “cannot” or “should not” do something hard. As I push through the stretching poses, I remember that for at least a few hours a week, I am an Amazon.

So, sure, most mornings it takes me a little while to be able to get out of bed. And, frankly, my toenails look like hell. But as Carl Jung once observed, “There is no coming to consciousness without pain.” And boy, this week am I ever conscious of my calves.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Anastasia, RIP

Yesterday I was doing laps in the pool at the Y, noticing how very deep the deep end seems and thinking how I really don’t want to drown in this ratty old bathing suit when I considered all the people who have read their own obituaries and the fact that the NY Times has 1300 obituaries pre-written and “in the morgue” ready to go. Hey, swimming back and forth and back and forth and back and forth is boring; even if one part of your brain is wholly focused on the mantra “don’t drown,” the rest tends to wander.

Anyway, this got me thinking about what my own obit should say, especially that first line, which needs to be a real zinger.

“In the end, she really was funnier on Facebook than in real life…”

“There’s something endearing about an adult whose favorite food to the end was peanut butter and jelly…”

“Against all the warnings, she successfully proved 8th grade teacher Mr. Maxwell wrong: you don’t actually need to know geometry to be a functioning adult…”

“She never did quite develop patience, but she did stop being in such a rush to do so. So there’s that.”

“She only ever learned five songs on the banjo, but she could play the shit out of ‘The Irish Washerwoman’ (so long as you were okay with the timing being off…and the notes).”

“She was a lot like Brigitte Bardot, except that she wasn’t blonde. Or famous. Or French.”

“Turns out, you can eat too much bacon.”

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Far From the Maddening Crowd

I love going to races. I love the nervous tension at the start line. I love watching people's faces as they think about what they are about to attempt. I love the sound of pounding feet when we all take off together. And yet, today I didn't manage to get up in time for a race. Too many weeks on Benadryl, too many pre-dawn wake up calls and nearly 60 miles of bike commuting conspired against me and my half-marathon.

So instead I took the dog for a walk. 8:30 a.m. is too late for my start time, but still too early for my fellow denizens of the Hard Core Suburbs, so we had the woods all to ourselves. As Molly gets older our walks are less active and more meditative. We move at a pace where she can sniff every leaf and blade of grass. And her speed allows me to take in my surroundings, really take them in.

I noticed that my feet made different sounds on different sized gravel; on the larger old stones my footsteps crunched, while on the newer fine gravel my shoes made a soft shushing sound. I counted five different types of birdsong: a clear soprano cheeping, an alto repeating a chorus of three clear notes followed by an extravagant trill, and a bold tenor doing a jazzy improvisation. A frog was singing and I felt lonely for him until finally another frog answered his cries.

The giant tree that fell across the creek in the winter storms continues to disintegrate, but on some branches tiny shoots are appearing; someday a descendant will once again soar 30 or 40 feet into the air. Tiny purple and white flowers are appearing on the forest floor, even though the rapidly greening canopy must give them precious little sun.

Our resident mallard was paddling along in the water beside the path. His mate has been a no-show lately, making me think she must be watching some ducklings somewhere. It was too late in the morning for our owls to be out--I usually hear them making their last calls of the night when I wake up just before dawn--so in the underbrush the squirrels and baby rabbits could rest easy for a while.

I remembered that sometimes the hustle and bustle and stress of a race can feel a little bit too much like the rest of my days. Sometimes it's better to live like Molly: sleep in, take a long slow walk, and prepare for a day filled with sitting in the sunshine and long naps.

I made a video of birdsong and pictures from our woods for you if you feel like you, too, need a couple of minutes of bliss. Happy Saturday from way out here in the 'burbs.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

A Roadmap of My Days

The scar on my thigh looks like a little bug, a souvenir of a bite from a dog that "never bites" more than 30 years ago. I got stitches and ice-cream, and then more stitches when I ripped the wound back open playing with my Grandpa's lawn mower.

Here is the ruffled potato chip on my right knee. Blood seeped through the holes in the band-aid for a week after the cross country meet, and the nurse at the camp infirmary mused, "Maybe we should have gotten stitches for that." Two round scars circle it like moons, memories of an encounter between my bike and a car decades later. Me and the bike lost.

A tiny round scar on my right temple must be from chicken-pox, though now it makes me think more about my bout with shingles. (Get the vaccine, seriously.) Its closest neighbor is the tiny scar on my forehead from when Jaime threw a rock and hit me. After I punched him in the nose, the teacher had to run two bloody children back down the hill to the Van Gorder Walden School's farmhouse. Later he gave me some of his celery with peanut butter and raisins which made me throw up, so maybe he got the last laugh after all.

There are two lines of scars, symmetrically placed on my chest and lower back, marking many many cases of chafing during races. Another scar on my left shin memorializes the stick that lay buried under fallen leaves during an autumn trail run. Anybody who says running is not a contact sport is fibbing.

The sickle moon on my left knee is a surgery scar, earned after a tumble down a flight of stairs. We kept the damaged door in place for years and friends got to leave class with me five minutes early to carry my books while I struggled on crutches. It still feels funny to scratch there since the nerves all got cut in half.

There are the scars you can't see without a guide. Like the faint perfect circles on my shin where I burned myself on my motorcycle muffler, over and over. Or the spot on my wrist that was burned by the iron, leaving a mark that made people avert their eyes for a year wondering why a twenty year-old girl would want to die (even as she sometimes asked herself why she wouldn't). And the many places where my heart shattered over unrequited teen aged love.

I'm only now reaching middle age, and I'm not getting any more graceful. I may need to find some new real estate for the next phase of scar tissue topography.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Top 10 Reasons to Bike to Work During National Bicycle Month

It's National Bike Month, wherein we celebrate all things on two wheels. I kicked it off early yesterday by volunteering for a few hours with Bikes for the World, but now it's time to get serious about getting back onto my bike after a long winter of sluggishness. So, as part of my campaign to convince myself to commute by bike again, here are my Top 10 Reasons to Bike to Work:

10. Carbon offset!

9. It only takes 5-10 minutes longer than going by train, and I get a workout in at the same time.

8. It'll give me an excuse to buy those really cute riding knickers I saw in the Terry catalog.

7. The feeling of glory and smugness that comes with weaving in and out of standstill traffic in Georgetown.

6. The bleedin' escalators at the Dupont Metro station are seriously never working.

5. It's easier to stop off at Trader Joe's on the way home; have you
tried their Espresso Pillows?!?!

4. It gives me an excuse to maintain my one-a-day Green Tea Cake habit at
Yola, and if I can shave a few minutes off my time I'll totally have earned a daily dairy-free PB&J smoothie too.

3. Walking around in padded biking shorts/skirts is really good practice for the not-all-that-distant-future when I'll have to wear adult diapers every day.

2. Super hot looking calf muscles.

1. During the morning rush hour, somebody always farts on the Metro, usually when you're stuck for an indeterminate time between stations.