Monday, December 29, 2008

High Plains Running

I went for the craziest ten-mile run of my life this morning. Six inches of cold, powdery snow fell two days ago and then a steady 25 to 30 miles-per-hour wind started blowing from the West. Sometimes after a storm, the wind comes down the East slope of the Rockies and out into the Plains, sweeping everything not tied down out ahead of it. The snow streaks across the roads and freezes into a super-slick layer of black ice or gathers into drifts many-inches deep halfway across the lanes of traffic. On a short drive from Billings to Laurel yesterday we passed at least five cars that had spun off the highway and into the ditches on either side of the road.

I am signed-up to run a half marathon in New Hampshire on February 15, so I am on a training schedule that had me doing a ten-mile run today. It seemed like a good idea for me to get out into the cold and the wind—(mid-February on the coast of New Hampshire might just be the same)—so I put on my new Secret Santa running shorts from my cousin Nicole and an undershirt beneath my running shirt and out the door I went.

I got on First Avenue and headed uphill, slowly running my way out of the valley. It was very windy and as the road turned slightly east of north, it struck me that the wind that was whipping me along from behind would soon enough be pummeling me from the front when I turned back for the return five miles. The snow from two days ago was still very light and powdery and the wind was such that the blowing snow never got any higher than six inches off of the ground. It whipped across the fields and across the road in a serpentine motion—looking more like smoke or steam than snow.

The way the blowing snow looked combined with the way it stung my ankles and lower calves to make me think of malicious spirits. I was reminded of Tolkein’s description of Ring Wraiths or the movie depiction of Voldemort in the first Harry Potter film—before He Who Shall Not Be Named has found a body to inhabit.

There was one advantage to the relentless wind that I could not have predicted in advance of my run. Wildlife on the sides of the road couldn’t hear me coming until I was right next to them. In this way I managed to get within 20 feet of a bald eagle as it stood in the snow and picked at the frozen carcass of a mule deer. When the bird finally saw me it didn’t lurch or panic at all. It fixed me in its sharp yellow eye, held steady for a long moment, and then simply opened its wings into the strong headwind and with a slight change in the angle of its feathers it rose up and drifted away in a graceful arc to the east, out over a stumpy cornfield.

I watched the bird for a long moment and then continued my run. By the time I had gone another quarter mile up the road the eagle had circled back around and was once again tearing chunks off of the roadkill deer.

Once I had gone five miles up the road, out of the valley and into the high plains, I had gotten into a rhythm and felt the impulse to just keep running and running and running. The land is so big and the sky so open and the morning so extreme that part of me wanted to be extreme, too. What would happen if I just kept going? How far could I go? My body felt like a machine and the motion was hypnotizing. What I really wanted was to be that eagle and be carried on the wind for as long as it would blow. I felt myself disappearing into the landscape—a tiny dot in the vast sage and scrub landscape. I had no sense of struggle, no awareness of the cold. I was simply moving and wanted to keep moving.

Eventually I turned around, into the wind, and the run became work again. A friendly woman driving by stopped and asked if I wanted a ride back to town. She was apparently moved to pity by the crust of ice coating my lower legs and my beard and mustache. I politely declined her offer and made it back to Grandpas Andy’s house, glad I had made myself go out and sure that my half marathon would be better because of it.

I am also glad that I have my memory of that eagle and of the feeling of self-abnegation that running can sometimes bring.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Montana Christmas Pictures

Isabel, Erica, and I were all awake by 6:30 Christmas morning. This far north, that is still an hour before sunrise.

The rest of the extended family was not ready to start in on opening presents right away, so Isabel patiently bide her time watching "A Christmas Story" for the ten thousandth time.

Once everyone else was up, dressed, fed, caffeinated, and ready to go, we got down to the serious business of unwrapping. Isabel was thrilled to get the iPod she has been wishing for.

She also got a skateboard, but because outside looked like this...

...she had to be satisfied by trying it out in the garage.

We had a good Christmas with lots of friends and food and family and snow. Who could ask for anything more?

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

I Have Identified the Problem...

“I have identified the problem, I just haven’t made the time to fix it.”

My father-in-law said these words last night as we drove through the cold and dark of Montana on the evening before the Winter Solstice. We were headed east from Billings to Miles City for an early Christmas dinner with fifty of Erica’s closest relatives and the plastic panel next to me was rattling in a way that annoyed us all. I stuffed a pillow between my seat and the panel and the rattling stopped. I hadn’t fixed the problem, but I had stopped the noise.

A few hours later, after consuming about 4000 calories—mostly from butter and sugar—we got in the van and started back for Billings. As I rested my head against the inside of the window, looking for Northern Lights in the fifteen-below-zero degree darkness, Mike’s words came back to me: “I have identified the problem, I just haven’t made the time to fix it.” It struck me that in the larger context of my life, this sentence rings truer than I am strictly comfortable with. But before I could devote any of my overtired, overfull attention to this realization, I fell asleep—my exhalations freezing on the inside of the window into a thick layer of ice by the time I woke up in Billings.

The following morning I forced myself out the door for a four-mile run through air that was struggling (unsuccessfully) to reach zero degrees. As I ran the sweat made its way out through the three layers of clothes I had on and froze as hoarfrost on my legs, chest, back, and beard. To keep my mind off the frigid temperatures, I thought about what Mike had said the night before.

I have been reading some of Carl Jung’s writings about the challenges of mid-life, and this idea of identifying problems and working to make things different and better has been on my mind a lot lately.

Carl Jung identified 5 main phases of midlife:

* Accommodation (meeting others' expectations - actually, this takes place in the first part of life, but is the context in which midlife processes take place)
* Separation (rejecting the accommodated self)
* Liminality (a period of uncertainty, where life seems directionless and meanders)
* Reintegration (working out 'who I am' and becoming comfortable with that identity)
* Individuation (facing up to and accepting the undesirable aspects of our own character)

Along with these phases, (which are often non-linear and overlapping), Jung identifies the main choice adult humans have to make as they enter the second half of their lives. Jung says people can direct the bulk of their energies into conserving what they have created in their lives OR they can continue to be a creative force for change in their own lives.

I am at that exact point of having to make this choice. My mind and heart tell me to choose the second path, but I am finding a lifetime of habit to be a sometimes-powerful obstacle to overcome. I feel just like my father-in-law with his van door: I have identified the problems, I just have to decide whether, when, and how to fix them.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

So Much Depends On "Napoleon Dynamite"

The people in charge of Netflix are disappointed by their movie recommendation algorithm. The customers of NetFlix are even more disappointed. So the people in charge have opened up the code, allowing anyone to see it, and asked for edits to the program that would improve their customers’ satisfaction rates. The Sunday New York Times Magazine had a story about the search for a better algorithm in a recent issue.
To make recommendations, NetFlix runs a program much like that used by Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and many other online retailers. It looks at what you have rented or purchased and asks you to rate as many films, books, or purchases as you have patience to rate. Then the numbers get crunched, you get compared to many, many other customers and their ratings, and out comes a recommendation for you. It may say something like, “Other customers who have liked that movie you just rated so highly have also watched and enjoyed ‘Porky’s Two—The Next Day.’ Would you like to add it to your cart now?”

Approximately seven out of ten times, the software at NetFlix gets it right and the customer actually rents, watches, enjoys, and rates the movie highly. Management would be much happier with a success rate of 80% or higher. They feel they have taken the code as far as they can on their own and now it is time to see what the dedicated amateurs can do. After looking through the data, many of those entering the contest have come to the same conclusion: the programmer who can figure out what to do with “Napoleon Dynamite” will win the prize.

“Napoleon Dynamite”, it turns out, provokes VERY strong feelings in people. And unpredictably so. Customer rankings of that one movie don’t seem to correlate in any predicable way with any other set of films. People who otherwise seem to have exactly the same taste, even on obscure foreign films and artsy French New Wave cinema, disagree strongly on “Napoleon Dynamite.” And because of this film and a few others that push people’s buttons just as hard and just as unpredictably, the software seems stuck in the 70% Success range.

I thought of this “Napoleon Dynamite” conundrum yesterday on the train into New York. We had convinced some new friends to spend a fair chunk of money and much of a Sunday going to the city to see "Slava’s Snowshow". It is very hard to describe Slava’s Snowshow to anyone who hasn’t seen it. In fact, it is very hard to describe Slava’s Snowshow to myself—and I HAVE seen it. The best I can do is say that Slava is a Russian existentialist clown who is equal parts Charlie Chaplain and Vladimir from Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.” Erica, Isabel, and I have seen Slava three times now and we think it is brilliant. I really do think Slava himself should win a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant.

But suddenly it struck me that I didn’t really know these people all that well and here I was asking them to trust me on an item as personal as taste in quirky performances. I had a flash of a scene in my mind of our friends rising in the middle of the first part of the show, grabbing their five year-old by the hand, and storming out in a huff, muttering about “what a waste of money—this is so STUPID.”

“Napoleon Dynamite” makes for such a tricky flick because it is so unpredictable. A person would be on solid ground recommending many movies to a friend whose taste they were somewhat familiar with, but not Napoleon Dynamite. It is simply too quirky and too unpredictably polarizing. Sitting on the train I was suddenly afraid that maybe Slava’s Snowshow was the Broadway version of Napoleon Dynamite.

As things turned out, my fears were unfounded. Our friends loved the show and we had a good time. But the whole experience got me thinking about preferences and about how much or how little our taste in books, movies, television shows, sports teams, music, etc. says about us and how much we feel other people's taste in these same domains says about them.

I imagine we can use our preferences as shorthand. We can employ them to send signals to others when we want to communicate something about ourselves. If the others are tuned to the signal, it works and a message is sent. It might not always be the message we think we are sending, but it certainly gives others information about us. On the train ride back from New York I nodded off thinking that it would be great to have a constellation of books, movies, television series, and musical acts that would best represent Erica and me to the world and act as a clear signal of who we are and what we are like. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more important it seemed to me that Erica and I create a list of cultural and artistic references that we can drop into conversations with new potential friends to measure their reactions and thus decide if they are worth pursuing as friends.

It would save so much time and effort if, instead of trading dinner invitations and play dates between our kids, we could just show each other our lists and decide from there. I might be on to something. It would be like speed dating for couples. I know already our list would include the television series "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and "Flight of the Conchords," music by Greg Brown and Kevin Johansen, the movies "Being John Malkovich" and "The Lives of Others," and books like "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle" and "Mating."

Though I would probably leave off "Napoleon Dynamite" and "Slava's Snowshow", just to be safe.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

How Is A President Like a Window?

Our house in Trumansburg had stupid windows. There is really no other way to put it. The windows were too high up the wall and they were hinged at the top, so that they swung out and away from the house. Only thing was, there was a screen on the interior that had to swing inward a fair amount before you could even get at the outer window to push it out. The interior screens were not attached well, so they would sometimes fall in on your head (or shoulder or neck or back) as you struggled to reach the outer window and pull it shut. As I said—stupid windows.

So when we moved to Connecticut we were very focused on the windows of each house we looked at. We knew we would NOT put up with windows as dumb as the ones in Trumansburg. After much looking, we ended up buying a house in East Haven. The house was 100 years old, but it had been stripped down and re-done entirely, including new double-paned, insulated windows. They were amazing. They slid up and down. They locked easily without risk of concussion or death. They even tilted in for easier cleaning of the outer glass. Entirely NOT stupid.

We LOVED our new house, simply because it was NOT our old house. Just one problem—the neighborhood was, as they say, not the best. Our immediate neighbors were a court-ordered GPS-ankle-braceleted, foul-mouthed, chain-smoking eighth-grader and her heroin-addicted mom. The park on the corner where we went to use the swing set and monkey bars had used syringes and tiny ziplock baggies preferred by drug dealers lying in the sand all around the play structures. My three-year-old, Isabel, called it the “broken glass playground” to differentiate it from the “giant playground” that was a mile away and much cleaner.

After two years in that great house, we said goodbye to our perfect windows and moved again. By the time we made this second move in Connecticut, we were less focused on windows and much more focused on location, location, location. So now our house has drafty old inefficient windows, but it is in the perfect spot for us. The neighbors are friendly, there is a great park nearby, and we are both very close to work. None of our immediate neighbors is on probation.

We love our new neighborhood, simply because it is NOT our old neighborhood.


America is about to discover the joys of a new President. In the long run, Barack Obama may prove to be a great President. Time will tell. But in the short run, he is sure to benefit from the same dynamic that Erica and I experienced with our windows and our neighborhood. At first his approval ratings will be high simply because he is NOT George Bush.

Has ever a president been so unloved by so many for so long? All Barack Obama has to do is speak in full sentences, pronounce the word “nuclear” as it is spelled, listen to advisors who are willing to tell him the many sides and shades of an issue, and show some fiscal prudence. If he does these things, he will be wildly popular for a while.

Of course, at some point our collective memory of George Bush will fade away and we will begin evaluate Obama on his own, without the lame Bush yardstick as the measure of the man. But until then, it will be pretty easy for Barack Obama to look good. Again, all he has to do is NOT be George Bush. And he has been doing that for at least 47 years already.

Some in the moderate, thoughtful Right —Brent Scowcroft, Colin Powell—are already on board. Barack Obama has their respect and their wary enthusiasm on his side.

Those on the rabid radical right are already guarding against the coming confiscation of their guns and the (continued) nationalization of the banking and energy industries, (beyond what George Bush, Henry Paulson, and Sarah Palin have already done in Washington and Alaska). When, on January 21st, 2009, the fringe right still have their guns and capitalism still exists in America, Barack Obama will have proven himself to be a better President than these people feared. Slowly, they will drift in his direction as they are surprised again and again by his moderation and bipartisanship.

When the inevitable drop in approval ratings does happen, I predict that rather than those who didn’t vote for President Obama being the most disappointed, it will instead be the far left who will start to be dissatisfied first. Many in the far left have come to see Barack Obama as some kind of savior. Carrying their huge expectations, he can’t fail to disappoint. He will not institute national health care in the first three months. He will not do away with the military’s Don’t Ask—Don’t Tell policy in his first year. He will not push for the arrest of George Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld on war crimes charges. He will not vocally back the fight for the right to gay marriage.

It is the fire-breathing, bomb-throwing true believers who will be most disapproving of President Obama. They have projected onto him all of their wildest hopes and dreams of “revenge governance” and he is just not that sort of man. When Senator Obama gave his speech on race in Philadelphia back in March, I became convinced that he was the man for the job. His speech showed that he is clear-eyed and sees not through the distorting lenses of fierce partisanship but instead through the sharpening lens of pragmatism.

After eight years of inept leadership, America has many problems for President Obama to address. And rather than using his first term to settle partisan scores and yank the country far to the left, President Obama will govern from just-left-of-middle and simply get a LOT done. Maybe he doesn’t have an MBA from Harvard, but the man knows how to manage. He is just what we need right now—a leader who is NOT George Bush.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Tomato Love

“Look what I found on my pillow,” squealed my daughter through a grin as wide as a number 10 can of Italian peeled tomatoes. What she found on her pillow was, in fact, a number 10 can of Italian peeled tomatoes—(that is how I knew how wide her grin was.) I smiled as well, because I had just found a smaller can of tomato paste on my dresser.

I should explain. The story may take a while and even after you hear it, it might not make any sense. The tomato can has become a tradition in my little family and, like bunnies delivering candy or children placing used teeth under pillows, it might not be at all logical to an outsider. But, here goes:

Back in 1992 I was on the Flathead Indian Reservation in northwestern Montana, working for a summer program for teens. In a Tom Sawyer-ish deal, kids from fairly wealthy families would pay thousands of dollars to come and do community service work and outdoor adventure activities in a stunningly beautiful place. The non-profit company running the program was called Visions, and they were the ones who hired me to work the Flathead program that particular summer.

I grew up in the endless suburbs of the East Coast megalopolis and that summer was my first time in Montana. My experiences there changed me as much, or maybe even more, than they changed the kids. And as that summer came to an end, I felt very close to those teenagers and they to me. Our last night in the Salish-Kootenai College Daycare Center (where we slept) was happy and teary and emotional in the overtired, hyper way summer programs can be by their raggedy ends.

We gave the kids some space to say their goodbyes while as a staff we packed up the outdoor equipment, kitchen utensils, and leftover foodstuffs. Before the kids could break off into their picture taking, address collecting, and card playing, they had to show us that they were packed and ready to go in the morning. One girl from New Jersey had brought a duffle bag large enough to fit a full-sized United States Marine. She dragged it out of the girls’ sleeping area and left it in the pile with all the other bags.

Being something of a fan of the ridiculous, I waited until she walked away and then I promptly unzipped her bag, took a number-ten can of ketchup, hid it among her clothes, and rezipped the bag. Her bag, sans ketchup, already weighed at least 80 pounds. With the ketchup it was pushing 90. (This was in the day when airlines didn’t charge extra for heavy bags.) Within ten minutes I forgot I had even done it.

Flash forward five days. The kids had flown home via Newark Airport from Missoula. I had driven home to Delaware via Madison, Wisconsin and Boston, Massachusetts. I got to my parents’ house in Wilmington and my mom gave me a message. It was from the girl with the duffle bag and all it said was, “very funny.” I was flattered that she knew it was me who had put the ketchup in her bag. I called her back.

She told me that she was so spent by her summer in Pablo, Montana that when she got home she slept for almost twenty-four hours. As she slept, her mother opened her bag and began pulling out all the dirty clothes in order to begin making them wearable again. When mom got to the enormous can of ketchup, she could not figure out any possible scenario under which it would be reasonable for her daughter to travel 2000 miles with a year’s worth of ketchup in her already-heavy bag. So, she woke up her daughter and asked...

Flash forward again to 1995. I was back in Montana, only this time I lived there. I had recently met my wife-to-be and we were in the throes of early love. We traded stories. I liked what I heard and she liked what she heard. We traded more stories, allowing more of our real selves to come through. And still we liked what we were hearing. One of the stories Erica heard during those falling-in-love-months was about the well-traveled #10 can of ketchup.

We met in late January of 1995 and by April we were already talking about marriage. When June came I left for a summer in Browning, on the Blackfeet Reservation near Glacier National Park in northwest Montana. It was to be another summer with Visions kids, doing community service work and hiking in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. We slept on the floor of the basketball court at Browning High School. When we got there I set up my little corner of the staff room and unpacked my clothes for the six-week program. There at the bottom of my suitcase, under my wool socks and raingear, I found a small can of tomato paste.

And ever since then, any canned tomato product in any unexpected place has become shorthand for, “Hey Baby. I love you very much and I am thinking about you and I want you to know it even though I can’t be with you right now.”

Our just-born romance survived that early separation and we were engaged shortly after I returned to Billings in August. In the thirteen years since, we have continued with the strategic placement of tinned tomatoes in their many and varied forms. When our daughter, Isabel, was born we pulled her into the tradition. In fact, she had no idea there was even anything odd about the practice until lately.

Now that she knows how it all started, I think she likes the fact that it is just us who do this odd thing. The grin on her face as she held that can of tomatoes told me that, even though Erica is in Chicago for a conference this weekend, my daughter got the message loud and clear—she is loved. And not just a little bit, either.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Running Uphill

You know how you can tell in advance that some things will be unavoidably awful, but you put your head down and plow into them anyway because they simply have to get done? Things like filling out your tax forms or raking an autumn’s worth of leaves or organizing your basement after avoiding doing so for years? And usually it turns out to be not anywhere near as bad as you thought it would be. Isn’t that great when that happens?

It is as if the accumulated dread acts in advance to thoroughly recalibrate your sense of bad vs. not-so-bad so that when you are done with the onerous task you often end up saying something like, “Well. That wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it was going to be.”

Well, after running the Monson Memorial Half Marathon yesterday to “celebrate” my 43rd birthday, I can tell you with 100 percent certainty that running uphill for eight continuous miles is NOT in the category of “Things That Are Not As Bad As You Thought They Would Be.”

In fact, it turns out there is a-whole-nother category of things titled “Things That Will Be Worse Than You Thought They Would Be, No Matter How Bad You Thought They Would Be”. In this category I would put George W. Bush’s second term as President, the surgical removal of all four unemerged wisdom teeth all at once, and running eight continuous miles uphill.

The Monson Memorial Half Marathon course runs uphill from mile 0 to the end of mile 8. Then it runs back down to the start over the next 5.1 miles. The first half of the race took me over an hour. The second half of the race took 46 minutes. As I saw on a bumper sticker once: “Gravity: It’s Not Just a Good Idea; It’s The Law!”

I ran a half marathon in Missoula back in July and I was very happy with my time of 8:43 per mile. In Monson I was hoping to at least match my Missoula time, but also maybe to improve on it if the day was a good one. As it turned out, the day was good one—sunny and 53 degrees. And if you add my two halves together you end up with 108 minutes and 20 seconds or so. Which turns out to be 8:16 per mile. Woo Woo!!

I was thrilled with this improvement.

Which does not at all mitigate how truly awful it is to run eight continuous miles uphill. No matter how bad it sounds to you, it is worse than it sounds.

I can’t wait to do it again next year. How bad could it be?

Monday, November 3, 2008


Whether you believe in God or not, you have to admit He is a really useful construct for a society to have around. If you are trying to build an orderly society, what is not to like about an all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful deity lurking just out of view but fully aware of everything we do, of everything we think, of everything we feel, and of everything we desire.

I was reminded of this the other day when I spent the morning visiting a local private middle school. The faculty at my school have a fair amount of input as the yearly calendar is made and we have helped convince the Board that it can never be a good idea to have students in the building on either Halloween or the day after.

So, instead of teaching we are encouraged to go out to another school and spend the day observing. I find this practice valuable for many reasons, not least being the avoidance of direct instructional responsibility for sugar-crazed adolescents. The students graduate from my class and move on to any one of several public and private middle schools in the area. For this reason, I arrange for visits to these very middle schools in order to better help my kids and their parents decide which school might fit them best.

This is how I happened to find myself alone in the faculty room of a well-known private school last week. I had spent the morning in an Honors Math class, an English class, and a History class and enjoyed my visit thoroughly. The classes had excellent student:teacher ratios, the teachers were pleasant, smart, and engaging, and the students were interested and nice to each other.

I was spending a period in the faculty room, making notes for myself, having some typically bad faculty room coffee, and waiting to meet the Dean of Students for lunch. A few teachers straggled in and then straggled back out. Then I was alone.

And there, sitting previously unnoticed on the table in front of me, was a Baby Ruth bar stapled to a flyer for the Annual Fund Donation Drive. I don’t LOVE Baby Ruth bars, but I do LIKE them. And I was hungry. And I was alone. It was clear the candy was meant as an enticement, like free address labels or a shiny new nickel enclosed in junk mail. It was being given away.

But it was not being given away to ME and I knew that. That particular candy bar would not be missed by anyone if I just reached out, opened the wrapper, and munched it down. Still, I struggled mightily with myself. It was not in any way intended for me and there was no way I could convince myself that it was. It was meant for someone who might actually donate to the Annual Fund. Even if the person who ate it didn’t end up giving to the Annual Fund, it was still okay for him or her to eat that Baby Ruth simply because s/he actually worked at the school.

After literally twenty-five minutes of wrestling with my desire, I got up and left the faculty room. I won’t tell you if the Baby Ruth was still on the table when I left, but I will tell you that I left that room even more certain than ever that human beings created God rather than the reverse.

Friday, October 31, 2008


I went for a short walk in the woods today and had an odd thing happen. I was with Ginger, (The Poorly-Shorn Golden Doodle), and we came to a place in the trail where the woods on either side backed off a bit, forming a small clearing surrounded by fifty- to seventy-foot tall trees. We stopped and I had the same feeling I get when I walk into our house and can somehow tell that Erica is already home from work.

Do you ever have that feeling? I am unable to put it into words that carry much actual meaning; but if you have felt it, then you know what I mean. It is as if there are sense organs (beyond those that account for the usual five) and these sense organs react when there is another person around, even if that person is not visible. I picture these sensory receptors almost as magnets.

When the opposite poles of two magnets come into proximity there is an attraction created that pulls the poles toward each other across the gap.

THAT is the feeling I had out in the woods. Only, I knew there were no people around. I stood still and just allowed myself to feel the feeling. It soon came to me that it was the presence of the trees I was feeling. I am generally not a spiritualist, so I am not prepared to claim the trees had anything like what some might call “souls”. But at that moment in those woods I did have the strongest sense that I was surrounded by sentient beings.

And, oddly, I had the very specific sense that those trees had a sense of humor about humans and our short-term worries and overblown egos.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

A Place Called Hope

I am a teacher and a firm rationalist. I work hard to get my students to go beyond their initial reactions to things in order to examine WHY they feel the way they do. I admit that this can sometimes be a fool’s errand, since humans are notoriously opaque—especially to ourselves. But our opacity is no reason to settle for the surface.

Which is why I find myself admitting somewhat sheepishly that my bottom line reason for supporting Barack Obama is that he makes me feel hopeful.

There. I have said it out loud. I like the way Barack Obama makes me feel. I always have, from the first time I saw him speak. If I am fully honest with myself, I have to admit that it wasn’t WHAT he even said so much as how I felt as he was speaking. Later, as his campaign picked up steam, I started paying closer attention to his policy positions and was happy to find that I agreed with him on many issues.

But even if I hadn’t, I get the feeling I might have convinced myself that I did.

My reaction to Senator Obama tells me a lot about my state of mind over the past four years. I am an optimist who still believes firmly in the innate goodness of people when they are led by a leader who appeals to our finer natures instead of one who plays upon our fears.

Ever since September 11, 2001 I have felt that our President is simply scared poopless. He is way out of his depth and his reaction to the slaughter of innocent Americans on 9/11 has been one of endless fear. He is afraid of another attack. He is afraid of appearing weak. He is afraid of asking anyone for help. He is afraid he will be shown for the shallow party boy he is.

And he has found that his fear is useful. He has found that spreading his fear—amplifying what we already felt and even turning his fear into OUR fear--keeps him in office. Well, I don’t want to be afraid. In fact, I refuse to be afraid. And I certainly don’t want a President who makes all of his decisions in fear.

Barack Obama is not afraid. In this long campaign for the Presidency—first against Hillary Clinton and now against John McCain and the vaunted right wing electoral apparatus—Barack Obama has been poised and steady. He is not afraid of anything they throw at him. And he would not be afraid of anything circumstances, (or the Iranians), would throw at him as President.

I agree with Barack Obama’s health care proposals, his plan for removing combat troops from Iraq in 16 months, his tax reductions for 95% of U.S. Taxpayers. I agree with most of his positions. But honestly, I will vote for Barack Obama in three weeks because he makes me feel hopeful. I get the sense that many, if not most, Americans are tired of living in fear.

We want to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and face the future knowing that it won’t be easy. There are a lot of problems that we have been avoiding for too long. It is time to stop avoiding the future and to start shaping it in a way that is good for our citizens, the country, and the world.

I trust Barack Obama to have the guts to do that. I don’t think that the John McCain of the past three months has it in him to get down to business and do what is needed.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Saved By Zero

Erica has been out of town for the week and as a result I have been living my days close to the bone. There is not a lot of wiggle room in my schedule, what with work and a daughter and a dog. It feels as if each moment is already accounted for before I even get out of bed. As a result, I have not had any time to run. No time to think, either.

Until today, that is. Today I made time for BOTH running and thinking. Isabel had gymnastics from 4 until 5:45 and I made damn sure to bring my running clothes with us. Her gym is near the Farmington Canal trail, so as soon as her bare feet hit the padded floor to begin warm-ups my sneakered feet hit the macadam to begin my six miles. It was sunny and cool and perfect for a relaxed run.

A few Fridays ago I stumbled into the joys of an end-of-the-work-week run and now I am hooked. I have never had a problem just letting my mind drift while running (see my most recent blog entry) so my Friday afternoon runs become a sort of moving meditation for me. Today was no different in that for much of the first mile my mind was noisy with static left over from the day. But as my body warmed up and I settled into a comfortable pace my mind became quiet…


Floating around through the quiet in a sinuous, twisty sort of way was the song “Saved By Zero” by The Fixx. If you know the song then you may remember that it was a hit back in 1983. I don’t think I have heard it since the eighties, but there it was today, providing the soundtrack to my run. In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that I liked the song back when it was a hit so its presence in my head was not UNwelcome. It was just a little surprising, that’s all.

Surprising enough that I snapped back to a more focused level of consciousness and tried to think about what may have invited The Fixx into my run. After a half mile it came to me. I remembered seeing an interview on MTV in the fall of 1983 in which the lead singer, Cy Curnin, was asked to explain what the opaque lyrics to “Saved By Zero” mean. (Please, please don’t even ask me how I still know the name of the lead singer of The Fixx—I just DO, okay?)

Mr. Curnin talked about being in a mental space where he could, in effect, cancel gravity in his brain and allow all the things on his mind to become weightless and just float up and out of his stream of thought until there was nothing--zero. He said that he could then pay attention to see which thoughts fell back into focus first and most insistently. It was a way for him to prioritize.

I hadn’t done it on purpose, but as I ran I had done the same thing Cy Curnin did. My mind had been full of competing concerns, each buzzing around, calling for my attention. But then by mile two they had all been thrown up into the air, where they were floating momentarily in zero-gravity while I just ran. And into the empty space (that had been so annoyingly full a mile ago) stepped my memory of Cy Curnin and his paean to meditation.

I decided to look up, (metaphorically), and see what was floating around so compliantly as I ran mostly empty-brained. I could see my students up there—each begging me to think about how their week had been and what I could be doing to challenge them more. I also saw my daughter and my worry that I had been on auto-pilot with her this week instead of really being with her. And there was my wife and my excitement for her as she explores where to take her many skills and gifts. I also caught a glimpse of myself and my growing anticipation for whatever will come next for me in life.

There was the Dow Jones Industrial Average off by 18% this week and all of the repercussions that has on our retirement “savings.” There was also Barack Obama with his growing lead in the polls and my growing fear that he will be killed before he can become President. I also thought I saw our roof and its leaks and its shockingly high replacement cost. Oh, and even though it was hiding behind all the other floaters, I am pretty sure advancing middle age was up there too.

Being able to examine them all dispassionately from a distance was a real gift. And it got me through three miles of quickish running with nary a thought of pain or shortness of breath. As I neared the beginning of the last mile I decided to let the thoughts fall as they would and just notice what came down fastest and first to claim my full, refocused, relaxed attention.

And there it fell, unnoticed amid all the weighty issues and the clamor and hubbub of events: What should I make for dinner?

Monday, September 29, 2008

Shove Me Out of the Shallow Water

Erica and I went to New York on a train Saturday night to see a comedy show in Brooklyn. It was great. Not just the show—the whole thing. It was pretty spur-of-the-moment and everything fell into place as if the universe really cared about us and wanted us to go see the show.

I love when we go to New York on the train without our daughter. It gives us a guaranteed 90 minutes alone together without the phone or a knock at the door or a child needing something from either one of us. (I feel the need to add here that I also LOVE when we get on a train and go to New York WITH our daughter—it is just a very different thing from going without her.)

Sometimes we bring work or books or other attention-demanding things. But sometimes we don’t, and it gives us a chance to talk with each other for a full ninety minutes (if that’s what we’re into.) Our days can be packed full of logistical details and only fleeting minutes when we are both in the same place at the same time. On those days, bedtime often feels like surrendering and I just go to sleep with hardly more than a half-hearted “How was your day?” So, ninety minutes can feel like an extravagance of time.

During this particular ride we had a chance to talk about life and what we wanted to do when we grow up. It was a good conversation, since we both had a chance to say things we have been thinking about lately anyway. And since we had such a chunk of time, we were actually free to explore some of the tributaries of our main conversation without feeling the usual time constraint to get to the main point.

One such tributary led me to put into words with Erica an insight into myself that I have been carrying around for months without the opportunity to share. That insight is simply this:

I am a lot like the beach at St. Andrews, Scotland.

A couple of summers ago we went to Scotland with Isabel and with Erica’s parents. Erica has relatives in Scotland and we got to tromp across the heather to the site of the old crofter’s cottage whence one of Erica’s relatives left John O’Groats to come to America. It was great for Isabel to get such a concrete sense of one thread of her history. From John O’Groats at the northern tip of Scotland we headed south to St. Andrews for the history and the golf.

Erica’s dad is a golfer and he played a round on the Royal St. Andrews Course. While he was golfing, Erica and her mother went to a castle and Isabel and I went to play on the beach. It was low tide when we got there and the water seemed a mile away. The beach itself was as wide as that mile to the water and flat as a table. I had never seen a beach quite like it. We walked out into the water for a long way and it never got any deeper than my knees. A local woman told us to be careful, “It’ll catch ya,” she said. “The edge just drops off into the abyss.”

Her warning was enough for us. We moved our fun out of the water and back onto the beach. As Bel and I played with the strangely-textured mud-like sand, the tide rolled in fast and hard. We had to abandon our sand city as it flooded in a matter of minutes.

The wide beach combined with the speed of the tide made an impression on me. And this brings me back to my train ride with Erica Saturday night. As part of our talk, Erica asked me to try to push below the surface when we do have time to talk—to not settle for platitudes or shallow observations. I told her that I would try, but that it is not easy for me. I told her about my realization that I am a lot like the beach and the bay at St. Andrews, Scotland. There is a wide stretch that is surprisingly shallow. Even as you walk out you keep expecting it to get deeper, but it doesn’t happen. Then, after what seems like forever, there is a drop off that, even though you have been expecting it for a long time, takes you by surprise.

I think Erica met me at a time in my life when the tide was high and she mistook that for my permanent state. If I had done it on purpose maybe she could sue for false advertising. But it wasn’t on purpose. I just prefer to swim around in the shallows sometimes and I need a reminder of how interesting, exciting, and challenging the depths can be.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Do You Trust These Men?

Some form of the bailout plan recently proposed by the Bush Administration is probably needed to head off an even faster, bigger unraveling of the world’s economy than would happen otherwise. But the more details of the Bush proposal that I read, the more I am reminded of the days just after 9/11 when President Bush proposed, and Congress wrote and passed, the PATRIOT Act out of fear that sleeper cells were lying in wait and the only way to catch them was to take a few steps in the direction of a police state. I am also reminded of the days in the run-up to President Bush’s war of aggression on Iraq, when Congress ceded authority to the President to use force against Saddam Hussein--based again on a sense of crisis and impending doom.

The modus operandi of this administration is clear by now: allow things to reach the point of crisis through equal parts incompetence and inattention, wake up to the danger posed by the situation, and then react with a solution based in giving more and more power to the Executive Branch of the government. The knee-jerk reactions of Bush, Cheney, et al. betray quite a wide streak of fascistic tendencies. For so-called conservatives, they seem to have a strong desire to concentrate as much power in the hands of the Executive as Congress and the people will put up with.

I am worried that the current proposal, (ostensibly aimed at strengthening financial institutions at-risk because of the proliferation of no-money-down, no-income-check, interest-only, adjustable rate mortgages), is really just another grab at more power for the Executive Branch. I am not prone to conspiracy theories—I base my opinion in this case on the words of the President’s proposal:

“Decisions by the Secretary pursuant to the authority of this Act are non-reviewable and committed to agency discretion, and may not be reviewed by any court of law or any administrative agency.”

It is impossible for me to read these words and not question the motives of the Bush Administration. To summarize, they have asked for $700 billion of taxpayer money AND the power to do whatever they want with it without review or oversight. Secretary Paulson would have the power to do whatever he (and co-Presidents Bush/Cheney) deem acceptable. After 9/11, Iraq, and Hurricane Katrina I trust neither the intentions of these men nor their ability to actually manage a crisis in a competent way.

I am glad many in Congress feel the same way I do and are working to add oversight and accountability to the bailout. To my way of thinking it is six years too late, but better late than never.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

American International Group

I am in the habit of checking my e-mail before I go to bed each night. I am not sure why I do this, since it is not a habit that leads to more or better sleep. Yet, I do it anyway. And, sometimes while I am online anyway, I will scoot over to the New York Times front page to see what I can see.

Last night what I saw was that the Taxpayers of the United States will be loaning American International Group $85,000,000,000. (Just as an aside, I never got the e-mail asking me if this was alright---did any of you other taxpayers get that e-mail?)

I understand that the health of the entire world economy was at stake if AIG were to be allowed to slip into bankruptcy. Really, I do. But I couldn’t help but wonder what the difference is between individuals who entered into mortgages and other loans without really thinking through the consequences of a rise in interest rates and the mega-corporations who based much of their business on risky financial instruments without really thinking through the consequences of a rise in interest rates.

There is not much government support for families who may lose their homes. In fact, I hear many on the right say that homeowner bailouts will just reward bad behavior by borrowers. Yet I have not heard anyone speak out against rewarding AIG’s bad behavior.

If I had gotten the e-mail asking if it was okay with me if the government used my tax money to prop up AIG I probably would have agreed, but with a caveat. I would have demanded that for every dollar being diverted from government coffers to AIG, a dollar should also be diverted to help homeowners keep their homes.

Without this caveat, it seems to me that the government of the United States it saying loudly and clearly that corporations are far more important than individual homeowners and families.

UPDATE: in the interest of fairness I need to point out that many Republican lawmakers have spoken out in the last few hours about the unfairness of the AIG bailout.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

We Reached the Beach!

I used two tricks to get through my three legs of the Reach the Beach relay from Cannon Mountain Ski Area in north-central New Hampshire to Hampton Beach on the Atlantic coast. One of the tricks is old and I have used it many times to get through long distances that I am not feeling particularly good about, but the other trick was new to me and it helped me learn something about myself.

The race is described by organizers as 209-ish miles-long and it certainly feels that way. I got a good draw from the captain of our team—who just-so-happens to share an address with me—so my total mileage was only about 14. Others on our team ran anywhere from 15 to 21 miles, altogether.

While the running can be grueling—up looooong hills in the dark with heavy rain—it is really the relentless pace of the race that makes it tough. There is little time to rest for 30 continuous hours. When runners are off the course, they are riding support in a fifteen-passenger van for their teammates, who are running. When a long, hard leg is over, the sweaty, panting runner climbs into the van which then leapfrogs ahead to meet the next runner who may need water or Shot Blocks halfway through her leg.

A pattern develops quickly and that pattern leaves no room for downtime.

By hour # 25 I was tired, but still excited for my last leg. My first two legs, (7.2 miles through intermittent drizzle at 6:30 pm and 4.4 miles through the dark at 4:00 am) both went well—I was keeping an 8:20 pace per mile and feeling good.

The old trick I used during these first two legs was to pick a landmark in the middle distance and make reaching that landmark my immediate goal. And to then do the same thing again and again and in this way keep myself moving forward. It worked quite well and I was feeling good about how those two legs had gone.

My final leg was only 2.5 miles long, but in the meantime I hadn’t really slept for a long time and I had been spending much of my time riding in a van. As my teammate Merle appeared in the distance I made up my mind that I wanted to give everything I had to my final chunk of the race.

Even reading the words now it sounds meaningless and cliché—“give everything I had”—but it meant something very specific to me in the moment. It meant that I would not let my pace slacken nor ease up to give myself a break. It meant that I wanted to cross the line on my final leg of the race on my last legs—like I couldn’t even run another 100 yards, let alone another mile. It meant that I wanted to see what I had left in me.

As I already said, 2.5 miles is not very long, but given the circumstances I knew it would not be a jog in the park. As our team ran the race this year, we kept track of what team member Matt calls “puppies and bones”. You score a puppy every time you pass another runner. A bone is counted against you every time another runner passes you. I hadn’t been focused much on puppies and bones in my first two legs—I just wanted to run well. But for the third leg I decided that the whole puppy-and-bone-thing might make a great tool to help me with my commitment to really pushing myself.

As soon as I got the sweaty wristband from Merle, I saw another runner who had just taken her first few steps away from the hand-off zone. I sped up and passed her. One puppy, right off the bat. After about one mile I pulled in behind a runner who was moving at a good clip. Normally, my style would be to tag along behind this runner and match his pace. But this time I made myself speed up and pass him. It hurt, but now I had two puppies AND I was pushing myself. In fact, I continued to push because I didn’t want to become the bone of the puppy I had just passed.

I don’t wear any kind of timing device when I run and the course did not have distances marked in any way, so it was hard to know how far I had left to go or even what my pace was. Normally I am a good judge of both, but the special circumstances of this race played havoc with my interior odometer. I came around a curve in the road and saw two runners up ahead who appeared to be coasting through their final legs. I knew I had at least a mile in which to catch them, so I ran a little harder and hurt a lot more. I caught them both and passed them with about a half-mile to go. Four puppies. I was pretty pleased. And pretty certain that I had nothing left to give to the race. I felt finished. Done. Kaput.

But I still had more than 2000 feet left. This is where I tried the new trick. I decided to count how many steps it was between when I felt like I had nothing left to give and when I actually crossed the line, ending my leg. I began counting. I got up to about 620 when I noticed a shirtless guy lumbering toward the finish line ahead of me. He was not moving very fast. I decided to try to collect one more puppy. I stopped counting steps and started running harder. Erica and my other teammates were cheering me on as I made a final push and overtook the puppy in the last few yards.

It hurt a lot. But it felt so good. It wasn’t that I had passed some guy I didn’t even know. Rather, the good feeling came from the fact that I had gotten off the course with exactly nothing left in my tank to give. I was spent. Turns out my last leg was 2.5 miles in 20 minutes, for a pace of 8 minutes per mile. Objectively, that is not very fast. Subjectively, I don’t care.

I felt, (and still do feel), great about that last short leg of mine. It gave me insight into what I am capable of—which it turns out is at least 620 steps and a burst of effort more than I thought I was capable of. So now when I think I have done all I can do or given all I can give, I will know that there is a secret reserve tank somewhere very near my heart that might still have something left in it.

Pictured above is our entire Rosie Ruiz Fan Club team at Cannon Mountain just before we began our run. The temperature was in the fifties and there was a light rain falling.

Below is the group of six runners who shared the van I was in. We are holding the car-magnets we used to decorate our van. The green poster is where we kept track of "puppies and bones", a.k.a. our Road Kill Counter.

We all look very happy because we were.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Reach the Beach

Did I mention that I will be part of a 200-mile relay race this weekend?


I am not sure how it slipped my mind, but it is true.

The race is called Reach the Beach and it begins in the mountains of New Hampshire and ends at the Atlantic Ocean approximately 30 hours later. There are twelve of us running as a team through the wilds of New Hampshire day and night. Our team is called the Rosie Ruiz Fan Club, in honor of world famous Boston Marathon cheater Rosie Ruiz. You can check out the team blog here.

My partner, Erica, is our team captain and she is busy with all sorts of details. Me, I’m just hoping to survive three legs of about five miles each on no sleep and no real food. I am also hoping to avoid the intestinal curse that struck half of last year’s team and made the race especially interesting.

I will let you know how it goes next week. Wish us luck!

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Head in the Clouds

I went for a run yesterday morning. Tropical Storm Hanna was forecast to hit later in the day and I needed to get a run in before the weather came. It was humid. Steamy. Tropical, even. When I got to the top of East Rock the wind became slightly more insistent. The air seemed even thicker. And there were wisps of clouds below me. East Rock is only 365 feet above sea level, but it somehow seemed higher with a solid ceiling of grey above and smaller scraps of clouds blowing by below, between me and the rooftops of my neighborhood.
It reminded me of a time In Yemen when I hitched up out of the desert to a mountaintop village and then sat on the edge of the world looking back down 6000 feet at the sand of the Arabian Tihama. Huge birds of prey were riding the updrafts and I was absolutely convinced they were simply having fun in the wind, maybe having a contest to see who could rise the farthest without flapping her wings, (I still am convinced, in fact.)
I saw a tiny speck-of-a-cloud just above the desert sands far off in the Tihama. As I watched, this flimsiest wisp of water vapor blew inland and started to ride the wind up the face of the mountain I was perched atop. As it rose, it expanded and became more substantial.
It probably took about thirty minutes, but by the time it got to me at the mountaintop that tiny cloud had become a storm. I had seen it coming from miles away, yet still I just sat there and allowed the grey to engulf me. The temperature dropped twenty degrees in a minute, the wind picked up, and a fine mist soaked me to the skin. It is one of my favorite memories of my time in Yemen.

Hanna didn’t really live up to her advance publicity, but I do want to thank her for the memory.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Garden Update

Back in the spring I tore out the strip of grass between the sidewalk and the curb in front of our house. I built up a raised garden bed with compost from our bin and some bagged dirt from the store and then framed it in with some wooden posts that I staked down to hold it all in place. I also put some tomato plants into pots on the porch and filled some window boxes with flowers to add color.

Turned out to be a great thing. The garden has been a source of real pleasure for me all spring and summer. I took some pictures this morning and wanted to post them.

Black-eyed Susans, marigolds, and chrysanthemums.

A basil plant that has decided to take over a fair-sized chunk of the garden. I have made a LOT of pesto this summer. Excellent recipe:

3 Tbsp toasted pine nuts
3 cloves garlic
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/4 cup olive oil
1 cup basil leaves

Grind pine nuts and garlic in a food processor. Add salt and basil leaves. Grind some more. Add olive oil and process into the consistency you like.

Goldfinches have loved eating the seeds out of the sunflowers. They are small, beautiful birds and I can tell when they are eating because they chitter noisily to each other as they eat.

We have gotten dozens of juicy, sweet tomatoes that don't quite look as perfect as the tomatoes for sale at Stop and Shop, but they taste far better. Must be all the flavonoids.

I put in just one pepper plant, since we don't use a lot of heat in most of our cooking. Well, that one pepper plant has put out dozens of VERY hot habaneros--far more than we can use. I am just throwing them in the freezer so far.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Sweet, Sweet Suburbia

For Proust, it was a mouthful of pastry mixed with tea that opened the floodgates and brought his childhood back with so much detail that it took volumes to describe it fully in his magnum opus Remembrance of Things Past. For me it was nothing so literary, nor so tasty. For me it was a sweaty run on a humid summer Saturday.

I was in Delaware this weekend to visit my mom in the wake of her recent hip-replacement surgery. Her operation was five weeks ago and ever since I have been trying to find a time to go see her. This weekend Erica and Isabel were in Montana, so it seemed like the perfect chance to head out on a road trip with just me and Ginger, (the Vomitty Wonder GoldenDoodle) in our 1999 Volvo sedan. I mention the car here not because it affects the story in any way, but simply because Ginger and I spent eleven of our 36 hours this weekend in the car and it struck me as rude to leave the car out of the narrative entirely. Now that the car has had its cameo, I shall not mention it again.

Anyway, I got to Delaware early Saturday afternoon and sat with my parents as Barack Obama introduced his Vice- Presidential selection, Delaware Senator Joe Biden, to the world. My parents and I do not see eye to eye on politics. We don’t even see eye to bellybutton. So as we watched Senators Obama and Biden give their short speeches, we nearly came to blows. At one point I remember towering over my mom as she commented on the foreign-ness of Barack HUSSEIN Obama’s name. I may have even said something like, “Oh Yeah?!? Why don’t you grab your cane and STAND UP and say that? Old Lady!” The atmosphere in their living room grew a little testy.

So at some point in the back-and-forth about flag lapel pins and abandoned first wives, I decided I should go for a run. For some reason I was having a hard time making myself run last week. Last weekend I did a great 12-mile training run up East Rock and back, twice. But ever since, my enthusiasm for running had disappeared. So I took the impetus provided by a good political mud fight and turned it into the spark that got me out the door for a run around my parents’ suburban neighborhood.

After just a few blocks I found my feet had an agenda. They took me out of Foulk Woods, into Chalfonte, through Surrey Park and over to McDaniel Crest, and then into Fairfax. (In northern Delaware each subdivision has a name and, to those in the know, those names carry much information about the socio-economic status of the people who live there.) I went by Bonsall Park, Fairfax North Park, and Fairfax South Park. I ran by 228 Waverly Road and 113 Woodrow Avenue--the first two houses I lived in as a child. Between the two houses, I passed by St. Mary Magdalene Elementary School, where I was educated from kindergarten through sixth grade.

As it turned out, I was on a tour of my childhood without having planned any such thing.

I ran by our old houses and the houses of my old friends, and the McDonalds where they used to sell ten cherry pies for a dollar on Washington’s Birthday, and the Wawa convenience store where I used to buy baseball cards, and the park where I used to play Little League Baseball, and the other park where we used to build rock-and-clay dams across the creek to create swimming holes, and Chris Campion’s house where his dad had Playboy magazines hidden in his sock drawer, and Mrs. Quinn’s house where we used to earn a dime for every Japanese beetle we could pick off her rose bushes and place in a Mason jar with gasoline, and the even-other park where we took archery lessons and got to shoot arrows at helium balloons as they floated up at the ends of long strings. I ran by all these places and at the end of my run it was clear to me that I had one heckuva happy childhood.

As an adult I look at suburbia as a sterile place where cars rule and people don’t know their neighbors. But the suburbia I grew up in was different. To me it was far from sterile. In fact, it was fertile ground for imagination, friendship, and just-plain-fun. All the neighbors knew which family I belonged to. By the summer between fifth and sixth grades I could pretty much ride my bike anywhere in a 20-square mile area with our house in the middle. My grandmother and several aunts, uncles, and cousins lived in that same 20-square mile area, as did many of my teachers and all of my friends.

I felt free and trusted and powerful in a way I am afraid to let my daughter feel. She does NOT have the run of the neighborhood. She does not have family every few blocks where she can stop for a drink if she gets thirsty. She might never know the freedom I had as a child to just explore the world without thinking of it as a dangerous place. Growing up in suburban Wilmington, Delaware in the 1970s was a real gift for me. I developed an ease and comfort in the physical world that allowed me to feel alright about going away to college. My security in the world made it okay for me to join the Peace Corps and live in Yemen for two years after college.

The freedom my parents gave me on my bicycle left me with a strong desire to see what is around the next turn or over the next hill, or even in the next country. I never realized it before that run two days ago, but my childhood in Delaware set the stage for so much of who I am today. My run through my childhood could not have come at a better time in my life. It was a good reminder for me of a time when the future was all in front of me and the only limits were those I placed on myself.

By the time I got back to my parents’ house our political differences were long forgotten and I had a good visit.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

At What Cost?

I took Isabel and Erica to the airport in the dark early this morning. While driving back up I-95 toward Connecticut I was listening to the news on NPR and I heard a story about Mashpee, Massachusetts and how this small town of 14,000 people had suffered a terrible loss in the past two weeks. Two recent high school graduates, one from the class of 2005 and the other from the class of 2007, had died in action in Iraq and Afghanistan. I didn’t know either of the young men who died, but hearing interviews with their friends and families left me feeling very sad.

And then very angry.

The mother of one of the dead soldiers consoled herself with the knowledge that her son died protecting the freedoms of all Americans. Her heartfelt belief in the truth of her son’s sacrifice was the saddest thing I have heard in a long time. Because the war in Iraq has gone on so long I have started to forget the burning anger I once felt at President Bush for starting an unnecessary and unwarranted war of aggression. But this mother's hurt and her pride brought my rage at George Bush right back up to the surface.
His horrendously flawed judgment has cost tens of thousands of lives, billions of dollars, America’s moral credibility, and a sad mother in Mashpee her son—a son I am afraid died for nothing but the misguided ineptitude of a man with too much power and not enough brains.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Feeling Gravity's Pull

There is a great scene in the movie Apollo 13 where the astronauts and Houston realize that they can use the gravitational momentum provided by going around the moon to propel themselves back through the void of space and on toward Earth. Without the extra burst of momentum gained from a close pass of the moon it is unlikely the astronauts would have made it back to Earth.
While running this morning the image of that little module using the invisible but powerful force of gravity to its advantage struck me as a great and guiding image for this part of my life. While having dinner with new friends last night we each took a turn telling how we had chosen our career paths. One said he had no choice—music has been his calling since he was young and nothing else has ever felt right. The other spoke in different terms of the same idea—singing is a calling for her, a vocation about which she does not have much of a choice.
When it was my turn to spill, I told them that I had not felt anything as clear and defining as a calling. After college I had many jobs. In most of those jobs, I was teaching somebody about something. The “somebodies” and the “somethings” changed from job to job, but the fact that I was teaching remained constant. There were sixth graders in Massachusetts learning about the environment, high schoolers in Montana learning how to dig fence post holes and pack for a three-day hike in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, Yemenis learning English, ninth graders learning how to read Shakespeare, and pre-schoolers learning the alphabet and where not to wipe their boogers.
When I hit thirty and felt like I needed to choose a path of some sort, I naturally settled on teaching. It was a calling I came to in retrospect. As I took stock and looked at what I had done with myself after college, I saw a narrative thread that I hadn’t even realized was there. Noticing that thread and then following it through all my experiences suddenly turned a seemingly-directionless stretch of ten years into a cohesive series of jobs and opportunities leading inexorably toward getting certified to teach. Turned out I was on a path and didn’t even know it.
But the patterns that work in the past aren’t always the most helpful in the future. In the past, my decision-making process has been instinctive, emotional, and haphazard. And it has led me to some amazingly rich experiences. But at 42 years old, I feel like I have a choice to make. So far I have been cruising through life without a lot of agency in my own life. After college I leapt out into the world by joining the Peace Corps and going to Yemen. This set me in motion through a particular part of the solar system where I was pulled by the gravity of some pretty amazing people, places, and opportunities, subtly altering my course in response to their influences.

But now I feel like those astronauts on Apollo 13. I want to claim some measure of control over my direction of travel. I want and need to become more conscious about how I use the influence of the people and experiences in my life. I want to do the math and pick an angle of approach to the rest of my life and make some things happen rather than simply responding to what happens. It feels like a time for some changes and I want to have a say in what those changes are. I want to take the accumulated gravity of everything I have learned and use it to consciously aim myself at my future. Here’s hoping it is a wild ride.

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Play is the Thing

Directors come at Hamlet the way singers approach the National Anthem before a sporting event. Many singers see the National Anthem as an opportunity to let out their inner diva and many directors see Hamlet as a vehicle for showcasing their own brilliance. Far too many of them make the mistake of assuming that because the play is so well known by so many, that a fresh, quirky interpretation is the only way to keep it interesting.
Last night we went with a bunch of people to see The Elm Shakespeare Company’s production of Hamlet in Edgerton Park. It was well done. Director James Andreassi added a modern grace note or two, but all in all kept it pretty true to the tone of the original. I appreciated his light touch. After all, it is the play that is brilliant and the play does not need much tinkering to keep it relevant.
Andreassi let Allyn Burrows as Hamlet keep the words up front and center stage, which is where Shakespeare’s insights belong. Over the past couple of years I have gained a deeper appreciation for Shakespeare. In fact, I have gotten to the point where I would claim that William Shakespeare was the most insightful human ever to set ink to a page. What he knew about humans and human nature predates Freud, Skinner, James, and Jung and surpasses what they knew, even if you put it all together.
Along with Burrows, Alvin Epstein, Lisa Bostnar, Tamara Hickey, and Mark Zeisler performed well in meaty roles. Their collective restraint served the story well and allowed Shakespeare’s insights the spotlight they deserve.
Which is not to say that the Elm Shakespeare’s Hamlet is merely a series of psychological truths set in a story. If it were, it would ring flat. The genius of Shakespeare is that these nuggets of truth are set in the midst of compelling, engaging stories. And the beauty of Jim Andreassi’s Hamlet is that he strikes the right balance between the story and the truths.
The play, alternating with Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker, runs for two more weeks, and you can bet we will be back many more times before the run is through.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Running is NOT a Metaphor

The website for the race said the course was "relatively flat and fast." I guess that was true--in the same way that the Rockies are "relatively flat" compared to the Himalayas. It was a ten-mile race and as I made a turn during mile-five, a white wall loomed up in the road, about a quarter mile ahead--right in the middle of the route. As I got closer it became clear that it was, in fact, not a white wall at all. It was a section of road angling sharply upward with bright sun shining on it, making it look white. I guess it was "relatively flat."

I am fully aware that humans have a built-in predisposition to overestimate the steepness of hills, especially when we are already tired from running. This was proven nicely by a University of Virginia Professor named Dennis Proffitt. Even given this predisposition, the hill I saw looming up before me had to be at least 2oo feet high and at 30 degree pitch.

I told the volunteer who was directing traffic something witty like, "Hills are stupid," and then put my head down and trudged up the alpine incline. To keep my mind occupied I set myself a challenge. I decided to think of a topic I could write about using running as a metaphor. Once I started thinking about running as a metaphor, my mind bubbled over with possibilities.

Getting a degree, writing a short story or a book, being married--all of these are analogous to running a long distance. It is easy enough to match up step-for-step and detail-for-detail how any of these activities, (as well as many others), are like running. There is the idea that you start slow and work your way into shape over many weeks and months. There is the reality that some runs are easier than others--and unpredictably so. There is the truth that any goal worth achieving takes commitment and work.

I got to the top of that particular hill, cursing myself for choosing to come out and run early on a beautiful Sunday morning instead of staying home and enjoying some coffee on the porch while reading the New York Times. I caught my breath and continued running when I came around a curve in the road and saw--you guessed it--another hill.

I laughed out loud. I felt like I was stuck in an Escher drawing. The racecourse was a loop that started at sea level and ended at sea level, yet somehow it went only uphill. It was at that moment that the truth of running hit me full-on: Running is NOT a metaphor. Running is just running and sometimes it stinks.