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.