Sunday, November 13, 2011

Running With Myself



Last Sunday I ran the RaceVermont Fall Half Marathon in Shelburne, Vermont. It was a beautiful morning for a long run—cold and crisp and clear. I don’t live in Shelburne. In fact, I live 275 miles away in New Haven, Connecticut. But I am trying to run a half marathon in all 50 states. Before last Sunday I had run in 8 of the 50. As I knock them off my list, I have to go slightly farther from home to find states I have not yet run in. That is why I was in Vermont on a weekend when there were closer races to be run.

This was a small race—limited to 600 people—and the course was really interesting. It followed roads and trails and it took us near the shores of Lake Champlain. There were a couple of medium hills and lots of pretty scenery. Some of the races I have run lately have been huge, with thousands of runners, so this felt intimate. We didn’t have chips to time us and there were no clocks on the route to let us know our pace.

I never wear a watch or any sort of Garmin—I have a Luddite view of running gear—so in this particular race I had no idea of my pace as I ran. I could have asked another runner, but a few miles into the race I decided I would rather run without knowing my time. I never run against the other runners, but I often run against the clock. This time I decided to simply run against myself.

At mile 6 the course started on a long downhill that ended at mile 8 and then turned around and went back up that same long downhill stretch, only at this point it was now a long UPHILL stretch. When I got to the turnaround point I felt strong. I knew I still had about five miles left, but I also knew there was a big hill staring down at me. I decided to push myself up that hill at the edge of my ability. The guy I had been running next to for a half mile said something like, “You gonna put the fast shoes on now?” I looked over my shoulder, said “Yeah, I think I will,” and chugged up the hill.

It went well and when I got to mile 10 the course left the road and turned into the woods. The organizers had decided not to put any mile markers on the stretch of course that ran through the woods; not only did I not know my pace, I also had only a rough idea of how much race was left. Again, I decided to run against myself and my own desire to turn it down a notch and catch my breath. I told my body to find its edge and keep it there—sort of like setting the cruise control on the highway.


(Me, looking pained at Mile 12.5)

It turned out that the trail stayed in the woods for two-and-a-half miles and by the time it emerged we were on the road only a half-mile from the finish line. Even here there was a point at which my mind wanted to coast a bit but my body overrode and pushed on, right at its edge. I finished in one hour, forty-two minutes, and fifty-six seconds for a pace of 7:51 per mile. It was my fastest half marathon ever.

Today I realized that in fact I wasn’t running against myself at all in Vermont. In fact, I was running WITH myself and that is what made all the difference. There was no clock, no mile markers for me to obsess over, and no goal other than to stay at my edge. And the company was good.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Braids

Sometimes I worry. More than I let on, even. Am I a good enough teacher? Where will we live next year? Will we have enough to retire on when we are ready? When will my parents die? Will their decline be traumatic? Will my daughter be spared some of the more painful parts of growing up? Will my marriage last? What will I do next?

During the day, it is easy enough to simply put these worries aside. At night it is harder. There are fewer distractions and the dark seems to be where these worries like to lurk anyway.

So, a few nights ago I woke up at 3 in the morning and my fears kicked in full-force right away. They were relentless and drove me out of the bed and down into the living room—into the light. I won’t say what they were because they were what they always are—irrational, exaggerated, and destructive. But that particular night the light did not drive them away.

I tried to write them away, but that didn’t work either. The only thing that really chased them off was the rising of the sun and the start of another regular work day. I find these worries have a strange aversion to daily routine—once I boil the water to make the coffee, turn on the morning news on NPR, and get started on Isabel’s lunch, routine replaces worry and another day begins.

That particular day was a Wednesday and on Wednesday the school where I teach has a School Meeting. I take my students up to the fourth floor of our converted factory building and we sit on the carpet, along with our Meeting Buddies---the kindergarten and first grade students. All of the other students of the school are there too, as are the staff, administrators, and many parents. We sing songs, recognize birthdays, hear announcements, and share with the school community details about what we are doing in our classes. It is a tradition I love.

As the meeting began we were singing a song about a river. It is a song I have come to really like, in spite of itself. The chorus goes like this: “River, take me along in your sunshine, sing me your song, ever moving and winding and free, you rolling old river, you changing old river, let’s you and me river run down to the sea.” It embodies the worst excesses of many folk songs about rivers, and when I hear 120 kids singing it full-throatedly, it moves me.

So, on that morning of hard-to-kill worries I was sitting on the floor, surrounded by happy kids, singing a song about a river when I noticed the hair of the second-grader in front of me. It was in two tight braids that were remarkably well done. I stared at those braids and started to think about the person who sat for a long time and patiently, lovingly brushed out this girl’s hair. Whoever it was that wove those braids spent a lot of time and effort doing something for this girl that she could not do for herself. Those braids spoke of patience and unselfishness and intimacy and love. By the time the song was over and I turned away from those braids, my worries had beaten a hasty retreat and I moved into my day ready for whatever it was going to bring. Just took a simple reminder.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

My Poor, Poor Dog


My dog Ginger has this orange and blue ball that she LOVES to chase and retrieve. Or I should say “had.” Let me start over:

My dog Ginger HAD this orange and blue ball that she loved to chase and retrieve. Two days ago we were at Edgerton Park and I was throwing grounders and line drives designed to speed by her head. (She seems to get most into the game when I can get the ball to pass within inches of her open mouth—or maybe that is just something I do to keep the game interesting to me?) Anyway, two days ago I was using our Chuckit! Ball thrower with Ginger and our other little dog, Lotti, when disaster struck.

Another thing Ginger likes is when I throw the ball high up into the air. She often loses sight of the ball, but over time she has developed an outfielder’s instinct for where the ball should come down. She does the instantaneous calculations ballplayers do and, based on the speed of my arm, the angle of the ball thrower at point of release, the wind speed and direction and the million other factors that determine trajectory, Ginger is able to position herself very near the spot this orange and blue ball will come down and begin its bouncy trip into her mouth.

Monday afternoon we were in the upper field at Edgerton when I let rip a high, arcing throw designed to take the ball over a 70 foot white pine and down on the other side. Ginger was already on the far side of the tree and she saw me launch the ball. Lotti was halfway between me and Ginger and she also saw the throw and, being a puppy and new to ball throwers, she had a rudimentary sense of where the ball might come down. THAT it would come down she had no doubt. Neither did I and neither did Ginger.



Yet, the ball did NOT come down. I had not put quite enough muscle into the throw and the ball entered the top branches of the tree and somehow stuck there. It was simply, silently, and tragically swallowed up by the tree. The three of us must have looked pretty comical with our heads back at 50-degree angles and our mouths agape. I knew what happened right away and Lotti had no idea at all. But poor Ginger. As a five-year old with LOTS of ball experience, she knows a thing or two about gravity. She also knows about object permanence. Mostly, Ginger knows that what goes up MUST come down.

It was clear from Ginger’s reaction that her faith in the laws of physics was shaken that day. She sat staring up at that tree for a long time. Then she started walking around the field, sniffing for the ball as if maybe it HAD come down but she had just missed hearing or seeing it. Every once in a while she would stop and look up with the oddest expression on her face. When it was time to leave the park she kept looking back over her shoulder with the same quizzical expression.

She has not been the same since that afternoon. She has always been a confident dog, moving through the world with grace and ease. Now, there is a hesitancy, a seeming loss of faith in the order of the universe. Because one day, her favorite ball went up into the air and IT NEVER CAME DOWN.

Monday, September 26, 2011

It Must Be The Shoes


Hard to believe that seven short days ago we were at Hampton Beach up in New Hampshire, having just run almost 200 miles in under 26 hours. It feels like a long time ago and a world away already. I have delayed writing about the experience so far, not because it was bad—in fact the opposite is true. It was once again a great experience. Reach the Beach is everything I love—short, demanding, intense and then over.

But all week I have felt like there was nothing worth saying in writing. Then it struck me today that I do indeed have something to say about my experience at Reach the Beach this year. The captain of The Rosie Ruiz Fan Club, (my wife Erica), assigned me a tougher draw than she has in any of the past years. This time I had three legs totaling just over 19 miles. Two of the legs had big hills smack in the middle. And when it was all over I had run my 19 miles in under 8 minutes per mile. While not speedy in absolute terms, this is fast for me. In fact, if you go strictly by time it is my single fastest long run ever.

The reason Erica had enough confidence to give me some hard legs was that my training had gone very well all spring and summer. I ran a half marathon in New York City in March and another in Philly in May and both went well. After Philadelphia I had some toe troubles and needed to switch over to Vibram’s five-finger barefoot running shoes. I was a bit nervous about making the switch, but I needn’t have been. I watched several people start too fast with too many miles in these shoes and I did not want to end up hurt. So, I took it very slowly and built up my miles gradually. By the end of the summer I was able to do a 14-mile run in the five-fingers without any negative repercussions.

Looking back, my toe injury was pretty serendipitous. I didn’t even know it at the time, but I think I was getting a bit bored with running. I did the same 4-mile route from my home 3 times a week. My long Sunday runs were all along the same ugly New Haven route. By changing over to new shoes and having to refocus on how each run—even each mile—was making my body feel, my running became interesting again.

So, my 19 Reach the Beach miles were all run in those same Vibram five-finger running shoes—which are, by now, needing a good wash and dry. Or maybe replacement.

I have a couple of half marathons coming up in the next two months (Shelburne, VT and Rehoboth Beach , DE) and I think running in the Vibrams will help keep my interest going a while longer. I hope so—I am trying to run a half marathon in all 50 states and these will be just states number 9 and number 10.

Anyway, the infusion of interest and enjoyment given to me by my switch to Vibram’s has got me wondering if maybe some other small change might make the rest of my life feel more exciting again. Wouldn’t that be great? Maybe a new pair of jeans and my job will be thrilling again. Or a haircut and my marriage will be like new.

Or maybe I’ll just take to wearing my Vibrams all the time—they have already proven their worth and effectiveness. Don’t mind that smell---small price to pay for making everything seem new again.

Monday, September 19, 2011

After Reaching the Beach







When I got out of bed this morning and tried to walk down the stairs to the kitchen to get some coffee started, it was clear that something was dreadfully wrong with my calves. I had our embarrassingly small dog cradled in one arm and my laptop in the other and that first step nearly sent me all the way down. I hadn’t quite run a marathon the day before, but I had run 19 miles in a long distance relay called Reach the Beach. Two of the three legs I ran had some big hills and I ran in my Vibram five-finger running shoes, so my calves were feeling like someone was sticking ice picks into them with each step.

I made it to the kitchen, dog and computer intact, and started making the coffee with an enormous smile on my face. This year was my 4th Reach the Beach and every year it proves itself to be the best-organized race there is. There were 36 legs covering 192 miles from Cannon Mountain in northern New Hampshire to Hampton Beach in the southeast corner of the state. Somehow, over 400 teams with anywhere from 6 to 12 runners each cover the entire distance day and night with no major mess-ups, injuries, or meltdowns. The volunteers who staff the many transition areas are unfailingly pleasant and helpful—some are even downright joyful. I am not exaggerating when I say that Reach the Beach restores my faith in humanity each year.

The team I run with is called The Rosie Ruiz Fan Club and its membership varies year to year. This year we had 6 newcomers and 6 repeat offenders. Altogether, we covered the miles in 25 hours, 26 minutes, and 56 seconds for a pace of 7:57 per mile. More importantly, everyone felt great about the run and, in the warm glow of the post-race celebration, we all agreed it had been an amazing experience.

I just wanted to say thank you to the organizers, volunteers, and all the other runners who make this race better than Christmas for me each year.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Anger and Compassion

I have always been afraid of other people’s anger. I have some theories about why this is so, but at the age of 45 I have finally come to see that the reasons for my fear are, ultimately, unimportant. Whatever their roots, my fears are proving to be a real hindrance and the real task for me is to figure out how to have a different reaction when confronted with someone else’s anger—especially if it is aimed at me.

Even more basic, I have also been afraid of my own anger. So much so, that I hardly ever let myself feel it. I have always prided myself on being in control, and anger makes me feel out of control. Once I realized this about myself I decided to play with the idea of allowing myself to get mad and see what happened.

I will spare you all the navel-gazing details, but the results of my experiment have been pretty astounding. I have found that allowing myself to wade into my anger and really feel it—to live in it for a while without trying to talk myself out of it or simply cram it down out of sight—actually leads me to a place of greater compassion. Trying to skip the whole process and get straight back to “normal” was what I did for many years and it turned out to be not-so-effective.

When I refused to even admit to myself that I was angry, I was not very likely to know what I was mad about. Often, the trigger for my anger is some word or action that is really just the final straw—the underlying cause is often not obvious. When I let myself feel the anger and live in it a bit I can now sometimes get to what is really there. Usually, it is something pretty basic, like feeling unheard, misunderstood, or undervalued.

Allowing myself to get to the root cause of why I am pissed off has had some great side-benefits. It has let me generate some self-compassion rather than judging myself harshly for even feeling anger to start with. It has also helped me take the next step and feel real compassion for whoever has triggered the anger in me. It has helped me remember that we are all out in the world doing the best we can to get by. Working through what I am feeling—simply letting myself feel it without judging it—lets me feel real compassion and real forgiveness. For myself and for other people.

And it is not the smug pseudo-compassion I felt when I believed I was better than people because I did not get angry. It feels realer and better. So, I never would have guessed it, but letting myself feel angry for a while actually leads to some pretty good results. Who’d a thunk it?

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Team Rosie Rides Again


September starts tomorrow. For me that can mean only one thing: Reach the Beach is just two weeks away!

Five years ago a friend and colleague of my wife sent her a link to a 200-mile relay race run through the mountains and hills of New Hampshire and ending at the Atlantic Ocean in Hampton Beach. He sent it to say, “Boy, wouldn’t THIS be crazy to do one day!” Erica being Erica, she signed up for the race that day and assembled a team, which included Matt—the friend who had sent the link to start with. I did not run that first year on the team that became known as The Rosie Ruiz Fan Club. But I was at the finish line with my daughter and saw just how much fun the runners had.

It was the sort of experience that is right up my alley: short, intense, and then over. I have some real issues with long-term commitments to slogging through something when it gets hard. But give me a finite, challenging group task that demands my all and then lets me leave with no expectation of further emotional connection or commitment, and I am all over it. So I have been a proud member of the Rosie Ruiz Fan Club the past three years and this race has become the central event of my year. It has taken the place in my mental calendar that Christmas used to hold when I was a child.

If you are curious, here are some posts about past Reach the Beaches:

2008

2009

2010

Now that I have run the race three times I have a fairly good idea of what to expect. The course changes just a little year to year and the make-up of the team varies, too. But the basics are the same: start at Cannon Mountain and run until you get to the ocean. There will be one big difference for me this year. Due to a big toe issue, I switched over to Vibram’s Barefoot Running shoes back in May. I had watched other runners make the transition too quickly, so I was methodical and careful about it. But just last weekend I did a 14-mile training run in my five-fingers and it went great. I am ready and can’t wait.

When it is over I will post a report to tell how it went.

(Warning—if you scroll down past these words there is an objectively gross picture of my big toe showing the stubby, warped nail that is growing in to replace the one that popped off back in May. You have been warned.)




Saturday, August 27, 2011

Before


I am an utter weather geek. I fully admit it. In fact, I was following Hurricane Irene back when she was just a no-name tropical depression. (Sure, she’s good now—but those first few days she was amazing—so raw and fresh.) Now everyone knows about her and, honestly, I don’t think she’s as good as she was back before the websites and live blogs and hourly updates. (It’s a lot like REM back in “83.)

Anyway, I had our dogs in East Rock Park yesterday morning. It was beautifully clear and warm—no evidence of a storm in sight. And yet just knowing that she was out there, gyrating in the warm Atlantic east of Georgia, changed everything about the way I saw the park. I didn’t just see majestic oaks spaced pleasingly around a large open area off of Livingston Street. Instead, everything I looked at became a “BEFORE” picture in my mind.

In fact, knowing Irene was on her destructive way changed the way I saw not just the park, but the world. Everything took its place in relation to some future event. I think humans are the only species capable of this sort of psycho-intellectual time travel. We can project ourselves both forward and back and imagine the present as past or future. Pretty amazing.

So, here I sit in our dining room, waiting for Irene, in an extended moment that is one long “before.”

Being the episodic melancholic that I am, it’s got me thinking of analogues. And of course my mind goes right away to the one big thing that is always out there for humans, somewhere out in the ocean, gathering strength, bearing down inevitably on each of us. I know a hurricane is coming and I fill bottles of water, bring the furniture inside, close all the windows, make sure we have flashlights and batteries. I prepare.

More generally, I know that I am going to die, yet I put off the preparations. I don’t make the important changes or have the essential conversations. The moment in the park yesterday reminded me that, really, all our moments are “before” moments if we choose to give them their full due.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Tea Party Hippies






When I was a young child in the late 1960s and early 1970s there was a small subset of Americans who liked to dress in a way that was out of the ordinary and carry signs questioning government policies and urging others to do the same. These people were known as hippies and if there was one underlying idea behind the movement, it was Freedom. Hippies wanted to be free to ignore societal restrictions on dress and relationships. They professed a deep respect for individual rights.

Forty years later, the pendulum has now completed its swing from far left, through the center, and way out to the far right. And now that it has, you can see oddly dressed Americans carrying signs questioning government policies and urging others to do the same. These people are known as Tea Partiers and if there is one underlying idea behind their movement, it is Freedom. Tea Partiers want to be free of an over-reaching government. They profess a deep respect for individual rights.

I was having one of those pointless Facebook chat arguments with one of my brothers the other day when I finally made the connection between the hippies and the tea partiers. They have far more in common than members of either group would probably care to admit. Both will be the iconic representations of their historical moments in future history textbooks. Both represent a crystallization of a strong feeling gripping a significant subset of Americans. And both, in the end, try to raise selfishness to the level of national policy.

The hippies wanted people to be able to live as they wished, as long as their actions did no harm to anyone else. The tea partiers have the same wish. How those unfettered lives would look as led by tea partiers is no doubt very different from the looks of the unfettered lives led by hippies, but in the end both do more harm than good to society as a whole. Both advocate societally unsustainable versions of freedom.

Both groups have done the country a service by driving the national debate in a direction it probably needed to go. The hippies helped yank Americans out the of numbing conformity of the Eisenhower Era and the tea partiers are helping to pull Americans toward fiscal responsibility. Both movements have some positive effects on the country, but the tenets of neither group would make a good way to run a country.

For a society to function well it NEEDS stable structures and institutions. It needs police and an army and laws. There is a solid societal foundation provided by stable, loving families and other structures hippies questioned the need for. For a society to function well it also needs to support it weakest and poorest members. The government needs to ensure the welfare of everyone—especially those least able to ensure their own welfare. One way the government does this is through taxation. Taxes are the cost of a stable society. And a progressive tax system is the basis of an advanced society.

Thinking about the hippies and the tea partiers has helped clarify my thoughts on the American political spectrum. It has become clear to me that our politics gets played out in a fairly narrow band in the middle. We are most certainly a centrist nation. When Barack Obama is called a socialist and George Bush is seen as a fascist, it is clear that we don’t like to stray too far from the middle. These swings out to the farthest reaches of our American Pendulum’s arc make for turbulent times and good pictures. They even lead to some necessary adjustments in our laws and the ways we live; but, because of the Constitution and our underlying commitment to being a nation of laws rather than a nation of emotions, things never quite fall apart. It may feel like they have sometimes, but in reality we have been a remarkably stable democracy.

Monday, August 15, 2011

What Do You Want To Do When You Grow Up?

Someone once asked Salman Rushdie about writers and just what makes them different from everyone else. His simple answer was that “writers finish their books.” So annoying. So freakin’ glib. And so true. Mostly what makes writers different is that they write.

I have always harbored the wish to be a writer. I have imagined myself publishing novels and doing book tours and being adored by a steadily-growing legion of fans who find my books smart and funny and touching and just so damn REAL.

Only one thing slowing me down: I haven’t written any books. I have had some good ideas and started some stories—even had one short story published--but when push comes to shove, I don’t write. I play Scrabble online, I check all the stories on the Huffington Post, I look up the weather, I check on our checking account, I scratch out a 1000-word blog post once in a while. But I don’t write. Not really.

I will turn 46 in a few months and it is time to write or get off the pot. I am realizing I need to change something about my approach to this whole writing thing. It is tempting to believe that this is simply a structural/organizational problem; maybe something like an office space cleared out and designed to be an excellent place for writing will make a difference. Or maybe setting my alarm and dedicating 60 minutes at the start of each day to simply writing will kick start my career. Realistically, I know that neither of these tinkerings will change a thing.

The only thing that will change anything is for me to write. Every day. Even when there is something interesting in the news. Even when there is a hurricane to track. Even when I want to watch the next episode of Friday Night Lights. Even when I am tired. Even when I don’t want to. I am going to take my lead from social psychologist Daryl Bem and his self-perception theory. Bem theorized that one way we develop our attitudes is by observing our own behavior and then concluding what attitudes must underlie them. Maybe the same is true of writing. Maybe if I sit and write every day I will observe my own behavior and conclude that, since I am writing every day, I am a writer. In the end, isn’t this the same thing Salman Rushdie said?

So, it seems there is no easy way around it. If I want to be a writer who is adored by a steadily-growing legion of fans who find my books smart and funny and touching and just so damn REAL, then I need to actually write the books. Shit.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Marriage Rules


A co-worker recently got married. Before she did, she asked for some advice from some of her already-married colleagues. And although I have been married 15 years, I still didn’t feel qualified to say anything to her. To me, marriages are like children—when you really dig down into the nitty-gritty, they are all unique. What may seem to the outside world to be the perfect marriage might be a train-wreck behind closed doors. What seems like a bad pairing might be perfect for the people in it. Marriages simply cannot be judged by anyone but the people in them.

So I couldn’t really give my co-worker much in the way of anything useful. After all, she wasn’t marrying me or my spouse, so what insight could I possibly have for her? But after some thought I did come up with one piece of advice I shared, and that was to always assume the best of your spouse. Doing this can prevent fights, lead to kindness, and build in some empathy that hard times and short tempers can erode away. Assuming the best instead of the worst can change the whole tone of an interaction.

For example, rather than assuming that I have not fixed the falling tiles of the dining room ceiling because I am lazy and don’t care how the room looks, Erica can assume that I simply don’t know what I am doing and would fix those tiles in a second if I had the faintest clue about how. And instead of assuming that Erica is a slob who doesn’t care that her suitcases have remained half-unpacked in the middle of the hallway for a week since her last conference, I should assume that her year on the road has gotten old and she just can’t even think about unpacking, because that leads to thoughts of the next trip away next week.

Doing the mental and emotional work it can take to stop and step out of our skin and into our partner’s skin can really make a huge difference in the long term. I didn’t tell my co-worker any of this. All I did was give her one sentence: Always assume the best.

To that advice I would now add a second piece: forget the past.

I teach American history to sixth graders and when they ask me why we have to know about the Articles of Confederation or the Monroe Doctrine, I tell them that knowing what has happened can help us avoid making the same mistakes earlier generations have made. At some point each year I write on the board, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

I believe there comes a point in every long-term relationship where the opposite holds true: “those who remember the past are doomed to replay it.”

After 15 years of marriage Erica and I have built up huge databases of wrongs perpetrated by the other—both petty and major. How could it be otherwise? So, when something happens to activate this database it is far too easy to come up with example after example of how and why the other is at fault. Rather than being about an isolated incident, a thoughtless word or action, or even a major screw-up, the ensuing discussion can easily slide into long-held grievances and accusations and universal statements like “Oh yeah? Well you never…”

Lately, I am finding it far more productive and helpful to our marriage to treat each case in its particulars and to refrain from those all-encompassing statements neither one of us can take back once they are said.

So, if my co-worker were to ask me now if I have any advice for newlyweds I would have three things to say:

1) assume the best until proven otherwise,

2) forget the past,

and 3) learn how to fight in the least damaging way possible.

Marriage is hard enough as it is. Life seems to conspire against long-term relationships, so why not decide to be each other’s ally? Why not decide to give each other the benefit of the doubt? Why not see the best in each other, even when the other can’t see it in himself? Why inflict unnecessary damage when the world and its vicissitudes will inflict enough damage of its own to bring down even strong relationships?

I am thankful Erica and I are discovering these rules together, even if in the end, they don’t really apply to anybody but us. I am sure I will never tell my co-worker any of this—that is not the sort of relationship we have. And besides, she has been married two months now and has started discovering her own rules.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Karim Karim

“Track 2. Let’s go. RUN!!!”

So, we ran. And we made it onto the train as the doors closed. It had been a long day in Venice and we just wanted to get back to our hotel in Treviso—16 miles away by train and bus. We had used one of the self-service kiosks and purchased our tickets just moments before, tore them out of the tray, and scrambled through the crowds at Santa Lucia Station, elbowing our way onto the train to Treviso.

Only, it turned out to be the train to Verona, instead. Thankfully, we realized we were on the wrong train just a few stops into the trip and got off as soon as we could. And found ourselves alone on a Sunday evening at the Dolo train station. There were no travelers and no employees at the locked station. Just three tired and frustrated Americans.









The immediate vicinity of the station in Dolo did not have much happening on that particular Sunday night, so Isabel and I walked off toward an open shop a block away. We were going to try to call a taxi or get whatever information we could about the next train back to where we started. On our way we passed two men standing outside their car parked on the roadside. We asked them if they spoke English, assuming they were Italian. They did not, but as we walked away I heard one say something to the other in Arabic.

I stopped in my tracks and asked them, “tatakelum Arabi?” They said yes and then called their friend, Karim, over. Using a mixture of English and Arabic, I explained to Karim that we were stuck and needed a taxi or some help finding our way back to Treviso. Karim took care of a few loose ends with his friends, made a quick phone call, and then gave us his complete focus and attention.

He spent almost an hour with us, first helping us call a taxi dispatcher to find out it would cost the ridiculous sum of 50 euros to get a cab from Dolo to Treviso, and then helping us sort through the train schedule to ascertain that a train would be coming through Dolo in an hour and it would take us back to where we needed to be.

As we settled in to wait for the train Karim started asking questions—“What is your name?” “What is your wife’s name?” “Your daughter?” “How old is your wife?” “Where are you from?” “Where do you live?” “What is your phone number?” “Where is your hotel?” He wrote his number for us and said we must call him if we needed anything. He left before the train came and took us away. But not before both Erica and I started to feel a little bit nervous—just a little bit suspicious about Karim from Morocco. He seemed maybe just a bit too helpful.

That all happened Sunday night. A day and a half later—Tuesday afternoon—we were in Padua, having taken a train from Treviso so that we could spend our last day in Italy roaming agenda-less around an interesting town. After a bit of clothes shopping we followed our feet to Bar Fuji for some sushi. It was on Via Roma, a pedestrian street with umbrella-ed tables set where the cars used to drive, and it came highly rated by our guidebook. We took a table and sat back to wait for our food.

And just then Isabel saw Karim walking by. She and Erica recognized him and called out and Karim came over to join us at our table. We were all a bit surprised to see Karim again. And again, a bit suspicious. We talked as we waited for our food. Karim told us he is a plasterer who has worked all over the Arab world and Italy. He has a wife and two daughters of his own in Morocco. His family lives near Marrakesh and he wrote their phone number and told us we could stay with them any time we were in Morocco. He told us about his cat falling asleep on his wife and purring like an engine.

I am not sure exactly what he said or when he said it, but at some point in our 30-minute conversation with Karim at lunch that day it became clear to both me and Erica that our suspicions about his motives were entirely off-base.

We managed to talk for a while in a mix of English, Italian, and Arabic and became convinced that Karim was simply a generous man who had been trying to help some travelers in need far from home. Once we parted ways, Erica and I had a chance to talk about our reactions to Karim and our earlier lack of trust. Was it because we were lost and far from home and feeling vulnerable? Was it because he was so insistent? Was it because he was Moroccan?

Mostly, I think it was because we just didn’t have enough information. If an Italian man or a British man or an American man had been just as helpful and insistent, I would have been just as suspicious of his motives. Sad to say, but true. Most people simply don’t go so far out of their way to help strangers without any gain for themselves. We assumed Karim was like most people we have met. But he wasn’t.

I don’t feel like I owe Karim an apology—that’s not what this is about. Actually, it was not clear to me at all why I was even writing about this encounter until just now. I am writing and posting this small story about Karim to share a bit of good news. There are people in the world who are generous and kind and helpful. It can be hard to know who they are and I am very happy Erica and I had a second chance with Karim so we could see him for who he is.

When I lived in Yemen I learned an Arabic phrase, “Allah karim.” It means “God is generous” and it was used to comment on the quirky nature of the Universe and its penchant for sometimes providing just what a person needs. It is fitting that the man who reminded me that not all people are driven purely by self-interest is named Karim.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Jet Lag Medicine



I have been away from home a lot this month. I was in Montana for 10 days and I am spending a week in Italy right now. Being gone so long, especially with so many time zones in between for a person to get used to, can be hard. Personally, I try to get on the local clock immediately. When I land I commit to not going to sleep until it is dark wherever I am. I make myself not think about what time it is in Connecticut, because that only reminds my body of what time it thinks it is.

I also try to spend as much time outside as I can to let my eyes, brain, and body receive all the clues the sun and its angle give as to time of day.

Even with these measures, jet lag can still hit hard, leaving me tired, grouchy, and “off” a bit.

This is where I find running comes in handy. I have been a runner since 2002, when Erica and I decided we were going to run a marathon. We made the decision in the winter and by October we each actually made it 26.2 miles through the Wineglass Marathon in Corning, NY. Running that marathon was, for me, like going from zero to 120 MPH in 6 seconds flat. (Okay, maybe not 120. After all, it did take me four and a half hours to finish.)

I went from not running at all to running way, way too much. In fact, I almost killed my running habit in its infancy. I took a month off after that race and then started back again, slowly. A few years later I had to take another long break because of some herniated disks in my lower back. Now I am much smarter about my running. Mostly because I listen to my body much better than I used to.

I have settled nicely into a rhythm where I run three times a week—generally Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Each of these runs is four miles. Then I run again on Sunday, anywhere from 6 to 14 miles. These long Sunday runs are the anchor for my week and they keep me feeling grounded and regular. They also keep me within striking distance of being able to run a half marathon whenever I find a good one that fits my goal of running one in every state. So far, I have run half marathons in 8 states and I am signed up for 2 more this year—Vermont and Delaware.

When I travel, often all of this regularity gets thrown out the window. But I make sure my running shoes get thrown in suitcase and as soon as I can, I put them on and try to keep to my pattern.

In Venice the past few days it was hard. In fact, I didn’t run there. The streets are narrow and full of people and I just didn’t make it happen. Now we are 18 miles from Venice in a town called Treviso and yesterday I finally made it out for a run. As soon as I did I could feel my body saying “YES! THIS is what we needed.” There is a familiarity to the process of getting dressed for a run, heading outside, picking a direction and then starting. Moving through the world that way is as natural and comforting a thing as I can do when I am far from home and way off schedule. It settles me right away. Running is medicine and meditation and magic and I love that I can do it anywhere.

Today my daughter and I are getting on a train to go back to Venice and see a few things we didn’t get to see earlier in the week. But tomorrow—tomorrow starts with a run.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A Spoonful of Gelato


When I was about ten, my parents put all of us in a station wagon and drove to Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. The drive was long, the weather was hot, and I was bored silly. To be honest, if I were to go there now I would probably find it somewhat less boring then I did then, but not much so. Which is why I have all sorts of sympathy for my daughter, Isabel, as we tromp through the narrow alleys of Venice this week.

The buildings and canals here are fascinating to me because of the stories behind them. Isabel doesn’t have a lot of time or interest to care about the stories, so the things themselves are just things. The mere fact that people would put in the time and endless effort and resources it takes to maintain their city and their lives here in the middle of a lagoon makes me want to look at what they have and learn its history.

Isabel does not really care so much.

What she DOES care about is gelato. In fact, she cares deeply about gelato. So, my strategy to help the many hours of walking around the narrow alleys of Venice in the hot sun with no real sense of where we are and how to get where we are headed go down a little less bitterly is to provide daily infusions of gelato.

We just got here two days ago, so we are all still on a Connecticut time and a little bit jet-lagged. It is late afternoon now and I think Erica has fallen asleep. Looks like it just might be time to quietly head out the door and grab today’s fix.


Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Montana Time Travel

During a flight from Billings, Montana to Minneapolis, Minnesota today I traveled about 850 miles and about 36 years (round trip). We were in Montana this week to visit family and friends and to spend time at a cabin up the Stillwater River in South-Central Montana. The trip was great, as you can see from some of our pictures posted here.

It was clear as we left Billings at one in the afternoon and I had a window seat. We took off west—into the wind—and then made a wide arcing turn to the north and then came around 90 more degrees to begin our flight east to Minneapolis. Looking down, it didn’t take long before I identified the Yellowstone River and I-90. I absolutely LOVE looking out the window on flights—it hits the same sweet spot in me that looking through an atlas does when I am on the ground. I play a game with myself and try to identify every city and obvious natural feature we fly over.

Because it was clear today and because I have spent a lot of time in the stretch of country between Laurel and Lame Deer, Montana, I was able to pinpoint our location as we passed over Pryor Creek, the Bighorn River, Hardin, the Little Bighorn River, Crow Agency, and the Little Big Horn Battlefield, all of which were laid out below me like on an atlas with a scale of one-to-one.

The plane followed Highway 212 as it took off east from the Little Big Horn Battlefield and pretty soon we were directly over Busby, Montana and it was 1993 in my head. Eighteen years ago I spent a month living in the basketball gym of the Busby High School as the teenagers in the program I was running built a playground on some public land in the small town. Busby is the westernmost town on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation and it is a stiflingly poor place. The kids there did what they could to entertain themselves, but there was no playground for them use.

The program I worked for, Visions International, linked with Northern Cheyenne Children’s Services, the Northern Cheyenne Tribal Council, and several other local groups to secure use of a plot of land and the rights to build a playground on it. The labor was supplied by 16 teenage volunteers, who were led by me and 4 other staffers. My time in Busby came after three summer programs doing similar work in another Northern Cheyenne town, called Birney.

Today, when I looked down at Busby I could actually SEE the playground we had made all those years ago. It was still there. It looked as if the fence had been scavenged for firewood long ago, but the swing set, slide, and merry-go-round were still there.

Less than five minutes later my eyes followed a particular road south out of Lame Deer until the road intersected with the Tongue River, clearly visible from 30,000 feet. That is where Birney is. Birney is a town with no stores or shops of any kind, no post office, no gas station, and no school. There are about 20 families that live in Birney and even the other Northern Cheyenne who live on the sparsely populated reservation think of it as a backwater. We were too high for me to actually see the playground and powwow arbor we built in Birney, but I didn’t need to. By then, my mind was replaying a particular memory that still has the power to make me smile whenever I allow myself to really inhabit it.

I spent several summers in Indian Birney, sleeping either on the floor of an old doublewide trailer or in the desanctified nave of an old Catholic Church. During my second summer in Birney, the group of teens I was with helped build a traditional powwow arbor on an unused patch of land just off the main drag. As we built it, I knew that my kids were getting an experience few of their peers back East would be able to understand.

They got to go up into the pine forests on the rocky hillsides of the reservation and help choose which trees to fell for use as support posts for the double ring of the arbor. Then they helped strip the branches, dig the post holes, plant the posts, tamp the dirt, tack chicken wire overhead, and lay the pine boughs across the top for shade. It was backbreaking labor and my sixteen wealthy teenagers from the East Coast could not get enough of it. One of my favorite pictures from that summer is of a sixteen year-old girl from the Upper West Side of Manhattan. She is holding a worn and dirty work glove in her teeth, examining the bloody blisters on her hand, and smiling from ear to ear.

It rained a lot that summer, forcing us to delay and cancel many workdays. As the final day of our program approached, we began to seriously think the arbor would not be finished in time for us to participate in the first powwow held in Birney in many years. Our penultimate day on the reservation was a fifteen-hour work marathon that left us all simultaneously exhausted and exhilarated. As the last of the long lingering twilight drained from the sky to the west, we got it done. The arbor was complete.

Some of the tribal members who were working with us had spread the word that there would be a powwow in Indian Birney the next day.

Saturday morning dawned grey, cold, and wet and a feeling of depressed anti-climax settled over us all as we began to pack and get ready for the following day’s drive to the airport in Sheridan, Wyoming and the ensuing flights to points East. We all kept one eye to the sky, but the sky just kept raining on our arbor.

My friend Mike, who lived in Birney, just kept telling me and the kids not to worry. He said the sky would clear, the sun would shine, and the powwow would happen. As morning turned past twelve and into afternoon, the rain kept falling steady as a drum on the church roof. The atmosphere grew more and more disappointed inside as kids played Hearts, took pictures, and copied down each other’s phone numbers for when they got home.

At three o’clock the rain stopped falling. By three-fifteen the clouds were breaking up. And by four we were practically dancing as we set up tables, brewed coffee, and changed into our fancy clothes for the powwow. By five o’clock more than one hundred cars had arrived and there were hundreds of Cheyenne tribal members there to christen the new Birney Powwow Arbor. Elders showed up and thanked my kids in the Cheyenne language, people brought out tons of food from their trunks likes clowns from a circus car. When the buffet tables were all set, we had enough food to feed everyone twice.

My kids participated in giveaways, grass dances, and circle dances set to traditional drumming circles pounding out the heartbeat of a culture determined to survive. Everything stopped at one point and my kids were asked to line up in the center of the arbor. Each of them was then presented with a beautiful hand-beaded gift from the tribe as a way to say “thank you” for all their hard work.

So today, as we flew on east into South Dakota the sky clouded up and I came back into the present, glad as could be to have gotten a window seat.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Sounds of the Season

NPR has a new feature on their All Things Considered evening news show. They have asked listeners to submit short essays on the sounds that will forever say "Summer" to them. It is called Sounds of the Season and I thought I'd take a crack at it. I couldn't decide among three aural memories that fairly scream "summer" to me. The first is the sound of blueclaw crabs steaming in a big white enamel pot on the stove. The second is the sound of crushed clamshells and gravel under the wheels of our old wood-paneled station wagon as we pulled into the driveway at my grandparents' beach house. And the third is the one I settled on--the sound of baseball cards flapping against bike spokes as I pedaled around the suburban streets of Wilmington, Delaware. Here it is:




In 1972 I turned seven years old and Richard Nixon won re-election in a landslide. More important than either of these milestones, I got my first two-wheel bike as a present from my parents. It was bright orange with a golden-speckled green banana seat and it ROCKED. I lived in suburban Wilmington, Delaware and my brothers and I had free run of the entire neighborhood on our bikes. We had aunts and uncles and cousins in all directions and no matter where we went, someone had an eye out for us.

I loved that bike. And to make it even more special I used to attach baseball cards to the front and rear forks using clothes pins. As the wheels spun, the baseball cards would click against each spoke. I think the intent was to sound like a motorcycle, but I can’t say for sure. What I can say is the faster I pedaled, the faster the clicking. My goal was to go so fast the clicking sounded like one continuous noise.

That year was momentous to me for another reason. It was the year I finally got tired of what I saw as my family’s mindless loyalty to the professional sports teams of Philadelphia. I had my dad write down the rivals of Philadelphia’s four major sports teams—the Phillies, Sixers, Flyers, and Eagles---and I immediately adopted the four teams he wrote down as my favorites. 37 years later, I still root for the NY Rangers, Boston Celtics, Washington Redskins, and Los Angeles Dodgers.

Today, baseball cards seem to have become solely something people collect as an investment. So a sound that I will forever associate with summer is one I just about never hear anymore. The soundtrack to my summer memories from those idyllic suburban Delaware summer days has the click-click-click of Wayne Twitchell on my front wheel and Denny Doyle on the back, each being slowly mutilated as I put on the miles.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Balancing the Budget



When a friend of mine was in college she spent a year abroad in Plymouth, England. While there she discovered the ATMs would honor her requests for withdrawals, even if her account did not have enough money in it to cover the withdrawals. Within a few days of making such an unwarranted withdrawal, she would get an official letter from the bank saying, in effect, “Please stop asking us for money you do not have.”

Being a cash-strapped college student, my friend would honor the bank’s request---until she needed money. She would then go to the nearest ATM, ask for money she did not have, and receive exactly the amount she asked for. Again, the letter would come a few days later asking her to PLEASE STOP asking them to give her money she did not have.

This image of a bank playing the victim because they kept giving my friend money whenever she asked for it has been on my mind a lot lately.

The United States is currently in debt to the tune of over $14 trillion. Over 40% of this debt is owed to United States citizens and institutions who have bought government bonds as an investment. Another 18% is owed to the Social Security Trust Fund. China holds roughly 10% of this debt and if they demanded payment for all the bonds they hold all at once, our government and economy would come crashing down. (But then, so would their economy, since without American consumers to buy their products the Chinese economy would go belly-up.)

The reason I am reminded of my friend and those poor British bankers is that America’s debt is not something that has happened behind our backs. Each budget presented to Congress by the President has been approved by both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Many of these budgets have had huge deficits built right in. And yet Congress has approved them anyway. This has happened under Democratic and Republicans Presidents and under Democratic and Republican Congresses. The biggest single-year deficits since World War II have occurred under Barack Obama, George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan.

The reasons for any particular year’s deficit are hard to counter. There is always a compelling reason to spend more—wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a global economic crisis---yet, in the end, the procession of reasons for spending more than the government takes in have left us generations-worth of debt.

In this scenario, it is not Congress who are playing the part of those English bankers who could not say no to my friend with her cute American accent and beautiful blue eyes. No. It is us—you and me. The American taxpayers. Year after year we return more than 90% of the Congressional incumbents, in spite of our growing deficits and debt. Congress, in effect, comes to us and says, “We spent all the money and now we want you to give us the chance to do it all again.” And, oddly enough, we say “Okay—here’s the charge card—go for it.”

President Obama put together a bipartisan commission to come up with recommendations for tackling the problem of the National Debt. Their final recommendations were contentious—even among the commission members. But they also lay out a path to fiscal responsibility and a slow balancing of the books. The recommendations were contentious because they involved financial pain for lots of people—lots of VOTERS. You and me. And it seems that we are judged unwilling to vote for legislators who will ask us to sacrifice. From the rise of the Tea Party and the calls from many states to limit the collective bargaining rights of public unions, it seems as if Americans are waking up to precarious state of our national finances.

Personally, I am glad Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin has put a budget plan out there. I strongly disagree with his mechanisms for getting spending under control, (tax cuts for the wealthy, in fact, deepen deficits and "voucherizing" Medicare would be a disaster), but he has laid out one vision for trying to get spending under control. I hope the Democrats will formulate a plan of their own soon. And I especially hope President Obama will talk to Americans over the next five years about how to tame out appetites for Federal spending. It has got to start with him and the Republicans showing a willingness to compromise.

OF COURSE we will need to make painful spending cuts Democrats will be opposed to. We will also need to raise some taxes and Republicans will be opposed to this. This is the very definition of a compromise: A solution with which both sides are equally unhappy. In order to get to this point of compromise we need to send a clear message to our representatives in the House and Senate. We need to tell them that we want to get spending under control. We need to do what those bankers in England couldn’t—we need to say no when asked for money we don’t have.

President Obama has shown himself willing to compromise and I have hope that members of his own party and Republicans as well will join him in making hard cuts and painful compromises to get deficits and the debt under control. Instead of a strongly worded plea for Congress and the President to stop asking for money they don’t have, we need to send a stronger kind of message. We need to vote people out of office if they are unwilling to negotiate balanced budgets in good faith and with a commitment to spreading the pain to everyone.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Barack Obama = Atticus Finch





My class of sixth graders has been reading Harper Lee’s classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird this month. Today, I am showing them the movie version. I just now saw the scene where Atticus leaves work, comes home, and kills a rabid dog with one shot. It struck me forcefully in that moment how much Barack Obama is like Atticus Finch. Osama bin Laden was his rabid dog—his chance to show the hard edge that exists under all the beliefs about the importance of taking someone else’s perspective. And when he had to, he pulled the trigger.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Let the Great World Spin




Words exist to communicate. They carry an idea from one brain to another. Sometimes they are not very good at their job. For example, sometimes we are left guessing just exactly what someone meant when they said, “We all know what the problem is here.”

But other times words are incredibly efficient—for example, when someone yells “Fire!” and everyone runs out of the building. In this particular instance, that one word carries a lot of information. It manages to say, “To all of you who can hear me right now, there is a fire in this structure. It is a dangerous thing. If you can hear me you should get out of this structure as quickly as you can. You should also tell others of this danger.” As a ratio of meaning to words, “Fire!” packs quite a wallop.

On the train on the way to Philadelphia today I finished reading Colum McCann’s kick-in-the-stomach collection of interconnected short stories called Let the Great World Spin. It got me thinking about words and their efficiency. Edgar Allen Poe had a theory about short stories. He believed that a short story should be about one precise feeling or effect and every word in the story should contribute to that effect. Even the most lyrical and beautiful of sentences should be cut if it got in the way of the feeling the author hoped to create in the reader’s soul.

Somehow, in his 349-page collection of eleven stories centered on the true-life walk of Philippe Petit from one of the World Trade Center towers to the other on an August morning in 1974, Colum McCann manages the literary equivalent of yelling “Fire!” Taken as a whole, the stories of the twelve characters in Let the Great World Spin manage to convey the full range of what it means to be a thinking, feeling human in the world. This book is miraculous.
It is one of the most efficient books I have ever read. The meaning-to-word ratio is huge. Some of my favorite sentences are below:


“No shame in saying that I felt a loneliness drifting through me. Funny how it was, everyone perched in their own little world, with the deep need to talk, each person with their own tale, beginning in some strange middle point, then trying so hard to tell it all, to have it all make sense, logical and final.”

“I guess this is what marriage is, or was, or could be. You drop the mask. You allow the fatigue in. You lean across and kiss the years because they’re the things that matter.”

“She likes the people with the endurance to tolerate the drudge, the ones who know that pain is a requirement, not a curse.”

“The only thing worth grieving over, she said, was that sometimes there was more beauty in this life than the world could bear.”

And sometimes more pain. And somehow Colum McCann has taken both—as well as everything in between—and put it to just the right words to say it all. And more.

“The world spins. We stumble on. It is enough.”

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Perils and Pleasures of Being High


My life is lived mostly at ground level, in two dimensions. I look up sometimes, but I hardly ever consider the spaces much above my head as part of the immediate physical world I inhabit.

This weekend my world expanded to three dimensions for a little while as I was running up the highest point in New Haven. It is called East Rock and it is a 350-foot high basalt formation that, even if I am generous, cannot be said to “loom” over the city. It more-accurately “glances over the shoulder” of New Haven. There is a road that leads to the top and I like to run up this road most Sundays.

This past Sunday I was near the top of East Rock, running along the road that skirts the edges of a cliff in some places and offers a good view of the Mill River valley below. The drop from the road down to the valley floor is at least 300 feet. As I neared the edge, two turkey vultures blasted up into view mere feet ahead of me, riding an updraft from below and startling the poop out of me. It looked to me like someone had yanked an invisible string and pulled these birds up from the valley floor and high into the air in front of me.

I stopped and watched them for a while as they continued to rise without even a flap of their wings. Vultures are not known for their good looks, but these two birds were the epitome of grace as they made the tiniest of adjustments to their outermost wing feathers to affect changes in their drift and glide. Watching these birds reminded me of the third dimension I walk around in all the time. My wife skydives for fun, so she looks at the air above us differently than I do. She certainly sees it as another medium, like water, that humans locomote through. I just about never think of it that way, but watching those vultures made it clear to me that there is a third dimension—life is not just length and width. There is also depth.

As they soared out and away across the valley and toward West Rock I lost sight of them and continued my run.

And as I did it came to me that most of my relationships are also lived in those same two dimensions. There is a length and a width to them, but the depth is something I hardly ever recognize or explore. The times when this third dimension comes most reliably into focus are when I or someone close to me says something honest. Often the truth catches me by surprise and all in a moment reminds me of just how surface-y and full of shit most of my moments are by contrast.

Being honest and saying what is really there not only makes that third dimension in my relationships “pop” into focus, it also provides lift to reach some pretty amazing places if I am willing to stay in them. Choosing to love someone is a brave decision that loses much of its power if, over time, that love is lived out in two dimensions instead of three.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Pelicans of San Diego


We were in San Diego this week, staying in a 12-story condo right on the beach. Our tiny balcony looked out over the Pacific Ocean and we all spent a good amount of time standing in the open sliding-glass doorway, just looking. A steady wind came in off the ocean, carrying the sound of the surf up and into our room.

Often, long lines of pelicans flew by—some lines headed north, others south. They were in check-mark formations sometimes as long as 30 birds. In short order, they became my favorite part of the trip. A few of the birds were so close to the balcony that I could have touched them. None of the birds ever made a sound. Most hardly even flapped their wings, though sometimes a wave of wing-flapping would make its way down the line as each bird in its turn passed through a disturbance in the air and reacted just like the bird ahead of it did. Whenever this happened I was reminded of doing “the wave” at Thursday night’s Padres-Phillies game.

From ground level the pelicans were just as fascinating to watch. One afternoon Isabel and I were walking along the shoreline path. Due to the perfect arrangement of sun, building, and birds, we saw the shadows of a long line of pelicans zooming down the face of our building—temporary peregrines. The birds were doing their low-energy glide up above while their shadows were averting disaster, pulling out of their dives at the last possible second and skimming miraculously over the ground, the cars, even us.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Garden Angel

Each March it happens. I’ll be sitting at the dining room table, lost in my own frivolity, and I’ll look up to see her staring at the dirt in front of my house. She wears a headscarf loosely framing her lined face. Like a robin or some other migratory bird, she disappears all winter. When the ice on the sidewalks retreats, she advances. My first glimpse of her is always a bit of a shock and a relief; she could be anywhere from 65 to 85 and I never fully trust she’ll make it through the winter.

Yet, I look up and there she is, blessing my garden—filling the dirt with good wishes and secret memories and love.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Compassion

“Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.” I said these words thousands of times in my life. They were part of the mass when I was a child going to Catholic school and attending church services every Sunday for 20 years. And though I no longer go to church, the residue left behind by these words still clings.

For me, growing up Catholic meant having an over-developed conscience that would never shut up. This certainly didn’t mean I never did anything wrong. Instead, it meant I felt guilty no matter what I did. I was simply unable to cut myself any slack and therefore always felt inadequate and guilty.

During college, and immediately after while I was in the Peace Corps in Yemen, I drifted quickly away from the Church—from all faith, actually. Nowadays I am a confirmed atheist.

And yet still it clings—that infernal guilt.

I have been thinking a lot about compassion lately; what it is, where it comes from, how it makes itself known. The most obvious prod for pondering compassion was a conversation I had while driving to New York last weekend. I mentioned that I was having a hard time feeling much patience for a particular someone in my life. A friend in the car opined that patience is really another word for compassion and that before I could feel much compassion for anyone else I would need to feel more for myself.

Her words landed hard and have set me on a week-long contemplation of just what this would mean. I have been trying to get at the difference between pity, empathy, and compassion. Also, I have been trying to decide if I agree that you need compassion for yourself BEFORE you can really feel it for others. It makes sense in a “yeah-everyone-says-that-so-it-must-be-true” sort of way, but I want to know if it is really true. And, if so, why?

One of the things that drives me nuts about so many New Age, self-help, love-yourself programs is their focus on the individual. The upside of my Catholic upbringing is a strong sense of the need to be useful to the world. Many self-help gurus tend to stop with learning to love yourself. There is often far too much belly-button gazing and not enough focus on how that self you learn to love can and should be out in the world adding to the overall store of good.

So I don't want compassion for myself to be a codeword for allowing and excusing any behavior I choose. It has to be more, and different. I still don’t know the answers to any of my questions about compassion, but I am getting a strong sense that whatever I come to might reject the “I am not worthy” line that started this piece and replace it with something very much like this from Ralph Waldo Emerson:


“Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; begin it well and serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.”

Friday, April 1, 2011

My Dog Will Never Learn to Use the Toilet

Many Saturday mornings I take my dog, Ginger, for a walk around the block. I do this so she doesn’t shit in my house. Ideally, she would learn how to use the toilet and then just flush her nasty dog crap away. Though I realize this is pretty unlikely, given the nature of dogs. I can always hope that someday she, (and all dogs), will learn the beauty of indoor plumbing, thus negating the need for our Saturday morning walks. But until that day, I will put on my shoes, possibly a jacket, grab a bag, and walk Ginger around the block so she can do what nature pretty well demands of her.

When we take these walks, nine times out of ten we encounter people on the sidewalks outside of the Planned Parenthood clinic on Whitney Avenue. Many times I simply nod and say “good morning” as I pass them. Sometimes we’ll chat about Ginger. But there are times when I just can’t control myself and I engage in conversation about abortion. I never enjoy these conversations. In fact, they often leave me feeling wired and shaken and angry. But I am an optimist. Also, I like to think of myself as open-minded and willing to listen to people whose views differ from mine. And for these reasons I sometimes stop and ask one of the protesters the following question:

“Do you want to lower the number of abortions?”

I start with this question because I like to look for common ground. I want to find the place that will start the conversation from an area of agreement rather than from opposite sides of a seemingly-unbridgeable chasm. I figure that people standing on the sidewalk outside a Planned Parenthood, holding pictures of burnt and dismembered babies, might agree with me right away that reducing the number of abortions performed in this country would be a good thing.

Surprisingly, some of the protesters refuse to answer the question. Or they respond with a non-answer. My sense is they fear a trap in my question. But there really is no trap. It is as straightforward a question as there can be. Do you want to lower the number of abortions? It can take quite a few repetitions of the question sometimes before the man or woman will agree with me that they would like to lower the number of abortions. To a person they add, almost immediately, “to zero” to their answer.

Having established the common ground, I then ask them how they feel about contraception. Because if the goal is to have fewer abortions, then stopping unwanted pregnancies would really help put a dent in the number of babies killed before they are born, right? In fact, wouldn’t a place like Planned Parenthood do even more toward reducing the number of abortions if they could just give out free, safe, and effective birth control to everyone who wanted it?

With this, the protesters and I are no longer on common ground. They just about always talk about God at this point and how He gave us free will and we are choosing to get pregnant and then choosing to end the lives of His creations and how contraception is a sin. They do not want abortion to be an option, but they also do not want contraception to be an option. To me this is entirely illogical. To them, it makes total sense.

When we get to this part of the conversation I can just about feel their tectonic plate and mine sprinting apart from each other as fast as their little tectonic legs will carry them. No more common ground. Instead we are looking across a chasm. A HUGE chasm. From their side, these people see a man willing to interfere with God’s plan for life. From my side, I see people willing to make the perfect the enemy of the good.

At this point I usually take my dog and walk away. Next time, though, I’ll have a new example to try out on the protesters. I’ll let them know why I am walking my dog around the block---so she doesn’t shit in my house. Because wish as I might, Ginger will never learn how to use a toilet. And if I simply refuse to walk her, I’ll end up with a mess to clean. The same thing happens if you just wish people would stop having sex for any purpose other than procreation. It simply will not happen, pray as you will. God, (or evolution), has given humans a remarkably strong urge to have sex. Wishing it away will not work. So can’t the protesters recognize this reality, put down their signs, and help spread the word about preventing pregnancy through abstinence and contraception? There might be far fewer messes to clean up if they did.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

My Metaphorical Weekend

It may be true that people end up choosing hobbies that match their personal sense of the metaphorical. Or maybe we have evolved with brains that are wired to make connections and create metaphors out of whatever we find ourselves doing. In this case, I am not sure which is the cart and which is the horse. But I do know that last weekend I spent both mornings doing things I love. And while doing these things I love, several obvious connections to my life became clear to me.

I spent a few hours Saturday morning preparing our garden. It is still just a little too early to plant much of anything, but before the planting comes the cleanup after a long, snowy winter. We have a tiny patch of grass in front of our house and in the middle of the patch of grass is a roughly-8-foot diameter circle of dirt. Last year three transplanted chrysanthemums were given the run of the place and they went crazy.

Erica and I, as well as many of the passersby who comment on our garden, were impressed by just how prolific these plants were by the end of October. Yet, in spite of their size and overwhelming “florality,” we had independently decided those plants needed to come out this year. So I got the shovel and performed a brutal full-root removal of the three. Once they were gone, the raggedy nature of our little dirt circle became fully clear. The grass was growing over the logs I had used as a border and, in some places, the logs themselves had decomposed and crumbled to dirt as I tried to reposition them.



Without the mum corpses to distract, the patch of ground looked like an unintentional dead spot instead of a garden. I raked out all of the dead leaves, sticks, log bits, and root clumps and put them in a yard waste bag. I took out whatever was left of the border logs and put them in the yard waste bags, too. Yet still the round patch of dirt just looked, well…dirty.

So I went to the backyard storage bin and got out the shovel. I returned with purpose to that dirty circle and planted the tip of the spade right at the border and stepped down on the back edge, pushing the blade all the way in. I then lifted the shovel out, tilted the dirt into the circle, and moved over one shovel-width. In this manner I made my way around the entire patch, creating a neater circle, defining the edge between garden and not-garden much more clearly.

Something about both the violence of the action and the sharpness of the boundary made me feel great.

The following morning I was in Central Park at 7:00. The huge full moon was just going down and bright Vernal Equinox sun was just coming up. There were 10,000 other runners and we were making our way into the starting corrals for the New York City Half Marathon. It was 37 degrees and sparkling clear.

I had been training only moderately hard due to the heavy snows this winter and my very busy January and February. I had no doubts about my ability to finish the race, but I wasn’t sure if I would be able to average less than nine minutes per mile, which was what I wanted to do. The key for me when running a race is to start out slowly. There are often so many people and such a flood of adrenaline that I allow myself to get swept away and I start out far too fast. In New York on Sunday I made myself do the first two miles at a ten-minutes-per-mile pace.

After Mile 2, I did the head-to-toe body check and found that I felt good. My legs were strong, my heart was still beating slowly, my lungs felt fresh, and my brain was in a good place. So I clicked up the pace just one notch and decided to check in again after Mile 5. At the Mile 5 timing clock I saw that I had run Miles 3, 4, and 5 in about 8 minutes and 40 seconds each. And still I felt great. I knew I had three more miles to go in Central Park and then the course would take me down Seventh Avenue to Times Square, over to the Westside Highway, and then down along the Hudson to the finish line near Chambers Street.

When I exited Central Park onto Seventh Avenue a smile spread across my face from ear to ear. It was almost 9 o’clock in the morning and the sun was up high enough to have warmed the air a little. The road was closed to traffic, but the sidewalks were open to spectators and there were thousands of people waving and cheering. Times Square was visible a mile down the road and something about the whole set-up made me giddy. In that moment I felt happier than I have in a long, long time. I felt strong and free and exactly where I wanted to be, doing exactly what I wanted and needed to be doing.



I decided to just forget about the clock and run the last four miles as fast as my body would take me. The course took me west on 42nd Street downhill to the Hudson River, where we turned south on the Westside Highway. The good feeling continued so I kept pushing and before I knew it I was at the finish down by Battery Park in a final pace of 8:13 per mile. The final two miles were both well under eight minutes.

By starting slow and paying attention to how I felt, I had a great race.

I may have gravitated to gardening and running because they present obvious ways for me to think about my life. Or maybe, simply by being human, I use mental free time to find connections between whatever I happen to be doing and my life. Either way, last weekend was literally and metaphorically great.

Monday, March 14, 2011

A Random Happy Memory




Memory is a notorious liar. I cannot vouch for the factual accuracy of what you are about to read. But I can assure you that it is 100% true, emotionally.

During college my friend Adam used to a have a big party at his house in North Jersey every summer. These parties were always a lot of fun and our group of friends would come from wherever we were spending our summers to be there for the blowout. It was a given that none of us would drive home after the party. We would crash where we fell and get up and have a big ole breakfast in the morning before spiraling away again back to summer jobs and internships.

The party Adam hosted in Ledgewood the summer of 1986 was different. Actually, the party itself was no different from the other years’ parties. It was what we did the day after the party that made it different and makes me remember it fondly even 25 years later.

There were four or five of us still at Adam’s at noon and we were having such a good time with each other we were reluctant to get into our cars and go our separate ways. Someone said, “Let’s go see the Mets,” and that was all it took. We piled into one car and got on I-80 heading east.

As we neared Shea we heard on the radio that the game was sold out—it was a beautiful Saturday afternoon and Dwight Gooden was starting for the Mets. The game was NBC’s Game of the Week and had a national tv audience. Gooden was 21 years old and already had 50 major league wins. He was an amazing athlete in his prime and everyone wanted to see him. Instead of turning around we kept on, thinking maybe we could get tickets from a scalper.

It became clear at the stadium that this scalper plan was not going to happen. The tickets were way out of our price range. So we tried one last strategy. We approached a stadium employee near the elevators that led to the executive offices at Shea. We asked him to call upstairs to our friend Dave’s dad, Mr. O’Shaughnessy. It took one phone call and five minutes and Mr. O’Shaughnessy came out of the elevator with tickets in his hand.

We were ecstatic. Biggest game of the year so far and we were going to see it! We asked an usher where to go to get to our seats and to our utter amazement and delight he took us to a section immediately behind homeplate at field level. These were the best seats in the house. From where we sat we could look into Dwight Gooden’s eyes as he stared in for the signal from catcher Gary Carter. I can’t remember who won that game against the Reds. But I do remember it was a sunny summer day and there was not one thing wrong with the world for several hours.

I don’t know which of us had the idea to go to the Mets’ game instead of heading home, but I do know that Mr. O’Shaughnessy’s generosity is why I still remember that day 25 years ago. He didn’t have to do what he did for us that day. It would have been easy to pretend he wasn’t in or to tell us there were no tickets, even for him. But he didn’t. He probably does not remember that day, which is fine. There is no real reason for it to stand out. But it gave me enormous pleasure when it happened. And it continues to make me smile each time I have thought about it in the 25 years since.

Thanks, Mr. O’Shaughnessy.