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:




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


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.