Thursday, July 28, 2011

"This is it, this is summer..."

Martha's feet, as she enjoys a dip in the St. Croix river
A few years ago, at one of my family’s standard Fourth of July get-togethers at my mom’s house, my sister made this remark. I remember at the time identifying with the simple truth of the statement and also feeling an odd sense of appreciation that someone else would acknowledge this fact in such a succinct manner. I often feel a need to very deliberately make note of a moment and the significance of it. It feels vital to take a minute and really look around at the day, notice how the world looks at that moment, how it feels. It makes me anxious when I don’t feel I can properly and adequately absorb an occasion before moving on. What will happen if I don’t stop and appreciate such moments in life? If I don’t, I might forget and if I forget, isn’t it possible I could just go through life experiencing the same thing over and over again, trapped in a Star Trek-like time/space continuum? I have to be certain that life is making an impression, my reasoning goes, otherwise what is the point?

It seems particularly vital in the summer here in Minnesota to really pay attention, to soak up every sensation that summer has to offer because before too long, it will be gone. When I walk the dog on a perfect summer day, I like to tune in to how the air feels, how the sky looks, how the sun beats down on the tree tops. I marvel over all the leaves and plants and flowers, the immense amount of energy that all these living things contain. I feel very fortunate to witness this process year after year, the small miracle that after every harsh winter when the green is lost to the ice and snow, it all grows back.

About two weeks ago I was out in my backyard, surveying the flowers (and, most likely, waiting for my dog to finish his wanderings) when I heard it, the ultimate sound of summer: the chirping cicadas. It’s such a gentle noise but it always grabs my attention with the way it seems to begin out of the blue, interrupting the stillness of a hot day. This noise can instantly transport me to countless other July days when I realize that summer is at its height and it is only a matter of time until it crests and rolls into the waning days of August.

I’m sort of a born complainer and one of my favorite things to complain about is the weather. Too hot, too cold, it is rare that I think conditions are perfect outside. But in spite of the occasionally wounding heat of summer, I love this season. I often think of it as the real, true way the world should be and the rest of the year is just prep time. Summer’s power over me probably stems from childhood when summer really is the only time you get to just live your kid life without the external annoyance of school imposed on your important agenda of playing. It always seemed like heaven when the sky would stay light until 9:00pm and you could continue playing after dinner. Summer allowed you to hang on to the day, squeeze every last minute of fun out of it. Even the sun seemed reluctant to let the day go. It felt like you weren’t just prolonging the daylight and the fun but summer actually allowed you to hang on to life a little longer each day. Summertime was like a fancy trick that let you stretch your life beyond the confines of the day. And even though I don’t run outside from the dinner table for a rousing game of kick the can anymore, I still have this sense that I am being offered a little extra life. It’s a beautiful illusion.

So nowadays, I expend a great deal of energy on the task of reminding myself of this illusion, the beauty of it and also the fact that it is fleeting. Summer’s ephemeral nature requires me to suspend my natural crankiness and embrace life, even when it includes sweat pouring down my back, soggy clothing plastered onto my skin, bugs nipping at me, crowds of equally sweaty people, or, worst of all, sand stuck to any part of my body. Sitting poolside, dining outside, enjoying music by the lake under the summer sky, swimming in a river with who-knows-what plant life sifting down my suit, or simply standing in my yard feeling the heat pressing down on me – none of this can happen at any other time of the year in quite the same way, in moments that overflow with the energy of life, complete with a dash of misery. Gotta get while the gettin’ is good.

It is all of this that is contained in that statement “this is it, this is summer” when I recall my sister’s proclamation back on that Fourth of July. We are sitting in my mom’s yard, rich with shades of green and vibrant flowers. Branches of the maple tree arch over us as we kick back on the patio, actually putting our feet up as we tip back drinks and look around at life. This is it, this is summer. It’s a great time to be alive.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Nothing so satisfying as home-ownership...

About 8 months ago…
Me: Hello, plumber? Yes, our kitchen faucet is leaking.
Plumber: Your problem is the diverter.
Me: Oh.
Plumber: I don’t have a replacement so when you use the squirty hose, you won’t get much pressure and the water will still run from the faucet. But keep this part, put it in a ziploc baggie and carry it around in your purse for 8 months. When you find a replacement, put the new one right in here. I’m just going to replace this O-ring here…
Me: Why do you suppose they call it an O-ring? I mean, it’s a ring. What other letter does a ring look like?
Plumber (staring blankly and, I think, ever-so-slightly shaking his head, which I obviously interpret as disappointment): That’ll be 80 dollars.
Me: Yes, right-O. Here you are.

Eight months later…
Me: Hello, other plumber? Yes, our squirty hose thing drips.
Other Plumber: Oh, you need a new faucet.
Me: Really? But we’re still on the phone, you haven’t even looked at it yet.
OP (arrives at home): Yep, you need a new faucet. I tried replacing the squirter but it still leaks. You should get a new faucet, call me when you need it installed.
Me: Ok, bye. I’ll just leave this squirty hose pulled out and hanging in the sink so the water doesn’t keep dripping down under the sink. Oh yes, that’s very tidy. Hmm, add “buy new faucet” to my list of things to do.

The next day…
Me: Hello, electrician? I’d like the outlets in my living room looked at. My 1920s bungalow has a lot of old wiring and my mom thinks my house will catch on fire because the vacuum cleaner always trips the circuit and I’m a little bit afraid of her so will you come fix it so I can get her off my back?
Electrician: So you’re saying there are too many outlets hooked up to that circuit?
Me: Well, I’m not sure. I mean, define “too many.”
Electrician: I could put in an Arc Fault Circuit Breaker. That’d be $150. What brand circuits do you have?
Me: Um… everything in the circuit box says General Electric.
Electrician: Oh! General Electric circuits… how wide are they? Not how long, how wide?
Me: A half inch?
Electrician: Oh! Half inch, General Electric, well they don’t make an Arc Fault Circuit Breaker for that. In that case, I’d either have to go into the wall and move some lines around or put in a sub-circuit, that’d be another $250. Do you want to schedule that?
Me: Well, uh, are you sure you don’t need to actually see this stuff first to make sure because, I don’t know if you can tell, but I don’t really have any fucking idea what you’re talking about.
Electrician: Yeah, I know.
Me: Um, I better talk to my husband. I’ll call you back.
Electrician: Sure, and if he has any questions, have him call me.
Me: Yes of course, because, since he has a penis just like you I’m sure he’ll automatically know what an Arc Fault Circuit Breaker is even though he has been known to refer to the yard stick as “the big ruler.”
Electrician: Yeah, that’s right.
Me: Ok, thank you.

Five minutes later…
Me: Husband, have you noticed the phone making this loud buzzing noise?
Husband (listens on phone): Yes, that’s bad. I will call Qwest and they will tell me they are testing the line and then I’ll hang up and wait for an hour and nothing will happen and then I’ll call back and they’ll tell me they’re sending someone out in a few days.
Me: Ok, great! That’s very helpful.

Later that evening…
Husband: Our water heater is leaking.
Me (running downstairs, checking state of laundry room floor, and running back upstairs): No, our water heater is fine. It’s our main drain backing up. I can tell because of the putrid, black blobs of foulness that are deposited in a ring around the drain in the middle of the room. Good thing it’s Saturday evening at 9:00pm so we can guarantee someone will respond right away to our calls tomorrow morning.

Sunday, July 17, 2011 2:30pm
Well, here I am. I’m just hanging around the house, waiting for Mr. Rooter to come exorcise the demonic goo from our main sewer line. I hope he doesn’t ask me what we flush down our toilets like the last guy did. I’m really not comfortable with that topic of conversation. I’m pretty sure Mr. Rooter said he'd be here between 2:00 and 3:00pm. I couldn’t really hear very well because of the buzzing on the phone. What if he was actually saying “I comb my hair between 2 and 3pm?” (Heavy sigh) Me and Mick Jagger… we can’t git no satisfaction.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Race Report, part 2

Triathlon training: Almost as good as a
trip to Fantasy Island
When I initially got the urge to do a triathlon a year ago, I would say the primary motivation was a desire to perform. I was already swimming, biking and running a few times each week but it wasn’t enough to just do these activities on my own. I really wanted to participate in an event that required all three, to prove to myself, or the world, or some invisible observer, that I really could do it. I wanted to be more than just a recreational swimmer, biker or runner. I felt like I had to finish a triathlon so I could indeed identify myself as a triathlete. I wanted to be something more than just who I was currently identifying myself as at the time, which was, most likely, a middle-aged, suburban housewife and mother. Anyone who knows me hopefully knows that I would say that with more than just a tiny bit of sarcasm. But sarcasm aside, to some extent, I was feeling that that was “all” I had become and I just wanted to be something else for a moment, something more. It was like an escape.

After the race was over, I said to my husband, “there, I am a triathlete!” Of course, I had done a triathlon years ago at age 26, but does one triathlon make you a triathlete? Once a triathlete, always a triathlete? Is it like alcoholism where some people believe that even once you’re sober, you’re still an alcoholic, just a recovered alcoholic? What is the official criteria for identifying one’s self as a triathlete? Although I have run two marathons in my life I hardly think of myself as a marathoner. I simply don’t “feel” like one. I only reluctantly identify myself as a “runner” even though I have been practicing that activity in some capacity for over 20 years. I’m not sure why that is.

I am also a mom, and I have a lot of friends who are mothers. I think it’s a shame that “mother” isn’t as “kick-ass”-sounding as “runner” or “triathlete” or say, “superhero.” There are probably many other identifiers like dad, librarian or single-gal-living-alone, which are equally lacking in cache but that doesn’t mean those people are not totally cool. Our personal cool factor, or lack thereof, has to come from within, right? It’s an easy cliché to fall back on. But what was really remarkable for me was that as I was out there performing in a tough race and feeling determined about finishing, I felt even better when I saw my daughter on the sidelines and remembered who I really am. I get that it’s possible to be a mom and a bad-ass athlete at the same time. I’ve seen those photos of Dara Torres. But for me, it is a really important distinction to make. Yes, I feel pretty cool that I competed in a triathlon. But that feeling will only last for so long. I could stop working out and I would lose that sense of who I am. But I don’t think I will ever lose my sense of being a mom and being more important to one little person than anything else in the world. Making that realization was a major accomplishment for me.

So however you identify yourself, whatever you know in your heart and head to be really meaningful, I wish for you to find the appropriate yardstick by which to measure your performance. And I hope it comes up with all good marks, or at least ones you can live with. I ask you, do you feel like you left it all out there on the field each day? Then you are super bad, too.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Race Report From a Mere Mortal, part 1

Does this lycra make me look fat?
So I finished the Life Time Fitness Triathlon last Saturday. I finished under three hours, which was my goal, and not so much because I thought “under three hours” would be a particularly fast or even respectable time but more because “over three hours” sounded like way more time than I wanted to spend out there swimming, biking and running my brains out. I intended to “leave it all out there,” as in work as hard as I could but not like, end the race with my lifeless  body lying on the course. I was hoping to walk my old bod back to the car afterward (and into a diner somewhere for a big, fat breakfast soon after that). And I am happy to report, that’s pretty much how it went down.

The swim, 1500 meters, or just under a mile, went well. I am a swimmer, so this was not a huge surprise. I am not an open water swimmer, however, so that aspect was the tricky part for me. When I swim at a pool, I just follow that line on the bottom of the pool, back and forth, back and forth. There is no line on the bottom of Lake Nokomis, and if there is, the water is too murky for me to see it. I couldn’t just put my head down and swim, unless I didn’t mind ending up on the opposite side of the lake, trapped in the weeds, freaking out about all the unknown forms of life nipping at my ankles. Once I accepted that my stroke would be a choppy version of freestyle, head occasionally popping up to locate the yellow buoys that marked my course, I was okay. The best part was that I never felt like I was really killing myself but I was still able to navigate through all the white swim caps (my fellow age-groupers) and through many of the red swim caps, too (the men’s group that started ahead of me). I love passing men. I admit it. I do not want to know what that says about me, I just like it. It’s a total ego boost but, I like to think, less in an arrogant, obnoxious way, more so in a necessary and well-deserved kind of way. Although I was a competitive swimmer for many years, it was a career marked by mediocrity. I had personal victories, sure, but I was never the fastest one out there, with the exception of holding the dubious distinction of leader of the “reject lane,” as we affectionately referred to our slower-paced lane at college swim practice. I finished the swim in 29 minutes and later that afternoon, perusing the online race results, I discovered that I was number one out of the water in my age group. Yes! I’m #1, I’m #1, I’m #…

And then my lead disappeared in an instant, as #2 probably ran past me on her way to the transition area. The bike portion of the race was terra incognita, if you will. I really didn’t know how I would do on the bike, except that I have learned over the past few months that A) I am super nervous on a road bike with my feet bound to the pedals and B) I do not care for the sensation of going fast on a bike. My goal for the bike portion was simply to push the outer limits of my comfort level, mentally and physically. A secondary goal was not falling over. I slowed to a crawl at every turn, no doubt confounding the dude behind me in his aerodynamic, storm-trooper-like helmet who wanted desperately to pass me as I wobbled across his path. I rode white-knuckled, using my breaks on most of the down hills. A lot of people flew by me on the bike. I passed about 10. But the computer on my bike showed that I was travelling around 18-20 mph so I felt like, for me, I was not slacking. The best part of the bike was when I rounded the west side of Lake Harriet and spotted my husband and adorable daughter with her cheerleader pom-poms. I took the time to slow down, wave, and call out a greeting. I didn’t think it would hurt my standings too much. The last 5 miles from Lake Harriet to Lake Nokomis was fun, as it is a route I rode a thousand times when I was a lifeguard at Nokomis one summer during college. The hills and curves felt familiar, a reminder of my lost youth that I was chasing down and momentarily catching along the race route.

The 10k run was going to be the big test for me. I could easily be brought down by the hamstring tendinopathy I had been addressing in physical therapy for the last 6 weeks. Or it might be the Morton’s neuroma in my left foot, a swollen nerve between my 3rd and 4th toes which causes numbness and occasional sharp shooting pain in the ball of my foot. This is where I complain about the aging process and say “it sucks getting old.” I am only a few gray hairs away from groaning about my lumbago or arthritic knees. Anyone in their 60s will tell me what a spring chicken I am but anyone who is in their 20s will be thinking, get this woman a wheelchair. On top of the aforementioned aches and pains, there is also the simple fact that running immediately following a hard bike ride is a difficult task for anyone’s legs. I don’t know the exact science behind it but I do know that my legs felt like tree trunks – ancient, mammoth sequoia-sized tree trunks. I was trying to breathe, settle in to a rhythm, use my core, swing my arms loosely, concentrate on my glutes firing instead of my quads doing all the work, engage my feet and visualize a helium balloon lifting me up and making me lighter, all things I had learned during training (or just made up on my own; namely, the helium balloon thing, but I swear, that was really helpful during a 10k I ran last year!). But those 2-ton-giant-sequoia-tree-trunk legs of mine were really harshing my mellow, if you know what I mean. And this was only the first mile.

Fortunately, my daughter and husband appeared at that moment and distracted me from the race allowing me to focus on being a happy mom saying hi to her cute kid and giving the impression that mommy was having FUN! out there. It lasted for about 10 seconds – but 10 very good seconds out of what was shaping up to be a fairly miserable hour. My foot started to hurt around that time and it only got worse. My tree-trunk legs did eventually revert back to normal, if somewhat fatigued, legs but it was hard to get much momentum going with my foot sending pain signals at every step. The running course was 2 laps around Lake Nokomis and when I finished my first lap, those who were doing the sprint course got to veer off to the right, down the chute to the big finish while the long course runners had to begin lap number 2. I kind of wanted to cry at that point, thinking about how long it would take to get all the way around the lake a second time. I took a few walking breaks but decided around mile 4 that I was just going to put my head down and go until the bitter end; time for the proverbial “leaving it all out there.” It was go time. I tried to ignore all the spritely folks bounding past me. Mostly I marveled that I was making any forward progress at all. One guy I ran next to for a while but who eventually moved beyond my view was a 67-year old man who looked damn fresh for that stage of the game. I tried to take some inspiration from what a bad-ass that guy was.

my favorite cheerleader
Finally, mercifully, the finish line came into view. I searched the crowd for my daughter and her pom-poms and veered over to her to give her a high five, again, hoping to give her the impression that mom was doing great! (Insert enthusiastic smiley face!)I gathered just enough steam to really run across the finish line before finally deflating like the saggy balloon I had become. My recovery will be slow, as I need to let the layers of blisters heal on the ball of my foot then see a good doctor about the Morton’s neuroma. I’m not sure if another “tri” is in my future for this summer. But I am sure of one thing. I did it. For the time being, I am a triathlete.

Stay tuned for race report, part two: reflections on all the other stuff besides swimming, biking and running. It's a lot more interesting.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Searching for Zen

This coming Saturday I will be doing a triathlon. I actually paid good money to participate in an activity that requires me to swim 1.5k (just under one mile), ride a bike 40k (about 25 miles) and run a 10k (6.2 miles). I do not mention this here as a way to brag about my athletic prowess or to identify myself in any way with the general gnarly-ness implied by the word “triathlete.” I simply mention it as a preface to the following statement: I don’t want to do it. Kind of. In a way. Kind of in a way, I’d like to sleep in Saturday morning, eat a big breakfast, drink lots of coffee, relax. In a way, I don’t really want to wake up at 5:00am and cart myself and my bike and all its inherent gear and my running shoes and a variety of electrolyte replacement drinks over to a local lake and spend the next several hours anxiously awaiting, then actually doing, the swim, bike, run. In a way, though, I do. I just can’t seem to stop myself from constantly wrestling with this impulse to skip it.

I’m kind of a perennial quitter. There are many things in life, both big and small, which I have just up and quit. Sometimes, I feel bad about quitting, like the time I paid for a 10-week photography class at the community college and then quit after 4 weeks when I realized how lame and pretentious my photos of stop signs were and how I really just wanted to go snap photos of my adorable 2-year nephew. I learned to live with it, though. In other instances, I really don’t see that it made one bit of difference, like the time I quit my part-time job serving frozen yogurt at Au Bon Pain when I was a 24-year old college graduate and I was sick of my pinhead boss scolding me for not achieving a streak-free clean when wiping down the counter windows. That was awesome. In the middle of my shift I took a 15-minute break (and was scolded once again for helping myself to a free lemonade, which I was told does not fall under the category of “soft drink”), grabbed my belongings and found a public restroom where I could ditch the black polyester pants and jaunty beret of my uniform. I almost wish I could do that again. There was one instance in particular, when I dropped out of graduate school after one year of a social work program, where I do still believe that quitting was the best thing to do. Besides, I was switching gears, not quitting. I spent a major part of the four years of college wishing I could quit, but somehow managed to suck it up and finish. After years of competitive swimming, I quit the college swim team mid-junior year, mid-practice, mid-set… just climbed out of the pool and left one day. Maybe I like the freedom to oppose invisible parameters, arbitrary starting and stopping points. Well, I guess I’ve never invented my own starting point (a possible future aspiration?), just a lot of stopping points. I hate having others tell me what to do. I like to demonstrate to myself that I am not bound by anything other than my own individual wishes.

(To my credit, I have, thus far, stuck with the more important life endeavors such as marriage, motherhood and dog-ownership. For this, I give myself a huge pat on the back. Yea for me!)

But still, I am perplexed by my aversion to this impending race. I signed up for it during the dead of winter and spent many months eagerly anticipating the chance to perform. I have spent huge amounts of time and energy (and money) preparing. Some days I felt so excited about doing it, it was like I was ready to jump up and run to the lake right then and there. I couldn’t wait. Why now do I feel so disinterested, so annoyed by this obligation? Is it burn-out? Is it the nagging minor injuries that plague me every time I try to run? Is it a more serious character flaw? Is there someone else I can blame for it?

What I feel I need is some Zen. My attitude needs a little dose of Zen, or maybe a whole bunch of Zen, a heapin’ helpin’ of Zen. I would like to tune out all the deliberations in my head, the worries, the perception that I have to do this for any other reason than just because I want to. I need to tune out the thoughts of how long it will take to do each leg of the race, how slow I might be running and how 6.2 miles can look like a cross-country trek when you are shuffling along so slowly you feel like you might be going backwards. Basically I’d like to tune out pretty much all thought and just enter auto pilot. Anyone have any suggestions?

It’s not that I worry I can’t finish it. I know I can do it. And I adore my friends who have encouraged me and told me I’ll be great. Without you I probably would not be bothering with this at all. But right now, it’s more like I’m looking for some serenity and serenity is hard to come by when you are thrashing through the water in a mob of arms and legs, hard to come by when you are wheeling along on your bike and your thoughts are constantly interrupted by the image of a big truck whacking into you at the next intersection, hard to come by when your ass (aka: hamstring) is screaming in pain every time you move your left leg. I mean, I’ve been working hard to quiet all these things in one way or another, but I would really appreciate it if Buddha would give me some kind of blessing, cast a little spell on me to make me numb to these intrusions.

So here goes… four days and counting. And for everyone else who is undertaking their own trials and tribulations, performing their own feats of strength and endurance in their own private ways, I wish you, too, a little serenity, a little Zen. Or a heapin’ helpin’, whichever you need. Peace.