18 December 2011

Unexpected Christmas Gift

Something odd happened a minute ago. I was bent over (in a position no one with a degenerative lower back condition should actually assume, but that's beside the point) adjusting the screws of my cast-iron Christmas tree stand before attempting that moment of truth: standing the sucker up both to see if it fits without lifting ceiling tiles and seeing if it will capsize under my own inability to measure straight (my floor is crooked. There's a lot of geometry involved in a crooked little woman standing a crooked little tree up in a crooked little house. But again I digress.)

I debated getting a tree this year because of the kitten. The kitten is a climber, and a leaper offer of things. Given his history with my houseplants, a tree in the house seemed like asking for trouble. But then I realised that this is my first Christmas in the new home, my first Christmas in my newly restored life. Since, you know, I've been in storage for the past five years at my parents' house, hibernating until the wings were fully mature. And I missed all of my Christmas decorations, since only a very few got unpacked, the essential ones that it couldn't be Christmas without. And that dammit I wanted a tree, even if it meant taping the cat to the bathtub for the next couple of weeks. Which, you know, might not be a bad idea anyway.

This is the first time I've put up a tree by myself in....a long time. Before this blog started. Before I met my husband. Before I had to worry about things like could I lift this box or reach to put this ornament on this branch without paying for it later in physical therapy. And while turning the brass screws on the stand, I realised that I'm less lonely doing this alone than I have been the past five years at my parents' house, helping them in the most precious of our Christmas traditions. Somehow, returning to those same rituals year after year by circumstance rather than choice made me curiously, painfully homesick, despite the fact that I still found joy in them, despite the fact that for so many years that had been home, especially at Christmas.

I realised that it's good to be home. Here. By myself. In my own little town of Bethlehem. It's good to be me. At long last, again. At the moment it would also be handy if the me that I am again were just a smidge taller, so I could reach the top without standing on a chair. But I'll take the me that is.

14 December 2011

In Defence of Christmas

An online friend recently posted in frustration about being "totally over" Christmas. I've been over the commercialism and the consumerism for years. Like, most of my teen and adult life. I'm fortunate enough to be surrounded by a family of like-minded people. We're quiet celebrators. Yes, we're Catholic, so there's the religion thing (even for me, the professed I-don't-know-what-I-am-but-it's-somewhere-between-Catholic-and-pagan-and-Buddhist) but more than that, what does it for me is peace, and joy, and hope.

Yes, peace. Even in the midst of the bullshit and the craziness and the parking and the crowds (um, I live in The Christmas City, USA. This town is All About Christmas, All The Time. For reals.) and the fact that I'm always in finals until the middle of December, PEACE. Peace because in the midst of all that, I'm still able to connect with something slow and dark and quiet that comes out of the midwinter darkness of the longest night. Peace because I can get back in touch with myself, and the people I love, and what matters to us, which is each other.

Joy, because nothing makes me happier than the quiet goofy happiness that Christmas eve brings to my mom, even as she approaches...um, a number I won't mention on the internet. Or having my small family mostly all together every year with our same quiet rituals of midnight mass followed by a 2 am bottle of wine, sleeping in, homemade buttermilk waffles and my sister's sweet orange rolls that she makes for Christmas every year because she made them once years ago and I loved them so much that she now makes them annually. The wise men who start out at the far end of the living room with Eddie the Troll Doll in the Santa suit and tramp a little closer each day to the nativity under the Christmas tree. (Yes, my mom moves them. And sometimes talks out the action. She's a children's librarian, she's allowed to be kooky like that.) The phrase "regifted underwear" that can bring us to tears of mirth. The phone call to my other sister at the monastery in Chicago to ask her what time midnight mass is. Midafternoon naps. Reading our new books by Christmas tree light. Vegetable ornaments. Thomas Tallis's Spem in Alium. Joy.

Hope, because nothing makes me happier than the turn of the solstice that signals that light is coming. Slowly, but it's returning. Life goes on. My divorce was finalized on this date a few years ago, and I thought for sure I was going to flat out die from loss, darkness, and loneliness. But the light returned, as it does every season.

29 November 2011

RR Dirty Bird 15k Trail Race, Code Name: A Finish Is a Win

A year ago, I signed up for my first trail race, more or less on a dare from Carl. Because he sucks. I grew up literally running around in the woods behind my house, and have often been accused of being part mountain goat, so it seemed like a good fit. Then I had that Epic Battle of Wills with my lower back. The day before last year's Dirty Bird, I called Carl from the ER. "Listen, dude, I don't think I'm going to be able to run tomorrow. I'm really sore. I'm just going to go have some x-rays, and I'll--"

At this point the ER nurse took my phone from me, held it to her ear, said matter of factly, "Dude, she's not running tomorrow," hit the disconnect button, and dropped the phone onto my stomach.

I spent the morning of Dirty Bird gorked out of my mind on narcotics, alternating between the two positions that felt least like being stabbed in the ass with a pitchfork, staring at the bedroom ceiling and texting pathetically back and forth with my friend Gunz, who can now apparently confirm that I'm very entertaining (and a very creative speller) when I'm on drugs. It was about four degrees out, though I don't think it was actually snowing, and my dad piled two extra comforters onto the bed--partly to stop me from shivering, because it hurt so goddamn much, and partly to help wedge me into position. I wasn't even in my own bed, because I couldn't get up and down the stairs to the bathroom. I was, in short, a sweet hot wreck.

This year I made extra special preparations for Revenge of the Dirty Bird. To start with, I was exceedingly careful putting on my underwear all weekend. On top of that, I actually ran after MCM this year. All of about three times. None of them were on trails. I don't know the woods around here well enough yet, I'm up to my kiester in a PhD, there are papers to grade that I've had so long I forget what the assignment was, etc. etc. and etc. So, yeah. I was totally prepared for this race. I figured I had about three things going for me: the fact that, as I said, I grew up running around in the woods pretending I was doing this exact thing; the fact that I have a very low center of gravity; and the fact that have I mentioned yet this week that my campus is on the side of a fucking mountain? So I do a lot of walking uphill. A lot.

This Sunday, I did even more.

It started Saturday night, when I proceeded to get a nasty shock via text message at a quarter to midnight, when I was on my way to bed. So I slept badly until the alarm went off at 6:30. Ate breakfast (I really did, I swear. I watched myself do it.), had tea, wrangled myself into compression tights, packed dry shoes and socks and a clean shirt for after, stuffed myself in my car, and pointed it towards Birdsboro.

Let me address something here. The location of this race left something to be desired. My ex-husband and I almost bought a house in Birdsboro, right before he left me. In fact, while we were falling in love with the house, he was already talking about leaving me. The park where the race was held is one of the last happy memories I have from our life together in PA, before we moved to Putnamistan and things went more or less to hell in a happy meal. I also pretty much had to drive past his parents' house to get to the start line. Add that to my late-night conversation Saturday and I was in a swell mood.

On checking in, my mood was much improved by the fact that Carl is oblivious and couldn't see me standing right in front of him in a parking lot with two dozen cars in it. I hadn't seen him in (gasp!) a whole month, so hugs and rude hand gestures were in order. Actually, we hadn't gotten to hang out much at MCM, so it was extra good to see him (except the part where he took off his shirt and asked me if his nipples were still properly taped. There's an image I never want again.)

Then it occurred to me that I was about to run ten miles. And I was hungry again. Fuck. Who signed me up for this? Oh right. Carl.

I peed no fewer than three times before we lined up at the start. I use the phrase "line up" very, very loosely. It was more like we assembled in a gaggle-fuck at the start banner while RD Ron gave us last minute instructions. They mostly consisted of useful tidbits like, "There should be an orange ribbon every half mile at least. If you go more than a half mile without an orange ribbon, you're screwed. What you then need to do is turn around and go back to a place where you aren't screwed and proceed from there." And my personal favourite, "The first rule of trail racing is, if the sign doesn't say to turn, don't turn."

The first quarter mile was on asphalt, and I actually kept up with Carl for a bit, before it dawned on me that I am not a sprinter, and I am not warmed up. So I tucked in behind him. He very thoughtfully waited for me at the part we veered off onto the trail, and we trundled up the hill together for a little bit before I let him do his mountain goat thing. I have little stubby legs. I was also a little overwhelmed, wondering what (the hell) he had gotten me into.

Seriously. What the fuck am I doing this for? I am walking up the side of a mountain. In the mud and leaves. For a mile and a half. No joke. From this point on, I was mostly alone. Which is fine, whatever. I train alone, when I'm hiking in the woods I'm alone, and I like it that way. Also, this way no one can see how slow I am. I did actually pass two people by the second mile, which was impressive because they'd caught up to me on the uphill. Go mountain goat ninja skills.

So I toddled along for a couple of miles, wondering exactly where the hell I was going, taking it all in, blowing my nose a lot, and just generally being a FireCat in her natural habitat. Rocks, twigs, dead leaves, nose-blowing, mud. After the first water stop there was a perfectly lovely stretch of pine forest, which always makes me homesick.

Frankly, this race is a big blur to me, not like MCM because I was in pain, but because one boulder hiding in the mud under a clot of dead leaves pretty much looks like another boulder hiding in the mud under a clot of dead leaves. And there was a lot of that. One of which I caught a shoe on, resulting in Epic Face Planet Numero Dos of my trail running career (which leads me to Infinite Mystery Numero Uno: why when I land on my face is it always my ankle that hurts the next day?) Got up, took a quick inventory. No blood, no bones poking through, ok, keep going.

When I hit the dam crossing, I noticed that more and more people were coming back at me. I was being lapped by people as old as my dad. Dude. This was demoralizing. What was even more demoralizing, in a weird way, was how gamely everyone encouraged me. Not more than one or two people went by without a genuine, "Good job," "Good run," or one guy, who is my new favourite person on the planet, "Looks good, baby." Looks good, yeah. Can't run for shit, though.

And then, there were more hills. All of which were up. And more mud, and fallen trees to vault over (or climb under) (or both, on more than one occasion) and oh yes, the water feature.

You may or may not be aware of this, but Pennsylvania has shattered all rainfall totals this year, thanks to the world's wettest August. And September. And most of October, too. Add that to the snowstorm on Halloween weekend, and the trails were, um, festively technical. Translation: one section of the trail was now a stream. With a waterfall. And fish. Yeehaw. Somehow, I managed to not fall all the way down in the mud, though I did lose my footing a couple of times. I also came down hard a couple of times on the downhills, jarring my back in a worrisome sort of jar.

Then there was one last hill. Except it wasn't the last hill. I only thought it was the last hill. My victory was short-lived. Because there was the last hill, still ahead of me. I felt like the Bear Who Went Over the Mountain. And the two people I'd passed caught up with me. (uphill is apparently not my strength.) I was hungry. I was tired. My calves were starting to be distinctly unpleased with the state of the up-ness. Whine bitch nag moan. I was pretty sure there were people still behind me (considering I had just passed one of them) but I was still feeling pretty slow. And cranky.

And then I met Charlie Horse, official Wasatch 100 pacer. Also traffic director at the last road crossing of Dirty Bird 15k. Boy that old man can run. "Hi! I remember you--I parked you this morning. Just follow me," and he took off like a gazelle. I didn't have a whole lot of choice. I followed him. Seriously, I think I ran that last half-mile at a 9:00 pace. He pointed my way back into the woods, and I crashed through the shrubbery and back onto the path past the dock, past the restrooms with which I'd become so familiar, past the cars filing out after changing their clothes and finishing their soup and hanging out with their friends ("Finish strong! You look great!" someone yelled out the window. This might be the same guy who called me baby earlier. I would advise him to get his prescription checked), towards the finish clock, and holy shit there's Carl. The asshole who got me into this.

"Dude, you waited for me."

He gave me That Look. The one that only running-family can give other members of running-family. (Not the "you're not a cheeseburger" look, or the "did you just finish my beer?" look. The other look.) "Of course I waited."

Well, yeah. The field was less than 400 deep, and I just found out today I only finished 20 minutes and 8 places behind him, so it's not like he was out there waiting for hours, but still. "No, I mean, you waited for me."

He continued to look at me like I had three heads and go, "Yeah, of course I waited," so eventually I dropped it.

I don't think he gets it. No one's ever waited for me at the finish before, and I've expressed much consternation about that here, though not nearly as much as I feel. People have sworn up and down that they'll run me in at the last half-mile, or they'll come back for me after they make their way through whatever finish festival, but I'm almost always hoofing it on my own back to the hotel to shower and meet up with them. I'm that slow. I'm not left behind, exactly, these guys would never abandon me (and some of you will probably kick my ass for ever even having thought that, and yes I'm looking at you Nita and Gunz) but simply because of my pace, I'm left to fend for myself for the hardest part of the race and its aftermath, which is why running those first fifteen miles with Len last month was so special, why getting to run Philly with Mags in September was so awesome (beyond the fact that I hadn't seen her in well over a year). I started distance running as a way to deal with the upheaval of my divorce, and it's true what they say about the loneliness of the long-distance runner (not that 15k is actually all that long. Unless you're in the woods on the side of a mountain.) But Sunday morning Carl taught me something I never imagined: I still have family, at least for a couple of hours last Sunday, in Berks County.

Who the hell knew?

10 November 2011

Open Letter to Happy Valley

As someone who grew up in the Northeast, I have a number of close friends who are Penn State alumni and alumnae. Some of them were in the Blue Band, some of them played for JoePa in the eighties and early nineties. Some of them were computer engineering majors. One of them was busy seeing Janis Joplin in coffeehouses in the sixties before joining the army, so I don't know what-all else he was doing there. He might not either.

I am not going to talk about scandal. There's been enough press about that. I am not going to talk about who should or should not have been responsible, who should or should not have called police, gotten fired, been arrested, or any of that. I'm not even going to talk about who should or should not have gone to the Paterno house last night, or to his statue outside Beaver Stadium, or tipped over a news van. Because that's not germane to my point.

So what is my point? My point is this.

For me, the reputation of Pennsylvania State University has not been tarnished.

What the hell? I can hear people asking. Even some of you to whom this letter is addressed. You are hurt, you are confused, you are betrayed, you are angry, you are grieving. I get that. I don't diminish that. And I want to let you know that for me--someone who has been to four universities and counting and has never had one iota of school spirit for any of them, because that's not how I roll--for me, Penn State hasn't been tarnished.

Why is that?

Because all that bullshit in the press is not Penn State for me. That asshole Sandusky is not, and never was, Penn State. The president is not Penn State. Football, while a pretty good expression of it and thus often confusing to outsiders, is not Penn State. Not even your beloved fallen JoePa is Penn State.


Penn State.

You who have gone to school there and loved it, lived it, embraced it, learned from it, and brought it with you into your lives. You who have raised wonderful families full of so many adorable children (my god, what's with the cuteness factor on your reproduction, people?), who have served our country in the military or on police forces, have built friendships and relationships and marriages, who are about to retire from the computing industry and are just getting going in your thirties, who write songs and love your dogs and your cats and your families, who drink beer with me and run marathons with me and dealt with me through four horrifically embarrassing years of high school and still love me twenty years later, who cried at my wedding and then again at my divorce, who are out there living the best lives you know how.

You are Penn State.

And I hope the world never fucking forgets that.

01 November 2011

RR Marine Corps Marathon Weekend, Code Name: Not Jimmy's Mama

This weekend was a long time coming, and frankly I wasn't sure how it would go, race-wise. I was trying not to care, but this race meant more to me than any other race ever has. More than my first 5k a year and three days after I was diagnosed with cancer. More than Bloomsday, my first distance race in 2003 on my five-year cancer-versary weekend. More than my first marathon, which I signed up for because I wanted to prove commitment to something after my short-lived marriage fell apart and went down in some spectacular flaming fireworks. All those races were to prove something to my psyche, that I was strong enough to do it. This race was different. There was no way I could gut through this on emotions. I needed a literal backbone to get through this one. And it needed to prove to me that it could still take 26.2 miles of pounding.

Needless to say, by Friday morning I was a sweet hot mess. After scaring the bejesus out of my advisor and a full classroom of first-year students, I hoofed it back across the hill to my apartment, hopped in my car, and headed south. Things went smoothly until I hit the District, whereupon traffic sucked, construction forced me to change lanes, I sneezed and missed an exit, and proceeded to get epically fucking lost. The only person not in transit yet was Nita, so I called her to ask her for GPS directions to my hotel. Let me remind you, Nita lives in Texas. Are you laughing at me? Good. Nita's internet was also routed through her cell phone, so she couldn't be online and on the phone at the same time. It was awesome. I deserve to be laughed at. I saw parts of DC that I hope to never see again, and crossed the Anacostia River about four times. What. The. Fuck.

Me, Bill, and beer. Also, CJ's arm.
After that little 90-minute detour, I was in no mood for humour and came as close as I ever will to being angry at Charlotte (which is actually impossible, I love her too much) when she teased me for being late. Dropped my gear in a heap on the bed and headed out to the expo with her and our Snowman friend for a quick hit on our bibs, a couple of t-shirts, those damned ugly mocknecks, and some discount shoes before meeting Char's husband Bill for supper at an Ethiopian restaurant in the only neighbourhood I hadn't driven through that afternoon. Stuffed ourselves silly and then headed over to the Courtyard for a tear- and beer-filled reunion with our Jimmy Dale, home for the weekend from Iwakuni. After we pried ourselves off him, he introduced us to an old Marine buddy of his, CJ. We sat in the hotel lobby and watched the Rangers lose and a fine time was had by...well, all the Cards fans. But there was beer, and there was Jimmy, so we didn't mind much. CJ seemed to fit right in like a missing puzzle piece. Finally went to sleep sometime after midnight, I think.

Me and Len
Spent Saturday with Jimmy, his sister and her husband, and CJ. Caught up with the Blurs at Expo Two, The Search for Socks (get it? It's Star Trek humour), eatin' barbecue, and......gettin' snowed on. Excuse you? Finished lunch just in time to get ready for dinner in Clarendon, where I finally caught up with Len, Gunz, Flex and his wife, Flex's very warm armpits, a couple of FOGs (Friends of Gunz) and Holly and her new daughter Star. About bawled in my fettucine when during dinner fifteen-year-old Star got excited about something on her phone and elbowed Holly and squealed, "Mom!" and then launched into an explanation of something. Those two are a perfect match, and Holly's a wonderful mom. I couldn't be happier for them.

After dinner we headed up to Nita's room to greet her late-flying, 80-hours-a-week-working ass. And Jerry! Jerry was there! Which surprised many of us, since at dinner we'd gone through a round of, "Has anybody heard from Jerry lately? I'm kinda worried about him." Glad to discover it was his crappy work schedule and not his crappy luck this year that has been keeping him from us. So there was beer, and Maker's 46, and....more beer, and....yeah, it was a long night. Hey, I know! Let's tie one on the night before a marathon. It'll be great. I think I kicked off and went downstairs around 11, and unlike Jimmy actually got some sleep.

Gunz rocks the plaid.
And then it was 5:45 and the noise, the godawful noise, the--oh, yeah, that's the alarm. I have to run today. Right. Carl and CJ both called while I was brushing my teeth to make sure I was up (how well they know me; CJ, do I have a sign on my forehead that says Grumpy Morning Person, or did somebody warn you?) and sweet mother of cats it was COLD OUT. I don't mean, Oh it's before sunrise, there's a chill in the air, I mean, Oh Mother of Christ protect us I can't find my nuts cold out. I layered on every bit of running clothing I had with me and then some. Sports bra, racing singlet, arm warmers, throwaway shirt, other throwaway shirt swiped from Gunz's extra stash, throwaway windbreaker, gloves.....and I was still shivering. I didn't put on full-length tights because I knew I was going to be out there for six hours and the weather might actually get above 45 by midafternoon. It wasn't my legs I was worried about, it was the rest of me. In retrospect I could have probably gone with the tights, given how cramped my calves got--but that might have been from the pace Len was having me pull almost as much as the cold. But I'm getting ahead of myself. The point I'm making here is that it was cold.

Oh yeah. We're awake. Totally.

Two Gunnies walk into a bar...the third one ducks.
The original plan was to meet my favourite Groundpounder, Will Brown, at the Iwo Jima memorial, but that got totally jacked up with waiting for folks to arrive in the lobby, group photos, and my complete inability not to be a prick to Gunz before a race. Once I got my head out my own ass, it was 7:45 and we were almost at the starting line.

And then this happened.

If you are the enemy, this means only one thing.
This means you are screwed, because the Marines are here.
After helping Len rip his pants off (a moment for which I have been waiting since this day in 2007) we realised we needed to get into a corral, so we hopped into the nearest one, To Infinity And Beyond being nowhere near us. We ended up with the 4:20 group. Yeah yeah yeah. I know. The poetry is not lost on me. My plan was to keep up with Len as long as I could. At BOMF Midnight Madness in 2008, this turned out to be less than a half-mile, but Len just came off Wineglass Marathon the first weekend in October, which was a horrific, cold, rainy, and windy experience, so he was feeling pretty rough. We decided to go with a 5/1 strategy, which kept me occupied for the first four or five miles trying to do the math on it. Right around the time I figured it out, we both had to stop and visit European Trees (say it out loud, you'll get it) in Spout Run, and my watch lapped itself. This put Len in charge of the math, which was good, and doling out the walk breaks, which was bad. My right butt cheek had been sore since getting out of bed, and with each mile it was getting progressively more painful. I was not a happy girl, but I was damned if I was going to tell Len how much it hurt. Instead, I just focused on something happy, like Len's calves (the man has the best calves of any member of AARP I have ever met, seriously) and just kept swimming.

There are huge chunks of this race I don't remember, which is sort of unusual for me, but I do remember being cold enough to run with my throwaway shirt for almost the first 5k. I remember ice on Key Bridge and thinking how incredibly pissed I would be if I survived eight months of rehab on my spine only to fracture it falling on my head because bridge freezes before road surface. I remember running into the same man with the same Princeton Tiger Tail in the same place on the hill before Mile 6 as I do every year. I remember Len and I asking each other if we were ok a lot. I remember taking my gloves off and putting them on about six times, and I remember my nose running almost constantly. I also remember looking up at the sound of my boss, heading to work for the morning in one of three identical helos.

In case you don't recognise this, it's Marine One. Maybe.
I also remember being very grateful for the energy and downhills of Georgetown, not to mention the sunlight. We kept an eye out along the river for Folks With Yellow Pom-Poms, but Charlotte was running the 10k this year, so Bill was on the Mall somewhere waiting for her. 

Hains Point was very goddamn long. Last year I had a lot of fun there, meeting Pokey's mom and Jen and just generally loving life. This year Hains Point was a pain in my ass. Literally. I was dogging Len for all I was worth, but it felt like I could only keep up with him during the walk breaks. Each 5-minute run I saw the gap between us getting a little bigger until we could walk and he slowed for me. I found out later he was intentionally pushing me, to see how I'd do. If the day had been right, we were on pace for 5:45, unheard of for me. Had this been last year, we'd have pulled it off, but neither of us was feeling it, so we just hung on together, past The Awakening, past Glenn Geelhoed, former Groundpounder (he missed a year a while back) and then we were off Hains Point, past the golden horses that mark the bridge where we enter the Mall, and......yeah, I don't got it. Go Len go. I didn't call out to him, because we got separated by the crowd, and at that point I thought he was doing ok, so I didn't want to hold him back. (Turns out all I did was make him worry that something had happened to me when he turned around three minutes later and there I wasn't.)

Holly and Snowman. They're cold too.
The Mall, again, was longer than it was last year, because a lot of it was in the shade, and have I mentioned it was cold? I played tag with the lovely and inspiring Kristen, in her racing stroller, and her team from Inheritance of Hope. Kristen has terminal cancer, and her beauty and serenity kicked my ego to the curb and got me to run for a few minutes every time I saw them when I didn't think I had anything left in the tank. I also played tag with Glenn, who took me to task much more overtly than Kristen did. The first time, it was to encourage me to try a slow shuffle, nothing extreme, just a survivor's gait that wouldn't aggravate what I was starting to think was a sciatic nerve (which scared the hell out of me almost as much as it pissed me off). "See? That's it." The second time it was with a gentle fist to the small of my back and a "Go kick butt." Yes sir. Half a mile later, when he caught up again, it was to tell me, "There's a ferocious dog behind you, and he's coming to get you." Considering I'd just seen a chihuahua in a Halloween costume, this did not have the desired effect.

Turns out the dog he had in mind was a Devil Dog. Coming off the bend after passing the Capitol, I heard a low, very determined voice so close it could have been in my own head. But it wasn't. It was Glenn, and he was right behind me again. "I keep catching up with you, because you're walking. You can't....just.....relax!" he growled. Yes, sir. 

Glenn, you saved my race. Without you, I would have finished, but I would have finished walking, in pain, angry at myself, and devastated with my results. Because of you, I finished stronger than I've ever finished. I got it back together and ran it in. Not entirely, there was still a ragged pattern of walk breaks, but there was more running than I would have thought I still had in me. At the Bridge, running with Navy Dave and his flag, I saw the sign left for us by Tuan. I wish Tuan had been there himself, because then I could have told him I know what happens when a man's nut freezes. Instead, there were IsaacandShell! And hugs! And pink balloons! 

And the long-ass never-ending, concrete, soul-deadening, ass-kicking Bridge. I was there, I had beaten the Bridge once again, but this time there was no victory. This time, there was Len. Walking. Looking more forlorn than I had ever seen him. No way should I have caught up with Len. Len was invincible. Len was faster than me. Len was....he was Len. 

He was pooped. He was also smart enough to know that today was not his day, and that he had enough time to walk it in and still beat the sweep bus and live to fight another day. We walked together to the end of the bridge, and when we hit the water stop right at the off-ramp, I took off, feeling awful to leave him, guilty as hell that I was going to beat Len in a race only because he was hurting so bad, not because I had run so well, but knowing somewhere inside that he would be tickled to death that I had sucked it up and flown away. Hope I made you a proud papa, Len. Broke my damn heart to see you on the Crystal City loop, still walking along. I remember every time you came back for me after you'd finished a race, to talk me home, and I wish I'd been far enough ahead of you to return the favour. Running those first fifteen miles with you was something I'll never forget. Except for the part where we peed in the trees together. Twice. That I'd like to kind of erase, if that's ok with you.

Then there was Crystal City, and beer. And Moo. Moo? What the hell? How did you come up from behind and scare me like that when you left Len and me in the dust at Mile 6? Is there a wormhole on this course? It's the only thing I can think of that accounts for passing Len on the bridge and you being behind me two miles later.

Out of Crystal City into the desolation of the final two miles. Like every year, these two miles were in many ways the longest. You're on a stretch of four-lane divided concrete highway, you're down off the high of Crystal City, you hurt like hell, and there's nothing to look at. No spectators, no Marines in boots and utes, no nothin. Just an off-ramp that is specially designed to make your quads pop out the front of your thighs when you go down it. I actually got a pretty good speed on the downhills, but it was more like gravity taking over than actual running. What the hell, I was close enough to the finish that they could scrape me off the pavement with a spatula and carry my constituent parts across the finish mat if I bit it. And then, just when you think you're going to die for sure, there it is.

Thank the freakin' Lord.
Sadly, this beautiful scarlet numeral also means one other thing. It means you are not done yet. It means the hardest part is yet to come. Because, as Deb's shirt says, a marathon is not 26 miles. Nope. It's twenty-six point FREAKIN' two. And, because this is the Marines, those last 385 yards are straight up a wall to the Marine Corps War Memorial, more commonly known as the Iwo Jima memorial.

....because 26.3 would be crazy.
Deb, shown here to actual scale behind le Elbow du Gunz.
Up the hill. Little hill. Fuck the hill. Little hill. If you don't know this, it's because you've never sung cadence with Jimmy. If you've ever sung cadence with Jimmy, there's no way this isn't going through your head as you gut it up the last 385 yards with Marines bellowing at you. If there's anything able to go through your head at all, that is, other than the pavement. And then it's over, and there's this:

There's also the finisher's festival to negotiate on your way back to the hotel. I don't know about most people, but after six hours of running my guts out, I am not feeling very festive. I don't want to party. I don't even want a massage (for which I would have had to stand in line for almost a half-hour). I want about four things when I'm done a marathon: I want a bagel, I want to stretch my ass, I want a hot shower, and more than anything else in the world, I want to get out of my compression shorts so I can make my way to the nearest cheeseburger. This last one often takes a bit of doing, compression shorts being what they are, but this year I also had some trouble with the other three. 

Apparently I'm known for not being able to operate food products after races--remember last year's PDR when I couldn't figure out my banana? Yeah. This year the bagels were individually wrapped in plastic packages. I'm pretty sure I made Marine Corps history when, after several unsuccessful attempts on my own with gloves, bare fingers, and even my teeth, I had to meekly walk up to one GnySgt Lindley and confess to him, "Gunny? I can't open my bagel." 

What's so funny, woman?
Yeah, that made me feel about four. Especially since he had to not only open it, but scootch it up out of the wrapper so I could deal with it  (If I'd had a windbreaker nearby, he probably would have zipped it up for me too). Dude. People are being shot at somewhere as we speak. People are at war, living and dying, every day, and this man's job was to open my bagel. And, being a Marine, he took it as seriously as any other mission. Which isn't to say that he probably didn't laugh about it later. Hell, Nita sure did.

Then there was that glorious moment when I am alone in my hotel, savoring the victory that is finally mine. I have successfully shed every bit of compression spandex on my body, especially those fucking shorts. Once again, I managed to be in a different hotel than the victory beer, and once again Jerry was the first to congratulate me when I walked through the door. What was weird this time was I wasn't last one home. 

More beer and epic shenanigans followed, including a rousing game of How Many Half-Drunk Marathoners Can You Fit Into a Hotel Shuttle Van? (answer: about fifteen, if none of them is Gunz the Way Too Tall and you are willing to sit in the back like illegal immigrants, sandwiched between Carl's crotch and Jimmy's smelly feet).

At this point, Jimmy has been up for about 36 hours and
quite possibly has no idea he is surrounded by beautiful women.
There was also the ceremonial Wearing Of The Shirt. This year's Wearers included Jimmy, Gunz, Carl, a very good-natured Len, and even Moo, who usually balks at this ritual. This year, MCM is also proud to inaugurate Virgin Wearer (and we use that term loosely, darling),  CJ Oh My God We Have Another Gunny In the Room. Not kidding about that. At one point Saturday I looked around and realised I was the only person in the room who wasn't a Gunnery Sergeant. It was a little disconcerting.

Get used to it, Paws.
Actually, a word here about CJ. CJ is good people. He got thrown into a group of very strange fellows he'd never met before, running only on Jimmy's good faith that we wouldn't have our evil marathon way with him. And when we did, he dove right in and gave it right back to us. And then we tallied up the final bill at the sports bar Sunday night only to find that CJ had quietly paid for all the beer. Y'all, 22 thirsty marathoners and their assorted significant others can (and will) (and, indeed, did) drink a shit-ton of beer. When we protested, he just shrugged and said, "I like beer."

I have had my cheeseburger, therefore I am a happy FireCat.

It's true. He does. And so do we. And we like CJ, too. We think we'll probably keep him. 

18 September 2011

RR (RFKA)PDR, Code Name: Finishing Crazy

I refuse to call this race anything other than Philly Distance Run. Ever. Let's just get that out of the way first. Last year the race was bought by Competitor, and made part of the Rock n Roll race series. To which I say, ".....meh." It is hereafter memorialized by Len and me as "The Race Formerly Known as PDR." When someone asked at the finish line what race had been run today, someone told him, "Rock n Roll Philly Half Marathon," and he was unimpressed. Until I added, "You know, that thing that used to be the Philly Distance Run," at which point he was all, "Oh, ok, cool, man."


I slept in Saturday and then moseyed around the house for a while (read: changed the cat litter), so I didn't hit the road until almost noon. Since I'm so clever, that put me on I-76 juuuuust in time for the Penn State/Temple football traffic. Yay! So I spent some quality time with the Conshohocken Curve and finally checked into my hotel at three. Yes, it took me two and a half hours to make the one-hour drive, and another twenty-five minutes to figure out how to get out of the Wanamaker Building once I'd parked.

Was altogether unimpressed by the expo--they could have utilised the space a lot better and, say, had more floor space allocated to the places where people have to stand in line twenty deep to get their bibs and less floor space for the Brooks store. I mean, I get it. They're the underwriting sponsor, them and Dodge. But Dodge made more effective use of their space, and they had to park a freaking car in it. Also, for the entry fee, their swag bags are majorly lame, although the bags themselves are at least now reusable.

Went back to the hotel, fetched my book of Lucille Clifton poems (what? I had homework) and went downstairs to the on-site restaurant. No Smart-Car cake for me this year. In truth, I was feeling a little forlorn. This was my first race in Philly without Carl and Len and a gaggle of other assorted folks who change from race to race (Jen, Gunz, Charlotte, whoever). But few things cheer me up like reading during dinner, and a pint of beer. So when I returned to my room to lay out my kit and watch some NCIS reruns--er, I mean, grade some papers--my mood was much improved.

Since I was a short walk from the start, I slept in until the luxurious hour of 6 AM. Geared up, stretched out, drank my truly awful hotel room coffee (those of you who remember last year's RFKAPDR race report may recall an unfortunate incident involving Starbucks medium dark roast, a start-line porta-john, and my bandana; I have learned my lesson) and headed out the door.

Oh my God, it's freezing.


I head over to the start and hang out for a while on the Art Museum steps--the famed Rocky steps--chilling with the official Back on My Paws Great Pyrenees and his people from Back on My Feet, one of my favourite Philly organizations. After I while I meet up with my friend Mags. Mags and I used to run together when I lived in Three Feathers, but we ended up with consecutive injuries that sidelined us each for several months, and then I up and moved. So I hadn't seen her in more than a year.

We catch up on some stuff, pet the Great Pyr some more,  and then line up for the start. Where we listen to the starting gun go off. Twenty-two times. That's right, Corral To Infinity, and Beyond! has a thirty-minute lag between gun time and chip time this year. So we're both pretty stiff for the first three miles or so. Also, I am still freezing my ass off and loving it. We hit the 5k at about my predicted pace, which is a little ahead of Mags's but she's happy.

The first five miles of this race are always a blur to me (no, not an Andrewblur, just a blur) because it goes through parts of the city with which I am unfamiliar. Which is to say, any of it. This year, at least, I notice that we pass the Liberty Bell and Constitution Hall and all that stuff (ohai, I can haz history lesson?) before hopping back on Arch Street and under/through the Convention Center and up Kelly Drive, where the bulk of the race is. There's a pretty stiff headwind at some points, but there are also some fun downhills. Whee! Annoyingly, most of the aid stations from Mile 5 to Mile 10 don't have any Cytomax at all (the first cup of "Cytomax" we got at Mile 2 was more like a few crystals of Cytomax mixed in with water. Not pleased. Not pleased at all. Especially since I spilled about half of it into my sock. Whoo hoo!)

Rather than my usual walk/run strategy, Mags has me taking a one-minute walk break every mile, sort of the way it worked out at MCM. And you know what? It freakin' worked. We hit Mile 5 well under my usual pace (though not a PR, thanks to a particularly motivation-filled--read: mad as hell--five-mile run scheduled a few years ago on the first wedding anniversary after my husband filed for divorce). The sun is perfect, the river is perfect, the pace is perfect. "Oh my God." I turn to Mags. "I feel freaking awesome." She glares at me. She does not feel freaking awesome. She fishes some Advil out of her Spibelt and gulps it down. We meet someone with a banner on her back that says JULIA and I comment to Mags how annoying it is that this Julia person seems to have been walking the whole way and keeps managing to pass us. (Turns out she's been running some. More on this later.) We stop for a much-needed pee break. Of course there is no toilet paper, but dammit this is my favourite grey bandana. I'll just drip-dry, right? No problem. Guys do it all the time. In fact, I've done it before running on trails. Outside at the washing-up station (since when do races have those?) I see Mags pulling paper towels out of the dispenser. What the hell. I grab one and stick my hand down my compression shorts--which is quite a feat, thank you very much, since CW-X compression shorts are tighter than Cameron Frye's ass--for some ill-mannered but very satisfying roadside assistance. The cop at the intersection is kind enough to pretend he doesn't even see this crazy lady. It's probably not the most horrifying thing he's seen all day.

Doot-dee-doooo....anyway.....there we are, my hands down my shorts....no, wait, I've finally managed to extricate myself, and Mags is laughing her ass off at me. It is true. I have no shame. Not during a race, anyway. And it's not like you could even see anything. So we make the turn at the bridge a few miles later and hit the shady side. Also the downhill side. Whee! I lose Mags for a little bit, but she catches up. And then? "See? I told you! Julia passed us. Again." Julia laughs and waves and tells us, "Oh yeah, the jogging's done."

Mile 10. Kickass! I love Mile 10 (hi Holly). Actually, I don't love Mile 10, I'm just happy that it means three more miles. We run under the Annoying Inflatable Rock n Roll Crotch Guy and, inexplicably, Mags keeps trying to take pictures of her legs. "What? I need something to distract me." Just then, during a minute-walk-break, someone dashes in front of us and cuts in, all, TA-DA!!! like with her arms out. It's Julia! For some reason (like, we've been out here more than two hours and we're getting stupid, just maybe) this cracks us up. She jogs off. Mags and I look at each other and set off, giggling, at a dead run. She goes right, I go left. We sneak up on Julia, and I shout "Ha-HAAA!" at the top of my lungs. Which, let's face it, is pretty loud. Julia jumps about a foot and then laughs for about a half a mile. Sadly, that's the last we see of her. Hope you had a great finish, Julia!

At some point during these festivities, Mags takes a picture of my butt, saying it's the only part of me she's going to see for the rest of the race. By the time I got home tonight, she had posted it on Facebook. And tagged me. It's mortifying. I am clearly pointing at my behindular area while--I don't know, I may be sort of running, I may be walking--as if to say, "See this? This is my butt." And I believe that is actually what came out of my mouth. Man, I don't know. We were totally goofy by now. The Cytomax had returned, I had to pee (again) but wasn't about to stop, and great god almighty cheez whiz, there's that last ramp up to the Art Museum. It occurs to me that I feel about a thousand percent better than I did at this point last year (it is also about a thousand degrees cooler, but whatever, I'll take it). We've taken a couple of half-mile minute walk breaks, but not too many. The rest of the time, we've been keeping what is for us a pretty strong pace, and we keep it now. I'm starting to get a stitch (I got one at Mile 8 too, of all places), because oh my god this hill sucks almost as bad as the one ending MCM, only without hot Marines yelling at you, and Mags looks like she might start to flag and I feel like I might start to flag if one of us doesn't do something and before I know what I'm doing I let loose with a mighty berzerker "YYAAAAAAAAUUUURGGGGHHHH!" loud enough to scare the crap out of several spectators and myself, and we dig into the final bit of incline rather like we're Merry and Pippin at the end of Return of the King, two tiny stubby little people running headlong and swordfirst into certain death, for Frodo. This is not what they call finishing strong. This is what they call finishing crazy. I'm running. I mean, really honest to God running. Virginia Beach can kiss my ass. I'm back.

05 September 2011

RR Virginia Beach, Code Name: Zombie Ass

I don't even know where to begin this race report.

Let's start with the first week of school here in Doodlehem, which is actually more or less where the road begins. In a way. Actually, of course, the road began back in March, when everyone else and their moms (and sometimes their kids) gathered for the annual Shamrock Marathon and Sweet Caroline Sing-Along Fest in Virginia Beach. I, of course, was unable to even run for a minute on the treadmill under the watchful eye of my beloved physical therapist. So there I was. Deferred until 2012, eating and drinking as much as I wanted, whenever I wanted, and in truth feeling kind of pissy about it. (I know. You're shocked. Me, pissy?)

So at some point later in the spring, when I was finally cleared to run for whole minutes at a time between walk breaks and rehab exercises, I signed up for RnR Virginia Beach. Somehow I felt like I ought to. Everyone else, of course, had already run it, back in 2008 or 2009, and I had yet to have the experience of slamming up the boardwalk....er, concretewalk....to the finish line, either in March or in September. I admit it. I was jealous. So, I signed up, figuring I'd have a chance to test my chops before Marine Corps and visit with at least some of the gang before school ate my brain.

Folks, this is not that race report. If you are looking for camaraderie, drunken sing-alongs at Il Giardino, late night trips to other people's rooms with more beer for the 14 people hanging out on the floor between two beds, rude comments from Carl, or folks with yellow pom-poms, go to another post. You will find no such chicanery here. This was a solo trip. Turns out I was one of precisely two people from our Old Folks' Home for Calcified Habitual Unrepentant Marathon group who ran this race, and the other one lives here. (And I saw him for all of about three minutes, not even in a row.)

Second of all, by the time the first week of classes was over, school had already eaten my brain. Two and a half days of teacher training (not as redundant as it sounds), twenty new faculty members, thirty new colleagues, two orientations, five meetings, four classes, nineteen and a half freshmen, and approximately fifteen vertical miles later, I was ready for a marathon nap, not a half marathon. Plus, I had just found out that unlike the rest of the free North American world, I actually had a full day of work and classes on Labour Day. Yeah. This meant I would be making a 24 hour turnaround on a six-hour drive. With a bad back. And 13.1 miles in the middle. As Jimmy says, whooooooo-hoo!

So that's where my zombie ass started this weekend. With my alarm going off practically in the middle of the night on a Saturday morning so I could drive six hours on roads I was only moderately certain were not underwater or washed out from last week's hurricane, after having just experienced first-hand the horrifying realisation that oh my God, they're going to make me work for this PhD!

The trip down to Virginia Beach was uneventful, right up until I completely missed the exit for my hotel after leaving the Expo, because it wasn't there. Apparently Virginia is one of those states where exits sometimes happen from one direction but not the other. And suddenly there I was, in Norfolk. Fortunately, I actually know people in Norfolk, and was planning to meet them for supper later anyway. So I just went straight there and had a lovely visit with Nicole and Brian, who went out on a special pasta-buying excursion for me (they're a low-to-no-carb family for medical dietary reasons). I left Norfolk what seemed like fairly early, but thanks to the wonders of Google Maps I once again did not go straight to my hotel. Apparently sometimes "slight right onto Greenwich Ave" means "just go straight, through the traffic light, not turning your wheel from TDC at all." So I had a lovely tour of...I don't know, somewhere, banged an illegal U-turn in the middle of Princess Anne Road, stopped at a 7-Eleven and bought breakfast supplies, and finally made my way to my hotel. Where my credit card wouldn't process. Twice. Fortunately, I carry a spare (for just this reason, to be used only in direst of emergencies like the threat of having to sleep in my car, or finding a pair of shoes at the expo in my size) and finally--finally--I was ensconced in Room 225. At ten o'clock at night. With a D-tag to affix, a bib to pin on, compression shorts to wrestle, and a four AM wake-up call. Awesome.

When the wakeup call came, I seriously had no idea what that godawful noise was. It was almost as bad as Carl singing at me, except when it was over I still had to make my own coffee. Inserted myself into the gear I'd laid out before crashing, fueled, chugged my Gatorade, peed a couple of times for good measure--hey, this is me we're talking about here--and stumbled out to my car. My first thought on hitting the parking lot was that I was not cold. When there is dew on my windshield before dawn and I am half-dressed in spandex, I should be at least a little chilly. The fact that I was not made me a little uneasy about the weather for the day.

Miraculously, I managed not to get lost on my way to the Amphitheater shuttle lot (seriously, how do those of you who live in Virginia Beach ever find your way anywhere? Sunday afternoon I must have crossed Princess Anne Road another sixteen times getting to Military Highway. Maddening.) and onto a bus. Arrived at the Convention Center, where the start line was, and....it was still only barely six AM. WTF, over? (which was another contender for this RR's code name, for what it's worth.) So, I wandered around the runner's village aimlessly for a while, stretching and trying to wake up. Thought about peeing, but didn't. About quarter to seven, I decided to head for the porta-potties of doom, and turned around and ran smack into something orange and very solid. It was, in fact, our Gunz the K, who was annoyingly chipper for so early in the morning. He said hi, wished me luck, and I'm pretty sure I grunted incoherently at him in reply. I might not even have managed that.

Peed, got settled in my corral, a good half-hour from the start line, and waited. "To infinity and beyond" is not just the name of my corral because they ran out of numbers, but also because that's how long it takes to get to the start mat after the gun goes off.

When I finally got there, after a few brief minutes of wondering why the fuck I had signed up for another race, anywhere, ever, which is fairly standard for the first five minutes of a race, I ran some pretty ok, pretty solid and consistent miles. I remember thinking that, while generally slow, they were probably pretty fast for being my first two miles out of the corral. And I was right. I was taking my walk breaks, being mindful of my mechanics, and just generally having a relatively pain-free experience, excepting a very numb right foot because I was laced too tight. Coming down into mile four or so, I saw the lovely and effervescent (and, if possible, even oranger) Flex-meister tearing it up at mile 11. Partly exciting, because I hadn't clapped eyes on the man since MCM, but also partly horrifying, despite his 30-minute headstart on me. The next thing I saw was a lovely, chalk-white bit of graffiti on the pavement. Oh, how I love ON-ON. It is a sign and a wonder. And it was a good thing, too, because by the time I got to the turnaround and back to mile ten on the flip side, there was no beer, no hashers, no nothing, just a dent in the grass where their cooler had been. Speaking of signs, the best spectator sign by far was "Run Faster, Zombies Are Chasing You!" Of course, starting to feel the effects of running while undertrained and having been up since four AM, I was pretty sure we were the zombies. I chugged along the boulevard, slurping my beer, thinking lovely running thoughts and wondering if it was the alcohol that had me feeling a little warm.

It was not. It was the warmth. By mile 8, I was distinctly unhappy with the state of my internal temperature (and my surface temperature, Len.) The scenery was lovely, as this was the only part of the course on a winding, wooded country road like I'm used to, and the company was as grand as ever, but damn. I was not happy. The only thing that kept me propelling forward at my regular pace was that the three hour pace group hadn't passed me yet.

And then, between the water station that had run out of cups and made us drink out of pitchers (though the pouring it on our heads part was grand) and the turn back off of the base, they did. I pleaded with David to tell me he was actually ahead of pace. He wasn't, save for eight seconds. I said some choice words, mostly relating to reproductive functions, and limped along. My back felt pretty good still, but my innards were getting cooked. Humidity. Dry mouth. Nausea. Not fun.

Hobbled some more. Ran down the ramp pretty good, but then ran out of steam after it leveled out. Got to the boardwalk, and....well, notice I did not call it a boardrun. About a quarter mile out, in sight of the finish line finally (it's really hard to see past the mainstage when you're this short) I tried to kick it up. Couldn't. WTF, over? I looked at my watch and discovered I now had a new PW. Then, right at Mile 13, I said fuck it right out loud (startling someone's grandmother) and hobbled back into a survivor shuffle. Fuck this, fuck the other thing, fuck your mom, I am not walking across a finish mat. Ever. I will crawl across one before I walk it.

In fact what I did is more or less launch myself across a finish mat, straight onto the arm of a medic who decided that perhaps he needed to catch me before I face-planted right there in front of God, everybody, and Frank Shorter. I wanted nothing more than to put my head between my knees--or at least close to my knees--but got the "Oh no, keep moving sweetheart." (How about no? How about I hurl half-digested blackberry Gu up on you? Nothing personal, it just seemed the only response I was capable of at the time. It was, in short, what I had to work with.)  He escorted me quite a ways, hanging onto my elbow while trying to keep his shoes out of further Gu-hurling trajectory (I came up empty anyway) and feeding me salt packets. He decided I was well enough to leave when I asked him if he happened to have a wedge of lime in his pocket too. He allowed as how he didn't have any tequila either. So we parted ways, and I wandered onto the beach looking for my free mediocre beer. Instead, I found the Dailymile group sign, complete with my own personal Where's Waldo, the once again randomly appearing Gunz. I mean, he does live there and everything, but still. Enough with the leaping out from behind random people and appearing, already. Hung out a few minutes, mostly squatting down as every time I stood up I felt like zombie ass. Got to finally get a bear hug from Flex-o-rama, which was probably (sadly) the high point of my weekend, got yelled at to "drink, woman!" whenever Mike noticed I was not face-first in my water bottle, and eventually wandered dizzily over to gear check. In the process, I lost both guys, but immediately my thoughts were otherwise occupied as their friend Rich picked that moment to pass completely out. Knowing I couldn't help catch him, I did the only thing I could think of: grabbed his beer before it spilled. He woke right back up, I poured some cold water on the towel around his neck, and he decided to stand up again. A brief game of rock em sock em robot in reverse ensued, as he went down two or three times in a row, scaring the crap out of me, his friends, and the two medics. It turns out to have been a blood sugar plus heat plus standing around in one place in the sun for too long thing, which just goes to show that even an experienced runner can sometimes be an idiot in new and fascinating ways.

After we got Rich squared away, I felt like I could leave (not only was I not about to leave a friend of a friend--or even a complete stranger--who was in medical distress, my gear-check bag was propping up his feet) and made my way back to the shuttle. At this point I was feeling physically better, but my brain had developed a pretty good case of zombie ass too. I couldn't figure out my next plan. So I drove to Nicole and Brian's for a shower and a nap, having already checked out of my hotel room (at four am. Just had to get that in there one more time.)

Leaving town I got turned around (not quite lost, but not quite not-lost either) no fewer than three times (which I confess led to a very rude text to poor Mike asking him what the fuck was with the people who designed these roads) and then proceeded to get pulled over on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. The worst part of this was not the humiliation, nor was it the fact that I am on a grad student budget, nor was it even the fact that I was not the only one speeding--in fact, I was merely keeping up--but the only one with out-of-state plates in my fleet. No, the worst part of this was he took twenty-five minutes to write up my ticket. While my thighs and ass were there calcifying. Also, six hours. PA. Morning class. Lecture notes. Caffeine. Coherence. Ringing any bells yet?

The rest of the drive was pretty uneventful except for the realisation of how long it's been since I used to drive out to Indiana to see my boyfriend in the nineties and would always start the road trip with the Indigo Girls catalogue. Just for nostalgia, I did the same on this trip, and even round trip I wasn't able to make my way through the entire thing. I still have two albums to go, and I didn't even do rarities, B sides, live albums, or other miscellaneous crap. I didn't even used to be able to get across Pennsylvania before I got to the end of their discography. Weirdness. Old. I has it.

Got home, pried myself out of the car without use of a shoehorn, opened my front door and found that one of the cats (I'm looking at you, fuzzy black kitten) had not only dug in, but crapped in, a houseplant.

Some races are just like that.

30 August 2011

Dear Universe: I Get It, Okay?

Now can you go pick on somebody else? I have to clean up this mess and throttle my new kitten. Pardon the crappy image, by the way; I was midway through damage control when I realised what I was doing. And no, this was not in any way staged. I placed this book on the table four months ago in my apartment's entryway to amuse myself--a verbal, visual sort of pun. Only tonight it's the universe that's laughing back at me. If you can't read the subtitle, it's "Finding Hope Amidst Life's Chaos."

And believe me Nellie, there's plenty of that here in the Nerderie.

07 July 2011


Just now had a discussion with, among others, my friend Cris (she of the infamous Toothgate situation) about Indiana's recent decision to stop teaching cursive writing. Some people are horrified, others seem, frankly, a little relieved. Cris compared it to her (nonexistent) outrage when people switched from fountain pens to Bic pens.

Guess which camp I'm in. Hint: I don't even allow ballpoint pens into my home or office.

Even before I am a teacher, I am a writer. And while I do a good deal of my writing online (I have a blog, of course; I write emails and research papers and some letters online, but only some, and they're to specific people for specific reasons) I still do the bulk of my creative writing by hand. And I've noticed that my writing is different when it's done on a keyboard, as opposed to by hand on a pad or a piece of paper or a journal or notebook. The syntax is different, the flow of ideas is different.

One of the great physical pleasures of my life is writing. I like the way it feels. I like the meeting of pen (yes, fountain) and paper. I like the feeling of moving my hand across the page. Writing is a tactile art form, as much as sculpture. I understand in a way a lot of other people don't how deeply my handwriting conveys my personality. My writing--both the product and the physical presence and shape and, yes, colour of it--is very much who I am.

This grieves me more than I can say. I know it is not rational, but there it is.

04 July 2011

Lest I Feel Homesick for Three Feathers

This year, I am celebrating Independence Day in my new home in Doodlehem, instead of with my parents in Three Feathers, land of the Attack Chickens. Seriously. My mother got pecked by a chicken this morning and had to go to the hospital to get it disinfected. Where they asked her if she knew the name of the chicken who pecked her. (She didn't, but offered to share the various things she had called it. Sensibly, the triage nurse declined, saying she could use her imagination.)

Anyway, back in Doodlehem. For supper, I had a dish of spicy channa dal, which stunk up my kitchen fabulously as it was simmering, and now I am being serenaded by my drunken neighbours, who are singing at the top of their lungs in Spanish semi-unison around the grill on their back patio. One is gesturing with his cigar, the other is using his Corona as a microphone as they bellow some cumbia classics. Times like this, I love this country. Every crazy bit of it.

Later on I'm gonna ask them if they know Cielito Lindo.

17 June 2011

Thank You for Not Googling

I am going to completely change the subject and alert you all that I am a fricking genius.

I was 2/3 of the way through knitting a sweater when the unthinkable happened. Yes, again. I ran out of yarn. You'd think I would prepare for this unthinkability, considering the number of times I've failed to think of it. So I ordered more, but it was a vastly different dye lot, so the colour is...um, different. The company is actually notorious for that, because she dyes in such small batches. I love madelinetosh with all my heart, I truly do, company and woman, but please--for the love of cats, for the sake of my sanity--please, Amy, can you do something about the dye consistency in amber trinket? Pretty please?

Anyway, rather than rip the whole thing out and start over, rather than have a stripey sweater where it didn't mean to be stripey, I enlisted the help of my friend Mary O. Who really is a fricking genius. Seriously. She used to be an engineer. Even after a debilitating car accident that left her with brain damage, Mary O is still smarter than most people I know. Mary O announced a simple solution (though she originally suggested Kool Aid, apparently it doesn't come in green in my part of the world). Mary O suggested her close cousin Jell-O.

Y'all, I'm dyeing yarn in my kitchen as we speak. And it's working. The finished product is passably identical to the half-knit sweater. I don't even care that my apartment currently smells like some whacked out combination of wet sheep, vinegar, and lime Jell-O.

Yes, there will be pictures. First I have to figure out how to keep my newly matching yarn from jiggling away off the counter.

13 June 2011

More Pie Dreaming: Cutting Butter

My husband used to joke that he'd married me for my pie-making ability. Apparently, he chose this over other, more useful skills, like visual acuity, common sense, or the simple powers of observation.

It is strawberry-rhubarb season here in Doodlehem. It is also farmers market season. Ergo (in parentheses therefore), it is also what we lovingly refer to as "Pah Season." (No, he wasn't Southern. Or a Kennedy. Don't ask me why he called it pah. He just did. But only mine.) Anyway. Since unpacking my eleventy-billion boxes of kitchen gadgetry--most of which I was surprised to have still owned, having not seen it in so long--I have gone on Red Alpha Seven Nesting Alert and made two different kinds of jam, orange-cherry conserve, weekly loaves of bread, lemon curd, and approximately half my weight in pies. All without the use of what I long thought was my trusty pastry cutter. I thought for sure I'd had one. If not in Putnamistan, then at least in Kingston before I got married. Then I thought I must be hallucinating, because there it wasn't, and I was the only one who ever made anything that even vaguely resembled pastry.

Which brings me to the current contents of the oven. It's hard to make pie crusts four at a time. The proportions get all hinky, the bowl gets small, things get coated in flour that should never get coated in flour, and when you apparently never owned a pastry cutter to begin with, it gets really damn annoying using a dinner fork. In the midst of the carnage, I called my dad to reminisce about a one-armed Jesuit we know who is an artisanal baker (among other goofy things, he mentions in his cookbook that he kneads his dough with one massive hand, but says he supposes it's ok to use two if you have them) and his story about cutting butter. It's an apt metaphor for a disabled man--trying to be content in the moment, using the one arm God gave you to cut industrial size bricks of butter into usable pound increments with a complex system of wires and handles--and so I called to ask my dad if I was "happy cutting butter". I allowed as how I wasn't, particularly.

Twenty minutes ago, I put into the oven the ugliest pies I have ever made in my life. The dough was sticky. I had to use unsalted butter. The lattice was crap. In short, they're going to be (I hope) one of those things that taste infinitely better than they look.

I had just started to do the dishes and wipe the drifts of flour and squished butter off the butcher block counter into the trash can when something came crashing down on my head from its hook above the sink, where it sits in plain sight every damn minute of the day.

You guessed it. My pastry cutter. Because apparently I can't just get the lesson, submit with grace, and then move on. Apparently I have to also have the Three Stooges squeaky-toy, hammer-to-the-head, pie-in-your-face (or in this case, pie implement on top of your face) moment.

Yup. That would be me.

04 June 2011

Saturday Mourning

I am spending the weekend with my beautiful friend Asia, who lost her husband suddenly on Thursday night. I will process my own grief later, in private, because Joe was a dear, funny man, and I will miss him terribly. Right now I am sitting with Asia and doing what needs to be done: proofreading the email she is sending out detailing memorial plans, making sure she eats and uses her inhaler, cleaning the catbox, sorting the mail, laughing over things Joe would have loved and crying that he's not here to share them with us, and drinking endless cups of tea and trying to reassure the cats, who can't for the life of them find the other person who should be here. And every time I walk into the kitchen, I am struck by the saddest thing I think I have ever seen:

21 May 2011

Three Signs I Am Losing Control of the English Language Forklift! Arthropod! Fleem.

I have uttered the following three sentences, in context, in complete and utter seriousness, during the course of the past 72 hours.

1. Drive safe, and please stop making poor peanut choices.

2. You can't buy an orange from a hole in the ground.

3. Call off the pillowcase dogs!

(Please note that this last one is in no way related to a sentence that will live forever in the archives of Weird Things My Husband Used to Say in His Sleep as the number one entry to top, namely, "Fire the dogs from the launching pad!")

This does not, perhaps, bode well for my career as a PhD student in this very language which I am so mangling. On the other hand, it might launch a career in comparative literature. Or performance arts.

19 May 2011

Update and a Tour

No, my beloved thirteen followers and various hangers-on, I have not abandoned you. I have taken you with me to my new digs in Doodlehem (also known as Bethdoodle). In the interim, there were finals, physical therapy, more finals, more physical therapy, many many times my weight in books, and the reassessment of everything I owned, and just how damn much of it there was.

And then there was the whole Internet fiasco.

But I'm here, the internet's here, I'm pretty much entirely unpacked, and what's more I think I'm almost caught up on finding homes for things. Well, ok, maybe not that last one. But it's getting there. Give me a break, I've been here nineteen days and I'm not allowed to lift anything heavier than my own sense of irony. I am, however, newly allowed to run in tiny, tiny increments. As such, I had the best seven minutes of my life this afternoon, even though they weren't consecutive (that's what she said. Oh wait. Wrong post.)

Anyway. I'm home from my rehabilitative walk/jog scenario (during which I confess to studiously wearing gear from only the most hard-core races I've run, so I am not confused with an actual jogger) and a post-workout trip to the laundromat, where I discovered what a bargain "dollar-wash Wednesday" truly is, given that it's Thursday and the machines are now all jacked up to $1.75 per load. Highway robbery. In any case, many of my friends and relations--yes, including Alexander Beetle in the unlikely event that he actually visits this blog (if he does, hi dad, sorry about trash night)--have expressed interest in seeing the new digs.

Ok, so it goes like this. I was far too lazy to put on shoes and socks and go outside in the rain to take a picture of the exterior, and besides, that’s a little too creepy these days, considering Google Maps and all the things you can do with it. Not like I wouldn’t want you to stalk me, but you know what I mean.

There’s actually a little more room than it looks like, enough for a 2x4 rug and a door that leads nowhere (actually it leads to the downstairs apartment, but it’s painted shut and I’m pretty sure there’s a wall on the other side of it. Which is convenient, since I don’t have any desire to go walking into Brian’s bedroom.) There are a lot of those in my apartment,as well as doors that actually lead places, and places that don’t have doors.

As you walk up thestairs, behold my ability to put bookcases just about anywhere. This is a very important talent to possess when you are a PhD student in literature, as you may well imagine, both because the apartments you inhabit will be cozy and hobbitlike, and because the sheer number of volumes you amass will frighten even your librarian mother. (By the way, the official count was 38 boxes. You heard it here first.)

Now you come to the top of the stairs, where you notice there is some funky architecture and that, yes, they had to put a wall up in the middle of a lovely arch so that the kitchen wasn’t actually in the hallway. The dining room, however, remains in the hallway. That’s ok though, because the hallway is bigger than my NYU dorm room. This is good, as I have rather a lot of refinished kitchen storage cabinets, which will help alleviate the lack of actual kitchen cabinets (more on that shortly). Carefully not pictured here are a couple of piles of crap that have to go back to my parents’ attic because of same.

See what I mean? That’s all she wrote. Considering I haven’t used the dishwasher so far and don’t expect to, I’d rather have the extra cabinet space. Very sunny, though, which I love. What I do have, you’ll notice if you look carefully, is the second in a series of Doors to Nowhere. This isn’t an actual door, but a walled-in doorway. It turned out to be damn convenient and exactly the size of the bookcase that’s now sitting in it. Yes, I have a bookcase in my kitchen. Conveniently, it mostly has cookbooks on it. And my giant stockpot that doesn’t fit anywhere else, as well as my coffeemaker (ditto). Note stove conveniently hiding in alcove behind curve of hallway. Whoever converted this to apartments had some damn good luck in some places. This was one of them, since it seems that this is actually the width of that hallway, which presumably originally continued on to whatever happens on the back half of the second floor, also known as “someone else’s apartment.”

Say it with me now, “claw-foot bathtub.” The bathroom actually is as small as it looks, and thus this is as good as it’s going to get for pictures. Yes, I have a litterbox stuffed in there too. It’s truly awesome. And yet, it’s several orders of magnitude larger than any bathroom I ever had in New York, a town famous for putting claw-foot bathtubs in the kitchen in some neighbourhoods.

Anyway, behold it in all its bathtubby glory. The windowsill is a good six inches deep, too, which allows for storage of crucial items. Like books.

An interlude now about why I narrate tours through my bathroom; I started doing these (with hand-drawn maps and actual photographs) when I lived 3000 miles away from my parents in Spo-Vegas, and they wanted to see where it was I lived, as if it would somehow give them a clue what I was up to. Fortunately, most of the time it didn’t, but they enjoyed seeing the apartments anyway, since they didn’t get out there until I graduated, and so missed a couple of residences.

Ok. Meanwhile, back in Bethdoodle, meet the piles of crap in my living room, so situated because I don’t have an office yet. Hopefully that’s where that big pile in the bay window will end up. My dad just made the radiator table for me this week, so I would have someplace non-bumpy and cat-proof to put my tea in the mornings. Also, because, well, I have a lot of files full of crap, as you are about to see.

Told you. This room, in contrast to the bathroom, is not nearly as big as it looks from this angle. Or maybe it’s the four hundred bookcases flanking the doorway. In any case, what you also cannot see is the apartment’s one major flaw (I mean, other than not being rent-free or having laundry), which is that the desk is uphill from everything else. Like all old buildings, the floors in the apartment are a little less than level, and as I type this, my foot is hooked around the desk to keep me from rolling away from it towards the TV cabinet. The rug helps by catching me, but only sometimes. It’s fun, this acrobatic living room of mine. Also, pencils don’t stay put when you drop them. I try not to drop them.

Let us continue on our way. Back into the hallway, and—oh look. Another bookcase. What a surprise. Also, another Door to Nowhere. This one is actually a door to… stairs. That lead nowhere. Actually, they lead to a wall, the other side of which is a mystical land known as “Matt’s Third Floor Apartment.” I’ve not actually met Matt, I think he’s rather like Mr. Tumnus, or something. (Actually, what Matt is, is a PhD student. Which, come to think of it, isn't all that different from someone you might find in back of a wardrobe.)

Also visible here is an Actual Door to Somewhere, one of two in the apartment. There’s a reason they have doors. It’s not safe for you there. Like Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein, whatever sound you hear, do not open that door! The closet is currently under organization, and as such is a complete death zone, since by “organization” of course, I really mean “quarantine.” I brought more hangers home yesterday and hope to slay the Evil Closet Beast sometime before the world ends on May 21. Don’t hold your breath. Oh, and after the rapture, can I have your stuff? Since I have that kick-ass closet, and all.

Chapter Six, the bedroom, wherein FireCat wishes she had done a better job of making her bed this morning. Truth is, I was planning on changing the sheets and doing laundry later, if the Verizon guy ever shows up. Not pictured here: more stuff. Also, Bookcase, The Final Frontier. The bookcase where old books with no home go to die. Also, children’s books I still read and anything I might be otherwise embarrassed to be caught with, such as my beloved Alex Bernier mysteries. Pictured here but entirely invisible: the two cats hiding under the bed, though one of them might be on the windowsill checking stuff out.

And now to recap, since we have run out of rooms and up against a wall (well, door):

Itz mah howse. I live here. You don’t. And aren’t we all so very, very happy about that?

25 March 2011

Litmus Test

So there I am, barely 25, at the hospital. Waiting to see if they're going to admit me to the mental ward overnight. But I don't know that yet. All I know is it's damn near 4:30 AM and I need coffee. So I deposit 50 cents into the machine and press "coffee, regular." (As a side note, never ever order chicken soup from one of those things. It tastes like I imagine the Gowanus Canal must taste, though I've never tested this hypothesis.)

Rumblings from within. Vending machine crane-arm noises. Suspense: the little light goes on. It thinks. I wait.

Creamer squirts out of the nozzle onto the grate. Eight ounces of tepid coffee follows. The cup clatters down, useless, onto the mess. The door opens.

I'm blinking at it. This is not quite what I ordered. Well, it is, but not in the order I ordered it. So I dig out 50 more cents and try again.

Creamer squirts out of the nozzle. Eight ounces of coffee descend in a putrid, infuriating stream. The cup comes down on top of it. Empty.


I'm on the verge of tears. Instead, I kick the vending machine. Say some choice words my longshoreman grandfather taught me.

Resident comes by, all arrogance and flapping scrubs. Scrounges in his pocket, comes up with 50 cents, presses "coffee, regular" just as I open my mouth to say something by way of warning.

But then his cup comes down, creamer squirts into it, and eight ounces of beautiful, perfect, glorious coffee flow into the mix. The door opens. The resident retrieves his coffee, lifts it to me in a half-hearted "cheers" greeting, and flaps away down the hall, innocently slurping at the caffeinated ambrosia being denied to me.

I blink after him. What the hell?

I realise I have 50 cents left. I decide to go for it.

Coffee. Regular. Goddamn it.

The creamer squirts into the empty slot. Eight ounces of coffee blast into space. I consider trying to stick my tongue under the nozzle, but decide I would either get stuck and the resident would have to come extract me, or I'd definitely get sent to the mental ward.

Not to mention the goddamned empty cup would hit me in the head when it was done.