Brave

This post could have been dubbed “MIA,” but that’s already been done. I have indeed been MIA from blogging, but not from writing. Below is a personal essay I submitted to the final round of the Yeah Write Super Challenge, which, to my astonishment, earned first place. And I say astonishment after reading a few of the other contenders. Well done, all.

 

“Peas patha napins,” my husband said, the back of his hand covering his mouth.

“What?” I asked.

He swallowed hard. A lump of bacon cheeseburger trailed down his throat like a snake swallowing a mouse. “The napkins,” he said. “Could you please pass them?”

We sat in a booth at a restaurant renowned for onion rings the size of platters and outrageous cheeseburgers—peanut butter, jelly, and bacon, for one. Twenty-four hours ago I also would have ordered something that required extra napkins, but not tonight. Tonight I ate a salad of sliced pears and an extra order of grilled chicken, hold the dressing, because tonight, as we’d waited for a table, I’d made a decision. Perhaps it was the lingering headiness of a successful 5K three months previous, or perhaps it was low blood sugar, but I’d decided to run a marathon.

1968

Marathons were more commonplace than ever thanks to running’s surge in popularity. But I wasn’t a runner. That 5K was the farthest I’d run in my entire life. Still, how far could a marathon be? Probably not more than a few 5Ks strung together. More or less.

We got home from the restaurant that night, me hungry but virtuous, and after Googling “marathons,” I clicked on the first site that popped up. Then I clicked on the second site. Twenty-six-plus miles? Were they serious? Is that what I’d committed to, running a length greater than the distance I typically drive in a week? And I had committed to it. Maybe not to anyone else, but to myself.

I researched training plans the way a pregnant woman researches pediatricians, and learned that it conservatively takes five months to train properly. Now I needed to find a race. What about the Long Beach Marathon next October, nine months from now? That was the race the 5K had been affiliated with, so why not run something a year to the day of my first 5K? Plus, the marathon was hosted by the nonprofit our daughter did volunteer work for. It was serendipity. In four months, I’d start training.

Those four months sailed by and soon I was headlong into prescribed running: X miles on X day at X pace. I came to crave the predictability of my runs, the comfort of having at least one stable aspect of my day. Because for the past ten years, my days had been anything but stable.

Our oldest daughter, the one who volunteered for the nonprofit organization hosting the Long Beach Marathon, contracted viral encephalitis when she was 14 years old. She survived despite dismal odds, but after a life of perfect health she is now nonverbal and wheelchair bound. She cannot dress herself, feed herself, or roll over in bed. She cannot scratch an itch. But she is able to think, and she is able to tap on her Mac’s keyboard with a single weak finger, and she has tapped out speeches read on her behalf to benefit that nonprofit, one that provides low-cost wheelchairs at no cost to the disabled in developing countries. Serendipity.

The miles piled up impressively, eleven one week, thirteen the next, and soon I was logging upward of twenty-five miles per week. Training for a marathon isn’t a sprint but, well, a marathon, and the gradual five-month progression allows important physiologic adaptations to occur safely. And since I followed my program explicitly, I ignored the toothache-like soreness in my right thigh until it progressed from vague discomfort to pronounced pain.

“Why don’t you see a doctor?” my husband asked. I wanted to say, “Because I don’t want to know what’s wrong.” But what I said was, “Okay.”

A week later, after a detour through Radiology, I sat in an orthopedic surgeon’s office.

“I don’t see anything wrong,” he said, squinting at my x-ray. “No reason to stop running. Come back if the pain doesn’t go away.”

The pain didn’t go away, so I went back. This time he ordered an MRI. This time I was scared.

Meanwhile our friends had invited us to go camping with them at the beach. Running along a sandy path instead of asphalt, salt air replacing exhaust fumes? I couldn’t wait. My running shoes sat at the bottom of the suitcase because they were the first things I’d packed. The day before we were scheduled to leave, the doctor called with the results of the MRI.

“It’s a femoral stress fracture,” he said.

I imagine there was a bemused expression on my face because I was certain he was kidding. Or looking at the wrong MRI. Or something. But judging from his silence, he was neither kidding nor mistaken. “Oh,” I finally replied. “Wow. What caused that?” But I knew.

“Running,” he said. “So no running for eight weeks.”

Eight weeks? We were leaving for the beach tomorrow. I hung up, walked into the bedroom, and stared at the splayed suitcase on the bed. A hint of purple peaked from beneath T-shirts and shorts. My running shoes. Should I pretend the doctor’s phone call came after our trip? No one would know differently. I’d already run with pain for two months—how much worse could it be in three days?

And then I thought of our daughter. I thought of sometimes not getting what we want, and of living through it gracefully and authentically, if not always contentedly, and of how she had shown nothing but support as she bravely watched me run when she herself could no longer walk. And I returned my running shoes to the closet.

I completed the Long Beach Marathon injury free 30 days after my eight-week hiatus, and from the finish line ran straight into the arms of my biggest supporter. And that peanut butter, jelly, and bacon cheeseburger, the one served at the restaurant where I made the decision to run a marathon? That’s my biggest supporter’s favorite. Maybe next time we’re at that restaurant I’ll share one with her.

M.I.A.

1109This blog is more of a reflection of me than I realized, or that you knew. Grab a Starbucks or a Big Gulp or whatever they serve wherever you’re reading this, and I’ll explain.

Let’s start with the easy visible part. The blog’s overall look is one of simplicity. Or at least as much simplicity as can be mustered when you’re sorting through all the sidebar options the good folks at WordPress make available. I chose that particular photo of myself because of the grey T-shirt, which lends to the grittiness of city life as seen through the—what are those, anyway? binoculars?—in the header’s image. And the image denotes taking a closer look at the human landscape, and it ties to my blog’s subtitle about observations.

Now for the invisible part.

On the “About Yours Truly” page I’ve listed random facts about myself. Absent from the list is that my 32-year-old daughter is disabled. She is unable to speak and has only gross motor movements as a result of an illness she suffered at age 14. Prior to that she was a straight-A high school freshman in perfect health.

That’s a really big deal, and a really big part of who I am, yet I intentionally omitted that fact. And here’s why:

Human beings are only, well, human, and when we’re at the movies or shopping at Anthropologie (did I mention she’s cognitively intact and has great taste?), I imagine people see The Girl in the Wheelchair and The Mom Pushing the Wheelchair. And therein lies the problem.

We are both, yet we are neither.

That seconds-long encounter fails to tell about us, about me training to qualify for the Boston Marathon or about Erin’s love of all things quirky and retro. That seconds-long encounter invites pity, not conversation.

A few years ago my husband urged me to write a memoir centered around Erin’s illness and the stone-in-a-pond ripples it has had on not just our family, but on people we’ve never met. Currently I’m writing—fingers crossed—the last draft and although in June my editor said he’d like this draft to be completed in three months, I’m about halfway done.

To chronicle something so personal yet so universally relevant is a huge task. And thus my absenteeism from this blog.

Recently, though, an essay of mine was published online at BioStories, so that was cool. It provides a glimpse into the memoir, if you’d like to read it.

This blog, like me—like all of us, probably—has a shiny side it shows the world and a personal side it grants entry to on a selective basis.

Welcome in, friend.

Cringe-Worthy

Okay, it’s only because we’re friends that I’m about to share this with you. It is, without a doubt, my most embarrassing moment. Ever.

My youngest daughter, who was about 16 at the time (and, as a point of reference, a very intelligent girl who 2 years later received an academic scholarship to USC), and I were in Boston for her participation in the Irish Dance National Championships. As we poured over a city map, must-sees flowed across our lips like verbal diarrhea: “Harvard!” “Paul Revere’s house!” “Boston Harbor!” “Old North Church!” “Boston Common! with a frog pond!” A frog pond! That’s were we’d start! First thing in the morning!

We walked along Boylston Street and ate warm cinnamon bagels out of a bag until we came to the southern entrance of Boston Common, then wiped our fingers, unfolded our map, and took a left toward the frog pond.

“How do you think they keep the frogs from leaving?” one of us asked the other (I don’t remember who said what. Let’s pretend the least ridiculous more lucid statements were mine.).

“I don’t know. Maybe they keep them in crates at night? Or one end’s covered, and they corral them by using a special whistle or something every night?” Like some sort of frog honor system.

Disclaimer: As a native Southern Californian, I have no knowledge, expertise, or experience with frogs. Pastel mechanical frogs at Disneyland come to mind, but I’m not sure they exist. I might be imagining them.

As the two of us walked, we debated the pond’s dimensions and depth. Was it fenced? Were we talking a few frogs, or hundreds? Our pace increased.

We race walked as the sidewalk veered left, then saw a decent-sized shallow-looking body of water. The sign said “Frog Pond.” There wasn’t a frog in sight. We looked at each other. I don’t remember for sure, but our foreheads probably furrowed.

If there are no frogs, then why name it…? Oh, never mind.

What was going on? The sign clearly said “Frog Pond.” It was still early: maybe they hadn’t been let out yet. A girl of about 18 stood in the distance, hosing off the pond’s perimeter. “Let’s go ask her,” I said.

“Excuse me.” I said to her.

“Yes?”

“We just had a question.” I got the map out as evidence we weren’t making this up. “It says this is a frog pond. Actually the sign back there says it, too. Where are the frogs?”

“The what?” she said.

“The frogs. For the frog pond.”

I kid you not, she glanced around before she answered. I’m positive she was looking for the hidden camera. “Ummm. There are no frogs. It’s a kid’s wading pool.”

Apparently these count.

I think we mumbled thanks before hightailing it out of there. Then again, maybe not.

We still had the Swan Boats to visit on the other side of the Common, but we didn’t get our hopes up. We were on to these people; there’d be no barebacked swan rides in our future. Fool us once…

 

Images: crossfitfenway.com, travelpod.com, and bostonartsmarathon.com

Life in 140 Characters Or Less

“Here: Take my debit card. Do you have some paper? A pen? Because I can write down the password for you. And there’s an ATM right around the corner.”

—Me during a run to would-be robber who wants my new Apple watch I bought for it’s GPS/pacing capabilities. Little does would-be robber know that since I bought the watch, my wrist is more valuable than my checking account.

Jack Of No Trades

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

That’s a question I’m still trying to answer. Maybe it’s easier as a kid, before limits are placed and doubts set in. And bills accumulate.

The easier question now is, “What don’t you want to be?” I’ll tell you what—but it’s too much for a single post, so here’s a selection:

A plumber. On good days you’re elbows deep in someone’s grease. On bad days you’re elbow deep in…well, you’re just elbows deep. And don’t get me started on emptying septic tanks. Once as a kid, my family was camping and it was time to empty our camper’s waste holding tank. Dad pulled into a gas station with a waste disposal—I don’t know, pit, I guess—and hooked up the 4-inch diameter hose, only to have it pop off in the middle of the process. Pretty sure Dad threw those shoes out.

An electrician. I have utter confidence I’d electrocute myself, in no small part because there’s not much I find less interesting than electricity—or wires—so I may not have paid the closest attention in school.

A carpenter. I don’t like splinters, I don’t like loud noise, and I do like Pottery Barn. And Ethan Allen. Oh, and there may be one thing I find less interesting than electricity: wood.

A mortician. Too many frozen expressions reminiscent of those Januvia and Botox ads.

A butcher. I. Just. Couldn’t.

A grocery store cashier. It’s not the worst job available, but I’d get fired. Someone would use their food stamps EBT card to buy Dreyer’s cookie dough ice cream and get cash back, and I’d say something; I know it. Same goes for the customer who could pass for the star of My 600-lb Life pushing a cartful of Ho Hos, Cap’n Crunch, and Pepsi.

A Barnes and Noble employee. It could actually be my dream job, but again, I’d get fired—not for sassing the customers, but for getting nothing done. Still, what do they expect with all those distractions?

A teacher. My hat’s off to them—I couldn’t do it; see grocery store clerk above, substituting “unfinished homework” for the groceries and “mouthy kid” for the customer. Add helicopter parents and jail time to the mix, and I’m just better off not. So are the kids.

A Lowe’s/Home Depot employee. Fired again, I’d be. Not for sassing the customers, not for reading the books (if they had books), but because the first time some guy put down a fistful of loose nuts or bolts or washers and I had to figure out what they were, I’d tell him just to take them.

Looking at that list, I’m sure any aptitude test I’d take today would recommend I not work with the public. Probably a pretty good call for both of us.

Image: tumblr

A (Imagined) Conversation with David Sedaris

David Sedaris, author of my dreams.

Me: I understand you’re interested in writing my biography. First, let me say I’m flattered.

David: It’s something I’ve wanted to—

Me: Wait. I’m not finished. Again, I’m flattered. But I’m also concerned. Your last book—what was it, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk ?—wasn’t my favorite. Actually it probably wasn’t anyone’s favorite.

David: Let me explain. Things—

Me: I’m not done. It wasn’t my favorite, but I still want you. As long as you get back to your Me Talk Pretty One Day mindset, I’d be happy. I’d even take the Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim years. I just think it’d be best to leave animals out of it.

David: But you love animals! How can I write your life story without animals?!

Me: You’re right, but it’s pets. I love pets. Not the odd parings in that book. And that was fiction, anyway. There’s no mouse with a pet snake in my life, so we’re good.

David: Got it. Which essays in particular did you enjoy? Just so I get an idea of your tastes.

Me: What did I enjoy? What didn’t I enjoy? Besides anything in Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, that is. The one that still makes me laugh is your speech therapist story from elementary school, where she kept baiting you to pronounce s sounds and you kept answering her questions with obscure words that had no s’s—or sh’s. Sorry—it’s been a while. The way you avoided saying “Christmas”? Genius! Ohhh—and the time you visited a nudist colony! That’s great! Your not wanting to sit on the furniture? Contemplating the intelligence of serving chili? Commenting on the bravery—or stupidity, I don’t remember which—of the naked fry cook? If you could do anything close to that in the biography, I’d be thrilled.

David: Do you mind if I open the window a crack? (Throwing it open without waiting for an answer.) Here’s the thing: nothing funny has happened in your life. I don’t have much to work with.

Me: What do you mean?

David: Think about it: you read, you write, you run. Rinse and repeat, and you’ve got tomorrow. And the day after that. And—

Me: Wait! There’s funny stuff! Why, just the other day—

David: Hold on. If you want serious, I can do it. But funny? I’ve got a reputation. I’m pretty sure my agent wouldn’t approve, anyway.

Me: How about if I let you do animals?

David: But you said no to animals, yes to pets.

Me: I was wrong! C’mon, David! We have to work something out! Now that I think about it, that story about the mouse with the pet snake was great! Maybe I just didn’t get the irony at first. But saying it out loud, I realize it’s some of your best work!

David: Honestly, Linda, I—

Me: No, David! Please reconsider! Creative license! That’s what I’ll give you! Write whatever you want!

David: Anything?

Me: Anything!

David: Even pattern it after that nonsensical “motherless bear” story?

Me: Nonsensical? Are we both thinking of Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk? Because the motherless bear story was priceless! Hey—I’ve got it! How about I pay you? Would that work?

David: I don’t know…

Me: No, really. Name your price. (Taking out checkbook.) I’m sorry. I’m being crass, aren’t I?

David: No. It’s just that I don’t know how long this’ll take me, how much to bill you for. Because I’ve read your outline—it’s going to take me a while to make something out of nothing.

Me: Then just take a blank check. Fill it in for a fair amount whenever you’re done. I trust you.

And that is how David Sedaris came to write my biography. Or will come to write my biography, just as soon as (1.) something worth writing about happens and (2.) David Sedaris becomes destitute and needs the work.

 

(Image courtesy of CC:en.wikipedia.org)

The 13.1-Mile Sweet Spot

Running requires decisions achieved by trial and error; sort of a physically fit version of Goldilocks, if you substitute GU flavors, shoes, and running surfaces for gruel, chairs, and beds.

Had Goldilocks experienced the illusions of grandeur we many runners have, she might have fancied entering a race. But what distance would she have chosen?

Would it be a 5K, the most popular distance for beginners?

Maybe a 13.1-mile half marathon, with its concomitant bragging rights to the other beginning runners in her village?

Or would she make the rookie mistake of assuming a 26.2-mile full marathon is “only” double a half, not realizing the exponentially increased physical stressors awaiting her?

(I doubt she’d yet subscribe to Runner’s World so she’d have no knowledge of ultramarathons, which—at any distance over 50 miles—aren’t so much races as endurance experiments starring you as the lab rat.)

My guess is Goldilocks would be an overachiever—I mean, she was pretty bold to enter a vacant house and take over like that in the first place—so she’d sign up for a full marathon.

She’d pooh-pooh the ugly rumor about month-long training plans, believing a few weekly miles and a hideous fuel belt buckled around the waist of her tutu (yes, she would run in a tutu—she’s a diva that way) would be enough. But this was no fairy tale.

An unfortunate part of many runners' wardrobes.

An unfortunate part of many runners’ wardrobes.

Oh, the shame of it as she’d limp across the finish line just under the six-hour time limit and just before the walkers pushing strollers. She’d peel off her shoes, afraid her toenails would come sprinkling out, examine the blisters that grew before her eyes like August corn in Nebraska, catch a ride to her car on the back of a volunteer’s golf cart, and mutter, never again.

Months later Goldi would remember the disgrace of that day and vow never again. She would sign up for another race, only this time it would be a 5K.

In time she would rue a distance that took longer to find a parking spot for than to run. She’d get a medal (sort of) and a T-shirt (100% cotton, not wicking tech material), but she’d want more.

She’d want a half marathon.

This time Goldi followed a training plan recommended by someone in her running group who subscribed to Runner’s World. She took no chances with the all-important fueling issue and tried PowerBars and Clif Shot Bloks and Honey Stingers, ultimately deciding on Clif Shots. She tried these options on her out-and-back long runs: far enough that she needed to refuel, but close enough to home in case of any unfortunate digestive issues. She taped her toes, and bought shoes based on fit rather than fashion.

She arrived race morning prepared. She’d ditched the scratchy tutu in favor of compression shorts (she was still somewhat ruled by vanity and refused to use BodyGlide) and decided stopping at Krispy Kreme on the way to the marathon hadn’t been her best idea. The starter’s horn left her nonplussed, and she kept to her training pace despite the adrenaline. She took water at every station, and swallowed her Mocha Clif Shots like pudding (because you really have to talk yourself into a lot for this to work).

The race wasn’t easy. But just when Goldi felt like she couldn’t possibly propel herself another inch, she hit the 12-mile marker. Ten minutes later (she’d fallen off her pace) she was at the 13-mile marker and had 528 feet to go. This time she honored the distance and told herself 528 feet left; not, only 528 feet left. She ran across the finish line because she couldn’t—no, she wouldn’t—walk. A surly teenager receiving community service credit handed her a medal and said, “Good job” with as much enthusiasm as Goldi had for marathons.

She’d done it: Goldilocks had found her distance. She lived happily ever after, but perhaps most importantly she had a newfound respect for BodyGlide.

The End

Image: Michael Thom for CC/Flickr