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Archive for March, 2013

The last time we would see each other until the ill fated latter miles.

The last time we would see each other until the ill fated latter miles.

My normal gait is returning after a couple days of stiff-legged hobbling. Sunday, I ran a 20 mile race traversing the entire, brief coastline of New Hampshire. Christophe ran it as well, though for him, it was to serve as his last long training run for the Boston Marathon. For me, it was to be an actual race. For 14 good miles I maintained my planned pace. I run without headphones, so I listened to the conversations of the runners around me: a barrel-chested, shirtless middle-aged man with long scraggly pony tail held forth to his female companion about lobsters and whether or not they are chordates (which he pronounced “cordites.”) They are not, and his companion expressed that opinion, correctly pointing out that lobsters have an exoskeleton rather than “the cord thing” (that would be the notochord). He was insistent in his erroneous thesis, and she backed down. So for two miles I pondered the nature of gender relations and male authority.

Around mile 7, I listened for a while as two married women in their 40s discussed husbands and jobs. Around mile 10, they were still behind me, and we were the only three people around when I got an unexpected ego boost.  One of the women said to the other, “Look at her. She’s totally in the zone. Look at her rhythm.” “I know,” said the other, “she’s like a metronome. That’s awesome. I look like a horse.” I pretended not to hear them, but I got a solid three miles out of that praise, and the pondering of female self-image.

Before I lost contact with the two women, I heard them talking about marriage. Both had been married over a decade, and they were talking about some rough patches they’d faced. “It’s peaks and valleys, you know? There are some real lows. It’s not easy.” I know that’s the conventional wisdom, and certainly being married is not always a pure delight, but as the miles slid away on this flat, sea-level course, I was left pondering the relative ease with which I stay married to the man who was somewhere behind me on the course, clocking his own miles at a measured pace. The flat course was no metaphor for it, since there are high peaks indeed. But the low valleys, they haven’t seemed to come.

Christophe maddeningly just ahead. The geographical high point, but a mental low point of the race.

Christophe maddeningly just ahead. The geographical high point, but a mental low point of the race.

Around mile 11, Christophe passed me. Glancing my way he said, “Race ya,” and cruised on past. I assumed he was making a break for it and would soon be a dot on the horizon. But instead, he settled into my same pace, but only 40 yards ahead of me. This bewildered and depressed me, alone as I was on the course at that moment, and I found myself verging on tears. This is the kind of weird emotional outburst common to runners in the late-middle stages of a long race, and to women in hour 3o of labor. So he and I have been here before. It took me a mile to make up the distance, at which point I wasted considerable breath and energy sobbing at him. He fell in with me and we ran together for a while.

My legs cramped up at mile 15, feeling like they were being flogged from within by a knotted length of rope studded with nails. I had recovered my senses by then, and told Christophe he could proceed at his chosen pace guilt-free. I could see him weighing this, checking for traps, cautiously trying out the idea. Then, he declined, opting instead to stay with me. The irony had struck him, he told me, that he is running Boston to raise money for Casa Myrna, a domestic violence charity, and he was considering abandoning his wife by the side of the road so he could finish a training run marginally faster. That would be hard to explain.

So, we finished the last 5 miles together, at my curtailed pace, and with four or five walk breaks. The fair skies that had prevailed through the earlier parts of the race had given way to gray clouds over the boarded up pizza places and arcades of Hampton Beach. The course grew uglier, and the air colder. We went at my hobbled speed, my strides almost two to his every one, and crossed the modest and mostly abandoned finish line with our five year old jumping in for the last 50 yards. The metaphor that wouldn’t come finally did. The peaks and valleys, or the flat monotony of a coastline 20 miler–it’s the terrain itself that may be pitted and rugged, and the course difficult. But yoked together, shoulder to shoulder in a well mated team, it’s the harness that wears light.

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Saturday was my day to go walk the beach in Salisbury, MA and look for dead birds for the SEANET program. In summer, I gird my loins for a bad time on these walks, as the beach is buried under lolling, blubbery human forms and their mountains of plastic garbage. In winter, on the other hand, it’s usually mostly deserted, left to the lolling, blubbery harbor seals (a decidedly better aesthetic) and a few hardy dog walkers. The plastic garbage, of course, is always present.

Upon arriving on Saturday, however, I saw orange traffic cones and mile marking placards along the road in to the beach. “Oh god,” I groaned, “A freaking St. Patrick’s Day road race.” (My five year old was with me, and was the sole reason I refrained from saltier language.)

Watching the race start from a safe remove, on our way to walk the beach.

Watching the race start from a safe remove, on our way to walk the beach.

I am a runner, and these racers should, by rights, be my tribe. But as I drove along at a crawl, my silent Prius sneaking up behind oblivious girls tapping at their iPhones, I became more and more enraged. “Goddamnit! Get OUT of the ROAD, you idiot!” I screeched. Men in green tutus and women dressed as leprechauns drifted into the road, blocking my passage to the parking lot. I glared at volunteers arranging cups of water on tables, trying to hate them into oblivion. I was decidedly not a member of the running tribe. I was a driver, and I was being obstructed.

Once I finally parked, Malcolm and I stood for a while watching the leprechauns and green ballerinas warming up, and listening to the race director bellow instructions. All my driver’s rage melted away. We watched the start of the race, the runners high-fiving the director as he yelled, “Way to be healthy! Way to get out of bed and do the right thing for your body!” (nevermind that the race ended with a pub crawl) and I was touched. It was a weird and beautiful sight–a few dozen green clad  weirdos running to justify a late morning beer or two.

I am as prone as anyone to the egocentric “don’t they understand that I am doing something important?!” sensation. It’s worst in the cocoon of a car. Once out of that, and on my way to a leisurely walk on a deserted beach, my fellow-feeling and goodwill began to creep back in. Only when back on foot did I recognize my tribe again, and understood that they, too, were doing something important. It’s maybe just the tutus that obscured it.

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I shop almost exclusively at thrift stores. Aside from running clothes, I cannot remember the last time I bought an item of clothing new. Likewise for home decor. All from thrift stores, yard sales and second hand shops. When one frequents thrift stores, one notes certain immutable laws like “the shoes will all be trashed, but a lot of the clothes still have tags on them or are barely worn.” After a while musing about this, I figured out why. It’s partly that shoes are a bit more basic, less faddish than clothes can be. But it’s mostly that, no matter how much your weight wildly vacillates, your shoes will probably still fit, with the notable exception of pre- versus post-pregnancy. I became a half size larger and the bones of my toes spread into froggish paddles, a state from which they will never recover. More delights of motherhood.

Other than that, your shoes will usually stay with you for years, until they have holes in them and are water-stained and completely dated, at which point they finally appear at the thrift store. Most other things at thrift stores tend to be less threadbare. The clothes, especially, speak of other, imagined lives. The dress bought in the hopes of fitting into it after losing a few pounds and finally relinquished in a bout of despair. The slouchy, silky tunic bought in a misguided vision of oneself, cocktail in hand, tossing one’s graceful head back on its willowy neck in elegant mirth, only to realize, months or years later that one is 5’1″ and will never be either willowy or particularly elegant. And that the silky tunic actually makes one look like an adolescent boy in a fancy feed sack.

Can you imagine my thrill at finding this for two dollars?!

Can you imagine my thrill at finding this for two dollars?!

One of my favorite sections of thrift stores are the dusty and mostly ignored craft bins. Yarn and needles bought in an optimistic moment, embroidery kits one quarter finished, quilts partially pieced: these discarded projects used to depress me. They made me think of people dejectedly abandoning their dreams of being self-sufficient, crafty folk who delight in handmade goods and a world where people still knew how to do things. But as I have scooped up half-finished blankets, and crewelwork on linen, and this time, a completely untouched kit for making a pillow in the shape of a pheasant (!), I have come to see it differently. All these projects in these bins, they now seem to me evidence of liberation.

The people who donated these items critically evaluated them, there at the back of the closet and decided, “I will never finish this. Perhaps someone else will.” Whether they would like to finish it, but have decided they don’t wish to spend the time, or whether they’ve realized they don’t actually enjoy crewelwork on linen, or making pheasant pillows, these people have freed themselves from the reproachful presence at the back of the closet. I think most of these people are women, and anytime a woman can realistically assess her days and decide what’s worth doing and what isn’t, I applaud her. I know a lot of women who feel a great pressure to be the right kind of woman or the right kind of mom; one who cooks her own farm-to-table meals, and crochets her kids little animals just for fun, and sews whimsical clothes for them.  I get a lot of sighs and raised eyebrows when fellow moms learn that, yes, I did make that cable-knit sweater my son is wearing. But I find making things like that fun. I do not, however, find cooking fun. Which is unfortunate, because we do have to eat. But still, I try to limit my cooking to under 30 minutes three times a week. I hate it. If I could leave cooking in the unfinished project bin at the thrift store, I would.

So let us all be gentle with each other. For though I may have made that pheasant pillow myself, tonight we will probably be eating frozen waffles and a can of refried beans. Every woman according to her ability, and her wish.

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