Archive for September, 2013

On tribalism and cyclists

I was out for a run last weekend and pondering the strange non-relationship I have with cyclists. I didn’t know it as I was running and pondering, but that morning, a couple towns over, a driver with no license careened over the center line, across the opposing traffic lane, and into a group of cyclists. Two of them are dead.

I don’t bike much, partly out of fear of that sort of thing, but I feel a solidarity with cyclists. We are all out on the pitted, potholed roads, edging around blind turns and hoping we’re visible to drivers who are hopefully not texting. We get crowded off, pushed around, and recreationally honked at by people who seem only to want to see us jump.

We have so much in common, cyclists and runners. And yet, I can hardly ever coax even a nod of the head from one of them. To clarify, by “cyclist” I mean mostly the young to middle-aged male with a sleek road bike and full spandex. Women, older men, and most people out on some thick-tired, wide-seated cruiser bike will happily greet me, most of the time. But the cyclists, with a grim set to their mouths, largely ignore my attempts at even the slightest interaction. This is quite noticeable and awkward since I am a runner and travel against car traffic, and they are cyclists and travel with it. This means we pass within inches of each other in many instances. And yet, my waves, nods and hellos go unanswered.

This puzzles me. I can count on a greeting, however slight, from any other runner on the road. Even the well-muscled young men nearly sprinting down the road in sleeveless shirts and dark, wrap-around sunglasses will muster a curt nod for a fellow runner. I’m guessing cyclists are the same with other cyclists. Humans are tribal after all. But I think our true tribe is broader. I think our tribe is anyone willing to risk his poor, soft body and its brittle interior bones, unprotected as a shell-less snail, on the side of a road where oblivious, texting, speeding drivers wield their multi-ton murder weapons. Our tribe is all of us who wear embarrassing technical garments. The cyclists have their spandex and gaudy jerseys, we have our short shorts and water bottles in fanny packs that we call “hydration belts” but which are fanny packs. We are all detested, derided, and despised by drivers (though probably the cyclists a bit more, I grant). Our tribe should be all of us who do something other than sit around and eat beef jerky and Red Bull all day.

Cyclist, if you and I meet on this empty road, you can say hi and I swear I won't tell anyone.

Cyclist, if you and I meet on this empty road, you can say hi and I swear I won’t tell anyone.

I’m a runner, but I greet all the walkers I meet on the roads, and I try to make sure my greeting doesn’t sound like I’m saying, “Hi, people who are not as serious about exercise as I so obviously am,” but merely, “Hi, fellow traveler!” I greet everyone on the road, even in the situations where I meet them both coming and going. Those situations strike me as so awkward that I am tempted to dive into the bushes rather than have to figure out what to say or do the second time we meet. I spend a lot of time seeing someone approaching and trying hard to appear lost in my own thoughts,  or looking intently at something else until the very last moment when I can pretend I have only just seen the person and look up brightly and say hi with feigned surprise.

There’s a lot of thought that goes into these brief interactions, and I am a New Englander by birth and therefore diffident and not good at breezy, casual interaction. So if I can manage it, cyclists, then I think you can too. Lest ye forget, this is not the Tour de France. This is Route 108 in East Kingston, New Hampshire, and we both look profoundly silly in our outfits. Let us embrace it.

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About a week ago, Malcolm lost his first tooth. He swallowed it along with a bite of a marinated vegetable wrap sandwich, but he left a note under his pillow explaining the circumstance, and after he was asleep, I crept into their room less like a flitting fairy and more like a blundering, staggering oaf stifling a scream when I stepped on a toy dragon in the dark. I left a one dollar coin, and in the morning, I asked Malcolm if the tooth fairy had been. “She left me a golden quarter,” he told me. “A quarter? Are you sure?” I asked him, in the cajoling way of a parent feigning ignorance but secretly wanting credit for the full dollar. (This tone is similar to the one used at Christmas when saying, “Are you sure that’s all that’s in your stocking?” or “I think Santa might have left you one more, tucked behind the tree.” This sort of thing would tip off any normal human being that something’s fishy about parents and the supposedly magic night visitors, but children are so blissfully credulous that it sounds no alarms and they just go rooting around for more stuff.)

The tooth fairy must traverse this minefield. In the dark.

The tooth fairy must traverse this minefield. In the dark.

Malcolm’s credulity regarding the magic beings that spirit things into the house survived the night a few days later when he lost a second tooth and I had to dislodge it from under his pillow to give him his money. He half woke, staring at me with the weird blank sleep-stare that unnerves me so much I often burst into uncontrollable nervous laughter when I see it. He said, “But the train-ager is not the one you need.” “Right,” I answered, and when he was back to sleep, I left him another dollar.

This time, I had the tooth in hand by way of exchange. This is the first time a child of mine has had a tooth to leave, and I was uncertain what to do with it. Keep it? That seemed maudlin and macabre at once, somehow Victorian in its simultaneously morbid and sentimental view of childhood. The bright white square that had seemed so prominent in his small gummy mouth as an infant, now seemed miniature, with its shallow root and tidy corners. The adult teeth that had already forced themselves up in his jaw look ragged-edged and gray by comparison, ready for the grim work of a whole lifetime of tearing and chewing.

His little tooth was like the stump of umbilical cord that sloughed off when he was two weeks old. Not something I felt any wish to keep, but something he had shed and discarded that had been a part of his body when he was still a part of my body.  The tooth didn’t make me feel wistful, or really much of anything besides a mild curiosity about its hollow root and bloody core. It dried up and sat wrapped in a piece of cloth on my desk for a few days.

The adult teeth are aligning themselves and shouldering into their new space now. Malcolm and I both like to check their progress everyday. I was looking at them yesterday and their shape, their profile, and their faintly gray cast brought to my mind an image from a small graveyard I visited in July on Star Island off New Hampshire’s coast. The Beebe plot is a sunken square of ground at the far end of the island. In the center, an obelisk bears the names of three Beebe sisters, aged seven, four and two, who died of scarlet fever or diphtheria over the course of a month in the summer of 1863. Just to the right are their three small marble grave markers, each with a name, Mittie, Millie and Jessie.

gravesEven at the time, the three small white stones above three small graves reminded me of a gap-toothed child. Rolling Malcolm’s tooth between my fingers, I thought of the parents of those three girls, and of the fear that came as soon as I became a mother. The mortal fear that preceded even love.

I may be more morbid than most, more death fixated. But I doubt I’m any more fearful than any other mother. We feel that way from before they’re born until the day we die. Looking at Malcolm’s tooth, I saw it as a reminder that he is a mortal boy, and that we all, inevitably, must crawl, walk or run closer to our own deaths every day. I can’t shake the fear that comes with being a parent. Odds are, my boys will live long lives, long after I am dead. But these little pieces they slough off as they go remind me, if we do not lose them all at once, then we commit them to the earth bit by bit, tooth by tooth, hair by hair, fingernail sliver by sliver.

Bit by bit, we commit them to earth. I buried the tooth beside a tree.

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I’m back to school now, teaching biology as usual. My students are the usual mix–ages range from 17 to 65, surnames from Almadini and Agosto to Palazzi to Zanillo. The diversity extends to their aptitude and their interest as well, since I teach at a community college and we turn no one away, provided they’ve graduated high school or gotten a GED. Some of them are earnest and hard working but lacking any mental spark. Some special few have all three. Others are dull-witted, surly and uninterested.

My own kids are back into the school routine, and they delight in helping me grade assignments. Malcolm, in particular, likes to sneer, “Sorry student!” as he marks an incorrect answer in red pen. Their immersion in my teaching plans and grading meant it was no surprise that they would play Teacher and Students on their own time. I was listening to them the other day, and their exchange is a thought-provoking and insightful look at science that veers perilously close to a Monty Python skit. I will leave you with it.

In borrowed glasses, Malcolm perfects his look of derisive disgust at your poor answer.

In borrowed glasses, Malcolm perfects his look of derisive disgust at your poor answer.

Malcolm: “Students! Do not touch that fox.”

Simon: “That’s not physics!”

Malcolm: “OK, what is physics then?”

Simon: “It’s if something floats or not.”

Malcolm: “OK, that fox does not float. And don’t touch that pig.”

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For Heaney

Since I learned of Seamus Heaney’s death on Friday, I have been subtly off my kilter. It’s not enough to make me change my usual daily routines, or give much, if any, outward sign of mourning. It’s more like what Auden wrote of the day Yeats died: “A few thousand will think of this day/ As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.” Most likely, by next year, I’ll have forgotten the date, or even the month of his death. Listening to the news, as Parliament or Congress both bat around what to do about a pile of gassed children in Syria, I am occasionally staring off into the middle distance and thinking of a poet. What could be more frivolous?

Except, that’s what poets are for.

In 2001, in September, I was at a desk in a circle of desks in my Major British Writers class when a young man, whose name I can’t remember but whose face I can, first announced a few bizarre facts about a plane and the World Trade Center. We continued class. After class was out, I walked to the campus center and clustered with all the other students around the TV there. I don’t know if we were, in fact, studying Keats on that day (my chronology of those weeks is jumbled), but it was “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” that lilted in my brain every time I watched the repeating footage of a deep blue sky, a fire, and the worst of all, those tiny black dots arcing out from the building and to the ground.

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
   When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
   He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
   Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
It was not quite sensible, or even accurate to the occasion. Cortez and Keats both were full of wonderment, awe. But I couldn’t help it. Those lines, the image of Cortez and his men before the awesome blue expanse of the Pacific; there must have been terror in it too. The blue gulf I was staring into, the sky all around the towers, the sky as deadly as the ocean, if you have to jump into the center of it.
IMG_4804When I heard Heaney was dead, I was self-consciously sad. He wasn’t mine, not grandfather, father, or friend. Not an acquaintance, and not my national poet, American that I am.  How to account for the loss then? I read a lot of poetry during my time in college. Yesterday, I pulled down Opened Ground, Heaney’s volume of selected poems. I always dread looking at a book I marked up in college; my notations in the margins usually make me cringe. But I had evidently been more restrained with this book. The few underlinings or circles I had made were without explanation, and I can’t for the life of me know what they were supposed to signify. The lines they point to aren’t the ones I would underscore now. And that is the thing that brings me some solace. That ten years later, the poems are new to me again. They mean something different, and the meaning is in different places.
I read that Heaney’s last recorded words were in a text message to his wife. In Latin, they read Noli timere, “don’t be afraid.” What his true last words were maybe only his nurses know. Maybe there were no others. Maybe they were the nonsense garble of anesthetic induction. All I know of his last hours is that text message, his last written words. In a modern poetry class, I had to memorize his poem “St. Kevin and the Blackbird,” and whether it was the familiarity bred by learning each line by heart, or something intrinsic about it, it remains one of my favorites. Now, instead of Kevin, the last lines will always make me think of Heaney himself, at the last:
Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?
Or has the shut-eyed blank of underearth
Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head?
Alone and mirrored clear in love’s deep river,
‘To labor and not to seek reward,’ he prays,
A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird,
And, on the riverbank, forgotten the river’s name.
Now he undergoes a shift, from living man to dead poet. He goes from husband and father to figure, history. Born the year Yeats died, now he joins him in the beginning of his own mythology. There will not be any more of the private man, any words only between him and his wife, or his sons, his one daughter. He can no longer elaborate, or clarify, or write another thing. Of Yeats’ death, Auden wrote, “The words of a dead man/ Are modified in the guts of the living.” Now, we put our own gloss on him. Remembering and misremembering fragments of poems, checking to see if another ten years alters our opinions of them. As long as he lived, he wasn’t ours. Now that he’s dead, he’s given over to us, and we bear him.

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Slow is my pace!

Sometime in the last few months, I decided I was done with running races. I’ve done a few half marathons, and one 5K, and I’m all set. It was good, for a while, to have a race set up as training motivation, but at some point, I realized that my motivation is actually internal. Also, I find spending money on races unpleasant. I did set an arbitrary goal of running 1,000 miles this year, and I’m currently at 675, so that’s going well.

For the most part, I run to maintain my sanity and my health. To do that, I don’t have to go very fast. Sometimes, when I’m trotting along, I hear my younger son’s anthem, the one he howls whenever we’re hiking and he is fatigued, or bored, or hungry (basically all the time). “Slow is my pace!” is his plaintive cry.  I like it as a general motto.

D89A4747-79C6-4C64-AE6F-D6EBB0287B7FYesterday, I was out running with my older son, and I assure you, slow is his pace too, though he whines  a lot less. As we plodded up a hill on the way home, I saw that a tree by the road had been cut down. The road guys repaved the road and regraded the shoulder this month, and this tree was canted out over the road and must have been some kind of problem. It had not been an attractive tree. It was a big, muscley pine diverging into two badly proportioned trunks about ten feet up. It was inelegant and fairly glowered over the road. Several times, running past it, I got the feeling that it was about to fall on me. But when I saw it was gone, I felt a little pang of loss. Not because I particularly liked the tree, but because I suspect that so few people had ever really looked at it, and so almost no one would note its absence. It was situated on a blind curve that takes substantial attention, when driving, to avoid oncoming cars, so not many drivers would have the chance to notice it, and it wasn’t really remarkable in any way anyway. But I noticed it, because at my running speed, objects take a very long time to pass. Laboring up the hill by that tree made it take even longer. I had many opportunities to stare at that tree.

Like the progression of plants in the swamp, or the extraordinary work of carrion beetles undertaking a vole carcass, or the gradual growth of the hogs down the road, my pace is slow. Humans intervene sometimes, and a tree is suddenly a stump, or the hogs are gone to the slaughter one day, all without warning. Most of my life, I am moving at this usual human speed of fast, but when running, my pace is slow. Not as slow as the growth of a homely pine tree though. And much as I found it ugly and ominous, I feel a bit of nostalgia over this old survivor, now fallen into oblivion. Such are the thoughts I have on a run, for the miles are long, and my pace is slow.


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