Marathon (athon) – Part 2

•October 17, 2011 • Leave a Comment

I finally ran my marathon.  There was an epic, record-setting flood in the town I teach in.  The two events have become so linked in my mind that I cannot write about them separately. Nor it seems can I write about them efficiently; please, then, bear with me as I give you my first serialized post.


“You’d better leave now, or you’ll be stuck at school all night,” P Dad says. I am sitting in my office, madly trying to get my grading done before class, as usual.  It has been about an hour since he went to pick up Flower Face, who was dismissed early from school.  We live ten minutes away. The rain outside my window still doesn’t look like much of anything,

“What?” I ask.  “That doesn’t make sense.”  But I am definitely nervous.  P Dad never exaggerates (that’s my specialty).

“It’s terrible out there.  Route 11 will be closed any minute now and they’re putting the floodgate up in our town.  That means you can’t get through on the freeway.  Really.  Get you books, your keys and go to your car.  Now.” I can hear how serious he is so I cancel my class via email, and tell my department chair I have to leave.

Mahoning Creek destroying Rt 54

Driving home is chaos.  I am literally one of the last people to get through on Rt. 11, the two lane highway to my town, before police officers with heavy yellow rain jackets and pink flares cordon it off.  Fishing Creek, normally very dry and low, is heaving and scary fast.  It has waves, like the ocean, that eat away at a little bit more road every minute. Closer to home the bridges over every stream I see are washed out.  Soccer fields have turned to  immense lakes and huge holes have been blasted by the sheer force of water in concrete irrigation pipes three feet wide.  The road is covered with sheets of water.  Several times I lose control of my car and have to steer into the skid, my heart pumping.   The sky is dark gray and angry.  The water everywhere is brown and angry.

When I get home Flower Face barrels her head into my chest and squeezes me.  “I’m so glad you’re safe!” she squeaks.  Apparently her bus ride home took two hours; the driver couldn’t find an open road.

“That was crazy,” I tell P Dad.  “You were right.”

“Wait until you see the weather report,” he says.  “It’s supposed to rain for three more days.”



There is no starting gun, only an airhorn, and then I am carried by a mass of bodies.  This is my favorite part of a race, when hundreds of people seem swept forward by something outside themselves. They are running and, amazingly enough, I am running too.  My legs remember the hours of training, creak into gear despite my mind’s objections.  The sky is purple and at first no one talks. My heart slows down, soothed by the rhythm of my footfalls. The anxiety lifts a bit, like a clear plastic curtain, and I am able to see around me for the first time this morning.  Maybe fifty runners are spread out ahead and in back of me.  It soon becomes obvious that the group I am with is not going to break any records.  We run steadily, but not hard.  The road pulls us up some gentle hills, then down, through a pretty suburb with wide green lawns.  I chat with a few people, wave and smile at others.  I am going to be okay.

Then, the course becomes a fairly long, steep climb.  I am not a very talented hill runner, unlike Wilma, who amazingly tends to speed up as she ascends.  My good, even pace goes all to hell; my strides shorten as the backs of my legs start to burn.  Many people pass me.   I get to the top of the hill, and for a minute I can’t see anyone.  Then my pack reappears.  Most of them, probably also worried about their time after the hill, blow through the five-mile water stop.  I can’t do this because the fact that I take Lithium requires that I am constantly hydrated.  I stop and quickly fill my water bottle.  Everyone is gone again.

The next part of town is nothing like the pretty suburb.  It is the industrial section of an old Pennsylvania steel city.  The factories are all abandoned.  Rickety smoke stacks, orange with rust, tower around me, a malevolent forest.  Grass grows up through the cracks on the sidewalk.  I speed up, but I still can’t catch sight of the last person ahead of me, a guy wearing, blessedly, a bright red shirt.  All of a sudden a deep, crazy loneliness smacks me like a wet towel.  My sleep deprived brain tells me I am the only person left on the planet, running through some post-apocalyptic hell.  Where is red shirt guy?  If I want to quit, how do I even do it?  The only thing I can think to do is run faster, off my target pace, with tears running down my face. 

I want Wilma, palpably.  All but two of my long runs have been with her; epic winding conversations about the hardest things in our lives somehow exorcised a bit by running through them.  I want her to be around the next corner to say, “Suck it up, Buttercup,”  her usual response to my complaining.  Then I feel small and wimpy for needing her.  She is running the half-marathon somewhere close, her shoes and gear just rescued from a flooded house she has not been allowed to see all week.

(to be continued)

Marathon (athon) – Part I

•October 9, 2011 • Leave a Comment

I finally ran my marathon.  There was an epic, record-setting flood in the town I teach in.  The two events have become so linked in my mind that I cannot write about them separately. Nor it seems can I write about them efficiently; please, then, bear with me as I give you my first serialized post.

The beginning:  It is Wednesday and it has been raining for a week straight.  There have been few of the crazy soaking downpours that Pennsylvania is prone to, just an unrelenting, moderately heavy rain cause by a tropical storm that has gotten stuck inland by the remnants of Hurricane Irene.  Amazingly, the rain has let up for long enough for me to walk across campus to a meeting at which I am immediately asked by a colleague if I don’t have to go and pick up my kids.  I’m confused, so he lets me know all of the area schools are all being dismissed due to imminent flooding.   That seems like total overkill to me, but I spend the next half hour finding P Dad (he refuses to own a cell phone) and eventually pulling him out of class to go get Flower Face, who gets anxious when she has to get off the bus and go home to an empty house.  The whole time I keep looking up at the sky.   The rain has started again, but it’s really light.  I cannot figure out what the big deal is, so I go back to my office to grade.


The start:  It is Saturday, very early, still dark and not in the slightest bit cold, which bodes ill for a race I will be finishing around noon in the hot sun.  Everyone around me looks very fit and very focused.  This only adds to the terrible anxiety churning around in my stomach, forcing itself up to the back of my throat.  I breathe and try to use a DBT self-soothing technique, visualizing something that will evoke the opposite emotion to the one I am experiencing.  Recently I have discovered two small patches of skin on the back of Freckle Farmer’s toes that are still as soft as his whole body was the day he was born.  Remnants of his baby skin.  Now I love to sleep (yes, he still sleeps with me sometimes) with my hand cupped around his heel, my fingers tucked in that place the world hasn’t hardened yet.  I sit on a curb under a parking-lot light and open and close my fingers as though the dear boy-foot is there, with me.  Richard, a man with whom I have ridden to the starting line through a complex series of negotiations Wilma initiated and which I only half-understood, asks me if I am okay.  On the drive over I found out he is about ten years older than me and has run more than 300 marathons.  I nod yes to his question, but I can’t speak.  Marathon runners don’t cry.  They are tough.  They shake it off, even if it is a massive panic attack that reminds them of the one that hospitalized them a few years ago.  I stand up so that my movement disguises the fact that I am shivering from Richard, the last person I want to appear weak in front of.  I try another gear check to see if it calms me.  GU, band-aids, my iPod, an extra hair tie, my Garmin, magic jelly beans, Body Glide, sunscreen and yes, a tampon.  All there.  The only thing forgotten when I packed the day before:  my meds.  A night and a morning dose, as Wilma and I have spent the night at the race hotel.  It’s not enough of a gap to mess me up for an extended time, but it is enough to render me sleepless and vulnerable and in no state to run 26 miles.  “Hey,” Richard says, obviously seeing through my bravado.  “Ease up.  It’s your first marathon.  Let it be what it is.”

(to be continued)

When Food Goes Right

•September 6, 2011 • Leave a Comment

It all started this Friday, with the opening of our university’s farmer’s market.  That’s right, I said my college has a farmers’ market, of which I am inordinately proud, even though I didn’t have anything to do with its actual organization. My association is tangential, as one of the founders of our Green Campus Initiative, the group that sponsors the market.  But still, I feel like it’s mine, all mine.

Our little market is only a few tables and some tents in the area between upper and lower campus, but it is beautiful to me, perhaps because of its simplicity. The vegetables and fruits are the most amazing colors – reds, oranges, purples, twenty shades of green.  Everything smells like cantaloupe and coffee and fresh baked bread and apples.  I arrived and, quite literally, did a happy dance.

“Hello farmers!” I called.  All but one of them know me from last year’s market so my crazy welcome is expected.  One came up to hug me, handed me a slice of just-opened tomatillo with a wisp of fresh basil on top.  I sighed with pleasure.  At his stand I bought purple kale, tiny red and orange sweet peppers, lettuce and fingerling potatoes.

The next table was Farmer’s.  He has a name, but I don’t call him by it.  He is Farmer with a capital “F,” the platonic form of agricultural producer.  His former profession: endocrinologist at a major medical center.  But he quit a few years ago to grow organic vegetables and chickens because he believed treating his patients, Type II diabetics and obese children, as a doctor was merely palliative and didn’t get at the heart of the problem, our culture’s relationship to food.  He and I can discourse for hours about the evils of our nation’s food system: factory farms, processed food, toxic growing methods.  He hands me zucchini, yellow squash, onions, red garlic, and a Daikon radish.  His hands are tanned a dark rich brown from working outdoors and he radiates health from his tall, thin body.

I know I can come off as self-righteous when I talk about food.  But actually, for me eating local and organic means much more than assuaging my middle-class hippie eco-conscience.  Over the years a lot of my anxiety has become focused on food, especially what I feed my children.  If I am in a dark place and I see them eating junk food I imagine they are being poisoned, and that I have failed motherhood on some deep and fundamental level, as one of my primary evolutionary duties is to ensure my young are well fed. I quite literally fear the terrible chemicals in processed food, the strange, new, not-food combinations that the human body can’t be equipped to deal with. 

The rest of the time I am a bit more balanced, allowing my son his deep and abiding relationship with Cheez-Its. But still.

Sometimes I teach a class called “Food For Thought,” in which we read Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser, a few food memoirs, and watch “Post-Punk Kitchen” and Fergus the Forager, who joyfully eats road kill, much to my students’ chagrin.  My husband, P Dad, thinks I should stop thinking so much about food, that my phobias get in the way of my pleasure and the kids’ as well.  I’m sure he’s right, to an extent.  But what I cannot seem to communicate to him is how much eating real food and knowing who grew it, where it was on its path to my table, bring me great comfort and joy. Perhaps this is because I feel often what’s in my food is out of my control, which scares me.  Perhaps the joy I am feeling is just intense relief.

So back to the farmer’s market.  I am wandering around with a contact high from petting all of the vegetables.  I buy a small loaf of Jalapeno cheese bread from the breadmaker, who used to be a literary agent for William Morris (small world), and consume it on the spot.  I buy peaches as big as my head (almost) and bury my nose in the bag to suck up the heavenly smell.  As I am doing that our University President walks by, mentions that he is only buying one tomato because his wife is out of town.  In a moment of crazed bonhomie I offer to make him some good old hippie chow and bring it to his office so he too can enjoy the bounty.  He looks at me a little funny, and smiles his public smile, backing away.  But I don’t care.  I am at the farmer’s market and I am in love with the world!

It only gets better.  That night I make kale chips with olive oil and sea salt.  Both kids try some (amazing if you know anything about four-year-olds and green stuff).  Flower Face even eats more than one. I love kale chips.  They taste like potato chips but nuttier, richer.  I browse the food blogs for the next day’s recipes.

Saturday afternoon I bake black bean brownies.  The kids scarf half a panful in one sitting, unaware that they are consuming protein and antioxidants with their chocolate and (minimal) sugar.  For dinner, wild salmon and veggies that P Dad roasts over the fire despite the drizzle.  For dessert, peach milkshakes.

There’s still more.  Sunday I spend the afternoon canning with some women (and one very tall man) from my church.  But that story will have to wait until later, as I can see this post is getting long.  Besides, I have to cook dinner.

How Much is Too Much?

•August 27, 2011 • 2 Comments

To understand this post, here’s a thing you’ll need to know about me:  I hate secrets.  They bubble and fester under the surface, and then they always explode into something worse than they started out to be.  So I tend to err on the let-it-all-hang-out side of the spectrum, maybe opening up about stuff I shouldn’t. (Indeed, Wilma and I once decided that my superhero persona was “Captian Overshare.”)

I know the source of this tendency.  It is my twisted origin story, a tale that sort of folds back on itself and disappears. 

My mother wasn’t married when she got pregnant with me, and apparently my father wasn’t interested in having a family so he disappeared soon after hearing of the impending event.  I’ve never met him, nor do I know his real name. (My mom has tended to thwart any intentions I ever had of finding him with a series of fake names, one of which I searched for in the New York phone book for years, every time I went there.) Though she was 34 not 16, Mom went to Canada to wait out her pregnancy at what I’m guessing was a sort of home for unwed mothers, of course run by nuns.   She was supposed to give me up for adoption, but for some reason she didn’t.  It was the late 1960s, a time when sexual mores were certainly changing, but she came from a conservative Catholic family with a large stake in their community reputation. So when she came home to Utah to raise me she invented a story:  she had been married and divorced.  She changed both of our surnames to something made up and hid her secret for 18 years.  My entire family maintained the web of lies surrounding my birth, until, on a visit home from college, I asked why there were certain parts of the story that didn’t add up.  Then, inexplicably,* she spilled it all.  One night, she talked.  And then she refused to ever speak of it again. The effect when I finally found out about my father was both devastating and a huge relief.  The latter because I finally figured out the source of all the underlying tension in the house and the reason why no one would ever, EVER, talk about life before I was born.  The former because it turned out I was the shameful thing, that which had to be hidden.  Or erased.

I do believe my mother had her heart in the right place.  She wanted me to have a “normal” childhood.  A beautiful childhood, even.  But looking back, I can’t help but feel it was all surfaces.  An elaborate puppet show, certainly produced for my benefit, but an illusion nonetheless.

Which brings me to the present moment, to my family, and especially how I represent us in this blog.  Much “Mommy Blogging” tends to idealize family life (yes, I join Emily Matchar in her obsession with Mormon women’s blogs; I read three or four a day).  Like her I love the shiny surfaces presented, despite what must be lives sometimes filled with pain (nienie dialogues, reagan’s blob).  Or maybe it is the contrast between the shiny surface and the underlying suffering that interests me, reminds  me of own life, both past and present.   But somehow, I would like to write about us more straightforwardly.

Like any family, mine goes through its share of problems.  We are very human.  But when I think of revealing the truth, my mother’s epic denial floods my mind.  Everything is perfect, she whispers, if only you act like it is so.  Yet I still wonder, should I protect my kids by presenting/representing us as the ideal family?  Or should I examine us more closely and publically? 

Oh course memoirists have struggled with these issues for years.  But when one writes a book there is always the very real chance that, unless one becomes desperately famous, one’s family will never read it.  The democracy, and also ubiquitousness of the internet makes this kind of hiding much less possible.  I fully expect my kids to find this blog or its traces someday.

If I choose, in our real life interactions, not to shelter my kids as I had been sheltered, their finding the blog wouldn’t be a problem.  But if I keep things from them, they might be in for a rude awakening.  The question becomes, when writing about my kids and my husband, how much is helpful and how much is too much?


*Now that I think about it her motivation might have been that I was scheduled to study in Europe that year and she knew that there might be some confusion when I tried to get a passport, given that I was born in Canada and had two birth certificates, one with her surname, and one with the made up name which by the way I still retain.

Only Half Crazy

•August 21, 2011 • 2 Comments

little boxes, on the hillside

Yesterday I found myself in one of the stranger places I have been in a while, the Daybreak planned community in South Jordan, Utah.  I’ve been in a few house farms before; of course there’s nothing particularly unusual about them.  Except this one had a really eerie vibe, kind of a cross between the developments in “Weeds” and the atmosphere of “Blue Velvet.”  I can’t quite pinpoint the exact source of the strangeness.  Maybe it was the fact that it was kind of plopped down in the middle of a desert; there was nothing around it except a few big box store complexes, and two giant Mormon temples, also randomly placed.  Maybe it was that the houses and shops were simultaneously brand new and very flimsy looking.  Perhaps it was the feeling that once I drove in I could never find my way out (which was true by the way) because everything looked the same and thus there was a complete absence of landmarks.

Why such an exodus into uber suburbia?  Because while on vacation I decided to run a spontaneous half-marathon, and the only one I could find was in the south valley.

many, many Utahns are "blond."

My endeavor was doomed from the start, I’m afraid.  It wasn’t just Daybreak’s bad mojo.  The night before the race there was a huge party at my hotel, sponsored by a local radio station.  The purpose seemed to be to unite middle-aged women with vendors who wished to target them, amid lots of alcohol and chocolate.  The event had a slumber party theme so the women were wearing pajamas, oddly paired with very high heels.  There was a lot of fake nail applying, eyelash dying, feather in the hair weaving, big plastic jewelry buying, screaming,  drinking and this haircut (see right). The party’s decorative highlight?  A purse and a high-heeled shoe, both as tall as I am, made out of pink and black and zebra-striped balloons.

Normally I would have grabbed Flower Face and just joined in the wacky fun, but I had to catch the race bus by 5am, which necessitated my getting up between 4 and 4:30.  So instead I rolled around in bed to the thump, thump, thump, thump of the ladies’ dance music until about midnight, when it finally stopped.

The race itself was a mixed bag.  Of course there was the odd location, which was even harder to find in the dark.  Then there was the fact that though I made the bus on time there were not enough port-o-potties at the start for everyone to pee before the race (I got in with seconds to spare as I was not running down a canyon with a bladder full of coffee).  The first five miles were really pretty, and as I said, downhill.  We wove down Rose Canyon through some little ranches.  A few horses, though fenced in, decided to run with us for as long as they could.   I was quite happy there, coasting through the deeply familiar red dust and sage and juniper of Utah, under an immense, cloudless blue sky.  However, by the time we got down the canyon it was 85 degrees, even though it was not yet 8am.  The road leveled for a bit and then began a two mile, thousand foot climb.  It got hotter.  Everyone around me started to walk.  The aid stations were few and far between, and had no food, just water and an electrolyte drink ironically called “Heat” which tasted so bad it almost made me puke when I drank it.  And I had a little emergency which I think earned me the name “Help-I-Need-A-Tampon” lady, because I was asking everyone I saw for one.  But still, I felt like I was in better shape than the people around me who were increasingly either, well, very overweight or over 60, and, as I said, not running.

look closely. the mountains are totally stripped.

At the top of the hill there was an aid station with cold towels (so awesome because it was now about 95 degrees) and a lady with a tampon (I tried to kiss her but she ran away – she was faster than me, having not just run up the hill.)  Renewed, refreshed and ready to go, I thought I could make up the time I lost in the last few miles of the, which were again a steep downhill.  I ate some magic jellybeans and tried to turn on the gas, only to be greeted by a massive headwind.  Not helping matters at all was the fact that the pretty canyon scenery had turned to blank desert freeway with a view of Kennecott’s environmentally disastrous open pit copper mine.  At first I thought I saw some hawks, but then realized they were buzzards.  I managed to make it out of the very back of the pack, but my finish time was terrible, embarrassing even.  At race end, they had just run out of water (!!!???) – all they had left was the horrible “Heat.”  I ate about 15 oranges, examined the weird places the desert heat and dryness had cause me to chafe, and walked to my car.  Of course it took me about 20 minutes to find my way out of the suburban hell of Daybreak, heat-dazed and depressed as I was.

Back at the hotel, the maintenance crew had whisked away all traces of the party, except for a few pink balloon fragments caught in the trees and a sequined cigarette lighter in the parking lot.  I cleaned out my car a bit, feeling slow, old, fat, and sorry for myself.  What rankled particularly was a thin friend’s recent comment that though I ran miles and miles, I still had my particular body type (muscular but a good 15-20 pounds overweight).  I felt like such a back of the packer, doomed to an eternity of running with the old and infirm, a faux athlete.  Sighing,  I grabbed my Garmin, my water bottle, and my finisher’s medal.  It had the race’s slogan, “Only Half Crazy,” embossed on it.  That made me laugh a bit, thinking how appropriate it was to my life, this blog.

Then, as I entered the hotel lobby, there was a man and his son coming back from the pool.  The boy was about Freckle Farmer’s age though only about half his size.  He had a feeding tube in his nose, a steroid puffed face, and a cancer bald head.  Halfway across the lobby he got tired.  His dad picked him up, wrapped him in a towel and kissed his face over and over.

Like that I was cured of my self-pity.  In fact I felt like an idiot.  I had had a beautiful morning run, watching the sun rise  over a canyon in Utah.  I was strong and well.  And most importantly, I had my family.  Despite my exhaustion and soreness, I ran up five flights of stairs to hug my kids.

Be a Better Blogger

•August 17, 2011 • 1 Comment

One of my goals, now that the insanity of my summer is over, is to post here on a more regular schedule.  Right now I would say my blogging style is best described as a sort of cluster bombing.  A bunch of entries for a few days and then, a few weeks or even a month in between.  But I started this blog as a kind of self-discipline, a meditation on balance.  Therefore I would like it to be more, well . . . balanced.  So, my hoped for schedule:  an entry per week, either Thurs. or Friday.  Of course I’ll do more if the spirit moves me.  Hold me to it, people.

Speaking of the spirit, here’s where I am, minus the snow of course.  This is also an excellent illustration of why I refuse to call the tiny hills in Pennsylvania mountains.

In Which Our Heroine is not Redeemed by Overwork

•August 16, 2011 • 1 Comment

Saturday I did a twenty-two mile run to prepare for my marathon.  Sunday I turned in my grades for two summer comp classes (almost four hours of teaching, four days a week, with only a ten minute break). Monday I packed my kids’ clothes and flew with the family across the country to visit my mother and aunt.  And now, here I am in the echoing lobby of our hotel. The huge windows are all black. The manager isn’t even up yet. It’s five a.m., and I have nothing to DO.

One of the perks of being a teacher is supposed to be the summers off. But, since my husband P Dad lost his job two years ago I haven’t felt like I could take a break. Ironically, we’re fine financially. We live pretty simply, own our house and our old cars
outright. No student loan debt either. Neither one of us is really into stuff, and the kids get a lot of expensive toys and clothes from their grandparents. My salary is ample to take care of us. But there are still the nagging thoughts; what if something were to happen to me?  What if my unpredictable brain goes offline again? So I work.  Working oneself to the bone is noble, right?

Except for one thing.  I waste a lot of time working that I could spend with my children, time that I’m never going to get back.

Flower Face is nine.  She is as tall as my shoulder and wears almost the same size shoes as I do.  We could switch if I had a taste for sequined flip flops.  Her hair is soft and wavy and smells like chlorine and earth.  She’s still cuddly.  She’ll never be nine again.  This summer, for the first time in her life she found a team sport she loved, swimming. I went to most of her practices and meets, but my attention was divided. I was often grading, or thinking about how behind I was on grading and I didn’t have time to be fully present for her very real joy at winning ribbons, or sitting on her turtle towel eating mac n’ cheese and chatting with her teammates between races.  She has barely taken off her team sweatshirt (dolphin on the back, her name sewn on the front) since she got it,  such is her new strong sense of belonging to something.

And Freckle Farmer?  Why haven’t I been digging with him in the mud, catching frogs (all named Bob), watching him ride his red “Lightning MacQueen” bike?  Sometimes he stands quietly at my arm when I am at the computer.  After a minute or so, he’ll try to sneak into my lap, almost as though he’s hoping I won’t notice 35lbs of knees and elbows.  Too often (way too often) I respond crossly, saying “Sweetie, I have to work. Please go and play until I’m done.”

I was raised by a single mom.  She worked for an ultra-rich family in a business that did nothing but invest that family’s vast wealth.  It seems as though at some point she began to believe that having a lot of money would make her feel safe.  And I guess I don’t blame her for that; just as I am scared that I won’t be able to take care of my kids, she was scared she wouldn’t be able to take care of me.  She passed that belief in the magic of money on to me.   Right now the economy is a mess, and because I work for a state school, my university is also a bit of a mess (though better than some).  I can feel the fear like a current through my body when there are reports of another stock market crash, more layoffs.  I’ve often told P Dad I want to take all of our money out of the bank and the stock market and, I don’t know, sew it in a mattress or buy something that holds its value. But the problem is, nothing does.

Except for, of course, the time I spend with my kids, or with P Dad, or with myself, making art.  The bottom line is this.  Financial stability does not guarantee emotional stability.  (The rich family my mother worked for were truly some of the most dysfunctional people I have ever met.)  So next summer, and this is a promise, Flower Face and Freckle Farmer and I are going to enjoy every last bit of the time off.  We’ll hike and bike and eat corn and blackberries.  And if you need something, I’m sorry.  You won’t be able to reach me.  I’ll be at the pool or running in the forest, or out in the back yard, digging worms.

The Back Forty

•August 2, 2011 • 2 Comments

It seems my four-year-old son, Freckle Farmer, has developed a whole new field for his cash crop.  The other day, when I was sunscreening him up for an afternoon on the slip-n-slide (otherwise known as the perfect excuse for P Dad and I to throw ourselves about the lawn until our pants fall down),  I noticed a bunch of new freckles across his shoulders and down his upper back.  “More freckles!! Yay!” I shouted with joy.  Freckle Farmer did a happy dance, too.  He’s very proud of his ability to produce, and had obviously been unable to see his new fertile field until I notified him of its existence.

In other news,  it seems Mr. Farmer, a notoriously picky eater, is much more likely to swallow a meal when he’s dressed as a shark and we call his fishsticks, “divers” and his veggies “Jacques Cousteau”  (accompanied by an anguished French accent, but of course). 

ah no no no! do not eat me leetle man-shark!  I am only trying to show ze world ze wonders of ze deep.  ah no!  your tooths they are so sharp and pointy.  AAAAAHHHH!

Bon Appetit!

Distress Tolerance (trigger warning*)

•July 31, 2011 • 6 Comments

So.  Y’all are probably thinking that since I haven’t posted in two-and-a-half weeks, I got lost on my last run.  Really lost, deep woods lost.  Isn’t that where I left you?

The truth is pretty close to that.  Except, of course me being me, the woods are internal.  And I could wander around in there for years.  The truth is I have been teaching two classes (summer=fourteen weeks compressed into six) of surprisingly charming yet still exhausting freshmen.  And P Dad and I have been working out some pretty major issues, or more correctly I have been learning how to support but lovingly detach from P Dad while he is working out his own issues.  Then there is a close friend of mine who seems really angry with me.  I’m totally confused as to why, and afraid of losing her, but I’m also pretty sure trying to fix the situation would only make it worse. (Or I’m a big confrontation avoidant chicken – you pick.)  I also developed a kidney infection last week after a dehydrating 15 miler in the heat.  All in all I’ve been a bit under the weather spiritually, as well as physically.

In the midst of everything, on one of the darkest, woodsiest days, I found myself at my computer reading David Foster Wallace’s autopsy.  I wasn’t reading it because I was suicidal, looking for tips or company or anything that macabre.  The desire to kill myself is, thank God many, many times, not part of my symptomatology. But I was really sad that day, and I had always wanted to read more about his death.  I guess the mood and the material seemed to match.  The autopsy is a very private document to be made public, and its details are stark and memorable.  Wallace died with silver duct tape around his wrists; he had bound his hands together to prevent second thoughts.  He was very thin, and balding.  The autopsy even revealed the color of his clothing:  blue shirt, gray shorts, brown underwear; for some reason I find those details very intimate and touching.  The story of the months leading up to his suicide are also public, and fairly well-known.  Convinced it was making it impossible for him to write a book to follow The Infinite Jest, he went off Nardil, an antidepressant he had taken for 20 years.  For a while it went okay, and then it didn’t.  He tried to go back on medication but by that point nothing worked for him; he tried every drug combination possible, for months, but was too anxious to give any of them enough time to be effective.  He had electroshock treatments.  The doctors put him on Nardil again. But this time it didn’t work.  He had to take a leave of absence from the Disney professorship at Pomona College.  He couldn’t be left alone in his house because his anxiety was so bad, so whenever his wife had to be out of town, his parents came to stay.  But then, of course, there was that one afternoon when his wife thought he was well enough to be by himself for an hour and he hung himself from a wooden beam on his patio.

So here is what I have been wondering.  What made Wallace’s anxiety intolerable while mine, which has certainly been strong enough to hospitalize me, has never been lethal?  My last bad episode, two years ago, was brought on by quick and incompetent med changes; it took me months to re-stabilize.  My sputtering writing career has certainly given me a lot of pain; many of the interviews with Wallace posit he was extremely dissatisfied with what he had written, despite its enormous critical acclaim.  I have had to cope with personal loss, marital chaos.  How have I dodged the bullet all of these years, when others in similar situations, with similar mental constructions, haven’t?

One answer I may provide is that I have children, and there is a direct, physical tie between my heartbeat and theirs.  Like if one of the flames went out the others would too.  I guess that since I took the responsibility of bringing them into the world, I feel it is also my responsibility to stay here and enjoy it with them.  If I hadn’t had them, the contract may well have been different.

Another possibility is that even before I knew what it was called, I was pretty good at practicing distress tolerance.  Distress tolerance is probably the most important skill I learned in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy; each time I feel an episode of anxiety coming on I have a long list of things I can do to either head it off or ride it out.  The first and most essential is radical acceptance, which is a Buddhist concept, pretty simply defined as being okay with what is.  For example, I could spend a lot of time wishing I had a better job, a better brain, a better butt.  But what would that get me here, now, in the present moment?  Those of you who know me well know I am not the perfect practitioner of radical acceptance just yet  (I am sure is P Dad is laughing as he reads this).  But I have found myself able to apply it to feeling anxious; instead of fighting the anxiety (which releases stress hormones and lengthens the cycle) or wishing it away, I just try to be with it.  Same goes with my bipolar disorder.  I spent so many years stuck in deep existential muck because I wanted, more than anything to be better, to be fixed by the new drug, new therapist, new relationship.  As soon as I realized that wasn’t going to happen, I did a lot better.

So what did I do the other day, when I found myself circling the drain a bit?  First I thanked the universe for making David Foster Wallace and then I turned off my computer.  Then I pulled out my PennDot green sticky notes and wrote out a plan for the day that included things that I could do mindfully or that were self-nurturing, things that might change my mood a bit, and things that would make me feel good about myself.  The list, which was confined to what I could do while at work, went as follows:

Eat a warm toasted bagel with strawberry cream cheese.  Slowly.

Talk to our department secretary (one of my favorite people).  Tell her she is one of my favorite people.

Do Tai Chi.  Wave hands like clouds! Peer through the infinite triangle! Green dragon gazes into the forest!

Go outside and smell the rain.  Lie down on one of the benches and look at a tree.

Talk to Flower Face on the phone.

Listen to Bon Iver’s new album on iPod.  Weep a little.  Okay a lot. 

Come up with a really silly, fun lesson for class that day.  Reach out to a student who seems to be struggling.

Write another list, this time with reasons why I am a good mother, good partner, good person, no matter what.

Sing.  Loudly. (Once my office mate has left for the day.)

By the time I had worked my way through the list I felt better.  Which is not to say I didn’t still feel the profound sense of loss and confusion that had begun my day.  It was still there, and I accepted it.  Accepted my responsibility for any and all of it.  But then I was able to move forward, go home and see my kids and be grateful to the universe that they, and I, were gloriously, painfully alive.

*Some people may find some of the material in this post triggering.  Please read wisely.

We’re Half Way There (Livin’ on a Prayer)

•July 10, 2011 • Leave a Comment

I’m sure many of you out there have been wondering  where I’ve been this last week. (Or not, which is okay too.)  The answer is camping with family and friends, blissfully disconnected from the internet.  Teaching Flower Face to kayak, a bear sighting, and a night when I protected two big, adult men from an attack raccoon are experiences I might blog about later. (Or not.)  But for now I really want to focus on running.

When I returned to cyber-reality I realized I hadn’t written much about my marathon training.  Wilma and I just completed a 16 mile long run and if I’m looking at my calendar correctly we’re about half done with our preparation. The whole process has been really crappy.  And really wonderful.  And both simultaneously.  Wilma and I have struggled with some health issues that we’ve had to work through. We both have asthma. And then there have just been days when our bodies wouldn’t run, no matter how much we willed them to.  Indeed one of the most interesting things I’ve learned in this training cycle is that each run contains within it the possibility of its own failure.  And sometimes they do fail.  We walked five miles instead of a doing a scheduled ten miler.  I had to stop dead in the middle of our speedwork a couple of weeks ago because running fast on a hot, humid evening felt to me like throwing my body through a wall of flaming water that I was also trying (very unsuccessfully) to breathe.

And then there was the 12 mile death march.  During this run I learned there are two parts of the body a distance runner must pay serious attention to:  the GI tract and the feet.  The last few long runs leading up to 12 miles I had had some unprecedented pain on the bottoms of my feet, most often in the ball but also along the non-arch side.  Because I am who I am, I decided ignoring it and hoping it would eventually go away was the best strategy.  On the death march, from about mile seven to mile twelve, my feet gave me more pain than any athletic injury has every given me; each strike felt like an electric shock, especially on the left.

I barely noticed it.

This was because I was also plagued, for the first time in my running career, by a severe bout of runner’s diarrhea.  I hadn’t been careful about hydration or nutrition before my run, waking up from a nap five minutes before Wilma came to pick me up, and sleepily eating a granola bar on the drive.   Early on in the run I felt really weak so I ate an entire pack of extra salty, margarita flavored Shot Bloks without water.  After that I couldn’t recover.  My stomach cramped, I went hot then cold, and then . . . well, I’ll let you imagine the rest except to say that I’m really glad we train in the woods and that I had to lie on the cool tile of my bathroom floor until midnight that night.

But I finished the run, mostly because walking would have taken longer.  Wilma bravely allowed me in her car, and even took me to a convenience store on the way home to buy Gatorade.

The fourteen mile run was a little better, except my feet hurt in a whole new way as I had to buy stability shoes to solve the previous pain.  They changed my gait and felt like I was wearing bricks.  And the diarrhea was replaced by evil, epic nausea in the last six miles.  But Wilma told me a story that carried me through my misery; I followed her voice like a dog, and turned my brain off.  One foot in front of the other, she would remind me, gently, if I fell back.  And that was about all I could do.

Now logic would say that after two pretty miserable runs I might decide marathon running is not for me and take up, well, knitting or something useful.  Let me tell you why I didn’t.  First of all, training to run is training me to live.  Yeah, the marathon will be great.  But right now I’m slogging through some pretty difficult stuff in my family life, and every time I feel like I want to just quit I remember that I finished those two horrible runs no matter how sick I felt and that I am stronger than I think I am.  One foot in front of the other.

Second, running actually makes me take care of myself.  I’m more in tune with my body because I want it to function well.  I have to eat right, get enough sleep, drink a lot of water, and pay attention to nagging injuries.  This attention to self is pretty unusual for women in our culture, especially moms, sadly enough.  I love the feeling that my usually reviled and beaten into submission body now feels like a smooth machine, no matter its surface flaws.  Flower Face even gives me excellent back and foot rubs with lavendar lotion.

Third, well there was that 16 miler.  I finally got my hydration issues under control so there was not a hint of GI distress.  My new shoes, while still heavy, had ceased to hurt my feet.  Wilma felt good too.  The sun shone, the breeze cooled us and the forest was more beautiful than ever.  We cruised through it.  The only hard part was when we had to turn around at our usual ending place and do one more mile.   Halfway through that last bit we belted out, “Oh-oh we’re halfway there . . .Oh-oh livin’ on a prayer.” startling a genteel elderly couple in hats. I know, ridiculous song (Bon Jovi?). But we were grinning, sweaty fools, high with our own bodies’ power, with the fact that we actually did it, and with all of the impossible runs (and parts of our lives) we had to overcome to get there.