Sunday, November 10, 2013

Random Acts of Kindness

In 2004, I was driving my daughter to the doctor for what we suspected was strep throat.   A block from the doctor’s office, the car lurched and died.  I re-started it and it was a mess.  It limped its way the final block into the parking lot.  Fortunately, there was a mechanic close by and I got the car there, but barely.  The mechanic went out to look at it and said “You’ve got transmission fluid all over the place.  I think you dropped the tranny.”  Great.  I knew that was pretty much a death sentence for a minivan that had seen over 100,000 miles.  The car was to be towed to the local dealer where I’d be purchasing the new minivan: with 3 small children at the time and living in the suburbs a minivan is pretty much a residency requirement.  That and a sturdy pair of mom jeans and I was good to go.

The one thing I neglected to do was take my EZ-PASS transponder out of the car.  When I went to retrieve it a few days later, it was gone.  When I inquired at dealership if they had retrieved it , they said they didn’t have it.  It was then I realized I’d been victimized by a moronic thief of such low ambition that he/she thought ripping me off a quarter at a time was the heist of the century.  Even funnier was that all I had to do was call EZ-PASS and report the transponder stolen.   It was a pain for me: I had to file a police report in order to not be charged for a new transponder.  I figured this person was the same type that steals someone’s lunch out of the fridge at work, and it’s sad to know there is a bumper crop of these folks roaming the planet.  And that many of them will end up serving in Congress.  Sigh.

Many years back, I worked for a bank.  And I’d often come in the office in the morning bemoaning the state of humanity.  Then some event would happen that would shift the balance – for example, I’d pick up my dry cleaning and there would be a little ‘you forgot this’ baggie with it and the cleaner would have put the $5 I’d forgotten was in my pocket.  I’d skip into the office light of heart the next day, my faith in humanity restored.  My friend BJ – who is a world-class curmudgeon – would roll his eyes at me and remind me of the previous instances where people behaved like they were raised by wolves, but it wouldn’t matter: this small instance of kindness would tow me along in my happy little rowboat adrift in a sea of really bad manners.

As I’ve gotten older, I've come to be sadly resigned that there are always going to be people whose raison d’etre is to be a deer tick on their fellow man.  We’ve all seen the remnants of ‘mailbox baseball’ (do those slack-jawed navel-gazing kids know each it costs about $100 to replace one of those suckers?), been tailgated by some driver bordering on road rage, and read news of a widow being mugged at the grave of her deceased husband.  Humanity can often need a collective ‘Time Out’.  

The little acts of kindness are gentle miracles in the middle of the chaos, and I was lucky recently to be the recipient of not one act, but three, all in the space of 24 hours.  I was driving many hundreds of miles for work, and in a single day, drove from Richmond to Raleigh, and then from Raleigh to Washington DC.  I was meeting a friend for dinner that evening and the restaurant was located on a street and the spaces were designed that you had to BACK INTO THEM.  I’m parking-challenged on a good day, but on an evening where I’ve logged over 300 miles by car, am on a busy street, and will be required to bring all traffic to a stop and back into the space quickly I’m pretty sure my blood pressure went to DEFCON 1.  I somehow managed to pull it off without anyone honking their horn at me to speed it up or flip me the bird.  That alone deemed the parking job an overwhelming success.  The next step was paying for the meter.  This street had a central machine where you could pay with a card or by coin.  Since I had no change, I opted for the card.  But the machine was jammed and wouldn’t accept my card.  There was a couple who’d just finished parking a large pick-up truck (I marveled at his effortless parking skill) and they asked if I needed help.  I explained my predicament and they said “Oh we’ll help you out!”  The young man retrieved a dark purple cloth bag from his truck and pulled out a handful of quarters.  As he was pumping them into the machine for my parking fare, he said “I have a part time job in the summer and they pay me in quarters…”  I thanked him for his generosity and replied “I have a full-time job and they pay me in quarters too.”  We went our separate ways – they excited and happy to attend the Thursday Night football game, me to have a nice meal with a friend.  I phoned my friend Ros who lives near the restaurant and told her I was nearly there and I’d wait for her at the bar. 

I entered the restaurant and the long par was full of patrons eating.  I’d hoped to order a glass of wine but didn’t want to wedge in between dining patrons at the bar.  So I went to the end of the bar where a waitress stood and asked a waitress if I could order a drink from her, because I didn’t want to disrupt those enjoying their dinner at the bar.  A very large man with a genuine smile pushed back from the bar and said, “Come on in here, you’re fine.”  He was seating next to a woman who also assured me that I was fine, to join them for a couple of minutes.  I thanked them and told them about all the driving I’d done and traffic back-ups on the 95, my stress at having to park and the issues with the parking meter.  “All I want is a nice glass of wine…” I said, and the man said “Your first one is on me.”  In the span of 15 minutes, I’d had not one, but two acts of kindness.  I’d hit the ‘Random Acts’ lottery: I was on a roll.  

The next morning I drove to Baltimore for work.  Again, parking was to do me in.  I’d recently switched briefcases: in my old one lay a partially used roll of quarters that I’d carry for parking meters.  I’d neglected to put it in my bag and I found myself at an old-style meter with no quarters.  I parked and went into my prospects office and with a dollar bill in my hand asked if someone could make change for the meter.  The receptionist smiled brightly, reached into a drawer and pulled out some coins.  She refused to take my money in exchange.

There is this saying “Bad things come in threes.”  As I made the long drive home that night I marveled that sometimes really decent people can turn clichés on their end with a small kindness.  That week, I hit the trifecta, and my faith in humanity was again restored.  At least until Mailbox Baseball season resumes.

Monday, August 12, 2013

What's in a Name?

Scene: A richly paneled conference room with polished floors, Oriental carpets, and elegant mahogany furniture.  A table in the middle is occupied by two gentlemen.  A third, younger one enters, obviously late.

Mr. Smyth: “So sorry for my tardiness.  Any news?”

Mr. Baker: “Smyth, the only thing we should be waiting on is the royal baby.  Not you.”  Smyth sits down shamefully and reviews the paper in front of him.

Mr. Baker: “Can we proceed please?  I’ve called this meeting to discuss the naming of the soon-to-be born Prince or Princess.   I’ve taken the liberty of compiling a list of Generally Accepted Royal Names that we can suggest to The Prince and Duchess for their child.  I’d like us to review these and provide a list of suggestions for them.  It’s the least we can do: they have been so busy dodging the paparazzi and it seems far more practical than throwing a baby shower.”

Geeves: “Oh a baby shower would have been fun.  I make a mean diaper cake…” Smyth stops short 
after Baker shoots him withering glance.

Baker: “Let’s proceed.  Should we start with the boys names first, Mr. Geeves?”

Geeves:  “Yes, yes.  Where are my readers… ok…here we go.  Albert.  What do we think of Albert?”

Smyth: “HEY HEY HEY!  It’s faaaaaaat Albert!  I loved that show, watched re-runs on the telly when I was a lad.”

Baker: “Mr. Smyth.  You will cease the cartoon tomfoolery at once.  This is serious business.   

Geeves, I believe we should strike that name from the list.  I can just imagine the Fleet Street headlines if ever a Prince Albert were to make a habit of super-sizing his afternoon tea.  Next name please.”

Geeves: “Quite right, quite right.  Edmund.  How about Edmund?”

Baker: “Sounds too much like the Prince’s Uncle Edward.”

Smyth:  “I do like it, it’s my first name, but I must agree. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be calling the Palace feeling like a fool by asking for myself on the line…”

Baker: “Smyth, you are not being helpful.  Geeves: Strike Edmund.”

Geeves: “You want me to hit Smyth, Baker?”

Baker: “I meant cross out the name Edmund.  If Smyth needs to be struck I’ll do it myself, thank you very much.”

Geeves: “The next name is Henry…”

Smyth (interrupting): “That retread?  Every other royal was named Henry back in the day.  They 
burned that name out.  And with all his divorces…”

Geeves (interrupting Smyth): “Yes, yes.  After the last 20 years, the last thing we need is even a WHIFF of marital scandal.  Fleet Street would be frothing.”

Baker (irritated): “Retread...?”

Smyth (interrupting): “This is a new generation.  Young…fresh…current.  The royals need a name that will resonate with the public.”

Baker (more irritated): “RESONATE WITH THE PUBLIC?  What resonates with the public is tradition!  The Monarchy is the glue that holds the British Isles together!...”

Geeves (interrupting): “Well it’s not on the list but Elmer would go nicely with the glue leitmotif” 

Baker (apoplectic): “Geeves!  Did you have a bit of brandy with your lunch? Get a hold of yourself man!”

Smyth (laughing): “You were the one who compared the Royal family to cheap epoxy.”

Baker (glaring at Smyth): “If you are so well-versed on the blending of royal tradition with the popular acceptance, what name would you suggest?” 

Smyth: “Cnut.”

Baker: “Did you say NEWT?  Is this a Monty Python joke?  You want to name the future Monarch after an aquatic amphibian?  Or a – lord help us – AMERICAN POLITICIAN?”

Smyth: “NO, not NEWT, CNUT.  It’s pronounced Kuh-NEWT.  The C is not silent.

Baker: “CNUT?  There hasn’t been a Monarch named Cnut since…since…”

Geeves (interrupting): “Since 1035 sir.  Cnut, Son of Sweyn Forkbeard and Gunhilda of Poland”

Baker: “Thank you Geeves.  Smyth… CNUT?  You can’t be serious…”

Smyth: “It tested very well with the focus groups sir. 


Smyth: “Yes.  And the feedback was fascinating.  They liked the rugged, Viking-like quality.  It would help overhaul the Windsor brand. They don’t test out as being… being..

Baker: “What?”

Smyth: “Tough”

Baker: “Tough?  The Princes serve in the MILITARY!  They fly helicopters!”

Smyth: “Yes, they Princes serve in the military but it seems the only time the public sees them are when they are on some ski holiday in Gstaad.  Or sans vestmants during a round of strip poker in Vega-“

Baker: “STOP. RIGHT. THERE.  They are young men sowing their oats.”

Geeves: “Well, I’d rather see those stories than the ones forever questioning what the Queen carries in her handbag.  Anyone with a brain knows it’s most definitely a handkerchief and breath mints…”

Smyth: “See: handbags.  Handbags and breath mints do not telegraph strength.  Cnut on the other hand  had a rugged Viking-quality to it.  The focus group found it mythic, strong.  Reminded them of dragons.

Baker: “Dragons.  I’m not following.  Are you suggesting they are thinking along the lines of the Legend of St. George and the Dragon?”

Smyth: “No.  More like Game of Thrones.”

Baker (incensed): “Are you suggesting we take cues from a MINI-SERIES???”

Geeves: “It’s actually a regular series.  Season 4 starts soon.  It’s pretty good, but I myself am partial to Downton Abbey”

Baker (sarcastically): “Of course you are.”

Smyth: “We could run a whole campaign around it.  The scope of the merchandising could be astounding!  T-shirts, coffee mugs, lunch boxes…”

Baker (sarcastically): “The Royal Prince Cnut on a cheap plastic lunch pail.  Oh the majesty…”

Geeves: “I have to agree with Baker on that one, Smyth.  The plastic lunch pail is a bit déclassé.  The coffee mugs in ceramic could be nice though…”

Baker: “Gentleman.  Please… We are not getting very far here.  Can we please stop with this nonsense?  Cnut it ridiculous.”

Smyth: “It is Cnot.  Get it?  Cnut… Cnot…. “ (laughs)

Geeves: “Good one, lad!”

Two servants enter carrying afternoon tea.

Baker: “This is irrational.  We have list in front of us that represents over a thousand years of royal splendor and dignity: Richards, and Edwards, Georges, and Henrys.  And you give me CNUT.  I daresay I’m afraid to ask what the focus group came up with for Girls names…”

Smyth: “The were particular to J-Lo”

Geeves: “I daresay, Baker just fainted.”

Smyth: “The man is wholly lacking a sense of humor”

Geeves: “I believe you are right.  Tea?”

Smyth: “Please.  You can pour out.”

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Before 2:50 pm 4/15/2013 After

2:50 pm:  Was that a cannon…?  What was th-…..oh my God.  This isn’t good…OH MY GOD.
*  *  *
The Race
I’m not superstitious, except when it comes to racing.  I always think if I get hopeful, something will happen.  In the month before the Boston Marathon, every ache and pain would set off a flurry of worrying about potential muscle pulls and stress fractures. Then there is the issue of weather: I’ve never been one to have luck with weather in marathons: too hot, frigidly cold, nor’easter.  I’ve had 2 races cancelled for weather: one for a winter storm in Myrtle Beach, and the other for a hurricane. I used to joke I could make a tidy fortune having race directors pay me to not enter.  For 10 days leading up to the Boston Marathon, I refused to believe the weather predictions of nearly perfect racing conditions.  I kept thinking Mother Nature was thumbing her nose at me, dangling this perfection in front of me and would pour on the heat on race day just to dash my fragile hopes.  I was wrong: the morning could be described in the single word, Perfection.  Sunny and high 40’s at the start of the race, the temps wouldn’t be much higher at the finish on Boylston Street at Copley Square.

9:15 am - I’m making my way to my corral at the start.  I’m with my long-run training partner, Laura.  With a faster qualifying time, she’s two corrals in front of mine, so we wish each other good luck and I tell her to text me how she did when she gets her phone after the race.  With over 23,000 runners, I doubt I’ll see her.  The road to the start is jammed and I have fear I might not get there in time.  But with 5 minutes to go I’m at the start… and next thing I know I’m walking with the rest of the start and we’re off. 

9:30 am - The early miles are easy and social – but I remember being irritated at the number of ‘Bandits’ I pass in the early miles (the roads are clogged enough without additional unofficial entrants).  I have to remind myself to stow my crankiness – this is too much of a fun, perfect day to let petty irritations get in the way.  Somewhere in the early miles a guy says Keep running, you’re almost there! Wiseacre.  Later I see a huge sign someone has put in their yard.  I’m laughing and then see a blind runner with her guide – they are holding hands.  He is giving her a description of the course, People are laughing because there is a big sign with an arrow that says SHORTCUT… ok in about a minute we’ll get to a short hill… What is it like to hold both hands and conversation over 26.2 miles?

11:50 am - We are in the town of Natick and a woman yells with a chowder-thick accent  Yaw gonna finish.  Gawd Dammit yaw gonna make it!  By mile 8, I can feel the beginnings of tightness in my thighs; this isn’t good.  Just after mile 12, the women at Wellesley don’t disappoint with their traditional “Scream Tunnel” – you can’t help but go faster.  At the half marathon point, I look at my watch and see I’m on pace for a really good race. But the tightness in my thighs has progressed to a dull ache.  I know this is going to hurt.  Somewhere at this point I see a man dressed as Elvis, strumming a guitar and singing a song.  Just before lower Newton Falls, there is a long, hard downhill.  This is the thing about going downhill that most people don’t recognize: it is work.  Think of skiing – you don’t just plunge down the side of a mountain as a passenger.  It is a combination of efficiency and control, and it all comes from your thighs.  My thighs are right on the edge of hurt at mile 15.  I’ve been fending off the fear but it comes roaring in.  I have a decision to make: do I succumb and slow down or accept it?  That morning I received many notes of encouragement.  I remember one in particular Make pain your bitch.  I simply accept that this race will hurt but running a great race will make that hurt worthwhile.  The marathon can seem like a weird sport, I’ll give you that much.  For many, it’s about taking oneself to the breaking point and then not stopping.  It’s about talking oneself into just one more mile, then one more block, then ten more steps.  For me, I simply decide I’m going to hold the pace for as long as I can, even on the hills; I’m not getting any younger. I employ a racing visual: I imagine a big black steamer trunk.  Make Pain Your Bitch.  I embrace this thought, and I challenge the pain, I want to see how much I can take.  But the bigger idea is to lock away the fear, to accept that it will hurt, probably a lot.  So mentally I break out another steamer trunk, and fear gets tossed in like a limp rag doll and locked away. 

1:03 PM - I hit the first of the famed Newton Hills just after Lower Newton Falls and look at the friendship bracelet my son Jean-Marc made for me for the race in 2007.  I’ve worn it for good luck, and remember looking at it and do it again.  I cross the 95 overpass and the crowds thicken – many deep along the sidewalk.  The spectators are raucous.  It’s such a beautiful day and they are as much a participant in this event as the runners.  At mile 17.4 is the turn onto Commonwealth Avenue.  The evening before the race I’ve phoned my father.  He’d run this race roughly a dozen times in the 70’s and 80’s.  I told him my wish for my race was to get to this turn feeling good and go mano-a-mano with the hills.  It’s a ridiculous statement – I’m just not a tough person.  But it’s my own rather small, humble gauntlet, to face a hill and not slow down. This portion of Commonwealth Avenue is like Richmond’s Monument Avenue in the Fan district: a double lane road with a large grassy median.  In the median and on the opposing sidewalk is a veritable street party of folks cheering on the runners while adding to the general festivities.  I’d run this race for the first time in 2007 – the weather was not good – and I thought then the crowds were thick.  Under the beautifully cool sunny blue skies, the crowds are immense.  I’ve run this race before, but in this perfect day, my expectations borne of memory are trampled by the sheer volume of joyous humanity.

This race morning, as I’ve sat down to eat an oversized bowl of oatmeal, I've read a story in the previous day’s Boston Globe about two ‘Mobility Impaired” runners.  Both are dwarves.  The woman looks to be very small but evenly proportioned.  The man has a large torso but very, very short, bowed legs.  I read of their qualifying time of 6 hours.  I look at their photos and their very small stature and wonder how many steps they have to take to every one of mine.  Just after the first hill I see – to my right – the man profiled in the piece.  He is tiny.  And he is walking.  I think for a brief moment what it takes to endeavor to complete this course with that kind of handicap.  And then it occurs to me that the winner of this race will have broken the tape in the same time it takes me to complete 14 or 15 miles.  Handicap is in the eye of the beholder.  Or those a hell of a lot faster.

Jen is a friend and former colleague who is also a monstrously talented runner.  She’d be in the 1% if there were ever an “Occupy Fast Runners” protest.  These days she is far less about winning and more about pacing.  In the winter, we’d run a 15 mile training run in Boston where the starting temperature was in the teens.  She’d offered to pace me through this marathon, but an injury a scant month later derailed her plans.  She runs with the Somerville Road Runners and had let me know We have a tent and unofficial hydration station at the 30K (18.6 mile) mark.  Look for the black and yellow balloons.  I tell myself to get to 30k, that’s my next goal.  With every step, my thighs voice a deep complaint of ache and hurt.  I remind myself to use my arms because For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.  Or something like that.  If I use my arms, my legs will follow.  I look in the median for the balloons and just after the 30K marker, I spot them and seconds later see Jen standing expectantly in the road, scanning the runners for someone she knows.  She is dressed in jeans, a long-sleeved shirt, and white-rimmed sport sunglasses.  I yell Jen.  JEN!  She sees me and jumps up and starts running with me.  Her running can be best described as graceful – her footfall so quiet it’s easy to wonder if her feet ever touch the ground.  She is joyous and voicing her support and in mid-stride pulls a baggie from her jeans pocket, extracts a wet washcloth, and hands it to me.  I never knew such bliss.  It is wonderful.  She says You look great! And I reply My legs are on fire but I feel great!  She runs with me for about a tenth of a mile then apologizes I’d love to keep running with you but I have to get back to my team…

1:25 pm…I’m past mile 19 and my legs are painfully sore.  I’m coming up on a bunch of raucous guys – college age? – and I point to my Richmond Road Runners shirt like Gimme some love guys and all 6 of them yell Yeah Richmond!  Get ‘em Richmond.  Go Richmond!  I hear more laughing and look to my right and see someone dressed as the Star Wars character C3PO running up the hill and cheering people on.  This is a Fellini dream: I’ve seen blind runners, those missing limbs, a dwarf, a singing elvis, and now a Star Wars character…this can’t be real I check my watch and see I’m still holding pace.  I start using my arms to power my legs.  I  pray for strength and as meditation.  I think of my mom, of my cousin Melissa, of my Uncle Dick, and my dear friend Carlton.  My prayer isn’t deep or profound: it consists of a single phrase Can you help me out and give me a push please?

1:35 PM - I’m on another hill, and I realize I’ve lost count of them.  Am I on the 3rd or the 4th?  It’s so crowded and I’m looking for a landmark – I’d driven this part of the course two days earlier – looking for something that’ll tell me I’m on Heartbreak Hill, the last of the hills. I pass a corner and look for a particular store and don’t see it.  I’m on the third.  Oh man, I still have another…  I feel a moment of despair but push it aside This is what you wanted.  You wanted to leave it all out here, you wanted to push the limits. Well, here it is.  Right now, right here: This is the gut-check moment.  I do the math and it’s going to hurt beyond any calculation and I’m hanging on by a daisy petal.  I see a spectator holding the funniest sign of the day If This Were Easy It Would Be Called YOUR MOTHER.  It takes me a second then I laugh out loud.  There is a slight bend in the road and then I see it: the steeple at Boston College.  I’m on Heartbreak Hill and the brutal inclines are almost done.

1: 48 pm: The Wellesley Scream Tunnel is legendary.  But this day – hands DOWN - belongs to Boston College.  Just after Heartbreak Hill, there is a short but steep downhill and after the course has had your legs for and appetizer and lunch, it is painful.  Both sides of the street are lined with people many deep.  The screaming is both loud and agonizing: I’m so tired and my legs hurt so much I can’t process the noise.  I think I love this but I have to get away from it or I’m going to throw up.  Later, my friend BJ would give me grief that I ran by him and I didn’t even look his way.  I don’t remember hearing him or seeing him; I just remember wanting to outrun the cacophony.  I pass the 35K mark.

I start praying in earnest.  My legs feel oddly disconnected from me but the pain is intense.  I just want to stay strong, to be tough, to push the envelope and be bigger than the moment.  I start to say prayers of my youth… “Hail Mary, full of grace…” They are a mantra, they settle my breathing.  I’m a lapsed Catholic, but they still have meaning.  I look at my Garmin, and count down the tenths left to the next mile marker.  I pass a duo of “Inclusive Runners”, a guide pushing a participant in a converted wheelchair.  Up ahead, I see someone whose gait is familiar.  I run up next to the woman and see it is indeed Christine, who lives not too far from me.  She is wearing her iPod and I say – twice – before she hears me Chris… CHRIS…?  She turns and I am so happy to see a familiar face.  She says I didn’t think I could finish this race.  She will finish and finish well.   Shortly after I see her, a spectator who wants to cross the course jumps the barrier.  Instead of doing the smart thing – jumping in the race and tacking his way across the street – he makes a mad dash straight across the street, stumbles, and grabs on to an older male runner, nearly knocking him off his feet.  The runner is incensed: this is not a time in the race when you want to be knocked off your feet or spend extraneous energy on an idiot spectator.  He makes a momentary move to follow the young man, but changes his mind and keeps going forward.  I can see in his face he is suffering these last few miles.  I move next to him and say Are you ok?  And he grunts Yeah.  I’m fine. He’s not, but relatively speaking he’ll keep moving forward.  I pass another duo – “GUIDE” and “BLIND RUNNER” on their respective shirts.  What is remarkable is that they aren’t tethered together.  After the race, I will read an article on Runners World that this is Peter Sagal – a radio commentator and runner – leading a nearly blind runner to the finish. 

2:06 pm I pass mile marker 23.  Right here: this is the hardest mile.  When you get to the next one, you’ll have 2 miles, and after a block, 1-point-something.  That’s nothing.  This is the hardest one, right here.  I shake out my arms and they tingle.  I’m pumping them to power my legs and my arms are not exactly powerful.  After the race I will have described the last 8 miles as having “muscled my way through the course”.  It’s a joke: my arms are like cobs of corn without the corn.  I’m carrying a lot of tension in my arms and shoulders and remember very little of the landscape.  A slight uphill to Kenmore square.  The Citgo sign.  Seeing the Prudential Center and knowing we are very close.   It’s just a matter of time.  It hurts a lot, but I know we are close.  There is the marker 1 Mile To Go.  I see the Mass Avenue underpass up ahead, and off to the right, something catches my eye.  I see peach tank top; I see my long run training partner Laura walking at the side of the road.

2:28 pm - I am so full of joy – I make my way to her and grab her arm We are less than a mile from the finish!  You are not walking now!!  Run with me to the finish!  I’m surprised at her reaction: she looks at me as if she’s seen a ghost and darts in front of me through the underpass.  I catch up to her and she says I’m so tired.  This course was so hard… I can’t believe you’re here…  She would later tell me she was so tired and decided to take a momentary walking break, and was wished I was there with here like on her long runs. Seconds later, I’d grabber her arm; she told me she thought she was hallucinating.

2:30 pm - We make the right turn on to Hereford Street and a block later, a left onto Boylston.  It’s a 4-block canyon of buildings and people and noise and at the end is a big blue and yellow finish line.  I pump my arms as hard as I can – I have no clue where Laura is; I think she is off to my right.  I just want to finish – the sooner I get there, the sooner I can stop.  I cross the line and feel such joy at having soldiered through and the bliss at being able to stop running.  My legs hurt more than I could ever imagine.  I turn around and see Laura finish.  We embrace.  What a perfect finish.  All those long training runs together – how perfect is this?!  Someone hands me bottled water.  We are arm-in-arm and a man in a volunteer jacket is peering curiously at us.  We are smiling and he says I’m sorry.  I just need to make sure you can both walk on your own…  And we demonstrate our wobbly legs and he is sweet and apologetic and we thank him for his care.  We get our foil capes, and finishers medals, and pose for a picture. A block from the finish we say goodbye and make our way to our checked bag.  And for that moment – despite the clouds that are gathering and the chill breeze that is blowing in - all is right in the world.

* * *

The Bombs
2:50 pm: There is a very large blast.  My first thought is it is cannon.  A woman next to me says “Is that fireworks…?” and we see a huge plume of grey smoke.  Suddenly, there is another blast.  I look at her.  There is instant recognition that something bad has happened. After the initial shock I quietly say to myself Please let it be a gas explosion.  Please don’t let it be terrorism.  Something inside me knows it is.  Dammit.  DAMMIT.  Not here.  In my head I let loose a string of expletives.  I look up and again repeat my bib number for the bag retrieval volunteer.  I want to get my bag and get the heck out of Dodge.

2:57 pm: I’m still wrapped in my foil finisher’s cape on as I grab my phone out of my bag.  I’m nearly out of the finishers chute and I ask a policeman at the barricade if he knows what is going on.  He says with urgency in his voice that he doesn’t, and to keep moving.  I call my husband – his voice is cheery and he’s excited for my race.  He’s chatting about my even splits and I cut him off.  I tell him about the explosions and the first ambulance with its siren blaring goes by.  Call your parents.  Call the kids.  Tell them I ‘m fine.  I gotta call my dad.  I’m supposed to meet my friend BJ at the finish.  I text him quickly, Something is going on – explosions at the finish.  I call my dad and it’s the same conversation.  He’s excited to discuss my race and I have to cut him off; I ask him to check the internet for news but he is in his car.  I can barely hear him with the clamoring sirens of the first responders rushing past.  I’ll try and call later.  I’m fine, I’m just really scared.  My voice cracks.  I’m gonna call Erin but if I don’t get a hold of her, tell Erin, Reen, and Nickey I’m fine.  I dial Erin and have a third, identical conversation.  I have to cut her off mid-sentence; I can’t hear her and she can’t hear me amongst the sirens.  The call cuts out.  I try dialing her but the call won’t go through.  It’s gotten cloudy and breezy.  I’ve wandered onto a side street near the finish and I’m cold and shivering.  My legs are shot.  I grab track pants out of my bag and with nowhere to sit, struggle to get them on over uncooperative and weak muscles in aching legs.  I put on a long-sleeved shirt over my racing singlet, and as I’m zipping up my jacket see a woman in a foil blanket walking down the street, the arm of – her husband? boyfriend? – around her.  She is weeping and frightened.  I realize whatever fear I had is gone.

3:30 pm…I pick up my bag and try and figure out where I am.  If there is a ‘fight or flight’ moment, I know I’m perfectly capable of neither: I’m too tired, and my legs are too sore to run another step.  I take a left at the next street and see the edge of The Boston Common.  I cross the street and see a young runner with his parents.  I ask them if they know what has happened.  We heard there was a bomb in the Copley hotel.  No one was killed or hurt.  Someone else joins in the conversation There were 2 bombs.  And they found a third they are diffusing.  I ask if they know where the Arlington T-stop is. They just closed the subway.  The Green Line is closed.  My phone keeps buzzing with text messages of concern.  I stand there not knowing what to do.  My rental car is parked miles away.  The subway is closed.  However, people aren’t in a state of panic:  They are calmly walking and chatting, seemingly unaware that anything is amiss.  Boston residents, spectators, and foil-wrapped runners mix together and walk slowly away from Boylston Street.  I look at the Common:  Trees are beginning to bloom and the lawn is bright green.  It feels unreal; I’m a sleepwalker in someone else’s dream.  The Common seems to be the only thing with color right now.   I have this thought that this isn’t real, that I’ll wake up and have to run the race again; my aching thighs tell me otherwise.  Another text message comes in, finally from BJ: Walk to Cambridge now.  BJ is one of those unflappable guys and the urgency in his message is not like him.  A second text from him shows up: Or run.  It’s an unlikely time to smile but I do.  I stop two people who look like they know where they are going.  I ask the direction of the Longfellow Bridge to Cambridge Go straight on this street about 5 blocks – you can’t miss it.  There is also a T-stop for the Red line right before.  My rental car is parked at a station on the Red Line.  I tell them about the subway closings and thank them for their help.  I start slowly walking down the street.  My hands are freezing and I have to keep taking off my gloves to use the touchscreen on my phone.  I see a runner being interviewed by a TV station about what she witnessed:  I thought it was a cannon or fireworks.

3:50 pm:  I stop at a Starbucks to grab something warm to drink.  I’m starting to get cold and I hadn’t anticipated being outside this long.  A couple blocks later – I see the Red Line T-Stop.  At the corner are two older women wearing yellow Boston Marathon “Volunteer” jackets.  I ask them if they know what has happened.  It was bombs.  The Finish Line was chaos.  Runners who had finished ran back down Boylston to make sure their family was ok.  They look at each other.  The other says I just want to get home.  It was awful.  I just want to go home.  I ask a Transit cop if the subway is running, and it is.  I don’t even think about whether riding it is a safe move.  My friend Susan – with whom I’ve entrusted my wallet – has texted to say that authorities have asked people not come into the city.  I decide to take the train – my car is parked at the end of the red line – and drive to Newton for my wallet.  I text BJ about my change in plan.  When I ask the transit cop where to buy a ticket, she takes pity on me and lets me in without one.   I make my way slowly up the stairs.  Text messages keep flooding my phone as I get on the train. The battery is wearing out.

4:00 pm:  This day is turning into the strangest of odysseys.  At this point in the day I should have been happily ensconced at the Cambridge Brew Pub working through a huge cheeseburger and drinking a cold beer – which never tastes better than after running a marathon.  Instead I’m on a train full of people, many of whom have been sent home by their employers.  We pass three stops before a seat opens up and I realize that this is the first time I’ve sat down since 9:45 that morning. 

I finally get to the Alewife Station where my car is parked, get off the train, gingerly climb two flights of stairs and enter the parking garage. I find my car, throw my bag in the back seat, and punch in the address to my office in the Garmin app in my phone.  I drive to the garage exit and see a sign that due to the Patriots Day Holiday parking must be paid for inside the station at an automated kiosk.  Figures.  I find the first parking space and make the slow, tedious journey back into the station.  Descending steps is difficult on my aching, stiff legs.  After paying the parking, I make my way back up the stairs and feel something inside my coat.  I realize my finisher’s medal is still around my neck. I take it off, and as I look at it wave of fear, anger, and sadness rocket from my belly and I choke back a sob.  I stuff the medal in my coat pocket and head back to my car.

4:45 pm – The battery on my phone is down to 8%.  I doubt it will get me to the office before dying, and I don’t know exactly how to get there.  Within 2 miles, the screen goes blank.  I become Ferdinand Magellan:  I look at the sky for the position of the sun and know the 95 is due west.  While it will add several miles to the trip, if I can get to the 95, I can get to the office.  Looking at the position of the sun, I drive west looking for familiar streets.  Finally, I see a sign for the 95 and know I can relax. 

5:15 pm – I pull into the lot at work.  I realize I have no change for the meter walk up to two older blue-collar kinds of guys talking in their thick, native accents.  I ask these complete strangers for a quarter.  They give me an odd look then quickly one of them digs into his pockets and hands me two quarters. Only later will I realize that because of the holiday, I didn’t need to pay.  I was wearing a Boston Marathon windbreaker, and I can’t imagine what my face must be telegraphing - probably a dazed mixture of sweat, exhaustion, and quiet shock.  He gave me a quarter for a meter that didn’t need to be fed without a single word of protest.  Bostonians are like that: sometimes they know when just help and to not ask questions.

5:20 pm – I ring the bell to the office door and the Office Manager lets me in.  Renee gives me a big, long hug I’m so happy you are safe and out of harm’s way.  We were so worried about you.  I tell her I’m fine.  I feel uncomfortable with this kind of attention because – despite being a block away – I never had a sustained feeling of fear.  I apologize for not having changed or showered and she says she doesn’t mind.  I walk into the main office corridor and see Susan, my friend Melissa, and my former boss Kristin. They repeat the sentiments Renee has voiced minutes earlier.  I tell them Really, I’m fine.  I’m just really pissed.  I tell them a little of the finish.  I’m smiling when I talk about the race but when I get to the part about the explosion, something catches in my throat.  It was awful, is all I manage.  But after the initial moment of emotion, I feel empty and I think I should feel more.  I should feel terror or fear or anger or something.  I look at Susan – my best friend at work - and I just shake my head It’s just crazy.  I just can’t believe it. 

We walk to her desk so I can plug in my phone, and as I go to sit in the chair, my thighs completely fail me and I fall on the floor.  She looks at me and I break out laughing.  It seems like such an odd thing to do – to laugh.  She walks with me into the office kitchen and I grab a ginger ale out of the fridge.  It’s now three hours since the race finished and nearly 12 since I’ve had a meal. The wall-mounted TV is showing the news of the bombings.  We watch replays of blasts going off and I see – right across the street from the blast – the man and the inclusive racer I’ve passed around mile 22.  I recognize the shirt of the guide, and the wheel chair he is pushing.  I watch the guide ducking his head and pushing his charge as fast as he can.  I tell Susan I saw them!  I passed them!  It should make it feel more real, but I’m standing there drinking cold ginger ale watching the explosions and I feel nothing but an odd sense of detachment.  

6:30 pm - Melissa, Susan, and I leave to go grab a beer at the restaurant on the ground floor of the building.  I can’t wait to taste that beer, to finally inject some semblance of post-race normalcy into the day.  The three of us – the best of work buddies – talk and chat and joke.  Then I start to talk about the race.  They get quiet and listen.  I don’t know what I’m supposed to feel right now.  I’m so sad and angry, but it doesn’t feel real.  A woman walks in - she is a few years younger than me and with what I assume are her husband and parents.  She is wearing the ‘secret handshake’ - a Boston Marathon windbreaker.  Our eyes meet; I say You were there? And she says, Yeah. 

6:40 pm  - I leave the restaurant and make my way to another where I will be meeting BJ and his wife for dinner.  It’s one of my favorite seafood places and across the street from the Alewife Station parking garage.  With my phone charged, I plug in the address and the trip takes 10 minutes.  I think of my blind wandering in the suburbs of Boston hours earlier trying to get to the office.  I get to the office and my phone buzzes from my sister.  I see an email from my in-laws.  I call both of them before dinner.  My Mother-in-Law is concerned, worried, and mournful.  She is a strong woman.  My sister is in tears.  She is a teacher in Columbus, Ohio, and she tells me how her fellow teachers and administrators heard of the bombs, knew she was tracking her sister, and how after school was over and she shepherded her class on the bus, a colleague had gently taken her into a classroom.  On the way, she passed her Principal whose face had a look of serious concern.  She was confused, wondering if she’d done something wrong.  Her colleague told her gently of the bombings.  Have you heard from your sister?  Reenie is a gentle soul; she told me she panicked and said I’m always afraid of this – that someone I love will be hurt… She starts grabs her phone and turns it on.  She says she broke into sobs of relief when she saw a text from Erin saying I was fine.  Her voice is shaking as she tells me this and I reiterate over and over I’m fine.  Really, I’m fine.  There are people so much worse off.  I was blocks away.  I just heard the blast and saw the plume of smoke.  It was crazy for a second but… But what?  There is something there I can’t articulate. 

I return to the table and have a low-key dinner.  BJ insists we are going to celebrate.  This is the deal: we aren’t going to sit here and mope.  You had a great race and we’re going to talk about that.  We aren’t going to talk about the other stuff.  BJ is genius at segmenting life.  He can throw up an impenetrable wall around unsavory topics that us mere mortals lack.  Behind him over the bar the TV is on and it plays the finish line blast over and over.  I avert my eyes.  We toast my run and I say It’s just hard to find joy here.  This is what I can’t square:  I say ‘I left it all out on the course’.  There were people out there who had legs blown off.  Who died.  I left nothing out there.  Whoever did this hit the spectators, the soft, unmoving targets.  The ones there to cheer me and the others on.  It’s all relative, and I left NOTHING out there.  He looks at me and says in his even way.  You’re right.  Now tell me about your race.  You know I was right where I was the last time you ran and you didn’t even look at me…you didn’t even wave or anything  He’d been there in 2007 – with my sisters Reenie and Erin – just shy of the 35 KM mark.  The place – this year – that both the Boston College students were screaming louder and my legs hurt more than I thought humanly possible.  I immediately launch into a defense about how I was feeling, the screaming… it wasn’t later until I saw how genius BJ really is at the art of distraction.  He knows me well enough to know it normally doesn’t take much, but at times like this it is a mighty effort.  He makes it look easy.

9:30 PM – BJ and Elizabeth offer their spare room again.  I’ve had several similar offers: from my dear friends Tammy and Dan Smith in Groton – a good drive from Boston – the offer to come get me and bring me to their house, a respite from the city.  From a childhood friend and neighbor in Scituate – her house, her help, anything… From Susan who has offered a dozen times her home… None of them are natives of Boston but all of them are doing its city proud.  A friend in need, etc.  But I want to be alone.  I need to be alone.  The memories in my head are churning and I need quiet and solitude to let them fall into place.  It’s a short drive to my hotel in Cambridge.  As I’m waiting to check in I watch the TV near the registration desk.  There are two talking heads, discussing the wounds suffered by the victims of the bombs.  One is an Emergency Physician.  He says a term that takes several beats to decipher: “Catastrophic Amputation”.  In layman’s terms, it means having one’s limbs blown off. 

10:15 pm – I enter my room and turn on the lights.  I drop my loaded suitcase, backpack, and bag.  I take off my jacket.  I feel a weight in my pocket and unzip it – it’s the finisher’s medal I’ve stowed.  I can barely look at it; can barely stomach the feel of it.  I put it quickly in a small black velvet pouch I use to store jewelry when I’m travelling, pull the silken ties tightly shut, and put the pouch in my backpack. I strip off my race-weary clothes and step into the shower.  The water and soap wash away the grit and sweat of the day.  After showering, I put on clean, soft pajamas.  I go to the window and part the curtain.  Across the Charles River I see the Prudential Tower, brightly lit as if in defiance of the carnage that occurred at its feet.  I pop an Advil PM and crawl between cool sheets.  Was any of this real? 

I fall into a dreamless sleep.
* * *

The Aftermath
I crossed the finish line of the race at roughly 2:35 pm.  I felt euphoria and celebrated a well-executed race, for having hung tough and for muscling my way through the last 8 miles.  I looked forward to the post-race celebration as I navigated my way through the blocks-long finishing chute.  The feeling lasted roughly 15 minutes before the elevator at the top floor plummeted to the basement. 

And what of the aftermath?  I didn’t know what I was supposed to feel, but that day and a day later I felt nothing – not numb shock, but a complete absence of anything.  Not joy, not fear, not anger.  Looking back I realized I felt only momentary fear, despite hearing the blasts, and seeing the smoke.  It wasn’t some rare form of bravery; it was more pragmatism and exhaustion.  After that, I felt nothing but occasionally mild anger and sadness.  And I couldn’t pin the source of either down on any one thing.

In the Airport, I abandon any signs of having participated in the race.  After the security checkpoint, I see a woman wearing her medal in a restaurant and am incensed: she is trying to draw unnecessary attention to herself, to make it about her.  If she were there, unscathed, she would be better served to pack up her memorabilia and have some humility.   Later at my gate, I see people wearing medals and Boston Marathon jackets and I can’t look at them. I board the plane and see them and their little finisher’s tokens hanging on their necks.   I feel incalculable fury.  I think Why in God’s name are you trying to draw attention to yourself?  You are no hero – you finished the race.  You haven’t a scratch on you.  Take that damn medal off.  Stow the jacket.  Later, some friends gently tell me this was their way of ‘showing solidarity’.  I angrily push aside that explanation.  It’s ego and vanity - nothing else.  I can be a vicious, unforgiving critic.

The next day my sister Erin calls me.  She asks me how I’m doing, and I tell her I’m fine, I’m home.  I’m tired, but I’m fine.  I tell her about what I witnessed on Boylston Street and my strange journey after.  I tell her about my anger at the people in the airport, of trying to understand the senselessness of the attack and toll of the loss.  A little boy, a child…  I break down sobbing breathlessly, and am overcome by wave after wave of unimaginable, raw grief.  Is there nothing we can do with reckless joy and abandon? 

The following Thursday evening, the police kill one of the suspects and on Friday evening, the second is captured cowering in a boat on dry land; the nightmare has seemingly ended.  That night, I walk  into my office and pull the finishers medal out of the black velvet bag for the first time since I’d put it in there.  I feel the silken ribbon, the weight of the enameled token, and look at the smiling unicorn, the mythic symbol of the Boston Athletic Association.  I anticipate the warm sense of relief, achievement, and celebration to finally rise inside me.    It doesn’t.  I think about the senseless violence and realize that the cycle will never end.  Despite that, I don’t believe that mankind is inherently evil.   In Boston, there were two seeds of evil amongst the reveling throng of over half a million.  Two.  If mankind were fatally seeped in evil, we would have perished of our own violence and despair a millennia ago.  The medal is what it is: a symbol of a race in a city that is tougher and more resilient than this violence.  That same city will both shelter the victims and dare any evil to come back to this race in this town.

After days of numbing rage and sadness, I feel nothing but fatigue and odd detachment.  I remember the swirl of the race and the things I saw: blind people with guides, runners with one or two prosthetic limbs, inclusive racers being pushed.  I saw a dwarf walking up heartbreak hill and later a man dressed as C3PO.  I saw drunken, joyous Boston College students cheering with such ferocity and glee that in my fatigue the noise was nauseating.  I ran past the screaming Sirens at Wellesley College, and found neighbors and friends in sea of over 24,000 runners and multiple times that many spectators.  I saw hand-made signs of encouragement and hilarity.  I saw barbeques, and people celebrating with kegs of beer.  I saw a group of army men in full gear with packs double-timing the course.   I remember my legs hurting as much as they’d ever hurt but feeling like they weren’t attached to me.  I remember saying prayers as both meditation and plea over the final miles, and in all of this I’m surrounded by a sea of humanity running to a finish line on an impossibly beautiful day because – at the end of it all – the finish line simply exists.   The race was a fantastic dream – fluid and crazy and frenetic, full of characters so colorful I have a hard time believing they are real.  I’m having a hard time believing the entire race as having actually occurred.  Did I imagine it?

The violence after I finished was brutal and vicious; there is nothing remotely poetic or cinematic about it.   It snapped everyone immediately out of their endorphin-fueled joy.  So much of life is lived well in-between the margins of absolutes and it’s rare to feel the outer limits of these measures; It’s even rarer to feel them on the same day.  It’s difficult enough to navigate them in the span of days, let alone a span of minutes.  To go from one to the other mostly requires an external force; there is no way we could muster the desire or strength on our own to willingly endure them.

None of it makes any sense: not the before, not the after.  If I had to choose which half of the day was real – before the explosions or after – I’d have a difficult time.  That they are both real is unfathomable.  The day has now become an exercise of memory.  There are fixed points on a calendar that mark the changing of seasons; they are determined by the position of the sun.  But while the first day of spring comes on a specific day, the first spring day comes on its own schedule.  One we look to with anticipation; the other we greet with much more joy because of its capricious nature and timetable.  You wait on that day, and more often than not, have scant notice of its arrival.  The seasons are precocious children of nature; so is memory. We don’t have control over our memories, but we can exert our influence and discipline over those on which we linger.  As for the others, we must continue – for as long as it takes - to lock them tightly away along with pain and fear, in a sturdy steamer trunk in our soul.