Thursday, August 26, 2010

Airplanes in the Night Sky

Everyday we make choices. Do you need the jolt of caffeine or will decaf do? Has the workout allowed for the favorite lunch or are we going to be a low-fat citizen? Expressway or the road less taken? Most of the time the options are barked by some underpaid, disinterested hourly worker. There’s no urgency in the question or in the process of the decision beyond the few seconds that proceed or follow it. Despite how they may momentarily distract or irritate us, these choices are meaningless in the grand scheme of our lives. We make them often without really thinking about them. Most of the time we are barely paying attention.

On the other side, we have so many ways to occupy ourselves that personally I’ve lost the ability to listen. To be really listen. I can’t remember the last time I waited in line without whipping out my blackberry to check email or search the web, looking for a way to speed the ticking clock. I find myself so distracted by so much noise and static that often I lose the ability to sort out the wheat from the chaff.

I was waiting in the airport for my flight when I had a small lesson on clarity. I’m funny in airports: I’m always looking for a familiar face. I’ve never seen one, but I always look. All those people; I figure the odds are in my favor. Like most people, I try and find a seat away from all the strangers. I read the paper or a book, catch up on work, or return phone calls. But here I was with time to kill and without my tools to kill it: my flight was a bit delayed, the paper was read, and my toys of distraction – blackberry, laptop, and iPod – are out of juice. And not an outlet in sight. The result is a restlessness which is uncomfortable. Life is so busy sometimes I feel I’ve lost the ability to be still, to be quiet. It’s an ongoing effort to still the horses in my head that are ready to break from the gate.

I head to Legal Seafood near the gate to grab a quick bite to eat. It’ll deliciously kill the time. I park my suitcase against the metal bar the divides the small open-air restaurant from the adjoining gate and claim a seat at the end of some stacked tables designed for singles or small groups of fliers not looking for a privacy. I’m lucky on this night to find an empty seat – the rest of the tables are full. My seat is across from a neatly dressed woman who I take to be in business. She’s got a glass of red wine in front of her and she’s staring at her blackberry. She’s on the end and I’m across from her, and next to another traveler and his companion sitting side-by-side. I order my food and sit and think. The company for which I work has just been acquired and there is plenty to work through.

The waiter brings my glass of wine and I swirl and contemplate the straw-colored liquid. This woman across from me – I’ve just about forgotten she’s there. Until she starts talking. A quick glance verifies she’s on her phone. It clearly isn’t a business call. There is something about her voice. She’s speaking in low tones, but I’m so close to her. I can hear a looseness to it, a rawness. She speaks, How could I have been so blind? It was all a lie…I thought it was real. For 3 years, I thought it was real. What would I know – it was the first real thing I’ve had. What do I do now? I keep swirling my wine. I take a sip. I can't betray my eavesdropping ways.  I’m so close to her. It’s odd how anonymity can give someone the feeling of privacy. She takes a deep breath, listening to the person on the other end of the line. She lifts her glass and takes a deep draw. She utters an odd yeah…I know.. uh huh… from time to time. She starts to speak again I know. I know the smart thing to do is to move on. I just don’t know how to do it. I just want to call him, to beg him to make it like before. Pathetic. Goddamn, I’m so pathetic. Please, promise me you won’t let me do that… her voice is quietly shaking. She’s really angry and sad and so all over the map. She’s momentarily distracted at the waiter as he puts down my food. She lifts her hand and catches his eye, points to her glass. She orders another without uttering a single word, her ear still listening to the person on the other end of the line. She keeps talking and I try and focus on my food, my wine.

Shortly, the waiter sets down another glass of wine and then clears her plate of nearly untouched food. The only indication that she’s aware of this is the change of her grasp from the empty glass to the full one. She says I just want to get home. Fall into bed. Wake up when this is all over…She swirls the red liquid; a bit splashes over the edge on to her hand. She lets go of the glass for a second and wipes the back of her hand on a napkin. She’s staring at the placemat, her eyes open, her breathing slowed and regular. Her emotional fatigue or the wine – or a combination of the two – is slowing her down. I swear, between work and him, I’ve been moving so fast for so long, I think I … I don’t know. I think I missed my exit or something. She utters a weary laugh. I’m ashamed at my eavesdropping but equally rewarded with this verbal gem. “Missed my exit.” I literally do that more often than I’d like to admit. I’ll be driving somewhere and will get so caught up in my thoughts that I miss the turn, the street. Recently, I blew through a red light without even being aware of the intersection. I realize this woman was speaking metaphorically, but I instantly boil it down to the dual demons of choices and multitasking. We’re so intent on both of these that we miss so many details – important or not. They are the threads of the fabric of our lives. I sit there and look at the dinner I barely thought about before ordering, and realize I haven’t tasted a bite.

The waiter brings her bill and she mechanically retrieves her credit card. He processes it right in front of her with a clever little gizmo, and prints off three copies of her bill. She scribbles the tip and signs her name and slides one copy across the table to the waiter. She’s still on her phone. She says quietly I’m fine. I’ll call you tomorrow. She disconnects the call and lays her phone on the table. She swirls her wine – gently this time – and takes a sip, then pushes the glass away. She puts her face to her hands and rubs her face, as if removing evidence of the day. She rests her forearms on the table, her hands clasped as if in prayer. She’s looking at her hands then nods her head slowly; I hear a deep sigh. She unclasps her hands and studies her palms for a second or two. I’m struck with the idea that she’s astonished to find them empty. She stares at them for a second longer, then rubs one gently against the other, as if brushing away crumbs. Ok then. This is the last thing she says before gathering her phone and briefcase and heading out of the restaurant.  I watch her, walking across the concourse to her flight home.  I don't know her and am left with the feeling that - despite this - she is oddly familiar.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Note to Self (Race Report for the Crossroads 17.75K)

Dear Monica,

Just a quick note to remind you of a few things. Please think of these as constructive criticism, not the heiney whomping you so richly deserve.

1. Confirm the start time of a race. Preferably the evening before the race as opposed to 30 seconds after you hear the starting gun fire.
Putting the race in your calendar (but not verifying all the details), printing out the confirmation ticket 4 days prior to the race (but not actually reading it), and thinking you know the start of the race is not the same as actually knowing the start time of the race. I'm jogging to the start when I hear the gun go off. I'm thinking "Oh, kids fun run!" Until I see lead pack of very post-pubescent men round the corner. Sprint in opposite direction ("she must have taken the small bus to the race...") about two tenths of a mile and somehow find the packet pick up. Which has been broken down. Nice lady goes into truck, gets number and chip. She's pinning my number on my shorts as I'm putting chip on shoe. She tells me “you better hurry to the start before they break it down…we've radioed down that you're coming” and I sprint toward it thinking that I’ve just used up about 75% of the energy I needed for the entire race…As I pass the starting line – alone - a dozen or so marines cheer me. Humilitation: I ran your gauntlet.

2. Turn on your Garmin well before you need it.
Realize my garmin isn't on. Power it up and it takes half a lifetime to synch. Make a turn onto a street and hope I can see people in the distance. I do, but…mirage? Warm and humid. I have no clue how fast I’m running or how far I’ve gone since Garmin is still scratching its rump. Realize I'm a slave to technology. Wonder how Phiddipedes managed without even the cheapest of Timex choronographs. Catch the walkers ...then the speed walkers...then the back of pack runners. Finally garmin synchs. I haven’t seen mile markers, so I start scanning the crowd of runners for signs of techno running geeks who can give me some clue as to time and distance.

3. As with starting time, make sure you KNOW the terrain.
At mile 2, make a turn into Prince William Park. I’m wearing racing flats which have the advantage of being nice and light, but the disadvantage of not having a lot of cushion. The pavement has been replaced by packed dirt and this big rocky gravel. Ow. Wonder how I'll handle many miles of this. Fortunately the nasty gravel goes away after a while. About the same time I realize I forgot the headband for my hair. While we have hills/trails it is shade covered which is great, and the glasses now are used as de facto headband.

4. In order to take care of essential pre-race business, see memo point #1.
Since I got to race late I was unable to attend to certain pre-race business. Take a bio break at the mile 4 fluid/aid station. It’s very warm/humid and I hadn’t had time to take my pre-race gel or drink as much Gatorade as I’d wanted, so I make the decision to hit every station: 3 gulps of Poweraid, dump cup of water on back of neck/head. One highpoint is I actually execute this in the correct order, which is good because it’s BLUE Poweraid and I would have hated to look like one of those blue smurfycats from Avatar in my race photo.

5. In order to not get frustrated at trying to pass a bunch of people on a narrow trail, see memo point #1.
The trail narrows and passing anyone is an exercise in patience. There are lots of up and downs and funky footing and it’s crowded on the trail. I keep weaving in and out of folks and try to be polite when I pass. There are times I wait rather than do the “gentle nudge past” (aka, ‘elbow shove’) because that person had the good sense to VERIFY WHEN THE RACE ACTUALLY STARTED. However, there is always the one guy. The one who is pissed when you try and pass, even though there is a mass of humanity in front of him. The one who thinks the only thing that stands between him and everlasting glory is NOT the 800 people in front of him, but the lady in the sweaty lime green sports bra next to him. We pass someone at about the same time, and then he tries to lose me. He speeds up and I just keep running my pace and eventually am even with him. He does it again. And a third time. I realize he is incensed he's getting passed by an old broad. I'm thinking "Dude, I started probably 5 minutes behind you." Cue eye roll.

6. Take a peek at the course elevation before the race.
Before I know it I'm about halfway thru. I have no clue what my elapsed time is so I'm just treating it as a hard workout. Then we hit hills. We'd had some up and downs but the trail is now road and these things are monsters. At 8.5 there is a hill so steep I can almost walk it as fast as run it (yes, I test the theory, what the heck, the race is a complete cluster at this point). Then steep down hills which are equally painful. And another half-mile long exquisitely painful hill. Exit park at about 9.5 miles into full sun. Move glasses from top of head to eyes: they are totally smudged and icky. Hit the 10 mile mark, and feel ok - legs are trashed from hills - I'm tired, its hot, and I just want to be done. But at least we’re on flat pavement. We make a turn on the street that goes to the National Museum of the Marine Corps and the finish. It’s uphill. At this point I want a quick death. Turn into entrance to museum - still uphill. And, well, I start grunting. Literally. Every exhale I'm sounding like Monica Seles hitting a killer forehand. Embarassing but I'm exhausted.

7. There is no grunting in road races.
Finally the uphill gives way to a gentle downhill. I see the finish line. I’m grunting louder and louder which is just disturbing. TO ME. I can't speak for those who were running near me. I cross the finish line and continue the gruntfest. A Marine hands me a bottled water and I hand it to another because I swear I can’t open it. He does it without asking questions because any Marine has good sense enough not to mess with a grunting, sweaty, stinky, exhausted, organizationally-challenged woman. And don’t even talk to me about the race photos…we're talking a Code Blue to the Makeup Unit.

8. Marines run great races.
All runners can appreciate a well-organized, well-staffed, well-stocked race. But there are also the very special ‘only the Marines’ intangibles that make these races so special: a strong "looking good ma’am", the funny signs planted at intervals throughout the race, my favorite pair being a photo of a barking drill Sergeant and “MY GRANDPA IS ABOUT TO PASS YOU…” followed by “IN HIS WALKER!!!!!”, a randomly called ‘OORAH’, and the finish line organization that is world class. Not to mention the fact that they bent over backward to the disorganized piker who couldn't even get to the starting line on time. And beer company race sponors. Which mean BEER AT THE FINISH. 9:15 am, Micholob Ultra, Breakfast of Champions. Oorah.