Wednesday, December 11, 2013

tell it to me straight

Today, I'm going to tackle two Reverb prompts at once, in an attempt to catch up:

1. Who inspired you in 2013? And why? What gifts did they give you? And how will you carry these forward in to 2014?

2. What challenges lie ahead in 2014? How might you meet them boldly?

I have always gravitated toward straight talkers. This is probably because straight talking is a quality to which I aspire. Not blunt, tactless straight talking; more of an honesty that is filtered through sensitivity to people’s feelings. I practice this art in my comments on student papers (“I see an attempt at analysis here, but you haven’t quite explored this question to the best of your ability. . . .”), but when confronted with a direct question, I am more likely to mumble a neutral response. So, while my intent is to spare the other person’s feelings, what ends up happening instead is that my true meaning gets lost in the vagueness of my reply.

This has sometimes led to consternation on the part of my students. Under our program at Quinnipiac, students do not receive grades on individual assignments. Instead, they receive a grade on their portfolios at the midterm and then at the final. They are left, in the meantime, to interpret my comments on their work. Caressed by gentle, encouraging (but still critical) words on their work all semester, they have, at times, been confounded by the grade, even though I also use a rubric to let them know where their work falls with regard of our curricular goals.

A couple of years ago, in a Reverb post, I resolved to be more of a “hard-ass” in my teaching. My ass is definitely harder than it was then, but there’s room for improvement. Still a little cushy on the outside.

Fortunately, the older I get, the less tolerant I am of lazy work. I sometimes tell my students about two of my favorite professors in college, Dr. Bucco and Dr. Lindstrom. Both were notoriously hard graders. But Dr. Bucco, for whatever reason, decided early on that I was an “A” student, no matter what I did. If I got an answer wrong on an exam, he would give me points for making a “clever guess.” On an essay I wrote at 3am (I worked the overnight shift in a group home), barely awake and certainly far from lucid in my thinking, he wrote, “Good enough!” and gave me an A- rather than the C I surely deserved. Lindstrom, on the other hand, had no favorites, though he was my advisor and we got along very well, in spite of his sternness (we still correspond to this day). He taught 18th Century British Lit, and could refer to passages and page numbers in thousand-page tomes without even picking up the books. His was my first English class at Colorado State, and I was terrified. I had taken a few years off from college, and I was sure this would show in my writing, that I would be laughed right out of the English program. But I found myself with an A average. So I began to rest on my laurels. I wrote my essay on Fielding’s Tom Jones in an hour. “This is just getting too easy,” I said to myself, with a congratulatory pat on the back. I got the paper back a week later, and written in Lindstrom’s curt handwriting were the words: “Very straightforward, Tricia. And dull.” Boom. B-minus. I couldn’t believe it.
I went to Lindstrom’s office—not to ask him to change the grade, but to try to salvage my ego. Ostensibly, the visit was to talk about my transfer credits. “By the way,” I said timidly, “I was surprised at your comments on my last essay. It’s the lowest grade I’ve gotten.”

He did the facial equivalent of a shrug: a smirk and a raised eyebrow. “So fix it.” That was it. No “Don’t worry too much about it; the rest of your work has been great.” Just straight talk.

In relating these stories to my students, I always ask, “For which professor do you think I worked harder? The one who had decided my work was ‘good enough,’ or the one who was willing to call me on my laziness?”

My friend Elizabeth is a straight talker (read her post “Being Out There Again”, also part of this year’s Reverb project). My first interaction with her was at a writer’s group, several years ago. She had recently moved back to the States from London, and was brand new to our meet-up. The day she arrived, my story was up for discussion.

“I was late getting here tonight because of you!” one of the readers exclaimed breathlessly, pulling my story out of her shoulder bag. “I just loved your story! The descriptions of the mountains were so beautiful, and I really enjoyed your writing style.” She gushed for a few minutes, flattering me, but not really saying anything very specific. Though I am generally very self-critical, I was enjoying having my ego stroked. “Thank you,” I said, with the self-satisfied air of one who has written something meaningful.

Then it was Elizabeth’s turn. She smiled her pretty, direct smile. “Well, it was a nice story, and I met a lot of interesting folks along the way. But it’s not going in any editor’s ‘yes’ pile.”

I took a sip of my beer, my cheeks coloring. Elizabeth—bluntly, and with all the wit of one who had begun to consider herself a Londoner--pointed out all of the places where my description was too wordy (an annoying, persistent trait of mine), and where I relied on cliches rather than coming up with my own similes and metaphors. The protagonist was likeable enough, but mushy. I heard, for the zillionth time, my former Creative Writing prof’s voice in my head: “Your writing is lovely, but you need to get your characters off the couch.”

When Elizabeth had finished, she smiled again. “Would anyone else like to borrow my soapbox?” she asked, looking around at the other members of the group.

My ego had long since retreated and was now curled up in fetal position with the shades drawn. I laughed it off, said a polite “thank you,” and finished my beer. I didn’t write for a week or so. At first I was angry, thinking her comments unfair. But when I picked up Elizabeth’s copy of my story later on, I had to admit that the criticism was not unfounded. Because she was right. What’s more, she had done me a favor in grabbing me by the shirt and saying, “Stop being so lazy, girlfriend. Have you read any literary journals lately? Do you even know what the market looks like? And what’s up with your tired imagery?”

Bryan's a straight talker, too. So, while I am sometimes frustrated by his inability to lie when I ask him something like, "Does this shirt look okay with these pants?" at the same time, I know I'm getting an honest answer. His compliments mean that much more because I know they are sincere.

I have noticed a common characteristic in straight talkers: they also tend to be doers. Elizabeth has started her own “demand poetry” business. She and her husband took in a family of four foster children, all at the same time, all of them under 6 (they have since adopted the kids, who are gorgeous, intelligent, and always polite). My friend Kristen, a wonderfully sweet straight talker, built a chicken coop with her own hands, using power tools I’m scared to touch, let alone operate. And I’m not talking about a crude little box; she built these lucky chicks a two-story deluxe condo, with flowers painted on each side. The next spring, she constructed a sprawling garden, where she grows everything from pumpkins to edamame to strawberries and purple beans. While I was dreaming of a home in the mountains “somewhere in the future”, Kristen said, “I want to live in New Hampshire,” and she was gone in six months. When your talk is uncluttered, so is your determination.

I have learned, in my writing, to get rid of the extraneous crap that only distracts the reader from the meaning of the sentence (my friend Kathy is very adept at taking what she calls her “machete” to my semi-final drafts, cutting them down to Raymond Carver size). And I’m not afraid to tell my students when their work is “non-passing” (I’m not yet bold enough to say they’ve written “utter shit,” as my friend Roger has done. He’s British, so the phrase sounds charming). I plan to continue to learn how to use this straight-talk tool in effective ways, with the goal of transforming direct talk into direct action.

So, how will I “boldly go forward in 2014”? I probably won’t take such an extreme approach to commenting on my students’ work. But I do find that when I am blunt with them, they are more likely to see that resting on old habits is not an option. And I explain to them that my comments aren’t “corrections”: they are the suggestions of someone who cares enough about their work to see it shine. Whether they believe this or not, I can’t always tell. I still use what Roger calls the “praise sandwich”: praise, followed by critique, followed by praise. But instead of rich chocolate Oreos on the outside, I now use ginger snaps. They’re sharp, and they go right to the taste buds.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

what went right

Today's prompt comes from Summer Pierre, author of the book The Artist in the Office.

Summer writes:

What went right in 2013?

Maybe you didn't quit smoking or lose those pounds or go to Paris, but something did work, did happen, and/or was realized. What was it?

For me, what “went right” is not a milestone moment, or a situation-altering life event. For better or worse, there have been few of those in 2013.

But if 2013 has been uneventful in the Hollywood sense, it has been rich in the "Indie sense,"with tiny moments that, added together, have made this past year one that has gone “right." Here are a few snapshots:

Dinner and the movie version of “Les Miserables” with Mom, our post-Christmas outing. Anne Hathaway's intensely beautiful Fantine. Private catharsis.

Icicles on my eyelashes on a wintry morning in March, as I awoke in a tent in the White Mountains next to two women who were equally excited to see snow outside the tent door. Later, we trudged up the bottom section of Mt. Washington, downhill skis and boots strapped to our backpacks, for the incomparable thrill of skiing down the Sherburne Trail in fresh powder. Two hours up, twenty minutes down. Almost as thrilling was our butt-slide down Mt. Garfield the following day.

Thursday nights at Mt. Southington with Dylan and Alexa. Watching Alexa watch the sunset, the aqua blue of her ski jacket contrasting, but also blending, with the pink and orange dusk, the white trail. My proud anxious heart as I stared at my kids' backs and then watched them disappear down their first black diamond trail.

Adopting Zina the wonder dog.

Winning the Traprock 17k!

Reaching the summit of Timp Pass at the Bear Mountain 50k, tasting tears and sweat and dirt (and potatoes). Crossing the finish line, knowing I had almost given up halfway through. Post-race beer.

Friday morning trail runs, followed by Friday morning coffee.

Being part of Dylan’s first “big summit,” a long, rewarding hike to the summit of Mt. Washington and back down again. Well-earned pizza at the Flatbread Company in North Conway. Beer.

An impromptu outburst of “Do You Hear the People Sing?” on Easter, led by our kids and their so-cool friends.

Pearl Jam double date. Three hours of Eddie Vedder.

Reading the results of the school committee election in Waltham with immense pride for my sister, who rocked it.

Reading We would like to publish your short story….

The sky outside my west-facing living room window at 4:00 in late fall, warm tea in a mug designed by Lexi, dogs at my feet, fire in the woodstove, winter whispering from the draft underneath the sill.

The realization that I could spend several hours responding to the question in the prompt.

That’s what.

selfie, back side

Okay, here it is:

Today's prompt: Please share your favorite "selfie" of 2013. The photo can be one that you took yourself, or one that someone took of you.

Yes, I know, that's my tush, and I mean no offense. But I'm notoriously un-photogenic, unlike my friend Elizabeth Howard, whose own gorgeous selfies are the subject of her Reverb post today.

It's my tush, but it's still my favorite: I'm in the early stages of a very long day of riding some of the steepest, most picturesque dirt roads in Western Massachusetts, on a bike built (from scratch) by Bryan. No, you can't see my face--but if I had looked over my shoulder, I surely would have crashed.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

jay peak with dog

Today's Reverb prompt comes from Alana Lawson. Alana writes:

“True wisdom lies in gathering the precious things out of each day as it goes by.”— E.S. Bouton

There are so many “precious things” that are presented to us each day; discoveries and treasures found in simple moments, memories we wish to store in our hearts and keep with us forever.

What precious things have you gathered in 2013?

Which memories from this year do you wish to keep with you always?

“I don’t want to go hiking!”

This pouting complaint was uttered by each of the four kids in our rented house in East Burke, Vermont: our two kids, and the two children of our good friends, Joshi and Noah.

It was our fourth day in the Northeast Kingdom, and we had been blessed all week with gorgeous weather. This meant that we were spending a lot of time on our bikes, as our rental was within biking distance of Kingdom Trails. The older kids were (mostly) thrilled with the epic bike rides; the younger ones put up a bit more of a fight.

On Wednesday, we woke up to rain, or drizzle, depending on who you asked. Someone suggested that we drive up to Jay Peak. From the road, it was just a couple of miles to the summit (never mind the grade). We could do a “quick” hike, and then surprise the kids with a trip to the water park at the Jay Peak Resort.

None of the kids responded with enthusiasm. The grown-ups insisted.

On a whim, I decided that we should take Zina, our very un-Lab-like Chocolate Lab mix. Given the choice, Zina would prefer a quiet quarter-mile walk to a hike. I had tried to take her running with me, and had been met with resistance, sometimes right in the middle of a run, sometimes miles from home.

But, I didn’t want to leave her alone for the day in a rented house. I decided I’d hike with her, and when she was ready to turn around, I would turn around with her. Given the collective mood, we probably weren’t going to make it to the summit, anyway.

Zina, it turned out, became a focal point of the hike. The kids forgot about the misery of their tired legs as they encouraged Zina to “keep going!” She responded to their cheers with an energy that came from a place I hadn’t seen before. The kids helped her scramble up difficult sections, eager now to reach the top, despite the slightly chilly rain.

Zina, formerly known as Diva, formerly known as Daisy, formerly known as who knows what, is a rescue dog. She came up from Alabama on a transport truck last January. She had been in a shelter, and was a stray before then. Before that, someone had clearly loved her a lot, because she is gentle and sweet and came with an impressive repertoire of tricks, including “roll over.” But it was clear she hadn’t gotten a lot of exercise, and, at least in the beginning, found our usual level of activity a little bit annoying. So, seeing her conquer her first Green Mountain summit was very gratifying. I knew that it wasn’t about the peak for her; it was about staying with her pack. But in her desire to keep the pack intact, she had become the leader: the kids’ joy in watching our couch-potato dog hike to the top was reflected in the pride they felt in their own accomplishment.

These two photos make me smile, not only because of the “glory” of the day, but also because of the deep sense of affection I feel for these kids, these friends, this place, this dog.

Friday, December 6, 2013

clipped in

Today's prompt comes from Kat McNally:

What was the greatest risk you took in 2013? What was the outcome?

For the past three years, I have been competing (I use that term very loosely) in a gritty, grueling, beautiful, often muddy event called the Vermont 50. It’s a 50-mile mountain bike race over singletrack trails and dirt roads, with 9,500 feet of elevation gain. Finishing the race, regardless of time, is always a huge accomplishment for me. But this year, the accomplishment was twofold: I finished the race, and I stayed clipped in.

By this I mean that, for most of the race, I kept both feet clipped into my pedals. A few years ago, after much coaxing from Bryan, I made the switch from platform pedals to “clipless”—a misnomer, since these pedals require you to clip your bike shoe right into the pedal itself, so that you become, quite literally, one with your bike.

As you can probably imagine, there’s a learning curve involved in making such a switch. It’s a mental game. My first few tries were disheartening. I didn’t fall, but that was only because I didn’t take any chances; I was too afraid I wouldn’t be able to clip out and put down my foot if my bike started to go over. I was ready to give up, to go back to platforms. Why switch now? Bryan suggested I try multi-release cleats: these cleats have more side-to-side motion, allowing the rider to clip out more easily. I decided to give these a try (despite the fact that our local bike shop won’t even consider selling them, the implication being that they aren’t for “serious” bikers. Fortunately, they were easy to find online).

These pedals helped. Somewhat. Slowly, I was able to (gingerly) clear obstacles I had only tackled on my platforms, without thinking, constantly, about my feet. The first few months were tough. Any time the terrain became remotely technical, I clipped out. And in my first two Vermont 50 races, which were colossal mud-fests, I spent almost the entire race with one foot clipped and one un-clipped. I had to have one foot at the ready—you know, just in case.

“It’s a confidence thing,” Bryan assured me—which, of course, I already knew.

It’s more than confidence, though. It’s commitment. It takes determined commitment to be “all in.” I have always been something of a “commitment-phobe.” This is due, in part, to the fact that I am not a planner, and don’t do well with itineraries, therefore commitment to any kind of schedule has always been daunting. But it’s also due to a subtle insecurity, one that has plagued me my whole life. And while I wouldn’t necessary refer to myself as “risk averse,” many of my decisions are overshadowed by timidity.

Being half-clipped makes it hard for me to consider myself a “real” mountain biker. I hear the snooty bike tech’s voice in my head: “We don’t even carry those clips.” He added, when I asked if he could order them, “I would suggest going to a parking lot or a grassy park and practicing clipping in and out.” As if I hadn’t already ridden hundreds of miles on my clipless pedals.

I have been thinking about this propensity for being “half-clipped” with regard to my writing. For years, I have been working on a collection of short stories. Every summer, I send one or two of them off to literary journals or other publications, and last spring, I even had some success. But I’ve never been able to call myself “a writer,” and because of that, I’m only clipped in with one foot. I can’t commit, especially when there’s laundry and dinner and dogs to walk. How can I justify spending time writing when I don’t have the “cred,” as my writer friend Kathy calls it, to back it up?

Kathy, as it turns out, has been a tremendous influence on my willingness to consider writing a legitimate form of “work.” She’s got the cred—she published a novel last year, is working on her second, and has published in a number of journals. But in order to get that cred, you’ve got to be willing to let go of the “shoulds,” and clip both feet into your pedals, if only for an hour at a time.

Kathy, like me, teaches composition, a time-consuming profession. “How on earth do you get any writing done during the semester?” I asked her recently.

Her response was matter-of-fact: “I schedule it in.” Such simple logic. “Instead of saying, ‘I am off on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, I say, ‘I work from 9-12 on those days.’ I consider myself to be at work, and I don’t schedule anything else.” She’s clipped in with both feet.

This seems easy enough, and I have been able to implement this strategy to a certain extent, but there is still risk involved: seemingly trivial risks, but risks nonetheless. The risk of being called “self-centered,” because while I’m writing, the laundry and dust are piling up, so instead of being called a writer, I’m called a neglectful housekeeper. This name-calling, I should point out, comes from my own head, not from anyone in my family. I risk resentment from my dogs, who sigh and stare at me while I’m at the keyboard, or who take their frustration out by wrestling and knocking into my chair.

And there are risks that come later: now that you’ve called yourself “a writer,” you need to show something for it. What have you produced? Who’s interested in reading it? Where’s your cred?

Cred, of course, needs to begin with oneself. If you don’t think of yourself as “legit,” then no one else will, either.

I should note that even though I finished the VT 50 with both feet clipped, I stuck with my multi-release cleats, despite the disdain of Bike Tech. And I don’t feel bad about it, either: if the cleats give me confidence, make me feel more like the rider I was on platforms, then who cares?

I’m going to have to take the same approach to writing. Obviously, I can’t always devote large chunks of time (though that would be lovely), but maybe spending a few hours a week at the keyboard, and referring to it as “work” rather than thinking of it as a hobby, will allow me to clip all the way in, maybe even jump a log or two. That is, if I can keep from getting injured along the way.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

trying to get back

Note: This month, I am participating in a blog project called Reverb 13. Each day during December, writers respond to a prompt from another blogger.

Today's prompt comes from Jill Salahub, who writes:

This past year, we have all experienced so much loss and experienced so much grief -- in relationships, through sickness and death, from mental illness or abuse, because of finances, even due to the need for healthy change.

It is good to honor those shifts, to fully feel them, so that we can let go of what needs surrendering, and remember what is worthy of our love and gratitude.

What have you lost, what are you grieving?

Last night, my daughter Alexa, who just turned 8, was giving me her usual bedtime hug. Ever since she was a toddler, she has squeezed me tightly before going to sleep, squealing, “Cuddly-cuddly-ee-ee!” To this, I always respond with, “Snuggly-snuggly-ooh-ooh.” After last night’s hug, as she pulled away, I said, with a rueful chuckle, “Someday you’re going to say, ‘Mom, enough of that. You’re so lame.’”

To my surprise, her eyes filled up with tears, and she buried her face in my shoulder. “Lexi, honey,” I said, “it’s okay. This silly little routine will be replaced by something else, something good.”

“But I don’t want it to be replaced,” she sobbed. “I don’t want to grow up.”

I assured her that we would always have special moments, some even as goofy as the bedtime snuggle session. I told her that my dad kept a treasure chest of silly sayings from our childhood, pulling them out at family gatherings well into our adulthood. He referred to my sister Kaytie as “the child” right up until the time of his death, despite the fact that she was thirty years old. And he often used these childhood moments as a way of keeping alive the memory of my brother, Mike, who died a few years before Dad. “Why did Ernie and Bert go in the water?” he’d ask every now and then, repeating a “joke” made up by Mike when he was three or four. We’d smile, waiting for the “punch line.”

“Because they went in the water! Ha ha ha ha ha!”

One Christmas, Michael, who was probably six or seven, gave my other brother, Joey, a gift he was never able to live down. Like the rest of us, Mike bought his Christmas presents at the elementary school bazaar. This year, he had apparently found the perfect gift for Joe: a tiny, plastic Barney Rubble. This present, wrapped in yellow composition paper, became known, infamously, as “the glass Barney.” “Who’s getting the glass Barney this year?” we'd ask every December.

The year after Mike died, I found Glass Barney on ebay, paid about twenty times what Mike must have paid, and gave it to Joe for Christmas. Mike may be gone, but his spirit lives on in the form of a one-inch Flintstones character that was made in China. A peculiar but nonetheless soothing form of grief.

Lexi wasn’t comforted by any of these stories, and to be honest, neither was I. Our shared grief over the parting of her early-childhood self hung in the air between us, even as I told her it’s important to celebrate each stage.

This phrase is one I have to repeat to myself more and more frequently: celebrate each stage. It’s often difficult, and sad, to reconcile the photos of chubby-faced, wide-eyed toddlers with the wiry, sturdy children who pull a little further away with each passing year. I hardly think Alexa will be calling me from her dorm room, ready for her “cuddly cuddly” goodnight. But I hope I will be celebrating her independence, and Dylan’s, rather than lamenting the empty nest.

When Lexi was a baby, Dylan, like most older siblings, went through an adjustment period. As the first grandchild on the Dowcett side, he was especially pampered, so he was understandably miffed when this screaming little red-faced monster disrupted his princely existence. Somewhere between the ages of two and a half and three, he began to take out this frustration on his sister, often by slapping her. We yelled a lot. One evening, while we were giving Lexi her bath, Dylan offered to help, as he often did. Lexi was in a foul mood (she turned into a demon after dark). Dylan tried to console her by “reading” to her: “Caterpillar still hungry. . . still hungry. . . .” This only intensified her howling. Out of ideas, he slapped her. We put him in time out.

He sat by the ottoman in front of the fire, crying real heartfelt tears. After a couple of minutes, I asked, “Do you know why you are in time out?”

He said, struggling to find the words, “There’s things I’m trying to get back to that I can’t get back to.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, though I knew. I was stunned by the clarity of this statement. That I can’t get back to.

“Loving you,” he responded. “You guys loving me.”

He was clearly grieving for an earlier time, before he had heard the word “no,” and before he had to share our love. He wasn’t yet ready to celebrate the presence of his sister. He had captured the essence of grief with his clunky phrasing: things I'm trying to get back to that I can't get back to.

“Mourning,” was the term the doctor used when I told him about this conversation. “He's mourning what he's lost. He’s a complicated little guy, and you need to give him a narrative for understanding this grief.” But I was still trying to understand it myself.

I came back to Dylan’s words two nights ago, as we were driving home from Lexi’s birthday dinner. In the darkness of the car, she posed a dreaded question: “Mom and Dad, I have to ask you something, and PLEASE be honest.”

I knew what she was going to ask before the words left her mouth. “Do you and Dad buy the Christmas presents?”

I was dumbstruck by her plea to “be honest.” How should I respond? I wasn’t sure what to say, but my initial, nonverbal reaction was one of grief. Is the Santa phase of our lives really over? With so little warning?

“For each other?” I asked, stalling. “Of course. Santa’s gifts are for kids.”

“Nooo! For us. Because Ella said there’s no Santa Claus, and she said her parents told her.”

“Um. . . well. . . Hey, what's that out the window?"

Dylan rushed to the rescue. We’re pretty sure he’s hip to the Santa Scam, but he’s not ready to face this kind of loss. “Of course Santa buys the presents, Lexi!” he insisted. “Mom and Dad don’t have that kind of money.”

“Then why did Ella say that?”

Bryan put a stop to the conversation, allowing us to hold on to the moment a bit longer: “It’s Christmas Magic, Lexi. You have to believe for it to be real. Don’t question Christmas magic." Period. My Dad, who was more excited about Santa than any grown-up I have ever known, would have been proud of Bryan’s quick thinking. I could almost feel him smiling down.

I’m guessing this is the last year that Santa will squeeze his way down our chimney. And I know Christmas really isn’t about Santa, anyway, and shouldn’t be, but it is hard to let go of the magic, even if it will eventually “need surrendering,” as Jill says. Even as my fingers set out to echo Jill’s words—“honor those shifts”—my mind drifts back to Christmas two years ago, when we bought a Kit Kitteridge doll on eBay for Lexi and dressed her in Christmas clothes. Since we didn’t have the box to wrap, we stuck a bow on her head and sat her under the tree. Lexi laughed at “Santa’s little joke.”

But if I’m truly honoring the shift, feeling it fully, rather than grieving for what's lost, then what I should embrace is the gratitude I feel in giving back a little of the joy the kids have brought to our lives. They bring other things, too, but mostly joy. The magic is not so much in the guy in the red suit, or in the fairy who takes a tooth and leaves a dollar; it’s in the connection we feel with our kids in these moments. We make the magic, the magic brings joy, and we feel fulfilled. This connection will shift and twist in the next several years: it will be tested, knotted, possibly torn. But if we can let go of what was and welcome what is and what’s coming, then it should at least stay intact.

I can already sense that in losing the little kids, I am gaining two smart, adventurous, loving companions. But it’s okay to cry in a corner for a few minutes, right?

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

the heart of december

Note: This month, I am participating in a blog project called Reverb 13. Each day during December, subscribers are emailed a writing prompt.

Today's prompt: What does your heart tell you?

My heart, late autumn:

I confess that I sometimes question,
That I always crave, and often pine;
That I keep looking for that photograph, never taken, of a woman who once was,
or will be, me.
And wonder if, and whether, and if ever.

I get vertigo on the most ordinary peaks
And am sometimes haunted by the Borealis,
Dancing unabashedly in the darkness,
Hinting at a cosmic magic
That exists beyond my grasp.

And sometimes, in a quiet moment,
I feel, with sudden apprehension,
That the story I'm writing has no theme
And is reaching a conclusion
That is out of my hands.

But I think I will love you in spite of
and just the same.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

kicking the bell jar to the curb

It is the first day of December. It is the first day of Summer here in the Southern Hemisphere, but it may the first day of Winter where you are.

Note: This December, I am participating in Reverb13, a blog project in which writers respond to a prompt each day during the month, reflecting on the year that has passed, and the one that is about to begin. Prompts can be found at

It is the first day of Reverb13.

How do you feel, on this first day, in your mind? In your body? In your soul?

Funny you should ask, because lately I have been feeling as though I’m crawling slowly toward the bell jar. The bell jar, for me, is unfamiliar territory: I am prone to occasional bouts of melancholy, even crabbiness, but never downright depression. I don’t get Seasonal Affective Disorder, or the Holiday Blues. And I’m not labeling this present state of blah with a capital “d,” but this heavy emotional sluggishness certainly feels physiological, and somewhat out of my control.

So I think it’s fitting that the above question, “How do you feel?” is in three parts: mind, body, soul. I’m going to respond in a different order, though, because I think my present state of mind and soul is directly connected to my state of body.

Broken foot=broken mind.

(I’m also prone to bouts of hyperbole.) Five or six weeks ago, I was walking out my door into the driveway, carrying the recycling bin. I tripped, rolled my ankle, and broke the fifth metatarsal of my right foot—a “Jones fracture,” particularly pesky because of its location. The lack of blood flow to that area of the foot makes it less likely to heal.

“You must be going crazy!” friends exclaimed. “How are you going to survive without running?” Truthfully, I wasn’t too concerned at first. Being “laid up” presented an opportunity for me to spend more time on writing projects (and I have been amazed at how much more time I have to sit down at my desk), and I would still be able to go to the gym and work on core exercises. And the crutches were a pretty good workout. So, I wasn’t completely devastated when my women’s mountain biking trip to Kindgdom Trails, Vermont (Mecca for mountain bikers in the northeast) turned into a weekend spent in the sitting room of a bed and breakfast, looking out over the Green Mountains and working on a short story while my friends tore it up on Kitchell and Troll Stroll and Tap-n-Die, three of my favorite trails. I took walking breaks, hobbling up to Heaven’s Bench on my crutches. I had, in my humble opinion, a good attitude about the injury.

But the gig is up. We’ve had the most gorgeous, temperate New England autumn in years, and I’ve participated in epic trail runs only through race reports, Facebook status updates, and running blogs. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not dwelling. I think of the folks in last year’s Boston Marathon who lost limbs, or lives. Of people who are terminally ill, or in wheelchairs. Really, I’m aware that the injury is trivial, and barely prevents me from going about my regular business. But I do believe this grey mood is due to lack of exercise. I miss the trails. Trail running is exercise for the body, mind and soul: hills, roots and rocks provide a physical challenge; the intense focus that is required of both brain and body stimulates the mind; and the scents, sights, and landscapes one encounters in the woods are like Merlot for the soul. Now that my cardiovascular exercise is mostly limited to a quarter-mile hobble down the nearby cul-de-sac (I did hike the carriage trail at Sleeping Giant on Thursday, but the foot protested loudly), there’s an antsy-ness, a physical frustration that becomes, after a time, a sort of motivational lethargy. When the blood’s not flowing to the foot, the blood’s not flowing to the soul. Mind says: “Must. Run.” Body says: “Sorry, pal.” Soul says: “Sigh.” And then: “Blah.”

But it’s a passing mood, and that knowledge is in itself a sort of antidote to my first-world malaise. And I feel a little guilty for starting my Reverb project on such a gloomy note. But the question got me thinking, not for the first time, about the connection between exercise/fresh air and state of mind. I have long been a fan of Richard Louv’s well-researched book, Last Child in the Woods, in which he discusses the connections between our over-scheduled, indoor-centric culture and ADHD. When kids misbehave, they lose their recess. When they lose their recess, they misbehave. And so the cycle continues. I can sense their frustration: the thought of four more weeks in this boot makes me want to pick up a chair and throw it. But recess is coming. I just need to sit quietly at my desk a little while longer. . . .

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

one bear of an ultra

(photo credit: Hillary Johnson)

Note: this race report also appears on

Race Report: The North Face Endurance Challenge 50k, Bear Mountain State Park, New York

The day began early in Anthony Wayne Recreation Area, the huge lot that serves as the shuttle pick-up and drop off area for the Bear Mountain Race. I was fortunate enough to have carpooled with my friend Sue, who owns a 19-foot Sprinter, fully equipped with beds, sink, lights, phone chargers, and that all-important piece of runner’s equipment, the coffee maker. We camped in the far end of the lot, saving us the trouble of having to drive from hotel to shuttle and allowing us at least 15 extra minutes of sleep.

My alarm went off at 5:25am. A few fellow campers stood in front of the pop-up next door. Three of them were wearing down jackets, hats and gloves. Though the forecast was for sunny skies and warm temps, the morning air in the Catskills had a bite to it. I dressed quickly. As I pulled tight the laces on my Salomon XTs, I heard the sound of fabric tearing. I looked down to see a two-inch-long, half-inch wide rip in my right shoe. To be fair, the shoes had been around the trails a few times, and had a few small holes here and there, but since the soles were in good condition, I liked to think of these holes as extra ventilation. This new rip, however, was a little disconcerting. I wondered if the aid stations stocked duct tape. Too jittery for a proper breakfast, I nibbled on a bagel and banana, filled my mug with rocket fuel, and made my way over to the shuttle.

The race is sponsored by North Face, so I shouldn’t have been surprised by the booths, massage tents, and general glitz one usually finds at road races. But, having recently run only trail races in which you practically need a GPS just to find the starting area, I found myself somewhat awed. The packet pick-up booth was staffed with young, tan blonde women decked out in colorful North Face hats and jackets. An unstaffed booth held a large bowl of free energy swag: Clif Bars, Shot Blocks, gel packs. Three or four warming stations, small fires giving off welcome heat, peppered the area just beyond the starting line. There was a podium. Later, runners would take turns posing with resident North Face Ultrarunner Dean Karnazes, the superstar behind the event.

The 50k start was divided into two waves. I tried not to think too much about the elevation chart on the course guide, which really had to be a joke, anyway. A sadistic joke. Approximately 5,000 feet of elevation gain, and almost 10,000 feet of elevation change. If not a joke, then surely a typo.

Having gone out much too quickly in my last 50k, I sidled up next to my training pal and toughest competitor, “Nadia,” so nicknamed for her trademark cartwheels across the finish line. I had no delusions of keeping up with Nadia for the whole race, but I have witnessed her conservative starting strategy, so I decided she’d be a good running buddy for the first few miles.

As Nadia and I wove our way through the runners, vying for a decent position before we hit single track, one thing became immediately and abundantly clear: I hadn’t tapered properly. Tapering is usually the part of the training process I look forward to most, and unlike a lot of runners I know, I tend to taper conservatively—three weeks rather than the more trendy two. I have even been preachy on occasion: “Smart tapering is every bit as important as smart training.” But, the previous week, there had been a half marathon in my town—on roads!—and I hadn’t been able to resist the temptation to run. “It’ll be a training run,” I said. “Yeah, right,” my husband responded.

His dubiousness was not unfounded. It’s tough (impossible?)not to get caught up when you’re running with people who are actually racing. As a result, I ran much faster than I would normally, on terrain (pavement) that is much more unforgiving than dirt. By Thursday, two days before Bear Mountain, I was still sore and stiff. I felt slightly better by Friday, but the first hill on Saturday morning let me know that my legs had not recovered.

“Not sure I have this in me today,” I said to Nadia. She reminded me that it often takes 7 or 8 miles for the legs to warm up. That’s true, I thought. This will be a recovery run. I’ll take it nice and slow. I won’t worry about place, or time. I’ll just enjoy the scenery. Right. A 31-mile recovery run.

For the first four or five miles, my feet were the focal point. I was worried the laces wouldn’t hold; at this point, they were the only thing keeping my right shoe together. But as the field of runners thinned out and the course became more technical, I had to concentrate on the terrain, which often consisted of sharp rocks covered in loose, dry leaves. The first four miles were mostly uphill, though not strenuous (at least, not for someone running on fresh legs).

At mile 3.9, runners arrive at the first aid station, which is back at Anthony Wayne. I had my first salt-soaked potato of the day, hoping it would serve as a magic elixir for my legs. From the aid station, runners encounter about a mile of technical trail. This was the terrain I found most appealing: the rocks were a mental distraction from my fatigue, the single track reminiscent of the trails I run in Connecticut, at Sleeping Giant and West Rock and Brooksvale Park.
More challenging was the .6 mile section of road (according to the course guide, this is a section where runners can “relax” before heading back into the woods). The air was beginning to heat up, and without treacherous terrain to distract me, I had to focus on the arduous task of actually running. Fortunately, Silvermine Lake was to my right, giving me a much needed aesthetic focal point. The field had really spread by now, and, back in the woods, I found myself alone at times. At one point, the path was overrun with fallen trees, and police tape diverted runners away from the trail: it was honest-to-goodness bushwhacking. The guy in front of me halted, then scratched his head. “I actually don’t do much trail running,” he confessed. “Is this really the trail?”

“Well,” I said, “it’s a trail. It’s marked with ribbons, so it’s the right way.”

He allowed me to pass him, and I waded through the prickly brush. Just after this came a technical ascent up a single track trail. I took small steps, my quads heavy and tight. I heard footsteps; someone was actually running this section. Nadia, whom I had encountered at the aid station at mile 13.9 about five minutes earlier, came sailing up behind me, looking fresh and strong. “See you at the next aid station!” she called cheerily as she passed, but I knew I wouldn’t be seeing her again until the finish.

I don’t have a 50k in me today, I thought again. The Les Miserables soundtrack played endlessly in my head, getting stuck for a while on the line, “How long, oh Lord, before you let me die?” Somewhere around mile 15, I decided I’d had enough. At the next aid station—which, conveniently, was at the shuttle parking lot—I was out. My first DNF. I was sad, and I cursed myself for having run that half marathon last week, but I considered it a lesson learned. I’d come next year, do a smarter taper, actually enjoy the course.

As I trudged down the paved road into the aid station at Anthony Wayne, Cathi, a woman from my trail running club, passed by in her car. “Go get ‘em, Trish!” she yelled. “You look great! Nadia’s up ahead!”

The energetic volunteers at the station uttered similar words of encouragement. “You look really fresh,” they lied. The lies helped. I ate another salted potato—my seventh or eighth of the day—and asked one of the women re-filling hydration packs what mile marker I had reached. I had lost track, and I was far too exhausted to take the map out of my pack. “I don’t know,” she said. Was I the first person to ask this question?

“Mile 20!” another volunteer called. I absorbed that information. 11 more miles, I thought, still debating. That’s like one more loop of the Traprock course!

This realization had the opposite of a spiriting effect. I took a long drink of Gatorade, one more potato for the road, and followed the orange cones through the park and back into the woods. I passed another runner, slowly, who muttered an unintelligible encouragement and gave me a half-hearted wave. “You, too,” I mumbled back.

Back on the trail, I passed a large group of hikers, hoping I wouldn’t have to stop and let them pass me. I contemplated bailing out one more time: it was less than a mile back to Anthony Wayne, where I had seen Sue’s van in the parking lot. I didn’t have the key, but maybe I could climb in through the sun roof. Take a nap.

The first part of this section was smooth and flat. “This is nice, isn’t it?” another fresh-looking runner said as he passed by.

“It should be,” I said, “but I seem to be having the most trouble on the ‘easy’ sections.” It was true: hills were an excuse to walk, and technical downhill was, well, fun. Smooth, flat trail? Forget it.

“Well, then, you’re in luck, because it’s going to get rocky soon.”

And then, yes! Technical downhill! My feet felt lighter all of a sudden, and I skipped over the rocks, over a stream and then. . . into a stream. My shoe—the other shoe, the one without the holes-- had caught a branch sticking out of the water, and I heard that sound again, the sound of fabric ripping. Miraculously, the laces had once again remained intact, but the front of my shoe was now a flap. I pushed my toes back in. I muttered an expletive. The hiker sitting on the rock across from the stream chuckled.

I resigned myself to the possibility of joining the barefoot running movement that very day. Duct tape, I thought again. Add that to the list of essentials.

I climbed over a moderately brutal section called The Pines, looking forward to more technical downhill. But this time technical did not equal fun. It equaled ankle-rolling, somersaulting, and general discontent. Loose footing, dried leaves. “This soooo sucks,” muttered a guy who had come up behind me. Expletive. Yep.

But the potatoes seemed to be working at last, and when I pulled into the next aid station, I felt, for the first time that day, almost nimble. The volunteers were decked out in purple: purple wigs, purple running skirts, purple pompoms, purple calf sleeves. I looked at the food on display. I was ready for something different. A PB&J, maybe even a pretzel. A tall, bare-chested runner stood off to the side, looking perplexed. “This all looks good,” he said, “but what I really want is a milkshake.”

“Oh, man,” I said. “That sounds so good right now. Does anyone have any chocolate milk?”
No luck. I picked up a cup of green liquid, which I assumed was Gatorade. One long swig told me it was actually Mountain Dew, a drink I haven’t had since I was about twelve or thirteen. The sweet, carbonated drink was surprisingly, blissfully good.

“You have Timp Pass coming up,” the purple-haired woman said. I wasn’t sure what Timp Pass was, but I figured that if it had the word “pass” in it, it probably involved a climb. And I did remember that the last section of the elevation map was ugly. “The next aid station is two-and-a-half miles.” Another bad sign. If the aid stations were so close together. . . “After that,” she went on, “it’s just another two and a half to the finish!”

The Mountain Dew and potato high brought a rush of (misguided) optimism. I looked at my watch. It read 5 hours exactly. 5 miles left! I could actually do this thing in under six, sore legs and all! “Thanks, everyone!” I called, waving as I set off down the trail, which was a slightly rocky double-track. I glanced at my watch every few minutes. Following the blue ribbons, I turned right onto the Red Cross Trail.

And then I saw it: Mount Doom. I could almost feel the fires burning. I looked around for Gollum, or for a Samwise Gamgee who might throw me over his shoulders, but all I saw was the runner who had been behind me during the last descent. “I’m really pissed now,” he grumbled. “This late in the race? I mean, come on.” I put my hands on my hips and stared at the steep, craggy incline. Should I side-step, or does that only help when you’re cross country skiing? Could I walk up backwards? As if the grade weren’t discouraging enough, the footing was uneven, full of hidden ditches, loose rocks, and leaves. I grabbed the straps on my hydration pack, perhaps hoping a balloon would suddenly inflate, and made the long, slow trek to the top. And then to the other top, and then the top after that, which was, blessedly, Timp Pass. Between the Mountain Dew and the exertion from the climb, I began to fear cardiac arrest. I took a few deep breaths.

The descent from Timp Pass was as rocky and uncertain as the climb, but I would have been happy to roll down at that point. Applause greeted me at the next aid station. I looked at my watch. 5:45. Those 2.5 miles had taken 45 minutes. So much for the 6 hour finish.

I had one last potato and looked at the sign by the trail. “Distance to finish: 2.8 miles.” 2.8? But I had been told 2.5! I couldn’t wrap my brain around another .3. A Shot Block might help. I popped one, downed some Gatorade, and set off for the finish. Two more climbs and I would see the big red inflatable arch, the glorious finish line.
At some point during that last stretch, a very tan, very fit runner in very orange shorts glided toward me from the opposite direction. He stopped briefly. “Doing okay?” he asked? I nodded, and he was gone. Must be a trail angel, I thought. That’s the North Face for you. Later, I realized the orange wood sprite was Dean Karnazes.
Climbing the ski trail towards Route 1777E, I could hear music and cheers and the muffled boom of an announcer’s voice. “I can smell the finish!” the man in front of me yelled, and I actually felt my eyes tear up. And a few minutes later, there it was: the crimson arch. I heard the “beep” of the chip timer as I crossed. Another smiling volunteer in North Face garb draped a medal around my neck. I glanced down at my shoes; they had held together. I couldn’t wait to get them off.

Nadia waved from the massage tent. “That was hard!” she said, though she looked like she had just returned from a three mile jog. She had done the marathon two years earlier, and hadn’t remembered the trail as being quite so challenging. “It must be like childbirth,” she said. “You forget the pain.”

Ah, yes, I thought. Once the child is in your arms, you forget the agony that preceded his arrival. Otherwise, you’d never be brave enough—or insane enough—to go through it all again.

Five minutes later, waiting in line for my massage, I was cradling a cold, fruity, Shock Top, compliments of another fellow runner, California Kid. The pain hadn’t receded, but by the time the beer was gone, I was already thinking about next year.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

voices soft as thunder

Recently, my kids—ages 7 and 9—asked if they could see an upcoming production of “Les Miserables” in New Haven. We’ve been playing the soundtrack ad nauseum since the film came out, and the story has captivated them, even if much of it is beyond their comprehension. But even though Bryan and I are going to the show, I was hesitant to purchase tickets for the kids. “Not yet,” I told them. “You’re too young. “ I wasn’t thinking only about the bawdy profanity of songs like “Master of the House” (“Everybody raise a glass—raise it up the master’s ass!”), or about the bloody battle scene at the barricades. What concerned me most was “Lovely Ladies,” the number in which prostitutes advertise themselves to hungry sailors (“Seven days at sea can make you hungry for a poke”). Halfway through the song, Fantine sells her hair; by the end, she has sold herself (“Come on, dearie, why all the fuss? You’re no grander than the rest of us. Life has dropped you at the bottom of the heap. Come on dearie, make money in your sleep”).

The lively music of the song is a chilling contrast to Fantine’s fall (contrasted further still by her swan song, “I Dreamed a Dream”). When she first heard it, Lexi thought the song a happy one, and why wouldn’t she? You can dance to it. It’s witty. And the whores seem willing enough.

I said “no” to the kids because we haven’t had the “sex” talk yet. Because, despite the prevalence of sex and violence in our music and film, I have held fast to a (possibly outmoded) notion of childhood innocence. Thus far, their exposure to the theater has been by way of “Annie,” “Lion King,” and “Seussical.” How was I to explain Fantine’s demise?

Then, three weeks ago, I read about a girl who was raped by three minors. One of them was nine. Nine. The same age as my son. Another was 11. The girl, whose family was from a country in Africa, was disowned by her family. After all, she had shamed their family. So, after her brutal assault, she was placed in state custody, ashamed and alone.

Yesterday, Facebook was alive with breaking stories surrounding the conviction of two high school students who had raped an inebriated young girl in Ohio. As if the rape itself weren’t humiliation enough, her photo was all over the internet, captioned everywhere by those who witnessed her demoralization: tweets that labeled her “slut,” “whore,” and someone who “deserve[d] to be peed on.” Most of these tweets were by kids, high school students who watched as her body was dragged to three different parties. Some of the tweets were jubilant: “I finally saw a dead body.” Others casually amused: “She looks so dead lmao.” Not one, as far as I know, called for help, or addressed the blatant moral depravity of the situation.

You can blame the alcohol. Many did. But now that convictions have been issued, “Jane Doe” is receiving death threats, not only from those kids who were implicated, but from their parents. So, while I’m worried about shielding my kids from the reality of prostitution, these parents are tacitly condoning the actions of the rapists by suggesting that the victim is to blame. It’s an old story. The girl had her dignity torn from her in one drunken night; the boys will have their wrists slapped for doing what boys have always done: given the girl what she was asking for in the first place.

Lovely ladies/ready for the call/standing up or lying down or any way at all

Yesterday was a wake-up call for me. If nine year old boys are sexually assaulting young girls, I can’t put off “the talk.” Not when teachers are letting kids watch “Gangnum Style” in the classroom (“Hey, sexy lady”), and when my daughter’s six-year-old friends are making up songs about cheating on their men.

And the violence at the barricades in “Les Mis”? What is an onstage battle compared to the sickening reality of Newtown? At least the boys in the musical were fighting for something noble. Adam Lanza was seeking notoriety. The war he was waging was an internal war, and thanks to our shamefully loose gun laws and a culture that privileges “personal freedom” over moral action, he was gloriously victorious.

If nothing else, I thought after days of trying to process the incident at Newtown, at least this tragedy will lead to action. We have no choice but to pass new gun legislation now. Newtown has made this startlingly clear.

And people did stand up. Veronique Pozner was strikingly open about the damage to her little son’s body. We have to see, she insisted. We have to talk about it, and not think of these kids as “little angels.” They were brutally murdered. Petitions were created, signed, and sent to Washington. Cyclists rode in the name of the victims. Obama declared he would use every power available to him to see the gun laws changed.

But “personal freedom” wins again. Hooray for us. Or, as the Daily News put it, “Shame on Us.”

It’s hard not to feel hopeless amidst the insanity. I’m trying to channel the despair into action: perhaps not by marching on Washington, but by thinking more locally. By having open discussions with my kids—my own kids, and the kids I teach—about respect: respect for women’s bodies, respect for male dignity, respect for the lives and properties and even privacy (does privacy exist in our social-media-obsessed society?) of others. Respect for their values, so that they can grow up to take on insensitive, single-minded “leaders” like Wayne LaPierre, or understand that “sexual freedom” is not synonymous with “giving a guy pleasure.”

I hope we don’t just collectively close these cases and think of them as tragic events that happen in other places (especially hard to do with Newtown, since it was so close to home).

We owe it to our children and their families. The time is now. Let the state of Connecticut become an agent for change with respect to gun safety. Our little man, and every other child and adult who died that day, deserve it. –Veronique Pozner, mother of Noah, Newtown victim.

Here's hoping someday in the not-too-distant future the misfortunes of Fantine will be only found in fiction and not in real life. -- Anne Hathaway, upon receiving her Oscar for Best Actress.