Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Contemplating commemorations

The flags are still at half-mast in front of state and federal properties, but the official remembrances of the Kennedy assassination as well as the TV specials and news stories are for the most part behind us. And I, for one, find this a relief.

I don’t think my aversion to these anniversary commemorations that seem to border on reenactments is due to the fact that I wasn’t yet born when President Kennedy was assassinated. I felt the same way two years ago during the 9/11 ten-year anniversary commemorations.

It’s not a matter of denial. I agree absolutely that tragedies and their victims need to be remembered. But remembered how? It’s the tradition of dwelling on the shocking or tragic moments that ended their lives that I find unsatisfying.  I would so much rather honor President Kennedy by learning more about the Cuban Missile Crisis or reading about the history of the Peace Corps than seeing yet another photo of the motorcade, hearing yet again about the blood spattered on the pink suit. 

The memory of September 11th gives us much to reflect upon as well, from the Patriot Act to the level of acceptance for Muslims in America, and, of course, tens of thousands of people mourn individual losses from that day. But seeing footage of a burning building remains horrifying and scary, just as it was on that day, and I simply don’t see any redeeming qualities in the experience of being frightened and horrified all over again.

We had an interesting off-the-record debate at church earlier this fall. Every year, in preparation for Day of the Dead on November 1, our Music and Worship Committee asks parishioners to submit names of the dead to be read as part of a commemorative ceremony. A year ago, I submitted five names: three were personal friends lost over the past few months, and two others were townspeople whom I thought other church members might not think to include on the list. Many people at our church submit the same names year after year, but when the request came out this fall, I wasn’t tempted to write down any of these names from last year again.

“It’s not that I don’t still mourn them or think about them, especially the two to whom I was closest – one a former next-door neighbor and the other a high school classmate,” I said to our minister as I explained my concerns about the Day of the Dead tradition. “It’s just that commemorating them by reading their names aloud the first year that they are gone feels respectful and appropriate, but reading their names year after year just reminds me that they will be gone forevermore.”

But another church member in on the conversation disagreed with me, saying that his late mother had been an active and enthusiastic churchgoer for decades before her death five years ago, and he felt it was right for her name to be spoken there in a ceremonial context once a year.

Perhaps I’m being callous, or am in denial about the scope of tragedy. It’s hard to know what the right answer is. But with the anniversary of the Newtown massacre coming up, I anticipate thinking about this all over again. Remember each child: pay tribute to the adults who lost their lives: make a contribution to a cause; join an anti-gun group. But using the anniversary to relive the events themselves? I just don’t see the value in it.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

It's the journey, not the destination

Ten days ago, my friend Nicole persuaded me to try a half-marathon with her in December. Tempted, I began ever-so-tentatively training: first an eight-mile run, then five days later a ten-mile run, and once I had both of those distances under my belt I was hooked. From our respective home offices, at the agreed-upon time, we logged on to the website to register for the race.

And learned we were already too late; the race was full.

For the rest of the day, I thought about how sure I was that I was ready for a half-marathon, and how now I wouldn't be doing one as planned. All that psyching-up for nothing. It wasn't a matter of just finding a different race; winter races in New England are hard to come by, especially for casual athletes. I can't do a Thanksgiving race because it feels too soon to run a distance nearly twice as long as I usually run -- I was counting on the full six weeks of training, not two -- and also because as Thanksgiving dinner host, I can't be away from the house for half the day. After Thanksgiving, there are very few races to be found in this part of the country until late spring.

But it wasn’t long before I stopped feeling disappointed about missing out on registration and found that instead, I was thinking about how great I felt after the two training runs I'd done in the past week. It occurred to me that even without a race number or an official measured course to run, I could still imagine I was training for a half-marathon, and do the same running.

It’s the journey, not the destination, I reminded myself. This mantra came in handy just a day later when I told another friend I’d join her for a day trip to Bar Harbor, Maine, to look at summer rental properties. I had it in my mind that Bar Harbor was about four hours away; it turned out to be five, and even though we left the house at 8 a.m. on Saturday morning, by the time we’d reached our destination, had a harborside picnic, and toured three potential rental options, it was nearly 4:30 and dusk was falling. And we still needed to drive back.

But as with training for the non-race, I realized the journey and not the destination was what mattered. Maine’s northern coast is beautiful but desolate in November, and we’d spent almost the entire day in the car. It hadn’t been a great trip from the perspective of what we’d done there. But the ride itself had been wonderful. It was the best visit we'd had in years. We caught up on everything that had happened to us all fall – and then some. Since my friend was driving, I napped a little, read a little, and had some time to prepare for my Monday night class. From the perspective of the drive itself, it was a great day.

The journey, not the destination. I’ll try to continue with the training runs and hope that when the opportunity for a half-marathon arises in the spring, I’ll still want to do it. But either way, I’ll keep savoring the running. Getting there, after all, can be well over half the fun.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Thirteen-point-one miles....maybe

Thirteen-point-one miles.

Oh, I haven’t actually run it yet. But I think I might.

The idea began germinating last Thursday when my friend Nicole joined me for my usual weekday two-mile run. One of the many things we had to catch up on, having not seen each other in nearly a month, was the half-marathon she ran last month in St. Louis, and at some point in the conversation she mentioned there was one coming up next month in New Hampshire.

“Send me the info on it, if you could,” I said.

She was surprised and actually so was I. I’ve been in the same running pattern for several years now: two miles on weekdays, four or five, and very occasionally six, on Saturdays and Sundays. It’s been working well for me.

My daily running streak is more than six years long. Why change anything?

But as soon as I told Nicole to send me the information, I started noticing omens.

Just a couple of days earlier, my friend Leigh had given me an unexpected gift, a pair of fancy padded running socks. Late last month I’d gotten together with a former co-worker whom I hadn’t visited with in over ten years. She told me she had recently become an ultra-marathoner, completing distances of 38 to 52 miles per race. “But how do you do that?” I kept asking. “First I ran a marathon,” she said. “Then I realized after 26 miles, there’s no difference in what you can do physically; it’s all psychological."

Well, I began to think, if she could make the psychological jump from 26 miles to 52, then I could probably make the same jump from my usual six to a little over twice that.

There was the fact too that I’ve been thinking a lot about aging lately, and this felt like something that might make me dwell a little bit less on what it meant to be just a few years from fifty.

It just started to seem like something I might be able to do. And once I started to think that way, I began to feel like it might be something I really wanted to do. 

I’m still not fully committed to the idea. For that matter, I’m still not even registered for the race. At the time Nicole and I first discussed it, the race date was six weeks and two days away. I knew I could do six miles. So with five weekends before the race, I reasoned, I’d do eight miles the next weekend and then build by one mile each week, which would bring me to twelve miles the weekend before the race. If I could manage to do each of those distances as the respective weekend arrived, I’d feel like the half-marathon was worth a try. If I found the training too difficult along the way, I’d stop. Six weeks isn’t really long enough to train for a half-marathon. If I couldn’t do it, I’d reconsider in the spring, when there would be more races to choose among.

But I did do the eight-mile run last Sunday. It felt good, and not all that difficult. Now I’ve told a few people I might do the half. And I found the race website myself even before Nicole sent me the information.

So it could happen. I’m not sure yet. I probably won’t make a decision for another two or three weeks. But the idea is somehow tantalizing. The possibility of conquering a new challenge is close at hand. Little lies at stake; I won’t feel bad about it if I end up backing out. There will be other chances for other half-marathons.

But this just might be the one. All those omens, after all. Time will tell just what they all signified.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Camera dread

Ever since my business partner and I started setting up our new company, she had been warning me that we were eventually going to need to do a photo shoot.

She's a photographer as well as a designer, and she already had her own company and website as well, so getting a professional photo of her for the site was no problem. She had a whole line-up of favorites.

But all I had for a head shot of myself was a cute snapshot that my daughter had taken on my birthday last year.

"It's okay for now," my business partner had said diplomatically. "But at some point we'll need to get professional shots of you for the website."

I'd been delaying it and dreading it in equal measure. Since reaching my mid-forties, I've become almost phobic about getting my picture taken. Last year, a couple of high school boys who were doing a project on community journalism wanted to videotape an interview with me. The fear of how I would look on film caused me to perspire through the entire interview. Despite promising to send me a copy of their finished product, they never did, and I'm convinced it's because they didn't want to embarrass me with how I looked on screen.

My business partner must have grown weary of my deferrals every time she suggested a photo shoot, because Sunday morning she sent me a cursory text. I thought she was just letting me know what time she'd pick me up for the trip we'd planned to the beach to take some landscape shots for an upcoming project, but her text made it clear that there were other purposes to the trip. "Wear a white shirt and tan pants," she wrote. "And makeup."

So this was serious, and sent me into a fresh tailspin of worries about brow creases and crow's feet.

Not that my quasi-phobia is strictly the result of aging. At 25, in the hours before my wedding ceremony began, I stood in the sunshine outside a pretty little New England chapel while our wedding photographer did shot after shot. "Karen, it's just me," I said finally. "How good do you really think it's going to get?"

So I try to avoid photos. But my business partner is really good at what she does, and one of the things she does is photography. She made me feel comfortable with a relaxed pose and a beautiful background against the whitecaps of Plum Island. I started to feel less self-conscious as we proceeded through a series of shots. I laughed a little. I imagined that the blue sky and bright sun and sharp breeze blowing my hair around might compensate for the crow's feet and wrinkles.

And in the end, it really wasn't so bad. I've seen only a few samples of the photos, but I think they turned out okay. And that reminded me of something: that's what usually happens when I see pictures of myself. They really aren't so bad. I'm really not so bad. I worry so much about how the pictures will look, and then I find myself looking at a picture of a pleasant-looking, smiling, cheerful middle-aged woman with a few crow's feet but nothing all that hideous.

The pictures showed….me. No cover girl, but a pleasant person with an inoffensive appearance. If it didn’t forever quash my phobia, it reminded me of a simple truth: a smile does a lot. I looked happy and approachable in the photos, which is really just what we needed for our website. It would do. I would do.

I may not be ready for my close-up, to paraphrase the classic movie line, but I’m okay with a mid-distance shot profiled against the ocean on a beautiful fall afternoon.