Tuesday, May 27, 2014

A fall, and a helping hand

A few miles into a Memorial Day weekend bike ride on the Capital Crescent Trail, my 9-year-old nephew Andrew and I pulled over for a water break. Below us off the side of the trail was the Potomac River, with kayakers drifting by. In the distant background stood the iconic spire of the Washington Monument. Pretty cool view for a bike ride, I thought to myself as we took out our water bottles.

Then we heard a tumble and a shriek. Just a hundred feet behind us, a runner we'd passed a few minutes earlier was rolling across the pavement, entangled with a bicyclist. Another bicyclist had come to a stop just in front of them.

"You stay with our bikes; I'll go see if I can help," I said to Andrew.

The woman was clearly okay; she was sitting up on the trail by the time I reached her, whimpering just a little bit as she apologized to the bicyclists. "I know I darted into your way," she said. "I saw a snake by the side of the trail and it started me, so I jumped to the left. I knew you were passing me; I don't know why I did that. It was just that I was so startled by the snake."

The bicycling couple were shaken as well. Though no one seemed angry, I did not feel that they were being particularly comforting, perhaps because they too were distressed. I knew exactly how the runner felt. I had taken a bad fall while running last summer, and I still remember how jarring and disorienting it was even though, like her, I was just a little scraped up with no serious damage done.

But when I fell last summer, the one passer-by who stopped to help continued on his way as soon as I said, almost reflexively, that I was all right, and immediately afterwards I regretted my own self-sufficiency. I had been frightened and in pain. I wished I hadn't been so quick to tell him I was okay. I wished he'd stayed a little longer to be sure.

So when I reached the runner, I put my hand on her bare and sweaty arm and tried to offer comforting words. "It's okay," I said. "I know how you feel. Rattled." 

As I touched her, I thought briefly about how some people would not want a stranger laying hands on their bare skin, and I felt momentarily presumptuous, but I had to trust myself that what I remembered needing when I had been the fallen runner -- company, comfort, reassurance -- was what she would want also. I asked her if she'd like a drink of water, and she said yes, so I brought her my water bottle.

"I'm okay," she said. "Just a little scraped up."

"I know, but it's scary. Breathe slowly and deeply," I told her.

In just a minute or two, she was ready to resume her run. I felt as if something had come full circle, as if I'd finally had a chance to reclaim the comfort no one had offered me when I fell while running. It was as if the reverse of what really happened had taken place, as if I'd fallen again and this time been offered a helping hand, simply because I was able to offer one myself.

Later in the day, I saw a Facebook post from a friend who was widowed over a year ago describing a weekend party she had just attended at which she met a woman who had recently gone through the same kind of loss. This friend wrote about the satisfaction of being able to reach out with empathy and help, and about the perspective that the encounter gave her on her own long-term grieving process and all the healing that had taken place for her in recent months.

The two events are not comparable, but the sense of healing that an empathetic moment gave both of us seemed to have a tinge of similarity. It made me think about how trauma -- whether minor, like my tumble, or severe, like her loss -- may be the ultimate pass-it-forward model. We heal when we can help someone else through the same thing. And for that reason, I was so glad to have pulled over for a water break just when that runner fell.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The choices people make

Speaking articulately is not my strong suit under the best of circumstances – like a lot of writers, I do best with words when I have time to contemplate, draft, delete, reconsider, and revise before publishing – but in this case I was positively blithering.

But I had a reasonable excuse. My editor had assigned me a story about a particular historical figure and then mentioned that one of the leading experts on this particular historical figure was Mitchell Zuckoff, who is one of my favorite nonfiction writers.

He writes the kind of journalism to which I aspire: long stories that examine every possible facet of a situation. And often, the stories he chooses aren’t particularly complicated in terms of their political context or historical import. Some of his most interesting work is about how ordinary people act in unexpected situations. He wrote about a young couple faced with a diagnosis of Down syndrome in their firstborn child, tracing their early days as a couple deciding to start a family, the shock of the Down syndrome diagnosis, and how they went on to make meaningful lives for themselves as parents and as a family in the years that followed their daughter’s arrival.

He also wrote about two teenage boys from rural Vermont who almost overnight turned into cold-blooded murderers.

I interviewed him about the topic relevant to my assignment, and then before saying goodbye tried to communicate to him how much I admire his work. That was where the blithering part came in. “I love your books,” I said. “They are my favorite kind of writing: long stories about real people and how they make the choices they make."

And it was true, I realized as I thought later about my simplistic choice of words. In its own way, that was as good an explanation as any I could come up with for what makes people interesting to me. It’s what I often write about myself, though I’d never consciously framed it quite that way.

When asked what I write about, sometimes I say “Generally the arts or community life” if I want a short answer. If I have time or space for a slightly longer one, I might say “Mostly I write about ordinary people doing unusual things.” A friend of ours once said that my career was based on drawing water from a stone – an allegation I’ve repeated many times since. I think he meant that I take the very most ordinary circumstances of parents, children, seniors, communities, avocations, passions – and find something to say about them.

Another narrative nonfiction writer I once took a seminar with said “When you find someone’s obsession, you have a story.” The story becomes not the obsession itself but the how and why of the obsession, its etiology in that particular person.

All of these are true, but yesterday I found myself thinking more about those words that unexpectedly slipped out: “How people make the choices they make.” The young couple first chose each other, then chose to become parents, and later chose to raise a child with Down syndrome. The two Vermont teens chose to commit a murder, chose their victims, chose an ultimately unsuccessful escape plan. Where did each of these choices come from?

Outside of my work for a daily paper, I help people write their memoirs. In this role, I often ask “What formative experience made you the person you are today?” It’s a good question, but I think I’m going to try changing it up a little. “What are the most formative choices you’ve ever made?”, I’m going to try asking. It introduces agency into the equation. An experience is what happens to us. A choice is what we make happen. 

Based on this idea, I’m going to start thinking more now about the choices people make, rather than just who they are and what they do.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Blearily we walk along

Following yesterday’s appointment with the ophthalmologist, I was hoping to get home in time for a walk before starting dinner preparations.

But when I left the eye doctor, I remembered that one of my car’s headlights had burned out over the weekend, and I was only ten minutes away from the dealership.

“An hour and a half, maybe two hours,” the customer service rep estimated for the repair. So I wouldn’t be home in time for a walk. Which is why I ended up taking a walk along Route 2A in Littleton yesterday afternoon instead.

There were numerous problems with this plan. When relinquishing my car to the repair bay, I’d left my sneakers in the trunk. I was still wearing leather flats without socks.

Also I’d brought my laptop with me in case I had time to get some work done, so the laptop and case would have to go along on the walk as well.

Moreover, Route 2A is not the most scenic place to go walking. It’s a highway, though it does have a curbed sidewalk. But the scenery didn’t actually matter much, because I had just had my eyes dilated at the eye doctor and could hardly see in the bright sunlight anyway.

Walking along the edge of Route 2A, it occurred to me many times that I must look somewhat unhinged. Dressed for work, carrying a laptop, blindly squinting in the sun, out for a walk.

It was one of those times when I had to seriously weigh the burden of knowing I looked ridiculous against the rewards of fitting in a walk.

The rewards won. I walked around the dealership’s several large parking lots, and then down the road to a supermarket plaza. I was happy to find places to walk that were safely out of traffic. My shoes, though not ideal for walking, weren’t all that uncomfortable. My laptop didn’t feel too heavy. I was just glad to be out walking.

As I squinted my painfully dilated eyes against the sunshine and made my way around the parking lot and then along the highway to the supermarket again for one last lap, I took comfort in the fact that at least it was very unlikely that anyone would recognize me. I was nowhere near home, and I know only two people who live in Littleton. And one of those two people is my cousin, who was spending the year in Colorado.

Then I remembered seeing a Facebook post earlier that day from my cousin. She was actually moving back to Littleton. She had left Colorado by car three days ago. At the time she posted, around lunch, she was at the New York/Massachusetts border.

She could drive past at any minute.

Would she recognize me? I wondered. Would she think, there’s my nutty cousin, striding along the highway in work clothes and flats, carrying her briefcase, shading her puffy eyes?

Or would she just wonder how the town and its populace had gone downhill so fast in her absence?

In general, I think it’s worthwhile to care about appearances. That’s why I ask at least one other member of my family if my outfit looks okay before I leave for work every morning, and why if something seems a little bizarre even for me – like powerwalking along a highway in office clothes at rush hour – I try not to do it.

But yesterday I just really wanted to fit that walk in. Blindly and inappropriately dressed, I walked. And it was worth it. I was happy to have fit in a good walk. I was also really happy when it was over.

But mostly, I was happy I did not see my cousin.

And as far as I know, she didn’t see me. But of course, I can’t be sure. With my dilated pupils in the hot bright sunlight, I couldn’t see a thing anyway. Including my own reflection in the storefronts I passed. And that’s probably a very good thing.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Small problems, no solutions

Among the more existential questions upon which my father sometimes ruminates is whether there are problems with no solutions. "I think there are," he said to me last week. "When I was younger, I believed that just about every problem had a solution. And not only that, but I thought I could solve most problems myself. Now I see that there are some problems that just don't have solutions."

I think he was referring to fairly large and significant problems, but I recalled his words yesterday afternoon as my 11-year-old daughter and I were making our way through what was turning out to be not a very good day for her. And it just wasn't anything I could solve. It wasn't really anything that could be solved. It wasn't anything momentous or critical. It was just....little things going wrong. And I couldn't do much but sit back and watch.

Yesterday was supposed to be the day Holly got her braces, and she was ready. She'd asked her friends for advice. She'd thought about what to eat for lunch, knowing she might not be able to eat again for a while, and she'd already talked me into stopping for a milk shake after her appointment since her friends had advised her that a milk shake was all she would want in the first few hours after the braces went on. She'd even gotten recommendations from her friends on what color wires to choose for her braces. Pink and blue, she confidently told me in the car as we drove to her appointment.

But the orthodontist examined her x-rays and said not quite yet. There was a baby tooth that needed to fall out first, which it soon would, he assured us.  And there was another one for which he was recommending an extraction. Until those two teeth were out of the way, the orthodontist said, it didn't make sense to proceed.

It's not like Holly had been looking forward to getting braces on, but by the time the day came, she was psyched up for it, and I could tell she felt deflated as we left. No solution, I told myself. She'll just have to wait out the disappointment. "You can still have the milk shake," I told her.

So we stopped at the ice cream stand. Holly drank a little bit of the shake in the car, and then once we got home decided to put it in the freezer so it would firm up a little bit more.

Except in doing so, she tipped it over and the whole thing spilled into the bottom of the freezer.

Holly is a very responsible 11-year-old. After letting out one small scream of frustration, she fetched a roll of paper towels and started mopping. There was milk shake all over everything. The inside of the freezer. The outside of the freezer. The bottom of the freezer. The floor around the freezer. All the other items already in the freezer.

It was a mess. I pitched in to help her, but it still took us nearly a half-hour. "And I hardly even drank any of my milk shake before it spilled!" Holly said mournfully as we mopped.

There was no solution to that either. We were too far from the ice cream stand to go out for another one, and I had to leave soon for an evening commitment. When we were finally done cleaning the freezer out, Holly asked if she could watch TV for a little while. Thinking it might be comforting, I said yes. And then the power went out.

Poor Holly. It just wasn't her day. Nothing all that bad was going on. Just little annoyances without solutions. Because some problems don't have solutions. And even if they are really trivial problems, as trivial as spilling a much-anticipated milk shake, it's frustrating.

When I got home from my evening meeting, the power was back on and Holly was cheerful. I assured her I would set up the appointment for the extraction as soon as possible and we would reschedule the braces.

Some problems are solved only by waiting them out. The freezer is cleaner now than it was pre-spill, and the power company fixed the lines as quickly as they could. I told Holly we would surely find another opportunity for a milk shake before the week is out.

It’s true that some problems just don't have solutions. But for those messes that can in fact be cleaned up, you pull out a roll of paper towels and get to work.