Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Editorializing from the bunny cage

“I was cleaning out the bunny cage,” said my friend Kathy, as I wondered fleetingly why she was telling me a story about animal sanitation, “when I looked down and saw an article you’d written about sightseeing in Concord.”

Covered with rabbit poop, apparently, but still, my byline shimmered through. Hmmm. In the 21st century, journalists are happy to be read at all, and I’m no exception. If that’s what it takes, it’s still good enough for me.

Every journalist fantasizes about readers who scan the pages looking only for that one byline, eager to read any word you write, on any topic, but I find more often these days that people are reading me by accident, as Kathy did while freshening up her pet rabbit’s dwelling. Actually, I’m impressed that she gets a print copy of the newspaper at all, with all the virtual options now available. My household subscribes to the iPad version of the paper; when an article of mine gets published, I have to ask my parents to save the clipping for me so that I can add it to my portfolio. Occasionally when my daughter wants to do an art project, she’ll ask me for newspaper to protect her work surface, and I’ll have to admit we don’t have any newspapers in the house anymore, so she ends up papering the kitchen table with supermarket circulars and real estate brochures instead.

Stories are getting shorter, too. The quarterly alumni magazine for which I write used to allot me 1,200 words per profile, or one full two-page spread. A few years ago they cut the profiles from two pages back to one page, or 600 words. For the most recent issue, my editor said she thought 450 to 500 words would be ideal. “Do you want me to just do a detailed photo caption?” I asked her, half-joking.

Still, I find it just as satisfying to know my work has been read now as I did with my very first byline in our local newspaper when I was a college student trying to accrue clips for a job-hunting portfolio. Earlier this month, I wrote a story for the Globe about a Concord family taking part in a trans-Iowa bike ride. The day it was published, I received emails from two different newspaper editors at small-town papers in Iowa, asking if they could run my story. Of course, I told them. I’d already gone to the trouble of writing it; why not savor the fact that more eyes would rest upon my words, at least for a moment or two while they scanned the lead paragraph?

Other writers are more opinionated than I am about the issue of proprietary work and intellectual copyright in the Internet era. I know my work has been printed without my knowledge at times; if I Google my name, I find references to essays I wrote for local publications popping up in special interest magazines and newsletters from Alabama to Albania. But it’s okay. We write to be read, just as we speak to be heard. Whether it’s Albania or the bunny cage, I’m happy to be in print.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Wasps on a run (and a medium-sized coincidence)

As coincidences go, it was about a 6 on a scale of 1 to 10.

My editor had assigned me the article about the bee specialist in early July, but it was one of those rare times that I had nearly three weeks between an assignment and a deadline, much longer than usual. So I did the interview but then became a little indolent about drafting it.

And time was running out. Time was running out dramatically. In fact, it was less than 24 hours to deadline and still hadn’t written it.

On the day it absolutely had to be done, I set out for a four-mile run. A mile and a half in, I felt a sharp pain on the back of my ankle. I looked down and spotted an insect clinging to my sock.

A bee, I thought right away. Except I knew it wasn’t a bee, because one of the misconceptions the bee researcher had told me he hoped to debunk was that bees are the source of most stings. “If you are outside and something stings you, it’s more likely a wasp or a hornet,” he had said. “Bees rarely sting. And when they do, it’s not very painful.”

This was painful. A wasp, I corrected myself. And at that moment, the coincidence of getting stung on the very same day I was on deadline for an article about bees didn’t seem particularly significant to me compared to the stabbing pain emanating from my ankle.

But the wasp was gone; I’d brushed it off. And I was still running, and that seemed encouraging. My mother had her first experience with an allergic reaction from a sting when she was in her early fifties; it occurred to me at that moment that I might possibly have an allergic reaction to this sting, but even though it hurt, I wasn’t having any trouble breathing. I had a phone in my pocket that I could use to call my husband or call 911 if that changed. And I’d already completed a mile, so even if I had to stop, I still had enough distance to qualify as a streak day according to the rules of the United States Running Streak Association, under whose guidelines I was fast approaching my seven-year anniversary of daily running.

I wondered where that wasp had come from, though. I’ve been stung other times throughout the years, but never while running on the road, only when walking in meadows or fields or in the woods, or once while picking mint in my yard. And why on my ankle? Had the wasp been perched in the roadway near where my foot struck? It seemed strange.

The run was an out-and-back, and I resolved to keep my eyes on the pavement on the return trip when I reached the same point in the road, to see if there were wasps sitting there on the ground.

But this time instead of seeing them, I heard them first. A zooming noise and then four or five wasps flying straight toward me, landing on my arms and legs.

I ran faster, and flailed at them with a terry cloth towel I was carrying as I ran, and within seconds, they were gone. Now I had four new stings and the indignation of having been ambushed, but still no serious reaction. Four more places hurt, three on my legs and one on my forearm, but no trouble breathing. No lightheadedness. Nothing serious.

So it was yet another one of those situations that seemed initially unfortunate and then the opposite. They could have stung other places that might have hurt more, rather than keeping to my arms and legs. Had I not been carrying a small towel, it would have been harder to brush them away. And being ambushed by four or five wasps wasn’t like being swarmed by twenty or thirty.

Ever since my kids stumbled across wasps in the woods a few years ago, I had wondered what the best strategy was for escape, and after yesterday’s experience, I feel confident that running away from them in the right reaction. It’s not what you’re supposed to do if encountering a bear or a moose or a hostile dog, but it seems to work with wasps. Maybe hornets too.

But probably not bees. Because they don’t sting. And if they do, it doesn’t hurt. I learned that from the bee specialist I interviewed, and now I have an hour to get that article written. If the wasp sting was a not-so-subtle reminder from the universe to stay on task, I suppose I should be grateful.

But, coincidence or not, I don’t think I’ll accept any assignments to write about shark, bear or hippopotamus specialists any time soon.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Half the marathon, all the fun

As late as Saturday evening, I still didn’t feel certain that I could run 13 uninterrupted miles, even though it was less than twelve hours until the start time of the first half-marathon for which I’d ever registered.

I was fairly confident. I’d set my sights on a half-marathon back in November, and for the past eight months, I’d been doing weekly runs of 10-12 miles, along with daily runs of about 2-4 miles. I was within spitting distance of that 13.1-mile mark; I just had never actually done the entire distance.

“The problem,” I told my friend Nicole, herself a distance runner who only recently started competing in half-marathons, “is that when I finish these ten- or eleven-mile runs, I always feel okay. But I never feel like, ‘Gee, I really feel like going another mile or two. Or three.’ I’m just really glad it’s done.”

Nicole assured me I needn’t worry. “You just take your longest comfortable distance,” she told me. “Then you add another mile for the confidence that wearing a race bib gives you, and another mile on top of that for the boost from the spectators.” If she was right, that would put be right up close to the 13.1-mile mark, and knowing it was an oceanside course made me think that by 12.5 miles, I’d be able to see the finish line. Surely once I could see it, I could reach it.

All of this sounded plausible to me. Sure, I could probably run 13.1 miles. Probably. But I couldn’t possibly know for sure until I tried.

So on Sunday morning, I tried, and I’m very happy to say I succeeded. I didn’t run it fast or particularly skillfully. In fact, out of a field of 2,189 runners, I came in 2,007. “I prefer to think of it as 182 runners still behind me when I finished,” I told my sister.

But even as I said it, I knew that was the wrong attitude. It shouldn’t matter that there were nearly 200 people who ran the course slower than I did. It shouldn’t even matter that there was anyone who ran the course slower than I did. It should matter only that I finished.

And even that, as I often remind myself, doesn’t matter all that much in the greater picture. Running may be good for you physically, but it’s also, to some degree, frivolous. I’ve maintained a daily running streak of more than 2,500 days – next month I’ll hit the seven-year mark – but as I often say when people congratulate me for that, there are far more worthwhile things I could try to do every day.

Yet even frivolity may have its purpose. I’ve run only about a half-dozen races in my life – a mix of 5k’s, 10k’s, and five-milers until Sunday's longer route – and one thing each race has in common is that once it begins, I feel a sense of liberation from all other cares. For the duration of the time I’m running, I give myself permission to think only about the run. Not work assignments; not family issues; not national or international political conflict. Just putting one foot in front of another, that most primal of actions.

Sunday was no exception; it just lasted longer. For more than two hours – okay, I’ll admit it: two hours and 39 minutes – running was all that mattered. Yes, that’s frivolous, but it’s also healing. The rest was waiting for me. I had plenty of opportunities on Monday to catch up on work and family and national headlines. Sunday morning, it was just me and the race course. And the blue sky and the sun. And the cheering spectators. And the sparkling ocean. And all the oxygen I needed, in the air around me every time I breathed in.

As the race ended, I almost wished I wasn’t quite at the finish line yet. Miles 9 through 12 had become a little bit arduous, but the final mile melted away. I almost felt like I hadn’t savored it quite enough before it ended.

Frivolous. Yes, that’s true. But also magnificent. And I was so very happy to have reached this personal goal.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Worrying versus having fun (on the Fourth of July)

In Portland, as in many parts of New England last weekend, the Fourth of July festivities took place on July 5th instead, due to a very accurately forecasted hurricane-influenced rainstorm that dominated Friday afternoon and evening.

But my thoughts as we waited for the fireworks show to begin over Casco Bay were less about freedom, liberty and the birth of our nation than they were about apprehension, caution, prudence, and the spectrum that those various emotions seem to cover.

My anxiety was over the fact that a dream of Tim’s was coming true that evening: we had taken my parents’ motorboat out into the harbor to watch the fireworks. And this plan made me extremely nervous. I’m nervous about boating under the best of circumstances, actually. My father, my husband, and my son all greatly enjoy boating and are all confident and adept when handling boats, so throughout my life, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to be out on the water. And I’ve been on boats enough times when mechanical failure strikes to feel as if mishaps are more typically the rule than the exception, even though I know that’s not really true. It’s just that the times that something goes wrong are the times that stick in my mind, rather than the many successful and entirely enjoyable boat rides I’ve been lucky enough to experience.

And it’s not like anything really awful has ever happened to me. No tragedies or accidents: just the occasional engine failure. And mostly that was back when we had our own boat; it hardly ever happens on my parents’ boat.

But we’d also never gone boating in the dark before. So as we sat amidst a phalanx of bobbing vessels of all sizes, from cigarette boats to lobster boats to yachts to ferries, waiting for the fireworks to begin, all I could think about was how awful it would be to experience engine trouble late at night, in the dark, after the fireworks.

True, we were hardly alone out there. Dozens of boats dotted the harbor as far as we could see; both the Coast Guard and local police boats passed continually among the revelers. And thanks to the yearly fee my parents pay to Sea Tow, we were assured a tow back to shore any time we might need it.

Moreover, Rick and Tim thought I was being ridiculous to worry. They thought being on the harbor for the fireworks was the most ideal scenario possible. Tim had been pleading for weeks to give this a shot; Rick had finally capitulated when he saw what a warm evening it was shaping up to be and how calm the water was.

“Look at all those people crowded onto the hillside!” Rick said as we sat in the boat looking toward the sloping lawn where the whole city gathers to watch the fireworks. “We could be crammed into that crowd right now! Instead we’re out here on our boat!”

Yes, I thought to myself, but when the fireworks end, all those people need merely rise to their feet and count on their sturdy little legs to carry them home. Their odds of successful transport are close to one hundred percent, as long as they cross at the crosswalks. Ours are a little more dubious.

I wasn’t just being neurotic. We’d discovered water in the engine compartment when we opened up the boat earlier in the evening, and we’d had trouble starting it up then, after pumping it out for ten minutes or so. I had thought this was reason enough not to go out at night. Well, reason enough for me, maybe. Not for the brave and intrepid sea-goers in my family.

“Just enjoy the fireworks!” Tim instructed me as the first few sparklers exploded into the black sky.

“I am enjoying the fireworks,” I replied. “This is fabulous, being out in the harbor for the concert and pyrotechnics.” And it really was. On the boat, we were comfortable, all snuggled together in the bow, rocking gently on the waves with an unobstructed view of the sky. “But I’m also worried about the trip home.”

“Well, if anything goes wrong, you can still remember how much fun you’re having now,” Holly said reasonably.

And she was right. I could worry, or I could enjoy the fireworks. If I let myself have fun, I’d still have good memories even if the trip home didn’t go smoothly.

Actually, the trip home did go smoothly. We made it back to our dock and had an easy landing. The evening was perfect. All four of us had fun and nothing went wrong.

The next day, the engine started acting up again, making our successful evening excursion seem all the more fortunate, but it was manageable. Getting the boat towed to the marina was no trouble at all in the middle of the afternoon, close to shore.

And Holly’s advice stuck in my mind. “Well, if anything goes wrong, you can still remember how much fun you’re having now.” I suppose in a way, that’s the point of doing anything fun. You know it’s not going to last forever, but you know no matter how fleeting it is, you can look back on it later and feel happy all over again.

So I’m glad we went. Anxiety and apprehension may have been more present for me than a sense of celebration honoring America’s birthday, but it was a wonderful Fourth of July – on the Fifth of July – nonetheless. And I learned to maybe be just a little less anxious the next time we go boating after dark.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

A beautiful evening for baseball

Sunday was a beautiful evening for watching a baseball game.

Except that I wasn't really thinking about watching a baseball game, despite the fact that I had driven 25 minutes to reach the field, and toted along a fold-up chair, hats for my daughter Holly and me, salad and strawberries to contribute to a picnic, and a picnic blanket.

I was thinking about how I'd managed to vacuum only half the house. I was thinking about what time I'd need to get Holly to day camp the next morning and whether the schedule would enable me to reach my office on time. I was thinking about why the washing machine had mysteriously turned itself off in the middle of a rinse cycle, and when I could be home for a service visit if the washing machine didn't resuscitate itself in the morning. I was thinking about how many more games were left before Tim's summer league ended, and whether I'd submitted all the paperwork in order for him to start driver's ed next week. And I was thinking, as I always do during baseball games, about whether any of us in the stands or whether any of the players on the field were likely to get beaned by a fastball and sustain a brain-threatening injury.

And just as it looked like a win was within easy reach, the other team tied the game and it went into extra innings.

All of which almost made me overlook the fact that it was such a beautiful evening for a baseball game.

By 6:30, the edges of the field were bathed in shade. My parents had arrived earlier and claimed a wide swath of grass for our picnic. I'd taken time at home to hull the strawberries, and they were tender, sweet, and room temperature, just the way I like them best. Holly was excited about the start of camp. Tim was pitching with an air of assurance, whether merited or not.

It was the last weekend of June, and the whole summer still lay ahead....and yet as I watched the extra innings begin, in hopes of a prompt and easy tie-breaker, I realized the sense of limitless time was an illusion. The baseball season would indeed end, but more changes would follow. Holly would soon be old enough to make her own plans on a summer evening, plans which very likely would not include her brother's baseball games. By the time a new baseball season rolls around, Tim will be able to drive himself to the field. My parents won't be here to picnic with us forever either.

It's strange to have a sense of things ending just as the summer is beginning, but sitting there watching the game made me ever more aware of how much that game was like my life itself. So many details to keep track of -- details involving household maintenance, employment, health, finances -- but also so much to enjoy. And, too, so much to worry about: an errant pitch slamming into an eye or skull and changing everything; a bad decision about which side street to take on the way home.

Life is short, I reminded myself as the game entered yet another tied inning. Summer is short. The baseball season is short. Even the strawberry season is short. This abundance of blessings -- family, food, health, security -- all of this could, and in some ways inevitably will, pass.

There were still a couple of tied innings left for me to savor, and I stopped thinking about the malfunctioning washing machine and upcoming deadlines and paid attention to baseball. Tim's team lost, but that didn’t matter. We had a wonderful time. It turned out to be not only a beautiful evening but a perfect one.