Friday, June 06, 2014

Game One

"I'm just happy to be in the building."

In my four decades of rabid, obsessive sports fandom, I had never--EVER--been in the stands when one of my teams played for a championship. I've been to A's playoff games, like the 2000 ALDS, where I saw Gil Heredia--of all people--out-duel Roger Clemens at the Coliseum. I've seen the Kings during early Stanley Cup rounds and felt the intensity, the increased buzz, that one doesn't get during the regular season. But never a Final.

Until last Wednesday.

Thanks to the good graces of former soccer teammate and Times colleague AC Ligamente, that gaping hole in my experience was filled at Staples Center for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final. And oh man, it better than I could have imagined.

That feeling is at least 50% results-oriented, thanks to the Kings' OT win, but even prior to that, even when they stumbled their way to an early deficit, the pure energy and depth of emotion was a new experience. We sat in the very last row, which was absolutely fine, because, for one, the 300s at Staples Center are great seats for hockey, the level is really steep so you're looking right down on the ice. Also because we paid face value (a kind season-ticket holder provided AC the tickets), which was nearly four times less what the kids sitting a row in front of us paid on Stub Hub. We joked a bit about being up against the wall (A.C. and WAG had been to one other Stanley Cup Final game, in 1993, and also sat in the last row), but as I settled into my seat, I uttered the sentence at the top of this post. "Yep," said one of the kids in front of us. "Bucket List."

*

These playoffs have taken a lot out of me. That is not hyperbole. I imagine most Kings fans feel the same. Three Game 7s on the road. The 3-0 deficit against the Sharks. OT in Games 5 and 7 against the nemesis Blackhawks. All seven games against the hated Ducks (I mean, Kings fans hate other teams more than the Ducks--Vancouver and Phoenix--but the idea of LOSING to the Ducks in the playoffs was a reality none of us would ever come to grips with). Twenty-one games of madness, sprinkled with moments of sheer terror, and, at the end of it all, the most honest and reliable group of professionals I've ever had the pleasure to follow.

I don't want to get all Lovey Dovey on you, but dang, there is so much to admire with this club. Hockey players always talk about "The Room" and you know the Kings are as tight-knit and focused as a team can be. Full of belief, as they say, which shows not only in their worst moments but in every moment.

All the more remarkable when you consider the Kings history, littered with, well, almost nothing in the way of success. There is no way ANY Kings fan could have ever envisioned having this type of team (which makes it hilarious when I see them criticized on Twitter, etc; don't you people know how lucky you are?).

Back when Salk and I used to have 10-game plans for the Kings (before he moved away and left me bereft of a hockey buddy until Emet came along), we sat in the 300s. There were some glimmers of hope back in those days (Palffy, Deadmarsh, Allison) that didn't come to full fruition (concussions), but the upper deck was populated with die-hards who mostly just sighed and criticized the players on the ice. And it was funny the way they did it. It wasn't screaming and vitriol. It was resignation. I'll never forget the guy who used to say, matter of factly, "You're terrible, Modry" five or six times a game, as if he was simply muttering to himself.

I like to think those same people are as deliriously mystified by the current success as I am. That they cried like I did in 2012. That they stuck it out and have cell phone videos from Game 6 that they'll never erase. And that they don't call anyone terrible any more. Except Regehr.

*

AJ was at my Mom's house during Game 1. Mom and my brother have gotten caught up in the excitement and watched some of the Kings playoff games. "I don't know how you can handle it," my Mom said after Game 7 of the Conference Final. "It's so nerve-wracking." She said AJ couldn't sit during the game. He stood in the middle of the living room with his arms crossed, dipping and weaving and jumping with the bounces of the puck. Occasionally, he'd disappear down the hallway. "I can't watch this," he'd say.

"He's your son," Mom would say.

Surprisingly, I found my nerves were tempered for Game 1. Plenty of butterflies and mad anticipation since I was going. But no need for breathing exercises or Xanax. I theorized that, even in the top row, being able to see the whole ice left less room for guessing during those times when the puck slides out of the frame and I scream "WHERE ARE WE?!" at the TV. That's part of it, I guess. The other part is there were 18K-plus in the room with me, a shared psychosis evenly distributed amongst all of us, one we could combat with cheering, releasing the tension in us.

It was the shortest three hours of my life. All blurred. The only part I can recall with any real clarity is the winner, which happened at our end, right below us. The turnover, the pass and the entire section standing as Williams turned toward the net. When it went in, the noise was deafening. I couldn't scream any louder. I could hear myself over the goal horn. There was a roughly 25-foot ledge between me and the next section and I sprinted across it--and back--pumping my fists, shouting, smacking proffered high fives from strangers. I stopped to see the celebration on the ice. Again, I screamed. I would do so a few other times on the way out of Staples. And on the street. And on the subway platform.

It was a long train ride home, but I was buzzed the whole way. I got home and watched the highlights, saw Doughty's stunner in slo-mo, Stick's celebration, happy fans screaming in the background of the NHL Network set. Too amped to sleep.

I finally crawled into bed an hour later. A sleepy Emet asked, "Did you have fun?"

I did. I was happy to be in the building.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Be Quiet

Our Little Blessing turned two last weekend, which is like WHOOOOOOOOOSH where did the time go and how did he get so big and talkative and hilarious and loving and a daily joy in our lives. As people do when events such as this arise, we spent time reflecting on his life and what he means to us and just why we call him our Little Blessing. It's hard sometimes, in the day-in, day-out speed of life to pause, to be appreciative and grateful, when you're running around with myriad tasks and worries. I struggle constantly with this. I have a 100 mph brain and I get lost in it.

Caleb can bring me back. Slow me down.

Do you all know the origin of the name Caleb? He is a biblical figure, famous for his trust in God. When Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, he sent 12 spies into the Promised Land to scout the territory. Ten came back and said, "Yeah, it's pretty sweet over there, milk and honey and all that, but there are these big dudes--Giants, basically--and we can't take 'em, so we should probably just stay here in the desert."

I paraphrased that.

The other two spies, Caleb and Joshua, had faith in God's promise and, while verifying the presence of Giants, also said they would be no match for God's power.

*

When we were deciding whether or not to have a child at our somewhat advanced parental age, Emet and I prayed a lot. To try to know if this was the right thing to do, for ourselves and for the child. We believe God gave us his blessing, but he also asked for a few things in return. One of those was for Emet to contribute to the children's ministry at church, a request I believed was two-fold, both to prepare her for who was to come and also so that she shared her gifts (as a person, as a teacher) to others. So, she did exactly that. And upon hearing her story, a superior at the church asked her to record a video, a recruitment pitch, if you will.

You can watch it here.

I mean watch it now. It's relevent to the rest.

Of course, Emet is a little bit mortified by her face/voice/word choices on the video and they played it one time when we were in church, which we didn't totally expect. When it came on, she went "OHMYGOD!" but not in the reverent way you're supposed to do in church and she turned bright red, which got an even brighter shade when Pastor Dan remarked, "See ladies! If you want to get pregnant, serve in Empowered Kids!" at it's conclusion.

*

Our church is building a new sanctuary and ground-breaking is starting this week. Construction is taking place in what was previously the main parking lot, so, beginning this past Sunday, we had to park off-site and shuttle to campus. Caleb was very excited at the prospect of getting on a bus and was smiling ear-to-ear when we sat down in the front row, me beneath a video screen and he and Emet across the aisle. We weren't seated for more than 15 seconds when Emet's head snapped up and said, "It's me."

So it was. On the video screen, talking about Empowered Kids and how she was six months pregnant. We both got emotional right quick. And when the camera panned down to her stomach, we both said (or tried to say, in choking voice), "That's you, Caleb."

We kind of sat there dumbfounded, looking at each other.

*

Once we dropped Caleb off at the nursery, I said something like, "What an inspiring start to a Sunday." I was reminded (yet again, but not often enough) of our good fortune. Our happy and healthy and inquisitive boy. How God kept his promise when we came to him and asked for guidance.

We sat in the sanctuary and I pulled out the Sermon Notes, as I often do, to see what we were covering today. I could not hardly believe what I saw when I looked at it.

I showed Emet. And for the second time in about 15 minutes, we just stared, robbed of anything to say. But we both knew.

"Okay, God. You have our attention. What do you want to tell us."

*

Forty-five years after Caleb came back from his spying mission, he was given what the Lord had promised him, land in Hebron. Forty-five years, he kept his faith, even in the midst of battle, of wandering in the desert. He always said, "God will bring us into the land and we will possess it" even when all tangible evidence appeared contrary.

I know many of you reading this don't share my belief. I know many of you are also suspicious of religion, of its hypocrisy, of acts committed in God's name that are inconsistent with a Loving God. What I love about my church is that the focus is on how the Bible informs my life, my decisions, with the goal of growing into my destiny (as opposed to judging others). The Lord says he has known me since before I was born and that there is a plan for my life. To grasp that plan is frequently difficult. It is beyond my understanding and I struggle (that word again) with trying to connect with God, fostering that relationship.

Here's the rub, though. Why does God want that relationship with me (with everybody, actually, but let's just keep this all about me for a moment if we could)?

It's pretty simple. To help others.

Because once God has your heart, he uses it for good. He uses it to change lives, to mend people who are broken. With me as his instrument.

I don't know how anybody can't get behind that idea.

*

I fell a long way away from God. That's no secret. And I suffered because of it. I did make one good decision, however. At the bottom of it all, I came back to Him. He did not berate me. He did not point his finger and say, "You got what you deserved." He opened his arms and brought me into Him. He took away my anger and my regret and my sadness.

And then he sent people into my life to heal me. He gave me Emet and Caleb.

*

I listened to yesterday's message after I got over the initial shock. Listened hard. Because I knew it was for me. Pastor Dan emphasized a regular theme, to Be Quiet. To take time away from life, from my 100 mph brain, and just Be Quiet so I don't miss what I need to hear, so I can believe beyond what I can see. Calmness in the struggle.

Like Caleb.

There was negativity and danger and unbelief all around him, but he stayed tight in his heart and "finished well." Caleb was 85 years old when he finally entered Hebron. It takes that long sometimes. God always keeps his promises, but you can't really get too impatient with him, because he does it in his own time.

We promised to raise our Little Blessing to love Him. The only way to do that is to behave in a manner consistent with what He teaches us. That's what God told me yesterday.

He is probably thinking that he's told me that a hundred times before and he has, but I just wasn't quiet enough to get it or feel its full impact, so he had to get all overt on me yesterday.

And then he told me to tell you.

So I did.

Friday, May 10, 2013

One

I wasn't sure about you in the beginning, Caleb. Before you were born, I mean. Because even though your father doesn't look it, I am, in fact, 45 years old, which is pretty old to be procreating in my opinion (one not shared by Tony Randall) and I'm going to be REALLY old when you're in say, high school and Mom and Dad are counting the seconds to retirement or when you're in college and we're rolling around the country in a Winnebago and wearing bifocals on chains around our necks. So yeah, your Mom had to kinda talk me into you. Which brings me, on this, your first birthday, to a crucial lesson:

Your Mom is always right.

When I first saw you, the doctor had you by a single, skinny leg and was trying to yank you out of your mother. Except you wouldn't come out all the way. Your head got stuck and I was like, "Oh my god, he's going to have a giant head" and for what seemed like long minutes all I saw was your body, and you apparently weren't too jazzed about this situation either because you started peeing and pooping while suspended upside down by a single, skinny leg. The doctor finally sprung your head free and there you were, ten fingers and ten toes, screaming and red and angry and peeing and pooping and the most beautiful thing in the world.

You had a full head of awesome, dark hair (like your Dad, who, despite his age, has managed to stay follicley relevant) and you looked like a bird with your alert eyes. At only three days old, you were trying to lift your head because you wanted to know what was going on in the world, a trait you've shown this entire year, whether it's looking out the back window at the trees and flowers or chasing after other kids at the park.

We didn't quite know how to react to you, awash as we were in wonder. Your Mom had spent the previous few years thinking Motherhood wasn't going to happen for her and was busy making her peace with that when I kinda jumped into her life with both feet. As I said, she had to convince me that you would be more fun than golf vacations and rock and roll shows and getting blackout drunk in San Diego boutique hotels (as a theoretical example) and if there was even a shred of skepticism left in me, it all went away on the day we brought you home from the hospital last year. It was a Sunday and I went to get the car while they wheeled your Mother and you downstairs. When I pulled up next to you guys, I saw your mother was crying. Not crying softly but full-on bawling her eyes out and I ran over in a mild panic and asked what was wrong.

"Everybody keeps wishing me a Happy Mother's Day," she said (barely, I mean, there was a whole bunch of snot going on there with the tears and all, so it's a good thing we had all those baby wipes on hand).

And that, son, that feeling your Mom felt right then, that is the one you give us every day. Gratitude and joy and happiness. You are our Little Blessing. The way your whole face smiles when you're happy. The way you lower your forehead to mine to give "love." The way you laugh when AJ and I chase you up the stairs. The mornings when you lay in your crib talking before we even come to get you. It's even okay that your first word was "dog" and not "Mama" or "Dada" (though thanks for getting to the latter before the former).

I know this is supposed to be All About You, but you've also had this unforeseen side effect. Having a baby around the house again, made me remember a lot about your big brother when he was your age. You both have some similar behaviors, but it wasn't just that. A moment or a trait of AJ's would come to me while I rocked you and I'd get to reflect on that and appreciate it more because...well..this doesn't concern you...but so many of my memories of that time were tainted. You could even say I blacked them out or locked them away, which I'm willing to admit isn't the best response ever, but it was less painful that way and I've gotten to re-live a lot of that time thanks to you and I've enjoyed "seeing" AJ as a baby again and I wanted to thank you so much for that gift.

You've got a lot of living to do yet and yes, your parents are kind of exhausted most of the time, not to mention the last six weeks where we've been trading sickness back and forth, some kind of super-resistant Death Germ which is trapped somewhere in the home, so we'll have a little shindig for you this weekend, congratulate you for making it to the one-year mark with an acceptable number of concussions and poop disasters. But after that, it's time to get back to the business of growing up. I see walking is right around the corner and within a couple months I expect some subject-verb-predicate sentences out of you. You've given us so many wonderful moments this past year and that's both good and bad. You've set the bar pretty high there, buddy, so it's not going to be easy to keep up those standards. I don't want to be writing this next year and having to tell these nice people that you've sloughed off.

Like I always tell you and your brother, you two are the best things in life. Be good to your mother. Listen to her. Always tell her you love her. She's the reason you're here. And the reason you're awesome. Happy Birthday, buddy.

Love, Daddy



Thursday, January 24, 2013

Errata

A few spare notes about my recent posts, which didn't make it in thanks to non-relevance or forgetfulness on my part or, mostly, space. Honestly, thanks to everyone who read the running post. I know it wasn't easy. It took Emet three days to get through it and she likes me more than you guys (most days). I had another 800 or so words in there that I took out, too. So, you're welcome for that.

I figured one thing out a few days later about the running and that is that I was not prepared for the mental aspect of it. The discipline, I got, but more in the manner of "doing" the run, rather than "running" the run. By that I mean I didn't have any problem doing each of my runs. I did have a problem varying them, both in the way I ran them and where I ran them. Too much of it was the same and that contributed to a less enjoying experience--as I alluded to. The experience of actually running was less enjoyable because I didn't have a plan most of the time, aside from, "Hey! I have to run 2.5 miles tomorrow."

What illuminated this was the way I attacked the actual race. I had a plan. And I ended up way better than that plan. Because I kept my brain focused on what I was doing--pace, form, positive thinking. Beyond that, there's the mental strength to overcome the pain, which I also talked about. So yeah, I think that will help going forward.

*

I had mentioned on Twitter (and shown a pic on Facebook) that the results showed I finished in 3rd place in my age group and 38th overall. I found both of those statistics to be shocking and somewhat ridiculous and it turns out I was right. They had some issues with the timing and when the official results were posted a few days later, I was listed 8th amongst the 40-49 males of the Inland Empire (and 62nd overall), which is fine and appropriate and doesn't bother me at all. Except for missing 7th by eight-tenths of a second. I could have totally caught that guy.

*

The Magic Baby post over at Ocelot Sports is probably my favorite thing I've written in I don't know how long. It just ran out of me and was mostly done in 15 minutes and ready to post with a couple tweaks here and there which is really fun when it happens to a writer but also terrible if one forgets to even think of including a couple salient facts, which is what I did by not mentioning that the very idea of a Magic Baby was first given voice by Dawn, who asked to rent him out for a Yale/Harvard game and then became an Early Adopter of his Gospel and I should have noted that, since she is the sole reason he's become a worldwide phenomenon and also so she wouldn't have sub-tweeted the ever-loving shit out of me.

Having said that, I don't think she became a True Believer until the Magic Baby whooped up on Tawmmy and Giselle's ugly ass kid.

*

The Rooster was trolling me the other day, because he likes to do that (randomly, inexplicably). Here's what he said:

Light the candles...pull out the old pen and paper...and write
bleed on the paper again, Speaker.
go to that dark place

I can dig that. I know everybody liked my train wreck of a life and I did too, in a way. If I wasn't able to throw all of that shit out there, get it into the light of day, so I could a) deal with it and b) figure out a bunch of it didn't matter so I wouldn't have to deal with it, I would not have been able to get to where I am now which is such a gift (just like life! So wrap yourself carefully!). But nobody wants to hear that happy crappy shit. And I certainly don't want to write it. Partly because I'm not a big fan of bringing the sappy, but also because I like having it for me and those close to me. So, you know, The Rooster can go fuck himself.

*

Me: (Screaming at the TV with the sports people running fast)
Emet: Are you calling him 'La-Mike?'"
Me: Yeah. His name is LaMichael James.
Emet: (Pause...beleaguered look) You're an idiot.


Monday, January 21, 2013

Five Thousand Words on Five Thousand Meters

When I was 14, I ran a 10k race with my friend John. It was the Devil Mountain Run circa 1982, a very popular race up in the Bay Area, lotta people--aging hippies mostly--dressed in short shorts and headbands and Sauconys. As John and I waded through the mass of humanity prior to the start, I grabbed at his shirt. “Why we behind all these people?” I asked. “Why don’t we start up front?” He waited a beat before asking, “Why? Do you think you’re going to win?”

His question seemed ludicrous to me.  I suppose I didn’t think I was going to win, but I certainly never thought about anything other than wanting to win, TRYING to win. Why else was I out there?  For fun? Don’t make me laugh. It’s a race. It’s not…bleh…exercise. Is it?

*

Anyways…all I have to say is….

Jerks.  We used to just get drunk and gamble together and then you all had to go get all "fit" and "healthy" and start talking about PRs instead of Pai Gows.

Fine. I ran a 5k this weekend. I hate you all.

*

Now, I am not a complete newbie when it comes to running, racing being one of the many indulgences I entertained in the brief windows between soccer seasons. The first, when I was 10 years old, was an AAU cross-country competition. I saw a newspaper ad, pestered my Mom into taking me. The race was two days away. Not a problem. I was plenty fit from soccer. So we went. I finished 10th, posting a mile-and-a-half time of 8:51.

Pretty quick, right? I was a full minute behind the winner, but left another 30 or so kids weeping in their tube socks. The upshot of finishing 10th was that I advanced to the next round. It turns out the AAU meet I attended was a sectional qualifier for the National Junior Olympics. I was on to the regionals.

I finished 13th there, despite the fact that I fell down. My time was slower, though I do not remember exactly what it was. Falling down certainly didn’t help my cause and the course was much tougher, multiple changes-of-elevation, part of it on a hillside trail, a hillside made muddy by frequent rains where I took a mis-step and slid 15-feet down, before scrambling up and back into the race. Regardless, 13th qualified me for the National Seminfinals. In Vegas!

Which is where my racing career ended for a time. We did not go to Vegas. My parents, who already spent money they did not always have to send me to socccer tournaments all over the continent (including Vegas) put down their collective feet, while also trying to assuage my competitive fire (inferno?) by correctly stating that 13th at the regionals didn’t exactly make me a favorite going forward.

*

Emet went back to work right after Thanksgiving. A difficult time for her, but also for me, because I had been skating since May 10th. I no longer had to get up at an ungodly hour to walk the dog every morning. Since Emet was home, she took both baby and dog on long sojourns and also to the dog park, where she joined something of a daily coffee klatch with other perople without jobs.

With her return to the classroom, the task—care of Reggie, The Dog Who Must Be Walked—returned to me. At 5:30 a.m. Every day.

I decided to compound my new misery by doing some running in the morning, ostensibly to get Reggie his required exercise, but also because…well…I didn’t really artuclate it at the time, but walking him bored me. I needed some motivation to get out of bed. In the dead of winter. And all that rabble about running must have permeated my brain. “Hey! I have an idea!”

Fuckers.

*

I ran track in junior high, both for my school and for the club sponsored by the local Catholic Church. I ran the mile, though I filled in in the 880 (screw you, metric system!) on occasion. The entire distance running contingent at junior high was made up of guys on my soccer team. Five of us (although only four got to race in meets), all of whom could go under six minutes.

Before that first season began, our coach showed us all the “school records” and the one for the mile seemed well within reach. I took that opportunity to mention, perhaps a little brashly and loudly, that I was going to break that record. Which I did. In the first race. Except I finished second behind one of my teammates, Steve, who now held the new record.

I didn’t feel particularly bad about that.

Hahahahahaha. Totally lying. I was furious. And then I went to school the next day and saw "Way to break the record, fag" written on my locker.

Apparently someone didn’t like my braggadocio. I know who that person was (not Steve), but hey, technically I did break the record I said I was gonna break. Just that it wasn’t the record any more.

Nor was it the record after the next race, which I won, out-sprinting Steve in the last 220 (yards, bitches!) and beating him by a couple feet. 5:29.4. Will never forget that number or the race. When we came around the last bend, we were flying, as fast as we could possibly go at that point, and we were stride for stride and the effort, the sheer will, pushed our inertia wide and down there at the finish line, 80 or so yards away, they had to stretch the tape out. And Steve and I watched them do it, pull the string from the first couple lanes all the way to the outside lane and that was the goal, that was where we were headed and I can’t even say when I edged ahead, because all I was looking at was the tape.

One of the defining moments of my youth. I am not joking when I tell you that race repaired at least two fractured relationships, which is a long story(ies) best reserved for never.

Anyways, when I was 12, I could run a mile in 5:29.4. Which became something of a frustration for me as I started this particular journey.

*

I looked over the Couch to 5k schedule and scoffed. Heh. I’m an athlete. Sure, I’m out of shape, but this heart and these lungs have been built up over a lifetime. They are not the vital body organs of a sloth. So, naturally, I started off at Week 3. And cut the walking time.

Reggie didn’t quite know what to make of this strange new ritual. No more stopping at every smell and tree? Thankfully, he caught on quickly, after a few days of jumping at me and playing tug o' war with the leash. 

I found I no longer dreaded 5:30 a.m. I hopped out of bed and got to it. I also did this on the non-running days, when we "briskly" walked for 30 minutes, while, at the same time, thinking “I could probably run today and feel fine,” but I resisted, owing to my last two attempts at Operation Return to Fitness, when I’d over-extended myself in the first weeks and then couldn’t continue due to soreness, strains, defeatism and humiliation.

It was going well for a couple of weeks. Legs felt heavy but not sore, wind was solid most days. I felt refreshed and energetic and remembered to stretch after the workout. It was going so well I bought a long-sleeve shirt to run in.

That’s when you know I’m getting serious, when I start with the wardrobe.

*

It was the summer before my freshman year when I asked my parents if I could run a 10k. My mom was a little concerned, what with soccer season coming up and the fact that I’d never run that far. “You have to prove to me you can make it, first,” she said.

"Fine, let’s go."

We mapped a 6.2 mile trek in the car, using the back roads near our house and off I went. I finished the trail twice, running it in consecutive weeks (this is probably not how one trains for a 10k, I’m guessing) and then signed up for the race.

I went out too fast, adrenaline pumping, blood on fire (inferno?), nearly died during the fourth mile, shuffled for a while, but finished strong. I do not remember enjoying it. Of course, I didn’t win. In fact, an older guy (I was 14, so when I say “older” that means he was anywhere from 25 to 50, but I’m guessing mid-30s) jumped in front of me, nearly toppling us both, right at the finish line chute, I assume because he didn’t want to lose to a 10-year-old (I was still very small for my age, so he probably thought I was 10) and it PISSED ME OFF. If I’d known he was gaining, I’d have put a hip in his way.

The thing about it is, I did not have a good time. I didn’t like running. To my mind, running was punishment. At the start of the soccer season, we had “Hell Week.” All conditioning—running—all the time. When we screwed around at practice, we had to run "Grand Tours," which were full laps up and down hills around huge Kellman Fields. Punishment. Bad connotations. And so that 10k was the point where running and I parted ways as a source of fun or pride or anything. Like Jerry Seinfeld, “I choose not to run!”

*

It was a few days before Christmas where I felt I was going to face the first real test of the program: doing two miles without walking. Well, let me take that somewhat back. I knew I could run two miles. I just wasn’t entirely sure I could run it quickly. I was pushing myself at a pretty good pace previously, but that was always knowing that I had a 3-to-5 minute walk coming to me.

Not this day.

It was 32 degrees when Reggie and I stepped out of the house that day. It was the first time in his entire dog-life he hesitated prior to a "walk." He sniffed the air, raised his eyebrows at me and looked up, "You sure about this, man?"

Heck yeah.

I wasn’t overly enthusiastic about my time, but I did take solace in the fact I ran the second mile as fast as I ran the first.

I wasn’t cold once I got going, except for my hands, so I made a mental note to get some running gloves (a mental note I passed on to AJ just in time for Christmas).

*

Seriously, you shoulda seen me. My family fed my new obsession at Christmas. Black racing tights. Bright red Nike half-zip Dri-Fit running jacket. Gloves! No more walking. We dress like a runner now.

I was a little more than three weeks out from the race and…well…I had to admit a couple things to myself.

1. I look pretty awesome in racing tights
2. I was going to hate my race time

I wasn’t going to be over 10 minutes per mile (roughly the pace the Couch to 5K plan advocates). Or at least I hadn’t been at any point during training. But there was no real time to work on speed. Maybe if I’d started a month earlier. No time for  intervals (training term!) or the like. I was just going to be able to get my lungs, heart and legs ready to carry me over 3.1.

I suppose that was the idea, but I guess I didn’t feel like I was “accomplishing” anything. I felt like I was training for something, which is different, and it held all manner of positive factors, discipline being Number One, but did I feel pride? I don’t think so. It’s something else and darned if I can put my finger on it right now.

*

It was cold and dark outside when Reggie and I hit the trail a couple days before the New Year. My suburban hamlet is lousy with running/walking/biking/horse trails and the one a block up from my house is popular. My neighborhood is hilly, but the trail is more flat, so I go back and forth. It’s not the most exciting scenery in the world, though as dawn creeps during Mile Two, I notice the leaves have changed color to golden red. It’s like fall, deep in the recesses of winter. They won’t last long that color, not when the rain starts after the turn of the year. That’s when the San Bernardino mountain range, hard to the north of where I’m running, will get dusted with snow and the wind that careens down their slopes will pick up the chill and give Reggie and I more incentive to get back into the warmth of the house.

On this particular day, I scared the crap out of three ladies speed-walking on the trail. It’s still dark and they’re talking loudly to each other and don’t hear us approach from behind, try as I might to make myself known with thunderous man-strides. They recover from their fright and let us by, cooing when they notice Reggie, whom I have to drag behind me me for 100 yards or so as he looks back at them flirting and wondering if he’d have gotten a scruff scratch had I let him stop to say "hello."

Even though he knows we don’t stop any more.

We hit the main street running perpendicular to the trail and turn around, moving across the street to keep Reg from gawking at the loud ladies who I now see are running and…hey…we are the same, we are legion, we are "Runners." I thrust a fist of solidarity at them as we pass.

The trail going east has a slight, if steady incline and I drop my pace. I no longer feel the cold; my hands are warmed by my fresh new gloves and Reggie is keeping good time, has yet to dart in front of me because of some far off rabbit sniffing at scrub on the hillside or a daring coyote slipping into the open field between tracts hoping to find a field mouse or an outdoor cat. I’m not listening to music. I decided not to when I started. Not sure why, but I prefer it this way. Something about trying to be one with my breath, void of distractions, concentrating on stride, letting peaceful thoughts into my quiet head, centering my motherfucking chi.

I run across the second main street, which is much quieter, and I think about what it all means and it’s strange because I’m not yet sure if I’m enjoying this. I’m feeling challenged and fight to keep my form, but it’s not actually fun. Perhaps when I reach a certain level when the run is longer--more of a journey, not just back and forth on the same trail--it will make more sense in that aspect. Yet, I look forward to doing it. I much prefer the mornings when we run to the ones when we recover and walk. I’m perusing running websites for clothes and gear. And, afterward, when Reggie and I are back in the house and it’s too too warm because the heat is on and I stretch and groan and peel off the layers and get into the shower, I can’t help but enjoy it then, because I’ve done it. I’ve finished the day’s task, the one I may or may not have had anxiety dreams about at 2 a.m. I’m gassed, but also cleansed, and it feels like I’ve taken the lead on the day. 

And yet, the physical act of running, the pleasure I would like to find in the endeavor itself, remains lacking.

*

The first time I woke up not wanting to run was New Year’s Day. I ascribed this to the previous night’s activities. Only AJ and I made it to midnight and of the two of us, I was the only one drinking Templeton Rye when the ball dropped, so raising my head from the pillow was a difficult chore. At the same time, there was never a question in my mind that I would get up (eventually…c’mon….just give me a few more minutes) and tackle that day’s miles.

Which is a victory in and of itself. And when I decided on a new route just to change things up and sweated out a few ounces of small batch whiskey, I decided to get cute and tackle a hill at about the two-mile mark and dadgum it if I didn’t surmount that hill and—after a brief period of slowed pace on flat ground—finished strong with Reggie behind me having to be hustled along (it can skew your time when you are dragging 40 lbs. of mutt behind you).

That run felt like a victory for discipline and only added to my buzz for the Rose Bowl, which was won by my beloved Stanford Cardinal in a flurry of defense (them) and bloody marys (me).

*

That New Year’s week, I decided to further tweak the program upon which I’d embarked. As I’ve said, I felt a little silly doing the program, just because I don't live an idle life. I'm active and though I wouldn’t have said I was "in shape," when I began this, I could’ve pulled useful shifts in a soccer match if called upon and not done great disservice to my body or to the beautiful game. What I wanted was to feel more challenged, so I went ahead and sped up my "sensible" pace and that was fine, but what I really wanted to do was get the distance under my belt earlier, a couple weeks before the gun goes off. So I passed over the week of 2.75-mile runs and went  straight from 2.5 miles to 3 miles. So I can maybe go to 3.5 or 4 miles before the race. Maybe not. We race in 16 days.

Oh, did I mentioned I signed up to race?

*

I will be tackling the Ontario Mills 5k/10k, sponsored by The Christian Okoye Foundation. That’s right, baby. The Nigerian Nightmare! Proceeds go to children’s sports programs in the area, which is really the only thing to recommend this particular race (that and it was scheduled on the weekend after I finished the program and it’s five miles from my house) because the course is flat and boring, as in, it’s two laps around the parking lot of the outlet mall. Not any nature or sights to see. “Hey cool! There’s the Bed, Bath and Beyond!”

Still, The Nigerian Nightmare!

*

As you’ve probably noticed, I’ve been writing this as it happened, journaling, if you will, with the grand idea that the final paragraphs will include the race and my feeling of triumph and accomplishment and the awed hugs of my wife and kids, but most importantly—I thought—my time, which would be impressive despite it all, or a mild disappointment (likely scenario) or neither one of those things. And what I’ve come to realize is that the race doesn’t matter in the larger implications of the undertaking.

Nope, not about the race at all (even though I am looking forward to it and my family is excited to go and support me). We are, after all, talking about a mere 3.1 miles. This is not Hannibal giddyuping a bunch of elephants over the Alps. If hard-pressed before doing the training, say for $100, I could have probably jogged my way for 3.1 miles without stopping as long as time wasn’t a factor. No, it’s no great accomplishment. It is, however, a sign-post. It’s the thing that got me to the starting line. And it is most definitely not the finish.

I got into pretty good shape a few years ago, right before the time I met Emet (who was undoubtedly impressed by my slender, yet powerful, physique). But I didn’t make those workouts a lifestyle choice. It was a finite program that I finished and just sort of stopped doing (because it was boring and because I then pulled a quad playing soccer). It ended and so did I and it did not leave the lasting import of a change, a change in attitude and lifestyle.

I’m kind of hoping that’s what this is. I have an eight-month-old son, you know, and at 45, one begins to question mortality on a larger scale. I’d like to have another 40 years to hang out with my wife and boys and not just as a presence but a participant. And that’s what has be amped and excited. Not the race.

*

I’ve said countless times, even to a few of you cultists/runners, that you’d never ensnare me. That I love competition above all. That I’ll happily and readily enter into a contest of will or strength or skill for the opportunity to compete and win. But exercise? Not my bag, baby.

And even now, as mentioned earlier, I don’t know what it is that has me inspired to get out of bed on those running days. I like the fact that I have more energy (never a bad thing with an 8-month-old in the house). I like sweating when it’s cold outside. I like the way I look in this gray Nike shirt (I didn’t tell you I bought a gray Nike half-zip Dri-Fit racing jacket? I did). I like saying "Good morning" to others I see on the trail. I like bonding with my dog. Let me extrapolate on that a little. Is this silly or common thing? I love having Reggie with me. He was feeling a little under the weather last week (eating raw bratwurst off the kitchen counter will do that to you) and when I went to bed, I had him listed as doubtful. But the alarm went off and there he was, paws on the bed, tongue in my face, tail slapping the air. And I was happy! Happy he was good to go. But back to the point, what is the thing? I don’t know. And if you think I’m building up to some big reveal, where I have my Road to Damascus moment, I’m not. I’m truly bewildered.

*

I have begun to train like a race horse. The race is eight days away. I have the distance under my belt. More, even. I’ve taken a couple long (four mile) leisurely jogs. I’ve run the 5k distance at a targeted pace for each mile, trying to go progressively faster. I’m obsessed with my statistics--no surprise to anyone who knows me--at the end, animatedly relaying them to Emet.

Oddly, I don’t care what my race time is going to be. I’d like it to be under 26 minutes. That doesn’t seem unreasonable.

But I don’t really give that much of a shit.

Not like I will next time.

I think I’m getting the competition part of this now.

*

Have I ever shown you my pinkie? The one on my right hand? It’s deformed ("like an injured bird," I once wrote, hackily), thick to the first knuckle, skinny and slightly bent from there. I broke it playing basketball in college. To be precise, I broke it in warmups for a fraternity intramural game reaching up for a rebound and it went wrong and snapped.

I taped it to my ring finger and played the game.

This is not an isolated incident. I walked around for three months with a broken bone in my wrist because I didn’t want to get it casted until after soccer season was over. About a year ago, I injured my right elbow (probably repetitive stress syndrome from hitting 400 balls a week at the range). I just put a brace on it and take some Advil before I play golf.

I have zero issues with pain. I think this may be the thing. Because when I get that stitch in my side, or my legs start to get a little heavy or I’m heaving a bit while trying to snag a full breath, I get mad. I fight it. I push through. I finish the run with as much speed as I can muster.

And that is what fires me up. That’s what makes me throw in a Darryl Sutter Fist Pump at the end of the run. That’s "the thing." Or one of the the things.

I like that it hurts. I finished my third-to-last run before the race today. I “sprinted” the last quarter-mile, by which I mean I ran as fast as I could. My stomach muscles were barking. It was awesome.

*

In retrospect, it probably wasn't the greatest idea I've ever had to play 32 holes of golf three days before the race, especially after I ran that very same morning. My right hammy is barking (the one I use to drive my hips forward on downswing) and my right achilles has seen better moments. Damn it.

I was feeling pretty good after the morning run, too. I took a page from the horseman's notebook and decided to run a "tightener" for my last training before the race, somewhat akin to a horse going a quick four furlongs the week before taking to the track and going six.

You know, when I write that down, it makes much less sense than it did in my head.

Regardless, I wanted to do two miles, relatively quickly, at a faster pace than I'd be able to do 3.1 anyway. I managed it, coming home in 15:33, which was quicker than I'd intended. but also would have made me puff out my chest if wasn't bend over at the waist gasping and trying to get enough saliva in my mouth to spit.

Now it's a day later and I'm hoping the tweaks I've done to my body will ease in the next 48 hours. I don't want any excuses. I'm starting to fire myself up and, though the time really doesn't matter. Crap, I say that, and, let's be honest, it's a defense mechanism for the feeling that I'm so.....so......so.......slow, like an-elderly-man-driving-a-car-in-the-rain-slow, like a hobbled-snail slow, like a homeless-person-at-an-ATM slow. Of course the time matters, but it matters in a way where I want to finish just a little bit faster than my estimate/plan. I'm trying not to let it matter in the grand scheme of things (SO SLOW) and remember that it's only been a couple months.

*

When I crossed the finish line, I didn't really feel it. When I saw Emet and AJ and Caleb, I didn't really feel it. After I stretched and cooled down a little, I felt it.

Pride.

Race day was a beautiful one, sunny and blue and clear and quiet and I hardly needed the cap or race shirt, but I wore them anyway because, in my mind's eye, that is what I saw when I raced. Two laps around the mall.

I had a plan, of course. First two miles at and 8:20 pace and the rest at 8:00 or faster, if I could manage it. I knew the biggest issue would be reining in the adrenaline at the start, not chasing after the hotshots or being embarrassed by the 12-year-olds leaving me in the dust. Just sticking with the pace. It worked, sort of. Based on my app, I did run the first mile in a reasonable 8:14, but the chart also shows that I was up and down like an EKG around that median number. Not exactly smooth and simple.

But I was enjoying it. I really was. Again, I wasn't listening to music. It was just me and the rhythm of my breath and strides and as folks pulled away in front of me and fell behind me, it was almost like I was alone and I thought about all those mornings and my dog and it brought a smile to my face. In truth, I felt like I was hardly running at all. I was simply enjoying the moment.

I was much more consistent during the second mile, which I ran in 8:31. I passed Emet and the boys during that one and was so happy to see them there, cheering for me, even if AJ did scream out, "You're losing to Colby!"

I had no idea who the hell Colby was (AJ's soccer teammate, who beat me by about 45 seconds) and I didn't care. I had my pace going and I had another quarter-mile to go before I had to pick it up for the last 1.1 (actually, the course was officially marked at 3.13 miles). I felt I had plenty of energy, but that I still had to restrain myself, lest I come limping home. I wanted to be going my quickest at the end, at the finish line.

I quickly started picking up runners in the third mile. One woman didn't like it, at least that was my assumption, since she grunted and tried to stay with me when I hit her hip. Even faced with direct competition, I stuck with my gait, trying to be as smooth as possible. I wove my way through a throng of walkers. I dusted a couple high schoolers. And then I could see the finish line and I knew I was going to make it and I strode out a little further and checked my pace and time and yes, I was going to make it.

*

I broke my goal by more than 21 seconds, coming in at 25:38.7. It's the fastest I've run at any point during the program and whether that has to do with adrenaline or running at 8 a.m. as opposed to 5:30 a.m. or not having to sometimes keep a four-legged running companion on pace, I didn't care. The pride came to me and it came in a rush and it was two-fold. One, I made it. Two, I don't always get to win. Sometimes I plan for things and they don't come together or I fall short of a task. Not this time. The race was a tangible success. Eight weeks of work and a single goal, which I didn't just achieve, but achieved beyond what I'd hoped.

Which is the way I felt, too. I felt so much better about it than I imagined I would, a feeling which came upon me surprisingly. And I just.....

I was so grateful that I got to experience it.

*

So, Running Boy, what now? Well, I don’t think I’ll be joining any of you in your marathons. I salute you all for having that as a goal, but I can't see myself being intrigued enough to do that much running. Halfs? I would guess no, but I won't rule it out entirely.

What I want to do in the immediate aftermath is to get some other type of fitness work into the routine, add a couple days a week of strength training, a session of flexibility training/yoga and two or three days of running. I'll have to mix and match and figure it out and see how my body responds, which is the biggest part of it. I've put this body through a lot of things over the last 45 years, both good and bad, and I need it to be functional for 40 more so I can grow old with the people I love.

One last anecdote from the journey (wrap it up already, will ya?). On that day I played 32 holes of golf, I took a break after the first 18 and had a couple wonderful IPAs and a burger in the clubhouse and when I finished them, I had an overwhelming urge to smoke a cigarette. Now, I've been quit long enough to be over the physical cravings, but I swear this was a physical craving and I sat there shaking and trying to fight it off with my brain, when I thought, "Wait, there's no way I can smoke, not with the race coming up."

And it went away. Like poof.

*

So, the journey continues and we'll see what's in store. I am still kind of figuring when we're going to race again. Am I hooked? We'll see. I did do an easy 3.5 miles this morning with Reggie, and when I say "easy," I mean "hungover," thanks to the 49ers and the 38--approximately--Racer 5 IPAs I had yesterday. That's a good sign, right? Yes, it is, so....

On your marks.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Names

My primary role at work in the aftermath of 9/11 was to compile the names of the victims. List after growing list, which we published every Friday for months. It got so I could recite a whole block of names from memory, having ran my eyes over them repeatedly, and I kept reminding myself that this was not just a running tally; the list was fathers and sons and mothers and daughters and people who were loved and needed.

A newsroom is a tough place to be on days like 9/11, like Friday. On both of those days, the only thing I wanted to do was go home and be with my babies. But you put your head down, try to do the job well, and block out the implications. On those days, it's nigh impossible.

As impossible as it is to imagine yourself caught in the middle of these tragedies. I had a split-second on Friday. My boss came to me and said there was a shooting at a school. And he immediately said, "In Connecticut." But there was a beat. So brief as to not even be measurable, but in that moment, every slow-motion fear came rushing at me.  Every synapse seized. Emet is at school. AJ is at school. The baby.

I e-mailed Emet. I pulled up the website of the newspaper near our home. Just to reach out. Flailing. Tears and aching in my heart. A hundred times on Friday and then a hundred more on Saturday.

I was back in the newsroom early on Saturday, unscheduled but necessary. More names. This time, I had to find them. We need quotes, insight. Who, what, when where, why, how? Constant. And the list of the victims, the children, and I wanted to stop and pause and pray on them and hold those names, not let them just go on a list.

At the end of the shift, I met Emet and the baby at a sushi bar. When he hears my voice, my youngest son, Caleb is his name, he snaps his head around, smiles, and holds his arms out. I pull him into me.

AJ was at his Mom's this weekend, but I called him Friday night. "Did your Mom talk to you about what happened?"

"Yes."

"Are you scared?"

"No."

And I told him that was good, he should rightfully feel safe at school and we were both sad and I missed him. When he asks me why, I'll tell him I don't know. I'll also tell him that there's more of us than there are of them, more good than bad, and that's how we can make it better, by being better. To ourselves, to others, to everyone.

*

Charlotte. Daniel. Olivia. Josephine. Ana. Dylan. Madeleine. Catherine. Chase. Jesse. James. Grace. Emilie. Jack. Noah. Caroline. Jessica. Benjamin. Avielle. Allison.

Dawn. Victoria. Mary. Rachel. Anne Marie. Nancy. Lauren.

*

Another list. Another day where we shake our heads and wonder how this has happened again, rage and helplessness in equal parts and there's no easing of either. So you just put your head down, plow through it and honor them with works. Honor them by remembering. Honor them with extra moments in the arms of your loved ones and laughter and compassion and generosity for all people.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Wanted

Our pastor told a story during this morning's service that just wrecked me. He said a girl walked up to the alter a few weeks ago and handed him a letter. Then she simply walked off. He read it and immediately set about trying to find her, without luck.

He read us the letter today. The girl is 13 and has lived in foster homes for much of her life. She's been separated from her sisters, her mother is in jail, her oldest sister is in juve. It was a litany of places, this letter. A list of cities where she'd been shuttled, residences she'd hoped would provide solace, peace, only to be moved elsewhere, five times in five years, sometimes with her little sister, sometimes not. And she wondered, at the end of the letter, if our pastor would pray for her, if he would help her find a place where she was wanted.

Because, how can you have any hope when there's nobody around who wants you?

The story itself was bad enough. The sadness of it came right into me. And I thought of AJ, how I never wanted him to feel that way when X split. How I never wanted him to feel unwanted, how I feared the fallout of our divorce would visit him.

*

I ran into Tony after the service. He's a friend, a sometime golf partner. He fawned over the baby and ruffled AJ's hair. In the midst of the conversation I tried to say something that I feel, something I am so blessed to have, and that's a new chance. I get to experience that love and joy and purpose all over with Caleb and I can appreciate and embrace it like I didn't get to with AJ. But I couldn't tell Tony that, because of the tears in my throat and that 13-year-old girl. I got out a bit of it, and he put his arm around me and we smiled at the baby and ruffled AJ's hair.

Walking out to the car AJ said, "Daddy, did you start to cry?" And I told him yes, and about the girl and that I was sad, but also thankful--so very thankful--for him and Emet and Caleb and that I'm blessed to always feel loved and--way more than that--that he has never felt the pain of what that girl wrote.

*

The pastor said the girl showed up again last night. Her situation isn't any better. But she has hope. And now she has an entire church to try to lift her up. I hope for my boys, but I can't guarantee happiness for them. Life is tribulation. There will be pain. But they will always have us, a place to feel wanted.