Thursday, July 20, 2006

Balls of String Are Not To Be Trifled With

I’m in my fifth week of training for the Chicago Marathon.

I realize that to a lot of people, running 26.2 miles is not the act of a rational human being. But if you live in Chicago and have ever strapped on a pair of jogging shoes and/or fancy yourself physically fit, you will one day feel shamed into entering this event. You will be slumped on your couch eating a bag of Cheetos, watching a broadcast of the race on TV and the announcers will mortify you with the inspirational tale of a blind, 80-year-old, one-legged grandmother who has just posted a personal best. You will think, “Surely, I can take her,” and the next thing you know, you’ve plunked down your $90 registration fee, which is just stiff enough to guarantee you won’t renege, and are downloading training schedules from some guy named Hal Higdon, who you hope knows what he’s talking about.

So I run five days a week—Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, Sunday. My longest mileage so far has been 11, and I’ll eventually work up to 20.

I’m not worried about whether or not I’ll be able to go the distance. I know I can take the punishment because Dave and I frequently spend our vacations beating the crap out of our bodies. Two summers ago, we traveled to Washington’s Olympic National Park. Instead of driving to a scenic viewpoint at Hurricane Hill, we opted for a 13-mile roundtrip hike to the ridge and back—the trail gained over 5,000 feet in elevation on the way up, and lost the same on the way down. (I’ll admit I misread the topographic map.) The descent was so relentlessly steep that I started walking backwards to shift the pressure from one set of aching muscles to another. I do not recommend this technique if there is at all the possibility of stumbling on a tree root and falling down a cliff or into an unseen stream. So it was back to forward motion. For three days after, we had a glimpse of an arthritic future in which our calves would protest at scaling so much as a curb. So, no, I’m not scared of a really long run.

I am a little nervous about this nagging sometimes-dull-sometimes-sharp pain in my left shin. Nervous enough that I’m meeting with an orthopedist a week from Monday. But not nervous enough to stop training. In the meantime, to take a little pounding off the shin, I am trying to run on gravel and grass whenever possible, although the unevenness of grass increases the potential of a sprained ankle.

I have sprained my ankles three times; one of them twice and the other once, although I’m not sure which incidents are related to the left or right. I’m a little fuzzy on how the first sprain occurred, but I’m quite clear on where it happened. When I was in high school, my parents dumped me off in Carey, Ohio, for a T.E.C. (Teens Encounter Christ) weekend. Apparently a Catholic school education wasn’t religious enough for them, and they insisted that each of their offspring attend a TEC to get closer to God, the hoped-for result being that we would stop behaving like surly teenagers. My sister had gone, kicking and screaming, the year before. I opted for the seething silent treatment on the drive down to the retreat site. Just the sort of attitude the weekend was designed to cure.

Not that I had anything against God. It’s just that some kids thrill at the prospect of these sorts of gatherings and some kids don’t. Sort of the way that some kids play in the band and other kids mock it. Me, I was a mocker. I knew there wasn’t anything remotely “neat” or “cool” about TEC. I also knew I would be stuck with a bunch of girls who thought otherwise.

Now, if I had found a partner in cynicism that would be one thing. But my roomie was Jodie. Jodie was very sweet and very earnest and very sincere. And slightly troubled. Like a lot of teenage girls, Jodie didn’t get a long with her dad. As I see it, the problem with fathers is that they were once boys. They didn’t understand teenaged girls back then, and they don’t get them when reincarnated as daughters. Heck, most haven’t figured out their wives. Throw a second or third case of PMS into the mix and they retreat to the basement and their power tools.

In Jodie’s case, the situation seems to have been more than your garden variety Mars vs. Venus communication gap. It might have involved abandonment, neglect, abuse or maybe even a step-dad. I had a hard time following the thread of her tale of woe, as I was busy composing mental hate notes to my parents. But Jodie did find a sympathetic ear in one of our jailers. Let’s call him “Rick.” Within a matter of hours, Rick had been anointed official Father Figure and Jodie had turned into his Cling-on, rendering her useless to me as a recipient of sarcastic bon mots.

I’ve managed to successfully block the remainder of my TEC memories. Between two rounds of therapy, the most vivid detail shaken loose has been a ball of string that TEC-ers gifted one another with as a symbol of God’s undying love and devotion. Or some such thing. The rest of the vaguely cult-like experience is a blur—a pairing of constant activity and sleep deprivation that had all of us hostages praising the Lord at the end of our three day indoctrination, the effects of which were not so easy to shake, as I seem to remember attending, voluntarily, at least one TEC reunion a month or so later.

Anyhow, on the first day, I and my fellow detainees were coerced by our captors into participating in a bonding exercise. I think it involved building a human pyramid. And that’s when I sprained my ankle.

I know what you’re thinking. According to the Geneva Conventions, this should have been my perfect out. A sign from Jehovah himself that I was not fit for duty on the God Squad. I was ecstatic and when the warden asked, “Do you want to go home?” every neuron in my brain screamed, “Hell yes.” But then it occurred to me that if I bailed at less than the halfway point, the ordeal would not qualify as a complete TEC weekend and my parents might send me back for a do-over. I had already served a fair amount of my sentence, which would be utterly negated. So I stayed.

One of the adults on hand happened to be a nurse, and wrapped my ankle in an Ace bandage. As luck would have it, Carey is home to Our Lady of Consolation, a shrine to which people from all over the world, or minimally Northwest Ohio, flock for healing. I was not consoled by these powers directly, being something of a Non-Believer in Shrines, miracles, and images of the Virgin Mary appearing on tree bark. But the Shrine had answered others’ prayers—witness the roomful of abandoned crutches. I hobbled around on a loaner pair for the rest of the weekend, feeling a bit like Tiny Tim. God bless us all, every one.

Mom and Dad had not been apprised of my injury. I confess that I took a perverse and not particularly Christian pleasure in witnessing their shock and guilt when they appeared on Monday afternoon to spring me from lock-up. “You should be ashamed of yourselves,” I telepathed in their direction. “You forced me to come here against my will and look what happened. You are bad, bad parents. But because I have had the Spirit of God rammed down my throat, I will forgive you.”

And that was the end of TEC, my parents apparently deducing that it was no magic remedy for puberty and fraught with dangers of its own. My younger brothers’ sentence was commuted, just another exhibit in the It Sucks To Be An Older Sibling Hall of Fame. I’m still waiting for the boys to thank me.

But now I wonder if God isn’t having the last laugh. While it’s entirely possible that the current state of my shin is nothing more than a strain caused by over-training, it could be a Sign. It could be my old TEC sprain acting up to remind me that Higher Powers and balls of string are not to be trifled with.

God knows my intentions are not pure. I don’t want to just finish the Marathon, I want to beat that one-legged, 80-year-old grandma and maybe even a Kenyan. Perhaps this is His way of telling me that the former is not a particularly noble goal and the latter is altogether psychotic. Or maybe He senses that I’m using the Marathon as an escape, that I am literally running away from my problems and difficult life decisions.

Or not.

So I wait for my appointment with the orthopedist. Because my mind tends to jump to the worst possible conclusion, I’m convinced the probable strain will turn out to be cancer of the shin, requiring surgery and possibly even amputation. And if that’s diagnosis, well, I know where to get a cheap pair of crutches.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Of Raft Races and Cannonball Contests

Last week, I toured a neighbor’s condo to check out her new closet organizers. I walked away convinced Dave and I could do a better job of maximizing our limited storage space. So far we’ve rearranged our pantry, entry way closet and sock drawers, efforts that have largely consisted of throwing away stuff we didn’t know we had and moving everything else into a new spot. In a couple of weeks, it will be the same jumbled mess.

But I did, in the process of sorting through various handbags, excavate $73 (!) in cash and another couple of bucks in change, including probably every penny I ever picked up off the sidewalk. I also found a pack of unopened Orbit gum, three tubes of Chapstick, a dozen each of pens and lipsticks (so that’s what happened to L’Oreal #410 Volcanic), Band-Aids, hand cream, expired cold tablets, a bag of congealed cough drops, a bottle of Excedrin Tension Headache and prescription Imitrex for migraines, the last two being major indicators that I needed to quit my job.

From the additional detritus, a paleontologist could deduce that I had attended a Cubs game in 2004, purchased an apple at the Salt Lake City airport in 2003, and visited an Internet café in Fresno, Cal., date unknown. Men wonder what women carry in their purses. It’s my life story, writ on receipts and ticket stubs.

And then there was the note from Grandpa.

February 10, 2003.

“Dear Patty,

I haven’t forgot your birthday, I just mislayed [sic] your address…. My eyesight is so bad that I can’t read the newspaper without a magnifying glass and that’s no way to read a paper. As a matter of fact I can hardly see the paper I’m writing on.”

He was 97 years old and still driving a car.

If you think that two years is enough time after a person dies to suddenly see their handwriting and not feel like someone has pounded you in the chest, you would be wrong. My heart hurt.

I miss my grandpa. Especially in the summertime.

Sundays in the summer were reserved for pool parties at my grandparents’. These were high-spirited gatherings with the entire assemblage of cousins, aunts and uncles—raft races being to my family what touch football was to the Kennedys. There were Cannonball contests and games of Capsize, a diversion of our own invention in which we attempted, via dive bombing, to dislodge two castaways from their life raft. Each afternoon was punctuated by Grandpa’s much anticipated belly flop off the diving board. I have friends who never witnessed their grandfather in so much as shirtsleeves or shorts, whereas I can conjure up Gramps in his navy blue trunks and untameable toenails without closing my eyes.

Sometime around 3, he would disappear into the house to prep for Happy Hour, emerging with soda pop for the kids, Manhattans for the grown-ups. Bowls of peanuts and pretzels. Trays of crackers and cheese, each square meticulously sliced by my grandfather’s hand.

Having drained their drinks, Dad and Aunt Mary Jo and Uncle John would begin their weekly bitch session over Grandpa’s refusal to spring for a gas grill. His charcoal chimney drove them insane, and they argued their case for propane before a jury of their offspring: It simply took too long for the coals to get hot. “With gas,” they informed us, “you just flip the switch.” Our burgers and hot dogs would be ready in minutes. (Actually, my grandmother called them “wieners,” as in “You boys want wieners?” which sends my brothers into convulsions to this day.) Yet week after week, from Memorial through Labor Day, the Old Man stooped over his briquettes, fanning the embers with his breath—while the cabal provided a running critique. “Always starts too late.” “Never uses enough lighter fluid.” “Why does he have to be so stubborn?” I don’t doubt that last one, at least in part, had something to do with the kick he got out of yanking their chain. Point being, on Sundays, he was still the boss.

On steamy nights between Sundays, Dad would pile us into the car for an after-dinner dip, an advantage we had over our cross-town cousins, what with our house being a mile or two from my grandparents’ at best. After we’d cooled off, we’d sit on the porch to let our suits dry before the drive home. Gramps would serve ice cream cones while we listened to the cicadas’ end-of-summer song. Back to School was right around the corner, but not that night. Not as long as we had the pool.

I remember one summer I became obsessed with swimming laps. I would practice my freestyle technique on weekdays, away from the maddening Sunday crowd. Grandma would position a lounge chair in the shade near the deep end and pepper me with questions that came to me in snatches underwater; I struggled to answer between chlorinated gulps. Grandpa would come home from work and join us. He’d read the afternoon edition of The Blade—without the need of a magnifying glass—and I’d hang around to mull over the day’s headlines. I was surprised and a little bit honored that he considered me a worthy partner in conversation.

And then the Sundays stopped. I grew up and moved away. Grandma died, Grandpa got old. He filled in the pool.

I wrote him once to tell him how summers were never quite the same. His reply, dated August 11, 1998:

“Dear Patty,

It was so nice to hear from you some weeks ago. I too treasure the days our family gathered around the pool on hot days and evenings in summer, especially the happy hours on the weekends….

Thanks for the memories.


Thank you. Even if it makes my heart hurt.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Boo, Hiss

The King is dead, long live the King. The 2006 Emmy Nominations were announced today, and “Grey’s Anatomy” has officially supplanted “Lost” as the bandwagon everybody wants to jump on. I don’t get it. I’ve watched “Grey’s” and I’m pretty sure I’ve seen this show before. I think it was called “ER Meets Ally McBeal.”

Perhaps it’s all just some cruel joke being perpetrated by the Dharma Initiative, but “Lost,” last year’s Drama winner, was notably absent from this year’s list of series contenders. The show’s sole acting nod went to Henry Ian Cusick (better known as “Desmond”) in the Guest Actor category. (I predict Cusick will make the leap to Supporting or Lead next year—the dude is riveting.)

I feel like I watch a lot of TV and am therefore an excellent judge of the supremacy of “Lost,” but we don’t have cable, so it’s possible that actors from “Huff” and “Six Feet Under” are actually more deserving than Matthew Fox, Naveen Andrews or Terry O’Quinn. But I doubt it. I offer up O’Quinn’s flashback episode, which according to the clock next to our television set ran a full hour, but felt like 20 minutes, that’s how much you love watching this guy on screen.

I confess that I will miss “The West Wing” and its alternate political universe, which has placated Democrats during the entire Bush administration. I was looking forward to Jimmy Smits as my placebo president. But Best Drama Series? Martin Sheen as Best Actor?

Enough with the lifetime achievement nominations. Or the hey-it’s-a-movie-star-slumming-on-TV nominations. Or the we’re-sorry-you-got-canceled nominations (Except "Everwood." Emmy does not mourn "Everwood." So many bones to pick, so little time.)

Of course, if we played by my rules, there would be no Best Actress category in either comedy or drama—I believe only three of these ladies will be returning for the 2006-2007 season. Which might have made room for “Gilmore Girls’” Lauren Graham. Emmy does have its traditions, the annual omission of Graham being one of its finest.

It’s not like Emmy doesn’t recognize obscure, little-watched programs. Witness the love for “Arrested Development,” “The Comeback” and even, for god’s sake, “Out of Practice.” So why the cold shoulder for “Gilmore”? I suspect voters simply can’t decide between Comedy or Drama. As if Graham’s slow burn during the whole my-fiancee-just-discovered-he-has-a-daughter-and-he-doesn't-want-me-to-meet-her storyline was the least bit funny.

As a consolation prize, Emmy could at least throw a Supporting bone to “Gilmore” matriarch Kelly Bishop, perhaps in lieu of fellow golden girls Blythe Danner or Candice Bergen (see movie-star-slumming rule).

I ask myself, why do I care? To paraphrase Bogie in “Casablanca,” in the grand scheme of things, the Emmy Awards don’t amount to a hill of beans. Pretty, rich people get to take home a gold statue. It’s like winning employee of the year, only the paychecks are bigger and the clothes are better.

In the end, I guess I’m looking for a little personal validation. On Tuesdays, I could be volunteering at a soup kitchen or teaching kids to read. But I prefer to hang out with the quirky residents of Stars Hollow. On Wednesdays, I could be organizing my closets or writing that collection of best selling essays. But I choose to strand myself on a mysterious island. On Mondays, I could call my Dad, but he won’t pick up during “24.” I want Emmy to tell me that I have chosen wisely, that I’m not frittering my time away on worthless drivel but truly outstanding “art.”

I see that “Dancing With the Stars” is up for Best Choreography. That’s what I’m talking about.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

I Heart Dave

* Warning: We interrupt our regularly scheduled semi-sarcastic blog for a heavy dose of schmaltz.

Yesterday, Dave and I celebrated the Fourth of July with about a million other people at the Taste of Chicago. If I had to guess, I would rank the most popular items as cheese pizza, Rainbow ice cream cone, cheesecake, fried dough and corn on a stick (don’t get me started on how an ear of corn costs a quarter at the supermarket but $2.50 when you put it on a stick). These are all vegetarian dishes, I might note, so you can see that Chicago is probably the healthiest city in the U.S.

But that was just a prelude to today, which is my favorite holiday of the whole year—more than Christmas, more than Valentine’s, more than Arbor Day. Today is the Fifth of July—it’s our wedding anniversary.

There’s comes a point in life when birthdays aren’t fun anymore—when you stop looking forward to getting older and start to dread getting old. But anniversaries are different—the more the better. We stack each one up with pride as a measure of success, as if to say, “We’ve got what it takes.” Falling in love is easy; staying in love through road trips, the assemblage of shelving from Ikea and Fantasy Baseball season, well forgive us for patting ourselves on the back.

Dave and I have been married for nine years, which feels like a blip and forever at the same time. I scarcely remember life before him, yet it seems like he’s only just arrived on the scene.

July 5, 1997, was a blue sky day. It had been rainy and overcast the entire week before, but on the Fifth, the clouds parted and the sun shone—not too hot, not too cool. Just right.

I remember getting dressed in the Bride’s Room with my mom and sister, and peeking out the window to watch the guests arrive.

I remember standing in the back of the church with my dad, suddenly shaking uncontrollably as we got ready to walk down the aisle.

I remember sitting next to Dave at the altar, looking out at our family and friends and seeing my brother Joey wipe the tears from his eyes. I knew that he knew what this day meant for me. (I returned the favor for him 4 years later.)

I remember watching a bead of sweat roll down the forehead of our priest to the tip of his nose. Fr. Bill was my best friend from high school and I loaned him my handkerchief.

I remember our first fight trying to cut the wedding cake, as we attempted to slice through the cardboard between layers.

I remember Dave’s friends getting him sick on shots of god-knows-what at the reception. And while it wasn’t the slightest bit funny then, it has given me the ultimate closing argument until death do us part. There is nothing I could possibly do that will ever top “You got vomit on my wedding dress.” ****

I remember smiling so much that my face hurt. Everyone should be that happy just once in their life.

That’s what we do on our anniversary. We wallow in memories, we gorge ourselves on sentiment. I know some people celebrate with flowers and gifts. This year, we’re supposed to give each other pottery or leather goods. I guess the dishes that we bought with our tax refund will have to suffice. (I should warn my parents: According the list of “modern” anniversary traditions, their upcoming 42nd should feature “improved real estate.” Isn’t it romantic?)

Others opt for weekend getaways to swank hotels or splurge on expensive dinners and champagne. We’re going out to eat tonight because we have a gift certificate.

But mostly we remember. We remember the day we got married. We remember the day we met. We remember our first date. We remember the day he proposed. We remember how when Dave would visit me in Chicago, I carried subway tokens for him in my mittens.

Sometimes I ask him, “How much do you love me and why?” The answer to the first part is easy—12 times Infinity plus 72. The answer to the second part is harder to define.

I don’t know why I love you, but I do. And I always will.


****(Dave feels a clarification is in order. "This makes me look bad. It sounds like I threw up on you." He didn't. He threw up on himself, and some of it rubbed off on me.)

Monday, July 03, 2006

Just Another Random Monday

I’m not sure which was more surreal, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizuni belting out Elvis tunes during his tour of Graceland or Priscilla Presley’s overly nipped and tucked face. Will the real Joker please stand up?

I like Koizuni, who separates himself from the G8 stuffed-shirt pack with his open collars and surfer hair. His term in office is up later this year and he’s clearly in who-gives-a-shit mode.

Dubya looked uncomfortable during the entire photo op, like he was wondering “Isn’t this what the Vice President’s supposed to do while I run the country?”

Laura Bush tagged along for the fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches and stuck around to make sure things didn’t get out of hand in the Jungle Room. She’ll turn 60 later this year, to Priscilla’s 61. In a side-by-side comparison, I’ll take Laura’s laugh lines and wrinkles over Presley’s cheek-to-cheek perma-grin.

* * *

So Long Becks: England was eliminated this weekend from World Cup play. To British team captain David Beckham—Becks, we hardly had time to ogle ye. My beloved Swedes are long gone too (turns out one of their players is a Calvin Klein underwear model—can I pick ‘em or what?). Germany, France, Portugal and Italy remain alive in the tournament. I’m rooting for Portugal and Italy in an All Eye Candy final.

* * *

No Shoes, No Shirt, No Seat: The Cubs and White Sox wrapped up their intra-league series yesterday, with the North Siders defeating the South Siders 15-11. I was distracted from the Cubs sudden ability to hit the ball by an even more shocking phenomenon—the shirtless male fan sitting behind home plate. Granted, it was extremely hot and humid in Chicago over the weekend. But there are some people who should remain clothed at all times. This corpulent gentleman was one of them (though mercifully not hirsute as well). The woman next to him obviously agreed, as she was visibly cringing and leaning in the opposite direction. You can’t enter a restaurant, supermarket or movie theater without proper attire. What gives at the ballpark? I’m not a huge proponent of muscle tees, but something is better than nothing. Unless you’re a Swedish soccer playing Calvin Klein underwear model.