Thursday, August 29, 2013

Tales of School Humiliation: Chapter One

The thing about middle school is that you are thrown into close proximity with people who you would never socialize with by choice. The kids tend to self sort, so the smarties hang out together, and the burn-outs corner a table in the lunch room from which they emit their dreadful vibes. But that doesn't mean you won't get stuck sitting next to someone who loathes your very soul in math class.

There was this one guy I remember from school who seemed to see into the very pit of my being and recognize some irredeemable shortcoming there. His name was Mark Something. I didn't think much of him either. I was always a good student, and he never seemed to try very hard. He was kind of chunky, and he walked with the kind of lumbering gait you see more often on a middle aged retiree. We were in band together, and he was a consummate musician. He played the French horn, or the Souzaphone, or some large, curly brass instrument. I played rhythm piano, quite poorly I might add, which probably didn't do anything to dispel his contempt.

It was people like this I learned to avoid. I sat with my speech team compadres at lunch, I hung out after school with my goofball pal Annika, I avoided parties altogether. In short, I was not very sociable, though I felt like I ought to be, and to be honest, that hasn't changed much even three decades later.

I wasn't without my petty rebellions, though. One day I wrote on the corner of my desk, "This sucks." I thought I'd gotten away with something occult and mysterious. I'd defaced public property! I was a true rebel! Imagine my surprise when the next day I discovered that someone who sat in my desk during another period wrote a reply: "No kidding." I had a partner in crime! Naturally I don't remember the conversation, but it went something like this:

"School is boring."
"I hate social studies."
"Who cares what the Netherlands exports?"
"You got a problem with tulips?"
"Yeah. I got a problem with tulips. What of it?"

Like that. Meaningless banter, but kind of funny, kind of entertaining, and healing to my introverted soul.

Finally, after a couple weeks of this exchange, I committed a fatal error. I finally breached the firewall of our concealed identities, and asked the name of my desk buddy. The reply came: "Mark Something. Who are you?"

Mark Something? The guy who loathes me in band? The chubby guy who walks like my grandpa? Mark SOMETHING? I was very disappointed.

I wrote something I wish very much I hadn't. I wrote: "I'm Amy Ryan. I'm not thrilled about it either."

And boom. When I saw Mark Something in band class his loathing had morphed into a complete withdrawal of any kind of emotion whatsoever. He no longer looked into my being and found it wanting. He no longer looked at me at all. I did not exist to him. All desk banter stopped.

And ever since, I can't help wondering if I'd left that last bit off. If I'd just told him my name and waited for his reaction, if he might have become my friend? We had a connection after all. If I hadn't assumed that he would be bummed out to see my name under his, if I hadn't been so defensive, maybe band class could have become fun instead of boring, and I'd have made a friend instead of an enemy.

That is one of thousands of moments in my life I wish I could go back and fix. Mark Something, if you're reading this, I'm sorry I ruined it. You can write on my desk anytime.

That's the problem, though. I will probably never see him again, and even if I did, I doubt I'd recognize him. But I remember what happened. It has stayed with me through the decades, even haunted me a little, as though it were whispering in my ear that I was supposed to learn something from it.

The connections we have with people make life interesting and worthwhile. Before our desk graffiti, I had a connection with Mark, even if it was defined by a mutual dislike. The graffiti could have changed that, and gave us a chance to create a different mode in our relation to each other, but I was too stubborn to let my idea of our connection change. With one sentence I gave Mark a reason to sever our tie altogether. Maybe if I'd been willing to tolerate the ambiguity of our relationship, something even more special and interesting than our desk graffiti would have happened. But I couldn't tolerate that ambiguity. I had to keep defining us as enemies, so I wasn't open to anything else. Something about that negative definition felt safer to me than the possibility of change.

If I hadn't been defensive, if I'd just let my name hang there, he might have responded meanly, or he might have decided to offer friendship. I couldn't have done anything to prevent him from putting me down if he'd wanted to. My only power in the situation was how I behaved. I don't know if I let Mark Something down, but I think I did let myself down a little in the name of self protection. I don't know if the experience really changed me, or if I learned anything from it at the time. I think I was too young to think very deeply about what this exchange meant for me and the way I related to the world. But I can think about it now.

It reminds me of a quote from the poet W.H. Auden: "How do I know what I think until I see what I say?"

So here's what I think: My definition of Mark Something as an enemy was actually useless. It was useless to define him at all. A better attitude would have been to accept the fact that I had no idea how he would react to seeing my name written on that desk. I had no control in the situation. Trying to maintain our old orientation to each other, persisting in seeing him as my enemy, was cowardly. If I'd been brave, if I'd been open to change, I might have a happy memory of that time instead of a sad one.

It is better to face the world with an open heart than a closed one.

Sometimes it's better to let your name stand alone.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

A minute a week.

I've been an on again, off again runner for most of my adult life. When I'm off, it's because I've overdone it and injured myself. When I'm on, instead of enjoying the run I'm on, I'm always thinking about how far I'm GOING to be able to run. I would read articles written by seasoned marathoners, and followed the advice of these experts who tell you that you can build your mileage quickly if you take a one minute walking break in the middle of a run, or that you can increase your mileage ten percent per week. I dutifully followed these rules, confident I was doing what I was 'supposed' to do, yet they still led to injury. I would end up with a wicked case of plantar fasciitis, runner's knee, or incredibly painful clicking hip joints. I thought for a long time that soreness is simply a part of running, that it's normal. After all, most runners' magazines are filled with tips about how to wrap sore feet or properly ice a throbbing knee, so I ignored what my body was telling me. The truth is, I am an impatient person, I want what I want right now, and if that means I have to damage my body trying to reach my goal, I tend to grit my teeth and try to run through the pain --until I can't anymore.

Since the last time I was running in my mid thirties, I've had my kids, put on a bit of weight, and turned forty. For a while I tried to tell myself that I can't run anymore, that I shouldn't even try it. Instead I walked, or used my elliptical trainer. After all I've got kids to keep up with. I can't afford to be limping around after them. But I miss running. Nothing makes me feel stronger. So a couple months ago, I got an idea. What if it is possible for me to run pain free? What if I went even slower than the experts tell me to go?

So I started running again, but I'm building my miles at a snail's pace. The first week I got back to running, I ran for one minute. Was I tempted to go farther? Hell yes. It felt good to be on the trails again, but when my timer ran out, I quit and walked the rest of the way. The next week I ran for two minutes. I've continued the pattern for ten weeks now. I figure, since I'm slow, that once I reach twelve minutes of running I'll have broken the mile. The impatient voice inside my head demands, "According to the experts, I could be running a 5K by now!" But I ignore that voice. I'm no longer trying to be the hare. I'm going for turtle.

It's agonizingly slow, it's frustrating, but you know what? I've been running for three months now, and I don't have plantar fasciitis, runner's knee, or clicking hips. I'm not limping. Instead of listening to experts about what my body should be able to deliver, I'm listening to my body, and it's working.

For a long time I made the mistake of trying to fit into the expectations of other people. I ignored the pain, which was a message from my body that I didn't fit into the experts' rubric, that I am different from the norm. Maybe my body is more fragile, maybe my joints are too loose and wobbly for me to ever be a marathoner, but maybe, if I pay attention to the signals I'm getting from my feet, knees, and hips, and take it slow, after another year of running I might finally reach my goal of five miles.

It's taken me four decades to accept myself as I am, to stop trying to measure up to an ideal that simply isn't possible for me. Just because I can't measure up to the ideal doesn't mean I should give up on something I enjoy. So what if I'll never run a marathon? I accept that. And, if I find my upper mileage limit is three instead of five, I'll accept that too. I'd rather run a regular three miles for the next ten years than run five miles this year, only to burn out and quit again. The important thing is to keep running, and to do it in a way that respects my body.

Monday, August 26, 2013

What I've been up to.

When I am writing to meet a deadline, I just don't write much on my blog. I've been feverishly working on my next novel, FLAME, which ought to come out in January sometime. I just turned it in to my editor on Friday, and it's going right into copy editing this week. This was by far the most difficult of the three Sky Chaser novels to write because I had to tie up about a thousand pages of story into a meaningful denouement. I feel good about the end product, and I hope my readers enjoy it.

Other than that, I've been raising my cute kids, walking my dogs, and tending my garden. As the summer wore on I became less and less attentive to my garden, but once things are planted they tend to take care of themselves. I've got tomatoes, beans, lettuce, and carrots to harvest, so much that I'm not always sure what to do with it!

Now that I'm not on deadline, I'll have lots more time for my blog, and I'm looking forward to getting back into it. I've sadly neglected my online presence, but the nice thing about the internet is it's never too late to dive in!