Half Done is Well Begun

This is the Bratislava of postcards...

This is the Bratislava of postcards…

The Bratislava of my run...

… and this is the Bratislava of my run.

I know, I know… Mary Poppins said it the other way ’round: “Well begun is half done.”  But then, she wasn’t out running half marathons, was she? I mean, living in pre-sufferage times, wearing those shoes and corsets, and carrying that amazing umbrella and overnight case… not conducive to recreational running, right?  But I have been running– sans corset and heeled boots, much less umbrella.  The Bratislava half marathon is done, and running– for me– is not over, but simply well begun.

Warning:  the rest of this post contains explicit running talk… do not read if you are sensitive– or get bored to tears by– this topic!  Plus, it’s really, really loooong– almost like a half-marathon!  A Fresh Cuppa Chaos will return soon with its usual coffee-swilling fare! 

Sunday, March 24 had long loomed on my iCal as the date marked, “Bratislava??”  The question marks really say it all:  I didn’t commit to the trip until February, and even then I never bothered to remove the question marks from the calendar.  You see, it was a half-marathon destination trip for the running group I had sort-of joined in the Fall.  And by “sort of,” I mean, I was a little surprised myself every time I showed up to run with them; and I was, frankly, astonished when we started racking up serious mileage.  And then one cold, cold day, I found myself lined up to start a race in an East European city– Whaaat?

Starting line... not everyone was as nervous as I was!

Starting line… not everyone was as nervous as I was!

I won’t say it was a piece of cake– I had to push through it all the way.  We started off at a faster pace than we’d done before.  I ran with too much gear, and mismanaged it, wearing too many layers to remove while running, and overstuffing my little camelback pack after an impulsive, starting line decision to carry rather than to jettison the outer layers.  After about 2k, I was ready to shed my outer jacket, but I had to struggle with the pack and the jacket and the whole kit– and running about a minute/mile faster than our normal pace, juggling everything kind of put me in a bad place.  Our pace group of about 10 women stuck together, and some of us chatted as usual, but I was winded from the start and never fell into the groove that makes running with them so much fun.

But, I was determined to stick with them, because I was terrified of running the whole way without these ladies!  I stayed quiet while they waved at cheering spectators, and listened to their chat without contributing much (sorry!).  Bit by bit we ticked off the kilometers, running through the cold, windswept streets of the more industrial parts of Bratislava.  We hit the time where we were slated to take a gel (basically a tube of gooey, peanut butter-like stuff that provides your body with the fuel to keep going so it doesn’t start burning the wrong kind of tissue), and despite us having done long enough runs to test it out several times, I just wasn’t able to get it down.  I sucked down a couple of swallows, tried to drink my water, and found I couldn’t get a decent drink down either.  I just kept going.

Eventually, we hit a hill headed up into the old city centre from the postcard (above).  Thank goodness for those Hampstead Heath hills I ran through the fall and winter in London, because I actually could bear the uphill portion.  And then the downhill portion, running out of the charming part of town, was a quick drop before the road leveled out to another less scenic portion running along a major road parallel to the river.  By then we could see a steady stream of faster runners coming back toward us along the river on the last 5k stretch… but it seemed like we would never get to the place where we would make the turn back ourselves!  At this point, I did manage to get down the rest of the gel I’d been carrying in my fist for the last 5 miles, and I swallowed a bit of water to help it down, though I knew I should have had more.  We finally made the turn back to run along the river on the homestretch and– yikes was it cold and windy along there!

Our group began to spread out along here, and I found myself running with one of our coaches.  When a motorcycle escort came through pushing us to one side, Syma encouraged me to pick up the pace so I could finish with the men’s marathon winner, who was coming up on his finish somewhere behind the motorcycle.  I so wanted to, but just didn’t have the juice!  One of our runners finished her half at the same time as the winner of the women’s full marathon, and there’s a fantastic picture of her raising her arms in victory at the finish line just behind the marathon winner– a Kenyan professional.  Wouldn’t that be a fantastic souvenir???  You wouldn’t have to tell anyone that you were running the half…

Cold, tired, slightly miserable... but I did it!

Cold, tired, slightly miserable… but I did it!

Anyway, I did finish slightly ahead of the pace goal we’d set (2:19, and the goal had been 2:20-2:25).  Though it wasn’t pretty, and I didn’t run the race feeling happy and triumphant, I did keep putting one foot in front of the other!  I’m not ashamed to admit that I had a little moment to myself after the finish chute (when I was actually quite glad I’d stuffed those old yoga pants in my pack, because it was FREEZING!).  I sat down on a bench to slip the pants over my shoes and broke into private tears because I had just never, ever, expected to do a run like that.  It was really quite a feeling– and I would have to say that doing something hard and unexpected and out of your comfort zone is a very good thing to do if you possibly can as you get a bit older.  It reminds you that there’s still so much ahead of you…

Which, I guess, is why I registered for the Windsor half-marathon in September.


I find I can’t end this running-related post without at least acknowledging the awful events at the Boston Marathon.  That something so life-affirming could be attacked in such a twisted way is tragic.  Even at a minor race on a cold day in Eastern Europe, the mood was excited and happy; and the finish line was a place to celebrate.  The finish line should always be a place of celebration.  That anyone would seek to steal that is just completely and utterly senseless.  My heart goes out to the families of those whose race ended that day, as well as to those who didn’t finish that race and maybe won’t get the chance again.  But runners around the world– some of them, at least– will carry them in their hearts the next time they cross a finish line.  I know this is true:  I went out to watch the London Marathon the week after Boston, and I saw the black ribbons worn by the runners, as well as the occasional Boston t-shirt and Red Sox hat rounding the bend into the final stretch from Embankment at Big Ben.  There may not always be the outward signs, but runners will remember their own.

Finally.  Right now, right here would be the appropriate place to say a couple of thank you’s (like I’m receiving an Academy Award or something– geez!  How obnoxious am I?)

There’s really no way to say a big enough thank you to Paula Mitchell for this gift of running, which is really about way more than just running, it turns out.  Paula’s exceptional passion for helping women learn to run is simply inspiring.  Without her, most of our group would never have had this experience.  And Syma, whom I mentioned earlier, saw that I was struggling that day, and she almost personally escorted me through the race– thank you, Syma, for ensuring that I saw the day through, and for pushing our group to exceed our own expectations!  

Patricia and Kelli transporting the "Sketchy Box" to Bratislava:)

Patricia and Kelli transporting the “Sketchy Box” to Bratislava:)

My Bratislava roommate, Heidi, offered just the nudge I needed to finally register for the race when she asked if I wanted to room with her– thanks, Heidi!  Running buddies Jody, Catherine, Carmine, Charlotte, Niyani, Ariadne, Mary, Julie, and many more– thank you for making the whole endeavor so much fun!  And most certainly not least, Kelli… thank you for encouraging me to try it, introducing me to Paula, seeing that she had my e-mail address, and being such an inspiration, along with Patricia, in all your marathon endeavors.  I never wanted to be a runner, but it sure was exciting to cheer  you both on!

Reunions and Happy Endings

One of my favorite moments of the summer– when Gus realized it was us! Yes, Q and I are both crying…

Until I was twenty-two, I mostly thought of the word “reunion” in the sense of potluck lunches in the park pavilion, with multiple variations on baked beans and seven-layer salads, and distant relatives you were supposed to know but didn’t.

Then I moved far away from home for the first time and learned how it feels to anticipate seeing loved ones or dear friends after months or years apart.  Then I had kids and learned the joy of bringing your children and their grandparents together after time apart.  A year turned into twenty-five years away from my little hometown and the friends and family there.  Now I thoroughly understand the word “reunion.”

I look forward to every trip back to my hometown to see my parents and my sister and her precious and adorable family.  I’m grateful to get to see my sweet grandma, who still has a sense of humor at 92 and only stopped zipping circles around everybody with her walker this year because of a knee injury.  I’m so happy for any time I get to spend with my aunts and uncles, and cousins (like drinking Pimm’s in the front yard with Aunt Terri, my cousin Jason and his new wife Laura; or the too-short stop by Aunt Lana’s house one afternoon).  And there are still a few close friends who live in the area– like Sue (who shared a nuns-on-a-tour-bus sighting with me this summer), and Jill (who waited patiently while I drove circles around her brother’s house, trying to find it).  Sometimes I get lucky and a friend who has moved away just happens to be in town at the same time I am– as was the case this summer with my fun childhood friend, Emily, who happened to be in from Chicago the very day I chased her mother down on the downtown sidewalk just to say hello.

Visiting Grandma– love that lady!

Sometimes we try to orchestrate a big family gathering– not quite the old-style reunion with seven-layer salad, but maybe a party at the town pool, or a picnic at the park (okay, that sounds kind of reunion-y, doesn’t it?).  I always end up feeling weird about that– like we’re demanding that everyone come see us now instead of letting it just happen or not.  But then if we don’t do one big activity, we end up running around a lot of the time to see people, or waiting at home for them to come see us.  So it’s kind of a tricky thing, and even after twenty-five years I still wouldn’t say we’ve got it right.

This summer there was a different kind of reunion for us.  If you’ve been around here sharing a cuppa with us for a while, then you know of my heartbreak over leaving my sweet, rescue dog, Gus, behind in the U.S. when we moved to London last year.  If not, well, I did write about it a few times– like here, and here.  My amazing, fun, big-hearted cousin– she is my hero– took Gus to her home in Indiana.  He has acres and acres to romp in, a pond, two doggy brothers (including Marley, his best friend and larger twin brother– who’s actually a Great Dane…), and loving ‘parents’ in Josie and her husband, Mike.  Gus’ life is wonderful, and I am so grateful!

I wasn’t sure what to do about trying to see Gus this summer.  His home is a few hours away from where we were staying with my parents.  But more than that, I was worried about how the kids and I would feel after seeing him.  Of course, it did occur to me not to rock the boat for Gus and his new family as well, but anyone who has read a book about dog behavior knows that that is more something we project on dogs than they actually feel– given that they live in the present and all.  Right?  (I was so sure of this when I was reading Cesar books, but how can we really know?)  Anyway.  All these things were swirling around in my head leading up to and during the first week of our trip, and in typical me fashion, I simply chose to do nothing.

Look how happy the kids are: )

Then one day I woke up knowing I deeply, deeply wanted to see Gus.  It all clicked into focus and I realized that, for example, even though I really missed Will last year when he went to college, and even though I knew I would cry when he left again after a visit, that didn’t mean I didn’t want to see him when I could.  The same could be said about Gus, my fuzzy, four-legged son.  I also realized that though I was worried about protecting the smaller kids from more hurt, they really wanted to see him, too.  How could I have forgotten Claire’s poem about Gus?

So I got in touch with Josie and she– wonderful lady that she is– went way out of her way to make a reunion happen for us.  We spent a few precious hours with her, my aunt, and Gus.  He knew us and was ecstatic to see us (photo, above), but he clearly loves Josie as well, and is her dog now.  He would lie down by me for a while, then get up and go for a drink and lie down by Josie.  Seeing that was like balm to my soul and closure to all my wounds about betraying the rescue dog I had promised to give a ‘forever’ home (as they say at the shelter).  I felt peace about something that had pained me for the last 12 months.  That is, indeed, a happy ending.

I do love happy endings.  As an aspiring writer of fiction, I struggle with my innate desire to orchestrate a happy ending, versus the prejudice against a tidy and upbeat wrap-up in contemporary fiction.  Things are supposed to be messy in serious fiction, as well as in our dystopian world.  Maybe that’s part of why I keep stalling out near the end in my fiction efforts (the other part is that I’m afraid to finish things– but that’s another blog and another course of therapy).  I’ve written three-quarters or more of three novels.  Mathematically, that should be 2+ novels, right?  But I guess it doesn’t work that way…

And then there’s a fourth piece, for which I’ve written a very rough, but complete first draft.  This one I wrote for Quinn and Claire– it’s a middle grades story involving a dog and his family caught up in the conflict between rebels and establishment in a magical world they didn’t realize was right under their noses.  The dog is a hero in the story, but the wounds he sustains in saving the children make it impossible for him to come back to the children’s world with them.  He must remain in the magical land.  And though he can be happy there– and the children know he will be happy–  they are heartbroken to lose their beloved pet.  Are you getting any ideas about when I wrote this and why?

I finished that draft a year ago, but have never been happy with the ending.  My kids really liked the first chapters, but I’ve never read any further with them.  Maybe now it’s time to go back and try a rewrite– you know, now that I’ve seen an unhappy ending transformed?  I have no idea how our reality changes the fiction, and I won’t write something that ends in some folksy bit of wisdom about time healing all wounds.  But I think if I could find a happy ending in the real life story, there must be some way to pull out a better ending for the fictional Gus and family.  Any ideas out there?

Here at the Center of the Universe

I am the Center of the Universe.

At least, that’s what my GoogleMaps app teaches me.

And Google– I mean that’s gotta count for something, right?  That’s a big company;  those people must know what they’re talking about.  If they choose to follow little old me around and make me the blue dot at the center of the screen every time, then how can I argue with that?

See? It’s all about me and my blue dot!

(uh.  You guys know I’m joking, right?  Please don’t send me a private message explaining about google maps and how everybody who has the app has their own blue dot.  First of all, it would be cruel to crush and disillusion someone with such an optimistic view of things; and second– well, I know.)

This center-of-the-universe thing has been playing around the frayed edges of my mind for the last few days– from Friday morning while I scoured the Oxford Street shops for some new, comfier unmentionables for the 6-yr-old (in hopes that this might help him squirm and tug less in public– but don’t tell him I told you that!) to later in the evening when I got lost in the wrong part of the city trying to meet up with some friends.  All symbolism aside, I’m extremely thankful for googlemaps, without which I would be lost approximately 72.7% of the time.

But I can’t help wondering if something is shifting inside each of us– and therefore collectively as a society– as we walk along with our little eyeballs glued to our mobile devices.  Is each of us beginning to subconsciously believe that we are the Center of the Universe?  Think about it.  Not only do we have our own blue dot visually representing us as such, but we also have the power to create a personal universe to our tastes and carry it with us.  Provided we manage to stay out of traffic and not run into poles too often, we can immerse ourselves in our tailor-made universe nearly all the time if we wish– save for on airplanes and subways, or if we happen to neglect our batteries.

Our hand-held universe contains, for the most part, only the things we like.  Photographs, music, news feeds about topics of interest to us and as-reported-by people and organizations with values and opinions similar to our own.  Twitter feed and blogs from people we find clever, amusing, wise– to wit, people with whom we tend to agree and posts about which we observe ‘oh, I was just thinking that same thing the other day!’.  Even on FB, we can ‘hide’ posts from people with whom we are not likely to see eye-to-eye (FYI, I don’t do this– but I do hide the game request posts.  I’m unproductive enough already in the real world without a virtual farm to run and virtual mafia wars to fight!).  When we are the Center of the Universe, we are free to censor life and see it only in the ways that please us.

Now I know I sound kind of sardonic here, but the truth is that this hits pretty close to home for me.  I HATE confrontation and will do almost anything to avoid it.  Why then, would I not be absolutely delighted at the prospect of a universe in which I don’t have to listen to anyone with views hostile to my own?  Why shouldn’t I enjoy a me-centric happy place surrounded by written or spoken words that resonate with my beliefs, music and images I can relate to, and the power to absolutely ignore any dissenting voices?

Because!  Help me out here with all the reasons, friends… because living in a wide open world such as ours is today requires interacting with more than just our few comfortable touchpoints?  Because in a world where we are privileged to have access to so much information and so many viewpoints, don’t we have a responsibility to learn more, see more, and read more so that we might understand more?  Or what about simply because if I shut out those who disagree with me on one aspect or another of our society, I would lose contact with some of my favorite people?

I think if we fall for the notion of ourselves as the center of the universe, allowing only those inputs we desire and understand, we risk becoming a black hole.  We get sucked into– or create– a void cut off from dissenting points of light.  Just as we can’t hear anyone outside our view, they can no longer hear us.  Or maybe we can see that there are others out there, but we’re simply shouting at one another from a great distance, and the words are garbled and unintelligible.  There seem to be no rules of engagement when people don’t have to face each other while disagreeing, so online forums can become very hostile places, indeed.  We are alienated from one another and we begin to feel that those who believe ‘X’ instead of ‘Y’ can’t possibly be reasonable, intelligent or nice people.  After all, how can they profess to love their children when they believe ‘X’?

The more cut off we become from people with different ideas and beliefs, and the more we fall into the hostile, aggressive ways of the anonymous (or at least faceless) online debate; the greater the gulf becomes and the less we want to risk getting close enough to hear and understand what the opposition is saying.  We think about the famous Digital Divide in terms of who has access to technology (and, interestingly, recent studies show some surprising things about that).  But maybe we should also start thinking about it in terms of how the same Internet we thought would bring the world together as never before is instead allowing us to dig deeper and deeper into our own ideological and political trenches.  Have you ever heard a reference to trenches that doesn’t somehow relate to warfare?

I didn’t mean to get all serious on you!  Maybe I’ve actually had too much coffee today?  (My little blue dot did just move approximately 200 meters down the street to Starbucks for a chai w/espresso… ).

I’m suddenly remembering old times, when I had a car and a GPS we named Mabel.  Able-Mabel frequently dropped us– or the equivalent of our little blue dot– offshore in the Atlantic Ocean rather than in seaside Marblehead where we lived.  Now that’s the way to ensure your people don’t take themselves too seriously, right?  One summer, she actually refused to leave Michigan when we came home from vacation.  She stayed there for several months, meandering from Ann Arbor to Kalamazoo while we drove around suburban Boston. Eventually the service department at our local dealership convinced her to come back.  Oh how I miss Mabel and her humility-inducing notion of who’s in charge.  There was no considering myself the Center of the Universe in those days.

The next time I start to feel a little too self-righteous, I will try to remember all the multitude of other blue dots out there.  I think Mabel would argue that the universe is a much more interesting place when you’re not always the center of it– and that trying to connect some of those blue dots creates a much richer image than one lone light can make.

Taking Care

You know that TV commercial in which someone does a small good deed, someone else sees it and then does one for someone else, and so on and so forth?  I think it’s for a bank, but I can’t think whether it’s American or British– so if you haven’t seen it, just think feel-good music and inspiring small acts of kindness…

The Lego Queen– she certainly has a stiff upper lip.

I think of that commercial all the time on the streets here in London– especially in the 3/4-mile walk between my flat and the Swiss Cottage tube station.  Just today, on my walk home, I watched a young man catch up with an older, blind man who was about to cross the street.  It’s not a major traffic street, but I’ve seen cars blast through the intersection many times, apparently oblivious to the heavy foot traffic on that stretch.  I saw the young man say something, and give his arm to the blind man, and as I passed them just after the crossing, I heard him saying, “…yes, treacherous on the best of days, isn’t it?”  And they went their separate ways with just another pleasant word or two.  And I went on toward home, wondering a little if I would have done the same.

I’m always noticing people helping one another here.  I mean, there is plenty of rude behavior, don’t get me wrong.  And there are hordes of pickpockets and other people waiting to take advantage of their fellow Londoners.  But there also seem to be a pretty healthy number of good samaritans about, contrary to preconceived notions about life in the big city.  People routinely help elderly folks onto or off of the buses all the time.  One day I saw two men– one in a suit, one a construction worker from a nearby site– attending to a lady who had fallen down on the sidewalk.  One day right here at the Belsize Park tube station, I went to buy a newspaper from the stand and the lady standing there peered over her glasses and said, “Oh, how much is that?  I’m just watching the stand for the man.”  Just a regular passerby, helping out.

Another day I saw a young woman stop to check on an older lady slumped on a bench.  The older woman was in bad shape, very tattered and dirty, possibly homeless and certainly not in good mental health (I know, I know, who am to make that judgement? But you know what I mean…).  She also appeared to be ill.  The young woman stopped and spoke with her, “Are you alright?”  The woman couldn’t respond intelligibly.  I had just walked up to the scene and I was wondering what I could possibly do to help, when a man came out of the nearby theatre.  He had called Camden Council (the city neighborhood) services for help and he said he would stay with her until they arrived.  I told the young woman, as we walked away, that I admired her for stopping.  She looked surprised, but smiled and said, “Well, we have to look out for each other, don’t we?”

We do.

So why is it so hard?  How many times have I not acted because I wasn’t brave enough to step out of my comfort zone?  It’s so easy to just keep moving, because we don’t have time to stop and get entangled in someone else’s business.  It’s so easy to tell ourselves that we might offend someone by offering help.  It’s so easy to believe that we might be putting ourselves in danger by helping (and I’m not saying we should ignore that possibility– but I know I have used it as a cop-out before).

I’m prone to romanticize some aspects of British character– the “keep calm and carry on” part, especially.  But I see these matter-of-fact ways that they help each other and I can’t help thinking about how they weathered the war and the post-war years.  I think it starts with civility, which matters not just because it upholds some sense of decorum, but also because it ensures that people do the right thing on the surface at the very least.  And doing the right thing encourages others to do the right thing.  If we’re mostly all doing the right thing, then it tends to get down beneath the surface matters.  Not everybody, and not all the time.  But it seems like weeding out the nastiness near the surface allows more genuine kindness to take root and blossom.

So, bravo, you Brits.  (Of course, you’re not the only ones who get this principle– says the American from the Midwest).  But I just had to give a shout out for all the kindness I’ve been spotting.  Cue the feel-good music, and roll tape of all the inspiring acts.

Wait a minute… they’re not filming a commercial in my neighborhood, are they?