Monday, December 31, 2007

Sprucing up for the Holidays

My Scottish ancestors allegedly cleaned house to celebrate the new year. What fun women they were, too. The jolly sloshing of cold, soapy water, the scratching of scrub brushes from attic to coal room, the sweeping of dust into festive clouds, and the merry snapping of bed linens as the fleas were thrown out. There’s little like it to get the blood up.

These were descendants of the Danes, who raped and plundered their southern neighbors for sport. To “scotch” something is to put an end to it. Many Scots immigrated to the United States in the 1830s and 1840s. And surely the heritage of their no-nonsense attitude contributes something to our American obsessiveness about searching out and destroying germs, weeds, and most recently, foreigners.

This warlike attitude bears little relation to the gentle cleanliness of my Bavarian ancestors, which is perhaps best illustrated with a little story. I went to dinner at the home of a friend. The friend’s mother was visiting from Germany. I chatted with the mother as she set the table. Putting out the plates she stopped suddenly and examined one of them. “Ach! This is dirty!” she said. Angling the plate slightly, she blew on it and then, satisfied, set it neatly between fork and knife.

These genetic strains are always at war within me. Where other people have “dust bunnies” under beds and in corners, I used to let dog hair—when I had a dog—collect at the edges of a room until it formed “dust bears.”

On the other hand, ask my secretary-companion if I don’t take a perverse and almost scary satisfaction from scrubbing faucet scum with a Comet-laden toothbrush. And who delights in a bubbly bucket of Lysol and a mop when the bathroom floor gets really disgusting? Aye, lassie.

I try not to get too worried by this neat-or messy issue. People will take advantage of you if you show any weakness on this front.

After all, it’s obvious that in any couple there must be a neat one and a messy one, a compulsive cleaner and a slob. Wherever you fall on the Cosmic Continuum of Cleanliness, your partner is bound to fall to the right or left of you somewhere, and there’s your dichotomy. And the longer you’re together, the more apparent these differences will become. Still, the self-aware may notice they often find themselves on the same neat or messy side of a succession of partners. They should learn from this.

I had a brief, bad roommate situation while in graduate school. My roommate and her new lover decided they wanted the apartment to themselves. They started a campaign to persuade me to leave. It involved, among other things, moving a dog in unexpectedly and tying him to the kitchen cabinet where I could get to know him, and pressing me about why I thought I needed to study in graduate school instead of watching Twins games on TV like regular folks.

Finally one night the lover accused me of being anal compulsive. After 37 years of being the messy one, this struck me as a stunning, bald-faced invention. Clearly she’d gone off the deep end. Would the two of them stop at no twisting of reality to be rid of me? I packed as fast as I could.

But merely because neatness and organization are not your top priorities, that doesn’t mean you will be blind to their benefits. I am soul-weary of raging around the house looking for my sunglasses or my day-timer or, worse, the misplaced file folder containing the guts of the story that will, if published, make my career. The proper organizing system could change my life—if I could just find it.

I notice, too, that fresh sheets on the bed often have an aphrodisiac effect on both me—the messy one—and my neater secretary-companion. Now, here’s an area of my life where I think I might not mind being taken advantage of.

This piece was first published in Weird Sisters.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Door Opens

I’m in the Skidmore College library, where I’ve spent a lot of time over the last months, and in my Freshman year as well. I’ve lurked about the HQ section, where the books on homosexuality are shelved. I’ve been looking for validation, and it’s been slow in coming. In 1973, homosexuality is still something you can lose your job for, your family, your friends (and I already have lost friends). In a small town, like the one I just left to attend Skidmore, you can lose your mind from the isolation it enforces.

One day a couple of months earlier, I had picked up the Village Voice. Miraculously, there’s a column, a whole page, by a woman named Jill Johnston, who writes openly and even humorously about being a lesbian in New York City. She writes in a stream-of-consciousness style. In all lower case. Which even then I know is fatuous post-beat bullshit. But she writes.

From that day forward, she has been my lifeline, my once-a-week hit of the closest thing I can find to real life.

Skidmore has been a great disappointment. I spend a lot of time calculating how much of the student body has to be lesbian. But where are they?

By this time, I’m getting the picture. It’s a school for the rich, and the rich don’t organize. Or rather, the rich are already organized to enrich themselves. They aren’t going to start any counter-cultural organizations to make lesbians happier and more visible. Skiddies learned in prep school that lesbianism is best kept discreet. They can buy privacy.

It’s the working and middle classes who think organizing is fun and useful.

I had a lover in the last weeks of my Freshman year. We had been constant companions all year. A couple of weeks before finals, we succumbed to loneliness and hormones. After we parted for summer vacation, she sent a letter and broke it off. I was not surprised.

So there I am in the Skidmore College Library. I read the Voice. On my way out, I see a glass display case and in it, Jill Johnston’s book. Lesbian Nation. Jill Johnston is appearing at Skidmore in a month to discuss her book, this book with the word lesbian in the title. I’m floored. I circle, so as not to appear too obviously enthralled by the display case. I go to the card catalog. Is the book on the shelves?

No, there’s only one copy, and it’s in the locked display case. I circle several more times, caring less each time whether anyone notices. In fact, I have a persistent suspicion that no one at this school has ever noticed me doing anything. I sit down at a study carrel. I get up and pace. I look out the window at the snowy campus, and watch bundled-up students in hiking boots and goose down parkas trudge along snow-covered paths to class.

Finally I go to the counter and ask a librarian if there’s another copy of the book. The librarian looks it up and of course discovers there isn’t. I ask if, since the author will be visiting the college soon, could I possibly read the book? The librarian thinks it would be sensible to get the book out of the case and just leave the cover in there. She checks the book out to me. I walk out of the library with the green cloth covered book in my hands.

A door—a barn door—an aircraft hangar-sized door has just opened for me.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

What's to Like about Country Music?

It’s good to have an open mind, but one thing that many people don’t give a second chance is Country music. Like most prejudices, this one, I believe, stems from ignorance. I’m going to try to crack open the door just a little in the hopes that you might give it another listen.

Why do people hate country music?

Several reasons. First, it’s working class music, and many of us have been taught to disdain anything that involves truck drivers, cowboys and people who speak English REAL BAD. There’s no use arguing with the facts, but I would ask you to ask yourself, isn’t bad English a small price to pay for having truck drivers and cowboys? Furthermore, I’ll bet some of your emails ain’t that pretty, either, on a bad day.

So, when you hear Country music, try thinking “unpretentious,” rather than “redneck.” Of course, some country music is redneck—a catchy little tune about lynching comes to mind--and some is pretentiously unpretentious, and I’m not defending that.

Second, the lyrics are dumb. Well, the lyrics aren’t any dumber than a lot of pop music lyrics or rock and roll lyrics. There is a range of quality with country music as with any other style of music. And unlike rock and roll, which takes itself so seriously, country music is often intentionally funny. Let me direct your attention to I Feel Lucky (Mary Chapin Carpenter) and Sin Wagon (Dixie Chicks), for two examples.

The main thing that makes song lyrics good is the way they fit everyday language to music. There are a lot of country songs that do it awfully well. A few rock and roll writers do that—Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, and Bob Dylan. But it’s pretty common in Country lyrics. Baton Rouge (George Strait) as an example.

A third reason people dislike country music is that they think the beat is simplistic. But here’s the essential fact about country music that a lot of people don’t get: it’s dancing music. Country music fans are passionate, compulsive dancers. That is the only excuse for Shania Twain.

I want to explain just a little about what’s known as the Texas two-step, because until I tried it, I could not believe people out here in the American West did it for real.

Once those annoying Indians and Mexicans were pushed back, Texas was re-settled by German immigrants. They brought with them a love of the Polka. The Polka has an 8/8 beat. It’s good to dance to, and there are all kinds of fancy turns and interlacing arm moves that are fun to do and pretty to watch.

Somewhere between 1935 and 1990, what’s called 6-count (or East Coast) swing got mixed up with a version of the Polka and you got what is now, in Colorado anyway, called the two-step. You dance it to six counts, but you dance it to music with an 8/8 beat, so you get ¾ of the way through the first measure and start the step over again, that takes you half-way through the next measure, and so on. You sort of rotate through the music that way. And that’s part of what makes it “swing.” It also makes it conveniently easy to start dancing anywhere in the song. No need to wait for a new measure to start.

You can use most of those pretty Polka moves that the Germans brought over, and you can use some of the fun 6-count swing moves, too. The thing is, though, it’s hot in the West. And cowboys are too cool to do the energetic hopping of the Polka, so the two-step is more of a sliding step, or a “mosey” as I heard one dance teacher call it. This emphasis on dancing explains why so many Country songs are written to an 8/8 beat. There are also a lot of waltzes and some cha-chas.

Well, there it is. I don’t expect to change anyone’s mind, because there’s really no excuse for all that twang, and classism is deeply engrained in our culture, but maybe next time you hear a Country song, you’ll secretly listen to the lyrics? I won’t tell.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

My Reptilian Brain

If my biology professor is to be believed, my reptilian brain decided Melissa would be a treat the first time I noticed her. Thinking back to what might have been that deciding moment, I wonder if it was the first time she raised her hand to respond to a question, the first time she spoke to me during the break halfway through our night-school bio class, or the first time she offered me a ride home. At some impossibly early moment, anyway, my flame was lit, and the ancient, lizard part of my brain glowed with anticipation.

Certainly I became conscious of desiring her only slightly later. The first time she drove me home after class we talked about her strict and reactionary religious upbringing. She lighted on my mind’s shoulder like a phoenix, a beauty who has been through rebirth by fire--the terror of a car crash that took part of her brain.

And I came out to her. She apologized for the negative results of the vote on gay marriage--which I thought was so graceful. And she made it plain that she was interested in--what? My lesbianism? That’s what I remember. And in my experience, an interest is not just wanting to hear about it to satisfy some intellectual curiosity. An interest usually means an interest in trying it out. From the moment I first imagined her, this firebird, wanting me, I have seen the world through the slippery silk of desire.

The peak episode has to have been--and this sounds so tame--going to a lousy Italian restaurant after class to eat salad together one night when her husband Rob was out of town. They sat us by a fern at a table that had a candle burning and no one nearby to hear us. She never drinks, “because it gets me in trouble,” but she had red wine, leaving me to conjecture about what kind of trouble she was looking for. We talked about mind and memory. She looked openly into my eyes and I looked openly back into hers. No fear, no embarrassment, no awkwardness interfered. Her eyes are bigger, deeper, and more plainly honest than any I have ever gazed into. Was she waiting for me to make some move? I didn’t, but the candlelight ran a silky finger up the back of her neck like moonlight on a river. That night I dreamed about kissing the back of her neck.

On one of our short rides from the university to my street, she began a sentence this way, “Rob and I have had our difficulties…” and did she say “in bed”? Or did I read it in? But the sentence went off-track, it seemed to me. She started defending him, his sensitivity. “He’s really great, you’d like him.”

I would expunge him.

The funniest moment was one evening at half-time when we were walking the halls as usual, and I had been complaining about my aching feet. Melissa said, “ My back hurts all the time. I’ve seriously been thinking about getting a breast reduction. They’re so big (I swear she said that), it’s just a constant strain on my back.” And there I was, having trapped myself into a) acting like this was just girl talk and that I was not tormented by the hots for her. And b) paradoxically, pretending that I had ever noticed how big her breasts were--when in fact I had not. The voice in my head was saying: “Wow, how big are they? No, don’t look!” And this had me trying not to laugh. So now the voice in my head was saying: “Don’t look! Don’t laugh!” And there’s me, trying to keep a “straight” face. Don’t laugh!

Early on I asked her if she’d want to study with me. Later, several times, I asked if she’d go with me to gather extra class credit like wild thyme at the botanical garden, but I was refused each time. So we connected for 20 minutes a week--taking a walk during the break and she’d drive me home after class. E-mails were answered briefly after days of delay. And that was all.

As the end of this semester neared, and it was clear we wouldn’t see each other in class again, or at least not for many months, she drove me home, turned off the car, and turned in her seat to face me. I smelled her sweat—a fatigued sweat, not a sexual musk-- “Suzanne,” she began, “I’ve really enjoyed getting to know you, and I’d really like to. . .” I felt a surge of heat at the practiced sound of this little speech. It was the same practiced tone I have used when telling others I lusted for them. It was the same black leather seats, it seemed to me for just that instant, in which others had declared their love. “…I’d like to continue. I know we haven’t spent much time--that’s been my fault--I’ve been overwhelmed.” By that time I had a grip on myself again. “You have been overwhelmed,” I agreed, smelling her fatigue, remembering the job she worked, the two science classes she was taking (not just biology), and of course the husband to whom she hurried home every week after dropping me off.

The low point surely came during break time the last night of class when I overheard Melissa say to some friends, “I use to hang out with a lot of guys--mostly guys. But then I realized they just wanted to sleep with me.” Having thought of little else for weeks by then, I looked away, tried not to blush, as if a blush could be withheld on command, like a breath. Why would she hang around with a lesbian, if it was just going to be the same thing all over again?

Who in their right mind would not want to sleep with her? She’s gorgeous!

Then, when she gave me that last ride home, she told me about visiting some single women friends in LA the weekend before. Describing the risks her friends took just to date men in the city, she concluded in tears, “I just realize how grateful I am to have such a safe life with Rob. I feel so safe.” Were they tears of gratitude? Or were they a veiled apology for not, after all, being willing to dare a romance with me?

For me, from interest to desire was the tiniest leap of a charge across a synapse. When I try to imagine what she felt about me, I fear I have just imagined for her moments of desire. For a woman who has worked so hard to bring her life in line with convention, the leap may be much farther, maybe unimaginable.

All I can do after all, all I have done for months, is imagine the first taste of her lips.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Thinking about Peace

When we think about peace, we think about war.

We can’t even imagine peace. We don’t know what peace is. In the United States we’ve had a war about every 20 years for the last three centuries. What would the United States be like without all those families with all those losses in each generation? We are like that woman in the Stayfree commercial, always before during or after—we are always preparing for a war, or fighting a war, or recovering from a war. When we think about peace, we think about war.

I did some research.

I did a Google search on “hundred years of peace.” I turned up:
Hundred Years War
Two hundred wars in one hundred years
One hundred years of struggling for peace (Israel)
One hundred years of violence
Five hundred years of struggle, and
Five hundred years of war.

But I did finally find four countries—Egypt, Poland, Japan, and Denmark,—whose histories carry some clues to what happens to cultures with “hundreds of years of peace.”

Egypt has been a country since about 3000 BCE.
The ancient Egyptians were stay-at-homes. They lived in a long, lush oasis surround by desert and mountains. Where would they have gone? They had a placid, industrious national temperament.

True, the Egyptians had to defend their borders against Bedouins and Libyans, but both were disorganized. They built fortresses in the south to keep out hostile Nubians, but they also traded with them. There were two periods of civil war in 2,000 years.

Even before the long era of the Pharaohs, pre-Egyptians settled on the Nile and developed cooking, baking, animal husbandry, copper working, sewing, weaving, growing and storing barley.

After 3000 BCE, they began to develop the thing that was the true glory of Egypt, bureaucratic government. They had international trade from which they acquired writing. Thus, they had sailboats and love poetry. Their government also conferred a trusted justice system. They invented geometry, metallurgy, engineering, and medicine, including dentistry and obstetrics roughly on a par with English medicine of the 18th century AD. They had money on a gold, silver, and copper standard. A fun-loving people, they had games, dancing, wrestling, hunting, and they were the best embalmers history has ever known. They built the great tombs and pyramids.

They domesticated cats. ‘Nough said.

By contrast, other examples pale.

Poland is a country we in the 21st century don’t associate with long periods of peace. But if we look far enough back into its history, we find that Poland experienced two relatively peaceful centuries.

During the 12th century, Casimir the Great built Poland into a major European Power. He invested so heavily in towns and roads that they said of him that “He found Poland built of wood and left her in stone.” He began Krakow University, the second oldest University in central Europe. And he improved trade along the East-West and North-South corridors that Poland is so famous for.

Poland united with Lithuania, a union that started toward the end of the 12th century and continued for the next 400 years.

Unlike Egypt, Poland had powerful, warlike enemies on its borders, namely the Teutonic Order and the Turks, who at this period were rapidly taking over southern central Europe. Poland broke its peace at the end of the 12th century with a long and eventually successful war to reclaim Gdansk and Pomerania from the Teutonic Order. (Although it is also said that when the Teutons heard the yapping of all those little dogs, they returned Pomerania voluntarily—an obviously scurrilous notion, as anyone who has ever heard the bark of a Dachshund will attest.)

The second period of relative peace followed, between 1466 and 1579. This second peace saw major developments in the legal and political realms. Poland passed a Habeas Corpus law—that law that says the government can’t hold a person without charging them with a crime. Poland established a Parliament with two houses, and a statute of Nihil Novi, meaning that the king could make no new decisions without the consent of Parliament—no sweeping executive orders, in effect.

At this time Europe was being torn apart by savage religious wars, but the Polish king declared, “I am the king of the people, not the judge of their consciences.” This spirit of tolerance attracted to Poland refugees from religious persecution from that time through the 17th century. There was an influx of foreign writers, artists, and scholars, and the first great literature created in Polish was written during this time.

Toward the end of this period, Polish nobility began the practice of electing its kings—first swearing them to uphold the constitution.

And so we see that 14th century Poland in peace was in some important ways more advanced than the 21st century United States in war.

The San Francisco Peace Treaty at the end of WWII, under which Japan was forbidden to raise an army, is often said to have been a great, if unintended, gift to Japan, because the Japanese could then devote all their resources to peaceful development.

Japan had an even longer period of peace—nearly 300 years—during and immediately after the Tokugawa Shogunate, from the early 1600s to the early 1900s. This was an isolationist period in Japan. Trade with China and the Netherlands was tightly controlled, travel outside the country was forbidden for many years, and Western literature was banned for a century.

Warriors educated themselves in flower arrangement and the tea ceremony, popular culture flourished. Kabuki Theatre was born. The Confucian values of morality, education, good government, and strict social hierarchy prevailed. Our own Admiral Perry sailed warships into the port of Nagasaki and forced Japan at the point of a cannon to open up to international trade in 1857. Japan became a constitutional monarchy. It shared in the worldwide era of progressive reform during the 1910s, before it began on its path of aggression called the “New Order.”

Denmark’s “Long Peace” lasted all of 87 years during the 18th century. Yet during that time between wars the country paid off its war debts, and increased its population by 40 percent, experiencing a corresponding increase in agricultural production and shipping. Almost half of the country’s tenant farmers became freeholders. For 15 years they flirted with freedom of speech and the press. Danish people developed a national identity, something that previously had been noticeable only in its aristocracy.

The Scottish poet Charles Mackay wrote:

In the good time coming
Nations shall not quarrel then
To prove which is the stronger,
nor slaughter men for glory’s sake;
Wait a little longer.

While you’re waiting, I invite you to wonder what peace could be like. Could we, with 87 years of peace, nearly double our agricultural output? With two hundred years of peace, could we break new ground in civil rights? With a thousand years of peace, is there any scientific or mathematical challenge we could not meet?

Instead of thinking about war when you think about peace, try thinking about about the benefits possible with peace when you think about peace.

Monday, December 10, 2007

The Buzz Saw

She gave a good-humored critique of the aesthetics of my Nordic Trak, which I kept in the living room, for want of a better place. She wasn’t the first to do so, and although it was a little gutsy to do in an interview, I let it go. I had no idea she would go through my life like a buzz saw, destroying and on the way creating enough distraction to prevent all thought beyond Make it Stop.

She warned that she did tend to leave dishes in the sink. In my hubris I thought, I can fix that.

It turned out she left dishes in the sink for a week or more at a time, not even rinsing them. Along with the dishes she left the few pots and pans we had in the sink for a week at a time. Did it occur to her that I might want to cook? Apparently not. The smell was sickening. Anywhere else we’d have had vermin.

She moved into her room, and then almost immediately took over the living room as well, occupying the couch from evening til dawn, leaving her books and bags on the couch when she went out or to bed. Art supplies made their home on the living room floor. Shopping bags full of papers and magazines lodged semi-permanently in the corner outside her door. She even moved her printer and computer into the living room – on the couch—with the cord stretched across the room to the opposite wall, for a week. Then for months.

And she left the door unlocked. I left a note asking her to be sure to lock it. She did it again within 2 weeks, and I left a note begging her to be sure to lock it. She denied having left it unlocked. The third time, I left a note scolding her for leaving it unlocked. The fourth time in 6 weeks, I told her I wanted her to move out, because I couldn’t trust her with my belongings. She had on the same day scratched my antique writing desk—presumably while putting the printer on it, and denied it. She denied having left the door unlocked, too, but in the heated conversation admitted that she’s had lifelong difficulty with locking doors.

Predictably, she insisted she had a lease. I made it clear that the lease was of no interest to me and that I didn’t want her there.

Meanwhile, there were the thermostat incidents. I came home to find the heat turned up to 72 and the living room window propped wide open. I said nothing. The second time I made an issue of it. But something strange was going on. Even after the heat was turned down to 50, the apartment was a sauna. The thermostat was broken.

And somewhere in here, in January, there was the lizard, an iguana, which, she was careful to tell me, could be 6 feet long in 2 years, that came to stay. She thought the living room, on my antique writing desk, in an enormous lighted cage would be ideal. I insisted that she would keep it in her room. This conversation kept running outside its boundaries, on its way to becoming what Gloria used to call a vertical harangue, and I kept saying, We discussed that already, why are we talking about that?

Like a lot of young, idealistic people, she felt it was cruel to keep the iguana caged (so why have it at all, I thought) and she like to walk around the house with it on her shoulder or wrapped in a towel. One evening I stopped home to get a few things for the night and found her on the floor in the bathroom, the bottom board and the vinyl trim pulled off the vanity. The iguana had found a slim opening and slipped through and was hiding under the vanity. “Bad iguana. Bad iguana,” she said to the vanity. She said she’d put the bathroom back together, but showed no signs of doing so after a week. I doubted she could manage the adhesive part of the task without getting adhesive on something irreplaceable.

Next the deadbolt lock in the front door was broken, or something jammed in it so it wouldn’t work. I came home one evening to find it that way, and because it was just after the I Want You to Leave conversation, I wondered aloud to our landlord whether she had changed the locks. No, just broken.

Shortly after the rancorous conversation in which I told her I wanted her out, I overheard her on the telephone having a conversation in a very similar tone with someone else. I thought, Ah-ha, she runs her life this way.

Late in February there were the broken glass incidents. I came home one afternoon to find a paper bag outside the back door containing the shards of a broken pane of glass. Having inspected the windows and found no damage, I discovered a picture frame she had been storing in the living room. Now the glass was gone.

Two or three days later, I came home in the morning to discover a smashed drinking glass (one of hers) in the bathroom sink.

That same day I had ridden the 206 bus with her in the morning. She put her bike on the bus’ bike rack. As she climbed on the bus, the driver berated her about spilling water (or something—I hadn’t seen the incident) on the rack. “You’re supposed to clean that up,” he chided as she brushed past. Again, I thought, Ah-ha, this goes on everywhere for her. I imagined people everywhere telling her she should clean up her messes. There was a little comfort in that.

I wondered, considering the level of anger she seemed to feel toward the world and the amount of hostility it apparently returned, whether I would come home someday to find she had hurt herself. I didn’t know enough about passive aggression to know whether it commonly turned inward or not. Still, I couldn’t help wondering how lonely and unhappy life must be for her.

Friday, December 7, 2007

The Reluctant Runner

The so-called literature of sports abounds with examples of heroic people who so loved running that they overcame great obstacles—poverty, political oppression, legs blown off by bombs—to become great runners. You can find their stories in any issue of Runners World.

But there is a shadowy corps of runners in the margins who run, not because they love running—they don’t—but because they must. These people run under penalty of death or disability, to lower their blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol, to reduce stress, to stretch the capacity of asthmatic lungs, to lose weight (or in some weird cases, to gain it), or to cheer the hell up.

I am one of those runners. For me, the brisk morning air, the rhythm of my breathing and the chuff-chuff of my feet is not something to look forward to, but something to be endured. The meditative state that other runners blather about eludes me. My feet hurt, my knees swell, my lungs squeak, and I am bored. I am convinced that a significant minority of those people chugging along on the roads and trails are, like me, reluctant runners. We persevere, not against great impediments, but against a collection of petty annoyances. We get out of bed in the morning with a metaphoric gun to our heads, and if we can visualize our own personal gun, we take the miracle cure. We run.

My hope is not for speed or medals, although those seem nice when others achieve them. My hope is for health and longevity that my history, habits and genetics would otherwise deny me.

Look at me and you can guess some of the challenges I face. I’m fat. Slim until middle age, I then filled out into my grandmother’s portly build. And that bane of the Baby Boomers, the foot soreness known as plantar fasciitis reduced my former eight-hour hikes to two-hour painfests.

Then a third shoe fell, the problem I had always called by the Victorian-sounding name “weak lungs” got worse and was diagnosed as asthma.

And finally, that Loch Ness Monster of the gene-pool, heart disease, set its sights on me and my bloodstream. I cried “uncle” and started training for a half-marathon.

There it is. No drama, no big mountains to climb. It’s more as if I’m balking on the slow march toward the inevitable.

I found myself in the company of the fatties—oh, come on! You’ve thought it, too—those pained and abused women and men who have almost reconciled themselves to running at the back of the race; the triathletes who strip off wet suits and sit down to a piece of chocolate cake or a Slimfast before getting on their bicycles to continue the race. These are not the returning all-state champions who run for the love of it. No, we hope to finish, and by finishing, we hope to put off the ultimate finish for a little longer.

We form the shuffling rear guard, looking out for each other’s hydration and egos, each of us realizing she or he might actually be the one who carries the ultimate burden--the burden of being The One who Finishes Last. But that’s better than death. If only marginally.

Here’s another case: a woman who suffered from lifelong depression and, in her twenties, anorexia. Before she began running, her body had the texture of driftwood. I know because I used to give her massages. She had been hospitalized for starvation. She lived on one can of tuna a day—about enough to keep a cat alive. She was well on her way to accomplishing her ultimate goal of self-anhiliation when, somewhere in her regimen of self-punishment, something backfired. One day she tortured herself to run seven miles--and got a completely unexpected boost of euphoria. “It was the first time in 20 years that I didn’t feel depressed,” she said. Every time after that, when she ran at least seven miles, she got the same euphoria. Gradually, running 49 miles a week enabled her to eat. She gained weight. She got herself a job in a grocery store. She saved her own life.

So out on the roads and running trails of Boulder, when you see the guy or woman slogging patiently along with the paunch and the shorts riding up, drawn on by thoughts of the next dessert, don’t mistake that for some kind of heroism. That’s just the same running from death that most people do, only more literal.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

If God's so Great. . .

As the high holy days approach, I find myself even more estranged than usual from Judeo-Christian belief. All in all, having road tested it, I'd have to rate it as only somewhat helpful in the bumpy parts and likely to fly off the road on sharp turns. Whatever the reasons, lately I find myself questioning the basic tenets more and more often.

The most basic tenet of Judeo-Christian faith is that there is only one god. Yet there are times I think there must be at least two -- a masculine being in charge of war and poverty, and a feminine entity in charge of decorating-- mountains, streams, storms and sunsets -- and perhaps romance.

If there is only one god, it must be like those Greek gods who donned different forms for different occasions like a debutante with an endless wardrobe.

Then, if you can get past the one god problem, there's the ridiculous notion that god made humans in her/his image. Okay, homo sapiens have our endearingly goofy moments (most noticeable when we overreach ourselves -- engineers and the clergy are among the goofiest), but I'd hardly describe us as godlike. Ask yourself, is my dog more compassionate than I am? Does s/he love more fully and devotedly than I? If you take seriously the idea that god = love, or forgiveness, or equanimity in the face of adversity, my dog was far closer to god than I can ever hope to be. And a better rabbit hunter, to boot.

Ask yourself, What is the nature of god? The essence of grace, beauty, creativity? Playful and savage? Comforting, whimsical, ever changing?

Then take a close look at your cat.

If god is perfection, humans are the definition of flawed -- aspiring but distractable; kind, but selfish; generous, but not that generous; brave, but so often misguided.

And speaking of misguided, whose fault is that? What kind of shepherd lets a flock go as far astray as the human flock has gone? What kind of mother puts up with the insults old Mom Earth has endured from us her kids? (Is god an environmentalist? Will St. Peter confront each of us one day with all those paper plates and Pampers, mercury batteries and used motor oil?)

If god is all-powerful, why can't s/he communicate with us in our first languages? Why does s/he seem to be limited to communicating through uneven works of literature, unearthly taps on the shoulder, blackbirds flying west and pinholes in latex? There are people who have felt a tap on the shoulder, who have dropped everything and gone off to become missionaries, when what they probably felt was a muscle spasm or pigeon dropping.

More and more I ascribe to the belief that we -- humans and our pets and pests -- are just germs on the epidermis of the universe; god is an infinitely complex Rachmaninoff piano concerto, indifferent to our daily worries; and it's up to us to get with the beat.