The me (not me)

(Warning: Non-Running Post)

I was going to wait until New Year’s Eve to write my “what happened this year” post. I’ll still write one. But I thought I’d get a jump on writing about one aspect of what was a terrible-yet-wonderful year.

In the fall of 2010, while attempting to stay in shape as I recovered from a stress fracture, I was spending huge amounts of time running in the pool, spinning and doing whatever it’s called when you use the elliptical. I was in the gym for many hours each week and, unlike running, there was no joy in the activity. It was just a tedious, boring, time-consuming grind.

My playlists of music got old quickly. So I turned to podcasts. I listened to lots of different podcasts but ended up only sticking with a few that were reliably good. Two of them, WTF! with Marc Maron and the RISK! Show, remain my go to podcasts. I wrote about them in February. The first is an interview program hosted by standup stalwart Marc Maron. The second is a storytelling podcast, a weekly show that typically combines 2-3 true stories, told either before a live audience or in a studio, with musical interludes between them.

These two podcasts mean a tremendous amount to me personally, although for different reasons. There was a period of time during January and February when I was completely mired in one of the worst periods of depression that I’ve experienced in years. Coupled with the despair and hopelessness was a near total inability to sleep for several weeks. During that time, because I was so restless, I moved into our guest room and spent many nights listening to archived WTF! shows. Between the highly personal stories of what happened to host Maron during the week (usually a mixture of hilarity and unforgiving self-examination) and his intelligent, empathetic interviews with guests, I was often moved. His voice was like an audio life raft that I clung to in the night.

The other show, RISK!, whose tagline is “True tales, boldly told,” was a similar mixture of comedy and tragedy. Some stories were better than others, but they were usually honest and unflinching. I forgave the more self-indulgent or boring ones because when the stories were good they were incredibly good. Yet, during some shows I’d find myself thinking, “I could probably do a better job than that guy.” Even months after I’d emerged from the depressive mud, that thought stayed with me.

For decades I’d been attracted to the idea of doing standup comedy, yet was terrified by the prospect. And I do mean terrified. I have (or had, up until a month ago) an intense fear of doing anything in public. Public speaking was torture for me. Even business meetings were (and, oddly, still are) a challenge. So the prospect of getting up on stage and trying to make people laugh seemed like the craziest, hardest thing one can do. It’s the purest form of failure — you’re there to make people laugh. That’s hard to do. And you’re doing that as yourself. So if they don’t laugh, in a sense, those people are rejecting not just your jokes, but also you. Like I said: terrifying. I still have trouble imagining it.

But these podcasts, especially RISK!, were a revelation. You could tell honest stories about yourself and people would listen. You didn’t have to be funny, although you could be if you wanted to.  For me, storytelling falls somewhere along a spectrum that spans monologue and standup, as illustrated below. I inserted names of entertainers and where I feel they fall along that spectrum. I in no way include myself in their esteemed company — they’re just there to help you get a picture of what I’m talking about and also because I admire them all in their own way. I can only hope to achieve an originality and consistency of performance, perspective and persona that each of them has managed to.

Storytelling is the oldest form of entertainment, yet it was news to me. I’d sampled the storytelling podcast, The Moth, which is the one everyone knows. But it didn’t grab me the way RISK! did and still does. In fact, I was so affected by RISK! that I started scheming ways to get on it. I started working on story ideas and struggled with how to pitch them. But the biggest obstacle was the performance issue. If you want to tell stories, you have to get up in front of people and tell them. There is simply no way around that. So I started looking for classes. I needed help not just with the “how to” of constructing a story, but also with the mechanics of telling it without being totally petrified on stage. And, what?! It turns out that Kevin Allison, the brains, passion and voice behind RISK!, teaches classes! In storytelling! It was fate! It was fate. I signed up for the September class at The Story Studio.

It was a great experience. I met other talented people. Kevin is an excellent teacher and listener. I got everything I wanted out of it, including the encouragement I needed to keep working on it.

This and some related activity in the theatrical realm has given me a new lease on my creative life. It’s introduced me to some wonderful people — other performers, new friends, potential collaborators. It’s given me the confidence and curiosity to take an acting class to further plumb the mysteries of performance and onstage persona. I am finding themes in my stories that may eventually drive me to doing a longer piece consisting of a cycle of related stories. But I’m getting ahead of myself already.

I invited several friends to my end-of-class performance. Jonathan came too. I deliberately did not share the story I’d tell with him — although he’d heard less-detailed forms of it over the years. I did not invite him to come to the two open mic story slams I attended to get some experience with an audience that was not my class. I needed to do this on my own, unsupported (and unfettered). The act of keeping him at a distance throughout the learning process had one fantastic side effect, though: I got to watch him in the audience, watching me. During my 13 minutes on stage, he wore an expression that was some combination of delighted and dumbstruck. Later, I asked him what it was like to watch me and he said, after a long pause: “It was like seeing you, but some other version of you.”

I knew what he meant. I was me. But I was also not me. I was a transformed, perhaps better version of me. The me I’d like to always be. But I needed a story and an audience to be that person. It’s the person I’m not yet. It’s a start.

A few years ago, when I was still struggling to write short stories, I registered the domain modernstories.com. I was surprised no one had taken it. A bit later someone offered me a few hundred dollars for it. Even though I’d abandoned fiction by then, some instinct told me to hang onto it. I’m glad I did. I’ll do something with it, although I don’t know what yet.

Telling stories to strangers is gratifying, fun and very hard work. I am lucky to have found it, especially while living in a suburb just north of New York City, which seems to be ground zero for live storytelling. There are so many shows to explore. The Moth is not the only game in town. Nor is RISK! For the next month or two I’ll sample other shows and see what’s a good fit, then see if I can fit in somewhere.

Anyway, here’s the first of many ventures I hope to make onto various stages starting in 2012. To honor what RISK! did for me, I decided to tell the truest, boldest tale I could think of. The name of this story is “The Beast.”

Google Search Oddities

“are you old when you’re 46″

Yes.

And.

No.

Why I love social media

Over the course of the day yesterday, from the moment I woke up to the moment I fell asleep, I was connected with others, if not directly through a social medium then indirectly through other activities (writing down ideas to share, emailing a query) that ultimately came about because of a connection I’d made through social media.

I’ve been using message boards since the launch of AOL, circa 1990. I started this blog in 2006. I’ve been on Facebook for around a year and a half. I’m a relative newbie to Twitter, but now use it extensively. At this point, the impulse to connect and share is so frequent, ingrained and automatic that I don’t even think about it anymore.

It’s incredibly easy to dismiss blogging, Twitter, Facebook, online message boards and other components of social media as time wasters. The implication is that we don’t benefit from being in this realm so much as we fritter away our lives. The relationships formed in these media are often similarly rendered illegitimate because they are “virtual” and, as such, assumed to be of lower value by virtue of some assumed ephemerality.

I would like to counter that point of view in this post, by describing the ways in which social media has enriched my life.

It’s helped me find my voice. I’ve always gravitated toward writing and knew that I was good at it. I began making a living at it around 10 years ago, and I enjoy a lot of the writing I do for money. As a profession, writing and editing copy is both fun and challenging. But over the past few years my biggest source of satisfaction has been the personal writing I’ve done for this blog. Now I’m branching out and seeing if I can write for other media and forms of delivery (stay tuned). Finding my voice online has helped me to find it offline as well, which is uber valuable for an introvert who often has trouble dealing with people in general.

It’s made me a better writer. From a practical standpoint, writing for social media has helped me to hone my writing chops, beyond the improvement that comes simply from writing something every day. Web readers demand brevity: short paragraphs; simple sentences in the active voice; tight composition and structure. The extreme, of course, is Twitter. With just 140 characters at my disposal, I’ve learned a lot about editing and rewriting.

It’s helped me to help others. I’m reading a book right now, one that violates the brevity rule (at least in terms of its title). It’s called The Compass of Pleasure: How Our Brains Make Fatty Foods, Orgasm, Exercise, Marijuana, Generosity, Vodka, Learning, and Gambling Feel So Good. Aside from resembling my daily to do list, this is a book about how our brains work, specifically why certain behaviors trigger the brain’s reward mechanisms. If you read the title carefully you’ll see that “generosity” is among those addictive behaviors. I like helping people by sharing  my skills and knowledge and lately I’ve used social media to identify opportunities to lend a hand in ways that go beyond the obvious.

It’s helped me establish new relationships. I have quite a few actual, in the flesh friends whom I would not have met ever were it not for social media. As a side point, I’ll also note that whereas I used to view purely virtual relationships as somehow lacking, I now think they have their place and can be valuable in their own right. If you want an old school example, consider the lowly “pen pal” relationship. I’ll bet lots of pen pals never met each other, but that doesn’t lessen the value of the connection that can be forged through a virtual exchange of thoughts and feelings. Sometimes a friend can be someone you never meet. But I’ll grant you that IRL friends are the bomb by comparison.

It’s deepened relationships I already have. I have a few friends who I knew long before the advent of social media, but for various reasons we drifted apart, only to eventually rediscover each other through social media. In other cases, I knew someone through a non-friendship venue (such as a work project) and discovered a lot of common ground through social media, which helped to advance the relationship from the friendly acquaintance or “work friend” to “friend friend” stage. This is great.

It’s given me the opportunity to try new things. Social media is directly responsible for my running journalism career (such as it is), my having joined a running team, my becoming a host of various podcasts, my decision to travel to certain places, and my exploration of new forms of creative outlet or consumption, just to name a few. Social media gets me out of the house and around people pretty regularly.

It’s provided me with a free publishing platform. For a quiet person, it seems that I have a lot to say. Social media lets me say those things. Whether it’s writing haiku (well, three years ago), or satirizing the kind of taglines I get paid to produce on a regular basis, or presenting an interview project, or just telling some stupid jokes, all I have to do is start an account and I have my own megaphone, instantly. I even have a secret blog that no one knows about.

It’s helped me find support and solutions. Like you, I have problems. Lots of them. Through social media (message boards especially) I’ve found members of my various tribes who are chock full of information, ideas, resources and empathy.

It’s kept my serotonin levels steady. See “problems” above. I don’t know whether I did too much acid in the third grade or something, but my mood will easily plummet without constant vigilance. I’d say about half of the people I follow on Twitter are either professional comedians, comedy writers or regular Janes and Joes who happen to be hilarious. I also write lots of funny stuff (or at least I think it’s funny) throughout the day. Reading and producing this stuff on Twitter elevates my mood. It’s that simple.

It’s shown me that activism is still alive and well. Lastly, there’s other peoples’ use of social media for the greater good. You’ve got things like the It Gets Better Project, which strives to keep gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered youth from killing themselves. Or the Enough Project, which seeks to dismantle warlordism in Sudan and the Congo. Then you’ve got activism that demonstrates social media’s unintended consequences, like Nancy Upton’s hijacking of an ill-conceived American Apparel contest for use as her own personal platform for scathing social commentary. Fucking brilliant. Try doing that with television.

What has social media done for me lately? A lot. What’s it done for you?

How to lose weight when you’re 46 years old and genetically disadvantaged

I promised my sister I’d post about my recent weight loss when I hit 125. I’m a little over 126, but I have a day off from all responsibilities today, so I’ll go right ahead since I expect to be down to 125 within a few days anyway.

When we got back from a visit with Jonathan’s family in England in May I weighed a whopping 141 pounds. I’ve been struggling with weight since late 2009. I’m still not sure why I put on roughly 10 pounds over the course of about 8 months. Nearly half of that piled on within about two months of starting a new birth control pill (Loestrin 24). Then the next 6 arrived very slowly over time. It may have been hormonal. My metabolism may have simply ground to a halt that year. Dunno.

Over the past 18 months of so of trying to shed the extra poundage, I could not get rid of it by eating sensibly, nor did heavy mileage help. I sought the help of a nutritionist and an endocrinologist late last year, also to no avail.

No wonder I'm so slow. I've been running carrying the equivalent of this box of cat litter for the past several years.

When I weighed myself on May 18, seeing a number over 140 — a weight that was flirting with what I weighed before I started running 12 years ago (an endeavor started because I’d gotten so fucking fat) — the same sense of shame and outrage that overtook me in 1999 reemerged. It galvanized me, inspiring a steely resolve: I was going to lose this fat even if people had to die.

In roughly two months, I’ve lost about 15 pounds. Fortunately, no one has died. It’s been a pretty simple process, but it has not been easy. Here’s how I did it, along with some observations and tips. I should note that I’m no medical expert and this has been an experiment on myself, not unlike the one William Hurt performed in Altered States. Although I have not yet broken into a zoo and eaten an antelope [2:20]. But, believe me, I’ve been close a few times.

Here’s what didn’t work

Going to an endocrinologist in search of a hormonal or other chemical explanation. I got tested for various things and got the all clear. I also got this annoyingly generic piece of medical insight: “Most women gain weight in middle age, especially around the waist.” Yeah, well, I’m not most women.

Going to a sports nutritionist. This was another useless exercise. For four months I followed a supposed expert’s advice, tolerated her insinuations that I was not being honest about what I was eating, and grew increasingly frustrated.

Going off the pill. Actually, that may have sort of worked, but it’s taken forever. Here’s something else I’ve observed: every gynecologist and article will tell you that the hormones in the pill are gone from your system in a week or two. I don’t believe this is true, based on several things. For one, I’ve had friends who were on the pill and went off it in an effort to get pregnant. Some of them took as long as six months to get knocked up. For another, the whole reason I went on the thing (beyond the obvious) was to regulate my wild cycles. I could swing 10 days in either direction. Yet for four months after I stopped taking it in January, I could predict my cycle’s start by not only the day, but also by the hour. In the last month I’ve started to go all wacky and unpredictable again. My weight loss rate has also picked up slightly. Coincidence? Again, dunno.

So what did work?

The nutritionist told me that my resting metabolic rate plus non-running movements resulted in a need for around 1850 calories a day. This was just to function. We based everything on that. I was told not to ever cut more than 500 calories a day from base + exercise output total (I don’t know what awful thing would happen if I did; maybe I’d actually lose weight?). Plus I was given elaborate formulas for how many grams of carbohydrate and protein to take in before a workout and in the hours after a workout in order to recover properly.

I’m sorry, but it was all bollocks. I lost no weight on this plan.

So you know what I did? I took the base calorie intake she had me on — roughly 1650 a day — and chopped it in half. That’s right: my new caloric ceiling was around 850. If I did any exercise, I’d add those calories back in. Here’s an example:

Base calorie intake: 850
Run 6 miles easy: 500
Total allowed: 1350

Following this rather parsimonious formula, I lost a little over 2 pounds the first week, then another 1.5 the following week. It’s varied from week to week, but it’s basically been around 1.5 pounds per week. During a PMS week, I usually stagnate, although I don’t gain water weight like I used to, so I think I’m still “stealth losing.”

There’s no secret to this

The laws of thermodynamics are absolute. Unless you’ve got a thyroid or other issue, if your body is deprived of external sources of fuel, it will start burning its own.

But it’s really hard to do

Aside from the behavioral challenges, I’ve got a few other things working against me. For one, I’m way over 40. If you think you can eat the way you did in your 20s and 30s, just wait. You can’t. For another, my physique lies somewhere along the body type spectrum between mesomorph and endomorph. I blame my Viking genes: you need a lot of muscle for hefting swords and engaging in extended bouts of raping and pillaging, plus you need fat to keep you from becoming too cold in Spitzbergen or wherever the hell my ancestors were from. I build muscle very easily, which is great if I want to be a power lifter, but useless for distance running. So I actually have to be careful about doing too much weight or other resistance work. For another, I hold onto fat like it’s going out of style. I gain it easily and then have a bastard of a time getting rid of it.

What does it all mean?

It means that while it’s possible for me to lose fat, it’s difficult and takes a huge effort and commitment. Have you ever tried living on 850 calories a day? It takes planning. It’s tedious. You’re hungry often. But seeing a pretty much constant weight loss of around 1-2 pounds a week is a great motivator. As I said to someone recently, I can deal with eating 850 calories a day for three months more easily than I can deal with eating 1200 calories a day for six months.

Are you ready to suffer? Here are some handy tips!

Use a calorie tracking program. There is no other way to know what you’re taking in and using up. I like Tap and Track for the iPhone.

Plan ahead. If you have a job that you travel to (as I have since I started this venture), pack your food. Apportion your calories among various food items and stick those items in your bag. If you eat all your food too early in the day, tough luck. You’ll only do this a few times.

Stop drinking. I shouldn’t have to explain this one. With only 850 calories to play with, there is no room for extravagances like liquor. Bonus: you’ll avoid embarrassing Ambien episodes.

Eat “big food.” These are foods that have a high density and volume relative to their caloric content. Examples are: fruits, vegetables, and lean animal proteins. I have gotten a lot of mileage out of grapes, cherries, nectarines, corn on the cob, steak and chicken.

Eat small amounts of fat throughout the day. For example, while nuts are very calorie dense, they will keep you full because they take forever to digest. Also, a cup of coffee with half and half will stave off hunger for a good hour or two.

When the hunger pangs get too bad, just close your eyes and think of England. Failing that, eat your own hand — preferably the one you don’t favor. It’s low in calories and you have another one if you need to make a phone call or something.

A special note for runners

Bear in mind that I’ve only been running 30-40 miles per week during this process and doing 2 hard sessions tops. I don’t know that I’d attempt this during a heavier training schedule. Also note that I’ve been careful to make sure I take in at least 200 grams of carbohydrates and 75 grams of protein a day. On days after a hard run or race, I’ll up the calorie intake a bit because I’m usually starving and to me that’s a signal that I need more food in order to recover properly.

Why am I doing this?

Because I not only looked a lot better when I weighed somewhere in the low 120s, but I ran better too. I am now running a lot faster, despite the heat and humidity. But more on that soon.

In which bloggers sing “Kumbaya” on the Upper West Side

For years, social scientists have pondered the question: Can Americans and Australians ever have brunch together? The answer is yes. Yes, we can.

Today Jonathan and I met up with a load of people, most of whom we’d never met. At least not in the flesh. With the exception of our friend (and my fellow podcast host) Joe of RunWestchester. But I’ve been following the exploits of Ewen (of About a Ewen) and Flo (of Girl in Motion) for several years. Ewen is here with his friends Joy and Mal on an epic tour of the U.S. (can’t imagine why they’d want to come to this 2,600 mile wide dump) and, fortunately for us, it includes an extended swing through New York City. Flo drove her ass all the way up from Philadelphia just to have lunch with us! But it gets better: also there was Flo’s friend, Heather, a newly minted masters runner who lives in New York and who had not seen Flo in sixteen years!! But, wait. There’s more: Heather had a stress fracture in her pelvis earlier this year in almost the exact same place I did!!!

It doesn’t get any weirder than that. Especially when this crew is involved.

In a symbol of the historically peaceful relations between our two nations, we exchanged cultural gifts. Ewen gave us Australia-themed drink coolers and fragrant soaps. We gave Ewen race t-shirts (he made out like a “bandit,” scoring shirts for the New York Marathon, Healthy Kidney, Scotland Run and yesterday’s Run for Central Park). Mimosas were consumed. Checks were split. Hugs were freely given.

Mal and Joy, who are non-runners, were extremely tolerant of all the running talk. Which is good, since we’re meeting up again on Friday evening for drinks and there will be even more runners there!!!! Joe and I will also see Ewen in Van Cortlandt for a 5K on Thursday evening, his first international race (not counting Tasmania)!!!!!

Ewen, Joy and Mal

Heather, Flo and Ewen

Me, Joe, Heather, Flo and Ewen

Jonathan threatens to usurp actual stuff from another continent

Training: July 3-9

It may look like I’m still injured. But I’m not.

That’s more than I can say for my training log, however. Google Docs inexplicably barfed all over it and upon exporting it out to my Mac to try to save the file, I couldn’t open it. So now I have to work with it on Jonathan’s Windows machine, which creates the hideousness you see at right. Damn you, Google. You’re not worth $528.94 a share.

I ran every day last week. And, more important, I ran pain free every day. It was good.

But.

It was also hot.

So I did lots of running inside on the treadmill.

Which was fine.

Not ideal.

But fine.

Highlights of the week included my first Jack Daniels-assigned speed session. That went well. I did not run too hard. I did my strides on a few outside runs and realized that unlike in training cycles past, I was not too tired to do the strides. Good sign.

Then I tore up Suicide Hill in Van Cordlandt and won a muffin. With help from Jonathan.

On Saturday I got some culture and some miles in Prospect Park.

And that was that.

This week’s gone well too. I ran faster than previously on some treadmill speedy stuff. On Saturday I have a 4 mile race in Central Park. I love the bizarre 4 mile distance.

On Sunday I’ll meet some long-admired kindred spirits for the first time (and reconnect with a few regulars) for lunch, one from Philadelphia and one all the way from Australia. That should be fun. I hope he doesn’t make fun of our accents.

I ordered some flamboyantly awful-looking new racing flats.

But you’ll have to wait until the weekend to hear all about those things.

How happy am I not to be injured?

Do you really have to ask?

Theatre Review: Endure — Run. Woman. Show.

What happens when the race of your life is your life? You get something like Endure: Run. Woman. Show., a 360-degree meditation on marathoning as metaphor. Melanie Jones, the creative force behind this immersive theatre piece, which takes place in Prospect Park and its immediate environs, found me through the miracle of Google and invited me to the premiere yesterday. I’m so glad she did.

Endure is a show in which you’re along for the ride, rather than sitting passively in a theatre seat. Wearing an MP3 player, you start at a nearby playground (after “registering” for the show and pinning on a race bib, which is also your program) and make your way to Prospect Park. Along the way, you’re taken on a sonic journey, with visual cues if you look carefully enough for them, as you make the transition from the workaday sidewalk world of Park Slope to the more timeless and untethered world of the park. Once there, you are quite literally led down the garden path, emerging at the crest of an overlook where, at last, you meet our narrator, Ms. Jones.

We’re at the start of a marathon now, with the cannon about to go off. And, as anyone who’s ever endeavored to train for and race a marathon knows, this is just the beginning, and you never know what’s going to happen over the next 26.2 miles. Marathons are a lot like life in that way.

I won’t give away what happens over the next hour, but I will say that the workout is more sensual and emotional than it is physical. There’s a little bit of running if you want to run, but you don’t have to. There’s a fair amount of walking, some of it quite brisk, but there are also many quiet moments in which you’re simply standing, watching, or, if you’re lucky, playing a small part in the performance.

The narrative is backed by an original soundtrack by Scandinavian composer Christine Owman and it’s a perfect aural backdrop: at times it’s spare and floating, with heavy reverb and overlays that lend it a dreamlike quality; at other times, it’s mournful and exhausted, reflecting the training and life grind that our subject is often trapped in, adhering to cruel deadlines of her own making.

There are dark miles. And there are good miles. And that middle bit is the hardest. It lasts so much longer than you want, or think it should. But time keeps going, so you have to keep going, on the days that you want to and the days that you don’t.

While you don’t have to be a marathoner to connect with this piece, it helps. You will “get” things on a level that others won’t: the strange mix of kinship and bloodthirsty competitiveness we can feel during a race; the sudden obsession with the weather; the math we do as the miles tick by, with OCD-like focus, and how our ability to continue to do that math fails as our glycogen depleted brains struggle through those later miles; how giving into a bodily function as basic as urinating becomes an epic mental struggle when held up against a race goal that threatens to slip away at any moment.

But these details are not what make up the meat of the show, which turns out not really to be about running at all. Instead, Jones presents how the dark side of marathoning — how quickly we can slip from hobbyist to enthusiast to cocktail party freakshow to runner as Carmelite nun — can mirror the darker sides of life. When other parts of our lives veer off the rails, many of us are tempted to look to the marathon as an emotional life raft, something that we can control and that will keep us afloat. What often happens, of course, is that instead, that most unforgiving distance, and all that goes into training for it, only serves to drag us further down under the waves. Rather than helping us to define ourselves through our determination and success, the distance becomes instead, with frightening and undeniable clarity, the embodiment of what we’ve most feared about ourselves all along: that we are failures. Failures at marathoning. Failures at life.

I’ll let you go see the show to see how this race turns out. Along the way you’ll see innovative use of public space, some striking visual metaphors, and a lot of blood. I can guarantee that you won’t be bored. If you run marathons, you’ll find common ground with the author, and if you don’t, you’re still apt to gain some insight about your own life’s journey, whether or not you’re taking it in racing flats.

Endure is brilliantly conceived and beautifully executed. I still can’t believe I got to see this for free.

The show’s running next Saturday, 7/16 (and possibly the following Sunday, 7/23) before Jones takes it on the road to Canada. RSVP here.

We’ll also have Jones on this evening’s New York Running Show podcast if you’d like to tune in at 8pm EST.

Dad acts like douchebag. What do you do?

This afternoon I went for my bi-monthly (lately) trip to the gym to lift weights and torture myself in a variety of other ways. I am usually the only woman in the weight area, so I’m always feeling a bit like an interloper as it is, and as a result I’m hesitant to stand out in any way (probably dumb, because the fact that I have breasts makes me stand out plenty already).

Today I witnessed something that caused more than a little internal conflict. As I made my rounds through the leg torture device area, I saw what I think was a father/son duo using two machines: the leg extension and the hamstring curl. Dad was stocky and strapping. Son was about 15 and not strapping. Dad commandeered both machines (unfortunate, since not only did I need to use them both, but it meant I got to see what I’m about to report as I stood there waiting) and put the weight settings at levels that were fine for him and his stumpy legs, but way too much for skinny son: 100 lbs for the leg extension and 80 for the hamstring curl.

To put things into perspective, I usually set those two at 50. I have muscular, peasant stock legs, probably about equal in strength to those of your average slight, unfit, semi-developed 15 year old boy. Dad did his sets of 10, then instructed Son to climb on and do the same. Son was arching his back, red-faced, groaning just to get to a count of three. I was thinking, “This is a lower back injury waiting to happen.”

At one point Dad walked away and I was so tempted to go up to Son and say, as nonthreateningly as possible, “Those might be a little heavy for you. Try taking them down a few so you can do more reps.” But Dad looked like an asshole, so I stopped myself from getting involved. Then I thought, well, this is a potentially unsafe situation. Maybe I go alert a staffer. But they’re all 19-year-old guys and I’d risk humiliating the 15-year-old guy in addition to drawing Dad’s ire. So I didn’t do anything.

Even if Dad wasn’t being a macho idiot, at best he was totally clueless and unobservant. I felt really bad for that kid.

Amateur ethicists: What would you have done? What should I have done?

Lights! Camera! Travel!

Two weeks without a post. Dearie me.

It’s been one heck of a spring so far, primarily consisting of familial highs and lows, and mostly just lows for running. First, my stepmother nearly died after surgery complications. That was three weeks ago. She’s still in the ICU, clawing her way back to normality. So that’s completely sucked. But I did learn a lot about my family and myself in terms of our personal strengths and weaknesses and how we all cope with disaster. That was interesting and useful.

Then I blew up in the Long Island Half and declared that marathons were dead to me. My feelings have not changed.

This photo needs no caption.

I spent the last week in England with Jonathan’s family, and that was a great time, although, like all travel and concentrated social time, kind of exhausting too. J.’s brother and his husband live in southwest London, while his mother and her husband live in the western cape of South Africa. We try to convene in one of our locales at least every 18-36 months. I hadn’t been to the UK since 2006. It’s changed in some ways but not in others. For example, while cars (and people) are getting bigger, their streets and parking spaces are not. This makes riding in a car a harrowing experience. I spent a lot of time with my eyes closed, worrying about my inlaws’ paint job and side mirrors.

Out and about...

We are active tourists. I think it’s really stupid to travel to a place and sit around inside, which is part of why I don’t care where I stay, usually, as long as it’s not diseased or dangerous. Fortunately, J.’s family is also up for lots of walking, tube-riding and ticket-buying, so our days and evenings were filled with interesting things to do. Highlights include:

A guided walk with London Walks, which has become a kind of tradition when we go there. This time around we did a square mile tour of the city’s center, getting a history of, among other things, Roman London, the Black Death, the births of the Stock Exchange and Lloyd’s of London, and too many buildings designed by Christopher Wren (the Michael Caine of historical London architecture) to count.

A memorial to victims of the plague.

War Horse, which has been playing in London for quite awhile but just opened in Lincoln Center and has gotten a shitload of Tony nominations. As previously noted, I’m not a theatre person, but I appreciate a creatively conceived and executed production in any media, and this delivered. Skilled puppeteers steered giant horses (and a tank) around a stage for two hours. The play’s a little long and overly sentimental (but that’s par for the course in almost any English treatment of WW1 and WW2 — that’s my sweeping, culturally insensitive opinion; go ahead and flame away!), but it was nevertheless impressive. The casting director gets Most Creative Casting award for putting a black man into the role of an embittered SS Captain. Not since seeing Charlton Heston playing a Mexican narc in Touch of Evil have I had to work so hard to suspend my disbelief.

Also, I noted that at play intermissions, English people rush out to the lobby to buy tiny containers of ice cream, which they bring back to their seatmates in huge stacks. Then they all sit there and eat it together, looking supremely happy and satisfied. This was a spectacle so utterly charming and weird that I was beside myself.

In one of a dozen pubs visited.

A massive Joan Miro retrospective at the Tate Modern, which I dragged J.’s family to, although I did not hear complaints. But they were probably being polite. There were 13 rooms of works spanning his career, organized chronologically and placed within the context of the Spanish Civil War and Franco’s Spain, which I admit to having known absolutely nothing about. Now I know almost nothing about those periods of history.

Sadly, I did not get to drink Piddle while there.

A long weekend in County Dorset, to the southwest of London, which is on the southern coast. J. spent most of his childhood and his early teens in this area and it’s incredibly beautiful. Friends of his brother’s have an apartment right on the beach in Sandbanks that they let us use. We had two memorable lunches: the first to reconnect with Jonathan’s stepfather, who we’d last seen circa 1993; the second to celebrate a major milestone birthday for his mother. We visited too many pubs to recall.

Saw lots of these...

The cultural highlight of that last venue was viewing the Eurovision Song Contest, an annual televised music competition that drew 125 million viewers this year. Each European nation puts forth its “best” song and performer(s) in a bid to win the votes of its peers (you can’t vote for your own country, nor are larger nations allowed to skew the numbers — everyone gets the same number of votes). If you have never seen Eurovision, it’s difficult grasp its level of sheer gaudy absurdity. The event goes on for hours, and it’s kind of like Star Search meets Top of the Pops meets Solid Gold. Fortunately, we have YouTube (see below).

...and lots of these.

Singers from nation after nation take the stage, usually with lots of non-singing dancers in tow, against a backdrop of often stunning visual effects. Then the voting begins and at that point you’re glad you’ve been drinking because it goes on for about an hour and half, with each nation’s vote doler outer (usually a tarted up woman, probably a local television personality) struggling to chatter coyly in broken English (Ha! Ha! Foreigners are so funny when they try to speak proper English!). The winning nation gets the dubious prize of hosting next year’s Eurovision, which is presumably a massively expensive proposition, so we found ourselves wondering if Portugal, Iceland and Greece might be sandbagging. Winning performers rarely go on to stardom, the exception being Abba, who won in 1974 with “Waterloo.”

I think my favorite part of watching Eurovision is the spontaneous reactions we all have. We can’t stop ourselves from saying things like:

“God, is everyone in Iceland that fat?”

“Wait a minute. Her name’s Kati? But that’s a man!”

“What is wrong with the French?”

You also get a real sense of what people in the various countries find sexy and stylish. It’s rarely what I find sexy and stylish.

I have never correctly guessed who will win. I’m never even close. This year’s winners were Azerbaijan’s Ell/Nikki, with an anemic, schmaltzy duet called “Running Scared.” I was banking on either Ireland, with its bizarre, poppy entry from twin brothers (and big fans of epaulets, hair gel and Devo) Jedward. Or Serbia’s Nina, who rocked the final with a stylish sixties vibe and, as a chunky-legged girl from peasant stock like myself, proved exteme bravery in wearing white tights on international television. But, no, all the bands I hated made the top 10. Special mention goes to Moldova, for its entry, “So Lucky,” which embodies the sort of demented eye- and ear-raping that you expect of Eurovision.

Azerbaijan: Cream-colored bland FTW.

Ireland: We don’t care if we win. We’ll charge it!

Serbia: Don’t worry, if we don’t win we can always get jobs at Target.

Moldova: Coneheads and unicycles! Thank you!

Jonathan procures pork pies at Borough Market.

Clearly, given the length of my Eurovision report, this was my favorite part of the trip. But I sampled a lot of English culinary staples this time around: black pudding, Scotch eggs, pork pies and my ritual fish and chips/mushy peas, this time from a decades-old childhood chippy that Jonathan was amazed to find still bustling despite everything around it having changed.

Fifty years later, while entire streets and buildings are gone, the humble chip shop still stands.

Unfortunately, since J. got the bright idea that we should all drink absinthe during this musical ordeal, I had a mild hangover the next morning and, while stumbling out for a walk along the beach, managed to bash my left foot on a gate. I’ve done something to it because after an eight mile run the next day my left hip flexor and adductor were iffy. My foot still hurts when I flex it. Kids, don’t drink and run.

Branksome Chine, where we did part of a longish run.

With the foot issue, travel stress and terrible nutrition (and almost no running) of the past week, I plan to jog rather than race the Brooklyn Half this weekend, mostly to collect my 10 points for internal New York Harrier scoring. I’m hoping I can redeem them for pistachio nuts or bobby pins or something at the end of the year.

Cat. Box. Zen.

I don’t usually talk about my cat. For one thing, I don’t ascribe to the philosophy that she is a “member of the family.” She’s more like a resentful boarder. For another, I know that listening to stories about my cat is about as interesting and appealing as watching me clip my toenails. So I’ll try to make this not a cute cat story.

Our cat, Peekie, (a nickname of Pequod, which is the name of the whaling vessel in Moby Dick) it basically batshit crazy most of the time. She’s half feral and is notable for her random explosions of violence and love of killing things. But she can also be surprisingly relaxed and often, in rare moments, when she forgets that she hates us and is afraid of everything and everyone, she’s almost like a normal, well-adjusted cat. Almost.

It’s a happy coincidence that we ended up with a cat whose neuroses roughly mirror our own. As a bonus, she is, like us, also incredibly attached to her little routines. One of them involves her use of the cat litter box. She will wait until we sit down to eat in the dining room, and then she will go to work with what sounds like a major excavation project of her litter box in the next room, the kitchen. Yesterday I was eating breakfast alone, watching the sun come up and listening to the sounds of frantic cat litter relocation. Lulled by her rhythmic scrapings and bored beyond belief by my sugar-free generic Mini Wheats, I became lost in thought. A few minutes later, I realized that the scraping had stopped and the house was quiet. Eerily quiet. An investigation was in order.

First I looked for Peekie in the kitchen, but she was not to be found there. I came round into the living room and looked for her on what we call her “beach towel,” an old bath towel we’ve tucked behind a chair. She was not splayed there as she usually is. Then I looked across the room. And that’s when I saw it: a picture of such contentment and bliss that I was momentarily struck breathless.

There, smashed into an empty Amazon.com box, sat Peekie. It was a small box, about 6″x10″ and not very deep. She had explored the box the previous evening, scoping it out, inserting an experimental paw. She’d clearly wanted to get into the box, but at the time she couldn’t figure out how. It seemed that she’d finally cracked that nut. She was sitting in the box, upright, her furry chest thrust outward almost majestically. Looking straight ahead, her eyes were half open. She was breathing deeply and purring softly, the picture of happy solitude. She wanted to be nowhere else in the world at that moment than sitting quietly in that box.

I know that cats are not self-aware. They probably can’t have anything resembling personal goals. But she’d solved a problem and fulfilled a strong desire in that moment. She was supremely at peace. Beatific, even. Looking at her, I thought, “That is what I’d like for myself, even for just a few moments, every single day.”

Then she hopped out of the box, ran over to the rug and started practicing small animal disembowelments with a tennis ball. It was good while it lasted.

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