Monday, August 05, 2013

Not as Bad as Woolsack Racing

The last time I participated in any official running group was close to ten years ago. Even though this said group was meeting at the nearly still-slumbering hour of 7:00 a.m. on a frigid upstate New York winter Sunday morning, I distinctly remember feeling very excited to join the ranks of runners in the 'Brian Baker 10 mile run' group. An invisible badge of pride cloaked my tired body as I trotted slightly behind this speedy group of athletes that morning. There were a few rules to contend with: 1)You don't stop running. For any reason. Despite the commonly understood definition of 'group run', connoting a run involving more than one runner, there was an understanding amongst regular participants that basically, every man was for himself on these group runs. A mutual friend relayed the story of a time when he arrived at Brian's house to discover the mercury had not quite reached the 1 degree mark yet. He had to tap on Brian's bedroom window to stir him out of bed. On this occasion, the run (always timed, naturally) started at a tardy 7:32. As the miles ticked on, my friend noticed his shoe became untied, and so he stopped to retie it. When he looked up, Mr. Baker's form could be seen far ahead in the distance. He had to sprint to catch up.(His pride has yet to recover.) Fast forward ten years to Albany, California. I have found an enjoyable group run that meets Sunday mornings at 8:00 a.m. There's a good mix of runners possessing a wide range of paces. This morning I chose to do the 8 mile run. The organizers had mini maps printed for each of the 3 different course distances. Though each group had a designated leader, I grabbed a map. Not that it would do much good, since the font was rather small, thus making the prospect of actually being able to read the street names while trying to hold the little map steady as I ran, a highly unlikely prospect. None of this deterred me from clinging to the little paper square of directives, possibly dreaming of the remote possibility of serving as the hero understudy should our fearless leader Ricardo have any unexpected mishaps along his course of duty. Since he started his tour running up Solano avenue backwards while monitoring his charges, this seemed like a real possibility. What began as a slight incline up Solano turned into a more serious uphill grade ascending Los Angeles Avenue. My breathing quickly became labored while lactic acid flooded my quads. At that precise crossroad of discomfort, a smiling fresh-faced young woman neatly trotted beside me. 'Is this the 5 mile run?' she asked cheerfully. I let her know I was doing the 8 mile run, and wasn't sure about the other courses. I tried to convey this information using as few words as possible, due to my compromised state of oxygen-deprivation. Oblivious to my plight, she instantly abandoned her plan to run the shorter distance in favor of joining me. 'This will be fine', she said with a toothy smile, 'I'm just going to take it easy today.' Hadn't Bill Rodgers used that trick as he passed his foes during the Boston Marathon? She proceeded to pick up the pace. We turned onto Spruce street and the course got steeper. It baffled me that her smile had not faded in the slightest. If anything, it intensified. It seemed to increase in direct proportion to the gradation increase. So did my grimace. Spruce street was an endless road which kept climbing higher. Tiny sprinkles of fog condensation misted my bare shoulders. I failed to appreciate their refreshing qualities. When we turned onto Grizzly Peak Boulevard and the course finally leveled out, I uncrumpled the map to check for our turnaround point. I was very impressed with how well the ink from the map was holding up- so different from my own printer's cheap ink copies. We arrived at our check-in spot, and started heading back down the hill. Life instantly improved. Breezing back down Grizzly Peak, I was able to hold a normal conversation with smiley. I discovered that she's a scientist who recently moved to the Bay Area. She gushed about how young and enthusiastic all the people she worked with were. As opposed to all of us old, resentful job-seekers, I thought. She asked what field I was in. I told her I recently went back to school for Early Childhood Education, and I was exploring classroom teaching and alternative curriculum with the goal of incorporating genuine (as opposed to theoretic) differentiated instruction which seeks to build on students' interests. 'So which end are you working in then, the schools or the design end?' 'I'm in the unemployed end', I replied, with a nervous giggle to break the awkward silence that followed. Just then another runner joined us and I decided to pick up the pace. I like downhills. I think my new running partners did too, as they quickly caught up to me and somehow we were all chatting together like it was second nature. So this story reminds me of an old Jewish folkloric tale. A man lamented to his rabbi one day that his house was too small and he asked for guidance. The rabbi told him to bring all of his farm animals into the house one by one. The man did so. His feelings of being cramped in his modest home increased. He lamented again to his rabbi, and the rabbi had him remove all the animals. The man was then content with his modest house. Sometimes you need a big hill to run up to appreciate how much you love running down hill.

Monday, July 22, 2013

A Poet Grows in Texas

On a cold and windy morning while trying to sell some old books at a group yard sale, my 5th grade student and I started talking about poetry. As an experiment, we composed a poem together based on the events of the otherwise calm day. The poem was recently published in the quarterly poetry and arts magazine, 'Voices de la Luna'.

How to Sell Your Junk

The pink metal glistened from inside the sagging cardboard box
We grabbed the swords and started fighting
My opponent blocked my first jab, grinning shyly
Her expression remained til the end of the war
A small crowd gathered to watch
The fight stopped, the crowd disappeared
‘We should fight,’ said smiley, ‘people come when we fight’
After all, it was a garage sale

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

I Don't Have a Favorite

This short piece was written in five minutes as an exercise in a poetry workshop. We were asked to respond to a featured poem, with the theme of recognizing a diamond in the rough. "I'm from Gre-nah-da. Do you know where that is?" "Yes. There's a girl in Ms. Rondeau's class from Gre-nay-da." "It's Gre-nah-da! Why did you say 'Gre-nay-da?" "Oh, I don't know. I always say it that way. I'm sorry. Gre-nah-da." Samoa was my favorite second grader. When I asked my reading group, 'Who knows what jazz is?' She pulled out her air-trumpet and started playing. When she was being reminded not to talk during the lesson, she said, 'You're ugly, Samoa!' But she was not. One winter day after school as I walked to the subway I saw her wolf hat ears bobbing up and down. She was holding her mother's hand. "Hi Samoa!" "Hi Ms.S.! This is my mom." We exchanged shy hellos. This was wrong. Samoa took my hand and her mother's hand and made us shake. Maybe it was time to hand over my teacher's hat to this seven year old.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Passover in San Antonio

It was early, definitely not lunchtime yet. I was sitting next to Juana, and then Yolanda’s family was all there too. Her husband was quiet, maybe that’s why he brought the bottled drinks. They were flavored like cocktails. He offered me one, and I politely declined. It was too early in the day for a strawberry daiquiri wine cooler. I remembered that I forgot to hide the afikomen. I thought to explain to everyone what that meant, but then realized it would just be much easier to hide it and tell the children to find it at some point. Passover with Catholics who spoke Spanish could be tricky. In truth, Juana wanted to use up her leftovers from Lucy’s party the night before. She invited me to join them for a brunch the following day. Since Passover was coming, I figured I may as well take advantage of the large group of people gathering. I could have just done a seder at home with Guy, but that did not seem very appealing. You can usually count on children to join in on the enthusiasm of ancient ritualistic dining. Guy could be iffy in that department. When I returned to the table, I saw somebody had placed an open mojito wine cooler by my plate. I smiled and took a sip to avoid offending. It tasted like spearmint soda. I started explaining about the purpose of Passover. It was nice to do it without the little booklet, so I could make up bits as I went. My Spanish is pretty horrible, so it’s very likely no one understood anything I was saying. After my explanation on the significance of eating flat bread on this holiday, I opened the box of Jerusalem matza. We had to go to three different HEBs to find one that carried Passover products. As I broke the square into pieces for everyone to try, Guy told me, “Uh oh Babe- it says here, ‘NOT KOSHER FOR PASSOVER’.” I considered explaining what that meant. Then as I passed the plate around, said: “Just ignore that. It’s fine.” I’ve come a long way from my restaurant heksher hunting days. I remembered my father’s suggestion to sing ‘Deiyeinu’ with them. Without introduction, I started singing it. When it came to the chorus, as I banged on the table in time to the tune, I looked encouragingly at the kids there. Immediately they all chimed in as though they’d been singing this song for generations. Then I opened the little jar of Boarshead horseradish. I shared the story of how my father would make it from scratch, and how its potency increased with each passing day. When guests came, he would innocently offer them a whiff, knowing that the strength of the product could give them a good head rush. I passed the bottle to Yolanda’s husband. He held it reverently, and took a cautious smell. He put a healthy dollop on his plate. Mexicans invented capsaicin. Conversations started splintering around the table. The seder momentum fizzled. Juana brought a jar of caramel spread from the pantry. The kids took turns spreading it on the unkosher matza. They finally understood its inherent beauty.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Excellence in All We Do

Things that make me really happy: running in races, races organized by the US military, and seeing kids feeling proud of their own accomplishments. Yesterday was a very good day.

Friday, January 18, 2013

The 'Other' Inbox

Years ago, when I was the kind of person who would pick up and move to Colorado with my beau of one month- in part, to benefit from altitude training, but mostly to give everyone something vaguely novel to talk about- I started appreciating how quotable kids are. My beau’s five year old was telling me that her birthday was January 6. Of course, I responded, ‘Oh, you’re a Capricorn.’ She said defiantly, ‘No I’m not, I’m a Catholic.’ Not long ago, while wasting time on Facebook I thought of that line, and like a good aunt, wanted to share it with the woman Shay had become. I found her instantly, and sent a message sharing the anecdote. I never heard back, and after several moments of believing everything we do in life is a complete waste of time, I forgot the incident altogether. Fast forward to a few weeks ago: Cupid’s bow found me and directed me to put all of my efforts into arranging a match for my friend Naomi. This task was made infinitely more challenging by the demographic of her pool of potential suitors. Single people from New York City have zero tolerance for – anything, really. So something as innocuous as displaying a vulnerable smile on a first date can be an instant deal-breaker. I felt ready for the challenge. Hadn’t I already conquered more treacherous waters? Had I not soldiered through completing sixty four reading assessments for our entire second grade class at my school the previous month? I can now recite ‘Edwin’s Haircut’ and ‘All About Koalas’ in my sleep; Ms. Jackson named me the ‘Running Records Queen’ after seeing me assessing in the hallway outside her classroom for two weeks straight. ‘A Shidduch for Naomi’; It could end up a new Fountas and Pinnell leveled reading title – help even out the cultural chasm in public school literacy. OK, so I plunge into my new assignment, and start to mine my pool of eligibles. It’s quite small, and sadly includes some men that are not in fact bonafide acquaintances- but no matter- I think intuition plays a big role in this art anyway (I’m hoping for Naomi’s sake that this is true.) So bachelor #1 takes a little convincing that Naomi a) Exists b) Has most of her teeth c)Can navigate the subway system without the assistance of a map. In other words, he wouldn’t agree to consideration of the match until offered the prerequisite Facebook link. So I complied, and didn’t blame him one bit for this seemingly superficial allowance. I think people instinctively feel suspicious of motives and/or quality of subjects in these types of situations. But Bachelor #1 seemed pleased with my offering, and bit the bullet and sent a message via Facebook to Naomi. But she never got it. And Bachelor #1 was very sensitive, and felt Naomi snubbed him since too much time had passed without him receiving a response from her. So he thanked me, and went about his merry way. And Naomi was puzzled, since she never received a message from Bachelor #1. And Naomi is a Virgo, and will toil until her fingers fall off to get to the bottom of an unsolved email mystery. And that is how she discovered the inconspicuous link in her Facebook inbox to a special group of overlooked emails marked ‘other’; which roughly translates to email from people who are not official members of Facebook. And, voilĂ  ! Mystery solved, there was Bachelor #1’s message, right next to Bacheleor #2’s, and fifteen junk email messages that would have little affect on her future happiness. For you eternal romantics out there, stay tuned for the ending of that story- for those still wanting to know what happened with the Capricorn Catholic- I excitedly (after much tutoring from a now savvy Naomi) found my own Facebook ‘other’ box- and found a very odd assortment of 18 potentially life-changing messages, which had been awaiting my reply for up to two years. I will share one: a German foreign-exchange student from my junior year in high school wanted to know if I remembered her. I vaguely remembered a pleasant if fleeting friendship in which two teenage girls shared a common angst during walks by the millstream in Woodstock, trying to work through the bad behavior of the grown-ups associated with them. One day she revealed that her adopted American mother was very critical of her, and made mean personal comments about her. I quietly listened, feeling very empathetic. She then shared that her mother was just crazy, and she had things to say about me as well. Alarmed, I asked cautiously what she had said. My friend told me her mother was driving one day and saw me walking to town talking to myself. In my defense, I performed in a lot of community theatre in those days, so could easily have been rehearsing my lines. But knowing me, I was too self-conscious to risk a passing yenta mistaking me for a person who talked to themselves; so I was more likely singing to myself, but doing it discreetly so that no outsiders would pass judgment. Those critics! Those critics!! May they all be banished to the other box and left unanswered and unheard. I do like the idea of the ‘other’ box though. An alternate destiny in---The Twilight Zone.