Monday, June 24, 2013

At the dentists’ office. "BRIGHT NOW! Dental." Not for me, though I need it, but for Mrs. Ditchman, who is having four wisdom teeth removed, and I suspect she will be none the wiser for it. She hasn't eaten in twelve hours. She hasn't had water in twelve hours. Don't mess with her.

“BRIGHT NOW!” implies a speedy sort of service, catering to those with immediate needs of a dingy mouth, but after we dropped the kids off at the sitter we got a call that informed us of an hour delay. Add to it the typical hour of delay you usually get at a dentist's office, and, well, you end up sitting in the waiting room, broodily ruminating over the big, sunny, illuminated-from-behind sign on the wall: BRIGHT NOW! I may be here all afternoon.

Someone else here is named "Marci." When the name is called, two people start and one person responds. I see this as a serious problem, and nudge Marci about it, (my Marci.) I submit to her that the other Marci is gonna be pretty surprised when they hold her down, put her under, and she wakes up with a bloody mouth and fewer teeth, but my Marci doesn't seem concerned. I guess she thought it through and figured that she had nothing else to lose, since there's no worse thing that could happen here than having four teeth removed, but I'm thinking how about maybe, eight teeth? Ten teeth? It would be prudent to ask the other Marci what she's in for, but my Marci just pats my leg.

Minutes pass, with time-filling paperwork and deep, mouth-watering soul-searching, and we hear a big truck rumble to a stop out front. Someone behind the counter yells to the back, “THE OXYGEN'S HERE!” and a burly guy with a nice smile wheels some tanks in. “Oh, good,” Mrs. Ditchman muttered. “You’re gonna need that,” I add. And then another big diesel rumbles up. A paramedic. “Let’s hope you don’t need that,” I joke. She just looks at me. Unfunny husband strikes again. And then a woman in a lab coat comes and takes her away.

I have been informed that I cannot leave the room for the duration of my wife’s visit, though they don’t actually tell me why. I assume it’s a liability thing, where she will not be allowed to drive herself home, of course, but I can’t shake the thought that the next time the woman in the lab coat opens the door, she’s going to get my attention and whisper, “There’s been a few complications...” But, no, everything will be fine, I’m sure. It’s just standard procedure. That, and fresh, just-off-the-truck oxygen.

I'm not sure when it began, but I’ve always been suspicious of dentists, who demand their bi-annual checkup with rigorous enamel-grinding cleanings. Then they announce that you have a few extra teeth, that they should be removed, and that it’s gonna set you back a few thousand dollars. Why did God make me with extra teeth? Why can’t I just go on using them? Some things are left unclear, in life, but then I’m a doubter -speaking as someone who still has his wisdom teeth, his appendix, his tonsils, his gall bladder, his kidneys, et al. (If I could have anything removed it might be my libido, which has kept me from thinking clearly all my life. Just think of how much I could get done without it! -oh hey, a hot girl just walked in the waiting room...)

No, they won’t let me leave, not even for a moment. And there is no free coffee and no table and no WiFi. Just twenty chairs lined on grey walls, facing each other. And yet there is a dreamy Starbucks on the other side of the parking lot -just mocking me- whose WiFi signal I am not registering because of the dental x-ray-proof lead shielding in this building, or some such thing. But it’s not me who’s gonna leave here drooling and slurring the rest of the livelong day, so I will shut up and be grateful. Dive in full-laptop, with no outside influence.


Actually sooner than later, the dreaded person with the clipboard and the lab coat enters, makes eye contact with no one, and summons loudly, "DRIVER FOR MARCI?" and (assuming we are talking about the same "Marci") that's me. Ten years of a good strong marriage, child-rearing, business entrepreneur and all, and I have been reduced to "driver", but it's only one of my many roles, I know. I raise a finger and she motions me to follow her back, into the chamber of horrors.

And I am not kidding about that. It's a long hallway with doorless rooms, and I pass them all, failing to resist the urge to glance in. On one side of me I see, laying head-back in a long, stiff chair, a smoker (I can smell her) with no front incisors, and a masked man with heady tools stands over her with both fists in her mouth. Her eyeballs rotate at me as I pass. On my left, there's a young black girl in a tight green shirt, moaning breathlessly, with bloody gauze on a table behind her head, the surgeon is nearby, on the phone, talking loudly, above her voice. The girl in the lab coat, leading me down the hall, looks back at me and smiles cheerfully, "Right this way!" and doctors and their assistants hop rightward and forth, not making eye contact.

I reach a stark, clean room with two posters. One poster shows a soulless set of teeth and gums, and warns of the ever-present dangers of periodontal disease. The other is of a beach. The Caribbean, I presume, with its clear turquoise waters and its fine white sand. There is no life in the frame, just sand and water. Just slow, imperceptible erosion. On a bright sunny day. Like what's happening in your mouth.

Also in the room is my beautiful wife, laying back in a chair, with one of those undersized airplane blankets on her, and looking like a pathetic cheek-stuffed gerbil after a recent cat-attack. Poor thing. She sees three of me.

My wife is long-in-the-tooth, so to speak, and the dentists prefer you break these things out when you're twenty and young, and you haven't yet had a chance to break them in, so it's a trial to have your wisdom teeth removed while in your thirties. The doctor said it was a clean operation. No problems. But her eyes are shaking back and forth, like from an old cartoon.

"How are you doing?" I ask, failing pathetically at sounding chipper.

She takes my hand, for comfort. She never does this. "All I saw was a circus," she said. I'm not sure what she means, but later I gathered that after the drugs kicked in, all she could take in was a frenzy of eyes and hands over her head. She's still not sure what happened. Before she went under, she heard a man in another room have a violent episode of gag reflex, and then a minute of chaos that followed. (She reported that he had no memory of it when he came to, happily asking how it all went.) She asked if that's why they weren't supposed to eat anything beforehand, and the doctors nodded. And then... out.

And now, here she was, my poor wife, with a mouthful of bloody gauze, moving listlessly like a sick iguana, or some near-extinct earth-bound tree sloth. She had a prescription for painkillers taped to her shoulder, making her appear abandoned, fodder for the goodwill of any potential caretaker who happened by.

"I'm glad you're here. And not my mom," she says.

I took this as a compliment, and then spent the next hour sitting quietly with her in the cold room, listening to the plaintive cries of nearby patients going unheeded, while Marci slowly came to. 

She did, eventually, and built up strength to her legs, and then her feet. I was instructed to pull the car around to the back of the building, into a handicap space, and the girl in the lab coat would take her and meet me there. Feeling helpless, I obeyed, and I exited out the front door -not without noticing the bright-eyed, unwitting patients blithely looking up to me as I entered the waiting room. I see, now, I thought. They don't want THEM to see...

We got my wife in the car and I was careful to not drive in any nausea-inducing manner, as dumb husbands are prone. I thought about how it was going to be a haul, getting through the rest of the day and then the night, and keeping the three kids out of her face. And I thought about how little Lincoln had finally gotten the bulk of his teeth in, and how I figured we were over the hump on teeth for a while, but we weren't, evidently.

When I finally got Serena in bed, she sweetly asked if Mommy was going to put her teeth under the pillow, for the Tooth Fairy. "I don't think so," I said. "The dentist kept them."

And she stopped, rolled over and looked away, to the wall. She was sad. I could see the insoluble problem on her face: why would the dentist keep the teeth?

And so began the distrust of all dentists, everywhere.


Friday, June 14, 2013

We do stories at bedtime. We have always done stories at bedtime. But Mrs. Ditchman is better at it than I, as I have been doing the story for Keaton lately, and we have been reading Doomworld, which is a volume of old Marvel comic books that were created after the original Star Wars film, continuing the adventures of the young Luke Skywalker and Han Solo and Princess Leia and their robot and wookie homies. They're awful, if you're wondering, and good bedtime reading they do not make. I never reconciled the cliffhanger thirty years ago, and had always wondered what happened. So I got the Dark Horse reprint off of Amazon. (Don't.) Mrs. Ditchman likes it less than me, for the record, but Keaton seems to enjoy it. I don't think he pays attention, really, but demand it he does, night after night. There are seven volumes. God help us.

Serena is reading the Magic Tree House series, which are proper books. There are about fifty of them now, and those crazy kids keep on climbing up into the tree house and finding somewhere in time -somewhere awesome and didactic- to whisk off to and explore, (while the author stays home and cashes in the millions.) But the little books are good, and the Little Ditchman reads them to us now, as it goes. Anyway, I like the history lessons, and it gets everything in school connected, as it should be. 

So tonight she asked me if the Magic Tree House books were "fiction" or "non-fiction", which was an excellent question. "They're fiction," I said. "But the historical parts are non-fiction, though they are fictionalized. Which means that the settings and the people were real, but what they did was made up." And then she asked me, "What does fiction mean?" and I realized we had to backtrack a bit. Sometimes we have the words, but we don't know what we are talking about. (I thought: This, kid, will never change, and you will encounter it all the rest of your days. But, never you mind. Anyway...)

"Fiction is not real. It's the stuff in your imagination. Non-fiction is real," I said.

"Oh," she said with an attitude that she already knew this. And she added, "The Star Wars comic books. Those are fiction."

"Yes," I said.

"And the Bible?"

And here we are. Already. She's seven. And, for what it's worth, I'm forty-three. I've got to have a good answer for this. The Bible. Fiction or Non-Fiction?

"Well, uh..."

I am not a Creationist, though I do believe in the literal power of the figurative word. And I find it easy to accept the historical accuracy of much of the biblical text, and yet it is a profound leap of faith -the most enduring of its kind- to accept that Jonah was swallowed by a whale, or that Jacob wrestled an angel, or that the Tree of Life was guarded by a flaming sword... And here I paused... (Which is a wisdom I have gained over the years.)

And the impatient child interrupted my ruminating with another question: "What about my mathbook?"

An easy one, at last. "Oh, that's neither fiction nor non-fiction. That's a book for learning. That's a textbook." And, here, I was handed the answer by my seven-year-old. 

"Like the Bible," she said with the Wisdom of the Ages.

And there we were. 


Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Dammit! I was just thinking about him! I wrote it here only a few weeks ago, and it spiraled out into the netherverse, and Death himself took notice. (Yes, I have that much influence.) It is so weird, to me. You say it here, and it comes out -tragically- there. And he never finished his list.

But I must point out the title of the LA Times obit: "Adventurer Fulfills Most of Childhood Goals". Yes. Most. I consider this a wild lifetime accomplishment. As most of us have only one or two of them, and yet, never get around to (either) one. He had a list of 127 childhood goals. He got to 120. And if you think that old age slowed him down, when he was 61 he was at #108.

He gladhanded peril; kayaking down the Nile, running combat missions in World War 2, setting speed records in experimental aircaft, and milking rattlesnakes on the side -and the great adventurer John Goddard enthusiastically tells stories about it all, and since he's lived most of them himself, he deserves to. But I like the one where a guy comes backstage after a lecture on SCUBA diving, saying he'd always wanted to dive. Then, a year later, the same man comes backstage after a lecture on mountaineering, to say that he'd always wanted to climb. Then the following year, the same man came backstage after a lecture on skydiving. But Goddard was prepared.

"Don't say it," he said. "Next Saturday at eight AM there is a parachuting course out at Lake Elsinore. Here's the phone number."

The man told Goddard he couldn't possibly do it. He was too busy. He couldn't afford it. But that Saturday night, he phoned Goddard and said, "I did it. When that chute blossomed over me today, it was the greatest moment of my life."

Death. Adventure. What's to say about it? Except that the latter is ill-defined without the former. I wanted adventure when I was young. And I must say I got a little, but it left me lonely, so I opted for something else: Wife. Children. The Suburbs. And I also must say, if you can believe it, that it was all more treacherous than I expected. And perhaps that is my weakness: that I didn't expect it. ("Marry and have children" is #126 on Goddard's list, by the way. He checked it off. Six kids.)

The secret to the fulfilling list, John Goddard claimed, was that he would lay in bed at night, with his eyes closed, and picture himself, for example, shooting deadly rapids. "If I capsize, what are my options? I run through them in meticulous detail. Then, when I'm actually on the river, I've rehearsed it so often in my mind that I know just what to do. I pre-visualize my goals." And what about walking on the moon? (Goal #125)

"My word, yes! I love pre-visualizing myself on the moon, bouncing along in my space suit, weighing twenty-nine pounds."

I, for one, believe him. Because I have no idea what I weigh on the moon, and have never gone through the effort to figure it out, much less internalize it. But some nights I lay in bed and pre-visualize how I am going to get through the work day tomorrow with a good attitude. I picture myself with the tools, smiling, coming to terms with the fact that I don't know everything, but that I have the ability to find out the answers, if I have to. I remind myself that I am a simple man, and a slow learner, and that I just have to be patient in the trough, between the crest of each swell. That I have nothing to lose but time and money, which I can always make back. It does the job, sometimes.

We can't all be adventurers, or should be. Goddard himself went through two wives before finding the third that understood him. Sacrifices were made. I can only imagine the pain involved, and that was spread around. They don't write about that in the obituary. And those distant wives, those old commitments? They weren't interviewed on the subject. Goddard defined himself with a goofy List, and that's what he's remembered for.

I will be remembered for nothing so interesting. But I would like to be remembered as being devoted to my family, as a man with integrity, as a man who was mostly honest, as a man who appreciated the hard, patient work of a productive garden. I suspect none of this will make the LA Times, but the God I believe in might be impressed by it. I don't know. I hope so. I guess my list is different. And if my God is real, He won't be impressed that John Goddard jumped out of airplanes. But that one guy who Goddard encouraged to? I suspect something significant happened there.

Still. Pathetic as I am, I dream of seeing the Nile. Maybe my wife would join me. Maybe someday, after the kids move out. We don't need to milk cobras or hang with headhunters, I just want to see the pyramids. They're so cool-looking, you know? All tall and pointy. But it's not important.

"It's ridiculous to tippy-toe through life." Read it to the end to understand John Goddard.

But I'm not like that.


Sunday, May 12, 2013

I haven't had a drink in a week. I've been replacing it with mineral water (and a splash of lime!) to fill my stomach at night, after the kids are in bed. You know, to unwind.

It's a "cleanse". Seems people are into "cleansing" these days. They'll banish gluten and soft drinks and soft cheeses from their diet. Go all veggie. Puree the greens and sip it down three times a day. See if they feel any better. That doesn't sound cleansing to me. I'd rather suck down a carafe of WD-40.

But, hey, to each his own. I'm also running every day. I do this from time to time. I claim it's to keep me in check, but there's more to it than that. I want to focus on something dumb for a while. Change up the routine. I want to see if life is different from how I regularly perceive it. I want to find where my body is at. And I want to show everyone that I can. And pathetic, it can be.

I didn't tell anyone, not even my wife. I did this, I think, because I was worried that I might give in after a long hot work day and indulge in -horror of horrors- a beer or two. I started on a Sunday, at church, where these things usually occur to me, and the truth came out around Wednesday, when Mrs. Ditchman noticed I was acting strangely. On Friday, she was thinking about opening a bottle of wine and I said, "I'm not going to have any, but you can." To which she responded, "DO YOU HAVE TO PUNISH US ALL?!"

On Saturday, which I knew was going to be the toughest day because all five of us are home for the duration, I caved and had a beer at the end of the day. It was my beer, one that I'd made and had been aging, and I was dying to try it. It was good. And I had another. So, in the end, I bragged that I had only had two beers all week, and it was beer that I had made myself. This impressed no one.

I love beer. I do. I love wine, too. (I love it more, actually, but good beer is cheap, compared to good wine. These aluminum patio covers don't allow me the choice.) I am fascinated by it all; the recipes, the trends, the tradition. I like the bitterness, which is an adult flavor. And I like the buzzing high from the alcohol, which is an adult sensibility.

And sometimes, I admit, I have been known to drink too much. It is a very shaky path. One of the big lessons in life is learning when enough is Enough. God has built into us insatiability, and we should ponder its benevolent characteristics. But we not only want more of a good thing. We humans, sadly, want more of even a half-good thing, if we are but half-developed.

And alcohol is that. It is a half-good thing. If you've ever been drunk, you know this. We kid ourselves that it's all good because it has been around for eons and, some argue, may have been the one thing that galvanized the advancement of technological civilization, and so our indulgement in it is justified by the ages. But the truth is, it is merely testament to our inherent, perfectly human fallibility -that we cannot control ourselves, however hard we try. Alcohol is here as a test. Can you rise above it? Can you transcend both its blessings and its pitfalls?

So I took some time off the drink, and I was a little surprised by the cravings. I did have cravings, and at the same time every day. It was like having to turn off a reflex, which wasn't too difficult, but then I felt a prolonged craving for sugar, which is when I knew that this could be a serious physical problem.

Alcohol is a mutated, transformed version of sugar, if you didn't know. I say, "if you didn't know" because your body may not know this. So it asks for sugar. And I was looking for old Easter candy before bedtime, and I found this mildly alarming. But in a day or two, it passed. And then I found myself just wanting a relaxing buzz, to drown out the pained, plaintive sounds of the hurried and worried day, and this was easier to quell, with a Pellegrino and an early bedtime.

I don't drink the hard stuff. Though I have, in the past, been wryly amused by a wildly shaken gin martini, or the smooth, peaty scent of a fine whisky, I have never pursued it. Maybe it's because I am a Pisces. I like to drink. I like to swallow liquid. The hard alcohol stuff denies me that pleasure, and there are more places to stumble on that path than are first apparent. (In the coming months I may give up coffee for a week, though I fear I am not so brave.)

The week is over, and I admit I am glad of it. I like my beer at the end of the day. And I told my wife that if I ever drink too much, she should tell me. And then I told her I would fight it a bit, but then relent, because I knew what was right, and, at the end of the day, I am weak.

Friday, May 3, 2013

The truth cannot be buried. It claws, tooth and nail, to the surface, and punches its outstretched hand skyward, like in an old zombie movie. The truth wants air, and it wants light, and it will move ever-forward to get it. It cannot be stopped. And, like those noir zombies, it is immortal. 

If we ever feel we have buried the truth completely, then it is a lie we tell ourselves, as we only bury it skin-deep, in our hearts. Other hearts demand their piece of it, and so they will claw their way in, into your heart. And if some truths are taken to the grave, then when God Himself meets you there on The Other Side, it's the first thing He demands you hand over.

Some truths are not buried entirely, but locked away, placed in ambiguously numbered crates and stored in a warehouse of a thousand other secrets, like the Ark of the Covenant in that first Indiana Jones movie. These truths are too dangerous to be fully known, too powerful to be shared, too horrifying to admit, too embarrassing to be set free. But we keep the keys to the warehouse, just in case. These may be truths we can use some day, we lie to ourselves, piling on.

Here is a story I have never told anyone:

I lied to my father, years ago, and I was an adult -or so I thought. I had borrowed some of his nice 35mm camera gear for a trip to Great Britain. It was the last day of the trip, and we were driving back to London. We had just departed Stonehenge, a hundred kilometers back, and I noticed I was missing a lens. It was a good Zuiko lens; expensive, heavy, made of black metal and perfectly hewn glass. I remember it very well: 50mm, f1.4. A nice lens, if you know anything about lenses. With such a low f-stop, it could see through the dark without the aid of any artificial illumination.

Anyway, I must have set the lens on the roof of the car when I switched to my telephoto, and when we drove off, I suspect it rolled into the tall grass. My friend asked me if I wanted to go back for it, and I said, no. too far. And we kept driving. Driving down the wrong side of the road, in England.

Well, my dad asked me about it several times over the years, and I always claimed that I had it, somewhere, but I never admitted that it was in safekeeping on the other side of the planet, hidden amongst the age-old Celtic reeds of Stonehenge. And I never told him the truth because I was afraid of him. It was the nature of our relationship, where the truth never felt safe between us.

Ten-long years later my dad and I got into an argument. My parents were getting older, old, and we had to move he and my mom to a smaller apartment -which is a difficult thing- and I was trying to help, but he yelled at me, apropos of nothing, "and you lost my camera lens when you went to Europe!" And I stopped. He had always known it. And then, because I was a fool, and not yet a mature adult, I re-stated the lie: No, I didn't lose it! I still have it in my closet somewhere! And then the argument moved on to other, more forgettable things. But we continued to burn. No, we smoldered.

Then, a year or so after that, I was chatting with my brother, who was living with my dad at the time, and I asked him how dad was doing, because my dad was getting infirm and distracted, and I was worried about him. My brother said, "He wants some camera lens back. He says you have it." So, after more than ten years, in the name of a twenty-year old, pre-digital, old-school camera that was nearly obsolete, I piled on. I went to a used-photography equipment store and bought an old Zuiko 50mm f1.4 lens sitting on a glass shelf. I remember the dealer was trying to sell me the f1.2, the best lens of all, for a great price, but I wouldn't have it. I plopped down a few hundred dollars and walked out with the lens. I gave it to my brother and told him to give it to dad. He did. And then, later, I asked him what my dad's response was, and my brother said, "It's funny. He looked down at it. He rolled it over in his hands. And he seemed kind of sad." Less than a year later, my father died.

That was nearly a decade ago, and today I am the caretaker of that lens, and the lies I told about it. I had eventually inherited the camera gear, and with it I inherited a store-hall of insufferable truth that I am doomed to keep with me to the end of my own days. The truth about the 50mm, f1.4 lens is a small one, but through that lens goes a dim, focused light, and through that lens everything is properly exposed.


Wednesday, May 1, 2013

I made a list. Sometimes it just comes to that. People who don't make lists mock list-making, so I want to stop you right there. I made a list of 13 things and by the end of the weekend I had accomplished and crossed out twelve of them. I showed the crossed-off list to Mrs. Ditchman on a Sunday night before bedtime and she took a step back, thought for a second, and then said, "Wow. That's pretty good."

So I was very proud of myself. The next day I made another list, starting with the one thing I didn't accomplish from the previous list. This list had about twenty things on it, so I had substantially upped the ante. But I was overconfident, and only got to cross off about half of them. Discouraged, I did not show Mrs. Ditchman this list.

After about two weeks, I had it down to two uncrossed things, so I made a new list. It's Thursday now, and I don't think I've got anything crossed off.

I believe I made a few mistakes with this list. Some of the things were just too big. I mean, you can't write MAKE MONEY on the list. Oh, it's a good idea and all, but it has no place on a list. I mean, when are you ever gonna realistically be able to cross that one off?

Another mistake is putting things on the list like REMODEL BATHROOM. Yes, we all agree that it's something that definitely needs to be done, but a list like that needs to be framed and nailed to a wall. I mean, you're gonna have that list around for a couple years.

Third mistake: putting weekly chores on the list. Unless you're certain the entire list can be accomplished, signed off, and thrown away, don't put FILL YARD WASTE BIN on the list. Because if you fill the yard waste bin and then cross it off the list, and then you don't finish the list in a week, your just gonna have to write that on  the list again. And then you're stuck in a Mobius Loop with the list. A Mobius List. It's what you're always in when it comes to things like household chores, loving your spouse, and weight loss. 

The key to a good list is to put really simple things on it. Not things you were going to do anyway, but things that you've been meaning to do but only take about twenty minutes. This way, you can rationalize "wasting" twenty minutes on something for the sheer purpose or goal of crossing the thing off the list. Because the whole goal of making a list is to be able to successfully and righteously cross things off the list. It's more satisfying than doing the task, really. Hey, you could be crossing something off a list right now, but here you are reading this. STOP. Whatever you're doing, put READ SEAN'S DUMB BLOG on your list right now, read the following few paragraphs, and then cross it off the list. You'll feel much better.

When I was in kindergarten, I lived up the street from a guy named John Goddard. Maybe you've heard of him. I met him once or twice, when I was a kid, and I remember him speaking at my school, my church, the local library. My mom knew him, and I think my older sisters went to high school with his kids. Anyway, for all the awesome things John Goddard eventually became famous for, he will be most remembered for his List. When he was fifteen he made a list of 127 things. A big list! Anyway, he's about 90 years old now, and has crossed off 109 of them. Here's the list. Best list ever.

I'm not that ambitious. I've got things on the list like REPAIR SIDE GATE and FIX DINING ROOM PICTURE FRAME and ADD LAWN SPRINKLER. But I'm gonna do these things. I'm gonna do all of them. And then I'm gonna cross them all off the list, crumple it up in my fist and toss it in the trash. Take that John Goddard! Ha! I finished my list! Let's just see you get to the South Pole at your advanced age!

After I throw the list away, I won't ever have to think about those things again, and this is not to be underestimated. I've found over the years that I spend more energy fretting about all the things that need to be done around here, than I do when I actually do the thing. As you get older, you find you need to conserve energy. And if the only way to do it is to fake yourself out and make a list, and then make crossing the things off the list more important than the actual things on it, then it's worth it. Because none of this stupid stuff really matters in the long run, anyway. Save your energy for the important things in life. The unexpected stuff. The serious stuff. You're gonna need energy for all that.

If all of life was simply about crossing things off a list, I think we'd all be happier people. No, seriously.


Sunday, April 28, 2013

I'm still beating myself up over it.

A view from the course, seconds before the finish line. I was thinking of making a series:

And a half-second later a tired, uncoordinated, sweaty finger caught my earbud wire and the iPhone flung end-over-end out of my hands and into the air. I was mid-stride, and took a few steps before I caught myself, turned, and abashedly retrieved the thing. It was a grassy end-strip at the finish, so there was no damage. But you should have been there.

It is a good thing to run hard for thirteen miles, give it your all, and then experience the personal triumph of the finish line, with your best time at that distance. It is another thing entirely to reach the finish line and do something so dopey that it inspires a collective, dispirited OOOOOOOOOOHHHHHH from the spectators. No, I'm serious. It's what happened. I was about to cross the finish line, and I dorkily pulled out my camera-phone, and then dropped it, and then had to go back and get it, and hundreds of people went OOOOOOOOOOHHHHHH, and the announcer made a joke, "SEE LADIES AND GENTLEMEN? THIS IS WHY YOU NEED YOUR OWN CAMERA CREW TO FOLLOW YOU DURING THE RACE." At which point I raised my arms triumphantly, or defiantly, and crossed the finish line. It took about seven seconds off my finish time.

Which ordinarily wouldn't have mattered. But I had, this year, set a half-marathon goal of 1:39:00.

Back in 1998, 15 years ago, when I was so depressed and had failed professionally at all my passions, I took on running as a way to clear my head and find some self-control. I was in a pretty bad space. I remembered liking running in my youth, and later getting kicked off the  track team in high school for various disciplinary reasons. But in my twenties I'd been inspired to run a marathon by an old friend who was no runner. This guy was a pale, bookish-type writer, who had the body-shape of a fire hydrant, and yet he was so inspired by the grand endeavor of The Marathon, that his passion had, at long last, sunk into me and lit a spark down under. So I was finally going to do it, too. Conquer a few demons. Show that old high school coach that I really had it in me. I was 28 years old. I was lost. But then I ran my first race: a Half Marathon. My time was 1:39:00.

So here I was, 15 years later. I've run 19 full marathons, now. I'm a changed man, and an older and wiser one. I've got a real job, now. I got a life. But I am getting a bit faster, in spite of everything, and I had this wild idea to beat that dumb twenty-something's time from my way back when: the young, stupid, carefree, lost me, from fifteen years ago.

There I am at the finish line in beautiful La Jolla, California. My three kids safe at home, and my sweet, surefooted wife a few miles behind me. And then there I am lamely dropping my cameraphone and going back for it. When I collected myself, finished, and finally hit the STOP on my RunKeeper app, the time read -I'm not kidding- 1:38:59. So I was going to have to wait for the official results to roll in over the wire. I spent a serious amount of time examining the location of the chip-timing registers, and trying to recall if I had pressed START too early, or STOP too late. Seconds mattered! Zooming in on the photo, you can see the gun time clock reading 1:39:07. But, even though I was in the first wave of runners, I was a bit behind the early pack, (I am not an elite runner) and these seconds become important as you begin to find yourself in the sport. So I waited, and considered it all. But... really?

Then why did you pull out your stupid camera phone RIGHT AT THE FINISH LINE?

I guess I don't know what's important to me anymore. Because, when I finally did cross the finish line, the first thing that went through my head was I wish I had shot video, because that was a hilarious, priceless, YouTube moment: I'm seconds away from achieving my goal time and I do something so stupid that THE CROWD GROANS -it's the stuff ABC's Wide World of Sports is made of.

So I still see things from a storyteller's perspective. And it is a curse. I cannot be still in the moment. I cannot bask in the glory or the beauty or even the personal achievement of life, without considering the placement of the camera, the angle of the light, the showmanship of the subject, or the literal superlatives to describe it so that those not present can one day understand. Even though I spend the bulk of my days raising my children and raising high the roof beams of some retired suburbanite's aluminum patio cover, I still can't help but be bothered by the Third Eye, the watchful faceless outsider of my second-self. Hell, I sit on the toilet and imagine myself onstage, sometimes. I am forever bothered by the all-seeing perspective of The Author and his sentiment.

There may be a quiet wonder of a man in your life who takes it all in, who lampshadedly stands back at cocktail parties and observes, who listens happily, and seeks the story of your drama, but who -if you're lucky, and he is a man of good will- carefully cherry-picks the bad moments of gracelessness, pity, mistake and self-doubt in your life, and then surreptitiously whiles away some private time to highlight your strengths and create the arc of your character, and then embolden the drama and heighten the action of your final story. He's the man who writes your biography, shoots your biopic, and pens your obituary. And you are unwittingly doomed to treat him right.

And, shit, sometimes I think that guy is supposed to be me.