August 29, 2012

Love and friendship

Most change comes with a side of discomfort. Some change comes with pain, and this is one of those times. Kristy and I are no longer a couple.

Though we talk throughout the week, because of work and other commitments, we usually only get to see each other on the weekends. For the past month and a half, things came up in our schedules that kept us apart. The physical separation only accentuated the feeling that something was coming between us.

Though we both felt that something was wrong, I don't think either of us wanted to broach the subject, knowing where the conversation might lead. We finally talked about it a week or so ago, opening with the simple question of, "does this silence feel awkward?" We talked about what had been going on over the last few months, how things seemed to have changed, and what our future(s) looked like. No vases or insults were hurled at each other. It was mature and reasonable. And all too painful.

We agreed that there were certain issues, bits of our personalities and other differences that would continue to plague us. Neither of us felt it necessary to go through any sort of listing of grievances, willing to accept that they were there, and not feeling it necessary to point them out to each other. Strangely, without even going into detail about our issues, I have a better understanding of them than after seven years of marriage, and four months of counseling.

In a different time, we may have been able to work it out. But at this point, I need to change my life fairly dramatically, and it was not fair to the relationship, or either one of us individually, to continue it half-heartedly. We both deserve a partner that is fully committed, both to the relationship and a common future, and neither should settle for less.

I have tried to remain friends with the women I have previously dated, but it has never really worked out. Most of the time, I worked with my former girlfriends, so we were forced to deal with the break up on a daily basis. Kristy and I do not work together, but we are both in the same tight group of friends. A week after we broke up, we both attended a birthday party where most of the people had no idea we were no longer a couple. On the outside, everything seemed fine, but we were both in pain.

We actually spent the next day together as well, and it was a fraction better. We spent the afternoon in the sun, floating in the deep end of a pool, trying out casual conversation as if the last week, or last year and a half weren't sitting on our shoulders. Later on, we were able to talk a bit more deeply about last Sunday. Things that still made sense, but that didn't erase the feelings we have for each other.

Kristy and I began as friends, and we desperately want to remain good friends even though our relationship has ended. Before we started dating a year and a half ago, we worried about sacrificing our friendship for the chance at something more. When we took the plunge, we told ourselves that we simply wouldn't do anything to jeopardize what we already had. Now we are having to make that promise come true.

I think we have a good shot at it, but it will be painful for a while. The breakup was mature and mutual, but just because the head knows that something makes sense, the heart doesn't always understand. Or agree for that matter. The feelings remain, even if they are no longer appropriate.

Even though it didn't work out, I am so glad we tried. Already close as friends, it was a new and wonderful experience to become that much closer to her. To add love to friendship, rather than exchange it. Though we found out things about ourselves that were in conflict, I didn't learn anything that changed my opinion of what a wonderful person she is.

It is just going to be hard for a while. For both of us.

August 20, 2012

Envy and ambition

A tranquil heart gives life to the flesh,
but envy makes the bones rot. 

~ Proverbs 14:30

Wanting to be someone else
is a waste of the person you are.

~ Kurt Cobain

I have lived my life almost entirely free of envy. Now, I am guilty of plenty of other sins, pride in the lack of envy being one of them. Comparing myself to others, it just has never held much meaning to me. There is plenty to worry and work on when it comes to my own life. Whether or not I am doing better or worse than another is pretty much irrelevant.

If one of my friends or a complete stranger is doing particularly well, I begin with the assumption that they have worked hard and made certain sacrifices to get there. This is not always the case, but if it is just dumb luck that got them there, it doesn't really change how it relates to me. Being envious of others only serves to make you miserable and unappreciative of what you already have.

And I have a lot. The reason envy has not been a part of my life is because I already have so much. Just by the fortune of birth, I live in a place where life is easier than most of the rest of the world. But beyond the fact that I don't have to worry about clean water, police states and holy wars on a daily basis, I grew up in a family that seemed exceptional as I grew and learned what others had.

From the outside, we didn't look unique. We weren't rich and we weren't poor. Voices weren't raised and punishments were few. The lessons weren't overt, but somehow we learned how to do the right thing. But in the spaces in between, something seemed different, special. I felt respected, as well as loved by my parents. Our extended family including aunts, uncles and cousins not only loved each other, but actually liked each other enough to gather nearly every month. Though the monthly gatherings don't happen any more, we still like each other enough to spend an entire week together, just like we have every summer for more than 30 years.

Now, of course it wasn't all Brady Bunch perfection. My brother and I fought constantly. It never rose to the level of hate, but there were certainly times when we just couldn't stand each other. Looking back on it as an adult, I think it was that we did not understand each other. I had lots of acquaintances in high school, but few close friends. It wasn't terrible, but it was lonely, and I do not pine to relive those days like so many seem to. My parents divorced when I was in the fifth or sixth grade. It was an incredibly difficult time for them, but they never put us in the middle, or made us feel at fault. Even so, it rocked my center of gravity, and probably changed me in ways I am still not aware of. But with a little tv story magic, my parents remarried after a decade apart, and have been together again for the last twenty years.

All in all, it felt like I had it pretty damn good, and to dismiss my good fortune with jealousy and envy would be offensive somehow. What more could I ask for when I had so much already? Living without envy not only made me appreciate what I had, it kept those poisonous thoughts out of my head. Tearing someone else down does nothing to lift you up. a life without envy and feeling fortunate for all that I had, probably let too much complacency into my life. Whether or not we have it good already, we should still be striving toward bettering ourselves and our situation. Of course, "better" means something different to everyone, and some people take this to an extreme and can never be satisfied. I think I have the opposite problem.

I have a great life in so many ways. I am blessed by my wonderful family. I have somehow managed to develop a core set of friends in two different places. I have my health, and though my body is starting to show its age, I do my best to keep this vessel I so appreciate in good shape. But in other ways, I feel like a terrific failure, and I know I can do better. I can be greatly unsatisfied with part of my life, without losing sight of how lucky I am. Some changes have already happened, not all of them good, but more are on the way. Time to stop floating, and be more like the river than the driftwood.

August 10, 2012

This American Life, live and cut short

This American Life is one of my favorite shows. It appears each weekend on Public Radio, but I never much listened to it until I started downloading podcasts a few years ago. Each week, they brings us several stories based (often loosely) on an overarching theme. The storytelling ability of the show's contributors is what really makes it special. They can take seemingly mundane topics, and relate them in such a way that you understand their hidden significance. Some stories are profound, some funny, some remain somewhat mundane, but I am always glad I tuned in.

The show has been on the radio for some fifteen-plus years, and part of the appeal is that it in fact, on the radio. The storytelling becomes more compelling because of the format. They have to describe things in such a way as to capture your imagination and make you "see" it for yourself without the aid of visuals. There was apparently a tv show for two seasons on Showtime a few years ago, but more recently they have done three "live" shows that are broadcasted to movie theaters around the country. Matt and I went to the most recent one back in May.

I didn't know exactly what to expect. The regular show relies so heavily on the spoken word, would we just be watching people speak? Would this add anything to the experience? The theme of the show was "Invisible Made Visible". There were a few presentations that were typical of the regular radio show, but seeing the facial expressions and mannerisms of these people you have heard but never seen, added to their stories. Just being in a theater full of people, instead of alone on a run, also made the laughter come a little easier. Tig Natoro's well-told story of repeated run-ins with 80's pop musician Taylor Dayne was more entertaining by seeing her tell it.

But the show made use of the added video ability and the "live" aspect of the theater. There was an audience participation section with the band OK Go. Theater goers were asked to download a free app to their phones ahead of time. There were four different versions randomly sent to each person's phone. As the band played in Chicago, there was a cascade of colored symbols on the theater screen telling us when to hit our colored keys. The phones produced sounds of hand bells and across the country we all played our own live version of the song. Simple but entertaining.

The opening two segments of the show were about a man who is blind. He travels quite a bit for work, and the first section described how easy it is to get lost in a hotel room. As he described how he walks around the room, feeling his way to a picture in his head, the theater screen showed a drawing of the room he was creating. He could not find the phone, even after several passes, so as strange as it sounded, he assumed there simply wasn't one in the room.

Then the phone rings in the middle of the night, on a table he knew was empty before. When he tried to return to bed after answering the call, and walks straight into a wall, he wonders where exactly he has woken up. It turned out there was an alcove in the room, on the opposite side of the bed, with a matching coffee table (this time with a phone). The drawing of the room made it easy to understand the assumption he had made that the wall simply continued straight to enclose the rectangle of the room, and shed a fraction of understanding what his life without sight is like.

The second section has the author walk out on stage to tell another story. In it he talks about trying to explain blindness to his young daughter. In one moment he is walking across a rural campus, where it is not unusual to see wildlife, bears in particular. He has his daughter on his shoulders, and when she says "Bear", he calmly high tales it in the other direction. When she says it again and again, with increasing tension, he is soon zig-zagging in all directions unsure of the road to safety. It takes him some time to realize she has simple dropped her Teddy Bear. There are other moments of confusion, mistaken identity, and the eventual understanding over a cookie.

The section that most benefited from the theater live show was about the life of a woman, Vivan Maier. She was this solitary, somewhat cantankerous woman who worked as a nanny. She kept her private life hidden from everyone, though she did not welcome many to seek it out. She may have gone largely unnoticed into history if she had been able to pay her storage bills. Her effects were auctioned off, and some pieces found their way into thrift shops. This is where John Maloof discovered her photos. Thousands of them.

The photos are primarily street shots of New York and Chicago, shot in black and white. She seems to capture in these random photos, the stories of the cities and their people. In her photos, the beauty of the everyday comes through. Yet it appears she never showed any of the photos to anyone. This invisible life and talent only came to light after her death, and a fortunate discovery in a thrift shop. As the story of her life was told during the show, several of her photos appeared behind Ira on the movie screen. Although the story about Vivian, and the way her photos came to light was very interesting, it would not have translated nearly as well to the radio. In fact, this segment of the show did not appear in the eventual radio rebroadcast.

Why am I finally telling you about this show some three months later. Because of one of the presenters, David Rakoff. His story was told live, on stage in act three. In it, he describes a recurring dream he has. It is simple, and I suppose expected when you know his story. He had recently had a tumor removed from behind his collar bone, and in the process, nerves were severed. Although this relieved him of the intense pain he had been experiencing for a number of years, it left him unable to use or even feel his arm. In the recurring dream, his limp arm floats up into the air as if buoyed by air and light.

He goes on to talk about his experience and all it has meant to him. For some reason, it is the segment that I remember most vividly from the show. It is mostly him speaking, and it would (and was) translated to radio, but there were parts of it that felt important for you to be there with him while he spoke. Indeed, there is one section toward the end that Ira has to simply describe to the audience. In that section, David dances gracefully across the stage, recalling the fluid movement of his youthful life when he felt less heavy.

David Rakoff passed away last night, ultimately losing his battle with cancer. I had just heard another piece of his on This American Life a week ago. It was a clever bit of writing in the persona of Dr Seuss, but I will always remember him for the performance I was fortunate enough to see three months ago. It was rebroadcast on the radio a few weeks after the live show, and if you would like to hear what we saw, you can find the segment here. Click the small arrow just underneath the photo to begin play.

Update - In honor of Mr. Rakoff, This American Life has now put the video of his performance up on YouTube.

The other acts that made it to the radio, including the blind man in the hotel room and with his daughter, Tig Nataro's Taylor Dane encounters, and the thoughts that run through David Sedaris' head while standing in line waiting for coffee, can be found here. Vivian Maier's story and wonderful photos can be found here.

Rest in peace, David.

August 6, 2012

Olympic inspiration

The Olympics - there really is nothing like them.

I had the chance to catch quite a bit of coverage last week. I was house sitting, and didn't have any plans in the evenings, other than staying up til midnight each day to watch the world's best.

Much of the first week was dedicated to swimming and gymnastics. Though Michael Phelps turned out to be human, and did not repeat his spectacular run in Beijing, he still became the most decorated Olympic athlete in history with his 22 total medals, 18 of them gold. The women seemed even more impressive this year. 17 year old Missy Franklin came away with four golds and a bronze, Allison Schmitt earned a medal of every color in the freestyle, and Rebecca Soni set the world record in the 200 meter breaststroke semifinals, and then broke it again the next day in the finals. Both the men and women capped off the London games by capturing the gold in the team 100 medley, both setting new world records.

In gymnastics, the women dominated in the team competition, earning their first gold medal since 1996. They won by more than five points in a sport normally decided by hundredths. Three Americans took the top four scores in qualifying for the individual all-around competition. One of those, Gabby Douglas went on to win the gold in the individual all around event. The men did not do as well. After coming in first in the qualifying round, the team faltered repeatedly (particularly on the pommel horse) and finished fifth. In the individual all-around, both Americans did poorly on the pommel horse once again, but Danell Leyva managed to claw his way back to a bronze medal finish.

Normally, I don't give much of a rip about swimming or gymnastics, but during the Olympics I am drawn in. I am caught up in the athleticism, focus and dedication these athletes bring to their sport. I find myself leaning in as they push on to the finish, and pumping my fist to celebrate their victory.

Not every sport grabs me. There are more events every year, and some just don't seem to fit. Major sports like soccer and tennis already have their worldwide tournaments, and basketball just seems out of place. Anything that has "synchronized" in the title is also lost on me. Though I know the sports are still incredibly demanding in their physicality and precision, it just seems a little silly. I tuned in one morning to find whitewater canoeing, and I thought to myself, "seriously?" But a few minutes later I found myself cheering on home team Great Britain to an upset gold and silver. Olympic moments just have that kind of pull.

The first week of the Olympics have been great, but I was really looking forward to two events - the women's and men's marathon. This is the one event I can somewhat identify with. I will never approach their performances, but I have at least run in their footsteps and understand what it takes to complete the distance. The women's marathon was yesterday, and it did not disappoint.

The Kenyans and Ethiopians have dominated the marathon for some time now, particularly the men. Since 2001, Kenyan runners have owned more than half of the top 20 times each year. In 2011, they owned them all. They not only won every one of the World Marathon Majors last year, they set course records each time. However, for all their dominance during the year, their record in the Olympics is not nearly as successful. A Kenyan woman has never won gold, and Sammy Wanjiru was the first Kenyan man to capture gold in 2008. The Americans had three strong competitors in the race this year - Shalane Flanagan, Kara Goucher, and Desiree Davila. None had personal bests that matched the Kenyans or Ethiopians, but the Olympics are not like any other marathon. Anything can happen.

The marathon course was a series of twisting loops through London. Commentators expected that many of the runners would stick together for the first couple of laps while they learned the course and looked for best opportunity to break things open. Through the halfway point, a pack of 30 held the lead, including Flanagan and Goucher. Unfortunately, Davila showed up with an hip injury, and pulled out somewhere after mile two.

Soon after mile thirteen, the pace picked up and the crowd thinned. With each mile, more runners fell off the back, unable to match the pace of the leaders. Soon the lead pack was down to six runners, three Kenyans and three Ethiopians. It seemed both inevitable and surprising how clear cut the break was. But a couple of women kept the lead group in sight, including Shalane Flanagan. She couldn't reel them in, but tried to limit the damage, hoping someone would falter.

And then someone else joined the party. Russian runner Tatyana Petrova Arkhipova bridged the gap and joined the group of six as they entered the last eight-mile lap. She looked strong and settled in. Over the next few miles, two of the Ethiopians and one of the Kenyans fell back, and the group was down to four. Flanagan would eventually pass one or two of the stragglers, but was still losing ground to the leaders. Goucher seemed to have disappeared entirely as the commentators never mentioned her. It looked certain that four would stay away, and that only one of them would lose out on a medal.

The group of four ran together until the last mile when Ethiopian Tiki Galena threw in a surge. The four runners who had been running in a tight bunch for so long, stretched out into a line as the finish line approached. Surprisingly, it was race favorite Mary Keitany (who had won the London Marathon in April) who fell off the back. She had looked much more in control than her Kenyan teammate Priscah Jeptoo, but she faded fast. Galena looked over her shoulder once or twice, but the surge had worked and she won the race by the slimmest margin in Olympic history, beating Jeptoo by five seconds. Arkhipova came in seventeen seconds to win the bronze. Galena had set a new Olympic marathon record with her finishing time of 2:23:07.

Though Flanagan had passed some of leaders that had faltered, others caught her and she faded to tenth place in a still great time of 2:25:51. Goucher, who had disappeared from the commentators view, finished just behind her to take eleventh in 2:26:07. Flanagan had collapsed to the ground after finishing, and her teammate and training partner Goucher, helped her to her feet. They walked off arm in arm, heads on shoulders after a great effort.

Like so many other Olympic matches, the women's marathon was inspiring to watch. As I think I have mentioned somewhere before, it was watching Deena Kastor win the bronze medal in the 2004 Olympics that first planted the seed in my head that I wanted to run a marathon. Watching her give it all, refusing to wilt in the Athens heat, and cross the finish line in joyful tears left an indelible impression on me. I could picture the moment in my head, her hands on her face as the emotions of the moment overwhelmed her, falling to her knees just after crossing the line. It spurred me on to go farther than I thought I could.

I looked for a clip of her finish online some years later. You can find nearly anything on YouTube these days, but the Olympic committee is very protective of its footage, so I looked in vain. Then in January of 2008, the movie The Spirit of the Marathon came out in a limited theater release. The movie follows a couple of pros, some amateurs and first timers as they prepare for the 2006 Chicago Marathon. There are interviews with racing legends, a great history of the marathon, and clips of special moments of the sport. And there in the theater, I saw the moment once again that had been living in my head and pushing me along - Kastor crossing the Olympic finish line.

I don't know that it would hit you in the same way it hit me, but if you want to see it, you can watch the movie trailer here. Kastor's finish is in the first minute or so.

Once every four years, the Olympics bring the world together to celebrate human excellence and competition in sport. War, politics and cynicism do not always fade into the background, but at its core the Olympic spirit is there to give us a taste of something better, meeting as equals, trying our best to excel on common ground. We at home embrace their dedication and achievement, and get a glimpse of what is humanly possible. It is inspiring.