Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Itchicoo Park

For a week I've been itchy. The kind of itchy that makes you kick off the covers so you can buff your bare calf with one sock-covered foot; the kind that leaves you with a map of angry red highways etched into your forearms; the kind that makes you claw at your sternum like John Hurt in Alien.

At first, I assumed I'd been slapped with this year's installment of seasonal misery, since pollen and I are longtime enemies. As a kid, I was perpetually cursed with the kind of puffy, bloodshot eyes seen in Phish concert parking lots and always kept one pocket stuffed with aloe-infused tissues, the other filled with an asthma inhaler. I spent every Monday afternoon at the pediatrician's office getting allergy shots but was so insanely sensitive to everything you'd color with a green Crayola that even the injections made me break out in hives. 1

Once a year, I had to do the prick test2 where they divide your back skin into a Bingo board of allergens, liberally dousing you with animal dander and dust mites and the other co-stars from vacuum commercials that will ensure you'll never put a blanket beside your face again. I'd always have violent reactions and they'd just assume I was still allergic to all carbon based life and make adjustments as necessary. One year, it cost my parents an Oriental rug; the next, we had to divorce our dog, sending her to shit in some other family's laundry hamper.

Eventually--whether because of the shots or in spite of 'em--I outgrew most of my issues, leaving them in middle school with spiral perms and a pair of Ocean Pacific pants I specifically bought because they looked like something the Fresh Prince would wear.3

Allergies don't cross my mind anymore, save for the occasional a.m. Visine eyebath or taking a pre-run hit of an Albuterol inhaler. Until now. Until this, which is taking twice as long to type because I keep stopping to see if I can gnaw my own shoulders.4

I've tried to pick my world apart to track down what's doing this to me. It isn't the pollen that blankets my car in its sickly yellow dust because I spent the weekend in West Virginia, where they're just wrapping up Winter 1992. It's not the Boxerbeast, because I itched even when we were apart. It can't be my apartment because I run two high-powered HEPA air filters that suck the dust off of anything that isn't bolted down. It's like living with Lindsay Lohan if she had three power settings and a retractable extension cord.

I cracked open a Diet Coke this morning, the first in the endless enamel-wrecking parade I guzzle every day and tried to figure out what aspect of my life to manipulate next. I've swapped all my fave things in and out of my life to see what happens. Meat for no meat. Milk for soy milk. Pants for no pants. I even stopped my final week of free tanning in the case I'd contracted some Abercrombie-borne illness from the Greek lettered co-eds that broil themselves in the beds every day.

Nothing helped.

As I stood in the kitchen digging the corner of the counter deep into my forearm it hit me. The Diet Coke is the culprit. The Diet Coke...MY Diet Coke. Within fifteen minutes of shotgunning enough artificial sweeteners to blow up a lab rat, the itching hit an all-time high. I stopped picking at my skin long enough to shake a fist at the sky and shout "ET TU, ASPARTAME?" How does something like this this happen? I've been chugging upwards of ten silver & red cans a day for years, so why now?

I'm devastated. The only thing that could give a bigger kick to my morale is if I developed a sudden intolerance to middle-aged English men. Ignoring the how or why, does anyone know the way to cure this? Because I can't function without 120 ounces of caffeine and caramel color and--even worse--I can't switch to Pepsi.

Please send help. I'll be the one who reeks of anti-itch ointment, listening to how her sobs echo out of a stack of empty silver soda cans.

1 Yes, I know the gentle irony of writing about my festering skin two days after I banged out a post about people who overshare. One day, we'll look back on this and laugh.
2 That's also how I refer to all my first dates. And by all, I mean that one time at Pig Pickin's.
3 Read that sentence again.
4 Yes. I can. My resume has already been updated.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Oversharing

Last night I went to the gym and--since I'd sucked down 32 ounces of artificially-flavored energy drinks--I made a pit stop in the Ladies' room before making the epic quarter-mile trip back to my house. I was taking care of my business, earbuds firmly in place so I wouldn't have to listen to the labored breathing of the woman on the other side of the wall as she worked through a particularly difficult transaction, when I saw someone pacing outside my stall door. Tapping my own feet to the Modern Lovers, I watched as the same pair of sneakers made several round trips across the well-worn tile. Assuming this was some kind of emergency, I quickly wrapped up, flushed, and stepped out of the stall, almost smacking directly into the shoulder of the pacer, a woman I knew well enough to wave to but not enough to make reference to her potentially exploding colon.

"Hey!" she said, with a genuine enthusiasm that echoed in the empty showers. "I was waiting for you."

There are few phrases that reach Creepiness as quickly as that one, especially when this woman would be filed under Casual Acquaintance on my life's contact list. In fact, the only reason I even recall her name is because she shares a set of letters with the brand of dishwashing liquid that lives on my sink, so when I see her I always think "Cuts Through Grease".

"What's up," I asked, edging my way toward a section of the locker room with better lighting. She took a seat on a wooden bench and immediately dropped several paragraphs detailing the difficulties in her relationship. She'd hoped to talk to me, she said, about her issues with her boyfriend. If she knew me at all, she'd realize that this is only slightly less stupid than asking a ground squirrel about space travel.

I shifted my weight from foot to foot and traced the grout with my toe, trying to defer, but she obviously wanted to talk. So she did, outlining all of her problems--and she had them--and none of them were the kind who could be solved by a girl whose most enduring relationship is with something that requires monthly heartworm treatment.

The thing is, this happens all the squirm-inducing time. People spill their brains to me--unprompted--often divulging info that not only did I not ask for, but always leaves me unsettled with its intimacy. Maybe it's my prominent ears, but this weekend alone I was cornered by a woman who detailed her skiing-related groin injury in all its vajay-perforating detail and stopped in the checkout line by a man who thought I'd like to know how difficult it is for him to digest sweet potatoes. My former neighbor used to keep me updated on the itchy archipelago of scabs that inexplicably appeared on his torso, which pretty much ensured that I spent the year that we shared an address keeping him away from my upholstery.

Does this happen to anyone else? Please say yes.

I did my best to listen to the Grease Cutter, nodding as sympathetically as I could while suggesting that she speak to someone whose Love Life consisted of more than licking a hole through TV Guide articles about the cast of Bones. She wiped her eyes with the frayed wristband of her sweatshirt and we walked out together, catching a glimpse of the left stall where a pair of unmoving Asics were still visible beneath the door.

Did I ever tell you about the time I thought about checking a stranger's pulse?

Friday, April 24, 2009

Q & A: You Q'ed, I'll A.

OK, hang with me everyone because I swear this is going to be the last running-related post for a while. After this, I'll go back to bungling things and seeing how many pieces of popcorn shrimp I can eat at once and whining about the tumbleweeds rolling out of my vajay. But first, I'm going to give my best shot at matching A's with the Q's you left in the comments of my last two posts. Here goes...

Mary@Holy Mackerel: Didn't you hear your mother telling you to dress more warmly???

Yes, and before the race I was swaddled in several layers of clothing, rocking two shirts like Binford-era Al Borland. As a general rule, though, when you run you're supposed to dress like the temperature is twenty degrees warmer than it is, because that's how it will feel. Monday's 40-something Farenheit felt like sixty, and so on. This twenty degrees thing is one of those maxims I've heard repeated but haven't found any evidence to back it up, putting it on the same list with Don't swim after you eat, Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's ass, and Jamie Lee Curtis was born with a penis.

Mike: You have to tell us about the gloves and other people wearing arm warmers.

When you're running, the blood flow to your extremities sucks since most of the juice is going to your heart, lungs, and legs. This means your hands can get cold quickly...and then they'll stay that way. As for the arm warmers, it's the same principle, since races start early in the a.m. and the ones on the spring and fall sides of the calendar can be chilly. Arm warmers can keep you toasty while you're standing around but can also be easily stripped off after you warm up, as opposed to trying to wriggle out of a long-sleeved shirt.

I actually had a pair of arm warmers for the first couple of miles, which made me look less like an athlete and more like the Bee Girl from that Blind Melon video.

Cardiogirl: No music? Not listening to an iPod while running for over three and a half hours?

Last year, Boston made a big deal about iPods and about how music was a competitive advantage, as if they expected the unbridled energy of John Cougar Mellencamp to send me rocketing past the Kenyans as I shouted "LITTLE PINK HOUSES, BITCHES". They went so far as to threaten to disqualify anyone they spied wearing earbuds, but apparently they backed off on that stance a bit this year, changing the wording in the race info packet to reflect something about "strongly discouraging" them instead.

I did all of my training to music--most of it involving the words Huey and Lewis--but chose not to rock out during the race because the crowds in Boston are absolutely mindblowing. It's 26 miles of people cheering, shouting, and clapping for everyone that goes by and I think that probably motivated me more than hearing "Hip to Be Square" for the brazillionth time.

Robbie: The gloves, are they for impromptu magic tricks to boost morale for other runners?

Pantomime, actually. I ran the first five miles pretending to be trapped in a tiny box.

Also, I didn't want to leave fingerprints on any of the Gatorade cups I tossed. I've seen Gattaca. I know how these things work.

ETHAN HAWKE, YOU WILL HAVE TO BECOME A SPACEMAN WITHOUT ME.

los_tartist: You have to qualify to run marathons? They don't just let you stroll across the finish line at your leisure?

Fun Fact: The Baaaaastin Marathon is both the world's oldest annual marathon and--other than the one run during the Olympics--is the only one you have to qualify for.

Any other marathon, no, you don't have to qualify. You pay your entry fee, pin your number on your shirt, and you're off. Boston sets qualifying standards based on your age and gender and you have to complete a certified marathon in that time--or faster--before you can run their annual April crampfest. Elitists.

Emmysuh:
What was the temperature there?

Pre-race, it was probably 40-ish and warmed to 45 in the middle of the course. Since it starts at 10 a.m., you're running in the warmest part of the day. Unfortunately, the sun was negated by the steady (~25 mph) headwind which sent a lot of people into the medical tents with hypothermia. My cot was sandwiched between two other shivering people who--by the time I was wheeled in for treatment--were both wrapped up like expats from the Ptolemaic era.

Sun Runner: I'd like to know if you followed a particular variety of training plan. If I don't BQ at Cleveland, it's back to the drawing board for me...I've been Hal Higdon-ing it for two halfs and this full, and maybe there's a training schedule that's better-suited to my needs out there.

First, Hal Higdon is awesome. His wisdom got me through my first half marathon and I repeated that program more than once. For this race and for last year's Boston, I designed my own program using the Runner's World Smart Coach. I'm more of a lover sprinter than a distance runner so--even though it's essentially computer generated--I like the emphasis on speedwork. Plus you can set your own parameters as far as how many miles you want to run per week and the intensity of the program, ranging from Easy to SWEET CHRIST ON A CRACKER, WHAT HAVE I DONE?

Most importantly, best of luck on your BQ [Boston Qualifying] effort. Let me know how it goes, because I fully intend to set a small fire in celebration.

Erin: Hey, so what ended up being the diagnosis on the Achilles tendon injury?

Here's the thing. I tend to avoid doctors unless they're being played by Hugh Laurie, mainly because I have the Big Lots of health insurance and it's not exactly cost effective for me to sit in a waiting room reading outdated issues of People. My sister, Runtie, is a nurse who said that the Med Tent Crew's initial use of the word 'rupture' was probably premature since if that were the case, my tendon would've retracted like a cheap tape measure. I asked her what a doc would tell me; she said I'd probably get a lecture about staying off my leg and not running for a couple of weeks. Simple enough. I'd planned to take a post-race break anyway and by DIY-ing it, I'll have more money to spend on McGriddles and candy.

Ms. Changes Pants While Driving: How many marathons have you run?

Three. San Diego ('07), Boston ('08) and Boston ('09). I also just registered for New York (November '09) because I have suffered some kind of brain injury.

How long have you been running?

Since 2001, when I started dating a guy who’d run track in college and--after a double decade layoff--decided to drag his Nikes out of the closet and get back into it. Since we were still in the bright shiny stages of our fledgling relationship, running together sounded like another excellent way to bond, since at that point I had no idea how hard it is to carry on a conversation when you’re dry heaving in someone’s flower bed. Almost eight years and at least thirty pairs of shoes later, he’s the one I can attribute this madness to. It’s especially fitting since he eventually ran off with another woman.

How are you so awesome?

Really? Because as I write this, I'm wearing a Schlitz malt liquor t-shirt I just stained with tartar sauce and have spent my Friday night alternately watching Morrissey videos on YouTube and wondering whether I can still turn my eyelids inside out. Thank you, but I couldn't be farther from awesome.

Kaeti: What's your favorite race fuel (brand/flavor)?

Are you talking about the gels you choke down during runs? Carb Boom, Banana Peach flavor because it tastes like baby food, which is actually a major selling point for me. Sometimes C-Boom can be hard to find, so my runner up is GU.

Chafing. In really BAD places. How do I prevent it? Do I have to body glide my bum? After my first 20-miler I felt like there were fire ants in my drawers.

This is one malady I've managed to avoid but--thanks to working in and eventually being fired from a running store--I know how to prevent it. Body Glide is one way to attack it, as are compression shorts. If that doesn't get it done, try liberally sprinkling talcum powder in your shorts. Seriously. And not just because it's intimidating to the competition if you fire a white cloud out of your ass.

Jen: How the holy f did you run a 6:17 mile at the end of a brutal marathon!?!?!

Because I had to. Because I'm less than a success in almost every other aspect of my life. Running is the only thing--other than spilling drinks at every social occasion I've attended since 1995--that I've consistently done well and if I'd lost that too? RIGHT BEFORE I TURN THIRTY? Jesus. If I hadn't requalified, I most likely would've had some kind of psychotic episode that ended with me splashing around naked in a mall fountain, demanding that people pelt me with coins so that I could grant their wish.

Deidre: How do you get your hair to look so awesome?

Because my hairdresser is amazing. Before I found his salon I looked like I was wearing a cocker spaniel's ass for a hat.

Jillie1979: I once heard something creepy about peoples' toenails falling off after running marathons. Is there any truth to this?

Oh yeah. Runners lose toenails like I lose jobs, which is to say often and effortlessly. Typically it's from wearing kicks that are just small enough to allow your toe to bang the end of the shoe, damaging the nail bed and eventually ejecting the nail. Sometimes there might be fungus involv--wait, were you eating? I'm sorry.
__________

Thanks again for the supportive comments and for the questions. Should you have any other running-related queries, drop me a note at thetyping [at] gmail [dot] com.

Now I'll be getting back to the business of failing at things.

Eff You, Phidippides

Seventeen minutes. That's how much slower I was this year compared to last year's Boston Marathon, a difference of about 40 seconds per mile. Despite running two other twenty-six milers, along with enough 5 and 10Ks to earn a closet full of t-shirts screenprinted with poor quality clip art of smiling runners, Boston was the first race to break me, to leave me shivering beneath a pile of blankets in the medical tent trying to recall enough dialogue from House to remember whether O2 Sats were something that determined whether or not I'd end up with a misdiagnosis of amyloidosis or just uncontrollable bleeding from the ass.

But let's back up to the beginning of the day, which started with a pair of donuts and a side of promise. My Dunkin-filled breakfast and I were on the bus by 6:45 for the hour-long ride to Hopkinton. The race course is what's called a point-to-point, which means you start in Hopkinton and essentially run a straight line back into Boston. Once my jelly-stained shirt and I stepped off the bus, we had another two hours to stand in the cold, alternately huddling on the ground pretending to do a little-known yoga pose called the Crumpled Wad of Paper or hiding in the noxious warmth of the port-a-john, wondering how long I could stay in there before I was overwhelmed by the scent of partially-digested Powerbar.

At about 9:40--after scarfing several complimentary bagels and making countless strangers uncomfortable with the way I rubbed my own inner thighs--it was time to walk toward the start line. I was in Wave 1, which meant that I'd share a corral with 13,000 of my closest friends, wondering why some of them already smelled like a glove box full of rotting meat. It took six minutes from the official start until I actually made it through the mass of people onto the race course. My goal for the day was modest since my training had been less-than-stellar, interrupted by our miserable wet winter or the unexpected ill effects from eating a bag of Sour Patch kids before a long run, but I still expected to roll in at around the 3:30 mark.

Through eleven miles, that seemed like a possibility. My mile splits were all between 7:55 and 7:25 and I felt effortlessly awesome like the people in Michelob Ultra commercials, minus the moisturizer and cosmetic dentistry. I high fived some kids on the course, I waved every time someone shouted "J-Money!", and seriously considered ending my race to tongue kiss an insanely attractive fortysomething who was standing on an overturned Igloo cooler outside a car dealership.

Anyway, everything was cool until just past the eleven mile mark when something popped in my Achilles tendon-y area. Despite having zero medical training other than once beating Dr. Mario on GameBoy, I knew that this was Very Bad, especially when my calf meat was slapped with searing pain, like it had just been shoved through a sausage grinder. "That's it, then," I told myself out loud, because that's what crazy people do. "You're done." I knew there was a medical tent at the halfway point--mile 13--so I planned to seek treatment and call it a day. But when I started to run again, the shrieking ache in my ankle went away. I made it to the medical tent all right...and decided to keep going.

It took less than a mile before I realized that this would be filed under Bad Fucking Idea. In an effort to avoid further damage to my left side, I made subtle changes to my stride, which caused a number of Latin-named pieces of my right leg to throw a tantrum. By mile 15, I couldn't push off with my left side and was struggling to extend my right. My mile splits got slower--8:00, 8:40, 9:00--as I fell into a pained shuffle, trying to blink back involuntary tears.

Eleven miles to go, and I tried to lose myself in the more pleasant parts of my brain, first attempting to recite the entire script of A Fish Called Wanda, starting with John Cleese's opening "And on that point, members of the jury, I rest my case." Next, I rattled off all of Robyn Hitchcock's album titles in order, spending the duration of Heartbreak Hill arguing with myself about where to put Queen Elvis. Then I tried to remember the last time I had sex.

I was approaching another dark green medical tent when my mind drifted toward the internet. It's a sentiment that borders on Hallmark Hall of Fame territory, but I thought about everyone who takes the time to read this site, the people I "know" from their comments or Twitter or Tumblr... all of my imaginary friends. I thought about how bad it would suck to type out several paragraphs about how I quit. How I dropped out. How I gave up.

So I didn't.

Instead, I dragged myself through another pair of miles. When my limping form made it to Boston College, I learned that the more you're struggling, the more the crowd cheers for you. By that point, I looked like something that would be dredged out of a scum-covered marsh during the opening credits of CSI. In every picture from the event--both the expensive official ones and those snapped by my friends on the course--I look like I am:

  • Crying
  • About to cry
  • Just finished crying
  • Soiling myself
Adding to my misery was the quickly approaching reality that I wasn't going to re-qualify to run Boston again next year. At the 25.2 marker, there was a bright yellow banner that said ONE MILE [to go] and--from the time both my adidas-covered feet passed it--I had six minutes and 17 seconds to make it to the finish line if I wanted to do this shit again.

"That's four laps around the track," I said loud enough to attract the attention of a woman wearing a pair of inflatable angel wings. "Let's do this." I picked up the pace, refusing to give in to the ache in my leg or the fire in my lungs, sprinting down the straight stretch and hoping I didn't lose too much time making the final left turn. I couldn't have had more than a quarter mile to go but the finish line looked like it was in Minneapolis. My arms felt heavy and worthless, like dead animals or Rachel Ray. My throat burned like I'd just smoked a pack of fiberglass-filled Marlboro Reds.

I checked the time. Run faster. Ten seconds. Faster. Five. Pick it up. Finally, my feet landed between the I and the S in the word FINISH. I stopped my watch.

The maximum finish time I could've run and requalified? 3:40:59.

My time? 3:40:59.

Sometimes Fortune kisses you on the mouth.

"Congratulations," a fluorescent-clad race volunteer told me, draping me in a foil blanket that made me look like a half-eaten Big Bacon Classic. She handed me off to a handsome Australian who untied my shoe and fumbled with my timing chip. "How're you feeling?" he asked. Rather than answer, I thought it would be more effective to just pass out. He waved for someone to bring him a wheelchair as he scooped me off the pavement and I was pushed into the medical tent.

I was quickly informed that my blood pressure had bottomed out and my temperature had dropped to a reptile-quality 93.5, so I was wrapped burrito-style in a thick blanket and monitored for 90 minutes while a number of different medical professionals periodically checked my aforementioned O2 Sats and asked me questions I would've struggled to answer on a good day, things like "What's ten times nine?" or "Why would you do this voluntarily?"

When my temperature returned back to human levels, I autographed some forms that said the Boston Athletic Association wasn't responsible if my heart exploded later in the day and was released back into the wild so I could--no shit--walk another mile and a half back to my hotel. It was approaching 3:30 at this point, so I stopped into Burger King for a large fry and a six pack of those dwarf-sized burgers because I decided if the race couldn't kill me, a paper bag full of trans fats couldn't either.
__________

Injuries aside, I'm heading back to the gym this morning but will be taking a two or three week trial separation from running. I probably finished this race at the expense of others, but I'm OK with that. The important part is that I finished.

That makes for a much better story.

P.S. A lot of you have asked about my gloves, my haircut (thankyew) and what it means to 'qualify' for the Boston Marathon. Since--according to the description on the cable guide--I've already seen this afternoon's Law & Order: SVU episodes, I'm going to do a running-related Q&A post later today. If you have any other questions, leave 'em in the comments...

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

3:40:59

The good news? I survived my second Boston Marathon.
The less good? My post race activities involved a ninety minute stay in the medical tent with a hypothermic body temperature that was hovering around iguana levels. Also, my left Achilles tendon gave up at mile 11.
The bestest? Although it was the slowest finish of my marathon trio, I still hauled my aching ass fast enough during the final mile to requalify for next year, which meant I didn't have to sell my Boston logo hoodie on eBay.

A full, quite-possibly boring race report is coming soon, since I'm finally back home, hobbling through my apartment as little as possible and half-heartedly encouraging the dog to soil the carpet because it hurts to drag him outside. Most importantly, though, I want to thank every one of you for the blog comments, the emails, and twittered messages of support. As a friend of mine put it the other day, sometimes sincerity is uncool but know this: when every fiber of my being wanted to quit, you guys gave me just as many reasons to keep going. Thank you.

In the meantime, can we please examine why my forehead looks so bizarre when I run? It only takes a couple of miles for me to go from average-looking human to full Klingon.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Ten A.M.


Hey, everybody, check out my poor-quality Photobooth picture, taken in my drab hotel room with its spinach-colored walls. I'm getting ready to leave the hotel, grab a nutritious jelly-filled breakfast, then get on the bus that takes us the 26 (.2) miles to Hopkinton.

Yesterday morning when I was trying to find my Red Sox hat, I emptied out my bag and realized that it was on my kitchen table, along with my sunglasses, my gloves, and my FAVORITE MARATHON SHIRT. I spent a chunk of my Sunday morning trying to have one commissioned because I insist on wearing my name across my sternum and while this is a less-than-awesome replacement, it gets the job done.

Other than that, I'm set. I just groomed my eyebrows which probably cut down on my wind resistance, making me sleek and aerodynamic like a seal's head.

See you guys this afternoon. I'll be the one weeping and dragging herself down the sidewalk on her hands.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

26 Point Two

Good morning from Massachussets Masachusets Massachusetts, a state I still can't type without doing a Google-assisted spell check. Did you mean Massachusetts? Yeah, that's the one. I'm sitting in an overpriced, underappointed hotel trying to smooth the pillowcase creases out of my forehead and obsessively counting the hours until tomorrow's Boston Marathon. I'm running this thing for the second year in a row because I enjoy both a sense of accomplishment and severely chafed nipples. I'm getting ready to go scarf a pair of Dunkin Donuts, pick up my number, and get a handy typewritten list of ways I can die during the race but first...

Five Quick Things:

1) Traveling yesterday was liberally doused with Unpleasantness, mainly because I didn't gobble my normal pre-flight anti-anxiety meds, lest they interfere with my highly tuned Diet Coke-and-Cakester fueled training plan. I spent a pair of flights shaking, twitching and picking at my eyelids while the man in Seat 3B gave me the mile-by-mile replay of the 112 Boston Marathons he's done before. I'm not down with generalizations but runners tend to be intolerable when they meet other runners and this guy was no different. He had the healthy complexion of a dried apricot and cheeks hollow enough to hold my winter clothing and--somewhere between one-sided explorations of his pulled hamstring or his plantar warts--I noticed that he was wearing a t-shirt that said "RUN LIKE AN ANIMAL". I assumed that meant "on all fours and in pursuit of prey", so I debated whether to throw my pair of USAirways-issued peanuts into the aisle to see if he'd chase it. Instead, I nodded politely before excusing myself to hide in the bathroom.

2) Since I didn't really pack anything other than my running shoes and my Snuggie, my bag was small enough to cram in the overhead bin. The downside? TSA confiscated my hair gel because and--I'm quoting here--it appeared to have been "tampered with", it looked "suspicious", and I had to "surrender" it. I tried to argue my case by pointing out that the only thing suspicious about it is why a land-locked kid like me would smear her head with something called "Surf Hair". The man in the blue vest didn't budge, dropping it in a plastic bin where it landed with a muffled thud. Obviously a stop at CVS is on the agenda today because I can't be seen in public unless my hair is a carefully constructed mess of matted peaks.

3) As if dragging our carcasses the 26.2 miles from Hopkinton to the Common isn't painful enough, Boston hotels enjoy adding to the misery by quadrupling their room rates. I'm staying in a place that falls between "discarded refrigerator box" and "kidnapper's basement" on the luxury scale, but the three nights I'll be sleeping here are pricier than the FIVE I spent in a hotel in London, where the linens weren't made of a shoddily woven combination of pollen and gravel.

My room is the definition of basic, co-starring the aforementioned itchy sheets , an unfortunate-looking armchair, and a bedside shelf bolted to the wall. Oddly enough, there's also a collection of reference books in here, ranging from Fenway Fiction--an anthology of Red Sox-related short stories--to a thick volume simply called FACTS. They must know that I plan on spending a lot of time in the bathroom. This morning I learned the names of Latvia's former presidents.

I'm also distressed that there's just a small shower--one without a bathtub--especially since I was counting on a post-race soak. This means I either transported this carton of Epsom salts up the eastern seaboard for nothing or I'm going to have to flood the lobby.

4) Speaking of the Sawx, I'll be at the game this afternoon. Here's hoping Jon Lester's left arm looks better than it has so far this season.

Confidential to Jon Lester: After the game, would you like to share my Snuggie? What if I told you I could list the national holidays of Vanuatu?

5) I'm nervous, yo. Without boring you with the details, my training wasn't quite as stellar as it was last year. I missed a handful of workouts because of travel or our disgusting wet winter and I honestly just don't feel that sharp. My times were always slower, the workouts felt harder, and I have no idea what to expect tomorrow. I'm trying to be optimistic that I won't be openly weeping by the sixteen mile mark but--at the same time--I don't want to get disappointed when I get passed by a runner wearing a costume. Or pushing an oxygen tank.

OK. I'm out to roam through the Race Expo, which promises to be a crowd of people with prominent rib cages and oversized calves. There will be more from me later, perhaps tonight when I liveblog all the reasons I can't sleep.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Man Who Invented Himself

Author's Note: This is the companion piece to an article I wrote for BitchBuzz. It was way too easy to spill several thousand words about this man's music so I split it in half, King Solomon-style. The 'Buzz got the album review and you get the concert, with a bit of a Rough Guide to Robyn thrown in by way of introduction.

The first time I heard Robyn Hitchcock, I was a college freshman with oversized pores and an ill-advised perm who'd scored a ride to the Record Exchange to swap a stack of Mighty Mighty Bosstones CDs for some other band whose members have long since started selling real estate. Before I made it to the cash register, I heard "Oceanside" through the store's speakers and almost smacked the Salem Light out of an employee's hand in my rush to find out who was singing. I dropped $8 on a used copy of Perspex Island and immediately transferred it from its cracked case into my stereo where it remained for the rest of the semester. That album twisted my brain around in a way I've never forgotten--or never recovered from--and ensured I'd spend unsettling amounts of time roaming the H aisle of countless music stores until I'd collected his entire catalog.

Since then, Hitchcock's subsequent releases have each provided a waypoint as I navigated the tangled mess of my twenties. I fell in love to A Star for Bram (1999) and managed to sustain a reasonably healthy relationship for the rest of his solo career. He’d formed a new band by the time my heart was incinerated to Ole! Tarantula (2006) and I scorched someone else’s after casually peeling the plastic from a vinyl copy of Goodnight Oslo (2009). I got fired to Robyn Sings (2002). And to Spooked (2004). And in time for the B-sides of the I Wanna Go Backwards box set (2007). And to...moving on.

For those of you unfamiliar with the musical stylings of Mister Hitchcock, there’s never been a better time to add him to your iPod. His latest release, Goodnight Oslo, features ten genre-hopping tracks that range in style from Big Star-ish power pop to country-tinged stomps but never skimp on the stellar wordplay that has become his trademark. Hitchcock’s band, the Venus 3, is composed of longtime R.E.M. lead guitarist Peter Buck, as well as bass player Scott McCaughey and drummer Bill Rieflin--also known as the other members of R.E.M. not named Mike or Michael.

Hitchcock’s live shows have developed their own reputation based on his epic between-song banter—he's dubbed them "word solos"—that are as hilarious as they are provocative. Sometimes they’re an obtuse introduction to the songs, sometimes a comment on the social climate, or an anecdote that seems unrelated until you think about it…and you will. The seemingly spontaneous monologues have always reminded me of the animations Terry Gilliam dropped between Flying Circus sketches, straddling the same line between comedy and “Holy crap, where did that come from?”

Last Wednesday night, I had the chance to catch Robyn & Peter & Scott & Bill at the Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro, NC. As I watched the decidedly middle-aged crowd file in, it seemed that everyone could be neatly sorted into three groups. The audience was one third J.Crew cable knits who had recently pledged to PBS, dropping three digits for a canvas tote and the promise of additional airings of The Old Grey Whistle Test; it was one third slightly disheveled former college DJs who cursed the recent smoking ban and swapped stories about spinning "So You Think You're In Love" to a mention on the Modern Rock chart; and it was one third people who just wanted to see Peter Buck.

Around 10:15, Hitchcock strolled onstage—still-steaming cup of tea in hand—picked up his guitar and kicked off a setlist that covered his entire thirty-three year career. “This is a reverse birth trauma song,” he said before launching into an electric version of “I Often Dream Of Trains”, the title track from the 1984 acoustic gem that has been widely praised as the highlight of his massive discography.

“This song is in the same key as the one we just played. It’s like two rabbits with the same colored fur, but thinking different thoughts.”

The band was in excellent form for the twenty-two song, double encore set. Buck and Hitchcock have shared stages and studios for two decades and their guitars intertwine perfectly, each playing with a style that manages to be distinct yet interchangeable. What struck me during the live show was how essential Bill Rieflin’s percussion is, noting that he counts in the songs before anchoring the band in a solid rhythm. Hitchcock seems to appreciate it, giving a lengthy introduction to “Saturday Groovers” that compared Rieflin’s drumming to a sailor who single-handedly dragged a whale onto the deck of a ship, which I assumed was his Melville-drenched way of saying “Swell job”.

Other highlights included the ethereal beauty of “Airscape", a scorching version of “Somewhere Apart” and “Up to Our Nex" a song Hitchcock wrote for--and performed in--the Oscar-nominated Rachel Getting Married. “This is a song with a message,” he said, “So we won’t introduce it.” The song perfectly captures the overwhelming feelings and frustrations of relationships, while summarizing the film with the devastating stanza “Forgive yourself and maybe/You’ll forgive me.”

With over 400 (!!!) compositions to chose from, Hitchcock can easily surprise you with his song selection. During the first encore he dusted off the Soft Boys’ “He’s a Reptile”, which he said he hadn’t played onstage since 1979. He also dedicated it to “that famous British reggae outfit The Police”.

Early in the show after finishing A Star for Bram’s “The Underneath”, he lowered his voice to ask and answer his own existential questions. “Where do we come from? The Dark. Where are we going? The Void. Why are we here?” He waited long enough for one enthusiastic woman to shout “TO HEAR YOU!”

Without pausing, Hitchcock replied, “Thank you. That gives my life meaning, purpose, and renewal.” I could say the same thing about his songs.
__________
Robyn Hitchcock & the Venus 3 have another week of tour dates scheduled in April. Next month finds them opening for The Decemberists before rolling into that great unwashed clusterfuck called Bonnaroo. If you can’t see him live, I encourage you to check out Storefront Hitchcock, the intimate acoustic concert film directed by Jonathan Demme and currently streaming on Hulu.com.

As for the tunes, depending on how you classify them he's either released sixteen albums (the originals) or upwards of thirty (counting rarities and box sets). iTunes has a decent selection but eMusic has a huge chunk of his back catalog--including stuff from the Soft Boys--as does his record label Yep Roc. Where to start? As I said about 10,000 words ago, Goodnight Oslo makes for a great square one. After that, my personal favorites are Element of Light, I Often Dream of Trains, and Moss Elixir.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Maybe She's Born With It

I made the mistake of walking into Sephora1 today which meant I spent ten minutes staring helplessly at my oversized pores in a hand mirror, half expecting to see Buzz Aldrin bounding between the craters on my face before planting a flag in the middle of my forehead.

Meanwhile, a flawless store associate named Sofie played matchmaker, trying to pair each of my facial imperfections with a neatly packaged product designed to cover them up. She was--of course--perfect. Her cheekbones jutted through her skin like the ribs on a greyhound and she spoke in a soft voice garnished with the slightest hint of an accent, reflecting either a rich European heritage or a summer as a hostess at Olive Garden. "You could benefit from what we call an eye brightener," she said, pulling an $18 colored pencil out of her pocket. "Because you look like a dead orbed goblin".

OK, that last part was implied. BUT I HEARD HER THINK IT.

I managed to stand still long enough for her to brighten one eye, sweep a bronzing powder across my cheeks and colorize both eyelids with an unfortunate amount of glitter, ensuring that I'd spend the rest of the afternoon looking like Ziggy Stardust's unemployed half sister.

When Sofie turned to greet another customer, I bolted for the back corner of the store to undo her handiwork, quickly smearing all eighteen shades of green into my eyebrows. After scraping my cornea with a rogue shard of glitter, I saw her picture--the star of my favorite poorly written police drama!--advertising the only product in the store that I desperately needed. I immediately snatched the last tiny box out of the bin, not because the organic ingredients will make me look any less terrifying but because it will bring my Law & Order: SVU obsession to its logical conclusion.

Oh yes, I'm now proudly wearing a long-lasting shade of lipstick named for Mariska Hargitay, giving me the power to stay smudge free through even the greasiest of microwaveable pastries. I also think I'm allowed to carry a concealed weapon and arrest anyone who looks rapey.

I SWEAR my bizarre attraction to SVU stops here--now--with this purchase. Between the twelve episode Saturday I spent building a bedsore and my now Hargitay-hued lips, I'm one stop on the Creepy Train away from writing Christopher Meloni a letter to ask if I could have a small piece of his skin.

Until then, I'll be out arresting my neighbors. Hope you like the leg shackles, 102-A.

UPDATE: Because you asked for it... "Mariska" can be purchased here.

1 I'm pretty sure the store motto is "Let us help you feel ugly today!"

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Burn Risk

I got a call yesterday from the tanning salon informing me that they'd made a billing mistake before I axed my account so they owed me a free month of what they call "Unlimited Bronzing" but I've found is closer to "Accidentally Scorching Yourself". I hung up feeling like I'd just drawn the Community Chest card that said there'd been a bank error in my favor, assuming that WaMu could give me a cantaloupe-sized melanoma.

Of course I immediately went to collect my complimentary incineration and was greeted by an impossibly-muscled dude with skin tanned the shade of a perfectly-toasted Pop Tart and an over-gelled platinum hairstyle, his long bangs swept forward in the style of land-locked Hollister shoppers, late 70's David Bowie and less-fashionable lesbians. He was probably younger than the Joshua Tree tour shirt I was wearing but that didn't stop me from doing my best imitation of flirting while I pulled my velcro wallet open and handed him my ID. "How long do you want to go today?", he asked, flashing a set of gleaming mah-jong tile teeth.

"The fewest minutes possible. I'm so white that Cruella de Vil wants to kill me for my fur," I replied, because I am the master of sexytalk.

He'd written "E-Dog" on his sunshine-shaped name tag and while I waited for him to clean my Personal Tanning Station, I mentally decorated the basement apartment we'd rent together and was trying to explain why a drawing of Bob Marley with pot leaf-shaped hands wasn't art when he interrupted to tell me it was time for my UV-rich broiler nap. "Thank you," I told him, trying to tilt my head to the one angle that doesn't make my twice-broken nose look like a crumpled tube of Aquafresh.

He smiled. My knees locked mid-buckle when the words "No worries, ma'am" fell out of his mouth.

MA'AM.

I am TWENTY NINE years old and will be for another 55 days, seven hours and 32 minutes.1 I know I've looked less-than-awesome lately, especially since earlier in the day a friend dropped the dreaded "You look tired" on me, which is the polite way of saying "You look like you sleep in a dumpster." Also my allergies to all carbon-based life forms mean that for the next few weeks, my eyes will be swollen to the size of the Insert Coin slot on a soda machine while my voice sounds like a less-feminine Bea Arthur.2

NONE OF THAT, however, makes me an effing ma'am. I couldn't spill any of that to E-Dog but as I walked toward my six minutes in my Personal Tan Station at the end of the hall, I packed up his blacklight and boardshorts and the goddamn acoustic guitar he'd drag to parties and threw them all into the parking lot of the place we'd never live.

1 I have no plans on going gently into 30, instead choosing to punch it repeatedly in the face as it drags me into another decade. That said, anyone who purchases any 30-themed novelty balloons for me on June 2 should go ahead and schedule a colonoscopy for the next day because it's going to take professionals to pull all that mylar out of your ass.
2 I apologize if that gave anyone an ill-timed boner.
__________

I'm going to see Robyn Hitchcock tonight so I'm practically itchy with excitement. This is the second time I've seen him in the past two months--and on the second different continent, which doesn't make me seem Hinckley-levels of unhinged at all. If you've read my site(s) at all, you know I could easily spew a thousand words about how much I appreciate his love of language, his singular brand of weirdness-spiked brilliance and the way his work has shaped my worldview, like the stake to my mind's tomato plant.3 Also? Dig his sideburns.

For reals though, I'll say this: in a career spanning thirty-odd years--with the accent firmly on the odd--he's not once sacrificed his authenticity or compromised his style in exchange for seeing his name in ten point font on the Billboard chart. As he says in the opening track to his most recent release "It doesn't matter what you was/It's what you is/And what you is/Is what you are". To my ears, it's an important sentiment, especially since so many of the bands currently littering the airwaves are shitty products with superior packaging, just like hotel shampoos, Vin Diesel flicks and novelty condoms. So crumble that into your Katy Perry poster and smoke it...I'll be the one at the Cat's Cradle tonight, singing along with "Adventure Rocket Ship" and digging every minute of it.

That's what I is.

3 His song "Belltown Ramble" drops the line "It's an independent life/And you want to see your eyes/Reflected in the world". Whether intentionally or not, I like to think I'm part of that reflection an--OK, I SWEAR I'M DONE WITH THE ROBYN REFERENCES.

Monday, April 06, 2009

I Will See You in Far Off Places

At around 7 a.m. last Wednesday, I dropped the dog off at what I euphemistically refer to as Camp Buttsniff, immediately tie-dyed my white t-shirt with a large Krispy Kreme coffee and set the GPS for my second Morrissey concert of Oh Nine. Other than consuming enough sodium benzoate to embalm my internal organs, it was an uneventful 378 miles through North Cackalacky, Virginia1, Left Virginia2 and Ohio3.

After chewing the edges of my St. Christopher medal for exactly six hours, I rolled safely into Columbus, parked the car and dragged my duffel bag toward the hotel. As I made my way around the block, I saw a tour bus idling at the side door and my heart lodged itself in my trachea. Could it be that...that...Morrissey and I would be unwrapping identical brands of tiny toiletries? Would he be making a hand puppet out of the same cloth shoe mitt? Would he be stealing the same towels? As I checked in, I casually asked the well-pressed woman at the front desk whose wheels were outside and she answered with a shrug that I interpreted as "THE SAME GUY WHOSE COFFEE-STAINED FACE IS STARING AT ME FROM YOUR T-SHIRT".

I dropped my stuff in my room, laced my sneakers and decided to do my best sleuthing in the guise of a run, kickstarting the first chapter of Nancy Drew and the Case of the Sad Stalkery Fan. As I stretched on the sidewalk, I watched a burly man with a hotdog neck toss several cases into the bus and--after a glimpse of the Mississippi plates--I decided it probably wasn't the MozWagon after all. BUT when I got within a half-block of the Palace Theatre, the same bus passed me, belching some exhaust directly into my bronchial tubes. I followed it to the alley behind the building, trying to look nonchalant despite the fact that I was sweating profusely and sucking on an asthma inhaler.

I loitered long enough to even creep myself out and didn't seen anyone other than a pair of black-clad men with All Access lanyards. Later I found out that Team Morrissey and I HAD briefly shared a building, but they all checked out pre-show. While I was disappointed, it saved me from asking the Room Service Chef if he could bake me into a pie. 4

Before the show, I met up with some 'net friends from the Moz message boards5, L & her husband 6 who had rolled in from Pittsburgh, and S, a local attorney. Over a table-buckling amount of Indian food, we swapped backstories and quizzed each other about what Smiths lyrics we'd get inked on our bodies. It's always nice to split appetizers with people who share your obsessions and couldn't have had a more perfect group to spend the evening with.

Fast forward to immediately after The Courteeners' opening set when I scrambled from Section One down to the Pit, said hello to the security guard and plopped my ass into an empty second row seat beside S. There's a Billy Crystal Michael Keaton flick called The Paper where he drops a line about how a clipboard and a confident wave will get you into any building in America. There's mad truth to that, and if you don't have any available office supplies, batting a set of Cover Girl-encrusted eyelashes works too.

We made adrenaline fueled smalltalk and I waited to get yanked by the collar back to the cheap seats. At exactly 8:30 the lights dimmed, the REFUSAL background was illuminated, and the crowd surged to the edge of the stage. We went with it. The same well-muscled mass of security I'd spoken to stood directly behind me, pushing everyone else back. We were in.

The show somehow seemed to speed by and to unfold slowly, every note loitering in our ears. It was during the fifth song--the Smiths classic "How Soon is Now?"--that Morrissey made his way to our side of the stage and, in order, shook S's outstretched hand, then L's, then mine.

Read that sentence again.

Morrissey touched me. Our eyes met and I think I know what an aneurysm feels like. My mitt was in his for maybe a solid second, but it was long enough to notice the smoothness of his skin, the way it felt firm and cool like a marble statue. Or a pint of Ben&Jerry's about the time you unbag it and shove it in the freezer.

We all made our best "HOLY FUCK" expression, staring at each other wide-eyed and relieved that we had each other to confirm that it had really happened. The rest of the show was excellent as he swung through another fifteen songs and, of course, ripped his shirt off like a Hugo Boss wearing Hulk Hogan. S managed to both find a stray button and get demolished by security when he tried to invade the stage, L got one of guitarist Jesse Tobias' MEXI-CAN etched picks and I scored another setlist.

We made our way through the shuffling crowd and stepped out onto the street with sore throats, ringing ears and full hearts. Stop me if you think you've heard this one before...

1 I do owe Wythe County a new raccoon.
2 It costs a cumulative $7.50 to drive the length of Left Virginia twice which blows goats. Thanks to dropping all my cash and a handful of pennies at the tollbooths, I'll now be paying 29.99% APR on the McGriddle Value Meal I had to Visa.
3I spent two solid hours passing and being passed by an erratically driven Seibring. I started hating her after the fifth time she blew past me only to immediately park herself in front of my bumper. I despised everything about her, from the WVSTEELR vanity plate to the Pittsburgh flags flapping from both sides of the car to the inexplicable pyramid of Bounty paper towels stacked in the back seat. If you require enough paper products to sop up an Exxon spill, you think you'd head home to start mopping instead of reading road signs that flashed three different state mottos. Or maybe she was just having a heavy flow day.
4 There was a couple from Michigan patiently waiting in the hotel for the Mozzer and I'm curious if they ever saw 'im. We spoke briefly after the show but were split up by the crowd before I could ask if there were any parts of the lobby that I needed to lick.
5This prompted my sis to send me a text that said "Please don't be a Law & Order episode where you get killed by the internet".
6 L was wearing a handmade "Now My Heart is Full" sweater which should replace the Shroud of Turin as a museum piece. Seriously. It was so awesome, tourists should make pilgrimages to see it and schoolchildren should sketch it. I wish I'd snapped a picture of it, but meeting someone and immediately demanding to photograph their clothes is probably farther down the creepster scale than I'd like to be.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Now My Heart is Full

After 13 hours in the car, four packages of pizza-flavored Combos and enough caffeine to kill an apatosaurus, I'm back from Columbus and the GREATEST CONCERT EVER. There will be a full recap, of course, but here are the three main ideas:

1) I was in the front row again and--I'm not going to lie--it took a full serving of good luck, lightly drizzled with a bit of deception.

2) Morrissey was staying in my hotel. Unfortunately, he and the rest of the band checked in the night before and rolled out immediately after the show, which means I didn't have the chance to cling to the underside of his tour bus, Cape Fear-style.

3) HE TOUCHED ME. I TOUCHED MORRISSEY. He shook my hand during "How Soon is Now?" and for the entire time my paw was in his, I was terrified either my aorta would rupture or my bowels would release. Somehow, I managed to keep all of my parts intact.

Yes, I have washed my hand, but reluctantly.

More-issey tomorrow (DO YOU SEE WHAT I DID THERE?) and then, I swear, I'll go back to talking about my failures.