Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Daily Double

I spent a solid chunk of the weekend with my face buried in Douglas Coupland's Microserfs, a book that I snagged from the $3.99 post-Christmas clearance table at Borders. It's about a group of coders who abandon Microsoft for the greener, Lego-encrusted pastures of Palo Alto and their own startup company. It has aged remarkably well for a three-hundred pager that takes place at the dawn of the internet age and there's a voyeuristic part of me that enjoys anything written in Diary Style, except for Samuel Pepys because his journals are borderline-educational and rarely involve references to Velveeta cheese slices.

Anyway, Daniel--the narrator and Diary Master--introduces his flatmates and co-workers by listing their dream board of Jeopardy categories, the seven things that they would flat-out rock, leaving their buzzers smoking and the other contestants staring blankly into the audience, wishing they'd told that pre-commercial story about the time they held a koala.

I paused for a few minutes, the book hovering above my sofa-sprawled body, and decided that my perfect arrangement of Trebekery would be:

Semi-Obscure British Musicians
How to Breathe With a Mouth Full of Teddy Grahams
Sweatpant Lore
Where to Get Three Cases of Diet Coke for $10
Alienating Your Neighbors In One Elevator Ride
Microwaveable Meals

On Saturday, though, I absolutely found the Daily Double in the Disappointment category. I'm three weeks into my marathon training program, spending yet another winter avoiding sidewalk cracks and shin splits as I prepare to run 26.2 miles from Hopkinton to Boston. Last year [as a lot of you know] that race ended with my Achilles tendon on suicide watch and I spent the remaining eight months of the year trying to recover, attempting to keep my legs and lungs in shape with Spin classes and enough hours on the ass-enhancing Stairmaster to ensure that my butt now lives between my shoulder blades.

Anyway, the first 21 days of training have gone well--spectacularly, surprisingly so--but I was all kinds of apprehensive about Saturday's eleven mile run. Eleven miles would be the longest distance I'd covered since last April, and I was terrified that I'd end the morning either crumpled on the pavement in one of the nicer neighborhoods or ducking into the sketchy-ass Chevron on the verge of soiling myself. I just knew it was going to end poorly, possibly with pain and tears or swift, unyielding diarrhea. This is also the attitude I take into most of my relationships.

I told myself that if, by some chance, the run went well and didn't end with a trip to the ER or trying to surreptitiously discard a pair of stained spandex pants, I would come home and sign up for Boston. Registration opened in early September, but I was hesitant to enter my credit card number, partially because I hadn't fully healed and partially because the entry fees are close to $200. Spending that kind of money means switching to an even shittier brand of ramen noodles, the ones that are just broken shards from the other packages and instead of a seasoning packet, the directions suggest that you place your unwashed hands inside the cup while they cook.

Back to the run. It went well. Beyond my wildest Moody Blues-style dreams well. Most of the time, I kept my watch tucked underneath the edge of my mittens, stopping it only at intersections and not obsessively checking my pace at the driveways or box elders or dead squirrels that served as mile markers. When I finished, halfway through the crosswalk beside my building, I was shocked to see the numbers 1:25:38 on my watch, which came to an 7:47 pace. That's way faster than I expected to be at this point and I briefly wondered if putting my home-office in front of the microwave may have helped me grow a second set of lungs.

After a long shower that used every drop of hot water and gave me enough time to belt out several selections from Dire Straits' lesser-known albums (On Every Street, yo) I toweled off and headed toward the computer. Destination: The Boston Marathon. Within two seconds of staring at the Boston Athletic Association's website, my eyes fell to this headline:


The marathon is full and has been since mid-November. All 25,000 race numbers have been accounted for and I'm not going to be wearing one of them. This has never happened; I've never registered before January and my friends have routinely run Myrtle Beach in mid-February to qualify for Beantown in April. I was devastated. Heartbroken, even.

I didn't know whether to laugh--because this is just another offering to the Gods of Fail--or to bawl because none of it--the injury, the long-ass recovery, the 6:17 final mile I did to requalify for this year--none of it mattered.

So I did both, reveling in being bipolar for the rest of the afternoon.

And then I moved on, refusing to dwell on my inability to get another embroidered windbreaker that I'll never wear. I tried to find another race within the same time period so--instead of Boston--I'll be running Nashville's Country Music Marathon on April 24, a race that is entirely contained within Travis Tritt's beard.

Yes, I'm disappointed but I'm trying not to let it show. Perhaps the biggest entry in the Pro-Nashville category is that my sister's wedding is the Saturday before Boston Marathon Monday, so that meant I would've spent most of the day Sunday trying to get from rural West Virginia to Logan International Airport, a situation that probably would've only worked if I built a spaceship from a stack of charger plates and leftover silverware from the reception. Plus, at least now I can get hammered at the reception.

Confidential to My Mother: You may want to order another bottle of Absolut. Otherwise, I'm bringing a handle of Aristocrat and running it through your Brita filter.

Confidential to the Other Wedding Guests: I apologize in advance for the inappropriate touching.

So. Nashville it is. I'll see you in April and, eventually, I'll be one hundred percent delighted to weave through your downtown streets, leaving a set of adidas-branded footprints all over Toby Keith's face. [Mile 8, according to the course map].

Now I'll take "Microwavable Meals" for $800, Alex.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Christmas. With a Bullet.

So Epiphany was this week, which is historically the day when people remove their Christmas decorations unless they're unspeakably lazy or unspeakably Southern. Where I live it's not uncommon to turn off the main road in the middle of the summer, your tires crunching on gravel as you notice a hard plastic baby Jesus sleeping peacefully beside a lawn chair and a box of Black Cat fireworks.

I spent Wednesday afternoon removing the lights from my living room windows, chugging the remaining holiday-themed cans of Diet Coke and wondering whether poinsettias were recyclable. The fact that I unholiday-ed my house on a Catholic feast day was purely coincidence and not out of tradition, since the only feast days I actively recognize fall during All You Can Eat Pancake Week at IHOP. Anyway, since Christmas is officially over, it's past time for me to recap my own holiday, one already relegated to soft-focus memories and the fruitcake chunks that still cling to the folds of my colon.

I drove home to West Virginia on Christmas Eve, where I was greeted with 70 mph winds and intermittent blackouts. Regardless of our stockpiled flashlights and space heaters and Sour Patch Kids (my contribution to the emergency kit) we still cursed and muttered every time the microwave clock went dark, since my parents live in the kind of rural area where Google Maps just shrugs and shows a blank grey screen. A long power outage would've meant we'd be either emptying the refrigerators into the snow--in the hopes the rib roast and baby carrots would remain frozen--or we'd all be sitting under the tree swapping food-borne illnesses.

Fortunately, the lights always came back on. Unfortunately, the ice-encrusted weather forecast kept my sister confined to her new house, which brushes against Cleveland's more-photogenic side. It was the first time she and I had been separated for Christmas, the first time we wouldn't wake up and wriggle into our new matching pajamas before we'd try to embarrass each other in front of our parents by giving each other the most squirm-worthy gifts possible.

Last year, she was delighted when I untied a ribbon and peeled back the wrapping paper to discover a box of industrial strength douches, the kind that could also be used to pressure-wash your vinyl siding. This year instead of tearing into the pubic lice treatment kit I'd purchased for her, she was stuck in a neighboring state getting text-by-text accounts of everything happening in the living room.

The morning got off to a perfect start, unfolding just as Norman Rockwell would've sketched it, assuming he would've ignored my hubcap-sized pores and didn't draw in the squiggly stink lines radiating from the dog's mouth, which always smells like a mix of Beggin' Strips and rotting skin. The other details were magazine-spread perfect, from the handmade stockings to the carefully arranged packages to the flickering evergreen-scented candles, the ones that helped us all pretend that the tree hadn't spent the summer months in a cardboard box behind the weed killer and wood varnish.

CONFIDENTIAL TO MY MOTHER: Really, the tree was beautiful. I'm just being descriptive for these people who weren't sitting on the sofa with us. Yes, I'm sure they would've taken their shoes off before stepping on the rug and no, none of them would've stolen the hand towels.

I quickly tore through my entire stack of packages, scraps of wrapping paper fluttering slowly to the carpet and bits of tape clinging to my forearms. Christmas morning is always the most frenzied thirty seconds of my calendar year, not counting the two or three times I have sex. With another person.

I was already thumbing through my new 2010 running log and upending the last of the eggnog-flavored creamer into my coffee mug when my mother began unwrapping the ribbons on her first gift, a small rectangular box. She pulled the paper open and gave an audible gasp.

"Bullets?!" she asked, incredulous. "BULLETS?"

She turned her head toward my uncle, since his name was inked on the 'From' section of the tag. He grinned. She opened the carton and held it up for us to see before quickly dropping the box on the coffee table. The metal pieces clinked against each other as they landed, Christmas quickly transitioning from a Capra flick to Full Metal Jacket.

Mom reached for another identically-papered package and if you see where this is going, you terrify me. You may also be familiar with the finer points of restraining orders. She dug into the wrappings and found--yes!--the gun that matched the ammo. She gingerly opened the top of its hard plastic case and immediately recoiled like she'd been given either an incinerated housecat or one of my senior prom pictures.

She gathered herself, re-opening the box and pulling the gun out of the soft foam surrounding it. It was a snubnose .38 revolver, I later learned, and immediately iPhoned a picture of it to my sister. She called me within seconds, shrieking.


"No shit," I said, both of us rubbing profanity all over the floor.

"This will not end well," she said, no doubt punctuating the sentence with a shake of her head. "She's gonna be all 'GIVE ME MY ANN TAYLOR DISCOUNT! I HAVE A GUN'"



Our mother--still holding a firearm--turned to me and shouted loud enough for my sister to hear through the earpiece "I KEPT THE RECEIPTS FOR ALL OF YOUR PRESENTS."

"And she's got a gun."

We hung up.

There's something off-the-charts unsettling about seeing your mother holding a handgun, even if she's wearing an appliqued Christmas sweatshirt and calmly sipping from a coffee mug with the Cascade-faded logo from our elementary school. I stared at her, briefly feeling like John Connor in Terminator 2 right after his mom started open-firing. Then I wondered at what point she'd drop her biscotti and start doing pullups.

"Open the next one," my uncle encouraged. "It's a purse holster."

"Way to ruin the surprise," I sniped, secretly relieved he hadn't hidden some surface-to-air missiles or a rocket launcher or a well-sedated hostage beneath the Happy Feet wrapping paper.

My uncle is an interesting guy, if you consider people who give weapons as gifts to be interesting. He lives on the western edge of an entirely different southern state, one where the residents tend to be familiar with Skoal rings and GEDs and fishing with dynamite. He's a borderline survivalist, the kind of person I thought only lived on the Discovery Channel or in Eddie Bauer ads. We've never quite established what he does for a living, since he goes off the radar for months at a time, most likely making a nest for himself in some rarely-traveled national park, living on rhododendron leaves and his own fingernail clippings.

"You need to get started too," he said, pointing a finger at my dad.

Dad did as he was told and grabbed the box on the floor closest to his foot, running his fingers underneath the edges of the paper.

"Bullets," he said.

He reached for another box with identical wrappings when I grabbed my new pajama pants, my brand new running shoes and a stack of biscotti and quietly slipped out of the room.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

This Will Be Our Year

Well hello, 2010. We're five days in and you still have that new year smell. Things are going well so far, save for this morning's inexplicable four a.m. nosebleed which was quite possibly the worst thing you can wake up with, save for an empty bottle of tequila and an unconscious Wilford Brimley.

I kicked off twenty-ten in the Outer Banks with two of my closest friends; the kind of friends you can share a sofa with for four consecutive days without wanting to shove each other into another room; the kind of friends who are cool with you sending the same tortilla chip into the salsa for the third time; the kind of friends who don't mind if the last morning show has rolled its credits and you still haven't brushed your teeth. In other words: guys.

We did a lot of nothing--partially because that was the point of getting out of town and partially because the biting wind and sub-twenties temperatures made you sympathize with every Eggo waffle you'd ever abandoned in the back of your freezer--but it was a perfect kind of nothing. My great aunt used to say that the way your New Year's Day unfolded was the way the rest of your year would go. You know, if you were happy, you'd be happy all year and all that. I like to think that her beliefs hold true, that this is going to be a year of comfortable relationships, of easy laughter and big dreams, and of heavily processed food.

On the other hand, she also thought that Liberace was straight and that Pomeranians could smell cancer, so she may not have been the most credible narrator.

Since last week meant the final pages of my day planner--which was barely used, save for a few scribbled notations about upcoming haircuts and Law & Order marathons--I felt obligated to stop by Borders to pick up a new one. Since we're five days into the year, everything had been discounted 50%, so the selection was limited to a stack of well-handled Twilight calendars or a page-a-day celebration of the steelhead trout.

I decided that instead I'd make a resolution to start using the calendar on my computer or on the Google or something else that doesn't require touching paper or developing a deep appreciation for freshwater fish. This is worth noting, because I rarely make resolutions and if I do, they're things that are borderline unattainable, like Become New York Times Best-Selling Author or Develop Own Line of Skincare Products for QVC or Don't Eat Peanut Butter With Your Hands. If I'm going to fail, I like to fail in a big, big way.

Last year, I kicked tradition aside and made an attempt at making myself better. I thought that typing out a list of goals would help me work toward them, but instead they became the first entry in a journal I abandoned after approximately six and a half days. Anyway, I thought I'd lovingly cut and paste them here, a set of gently-used suggestions for improving my life that I fully intend to recycle and revisit in another three hundred sixty-something days.

You should write more. Otherwise, how are you going to win the internet?

I didn't win the internet in 2009--in Monopoly parlance, I'm probably loitering on Oriental Avenue--but I did do a lot of writing. Some of it was even exchanged for cashier's checks that were immediately thrown into my bank account, each deposit no-doubt making an audibly hollow sound, like dropping the pull tab into an otherwise empty Diet Coke can.

Last year wasn't one that paid particularly well, but it absolutely paid off. I made some invaluable connections and some equally incredible friends. I covered a pair of music festivals as credentialed press and collected more concert ticket stubs and hand stamps than any time in my life. I interviewed my favorite musician1 and caught shows by my two next faves.2 I have a recurring gig that allows me to make Tiger Woods jokes beneath the NBC logo and get to share my always eclectic, mostly English music recommendations with the unsuspecting. 2009 didn't give me much to tell my accountant about, but it always gave me a reason to get out of bed.

1Robyn Hitchcock. Duh.
2 Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello. Oh, and Morrissey. Twice.

Is it a resolution or a goal to say I’d like to break 3:15 in the Boston Marathon?

First, I like how my resolutions were phrased in the form of a question. Next, we all know how that ended: with an Achilles tendon that mutinied at the eleven mile mark, another fifteen miles with my face twisted into a pained grimace like I was trying to pass a threshing machine through my birth canal, and a finishing time of 3:40:59.

But I finished and that's probably more important. Or something.

Stop wasting as much time. Really. You’ll be better for it if you don’t spend your afternoons looking at pictures of cats on the internet.

This may have been the biggest bust of all of them. Granted, "pictures of cats" should be replaced with "downloading out-of-print pub rock albums" but still, I surrendered an unforgivable amount of hours to my RoadRunner high speed. This is the one I'll be working on the most. Right after I try to find that last LP that Ian Gomm recorded.

Save money. Don’t charge random shit to your credit card. No more t-shirts. That last one’s for real. You don’t need another damn t-shirt.

Oh, resolution, you were a mega-fail from the time I typed the first imperative sentence. Because I'm self-employed in the feast-or-ramen freelance writing business, credit cards are a huge part of my life. That overhandled Visa in my wallet covers necessities like luncheon meat and string cheese but the downside is that--thanks to my card's approximately 59.99% APR--I'll be paying for this box of store-brand tampons until long after my uterus has bricked itself shut.

And yes, I bought more t-shirts.

Take more pictures. You’re not going to remember this stuff forever.

I didn't take enough pictures. No matter how many I take, there will never be enough to fill in the gaps in my memory of all of the Technicolor good times I like to think I had. One day, I'll wish I had more, of everything from last weekend to this summer to my next Christmas. One day, I'll want to remember how young I was and to forget that I didn't appreciate it and I'd like to have enough snaps on enough memory cards to do just that. This one will move near the top of 2010's list, right before "Teach dog to use guest room toilet" and "Disinfect guest room toilet if expecting actual guests".

Try harder.

That's what I'm doing, kids.
That's what I'm doing.