Sunday, March 31, 2013

Elephants Marching to the Sea

I generally do my stretching on the lawn in front of the Conservatory of Flowers. Golden Gate Park, on John F. Kennedy Blvd begins with the Conservatory of Flowers. Painted white, like a white-painted sand castle, the Conservatory stands in stark contrast to the patches of Crayola Crayon Colored flowers scattered around the lawn. The whole scene is woven with the sounds of picnic conversation, wind, the beat of runner’s feet, the humming of bike tires, and the clicking of cameras.

Running from the Conservatory, the tall brown trees with dark green tops sway with the breeze like elephants marching to the sea. On the left is the brown battleship building of the De Young museum, and across the field, the glass-front science experiment of the Science Museum. The knobby trees in the concourse between the two museums is a no-man’s land of tourist, dog walkers, wanderers, and Thai Chi practitioners. From a distance, they look like dots bumping into each other and moving in circles.

In the park, you might see groups of people doing Kung Fu classes, practicing their forms, kicking and punching in unison in a slow fight. On Sundays, if you look to the right, you’ll see a roller skate dance party straight from the summer of 1985, complete with fluorescent-colored shorts and sweat pants. A lot of naked torsos and bouncing pig tails disco-roller- skate-dancing in funky circle 8’s. Each person dances alone like giddy 16 year olds rehearsing for the prom. Across the street from the roller-skaters is an organized, chaotic cloud of people doing the Charleston to swing music swinging from large speakers.

The rose garden is further down on your right. The scent of roses mixed with BBQ smoke and cigarettes smoke smells like a fire in a perfume shop, or Valentines Day on fire.

Couples kiss, children fight, dogs roam. I have seen bikers yelling at cars, cars yelling at me. Once, as I crossed one of the streets, a man in a truck lurched forward as I jogged through the crosswalk. I put my hand up in a thank you, and he - five o’clock shadowed, and baseball capped - slowly and calmly flipped me off.

After the museums, the park flattens out and passes a scattering of fields filled with a swimming mix of families, and hobos, animals and sometimes what appears to be a mixture of both.

Airplanes buzz high above, cars and motorcycles sputter down the street, and thousands of conversations in hundreds of languages collide together, creating a high energy white noise that is impossible to hear and impossible to ignore.

Starting from the Conservatory of Flowers, at every mile there is a water fountain. That’s a great thing for a runner, but what makes Golden Gate Park special is that, each water fountain is equipped with a spigot set high for adult humans, a spigot set a little lower for human children, and then a spigot set at the ground level for dogs. While I can guess that my dog, Auggie loves the park for the respect they give him with the fountains, I’m sure the myriad smells of dog piss, garbage, food, people and plants all wafting in the air are even more intriguing. Regardless, he trots through the park with his nose perched high, sniffing and trying to take in all of the air at once.

The first set of fountains is located at the overpass at Crossover Drive. Beyond the overpass, JFK slopes downward, past a waterfall with green water tumbling out toward a foamy pool, and letting out to Loyd Lake with its single ruin consisting of a porch from a Nob Hill House that was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake; the only one of its kind, strangely. The casual runner should be careful while running past this area as it has been rumored to house spirits and ghostly floating orbs gliding on top of the green water.

To the trained eye, JFK’s side of the park becomes less pruned, and grows wilder. The trees hang over the running path like frozen waves.

Behind the trees, between 25th ave and 30th Ave, and between Fulton and JFK Blvd is a long strip of land laced with paths, hills, and mounds reserved for Frisbee golfers to “tee off” from. These are the goateed cargo short wearing guys, and their reluctant girlfriends.  They emerge onto JFK and into their Subaru Outbacks and pickup trucks with eyelids at half-mass, and hovering under a cloud of pot-smoke and beer-breath-stink.

I have seen a crazy man, waving an umbrella like a sword and, as I passed him, he said “I’ll kill you all.”

Continue on JFK, and the runner descends down a slight slope toward Spreckles Lake, a large pool of water that, during the weekends, is the second home for man-children with their model yachts. These replicas bob like miniature society people around the lake. At times there will be small speedboats, skidding and humming along the water. When one of the speedboats capsizes (which is often), you will see a fully-grown man holding a fishing pole with a tennis ball attached the end. He will cast his ball over and over again until it hooks on the boat and either turns it right side up, or drags it to shore, where the fully-grown man will polish the boat and fill it with gas. 

At Spreckles, there is another set of fountains for adults, children and dogs.

Keep running for about a quarter of a mile, and the Bison Paddock opens up like a day dream to the past, with six foot tall, prehistoric looking animals, marching regally with their heads high with no recollection that they used to run this town before we showed up.

After the Bison, the park darkens with shadows. The lighter shades of apple-green turn to a deep forest green, and the moisture from the ocean fills the air like smoke. There are less people in this section of the park, and the steep downward slope near the golf course gives the runner the sensation of descending into some kind of a new world. As the golf course breezes by on the right, the trees open up to the grey, mossy brick windmill, standing tall and immaculate, surrounded by hundreds of brightly colored tulips; reds, whites and yellows hugging the base and framed by green grass. The whole scene looks like something out of Alice in Wonderland. The runner then turns around and heads back uphill to see the whole scene in reverse, and the backsides of all the glory.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Meet the Runner: The Runner Throws His Dixie Cup in the Trashcan During a Race, But Empathize With Those Who Drop it on the Ground

I am The Runner and I throw my Dixie Cup in the Trashcan during a race, but I empathize with those who drop it on the ground.

Any long distance race is populated by glistening runners, striding with clapping feet, and intense, nail-sharp, tortured faces.  Up ahead, a patch of brightly shirted volunteers, fill small wax paper cups, frantic water splashing their hands and legs. They face the oncoming riot of competitors, right hands clutching the Dixie Cup, and left hands with another cup at the ready.

The runners, reaching toward the cups, like a drowning man grasping for a patch of land. They clasps the cup, splash water on their faces, with the general hope that at least half of the water lands in their mouth. The other half dousing their faces, and shirts, like a benediction.

Some runners then drop the cup like it bit them. Some throw the cup to the ground like it just cheated on them, and they are appalled that it was ever in their hand in the first place. Some drop the cup politely at their feet, feel guilty about it, and say “thank you” to the bright shirted volunteer.

Some throw it in the trashcan. It’s a decision.

At the most recent race I ran in, however, I had a change of thinking. I had taken my first cup from the first pack of bright shirted volunteers, and after drinking it, found myself at the “trash-can-or-on-the-ground” decision crossroad. I chose the trashcan. I decided to always choose the trashcan.

When I first made the decision to throw the cup in the can, I was very dogmatic about what one should do with their cup…indeed, when I first starting writing this piece, I was dogmatic about it.

My stance has historically been: unless you’re winning the race, you have no excuse to toss your cup on the ground.

And/Or: unless you’re dying, throw your cup in the can. And, if you’re dying, hopefully the white shirted people at the first aid tent will help you. And good luck, but don’t worry about the cup, we forgive you.

Upon further consideration, however, I have become more sympathetic to the cup dropper. Here is why:

Running Distance Races is Difficult On Many Levels:

There is a physical, emotional, spiritual and chafing pain that comes along with running a race. During a race, the runner is engaged in an intense competition against his own expectations. In addition, the runner has an entitled feeling that says, “I paid for this race, and until that bright shirted volunteer comes over here and runs 20 miles like I just did, I will throw this cup, and ANY cup anywhere please. Damnit.”

With these feelings, it’s difficult for the runner to think about anything other than race, let alone where to throw a wax cup.

Dropping the Cup is Exhilarating:

We’ve all seen the scene in movies, where a runner grabs the water cup from the doting young, bright shirted volunteer boy working the water station. An unspoken (often slow motion) moment passes between the runner and the brightly shirted volunteer boy. This moment is accompanied by a tastefully, appropriate, yet over-the-top ballad. The unspoken moment passed between the runner and the brightly shirted volunteer boy oozes with influence, inspiration, and moxy.

Because of this moment, the brightly shirted volunteer boy will surely become a lawyer or an artist. The movie star runner (a little back story here: the movie star runner just lost his best friend in a tragic accidental helicopter-skiing accident, and although the movie star runner couldn’t have saved him, he blames himself and has since been drinking and running a lot…an obvious attempt to drive out and escape from the pain in his movie-star-runner heart) then haphazardly tosses the cup on the ground, as a metaphor for his own crumbling life, yet he throws it vigorously and victoriously as his future. The cup splashes and rolls on the ground. The movie then cuts to two years later, after the runner has adopted the brightly shirted volunteer boy, and fathers him toward becoming a lawyer or an artist.  The world’s youngest boy lawyer. Or artist.  

Dropping The Cup is Rebellious:

In our everyday lives, littering is illegal. With these legal restrictions binding us, it’s understandable that, given the permission, we feel a rebellious satisfaction in throwing garbage around the streets.

Dropping The Cup Fulfills Our Emotional/Physical Connection:

There’s something viscerally connected between throwing things and your emotions. How many times have I been angry and wanted to throw something down on the ground? Or up in the air, in a moment of complete joy?

All of these things considered, I throw my cup in the trashcan. Putting the cup in the can is a perfectly legitimate and effervescent way of taking a brief break on the course. If you’re drinking water, you can write off any snotty looks from fellow runners who think it’s lame to stop during a race.

There are two arguments that I could pose in favor of throwing the cup in the trash can:

We Need Order In Our Society:

In order to maintain an etiquette-driven, civilized, civil-minded society, you should just throw your cup away.

Think About the Children:

Most people staffing the water stations are exhausted brightly shirted teenage volunteers who, just hours ago, were spaced out in a haze of video-game-gun-fire and Cheetos dust. A large majority of them are volunteering for purposes of fluffing up their college application.

A pack of runners drop their cups, then the brightly shirted volunteer boy drags his feet, while scraping a big rake on the asphalt moving the cups into a pile and throwing them in the can.  A monumental task for most reluctant teenagers.  

Being a high school teacher, however, I say: put the kid to work.

Some Cups Get Left Behind:

Others will say that, after the marathon/carnival moves out of town, we who live in the city that marathon/ carnival just left are stuck with your cups in our trees and in our parks for days and weeks to come. And all because you want to litter.

And that’s why I aim in favor of the trashcan now. It’s a type of karma, I belive. 

Throwing the cup on the ground is part of the experience of the race. Like hanging on the rim after a slam-dunk. Or spiking the ball and dancing after scoring a touchdown. It’s a tradition. But, all I ask is that you make your best decision.

Meet the Runner: The Runner Runs With a Dog

I am the runner, and I run with a dog.

Like any couple without kids, but with a dog, Rachel and I have placed our dog, Auggie, as the nucleus of our world. Auggie is part Chocolate Lab, and part Pit Bull. He has very few boundaries. He sleeps where he wants. He snores, he farts, he is entirely motivated by food, and he has learned that, if he whines, he’ll get pretty much anything he wants. Although we like to think we don’t, we feed him food scraps, especially carrots and the green ends of Strawberries. From time to time, we’ll add some leftover chicken noodle soup or chicken broth to his kibble. When we do, he is practically inconsolable with excitement, snorting and breathing heavy, pushing his bowl around with his nose.

Auggie also loves to run. He knows few words, but his ears and eyebrows spring up when he hears the words: “run,” “park” and “let’s go.” When I got Auggie from the SPCA in San Francisco, I was 30 pounds heavier than I am now. I was recently divorced and generally self-loathing and cynical toward people. Regardless of my angst-ridden attitude, I still had to walk the dog. This turned into hiking with the dog, then running with the dog. Having run with Auggie for 6 years, I have experienced the good, the bad and the painful with him. I have met interesting people because of Auggie, and I have witnessed a large range of emotions from complete strangers. As a result, I feel that I have come to understand people, dogs, the world, and where I belong in relation to all of these things.

It is easy to spend the day isolated from other people. As a teacher, I try to have personal moments every day with my students, however, given the size of classes, and the limited amount of time to get through my curriculum, it is often only the large group or smaller groups of students that I interact with. I take the bus with many people, but I generally have my nose in a book the whole time. While running, I wear my headphones and while waiting in lines, I am thumbing through nonsense on my phone. The two most intimate interactions I have on a daily basis are between Rachel, my wife, and Auggie, my dog.

When people are in public, they generally keep a rather neutral emotional tone about them.  It is not terribly often that strangers show one another heightened emotion, such as great excitement, fear or anger. Even the physical manifestation of frustration is limited to fake smiles, rolled eyes or tightened lips.  Emotions are reserved for close friends, husbands, wives and family. Dogs break those barriers down. While Auggie and I do not intend to strike fear in somebody, when we do, it usually leads to some kind of interaction where Auggie and I are left either soothing the person by allowing Auggie to lick their hands, or the person will walk briskly away from me in what appears to be a “huff.” When a person is a dog person, they show unbridled excitement, yelling cooing, often high pitched and nonsensical phrases at him as if he is their hard-of-hearing, infant-best-friend.

Auggie is a great “onramp” to a conversation with strangers, and I love talking to strangers. As a result, Auggie and I stop from time to time to chat. I’ve learned that people who look like former (or current) drug addicts tend to love dogs and are unbridled in their love for him. Children want to open-handed pound Auggie’s back. People who want to see Auggie as a pit-bull assign him a certain amount of masculine reverence or they walk away from him in fear, as if he is a loaded pistol. On the other hand, people who want to see Auggie as a Labrador, assign him an angelic personality that fulfills some kind of childhood fantasy. If people don’t have a dog, they will comment on Auggie’s coat. If people do have a dog, they will ask questions about his poo. When I was single, I had hoped that Auggie would be a good wingman, but I soon found out that Auggie will sniff and be adorable around homeless men, but pretty women, he ignores.

People on the street will comment on a dog in the most honest of ways. Like, “Oh, what a beautiful dog, so regal.” or, “oh, he’s a chunky little guy isn’t he?” Even though it’s narcissistic and neurotic, I treat all comments as a direct comment on myself as a person and as a dog parent. If somebody says that Auggie “is so shiny and healthy,” I translate that commentary to say, “Ryan, you are so shiny and healthy.” When somebody comments on his “adorable fat little belly,” I feel emasculated, undignified and an immediate need to continue on my run. I worried for days when an old man said to me, in a matter-of-fact tone, while touching Auggie’s love handles: “You know, the number one killer of dogs is obesity.” I was defeated and scared as he listed off all of the terrible things that could kill a dog: hip problems, heart attack and something called “The Bloat.” Auggie and I both immediately went on a diet.

Talking to other dog owners, often times they use empathy as a justification to gain their own goals, or to avoid certain hardships. Like blaming a fart on a dog, it’s also easy to blame dogs for your own laziness or reluctance. I find that when people say things like, “My dog isn’t good on a leash,” what they are actually saying is, “I am not good with a leash.” The more you control the dog, and the more you use the leash, the more the dog will understand the language of the leash. That language varies between dogs. I do not agree with this idea that dogs must be militarized into submissive soldiers; they are dogs after all. I have seen owners along my run who control their dogs wonderfully on a leash, even though the dog is barking and lunging at Auggie in a hypnotized rage. But at least they have developed a leash-language with their dog.

I run Auggie with a leash. Some people run without leashes, and I admire this. It’s probably better for the dog’s neck, but more admirably, it shows a large tolerance toward neurotic thinking and anxiety. I run with a leash because I don’t have that tolerance. More importantly, a large unleashed dog running toward somebody usually strikes an intense amount of fear. If that dog is even an ounce Pit Bull (it doesn’t matter if the other half is Labrador, Retriever, Teddy Bear or marshmallow), all people see is the Pit Bull. And they freak out. Rightfully so. If I didn’t have a dog, and I read about Pit Bulls eating babies, I’d be a little gun shy too. Not everybody has the same relationships and experiences with dogs that I do, and this is something to pay attention to. That piece of leash-fabric-buckled around Auggie’s neck gives people the type of security and suspension of disbelief that they need to feel safe. I feel that people should come to peace with their fear of dogs on their own time. I don’t want to force people’s epiphany, especially if I’m trying to finish a run.

Running with a 70 pound, excitable dog on a leash takes a certain type of concentration and can be dangerous, as there can be a lot of sudden movements.  There is a lot of easing Auggie’s anxiety as he splays flat on his belly on the sidewalk out of submission, because a toy poodle raised its hackles at him. Once, in full stride in the park, Auggie abruptly stopped to pick up a half eaten piece of pizza. His head got under my feet, and I went flying through the air, landing on top of him. He let out a horrible yelp that both accused me and apologized to me.

Aside from the occasional lapse, I am very good at running with Auggie on his leash. Auggie and I have become a single moving organism. I steer him like a ship, letting more slack when it’s needed, pulling it in to adjust him so he runs closer to me when there is less road or somebody on the road needs more space. The simple twitch of my finger on the loose gripped hand, to Auggie, means that he should slow down. Together, we have become a six-legged beast, humming and weaving through the crowds like some kind of brisk angel, walking between the raindrops.

Running with a dog has to be an empathetic endeavor. My vet said it perfectly when he said, “A tired dog is a happy dog.” Dogs require very little maintenance, for the most part. Feeding and exhausting a dog is easy, and a very meaningful thing to do. Having Auggie is what turned me into a runner.

Auggie will sit when I tell him to. He will shake my hand in order to get a treat. He will protect me if I show fear. He will allow my three-year-old niece to tug on his ears and yell in his face. Auggie will wake up at 6:00 AM and follow me through the rain on a run. He has moved up and down the state of California with me, and has witnessed my expression of every color of the human pallet of emotions. He greets me at the door every day as if I’ve been gone for a year. For all of that, I owe him kindness. Through exhaustion, kindness is achieved.  Sometimes it’s a chore, but in the end, it has connected me to the world.

Meet the Runner: The Runner Runs Alone

I Am the Runner and I Run Alone.

Playing outfield on my second grade little league team, I was far more interested in looking like a baseball player than I was actually playing baseball. I smacked my glove, spit sunflower seeds, and waited for the fly ball that rarely ever made it my way. And I was happy about this.

Mostly, I didn’t have that killer instinct to win. I enjoyed watching and observing everybody’s heightened emotions during competition. When our team struck a kid out, or when we made a few runs, it was beautiful to watch somebody my age emote. The blue bulged veins, red streamed eyes popping and cracked screaming voices were such honest expressions, and their honesty and lack of embarrassment was hard to watch, but enviable.

Growing up in the suburbs, heightened emotions were a rarity. People laughed, but they never laughed so hard, they cried. People got angry, but they really only got angry in cars or at restaurants. The emotions I experienced from people in the suburbs seemed so measured, so intentional.  

When I was in college, I lived in a dorm in Santa Barbara.

One day, I noticed a beat-up pair of Adidas that I had bought two years earlier when I realized that the Beastie Boys were Jewish like me, and suddenly all I wanted was to be a Beastie Boy.

I found some loose fitting pajama shorts and a cotton tank top, and put them on. I strapped on the Adidas and I walked out the door with my yellow cassette Walkman in my hand. I walked toward the windy, less populated road that lead to the beach, and I started running.

In general, I made it a rule not to sweat in public or to be weirdly out of breath.  But the road was empty, so I kept going.

My lungs felt like they were going to come flying out of my mouth, and my legs burned. After the initial shock had worn off, the freedom of solitude crept into my bones. The trail was above a cliff, and the expanse of the ocean spread out to the horizon like a wrinkled blue blanket. I sweat and panted and hacked like a dying man, but I was astonished at how I hadn’t noticed the vibrancy of the ocean quite like this before.

When I got back to the dorm fifteen minutes later, covered in sweat and sucking air, I wasn’t sure what had happened. The tension had been emptied out of me and what was replaced was akin to my veins being filled with honey. I had a hard time not bursting into laughter.  

When the runner returns from a run, he notices the eerie stagnancy in the air of a room filled with people who haven’t been running. When I returned to my dorm, the other people seemed in a malaise of melancholy, whereas I felt like a beam of light.

Soon I was running every day, and I could run for a half hour, forty five minutes and an hour at a time. If I wanted to stop I would, and I would gaze at the ocean from atop the steep cliff. Every few minutes, short-shorted girls or statuesque men came running by with their tanned muscles reflecting the sunlight and honey colored skin, like far off fairy tales. They were a harsh juxtaposition to my pajama shorted, tank topped, hairy chested, sweatiness. But it didn’t matter. By this point, there was a kinship that I felt with these strangers. We were out there on this cliff, enjoying the scent of salt and tar in the air. We understood the value of being alone. We both felt on the brink of screaming in pain or laughing in joy.

After my freshman year, I moved to the opposite side of town, and my normal route was no longer convenient. I tried running on a different route, but the change in scenery and the change in path made running unbearable. No longer was I on a cliff, but on a road with cars, and walkers, and professors. There was a smelly lagoon with people making out, or walking to class. This new route wasn’t my place to run. It was our place to share, and the beautiful unspoken connection that I had experienced on the cliffs was gone. I was just a sweaty guy in a tank top amongst crisp and clean people on their way to school. Suddenly, I was back on the baseball team, and I was competing for a place, and I was being watched, and I was the odd man out, and I lost interest. Completely.

Eight years later, I was 30 pounds heavier and living in LA.

I had gotten a four month old black lab puppy, and I soon realized that he needed to be exercised. Every morning we walked, and then we started hiking, but this was becoming easy. One day, I noticed a pair of basketball shoes in the corner, and I put them on along with a t-shirt and some basketball shorts. I simply left the house at a faster pace than usual, and clopped down the street. I ran a few blocks and practically died. When I got back, I felt effervescent, a feeling I hadn’t had since college. Being an adult now, I had experienced hardships, I had a chance to understand my anxiety, and I had experienced the unsheltered world of post collegiate life. This levity that I experienced after my run seemed more important at this older, more wizened age. The need to attain that feeling was reawakened in me, and felt more important. This feeling was a lot more than simple endorphins, but a gleeful response to the blood in my body and a sudden urgency to attain this feeling again.

I run five days per week. During each year, I’ll generally run one or two half marathons and the San Francisco Marathon at the end of each summer. In these races, there are thousands of others running next to each other. A lot of people see this as an opportunity to run with a community and they love the rhythmic tapping of thousands of feet around them. I still, for the most part, run these races alone, nestled inside of the comfortable world of my headphones, and face to face with the my thoughts.  I don’t run to compete, but to check and see how all of this running I do on a weekly basis compares to other runners. I run races because I can, at 35 years old, still run 13.1 miles, 26.2 miles or 50K.

I refuse to engage in the subjective argument of “what is better”: headphones or no headphones on a run. I believe that the runner dictates his own world, and if headphones work, that’s great. If the sound of feet crunching gravel, conversation and the leaves rustling on trees gets your feet moving, that is what is better. For you.

There is nothing quite like my Sunday run. I insist on doing this one alone. Rain or sun, wind or fog, Sundays are a strict date with my running shoes, a long run, and some music.  The last forty-five minutes, it’s the “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me” podcast. If you see me running on Sunday, you are very likely to see me either belly laughing or kicking my feet and flailing my arms to the music in my headphones as I wade my way through San Francisco.

Running seems like a habit, although I think “habit” is too easy of a word. I don’t think “compulsion” is the right word. I don’t even think “love” is the right word. I plan my running schedule out at the beginning of the week, and I negotiate all of my other social and work related obligations around it. Many times I sacrifice social obligations in order to run.  If it’s raining, then I run in the rain. If it’s windy, I run in the wind. There are very few excuses as to why I won’t run.

But here’s the interesting thing: I do NOT understand it. Knowing myself for as long as I have, this running thing is very much out of character for me. Historically, my default speed is immobile. Running, for some reason has provided me with access to my full pallet of emotions. Sometimes it’s joy, sometimes other, darker or gloomier emotions sneak up on me. Often times, I feel no emotion, and that is just as good.  But this feeling that I get happens, for the most part, when I’m alone. Being alone allows for me to contemplate and absorb this often whirling storm of thoughts that batter my brain.

All along the path of the San Francisco Marathon there are inspirational quotes tacked up on trees and signs along the way. During my first marathon, running through Golden Gate Park, right around mile 14, I read a quote by Steve Prefontaine that said, “A lot of people run a race to see who is the fastest. I run to see who has the most guts.” It’s probably due to the imbalance of calories and sugar and adrenalin that comes with running 14 miles, but for whatever reason, I was overtaken with emotion. I connected with this idea of “guts” as the perseverance it takes to run, the dedication it takes to connect with your emotions on such a visceral level. I took this quote as a metaphor for life, and for whatever reason, I had a very hard time holding back an unexpected burst of tears.

 I had heard this quote many times, but this time something struck me. 20 years later, running had brought me whatever it was that the nine year old on my baseball team felt when he struck a kid out.