Thursday, March 22, 2012

Satellite

In high school I had a friend, Sean, who owned a boat.  Sean and I used to go out on the boat all the time, literally.  Every night in the summer.  There are about a million stories that I could tell about us on that boat.  About buoy rocking and hitting shoal markers then blaming the bent prop on his older brother, and about how we were both so terrified of the dock spiders that when we finally got back to his house neither of us would grab the dock because we were sure a spider would run up our arm.  Seriously, a million stories.

But tonight I am reminded of the nights when we did nothing.  On a boat, it is really easy to do nothing.  You go slowly until you find a bay, then you drop the anchor and do nothing.  Sometimes, when it was really warm, we would get in the water.  The amazing thing about the river is that during the day it is freezing, but at night--in a shallow bay--it is always warm.  Bathwater warm.  Snuggle under the covers on a cool night in late Autumn warm.  Best feeling in the world warm.  So sometimes we would get in the water and swim around the boat.  Sean used to talk about River Llamas.  I cannot make this shit up, I swear.  I have no idea what they were supposed to be, but they were out there.  Just sort of hanging out beneath the water, waiting to grab your legs, or maybe not.  It was never clear if the Llamas were actually dangerous.  They probably weren't.  But they were there, and they were enough for me to keep my legs as close to the surface as possible.  You know, just in case.

After we swam, we would always climb (super uncoordinatedly) back into the boat.  Sean had a 15 foot Whaler, maybe 18. It had a tiny console but no cabin, or seat; just two wooden benches, one fore and one aft.  And an outboard motor that would get tangled with seaweed--and once got seriously banged up on a shoal, but we never admitted to that, ever.  We were both looking out for the buoy, and somehow missed the fact that it was dead in front of us.  At least we didn't miss out curfew.  We would crawl out of the warm water, back onto the desk of the boat, and wiggle back into our clothes ( we always, always wore bathing suits--no matter what we were planning, the assumption was that we would end up in the river at least once), then lay there and stare up into the night sky.

If you have never been out in the middle of nowhere, on a boat in floating in the middle of one of the largest rivers in the world, you have never seen the night sky.  You have no idea what it is like to look up and see STARS.  Stars like they are the only thing that exists anymore, like there is no sky, only layer and layer of pinpoints of light.  All twinkling back at you from a thousand years ago.  Half of what you see probably isn't even there any more, but you see it, like looking into the past.

We knew almost nothing about astronomy.  I still know almost nothing about it, but maybe Sean does now.  I don't know.  But it never mattered to us, because we weren't really looking for the stars, we were looking for the satellites.  It seems like such a silly but wonderful thing now.  I can't even explain it, but it was so important then.  We would lie there forever, staring up at the night, looking for the outliers.  In the midst of all those stars there was always the thing that was not like the others.  The tiny pinpoint of light that moved, that trailed across the night, through the true stars, a tether to the Earth.  And we would try to find them, it was like a competition: who can spot it first?  It was like being able to spot the imposter, the one who didn't belong, the intruder in our beautiful, perfect night. 

Sean and I haven't talked in a long, long time.  In truth, I almost never think of him and those nights in the boat.  But sometimes I do.  Sometimes the night is just right, and the stars are oh so familiar, and it all comes back.  Nights like tonight, when I sit out on my porch, and the air is just colder than I think the river would be, and the stars are out.  Of course, in Somerville the stars are never "out" like they are on the river; here they are hidden, drowned out by the lights of the city.  Only the brightest can be seen, but sometimes it is enough.  It makes me remember those nights, spotting satellites, thinking that there was nothing else in the universe except us and the stars and the dock spiders.  And I am happy when I remember that.  I am sad, too, because the summer always ended.  We always had to get the boat back and brave the spiders guarding the dock, and head home in Sean's giant Ford Bronco that never had enough gas in it to get me home.

But tonight those stars were there, reminding me of those nights, right down to the smell of the river and the feel of the fiberglass deck underneath me.  And I even spotted a few airplanes--not the same as satellites, but the best I can hope for in the city.  For now, until the night I get home, and head out in my own boat, and get to stare up at the night sky one more time.     

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Research Proves Pizza Saves Lives

Abstract:
I missed doing research, so I conducted some this weekend.  I studied the relationship between eating pizza and feeling like death the morning after a night out with friends.  Yeah, I said STUDY.  It was like a legit scientific thingy!  To prove it, I am writing this like an actual research article (and also like a snark, I realize that; it is what makes it fun).  

Introduction:
On several really awful mornings (the ones that directly followed really epic nights), I was told that maybe I would not feel so terrible if I had bothered to eat something the night before, instead of just drinking my dinner.  Curious about this folk remedy, the researcher (me) decided to conduct an experiment to see if there was any quantitative merit to this suggestion.  

Review of Literature:
Honestly, the only things that I read before or during this study were some emails, a series of text messages about going to the bar, and I also looked at Facebook a couple of times.  But yeah, they made a pretty sound argument for why I should go out both nights.  I didn't read anything about pizza. 

Methods:
Methodology for this study could be described as something like an experiment.  Two conditions were presented to the subject.  In both conditions, pizza was present but the subject (also me) was free to decide whether or not to eat the pizza.  In condition one, the subject chose not to eat the pizza and instead only had some chips to offset the alcohol she inevitably consumed.  In condition two, the subject drank an equal (or possibly even greater--totally should have measured that, damn it) amount of alcohol but chose to eat pizza as well.

Subject: 
Even though it is totally unethical, the researcher was also the subject in this experiment.  Permission was obtained in the form of various signed receipts for drinks, so yeah, it's not like the subject didn't know what was going on.  Plus lots of good gothic horror stories start with a scientist who, because of the incredibly sensitive nature of his work, cannot conduct his experiments on another human and so is forced to sacrifice himself in the name of knowledge.  I am guessing most of those guys felt a lot like I did--brave, intelligent, like someone beat them with a stick and sucked all the fluid out of their systems...stuff like that.

Analysis:
Statistical differences were measured by counting how many steps I could take upon getting out of bed before that "Oh what the hell" feeling hit me.  Other measures included how much gatorade was necessary to normal out my system, and a qualitative assessment of how close to death I believed myself to be.

Results:
So, turns out that the local folk remedy actually works.  I feel way better today than I did at this time yesterday.  Like, a ton better.  So yeah, that is indisputable scientific evidence that pizza saves lives.  Well, my life anyway.  But I bet it works for other people, too.  I'll do some follow-up.   

Future Applications and Opportunities for Additional Research:
Hopefully I can remember these findings the next time I go out.  I think that I will also have to research the efficacy of some other night time drunk snacks.  I already know that a tater-tot : dino-nugget combination works pretty well.  But now I need to find out it they work better than pizza, and how would I feel on nachos?  What about french fries with cheese sauce?  So many questions!!    

Conclusion:
The researcher (still me) wants to thank my two co-collaborators, The Two R's, without whom this study would not have been possible.  Mostly because they supplied the booze and pizza, and tons of fun.  So thanks guys.  I hope the pizza saved you, too. 

Monday, March 12, 2012

Gimma a Break

Arg, terrible title!!  I know, I know.  I just couldn't think of anything else.  Feel free to offer suggestions.  Anyway, to the point:  

There is this fantastic book called The Name of the Wind.  In it, a boy is learning the names of all things because with a name, you can call something and (if you know what you are doing) you can control it.  Early in the book there is a scene where he foolishly calls the name of the wind, believing that he can control the wind like he controls his breath.  Naturally, what follows is a very, very near death experience; he is saved by someone who knows better than to believe that you can control the power of the wind with something so flimsy and weak as the human lung.  But in those moments before he is saved, the boy experiences a feeling like all of the air in the world has been sucked away.  No matter how he tries to breath in, he can't. 

The first time I read the book (yes, I have read it more than once; it is one of the few books that I can say that about, and I will even go so far as to say that I intend to read many, many more times), I remember thinking that I could not even imagine feeling like that.  But, that was before I fell and broke my rib.  Like you do. 

Well, not like you do.  Like I do. 

At this point, the fact that I have broken a bone should not be particularly interesting to my audience.  In fact, this may sound vaguely familiar, like perhaps I wrote about it before.  Well, that's because I did.  A year ago, actually.  You may recall, however, that last year it was my wrist (some stupidly tiny bone in my wrist that apparently was connected--well and still is--to everything in my arm so I had to wear a hot pink cast up to my armpit.  There was a picture; feel free to look back and find that)  and now this year it is my rib.  Also an obnoxiously small bone, broken in a completely freak way, that seems destined to take an ungodly long time to heal. 

Yeah, that is the other AWESOME thing.  Rib bones take months to heal.  I know this because my sister-in-law (the medical doctor) informed me of this yesterday.  Me: "How long is this going to take to heal?  Like a week?  I mean, it is not a very big bone."  Her (in a totally nonchalant yet somehow amused voice, like I had asked her the funniest but stupidest question in the world): "Weeks.. no months. Yeah, those things take forever." 

^*#@(^$ SWEET!!! 

You will recall from earlier this year: I am not a patient person.  In that post I mostly talked about how I am not patient with other people, but the truth is that I am even less patient with myself.  Sometimes that can be a good thing: I don't let myself make too many excuses, and I tend to get things done.  On the other hand, there are some things--like healing bones--that I really have no control over, but I get really upset with myself anyway.  That is sort of where I am at with this whole broken rib thing: I just want it to be healed already.  It is not fun. It's making me angry.  And it is taking the fun out of running.

There is a reason that I started with that little back story about the boy who tried to control the wind with his lungs.  As I said, I could not previously imagine that feeling of trying to draw in breath and finding that nothing would come.  Now, however, I sort of get it.  Yes, obviously I can breathe somewhat, otherwise I would be dead (I am not that kind of doctor, but even I know that), but the breaths I can take are shallow and painful.  Like the boy in the story, I can feel the wind there but I can't pull it into my lungs; what I can feel is something more like desperation, because without oxygen, it is hard to keep my body moving.  My muscles need the air, and I just can't deliver it. 

It is not only desperation but immense frustration that I feel.  Frustration with my body for being breakable, and for proving that fact to me over and over.  Not that I necessarily expect to be perfect, but I have had sort of a lot of broken bones for a person who doesn't exactly live a high-risk life style.  Except that somehow I do.  I have terrible, terrible bones; which makes no sense to me because I do all the things that you are supposed to do to stay strong (eat dairy, lift weights) and yet it makes no difference to what is clearly the balsa-wood bone structure holding me together. 

I know that this broken bone will not last forever, that I should be happy it wasn't worse, and that I can run at all.  I AM happy that I can run, I swear that I am (well, now that I can run; I was forced to take last week off, which nearly ended in death and destruction--thankfully that crisis was averted).  Yes, it hurts and yes I am slower than I would like to be, but I can get out there and that is better than nothing.  Trailing my husband for the first time in years didn't feel awesome on Saturday, but I will live.  I know that in time I will heal and blah blah blah.  In the meantime, however, it is uncomfortable and annoying and a bunch of other words that don't mean "good times."  I guess it is, however, sort of what I do. 

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

A few points, for reference


Hereclitus once (which is just the literary term for a wicked long time ago) wrote "You can never step into the same river; for new waters are always flowing on to you."  I have always loved this quote; it is both simple and profound.  Of course, it helps that I grew up on a river, a huge river, that never seemed to change--but of course it does, by millions of gallons of water everyday (probably--I don't really know, actually).  Since it's been a while, here's a picture (in case you are one of the two people reading this who hasn't actually seen the St. Lawrence for yourself):

Obviously, this is not the whole thing; this just happens to be a picture that I downloaded from one of about a million pictures available on the internet.  (Who knew there was more than cats on that thing?!)  Alright, back to the point...

I saw this river every day for the first many years of my life, including on the first day (I was born in the hospital that overlooks the channel).  In my mind, the river just IS; it never changes.  But the truth is that the river itself changes all the time, all day every day.  The islands don't change, the houses and the castle, the docks, the marinas, the bridges all stay the same.  And because they are the point of reference for the river itself, the water seems to stay the same as well.  But it is a false sameness, as Hereclitus so artfully reminds us. It is an interesting paradox, one that could easily spin out into an examination of reality, but it is a little early in the day for that, so for now my point is simply that the appearance of sameness is often an illusion, hiding constant change.

This quote did not come to my mind because I have been anywhere near the river (for a depressingly long time, I might add).  Although... Sunday I was near the ocean.  I ran a race in Salem, along the shoreline, which was very beautiful.  But, I wasn't actually in the ocean, I was on land, doing something that could arguably be called racing.  The course was an out-and-back loop, and the distance that Renee and I did required us to run that out and back twice.

Normally, that is a death sentence for a runner.  Seeing that a course is an out-and-back, knowing that you have to do it multiple times, seems like the most boring thing in the world.  But, (oh hey--here's the connection!), that sameness was only an illusion.  Although yes, we did cover the same five mile stretch four times, each section felt different, like it's own separate race.  All the points of reference remained the same, but the thing being measured (in this case our running, rather than flowing water--again, a tangent I could easily go off on but I won't today) was fundamentally different as it passed each point over and over.

In the car driving back to Boston, we talked about how this is a reality for all runners.  No run is ever exactly the same, even when you take the same route or cover the same distance.  For example, Renee and I were talking about the 5k distance.  Last week in class, I had been talking about running with my high school students; they were taking guesses about which mile is the "worst" in a 5k.  A few of them thought the first, because they figured you had the farthest left to go; others said the middle mile because it is just hanging out in the middle there; a bunch thought that the last mile would be the worst because you are tired and know that the end is coming up.  I had to explain to them that every time you toe that starting line, it is a different mile that is the worst (and the best).  You just never know; each run is it's own experience.  Even when you are covering the same stretch of pavement as the days and weeks before, each run holds its own possibility. Just like every time you step into a river.  Or step out your front door. 


There is a part of this which is very sad.  The fact that a river or a run can never be the same thing twice is a little depressing.  There have been some really good runs, when I felt fantastic and energized; I would like to believe that I can recapture that by following the same course.  And I miss my home, I miss the river.  It makes me sad to realize that the river I will swim in this coming summer is not the same river that I spent countless hours in as I was growing up.  It is a different place; it  cannot be the same when I step into it again.  This quote brings with it (at least for me) the weight of "you can never go home again."

But new waters are always flowing on to you.  Each time I step in the river, each time I step into my running shoes, each time I step out my door, it is a new experience, full of possibilities.  And there is something not only healthy but necessary about constant change.  It reminds us that we are always moving, whether we realize it or not.  So many of life's points of reference--those islands in the middle of the channel--seem to be the same day after day.  They give the illusion of stagnation, while in truth life is flowing along.  It is important that we notice and embrace that movement.  


I want to say something profound here about change and flow and life, but there is no way to put it into words.  Which is okay, because I don't think that it needs words.  Instead, I will just leave you with a gentle reminder to not confuse life's points of reference--the little dots in the middle of the river or the middle of the run--with life itself.    

Here and Back Again: A Race Recap of Sorts

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