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Writers Talking to People

Last January, at an Italian restaurant on Whidbey Island, my friend Stephanie and I hatched a plan.

“I have an idea for a class,” she said, “about the public aspects of being a writer.  Do you want to teach it with me?”

“Writers talking to people,” I said.  “I’m in.”

The class would be for students of the Whidbey Writer’s Workshop, the low-residency MFA program we had both completed the previous August.  At the nine-day residencies, held every January and August in Coupeville, students attend morning classes and afternoon seminars.  The seminars are taught by guest faculty, and we proposed this as a pilot class involving the alumni.  We received an enthusiastic response from our director, Wayne Ude, and assistant director Ana Maria Spagna, also a nonfiction faculty member and my former thesis advisor.  Our discussions back in January felt a little like the conversations I had with my surgeons before my first operation – this is an experiment, we aren’t sure what we will discover.  Like my doctors, Stephanie and I forged ahead enthusiastically, hoping at the very least to get a paper in a medical journal out of the deal.

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Several months and planning sessions later, we arrived on Whidbey to teach two three-hour sessions of Writers Talking to People.  I’ve been in a teaching role before, including as a teaching assistant in this very MFA program.  But this felt different.  I’d be teaching my writing peers, my friends.  It would be my first team-teaching experience, with a friend who is a Professor at the University of California.  Stephanie has a PhD in Comparative Literature.  She is, as we say in Massachusetts, wicked smaht

So, yes, I was nervous.  But then I pulled into the parking lot at the Captain Whidbey Inn.  After ten residencies its become my second home, the place where I became Writer Janet.  Walking across the Inn’s grounds, I saw my teachers, my peers, my friends, all ensconced in their classes by the time I showed up on Day 4.  Everyone greeted me like both a member of the family and an honored guest.  My i.d. badge had a blue ribbon attached to the bottom, gold-embossed with the word faculty.  My meals were free, a paycheck was on its way to my house, and there was a travel reimbursement form in my welcome packet.  I had arrived.

The class involved many logistics – sessions at different locations, guest speakers, videotaping.  Somehow, we pulled it off with very few hitches.  In fact, the class exceeded my expectations.  Stephanie was a wonderful co-teacher, and I learned a lot during our sessions by watching her.  Everyone was engaged throughout the three hours, no easy feat by the 4th afternoon of the residency. 

And then, just when we thought it couldn’t get better, we arrived at the local radio station, Whidbey Air (KWPA), where Stephanie had arranged for some students to read their work on the radio.   Gwen Samelson, Whidbey Air radio guru, made the session a teaching/learning opportunity for everyone.  She began by explaining how different kinds of microphones operate, the kind they had at this station as well as others.

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“When you are interviewed for your published book,” she said, emphasizing when and published, “you’ll know how it works.”  I sat in the back, proudly watching my friends read their work into the microphone.  Then my big moment came, and I was totally unprepared.  Gwen said that she would put a podcast together with all of the readings on it.

“Stephanie, come up and do an intro,” Gwen said.  “Janet, you can do the closing.” My mind raced during Stephanie’s recording.  What would I say?  I’d just finished teaching a class about how to talk to people, and now it was my turn to speak, off-the-cuff, and I was going to bungle it. 

It was my turn to sit in the chair.  Gwen came around to help adjust my position.

“Scoot your tailbone all the way to the back of the chair,” she told me.

“I don’t have a tailbone,” I told her.

“I know what you mean,” she said, “my butt is numb too after sitting all day.”

“No,” I said.  “I really don’t have one.  It was surgically removed.”  We were all laughing at this point, Gwen and my friends and me.

“I’ll bet you’ve written a story about that,” Gwen said.  And then, once I stopped laughing, I was ready.  I talked about the MFA, what it meant to me personally, the supportive writing community that has continued to welcome me beyond my graduation.  I don’t know how my gushing will come across the airwaves when its broadcast, but I know how I felt while I was speaking: proud.  Proud of the program, proud of my friends for the work they’d written and read for internet broadcast, proud of Stephanie for all that she did to create such a great class experience.  Proud of myself, too, for being in a mentorship role.  And full of gratitude for all of it.  

The View From Tin House

It’s 7 a.m. on Sunday, the day I return home from my week at the Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop.  This is the transition day, though of course the transition from a week at a writer’s workshop back to my regular life will take much longer.

It’s been an amazing week.  The aesthetic of the workshop can best be exemplified in two of the concurrent lectures that took place on the first day.  In the main hall they had a panel called “The Agent Game” featuring a discussion of the publishing side of things from the 3 agents here with us at the beginning of the week.  Across the circular drive in the chapel, Matthew Dickman, one of the poetry faculty, led a talk called “We Don’t Need No Stinking Agents,” about other non-agenty ways to get your work out into the world.  As the Summer Workshop director Lance Cleland said, “we take our writing seriously, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously.”  Throughout the week there was a lot of laughter and a lot of hard-working writers sharing their ideas with one another.  Each day concluded with faculty readings in the beautiful outdoor amphitheater at the edge of Reed Lake, where ducks landed and took off mid-reading, punctuating the writers’ sentences as they skimmed across the water.

The critique workshop itself was great, especially the supportive and intelligent group of writers who assembled every morning in Vollum Hall, Room 134 to give opinions on how to make our work better.  I’m glad to be able to add some new writer friends to my wonderfully supportive writing community.

I think I learned the most, though, or at least got the most inspired, by the craft talks held in the afternoons.  Standouts for me were Luis Alberto Urrea’s talk about Place, Steve Almond’s talk about opening paragraphs, Anthony Doerr’s talk about failure, and my very favorite, Jess Walter’s talk about time.  These seem like such basic concepts, things I should have mastered by now.  But they are, of course, quite complicated, and having a fresh approach to each aspect was a very helpful re-framing for me.  I won’t attempt to sum them up here (all are going to be available on the Tin House blog, for those interested).  One thing I will say that emerged as a theme is this: be clear and direct.  don’t be coy with your readers.  Don’t say “he drove a 1952 Studebaker that was 10 years old.”  Don’t use the opening of your story as an opportunity to plant seeds of mystery in hopes that the reader will want to read on.  Orient the reader, in time, in place, to the story you are about to tell them.

The week ended on a wonderful note with great readings from Anthony Doerr, Dorianne Laux, and Dana Spiotta.  At the after-party, I had a great talk with Rebecca Stead, the wife of my brother’s college roommate.  We’d never met before this week, but our time together here has already created a friendship.  We spoke last night about transitioning home, about the challenges of integrating writing into our lives.  It’s a conversation I have with writers often, but this time it felt different.  Rebecca talked about how she’s trying to think of her writing as a practice, similar to meditation or yoga.  You assume a pose, so to speak.  You can begin with a ritual.  It is a sacred time, rather than a time that you are trying to sandwich in between other things.  It is a time to be engaged with the words, rather than thinking of the stopwatch ticking until the school bus comes or the deadline you’ve set for yourself.  In other words, it’s a time when you don’t think about the time.

I claim to make efforts to protect my writing time, but the truth is that I’m terrible about it.  No more.  I’m re-organizing my day, so that I will actually write at my best writing time.  And I won’t beat myself up for how much I do or don’t accomplish in that time, how great or terrible the writing on a given day, how long it takes me to complete a project.

“It’s about self-respect,” Rebecca said, and she is right.  I saw a lot of examples of humility this week, successful authors sharing their stories of failure, of stumbling, of asking themselves on a regular basis if maybe dentistry is a better profession for them.  But they also have a lot of self-respect. Sometimes the chapter comes out brilliantly.  Sometimes they spend hours on a shitty paragraph.  But they make time to write.

“The time it takes to write something is the time it takes,” Jess Walter said.  “Give your writing as much time as you need.”  I will.

P.S. Another thing I’m doing to respect myself as a writer is to enlist the help of fellow Whidbey Writer’s Workshop alum Sharon Mentyka to transform this paper-bag drop back of a blog into a website that, you know, looks nice.  Kick-ass website coming soon-ish.  But don’t rush me :).

The Next Big Thing: GUTS

Big thanks to Stephanie Barbe Hammer, author of THE PUPPET TURNERS OF NARROW INTERIOR: A NOVEL IN STORIES, for tagging me in the Good Reads project, THE NEXT BIG THING.  Below is a first for me; a self-interview about my memoir.

What is the title or working title of your book?

GUTS

Where did the idea come from for the book?

I used to be a teen services librarian, and, while in that job, I served on a committee that put together themed booklists for teens.  One year we did a themed list about illness, so I read a lot of books about illness, including memoirs.  It was a lot like when I was in high school, and got obsessed with books about the Vietnam War.  Only this time, I could do something other than get depressed.  I could write my own illness memoir, about my health problems related to a tumor I had on the outside of my intestine.  So that’s how the book started out.

And then one of my closest friends, Beth, died of cancer.  We had talked about writing a book together about our experiences of tumors, surgeries, trading roles of patient and caregiver.  But it was one of the many experiences I didn’t get to share with her.  Instead, I wrote about my experience of having her die, about her illness, my illness. 

I started doing triathlons as a way to celebrate my health, and then as a way to honor Beth.  So it all came together: illness, health, loss, strength, friendship.  Swimming, biking, running.  Though illness is still a big part of the story, I don’t think the book belongs in the category of “illness memoir” anymore.

What genre does your book fall under?

Memoir

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

Me – I don’t feel like I can choose a character to play myself, even sarcastically. 

Matt (my husband) – Ryan Gosling  (hey, a girl can dream, right?)

Beth – Jessica Chastain (she was that redheaded, that pale, that beautiful)

Kevin (Beth’s husband) – River Phoenix (they really do look alike)

Caleb (my five-year-old) – Jay Mello (played Brody’s youngest son, Sean, in JAWS)

Helen (my four-year-old) – Shirley Temple

A friend, who appears in one sentence of the book, has asked to be played by Daniel Craig.  I’ll see what I can do.

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

How do you survive a serious illness, the death of your best friend, and getting kicked off the course during a triathlon?  It takes GUTS. 

[That’s two sentences.  Forgive me.]

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

It depends on what you mean by “first draft.”  I started this project in 2005, and had a manuscript together in 2012.  I’m still drafting, and revising.  I don’t like to think about what draft I’m on now.  

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I was inspired by the desire to try and make sense of my experiences, beyond a simple recording of “this crazy thing happened to me.”  A lot of books were inspirations to me too, including THE TENDER LAND by Kathleen Finneran, a beautiful memoir about Finneran’s family that centers around her brother’s suicide when he was fifteen. 

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Parts of it are funny, and also medically graphic.  You learn more than you might want to know about my large intestine. (Wait, did you say “pique” or “put off”?)

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I’m currently seeking representation.

 

Next week, look for NEXT BIG THING blog posts by fabulous authors Tanya Chernov, Claire Gebben, and Mandy Manning.

 

 

Tapering

Less than three weeks to go until Race Day!!  This means that we soon get to the “tapering” phase of training, where workouts are short and there are even rest days built into the schedule (as opposed to the rest days I take all the time when I can’t fit in a workout).  I like the tapering phase, not just because I still get to eat a lot (I’m race-fueling, after all), but because it means that I’ve nearly completed my goal.  There’s always a point in the training season when I get tired of it – tired of showering at the gym more than at my house, tired of getting up early every Saturday morning, tired of bike rides in the rain.  Last week, that’s how I felt.  But then we had a great bike/run workout on Saturday.  Matt followed the rules: bike, then run, repeat 2-4 times (he did 3 bike loops, including a big hill each time, 4 runs.  That’s 31 miles of biking, 8 miles of running.  Holy smokes).  I’m still getting over my foot issues (plantar fasciitis, or something like it, so I did my own variation on the workout: 3 bikes on the flat route, 1 run. 27 miles of biking, 2 miles of running.  Biking 20-30 miles is starting to feel like a good-sized ride rather than an huge one, which is a big deal for me. 

In some ways I feel totally prepared for Lavaman, others not as much (see below).  But one change I’m noticing from previous race day lead-ups is something I hope I can sustain past the finish line.  With my abdominal surgeries, recovery was slow and painful.  Each time, moving myself from place to place required a lot of effort.  And then, gradually, it wouldn’t.  I remember doing activities like hiking and swimming for the first time post-surgery and feeling a rush of gratitude that I was well enough to do anything at all.  The human body is amazing in its capacity to repair, and I felt in awe that I could run, ever, after being cut open.

That feeling of gratitude has been in a period of dormancy for some time.  But I’m glad to say that, this week, it returned to me.  I don’t care if I am the last person on my team to come across the finish line on March 24, a strong possibility.  I don’t care if my times are slower than they were last year.  I’m probably going to end up walking a lot of the run course, and that, too, is okay by me.  I just feel really glad that I am healthy, that I am able to do the triathlon.

I hope this feeling remains with me for awhile, this gratitude that feels like it’s actually flowing through my veins, not just an abstraction I’m reaching toward.  A tangible thing, like feeling the ground under your feet when you stand, or walk, or run, no matter the speed or the distance.

 

 

Ways In Which We Are Totally Prepared for Lavaman

–       Bikes tuned up and ready to ship to Hawaii

–       Large supply of Nuun (like Gatorade, but better) in our pantry

–       Can run up the stairs at the gym with less fatigue than usual

–       Know which pool at the Disneyland-esque Hilton Waikoloa has the best hot tub, and where the soda machines are located for post-race refreshment.

 

Ways In Which We Are Unprepared

–       can’t find our flip flops among the shoe chaos in our house

–       Plantar Fasciitis persists (Janet)

–       Open water swim goggles are leaky (Matt)

–       Still takes some of us an hour to change a flat tire (you can figure it out)

–       $1500 still to raise for Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. (you, you, and you can help us with this).

 

It’s one week until the fundraising deadline of March 12.  Cancer needs an ass-whooping, now more than ever.  Please donate what you can.

Thank you!!

Annual Beer

So much for meeting goals with this blog, advertised alternatively as a “training blog” for Matt’s and my Lavaman efforts, and a “regular blog” about my attempts at car-use reduction.  It’s like this blog is a three-speed bike I left out in the rain to rust while I ride my shiny 18-speeder. 

 

My apologies to the faithful blog readers I’ve probably lost by neglecting to post for so long.  But, I’ve been busy, and you all have too, and it’s nice to finally sit down with a cup of tea and write to you.

 

Not much to report on the car-free front.  I’m on Day 28 or 29.  I’ve lost track.  I’ve fallen off the wagon, though I did take light rail to the airport recently, and I’ve discovered a bus that takes me right from Helen’s preschool to the gym and my office down the street.  A busy writing schedule and training schedule have made me less eager to spend a lot of time waiting for the bus.  And winter has taken its toll on bike commuting: too dark, too cold, too rainy.  I have enough of those conditions when I go out on training rides.  I’m hoping to re-invigorate my efforts when it gets a bit lighter and warmer.

 

Race Day is 6 weeks away, which sends waves of panic and relief through me in equal parts.  Having done Lavaman before, I know that I can finish it, a fact that has made me perhaps a bit complacent at times.  I’d hoped this would be the year that I really mastered cycling.  I had grand plans of getting clipless pedals and actually learn how to use them, of taking a bike repair class so that I could change a flat in less than an hour, without someone standing beside me telling me what to do.  But I’ve discovered that, with training, there comes a point of no return.  My systems are working well enough, and to introduce anything new – new equipment, new food to eat on race day, an attempt to master a new skill – would upset the balance.  So I will make my slow way up and down Queen Kaahumanu Highway, enjoying the scenery and hoping to avoid mechanical issues.  Also trying to think about the ride itself, rather than my mind skittering ahead with worry to what I think will be the most challenging leg for me this year: the run. 

 

At its best, the Lavaman run is hot and fatiguing.  But I’ve got a new challenge this year, a case of plantar fasciitis (or something like it) that won’t go away.  I’ve discovered that running doesn’t hurt more than walking, so I’ve started to slowly introduce running into my training routine.  It’s amazing to notice how, even though I feel generally fit from biking and swimming, I am out of running shape.  Not just my legs and feet, but my lungs too.  I’m trying to start out slowly, and not worry about the fact that my teammates are doing six mile runs while I’m working towards two.  One thing I know about running 10K in 80 degree heat and humidity right after you’ve swum 1 mile and biked 25 is that it’s hard, but not as hard as walking 10K in those conditions.  Why?  If I run, I’ll be done sooner.  And something that feels even better than doing an Olympic-distance triathlon is having just finished an Olympic-distance triathlon.  I will have my annual beer at the end of the race, and it, along with everything else I consume post-race, will taste delicious.

 

Meanwhile, Matt is going gangbusters on his training.  He regularly finishes the bike and run workouts first in the group.  With Coach Cathy’s help, he’s fixed any issues he had with swimming, and now swims faster than me (the only sport, prior to November, in which we were more or less even).  He’ll be on his 4th or 5th beer by the time I cross the finish line.  He’s signed up to do a half ironman in June.  If I have triathlon fever, Matt has full-on Race Plague.  Be careful when you next visit our house.  It’s extremely contagious. 

 

Finally, an enormous thank you to all of our donors.  We are closing in on $8,000.  We still have a ways to go to meet our goal: http://pages.teamintraining.org/wa/lavatri13/MattandJanet.  But it’s within sight.  Kind of like that finish line on the beach in Hawaii, where we will feel appreciative of our friends, our family, our strength, our health, and we will drink a beer (or 4) in gratitude. 

A Horse With No Name

When I was twenty-three, on vacation in New Zealand, I was thrown from a horse.  Not thrown, actually.  I fell off.  Slid off.  But it sounds better to say thrown.  More badass and athletic. 

 

We’d decided to go on a guided horseback ride, my sister and brother-in-law and I.  Our other choice for the day’s activity was to swim with seals, but that was more expensive, or all booked up, I can’t remember.  The horseback ride was pretty, the horses walking and trotting and cantering, just for a quick minute, on trails through low hills in countryside that looked a lot like the Pacific Northwestern United States, where I would move four months later, though I didn’t know it yet.  Despite my general fear of horses, I had a good time.

 

At the end of the ride, the guide’s horse walked over to a field by the little hay barn where we’d started, and stopped.  My sister’s horse did the same, and then Andy’s, with mine bringing up the rear.  Only mine didn’t stop at the field like the other horses.  He steered left, aiming for the pile of hay outside the barn.  I was hungry after our long ride, so it made sense that the horse was too, given that he’d done all the work.  I let him walk over to the hay pile, where I figured I’d dismount with the same grace the guide had dismounted from hers. 

 

Only he didn’t stop.  There was another horse over by the stable, eating her own hay, and my horse, due to a horse-crush or the desire to have the hay piles all to himself or I-don’t-know-what, ran at the other horse.  A short chase ensued, the pursued horse bolting for the little hay barn, and my horse following at a gallop.

 

The hay barn was tiny, with room for perhaps one horse at a time.  Not a horse chasing another horse with a person on top.  The ceiling was low, and held together with steel beams as wide as the horse itself.  Thwap my helmeted head went against the first metal beam.  Thwap.  Thwap.  With each hit I slid a little further back on the horse, until I couldn’t hold onto the reins any longer, and I slid off the back of the horse at the same moment that we emerged from the hay barn, so that it was not soft hay that I landed on, but an unforgiving slab of dirt.

 

In other words, I broke my tailbone falling off a horse’s ass.

 

But the point of the story is not the falling.  It’s what I did afterwards.  Or rather, didn’t do.  I didn’t get back on.  It’s been nearly nineteen years, and I haven’t ridden a horse since.  I don’t plan to ever again, even though my tailbone subsequently had a tumor wrapped around it, and was surgically removed, so it’s no longer there to break.  I won’t ride again, even though it’s what you are supposed to do in life, get back on the horse.

 

I could put a lot of metaphorical weight on this decision, maybe linking it to the problem I’m having now, of getting back to my Thirty Days of Car-Free Existence.  I was out of town for a week in October, and then daylight savings ended and it’s been apocalyptically rainy.  I need to get back on the horse and leave my car at home more often.  Finish what I started.  Get those 30 days done before it gets darker, colder, rainier. 

 

It’s hard.  I don’t feel safe riding home in the dark with Helen in the bike trailer, and on the days that I pick her up from school I usually have Caleb with me anyway, so the bus is my only option in those scenarios.  But, man, does bus commuting take a lot of time and planning.   Not so much to get to and from preschool, but for places I go less often.  On Halloween, for example, I was determined not to drive.  I had to go to Caleb’s classroom Halloween party, then to a café to me a friend for a writing date. I’ll ride my bike I thought, but then I remembered what I needed to bring with me: a gallon-jug of water and a Tupperware full of cookies, made by another Mom, that the kids were planning to decorate.  If I put the latter in my backpack and rode up the hill to school, I’d arrive with a Tupperware full of broken cookies.  So, the bus.  But in order to get to my writing date from Caleb’s school, a relatively straight shot and a distance of about 3 miles, I’d have to take two buses each way, and spend almost 2 hours in transit.  So I drove.

 

It’s going to take me a long time to get to 30 days, and I feel like I’m failing in my goal.  But am I?  The point was, is, just to see how long it takes me, how much I have to rearrange my life to do it.  Long, it turns out.  A lot.  But that’s okay.  I’m learning a lot in the process.  I’m thinking twice before I get in my car, and biking and busing places I never would have before.  A couple of weekends ago, we had our first car-free out of town trip.  We took the train to Portland, and stayed at a downtown hotel.  Portland deserves its reputation as a great city for public transportation, and we had a fun time busing and light-railing around town.  One of my favorite parts of the trip, though, was the time when we missed the bus coming back to the hotel from the science museum.  Rather than wait fifteen minutes on a bridge in the dark and the rain, we decided to walk a little ways to another stop.  Caleb and I pretended we were Mallards, and spoke to each other in duck language.  Helen sang as she rode on Wiley’s shoulders.  We ended up walking all the way back to the hotel, putting on our pjs, ordering room service and watching “hotel television,” aka “Dora the Explorer.”  The kids loved the train, and for Wiley and I it was much more relaxing than driving the traffic-filled stretch of I-5.

 

But back to my fall.  The truth is, I get back on the horse all the time.  I’ve had a lot of rocks fall in my path over the years.  Everyone has.  Though it might slow us down or divert our path, we always keep going.  I’m still leaving my car at home some days.  Just not as frequently as I expected.

 

One of my goals in doing this was to overcome some of my bike riding fears, something I haven’t entirely been able to do despite the fact that I’ve done 4 triathlons.  Now I’ve started training for a 5th, and I think the bike commuting I’ve done in the past couple of months has helped me feel more comfortable biking around town.  I’m still not One with my bike in the way that some of my triathlon teammates are.  To achieve the kind of bike-bond they have, I think I’m going to have to do something I never thought I’d have to do: Think of my bike like a horse.  That’s what I’ll bet my friends who are more into cycling than I am do.  They are similar: My bike is trusty, and gets me places in a fashionable (minus the helmet hair) manner.  I’ve grown to have affection for my bike, and I think it would help me motivate through another winter training season to think of it as animate, needing exercise as much as I do, enjoying getting out in the fresh air.  I don’t imagine I’ll talk to my bike while I ride.  But I think, to get myself in the mood, I need to give my bike a name.

 

Diamond.

 

Diamond is the name of a horse I once rode.  Not the one in New Zealand – I don’t remember that horse’s name, and naming my bike after THAT horse seems like bad karma.  Diamond was the horse I rode for a week in the summer of 1981.  I was ten, and my family stayed at a dude ranch in Colorado with our friends-who-were-like-cousins, the Wieses.  Janislee, the mom in the family, had chosen the ranch for its beautiful setting, not knowing that it was a Christian ranch, and that we would be the only two families who didn’t attend the nightly prayer service.  She was right, it was beautiful, my first time in a state I would later choose to attend college in, where I would meet Wiley.  I guess my fate was sealed that week I spent sitting on Diamond’s back on our daily rides.  My birthstone is a diamond.  My bike is grey and sleek.  The name seems to fit.

 

I’ll be taking Diamond out on a lot of rides over the next few months, on the street and on the bike trail, on group rides and, more often, on my own.  Just me and Diamond and the open road.  It will be windy.  It will be wet.  We might get a flat or two.  We might fall.  But we will get back up.  We’ll keep on riding.

It’s Not (Just) About the Doping

This morning I woke a few minutes before my alarm, so I was fully alert, in that pre-caffeine way, when the radio clicked on, the NPR commentator delivering news I’d been waiting for: Yesterday Lance Armstrong announced he’s stepping down from his role as chairman of the Livestrong Foundation.  “Good,” I said, not very quietly, to my still-waking husband.  We’ve supported Livestrong through donations.  The backpack I use to cart around my laptop is a Livestrong backpack, given to my husband for being such a good fundraiser for the cycling event he did with their organization.  I’ve wanted them to remove Armstrong as chair ever since the United States Anti-Doping Agency went public with evidence that Armstrong was the ringleader of what it calls “the most sophisticated doping program in recent sports history.”  Much of the USADA’s evidence comes from Armstrong’s teammates, who testified of Armstrong demanding that they dope in order to help him win.

 

Armstrong denies the allegations, and, not surprisingly, still has many supporters, even in the face of a 200-page report of evidence against him.  He’s already lost his seven Tour de France titles, and been banned from competitive cycling for the rest of his life.  Today he lost his Nike sponsorship; other companies are likely to follow suit.

 

As a mild cycling fan, none of this would bother me too much.  Doping is rampant in many sports, I’m learning, and it’s unsurprising that a cycling star would turn out to be on The Juice.

 

It’s the Mom in me that’s upset about this news.  Specifically, the Mom of a five-year-old boy who looks like he might be something of a sports star himself.  It’s too soon to tell, of course, but he’s been turning heads at the park ever since he learned to dribble a soccer ball at the age of two, and self-reports that he always wins the running races in gym class.  He’s adopted, which is not really relevant to the story, except to say that, if he did share genetic material with my husband and me, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

 

We’ve been watching the baseball playoffs this week, and Caleb has already become a devoted Cardinals fan, reporting plays to me while I’m in the next room, and cheering whenever the “red birds” score a run.  It won’t be long before he finds a sports star to worship.  I don’t know a sports-loving kid from my own childhood who didn’t have a sports figure as a hero.  But those were different times.  In the 70’s, athletes weren’t making headlines regularly for doping, extramarital affairs, child sexual abuse.  Who shall I recommend to Caleb for wholesome, innocent admiration?  What sport should I steer him towards, that’s not beset with drug abuse?

 

I feel an enormous amount of disrespect for Lance Armstrong’s doping behavior.  Even greater, though, is my disrespect for his continuing to lie.  He’s a hero to many: kids, adults, athletes, cancer survivors.  Why not use that power for good?  Show us a Lance Armstrong who has a strong enough character to admit what he did, and recognize that it was wrong.  Maybe we could talk about why sports exist in a form so punishing that people who pursue them professionally feel the need to use drugs in order to compete.

 

I’m glad for the Livestrong Foundation that Armstrong is no longer at its helm, as fighting cancer is hard enough work by itself.  As for Caleb, we will need to find another sports figure for him to worship.  Someone who’s fast and strong all on his own, someone who is honest and kind to her friends and her family. 

 

Any recommendations?

Day 11: “I Don’t Ride in a Car Anymore”

Day 11 (Monday 10/15)

 

A very rainy Sunday evening saw Wiley and I in the living room, bent over our calendars.  We were figuring out the week’s schedule: exercise, kid pickup, birthday parties and soccer games and date night.  For the month of October, my Mondays look like this: put Caleb on the school bus, drop Helen at preschool, get myself to Greenwood and carpool to and from Burien to tutor, then get home with a bit of time to spare before Caleb’s school bus pulls up at the end of our block.

 

I’ve been doing everything but the 20 miles between Greenwood and Burien on my bike.  But, even though I said I was ready for bike commuting in the rain, I’m not entirely.  I don’t want to leave Helen’s bike trailer in the rain all day at preschool.  And, although biking in the rain is a common activity for me, I’m used to getting soaked and then coming home to a warm shower and dry clothes at the end of the ride.  Tutoring is a five-hour affair, and needs to be done with dry clothes.  So, I either need to bring a change of clothes in my pack, or wear rain pants and broil on the ride up the hill.  I know that this is a conundrum real bike commuters with real offices

 

I look up from my phone calendar at Wiley.

 

“I think I’ll take the bus tomorrow.”

 

The only downside is that my ride to Greenwood is a nice way to get in my exercise.  Wiley kindly puts my bike on our bike trainer so that I can try and fit in a “basement ride” sometime on Monday.

 

It turns out that Monday morning is cloudy but dry, but there’s not time to rearrange plans.  So we bus.  I have great bus karma, walking up to the bus stop just as the bus is pulling up both times.  Helen has a huge grin on her face while we ride, like she’s on an amusement park ride.  I suppose the city bus is as fun as a roller coaster to a three-year-old.  The other day Helen said to me “I don’t ride in a car anymore.”  I asked her if she liked riding in the bike trailer and she said “Yes!  I want to do it forever and ever.”

 

The bus is a great place for conversations, both the ones I have and the ones I eavesdrop on.  Public transportation is a great place for a writer to gather material.  I don’t know if it’s because I put out a bartender/therapist vibe, or if it’s something about sitting in a vehicle with nothing to do, not even drive, but people always seem to want to talk to me on the bus.  After I’ve dropped Helen off, I walk up the hill to take the number five bus.  In the time between the bus pulling up at the stop through the first two minutes of the ride, I learn that the guy sitting next to me missed the previous bus, is riding home from his friend’s house in Fremont, where he spent the night, to his house, on 125th Street, to go home and take a shower before he gets back on the bus to ride to school in Shoreline.  He seems exhausted at the thought of all that bussing, especially since he missed the first bus and is now running late.  I decide against evangelizing about the benefits of the bus/bike commute.  It’s only 9:00 am, and if he’s that tired just from bus riding, he’s probably not going to go for it.

 

One of the tutors drops me in my neighborhood, and after getting home I still have 30 minutes before Caleb’s bus arrives.  I ride the bike trainer in the basement, a good reminder that biking outside – in the rain, in the cold, even in traffic – is preferable to this.  But just wait until we put a DVD player down there.  Then you won’t be able to get me off that thing.

Day 8: Fair Weather Bike Commuter

Day 8: Fair Weather Bike Commuter

 

The thick cloud cover this morning was a good ease-in to what’s on tap for later this week: the return of The Rains.  I’m having a lot of conversations that make Seattleites sound like parents whose kids’ come-from-behind team is about to get eliminated from the playoffs.  “We’ve had a good run of it,” we’re all saying about the long strand of sunny days.  “We never thought we’d get this far into October.”  It has been great to pedal from neighborhood to neighborhood with the sun in my face or at my back. 

 

The weather, too, made it easy to have a car-free weekend (days 5 & 6).  On Saturday, we biked up the street to the park for Caleb’s soccer game.  Even though the park where all his games are held is only 5 blocks from our house, this is the first time we haven’t driven, I’m embarrassed to admit.  I was proud for two reasons: Caleb scored his first goal (a great sliding shot right at the whistle), and I was organized enough to pack a picnic lunch so that we could hang out at the park after the game.  The afternoon went by quickly, and then we traveled by foot/scooter/tricycle to our friends’ house for dinner.  They live six blocks from our house in the opposite direction from the park, and we would have driven for fear that the kids would be too tired to get home on foot.  But it worked out fine: Helen on Wiley’s shoulders, Caleb on the scooter, and I carried the tricycle home. 

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On Sunday, we went for our first-ever family bike ride, something we can attempt now that we have a trailer.  Caleb rode on the tagalong on the back of Wiley’s bike.  Helen sang a half-real, half-made-up song while we bumped along the bike trail.  We chose a nearby destination: the park where Wiley and I got married.  Strolling down the path with the kids toward water, I was struck by how nice it is that they are old enough now that we can have these kinds of outings without worrying about feeding schedules, nap schedules, or needing to tote over-full diaper bags everywhere.  I felt content, having one of those rare moments where family life feels the way I thought it would feel before I became a parent.

 

That feeling lasted about 45 seconds.  “I’m hungry!” Caleb said, even though we’d just gotten up from the picnic table where we had a snack. “I’m tired of walking!” said Helen, turning towards me and reaching her arms up for me to carry her.  We’d walked about 500 feet.  Thank goodness for Annie’s cheddar bunny crackers.  “One more handful,” we said.  “Have some water.  There’s turtles up ahead.  Maybe beavers!”  We walked on to the water, then looped back to the site of our wedding ceremony.  Caleb registered his opinion of the institution of marriage:

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Then we made our way over to the outdoor shopping mall across the street to have lunch and re-stock Caleb’s supply of track pants, the only pants he’ll wear.  The tagalong’s screws had loosened, so Wiley went to the bike shop to borrow an Allen wrench.  I took both kids in the trailer.  They are heavy, especially when full of cheddar bunnies.  We went to the mall playground, arriving at the same time as a family we’d seen loading into their car at the wedding park.  I thought of all we’d done since they got into their car: used the bathroom, discovered the bike problem, tried to fix it, loaded the kids into the trailer, walked around the mall to find a bike rack.  Had this other family done some shopping before coming to the playground, or did it take them that long to drive over here and find parking?  Uh-oh.  There’s Smug Bike Commuting Janet rearing her head.  Better pour some rain water on her.

 

The clouds today remind me of another issue I’m hoping bike commuting will help with.  The past few winters, I have struggled with what some might term “Seasonal Affective Disorder,” others might call “a series of Bad Hair Days,” and a few might refer to as DIDARIS (Damn, It’s Dark And Rainy In Seattle).  Last winter I found that training for a triathlon through the wintertime helped with the blues, both because of the endorphin churning and because, on bike training days I had to be out in the weather.  I don’t know if there’s science to back my theory, but my experience tells me that being outside makes me happier, even when the weather is bad.  I think I’m about to get a big dose of that.  I have my neon jacket and can use Wiley’s waterproof messenger bag.  The trailer has a rain cover.  I’m ready.  The sun was nice while it lasted.  We had a good run of it.

Day 4: Why Live Anywhere Else?

I write this post from the courtyard next to Uwajimaya Supermarket in Seattle’s International District.  A friend just wandered by my table in search of lunch; I didn’t know her office was in this neighborhood.  She’s the fourth person I’ve bumped into this week, which makes me think that I must be driving past people I know without realizing it every day.

 

It’s such a gorgeous fall day that I can hardly do anything besides sit here and think about how gorgeous it is.  It’s not just the weather – the sky so cloudless it looks like the blue has been painted on by expectant parents decorating their son’s nursery, the sun warming against the breeze which blows the dried leaves into gutters and edges of buildings.  It’s the whole scene – the fountain behind me, the people lunching at nearby tables, the man on the corner playing a wooden violin that looks like the kind I saw kids playing when I lived in Nepal.  It’s  so wonderfully urban here in this courtyard.  Maybe I’m appreciating it more because I arrived by bike instead of by car.  Probably if I’d driven I would’ve waited until the last minute to leave where I was, and wouldn’t be sitting here right now, an hour before I’m where I need to be.  So I’ll credit the carless commute for this lovely moment.

 

[Don’t worry.  I haven’t taken XTC.  Everyone in Seattle is talking like this these days.  The weather is THAT good.]

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I almost failed in my carless goal here on lowly Day 4.  The reason why I’m in the International District, a neighborhood I rarely frequent, is to visit my friend Scobie’s high school writing class.  This week his students are discussing an essay by a little-known author named me!  The class gets out an hour before I need to be standing on the corner by my house to receive Caleb as he gets off the school bus.  I couldn’t make the math work with the Metro bus schedule (for the #26, a bus that goes almost door to door) and the school bus schedule.  But late last night I thought of another option: the bike/bus combo.  If I take a different bus, it will get me close-ish to my house faster than the 26.  Then I can just zip down the hill on my bike and I’ll be home.  So this morning I biked to an appointment in Ravenna, then biked downtown.  I don’t like biking downtown, based on my one experience today.  I’m glad I don’t have to do that commute every day.  Props to Wiley and the many people I know who bike commute downtown.  That’s some stressful riding.

 

[later]

Soccer practice happens on Thursdays, also with Caleb’s friend Brayden.  I trade off Sarah; every other week one of us takes the boys to and from practice.  This was my week to drive.  I considered the bus, but we would have had to walk half a mile and take two buses to get to the practice field.  The return trip would have gotten us home around 7:00, an hour after practice ended and the time we usually finish dinner.  No way could I do that trip with two hungry boys.  Then Wiley’s Mom was here for the evening, and wanted to come to practice.  So we’d drive.  I’d drive.

 

It turns out that, if you don’t drive your hybrid for 3 days in a row, on the 4th day, the battery will be dead.  Count on this happening when you’re already late to practice.  So we took Sylvia’s car instead.

 

A schedule update: I’ve decided that my plan of not driving “Mondays-Thursdays in October, except for the week I’m in Hawaii, and oh, I might decide to go hiking one day too” is kind of lame.  So I’m amending: 30 days of car-free.  If I do it only Monday-Thursday, that would take me almost to Thanksgiving.  So the more I do it Friday-Sunday, the faster I’m finished.  Anytime I get into my car, or anyone in my family uses the car, doesn’t count as a “car-free day.”

 

Since I went through such contortions to be car-free for most of today, before I made this decision, I’m still counting this as Day 4.  We didn’t take MY car.  A technicality, I know.  I won’t do it again.  Will the three of you who read this blog forgive me?