Sunday, November 25, 2012

Back to Life

When we look back at the people in our lives, we tend to categorize. Because this is going to be one of those posts, let me boil that down a little further. I’ve had different types of girlfriends, or, more precisely, types of relationships with women.

The ones I thought I might spend the rest of my life with.
The ones with whom I knew I’d never have a meaningful connection.
The ones with whom I was, legitimately, better off as friends.

This is the story of one who brought me back to life.

I went through a really difficult breakup. Top five hardest breakups ever, right there with the first time I ever got dumped. That feeling that this. Could. Not. Have. Happened.

But it did.

I was hearbroken and I buried myself in my work. My writing. My blog. I started volunteering more. I worked out like a mad man. I filled the time.

To borrow a phrase from the film adaptation of About A Boy, “I had a very full life. It’s just that it didn’t mean anything.”

I went to a conference out of town, where I met up with a few old friends and acquaintances. We went out to dinner that first night and one of them introduced me to Anne.

She was slim, hair tied back, chic blouse and pencil skirt. Physically, Anne was a beautiful woman, and there’s no denying that was the first thing I noticed about her. The next things I noticed: she talked down to the waiter; she cursed a lot; while it seemed affectionate at first, I became increasingly certain that her “ball busting” of the friend who introduced me to her was more mean-spirited than jovial.

I volleyed with her. Given the right setting, the right people, I can be a bit of a ball buster myself, and so I engaged, almost equal parts joking and coming to my friend’s defense.

After dinner, a smaller group of us lingered and moved over to the bar. While I waited for the bartender, a weight came to rest on my shoulder. Anne. In heels, she was almost as tall as me. Tall enough to put her chin right there.

“Am I distracting you?” she asked.

“Can I buy you a drink?”

Our little party thinned until Anne and I sat alone. She sipped a martini. I drank my Jack straight. When we weren’t talking about something we got along much better, sharing the briefest anecdotes and factoids from our lives, then teasing one another about each one.

“It’s a shame we’re only here a few days,” Anne said.

“Why’s that?”

“Otherwise, I might ask you out to dinner.”

I walked her up to her hotel room. She put her card in the slot on the door. The light flashed green and she turned the handle.

It was the first time I saw her awkward, unsure of herself.

She took about three steps inside and turned around to face me. I kept the door propped with my foot.

“I had a good time tonight,” she said.

I kissed her.

A couple minutes later, we said good night.

I went about my business the next day. I bought a two-dollar banana and a cup of stale coffee from a vendor on the expo floor. I sat in a series of sessions and asked questions, struck up conversations after workshops, and gave business cards to a dozen folks I’d never hear from again. It was a completely ordinary conference experience, notable only for the nervous energy manifesting itself in a near-literal bounce in my step as the hours wound down to seeing Anne again.

I told our mutual friends I had a headache. I’m not sure what excuse Anne used, but I don’t think anyone scrutinized us too closely. The second night of a reunion never feels as vital as the first.

Anne used to live not so far from the conference locale. We hopped in her rental car and drove for half an hour to a much smaller town. We shared a plate of fried calamari over drinks at an Italian restaurant and quickly found that we had all but exhausted topics for conversation. Then I spilled a drop of red wine on the crotch of khakis. She said I looked like I had had my period. We were off and running again.

After dinner, we walked the stretch of storefronts, hand in hand. The town had strung white Christmas lights along all of the tree branches, oddly out of season.

We got back in the car. An old Richard Marx song played on the radio. She called it gay and changed the station. I spared her the lecture on homophobic language. Along the drive, I watched the patterns that took shape on her face in the glow of the dashboard, under streetlights, and beneath the shadows of the tree branches and telephone lines at the side the road.

We made it back to her room.

Under the covers I ran a hand over her bare arm. “It’s a shame we’ve only got one more night.”

She might have nodded. Might have rolled your eyes. You never know what you’re missing in the dark.

I mentioned that we didn’t live that far apart. Absurd, since you’d have to drive almost a full day to get from my door to hers. She called me on it. I reminded her of the existence of air travel. She asked if I knew how expensive that flight was. I admitted I didn’t.

I knew by then that Anne wasn’t the woman I’d spend my life with, and removing physical contact from the equation, I couldn’t imagine we’d make great friends. Nonetheless, as our big toes crossed, I realized I hadn’t thought of my previous relationship or the break up in over 24 hours.

That felt pretty good.

“What are we doing?” Anne asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I’m just saying that maybe I could come see you in a few weeks. And if we both have a good time, maybe we’ll see each other again a few weeks after that.”

“For Chrissake, we’ve only known each other two days.”

I didn’t spend the night.

Despite the rocky ending, I still couldn’t wait to see Anne again for our last night in the same zip code. I sat in the same session as one of our friends that morning, the one who had introduced us. He wore a black tie patterned with yellow and blue and pink balloons. “It’s my birthday,” he said. “So no headaches tonight. We’re getting the whole crew together.”

Anne didn’t answer my text messages that afternoon, so, indeed, I joined the whole crew, Anne included, in the hotel lobby that night. We walked to a karaoke bar four of five blocks from the hotel.

The birthday boy and Anne sang a duet, he as Andrea Bocelli, her in the role of Sarah Brightman on “Time to Say Goodbye.” It seemed emblematic of something or other. The abrupt end to my brief time with Anne. The ending of a belabored, too-long epilogue to my previous relationship.

The two of them made googly eyes as one another on stage. Just for show, I figured. I ate chicken wings and pretended not to notice, all the while wondering what kind of bar had that song in the rotation. When my turn at the mic came up, I sang “I Believe In a Thing Called Love” by The Darkness. My ability slip into a falsetto is the only remotely impressive weapon in my karaoke arsenal. The crowd cheered when I approximated the high notes. Anne talked through most of my performance, her eyes fixed eight inches above the knot in my friend’s balloon tie.

Ten minutes later, I finished my beer, waved a hearty salute to the table, and got up to leave. I made it all the way to the sidewalk when Anne caught up with me.

“You’re going to leave like that?”

She put her arms over my shoulders, locked her fingers behind my neck. A few doors down a group of really little kids--first- or second-graders by my best guess--were gabbing away with each other. I wondered where the parents were and why on earth these kids were out so late at night. Anne and I both watched them for a few seconds.

“We’ll have to keep this G-rated.” She kissed my cheek and hugged me.

I hugged her back, holding her long and hard, knowing it would probably be the last time I would do so.

We traded a handful of emails after we had both gotten home, but promptly fell out of touch the way people with little in common and little time together tend to do. In the months that followed, via Facebook, I saw that she and the birthday boy had forged their own relationship. I was confused. Then upset. Then OK with it. All in a span of a couple days.

I ran into him at another conference almost a year later. We talked for about ten minutes on the street. Anne’s name never came up. We made sure we had each other’s numbers and agreed to meet up for drinks that night.

We never did.

Post-Anne, I never looked at the woman I was seeing before her in quite the same way. And for that matter, I wrote a little less. And I didn’t feel so bad about skipping a trip to the gym.

To return to that line from About A Boy, I suppose you could say my life was a little less full. And perhaps it’s because I carried far less baggage that I was finally ready to move on.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Long Run

I was five years old the first time I won anything.

The best I can recall, we spent the entire last day of kindergarten on footraces. The day started with a free for all. We lined up in the grass, eighty or so kids from the four kindergarten classes at Westmoreland Road Elementary. At a teacher’s ready-set-go, we set off running the length of a football field. I remembered my father’s advice about the difference between long runs and sprints. I paced myself, stayed with the pack until the final 30 yards or so when I sprung out ahead and won the race.

I told my father when I got home. My father, who I had devastated when I turned out I couldn’t hit a baseball to save my life. My success at running marked the second chance at an athletic career. In the weeks that followed, whenever the two of us were idly waiting for something, he called on me to run to some point in the distance and back--to the street corner, to the telephone pole, to the tree.

I was fast, but not in a record-breaking sort of way. In lieu of any obvious way to application for talents, we moved on. By mid-summer, my old man switched his focus to teaching me to read, using an elaborate system of homemade flashcards and the ever-imminent threat of hitting me in the back of the head with one of his beat-up old blue slippers if I got a word wrong.

You can’t make this stuff up.

But back to running, it was around that time that I joined my sister and the neighborhood kids in lining the side of the road to hand out water to runners of The Boilermaker Road Race. For those unfamiliar with The Boilermaker, it’s a 15K (approximately 9.3 mile) race, that today fields up to 13,000 participants. Each year, a number of world-class runners from afar join the race.

We handed out water and watched the people run by--professional runners, intense amateurs, and finally the everyday people who weren’t exactly running by the seven-and-a-half-mile point, mere footsteps from my front door, but who nonetheless had the wherewithal to still be in motion, still trying.

I told my mother that one day I would win The Boilermaker.

By the age of 17, I had no illusions of ever finishing in the top 1,000 runners for that particular race. But I did decide it was time to give The Boilermaker a try.

I trained.

We had a week off from school each April, so starting then, I hit the pavement. The first day, running for 12 minutes straight was nearly unbearable, and I relegated myself to laps around the block so I wouldn’t strand myself too far from home.

By the end of the week I could sustain a run for about 20 minutes.

By graduation, I could keep running for an hour or so each time out. This was before the days when every runner had a pedometer. Using markers from the local terrain, I estimated I was moving between an eight- and nine-minute mile clip.

Come July—the month of the race—I was holding pace for an hour and a half or more. In short, I was ready.

Four days before the race, I ate some bad pizza.

I was friends with a pair of brothers who hosted a get-together each summer. Ten or so of us would play basketball most of the afternoon, eat excessive quantities of food, and then end up in their in-ground pool as the evening set in. In the gluttony portion of this particular gathering, I ventured out of my normal comfort zone and ate a slice of mushroom pizza.

I’ve never liked mushrooms. I don’t like the texture, and the flavor has never been enough to compensate for that.

This--the time I willfully ate mushrooms--led to the single worst stomach virus of my life. (As a reasonably rational adult, I recognize that eating all that pizza without washing my hands after I played basketball probably had more to do with my illness than the mushrooms themselves. Psychological scars don’t always abide rationalism, though. I haven’t intentionally eaten a mushroom since.)

It started the next day at my summer job, working behind the counter at McDonald’s. I had trouble standing. I figured all that running, plus the day of basketball, plus an eight-hour shift on my feet were just taking their toll, and I’d get some rest when I got home.

When I got home, I puked my guts out.

For the two days that followed, I lay in bed, only getting up long enough to cross the hallway to the bathroom and ralph up whatever was left in my system. I’m sure I must have drank something and ate something over the course of those two days, but only certain of it because I must have had something more in my stomach to manufacture more vomit.

Then came race day. I couldn’t keep food down, but I was able to jog in place, barefoot on the yellow carpet in my room for a minute without feeling sick. And so I decided to run.

Jog may be the more appropriate term. While ten-to-eleven minute miles are OK to me in my advanced age, they felt like moving in slow motion at the age of 17. I stopped for a cup at the first water station. One sip of water and I was nauseous again. I chucked the rest of the cup and kept moving.

There are medics everywhere at The Boilermaker, ready to tend to folks who bit off more than they could chew running a 15K. I never expected to be one of the people who needed them. And, perhaps against all odds, on rubber legs, no food, and no water, I stayed upright. After about an hour and forty minutes I crossed the finish line.

Looking back, my mother tells me I looked like death.

I always intended to run The Boilermaker again someday, but I got a job with a summer program out of town the next year and ended up working with that same summer program every summer since (11 years and counting).

I went to college and kept running. A practical choice. I intended run The Boilermaker again. I was drafting a novel about a runner. Plus, there was the sheer principle that I’d gone from getting gassed after running a mile and a half, to running close to ten miles; I didn’t want to give up the conditioning. So I ran a couple times a week, three-to-five miles in an outing, and more or less maintained the regimen for four years.

I didn’t run in the years immediately following college. I worked my 9-5, I wrote, I took classes, I lived with my girlfriend. I had a full life.

I moved to Baltimore. After a longer winter than I expected after migrating south, there came an April day that was pure spring time. Sunny, low 70s.

I ran.

I explored my suburb for the first time on foot and developed a somewhat routine route, about four miles long. Some neighborhood kids took to racing me along the stretches of sidewalk outside their houses. I had fun.

For the first time since The Boilermaker, I registered for a road race, a mere 5K in the Baltimore Running Festival that autumn.

The day of race arrived about a month and a half removed from a four year relationship and about a week and a half after things ended with the next girl. I mention all of this because of the idea that dominated my thoughts as I approached the finish line:

This is what it means to be single. You run a race and find no one waiting for you at the finish line.

I’m not sure if it was that melancholy thought, or that I was starting to get more into weight training, or that the weather started to cool (in reality, it was probably the confluence of all those factors), but I stopped running after that race, not to pick it up again for well over a year and a half.

Then came the Army Ten-Miler.

How does one go from a 5K to not running at all to a ten-miler? Truth be told, I don’t remember the specifics; just that my friends talked about doing it and I got caught up in the romanticism of running again. April 1, 2010, I registered. Days later the training began.

The first time I ran with any serious intentions I was 17. A decade later, the results weren’t as pretty. My knees ached. My back hurt.

But I did it.

A week before race day I ran 10 miles and change. After a week of rest, I drove down to Greenbelt, caught the Metro into the heart of DC, and took my place at the starting line.

I took it all in and tried to enjoy that sheer experience of running. The good feeling of a sweat you’ve worked up and earned, rather than the sweat heat and humidity impose upon you. The way a breeze to your front can cool you off at just the right moment. The way a breeze to your back can feel as though it’s pushing you forward. The capacity to engage with your thoughts or to think nothing at all and simply do.

I took it all in for no other reason than because I had decided this would be my last long run. While I haven’t ruled out a return to The Boilermaker if I ever have a summer free again, I’ve decided that I’m otherwise done. The joint pain, the time investment--all of its made for younger people, or people who find greater joy in this sport.

I didn’t run again for nearly two years. This time, I had no qualms about losing my conditioning. I was at peace with it. I like to think that’s the nature of a good retirement.

Then, on a pensive birthday I had split between writing, Chinese food, and Batman movies, apropos nothing, I laced up my sneakers and started running.

I felt some of the joy again. The burn in my lungs was something like an old friend, not altogether unpleasant. I thought about my life and what I wanted. I plotted. I made choices.

I was only on the road for a half hour or so. I’ve run a dozen or so times since then. Unplanned. Unstructured. Exploring.

I suppose that idea of running never really leaves you once you’ve realized it. A sheer physical task that, in its purest form, has nothing to do with competition or chasing after a ball, but that is, on the contrary, its own sport, its own art, its own endeavor. It’s an escape from the rest of life when unread emails and voice messages fall by the wayside in favor of conversations with oneself.

At least that’s the way it is for me.

I run now for myself, without pressure, expectations, or goals. Not to or from anything, but, perhaps, for something that is all the more important for lack of definition.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Meeting Chris Jericho

In the February 2011, Chris Jericho stopped at the Enoch Pratt Library in Baltimore on the book tour for his second memoir Undisputed.

For those unfamiliar with Jericho, his biggest claim to fame is as a professional wrestler—one of the last great stars from the territory system (he traveled internationally to cultivate experience in and the style of many different regions) and the World Wrestling Entertainment’s first undisputed world heavyweight champion (unifying the World Wrestling Federation and World Championship Wrestling titles). Aside from his accolades in wrestling, he’s the lead singer of a truly awful band called Fozzy, has appeared on reality shows like Dancing with the Stars and Celebrity Duets, and has served as a talking head for several VH1 pop culture programs.

But, yeah, he’s significant to me as a wrestler. Both for his athletic abilities and his skill as a talker, he has to make any serious fan’s shortlist for top stars of the past twenty years.

I’ve seen Jericho perform live a half dozen or so times, but none of his performances stood out to me more than a 3-on-1 handicap match in which he defeated “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat, and Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka at Wrestlemania 25.

You see, for wrestling fans, everything that happens at a Wrestlemania is a little more significant. The show gets almost a million live pay per view buys each year and draws a live crowd of 60,000-plus. When the lights are on brightest and the most eyes gravitate to the product, WWE delivers its most iconic moments.

When Jericho came to Baltimore, he delivered a brief speech and held a Q&A, then set up shop for a meet and greet and to sign copies of his new book. As I stood in line, I mentally prepared what I would say to him. A half hour later, I had reached the front of the line. I shook his hand. I posed for a photo. I handed over my copy of not only Undisputed, but his original memoir A Lion’s Tale for his autograph.

And I spoke.

“Mr. Jericho, I was there in Houston for Wrestlemania 25. You made three legends look they were in their twenties again. It was an honor to watch you at work.”

Jericho finished his signature and looked up at me through the lenses of this totally-unnecessary-indoors sunglasses. “Wrestlemania 25. Which one was that?”

“Uh… it was you and Ricky Steamboat… and Piper… and Snuka.”

“Oh yeah, that was a lot of fun.”

And that was it. We shook hands once more and I walked away while the next fan stepped up to the table.

A wrestler like Chris Jericho has probably worked well over 5,000 matches in his career, and I’d never expect him to recall every one of them. But Wrestlemania? Against three hall of famers? Who had Ric Flair in their corner? After which Mickey Rourke, fresh off his star turn in The Wrestler, came in the ring and punched him out?

That moment in the Baltimore library has stuck with me as one of my most awkward, and yet most thought-provoking celebrity encounters. As fans of any given form, we have these transcendent moments—a wrestler’s great match, a musician’s great concert, a politician’s great speech, a writer’s great passage. We have these moments that resonate with us, and we think that if they were so important to us, they must have been positively monumental for the man, woman or child who actually did it.

But no one remembers everything.

And perhaps that’s the greatest gift of the greatest artists: to deliver a thousand moments, each of which a different fan clings to for his own reasons and in his own way. In the end, I suppose it doesn’t matter that Jericho hardly remembered my greatest memory of him—it matters that he gave me the moment at all.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Archie and Me

I never thought I’d be that guy.

The guy who posted pictures of his pet on Facebook.

The guy who got the appeal of cat memes.

The guy who considered the potential for a cat’s loneliness in planning his social calendar.

Then I met Archie.

To put a finer point on it, I lived with Archie.

Aside from four fish I shared with my sister (one of whom cannibalized two of the others), I never had a pet growing up. My mom is allergic to most anything that moves (cats, dogs) and many things that don’t (chocolate, eggs, raspberries). And my father; well, let’s just say the erratic behavior, shedding of fur, and general maintenance of an animal would never really become his lifestyle. And so I grew up with the perspective of animals as alien species. I liked the idea of cats and dogs, but aside from petting one for a few seconds and maybe scratching behind his ears, I never really knew what to do with one.

In the fall of 2010, I took over my friend’s lease on an apartment so I could move to a more happening area of Baltimore and she could spend the better part of a year house sitting for a professor. My friend had two cats—one of whom she sent off to live with her mother and Archie, who went to live with her friend in DC. The trouble was her friend had two kittens who Archie didn’t look at as “friends” so much as “prey.” Archie needed new living accommodations and, against my better judgment, I said, “Sure, send the furball over.”

Our first night together, Archie and I got along just fine. He explored the apartment, climbing on the kitchen cupboards (the tops of which I have never cleaned) and leaving a trail of dusty paw prints around the apartment when he was done. I poured out some food for him. By the end of the night, although he wouldn't make direct eye contact, he lay beside me on the couch, looking at me expectantly as I watched TV. I pet him. He purred.

5 a.m. the next morning. Archie hopped onto my nightstand. He batted at the pen I keep by my bed for late night ideas, until it hit the floor. He knocked my phone to the floor. He climbed over me and hopped on the dresser on the opposite side of the bed. I watched groggily as he knocked my glass of water into the underwear drawer I had left open the day before.

He wanted to me to get up and feed him.

This marked the start of routine, which more or less exactly replayed itself every day for the next nine months.

(Note: I did start closing my underwear drawer and drinking from a water bottle.)

I started sneezing. I came to suspect that the cat was not only disrupting my sleep, but that he had unveiled an allergy I had inherited and never spent enough time around cats to notice. I told my friend I might need to give him up, but that I’d give it a little more time.

I lay on my couch that night reading Flaubert. Archie hopped up to join me and lay down on my stomach looking up at me. I’m not sure why, but I started reading aloud to him. He watched me, and dare say listened, stock still and attentive. While I didn’t often read aloud to him again, I came to enjoy those moments, rubbing his furry tummy, listening to him purr while I read War and Peace and The Passage and Play Their Hearts Out.

We established other routines. Each evening when I came home he waited by the door, meowing plaintively as soon as he heard footsteps climbing the stairs. I got in the habit of scooping him up on my way in the door. He’d purr and nuzzle the top of his head into the side of my neck as I set down my bag, and made my way to the kitchen to prepare dinner for myself and pour a fresh bowl of chow for him.

We had other adventures and other rituals. He took to batting strands of spaghetti, stealing romaine from my salad, lapping at raw chicken before I had the chance to put it in the oven. He tried to take my pen from me most times I wrote freehand. He stalked and killed a number of cockroaches, eating their lower halves and leaving the heads behind--perhaps as trophies or warnings, or maybe that part just didn’t taste as good.

I think of this creature, whose poop I carried to the dumpster multiple times each week, who woke me at odd hours, who nearly tripped me any number of times in his efforts to keep up as I walked across the apartment--that desperate for companionship, for attention, for a friendly stroke.

My last night with Archie, I picked him up, looked him in the eye, and told him I loved him. He looked away. He still didn't like to make eye contact.

And I suppose that’s what it is to have a cat. To have his unconditional love one moment, only for him to want nothing to do with you the next. Only for you to love him just the same.

My friend took Archie back once her house sitting gig was up. I’m happy to sleep through the night now and not to make plans for his care when I spend a weekend or more out of town. It’s nice not to come home to books knocked over, not to find bread ties scattered around the apartment like part of some mad man’s scavenger hunt. I never had to deal with caring for him when he was sick or with veterinary bills or so many of the practical and unpleasant elements of pet ownership. All in all, objectively speaking, I think it’s fair to say I’m just as happy without Archie in my life.

But I’ll be damned if I don’t miss the little bugger from time to time.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Feel Like Home

One autumn, some friends of mine went on vacation and eloped. They came home, rented out a hall downtown, and threw a party for everyone they would have invited to a wedding.

After several glasses of wine, a few of us noticed that no one had made any speeches. After one more glass I decided, “Aww hell, I’d might as well say something.”

Delia clutched at my arm. Delia, who had seen me make an ass of myself more times than I cared to admit (usually under the influence of whiskey or wine). Delia, with whom I’d been enamored since the day I met her. Delia, whom I had dated for a period of weeks and whom I had thought might be “the one” before she ended things. Delia, who looked stunning in her crimson cocktail dress.

“Don’t,” Delia said. Don’t make a fool of yourself. Don’t disrupt the proceedings. Don’t say another word. I can only assume she meant all of those don’ts, tightly packaged in a single word (albeit a contraction).

I paid her no mind.

I got the microphone from the DJ and I raised my glass. The would-be maid of honor clapped for me and the hall fell silent. I started talking about what a lovely evening it was and how the bride and groom were such good friends to me.

I didn’t know what I was saying.

And I looked to Delia. Wide-eyed and waiting for me to fail, calculating whether this would be one of the times she laughed along with me, told me off, or didn’t speak to me for a period of days. We had cycled through each option time and again.

And in that moment—that moment when, admittedly, I still thought she smelled sweeter than chocolate-dipped daisies—I didn’t know what she was to me. But I did know, with striking clarity, what she was not.

“There are certain people who feel like home,” I said.

The bride’s mother nodded. Beamed. Wiped a tear from her eye.

“My friends here—the two of them found a home in one another. And I couldn’t be happier for them.”

People clapped and cheered and whistled. The bride and groom kissed. I walked off stage.

We were supposed to stay together that night--me, Delia, a couple other friends--in an extravagant hotel room one of them booked down the road, certain we’d all be too drunk to drive. I started the night with intentions of sharing a bed with Delia. Maybe spooning her as she dozed off. In the romantic afterglow of the evening, her head heavy with wine, she might even welcome it.

But I walked off stage and kept walking. Got to the street, pulled out my cell phone and called a cab. By the time anyone realized I was gone, I had already made it halfway home.