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Monica Cassier

06 -10-2013 Monica Cassier

Notes on the Run:  “Aftermath”

Before 2:50 pm 4/15/2013 After

2:50 pm:  Was that a cannon…?  What was th-…..oh my God.  This isn’t good…OH MY GOD.

*  *  *

The Race

I’m not superstitious, except when it comes to racing.  I always think if I get hopeful, something will happen.  In the month before the Boston Marathon, every ache and pain would set off a flurry of worrying about potential muscle pulls and stress fractures. Then there is the issue of weather: I’ve never been one to have luck with weather in marathons: too hot, frigidly cold, nor’easter.  I’ve had 2 races cancelled for weather: one for a winter storm in Myrtle Beach, and the other for a hurricane. I used to joke I could make a tidy fortune having race directors pay me to not enter.  For 10 days leading up to the Boston Marathon, I refused to believe the weather predictions of nearly perfect racing conditions.  I kept thinking Mother Nature was thumbing her nose at me, dangling this perfection in front of me and would pour on the heat on race day just to dash my fragile hopes.  I was wrong: the morning could be described in the single word, Perfection.  Sunny and high 40’s at the start of the race, the temps wouldn’t be much higher at the finish on Boylston Street at Copley Square.

9:15 am – I’m making my way to my corral at the start.  I’m with my long-run training partner, Laura.  With a faster qualifying time, she’s two corrals in front of mine, so we wish each other good luck and I tell her to text me how she did when she gets her phone after the race.  With over 23,000 runners, I doubt I’ll see her.  The road to the start is jammed and I have fear I might not get there in time.  But with 5 minutes to go I’m at the start… and next thing I know I’m walking with the rest of the start and we’re off.

9:30 am – The early miles are easy and social – but I remember being irritated at the number of ‘Bandits’ I pass in the early miles (the roads are clogged enough without additional unofficial entrants).  I have to remind myself to stow my crankiness – this is too much of a fun, perfect day to let petty irritations get in the way.  Somewhere in the early miles a guy says Keep running, you’re almost there! Wiseacre.  Later I see a huge sign someone has put in their yard.  I’m laughing and then see a blind runner with her guide – they are holding hands.  He is giving her a description of the course, People are laughing because there is a big sign with an arrow that says SHORTCUT… ok in about a minute we’ll get to a short hill… What is it like to hold both hands and conversation over 26.2 miles?

11:50 am – We are in the town of Natick and a woman yells with a chowder-thick accent  Yaw gonna finish.  Gawd Dammit yaw gonna make it!  By mile 8, I can feel the beginnings of tightness in my thighs; this isn’t good.  Just after mile 12, the women at Wellesley don’t disappoint with their traditional “Scream Tunnel” – you can’t help but go faster.  At the half marathon point, I look at my watch and see I’m on pace for a really good race. But the tightness in my thighs has progressed to a dull ache.  I know this is going to hurt.  Somewhere at this point I see a man dressed as Elvis, strumming a guitar and singing a song.  Just before lower Newton Falls, there is a long, hard downhill.  This is the thing about going downhill that most people don’t recognize: it is work.  Think of skiing – you don’t just plunge down the side of a mountain as a passenger.  It is a combination of efficiency and control, and it all comes from your thighs.  My thighs are right on the edge of hurt at mile 15.  I’ve been fending off the fear but it comes roaring in.  I have a decision to make: do I succumb and slow down or accept it?  That morning I received many notes of encouragement.  I remember one in particular Make pain your bitch.  I simply accept that this race will hurt but running a great race will make that hurt worthwhile.  The marathon can seem like a weird sport, I’ll give you that much.  For many, it’s about taking oneself to the breaking point and then not stopping.  It’s about talking oneself into just one more mile, then one more block, then ten more steps.  For me, I simply decide I’m going to hold the pace for as long as I can, even on the hills; I’m not getting any younger. I employ a racing visual: I imagine a big black steamer trunk.  Make Pain Your Bitch.  I embrace this thought, and I challenge the pain, I want to see how much I can take.  But the bigger idea is to lock away the fear, to accept that it will hurt, probably a lot.  So mentally I break out another steam trunk, and fear gets tossed in like a limp rag doll and locked away.

1:03 PM – I hit the first of the famed Newton Hills just after Lower Newton Falls and look at the friendship bracelet my son Jean-Marc made for me for the race in 2007.  I’ve worn it for good luck, and remember looking at it and do it again.  I cross the 95 overpass and the crowds thicken – many deep along the sidewalk.  The spectators are raucous.  It’s such a beautiful day and they are as much a participant in this event as the runners.  At mile 17.4 is the turn onto Commonwealth Avenue.  The evening before the race I’ve phoned my father.  He’d run this race roughly a dozen times in the 70’s and 80’s.  I told him my wish for my race was to get to this turn feeling good and go mano-a-mano with the hills.  It’s a ridiculous statement – I’m just not a tough person.  But it’s my own rather small, humble gauntlet, to face a hill and not slow down. This portion of Commonwealth Avenue is like Richmond’s Monument Avenue in the Fan district: a double lane road with a large grassy medium.  In the median and on the opposing sidewalk is a veritable street party of folks cheering on the runners while adding to the general festivities.  I’d run this race for the first time in 2007 – the weather was not good – and I thought then the crowds were thick.  Under the beautifully cool sunny blue skies, the crowds are immense.  I’ve run this race before, but in this perfect day, my expectations borne of memory are trampled by the sheer volume of joyous humanity.

This race morning, as I’ve sat down to eat an oversized bowl of oatmeal, I’ve read a story in the previous day’s Boston Globe about two ‘Mobility Impaired” runners.  Both are dwarves.  The woman looks to be very small but evenly proportioned.  The man has a large torso but very, very short, bowed legs.  I read of their qualifying time of 6 hours.  I look at their photos and their very small stature and wonder how many steps they have to take to every one of mine.  Just after the first hill I see – to my right – the man profiled in the piece.  He is tiny.  And he is walking.  I think for a brief moment what it takes to endeavor to complete this course with that kind of handicap.  And then it occurs to me that the winner of this race will have broken the tape in the same time it takes me to complete 14 or 15 miles.  Handicap is in the eye of the beholder.  Or those a hell of a lot faster.

Jen is a friend and former colleague who is also a monstrously talented runner.  She’d be in the 1% if there were ever an “Occupy Fast Runners” protest.  These days she is far less about winning and more about pacing.  In the winter, we’d run a 15 mile training run in Boston where the starting temperature was in the teens.  She’d offered to pace me through this marathon, but an injury a scant month later derailed her plans.  She runs with the Somerville Road Runners and had let me know We have a tent and unofficial hydration station at the 30K (18.6 mile) mark.  Look for the black and yellow balloons.  I tell myself to get to 30k, that’s my next goal.  With every step, my thighs voice a deep complaint of ache and hurt.  I remind myself to use my arms because For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.  Or something like that.  If I use my arms, my legs will follow.  I look in the median for the balloons and just after the 30K marker, I spot them and seconds later see Jen standing expectantly in the road, scanning the runners for someone she knows.  She is dressed in jeans, a long-sleeved shirt, and white-rimmed sport sunglasses.  I yell Jen.  JEN!  She sees me and jumps up and starts running with me.  Her running can be best described as graceful – her footfall so quiet it’s easy to wonder if her feet ever touch the ground.  She is joyous and voicing her support and in mid-stride pulls a baggie from her jeans pocket, extracts a wet washcloth, and hands it to me.  I never knew such bliss.  It is wonderful.  She says You look great! And I reply My legs are on fire but I feel great!  She runs with me for about a tenth of a mile then apologizes I’d love to keep running with you but I have to get back to my team…

 1:25 pm…I’m past mile 19 and my legs are painfully sore.  I’m coming up on a bunch of raucous guys – college age? – and I point to my Richmond Road Runners shirt like Gimme some love guys and all 6 of them yell Yeah Richmond!  Get ‘em Richmond.  Go Richmond!  I hear more laughing and look to my right and see someone dressed as the Star Wars character C3PO running up the hill and cheering people on.  This is a Fellini dream: I’ve seen blind runners, those missing limbs, a dwarf, a singing elvis, and now a Star Wars character…this can’t be real I check my watch and see I’m still holding pace.  I start using my arms to power my legs.  I  pray for strength and as meditation.  I think of my mom, of my cousin Melissa, of my Uncle Dick, and my dear friend Carlton.  My prayer isn’t deep or profound: it consists of a single phrase Can you help me out and give me a push please?

1:35 PM – I’m on another hill, and I realize I’ve lost count of them.  Am I on the 3rd or the 4th?  It’s so crowded and I’m looking for a landmark – I’d driven this part of the course two days earlier – looking for something that’ll tell me I’m on Heartbreak Hill, the last of the hills. I pass a corner and look for a particular store and don’t see it.  I’m on the third.  Oh man, I still have another…  I feel a moment of despair but push it aside This is what you wanted.  You wanted to leave it all out here, you wanted to push the limits. Well, here it is.  Right now, right here: This is the gut-check moment.  I do the math and it’s going to hurt beyond any calculation and I’m hanging on by a daisy petal.  I see a spectator holding the funniest sign of the day If This Were Easy It Would Be Called YOUR MOTHER.  It takes me a second then I laugh out loud.  There is a slight bend in the road and then I see it: the steeple at Boston College.  I’m on Heartbreak Hill and the brutal inclines are almost done.

1: 48 pm: The Wellesley Scream Tunnel is legendary.  But this day – hands DOWN – belongs to Boston College.  Just after Heartbreak Hill, there is a short but steep downhill and after the course has had your legs for and appetizer and lunch, it is painful.  Both sides of the street are lined with people many deep.  The screaming is both loud and agonizing: I’m so tired and my legs hurt so much I can’t process the noise.  I think I love this but I have to get away from it or I’m going to throw up.  Later, my friend BJ would give me grief that I ran by him and I didn’t even look his way.  I don’t remember hearing him or seeing him; I just remember wanting to outrun the cacophony.  I pass the 35K mark.

I start praying in earnest.  My legs feel oddly disconnected from me but the pain is intense.  I just want to stay strong, to be tough, to push the envelope and be bigger than the moment.  I start to say prayers of my youth… “Hail Mary, full of grace…” They are a mantra, they settle my breathing.  I’m a lapsed Catholic, but they still have meaning.  I look at my Garmin, and count down the tenths left to the next mile marker.  I pass a duo of “Inclusive Runners”, a guide pushing a participant in a converted wheelchair.  Up ahead, I see someone whose gait is familiar.  I run up next to the woman and see it is indeed Christine, who lives not too far from me.  She is wearing her iPod and I say – twice – before she hears me Chris… CHRIS…?  She turns and I am so happy to see a familiar face.  She says I didn’t think I could finish this race.  She will finish and finish well.   Shortly after I see her, a spectator who wants to cross the course jumps the barrier.  Instead of doing the smart thing – jumping in the race and tacking his way across the street – he makes a mad dash straight across the street, stumbles, and grabs on to an older male runner, nearly knocking him off his feet.  The runner is incensed: this is not a time in the race when you want to be knocked off your feet or spend extraneous energy on an idiot spectator.  He makes a momentary move to follow the young man, but changes his mind and keeps going forward.  I can see in his face he is suffering these last few miles.  I move next to him and say Are you ok?  And he grunts Yeah.  I’m fine. He’s not, but relatively speaking he’ll keep moving forward.  I pass another duo – “GUIDE” and “BLIND RUNNER” on their respective shirts.  What is remarkable is that they aren’t tethered together.  After the race, I will read an article on Runners World that this is Peter Sagal – a radio commentator and runner – leading a nearly blind runner to the finish.

2:06 pm I pass mile marker 23.  Right here: this is the hardest mile.  When you get to the next one, you’ll have 2 miles, and after a block, 1-point-something.  That’s nothing.  This is the hardest one, right here.  I shake out my arms and they tingle.  I’m pumping them to power my legs and my arms are not exactly powerful.  After the race I will have described the last 8 miles as having “muscled my way through the course”.  It’s a joke: my arms are like cobs of corn without the corn.  I’m carrying a lot of tension in my arms and shoulders and remember very little of the landscape.  A slight uphill to Kenmore square.  The Citgo sign.  Seeing the Prudential Center and knowing we are very close.   It’s just a matter of time.  It hurts a lot, but I know we are close.  There is the marker 1 Mile To Go.  I see the Mass Avenue underpass up ahead, and off to the right, something catches my eye.  I see peach tank top; I see my long run training partner Laura walking at the side of the road.

2:28 pm – I am so full of joy – I make my way to her and grab her arm We are less than a mile from the finish!  You are not walking now!!  Run with me to the finish!  I’m surprised at her reaction: she looks at me as if she’s seen a ghost and darts in front of me through the underpass.  I catch up to her and she says I’m so tired.  This course was so hard… I can’t believe you’re here…  She would later tell me she was so tired and decided to take a momentary walking break, and was wished I was there with here like on her long runs. Seconds later, I’d grabber her arm; she told me she thought she was hallucinating.

2:30 pm – We make the right turn on to Hereford Street and a block later, a left onto Boylston.  It’s a 4-block canyon of buildings and people and noise and at the end is a big blue and yellow finish line.  I pump my arms as hard as I can – I have no clue where Laura is; I think she is off to my right.  I just want to finish – the sooner I get there, the sooner I can stop.  I cross the line and feel such joy at having soldiered through and the bliss at being able to stop running.  My legs hurt more than I could ever imagine.  I turn around and see Laura finish.  We embrace.  What a perfect finish.  All those long training runs together – how perfect is this?!  Someone hands me bottled water.  We are arm-in-arm and a man in a volunteer jacket is peering curiously at us.  We are smiling and he says I’m sorry.  I just need to make sure you can both walk on your own…  And we demonstrate our wobbly legs and he is sweet and apologetic and we thank him for his care.  We get our foil capes, and finishers medals, and pose for a picture. A block from the finish we say goodbye and make our way to our checked bag.  And for that moment – despite the clouds that are gathering and the chill breeze that is blowing in – all is right in the world.

* * *

 The Bombs

2:50 pm: There is a very large blast.  My first thought is it is cannon.  A woman next to me says “Is that fireworks…?” and we see a huge plume of grey smoke.  Suddenly, there is another blast.  I look at her.  There is instant recognition that something bad has happened. After the initial shock I quietly say to myself Please let it be a gas explosion.  Please don’t let it be terrorism.  Something inside me knows it is.  Dammit.  DAMMIT.  Not here.  In my head I let loose a string of expletives.  I look up and again repeat my bib number for the bag retrieval volunteer.  I want to get my bag and get the heck out of Dodge.

 2:57 pm: I’m still wrapped in my foil finisher’s cape on as I grab my phone out of my bag.  I’m nearly out of the finishers chute and I ask a policeman at the barricade if he knows what is going on.  He says with urgency in his voice that he doesn’t, and to keep moving.  I call my husband – his voice is cheery and he’s excited for my race.  He’s chatting about my even splits and I cut him off.  I tell him about the explosions and the first ambulance with its siren blaring goes by.  Call your parents.  Call the kids.  Tell them I ‘m fine.  I gotta call my dad.  I’m supposed to meet my friend BJ at the finish.  I text him quickly, Something is going on – explosions at the finish.  I call my dad and it’s the same conversation.  He’s excited to discuss my race and I have to cut him off; I ask him to check the internet for news but he is in his car.  I can barely hear him with the clamoring sirens of the first responders rushing past.  I’ll try and call later.  I’m fine, I’m just really scared.  My voice cracks.  I’m gonna call Erin but if I don’t get a hold of her, tell Erin, Reen, and Nickey I’m fine.  I dial Erin and have a third, identical conversation.  I have to cut her off mid-sentence; I can’t hear her and she can’t hear me amongst the sirens.  The call cuts out.  I try dialing her but the call won’t go through.  It’s gotten cloudy and breezy.  I’ve wandered onto a side street near the finish and I’m cold and shivering.  My legs are shot.  I grab track pants out of my bag and with nowhere to sit, struggle to get them on over uncooperative and weak muscles in aching legs.  I put on a long-sleeved shirt over my racing singlet, and as I’m zipping up my jacket see a woman in a foil blanket walking down the street, the arm of – her husband? boyfriend? – around her.  She is weeping and frightened.  I realize whatever fear I had is gone.

 3:30 pm…I pick up my bag and try and figure out where I am.  If there is a ‘fight or flight’ moment, I know I’m perfectly capable of neither: I’m too tired, and my legs are too sore to run another step.  I take a left at the next street and see the edge of The Boston Common.  I cross the street and see a young runner with his parents.  I ask them if they know what has happened.  We heard there was a bomb in the Copley hotel.  No one was killed or hurt.  Someone else joins in the conversation There were 2 bombs.  And they found a third they are diffusing.  I ask if they know where the Arlington T-stop is. They just closed the subway.  The Green Line is closed.  My phone keeps buzzing with text messages of concern.  I stand there not knowing what to do.  My rental car is parked miles away.  The subway is closed.  However, people aren’t in a state of panic:  They are calmly walking and chatting, seemingly unaware that anything is amiss.  Boston residents, spectators, and foil-wrapped runners mix together and walk slowly away from Boylston Street.  I look at the Common:  Trees are beginning to bloom and the lawn is bright green.  It feels unreal; I’m a sleepwalker in someone else’s dream.  The Common seems to be the only thing with color right now.   I have this thought that this isn’t real, that I’ll wake up and have to run the race again; my aching thighs tell me otherwise.  Another text message comes in, finally from BJ: Walk to Cambridge now.  BJ is one of those unflappable guys and the urgency in his message is not like him.  A second text from him shows up: Or run.  It’s an unlikely time to smile but I do.  I stop two people who look like they know where they are going.  I ask the direction of the Longfellow Bridge to Cambridge Go straight on this street about 5 blocks – you can’t miss it.  There is also a T-stop for the Red line right before.  My rental car is parked at a station on the Red Line.  I tell them about the subway closings and thank them for their help.  I start slowly walking down the street.  My hands are freezing and I have to keep taking off my gloves to use the touchscreen on my phone.  I see a runner being interviewed by a TV station about what she witnessed:  I thought it was a cannon or fireworks.

 3:50 pm:  I stop at a Starbucks to grab something warm to drink.  I’m starting to get cold and I hadn’t anticipated being outside this long.  A couple blocks later – I see the Red Line T-Stop.  At the corner are two older women wearing yellow Boston Marathon “Volunteer” jackets.  I ask them if they know what has happened.  It was bombs.  The Finish Line was chaos.  Runners who had finished ran back down Boylston to make sure their family was ok.  They look at each other.  The other says I just want to get home.  It was awful.  I just want to go home.  I ask a Transit cop if the subway is running, and it is.  I don’t even think about whether riding it is a safe move.  My friend Susan – with whom I’ve entrusted my wallet – has texted to say that authorities have asked people not come into the city.  I decide to take the train – my car is parked at the end of the red line – and drive to Newton for my wallet.  I text BJ about my change in plan.  When I ask the transit cop where to buy a ticket, she takes pity on me and lets me in without one.   I make my way slowly up the stairs.  Text messages keep flooding my phone as I get on the train. The battery is wearing out.

 4:00 pm:  This day is turning into the strangest of odysseys.  At this point in the day I should have been happily ensconced at the Cambridge Brew Pub working through a huge cheeseburger and drinking a cold beer – which never tastes better than after running a marathon.  Instead I’m on a train full of people, many of whom have been sent home by their employers.  We pass three stops before a seat opens up and I realize that this is the first time I’ve sat down since 9:45 that morning. 

 I finally get to the Alewife Station where my car is parked, get off the train, gingerly climb two flights of stairs and enter the parking garage. I find my car, throw my bag in the back seat, and punch in the address to my office in the Garmin app in my phone.  I drive to the garage exit and see a sign that due to the Patriots Day Holiday parking must be paid for inside the station at an automated kiosk.  Figures.  I find the first parking space and make the slow, tedious journey back into the station.  Descending steps is difficult on my aching, stiff legs.  After paying the parking, I make my way back up the stairs and feel something inside my coat.  I realize my finisher’s medal is still around my neck. I take it off, and as I look at it wave of fear, anger, and sadness rocket from my belly and I choke back a sob.  I stuff the medal in my coat pocket and head back to my car.

 4:45 pm – The battery on my phone is down to 8%.  I doubt it will get me to the office before dying, and I don’t know exactly how to get there.  Within 2 miles, the screen goes blank.  I become Ferdinand Magellan:  I look at the sky for the position of the sun and know the 95 is due west.  While it will add several miles to the trip, if I can get to the 95, I can get to the office.  Looking at the position of the sun, I drive west looking for familiar streets.  Finally, I see a sign for the 95 and know I can relax. 

 5:15 pm – I pull into the lot at work.  I realize I have no change for the meter walk up to two older blue-collar kinds of guys talking in their thick, native accents.  I ask these complete strangers for a quarter.  They give me an odd look then quickly one of them digs into his pockets and hands me two quarters. Only later will I realize that because of the holiday, I didn’t need to pay.  I was wearing a Boston Marathon windbreaker, and I can’t imagine what my face must be telegraphing – probably a dazed mixture of sweat, exhaustion, and quiet shock.  He gave me a quarter for a meter that didn’t need to be fed without a single word of protest.  Bostonians are like that: sometimes they know when just help and to not ask questions.

 5:20 pm – I ring the bell to the office door and the Office Manager lets me in.  Renee gives me a big, long hug I’m so happy you are safe and out of harm’s way.  We were so worried about you.  I tell her I’m fine.  I feel uncomfortable with this kind of attention because – despite being a block away – I never had a sustained feeling of fear.  I apologize for not having changed or showered and she says she doesn’t mind.  I walk into the main office corridor and see Susan, my friend Melissa, and my former boss Kristin. They repeat the sentiments Renee has voiced minutes earlier.  I tell them Really, I’m fine.  I’m just really pissed.  I tell them a little of the finish.  I’m smiling when I talk about the race but when I get to the part about the explosion, something catches in my throat.  It was awful, is all I manage.  But after the initial moment of emotion, I feel empty and I think I should feel more.  I should feel terror or fear or anger or something.  I look at Susan – my best friend at work – and I just shake my head It’s just crazy.  I just can’t believe it. 

 We walk to her desk so I can plug in my phone, and as I go to sit in the chair, my thighs completely fail me and I fall on the floor.  She looks at me and I break out laughing.  It seems like such an odd thing to do – to laugh.  She walks with me into the office kitchen and I grab a ginger ale out of the fridge.  It’s now three hours since the race finished and nearly 12 since I’ve had a meal. The wall-mounted TV is showing the news of the bombings.  We watch replays of blasts going off and I see – right across the street from the blast – the man and the inclusive racer I’ve passed around mile 22.  I recognize the shirt of the guide, and the wheel chair he is pushing.  I watch the guide ducking his head and pushing his charge as fast as he can.  I tell Susan I saw them!  I passed them!  It should make it feel more real, but I’m standing there drinking cold ginger ale watching the explosions and I feel nothing but an odd sense of detachment.  

 6:30 pm – Melissa, Susan, and I leave to go grab a beer at the restaurant on the ground floor of the building.  I can’t wait to taste that beer, to finally inject some semblance of post-race normalcy into the day.  The three of us – the best of work buddies – talk and chat and joke.  Then I start to talk about the race.  They get quiet and listen.  I don’t know what I’m supposed to feel right now.  I’m so sad and angry, but it doesn’t feel real.  A woman walks in – she is a few years younger than me and with what I assume are her husband and parents.  She is wearing the ‘secret handshake’ – a Boston Marathon windbreaker.  Our eyes meet; I say You were there? And she says, Yeah. 

 6:40 pm  – I leave the restaurant and make my way to another where I will be meeting BJ and his wife for dinner.  It’s one of my favorite seafood places and across the street from the Alewife Station parking garage.  With my phone charged, I plug in the address and the trip takes 10 minutes.  I think of my blind wandering in the suburbs of Boston hours earlier trying to get to the office.  I get to the office and my phone buzzes from my sister.  I see an email from my in-laws.  I call both of them before dinner.  My Mother-in-Law is concerned, worried, and mournful.  She is a strong woman.  My sister is in tears.  She is a teacher in Columbus, Ohio, and she tells me how her fellow teachers and administrators heard of the bombs, knew she was tracking her sister, and how after school was over and she shepherded her class on the bus, a colleague had gently taken her into a classroom.  On the way, she passed her Principal whose face had a look of serious concern.  She was confused, wondering if she’d done something wrong.  Her colleague told her gently of the bombings.  Have you heard from your sister?  Reenie is a gentle soul; she told me she panicked and said I’m always afraid of this – that someone I love will be hurt… She starts grabs her phone and turns it on.  She says she broke into sobs of relief when she saw a text from Erin saying I was fine.  Her voice is shaking as she tells me this and I reiterate over and over I’m fine.  Really, I’m fine.  There are people so much worse off.  I was blocks away.  I just heard the blast and saw the plume of smoke.  It was crazy for a second but… But what?  There is something there I can’t articulate. 

 I return to the table and have a low-key dinner.  BJ insists we are going to celebrate.  This is the deal: we aren’t going to sit here and mope.  You had a great race and we’re going to talk about that.  We aren’t going to talk about the other stuff.  BJ is genius at segmenting life.  He can throw up an impenetrable wall around unsavory topics that us mere mortals lack.  Behind him over the bar the TV is on and it plays the finish line blast over and over.  I avert my eyes.  We toast my run and I say It’s just hard to find joy here.  This is what I can’t square:  I say ‘I left it all out on the course’.  There were people out there who had legs blown off.  Who died.  I left nothing out there.  Whoever did this hit the spectators, the soft, unmoving targets.  The ones there to cheer me and the others on.  It’s all relative, and I left NOTHING out there.  He looks at me and says in his even way. You’re right.  Now tell me about your race.  You know I was right where I was the last time you ran and you didn’t even look at me…you didn’t even wave or anything  He’d been there in 2007 – with my sisters Reenie and Erin – just shy of the 35 KM mark.  The place – this year – that both the Boston College students were screaming louder and my legs hurt more than I thought humanly possible.  I immediately launch into a defense about how I was feeling, the screaming… it wasn’t later until I saw how genius BJ really is at the art of distraction.  He knows me well enough to know it normally doesn’t take much, but at times like this it is a mighty effort.  He makes it look easy.

 9:30 PM – BJ and Elizabeth offer their spare room again.  I’ve had several similar offers: from my dear friends Tammy and Dan Smith in Groton – a good drive from Boston – the offer to come get me and bring me to their house, a respite from the city.  From a childhood friend and neighbor in Scituate – her house, her help, anything… From Susan who has offered a dozen times her home… None of them are natives of Boston but all of them are doing its city proud.  A friend in need, etc.  But I want to be alone.  I need to be alone.  The memories in my head are churning and I need quiet and solitude to let them fall into place.  It’s a short drive to my hotel in Cambridge.  As I’m waiting to check in I watch the TV near the registration desk.  There are two talking heads, discussing the wounds suffered by the victims of the bombs.  One is an Emergency Physician.  He says a term that takes several beats to decipher: “Catastrophic Amputation”.  In layman’s terms, it means having one’s limbs blown off. 

 10:15 pm – I enter my room and turn on the lights.  I drop my loaded suitcase, backpack, and bag.  I take off my jacket.  I feel a weight in my pocket and unzip it – it’s the finisher’s medal I’ve stowed.  I can barely look at it; can barely stomach the feel of it.  I put it quickly in a small black velvet pouch I use to store jewelry when I’m travelling, pull the silken ties tightly shut, and put the pouch in my backpack. I strip off my race-weary clothes and step into the shower.  The water and soap wash away the grit and sweat of the day.  After showering, I put on clean, soft pajamas.  I go to the window and part the curtain.  Across the Charles River I see the Prudential Tower, brightly lit as if in defiance of the carnage that occurred at its feet.  I pop an Advil PM and crawl between cool sheets.  Was any of this real? 

 I fall into a dreamless sleep.

* * *

 The Aftermath

I crossed the finish line of the race at roughly 2:35 pm.  I felt euphoria and celebrated a well-executed race, for having hung tough and for muscling my way through the last 8 miles.  I looked forward to the post-race celebration as I navigated my way through the blocks-long finishing chute.  The feeling lasted roughly 15 minutes before the elevator at the top floor plummeted to the basement.

And what of the aftermath?  I didn’t know what I was supposed to feel, but that day and a day later I felt nothing – not numb shock, but a complete absence of anything.  Not joy, not fear, not anger.  Looking back I realized I felt only momentary fear, despite hearing the blasts, and seeing the smoke.  It wasn’t some rare form of bravery; it was more pragmatism and exhaustion.  After that, I felt nothing but occasionally mild anger and sadness.  And I couldn’t pin the source of either down on any one thing.

In the Airport, I abandon any signs of having participated in the race.  After the security checkpoint, I see a woman wearing her medal in a restaurant and am incensed: she is trying to draw unnecessary attention to herself, to make it about her.  If she were there, unscathed, she would be better served to pack up her memorabilia and have some humility.   Later at my gate, I see people wearing medals and Boston Marathon jackets and I can’t look at them. I board the plane and see them and their little finisher’s tokens hanging on their necks.   I feel incalculable fury.  I think Why in God’s name are you trying to draw attention to yourself?  You are no hero – you finished the race.  You haven’t a scratch on you.  Take that damn medal off.  Stow the jacket.  Later, some friends gently tell me this was their way of ‘showing solidarity’.  I angrily push aside that explanation.  It’s ego and vanity – nothing else.  I can be a vicious, unforgiving critic.

The next day my sister Erin calls me.  She asks me how I’m doing, and I tell her I’m fine, I’m home.  I’m tired, but I’m fine.  I tell her about what I witnessed on Boylston Street and my strange journey after.  I tell her about my anger at the people in the airport, of trying to understand the senselessness of the attack and toll of the loss.  A little boy, a child…  I break down, and am overcome by wave after wave of unimaginable, raw grief.  Is there nothing we can do with reckless joy and abandon?

The following Thursday evening, the police kill one of the suspects and on Friday evening, the second is captured cowering in a boat on dry land; the nightmare has seemingly ended.  That night, I walk  into my office and pulled the finishers medal out of the black velvet bag for the first time since I’d put it in there.  I feel the silken ribbon, the weight of the enameled token, and look at the smiling unicorn, the mythic symbol of the Boston Athletic Association.  I anticipate the warm sense of relief, achievement, and celebration to finally rise inside me.    It doesn’t.  I think about the senseless violence and realize that the cycle will never end.  Despite that, I don’t believe that mankind is inherently evil.   In Boston, there were two seeds of evil amongst the reveling throng of over half a million.  Two.  If mankind were fatally seeped in evil, we would have perished of our own violence and despair a millennia ago.  The medal is what it is: a symbol of a race in a city that is tougher and more resilient than this violence.  That same city will both shelter the victims and dare any evil to come back to this race in this town.

After days of numbing rage and sadness, I feel nothing but fatigue and odd detachment.  I remember the swirl of the race and the things I saw: blind people with guides, runners with one or two prosthetic limbs, inclusive racers being pushed.  I saw a dwarf walking up heartbreak hill and later a man dressed as C3PO.  I saw drunken, joyous Boston College students cheering with such ferocity and glee that in my fatigue the noise was nauseating.  I ran past the screaming Sirens at Wellesley College, and found neighbors and friends in sea of over 24,000 runners and multiple times that many spectators.  I saw hand-made signs of encouragement and hilarity.  I saw barbeques, and people celebrating with kegs of beer.  I saw a group of army men in full gear with packs double-timing the course.   I remember my legs hurting as much as they’d ever hurt but feeling like they weren’t attached to me.  I remember saying prayers as both meditation and plea over the final miles, and in all of this I’m surrounded by a sea of humanity running to a finish line on an impossibly beautiful day because – at the end of it all – the finish line simply exists.   The race was a fantastic dream – fluid and crazy and frenetic, full of characters so colorful I have a hard time believing they are real.  I’m having a hard time believing the entire race as having actually occurred.  Did I imagine it?

The violence after I finished was brutal and vicious; there is nothing remotely poetic or cinematic about it.   It snapped everyone immediately out of their endorphin-fueled joy.  So much of life is lived well in-between the margins of absolutes and it’s rare to feel the outer limits of these measures; It’s even rarer to feel them on the same day.  It’s difficult enough to navigate them in the span of days, let alone a span of minutes.  To go from one to the other mostly requires an external force; there is no way we could muster the desire or strength on our own to willingly endure them.

None of it makes any sense: not the before, not the after.  If I had to choose which half of the day was real – before the explosions or after – I’d have a difficult time.  That they are both real is unfathomable.  The day has now become an exercise of memory.  There are fixed points on a calendar that mark the changing of seasons; they are determined by the position of the sun.  But while the first day of spring comes on a specific day, the first spring day comes on its own schedule.  One we look to with anticipation; the other we greet with much more joy because of its capricious nature and timetable.  You wait on that day, and more often than not, have scant notice of its arrival.  The seasons are precocious children of nature; so is memory. We don’t have control over our memories, but we can exert our influence and discipline over those on which we linger.  As for the others, we must continue – for as long as it takes – to lock them away tightly along with pain and fear, in a sturdy steam trunk in our soul.

 

 

204-2013 Monica Cassier

Notes on the Run – “Apron Strings

There are these times as a parent that the indelible ink of memory makes a little note in your soul. You don’t know it at the time – you’re reminded of them later, often multiple times. The first time your child climbs the impossibly high steps of the school bus, you think of those wobbly first steps. When you move just before the 6th grade and she struggles with stomach aches and wants to retreat to the safety of her room and you have to be reduced to “tough love” – something you thought you only read about with a whispered ‘oh the poor thing’ but would never ever have to use – you are reminded of her first episode of ‘separation anxiety’. There are so many moments and the heart is happy to unlock the vault of the tiny gemstones of memory; to give flesh to the bones of the reality of these singular moments. We’ve been there before; it’s just a variation on a theme.

They call them “apron strings” and at some point in our lives, we’re supposed to cut them. I’m finding as a parent that we don’t cut them; they have a life of their own and they succumb on their own accord.

When I was a Junior in college, I was sent off – like my older sister before me and the two behind me to follow – to France, for a year abroad. There were no cell phones; I was not equipped with a credit card. In fact the only instructions I had were to call via long distance only in the event of an emergency. At that time, the average cost of a 10 minute transatlantic conversation equaled the GDP of an emerging country. My mom put me on a plane in Buffalo, New York bound for JFK in New York City to catch my connection. I don’t remember her seeming overly concerned; her apron strings seemed to have long since been cut.

 I made that trip without thinking too much about ‘what if’; I just made my way as was expected. I had apprehension about going overseas and was already anticipating my return: leaving the comfort of the familiar is no small task as a child. Somehow, I managed to navigate the waters of the foreign land, the language I barely spoke, and feeling ripped from everything in which I thought I was fluent. But in that year I gained a gift more valuable than the culture and language of a foreign land: I learned self-reliance. I recognized it immediately upon my return – the asking the question in class to the professor everyone else feared, to not depend on my parents for everything, to take the first steps to owning my life.

 Last week, I drove my own daughter to Dulles Airport for a semester in London. It was a semester, not a year. She was going to a country with a familiar language. She would have a cell phone, a laptop with skype, a credit card for emergencies. She would have an immediate, digital lifeline. And that provided me no comfort at all. I was sending her off into the big vast world full of things that didn’t exist when I made my grand adventure: regular terrorist alerts, the need to procure digital fingerprints as part of a student visa, the fear of planes exploding over the Atlantic. Yes, my brain could take comfort in the statistics. My heart blew the statistics out of proportion. All I could see was her as a baby, as a toddler, as a brilliant precocious child… and I couldn’t bear the thought of her being in harm’s way. My head was quick to remind me she was in harm’s way every day; we can’t predict the speeding busses of chaos theory and fate; we can only give our kids grit and fortify their own resilience.

We arrived at the airport early, plenty of time for lunch. I bought her a small amount of British pounds ‘just in case’. We checked her luggage and then it was time for her to go through the TSA pre-screening. This was it – I couldn’t go past this check point. She smiled and couldn’t wait to go. I snapped a quick photo and watched her get on the descending escalator. I found a chair and waited – I’d told her I wouldn’t leave for the 2+ hour car ride back to Richmond until she’d made it through security and was safely ensconced at her gate. Within 15 minutes, the message arrived: security was a breeze and she’d grabbed a Starbucks and was waiting to board. 

 And it was time for me to go. I felt so utterly empty – a big piece of me had gone down that escalator. As I walked back to my car the beautiful memories of her life flashed in my mind: her birth… her first steps… her loving to smell flowers and ending up with pollen on her little nose… her first day of school… moving… the short walk to my car provided 21 years of  highlights. And I found I was wiping away tears and my head thinking “Oh would you STOP THIS RIGHT NOW!” Apron strings are not cut. They unravel over the course of the years and each little inch of thread is lodged in our heads in the form of memory.

 It was cold and the parking garage in Dulles was gray and without comfort. The tears flowed down my face for me to have courage, to allow my daughter the freedom to have her great adventure without the shackles of parental need. I know now my mother suffered when I got on that plane, but she knew the greater need to loosen the ties that bind. She was giving me wings and an opportunity to find my way on my terms. Those apron strings may loosen and unravel, but they will stretch. And they never break.

 I walked to my car, tears rolling down my face, my head doing battle with my own sentimental weakness and fear for my girl. But this time, my heart stepped in and said “It’s ok. I see those memories and you’ve earned those tears.” For once, my heart was on my side.

 

1210-2012 Monica Cassier

Notes on the Run – “A Season of Hope”

~ All hope abandon, ye who enter in.

Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy: Inferno, Canto III: The Gate of Hell, line 9.

 I’m on a deadline and I don’t have “writers block”. Frankly, ‘writers block’ would be an upgrade. I’m standing at the gates of deadline hell and I’ve got… I’ve got… nothing. Nada. Not a single idea. I’ve gone out for runs waiting for the ideas to sally forth and ring the doorbell in my mind. But the stress of work, a son applying to college, a presidential election, and leaves that fall uncollected on my yard like unmelting lake-effect snow has crowded out any space for creative thought.   I’m hanging on a single thread of something that propels me out of bed every morning: Hope. However, I’m not in the Divine Comedy: I’m in the longest checkout line in the longest circle in hell. And it’s not moving.   I need to find inspiration.

~ But what is Hope? Nothing but the paint on the face of Existence. The least touch of truth rubs it off, and then we see what a hollow-cheeked harlot we have got hold of.

Lord Byron, letter to Thomas Moore

Clearly, this isn’t it. Lord Byron was in the mother-of-all foul moods when he wrote Thomas Moore, who – rumor had it – owed him money. Hope is supposed to inspire us, to provide us a life raft when all else is lost. If Lord Byron hadn’t become dust a long time ago, I’d give him the following advice: Get a prescription for Prozac, then promptly double up on it. ‘Paint on the face of existence’… ‘hollow-cheeked harlot’ … Can’t imagine what special brand of crazy cheer his Christmas cards must have contained. Byron is not inspiring me.

~ Hope is a good breakfast, but it is a bad supper.

Sir Francis Bacon, Apophthegms (1624), No. 36.

 Are we at all surprised that a guy named BACON would be the head cheerleader for hope as a breakfast food? These Brits are completely transparent. I need some help: I’ve got nothing on the page but a bitter Italian, a depressed poet, and the English version of Jimmy Dean.

~ He that lives upon hope will die fasting.

                                                                                                                         Benjamin Franklin

 I’m pretty sure Ben Franklin never had a deadline. Trying to coax creative thought from behind the locked vault in my head has been a mighty task. Usually I go for a run and the ideas fall into place during the course of the course, but this month there haven’t been enough miles in the road. I hope against hope and rage against these ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’, and wonder if William Shakespeare ever had writers block.   My muse has abandoned me. 

~ Hope is a waking dream.

Aristotle

I find hope takes so many forms. When doing the math to fund another college education, I hope I can afford it. I hope the economy turns around. When I go for a run in the morning, I hope I feel good.   When my dishwasher broke the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, I had hope I could get an appointment before Thursday, which is frankly daft. When I stood in line to vote in the recent election, hope took the form of a line that snaked out the polling place and down the sidewalk. There was so much collective hope, but half that line woke up the next day without it, while the other half was living the dream: as good an example of a zero-sum game as ever. When I proof-read an email a colleague has written I hope I don’t see the word “hope” because – as we’ve all learned – “Hope” is not an appropriate business strategy. It is – however – perfectly sound for writing an article. At least that’s what I’ve told my editor. I feel hope at the start of every football season – which is a mighty thing for a lifelong fan of the Buffalo Bills. After decades, to still believe, that truly is a waking dream. Or lunacy; I’m still deciding which.

~ Hope is patience with the lamp lit.

Tertullian

I have no idea who Tertullian was, but I love the sentiment. It’s like he’s describing Hope as the “Motel 6” of the philosophical realm, but with better decorating and a much better breakfast (see: Bacon, Sir Francis.) I don’t know about hope – what it really is. Is it a waking dream, a thing with feathers, springs eternal, or the only universal liar who never loses its reputation for veracity? Nietzsche, never the eternal optimist, thought “In reality, hope is the worst of all evils, because it prolongs man’s torments.” But some unknown author countered “When the world says, ‘Give up,’ Hope whispers, ‘Try it one more time.’” Hope is like the run: One more time, one more line, one more step, one more mile.

Hope runs on.

 

 

Notes on the Run – “Code Blue”

Reader’s note: this essay was a reflection on my travel on the day after a suspected terror plot involving liquid chemicals had been uncovered in August 2006.

10-05-2012 Monica Cassier

It’s 4:50 am. The lights are dimmed and the party van’s ceiling lights imply a star-filled sky. It’s rumpled, tired passengers sit exhaustedly, some with their eyes closed and heads on their companions’ shoulders, others staring into space. The van’s radio is softly playing a tune from the early 90’s, and a female singer is righteously proclaiming I’VE GOT THE POWER! The casual observer might think this is the aftermath of an all-night pub crawl. But my fellow passengers and I are suffering the worst hangover known to mankind: air travel on elevated terror alert days.

* * *

The morning news headlines tell of a plot involving liquid explosives hidden in shampoo bottles. I know that my trip home to Richmond from Boston will be dicey and I brace myself for delays. I vow to be calm, I’ve got the power. The inevitable travel headaches will be due to the couple of dozen homicidal religious freaks bent on taking the express flight to paradise to claim their fair share of a substantial inventory of virgins.

Airport security is surprisingly efficient. The only thing that gives me pause is the security officer on the other side of the metal detector: he has camouflaged the top of his balding scalp with what looks to be a thin layer of black shoe polish. The visual is too much and I’m hit with a small wave: This is the cunning that stands between my plane and a vest loaded with plastique.

The flight is reasonably on-time, and we pull away from the gate but abruptly stop, feet from the gate. The pilot announces a “flow control problem” over Philadelphia which will delay takeoff by 2 hours. A collective groan rises from the passengers who have to make connections; I just have a layover in Philly, and don’t have to change planes. The lady in the seat next to me gets irritated, and loudly complains about Philadelphia, branding it the worst airport in the country.   I smile to myself and think Relax lady. It’s out of your hands. You’ve got the power. We finally take off.

A small eternity later we are circling over Philadelphia. The pilot announces that we’ll be on the ground in 15 to 20 minutes. Our flight finally touches down but gridlock on the tarmac and short staffing keeps us from the gate for nearly an hour. When the aircraft door finally opens, I check my watch: I have been on this plane for 5 hours.

The flight attendant announces that those continuing on to Richmond can go get something to eat and drink but to return in no more than 15-20 minutes. I take 9. At the gate sign flashing the destination reads “Minneapolis” and “Providence”. I’m confused. Reason steps in and guides me to the same gate agent I had spoken to not 10 minutes earlier. She looks at me and says This flight is going to Providence. I say That can’t be right. I just left this plane 10 minutes ago. It was from Boston, laying over here, then continuing to Richmond. You told me to be back at 9:40. It is now 9:30. Where is my flight? She tells me she doesn’t know anything except that THIS flight is going to PROVIDENCE. I am dumbfounded. This can’t be happening. Where is my plane? The agent tells me to see the other agent at the gate and see her and a mass of bewildered travelers. My confidence plummets.   She clicks away on her computer and says That flight has already left. A doorbell rings; I open it, and see that Panic has arrived.

What?! I demand. They told me to be here by 9:40. There is no way you could have boarded that plane and taken off in that span of time! My backpack is on that plane! It has my car keys and computer! She tells me to calm down and then asks me to describe my backpack. I give her a quick description. She looks behind her, on the floor. I see her reach down into a pile of briefcases, tote bags, and other carry-on luggage and lift out my backpack. She hands it to me and points me to an amazonian line with the instructions to get in it and get rebooked. Chaos, thy name is USAirways. I am not standing in that line. I grab my cell phone and dial the airline reservation number on my ticket stub and head for the “Departures” board. I find another flight to Richmond, leaving in 30 minutes. It leaves from Terminal F. I am in Terminal C. I’m a mother of 3 children and have nearly 20 years of work experience. I know how to multitask under pressure. I have the power.

I walk quickly, ear to phone, 17 pounds of work equipment and files strapped to my back. My call is finally answered by a heavily accented voice: I’ve been outsourced to New Delhi. I explain the situation, and ask if I can get on the flight to Richmond. His accent is so thick I can’t understand him. The clock is ticking and I’m loosing patience. What follows can only be described as a nightmarish travel-related equivalent of the famous Abbot and Costello routine “Who’s on First?” with the agent telling me there are no more flights to Richmond despite my staring at a departures board telling a different story.

 I’m at the security entrance to Terminal F but can’t get through security without a boarding pass. The USAirlines Ticket Counter is feet away. I’m talking to an English-challenged “customer service representative” several thousand miles away who does not understand the difference between Boston, Philadelphia, and Richmond.   I check my watch and note the time I officially start my descent into madness. In the span of 18 minutes, I have gone from a reasonable, disciplined, calm person to a complete raving lunatic. I’m screaming at the man that he is not answering my question and he keeps repeating the same useless line: My computer shows there are no more flights to Richmond. I use words that are not part of my normal every-day vocabulary. He starts laughing at me. I guess there are some words he understands, and is probably used to hearing.

There are 3 people in the ticketing area, one of whom is a ticketing agent who yells in my direction: Excuse me! Who are you talking to? I think I’m saved. Here is someone who is listening to the exchange and must understand my frustration. I answer Customer Service! Can you help me? He nods yes and I close my cell phone, shutting down my call to New Delhi. I need to get on the 10:10! Can you get me on it? His nametag reads “Kenneth”. He cuts me off in mid-sentence: Honey, It’s no wonder you’re not getting any help the way you’re speaking to that poor man! If you would treat people a little nicer, maybe they would be more willing to help you! Honey. The man has called me Honey. I am a paying customer and he has just broken the cardinal rule: never, ever call a woman ‘honey’ when you are yelling at her. I understand now I’m not going anywhere tonight. I unload on Kenneth.

Kenneth is not impressed. Everyone has a story lady, and I don’t want to hear yours. We’re all just trying to survive. I look at him in disbelief. Survive? SURVIVE? This is not Baghdad or Bosnia or Southern Lebanon! This is PHILADELPHIA! It shouldn’t be that hard! He takes a deep breath and hisses. I’m helping this lady.Get in line and I’ll help you after I help her. I turn around, take 5 steps and retrieve my backpack. I turn and see another man standing near the lady. I get in line behind the lady and Kenneth returns fire: I’ll help you after I help her. And him. He points to the man. You’re kidding me, right? He smiles. Well, you went over there to get your bag, so you lost your place in line. I look at him in disbelief. The time is 10:05. No way I’m getting on that plane. I stare daggers at Kenneth. He rolls his eyes and waves me away. I am living a nightmare that is a mix of terrorist plots, shoe-polished security guards, disappearing planes, English-challenged customer service reps, and sadistic ticket agents. I’m barely hanging on.

Another agent walks from behind a steel door to another station. I bolt to her. Can you help me? She nods her head. I start to explain the situation. When I get to the part about the plane vanishing, my voice cracks. She snaps her eyes up to me and says Listen honey, I will help you but don’t stand in front of me and cry. I will not help you if you cry.  There it is again: Honey. I don’t give a fig anymore. I’m weeping when I say quietly What is wrong with you people? Don’t you understand frustration and tension? She looks bored.Everyone has a story honey. And I’m not interested in yours. She looks at my flight record and claims that there was a gate change. That I missed the flight. That it was my fault. That the flight landed in Richmond 5 minutes ago. No way, I reply. No way. Why didn’t the gate agent know about this? How’d they know that was my backpack? And what about the luggage? She ignores my and continues. I was once stranded in Italy for 2 days. I crack wise, Hey, I wouldn’t complain if I was stranded in Italy. But I’m stranded in Philly.She is not impressed. Don’t over-dramatize this. You’re just trying to get from ‘Point A’ to ‘Point B’. I’m dumbfounded at her callousness. I don’t even try to hide my contempt when I quietly fire back And yet you make it sound so easy. She doesn’t even look up. I set my backpack on the luggage scale. It reads 17.5 pounds. She tells me she can offer me a room at the rack rate. Now, I could just surrender, pay for it, and expense it. But I need to win one small battle in this insane war. I look at her and say Do you really want me to fight you about this? Because I will. You can tell me that there was a gate change all night but we both know that is a lie. She says she has to ask her supervisor who is – of course – Kenneth. I slide down and sit on the baggage scale in utter defeat. I realize that as an airline passenger on a major carrier I’m really nothing more to them than a breathing piece of baggage they think they can silence with 22 grams of pretzels and 3 tablespoons of soda.

I’m on a courtesy shuttle to a motel clutching my free shuttle and hotel vouchers – Kenneth had mercifully said ‘yes’. The shuttle driver is chatty and compassionate, a chauffeuring-equivalent of the compassionate barkeep. It is around 10:30 pm and I just want to go to sleep. After I get my room key at the tired hotel, I walk down a hallway that is stifling hot and smells awful and enter my room. It too is hot and I flip on the air conditioning to the highest setting. I have no luggage and no clean clothing. I’m exhausted and missing my family and stranded in a motel that smells like feet. I strip off my travel-weary clothes and crawl in between the sheets. The room is starting to cool down. I mutter one last thing before I fall asleep, I surrender. 

* * *

The party van pulls up to Terminal F, the scene of the previous evening’s madness. There is no sign of Kenneth or the other agent. The driver opens the van’s doors; I grab my backpack and make my way down the stairs. He says cheerfully Have a nice flight. I turn and smile at him and say Thanks. And thanks for the ride. I make my way to the terminal. I’ve got the power.

 

 

8-05-2012 Monica Cassier

Notes on the Run – “A Patch of Red Earth”

Grass doesn’t grow under the big oak in our back yard. It’s not like there was never any grass, but for the better part of the past couple of years it has been replaced by a big patch of earth, tinted red with clay. Behind it is a netted goal, and behind that is an even bigger netted backstop to catch the errant shots and protect the neighbor’s yard, fence, and windows. The backyard was taken over by a dream – to play a game, to get better, to be the best. Nearly every day for three years the kid would be out there – bouncing off the rebounder, weaving at unseen defenders toward the goal, ripping a shot. It didn’t matter if it was raining or hot or freezing or near dark. Even during the season – before and after practice the backyard was transformed into a practice field.
Before he had the practice area, he’d taken to rebounding off the side of the house, the side that shares a wall with my office. The amount of time he spent rebounding balls off the wall was inversely proportional to my productivity. After he took out 3 porch slats with errant shots, we finally broke down and bought him a rebounder. Sanity and job security were restored. That purchase was quickly followed up by a practice goal. And after balls landed with annoying regularity in a neighbor’s yard, we purchased the giant net backstop. Our backyard had been successfully usurped.
After so much use the nets have hastily patched holes, shredded in spots from wear and tear. The poles that support the backstop are tall and lean at odd angles, the net drooping between each pole; they’ve taken a beating. The yard isn’t particularly level and the tree interferes with the left side of the otherwise adequate field of play. We back up on the Mount Hill Commons and one day a big owl flew into a tree and watched Luc play for nearly 30 minutes. It was like something out of a fairy tale.
I can see this home-spun practice area from my office and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard my son come in from school through the front door, and minutes later hear the back door slam. It was a daily ritual. I’d turn around and see him jogging toward the net, gloves on, cradling a ball in the head of his lacrosse stick. He runs to the net and winds up and lets a shot fly. Sometimes a shot will ricochet off a pole and rebound with a large CLANG off the heat pump that is just behind my window startling me out of my chair. Others might end up in the woods in the leaves, which is why I actually have a monthly budget for lacrosse balls. It seems a small price to pay to help shepherd such devotion.
I’ve come to love this daily ritual because I know it is all his doing. I admire people who have such passion and faith. But I love more the abandoning of oneself into play and how rare a commodity that becomes with the increasing pressure and responsibilities of adult life. I look out my office window and see that patch of red earth I can imagine him running past a ghost army of defenders,toward it and the goal. I envy that age when play is the most important thing in your life.
My favorite part is not the goal, the shredded net, or the leaning poles; it’s that patch of red earth. Every time I look at it I marvel that a single kid did that over the course of a couple of years, trampling any hope of grass in the foreseeable future. Many might think it’s a scar in a far-from ideal lawn. But to me it’s a badge: of work, of effort, of hope and belief. My son is a rising Senior, and I know one day soon he’ll will be off to college, and then on his own. The nets will eventually come down and grass will make its bid to reclaim that patch of red earth. But for now, I like it just the way it is.

 

6-05-2012 Monica Cassier

Notes on the Run – “Summer Vacation”

 

Be aware: this is not a family friendly entry. No, it’s not vile or violent, but if you’re looking for some tips on planning a family vacation or ideas on where to go, this isn’t the place. I love the idea of family vacations; we’re just not very good at taking them. We do them when we are compelled to do them: birthdays, holidays, graduations – we’ve never taken a family vacation that didn’t involve an extended-family reunion at the destination.

We’ve talked about them, but by the time summer rolled around any disposable income had been consumed by art and music lessons, instruments, sports, sports equipment, school activities, and other miscellaneous extra-curricular life activities. My husband and I are adamant about paying for stuff as we go. The idea of a vacation is to relax and unwind and to follow it up with stress of how to pay for the bill in the aftermath would unravel all the benefit. That doesn’t stop the occasional Maybe we should rent a house at the beach… or We should think about Charleston… from escaping our mouths every once in a while.

 He has always been great about taking the kids for a weekend getaway camping. I’d gladly join if not for my unwavering need for a mattress and electricity. It’s not that I’m high-maintenance; I just don’t rough it that well. If I’d been a pilgrim I’d have shipped back on the first boat to England inside of two weeks. Honestly, my idea of camping is a spa in the woods. I navigate wildlife at work all year long – I don’t want to have to do battle with it during my vacation. Even if I can’t afford it every day, I like the idea of being able to order room service. Of fresh towels. Of the bed being made by someone else.

We did do a family trip to France several years ago in the summer. It was my Father-in-Law’s 75th birthday and as a native of France he wanted to get the family together in his homeland. We should have had a clue the trip would be a challenge when we tried navigating our way to the house my inlaws had rented. It was in the hillside in Nice, and to avoid getting lost while jet-lagged, we rented a car with a GPS Navigation system. The streets are not as well-marked as one would have thought, and we were scolded more than once by the GPS unit with her perfect British accent to “Make an authorized U-turn”. When we saw a sign “Monoco – 5 KM” and I read the sign and stated the obvious – We are lost – our middle son piped up MAKE AN AUTHORIZED U-TURN which was followed by the GPS giving the same instruction. Hilarity ensued.

We spent two weeks in various parts of the country and our kids – the oldest of who was just shy of 15 –*maybe* didn’t have the depth of life experience to put most of what they saw in proper context. I played the part of the parent who forgot what it’s like to be a kid by continually reprimanding them with You don’t know how lucky you are! Look at this history! And if you keep rolling your eyes like that they’re gonna get stuck in the back of your head! The masterful “Tapestry of Bayeux” to them was a long piece of cloth with a lot of weird embroidered spelling. The trip to see Notre Dame or Mont St. Michel was met with GREAT. ANOTHER OLD CHURCH. The day-long tour of the D-Day beaches was – to me and my husband – fascinating. To the kids it was, well, a long day. At Versailles – the decadent masterpiece of Louis IV’s self-absorption – the great Hall of Mirrors was closed for renovation, so we were left to the palace (lots of art and statues), the gardens (which were brown from lack of rain), and the Grand Trianon (a little palace when the King needed to escape the rigors of the big palace. Poor thing.) It was hot, sunny, and water fountains were in short supply. The cacophony of whining could be boiled down by kid: the oldest was hot and tired, the second was bored and hungry, and the third had to go to the bathroom. Throughout the two weeks, the complaints rarely varied from kid or postal code. Nice…Normandy…Paris… from the shores of the Mediterranean to the Eiffel Tower – what I wouldn’t have paid for shade, a sandwich, and conveniently located restroom. We recently had a discussion of possible destinations for a family trip. My husband suggested The Grand Canyon – I thought it a capital idea. We floated it past our kids. My middle son looked at us and said Are you crazy? The Grand Canyon? IN THE SUMMER? We’ll be riding donkeys – right? Sissy will complain that they smell and she’s hot. Jammer will have to go to the bathroom every 5 minutes, Dad’s donkey will take a wrong turn and he’ll freak out and have to make an authorized u-turn. And you’ll be screaming at all of us to shut up and enjoy ourselves. Out of the mouths of babes.

So, we have no vacation planned for this summer. My husband will probably take the kids for a weekend of camping, my daughter managed to snag a summer job. The boys have opted to knock off a class in summer school. And I’ll just keep battling the wildlife at work.

4-05-2012 Monica Cassier

Notes on the Run – “There’s and App for That”

Remember that 2009 commercial for the original Apple™ iPhone? The apps (or applications) were what separated the iPhone men from the Blackberry™ boys. These two fruit-named phones entered into the mother-of-all food fights to conquer our hearts, minds, and wallet share. I’m pretty sure Apple™ scored
a TKO in the first round because – all together now- THEY HAD AN APP FOR THAT.

Ever the late technology adopter, didn’t upgrade to an iPhone until a year ago. I was happy with my  Blackberry; I wasn’t a huge user of it and grudgingly paid the very large cellular bill not so I could ensure my place in the land of the gainfully employed, but so I could enhance communication with my children. Which is one of several patently deluded ideas to which I subscribe. I never thought I’d use apps, they seemed more like silly little diversions than anything that would be of practical value. I’ve been suspicious of mobile technology from the start. There was a commercial by a bank ten years back touting the convenience of banking from your computer. It showed a guy hiking up the side of a mountain and once at the apex, he whipped out a laptop from his backpack and started balancing his checkbook. I know: ludicrous, like anyone would do that. While we all crave to complete menial administrative tasks in the splendor and glory of nature there is NO WAY you’re not going to convince me this guy got decent wireless service on the top of Mount Kilimanjaro: I’m just not that gullible.

 Once my device was fired up, veteran iPhoned friends provided me plenty of advice on ‘must-have’ apps: The aptly named Around Me lets me know – shockingly – what is around me in the form of stores, restaurants, pharmacies, or my nearest Apple store. And I use it: at a late-finishing lacrosse game in the middle of Bumwinkle, Virginia and need to find the nearest sub shop to feed the famished player? I can find it. Apple product on the fritz and need to belly up to the nearest ‘genius bar’? I can find that too. My friend Gill – who I’m fairly certain owns a substantial interest in Starbucks™ -made her recommendation so that I’d never find myself in dire need of a Venti skinny vanilla latte and be left to shrivel into a caffeine-deprived heap. I will admit it came in handy while at a Lacrosse tournament in November in Emmetsburg, Maryland. With a break in the action, I was freezing cold and hankering for a decent triple half-caff mocha lattechino with a half twist, and – horrors! – the concessions stand didn’t have an espresso machine. Barbarians. My iPhone came to the rescue and let me know that the nearest Starbucks™ was exactly 16.9 miles away in Gettysburg, PA. I was stunned to discover that apparently there is a corner of the Earth without a Starbucks, and this app had done double duty by providing me that nugget of information as well as a potential business opportunity. Assuming, that is, that cows drink coffee. Talk about convenience! Let’s not forget Fat Face. Why wouldn’t I pay good money for a program that could digitally enhance my photo to make me look 100 pounds heavier- it’s a dream app!

 The number and variety of apps out there is staggering. In the Medical category, one of the top selling apps is the Instant ECG by iAnesthesia. No lie, you can’t make this stuff up. In the Education category, a 5-star ‘absolute must buy!’ is TeachMe: Toddler. For a scant $0.99 you get a platform which teaches your toddler these essential education subjects: letters, abc phonics, numbers, shapes, colors, and the art of cold fusion in the tubby. Finally in Utilities, there is Sparrow. The description reads “Sparrow is an iPhone mail client designed with love to provide you with an efficient and pleasant mailing experience. With its pane navigation, its new threading system and many new features, you’ll never look back.” I have absolutely no idea what that means. What I can’t find are apps that would be of actual, meaningful value to my everyday life. For example, there is an app for Past Life Regression Hypnosis. Well into the app, the dulcet-toned narrator describes a scene where you are walking through a flower-filled forest to a small bridge attended to by a brown-robed hooded figure, who is apparently a gentle and kind being, but the only image I’m conjuring is the Grim Reaper, after which my imagined self runs screaming from the Forest. What I really need is an app that will help me cope in the here and now. I type “Coping” in the App Store search bar and the top result is something called Loudbook. I’d be happy to share with you what it does, but the  description is in Russian. I find something to assemble my life and the instructions are in some foreign language. Typical.

 There are plenty of apps that will let me scour thousands of recipes for delicious, nutritious, and  time saving meals. However, I’d find invaluable one that would take it to the next level by first scanning the inventory of my pantry and fridge, and then displaying the world of possibilities. Currently I’ve got a  half  consumed  jar of capers, a cup of plain non-fat Greek yogurt, a wilted head of celery, some gluten-free crackers, and a roll of paper towels: c’mon Mr. Silicon Valley Genius, show me your magic.

Finally there is the app Dealing With Negative Emotions. I don’t want to deal with them; I want to act on them. Anonymously and without repercussion, of course.   What I’d really like is a Voodoo Doll app that lets me literally give a pain in the hindquarters to those who are a pain in mine. All those who think the terms ‘children’s sports teams’ and ‘snack list’ belong in the same sentence? You get a big pin, maybe two. Parents who drive their teenagers to school and don’t require the prince or princess to exit the vehicle until they are EXACTLY IN FRONT OF THE DOOR, you get two big pins and an extra pin for each kid who thinks they’ll perish of exhaustion by walking 25 feet. That girl on the wireless provider commercial who texts her friend across the table gets several pins through her cell phone thereby rendering it useless. Telemarketing scammers from “Credit Card Services” will get a box of pins as well as a complementary electric shock. Think of it as a “gift with purchase”. And incompetent slack-jawed navel gazing  administrators who overstep the limits of their mandate get an extra special pin, and a free iLobotomy from the Medical apps. To app developers out there, I’ve thrown down the gauntlet. When you make something really useful, give me a call. Until then I’ll be playing Angry Birds.

2-10-2012 Monica Cassier

Notes on the Run – “Bring on the Wonder”

January is a reflective month. It’s the antidote to the joy-and-light-and-foodand- drink-induced mania of the holidays. After December, many of us set about making our lives right again, reclaiming health or goodness – or in my case, closets – in the form or resolutions.

Resolutions are, however, quick. I’m not sure we give them a great deal of thought and more often than not we’re picking up that cookie a scant eight days after we’ve sworn them off for all eternity. I don’t know if they provide some humility or have a shelf life that induces amnesia to our initial enthusiasm. Regardless, they can be an annual challenge with which so many of us wrestle– and more often than not – by which we are pinned. Organization is the bane of my existence and a foe that chases me eternally. More accurately, I chase it and am forever one or two steps behind the chaos and clutter.

I do somehow manage to pull myself out of bed at the crack of dark most mornings to go for a run with friends. Some days we have a crowd, and other days it’s just two of us. On the sparsely attended mornings, the run is more a communion of quiet minds. While I’m more often known for excessive story-telling (particularly on hills – it’s the supreme distraction from the incline), today the morning was cold – in the teens – and my friend and I were quieter than normal for the first half mile. The effort of warming sleepy muscles in the frigid air becomes harder as the years pass. The sky was velvet black, the stars in abundance and Venus hanging low and bright in the pre-dawn sky. I mentioned to her a particular habit I was wrestling with, one of those resolutions that I haplessly thought would be as easy to keep as it was to make. My friend agreed, and then made a statement that struck me for its elegant and simple  decisiveness:

My resolution is to live every day as if it’s my last.

There can be many interpretations to this but I know for fact that she wasn’t suggesting to throw caution to the wind and live life loud and large, to spin in an external life free from consequence. Like so many of us, I can get caught up in the daily routine and rigor of my days. I’ve been missing the opportunity to experience the wonder and beauty of the details of these routines that provide root and foundation; these seemingly inconsequential happenings are threads in the bigger fabric of life. When some of those are suddenly gone and the fabric unravels, the hole left behind lays bare their importance and meaning.

This past year has been difficult in so many ways. I’m getting to that age where my body starts reminding me more of my age. I’d changed jobs – twice – and worried more about everything in this difficult economy. I found myself worrying more about the future and living less in the present and this year I was reminded of this folly: on the last day of summer, my friend lost her husband suddenly and without warning. When we who were his friends and neighbors emerged from the thickness of our grief, we set about trying to resume our lives in a place seemingly tipped off its axis, the orbit of the neighborhood altered with the addition of unwelcome space.

In the months that followed, I’ve personally felt his loss not in large ways – he was a dear and cherished friend – but in little ones. Sitting in my home office, I’d often glance up and see him coming back from work pulling up short of the driveway and stepping out in his work uniform of suit and tie to grab the mail out of the box. Other days I’d see him taking the dog out for a walk, cutting the grass, walking down the driveway in his slippers to retrieve the paper. I never thought much about these at the time. It was only after he was gone and I’d look up from my desk and be met with a void that I realized the impact of these small  moments, these specks of memory in a day in continual overdrive. I’d come to unconsciously depend on them; they were an integral part of my day, and I’d sorely neglected to recognize their value. Isn’t that how it so often is?

Too often I’m closing the barn door after the horse has gone for yet another unauthorized romp. I’d grabbed that morning coffee and drank it quickly without taking time to savor its aroma, how the cup feels so warm in my cold hands, how perfect the first sip tastes. I’ve neglected to hear to the music of the rain as it hits my car in traffic that has slowed from the weather, the wipers beating out syncopation. I’ve sat at the table with my husband or children, reading the paper, no one talking and hadn’t the slightest inkling how different it feels doing the same activity in an empty room. Even this morning I cursed the cold air as I stepped out of my house. But oh how that cold air assaults my lungs with its frigid perfection, how alive and vital it makes me feel. Tiny shifts and movement fight for attention; it’s easy to overlook their  importance when we come to unknowingly count on them to give us balance.

My resolution is to live every day as if it’s my last.

I know what my friend means: to live generously, free of the petty ambivalence to which we can often be prey. To remove the blinders of our harried existence and drink in and savor what we see. And to have gratitude and appreciation for the simple and fragile wonder so abundant in our lives.

12-15-2011 Monica Cassier

Notes on the Run – “Occupy Pepper”

I am the 99%. I’m just like you and citizens everywhere who pay their tab yet have limited access to an abundant resource horded by the 1%. I’m talking about Pepper. We’ve all been to a restaurant. The Salt is freely available, but of course we’ve been briefed for years on the ills of too much salt. Pepper, however, is a different matter.

When you get your salad or your entrée, the server will appear with a pepper grinder the size of a bat and ask “Would you like some fresh ground pepper?” Then the pepper grinding ceremony begins. You sit expectantly as the ground pepper appears on your dish. The server looks at you at first expectantly waiting for you to say ‘enough’. However the expression changes to one of abject suspicion as the grinding continues. Any more than 3 twist of the grinder and their internal alarms go off. After all: you’re not doing the work for the pepper, you’re just expecting something for nothing.

 Personally, I feel the whole thing is a childish exercise. I am perfectly capable of seasoning my own food. I don’t need to sit there while someone does it for me any more than I need him or her to cut my meat into bite-sized pieces. Why is that pepper grinder so big? Whole peppercorns are tiny, but pepper grinders are enormous. Why is that? It’s not like we’re splitting an atom here, we’re smashing up a little dried dot of nothing. We recently had dinner at a restaurant in Staunton, and the pepper grinders were – of course – unavailable at the tables.

 They were also enormous, about the size of an average arm. They could have easily been used at batting practice, or converted into a floor lamp. The evil pepper-hording management stored the grinders on a large rack attached to the wall, a veritable arsenal of spice-grinding majesty in full view of the pepper-deprived population.

 And why are these giant pepper grinders only found in high-falutin’ bourgeois restaurants? Restaurants that cater to those with smaller wallets have salt and pepper on the table. Of course, the pepper is pre-ground and tastes like dirt. The little guy always gets the shaft. Why can’t we use them ourselves? Is there some kind of liability attached with grinding pepper? Is it a dangerous activity? Has the government issued some kind of mandate rationing our access to freshly ground pepper? Is this more big government creep? Or is it just management being stingy? Or is it both? I sense crony capitalism at work for sure. Maybe it’s an industrial conspiracy to addict the consumer to salt. It’s freely available. The more you use it, the thirstier you get, the more drinks you order. Salt is the cash cow. Pepper doesn’t make you

thirsty. At best, it’ll make you sneeze. You’ll be using more napkins and costing the restaurant money.

 We need to fight this injustice. Why? Because it can only get worse: the next thing to go will be the fresh parsley garnish. OCCUPY PEPPER GRINDERS! Demand that there be a redistribution of pepper grinders to diners across America. When you go to a restaurant, grab that grinder out of the servers hand and

use it yourself. Demand every table be given a grinder. Protest corporate greed at establishments with limited pepper access. Rise up I say, Rise up! POWER TO THE PEPPER! … er … Paprika! … er …PEOPLE! Now, pass the salt, and order me another drink.

 

10-15-2011 Monica Cassier

Notes on the Run – “The Original Traffic Circle”

Stonehenge is believed by “the experts” to be one of several things: a prehistoric monument or an astrological site. In modern terms that means one group thinks “It’s the Washington Monument” and another group thinks “It’s a telescope.” Definitely room for interpretation. My idea? Simple. Those blowhards were aiming way too high. In all fairness, it probably took an enormous amount of effort to drag many several ton stones to the middle of nowhere and make an archeological accessory. Stonehenge was the first traffic circle. Nutty? Goofy? Hear me out here.

 There is a circle of stone in the middle of a perfectly good plot of earth with no real earthly purpose than interrupting a perfectly good plot of earth. It improves nothing beyond the novelty of quizzically looking and saying “What? There are good quality stone slabs near here?” I suspect that at the erection of the “Heel Stone” more than one Neolithic woman turned to her man and said “Wait: You said I could only get Formica!” And since there was no TV – and therefore no Dr. Phil or Oprah – these couples were left with having to solve their dispute by >gasp< communicating with each other.

There is only one entrance into Stonehenge. Stonehenge was SO FAR ahead of its time that it forgot to include the idea of “two way traffic,” and therefore is a perfect example of governmental urban planning. It’s a bit overblown. Think: large blocks of really heavy big stone, some piled on each other. Only one road in/out. IN the middle of nowhere. Before basically the dawn of man and automated large hydraulic equipment. In the Middle of NOWHERE. Clearly there is only one answer: we’re looking at the first stimulus project.

 Out on the plains in England, there must have been some traffic issues. They’d just been introduced domesticated animals and embraced it as the ‘go to’ investment for Neolithic venture capitalists. There were many animals domesticated at that point –2500 BC – including cattle and guinea pigs. I suspect the unmanaged traffic and byproducts from the “livestock” caused some grumbling.

 After a bungled Vacation “Dude Ranch” venture by one investor which included a cattle drive which crossed paths with another ranch of migrating guinea pigs – it took MONTHS to properly sort the stock – the guinea pig rancher demanded some form of traffic control.

 They thought about an elaborate two-way stop with “traffic lights” which would manage the traffic flow, but they ran in to a small problem: electricity – and ergo Traffic lights – did not exist.

 They thought “Why can’t we just take turns” as an alternative, but that involved several squabbles that involved hurled accusations like “I was HERE FIRST” and “You’re not the boss of me.” Papyrus was a millennia off, and the transcripts were ruining the hands of the stone scribes. A solution had to be found.

 There was a wonderful plot of land on which a group of ‘developers” wanted to erect “condos” – it was a new concept, particularly to cave-dwellers. But with the advent of multi-tenant housing came the responsibility of having to properly develop the surrounding area including roads. And traffic intersections. There’d been rumors of morning backups caused by the cattle/guinea pig rush hours.

 But the developers were trying to maximize their margins by minimizing their obligations in community development. They were desperate to bypass having to invent a traffic signal. The son of local stonemason – who was not a particularly astute or hard-charging, and who had an overstock of large stone slabs available – sensed opportunity. “We just invented the wheel. Let’s leverage the design.” The town council loved the idea – they’d never heard the word “leverage;” it sounded cool. The stonemason’s son provided a design with an exclusive on the construction. It was a circle, it had rules about entering and exiting, “Right of Way”, and there was no need for bringing traffic to a complete stop. The town council loved it. The stonemason’s son loved it more. And they built it, and the farmers with their stock, they did arrive. It was big and imposing. The problem was that no one knew the rules. The guinea pig farmers drove their flocks right in through the circle. The cattleman tried that but the stock got stuck in between pillars.

 There were charges of favoritism: the cattle had to circle the structure and the guinea pigs would just charge on through ignoring the rules because of their size and nimbleness. And since there was only one road in anyway, the herds still were mixed. The market tanked when a large farmer/lender invested in “Guinea Pig Backed Securities” which tanked when it was revealed that guinea pigs were only domesticated in Peru. Being that they were in a land to be named “England”, there was a huge guinea pig exodus and the whole economy failed. The condos were never finished. The area cleared for it remained cleared of trees, barren and without commerce. The townsfolk resented the traffic circle – it just slowed them down. The wheel was just being perfected and getting from ‘here’ to ‘there’ was still a big deal; the ‘straight line’ was still the preferred route. The local folk got angry at the traffic circle and the failed condo project. The plain remained undeveloped, the poorly designed road became ignored – Stonehenge was just a big hassle.

 Finally, the Guinea Pig Backed Securities failed, the whole area fell into receivership. The partially  developed area grew over with weeds, the one road into/out of Stonehenge traffic circle was blocked with a big mass of stones and pebbles due to liability and traffic and commerce ground to a halt. The folks abandoned the area and swore never again to be lured by a traffic circle.

 Stonehenge was built on the plains of Salisbury, a couple miles from the Town of Salisbury in England. Coincidence? I think not.

 

8 – 10 – 2011 Monica Cassier

Notes on the Run – “Field of Dreams”

The start of the school year is just around the corner.  We’ll head to the store to buy mountains of school supplies trailing our children who will bear a look of pitiful resignation: the summer is almost over.  However, many will take to the fields for the ritual of Friday Night Lights.  I love high school sports.  It’s a joy to see athletes who have graduated beyond the ankle biter juice box leagues, flinging themselves around the field of play, passionate about sport, really getting it. However, there is always the few who wreck it for the many, who exhibit bad behavior and ruin it for everyone else.  And it’s coming from the bleachers: “REF!  ARE YOU BLIND???? THAT’S A BLATANT FOUL!!!!!”  Yes, I’m talking about the parents.  Not all parents, just the nutty few.  You know the kind I’m talking about: they are pillars of society, hold good jobs, keep their lawns neat, help elderly ladies cross the street.  Put them anywhere near a place where their child is locked in athletic combat and they morph into a seething mass of screaming irrationality.   They know their children’s sports stats thin-sliced to the nth factor, but ask them the name of their son or daughter’s math teacher and they look at you like you’re speaking in Aramaic.  The cautionary tales abound of over-the-top sports parents – their patron saint is Marv Marinovich, who started training his son Todd to be an all-star quarterback at the tender age of one month.  His father wondered how well a kid could be developed if ‘given the perfect environment’.  So he set out to create it forgetting that his grand assumption neglected the very real fact that his kid would eventually have to inhabit a very imperfect world.  I think Todd probably woke up one day and couldn’t even ask himself “what do I want to be when I grow up?”  It was probably more like “WHO do I want to be when I grow up?”  He was just a big grand experiment, an athletic monster to his father’s Dr. Frankenstein.  The kid who was never allowed to have a Ding Dong growing up has spent most of the last 10 years in rehab.  The moral of the story is this: LET YOUR KIDS HAVE A DAMN DING-DONG.

The deal is this: nothing kills the fun of kids sports like parents.  The remedy is simple: we need to back off and shut up.  Period.  I know whereof I speak:  My name is Monica and I’m a recovering sports parent.  The following are my own stereotypes of over-the-top parents from my years of half-wit, unscientific and wholly undocumented soccer, football, hockey, figure skating, lacrosse, swimming, tennis, cross-country field research.  Yes, I know: several of the aforementioned sports don’t use fields.  Its allegory, get over it.

The Early Achiever
It’s a late summer football scrimmage.  Parents are standing along the sidelines chatting, it’s a lovely late afternoon, the sun is just beginning to set.  The air is fragrant with the smell of trampled grass.  If you were to look at the field, you’d see novice football players and 4 coaches trying to coax some form of organized play out of them.  It would – to the untrained eye – look like an exercise in cat herding.  Next to you is a guy dressed in business attire.  He’s shed his suit coat and loosened his tie.  He stands there, unsmiling.  “Look at them.  It’s pathetic.  You’d think those coaches would have prepared them better.  Look – they can’t even run routes.”  You look at him with a mixture of amusement and confusion; you wonder if he’s joking…you say gently, “Yeah, but… the kids are only SIX.”  You hope you see some sense of logic enter the mind of this guy, but NOPE:  you’ve met the Early Achiever.  He (or she) is the guy (or gal) that didn’t make the cut in high school, or made the team but didn’t do anything extraordinary.  He has ‘it’ all figured out.  “It” is the reason why he/she didn’t make the team and usually heavily discounts an absence of natural athletic ability.  And he is still bitter about it.  On any given day his complaints are like a Chinese menu of excuses and the blame will fall squarely on the coaches, the athletic organization, or the mom who organizes the snacks.  This guy may never graduate to full-fledged screaming in the stands because his kid will get sick of the constant grumbling and give up sports for something that will not attract the glare of parental attention, like Accounting.

The Tennis Mom
This sports parent almost exclusively appears on girls’ tennis teams.  They are close cousins to their northern species, The Figure Skating Mom.  They themselves typically belong to tennis clubs and are active participants in the sport.  They are rarely seen out of their own jaunty tennis apparel, and are always well groomed.  They have an overwhelming need to take over the tennis program and turn it into a junior version of the country club.  They have somehow forgotten that parental participation shouldn’t extend beyond the checkbook and minivan.  Some ban their daughter’s boyfriend from attending matches because “it’s distracting”.  Their daughter’s seed on the team is inversely proportional to their mood.  If another girl challenges their daughter for their spot on the ladder, they get so fiercely protective they make Tiger Mothers look like pussycats.  They demand a buffet at each tennis match that typically includes the following list of snacks: “A sweet, a salty, Gatorade, bottled water, sandwiches, 7-layer Mexican dip” which is I believe more food than is needed for all participants in all 27 stages of the Tour de France.  When challenged on the need for a catered affair, they will icily respond “IT’S TRADITION”.  Do not – under any circumstances – reply “So is rampant obesity.”  Jaunty tennis attire is not appropriate wear for a rumble.

The Soccer Mom
Hasn’t this one been done to death?  Yeah, I think so.

The Lemon
This parent is pretty bitter.  A close relative of the early achiever, this parent’s child somehow manages to stays with the sport.  The child can be gifted or not, a starter or not.  The complaints aren’t usually about the performance of his/her child but about other kids out there, usually those that are better/faster/stronger.  There is an inherent need to chip away at a performance.   The amount of kid-bashing that goes on would make a Child Beauty Pageant Mother proud.  Anything is fair game: their equipment, perceived dedication at practice, performance on game days, their ethnicity, shoe color, parents’ professions, suspected mental defects.  They often accuse other players of cheating.  You can spot these people from afar by simply looking a guy who is surrounded by other parents squirming to get away.  One of my son’s plays the cello, and I tried to imagine a couple of parents engaging in this behavior at an audition.  This is how I imagine it to go:

Parent A: Did you see Billy?
Parent B: Yeah.  You know he’s going to get the first chair, he’s so good.
Parent A: Pfft.  I know, pathetic.  Do you know his private instructor?  NOT EVEN EUROPEAN.
Parent B: Ok, but…
Parent A: And his parents?  They have the orchestra director WRAPPED AROUND THEIR FINGER.  He gets to leave early because of his private lessons.
Parent B: Well, yeah, but the kid is nearly a prodigy, they’re saying “Julliard”
Parent A: With that instrument?  YOU’VE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME.   He doesn’t even have a BELGIAN BRIDGE.
Parent B: Well the music he plays, it’s so beautiful.
Parent A: WHO GIVES A CRAP ABOUT THE MUSIC?

You get my drift.

The Thief
When I was growing up, there were these two girls who were incredibly gifted runners.  Ridiculously so.  They were a year apart and were breaking national age-group records in middle school.  Their father was beyond intense.  I mentioned him to my dad a few weeks ago and he replied “He was a monster”.  If the girls didn’t run the time he demanded he was known to hurl empty soda cans at them and scream at the top of his lungs.  I’m not sure if the girls ran out of fear or the need to please but by the time they were seniors in high school these girls who had competed at the national level were washed up, burned out, barely able to win a local meet and rebelling hard against their dictatorial dad.  I competed against these girls and despite their handing me my rump in every single meet, I really felt sorry for them.  I’d see them out on training runs and there was no joy in their face.  They’d be out there pounding the miles with this look of – I don’t know – maybe, uncontained fury.  I always wonder what happened to them.   I couldn’t imagine running with that weight of my parents expectations on my shoulders.

I used “Mr. G” as an example of the over-the-top parent, and we’ve all seen them out there.  Their kid isn’t necessarily a national caliber athlete – that is wholly immaterial.  The deal is this: they’ve stolen the dream from their kid.  Whatever fun their child had is long gone and has been replaced by the expectation to perform at a certain level for the benefit of the parent.  Somehow the term “extra-curricular activity” is lost in the equation.  They morph from reasonable people to thinking the balance of the earth rests in the outcome of the sporting event.  Somehow their entire ego is wrapped up in it, that if their child (or child’s team) fails, they have failed, they lose too.  They’ve forgotten the meaning of the word ‘spectator’.

I witnessed perhaps the worst example this at a lacrosse game this past spring when a father was thrown out of the facility for verbally harassing and threatening the referee.  I watched this man – who is probably a pretty reasonable guy – spin up and out of control the further his son’s team fell behind.  His intermittent shouts turned into a full-throttled barrage of insults at perceived missed calls, accusations of favoritism and finally – the coup de grace – threatening bodily harm on the ref.  Finally – after 30 minutes of the screaming (during which a substantial gap opened up between him and the next person) – the ref threw a yellow flag for an offense committed off the field of play.  He motioned for the coach, met him mid-field and said – very loudly – “I want THAT MAN OUT OF THIS FACILITY NOW!”   The father threw his hands up in the air and stomped away before he could be escorted out.  I felt only pity for his son, who was left to finish playing the game.  I wondered how he managed to play with the humiliatingly heavy cloak of his father’s public shame draped squarely on his padded shoulders.  For these people, there is only one cure: DUCT TAPE.

As parents, we need to recognize that our child’s best might not be THE BEST.  And while we may dream of our son or daughter reaching the highest pinnacle of sport, of imagining them standing on the top podium,  belting out the Star Spangled Banner, the camera panning to a shot of you, the weeping parent who drove him 2 HOURS A DAY TO PRACTICE!  WHAT DEDICATION TO THE CHILD!  Cue the sappy music… STOP!!!!  STOP IT RIGHT NOW.  I know, it’s hard, but there is a cure.  Be the ride, the checkbook, the reasonable cheerleader.  Let the coaches teach them a bit about life using the field of play as the chalkboard.  Let their teams be THEIR TEAMS; you can cry and cheer for them, not with them, because you are – I’m sorry – an outsider.  Back off, loosen the apron strings, and if you’re sitting on the side lines, for heaven’s sake put away your whistle.  Most importantly recognize your kid’s dream as theirs and theirs alone.  They should have sole dominion over them, they are entitled to it.  And you’ll see that in play – not in sleep as Shakespeare suggests – what dreams may come.

And if you can’t do that, then bring a big roll of duct tape.

 

6-09-2011 Monica Cassier

Notes on the Run – “Ghost Stories”

I recently went to Boston for a work-related day trip. I foolishly left my phone charger behind and this small
omission I’m convinced resulted in an upending of karmic forces that caused the delay – and finally – cancellation of my flight home to Richmond. I found myself in the unenviable position of being at the airport, my iPhone running on fumes, and not even a toothbrush in my possession.

After grumbling to the USAirways representative about the weather (she unsurprisingly grumbled back.
Airline counter people are rarely known for their sunny dispositions), I made my way to the ironically named
“Customer Services” desk to try and get a hotel for the evening. The closest hotel was not exactly close,
located in the town of Winthrop. The hotel wasn’t your generic type of lodging, but an inn that the shuttle
driver told me was a converted Jewish Community Center. I was later to be told it was a converted school. Regardless, it was a converted something and I noted wood floors throughout and very high ceilings
as I made my way to my room with complementary toothpaste but no brush. When I’d asked for both,
the desk clerk went to a closet and rummaged through a small plastic basket. Apparently they don’t often
cater to stranded travelers. I was convinced my room was a converted squash court and soon discovered
that the wood floors, high ceilings, and – I swear – paper maché walls resulted in it having the effect of an
echo chamber: I heard people walking overhead and down the hallway all evening. Voices carried, heels on the floor reverberated; it was like trying to sleep at a Celtics game.

I awoke the next morning having gotten approximately 37 minutes of sleep (none of it consecutive) and felt
a displacement and weariness down to my bones. The weather didn’t help: it was overcast and sprinkling
outside. The inn was without a restaurant and the front desk clerk directed me to “walk two stop signs
up the street” to a place called “The High Tide.” The walk up the street was longer than I’d anticipated, and
depressing: every house seemed gray, and trees were dropping blossoms that were mashed and tattered on the damp sidewalk. The whole place looked tired. I entered the small town center I saw the effects of the
recession everywhere: shuttered up business, empty storefronts. Peeling signs on stores that hadn’t had a
person cross the threshold in many a moon. One hardware store was still operating, rakes and shovels
stacked against the end of one wall. I opened the door to “The High Tide” and a bell jangled. Every head
turned and looked at me from the counter and I felt like I’d interrupted a conversation. It was the kind of
place that has disappeared from most towns and been replaced by generic chains with food as predictable and unremarkable as the clientele. It had a long counter with stools, a large grill at one end of the counter, a few tables, painted blue and white tin signs on the walls touting breakfast specials, the prices taped over many times. I was clearly a stranger here and after an awkward moment of silence that felt like an hour but was probably more like 5 seconds, I shook off my self-consciousness and made my way to the counter and sat down. I needed coffee and badly. I ordered my food and the cook – a thin, craggy older guy dressed in a ball cap and plaid shirt and who looked like the love child of actor Steve Buscemi and Gilligan – got busy on the grill.

These were clearly locals and regulars; they knew each other and their banter easy, their regional
accents thick as chowder. Their dress reflected their blue-collar lives and I couldn’t have been more out of
place in my business attire if I’d come dressed as Scarlett O’Hara. One guy got up to pay his bill, easily chatting with and hitting on the waitress. I guessed him to be in his 50’s, she a good 20 years younger, and he asked her to go to Vegas with him when he and his brothers take their mother for her 80th birthday. Apparently, I found the place in the world where an appropriate birthday celebration for your elderly mother is a trip to sin city. He was loud and standing right next to me and it was all I could do not to turn and just look at him, to see what a character like this looked like. I somehow had the feeling that he wanted me to, so he could size up the stranger in their midst, quiz me on who I was, where I was from, what I was doing here.

 As I was sipping my coffee, I looked around the room and marveled that this place had, for the most part,probably remained unchanged since it opened. The only exception came when the waitress brought me my juice in a small plastic cup and was hit with disappointment that it wasn’t in one of those heavy contoured glasses found at diners. The plastic was an anachronism here, a disposable item in a place that had endured the years. The remaining patrons chatted about the murder of a young boy at the hands of his mother, his body found on a remote road in New Hampshire. “I just don’t understand it…why didn’t she just drop him off with someone, a relative?” “It’s like that mother in Houston who drowned her five children….” They debated the topic for a while – never once suggesting that perhaps mental illness was at play – and an elderly heavy-set guy two stools down from me finally shook his head and ended the discussion with “She’s not from around here. She’s from Texas.”

My food arrived, my plate heaped with eggs, bacon, toast, and homefries. I could have taken the plate and shaken it and the food would have remained stationary: this café was either unaware or unconcerned with the ill effects of saturated fat. It tasted good. Really, really good. I’d bought a book at the Airport and had it on the counter next to me. The man, who’d neatly explained the crime as a by-product of the suspect’s  geography, looked over and asked “What are you reading? Is it good?” I explained that’d I’d bought it at the airport, but hadn’t started it. He asked where I was staying and I told him about the inn, and then offered up the information about the wood floors and the noise. He then offered up that the building was in fact a  converted school… and the noise I heard? He had an explanation for that too. “Old buildings make noise. I didn’t used to believe in ghosts. But then I moved into the house of my neighbors. She’d died of cancer. He was so sad that he committed suicide after.” My  first thought is WHY on earth anyone would willingly want to live in a house with such a history. But being the outsider I just nodded my head. “So, we had a ghost in the house. I’m sure it was him.” He went on to explain that he was an amiable spirit who didn’t like discord. If he started arguing with his wife or daughter-inlaw, the ghost would turn on the TV or make things fall from the table. “He liked the house peaceful. He’s not in the house anymore though. He left when my daughter-in-law moved out.” He spoke so matter-of-factly, and the only thing I could manage to ask was “Do you miss him?” He replied with quiet sadness “Yeah, I do. He was a nice ghost.”

Another man got up and made his way to the cash register. He saw my book and asked “Whatcha readin? Is it good?” This question is evidently the local icebreaker. The cook and two guys in stools at the other end of the counter started arguing about sports. Boston fans are passionate about their teams, and it was at this point that I noticed the cook was wearing a New York Yankees cap. In Boston, this would be the same as wearing an “I Heart Bin Laden” shirt at ground zero. I couldn’t believe the chutzpah of a chowder head rooting for the Yankees. I said – without thinking – “You’ve got a YANKEES cap on? HERE? IN BOSTON? Are you nuts?” He smiled at me and opened the buttons on his navy and white checked shirt to reveal a Yankees t-shirt underneath. “I gave up rootin’ faw the Red Sawx in 1968. What – I was supposed ta wait 86 yeahs? Fahget it.” I shook my head “Wow, you must catch a lot of flack.” He shot back quickly “I cook ya food – no one says nothin” and laughed.

I paid my bill – where can you get breakfast for $6.25 anymore? – and made my way on the damp streets
toward the inn and the shuttle to the airport for my flight home. During the trek back I had this thought that these were the most real people I’d met in a long time. But later, on the flight back to Richmond, then it occurred to me that maybe they weren’t, that if I were to go back to the café tomorrow, I’d find “The High Tide” long ago boarded up, it’s tin signs peeling and hanging neglected on the walls and discover that the folks I’d met weren’t in fact real, but spirits from another time.

 

4-01-2011 Monica Cassier

Notes on the Run – “Forces of Nature”

I don’t know what it is about spring that makes me become so aware of nature. Summer comes and plants grow quickly or whither in the summer sun. The days shorten and the trees take their cue and drop their leaves.   I’ve been through hurricane Isabel and remember feeling helpless against Mother Nature’s ultimate hissy fit and bad air day. Trees looked like a tangle of pixie sticks all over Salisbury. We get the occasional snowfall in Richmond, and on rare occasion an accumulation that causes everything slowdown and we have no choice but to go into a naturally-enforced time out. But for the most part, I tend not to take notice of nature. Until spring. I’m aware of it so much in my morning runs – most of which are in the dark. The first portent of the vernal equinox is the faint glow of dawn in the sky coming earlier and earlier each morning. It’s the raw scent of the warming earth and the sight of the daffodils ready for their seasonal debut. Recently at mile 14 of a long run, when my legs were tired and my fun meter near zero, I saw the first blooming tree of the season and those few simple blossoms of purple gave me a lift that carried me through the end of the run.

You can smell spring in the air. It’s the warming of the ground, the damp earthy smell that signals the awaking of it all. The bulbs push through the ground, flowers crack open the husks. Hibernating animals begin their sluggish awakening. I drive past Keswick farms and see the spring lambs. Spring is so restless, so relentless. Mother Nature is like that.  

I think of spring as this quiet awakening – the gentle warming, the patient progress of the plants, the minute or two of extra sunlight as the days pass.   I love the feeling of renewal after the months of light-deprived sacrifice. It’s the needing only a sweater instead of a jacket, and then short sleeves instead of long. Picking up my son after lacrosse practice and not turning on the car’s headlights. Cooking dinner and still having the sunlight lighting up the kitchen. It feels like renewal, like the real promise and start to the new year.

It’s a morning at the beginning of March. Spring is a couple of weeks away and it’s just a weekend before Daylight Savings time. The sun is coming up earlier every day. I finish the run with my friends and need to run a few more miles on my own. The sky is so clear and it is so quiet out but for the raucous singing of the birds. I think they’re welcoming the warming air and the change in the light that makes them start building nests. There is a pair of red finches nesting in the spotlights at the corner of my house. They define the term “spring into action” and think about the irony of the phrase. In a couple of weeks I’ll be stocking up on Swiffers to tackle the yellow-green pollen that will have invaded every crevice of the house, and pop the occasional Allegra to combat my itchy left eye. Yup: that’s the extent of my seasonal allergies: an annoyingly itchy left eye.

But Mother Nature can be volatile. She can bring floods and tornadoes. On this morning it is just before a monstrous 1-2 punch of earthquake and tsunami. Videos of the disaster shows the water overpowering everything in its path, making matchsticks of buildings, picking up cars and busses and sweeping them away without slowing. This force of nature is horrifying and Mother Nature can render us dumbstruck with her ferocity and tempestuousness.   She can make us feel so very small, so very helpless.

On this morning, I don’t think of her destructive power. It’s a calm day, the morning light soft, the sky a bright blue. I hear the birds singing and the air is scented with the perfume of the warming earth. I see nothing but her quiet beauty and gentle loveliness. I keep running toward home, my shadow stretched long in the rising sun.

 

2-01-2011 Monica Cassier
Notes on the Run – “Birth of a Learning Curve”

In December, I ended a job I’d had for 7 years. I’d been on the job so long I could do it with my eyes closed, on auto pilot, hands free. I left to ‘pursue greener pastures’, to ‘expand my knowledge base’….in honesty I left to ‘pursue more dough’ and to ‘expand my bank account’. I’m as pragmatic as the next person and darn if those kids of mine don’t expect an education beyond high school.

Call me a sucker.

Leaving the old gig wasn’t an easy decision: I liked the company and people a lot. Then we were acquired by a giant logo so big it is only eclipsed by Coca-Cola. It wasn’t a bad thing at all; it just didn’t strike me as my thing. I like the ‘small pond’ ideal: it keeps me motivated, accountable. My last few days at my former employer were frenzied; I respected the opportunity for having worked for them enough to leave them with my whole effort. At the end of my last week, as I was catching my breath, I realized the finality of my situation. My first thought was this: Here endeth the lesson. I was closing a chapter on a book with the smug satisfaction that I’d move seamlessly on to the next chapter.

I was wrong. Very, very WRONG.

I started my new job in January. And within a few hours I was reminded of a couple things: Labor pains and the subjunctive tense in French.

OK, stay with me here, this may take some explaining.

I started in a similar job in software but in a completely new ‘space’. In software that means more the purpose of the application and less about the moon and stars. Learning a new space means not only what it does, but how it is applied across different business types. Which leads me to labor pains.

It suddenly occurred to me that learning is very similar to giving birth: you work hard, sweat, breathe heavily, fret, and wish to the heavens for it to be over. Then, when the process is done and you’re looking at the product of your work, you forget the pain. You feel joy and self-satisfaction. I’m convinced if anyone remembered how hard the learning curve is, they’d never switch jobs. I’m also wholly convinced that ‘lifers’ – those who stay with a company their entire careers – are not unmotivated or lacking in adventure, but remember how brutal it is to ‘ramp up’.

On to the French subjunctive tense. Learning this new software space and conquering all the unknowns transported me back to my days of learning a new language. You can learn the alphabet, get the hang of conjugating verbs, and learn some idiomatic expressions. During the process, you can giggle that a term of endearment is “my little cabbage”. The English equivalent is probably something along the lines of “sweet pea”. Produce, apparently, is the universal language. In English, we have pragmatic tenses. You know when to use them. But we have no subjunctive tense. It’s based on ‘maybe’, on feeling. This linguistic mystery is all too  apparent in French. I personally think if the French had employed it during WWI instead of the Maginot Line, WWII could have been completely avoided. To me, it’s a complete mystery.

I remember my days toiling to understand this tense that French toddlers could pick up with such ease and wishing I had some Gallic Rosetta Stone. And now I look at my children now struggling over algebra or some other concept with new eyes: I’ve forgotten the frustration. For years they’ve expressed theirs in a variety of forms but my response has basically taken the same form: buck up, put on your big kid britches, think, and deal with it.

And now, I’m in their place. AGAIN. I’m faced with the French Subjunctive in the form of a software space and the clock is ticking. And the labor pains start. I think back to Lamaze classes, that silly concept that regular breathing will help you cope. Until the anesthesiologist gets there. Regular breathing helps nothing but to keep you living. Between that and the birth, we have to just use our minds and hope like heck there isn’t a pop quiz. So here I am, mid-learning curve, in pain and breathing for all I’m worth. And I envy the future because when I get there, I’ll forget
how hard these current weeks have been. I’ll feel the comfort of the learning amnesia. And I’ll fix dinner and smugly cluck to my homework-grumbling children to buck up, put on their big kid britches, think, and deal with it.
But definitely not in the French subjunctive.

12-10-2010 Monica Cassier
Season of Lights

It’s the time of year when the days get shorter. They’re still 24 hours long, but the sun takes a bit of a holiday for several weeks. The shorter daylight and cold air compel us to hunker down and more often than not, stay inside. I spent most of my life in the snow belt of western New York and learned the way to survive the gray skies, mountains of snow, and frigid temps were two face cords of wood and a sturdy crock pot.

When I moved to Midlothian eight years ago, I was immediately struck at the number of people who ran, walked, and biked throughout my neighborhood in Salisbury – even in winter. Granted, our much gentler climate allows for this luxury.

The neighborhood is lovely indeed – it’s streets a ‘bowl of spaghetti’ of turns and rolling hills, instead of the grid-like neighborhoods in which I’d grown up. I’m lucky to live in such a park-like setting which provides miles of roads for safe recreation. I’ve spotted the Albino deer, hurtled snakes, seen owls and hawks fly past. I chart the progress of the seasons with the budding and blooming of trees in the spring, the smell of honeysuckle in the summer, and the riot of color in the fall. But the winter running is often the hardest of all, as most of it is done in the dark.

The 6 weeks between Thanksgiving and New Years, though, provide a gift of light. The winter solstice – the darkest day of the year – falls right in the middle. After the seasonal chow-down of Thanksgiving, the Christmas lights start to show up on the houses, and each run through the neighborhood reveals another house or two that is lit up to celebrate the holidays and combat these long dark days. I’m wearing my own version of “Holiday Lights”: reflective clothing and a halogen headlamp that I refer to as my “miners light.” Getting out on a cold night and anticipating the next new set of lights then finishing up with my cheeks red from the cold and seeing my breath in the cold air, I’m transported back to my middle-school self running home for dinner.

The neighborhood is a friendly place. People rarely fail to wave when I pass them in a car or on foot. In the dark of winter, they often have their bright headlights on to see. And if they don’t, often times they’ll put them on when they see a runner or walker as if to say “Yup, I see you.” It’s just a funny observation I’ve made over the years that many drivers turn off their highbeams for oncoming cars but turn them on for people on foot, and I’ve taken to wearing a ballcap in the middle of winter to block the glare, a seasonal anomaly for sure. I went for a Christmas Eve run one year to do a tour of the luminaries. It was a crisp winter evening; the glow of the candles along the road was enchanting. Headed home around a curve in the road I saw an oncoming car. And – you got it – the driver turned on his brights. I was momentarily blinded, took a wrong step on a spot of crumbling pavement and tumbled head-over-heels into someone’s yard. It was not an elegant dismount. Fortunately I didn’t hit any of the luminaries and become the Richmond version of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow. To his credit, the driver stopped to make sure I was ok. Gasping for air – the fall had winded me – I thanked the driver for stopping and explained the source of my gymnastic exhibition. I then wished him a Merry Christmas and continued home to bandage my bleeding hands and knees.

The mornings can be particularly dicey with people rushing to school and work, trying to beat the clock and I take extra care to avoid the routes that have a lot of traffic or blind corners. A week or two ago, I was running with my Tuesday/Thursday morning group. We were turning a corner on Kentford Drive in single file headed toward the Salisbury Golf Course’s water fountain. A car came caroming around the corner, its tires hugging the edge of the road. We were all wearing some kind of reflective gear and I was wearing my trusty “miners light”. In addition, the sun was rising and it was light out. However, the driver was either careless or distracted and all four of us were forced off the road to prevent being hit. Out of breath and incensed is not a good combination and we loudly grumbled the remaining tenth of a mile until we got to the water fountain. What if that had been a kid? What make of car was it? Someone had seen the first three numbers on the license plate; someone else mentioned the car was a Volkswagon. To which I laughed and said “BLACK ONE” and gently smacked his arm.

After Christmas, the light displays are turned off, and are pretty much gone by early January. Then it’s just me and the occasional headlights. The temperatures dip, they days are pretty dark, and spring seems a long way off. And while the desire to hunker down is as strong as ever, I’ll still take to the streets for a run. And when I return, I’ll throw another log in the hearth and then fire up my crock pot.