Friday, February 29, 2008

My first RAGBRAI

Witnessing one of the most infamous streaking events of Iowa's week long bicycle ride across the state (RAGBRAI) overshadowed most of the pain caused by my biggest rookie mistake: lack of training. During the 2004 summer bicycle ride widely viewed as a rolling spring break for the 40+ set the average participant can't fit into any norm. Arguably the first bicycle ride of its kind in the US, RAGBRAI attracts families, racers, casual riders, people in spandex on carbon frames to unicyclists to Huffy riders in cut-off jeans. There is no norm, no average. The ride can be non-stop party from river to river for one person or a wholesome family picnic for the approximately 500-mile bicycle ride.

On the second day of my first partial attempt to participate in this infamous Iowa bike ride, the lunch stop provided a surreal mix of the extremes. Conveniently located just beyond the halfway point, Olin and its residents provided the means for a restorative lunch break with beer gardens, vendors hawking almost any food you could wish for, live music and perhaps most sought after... massages. During my hard earned lunch break, I found the massage tent and promptly signed up. As I stood inside the tent waiting impatiently for my turn on the massage table, the sounds of the crowd buzzing and whirring outside began to lull me into reverie. Then a strange murmur broke through the steady hum outside the tent, so I stepped out to see what had muted the party. Just as I stuck my head out I saw three naked bicyclists racing through town, turning the corner around the town square and out of sight into the throng of cyclists already on the road. They pedaled so fast I couldn't say for sure, but I believe the streakers only wore helmets and shoes.

The second the temporary nudists left our view, the crowd cheered and went right back to the cheery chatter and hubbub that preceded, no one scandalized or outraged. We shared a collective shoulder-shrug, "eh, that's RAGBRAI" and all returned to the business of vacationing on a bike ride across Iowa during the hottest week of the year.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008


First half marathon... Actually, my first race!
First time in Austin... Actually, my first time in Texas! (I don't count four times at the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport... and neither do any of the Texans I ran it past!)

What a great time in a great city. I traveled to Austin, Texas last weekend to run my first half marathon. The weekend started chilly and rainy... although compared to what I had left behind in Iowa it was a welcome change. I'll take 40-50 degrees even with rain over 5 degrees, snow and wind chill factor of 15-20 below zero.

Saturday, February 16, packet pickup day, it rained most of the day. And when it didn't rain, it poured. When it didn't rain or pour, the wind gusted furiously. I think it was a conspiracy of the northern states sending what they could to scare their northern residents back. Austin won though... Sunday, Race Day turned out beautifully. Before the 7:00 am start, temps of 40-something kept masses of runners huddled around propane warmers. Fireworks over Town Lake (which Austinites repeatedly and half-apologetically pointed out is really the Colorado River dammed up -- It's OK guys, we do that here in Iowa too!) near the Congress Avenue bridge celebrated the start of the race.

After the gun signaling the start, it took a few minutes before those of us at the back of the pack actually started running. Which as I understand is the norm for big races. This being my first time, I was nervous enough that I stopped being chatty. If you know me well, you know this is the extreme... generally with nervousness I get wound up into a state in which I can't stop talking and may even start jumping up and down. Pushed to the limit, I just clam up and observe everyone else around me as if I am invisible. I pretty much stayed in invisible mode until I crossed the finish line. Just before crossing the finish line I caught a glimpse of my friend and RAGBRAI teammate Chris V. (the initial is for any readers who know that half of our team is named Chris, the rest are named Rob and Steve) who waved and cheered. I had really kicked it into high gear coming around the corner in front of the Texas capitol building closing in on the finish and just as that final energy burst began to flag, Chris hollered out my name and I kept it going.

The invaluable nature of a teammate manifested itself for me that day. Not for the first time. But there it was nonetheless. Had Chris, a veteran marathoner, not been there, I can't tell you how nervous I would have been. When I speak of teammates from our RAGBRAI Team LIVESTRONG it may sound as if it is too good to be true... that this group of people can't possibly be as amazing as they sound. And if I didn't know them myself, I might be right there with you. But I do know them. And while I will not do them the injustice of bestowing upon them superhuman qualities this team, from my experience, brings out the best in others, we help each other to believe in ourselves, we might be aware of each other's vulnerabilities, but we view each other in their strengths. So that's who was waiting for me at the finish line. Team LIVESTRONG: Chris there and cheering me on; Amy, who called the day before to make sure her voice was in my head saying, "you can do it!" on Race Day; Jennzing, my sherpa-hero who inspires me whenever she can and who sent me a "whoohooo!" text message post-race; Lisa who never gives up; Melody, who cheered me on during training; and my family... who as you know are ALWAYS part of any team effort; my new friends and Austin hosts for the weekend Matt & Brandy... without whom I would have been homeless the night before the race! Oh no, this is starting to sound like an Oscar speech... the warning music is about to start and I'm going to get pushed off the stage by some tart in an evening gown.

So, anyway, back to the race... after the finish line, racers get herded down a feeding chute grabbing water, sports drinks, fruit, granola bars and other goodies (I missed the chicken noodle soup). Once I was free from the cattle drive, Chris and I wandered around until we found the free beer. We sat on the ground to drink our free beverages wondering how soon we would regret this seating arrangement and promptly met some fellow half-marathoners. On our way to the line for the outhouses, we ran into a friend and fellow member of the cancer community, Jonny Imerman, founder and director of Imerman's Angels. His infectious energy brought together a crew of other runners and so we all headed out for a big meal to replace our depleted carb stores.

The race started and ended in downtown Austin which is at once cosmopolitan and laid back. It's easy to get around the town, friendliness becomes an understatement when strangers make eye contact, smile and say hello... something I expect in small town Iowa, but not something I've experienced to that extent in any other "big" city. And I have been out of the state of Iowa, not only that, I have been out of the country. While I have to say that every city I've been to has had friendly people (and of course the random crabby person who clearly hates his/her job). But Austin... so far, you are first on my list of favorite cities. Austin turned out to be WAY cooler than I expected it to be... and I expected it to be pretty darn cool!

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Reality check

Today is my birthday. My birthday present to myself...
: noun, a freeing or being freed from illusion.

It sounds negative. Harsh. I guess if you blind-side someone else with it, it can be. But... eyes open, facing forward. It is a gift.

Reality for the realist or the pessimist creates the norm. For an idealist and optimist like myself. Reality shifts perspective. A shift in perspective always involves some creativity. And creativity is always a welcome gift... in my world anyway.

In the trite but true category, for the most part I like to think I've taken Casey Kasem's advice to keep my feet on the ground while reaching for the stars. I haven't listened to the top 40 show in a while, so I'm not sure if DJ Kasem is still offering those words of wisdom. Either way. It takes a conscious effort to perform that exercise with a personality like mine. Any optimist/idealist will tell you. Staying in touch with reality, on a list of priorities, is right there with keeping in touch with your second cousin's best friend's ex-girlfriend's mother... once removed. But because it's important to your cousin, you do it.

Though I thought had I been in reality mode, this week I came crashing back to Earth with some disappointments. It says nothing about the people involved. They didn't change. They are still perfectly human i.e. imperfect... the way I prefer my fellow human beings. (Feet on the ground!)

So when some of the people in my life this week didn't live up to all of their promises I had to look at the big picture. The question I had to ask was whether or not these people failed in reality or if they had only failed to live up to my idealized view of them.

A long-held belief of mine that everyone and everything deserves a second chance shows how my optimism sometimes rescues me from my idealism. A quotation of Eleanor Roosevelt's that I carry around with me, literally and figuratively, expresses this best:

All human beings have failings, all human beings have needs and temptations and stresses. Men and women who live together through long years get to know one another's failings; but they also come to know what is worthy of respect and admiration in those they live with and in themselves.

If at the end one can say, "this man used to the limit the powers that God granted him; he was worthy of love and respect and of the sacrifices of many people, made in order that he might achieve what he deemed to be his task," then that life has been lived well and there are no regrets. -- Eleanor Roosevelt

So now after my illusion-ectomy. I feel readjusted. Refreshed. Back to my usual big picture, in which
I'd much rather believe in people and be wrong on occasion than be right about people on occasion for all the wrong reasons. It takes a lot less energy. Being right for the wrong reasons just doesn't seem to be worth the extra effort.

A special shout out to my friend and "sherpa-hero" Jennzing, because she helped me get to this spot. :)

Special note: I don't mean to be vague or cryptic about any of this. If elaboration seems necessary, perhaps in future posts I can share more concrete stories to illustrate these thoughts. For now though you can have concept, metaphor and broad terms.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Finding inspiration in others

Sometimes I find inspiration and motivation from within... sometimes I find it in the words or actions of others.

Strange but true, one font of inspiration to me is YouTube... I turn there sometimes to see Jim Valvano's ESPY humanitarian award acceptance speech. When that impassioned directive fails to inspire me, I'll know that my heart has turned to stone. The last time I checked, Jimmy V still fires me up to be a better person. Take a peek:

No need to take notes... here's what he said:
"To me, there are three things we all should do every day. We should do this every day of our lives.
Number 1 is laugh. You should laugh every day.
Number 2 is think. You should spend some time in thought.
And Number 3 is, you should have your emotions moved to tears, could be happiness or joy.

But think about it. If you laugh, you think, and you cry, that's a full day. That's a heck of a day. You do that seven days a week; you're going to have something special."
-- Jimmy V.

Laughing and thinking daily come pretty naturally to me. Being moved to tears daily is another thing. The week last August that Maggie, my elderly golden retriever mix, came to the end of her long, well-loved life brought several days of my emotions being moved to tears... not all over the dog.

For several months Maggie had developed large unexplained lumps on both sides. By early 2007 they had grown to such cumbersome sizes she lost the flexibility necessary to clean herself. Canine arthritis added to her decrepit existence. It had become exponentially more difficult for her to get around.

Tuesday morning that week she couldn't walk by herself. I had to help her back into the house after her morning routine. However as I went through my morning routine, she seemed to recover enough that I felt comfortable going to work. Unfortunately when I returned, she had deteriorated again. Taking Maggie outside that evening revealed to me that I needed to make that final decision. One I had been deliberating for months. But when I saw that she couldn't stand to do her duty, I called Mom to share the terrible news. She called the veterinarian for me who left his granddaughter's birthday party to come to my house and "help Maggie out."

I sat with my Maggiepie on the grass under the tree in my front yard and the vet carefully explained the process and proceeded, always asking if I was ready for the next step. So her last moments were at home with me petting her and telling her I loved her.

Now I know I'm speaking of the life of a dog. But heartbreak is heartbreak no matter the cause -- there is no sliding scale for this pain. It's more like a road map. Some places are easier to navigate than others; easier to travel through. So this grief is like a small town that I've been to, know where it is, could find it if I had to, I might drive through on my way somewhere else, but I'm not living there. No plans to move there.

That same week, on Wednesday night I joined Mom for a walk after which, she and I stopped by a family friend's house. Tom's late wife Michele's birthday would have been that day. Michele died 20 months before of leukemia, which she fought twice before the cancer finally took her body. Revealing to me a new location on that road map of heartbreak. Tom lives on the outskirts of a major city in the geography of grief. That day stretched him again to the limits of his pain and he clearly was working hard to keep that city in sight without getting lost inside it. He spoke of how much he misses Michele. But he also shared the joy he finds in his new grandson, his adventures in re-entering the dating world as a 50-60-year-old. I wasn't looking for it that day, but found inspiration in the emotional journey of another person.

I've got my own road map, my own journey, joys, griefs and heartbreaks. Finding strength and inspiration in others gives me strength for my travels; inspires me to do well and expect more of myself.

Next stop... Austin, Texas for my first ever 1/2 marathon. Inspired by... Jimmy V, Tom, Michele, YOU!

Monday, February 4, 2008

Deciding to pursue happiness

Some time ago, after a particularly soul-sucking day at work leading people with few followership skills, I stopped by a discount store to run a fruitless errand as a favor to Mom.

Are you with me? I'm shopping for drapery hooks (how inspiring) for someone else's drapes (I hate drapes to begin with) after a long day at work (a thankless job in which I was not using my strengths or talents) . And the store has no drapery hooks. While in all likelihood it was a great day to be alive... it didn't really look like it to me at the time. I took the opportunity to be a grump.

I'm not sure why at the time this seemed related, because it doesn't follow to me now, but on that particular day, the fruitless errand caused me to notice all the couples in the store. In my aggravated state, I decided to do some unnecessary comparisons. Looking at so many people wandering the store, clearly in couple status, I wondered if I looked hard enough, would I find something in them extraordinarily different from myself.

I saw women taller, shorter, thinner, fatter, same general dimensions, longer hair, shorter hair, prettier, uglier, same degree of attractiveness... women who seemed generally happier (based on appearances only) less happy or equally happy in comparison to myself. It seemed like the only difference was fate. In their individual universes they had met someone with whom they could couple. I asked myself, "how is their universe different? Do they have different criteria for being with someone? Are some of these women, people who have equally high expectations who have still managed to see through all the cultural bullshit and find someone whose company they enjoy, whom they can converse, respect and love? ...someone who also curls their toes?"

If all of that is possible, then what would I have to do to align my universe with a similar outcome? At the time I puzzled over the idea that fate expects us to go on lifeless (perhaps an unfair generalization based on my own dating experiences) dates meeting strange people in order to find someone that you can imagine spending the rest of your life with.

And in my momentary status as a grump, I asked myself what the point of marriage is anyway? I mean, isn't it historically just a business arrangement? Nowhere near any research sources or experts on the matter I mentally extemporized that really, marriage is just a business... matchmaking, dowries, marriage contracts, annulments, prenuptial agreements. It's a simple supply and demand relationship. Historically speaking, (and again, this is from my temporary grump state) I reasoned that men needed someone to take care of their homes and provide them with children a.k.a. free labor and women needed men to give them places to live and food to eat... and of course then they would have more children who would grow up to have their own business agreements with needs to be met... supply and demand.

But it's never really that simple is it? What is the ratio of loveless marriages to happily-wedded couples now. What was the ratio in supposedly simpler times when matchmakers matched, dowries endowed, when couples met on their wedding days? Were things simpler "long ago?" Love is not a newly invented feeling or concept. People find each other all the time, enjoy spending time together, admire each other, share secrets, do kind and generous things. Sometimes this is friendship. Sometimes it is more profound.

Is love or marriage more complex nowadays? Is it simpler or the same as it always was. I have no idea, but when I see matchmaking website ads on TV it makes me wonder if we're going about the process a little backwards. It seems like so many of us have borrowed from "Jerry McGuire" and are making it our zombie-fied primary purpose to find this supposed soul mate, this person who "completes you." And we're not getting the ick-factor of it. When you begin this search for the missing part of you... that person who "completes" you, don't you put your life on hold? It becomes a scavenger hunt for soul mates. And once you find each other you are supposed to make each other happy. After winning the scavenger hunt and finding this person who will complete you and make you happy, THEN you begin your life. Not a fun game, really... because, what if at the end of the scavenger hunt you haven't found anything? You're incomplete and unhappy, not to mention being incomplete and unhappy along the way. Because face it... if you're in the search for these reasons and you haven't found your missing link, you must not be happy... and you clearly are incomplete.

Wouldn't it be more fun, not to mention more fulfilling to live your life following your passions, doing things that interest you meeting people with similar interests and passions. Get to know them and their stories, learn about the world through each other. And while you're doing all that, be a complete person, flaws and strengths, joys, triumphs and sorrows. Share with EVERYONE you love. Be happy. By yourself, with your loved ones, and for yourself. Because happiness and completeness are not gifts someone else gives to you. Happiness is a decision. Completeness... is something that describes a puzzle. A person can be an enigma, but not a puzzle. People don't need to be completed they need to be inspired, fulfilled, loved.

Meanwhile, if your quest is larger... for life and passion, the pursuit of happiness, in the end you have a journey rather than a hunt. Your journey passes through and touches many lives. And all the while you hold onto the belief that by living in search of life and passion, you will be happy, inspired, loved, fulfilled. And living that way, will lead you to all of your soul-mates... not just one. Because if your dearest friends and family are not also your soul-mates how complete is your life's puzzle?

And if leading a life in pursuit of happiness and passion does not lead you to just one soul-mate with whom you have a mutually fulfilling, loving and intimate relationship, then at least you were happy along the way following your passions, feeding your interests, loving your family and friends and hopefully making a positive impact on the world.

How's that for a former grump from the aisles of a discount store? I may not be the Dalai Lama, but I'm sure I'm happy. I made that decision a while ago.