Why I Will Never Be “Athletic People”

I’ve been watching my mother run races and triathlons for years now.  I arrive with my dad and sister, crusty-eyed and cold in the early morning.  I almost always feel self-conscious amongst all of the “athletic people.”  They flex in their spandex and their calves ripple.  They pinch their bike tires, calloused fingers feeling the subtle swell and fall of the air inside, like a rubber heart beat.  They laugh and smile with their families, but soon, they are determined, and they are focused.  They do not pause, and they only smile again to encourage a fellow racer, and at the moment of their final stride under the balloon-marked finish line.

But this morning, albeit still bleary-eyed and chilled, I ran amongst them.  I ran an entire 5k, with a little bit of walking because I was stupid and ate half of a Lara Bar this morning, and then had to throw it up in the tunnel along the route.  That was gross.  It also made me feel slightly tough.  As in, my stomach is pretending to be Shawn Johnson right now, so I’m simply going to toss my cookies in a corner of a public pathway and continue on my merry way.

Despite the pause, and despite the attained toughness, the last mile was hard.  There were hills, and there were 85-year-old men passing me (humbling and awe-inspiring), and I was sweaty inside my oven of an Under Armour shirt.  But as I rounded the last bend, behind the grocery store, behind the dentist I switched from because he was a little drill happy for my taste, behind the car wash, the crowd came into view.  It was parted, and a narrow path — the path I was on — lay in the middle.  Let me tell you something I learned today: it is difficult to stop and walk when your mother is holding a camera, when people you know are cheering your name and people you don’t are simply cheering.  It is difficult, also, to pick up your pace and hurtle toward the finish with the best form you can muster.  But that’s what I did, because I have a — often deeply-buried — competitive streak.  I also just wanted to finish quickly so that I could stop running.

And so it’s over, and my legs are sore, and my running tights are streaked with vomit, but my friends, I ran a 5K.

Happy Thanksgiving.  I am thankful for bleach and for legs that can carry me farther than I ever thought possible.  And for pie, of which I partook with a relish that surely further deepened the gorge between me and “athletic people.”

Distinguished Alumni

Good evening, everyone. I write to you from the pit of despair that is sitting behind a desk on a Friday night.  It’s not the job, really; it’s the fact that I’ve had a startlingly efficient day, and while that was fine and good while it lasted, I’m at the point where I want to leave campus.  I’ve been here since 9 a.m., and I’m officially ready to ship out.  Ship out to a shrimp and white wine birthday party, that is.  My, but college parties are classy these days.  I’m dressing up and everything.

The distinguished alumni banquet is going on across the hall.  I hear clapping, the clink of the fine silverware that the students don’t get to use, and occasionally, the door will open and a mother, dressed to the nines, will walk out, tugging her cranky child behind her.  They walk around the Student Center, mother pointing to a painting, or a room: “I used to study in there all the time.”  “My friend Tony-wonder where he is now?-broke his wrist trying to scale that wall with a bottle of wine and three packs of Twinkies.”

There was an awkward moment a few minutes ago, when two gentlemen came up to the desk.  “Is KUMM still in the basement?” they asked.  And then, after noticing the fancy to-do in Oyate: “What’s going on in there?”

“It’s an alumni banquet,” I said, purposefully leaving off the ‘distinguished.’

“What kind of alumni?”

Darn.  “Um, distinguished alumni, I think it is.”

They looked at each other and laughed.  “No wonder we weren’t invited!”

Generally, I like having all of these alumni around.  It’s Homecoming this week, so naturally they’ve come in droves, driving minivans plastered with UMM stickers, or shiny sports cars that betray nothing but their present success.

I like to watch them walk the campus, exclaiming about one thing or another, and envying (so I imagine) the students, for whom college isn’t over yet.  It’s a little strange, the divide between us and them.  We all went to UMM, we all adore it, but the generational gap still stands.  They protested the Vietnam War, brought their dates back to the dorms before curfew.  We fight against the Marriage Amendment, play Quidditch on the Mall, check Facebook fifty times a day.  Now, they have to ask us where the bathrooms are, have to follow campus maps and tour guides as if they were incoming freshmen again.

It’s funny to think that in a year, I’ll be among them.

Snake Watching

This afternoon as I trudged through the Science Building on my way to class, I was tired.  Tired because I can’t sleep in the the summer.  Not by choice, but because apparently something in my chemical makeup decides that it’s more fun for me to lie awake at 4 am, or to awaken suddenly after a dream in which my right hand sports a constellation of disgusting bug bites.  Tired also, from keeping up with four kiddos under 4, all of whom are delightful, but all of whom have seemingly bottomless energy stores.

I paused briefly, as I am wont to do, by the snakes’ cages.  8-Ball the Ball Python was curled snugly in his heated box, but Ramses the Boa Constrictor, who I have rarely seen move, was sliding over and around his faded tree limb.  Old skin was peeling off his muscular body in thin white sheets, and he seemed desperate to be free of it.  Every so often he lifted his head and neck high into the air and peered around in agitation.

I came back to the snakes as soon as the professor nodded us on our ten minute break.  Someone from the biology department had apparently been in to clean, because Ramses’ skin was piled on top of his cage.

I couldn’t resist touching it, and was a little shocked that it felt exactly the way I thought it would; it was crackly and dry, like a piece of your skin peeled from a bad sunburn.

Even later, after class was finished, I plopped right down in front of Ramses to watch him finish the job.  There were still bits of shredded dead skin hanging from the sides of his head.  It took him a few turns around his rock and water bowl to get rid of them.

At the Lake

As you drive deeper and deeper into Northwoods Wisconsin, time seems to slow, and then with a lazy lurch, creep backwards again.

At first, trees are thin and far between.  They are a two hand span around, and their leaves are delicate, gasping toward the sun.  Every few miles, a field opens up, and a middle-aged man grins from high up on the spring seat of his John Deer.  Towns are medium-sized, offering the standard Subway McDonald’s Two Gas Stations IGA and a Pamida-turning-Shopko.

Soon, though, the trees grow wide and thick.  Pines are numerous, and deer stand beneath them, counting flashing lights on the highway.  Every so often, one will bound forward, perhaps to the telltale dull thump and angry squeal; the fate of many a Wisconsin deer since a path was cut for this road a hundred years ago.

Towns are smaller now.  There are no baseball diamonds visible from the main drag; no littered camp grounds bragging water slides and All You Can Eat steak dinners.  Cable, one sign reads.  Population 93.  How funny that the town’s oldest resident’s age could match the number on the sign.  And when he dies, the mayor might send some knobbly teenager out to the highway, to tick the figure down to 92.  How funny that no one driving through the town would likely notice such a change, nor care if they did.

As the lake nears, crafty shops appear more and more frequently, selling scrapbooking supplies or baby quilts or wooly yarn for thirty dollars a skein.  They cater to the tourists, who come up in the summer for Apple Fest and to marvel at Superior.  She’ll show off for them, lifting her glimmering waters up for closer inspection, and then flipping them down impishly.

We belong here, though, I think, lugging my big orange duffel down the dock.  Ruby is at the end of the leash I hold in my left hand.  She tugs, gasping a little as her collar strains against her neck.  No amount of ‘heel’ will slow her.  I keep my toes centered on the nails that run down the center of the dock, remembering a time when I was told not to stray from them.  Superior is deep and cold, and I know, as surely anyone who’s spent their life upon her does, that she can be as unflinchingly cruel beneath the surface as she is glittering above.

I arrange my sleeping bag on the lower bunk, listening to the water slap against the hull of the boat.