Thursday, June 23, 2011

No Fear

“I think some runners just like the pain,” said Katy. We were on our bikes, heading up Martin Luther King Drive in Philadelphia, almost at the Falls Bridge. It’s a pretty piece of parkland, a sylvan bubble just feet from an expressway and a railroad line. You can’t see either one at this point, because of the trees. And then there are the fields of grass and, on the right, the river with its rowers.

Not a bad place to be skewered by a very honest young woman who knows how to speak her mind with diplomatic indirection. I hadn’t been able to go running for a while because of an injury I had basically inflicted on myself. Running injuries are almost always overuse injuries, and I’m an artist at joking about obsessive-compulsive disorder and simple fanaticism. But I’d never looked myself in the mirror while shaving and said, “I like pain.”

I’d helped Katy train for her first two marathons. In the beginning, I had felt faster, and I had been wiser – at least about preparing for a marathon. The faster thing changed early, when she decided I’d be okay with it. And now the tide had shifted in the wisdom river.

As children we’re taught to fear pain. It’s an easy lesson. After all, pain hurts. But I prefer to think of pain as a language. The body has things to tell us. If we listen, we will learn. It’s hard to listen to something you fear. You’re too busy running away.

I remember, I think it was my second marathon, in 2002. I was in mile 26, coming down Kelly Drive past Lloyd Hall. The finish line was just up a slight rise and around a curve, in front of the Art Museum. And I remember feeling that my lungs were very tired from all the breathing they had been doing. It wasn’t really pain, more just a sensation that the surface fabric, down inside my lungs, had been worn down by all that air. I’ve never had that sensation since, possibly because of better training. And I think it’s also true that, in mile 26 of a marathon, the definition of pain has shifted a bit.

What did this sensation tell me? It told me I was okay. It told me I was very tired. And it told me to do more long runs next time.

The idea of liking pain takes you to some very strange places – self-flagellation in the Christian church, and masochism for the psychologically inclined. None of this works for me. It would help if people talked about this more, with a little more depth than, “Boy, that really hurt.”

I do have certain pains that are old friends. There’s one in my right knee. It’s from an old injury. Every once in a while it just shows up for a visit. Doesn’t mean any harm. Goes away after a while.

So I have some old friends, and I do seem to make new acquaintances on a fairly regular basis. But do I like pain? I don’t know. But I do know that I don’t fear it. When it shows up, I don’t run away. I listen.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

There: Now You’ve Got Something You Can Eat!

My cousin Butch was a few years older than me, so he was probably in high school when this story took place. Butch grew up on his parent’s dairy farm; his paternal grandparents lived on a farm less than a mile away. I don’t want to romanticize the farmer’s life, which is full of hard work in all weather and, in the case of dairy farming, involves shoveling huge amounts of cow manure. But farmers do have a lot of contact with nature, and I’m inclined to think that’s a good thing.

Butch’s father, my Uncle Ed, was a gregarious fellow who loved to tell stories, and listen to them, and who made friends easily. Among these were the hunters from Queens, in New York City, whom my brother refers to as the Woodchuck Brigade. They just showed up one day and asked Uncle Ed if they could hunt his land and possibly kill a few woodchucks. Uncle Ed was thrilled. Farmers don’t like woodchucks, by and large. Neither did Henry David Thoreau, although he puts a reasonably good face on it in Walden.

They were nice guys. They weren’t very good shots, but they became good friends and frequent visitors. Eventually Uncle Ed even encouraged them to park an old trailer in the woods behind his house, so they wouldn’t have to pay for motels.

So here’s the story. One day Butch was out walking the woods with one of the hunters, who happened to be a Sanitation Department police officer from Queens who was armed with his trusty .222 rifle with telescopic sight and also had his .38 service revolver strapped to his hip in a holster.

I’m a bit vague on how they came upon the rabbit. Butch isn’t with us anymore, and my brother says he doesn’t remember the story. Were they in a pasture or on a dirt road? Why didn’t the rabbit run away? Had it been caught in a trap, or injured by a vehicle? My brother, who has no memory of any of this, suggests that the rabbit might have been rabid, which adds self-defense to mercy killing. Then my brother did something truly useful. He suggested that I ask our cousin Mary Lyn, Butch’s sister.

So I did. She too had forgotten the story, but it came back to her. Like me she’s not certain of all the details. She thinks Butch may have been out with several hunters, and that one of them had shot at the rabbit and wounded it.

Anyway, there they were, standing around trying to figure out what to do. It didn’t make a whole lot of sense to use a rifle with a telescopic sight to shoot an animal that was lying at your feet. So the Sanitation policeman drew his service revolver and prepared to put a .38 slug into the rabbit’s skull.

Clearly our hunter had seen too many movies where cowboys dispatch broken-down horses and cows with their trusty .45s. My favorite is Jack Palance, in City Slickers, who blows away an injured cow and tells an aghast Billy Crystal, “She was sufferin’.”

Rabbits are rather frail creatures compared to cows, and a .38 slug would basically cause the animal to disintegrate. So my cousin Butch intervened. He picked up the rabbit and twisted its neck until it was broken. Then he held the dead critter out to the policeman and said, “There. Now you’ve got something you can eat.”

Now that I’ve told you that story, I have to tell you that it’s only one version. Butch’s daughter Andrea, whom Mary Lyn brought into the loop (never say that email isn’t a wonderful thing) heard the story a lot more than the rest of us, and what she says makes sense. Apparently the Woodchuck Brigade managed to shoot the rabbit in the woods behind Uncle Ed’s house, but just winged him, so he fled (I envision a kind of panicked hobbling) to the dirt road in front of the house, where it seems locomotion failed him.

Meanwhile the Woodchuck Brigade was in hot pursuit. Andrea says, “Dad put extra flourishes on describing how foolish the boys looked running after the rabbit as though it had just robbed a bank.” And she reports that the hunter with the pistol (I do believe he was with the Sanitation Department) actually raised his rifle – the one with the telescopic sight – to dispatch the poor beast at a range of ten feet.

That was when Butch “stepped in front of the pointed rifle and scooped the rabbit up to twist its neck before there could have been any opportunity for debate.”

Andrea adds, “Sometimes the moral was a sort of ‘country mouse v. town mouse’ angle while other times it was more about remembering the simple solution is often the best, no sense in coveting the fancy shiny toys of others.”

Andrea adds that her father “was a man of few words, but if you knew how and when to get him started with stories it was just like putting a quarter in a jukebox.”

But back to the shiny toys – in this case the guns. I was going to say that Uncle Ed didn’t own one. Mary Lyn says he did, and would occasionally hunt woodchucks, in his own way. There was a pond near Uncle Ed’s house where the woodchucks liked to frolic, and Uncle Ed would occasionally shoot at them, as Mary Lyn says, “from the dining room window!!”

Mary Lyn reports that Uncle Ed had also tried deer hunting once, many years before: “He had a big, beautiful buck in his sights, and then the deer turned and looked straight at him. He put his gun down and went home. He always supported his neighbors’ right to hunt for food, but couldn’t do it himself.”

Thanks, Mary Lyn and Andrea. I loved these two men, and these stories are part of the reason why.