First Place?

I’ve just now elbowed myself the mental space to look back at 2017 — the highlights, low moments, the ebb and flow in between. One highlight was running the Timberline Half Marathon in June. Completing all 14.2 miles (it was a half marathon plus) of mountain trails was accomplishment enough. But when I crossed the finish line, an official rushed up to me and told me that I had come in first, and draped a medal around my neck.

First! Yay!

First in my age category — 65-69 year-old men.

Okay, but still — yay!

First in my category of 65-69 year-old men which numbered . . . wait for it . . . two. Yep, two. I came in first out of two.

Oh.

But that’s not the thing that, upon reflection, really stands out. The thing that stands out is that for a few fleeting moments I got all puffed up about being first. I fell into the cultural mindset that sees life as one big competition, with the results always tallied in a vertical hierarchy — I’m on top! This is huge! The rest of you are losers! — and then, just as quickly, I didn’t like that feeling.

It’s not that I’m against competition. I realize that it is part of life, and I enjoy a friendly game of cards, a sled race to the bottom of a snowy hill, watching college football. But I do think that our emphasis on being first above everything else flies in the face of reality. As a species we have proliferated — which, at least from an evolutionary perspective is viewed as “success” — because we have largely worked together to thrive. Cooperation had been our ally, and is the only tact that will help us solve the many problems in the world today. Now, looking back at the Timberline Half Marathon, the thing that sticks in my mind is not when I crossed the finish line. What matters is the camaraderie and sense of cooperation and support among the runners as we encouraged one another — “hang in there!” “keep going!” “you can do it!” — to all make it across. In my mind, that’s winning, and that is the best kind of “first.”

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Is it true yet?

As storytellers, part of our job is to make it hard on our characters. “Put them up a tree, and then throw rocks at them,” the conventional wisdom goes. Of course in real life we do our best to avoid such predicaments. What we wish on our characters we don’t wish for ourselves. Still, life being what it is, the unanticipated happens, and suddenly there we are — clinging to a branch, with stones rifling by our heads.

Or, as is our case here in Oregon, the trees are on fire and smoke-choked air is the ammunition. To be clear, I’m luckier than lucky. Given the loss of forest and property to wildfires here in the Northwest, and from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, and from way-too-many tragedies in way-too-many places around the globe, my frustrations are microscopic. The fact that I will not get to go backpacking in the high country of the Cascades this year because of the fires is the smallest of small potatoes. The fact that I have the time and wherewithal to even consider it is a sign of immense privilege. Still, at least it’s a reminder of what it feels like to be denied something I value. Hopefully I can use that reminder to help foster empathy for those who truly suffer, and to bring emotional truth to my writing the next time I’ve got a character up a tree.

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Ode to a Muffin

As writers, we bust our guts to find the right word to precisely and powerfully express the feeling-idea-mood we want to convey, the one that gives a thumbs up to the question: “Is it true, yet?”

Too often, though, the choice goes hyperbolic: “Epic!” “Radical!” “Awesome!” are tossed around like confetti. An overdose of language and the feeling-idea-mood is drowned.

Then there are the events that merit hyperbole. Monday’s eclipse was a good example. It truly was epic (there won’t be another one in my town of Corvallis, Oregon for 600 years), radical (how often does it go dark at 10:15 AM?), and awesome (not only did it give me goosebumps, it nearly brought me to tears). When it comes to the right word, context matters.

 

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66

66 is off to a good start! I’m grateful to be suffering from jet lag.

Wait, grateful to be suffering?

Yes, because suffering from jet lag means I’ve had the opportunity to travel, and travel is a gift of privilege. In my case, the trip was to England, where I saw a bit of London, gazed upon Stonehenge, and walked the 102-mile Cotswold Way with Debbie. (Two other things to be grateful for: the capacity to walk a long distance, and an amazing partner to share the walk with.)

And then the icing on the cake — a dive deep into creative mode with my wonderful fellow writing nerds from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. So yeah, 66 is off to a good start. No, make it a great-grateful start. Yeah, that’s it. Bring on 67!

Education of the Senses

Maria Montessori, innovative educator, said, “We cannot create observers by saying observe, but by giving them the power and the means for observation, through education of the senses.” I love that — education of the senses — but watching my children, and now my grandson (here with a buddy, fascinated by a pool of light), I’ve become convinced that the wonder of observation is innate, too. Learned or innate? Or both? What do you think?IMG_4002

Happy to Be Sappy

Go ahead, call me sappy; I own it. Sometimes the one thing I need is to escape the anxiety of our times and revel in love. Debbie and I just celebrated 43 years of marriage with a trip to Ashland, where we took in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s production of Shakespeare in Love, ate Thai food, hiked under brilliant blue skies, and said sappy things to each other. Yep, love — it works.IMG_3864