Archive | August, 2009

“Wherever it leads, I’m runnin’ down a dream”

31 Aug

Last week’s runs were extremely discouraging.  I don’t know myself as a runner yet.  I was having a difficult time getting past 4.5 miles – a block that was entirely mental.  One of my running friends suggested running on either main or country roads so each block would be a mile, and I could run straight out and back to push myself past this block.  After all, once you turn around, you’re out several miles and have no choice but to run back.  Maybe I could have made this work if I knew how my motivation works with running.  I don’t, and I’m too far removed from those days when I was new to swimming and figuring out how my body and motivation worked within the confines of the sport.  I tried the out-and-back method, but failed to account for the effects of the oh-so classic midwest winds on straight roads.

Lungs burning, gasping against the wind for any air I could get, and cursing every last driver that stared at me as they drove past I only made it through 2.5 miles before I had to alternate walking one block and running four or five.

The truth of the matter is, it was being stubborn that pulled me through several runs last week.  I was discouraged and hating every step, but I hated the idea of stopping before I should.  It effectively sucked all the fun out of running.

 Last week.

Last week I thought, why the hell did I agree to run a marathon?  I can’t bail…I won’t bail…but what was I thinking?  The notion that I liked what I was doing was bludgeoned out of me but none other than…me.

One of the biggest obstacles I’ve encountered throughout this process of learning to run so far is that my best runner friend lives a state away.  Email encouragement only does so much.  How lost will I be in Ukraine, transplanted into a culture that for the most part doesn’t run outside of gym class?  My running inspiration and great friend will be across an ocean rather than a state line.  Sometimes I wonder what I’m missing out on by not having a running partner.  At times, this lack feels like a major sacrifice.  Then again, how much worse would it be to train with a running partner or group, only to be forced to yank my mind away from this support when I leave for Ukraine?  There’s a very real possibility it would be enough to stop me from running altogether.  So on off weeks, I grit my teeth and push through my solitary runs.

This week however, something miraculous happened.  I’m not the kind of person to drop negative energy and start anew, nor am I the kind of person to tell you I did to make the story more interesting.  As far as I was concerned by last Sunday, I was done running.  My running shoes had been condemned to a life of lawn mowing, and that was final.  Come Monday evening, something made me lace up my shoes and step out the door.  I didn’t want to run.  I wasn’t trying to make myself believe I wanted to run.  Without thinking, I just went to the gym and ran

and ran

and ran — five miles.  My longest run to date.  Sure, the Monday night football helped, but I’m still trying to understand where that urge to keep putting one foot in front of the other comes from.

I have a particularly vindictive inner voice.  Runners battle their inner voices; particularly good runners can quiet this inner storm.  Mine doesn’t fight fair.  If I run faster it says, “Just think how much more things are jiggling now!”  If that little voices is a hill runners have to overcome, mine feels like a mountain…with frequent rock slides.  I think it deserves its own diabolical name, it’s that pushy.  Any suggestions?

My first noteworthy chip in this inner rock face came the other day.  All I wanted to do after work was get home and sit on my butt.  I had fought a migraine all day, but I had also looked up inspirational running quotes and half-heartedly written a couple down.  Finding myself in the middle of lacing up my running shoes, utterly clueless how I got there, I managed to keep the momentum going and drive to the gym.  Keep in mind, the gym is literally one measly block from my house.  Ironically, my laziness came in handy.  I had forgotten the gym closed at the horrendously early hour of 8 pm on Friday nights.  Typically being a 9-11 pm gym rat, an entire summer hasn’t been enough to cement in my mind the fact that other people don’t find late gym hours appealing enough to keep a workout facility open that late. 

I could have driven the block home, but I drove to the park; there was a football game and no parking spaces.

I could have given up the hunt, telling myself I had tried, and gone home.  I parked on the street.

And ran.

Four miles is how far I ran, though that little voice suggested stopping at two, then subsequently that three was more than enough for one night.  Four miles with two sprints mixed in and not one block wasted on walking.

Sprinting down the sidewalk, head held high, lungs aching, legs spinning until they started to feel weightless — this must be why people run.  Though only for a minute, my negative inner voice was quiet.  The people staring at me from their cars and yards didn’t matter.  I felt strong, but mostly,

I felt giddy.

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It’s The Final Countdown

25 Aug

One month until I leave for staging…then for Ukraine.

PCV Ukraine Group 37ers

Megan, Kari, Meaghan, Andrea, and I enjoyed the Ukrainian Independence Celebration this past weekend (yesterday was the official Independence Day).  The weather was not this miserable looking until later in the day; we thoroughly enjoyed some Ukrainian cuisine, quality conversation, and beautiful sunny weather.  I can tell you though that I already know I’ll be eating very little in Ukraine.  Mixing large quantities of this food with running would be a rather painful combination – it’s heavy, heavy, heavy!

“We’re off to new lands, so hold on to my hands”

24 Aug

It has been a weekend of realizations, both good and devastating.

It will hardly be news to anyone familiar with my navigational skills that I barely survived Chicago traffic and wound up parking somewhere between six and eight blocks from the park in which the Ukrainian Independence Celebration was being held.  Pumping my elbow as furiously as I could manage, rediscovering my New York on-a-mission mien, I must have been quite a sight approaching Andrea, Kari, Megan, and Meaghan as they waited for me with the utmost patience.  It was a relief to finally connect face-to-face with members of our mostly digital soon-to-be PCV community.

Suddenly, the exasperation of forgetting overnight the few Ukrainian flashcards I thought I had memorized was humorous rather than agonizing.  In my nerve-induced paranoia I had nightmarishly imagined showing up to training the only volunteer not fluent in Ukrainian, similar to the age old showing up naked or in your underwear to school nightmare.  I wanted to jump up and down when, not only did the woman collecting the entrance fee understood my feeble  “Дякую,” I understood her response.  Kari and I, kindred souls as far as I’m concerned, having both signed up for full-immersion PST (pre-service training) language courses spent more than several minutes Saturday agonizing over how we are going to survive.  We’ll survive through small victories; that and perhaps one or two tearful “what did I sign up for?” conversations.

Musing together as workers of the celebration set up the performance stage an hour and a half after the welcoming ceremony was already supposed to have taken place, the five of us discussed Claire St. Amant’s recent article in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Not Your Father’s Peace Corps” (#mce_temp_url#) as well as a brief article I had stumbled across noting that Peace Corps numbers were on the rise.  As our group split into two smaller conversations, children in traditional Ukrainian clothing started playing and dancing in front of the stage.  I proposed to Meaghan that our generation may be realizing that Americans lack a shared culture, leading to a general increase in desire to go abroad.  Even the lighthearted play of the children in front of us was thoroughly seeped in their cultural heritage.  Leaping and prancing, they would inevitably come back together in formation, showing off how well they had mastered the dances passed down to them.  I cherish deeply my family’s adherence to Swedish tradition, though each passing year it makes me feel increasingly isolated.  My attempts at sharing this culture with my friends yield only glazed over expressions; my awareness of our family unit being geographically cut-off from tradition, family (most back in Sweden), and culture throbs viciously at times.  I cannot claim to understand why I feel as if the Peace Corps is the right path for me, but perhaps this is part of the puzzle.

This weekend, I said my first goodbyes.  My parents and brother left for William & Mary Saturday morning, and I was shocked at how upset I immediately felt.  Having only drawn closer over the past two years, it’s difficult knowing I’ll be gone for two of the years I was looking forward to the most in terms of getting to know my brother and who he is becoming.  The kid used to hide behind doors and jump out pretending to be a velociraptor, and stop birthday parties by answering the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” by responding with, “a paleontologist;” now, he’s planning on declaring an English Literature major.  Never have we had so much in common, or been so far apart.

With the rest of the family gone, I’m on pet patrol.  Taking care of a psychotic siamese, golden retriever with Alzheimers, and an elderly cat needing daily thyroid medication is demanding but I enjoy my alone time with my beloved albeit quirky crew.  Having a limited memory of our husky, Marabou, my adoration of our golden, Lucky, runs deep.  Every rule set for him in the house, I shamelessly break.  I find completely irrational joy in his old man snoring, humorous nearsightedness, and even his slowly  clouding eyes.  Preparing to settle in for a night of blogging, I made myself a cup of Highland Grogg flavored coffee and called my furry foot warmer to come join me upstairs.  Ever enthusiastic despite his old age, he rushed ahead of me up the stairs and to my complete horror, slipped half way up.  Back legs flopping uselessly, sprawled over several stairs, he kept trying to climb.  Reaching to help his weak back-end through quickly welling eyes, part of my mental block gave way.  Things will change over the next two years.  I sat down on the stairs and sobbed, loudly and ungracefully. This next month is my time to permanently say goodbye to two of our four pets.

I realize it will be easy for me to be caught up in my training, job, and new experiences over the next 27 months.  In three short months during my study abroad in New York, I managed to block out the fact that things would be different at home and school upon my return.  I don’t care to speculate what will be different when I return from Ukraine in friends, family, the economy, pop culture, fashion, technology, and myself; great or small, I’m starting to realize the differences will be there.  Reading this, one would imagine I’m perfectly content staying here, making candied citrus in my parents’ kitchen with a dog at my feet; let me assure you, that’s not the case.  There is nothing I know of, though, that will make you appreciate how things are like realizing it’s all suddenly and drastically going to change.

vegetable garden and candied citrus

It’s Official…

21 Aug
  • A group of soon-to-be PC Ukraine group 37 Volunteers are meeting in the Ukrainian village in Chicago this weekend for the Ukrainian Independence Celebration.  I absolutely cannot wait to meet them! [After which I will be stopping in the Swedish district at the AH-mazing bakery and picking up some goodies for my family.]
  • Summer and I are running a marathon when I get back from the Peace Corps.  I found a training program, and even if I stretch out each of the training steps from one week to three (ie instead of running 15 miles a week, then the next week running 18-19 … I would run 15 mi/week for three weeks to acclimate before bumping up to 18) it would only take me 15 months leaving an entire year to just work on speed.  Maybe she won’t leave me in her dust trail after all :)

When Literature Disappoints

12 Aug

Through a the Visual Bookshelf application on Facebook, I was given the opportunity to receive and review an advanced reader’s copy of the new E.L. Doctorow novel, Homer & Langley.  Having forgotten I had this Facebook application, receiving notification that I was chosen for this opportunity was quite the pleasant surprise.  If only the book had lived up to the expectation.

Here is the information listed on the application about the novel, which I believe is being released 1 September 2009;

From Ragtime and Billy Bathgate to The Book of Daniel, World’s Fair, and The March, the novels of E. L. Doctorow comprise one of the most substantive achievements of modern American fiction. Now, with Homer & Langley, this master novelist has once again created an unforgettable work.

Homer and Langley Collyer are brothers–the one blind and deeply intuitive, the other damaged into madness, or perhaps greatness, by mustard gas in the Great War. They live as recluses in their once grand Fifth Avenue mansion, scavenging the city streets for things they think they can use, hoarding the daily newspapers as research for Langley’s proposed dateless newspaper whose reportage will be as prophecy. Yet the epic events of the century play out in the lives of the two brothers–wars, political movements, technological advances–and even though they want nothing more than to shut out the world, history seems to pass through their cluttered house in the persons of immigrants, prostitutes, society women, government agents, gangsters, jazz musicians . . . and their housebound lives are fraught with odyssean peril as they struggle to survive and create meaning for themselves.

Brilliantly conceived, gorgeously written, this mesmerizing narrative, a free imaginative rendering of the lives of New York’s fabled Collyer brothers, is a family story with the resonance of myth, an astonishing masterwork unlike any that have come before from this great writer.

And here’s my review;

Despite my excitement to receive and start what would be not only my first E. L Doctorow novel, but also an advanced copy of his latest work, I must admit to being extremely disappointed.  My expectations were quite high and now that I’ve finished, the two central characters fail to be remarkable enough for me to compliment just as they are too ordinary to make the columns of Langley’s own eccentric newspaper.

There is a fundamental problem with the novel’s plot.  The sheer number of events that happen to these two brothers renders their story contrived rather than serendipitous.  How fitting that by the end of the novel the lives of Homer and Langley are suffocated by their stacks of newspapers, for the reader has been stifled throughout the entire text by the volume of events they are supposed to accept as chance.  Not so ironically, this parallel fails to evoke empathy on the part of the reader.

Doctorow’s characterizations are likewise confining for the reader.  Homer can “see through” everything despite his lack of physical sight.  Though Doctorow was likely trying to be profound in depicting the blind brother as the one with the clearest social vision, the attempt falls short in that Homer’s character can elicit neither sympathy nor interest from a reader.  A character with perfect social vision who is not “taken in” by even one major historical movement is unrealistic to the point of annoyance.   Homer’s major shift in character comes a mere six pages before the end of the novel in a fantasy of his own creation, thus paradoxically drawing close to and alienating a potentially sympathetic audience.  He finally admits some “misery,” breaking down the previously impenetrable walls around him just to have this ripped away from a reader grasping for any association with the novel’s protagonist because the admission never actually takes place (202).  Had Homer proven himself a reliable narrator before this point, perhaps the unreality of his drunken conversation with Jacqueline could have been glossed over.  The majority of the novel is riddled with narrative inconsistencies.  Homer frequently describes in detail the appearance of objects and people without offering an explanation of how this was obtained.  The disconnect between the reader and Homer could have been advantageous to Doctorow – the reader becomes the youth from the text throwing rocks at the dilapidated Collyer house while simultaneously being able to look within – rather, it becomes an insurmountable chasm.

Still, this fate is better than that of the other characters that are relegated to static stereotypes, including but not limited to, the coronet playing Creole youth, the sexually liberated and frequently stoned hippies, the industrious and subservient Japanese couple, and the virgin nun turned martyr for the “lost” people of civilizations unknown.  Even Langley is affected; he is less mad than merely a cookie-cutter image of the injured and embittered veteran, cynical of the government, society, and religion.

The incidental couple of the novel, Homer and Jacqueline, hold unfulfilled potential.  There is poetry in the idea of two lovers being the completion of the other.  Homer and Jacqueline can both “see” what cannot actually be witnessed, in a practical and prophetic sense, respectively.  However, is it any surprise that the man that “sees” through American society is saved by the stereotypical European femme-noir with her smoker’s voice and exotic allurement?  Mais, non.

Sprinting Toward The Starting Line

4 Aug

The Peace Corps has moved up my staging date from September 27th to September 25th; it’s not a huge difference except in the pressure I’m now feeling to start getting things together for my departure.

I ordered special luggage for the packing I’m only tentatively thinking about: http://www.llbean.com/webapp/wcs/stores/servlet/CategoryDisplay?categoryId=35986&storeId=1&catalogId=1&langId=-1&parentCategory=4518&feat=4518-tn&cat4=2911 It’s supposed to be the lightest luggage for how much it can hold, so, more of my stuff than suitcase per 50 lbs of luggage [hopefully].  Yes, my mother ordered mine in pink plaid.  I’m already feeling as if other Group 37 Ukraine volunteers are labeling me the frou-frou one of the group, so they might as well get the full show of my personality upfront.  Equal parts fashionista and human rights activist.

Slowly but surely, I’m building up my Ukrainian vocabulary.  The blows to my language learning ego are coming in four progressive steps:

1. “Learning French was so much easier than this,” my mind screams at me as I toil over flashcards.  Yes, it was; too bad that’s a moot point.  Granted, had I been able to go to Africa in line with my Peace Corps nomination, I would be much further in this process as I have a solid foundation in French.  I am where I am, however and the basics of Ukrainian have to be hammered into my Parisian-leaning brain.

2. H=N, P=R, and B sometimes = W.  Learning another language would be vastly simpler if unlearning your own language weren’t required.  I’m not starting the language learning race yet [what else can it be called when condensed into three months of classes?], I’m still sprinting toward the starting line.

3. I can read that word!  Too bad I haven’t the tiniest idea what it means.  I’m 75% on this step in the process.  I’m a flashcard-making machine.  I now have the oddest Ukrainian vocabulary including; дерево (tree), хлопчик (boy), холодний (cold), сорочка (shirt), журналітс (journalist), церква (church), шоколад (chocolate), село (village).  Not to mention the first glimmers of understanding masculine, feminine, and neuter objects in Ukrainian as well as how to refer to each of these objects as “mine/my,” “yours/your,” or asking “whose  _____.”

4. I’ve been working out of a particular Ukrainian language book I picked up at Barnes & Noble, which happens to have accompanying audio CDs (of native speakers).  Hence, the “that’s not at all how I was saying it” frustration.  The pronunciation of one letter of the alphabet is entirely impossible to convey in writing, though my book attempted with the suggestion that it could be equivalent to a “kh” sound.  False.  Also, it sounds as if the language is spoken without opening your mouth anywhere near as much as one does with English.

I know I’m making progress, albeit slowly, but at times it feels uncannily like one step forward and two steps back.