Friday, November 25, 2011

Changing course

My Charlie and I had planned to run the Dallas White Rock Half-Marathon together this year. We decided this last December, on one of those wildly glorious Sunday afternoons that seem to go on forever, the kind that, if the sun sets and you haven't made any pledges or promises, maybe you don't believe -- at least not today -- in magic.

We had driven to Swiss Avenue to watch my friend Laura run the anchor leg of her relay team. As we looked for her, Charlie tagged behind me at first; I don't think he knew what to expect at such a huge race. He may have been a bit overwhelmed at all the runners -- to say nothing of his excited mother's reaction to them. But by the time we spotted Laura, Charlie was yelling, too -- maybe not as loudly as I, but nonetheless yelling, cheering on people whose legs were giving out, but who kept on going.

Twice in the hour or so we were there, Charlie turned to me.

"I want to do this," he said. Hearing him say that made me so happy. I put my arm around his shoulders, told him yes, we'll do it together.

"Hold onto this moment," I said. "When we're training and things are hard, remember how this feels right now." I linked my arm in his as we walked to the car.

Months and seasons passed. I did my usual running, my occasional swimming, my semi-regular jaunts to the gym.  Charlie stayed in the utmost of shape during track season, most of which intersected with club volleyball. Spring made way for summer, which too soon passed. School, and volleyball season, began anew.

We had every intention of following through with our plan to run the half marathon. Charlie hadn't been running, but volleyball keeps him in phenomenal shape. Plus, being 18, I had utmost confidence he could build up his mileage...which he did; the week after the volleyball tournament that ended the season, he ran five miles one day and seven another.

For his October birthday, I gave Charlie a pair of running tights, a stocking cap, an ear warmer, and a nifty pair of gloves that had an optional wind-breaker flap. He was thrilled, and so was I.

By then, he'd started playing club volleyball again. One day, he came home and said his knee had started hurting so badly he had to sit out much of practice. Though he wore knee pads, he'd still had a few knee ailments throughout the fall volleyball season -- not surprisingly, judging by the number of times he went flying through the air after a wayward volleyball, sliding across the gym floor on, yes, his knees.

"I cringe when he does that," I told the orthopedist. "The balls go flying, and they're usually so out of reach they're impossible to rescue."

"Yes," he told me, "but it's those one or two he does get that keep him trying."

 When Charlie told the doctor he'd planned to run the Turkey Trot, which was 36 hours after our appointment, and the half-marathon 10 days later, the doctor shook his head.

"I don't recommend it," he said. "If your knee starts hurting even a little, stop. Having to sit out your volleyball season for an injury you exacerbated by running just isn't worth it."

He sent Charlie to a physical therapist in an adjoining office. Charlie was there for an hour or so, and the physical therapist told him no running, no volleyball, for at least two weeks.

I'd planned to run the YMCA Turkey Trot with Charlie. But when he couldn't, I decided I wasn't up to getting caught up in the excited mayhem of the Thanksgiving morning race. Charlie wanted me to go, but instead I ran eight miles in the neighborhood, and was perfectly happy with that.

I'm not going to skip the White Rock Half, which I haven't run in several years. But yeah, I especially wanted to run it with my son -- for, among other reasons, his calming influence (not that I get jittery before a race or anything). Mostly, though, I wanted us to do it together because he's a high-school senior, making this probably our last chance while he's still living at home. He nixed my idea of training for the 3M half in Austin, or for the Big D Texas Half in April, because track and volleyball will take up so much of his time by then.

I quite understand, as I do his wanting to defy doctor's orders. Several times since his appointment, he's said, "I want to run." Instead, we've gone to the gym, where he's ridden the stationary bike with zero tension, and worked with weights that strengthen his upper-body.

Am I disappointed? Sure, and I know he is, too. Yet as I write this -- on a Sunday afternoon, no less, much like a certain other one a year ago -- I realize this change in plans has taught me and, I venture, Charlie, a lesson or two:

Namely, that not every promise can be fulfilled. And that as earnest and eager as pledges can be, they, too, are at life's mercy. Yet, on Sunday afternoons such as this, despite certain pebbles and plummets on its path, I'm keenly aware that life itself is wild and glorious -- and as filled with magic as we -- and our dreams -- allow it to be.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Winning spirit

The bittersweet truth about a playoff game is this: No matter how good you are, no matter how hard you work, no matter what your season record has been, only one team can take home the trophy.

As third-seed in the tournament, and, on paper at least, there may have been a naysayer or two who didn't expect you'd be vying for that trophy in the first place. Where you stand now -- in center court, or behind the bench (how could anyone sit down today?) -- is where the No. 1 seed was expected to be. Yes, that team; the one you fought last night, the one that, at the end of five heart-racing, hair-raising games, you finally beat.

You woke up this chilly clear morning knowing you're the underdogs, yet for once not fazed by the fact that during the entire season, this team you're up against lost only two matches. You lost 15, several to your opponent.

Today, though feels different. There's something in the air you can almost reach out and put in your pocket; it mingles with the smell of dry leaves and of pumpkin spices from the nearby Starbucks, creating an atmosphere of anticipation on this crazy, happy Friday afternoon.

Maybe it's the camaraderie: you've eaten your last six meals together, more than you eat with your families these days. Of the last 48 hours, you've spent two-thirds of them with each other.

Maybe it's the bleachers, crammed with the standing-room-only crowd of classmates, parents, teachers -- bleachers that during the regular season held only smatterings of your and your opponents' own moms and dads.

More than all that though, something else fills the air -- something you find yourself looking around for like you would a voice in the darkness, or the source of a tantalizing aroma you can't quite place. You can't hold onto it, but it takes hold of you, this belief you can't shake if you wanted to -- a belief in your talent and your tenacity, in twists of fate and in today. And mostly, a belief in yourselves, in each other, in your team.

All through the season, the coach has worked you hard. He's honed your talent, sharpened your skill, drilled into you that you have what it takes to be winners. He's gotten frustrated when you let your emotions overtake your prowess, when teams -- namely, the one you're playing today -- broke your resolve. But all along, he's believed in you.

Yesterday, when you asked him to wear a tie for this game, he told you he wants this team to win more than he has any other. The seniors were freshman when he started coaching. "I've watched you grow up," he said. "I want this for you."

So here you are in the championships. You come onto the court smiling, laughing, talking, cheering, doing high kicks, volleying. You warm up to music from Remember the Titans and Lord of the Rings, as well as songs from bands with names like Flo Rida and The Glitch Mob.

You're introduced -- 18 individuals whose spirit for the sport has mingled and made you blood brothers, whose passion has made you a team. Each one of you steps out from the line and waves, first to one side of the gymnasium, then to the other. The crowd roars.

The first game starts as the numbers in the bleachers grow. Guys who ran in the championship cross-country meet earlier today -- the ones that, as a group, you went out to cheer -- show up, some with faces painted blue and gold, or medals dangling from their necks. They scream chants that you, the players, have taught them -- these secret handshakes no other school, no other group, no other team would understand.

"This is B-Stet!" shouts No. 10, after No. 11 earns yet another phenomenal point.

"What up?!" answers everyone else on the team and, by season's end, the spectators as well.

When your team blocks a hit that leads to a point, the kid who shaved his head for the tournament leaps to the center of the court, raises his knee and belts out, "You! Shall not...!!"

"Pass!" screams the team and the classmates and the parents and anyone else who remembers this from the pep rally.

Seeing the cheers put into words and placed on a page seems strange, out of context. They're not meant to be captured, only to be pushed through charged and static air. 

You win the first game handily. The second you lose, surprising yourselves. In the third, you fight to a tie, and then your opponent breaks the tie by the requisite two points. Game four is close; you play with grace and with heart, but you can't pull out a win. You congratulate the winners, accept your second-place trophy. You hug each other and some of you cry, boys whose moms say they haven't seen cry in years.

At home, you find a video of the game online. You flop on the couch and watch it, again and again and again. You nap, wake up, eat something, fall asleep again.

Maybe you don't voice it, but you inherently know that this day, this exact moment with these particular teammates, will never come around again. Sure, you'll play more games -- intramural and pickup and club. Those of you who don't graduate this year will fight your way through another season. But this exact mingling of dynamics, of energy, of passion, won't come along again.

You'll go back to school in a day or two, sit through classes, eat lunch, go home at the end of the day instead of heading for the gym. But forever you'll share this season, this tournament, this game. Your opponent may have taken the victory and the trophy home, but nobody can ever take away everything else, which forever belongs to all of you.

At odd moments through the years, in snippets or in waves, you'll remember this feeling. On an autumn afternoon, when the air is sweet and golden and for whatever reason you feel crazy happy, you'll get whiffs of pumpkin and locker rooms and leather. You'll swear you hear squeaks of shoes on polished gym floors, and cheers that you haven't thought about in ages. You'll sense something you can't quite grasp, but which has hold of you -- just like it did on the day you learned what it means to be part of something much bigger, much shinier, much more meaningful than even the most beautiful and sought-after trophy.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Teaming up


We are here in Minneapolis, a cadre of volleyball parents from Texas, cheering on our sons at the 2011 USVA Junior National Volleyball Championships.

Where we live, boys' volleyball is a bit of an oxymoron, a head-scratcher. "Boys?" people ask. "I never think of boys playing volleyball."

But ours do. They live it, and they breathe it, and they have worked amazingly hard to get here. They are stunning and passionate players, their prowess even more pronounced in competitions such as these. They are playing against teams from California and Florida and Puerto Rico -- against boys who grow up playing this game that has so engulfed my Charlie and his teammates -- and holding their own with aplomb and grace.

On a glorious July 4 morning, I sit in the lobby of the Minneapolis Convention Center, finishing my oatmeal from Starbucks before entering the cacophony of referees' whistles and spectators' cheers. A  white-haired man joins me; he tells me his two grandsons, whom he's here to watch, play in California.

"Ah, California!" I say. "When we see that's where a team we're playing is from, we quake a little in or boots."

"They've always played," he says. "My daughter-in-law strung up a net outside, and they play all day long."

I wish him luck, then stand to leave. I show the attendant at the door the red wrist band that identifies me as a paying patron, and carry my coffee to Court 14. Our boys are playing three matches here -- the first at 9, followed by others at 10 and noon.

At home, winning is almost a given. Here, although the boys are smart and they are skilled, as passionate about the game as they are to one another, it's a bit of a tightrope. Every team is here because they are better than good; every team believes that no matter what their ranking,  they stand a chance.

We are ranked 23rd among the 17-year-old players. Our opponents this day are ranked 8th and 4th; I didn't even see what the kids from Puerto Rico are ranked, but they are virtually unstoppable.

Still, we believe; what choice do we have? So we moms do what we can to make our sons' dreams come true and, in the process, their dreams turn into our own. One day, we wear white shirts with our sons' names and numbers and maybe a photo ironed on them. On another, we wear black t-shirts emblazoned in red with our team name, HIGH INTENSITY.

One mom made signs for us to hold, each a letter spelling out T-E-X-A-S-!. Another brought red and white pompons for us to wave.

We scream and we shout so much that now, as the tournament draws to a close, my voice is hard to understand, raw from yelling.Our calls run an emotional gamut. "Get mad!" we scream, followed seconds later by, "Have fun!" and "Wipe those smiles off their faces!"

"Lighten up!" we juxtapose with "Hang tough!"

We get scared and we get silly, screaming "Remember the Alamo!" when our team is losing, and "Channel the Mavs!" -- hoping the momentum which propelled Dirk Nowitzki in many a fourth-quarter playoff game will somehow rub off on them.

At one point, a mom turns to me and says, "I don't even know what I'm saying!"

In blinks of an eye as our boys play, I find myself stepping back or floating overhead,  holding in my heart all that matters right this very second, and just how important these moments and these games are. At the same time, I am looking through the boys' eyes a year, two years, a decade ahead -- looking back and remembering these precious days as a time when passion and teamwork were everything, when success was measured in spikes and blocks, in games and matches and post game how-can-we-do-better-next-time? discussions.

When your kids are young and just starting to play sports, you recite the parental mantra: "It's not whether you win or lose; it's how you play the game." As they get older, they learn, and you let them start realizing, that winning is great. Losing? Not so much.

Yet. Yet. Yet. Watching our boys -- their efforts; their attitude; the way they keep talking each other up; the way they put an arm around whoever might have be kicking himself for letting the ball fly out of bounds or hit the ground; their breathtaking and, in the end, heart-twisting effort --  you realize this:

Yes, winning is very, very very nice. But sometimes, it's exceeded only by -- or at least runs neck-and-neck with -- how you play the game.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Exercising Mom's options

My mother is, quite frankly, rather adorable. When she reads that, she'll say, "Oh, honey, I wish you wouldn't say that."

But she is. She is sparkly and sunny, with energy and a figure that women one-fourth her age (she's 80) wouldn't mind having. For years, she was a primo lingerie salesperson at a department store in Paris, Texas, a 30-minute drive from where she and my dad were living. During the three days a week she worked, she wore a pedometer. Most days, she'd surpass the 10,000-step mark, meaning she walked at least five miles.

Since she and Dad moved back to Dallas, though, she hasn't been walking as much. Until my dad is more mobile, she spends most of her time with him. But since she is so spry and so spirited, and because I know first-hand the multi-layered benefits of exercise, I decided to make it my mission to get her moving.

So I bought her some no-cotton-moisture-wicking socks and a pair of tennies at Target. Then I picked her up and we headed to the Lake Highlands Family YMCA and her appointment with Clint Elliott, fitness trainer extraordinaire (and really nice guy).  He asked Mom a variety of questions about her hobbies (gardening); her fitness goals (not sure; be stronger and just move more); what she likes to do (swim, though she hasn't in years).

Then Mom, being Mom, had to know more about Clint: What got him into fitness? Had he ever been to YMCA of the Rockies (a Barker- family favorite place)?

Clint started Mom off on the treadmill for about five minutes. I, the over-eager daughter, held my tongue, which would have suggested Mom take regular-size steps and walk her normal brisk pace. But she did what was comfortable, and thus, correct.

Then it was on to two leg machines, the names of which, yes, I should know. On one, she put her legs against a panel and pushed; the other, she put them behind a roller and lifted them.

"Oooh," Mom said, "I can feel this in my thighs."

"You may be sore tomorrow," Clint said.

"I hope so," Mom said. "I''ll feel like I accomplished something."

She did some arm exercises (on machines I also should know the names of), and then stood on a squishy round something-or-other. She did a pretty darned good job of staying vertical; Clint said she had "excellent balance." 

For the cool-down part of Mom's workout, she stepped on the treadmill again. This time, she felt more confident. She upped the speed a bit, and raised the incline to 1.0 percent. She walked about five minutes, then said she thought she'd better stop.

We stayed for at least an hour. As we left, Mom said said she'd like to come back. Clint suggested next week, and asked when we'd both be available. I said I didn't think I needed to be there. Without a moment's hesitation, Mom agreed.

So next Wednesday at 1:30 p.m., while I'm sitting at my desk staring at a computer screen, Mom will be exercising her body, clearing her mind, strengthening her already-strong spirit. And bringing herself closer to a goal I so-casually-mentioned when we talked to Clint: Walking a 5-K with her third-born.


Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Icing on the cake (or at least the sidewalk)

On this snow day, my son is sprawled on a chair that lends itself to sprawling. In one hand he holds the remote for the TV; in the other he holds his Game Boy. I look closely, seeing neither a pair of mittens nor a sled within reach. He has yet to ask me for a carrot, or a stovepipe hat, or bits of coal that could double as buttons.

I walk by him, and oh-so-lovingly say, "Go make a snowman."

He is still in his PJs, hours after the automated phone call from his school told us classes were cancelled, hours after he went back to sleep and woke up again, hours after he ate his first bowl of cereal. He has about as much intention of going outside as he does cleaning his room, or getting dressed, or reading for pleasure.

Not that I particularly blame him. The snow is blowing parallel to the ground, and when I opened the door to let the dog out, I felt the first stages of frostbite. Someone on the radio described the effect of the snow plus wind as "feeling like tiny arrows on your skin."

Admittedly, I know this first-hand, having been outside and (I'm almost embarrassed to add) gone for a run. Very very slow, but a run nonetheless.

I do wonder though, when did snow days stop being snowman days? Remember the magic of waking up and your feet are cold when they touch the floor? You look outside and see the slightest whisper of snow on the lawn and have the teeniest of flashes thinking....what if? You're shivering a little -- with cold or optimistic anticipation, who knows?

You smell the familiar smell of almost-burned toast and go into the kitchen to eat your oatmeal. The radio is on and the announcer is calling out the school closings. They're in alphabetical order, and if you never paid attention to your ABCs, you can bet you do right now. Then you hear it. Your school. Closed. All day long. You run into the living room and the good news is confirmed at the bottom of the TV screen.

You throw on your itchy warm clothes, call your friend two doors down and meet her in the front yard of the house between each of yours. You're freezing, but laughing like hyenas and trying to gather enough snow in your wet mittens to make a snowball to push down her turtleneck sweater.

At noon, you burn the roof of your mouth gulping Campbell's tomato soup and wolfing down grilled-cheese sandwiches. You rush back outside, and though there's hardly any accumulation, you snatch up what snow you can -- practically as it drops from the sky -- determined to build a snowman. One that wobbles on the brown grass, one that will be gone by this time tomorrow.

Months pass, then years then decades. Here I am in my kitchen, with no intention of going outside again today. I can look out the window, though, and still see that brown-flecked snowman. I turn my head and -- still in the den, still sprawled on the chair -- see my pajama-clad son, now on his belly with his computer in front of him. 

He's doing whatever he wants to do today, just as my friend and I did years and years ago. A snow day will always be a snow day -- always magical, always remembered -- even if you never step foot outside.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Believing in Shadow

I woke up New Year's Eve morning at 5:15 to meet up at 6 with a dozen people I didn't know to look for a greyhound that few (if any) of us had ever seen. In one hand, we held flashlights to shine across fields and behind bushes. In one pocket, we'd put treats our own dogs liked, hoping the missing girl would as well.

In another pocket or around our necks, we each had an extra leash. Because when you're looking for a scared and skittish dog -- one who had been mistreated in the past by the antithesis of the two-legged beings who were looking for her -- you have to believe in the mightiest of outcomes.

Most of us had our own dogs with us, too. We reasoned that Shadow, the moniker given this black, zipper-thin beauty, would be more comfortable seeing her own kind than thinking she was being pursued by the very creatures who had been so cruel.

I brought Newman, one of our foster dogs. Because he had once been a stray, I thought of him as a talisman of sorts, a magnet that would somehow lure Shadow out; a soul mate who would know what she was thinking, and could sense where she might hide. Plus, I may have harbored the hope that his presence would somehow show her that life can be more the life she had known.

The morning was beautiful. When I'd walked out the front door, the rain had just begun pouring down. But by the time we fanned out onto the area where Shadow had last been spotted, we could see the moon, the clouds, the waning stars. We were told to be quiet, and if we saw her to sit down, to avoid eye contact, to act bored. Then as she came closer, we could very gently put the leash on her.

But we didn't see her. So Newman and I got back in the car. We drove through the neighborhoods a bit, and I was overwhelmed at all the places she could be. When we got home, I gave Newman one of the bones I'd intended for Shadow. Then I went for a run, all the while looking looking looking.

My best friend was in town for a rare visit, and called when I'd finished running. I picked her up at her parents' house. We went for coffee, got manicures, walked through a few stores. At our last stop before lunch, I checked my email and saw the news about Shadow. She had run into traffic, miles from her foster home. She had been hit by a car, and she died. Even hours later -- even now -- every time I think of how scared she was and what she endured and what she never knew, I start to cry.

Yet when I listen closely, I hear whisperings -- not only of sorrow, but of lessons gleaned from Shadow. Lessons that came with a horrible price, and that I would trade in an instant for her to be alive, and loved, and safe. Yet lessons that, for me at least, are good to think about for the year ahead. They're very simple, really, and I will honor the brevity of her life by keeping them brief as well.

They are these:
To trust.
To try not to be afraid.
To believe -- even though and especially when it seems ridiculous to do so -- that somebody believes in you.

Godspeed, sweet Shadow. May warm arms engulf you, tasty treats fill your stomach, and flashlights and stars be guiding you home.