Monday, October 28, 2013

Stages of Ragnar

When I first heard about theTennessee Ragnar Relay relay I was listening to sweat-covered athletic adrenaline junkees tell me all about how great it would be.  “It’s freaking awesome!  You run all night, you don’t sleep.  It’s hills and people get on your nerves. It’s freaking awesome!”   Apparently I'm easy.
This was all the encouragement I needed.  Sounded great to me.  I signed up.

So I found myself in the Couples Therapy Van 2 Friday morning headed to meet Van 1 that started in Chatanooga where we would start our first legs of the relay.

 The late renowned psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross wrote about the stages of grief:  denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.  Little did I know as we headed down the highway to start our run that I would soon start my own “Stages of Ragnar.” The following is an account of my transition through those phases:

Stage one:  pre race-9 p.m. Denial.  This is the stage where you tell yourself, “Hey!  This is going to be amazing!  In fact, this is going to be EASY--I mean, look at all these people that have done it.  Wait, is that a pregnant woman?  Yeah, it IS a pregnant woman.  See, I knew it was easy!  And look, they call that one leg suck creek mountain! How fun is that? This is going to be epic!! I especially cannot wait until those late night runs--that is so cool we get to run in the dark.  I mean, it might be a little freaky, but look at this cool new head lamp I bought! And I have new blinkie lights! Yay!  

You know what  else is going to be great--all these people I get to spend time with.  Isn’t it cool that we all have such different personalities?

Some of them are just so peppy and happy.! That sure is going to come in handy in the middle of the night! And the one, who looks a little grouchy already? Bet she is just a night person and will really pep it up later! Wasn't it a great idea to do this with my husband? What a memory we will make! 

And look at this van! 

  Isn’t it fun how we managed to pack all this gear into one small space? We are such fantastic packers.  It looks so organized and fun and look at all the bake cookies and trail mix and peanut m &ms and diet coke.  This is going to be like the best slumber party ever!”

Stage two:  8 p.m.-2 a.m.  Anger:  “Whose freaking stupid idea was this?   Why is it so freaking cold out here?  Who makes these freaking vans so uncomfortable?  Why does everyone have so much freaking crap?  What is wrong with all these freaking people in this van?  Why don’t they shut up? They want me to get out of the van and cheer? CHEER? I hate cheering.  I hate trail mix.  I freaking hate cookies.  Who is that man who keeps telling me to move my crap and why does he keep calling me honey? Wait, I invited my husband to do this thing? Why would I do that? Why am I here? What the crap was I thinking?”

Stage 3:  2 a.m. -6 a.m.  Bargaining:  

“Dear God, please, PLEASE just let me survive this run.  Just let me not get killed in the dark by a stabber guy.  Don’t let me trip and flip my body down this mountain. Don't let me get bit by a wolf or a dog.   If I do die God, don’t let me be wearing these tights Lord.  They are not all that comfortable and they make my butt look super big.    Dear God, if I do survive this run, I swear I will be kinder.  I will be nice to the people in this van.  I will be sweet to all the smug-faced runners that keep passing me and acting like they are sorry about it.   I will even be nice to the people who convinced me to do this race.  Just no stabber guys and no dead falls down this mountain and I will be a better person Lord.  I promise.”

Stage 4:  6 a.m. -3 p.m.  Depression:  I.AM.SO.TIRED.  So, so, so, so, so, so tired.  I am never going to finish, but that’s okay because if I stop I can lie down and just die here.  Right here.  I am going to just die in the middle of some random high school gym, while that big guy over there is snoring.  The good thing is that I am so cold that my body should be preserved for some time.

Stage 5:  3 p.m.-4:30:  Acceptance:  Last leg.  LAST leg!!!!!!    We are going to finish!!!  This is freaking awesome!  This is the most fun thing I have ever done in my life! 

 I am so lucky I got on this team with the funniest, sweetest, best people in the world!    Hard core runner people!   I can’t believe how fast we were.  Smokin fast! Wasn’t that brisk cold weather just so invigorating?  Best running weather ever and that clear cold just made the very few stars I could see just pop. It was just so peaceful out there running in the middle of the night!    By the way, pass me another no bake cookie and some trail mix--man this stuff is yummy.  I could chase it with a gu or a gatorade or something!  Running Ragnar was such a good call.  I was made for this stuff.  Wonder where our team could do our next Ragnar??  Maybe an ultra.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

It's amazing how you never know that moment when you will meet a person who will become a best friend.

It's amazing how you never know that moment when you will meet a person who will become a best friend.  It's just a second of every-day-ordinary conversation.    I think most friends are made that way.  Lately I have been extra-missing my friend Karen.  I keep thinking of how to describe her to you but she was one of those folks that simple descriptions won't work.  Yes, she was beautiful--gorgeous really.  Yes, she was incredible--kind and compassionate and a bleeding heart.  Yes, she was intelligent--a crazy-quick wit and one of those people who always thought before she spoke (yes, pretty much the opposite of me).  But those descriptions just seem so lacking...she was so much more.

  Karen and I met in grad school.  We would go on to work for the State at Disability Services together. We We lived a lot of life together and the part of life in my new marriage where things were hard.  We worked through the problems of raising kids (and husbands) together.  We found out all the reasons why working for a bureaucracy like the State pretty much sucks.  We solved the world's problems together.  At least we tried.

  I'll never forget the day that she called and told me she had breast cancer.  We both talked about it but honestly, we were both a little relieved.  We both had handled lots of disability claims so we knew breast cancer was one of those things that ends well almost all the time.  We talked about that.  We talked about chemo and treatment and mastectomies and all that.  Quickly she started treatments and they were pretty much hell.  By that time she was working as a Director for the United Way and she just kept right on working.  That was who she was.

 I'll also never forget after the treatment her calling me.  I met her to watch Kelsey, her daughter, run a cross country meet.  After the meet we headed to Shenanigans for a drink when she let me know that the doctors told her the treatments weren't working and that they wouldn't work.   Clearly, I thought, they are wrong.  You can't die from breast cancer. You can't die because you are too young. You can't die because you have a teenage daughter and a son who is just getting started in the adult world and you have Hugh, who drives you crazy but who you love like crazy and you have your step kids and you have me.  You can't leave me.  (Yeah, I am selfish that way and was selfish then too.)

 Things would go quickly from there.  I watched her try to tie up loose ends at work and I watched her trying to take care of everyone around her--it blew me away.  I watched her buy a prom dress for Kelsey that she would not get to see her wear and a car that she would not get to really see her drive.  I watched her buy a boat for Eric her son and tell him to not get married before she would pass because she didn't want to make the day about her and make it a sad day.  Over and over I watched her make selfless move after selfless move.

We had lots of talks about those kinds of things you only talk about when someone is dying.  She shook my faith to the core.  I talked to her about God, Heaven, all that stuff.  These were conversations Karen and I had always had but this time they meant something different.  Karen didn't believe in God or an afterlife of any sort and I remember asking her why. She said, "Don't you think I would believe if I could?  Don't you think that if there was ever a time to believe that this would be it?  But I don't.  I can say I do, but I don't."  I can still picture where we were sitting when we had that conversation.  I have played it around in my head many times since then because it had such a deep spiritual effect on me.  Still does, but I can't even begin to explain all those thoughts in writing.

It was so hard watching her say goodbye to people she loved.  Saying goodbye to her changed us all.  She left a legacy--her family, friends, the many, many people she helped...her selflessness was a legacy and it still inspires me. Her daughter has a new baby and I smile so big looking at the pictures of him--Karen would have been such a fun grandparent and she would have been crazy about him.  She adored her kids.

You never know when you will meet your next friend--the one that changes you.  I know that walking into SIUE to that grad school class I had no idea that the pretty girl next to me would make me a different person.   When Karen died she did not want a funeral.  She wanted a celebration--she loved a party.  The following are the words I was able to share at her life celebration.

Memories of Karen…

Many of us will not forget Karen’s infamous deviance project that she did for her deviance class. The assignment?  Groups were to decide something deviant they could do as a project, carry it out and analyze it.  Karen headed up her group in organizing a “mock” student organization called WOOF—WOOF stood for the World Organization for the Obliteration of Food Shortage.  They sought campus organizational status, developed a brochure and made arrangements to have a booth at a student campus fair.  The day of the fair arrived and WOOF’s organizational booth got a lot of attention.  Maybe it was because the goal of Woof was to try to get students to donate their pets to feed children in third world countries.  They put up pictures of children and starving children from third world countries. They had a sign up sheet for those willing to donate their pets and those wanting to join the organization.  This, in itself, was upsetting for many of the students around—they began to protest.  But it probably was the menu books that were distributed with menus for “poodle struedel” and chow chowmein—not to mention the wok they had set up cooking stir fry they told people was chow chowmein—that (and the large group of student protestors that had gathered) was probably why the dean came down to make sure the wok was taken away.

There is no doubt that Karen enjoyed a good story, a good joke, a chance in her very professional (subversive, but effective) way to raise a little hell and buck the establishment.   She was one of those individuals that manage to get things done her way; all the while making people think she is doing them a favor and that they are totally getting their own way.

In grad school I laughed at her every semester.  The university would threaten to throw out her enrollment because she did not have shots so every semester Karen would file a religious petition explaining that her religion prohibited her from having shots. If you asked Karen what her religion was she would explain that it was the “religion of no shots.”

When I think about how Karen felt about bureaucracy in graduate school it was great irony  that she and I would end up working for the state—the pinnacle of bureaucracy.  It drove Karen crazy that there were “rules” for “rules”—she found ways of letting people know that she would do things her own way—something like a child who lets you know I’ll do it because I want to; not because you told me to.  I remember the stupid “Professional” dress code drove us so crazy that it became a sort of contest to see who could end up wearing the closest thing to pajamas without it actually being pajamas. 

Karen was always making lists and plans—every day as we worked together—driving the 45 minute commute to and home from work and taking our breaks together we would plan our lives out—Karen would joke; calling it our “reevaluate our life plan” it was during those planning sessions that we shared our parenting fiascos and successes our latest plans for finishing our thesis or getting out of working at Disability and for Karen, her marriage to Hugh.  Every year we would spend time deciding our New Years Resolutions Until Karen eventually called me to meet for drinks one year where she let me know that she had settled on Only one New Years Resolution for that year—to eat a package of M and Ms every day—for the next three years she called to let me know she was keeping that resolution because she had not managed to accomplish it the year before.

Karen had many of the things that I struggled with and I was always in awe of that—her total steady, straight, “unflappability” always amazed me—she never missed a beat.  I used to joke that aliens could drop from the sky and Karen would know exactly what to say and do.  She simply was never shaken.

She was incredibly direct and honest, yet gracious and kind—a package that disarmed many.  She was the sort of friend that after a bad haircut when my other friends said nothing or gave false compliments Karen would say, “Now why did you do that to your hair?”  I never saw Karen be fake or anything but straightforward in all the time I have known her. 

Karen and I shared a love for bargains and many of you have been the recipients of her finds—she used to live behind K-Mart and would call to let me know when an unusually great bargain deal was available—I will not forget the year that she bought many, many little plastic ponies with little hairbrushes to comb their manes with—because after all, you never knew when you were going to need a plastic pony with a hairbrush.  Over the years Karen taught me really critical things but one of the most practical was certainly her restaurant advice which let me know which restaurants had Kids Eat Free nights—She bragged she could eat out five nights of the week getting free meals for her kids—it really bummed her out when her kids aged out of the system although she always argued that Eric looked  young for his age.

Karen always thought she and Hugh could open a bed and Breakfast—actually she called it a “Bread and McBreakfast” in which they would serve egg mcmuffins because she really did not want to have to cook for everyone.

One of my biggest privileges in being Karen’s friend has been that we have been able to watch our children grew up.  Karen, as all of you know, not only loved her children—she liked them and admired them.  She marveled at Eric’s ability to charm just about anyone and Kelsey’s sense of social justice and willingness to fight for an underdog.   

Not only have I got to see her relationship with her kids, but her relationship with Hugh.  I often marveled at the differences between the two of them—Hugh,  passionate and excited and moving constantly and Karen, calm and steady. She could let Hugh rant and go on for an hour and in just a couple of calm sentences pull all the thoughts and decisions together.  I have been privileged to watch the two of them parent and step-parent and create this amazing, blended family and a home that is the kind of place you want to grab a cup of coffee and stay a while.

It is impossible to begin to understand at this point how much I will miss my friend.  It has been my honor to share life with her.  She and I spoke often of faith.  Our faith was not the same—in many ways it was different.  Karen’s faith was that of a practitioner, an applied sociologist and a compassionate idealist—Karen’s faith was this—that kind, dedicated, thoughtful individuals can make a difference in the world—a unique faith in a world where it is much easier to be a cynic.  Karen lived out this faith every day in her education and her work and she taught this faith to her children.  The faith that what we do matters and that life is short and we need to work to help others who can’t help themselves and that we actually can change things. 

Over and over the last couple of days I have marveled that the sun continues to rise and that the world keeps on spinning just as it did before Sep. 8, 2004.  I know that for those of us in this room, the world is a different place than it was before that day.  I also know that my friend Karen made it better.

Monday, March 4, 2013

This isn't a Cinderella story

Think of all of the movies you know where the hard working underdog, with the sense of charm and self deprecation finishes victorious.  Cue the french horns.   I sorta thought I was going to get to be part of that sort of story this past weekend.  I wasn't.

This story started for me four years ago when I started "coaching" the Ravenwood debate team. The phenomenal Kari Smith
 was coaching and when we moved to Ravenwood I asked her if she wanted some help with the debate team.  She did.  Not sure who I heard this quote from, but it so fits my personality: "Volunteer!  Figure out how to do it later!"  Walking into the debate practice the first day I had no idea how to even do public forum debate.  A couple of years of policy debate and a couple of years of Lincoln Douglas didn't really teach me what I needed to know about public forum.  I tried to not let the kids sniff my fear.  They can do that you know.

The kids.  Debate kids are just a different breed.  That day the room was full of a handful of kids--nerdy, brilliant, crazy loud and opinionated.  For that hour that day I watched them all play the game of "who is the smartest in the room."  Seemed like they were all smarter than me.  But just because they were smart, didn't mean they could debate.  They were eager.  Eager...but not good.  They would get up to speak and well....let's just say that at the point if we had a trophy case we wouldn't be making any room in it.  The kids ummed and uhhed.  They rocked when they talked. They yelled over each other.  They spoke in monotones and talked themselves in circles.  But they were excited and adorable and I just loved them all instantly.

Over the following years I would have the chance to work with some amazing coaches.  First of all, anyone who knows Kari Smith is in awe of her.  She breathes forensics.  And everything she touches is quality.  Getting to have my own children coached and taught by Kari was the hugest privilege.  Getting to work with her helping to get debate up and really running was a blast.  In addition, I was able to work with Abby Andrews.
 We got to hire her for awhile before she moved to coach debate and although she had never debated she came to the program with loads of forensics experience and was really helpful at helping the kids get consistent about practice and to set a higher bar for themselves.  I missed Abby greatly when she had to move and then later, was devastated to lose Kari when she left Ravenwood to go to grad school.

But meanwhile, Ravenwood debaters were getting better.  Those freshmen?  The ones who rocked and ummed and uhhed?  They weren't freshman anymore.  And that means they weren't freshmen debaters anyomore.  They were making points.  Winning rounds.  Doing some of the best research of any of the teams in the area.  And we were having so much fun.  But we still weren't bringing home many trophies. And these are the kind of kids you want to win.

The team captain, Paul Drexler, is one of those kids that teachers and coaches talk about years after they are gone.  His leadership, as well as those of many of his peers, has been stellar--hours and hours of work.    I could go on and on about each of the kids-: Ryan's mad research skills, watching Nikhil in debate rounds  go from shy and stumbling to confident and fierce, Niko, who I want to kill and congratulate at the same time because he is funny and a smartbutt, Kelsey and Jacob, the partners who can seem go goofy you forget how smart they are...these are just some of the kids. There are more:  Frances Ding, who is so brilliant and talented we had to share her with way too many other "genius sports," Michael who is so charming that I am sure that if decides to be President he will be.  This year I got new kids who hit the ground running, including Drew, the best freshman debater I have ever worked with and Grant, his partner, whose one-liners make us all crack up. Nathan, who started as a junior and looked like he was scared out of his mind his first few rounds  just made quarter finals at his last tournament.  Briefly this year we have had two more female debaters besides Kelsey and Frances--Khadija and Lexie, who both are also so good at other things we don't get them much but they still come around because our team is so much fun.

Did I mention fun?  We have laughed and laughed and there are so many inside jokes and poems and songs and moments you just had to be there--I would tell about them but you really did have to be there.  But picture this crazy smart, sarcastically funny group of kids.  At one point earlier on, I looked around the room and saw only one girl in this whole group of boys and said "Guys!  We have to get some girls in here."  Without missing a beat, one of the debaters took a slow look around the room and said, "ummm....does it look like we can get girls?"  Not that these boys minded.  Last year they adopted a new slogan:

So, this is all rambling.  I get that.  But as I have watched these kids over the years I have become their biggest cheerleader.  They all got better.  And better. And better.  And we went from the school with no program, to the school to beat.  In fact, last year the kids chose our theme song "all we do is win"  because we were winning that much.  It felt good. Not gonna lie.

So fast forward to this year and my speech at the beginning of the year. Let me just be straight and say that I really, really, really wanted at least one of our teams to qualify to compete at Nationals.  This year was so important to me because I had coached these kids through their freshman year to their senior year and for several of them this was their last chance and they so deserved it.   My speech the first week:  "Okay folks, someone in here is going to nationals.  It is our year to finally send a debate team to nationals and we will work and work and then we will win! Because that is what we do!"  So this year we have worked so hard.  Each tournament we have brought home trophies.  If you had seen us years ago, you would cheer for us.  Because you would love this Cinderella story.

And then it was time for our National Qualifying Tournament.  From the beginning, everything just wasn't going our way.  Kids couldn't make it (This is the superbowl of debate people!  Don't you want to go to the Super Bowl?  AGGGHHH..the troubles of having smart kids involved in lots of things)...we had one week to learn everything you ever wanted to know about mandating health care insurance and we were all exhausted from a three day long tournament the weekend before.  But if this were the movies, this would be the part where you would see that although the odds were stacked against us, we persevered and at the very last minute...A MIRACLE!!!  AN INCREDIBLE MIRACLE!!!  WE WON!!!

But it isn't that story.  This is the story of how my best team at "our playoffs for the Super Bowl" --nat quals, how we got all the way to the very end...and lost.  They lost in a a 2-1 decision, one vote away from everything they had worked for.

And it broke my heart.  I have said for four years I wanted to send a team to nationals and I was convinced  this was my year.  It broke my heart because these kids are the heroes of the story.  They deserved it. They deserved it because they are brilliant and kind and have spent years building up this team and they just are that "movie team" that you want to win.  Even worse, they lost to the "Goliath" team that wins all the time, who walked in expecting to stomp our team.  Blech.  See, don't you wish they had lost?  If not, then picture all the cocky bad guy characters in every final scene of all the movies like Rocky or Karate Kid and then you'll know why you should have wanted them to lose.
 Imagine Rocky losing in the end.  Or Daniel-san's final match ending up in a 2-1 loss and the credits rolling and you may be able to picture how Mr. Miyagi would be feeling and then perhaps you could understand why I am just so sad.

So, this isn't a Cinderella story.  It is the story of genius, talented kids who will have so many opportunities ahead of them that they will never even care about that moment when they missed getting to go to nationals.  Years of debate mean these kids know about health care, gun control, immigration, failed nations, climate change, mandating immunizations, poverty..and so much more.  Their  years of debate will serve them well into their futures filled with limitless possibilities.  So I guess, it will be that kind of movie.  That one defining moment was not this past weekend.  But the defining moments of working with these kids for four years and how they have shaped me...well, that's the stuff movies can be made of.