Sunday, August 17, 2014

What Sacrifce Does For Us

It's my annual Summer Sermon Service, and it's been a pretty busy summer. I generally leave this blog alone, but it's probably not a bad time to post the contents of what I said this morning.

Our centering thought is from Khalil Gibran: “Tenderness and kindness are not signs of weakness and despair, but manifestations of strength and resolution."

It’s been a tough week for me personally, and for humanity, it’s been a pretty tough summer in general. There’s been Russia invading Ukraine to “liberate” ethnic Russians, Islamist forces who’ve perverted their own religion beyond recognition doing battle against governments that are corrupt and ruthless in Syria, Iraq and Nigeria. And just last week, we’ve had yet another policeman’s cold blooded shooting of an unarmed African American teenager.  What can I say, but “Summertime, and the livin’ is easy”.

I could talk about the depressing, unchanging situation between Israel and Palestine, but I did that 6 years ago, and Kevin Carson did an incredible job talking about that two Sundays ago. Or I could go “light”. Summer movies! The Red Sox!  Beer! but I’m not certain that those are particularly enlightening subjects for a once-in-a-year homily.

Or maybe I go “meta”. Spend a few minutes talking about how darn hard it it to write a sermon.

No. Rather than talking about indecisiveness, let me go down the road of some medieval history.  After all, I spent a good chunk of my summer in England and Scotland, wandering around some 1000 year old institutions. And I have Scottish heritage, so I must have some good Scottish tale full of grizzly details.A reminder, if you will, that things may have been even worse back then.

How many of you have heard of the expression “cutting off the nose to spite the face”? How many know what it means? How many know where it came from?

Legend has it that it started in Scotland, sometime around the year 870. An age where warring tribes took large sections of land and held them through brutal medieval force. Often the targets of these attacks were nunneries, where in addition to pillage and burn, the attackers could also rape. And to a nun at that time, being raped meant that she could not ascend to Heaven, as her chastity would be violated. A serious problem. What to do when you see the swarming hordes of heathen coming forth.

Here was the plan of St. Æbbe, the head nun. The night before the castle would be invaded, she went in front of everyone, took a knife and cut off her upper lip her nose, and stood there to bleed. She encouraged all of the nuns present to do the same. Some did. The pagan invaders entered the the next morning, saw this and were so disgusted by the site that they chose to kill all of the nuns and burn the castle rather than rape them. The belief is that by cutting their noses off to spite their faces, they could preserve their entry into Heaven.

History is filled examples of this behavior, where the self-inflicted pain serves no purpose than to embarrass someone else. In the early 1800s, the United States, unhappy with British and French interference, imposed stiff tariffs. This action did little to the Brits and French, but it did cause a severe recession in the nascent American economy.  Today, we have Republican governors so ideologically opposed to Obamacare that they will refuse a medicaid expansion that might give their citizens access to essential health care services for free.

There’s a word to describe these political actions. “Spite”.  It’s not rational, made by weighing costs and benefits. The costs that are paid mean little. The actor only cares about inflicting pain and suffering to someone else without caring for one’s own well being. It is made with malice, and it involves sacrifice. And it’s only goal is to inflict as much suffering on the “other” as possible. It often feels good to spite, but it rarely does good.

Yes, I have a personal story that’s arisen this summer. My sister and her husband are going through a difficult point in their marriage. The will probably split up. And they SHOULD split up. Their partnership isn’t working, and their staying together is not helping either of them. It’s likely that both of them will be better off on their own. Certainly my sister’s life will improve significantly once her husband is out of the picture. And they’re not stupid. So what keeps them together?

Fear? Maybe. My money is on spite. It would not surprise me if one of them worries that the other will have a better life after separating. After all, if you ex-spouse’s life suddenly improves after leaving you,, what does that say about you?  And when you have two people thinking that way, well, you have a relationship where people prefer misery, so long as their partner’s also miserable. We see this in people. We see this in politics. We see this in war.

And what is the polar opposite of spite? Perhaps generosity. Or altruism. Random acts of kindness. Interestingly though, from an action perspective, altruism and spite share one thing, and that is self sacrifice. I would define altruism as increasing the overall good in the world through sacrifice, and spite as increasing the overall bad. Both are, at their core sacrificial, but both also change the way we feel about ourselves, and they also result in changing our view of the world. It is our actions of either spite or altruism that we make the biggest impact on the world around us.

So I will give you a third story, one that I’ve thought of often during this summer, as MaryAlice’s bicycle was stolen in July outside of Fenway Park. The story is not of that bicycle theft, but of the bicycle stolen from our garage here in Dedham several years ago. I was at home one afternoon, when I noticed that the 2 bicycles in our garage were suddenly missing.  I grumbled, and went to the police station to file a report, then went home and checked Craigs List, only to see one of my bikes for sale. I contacted the Dedham police, who sprang into action. They assigned 2 detectives to the case, and the three of us arranged to see and “purchase” the bike. I identified it, and they charged the man selling it and returned that bicycle to me. The man appeared in court a few weeks later, pleaded no contest, and was ordered to pay $200, a fee that, from looking at where he was living, he probably didn’t have.

The next day, I went in to the courthouse and paid his fee. The people behind the desk asked of my relationship to the perpetrator, and I simply said that I was the victim, and did not know him at all.  They asked why I would pay his fee. I simply said that I had seen where this man lived, and that I could afford this more than he could. They were dumbfounded that a “victim” would pay the judgment of a “perpetrator”. They asked if I thought he had “learned his lesson”. I said “probably not, but that action isn’t about him. It’s about me”. I was learning a lesson.

What was the lesson I learned that day? That random acts of kindness provide more joy to the giver than to the receiver. That, like spite, altruism has rewards well beyond the rational, and that we as humans need to acknowledge that we do not always behave or believe rationally, and that this is an essential part of our humanity and of our faith in a loving God.


For our closing hymn, let’s sing # 205, Amazing Grace.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Marathon Mailings

The following post is simply a way to enable people who are just getting my recent emails to read my previous emails regarding my Boston Marathon training and running news. Enjoy.

--- The first email I sent on January 7 to a couple of friends with whom I'd casually entertained the idea, and who suggested that I contact the MassGeneral Cystic Fibrosis team ---  

I'm doing it! (Maybe) ...

and I blame you! :-)

After much dithering, I'm gonna attempt to run the Marathon. My legs hurt just thinking about it, but as you said, we don't get many chances to be an official "player" when the game includes the best in the world, and while I'm still (relatively) healthy and (less relatively) young, I figure that now may be my only chance.

You also mentioned that there are people who can help with the dreaded long-run training, which I may also want to take advantage of. Let me know if this is still a possibility and what it'll take to do this. My phone is 781-352-4228 and you can give me the pep talk (or maybe talk me out of this idiocy).


--- First wider email sent January 12, just after I'd committed --

A Message From Tyler:

Hello. I’m running in the 2013 Boston Marathon to support Cystic Fibrosis at Mass General Hospital for Children and will be fundraising for Massachusetts General Hospital.

I just officially committed to running this thing. Starting today (January 12) my plan is to train by running 20-30 miles per week, until April 15, the day of taxing pain. On that day, I will run 26.2 miles. Even though I've never run a race longer than 6.2 miles, I will run the Boston Marathon to the end of the course. I've made my commitment to running the marathon.

 I would like to ask you to support the cause and make a donation to my fundraising page: Tyler Carpenter's Page. I need your help. Donate. It'll be good. And it'll be fun to consider the possibilities. Visit my page to see all the choices I offer!

All donations are secure and sent directly to Massachusetts General Hospital by FirstGiving, who will email you a printable record of your donation.

Please share my page with any of your friends and family that may be inspired to donate as well, or follow my training progress on twitter @uubuntu.

Thank you for your support!


--- On January 23, after receiving many contributions (and more than a few inquiries regarding the "wisdom" of my choice, I sent this ---

Thank you thank you thank you all!

Hello -- if you're getting this email, it's because you (a) have contributed to my MGH Cystic Fibrosis Research Page, (b) have "promised" to contribute to my page, or (c) are just someone who I like to pester on a regular basis. If you don't want to get any more of these mails, just reply with an "I don't want any more of these mails" and you won't hear from me again (at least with regard to my marathon endeavor).

The first thing I'd like to say on this is THANK YOU! To be honest, I did not expect to see so many family members, friends, neighbours, and colleagues pitch in so quickly and generously, and I feel both grateful and humbled. Within less than 2 weeks since setting up my page, I've raised almost $2000 of contributions from you. You can see an up-to-the minute tally of how my fund-raising is going:

While all of you have been generous and kind with your encouragement (and your money!), I have heard a few expressed reservations about my sanity and my health and risk of injury, as well as concern over my cardiovascular and skeletal systems. As to my sanity, I'll leave that to you to evaluate. But as to the injury/health risks, I'd like to say that (1) I had a physical a couple of years ago and am in fine health. I have another physical coming up in a couple of weeks and  will ask the relevant questions, and (2) I'm taking the training pretty slowly and have bought appropriate footwear and clothing. I have a training schedule that I believe will get me to the point where my body won't break down before I complete the thing. I've gotten my flu shot.

So I'm now into my second week of training, and so far, it's going well. No injuries, no unexpected pain (which is NOT to say "no pain"), and my distances are increasing. I did a little over 12 miles last Saturday (the last couple of miles were tough), and I'll try to do a similar amount this coming weekend.  I have my up-to-date training schedule here: (and because I use MapMyRun, every run's completion is posted on twitter)

I'll try to send out occasional emails telling of my progress toward April 15, and as the day of reckoning approaches, I'll send out information about the best place to watch in person, as well as a link that will enable you to follow the race in real time if you're not in Boston.  I promise that those emails won't be quite so wordy.

Again, thank you so very much for your support.

--- A few weeks later, February 20, after I'd received some difficult news, but training continued.  ---

Marathon Training Update

Hello everyone --

Right now, I'm on a low-mileage week, recovering from my long run, which at 16 miles, was about 3 miles farther than I'd ever done in practice before, and that run brought my weekly total to over 42 miles! On the one hand, I'm getting stronger, but on the other hand, those last few miles were real slogs through the hills of Newton. Definitely slowed down in the last couple of miles.  And I'm starting to feel pain in my thighs (which is OK) and knees (which is not) on Sunday and Monday. But with 8 weeks to to go, I'm still managing to (more or less) stick with the schedule (link) even with the snow and slushy streets around here.  This week, I'll be doing no more than 4-6 mile runs until I put in another 15+ mile day on Saturday.

If you're getting this email, its because you've contributed to my fundraising effort for Mass General Hospital, you've offered to contribute, or you're an old friend, for whom I'm using this email to say hello and reconnect. In any case, I'll send out these occasional emails so that you can follow me on line or in person when I get my "official number" in the beginning of April.  But for now, I have a paper that says "I'm in" from the BAA (see my picture or this entry), so I continue to be committed (perhaps in more ways than one). The nice thing about training with the MGH team is that I run with others (more or less) and that there are people providing running and training advice along the way. I got to listen to and meet Tim Ritchie, who's also training for his first Boston marathon. However, his goal time is 2:10 (!), while mine will be twice that.

Interestingly, one of my biggest "training supporters" of my event is my former employer, who felt that the marathon was so important that they chose to let me go so that I can train for it "full time" without the distraction of work. Of course, I now get to seek other opportunities and hang around with our soon-to-arrive puppy, but hey, that's just the fun of life. Things look good however, as I've been interviewing when I'm not running. 

Hope all is well with everyone here. You've all been *wonderful*, and I feel fortunate to have such a wide group of supportive friends and family. Thank you very much for all of your support.  

--- And on March 13, after the results of many hours of training started to set in... ---

Training Update: 

Hi all,

Well, with just under 5 weeks to go, it's been an eventful past couple of weeks for training.  First, what I feared -- possible injury during training -- seems to have occurred. Last week, as I ran (or in this case attempted to run) my long run of 18 miles, my right knee acted up, and by the 10 mile mark, was so painful that I had to abort this run and call for a ride home.

But not all is lost. The doctor (who claimed to have run her first marathon last year) indicated that it's simply acute tendonitis, and that with 5 weeks to go before the marathon, I should have sufficient time to rest the knee and run the thing. But those long pre-marathon runs are over. So, I'm not out, but my goal should be to finish rather than to finish *fast*. And I should gently ease back into running as much as possible, with only short "test" runs to avoid re-injury. And perform a series of stretching and strengthening exercises. So I'm still on. And though last Saturday felt pretty disastrous, I'm feeling a whole lot better now, and I have to tell myself not to go out and try to run for the next few days.

Today, bib numbers were assigned, and I'm number 24783 (or CHRUD for you telephone keypad users). I'm in the way-back of the pack, with an expected start time of around 10:50 or so. Here's a link ( to the current entry list. I took screenshots of everyone with the last name of "Carpenter" or the first name of "Tyler". The "Tyler" list is pretty intimidating, with 18 entrants, a median age of 27, and only one person (me) over the age of 40. Ouch. The "Carpenter" list is a lot more reasonable, with only 10 entrants, including a couple of us middle-aged folks.  You'll be able to follow me on race day on line using this number no matter where you are.

As usual, I'd like to thank everyone who's provided moral support and encouragement through this process, as well as all of you who've contributed to the MassGeneral Cystic Fibrosis Research program. It's been a welcome shot of encouragement.

--- On April 8, with one week to go, the news starts to look better ---

The Home Stretch of Training Updates:
OK, with one week to go, I have several updates and pieces of news about this event.  And unlike the previous mails, this one is full of good news.  Also, if this is the first email you're seeing from me, you can read my previous "trials and tribulations" emails here.

First, yesterday afternoon, I finally got to meet my "patient partner". She's an engaging and sweet 11 year old girl named Jenna who has CF (as does her older sister Haylee), and aside from having to take pretty frequent assortment of drugs to keep their lungs as clear as possible, the two of them were among the most healthy and pleasant people to be around as I've seen in a while. Jenna just finished her basketball season (they won the championship in her age group!), and now both of them have moved into the softball season (Jenna pitches, Haylee catches). They even had those "teenager disagrees with mom's advice" interactions I so remember from when my daughter was 11 (and even more when she was 15). Our meeting was as delightful as I could imagine, and I look forward to seeing their mom again as I run the marathon (I think that she'll be at the big meeting spot around mile 20, and if you're there, I encourage you to meet her).  I've updated the picture on my fundraising page to include the 3 of us (Jenna, Haylee and me), and have posted a picture of the three of us here.

Second, I got the (mostly) all clear from the orthopaedist, who (after xrays and an MRI) could say with certainty that the cause of my knee pain was not a tear or a bone chip. It was simply a combination of a quad strain and an IT band syndrome, which means that -- by following my PT's advice on stretching and pacing -- I should be able to complete the marathon. As I said previously, my ambitious goal of finishing *fast* will not happen, but my comparably ambitious goal of finishing should. This is good news.
Third (and this is also good news), the fundraising effort continues on, and I'm getting closer to my goal. In fact, between those of you who've contributed on line, those who've sent checks, and those who've made promises, I can say that I'll meet that $3000 goal! And I can say with 100% confidence that I could not have done it without your help.  Having said that though, the MassGeneral CF program is really good, and the people they help (like Jenna and Haylee) are far, far better off because of the years of research that our money pays for.  So please continue to contribute -- even as my marathon goal gets met, there is still more work to be done.
Now, as the big day approaches, I'm in "preparation" mode. I will pick up my number (24783) this Friday, and I'm scheduled to start in the last (9th) corral of the last (3rd) wave. This means I'll probably cross the starting line between 10:50 and 11:00 (or about the time that the lead runners are passing through Wellesley). From what I understand, the start will be very slow.  So if you want to watch me as I pass certain points, here are the best places to see me pass by (or pass out?):
Mile 10: The Natick Center Historic District (intersection of Main St and Rt. 135)
Mile 13-14: Wellesley College ("The Screech Tunnel") -- a lot of fun for both runners and observers
Mile 17: The Newton "Firehouse", where we all turn onto Commonwealth Avenue and start climbing those hills, and can use some encouragement.
Mile 20: The start of Heartbreak Hill (where the CF cheering team will gather) -- this will probably be the best spot since if I have anything at all left in the tank, I'll show it off there.

To follow, I would recommend watching the start on TV (Channel 4 in Boston, UniversalSports or BAA online) and following my progress on line for the first few miles (the Boston Athletic Association website updates my progress during the race, or you can receive text messages at each 1/4-complete progress mark) before heading out to one of the many places to watch.  Keep in mind that I probably won't cross mile 10 before 12:30, and won't get to mile 20 until sometime between 2 and 3 (and that assumes nothing bad's happening), so relax and come on out and cheer all of us on.

Finally, I do welcome company during the race! If you would like to run a few miles with me (or even a few hundred meters), I would love to have company! I will, however, need to know where you will join me, so that I can look forward to the meeting and listen to you as you pass on messages of (hopefully) encouragement. Even if you only run a mile on the course, it'll be a mile you won't ever forget! And who knows, accompanying someone else for a few miles is what got me to consider running this race in the first place. It might even happen to you!
Once again, thank you all for your encouragement and your support. 

P.S., No major news on the employment front -- I continue with the phone- and in-person-interviews and emailing and following leads, but nothing has turned up yet. I remain optimistic.

--- On April 14, the day before the marathon ---

The Final Pre-Race Update

Hello everyone,

It's the day before the race, (the calm before the storm, the darkness before the dawn, the worm before the early bird, the trite saying before the hipster eye-roll), and I'm ready. Maybe. But it's still on, and I'm feeling pretty good (despite catching a cold last week -- ugh).  So tomorrow morning at 10:40 EDT, my marathon wave will start, and about 10 minutes after that I'll start running east from Hopkinton.

We just returned from our "pre-race carb-loading" pasta dinner with the Mass General Cystic Fibrosis Team (and my patient partner's mom, Ann), so I should have enough fuel to last me a few miles. The knee's taped up, and the race clothes are laid out, and the 5:45 bus will be ready soon.  All I need do now is rest and then run.  And be careful.

I have people running with me for several sections (thank you, Debbie, Jan and MaryAlice), and people (thank you, Fred) who will help guide friends and relatives to the best spot for cheering all of us who are running for MassGeneral programs, including the CF research group: the MGH tent near mile 20 (link goes to the exact address on Google Maps), which is just north of the Newton Center T stop. If all goes well, I'll pass that spot between 2:15 and 3:15, about 3 1/2 - 4 hours after my start.

And I'll be trackable too, either through my MayMyRun website (which tracks me through my phone every mile) or "officially" through the BAA website (or Android/iPhone app), which updates at every 10k point (or maybe 5k point). My bib number is 24783.

If you're going to be on the course, send me an email and I'll  to look for you at that spot. And of course, please continue to contribute to the CF team. As of this evening, the 12 of us who are running for the Mass General CF team have raised over $35,000, all in the form of many individual contributions. You have all been really good and generous, and tonight I feel an incredible amount of gratitude to all of you. Now, tomorrow I'll (mostly) run over 26 miles and feel some pain.

Thank you all.


--- April 16, the post marathon mailing ---

Race Day Events and Outcomes.  And Gratitude.

Hi everyone.

First, as you all know at this point, there were explosions near the finish line at the marathon today. Fortunately, we were still several miles away when they occurred, so we were not injured by them.

But they did (obviously) affect the race. The running continued until around 25.5 miles, where suddenly there was no more running. So we stopped, walked around and eventually walked back toward my house in JP. My parents picked us up around the medical area and drove us the last couple of miles home. I sent out the "We're OK" email and watched the news and learned of the events the same way all of you did. My thoughts and sympathies goes out to the victims of this crime, and I hope that over the upcoming weeks, we learn of the identities and rationale of the perpetrators  and that they  receive appropriate justice.

So, aside from those events, how was the race, especially as I hadn't been able to train or run significantly for the last several weeks? Well, it was a struggle. Even though I ran slowly for the first dozen miles or so, my legs (and particularly my flaky knee) started showing real pain by mile 15. But with a combination of walking and running (and a quick stop at a medical tent for a knee wrap), I "officially" crossed the 40k mark (the last BAA measurement, just under 25 miles) at 4:55. I'm pretty happy with that, and and resting and slowly getting better now. 

But it wasn't a journey I made alone, and without the help of the following people, I never would have "finished" at all. 

My biggest debt of gratitude goes to MaryAlice, who, in addition to accompanying me for the last 6 miles of the race, provided both the pre-race encouragement, the coordination of support plans, and the post-race TLC. I would love you no matter what, but your kindness and faith in me goes far beyond anything I have a right to expect. I might have started this thing by myself, but I never could have completed it without you, ever step of the way. I love you.

But MaryAlice wasn't the only person who responded to my call for help in a big way. There are many of you who stood out in special ways, and I'd like everyone to know who you are.

Thank you Debbie Maki, for returning the "Sherpa" favor from 2 years ago, providing moral and physical support for those middle miles and for accompanying me from miles 10 through to the end! And for providing the voice of reason when the race came to an end, telling us that it was time to turn back when we considered trying to move further into Boston.

Thank you, Jan and Fred Civian, for (1) accompanying me up the hills of Newton, and (2) providing all transportation and support for my parents so that I could see them (and their fantastic sign) at the beginning of Heartbreak Hill. 

Thank you, Victor and Cathe Carpenter, my extremely loving and supportive (if slightly skeptical) parents, who provided training run pickups, sympathetic listening and expression of appropriate concern for my health with each apparent setback during training. Even though I was woozy as I passed you on the course, your sign and your presence in Newton was an inspiration to push on.

Thank you, Jenna and Haylee Reed, my MGH Patient Partners who provided me the motivation to keep going, even when my training had to be placed on hold. I know that every person who helped   contribute to my fundraising goal has contributed toward the cure for Cystic Fibrosis. I hope that your futures are as bright as you deserve them to be.

And finally, I'd like to thank every one of you, who has provided love, friendship, support, concern and money to this cause. I'd said many times in the past few weeks that without my promise to you and your incredible financial response to my promise, I would have given up this race at the first (or second) training setback. But because of you, this wasn't an option, and after 25+ miles on the course, I can honestly say that I could not have done it without you.

Thank you. Thank you all from the bottom of my heart.


--- July 27, the epilog ---

3 Months Later...

Hello one last time...

I promised myself that I would not keep sending unsolicited email full of happiness and gratitude to everyone after April, but I figure that 'just one more update' won't hurt. I do promise that this will be the last large-scale mailing though.  Much has happened since April and though I've answered many questions to individuals, I haven't put them all together in one (more or less) coherent posting. I'll (try do) do this here. I'll also keep this to marathon-recovery-related news so this will not turn into one of those "holiday newsletters" that we're all so fond of scorning (usually after we read them).

To the questions...

1. Did you ever get to cross the finish line? Are you an 'official' finisher?
No. I didn't get to cross the line that day, and I'm not considered to be an 'official' finisher. I'm considered to be a 'projected' finisher. However, the BAA did permit all entrants who started a chance to receive a medal, and my 'officially projected' finish time of 5:11:30 (based on my 40k time) is on the record. Because of the events of the day though, as a "starter but non-finisher", I may be invited to try it all again.

2. So, how was the race?
Tough. Really tough. I made a few mistakes (like starting at a bad pace by accompanying and giving encouragement to someone for the first 7-8 miles who slowed down to an 11-12 minute/mile pace), and then I tried to speed up midway through, only to need to start running unevenly to protect my knee. But the big "learning experience" was discovering exactly how different the second 13 miles are from the first. I felt pretty good at the 9-10 mile mark.  I felt OK at the 13 mile mark. But at 15 miles, things changed. Quickly. By 16 miles, I was done. The last 10 miles were a matter of walking and sometimes jogging, and trying to ignore the right calf spasms, and the left hip and shoulder (shoulder?) soreness. About the only thing that felt OK for the entire race were my feet. And because of the events of the day, the end of the race was just plain weird.

3. Have you recovered? How's the knee?
I've recovered. Both knees feel good. The right knee (that became such an issue before and during the race) took about 4 weeks to get better, and I'm now able to run at "full" speed (which isn't all that fast) without feeling any knee pain at all. There appears to be no permanent injury, and rest/stretching seem to have alleviated the knee problems. Now my hip, which started hurting a lot during the race, seems to be taking much longer to get better, and it's only now -- 3 months later -- that it feels OK. As to my aerobic "in shape-ness", all that rest has made the injuries go away, but it's also made my ability to run distances go away too.  I tried to run a 7 mile stretch a couple of weeks ago, only to have to stop after 4 and call it a day. Quitting after 4 miles may be the wise thing to do, but it sure doesn't feel good.

4. What was your reaction to the explosions as they happened? Any reactions to the story as it unfolded over the following week?
The day of the marathon is kind of a big blur at this point. We were around Coolidge Corner (about 3 miles from the finish) when Debbie and MaryAlice (my accompanists) started receiving phone calls and texts from people about the explosions. I was in pretty bad physical shape at that point, but we just kept on going, figuring that we'd be stopped when we could go no further.  At that point, I was using an 80+ year old woman who couldn't have been more than 5 feet tall (#21114 -- yes, I remember that number!) for pacing and motivation to keep going. The whole experience was quite similar to the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail (The Noble Quest, the Castle Anthrax, the Killer Bunny, the Bridge of Death, and finally the all-to-abrupt ending). I don't have much insight on the bombings themselves, or the perpetrators' motivations, or the closing of the entire city for the full day on Friday, when I had two job interviews scheduled (one of which had to be cancelled as my contact at this company had to say at his house, next door to the house that had the boat where the kid was hiding).

5. What have you heard from Jenna and Haylee? How are they doing?
To be honest, I haven't talked with them since exchanging a couple of emails indicating that I'm alive and uninjured after the explosions (and the running). I hope that they are having an excellent summer, and I should reach out to them again (whether or not I decide to run this thing again). Meeting them was one of the most pleasant surprises of the whole training/fundraising/marathoning experience.

6. Was the fundraising successful?
Yes. And thank you. Between the online contributions and a few post-race pledges fulfilled, we raised almost $3500 for Mass General Hospital. I felt both proud and incredibly grateful for the wide and generous support from all of you during the training and the marathoning process. Seeing the generosity from such a wide variety of people some of whom I've known for only months, others for my entire life, and some of whom I haven't seen in decades, was an extraordinarily life-affirming experience.

7. Are you going to run it again?
Well, two months ago, the answer was easy. No. I was done, and the race was over. Even if I never actually got to run (or in my case, hobble) down Boylston Street to cross the finish line, it was simply too exhausting, too injurious, and my body is just not prepared to do this again. It was like the end of the first Rocky movie where I just went the distance -- "Ain't gonna be no rematch".

Then the BAA then issued a statement that anyone who didn't finish (with some restrictions) automatically qualifies for next year's race, which means that I only pay the entrance fee and I'm all set to go. Since qualifying is such a big deal (and I'd never qualify based on marathon time), it seems like a chance that I'd be foolish not to take. And I'm starting to feel pretty good physically. So last month, my answer became Yes.

But then I tried that longish run, and stopped after only a few miles, reminding myself that the training for the run will take a lot of time and a lot of effort, and that I'm already slipping out of shape. And I'm getting older. So now my answer is "Maybe". The BAA will issue me a "number" next month, and I'll have a few days to respond. I'll weigh the pride and privilege against the training pain and planning, and decide then.

But as I write this, I suspect that I already know my answer.

8. What's new with you? Any other news?
Well, Milo graduated from Wooster last month and is now working on Star Island for the summer. Simone finished her sophomore year at Macalester and has an internship at a public school summer program in South Boston. We remain in Jamaica Plain, and I started working for SunGard in Burlington last month. We're all fairly healthy and doing OK and looking forward to a vacation in Vermont in August.

All my love to everyone here. It's been quite the experience.


--- March 14, 2014, Marathon II, the sequel ---

The Siren Call of the Marathon ...

"I do promise that this will be the last large-scale mailing though" -- I really did say this in that last letter.

Well, like my eschewing of the passive voice, some promises just don’t get kept.

Hello for the first of "post-last-time-I-promise" emails. It's another marathon mailing, as Boston will arrive right on schedule. Even as this winter threatens to drive us all a little crazy with the endless snow and/or cold, Boston will arrive on schedule. So consider this a source of warmth as you read on. And of course, if you haven’t seen the previous stream of emails from last year, or if you've successfully forgotten them, I kept a running record of last year’s sendings here:  Marathon Mailings
As many of you know at this point, the Boston Athletic Association invited all qualifying ‘non-finishers’ to register for the 2014 Marathon last August.  I took advantage of this “opportunity” and registered, even as I thought it foolish to try again.

So, after a few short runs and a battle with more age-related running injuries (mostly plantar fasciitis and a minor-but-persistent groin strain), and a re-evaluation of my general physical condition (knees are OK, hip is generally OK, ankles are good), I felt ready to take on this thing again. Only this time, I’m taken it (the training and the running) very slowly and focusing on getting through this process in one piece with no trips to the ER. And when (yes, it’ll be 'when', not 'if') I need to stop and walk for a few miles, that’s what I’ll do. All part of my plan to achieve the goal.

My goal this time is simple: finish in one piece without falling apart during the process.  No raising money, no running for time, no worrying about performance. Just run in a slow and comfortable pace for a 5 or 6 hours, and walk before I'm completely out of gas. I expect to finish within the course limit of 6 hours (which is about a 13.5 minute mile pace), and I'll be delighted to finish with a better time than last year's "projection" of 5:11. But -- as least as much as possible -- I won't hurt myself in trying to get to Boylston Street.I feel a kind of freedom in this goal. Freedom in knowing that if my body insists that this is a bad idea, that I can quit. That I don't have to run this. And while this goes against the Vince Lombardi quote, this knowledge has made my training runs easier and more enjoyable. Or perhaps it's just that I'm taking everything too easy this time around and will learn another hard lesson on April 21.

I have been training. I've run 10-15 miles each the past few Saturdays, and I've had shorter, casual evening runs during the week with a small local group in JP that consists of runners who are younger, faster, fitter, and finer than I'll ever be. They're also really supportive and encouraging and willing to humor me in conversation.

I'm not raising money this year. However, the fact that I'm not raising money does not mean that I'm not giving money. Last year, I spent the first several miles accompanying Ellen Davis, another runner on the CF team who could not finish. Like me, she will run this year's Marathon, but she is running with the Mass General CF team again, and is raising money for their group. I made a contribution (how could I not?), and if you are feeling generous and want to contribute to the Mass General CF team again this year, here is her page:

One last thing. I feel extremely fortunate to have had a support team of family, friends, colleagues and neighbors. You came through last year (and how!), and even my "final" email where I expressed my ambivalence, many of you asked me about this year's marathon. Some of you even stated that you miss these missives (which feel incredibly self-indulgent as I write). So yes, I decided to run again. The love, friendship and support that came from all of you factored greatly in my decision. Thank you all.  

--- April 15, 2014, with one week to go... again ---

Things happen when we run ...

Well, here we go again... One week to go and all is quiet. The long(ish) runs are complete, the injuries minor and body feels pretty darn good. I've really emphasized my balance between easy preparation and general laziness. But I've tried to take my weekly long runs slowly and patiently. In the past month, I've done some long (12-18) mile runs.  Even when my thighs burned (at mile 10) my calves twitched (at mile 12), and may chest started to bleed (around mile 14), I still felt like I could keep going. The knees have held strong.

Honestly, I'm really not taking this race nearly as seriously as I did last time. I'd said that my goals were (1) to finish, and (2) to not get injured by running only 15-20 miles per week. Since I plan to walk part of the course anyway, why hurt myself training? Initially, I figured that I'd run a little and walk a lot. But the running has gone well enough that I may actually run the majority of the race, with the hope that I can plod over the hills instead of stumble on them.

That's surprising to me. In fact, unlike last year, when I approached the race with physical therapy and MRIs and fear, I'm actually looking forward to the event. I've needed no trips to the doctor, and I've replaced PT with an occasional "Yoga for Runners" class on Sundays. I've replaced trepidation with optimism. At this point, even the weather reports look good.

As to the race details, my number is 34563 and I'll be starting near the very back of the pack (wave 4 corral 8), crossing the start line sometime around 11:40, which means a finish sometime around 5.  The BAA website will track my progress so you'll know when I've moved from jogging to plodding to limping. You can also sign up to track me automatically by texting my bib number to 345678. 

As we all know (and as media outlets have reminded us repeatedly), last year's Marathon was um, ... eventful. This year, the BAA (and governmental agencies) have tried to orchestrate the Marathon with a balance between the free-spirited nature of an audience-participatory event and the security needs that rise from last year's experience. With that in mind, there will be a substantially larger police presence, and nobody (runner or spectator) will be allowed to bring bags to the course. On the other hand, it's also likely that the crowds will be larger and more enthusiastic, and I sincerely hope that the interaction between people running and people watching will remain and there won't be an overly active separation between the two groups of people. Also, as the BAA has banned unregistered runners ("bandits") from the course it looks like there will probably be no "jumping in and joining" for a mile or two (or 16) at all. Which is a little disappointing.

Now I don't begrudge the BAA for banning bandits this year. The field already contains 9000 more runners than last year, and we'll likely see substantially larger-than-normal crowds. So cracking down on the unofficial runners makes sense. But I hope that this change does not stay. To me, the democratic nature of the Boston Marathon -- where even those who cannot afford the entry fee get to run the course and where friends and family run a mile or two with you -- is part of the charm and part of the history.

So even if you aren't permitted to run a mile on the course next Monday, coming out should be an experience. If you can make it anywhere on the course next Monday, do so. The atmosphere should be exciting, especially given the media attention and the overall enthusiasm. And contrary to expectations, it's likely that many areas will provide enough space where I'll see you as I run or walk by. Just just let me know where on the course you'll be and I'll look. On some of those long stretches it really helps to have someone to look forward to seeing.

There will be several spots that should be especially good: Natick center: mile 10
Wellesley center: mile 14
Woodland T stop on the green line: mile 16
The base of Heartbreak Hill (at the MGH tent)
and of course, Boylston Street, outside the Public Library.

Keep in mind that since the field is larger, the start times are later for the not-so-fast runners, and even as the race winners will finish just after noon, those of us "in the back of the pack" will just be getting started. I expect an exciting day for a run. Come on out and have fun with us.

Many thanks to everyone.


Wednesday, November 23, 2011

It's Different For Girls

My "annual" summer service leading came last August. I hadn't posted my sermon then, as it's been a while since I've even looked at this blog. I figured that now was a good time to reread it and post it. So here it is, virtually unchanged from when I gave it.
Reading: A synopsis of Norton Juster's "The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics"
A straight line falls in love with a dot. The dot, finding the line to be stiff, dull, and conventional, turns its affections toward a wild and unkempt squiggle. The line, unable to fall out of love and willing to do whatever it takes to win the dot's affection, manages to bend itself, giving rise first to angular and then elegant shapes. The dot takes a second look at the line, and notices the subtlety and complexity that was missing before. It looks at the squiggle and what once seemed like freedom and joy becomes nothing more than chaos. In the end it decides to accompany the line and they dance off together.
2011 Summer Reflection: “It’s Different For Girls”
What the hell is wrong with you tonight?
I can't seem to say or do the right thing
Wanted to be sure you're feeling right
Wanted to be sure we want the same thing
She said, I can't believe it
You can't possibly mean it
Don't we all want the same thing?
Well who said anything about love?
Don’t you know that it’s different for girls?

In this popular 1979 song by Joe Jackson, the singer starts by suggesting that the male protagonist wants sex and woman want love. Of course, by the end of the song, the singer reveals that it’s just the opposite. And in fact, the “it’s different for girls” line is meant as irony. The fact is that boys and girls do NOT differ in their desires or their dreams or the worlds that they inhabit. Perhaps there are differences in communication styles, but that’s really not such a big deal, right?.

Or so I would have told you last year. Now, having spent the summer watching my daughter prepare to leave us for college next fall, and having been through this process once with our son, I’m not so sure that’s true. Although our son’s journey into young adulthood has been comparably rewarding and frustrating, his path -- at it’s core -- is quite recognizable to me. I remember the journey to college, the changing of friendships, the gaining and losing of relationships, and the quiet confidence that I acquired as gained life experience. I see my son’s joys and struggles, and I remember the similar joys and struggles from when I was his age. If I use the example of the dot and the line from today’s reading, I can say that my son and I are both lines, trying our darnest to figure out how to make the necessary bends in our appearances to appear to be more complex and artistic than who we are.

But the world of our daughter just seems so foreign. After all, here’s a young woman on the verge of adulthood, and I see her talents and her gifts that she has and I’m just jealous. She navigates a complex social world that makes little sense to me, and yet I see so much that we have in common. There’s no talent that I have that she does not have, and yet she brings to the table all sorts of abilities that I always dreamed of having as a teenager. She shows confidence, awareness, sensitivity and social skills that seem far, far beyond anything I could have hoped for when I was her age. While I watched my son struggle within the social jungle of high school, Simone seemed to float through with relative ease. She has the complete package.

Not so fast.

Our wayside pulpit has (or until recently, “had”) a quote by Miles Davis: “If you understood everything that I said, you’d be me.” And I think of this often as, over the course of the summer, I’ve heard things coming out of her mouth that just make no sense to me at all. Whereas I used to see a self-confident dynamo, I suddenly see an incredibly insecure persona emerge. Whereas I used to see someone who consumed knowledge and desired new exploratory experiences, I suddenly see someone more interested in reading Seventeen or Cosmopolitan and buying stuff at the mall. And I can’t help but want to say “you’re wasting your talents -- get with the program!”.

And then there are the struggles, for which the answers just seem so obvious. It’s as if, in the past few months my daughter has regressed into a state where conversations center around the same things over and over: food, clothing, appearance, or the questions like “will I make friends at college”, that just seem ridiculous. And any support that I offer feels irrelevant or unhelpful, so I walk away from any father-daughter interactions feeling like we have little to say to one another.

Mary Alice reminds me often that I do have a profound influence on how my daughter sees herself and on how small actions on my part can make her feel judged or devalued. Certainly the literature supports her on this, but as a father, I feel that I can only observe from a distance, a distance which seems to grow by the month. As we move closer to the separation of college, I feel a separation within our relationship that feels far more permanent than anything I’ve felt with my son.

I’ve talked with other fathers of teenage daughters about this, and they’ve noted the same thing. Young men are are -- for us, anyway -- easy to understand. Uncomplicated. As boys transition into adulthood, the subtleties and conflicts of that parent-child relationship seem to diminish, and our role as “fatherly purveyors of occasional wisdom” seems to grow. We mind our own business, they mind theirs, and over time, we share words and experiences as begin to admire one-another’s acquired wisdom.

But it’s different for girls. I’ve learned a great deal about parenthood and about maleness as I watched my son mature. Now that knowledge seem utterly useless and valueless in interactions with my daughter. Even though we have much in common -- intellectually, physically, spiritually -- we just don’t connect. And the ironic joke is that I’ve always felt I had more in common with my daughter than with my son. I still do. Whereas my son seems to ask for my help and seems interested in my opinions and knowledge, I am limited in what I can give him, as his experiences already mirror my own in so many ways. But whereas I can offer much knowledge and wisdom that’s relevant to my daughter’s life, such advice seems unhelpful and unwelcome.

And yet... there are moments where I “get it right”. A couple of years ago, Milo and Simone pooled their resources together and for Christmas, they made a substantial contribution to the Elias Fund, an organization that’s dedicated to fund community development and education in Zimbabwe. Early this summer, when they were both here, I wanted to give them a small something that would remind them of their connection with one another, and I gave them small brass bracelets with the Zimbabwean phrase “I am strong if you are strong”. I didn’t make much presentation of this, other than to say that this was to remind them of their familial and humanitarian bond with each other as they were about to embark on separate journeys. Milo’s reaction was much like mine would have been. Appreciative of the gesture and understanding of the meaning, but -- at it’s core, a minor item to be put in a drawer, which might be viewed and remembered sometime over his life. Simone took it differently. She wore the bracelet the next day, and over much of the summer, and looked up the meaning and history of the phrase, and when asked about it by friends, talked about it in a way that both demonstrated understanding of the connective nature of the gift and of the words themselves. She got it. She got the message of interdependence in a way that I did not, and I was lucky enough to see it this summer.

It’s different for girls. Moments of intimacy and connection happen more frequently, and with less preparation and understanding. That Zimbabwean phrase, (like the South African term “Ubuntu” of which I am so fond), emphasizes the need for togetherness and collective action, much like our own principle that talks about the “interdependent web of all existence”. And while I always understood the relationship between parents and children centers around a “movement towards independence”, my relationship with my daughter continues to teach me about a “movement towards unity”.

We’re all in this together. Even as we drift apart. Go now in peace.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Homo Ludens

Centering Thought from Plato: You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation
Reading from G. K. Chesterton’s “All Things Considered”: It is not only possible to say a great deal in praise of play; it is really possible to say the highest things in praise of it. It might reasonably be maintained that the true object of all human life is play. Earth is a task garden; heaven is a playground. To be at last in such secure innocence that one can juggle with the universe and the stars, to be so good that one can treat everything as a joke—that may be, perhaps, the real end and final holiday of human souls.
2010 Summer Reflection: “Homo Ludens” (thanks to Dad for that suggestion)

Gooooooal! If you’ve watch this year’s World Cup at all, you’ve probably watched it with an English soundtrack. But it’s also played on the Univision television station, with a Spanish-language soundtrack. And as I don’t speak a lick of Spanish, many find it surprising that I prefer watching the Univision broadcast, where the commentary sounds like this to me: gibberish, players names, gibberish, exited gibberish, gooooooal!

It doesn’t matter which team scores, the commentary sounds the same, and every score change ends with the same enthusiastic goooooal, and since in soccer, 90 minutes of play will often produce 1 or maybe 2 score changes, that Spanish commentary epitomises the concept of the perfect moment in spectator sports.

We all understand the concept of a perfect moment. There’s even a Greek word for it: Kairos. Special time. Momentary time. It’s different from “chronos”, or “ordinary” time. While chronos may represent last night’s dinner, kairos is that first bite of the best course, or of dessert. Or it’s the memory of your very first taste of mesquite grilled lobster from the Village Fish. But it’s not just the good moments -- it also represents that moment of horror when that call of “gooooal” in the last minute of the game was not for the team you wanted to win.

I stand in front of you today wearing a shirt from the 2006 World Cup. This is the French team Jersey, and the French and Italian teams played in the final game. For the world cup championship, a soccer game that happens only once every 4 years for national bragging rights in the world’s most popular spectator sport. Milo and I watched the game on City Hall Plaza, where the Italian-American mayor of Boston had arranged to provide a public viewing. And it was a good game. Both teams scored in regulation time, and neither team scored in the overtime period. But the moment from that game that I most remember did not come on either team’s score, or even from the penalty-kick shootout that followed. It came in the middle of the overtime. The French forward and most valuable player, Zinedine Zidane, frustrated by the Italian defense, turned and without apparent provocation, headbutted the Italian defense-man Marco Materazzi, who immediately dropped to the ground. We, along with the crowd, about 2/3rds fans of Italy, stopped and collectively went “did he just do that?”. Zidane was immediately ejected, and we fans of France suspected, then and there, that our team would not have bragging rights at the end of the day. We were right. And it is that moment, rather than anything else about that game, or even that day or week, that I remember vividly. That moment, standing on City Hall Plaza, accompanied by my son and some 1 or 2 thousand French and Italian fans, all stopping and saying “what the...?” That was the moment. Although nobody scored, and the commentators would not have said the word, it was undoubtedly the most pivotal point of the match.

One thing to remember about those moments. They rarely arrive when you are hard at work. Most of them come during the playing of games or watching people hard at play. They come not as you learn the technique of improving a jump shot, but as you actually shoot the shot perfectly, feel it leave your hand, knowing that the ball will touch nothing but net, and hearing the swish. They aren’t about the work of learning, they are the moments that come when we feel the results at play.

In college, I had a graduate course in Human Development, taught by a visiting professor, Brian Sutton-Smith, who used his book, called “How to Play With Your Children (and When Not To)” as a text. His teachings remain somewhat controversial, as he states that act of unstructured and informal play in childhood remains an essential part of normal human development, and he considers the removal of unstructured playtime, whether due to parental choice or lack of neighborhood spaces to be a practice that borders on abuse. In raising my own children, I think of his teachings often, especially as I watched the many parents who feared that their kids could “fall behind” if they didn’t develop the desirable resume that got them into the “best” schools. Childhood playtime would be replaced by childhood skill-development time. In fact, his book had a chapter title that summed up much of his parenting philosophy with respect to childhood development: “Mastery is not Play”.

Mastery is not play. To a 1-year old, learning to walk is not play. It’s mastery. To a 4 or 5 year old, learning to ride a bike or throw a ball is not play. That’s skill-development. And as almost any 10 year old will tell you, learning to play the piano, or guitar, or saxophone, is not fun. It’s parental torture. And even leisure activities like chess or poker or basketball are not play as they are learned. They’re work, especially if expect to improve at them. And for what? Regardless of the amount of effort and time we spend practicing, very few of us will ever engage in a game or sport to the level where we reap financial reward. And then if you’re good enough to be paid to play a game or an instrument, most of the time you’ll spend improving won’t involve much playtime. You’ll be working. You’ll be mastering. As any professional poker player will tell you, when you sit at the table, you work. You grind out the dollars from the others at the table who are just “playing for fun”. And away from the table, you study the game and the other players. You’re mastering the game, not playing it. And mastery is not play.

But play is what it’s all about! Especially play when we are active participants. Whether the activity involves the most intimate interaction between people making love or the most casually social interaction over a game of bananagrams, the moments of memory, of purity -- kairos -- come when you feel that moment of change, you participate in and know that you’re about to take control, but haven’t yet. And then it happens. And nothing else matters.

For several years, a favorite board game in our house is “The Settlers of Catan”. It’s a board game that involves obtaining resources, building roads, settlements and eventually cities. You can’t win unless you negotiate with others at the table -- by trading resources. But since most everything on the table is known quantity, you have a good sense of where your opponents stand at any moment. So you have to strike that right balance between cooperating with your opponents and at the same time finding a way to cut off their options so that they can’t actually win the game. My spouse could always tell when I was about to make a decisive move. I’d try to display a casual demeanor, but she’s notice my increased excitement, and she would warn others at the table then and there that I “was not to be trusted”. And it was true (the excitable part, not the trust part -- I can always be trusted). Those close moments -- when I could see the path to victory but not take comfort in the achievement just yet -- are moments of sacred presence, and no matter how much I’d try to “look casual”, my excitement, my focus, my awareness that I was about to change the game would be giveaways to the people who knew me well.

The world can be an ugly, cruel place. Reading first-person accounts often shows the world of the past as one filled with suffering and injustice. Today’s world, believe it or not, is probably less cruel, but our windows to it often display a world which seems harsh, and unforgiving. And most science fiction stories -- especially those that paint a world using the “present-day-reality- extension” brush -- show dystopian futures designed to make us wonder what kind of world our descendants will inhabit. But there is once constant in every world that’s been fundamental in the past of humanity, part of every human culture in the world, and will be part of any future that involves our species.

Play. We play. We invent games, we agree on rules, and we play. Or we watch others -- those with more skill than ourselves -- play the games we’ve invented. Historically, we know that people have played some form of spectator-sport football -- kicking some round object toward some goal with some form of score-counting -- for well over 3000 years, and I’d suspect that some form of playing a competitive sports is as old as our transformation from a hunter-gatherer society to an an agricultural one. And why is that? I think it has to do with a human need for social interaction -- for play. We play with objects, we play with language, we play with concepts. We play with others, and we play alone. In fact, it’s entirely possible that, once we as a species discovered that through cooperative ventures, we could vastly extend our chances for individual survival, we then took it upon ourselves to increase our species ability to cooperate by inventing games. After all, we’d invented language, and once our stomachs were full and the sex was complete, we had to find something else to do. So we played games.

And we play games today. As difficult as the problems of the world may look right now, we’ll always play games, and we’ll always take comfort in watching others at play. Today at 2:30, we’ll put our problems aside and join the rest of the world in watching the best players in the world play the oldest team sport in history. We’ll find some personal reason to celebrate the Spaniards and demonize the Dutch. Or vice versa. We’ll watch the game we’ll wait for those moments of decisions during the game, when the commentators on Univision will shout -- Gooooal!.

Feel the joy.