"Beauty confronts us with the requirement that we place ourselves among...the redeemers, the leaders in the protection of life. Once you have seen the bush on fire, you are not going to get out of the assignment unless you close your eyes to the beauty.... [You] either have to close your eyes or go back to Egypt and set the people free." - Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker, "Rising to the Challenge of Our Times"

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Aversion Happens

While at Legal Services I got involved in an ongoing project to train other attorneys/advocates in "race-based" advocacy. If you are moved right now to gasp and exclaim that nothing should ever be "race-based" because we're seeking, or even that we already live in, a "colorblind" society where everyone has the same opportunities to succeed based on their personal merits alone, I'll ask you to as a favor to me to just accept, for the duration of your reading this post, that colorblindness is a pernicious lie with scientific research to prove it (if you believe that stuff they do at Harvard has credibility - you don't have to, but maybe just for this blog, accept that assertion too).

Of course there are all kinds of implicit, or unconscious biases, that are connected to other traits than race...gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, hairstyle, weight, height, disability, religion...and having any assortment of unconscious biases doesn't necessarily make one a bigot, because if it did, no non-bigots would exist. I would be willing to bet one million dollars on the fact that His Holiness the Dalai Lama has, with some frequency in his life, noticed the arising in his heart of aversion to a particular person or group of people, and furthermore, that at some time(s) in his life, he has failed, at least for awhile, to notice the arising of aversions. Go ask him, have him sign an affidavit, and send me a copy of it with your cashier's check.

I'm thinking of this right now because of the experience I just had in a sandwich shop. Well after the lunch rush, not that busy, there's a woman in an overcoat standing ahead of me either not yet decided on her order, or already being helped, because there is a young man behind the counter gesturing that he is ready to help someone, and she's not moving. I have a feeling of aversion to the young man. The boy. I don't like his scraggly mustache and slightly sunken cheeks. He doesn't look very smart. He looks like somebody who might look a little menacing if he were not wearing the shop uniform. I don't think about any of this at the time, I just feel it and go right on up to the counter and order as if everything is fine, because it is. I'm supposedly very polite and kindhearted, but I secretly react this way to people all the time. Another worker, a young woman, is assembling or prepping something or other. I feel less averse to her, she looks smarter and not menacing at all, though she's little scrawny and pretty in a very dull, conventional way that her coworker probably likes but I don't. So there's more aversion, though milder, and not then given any thought.

I've told the guy what I want, and he lopes off to get it, when suddenly the woman who had been standing in front of me pipes up. "Wasn't I next??" she demands. The guy is all flustered - "Oh - I'm sorry - I thought you'd already been helped - I thought she (the girl) was helping you." "No," she says. I gesture for her to please go ahead of me and for the crew to help her first. I notice she is engrossed with her Blackberry. AVERSION. This time, I notice that I'm having the aversion right away and set about to let go of it, while I wait for the girl to finish whatever she is doing since there are currently no other visible customers. I lean toward the other customer and say "I'm sorry, ma'am, I didn't realize you hadn't been helped yet." She says "It's okay" without looking up from the Blackberry.

I repeat my order to the girl. I feel less averse to her then because she has a sweet smile, but she needs to speak up because I can barely hear her ask me "wuhdyoulikechipsoradrink?" Other customer is still at the counter, very focused on her Blackberry, thumbs a-flutter. Girl goes away and assembles my order. Yet a third worker is in charge of the register (confirming my feeling that the guy cannot be trusted to use it, and the girl is perhaps inadequately trained to do so - now is there some bias there, or what?). Other customer has already paid and gotten her food but she's still standing at the counter. I wonder what she's 'talking' about - it seems very, very serious. I think of many times that I have been or continue to be zoned out and in my own world in a public place, but I would never let my Blackberry come between me and my lunch.

I finally get my food, and my cup for the soda, and have paid for it, and who is now standing in front of the soda machine with her sandwich bag sitting patiently in front of the diet cola, but...yes. I walk over slowly so as not to cause alarm. I pretend to be interested in a freezer case full of ice cream (well, I didn't pretend, exactly). Then I decide I will just have to invade Text Lady's personal space to get my drink. I stand at one side of the fountain and reach out to fill my cup from a spigot at the other end, where she's standing. Unfortunately, she's standing right in front of the lids and straws. I walk around her and reach in, this time close enough to her person that she notices and says "Oh, pardon me" and steps aside. Still texting. While I'm getting my lid I am this close to saying, "That must be a really serious conversation you're having!" In my head I actually don't feel snarky about it - I would have meant it 90% sincerely, but she would probably only hear the 10% judgment/annoyance disguised as a joke - so I didn't say anything, and left her still typing away. I hope she was eventually able to eat. I hope she rode a bus to the sandwich place. But let she who is without sin cast the first stone.

It may have, in fact, been a really, really serious conversation. I visited a civil harassment restraining order court once and I learned a lot about the kinds of very serious conversations people have by text message, which the other person then saves on his/her phone and brings the phone to court to show the judge (who had to figure out how to use about four different models of phones that day) as evidence that Textor poses an imminent threat to the health and safety of Textee. But sandwich shop customer's conversation seemed way too long for that sort of abrupt content, and her affect was kind of blank. Just very focused.

I left out of this narrative mention of the races of the people involved. There were racial factors that I don't think played into my feelings of aversion at all, but definitely played into my ability to be conscious of the feelings when they arose. Does this conversation make you uncomfortable? If it did, when? Does my talking about my biases make you feel like it's safer to acknowledge yours, because you have them and we both know it, or are you thinking who the hell am I to say that, because you have absolute equanimity, you don't make unconscious judgments based on race, gender, scraggly mustaches, timid voices, and oblivious behavior? Are there some human traits/behaviors to which you feel justified in your aversion, to the extent you realize it's happening? Of course there are - endless legal and literal battles have been waged in the effort to justify aversions.

In "Wild Geese," a poem that has come to have the significance of scripture, or a prayer, or mantra for many people, including myself, Mary Oliver writes "Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine./ Meanwhile the world goes on." Since this post is almost done so it doesn't seem like too much more to ask, since you've made it this far, I'll ask one more favor: consider that there is link between our unexamined - not to mention our actively indulged/justified/exercised - aversions, and our despair. [Yes, of course I know there's a link between our greedy-grabby-clinginess and our suffering/despair, but sheesh, let's not go there now, okay?] "Whoever you are, no matter how lonely" -- typing the entire Declaration of Independence with your thumbs, word-by-word, from memory, while trying to order a sandwich; doing your best to hold down a job in a sandwich shop; distancing yourself from people by judging them based on their mustaches (how do I know, maybe his mustache is an immutable characteristic due to some kind of condition he suffers from) - whoever you are, "the world offers itself to your imagination." If you don't like what you see, imagine seeing it differently.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Time, shmime

It's been awhile since the last report here. November was a month of huge unrealistic goals, which as my massage therapist suggested, are a way to accomplish SOMETHING. Sort of like bargaining with yourself and asking for a lot more than you'll realistically ever get, except that instead of recognizing that, I just said sure okay why not! So have I been sitting an hour a day? Not even close. Did I write 50,000 words of a novel? Nope. Have I trained for a marathon? Yes, actually, pretty consistently, and the day of reckoning is here - allons enfants de la patrie, la jour de gloire est arrivée. I could go on anxiously and criticize my training as having been on the low-mileage end - but I've felt faster and stronger than ever so it's possible that I've done it right - and at any rate, it is what it is and tomorrow's time will tell.

Tomorrow's time will only tell if someone's calling out splits, though - because I decided at the beginning of November that I would run this marathon without a watch. I had a chance conversation with someone back in early October who told me that her best marathon time ever (and her best times were a lot faster than I'm ever likely to run) was when she ran without a watch.

I already run without headphones, but no watch?? Everybody lines up at the start with their fingers poised on the buttons of their fancy watches, some of which now talk to distant satellites and listen to your heartbeat and tell you how many calories you're burning and how fast you're going and where you're going and where you've been and how long it will take to get there. I thought that would all be good stuff to know. But there were/are a couple impediments to my investment in a Dick Tracy mini two-way wrist running coach: 1) I have teeny little wrists, and even most of the newer and smaller versions of the GPS watches won't cinch into a small enough circle to fit. I would need a wrist shim like you use for installing accessories on bicycle handlebars. If I'm going to spend $200-something on a wristwatch it better fit me. 2) Speaking of the $200-something, that's a lot of cash to spend on the delusion that having a watch will make me a better runner if the biggest challenge I face is getting out the door in the morning. If it came with a little shock collar that would go off if I weren't out the door by 6:30 a.m., maybe it would be worth it. 

I had a reasonably priced Nike+ sportsband with a foot sensor last year, but it was hard to keep it properly calibrated, and it fed me lies about how far and fast I'd been going in my training and then dumped me hard when last year's marathon arrived.  When the 'watch' part fell out of the wristband one day and got lost, I didn't replace it.

So I started thinking about the naked wrist idea. I first tried it out in a half marathon on Oct. 31. I ran as fast as I felt like I could. I listened to my legs, and my lungs, and thought about my feet turning over and my form and stride and foot strike on the ground. I had almost no idea what time it was during the hour and forty-five minutes it took me to finish, until I looked at the finish clock and was thrilled to see how well I'd done without having had much opportunity along the way to think about whether I was doing well according to any data from a wrist computer.  Anyway, inevitably I'd hear other runners discussing split times and pace and how well their watches were telling them they were doing, so I had hints that I was moving along just fine even though there are times when it feels like the Holy Grail scene where John Cleese's Lancelot is on the far side of a field on a galloping horse and never ever gets closer to Swamp Castle until suddenly he's THERE. A-ha! Have at you!

(Come to think of it, that's pretty much what distance running feels like all the time.)

I don't wear headphones when I run (though sometimes I think it would be nice to have more control over what songs are playing in my head). This isn't due to any state of enlightenment I've achieved. I just have a very self-entertaining head. But time and pace, as reported by a watch, is something that runners (including me) tend to obsess about. I've noticed that obsessive thoughts have a weight and an energy demand - not to mention the physical exertion of looking at ones wrist probably a hundred times during a marathon - and the effort of sometimes pushing various buttons - so I'm experimenting with doing nothing but running while I run. When I find myself getting anxious about how much farther, how much farther, I try to let go of the distance and I imagine I'm running in one place, not going anywhere, just feeling how running feels, sometimes it's feeling good and sometimes not, but it's just my body doing work and all my brain needs to do is help it work as efficiently as it can, not get in the way.

Funny thing, the brain - right now it's putting butterflies in my stomach, it's dreaming of a PR, maybe even a Boston qualifying time, yet tomorrow I know for a fact it will turn on me and start wringing its little neuron hands and telling me this is too hard, ohmygosh, how can we go on, what if it all falls apart, what if we did all that work and still don't break 4 hours, we're not really bioengineered for efficient running, our feet do that funny sideways flip-thing and we look knock-kneed and dorky just like we did in junior high except now we're approaching middle-age and have compromised cartilage...why do we keep trying to do things that we're not really all that good at? To any or all of that monologue, I will just have to say "So what? Can the legs keep going? Yes. Pain level is not debilitating? No? Okay then. Pick it up and run." One-two one-two one-two one-two one-two.

In the 20-mile "Paul Reese Memorial Clarksburg Country Run" (I've since learned that the great Paul Reese was a 'buttonhole relative' once removed and I'll claim him any way I can) I did three weeks ago -- my last long training run -- somewhere nel mezzo del cammin de nostra vita I decided to try counting my steps for a mile. Can't vouch for accuracy -- I used my fingers to tick off what set of tens I was on -- but I counted about 1500 steps. If that's in the ballpark, it would put the whole marathon at just under 40,000 steps. Hmm, now I'm not sure why I wanted to know that. I think the point was supposed to be that even a big number is a finite number. Whatever I'm doing, there isn't any way to skip steps, they all have to be taken.

My novel didn't make it to 50,000 words in November, but we're still moving along with pen to paper, and all my interior monologue about writing is remarkably similar to that of running. In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott calls this monologue (in the writing context) "Radio Station KFKD." People who run with headphones or who employ other distractions are merely trying to drown it out. If I were to turn the headphones up loud enough to drown it out effectively, I would have permanent hearing damage, so it seems to work better if I can practice listening around it - whether to the voices of the Muse or the call of the wild - the wolf loping easily over miles and miles of wilderness, the polar bear swimming to -- arrrggghhh! can't think of that either. On the other hand, I do know for certain where I'll find my ice floe tomorrow - at 8th and Capitol - and I'll have ample time to see what time it is when I'm sprinting up the finish chute.