Monday, July 27, 2009

Mama Kitty

I once biked past a family of Canada geese crossing the intersection of Ashland and Elston. From my peripheral vision they looked like plastic bags blowing across the street, but then I saw their forms - first of two adults, then a brood of tiny yellow ducklings. They were at the crosswalk right in front of Horween Leather Co., and began to walk single file across Ashland towards Reliable Computer Source. I was mad with worry for them, Ashland and Elston is one of the busiest intersections that I navigate by bike. I was in the flow of traffic and had to keep moving, but I thought about them all the way downtown. On my way back home I kept an eye out for them, as if they’d be walking back and forth between Horween and Reliable all day like shooting gallery ducks at a state fair.

We get our fair share of wildlife in Chicago. Every spring our neighborhood is overrun with bunnies, and there was a possum who took up a short-term residence under our front porch. M once spotted a hawk swooping over his shoulder in hot pursuit of a pigeon who’d done the same only moments earlier, and one Thanksgiving we saw a hawk sitting in a tree - possibly the same one, dining on the remains of a pigeon. The red blood in its beak and claws showed starkly against the bare tree branches.

At our apartment on Glenwood there was a family of raccoons living on the porch of the top floor. I was out there reading one day and heard something above me. I assumed it was my neighbor, but as footsteps began to descend the stairs I realized there were two sets of footfalls - were both occupants of the apartment walking closely together? Perhaps they were carrying something heavy, a piece of furniture or a rolled up carpet. Halfway down the stairs I saw it, the raccoon halted on its descent and stared at me as if it had caught me trespassing. We both froze, and after a few moments it turned and walked back up the stairs. Later that summer I heard tiny grumbling barks coming from the third floor porch, and the same raccoon I’d seen earlier descended the stairs, followed by two mumbling babies. They made it all the way down the stairs, into the alley, and climbed over a fence to the neighboring building, setting off motion detecting floodlights.

When we lived across from Graceland Cemetery in a courtyard building, I was haunted by the nighttime sounds of a homeless cat. He was skinny, orange, and had a pointy head. I thought he might be part Siamese because his howls were so tortured, and one day I couldn’t take it anymore and put some food out for him. He was too skittish to eat where I could see him, so I placed the dish around the corner from our back door and listened to him crunch on the dry kibble, it sounded like someone walking across gravel. One night as I sat listening I popped my head out the back door to get a glimpse of him and saw a three foot long possum eating from the bowl.
“Shoo!” I said, and it skittered away, then turned its albino, ratlike face back around towards the food dish. “I said shoo” I repeated, and it scuttled down the back steps and into the alley.

When our upstairs neighbors’ eldest daughter was two and a half, she reported seeing dragon babies in the vegetable garden in our yard. Closer inspection revealed that a mother cat had given birth to three kittens, two orange and one black, and they were living in our yard behind the raised vegetable beds, between the garage and the compost bin. If I walked out to the garden and stayed quiet I’d see their tails weaving through the eggplant and tomato plants, and tiny eyes peeking out from behind the jalapenos. I recognized the mother cat, she was the tortie I’d seen wandering through our yard the previous year with a black kitten who was already half grown.

I called all the no-kill shelters in the area, but it was high season for stray kittens, and none of them had room. We took it upon ourselves to be their benefactors. We bought a cat toy that looked like a fishing pole with a feather on the end of it, and dangled it in front of their hiding spot. One of the orange kittens was curious enough to come out and play with it, and eventually the second orange kitten followed. The black kitten, the tiniest of the three, stayed close to its mother and watched. I got one of the orange kittens close enough to reach out and touch his head, it was no bigger than a golf ball, and he scampered away. Over the next few weeks I managed to pick him up once or twice, but he squirmed and scratched his way out of my grasp, his tiny claws leaving a trail of raised, puffy lines on my skin. I took pictures of them that I sent in an email to everyone I knew who might want a kitten, or who might know someone who wanted one.

And then one day they were gone. We put food out for them, but only the flies ate it. The next day they hadn’t returned, and we began to worry. It rained hard that week, and I looked for them in the yard and the alley, but didn’t see them. My heart sank. I had taken too long to rescue them and now they were gone. I figured I’d have time to draw them out of their feral shells, socialize them, and find homes for them. What made me think they would stick to my schedule? I tried not to think about it.

And then, just as suddenly, they returned, as if they’d been out of town on a family trip and had simply forgotten to tell us. M spotted the kittens chasing each other through the tall prairie grass that he’d planted near the fence. I saw the mother cat, and the black kitten, but there only one orange kitten. I hoped that maybe our efforts to socialize them had paid off, that perhaps the missing kitten had walked right up to a kindly stranger who’d taken him in, though I doubted it. In any case, we couldn’t let them stay outside any longer.

We bought a wire cage sized for a medium dog from a pet supply store, and set it up in the yard with a plate of food inside. We’d tried using a regular cat carrier, but they were wary of entering it, maybe because it was too dark and enclosed. I imagined that it would take several days before we trapped them, or that we’d get them one at a time, but all three walked right into the cage like guests invited to a party minutes after we left it in the yard. I tiptoed up to the cage and closed the door behind them. As soon as they heard it shut, the kittens climbed up the sides of the cage to the top looking for a way out, the mother cat remained strangely still. We stuck two brooms through the top of the cage and carried it like a royal litter onto our porch. We couldn’t bring them inside, we had two cats of our own and couldn’t risk exposure in case the feral cats were diseased, but we couldn’t leave them out on the porch for long either. We made arrangements to take them to the vet the next morning.

They had fleas and three kinds of worms, and the mother cat was slightly anemic, but other than that they were healthy. We had the mother cat spayed and got her left ear tipped, set her up in our guest room to recover, and kept the kittens in the dog cage on the porch. The orange kitten was easy to socialize, as soon as he saw me coming towards him he walked towards the front of the cage and started purring. The black kitten hissed and stayed in the back. We didn’t give them names because we didn’t want to become too attached to them, calling them simply “Orange Kitty”, “Black Kitty”, and “Mama Kitty.” This strategy failed miserably when we found a home for Orange Kitty, we’d only had him for a week but I was crushed. The sight of his tiny orange figure sitting in the windowsill of our neighbor’s kitchen was bittersweet; I was glad to have found a home for him, but I missed him and his purr, a tiny engine in his belly that rocked his whole body.

We let Black Kitty into the guest room with Mama Kitty, thinking that perhaps they would socialize better if they had each others company. Every day I’d spend time in the guest room, enticing the kitten out from his hiding spot with toys, and he soon came around. All I had to do was enter the room and sit on the bed and he’d come out of his hiding place and climb into my lap, purring. We found a home for him too, one of M’s colleagues had a round tabby named Fatty who was lonely, and she wanted to find a companion for him. She came to our house to meet Black Kitty and he came out of hiding for her, I was impressed. He didn’t hiss, and he didn’t try to hide when we put him in a cat carrier, or make noise in the car ride over to her apartment. Although Fatty was easily twenty times the size of Black Kitty they were just as shy, and within minutes of introducing them they had settled into a corner together. It was a perfect match, but my heart broke when we had to leave him there. He’d been in our house for three weeks.
“Next time I’m keeping him,” I said to M on the ride back, as if this were a dress rehearsal.

Only Mama Kitty remained, and we weren’t sure what to do with her. She hid so well from us that M frantically called me at work one morning, convinced that she’d escaped. She had wedged herself into a two inch space between the wall and a bookshelf. The only real evidence we had of her existence was that the food we left for her disappeared, and tiny hard turds appeared in her litter box. It was like a secular miracle of transubstantiation. We considered releasing her back into our yard once she’d completely healed from her stitches, but just couldn’t bring ourselves to do it. I got in touch with a cat behavioralist at Tree House, who said we should encourage her to play with cat toys, and that if all she did was follow the toy's movement with her eyes, progress was being made. She said eventually Mama Kitty would trust us, but would attach only to us, and that if we gave her up to a shelter she would revert back to being feral immediately.

I got over my hidden resentment - we'd given up two perfectly playful kittens and were stuck with an invisible feral cat who refused to be tamed; it turned out I was kind of pissed off about it. I began spending time in the room with her, even sleeping in the guest bed so she would get used to my presence. I made the fishing pole toy dance around the floor, and Mama Kitty followed it with her eyes, but stayed safely between the wall and the headboard. One day she reached out a paw and touched the feather dangling off the end of the toy. It was the tiniest mark of progress, but I was thrilled. Gradually she started playing with the toy more enthusiastically, purring and rubbing her face against the corner of the bed between swipes at the feather. I’d only tried to touch her once, when she still lived outside. I'd approached her as she ate out of a bowl and lightly rested my hand on her back. She jumped, spat at me like she was cursing the day I was born, and retreated behind the compost bin. After several weeks in the guest room she developed a funny little dance that involved circling the entire room, allowing me to pet her as she passed by. She’d walk behind the bed, emerge from behind the headboard, brush past my right hand, continue walking behind me, brush pass my left hand, and then continue on until she was behind the bed again. She purred loudly as she did so, rubbing her face against the corners of the bed so hard that I thought she might hurt herself. Clearly she enjoyed the attention, but didn't know what to make of it.

Our cat Oblio was intensely interested in what was going on. He’d stand outside the closed guest room door and stick his nose under the door jamb, inhaling deeply. Mama Kitty watched his white paws dart in and out beneath the door, but kept her distance. Mignonne was a different story, if she so much as picked up Mama Kitty’s scent on my hands she’d hiss. We’d just adopted Oblio from Harmony House a few months earlier, and Mignonne hadn’t been very nice to him at first either.

We closed Oblio and Mignonne into the basement and opened the door of the guest room to let Mama Kitty explore. After a few minutes I went looking for her, and found her pressed tightly between the wall and the headboard in the guest room. I got her to come out by leaving a trail of dry food from the guest room to the living room. She swallowed it all, following the trail like a vacuum - one thing Mama Kitty never did was waste food. If I dropped a piece on the floor she stopped it from sliding past her like a cowboy in a Western halting a mug of beer. She expertly stopped it with her paw, and drew it to herself. Who knows how many rats she’d managed to kill this way. When she’d inhaled the last piece in the dry food trail she looked around, realized she was in new territory, and ran back to the safety of the guest room.

She began to let me pet her, but only on the back. I tried touching her head and she shot a front paw out at me. I snapped my arm back before she made contact, and then felt guilty that I’d reacted so preemptively. I tried again and she stuck her paw out, tapping me lightly on the hand, her claws retracted. I was amazed. I tried again, and she did the same thing. She was like a grandmother lightly touching a small hand that had reached into a bowl of candy too close to dinnertime. This was a far cry from the cat who’d spat at me in the yard.

She’s been with us for almost three years now, and Oblio has adored her from the start. He was half grown when we took Mama Kitty in, and she had just been separated from her kittens, so the two of them bonded quickly. Mignonne has learned to live with her, and is sometimes even sweet to her, licking the sides of Mama Kitty’s face or squashing herself down right next to her on the couch.

We tried to think of a proper name for her: Arrow, Lucy, Suziepants Palmer, Bananabread Jones, but none of them stuck. She’s come out of her shell more and more, even demanding attention from us, standing at our feet and mewling until we pet her.

I still stop in my tracks when I see a stray cat in our neighborhood, and M tells me “you can’t save all the kitties.” That’s true, I can’t. But we did manage to save one.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Triathlon, Part VI - or - Fried Chicken at Thirty Thousand Feet

I’d packed light: running shoes, bike gloves, swim goggles, athletic bra, tank top, running pants, bike glasses, a rented wetsuit, and everything else I’d need for six days were crammed into a wheeled carry-on bag and a backpack. I printed my boarding pass at an easy check-in station and went through security, unpacking my compact bags into no less than four different bins like a strand of DNA unraveling in a black hole and reassembling itself on the other side. I was hungry already when I saw the sign for BJ’s Market in concourse K. One side effect of all this training it that I’m hungry pretty much all the time, and not just for any food, but for high fat, high protein items. BJ’s makes a mean fried chicken, and the more I thought about it the hungrier I became. My flight was about to board, but I didn’t think I could make it until I landed in Logan Airport two and a half hours later before eating. I walked to the counter at BJ’s with purpose.
“Can you put it in a container that I can carry with me onto the plane?” I asked the bespectacled server. She nodded patiently with a look in her eye that let me know I wasn’t the first customer to ask this. “Great, I’ll take a quarter chicken,” I said.
“What sides would you like with that?” she asked.
“Mac and cheese, and mashed potatoes,” I said.
“You want gravy on you mashed potatoes?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said, without hesitation.
“You get a corn muffin with that too,” she said. I couldn’t have been happier. I paid for my meal and rolled to gate K19, where boarding had begun.

“This is a full flight,” a woman announced, “passengers are allowed one carry on item and one personal item. If your carry on bag is too large, or you have more than two items, you may be asked to check your bag.” It dawned on me that my fried chicken might send me over the number of items allowed onto the flight. I didn’t have time to eat it before getting on the plane, but I wasn’t going to let anyone take it away from me. I stood up and arranged myself so that I was wearing my backback, pulling the rolling carry-on with my right hand, and holding the box of fried chicken in my left. I draped my sweatshirt over my left arm, concealing the fried chicken container. I approached the gate with my fried chicken-bearing arm dipped below my waist so that the man who scanned my ticket wouldn’t see it. I passed him without incident, and walked down the length of the ramp to the airplane. I found my seat and put the fried chicken container in my lap, and continued to conceal it with my sweatshirt. I was on the aisle sitting next to a pair of blonde, teenaged girls who were traveling with their mother and younger sister seated one row ahead. I was at risk of becoming part of their travel story, I could picture their father picking them up in Boston and asking about their flight.
“The woman sitting next to us came on board with a box of fried chicken," they’d say, and then maybe roll their eyes or pop their gum or put their hands on their hips, “I mean, who brings fried chicken onto an airplane anyway?” Then their father might say “really?”, or he might tell them that there’s all kinds of people in this world, or maybe he would say that if the worst thing that happened on the flight was that a woman sat next to them and ate fried chicken with beastly voracity that they should consider themselves lucky. Then the teenaged girls would sigh, and sit behind their parents in a car that would be driven to a house where they’d eat their own dinner, and forget that we ever crossed paths.

The plane took off, and once the fasten seatbelts sign dimmed a number of passengers opened containers of food that had been bought in concourse K. Sensible Caesar salads and loose meat sandwiches were being consumed throughout the cabin, but I didn’t see anyone else eating fried chicken. I glanced over at the girls on my left, they had both adjusted their seat backs into a reclining position, their eyes were closed, and they had covered themselves with Winnie-the-Pooh blankets. I released my tray table and pulled my box of fried chicken out from underneath my sweatshirt. I probably filled the entire cabin with the smell of fried chicken, but I’ve never had a more satisfying in-flight meal.


Muggy picked me up from the Barnstable stop on the Plymouth & Brockton bus line, and was impressed with how little I’d brought with me. We drove to Thuan Loi, a Vietnamese restaurant in South Yarmouth, and when I walked in the owner greeted me with a warm “Hiiiii, long time no see,” although it was my first visit. The owner’s son, an inquisitive boy of about seven years old, was drawn to my purse because it had an image of a bicycle stitched onto it. He stood between me and the dining room asking about it until his mother intervened.
“He asks a lot of questions,” she said. She waited on our table, and when I ordered a lime soda, she jotted something onto a pad of paper and said “number four.”
“Yes, and, um, number twenty four,” I said, reading the number next to a description of a bowl of noodles with fried tofu. Muggy ordered number eighteen, which was the same as mine only with steak, and I wished I’d ordered the same after I tasted it.

We finished our meal and drove to Muggy’s art-filled apartment in Eastham. Muggy is an upholsterer by trade, works part time as an accountant, and has an artistic bent. Her own artwork and works by friends of hers adorn the walls of her home, she has so many that some are in storage. A fish sculpture is fixed onto the wall of her bathroom, and several canvases and prints cover the walls of her living room and bedroom. She’s part of a small population of year-round dwellers on Cape Cod, and I generally visit her off-season when we have the whole peninsula to ourselves. There’s one highway that runs the length of the Cape, Route 6. On Friday evenings in the summer it gets jammed all the way from Boston to Provincetown, and the traffic runs nonstop all night long outside Muggy’s apartment. I unpacked my things in her workroom, where she keeps a working antique sewing machine and a whiteboard to keep track of her upholstering assignments. Above the whiteboard someone had written on the wall in script: “Muggy, always remember: do your best, fuck the rest.” It made me feel good to sleep under this message on the nights leading up to the triathlon.

In the morning we biked to First Encounter Beach, named for the spot where the pilgrims and Native Americans first encountered one another in 1620, so that I could have an encounter of my own with my rented wetsuit. I’d tried it on in Chicago to make sure it fit, but hadn’t actually tried to swim in it yet. The suit is made of black neoprene, covers me from my ankles to my neck, and has sleeves that go to my wrists. It zips up the back with a zipper attached to a long strip of fabric that enables the wearer to get themselves in and out of it. I began sweating immediately under the bright morning sun, and it was a relief to immerse myself in cool, salty water. I quickly discovered that the suit made me buoyant, which was a great relief. I’ve been a little nervous about the swimming part of the race since I signed up; I can always stop biking or running if I get tired, but I can’t stop swimming. I tested what would happen if I remained motionless in the water, and skimmed the top like a waterbug moving in the current.

From there we stopped by Idle Times Bike Shop, where I’d rented a racing bike and helmet for the weekend. The shop is owned and run by a mutual friend of Muggy and mine named Peter, and he let me take the bike Friday and return it Monday even though I’d only paid him for two days. Peter’s largesse is pronounced in the summertime, when his shop is open twelve hours a day, seven days a week, and is always busy. Last summer he gave me a pair of Chrome Shins free of charge, originally he was going to sell them to me at wholesale price but when I came to the shop to pick them up he refused payment. I sent him a reproduction vintage cycling poster when I got back to Chicago as a thank you, and he had it framed and hung on a wall of his shop.

I’ve never ridden a racing bike, so I took it down to the bike path near Muggy’s apartment to test it out. It weighed less than a bag of groceries, and seemed to read my mind. If I so much as thought about turning left, it did so. I called Peter to ask about adjusting the seat, and told him how amazing it was to ride.
“It should be, that’s a two thousand dollar bike,” he said.
“Well I’m taking pictures then, because this is the only time I’ll be riding a bike like that," I said. I began to wonder how much of athleticism is a matter of having the right equipment.

We met up with my co-triathlete, MamaVee, and her family for a pasta dinner at her in-laws house in Welfleet. I’d met her in-laws once the previous summer, and was convinced that her father in law, Dan, wasn’t fond of me. He’d asked me about my job, and seemed put off by my answer to a question regarding the salary of the CEO at my organization. He seemed not to remember me and asked me what I did for a living.
“I’m unemployed at the moment,” I said.
“Are you in town on vacation?” he asked.
“I’m doing the triathlon with MamaVee,” I said.
“Oh,” he said, “you’re doing that?” It was more of a statement than a question.
“Uh-huh,” I said. In the tradition of carbo-loading before a race, he’d made spaghetti and meat sauce, and baked two loaves of bread. MamaVee’s husband Ben added to the feast with a large order of barbecued ribs and fried chicken from Marconi Beach Restaurant. I sat next to Dan at dinner, and we talked about the race.
“We signed up in February,” I told him.
“Oh,” he said, “when you were still working.”
“When I was still working?” I exclaimed, “Wow Dan, I should call you every morning for motivation.” The skin around his eyes crinkled, he reached his hand out and lightly touched my arm. It occurred to me that perhaps he didn't dislike me, that this was just his way. MamaVee confirmed this when she told me what Dan had said to her in preparation for the race: "Good luck. You'll need it."

After dinner Muggy, MamaVee, Ben, and I studied the map of the race site. It started at 7:30, and Falmouth was about an hour drive from Eastham, so Ben and MamaVee would pick up me and Muggy by 5 a.m. with their car and a rack that held four bikes. We’d have time to find parking, bike to the race site, and check in before the race.


I set my cell phone alarm for 4 a.m. I wanted time to stretch properly, eat something, and maybe even drink some coffee. I went to bed at 10 p.m., and woke up in the dark. I fumbled for my cell phone and read the time: 11:15 p.m. I'd only been asleep for an hour and was already waking up in anticipation of the alarm. I woke up again at 1:30, 2:15, and finally got out of bed when I woke at 3:20. Muggy was up too, I put on some coffee and started my stretching routine.

It was dark when Ben and MamaVee arrived, but already there were birds singing. Ben loaded the bikes onto the rack, and the four of us piled into the car. We flew along the near-empty highway as the sun rose, giddy with expectation and sleep deprivation. We arrived at the race site by 6:15. MamaVee and I headed to the registration table, Ben and Muggy went to find something to eat. I was assigned number 394, MamaVee was 343, and we were given corresponding chip timing devices to wear around our ankles. We parked our bikes onto numbered racks, and got our bodies numbered with black marker. Our race number was written on our right arm, and the letter E was written on our right calf, which corresponded with the 35-39 age bracket. All around us people with numbered and lettered limbs milled around, and it was strange to know just by looking at someone’s leg what age group they belonged to. Waiting in line for the ladies room I stood behind a D and an E, and later I spotted Gs, Hs and Is. It was unsettling at first, but then became an interesting point of demographic study. There were people of all ages at the race, and all body types. At first I only noticed the fit, elite athletes in skin-tight, aerodynamic clothing, but there were types of all kinds represented.

We walked onto the rocky beach and assembled ourselves into swim waves, MamaVee was in wave number 4, I was in wave 5. A race organizer called the first wave into the water and they ran in, sending a spray of water three feet into the air. Three minutes later wave 2 was called, and three minutes after that wave 3. I looked out at the floating orange markers in Nantucket Sound, the masses of people swimming furiously through it like schools of fish, and the wet-suited, swim-capped people waiting for their turn. Standing on the beach in my green swim cap that indicated my status as a first timer, my stomach began to sit low in my body. Wave 4 was called, and MamaVee ran out into the water and started swimming like a pro. I joined wave 5 at the tide mark, and waited. I ran in when my wave was called, swam a few strokes and had to stop for air. My adrenaline was high, and I couldn’t get my breathing under control. I tread water and did a weak version of the breast stroke as I took fast breaths. I put my face back into the water and swam a few more freestyle strokes, then had to stop for air again. A woman in a white cap a few feet ahead of me spotted my green cap and asked me if this was my first triathlon.
“Yes,” I said.
“You’re doing great, keep going,” she said. I swam in this manner, starting and stopping, for the entire length of the race. At the end I saw Muggy and Ben on the platform, Muggy was jumping up and down and yelling
“Come on champ!” I climbed out of the water and ran past the timer, and a high pitched noise emitted from it. I ran to my bike, unzipped my wetsuit and wrestled my way out of it, switched my goggles for glasses, dusted the sand off my feet, put on my socks, sneakers, bike gloves and helmet, and headed for the bike race start.

I went so fast it felt dangerous. In my mind it seemed that the physics of it couldn’t possibly work - the bike was so light, how could it keep from flipping over? I passed by an injured athlete off the side of the road being tended to by a medic, and it seemed like a warning. There were hills that made me stand on the pedals and push with all my strength, something I'm not used to as a flatlander, and valleys that made me go so fast that at one point I started pumping the brakes. My experience of biking is through city streets on a commuter bike, negotiating traffic, red lights and stop signs. This was entirely different. People along the side of the road had come out to watch, some of them sitting passively in folding chairs, others on their feet clapping and cheering as we sped past. Ben and Muggy were at the finish line again, cheering me on. I crossed the timer and walked the bike back to the rack.

I unstrapped my helmet, removed my gloves, and took a few minutes to stretch. We’d been given goodie bags containing a water bottle, a t-shirt that I’ll probably never wear, and an assortment of energy bars. I grabbed a tube of something that claimed to provide instant energy. It was liquidy and sickly sweet, and tasted like raspberry yogurt. I sucked it down and went to the run start line. Ben and Muggy were at the race start, cheering me on still. The run was flat, and I began to zone out with the repetition of putting one foot in front of the other behind a long line of other people doing the same. At one point I felt like I wasn’t actually there in the moment, that I was recalling a time when I’d run down a stretch of road along a beach. I had to remind myself that I was still in it, experiencing the race as it unfolded. Halfway through I caught up to MamaVee, she’d just made the hairpin turn at the midpoint of the race and was heading back. We held out our hands and high-fived each other. During the last mile and a half the crowds of onlookers had thinned, but the few who remained were enthusiastic.
“Come on number three ninety four!” One woman yelled as I ran past, “looking good, almost there!”
“Thank you!” I said, and kept going. At the race end, I crossed the final timer, and having read my name from the information on the chip, an announcer's voice said:
“Number three ninety four, J. Palmer from Chicago, Illinois!” I clasped my hands together and threw them high above my left shoulder, and then my right in a victory dance as I ran under a digital clock readout. A staffer stationed nearby watched my dance and said:
“Okay, hand over the chip showoff .” I reached down and released the Velcro grip from my ankle, and handed her my timer. “Did you come here on vacation?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“This isn’t how to spend a vacation,” she said. I chuckled and moved on.

I found MamaVee, and we exchanged a sweaty embrace.
“How do you feel?" she asked.
“I feel good," I said.
“I feel weirdly okay," MamaVee said, and I nodded in agreement. “I would do this again."
“Yeah, so would I." I said.

After rinsing off under an outdoor shower and stopping for coffee, the four of us loaded back into the car and headed back to Eastham. It wasn’t even lunchtime, and the main event of the day was already over. We spent the afternoon at a pond with Tuber and Girlpie, Mamavee and Ben’s kids. The still, clear pond water was cool and relaxing.

The race results were posted online by Sunday night. Here’s the breakdown: I swam 1/3 of a mile in 12:23, biked 9.25 miles in 47:38, and ran 3.1 miles in 35:01. My overall time was 1:35:04. MamaVee's times were 10:39, 45:18, and 39:55, with an overall time of 1:35:53. We finished within a minute of each other.

Not bad for first timers.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Triathlon, Part V - or - how I paid my way to Cape Cod with French

I've been busy. Running, swimming and biking take up a lot of time. I'm getting better at swimming, but it's still hard. I swam 15 laps in a row once last week and was really proud of myself; I've been doing "bricks," where I do two of the three sports in quick succession; and one day I did all three parts - with breaks, over the course of about four hours.

Then I got an email about getting paid to be a test subject for a French fluency exam at Northwestern University. The timing was tight - there were two days of listening comprehension last weekend, and two days of reading comprehension next weekend which I can't do because I'll be on Cape Cod. They were testing during the week too, so I could squeeze the reading test in just before departing this Thursday for my sporty journey to the east. I could sign up to do just the listening comprehension test and get paid $280, or sign up for both and get paid $560. I've been keeping a mental list of the costs associated with the triathlon, and it goes something like this:

Flight to Boston $180
Race registration fee $65
Bike and helmet rental $50
Wetsuit rental $50
Running shoes $80
Swimming lessons $120
Total: $545

The allure of covering my triathlon costs was strong, my French fluency almost never results in cash rewards, and I can't think of another time when I was offered money in exchange for taking a standardized test. I signed up for both sections.

I heard about the test through an email from the Groupe Professionnel Francophone. I attended a couple of their meetings a few years ago while on a job search, I wanted to find a job where I could use my French skills and thought it might be a good networking opportunity. I signed up to be on their email list, and have been receiving communications from them ever since. They meet on the last Thursday of the month in the restaurant of the Renaissance Hotel on Wacker Drive, and their meetings generally start with a speaker, followed by wine and hors d'oevres. The first meeting I attended went well; the speaker was from the Haitian consulate, and I managed to speak French with a number of people without slipping into English. The next time I went, a roundish man in his fifties who recognized me from an event at the Alliance Francaise sat next to me at the bar, and after talking to me for a few minutes asked me for my number, ostensibly so that we could practice speaking French with each other. I froze and submitted to his request rather than politely declining. I sat next to him, mute and powerless, as he dialed my home phone number on his cell phone. He explained that he was doing this so that he'd have the number programmed into his phone and wouldn't lose the scrap of paper that I'd written it on. My secret hopes were realized when he held the phone to his ear and said:
"Allo?" in a tone of genuine surprise. "Someone picked up," he said to me.
"Yes, my husband," I said. I haven't been back since.

Early last Saturday morning I took the #93 California/Dodge bus from the corner of Lawrence and Kimball to the campus of Northwestern University in downtown Evanston. I hitched my bike onto the rack on the front of the bus so that I could bike the nine miles home in the afternoon, fulfilling the need for continuous training. I'd never been on the Northwestern campus, so I parked my bike and asked a woman seated on a bench nearby if the building in front of us was University Hall.
"Yes, for ze French test?" she said, in a French accent.

Inside people were milling around a lecture room on the south side of the building. My friend Carla spotted me and I sat near her, we know each other from taking classes at the Alliance Francaise and I'd forwarded the information about the test to her in case she wanted to cash in too. The woman who'd emailed us the information was standing at the front of the room with a name tag hanging around her neck on a lanyard. I asked her if I could come back on Tuesday and Wednesday for the reading portion of the test.
"I don't know," she said from under a helmet of dyed, dried and sprayed blonde hair, "I am not the one administering the test." The testing hadn't even begun and already I was being subjected to French, not just the language but the bureaucracy and minimal customer service. If this had been a test for English, the woman wearing a lanyard would have distributed pencils at the door and thanked us all for taking time out of our weekends to join her for this important, final phase in creating a fluency exam. I sat down and waited for the test administrator, whoever that might be.

A slight, gray-haired man in ironed khakis and a polo shirt entered the room carrying a stack of test booklets. He placed them at a podium at the front of the room and addressed us in a calm, French accented voice. There was a problem, he said. The announcement about the tests had resulted in an overwhelming response, and while he was very happy with the turnout, there were only twenty-five test booklets and about fifty of us in the room. Would it be possible for half of us to leave and come back on Monday? A handful of people stood up and left the room. Someone asked if it was possible to make copies of the test booklets. Yes, the man said, but this would take time, and the test had to start in a few minutes. The woman seated to my left suggested that we split into two rooms, and each room take a different section of the test, since there were four sections to be administered. It took a few minutes for the ironed-pants man to consider this logic; it was out of the box thinking, and he was staying true to the French ideal of making everything more complicated than it needs to be. Eventually he acquiesced.

The booklets were distributed, along with answer sheets. The test was multiple choice, and the answer sheet had round circles to be filled in with a number 2 pencil, like the SATs. At the top of the page there was a spot for marking our name, test section, and testing location. Near that were sections asking for military rank: officer, enlisted, or civilian, and branch of service: army, navy, air force, marines, or other. I'd had a hint that this was for the Department of Defense, the email had mentioned something called the Defense Language Institute. I felt a sudden pang of discomfort, and soothed myself with the thought that at least I'd be getting some of my war tax dollars back, and since I was doing this in the name of physical fitness it couldn't be that much of a conflict of interest. I signed a confidentiality agreement stating that I won't divulge the contents of the exam, so I can't tell you what the questions were or I'll end up on a list somewhere.

I spent ten hours over the course of the weekend in that room listening to recorded questions emanating from a small CD player propped up at the podium, and filling in circles with a pencil. Although I wasn't directly interacting with anyone, by the end my fellow test takers were getting on my nerves. As time passed, the amount of sneezing, coughing, and sighing increased markedly. One person even blew their nose as the rest of the room strained to listed to an audio question.

There were more subtle annoyances too, things that ordinarily wouldn't bother me became irritating due to close proximity and time elapsed. One woman showed up to the test wearing a dress made from fabric that had the map of Paris printed on it, just in case anyone was wondering why she was in the room, and a woman in the front row did everything possible to draw attention to herself. Her hair was cut short and dyed dark red, and she wore chunky Chanel glasses frames. She sat on the far left side of the room, and adjusted her chair so that she was sitting at a jaunty angle to the rest of us. She made a grand demonstration of erasing pencil marks from her answer sheet and brushing away the eraser remains with her right hand, creating continuous background noise to our test-taking activities. During breaks she turned around in her seat and asked questions like:
"What did you put down for number twenty-seven?". On the second day of testing I arrived early to find her writing things on the blackboard and explaining the finer points of French grammar to the only other person who had shown up as early as me.

Annoyances aside, it was a satisfying experience. I got paid for using my brain, got to pretend I was a student at a prestigious university for a couple days, and the bike ride home was gorgeous. I headed west to McCormick Boulevard and followed the North Channel Trail all the way home, and even spotted a baby bunny on the way. Yesterday I went back for the first two parts of the reading comprehension test, which was easier since everyone goes at their own pace and there's no audio cues to listen for. Today I'll bike to the Y to swim my 15 laps, and then take my bike onto the #93 up to Evanston for the two remaining sections of the reading test. Then I'll come home and pack my things for the flight to Boston in the morning. Four days and counting till the triathlon...

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Triathlon, Part IV

There’s a sign at the Y informing swimmers that the presence of feces in the pool constitutes something called “code brown”. I made the mistake of thinking about this too hard while swimming and laughed underwater, sending a shot of chlorinated liquid up my nostrils. Swimming has gotten easier over the past few months, but it’s still the hardest of the three sports that make up the mini-triathlon, now just fourteen days away. I can swim 10 laps without stopping, up from three when I started training. There’s 44 laps to a mile at my local YMCA pool, and the swimming portion of the race is 1/3 of a mile, or just under 15 laps. I’m not sure how this is going to work on race day, unless I just go really, really slowly.

I’ve definitely gotten into better shape; I have noticeable triceps now and I can’t stop touching them and showing them to people, but being in good shape is all relative. The first time I ran around Horner Park without stopping, the music in my head shifted from the theme to Chariots of Fire to the Rocky theme song as I rounded the corner to finish the last fifty yards to my house. Some boys sitting on the porch across the street started laughing, and I wasn’t sure why until one of them yelled:
"Joo wanna take a breather?" I pretended not to hear them and ran up my front steps like Rocky at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Once during Adult Lap Swim Time at the Y I stopped to ask the lifeguard how many laps make a mile because I’d forgotten. He couldn’t have been more than twenty years old, his straight brown hair hung down into his eyes, and the Beach Boys’ "Surfing USA" blasted from a portable radio next to his chair.
"How many laps make a mile?" I asked from the shallow end of the pool. He looked at me from his perch.
"What?" he asked over the music, a rescue tube hanging over his shoulder like a large, reddish sausage.
"How many laps make a mile?" I repeated, louder this time.
"Do you need help?" he asked.
"No," I said, the skirt of my bathing suit floating up to my waist in the water, did I really look that bad?

I haven’t lost any weight but my clothes are loose; I can pull my jeans off without unzipping them, which is a fun party trick. I thought I was ready for a new bathing suit - one without a skirt, but I just don’t have the confidence to flash my pale, meaty thighs to the world, powerful and muscular though they may be. Sometimes I feel like Bruce Banner’s half-creature, the thing he becomes just before turning into the Hulk, minus the shredding clothes and the rage. Sometimes people notice that there’s been a change in my appearance, and I’m always disappointed when they don’t.

Today I’m going to attempt all three parts of the triathlon, with breaks between them. Wish me luck.