Friday, January 22, 2016

Gerbil Brain

For a guy known for running long distances, I'll tell you a small secret, I haven't done a half marathon since last January. I did two in January 2015.  I won one and one was my slowest one but I got lost in both. Spatial orientation doesn't exist in my brain... I'd try to explain it to you but think of some things in life that you're not capable of no matter how hard you try and it's kind of like that. While I'm a fan of positive attitude, little phrases like, "with the right attitude, you can do anything" is at best idealistic but generally naive. Attitude changes and potentially improves us all but it doesn't make us omnipotent...

Still, it's that attitude that I think helps me keep going. The first half marathon I did at the Rogue Distance Festival last year, I won and it got some media coverage.  This year I did it and Kiana and both of my parents all got their PRs and everyone of them got 3rd in their age group! Kiana got it under 57 minutes, almost a 4 minute PR from her first one back in August. But that was awesome (almost expected with that kid's heart) but I was intrigued/reprimanded when the official race pictures came out. Apparently people think that when I run a race now with Kiana that I should be next to her. That is true a fair share of the time but anytime there's a turn coming where things aren't clear, I'm ahead of her. Somehow when I was doing it with her in a stroller that was more commendable, on the road, people have thought I was hurrying her up. I think it echoes the spirit that is captured in that tattoo of mine. The lion isn't looking down at the lion cub, it's looking out in the distance. Looking out for someone in my book means exactly that, looking out for them. 

Still, I long have joked that if Kiana becomes a brain surgeon this whole brain cancer thing will be totally worth it. In simple frankness, if she become a janitor or a rocket scientist, a teacher or a housewife, if she does it honestly and ethically and I hope is always watching out for others. But I was intrigued that for her science project this year, she chose to do a project she called A-MAZE-ing Gerbil. She put together a maze for a gerbil to get through. She thought that with time and effort, it would make less errors at getting lost and get faster at going through it with a reward at the end. 

Like far too many things at school, everyone who turns one in "places." I'm not a fan of these things (I'm okay with participant medals look at how many races I do!) but somehow despite many many projects, most people get 3rd, some get 2nd and 1 gets 1st. This is essentially I think calling them 2nd and 3rd tier projects and one the winner. Last  year when she did her project I was proud of her but, each parent has their own philosophy but didn't make much of a "2nd place metal." This year the project was much more elaborate. Her theory ended up being validated on the errors, the gerbils error did end up making less mistakes each time (defined as actually making the turn) but it turned out the time didn't seem to correlate, sometimes it took slower even as it made less mistakes. 

A person or two close to my heart wondered out loud to me on how she chose the topic since she's been next to me or in front of me in a stroller when I've gotten lost. Let me clear, I had exactly nothing to do with her choice of project or how she carried it out but I couldn't help but be intrigued because when I asked her why she had picked this she answered "It's because the Gerbil has a brain that's more like humans than mice or rats." I wanted to ask more but instead we just went through her practice round. I guess it must have gone very well a couple of days later because last night when they announced results, she was the first place winner (the only one) in third grade and gets to advance to the regional competition next month! People are kind enough to think that has something to do with me but I won exactly zero science competitions in my life. If anything you can tell that it's all in her handwriting. As I looked at other projects, long before the results, which had clearly been typed out and made with much fancier graph with either fantastically intelligent young 'uns (or more than likely done by their parents), I was glad that she had done it all by hand if for no other reason than that she'll be able to look at her own development in time.

I get heckled by the fact I don't focus on one specific thing. If you focused on Spartans/marathon/the mile/cross fit/trail running instead of doing it all you'd be way better. And yes, yes I would but I'd be better at that. I currently don't know anyone who could beat me at all those things and I'd rather have more experiences. Plus the questions are always "Can I keep running and am I fit to raise a kid, one's how I get through the day and the other one is why." I've got no apologies for that my focus on the why is a bigger deal. And when the kid shows up with straight A's and perfect attendance for the entire first semester and is glowing about it more than me, I think I'm focused on the most important gift the universe has handed me. She came home today after having thrown up and hadn't been home two hours when she asked if she could return... I called the school nurse and asked her teacher and she did. I don't know where she gets that kind of work ethic or focus from. (With that said, I told her school that my job was to watch out for this kid and theirs was to watch out for all the kids so if they called back because they thought she was contagious etc, I lived a block away).

But not overprotecting everyone because of one injury here and there, in my view, is how humanity got ahead. A friend of mine who sees my approach to life joked how in the ancient days he would have been a gatherer and I would have been a hunter. I thought I'd be in the minority when a proposal was brought up to get rid of the monkey bars because a child had fallen and broken their arm. I was the first to argue against it and thought I'd be in the minority but one by one each parent backed me, no backed the monkey bars up and that life comes with risk.  The teacher that deals with kids with developmental problems, the very definition of kids who aren't all there, also backed up the monkey bars.The PTA president talked about how her child had ended up in the MRI trauma center from being knocked off the bench on the playground where likely the safest place shy of the ground and then she added that we should keep the monkey bars (there have been people I talk into their first road race, others into their first Spartan but she's the first who did her first half marathon at my encouragement and is now doing her first Spartan). This is why I have faith in humanity, why as MLK said that human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted. 

And I hope/think Kiana will be among those. We keep going and recently on a trail run, the exact trail she had taken her worse fall on ever, she said, running trail was her favorite. I reminded her that and said you say that not but the last time we were here you fell very hard and cried for a while so we'll see if that's still your attitude after another fall like that. We were about 2.75 miles where she took another serious stumble onto a rock and started crying, I hugged her and she looked up and said, "it's still my favorite." That was a couple of weeks ago but when we were doing hill repeats Wednesday she asked if we could go there again next Monday. Looks like I know at least a few other hunters that even if takes a while or the time factor is unpredictable they make less mistakes as they chase their reward. Kiana comes from the name of the Hawaiian moon goddess so I always tell her I love her to the moon and back so perhaps I'm under selling. So many of her decorations in her room, entirely of her choosing are things that take flight so maybe she'll be hunting further than I could ever dream of even if it comes with some stumples up a hill. 

So I've long said that in regards to Kiana and I it's unclear sure whose raising who here. I started with a conversation about the two half marathons I started last year with, both of which I got lost. The first one I won, it helped I only made one wrong turn. The second one I made several wrong turns and ended up getting my slowest "half" ever. I've had courses that were short and long and where the leader making a wrong turn ended up leading a few of us stray. But the official rules of USATF are that it's the runner's job to know the course so, even with a damaged memory and no spatial orientation, I study them and if something goes wrong, I've never blamed anyone but me. So the Miracle Match Marathon, which bills itself as the toughest race in Texas, no bull, I'm going back to. Each time I've done it with Kiana, something also covered in a video of the course because it has a quarter mile of stairs near the finish but this year it'll be the first race I do on my own. She won her grade in the science fair and this is the steepest grade road race I've ever done so let's see if I can't do it at the fastest pace I've ever done up that grade. Like the gerbil, I hope to make less wrong turns having learned from mistakes as I go after the reward. But here's hoping I can make Kiana proud and show this human brain is a little bit better than a gerbil brain do it at a consistently faster time. 

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

When Life Flashes Before Your Eyes

It's questionable whether or not I've had a near death experience. The first time I woke up in an ambulance, the one that would lead to the cancer diagnosis, I didn't really see it coming. The nights before the two brain surgery and the subsequent collapse, seizure and waking up in an ambulance on side of the road, I was too calm by many people's description. In fact my first Facebook status between the seizure and the MRI was "I had a seizure, why is everyone making into such a big deal?" (if anyone thinks that I became an oversharer after the diagnosis, there's evidence there to the contrary though you could argue it showed something was always wrong with my brain). I did not have a moment like some people describe where they feel like they're entering heaven (here's where if you're preachy you could make the argument that I better really avoid the void anytime soon or make some serious changes if I'm not seeing heaven at near death moments). Nor did I have life flash before my eyes though I could make the case that time seemed to slow down as I remember the moments before clearly if not painfully.

However, I recently did have life "flash" before my eyes in a certain way. I am a minimalist and this year in addition to cleaning out my "stuff" around the house I noticed that my computer by far the biggest memory usage was pictures. I had over 50,000 pictures taken over a dozen years of digital photography. There was plenty of storage space left on the computer and the iCloud etc but I realized looking through many that I'd gotten lazy with digital photography. In the days of film, I would never have developed that many nor kept that many in a picture album. Sure digital photography lets you keep more but that many more gets in the way of going through memories because it becomes cumbersome to catch every second along the way of a facial expression rather than that proverbial "thousand words." This may be why I've never quite understood videos despite being in way too many of them. A slice of time is my favorite.

So Kiana's on a new kick of crafts that are done one pin and one string at a time. She has the patience for doing it and I like being there but completely watching it was... well dull. So I sat on the computer and worked one month at at time deleting pictures. I started back when I was actually 22 years old not just dancing like I was that age. There were college memories, summer memories, work, family. I was married then to a gorgeous woman who was my high school sweetheart and life was just starting even as college was finishing. There were friends who we'd bond over academic debates, lots of wedding pictures that I attended. There was that time I grew out my hair and one look at it made me remember why I never did it again.

There were memories of the time that I volunteered immediately after college teaching in the Marshall Islands. A place where I taught high school in a "3rd world" country and made friends with many of students. It's also where I took in a stray dog almost at birth that would become my "puppy." It's been almost a dozen years with her. I've never lived in Washington but Truman's truth about friendship might be more spread out. We're two foreigners that have made Austin home.

There were moments of friends and family, the vast majority of which I am proud to still have as contacts from all stages. It was amusing moments to see pictures of when my nephew and niece were still shorter than me. In fact I texted many of the pictures and shared them and looking back made me find a way to reach out and communicate again. Love is a many splendored thing. There were pictures of sporting events, trips, flora and fauna. Since forever I've preferred being on the back side of the camera... when you've got my looks that's the side you belong on.

I actually got through it on many emotions. I once again saw the pictures of a relationship that I literally thought would be there till that death came. To my credit(discredit?) I didn't erase those pictures either and Kiana knew what I was doing and asked to see those. She asked how I felt about her mom now and I responded with the truth, "That I loved her, that I intended to be with her until I died and that I was sorry for the mistakes that had broken that up." She softly hugged me and said I love you, dad. I sat and stared at the very last picture of Kiana and I a few days before I found out I had a tumor... I was at a preschool function with her... I was always trying to be a good dad, it was in simple honesty a lower priority or at least a different vision.

The years since then had a lot of very low lows and very high highs. Less than a year after brain cancer I was being interviewed for a Livestrong video 4 years ago where I said I think the smartest thing I've ever said, you have to work on the relationship you want to keep. Perhaps because it's been on too much media, perhaps because it's the oldest printed picture hanging in my house (there is a frame I update regularly and that picture is the only static one and the central one), the picture from so long ago popped out on my computer again. Once again perhaps because she was the one who gave her the original jacket and loved it then and is a fan of the picture, my mom had given her the exact same jacket this year for Christmas. I still have the jacket from then (still the same size?) and we went and took the picture again. The first time the photography session was supposed to happen after the video but the photography guy just took pictures of us while we were playing and he said we were so natural that he didn't need to take anymore picture. This second time as we were trying to replicate that moment if for nothing else wondering how time had aged us, it was about as close to taking a selfie as we get. She was 5 then and 9 now and am I grateful to have caught all those years and so many moments in between. I am thankful to have focused enough to have never lost the mentality of working on the relationships I want to keep.

So as 2016 sets in, that's the goal again. There were those who always thought that running in a
stroller was a way to keep my hobby but it was always just a way to have fun with Kiana. Now we're doing the races side by side and while I imagine they will come the truth is that right now in 2016 I am registered for exactly zero races not with her. On January 1st this year was the first time I did a New Year's run with her rather than on my own. I got us lost and Kiana did the steepest longest run she's ever done of 7.6 miles, a longer than that I had done till I was 29 when I'd signed up for our first marathon. Then two days later we did 3.5 miles. We were going to do 3.5 miles again last night but I got lost again and we did just under 6 on another very hilly course. I was very apologetic to Kiana (she might have gotten a cookie in addition to breakfast today) and said I am so sorry I got us lost twice in 3 days. She's done 16 miles in 3 runs over 4 days; I don't know whether I feel more guilt or pride about that. I told her I was so proud of her for not giving up when we were lost... She responded with a wisdom I wasn't expecting "well you shouldn't quit when you're lost, how will you ever get where you're supposed to be?" Remind me again who is raising who?

But perhaps that has taught me to go up. My dad is doing his first 10k this Sunday at age 70 (last year he did his first 5k so he keeps being one year behind Kiana). When someone heard this, which was shortly after they heard I got Kiana lost, a friend asked me what are you trying to do to your family!?! I timidly responded, "make them healthier." Kiana's doing the 10k too and I'll be running with her hoping its a PR. But with a few days perspective, and believe you me I'm proud of Kiana, I am far more proud of my dad for doing this.

It's like people being proud of me for beating my high school or college times in my mid 30's after a cancer diagnosis. That's all great and all but running is my therapy, who brags about being good at therapy? I'm far more proud of taking on things I'm not good at like the Spartans (heading to the gym tomorrow for the first time in too long). But well above those, I cooked two meals today, I ironed, I did laundry and more importantly I enjoyed them all, things that too many people from my generation at least in my country of origin thought was of women work. They might have fixed more than a few things in my heart and brain during that surgery.

So as I look ahead to 2016, let me be clear as has been the case for years, running nor being in shape is anywhere near my top priority. Relationships are. There are people who try to say well 'that's you.' In most things I am happy to say to each his own beliefs. I don't think running is better than basketball or football or crossfit or yoga etc. I don't get into gigantic debates about the different diets. And in a town that I've seen signs from Trump to Bernie, I honestly think there are legitimate reasons to be both a republican or a democrat with their different emphasis (though not to scare anyone, I don't think all of the candidates are legitimate contenders or representative of America). I subscribe to one but I can see how different religions have different windows into the soul that might reflect culture. But the one thing that I can't, won't accept is that people are better on their own than in good relationships. In plenty of physics and chemistry you can make the argument that somethings are better isolated even if most others  are better in conjunction. There are creatures that are like that but humans literally would not exist, could not be born without joining. Community is what we're wired for from birth. Sometimes damage makes that wiring tough but trust me my wiring is off and damaged but I still want to work through the damage and keep working on the relationships I want to keep.

I got the pictures down to under 20,000 over 10% of which were of Kiana. This led into me creating a slideshow for her 9th birthday party this weekend. I made it primarily of ones of her actively doing something. I'd share it on here in video format but it's got songs she picked out that make it better. If anything this blog or my Facebook statuses show I seem to live life in lyrics, so as I watch it and during the party, I'll be glad to watch her life flash before my eyes. As I keep taking pictures of her and other things, I'm glad whether or not the flash is necessary that even with a damaged memory I get to keep taking some. And just like my dad doing races with my mom and me and Kiana, or the cousins or friends that I've gotten to do new things, or the ones that have gotten me do new things like my first trail races last year, I hope I keep living actively. That life and love are a flash, memories worth smiling and crying back over are better than sitting on the couch. Perhaps to quote a song by a band called "The New Pornographers" (what kind of porn but lyrics could I possibly be into) called 'Go Places' I am glad to have a kid and a life and enjoy it for the run of it even if a couple of wrong turns made it harder and longer than I had imagined. 2016 is going to be good.

Yes, a heart should always go one step too far
Come the morning and the day winding like dreams
Come the morning every blue shade of green
Come with me, go places

Come hell or full circle
Our arms fill with miracles
Play hearts, kid, they work well
Like magic, play aces
Stay with me, go places
Once more for the ages