Sunday, February 21, 2016

A Bright Smile

These stories in this blog that I write started with one purpose and one purpose alone, if this tumor
was going to damage my memories, and I had to hear the stories of my life from someone else, well, I wanted that person to be me. While not everything is spelled out blatantly, there are nods and winks occasionally, there's never misdirection or creativity. It was never meant to inspire, be fuzzy or sad just a journal of both happenings and happenstance, a wandering writing of the wondering mind. Be forewarned this is one of those types of entries.

I'm a smart kid. It's been in this blog a few times that I was valedictorian of my high school and the first in my family to graduate from college. But I grew up in a rough and poor neighborhood where being "nerdy" was nothing to be admired; we (I was part of those we) made fun of the smart kids. The ones we looked up to were the ones who knew how to handle a fight (this may be why I'm a decent runner... how I handled a few fights; with that said I do know how to both throw and take a punch, never once started a fight but I finished a few.) I spent my entire life trying to "hide" that I was intelligent. I got put in gifted and talented program shortly after learning english in the United States. I graduated college with two degrees, suma cum laude, with honors and part of several honor societies but the only people who ever knew that were the people who took classes with me. Every year they would have an honors assembly at the school with all the seniors where they wold announce the awards they would be receiving at graduation. I attended every year except the year I was graduating. It wasn't humility; it was still a guy hiding the fact that he liked learning things at school more than (insert cool fashionable thing here). There was a guy I worked with for almost 3 years, a premed student who is now a brilliant doctor, who only saw my hiding coping mechanisms of pretending to be just as "normal" as everyone at intelligent things. He would say somewhat joking but mostly serious shortly after that awards assembly, all this time we've been working together and I never knew you were one of the smart kids. 

I also grew up with bad teeth. That was true of pretty much everyone in the neighborhood in a street with unpaved roads in Mexico and of almost everyone in my family. Something about the water stained your teeth, made them more susceptible to cavities, and absolutely stained them. I grew up with brown marks on white teeth or perhaps the other way around. I have zero memories of that in my first 8 years of life, neither noticing it on me, or noticing it on anyone else. Childhood pictures in Mexico have a smile that beams from ear to ear....

But then I moved to the United States, a blessing and a privilege in almost every way, but there was one very traumatic element. Most of the kids had much much better teeth and not most, perhaps not many, but enough to where it wore down my smile through elementary and certainly junior high to where I never did it without being a natural smile and even then it often came with an awkward self consciousness. This was true even around people I cared about and who I consciously knew loved me but the smile would shut down quickly because I'd remember a phrase/nickname I've never quite shaken out of my consciousness "crap teeth." Sometimes in junior high "crap" got upgraded to a more strongly rated word. It's something that I've never quite shaken from smiling even now. 

In the age of selfies and me, a guy who has been in far too much media, people wonder why I am almost never in pictures on social media that I myself put up. My brother, good friends tell me I should be in more pictures with Kiana. I joke around with something that's a hyperbolic truth; that I look much better behind the camera. But it developed in high school when I became a yearbook photographer for many reasons but an absolutely certain one was that I wanted to be in as few pictures in the yearbook as possible. I didn't want those teeth showing. I would do some yearbook photography in college and in the years I was a teacher as well. I was best friends with one yearbook editor and married another one...Despite being the first in my family to graduate college, I skipped the graduating class picture in college. Unless the photographer managed to make me smile somehow, almost all my pictures are with closed lips. A college professor, a kind old man, said what I believed he meant kindly in the middle of a conversation in front of others, when you're older you should get veneers cause you have a nice smile but those stains distract from it. I smiled a lot less for several months consciously and when doing natural smiling shut it down faster. Still, looking back through yearbooks I am grateful that my desire to hide from the camera put me behind it where I caught so many real smiles. I'd climb trees and buildings and hide and people would smile when they noticed and that got some good shots of them in the yearbooks.

Later on, less than a year into my first professional career, I'd blow through almost everything I saved into getting veneers on my front teeth, the ones I'd been most teased about. In simple frankness, I didn't know much about dentists so I may have chosen too quickly. When the brain cancer stuff started (and to this day), I stopped going to the dentist for anything regular. There were enough other medical bills to take care of. If you were wondering what my pain tolerance is, I went over a year needing a root canal before I got it done, not coincidentally on the very first month since the cancer journey started that I didn't have a brain cancer appointment. When the brain cancer appointments were further apart, I no longer had medical or dental insurance after the job issues nor had them paid off so the dentist still got neglected (I brush and floss and use mouthwash). It may well tell you the sensitive nature of this that I put off brain surgery for a few months, a root canal for longer than that because of the brain surgery bills but when my front tooth chipped, it was fixed very quickly. You may call that vanity and perhaps that's part of it but it's not the main thing. I mean this is coming from a guy who someone suggested hiding their brain surgery scar with some cosmetic surgery. I tried to grow my hair out for a few months and quickly said forget about it. 

The projection of parenting is sometimes what we want our kids to be too often to make up for our failures, or the damage we received. It was the awareness of my mortality with the diagnosis of brain cancer that me more fully aware of the fact I should be more invested in parenting. It was that possibility that Kiana might not remember me that made me be a better dad since I hadn't met my biological father till I was 15. And it was the ESPN media piece suggesting that I didn't have one that made me realize that while I didn't get one till I was 8, I'd had a great one most of my life.  Other times we parents are are trying to protect them from our bad experiences... I almost cancelled a media piece interview cause Kiana had lost a tooth naturally presuming that my issues with teeth problems would be passed on to her, that she'd hate the camera. She didn't care and smiled at me just as much in that piece as in any other. And while she's not had a perfect teeth career (we had to get her a special toothpase), a few days ago when she went for her 6 month check up she had zero new dental issues which was true 6 months ago as well. But no matter what with teeth missing or not, that kid has never hidden her smile. 

Kiana is also super nerdy and we embrace it. She's part of the chess club I coach and despite being one of the latest learners, she's consistently been one of the better players. Her science project ended up being the one that won her entire grade's competition and went to district. I thought that was awesome but it ended up not just winning her grade but being one of only 30 placers out of projects from several school districts. It's as high as they go at this level but I've joked around forever that if this brain cancer thing ends up with her being a scientists; it'll totally be worth it. They gave her a certificate that said she's a genius (it's something I've always suspected but now it's on a piece of paper so that makes it real, right?). In my neuropsychologicals, I actually still show to be in the 1 percentile so I try to make myself feel better about my damaged brain with that (while overlooking that some memory functions are now in the mildly retarded level). I never once talked bout being smart when it was normal; I was embarrassed. I've talked a lot about since I lost it, a defensive mechanism at best. Kiana has a more balanced approach because when she talks about her gifted and talented program she says well that's just what I am in, I didn't name it. Nonetheless, I am thankful she has a neighborhood, friends and a family where her intelligence is not something to hide. 

Where is this writing coming from today? So this morning one of the veneers brook off and now my teeth look horrible again (only one of them does but it's an all or nothing smile in my emotional scars). And even when they were all in place and people said nice smile, it made me self conscious, a lifetime of emotional scars or perhaps just ones that came at a young and critical age. For a guy who often says that pretentiousness isn't one of my fault, I wondered if my veneered smile itself wasn't a lie. I worked a little harder on memory tests and perhaps the guy who is usually stoic feeling his damage back in his smile, didn't do as well as usual. 

In the big scheme of things though, it's just a broken tooth. The dentist I previously use has retired so I gotta find a new one and see what the damage is both physically and financially. But while I'll probably never be comfortable in front of the camera not ever quite accept that my damaged mind is worth much anymore, I'm thankful that this is probably the best I've ever owned it. I'm thankful that I've gotten to stay alive now 5 years after cancer to watch Kiana's intelligence and her teeth be more than just flashes but more and more of a constant. So for this moment, at least today, I'm glad we both get to share a bright smile. 

Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Correct Way To Pronounce Someone's Name

An old sage wrote about how how rose by any other name would smell as sweet. But I do think names matter for many things... my own name Iram has been pronounced Tram, eye-ram, eee-rrram, Irma, Mari (I'm guessing that one was a dyslexic move or someone with a creative sense of humor), and properly. However, in the name it's a trilled r (doesn't even exist in english, the tongue is a little softer and a little further back than a rolled r... insert inappropriate joke here). However when I came to the US at 8 years of age, I was new to the place and the language so I let everyone call me whatever they wanted to.

However, when I arrived in high school, a teacher, an awkward but brilliant math teacher whose social skills were reflected that the most excitement I ever saw him have was over graphic calculators, a relatively new thing in the early 90's. He gave one of the best assembly talks, one of the few I remember about being honest to yourself and not trying to hard to compromise to the culture's norm of popularity. It was titled "I wasn't cool the last time the word cool was cool and I'm still not cool now." He was self aware enough to realize his excitement over calculas wasn't shared by everyone about but he could still be excited about e=mc2. However, while he helped teach my generation, one that has grown to be a bit more narcissistic than I'm comfortable with in the age of selfie sticks and self esteem valued above
achievement, he also had the quality in that because he was comfortable in his own skin, he helped other people be comfortable in theirs. There had been lots of teachers who said my name and asked if it was right... I was an immigrant who barely spoke the language when the question was first asked, an awkward elementary schooler who didn't want extra attention about just his name and a kid who had gotten used to it for 6 years, I never once corrected or redirected someone when asked, I'd just answer: "However you want to say it is fine" and me and the teachers, friends, students would move. He would be the first person in my entire academic career that would stop me on the first day of class when going through names and say, "No, tell me how you say it. The correct way to pronounce someone's name is the way they pronounce it." It took him a few tries which to my embarrassment he did in front of everyone but I was in a new town in high school so unlike 3rd through 9th grade, all of my school career was filled with most of my friends and teachers actually saying my name right, a small but yet gigantic thing. In college, a friend who realized he couldn't trill his r's started my most common nickname, "J" my middle initial since on becoming aware of his inability to pronounce it he said "If I'm going to mispronounce your name, I'm going to mispronounce it right." Somehow that phrase stuck with me and while Iram is my preferred name, I'd rather be called J than have it mispronounced.

These moments stuck with me when Kiana's mother and I were expecting a child, I had a baby
naming contest.  (I had very little faith in my own skills; the only pet I've ever taken in who just turned 12 yesterday, well her name is 'puppy'). We all try to make our kids life a little easier and I still remember the easy and cheesy struggles with my name as a kid that felt monumental at the time. I've never gotten a straight answer as to how I ended up with a name from a biblical genealogy that doesn't even have a story attached; my brother's names are a little easier, David and Alonso so I'm guessing I must have kicked a lot more while in the womb. If that's the case, I apologize mom but I was working on these legs early in order to try be a good runner some day. But with my daughter, there were some great names, some which were obviously in humor since people know my irreverence towards life. In the end, we ended up choosing Kiana Lys Leon. This was chosen for many reasons but one of them was that it was pronounced the same in English as in Spanish making it easier for both people from her and my country of birth. Another is that Kiana's mom was raised in Hawaii and Kiana is the Hawaiian moon goddess names (thus the moon motifs in both her room and on the tattoo I have). The middle name Lys is because her mother comes from a French heritage. She's liked her name, it being normal enough and yet standout enough. I've had some fun with the nicknames contrived from it... She says I smell after we run and I say it's her and have nicknamed her Stinkiana and when she's climbing up every tree she gets called Monkiana. When I say things like that she's picked up the quirk that many of my friends and family have. It must be a contagious disease because often when I'm talking their face is somewhere between smiling and rolling their eyes but I haven't gotten any doctor to verify what the disease is.

Still as Kiana gets older, the parenting approach keeps changing. We went to her annual check up and she continues to grow in both height and weight. She asks questions with a curiosity that is far beyond anything I would have ever imagined at that age. She puts a creativity into art and Valentine's that is amazing. It's still cute enough to where it makes me glow and I don't have to censure it (notice that's censure, not censor for people who misunderstood a Facebook post of mine).  I don't know if that age will come when I censure it but somehow,  I hope that day is somehow never and always simultaneously.

Several years ago, I ran my first marathon with Kiana's mom on Valentine's day. I sometimes make references to that in some of my public speeches about how we didn't do a single training run together, didn't run it together, that it's no wonder we broke up. So it was somehow heart warming to get to do this year's Paramount 5k with Kiana and my parents doing it side by side and this year the bibs were heart shaped. Some people may call that cheesy but hey I'm not lactose intolerant. Kiana hadn't done a 5k in almost a year and I reminded her that shorter races hurt more cause you should be going faster. Her latest 10k was at about a 9:10 pace so I thought maybe we'd make this one be her first sub 9 pace, holding somewhere between an 8:50-8:55 pace and kicking in the last quarter of a mile.

When we gunned there was a little boy that sprinted pass her whose dad said pace yourself. Kiana tried to keep up with him immediately and I said look we'll try to catch up but give it a while. She definitely was struggling as she gunned and said to me I'm having a hard time breathing. I let her know we could slow down or walk anytime but we weren't going to quit. She said nah let's just get it done. It was about two tenths of a mile left and her and that same boy traded spots... she won by a few seconds. Both from her picking up her speed at the end despite the pain and her competitive spirit, I was glowing at the end and then realized she'd kept about an 8:33 pace and came in sub 27 almost 3 minutes faster than her last 5k. It was much faster than I had hoped or anticipated. This girl is going to chase boys, she's going to pass them. (The official ones they caught of her finishing were the most tempting ever to buy. )

A few minutes later at 41 minutes my parents came in also both beating their best 5k time and on Valentine's day, having done it side by side showing love both to their son, their granddaughter and each other. The Austin marathon provides a big gong bell that you get to ring if you hit your PR. I am actually not quite sure whether Kiana or my parents hit it with more conviction but I'm okay with that one being called a tie. When the final results came in Kiana had come in literally in the 100th spot and 3rd in females 14 and under. As I saw her pass people of my gender both her age and older, you better believe I want her to keep running like a girl.

But that wasn't the entire day... Kiana hung out with her grandparents a lot more. Somehow they let her get away with a lot more than I did at that age... it must be because she has a better name. I'm not bitter though ;). Then when her and I hung out for Valentine's day she made arts and crafts, a language I still don't understand but still takes up space in pretty much every room in the house.

I learned a rule made of gold when I was young, treat others the way you want to be treated. There was a time when I was a little older than when I learned it but a little younger than that. I thought it was a narcissistic golden rule thinking that it was narrow because I made it too specific. Well if I wanted flowers, I should give others flowers etc. It's taken me a few years to learn that it may well be just like pronouncing someone's name, you pronounce it the way they pronounce it for it to be right. Kiana and I still have some races coming up, she has a brand new sets of arts and crafts and I still love and am loved my parents, friends and family with conviction. I think that's the right way to pronounce mine and their name.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Road Less Traveled By

They say the sequel is rarely as good as the original... Then to try to add a third is just stretching it. Perhaps that's why there's so few books or movies with trilogies. But here I was signing up for the Waco Miracle Match finish line for the 3rd time. The first was all but irresistable to a guy whose brain was damaged but I always want to test the timber of my heart. How could my last marathon with a stroller not be Texas' Toughest... How would I not carry a stroller up a long long flight of mile of stairs? The sequel returning in 2015 to do the half since it ran through the zoo had some matching miracles with some mixed reviews. It would be the first time my dad would do a race of any sort a 5k and the three generations would get across a finish line together each on their own two feet? That time would be the only time Kiana would get out of the stroller during the race, running up the stairs on her own while I awkwardly carried just the stroller... She beat me up. However, I had already made two wrong turns at that point and I would make others, the spatial orientation and exhaustion leaving me drained.

But here in 2016, I was returning with one purpose and one purpose alone, settling the score. It was tempting to do the marathon again since I've ran 4 twenty milers in the last few weeks with no marathon on the calendar but I hadn't gotten lost on that course, that course wasn't the one I wanted revenge on. So I signed up on the half... I had done a paper registration and anyone whose ever seen my hand writing will tell you that it's horrible... so the person typing it in had typed what they thought they read "Iram Leon" had transliterated it to "Team Leon." I didn't bother asking for a correction since even though this time I had no official company, you better believe my heart didn't for a second think it was ever alone, Team Leon was going to be the one taking the course.

In my pre-morning race ritual I always play a song to figure out the emphasis of that race. Some are different than others. In fact, I never know if I run so much because I'm trying to lose myself or because I'm looking for an answer...but maybe those are one and the same. But in this one, in this race, just had to go back to an old classic of Frank Sinatra... that's life:
I've been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn and a king
I've been up and down and over and out and I know one thing
Each time I find myself flat on my face
I pick myself up and get back in the race
That's life (that's life), I tell you I can't deny it
I thought of quitting, baby, but my heart just ain't gonna buy it

So I got up, got dressed and ate with one focus... which was keep my heart and mind focused to not make a wrong turn, to not make a bad step. This was the first race I was doing by myself since December, on January 31st so I decided to go out there to see how well the system could wake up from a long winter's nap. 

When the race started, let's just say it was a lot warmer than I like. The race beginning was in the low 60's... if revenge is best served cold, the weather was not suggesting that focus was the correct one. So I spent a few moments in conversations remembering that this race, the reason I came to it originally wasn't only because it was tough but also because it helped match marrow donors and recipients. In fact 4 of the Waco firefighters who help put it on had donated themselves... they save people from burning buildings and save lives down to the bone. So that got me thinking sometimes settling the score is much bigger than the pettiness of revenge. The nerves didn't calm down but the smile came on.

The race started and I got into a comfortable pace, one I knew I could hold for 13.1 miles. There were only two people in front of me for the first couple of miles but at the first turn around I realized they were both 10k participants so early on I realized I had the lead. The music was singing in my ears, the signs and spectators and military were cheering on the course... Then at mile 3 the carefully crafted playlist on the iPod gave way because the iPod ran out of batteries... Well I started singing internally and just chose to decide that I'd come out here for focus and focus was now on new alert. It didn't take me long to realize that having earphones on your ear without music is actually a distraction because you hear your heavy breathing a lot more. I threw the iPod at a volunteer and asked her to please hold on to it.

Not long after the 10k and the half split ways we were in the zoo, running around monkeys and cheetahs and near the king of the beasts, the lions. There were a couple of turns in there were it was clear I had a solid lead, a good 300 meters over halfway done with a clump of 5 or 6 all staying with each other vying for second. It was then that it occurred to me that maybe my return might be a win in more ways than one. Another turn around a couple of miles later and I had a solid minute lead or so but then we got closer to mile 10. I knew somewhere in the middle of it was Jacob's ladder.  I don’t know why it’s called Jacob’s ladder but if it’s in reference to the story in Genesis where Jacob gets to see a ladder going up to heaven... the road to heaven is a steep one. There was a spectator who was biking along the course and was saying you've got a solid lead and was confused when I yelled back, where's Jacob's ladder?

It would be at about mile 10.5 where it came through. There were two younger than me guys and therefore young guys who started kicking in about then, about the right time to start kicking in for a half. And just as I saw them for the first time up close during the race, there was the Jacob's ladder... And in the 20-30 seconds I had a thousand and one thoughts... While this is a hilly course, from that point forward there are no required hills. You can run along the riverside in the most direct way or you can go up 100 very steep, manmade stairs that add at least a tenth of a mile, quite a bit of elevation which raises your heart rate like you wouldn't believe. How to balance all of those thoughts? 

*You can out kick these guys. You're not even on PR pace and you got fuel left in the tank
*You've had a victory or a PR every month since June of last year... are you ready to let the streak end to go up some stairs?
*Kiana ran up those stairs last year and you carried her up them two years ago... you ready to tell her you came on your own and skipped them? Ready to tell yourself that?
*They say to never let them see you sweat... that's unavoidable in this heat but they've only gotten to see your back sweat... do you wanna watch their sweat

*You would literally be walking away from the potential of a victory because no matter how good of a runner you are you cannot run all 100 steps this late in the game
*What's the best choice, going straight and easy or going to the right and going hard?

And that final thought was the one that was on my mind as I turned... you go right and go the hard way. One coach always says you can do extra and another coach of mine said if you go the extra mile, it's never as crowded. I'd come out here to settle scores and the ladder and the right turns was who I needed to beat. The ladder turns so I was going up I'd get to see the guys who had been behind me now be ahead of me on their course since no one else had a brain damaged enough to come up it.

Still, I would repass one person on the way in from the half but in the end I'd take 6th overall and win my age group. So I kept running and running and running. At the top of the race they give you a bracelet... I've never actually stopped to let them put it on, just threw in the stroller before. This time I kept it in my hand and held it with the same conviction I'd gone up the stairs with. It may well tell you something that while I generally ignore finish line pictures and someone else had gotten to break the tape I was sprinting holding that band very proudly.

I finish races sprinting too hard to be smiling. But not long afterwards,I was smiling and as I remembered that the first time we came out to the race that Kiana had gone on top of a certain animal because the race kept saying, Texas Toughest' race, no bull. She's climbed on top of the bull because we'd gone to the top of the stairs. I remembered that and did the same though a little less graciously. As I waited for the awards, got the race director to do a little dance with me in the middle of "running the race." I talked to the proper half marathon winner and congratulated him and encouraged him to keep running since he had also been there last year and had stepped up his game a lot since then. I cheered on many more race finishers and the ones who had done the ladder might have gotten a little extra affection from me. The overall marathon winner heard enough people excited about it that he went back and did it himself not long after he'd finished the course. A group of firefighters did the course in full regalia and took a little girl up the ladder together.

I can't tell you that I didn't second guess the decision on the drive home. But the next day I was telling Kiana about it and the fact that I had to decide between winning and taking the stairs and asked her what she thought I did. With far less hesitation than I had taken to make the decision she said, well you took the stairs of course. A few moments later I noticed what the medal ribbon said, Rise to the Occasion... I'm thankful that on a race course, for a cause, and for our hearts, others and Team Leon had the opportunity to do so. Jacob's ladder had helped me settle the score from being lost and I'd stayed on the right path and for at least one course and at least one day, gotten not revenge, but redemption.