Wednesday, January 28, 2009

My first goal for my next 50

When I moved to Ithaca in August of 2006, one of the first things I noticed was how many runners there were here. I was not particularly athletic and I was also overweight. I thought I might give this running thing a try. My very first attempt was that fall – under cover of night. I didn’t want anyone to see me run.

Night 1: The sun sets. It is pitch black outside. I talk my two youngest kids into going with me. I start running down the street and the first thing that happens is I wet my pants. I go home humiliated. Remember – I have had four children.

Night 2: The sun sets. I try again – better prepared. I talk my two youngest children into running with me (they were 8 and 10 at the time). I run down the street – which is all downhill. I go about 1/8 of a mile and turn around. I now have to run uphill. As I’m huffing and puffing up the hill, my children are skipping sideways along side of me. It is also garbage night – so they run off to inspect everyone’s garbage and run back to me – chattering away. I cannot answer them.

Night 3: There is no more running.

Night 4: I take up Tai Chi.

My next attempt at running was in May of 2007 – I decided to try running a quarter of a mile on a trail by our house. It was tough! I was out of breath and I wanted to quit - but I made myself finish. I thought I’d try again the next day. After about two weeks, when I realized that it was getting easier, I decided to make a little rule: I had to add a bit of distance on to each run – or - run at least as far as I did in the previous run. By the end of the summer I found I could run almost 3 miles. When I realized I was almost running the same distance as a 5K race – and there were certainly a lot of 5K races around this town - I decided to sign up for one that September.

My first race - for the ASPCA

I was so nervous – I couldn’t sleep the night before the race! I came in third to the last – I beat the two walkers. But I finished!!!

So I tried another race a month later!

Finishing hard!

I was also turning 50 that fall and had been thinking about setting some goals for my next 50 years. I thought that if I could learn to run then maybe I could learn to swim. I started my first swimming class at the local YMCA in the fall of 2007. I just kept taking their swimming class over and over again all winter until I learned how to front crawl. Then I learned about a triathlon that the Y holds each May. I thought that if I could be comfortable with the breathing – and be able to swim 8 laps in 15 minutes – then maybe I could do the triathlon. I started practicing swimming twice a week (in addition to continuing with the swimming class) to become comfortable with the breathing and make the time requirement. I started running further so I could run the 5 miles. I knew how to ride a bike but had barely ridden on one in 20 or more years. So as soon as the winter weather subsided, I started bike riding. I ran, swam, and biked all through March and April of 2008.

On May 4th, 2008 I raced my first triathlon! I came in last – but I finished!!!

Then I started looking at what could be next. Triathlons with lake swimming. Half mile distances in lakes. I needed a lot of work to be able to swim a half of a mile in a lake. The Finger Lakes Tri was on September 21st at Canandaigua Lake. I practiced swimming all summer. I practiced biking all summer (well – not as much as I should have!). I started running longer distances. I ran 5 mile distances two mornings during the week and 5 to 9 mile distances on Sundays. This race also offered a triathlon for kids - so I signed both of my children up (ages 10 and 12 at that time).

The morning of September 21st found me in a wetsuit in Canandaigua Lake waiting for the gun. The swim was the scariest thing I’ve ever done. I fought panic for about 3/4’s of the swim. But I did it – and finished last in this race too! My children had a great time too! It was so cool to have them be a part of this journey!

Coming in last place at the Finger Lakes Tri

I had the support of my husband, my children, and two of my neighbors (who have since become my very good friends) – and could not have done any of this without any of them.

My husband provided me with both emotional and motivational support from that first day I decided to try running. My children were very concerned about me running alone in the early mornings. All that summer they would get up with me no matter how early it was – and my son would run by my side while my daughter would ride her bike.

My two neighbors were the runners who inspired me to run in the first place. I couldn’t let anyone see me run in the beginning – so for a long time I wouldn’t run when these two neighbors were out running for fear of letting them see how slow I was. I did finally I overcome that fear and started running with them. These two incredible women – Brenda and Cindy - provided me with a lot of advice and support.

Brenda is a marathon runner and during her early training we ran many mornings together before the sun came up. It is because of her encouragement that I started running distances greater than 5 miles. She gave me a training program to follow and taught me how to interval train. She ran by my side for my second 5K (The Zeppy Run) when she could have easily left me in the dust. Brenda counted my swimming laps for me at the YMCA Tri and again ran by my side during the run part of it. When I got home from the race I found a gift from her on my front porch – a recovery drink and a bottle of wine!

Cindy is a runner and a swimmer. She gave me a lot of advice about how to get the hang of this breathing thing when I was learning to front crawl! She is also a registered sports dietician - and gave me nutritional advice to keep me strong and healthy and to help me maintain the endurance I needed during the races. Cindy also ran the first 5K that I ran, and helped to ease the nervousness I felt. Since I had never run a race before I did not know what to expect and she assured me I would be able to finish.
I talked Cindy into doing the YMCA triathlon too! She and I did a lot of training for that together. The YMCA was also her first triathlon – and she shared all my angst and nervousness regarding the magnitude of what we’d gotten ourselves into! On the morning of the YMCA-Tri Cindy made sure I had my sports drink, water, gel packs. Check, check, check, I said. Then she scotch-taped two red licorice twizzlers to my bike handles. I loved that – two red twizzlers! She also did the Finger Lakes Triathlon with me and her son participated in the Kids Tri with my two children.

Oh – I almost forgot! I’ve lost 30 pounds since the day I started to run! 15 more to go!

I owe my success to these two amazing women, my children, and my husband. I still think back to those first few weeks after moving here and seeing my two neighbors going out for a run…. and marvel at the chain of events that has transpired since then.

Me, Brenda, and Cindy

Saturday, January 24, 2009


I’ve been thinking about my last posting and it occurred to me that there is a strong correlation between what I have described about each of my children as toddlers and what they seem to most need from me as their mother. This may have been obvious to someone else – but I really didn’t see it until I went and re-read what I had written – and then mulled it over for a week or two.

Starting with my youngest – M – it is strength I can give her. My little tiger. She has great inner strength.

Then my youngest son A. For him it is comfort. He is affectionate, loving, and supportive.

E, my oldest daughter. I will always be here for her when she needs me. I will do my best to be the calm port in a stormy sea for her.

I didn’t write about my oldest son, DJ, in my last post. I will write about him, but right now it is too painful. He was born with a rare seizure disorder that doctors were never able to get under control. He was mentally retarded, had mild cerebral palsy, neurological impairments that prevented him from speaking clearly, and poor fine motor skills.

For DJ it is different. He taught me. He taught me about unconditional love, about my own inner strength, and about compassion for others. He made me aware of these things and more – and his presence in my life made me a better person, and a better parent.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Tattoos, Tiger Stripes, Band-aids, and Little White Boots

I love tattoos. I have none. I want one. I am afraid.

My oldest daughter, E, recently got a tattoo to commemorate the life of her oldest brother.

My son was buried in a beautiful old cemetery surrounded by gates of wrought iron and walls made of a stone native to this area and quarried locally. There are paths throughout the cemetery that wind around small hills and gnarled trees. DJ is buried in a beautiful place underneath a Linden tree with a row of tall pines as a backdrop. On the day he was buried E took some of the leaves from the Linden tree to design her tattoo from. I love the design so much that I thought I’d post a picture of it here.

This isn’t E’s first tattoo. I’m not sure how many she has now – but I can recall two others. Her first tattoo is one of Tinkerbelle on her hip. She refers to it as her “I’m eighteen and I can do whatever I want now” tattoo. She asked a friend “What should I get for a tattoo?” and friend said “Oh! How about Tinkerbelle?” and so E said “OK.” The other tattoo that I recall is one she designed herself to represent me and her. This one is on the back of her neck. I love this daughter of mine fiercely.

My maternal great-great grandmother came to America when she was a young bride. She came from Scotland with her brothers, her husband, and her baby. Her brothers were carpenters and fine wood-workers. I have all of the hand planes and wood working tools they brought with them from Scotland.

The tools have the name MacRae stamped on each one – although sometimes the name is spelled McCrae.

Here is the MacRae Crest:

My brother, T, and my youngest sister, W, wanted everyone in our family to get a tattoo of the MacRae crest. My mom would never get one. My sister C (she who eats leaves) wouldn’t either. Although I’m game – as I mentioned earlier I’m also afraid. W went and got one first three years ago – she was 41. It was supposed to be a butt crack tattoo but the artist who did it was having so much fun with the design that it just unfolded across her back.

My brother T got one next. His is on the outside of one of his calves. It’s much simpler – more like the crest pictured first.

I want to get one. I really do. Once I bought E a Henna tattoo kit and she drew a spray of forget-me-nots (my favorite flower) across the top of my foot! I loved looking at it every single day – and loved that she did it. I was very sad when it faded away.

My youngest daughter, M, has also shown a strong interest in body art. Ever since she was old enough to hold a pen – and know what to do with it – she has drawn all over her body. She would sneak my red marker grading pens into bed with her at night. When I’d wake her in the morning she would be covered in red stripes. “I’m a tiger, Mama!” she would say. This was not a onetime occurrence. She routinely covered her arms, legs, tummy, neck, and even her cheeks, forehead and nose with red stripes. When she became a more sophisticated artist (as in able to draw circles too) she moved away from stripes (I was sad to see the tiger go) to all kinds of designs all over her body. Then there were the shoes. M started wearing her shoes on the opposite feet as soon as she was old enough to put them on herself. So from the time she was a wee tot until she was about 5 she wore her shoes this way. I figured, since she was so persistent about this, she must know something I don’t. I let her do it. What really amused me about this was the number of people who would say to me “do you realize that she is wearing her shoes on the opposite feet?”

Day Care, however, never even batted an eye at M’s antics. They were used to this stuff from my kids by now. Her brother (my youngest son), A, had already prepped the Day Care center well. Only his body art took the form of multi-media. His favorite media was band-aids. It started one morning when he was 3 and he told me he had a stomach ache as we were leaving for Day Care. In trying to deduce whether the complaint was real or not I asked him if a band-aid would make it better. He said “yes Mama, I think it would,” so we put a blue band-aid on his stomach. Over the next few weeks this grew into needing several band-aids on his stomach to one day showing up at Day Care with a band-aid on his forehead, one on each cheek, and one on his chin. He needed band-aids for about 6 months. I figured if it gave him comfort and got us all out the door in the morning then it was worth it. He also developed a love for thin knitted gloves. He would wear them to Day Care every day. Some days he really liked to mix it up – he would wear two different gloves. Then we went through a whole year of various costumes. I did have to draw the line at wearing the underpants on the outside of his pants though. So I made a deal with him. He could do this as long as he only did it at home.

It will be interesting to see how each of my two youngest children’s early form of body art will be expressed when they are adults. Even though E has tattoos as an adult, she didn’t draw all over herself as a child. When she was small she would become very attached to things she wore. She loved to wear the same ::fill in the blank:: every single day. Her first article of obsession was her little white snow boots. Every single day the winter she was two she wore her white snow boots. When the summer came she started wearing her tiger bathing suit – and the little white snow boots. Every single day she put on her tiger bathing suit. Every single day I let her. When the bathing suit became too small for her she slept with it.

I was also very much like this as a child. When I was in sixth grade I took a shirt of my mother’s – a faded blue cotton oxford shirt that was very soft from many washings – and paired it with a dark blue jumper. I wore this outfit every day for weeks. When I was finally made aware of this fashion faux pas by my peers I cut back to wearing it every other day. Then I started wearing the shirt to bed every night. Another time it was a pair of black leotards. I wore them every day and slept in them every night. I actually don’t remember when I stopped wearing them – I think my mother must have stripped them off me some night while I was sleeping and burned them. To this day I wear something until I wear it out. I use the same purse until it falls apart. I wear clothes, coats, etc. until they are thread bare. Not because I’m frugal or anything. Just because when I get something I love – it just makes me happy to wear it. I will buy the same style of shoe again when the first wears out simply because I love it so much. I do not get tired of things I love.

The permanence of tattoos does not bother me. When I finally build up the courage to get one, I will get three. A Linden leaf like E’s, a spray of forget-me-nots, and the MacRae crest. Maybe I’ll even throw in a band-aid and a couple of tiger stripes.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Snow Day

Today was a snow day. We had an ice storm last night that left everything covered with about a half inch of ice – so school was cancelled.

Once the kids go back to school after winter break I start working on my courses and getting ready for the spring semester. I’ve got a great neighbor who works part time and has two children who are close in age to my two youngest. I work full time – but since I teach some on-line courses, I work from home two or three days a week. We try to set up our work schedules so that we stagger the days we each go in to work so we can help each other out with snow days and the other days the kids don’t have school.

As soon as I heard school was cancelled this morning, I called my neighbor and told her to send her two kids down to my house since I’d be home.

Here’s how the day went.

The boys play computer games for 30 minutes while the girls play a board game. Then it’s the girls turn to play 30 minutes of computer games. Instead of playing a board game, the boys GET bored. I send them outside. Our driveway is on an incline – and slants down to the road. The boys are outside in sneakers having a blast sliding down the driveway. They are in a surfing (or snowboard) stance and just sliding right down to the road. We live at the end of a cul-de-sac so there is no traffic – but they also know to look out for cars too. Then they try to run back up the driveway. It’s a riot to watch them slipping and sliding in their sneakers as they try to run up the incline. After about 20 minutes I ask them to try and scrape off the ice for a path up the driveway and the walk. Once they finish ours I send them up the street to do my neighbors walk and driveway too. They were really good sports about it. Then they played outside with a couple of other boys who are home with a babysitter (they are not allowed in anyone’s house without a parent home – babysitters don’t count).

Meanwhile, I remember that I’ve got cookie dough that’s been chilling in the fridge since Christmas! I’ve got sugar cookie and gingerbread cookie dough. I’d like to break from the story here for a moment and point out that it is very much like me to make tons of cookie dough – put it in the fridge to chill – and then something prevents me from actually ever baking the cookies. My life can be very chaotic. The lesson here for my kids is this. It’s okay to bake Christmas cookies after Christmas. It’s okay to bake them after New Year’s. Actually, in my world you can bake Christmas cookies any time of the year. Likewise with Christmas cards.

Anyway, the dough still looks good so the girls and I start rolling out the sugar cookie dough, cutting out shapes – we choose Christmas dinosaurs, and baking them. Then we decided to try and make Christmas figurines with the gingerbread. We have this kit of cookie cutters where you can cut out shapes and fit them together to build a 3-D sculptures - a snowman, a Christmas Tree, Santa’s sleigh, and reindeer to pull the sleigh. We cut out enough shapes to make 4 sets of each – with two reindeer for each sled.

Then the boys came home and I fed everyone lunch.

Then the boys went off to play foosball in the basement. The girls then went outside to slide around the ice. I also ask the girls to try and see if they can scrape off any more of the ice from the side walk and driveway. They end up shoveling two other neighbors’ sidewalks.

Me? I finished baking the 300 cookies we cut out. Well, maybe it wasn’t 300. But it felt like 300 as I baked batch after batch.

Two hours later the girls came back home with another friend in tow. I started making icing. I made three colors – red, green, and blue. I gave each kid their own set of bowls – with each color of icing in a separate bowl - so no one would get anybody else’s cooties from licking icing off of fingers. Wouldn’t you know the gingerbread shapes kept breaking as we tried to put them together! I started using the icing as mortar to hold things together. I repaired crevices, cracks, and severed limbs by building up layers of frosting to try and hold things together. We were all covered in icing and we all had blue or red or green tongues.

Here are a few:

The phone rang at 5:00. 5:00? It was 5:00 already? Time for everyone to go home. I pulled out all kinds of plastic and Tupperware containers and gingerly placed all the reindeer, the snowmen, the trees, and the sleighs inside so they would at least hold together until each kid got home. They were so fragile that they won’t stay together once they are removed from the containers - but at least each kid’s mom and dad can see the finished sculptures!

So at 5:30 everyone has gone home. I look around my kitchen. Well – it was a disaster. Cookie dough, flour, powdered sugar, and frosting - everywhere. Dirty dishes. 28 dirty bowls (remember – each kid had to have his/her own bowls – with three colors of frosting each!).

Then I look at myself. I’m still in my pajamas.

I go and sink into the couch. My legs ache from standing all day. I put my feet up. I open my laptop. My husband walks in the door and there I am - lounging on the davenport in my jammies surfin’ the web. I swear - I say – I just sat down for the first time today.

Okay, I confess. I wrote this because I want credit for today. I’m sure the only thing the kids will remember is that I made them shovel.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Staying on track with Twyla

I’ve been thinking about a book I had read a few years ago. It is called The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It For Life by Twyla Tharp. More specifically, I was thinking about “Spine” - a concept she introduces (in chapter 8) to help the creative individual move from inspiration to final product. I wanted to refresh my memory about this concept so I went and pulled out the book and began to read. Twyla explains how Spine is an important foundation in every creative endeavor. She also explains the interaction between her concept of Spine with Theme and Story.

It begins with an inspiration – which is usually your first strong idea. This inspiration is the starting point of your creation regardless of your media: art, music, writing, dance, etc.

Let Inspiration develop into Intentions. What is it that you wish to explore about your inspiration? List everything you think of even if it doesn’t seem to apply at first. Try to clarify the items on the list. This can help you to develop a set of goals for your piece. From this set of goals your Spine, Theme, and Story develop.

Spine is probably the most important part of the developmental stages. Spine keeps you grounded. It is your skeletal frame for the piece. It is the underlying reason your piece came into existence. When you feel lost – go back to Spine to stay on track.

I’m not sure if there is any right order to the process of creating in terms of Spine, Story and Theme. You might already have your Story worked out – but need something to build in on. You may decide to explore certain themes but need to brainstorm about specific ways to give your theme life. However, whether you have Story, Theme, or Spine first, it appears that Spine needs to be well thought out in order for the creative process to be productive. According to Twyla, not all “final products” need to include all three components – although writing seems to be the easiest process in which to include all three. Where Twyla always has Spine to refer back to when creating her dances, she often does not need to include Story. Also, there can be overlap or “double duty” as Twyla puts it – where Spine can also be Story.

Twyla suggests there might be good reasons for keeping Spine hidden from the public. This can be (or perhaps should be) your secret – unless you are prepared to explain the path you took from Spine to your finished product. Where the Spine is usually the hidden piece – the Story is what the audience experiences.

Twyla provides several literary examples that demonstrate the relationship between Spine, Theme and Story:

The Natural by Bernard Malamud

Spine: Search for Holy Grail
Theme: Redemption
Story: Simple Story of Baseball

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Spine: Get the Whale
Theme: Obsession
Story: Get the Whale

In this example, both the Spine and the Story are the same.

West Side Story

Spine: Romeo and Juliet
Theme: Social Issues
Story: Gang Wars on New York City’s West Side

Twyla gives many examples of her own creative process in her choreographed dances – from inspiration to Spine to finished product. In many instances she returns more than once to her original inspiration, intentions, and the Spine of the piece when she feels she’s waivering from it or is getting lost along the way.

My first experience in applying this technique started with a wall calendar I had depicting the work of Elizabeth Catlett. At the time I had this calendar, I was learning to throw clay on a potter’s wheel. I was studying the work of Hans Coper. More specifically I was studying his method of creating sculptural pieces by throwing individual components and then building a sculpture from these components.

I loved Catlett’s piece in the calendar titled “Sharecropper.” It is a wood cutting portrait of a weathered black woman. I was particularly drawn to the tilt of the woman’s head, the angle at which we are shown her features, the space the brim of her hat creates below her brow, and the set of her shoulders. This woman haunted me. It started me thinking about what can be shown about a person by the set of their shoulders and the tilt of their head.

Catlett’s Sharecropper 1952

It became my inspiration to create a bust from throwing the individual components on a wheel and combining them to form a head, neck, and shoulders. So my Spine became what could be demonstrated by the set of shoulders and tilt of head.

I threw some deep and narrow bowls (like hyperbolas). Then I threw some open cylinders (no bottoms) of various sizes for shoulders and necks. The bowls came together to form the head. The narrow cylinders became the neck. I tried to form shoulders from the larger cylinders – but it didn’t work for me. I went back to my Spine – and my original intention – but could not make these pieces work with a set of shoulders. However, what I discovered was that I could alter the angle of both the bottom and the top of the neck cylinder – so the set of the shoulders are subtly implied by the way the pieces sit on a flat surface. Here are my two most successful attempts to date:

I’m still considering these prototypes. I need to experiment more with this technique – as I want more dramatic results. These pieces were fired in a wood-fire kiln for about 8 hours. I did not put any glaze on them. I was hoping for a toastier color.

Since then I’ve been working on several painting ideas using the same Spine. One of the early scenes in the movie “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” shows a group of men sitting around a camp fire. I had to pause the DVD just so I could study the set of each man’s shoulders – and what it revealed about each character – and each man’s character within. There’s my next painting.