Why Do You Run?

Running Shoes
I am, therefore I run.

Why do you run?

The gentle, soft spoken man balances a clipboard on one knee, pen poised in hand, listening carefully while I explain my habits before going on to tell him the history of a badly compromised heel. He starts scribbling while I talk.

It gets me outside, I said. With my dog. It gives me a shot of feel-good, of course, I said. And I like the color that comes into my cheeks after a good run. And I feel energized by it for hours afterwards.

He is nodding and writing.

And where does your foot hurt when you run?

I tell him it is medial at the start of a run, but often moves once I get going, radiating around the heel to the outside of it, just under the ankle bone. So…lateral—I guess it also hurts laterally. He uses the end of his pen to point to various places on my foot to make sure he understands.

And would you call the pain an ache, or a throb, or is it more of a sharp pain? Is there a burning sensation when you feel it?


You mean, it burns?

No, I mean yes, all of those things you said: it aches, it throbs, or it is sharp. Or it burns. It can feel like somebody grabbed a bit of flesh with needle nose pliers from the inside, and then twisted. Hard. But I don’t have to be running to feel it; sometimes it can happen to me while I’m sleeping, and it is bad enough to wake me. Or when I’m sitting still at my desk, minding my own business. Sometimes I feel pain then, too.

Then he asks about the history of my bum foot.

Stress fracture to the calcaneus some number of years ago, I explain. Posterior tibial tendonitis, made worse by Haglund’s deformity, or the “pump bump” in common parlance. My orthopedist down in Knoxville said the tendon was fraying from friction with the bony Haglund protrusion. Pump bump is pretty funny, I quip, because I never wear heels. Ever. It took a ballet school dad, an ER physician, to finally point out the obvious: you may not wear heels, but you’re putting your foot in that position—with your heel elevated—hundreds of times a day in your line of work.

And you still run? asks the kind man.

Yes, I tell him unapologetically. In a perfect world, I explain, I would have the expensive, risky surgery (which of course would not come with risks in this fictional scenario) to fix the Haglund’s, if that window is still open in the first place—when the problem gets bad enough, no surgery can fix it—and then I would be booted and rest obediently while somebody brought me tea and finger sandwiches, and then I’d do physical therapy diligently. Et, voilà—the foot would be fixed. I don’t know that world, but I do know life is a balance. And speaking only for myself, of course, I have discovered I am worse off when I don’t run. Therefore I run.

This is what I tell the gentle practitioner of acupuncture, who is about to stick needles into me everywhere. He explains why he needs to stick needles in my back, even though I need help with my foot; it is something about cleansing. Maybe it will be like a bloodletting, I think: maybe he will exorcise this ugly foot demon out of me, right out of the teeny pinholes he is about to poke all over me.

But probably not. Somewhere in my head I can hear a wise person opining about a therapy’s being effective only when positive thinking goes along with it. I try to think positively when I am asked to inhale and exhale each time another needle goes in. When this kind practitioner, this gentle therapist, places a needle under my bum ankle bone, right on the outside where there is not much flesh, I feel a sharp pain, then nothing, and then another, sharper pain inches away in the soft flesh under my foot, a delayed reaction: I estimate it is somewhere between the third and fourth metatarsal. My eyes are watering and I am trying to stay calm. And positive.

The practitioner is reassuring, telling me this is all normal, but to say something if the pain does not subside. It finally looses its grip and I try to concentrate instead on the new-agey music and the fountain over in the corner of the room while I wonder, laying here like a human pin cushion, why feet can’t be swapped out, like hips, or knees.

*  *  *

Yesterday Vermont winter also loosed its grip. I had promised Scout for days we’d go find an adventure; I reminded him in the morning that we would. He paced nervously around the house waiting for me to finish baking biscuits for the church freezer, and setting up the stew in the slow cooker, and starting a load of wash, before I finally started pulling on my stretchy, wintry running clothes.

He yawned and whined in anticipation on the car ride to our new running spot, standing in the back seat and wagging his tail all the way there. Trembling with excitement while I leashed him, he told me I was a slow poke and really could anybody go any slower? The other dogs are already running, he lamented.

And then our moment finally came: down the dirt road the two of us bounded, stopping to mark piles of rotting leaves one of us, and maybe a few remnant piles of filthy snow from the last storm, to sniff some horse poop, to look in the treetops for those vexing squirrels, and sometimes to point. Scout, I tell him, you really are a gundog. You’ll have to make your peace with pretending, friend.

Powering up a long, steep hill, it dawns on me we have not run since a week or so before Christmas. It has been one thing and then another. Snow and more snow. Then ice. And unrelenting cold. We had flood warnings all over the place twice in January. But now we’re still in January thaw, and on this beautiful early Saturday afternoon in southwestern Vermont, it is unbelievably 54 degrees and sunny.

But my foot does not care that all is right with the world and lets me know unequivocally I won’t be completing this four-mile or so circuit at a good clip, at least not the one I prefer. So Scout and I power on for about three miles, stopping here and there to investigate a noise, or some movement in the woods, real or imagined. I shift to toe running from time to time to answer my heel, now shouting at me. We wave at the mailman and a few other passersby. Then we turn up the long dirt road that will eventually lead us back to the road where we left the car.

This particular road has turned to soft mud, the kind you can get stuck in without proper tires on your car: you expect this in March, maybe not so much in January. I glance at Scout’s underside and realize it is black as the night, from his pads up to his armpits. I just bathed him last week, and that is too bad. But this doggy is on cloud nine, and so is his human, even if we’ve dropped back to nothing more than a vigorous walk at this point.

By the time we get back to the road where we left the car we’ve slipped in the mud a few times, been taunted by one especially portly squirrel, and got within sneezing distance of a large, white horse giving rides to little people at a local winter festival. We can smell the wood fire where s’mores are being made hand over fist, and we cross paths with countless folks and other dogs coming and going. And then we are back to the car, almost, it’s just ahead, but Scout has now planted three feet and is pointing with his wrist: the dog is stock still, trembling in his tracks.

What is it—what do you see? I ask him.

And then even I, the deficient human, can see it: an enormous gray squirrel, about eye level, peering at us from a space under a fallen tree. The squirrel flicks its tail a couple times, taunting us.

Scout trembles.

The squirrel disappears and reemerges now on top of the log, comically dangling a tiny, airline-size liquor bottle from its mouth.

Scout is beside himself.

The squirrel drops the bottle, which goes clinkety-clink-clink onto something hard on the ground. He vanishes and then reappears, holding the bottle again by its narrow mouth as if he were about to tip it back to lap up a last drop, before skittering up a tree and out of sight. Scout is breathless with excitement, panting, and my cheeks are tickled pink on either side of my wide grin, a grin of disbelief at this spectacle. I wonder whether David will even believe this story. My foot is screaming at me, but I am euphoric on this exquisite late January afternoon in Vermont.

Call me crazy, but this is why I run.

Scout the Squirrel Dog
As If One Needed a Reason

Unpacking Hope: A Sunday Wish


So, so many material belongings that came with me to Vermont all the way from Tennessee have waited patiently in storage for the last three years: things David and I considered nonessential when we combined two households three years ago, the year I started writing and editing professionally full time for a marketing agency. But in our tiny mountain rental there was scarcely room for his things and mine, leftovers from our failed marriages, to say nothing of our landlord’s things: that’s furniture and belongings from three families squished into one minuscule living space. Add 2.5 humans and eventually a dog, and as Eloise would say, you can imagine….

Unearthing those stashed-away belongings is joyous and even a tad miraculous: the hand-blown Mexican Tom Collins glasses in perfect condition still, the pair of pilsners my dad gave me when I first stepped into adult shoes (they were his in college, each one bearing an etched ‘UT’ indicating his alma mater and then mine, but the ‘U’ in truth looks more like a ‘V’ and so they could be more appropriately ‘VT’ glasses now), framed art that has not seen the light of day in years, and how about wine chilling vessels of various sorts (here is one in terra cotta, another in pewter). Linens washed, folded, and carefully stored; they still smell fresh and clean, somehow. A nifty magazine rack I bought for the ballet school and that looks like the front of a gym locker, retained because I have a hard time letting go sometimes, and anyway I gave away or sold most everything else. Forgotten bottles of fancy lotions and creams (by some miracle, they all seem fine so far). Candles and more candles, and the pretty platform-style holders I bought for some occasion or other in my previous life, and look—here is a box full of flower vases.

Fresh cut flowers: a thing I mercilessly snipped out of my living budget right after I landed on Vermont soil, a self-imposed austerity measure if you wish, when I realized how bleak my financial horizon, an outlook dramatically different from the one for which I’d so painstakingly planned in the weeks and months leading to my big Tennessee farewell. In a life of privilege down South I never thought twice about buying flowers—of course one brought home fresh flowers every week to arrange carefully in an oversized vase on the big harvest table in the kitchen, and maybe also to place in a couple of the ancient, generously proportioned windowsills under the lovely (if a bit creaky) casement windows, maybe a tiny few flowers pulled out of a bigger arrangement for a bud vase in the kitchen window, another upstairs. Of course.

And now those things, all that glassware, some precious children’s books I’ll keep forever, exquisite artwork—‘high’ art and plain old sentimental art, even a few small appliances I’d quite forgotten—all of it is unpacked, washed, and put away neatly, or schlepped down to the basement or up to the attic to go through when time allows (an attic! Christmas things now organized and stored ‘til next December!), or arranged carefully on one side of the garage until we have a warm spell and a little bit of muscle to help us carry in a pair of weighty cedar chests, one old chest of drawers, a stationary bike, an important grandfather clock, and a few more boxes of things.

All of it suggests a hopeful life at least, if not a beautiful life; I applaud my own optimism. I remember the turmoil and anxiety that came with me here. But clearly even with all that I intended to make the most of it, come what may. The thing is, all these things, these pilsner glasses and linens and books and vases—they all matter, because in each of them is hope, and not for only surviving, but for thriving.

Life in these parts can be rough, and winter especially cruel and difficult, for even those with resources. For others the struggle is abundantly clear, and some simply give up—you can see it, worn on the back like ill-fitting clothing. To those folks, and to others, I send up supplications for hope: for clean curtains that still let in the ephemeral Vermont winter light; for art with the power to jettison one to a distant horizon, if only for a moment; for good reading; for the love and camaraderie of someone who understands; and for a belly full of nourishment. And come spring, that confounding and most elusive of all Vermontish seasons, for fresh, fragrant flowers. Of course.

Signs of Life: Sunday Photo Essay

The dark finish on the steps and handrails was elegant and dressy once upon a time, you can tell. But over weeks and months, then years and decades, it collected scuffmarks and even a few deep gouges, call it a patina if you wish, from the traffic in the house: you can see it clearly now. Sixteen steps march up, up, up, while the open great room on the first floor disappears at about the halfway point—it’s the one place in the house where you can get close enough to one of the giant beams that stretch across the broad ceiling to reach out and caress it, before the ceiling vanishes out of sight as you continue on your way. That is on your left; the varicose surface of the massive stuccoed wall on your right (it is the real thing, applied by a true craftsman in the 1920s) will draw blood from your knuckles when you venture too close with a heavy laundry basket. You’ll be out of breath by then, coming from the far reaches of the basement one full floor below, where you went around the corner, down a hallway, and around another corner, just to run a load of wash.

At the top of these sixteen steps, had you taken the time to notice in the first place, you’d have found the flooring nails on the one step to the right (and another to the left, leading to the master suite) that were pounded through the rounded piece of wood trim forming the lip of the step, but were never bent up or clipped out of harm’s way by the carpenter wielding that hammer all those years ago. When your child reaches middle school the delicate underside of his high instep will somehow find one of those nails, leaving a deep laceration that insists on a trip to the doctor and a tetanus shot right away; for a little while you’ll silently curse a nameless carpenter who is probably long dead.

At the bottom of the steps stands a solid newel post topped by a perfect, round finial that wobbles, although it will never come off in the sixteen or so years you live in the house with your husband and child, like the one in It’s a Wonderful Life. And on top of the finial is a perfectly round wood plug that once covered the nail holding the finial in place, flush with the finial itself; the nail has emerged about an eighth inch out of the plug, and you mean to countersink that dang thing and cover the tiny hole with putty. You mean to, but never do it, because a piece of you knows that finial has been grabbed onto by hands large and small through the decades, happy hands off to an adventure that won’t wait, or busy hands, purposeful hands, angry hands, and even grieving hands. And now these hands, yours, feel the play in that post every time you climb or descend those sixteen beautiful steps. If you countersink the nail, the finial won’t wobble anymore, and somehow all those stories might be forgotten.

The last time I grasped the wobbly finial was near the end of August in 2012, the night my grownup boy and I slept on makeshift beds in the empty great room, the same empty room where, on the eve of moving in, he and I ran joyously back and forth from the massive fireplace to the bottom of the steps when he was two, again and again, until we were both out of breath and finally collapsed in giggles. This long chapter in a special house drew to a close without much fanfare, and certainly without giggles. Still, there was hope on the horizon not yet realized by either of us.

There is something organic about occupying a structure, working in it, or living out your life in it. One has only to glance at an abandoned house to see this truth: the vibrancy reaches beyond the rudimentary things, the electricity and water that make the place habitable. Blood coursing through the veins, air inhaled and exhaled from the lungs by people and their animals, these things bring life to a building or home. David and I are glad to step across the threshold of our new-old Vermont home, every day: it represents so much more for us than mere bricks and mortar, but like any home, is transient—we were not the first to inhabit it nor shall we be the last.

Where is the wobbly finial post in this home? I’m not yet precisely sure, but have only just started looking.

A note about these photos: my ex-sister-in-law-but-still-my-sister gave me a wonderful hand-me-down for Christmas, her Nikon D300s—she calls it my ‘big girl’ camera. These images represent my first efforts with a decidedly more sophisticated instrument (that has a decidedly sharper learning curve to go with) than my old Nikon D70, which I’ll keep on using as the situation demands. We witnessed some spectacular goings-on in these parts over the last few days owing to an earlier than usual January thaw after our last deep freeze, then a mini-mud season that lasted for a single day (Vermonters joyously broke out shorts and T-shirts in mid January), but then dangerously high water in local rivers and streams and serious local flooding, followed by another deep freeze which has more or less stopped everything in its tracks. The Walloomsac River defines one boundary of our property and is majestic and imposing just now; I tried to capture a little of its somewhat terrifying intentions in my quest for a wobbly finial.

the view across the Walloomsac, as seen through my writing room perch
the gate that will not latch, has wobbly finial potential
ancient window glass has a satisfying wobbly texture, distorting the outside world
Roiling Walloomsac I
Roiling Wallomsac 2
Roiling Walloomsac 3
yes, we have a barn, whatever the chef may call it—we live in Vermont
whose small hands these were we do not know; we see them in other places, too
one must celebrate the basement philosopher, even if his spelling was wobbly
our house is alive

Falling from Grace: Ballet Has a Reckoning

The fall has come not a moment too soon, some might say.

Peter Martins stepped down as Ballet Master in Chief at New York City Ballet last week after allegations of sexual harassment and the verbal and physical abuse of company members, reported the New York Times. This is not the first time he has come under public scrutiny. There was the alleged wife beating incident some years ago, but Martins’ wife, former NYCB principal ballerina Darci Kistler, dropped the charges the next day. And Martins pled guilty to a DUI in 2011. Now it seems more than one person who danced for him has a bone to pick with him.

Several weeks ago after the public sullying of movie producer Harvey Weinstein, the moguls started falling like dominoes. Why, I wondered aloud to a colleague, had the earlier shaming of Bill Cosby not started the same cascade of high-profile evictions in the entertainment industry? What was special about Weinstein? Or has the cultural climate shifted just enough in the intervening couple of years that fewer people are afraid to come forward with their stories? After the Weinstein story broke, scarcely a day passed without some other firing or forced resignation of big names across industries. Funny thing, I told my colleague, that kind of thing happens in the ballet world all the time, and has for decades.

I suppose I decided in the case of ballet, anyway, there was simply some tacit, industry-wide acceptance of bad behavior, and so it would merely continue and life would go on in the classroom and in the theatre, superimposed over unspeakably bad behavior by people who are supposed to be leaders, and therefore one would assume, held to higher standards. But not in the arts: ballet feels so tied to ancient standards in the first place, it seemed this problem too, the sexual misconduct, might somehow be tolerated along with other practices that would never fly in other arenas nowadays—like referring to the members of a company as ‘boys and girls’ instead of ‘women and men,’ for example. That is to say, children, not grown-ups. And everybody knows you can push around children in ways no grown-up would tolerate, the thinking might go.

And then the news of these allegations broke. I happened to hear about them on a local NBC affiliate in a breaking story near the end of the evening news broadcast. Then there was a silent spell which proved to be only the calm before the storm. One of my ballet homies astutely observed, good thing it was Peter: had it been somebody less renowned the same old problem would doubtless have persisted unchecked. But Peter Martins’ ousting may pave the way for others to speak up with less fear of professional repercussions.

And fear is precisely what all this boils down to. Recently retired NYCB principal dancer Wendy Whelan articulated this so eloquently one evening last week during an All Things Considered broadcast on NPR: “It’s a tradition that’s built on discipline and focus and pleasing people. And it can easily get manipulated. For us, career is everything,” she said. “I mean, he’s literally my dad’s age,” she continued. “And, you know, a lot of us dancers interestingly, I think, have a dad thing…our dad was either not there in a certain way or just harder to please or something. And we all have this thing about pleasing dad.” Ironic that she used the word ‘tradition’ to describe ballet.

For dancers, it would seem, the time-honored tradition to tolerate serious missteps on behalf of the artistic staff is perpetuated in the name of job security, as other artists have claimed—even physical abuse and unsolicited sexual advances. Nor is this kind of criminal behavior (let’s call it what it is) limited to female dancers alone: there are ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ victims of these crimes.

My own parents are only five or so years older than Peter Martins. And when we first moved to Memphis in the mid-1960s, and my mom joined Memphis Ballet, the same kinds of things went on in that company. Teachers took Draconian measures in classes to correct ballet technique (as occurred everywhere on the planet in those days unfortunately), and unprofessional dalliances happened in the company. At eight I understood that the artistic director and his wife were divorcing precisely because he had become romantically involved with a company member. I also remember an awkward year or two when all three of them—husband, ex-wife, and girlfriend—continued to share the same classrooms and the stage. You could excuse it all as expected, anywhere there are ‘temperamental’ artists; I am sure the Board of Directors did. In another ironic twist, the ballet company and school in Memphis observed the same paradigms almost precisely as the ones Mr. Balanchine had by then established at NYCB and its affiliate School of American Ballet, and the company directors in Memphis were in fact Balanchine disciples themselves. The leader sets the cultural tone for an institution, and Mr. Balanchine in particular was a ballet icon whose influence made its way around the world, to say nothing of Memphis, Tennessee. He was also notably viewed as a father figure by many of his dancers (if not all of them), but his own questionable behavior flew under the accountability radar; he might not be so lucky were he judged by today’s standards, of course.

Stepping away from the obvious damage for a moment—the physical and emotional injuries wrought upon individual victims—there’s something more sinister to these breaking stories, that threatens ballet systemically. Now and again the potential demise of classical ballet has been prophesied, based on its decline following the ‘golden age’ of the 1970s, when one Mikhail Baryshnikov emerged on the ballet horizon and raised the technical standards, for male dancers in particular. Importantly, he brought classical ballet to places it had never been, namely the American living room: ballet finally entered our pop culture conversations, as it never had before.

But its appeal was ephemeral, only now showing signs of again reaching a broader audience thanks to the likes of Misty Copeland, for example, with her big commercial sponsorships and barrier-breaking successes that black ballerinas could only dream about once upon a time. And there is American Ballet Theatre’s ground-breaking National Training Curriculum that has raised teaching standards for those who seek it out, addressing the whole dancer, improving dancer health, ostensibly staving off injuries, and making longer careers possible (they’ve been getting longer and longer, thanks to more intelligent training around the globe in general). But none of this matters if the people in charge believe they are Teflon coated in the professional sphere!

Sound like a stretch? Consider the parents whose daughter, like Wendy Whelan from Louisville, Kentucky, for example, might be a prodigy. It’s already a tough call: convince them to spend money hand over fist for highly specialized training for their talented daughter—full-time residential training that takes her far from home, where she will have nothing approximating a normal childhood, will need to forestall her college education so that she can dance, and may in fact continue to need her parents’ financial support even after she finds her way to the professional stage—and then add to that this little footnote: she may need to sleep with the artistic director of her dream company if she wants to advance through the company rankings and get the roles she desires.

It frankly infuriates the heck out of me—I don’t care how beautiful Peter Martins once was as a dancer, and indeed he was. Because that kind of behavior makes the job of ballet teachers everywhere more difficult, and ultimately threatens the very existence of the form. Young ballet students might as easily take up soccer or the cello: what responsible parent would knowingly send them down a path with criminal abuse at its terminus?

As somebody once observed, it’s only ballet, and there is truth to that. Wendy Whelan and others of their ilk may view the landscape through a different lens, though—the “career is everything” lens. And anyway, criminal behavior is criminal behavior, whether it happens to an intern at a major network, or a young dancer who fears losing her status with the company she’s dreamed of joining all her life. Really, classical ballet is hard enough.

I leave you with the trailer of a fairly recent film that beautifully documents the last couple of years of Wendy’s professional life with New York City Ballet, through her surgery for a torn labrum, and her farewell performance months later. You’ll see glimpses of Peter Martins, too. The full-length film, Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan, is available on Netflix.

Photo at top of post is the property of Knoxville Ballet School; don’t steal—it ain’t nice.