Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Pain and the Pursuit of Childhood.

Owww, dagnabbit, owww! I can’t believe I’ve done this.

I have a sports injury. A kickball injury, to be exact.

You can laugh and giggle all you want, it’s already been done. By my husband, of all people:

Heh; years from now, when you groan about the arthritic pain of your old kickball injury, folks will assume you did it when you were six or seven years old, not thirty-eight!” (Followed by a snort of laughter)

Very funny, laughing boy. I’ll remember this the next time you pull your groin playing “Ultimate Frisbee.”

Then again, I kindof deserve the jeers. Apparently, I’ve developed a habit of injuring myself in the pursuit of a second childhood.

Exhibit A.
I bought my first mountain bike at the age of twenty-three; thrilled that my zookeeper’s salary would allow me to purchase such a cool new toy.

I immediately took the bike to Duke University, where our Primate Center softball team had a game against Campus Security. (I played second base.) Rather than warming up with the team, I rode my new bike around to pre-flight my “Wheels of Thunder”...
-I popped a tiny wheelie over the edge of a sidewalk; Check.
-I maneuvered without falling over knobby tree roots; Check.
-I rode down the steps of Gilbert-Addams residence hall; Fail.

I never pulled it off. I perched at the top of a marble stairway, enthralled with the anticipation of extreme stair-riding. I rode the bike down two or three steps, and then felt it slide out from underneath me. In an effort to keep my skull from smacking on stone (no, didn’t have a helmet on,) I put my right foot down. I felt my ankle flip sickeningly over a step’s hard edge, then, POP. Groan. My ankle lay twisted underneath the bike and now I was immobile, in agony, on the residence hall steps. I had owned this new bike for less than thirty minutes.

Needless to say, I couldn’t walk, let alone play in that day’s softball game, so the team was mad at me. At work the next day, I was relegated to permanent dish-washer status. I got to sit on a stool in front of an industrial sink full of bleach water and wash animal food dishes and water bottles. Unfortunately, lemurs often consider their food dishes to be nifty toilets, so I spent my convalescence navigating poop nuggeted water and getting chapped hands.

Exhibit B.
established the sad fact that I was not destined for the X-games.

My husband and I purchased our first inline skates and decided to christen them in an empty parking lot. I rolled along confidently, proud to see that my childhood ice-skating lessons had paid off. My poor husband was bent at the waist, ankles at 45 degree angles, slowly and carefully making his way across the flatter parts of the pavement. “Watch this!” I shouted as I leaped in the air, landing on a brick paved sidewalk. That was the cool part. Then came the uncool part. The sidewalk was on a hill. I was on wheels, and had no clue how to put on the brakes.

I know how to stop in figure skates, for goodness sakes, you jab the jaggy front end of your blade into the ice and ‘Voila’, you stop. I now realized that this knowledge would not help me in any way, shape or form on inline skates. I found myself blazing down the hill, each brick thumping rhythmically under my wheels, with a set of concrete steps looming in front of me. I would soon plummet headfirst down the stairs, or slip the surly bonds of Earth entirely and swan-dive directly into the parking lot.

I opted to bail the sidewalk entirely, but I was going too fast to gently crumple to the ground. I used my new leaping skills to hop off the brick path of death, onto the paved patch of pain. Rather than landing on my two feet, my left ankle swept on its side, crumpling my body into an awkward splitz of tendons and ligaments. Ta-da! Massive ankle sprain Number Two. Different foot, but same dumb conclusion; I was an athletic wannabe with bloated ankles.

Prior to Exhibit C, I thought my days of athletic injury were over. I mellowed out, fattened up, and narrowed my sports interests to inline roller hockey. The league consisted of gentle Canadian hulks who were terrified of smooshing a five-foot woman, so I skated freely amongst them. (It helped that I wore enough padding to deter an attack dog...) I assumed my days of embarrassing sports injuries were over.

Exhibit C.
I thought it would be a hoot, joining the corporate kickball league. Just crown me the Queen of Poor Judgment.

I began my day with a cardiovascular workout; walking up a gazillion stairs to my fifth floor office. (Okay, so it’s only one hundred steps; that’s enough to make you suck wind.) I continued the trend throughout the day, spurning every opportunity to ride up or down the elevator. How fit I was going to be! The tops of my legs were a little tight and wobbly by the end of the workday, but I looked forward to a rousing game of kickball. I dressed and headed to the field.

Our kickball league is in its infancy. This first season was inspired by an “exhibition game” that proved to be wildly popular with the corporate recreation crowd. Just like the game you cherished (or dreaded) as a kid, the field consists of a home plate and three bases. Infielders and outfielders take positions mimicking softball or baseball, with a pitcher, catcher and so on. The big difference is in the ball that is used. Kickballs are inflated rubber balls that resound with a “boooiiiinnnngg” when you kick or punt them. They have to be red to be kosher. No self-respecting adult reliving their childhood would play with a kickball of any other color.

Game play mimics softball/baseball as well; the pitcher rolls the ball to the “batter,” who kicks the ball with all of his might and runs to first base. Here’s where the best part of kickball comes into play; you can throw the ball at the batter as he runs between the bases. If you hit him, he’s out! (No throwing at the head, of course.) Our adult version has two twists on the kid’s playground game; 1) we play with varying sized balls, and 2) base runners alter direction each inning. The game begins with a standard sized ball, but as innings progress the balls get larger. By the fourth inning, you are playing with a ball five times the size of your head. This wobbling blob is nearly unpitchable or kickable, resulting in an equal challenge for little women or big men. It’s also a challenge to run the bases in reverse order every other inning. Believe me, when you’ve been conditioned to run to first base all of your life, it’s nearly impossible to train your body to run directly to third base after kicking the ball. Base coaches add to the confusion trying to help; “Run to third base, which is really first base...Aww, you know what I mean!”

In the field, I found myself at third base. I surprised myself (and the team) by bobbling a fly ball and catching it before it hit the ground. I got someone out! Hurray! On my first “at bat” I kicked the skidding red ball and took off running. I heard the rubbery orb “boooiiinnng” and felt it mold around my back. I’d been hit on the way to first. I was out. My mood rekindled in the next inning when I tagged a runner out. (He was confused by the reversed base-running direction.) Before I knew it, it was time to kick one of the big balls, one of the mondo-balls. I stood behind the plate, gauged the timing of the huge blob barreling towards me, and planted my toe directly in its soft underbelly. WHOOM. I ran towards first base as the ball pulsated towards the short stop. Wonder of wonders, he missed it! I was safe on first base. But I was in serious pain. I felt like I had been riding a horse with razors on his saddle. The muscles running up and down the insides of my legs were knotted and screaming. What the heck? By the time I reached home, I was puffing in pain. At the house, I downed ibuprofen and sat in bed with a heating pad. I was embarrassed and humiliated. I was so out of shape that a simple game of kickball had rendered me helpless.

I stumbled to work on ibuprofen the next day after a restless, uncomfortable night. As I headed towards the stairs, my legs screamed “No! Take the elevator!” I obeyed, and hit inspiration as the doors opened on to the fifth floor. Had my stair stepping zeal the day before contributed to my downfall? Sure enough, a search of sports-injury web sites confirmed my suspicions;

“If you over-train your quads but ignore your adductors and hamstrings, quick starts and stops will overly tax unprepared muscles. ”

Ah hah! My stair marathon had stressed my quads (tops of my legs), which left my adductors (insides of my legs) vulnerable to stress during the quick starts and stops in kickball. Mystery solved! I was not a kickball wuss, I was a stair-climbing kickball wuss! One activity or the other at a time is fine, but the combination of the two is crippling for a couch potato.

I found minor gratification after limping towards the softball field that evening. (My softball team had a game, and I was going to do my darndest to play.) One of my teammates, who had also played kickball, moaned on the sidelines. “Ohhhhh, my leg...” She wailed. “Did your legs hurt after the kickball game?” I winced in sympathy and shared the wonders of my anatomical catastrophe. “At least you have an excuse,” she wailed. “I haven’t been climbing any stairs!”

Our sacrifices in the name of reclaimed childhood did not go unnoticed. The softball coach is considering renaming our team “The Limping Wounded” in honor of the ailing kickballers. At last, I’ve found kindred spirits. :)

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Desperately Seeking Minneapolis, Pt. II

I find my happy place.

So I found myself on a quest when I recently visited Minneapolis; I was determined to find “the place” that would make me fall in love with the city. (See “Desperately Seeking Minneapolis, Pt. I” to find out why I was so gosh-darned determined.)

My quest produced a brief glimmer of the sublime when I found a scenic spot on Lake Calhoun, but a cigarette-puffing intruder snuffed the purity of the moment. I resumed walking along the paved lake path, attempting to divine where to head next.

My eye caught a sea of white on the hill across the street, and I paused to scan a cemetery flowing down towards the lake. This was no ordinary cemetery with rows of boring granite squares; instead, towering statues of angels intermingled with varying heights of obelisks and monuments. I love old cemeteries; I examine the sculpture and typography of the tombstones, I read the personal sentiments engraved there, and I take note of the architecture of mausoleums. Thus I was torn. The cemetery had no obvious entrance on the riverside, so it was going to take some serious hoofing to find the gate. Should I leave the lake to explore the cemetery, or should I stay on the lake path and check out the beach and yacht house at the far end? Could I do both?

I waited for a break in the throngs of runner, bikers and rollerbladers and hopped across the fitness lanes towards the cemetery. I crossed the street and began the long climb up a sidewalked hill that crested in a quaint neighborhood with meticulously landscaped yards. The sidewalk ended at an intersection, to the right laid the entrance gates to the cemetery. “No cars beyond this point except for funeral processions,” one sign read. “Flowers in urns only,” another mandated. “No live plants on graves except between Memorial Day and June 4,” dictated the last. For cripes sake! Could I put live plants in the urns on Memorial Day? Could I put artificial plants on the graves before Memorial Day?

I forged past the gates and headed towards an unusual pink church/chapel with red terra cotta domes. Stone and bronze Celtic crosses adorned the structure on rooftop and wings. Was this a deranged attempt to unite Latin and Irish Catholics through architecture? The closer I got, the more intrigued I became. The elaborate front doors were locked, but a peek through their elongated windows revealed an arched, mosaic interior—curses! Was this fascinating structure only opened when the most venerated of the city kicked the bucket? As I stepped back to view the chapel as a whole, I noticed a brass plaque on the side steps. This magnificent building was on the National Register of Historic Places; “Lakewood Chapel” was constructed in 1910. Surfing the web later, I confirmed that I’d wandered upon a rare gem:
"The Lakewood Memorial Chapel is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and serves as the architectural focal point of the Cemetery. The building was designed by prominent Minneapolis architect Harry Wild Jones and was modeled after the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. The Chapel interior was created by New York designer Charles Lamb and is the most perfect example of Byzantine mosaic art in the United States."

It turns out I could have gone inside, alas, if I’d gotten there before 3:30pm. At the time, all I knew was that my heart was warmed and my brain was inspired by a glimpse of this grand edifice. I’d found my happy place in Minnesota; my quest was fulfilled!

Greedy for more good vibes, I scanned the grounds to see what lay ahead. I was drawn across the chapel path to a courtyard of sorts, surrounded by a boxwood hedge. A closer inspection yielded brass plaques in the ground and on surrounding marble slabs. These were the cremated remains of married couples, apparently. Most markers indicated that the deceased duos were intact, though a few displayed birthdates of a loved one yet to pass. I wondered if they were looking forward to joining their partners in the courtyard of eternal marriage? Noting that the sun would set in an hour or so, I decided to move on.

I was smacked in the face by another breathtaking view when I exited the courtyard: a glass-faced mausoleum loomed out of a sunken basin in the grass. Within the sunken grotto, a reflecting pool magnified the building’s gray-white gleam. The visual was a stark contrast to the graceful curves and colors of the chapel on the hill above. As I walked aside the reflecting pool towards the mausoleum, footsteps echoed periodically behind me. Oh no, not again! Was my peaceful reflection time going to be invaded by another smoking yokel? A quick look over my shoulder revealed…nothing. Nobody. My mood promptly swung from “annoyed” to “creeped-out”. Common sense and denial quickly took the reins as I convinced myself that I’d heard the echo of my own footsteps.

As I continued towards the citadel-like building ahead, the huge stained glass windows reminded me of the Lutheran church I’d attended as a child. Abstract forms in pale color flowed up and down the glossy panes. Inside, ambient light illuminated crypts stacked from wall to wall. The facility looked modern and formal--admirable for its beauty, but void of the warmth inherent in the chapel. The creepy sensation flowed back like icy water as I turned towards the reflecting pool.

I realized I was alone in a cemetery, in a sunken area, out of view. The sun would be setting soon. Visions of “Night of the Living Dead” came to mind as I imagined black and white zombies stumbling down into this isolated basin. I hopped onto the pristine grass and quickly scrambled up the tree-lined slope next to the mausoleum. (I thoroughly expected the Landscaping Police of the Dead to tweet their whistles and yell, “No walking on the grass, Ma’m!”) I emerged from behind a holly tree and stepped onto the meandering paved path, strolling casually as if I’d been on it all along.

I was in the cemetery proper, at this point. Ancient trees formed a dense canopy over rolling hills of elaborate monuments. I went from plot to plot, admiring the artistry in the carvings and the humanity of the inscriptions. Mysterious Masonic symbols graced some monuments, while others brandished military emblems or icons. There were more obelisks than you could shake a stick at. (Perhaps their heights and widths varied according to the prominence of the Minneapolis son or daughter sleeping underneath?) A wanly staring goddess appeared to be recycled on statuary from time to time; she grasped a wreath atop one grave while she waved an olive branch over another.

The serene beauty of the place was matched by a melancholy atmosphere. The shade from the trees created an artificial dusk in the cemetery despite the surrounding pinkish sunset. I couldn’t shake the notion that I was a sitting duck; fenced in and alone in a graveyard miles from any living soul. By the time I reached the iron-fenced perimeter and looked down upon Lake Calhoun, I had the overwhelming notion that someone was watching me.

Looking back, I must have looked like a right twit, whipping my mobile out to call my husband. (How pompous, chatting on a cell phone in this Place of Eternal Rest.) In my defense, I wanted to make it obvious to any onlookers that I had lines of communication. Granted, the undead wouldn’t be deterred by a 911 call, but any live aggressors might be... plus, I was truly moved by the beauty of the spot, and wanted to share my unique find. My husband answered and soon googled online photos of the place. I felt somewhat better as we chatted about the cemetery’s charm. By the end of the call my heebie-jeebies were sated and I strolled down the long paved path back to the entrance gates. I finally glimpsed another human being when I came across a security vehicle parked at the main drive. I shook aside my shy nature and strolled over to ask him about the best taxi-nabbing strategy. The cornfed security guard gave his advice and then chuckled, “You’ve walked quite a way, haven’t you?” His amused grin confirmed my suspicion that he’d watched me gracelessly galumphing all over his cemetery. My spidey-senses had been accurate after all.

But what about the footsteps? The security guard had conducted his surveillance from the comfort of a car. Did a more permanent Lakewood resident guide me around my favorite spot in Minneapolis?

It turns out that entertainer Herbert “Tiny Tim” Khaury is laid to rest in this cemetery. Who better to show off the wonders of Lakewood than the man best known for his rendition of "Tip-Toe Through the Tulips?"


Tiptoe to the window, by the window that is where I'll be
Come tiptoe through the tulips with me!
Tiptoe from your pillow, to the shadow of a willow tree
And tiptoe through the tulips with me!
Knee deep in flowers will stray, we'll keep the showers away.
And if I kiss you in the garden, in the moonlight, will you pardon me?
Come tiptoe through the tulips with me!

Thursday, June 17, 2004

Desperately Seeking Minneapolis, Pt. I.

Last week I descended upon lake-filled Minneapolis, home of wacky web jester James Lileks. I requested to go to a usability conference in the “City of Lakes” partially due to an urban study I’d seen on I was fortunate enough to have my piton well embedded in the peaks of the departmental budget, so I received approval to attend the annual broodings of the "Usability Professional’s Association".

I must say I was a bit disappointed my first night in the city when I found myself on Nicollet Island, in the middle of the Mississippi River, as a rainstorm broke loose. (I had wandered there from my City Center hotel at recommendations of the concierge.) Perhaps the island was a bit more inviting on sunny days, but now I was stranded in no-man’s land except for the blockish Nicollet Island Inn, which didn’t seem the sort of place a wet drowned-rat person should slog into. Nor did the island park seem to offer refuge from the tempest, so I ran across the bridge to the St. Paul riverside. Sophia’s cafĂ© welcomed me with canopied outdoor dining; I delighted over crispy-skinned duck as the storm drenched fellow passers-by. I hoped that my clueless tour of the city would continue to have such happy endings.

I’ve made an effort to get out in the cities I visit on business, despite my reluctant nature. I am a tremendously shy person cloaked in an introvert’s disguise. I’m capable of witty and interesting banter, yet I’m often uncomfortable socializing with strangers. I tend to find the conversation trite and strained--how often can you discuss your hometown’s weather or that of your conversation mate’s? “Oh, it’s very cold in Denver in the winter, huh? I can imagine! Brrr...”

My conference strategy entails avoiding the evening mixers and getting out and about to see the sights. Rather than hiding behind a book at a restaurant corner table, I sightsee and try to chat amicably with those I encounter. I’ve been richly rewarded for this self-abuse; my attempts to overcome shyness have left me with a treasure chest of memories. I’ve frolicked with nuns, I’ve gotten bear hugs from the gnarliest of homeless persons, and I have experienced breathtaking views from many a vantage point.

And so I found myself at the end of the second conference day, pondering my evening agenda. I logged onto to see what gems of the city might await. Between J.L’s nostalgic review of the Chain Lakes and the second chance I gave the concierge, I decided to hail a cab and head for Lake Calhoun.

I was on a quest to find somewhere quiet, beautiful and serene amidst the hustle and bustle of the city. From Maritime Museum Beach in San Francisco to San Callixto in Rome, I’ve found spots where one can sit, observe, and think, “This is what you folks love about your city. I understand, and I love it too.” When the cabbie dropped me off at windy, nondescript West Lake Park, I knew that I hadn’t found my happy place yet. I spied the yacht club and beach far to the right side of the lake (far, far, FAR across the lake), and started walking briskly just to get my body heat up a degree or two.

As I walked, I thought about how often I get myself into this kind of situation. By forcing myself out in public to combat shyness, I’ve ended up walking a million miles because I haven’t planned the outing very well. The worst was the time I sought the wild parrots of San Francisco; I ended up lost and exhausted in a labyrinth of stairways near Coit Tower as the sun went down. (I never did find the little buggers.) This time, I was desperately trying to find the quaint side of Minneapolis, but I was destined for an earache due to the squalls on the lake, or being flattened by the frenetic joggers who were trying to make up for a long, harsh winter.

And then I found it; “the spot.” A lone little wooden bench on a pier provided rest and a view of the many white sailboats whipping across the water. The sun came out and the wind died down. I was meant to sit here, and take it all in. Here is where I would find “what Minneapolis was all about.” I sat down, breathed deeply, and became mesmerized by the beautiful dance of windsurfers and yachtsmen.

Then I heard footsteps, a pause, and a “thud” on the bench to my right. Peripheral vision alerted me that the man was looking in my direction every minute or two. My view of the lake became targeted, focused. I didn’t want to turn my head in any way that would give him an opportunity to make eye contact with me. It’s a protective device I’ve developed as someone who likes to wander alone, and it works fairly well. The minute you make eye contact with someone, the sooner you will be approached for money, or perhaps for “help”--a million ruses exist to take advantage of a woman on her own in public.

I continued to scan the horizon mechanically, making a point to consult my watch at one point to give the impression of “Boy, my Big Strong Husband sure is late! I will be angry with my Big Strong Husband when he gets here...”

Then came the whoosh of a lit match, and the whiff of burned paper and tobacco sweepings. Great. My outdoor sojourn is being enhanced by a Marlboro moment. I was sensitive to the fact that an immediate departure would indicate my distaste for the smoke, and I was not in the mood to fuel a potentially threatening person’s anger. So I sat a few minutes longer, consulted my watch, then sighed and stood up. I walked away as if a no-show interrupted my bliss, rather than cancer sticks. I took a quick glance at my dockmate and noted that he looked slightly scruffy, but not particularly aggressive.

I strode a confident pace towards the marina when I detected heavy plodding steps behind me. He was following me! My heart pounded out of my mouth and dribbled on my lips until the jogger overtook me and loped past. I was ashamed to have labeled my bench-sitting neighbor as a potential mugger.

I dug deeper and eventually came to the conclusion that I wasn’t on the defensive because he was a man, but simply because he’d dirtied the pretty picture I’d unveiled on that bench by the lake. I acknowledged that my adventure was not over; I’d have to search elsewhere. I took stock of my surroundings, took a deep breath, and continued on my quest.

Part II; I find my happy place.

*Nota Bene:
Up until this post, I've excluded hyperlinks to external sites. Just this once, it's okay to be joyously distracted by the musings of James Lileks. :)