Monday, November 12, 2012

Veteran's Day

Today for Veteran's Day, Jane and I went to the Veteran's Day Parade in downtown San Diego. Any time we salute our veterans or or thank them in any way, I explain to Jane that these men and women all fought with Captain America against the bad guys, and that it's important that we say thank you, and recognize them as heroes.

Only once before had I been to a San Diego Veteran's Day parade, and I forgot how much of a hometown feel there is to it. Everyone is right there close enough to speak to. As we waved at people, we were close enough to tell them "thank you," and hear them respond. 

We were not far from a corner near the end of the parade route, so occasionally the parade would stop in front of us, waiting for a group to turn the corner. At one point, with a number of troops in front of us (vets of different ages), I was somewhat overcome and burst into a decent rendition of God Bless America. 

I FULLY expected everyone to join in with me, as I had envisioned a crowd singing together with voices united in a big Veteran's Day warm fuzzy moment. Of course, I got to the end of the song and realized that the only ones who had joined in were the troops in front of us, who, by the end of the song, had turned the corner and were gone. I was singing solo on the streets of downtown San Diego. No matter, I was in the Veteran's Day groove.

As the parade passed by and some of the older Vets walked alongside the parade shaking hands with kids, I encouraged Jane to go up and shake hands or even give a hug to a veteran. One older man, obviously a VietNam Vet with a big welcoming smile and easy manner was shaking hands with the kids as he passed. I told Jane she should give him a hug. As she walked toward him with her arms outstretched and he realized what was happening, he hugged her back and almost burst into tears. After he passed, I told Jane that she really made his day.

A few minutes later, a Navy unit was passing by, and stopped in front of us. I told Jane to run up and shake the hand of the man standing alongside the rows of men and women. Evidently it was a good choice, because she came back with a gold coin from the commanding officer of ARCO ARDM-5Medium Auxiliary Repair Dry Dock. She told me he was like Father Al. If the children ask our priest, Father Al, for a blessing at church (the proper way to greet a priest), he gives the children coins. 

Jane was good for a little over an hour's worth of parade, then she was ready for something else. Since we were both hungry, we rode the bike (I had brought bike and Weehoo trailer so we could park anywhere) down to the Embarcadero and got pizza. While we were eating our pizza, I asked Jane what was her favorite part of the parade. She said, "All those peoples, and I got a flag, and that man, I made him's day." 

Indeed. That was the best part of my day, too.

Mom - thanks for always encouraging us as kids to give a hug and a kiss to the veterans we saw, and to tell them thank you. I'll do my best to pass the torch to the next generation.

Veteran friends - thank you so much for your service, for enduring the bad food and ill-fitting clothing, the blisters, bug bites, the tedium of ill-informed superior officers, and all those things too terrible to mention. We love you so very much!

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

How I Became a Team LUNA Chix Gal

Patty was our coach, riding sweep behind me that morning as I churned and puffed my way up the hills, practicing the course of the Columbia Triathlon. We crested the first major hill about five miles into our 25-mile ride, and my heart sank. Rising in the distance was an even longer hill. I wiped my nose on my cycling glove, put my head down, and continued to pedal in silence. When I crested the second hill, all but ready to collapse, and saw the road descended in a smooth gentle slope as far as I could see, I burst into sobs and blurted out, "I will not die young and fat, like the women in my family!"
I continued to sob a bit as Patty rode up alongside me, and asked, "Are you OK?"
I wiped the tears from my face and told her I'd never been better. She replied, "That's like, the best thing I've ever heard on a ride in my life."

I had recently lost my maternal grandmother and great aunt to heart disease, diabetes, and personal negligence. My (yet unborn) children and grandchildren deserved better. That day on the hill, I chose to become an athlete and take my fate by the horns. Perhaps I wouldn't have complete control, but I could certainly guide it.

Me and my mentor Lisa (left) in Maryland, training for the Seagull Century Ride.

I first got into cycling the way I got into foreign language study: I saw it as a challenge. When I started studying Russian in college, I had no idea where it would take me, but it knew that it was hard, and I knew I couldn't fake the results. I would learn it and succeed, or fail by my own efforts. Similarly, I began cycling as a way of proving to myself that I could do something difficult: I wanted to do an Olympic-distance triathlon even though I couldn't swim a lap in a pool at the time. But I was teachable, and I would learn.

My first real ride with a seasoned cycling group came in Ellicott City, Maryland, on the hilly course that was the Columbia Triathlon course. I finished that triathlon, completing my goals: 1) don't stop, 2) finish 3) don't be in pain afterwards. 

One of the best things to come out of that triathlon for me was the knowledge that I couldn't have done it without the people around me who coached me, cheered for me, and helped me put one foot in front of the other when I thought I couldn't go any further. Now I HAD to get stronger and become a better rider, because I wanted to BE one of those people. I wanted to be a mentor.

The opportunity came three years later, when I met the San Diego Team LUNA Chix and applied to the team. When asked about special skills, I told them I could make complex ideas simple for people, and that I could kill snakes if need be. I was brought onto the team. 

Group ride with Team LUNA Chix San Diego to Cabrillo Monument.

Much of what we do as Team LUNA Chix members is fairly straight-forward: lead rides, raise money for the Breast Cancer Fund, support local events, etc. But a large part is never seen or really known, which is the mentoring that we are blessed with the opportunity to be a part of. 

On a recent ride, our major Breast Cancer Fund fund-raiser from Oceanside, we had a record-breaking 65 participants. As I looked over the crowd of 25-mile riders and started making announcements, I knew the group was too large to properly care for and sweep, so I had them count off, each calling out a number, "One, TWO!, three... Oh! That's me. Four!... etc." There were 33 riders assigned to four LUNAs. Knowing that we would be pressed to properly care for all of them, I encouraged them to introduce themselves to the person they would be riding next to, and to buddy up. I told them to look out for their buddy, and tell someone if they were going to ride ahead or drop back. Meanwhile, I rode sweep.

There were a couple occasions when I got to really use the knowledge that had been handed down to me. One was realizing the trouble the rider in the back was having on the hills. I employed a trick I used when I was riding a fixie around town: count the pedal strokes to the top of the hill. I got to be a fairly good predictor of the number of pedal strokes needed.

"OK, looks like you need to pedal about 35 more strokes to get to the top. Let's count them off: 1-2-3..." up to ten. "OK! Great Next set of ten! 1-2-3..." and so we rode up to the top of the hill. She told me later she thought she would not have made it if I hadn't been there. I smiled, "And that's why I'm here!" I told her.

A bit later, heading up another hill, her chain suddenly derailled to the inside, becoming jammed in the bottom bracket. We stopped, and after some tugging on the chain, and another cyclist stopping to assist, we realized her bike needed a mechanic and proper tools. I told the man who had stopped for us, "Well, I'll flag down a truck and get her a ride." 
"Oh," he looked surprised, "you have SAG?" he asked, referring to the motorized support some rides have.
"Well, we have SAG, but the driver doesn't know it yet..." I said with a smile, and stepped to the road. 

We were on Camp Pendleton, the USMC base north of San Diego. I've been a Navy wife since 1991, and know that most people on base are happy to assist if asked. I waited for a truck, then stuck my thumb out. Sure enough, the man stopped, then backed up to us. 
"What's your situation?" he asked in true military style. I was really glad for this, otherwise I might have launched into the story of her climbing the hill, struggling, then the trouble with the chain... but he helped me focus.
"Her bike is unrideable. She needs a ride to the gate or to Oceanside Harbor," I said plainly.
"I can do that. Load her up," he told me. I asked him if he'd like a LUNA bar, and he said that would be great, because his last name was Moon. Haha.
I made sure phone numbers were exchanged between the girl, Mr Moon, and myself, so we could all check in later. Then set out to catch the rest of my group.

At the end of the ride, the girl caught up with me in the parking lot, telling me how great it was that even though things didn't go as planned, she had a good ride and a very positive experience. She seemed embarrassed by needing special care, so I told her, "Trust me, there have been plenty of people taking care of me along the way. Some day you'll be able to do the same for another rider. You will." When this was told to me years ago, I didn't really believe it, but looked for opportunities anyway. They always present themselves.

I want to thank my mentors and teachers who have brought me to this point. There are more than I can name, but I will name a few: 
Grandmother Ann - thank you for teaching me to love people, to love work, and to love myself
Mom - thank you for being an amazing example of strength and compassion
Dad - thanks for the forced marches. I'm learning to appreciate them, and to value the athletic legacy you gave us.
CJ in Maryland - you're the best mentor ever. I'll always adore you.
Coach Patti - thanks for hanging in there with me on those hills and letting me ride at my own pace.
Coach Lisa F - thanks for encouraging me to do the Seagull Century. I couldn't have done it without you!
Chad M- thanks for not letting on that anything I ever did was impressive. It always made me try harder.
Nancy H- thank you for being the shining light of encouragement that you are, and inviting me to ride with No Brakes Racing.
Eric C- thanks for being a great example of what a champion should be, and helping me to finally make friends with my front brake.
And largely, big thanks to my husband Steve, who waited patiently for me as I eek-eek-eek'ed my way down the hills when I first started riding road bikes, then wordlessly took me to the ER when I started crashing mountain bikes a few years later. You're the best friend and companion a girl could have.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Explaining 9/11 to my 4-year-old

It was Sunday, September 9, 2012, when I realized it was... Sunday, September 9.

For the past few days, when I would notice a calendar and see that once again it would soon be Tuesday, September 11, my pulse would quicken, my throat would begin to close, and tears would start to well in my eyes before I could push the emotions down, refocus, and move forward. In those micro-seconds of grief, my mind would invariably flood with images of the last time it was Sunday, September 9... I was running a sprint triathlon on the Jersey Shore, the sun was high, there was a cool breeze in the air, and life was good. 

Lower Manhattan from the Jersey side

For the past few days, I just wanted to go back and see things as they were, the Manhattan skyline like I remembered seeing it from the Jersey side, one more time. I didn't want Tuesday to come, and a part of me dreaded it.

One of the more profound things associated with 9/11 for me, was getting turned away from the blood bank in the days that followed the attack. For someone who is O-negative, a universal donor, who gets phone calls from the blood bank the day I'm legal to donate again, getting turned away was something uncanny. It seemed all the donors had come out to donate, but there were no survivors to donate to. I remember sitting in my car outside the center, weeping.

Now it's eleven years later, and it's again Tuesday, September 11.  My four-year-old daughter Jane and I enter Balboa Park, looking for a hot dog and "free Tuesdays" admission. As we near the fountain at the south end of the park, I notice a large 9/11 Memorial display, and slow my pace as I walk, her little hand in mine. 

Do I tell her the story? She's only four. The horrific images of the planes crashing into the Towers are in bright colors on the long display walls, along with images of the survivors, firefighters, police, and all the chaos that was Tuesday, September 11. 

I take a breath and lean down on one knee, drawing her close and pointing to the images as I tell her the story.

"Eleven years ago, before you were born, a terrible thing happened. Evil men wanted to hurt people."

"Why?" she asks.

"Because evil people will always want to hurt good people and take away what they have. That's why good people need to be strong, so they can fight the bad people." (Credit here goes to Dennis Prager for the pithy brilliance of this statement.) 


I take a breath, and use the story of The Incredibles to help me tell the story of 9/11. "Remember how Syndrome sent a giant robot to hurt people? Well, these bad men used airplanes instead of robots, and they flew them into buildings to try to hurt people," I tell her. "And a lot of people died."

She looks at the pictures, seeing people with blood and ash on their arms and faces, and asks, "Why them have blood?" 

"They probably got hurt when something fell on them," I tell her. She gazes at the images a few more seconds, then buries her head in my neck. 

I take a deep breath.

"But that's not the whole story," I tell her, quickly realizing I need to give her more information. "Do you remember when Mr Incredible and Frozone went into the burning building to save the people before it collapsed? Well, they had superheroes in New York City, too. See all these people going down the stairway, but the firefighters are going up? They're going in to save people." 

Note: There were 10,000 people or more evacuated from both towers that day, but this information is rarely remembered. We only remember the nearly 3000 that died.

I point to the images of people covered in ash, walking hand-in-hand from the rubble, "See these people? They didn't know each other. But they are helping each other to find safety. See this man? How he's hurt, but he's still helping this lady? They don't know each other, but they are helping each other like brother and sister..." 

"See these people? They're all working together, not like the people in the movies who scream and run away."

"See this one? They didn't know each other, but they're holding hands like brothers and sisters. This picture shows how they cared for each other, even when they were all very scared." 

"And this man here that is being carried out. Is he a fireman?" I ask her.
"Yes," she says.
"It looks like he's a fireman, because he's wearing a helmet and a fireman's jacket. But look at his shoes. Those are office shoes. This man was working at his office, and he got hurt. But a fireman came and rescued him, and gave him his helmet, and his jacket, so he wouldn't get hurt by anything else. These men are saving his life..."

And as I point out the triumph in each of the pictures, my own story of 9/11 shifts from one of grief and anger, to the story it was in the days immediately following the attack: the story of courage and unity in the face of absolute chaos and destruction. It becomes the story of the triumph of the human spirit, of endurance, and resilience. It becomes the story of the amazing orderly evacuation of over 10,000 people from two burning buildings, and the people who turned and walked straight into danger in the hopes of doing good for someone else. It's the story of people coming together like brothers and sisters, and choosing to take care of each other. 

I look at the wall of images and names, and suddenly, I don't dread Tuesday, Septerber 11, any more.