The People in My Neighborhood: The Big Dogs

The Daily Life Text

Why do we have friends? Do we keep them around to prevent from being lonely? Do we have them because they make us laugh? Is it because they keep us sane? Because they bolster us?

I think all of my friends are incredible people. They’re all beautiful and they all have something great to offer, even if it is just something as basically vital as a voice on the other end of the line.

But in many ways, my friends are so vastly different from me. Like, my friend Kate is a really good literary agent, but that’s not something I’d ever want to try. And my friend Aileen is a die-hard classic New Yorker, but I don’t know how to be one of those, really, beyond loving the city and knowing it. My other friend Kate is a really good outdoors and travel journalist–something I always thought I wanted to do, but which proved not only outside of my ken, but outside of my area of interest, no matter how much I tried to force it.

So you see, I think of my friends as silos–perfect in their individual pursuits, which may not be for me.

Sport does bind us together. Jim and I have many friends that we’ve either followed into a race or friends we’ve tried to get into racing in some way, shape or form. But I was always more support crew or guide: “Here, you should try this sport. It’s super fun. Don’t worry, I’ll be the slowest on the course, so I’ll look out for you.”

Here’s proof:

Of the ten people in this photo (October 2001), only two did not race. I’m one of them.

Anyhow. I’m sure part of this is self-defense. I know I’m not willing to put in the time to train to the point where I can do a marathon in 3:30, or even 3:45. And I know I’m not a gifted enough athlete, although I did have some kind of competitive streak when I was younger. (Have you seen it lying around? I’d kind of like it back, please. Kind of.)

But last week, while I was mucking around in Surrey with Lara and Jody, I caught a flutter of feeling something new in my chest: aspiration.

It happened while I was chugging up a hill, chasing Lara and Jody. Jody’d just completed a fifty-mile race over the Grand Tetons. Lara is, in general, a conscientious and meticulous athlete. Both are stronger than I am by leaps and bounds, but both are generous with their abilities: they invite me places and whenever Jody comes to stay she invites me to run with her. When I went to visit her in North Carolina, where she lives, she encouraged me to “bring trail running shoes.”

Perhaps I should be more obvious: Jody is a four-time Ironman. Between her first Ironman and her second, she took an hour off her time. Her regular marathon time is well below four hours.

Lara’s first Ironman time was around 13 hours. She’s remarkably gifted on the bike, as far as I can tell, and manages her six-foot frame like grace incarnate. (Why, yes, your friendly local short and stubby over here is jealous. Thanks for asking.)

Anyhow. So there we were, mucking up this hill. Me, panting. I don’t know what Lara and Jody were doing because I could only just see them cresting the thing, and then waiting for me, ponytails mussed in the most chic of ways, pacing, looking not at all like running dorks, but rather like people who were inordinately comfortable in their own bodies, while I, overdressed and sweating up a storm, clomped and chugged like a pregnant sow waddling to the trough.

And then it hit me. I want to be up there, with my friends, where I belong. And where, apparently, they think I belong. although they’d never pressure me to be more than I want to be.

We did a 10-miler that weekend, a part-pavement part-trail race that had Lara elated and me and Jody muttering over the fact that we had to run over plowed farmlands.* I couldn’t help thinking, what a formidable set we’d have been, the three of us, if I could keep pace with them, egging each other on, running smoothly.

It used to be that I longed for a Girls’ Night Out group. It would be me and my girlfriends, walking swiftly down the street, an updated, better-looking female version of the Monkees.

Here we come/Walking down the street/Get the funniest looks from/Everyone we meet

And we’d get the funniest looks not because we were the Monkees, but because people could not believe how much fun we were having together. The looks would be looks of envy: Goodness, look at those girls. They can depend on each other. They are good friends. They are each others’ wingmen.

And then I had that for a brief shining year or two in New York, and it was beautiful and wonderful and everything I thought it’d be.

But I want more. I want to transfer my Monkees image to the race course, or at least to the training sessions.**

It occurs to me that this is why you have friends: They make you want to be better than you’ve been before, more than you’ve been before. I speak of this not only in sport terms; I speak of this in all walks of life: one of my friends has been through more this past year than can possibly be expected of a normal functioning human being, and yet, she’s worked through it, and moved on, with aplomb and good humor. This kind of attitude you just can’t buy. I don’t have it. I’m a moper; I wallow. Not for long, but I wallow.

And the other has a sh*t ton on her plate that I’m not sure I’d even know how to begin to handle. She looks at herself with a sharp, critical eye. She never sees her own skills, but that’s okay, because her friends do see them, and we remind her regularly, when she lets us.

Jody and Lara waited for me at the finish line of the 10-miler. Jody looked for me about a quarter mile before the end of the race course and ran me in, and I think it was then that I finally puzzled it out: My friends are my pack. As in any pack, there are alpha dogs and regular dogs. The difference in my pack is that all the big dogs want the regular dogs to grow up and be big, too.

*Jody did it with a stress fracture in her foot.

**The latter is somewhat plausible with these two. The former is nigh on impossible, but I’m okay with that.

The People in My Neighborhood: The Guardian

The Daily Life Text

Ricardo Pierre isn’t someone I’m likely to ever encounter again. I’ve only ever spent a couple of weeks in his company. I only have a few decent photos of him, and I had to poach one of those from someone else.

And yet, I’d trust him with my life. I know this because I did have to trust him with my life.

Ricardo has been one of our most consistent drivers and bodyguards in ShelterBox‘s nine months so far in Port-au-Prince. We hired him from the French Red Cross and just never gave him back. He is former detail for President Aristide, a father, a recreational boxer, a husband and the father to two boys. He is one of the nicest guys I have ever met. He is one year into law school and a damned fine electrician. Ricardo is also responsible for the caretaking of his elderly father and his younger sister.

Working on a tent

On my last day in Haiti as team lead, I sat in the front seat of our car with Ricardo at U.N. logistics base, counting cash to pass on to the next team lead. Ricardo would have to keep the cash on him until the next lead could fly in, two days later.

I pulled my stash from various places in my pack and on my body, and counted out several thousand dollars. I handed each hundred to Ricardo to double-check the math, counted it all one last time, and stuffed two envelopes with it, so that Ricardo could carry it around better, more safely.

With Steve, working on an interview

It wasn’t until Ricardo had both envelopes stuffed into his front pockets that I felt as if my tour was finally done, and then I thought about the curiosity of trusting someone you barely know with thousands of someone else’s dollars.

And then I reflected, briefly, on how absurd a world I was operating in at the moment: money was the smallest, least valuable thing I had trusted Ricardo with over the weeks I’d known him. When Ricardo said, “It’s not safe to go there today,” we trusted him. When Ricardo said he’d be back at the Deck (the bar and grill) to pick up me and my teammate no matter how late we stayed out celebrating a logistics partner’s birthday, we trusted him.

When he told us we were safe, I believed him. When he told us we needed to make a quick exit, we did it. When he stood by my shoulder and told me quietly to keep a sharp eye on the woman to my right, I did it, but I did it knowing that he was keeping an equally sharp eye on her–and the sketchy-looking blokes to my left. And when we needed him to run interference, I didn’t even need to think about it. He just did it.

Each day he told us he’d be by to pick us up, I trusted him. Each day we needed someone to back us up doing tent demonstrations, I trusted him to pass along the information accurately, and I could trust that after nine months in the field with our boxes, he knew the kit as well as anyone.

Finally, the day we took him and his family to an all-inclusive beach for a rare day off, when he looked at me and my teammate and told us how much it meant to them that he felt truly a part of the ShelterBox family, I believed it. Later that day, we all sang a noisy “Happy Birthday” in French to my brother over the phone, thousands of miles away in Los Angeles.

Ricardo, middle, with two other ShelterBox Response Team members on a day off.

Each day we needed him to be a member of our team, he came through. It’s why he’ll always be a guardian in my book–and why, when I go to look for someone like Ricardo on my next deployment, I’ll be looking for these same qualities.

I should say that they were qualities that are present in the three drivers that we counted on the most there. They were all men who, when shown that they were expected to become a part of our team, took to that role as naturally as could be expected.

I should also say that working with these men hammered home a critical point for me: You get the most out of trust when you give it as freely as you’re capable of giving it. In this area more than others, the rewards are boundless. I’m not saying that you need to trust everyone around you with your life. I’m saying that there are a few who are worthy, and that you should return the favor when you can, whether someone trusts you with a secret, some insight, or something as small as a couple bucks. These things are weightier than we know.

Ricardo with his son Eduardo at the beach.

Port-au-Prince to Coupeville: what lies between

The Daily Life Text

It all comes down to left brain versus right brain.
I was shocked at just how exhausted I was coming back from my Master of Fine Arts residency at Whidbey Island. With some reservation, I noted that it might have actually been a more difficult recovery than those following deployment for ShelterBox, and I wondered why.
So I sat down and broke it down. (Okay, not really. What I did was to spend a couple of days mulling it over in my head, and then Gwen Bell posted something about writing 750 words a day for the month of September, so it’s September 1 and now I’m posting my thoughts. Because, you know, it’s useful to have external motivation, so on.)
When I come back from deployment I try and unpack, first thing. Who knows what creepy crawlies are lurking in my baggage? (My return from Taiwan yielded the largest squashed cockroach I’d ever seen in my life.) If I can’t be bothered to do the laundry I leave it all on the balcony.
Then I eat something incredibly indulgent. Ice cream, maybe, or potato chips. Something totally unreasonable to be carrying around in your pack. Soda pop is a good choice.
Then I turn on the boob tube. Typically it’s Turner Classic Movies. If I’m lucky I find some Rock Hudson/Doris Day flick, something I’ve seen before, and then I fall asleep on the couch. Eventually I crawl into bed and sleep for about 10 hours.
When I got back from Whidbey, it was almost all the same actions. Except my brain, my brain was on fricken fire. And that’s when I realized just how different the two events are, even if they share the concept of being on overload for 10 days.
Deployment is 100% action and logistics, all the time. You’re messing around, dealing with people, but not on any level other than cursory. There’s no room for emotion, no room for rumination. You think, you act, you fling tents and boxes and build stuff. Then you go home and crash, maybe process some stuff. That’s all left brain.

Building something like this is all left brain.

Whidbey Island? Whidbey Island was all right brain. Writers get to be writers because we think we have something to say. You spend all nine days at Whidbey immersed in words, your own and others, trying to make your words fit what you’re learning. You meet people that fire up little neurons in your head that then spawn more thoughts. You spend all of your time thinking, thinking, thinking about stuff that might not be immediately connected to your actions of going to class and writing papers, but at some point, some of that stuff starts to sink in, and you get even more excited because you can immediately find some way to apply what you’ve learned to your work.
You spend a lot of time thinking about yourself, and not in a navel-gazing, “what am I about?” kind of way. It’s more like an excavation of the stuff you didn’t remember coming to surface; and then there’s the added layer of worrying those events over; how you can express them in a pleasing manner that leaves room for more thought.
Everyone around you gives you something to think about. Every word out of someone’s mouth has the potential to give you something to work with.
It’s a pretty special nine days.
That’s the other part of why recovery was so hard–that kind of energy is hard to come by. I’ve written about this kind of energy before, where everyone in the room cares about just one end point. It happens in group events, like the AIDS Ride, where it was the end goal to get everyone from point A to point B on any given day. To a lesser extent it happens on deployments, where the whole point of your existence is to make sure people get out of the elements and into shelter, but even in that there are smaller more personal investments at play.
At Whidbey, everyone wants everyone else to publish. At graduation, the chairman of our board of directors said, “Your success is our success.” When only three people are graduating, and there are fewer than 50 people in the room, 35 of which are actual students, you know what? You believe that stuff. Whidbey has invested in you. Its future depends on your success. I believe it.

"Our success depends on you having your nose buried in a book all the time." Uh, okay!!!

Funny, though–before this experience, I’d come to believe that true exhaustion came from hard physical activity. This is the first time I’ve ever been so pooped from just thinking, although I did put in four morning runs during my time at Whidbey.
I think, too, that it was truly an amazing experience to sit up both late and early talking about literature. If I’d had any doubts at all that working with words is what I want to do with the rest of my life, 10 days at Whidbey would have knocked them clear out of the park.