Day 1,439: Desire Isn’t Lack

Have you seen the streaming series I Love Dick? It’s a dark comedy (based on a 1997 cult novel) about husband-and-wife artists at a residency in Marfa, Texas. The wife, Chris, falls fast and hard for Dick, the macho artist who runs the institute. Dick is totally uninterested in Chris, which doesn’t stop her from writing him scores of increasingly unhinged letters.

“Dear Dick: Every letter is a love letter,” the first one starts, because Chris’s goal is to seduce. (Spoiler: it doesn’t work.) Later letters are defiant: “Dear Dick: Did you think this was going to be pretty?” (Spoiler: it’s not.) Then they move into stranger, richer territory: a celebration of Chris’s by-now rampaging, catastrophic desire. “Dear Dick: Desire isn’t lack. It’s excess energy. A claustrophobia inside your skin.”

“Desire isn’t lack.” Were you raised to think that desire can be additive? I wasn’t. I don’t blame my parents. I blame the entire fucking world for raising me with advice like be happy with what you have and some people would be thrilled to live your life and a hundred years ago women couldn’t do x, y, or z at all, so be glad you at least get a chance.  

Don’t get me wrong:  gratitude is good. And people mean well, mostly (I guess). But it all comes down to: your wants are wrong. Both genders get this message, but it’s hardly news that female desire is especially apt to be viewed as unsettling, even monstrous, if it’s not contained. (When’s the last time you heard anyone say “Well, girls will be girls” over a failure of impulse control resulting in harm to someone else?)

Intellectually, I’ve known for decades that there was nothing wrong with my desires, my female desires. I went to college in the era of so-called “sex-positive feminism.” Like any bold young woman of the time, I flounced from bed to bed (to floor, to beach, plus one tree this one time), up for anything, without demanding those letters and sodas soon to be immortalized by Liz Phair. (Well, plus I was already kind of a junior drunk–who wanted sodas?)

In fact, I didn’t demand much of anything, because my only real desire, or at least the one that drowned out most others, was to be wantedTo fill that gaping need from my childhood with men’s approval. To be worthy of the male gaze, which I was learning to challenge in my literature and film classes even as I pursued it outside the classroom, or sometimes from a guy right across the seminar table.

I got really good at being wanted. It’s not that hard. It’s more or less performance art, albeit not the kind that wins you a residency in Marfa. Even in my egalitarian marriage I couldn’t help but try to make myself into the perfect blank slate for however my husband might want to see me in the moment. How could I stop, when I didn’t even know I was doing it?  And the harder I worked at being wantable and lovable, the more my own wants faded away, because I hadn’t saved any energy for them. Certainly in my last decade of Big Drinking, which roughly coincided with my 30s, I was far too preoccupied with making my life seem Totally Fine and Normal to want much of anything. By the end, I would have told you that what I wanted didn’t matter anyway.

Then I stopped drinking. Some months afterward I started to like myself (so weird), and some months after that I started to notice that I had the ability to want stuff, all kinds of stuff: to write, to run alone in the woods, to make eye contact with people. And some months after that I realized with a small shock that it’s not just male eyes that have a gaze–that I have one, too, and it’s not necessarily always trained on the exact person I am married to. Which is where I got on the road to realizing that desire can be blissful and mystifying and awkward and a major pain in the ass, but one thing it isn’t is a lack. It’s more. It makes life bigger, or maybe just more crowded. Denser in the margins.

Oh, and desire–both projected and received– is fun. Well, at least it is as a parlor game, or a flexing of muscle. I guess I should have known that at some point I would meet my match. That I’d stumble onto desire with, you know, meaning and that the combination would knock me on my smug, female-gaze-y ass.

(I should acknowledge at this point in the story that there is a fine line between discretion and irritating coyness, and that you might not think I’m landing on the right side of it.)

I landed not so long ago in a case of highly inconvenient, non-parlor-game desire, of a severity known as “lovishness.” Maybe “landed” is too passive a word, given that the road in took many months, scores of conversation hours, was the product of hundreds of small decisions made by both parties. And yet in retrospect we recalled a moment of mutual, literal dizziness, as if we had been dropped from a great height into a new territory and were still a little airsick. So: yes. Landed it is. I landed. He landed. And we stared at each other in a woozy mix of swoon and friendship and fear.

I had not planned to experience a desire bigger than my ability to philosophize about it. Lovishness seriously freaked me out.  “I know this is supposed to mean I need to work on my marriage,” I told a wise girlfriend. “But I like my marriage! We’re happy. I just kind of want this other thing too. Maybe I just need to work on myself. Maybe my lunacy is so deep that I can’t even see the problems this is a symptom of.”

My friend waited patiently for my shame-spiral monologue to end. Then she said: “When married women have feelings for other men, we always get told it’s because we’re not working hard enough. Maybe you don’t need to work on anything. Maybe you’re just having a human experience.”

“I guess I thought I’d had all my human experiences by now,” I joked. Well, I tried to make it sound like a joke. even though on some level I wasn’t. But I’m a different kind of human than I was 1,439 days ago. I’m, like, here. I see and feel stuff.

“You’re just so awake,” said the man whose emotional landscape had become layered with mine. This was months ago, before we’d talked about the thing we already should have been talking about. At the time I thought to myself: well, yeah, duh, because I’m sitting within arm’s reach of you. But I knew that wasn’t the whole reason–that I wasn’t some blank-eyed doll who only came to life under the gaze of the right man. I knew he’d seen it in me because it was already there to be seen, because I am. I’m awake. And being awake is even harder and scarier and more tiring than I would have expected. It demands courage and skill at pushing on impulses to test and question them. Which is a fancy way of saying that you can honor and respect even your fiercest desires without necessarily storming off to fulfill them right that minute. You can let them settle in a bit. Get used to them. Talk about them (uh, this part is especially important in situations like mine, and may you be as pleasantly shocked as I was by the security, open-mindedness, and sheer modernity of your spouse. It’s kinda hot.)

A newly sober woman I know was struggling one night not to rush out and buy a bottle of wine or six. A mutual friend, also sober, said “Look, the alcohol will be there later if you still need it. What’s the big hurry?” That’s how I’ve started to think about inconvenient desires. Okay, fine: it’s how I’m trying to start to think about inconvenient desires: that the big ones (which, oh God, this one was) don’t just up and vanish. There’s no need for a panicked, reactive rush, because the desire will still be there when I figure out what to do about it.

“Do you feel like you could control this?” the man said during a particularly fraught post-landing conversation. “Because I have no illusions that I could control this.” Of course I can! I wanted to say. The emotions, the narrative, the damage mitigation–leave it all to me, babe, and we’ll have ourselves a harmless little fling and part as the best of friends. 

I looked into his eyes for a long time while I tried to convince myself of these things. “No,” I said finally. “I don’t think I could control this.” Which was one (utterly miserable, deeply resented) step away from reactivity and towards the rational, non-destructive, but still heartbreaking decision that had to be made. Because as he was brave enough to recognize before I did, we were no longer in fling territory. This was a letters-and-sodas situation, the kind that can ruin good lives.

I’m still too much in the middle of it to know a lot, but I do know this: there’s bound to be another inconvenient desire some day, and then another and another (assuming that life is long, e.g. I’m not suggesting a constant parade of sexual rapacity), each one carrying its own sparkle and trouble, decisions and accountabilities. Because humans have human experiences. And I have become fond, most days–though not so much lately–of being a human. The kind who gazes back, and pays attention to what she wants, because what she wants matters, too.

“Dear Dick: Did you think this was going to be pretty?” It’s not pretty. But it’s beautiful.

 

Day 1,276: Dissident

Am I a dissident now? I thought yesterday, reflecting on national events that have not exactly worked out to my liking. It’s not an everyday word, dissident–it makes me think of tanks and gulags, Vaclav Havel and Andrei Sakharov. Not me, walking around on a dignified low boil, making practical contingency plans I hope I won’t need.

And yet, it kinda fits. Present me with any role–corporate worker, woman, wife, sober person, American–and I’ll find something fundamental to take issue with, if not outright reject. And if I couldn’t find that thing to cross my arms against, I’d probably invent it, God help me. Like one of those actors who find themselves reworking lines as they speak them, I’m constitutionally unable to just play the goddamn part as written.

But I’m low-key about it–I’ve got credit in the straight world, to borrow a line. Comparing my adolescence to my sister’s, my father once said: “She would argue us into the ground over every rule and curfew. You’d just nod and then go off and do exactly what you wanted.” You’d have to be paying real attention to see me as a dissident,  and hardly anyone would watch that closely–including me, I guess, or it wouldn’t have surprised me so much to realize Yes, you’re a dissident. You always were. Now it just matters a little bit more. 

Being sober is also a small act of dissidence that feels like a bigger one these days, something writer Megan Koester absolutely nails in a scathing new essay in ViceThe whole thing is worth your time–it’s the entire reason for this post!–but here’s the line that knocked me flat:

“I know people who have been dead drunk for days, a reaction I find logical. To stay loaded is to remain in stasis, pausing the video game that is life while figuring out your next move.”

That’s exactly how I’ve been feeling–that in this first extended period of, you know, spectacular political upheaval and global uncertainty since I cleaned up my act, life has somehow insisted on marching forward even as I struggle to process it all in real time. There’s no cycle of numbing/suffering/shame to distract me from the sense that a whole lot of things seem set to blow. But there’s also no distraction from the fact that in recent weeks I’ve also cooked good meals and written and gone to the movies and bought (and worn!) killer lingerie and laughed at my younger dog’s first experience with snow and had startling moments of connection with other people. All of this is happening. All at once.

September 11, 2001 is the date I became a daily drinker. For no good reason–I lived in a peaceful college town over a thousand miles from New York,  and didn’t lose anyone in the attacks, and didn’t know anyone in the military. But I was anxious and horrified, and a giant glass of wine each day seemed like the rebellious, life-during-wartime thing to do. Why not, right? We were all going to die soon anyway.

Except here we are. And my sense now is that the truly radical life-during-wartime thing to do isn’t drinking. It’s, well, living life during wartime. At least I think that’s what a dissident would do.

Day 1,262, Part 2: Thank you.

I wrote today’s first post before going back and reading the many, many blog comments I received in the wake of “Enjoli.” I hadn’t looked at them before because for some of the reasons I talked about in my last couple of posts, I just needed to be in a quiet space for a bit.

But now I’ve read them all (and hopefully approved them all) and all I can say is THANK YOU to everyone who took the time to write. Your words made me cry, and yes, I am in public right now. (You might have warned me, people.) Especially those of you found inspiration to get sober or stick with new sobriety from my essay. My God, I can’t tell you how much that means to me. Just know it does. I hope you’re all still plugging along in (as Belle would say) your little sober car. And if you’re not but you wish you were, then just start again. You’ll be smarter and have better tools than you did last time. Never stop starting over if you need to (but also know that if you can just gut it out during the hard early days, it’ll get SO much better and you’ll never have to have a Day 1 again).

We’re all connected.

Love, Kristi

Day 1,262: Here, there, and everywhere

You know how when you procrastinate about doing something it can start to make you feel guilty, and then you procrastinate even more, and then you feel even guiltier, and so on into a vortex of black nothingness?

Yeah. But I’m back! Guiltily. As you’ll see, things have been kinda busy, not that that is any excuse. 

First, the big news: my  first book, an essay collection titled Want Not, will be published in winter 2018 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. I signed the contract four months ago but typing the words still makes me feel a bit out-of-body. To have a book published at all, let alone from a publisher of personal idols like Michael Cunningham, Lydia Davis, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Michelle Huneven–even three years ago I couldn’t have imagined this would happen. But it is.

The essays in Want Not are personal ones that look at drinking and sobriety (and the wanting and not-wanting that drives both) through a variety of lenses: some funny, some sad, most a bit of both. If you’ve been reading me for a while, some of the pieces in the book will be familiar to you, but many will be totally new. Which is my way of letting you know that if you don’t purchase at least one copy you will be missing a ton. 

Of course, the downside to publishing a book is that you actually do have to write it. That’s unfortunate, and accounts for me no longer having much of a social life, aka blog. But I’m still out there! “Enjoli” fever brought a lot of opportunities my way and I said ‘yes, please’ to a few of them. One of my favorites is this “How to Not” series for the Awl, where I explain how to avoid drinking in a variety of (as a friend puts it) setting, circumstances, scenes, events, and milieus:

This is an ongoing series, and I love suggestions! I need suggestions. So if there’s a milieu, circumstance, etc. that you think I should write about, hit me up.

I’ve also done some really fun (for me, anyway) podcast appearances, including the cleverly titled “Enjoli Virus” with Laura and Holly from HOME/Hip Sobriety. And writer Claire Rudy Foster and I took over the Since Right Now podcast twice, once the normal way (normal=Skype) and once at my house all hopped up on coffee.

And last but not least, I’m in the January 2017 issue of Glamour! Here’s the first in-the-wild sighting, sent by a friend from her hair salon in North Carolina (which also serves doughnuts:

 

glamour

If I were you I would probably go out and buy at LEAST 2 copies of this Glamour, making sure to move any remaining ones to a prominent place in the newsstand rack.

That’s all for now from me. How are you?

 

Day 1,124: No Faith Required

I started a heart-rate running training plan yesterday and it’s already killing me. The idea of HR training is to expand your aerobic capacity and reduce burnout by doing most of your running at 140 beats per minute or less. As your hearts learns to supply oxygen to your blood more efficiently, you can go further and faster at the same level of effort. Sounds good, right?

It was maddening. Even running as slowly as I know how–and looking, I suspect, like the Pink Panther–I hit 140 fast and often. I spent an hour on the trail and walked at least half of it. (I’m not throwing shade on walk breaks, by the way–I love them. I need them. But the operative word is “break,” and this is not what that was.) By the halfway point, my internal monologue went something like this:

Just because this has worked for a lot other people doesn’t mean it will work for me. What if my heart has some anomaly where it doesn’t get more efficient? I’m going to spend weeks walking 15-minute miles and nothing will change except for my fitness collapsing because my body isn’t designed for this plan. Anyway, I’m under too much stress right now to run slow. How am I supposed to decompress like this? Oh, I know–I could make my own sort of hybrid plan, where sometimes I do the workout as written and sometimes I run as fast as I want! I know the coach says that will sabotage training, but what does she know about me, really? I’m special. My heart is much better and much worse than the ones that normal people have. 

Does this sound at all familiar? It did to me, and I started to laugh (grimly, I will have you know, because officially I was still pissed about walking so much). It sounded like me, thinking:

  • I don’t get how all these sober bloggers sound so happy. They’re probably just trying to talk themselves into it. Or maybe they’re just inherently much happier people than me. They had one little problem and they dealt with it. I have a hundred problems and without alcohol I’d still have 99.
  • The data about alcohol and breast cancer seems a little overstated. I mean, I exercise and eat organic food and have no family history, so even if I drink too much I bet my risk is still below average.
  • Same with the liver stuff. You never hear about people like me having liver failure. It’s always older men who drink during the day at those bars with ATM machines and no windows. Like William H. Macy in Magnolia. My liver is not the kind that fails. 
  • Anyway, even if I wanted to 100% quit I doubt I could. Those sober bloggers aren’t dealing with the kind of job stress I have. Or the way I grew up, walking on eggshells all the time, getting hit, plus getting blamed for getting hit. People like me can’t just stop drinking. We’re not strong like those other people. 
  • But oh, I know! Maybe I can just moderateHave some rules, like only buy half-bottles of wine, or drink a glass of water between every glass of wine, or only drink red since I don’t like it as much. Oh yeah, this is a great idea–a plan that fits my special needs. 

That’s right–as a drinker I didn’t even really believe that medical science applied to me. And, to judge by my heart rate temper tantrum, I guess I still don’t. I still think I’m too special to benefit from proven, codified methods.

And you know what? That’s okay. I’m still going to stick with this plan and see what happens, just for the hell of it.

With sobriety, maybe you’re right where I am with the cardiovascular system–utterly convinced that you can’t have the peace of mind, the freedom that those smug bloggers do, because you’re an anomaly/special snowflake/freak of nature. You want it, but you have zero faith that doing the things we did will make any difference.

And guess what? That’s okay too. Sometimes it’s just asking too much to have faith in advance of your own data. Sometimes you have to take an action, then another, then another–feeling slightly foolish along the way–before the evidence appears.

So maybe we can do it together. What do you say? I’ll go out and plod down the trail, even though I don’t think it’ll work. You’ll do anything to avoid having a drink, even though you don’t think it’ll work. And when we both have some data, we’ll meet back here and talk.

You in?

Day 1,107: YJ + TY KU = WTFF

There are two things in life I love: yoga, and being judgmental. So when Laura and Holly alerted me to Yoga Journal’s big new heavily promoted advertorial partnership with TY KU Sake, aka “The Official Drink of Apres Yoga,” I simply could not wait to learn more. Let’s take a look, shall we?

First, here’s the image on the TY KU Sake landing page:

Tyku

Friends, let’s get straight to the heart of things:

What the fuck is going on here? Why are these two women hanging out on a fake stoop that is clearly indoors? Are they on Sesame Street? If so, where’s Gordon? Where’s Maria?

Why is the one on the left smiling blankly into space, and why is her leg Photoshopped? I know what pose this is supposed to be. I’ve done it. I did a lame facsimile of it today as blog research. And I still can’t work out how her knee is facing forward unless it has been removed from her body.

And can we talk about the smug-looking chick on the right? Specifically: what the hell is she wearing? Is it by chance an acid-washed, elastic-cuffed denim jumpsuit? It is, isn’t it? And those are high-top moccasins on her feet, aren’t they? It’s okay, you can tell me.

Everything about the denim-jumpsuit girl and her smirk is freaking me out. I feel sure she is a malevolent spirit that rose from the ashes of those ads about Yoplait being shoe-shopping good.

Finally–and you’ll have to take my word for this because I cropped the photo badly–there is a loaf of French bread in the tote bag behind the disembodied pink leg. Just in case you needed one more signifier that these are the classiest, most urbane yoga ladies of 1994: they have stick bread with them, okay? They are practically named Audrey and Tautou.

Whew. So now that I’ve got all that off my chest, let’s talk about the six reasons YJ and TY KU say that sake is the perfect post-yoga beverage…oh shoot. There was one other subtle thing about the photo that bugged me and now it’s slipped my mind what it…oh wait, I remember now. It was the RANDOM BASSET HOUND on the top step. He doesn’t even seem like he’s with the yoga women–maybe he’s the landlord? And is this really the best shot of him they could get? “Oh man, Mr. Furley licked his own nose again.” “Fuck it, we’re losing the fake daylight. It’s a wrap.”

Anyway. Here are the six reasons YJ and and TY KU think you should drink this 20% ABV stuff after practice:

  1. It may help reduce stress and allow you to ‘live in the moment.’ And god knows you’ll need that, after a yoga class aimed at building tension and encouraging you to obsess over past mistakes and make wild projections about the future.
  2. It’s heart-healthy.  “We know a small amount of alcohol can be beneficial when drank (sic) in moderation.” Oh Jesus, it’s resveratrol again, right? The compound that will make us all live forever when consumed in quantities of wine way, way smaller than anyone who gets self-righteous about resveratrol actually drinks. Okay, yes, you’d better make sure you get your life-saving resveratrol, yogis. And if you can get it in a mind-altering substance (instead of grape juice) right after a sweaty and possibly dehydrating workout, all the better.
  3. Trade wine for sake and you may sleep better because sake contains less sugar and fewer byproducts of fermentation vs. wine. So, basically, it sucks for your body less than wine. Might as well aim high, right? Enjoy that marginally better sleep.
  4. Sake is sans sulfites and tannins. “We suck less than wine! Om shanti!” part 2. Though really, all I can think of is how I used to blame red-wine hangovers on the tannins vs. the, you know, FIVE GLASSES FULL OF ALCOHOL I drank the night before.
  5. Sake may make your skin healthier. “If sipping sake makes you less stressed, it may also have an impact on your skin. A happier person tends to have a healthier glow.” Well, gosh, who could argue with the straight-up hard science they just laid down right there? And again, after that yoga class you are going to need something to lift you up, sister-friend.
  6. Sake is culturally portion-controlled because the serving size is 3 ounces, vs. 5 ounces for wine. Maybe I’m not qualified to comment on this one, given that my understanding of the alcohol ‘serving size’ concept was, let’s say, philosophical at best. But I have visited Japan a few times, and at least from my limited Western point of view, “cultural portion control” did not seem to be a super big thing when it came to booze.

Anyway, Yoga Journal says drink up, yogis!  I mean, sure, excessive alcohol use causes 10% of deaths among working-age US adults. And sure, moderate use can slide into excessive use because alcohol is, you know, a goddamn addictive substance that changes how your brain works. But that’s about other people, not you. You’re so healthy. You’re so mindful. Those awful things aren’t going to happen to you.

I was healthy. I was mindful. Those awful things weren’t going to happen to me either.

So kanpai and namaste! After all, TY KU Sake is ‘happy hour for the chakras.’ And if you’re saying “Wait, I thought yoga was happy hour for the chakras,” well, I guess you’re not quite as big a sucker as they’d like you to be. Work on that, huh?

Day 1,073: Going Long

“Physical pain?” my shrink says.

“None,” I answer.

“Fatigue?”

“A little.”

It’s a standard inventory that she goes through every week, with all her patients, not just me. (Well, I don’t think it’s just me. Oh my god. Do you think it’s just me?) A list of life elements to which I answer lots, some, a little, or none. Depression, anxiety, physical pain, fatigue.

Anger, grief, competence, pleasure? A little, a little, some, some. Would I know I was grieving if someone didn’t ask me? I’m not sure. Try it: set an alarm once a week and ask yourself what you’re mourning.

“Suicidal thoughts?”

“None.” Never. I grew up in a suicide threat-rich environment. It inoculated me against any personal interest.

“Hopelessness?”

“None.”

“That’s good,” she says, writing something down.

“I mean, futility, yes,” I say. She looks up from her legal pad. “But in like, a Sisyphus sense. I wouldn’t call it hopeless per se.” My shrink tilts her head to one side. “Hopelessness is a very specific word,” I explain.

“Well,” she says. “Maybe we should come back to this.”

***

A few days later I drive to a park outside Seattle to watch people run a 200-mile trail race. Well, to be fair, only the crazy people are doing 200; the normal folks are only running 100 or 150. On a 10-mile loop course. The first time I ran a half-marathon, at the end of Mile 1 I thought See? That was easy! And you only have to do it 12 more times–a thought I immediately wished I had suppressed. I wonder now if any of the runners finished that first loop, said Only 19 more! to themselves, and then, I don’t know, tore all their clothes off and started spinning in circles crying and screaming.

I’m here to steal details for an ultra-marathon that takes place in my novel. Also, my husband is pacing a friend for one loop, though I may not even see them while I’m here. And then of course there’s my middle-distance runner’s curiosity for just how far this so-called hobby can be pushed, not to mention…

Oh, fuck it. All of the above is true, but really? I’m here to see what futility looks like. I’m a futility tourist.

Big races can feel like county fairs, with massage tents and shoe showcases and kids’ 1K runs and all the free sports drink and glucose gel you can stand. This is not that. This is a few rented tents, a whiteboard for tracking time (no shoe-tag sensors here), and a half-dozen people grilling hot dogs and tofu pups. The only way  I know the organizers even have a permit is because I hear one guy ask “Should we get out the beer?” and another guy say “Well, I told King County we wouldn’t have any beer.”They agree to wait for cover of darkness.

It’s gray, chilly, and drizzling–ideal running weather, actually, but not so great for spectating. My Raynaud’s finger turned shock-white in minutes. It’s been doing that for 20 years with no pain or progression, but I still take a moment to worry every time it happens. With that task checked off, I plant myself midway between trail and tents and settle in to wait for some human suffering.

The first sufferer to emerge from the forest trail is a 40-something, robustly healthy-looking black woman. Huh, I think, having expected a tall, wiry, bearded white man like the ones in the tent. “Hey girl!” the woman calls out to the tent guys as she approaches. “Hey girl!” the tent guys call back. She eats a couple of hot dogs, chats for a bit about the Subaru one of the tent guys just bought, then heads back out–smiling–while we all clap. I think she must just be getting started. But no: “Just three to go!” the keeper of the whiteboard says. That means that even if she’s only (‘only’) doing the 100-mile distance, she’s already run 70. I don’t know about you, but I would have stopped grinning and “Hey girling!” by mile 65, 66 at most.

A few minutes later another woman comes trotting out of the woods. Here is my second chance to see a human being struggling not to come apart in the face of nothingness. This woman is less chatty than the first. She grabs some potato chips, visits the Port-a-John, and goes right back out. “Hey, you forgot to ask my number!” she calls over her shoulder.

“Oh yeah, what’s your number?” the timekeeper asks, though he’s already marked down her time.

“867-5309,” she says, and disappears around the bend.

What is wrong with these people? I think. Do they not understand that this is a desperate situation?

***

“Tell me more about the futility,” my shrink says.

I pick up a throw pillow and clutch it on my lap. “Okay, let’s say I actually manage to find a publisher for my book,” I tell her. “And let’s say it earns out the advance, or close enough.”

“You publish a successful book,” she says.

I cringe. “‘Successful’ is a complicated word. Let’s say it does well enough that the publisher wants another one.” She nods in assent, or acceptance. “Then I’ll have to write another one.”

“I thought you wanted to write another one,” she says.

“I do. That’s not the point,” I say. “And then there’s work. Things are going well there. I feel valued, like genuinely valued.”

She smiles. “Certainly has been sounding that way for a while now.”

“But what happens when you do well at work?” I ask her. “They ask you to do more work. That’s the best case scenario. Doing more work. Like the best case scenario for writing a book is writing another book. Even with running, the best case scenario is you don’t get hurt and you can keep doing it.”

She leans forward a little. “But unless something has drastically changed and I don’t know, you love all these things.”

“I do,” I tell her. “But still, isn’t it kind of horrific that they just go on and on and on? And then, you know, after that I’m going to die.”

***

Finally! A man who fits my vision of an ultra runner ambles out of the woods. Well over six feet tall, with brown dreadlocks almost to his knees. Minimalist shoes. Tattoos on painful-looking parts of his legs–calves, the backs of his thighs. At the aid tent, they ask what he’d like to eat and I wait for him to say something like I am nourished by the spirits in the trees and pull a chewed-up root out of his shorts.

“How about something to make me run faster, not feel pain, and be in a better mood,” the man says. “A steroid smoothie, maybe?”

“We have pizza,” someone says.

“Even better!”

I notice then that he’s carrying retractable hiking poles and limping a bit. While he’s loading up on pizza, a woman comes in, also limping, and ducks into a tent to sleep for an hour. Shortly after she zips herself in, another man appears. Unlike every other racer I’ve seen so far, he’s full-on running, not shuffling or walking. Also unlike the others, he doesn’t stop to eat or pee.

“RUNNING SUCKS BALLS!!!” he yells as he flies past us. The dreadlocked man watches him go and says, “Hard to argue with that.”

Over the next hour I start to see things I didn’t before. That almost every runner is walking kind of funny, for instance. That their approaches and departures are slow even by my standards. That though their aid tent breaks are downright leisurely compared to the water stops at a normal-person race, no one sits down. (I ask about this and am told it’s for fear of never getting back up.) That the trekking poles many runners are carrying are for walking the steep uphills, because if you’re going to travel 200 miles you’d better have some plan for pulling your heart out of the red zone.

They are adapting to conditions, in other words, instead of just barreling through. And maybe it’s because anyone who would run this far is preternaturally in tune with his body and mind. But I suspect it’s more that they each learned the hard way at some point that barreling through an 80-hour race just doesn’t work. So if you want to win–never mind that, if you just want to finish–you do what works.

I think about my first year sober, how clear it became about six months in that the new conditions of my life required that its major components not, as the man said, suck balls. I realized I would need a better job, more practice saying no, more sleep. More time outside. More time in general, for walking the uphills.

And did it feel futile, the prospect of stacking up sober day after sober day until the occasion of my glamorous funeral? Uh, yeah. It absolutely felt futile. For a little while. Until I felt steady enough to start noticing all of my surroundings, not just the path in front of me, and realized that time has astonishing density.

***

My shrink can’t really argue with the fact that I’m going to die, though she looks like she might like to. “Well, we all are,” she says.

I shrug. I have decided to prioritize worrying about my own death over the deaths of Everyone Else (the exceptions being close family members, my dogs, and, for reasons I cannot explain, Michael Stipe).

“Do you think you’re going to die young?”

“Not really, but I guess it depends on what ‘young’ means,” I say. It’s just not my day for coping with commonly understood English words.

She stares ahead at her bookshelf for a moment. I think she might be looking for a dictionary to hurl at me, but when she speaks again, she speaks softly.

“You’re perilously close to finally having the life you’ve always wanted,” she says. “It’s not surprising to me that you would panic.”

I loosen my death grip on the throw pillow. “I know,” I tell her. “I know.”

***

It’s really raining now, and I’m hungry, and at home the dogs are getting hungry too. I decide I’ll leave, though a big part of me wants to stay and watch the whole calm, plodding spectacle play out in real time, like that Warhol film where a man sleeps for eight hours. As I’m heading to the car I spot my husband John sucking down some Gu at the aid tent–he must have finished his pacer loop while I wasn’t looking. He seems pretty chipper for someone who just ran ten miles. “It was great,” he says. “I could have done another one. I mean literally another one.” His friend is already back on the trail alone, with 30 miles to go.

John walks me to my car and sees the bag I keep there with a set of running clothes and my second-best pair of shoes, for times I want to go out for a few miles and haven’t planned ahead. “Never too late to join,” he jokes. And for a moment, my body wants to do exactly that. I can already feel the tightness of my ponytail, the damp air on my mostly bare legs, the subtle pooling of blood in my fingertips–even the ache in my upper back that sets in when I go long and my rhomboids decide to do some of the work. How good it would feel, I think, to be out there, with those people, in the weather and the tedium and the pain, trying and doing on the hamster wheel where I belong.