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Writing up this race might be as wacky as running it. The constant refrain of Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off” plays in my head whenever I reflect on today’s event. “Shake it off” has to be my theme for this one:

“I never miss a beat/I’m lightning on my feet/And that’s what they don’t see/…I’m dancing on my own/I’ll make the moves up as I go/And that’s what they don’t know/But I keep cruisin’/Can’t stop, won’t stop grooving/It’s like I’ve got this music in my mind/Saying it’s gonna be all right…I’m just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake…shake it off…”

I could spend this time cataloguing all the variables that made this 10K a wackier (apparently this is THE most apt word I can concoct, since I keep using it) race even than the notorious Bay to Breakers, which at the seeded front line was quite professional and clean, last Sunday. I could. I could talk about how it rained right beforehand and sprinkled during. The streets were so slick they made the trail portion of the course seem like a easy desert trek.

The craziest part happened within the first mile. To start with, the course followed a markedly different route than it did last year, so none of us knew it. All of us out in the front line followed the course biker…who then proceeded to bike us half a mile (that’s significant in a 10K) off course. YEOWZA, baby. I knew we were in trouble when the first few people turned without cones, and we started doubling back.

Even crazier? The lead man, pegged to win this easily, did another mile or so and then stepped off the course. He might have sustained an injury, but he also seemed none too pleased about the course issue.

To see the course front man step off, and to have the Garmin clicking off miles a full 800 m before the mile markers…well, it turned this into a huge mental battle. I felt rattled; I think we all did. Whereas last week I celebrated feeling a mental triumph, this race felt like constant mental patching against the dam of shaken thoughts that accompanied the start of the race, even though my first mile was identical to Bay to Breakers at a 6:08.

I should be professional enough to have a mental procedure for this, but this off roading marked my first experience with such a thing. I went into this race with a certain imagery pattern, and nothing was similar at all (course, weather, etc). It was pure grit and trying to adapt as quickly as possible to variables I did not predict. I imagine we were all facing that, to a degree. One man who caught me toward the end responded to my “Good job!” with the commentary, “This has been a hard race.” Indeed.

Bizarrely enough, this was a USATF regional championship event (like they will ever come back to that course, ha ha!) for San Diego-Imperial. I really wanted a solid run, not only to PR, but also to have an official 10K regional championship time.

But because the course was supposed to have some heft, some talent came out. I ran with some awesome, world class women at the front today. Two were Olympic trialers with amazing PRs at various distances. One maintained fitness from hardcore collegiate days. Another is a nationally ranked triathlete.

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The morning began with kisses for my babies. Mama bear, first and always.

Pre-race routine: Clif Bar nuts and seeds bar 2-2.5 hour before. Coco Vita mango peach coconut water (sip alternately with water). Power Crunch bar 45 minutes before. 1 caffeine tablet 1 hour out. 1-2 mile jog in sweats. Take off warm-ups and hit full strides until legs feel bouncy. Stop water 15 minutes prior.

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Susan and her family came to race this morning, and I loved seeing her again. We were both teachers at TVHS in the English Department back in the day. We are both mamas of two, and Sue is fierce. She is completing the Triple Crown for the first time this year. It was a difficult race for both of us (we prize a good mental game), but we took two of the top five spots in our division. It will take more than weather or a funky course aberration to knock down the Golden Bears! TVHS English Department RE-PRE-SENT!

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Ready, set, go!

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Seriously, these women. From left: Rachel is a super collegiate runner, who totally went after the first place woman. (The first place woman is not pictured here. It was her first race back after a two-year drug suspension. She is an Olympic level marathoner. I was about 2:00 behind the female winner. Rachel came in second. Megan, the woman in bright yellow, is a rock star. This Olympic trialer looked familiar. Only when I was home did I realize who she is… I had an OMG moment in my bedroom. Months ago, in one of my running magazines, there was a La Jolla woman profiled as one of the fastest “mother runners” (along with Kara Goucher in that list).

That woman talked about her approach to hills. Do you have any idea how often I have remembered her words to myself alone in the dark at 5:00 AM, 4:30 AM? Doing hill sprint repeats on Fridays? IT WAS HER!!!!! How could I not have connected that?? OMG! I just wasn’t connecting it… I have quoted her to myself so many times. It’s ridiculous. I should have asked her to sign my bib.

The third woman in this picture is a national level triathlete. She came in 6th, and she was on me for quite awhile. Last year, she kicked my butt, and I couldn’t catch her then. An amazing athlete.

All of them are. Unreal to be in this field. Unreal to be chatting with them at the end, feeling a sense of belonging. What a plot twist in my life, huh? When I told myself three years ago that I was going to try my best to be something I never thought I could be, I meant it. Try my best. Commit. Work. I have a way to go before I can hang with these 6:11 and 6:16 women, but I am working on it. My pace today was 6:28. One day, one day… I will be better than I am now.

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So, results: 4th woman in, this year. 13th person overall. 2nd in division. I did end up with a PB at 1oK.

But it’s unofficial. Bill had to talk me off the ledge in the car when I was getting in the mind to pursue any 10K within striking distance from Temecula as an “unfinished business” race. That would be quite a new narrative: the “axe to grind” race. And even though I PB’d, I was 7 seconds off what I WANTED to PB. At least in the online results, the timing company has notated that our calculations and reported times are based on a 6.7 mile (instead of 6.2 mile) course. It added 3+ minutes to my time.

Looking positively, though, I maintained my fitness from Bay to Breakers last week and didn’t backslide. It may not have felt like the same breakthrough that I experienced during that race, but I maintained what hopefully will be a new “normal” with room to grow before Butte to Butte.

Still, phhhtt. My narrative this time was to run thinking about the love my husband and I share. I wanted to dedicate this run to him, and to post a time we’ve been dreaming about and working on. Instead, both of us were reeling from the course business. Bill knew within 4 minutes when the first man should have gone by at Bill’s position that something had happened. Instead of focusing on our love, I had to fight off annoyance and anxiety. I did start running my positive scripts and trying to write a new story as I went. I don’t dwell long in the negative; I’ve got the training for that. Still, it was hard not to be mentally focused on the race in the way that I had expected to be. Not my favorite race, mentally. I came home and watched footage of Bay to Breakers (Bill purchased some of the race package as a gift a few days ago) to cheer myself back up, ha ha!

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Blowing kisses to my babies. I make the most dork-tastic faces when I run. I could be the poster child for the statement, “Running is HARD!” Looks like I am in a constant state of torment, LOL!

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Then Katie and Eric had their races (a 1 mile and a 1/4 mile, respectively). So proud of my girl. I have been crushin’ on her sprinter hands. She said her legs “felt like bicycles.” She went into race mode and seemed to finish this more quickly than her work on the track lately.

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Eric in full stride. Love this person. He was hilarious—he got away from me (I ran with him), weaving by other participants. He told me later that he paid attention to the cones and knew where to go. He wanted space to go fast. I got pinned back away from him for awhile. He was like a rocket!

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Eric finishes happily.

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You know, their races made it a good day. Every race is its own story, a runner friend of mine once advised. Indeed, that is true. We grow when we take the right lessons away from a race, whether the best or the worst. I am sorry but not sorry for the many variables today: I know I will turn them around and use them to grow myself as a runner and as a fighter. In the meantime, I get to be proud of these two and to share this amazing journey with them. What could be better?

Look for the good. It’s almost always there. Until then: joyful legs, everyone!

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I am chugging along anticipating the Hayes Street Hill, an infamous hill with an 11% gain. A group on the corner has just thrown up a fit of cheers for a runner dressed as a gigantic red crab. Has he taken a hiatus? Because the crowd screams in paroxysms of joy, “The crab is BACK! He’s back!!!” One of the mysteries of Bay to Breakers, no doubt. I look up to enjoy the scene. My race is going well to start, and I want to savor as much of the San Francisco vibe as I possibly can. To run here, to run THIS race, to be with best friends, is a dream. To my left on the porch of an old Victorian, a man in FULL Darth Vader regalia is leaning against the railing, watching the race and eating his lunch with a plastic spork. I am in love with this city. In love.

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Bay to Breakers 2015 crew, just outside of the Dutch Windmill post-race: Marguerite, me, Dylan, and Steve

I am not entirely sure when we decided to be the outliers and racing nerds who take this race seriously—probably some time after we all saw that the entry form asked for an anticipated race pace and before discussions of “Seven Deadly Sins” and “physics of the universe” and “superhero” and “birds” costumes gave way to wanting to wear our favorite racing gear.

We are who we are. I am not sure any of the four of us here were capable of doing less than our best, and that’s one reason why I love us. For us, it seems, “fun” is finding the best in ourselves and supporting it in the others. Even though I considered “fun running” it for two seconds, as soon as I broached the topic Coach-Husband Bill essentially said, “Whaddya talkin’ bout, Crazy?” only with much more eloquence of language. A phone call with Steve only reaffirmed this point, and so my dreams of becoming a troupe of running Muppets or vaginas (no, for real…look it up) suddenly gave way to making a more official racing goal for this event.

We all came in somewhere behind the Kenyans and before the sharks with no arm rotation, old naked men, guys bouncing balls (sounds like I am describing the naked men again, but this truly was its own category), Wonder Women chained together, and drunks…and for us that was just about right.

As most extraordinary memories do, this weekend quickly took on a life of its own. First, Bill and I had our first major travel while kid-less for the weekend. (That experience, I think, requires its own entry later). Our explorations around the city on Saturday morning took us to old San Francisco history and one of my favorite movie sites (also its own entry).

By Saturday afternoon, we met up with my friends and some of their family members and friends. We figured we might as well make the most of the weekend together and so about a week ago, we added another “locked room game” to our weekend plans:

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We were planning to work our legs on Sunday morning, so why not our brains on Saturday afternoon? Mens sana in corpore sano. Right?

Held in Japantown, this room game had its first ever run on Saturday, and I think we were the fourth team to attempt it. The puzzles were completely different. Unlike the first room game we played last year—which would have required a logical leap to which none of us were close at the ending bell—we knew what to do in this room yet simply ran out of time to execute. We got caught in the middle on a long clue, and we used too big a portion of our time trying to decipher it. Eventually we did, but recovering time after that point was nearly impossible. Overall, I did think the puzzles were more well planned out in this version. There were stages that HAD to be completed in order to earn passkeys/clues into later stages from the hosts. In the previous room, there was less of a sense of “stages” and no sense of advancing levels; this room felt more like a video game in that sense. I loved it.

Then, a dinner in the Mission district:

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Marguerite told us about a favorite place of hers called Pi Bar that has the best pizza this side of New York City. She was absolutely correct. We must have sampled most of the menu: polenta fries, spinach and Caesar salads, a huge pizza, a side of more spinach (or was it anchovies, Steve?), baked ziti and vegetables, and more bread. We fueled up the vegetarian way. I swear by a highly, though not exclusively, vegetarian diet. Pi was delicious! They also open at 3:14 every afternoon. Their daily specials are $6.28. Could we be any nerdier? No?

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The crew

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Bill and I after dinner

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Marguerite and I have been friends since middle school; Steve became a friend in 9th grade. We’re getting fairly old now, so we’ve been friends for well over half our lives.

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Before the race with Marguerite and Dylan

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TVHS ’98, RE-PRE-SENT!

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At a certain point, we all went about our pre-race routine. I had finished my jog and was in the middle of taking off my cast-offs to finish my speed strides when I saw Steve. One last hug and then: countdown time!

I should mention here that the warm up marked one of the best parts of the race experience for me. Even moreso than at Long Beach, there were some very high-level, invited, flown-in, elite Kenyan runners here, among other invitees. In some ways, as whackadoo as this race is, at the front it was probably the most professional race I’ve been part of with the highest caliber collection of pros. Butte to Butte, of course, has all the Oregon runners, a few of whom are U of O level and about to turn pro; but B2B drew some talent. These elites and I were all seeded in the same corral (I had to submit an additional verification form after my initial race registration, in which I claimed a certain time) though of course they are faster. I had the chance to LEARN, LEARN, LEARN from the Kenyans’ pre-race warm ups and prep. In fact, at one point, we were all warming up to the side of our corral “together”—and by “together,” I mean, I went over and studied the heck out of everything they did and added a few elements to my own warm ups which I performed alongside them. I consider myself a student of my sport, and Sunday gave me a golden opportunity to be this eager student.

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My corral

I found myself fairly mellow in my corral, surprisingly. Maybe it was the announcement of the guy who had glued 995 googley eyes to his shirt to break the record for running with the most googley eyes. One of my racing habits is to put my mind into some kind of deliberate narrative/story/mindset/mantra beforehand. (At the Hot Chocolate 15K it was the idea of running with pure joy; at Big Sur, it was Cannery Row, family, and the energy of the waves/universe; at Long Beach it was the “prove yourself” story; there’s always something different, a dimension of my journey). Even with all of my history in San Francisco, even with a memory of having volunteered through my college philanthropic group at B2B years ago, even with all of the potential musical/cultural history of the area on which I could have drawn…even with all of that, by the night before the race, I still had connected with nothing solid. I woke up still trying to know that spark deep down inside of me: connecting to that authentic fire, whatever it is for the race, is truly one of the secrets to racing well. Given the training (a big order that takes my full commitment every single day), a race is, I believe, truly run from the neck up. Trust the physical training, if you’ve really done it; on race day, it is the head that matters most. Can your head inhabit an authentic, passionate space? Narratives and mantras that do not spark with that authenticity will not, in my experience, work out. When we run, we have to run with all that we are. It is ourselves we lay down on the line. To run exposed and vulnerable is the only way.

I wasn’t quite connecting with myself on race morning, and I knew I had to strip my mind of overthinking and complexity.

I also knew that I have been heading toward a point for a few months where, being forthright, I needed to stop being a wuss. I have been putting off having the kind of race where I could really fail. My data sets during training have indicated that I could have some better performances; despite this, I have continued to set more conservative goals (still progressive, but conservative) and to run conservatively while meeting those goals. They were still risky…but not risky enough. No one wants a race in which the bear jumps on too soon. I was so afraid of the bear at the Carlsbad 5000 that I let myself stay in the 19s. It was a PR, but I considered my response to lingering fear to be a defeat. Even my coach does not know how disappointed I was in myself or how I have been thinking for awhile that a race would come in which I would force myself to throw down.  The whole point of this journey is to root out fear and make myself, body and mind, stronger and stronger.

So. As I was dressing for this race, I knew it was just time. I adopted a simple mantra alone in our hotel bathroom at 4:30 AM: GUTS. It didn’t need to be more complicated than that, didn’t need to be the waves on the beach, or harnessing the beauty of nature, or anything else. Guts. Guts, guts, guts. I was going to risk everything—even not finishing or having to walk—and push as far as I could. No risk, no reward. So why not risk it absolutely all? I re-watched the footage of Prefontaine in Munich in 1972 just to understand what I was doing; the bear got him that day, and the bear rarely took Pre. Pre defines someone with guts, who risked it all every time he raced. Inspiring.

My hope for this 12K (roughly 7.5 miles) even as late as the day before was to finish in 50:00, if I could. I only ever share these goals with my coach beforehand. There is simply no way to know a new course well enough to be totally informed; 50:00 represented a conservative goal. I knew the Hayes Street hill would be gnarly, but I also know that I am a hill runner; I look at all hills in a race as to being to my overall advantage in many ways. And although Hayes Street is certainly a mother of a hill, I felt prepared to run it. After 4-5 MILES of ascension during Hot Chocolate and another several miles of cambered rolling ascension during Big Sur, Hayes Street seemed doable.

It did slow me down by about a minute on my pace when I got to it (clocking in for that hilly mile at 7:14 min/mile), though it turned out that I was the 3rd woman up it in my division. They offer a $2500 purse to anyone who gets up it first. I knew THAT wouldn’t be me, but I also thanked my stars that I train on miles of Temecula hills daily and have been doing hill sprints/charges weekly for much of the year. Hayes Street does intimidate when you first see it from the bottom, and I did have an “OH shiznitz!” moment. Still, I knew that once I was past it, I’d have the chance to get back into my pace as a reward.

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So in the corral waiting to start, I kept chanting to myself, “guts, guts, guts.” Then the horn. I went out quickly—a little too quickly—at a sub 5:30 pace for the first quarter-mile. I knew I had to reign that in a bit and started doing 5:55. Two guys next to me also checked their systems and said they thought they should back off to 6:00. That was about right, so I drafted off of them a bit and went a bit slower. My first mile split was 6:08, and I settled in, clicking off a 6:09 next. Hayes Street threw me off, but other than that I did sub-6:30s for the race, with many bursts at sub-6:00 pace, and some ridiculous burst at sub-5:00 pace at one point (all according to my watch). My average stride length was in the mid-170s; I am forgetting now what my cadence data said.

I finished the 12K (7.5 miles) in 48:11. For most of Sunday, the results said I was the 2nd place woman in my division; I am actually 3rd place. I was the 22nd woman out of 16,076. 232nd out of 29,970. In general, I don’t pay much attention to placements, less so in races with fewer participants. It’s a data and stats thing. And since my perspective is that I am always only ever racing myself, and since no one controls who shows up (how we rank changes drastically if we’re racing Olympians, right?), I really only look at my data to determine how well a race goes. However, a placement in a race like this—where many of the 21 women before me were the Kenyans—has a bit more meaning. Looking at placement history over several races is significant, not so much for one race.

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That said, during the race I found myself not focused at all on what others were doing. I knew early on that to be successful here I had to keep my mind focused on my own race only. I only “compete” in a race to the extent that at a certain point, I try to motivate myself to keep my pace through the pain by making other runners in front of me a target to pass, if I can, like a video game. I don’t really want to beat them, or not; I just want to do what I need to do to keep my pace going. When I train, I often target trees or fire hydrants. Every pass is a bit of a victory in my rankings, but it is more about letting the atmosphere of the race push me forward in ways that running alone at 4:30 in the morning often can’t.

There was not much jockeying at this race, though. Since I focused so much on running at nearly-but-not-quite a 5K pace for a 12K, I knew that thinking about other runners at all would throw me completely off. By the 5 mile marker, I knew I was doing it—going to go sub-50:00—and because I was starting to get excited and anticipatory, I had to give myself a stern talk. I was close to bringing on the bear, and it wasn’t yet time. “Keep it together. You are doing it. Continue this pace until the last 800 m. If you keep this under control, you will have a breakthrough today. Do not kick yet.”

Although I do not eat or drink during a race of this length, I do perform full system checks en route at almost every mile. My legs felt great, thanks to the perfect coaching of my husband. Everything felt strong. In fact, I got focused on my breathing at one point, but then drew on my swimming to get over that hurdle. I know how to ventilate, I told myself. I performed a breathing exercise, knew the lungs were in order, and went back to concentrating on keeping the mind where it needed to be. I checked my form a few times, as well. After my system checks, I would remind myself, “Run the mile you are in. Enjoy the vibe and spectators.”

Only in San Francisco do spectators dress up to watch a race! At Golden Gate Park, a man had climbed a tree and waved a pine bough at us. Some families watched from the upper windows of their Victorians, and at one point, I waved to some. The cowbells and cheering kept us all going. Bay to Breakers has to be one of the more festive, happy races I’ve ever done. Constant interest points, never felt drudging. Bay to Breakers has been run since 1912. I loved every moment.

And only in San Francisco would we round the corner into the last 800 m to the thump of Duran Duran’s “White Lines.” I turned RIGHT to the lyric “And don’t ever come down…Freebase!!” which is the best part of the song, I have always thought. I actually sang along, and then I knew it was time to KIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIICK.

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My coach is the reason for this performance. I simply do what he says to do in training. Intervals and double days most of the week may sometimes feel taxing, but every time I race I uncover more of the treasures he has laid down for me. So speedwork is never just about speedwork and merely getting faster. He’s trained my MIND, in addition to my body. When he asks me to do some fast 200s on miles 10, 11, an 12 of a 13.2 mile training day, it’s not just about breaking down my legs. I drew not only on the confidence that kind of training gives (if I can go that fast on a half-marathon-plus training day, I can do it now), but also on the mental toughness that forces into a person. I get it now. My husband knows exactly what he is doing.

And when I needed to go down that chute half a mile out, Bill was with me in my mind. It’s just an 800 m interval sprint, I thought. I’ve done plenty of those on more leg mileage than this… let’s goooooooo!

The BEAR jumped on the last 50 m. Really jumped. I closed my eyes a moment and then put what was left into getting to the finish although I could feel my stride choking and stuttering like a jalopy on fumes. I knew then that I had run with guts. I’d been flirting with the bear the whole time. Here he was, right where he should have been. There was nothing more I could have given. The BEAR meant I gave it all. I had beat my goal by almost two minutes. I had nothing else. No holding back. I had run with guts. I did not let myself down.

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Those moments when you tell yourself you are going to do something, and then you absolutely follow through? Yes. I cried and felt emotional. There is no feeling in the world like achieving something you have told yourself you were going to achieve. 

This was a breakthrough race for me. It was probably the race of my life, so far, in terms of speed and mental tenacity. Other races have their stories and their importance in the journey, but this…this I needed. I am hoping I can remember these lessons here and go to the next level in my training now as a result.

And since so many people were involved in accommodating that race on my schedule (Bill took off work on Friday, my parents watched the kiddos, the kiddos spent nights away from us), I figured I needed to have a good performance and make it count! After I came in, we lingered a bit and watched some more of the race. I enjoyed the costumes quite a bit, especially the man who had a large pair of cardboard scissors and a patch over his eye. So many random, creative ideas, too. Loved it.

The funniest part, though? After all of that… Well, that morning at the finish the parking was beyond insane. Bill parked, and understandably, thought he was on one street when really he was on another—but we didn’t know which one. SO. After a 7.5 mile race at leg-murder speed, I then ended up running another 1.5 or so looking for our car. Up and down the neighborhood outside of Golden Gate Park. We agreed that I should start running it, because it would be a faster search process by many orders of magnitude. I was still running when Bill used a Google app to pinpoint the last place the car had stopped. Heck yes. Between panicking and being hopeful and then despairing (we walked before I started running—the whole thing was maybe about half an hour to 40 minutes of searching), I actually knew we were making a hilarious memory.

All the way across the city…and then I found myself running aimlessly hunting for a needle in a haystack! Ha ha ha!

Nestled almost at the base of the hills, one of Temecula’s largest parks sits in a bit of a hollow on the other side of town from me. I venture to that side of town so seldom that I cannot even claim I watched the park evolve over the years into the sprawling grassy picnic oasis of forty-four acres that it is now. I knew it once only long ago, when in high school I went with the Earth Club to plant a tree there as one of our projects. That park, with almost no structure on it or development, was way out in the boonies back then, my most awkward year as a teenager.

In fact, the planting of that tree marked the single time I’d ever been there in all twenty-four years of living in, or visiting, Temecula.

Until this past November.

In November for the first time I took a running route that crossed over one of the main roads and found myself all the way over at the third high school across town. Circling back around, I passed the park, appraising for the first time its loveliness and extensive play structure. Later that day—it was a Sunday—I returned with my children to show them this new place.

The girl over on the cement benches under the pergola looked to be a junior or senior in high school, wore loose her long blonde hair, dressed too darkly and too warmly, and winced out a forlorn look that could have been mistaken for diffidence. She saw us, of that I am sure, but seemed not to care. A glance showed her bent over with her head almost on her arms, doing something—maybe texting? She carried a satchel large enough for books, and the optimist in me believed she might just be waiting for someone. My intuition suggested she was a bit out of place, but not to the point that she warranted any more than an occasional sideways check of peripheral vision. On one such check, I saw her wipe her nose with a tissue. The mom in me, or perhaps the lingering naif, thought maybe she had a cold.

Eric, Katie, and I moved away from the tables and benches and over to the big play structure, where we played for maybe forty minutes or more.

By the time we felt ready to go get frozen yogurt, many more families had arrived at the park. As we walked back toward our car, and toward the pergola, I saw a small group of a mom and a couple dads all staring in one direction: the girl was in the throes of clearly drug-induced behavior. Wild gesticulation. Swaying her body round and round. Pounding the table with her hand. Bloodshot and wan. Muttering nonsense. Clearly a danger to herself, possibly to others.

One mother wondered aloud if she should call the police. All of us cast about, as lost as we were afraid.

In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, which I just finished a couple of days ago, well-known psychologist  and winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics Daniel Kahneman explores the ways in which two brain systems affect the way we process decisions and arrive at judgments. System 1 is emotion, quick, and (to a fault) intuitive; System 2 is more logical, more deliberate, and more able to process a statistical view of the world. Marshaling years of his own research as well as that of others,  Kahneman reveals that we all fool ourselves all of the time, and he gives us practical advice for thwarting various mental glitches and dealing with profound cognitive biases.

In a chapter on base rates, causal statistics, Bayesian reasoning, and beliefs, Kahneman summarizes an experiment (not his own, actually)—the “helping experiment”—conducted at New York University. Participants in the experiment, talking into microphones and separated by booths, through hearing witnessed a stooge experience a health issue So far as the rest of the participants knew, one of them was having a real health problem and had asked for help. Only four of the fifteen participants made a move to help. Six never came out of their booths, and five others emerged only after the stooge appeared to have choked. The experiment demonstrates the tendency to feel relieved of responsibility when we know others have heard the request for help. The point is that the results may surprise us: most of us fancy ourselves kind people who would be quick to help. The experiment, however, shows that this expectation is fallacious. Even normal, decent people can fail to act helpfully when others are present to take on the unpleasantness of a tough situation. This means all of us. Me, too.

We don’t always step forward.

Back in the park, I assessed the flailing girl most certainly there for the sole purpose of doing her drugs. No doubt she had sniffed something, as I reviewed what I knew in my mind. She needs help. I should call the police.

And then I got scared. For my children. For myself, as a mother of these children. Who knew what else the girl had in her bag? I didn’t want my children to see any more of this. Much is made about how protective parents are these days. Yes, and sometimes young people need sheltering. Not every opportunity for a lesson in real life is a good one, not at that age.

Sometimes young people also need to see consequences. And kindness and helpfulness to our fellow man.

I will never know for sure if I made the right decision. I summarily decided for the moment that the two dads and the mom already discussing the issue could decide to intervene. I hustled my children into the car. I cast a vote of burden on the shoulders of the others, without a word. One might easily imagine that those adults, too, watched and discussed her behavior and their indecision ad infinitum until action would have been useless or irrelevant, or until they decided to let her be and wandered away back to their children. Of course that could have happened; we know, in fact, that such an outcome is likely. I knew it might be when I chose to leave. My decision was selfish, through and through. And I knew it.

As a Utilitarian, for the most part, I take John Stuart Mill’s words seriously: “A person may cause evil to others not only by his actions, but by his inaction, and in either case he is justly accountable to them for the injury.”

I drove around the corner and texted my husband. We are each other’s check and balance when it comes to ethics. What should I do? Should I go back and call for help?

Bill’s response was clear and immediate: Take our children away from there, right now. Be safe.

Not a day of these six months has gone by when I haven’t thought of that girl. I wonder about the conclusion to her story. I wonder about the beginning of it, too. No one is born wanting to block out the pain and get addled in the park, an intentionally public space. That’s really the most gut-wrenching part, to me. Her outcry was plain: the park is a busy place. I hope she is okay. I suspect she is not, or will not be yet. If anything, the journey has only started for her.

I cannot say I look back with regret, because that’s really not it, not exactly. In all reality, I probably would make the same decision if I had to do it again. I know myself, for better and worse. Putting one’s children out of harm first may NOT always be the ethical decision when it comes to the fate of all humanity, but in this case, I think it was. It was high risk for them, a high risk brought about by a human being who was not assessing the potential risk to them when she made HER decision. But what if it had been just me there, without my children? Perhaps my mind would have found another reason to avoid involvement. Perhaps I am putting a narrative on my decisions in retrospect, to give my choices a convenient coherency.

What I question most is the moment when I glimpsed my own fear and when I stood in my grey area, as I have stood every single day since: that space when I know that I am not always what I expect to be. That space in which the ethics are not so clear, when we know we are trading one thing for something else…when we know we are making a judgment with all the frailty and bias of our own humanity. In those moments, can we see clearly? If everyone acted as we are about to act, would the universe be a kinder or a worse place? What if our intuition and our probabilistic view of the world conflict?

The ripples of my inaction are unknowable, as would be the ripples of acting. I don’t think I will ever know objectively if I made the right, or best, decision of those available; I only know that I had mere moments to decide, weighing quickly, making trades, as we all do. It is easy to stand in hindsight and judge oneself, and I know that by offering this story, I invite others to use their hindsight and hopeful speculation about their own behavior to judge me. We are a judge-y sort of species. It comes with the narrative-making thing. Always a morality tale.

But I have no morality tale for you today. I have only the description of the time when I lingered in uncertainty and tried to grasp my own heuristics and biases in the most honest way I know how to do. I could be wrong. I could often be wrong...

Perhaps we may only begin to trust ourselves when we know through reason that we never quite can.

“One of the most poetic facts I know about the universe is that essentially every atom in your body was once inside a star that exploded. Moreover, the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than did those in your right. We are all, literally, star children, and our bodies are made of stardust.” (Lawrence Krauss, A Universe from Nothing)

1. Beneath the Surface: Killer Whales, SeaWorld, and the Truth Beyond Blackfish by John Hargrove with Howard Chua-Eoan (March 2015, nonfiction)

“Yet even with an amazing specimen like Kotar, many things were amiss. For one, his dorsal fin was collapsed. It was a physical characteristic he shared with all of the adult male orcas at SeaWorld. I would soon learn that the cause is confinement: floating motionless at the surface of the pool without support for the height and weight of the dorsal fin leads to collapse…”

A few months pregnant with Eric, I remember cuddling with Katie in our big bed the morning I heard about the tragic death of 40-year-old SeaWorld (Florida) trainer Dawn Brancheau. Katie, at age two, had reached a place in her development at which Bill and I had just begun to take her to places like Disneyland, the Wild Animal Park, and more. I’d been eager to take her to SeaWorld, a favorite place of mine in childhood, since she was born.

I’m not one to jump onto bandwagons—quite the opposite, actually. I have an extremely wary and disbelieving mind: it takes fact—and verifiable at that—to get me to entertain a point of view. There is also the credibility of those who present the facts to consider. What rhetoric do they use? Do they embrace or reject science? Do they understand statistical variation? Even then, I hold everything I think at a remove, always aware that on any issue (death penalty, abortion, etc) I could be wrong. No matter the evidence one has, we have to leave open the possibility for further evidence. Just as I am not religious, I am also not religiously political. I walk around everyday thinking, I could be wrong. I could be wrong. I could be wrong. In cynicism there is an inherent humility. It’s a healthy self-doubt, knowing enough neuroscience, behaviorism, psychology, and statistics to understand that we all—all of us—are prone to fooling ourselves all of the time. We make cause and narrative when there really are none; we are affected by things like base rates, how we were raised, and myriad other variables. How many people do you know who walk around with a constant check on themselves, especially with respect to their dearest and most self-definitional beliefs? I could be wrong. I do not at all doubt my ability to think and search and to interpret, but I know that part of a healthy—and integrity-driven—mind is to be able to stand outside of itself and check itself, as objectively as it can. If there is an idea which we find in ourselves that is so dear that we would never, under any circumstances or evidence, be willing to let it go, then that should be a major red flag that the mind’s integrity has been compromised, in my view.

That said, when the documentary Blackfish came out, I held it away from me like the stink of propaganda I assumed it would be. So many jumped on that bandwagon so fast that I wanted nothing to do with it in the wake. I do not like issues that gather sudden furor: I don’t trust them, usually. In the meantime, though, I postponed taking Katie and eventually Eric to SeaWorld. I did not like some of the facts that had emerged, and while I still considered myself researching the issue, I wanted to hold off taking them there just in case.

Eventually I watched Blackfish. It occurred to me even then that I could be getting spun, but I made a decision that the evidence pointed toward continued avoidance of SeaWorld as the neutral position until I could probe the ethics more carefully.

Katie is seven and Eric four. Neither child has ever been to SeaWorld, and after reading this book this month, I can say with near certainty that they never will go while under my parenting. We’ve even had opportunities to go that would have reduced the ticket prices for us immensely—Katie for a penny!! A single cent, yes, as part of a student deal, and Eric and I at very reduced prices.—but I haven’t done it and won’t do it. Ethical decisions should not have a thing to do with affordability.

Author Hargrove worked as a SeaWorld trainer for fourteen years, at both the California and Texas locations. Becoming a SeaWorld trainer had been his life goal since childhood, and the degree of love with which he writes about his favorite whales, whom he shall never seen again, is heartbreaking. He resigned in August of 2012, coming to a place of understanding that, ethically, he could not continue to support SeaWorld or its inhumane practices…

…Of which he details many. The bottom line: orcas should not live in abject captivity. The science backs this up. We have a duty as humanity, I think, to honor these creatures and to protect the vulnerable among us. There is no reason at all to torture animals—majestic or humble—for our entertainment. There are other ways to learn about sea life. If any of what I have said here rubs you the wrong way, then I would argue that is all the more reason to put your biases aside and read this book yourself…from one skeptic to another.

Maybe take a good whale watching trip instead?
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2. Tangled Webs: How False Statements are Undermining America from Martha Stewart to Bernie Madoff by James B. Stewart (2011, nonfiction, social science)

“This surge of perjury cases at the highest levels of business, politics, media, and culture poses some fundamental questions: Why would people with so much to lose puts much at risk by lying under oath? Whatever they may have done, why would they compound their problems by committing an independent felony, punishable by prison? What were the consequences? And what price are all of us paying for their behavior?”

Stewart, former Page One editor at the Wall Street Journal and Pulitzer Prize winner, handily narrates the downfalls (or lack thereof) of Martha Stewart, Scooter Libby, Barry Bonds, and Bernie Madoff. Originally part of a TED generated list of books about the nature, science, and psychology of lying and self-deception, Stewart’s social science expose was a bit of a different genre for me. I debated between this one and Dan Ariely’s more science-based treatment of lying, and this one with its opening chapters on Martha Stewart just grabbed me. (I plan on the Ariely perhaps this coming month, though). Stewart (James, that is)  brings to life a cast of characters that I had heard about in my late teens and early 20s, the sort of characters that come to one’s half-attention when one is finishing up college and beginning a time-demanding career. I read the news back in those days, but I didn’t pay much attention to the narrative life of it all.

Stewart brings the stories of these acts of perjury to life. I had many moments during this read of, “OH! So that’s what happened.”

If you like current social history, this well-written and extremely lengthy book is probably for you. I cannot say it was a memorable favorite of my books this year, but it held my interest.

3. A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing by Lawrence M. Krauss (2012, nonfiction science/physics, math)

“Nevertheless, the declaration of a First Cause still leaves open the question, ‘Who created the creator?’ After all, what is the difference between arguing in favor of an eternally existing creator versus an eternally existing universe without one?”

“The universe is the way it is, whether we like it or not. The existence of a creator is independent of our desires. A world without God or purpose may seem harsh or pointless, but that alone does not require God to actually exist.” 

“However, a negative charge moving backward in time is mathematically equivalent to a positive charge moving forward in time! …In this case one can reinterpret Feynman’s second drawing as follows: a single electron is moving along, and then at another point in space a positron-electron pair is created out of nothing, and the positron meets the first electron and the two annihilate…”

Krauss is a theoretical physicist and cosmologist educated at MIT and known for his studies of dark matter/dark energy.

This is one of my favorites reads of the year. Krauss is known for his accessible and yet still demanding treatment of science. If questions of physics fascinate you, pick this up. If you wonder whether or not it is turtles all the way down, pick this up. If you like thinking about how small human beings are in the continuum, pick this up. If you like a little real physics and math (diagrams, too!) in your reading, pick this up. If you favor science as a discipline of integrity through which we can come to understand more about the nature of existence, pick this up. If you do not favor a scientific view of how we came into existence, pick this up.

4. Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson (March 2015, nonfiction, history, military history)

“The most important effect of all this was to leave the determination as to which ships were to be spared, which to be sunk, to the discretion of individual U-boat commanders. Thus a long submarine captain, typically a young man in his twenties or thirties, ambitious, driven to accumulate as much sunk tonnage as possible, far from his base and unable to make wireless contact with superiors, his vision limited to the small and distant view afforded by a periscope, now held the power to make a mistake that could change the outcome of the entire war.”

If, like me, you can still picture a single highlighted line at the top and to the lefthand of your AP US History notes about the Lusitania and its connection (definitely not a prime cause, we find out) to the United States’ entry into WWI but that’s where your knowledge ends, then this book is a MUST read.

In fact, despite my personal connection to the book that follows this one in my list this month, I would say that Dead Wake is probably THE book that should make its way into most people’s stacks and book clubs immediately. 

Larson brings to life many of the passengers on the great ship while his revelations about British war intelligence will leave your spine tingling. Who knew what, and when? How did President Wilson’s personal life potentially affect his assessment of the war? What is a great passenger ship really like? What would life have been like on a submarine? How do small decisions lead to huge and fatal outcomes?

I could not put this one down.

5. Cannery Row by John Steinbeck (1945, fiction)

“And everywhere people asked him why he was walking through the country. Because he loved true things, he tried to explain. He said he was nervous and besides he wanted to see the country, smell the ground and look at grass and birds and trees, to savor the country, and there was no other way to do it save on foot. And people didn’t like him for telling the truth. They scowled, or shook and tapped their heads, they laughed as though they knew it was a lie and they appreciated a liar. And some, afraid for their daughters or pigs, told him to move on, to get going, just not to stop near their place if he knew what was good for him. And so he stopped telling the truth. He said he was doing it on a bet – that he stood to win a hundred dollars. Everyone liked him then and believed him.”

Ah. I found one. I found a book that has become a favorite of mine now for all time. Those books are the treasures. We can read dozens—hundreds—of books before we locate one of these. Cannery Row is part of my essence now. A favorite. The book you mention when someone asks you. The book you re-read every few years, perhaps.

In all of my reading, why had I never read Cannery Row? I’ve read my share of Steinbeck, adore Grapes of Wrath. The best I can say is that books wait for you. There is, perhaps, the right moment for every book, especially the novel. We make memories of reading them, too. We don’t just remember the book, but the act of reading. It’s intimate, that act. We remember what we wore, the scents of the day, where we sat, or stood, or walked. The act of taking a novel into oneself can be as significant as the content of the book; in many ways content and context are inseparable and become fused. The act of reading is a sensual one; there is particular magic when how we read and what we read coincide in a meaningful way. So, for me, the experience of Cannery Row.

I read Cannery Row last Sunday on a big yellow school bus along the 1, against the ragged backdrop of Big Sur as I waited at Garrapata Beach for my brother David’s hand-off in the marathon relay. I read it wrapped in a red and blue plaid blanket, in my running clothes and warm-ups, tucked away by a plein air art colony, as I watched the sun rise over the Pacific Ocean. I read it the day after walking all around Monterey (where we stayed) and seeing Cannery Row itself for the first time. I read it as a Californian, picturing the shores of La Jolla as doc attempts to collect his specimens on his road trip. I read it as someone deeply convinced that this book had waited for me all these years for just this moment.

Readers of this blog know from my last post about the relay that this experience of reading was a highlight of my whole life. When I am asked on my deathbed for memories that were some of my favorite, for moments when I felt really and truly alive, for  experiences that defined me, well, this is going to be one of them. Book nerd, literature lover, passionate runner… they were everything, these hours on the bus.

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A shark walking to work, Cannery Row, last Saturday afternoon…behind its fin, you can see the wooden biological lab.

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Katie and Amie explore Cannery Row

6. Homer Price by Robert McCloskey (fiction, 1943)

“When Homer isn’t going to school, or doing odd jobs, or playing with other boys, he works on his hobby which is building radios. He has a workshop in one corner of his room where he works in the evenings.”

Lentil, Blueberries for Sal, Make Way for Ducklings, One Morning in Maine—we love McCloskey in this house and re-read our favorite children’s books constantly. In fact, we just read Blueberries for Sal again in honor of the first blueberry pick of the season. McCloskey is, in fact, one of my favorite children’s book authors, so rich. Lentil is one of our personal favorites.

Homer Price is a chapter book collection of six vignettes, all taking place in small town Centerburg and utterly charming. Although it may seem like a children’s book, Homer Price is really a gentle and genial laugh at American culture without cynicism or too much satire. It’s a lovely afternoon in the sun that you wish could last forever, with abundant humor for both children and adults. Warm and inviting, this book.

I read this aloud to Bill, Katie, and Eric as we road tripped last weekend up and down the California coast.

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The Kindle is wonderful for road trips because I can load a bunch of books on there for all of us, thereby reducing packing considerably. I am a book-lover-nutso and over-take books wherever I go, always. You should have seen the boxes of books my dad helped me move into my frosh dorm at Stanford. I cannot live without my books nearby, it feels. When we drove across the country to Shil’s wedding a couple of years ago, or during last summer’s road trip to Oregon, or on even smaller weekend jaunts to San Francisco, I always pack satchels full of our children’s books and books for me. They probably take up more car space percentage-wise than any other single category of item. Kind of ridiculous, but how could we not have our nightly reading and our car reading? How could we exist for days without our books? But now that Bill let me borrow/have his Kindle, I can store much more on there. I still packed some tangible copies of our favorite books for this trip, but not nearly as many!

I put some surprises on the Kindle for this trip that the kiddos had never seen. The Day the Crayons Quit is now one of Eric’s absolute favorites and will forever remind me of this past weekend. We also found a children’s book about Paul Erdos, my favorite mathematician (The Boy Who Loved Math), and Katie liked her first experience with the Nate the Great series.

So what’s in the stack?

Well, I am in the middle of Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, essentially about the science of judgment and decision-making and how we can take a more statistical view of the world and our own mental processes. I slowed down a bit on it, but would like to finish. Katie and I are also ALMOST done with Ender’s Game. TED just posted a list of book recs again on Facebook this morning, so that might influence me as well.

I have read 69 books since beginning the goal of reinvigorating the life of my reader’s mind last July 2nd. Five books a month for a year would be a total of 60 books, so I have fortunately exceeded my own goals already…with both May and June still to come. It may be a far cry from what I used to be able to read in a month, but I feel so much more whole. Motherhood (especially new motherhood, and homeschooling) and unprioritized time caused quite a dry spell in my reading, although never completely barren. I hope never to enter such a phase again! I truly don’t watch TV (except for Once Upon a Time with the kids), but we have to make trades to get done what we want, right? If it comes down to TV/Internet use/movies at night or exercise/substantial reading, as it did for me, then I know what I am happier picking in the long term. I still struggle with frittering away time now and then—surfing around for information is so addictive, I am an information-collection junkie—but I know who I want to be, and that makes it much easier to control my impulses. I find, too, that I have more to talk about with my children, husband, and friends. Those conversations about ideas/philosophy/science/literature are lifeblood. Not to mention how much more I have to think about in that meditative zone of running and swimming… It’s good, and I will probably continue to challenge myself with a similar goal this coming year.

Happy Reading to All!