Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Triathlon training as a reflection of my past

Here's how I thought triathlon training would work:

Running: I've run a few 5Ks, a 4-mile race, and an 8K. Training for the 5K run is something I can handle, no big deal.

Biking: I used to bike 1.5 hours to work a couple of times a week. I can bike. No big deal.

Swimming: Scary and difficult. I mean, I know how not to drown, but I've never been a competitive swimmer and I always kind of thought people who swim laps are weird/boring. I taught water aerobics in college, which was fun because it was basically adult pool-splashing time. It was a small class of interesting people, so we chatted a lot. A good workout, but not a swim.

How the training has actually been going since February:

Running: this is a big deal - because I'm enjoying it more than ever. DH (this is his new abbreviation. Not for "Dear Husband" - thought he's that, too - but for "Domestic Hercules". Because that's what he really is.) is running with me. We've already killed the couch-to-5K program, now we've started One Hour Runner. We anticipate long summer evenings jogging together along the lake, which sounds lovely. This actually isn't triathlon training anymore, it's just fun.

Swimming: after an afternoon in February when my sister gave me some much-needed pointers on how to do the crawl, I was swimming laps once or twice a week for a while, and it was working out all right. I think the increased lung capacity I've gained from swimming is what's making running so nice. I have to run hard to get out of breath now. Honestly, I've gotten so into the running that I've slacked on the swimming of late, but I'm not too worried about it.

Biking: what's a bike?


Can I show up to the triathlon and say "two out of three ain't bad"?

As I've reflected on it, though, I'm not actually surprised that the bike is the neglected third of my training. See, I learned to run whenever kids learn to run (age three?) and I ran cross-country for a couple of years and have done plenty of running for other sports, as well as for fun. Once when I was a freshman in college I just woke up one Saturday morning in the spring and, Forrest-Gump style, started running and just kept going north until I was tired. Which turned out to be Evanston. (I then walked home and was in considerable pain for a few days).

I learned to swim when I was roughly 4 or 5 years old. My parents took me to the community pool in the summers, where I took lessons from a large-bosomed, leathery-skinned lady named Judy who had a scratchy voice and a natural skill for helping small children face their terror of deep water. I adored Judy like a surrogate aunt. For several years of my childhood, my response to "what do you want to be when you grow up?" was "a swimming teacher." I wanted to be Judy. To have the patience that allows one to tread water for hours in the 10-foot end of the pool, coaxing jittery first-graders off the diving board, is to be just short of a superhero - or perhaps a saint (I learned recently that teaching children to swim is a commandment in the Torah, so maybe Judy really is a saint).

Judy helped me feel the freedom inherent in swimming: by the time I was 8 or so I would leap into the deep end of the pool and just fly underwater as long as my lungs could stand it. I'd imagine I was a dolphin, or a mermaid. Judy did very good work.

Then there was the bicycle. Classically, kids learn to ride their bikes... when? 7 or 8 years old? Maybe sooner? I've seen 5-year-olds tooling around with confidence.

I was not one of those kids.

Had there been a Judy of bicycles, the story may have been different. My father did the usual dad-thing of taking me out on the pink-and-purple bike with the training wheels and coaching me as I coasted up and down the sidewalk on our block. He was experienced in these matters: both of my elder siblings could ride bikes with no problem. Eventually the training wheels came off... and for whatever reason, I didn't really get back on the bike. There was unfortunately timed nagging from my brother, which caused me, at roughly age seven, to declare: "Maybe I DON'T WANT to learn to ride a bike!"

So I didn't. At all.

The summer when I was thirteen, I took my mom's old bike a few blocks away to the empty county fairgrounds. I had had a dream the night before : I was on a bike, wind blowing through my hair, flying along. I decided it was time to teach myself to ride this bike, along an empty stretch of blacktop next to a soybean field, where no one would see me. I got to the point of coasting at a fairly good speed down the gentle slope of the country road. As I picked up speed I realized I was possibly losing control, and gripped the brakes - but the back brake lines were rusted through. Only the front brakes engaged - and I flew over the handlebars.

The good news is that, due to my lack of steering control, I was facing sideways and I landed in a patch of grass that had not been recently mowed. Nothing was broken, except my motivation. I walked the bike the mile or so home, parked it in the carport, and finished my childhood having never ridden a bike.

This could cause the reader to wonder how I managed to miraculously wind up biking to work from the South Side to the West Side of Chicago as a young adult, or - obviously - how I'm planning to participate in a triathlon.

Well, Domestic Hercules (Herakles, if you're that kind of guy, which he kind of is) did what he so often does: he saved the day.

There was a definite advantage to the way we met - studying abroad in Italy - as most of the self-propelled transportation we did was walking. I'm very good at walking. We found, without much difficulty, that we liked walking places together. (Please insert a terrible Hallmark saying about marriage here, because I will not bring myself to do so). But the study-abroad experience has to end eventually, and we found ourselves back in the US, trying to flirt long-distance. I honestly don't recall when or how it came up that I couldn't ride a bike, but what I do remember is a complete lack of judgment on his part.

This is something I like about DH. Usually when I say something that I expect to be a BIG HAIRY DEAL, he treats it like the non-event it really is.

Instead of this being a problem, it was a matter of understanding: I was lacking this particular skill, once which he had in spades. So he offered to teach me how to ride a bike the next time I visited his parent's place, where there were many spare bikes.

In the driveway of my future in-laws' home, I made a wobbly start on the bike. DH gave me the encouraging and counterintuitive advice to pedal faster, and for some reason I listened to him. After a few moments, I was not-very-confidently tooling up and down his parents' short street. And I didn't crash.

He gave me a few minutes to gain some confidence, then he got on his bike and we took a bike ride together. It was my first bike ride with someone. I was 21.

I persisted in not crashing, save a minor run-in with a wall which I saw coming from a mile away and which didn't really hurt that much anyway since I was going approximately 7 miles an hour.

Over that summer we worked on bike riding several times, though I still suffered from some kind of social anxiety about bicycles: when the whole extended family was renting bikes for a summer afternoon ride, I got extremely nervous. DH offered to ride the tandem bike with me, so we did. (When his mother later learned that we did this and didn't get in to a fight, I think she was convinced we'd get married eventually.)

On the same bike ride a couple of years later, I rode my own mountain bike and spent some time racing DH and his brother. It felt a lot like the dream I'd had as a teenager - flying on land, under my own power, with the wind in my hair. I made it there, it just took me a bit longer than most.

This weekend, I'll be attempting what I'm calling a "fake-athlon": I'm hoping to swim, bike and run approximately the same distances I need to cover at the end of July, without regard to speed or transition times. If I can survive that - and I think I can - I should be able to manage the real thing at the crack of dawn in a strange town with a bunch of spectators and competitors, right?

And if I can't manage that, maybe I need to ride my bike a lot more in the next month.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Wonderful Wash

Last night I spent roughly an hour doing something I wouldn't have expected to do in a sixth-floor apartment with no balcony: I was hanging laundry.

Of course, when we use the laundry room in the basement of our building I'd sometimes pull out the delicates and hang them to dry, but I was hanging up everything.

As of several weeks ago, we have clothes lines running the length of our small hallway, and another line running through our bedroom. And as of about 9:50pm yesterday, all the lines, and our drying rack, were full of damp clothes. Strategically placed fans helped dry the laundry all night.

Why am I suddenly not using the dryers in the basement?

Because we're not using the washers in the basement.

So how are the clothes getting washed?

With this:

Photo from here, and certainly not from our abode.

While I was hanging the laundry, my husband was in the kitchen, cranking away at our new washer - the Wonder Wash.

We now use less water, less detergent, hardly any electricity (save for the fans, but it's summer and we don't have air conditioning so those bad boys would be working full time, anyway) and considerably less time doing laundry than we used to.

I should probably back up, because I'm aware enough to realize that this - thing - looks bizarre.

Since spring of 2007, we've lived in an apartment building which sports a fairly nice, generally quite clean laundry room in the basement. The laundry room has 9 washers and 8 dryers. The apartment building has approximately 90 units, most of which house 2 or more people - and many of which house 2 or more adults plus several children.

This means our laundry room is in demand.

To make matters worse, when the hubs and I were both taking (or in his case, teaching) courses in the evenings, the only time we'd really be able to do laundry would be on weekends. When roughly 40 other people needed to do laundry. And we'd have at least 5 loads to do.

Laundry time in our basement was a breathless relay that involved running in to the room, claiming as many open washers as possible, cramming laundry in as fast as one can go, spending two dollars a load to wash and dry, setting a timer, heading back up to the apartment (because the alternative is to sit on a plastic chair in a windowless room while people come in and glare at you for doing laundry), leaping up when the timer goes off, running back down to the basement, usually having to move the dry stuff that someone just left in the dryer for three hours - often having the worst timing possible, whereby the person whose socks you just carried across the room walks in and looks pissed - shoving everything in the dryers, spending more money, setting another timer, etc.

The moment when the laundry was dry was even more stressful, because that's when folks decide it's OK for some reason to PAW THROUGH YOUR UNDERWEAR when you're folding.

Don't worry, that only happened once (seriously! This woman walked in, saw me standing at the folding table with my clothes piled before me, and just started... picking up my underpants. Uh... hello? I'm right here. Yes, those are mine. I agree that they're cute. Thank you for putting them down. Yiiiicccchhh).

After that incident, the routine would be to cram all the clean and dry laundry back into baskets (thus wrinkling everything) and haul it all upstairs, where we would then fold our two weeks' worth of clothes while watching some reruns or something.

And then about two weeks later we'd do it all over again.

There was an alternative, but that was getting tiring, too: our families all felt sorry for us, and so even a Sunday afternoon visit with my grandparents-in-law would be initiated with a "bring your laundry!" My parents, his parents, and my brother all have their own washers, as well. So we'd visit family and do our laundry.

But that starts to feel like you're visiting the washing machine and just giving family a cursory "hello" after a while. Because, you see, the laundry situation in our building was unpleasant enough that we just... avoided it. We both went the college route of simply buying more underwear. And we would go two full weeks... and then three full weeks... and then longer, without doing laundry. We'd do an "emergency load" on a weeknight to hold us over until the next time we saw family. And then when we saw family, I would start the first load of wash immediately and basically spend three full days monopolizing the local washer and dryer and nagging the hubs to fold when a load was done, because there are only so many baskets in the house and I'll need another one soon.

We'd looked in to small washers that could fit into small kitchens before, but they were clunky and small and seemed like they'd use a lot of electricity.

And yes, we used to use Laundromats, but that's just taking our same routine and loading it into a car and going somewhere where we don't even have family with whom to visit.

But then, a few weeks ago, the hubs discovered the Wonder Wash. It cost less than $50, and there was a YouTube video explaining how it worked. We watched it, and spent a weekend thinking about it, and then (with my blessing) he ordered it.

It showed up, not-entirely assembled, within three days. Hubs had it put together in a matter of minutes. And then we tried it.

A "load" of laundry in this contraption is about half the size of a regular washer's load, but it's so fast you can do a lot of laundry in not much time. Washing takes two minutes. Rinses (we rinse twice) take 30 seconds each. Throw in a few minutes for draining between those cycles and the average load takes about... 7 or 8 minutes? And the stuff seriously gets clean. We use the most unscented detergent we can use, so if the clothes were stanky, we'd be aware. But they're not.

So now, the hubs cranks through a load of wash, and then I look like this:

Image from here

Or something like that.

Laundry has now been shifted from a stressor in our lives to both a pleasant task and a shared project. Since we started using this washer a few weeks ago, we've been discussing tweaks to improve our system. The hubs has been amazing: he figured out how to hang up all the lines and where best to position the fans for drying.

And perhaps most weirdly, we look forward to doing the laundry. We get dishes (another household annoyance) finished more quickly so we can have the counter clear for the washing machine.

Obviously we'll still need the occasional washer and dryer for bulky things that don't fit in our washer, but that will be something along the lines of one load a month, which sounds fantastic to me - and probably to all of our relatives, too.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

My 10-week-old teacher

I'm back from the various abysses that had consumed me!

As I mentioned here before, last week I stayed with my sister and brother-in-law and their 10-week-old daughter, my only niece, She of the Smoochably Chubby Cheeks.

I have what I had thought is a non-negligible amount of childcare experience: I started babysitting for a couple of local families when I was 11 years old (and got certified in a Red Cross Babysitter course. I earned a little lapel pin in the shape of a teddy bear for that class). I later worked for three summers as a camp counselor, wrangling groups of Girl Scouts in steamy Southern Ohio weather. I was trusted enough to teach archery, even - though the arrow points weren't all that sharp.

It might be fair to point out that I haven't done much childcare since I was about 17 years old - 10 years ago. I still think of myself as a high-energy person, but after last week I think I understand better why one of my co-workers insists (in jest... I think) that teenagers should be the surrogate mothers for the whole population, because they have the energy to manage babies.

People, a 10-week-old child is exhausting.

My niece is going through a bit of a fussy phase, and I had to remind myself many times that she has DOUBLED IN SIZE in two months, from a 5.4 pound newborn to a 10-pound, 4 ounce baby. I can't imagine what it must feel like for one's body to be doing that much growing and changing that rapidly - probably pretty uncomfortable, right? Of course. Hence the crying.

She's usually just fine if she's being held while someone is walking or bouncing or patting her back while talking to her. She's in the best mood if someone is doing all of that at the same time, she just ate, and her diaper is clean. This is all simple enough, but to do this routine for HOURS is tiring fairly quickly.

Her cuteness is a double-edged sword. One afternoon, when she'd just woken up from a nap (taken, like many naps that week, on me), I was playing with sunlight and shadows to entertain her. She can see contrasts now - dark colors catch her gaze, and she looks mesmerized. So I was moving my face into and out of the sunlight that streamed through the window. She quietly watched, rapt, while this happened, and then after a few moments of this she looked me in the eyes and smiled a broad, toothless smile. A look of pure joy.

Which made me cry.

Yes, it was Friday afternoon - the end of a long week of night shifts and diaper changes - but I think even if I wasn't tired I would have been touched by her smile. She's just beautiful: chubby cheeks (did I mention those already?), big blue eyes, button nose. When people compliment my sister on her beautiful baby, they're not being polite - she's quite lovely.

Which is why, when she's in the troes of a red-faced, clenched-fist, bloodcurdling screaming crying jag, it is deeply upsetting, but not in the way I expected.

My not-yet-in-love-with-this-baby self thought that her crying would be annoying because it's loud and I like my quiet, or it's in the middle of night and I like my sleep. She'd be an inconvenience when she cried. Once I spent some time with the kid, though, her moments of upset were disturbing on a completely different level, one that's hard to explain. She's done nothing wrong, she's an innocent babe, and she's suffering. I just want her to be happy - and I realized at some point that wanting her to be happy didn't have much at all to do with wanting ME to be happy. I found myself willingly changing pooey diapers because she tends to make a satisfied coo when her bum is clean and dry and newly be-diapered. The coo is cute, but it's also correct.

Does that make sense?

When she's smiling away it's like a corner of the universe is in proper order.

I think that's getting at it.

Children should be safe and clean and warm and loved - and they should know it. It's frustrating to be faced with a wee baby who can't know this yet: dozens of people love her immensely. Her parents are crazy about her. She's wanted and protected, but she'll only know this with time and the patience of all the adults around her.

When I described that smiling moment in the sunshine to another one of my co-workers, who is herself a mother, she said, "and that's the second you could have slayed any dragon, right?"

That about sums it up. I'd stop a train for that kid.

I thought I was being a bit histrionic, but fortunately Pioneer Woman helped me feel less crazy when she posted about her nephew recently here. A similar sentiment - she's not my baby, but at this point she's not not my baby. Sort of.