Put Your Head Down and Focus

As anyone who has read this blog for more than a minute knows, I’m no athlete.  Field day was my least favorite day in the school calendar year; I was a scholar and a musician.  I got my geek on and enjoyed it, all the way through school.  It’s why I became a teacher, I loved school so much.  When I think of most of my favorite people in my life, outside of my family (not that all of them count amongst my favorites….), most of them I either met while I was in school or were involved with school somehow.  Well, except Rick Springfield, but otherwise the statement stands.  It’s no accident that most of my husband’s family are teachers; I immediately felt a kinship with all of them.

In fact, I was so nonathletic that when I wanted to become involved with the track team in high school, the only option available to me was the manager role.  Coach Tymrak (hey, didn’t I mention him in my last post?) was polite and all, but me and my short legs just weren’t going to be an asset to his team. In fact, I ended up bailing on the position because it made me just so damn uncomfortable to be around all of those people in such amazing shape (again, see my last post regarding my insane ability to compare myself to EVERYONE and not in a good way).  My favorite quote of all about running came from the 1980s flick “Real Genius” and went like this:  Q:  “Do you run?”  A:  “Only when chased.”

But listen…my inner high school athlete wanna be is kind of cheering these days, because guess what?  I’m a runner.

I’ve been attempting to run since last September.  I started off slowly with the Couch to 5K program.  I was religious.  I was diligent.  I told all of my friends so I couldn’t be let off the hook.  When one asked me how far I could run, three weeks into the program, I sheepishly answered…”Um, about three minutes.”  Because honestly, the program builds you up so slowly that that was the furthest I’d gone without stopping at that point.  And I was proud of it, because I’d never been able to run before, in my life.

I kept going.  I finished the program in November and ran my first race.  This was the critical juncture, because I knew that lots of people just fall off the grid at this point.  They finish, they do the race, they’re done.  They don’t know what to do next.  How to proceed.  How to keep progressing.  But I told myself that wouldn’t be me.  I signed up for another race to keep me in the training loop.  And then another.

I’m not going to lie.  The three races all kind of sucked.  It was hard.  It was still really hard, even after I’d done two of them.  Wasn’t it supposed to be easier?  When was I going to hit that easy groove people tell you about, and get that runner’s high?

I decided to start a new program.  Bridge to 10K.  I never had any real desire to run 6.2 miles, and certainly not in front of Other People and all, but what the hell.  The program would keep me going and force me not to stop.   The six week program ends when you can run an hour straight.  A freaking hour.  Sixty whole minutes.  That’s insanity, right?

Today, I did it.  I ran for 60 minutes without stopping.

There’s a moment that happens for me, in these long runs, usually somewhere just before the halfway point, where I want to give up.  It’s hard, too hard, and I want to let go.  I want to walk.  I want my heart to stop racing.  I want to stop sweating.  But somehow, I force myself to slow down, lose myself in the music piping through my earbuds, and carry on.  And always, always, in a few minutes, things seem easier.  And before too long, there’s only ten more minutes, or five, or two, and I know I’m going to make it.  I’m going to have run sixty minutes, over five miles.  And that knowledge is amazing, liberating, enlightening.  Running is just like every hard thing I’ve ever done.  It’s awful, it’s difficult, it’s something you think you can’t handle.  But you put your head down and focus, and you do it.  You get through it.  And you’re better for it.

So, look at that.  I’m a runner.  Take that, Coach Tymrak.

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Compare and Contrast

Compare and contrast.  If there was a theme to Mr. Tymrak’s tenth grade Honors History class, it was that.  Compare and contrast.

Every assignment could be boiled down to those two simple words.  Every lesson required us to compare and contrast people, situations, policies.  Find the similarities and the differences.  Lay them out.  Intertwine them, link two dissimilar things together, and then find a way afterwards to tear them apart.

I find that I do that a lot.  Compare and contrast.  Except what I am comparing isn’t the social, political or economic ramifications of the Dred Scott decision or the Anti Trust Act.  No, I’m comparing myself to others.  And true to the insecurity that has always been bubbling up inside of me, I tend to find myself on the short end of the comparison.

I’m an equal opportunity comparer.  I will spend ten minutes on Facebook or Google comparing myself with girls I went to high school with.  Did they achieve more than me?  Are they thinner than me?  Do their posts show a happier marriage or more contentment with their lives?  Almost always the answer is yes, because when I’m engaging in self flagellation, I’m going for the gold.  I’m not going to look at the girl who moved down south and just divorced husband number three.  No, I’m going to look after my friend that started her own publishing company or the one that successfully runs her own insurance agency while balancing several kids and a husband and all that entails.

Or, I’ll compare myself with the other bloggers I follow.  I initially went to Roni’s site for information and motivation about how to lose weight, but now I look at her, six whole years younger than myself, and feel like I’ve missed a step or five.  She’s working from home making a living writing, has a supportive husband, two cute kids and has managed to keep most of the weight she became famous for losing off.  Or Katie, who has suffered major tragedy, but through it all has built a successful career and has a wonderful, insanely happy marriage.  Or Sprogblogger, who not only writes but is married to a writer, and is adequately in awe of all of her blessings.  Every time I read their wonderful writing, I compare myself….what did they do that I didn’t?  Which thing did they do that I didn’t that made them so much more where I wish I was?

And of course I compare myself with my girlfriends.  Who has a bigger house, a happier marriage, better behaved children, better time management.  This is the worst of all of my comparisons, because then I find myself withdrawing myself from them, just a bit.  Not entirely, not completely, but sometimes for a day or a week until my funk passes.  Or until one of them picks up a phone or stops by, because they know me.  And they love me, despite my insecurity, my comparing, my melancholy.

It’s a bad habit, this comparing.  I know it is.   I know that there are wonderful things about me, and that the only person I should be comparing myself to is myself.  To improve.  To move forward.  To appreciate all that I have, and am. Because I have grown, over time.  I have accomplished, and achieved, and learned, and survived.  A million times, in ways large and small.  So what’s with all the insecurity I still engage myself in?

What if I didn’t compare and contrast?  What if instead I could try and learn from all of those people who have inspired my envy?

It’s a goal worth striving for.

Drinking Alone

I was sitting alone, on the sofa that Thursday night in November.  It was quiet save for the sound of the television in front of me and the occasional clink of my wine glass on the table as I lifted it and placed it back down.  I hadn’t eaten dinner, but the plate of chocolate chip cookies my friend Julie had made for me for the election was nearly empty.

I’d lost.  I still couldn’t quite absorb the concept.  I had lost my bid for election to the board of education.

Not only had I lost, but three of my four girlfriends had lost.  We had all been running together, and somewhere in the back of our heads we knew that probably one of us might not make it.  In my darkest, most conservative imaginings I worried that two of us might not be elected.  But as we stood in our campaign headquarters that night, poised for celebration, giddy with the closure of a last final push of campaigning at the polls all day, the writing literally started to appear on the wall.

A big posterboard was taped to the wall in the center of the gathering space, with a grid laid out for all of the polling places and all of the candidates.  We included our opponents too so we could count how many seats we’d won on each board; the town council and the board of education had nine seats, the board of finance had five.  The party was running hard until the phone rang with the results from the first precinct; our numbers were low compared to the other party’s.  I looked nervously at my girlfriends and the room suddenly had grown quieter, less celebratory.  And one by one, as the precincts called in to us the vote tallies, the vote went from being blurry to very clear.

We weren’t just defeated.  We were absolutely trounced, killed, mutilated.  Kelly, my one girlfriend who’d actually won her seat, sat in the corner and cried.  “This is a nightmare,” she sobbed.  “I only wanted to do this if I had at least one other friendly face on the board.  Now I’m going to be there without any of you.  This is a disaster,” she repeated.

It hadn’t just been us reeling from the results.  Our beloved first selectman and friend, Tom, had lost his bid by a less than two hundred votes.  “Perhaps it is a blessing in disguise,” he’d said in a short speech to the gathered masses.  “I can now completely focus on my treatment and getting healthy,” he said, in his first real public acknowledgement that he was still indeed battling his cancer recurrence.

R had been out of town not only on election night, but the whole week; his parents had stayed on to help me with the children on election day.  They left the day after, full of hugs and sympathy.  I went through the motions of smiling and waving goodbye to them as they left, but I knew I was descending.  After they were gone, there was no reason to pretend, to fake it, to come up with the reasons why everything happens for a reason.

I felt unwanted, bruised, battered and hated.  I remembered the nasty ad that mentioned me by name in the paper; I remembered the complaint filed against us, I remembered the little old man at the senior center that had been asking for me by name to give me a piece of his mind.  I was tired.  The phone started ringing and I didn’t answer; I didn’t want to talk to anyone about it.  I just wanted the sharp edges to blur and world to not seem like such a hard place.  So after the kids went to bed, I opened a bottle of red wine and started drinking.  I poured glass after glass, cutting the alcohol with chocolate chip cookies, and waited for sense and reason to find me.

A whole bottle later, and it still hadn’t.

Worried

“I’m tired,” Tom said sheepishly, sitting down as the crowd at the local senior center dwindled.

My girlfriends and I had been invited by our first selectman to join him for a campaign appearance at the town senior center; this was a tough crowd for anyone running for our local board of education.  Since we voted on our school budget every year, and since the school budget was the lion’s share of the whole, the constant reminder of the schools being responsible for uptick in taxes was a drumbeat heard weekly at lunches, bingo games and wii tournaments here.  But Tom, a former finance executive until he’d retired to run for our town’s top job, was popular in this crowd for his smart management and fiscal conservatism.  He thought it was a good idea to give us a little face time with this tough crowd with his endorsement.

Tom had been on his game as we’d stood in the back of the room and watched him answer question after question about everything under the sun.  He smartly answered questions about pot holes, unions, police salaries, budgeting and even the stray odd question about things like skunks spraying personal pets.  The girls and I had been meeting with him once every few weeks to get some talking points, some pointers for our own campaigns, and we’d all developed a fondness for him.  He swore like a sailor, he liked his tequila and he was the smartest man I knew.

And he wasn’t well.

Tom had surgery over the summer to remove a cancer recurrence in his lung.  He’d seemingly bounced back quickly; too quickly.  But when we’d met him for a photo session for our campaign literature in August, he’d confessed that he was coming back from the doctor, who was concerned about some spinal pain he continued to have even after the tumor had been removed.  We’d all thought perhaps he would drop out of his bid for re-election, but he solidiered on.  We took this as a positive sign that the doctor visits were precautionary and that he was well on his way back to the fit, healthy man we’d come to know so well.

“Well you don’t look tired,” my friend Kelly chimed in.  “You were on fire with all the old folks.  I think the women all either have a crush on you or wish you were their son.”  She patted his shoulder.

I pulled up a chair.  “Totally.  Tom, I’ve never seen you so ‘on’ before.  All you have to do is repeat that performance tonight at the debate.”

Tonight was the town wide debate between first selectman candidates.  I’d seen him square off against his opponent last week, in front of our Parents’ Council.  It was a shame that only thirty or so people had seen it; Tom had completely buried his opponent.

He sighed.  “I’m going to have to nap in between if I’ve got a shot at this.”

We exchanged worried looks with each other quickly, trying not to be obvious.  The Tom we knew never napped.  He stayed up with us until one in the morning on his sun porch drinking and teaching us the finer points of pension liability and high deductible medical plans for public employees.

“Well do whatever you need to do to be fresh tonight.  Its yours to take, for sure,” my friend Terri said, acting as the cheerleader.

Next to me, I felt Fran touch my arm, a question.  Privately we’d been worrying that Tom couldn’t canvass neighborhoods this time around; it was the key to any small town election.  We’d been privately debating amongst the four of us whether or not we should bring this up to him; could he at least phone some of the people identified as swing voters?  I nodded imperceptibly.  It was October 15.  It was crunch time.  He needed to do whatever it took.

“Tom, have you thought about calling all those undecideds?  I was making phone calls last week for you and there were a lot of people on the fence thanks to all of that negative campaigning the other guy is doing.  I know all they need is a little of the straight talk you do so well to put them solidly on our side.”

Tom shook his head slowly.  “I just can’t.  It’s all I can do to keep up with the job and these campaign appearances.  I’m going to have to rely on the party to help me out on that respect.”

Oh, no.  It was so much worse than I thought. As we’d been working through this campaign, our chief thought had been what if our friend, our leader, the smartest man we knew lost.  But a new worry crept into my head as I stood there, looking at the growing gray circles on Tom’s pale face.

He clearly needed to stop all of this nonsense and get back into treatment.  He was sick.  My friend, my mentor was very, very sick.  What if he won?

Philosophical Differences

“What the heck is this?” I said, handing over our town’s local paper to the person sitting next to me.

We were at our First Selectman’s home on a Saturday morning in April.  He’d invited my group of education advocates over plus a few of his political allies in town to discuss the budget defeat the previous week.

It had been a full court press again, just like last year.  Except more, much more.  Many more people became involved in the leadup to the vote, on both sides.  Our success last year in spreading the word that sometimes you have to raise taxes to keep solid infrastructure and educational systems in place had been noticed, all over town.  People I didn’t know came up to me and thanked me for my letters to the editor, my website, my emails.  Our small band of six became a larger group as more and more people asked what they could do the following year to help stave off a protracted budget battle.

But we also earned the kind of animosity that comes from a sudden success.  In our tiny New England town, there were a great many people who didn’t appreciate our little band of “newcomers” (not one of us had been born here, and several of us hadn’t even grown up in the Northeast) coming into their town and shaking things up.  They were frugal New Englanders who didn’t like to spend money on nearly anything, much less property tax increases.  The buzz started slowly around the start of school in September; that we were a bunch of lazy parents who wanted the schools to do our parenting jobs for us and that we wanted the whole town to pay for it.  In January, when our First Selectman held a townwide forum on education, the comments were bitter, and forceful.  We were accused of being a PAC and warned that if we stepped outside of the law, we would find ourselves in trouble.  It only made us more willing to go to the mattresses.

We met on Saturday mornings all winter; sometimes with our newly hired Superintendent, sometimes with the First Selectman, sometimes at one of our private homes.  We carved out a get out the vote strategy that included all of what we’d done last year but more. We ordered lawn signs, car magnets, flyers.  We studied election law and filed the necessary paperwork.  We created a budget and made sure we stayed under the amount allotted to not be considered a PAC.  We essentially amounted a full on political campaign to pass a budget with a tax increase around 3%.

It failed.

But even in our failure, there was success.  The vote margin was small, less than 200 votes.  This was unheard of in our town.  Normally the first budget vote failed by a thousand votes; last year it had been nine hundred.  To get that vote margin down that low meant we had done something right.  We were determined to regroup and get the budget passed on the second try, as we had done the previous year.

And so we met again, this warm spring morning, at our First Selectman’s home.

“I saw that,” he answered, looking at the small ad.  It was an odd poem, cryptic, that poked fun at the name of our budget advocacy group, and congratulated our town for not passing a tax increase.  It was mean spirited and angry, and unsigned.  “Who do you think would do that?”

My friend Alan piped up from across the room.  “You know that old guy who comes to the budget meetings and always talks?  He used to be the president of the taxpayers group in town.  I’ve talked to friends who have lived here a while and they said it looks like something he put in the paper before.”

“I don’t get this, though.  If you don’t want your taxes to go up, why would you spend money on an ad that says nothing, other than neener neener neener, you didn’t get your tax increase?”

Our first selectman, Tom, looked at me.  “Don’t you get it?  This isn’t about money to them.  This is about principle.  They want to spend their money they way they want to spend it.  They don’t want to have to pay for your kids, or my road, or anything other than what they choose to.  They might come to these meetings and go on about all the people going to the food pantry or losing their jobs, but that’s not them.  This is philosophical for them.  They just don’t want anyone telling them how to spend their money.  They want to keep their money.  And they are perfectly willing to spend thousands of dollars, more than what they would have paid in taxes, to do it.”

I shook my head, taking back the newspaper from him and looking around the room.  “Well guys,” I said.  “We don’t have thousands of dollars, but we have passion on our side.  What are we going to do this time to make it happen?  Let’s get busy.”

“The general has spoken,” chuckled Tom, winking at me.

Know When to Hold ‘Em, Know When to Fold ‘Em

I couldn’t believe my eyes.  Two weeks after I’d had my conversation with Rick in Atlantic City, and handed over my detailed, well thought out business plan which delineated levels of payment for differing levels of exclusive content, I found a new web link on Rick Springfield’s official website.

“Access is official Rick Springfield advanced fan access! Exclusive member only content, presale ticketing opportunities, members only contests for prizes from Rick’s personal collection, exclusive multimedia content, members only merchandise, members only ‘Ask Rick’ feature, access to Rick’s online diary with text, photos and audio!”

I couldn’t believe it.  Just two weeks ago I had sat right next to Rick and given him my business plan with much of this written right there on the page.  He’d told me it was a great idea, but that he would need to run it by his managers in New York.  I hadn’t felt great about that, because it was so unlike his responses to previous ideas I’d had; before, it had always been more like “sounds great, let me get my manager to contact you about that and get you what you need to get it going”.  Still, Rick had new people in place who were making things happen; he’d been on TV this fall and was now returning to General Hospital in his role from 20 years ago, Dr. Noah Drake.  These new managers were serious contenders, and I appreciated that they might have a different way of doing things.

Still, as the days had passed and I hadn’t heard from management or Rick in response to my idea, I wondered what was going on.  When Rick was home from touring, a question would be answered quickly; he must check his email multiple times a day.  And since he’d practically begged me this summer to stay on in some capacity, I figured he would see my idea as the perfect way for me to be a part of things.  Ever since the new web guy had come along, the line had been drawn and the fan experience had always been seen as my domain.  Even after last summer’s tussle, Rick made it very clear in his emails that fan contests, thank yous, all the silly stuff that die hard fans love but isn’t really applicable to mass market appeal were my specialties.

I couldn’t even begin to imagine how this had happened.   Rick had agreed I should run the thing, intially saying  “I sure wouldn’t want it to go to anyone else.   It could get sooooo wacky,” via email.  I’d given him my business plan, which had much lower price points than what I was seeing on my screen today, but with most of the same ideas.  Two weeks had gone by and now this slick, new addition to the official site had gone live.  Had Rick lied to me that day, nodded and gotten away quickly because he knew this was happening?  Or had he been truly in the dark and given me the green light to something already being cooked up by someone else?

I would have to find out.  But regardless, I knew one thing for sure.  There was no way I would be involved in this thing, because the new web guy had made it clear that, for whatever reason, he wasn’t willing to work with me.  And since most of the perks of this exclusive fan area were the same types of things that the street team would offer, this new Access thing likely spelled the end of that as well.

Wow.  Just, wow.

Another WTF Moment

The email in front of me contained a website link and just three letters:  “WTF”.  I could see plainly that it was a link to Rick Springfield’s official website, and I was sure it contained something that would not sit well with me.

Since the fan events in Rockford, things had started to get a little tense with Rick’s website manager, my replacement.  Looking back on it now, it does seem a little strange, the division of labor that was set up to keep me a part of the team.  Originally, my “job” was supposed to be anything related to the fans; communicating with them via emails and message board, sending out news alerts, giving them things to do online and in the real world to help increase awareness of Rick’s tour and newest release.  But then the job seemed to narrow, somehow.

Suddenly I mysteriously became locked out of administering the new message board; a new mailing list appeared associated with the website, even though I had a huge one already well established.   I was scolded for sending fans a link to a radio station website had a clip of the upcoming record; while the website was public, I was told that the fans had no business poking around a website meant for industry insiders. I kept bumping into an invisible line between what I should and should not be doing, but it kept moving.  I was then told that my job was not necessarily anything related to fans, but “fan based promotion”.  Still, something felt off about how things were changing, mostly without me being told.  I didn’t have anything concrete to give me the negative vibe, other than the slow but sure erosion of my duties.

But as the spring turned into summer and things were heating up for the new record, something concrete did happen.  One of my friends alerted me to a chatter in the fan club chatroom that I ran.  The person was making very negative comments about me and my work, and encouraging everyone instead to visit the new chat room just installed on the “official” website, since “everything” fans could need to know or want to do related to Rick Springfield was all going to be housed there.

I clicked on the chatroom log from the time period in question and started to read.  I gasped as the insults rolled down my screen, out there in public for everyone to see.  Was any of this true?  It was mean, but was it true?  Is this how Rick and his team really felt about my work, why I’d really been demoted?  I read carefully, trying to figure out who the chatter was to see if I should give them any weight.

The chat room crasher talked about how “an 11 year old could have run the website” and how he heard that “Rick’s official website was something I was embarrassed to send my friends to go check out”.  The chatter also went personal:  “Isn’t that girl just a housemom?  Rick needs a professional working on his website.”  The person claimed to have met the new web guy at a show recently, and how the guy had told him much about how disappointing my work had been, and how much new, great content was going to soon appear on the improved version of the “official” website.  Hm.  This must have been an awfully deep conversation for a casual encounter in line at a show.

Traces on the IP address I ran showed that the person who made the comments lived in the same metropolitan area as Rick’s new web designer. If this person really was the new guy, or one of his friends having fun at my expense, there had to be some truth to these rants.  The essential message seemed to be that the official website was absorbing the fan outreach, the street team duties, all of the things that had been mentioned as a reason for me to still be working on the team.

Which is why the email sitting in front of me hit like a sucker punch in the gut.

“Official website exclusive!  Win two passes to Rick Springfield’s appearance on Regis and Kelly by sending out the official eCard for Rick’s newest record.  Be a part of Rick’s promotional team!”

I sat, staring at the screen, dumbfounded.  Firstly, I hadn’t even heard about Rick being booked on Regis and Kelly; this was news in and of itself.  I knew that Rick was coming into NYC in July for promotion; a CD signing was already on the books and a radio station concert that fans had to win tickets to.  This was exactly the kind of thing that I would work on.  I would have worked with the radio station to create a contest to get tickets to that show; I could pair that with the carrot of the Regis and Kelly thing to make NYC a travel destination for fans. They would go to his appearances and wait outside with signs, creating buzz, getting on the news.  Was there more happening?  Why didn’t I know any of this?

I reread the blurb:  “Be a part of Rick’s promotional team.”  I went back and pulled up Rick’s latest email about my role:  “This is how it should work:  he should handle all of the updates and you should handle promotion with the fans.”

It looked like the line had moved again.  If it moved much more, I’d be falling over the side of the cliff.

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