Friday, May 26, 2006

"The Marathon Post" First Installment

“I would like to say I remember, but a person only remember(s) if they remember what they remember.” – Allen Toussaint

Bernd Heinrich’s “Why We Run” is written from his own present-tense perspective as he runs a 100 kilometer (62.1 mile) race at the age of forty-one. The majority of the book is presented as a series of flashbacks interspersed throughout the narrative of this seriously long run. I thought that the experience of running my own marathon would help to put the previous six months in perspective for me, and somehow I would finally figure out where I was headed with this project. As I ran the 26.2 miles of mostly familiar territory, I thought that perhaps the connections would start to form and I would cross the finish line four-and-a-half hours later with the Great American Novel perched atop my head like a delicately balanced bowl of water. This of course didn’t happen. In the intervening weeks and months I have gained some insights, but in some ways my obsessive mapping has only gotten me more lost. I have spent most of the last few months without running, writing, or even thinking much about this project, and this I think is where the real perspective has come from.
Near the beginning of this project I went to Alaska on a medical escort that flew directly over New Orleans about twenty-four hours after the arrival of Hurricane Katrina. The pilot dipped the left wing of the plane as we passed to the north of the ruined city, and we all craned our necks to see the shredded roof of the Superdome and the streets glistening in the sunlight as water began to pour in from the breeched levees around the town. At the time we had no idea of the horrors that New Orleans would experience in the weeks, months, and years to come. My post from that day makes mention of the Good Friday earthquake that struck Anchorage in 1964, but it says nothing of the human catastrophe that was unfolding directly below us.
Six months later, and two days after New Orleans’ first post-Katrina Mardi Gras, I’m doing a medical escort flight from Beaumont, Texas to New Orleans for a nursing home patient who was evacuated after the storm. It’s only been four days since the marathon, and two full days of flying on a thirty-seat turbo prop has done nothing for the condition of my legs. I shift restlessly in my seat, convinced that at any second I will dislodge a blood clot from the distended veins in my ankles and I’ll keel over dead from the ensuing pulmonary embolism. My patient is not concerned at all. Her advanced Alzheimer’s disease has erased most of her memories of home, and the recent tragedy of Katrina hasn’t even registered with her. As our plane comes in over the blue-tarp roofs of suburban Jefferson Parish, I think about the memories that we each hold of the ruined city rising up below us. The New Orleans that exists in my patient’s mind began to disintegrate years before the levees finally let go. Undoubtedly, the nursing home to which she is going will look a lot like the one in Beaumont; a facility which could not have been much different from the one she first left in New Orleans. Her connection to the present is tenuous at best, and the city of her past was swallowed long ago by dementia’s rising tide. Her only connection to reality is a persistent and misguided belief that she is waiting to be picked up by her daughters. The nursing staff in Beaumont confirmed that she had three daughters in New Orleans, but none of the staff had had any contact with them in the six months that their mother had been in Beaumont.
Back at home, I’m thinking about the countless personal histories of New Orleans that now seem so irrelevant. I remember the book “Beautiful Crescent: A History of New Orleans”, one of the first unabashedly subjective histories I had ever encountered, loaned to me by a friend ten years ago and never returned. He had just gotten the book back from an extended loan to another friend and he gave it to me with the promise that I would return it promptly. Today I find the book in a stack of boxes at the back of the house and I read the forward that had impressed me so much ten years ago. “We maintain that there is no definitive history, only stories told with more or less documentation.” As I thumb through the old paperback’s yellowed pages, I find a hand-written letter tucked in at the back cover dated February 19, 1996.

There’s something so sad in that letter. There is an undertone of resignation that I just can’t put my finger on. Here I am ten years later, reading a letter that I could have written myself. A portent of some kind. I haven’t seen S. in at least five years and although I can make no claims as to my continued sobriety, it was in many ways his steadfast refusal to see things from any sort of sober perspective that led us apart. Maybe I’ll get there sometime…
I’m out for one of my first runs since the marathon, and what used to be a simple four mile route is about to kill me. How can this possibly be so hard? I have repeated before that I am not a natural runner, but I think through my six months of training there was a secret part of me that began to feel I had become one, and I was right, but this recent hiatus has permanently altered my development as a runner in the same way that my six months of training forever changed my life as a non-runner. I’ll recover, and I’ll get back to where I was at least, but I am changed.
I am only what I do, and the history of what I have done doesn’t enter into it any more than does my desire for things I would like to do or my lies about things I claim to have done. I am right now, and right now I feel like I’m going to shit my pants. I’d better walk for a few minutes.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

New Posts

I know, I know. It's been a long time coming. I've been struggling with how to present my post-marathon writings, and I have decided to post them in a serial format because the post seems to be reaching novelesque proportions and I don't want to hold up whatever readership I have left while I continue to tinker with it. As a sidebar I will be publishing the work in its entirety for those who missed prior posts or simply want to read things sequentially. There will most certainly be additions, deletions, and other changes made to this complete work as the writing evolves which may not be reflected in the day-to-day (or week-to-week/month-to-month) installments. Enjoy.