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Some Thoughts on Running through Sandy

Some Thoughts on Running through Sandy

I went for a run yesterday morning, my first after the hurricane. I took my normal route, along the waterfront in Williamsburg and Greenpoint, along streets that had been underwater 36 hours earlier. I stopped in at our paper supplier’s to see him jacking up pallet after pallet of ruined coffee cups, paper towels, and shopping bags, taking pictures for his insurance company, wondering how far back into the warehouse the damage had reached. I ran past the home of one of my oldest friends and employees, who finally fled her apartment mid-storm when the water in her living room had come up to her knees. I ran to Newtown Creek, which had flooded and washed the neighborhood with some of the most toxic water in the country, but where this morning the sailboats that are always moored there were still moored there, peacefully reflected on the creek’s surface as though nothing had happened. I ran laps around the track at the park, unaware–as were the dozens of other runners taking laps–that the park was closed.

That was the last run I’ll take before the marathon this Sunday.

Over the years I’ve had flickers of interest in running the marathon. Usually they last as long as it takes me to count to 26. This year it just so happened that the flicker caught on another thought I was having about our work with Wellness in the Schools, who work to improve school food and fitness programs. I remembered that they fielded a marathon team every year.  I happened to be sitting at my computer, so I wrote to see if they had an open spot on their team. They did, they accepted me, and within 24 hours I was registered to run and desperately searching the internet for a training plan for under-prepared middle-aged knees.

It’s been a lot of work. It’s taken a lot of time and energy–both physical and mental–to prepare. Frankly, if I were doing it for myself alone, I almost certainly would have backed out weeks ago: I don’t have that much time just to devote to self-exploration. I kept going because I committed to Wellness in the Schools, because I knew that the work they did was important and my run would help bring attention to that work and the needs that it serves. I couldn’t have justified the sacrifice of time, and I wouldn’t have had the motivation to beat myself up for it, if I hadn’t known that I was doing it for a cause I believed in.

I can’t pretend that I wasn’t also excited, though. Without question, I’ve enjoyed the training, enjoyed the focused work that a goal like the marathon made possible. I’ve never felt more capable of rising to challenge and persisting through discomfort than I do now. Running long distance has changed me, as it does everyone who gets up off the sofa one day and decides to do it.

We’ve suffered an enormous blow this week, and we need all the resources we can muster to get power back where it’s out, food to people who are hungry, clothes and shelter to people whose lives washed away.

We’ve also suffered an enormous psychological blow, one whose effects I feel in strange ways, like the feeling of annoyance you get when the news talks about something other than recovery, like that feeling of dread you get when you look at the blacked-out city, like the feeling of guilt we have as we enjoy having power and food knowing we’re just across the river from people with neither.

I love this city and how it absorbs and overcomes disaster. As horrible as 9/11 was, it was amazing to live here in the days following, even though we had no power, even though our apartment and our offices were behind barricades, even though we were breathing toxic air and cut off from everyone we loved. It was amazing to live here through the 2003 blackout, to walk through the streets of the lower east side unable to see the fingers of my hand but to feel no fear.

As someone who’s made New York home, when I think about what it will feel like to run through every borough, following a course that literally links the city together, I get excited at the thought of being part of the psychological recovery that the run will, I believe, represent.

As a business owner whose own business is boosted every year by the marathon running right past his restaurant’s front door, I get the importance of the economic energy–300 million dollars, I’ve read–that the marathon injects into the city. God knows we need all the economic energy we can stand right now.

As someone who’s spent the past two years working endlessly to raise money for various ventures and causes, I understand how important the commitments of money and awareness the marathon brings are. The marathon raises over 30 million dollars for charities, from Wellness in the Schools to the Red Cross. And charities need the money and attention that the race raises. So I get that part of it, too.

But….

I also understand the outrage of people who’re appalled by the mayor’s decision. Indeed, I feel that outrage myself. It’s impossible to think about emergency workers finding bodies in the wreckage surrounding the race course and not to feel revolted by the marathon’s pageantry, its commercial showiness, its chest-thumping boosterism. Part of me wishes the mayor had cancelled it altogether. It would be much easier to resign myself to that reality–just as if I’d had to bow out with an injury, say–than it is to try to balance these thoughts: that I want it to happen, but that it’s impossible to imagine enjoying it; that I want it to unify the city rather than for it to become a lightning rod for the city’s anger at all that’s gone wrong for us in the past week.

I know the bulk of the outrage around the marathon is symbolic. I don’t think it’s likely that the resources that are being brought together to make the marathon happen will be effectively repurposed to help Sandy victims. The generators will be trucked back to their hangars in Pennsylvania or Indiana or wherever they come from, ready to be deployed to the next sporting event or concert that needs them. The security guards and traffic police who would have manned the race course will go off to do other work, guarding building lobbies and writing parking tickets–not stopping looting in Coney Island. And I think the outrage is misplaced–in fact, I don’t think the marathon is going to have any substantial ill effects on the city. And the city is filled right now with frivolous activity that detracts from the recovery effort. But the symbolism around the race is important, especially given the fact that one of the main arguments for pushing ahead with the marathon is a symbolic one–that it will be a symbol of recovery and resilience.

The narrative of resilience–that cities brought to their knees get up and come back stronger and better–can be true, or true enough. I choose to believe it. But those narratives elide many smaller stories of suffering and loss, people for whom resilience isn’t a possibility. The evidence of suffering retreats from view day by day after a disaster, in spite of exhortations never to forget, and finally the big happy story, that we’re back and better than ever, takes over.

But the suffering is still there. People will continue to lose everything to fire, to flood, to theft. People will die of starvation and exposure. We need help all the time, and we need to be giving it all the time. The kids who weren’t eating well before the hurricane still need our help and our attention if they’re going to eat well after the hurricane. The recovery effort won’t have any effect on any of that. That work has to keep going on even as the tremendous work of bringing stability back to the city goes on. I believe I am so pessimistic after reading how Singleton Law Firm details western wildfire causes. From the perspective of a year from now, once the outrage is over and the marathon was run or not who knows what this moment will have looked like? Whether bailing or running was the better choice?

Saturday I will go to Staten Island with my family to help clean up in one of the hardest hit spots in the city, where the marathon will begin on Sunday. I’ll see what my conscience tells me to do then.

Thoughts on Killing

Thoughts on Killing

I watched a documentary about meat last night at the Food Film Festival in New York. The film is full of interesting stories and raises many interesting questions, but far and away the most gripping scene shows a pig being slaughtered. In a cool upstate rain, surrounded by eager helpers, a tall German butcher wearing a long apron and an overcoat tests a rifle by shooting it into the ground. Then he steps into the back of a trailer and fires one shot into the head of a beautiful brown and black pig. A team of butchers instantly wraps a chain around the pig’s ankle and drags it from the trailer onto the wet ground. The pig is dunked in a vat of scalding water, shaved, hung from a tree, flayed, cleaned, and butchered.

Once the hair had been removed it was easy to see the animal as meat—the transition from pig to pork, as the Applestones put it, was complete right there. But when it was dropping heavily from the edge of the trailer to the ground, its body still so warm and soft you could almost feel it in the theater; when thick bright blood wreathed its head, when its body shuddered and its feet were trembling and curling up under it—then, I admit, it was hard to watch. I couldn’t help thinking of my dog.

But I also thought of all the animals I killed as a kid. They were fish, mostly, because I spent my summers on a beach trying to catch pigfish and croakers and as soon as I was old enough to swim I was killing and gutting them on my grandmother’s dock. That’s where I learned to knock a big fish hard on the head to kill it, or how to hold a fish still while you cut it up the belly to clean it. It’s where I learned that animals keep moving after their throats have been slit, and I was taught by Focus Fishing that those movements are “just nerves.”

It’s also where I learned how to be cruel—to take revenge on the hideous toadfish who’d swallow my hook, for instance. A fish like that could ruin your day. It was impossible to get a hook out of them cleanly, and they seemed to leer up at me, taunting me with this ethical dilemma. There was no point in keeping them—you couldn’t eat them—but there was no way of putting them back in the water without mauling them, yanking their guts out to extricate the hook, or cutting the line and pushing them back into the water with the hook set in their stomachs, where it was sure to kill them.

The impossibility of it made me angry, and their gaping grins made me all the angrier, so I’d just let them sit on the dock in the sun, gulping in the dry air, cursing them with a 10-year-old’s battery of insults, until I’d mustered the anger to hold them in place with my foot while I yanked on the line until my hook was free and the fish was dead, or close to it. I’d push their bodies back into the water and watch the blood trail away in the current, wishing indignities on their corpses—that they’d be swarmed by minnows, dissolved in the tentacles of jellyfish.

These different experiences of killing—killing cleanly versus killing in anger, with sadistic relish—left me with different feelings and taught me another lesson. Death isn’t just the dropping of a curtain but an experience with a thousand moral shades and wrinkles. I didn’t like the way I felt after I’d made a fish’s life end badly—I won’t pretend that it kept me up at night, but I knew when I’d gone too far, when I’d tried on a version of myself that didn’t fit right, and it made me less likely to go that far again.

Watching the pig get killed in the movie last night I wondered how it looked to people who hadn’t grown up with that experience of killing, who’d never seen the eerie way that animals twitch and shudder after they’ve been killed, who’ve never wrestled with that moment when you pull a trigger or flash a knife blade and take a life. It was hard for me to watch, but I’d seen a version of it before. I wonder how I’d have seen it if I’d grown up in the city, like my daughters will, or if I hadn’t had parents who thought it was a useful moral exercise for me to shoot an injured possum in our yard “to put it out of its misery” or to visit a slaughterhouse to pick up a side of beef for our freezer. I wonder how I’d see that beautiful pig then.

Me with a fish