the best way to fail: on a quest for legendary calves

With shoes like these, who needs friends?

I was twenty-seven and I could hardly walk. As I limped around D.C., I thought: I’ve aged fifty years. How quickly ten minutes of running on your toes can wilt you.

Two months before I’d bought a pair of black and pink “toe shoes” on my paltry budget. At $100, this was a big investment, a paint-against-the-wall sort of splurge into the unknown. “Reduce foot injuries!” they proclaimed. “Strengthen foot muscles!”

Well, I’d never had a foot injury, but–assessing my pale, shapeless feet with new eyes–I certainly wouldn’t object to stronger muscles. Before my shoes arrived, I consulted their website for proper preparation: fourteen days, they advised, of “foot exercises.”

I spent a night trying to curl my toes under, to bend them up, to pivot the ankle while balancing on the ball of my foot. I tried five or six times to pick up a small towel between my toes. My feet obeyed feebly, the toes moving by robotic degrees until I had finally gotten hold of a terrycloth corner. Then I dropped it and could not pick it back up again.

When my toe shoes arrived in the mail, I had done the foot exercises exactly one time. I smuggled them from the box–light, airy, meant to give me “legendary calves” (so said a friend)–and spent ten minutes trying to properly guide my toes into their slots. It made me sweat a little.

I walked around in them and practiced my I-don’t-care-what-you-think gym face, which is kind of a necessary component of wearing shoes with toe holes in public.

The website strongly advised upping the “barefoot” running by only 10% a week. I tried this at first: a measured walk around the gym’s track, toe-heel, toe-heel. I didn’t feel it one bit, and I thought I ought to.

So I ran. Running was toe-heel-kiss, toe-heel-kiss, and it was absolutely grand. I ran in them for ten minutes, until my calves felt like lead balls under my skin and I knew it would be worse the next day, which gave me some satisfaction of the post-workout order.

It was worse: the next morning, I learned that calf muscles play a much larger part than I’d ever thought in getting onto a toilet seat.

And it got worse.

Within a day, I had the habit of groaning on approaching a staircase. I had to ease myself a step at a time down, clinging to the bannister. I limped on flat surfaces, my right leg somehow worse off than my left, other pedestrians bobbing around me, a roadblock. And toilets–I’ve mentioned those.

And then, a week later, the company who had sold me my shoes announced they’d be refunding everyone who bought them–since 2009. They’d been sued on account of the health benefits they claimed came with their shoes, except they didn’t have the scientific backing.

Fools! the internet said. Now look at you.

It was bad enough that I looked like a duck on the polyurethane. Now I had nothing, nothing to feel any sense of pride about, only a pair of webbed feet and a misplaced sense of superiority that I was running like my ancestors had, and like we all ought to, only sans spear or a mammal to track.

For some reason, I kept running in my toe shoes. Maybe I was determined to make that faintingly large amount I’d spent worth the purchase. Maybe it was out of a grim commitment to one of two fates: I would either obtain legendary calves, or I’d be rendered unable to ever sit or climb a set of stairs again.

Over the weeks, my calves did get stronger. I felt less (physical) pain, though I still wore my toe shoes with a cringing, teenager-alongside-her-dad sort of unwillingness. And I could spend longer and longer “barefoot,” pinging around and around the track.

And then, about six weeks in, my right heel twinged distinctly, sharply. As I ran, it twinged longer and louder until I had to stop entirely for the day. And when I came back a few days later, it complained again. Though I tried to ignore it with a determined naivete, my heel eventually worked itself up to a sort of sing-song of pain that sent me limping to a bench.

Unscientifically, I had injured myself so thoroughly that I couldn’t run for weeks.

In the meantime, my shoes appraised me–and I them–from my closet. I had grown fond of those toe holes, had learned to put them on without sweating, whining. I liked them as their own entities, separate from my feet, the idea of them: how they placed you so close to the ground and held you safe in their rubbery grip.

It was unfortunate that the lower half of my body was involved in a toxic relationship with them.

In a fit of infatuation, I spirited them off to the gym. I sat on a bench, appraising other runners in their foot coffins, and slid my feet into their webbing. I got up, I walked two minutes, five minutes. All was fine.

So I started to lope. And then, with surprising, blossoming insistence, my right foot told me in explicit terms: One more step and you’ll regret it, you deeply un-svelte musk ox.

And, with a late-dawning urgency, I understood: I had screwed up. Whether in the buying or in the practice of wearing my toe-shoes, I had made a terrible goof. And while I could have been operating in a fog of post-purchase rationalization, refusing to acknowledge the obvious shortcomings of my investment, I don’t believe it was just that.

In Excess of Being, Lera Auerbach writes, “sometimes I feel tempted to screw up badly–just to see what happens.”

If I’m being honest with myself, I probably always knew running in toe shoes was a dubious choice, especially for an athlete as devoted to avoiding proper minimalist shoe procedure as I was. But I think now that I wanted to throw that paint against the wall, to see how it would splatter, to take the chance at legendary calves at the risk of injury–and, as with many worthier, unforgettable experiences in my life: just to see what would happen.

the art of getting what you want


The art is in picking a worthy thing to want.

We’re not designed for endings. Two years ago, I desperately wanted a job. I had one that paid $13 an hour as seasonal customer service for a startup. I answered phones, troubleshot problems, stared out the window onto a brick wall when I had nothing else.

I was commuting two hours each way into D.C. because I couldn’t afford to live there if I wanted to eat. This was six months out of grad school, when I was twenty-seven years old and the hungriest I’d ever been, alternately despairing and prideful.

On the train in and out of D.C., I wrote four cover letters each way. Nights, I sent them all into space and rarely heard anything back.

I heard back so rarely, in fact, that two years later, I was still a temp.

If I was hungry before, those years honed me to a fine edge: I became frugal, resourceful, full of want. I scrapped and rewrote my cover letter for every job. I had a dozen iterations of my resume. Before interviews, I designed handouts that studied the organization’s problems and offered solutions.

And then it happened, in a course of two interviews over two weeks. Last spring I was offered a better job than I could have imagined. A good cause, max-my-Roth-IRA pay, benefits, all of it. That month, after I’d gotten the offer and before starting work, I wrote one journal entry:

There is nothing better than the prospect of something, the almost-taste of it. D.C. never held more glamour for me than when I had just put my toe in it. I didn’t know that at twenty-seven.

Two years ago I was about trembling with excitement and fear. I feel it again. I hope I never grow out of this love for the possibilities there are.

Wrought, yes, but real: there is nothing better than the almost-taste of it. I was twenty-nine and the want in me was the same as before, an ageless thing. In Excess of Being, Lera Auerbach writes,

“Aging happens when growing stops.”

When we want, we grow.

The job–beautiful, lovely, wondrous–is the ending. But it’s those years before that I look on fondly. It’s just grit, grit, grit, and by the end, it wasn’t about the cover letter, or the interview: it was about everything that had grown as a girding for my want.

So that’s what people do: we want and want, and if we want enough, we grow. We become better. The almost-taste, the prospect, is the art.


photo credit: Autumn Arboretum Stairway – HDR by Nicolas Raymond (license)

on solitude and wanting


There is nothing worse than to be alone; there is nothing better.

In the United States, women are socialized to speak, to pour out their happinesses and sadnesses and anger to a willing ear. Lacking that, untold things fold inward, blooms recurling into buds. When I have got something to say and no one to tell it to, I’m all I’ve got, and I ought to be a sufficient fan and critic.

The trouble and boon of solitude is that, instead of speaking and speaking, we can only drive deep inside. There’s a certain loneliness and pleasure in this, so that, like Rilke, “I am too alone in the world, and yet not alone enough / to make every minute holy.”

Sometimes as a teenager, I had premonitions of missing something that I didn’t have in my life yet to miss, but I enjoyed the feel of missing, of wanting some shadow person or thing. There is a contradiction in me, and probably in all people: we are too alone and not alone enough. We have one thing and want another. We acclimate quickly to what we have, seek out more. In all of this, American media tells us that we must want and want and want: a newer phone; the shiniest hair; a soulmate to make us complete. Of course, desire is a biological imperative for our growth, and so there can be pleasure in wanting.

But loneliness undermines holiness. It is antithetical, so that when I am lonely–when I want for things or people I don’t or cannot have–I am basically unappreciative of what is now, what is concrete and before me.

And to seek fulfillment from others is a hard ask. In this country, individualism most often translates into greater spans of aloneness. I live alone. I go from place to place with small bursts of company. After thirty years, life tells me this: solitude is the default, and company the anomaly, the island.

If I will be alone, then I must be alone.

It is hard; I can’t deny the periodic antipathy. But, far more importantly: it’s only when I’ve been alone that I’ve tapped into anything remotely holy. If I can claim any impulse of profundity, it exists only between two ends of a desk during spots of solitude.

In Excess of Being, Lera Auerbach claims that, “in writing, I am my better version.”

To this, I add: in writing, I am alone.


photo credit: Walking it alone by Lance Shields (license)

What happens when our relationships drive our art

Seagull Tornado Fractal

I’d never met him before, and he’d made me cry. What was it like to be Kazuo Ishiguro, I wondered, and to know that, at any moment, you could encounter a stranger whom you’d made cry?

I guess, as with anything: strange at first, and then gradually less strange.

He was reading at a synagogue in D.C., and I sat in one of the pews with my fingers on the embossed cover of his new book. I’d already read two others, his most famous: Never Let Me Go, and then The Remains of the Day. That had been years ago, and his words still hung with me, surfacing at random—unconscious philosophies by which I lived.

From The Remains of the Day, this line (in paraphrase): all our interactions are motivated by the fear of rejection, and by the desire for acceptance.

How devastating…how true.

Kazuo Ishiguro only read three pages from his book. Mostly he was asked questions about his writing, his process, his characters. How do you create characters, Mr. Ishiguro?

“I don’t create characters,” he said, “What I do is much simpler: I create bridges—I create relationships.” When the relationships are interesting, he explained, the characters evolve organically around them.

He used the word bridges, but I could only see a distortion of the air in my mind, like a tiny wind vortex connecting two people, shifting and palpating with their connection.

That little vortex is the centerpiece of his creativity.

In the many years I’d taken writing courses, studied craft books, talked to writers, this was something I’d never heard. But it seemed as true as anything, and so obvious. It resonated with an assertion from another book I’d read, David Castro’s Genership 1.0: Beyond Leadership Toward Liberating the Creative Soul:

“At the heart of every human aspiration to create is a relationship.”

Relationships with others, with ourselves, with some imagined audience: they motivate the impulse to create as well as the process. And it holds true. On reflection, the work I’ve done that I value most was pushed along by people who made me very happy, and frustrated me, and dashed my hopes, and made me laugh—cry—and laugh-cry. Sometimes all those things belonged to one person, to one relationship.

And then Ishiguro was asked a question at once too simple and too big: “What motivates you as a writer?” A sympathetic titter rose from the audience. None of us would like to be asked that, or know how to answer it.

But he took it bravely. “To share those relationships with others,” he said. That was it.

And then I realized that, for all the ways he’s a conscious genius, Ishiguro also perhaps accomplishes what we all seek to do, but on a much larger scale: distorting the air between he and us (in our pews, in our homes, on our buses). Building a world of unconscious philosophies.

So what happens when relationships drive our art?

We are more authentic. We are more complex. Sometimes, we make people we’ve never met cry because our relationships and their relationships are fundamentally the same: whorls of air, rejection and acceptance.

photo credit: Seagull Tornado Fractual by Devin Moore (license)

What no one tells you about writing…about yourself

It was my second year of an M.F.A. program in creative writing. I was enrolled in a creative nonfiction course. “Think of the ‘I’ of now,” we were told, “and the ‘I’ of then.”

Most people likely haven’t heard of this concept. I had not either. In short: the ‘I’ (or eye) of now—your present perspective, full of wisdom and understanding—should infiltrate your essay, should cast new light on the experiences that the ‘I’ of then could not fully comprehend.

That’s what makes the essay deep. We never used that word, but its requirement was unstated, a sort of prerequisite to being a great essayist.

Oh, how I wanted to write great nonfiction. The desire was so strong, I spent many long hours stop-starting on idea after idea (not the story of the three-legged dog, not the tale of the bamboo forest, etc). I was thrilled and dismayed by so many ideas in such short order that I accumulated a long list of two-sentence Word documents, each of them titled grand, hopeful things.

Finally, after much pain—and the night before my deadline—there emerged a wrought, profound twelve pages.

In the next week’s workshop of my essay, my cohort agreed on the question: “where are you in this piece?”

The ‘I’ of then was quietly offended. I was everywhere—everywhere—didn’t they see! I was in my mother and my grandfather and the many stories I had been told, all the memories passed between them and me.

But my class was right: the ‘I’ of then was kind of a terrible essayist. She had never been trained to write about herself—not directly. It all felt too close, too egoistic. It’s the first thing that no one tells you about writing about yourselfthat you must embrace your ego, put aside your humility, your disinclination to say I—I—I over and over. You must sit with yourself for hours and hours, thinking only of you: the funny, and the very best, and the very worst, and the bits of you that you have tried—but, of course, are least likely—to forget. And you must tug all these parts of yourself wide like netting, inspecting the gaps and holes until you believe you have some new understanding, something to say.

You must confront the small part of you that believes you haven’t got a story to tell.

Last week I picked up a picture is worth…: the voice of today’s high school students, a series of essays by teenagers, students at a charter school in Reading, Pennsylvania.

And did they ever have stories to tell.

This passage from student Jean Mouscardy, in particular, made me feel strange and emotional on the metro:

I remember a day when I saw my father. I was 7 years old. (He left when I was only 4.) He saw me after 3 years, and slid his hand on top of my head, then told me, ‘Hey, my boy’s grown a lot. I’m glad to see you.’ He talked to my mother a few minutes then left. I watched him go and I think when I talked to him I smelled something. I had no idea, but it sure wasn’t perfume. Now I know it was alcohol.

Sometimes the eye of now can be a cruel, enlightening bastard.

This is the second thing that no one tells you when writing about yourself: that turning these memories like snow globes will almost inevitably give us new, occasionally damning insight, that we can never unsee what the ‘I’ of now has managed in retrospect to witness.

According to Manuel Guzman, a learning facilitator at the charter school: “the evolving content of one’s personal essay serves as the gateway to all relationships of importance: personal, spiritual, economic, and political.”

This is true. In my nonfiction course, after many machinations at my desk, I wrote a second essay about-not-about myself. I sneakily used the second person: “you felt neglected,” and “you pulled the dog’s tail.” This felt right to me, because—I see now—I could not take ownership of how many times I had hit my mother’s hound dog over the head. I did it because I was jealous of how much she loved him. I could not acknowledge the memory of (what sounded to a seven year-old as) his brain rattling in his skull. I couldn’t, as myself, detail the dog crossing the road, describe how he was struck by a car and the way his body arced through the air in front of me.

It was only after reading what I had written that I realized the guilt in me had grown over the years like a swallowed seed. I had to hazard my way through those memories to understand that some part of myself held jealousy, held cruelty.

Flannery O’Connor said, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”

It could be argued that I knew those things before. Yes, perhaps I did. But not in such words, not consciously. To process a feeling, we must articulate it.

So I forgave myself for the dog’s death. The ‘I’ of then—where I still lived, before the essay—became fused to a new self-perception. I could be unkind, but I would not let myself forget it.

In this way, the personal essay is more than gateway. It’s inception, an attempt to make un-nebulous our feelings, to point to tangible words and phrases as the concrete basis for our interactions with the world. We don’t know what we think until we’ve written it.

Writing is meditation, depth of thought. Every sentence, as we create it, is creating us—our relationships with the personal, the spiritual, the economic, and the political.

What no one tells you about writing about yourself is that most of your attempts won’t be great, or deep, and that isn’t the goal, nor is it the reward.

The reward is this: somewhere in two-dozen abandoned essays, I’ve realized that I’m no longer afraid to use that ‘I.’

But I didn’t know I felt that way until I wrote it.


photo credit: I was so scared. I just wanna run and It’s wonderfuL “The comeback” via photopin (license)

Why bliss is different (and arguably more important) in adulthood

I’m a little embarrassed that a muffin and coffee can bring me bliss. I’m passionate about food, but is my life that small? Shouldn’t I have something better?

On the other hand: why not a muffin and coffee? Why should I need a better reason to feel bliss? And while that’s the word I’ve chosen, here’s the feeling more accurately:

Daily I ride a train in and out of D.C. When it starts into Union Station’s underbelly, all the windows go black. Yesterday I rode through the tunnel with the rare treat of a pumpkin muffin on my lap and vanilla hazelnut coffee in the seat holder. And I ate the two–bite and sip, bite and sip–with singular awareness, the tunnel pressing everything to texture, smell, taste.

For those minutes, nothing could make me more content.

And I realize now that what I call bliss is really mindfulness–that lack of thought for the past or the future. And damn, does adulthood make mindfulness a lot harder than as a kid.

Your Popsicle’s Melting by Auntie K, on Flickr

Image source

Fortune gave me only two real responsibilities as a child:

  1. Not to injure/maim/kill myself.
  2. To experience the world; to grow.

Both required mindfulness. So I felt no embarrassment about the euphoric happiness brought on by a cream-filled popsicle. Summers, nothing lay before or behind me except to sit in the hay loft of the horses’ barn and watch the straw float down. These things were allowed to have real importance, to be meaningful.

The moments when I had to think about the past or future beyond a few minutes’ or hours’ span (like, if I step in this gopher hole in the yard, I will likely twist my ankle and/or be attacked) were anomalies. Sometimes we were asked in school what we wanted to be; I made some quick determination–horse trainer; writer–and got back to being five or six or seven years old.

Today I’ve grown into different responsibilities; my memories spool out like film, and all the things I must do with myself–today, tomorrow, next week, next month and year–sit at the fore. And life has ironed out many of the “firsts,” the novel experiences. Mindfulness was easier when everything was new.

Those moments when I recapture bliss often come as surprises: switching between two guitar chords; the frisson of a powerful scene in a novel; hearing the chorus of that song; eating a muffin while drinking coffee on a train.

And as I near thirty, I can recognize that it’s different now: I’m more often blissful about things I’ve experienced many times.

Maybe this is how lovers of many years feel when they are very happy with each other. They may have loved months ago, and they may love months ahead, but all of that is not nearly as contenting–as engulfing–as loving now.