(Avoiding) The Road To Provincetown

To drive to Provincetown, you take Highway 6 out to near the end of Cape Cod, and then cut over to a beachside road for the final approach. The road takes you over a rise, and then suddenly the town appears laid out in front of you, curving off to the left. It’s a beautiful, postcard-perfect view, whether you’re arriving in the day or at night.

Before last week, I’d made that trip four times. The first three — June of 1981, August of 1985, and April of 1987 — were to see my brother Jim, who was fortunate enough to live in Provincetown. Each time we approached on that road, I was filled with excitement and anticipation. I was looking forward to seeing Jim, of course, but also the town itself has always had a kind of mystical attraction for me.

The fourth time I rode down that road into Provincetown was for Jim’s memorial service — he died of AIDS on July 9, 1987 — and as we came over that rise and saw the town, my already deep sadness about his death was suddenly multiplied. As the town grew larger before us, I remembered the elation I’d felt at that point in the previous trips, and this time it was turned upside down. It was the deepest, darkest pit of sadness I’ve ever experienced: a coal mine of grief.

The memorial service went all right. We — my brother Phil, my cousin Bruce and I– had a good visit with Jim’s many friends in Provincetown, and we got through it all somehow. I was of course sad about Jim’s death for many months afterward, but life went on: my wife Jean and I bought a house, we had children, we moved on to new and better jobs, and so forth.

Jim in Provincetown, 1981.

For me, the sadness evolved into a kind of thankfulness: I could see many things in myself that I knew were heavily influenced by Jim, the two most prominent being what I might call a detached, ironic sense of humor, and a deep connection to certain kinds of music. So whenever I came upon something that reminded me of him — which I would say happens at least daily, even now — my memories would not be accompanied by sadness, but instead by joy in that connection with him.

On the whole, I think I have “handled” his death pretty well.

On Friday — 23 years and two months after that fourth trip — I went to Provincetown again. But this time I avoided that beachside road. I took the “fast ferry,” a 90-minute boat ride from downtown Boston to MacMillan Wharf in P-town. I’d ached to get back to Cape Cod and P-town ever since 1987, but had never gotten up the cash … or the nerve. Last weekend, after an improbable business meeting in Boston (I’m involved with the inland-river barge industry; most of our meetings are in places like Paducah, Memphis, Louisville, or, if we’re lucky, New Orleans), I had the opportunity to take a couple of extra days to steal out to the Cape. I was thrilled about the trip ever since I confirmed that I’d be able to go.

But as I sat on the ferry at the dock in Boston, waiting to shove off, I was suddenly, unexpectedly, seized by nerves and intense emotion.

The fast ferry leaves Boston.

A group of three girls boarded the ferry and were sitting close to me on the upper, outside deck. From what I could hear, they were heading out to the cape for a bachelorette weekend, and they were giddy with excitement; not long after they sat down, they were breaking out a bottle of champagne and making mimosas. I was reminded of the excitement I felt on my early trips to the cape … and the weighty contrast with that last time I’d gone. Before long, I got up and found a seat in a different area of the ferry.

My plans for this trip included meeting up with Sinan, who was Jim’s partner for some of the time he lived there. I had first met him during that trip in 1985, and then, although he and Jim had mostly broken up by then, he was helping to care for Jim after Jim got sick in late 1986. Sinan and I kept in touch for a while after the memorial service, but, with time, our letters tailed off, and for maybe 20 years we hadn’t communicated. But this spring, through the magic of Facebook’s friend-finder feature, I was able to reconnect with him, and not long after that, this trip to Boston came up. We made plans to get together for dinner. Early last week I sent him a message with a final confirmation that I’d be able to come out to P-town, and he suggested a restaurant: the Mayflower, which he said was one of Jim’s favorites.

A day or so later, he posted something on his Facebook wall that sent me reeling. It was one of those silly Facebook “like” things, where someone comes up with a pithy little statement, and other people can “like” it, and it shows up on their wall too. This one, though, wasn’t silly. It said: “Death leaves a heartache no one can heal; love leaves a memory no one can steal.” True words, those, but they stung whenever I let myself think about them — were my efforts to reconnect with Sinan dredging up painful memories for him? Was this meeting going to be as hard for him as it was turning out to be for me?

Halfway through the ferry ride, the seas got rougher. By then I was sitting inside, and I actually wrote an early draft of this blog post. The writing turned out to be somewhat cathartic. My nerves had calmed down a bit as we got closer to the cape, and when I first noticed that we were alongside land, which I guess would have been the sandy, remote beaches near Race Point, the needle on my emotional meter was wavering toward Excitement, rather than Grief. As the iconic Pilgrim Monument came into view, the needle was trending a little further on the positive side, but also bouncing back into Grief every once in a while. I had to consciously push aside the sad feelings that were welling up, and replace them with positive memories. It was a battle I would end up having to wage several times during my time in P-town.

The ferry landed and I walked down MacMillan Wharf and up into town, dragging a huge suitcase overloaded with business clothes I’d no longer be wearing on this trip. I found the inn where I’d made a reservation for the night: Dexter’s, on Conwell.

By a strange and happy coincidence, Dexter’s turned out to be right across the street from where Jim lived the last few years of his life. I suspected this when I went out for a run shortly after checking in, and Sinan later confirmed it at dinner. The layout of the property he lived on has changed a bit, but I still recognized the block and the surrounding area. I had hoped to find Jim’s old place while I was there, but when I reserved at Dexter’s, it was just the result of an Internet search for low prices: I had no idea it was on the same street.

I ran out to Herring Cove, which was one of Jim’s favorite beaches. I took the shortcut over the sandy flats to the dunes that back up the beach, having to take off my shoes several times to wade through the pools and streams of water that covered parts of the path. The payoff, though, was magnificent: the beach was beautiful, with the sun just starting to come down over a turbulent surf. Being on a run, I didn’t have my camera with me (this was one of the few times on the whole trip), which was a pity because I could have gotten some great shots. There was hardly anyone on the beach — it was also very windy — which made it even nicer for me.

Sinan and I met up at 7 at the Mayflower. We had a wonderful dinner and talked for a couple of hours about Jim and about our families and lives and work. By this time, the positive emotion of happy remembrance had all but won out over the resurrected grief. Sinan, by the way, had not posted that Facebook “like” in response to my impending visit, but had simply “liked” something that a friend of his had “liked.” Not that that detracts from the truth of those words, though.

Jim in 1981. Though slightly blurry, it’s one of my favorite pictures of him.

Sinan has been in a committed relationship since before Jim died. I must have met his partner in 1987, if not 1985, but I don’t remember him. Every time I went there, I met a lot of Jim’s friends, and I was never sure who was a lover and who was a friend. That’s part of what I never fully understood or knew about Jim, the level of commitment in his relationship with his lovers. Those commitments always seemed to be more fluid than in my world, and for Jim, apparently, they were even more fluid than most in his community. That, no doubt, led to the sequence of medical events that resulted in my fourth visit to Provincetown. And of course, Jim’s insatiable appetite for partying probably played a huge role as well. I have no doubt the story would have turned out differently if he had stuck with Sinan, who was certainly a calming influence on both fronts.

But we can’t change history; we can only deal with it. After dinner, Sinan and I parted with a hug and a promise to stay in touch — it’s a lot easier, now, with Facebook — and I explored nighttime Provincetown a little more before returning to Dexter’s to do some writing and go to sleep.

Saturday morning I did some more photo-walking around town, and then was one of the first customers at Edwige when it opened for breakfast. That was another favorite place of Jim’s. I had just enough time to enjoy my Lobster Benedict before I had to check out of Dexter’s and queue up for the 10:30 ferry back to Boston.

My visit to Provincetown was as much about “place” as about “person.” Yes, I wanted to reconnect as much as I could with Jim, and clarify my memories of him. Sinan was a huge help in that regard. But I also wanted to reconnect with the town itself. If you have ever been there, perhaps you understand the almost magical attraction it has. It’s hard to explain, and to try would probably require another equally long essay. But I can say I feel it is the town where Jim finally found peace and happiness in his life, and for that fact alone, I will always love it. It was, and continues to be, probably my favorite place on earth.

There were several additional places I had hoped to visit while in Provincetown. I had wanted to go for a run in the Province Lands, the wild area of dunes and beech forests immediately behind the (over)populated area of town. Also, there is an enormous sand dune beyond the east end of P-town, from which you can see the whole town and both Cape Cod Bay on the “outside”* of the cape and Provincetown Harbor on the inside. Jim took me to that dune several times, and his ashes were scattered there in 1987.

Unfortunately, with only 18 hours between ferry rides, I couldn’t fit everything in that I wanted to. Those two items will have to wait until my next visit — which hopefully will be sooner than 23 years from now.

A New Look

Discerning readers will notice that this blog has a new look, and a new name, today.

I want to again thank Joe S. for his design work and help in creating the old look, but I felt it was time to move on to something a little quieter, at least for now. Undoubtedly, this header will at some point  be replaced by something entirely different, or perhaps it will evolve into something else with only incremental changes. There’s no telling what’s around the next bend.

As for the name, well, that’s a little quieter, too. Although, if you’re like me, all those L’s make it tough to pronounce. 🙂

Anyway, thanks for reading, commenting, forwarding, etc. I’ll try my best to keep things interesting around here.

Cheers,

-John

Marathon Dreams

The start of the 2003 Chicago Marathon. (Phil Shoulberg photo)

 

There are three iconic big-city  marathons in the United States: New York, Chicago and, of course, Boston.

Chicago is annually one of the biggest marathons in the world, with something like 40,000-45,000 runners a year on its flat, fast course. World records have been set there in recent years.

The New York City Marathon, with probably close to that number of entrants, begins with a breathtaking mass start on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and winds through all five boroughs of the city before finishing in Central Park. It attracts an international field, and draws crowds along the route as diverse as the city itself.

And Boston, of course, is the granddaddy of them all; every marathoner wants to be a part of it. The race starts west of the city in Hopkinton and runs into downtown, a route that’s legendary to runners and non-runners alike — who hasn’t heard of Heartbreak Hill? — and brings with it a hundred years of running history.

All three races are enormously popular, and increasingly hard to get into. Chicago fills up months in advance, and in fact had reached its capacity in early spring of this year–for an October race. And both New York and Boston long ago instituted qualifying times to keep their events somewhat manageable. That means you have to run another marathon, under the qualifying time, just to enter Boston or New York. The qualifying times go up with the age groups, but they’re still stiff enough to keep the majority of runners out.

Feelin' good in the first 10 miles. (Phil Shoulberg photo)

I have attempted the marathon distance one time, at the Chicago Marathon in October 2003. I think of it as both the best and the worst experience of my running career. The “best” was the euphoria of running back into the Loop after finishing the northern portion of the course, between huge crowds of spectators on both sides, and still feeling strong despite having run about 12 miles. The “worst” began right at the 20-mile point, when the wheels really began to fall off, and the last 6.2 miles became an ordeal of mixed running, walking, limping and wondering where the #%*/$#@! that finish line was so I could lay down and die.

The death march to the finish. (Phil Shoulberg photo)

One might think I’d take the hint and not try another marathon, but in fact I entered the Cincinnati Flying Pig Marathon a year or so later … but never ran it, because I was starting to have some serious knee issues that had really started to manifest themselves during the training for Chicago, and especially afterward. Although I had some encouraging shorter races over the next year or so, those knee problems eventually led me to give up running altogether for a couple of years.

Until the spring of 2009, when I was approaching my 50th birthday and decided I really needed to do something to get myself back into shape. I finally saw an orthopedic doctor, who led me to a physical therapist, who worked my legs through the summer. By Memorial Day I was taking some short, flat, tentative runs, and by Labor Day, I was feeling—and running—much better. I increased my mileage through the fall, but then tried to do too much, too soon, in a couple of races in November and December, setting my program back quite a bit. But since 2010 began, I was pretty successful in building things back up again, and thoughts of running another marathon began to push forward again.

Having already checked off Chicago, both New York and Boston are the long-term goals, of course. Besides the thrill of taking part in the biggest races on the planet, both events would provide opportunities for brief vacations wrapped around the races.

And I think the qualifying times are theoretically within reach for me, if I train right and run a smart qualifying race. But what race to run? A return trip to Chicago might be a good idea – the course is pancake-flat, which would help produce a faster time. But I’ve been there, done that with Chicago; it would be nice to spread out a little bit and try a different marathon.

This spring I was considering this question, and had pretty much narrowed down my 2010 marathon options to two: the Quad Cities Marathon in September or the Lewis & Clark Marathon in October. Quad Cities, based in Rock Island, Ill., would give me the the “vacation” feel, making a weekend out of the big race. Lewis & Clark, on the other hand, is (mostly) in St. Charles, Mo.; I could sleep in my own bed the night before and the night after. The routes of both marathons take them over bridges over major rivers: that’s not a requirement for me, but it is a nice bonus.

But the more I thought about it, the more I remembered those weekends of the long, long runs leading up to the Chicago Marathon. Most training plans have you build up to at least one, and often two or three, 20-mile runs in the weeks before.

Let me tell you: do an 18 or 20-miler on a weekend, and that becomes the only thing you do that weekend.

To train for a marathon is to commit almost your whole life to the event. You generally need to lay out a training plan about four months out, and then follow that religiously. You always know how many weeks — if not days –it is until race day. And I frankly am not ready to make that kind of commitment, not these days, not this year.

I ultimately convinced myself that if I don’t run a marathon in 2010, it won’t be the end of the world. (And man, would I feel guilty if the world DID end and it was my fault!) I set my sights lower: exactly 50 percent lower, in fact. There are two great half-marathons coming up in the St. Louis area this fall: one that’s in conjunction with the aforementioned Lewis & Clark Marathon, on October 3, and the St. Louis Track Club‘s annual half-marathon on November 7. I’ve run at least a half-dozen half-marathons over the years, and trust me, they’re a lot easier to train for than marathons. A half-marathon doesn’t take over your life for months the way a full marathon does.

And here’s the thing: the New York Marathon actually has what I consider a back-door way to qualify. Along with the marathon qualifying times, they have a set of qualifying times for half-marathons. For example, I would need to run a 3:30 marathon to get in … but I could also get in with a 1:40 half-marathon. I’ve run faster than that several times, in my younger days. I’m not sure I can do it now that I’m a geezer, but I guess we’ll find out on October 3 or November 7.

Even if I do manage to break 1:40 in either of those races, it’s not automatic that I’ll send in an entry for the 2011 NYC Marathon; I’m not sure I’ll be any more ready to commit to a 2011 marathon than I was this year. And it’s also possible the NYC Road Runners’ Club will change its procedures — or lower the qualifying times — before registration opens for that race. But it definitely gives me something to think about as I lace up the shoes this fall.

ETA: Update here.

9/11

On September 11, 2001, I was hunkering down for work on a special issue of our magazine, when I got an e-mail from Bill, our New Orleans reporter. He mentioned almost off-handedly that one story he was working on might be in jeopardy because the company’s headquarters were at the World Trade Center in New York, and he’d just heard a report that one of the WTC towers had been hit by a plane.

When I got his e-mail, I immediately turned on the radio … just in time to hear that a second plane had just hit the other tower. Within seconds, Bill called on the phone: “It sounds like New York is under attack!” he said.

Like everyone else, I knew instantly that the second plane meant that it was a terrorist attack. And also like everyone else, I didn’t get much work done the rest of that day, although I tried. News was hard to come by; the Internet news sites slowed to a crawl, so I had to rely on the radio. My wife Jean, a teacher, was in her classroom, and the district had told teachers not to turn their classroom TVs on, so the only news she got was what I could feed her via e-mail. I still have copies of the e-mails we sent to each other that day in which I described what I could of the progression of events as I was hearing them on the radio.

So much of that day is burned into my memory: the shock of learning that the planes were hijacked passenger planes; trying to imagine what the collapse of the towers looked like, because I wasn’t able to see the videos until that evening; the numerous false reports that came out, like the car bomb at the State Department; and the eerie silence that evening and for the next few days, with no planes in the sky because of the indefinite and unprecedented “ground stop.”

Since then, I’ve read quite a bit about the events of September 11. The best books were the 9/11 Commission report, Against All Enemies by Richard Clarke, and 102 Minutes by Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn.

My Friday Treat

The Gourmet Veggie Club from Jimmy John's

This is my regular Friday treat to myself.

It’s just a couple of blocks from my office to Jimmy John’s, and with their typically speedy service I can usually get over there and back — and buy weekend lottery tickets on the way — in 15 minutes or so.

Every good sandwich starts with the bread, of course, and Jimmy John’s got it right. They have two options; a sub-type white bread, or seven-grain wheat. I’ve never tried the white, and don’t expect to. The seven-grain is packed with flavor and texture, and frankly I’d probably buy the sandwich if it were just bread, if I had to.

But this sandwich — the Gourmet Veggie Club, #13 on the menu — has so much more than the bread.

Working down through it from the top slice, first there’s mayonnaise, and then alfalfa sprouts. Then comes the shredded lettuce, and my only complaint about the sandwich: they always seem to put on a bit too much lettuce, which comes close to overwhelming the rest of the ingredients, not to mention making the sandwich a little unstable as it sits, waiting to be eaten. But the lettuce and the cucumbers (which come in a little further down) do add some crunch to the dining experience, a nice counterpoint to the soft-and-delicious bread.

OK, one more complaint — it’s iceberg lettuce. I’d happily pay a few cents more for greener, tastier lettuce, but, sigh, there’s not that choice yet.

Below the lettuce: the cheese. A double helping of provolone, the perfect flavor for this sandwich.

Nestled between the slices of provolone is a generous daub of guacamole: this sandwich is loaded with great flavors! It adds to the messy factor — by now you can see that this thing requires you to keep several napkins on standby when you’re eating it — but it adds even more to the taste factor.

Continuing our descent through the sandwich, we find the aforementioned cucumbers, and then a couple of slices of tomato, my favorite vegetable-that-isn’t-a-vegetable. And then, just before we hit the bottom slice of that luscious bread, a bonus helping of mayonnaise! Perfect!

Delicious and healthful. This sandwich (or their almost-as-good Club Tuna –#15 on your menu card — which I sometimes have instead of the veggie if, say, I’m trying to change my luck in Lotto) gives me something to look forward to all week long.