Monday, March 16, 2009

A Little Town in North Carolina

A paper that a student handed in today has brought a smile to my face every time I remember it. The assignment was to have a conversation with five people from five different countries and then write about those conversations and what was learned.

The student wrote that she speak with a person from Britain, Czech Republic, Serbia, a country I cannot remember, and Usa (pronounced "oo-sa"). Over the summer, my parents and I decided we were going to try to learn as many different countries in the world. All I could say is that it's not in Europe. Remembering back to our studies, I could not think of a country named "Usa." On the paper, beside Usa, I wrote, "Where is this country?"

In the paper, the student writes that the person she interviewed from Usa is from North Carolina.

My first thought was: "Oh, Usa must be a little town in North Carolina."

"Is that near Raleigh?" I was tempted to ask.

Remember what two and two equals, I realized the mistake: Usa was America.

Now I begin to wonder: who make the greater mistake - the student or me? The student did not capitalize all of the letters to USA and I assumed that the student would not make such a simple mistake.

I have now decided to I might start calling America "Usa" from now on. Perhaps it will help me remember that we all make the silliest mistakes at times.

Thank you to everyone in Usa who is reading my blog.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Some Things Are Just Hard to Explain

Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still (from T.S. Eliot “Burnt Norton”).

The residents of Bratislava must find it strange to observe a bearded man wearing a “There’s A Little Hero in Us All” hat and a Luther College sweatshirt running through their quiet neighborhood where no one runs.

This reminds me of my glorious days running Cross Country at J.W. Sexton High School and the neighborhood kids who used to ask, “What are you running for?” Our favorite response was, “The police (pronounced “pole-eece” like “fleece”).” The response was anywhere from, “Oh, shoot” to hearing nothing but seeing scared faces. Running from the cops seemed to be the only appropriate answer in a neighborhood where the only reason to run was that you just stole something. Explaining the sport “Cross Country” never worked. They always thought we would run 50-100 miles. Some things are just hard to explain.

Without a car or any other measuring device, I have no ability to track my distance, so my only way to track myself is by time. Before running, I put a particular number of songs, usually taking up 45 minutes to an hour, onto my mp3 player. Then I leave the apartment, turn on the music, and run until the music stops. Sometimes when I am running, the music runs out and I want to go a little farther. When that happens, I quickly put a few more songs on the mp3 player.

Usually, I run up a seemingly never-ending hilly street near my apartment and make my way back and forth up the hill before returning down the hill through side streets. I run up a street that looks enticing, then down that street. I see a street that I have never been down before and take that street. I see an elderly woman walking toward me, I turn around and run in the opposite direction before I can get the “why are you running?” look. I see a beautiful view of the reconstruction of the castle and then I leave the view. Remembering it and thinking five years is a long time to close a castle, I return to the view. I might run down a particular street three or four times in a span of ten minutes.

Usually near the beginning of my run, I make my way down one street that leads to a long flight of stairs. I run up these stairs like Rocky Balboa and, when I reach the top, instead of triumphantly throwing my arms into the air, I sigh and begin what would be a 20-minute mile until I feel like I will no longer die. Sometimes I say to myself, “Let’s do that again” and I take the windy road back to the bottom and find the stairs again. Twice is always enough.

“I just don’t understand why Americans run,” a Slovak friend said today. “It is bad for the knees and the hips.”

“If knee problems is that worst that can happen, the worst looks appealing,” I think.

“Running brings me some kind of peace,” I attempted to explain. I felt unsatisfied with my response and I imagine my friend did as well.

If I was to answer again, I would like to say, “One day, I will be lying in a hospital bed with a feeding tube putting the necessaries into my body and a catheter removing the unnecessaries. One day.” Some things are just hard to explain.

Why do we run? Perhaps merely to see how far we can go. Everything, including getting out of this chair, has positives and negatives and we cannot escape the inevitable. Positives – I will be able to stretch my legs and relieve myself. Negatives – I might lose my train of thought. The inevitable – the feeding tube and the catheter.

A month ago today I received an e-mail inviting me to return to Bratislava for another year. Today, I must give my reply.

My contract is a one-year contract, renewable upon the desire of both parties. Originally, I had intended to stay in Slovakia for two years, thinking that if I invest one year in a place that I might as well invest two. I no longer think of staying as an investment but something that I desire to do and something that I think I could do well.

Most coincidentally, my class discussed Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” this Friday. How strange that I would be noting my intention upon which road I would travel this weekend? Some things are just hard to explain.

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back (from: Robert Frost “The Road Not Taken”)

When I am running, I often take a particular road and this road leads to another road that looks like it needs someone running on it and so on and so on. “Way leads on to way” and, before, we know it, we are somewhere else. Not three years ago, I was training for the Indianapolis Mini-Marathon on the simple, flat streets of Columbus. Somehow, after taking a right on Mound Street, adding another kilometer to my run, instead of turning around, brought me to a street overlooking a city already an adult for hundreds of years while Columbus wasn’t even in diapers.

We might blame this road on Stony Lake Lutheran Camp to which I gave four of my “best” summers and a certain Filipino who taught me that it is possible to love two places on opposite ends of the earth at once and, anywhere you go, you are going to miss someone. We might blame this road on going away from home for college and looking at the world as more than 3320 Inverary Dr. We could obviously blame this road on my parents who I can never remember telling me to be back by midnight.

Though I create my playlist for a certain period of time, sometimes I want to run longer and I add more songs. Yet, I know that eventually I will become too tired to run. But, I am not so tired today. I could run up the seven-minute hill once more. I could convince the gardener who watches me run the stairs twice that I am a bit crazy. I could take in one more view of the red-rooftops of the city. A few more songs on the mp3 player will do.

Nothing can replace knowing that there is an empty chair beside the window at the dinner table for family dinners or an empty pew for the weddings of good friends or countless empty (“Dan-free”) hours that my friends and family spend doing many activities that I absolutely love.

Though we see little of each other, I think about my friends and family often. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t look at a plate of noodles and poppy seed at lunch and wonder what my family would say about it (For the record: Diane would probably stiffen her lip at the sound of the meal. David would probably remark about it sounding disgusting. Ma would probably be nice about eating it and then say she didn’t like it later. Pops would probably enthusiastically eat it because “you got to do what the people do here”). A day doesn’t go by that I don’t hear “Country Roads”, “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing”, or “End of the World” and wish any one of my great friends would emphatically sing it with me. Some things are just hard to explain.

What if I had turned around instead of turning right onto Mound Street? What if I had stopped running after the second mile in Indy three years ago when I could have sworn my knee was going to snap? What if I didn’t cut off my locks of love (and the beard) two days later? What if I went to graduate school after Capital? What if I went home in July and got a teacher’s certificate and planted myself back in America? What if I stayed here another year?

What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation (From T.S. Eliot “Burnt Norton”).

Some things are just hard to explain.