coping.

When I got back to Switzerland after Christmas, I arrived in a snow storm. It snowed for four days straight in Zurich, finally blanketing central Europe in the white stuff we so desperately needed.

Then it rained. All the snow melted overnight.

Finally, it got beautiful.

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I went hiking, from the Zugerberg to Wildspitz and then down to Sattel. I was in canton Zug, just to the southwest of Zurich proper. A 30 minute train ride took me to the city of Zug, where I started walking up. Once atop the Zugerberg, I had a long stretch of highlands to meander my way along before climbing – and here it got snowy – up to Gnipen and then Wildspitz, the highest point in the canton at about 5,100 feet.

It’s not a mountain, exactly. But it gives you great views of the other ones.

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I needed the time outside, the nearly six hours in nature, the scrambling focus of ascending a summit (Gnipen) with the last pitch so steep that it had bolted-in rope to hold onto – made more treacherous through slushy snow. Last week I got some very bad news. I learned that my friend J had died in a rock climbing accident in Mexico.

It was an immediate gut-punch. It’s so incomprehensible that something like this would happen to someone so wonderful, so generous, so young, so excited about life. Someone who was a careful outdoorsman. J was not one of my ten closest friends, or my 20 or even 30 closest friends. We had great times together, but he wasn’t excellent at staying in touch over e-mail. But he was such an amazing person that it hit me really hard – I can only imagine how much harder it is for the people who are his ten closest friends. For his parents. For his girlfriend, A.

IMG_1449Even that first day, I turned to nature, taking a long walk in the woods and getting lost despite the fact that the Zurichberg forest is not really all that big. That was okay. Lost was fine. I stumbled across this amazing owl fountain and wished I was as wise as an owl.

I can’t describe everything that made J special, or everything that made me sad, or everything about what I was thinking. I will say that I went to a comically Teutonic counselor; we did not connect. Walking in the woods helped me far more.

But two things I will say. First, thinking of J made me re-evaluate what I want from life. Both because in his own life he did what made him happy – surfing, climbing, outdoor trips, music, good food, good friends – while still being an excellent and hardworking scientist, and because, as always when faced with death, you think ‘what should I be doing in order to make this time count’? I realized that I spend a lot of time on things I don’t love. I do a lot of things that are less fun than being with the people I love. We all do. It’s inevitable. But I think I can prioritize and shift the balance. Don’t we owe that to ourselves? I haven’t been getting outside. I’ve been crossing things off the to-do list, the to-do list that gets longer and longer and never shorter. That’s no way to live. Do as J would do, and go to the beach and go surfing.

J had just finished his PhD. As I am just starting mine, it was a very odd notion. Is this ultimately futile?

But I’ll move on to number two. Talking to Günther, my co-worker from Davos where we met and worked with J, we seemed to have both come to a realization: our time in Davos was spectacular and unmatchable. Now we are both starting PhD’s. Neither of us is unhappy; we are thrilled to have amazing opportunities. I love my lab. I can’t imagine a better situation.

But that doesn’t take away the fact that, in all likelihood, never again will I have so much fun doing work as I did in Davos. It was as if we were going out every day, and the work just happened to get done – not that we were forced to go do it. It was a unique combination of things: the beautiful mountain surroundings, the fact that we were very good and very efficient at getting things done, our team’s camaraderie, energy, and love for adventure. The pizza and brownies we’d bring with us into the field. J’s fun and generous presence, when he was around. The fact that we were responsible for our work and could feel pride in it, but did not bear the ultimate responsibility in the end.

After finishing our PhD’s, we will be overqualified to have that feeling again. We’ll be the bosses. That will change things.

So many ideas, feelings, fragments swirl around in my head. I thought of J and how it happened a continent away from his family and best friends. I thought of myself in Europe. What am I doing? Why am I placing myself so far away from those I love the most?

At almost exactly this time, I saw a posting for two PhD positions, paid for four years, at the University of Vermont. Maybe I should just quit, I thought. I can go back to New England and start over. I can be surrounded by my community.

That lasted about ten minutes.

Of course, it gets better. I’ll stay. I love it here. Eventually, I will find my way back to North America, and I’m confident in that, and it’s fine. I had a really hard time when I first moved over here, as evidenced by a certain gloomy and desperate blog post. But I’m over that hump. I was moving cheerily onwards towards the Christmas break, and now things are really going: I start my first course this week, I’m working on my official PhD proposal, and I’m starting my first experiment.

Doing work! In the lab! It’s very basic but very exciting. The time of reading papers endlessly and feeling bewildered is over. (Instead, it’s doing many other things and knowing that still, actually, there are an infinite number of papers that you should be reading at this very moment, or rather, that you should have already read and be able to cite by heart, including not only the methods and results but the author names, year, and journal….)

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I will be okay. There are others who are hurting more than me. I will be there for them.

In the meantime, go hug someone you love. Or better yet, go to the mountains. With someone you love. Hug them there.

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bureaucra-see part deux, at the doctor’s office.

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Doesn’t look like much, does it?

In America, if you want to do something stupid and ill-advised, that’s usually just fine. Say you die – so what? Well that was dumb of you!

Not so in France. If you want to do anything athletic at all, you need to have a signed doctor’s note saying that you are healthy enough to participate. In some ways it makes sense, but in others, what the- why!? How many people die each year at 5 k road races? How about intramural soccer games? Maybe a few heart attacks could be prevented by telling people who were at risk not to do sports, but I’m not even so sure about that. Some people know they are at risk; some would probably want to run a road race anyway, if it makes them happy.

And yes, people tear their ACL’s and whatnot, but that just happens, it’s a risk you know you take when you decide to play. They are called sports injuries for a reason, and that’s because they are an inherent part of sports. These kinds of injuries happen from the bottom level of sports all the way up to the very top, and no doctor’s note is going to make a tendon change its mind about snapping.

In my mind, here’s how this system came into place. Doctors weren’t getting enough business. Hmm, they thought. How can we get more people to come in? I know! We need to see the healthy people, not just the sick ones! So let’s try to think of a way to get perfectly healthy individuals to be forced to come see a doctor a couple times a year… hmm… yes! I have it! We’ll just require them to come see us before they do anything that’s, oh, I don’t know, completely normal for a healthy person to do!

Anyway. After I signed up for my marathon, I knew that I had to get one of these darn doctor’s notes. I put it off for a while, and eventually discovered that the university health service does this kind of thing for free. Great, I thought! But then it took another two weeks for me to get an appointment and make it into the office.

Because here’s another thing that bugs me about this system: it’s a pain in the ass to go to the doctor’s. They’re only open during working hours, and you know what I’m doing then? I’m working. It’s a relatively small barrier to participation, but it seems like erecting any more inconveniences and barriers to sports is a bad idea, even somewhere like France where there are a dearth of fat people. We shouldn’t be creating any more excuses not to exercise – or, forget the exercise in itself, to taking part in fun group activities that are so emotionally beneficial.

So, I finally figured out a day when I could come in to work late, and there I was. (And I should preface this account by saying that everything was discussed in French.) When the receptionist asked what I needed the note for, I said a running race. She laughed, like, a serious one? Yeah, I said. Then she laughed a lot more. Ha, ha, a whole marathon or something crazy like that! She rolled her eyes.

The receptionist took my height and weight and asked me to read an eye chart. When I replied to her questions by saying I didn’t smoke, no not even cannabis, nothing, and I didn’t take birth control pills, she gave me serious side-eye.

Then she asked me if I ate three meals a day. Where did I eat lunch, the university restaurant?

The fact that she said “good” when I replied the affirmative was troubling, because the food at the university restaurant is shit.

Things were not off to a good start.

The doctor was slightly more sympathetic, in that she did not laugh at me immediately (that came later). But my next challenge was explaining to her that yes, I did have asthma, but it probably wouldn’t be an issue because it’s only brought on by the cold.

How many times a year to you use your inhaler? She asked.

Oh I don’t know, a few.

Has an attack ever made you stop running?

No, I said, I’m never running when it’s cold enough to give me asthma. Then I’m skiing.

So when you’re running do you ever have heart palpitations?

Umm, no, what?

Well will you be carrying your inhaler with you just in case?

No, I mean, it’s going to be June in southern France, the chances of me having a cold-induced asthma attack are pretty slim…

Next she examined me for scoliosis, which I guess is nice, and took my heart rate. She expressed surprise and approval that it was so low. Blood pressure, too: “parfait.”

I was asked to do 30 flying squats, so that she could see how my blood pressure responded to activity. I’ve never been asked to do that before, but it’s a good idea, actually. So off I went. La la la la la la la, 30.

The blood pressure was again “parfait” but the good doctor was troubled that my heart rate had jumped. It increased a lot, she said. And all you were doing were 30 squats – do you really think you can run 40 kilometers if your heart rate does that?

My initial reaction was to be pretty offended. Yes, of course I can run a marathon! I didn’t quite know what to say. Had I really been working that hard? The squats had felt pretty easy, and my old Tabata instructor Jon – whose workouts I really miss, incidentally – would have been yelling at me to push harder, that I could do 25 in 20 seconds, or whatever. Standing in the doctor’s office in my bare feet, without a shirt and facing the doctor, I had gone at a pretty pedestrian pace.

As I mulled over the troubling possibility that I had been working really hard to slowly squat down and stand back up, she reached over and took my wrist to check my pulse again. Wow, she said, okay. It’s only been a minute but it’s already back to normal.

Now we were getting somewhere. I explained that the last weekend I had run 35 kilometers in 3 hours and felt fine, so I was pretty sure I could finish the marathon with no health issues.

Have you run a marathon before? she asked.

No, I said. Just a few halfs.

So this is your first one? Are you sure you are going to be able to do it?

I wanted to say, well, you have to do the first one once, or else how would anyone ever have done one before… but what was the point.

After a few more questions – many about a detailed history of my family’s heart health – she signed the sheet above and I was done. I felt even more ridiculous than at the beginning; I had imagined getting some sort of official-looking form describing my medical history. Instead, all of that was for a half-sheet of paper that doesn’t even say anything useful (but has, as all things in France must, an official stamp!). Are you kidding?

As I biked to work, I thought more about my heart rate, and realized that she probably had no idea what a high heart rate would even be for me. Okay, so at rest, it’s around 55 or 60 these days. That could double and I’d be working at the rate of an easy jog. It could triple and I’d be working pretty hard, but still not at max. I don’t think most people can see their heart rate go from 60 all the way up to 195, so she probably had no idea that I wasn’t working all that hard.

This is another reason the whole system is so stupid: you go to some doctor who doesn’t know you, and yet they are supposed to be able to quickly draw a conclusion about your suitability for sports. It’s so similar to other French bureaucratic messes that I have encountered, in that deep at the core it’s maybe a nice idea, but in practice it is so poorly executed that it just creates a hassle for everyone without fulfilling its actual purpose.

Oh well. I have the signed note, and I should never have to do this again, because after this summer it’s goodbye, France.

*       *       *

I have been thinking about trying to write something about the events that happened in Boston this week, and I have been struggling. Part of it is that it is difficult to process what is going on; I’m so far away, and it’s not exactly a top-headline news story in France. I know that if I was at home, everything would seem so much more immediate to me.

Every once in a while someone will realize that I’m American and ask me if anyone I know was affected. What do I say? None of my friends died or got their legs blown off, is that what they want to know? But yes, we were affected. I know so many people who were there at that marathon, either running or supporting friends and loved ones, and I have so many friends who simply live in Boston.

For me, it’s a double whammy against two of my communities: New England and running. A gut-wrenching shock. I can’t see or understand what’s happening all the way across the Atlantic, but I know how horrific it must be. These are great people, and they do not deserve any of the pain, physical or emotional, that has been inflicted on them. Luckily, I know a thing or two about New Englanders, and runners. If there is anyone who can weather this storm and help each other out, it is these two incredible communities of people. Already we have seen so much strength.

But that’s not really it, either. It comes down to what it means to be an average joe of an athlete. I’ve been at big sporting events where there was tight security; it was kind of a nuisance, but I knew exactly what sort of an impact it would have if some group attacked World Championships or something like that. It would get at a system where athletes generate a huge amount of money for themselves and their sponsors, where fans are rabid for their city or country or just their favorite athlete. Professional sports are inspirational and exciting and hopeful, but also economic and, to some extent, a matter of luxury. It wouldn’t be any less horrible if something bad happened at a professional sporting event, but it’s something our minds are more prepared for – something that government suits warn us about, at the very least.

The Boston marathon, on the other hand, is none of those things. The man who won, Lelisa Desisa, is an incredible athlete who is now two-for-two in marathons and is surely destined for more great things. He’s a professional. But if you look him up on the internet, you can barely find any information. He’s Ethiopian and is sponsored by Nike. You can bet he’s not raking in the big bucks; nor is he probably making Nike too much money either. Does he have other sponsors? Who knows. Distance running is not a particularly lucrative endeavor.

Instead, Boston is about everyone else. Talk to anyone with a passing commitment to marathons, and they’ll talk about the year they ran Boston, or that they’re planning to, or that they are working towards qualifying. It’s something special, not something you do every year; it’s also a very difficult marathon. Heartbreak Hill is famous even beyond the running community. And so the honor of running in Boston creates an incredible environment. It’s uplifting to see what “normal” people, our cousins and brothers and friends and teachers and bosses, can do. You always want to congratulate them and urge them on to greater heights, which is why Boston draws so many spectators for what is, at its heart, one of the more boring sports to watch.

Come marathon day, people are fulfilling their dreams and goals. Even if you have a bad race: you have run Boston. You did it. That’s a huge accomplishment.

To imagine that running towards those dreams could ever put you in danger – not from a moose or shin splints or a speeding car or a dog that slipped under the fence, but from a bomb – messes with all of our minds. It’s not supposed to be this way.

It all feels especially strange given that I had finally decided to re-enter the running community for real, and had signed up for my own very first marathon. It’s easy to imagine that another year, that could have been me crossing the finish line in Boston after four hours. It makes that much more real the threat that our community feels, and what has changed. As I run more and more in the next few weeks, this will likely be on my mind. I want to do a good job in my marathon for those that weren’t able to have the race they had dreamed of on Monday.

Let’s hope that things are not changed for good.