Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Snapshot Book Review: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food LifeAnimal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Once again, Barbara Kingsolver produces another beautiful, thoughtful, intentional book--this time in the form of nonfiction. Just as touching and lyrical as her works of fiction, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is hard to classify; it falls into the categories of memoir, social commentary, lifestyle/self-help, and even food writing. Yet, in her capable hands, the book does not turn preachy or didactic. Kingsolver readily lays out her agenda, which is simply to make people think about their food sources, habits, and choices as they relate to health, practicality, sustainability, and politics; however, she accomplishes this by doing what she does best: telling a story. In this case, it is the story of her family's 1-year foray into "localvorism."

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is a definite must-read for anyone interested in health, eating, environment, memoirs, or just a good thought-provoking book.

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Sunday, August 28, 2011

Thinking of the Future

In a society where your job very much defines who you are, the "who" and the "what" definitions of any one person are nearly interchangeable. I never thought I would have a problem determining "who" and "what" I would be. But I was wrong.

First, I wanted to be an opera singer. My mom was an opera singer, and at 7 or 8 years of age, my life ambition was to do whatever she did. Plus, the director of the children's choir praised my voice, and in second grade, I even got a solo in my school's Christmas pageant, so it was clearly a logical career path!

Once I picked up other interests such as playing the flute and swimming, my aspirations to become an opera singer soon gave way to what, for many years, I was sure was my life purpose: to become a writer. An Author. Scribbling away in my notebooks, I was sure that someday soon I would look up at the shelves in our local library and see my name on the spines of books on display. I would sit in bookstores and sign copies. I would visit universities around the country and give readings. Everyone would love and praise me, and my name would be known around the world as synonymous with "literary genius."

Little did I know that the more formal writing education I had, the harder it would become to get words down on paper. Still, I continued to receive unending praise and support from friends, family, and teachers alike, so I kept persevered, churning out stories and poems and essays and plays. I wrote for classes; I wrote for my friends' amusement; I wrote for the local newspaper; and all of it was worth it, because it was bringing me that much closer to becoming a Real Author.

Then I reached college. Here was where I realized that plenty of people can write at least passably, but very few of them land book deals, and even fewer are able live off of what they make as a writer. That realization, combined with the simultaneous realization that the people who land book deals aren't necessarily the ones who are any good at writing, ruined any lingering remnants of ambition I had left. Despite what any of my teachers or friends or parents believed, I would never become a true writer.

While I may have given up the dream of seeing my name on a book jacket, I wasn't ready to give up on my love of language. If I couldn't become an author, I would go into publishing from the opposite angle and become an editor. Although this would mean giving up the glamor and prestige of having my name on a book jacket, my experiences editing my friends' papers and tutoring college peers assured me that being an editor was both something I could be good at and something I would enjoy. And after all, wasn't that the ultimate goal in life: to find a satisfying job that you could do well and that would provide for your immediate needs?

Then I landed the job. No, it wasn't the exact job I had hoped for, but it gave me a way to support myself in NYC, which, in the 2008 economy, wasn't anything to take lightly. Here was where I learned that the editorial job of my dreams didn't really exist. I had envisioned a job that consisted of reading manuscripts, separating the wheat from the chaff, and then working hand-in-hand with authors to improve their manuscripts to the point of perfection. In reality, these editors, called "acquisitions editors," are forced to meet quotas: to sign X number of books per year amounting to Y dollars in revenue for the company. This reduces what I thought was an artistic, creative process to a money machine--just like every other company-company out there.

So now I'm stuck back at square one, only with more pragmatic, "adult" concerns like rent and health insurance to worry about.

What do I want to be when I grow up?

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Snapshot Book Review: Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage: Stories

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage: StoriesHateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage: Stories by Alice Munro

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

If this book had been a novel, I would have put it down after the first 50 pages. However, because it is a collection of short stories, I convinced myself that maybe the next story would be more interesting; if I didn't keep reading, I might not be giving Munro a fair chance.

Alas, I reached the end of the book and felt nothing but relief--relief that it was over. Munro is a lovely writer, with a good command of language, but her choice of subject matter, story development, and characters was uninspiring. With a title like "Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage," I expected at least a little bit of drama or intrigue. Or, if Munro left out suspense, then I expected at least a few stories to make me feel something: anger or sadness or indignation. Instead, what I felt--if anything--was melancholy. But really, I mostly felt bored and restless to "get on with it."

This summary by one Amazon reviewer gives my impression of the book to a T: "To be fair, I admit [Munro] is a good writer, technically speaking. It's just that she doesn't write about anything interesting. . . . Quick story rundown: a married lady has cancer, urinates in someone's driveway, then kisses their son. The end. Yay, that was neat."

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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Jersey City Earthquakes (and Other Events Worth Ignoring)

Okay, so this blog post title may be a bit misleading; the earthquake actually happened in Virginia. However, I experienced it in Jersey City! Yet, at the time, I didn't even realize what was happening. Let me explain.

My sister A___ and I were sitting on the futon in my living room, watching the movie Precious. It was about an hour-and-a-half before we had to leave to get her to her bus stop in order to return to Pittsburgh, and both of us were a little antsy. Partway through the movie, I noticed that the futon was bouncing up and down. At first I ignored it, assuming A____ was vigorously scratching a bug bite or something. However, when the bouncing persisted, I started to get annoyed. What is she doing? I thought to myself. God, just sit still. After a moment more, I finally said something.

"What are you doing?"

"What?" She looked up at me.

"Could you please quit bouncing, or whatever it is you're doing?"

"I'm not doing anything!"

"Well the futon's bouncing around, so...."

"I thought that was you!"

I gave her a deadpan look.

"I'm sitting still."

"I thought you were bouncing your leg or something."

"No, I'm sitting still."

We both sat there for a minute, looking at each other.

"Oh," she finally said.

A moment later, the futon stopped bouncing, and we went back to watching the movie, unperturbed.

About an hour later, as we were leaving for the bus stop, A___'s phone buzzed.

"It's D___," she said, pressing the mute button. "I'll call him back later."

We entered the PATH station (New Jersey's equivalent to the NYC subway), and when we emerged half an hour later, her phone was buzzing again.

"God, he's called me seven times now," A___ said in annoyance.

"Then you'd better pick up," I replied. "It might be important."

"He's probably just calling me for something stupid," she said as she held the phone up to her ear. "Like how horny he is or something. Seriously, I bet that's it. Hi honey, what's up? The what? Yeah I'm fine. Did I what? Earthquake? What earthquake?"

"Oh my god, that's what it was!" I exclaimed, poking her in the shoulder as we maneuvered down the sidewalk, past gawking tourists and irritable commuters. That's what had happened when we were watching the movie!

The moral of this story might be that boyfriends worry more about their girlfriends' safety than said girlfriends' parents. Or it might be that technology has given us quicker, easier access to loved ones and consequential peace-of-mind...or that it tells us us too much about the world too quickly and therefore causes undue worry. But I think the true lesson here is that humans will ignore and rationalize away everything they can until it interferes directly with their life. Seriously: an earthquake occurred, and rather than recognizing what was happening at that futon-shaking moment, I chalked it up to my little sister being her usual annoying self. However, if the plaster from the ceiling had started falling on our least then I might have admitted that maybe, just maybe, A___ actually wasn't the one shaking that futon.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

NYC Triathlon, Part V: Results

Not caught up? Read Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV.

A huge thanks to all of my family and friends who woke up at god-awful hours of the morning to come and cheer me on—you made the whole event incredibly special. Extreme gratitude, also, to all of my training buddies, both old and new. Shout-outs go to the Chubs, the Wiley runners, Felix and his cyclists, and everyone else who has pushed and encouraged me both mentally and physically. Finally, a never-ending thanks to G___, the best coach I’ve ever had. I would not have achieved even half of my athletic successes without you.

Race stats and results:

Swim1.5 ~1

Finish Time2:48:14
Overall Rank1467/???
Gender Rank90/1051
Age Group Rank (F25-29)20/219

Race SectionTimeRateOverall Rank

Monday, August 15, 2011

NYC Triathlon, Part IV: The Run

Not caught up? Read Part I, Part II, and Part III.

As I trot out of the gate and up the hill to 72nd street, I snap the race belt shut around my waist and try to ignore the new surge of adrenaline pumping through me in order to gauge how my legs are feeling. Are they sore? Cramped? How much energy do I have left? Really, I had been expecting to feel worse by this point. I can tell I am not exactly bounding along like a gazelle, but I don’t feel like I am shuffling at a snail’s pace, either. Plus, I will be passing R___ and my parents soon, so I had better look good!

As we emerge at the top of the hill, volunteers direct us to run through a small tunnel. “Look out for dabodder!” they shout. “Dabodder! Watch your step?” The what? I wonder, trying to jostle my way between the shoulders of two middle-aged women wearing entirely pink outfits. What am I looking fo—Oh! My right foot sinks into a puddle almost ankle-deep. The water. Shoot! Now my shoe will be squishy for the rest of the race.

Out on the street, there they are: my own personal cheering section. I actually hear them before I see them: my mom’s operatic hoot combined with R___’s lower pitched holler, and my dad’s shouts mixed in between. When I do finally find them in the crowd, they are holding silly signs on sticks, hoisting them up and down and waving their free hands in excitement.

As I stride past my R___ and my family down the street, I hear B___’s voice in my head, warning me, Don’t waste all of your energy on 72nd street. You won’t be even a mile into the run and you’ll have shot your legs. Still, stretching out after being hunched over on the bike and running through all of these cheers feels so good! I could do 13 miles, I thought to myself. A half Ironman wouldn’t be that bad.

But then I hit the park. We haven’t even covered 2 miles of the 6.2-mile course when the muscles in my legs start screaming. You’re not even halfway through, I try to reassure myself. You’re still warming up. You must just be tight, still, from the bike. I choose a woman in front of me wearing a neon yellow vest that reads “Cheer for Alex!” and make my first goal to pick her off. Here we go, Alex.

By mile 3, I have picked off Alex, a woman in a bikini, three old men running together chatting, and tiny Indian girl who exhausted herself trying to stay ahead of me. The sun is starting to come out, and I am sweating despite my rain-and-Hudson-River-soaked clothes. At the next water station, I grab a cup out of the hand of a volunteer and dump it over my head. We then round a curve at the north end of the park, and in the next instant I see the 110th street pool. Can we just swim the rest of the race? I want to ask the woman next to me. However, she looks intent on the hill ahead of us, so instead I keep my mouth shut and focus on passing her.

I had intended to pick up my pace at mile 4, but when I finally see the mile marker sign at the side of the road, I feel as though I can barely keep moving my legs, never mind start moving them faster. Then I see J___, a man I had recently met through B___’s triathlon group, walking ahead of me on the inside curb.

“Come on, J___!” I shout as I jog past. “Come on!” He keeps staring on the road straight ahead of him and shakes his head stiffly. Okay, I console myself, I am not as bad off as him. I have to keep going.

As we approach mile 5, all of the volunteers and spectators start yelling encouragement. “Keep going!” some of them shout. “You’re almost there! Just a mile left!” I am not almost there, I would have shouted if I had been able to catch my breath. I haven’t even seen the mile 5 sign yet, and a mile away is not ‘almost there.’ The more people who shout it, though, the more I start to second-guess myself. Had I missed the sign? I am consciously reserving the last of my energy for the final mile-long stretch, and if I somehow missed the sign, I know I’ll be kicking myself at the end for not giving it my all. To be safe, I kick my pace up a notch. Now I am running at a pace that I can confidently sustain for half a mile, or maybe a mile, but definitely no more than that. My legs are shrieking in protest. One more mile I tell them. Just one more.

“Smile wide for mile five!” a man running the opposite direction shouts, and I give him a lackluster grin. Even the muscles in my face feel tired.

Relax, I tell myself as we approach a downhill. Relax. This part is easy. The downhill is easy. Save it for the end. And then I see it: the mile 5 sign. That means that I now have 1.2 miles to go. How will I ever sustain this pace for another entire mile and then some? Not that I have any alternative. My body is in its top gear, so my options are now to either run it out to the end as hard as I can or to stop completely—and no way am I stopping unless my legs collapsed under me.

Run. Breathe. Relax. Re-laaaax. It feels like a joke to tell myself to relax when my body is in panic I-need-to-stop mode, but it is the only thought I can get to stick in my head. That and, Just run your race. The rest of the girls are gravy. If you beat them, fine. If you don’t, fine. Just keep running.

There are the gates. I saw them yesterday, when I was showing my family the finish area. Now I just have to go around the loop by the fountain and . . . where? I come careening around the fountain and hear my name shouted from somewhere in the crowd. My head feels cemented in place, so I toss my hand out in what I hope looks like a wave as I barrel across the street. Perpendicular fences create a sharp left-hand turn, followed by a turn to the right, around a street corner. And then, there is the finish line: a mass of navy blue banners and silver chain-link fences and eyes staring through and over and above.

“And here comes Allison Goldstein,” comes a voice over the loudspeaker, “making her way to the finish line.” Allison Goldstein. That’s me! Pumping my legs as hard as they will go, I raise my arms. Maybe it’s my imagination, but maybe the crowd really does let out a cheer.

At 9:43a.m. I cross the finish line.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

NYC Triathlon, Part III: The Bike

Not caught up? Read Part I and Part II.

The sky is still gray, although the heavier rains seem to have stopped. Wind whips back and forth against my body as I pump my pedals. “On your left!” riders shout as they speed past me. Their rear tires spray mist and grit up into my face.

Take water now, I commanded myself, even though I am not thirsty and the last thing I want to do release my either of handlebars while swerving around puddles, potholes, and other cyclists. Yet every triathlete I have spoken to has said, “take your water and nutrition on the bike,” and I know their advice is right. My leg muscles might be burning, but I am not breathing hard at all, and I know how difficult it is to swallow anything while running. Now is the time.

Once I am on a slight downhill slope, I stop pedaling in order to balance more easily. It takes me a few swipes before I manage to snag the water bottle out of its holster, and I have to quickly grab my handlebar to steer around an especially deep-looking puddle before I can let go again and take a hurried swig. As I reach down and jostle to get the bottle back into its cage, I mentally picture A___ pedaling along in front of me, sitting completely upright with both arms completely free. Someday I will be able to do that, I promise myself. For now, I have to be satisfied with managing to take a drink of water without dropping the bottle or toppling over.

When we reach the highway tollbooths, I squint down at my odometer. Does it say 3? No way; that must be an 8. Oh man, I’ve only gone 8 miles? That means I’m not even close to the halfway-point.

Finally we reach the turnaround point at 13 miles and start on our way back. A few miles in, I decide to take my “nutrition,” which is a sugar and electrolyte supplement, in this case called Gu. The Gu turns out to be easier to handle than the water. Per my friend B___’s instructions, I had taped the packet to to top of my bike frame with black electrical tape. The perforated line on the packet is right below the tape, so when I reach down and yank, it tears right off. I stick the open end in my mouth, and suck sweet, slimy substance into my mouth. The flavor is chocolaty and sugary, with a guaranteed gross aftertaste. I only manage to swallow about a teaspoon-sized amount before I look over my right shoulder to make sure no one is behind me and chuck it into the bushes.

After 8 more miles, a tight U-turn and one last steep downhill, we are back at the yellow transition area. I unclip, dismount from my bike, and stumble through squishy muddy grass to get back to my spot in the bike racks. Bike shoes off. Sneakers on. Baseball cap . . . helmet! Take the helmet off first, idiot. I grab my baseball cap and race belt, and I am off again!

Saturday, August 13, 2011

NYC Triathlon, Part II: The Swim

Not caught up? Read Part I.

R___ and A___ stay with me until we see the first batch of athletes plunge into the water, and then it’s time. I strap my goggles around my head and lick the inside lens of each one before suctioning the cup to my eye. We moved forward in a mass of bodies, and right at the starting line, there they are: my mother, father, and R___, shouting their heads off and waving signs on sticks reading, “Tri ur hardest, Allison!” and “We don’t tri, our daughter does!”

I’m grinning like a nut until suddenly, I am on the barge and the row of white caps in front of us has disappeared. Nineteen other women and I move to the edge of the barge and sit down on a hard red mat, dangling our legs over the water. A few seconds pass and then “brrrrrrrrr!”—the horn goes off and I launch myself into the water.

I had intended to get a good strong push off of the barge, but when I shoot my legs out behind of me, my legs make contact with absolutely nothing. With grayish-green water clouding my vision, I feel a quick second of panic before I start clawing my way forward. The water is choppy, with waves either blocking my view or hitting me squarely in the face each time I lift my head. After several mouthfuls of briny water, I decide to breathe exclusively to my left side, to allow the waves to wash over my head instead of hitting me in the mouth. This is when I discover that every 250 meters a “mile marker” sign is attached to the shore-side wall, indicating how far we have swum.

Soon I have left all of the white-capped swimmers behind, and am now surrounded by purple caps. What’s next? I think. What color was in front of purple? It turns out the next wave is blue. Now I am surrounded by blue-capped swimmers.

This is awesome, I think. I have never swum so fast! I am over halfway through the swim, and my adrenaline is still pumping. Just don’t leave it all in the water, I tell myself. Calm down, because if you spend all of your energy here, you’ll have nothing left by the time you get to the run.

I pass athletes doing everything form freestyle to backstroke, breaststroke, side stroke, and even one man in a red cap doing doggy paddle. Suddenly, I glimpse the triangle of orange finishing buoys in sight. I do my best to almost-sprint for the final 200 meters, and then I bump into other athletes at the dock before being gripped and hauled out of the water by a male volunteer. He passes me along up the ramp, with other men gripping my elbow and forearm as my legs stumble and buckle, until I am able to will them to stand.

I make it out to the path, where I follow a line of other athletes performing the same tip-toe run along the pavement toward the transition areas. By the time I cover the 700 meters of pavement to the transition area, the soles of my feet are on fire. I throw my goggles and cap on the ground beside my bike and unroll my socks onto my feet. Shoot, I realize as I reached for my right biking shoe. I forgot to un-Velcro the straps on my biking shoes. I rip them open as fast as I can and stuff my feet inside. Donning my rain-spotted sunglasses, I smash my ponytail under my helmet and clip the strap under my chin. This is why it pays to be a good swimmer, I congratulate myself as I unrack my bike and wheel it down the empty row. No other women had arrived to claim their bike, and the path is clear straight to the exit. What a mess that would have been!

The bike path out of transition is actually the same path that the swimmers use to run to the transition areas. Swimmers run on their right, bikers ride on their right, and so long as no one crosses the center line, crisis is averted. The bike path then takes a sharp right turn, followed by a steep hill that cuts directly through a crowd of spectators. At the top, I follow a roundabout, turn left, and am suddenly on my way up the West Side Highway, off to complete the second part of the race.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

NYC Triathlon, Part I: Pre-Race

My morning starts at 3:15.

I wake to the creaking of floorboards, followed by a buzzing alarm. A___ is already awake, creeping around the kitchen to make coffee.

“I was afraid you had slept in!” he whispers “Do you want anything for breakfast? Cereal? Toast?”

I sit up on the air-mattress, rubbing my bleary-eyes and trying to remind myself why I was on the living room floor of A___’s apartment. You slept over. Your gear is in those bags by your feet. Today is race day. I then try to process his request. My mouth feels like it is filled with dryer lint.

“I’m going to eat my banana,” I decide, reaching for one of my bags. “Then I’ll figure it out.”

One banana, two slices of jam-covered toast, and three glasses of water later, A___ and I are heading through dark muggy streets toward the subway, our bags slapping against our backs. Stuffed into my bags are everything I will need for the race: sneakers, socks, biking shoes, water, Cliff nutrition bars, Shot Blocks, electrical tape, plastic bags, a race belt, my running bib, a baseball cap, a helmet, and a hand towel. In A___’s bag are his camera and an umbrella. I vaguely wonder whether he had any coffee before we left.

When we emerge from the subway station at 72nd street, a light rain has begun to fall. I head toward the hoards of athletes emerging from taxis and hurrying along sidewalks, A___ follows behind we make our way down to the transition area.

The transition area consists of thirty-odd rows arranged across an oblong field that and surrounded by a high metal fence. Each row is comprised of a long metal pole covered in square numbered stickers that correspond to each athlete’s race number. When I had dropped off my bike early Saturday afternoon, individual bicycles had been scattered amid the rows. Now, a growling generator beams light down onto a winking sea of silver, black, red, and yellow metal.

I make my way through the rows of bikes, racked merely inches away from one another, until I reach mine. Squatting in the dark, I spread my small, faded yellow hand towel on the grass to the left of my front tire. I set my sneakers together at the back of my towel, and my baseball cap and race belt next to them. At the front of the towel, I lay out my biking shoes and socks, along with a bottle of water.

The rain is harder now, drenching my hair and starting to drip into my eyes. I rip open a plastic shopping bag and lay it over all of my transition materials, tucking the edges around the towel. Then, I set my helmet upside-down on my handlebars, chin strap unhooked, and lay my sunglasses inside.

A___ and I walk over a mile to reach the swim start, and the rolling gray sky is just starting to lighten when we arrive. I step off of the concrete, into the wet soggy grass to take off my shoes and socks. Then I place them in a bag, inch my way up a hill, and stand in line with other athletes to load my bag into one of several trucks.

Finally, I am left holding nothing at all. My timing chip is secured around my ankle with its Velcro strap, and my goggles and cap are tucked into the shoulder strap of my swim top. With a tight throat, a churning stomach, and A___ serving as my personal photographer, I make my way down to the starting corrals.

The corrals are comprised of long metal gates lined up end-to-end to form a long chute parallel to the Hudson River. A single section of fence is set perpendicularly to block off segments of this chute, and each segment is marked with a sign indicating certain age group and color.

The race is organized by dividing male and female competitors into 5-year age groups. Each age group is then split in half, and each half is assigned to a particular color. My color was white, meaning that I am wearing a white swimming cap and am standing with other 25-29 year-old white-capped women in our designated corral. Meanwhile, A___ stands on the other side of the corral fence, snapping pictures, juggling his umbrella, and assuring me that I am going to be great.

Twenty minutes before the race is scheduled to start, a 20-minute delay is announced, due to a car that has flipped over on the highway where we are about to bike. At this point, A___ finally says good-bye in order to head back down to the swim exit, where he will set up to take pictures when I emerge from the Hudson River. After he leaves, and I look out onto the churning river, wondering, If the roads are slippery enough to flip a car, what’s going to happen when I ride over them on a wobbly little bike?

Suddenly, I hear a familiar voice.

“Allison? Allison?”

I turn away from the river, and there is R____, virtually standing next to me except for the metal corral fence separating us.

“R___!” I throw my arms around his neck and give him an awkward, wet hug. As it turned out, he and my parents had arrived in time to find a spot with a clear view of the swim start. Then, when they heard the announcement about the race delay, R___ decided to plunge into the sea of athletes and spectators around the corrals to see if he could find me. In spite of the crowd, A___ had run into R___ and led him to my corral! It was a small miracle!