Monday, February 16, 2009

Hot Chocolate Run

This piece is about the annual Hot Chocolate Run, sponsored by Mayor Claire Higgins to benefit Safe Passage, a wonderful local organization that shelters survivors of domestic violence and their children. The race is a gentle three-miler, with participants as various as runners and joggers with dogs, as well as families pushing strollers. I’d flirted with the idea of running, but opted instead to walk it with Tom, carrying Johnny in the front pack and pushing Lila in the stroller. We’d paid our forty dollars and had been looking forward to this event for months. What could be better than our two favorite activities—walking and talking—with our children in tow, and surrounded by our like-minded friends on a sunny cold Saturday in December before the snow starts falling? But in the night before the race, we were woken not once but twice by the coughs of both of our children. Johnny has his first cold, and Lila is so congested that when she said, “I’b dot weely sick, Baba,” I just looked at her and sighed and proffered orange juice.

Tom and I felt like little kids, too, and not in a good way. We kept trying to rationalize bundling them up and dragging them out with us. We tried to think of laissez-faire parents we could call who would endorse that decision. Finally, we agreed that I would go for a run, buy some cocoa and bring it back for a homemade version of the event. “But be sure to get the kind you make with milk, not water,” Tom said. It was generous of Tom to let me run; the deal we made was for me to go in the morning and for him to go after lunch, during the kids’ naps. But instead of feeling grateful, I got into a fight with him.

“Wow. You sure have a lot of gigs coming up, “ he said, taking a sip of tea and looking up from his computer screen. I’d just forwarded him the latest schedule from our booking agent. And this became the starting point for 1. A big discussion about how busy I was going to be in 2009 and how dear our weekends would become and 2. A huge session about our family budget, complete with bank records, checkbook, calculator and spreadsheet.

An hour or so later, I was finally out of the house pounding the pavement in my cold weather get-up. It was seasonally perfect: crisp, cold, sunny, and it smelled like Christmas. I put my iPod on “Songs” somewhere around the M’s—I’d just downloaded Cake’s version of “Mahna Mahna” which we’d used in HooteNanny for a play-along, meaning the toddlers got to pick through a bucket of shakey instruments like tambourines and maracas while the song played in the background. I jogged into town at my usual “speed”—about a 13.5 minute mile, which may not even qualify as jogging. I stopped into Serio’s, the local grocery store. They had a box of instant Swiss Miss for $2.69. The number one ingredient was corn syrup. I picked up a red box of Droste instead. The only ingredient was cocoa, and so I headed to the check out line. Then I noticed the price tag: $8.69. “Never mind,” I told the check out girl, and started back. But then I paused; we’d already paid $40 for a race we weren’t running, for a good cause. Surely I could pay an extra $6 in the name of whole foods, even if that whole food was imported cocoa. Besides, the box was smaller and would fit in my pocket. And in these days of rampant penny-pinching, perhaps I could be a maverick of sorts.

As I emerged from the store, I caught sight of the racers streaming up Elm Street towards my house. I jogged over and fell in with them, noticing with only a little disappointment how many runners outpaced me immediately. I stayed to the right. I have never run in a race before—I’m not that kind of runner, as you probably gathered from my stated “speed.” I’m the kind of runner who does it mostly for mental health reasons, although in the past one might not have called my running mentally healthy. Once, in 1997, after falling off a stage and breaking my foot, I was so worried about how my lack of exercise would affect my “mental health” that I insisted on going out in the February ice and “crutching” for forty minutes. Anyway, I am not a racer, having no speed and a lot of competitiveness, which is a bad combination. But as I jogged along listening Bob Dylan and Joan Baez singing “Mama, You’ve Been On My Mind,” a cheer went up among the people I was running with, and I saw that the frontrunners were coming back on the other side of the road. The first batch were men, paced several car lengths apart, dressed only in shorts and tee shirts, their legs churning, their chests puffed out. I had to admit, they looked pretty cool chugging along like that. I kept my eye out for the first woman to join these returning racers, while I noticed that Joan Baez was singing “Daddy” every time Bob sang “Mama.” This recording was from one of their early shows together, one of the shows where Joan, the established star, was introducing Bobby to the folk community. There was lots of banter going on in between verses; you could hear the infatuation in the nuances of the harmonies. The song ended, and my iPod immediately played a second version; this one was just Bob, solo, not hamming it up, but singing the song like a resigned dirge:

Perhaps it’s the color of the sun cut flat and covering
The cross roads I’m standing at
Or maybe it’s the weather or something like that
But Mama, you’ve been on my mind.


I thought about my argument with Tom. He is about to go full time, which means 9-5. I work from 3-5 most afternoons, plus HooteNanny all day Thursdays. In addition, I run writing groups two nights a week and starting next weekend, I’m back to performing at least one night per weekend. This will be nice for our children; they’ll almost always have a parent with them. But, as so many other couples lament, we will be like two ships crossing in the night. Could I work less? Well, that’s why our next step was to go over the numbers in our budget, and what we discovered is that we’re spending on average about $200 a month more than we make. Granted, that’s always because something comes up that we hadn’t planned for, like a $200 dental bill, or, as was the case last month, our two-year-old sticks quarters in the car CD player and thereby breaks it, necessitating our purchasing of a new one, but that’s why one budgets. Eventualities always come up eventually—I know that. I work with clients on this all the time. And my solution has always been to work harder, make more money and therefore not have to worry about negative bank balances. But that’s not what I tell my clients, and that’s maybe not what I should tell me this time around. I really can’t work any harder now. I can’t give up any more time than I’m currently giving up without feeling like I’m shortchanging my husband and kids.

Joan Baez is back; this recording is from the Rolling Thunder Review from 1976. She dedicates this version of “Mama, You’ve Been On My Mind” to her own mama, who is sitting in the front row. This time through, she sings “Mama,” not “Daddy.” This version is uptempo and professional, not full of false starts and giggles like the first version. I see the first woman racer among the men heading back to the finish line. She’s young—maybe even still in her teens—with red hair and a determined look. I can’t help but smile. “Go!” I think toward her.

The mass of racers curves off to the left, and I continue to the right, cutting through the park toward home. I make Lila her first cup of hot chocolate, which she sips and professes to adore, but then leaves to get cold on her little table. Tom drinks his up, though and thanks me for getting “the good kind.”

1 comment:

Jeff Passe said...

I think about my own life choices-- balancing career, family, and my always-too-full plate of hobbies and interests. Some of them, such as reading novels, naturally fell into the category of vacation activities. (A therapist I know once said "People end up doing what they really want to. Just look at their final choices.")

I love the image of you veering away from the runners, making the choice that reflects your priorities. I deliberately decided that being a parent was more important than being a hot-shot academic. It would have been cool to be an Ivy League professor, but I discovered that I could still be a leader in my field at the same time that I coached little league and transported teenagers. In fact, those interactions with young people informed my scholarship and teaching.

I suspect that your devotion to Tom and the kids will yield better songs and stories. I also believe that your devotion to your work will make you a better wife and mother. It's all in the balance -- which is omething that we have to work at, constantly readjusting the scale.

Your message from the "the crossroads I'm standing at" made me glad that the artist in you is asking the right questions. Now, if only the answers were as clear.