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Note: This guest post is written by my husband, Josh. He regularly blogs about beer and restaurant events at the Craftsman Table & Tap Beer Blog.

 

It was 7:00 in the morning, Saturday October 12th. Michelle and I were heading north, after a quick stop at Starbucks for much-needed black coffee and egg-and-cheese sandwiches, towards Amherst, WI, for the Lettie’s River Run, a 5-mile race that would culminate in the Great Amherst Beer Festival at the Central Waters Brewery. Behind the wheel, my enthusiasm was stoked by the promise of rare beer, and by caffeine. We’d both registered for the race—the $27 registration fee included not only the ubiquitous long-sleeve T-shirt, but a bottle of Central Waters’ La Riviere Coule, a Belgian golden ale aged on French red wine barrels for 14 months, bottled and distributed exclusively for this event—but Michelle tore her meniscus the previous week in a freak kickboxing accident (the title of her forthcoming memoir), and was unable to compete. She still got her beer and shirt, though, which I think softened the blow a little bit.

 

I’m generally a pretty chill person, but big beer events—festivals, special releases—turn me into kind of a nervous wreck. Mainly it’s because I know that the craft beer community, while its ranks have been forthcoming and generous to me, have a tendency to be a pretty rabid lot; I waited in line for five hours this past year for tickets to the Great Taste of the Midwest, but devoted Surly acolytes have been known to wait upwards of 24 hours for entrance into Darkness Day. Though their beers are extraordinary, Central Waters hasn’t quite developed that sort of cult following, but it can’t be far off. Fortunately, we arrived in plenty of time to find a good parking spot, use the shockingly clean facilities, and head inside to register. We even got some of the first pre-sale tickets for Black Gold, a special beer released in conjunction with the day’s festivities.

 

Spoiler Alert: We got three bottles.

Spoiler Alert: We got three bottles.

 

This was only my fourth competitive race, and the longest; at five miles, it wasn’t the farthest I’d ever run (I sometimes crack seven miles during training), but the pace was a concern. Simply put, I’m not good at holding back. That served me well in the last 5K I ran, as I finished first in my age group and second overall, but I felt like death by the end. Fortunately, Michelle is far more pragmatic than I am, and kept reminding me that I don’t have to pass everyone, or anyone. The former, I heeded. The latter, not so much.

 

About fifteen minutes before the start, it began to rain, a drizzle at first, but soon escalating into an early autumn shower. It certainly helped wake me up, but I didn’t sign on for a mud run; this was not how I wanted to break in the compression tights season! It settled back into a light drizzle, however, by about 9:58 (two minutes to go-time), and the runners all began to mill around in a semi-coordinated fashion up near the line.

Ready to run!

Ready to run!

 

The competitor demographics at these races are endlessly fascinating to me for several reasons, not least of which because of the way in which they/we seem to unconsciously arrange themselves: semi-pros and hardcores up front, followed by competitive amateurs, then the just-to-stay-in-shapers. I’m a decent runner, but I know my limitations, to a point; I got in the middle.

 

The gun sounded, and we were off. True to form, I started off quick, near the head of the pack but, heeding Michelle’s advice, slowed down to a brisk clip after a few hundred yards. The route took us into the town of Amherst, the brewery at our backs. It was a beautiful, clearly mapped course, with enthusiastic, helpful volunteers, one of whom yelled encouragement at me as I entered the final half-mile, and even slapped me on the rear with his flag as I rounded a corner in a residential neighborhood.

 

My early measured pace began to pay dividends around the third mile, as I passed about half a dozen racers who had themselves passed me a few minutes before. After that, I began to target individual competitors ahead of me, slightly but gradually increasing my pace until I caught and exceeded them. I’ve heard this technique referred to as “reeling in,” and it was immensely satisfying.

 

After the butt-slapping corner, there were only two more racers in front of me who were conceivably catchable. I inched past one, a late 30s gentleman who had blown by me around the first mile, and entered the 400-yard final stretch. There was one racer, a young woman in her late twenties, in between me and the finish line. My legs, though not about to give out or anything, were burning, aching, and just on the verge of numbing. Still, my inner six-year-old spoke to me: “You are NOT going to let a girl beat you!” So I powered through and eventually passed her about fifty yards before the finish, and just as my feet began to lose all feeling, giving me a strange sensation not unlike floating.

 

I slowed down out of the chute, keeping up a steady walk, hands behind my head and slowly reclaiming my bearings. The brewery was in front of me, with aid stations to the left and the festivities already beginning. I headed over and grabbed a bottle of water and couple of chocolate chip cookies—sorry, I just can’t do bananas—for a quick replenish. Baked goods certainly do wonders, and I snagged an extra cookie for Michelle. She seemed to limp a little more sprightly thereafter.

 

All things considered, this was an encouraging race. I’m trying to gradually increase distance—the endgame being the 2014 Madison Marathon—while getting a feel for a competitive, comfortable pace, and this was a good start. I was certainly a bit fatigued by the end, but didn’t have to wait long to get my wind back, and a few good minutes of stretching worked out all the kinks. After downing the bottle of water, I walked with Michelle over to the brewery entrance, where their taproom had opened to accommodate the thirsty runners (our race numbers included a tear-away tab for a free tap beer). For a more thorough recap of beer-related proceedings, you can head over to the Craftsman Table & Tap website and read her guest post on my blog, but I have to say that Central Waters’ Exodus—an oak-aged sour ale brewed with Door County cherries and weighing in at barely 5% ABV—hit the spot.

Post-race beer

Post-race beer

 

I now return you to your regularly scheduled Michelle.

 

 

 

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Bikes and Beer Torn Meniscus:

Today I was supposed to be participating in the Tour de Dane, a bike ride to three different Great Dane locations. I was really looking forward to it, mostly because of the vaguely scavenger hunt aspect to the event. Granted, the routes between the three pubs are determined in advance, and there’s not really any question of where to go, but at each location you could pick up a raffle ticket and a coupon for a free beer (for after).

But, instead, I’m sitting on the couch with ice on my knee. See, in that last post I was going on and on about all the fears that are a part of triathlon for me (and how awesome triathlon is as an outlet to work through and overcome my fears). It turns out that what I really should have been afraid of was injuring myself.

It was a normal Monday when it happened. I rushed from work to the gym to make it to one of my favorite activities, a 5:25 PM kick-boxing class. I have been kick-boxing since college, for probably about 12 years. I know what I’m doing and I have (generally) quite good form. But I was running late, the class was starting, I didn’t stretch as much as I should have, and I got all excited and into the music and the energy, and threw a roundhouse kick with poor form and tight muscles. And as my triumphant kick flew through the air, I felt my knee pop and rip, and I knew I had royally screwed up.

However, I am an idiot, so I finished the class. I took a few days off and it felt slightly better, so I went on a bike ride, and because I was feeling great, went for a run as well, marveling at how great it felt to brick in the off-season. That flared everything up again, so I took more days off, and then decided, “You know what? Swimming is low-impact, let’s give that a try.” Despite using a pull buoy (so I wasn’t, in theory, using my legs at all) and despite pushing off from the wall with only my right leg, and even though I was killing some 200s, that was the final straw. That evening it was obvious something was really wrong with my knee, and a doctor’s appointment the next day confirmed that I had torn the meniscus.

In the grand scheme of things, this is not the worst thing that could happen (or so I keep telling myself). The initial treatment is conservative. I’m ordered, in no uncertain terms, to do absolutely no exercise for two weeks. I’m allowed to walk (no crutches needed) to get around, but nothing else. Ice and Advil daily, plus some low-key rehab exercises complete the picture. After two weeks, I’ll need to be re-assessed, and if it’s not healing well, then I will likely need an MRI to see the extent of the damage and determine a game plan.

One further wrinkle is that I’m starting a new job tomorrow, which means different health insurance, which means I need to change doctors by the end of the month. It would be so much simpler if we all just had single payer healthcare! One of the (fake) laments I’ve heard from the GOP about the Affordable Care Act is that somehow we’re all going to have to leave our doctors. (a) That makes no sense if you actually pay attention to what the act is, and (b) I’m going to have to leave my doctor anyway, because healthcare in our country is bafflingly tied to employment.

Don’t get me wrong, I am thrilled to have good healthcare, both from my previous job and my new one. I cherish that fact. More than I can put into words, really. But I also was pretty happy to have a doctor who understood how important my triathlon training is to me, who was actually interested in it, and who worked with me to be in the best shape I could for it.

I also keep telling myself that if I have to get injured, this is a good time of year for it. I would be devastated if something like this happened right in the middle of the summer and triathlon’s peak moments. So I am working hard at staying positive and embracing that if nothing else, I picked a good time to suddenly forget how to do a roundhouse kick.

And although I’m not on my bike today picking up raffle tickets and beer coupons, I do not mind at all that I already paid the registration fee for the event. The whole point of the ride was not to try to win t-shirts and have a Crop Circle Wheat at the end, but was to benefit Dream Bikes, a non-profit bike shop in Madison that gives teenagers a safe and professional place to work and helps those who may not otherwise have the means obtain a quality bike. A bicycle can provide reliable and safe transportation, enjoyment, and an opportunity for fitness, and Dream Bikes is a terrific organization doing some great work. So I’m glad to have made a donation to them, even though I’m not out riding in the event.

Next weekend, Josh will be running in a race we were supposed to be doing together, and I’ll be practicing my cheering skills. I’ll need them to be in full force by next summer when he does his first marathon! Stay tuned next week for his recap from a unique racing/beer expo combination event.

Icing my knee with a feline overseer.

Icing my knee with a feline overseer.

My husband Josh and I started this blog together, and at the beginning we were both writing posts. But as I’ve become more and more obsessed with triathlons and his professional beer blogging has taken off, we’ve both decided that this blog is “mine.” So, just to avoid confusion, I’ve gone back and labeled his previous posts “Guest posts” and if/when he contributes from here on out, they’ll be labeled as such.

In the meantime, if you’re looking for awesome beer info, check out his blog over here: The Greatest Beer Blog Ever (in his wife’s opinion).

I filled you in on all the anxieties leading up to the big day, so I thought it would be only fair to tell you what happened next. This goes into excruciating detail about the day, so be forewarned.

My day began at 4:15 AM.

What else is there to say, really?

Getting to the triathlon was one of the most stressful and difficult aspects of the day. The transition area opened at 5:30, but Josh and I didn’t make it there until almost 6:20. This was due to a variety of factors. It took forever to get the bike rack on the car (I usually just ride from the front door). We had to park up on the highway and walk into the park, which took approximately forever. And I realized that the large front pockets to the fleece I was wearing felt lighter than I had remembered. My phone was there. But my wallet was not.

I looked through all the bags I’d brought, but couldn’t find it. It was suddenly obvious: it must have fallen out of my pocket when we were wrestling with the bike rack. It was probably sitting on the ground in our apartment building’s parking lot at that very moment, winking up at the sky and inviting any passerby to take it for a spin.

You might, at this point, be asking why I brought my wallet. That’s an excellent question. I had looked at a bunch of lists detailing “what to bring to a triathlon,” and many of them mentioned a photo ID. I didn’t know if I’d need it or not, and I felt I was more likely to lose a solitary ID than my entire wallet. (It turns out I did not need my ID. Good to know.)

As we walked the approximately 30 miles from the car to the transition area, Josh helping me carry all my gear and me wheeling the bike, all I could think about was my credit card being stolen, and how the identity theft we’d just received a lecture on at work the other day apparently costs victims an average of $6,000 and 800 hours to resolve, while at the same time being utterly convinced that transition was going to close before we got there and I’d be disqualified from the race before I even started, and all that training would be for nothing.

I will note here that I saw one competitor arrive in a Green Cab (the taxis in Madison that have bike racks on the back), and I thought this was a brilliant idea. He could be delivered right up to the entrance without having to park on the highway and walk, and the cab driver presumably already knew how to operate his bike rack.

I will also note that the anxiety about losing my wallet was a decent distraction from perseverating on the race itself. Especially once we arrived to the transition area with plenty of time for me to set up, and for Josh to run back up to the road to search for the wallet.

For this race, we were all assigned transition spots by our race numbers, and I was lucky to have one on the end of a row by the grass, so I had more room to set up, more room to throw my things, and more room once I was actually in the middle of the transitions. I looked at the other bikes to see how to attach mine to the rack and I laid out my items in a fog, thinking about my wallet while trying to envision exactly how I was going to want to proceed.

Once set up, I got my body and swim cap marked, with my race number drawn in permanent marker on my left arm and left calf, and on both sides of my silver swim cap. We were given caps to identify which wave we were in (elites, and then gender and age).

And then, while I was waiting in line for the Port-o-Potty, I realized where my wallet could be. I texted Josh to check a certain spot in the car, and he quickly reported that was exactly where it was.

Now all I wanted was for him to be back while I freaked out.

BRAAAAAAAAIIIIIIIIINS!!!!!

BRAAAAAAAAIIIIIIIIINS!!!!!

Support:

One very happy coincidence was that two of the first people I saw were two women from my Master’s Swim class, Darcy and Randi, both of whom had competed in triathlons before and appeared to be significantly calmer than I was. It was a comfort and a relief to wait with them while the waves before ours took off for the swim, and they were able to answer a lot of my questions (most of which involved “which direction do we swim again?”)

During this time when the earlier waves had started and we were all waiting on the beach in our wetsuits, I also ran into my co-worker and friend, Leslie, who was running the race. I’d been looking for her all morning, but our identical black wetsuits and silver caps made it difficult to distinguish anyone.

This is also when my wonderful supportive friends Ellen and Celia arrived with smiles and words of encouragement. There’s not really any way to say things like this without risking sounding too sentimental or cheesy, but being in a little huddle with all these people I knew and who I knew wanted the best for me was very comforting, after the initial bout of slight (just a little bit) of crying that comes, for me, from being able to relax just a bit around people I trust.

This was also the time when I went to the bathroom about four times, each time wrestling the wetsuit down to my knees and the tri-suit all the way off as well.

The swim:

It felt like forever before our wave was called, but somehow Leslie and I found ourselves running into the water behind our entire group. The race had an “in-water start,” so the group of 40 or so of us (soon to feel like about 400) stood waist deep in the very cold waters of Lake Mendota and hopped around anxiously. I remembered a friend’s advice to splash water on my arms and face to get used to it, so I did.

Leslie and I were at the back of our group, by design. I didn’t want to jockey with people for position. I felt very comfortable in my swimming abilities in a pool, after months and months of Master’s Swim classes, but I had only been in a lake once before and I had never been in a scrum of swimmers like this.

Our swim consisted of 400 meters of a right turn, a right turn, and a left turn.

The starter counted down the last ten seconds, each one filling me with more and more dread, and then blew the horn to set us off. I had planned to wait ten seconds or so to let the group get out of my way, but in the panic and adrenaline soaked moment, I waited about two seconds and then jumped in.

I was out of control, swimming much faster than I had meant to. My memories of this moment a view of nothing but green, breathing every other stroke instead of every three like I usually do, gasping for air, waves crashing into my face, and constantly swimming into those around me. I put my head up to see where I was and realized I had only traveled about no meters and that everyone around me was running in the water instead of swimming. Which explains why I kept running into them.

I felt terrible and already exhausted. Being panicked in the water is exactly the reason I didn’t want to swim in the first place and exactly the reason I’d taken lessons. I thought I was over this.

I stood and ran/walked for a while in the water with the rest of my group until we got to the first right turn and suddenly the water was deep and everyone was swimming. I had no ground to push off from, but managed to get myself into a freestyle stroke.

I was still breathing on the right every other stroke and every time I did, I saw a mass of black, wetsuited arms flailing all around me and faces turned up to the sky gasping for air with horrified expressions.

This was terrible. I couldn’t see anything when my face was in the water (no nice blue line on the bottom of the lane to follow). I couldn’t see anything when I tried to look up out of the water, other than arms and horror. I was breathing too much and beginning to panic and almost hyperventilate, and I’d already been hit in the face by more waves than I needed in my life. I felt like I was cheating, but I didn’t see any other option, so I flipped on my back and started backstroking. And it was glorious (well, sort of). I went on the outside edge of the mass of people and before I knew it, I was gliding along and passing most of them. I had to flip over every so often to check where I was, and only once was I off course, but looking at the sky and keeping track of someone next to me to more or less stay on the right track was working. I could slow my breathing down. Backstroking in a wetsuit was pretty easy with the added buoyancy it gave me. And when I took my left turn around the yellow buoy and got shallow enough in the water to stand, I was surprised to only see only a few women in front of me, one of whom somehow took off her entire wetsuit while running out of the water without missing a step.

I heard Josh, Ellen, and Celia cheering as I exited the water, but I was too traumatized to see them. I jogged to T1, pulling my wetsuit down to my waist. Later I found out I had finished the swim in 8:38, third in my age group. Next time, I’m going straight to the backstroke. Apparently I can do it quickly enough to be competitive, and it avoids the panic of not being able to see or breathe.

You have no idea what I've just been through.

You have no idea what I’ve just been through.

T1:

I made it in and out of the first transition pretty quickly. The extra room I had on the grass was very helpful to fling my wetsuit. I don’t have cycling shoes or any clipping in business, so I dried off my feet and put on my socks and running shoes, then threw on the race belt Jenny had lent me (thank you!) that had my number on it, my sunglasses, and my helmet. And I was off. My total time for the first transition was 2:23, second in my age group.

The bike:

I had mentioned in the last post how old my bike is. Well, that proved to still be the case on race day. I was passed on the bike ride more than any other portion of the race. Some of the elite Olympic racers were finishing up their bike when I was on the course, and hearing them blow by me was amazing. They sounded like they were going about 60 miles an hour as they passed with a whoosh.

The bike course was fairly hilly and at a few points I saw people pushing their bikes up some of the steeper hills. My stubbornness kept my butt on the bike seat, even when I was in the lowest gear going slower than the cows walking past on the other side of the fence.

The scenery was beautiful — rolling farmland and picturesque barns.

I had practiced learning how to drink from my water bottle while riding, and tried to take advantage of the bike ride to hydrate.

I don’t really know that I have anything else to say about the bike and this is already an exceptionally long post. I finished the bike in 42:20, seventh in my age group.

T2:

Because I didn’t have to change shoes again, T2 was a breeze for me. All I had to do was prop my bike up on the rack and remove my helmet, and I was out of there in 1:00 flat, the fastest T2 in my age group

The run:

I was very grateful that Josh and I had done some brick training (where you bike and run back to back) because I knew that the cramping and pain I had in my legs would dissipate after half a mile to a mile of running. I started off slow on the run, planning to increase my speed every mile. The first mile was painful. My right leg was cramped and both legs and feet felt so heavy, as if they were water-logged bags of sand.

And, of course, the run started with a steep (but short) hill. There was a volunteer at the top of the hill to point us in the right direction. He was cheering us on, yelling, “Yeah! You ran up that hill like it was flat land!”

There were a ton of spectators throughout the whole race, ringing bells, holding signs, and cheering, but I remember them most from the run. Out of the swim I was too out of it and recovering from the panic to notice much, and on the bike I was going too fast (sort of). But on the run I could hear what people were saying and see people cheering, and it was great. I’ve been a spectator at many races, but on this one I appreciated the crowd in a way I hadn’t before.

There was one woman in particular, about a quarter mile from the end of the run, who saw me coming and let me have it (in a good way). “208!” she yelled, reading my number. “You are not going to stop now! A quarter-mile to go, and it’s time to start picking it up! Swing your arms and your legs will follow!”

I started swinging my arms, years of listening and responding to softball coaches ingrained in my psyche.

“That’s it!” she yelled. “Now go faster!”

And I did.

She was awesome.

When I crossed the finish line, I tried to make sense of the clock, but it had started when the first wave of elite Olympic distance triathletes pushed off in the water, and the math of when I had started compared to when they had was too much to deal with in that moment. I needed water and I needed to simultaneously stop moving and keep moving. I walked around in the recovery area for a while, then joined my family and friends outside.

The race organizers had set up these really cool little receipt printers where you could punch in your number and get a print out of your times and ranking. That’s how I found out that I had finished the run in 28:47, and my total time was 1:23:10, placing me third in my age group overall (although now that I’m looking at the results online, I am apparently listed as fourth overall in my age group. I’m not sure how that happens, but after the race I was documented as third and they gave me the “medal” for third place – oops!)

My goals for this race were: (1) to finish the whole thing, and (2) to finish in under 1:45:00. I was so happy with my much faster time and honestly quite surprised to be competitive within my age and gender.

I’m already looking at other sprint tri’s I can sign up for this summer.

My "third place" "medal"

My “third place” “medal”

When I got into the pool for my first swimming lesson nine months ago, I was already thinking of race day. Why bother learning to swim, after all, if it wasn’t going to be to compete in a triathlon? I had no idea.

The coach instructed us to warm up, and then started pulling swimmers aside one by one to film us from both above and below the water swimming one length of the pool. I swam to one wall and touched it. Everyone else was still jetting back and forth. Two of the three people I was sharing a lane with flip-turned off the wall as I clung to it. So I pushed off again and swam back to the first wall. I stood again, looking around, expecting a high five, maybe. The other swimmers kept going, wind-up toys released into the world, jetting back and forth between each end of the pool like they were being pulled by dolphins on speed. I swam back again. 75 meters total. I thought I was going to die. My heart was racing and I felt like I couldn’t breathe. My stomach wanted to jump out of my mouth, run through the dripping ceramic locker room, get behind the wheel of my car, and go home.

And I did. Almost. I got out of the pool, walked up to the coach, and told her, “I think I’m in over my head.”

“You mean you can’t stand on the bottom of the pool?” she asked. “It’s too deep.”

I shook my head and tried to breathe without crying. “I can’t keep up. I need an easier class. I’m not in bad shape,” (I was contractually obligated by pride to say this) “but I can’t swim this far.”

Luckily my coach was understanding, encouraging, kind, patient, all of those characteristics that sound so lame in print but mean so much when you’re having a panic attack by the side of a pool while students twice your age are swimming circles around you like indefatigable superheroes that were created for the sole purpose of swimming forever without ever stopping to cling to the wall.

Long story short, she talked me into staying, and the footage she then took of my first flailing, splashing 25 meter approximation of a freestyle will remain hidden somewhere in the stack of DVDs my husband and I keep under the television.

Twice weekly Masters Swim lessons for nine months gave me the feedback and technique I needed to be able to swim more than 75 meters at a time. And it wasn’t long before I was loving my early mornings in the pool. As grown-ups, we don’t all that often get the chance to learn something completely new, but I was such a novice at swimming that almost every class gave me a chance for improvement.

Despite the fact that I was running, kick-boxing, boot-camping, and playing softball, swimming challenged my stamina and my cardiovascular capabilities in a new way. The first time I swam 400 meters without stopping, I wanted to run out of the pool and tell the whole gym about the amazing accomplishment I had just achieved. And when I learned flip-turns for the first time, I came home scraped and bruised from running into the walls and bottom of our shallow pool, and described to my husband, in excruciating detail, how many times I tried, and how many times I failed, and how then I did one almost right. Once I got the mechanics of the turns, the added cardio fatigue of turning and pushing off at the end of every length reminded me anew of how hard those initial lessons were.

And the first time I tried a length of butterfly… Well.

It’s hard to explain why swimming has meant so much to me. It’s all complicated, tied up in weird fears and anxieties that my mind has manufactured after being the victim of a violent crime. Some of the fears that our minds fixate on after traumatic events can be so obvious (i.e., walking alone down a dark alley at night, sure that you’re about to hear the footsteps of a stranger with a weapon behind you) and others don’t seem to make any sense at all (in my case, being terrified that the smoke alarm will go off while I’m cooking because… I have no idea, being well aware that I could just turn it off, but fear knows no logic). Swimming, and specifically not being able to breathe while swimming, was a specific fear that my mind had latched onto, and learning how to do it has been incredibly difficult, but also a lot of fun.

And now the ostensible reason I wanted to learn is almost here. On Sunday, I’m going to do my best to swim, bike, and run the shortest possible distance one can while still calling the event a triathlon, and I’m nervous and excited, and cautiously optimistic that I’m going to do a great job (something else I’m pretty sure we’re never supposed to say aloud, but hey, let’s keep bucking convention here).

The questions I ask myself:

  • Am I allowed to call it a “tri” if I haven’t actually completed one yet? Or is that only for the in-crowd, the cool kids?
  • On the helpful list of “Common Rule Violations,” I’m told that my helmet “must be approved by CPS commission.” Uh… I bought it within the last year or two at a real bike store, so I’m good, yeah?
  • Why am I convinced I won’t remember to put my shoes on?
  • I should be there how early?
  • Is there any way to wash Body Glide off?
  • What if it turns out my tri suit is see-through when it gets wet?
  • To that end, I probably should have practiced swimming with the tri suit on more, right?
  • Is everyone going to laugh at me because my bike was built in 1995 for a 13 year old?
  • Puking… an option?
  • How much of a problem is the fact that I’m allergic to lakes going to be?
  • Can I bring my cat?
  • I’ve been thinking, and this is just a thought, that my feet might still be slightly damp when I put them in my socks. That’s not really a question, but… gross.

Most of those questions are jokes, but I’m not going to say which ones. That may or may not be because I can’t quite remember.

So there you have it. Tired, carbo-loaded ramblings two nights before the event I’ve been thinking about for way longer than I’ve needed to.

This past weekend, I finished our taxes, which meant that I had to delve into the rarely used filing cabinet to check something from last year’s returns. When I turned back to close the drawer, this is what I found:

File me under cute!

File me under cute!

So I went back to work on the tax returns until I heard Roxy jump out, the joys of filing apparently not vibrant enough to hold her attention for very long.

But when I turned back to close the drawer for good this time, well, you can guess where this is going:

Look, you can't just sit in a drawer and call it filing, Other Cat.

You adopted me for the tax write-off?!

This past week—on Friday, January 11th, to be exact—we lost a member of our family: Jimmy Stewart, our beloved, bizarre chinchilla. The condition afflicting him is still something of a mystery; the good people at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Veterinary Hospital are doing an autopsy on him, and we’ll know something in a day or two. All I know is that I took him in to get a fairly routine procedure done—the trimming of his incisors—and he never really recovered from the anesthesia. He was put down shortly afterward.

 

This post, however, is not meant to dwell on his ailment, or even the very real, devastating fact of his death. It’s just that I feel compelled to tell a few stories about him: how he came into my life, where he’s been with me, and how many fond, sometimes hilarious memories I have of him.

 

I’m 28 years old—29 in one month—and I got Jimmy when I was about 20. A friend of mine back in Georgia had a chinchilla that had babies, and Jimmy was the last one, something of a runt. I didn’t know a damn thing about chinchillas. I’d seen pictures of them, and I agreed to take him mainly because I thought it might garner me some cool points at college (it did).

 

I didn’t, at first, know what I was getting into.

 

The first thing I remember about him is that he was much faster than I’d expected. Ridiculously agile, blindingly quick. He was chill enough to ride around on my shoulder, but would jump from five feet away to the top of the refrigerator without warning. He would scamper up sheer vertical walls nearly a full foot before gravity kicked in. He was a novelty, and I liked having him around.

 

And then, of course, I grew to love him. He was, as you’d expect, extremely hard to catch hold of, but once you had him, he loved being held close and securely. His whiskers tickled. He twitched a lot.

 

One of the things I loved best about him was that he didn’t seem to be afraid of anything. Anything. When I vacuumed my room—later my apartment, later our apartment—he never cowered, but jumped up on his perch inside his cage and tried to get a better view. When Jack, my mother’s yappy-dog, tried to intimidate him—after being otherwise put in his place by Fritz, our 13-year-old Schnauzer mutt and Otis, our 15-year-old cross-eyed and toothless cat—Jimmy simply charged at Jack from across his cage, sending the intruder scampering back down the stairs to, I assume, reassess his place in the great cosmic pecking order.

 

My favorite story: one night, Michelle and I came home to the apartment we shared in Milledgeville, GA. We’d just adopted a second cat, Penny, who was only now beginning to understand life outside the shelter. Michelle and I walked in the front door to find a curious scene playing out in front of us. Jimmy had somehow managed to get out of his cage, and was sitting on the floor in the study, chilling out as usual. Penny was hunched at the end of the hall, obviously prepared to pounce at any moment. It took us a minute to see why she didn’t.

 

Roxy was standing in the doorway to the study, her back to Jimmy, staring Penny down in a manner that clearly, though gently, said “Over my dead body.” It was pretty remarkable. We scooped Jimmy up, re-deposited him in his cage, and had a good laugh. Roxy and Penny too, I like to think.

 

Jimmy was, by far, the strangest pet I’ve ever had. He was fairly private, but had personality to spare. I was with him when he was only a few months old, I saw him get plump, and I was with him when the vet administered the dose of drugs. He was in no pain at all.

 

I only have the one picture of him on my phone. It does, though, capture him at his best, though I look kind of like a serial killer. I can think of nothing else he must be doing right now besides, as my sister Sara put it, riding Fritz in heaven like a horse.

 

jimmy

 

RIP, you little bugger.