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Unplugging from Summer of Minecraft

Today I watched with pride, as my only son Dylan, 11, raced off to school. He shut the car door with a thud, and he left me in his prepubescent wake to begin the adventure of 5th grade. 

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Somehow, 11 years of life have been wedged between devouring endless amounts of cheese pizza and Blue Bell chocolate ice cream, trekking to Target a thousand times, playing a couple hundred baseball games, practicing forehands and backhands, reading everything from Elephant and Piggie to Mike Lupica and listening to everyone from the Avett Brothers to ZZ Top. 

Summer is designed for living-out-loud experiences. I embrace being out of routine, and we declare it OK once in a while to say, have ice cream for breakfast (OK, just once.) But without the pressure of being out the door at 7:42 a.m., it's a glorious feeling to know the entire day waits, expectantly, for you to take it and forge your own path.

But after a couple of weeks, if it sounds too good to be true, in our household it is. I wonder, am I the only work-at-home mom feeling the twinges of guilt. I'm straddling a line as thin as a strand of Dylan's and my red hair. I have work to do, I want to spend quality time with him. I need him to be engaged with me, I need him to please be quiet for the umpteenth time. 

I've truly tried to fill this summer with a healthy shot of fun and frolic with a chaser of enrichment. On some level, I've succeeded. We've been to my family farm in southwest Missouri where Dylan drove a John Deere Gator (4-wheeler) for the first time en route to 20 acres of walnut trees. He's also been to California and ridden crazy roller coasters at Disneyland. He's learned how Blue Bell ice cream is made when we visited Brenham, Texas.

He read some books, including his first-ever Hardy Boys book and has started Island of the Blue Dolphins. We've dined out a lot. We've celebrated and lamented over Connect Four at my favorite coffee shop (thanks Roots), we've experienced an earthquake at the Perot Museum, gone indoor skydiving for his birthday and spent an afternoon walking around funky Denton eating homemade ice cream and browsing through a used book store.

But beyond all the domestic travel, his world is broadening on a global level. Fueled by social media, he has a select group (approved by me) of Skype friends that even includes a buddy who lives in Norway. (Lest my approval system sound perfect, it's not, this summer we deleted one of his Skype contacts for using inappropriate language directed at Dylan and a friend.)

The building blocks of this change, literally, have emerged from Minecraft. In fact, I would deem this summer, "The Summer of Minecraft" in addition to all the other stuff we've done to fill time and feel enriched. If you or your child isn't part of the 100 million registered users of this game, it's a creative playground for kids. Think of a digital Lego game where you place 3D blocks to create a computer-generated world I find equal parts amazing and soooo freakin' frustrating.

In case you missed it above, in February, Minecraft surpassed 100 million registered users. It's only been out since 2009, and kids learn about it from word of mouth, and a Noah-like flood of YouTube videos. A major pastime of Dylan's summer was "recording" YouTube videos, as he tries his broadcasting skills on for size providing Minecraft play-by-play. Kids spend hours recording their own videos and even more hours watching other kids' videos. The internet sensation hotter than a lunch of ghost chili peppers on a hot Texas day is Stampylonghead, a British 20-something year old who created a virtual cat named Stampy. He has 3.5 million subs (subscribers for us older-school folks) and can attract more than 30 million hits on a video in a week's time. Baffling to me, as he is fingernails screeching down a chalkboard to me, but I need to understand this a bit. Plenty of kids (Dylan included) feel so connected to Stampy that they draw pictures and send them to him on his Facebook account. In a true collision of social media, Dylan challenged Stampy to the ALS ice bucket challenge after uploading his own video challenge to YouTube. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KkWBYQ9Ehi4&list=UUdEQXyPT9ZEJXfmL-Ok5UVQ&index=1


I think the proliferation of Minecraft -- its runaway avalanche-like popularity -- is a very big deal. As a parent, I feel like I'm on a treadmill doing the best I can to keep up with the barrage of social media that comes with it. My immediate question is how I navigate this new world with my little guy. The first step is I have pledged to actually learn this game. Dylan's going to give me Minecraft lessons. We might even post it on YouTube. Watch out, Stampy.

It won't solve everything but it's a start. 

We're also limiting screen time, more diligently than in summer. I still stay plugged into his Skype account. He's not on Facebook and doesn't have a phone, yet. Though eventually I will tire of phone calls from his friend DerpyDude and text messages from other friends asking when he can play Minecraft. But for now, to exercise control of that flow of information, I will deal with unwanted interruptions because at least I know what is going on and who DerpyDude is. 

I could write this off as a stage -- one to be endured like Elmo, Thomas, Mario, the Wii. 

But I think that would be shortsighted. I think I'm stuck with this one. If it's not Minecraft, the next whiz-bang thing will undoubtedly be even more engrained in every corner of social media. And as Dylan marches on to middle school next year, all I can say is I'm glad to be done with the "Summer of Minecraft" as I try to figure out how we will best navigate a world that offers amazing and unimaginable global possiblilties-- yet I need to make sure he doesn't forget to play in his own backyard. 

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Rise, Shine, Glide Your Nooks and Crannies

It's 4:45 a.m., and the conversation with my friend Rachel has turned serious. 

"I guess I should glide my butt, huh?"

I look at her unblinkingly, and tell her, of course, it's a good idea.

Then we overflow in hysterics, like we're teenagers sharing an inside joke on Marathon Monday in Boston.

That was a week and a half ago, and I'm still laughing about it.

My You GO Girl running group had great questions this week about the Boston Marathon. Some related to running, but plenty related to what you do before a race. At Boston, it's even more of an orchestration because so much about running this race isn't about running at all. It's about waiting. A long time. The race starts at 10 a.m., at least two hours later than most marathons begin. My wave won't even cross until 10:30, meaning I will finish my 26.2-mile trek in full sun shortly after 2 p.m.

Race morning is about taking care of Maslow's hierarchy on the most basic level. You consider what to wear as much as what not to wear. Layers are key. Too little better than too much. You fret about eating too much, drinking too little, you pee constantly and pray to the poop gods versus some porcelain goddess that things will get moving. This is such a big deal, my friends and I have been known to high-five when we know our prayers have been, uh, answered. 

Rachel takes care of her derriére. I fold a paper towel in my fuel belt in case of emergency. I grab my own Body Glide, which for the uninitiated, could pass for deodorant but the consistency is thicker and waxier to cut down on friction. I furiously coat myself like it's armor for my toes, jog bra line and thighs. 

I don a wardrobe resembling hobo meets shabby chic. Throwaway clothes (donated to charity as you head to the start) are a necessity if you sit outside in the cold for hours before the race. I have some NYC gray sweatpants purchased on clearance in the boys' section that are a bit too small. Problem is it's already in the 40s and we're about five hours away from starting. Too warm for my ginger tastes. Runners talk incessantly about temperatures, wind speed and humidity on race day because it matters mightily. You could deal yourself the equivalent of a straight flush with spot-on training and be primed for a perfect race, and damn if Mother Nature doesn't pull out a royal flush if she throws bad weather your way.

Rachel and I deem the day to be palatable, but hardly perfect racing weather. I decide my objective is to run smart, bask in the cheers from 1,000,000 spectators and finish upright. 

I leave the hotel at 5:00 a.m. with my friends, Rachel, Lori and Sonia. Sonia looks longingly at Starbucks, and I inform her we don't really have time because we have to catch a cab to Waltham, a suburb about 30 minutes away. There's something wrong saying "we could be late" when the clock has just turned to 5, but absurdity is as much a ritual as tying your shoes on race day.

In Waltham, I meet friends from Pennsylvania, who have charted a bus to make the trek to Boston. We are hitching a ride with them to Hopkinton, where 36,000 runners will start the race, increasing the size of the town fourfold. The pure logistics of moving so many people to such a small place necessitates a later morning start. 

We arrive at the home of Hopkinton residents Bill and Lynne, and there's nervous energy everywhere. There are about 35 runners in all, and the Pennsylvania crew actually rented a porta-potty conveniently delivered to Bill and Lynne's front yard to give their indoor plumbing a break. 

I am trying to choke down two mini-bagels prior to the race, and it's about as appealing as broccoli ice cream. I've been eating carbs for three days to top off my glycogen reserves. I normally eat plenty of carbs and lean protein as my normal diet, but it's different when necessitated to fuel my marathon runs. I'm eating for fueling, not for pleasure. Others are eating bananas, downing Gatorade, and there's some nervous energy. Lynne talks to us about how manholes in town have been "glued shut" and low-flying helicopters have been a regular occurrence in the week before the race. 

With that, my friends and I scrawl body art messages of "Peace, Love, Run" in red, green and purple sharpie. We look like we've come out of a night in Deep Ellum. 

Then we dissect strategy. Boston is a course that will chew up your quads with plunging downhills, especially in the first mile, so you have to be disciplined. Tough when you're in fresh-to-go-off-taper mode and have been waiting for hours to run. 

The key is holding pace to get you to the hills that kick in from miles 16-21 so you don't become roadkill and then hold on and grit your teeth the final 5.2 miles. 

We're still talking and realize it's close to 9:00 a.m., and Bill is shuttling people in his personal van near the starting area. Those in the first wave leave, I give Rachel a hug goodbye. I pop two anti-diarrhea tablets offer a prayer they will work (thankfully they do) and then take my place to leave in the second wave of runners.

By 10:30, I have made my way into my corral and everything, all the prep, the worries, the concerns give way to some kind of giddy excitement and a sense of relief that I finally get to run. Run easy, run smart, run for fun, I tell myself. And I do. By the time I round the final stretch on Boylston Street, where bombs exploded a year ago, I take off my sunglasses. I want to see, clearly see, the street party that has unfolded. All the physical preparation didn't prepare me emotionally for the electric-current charge from finishing this race. I break into some waterworks, share hugs with spectators who were effusive in congratulatory wishes and thanks for being back in their city.

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It was a wonderful, crazy ride. I fared well enough (3:41) to requalify. I've had some time to reflect, and while my crystal ball is a bit hazy, the idea of experiencing marathon madness all over again can be a darn intoxicating cocktail. 

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Human Spirit Shines in Boston

Last year, I had already finished when the bombs exploded in Boston. While not physically affected, they shattered my sense of blissful naïvetè that the worst thing that could happen while running a marathon was cramping, a crappy finish time or chafing in unmentionable places.

So, running my seventh consecutive Boston Marathon was more about the human race, not the race itself. To disperse with race details, and I'll be brief, it was hot, hilly and hard. I was ginger flambè. (I have red hair for those who don't know me.) I was in teeth-gritting mode from mile 23 on. It hurt. A lot. My feet were cursing me, I look to lose at least 40% of my toenails. For the mildly curious, I finished in 3:41:19. 

Here is the part of the race that really mattered: 

  • To the spectators who came out 1,000,000 strong and yelled louder than ever, posted signs declaring, actually demanding, "Take back the finish line!", you restore my faith in grit. 
  • To those blaring Neil Diamond's "Coming to America" you restored my faith in patriotism on Patriots' Day.
  • To Bill and Lynn, who live at the starting point in Hopkinton, and view it as a privilege to host 35 runners pre-race and let us invade your bathrooms and kitchen, you, fine friends, restore my faith in hospitality.
  • To the Old South Church, the church of the finish line, a truly amazing spot in downtown Boston, you made Easter Sunday (the day before the race) your Super Bowl. With bagpipes, operatic solos, and Handel's "Messiah" you talked about overcoming fear. About celebrating the dawning of Easter. Then, you delivered a special blessing of the athletes. You asked runners to stand and a sea of athletes rose in pews dressed in jeans and running shoes and this filled-to-the-brim church erupted in applause. Not church-mousey polite tepid clapping. This was more like Fenway Park thunder-clap-until-your-hands-turn-red applause. It lasted for minutes. You restore my faith in faith. 
  • To the knitters, from across the country, who delivered 10,000 yellow and blue scarves (colors of the Boston Athletic Association) to Old South. Members of the church didn't just hand you a scarf. No, they "scarved" you -- meaning they wrapped you up in that scarve and gave you a hug that could break your ribs. You restore my faith in hope. 
  • To the organizers of this great event, the size and scope boggles my mind, and your job to keep runners safe and well is beyond daunting. To those who planned the minute details of impeccable organization, to the medical staff, scores of police, FBI and low-flying helicopters, you restore my faith in health and security.
  • To the anonymous cab driver, who took my friend and me back to our hotel after we had a post-race meal and drinks. When I paid you, I dropped my wallet and didn't realize until I was back in my hotel room that you and the wallet were long gone, possibly headed back to the North End. I called cab companies who couldn't help. But someone did. Some amazing customer gave it to you. They handed it to you just like they found it. They took nothing. And you remembered me. And you drove it back to my hotel. And as I was frantically about to go outside at midnight and look for it yet again, there you were, like a mirage talking to the front desk. I wept at the sight of you. Without my wallet, I had no ID, no credit card, no cash and no way home. You wouldn't even take my tip until I insisted, but you graciously accepted my hug. You restore my faith in doing what is right simply because it is the right thing to do.   
  • To the runner in the corral who was emotionally faltering before we had yet to take a step. I talked to you. You said you had been here last year, and you were worried. I hugged you and squeezed your hand. I told you I understood. I was there too, and we are here now. We swapped a few stories, then you stopped shaking. Then we talked about about what runners do. We talked about running. And then you ran. You restore my faith in healing. 
  • To Meb Keflezighi, who became the first American man to win Boston since 1983. I don't know you personally, but I'm an even bigger fan, not just because you are off-the-charts amazing, but because of who you are. Random people at my hotel told me their daughter ran and showed me her post-race picture. There was their daughter, wearing a finisher's medal, a million-watt smile and you. Posing with a stranger after you just ran the race of a lifetime. I will admit, I squealed when I saw that picture, like a teenage girl seeing One Direction. You restore my faith in humility. 
  • To the kind-hearted volunteer who greeted me at the finish line. Lungs on fire, waterworks welling in my eyes, you asked me if I needed medical attention because it was almost too much to physically process. I declined, but you walked those first recovery steps/shuffle with me. Propping me up, letting me lean on you and wiping my tears. You restore my faith in moving forward.  
  • To the million spectators. Where do I begin? It was a love fest from beginning to end. Joy and enthusiasm flowed almost flash-flood like -- it was almost too much to take at times. Then you became almost embarrassingly effusive in thanking me for running in your amazing city -- embracing me like a favorite relative whom you hadn't seen in a year -- in that "we are ALL in this family" sorta way. You restore my faith in love.

Boston, to call you strong is shortchanging you, this city I dearly love. You are stronger. Getting stronger by the day. The running of this race was a gift of unparalleled civic pride wrapped up in a blue and yellow ribbon of joy. 

One of the best gifts I've ever been given.

 

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Boston stronger

The story begins at the end, at the finish line to be exact. Specifically, on Boylston Street. The waited-for, hoped-for, can't-wait-to-see-you point of the Boston Marathon.

Last year, when I completed the race, I took a moment to see an endless blue sky and listen to throngs of cheering people. It was a perfectly perfect day to run 26.2 miles.

Until it wasn't.

About 49 minutes after I crossed, the bombs exploded that took three lives, injured scores of people and shook a city to the deepest depths of its core, and attacked its core values in the process. 

I had no idea as I was already back in my hotel room in Cambridge and I received an alarming text from my brother: "Are you OK? Worried. Told mom about explosion."

I told my dear running friend and roommate Sonia that I thought something was wrong. Maybe we should turn on the TV. My mouth hit the floor, my eyes burned with tears and we let out sobs that could have been heard back in Texas. 

Let me be clear, I'm beyond thankful I didn't know anyone physically impacted by this attack. But my heart shattered for those who were as well as for those in the city who have emotional scars. 

I have run Boston every year since 2008. I return not just for the running of it, as I've never run particularly fast or even all that well here. But this city wraps you up in a gigantic bear hug for 26.2 miles on Patriots' Day, and its damn addictive. It's a holiday unique to Boston (actually a state holiday), always the third Monday in April, commemorating the start of the Revolutionary War. A celebration of freedom and liberty and sport. The Red Sox play at 11 a.m., and then you can catch the end of the marathon. 

It's a street party of 500,000 spectators, though this year that figure is expected to miraculously double. 

One million people. I can hardly fathom it. They will be there to cheer us as athletes -- frankly, we're the also-rans compared to the elite athletes, and no one cares. They may even cheer more loudly for you than the top-notch runners because you struggle, and it shows in your face and at times in your body. And they cheer louder, they push you forward, and if you could ride a wave of human emotion, you do, in that race. It's part Super Bowl, part Mardi Gras all in one.  

So when you combine that atmosphere with not just affection, but my true love of running, you can understand a bit why my personal Richter scale was impacted by these blasts. When I say I love running, it's really hard to explain, other than it just is. Much like my hair is red -- I can give you recessive gene mumbo jumbo just like I can talk to you about endorphins that might calculate to my brain liking this sport, but the science doesn't explain it entirely. It's just a part of you. Just like my hair color, and yes, mine is natural.

If you understand those two things, the importance of the experience of Boston and how running is intertwined in the guts of who I am, you can perhaps understand why the fabric of my life pulled apart at the seams in the aftermath of the bombing. 

But Ernest Hemmingway once powerfully and beautifully wrote that this crazy world, it breaks all of us, but that we can find strength in the broken places.

And that's why I will return and run again in one week. Because I am strong. Becuase Boston is strong. And that's something to celebrate. 

All through my training, months in the making, I've taken care of the physical checklist: hill work, tempo runs, marathon pace running, a dash of speedwork. I've run two 20-milers, done a 22. I am physcially in decent shape to run. I've run this race six consecutive years, so I know what to expect. 

And yet I know I don't know what to expect at all.

To simply view this as a race would be like going to your favorite bakery and then deciding you're on a diet so you can't indulge. I know this race will deplete me physically, and quite possibly the emotional water works will flow. And I'm OK with that.

People have said going back is brave. I don't think I see it that way. I see it as natural. I see it as the right thing to do. I see it as the chance to run what I think will be the most important race I will ever run. And finally, I see it as a chance to emerge stronger, at the end, than we were at the start. 

It's at that finish line where it all begins again. 

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Dylan's amazing race

Just when I feared my son, age 10, has fallen into the Minecraft abyss never to be heard from again, he surprised me.

A month ago, I asked him to run a 5K with me. He said it sounded fun.

Color me surprised. It’s not that Dylan doesn’t like to run. He loves to run with me, provided it is raining. He’s inherited my love of splish-splashing, and apparently thinks it’s quite wonderful his mom plays in the rain versus worrying about the mud. We laugh until almost hyperventilating as drivers shake their heads as we run through sidewalks resembling lakes.

 

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I suggest we train for Dorothy’s Dash, a local 5K. Later that day, he tried running on for size with a 2.25-mile jaunt. I know exact distance because Dylan insisted I wear my GPS watch and carry water for him lest he become dehydrated. He and I were beyond encouraged by this result. But the initial enthusiasm to go on a run soon was replaced by responses of the “I’m kind of” variety. Meaning fill in the adjective of choice: tired, hungry, grouchy or busy. The other usual response is: “Maybe later.” Emphasis on the “na” as in “nope” in mañana.

So a week before the race, I insisted on our second and possibly final training run. We traipsed 1.25 miles before Dylan needed a bathroom break, declared training over as I guess had some epiphany that he was fit and ready to race after running 3.5 miles in a month. Uh, OK.

Race morning: Dylan is up early, eats half a bagel and is beyond excited that I am putting a timing chip on his shoelace. Excessively competitive like his mom, he is wondering aloud how he might fare in his age group. I try to explain that plenty of kids his age are running in organized groups, so do not expect to win. Our objective needs to be simply finishing.

Huge kudos go out to my run club, the North Texas Striders, who embraced Dylan and gushed over the fact he was running his first-ever 5K. Made him feel a bit like an athletic rock star before the race.

We started in the middle of the pack. My intent was to pace Dylan the entire race so he didn’t end up like all the kid roadkill we saw along the course. Kids who channel their inner Usain Bolt then end up trudging and sludging with optional waterworks.

In the first half mile, I insist we pull off course so Dylan can tie his shoe. He glowers at me and with gritted teeth, has a bit of a snarl and tells me, “WE WILL LOSE TIME!”

I assure him his sponsorship deals aren’t dependent on this, and he finally acquiesces.

He asked at least every mile how fast we were going, how were we pacing, how were we pacing, how were we pacing. And the rest of it, was just another run-of-the-mill run. One of the things I love about running is the chance to actually talk without the daily distractions of life beeping, buzzing and blasting at you. So we talked. We talked about music. And school. And food. And Dylan asked me about running marathons, not unusual, but it seemed a bit more pertinent to discuss a race experience as we were having our own shared experience.  His funniest observation was seeing the police officers directing traffic and his assessment: “Security for this race is really good. I think they definitely have stepped it up after the Boston bombings.”

And 31:40 after it began, it was over. Dylan sprinted like mad to the finish, and I got out of the way and let him race. He immediately scoured the results, and found himself 27th of males 10-14.

“I finished top 30 in my age group, that’s pretty good right, mom?”

“Yes, Dylan. It’s perfect for you. You ran a really smart race.”

After sharing bagels and high-fives with my running club and sharing some war stories of having to tie that pesky shoe lace ( how much time did THAT cost?) he proclaimed his 5K career has begun. He proclaimed he’ll train more next time. But like any typical runner, we first we need to buy some new shoes to support this habit.

 

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