From the Archives: An Ode to the Post Office

In the full, glaring sunlight, I tripped over the curb on Spruce Street and up the cracked cement stairs, hesitating a moment before pulling — oops, pushing — the smudged glass doors of the elderly building wide open. I stood briefly, absorbing that moment between Inside and Outside, when all noises are muffled and the slightly dimmer atmosphere is insufferably blinding. Ducking through the shimmering dust particles after the briefest of moments, I reveled in the hollow click of my heeled velveteen booties. My eyes adjusted quickly and voila! The gaping blob before me transformed into rows upon rows, column after beautiful column of post office boxes.

These were no ordinary boxes; oh, no. These particular boxes were old, ornate, delightfully adorned with bronze garnishes. Far more beautiful than the modern, gleaming boxes at my hometown post office — intended to represent a sleek, streamlined mail service, but unfortunately pulling off cheap and tacky at best. The high ceilings and half doorways beckoned my Imagination, and a hiccuping sob got lost somewhere in my throat as I mourned the dying medium: Mail.

You see, as far back in my memory as I can reach, I have loved everything about the postal service. I love the history. I love the sentimentality. I love the anticipation, the building excitement that comes with opening envelopes. It is quite possible that the only thing I love more than finding a package or an envelope in my mailbox is placing a letter in the mail for somebody else. When I was a young girl, I signed up for pen pal events every chance I got. I sent chain letters. I composed letters to Santa like the tradition was going out of style. I “adopted” a soldier overseas and for the entire two years that we exchanged letters, I sprinted to the mailbox daily, feet clapping over the ground and brown hair whipping in my eyes, dying to see if anything new had come in.

Going to the post office with my mother was a treat in itself; I would saunter through the doorway, feeling quite important as I helped place stamps in the upper right-hand corner of phone bills and birthday cards to Grandma. Mostly, though, I would allow myself to wonder what the wall of boxes held. Letters from star-crossed lovers, scented with perfume and dappled with tears? Photographs of happier days? Trinkets and baubles from faraway lands? The post office was a place of romance and mystery, and definitely of curiosity; the latter only heightened after I encountered my first transvestite while at the post office with Mom. My chin hung open for the entire minute and thirty-three seconds he graced the tiny office; my eyes could not take in quickly enough the ripped fishnet tights, clinging leather mini, or raven colored long-haired wig.

So, with twenty-six years of this love affair with the postal service under my belt, I’m sure one can imagine the scathing look I toss Zack whenever he rags on the U.S. Postal Service. It’s the most poorly managed organization in the United States, he states. (Little does he know, the Department of Veterans Affairs won that title a long time ago. Congratulations, by the way.) He laughs at my almost-greedy glee when he brings mail to the house, amused at my disappointment in junk mail and bills. He’ll make some sort of offhand comment like, The government should just do away with the postal service, you know; we should just get everything through UPS or FedEx. And that’s all it takes to knife me in the gut: the thought of my longtime love becoming a figment of history is too much to bear.

The fear of this collapse is precisely the reason I will continue to traipse to the post office every now and then to buy a book of Christmas stamps or send a care package to former classmates. I’m not sure the mystery will ever fade, or the curiosity ever die.

From the Archives: Reflections on an Untrained-for Half Marathon

For nine years, I was a competitive runner. During those nine years, I experienced various successes along the way, including

  • 5 trips to national cross country and track meets,
  • “hardware” for placing fourth in an NJCAA Indoor T&F 4×800 meter relay,
  • multiple top 5 finishes during my high school career,
  • team captain-ship, and
  • enough memories to last a lifetime.

A multitude of memorable moments, though, came from what can be deemed “failures”:

  • J. vomiting on the back of the charter bus somewhere outside Des Moines . . . and yours truly cleaning that vomit;
  • Epic Steeplechase Fail No. 1, in which Renee nearly breaks her shin but manages to focus on the fresh blood on her new socks rather than the flesh wound;
  • Epic Steeplechase Fail No. 2, in which Renee learns the mechanics of balking . . . and nearly breaks her ankle; and,
  • The First Half Marathon.

That last bullet point takes the cake on Stupid Running Things I’ve Done, though both steeple incidents present a tough case for second. I retired my track spikes in May 2011, and I was ready to focus on my degree and run when I damn well please. Though I knew I would miss the world of lactic acid, post-workout nausea, early morning runs in the freezing winter air, and the right to eat whatever I wanted, I was ready to be free.

Foolishly, I convinced myself that I would take a month off. It will do you worlds of good to get some rest, I said. Spend some time away from running and you’ll ease back into it once you ‘miss it,’ I said. Lawdy, lawdy, lawdy, was I wrong. Finding Motivation after one monthtwo months, five months away from my once-beloved sport was like finding a needle in a haystack. In July, I promised my mother that I would join her and her sisters in a half marathon to be held in October. Once a week, I would drag out my mud-crusted Brooks Launch 3s, pull on ever-tighter shorts, and burst forth from the front door, a trumpet fanfare resounding in my brain. Taking a deep breath of air, I would tell myself this is the day you fall in love with running again; this is the day! And with a series of gleeful cabrioles, I would take a painless six or seven steps forward. Those first few steps were so deceiving; after twenty minutes of running, I could be found on the streets of Hays doubled over, gasping for air, clawing at nothing in particular with disdain. (Okay, that might be a bit of an exaggeration; I was out of shape, but my “out of shape” is more along the lines of 8.5 minute pace per mile during “easy” runs.)

I had every intention of walking that half marathon during the three weeks that led up to the event. I knew that I could rely on cardiac arrest or an asthma attack to punish me if I decided to run part — yes, just part — of the 13.1 miles. But when I arrived at the starting line (or some three hundred meters back, thanks to the bulging multitudes,) my alter ego bitch-slapped me across the face and said, Girl, you ain’t gonn’ walk no thirteen miles. Damn well better be warmin’ up to run that shit. And with a voice like that ringing in your ears, just try to tell me you would walk that half marathon. Just try.

Remarkably, halfway through the race I was still moving strong. I was smart enough not to sprint from the start, wild-eyed and frothing at the mouth, like a true newbie. I remained ridiculously level-headed through the horrific hills (coming from Flatland, hills were something unexpected), and even at eight miles I managed a smile — or a grimace — once or twice through my gasping groans. At 11.5 miles, I couldn’t believe that I was still alive; nor could I see straight. I passed several pace groups and focused on making the next blurry object in front of me my next victim. My inner athlete suffered an insatiable thirst for victory, and at some point, I even entertained the notion that I would cross the finish line in a respectable time.

I managed to complete the half marathon at 8:20 minutes per mile pace, which is nothing to be embarrassed about after a five month leave of absence from running. What I did not manage to escape, though, is the excruciating hell of lactic acid, burning muscles, and tightness that was Renee for three whole days. You know how your muscles get kind of sore the day after a run when you haven’t worked out in a while? I had no grace period. Literally, the moment I stopped running, my body gave itself the bird and let out a whimper of agony. I needed help to sit down on the toilet. I needed help to get back up from the toilet. I needed help to get into the van, I needed someone to undress me and untie my shoes and take off my sports bra. I repeat: There was no grace period, whatsoever.

One years later, I’m finally making an effort to make running a part of my life again. I’ve struggled to maintain consistent training for the past 11 months (you can bet your buns I took a break after that half), but I’m finally beginning to fall in love again. I can assure you, though, I will never again make the mistake of listening to my inner athlete after five months of rest when something like 13.1 miles is on the line — and I hope, after reading this, you never will either.

From the Archives: On Growing Up.

When I was little, one half the size I am now, I had a mushroom-cap haircut. I looked like Toad, sans the red spots. Mom now sighs fondly when my siblings and I recall my Flowbee/Bowl Cut hybrid hair. She always squeals that the offending hair phase was so cuuuuuuute, it was a Dorothy Hamill! as I sit, frozen to the spot, a mixture of horror and amusement on my face. I wonder if mothers take an oath to consciously subject their children to disgusting haircuts between the ages of seven and fourteen. . . .

At any rate, I think I was in the early-Hamill stage in life when I realized one afternoon, between chores with Dad and nap time, that I didn’t want to grow up. I remember standing in the laundry room while Mom folded laundry from the dryer, thinking very hard about how to stop the aging process. I always liked to be around when the laundry was done, because the dryer was like a magic box from which I could pull soft, warm items. The dryer never ceased to fascinate me, because somehow, my wet socks always came out delightfully fluffed and perfect for pulling over my hands. With my sock hands, I’d wait for Mom to finish folding, or until the warmth disappeared and I was left with cold socks on my hands, feeling un-special again.

On this particular day, though, I didn’t lurch for the first pair of socks that I saw, even though Dad’s knee socks were the first out of the dryer. I was completely distraught. I can’t call to mind the initial source of my angst, but I can still recall the panicked feeling I had: my tongue was heavy and my tear ducts felt like water balloons, capable of bursting at the slightest impact.

I asked Mom about growing up. Do I have to get older? I pouted. I don’t want to grow up. I remember being rooted to the spot, my feet warming the cool floor of our unfinished basement. My chin quivered of its own accord, though I’ll be damned if I didn’t try to tame it. And then, with no warning, the floodgates burst open and tears spilled over my round cheeks, hot and angry. I feared growing up; I feared becoming an adult; I feared the responsibilities that came with age, like paying the bills (what are those things anyway?), making dinner, going to work, developing wrinkles and sunspots and that old-person smell.

I don’t know for sure how old I was, but I’m willing to bet I was only seven or eight. Not nearly old enough to be concerned about anything other than whether Mom had remembered to get ketchup for the hot dogs or whether I’d use aquamarine or bubblegum pink ribbons in my next tap routine. Maybe I had overheard Mom yelling MIKE! Did you mail the water bill on Tuesday? and his responding Shhhhhhoot!, followed by some chaotic, exasperated shuffling of papers. Or perhaps this mental breakdown was a result of a recent tap recital at a local nursing home. Every time we went to a nursing home, my insides shriveled and my Imagination would hide beneath a rock. Ladies would drag me to their bosoms for a hug, and I, dressed in sequins and spandex, would cringe at their see-through skin and the dark hairs that protruded from their moles. Nursing homes scared the shit out of me.

Whatever the cause was, the effect was definitely overwhelming. And as I’ve grown that dreadful Older, my fear of bills and taxes (I still have no idea how to do my taxes, thanks to my real sweet mum and a tax-savvy husband), and cooking for two, and driving at night has — for the most part — subsided. Sometimes, I still feel that uncomfortable feeling well up somewhere deep inside my stomach; the fear of not knowing what the future holds for me. But instead of curling up in my mother’s arms, I let myself get a little excited about growing up. I let myself look forward to laugh lines and sun spots, to the challenges of being a mother to a little girl who doesn’t want to ever stop being her daddy’s little chore helper. I wait with starry-eyed anticipation for Life to lead me by the hand to my next challenge, and, if necessary, I’ll toss a pair of socks in the dryer and grow another ten minutes older, waiting for Old Times’ Sake.

The Awakening: Read it. Now.

Over the weekend, a friend suggested that I pick up The Awakening, arguably Kate Chopin’s most noteworthy work (and the piece that brought her writing career to a screeching halt). I thought I’d read the work already in high school; but it turns out I had been missing out on this classic gem for years.

I opened Chopin’s novel with some apprehension — I feared her work, which is famous for its feminist themes, would be trite and over generalized. However, I was pleasantly surprised, and so enthralled with the piece, I broke two of my longest standing Reading Rules: I downloaded the book (free!*) and read it on my iPhone (Cardinal Rule #1 – Never use an e-reader) and I listened to the LibriVox recordings (also free!*) in the car (Cardinal Rule #2 – Never listen to an audiobook). Yes. I was that desperate to finish the book.

The book follows Edna Pontellier, a young Southern Presbyterian who has married Leonce Pontellier, a financier and Catholic from New Orleans. The novel is set in the late 1890s/early 1900s in New Orleans and a resort in the Gulf of Mexico. Edna, 28 at the start of the novel, is mother to two young boys and the perfectly suitable southern wife — she is courteous, polite, modest (much more so than her Creole peers), and domestic, all virtues to be expected of a turn-of-the-century woman. She’s married well and has a circle of friends who, though not complex by any means, are certainly available for light conversation and observations about social niceties.

Through a couple of intimate relationships with men (spoiler: not her spouse[s]), a lucrative gambling trip, and mastery of the sport of swimming, Edna begins to see her life and purpose in a much different light. Ironically, Leonce becomes baffled by this “new Edna” and approaches a doctor for insight (one of my favorite scenes of the novella). Neither Leonce’s domineering attitude (sometimes husbandly, sometimes fatherly) or Mrs. Ratignolle’s matronly presence can prevent Edna from discovering who she is, and what she desires — or the realization that, as a woman, it is not unacceptable for her to have dreams, ambition, desires.

This tale was not an overly complex read in terms of diction; however, you might want to keep Google translate handy as Chopin includes several French phrases throughout. Chopin’s work is not something to be read quickly and thrown back on the shelf; it is best read with highlighter in hand, savored word for intricate word. Her novel is an honest and reflective commentary on the role of Woman; which, though evolved since 1899, still faces backward thinking in corporate America and rural towns with limited exposure (to the world, or education).

In sum, Chopin’s Awakening is a subtly fierce read with beautifully significant symbolism and irony — and a Must Read. In twelve short hours, the book carved out a place in my heart and landed itself on my Top 10 list . . . and that’s not something that happens often. I wholeheartedly regret not having read The Awakening earlier, and as an act of contrition, plan to purchase a print copy to enjoy over and over again. I’m sure that each read will reveal more significant facets of this commendable work of art.

*Chopin’s novel, as well as several other classics, is available for free download on e-readers and can be listened to for free via LibriVox because these books are in the “public domain.” Basically, if you’re like me, and you appreciate the classics, there’s a gold mine awaiting you online. But, if you also hate e-readers and must purchase your own copy, there’s no judgement coming from this girl.

The City

When we were little, my siblings and I loved trips to Kansas City. As Mom frantically swept through the house like an angry spring tornado, checking for left-out bowls and turned-on lamps and unflushed toilets, we kids stuffed two extra pairs of underwear and socks into our suitcases and yelled haphazardly in the general direction of Mother — MAHHHHM! What’s the weather gonna be like?

I always took great care to pack Copper just so, with his body zipped inside my 101 Dalmatians duffel, and his head free and clear outside (so he could breathe, duh). I also found room for my notebooks and gel pens, something no aspiring writer could travel without.

When beds were fastidiously made and rooms tidied and dishes washed, we lugged our bags to the van and piled them high before quickly jumping into our familiar seats. Meanwhile, Dad would begin his customary honking (at our ecstatic urging), until Mom resurfaced from the house, hollering I’m coming, dammit Mike! He’d turn to us, grinning like a child, and giggle as we gave him the thumbs up.

The drive always felt like Forever: North to Cassoday on a winding road (2 turns constitutes “winding” in Kansas), Northeast to Emporia on the turnpike, past Lawrence with a stop at the Leavenworth rest area, and then straight on toward The City. Often we pulled into Grandma and Grandpa’s drive at nightfall, but I knew the route by heart. Past the church where my parents got married, past the bowling alley, turn left before the jeweler…anticipation mounted with each twist and turn.

The City was exotic and romantic to me — there were streets everywhere, and a Lamar’s Donuts, and beautiful brick houses with squirrels in front yards. I couldn’t fathom having so many neighbors and not knowing anything about them. After all, my other grandparents were our closest neighbors back home, a half mile down the dirt road.

As soon as we pulled into my grandparents’ driveway, the effects of the long ride took an immediate toll. Six individuals, all tired and cramped from hours in an economic but remarkably tight minivan, began the act of Untangling. Pillows and empty bottles and stuffed animals and little brothers–all had to be extricated with precision before we could truly savor our arrival. We would race from the van, numb feet tingling, administer a breathless and impatient kiss to Grandma at the door, and climb over one another to get to a bathroom first. Grandpa, hanging back to let the mad dash settle, would waddle to the freezer in that bowlegged manner of his to set out ice cream (at least three varieties).

And after sugary bowls of butter pecan and what seemed like hours of conversation with The Wheel of Fortune or Notre Dame football playing softly in the background, we’d succumb to exhaustion. After more weary kisses for Grandma and Grandpa (and often, aunts and uncles who came to say hello), we would trudge downstairs to build beds on the floor, never without a fight for the couch (which Jacob always won, naturally). Mom and Dad would tuck us in up to our chins, and I’d lie awake in the dark as long as I could, listening to the soft sounds of a family that loved one another. I’d fight Sleep as I imagined the hundreds of pictures that hung on the walls around the pool table, jolted awake every now and then by a peal of laughter from Mom or the groan of Grandpa’s chair.

The City was good. It was love, and joy, and family, and good.