Monday, March 9, 2015

Running Across Haiti

It’s summer in Pittsburgh. The season that makes up for the grey, cold, and god-forsaken month of February. I’m in work out clothes, hanging out on my boss Ian’s front porch in Friendship. We’re having a beer, talking about our company, my latest break-up, and running. It was during the running talk that Ian poses the question, “What if we run across Haiti?”

There are moments in your life when you know the answer to something so quickly that you have to wonder if deep down you’ve just been waiting for someone to ask the question. I say yes almost immediately.

7 months later, I’ve hired a running coach, run more than I ever have in my life,  and am en route to Haiti to run 230 miles across a country with a group of 17 people who are taking ten days out of their lives to complete this challenge and raise $75,000 for Team Tassy.

Ian Rosenberger has a great many talents, but one of them is his ability to collect people – smart, talented, ambitious, people – and convince them to do crazy shit. The team for this race is no exception. The group dynamics are nearly perfect. Everyone is interesting, hard working, and dedicated to making this run happen. We sleep on floors next to one another, we schlepp luggage, and every time we runners pull into a check-point or finish line, our support crew is there to offer high-fives, hugs, electrolytes, and water before you can even ask. The logistics behind something like this are endless, but everything runs smoothly, thanks mostly to the leadership of Viv Luk, Team Tassy’s Executive Director. It’s unreal. Analogies to summer camp are made all week long.

Poor Dr. Steve is an anesthesiologist, but on this trip he’s mostly responsible for draining blisters and drilling toenails. My feet have completely betrayed me. After 7 months of intense training, after back-to-back 20+ milers, I thought I understood how my body would respond to this level of running. Haiti however, has changed all of that. The heat, the humidity, and who knows what else have caused my feet to swell and widen to the point where my shoes no longer fit. This destroys my pinky toes, and my solution is to cut holes into the sides of my sneakers with Ian’s knife, so that my toes hang out. Dr. Steve super glues my toes back together. Running is gross.

I had 3 goals going into this race:

     1)    Finish.
     2)    Don’t poop my pants.
     3)    Don’t cry on camera.

Halfway through and I’ve completely failed #3. I’m sick. There’s a cold or flu or some sort of virus spreading through our group – unsurprisingly considering we’re spending every waking and many sleeping moments together. We’ve been saving today’s run for the evening to avoid the demoralizing heat that occurs after 10 am, and I’ve spent the day in bed unmotivated to do much else.

Dr. Steve takes my temperature while wrapping up my feet. 101.2. He gives me Tylenol to bring the fever down and tells me we’ll need to check it during the run to make sure it stays below 101.5, or else I start putting myself at risk for heat stroke. I go back to the room I’m sharing with our film crew. I’ve become close with these folks – traveling with them for the past 5 days, falling asleep to the sound of them editing video and photos. I’m tired, and sick, and frustrated, and nervous, and when I talk to Taylor and Andrew I start to choke up.

“Do you mind talking on camera?” Taylor eventually asks, and I agree. So, Andrew pulls out the camera, Taylor asks me some questions, and I cry and blow my nose on film. Maybe it’s footage that will get used, maybe it won’t. Either way, it’s actually kind of cathartic. I put on my gutted shoes and Viv and Ian hang back to pace my shuffling self. A Half-marathon later, Tony Rosenberger hands me a cold Prestige for finishing.

Haiti is a country of extremes. Extreme wealth, and desperate poverty. Jungle, and desert climates. Dark and cool for 12 hours a day, and ruthlessly bright and hot the other 12. I’ve been coming here for 3 years, but am experiencing the country in a whole new way. We run along to the soundtrack of “blan! Blan! Blan!” being shouted at us every hundred feet by children and adults. We look a sight, us white runners (with the exception of Tassy), in our neon running gear and sunglasses passing through towns and villages. I pass a school one morning as students are arriving for their day. A woman, a mother I assume, dropping off her child at school runs up to me and paces me in her sandals and dress.

“You’re fast,” I say.

“Yes,” she responds confidently.

She runs with me for about a half a mile before peeling off onto a side road leading a neighborhood, towards, I imagine, her home. I wonder what she thought of me. Why she decided to run with a stranger passing through her space. I wish my creole were better so I could’ve found out. I told her thank you and have a good day as she left. I wish she knew how much I appreciated the company.

Team Tassy works in a very specific neighborhood in Port au Prince called Menelas. It’s near the water – a network of dirt roads and small houses. There, Team Tassy works with families holistically, to get them out of poverty, until the family is self-sufficient and no longer needs them. It’s long, hard, work. But, they are getting people healthy, getting kids into school, getting parents into jobs, and the difference those actions make is drastic.

We visit the home of one of the families during our rest day in Port au Prince. It’s a home I visited 3 years ago, while I was in country for Thread. When I visited, no one had a job and 2 of the kids were seriously sick. We stood and met with the family in the front yard. The house was in rough shape. The roof leaked constantly. This time though, we visit, and everything is different.

The kids are getting big – their faces are round, and they’re in school. The older kids practice their English with us. We’re invited into a newly constructed house, built with a foundation made from blocks of recycled Styrofoam. The father works as a tap tap driver and just paid off the loan Team Tassy gave him to purchase the truck with. He and his wife help to mentor new families as they enter the program. This is working. This is why we’re running.

It’s the afternoon, and I lie on a bed with my legs up against the wall, reading and resting before our last run of 56 miles into Jacmel. I look up at my legs.

“I think my calves have gotten bigger than my knees,” I say.

Taylor looks up from her laptop across the room, “But that’s good, right? Means you’re strong?”

“Totally,” I say. “It’s just weird, not recognizing my own body.”

These legs – these same legs I’ve been distance running with for the past decade look like they belong to someone else.

It’s midnight and we’re driving to the starting point for our final run, 56 miles from Port-au-Prince into Jacmel. We’re running through the night to avoid the heat and city traffic. To know Port-au-Prince during the day is to know streets and sidewalks that are filled. Every square inch of space is taken over by people, mottos, cars, trucks, and the occasional cow. It’s sensory overload with sounds and smells and colors unlike anything I’ve ever experienced anywhere else in the world. At night though, it’s quiet. Almost apocalyptic-like quiet. The streets are empty. It’s both peaceful and eerie. Outfitted in spandex and headlamps it feels like we’re part of some covert ops off to do something much cooler than run for the next 12 hours. We take off, the support trucks ahead and behind us until we clear the city limits and hit the wide open, empty, dark road. I love running at night. If I didn’t have to be a functioning human during the day, I think I’d spend most of my midnight to 2 am’s running.

The next 12 hours pass like a fever dream. I laughed, I cried, I cursed God and everyone, and experienced moments of utter joy and bliss. I mentally quit at least 3 times and got altitude sickness at the top of that mountain. Viv kept me sane, pacing me the last 30 km’s. Owen injured his Achilles and climbed the peak in a splint. The support crew kept offering snacks and encouragement despite having stayed up all night. We all met at the bottom of the mountain, and limped into the finish together. Sun burnt, blistered, and a little bloodied – we made it. Every one one of us.

Since I’ve known him, I’ve heard Ian say, “It’s not an adventure until you’re wishing you were safe at home in your bed.” This experience qualifies.

I start writing all of this down during the flight home. A drunk Canadian comes across the aisle and sits down in the empty seat next to me.

“I saw you writing,” he says. “And writing, and writing. Are you a writer?”

“No,” I respond.

“What were you doing in Haiti?” he asks, looking over my shoulder at the scribbling in my notebook.

“I ran across the country,” I reply, “and apparently have just started processing that.”

He blinks, then says, “I could tell you had a story.”

I do, and I am grateful for it.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Summer Reading

I come from a family of readers.

I remember coming home from the last day of 3rd grade, the whole summer wide open in front of me, and my Mom telling me I could stay up reading as late as I wanted because there was no school to wake up for the next morning. That was one of the best rewards ever.

Even now, when I am home for holidays, the mornings are usually spent with the 4 of us sitting in my parent's living room reading. It's silent except for pages turning, coffee mugs being picked up or set down, and "good morning" when a new person comes downstairs to join the group.  It's a really nice way to start the day.

At the start of this summer I treated myself to a book splurge on Amazon (and picked up a few more through out the season.) Between my front porch, Mellon park, the bar at Franktuary when I'd finish a shift, and several planes, I worked my way through the stack. It was a really nice blend of fiction and stories. The authors made me think, and smile, and tear up, and care about their characters, or see things in a new perspective.

As much as I love love love my library, there is something special about buying a book. I have some more space now in my current apartment for books, and a well stocked home library is something I aspire towards. Even if books are old fashioned, and a complete horror to move. (I know,  I've lugged them all over the city of Pittsburgh from apartment to apartment at this point.) I may love technology, but there is something about curling up with a book, the weight in your hands, the smell of the paper and the ink that I am in no way anxious to give over to a screen.

This week was the fall equinox and in good timing, I finished the pile of books I had marked for the summer. It's a new season.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Thread + Moop

Two years ago I started the best adventure of my life, which is working full time for Thread.

This week, our company moved into our first real office space. It's empty save for a bottle of tequila and margarita mix (we moved in on cinco de mayo). We don't even have chairs yet, so we're sitting on the floor typing on our laptops. We're just so happy and excited to be in our office.

no chairs, don't care.

Our office.

It's a big deal.

Almost as big a deal as the fact that today marks Thread's first product collaboration with Pittsburgh-based bag manufacturer, Moop.

Our fabric is being used in stuff.  Stuff for sale. And it looks freaking cool.

Being able to point to a finished product and say, "that bag is creating jobs, and making neighborhoods safer," makes me proud. Having the opportunity to know the people responsible for making that fabric first hand makes me grateful.

Seeing the response from our friends and families as the bags went on sale this morning, has been pretty overwhelming.

People care about where their stuff comes from. We can use trash as a resource to end poverty.

It's working.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Coming Back

You're prepared for culture shock. You're warned and nervous and so out of your element that when it happens it's unnerving, but you expected it. Of course you did. You're in another country, speaking another language, surrounded by customs and mores unfamiliar to you.

What you're not warned about is coming back.

Which is really the harder part, because you don't expect it to be hard. And it's not hard per se, it's that while you were off galavanting around the globe, life at home held steady. While you learned how to exist in a foreign city, in another nation, and while you had great revelation into yourself, and while you gained confidence and courage that only comes with being completely out of your element, everything else stayed relatively the same.

Sure time passed. People started new jobs, couples got together or broke up, babies got bigger, but generally speaking things stayed the same.

Coming back from extended time abroad is such a mixture of excitement and relief at first. You know how things work! You don't have to look up directions every time you leave your house! You get to see all these people who know you, and who you love, and who you've been missing!

But quickly, everything's just as it was. And you're a little changed, but not different, so you can't help but notice that everything feels flat.

Flat. That's where I've been this week.

It's not that I'm not happy to be home. It's not even that I miss Paris. It's the return. It's a weird and difficult feeling to explain. I've been here before, and judging by the way I prioritize travel in my life I'll be here again.

Other people, much more worldly than me have written about this - one of my favorite descriptions being that if you're not careful, you'll develop a lifestyle version of the bends.

So I'm reconciling with being back and life being about as normal as it gets. I'm trying to indulge in the things and people I missed, while holding on to some of the habits I picked up. I'm already planning future trips while settling back into a routine in a place I am happy to call home.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

In Defense of Sharing the Good Stuff

Last fall I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen in a while at an event. “I’ve been following your exciting life on line!” she exclaimed as we hugged hello.

“Thanks!” I responded, then laughed, “I only put the good stuff up there.”

Which, like most of us is true. My instagram, twitter, and facebook feeds are filled with photos and musings of good times, fun adventures, food that was divine, and flattering pictures of myself and my friends.

There are a lot of articles complaining about the lack of realness in the way we curate the information we share publicly. How our lives all look shinier and more put together then they actually are, and how we shouldn’t feel bad when we see our friends doing amazing things, because they’re only posting the good stuff. How going on Facebook makes us depressed, because as humans we can't help but compare, and if you're comparing your life to a hand picked feed of only good times, how can you not feel depressed that your life doesn't measure up?

And I want to say that I support us sharing the good. If you want to share the personal, bad, and/or everything else in between, that’s your decision and good on you for doing what you want. But, I’m sick of us vilifying the sharing of good stuff.

Personally, I think it’s a very pessimistic view to say the photo streams we have aren’t real because  they’re capturing happy, exciting, or accomplished events. They are obviously real life. We took them during our real lives. And yes, bad stuff, confusing stuff, sad, awful stuff has happened to all of us and was just as much real life, but I don’t think the good should be discounted based on the fact that it’s what we may want to remember or share in public setting.

Similarly, the feeds of my friends: creating, celebrating, having fun, falling in love, exploring new places and kicking ass at their jobs don’t fill me with despair. They’re god damn inspiring! I’m friends with these amazing people, building lives they want and working hard to make that happen. They are talented, beautiful people and I love having insight into the parts of their lives they are proud enough to share.

I’ve been posting more to instagram while in Paris than usual, because, well, everything is foreign and more catches my attention and curiosity. Being more aware of my surroundings in Pittsburgh is something I hope to take home with me in a couple of weeks. Anyway, one of my friends posted a comment under a picture I took from a morning run through the Jardin de Tuilleries which said, So thrilled to see you enjoy the magic of Paris and to share it with us. Hooray for living dreams!

Which, is a remark very true to her personality, but also struck me as such a pleasant and wonderful way of looking at the noise that is social media. How it’s thrilling to see someone you care about enjoy him or her self and share that enjoyment.

So, I defend the re-touched wedding pictures, the creatively posed engagement and pregnancy announcement photos, the look at me having this awesome adventure profile pic, and the photos where your kids look angelic and are getting along. I’ll even stand up for cat pictures, food porn, and selfies with your significant other.  Life is too short to not find the beauty in it, to share that, and to revel in how we all interpret and experience that beauty differently.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

An American in Paris

I'm sitting in my small and charming apartment in le Marais. Slightly buzzed on côtes-du-rhône, and très contente.

It's hard to write anything other than PARIS IS AMAZING AND I LOVE IT HERE for this post, and while that is true that's rather boring.

Paris is amazing and I do love it here. Everything is beautiful, everything is delicious, and the children (not to mention the rest of the population) are so well dressed.  I can walk 15 minutes from my apartment and be at the Palais du Louvre, which is incredible. I skip home with a freshly baked baguette that requires no butter, or jam, or nutella, or anything it already tastes so good on it's own. I spent Sunday afternoon wandering around the left bank with a gentleman who told me my eyes are brilliant. Life is pretty great here.

A lot of my life feels the same. I work, I see my Thread team every day for huddle, I grocery shop and cook myself food. I wake up and do yoga, and go running. At the same time, everything is scary. Every time I leave my flat it requires concentration and learning and the probability of making a fool of myself, and that is thrilling and fun and nerve-wracking.

I am very much alone here. But I don't feel lonely.

Having this space (literally an ocean's worth of space from real life) with time to think, and walk, and write, and draw, and eat, and read, and sip espresso, and people watch is wonderful.

Maybe one day I'll reach a point in my normal life where I can build real time for all of those things in my day to day. Maybe I'll get better at treating my beloved Pittsburgh like a tourist and forcing myself to go, and see, and appreciate the things I take for granted as a local. Maybe I'll learn to really get out of my comfort zone without having to go half way around the world.

Until then, I'm seeking asylum in Paris.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Dirty Dishes

There is a certain satisfaction waking up the morning after you've had a party, and your furniture is still slightly askew, and there is a pile of dishes in your sink, and you're finding glasses set down in corners and on top of bookshelves.

I love it. I love the evidence that there was a bunch of people hanging out in my space. Cleaning up doesn't even phase me because I am so happy that it happened.

In college, at the Polyhouse, after big parties on Saturdays we would spend Sunday mornings drinking pots of coffee and eating waffles, and then the 6 of us would clean all afternoon, trying to get the spilled beer smell out of the living room carpet, and would eventually make dinner. Is it weird that some of my most nostalgic memories from college come from cleaning up after parties with my roommates as opposed to the parties themselves?

I hosted a pot-luck on Friday to welcome home my boss, Ian, from the desert, and as a house-warming for myself. It was crowded and loud and fun and I loved it. This new living situation of mine is wonderful for a lot of reasons, not least of which is that I can entertain again.

I was in the kitchen, getting drinks and helping people find serving spoons for their dishes.

"Kelsey, do you want help putting out the salsa?" asked Heather.

"Sure," I said. "Here are some bowls to put them in," and handed her bowls.

"You can just send them out," said Aunt Janet* "they're ok in the containers they're in."

"Oh no," I said. "I mean, I know no one cares, but they need to be put in pretty dishes."

"I understand," said Heather, scooping the salsa into the bowls.

"My Mom and Aunties would be relieved to know this happened," I explained.

So presentation resulted in some extra dirty dishes. It made the women who raised me proud, even if they don't know it, and it made me happy to see them stacked in the sink the following morning.

*Aunt Janet is technically Ian's Aunt, but everyone calls her Aunt Janet, and I've adopted her as an aunt here in Pittsburgh.