Expect The Unexpected

Whenever we ran by Jupiter, we had no choice but to pick up our pace.  After all, Jupiter’s gravity was never to be taken lightly.  And when your running partner was Moe Johnson, well…all you really cared about was self-preservation.  In fact, if the forces of Jupiter’s gravity were to somehow sneak up on Moe and annihilate him, then so be it.  Sure, an unfortunate ending for Moe, but at least you got your ten-mile run in.

Let’s rewind the scene if I may…

Fulton Ranch Road, just on the outskirts of San Marcos.  Moe and I had decided to do a long out-and-back run on a road that was entirely caliche. There were no fences, just rugged countryside where longhorn cattle roamed.  Jupiter was the largest steer on the ranch. He was massive with a horn span that could easily skewer Moe from head to toe.  One quick, swift flick of the head, and Jupiter could send Moe sailing into the air like a rag doll.

It reminds me of the opening scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey when early man discovers tools, and with tools he discovers power.  The scene transitions into the future of the space odyssey as early man, in his discovery of using a bone as a weapon, throws the bone high up into the air.  In slow-motion, we watch the bone flip end-over-end up into space.  That trajectory—that endless flight of bone—is how I perceived Moe would have travelled, had Jupiter had his way with him.  And there I would stand, looking upwards, thinking, Wow, look at you Moe!  Not only are you in the movies, but you’re headed into the future! Farewell, my friend!

Of course, Moe never did make it into the movies nor did he ever travel into the future.  But he did take flight, thanks to all sixteen-hundred pounds of Jupiter who had decided to charge him. The memory of Moe is still quite clear as I watched him evade Jupiter’s attempted manslaughter, and sail over a large cactus. In his moment of airborne grace, he flew with the look of confidence, as if exclaiming to the world, “I GOT THIS!!!”

If you’re curious where I was this entire time…well, I was a few strides ahead of Moe, having foreseen this inevitable moment, and sped off the caliche road to hide like a coward behind a large stone water trough.  I would have fought off Jupiter, but elected not to as I was quite familiar with Moe’s powerlifting records.  Besides, he was older and wiser than I, and it would have been premature of me to suggest any plan of escape other than whatever Moe already had in mind.

And then he hit dirt—hands and knees first, like four twenty-pound kettle bells simultaneously thudding to the earth.  You would have thought from the sound of his fall that Moe was just going to park his body right there and surrender his fate to Jupiter. But giving up was not an option. Moe had grown up on hockey rinks and had basically lived out of weight rooms. If he wasn’t living in a state of pushing his limits, then by his standards, he wasn’t living at all. One hard crash to the earth was nothing more than a paper cut to Moe. Adrenalized, he was up and running towards my cowardly hiding place in no time. “Can you believe Jupiter!?” he shouted, short of breath. “He tried to kill me!”

And there Jupiter stood on the far side of the cactus, staring at us as he swung his head back and forth in disgust. And there we stood, looking at each other, our heads swinging back and forth as well, and wondering, Now what?

*                    *                    *

We plan our runs. We know where we’re going. We know our pace. We know if the route will be hilly or flat, long or short. We know that if our hamstrings are sore, we’d better monitor them a little more closely than usual. We know if our legs feel heavy or fresh. We know a lot going into a run.

But what we don’t know are the unexpected moments that lie ahead. The unforeseen encounters. No different than everyday life, that’s true. But running has a way of heightening our awareness. A way of seeing the world with a bit more clarity. Whether it’s contemplating a thought or seeing something out of the ordinary, when we run our focus becomes sharper. We are, without a doubt, in tune with our surroundings.

I once ran alongside a butterfly that stayed even with me for nearly 200 meters.  In its bouncy, erratic flight, it held my pace three feet apart from me. Everything—I mean everything became secondary. Even the fact that I was running seemed to blur.  I once had a similar experience with a deer that ran parallel with me for over a quarter of a mile before disappearing into the woods.  It was truly as if it knew we were moving together—as if some sort of communication was transpiring.  I could not ignore the magic of that moment.  Unable to write it off as mere coincidence, I soaked up every second we shared between us, and acknowledged the deer as a momentary gift of the uncommon. But an insect?  Was it even possible that the butterfly was acting upon some form of a thought, or a recognition that I wasn’t a threat? Was it possible that amongst all of its natural innate instincts, that something as miraculous as a chemistry between us was at hand?  Or was it just pure luck that I got to run, undisturbed, with a butterfly for an eighth of a mile?  Either way I looked at it, one thing was for certain: running had amplified an experience that gave a whole new meaning to the term, “the butterfly effect.”

*                    *                    *

But not all unexpected moments while running are uplifting. Some stop you in your tracks and wrench the emotions straight out of you. These are the moments when you wished you had taken a different route. When it would have been better to have woken up with a slight fever to keep you in bed for the day. But run you did, and the events leading up to that unexpected moment could never be reversed…

Everything was fine as I ran on the sidewalk along 15th Street in Austin. It was a typical busy Friday afternoon with traffic having arrived in full force. The term “rush hour” seemed a slight understatement.  Perhaps “mad rush hour” was more apropos.  I had just crested a hill when I heard the screech of tires, and a sharp, loud cry of a dog.  No…no, no, no. Don’t look. Don’t get involved in this. Just keep running. This is someone else’s business. There is nothing here for you. But I did look, and that was the moment I immersed myself in the unexpected and unfortunate scene.

The driver who had hit the dog failed to stop, and continued on, leaving behind a line of cars that crept by with curiosity.  I ran out into the street and knelt before the dog. It was a mutt—a male, maybe 15 pounds with brown shaggy hair. His eyes were closed as his head lay in a small puddle of blood. I picked him up, and set him on a patch of grass where I checked for signs of life, but his life was gone. He had a collar with a license tag.  I didn’t know his name. I didn’t know where he lived.  I didn’t know what to do, except let the sadness overcome me and honor his presence with my sudden grief.  He was somebody’s companion.  He had gotten loose, and this was his last day.  A car pulled up next to me and stopped by the curb.  It was a couple in their twenties.  The girl was in the passenger seat, her window rolled down, and her eyes red from crying.

“Oh my god,” she sobbed, “Is that your dog?”

“No,” I said, “I was on a run just now when he got hit.”

“This is so sad. Is there anything we can do?”

“Could you take him to the nearest vet clinic? Maybe they could find out who the owner is.”

“Certainly,” she said, “We can do that.”

Her boyfriend got out of the car and opened up the trunk, where there were some old blankets.  Before we wrapped the dog up and gently set him inside, I petted him several times before telling him goodbye. It was the first and last time I would ever see the dog.

Life is fragile.  It can snap in an instant.  It can be taken from you when you least expect it.  I ran in mourning for three miles back to my apartment. I couldn’t shake the thought of the owners who would eventually receive the phone call.  To this day, over thirty years later, whenever I run in Austin, the memory of that dog always finds me. I didn’t want to get involved with its death.  I wanted to stay clear and move forward.  But once the couple drove away, I remember feeling like I had done the right thing—that instead of ignoring or abandoning him, I had taken care of the dog right after his final parting moment.  It was the least that I could do. After all, he was somebody’s best friend.

*                    *                    *

Unexpected surprises while running can not only awaken you to your surroundings, but can stir a sense of discovery within yourself.

Years ago I once finished a run at Sewell Park on a quiet Sunday morning. I was going to take a post-run dip in the river when I noticed a teenage boy shooting a basketball at the outdoor court. It had been years since I had touched a basketball, let alone shoot one.  Though I played the game for most of my life up to age 20, there came a point where distance running became my fitness addiction.  But on that Sunday morning, something in me said, “Shoot the ball.”

I walked over to the boy and asked if he wouldn’t mind if I shot a few.  He passed me the ball and pointed to the rim.

Running had consumed me.  I was training for the Houston Marathon, logging up to 80 miles a week.  Weight lifting, swimming, biking—any form of cross-training was non-existent.  I was 6’4” and weighed 165 pounds.  Friends said I was too thin, that I looked weak.  I dismissed their comments as ridiculous.

Standing just inside the 3-point line, I spun the ball backwards in the air and let it ricochet off the court, before bouncing back to me.  As I held it loosely, I could tell that the rhythm of the game hadn’t left me.  But as I looked at the basket and prepared to shoot, an unexpected thought occurred:  Damn, that basket looks far away.

The instant the ball left my hands, was the instant I changed my life.  There was no denying what I had just felt—the shocking discovery of the absence of strength.  All my friends were right…my shoulders were bony, my arms were rails, and I was unable to shoot a basketball three-quarters of the way to the rim.  It was more than an awareness of my weakened condition.  It was an outright disaster.

One shot was all it took.  I turned my back to the boy, and walked away.  I must have done 200 push-ups later that day.  From that point on, my entire outlook changed regarding overall fitness. And I must say, I owe it all to that basketball.  Funny how things play out.

 *                    *                   *

Here’s my advice to anyone who runs:

Take it beyond running, and take in your surroundings.  You might surprise yourself as to what you’ll discover. If something piques your interest, stop and look at it.  Oh, don’t worry, your guilty conscience will get over the cardinal sin of stopping during a run. Become familiar with running in unfamiliar places, and, in doing so, expect the unexpected.

Copyright Ros Hill 2017

The Tree

I was getting ready to swim at the city pool, when I noticed a little girl in a stroller. She was parked next to her grandmother who was sitting on a bench. The girl’s sister was in the pool practicing with a swim team. It was a perfectly normal setting, with one exception—what she was doing with her hands. She was tapping, scrolling, swiping, and expanding the screen of an iPad.

Or perhaps this was normal—the new normal. I can remember when cell phones first hit the market, and how astonished we were when learning someone had bought an iPhone for their 8th grader. Seriously!!!?? And now, twelve years later, you’d be hard-pressed to find a 6th grader who doesn’t have one.

I was amazed by this little girl in the stroller—her fingers nimbly operating the iPad.

“How old is she?” I said to the grandmother.

“She’s—”

The girl beat her to the answer by quickly punching two fingers into the air. I had to chuckle at this inaudible interjection, as I was fascinated by the immediacy of her emphatic sign language. There was almost something mature about her action.

“You’re two years old?”

She looked up at me with a smile and said, “Yep!” Not just a two-year-old yep, but a confident yep—a confidence that showed in the way she adeptly worked the iPad. And as unbelievable as it may seem, she displayed something that comes with the air of confidence: the telltale signs of impatience when the iPad’s internet connection responded slowly to her touch.

Two years old. How quickly they learn. How quickly they master. And so easily distracted. She should be watching their sisters swim. There was an engagement that was missing. The well-crafted lure of technology had stolen her attention. The spray of water from the swimmers’ flip turns that occasionally hit her bare feet, and the coach’s raised voice giving instructions to the busy swim lanes did not grab her attention in the least. At two years of age, she made me wonder about the future….

*        *        *

“Mommy…what’s wrong with it?” said the five-year-old girl, pointing upwards at a large tree. “It doesn’t do anything.”

“What do you mean it doesn’t do anything?” Replied the mother, kneeling next to her.

“I swiped it. Nothing happened.”

“Oh, that’s because this is a real tree. Out here in the park things are different. This tree not only provides shade, but it’s a place for animals and insects to live.”

“The trees in our backyard don’t have bugs or animals?”

“No,” said the mother, putting her arm around the girl’s shoulders. “Our trees are iTrees. They’re different. They’re interactive smart trees. You can learn everything about nature from an iTree’s trunk touch screens.”

“But no bugs or animals?”

“On the trunk screens, yes.”

The girl looked at her mom with a perplexed face. “But no real ones, right?”

The mother paused for just a moment, then said, “Yes, that’s right.”

“But why?”

Turning her daughter so they were face to face, the mother put her hands on the girl’s shoulders, then said, “Because iTrees use the latest technology. Nothing provides as much information. And nothing entertains you like an iTree.”

She went on to tell her daughter about the iTree’s Labyrinth Limb System, a technological breakthrough that bore edible, imitation hybrid fruits. LLS did this through a conversion process whereby 3D imagery became 3D Sculpt—the quantum next step beyond virtual reality. “In fact,” said the mother, “we’ll have our first non-pollinated fruit soon, after ArborTech installs our apple iTree next week.”

As her mom continued, speaking far beyond her daughter’s grasp, the girl’s attention waned when she spotted a blue jay flying overhead, then disappearing inside the tree’s canopy. “Our iTrees don’t have birds,” she said.

“That’s true,” replied her mother. “But they’re working on that. It’s only a matter of time until they figure out the necessary technology to attract them. Let’s be thankful the trunk touch screens can tell us anything and everything about birds.”

The mother stood up and took her daughter’s hand, telling her it was time they headed back home. But there was a slight resistance as the daughter pulled back. “Look, mommy! Look!” A second blue jay flew into the canopy, and moments later the two birds could be seen, appearing to dance in flight as they sprang in and out of the tree.

“They’re playing. Possibly courting,” said the mother.

“Courting?”

“Yes, like they’ve found each other. Like love.”

“Ha!” The girl laughed. “Like love birds!”

The girl slipped from her mother’s grasp, and walked up to the tree, where she reached out and let her small fingers travel along the rugged crevices of the tree’s bark. Her nails skimmed through and collected fragments of small patches of soft, verdant moss protruding from the wood. Traveling up along the trunk, she saw two ants, a beetle, and three ladybugs. “Mom, where are these bugs going?”

Her mom walked up next to her. “I’m not sure. I suppose looking for food. Let’s go home and ask the iTree.”

She grabbed her daughter’s hand, but she resisted again, then slipped free. “Honey, we should really be getting home. It’ll be dark soon. And you know how pretty the iTrees glow at night.”

“Mom, do you think they’ll marry?”

“Will who marry?”

“Them.” Her daughter pointed at the two blue jays continuing their flight dance.

“Silly. You know birds don’t marry.”

“Do the iTrees know it?”

“I seriously doubt there’s any information about birds getting married.”

“So iTrees don’t know everything. They don’t tell you about birds in love either, do they?”

“Well….no, you’re right.” The mother looked up into the tree’s canopy, as a small cluster of leaves fell towards her. She extended her arms, then cupping her hands in hopes to catch one, and caught two. She sandwiched the leaves together and gently massaged them between her thumb and index finger. They were textured and firm; fresh off the vine, so to speak. Above her, the blue jays chirped in their playful chase.

Her daughter took her other hand and placed it on the tree’s trunk. “Mommy, feel how rough the tree is.” The girl pressed her nose against the bark and took a deep whiff. “Smell it, mommy…it smells nice.”

Her mother did just that, closing her eyes as she inhaled—the aroma of a moist forest. When was the last time she had smelled this? When was the last time she had roamed in the woods? Years? Decades? Yet how quickly her memory recalled the tree’s scent. Experience, she thought. It was everything. The iTree was smart, but could not relate to experience. It couldn’t evoke the feeling a child gets watching two birds dancing in love. It couldn’t capture the essence of this moment.

She looked down at her daughter who was watching a ladybug crawl on the tip of her finger, her eyes full of fascination. “Honey,” she said, “my mother once told me about a time when I was a little girl. She said I was about two years old when I was at my sister’s swim practice.”

“Aunt Jessie was a swimmer?”

“Yes she was. And a good one at that.”

“That must’ve been neat watching her swim.”

“Well that’s the point of my story. For so long, I really never watched her much. My mother said I was always playing games on my iPad, which was a big clunky computer-like device they had back then. Anyway, she said one day she took it out of my hands and said ‘No more!’ She said I needed to watch my sister swim, and that I wasn’t the one to blame, but rather it was she who gave me the iPad to keep me occupied. She said it was a big mistake on her part, that I wasn’t noticing what matters.”

With slightly squinted eyes, her daughter tilted her head and asked, “What matters?”

There was a brief pause as she looked at her daughter whose attention was back on the ladybug, watching it now crawl up her arm. Her mother cracked a smile and said, “What matters…is this tree.”

“But mom, you said it’s getting late. Shouldn’t we go now?”

Her mother’s smile widened a bit more. “No,” she said. “I think we’re perfectly fine right here.”

Copyright Ros Hill 2017

Common Ground

I looked straight into the eye of an elk today. He was grazing on some tall grass just thirty feet down a slope from where I stood.  That big, dark, glassy eye stayed on me like a great conversation.  Never blinking and fully engaged. It’s always been about the eyes. They tell so much, and how quickly they connect.

I had been creeping up on him in the woods for a closer look.  Thick, matted clumps of dark brown fur dangled from his throat.  His mid-section was embedded with what appeared to be abrasions where the fur had been rutted from some sort of encounter.  A predator? The hard strike of another bull’s antlers during a fight? Or he might have been entangled in a cluster of stubborn tree branches. It was hard to say.

As he tugged and chewed on the grass, I slowly positioned myself behind the one pine tree that stood between us.  Perhaps I had come too close.  My curiosity had completely ignored the possibility that this elk might charge me if his instincts deemed necessary.  He lifted his head at my movement, so that two eyes instead of one were now fixated on me. His thick, woolly neck stretched tall and unbending like a soldier at attention. He was on high alert, studying me.  The ten points of his antlers, if I were caught in the open, would slice and gouge me to an inevitable death. The sharp, explosive kicks of his hooves would crack my bones and sever my tendons, disabling any attempt for me to crawl and claw myself back to life.

But we continued to stare at each other—neither of us moving.  I wasn’t sure what to anticipate.  I wasn’t sure what to do.  I only knew that his mass was at least four times that of mine.  What was the purpose of me coming this close?  Why couldn’t curiosity have been satisfied to stay a hundred yards back? His eyes, however—there was something going on.  Perhaps we were each seeing the same thing.

Perhaps that is why he then relaxed.  This soldier stood at ease.  As if some part of his instincts had told him I was as harmless as the pine tree or the breeze that swept through it. As if our eyes had discovered a mutual understanding that this was common ground. Could it be that he did not run, because he trusted me? Could it be that I did not flee either, because I trusted him?  I would like to say yes.  I would like to believe that something wonderful did, in fact, occur.  Perhaps indescribable, but, still, wonderful.  Because of an elk, I was fully alive.

For fifteen minutes I watched him feed on the tall grass, shifting his weight in the pine needles and sandy ground as he ate.  For fifteen minutes I admired his presence with all that I could, because I knew that the moment of our final separation was approaching.  The grass was sparse here.  He would have to move further into the woods to appease his appetite.  For fifteen minutes I watched him, until he disappeared.

 

Copyright Ros Hill 2016

Bucket

It happened during halftime of a Texas State men’s basketball game when a man entered the arena with a dog.  The Yellow Labrador Retriever led him down a flight of steps, sniffing right and left as he went.  Occasionally, the man stopped to shake hands with acquaintances while his companion obediently waited by his side.  “C’mon, Bucket,” he said to the dog. “This way.”  As they descended the steps, students lifted their heads up from their cell phones.  Word quickly and excitedly spread, “Look! Look at the dog!” Within this shift of interest—from phones to a dog—it dawned on me that no matter how advanced technology becomes, it can’t compete with the animal kingdom (or nature for that matter) in capturing our attention and making lasting memories.

No dog tricks were required to notice Bucket. No jumping through hoops, laser light show, or walking on hind legs were needed for his introduction.  Rather, it was simply the slow and methodical meandering of four soft paws that had us all curiously drawn to the dog’s purpose. Why was Bucket here? Tap the man on the shoulder, ask a few questions, and before you know it, word has spread that Bucket is a 2-year-old K9 detection working dog who has been trained to identify 16 scents used in making explosive devices. But as impressive as his background is, that’s not what intrigued us at first sight. What excited us and made us smile was his mere presence.

In a similar setting, I once attended a San Antonio Spurs basketball game when a bat entered the arena.  Its seemingly erratic flight sent it all over the court, often coming close to the players. Of course, the bat displayed no obedient personality, but everyone was fascinated, and quickly caring less about the game itself. The bat’s unpredictable movements kept us inquisitively engaged.

*          *         *

We all know the feeling of acquiring something brand new like a car, TV, cell phone, or a computer.  That initial infatuation—so clean, unscathed, and seemingly perfect within their flawless designs.  We handle them with utmost care, like rare artifacts that will fall to ruin if we don’t.  But time passes quickly, and soon we get so accustomed to their function that they become nothing more than objects of service.

In a world that expects advances in technology, there is no going back to earlier versions of computation, graphic display or engineering.   Either you continue to build faster, sleeker products or you pay the price for not having met people’s expectations.

And then there is the constant of nature that requires no innovation to attract our attention. We are forever intrigued. Wasps building their nests the same way they always have. The Monarch butterfly migration repeats itself century after century.  A field of golden Nebraska wheat swaying in the breeze.  The heavy grumble of thunder following a lightning strike. A dog named Bucket.  Nature plugs along at the same pace it always has, and yet it is what truly enthralls us. In a world that demands innovations and technological advances, given the choice, it is the unchanging world of nature that holds our memories best.

*          *          *

A man drives his brand new, fully-loaded, 2-door black Acura through the streets of a Colorado mountain town. The car is nimble, handling perfectly. The sound system punctuates the machine’s interior with a bass that powerfully thumps as if the man were inside the artist’s recording studio. He runs his hand over the leather upholstery, totally in awe of the car’s craftsmanship. Everything is simply too good to be true.

But then, he sees a cluster of brake lights ahead of him, and all traffic comes to a stop. He turns the music down, and looks ahead to figure out what the issue is.  There are no police cars or fire trucks. No signs that a fresh accident might have occurred. Not even a stranded motorist with a flat tire.

Then he sees it, and it all makes sense.  As if out for an afternoon stroll, an elk takes its time crossing four lanes of traffic. It even stops to face the front row of cars, as if contemplating whether or not to walk across their hoods. People are taking pictures, pointing through their windshields. Several get out to find a clearer view. But everyone’s fascination is doubled as the elk begins walking between the rows of cars, as if it were conducting a security checkpoint inspection. The man in the Acura watches intently as the elk passes by his window. Seven hundred pounds of Rocky Mountain wildlife drifts by in nonchalant fashion, and then exits the street to disappear into the woods, leaving behind a grateful audience.

We are completely content with the constant of nature. It exists and excites us within its original version. There are no bells or whistles needed to improve it.

As the years roll by, the man’s experience will forever be remembered and passed on….

“So, we’re all stopped in this big traffic jam, and I have no idea what’s going on.  I had bought a new car that day.  It was an Acura.   Anyway, I then see this big elk, just taking his time like there was no tomorrow. He stops and looks at us.  And we’re all looking at him. And it’s like you could tell we didn’t want him to leave.  He then starts walking around the cars, and right by my window. I almost reached out to touch him. He was that much of a gift. I’ll never forget it.”

Copyright Ros Hill 2016