Back On the Rock

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Running Mates

Running is a lot like dating. It’s all about the pacing, the practice, the partner. My track record in running and romance are surprisingly similar: a few, unimpressive sprints; lots of solid middle distance efforts and the best of intentions to go the distance. A marathon, like a marriage, is high on my wish list, but somehow I don’t seem to have the knees for either.

I am not a sprinter. I warm up slowly. My heart races. My legs make their own plans. And just when my brain seizes control of my body, it’s all over and I’m left breathless and panting. My sweet spot is the 10k – a breezy 6 ¼ mile run that’s long enough for me to find my stride, but not so long that it feels like work. I love the idea of endurance, the commitment and discipline it requires. But there always comes a point when the pain exceeds the pleasure and I haven’t quite learned how to tough it out to the finish. My instinct is always to save myself for another run, another day.

My only endurance event to date has been a triathlon, but that’s three events, not one. (The potential parallel for my personal life disturbs me.)

Over the years I’ve tried to find a running mate to help me go the distance. Usually, I find myself with sprinters who try to force the pace and bail out early when they run out of steam. But there also have been a few who couldn’t keep up with me. There was the man who was too thin. He had no sweat to spare. There was the one who was too fat. His heart was willing, but his flesh – and there was a lot of it – was weak. When I first started running, I ran 10-minute miles to my partner’s 8’s. We ran at the same time, but never together, and eventually we followed our own paths. Today, we are great friends. But now I run the 8’s and he runs the 10’s so we still can’t run together. Timing is everything.

It’s not surprising then that I’ve learned to love running solo. There is a freedom in setting my own pace and charting my own course. But every once in a while the urge to match my stride with someone else’s sends me in search of a running mate.

Recently, the itch has reared its head. After a long layoff to rest a weary knee, I’m craving a good run and I’m thinking this just might be the year I learn to go long. Right in time, a new friend has come along to pace me. There are pros and cons. He likes to run first thing in the morning. I like to run at night. He runs 10 minute miles, 2 minutes slower than mine. But he runs a lot of them. He’s not afraid to go long and horror of horrors, he’s convinced I’m capable of the same.

He invites me along to a 10 mile run at an ungodly hour on a Saturday morning. I’m not sure how fast or how far my newly recovered knee will go. I haven’t run in nearly two months, and it’s been more than two years since I’ve run longer than a 10k. But I am curious.

I warn him that I will bonk at mile 6, but he ignores my protests.

“I’ll stay with you,” he says. “We’ll take it slowly. We’ll go at your pace and stop whenever you need to.”

The first mile we trade pleasantries. The pace feels frustratingly slow, but I notice that with it and the easy conversation, my usual early awkwardness has disappeared. By the two mile mark I have borrowed his stride and made it mine. We are easy, unhurried, comfortable.

The third mile takes us uphill and my legs remember why I love to run. I pick up the pace a little, slowing at intervals to check in with him. Sometimes I hang back behind him. He points out potholes and passing cars, prompts me when to cross the street. I am not used to being led and I like it. But my legs like the open road more. By the 4 mile mark I am torn between the man and the run.

“You’re doing great,” he says when he catches me at the mile 6 water station. I stop worrying about bonking.

I keep a few metres ahead of him. I am used to running alone and when it feels good, the urge to run ahead is too strong. But I find a strange comfort in knowing that he is somewhere close behind me. So I push it as far as I can and rest with him when I am tired. He doesn’t seem to mind.

At the 8 mile mark I know I have the run in the bag. I am much slower than my usual pace, but further than my usual distance. My brain starts to worry I won’t make it, but my heart and legs reassure me. I check in with him one last time at mile 9 and run ahead to the finish.

We share mimosas and the newspaper over breakfast. Easy, unhurried, comfortable. Maybe there is something to this endurance thing after all.

Maybe I’m ready to go the distance.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Share And Share Alike

(Note: To "share" someone's food means to transfer it from the pot or serving dish to the plate.)

I came home recently to find my father eating a pack of Cheese Krunchies. It was dinnertime. “I was hungry,” he said, as though an explanation were required, “and there was no one here to share my dinner.”

My father is, by all accounts, a fully functioning adult. He has two arms and two legs and, evidently, the fine motor skills required to open a vacuum-sealed plastic package. Sharing his dinner is, however, not in his repertoire.

I knew better than to broach the subject, but I am as willful as he and besides, plate-sharing is a subject of endless fascination for me. There’s no sharing about it. It’s service. One way: female to male. I am as allergic to plate sharing as my father is addicted to it. I once broke up with a man, whom my mother later christened Hot Meal, over my refusal to share his plate. We had a stare-off at a dinner party over a platter of fried chicken and as I grudgingly slammed the bird unto his plate the fate of our relationship was sealed.

I had to get my father’s reasoning.

“I have a good wife,” he began. “Why should I be sharing my dinner?” He says it with a sense of conclusion that baffles me. Never mind that his dinner was next to the Cheese Krunchies. Never mind that he works four hours a day to my stepmother’s eight.

“And besides,” he went on. “She loves to share my dinner. Why would I take that away from her?”

I’d like to dismiss it as a generational thing, but my sister is a born plate sharer. There is a joy in her eyes as she patters around the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant, serving her husband's dinner. But then again, she grew up with the mother of all plate sharers and a father who would go days without eating rather than serve himself. If my father had stayed married to my mother, he would have starved to death. Thankfully, they parted and he went on his shared plate future.

I understand my sister’s plate sharing, but my best friend baffles me. She is not in the least a submissive wife, but she, too, is an inveterate plate sharer. “Of course I share my husband’s dinner. I’ve always done it. He loves it.

“It’s a very personal thing, serving somebody’s food. He wouldn’t let just anybody do it.”

This idea of plate sharing as a gift to the woman - I don’t get it.

It’s possible that I developed an aversion to plate sharing as a child, some kind of viral disease, like chicken pox, that scars you for life. I have a blurry memory of Christmas dinners: The men seated, backsides glued by rum to their chairs. The women - my grandmother, stepmother and aunts - milling around the table, sharing the men’s dinners, then the children’s, then their own. I know my mother must have helped my brother and me, but my memory is of her sitting, eating, giggling. Forget the plate sharers. I was going to be a giggler.

I once experimented with plate sharing with a man my friends nicknamed Cupcake. Cupcake was a fan of take-out and never asked me to cook a meal. One day, he brought home dinner only to find that I had already cooked. A look of pure joy washed over his face as he ate my grilled salmon. The next night he ate my curried shrimp with rapturous eyes. I made jerk chicken and pan seared scallops and turkey lasagna. Cupcake greeted each meal as though he’d won the lottery. I moved my laptop into the kitchen.

One Sunday I made cupcakes – chocolate with cinnamon and vanilla. Cupcake practically moved in. The next Sunday he asked for cupcakes again. “It’s our tradition,” he said. And so it became, to the consternation of my friends.

Unfortunately, Cupcake liked to have his cake and eat it too. He took to sharing meals and more with the Japanese girl down the hall. I threw out the cupcakes - the man and the muffins - and I stopped sharing plates. It made little difference in New York where my social and dating lives revolved around eating out, but back home in Jamaica, I sense I’ll have to come to terms with my plate sharing fears.

At brunch recently I felt a wave of nausea as my date and I approached the buffet. We are just getting to know each other and I don’t know what the rules are here for when I’m expected to put out with the serving spoon. My instinct was to avoid the issue altogether. Dart ahead and serve myself? Lag behind and let him start before me? We reached the table at the same time. Each of us picked up a plate and served ourselves.

He scanned mine, unimpressed. “You missed something,” he said, heaping bananas and dumplings unto my plate.

Later, we went back for dessert. Before I could decide between the chocolate cake and the carrot cake, he handed me a plate with a healthy slice of each.

I giggled.

Is my aversion to plate sharing curable? Possibly. This may be just the pill.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Running For My Life

They say when you fall in love late in life it lasts longer. I fell in love with running late and it’s the one love that I know for sure will last. At 28, just out of Business School, I was looking for a way to get rid of the effects of too much Happy Hour beer. My new trainer looked me up and down and announced, “You’re a runner.”

I laughed.

I was most assuredly not a runner. My only athletic credentials at that point were four consecutive Addition Race victories at Prep School. A race that must have been invented to give the parents of nerds a chance to cheer, it involved a short run across the field to a piece of paper bearing math calculations. I was the slowest runner, but always the fastest adder and racked up victories until one fateful day when my brain was, inexplicably, as slow as my legs. I wrote 5 + 1 = 10 and trotted back to the judge whose usual congratulatory smile turned to shock as she declared me wrong. My brain begged my legs to go faster as I ran back down the field to correct my mistake. But my legs were not used to the race depending on them and my winning streak was over. My only other running memory is of my high school P.E. coach yelling “You can’t run!” as I clocked the slowest 100 metres in the history of the school.

My trainer was insistent. “Try it. You will love it.”

A mile here and there. Then two, then three. Six months later I was running every day and madly in love with the 10K. Six years later, I’m still at it. Through ten-minute miles, then nines, then eights, occasional sevens, and one glorious 6:40, running gives me a high that has me hooked. I know that running is great exercise, but I don’t care. Exercise to me means lifting weights or flailing through aerobics class. That I like the way my body looks when I run regularly is merely icing. Running is not exercise. Running is love.

Our relationship is, appropriately, imperfect. Sometimes love hurts. Like all great loves, running makes me weak in the knees. Too fast, too far, too often and I end up in pain, unable to run at all. Sometimes I stop running, without reason, for weeks on end and I have to start over from the beginning, cursedly slow and tentative. Though I love running more than anything, I have yet to commit to it enough to put up a distance longer than a half marathon. I am a fickle lover, straying off from time to time to tennis, yoga, triathlon, pilates. But somehow I always find my way back.

Most days I run because I want to. On bad days I run because I have to. Cheaper than therapy, better than booze, running has proven to be my personal panacea. When things go awry the only way I know to restore my equilibrium is to rinse the offending stimulus right out of me. Pain leaves my body as tears or sweat. I prefer sweat.

I run away – literally – from disappointment, failure, heartbreak, anger. My heart doesn’t have time to feed those demons when it’s busy pumping blood to my legs. I run towards progress and possibility. Exhale hurt. Inhale hope. A good run is all the reminder I need that I can get wherever I want to go one step at a time.

In six years of running, I’ve learned to solve problems my Addition Race judges could never have dreamed of. There’s no challenge, great or small, that a mile or two or ten won’t fix. A children’s book in rhyme, written on a six mile run. Business strategies revealed. Troublesome story ideas untangled. Running puts me in sync with my own rhythm. I leave the rest of the world behind and let my feet beat out an answer to whatever question, personal or professional, plagues me. My feet don’t lie even when I am tempted to. Waffling about my relationship with my then insignificant other, I took the question, as always, on a run. By the end of the first mile the answer came: Left/Right. Left/Right. Leave him. Leave him.

I run because I can. I have learned to value that – the gift of mobility, the privilege of being able to move myself through time and space at will, at my own pace. Training for a triathlon this year, I hit a wayward jogger in mile 24 of a 25 mile ride. I sailed over the handlebars of my road bike and heard a sickening thud as my helmet slammed into the asphalt. For a split second I couldn’t move and I was terrified. I looked down my jersey in horror as a large bloody mass the size of a mango took the place of my right elbow. But my legs were fine. So I walked the banged up bike home, wrapped my elbow, and dizzily headed out to finish the required 30 minute run. I was slow and achy, my stride was haphazard; but I was running. On a brutal incline out of Central Park up 110th Street, I passed an elderly man sitting in a wheelchair in the doorway of a hospice. As I ran by, cradling my mango elbow, wondering if training was worth the pain, he looked up.

“I wish I could run like that,” he sighed. “Run for me.”

And so I did. And I still do. I run for him and the physically challenged athletes I pass in the park, running with prosthetic legs. And the blind runners who do their outdoor runs tethered to their guides. I run for the cancer survivors I trained with last winter, who scheduled their runs around their chemo sessions.

But, above all, I run for me. For a little girl who now can leaves ‘can’t’ in the dust. For the sheer joy that it brings. And for the gift of life that I feel most keenly when I’m on the run. Fast. Forward. Free.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Caroline Knapp

Caroline Knapp is dead.

She has been for a year.

This shakes me in a way I can’t explain. I never met the woman, but I knew her. She was a writer. One so gifted, so vivid in her exploration of her life and women’s lives in general, that I not only felt I knew her, I felt that she knew me. Her textured relationships with her parents, her dogs, her men, herself - all came to life in delicate detail in her books and the columns she wrote for the Boston Phoenix, the New York Times and She wrote about her life, the best and the worst of herself, with an honesty that I found not just brave but necessary.

I fell in love with her writing when I read ‘Drinking: A Love Story’, her book about her battle with alcoholism. I learned about her death from the back jacket of her new book, ‘Appetites: Why Women Want’, which chronicled her earlier fight with anorexia. She beat both those demons but succumbed to lung cancer at 42. It seems unfair that a life so thoughtfully examined and so generously shared should have been cut so short.

So, Caroline, this blog is dedicated to you, as a way to thank you for your words and your work. As a way to say that, in your early passing, I’ve finally learned the lesson.

I’ll write what I want without fear, without worrying what people will think or say or do.

I have the rest of eternity to be chicken.

Confessions of A Dilettante

A few years ago, I went for an informational interview at a cable channel in New York City. I’d had enough of consulting and was casting around for something new to do. I loved this channel. I was a regular, dedicated viewer. I had no idea what kind of job I’d be suited for there, but I figured my love of their programming was enough. Besides, wasn’t the point of an informational to gather information?

My interviewer looked at my resume, groaned, and sighed.

“Your resume is…” he paused. “Choppy.

“Fund raising. Consulting. Writing. Education School. Business School. You seem to be somewhat of a dilettante.”

His tone suggested that I should be insulted, but the word delighted me. Dilettante. It sounded as yummy as dessert, as fun as flirting. I’d spent my life dodging labels, but here was one that, oddly enough, seemed to fit. I left his office certain that I didn’t want a job there; feeling as relieved as an addict ready to own up to my demons.

“Hello. My name is Kellie. I am a dilettante.”

Before I adopted my new label, I often was called fickle. I prefer the buffet to ordering à la carte, the triathlon to the marathon, multiple projects to the single job. My brain requires a constant diet of change and challenge that often thwarts expectations for grown-up behaviour. Conventional wisdom depicts growing up as a narrowing; all your life’s interests and possibilities slowly swirling down a drain called maturity. I disagree. Growing up should be about expanding, carving your own path through an increasing number of ideas and activities that excite your imagination.

This puts me at odds with the experts who say focus is the key to success. Pick one thing and do it well. That works for the lucky among us who have a single over-arching passion, but the rest of us can do better than the soul-sucking intellectual prostitution for which society rewards us. We look down on people who lend others their bodies for money not love. But we expect people, in fact, we train people, to rent the truest parts of themselves – their brains, their hearts, their souls – to enterprises that bring a paycheck but no passion.

For most of us the monthly paycheck is as dirty as crumpled bills on the nightstand. We take a slice of ourselves – if we’re lucky, a slice we like, but more often a slice we’ve been told we’re good at, or a slice that matches the first opportunity that comes along – and make a career of it, auctioning it off to the highest bidder. We let the rest of ourselves, the best of ourselves die, or stuff it into a narrow box labeled “hobby”.

Not for me.

My over-arching goal is to experience as much joy as possible. To do as many of the things I love as possible. That means that my career path hasn’t followed a straight line. I have been, among other things, a fund raiser, strategy consultant, children’s book author, publisher, producer, media critic, feature writer and editor – a fairly random assortment of jobs connected by a love of words and ideas. Three years ago I gave up the notion of a job altogether, and now I work exclusively on projects; sometimes long, sometimes short, but always something that truly excites me. It’s not the easiest way to make a living, but it’s the only way to make a life that’s truly mine.

I’ve got the best opportunities just by following an interest as far as I can. I wrote my first feature, on spec, just for the heck of it, driven more by the love of writing than by any certainty that it would get published. That first story led to more assignments, which led to more newspapers, more magazines. A frustrated shopping expedition to find Jamaican children’s books for my niece led me to write my own – a story meant for her that ended up being incorporated into the New York City school system. A phone call from a friend with a son newly diagnosed with autism led to my interest in the subject and a year-long project working on a multimedia package for children with the disorder. If an idea or a comment excites me, chances are there’s a project that will flow from it.

It disturbs me that our educational system doesn’t value this brand of vocational guidance. We pooh-pooh ideas like personal fulfillment and then wonder why our bars are filled with workers desperate to drown the bilious after-taste of the week. We teach our children to prepare themselves for a job, a “good job”, but we don’t challenge them to create it themselves. We don’t teach them to believe that they can draw a straight line from their hearts to their bank accounts.

When I was thirteen, attending my local results factory called Campion College, I had to make a list of the subjects I planned to sit at CXC, in addition to the required English Language, Literature and Mathematics. The label I wore at the time was “Brains” and Campion expected great things of me. The Dean of Students looked at my list of subjects – French and Spanish; Advanced Mathematics and Physics; and History – and declared it ridiculous.

“These subjects make no sense together. What are you going to do with this?” If I’d had a window to my future I would have said, “I am preparing myself for a hybrid career that requires equal dexterity with language and numbers.” I didn’t know that then, but I stood firm: “These are the subjects I like.” My mother was summoned. The Principal weighed in: “She is too smart for this. She will get all ones. She should do the sciences.” Thankfully, I had a mother who trusted my judgment and a father who believed the only reason to do anything is because you truly love it. I got my way. Campion still got their ones.

I was a model student, just not the “doctor, lawyer, Indian Chief” model for which Campion tried to prepare me. For me, the purpose of education was then and still is to learn things that I might like to know, to gain skills that I might like to use someday, any day, or just to pursue an idea because I damn well feel like it. I have amused myself all the way through my academic career, adding random skills to my toolkit, not knowing when I might need them, but always surprised by how surely they are eventually put to use.

I checked the website of that cable channel recently. My interviewer is still there. Four more years in the same post; pushing paper, judging young, wide-eyed dreamers.

I think of the things I’ve worked on since I met him. The ideas I’ve been able to cross off my wish list and I say two prayers.

One of thanks for the dreams I’ve been able to fulfill. One for the dreams that I’m certain he’s let die.

Saturday, October 01, 2005



I’ve barely stepped into Ranny Williams Entertainment Center when I hear the cry. This can’t be happening. It’s 4 pm, so, yes, I’m late. But this is the Pan Chicken Championships for crying out loud. How chicken can done?

“Chicken done. If you did order five, you can only get t’ree. If you did order t’ree, you can only get one.

“Don’t bother with the screwface. The chicken done.”

The speaker is wearing a little white chef’s hat and waving a spatula, defensively, at the crowd before him. Faces are glowering like the coals lining the converted steel drums – pans – that serve as the grills for the chicken. While our Trini friends inventively put the pan to use to make music, we yardies use it to feed our greatest passion: our bellies. Pan chicken, the granddaddy of Jamaican road food, is a singular dish; perfectly spiced chicken, pan-grilled on the side of the road; served in tinfoil with slices of hardo bread and best eaten in the wee hours of the morning after a long night of partying.

Based on sheer volume of consumption, I am a pan chicken connoisseur. Red Hills Road. Hope Road. Pantucky in New Kingston. Moist, dry. Mild, spicy. I’ll eat pan in all its incarnations. I’ve scared friends by yelping for them to make a sudden stop so I can satisfy a pan chicken craving; have pulled hair-raising U-turns and broken all kinds of traffic laws in the name of pan. I’m convinced there’s a secret to street seasoning and I’m hoping that it’s not car exhaust. My mission today is to unlock the tricks of the pan, but, unfortunately, half of Kingston has the same idea. The open field at the Ranny Williams Center is packed to capacity with hundreds of Kingstonians looking for their Sunday dinner and the chef, woefully under-armed with his spatula, is under pressure.

“People. Me serious. Back ‘way from the booth.”

The sign on the valiant chef’s booth reads “Kingston”. He’s one of the participating pan men and women from St. Thomas, St. Mary, St. Catherine, Portland and Kingston & St. Andrew who have assembled for the second of three regional championships to judge the kings and queens of the pan. It’s a scorching hot day and the heat and the mocking smell of chicken that fills the air is getting the best of the assembly of hungry pan fans. Tempers are flaring.

“How she get four chicken? She nuh fe get four chicken! Look here nuh man. You know how long me a wait fe chicken.”

“Yow, star. Me nah leave without even one piece of chicken. Me tell you that.”

I feel an unexpected surge of hostility towards the team of judges at their nearby booth. The competition is apparently over, but the judges are still working on plate after plate, glibly, seemingly oblivious to the jealous and baleful stares of onlookers. Their table is laden with plates of pan chicken, so gussied up for the big day I scarcely recognize it. Diced tomatoes, shredded cabbage, little vegetable rosettes and other Johnny Come Lately garnishes share the shelter of Saran wrap alongside the coveted chicken.

My desperation deepens as the reports trickle in: St. Andrew – Done. St. Catherine – Done. St. Thomas – Done. Portland – Done. I offer to pay double, triple, the asking price. I consider passing myself off as a judge, or introducing myself as a reporter in the hopes of scoring a quarter chicken or even a drumstick. But then a whisper rustles through the crowd:

“St. Mary. St. Mary have chicken.”

Maybe it’s the pan fumes. Maybe it’s the fact that I haven’t eaten all day and have given up chicken for a week. Maybe it’s that I’ve been looking forward to the Pan Championships for nearly a month; swore off pan to cleanse my palate, comforted by visions of spending a Sunday afternoon stuffing myself silly. Or maybe it’s the pain of pan lust denied. But before I know it, I’m at the head of the pack in a flat out sprint across Ranny Williams, eyes desperately scanning the booth markers looking for St. Mary. Too late. Before I can even ask the question, the St. Mary chef greets me with a snort and a clipped “Chicken done.”

I figure the only way to salvage the day is to leave with a recipe, but the pan men are too busy fending off patrons and grilling the few remaining birds to talk. I spy one chef hightailing it out of the park and grab hold of his smock.

“Do you have any more chicken?” I ask him through clenched teeth, trying not to sound as desperate as I feel.

“Lady, you don’t hear? De. Chicken. Done.”

“Well tell me how to make it. How do you make pan chicken?”

“To tell you the truth, lady, me nuh really know. A fill in me a fill in for me bredrin. Me just do a little thing with the chicken.”

Desperate for a recipe, I press on. “But how is it different from jerk?”

“Oh, well with jerk, you have to jerk the chicken. With pan, you just do what you feel.

“Little this. Little that. Onion. Pepper. Jus’ make the pan do the work.”

I leave Ranny Williams dejected. Starving. Mission not accomplished. But as I drive out of the parking lot I hear another cry, a faint voice struggling to be heard over the din of the sound system and the Hope Road traffic.

“Boiled corn over here. Boiled corn.” An old lady is sitting on the sidewalk in front of Ranny Williams, two large pots in front of her. In the pantheon of roadside food, the only thing that can trump pan chicken is a perfect boiled corn.

So I pull a U-turn. Dinner is served.