Fitness, Living in the Moment

I Race the Bus

The bus couldn’t care less. Its giant red backside shrinks into the distance. I bend and downshift, pumping in a crescendo of power.
I know what might be waiting at the corner.
Brake lights burn on. At the street’s edge, a cluster of bodies draped in satchels and overcoats jostles forward. This is my chance. The mirror that my Mister gave me catches the hint of a silver shape closing in on my left. I dart right instead, hopping up onto the sidewalk and weaving around behind the embarking passengers. A ramp opens in the curb and I re-enter the fray.
I’m in front now. Only three downhill blocks separate both bus and me from the stoplight where we’ll turn towards the metro. A line of cars crowds into the tiny oval of my mirror. Every commuter is trying to pass the fat, red city bus, and every attempt is frustrated by the cyclist who materializes in the intended lane. Now the driver joins the crowd of vehicles trying to pass me. I squeeze to the right as far as I can but with a line of impatient commuters crowding his other side, he can’t thread the needle. It’s no use anyway. Another knot of passengers waits at the bottom of the hill. The driver gives up and falls back to slow for them. Theirs is the final stop before the metro station.
It’s my last chance.
I stop pedaling and drift back into the middle of the right lane. My left hand is out. The surge of cars refuses to flag. Every driver is highly motivated to ignore me. We share a sense of urgency if not community. Each of us has somewhere to be now. Dentist, office, yoga, court. We weave. We push. The rules are posted but only loosely applied. Every vehicle, stoplight, pedestrian, and orange cone is an obstacle. The road is a chess board on crack. All pieces are in motion simultaneously and at least half of them are lethal.
I inch closer to the white line with my hand still out. Now, I am upright in the saddle and I swivel my head. Rush hour drivers are as tactical as tank commanders. The illusion of ignorance is as critical a defense as steel skin and rolled up windows. My mirror is too small for the precision required by this foray. Eye contact is necessary. People-ness occasionally triggers a breach.
One driver slows. No gesture or head nod accompanies the pause. It is a matter of seconds before she takes up the slack. I lean into the gap. It is exactly what I need and it was not required, so I wave and smile. Seven cars line up ahead in the turn lane. This is maybe an eight-car light and I’m going about the speed of a tenth. Before I have a chance to get my bearings, the green arrow flashes us into motion. I stand up on the pedals, gather breath, and push. The sun blinds me. I plow straight east and then turn hard, blowing through just before the light shows yellow. One car makes it through behind me, nipping at my heels. Then another. I glance in my mirror. I see red.
Just before the high school, a growl rattles my middle. My rival overtakes me. The crimson behemoth passes on my left. I turn off through a neighborhood shortcut and catch a last glimpse of brake lights as the bus hisses up to yet another intersection. A narrow band of bike trail carries me down under the cool concrete bridge where the drivers up above must wait to turn into the station. I-66 echoes against the bike’s metal frame and throbs into my damp skin.
I emerge, squinting into the bustling metro hub just as the bus rounds the corner. The horseshoe by the station entrance teems with taxis and pedestrians. The bus creeps through on its way to a shelter on the far side. At the bike rack, I jump off and wrestle with spiraling steel, rusted combination numbers, spokes and rubber. Across the macadam, commuters push open the doors. I unclick my chin strap and snap on my smarttrip lanyard. Our feet land on the same sidewalk at the same moment.
It’s a draw.
The man with the giant grin who passes out free newspapers beams at me. “How was the ride?” He calls.
I brush sweat from my forehead and holler back. “Victorious!”


Happy 100 Days: 71

For two years, the restrictions have been a willful suppression of pleasure. The diet was imposed by uncertainty. Not knowing how long this journey through the desert would be, not knowing how long the provisions would hold out, required strict limitations on expenditure. That control became so second-nature that it barely required thought. It did, however, require a denial of sensation and a refusal to acknowledge desire or even pleasure except in the dark moments.
Today, a small but noticeable shift occurred. I was able to forgo grabbing lunch out not because I wouldn’t let myself, but because I didn’t want it. Same went for parking that 3/4 mile from the metro and crossing the distance on foot. I was excited to walk and to save that $4.50.
For the first time, I know exactly where my spare change is going.
The condos and townhouses I checked out in the past couple days are within my price range (more or less) and at least one looked just about right for Bug and me. In Northern Virginia’s hot real estate market, simply finding places to see is no small chore. I have visited eight homes on the furthest outer reaches of my commute, and that’s all she wrote. Those are the only properties listed. Can you believe it? Only eight two bedroom properties under $220,000 whose condo fees are in the vicinity of manageable are for sale anywhere in two of the largest counties in the state. And only one of those is both affordable and not a roach motel.
It boggles the mind.
At some point, I have to stop letting my memory wander around the lovely four-bedroom cottage on Lake George that Tee, Bug and I inhabited rent-free a little over two years ago. Or the three-bedroom split-level sitting on the hill overlooking Four Mile Creek in the middle of Pike National Forest in Colorado, when our nearest neighbor was a half mile away and we also paid no rent. No, no use picking at the scabs. Camp was a magical, bizarre chapter in my life. It is the past. This is the here and now.
Here, now: the one condo that has captured my attention. I can afford it and still have a little money left to buy a couch sometime in the next five years.
The place is tiny. It sits underneath a larger townhouse in a crowded community. But it is cute and it backs up to a small playground. It has a fireplace and room for a table in the kitchen. A deck just big enough for a grill and two camp chairs. New kitchen appliances. A bedroom each for my boy and me.
I returned to the neighborhood tonight after work. The commute is tough, but it is not as bad as I had feared. Also, it sits on a bus line that feeds my metro stop. So far, so good.
I walked alone through its cul-de-sacs and back lots in the dark. I saw families inside their kitchens eating meals. A couple leaning close on the front steps. Halloween decorations. Harvest wreaths on glass doors. Mums along walkways. I saw a few folks walking dogs, and a few women, like me, strolling alone in the dark even without dogs. I heard only the faintest traffic hum even though rush hour was roaring along one of the busiest arteries in the region just a block and a half away. I saw people driving with care through the neighborhood. I saw tennis courts. A community room. A pool covered for winter within walking distance along back sidewalks.
I saw places Bug could ride his bike. I saw a patch of soil where I could plant my own mums.
I am not sold yet. I have not fallen in love, but that’s no surprise. My romantic capabilities have always been a bit stunted. In matters of the heart and, it appears, the estate, I tend to delay immersion until I have a good handle on depth and currents. I am learning to see the possibilities here, though, and to feel the swell of pride in knowing I could do this on my own.
When I met with the real estate agent, I had my questions printed in bullets and ready to fire. She answered them all, agreeing to send me copies of contract templates and a few other items so I can be ready to rock when it’s time to put an offer down. Places we are seeing are only on the market 4 days, 5, before they are under contract and gone gone gone. One property that was listed Friday was already under contract by this morning. We have to move. It’s exciting, especially for someone like me who wants to read everything and ask every question.
That means I sit on the metro and read. I curl up on the living room couch and read. I have worked my way through three books on first-time home buying, one for condos and townhomes in particular. I understand concepts that were indecipherable even a week ago. Earnest money. Title insurance. Inspection contingency. I am learning what to ask. I was on the phone again with my loan officer today asking for further clarification on how HOA dues and condo fees affect the pre-approval.
So much to define, to absorb, to sort. So much to learn!
I can see that if I do this. . . no, when I do this, my lifestyle is going to look quite different. But before that, first this: a single mom living on an university administrator’s salary can own a home! She is not helpless or stuck. She can provide for herself and her child while also building a life that is sustainable for the long haul. She even may even be able to replace the cabinets one day and pull up that rotting deck and build something sturdier.
That’s why it was so easy to bring my lunch and walk the mile to the metro. It didn’t require an ounce of self-restraint. The pleasure is not in the immediate quenching of a passing thirst. The pleasure is in walking steadily towards the mirage, and watching with shivering disbelief as it moves closer, grows larger, and resolves into clear relief.
Yes, it is an oasis after all. Yes. It is real.


Homeward Bound

My parents were the age I am now when they bought their first real house. We had lived in several apartments and a townhouse during my earliest years, but it was not until we moved onto that corner lot that I found my Tara, epic and tortured and almost breathing with coming-of-age angst. It had three bedrooms and big trees for climbing in the yard. The neighborhood boasted all the accessibility and leafy quietness of one of those rarified zip codes everyone knows is the perfect place to raise a child.
The house is still there, squatting on prime real estate wedged between the Beltway and the red line in Bethesda. I drive by it sometimes and feel my stomach clench in a fit of nostalgia and hunger. Inhabiting one of those doomed swaths of DMV land where swollen mini castles erupt from the still-warm remains of modest post-war bungalows, the house may be seeing its final days.
Drive-bys are just one symptom of my unchecked covetousness. The dear people closest to me gently suggest that I am a bit obsessed with money. Fear about Bug’s and my financial situation clings to me like some kind of unpleasant aroma. The jokes I crack at lunches with co-workers about our salaries are usually too loud and too close to the bone. I find it hard to control myself. The paychecks come in twice a month. They are adequate for here and now. Here and now, however, is not adequate for up and out.
The exasperation of the dear ones has long since eclipsed indulgence. No one wants to hear (again!) how tight things are, how frightened I am, how tough it is occupying this point on the financial spectrum. Someone out there is happy with less than what you have, they remind me. Someone out there is unhappy with more.
What if you already have enough?
I have a sweet tooth for drama. This is not news to anyone. Low-dose panic is my drug of choice. In a rare show of equanimity, I am taking their words under consideration. Is fear feeding the anxiety? Have I lost perspective? Perhaps the dear ones are right. It might be the case that I am so caught in this loop of defeat that I am unable to see how far my finances can stretch. Is all this quivering anxiety just me being a little hooked on the flavor of my own misery?
If my paycheck is sufficient to support Bug and me in our own place, I might actually have to get off my frightened ass and make the leap. I claim I ache for a home. A Place of Our Own is my official Red Ryder carbon action 200 shot range model air rifle. But maybe I don’t entirely trust myself to manage alone. If I wake up to find that possibility under the tree, will I shoot my eye out? Having enough would, after all, mean the end of this recuperative chapter in the suffocating security of my parents’ nest. Might it be that the truth of my terror is not in being stuck but in becoming unstuck?
Clearly, it is time to take an honest accounting.
I am a stranger to neither fiscal prudence nor a precise ledger. In all the years Tee and I were living together, I kept us on a noose of a budget. A single YMCA camp income supported our family of three, covering everything from staggering health insurance premiums to dog chow. One of my many jobs as the captain of the domestic ship was to scrimp, save, and track every penny. I made the baby food, hung the cloth diapers on the line, and hand-crafted the holiday decor. We traveled only to visit family. We ate in. Every single month for five years, I reconciled the budget. By some kind of financial sleight-of-hand (and more than our share of help from the ‘rents), we lived just a hair above the poverty line without ever feeling the pinch. We were actually comfortable. Never in all that time did I carry anything like the sickening panic weighing on me now, even though my current income more than the Y ever paid Tee.
This week, I bit the bullet and sat down with my Excel spreadsheet and a pile of bills. I mapped out the year ahead with Bug’s transition to kindergarten and the corresponding reduction in childcare costs. The budget contains 27 items spread out over 12 months. I tried to keep it austere but realistic, including meager numbers for dining out and clothing along with slim grocery expenses. The thin trickles into retirement and Bug’s college fund were saved from the axe. Cable and wifi were slashed along with any travel pricier than a day trip.
In the end, I tallied up the numbers. If I move out of my parents’ house in the next year, I will have enough money for a two-bedroom apartment. In Peoria. As for a location in Fairfax, Arlington, Loudon county? I cannot even afford a studio, let alone a condo or a townhouse in which my son can have a room of his own. Understand this: I hold an administrative faculty post at George Mason University. The position requires a master’s degree and carries an assistant director title. After bare-bones living expenses, the salary leaves me a mere $900 a month for rent, taxes, and utilities in an area where a bottom-end two-bedroom apartment is $1800 a month, before utilities.
They say public service is noble. Where can I trade in all this nobility for a little dignity?
This is not a woman who is eating her own tail in a solipsistic frenzy over money. My perception is not skewed, and objects are not appearing bigger because I am viewing them through the side mirrors. The situation is, in fact, just as dire as I had thought. The number gazes right at me with its italicized crimson smirk. It will not diminish unless I cut out things like trips to the dentist. Or Christmas.
The number is real. Also, it is not. For now, Bug and I are secure in this way-station, parked in a house which does not eat my earnings for an appetizer and then come slathering after my savings for the main course. The number is just this: a sign of how much further I have to go and how different life is going to look for my son growing up than it did for me.
The dear ones guide me away from my talk of financial trouble not because the trouble is false, but because they are helpless to ease the burden. We would all like to believe poverty is a state of mind and that overcoming it just takes hard work and a positive attitude. I am guilty of this half turn from uncomfortable truths. During the three years I spent working in a shelter for homeless families, I was a dogged cheerleader. I advocated for the guests to keep plugging away, and never ceased maintaining that the right combination of social programs and part-time jobs and bus vouchers could move a family into permanent housing. The fact of the recidivism rate – a number I cannot recall, but whose smirk had fangs much redder than my little spreadsheet figure – was hard to look in the eye.
Nonetheless, one has to believe against the evidence. What the dear ones are really saying is that the only alternative to faith is despair, and that is a sure exit ramp to ruin.
I can’t own a house any time in the foreseeable future, but I can own this: $900 a month free and clear is not chump change. Draw at random any one from among the 7 billion, and odds are she lives for a year on less than my monthly surplus. The generosity of my parents combined with that minor excess keep us from sinking down under the poverty line. I know better than to wallow. We are rich. We have trees in the yard, and Bug does have a room of his own.
A $900 rope is in my grip. I cannot see how far it stretches over the cliff face, but I know the only direction of travel is up. How I use my muscle to put that cash to use will determine how high we can climb. I clip one strand of it into a savings account to tether us to an embryonic down payment. A fraction hooks into Bug’s 529 plan so he is not choked by college debt in 15 years. Another thread harnesses us to a retirement account. With these small outlays tied on and my kid strapped firmly to my back, I climb.
I picture what is waiting just up over the lip of the rock. It is just out of sight, but it is there, the door open, a tall glass of something over ice waiting on the porch rail. I picture my son at the age I am now standing on the front step, watching for his retired and nimble mama to pop up for a visit. I picture home, and up we go.