Sunday, April 12, 2009

Runner Girl

A few weeks ago I had a really nice day. One thing after another went my way, and I think the first thing was what set up the others.

I could just say what happened, but it won't make sense without some background. You wouldn't get it. We need to take a trip through my brain.

I like the familiarity of routines. I like settling in and doing a series of actions in pretty much the same order each time. It's pleasing. But I don't want to do exactly the same thing every time, because that would be boring. I want variations too. I like the routine to be both the same and different. Yeah I know. But it is possible.

It's like when you create art.

You want to hit just the right balance that makes the art pleasing. It's familiar, and yet it's fresh. Then it works. You and I could have a different sense of what the right balance is. But I think we might share this idea of being pulled two ways and finding the sweet spot in between where it's just right.

Life is a performing art. In a routine, a series of actions, I would say there are three kinds of variation you could have.

The first type is controlled. You deliberately choose to do one step differently, just to be different, you might say. You get to pick what the variation is.

The other two types are not under your control. The variations are introduced by other people or by chance.

The second type is when something totally unexpected just happens. Wham! You had no idea it was coming. There it is. It comes out of nowhere and interrupts what you were going to do. But you want to be open to this kind. It may have interfered with what you planned, but sometimes that's a good thing. See what it is, evaluate it, sometimes go with it.

The third type is the synthesis of the first two, and it's what I'm mainly going to talk about. It's a chance event, but not completely unexpected. You know it might happen, but you don't know exactly when, and sometimes it doesn't happen at all. So you're prepared for it, and it becomes part of the routine, and yet it is a chance event, and you wonder each time whether it will happen this time, and when.

Now, let's run through my morning routine, so you can see how this works.

I used to take the 6:54 train, but more recently I have been taking the one at 7:34. The routine is the same though.

Here's what I do. Wake up just before the alarm clock will ring, and shut it off so my wife can sleep. Shower. Get dressed. Go downstairs and eat something (and I do vary what it is). Go to the table at the back of the living room and collect the train pass, keys, wallet, and loose change. Cell phone on my belt. Go to the door, put on the appropriate layers. Out, lock the door. Stand, breathe fresh air, look at the world. Now, set off on a three-quarter mile walk to the station through quiet suburban streets. See Runner Girl. Walk into downtown and go around to the station. Buy the paper from the box I like, not the other box. Get coffee at the bakery and sit down with the paper. I don't leave at exactly the same time each day, so the bakery is my buffer. I might be there five minutes, or fifteen, waiting for time to catch up to me. Then I go up to the platform at the right time. The rest does not matter here.

Probably one of the items on the list seemed different to you than the others. It's the one we're here for. Runner Girl.

I said the routine was the same for both trains, and it is. I used to see her running toward me, and now she's running in the same direction I am going, so I see her running away from me. Her schedule and mine just happen to overlap, along the same stretch of road, both times.

When I used to see her running toward me, I noticed two things. No, not those two things. This is not that kind of story.

The first one is that Runner Girl looks like Jenna Fischer, who plays Pam on The Office. Specifically she looks like Pam in season one, when Pam had that blank look on her face almost all the time. Well, after all, Runner Girl is not at a party, she's running. But that'll tell you what she looks like.

The second thing is that most of the time, when she passed me she did something. Picture someone running, the lower arms going forward, right? After I'd seen her a few times she started doing a little wave of one hand as she got to me, just from the wrist, the way the royals do it. She didn't break stride and her face didn't change. But still, almost all the runners and joggers around here completely ignore people they pass, and Runner Girl did that one little thing.

Anyway neither of those things matters. The point is that Runner Girl is a type three variation in the morning routine. I'm not walking at exactly the same time every day, and she's not running at exactly the same time either. I might not see her at all some days, and when I do see her I don't know exactly when it will happen or where I'll be along the walk. I am not surprised to see her, because I usually do, but I never know on any particular day whether I will. So the mornings are not completely predictably the same, and that introduces that nice variable element that makes each day a little different.

When I took the earlier train, I could at least see her in the near distance coming down the road, and by the time she passed me I knew it was going to happen. Now I don't. Runner Girl runs quiet. She doesn't puff and pant like some of the local runners and joggers, and her footsteps are light. So I hear nothing. Suddenly she's passing me and running on ahead, but I don't know ahead of time. I don't get the little hand wave any more, and I don't see her face. But that does not matter. It still counts. That part of the routine has happened.

So now we are ready to start the day I want to tell you about.

Here we go. I got up just before the alarm, showered, dressed, ate, picked up the stuff, put on a hooded sweatshirt, and stepped out, and locked the door. It was a late winter morning, crisp, and when I stood there looking around at the front yard I could see the leaves of bulb plants pushing up, and even a few bulb plants, snowdrops, in bloom. Spring was coming. I set off down the road, expecting to see Runner Girl, go into town, buy the paper from the box I liked, not the other box, get a coffee, and sit in the bakery. The mornings had been getting lighter as the dawn came earlier each day. A positive mood prevailed.

A different thing happened this day as I walked. A car was coming toward me along the road, which happens often enough, but the car was making an odd grinding sound. As it passed I idly turned my head to watch it, as if I would be able to see what was making the noise, the way you do. But as I turned my head


SHE WAS RIGHT THERE! I thought I was alone with my thoughts but Runner Girl was almost right next to me! At that EXACT MOMENT as the car passed she was just about to run past. She was one running stride away. I must have jumped a little, and I just looked at her face, and that's when it happened.

She flashed a HUGE SMILE at me, and dropped right back to the usual face, and ran on. It was over in a split second.

It was the SECOND type of variation! It was the crazy unpredictable event that just happens completely out of freakin' nowhere, and all you can do is try to deal with it when it comes. I had NO CLUE that Runner Girl was there, and ABSOLUTELY no reason to expect that she would give me that smile. I had never seen her smile at all! What was the chance that she would be there EXACTLY when that car made me turn my head? Not to mention the chance that she would smile? It's impossible.

Oh, maybe she smiled because she was startled. I've seen girls do that. Whatever. Doesn't matter.

What matters is that the smile hit me without warning and drilled itself into my brain, and I was happier for the next few hours. All the way to the city, all the way into my office. I have no idea who Runner Girl is. I certainly don't think the smile meant anything. But it did something.

So I decided I was going to pass it along.

I didn't know when, or to whom. I thought it was better not to plot it out. I felt the moment would come, and I should just be ready for it.

A few hours into the work day I went to a meeting. I got there right on time, which, where I work, meant that I was the first one there except the presenter. I walked over to the far side of our little meeting room and sat at the table near her. I know her and I figured I'd say hello and stuff while she was fiddling with the projection equipment.

But there was a third person there after all. She was sitting in the corner across from me. It was somebody I'd never seen before, and she looked a little out of place. I was still feeling great and I figured this was it. I smiled at her. And it worked. She smiled back and said hello and told me who she was, and I told her my name, and she brightened considerably and said— get this, because I don't hear this every day— she likes my web pages. She likes my web pages?! Holy shit. I eagerly waited for her to go on, but then some more people came in and ruined the moment. But I'm still counting it as the second Good Thing of the day.

Number three Good Thing was that the presenter, during her talk, thanked me twice for my excellent help in the project she was talking about. Well, I had helped, but that's just what I do. Still, you don't always hear thanks when you have helped on somebody else's project, so I'll count that as another Good Thing. It's always nice to hear it.

Now because this was a lunchtime meeting with food, I had accepted the idea that by going to it I'd be missing lunch with my friends, but that worked out too. A fourth Good Thing. They were just leaving for a late lunch when I got back, and they were going to a place where I could sit with them and have a beer while they ate, so I did that too. I even thought I should tell them why I was happy that day, right then and there, but I started thinking that if I just said a Runner Girl had smiled at me out of nowhere, it wouldn't make a lot of sense. Maybe it still doesn't.

But it was definitely a good day.

Next time: Amiable Child.

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