I was wrong though. The first stop in my “outside the comfort zone” tour wasn’t Iowa, it was a Chicago suburb. Naperville, to be precise.
Ever since I finished college, I’ve been a city girl. When I came to Chicago, I rented a condo on the 19th floor of a high-rise close to downtown, and congratulated myself on how “worldly” I’d become. I kept a car but I rarely used it. I walked to shops and ran in the shadows of skyscrapers. I went to shows and concerts and kept my ear to the street, constantly in search of the coolest new bars and restaurants. For lots of years, the extent of my interaction with the Chicago suburbs was an isolated trip or two to Ikea. That seemed like enough.
But when I started doing this triathlon stuff, I started to realize that for all its attributes, there are a few things the city lacks. Namely, places to ride. And places to run. And hills. And soft surfaces. Yeah, we have the 18-mile Lakefront Path, which has an amazing view and is just so very Chicago, but as soon as the temperature rises above 50 degrees, that path becomes filled with tourists, roller bladers, people with their dogs on long leashes, marathon training groups that move 6-abreast, just-out-of-the-frat-house sand volleyball teams that don’t go anywhere unless they’re in a huge pack, Lance wannabes dressed in full kits and weaving through the traffic at 25 mph while riding aero, etc., etc., etc. It’s not ridable, it’s dangerous, and it’s stressful.
|From the Lakefront Path. Pretty, but hard to enjoy when you're avoiding collisions.|
This summer’s been extra suburb-y for me, in part because I’ve found the most gracious of Naperville-ian hosts- Liz, and her husband, Chris (and also Max, the almost-two-year-old, and Boss, the champion Chihuahua). Liz very kindly allows me to tag along on her workouts from time to time, and it’s been tremendously helpful for me as an athlete. She’s a machine, and in just trying to keep up, whether or not I’m successful, I’ve had some real breakthroughs. A while back we did a long run, which started out comfortably enough. But then, the pace just kept getting faster and faster and faster. She was still chatting away, throwing out inspirational quotes, making suggestions about running form and strategy (“See that girl up there? We’re going to pass her with authority. Just like in a race. No problem”). I, on the other hand, couldn’t manage much more than a few grunts and one really pathetic-sounding “how much longer?” plea as we got closer to the end. I mostly focused on not puking, trying to make my legs keep moving, and attempting to keep my internal monologue, which consisted of a string of swear words, actually internal. Between the curse words, I just kept telling myself, “stay with her, don’t let her go.” And then when we were (finally) done, I looked down at my watch and realized that the last 10K of our long run was faster than my existing 10K PR. I can’t think of a much better confidence builder than that.
Anyway, last week, with a mid-week holiday and a complete lack of work to do at “work,” I headed out to the ‘burbs to get in some good training. Liz and Chris very graciously offered up their guest bedroom, and Camp Naperville was on. Come Monday evening, I peaced-out of the city and headed west. Workout One was at the Quarry, a strange sort of swimming hole/ open water/ beach area.
Liz’s masters’ team was doing an open water practice there, so I jumped in. We swam around for a little, dodging teenagers, swimming under and through the lap lanes (the lifeguards were not happy), sprinting from lifeguard chair to ladder. So far so good. Next, the coach paired us up for some drafting work. Liz and I are pretty close in speed so we became a duo. We swam a few hundred yards, taking turns leading. Then, the coach offered up the brilliant idea of partner swimming….where one person pulls, and the other person grabs their feet and gets dragged along.
And I think at this point, Liz took a look at me, and realized Amanda’s Camp Naperville wasn’t such a good idea after all. Yeah, I’ve got five inches and whole lot of pounds on her. This partner-pulling thing was fun for me-- she’s pocket-sized and I hardly even noticed she was there—but not so much fun for her. We made it work, though. When it was Liz’s turn to pull, I just kicked my legs as hard as I could and she muscled her way through, and soon enough, we were done and headed home for the first of several delicious meals (they eat well out in the suburbs).
After a comfortable night’s sleep with Boss the Chihuahua by my side (I’m told he likes all visitors, so I don’t feel too special about him selecting me as his bedmate), it was up and at ‘em. And now, Max was in the picture.
It was that morning, before we’d even gotten to any of the exercising, that I truly went outside of my comfort zone. I’m not scared of the swimming, biking, or running…I know how to do those things. Yeah, I may have to do them faster in Naperville, but I’ve got the basics down. What scares me a little, however, is domesticity. And kids. See, I just don’t have that many of them in my life, and being in the city, I haven’t had to interact with children very much. I’ve got a couple little cousins in other cities that I see on holidays, and some of my friends are starting to have babies, but my experience is limited.
So I have this very strange, but very real fear when I meet a child that he or she won’t like me. I start feeling a little insecure, like, what do I say? Do I talk in my normal voice? How do I act? Am I coming on too strong, here? What if they think I’m annoying? It’s like a first date, but weirder. At least I (sorta) know how to act on first dates.
** This kid insecurity all started, in case you’re wondering, with a little guy named Ethan. I coached age group swimming when I was in college, and Ethan was the younger brother of one of our swimmers. He was probably 3 or 4, and everyone loved him. He had this cute little fist bump he’d give to anyone and everyone. Except, of course, for me. He steadfastly refused to give me a fist bump. I’d even try to hide my face behind other people and just reach out my fist, so he wouldn’t know it was me. No dice. He’d pull back his fist as quick as he could and glare at me. Every freaking time. So I became paranoid. Kids hate me. My own kids are going to hate me. I can never be a mother. Because I’ll have kids who end up being total brats because they hate their mom so much. It’d be a disservice to society. I wonder where Ethan is now, he’s probably 13 or 14. I wonder if he’d still hate me if he saw me.
But back to Max. I had no reason to worry about Max. He’s about the happiest, cutest, friendliest kid I’ve ever encountered. This wasn’t the first time I’d met him, and we’d gotten along pretty well in the past, but you never know what any day holds. That morning, he woke up with a smile, ready to conquer the world, starting with toaster waffles covered with “cheese” (coconut) and blueberries. He smiled and laughed throughout his entire breakfast. He’d take his sippy cup full of milk, chug it down like he’d never tasted milk before, then slam the cup triumphantly back down onto the table like a college kid participating in a Irish Car Bomb chugging contest, gasping like he’d just swam 25 meters under water. I’d laugh because: 1) it was funny; and 2) it was completely inappropriate that watching this toddler consume milk reminded me of a drinking contest, and it amused me that my mind went in that direction. Then Max would laugh because: 1) it was funny; and 2) I was laughing. We were off to a great start.
|See? Super cute and smile-y. And he's got his own coffee (ca-ca) mug.|
After breakfast we played a little. He showed me his toys (they are very cool), and then I showed him my toy. My toy, of course, is an iPad. I don’t know what I was thinking. See, I don’t know the right things to do with kids. Out of the comfort zone. But Max loved him some Angry Birds, and you could see the electronics addiction forming very, very quickly. When we left a little later to go out, there may have been a few tears shed about leaving the iPad behind. It went into hiding shortly thereafter. Whoops.
And just as I was starting to feel comfortable in the suburban, hang-with-the-kid mode, we took it up another notch. We headed to the mall.
The goal of the mall trip was to find an indoor place for Max to play, since it was getting up to triple digits outside. I tagged along because: 1) malls contain stores, and I like to shop; 2) I was told there would be coffee; and 3) it seemed appropriate that since I was in the suburbs, I should go to a mall. When we got there, first stop was, of course, for coffee (“ca-ca”, in Max-speak). Second stop was the indoor playground. It’s a fenced in area with a big, fake wooden tree with a big, fake wooden tree house, surrounded by big, climbable statues of forest-y sorts of animals. We entered the gate, Max kicked off his shoes and ran off to play with all the other kids, and I stood there with Liz and Liz’s mom. The playground had benches, filled with moms and nannies and grandmas and some dads, too. I suddenly felt really insecure. I didn’t see any other city-dwellers-tagging-along-with-their-suburban-friends-to-the-mall. Would we even know each other if we saw each other? Can the others tell I don’t belong here? Where should I stand? Do we just stand here and watch them play? What do I do? Others seem to be on their iPhones. Should I get out my iPhone? Crap, I didn’t even bring my iPhone. Am I going to be the only adult in this playground without an iPhone? I turned to Liz and said, “I have never felt more out of my element.” I wasn’t even dressed right. Where was my Lululemon, dammit?
Stick me in a board room, or a courtroom, or in a client meeting, or even in front of all my colleagues giving a presentation, and I’m comfortable. I know what I’m doing. But plop me down in a suburban mall in a fake little fenced-in forest, and I’m completely out of place.
Eventually Max got tired of the tree and was accidentally tackled by another little kid, so we moved on to the train and the “Fun Bus” and the “Vet Rescue” van. Oh, and I bought a handbag, because while I may not know how to act at the kids’ playground, I still know how to shop. Overall, it was a very successful trip.
When we got back home, Max went down for a nap and Liz decided that twelve noon would be a great time for her to get in her run for the day. Never mind the temperatures in the upper 90s/ low 100s. She’s a little crazy like that. I scoffed, and happily agreed to keep an ear out for Max and lounge on the couch, in the comfort of the A/C, while she ran. I’ll run later, when it’s sane.
She got back 30 minutes later and burst my bubble. She told me I should get out there now and do my run. “Mental toughness training,” she said. What I think she meant was, “revenge for the unfair partner swim matchup,” combined with “punishment for the Angry Birds addiction.” So I got out there, and did it. It was, in one word, miserable. Enough said about that.
The rest of the time was filled with cycling on beautiful, low-traffic roads. Tuesday night we rode out to Fermilab, which is a huge government particle accelerator lab or something that is almost entirely closed to traffic. To get there, we had a 20 minute ride or so through town. Liz and Chris kept apologizing for the traffic and the stop lights. But compared to what I’m used to riding in the city, it was nothing. No cars buzzed me from a distance of six inches. No one carelessly parked their car on the side of the road and without looking, opened the door right into my path. No one swore at me. The drivers were polite and cautious, and it amused me that Liz and Chris felt bad about the traffic. Seriously, guys, this is heaven.
That night, Chris and I sat outside trying to watch for fireworks (they were blocked by trees) while Liz watered her lawn and landscaping for at least two hours. The girl’s competitive, we all knew that already, and when the Naperville subdivision announces that there’s a prize for the best looking yard, you better bet she’s got her eye on the prize. I predict a Waterstraat best-looking-yard championship in the very near future. Put your money down now, and remember, you heard it here first.
The next morning, Liz headed out to do an impulsive 5K on the hottest 4th of July in the last century while I hung out with Chris and Max in the A/C. At least this time, she didn’t come back and tell me that now it was my turn to go run a 5K. Instead, Chris, Max and I rode bikes to the Caribou to meet her post-race. Chris and Max had a cruiser bike/ Burley combo all rigged up already, and then among the 27 random bikes in the Waterstraat garage/ basement, we found a great neighborhood-cruising bike for me—a vintage 5-speed, brown Schwinn with a 8-inch diameter head light. It was perfect. And as I cruised along on that bike to the coffee shop (where we, gasp, left it unlocked and it was no problem at all), I couldn’t help but think that I’d already sort of started my trip. I was experiencing a life completely different than my own. It didn’t require foreign lands, foreign languages and airline tickets. Just an hour-long drive.
I finished up my camp with another bike ride with Liz, out in St. Charles. She’s already written an eloquent-as-ever blog about that ride, which I can’t really add to with any skill. But to reiterate: the ride was really, really hot. There were hills. And llamas. And it was really, really hot.
|A llama, safely in the shade, wondering what these crazy cyclists were doing out there.|
After dinner, I bid adieu to my ever gracious hosts and declared an end to Camp Naperville. I headed back to the city, to the traffic, to work, to my condo getting more and more full of boxes, feeling well-rested, content, and like I’d already started my vacation.
That night, I went to a rooftop 4th of July party. The City’s fireworks show, taking place southeast of us, was pretty lame. So we all turned towards the west, where we saw not one, not two, but six suburban fireworks shows across the horizon. I started chatting with a guy who’d just moved to Chicago. He said, “where are we looking? What’s out there? Whose shows are those?” I responded, with the confidence of someone who had just been there, “oh, those are the suburbs. They’re magical places. They have finished basements. Streets with no cars. Waterparks. You can ride your bike to the coffee shop and park it out front, without a lock.” He just looked at me, and said, “wow.” It may have been a “this girl’s nuts with her suburban affection” wow, but I think it was more a “what a wonderful sounding world” wow. And on that front, he was absolutely right.