In late October of 1983, with the racing season nearing its end, I was still attending workouts with the Tom Brunick crew at both University of Illinois-Chicago as well as the odd little cinder track at Northwestern in the upper part of the Loop. One night, while spinning the final laps of workout in the company of the “A” group, I noticed a strong young woman among the top female athletes. She had a smooth stride and frankly, an amazing body to go with it.
During cooldowns, I hustled around the track to catch up with her. When the right moment came, I trotted next to her and asked, “How’d the workout go?”
She turned to me with a quick smile and said, “Pretty awesome!”
I thought to myself. “”How interesting. She has one blue eye and one brown eye.”
We talked for a lap or two. She seemed friendly and open to my interest in her. Finally, we slowed to a walk. I learned that she lived north of me and asked her for a ride back to Lincoln Park. “I was going to run home but it’s getting really cool,” I told her. “Any chance you could drive me?”
“Sure,” she replied. So we gathered our stuff and walked over to her car, a cute little Subaru. I’d never really ridden in one before. When she turned the ignition key, a bright display showed up beneath the steering wheel. “How cool is that?” I said, pointing to the display.
“Yes, I love this car,” she replied.
Actually, I lied to her that evening. My own car was parked right next to the Northwestern track. I just wanted the chance to spend more time with her and to show her where we lived. I recall having a fun conversation during the ride, talking about running and how her training was going. She was fast, I discovered, with a 10K PR well under 40:00.
She dropped me off at 1764 N. Clark and I leaned back in the door to ask her to do out on a date. She said yes, and then drove off in her cute little Subaru.
I don’t know all the reasons I felt such compulsions to live a double life at the time. Certainly, there was a dichotomy going on in the physical sense. I lived in downtown Chicago all week and spent many weekends with Linda out in the suburbs. I was meeting all-new people in the city and trying to figure out whether I belonged there for a job or should seek work someplace else.
Linda was traveling to my races, and I appreciated the support. She’d seen me win a few and come close to winning in several others. In late summer, we’d spent a week together camping in the Upper Peninsula in August. There was a genuine connection there, and I’d grown to love her company. She was observant and smart. Her family, once I’d met them, were all sweet and interesting people. Her mother Joan had traveled to Israel as a Christian when I first met Linda in the fall of 1981. Upon her return from Israel, her mother took a deep interest in Judaism, ultimately converting to that faith and practice for quite a while. I loved talking with her about religion and her beliefs.
Linda was a straightforward product of the Lutheran Missouri Synod church when I first met her. But that upbringing had its cost because she’d rebelled against her parochial school upbringing and gotten into partying with her closest friends during her teenage years. The high school she attended was huge and overcrowded, so her class schedule ended at 1:30 in the afternoon. That left a bunch of free time to fill. She played a bit of volleyball through her freshman year because of her height at 5’11”, but the practices bored her, so she went to work in a local candy factory to make money. During the summer months, she’d play 16″ softball with a bunch of tough factory girls and had a bent finger or two to show for it.
But more than anything during those years, she and her close friends loved smoking pot. That proved to be a heavy influence on her teen years. She fell in with an abusive, stoner boyfriend whose controlling behavior didn’t cease even after she broke off their relationship. That had something to do with a proposed wedding that I never fully understood. There were also other, even darker aspects of their time together. I didn’t quite understand how such a smart person like her could get involved with a dark soul like him. But I’d seen other women that got involved in bad relationships, so it wasn’t a total surprise. In some ways, I’d been a version of the bad guy once or twice myself.
By the time I first met Linda, she was teaching high school special education. She’d graduated Magna cum Laude graduate from Northern Illinois University but was still grappling with the damaging effects of that prior relationship and he kept trying to get back into her life. As a result, she was trying to figure herself out as well. That’s the singular nature of having led a double life. The effects don’t disappear right away.
That’s the odd thing about the impact of a conservative upbringing. They often don’t produce the outcomes one might expect. For all the rigidity and repression of Missouri Synod theology with its preaching about sexual abstinence and self-control and fire-and-brimstone sermons against science and gays, its effects on people aren’t always healthy.
Despite all that, we still attended an LCMS church together. Fortunately, the pastor at that time was quite an intellectual and something of a liberal by the synod’s standards. We loved the guy because he once gave a sermon titled, “Radicals, bleeding hearts, and do-gooders: Jesus was the original liberal.”
That goes to show you can’t write off an entire religion based on the bad apples, despite how many might be lying around on the ground. To Linda’s credit, she’d kicked most of the bad apples out of her life. She’d sworn off pot, for example, and in the twenty-eight years that we were married, she never smoked it again. Sure, she enjoyed good wine and made a wickedly good margarita and strong gin-and-tonics, but she really kept it all under control.
So, I was not alone in dealing with personality dualities during my mid-twenties. She had her own share of issues to work through. I will confess that part of me wondered about getting married because of those factors. So while I kept our relationship going, and I deeply loved her, I was not yet ready to tie the knot.
Does that bit of conflicted judgment sound harsh? Perhaps it was. Truth be told, I’d come to recognize that life itself was harsh. I was waiting to see how our love developed, and where our relationship might take us. Until then I was going to continue on the singular path to self-actualization, with running and all that as part of it. It seems to me there are plenty of people that go through similar growth challenges and back-and-forth relationships in their 20s. I wanted to make sure that once I did commit to marriage, I was ready in mind, body, and spirit.
Pee Wee’s Playhouse
At the same time, I was getting weird social pressures and critical signals from the peer group that joined my roommate and me for nights downtown. Some were close couples destined for marriage fairly soon down the road. One night we shared dinner with a group of them before going to the Park West theater to watch a live show with Pee Wee Herman. I wrote about that night: “Felt the orbs of ostracization with friends last night after seeing Pee Wee Herman,” I wrote. “Cracks about buying Playboy. Ah, the Old Bend,” I wrote.
Here’s the irony of social criticism in general. The couple that made fun of me and intimated that I spent most of my nights alone jerking off had plenty of flaws to address as well. For one thing, they came from wealth yet they stiffed the rest of us on paying for their part of the bill that night. It was a selfish move that none of us could believe. Given my own tight money situation, I was beyond disgusted by their behavior, and so were my other friends.
That bit of cluelessness made me wonder if they’d actually understood any of the social commentary in the Pee Wee Herman show. In his Pee Wee character, Paul Reubens mocked the supposed sophistication of many kinds of social constructs. That night at Park West, he purposely exasperated the audience by going through the entire crowd giving every single a person a nickname that consisted of nothing more than the person’s actual first name plus the letter “0.” It took forever to call everyone by these unimaginative names, with “Greg-O” and “Chris-O,” “Jeanne-O and Madison-0.” It went on for ten minutes. And some of the crowd. Just. Didn’t. Get it. Including our supposed social experts.
Pee Wee’s performance was rife with crass sexual humor and the taboo. At one point he pretended to be playing with a Ken Doll and a GI Joe, whereupon he made the Ken Doll hump the grunting GI Joe. Pee Wee leveraged all the latent instincts of childhood to make people laugh. His retort when faced with insults of any kind was equally childish, “I know you are…but what am I?”
Years later, Pee Wee’s Playhouse premiered on TV and the award-winning series celebrated the same innuendo-rich humor, albeit tuned quite close to the censorship rules. His relationship with the chiffon-cloaked Miss Yvonne bore weirdly repressed undertones, while the gay undertones of Jambi the Genie were barely disguised. Then came Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, a film about his love for a prized bike and the evil, selfish rich kid that stole it. There is no doubt that Reubens was pointing a humorous dagger at the repressed yet prurient nature of early-80s American culture. And I loved it.
Then in the late 80s, when a friend got married, for his bachelor party I used a dual set of video cassette decks to mash the film Pee Wee’s Big Adventure together with the X-rated Marilyn Chambers movie Behind the Green Door. It was a Meta-masterpiece of sorts, bringing Pee Wee’s latent sexuality to the forefront, and that proved to be prophetic. Paul Reubens got caught whacking it in public, an event that drove him into forced retirement before re-emerging under his own name as a credible actor.
But every new pile of criticism pointed toward me made dealing with my self-doubt a little tougher. Following the rant in my journal about the Playboy conversation, I wrote, “Felt the first twitches of alter ego after reading an article about narcissism and running. (Hunter S. Thompson with illustrations by Ralph Steadman). and doubts surface as to my purpose for racing. Just an ego quash? I’m trying to get better. I’ve just got to race harder. Probably looked crazy talking to the Converse rep Mark McFarland cause he thinks I’m racing two consecutive days. Maybe I should. Half the time feel great the day after.”
On those remarks, I was referencing prior experiences in which I’d run a fast shorter race followed by a strong performance at the 10K or more distance. I thought We used to double on the same day in college, why not race back-to-back days in the post-collegiate world? I figured if I was going to lead a double life, why not double down on everything?
And while Hunter S. Thompson somewhat mocked running as self-absorbed and narcissistic in his book The Curse of Lono, he also recognized it’s unique qualities, noting:
“Marathon running, like golf, is a game for players, not winners. That is why Callaway sells golf clubs and Nike sells running shoes. But running is unique in that the world’s best racers are on the same course, at the same time, as amateurs, who have as much chance of winning as your average weekend warrior would scoring a touchdown in the NFL.”
I stopped to consider that quote, and realized that while I was a player, I was also a frequent winner. There was nothing to be ashamed about in that.
With all these tectonic forces impacting my life, it was inevitable that the work front was just as cataclysmic. I’d continued working for Vertel’s and also landed work with my landlord, who owned a manufacturing company that made rolled and formed steel parts. He lived across the street in an apartment jammed inside with stacks of magazines and newspapers. In modern parlance, he’d be known as a hoarder. He kept an eye out the window on his properties and had seen me in the company of the hot little runner girl I’d just met. Before we talked business, he wanted to know?”Are you having sex with her?”
“Not yet,” I half chuckled. “But I hope so.”
“Well,” he observed, leaning forward to fix my eyes with his gaze. “Never come inside a woman, because it gives her control over you…” he said. “I make them come and I hold back so that they don’t own me.” Then he nodded as if he’d just dispensed the greatest bit of wisdom he could possibly share. It turned out he was a sperm hoarder too.
I walked out the door to his apartment that day and muttered, “Well, that’s fucked up.”
But perhaps he was right in some sense? And what then? Men should go through life without letting women have any control over them at all? That’s absurd.
Looking for a release of pressure on my mind, on November 14th I went birding out in the country west of Geneva and St. Charles. The day was calm and dank. “Saw a young hawk who let me get too close. I could see his youthful green eyes. Young but powerful, he moved tree to tree… the way I move project to project, keeping a safe distance from collapse of ego and the danger of going broke. I am the grown but still young hawk.”