Runnin’ on Empty.

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I’d like to claim that the subjects of these blog posts arise only after I wrestle like Houdini in a strait jacket during the night’s darkest hours. While the rest of the world sleeps, the veins in my beet-red forehead pop to the surface, pulsating with creative energy that threatens to tear me asunder. But the truth is, sometimes these blog posts practically write themselves.

Take yesterday, for example.

Due to some unexpected free time and my ongoing need to fill a still-painful void where “Little League Baseball Coach” used to be, I volunteered to serve as a race marshal at my son Everett’s middle school cross-country meet.  The venue–Paradise Beach Park–is probably the most accurately named swath of open space ever named in recorded history.  Who wouldn’t want to high-five a couple hundred, fresh-faced 12 and 13 year-olds on a beautiful Fall afternoon with a panoramic view of San Francisco Bay in the eyes and the pungent smell of non-native plants in the nose? I ran breathlessly to the shared Google Sheet, desperate to claim my volunteer spot before someone else deprived me of this autumnal Americana. Me me me! Pick me! Pick me!

Perhaps I should have recognized all the empty spreadsheet cells where parents’ names should have been as an omen, rather than as merely the latest indication of my role as the best father on the planet.  

Omen Number Two was the bus.  I anticipated–and had mentally prepared myself for this all day–a kidney-pulverizing jaunt on a yellow school bus.  Rather, the parking lot featured a snazzy, oversized, luxury cruiser. Like the kind I would travel across the country in with my band if I had a band and the band needed to travel across the country. And if my band could afford to do that in an oversized luxury cruiser.  I looked for the eyes of the half-dozen other parent volunteers poised to board this behemoth, wondering if they, too, harbored visions of careening over a cliff and smashing on rocks and fireballs and the evening TV news.  But none of them betrayed any hint of dying within the next 10 minutes or so in a completely predictable way.  So like a sheep, I plodded up the stairs, said “hello” to the bus driver who I knew would soon be delivering us screaming and barrel-rolling to the bottom of a ravine, and slid into my plush seat.   

The 2- or 3-mile drive lasted somewhere between 15 minutes and 3 hours. Time stretches and compresses and stretches and compresses during stressful experiences, apparently.  The windshield, already bearing a flatscreen TV-sized-and shaped-crack on the driver’s side, thwacked a dozen tree branches overhanging the swerving curves.  Actually, “overhanging” is generous.  Arguably, these impediments stood well clear of the road, and the municipality tree-trimming crews who seasonally cut back the foliage would never have anticipated this sort of beating. But the moms in front of me kept on chatting, the kids behind me kept screaming and/or gossiping, and the bus driver did not appear to be panicking or laughing or otherwise revealing anything disconcerting. I know this because with every “smack” of a branch, I took a quick inventory of the people around me.

That is, when I wasn’t totally consumed with craning my neck to see how far into the oncoming lane we had intentionally veered to navigate a corner. Typically a blind corner, no less. I tried to exercise some control over the situation. So I launched into lecturing Everett (sitting next to me, mindlessly playing some sort of video game on his iPhone with his legs crossed) about how, “when you start driving, this bus is what you should be expecting to find suddenly right in front of your bumper every time you turn around a blind corner.”  “OK, Dad,” was all that Ev gave me, refusing to compromise his assault on some apparently-important high score. 

Ultimately, the luxurious tour bus successfully wound its way to Paradise Beach Park, though there were some tense moments as the driver bent the laws of physics and psychology in order to negotiate a final turn that a luxurious tour bus such as this had no business negotiating.  So I stepped off the bus happy to be alive, taking in the aforementioned panoramic view and pungent scent of all the non-native flora. The pungent scent of all the native fauna shuffling off the bus after me in running shorts, however, was a different matter altogether.  Nevertheless, I was ready to do my duty, poke my head and arms through the lime green course marshal’s vest, and take up my mission-critical position. 

The girls’ race started first. From my spot high up a hill, I could clearly see the line of them winding their way up towards my mission-critical position.  I could also see three deer, one of whom had an enormous set of antlers, also watching the runners head in their direction. Let’s call this Omen Number Three. As is the case with just about everything, I began assembling the pieces for this particular parade of horribles, fast-forwarding in my mind to the worst-case scenario: Pamplona at Paradise Beach Park.  I tried to stifle my anxious visions, mumbling under my breath, Look, the lot of us didn’t tumble down and explode in fiery ball at the Bay’s edge, so nothing awful is going to happen here either.  Shut up shut up, Jesus, shut up, would you? (I wasn’t actually referring to Jesus here, just deploying that word as a point of emphasis to myself.)

But as the girls approached the trail that now separated the two Bambi-looking deers from the increasingly-agitated buck with the antlers evolved to intimidate and gore and maim, the Running of the Bulls began to take shape.  The big buck’s head darted around nervously. He pounced around some low gullies fueled by panic or territoriality or both or something, then exploded up and through the unsuspecting group of huffing and puffing and now screaming girls.  I don’t know how the deer picked its way through or over a dozen 12 and 13 year-olds without spearing any of them, but it did.  I half-expected to see a number of the runners approach my mission-critical position 2 minutes hence with race jerseys bearing evidence of grievous bodily injury.  Nothing.  Just a gaggle of middle school girls sprinting down a hill and around my corner, then running on down over the rest of the course.  Then doing it again for a second time, but this time a loop thankfully without the deers. 

The girls finished their race.  And the boys–including Everett–finished theirs. All without further incident. 

Of course during the luxury tour bus ride to school, I peered over the edge of several steep embankments, calculating both the number of seconds it would take the bus to smash onto the rocks at the bottom and how long before the Coast Guard and TV news helicopters would find us.  But there would be no helicopters. 

Twenty minutes later, I stepped back onto the school’s parking lot pretty much depleted. Adrenals squeezed empty from living through the various imagined scenarios of my death, as well as that of all of the kids or just some of the kids, depending upon the scenario.  For their part, the kids were totally fine.  With all of it.  Right back to strategizing about Halloween costumes, homework, and the approaching weekend. 

And so, all is well in the world, I guess. 

But I don’t think I’ll be quite so quick to volunteer for the next meet.  

Thanks for reading. 

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