Marathon madness

The following post will eventually go to some dark and very personal places. For years after my brother’s death, I could not bear speaking about it or him or that time to my closest friends and family without choking up or shutting down. Now it seems to come up once every six months in this very public forum. So it goes. It’s therapeutic, I guess.

I should say before I set out that beyond my boilerplate interest in the local sporting scene, I could hardly care less about the New York City Marathon. Its course happens to travel down 1st Ave. on the Upper East Side, a half block from my apartment, and the event produces a lot of hoopla and foot traffic in the neighborhood. During last year’s event, my wife and I walked down to the corner and watched the leaders speed by before we continued on our typical Sunday morning trek to get bagels and coffee. She found the race inspiring, I found the festivities vaguely exciting but mildly inconvenient.

This past Sunday, after our plans to use our car to volunteer in the hurricane relief efforts were thwarted by a dead battery, my wife went for a run in Central Park. She returned to report a scene she found striking: Marathoners from around the world endeavoring the race despite its cancellation, with pockets of locals cheering them on. She thought it seemed like something worth noting here, and I thought it sounded like a good show by some New Yorkers to welcome those who went on with it — many of whom were running for charity. So I thought about writing some very qualified post about it here.

Before I did, I read some of the local papers and saw the bitter vitriol being spewed at New York Road Runners CEO Mary Wittenberg, who initially wanted the marathon to continue as planned despite the disaster. And I saw the vicious response to Chris Jones at ESPN when he argued that the event should not have been canceled, and I decided that I simply did not care nearly enough about the existence of the New York City Marathon to suffer any headaches defending anyone involved in any way.

To cover myself: I do not think sporting events should take precedence over disaster recovery. Obviously. I suspect — though I do not know for certain — that the length of time after the hurricane that Mayor Bloomberg maintained the race would go on unimpeded suggests he thought the city could have benefited from its business in a very trying time, but I realize it was not and is still not the hour to be concerned about money. I think also that there might be some rational media criticism to be undertaken to examine why the marathon incurred such a disproportionate amount of hostility in comparison with the local games that took place on the same day, though I understand that its execution required a different amount of participation and resources from the city. But this is not about any of that.

What I know is this: Mary Wittenberg is not your enemy. Chris Jones is not your enemy. Anyone else who might say something you find insensitive, or who dares effort something close to normalcy at a time like this, is probably not your enemy.

A 29-year-old man dying from cancer over a decade ago is nothing like last week’s devastating hurricane that killed scores of people and left thousands more without homes. I only associate the two here because my brother’s death is the one very sad thing I’ve endured in an otherwise lucky life, and it is the experience that informed the way I understand and respond to unplanned tragedy.

When I returned to college in September of 2002, with my brother at home on his deathbed, I arrived to a room trashed by my summer sub-letters. I hadn’t thought to collect any sort of security deposit, thinking a couple of college girls interning on Capitol Hill would at least keep my furniture intact. They didn’t. They broke every drawer of my cheap Wal-Mart dresser and the futon I used for a bed. They left clothes and papers and garbage covering every inch of the carpeting. They even killed my plant, Robert Plant.

I never even met them in person, but I hate them. To this day, I remember their names, and in dark times I even imagine life someday affording me an opportunity for some payback. That year, I would sometimes lay awake in the dark on the displaced futon cushion, on the floor full of their trash that I never fully cleaned up, plotting trips to their colleges to break into their dorm rooms to destroy all their stuff.

And they didn’t even know! What they did was stupid, but they would have had no way of understanding what I was going through at the time. I should have realized even then that, logically, a couple of college girls behaving irresponsibly did not merit anything near the degree of hatred I harbored, and that I should have just taken a couple of hours to clean up the room and move on. But thinking logically was not exactly my strong point in that station of life.

It didn’t stop there, either. For more than a year after my brother died, I fantasized about violence. I remember cutting people off with my car and hoping they’d get out and start a fight so I could beat them to a bloody pulp. Stuff like that. It never happened, thankfully. Only after a good deal of time spent working things out did those daydreams ultimately subside.

Which is all to say that I understand the type of seething, omnidirectional rage that can follow such a traumatic event, especially one with no obvious culprit. I know how overwhelming some awfulness can be, how helpless it can make you feel, and the way seizing on a target for your anger can provide some odd, soothing comfort. But — though I could not manage it myself — I would urge anyone ready to lash out at the insensitive or the merely oblivious to at least consider what it is they’re so mad about before they call for jobs or heads.

Should the NYC Marathon have been run a few days after a massive storm ravaged most of the city? No, probably not. Were there more productive ways the runners who carried on with it and those that cheered for them could have spent their Sunday mornings, considering the circumstances? Certainly.

But there’s nothing terribly productive about haphazard hostility, either, nor in writing 1,200-word examinations thereof. What happened — and what’s still happening — in the Rockaways and Red Hook and on the Jersey Shore requires immediate help, and I believe those of us fortunate enough to be able to do so should. And I definitely haven’t done my part yet. I mean, holy hell, it’s snowing in New York as I write this, and there are thousands of hard-working, law-abiding, downright decent people facing nights without heat, without homes, without adequate clothes. If that’s not enough to make you crazy, we’ve got nothing in common.

It’s no one’s fault, though — at least no single person. We love to identify bugaboos, whipping boys and scapegoats when things go so horribly wrong, but often there’s no demon more damning than pure, agonizing circumstance. That may be the most enraging conclusion of all, I know. But I think — from my experience, at least — grasping it can be the first step toward composure and toward turning the anger and grief into an awareness that can benefit those around us, rather than agents of hostility at a time when it is absolutely not necessary or helpful.

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