Good sports


Eventual winner (Jeptoo)

One year ago today was a beautiful day in the Boston suburbs. It was sunny and cool–perfect race weather–as J and I walked from our house to Commonwealth Avenue, were we watch the Boston Marathon every year. “Our” corner is situated between Miles 18 and 19 of the race, about a mile before Heartbreak Hill. Last year like every other, J and I arrived at the race in time to see the last of the wheelchair runners, the first of the front-runners, and the swarming throng of average Joes running, jogging, or limping their way toward Boston.

Calf sleeves

Folks who live within walking distance of the race route often make a day of watching the Marathon, arriving with picnics, kids, dogs, and sporting equipment in tow. On our way to watch last year’s Marathon, J and I saw two young boys—brothers, best friends, or both—taking turns pulling a red wagon heaped with soccer balls, Frisbees, and a baseball glove that tumbled to the sidewalk. “Hey, kids,” J and I cried. “You lost your glove!” The boys stopped, retrieved the glove, and carefully tucked it back into the wagon, fussing over the contents as solicitously as any new parent would swaddle a newborn.

Blind runner with guide

It looked like a scene straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting, and I’ve thought of it occasionally over the past few weeks as updated security measures have been unveiled for this year’s Marathon. This year, backpacks and coolers are no longer allowed along the race route, and there will be no more military troops marching with laden rucksacks. One of the unfortunate but understandable effects of last year’s attack is a heightened suspicion toward anything large enough to hide a pressure cooker, whether that be a backpack, baby stroller, or red wagon heaped with soccer balls and baseball gloves. Officially gone are the days of watching the Marathon in blithe disregard of any danger.

Second sole

One of the still-unbelievable aspects of last year’s attack was the way it bisected an otherwise beautiful day into the irreconcilable categories of “Before” and “After.” J and I walked to the Marathon in the morning, watching and cheering runners for a few hours before heading toward home, stopping for lunch along the way. Seeing our cameras, the guy behind the counter asked if we were going to the Marathon, and we explained we’d already been and were heading home. Over lunch, J and I remembered the previous year’s Marathon, which had happened days after we’d put Reggie to sleep. That year, we remarked, had been a trying one, but this year promised to be better. “Unless disaster strikes,” I remarked without any sense of foreboding.

No stopping

One year ago today, disaster did strike, but it missed J and me. By the time the first Boylston Street bomb went off at 2:49 pm, we were already home, sorting through the pictures we’d taken and planning to spend the rest of the afternoon working. I was planning to blog a handful of photos and tried to access Boston.com to look up the names of the winning runners, only to find the site sluggish and unresponsive. Only after J and I got a voicemail from a concerned relative did we realized Boston had made the national news for all the wrong reasons.

Never give up

One year later, I’m still struggling to reconcile the two halves of that divided day. How could a bright and sunny morning so quickly turn into something dark and sorrowful? Today is a gray and drizzly day in the Boston suburbs, and that seems appropriate for a day of remembrance. Next Monday, we’ll show up in our usual spot to cheer on the runners, but we’ll be ever-mindful of the lives, limbs, and innocence that were lost one year ago today.

One year later, the post I eventually wrote about the 2013 Boston Marathon still feels spot-on.

Two teams, one anthem

Later this afternoon, J and I are going to Boston College for a men’s hockey game. J and I used to be in the habit of going to Bruins games on Black Friday, as the Bruins typically have a matinee home game the day after Thanksgiving, when both J and I are off work. After the Bruins won the Stanley Cup in 2011, however, their ticket prices skyrocketed, so now we go to far fewer professional hockey games.

Face-off

Fortunately, Boston College is within (healthy) walking distance of our house, and BC hasn’t raised ticket prices after winning three national championships in the past five years. Attending a college hockey game is a different, more “family friendly,” experience than attending a professional hockey game. There’s no alcohol served at college games, so you’re far less likely to sit next to drunk and rowdy fans; instead, BC hockey games tend to attract parents shepherding flocks of hockey-crazy kids whose hooligan antics are more likely fueled by sugar and pent-up energy than anything alcoholic.

Opening face-off

On the ice, college hockey games feature far fewer fights than in the pros: although the competition gets just as heated, college players who fight get tossed from the game rather than simply spending five minutes in the penalty box. As much as I appreciate the unwritten rules of professional hockey fights, I also appreciate the calmer, more “focused” energy apparent at college hockey games. At a professional game, you get the sense that a good number of the fans are more interested in drinking and watching fights than they are in following the actual game. At college hockey games, on the other hand, you’ll often encounter hockey parents who use the game as a teachable moment, coaching their kids on how to apply in their own games the techniques they see on the ice.

Baldwin's bunch

BC’s mascot, Baldwin, also apparently sees home hockey games as a good change to mingle with young hockey fans, both on and off the ice. On a day typically devoted to shopping outings that occasionally turn violent, it seems downright wholesome to spend the afternoon watching a fierce but family-friendly competition that ends in handshakes.

Good game!

The photos illustrating today’s post come from a February, 2009 game against the University of Massachusetts. This is my Day 29 contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

Bill Russell statue

Yesterday on our way to the New England Aquarium, J and I stopped to take a few photos of the new statue honoring Celtics legend Bill Russell. I knew the statue was located somewhere on City Hall Plaza, so as J and I weathered the brutally cold wind on our walk from Government Center to Faneuil Hall, I told him to be on the lookout for a seven-foot statue, figuring it would be impossible to miss.

Bill Russell statue

Bill Russell is by far my all-time favorite Celtics player. He has the distinction of having won two NCAA championship titles, an Olympic gold medal, and more NBA championship rings than he has fingers to wear them on. Russell was the first African-American to coach an NBA team, serving as a player-coach for three of his thirteen professional seasons, and he revolutionized the way basketball is played by excelling at both defense and rebounding. Before Bill Russell, centers were instructed to play flat-footed, as if jumping were unseemly for a tall man. Bill Russell ignored this advice and became a shot-blocking and rebounding machine, his agility as impressive as his height.

Bill Russell statue

Boston has a fondness for erecting statues of sports heroes. There’s a statue of Bobby Orr flying through the air outside the TD Garden, a statue of Doug Flutie preparing to release his famous Hail Mary pass outside Boston College’s Alumni Stadium, and a statue of Red Auerbach–the Celtics coach with the foresight to acquire Bill Russell–sitting with a victory cigar at Quincy Market. But all of those statues focus exclusively on sports, showing their subject in a quintessential moment of victory. Bill Russell’s statue, on the other hand, focuses on his community work as much as his athletic ability: surrounding the bronze image of Russell in his #6 Celtics jersey are stone plinths with quotes from Russell’s stint as an outspoken advocate of civil rights and community mentoring.

Bill Russell statue

If “all” Bill Russel had done was win eleven championships as a member of the Boston Celtics, that might have been enough to earn him a statue. But it is his commitment to social justice and political activism that earned him a 2010 Medal of Freedom, and it is these same qualities that are commemorated in the stones that surround his likeness on City Hall Plaza. I’d like to think that long after Bill Russell’s exploits on the basketball court are forgotten, young people passing his statue will stop to consider the tall, lanky man who encourages them to reach higher than they ever thought possible.

Bill Russell statue

This is my Day 25 contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

BC vs. NC State

Today J and I walked to Boston College, where we attended the last home football game of the season. The last home game is traditionally dedicated to graduating seniors, so there were ceremonies before the game and during halftime to honor graduating members of the football team, marching band, and drill team.

BC vs. NC State

From our seats in the south end zone bleachers, we had an excellent view of the visiting team’s cheerleaders and mascot. The North Carolina State “Wolfpack” has two mascots, Mr. and Mrs. Wuf, and it was Mrs. rather than Mr. who made the trip to Chestnut Hill, sashaying around in a flouncy skirt and generally hamming it up for the crowd.

BC vs. NC State

Even more entertaining than Mrs. Wuf, however, were the Wolfpack cheerleaders, who showed off their impressive tumbling skills during time-outs.

BC vs. NC State

BC vs. NC State

BC vs. NC State

BC vs. NC State

BC vs. NC State

Unfortunately for the Wolfpack, however, football games are decided by the action on rather than off the field. So while the North Carolina State cheerleaders were flipping out, their team fell to the Eagles by a decisive score of 38 – 21.

BC vs. NC State

This is my Day 16 contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

O'Hara's renamed Uehara's

Yesterday I took a slight detour from my usual Friday afternoon routine to photograph a banner outside O’Hara’s Pub in Newton Highlands, which now reads “Ue’Hara’s” in honor of Red Sox closer Koji Uehara. I’d seen a photo of the banner on Universal Hub and figured I’d walk an extra block or two to photograph it while I was in Newton Highlands getting takeout at the Newton House of Pizza as I do most Fridays. It’s not every year that your team wins the World Series, and it’s not every year that your Japanese closer has a last name that can so easily be adopted by an Irish pub.

Red Sox lawn jockey

Uehara has been a pleasure to watch this postseason: he’s a veritable strike-throwing machine. The typical experience of being a Red Sox fan this postseason has been as follows: keep your fingers crossed that the starting pitcher is having a good night, pray that the Red Sox bats provide enough run support to get you through the sometimes spotty middle relief, then breathe a sigh of relief when Uehara takes the mound, because that means it’s lights out for the opposition.

Lights out, indeed. After I’d walked the few extra blocks to O’/Ue’Hara’s, walked back to the Newton House of Pizza, ordered and waited for the calzones we had for dinner last night, and was walking back to my car, the sun displayed its own version of “lights out,” dappling the western sky with glowing patches of pink and orange.

Sunset

My photo here doesn’t do last night’s sunset justice: the sight was so striking, the woman walking in front of me stopped in midstride to snap a picture on her phone. Koji Uehara might be a strike-throwing machine, but when it comes to guaranteed lights out, Mother Nature is still the best closer in the league.

This is my Day 2 contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

Catcher's helmet

Now that the Red Sox have won the World Series, there’s an odd sort of emptiness: a great space that this year’s baseball season used to fill. Now that J and I aren’t staying up late to watch postseason games, what exactly will we do with ourselves? Last night I watched a Bruins game—one of the few hockey games I’ve seen this year even though the NHL season is nearly a month old—and it seemed strange to be watching hockey, already. Wasn’t it just yesterday that J and I sat in the outfield bleachers on a sunny September Sunday watching the boys of summer play? Now, already, it’s November and time for football, hockey, and basketball, each of them seeming to arrive too soon.

Foam finger

But it’s not too soon: it’s never too soon. It’s my perceptions that are out-of-season, not the games currently in play. Baseball is a quintessential summer sport, ushered in with spring training and played on impossibly green fields, so there’s already something strange about a postseason that stretches far into October, long after the natural seasons have turned. October baseball games are the most exciting, with the competition heating up as the nighttime temperatures clearly cool, but October baseball games are also the most bittersweet, the nip in the air proclaiming that your playing days are numbered. It somehow seems unnatural to watch baseball in scarves, coats, and winter hats: shivering in the stands is what you do at football, not baseball, games. Wearing anything heavier than a windbreaker to a baseball game seems to go against the natural order of things, like wearing summer whites long after Labor Day.

Victorino makes a run for it

It has been difficult not to fall in love with this year’s Red Sox with their scrappy scruffiness and bearded exuberance. There have been lots of shallow platitudes (and some wicked satire) about the Red Sox’ playoff run bringing healing to Boston in the aftermath of this year’s bombings, but it’s true: baseball in Boston has felt more important than ever this year. J and I went to a game at Fenway Park less than a week after the Marathon bombings, and the simple act of stepping out in public only a few days after a citywide lockdown felt both therapeutic and proudly defiant: a kind of civic duty. In the face of fear and trauma, fans continued to show up in the stands, refusing to surrender even an inch of our fucking city. It seems entirely fitting that the players on the field returned the compliment, never backing down on a post-season run that seemed as long and improbable (at times) as a dark horse marathon finish.

Bullpen catchers

Now that the postseason is over and I have no need for playoff superstitions, I’ll swap the Red Sox ballcap I wore all summer for a Bruins cap that will see me through spring. I’ll change my Facebook cover from a panoramic shot of Fenway in all her green glory to something more autumnal, and I’ll reacquaint myself with the Patriots, Bruins, and Celtics teams I’ve recently neglected. Tomorrow the Red Sox will ride duck boats down the streets of Boston and into the dirty water of the Charles River: the fairytale end to an improbable season. J and I will be nowhere in the thronging crowds, however; instead, we’ll be sitting in the bleachers at a Boston Colege football game, the postseason of one sport giving way to the midseason of another.

Today’s photos come from the last Red Sox game J and I attended this year: a sunny September game against the Toronto Blue Jays. Felix Dubront started the game, Koji Uehara closed it, and the Red Sox won, 5-2.

This is my Day 1 contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

Never give up

I recently finished reading Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. Murakami is a novelist who is also a distance runner, and I adored the New Yorker essay he wrote in the weeks after the Boston Marathon bombings. I’m familiar with the Boston Marathon as a spectator, not a runner, so it was fascinating to read Murakami’s memoir of running marathons in Boston, New York, Athens, and Hawaii, as well as his training regime and day-to-day running practice.

Calf sleeves

I’m not a long-distance runner, or a runner of any distance. Instead, I’m a pudgy middle-aged woman with asthma who walks a lot but can’t run: a thoroughgoing pedestrian. But what Murakami talks about when he talks about running isn’t just running: he talks instead about endurance, perseverance, and downright stubbornness, the refusal to give up when one’s entire body is screaming STOP. Murakami could be talking about running or open-water swimming or mountain-climbing or sitting cross-legged on a Zen retreat: any endeavor that pushes you far beyond a place of comfort, where your own desire to continue to the finish is the only thing keeping you from stopping.

Kinesio tape

At a retreat of first-year writing instructors at Framingham State last month, one of my colleagues used the word “endurance” to describe one of the intellectual skills we want to instill in our students. We weren’t talking about anything as physically taxing as running a marathon; instead, we were talking about reading. Unpracticed readers falter or give up when they face a text that is long or challenging; they let the reading outlast them, like a long road. What both academics and athletes know is that you can’t give up when the way gets long or difficult. Continuing through the discouragement, discomfort, and doubt is what you train yourself to do. When you think about running and intellectual work this way, they end up having a lot in common. What’s important in each case is the endurance you cultivate. It almost doesn’t matter what you do as long as it takes you to a place of will-breaking discomfort, and you continue doing it anyway.

Blue and red hair

Murakami compares marathon running to novel-writing: two seemingly impossible tasks that many people dream of doing, and that you actually accomplish through sheer perseverance, letting one footstep or word follow the next. Both marathons and novels are finished through a long haul. Anyone can start to run a marathon or write a novel, but finishing is the true challenge. Murakami suggests that marathon-running is essentially a mental rather than physical endeavor, a paradoxical claim since the whole of your existence while running is reduced to purely physical concerns: the thirst in your throat, the pain in your shins, the sweat on your back, or the cramps in your legs.

Running shoes

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running corroborates my suspicion that when you’re running, great existential concerns are subsumed by purely physical ones. Ironically, though, when you’re running, it is the mind that ultimately determines whether the body will continue. Murakami’s memoir reminded me of a passage in Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance where the narrator describes his inability to climb a holy mountain in India while older, pudgier, and more reverent pilgrims successfully attain the summit. The pilgrims who succeeded didn’t climb the mountain through sheer force of strength but through reverent submission to the suffering the climb caused. Their bodies might have been weak, but their spirit was strong, with every step being a kind of sacrifice.

Tandem

Today was the Boston Marathon Jimmy Fund Walk, an annual fundraiser to raise money for cancer research. The walk follows the route of the Boston Marathon, and many folks who would never claim to be distance runners or even athletes nevertheless commit to walk the entire way from Hopkinton to Boston in order to raise money for a good cause. Reading Murakami’s account of running marathons, triathlons, and even an ultramarathon confirms that I don’t have the soul, will, or knees of a distance runner…but walking long distances, reading long texts, and writing, writing, writing seems attainable. The end of Murakami’s memoir came quickly and comfortably: you don’t have to have endless endurance to read his book. If I ever commit to walk a marathon—something I’d like to do, someday—I’ll keep Murakami and his insights in mind, from beginning to end.

Today’s photos come from this year’s Boston Marathon, before heartbreak happened.

Every horse-crazy girl's dream job

On Saturday, J and I went to Suffolk Downs to take lots of pictures, just as we did last year, and this photo is probably my favorite. When I was a horse-crazy little girl devouring books by Marguerite Henry and Walter Farley, being a jockey was on my short-list of dream jobs, right up there with “someone who writes books like Misty of Chinoteague and The Black Stallion.” Judging from the smile on this jockey’s face, she knows she’s living the dream of countless little girls like me who grew up in the city and could only read and dream about riding race horses.

Cooling down

Of course, being a jockey who rides race horses isn’t the only dream job of horse-crazy little city girls. As the saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child, and it takes an entire staff of people to prep and primp a race horse.

Last minute preparations

In between races at Suffolk Downs, while other spectators were making bets on upcoming races, J and I were watching each stage of the race-day process, so we had plenty of opportunities to admire the riders on the lead ponies who escort race horses to the starting gate…

Checkerboard rump

…and the members of the gate crew, who have the challenging (and dangerous) job of loading a thousand pounds of nervous, energetic horseflesh into the starting gate.

Loading into the starting gate

After having watched a handful of races from all possible angles, I’ve decided that being a jockey would be fun, but being a groom would be even better.

Say "Cheese!"

A jockey gets to ride a horse for the minute or two that the race actually lasts, but as soon as that race is over, a jockey hops off and is done, ready to ride whatever other horses she or he has been hired to ride.

Hopping off

A horse’s groom, on the other hand, spends a lot of time primping and preparing the individual horses under his care. First there’s the walk from the stable to the paddock…

Well-groomed

…then the walk around the paddock…

Warming in the paddock

…then the official check-in where a man with a clipboard checks the number tattooed inside the horse’s upper lip to make sure this horse really is the one registered for the race.

Checking in

Next there’s time for quick spritz…

Glistening

…then it’s time to saddle up.

Saddling up

During the race and in the Winner’s Circle, all eyes are on a horse’s jockey because her or his job happens at the climactic moment when months of behind-the-scenes preparation and training culminate in two minutes of glory.

Win, place, and show

But on a day-to-day basis, it’s a horse’s groom that spends the most time overseeing the mundane tasks of equine care. A horse and jockey have a working relationship that many horse-crazy city girls might dream of, but it’s the quiet moments before or after a race when you’ll see the true tenderness that endures between a horse and his tender.

Cooling down

Click here for more photos from Saturday’s trip to Suffolk Downs. Enjoy!

Boston = Strong

On Sunday, J and I went to an afternoon Red Sox game. It was a picture-perfect day with a cloudless sky and comfortably cool temperatures: the kind of day when you can’t think of anywhere you’d rather be than sitting in the centerfield bleachers, watching a ballgame on a sunny Sunday afternoon.

Flag at half staff

When J and I bought tickets to this particular Red Sox game months ago, we had no idea the timing would be significant. Happening less than a week after the Boston Marathon bombings, Sunday’s ballgame was the first time after the attack that J and I went to a crowded public event. When J and I bought tickets to this particular Red Sox game, in other words, we had no idea that simply showing up and sitting in the centerfield bleachers surrounded by strangers would feel like an act of purification: proof that life in New England can return to “almost normal” in the aftermath of heartbreak, and proof that we can still gather in a crowd with anonymous others—a big, teeming throng, just like Marathon Monday—without anything bad happening.

Big Papi at bat

When you go to a Sunday afternoon ballgame at Fenway Park, it’s easy to feel like you’re attending a kind of grassy, open-air church with a diverse community of baseball “believers.” There’s something inexplicably wholesome about watching a ballgame on a sunny Sunday afternoon, with everyone’s eyes fixed on the same Field of Dreams, and on Sunday I craved the quiet calm of this kind of secular fellowship.

Playing catch

Today I read a news story about a local priest who spoke at Marathon bombing victim Krystle Campbell’s funeral on Monday, then attended a Red Sox game with his father later that night, and something he said resonated with my own experience:

“Sports has been so important in the past week,” Fr. Hines said. “You’re gathering a lot of people in one place, whether it’s at the Garden or Fenway Park, and it allows them that sort of civic moment where we’re all together. It’s kind of a concentrated moment. Sports in Boston is so important. We’re indoctrinated from a young age. We follow them and bleed their colors and offers us an opportunity to come together and have some enjoyment even if it’s just a moment for us to get together and talk and laugh.”

Grounds crew at work

Fr. Hines talks about the communal feeling fans experience when they’re gathered to root for the same team, and on Sunday, it felt good to feel that kind of fellowship again. Given that I sometimes feel claustrophobic in crowds, I’d wondered if I’d panic when I found myself surrounded by strangers so soon after the Marathon attack, but the familiar atmosphere of “Friendly Fenway” helped quell that reaction.

Jacoby Ellsbury at work

When you go to church on a sunny Sunday, you expect to sing hymns, and I’d wondered whether I’d get weepy when we sang the national anthem before the start of the game, “God Bless America” and “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the seventh inning stretch, and “Sweet Caroline” in the middle of the eighth inning. Instead, it was a song I hadn’t expected to hear—Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” piped in on the public address system—that caused my eyes to mist when I heard a handful of fans join together to sing the chorus:

Don’t worry about a thing
’cause every little thing gonna be alright

B Strong poster with peanut shells

I don’t know if I believe in that Field of Dreams enough to say that every little thing is going to be all right: it certainly was bittersweet to enjoy a ballgame on a sunny Sunday with the memory of those who were killed, injured, and traumatized in last week’s attacks. But it felt good to feel like every little thing might be okay, eventually, the fellowship of a ballpark full of fans feeling as close to “back to normal” as I could have hoped for.

Click here for more pictures from Sunday afternoon’s ballgame between the Boston Red Sox and the Kansas City Royals. Enjoy!

Never give up

Now that the second Boston Marathon bombing suspect has been taken into custody, a wave of relief has washed over the greater Boston area after an emotionally draining week. Now that the Boston Marathon is no longer breaking news, I want to show you some scenes you haven’t seen in the national coverage: images of the Boston Marathon I want to remember.

Eventual winner (Jeptoo)

The Marathon you saw in the news was the site of carnage, trauma, and heroism: a series of events set into motion by cowards with pressure cookers. But the Marathon I want to remember is the one that happened earlier in the day and out in the suburbs, before the elite runners and the regular Joes who follow in their footsteps had reached Heartbreak Hill, before anyone other than the fastest wheelchair runners had crossed the finish line, and before everyone’s heart was broken.

Wheelchair with horn

This is the fifth year J and I have watched the marathon wend its way through Newton, walking from our house to an intersection on Commonwealth Avenue between Miles 18 and 19. Over the past five years, we’ve established something of a ritual, standing at “our” corner and cheering for the last of the wheelchair runners, the first of the fleet-footed women, the arrival of the elite men, and then the throngs of anonymous runners who come next: a surging sea of pounding footfalls.

Calf sleeves

Last year, I’ve explained how I always get choked up watching the runners pass on their way to Heartbreak Hill, and this year was no exception. Newton residents take our responsibility as spectators seriously, devoutly believing that if the runners are going to survive the series of elevations that give Chestnut Hills its name, they are going to do so only via the impetus of loud cheering, clapping, drumming, bugling, and cowbell-ringing. It’s as if Marathon Monday is a massive love-fest where the sheer enthusiasm of residents rooting on strangers will push everyone up and over Heartbreak Hill.

Tooting her own horn

New Englanders are renowned for their reserve, but that chilliness melts on Marathon Monday. For this reason, I’ve come to think of the Marathon as being Massachusetts’ high holy day: an event that coincides with the arrival of spring (finally!) after another long winter, and an event that gives the residents of greater Boston an excuse to spend a day outside mixing and mingling with their neighbors.

Meet and greet

If you watch the Boston Marathon near the finish line on Boylston Street, as I did when I lived in Beacon Hill, you’ll find yourself in a cosmopolitan mix of locals, tourists, passersby, and passers-through. You’ll hear a babel of languages as friends and family cheer for “their” runners, and you’ll be reminded at all turns that the Boston Marathon is a world-class event that happens in an international city. Everyone around the world, it seems, loves Boston, and everyone around the world, it seems, eventually shows up at the finish line of the Boston Marathon: the whole world in a single, thronging crowd.

Paddy runs for Haiti

Out in the Boston suburbs, however, the scene is much more pastoral and parochial…and I mean that in a good way. Out in the ‘burbs, most of the people watching the Marathon are locals who camp out for extended stretches of time, toting coolers, picnic baskets, and wagons filled with footballs, soccer balls, Frisbees, and ball gloves: the accoutrements of a day in the park.

Tiger hat

This year, a child watching the marathon next to us was practicing her pogo-stick skills; across the street, a child was mastering his scooter moves. Viewed from the finish line, the Boston Marathon is a world-class sporting event; viewed from the suburbs, Marathon Monday is a massive, very loud block party that happens to have a road race running through it.

Huggable

In the days after Monday’s bombing, I’ve experienced the usual emotions that arise in the aftermath of a terrorist attack. I’ve experienced grief and helplessness, fear and anger. The nature of my anger has surprised me because of how primal and territorial it has felt. Once the initial shock and sorrow at the unfolding carnage settled, I felt a sense of violation. Whoever did this doesn’t deserve to be in my city, I remember thinking with fierce resolve. This wasn’t a xenophobic reaction, since initially we didn’t know who the bombers were or where they hailed from; instead, it was the visceral reaction of a person whose home has been invaded or whose sacred space has been desecrated.

Flute and drums

As I said above, Marathon Monday is a high holy day in Boston, a day devoted to the secular observance of Good Neighborliness. On Marathon weekend, Boston is inundated with visitors who come to run, cheer on runners, or just watch, and on Marathon Monday, locals turn out in droves to display extreme hospitality.

Fanfare

“Hospitality” might not be the first word you’d associate with the Boston Marathon, but it’s a virtue that’s entirely apt. On Marathon Monday, locals volunteer in droves to hand out water, direct traffic, aid the injured, and cheer until they’re hoarse. On Marathon Monday, locals hand out fruit, wave signs, and offer an infinite number of high-fives, all in the spirit of spurring on strangers.

High five

The Boston Marathon is Massachusetts’ annual holiday of helping, and it’s that willingness to help, I’ve decided, that chokes me up every year. All of us, deep down, have the urge to help others: to feel like we have made a difference. Cheering on a marathon runner—especially the ordinary folks at the back of the pack who need encouragement—makes you feel like you’re somehow contributing. Maybe someone is beginning to tire or cramp; maybe someone’s inner enemy is saying “Quit” or “I can’t.” When you cheer on a marathon runner—when you hold out a cup of water, an orange slice, or a freezer pop, or when you wave your sign or hit your drum or hold out your hand for a high five—you’re holding out hope that we, collectively, can somehow help a stranger. Maybe at a particular moment of need, you can offer exactly what’s needed: the right words, or a heartfelt bit of encouragement.

His own cheering section

I believe that deep down, we all want to help—we all want to encourage—we all want to be a part of something bigger and greater and more decent than our own individual egos. This, my gut tells me, is what the marathon bombers simply Did Not Get. Marathon Monday is a celebration of radical inclusion, where everyone cheers for anyone and alongside anyone, regardless of who they are or where they come from. Turning this 26-mile festival of inclusion into an occasion for injury and trauma is more than criminal: it’s sacrilege. Whatever the bombers’ motivation turns out to be, this much I know: they are already the victims of their own small-mindedness.

Go Zucher - You are awesome

There was one photo I almost didn’t take on Monday morning. After J and I had spent a few hours cheering ourselves hoarse at “our” intersection, we did what we always do, which is follow the runners on foot, walking toward Newton City Hall. Along the way, we saw a runner lying on his back in obvious pain, suffering from a leg cramp or other injury. In the past, we’ve seen runners stop on the side of the road to stretch or take a rest, and we’ve passed them quietly, allowing them the privacy of their own pain. But this was the first time we saw a runner lying prone, in obvious need of help, and somehow it seemed wrong to photograph a stranger in a moment of duress. After a split-second of thought, though, I took that photo, but not because it shows a stranger suffering. I took that photo because of what else it shows.

A little help

The Boston Marathon is Massachusetts’ high holy day of hospitality because if you fall down in our neighborhood, we will stop and help you. It doesn’t matter who you are, what you believe, or where you come from. It doesn’t matter if we know or like you. If there is a man or woman down, anonymous spectators will stop and help. By the time J and I reached this runner, a police officer had already arrived, and by the time we’d walked by, a medic was jogging to the scene. Help was on the way, but it almost seemed like a moot point because help had already arrived.

Have some water!

National coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings has shown image after image of people helping the injured and traumatized, and that coverage is true. But don’t think for a minute that this sort of heroism happens in Boston only in the aftermath of a terrorist attack. Even before everyone’s broken heart turned toward Boylston Street last Monday, out in the Boston ’burbs people did what they do every year on Patriots’ Day: they showed up and helped.

Go! Go! Go! / Have an orange

When we cheer for marathon runners, we get a surge of satisfaction knowing that maybe our encouragement was appreciated. Some have wondered whether the Boston Marathon will happen next year, and my reply is that the Boston Marathon will happen next year even if I have to lace up shoes and walk every last inch from Hopkinton to downtown Boston myself. The Boston Marathon must go on, next year and every year, because as long as there is an inkling of hope and decency in the human heart, that impulse cannot be denied.

P1320353

Click here for a photo set of happy images from the 2013 Boston Marathon, taken before last week’s heartbreak happened.

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