Chistmas and My Underpants: Part 1/ Christmas Eve

Midday Sunset

Its two days after Christmas, and I’m now experiencing the beauty of a Christmas alone and abroad, there’s no let down. Granted, it’s not quite New Years, but I definitely feel better today than I did on Christmas Eve, which has never happened before. Maybe I’ll describe Christmas Eve to illustrate the reality behind this realization.

I was already having a bad day. I hadn’t taught all week because of school being canceled due to the cold, well not canceled, but if its -30 F or below, then the kids simply do not come. But the teachers come. Sometimes. Well, I came one day, the first day, and then I learned better. I figure that since I’m a volunteer, and the only one without a car who lives far away, it’s beyond stupid to come in to school just to impress the director. Besides, she already likes me. As I was saying, I was already having a bad day, and none of my seventh graders decided to show up to class. So once I got home, I wrapped myself up in winter gear and went running. It felt warmer than the morning, and the thermometer read -5 F, so I was lightly dressed and ran around the village.

Village might not be the best descriptive term for Sergeyevka, it’s pretty big, and there are a lot more gutted industrial buildings than the ones behind my house. So I guess it would be better to say that it’s a dying town, which helps explain many of the awkward conversations about that communism force themselves on me. Reminiscence is a universal. Probably due to my mood and belief in the thermometer, I didn’t realize that my face was frozen until I got home and my host-mama shrieked and called me Father Frost. After I convinced my host mother that I was not Father Frost, but Collin, the strange American who lives with her, she asked me why I was running without a mask. I responded that it was -5 degrees outside, and she responded back that either I was an idiot who couldn’t read, or I’d been reading the wrong thermometer. Whereas many people might back her first adjective, it turns out that I’ve been reading the wrong thermometer, and the real temperature was -15.

That night I was feeling rambunctious and sorry for myself and didn’t want to burden my host mother with my presence, so I decided to go to a bar on the pretext of buying chocolates for the Christmas party I was hosting for my 6th and 7th graders the next day. Not a day goes by without being told how dangerous Sergeyevka is at night, but a few things occurred to me that Christmas Eve with the end result being me not giving a shit. First, my closest friends in the town are all women over the age of fifty that have lived here all their lives,  and I think they paint a skewed picture of danger. Second, unless I was very stupid or attacked by an organized crime unit, I’m sure could handle any assailant in this village, or if there were a few, escape at least.

This is aided by my personal policy regarding the purchase of footwear: never buy shoes that you can’t “dip” in. This policy harks back to an incident that occurred a few years ago in Madison, Wisconsin where it occurred to me that instead of waiting around to get an underage ticket for a beer that I hadn’t yet tasted, I could leave the situation. I correctly surmised that I was faster than my pursuers, but my clunky Timberlands briefly made it a chase, and so was born the “dippin” policy. For those of you who don’t know, “dip” means to run, very very fast.

So in my wonderful boots purchased from Kaplan Bros., I stalked off toward the distant bar under a shimmering blanket of stars. I stopped by a shop on the way there to pick up a bag of chocolates for my students, a bucket of condensed milk to use as cement for our “ginger bread houses,” and a packet of cigarettes because I was feeling really sorry for myself, and I liked the image of smoking alone at a bar. I walked in the first bar I saw, and it was perfect. Large, depressing, and empty save two old men sharing a bottle of vodka. It took me at least five minutes to rouse the surly waitresses from their conversation, and when I did, I was quickly informed that if I wanted to sit at a table, I’d have to pay another 75 cents. I chose to sit at the bar. I was then informed that I had the honor of sitting at the is the only non-smoking establishment in Sergeyevka, so would I please put down my cigarets. I did as I was told, wondering what customers I would be bothering, as it was 10 pm on Friday night and it looked like I made up the evening rush. Ten minutes later I was lounging at a huge table, in my parka, looking defiantly at the waitress. “Yeah? I’ll throw money around like it don’t matter” I tried to say with my eyes. I left her a ridiculously high tip to try to force some Christmas spirit. It didn’t work, so there I sat, contemplating life, Christmas, and the limp, blinking lights hanging from a deer’s head.

One can only do this so long, so a number of beers later I ambled into the frosty night air. Marking my territory every few hundred yards, I slowly made my way home, but was stopped two houses from my destination by the violent moon peering at me over the horizon. It was looming, giant, and blood orange. mesmerized, I took out my cigarets and smoked, looking at the moon, thinking about life. A nearby dog must have smelled me, and didn’t stop howling until I marked my territory, thereby establishing myself as owner of the snow around me. Then came the silence, it was deafening. I thought about a lot of things, none of which I remember, but after two cigarets, I realized that I would need to introduce an additional substance in my body before I had another.

So I ate snow, instantly transporting myself to Giants Ridge in Biwabik, Minnesota during my junior year of high school. During a four-hour marathon march through the trails, Niko and I found ourselves so thirsty that we started eating snow, fully aware that standard wisdom was that it would make you thirstier because of the energy your body uses to warm it. We didn’t care though, and smoking my last cigaret with the moon, I smiled thinking about those ski trips. They weren’t always fun, but there were moments of greatness. These moments were all about love, the love of athletics, the love of friendship, love of the brotherhood of the team. I’ll never forget careening down a hill after those four hours in the woods, seeing my seemingly invincible coach wobble and fall in front of me, and hearing him squeal, high-pitched and delirious. Or, listening to my friend scream nonsensical vulgarities at me, helping me crush the kid with the rat-tail, the leader of the hated opposing team that we were rooming with. Or not so opposing team as the same friend and I found out on another trip, when he and I christened our room as the “honey hotel,” which was graciously attended by the fairer members of said team. The point though, is that people, but especially kids seem to live the most vigorously when living in joy and love.

I equally remember crushing losses when I was too concerned with winning, being the best, or pushing through the pain, but life it too short to dwell on these things, which brings me to the point of my ramblings. In my life, I have found that it is all about loving what I do. Loving living, loving life, loving what you do and doing what you love. I will focus this post on athletics, because I mentioned “Born to Run” a few posts ago, describing how it had influenced me to think about my running form, and I’m afraid that I misrepresented what I saw to be the point of the book. The next post however, will address more important things.

Yes, it appears as though humans were born to run a lot, and yes, it’s probably a good thing to run the way that your body was originally meant to. But why did Emil Zatopek destroy at the Olympics, when his form makes him look like he’s having a seizure? I think it was because he was doing it because he loved it. And I believe that this attitude, also made it possible for him to see the bigger picture when it came to a choice between running, or doing what he thought was best as a man. It’s too bad that so many people who read the book come away focused on form, facts, and gimmicky running shoes.

It’s not about the stupid shoes, or even how fast you are, it is about who you are and what you do. There seems to be a correlation with great people in history taking care of their bodies (think Mandela), but not the same correlation with elite athletes becoming world-changing people. The inspiration factor of athletics will only take you so far, and even at that, it’s not about how fast you go, it’s about who you are. There will always be a winner, and a loser, and somebody who does something really intense, but those things don’t impress me as much anymore. Okay, some stuff does, but its quotes like this from an unnamed friend: “It was awesome and I winter camped one of the nights.  The guys I went with pussied out and wanted to stay in a hotel so I slept by myself to save money and stay feral as fuck.  It’s hardcore grizzly country down there so I borrowed a 10 gauge shotgun with 650 gram slugs just in case I needed to regulate.” Think about it, screw triathlon, ironmans, and marathons, that is real, primal, athletics. Fighting bears.

At the risk of being a mama’s boy, I’ll say the following. When I was tricked by said individual into competing in a triathlon this summer, I was again impressed by her attitude, even as I struck by the nauseating feeling that I often feel at these athletic events. These events seem to have a polarized personality. On the one side, there are people who are serious, have the very very best equipment, and is evidenced by their toned and shaved bodies, spend much of their lives in training. On the other hand there are the people who are doing them just to do it, some of whom are fast, some of whom are not, but who smile, enjoy themselves, and overall have a good time, even if pushing to their limit, are doing so in raw amatuer bodies on raw amatuer equipment. In ski races, I’ve found myself at both ends of this spectrum, but here, due to my non-existent training, it would have been absurd to adopt the attitude of the former.

Mom, to me, symbolizes the ideal of these events. She trains because it’s a part of her life, but does so while engaging the world around her in a unparralled way (I mean come on, the best principal I know, the worst farmer I know, and many more, including the best mother I know). And she has a great time, even taking the time to chat with the twenty-something guy who was drafting off her when I finally caught her on the bike, and smiling until the last hundred meters when here son screamed her into the finish. This happiness to be alive, care of body without drifting into life-altering narcissism, and chatting with every human around her, is the essence of what I believe that life and  athletics should now be, at a time where we do not need to hunt down our prey to feed ourselves. However, there is one downside, and I’ll leave you with a little story of how my mom’s chattiness led to one of the most embarrassing moments of my life.

At that first and only triathlon, I was lucky to have goggles, but I sure as hell didn’t have a good swimsuit. So, I approached the race with the same frugality and ingenuity which leads me to duck tape the front of my boxers year after year during ski season instead of buying windbriefs. As I was shivering with anticipation and cold, and repeating to myself that life would be good as long as I got out of the water, my mom was talking to a loudmouthed guy with a megaphone. I was standing slightly apart from the hundreds people waiting to get in the water when I heard, “Hey, look at that guy, his mom tells me it’s his first triathlon!” All of the athletes standing on the beach then turned and looked at me, happy for the diversion from the anticipation of competition. Then came, “He looks terrified!” “Yep,” I thought,  but he wasn’t done. He looked closer and exclaimed to the amusement of the crowd, “Are you….in your underpants? I think he’s in his underpants!”

This is why love and joy is not always a good thing, if it wasn’t for my mom’s happiness,  my tight fitting boxer briefs might have gone unnoticed, but as it was, hundreds of athletes unanimously nodded their assension that yes, I was in my underpants.

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5 Responses to Chistmas and My Underpants: Part 1/ Christmas Eve

  1. jan Martland says:

    Collin…loved the writing! Also, speaking of athletics and what it means, I forgot to mention that I met a friend of yours who is a senior at Mac. His name is Terrance (can’t remember his last name right now), anyway, I mentioned you and he has done some cross country sking with you…As it ends up he is one of my nephews roommates…it is a small world! (He did mention that you could kick ass)! I also had to laugh (again) at your – “Captain Underpants” story!! 😉
    I am wishing you a very Happy New Year…

  2. John Halter says:

    Happy New Year Collin! And remember this:
    No matter how cold it gets, or how many days school is canceled because of the weather, or how many cigarettes you smoke beneath a winter moon, or even how all the women presently in your life are over fifty —
    for a writer there is no such thing as a BAD experience, there is just . . . experience. All of this is grist for the writing mill you’re presently churning, all of which will lead someday to a book of incredible experiences. Keep up the good work. And as your father will surely remind you, the days are getting longer!

    • ccousins says:

      ha, every day i double it and say to myself that i’m out of the … darkest days of the year. thanks for your thoughts, we’ll have to debate that “bad experience” idea sometime though, altough I cannot complain about my quality of life here. happy holidays!

  3. Lora Koppel and the entire Stege family says:

    Collin, great reading about you and your mom stories. I agree she is an amazing women..I mean just look at who her friends are.
    Hugs and Kisses,

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