Vital Signs

Since you ask so intently, I’ll be frank. I do not eat meat because I think that doing so is wrong. Unnecessary. Unhealthy. Destructive to our world and disruptive to our society. And then there is the matter of slaughter, of ending the life of another creature, one possessed of emotion and intelligence, of the will to survive, and of the desire to act in its own self-interest –which we defeat with our barbed wires and bolt guns, those ones that punch steel rods down through the brain tissue, ostensibly sparing its victim the pain and indignity of bleeding out while hoisted aloft by chains somewhere in the concrete bowels of the abattoir – all for the sake of a filet mignon or chicken nugget. And yes, point granted, the bolt gun is not technically a tool used in the manufacture of amalgamated poultry protein products; the birds are simply immobilized by electric shock before their throats are slit. And no, your humanely raised organic alternatives are really no exception. You either kill them just the same, or, more likely, you pay for someone to kill them in order to avoid thinking too much about what that actually entails, to suit your gastronomic fancy. A turd painted gold still stinks. So anyway, that’s why I don’t eat meat. Thanks for asking.


One night that fall, we stayed up most of the night, listening to Radiohead, drinking wine, stepping out onto the narrow balcony over and over to share our pack of Camels. I think we smoked the whole thing by dawn, standing there beneath the kaleidoscope clouds that, at times, simply reflected the dirty orange glow from the lamps lining the cobblestone street below us, then suddenly bursting forth into a shifting aurora of greens and purples and yellows, while our cigarettes, arching across the periphery of my vision on their paths to our lips and back down again, traced patterns across the sky that lingered like contrails of molten gold, and when I finally lay down to sleep, a symphony of drips and creaks and distant echoes played inside my skull. But not in a going crazy kind of way. More of a peaceful reverie kind of way. Of course I was on drugs.

One day that next spring, toward the end of a day we’d spent on the town, I felt every eye in the room turn in my direction and I heard them laughing at me. As the floor swung down and out beneath me, the whispers grew louder. Everyone pointed, they cackled, and I, I took to the street, pounding the pavement up and down, looking for relief, turning at random, lucid enough to know I was becoming lost in the geographic sense, and lucid enough to realize that I was tottering on the brink of a much more profound and frightening kind of loss. And then I found myself sitting on the edge of a canal, bathed in gentle sunlight but shivering at some internal chill, waiting for, almost expecting, even, the bank to give way beneath me, casting me into the dark unknown. I stared at my reflection in the water. But not in a peaceful reverie kind of way. More of a going crazy kind of way. Of course I was on drugs.


I can remember it like it was yesterday. The visceral yearning, the suffocating desire that maybe this year it will happen. That there will be someone, and she and I will become we, talkers, partners, friends, a pair of joined hands, two beating hearts beneath the blanket. There will be no shame, no awkwardness, no worry about what her friends are thinking, what mine are saying, no concern for pleasing her parents and no need to explain her to mine. It will simply be, and it will be forever. Us. Yes, maybe this year. Please please God make it be this year. Someone new, with eyes for me, someone who will make it happen. It is 6 a.m., and here I am, overcome with want, hugging pillows and lost in fantasy, dreading the moment near at hand when Mom will yell down the stairs that it’s time to wake up, and moment sometime ahead, when I will be forced to accept that yet again, it will not happen this year. But now, in the dark, there springs a vigorous hope.


My father has this way of wrinkling his brow when he’s feeling hurt or defensive or confused, which occurs more often than I’d like when we’re together. And he has this way of not being able to speak when he’s trying to say something that makes him feel uncomfortable. It’s like, you know, perhaps, well, maybe, he was thinking, in case this might be of interest … and it often takes him a million or maybe a billion years to get around to making his point. I hereby resolve never to irritatingly furrow my brow like a confused old walrus, and to always speak my goddamn mind.

But usually, sort of sometimes, I don’t always exactly succeed at this, and I have this tendency, to like beat around the bush, and to, you know, have a hard time cutting right to the chase and succinctly expressing whatever’s on my chest. Just like my old walrus dad does. And I catch myself wrinkling my brow, too, when I’m feeling hurt and defensive or confused, which occurs more often than I’d like when we’re together.

As you might infer, the walrus and I coexist in a strained and painful sort of way, both cognizant of the tension, both desperately wondering what went awry, both resolute in the same rutted paths that lead us to collision time and again. In a way, all of this is perversely satisfying. I’m doing my part to uphold my end of this eternal struggle: sons butt heads with walruses, walruses snort and grump and thrash around, life keeps creaking along, and eventually starts coming full circle. Forget Proverbs and Aesop. Here is a bit of real wisdom: I am the Walrus.


(This next part is kind of cheesy, so it would probably be best if you just skipped over the whole thing.)

Ever since I started ultrarunning, I’ve been moonlighting as a self-help guru. I can’t help it, either: running has changed my life in a profound and inspiring way, and I can’t stop myself from telling it on the mountain. I’ve gotta sing when the spirit says sing.

I can testify that many obstacles I encounter in life are my own self-imposed, artificial boundaries between possible and impossible. Once I began ultrarunning, the scales fell from my eyes. I could see that one of my worst enemies was me, and my preconceived notions about what I should and shouldn’t be able to accomplish.

(Seriously, maybe you should just skip down to the next section now. Please.)

There are two reasons that it’s hard to run a marathon. The small reason is that it requires a certain basic amount of physical fitness and mental toughness. The big reason is that you’ve always been told that it’s very hard to run a marathon. If marathons had always been some other fairly long but arbitrary distance, you’d still think that simply surviving a marathon was an extreme and intense sort endeavor not to be approached lightly. So you’d follow your training program and get psyched up and run your shorter marathon and come back home feeling justifiably accomplished and proud.

In the same way, if the arbitrary marathon distance had been arbitrarily set at, say, 30 miles, everyone today who’s completed a regular old standard marathon would soldier through training programs and long, arduous 30-mile marathons, and would go home feeling justifiably accomplished and proud.

Distance is just like your age. It’s nothing more than a number, which, for some reason, we festoon with all sorts of expectations, fears, hopes and restrictions.

(Last chance to skip down. Really, please just go ahead and do this. There’s some embarrassing, saccharine stuff to follow.)

(OK, well you’ve been warned, friend.)

When I was in college, I was a serious and fairly accomplished young runner, but I never went all that far in training, I enjoyed the fleeting satisfaction of racing success more than the act of running itself, and I regarded the marathon as some sort of extreme and ultimate test of endurance. That’s what I’d always been taught. I’d heard of longer races and a few psychotic and twisted runners who’d run them, but I always written that kind of stuff off as manic, insane.

There’s a long story here but I’ll keep it short. I quit running halfway through college and strayed off to other things. A few years later, after I’d acquired some new outlooks on life, I dusted off my shoes and emerged as a new kind of runner. I ran for running’s sake, and I enjoyed it. I started running farther, and I made friends with a few psychotic and twisted runners who regarded marathons as what they are 26.2 miles, nothing more, nothing less. Next thing I knew, I was running a 30-miler. I did a couple more. I did a 50-miler. They were long and they were hard, but that’s they way a lot of stuff in life is. You’ll make it through. 100 miles still sounds like a long way, but not inconceivable. The old mental blocks have crumbled away. I can do it. You can too.

This kind of thinking has application to all sorts of other areas in life. Next time you think you can’t, as yourself why and think again. Maybe, just maybe, you can. Maybe, just maybe, you just think you can’t, think you shouldn’t be able to.

There’s always another step in you. There’s always another mile in you. Pain is temporary, pride is forever, etc. etc. etc., and let me just put it this way: in a strange and unexpected way, ultrarunning has, for the first time in my life, given me insight into the motivations of people who are led to share some kind of good news.


I am a little bit frightened by how much I love my dog.

I am an exceptionally fine Trivial Pursuit player.

My Brussels sprouts failed to produce a crop this year.

Did you see that Onion article about “Grammar Snob Orders Two Whoppers Junior?” The actual headline is probably a bit different, but you get the point, in the same sort of way that when I’m telling you about the amazing statistic I heard on NPR, I really don’t remember the specific number, I just remember that it was astoundingly huge; details shmetails.

There is a songwriter I admire, Danny Schmidt, who wrote something profound about artistic endeavor: “[I have a recurring] fear of being identified as something I’m not, or as believing in something I don’t. Cause really, my religious, philosophical and political belief systems don’t fit into any traditional nomenclature … It’s a vulnerable position, putting little snippets of expression out there for your loved ones, and others, to extrapolate from.”

I love driving cars with multiple intermittent windshield wiper speed options so I can properly calibrate my wiper speed to the intensity of the rain.

I am sort of a control freak.

I recently abandoned any remaining pretense that I can limit myself to two cups or coffee a day.

How does my hair look?

I come from a religious tradition that I now regard with fond ambivalence, and I wish I had more role models to show me how to live with some of my family’s and culture’s deepest beliefs held at arm’s length.

If I ever get arrested, I plan to write something witty on Facebook about going to gaol.

I wish I played the bagpipes.

When I have a cough, I’d rather have a runny nose; when I have a runny nose, I’d rather just cough.

Does it make it OK that when I look at women’s breasts in a manner that’s probably inappropriate, at least I’m doing so with the concurrent awareness that I’m objectifying people’s bodies, and that that’s not technically a good thing to do?

I can make myself cry if I imagine one of my family members dying. When that happens, all I know is that I’m going to be a wreck.

I am afraid that I’ll always be so busy that life just slips me by.


This one time when we were going to bed, you asked what I think will happen to us after we die. I told you I suppose we’ll just cease to be, that our consciousness will end, that it will be nothing. But not nothing in the empty and bleak sense. Nothing like the nothing that we were before we were born. Dust to dust. I tried to keep the tone light, as if I was mildly amused, as if it was a meaningless sort of thought exercise, and we were just trying to pass the time.

I’m not sure if you could sense that when I rolled over, though, I stared up at the ceiling wide-eyed and shaken by the implications of what I’d said. If I had to guess, though, I’d bet you could tell, because I could feel you doing the same thing beside me.

About the Author

Andrew  Jenner

Andrew Jenner is a freelance writer and journalist who also moonlights as a barista. He holds an MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Goucher College in Baltimore and is a 2004 graduate of Eastern Mennonite University. His writing has appeared numerous magazines and newspapers, including the Christian Science Monitor, BirdWatching and Blue Ridge Outdoors, and the literary anthology, Tongue Screws and Testimonies, a collection of creative writing inspired by the Martyrs Mirror. He lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, with his wife, Rachel.