Saturday, January 31, 2015

A Private Struggle

No one ever pats me on the back. No one says "good job!" Except for my wife. Because no one knows.

In the community center where I work, it is the time of year for resolutions. Biggest loser contests are in full swing. Facebook is crammed with weight-loss resolutions, and get fit resolutions, and get-to-the-gym resolutions. People have support. This is who they are. This is the nature of their resolution.

I'm on my own. This is who I am. This is the nature of my resolution – private.

I made a list in December. A handful of things to work on this year. Some are simple check-off items – plan more nights out with my wife, commit to running Bucks Ridge Burn Half Marathon. And a few are game-changers. The first one I've attacked is my alcohol intake. A game-changer. No one has called me an alcoholic, a problem drinker. At least not for twenty years. I'm never drunk, never hung over. Alcohol doesn't disrupt my life. But it is a problem. It has a hold on me in a way that nothing else does. By lunch-time, I'm often anticipating the two or three glasses of wine I'll settle down with in the late evening, after dinner, with a book.

Pfft. A common response to my consumption. Two glasses of wine doesn't make a problem drinker. True. But anticipating the drinks for eight hours? Probably. Sixteen days into this resolution. It's a roller-coaster. I've established my rules. Seemingly arbitrary, but the point is to break a habit. No alcohol except on Friday and Saturday night. Primarily with meals or at social functions, no more than two. I trying to take away the anticipation of alcohol, my familiarity with alcohol.

Some days, it's good, uplifting. Pride of addressing a long-standing problem and actually doing something about it. Other days, I feel like a trapped animal. Last Tuesday was one of the bad ones. Hump-day, or really the basement-day. Three days from my last drink, three days until my next.

When I started this, this abstinence, my biggest concern was that without alcohol, my life would feel empty. Going through the motions, but without the one thing that makes it all feel right. This is absurd, I know. I have an awesome family, a decent job, rewarding hobbies, health, intelligence, curiosity, capability. But this is the exact feeling I've had many nights over the last few weeks.

Yesterday I planned a get-away. My wife is gearing up for a meditation retreat. Two nights and two days of meditation and Dharma. No talking, no eye contact with the other retreaters. No music, no reading. 48 hours in her head. This is fun, or at least positively challenging for her. I commented that I wish there was a retreat for runner/writers. I would go to that. She suggested that I create my own. So I did.

I booked a cabin at a camp-ground that abuts the Appalachian Trail. Two days. Two long runs, two long sessions of uninterrupted writing. This is heaven for me. No people, no responsibilities, no schedule. Grilled meat, a chance to watch a stupid action movie when I'm taking a break. So what do I think? I think about not drinking. I think that this will be a depressing trip because I plan to leave the wine at home.

I'm not sleeping that well. I'm up several times during the night. I have to pee. This is because instead of drinking 12 ounces of wine each night, I'm drinking 44 ounces of herbal tea. This is a coping mechanism. An oral fixation. A distraction. Something else to sip in place of the Malbec, the Pinot Noir, the Zinfandel. And I'm up early. Before my alarm, which is set for 4:30. I'm going to bed too early. Another coping mechanism. If I can't drink, I should just pack it in for the night.

I'm starting to feel like an invalid. Like I've got an ailment that takes everything out of me and sends me to bed early. I used to worry that my kids would think I'm an alcoholic. Now I'm worried that they think I have cancer. "You're going to bed? Now? It's 8:30!" It is too early. I lie in bed for fifteen or twenty minutes. Sometimes much more. I haven't shut down yet. For the past twenty years, shutting down has included reading a book and drinking wine.

It's a huge life change. At least as big as dropping some weight in a contest. And so far, no one knows. Just my wife. My co-workers simply see me as more irritable than normal. My kids see me as lame. My friends see me... actually, no friends have seen me since this started. I haven't gone out and socialized since I quit. I haven't been ready. And I haven't made a public proclamation about not drinking, because I'm not really certain what I'm doing, what my end goal is. And I'm definitely not certain that I can keep it up, that I will want to keep it up.

My co-worker, Jeanie. She is one of the biggest losers in the contest. She's doing pretty well. She has a lot of support. Her husband, her adult children, all of her co-workers. We're all checking in with her. Asking her how she's doing. She has nine teammates and twenty-seven competitors on three other teams. Everyone is routing for her. Including me. Her results are posted on the wall of the gym.

Me: "Hey Jeanie, you look 3.65% smaller than you did a couple of weeks ago."
Jeanie, aghast: "More like 3.654%"
Me: "Sorry, I was rounding down."

Plus, presumably, if she is successful, she will finish with the weight-loss that has been eluding her for so long. A very outward reward that will be seen by everyone she comes in contact for the rest of her life.

What will I get if I'm successful? Well, sure, health, happiness and an extra hundred or so dollars per month that I'm not sucking down at the rate of five dollars per night. But I will live my life with the title of a Teetotaler – a word I've always viewed with suspicion and disdain. A word that makes me think of puritans, holy-rollers, judgement, Or perhaps the title of Alcoholic – implying illness, lack of control, time spent at the bottom. Either or both, this isn't how I think of myself.

My wife reads this and says: "JEE-SUS! So much judgement." Of myself, of others. She says my problem has nothing to do with alcohol, but the inability to be kind to myself. My critical eye, always searching for a crack, an imperfection that proves I'm as flawed as I always assume I am. She's happy with my decision to dramatically cut back on wine. Not because she thinks it is a problem, but because it's problematic and distressing to me.

It's been three weeks. In this time I've had five glasses of wine and three beers. On paper, this seems like an appropriate amount. When I was a teenager in college, this is what I viewed as adult drinking. Better wine, an occasional beer after yard-work. Obviously not drinking to get drunk. Or even drinking to take the edge off. Having a drink as a reward. Like eating an ice cream cone or taking a nap after a long run. A bit of pampering. But while my limited consumption seems like the right amount, it feels restrictive. It feels unfair. While Jeanie loses weight and gets patted on the back, I look in the mirror and think "the rest of my life is a very long time."

Monday, January 26, 2015

Race Day

5:00 AM. The race doesn't start until ten. Now what? Five hours! Internet news, two cups of coffee. That might eat up an hour. Some stretching? Not four hours of stretching. Can't take on a house-chore. Need to save my legs. Besides, no one else will be up for two more hours. I'm usually done running by eight o'clock. What do I do until ten?

Thankfully the pre-race jitters didn't start until yesterday. Sometimes they set in a week before, sometimes two weeks. I've been calm about this race. I've done it twice before, so I know what to expect. My training was disrupted by a lingering cold and a sore calf, so my plan is to take it easy. Start slow, have fun, and come in with a respectable, unimpressive time.

But yesterday I got an email with final race instructions. That set me off. Got me thinking about the race. A 10K trail run. Lung-burning hills. Enough rocks and roots to trip a mountain goat. Last year I pushed hard the whole race and age-grouped. This year, my legs feel great. Injury free for three or four weeks. Had a clean taper. Why am I holding back? I could smoke this race!

No. Stick with the plan. I haven't even charged my watch. Running on breath, on feel. I don't want to be a slave to pace. I don't want to stress about how slowly I'm hitting the hills. I picked out my travel music – a live Clash disk. Angry, driving music. Might help me release some steam, some tension.

It's freezing out. Frosty. What to wear? Tights? Shorts? How many layers? Which gloves? Where should I leave my stuff during the race? In my car? Too much extra walking. Should I take warm clothes for the after party? Should I have more coffee? Should I eat? What should I eat? Should I take food with me?

7:00 AM. The house is stirring. Kids are up and streaming Netflix. My wife is drinking coffee, watching me pace around the house. Go to the bathroom, foam-roll, go to the bathroom, stretch, go to the bathroom. Pack my bag. Take everything. Tights, shorts, four layers, a coat, two pairs of gloves. In the car fifteen minutes earlier than I expected. Glad to be gone -- I was driving everyone nuts.

8:45 AM. Packet pickup. Much colder than I expected. Maybe 28 degrees. The sun hasn't cleared the mountains and the trees. Everyone is shivering. Guess I'm running in tights, extra layers. Grabbed a coffee, discussed the course with other anxious runners. Too cold to stand outside. Back to the car -- my early start won me great parking. My feet are numb, heater blasting. Assess the race bag. Pin my bib to my shirt. Too low. Now crooked. Not centered. Fourth time, good enough.

9:30 AM. Pre-race briefing. Review of the course. Jokes about the perils of trail-running. Nervous laughter all around. Finally some sun is reaching the ground, much appreciated warmth. But the frost hasn't melted. I'm ditching the tights. Back to the car, back to the heater, back to the Clash. Minutes to go. Decide on my attire. Go minimalist. Shorts and a long-sleeve shirt. Plus the t-shirt with my bib. I can't possibly change that now.

10:00 AM. Halfway back in the pack, anticipating. A cannon roars and we’re running. Well, jogging. I usually start up front, set an early, unsustainable pace. This is different, more relaxing. Next mile and a half is up hill. Passing lots of runners. They’re slowing down, I'm speeding up. At the top of the hill, I'm all out. Race pace. Running with a man and woman who will be with me the rest of the race. The woman is fast and strong, but slow over the rocks. The man is a slightly stronger version of me. The woman and I pass each other several times. I wish she would just attack the technical stuff and stay in front of me. She wishes I'd quit jogging the flats and stay ahead of her. These guys are fit. And young. I must be running well, fast. I dig in.

10:42 AM. Starting up the mountain. Everyone is walking. I've vowed to run it this year. I’m not any faster, but it feels right. And I get a bit of an edge when I hit the top. I’m already running, not questioning when to restart. Back on the flats. That pair of runners pulls away from me. I'm used up, nicely. Still running hard, but no burst left.

11:06 AM. Out of the woods and onto the home stretch. I see the clock and I crack out an exhausted "Ha!" Five minutes slower than last year. But I finish strong. Folks cheer as I cross the line. My wife and kids are there. Some running friends. High-fives. A post-race beer. Camaraderie. Part of a tribe, 250 crazy souls willing to gut through a sub-freezing 10K in the mountains.

And then it's over. I go home and resume my day. I wonder if it is worth all the stress, all the worry. Yes it is. Two days later, and I'm still buzzing. Still feel the adrenaline. Picking a line through the rocks; hopping a creek; ducking a branch. Me against nature, or me in the midst of nature. Looking forward to this weekend, to my next trail run.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

When Everything is Going Well

Twelve days ago, I stopped drinking, Almost. Maybe. Not sure yet. A lifetime of substance abuse. Serious and destructive in my teens, in my twenties and thirties. Under control in my forties and fifties, sort of. I drink daily, two drinks, three drinks. Never drunk but unable to quit. Afraid to quit. Always worried that without my relaxing, day-end glasses of wine, life won't be worth living. Now I'm not sure this is true.

On Sunday morning, I ran ten miles and change. Thirty years ago, I did this weekly, sometimes twice a week. Long exploring runs throughout Washington, DC. National parks, nice neighborhoods, not-so-nice neighborhoods. That was before knee-bursitis hobbled me. Limited my runs to four or five miles at a shot, my weekly total to less than fifteen. There have been times I've been able to push out longer runs, including a ten mile race three years ago, but since Sunday was actually a quarter-mile longer than ten, this was my longest run in at least twenty years.

Eighteen months ago, I started blogging.  Writing at a local coffee shop, once or twice a week. I envisioned myself a curmudgeon. I believed that I had funny, insightful complaints about society. My blog would be my outlet. I would get attention and become a syndicated columnist. Paid to bitch – everybody’s dream. This didn't happen, or it hasn't happened yet. I'm not funny, and for the most part, I only write about myself. My writing sessions have expanded to four or five per week, and the stuff that comes out, all very personal. Not about society, except in ways that I mirror society. Self-exploration in a way that has allowed me to better understand myself and make some positive changes.

And here, at the start of a new year, a time when it is natural to take stock of your life, I've been thinking about the impact that writing has had on my physical and mental health. We all have nagging thoughts. Weight issues, financial worries, chronic injuries, relationship problems. Because I have OCD, my nagging thoughts probably nag a bit more than others'. And when those thoughts become unbearable, when I develop the courage to face a topic, when I decide to spend four to eight hours thinking and writing about a problem, I often solve that problem. Probably too strong a word. Most problems are unsolvable. But I gain understanding, acceptance, peace. I change or improve the way the problem affects me.

At times we need to step back and assess. It is easy to get caught up in the problem of the day. Assume that because something isn't right, everything is wrong. By looking back at what I was concerned about a few years ago, I realize that I'm a completely different person. I'm more confident, more balanced, kinder. Actualized, at least a little. Three years ago, all I could think about was how much I hated my job. Frustration with co-workers, my boss, my pay, my responsibilities. I felt like a loser. A smallish fish in a small pond. I compared myself to those around me. Their profession, their pay, their athletic ability. Everyone was more impressive. Everyone else had their act together.

I was agitated, quick to anger, quick to put myself down. Obsessive thoughts, Tourette’s tics, chronic injuries that limited my running, my overall fitness. Social anxiety – unable to connect with those around me. That was three years ago. Today? OCD, Tourette’s Syndrome, injuries, social anxiety – they are all still present. But they leave me less agitated, less angry. As my wife’s Buddhist guru, Tara Brach would say, “by exploring these subjects, by inviting them in, by spending time with my problems, I take away their power."  

Last Monday morning, I was riding the double high of a week without alcohol, and a Sunday morning run long enough to leave me fully winded. I was buzzing. Feeling like all of my problems were solved. My OCD has been simmering on low. The unattractive retching I experience when stressed, unexpected dry-heaves, and occasionally vomiting, has disappeared. Missing for four weeks. I don’t know where it went, but I’m glad it’s gone. Tourette’s tics, omnipresent, have become a non-issue. I’ve told everyone I know that I have Tourette's Syndrome. The tics are just part of who I am. Take me or leave me.

Monday morning, everything was cured. Throw away the Prozac and cancel my therapy appointments. Sign up for a marathon and book me to give a presentation at the chamber of commerce. I was fixed. My blogging, my self-analysis, my therapy, my incessant foam rolling. Changes to my running style, my form.  All of the things I’ve incorporated to combat these problems, they worked. Not a problem left in the world.

Monday afternoon, I was a mess. Elevated, agitated beyond belief. Obsessing about everything in my life. Unable to focus at work, unable to control my tics, even a little. I know these ups and downs are part of mental illness, and actually part of everyone's life. Mine are likely to be more dramatic than the next person's, but I am now blessed with the ability to understand what's happening. When OCD and anxiety strike, I'm not blind-sided. I don't lash out at my co-workers, my wife, my kids. I'm able to fall back on my experiences to weather the storm, knowing that tomorrow – or even later today – will be better.

For the first time since I started my self-improvement regeime of therapy and theraputic writing, I am able to look at myself, my overall being and say I'm better. Not cured. This stuff isn't curable. But I'm better, much better, than I was.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Best Songs You Won't Hear in Spin Class

Energy, anger, humor, disdain, resignation. A driving beat. Guitar, bass, drums. Raw and sparse. A recipe for punk rock. It cannot be pulled together like ingredients for a cake. It forms naturally, holistically. And at times, it's art. It's not for everyone. Many don't like it. Or they don't understand it. I've tried to change this. A little education, exposure in my very small corner of the world.

In my rural town, there is a ‘community center’. It is much bigger than our population would suggest. And truly one of the centers of our community. In a region where three out of four people are overweight, this is the place where the exercise crowd congregates. This is the place that I instruct spin classes.

I'm an introvert. I thrive in one-on-one situations. Not at the front of a room, performing. But music and exercise are important to me. I know a bit about each. Enough about music to pull together a clever playlist – multiple decades, various genres. Enough about exercise to coach a challenging workout – a mix of drills to improve strength and fitness. It’s not surprising that I've put this all together, for pay. Although at $9.00 per class, it’s more of a hobby than a job.

I hoped to be a DJ at my college radio station. This was thirty-five years ago. Freshmen were not permitted to do this. A year of academics before distractions. By my sophomore year, the station was closed, funding concerns. It later reopened, but I had graduated. I missed my chance to spin tunes - until now.

I branded my class Punk*Cycle. The other classes were pop, country. And classic rock, but not the Stones and the Who. Not T-Rex, the Kinks, or even the Doors. They used Foreigner, Journey, Manfred Mann, Yes. I wanted a cycle class that rocked. The Clash, the Pixies, Social Distortion, the Offspring, Green Day, X. High-energy, beginning to end. The oldies that helped shape the musical revolution of the seventies. Louie Louie, Paint it Black, Surfin’ Bird, Break on Through. The bands that predated the punk title – New York Dolls, Blondie, Patti Smith Group, the Stooges. I thought I would draw out the closet-punks. That repressed group of spinners enduring the crap they heard in the rest of the classes – like me.

This is not a city. Small-town Pennsylvania. The people President Obama accused of "clinging to guns or religion".  Afraid of change, of the outside world. He's right. People around here are not edgy. There weren't any closeted fans of punk rock. Not a single person said they were attracted to my class for the music. But over time, I started hearing people say how much they liked the music. I doubt they consider it punk, pre-punk, post-punk, neo-punk. They just hear it as a rocking set of music in an exercise class. And now they sing along.

My all-punk-all-the-time playlist became boring, at least for me. Two classes per week, every week. I needed more variety, and longer songs. (Good) classic rock, reggae, new wave, blues, even some contemporary pop. It has all found its way into the class. Show tunes when I want to be ironic. The mix is defiantly counterculture. Not a radio mix. An adult mix. Almost everything is old, decades old. But it’s new to the people in my class. And they still enjoy the music. They say so all the time. Music-wise, it’s as varied a class as you’ll find. Every genre is considered. But the class still skews towards punk.

Punk is the music that speaks to me. Motivates me. Gives me my edge. Makes me laugh. So I play punk. I play it for myself, and I'm happy that my class seems to enjoy it. At times, I go too far, and I'll do it again and again. Suicidal Tendencies' Institutionalized. Marilyn Manson's Sweet Dreams are Made of This. Master of the Puppets by Metallica. When these songs start, there is a collective groan. A sense that the class will indulge me this one time, but let's not do it again for a month or two. But there are twelve songs that are off-limits. A dozen phenomenal  songs. Banned by decorum, by expectations. These are the best songs I won't play -- unless I'm sure it's my last class – ever. They are just too rough for polite society. Profane, divisive, shocking. And if I can't play them in class, at least I can post them on my blog.

Caution *all* of these songs contain extremely bad and/or offensive language, but oh, what a playlist they would make. (Please contact me if any links are broken)
  • Body Count -- Ice-T's 1992 masterpiece about violence in the 'hood. This dude is pissed.
  • Don’t F*** Me Up (with Peace and Love) -- Rocking and funny. Unfortunately, Cracker uses too many F-bombs to avoid.
  • Star Star -- A Rolling Stones classic from 1973. If you don't know why it's banned, just listen. Initially, this song was thought to be in response to Carly Simon's You're  so Vain (this song is not banned, but I don't like it), often presumed to be written about Mick Jagger.
  • Killing in the Name Of -- I actually have used this song, part of it. Up to the four-minute mark. Then the song completely falls apart in a way designed to give a teenager's parents a heart attack.
  • Bad Habit -- From The Offspring's "coming out" album, Smash. An energetic driving-song with an attitude problem -- and a really profane road-rage release. Oh, and Smash, the album's final, its title cut. Not so nice either.
  • Orgasm Addict -- Almost forty years old. Early, early punk. And as inappropriate as any song since.
  • Repo Man -- Iggy Pop's theme song for the kooky and brilliant movie by the same name. I actually use this one from time to time, but I need to be very aware. If I miss my volume cue, the back-to-back F-bombs leave half the class red-faced and the others falling off their bikes laughing.
  • Dark Center of the Universe -- Even NPR's Linda Wertheimer loves this one. She is the person who introduced me to Modest Mouse. Unfortunately the frequent refrain of "F*** you over" makes it unplayable.
  • Gigantic -- A love (lust?) song by the Pixies. Sexually charged and perpetuating stereotypes. Nothing good can come from playing this song in a family gym.
  • Look! No Strings! -- A great cut on Chumbawamba's best album. Multi-layered as a parfait, both musically and lyrically, But... it is easy to read it as disrespectful to Jesus. Bummer. I love this song Susej em kcuf ho!
  • Not Now James, We're Busy -- I use almost all of the songs from Pop Will Eat Itself's "This Is The Day... This Is The Hour... This Is This". Great fast songs for a variety of drills. But this one goes too far.
  • Scrap -- Girl-group metal-core rockers L7 compare Christianity to being high on inhalants. I doubt anyone would catch the meaning of the lyrics during a workout. But these people get up at 5AM to take my class. I really don't want to offend anyone.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Materially Relevant

"In twenty, twenty-five years, she will be completely irrelevant. You'll see." This was my brother, dissing Madonna. I think we made a bet, but we were drinking so it’s unlikely that anyone remembers what was wagered. There were six or seven of us in all. The sides were drawn on gender. My girlfriend, my college friend Alice. They were the pro-Madonna camp. My brother Dana, Joe, and one or two of the Michigan Eds were the antis. That's University of Michigan. Joe and the Eds went there. Madonna went there too. Just a couple of semesters, but she calls it her Alma Mater. That pisses off Joe, Ed and Ed. Where was I? With the women, I was propping up Madonna.

I wouldn't call myself a fan. I didn't switch the radio station when a song came on, but I also didn't have any of her albums. This was 1990. Madonna didn't need much propping, she was on fire. Always on the charts, usually in a movie, reliably in four or five magazines. I was arguing against my team. We were cooler than Madonna. We listened to the Pixies, Jesus and Mary Chain, Throwing Muses/Breeders, Camper Van Beethoven, Nirvana. Alt-anything. Madonna was bland pop. No art, no risk. Just a hit-maker. Or so we said. But everyone has their secret favorites. A soft spot for a song or a band that seems completely out of character. Neil Diamond's "Song Sung Blue" is one of mine. Madonna, another. So here I was, propping her up.

Twenty-five years later, this seems like a stupid conversation. The unending parade of stars influenced by Madonna is a who's who of popular radio. From Brittany Spears to Lady Gaga, scores of female singer-songwriters owe a debt to Madonna. Clearly she's still relevant, She's still producing music, still making hits. And while I don't seek them out, whenever I hear new Madonna songs, I kind of like them.

But for me, the bet was settled in 2007. This was Al Gore's Live Earth concert. Here, Madonna introduced Gypsy punk band, Gogol Bordello to the world. At this point in the essay, the three  Gogol Bordello fans who will ever read this post will get indignant and huffy and say that the band  already had a global following. Sure, but the truth is that most people, especially those watching Live Earth, never would have heard of them if they didn't join Madonna on stage. A week after that concert, Gogol Bordello was on Letterman, and for years hence a regular fixture on the late night circuit. Two years later, they were on a major commercial label.

The song they sang? Well, it is really two songs. Madonna's Latin-themed "La Isla Bonita" interspersed with segments of the Romani-Gypsy folk song "Lela Pala Tute." The racous outcome is the perfect blend of pop and punk, singing and screaming. A long song, almost six minutes, with a driving beat from beginning to end. It starts fast and ends faster. It is one of my favorite songs to feature in my spin class. And it is always on my MP3 player for long-runs.

Listen to La Isla Bonita from Live Earth

Madonna is still everywhere. She's released a dozen original albums, acted in twenty-one movies, and at least one, Evita, was well received. She's still in magazines, in controversies, and omnipresent on the internet. Just a few years ago, Lady Gaga nailed a number one hit with a remake of Madonna's "Express Yourself" – she called it "Born this Way."

It's been twenty-five years since that argument, that bet. It's time to take stock. It's time to check in with Dana, Joe, the Eds. They didn't win that bet... Madonna did.