relationships

be comfortable, creature


M
y friend Keith is one of the best examples I know of someone recalibrating their life to fit their circumstances. Keith was a world-class runner. He is a previous winner of the NCAA Men’s Cross Country Championships and he ran professionally for New Balance. Now in his 30’s, the cartilage in both his knees is nearly gone. Maybe it’s the result of years of sub-six-minute training and hundred plus-mile weeks. Maybe it’s due to his upbringing in Ireland or his heredity. Maybe he didn’t drink enough milk as a kid. The fact that someone so gifted as a runner can’t  do what he was born to do is heartbreaking for anyone who runs. I don’t know if Keith was graceful as a runner, but his running was still a thing of beauty to watch.

Confronted with injury after injury and a ton of surgeries, Keith has realized his best running is in the past. Now he’s a bike racer. And you should see how he smiles. We don’t live near each other and we no longer work for the same company so I don’t get to see him as often. Still, I can hear his smile through the phone when we talk.

My friend, the NCAA cross champion, representative of Ireland at the World Cross Championships, and a former professional runner, crossed that threshold so many of us face, sometimes as athletes or in our personal or professional lives.

Like Keith, circumstances force us to reevaluate our lives in midstream and adjust our goals–or be miserable. I’m reminded of an interview I heard with Ben Cheever, the writer and son of John Cheever, a revered novelist whose alcoholism and homosexuality came to light after he died of cancer in 1982. In the NPR interview Cheever was asked how he coped with the public scrutiny of his father.

I’m going to do a lousy job paraphrasing his answer but Cheever said something like this: “It’s a matter of choice what we do with life. I faced  a choice. I could sit there and be miserable and bitter and not live. Or I could accept what happened and move on and try to live the best life I could.”

He went on: “I believe the people who struggle in life are those who can’t bridge the gap between what they think their lives should be like and what they actually are.”

The stark clarity with which Cheever addressed his situation stuck with me over the years in a big way. My buddy Keith also faced a choice: lament the fact that he would never again run at the level he enjoyed in college and for a couple of years after, or find something new to which he could devote his passions. Just as Ben Cheever did, Keith chose to transition in order to be happy. For him it was bikes over running shoes and, in the process, learning to view himself and his life in a completely different way.

All of us face transitions in life and we always have the choice to make them easy or hard depending on our attitudes.

I have faced many situations that did not go according to my plan. I’ve experienced setbacks and unexpected endings that forced me to move from one thing to something else. Some I’ve handled well and some I’ve failed miserably.

For example, I’ve spent most of my professional life as a sales representative for some well-known companies in the running shoe and apparel business and a few connected with the industry. Last June, a corporate “strategy change” led four of my colleagues and me to being laid off, after I was laid off by the same company (long story) two-and-a-half years before that. At the time, I said it was my “last shoe company” because I was tired of being a pawn in someone else’s game.  Here is where you see me either being really pissed off and feeling sorry for myself, or seeing an opportunity to reframe my career, indeed my life, in another unexpected transition.

Life is like that isn’t it? We work hard to “get settled” into a place where things are comfortable and known, whether we’re training for a marathon or our first bike race, or we are laid off from our dream job, or we have a health issue or one of our parents commits suicide, or whatever it is. Each time, we have the chance to choose what comes next–misery or acceptance. We re-calibrate our expectations (Leo Babauta says some wise things about expectations here: http://zenhabits.net/ah/) and try to make sense of it all. Another friend of mine considers himself a transition junkie because, he says, we grow the most from unfamiliar and difficult situations.

More unexpected turns and transitions lie ahead of me, I am certain. I will either fuck them up or learn from them. My choice. I can either wallow in what isn’t or accept what is and make lemonade. Right?

figuring it out, health and wellness, inspiration, relationships

welcome, ghosts

A million years ago I had a poster on the wall of my bedroom. ImageIt read, “The race is not always to the swiftest but to those who keep on running.” It pictured a runner alone on a long stretch of country road.

This poster carried me through innumerable training runs and races when I was younger. It is long gone but its message played in my head today as I plodded through another oh-so-short run.

Complications from knee surgery last December to repair a torn meniscus in my right knee sidelined me for the entire winter. And played with my head.

The weather, cool and slightly damp, with just a scent of warmth and birds singing, was ideal and it was heartening to feel the pavement underfoot again. Nevertheless, here’s me this morning: “Whose crappy, inefficient stride is this?” “Whose lungs are these gasping for air?” “Whose damn lame legs are these?”

I sucked air greedily, more like a patient in an iron lung than a fit runner. Think Darth Vader with a Mr. Microphone.

As I run I picture the guy in the poster and wonder what he thinks, how fast he is running, what are his goals. Was he once swifter and more fit, as I was, or is he in his prime, squeezing out every ounce of potential in his legs to run faster in his next race? Or, as the message says, is he simply happy just to be running?

I know I am taking little but significant steps everyday to regain the leg strength and lung capacity I lost from the surgical complications. But I realize there is something deeper, more yearning; I want to revive the image I’ve had of myself ever since I first put that runner poster on my bedroom wall way back when. It’s this: I am unstoppable.

Comparisons to others are deadly, I know, even comparing ourselves to what once were doesn’t serve us. Running has been such a constant, reliable companion for the past 30 years it is difficult territory for me to address this endeavor afresh. Even while I try to accept where I am, I reach to find the form that once came naturally but now feels so foreign.
We runners often think of ourselves as invincible, especially regarding certain kinds of health issues. Those are for other, less fit, more vulnerable types who don’t run. But the health challenges of the past year have proven that even the tens of thousands of miles in my fitness bank afford me no guarantees.

It’s a little like when you hadn’t seen your grandparents in years and when they came to visit and wanted to kiss you and hug you. It creeped you out, thinking, “Who are these people?” But after a little while, it all became natural.

I love running and I am grateful to have some really big health challenges behind me. Who knows, a couple more months of running and all will feel right again. Life is a long race, and it’s time again for me to embrace the truth found on a simple poster I used to live by miles and miles ago.
emotions, figuring it out, relationships

remember me as a time of day

A friend is going through a really rough time. He just committed his adult son to rehab because of a recently discovered drug issue following a series of misadventures that include a car accident.  His wife is angry with him as she struggles to find her own truths about how to help their son. My friend also happens to be a recovering alcoholic who has spent most of his adult life trying to put his love of the bottle behind him so it doesn’t ruin the life he’s built.

The question he wrestles with is this: How much responsibility does he have for getting his son back on a healthy and sustainable path? When do the obligations we as parents have to help our children become healthy, well-adjusted and productive adults expire?

When do the kids take over responsibility for their own lives?

As a father who has messed up more than a few times with my own children, including my oldest teen-age daughter who no longer speaks to me, I have immense compassion for my friend as he tries to solve his dilemma: In one sense, he’s a Dad who loves his son and feels an obligation to help him. In another way, he also knows his son is a now man/boy who needs to be responsible for his own life if he wants to grow. In other words, he’s screwed either way.

“I don’t know what to do,” he says to me. “I feel like I can’t afford to make a mistake.”

“Don’t look at me, I have no experience with drugs,” I say to deflect. “And, I’ve made tons of mistakes with my own kids. I’m no expert.”

I’m no expert.

I remember when my two older daughters were still very young, one was still in a high chair, and I was an actor portraying a father rather than a real dad. I was so scared of making a mistake that would totally ruin the future of my precious little girls.

The question, “How come, Daddy?” used to throw me into conniptions. What if I gave them a bullshit answer because I didn’t know the answer and years later they called me out? What if I was totally wrong?

A thousand years ago when I envisioned some sort of life as a writer I wrote this (It’s a little ironic that it’s so appropriate now):

“How come, Daddy?”

The littlest one fidgets in her high chair, rubbing the jelly off the bread and peanut butter, and then inserts her entire finger into her small mouth, which this day, like other days, is awash with the morning’s foods: cheddar cheese from the scrambled eggs, crumbs from the toast, and smears of vanilla yogurt, her favorite.

She likes to repeat what my oldest daughter has just said, saying it often enough that the words take on a life of their own. They float here in the dining room, with the vines painted on the stucco-colored walls and the French doors. The morning sun exposes the smudges from little fingers in the doors’ panes of glass that the cleaning potion missed but which I notice only now. “Daddy, how come?” intones the older one. Though only four, she already appears way too grown up. I wonder if she might just skip portions of her childhood, leap-frog over entire years so that in no time she will be a young woman with little time for her old man.

While my daughters eat they are watching a Disney movie. It’s not something my wife likes me to do, let them watch TV and eat at the same time, but their chairs have perfect lines of sight to the enormous electronic baby sitter inside the armoire. Meanwhile I am looking for a five-letter word for “Madras money.” My attentions run between the newspaper, opened fully across the dining room table to the crossword puzzle that confounds me with its checkerboard riddles, and the kitchen sink, laden with crusty dishes from the night before demanding soap and some scrubbing. Everywhere but my two little girls.

But my distractions don’t matter to them. They are oblivious to my crossword puzzle conundrum. I have learned that “How come?” knows no boundaries of time or place or even the proper rules of engagement. I might go for the easy way out: Sometimes the girls ask and I filch answers out of thin air while I continue to devote attention to my distractions.

My little girls do not realize how double-edged their questions have become. When they ask “How come?” I face an opportunity to bolster their knowledge and reward their curiosity. But each “How come?” is also an opportunity to fail, to disappoint, to let them down because they will discover I am an impostor, a mere mortal, a faker posing as a father, someone only portraying the Supreme Being who knows all the answers.

I probably badgered my parents with bucketfuls of “How come?” I know this is the province of every Mom and Dad. So, as the volume and frequency of their questions rise to glass-shattering levels, I finally turn away from my crossword or turn off the radio or stop doing the dishes and I listen to them.

I get down off my chair and face them, these little packages of a thousand questions. All of a sudden, sitting on the wood floor, its gouges and wear a reminder of other parents and their children, and looking into their eyes, I forget the dangers of not appearing to know everything. They teach me to see a much less complicated place. The how comes so prominent in my daughters’ lexicons are chances to see the world from three feet tall.

All of a sudden, it is I who learn something from their take on the world, a view not yet tainted by the “important concerns” of our adult world; an outlook unblemished by the hundreds of credit card offers for zero interest that come in the mail everyday, or the images cast by teen idols decked out in tight, strategically torn jeans and equally planned tank tops in TV commercials for soft drinks, or the ecstasy promised from driving the newest leather-interiored, gas-guzzling, road-hogging SUV to the mall.

My children teach me that it is we adults who routinely twist things into Gordian knots, who shrink from saying what we really think—or even try not to think what we think we should not. It is in a How come? that I can find table-turning education at the hands of daughters and then I have the privilege of understanding them—and life—better.

As they await my answers I think that I spend too much time in the adult world worrying about adult things. About pleasing bosses and customers or how I can HBO without paying for it, or whether I will ever see the Detroit Tigers win a pennant. I’m lucky I don’t play golf or I would have even more to fret about.

Once they asked what had become of our two cats, Tigger and Roo. They hadn’t said anything before about why Tigger and Roo weren’t sitting in the windowsills or on lying on the couch anymore. I explained that cats sometimes just get sick and they die.

“How come, Daddy?”

“Well, just like when you great-grandmother Mimo got sick. She died too.”

“Are you going to die, Daddy?”

“Yes, honey, one day I will die.”

As I wipe breakfast from the little one’s face and she and her bigger sister, satisfied for now at the answers the impostor has offered, turn back to their Disney movie, I understand how this time is a precious, short-lived way station. My two little girls will grow up all too soon, the make-believe and the music of their childhood faded into memories.

And they won’t need me so much because they will discover their own answers. I will be left here in the dining room with the echoes of “How come, Daddy?” And, hopefully, once in a while, they will find that their Dad was really was not such an impostor after all.

I pulled up the essay from more than 10 years ago reinforce my point about both the timeliness of our roles as parents and the limits of our responsibility to get our kids to adulthood. I struggle with both of these ideas everyday.

I miss the days when my daughters adored me unquestionably and needed me. At the same time, it’s extremely cool to see them grow into the little women they are today.

Everything has both pain and joy. I know my friend is wrestling with questions that have no perfect answers. Just like we all do.

relationships

catastrophe and the cure II

Ahem, maybe I was wrong again:  Outside Magazine published this recently: http://www.outsideonline.com/outdoor-adventure/athletes/lance-armstrong/Its-Not-About-the-Lab-Rats.html.

Armstrong has his detractors and what appears to be a legion of defenders (Take a look at the long list of comments following Bill Gifford’s Outside article). ImageThe thing I find interesting is that whenever anyone in any magazine or newspaper or website questions the person behind the image as has happened with Lance Armstrong they are attacked as having a personal vendetta. The defenders’ philosophy seems to be: Attack the questioner; never hold one’s idols up for scrutiny in the name of objectivity.

We are always free to disagree with what we read and it is healthy to hold writers to high standards. Is their thinking as expressed in their writing logical and does the writer attempt to find facts, even while expressing an opinion? To question someone’s motives because they say things we don’t like to hear or which we find distasteful is myopic. People should know there is no such thing as complete objectivity (Hence the ascendancy of Fox News). We all come to every activity with our own perspective, history and philosophies. Our own baggage. Even, ahem, writers and journalists.

It’s troubling to me that Armstrong and his attorneys felt the need to call Gifford up early in the morning and excoriate him for what he wrote. Why did this particular article bother Armstrong so much that he had to angrily call Gibson if Gibson hadn’t hit somewhat close to home? Do we call up every person who ever says something about us we don’t like? And why should Armstrong care what Gibson writes if he is secure in what he is doing? It won’t be news in 15 minutes.

I have my own internal battle with separating my admiration for Lance the athlete, the cyclist, and all his achievements both on and off the bike, from this developing picture of an egotistical, manipulative and insecure demi-god who has opportunistically taken advantage of his achievements in the cycling world to line his pockets behind a shield of a legitimate cancer organization.

ImageMuch ado about nothing. If Lance Armstrong is that worried about his legacy, he could spend more time focusing on his stated mission of raising awareness for cancer survivors and enjoying his status of one of the world’s premier athletes (whether he is a cheater or not). As a cancer survivor myself, I’m certain I would give a hell of a lot to have Lance Armstrong’s world stage.

Thanks for reading.

relationships

catastrophe and the cure

In 1982 my mother died of pancreatic cancer. She suffered greatly to the end. A year shy of thirty years since my mom’s death, I was diagnosed with kidney cancer. My cancer experience was much different from hers; she felt the misery of radiation and chemotherapies and ultimately medicine’s failure to cure; I went into the hospital one day and simply had the tumor–and my left kidney–excised. Cancer gone. Cured. Catastrophe averted.

In fact, it’s almost as if my cancer diagnosis and treatment were a book I read or a movie I saw. It was over so quickly. I often forget that my health was tripped up by cancer until I look in the mirror in the morning and see the four scars on my stomach that are the only sign that I was even sick.

I thought about this today as I shuffled through the webpages of Livestrong. (http://livestrong.org/). Livestrong is filled with some of what you might expect from a website dedicated to a specific illness. There are sections on understanding the physical and emotional impacts of the disease from experts, avenues for information for cancer patients, their families and for practitioners, including a hotline directly to the Foundation for information, the inevitable requests for donations, and a store where one can buy t-shirts, hoodies, backpacks and technical running clothing from Nike emblazoned with the Livestrong moniker.

And the famous yellow wristbands.

The iconic yellow band is as symbolic if not more than the pink ribbon in the fight against cancer. Once as ubiquitous as fancy coffee travel mugs or cups from Starbucks are today, the thin yellow rubber straps don’t seem as prominent now. In fact they are scarce compared to when every movie star and celebrity, even President Barack Obama, wore one. I bought a small cache of them when Nike first issued the wristbands during the mid-1990’s when Lance Armstrong, who started the Foundation, was battling testicular cancer.

Not long ago, I stopped wearing my own Livestrong wristband. I associated the wristband not with the Foundation and its efforts to assist cancer patients and their families in the war on cancer, but with Lance Armstrong himself. To me Armstrong has always been Livestrong. But the Did-he-or-Did-he-not controversy surrounding Armstrong’s alleged use of performance-enhancing drugs and techniques during his run of Tour de France victories tainted both the athlete and the Foundation he created. I found separating the good work of the Livestrong Foundation and the national attention it garnered to cancer, not to mention the money it raised, from the idea that Armstrong cheated his way to seven TdF wins simply too difficult. Lately, it seemed, Armstrong’s detractors had been able to amass enough evidence that the nagging doubts I had about how clean he was and which I buried out of admiration for him grew too large. Armstrong, I came to believe, is a doper like so many pro-cyclists. My disappointment was so great that one day I ripped the iconic wristband off and vowed never to support Armstrong Inc. ever again.

I was wrong.

On the Livestrong website are stories of cancer survivors who have been helped by the Livestrong Foundation and who continue the good fight against cancer. Ordinary people whose inspiring stories provide hope for tens of thousands of other cancer patients and their families. The reach of the Livestrong Foundation is amazing and the stories of cancer survivors are heartwarming.

Then it occurred to me. I, too, am a cancer survivor. I didn’t endure the hardship of endless trips to clinics to get shot with radiation or a cocktail of dangerous chemicals pushed through my veins. But does the fact that my treatment was less taxing mean that my cancer story is less valid?  (I’m currently working on an essay about my cancer story but that will wait for another time.)

I have decided that I can legitimately wear the yellow Livestrong wristband because I have authentic personal experience as a cancer survivor, both as a family member who lost a loved one and as a person who actually had cancer. I might be fooling myself separating the work of the Livestrong Foundation from the rumors and innuendo around Lance Armstrong the athlete, but it works for me for now. Whatever truths are borne out in the controversy about Armstrong’s alleged doping, for me the work of the Livestrong Foundation will stand on its own, untarnished and worthwhile.

We cancer survivors deserve our symbols I think and I’m again wearing my Livestrong wristband. My friend Harrie said to me, cancer survivors “belong to the best club in the world that no one wants to be a part of.” Whether I like it or not, I’m a member of this club and, in a way, tied to those cancer survivors who have told their own stories on Livestrong.org.

Thanks for reading…