Archive for June 2010
I turn 40 in two days, and the most remarkable thing that has happened to me this year is that at the stroke of midnight, I suddenly had the motivation to drop weight. I dropped 10 pounds by the end of January. By the middle of February, I was tightening my belt by a notch. One morning, the scale at the gym read 206. I didn’t believe it, so I weighed myself in the nurse’s office at school. Fully dressed, shoes off, the scale reported 207. I still didn’t believe it.
The thing was that I wasn’t dieting. Not in the least. But I did stop eating all the time. And I was eating all the time, not just when I was hungry. I was fixing meals when I didn’t need to eat. I was stopping at the gas station for a candy bar on the way home from work (which I still do sometimes…). I was snacking on candy or other sweets after and between meals. Someone would bring brownies to work, and I would eat 4. I’d work on writing at Panera for an afternoon, and not only have a full Panera meal, but end with one or two of their big-ass cookies. I was still exercising, so that kept me from totally ballooning, but even my exercise wasn’t enough.
I think, too, that I have always fallen back on nostalgia; specifically, the summer of 2000, when I turned 30. It was a transcendent summer; one that began with me fresh out of an altar-bound relationship. I had to work hard to meet people and make new friends. I did that by spending countless hours at the pool and playing sand volleyball. I never paid attention to when I was eating and preparing meals. If I was hungry, I ate. I was getting so much exercise that my weight dropped to the low 190s. I felt great. I looked trim and athletic.
But there was a downside: I started thinking that I could do that every summer. Pretty soon, I started putting off changes in my eating habits until the summer, which meant I was eating as a way to manage stress (mostly job-related). When summer did roll around, watching my diet was the last thing on my mind. I was too busy running around doing whatever whenever with whomever. I would indulge my appetite with impunity, thinking that I was still 30 and getting 10-15 hours of exercise in the sand or the pool or on the road when I ran.
But it wasn’t a matter of just saying “enough” when 2010 dawned. I have willpower, but not that much. I had to get my mind straight about a number of things, which took a great deal of cognitive energy. I have a goal: I want to feel normal. I’ve hung a lot of weight on that goal, so it’s important to achieve. I’m know, too, that when I feel normal, most everything falls in line nicely after that.
So I was pursuing the feeling of normalcy rather aggressively last fall and early winter, and made a lot of progress. I stopped putting my nutrition and body concerns off until next summer, and things clicked. I didn’t eat or snack compulsively or anything. If I was hungry, I ate. If I wasn’t, I didn’t.
So much hinges on that feeling of normalcy. I feel it when I’m exercising frequently and effectively, writing consistently (quality seldom matters), in frequent contact with my family and closest friends, finding time to watch movies and read books, and monitoring my finances enough to live comfortably and enjoy life. It’s a delicate balance, and it can get thrown off easily. But I have struck the balance and continue to strike it frequently. Some might call it Zen. I call it normalcy, and it helped rid me of the chronic back spasms I’ve had since 1999.
I don’t know what all this has to do with turning 40. Or maybe I do… I started this off by talking about how my peers are taking life more seriously now that the shadow of the age is descending. Maybe I needed to experience the palpable sensations of the darkness before I fully understood how to live life.
There’s a lot of uncertainty to this whole thing, and I don’t think that’s exclusive to my age.
I turn 40 in 8 days, and like many of my peers, I’ve begun to take life more seriously.
I have trouble taking a lot of things seriously to begin with, so this is a major step for me. I don’t take a lot of things seriously to begin with because all too often it’s not worth it. Taking too many thing too seriously creates too much stress. It also creates too much emotional attachment or investment to things. I’d rather invest that emotional energy into my friendships, family relationships, intimate relationships, my job, and writing, all of which have returned great dividends to my emotional attachment.
One thing I have done is to take my physical condition seriously. I was forced into this a bit after an Achilles tendon injury a few years back. But there was something else… I didn’t like my size. I felt fat, and at 222 lbs. on New Year’s Eve this year, I was fat. I had put on 25 lbs. in eight years. I felt sluggish many days, and didn’t like how I looked even in the dress clothes I wore to work.
I had told myself for some time that I was going to lose weight, at least get down to 210, which seemed reasonable to me. But I was always putting it off until summer. I would have more time then. I would be exercising more. I would focus on weight loss and be determined.
But it never worked that way. Instead, I ate with impunity, drank my share of rum, and kept altering my workout schedule. Then something clicked, pretty much when the clock struck midnight to start the new decade, the decade that would see me reach 40.
So I hated my high school; in fact, I resented a number of adults in the building. I was the embodiment of disaffected youth, me and about 10 million other teenagers in 1988 who considered ourselves The Breakfast Club generation. But perhaps my malaise is particularly virulent since I still feel it (sometimes strongly) 22 years later. Perhaps. But there is something else, a silver lining of sorts. Because I was underprepared and underserved at my high school is one of the reasons I became a teacher. I felt by my sophomore year in college that on the whole I could teach others better than I was taught. I was strongly motivated to do so. Still am.
I also know that one reason why I remain disaffected or resentful of my high school is because I’m in a high school every day and I have constant reminders of where my school went wrong and where my teachers were deficient. I would say by and large that the teachers I had were apathetic. Those Masters degrees I spoke of in the last episode were most likely in general education or administration, neither of which does much for a teacher’s content area. I’ve seen the same problem throughout my career: tons of budding administrators with M.Ed.s that came with a Type 75 (Illinois’ designation that a teacher has studied and fulfilled the requirements to be a dean or principal or superintendent), but their studies didn’t do too much for their abilities in the classroom. Too many of the drive-through programs don’t even require a research class, and the teacher is no better off with their advanced degree, except for the boost in salary.
But I’m surrounded in my office by professionals who care not only about students, but about becoming better teachers. There is pressure to do better, to do more, and to push each other. Those who are unwilling don’t command very much respect (I purposely say “unwilling,” and not “unable,” because we’re all able to become outstanding teachers in the same way we say that all students are able to learn and succeed). Respect from my professional peers is important, so I gladly embrace and engage in the environment. I wonder if the teachers in my high school had something so meaningful at their disposal, or if they had the ability or motivation to create it.
Sunday, June 20, 2010 ~ 8:00am ~ Hawthorn Woods, IL
Results: 26:53; 6th of 9 in Male 35-39 division; 27th of 100 overall
Now it’s official! I have run a sub-27 min. 5K. Last week was an estimate, this week there is no doubt. I’m particularly happy because of the time and because I was uncertain as to how I would perform since I had a back spasm Saturday morning.
The back spasm hardly influenced me, other than to give me some doubt about how I would feel during the race. It was prickly when I woke up, but I popped some Alleve and did a few exercise band stretches my physical therapist showed me. The last time I remember feeling the spasm was when I was warming up.
There’s no doubt I am experiencing a running rennaissance. My times have gotten progressively better over the past two months (besides the minor glitch at the Old School Forest Preserve 2 weeks ago), and I feel stronger when I’m running than I have for a long time. I think that is due in part to the weight regimen I started 2 months ago. My upper body strength is greater than it has been for about 8 years, and my abs are certainly flatter and tighter. I’m becoming more of a “whole” runner.
None of this changes the fact that I still feel gassed halfway through most races. I lose my breathing and feel like slowing down; it has been worrying me the last few weeks. But I had an epiphany yesterday at about the 2 mile mark: I feel like that because I’m pushing myself to run the hardest I can. I’m maxmizing my ability, and that’s good. But I’m not overdoing it– I don’t feel decrepit after the race or in the days that follow (though I was sore for several days after the Highland Park race), my heart rate slows quickly when I finish, and I stop sweating within several minutes.
Finally, I’ve put my running career on Death Watch. I don’t know how much longer I will be able to do it, so I’ve been taking it a lot more seriously to get the most I can out of it while I can still do it. I’ve been hydrating like never before, getting to bed early the night before a race, conditioning the rest of my body, losing weight, and keeping a positive attitude about running and the joy I get from it. This all might mean that I’ll still be running for a long time. Back when I was 30, I put my volleyball playing on Death Watch. Then I got a helluva lot better at it.
Bounty: I’ve had great fun walking away with as many race bonuses as I can get my hands on, besides what every runner gets in his goodie bag and what is immediately consumed after the race. It’s typical for there to be lots of fruit, water, and other goodies available. Thus far this summer, I’ve gathered 6 bottles of water, 8 protein shakes, 6 bananas, 3 apples, 3 nutrition bars.
I know full well why I haven’t “reached out” before in regard to my hometown; in fact, I’ve known for quite some time: I don’t like my hometown.
A friend of mine used to joke that Angola, Indiana is a good place to be from. Growing up there, I felt marginalized because I wasn’t much of an athlete, my father didn’t own a business in the area, and we didn’t live on a lake, all of which were requisites for status in the community.
There was little opportunity for me to grow. The activities I was involved in were little more than afterthoughts in the school and community, and I spent a long time thinking that the problem was with me, because I didn’t like or excel at what was the norm. Then I went to college and my world exploded into something much greater.
College also helped me realize something else: I had cause to resent my hometown, and especially my high school. Many of my teachers were only slightly abled as educators; many were only average. There was a deep chasm between them and the few stellar teachers I had. I found myself lacking in critical skills when I matriculated, and that was the result of an uninspired, out-of-date curriculum and a bevy of teachers who did little to inspire or motivate me to learn. But I qualified for college (even with an anemic 910 on the SAT), and was motivated to be there, so I didn’t mind so much the effort required to catch up with my peers.
For a long time, I thought that the inability of my high school teachers stemmed from a lack of advanced education. There aren’t many options available for Masters degrees in the Angola area, and a lack of a Masters can many times create a glass ceiling for teachers– they only advance so far with their abilities and knowledge from undergrad, and then stagnate. I’ve seen it happen all too many times in the 3 buildings where I’ve worked the last 15 years. But my assertion was false. A recent review of a few yearbooks indicated that there were plenty of teachers at my high school who had Masters degrees. So what was the problem? I noticed that many of them came from the same place– a small college in nearby Ft. Wayne that in all likelihood offered the equivalent of a drive-through advanced degree that was hardly worth more than the paper it was printed on, other than the inherent value in advancing the teacher on the salary scale. There are few things worse than no advanced degree for a teacher, but one of them is a meaningless one that was skated through with little or no challenge.
Angola High School changed drastically after I left. Rex Bollinger, the principal who took over my senior year, helped shape it into a Blue Ribbon school that became known nationally for its innovative block scheduling. In addition to the Blue Ribbon, the school heaped up a ton of other awards and recognitions. I don’t begrudge the school that success; I only wish it would have been building and growing while I was there.
Despite all the success the school experienced, I didn’t see much difference in the town. Each time I came home from campus, it was all I could do to tolerate the place. I was openly resentful, and didn’t even want to be in the company of my classmates. Our worlds had quickly diverged, and I wasn’t emotionally bonded to too many of them anyhow. An exception to this has been my friend Dennis, who shared a lot of my sentiments. We’ve become closer friends than we ever were K-12, which has been cause enough to remain in contact from McAllen, Texas to Shanghai to New York City. Like I said, I think of myself as loyal and already make the effort to sustain contact with the important people.
So it’s tough for me to go home. But I’ll turn 40 in 11 days. That’s good cause to clear the decks, allow myself to be available to others, and perhaps recast my attitude about Angola. Truth is, I’ve been working on my Angola attitude for several years now. I try to make short visits (3 days max; sometimes more), I know where to go and what to do to occupy myself while I’m there, and the unexpected contact I’ve had with a half dozen former classmates this year have helped bolster some positivity.
I turn 40 in two weeks. The titular long, strange trip could just as well apply to the last year alone as it does to my entire existence.
Thank god I’m not the only one turning 40 this year. There’s something to be said for “Misery Loves Company,” but not too much, because I’m not miserable. I’m generally happy, frequently pretty happy, but occasionally unhappy. More on that later.
There hasn’t been a birthday that I’ve been more wary of than 40, because it is a significant measuring stick. I clearly remember 30, and remember being anxious about it, but that’s been minor league compared to the anxiety I’ve been feeling about turning 40 for the past 7 months. Fortunately, I have plenty of friends who made the milestone before me, so I’ve done some witnessing to how my peers have handled it. In that regard, I’m in a good place. I haven’t freaked out like several have, but I haven’t glided in with grace and dignity as a few others have.
For starters, it seems that people are serious now about life and mortality. This first became apparent last fall when I was found out of the blue by a high school classmate who I knew for less than a year and who disappeared from my
hometown literally overnight. I was shocked, but pleasantly so. We caught up on life, and it turned into a bit of a confessional. I can’t help but think that the pending shadow of 40 is what helped initiate that contact.
That was but the beginning…
In early April, I answered my phone at work to this question: “Is this Jeff Burd from Angola, Indiana?”
Somewhat taken aback by the abruptness of the question, I replied, “Who is calling?”
“My name is _______. I’m a __________ in ___________.” Thus began one of the ugliest and most contentious phone calls in recent memory.
It seems another high school classmate was looking for me in regard to a 40th birthday party that was being planned for another classmate, and asked ______ how to find someone. She mentioned my name, and he took it upon himself to find me and contact me in a place where I don’t readily accept personal phone calls.
I didn’t mind being contacted, but I did mind ______’s approach. In my opinion, he was trying to strong-arm me when I wouldn’t come forth about being the Jeff Burd he was looking for until he told me the nature of his business. I still don’t know what he was thinking or why he would try to be, in my opinion, a hard-ass over such a minor issue. We bickered back and forth on email about his demeanor and, in my opinion, lack of professionalism, and I got to thinking about whether or not he was even a _____________. Not that it matters… you can call yourself that if that’s what you do for a living. Besides, licensing or lack thereof doesn’t change the fact that ______ has solid experience with the law, some of which is based on his case against _______ that stemmed from his arrest for __________ and ___________. That’s not the extent of his law experience, though. I’m sure he had many positive experiences when he worked as a ________ for ________________, at least until _____________.
If nothing else, the whole experience was an education into what it’s like to be a _________. After that, I let things go– I remembered that I was almost 40, which is too old to deal with such asininity, in my opinion.
Sunday, June 13, 2010 ~ 7:15am ~ Highland Park, IL
Results: 27:03; 93rd of 520 overall; 7th of 19 in Male 35-39 division
I’ve set a goal to run a 5K every week this summer. Last week, it was the Hope for the Hungry 10K Race / 5K Run/Walk at Old School Forest Preserve in Libertyville, IL. I didn’t have a good experience. It was muggy all morning, and I was still dragged out from the end of the school year and graduation and after-graduation parties the night before. I never quite set my pace and my breathing was wrecked throughout. I finished in 28:34, which was considerably slower than the 27:26 I ran in a 5K over Mother’s Day Weekend.
So I was hoping to do better yesterday. I was well-rested, and made sure to drink plenty of water the few days before the race. I didn’t dig the idea of waking up at 5:30am on a Sunday morning during summer vacation to drive a half hour for a race, but thought it would be a testimony to my determination if I did. So I did.
I knew before the race started that I was “on.” I had a vision Saturday evening that I was going to run hard. I could see myself doing it, all the way down to what I would be wearing during the race. I saw myself halfway through the race, running with a gleeful lack of effort; just breezing along like I was born running. There must be some credibility to the notion of positive visualization and how it can affect an outcome– I’ve commented before in these pages about how I envision myself writing days before I actually write (and many times it goes as far as where I’m sitting and what I’m wearing). My writing experience at those times usually turns out positive.
So I was excited about running as I went to bed Saturday night, and was even more excited about it when the alarm went off Sunday morning. I couldn’t wait to get to the starting line.
The race was huge. And I mean HUGE! There were over 2500 runners combined; 520 in the 5K alone. I felt insignificant among the ebb and flow of runners, which was good for me because I didn’t feel self-conscious about my slow pace. It wouldn’t have mattered how fast I ran anyhow; there were plenty of runners around me at all times (because misery loves company!).
I passed a couple hundred people in the first mile, picked off a few dozen more runners on a quarter-mile uphill stretch, and was still in the thick of a pack of runners. It was that uphill stretch that wrecked my breathing. I couldn’t seem to regain it for another half-mile, and then only in spurts. I tried to pace myself off some runners near me, which helped a little bit, but by the time I reached the third mile, it was a lost cause. I tried to keep going as best I could until the end.
I broke the finish line in unbelievable time. In fact, I’m calling this a sub-27 min. 5K. Things were so crowded at the start line that I can reasonably say I lost 10 seconds of time swerving away from walkers and baby stollers. Regardless, it’s the fastest 5K I’ve run since I was 19 years old. In fact, it’s faster than many of the 5Ks I ran when I was 16. What makes me even happier, though, is that is a complete turnaround from last December when I ran a miserable 5K in Racine (30:51; I was still building back up from the Achilles injury).
So now I’m sore. I don’t mind the pain so much because it reminds me that I really pushed myself.
I’m happy that I can push myself.
Cuddy told himself that the thing with his brother didn’t bother him like it used to. He had reached out to Mack, awkwardly. Uncomfortably. He had reached beyond thoughts of the boys-will-be-boys tussles that Mack parlayed into black eyes and split lips when he came home Friday nights reeking of beer and vomit. Cuddy reached beyond memories of the ripped art projects, the blue-ribbon ones that Mack hated. Cuddy reached beyond reminders that sometimes woke him up at night of Mack’s knobby arms pressing him against his mattress, his scarred hands pressed over Cuddy’s mouth. Cuddy reached beyond reveling in his own triumph on Christmas Eve his first year in college when he escaped Mack’s grasp. Mack, still muscular and sleek, still cruel, had stumbled into his room not reeking of beer that time; he had graduated to whiskey. Cuddy felt Mack clutch his hair and jerked away from him. He stood on his own two feet for the first time ever and demanded, “No more.” His knees shook. He felt a trickle of urine run down his leg. Mack stared at him, measuring him up and down to gauge the threat. He muttered something and stumbled back to his own room across the hall.
Cuddy had reached out. He was certain of it. It was only a few years after the Christmas Eve standoff, when their mother’s liver finally surrendered. They were with her in the hospital for her final minutes. Silent. Numb. Dumb to what to do. She writhed beneath a stiff sheet, whispering something… anything for the hurt. Cuddy looked to Mack, unblinking, never getting a return look. He came around to the side of bed where Mack stood and put his arm across his shoulders. Mack angled his chin towards him, and then brushed his arm off.
Cuddy reached out because he believed what Doris said: “All Mack did was act out on you what was done to him.” She croaked it from behind a cloud of cigarette smoke one Friday morning. They were sitting in the kitchen, alternating glances at each other and at an empty bottle of bourbon that seemed to disappear too quickly after too many drinks they had lost count of.
Cuddy shook his head, it doesn’t bother me. He forgave Mack, and tried to send that message by calling every few weeks to talk. Even when Mack greeted him with, “Whadya want?” and gave nothing but one-word answers, Cuddy pushed forward. They only ever talked about meaningless things like changes in the weather or what was on TV, but Cuddy was relentless.
Cuddy grabbed a sandwich bag and dropped a few ice cubes into it. He folded the plastic until it was cat-paw sized, left it on the counter, and walked to the back bedroom. He found Sally under the shoe rack. He called her name and clucked to her, then reached under the shoe rack, scratched her head, and told her he was going to help her paw feel better. He grasped her scruff and dragged her out. She growled and spit again, and he growled back, “Settle down dammit I’m trying to help you.”
He held her to his chest and could feel her ribs heaving against his. She swiped him across the face again with her good paw. He put his finger to his cheek and felt parallel gouges of flesh. A drop of blood dripped into the stubble on his jaw. Her back claws dug into the paunch around his waist.
He sat at the kitchen table with the cat on his lap and tried to find the best way to put the icepack on her paw, but there was no good way to help the hurt without making it worse. He thought that at least a few minutes of ice on her swollen pads and tiny fingers would change her mind, but she recoiled from the cold, swollen paw be damned. Cuddy gave up on the ice pack and settled for holding the tense beast on his lap and stroking her. He whispered, “We’ll have to get that window fixed. Yeah. It hurts too much.” She cocked her head to the sound of his voice. He kept on, “You’ve got a lot to get used to here. It’s new. It’s going to take a while. But you can trust me, can’t you?”
They sat like that for five minutes, until he ran out of things to tell her. He could feel a growl deep in her stomach, and thought for a minute that she might release her bowels on him. He wanted to let go, but feared for the pain that would spark through her paw once she jumped to the floor. He tried to lower her, but it was the same flailing-leg cartoon scene as before. The second she touched the linoleum, she bounded down the hall and spun, her untreated paw off the carpet, and gave him a withering look- what the hell did you think was going to happen?– and sped to her hiding place.
Cuddy slumped in the recliner. He found the butt of a cigar and relit it. The bourbon was a pale mess. He gulped it anyway, dropped more ice in his glass, and dumped the rest of yesterday’s bottle on top of it. He’d walk to the corner for a new bottle after he rested.
He returned to the recliner, picked up the phone, and punched Mack’s number.
It rang twice before he hung up.
Note: A special shout-out to my man Raymond Carver on this one. This is mostly an attempt throughout at imitating his style. I hope I did right by the late master of the short story. Another shout-out, this one to my peeps at LakeSide Ink. Each of my pieces accepted by New Scriptor was handled by them in some way or another.