On the job, I’m a model of concentration. For the most part what I do is interesting, if only to me. The work involves staring for long periods at chromatic, pulsating lights and trying not to convulse, or pass out. My concentration is like that of a three-year old repeatedly smacking a cinder block with a butter knife. Intense, purposeful, not useful to society at large. When the sun sets on each day of work (which I wouldn’t realize, because we don’t have windows in the basement), my mind wanders. Not necessarily to the novel I’ve been bragging about not working on, or family activities about to take place. Nope. My automatic go-to daydream, my raison d’Walter Mitty, starts with the Waltons. More specifically, what would the Waltons do if you took them out of the Great Depression and plunked the entire shoeless family down in Mid-town Manhattan.
The Waltons was a 1970’s TV show depicting the life and hard times of a rural Virginia family during the Depression and World War II. The show was the creation of Earl Hamner Jr., the man also responsible for the 1963 Henry Fonda cinematic chestnut, Spencer’s Mountain. Basically, the Walton clan couldn’t get out tragedy’s way and weekly would experience a house fire, barn fire, general store fire, mattress fire, or some combination of all of the above along with the family cow spontaneously combusting like a Spinal Tap drummer. My mind, like aggravated gelatine, constantly goes back to “What would the Waltons think?” Sometimes at work, griping about DOS programs, I’ll say to myself “Well, at least this software would blow John Boy’s mind.” Okay, my thoughts wander a little at work. You can’t just apply this time machine game to any old TV show. Every “What would they have done on Little House on the Prairie?” question, for instance, ends up with Nelly Olson being mowed down by a car. I try not to play this game very often, resting in the knowledge that they’d end up like everybody else. Wearing shoes and constantly on Facebook saying good night to each other.
Today the doctor told me that I can start a regular running program again. This announcement hit in much the same way that the news of pitchers and catchers reporting to baseball training camps does each winter. I looked out the window at the wind blowing snow through the tree branches and clucked “Reeeaaallly?” It didn’t take long to start to embrace the idea of running. The current temperature may be a whopping 7° degrees, but in my mind it’s always summer and I’m perpetually careening across people’s lawns with my tongue hanging out. On some those occasions I’m actually running, as well. Heading back to work, I was in pretty good spirits. Never mind the weather, I was planning core strengthening and treadmill workouts. I basically returned to work from the doctor’s office with the car travelling sideways, because of the wind, but…whoo hoo, running! The car has a nifty feature in which the back hatch doesn’t close. In high wind the hatch acts as a sail and propels the car in unusual directions. Merrily I sailed to work, clouds of exhaust fumes making snowflakes dance around the car. The magic of winter in Michigan mixed with the early stages of asphyxia.
Returning to work was a good Up-With-People training for my not-always positive self. The furnace that heats our kitchen and offices had blown the last of its furnace-y cache of good will and left the staff cold. Even Blodgett ovens aren’t enough to heat a subterranean hash house during the single digit days of January. I, like most of my ancestors before me, dress for work in the traditional garb of the ancient clan of Poindexter. This means that even if the outdoor temperature is in the low nothings, I wear a short-sleeved, pocketed dress shirt. That’s okay, ‘cuz their snazzy. I may freeze at my desk, but it will have been done proudly in the garb of a food service accounts payable nerd. Alas, all of this will one day lead to running. Fresh air, sunshine, freedom. A time when I can ascend the stairwell from my basement office, remove my short-sleeved dress shirt and run. Or at least wallow in the sun. If my predictions are right, this could happen as soon as six months from now. Yippee!
Last night our family made the long anticipated trek into the forest to select the perfect Christmas tree. Well, not so much the forest. We drove over to Home Depot and wandered around the deserted garden department where the trees were unceremoniously stacked according to type and price. The only staff out in the 30 degree chill was a forlorn looking twenty-something year old clerk, sitting on a folding chair staring into space. The seagulls circled above, because no one told them to shut their beaks and find another place to paint with poo. In the end, we found a Scotch Pine that was reminiscent of our family tree (leaning over in a lazy way, not enough branches). The forlorn girl perked up and helped us load the tree into our waiting Chrysler Partsmobile. I started to perk up myself, thinking that this had gone better than holiday decorating forays when I was a kid.
When I was 11, my parents decided we needed to invest in a new tree. We were solidly fake tree Democrats in those days. Mom and Dad had me get the Sears catalog and phoned in for a respectable fake shrub. When we got to Sears receiving, the clerk brought us the wrong tree. An electrified Blue Spruce. Gorgeous, according to the package photo. When I tried to protest, dad and mom simultaneously elbowed me in the stomach. They weren’t fessing up. We owned no vehicle, and Dad knew we couldn’t put the tree on top of a cab. We ended up lugging the boxed tree onto a city bus. If it wasn’t humbling enough to put the tree on the wheelchair lift, I learned humility by having to pay an extra .50 ¢ tree fare. Embarrassing, or not, there’s no tree like the one in my folks living room (that they never paid full price for).
Life in a parallel universe is proving to be interesting. The only reason I say this is because my daughter is excited to head back to school on the Tuesday after Labor Day. This excitement could only exist in some alternate reality. The world I know, the real world, would normally contain no such eagerness to begin the school year. The idea of being legally required to attend an eight-hour per day, unpaid desk job never appealed to me. When I was ten, there were tons of projects I felt had to be done, and none of them involved going to sit with other pointy headed kids in a drafty, vomit scented building, eating bologna sandwiches. That year I went so far as to fail a grade. The windows in my classroom faced an Oldsmobile assembly plant, and I felt it was a better use of my time to figure out how to make crappy, inefficient cars.
I am glad and actually relieved that my child has not inherited my spirit of flunkitude and has a desire to learn through the school process. None of her father’s poor scholastic traits have manifested themselves in her DNA. School was divided into two distinct eras for me: B.G. (Before Girls) and W.N.? (What Now?). During the B.G. years, I spent time learning to break things. B.G. was the instructive part of school, because I learned the art of completely implausible denial. If, for instance, the jungle gym just happened to fall apart or the trash dumpsters rolled into traffic there wasn’t even any point in trying to deny it. I’d Make up a story involving aliens, gorillas and Margaret Thatcher and then go mute. The What Now? years were more difficult. I was too busy trying to figure out the nature of women to concentrate, let alone break anything. By college, a third era of enlightenment opened up and I stopped trying to figure out women, or destroy objects with just the power of my mind. I briefly studied. Why Not? Oldsmobile had quit production and I was out of distractions.
The tiny, non-starter irritations in life are always the ones I get stuck on. The other morning, I awoke and turned on the TV in time to see some unctuous spokes-models wandering through a wheat field touting the virtues of a brand of breakfast cereal. The beautiful people rattled and prattled for thirty seconds about this wonderful, natural sort of cereal. The food is supposedly natural because it’s shaped like something once found in nature and healthy because of some purported relationship with the earth. Blah, Blah, Blah. Never mind that the product is doused in malt syrup and makes its own gravy when covered in milk. The commercials used to employ a preachy testimonial from some world-famous chef, but models meandering through wheat fields dreamily expounding on the blessings of cereal must have seemed more relatable to advertising executives. Poor, hunky, famous chef. He’s probably gone back to slinging oatmeal in a hotel dungeon somewhere.
There isn’t much natural about breakfast cereal. If there was, we’d all be eating bowls of fertilizer (“All the best to you each morning!”). Rice grains impregnated with superheated air, rolled oats covered in sugar and stuck together with dyed and dried cranberries. I actually enjoy the completely unnatural. Peanut Butter Cap’n Crunch. At least when I eat PBCC, I know that it’s not even an imitation of real food, the same as I know that it hasn’t travelled with actual pirates.
Arrr…we’ll forgo the booty and take the peanut butter crap food with us. Sure beats cow manure…
I’d love to make a new kind of cereal that embodies the all-American breakfast. Coffee, cigarettes and resentment. The new breakfast treat might be called Smoldering Java Anger Flakes. The advertising would feature combat boot wearing lunchroom cooks wandering through Walmart shouting the virtues of eating compost. Every box would feature a hairnet at the bottom as a sort of prize. You know, I might change course and start eating some of that unctuous, whole grain cereal. It might regenerate the brain cells killed off by years of Cap’n Crunch.
I was out buying bed sheets tonight. To you this might seem ultra trivial and mundane, but in my case it always becomes an exercise in an area of domestic life I want no part of. My bedding requirements are simple and are as follows:
Is there a bed? No? I’ve slept on floors, couches, beaches, friend’s kitchens, acquaintances doorsteps. I’m glad for the bed, but it isn’t a deal breaker.
What is sleeping with me, or in my vicinity? Dogs are okay, but seeing-eye ponies, domesticated rodents and undomesticated persons (or rodents) are deal breakers.
There are things about buying sheets that I get, but don’t want to get into. Thread count seems to be a big deal. Suddenly I have to become Count Threadula, Emperor of Bedding in order to buy sheets. I’m in the store, squinting to see if I can count the threads. “There’s one! Wah ha ha! One thread!” I get distracted too easily to buy home products, anyway. A classic Z.Z. Top song came on over the store’s p.a. system and I stopped counting threads and listened more carefully than I’d ever to what my wife had explained to me about sheets. Cheap Sunglasses started to play and all thoughts of domestic tranquility fled my slipping mind. Instead, I began to envision a summer project. Each June I give in to the urge to tackle improvement (my own, or someone else’s). This year, instead of losing weight, or cutting my cholesterol, I decided while Sunglasses was rockin’ that I’d grow an awesome beard like the one Z.Z. Top’s Billy Gibbons wears. Sure it’ll be tough to hide the beard around the office. Maybe if I go all out for the boogie and blues, the beard will just look less crazy and more a natural extension of whatever personality is trying to get out of me. Oh, and the sheets? I bought black. Rock, roll and common sense, because they hide dirt in their many black threads.
One of the parts about parenting that I never really get used to is the amount of structure required in children’s lives. My pre-teenage daughter is starting a second week of musical theatre camp tomorrow, an activity that follows a summer of other meaningful childhood activity. This is the case with many of my friends kids. We pay to keep them on the road, year-round, like a worn out rock band. This may have been common when I was a kid, but I have no recollection of much wholesome activity. I was a fairly unsophisticated kid. My friends and I would go outdoors and play something called “Funny People” for hours on end. The object of the game was…well there wasn’t an object, because the game was just stupid. One participant would punch the other. The puncher would fall down and writhe on the ground while the punchee would stand and laugh, while showing no effects of having been hit. There were several aspects of Funny People that puzzle me to this day:
Parents and educators would encourage us to go outdoors and punch each other in the head (“Why don’t you go find your friends and punch each other in the head?”)
For all of the blows to the skull, many of us managed to grow into responsible, caring adults. There are those in every group of friends who wind up in jail, or with uncontrollable twitching, I imagine. I’d speculate more, but my left leg keeps independently kicking the right one.
My parents would tire of all the whining about skull fractures toward mid-summer and shell out $15 dollars to send me for a week at sleep-away camp. This was about as structured as life got, because my friends and I would spend our daylight hours making wallets and license plates in a makeshift compound, deep in the north woods of Michigan. My favorite project was making knife holsters. What 8-year old boy doesn’t want a carrier for his homemade shank? Each morning started with some old geezer sidling up to me in the chow line, asking “der yer warnt ah wiskerr ruub?” My love of the marathon began right there, because I learned to run from unshaven camp geezers. Yeah, now that I’ve purged those memories, maybe driving my child around to her sophisticated activities is a good thing. Let me go get my camp wallet so I can pay whatever amount structure requires.
The nice thing about losing one’s mind (and there are nice things. I’m not a glass half empty person, preferring to drink straight from the bottle) is that you can function in society for quite a while before anybody comments on the situation. My mind started playing tricks last week and I began to hear phrases in the night coming from the kitchen. I’d wake in the wee hours of the morning (so-called, because that’s when middle-aged men have to get up and go) and hear phrases uttered from across the house. Indecipherable mutterings arising for no reason. Only after a few days of hearing voices did I realize the voice was that of a Happy Meal give-away toy and that I’d never find the culprit. The offending toy would keep jabbering until the battery went dead. It hasn’t yet.
My 9-year-old daughter has mostly moved past playing with toys, but she still accumulates fast-food freebies with disturbing frequency. Talking things that reinforce nonsensical slogans and jargon for no good reason. For every one that does something interesting (like burp on command, or sit quietly and stare into space) there are dozens that shout stupid drivel. Once we even got a Simon Cowell talking bauble that I had to run over with a car in order to silence. I’m not a hater, and thrive on the absurd, but I draw the line at talking toys. As a teenage McDonald’s employee I used to deep fry them in batches. Needless to say, my career under the arches was brief. Personal kindness and patience shouldn’t extend to talking toys.
I’ve pinpointed the location of the nightly jabbering toy and have been informed by my family that it’s a zebra, inexplicably voiced by Chris Rock. Sorry, I’d rather be crazy.
A friend of mine recently spent 4 hours on hold with the phone company. The wait time would have been longer, but the gentleman’s head spontaneously combusted when a call center representative came on the line and asked if he was in any way dissatisfied with the level of service received. Nothing left but smoke and receiver. The phone company is fine with this. They have nothing to lose. Customers are still on hold who’ve been waiting since the Bell System was founded in 1878. Each knows that the sweet heavenly repose of death awaits as soon as they get that pesky .3¢ overcharge off the bill. “Today’s expected wait time is between 3 minutes and blehhhhhh.”
Verizon will never be the phone company and it’s pretty safe to say that Magic Jack won’t own that title any time soon. No, the phone company will always be that conglomeration of companies responsible for preserving antiquities, AT&T. They’ll provide cellular phone service as long as the device is wired to a building. AT&T is a pioneer of successful paperless billing, provided that you remember what you owe and then take a steam engine to the nearest Bell office. To be fair, AT&T offers an automated menu to guide callers through problems during wait times. Actually, the menu is just a recording of my Uncle Frank. Most of the programmed responses sound just like my relatives enjoying fried green tomatoes on a summer evening. “Hmmm…Seems like you’ve called because you have a problem? Is that correct?” “You’ve called using a telephone today. Do I have that right?” “I think that I’ve identified the problem. Before I can fix the issue I’ll need you to tell me what you’re wearing.” I’d tell Frank that I like the automated help, but he’s on hold with the phone company.
As of this writing, I’m down to less than 23 weeks before the marathon of my life (every marathon is called this until it’s been run and then I tag the next race with that title). There are lots of issues to consider, and I’m on something like #23 out of #120,000. Training time, nutrition, goal weight, injury prevention, gear prep. These are some of the most pressing, but the granddaddy of them all is getting to that magic number: the goal time. I want to run 3 hours and 59 minutes, or less. This will require prayer, intensity and a drive to leave it all on the trail. To quote a song of the moment,
I want to scream and shout and let it all out!
The thing is I’m off-balance. Coming out of the fog of depression, I suddenly want to do everything. I really desire to romance my wife properly, run races, work with local volunteer programs, perform exemplary work at my job. To accomplish those things means some tough days and many bad meals. There are set back days in which I eat bad because I can. In the end, though, the main thing has to remain the main thing. If I want to run a sub-four hour marathon (or even finish the marathon), then I have to achieve balance. Train right, not eat like a depressed person. Sleep. Quiet, meditative moderation with the occasional scream and shout just to feel alive. The drive to leave it all on the trail, only tempered with the contemplative spirit. The opposite has been happening lately. I cannibalized lots of Chips Ahoy! cookies on my way through the disordered past few weeks. Weeks of running around rather than running forward, or with purpose. I may not be able to everything, but if I train for and run a good race the right way, then I’ll have achieved something that will travel with me for the rest of my life. That, I can scream and shout about.
I lift up my eyes to the mountains-where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth. –psalms 121:1-2
I’ve riffed on the subject of running and The Mad Monk Season many times, but the feeling is embedded so deep within my soul to get out and conquer the pavement that writing on it just seems like a natural extension. The Mad Monk Season is that time in running each summer when my focus narrows to life’s basics. Each day I give my all to family, especially my 9-year-old daughter Anna’s acting pursuits (she’s in a musical tonight. Go Anna!), to doing precedent setting work at my job and to meeting all of the strange and wonderful obligations that grown-up life has to offer. I make no bones during the summer training season, however, that my focus is honed in on three basic questions: How can I love God and give him everything each day while helping others be the best that they can be? How many games back are the Tigers? When can I go and run? There is no giving short shrift to anybody, just a paring of life down to the essentials. The idea is to lose weight spiritually and physically.
Today’s running music mix on my phone featured a completely great, but not really good for cadence song by Radiohead entitled “Subterranean Homesick Alien.” I didn’t hit fast-forward, because I love the line
Up above Aliens hover Making home movies For the folks back home,
Of all these weird creatures Who lock up their spirits, Drill holes in themselves And live for their secrets.
Do we? Sometimes, watching out for the cracks in the pavement, I do just let it all go and abandon myself to the gifts God has given me and to the joy of running itself. Sometimes, I’m only training to be human. A mad monk on no mission at all. The marathons will go fine when I get to them. (Lyrics from Radiohead’s “Subterranean Homesick Alien, 1997, OK Computer. Used without permission).
A few months ago I was lamely explaining my reasons for abandoning the daily running program that had become a cornerstone of my life. The whole argument came down to barfing. Professionals turn their noses up at the term barf, seeming to prefer the more tasteful notes in the word puke, or that classic of the ancient world vomit. I, however, was spending all my free time (and many of my scheduled moments) barfing. The doctor was trying to establish how much I was “really” running. The answer was not at all, real, or otherwise. Barfing had me on a fitness program of its own, and that was about as real as things got.
I got off the barfy train a month ago thanks to medications that may kill me (but will keep my stomach contents in place) and began the task of rebuilding the runner’s body. This is not an easy gig. The inverse of living as Andrew and His Technicolor Dinner Re-runs, was that I had to eat to make up the lost energy. My body began to take on the look of Jabba jr. The way back to the solid, strong (and mercifully silent when outdoors) runner I used to be meant becoming a walker. Jabba the Shuffler is slowly being replaced by something better than the old upchuck marathoner of a year ago. To coin the cliché, whatever doesn’t make a person sick any longer, should make them mad enough to go and fight. My once full race schedule is down to one event, the aptly named Old Farts Marathon, in Lowell, Michigan at the end of summer. I have no notions of suddenly getting back into good form. The truth is that this will be a season of dirt, scrapes, hills, too-early mornings, and way-too hot afternoons. A very good trade for barfing, if I do say so myself.
First off, thanks to the Dutch spammer who sent the weird material. I had no idea you could do so much with a windmill! Man, what a strange week. I’ve put aside all of the silly little things that came with being on vacation like sleep and um…sleep. ‘Back on the chain gang. This morning I was in the restroom at work and started to fall asleep. Standing up. That’s part of being grown up. In my old college days I found myriad ways to sleep. If there had been a major in creative somnambulism, I’d have made the dean’s list. Remember 1994? I don’t. Spent that year mostly asleep. Until recently I thought Newt Gingrich had been invented by the same geniuses who gave us K-mart and underwater speed dating.
This week has been a reminder that the change of calendar really can be a sign of a magical year to come. There are marathons to train and work toward, both physical and spiritual. What is lost in sleep is made up by possibility. This is the year when I take 10 more minutes off my 26 mile time (which makes my new marathon pr 23 hours, 36 minutes), There‘s the novel I joke about writing every year. Maybe this will be the season that it gets done. So far, like this blog, it’s just a rambling 300 word mess. I have the faintest bits of plot mapped out. See, there’s this famous ex-Heisman winner and TV sports analyst who goes on a killing rampage. He can’t find gloves that fit. You know, I had that dream back in the 90’s and I always wonder if it could happen in real life. Nah, that guy would totally go to prison. That story is about as believable as Newt Gingrich.
Early in October, a medical student was filling the gaps in my chart when I visited the doctor for headache follow-up. The future of our health care system set about determining if I get any physical exercise and I gladly told her that I was running five days a week. “Yes. Thank you. Now, do you get any exercise, Andrew?” asked the inquisitor a second time and again I told her that I was running daily in preparation for an upcoming marathon. She peered over the chart and I smiled back the way a gassy baby does. A third time the student came back with “Good. So…are you getting any exercise?” I bowed my head low and wagged it in shame. “No. I don’t get any.” Which is a lie, of course, because I was busy finishing another mad monk season.
I run. What a strange thing for a phobic to do, and yet there I am for months on end cruising the sidewalk like a swiftly shuffling E.T. following a trail of Reese’s Pieces. While I possess the look of withering ham salad left too long in the sun, I am a determined runner. This determination is what I mean by the mad monk season. For several months life is simplified to it’s essentials: prayer, work, running and baseball. All those months, I eat and carry semi-literate conversations (“Klattu barada nikto”), but my focus is narrowed to running farther and faster. After the Community Health Indianapolis marathon in mid October, I rejoined humanity. Ate too much, slept in on Saturdays. Lost the micro-focus. Eventually, I went back to running. There is always something that needs to be done, some goal further up the road that keeps me from constantly looking inward. That, and I need to get some exercise.