Get Back on the Horse

I’ve been a runner almost my entire adult life. I started running midway through my junior year in college. Ironically (because I’d been skinny my entire life), my impetus for ever strapping on running shoes was to lose weight. I’d packed on a bunch of pounds after two and a half years of sedentary studying and working with no workouts to speak of. With the dreaded metabolic slowdown upon me, I needed something to stay in shape, so running it was.

I never intended for it to become an obsession, but I’m sure nobody starts something with that in mind. Nevertheless, I found the runner’s high addictive and have ever since. I started racing and having some moderate success, at least in my age group, and that made it more addictive. Over the years there have been some highs and lows, but generally, mostly highs. I’ve flopped in races and suffered through the occasional injury, but luckily, nothing has stopped me from running yet.

The times I’ve been injured have been the toughest. There’s nothing worse than telling a runner he can’t run. I’ve had some nagging injuries that have put me on ice both figuratively and literally over the years, but I’ve only had three injuries in over 25 years that have kept me down for very long. Each time, I rebounded and got back to where I was before the injury.

As I’ve gotten older, the rebounds take longer and are less successful. It seems the toll of injuries past leaves a mark on me and that’s slowed me down. I used to do training runs at about a 6:20 clip. Now, I’m doing them at a 6:45 clip on a good day, but more likely, I’m slipping into the 6:50 range. For years, I fought this decline, but somewhere along the way, I decided it’s better to go slower and keep running than it is to hurt myself and not run again. It’s a hard thing for an aging runner to accept, but eventually, we all have to come to terms with it.

That’s not to say it’s easy to accept. My mind still thinks I can run like I used to, but my body says otherwise. This past weekend, I had my first marathon of 2020, and to say I flopped would be an understatement. My time was terrible. I simply ran out of gas in the last 10K. Short of the very first road marathon I ran way back in 2001, this was the worst marathon time I’ve had (I’m not including adventure or trail marathons, which have unusual challenges and often take longer than road marathons).

The key is to keep moving forward and not stop no matter how disappointed I am in the results. Later this week, I’ll get back out there and start training for my next marathon in March. It’s more of a trail marathon than a road marathon, so the time may not be much better, but I hope that I’ll get through it with a better result in terms of how I handle the last 10K. Failure is painful, and in this case, it’s physically painful, but I will get back on that horse again and again until I can’t anymore.

I’m Gonna Get My Groove Back

I’ve been in a funk the past two years writing-wise. I’ve started but not finished several projects. After several years of finishing projects reliably in about six months, I find myself falling out of a love with a project, fumbling with it for a few months, and then, abandoning it altogether. I can’t seem to find a reasonable level of satisfaction with anything I’m writing. It’s driving me nuts.

I tried making adjustments. I quit a large chunk of social media, which took away time from writing and distracted me. I reduced my blog posting frequency hoping that if I focused more squarely on the project at hand that I’d get in the groove and finish the complete first draft. Nothing has really worked.

My current project has been on pause for three weeks now. I’ve written about a third of it and I’ve edited that third multiple times. I’m still not happy with it. I’ve considered how to make it better, but every time I think about it, I get discouraged. The story works in my mind. It’s not translating to the page, and by the way, editing is not fun. It’s not my forte for sure.

I’ve been writing since I was nine years old. Six years ago, I decided to get serious about it and work toward the goal of getting published. Out of the gate, I finished my first novel in about six months. It still sits in a virtual drawer on my hard drive. Nevertheless, it felt good to finish that novel and the six others I’ve since completed, but none of them have gone anywhere because I hate editing. Editing is like cleaning up the morning after a great party when you’re hungover. It’s like eating broccoli when everyone else is having ice cream.

My solution is to go back to school. Later this spring, I plan to take a college writing course. My primary resolution this year is to improve my writing. If I can accomplish that this year, then I think I’ll get my groove back. At least that’s my hope.

Be Better

I’ve used this analogy before, but some days, I feel like the hapless steel ball in a pinball machine – shot from the chute only to bounce around from bumper to flap for a while until I plop down the drain. I eschew the idea of predetermination or any other preconceived plan because I believe we control our own destiny, yet when all of the moving parts of our lives come together, it can feel rather chaotic like the Shibuya subway station in Tokyo.

But like Shibuya, the beauty of life lies in its chaos, the interconnectedness that draws us apart and together at the same time. If you focus too much on the messiness of the crowd and not on the feat of engineering that moves the trains in and out of the station in an orchestrated manner, you’ll freeze up and never get where you’re going. Likewise, if you focus on being hurtled from bumper to flap and back again, you’ll get nowhere. Staying focused on the things that matter despite the inherent noise is the only way to move forward.

In my almost five decades on this planet, I’ve tried multiple approaches to rein myself in and stay focused on those most important things. I’ve succeeded some, and I’ve failed a lot. I’m convinced that if your failures don’t outnumber your successes, you aren’t trying hard enough. You’re too risk adverse. Failures are painful, like burning your hand on a hot pan, but I’ll be damned if you don’t learn so much from them. Some lessons are obvious (e.g., this pan gets hot!), while others are far more subtle. Early in my life, I’d get so twisted around the axle of my failures that I’d literally shut down. Now, I’m much more sanguine about them. They still hurt, but I focus on what I’ve learned and move on.

In all of this chaos, it’s hard to boil things down to a simple mantra, but we need simple. It’s like a pinprick of light in a inky black room that preoccupies our attention. Mine is trite, pedestrian – “Be better”. Be a better husband, father, brother, son, coworker, runner, writer, human being, etc. This is not a competition with you or anyone else. It’s a competition with myself if you want to frame it in those terms. I aim to be better than I was yesterday and the day before that.

Of course, there will be setbacks. Of course, I will fail sometimes, but I will come back stronger, and I will, in fact, be better. Eventually. It keeps me moving forward.

The Year Ahead

It’s important to have things to look forward to. Otherwise, the mundane routine of life will drag you down. It’s also important to have goals lest you be reduced to some really random walk through the year. Our time on this spinning blue marble is short, and I don’t want to waste a minute of it. I like to use the end of the year to refresh, revisit, and reinvigorate myself. The downtime helps reset my mind and body and gets me focused on my key priorities for the year ahead.

Early on in my adult life, I treated the year-end introspection like a kid in a candy store, setting a whole list of goals that became more improbable as the list grew in length. Luckily, I grew wiser in spite of myself and realized that focus is the key to actually achieving those goals, and for the past couple of decades I’ve limited myself to just a few key goals that I focus on each year. Some are similar each year (incremental improvement!). Others hail from left field (I want to do an Ironman!).

Some folks poo-pah the annual resolution setting, primarily because most resolutions fall by the wayside come February, but it doesn’t have to be that way. I have a framework I use to manage and limit my goals. I also have a plan for achieving them, and most importantly, I measure my progress throughout the year. At the end of the year, I determine if I achieved them or not, and if not, I understand why. As a result, many of my resolutions actually stick. Case in point: At the beginning of 1992, I set a goal to become a runner (as in running on a regular basis), and I’m still running 28 years later.

There’s nothing earth-shattering about my goals for 2020. Really, my goals are rarely that elevated. I try to focus on things I can control within a relativity short time frame because success is more about incremental improvements than it is about once-in-a-lifetime achievements or pie-in-the-sky dreams. My primary goal this year is to improve my writing. To do that I plan to write a lot (practice makes perfect), and I plan to take a couple of college courses on creative writing. See what I did there? Not only do I have a goal, but I have a plan to achieve it. I’ve already picked out the courses I will take in the spring and fall this year, and I’ll be signing up for the spring courses soon to keep myself on track.

Another big goal for me this year is to finish the 50 states marathon challenge I started nine years ago. The challenge started with the goal I set at the end of 2010 and will have been ten years in the making when I wrap it up in New Hampshire in November of this year. This assumes all goes as planned. There’s always the risk that health and myriad other factors conspire to throw me off my game, but for now, I’m on track to cross that finish line in Manchester, New Hampshire some time before Noon on November 8th. Wish me luck.

As for the rest of my goals, luck has little to do with it. Focus and hard work will get me there. A good challenge gets me energized and gives me a good reason to look forward to the year ahead. Now, spin little blue marble. Spin!

A Look Back

I can’t believe that 2019 is nearing its end, nor can I believe we’ve almost finished the 2010s, a decade I’ll remember as much for my kids coming of age as I will for the multitude of changes I’ve experienced. We moved back to the U.S. at the beginning of this decade after living in China for three years, our kids started school, I changed jobs five times (two of them with the same company), I got serious about writing, I lost my dad halfway through the decade, and we moved to the other side of the country. Despite all that happened before this year, 2019 was a capstone for the decade.

I unwillingly inched closer to the half century mark. Aging gracefully is probably not going to be my thing. It’s not going to be pretty, so you may want to look away. When the years ahead of you are appreciably fewer than those behind you, it shifts your mindset. For me, there’s a sense of urgency, a need to get things done before it’s too late. And I’ll never know when it’s too late. In that vein, my wife and I solidified plans this year to make major life changes when our youngest goes away to college. We’ll cast off the shackles of routine and trade in our dress shoes for the decidedly more casual look of an intrepid explorer. I have a list of places I want to see that is longer than the number of years I have left.

Other than travel, I want to read and write more. I only read 16 books this year, but my “to read” list grows longer every day. I’ll definitely be reading much more in the years to come. My favorite book remains Where the Crawdads Sing, which I ready in 2018. I did get to see the author, Delia Owens, in person this year when she was on tour, and she was delightful. I admire her ability to create such a beautiful story. As for 2019, my favorite fiction book was Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan, which weaves a fictional tale of a young Italian man who secretly helped Jews escape Nazi terror. Apparently, there’s some controversy around this novel as I unwittingly found out on Twitter, but it’s fiction, and I’m okay with literary liberties. The other big title I read this year was Sapiens. It’s not often I get passionate about nonfiction, but this book changed the way I think about things on a fundamental level. I highly recommend it.

It’s been almost eight years since I really got serious about writing and started writing novels. I don’t have much to show for it. I’m no closer to being published today than I was in 2012 when I started this journey. Quite frankly, querying has taken the fun out of writing, so I’m putting that on hold indefinitely, maybe permanently. I enjoy writing for the sake of creating the story. It’s enough for me to just put it on the screen and breathe life into it. The reality is that people read less given all of the media consumption choices out there, and people read much less literary fiction, so my odds of getting published are infinitesimal. The fact that the Fifty Shades books were the top-selling titles of the last decade proves to me that my preferred genre is nearing extinction, and that’s too bad because I love the slow burn of a good literary novel. I guess that’s yet another thing that proves I’m out of touch with reality. That happens when you get old.

While this year comes to an end, I still be here rambling and writing, mostly rambling. Come on back when you have the time and hopefully you’ll find something interesting. I’m still working on my latest novel, Them, which I hope to finish in 2020, but I may occasionally post excerpts or short stories as I find time. Until then, happy New Year. See you in 2020.

 

A Life Unlived

It’s nearing that time of the year where I think about what I accomplished in the past 12 months and what I want to accomplish in the new year. We’ll begin a new decade in just a little over a month, which has me thinking about the big picture. One thing I’ve realized is that, despite being on this planet for almost half a century, I haven’t really lived because I’ve missed out on some things that are the hallmark of a well-lived life.

For instance, I’ve never engaged in a fight over a chicken sandwich. Popeye’s has been in the news lately just as much for its customers getting physical as it has for the taste of its revamped chicken sandwich. I’ve never even stepped foot in a Popeye’s much less popped a fellow fast-food customer because they landed the last of the sandwiches available. I feel like I’m missing something, and I’m not talking about the indigestion likely to be had from a greasy fast-food sandwich. Maybe I’ll swing by Popeye’s today and look for an opportunity to join in the fisticuffs. That will surely make me feel like I’ve truly lived.

I’ve never spent the better part of my day arguing online with someone or something (in the case of the many bots that populate the online world). I’ve always taken the perspective that I have better things to do, but do I really? Have I truly lived if I haven’t tasted the victory of overcoming a half-baked argument from an ill-informed or ill-advised person/bot? I can’t say that I have. How much of a man am I if I haven’t verbally bludgeoned a 12-year-old boy who spouted off a few trigger words on Twitter? I have my doubts.

I’ve never breathlessly followed every move of reality TV stars. The problem is that I wouldn’t recognize most of them if they walked through my front door right now. Recognition aside, think of all of the drama I’ve missed from not knowing that so-and-so is on her fourth boyfriend after she caught the last one cheating with her best friend’s mother’s dog’s veterinarian? I’d get dizzy just trying to figure that out. I’m not sure what reality these people represent but I’m in full FOMO mode here. I’m headed over to Instagram right now to add these people (who are they again?) to my feed.

It’s disappointing to look back on my life and realize I’ve missed out on the things that make a life worthwhile. I don’t know how it happened. Maybe I fell asleep in school when the teachers talked about the need to resort to physical violence when you don’t get what you want. It’s not too late. I can make up for lost time. See you at Popeye’s.

The Curious Case of the Headless Snowman

Years ago, when my daughter was still a little girl, I took her into a Starbucks so that I could grab a coffee. As kids are wont to do, she lingered by the bakery case eyeing the sweets that lined the lower shelf. The countdown to Thanksgiving and Christmas had already begun, so Starbucks had reintroduced their snowman sugar cookies, and she wanted one. I caved and bought her one, which made her positively giddy. The sugar high will do that to a kid.

A few weeks later, I was in the drive-through at Starbucks (I’m sensing a pattern here) ordering a coffee (go figure) when my daughter chimed in from the back seat that she wanted another snowman cookie. Apparently, she’d found her favorite thing at Starbucks. I obliged and pulled around to the pickup window. After the cashier handed me my coffee and the cookie, I looked back at my daughter who eagerly extended her arms toward me indicating she wanted her cookie. I looked at her and smiled, and then, I bit the head off of the cookie.

I meant it as a joke, but my daughter gave me that mixed look of aggravation and disgust that I may or may not have received from her mother once before (okay, maybe a few times). She was mostly stunned. I had taken a presumptuous bite of her glorious treat, and she wasn’t happy. She didn’t cry, but when I handed her the headless snowman, she looked like I had put a lump of coal in her stocking. She stared into the paper wrapper, and then, she took the maimed cookie out and looked at it like she couldn’t eat it now that it had been disfigured. I laughed and made a comment about the “Daddy tax,” that overwrought go-to dad example meant to teach our kids about paying taxes.┬áMy daughter wasn’t too upset to eat the rest of the cookie. In fact, she recovered enough to laugh it off. She dismissed me as her silly daddy.

A few weeks later when she asked for another snowman cookie, she eagerly anticipated my response. I bit the head off again and she laughed heartily as if I had told a hilarious joke. My son even got into it because I did the same thing to him. He followed her lead and giggled about it as well. It became our thing during the holiday season. They’d ask for snowman cookies, and I’d bite the heads off before I gave them to them.

The snowman cookies returned to Starbucks recently, so I swung by and picked up a couple of them after work one night for my now teenage kids. I handed each of them the familiar Starbucks paper wrapper when I got home. They were smiling even before they looked inside the wrapper because they knew what I had done. My daughter plucked the headless snowman from the package and laughed. She knows she can always depend on me for a bad dad joke and a headless snowman cookie. I don’t get many smiles from my teenagers nowadays, but sometimes, an old bit does the trick.

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