My No Good, Horrible, Very Bad Year, So Far

“It’s not how many times you get knocked down,” Stuart Smalley, Socrates or some spandex shorts wearing high school football coach once said, “it’s how many you get back up.” I’m not sure who to credit with this well intentioned quote because 2014 has not just knocked me down, it has damn near knocked me out.

To fully appreciate my wretched present, we have to rewind to October when I tore a calf muscle while doing too many hill repeats in prep for the Seattle Half Marathon which I ended up missing. Even writing “half marathon” makes me laugh now. I took four weeks off and then returned slow and easy. On the fourth recovery run the calf again rioted. So now I’m not even half way through an eight week hiatus. The other day I started corralling wayward Christmas tree needles when I had to turn the vacuum off and sit down and rest before continuing. All this, eighteen months removed from long distance triathlon success. We are always the last to know when we’ve peaked.

Add into the mix an enlarged prostate which means sucky sleep, contacts that are shot meaning sucky vision, and an unplanned trip to Dante’s Inferno compliments of an influenza roundhouse that left me too sick at times to watch television. Somewhere along the long downward spiral, I went from thinking “I should probably try to get back up and do Stuart Smalley or Socrates proud,” to “Screw it, I’m just gonna curl up in the fetal position and stay down. If I tuck tight enough it may not matter if 2014 continues kicking me in the gut.”

A part of staying down was going to the dermatologist who always smiles when she sees me. You’re thinking she’s probably turned on by me, but I looked liked I just returned from the lower levels of Hades. She always smiles at me because my tired skin pays for her boat. She has zero interpersonal skills, but she’s damn good with a liquid nitrogen canister. It was as if 2014 asked her to liquid nitrogen me until I begged for mercy. So now, a few days later, red blotches are forming all over my formally handsome self. And I haven’t shaved for ever, I need a hair cut, and if my sinuses weren’t completely blocked I’d probably lay on the floor of the shower for awhile.

Like a paratrooper who perfects her aerodynamic tuck, I thought if I just give in to my cosmic fate, I’ll hit bottom faster and bounce higher when I do. So why not roll the dice with one of the things I most cherish, my marriage.

“You know when I asked if you’d get me some 7-Up or Sprite?” “Yeah.” “Well, the funny thing about that is that’s what my mom always gave me to drink when I was sick as a kid. It’s funny, there’s something about a near-death experience that makes a part of me still want my mom. That’s probably the least masculine thing I’ve ever said, huh?” “A mother’s love is primal.” Say wha?! The first sign yet the calendar may not have it out for me.

And then I visited Australia, well actually an Australian blog after the author visited here. And I read this:

People often ask me what it’s like living with a chronic illness. And by ‘often’, of course I mean never.

So, for the benefit of absolutely no one, allow me to explain. You know that feeling you get when you start to come down with something? Your throat starts to hurt and your glands swell up. Your sinuses block and your nose starts to run. Your head hurts and you can’t think clearly. Your bones ache, your body feels weak and no amount of sleep seems to make a difference.

Well, to the best of my admittedly limited scientific knowledge. . . these are actually the body’s natural defences for fighting off infection. It’s your immune system switching on and kicking in to gear.

And these are the symptoms I’ve had 24/7 for the last seven-and-a-half years. Because, as I’ve explained before, my body has been fighting off an infection it can’t beat and my immune system remains permanently in the ‘on’ position.

The good news is that it means I rarely get whatever bug it is that’s going round. Happy days. The bad news is that I permanently feel like I have the flu. Not so good.

Of course, there are other symptoms, too, like sensitivity to light, noise, cold and heat, significant memory impairment, insomnia, chronic pain and various bodily dysfunctions not appropriate to discuss in this type of public forum. And that’s without the introduction of any number of medical treatments — and believe me, I’ve tried a few — which inevitably make you feel worse than you did to begin with.

So, in short, living with a chronic illness is a real party and that’s your answer.

The first gift of 2014. Perspective.

I am fortunate that the relentless attack on my body is abating and that most of my many ailments are fixable. I will ask the lifeguard to roll my pathetic, coiled bod across the deck and into the pool in a day or two. I will try to ascend the trainer tonight and soft pedal while watching college basketball. The torn fibers in my calf muscle will eventually reattach. I will start running in mid February and should be back to semi-normal in June. Meds make the prostrate manageable. I will make an appointment with the optometrist. My ugly sores will heal. I will shave my face and head. Then I will shower, put on clean clothes, and resume my rightful place among the mostly living. And that is the best I can do.

Still Progressing Toward the Standard

That phrase is from my favorite sentence in Dahlia Lithwick’s recent funny-sad Slate essay (penultimate paragraph). Thanks to Dahlia for saying aloud what all of us have long suspected, educational jargon is out-of-control.

Why so? Because education is so much more complicated than in the past? That might explain a tenth of it. More consequential, educator’s confusing language reflects muddled thinking.

Here’s a recent fav example from the torrent of acronyms and tortured language I have to wade through daily. It’s from the promotional materials of a highly sought after teaching consultant.

Students advocating for educational improvement, researching classroom climate, and leading new approaches to learning and teaching stand together in the architecture of involvement, effectively demonstrating what school change looks like when the hearts, heads, and hands of students are infused throughout the process.

Come again? The “architecture of involvement”. Please stop. The more times I read that sentence, the more confused I become. Maybe I’m just not smart enough to appreciate his brilliance.

I should start a contest for the best example of educational jargon by a non-computer, and by “best” of course, I mean worst. But participants would probably cheat by using this educational jargon generator. The situation is so desperate that humor is the only viable response.

Switching gears, I added the briefest of postscripts to Friday’s triathlon post. Basically, a link to the results. If you take the time to skim the results, you’ll see that I HMAHTM (that’s a triathlon acronym which stands for Had My Ass Handed To Me). Props to Kennett. I can’t complain. I raced well and was only 2 seconds slower than two years ago. At this stage of my life, I’ll gladly give Father and/or Mother Time one second a year.

Kennett passed me early on the bike and then we leap frogged a bit. The first time he said, “You’re in the duathlon right (a separate bike/run division)?” To which I said “No.” Afterwards I thought of better responses like, “Yes” or “You don’t swim that fast.” A few miles later, when he passed me again, he asked me my name and I didn’t reply. Regretted that and so when I passed him back a mile later, I told him my name and asked his.

When racing I enjoy taking time checks on the guys ahead of me to see if I’m gaining ground or not. When they pass a landmark I glance at my computer and then glance at it again when I pass the same place. Throughout the middle of the bike his cushion yo-yoed from 11 to 31 seconds. By the 56 mile finish he had put about 2 minutes into me. I was hoping I could run him down, but he ran really well and beat me by 7-8 minutes. Based on athlinks.com, it was a career day for him. Afterwards, he didn’t bother to thank me for pushing him to a personal record and when I congratulated him on his race he barely acknowledged me. The only consolation was he could barely walk and looked like shit. In contrast, after a quick dip in the lake, and a change of clothes, I was my normal uber-handsome self.

Right now, according to edmunds.com, my 2006 Honda Civic Hybrid with 100k miles on it, is valued at $6,800. His bike cost well north of that. More triathlon jargon—Cervelo P5, Di2, Zipps. My old hand-me-down, heavyish, Dura-Ace 9 speed time trial bike is probably five minutes faster (over 56 miles) than my roadbike. I think I might gain another five on his bike. Then it would just be a matter of those pathetic/disastrous transitions. Send money so I can take revenge next year!

A jargon-related footnote. In my postscript I said I got spanked, which is of course, sports jargon. It’s a synonym for ass whupping. A few weeks ago, the GalPal said some team really “spanked the other”. To which I immediately said, “No!” “What?” she said innocently while smiling. She knew just how dangerous it was for her to start down the path of sounding like she knows what she’s talking about. I told her that you have to have an athletic background to use the work “spank” or “spanking” in a sports context. The zenith of her athletic career was when she laid the basketball in the opponent’s basket while “starring” at Peralta Junior High School in Orange, CA.

Fight the power this week, write and speak plainly.

Forget Mayweather-Alvarez, Seahawks-Forty Niners, Alabama-A&M

The best matchup of the weekend is Byrnes-Kennett.

Black Diamond Half Ironman Saturday morn @ 0900 at Nolte State Park.

Last year Kennett destroyed the 50-54 year old division by 22 minutes. I was recovering from Iron Canada. My plan tomorrow is to sneak up on him and make him earn the victory.

Swim Transition 1 Cycle Transition 2 Run Total
2011 Byrnes 30:42 3:12 2:42:54(road bike) 1:52 1:40:09 4:58:49
2012 Kettering 33:37 3:12 2:39:32 1:20 1:39:51 4:57:33

I’m fit, but not as fit as 24 months ago. Unlike the run up to Canada, I’ve missed workouts. I feel undertrained and it’s going to be unseasonably warm (70s), but I will empty the tank and report back in case no one from SportsCenter shows.

cropped-sierra-killer-climbs-5-2012-151.jpgPostscript—I got spanked.

 

On Talent and Effortless Style

Fascinating essay last week by Don Van Natta, Jr. on the 1973 Billy Jean King-Bobby Riggs “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match that 50 million Americans and I watched on television. I was eleven and still remember it.

Riggs was a masterful hustler who “stayed in the barn” early in high stakes tennis and golf matches, meaning he purposely played well below his potential to lure his opponent and other bettors into a false sense of accomplishment. Then, mid to late match, Riggs would “come out of the barn,” play as well as possible and ultimately win. The art was in the timing.

The most talented, compelling artists almost always appear to be at least partly in the barn. As if they always have another gear or two in reserve. That’s what makes their performances so compelling. My first memory of this phenomenon was probably around the “Battle of the Sexes” when I was awestruck by a televised Dionne Warwick performance. She seemed to be expending about a third of her energy. Here’s just one example from the video archives:

When My Betrothed dances, she’s partly in the barn. And when watching my friend Brian ride his bike, with his rhythmic high cadence, perfectly still body, and oh so steady pace, I think, “Damn, if only it were that easy.”

Lake Center Dive is an immensely talented and stylish, up-and-coming foursome that conveys that “partly in the barn” feeling big time. Dig these examples:

Of course, an individual or group can only make something look effortless when they combine natural talent, intense commitment, and serious preparation.

My Betrothed, Brian, and Lake Center Dive owe people like me, who try to compensate for a lack of talent through extra effort, with a huge debt of gratitude. The rough edges of our extra effort is what makes the truly talented appear so stylish in comparison.

On Dog Poop and the Human Condition

Spaniards in Brunete, a small, middle-class suburb of Madrid, are fed up with their dog poop riddled parks and sidewalks. So the mayor of the town decided to send the dog poop back to dog owners. I kid you not. Read the full story here

As explained in the New York Times:

Volunteers were enlisted to watch for negligent dog owners and then to approach their dogs to pet them. After a few flattering remarks about the beauty of said dog, they asked what breed it was. Then they asked the dog’s name. Back at City Hall, where more than 500 residents have their pets registered, that was enough information to get to an address.

Mayoral money quote, “It’s your dog, it’s your dog poop. We are just returning it to you.” The Times reports that:

The dog owners got their packages — white boxes bearing the seal of this town and labeled “lost and found” — within hours. Signing for the curious parcels, they must have been intrigued, though surely unsuspecting. . . .Delivering 147 boxes of the real stuff seems to have produced a . . . lasting effect in this town of about 10,000 residents. The mayor guesses a 70 percent improvement even now, several months after the two-week campaign.

Brunete’s Mayor deserves points for creativity and boldness, but I’ll be surprised if their parks and sidewalks are much improved next August. In part because dog owners have already stopped giving up their dog’s names, but more importantly, because it’s very difficult to teach old dogs (the masters that is) new tricks. As one commenter of the NYT article wrote, “Personal responsibility only works for people with a conscience. For the rest, it takes shame, videotape and public humiliation, all of it well deserved.” I disagree with the second sentence which I’ll return to shortly. First a related anecdote.

A few years ago I was enjoying a hard earned lunch at the Crystal Mountain turnoff late into RAMROD (Ride Around Mount Rainier in One Day). While trying to recover for the final push, I was admiring a fellow cyclist also in his late 40′s/early 50′s—his bike, cycling kit, and obvious fitness. My book cover assessment. . . badass. Then he opened a Cliff Bar, ate it, and TOSSED the wrapper on the f#*king ground.

Stunned, I wondered, what kind of person litters? That’s why God created jersey pockets and trash cans. There’s tons of evidence on the side of our roads that lots of people litter, but we hardly ever see them. This was up close and semi-personal. It’s bad enough in an urban environment, but we were smack dap in the middle of some of God’s finest handiwork. Somehow I suppressed my instincts to open a can of whup ass on my lycra-clad compatriot.

If it’s not built-in, and I don’t believe it is, how do people develop a conscience and learn to take personal responsibility for maintaining their part of the public square—whether a park, a sidewalk, or a natural setting? It’s modeled for them at a young age by a constellation of caring adults—older sibs, parents, grandparents, teachers, coaches, youth leaders. For the vast majority of peeps, the first ten to fifteen years of life tells the story.

Shame, videotape and public humiliation will not inspire meaningful change over time. If I’ve learned one thing as a life-long educator it’s that encouragement and positive feedback are far more motivating than shame and public humiliation.

Which makes me wonder, what if Spaniards and you and I used the postal service to acknowledge selfless acts of personal responsibility? What form might those types of notes, letters, or packages take? Here’s just one of many examples that come to mind. A friend who lives on a nearby lake is always inviting our family to enjoy their primo community dock. When we take advantage of her generosity, she often barbecues dinner—hamburgers, salmon burgers, veggie burgers, chicken. Typically, we bring a salad or some fruit, but there’s a clear imbalance. I should go “reverse dog poop” and send her (or drop of rather) a package of frozen burger patties as a token of appreciation along with a note of thanks.

Granted, she doesn’t need that recognition, because generosity is integral to who she is. It was probably a part of her nature at age ten or fifteen, but everyone appreciates being appreciated. Let’s spare the postal service any more dog poop and watch for random acts of responsibility, thank the person or people involved, and create positive momentum in the public square.

Maybe Our Most Perfect Drug

Lots of people are seeing therapists and taking meds to combat anxiety disorders and depression. Stacy Horn suggests a much less expensive alternative, join a choir. She explains:

. . . as science works to explain what every singer already knows, no matter where you fall on the voice suckage scale—sing. I know of no other activity that gives so much and is this eminently affordable and accessible: Just show up for choir practice. Singing might be our most perfect drug; the ultimate mood regulator, lowering rates of anxiety, depression and loneliness, while at the same time amplifying happiness and joy, with no discernible, unpleasant side effects. The nerds and the church people had it right.

In high school, following the lead of some close friends, I sang in a large Lutheran youth choir. We toured for two weeks each summer, wowing Lutheran congregations all over the fruited plains. One summer at Indiana University in Bloomington, we even won a large national competition. But, as any Lord’s Joyful alum will tell you, no thanks to me. When you look up “voice suckage” in the urban dictionary, you see my larynx. Little known fact. Kool Herc, Kurtis Blow, and The Sugarhill Gang started rapping in the late 70s so that I’d have an alternative to singing.

Horn earns my enduring affection with this confession:

One of my main goals in our weekly rehearsals is not being heard. Over the years I’ve become a master in the art of voice camouflage, perfecting a cunning combination of seat choice, head tilt, and volume.

As they liked to say on The Wire, I feel you!

My alternative drugs of choice, by which I mean social activities that help me maintain some semblance of mental health, are swimming, cycling, and running with friends.

The GalPal and I recently enjoyed catching up with old friends from the state that just decided to stop paying teachers extra for Masters degrees. One whom struggled with depression recently. Her most perfect drug? Caring for and riding a horse. Almost daily. At first glance, this activity isn’t as social as the others, but in fact, our friend always looks forward to seeing the same few horse owners at the medium-sized, community-based barn. A couple of times a week, after grooming and riding their horses, they cross the street to a golf course restaurant where they eat and visit. Her mental health in tact for another day.

Reduce anxiety and depression without therapy or meds. Follow Horn’s advice and join a community choir. Or follow my lead and swim, cycle, run, hike, or walk with another person. Or if you can afford it, horse around with friends. You feel me?

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Me at my last concert performance

A Panacea for Improved Health

I have a neighbor who makes money off of his car. He carefully shops for an underpriced used one, then takes immaculate care of it, and then gets reimbursed by his employer at 50+ cents per mile.

I admire his fiscal discipline, but who wants to spend their weekend washing their car the way he does? One time he yelled at another neighbor who was washing the bottom 90% of her van. “You gotta start with the roof and work down!” Best comeback ever, “No one’s gonna see the top!” Blood pressure spike. And he routinely rips me for using the last bit of dirty water in the bucket to wash my wheels, but I tell him my goal is for my car to be 90% as clean as his in 10% of the time. And normally it is.

We’re all obsessive about something. One could argue I substitute exercise for car washing. Last week was pretty typical for April. Four runs for 28.7 total miles. Two swims for 6,000 meters and two bike rides for 90 miles. And an hour lifting weights. Total time, 11-12 hours. People like me tend to have a lot of fitness activity-based friendships and we often find the swimming, cycling, and running enjoyable in and of itself. We’d still go out and run, swim, and cycle even if there weren’t empirical health benefits tied to those activities. We’re lucky that our hobbies come with health benefits.

Some people no doubt think about my commitment to fitness the same way I think about people who obsess about the stock market’s every move and spend their days thinking, talking, and writing about money. There’s an opportunity cost to finance tunnel vision. Life passes by. Investing wisely is a means towards other more meaningful ends—like learning about other people’s interests and engaging with them.

Like extreme car washing, there’s a tipping point where a person’s fitness routine can detract from their physical, emotional, and spiritual health. That’s where “Doc Mike Evans” comes in. He asks a great question near the end of this high-speed informative whiteboard lecture—Can you limit your sleeping and sitting to just 23.5 hours a day? 

Like my quicker, more casual approach to car washing, Doc Evans explains how you can achieve most of my health benefits in much less time. Walk 20-30 minutes a day. Even better if you integrate walking as a means of transportation by living within a mile of your work, a grocery store, and other stores. And of course driving less is good for your pocketbook and the environment too.

Forget my approach of driving to the pool and overdoing it in the form of occasional marathons and triathlons*. Instead, as Doc Evans advises, walk 20-30 minutes a day and enjoy markedly improved mental and physical health.

Maybe you’re already a walker, but wish there were even more tangible health benefits. Evans explains how you can reap additional benefits by extending the time and distance of your daily walks. But since time is most people’s greatest obstacle, I suggest picking up the intensity by choosing more hilly routes. My running teammates probably get tired of me saying, “The hills are our friends.” When I don’t feel like exerting myself much, which is a lot of the time, I sometimes commit to a hilly route because hills force me to increase the intensity. As an added benefit, when I’m running up hill, my conservative Republican Nutter friends don’t have enough oxygen to complain about the current political scene. If you’re a Florida or Texas flatlander, move.

We expect complexity today, but this isn’t. If you want to enjoy an improved quality (and quantity) of life, take a ten minute walk sometime today. And then repeat tomorrow. And the next day. Extend it to twenty minutes next week. And repeat. Every day.

* This summer I’m going to be more family focused than last year. We’re looking forward to a fair number of visitors from afar, and at the end of the summer, launching Seventeen at a still-to-be-decided college. I’m #34 on the RAMROD waitlist which means I’ll definitely get in and Danny and I plan on running the Wonderland Trail in mid-August. I may throw in a few short/medium distance triathlons on unscheduled weekends. Or maybe I’ll just take a walk.

Betrothed and I walking

Amazing she’ll still hold hands with me after all these years

February 2013 Awards

Improbable sentence. “Ex-NBA star Dennis Rodman hung out Thursday with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un on the third day of his improbable journey with VICE to Pyongyang, watching the Harlem Globetrotters with the leader and later dining on sushi and drinking with him at his palace.

Personal finance vid of the month. Helaine Olen, author of “Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry“.

Apocalypse sign. CTA Digital’s iPotty with Activity Seat for iPad.

Noteworthy death. Mr. Matthew Crowley.

Weightroom t-shirt. “Gardening. It’s cheaper than therapy.”

Non-conformist. Photos.

Wasted talent. Professional sports division. My favorite excerpt, “Justify My Glove”.

Word—sequester.

Social media app—SnapChat. This news story gives it real cred. Maybe they’ll make a movie.

Consumer purchase, minimalist division.

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Nature pic—Holden Village (taken by La Fuerza)

Near Stehikin, WA

Near Stehikin, WA

Weekend get-away—Holden Village

Sitting in the bus I was flashing back to when I was a high school water polo legend traveling to away games.

Sitting in the bus I was reminiscing about when I was a SoCal high school water polo legend traveling to away games wit da’ boys. Lake Chelan water visibility, easily 25′.

Most widely read post. The Link Between Walking or Cycling to School and Concentration.

True Confession

If you were standing here beside me right now you’d probs (adolescent form of “probably”) counsel me to immediately abort the mission. You might even slam the laptop on my fingers. You’d argue, and I’d be hard pressed to prove otherwise, that this is not the right time or place to confess that I’ve been unfaithful to my wife. But being of slow and stubborn stock, I feel I must come clean.

Straying from the marital straight and narrow started innocently enough, wishing the love of my life was a few pounds lighter, then fantasizing about weekend get-aways. I wish I could say this was a one-off and that I immediately realized the damage done, but in fact, since taking the plunge, I can’t stop thinking about her. She’s promised to spend hours with me. Take me places near and far. Climb steep mountain passes. Crush anyone that gets in our way. To always be there for me.

If you’re a female reader, you’re probably so disgusted with me that you can’t see straight. If you’re of the male persuasion, you’re wondering what she looks like. Without further ado. . .

Be still my beating heart.

Be still my beating heart.

The start of a beautiful relationship.

The start of a beautiful relationship.

Living Healthily By Feel

As I wrote recently, modern life requires some dependence upon expert recommendations, but when it comes to our health, we’re too dependent upon scientists; when it comes to our money, we’re too dependent upon financial planners; and when it comes to our spirituality, we’re too dependent upon religious professionals.

A recent Wall Street Journal story described a study of older recreational athletes. The conclusion, past age 50, running more than 15-20 miles a week at faster than 7:30 per mile is associated with higher mortality rates. That makes sense since fast long distance running is a form of stress. So far, I’ve ran about 1,470 miles this year or almost exactly 30 a week. Most of those miles were in the 7:30 neighborhood (well, not the last 8 in Canada). In addition, I’ve swam about 185 miles and rode 5,272—all personal highs thanks to my Ironperson Canada prep.

According to some scientific experts, I’m killing myself in the predawn perpetual light rain, in the sense that I’m shortening my life. If you listen carefully, you can hear couch potatoes everywhere cheering lustily.

So do I dial things back? I accept the studies’ peer-reviewed conclusions, but I’m too skeptical to change my overly active lifestyle as a result of the study. When determining how far and fast to run, swim, and cycle; instead of living purely by science; I choose to live mostly by intuition or feel.

I know myself better than the scientists who conducted the study. Consequently, I’m just arrogant enough to think their study doesn’t apply to me. I’ve slowly built my endurance base over the last twenty years, I eat well, I prioritize sleep, and I’m pretty good about minimizing everyday stress. Regularly going semi-long contributes to the excellent quality of my life. I’m convinced I’m physically, mentally, and even spiritually healthier than I otherwise would be if I cut back based on this study’s recommendations.

I would like to live a long life, but I’m even more interested in maintaining a good quality of life. Late in life I want to remember my past; read The New Yorker; write regularly; and walk without falling down.

I could be wrong. About one of the most important decisions imaginable. The horrors, I may not be special. If some of you are at my funeral in two or twenty years, I give you permission to laugh one last time at me.

Saturday morning, I extended myself for only the second time since Ironperson Canada (the other was the Seattle Half Marathon two weeks ago). I ran 10 miles with my favorite right wing burners, inhaled a large bowl of oatmeal, and then celebrated Hob’s 52nd birthday by swimming 52 100′s. Dear longevity researchers, stick that in your pipe and smoke it.

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