Sunday, December 28, 2014

Running

Somehow, nearly fourteen years ago, my wife saw a happy, healthy, 175-pound runner hiding beneath the 235-pound, combative, chain-smoking mess I was.  I am not sure how she saw it, either the fitness or the happiness, but she did, and with the help of running she saved me. 

That might sound a bit dramatic, but consider this:  I smoked a pack and a half a day.  I was drinking every day, often alone in my apartment, a six pack on any given night.  My favorite meal was a meatball sub with extra cheese, a full-size bag of chips, and a king-size Snickers.  Dessert (the Snickers was considered a side dish) was an entire pint of Ben and Jerry's.  I had an ego that pressed against the walls, a temper that stalked back and forth inside my chest, and a deep empty feeling despite what others saw as a successful life.  I argued with vehemence on subjects I did not know or care much about, simply because I enjoyed a fight.  I was angry at the world and had a sense of self-worth that left me hovering just above the precipice of depression. 

I remember the first time I went for a run with her, tagging along for the first mile of her five mile run.  I was out to impress her, and she humored me through the agonizing 11:50 it took me to run that mile, and then went out for her other, much faster, four.  I went to my balcony on that cold 15th of March, 2001, lit up a cigarette, and cracked open a beer.  The next run went about the same, as did the run after that.  I remember two things clearly: the hardest part was always getting out the door, and when I was finished I felt a sense of pride I thought I had lost.  As that first year of running continued, I got hooked on something positive to replace my Parliament Lights and beers, my obsessive longing for junk food, and to a degree my pessimism and anger.   

On that very first day, I started keeping a running log, recording distances, times, and temperatures. Eventually I started drawing maps of runs that were particularly enjoyable or beautiful or long.  I felt a need to record all of my running, to make it tangible as proof that I had done it.  Some entries remained just date and distance, while others became short narratives about what I had thought over the course of the miles.  Running was such a physical trial for me, black-lunged and overweight, that it emptied me of most of my anger and frustration, freeing up my mind.  It was, and continues to be, those long miles that have helped me navigate a path to a happier life.  Over the course of the miles I settle down, drain myself of the pressure that has built up inside.   

Through the simple task of getting out the door and putting one foot in front of the other, I achieved a lot that first year.  I celebrated my first run of over an hour and placed in my age-group in a local 5k.  I completed my first week of 30 miles, broke the ninety-minute and later two-hour mark, and rang in the New Year racing at midnight in New York City.  I ran along a double-yellow line of Central Park Drive and a shoreline path in Ogunquit, Maine.  I ran carriage trails in Acadia National Park and the hills of Middlebury, Vermont.  I ran the boards of Ocean City and the streets of LBI.  I ran with a headlamp before and after the sun, with all of my winter clothes and two pairs of pants in blustering snow, shirtless and sweltering under glaring hundred-degree skies. 

That first year, I cut down considerably on a drinking habit that had become concerning.  I finally quit smoking after countless failed attempts.  I lost sixty-five pounds.  More importantly, I stopped arguing with people so much; I started the process of looking at the world through kinder, more positive eyes.  I funneled the aggression I had always felt inside my chest into running, and it poured out through the soles of my feet.  I found a way to feel at peace, and through that grew stronger, and more confident, and more comfortable in my skin. 

On an overcast day the next March, my wife kept insisting on going for a run, despite my protests that I really didn't feel like it.  "It is your one year running anniversary," she told me when we were finished.  For a few minutes we sat and talked about the change I had undergone.  It had been an amazing transformation, but the picture we took to celebrate the moment hints at another chapter of the story.  Eyes up at the camera, we both raise our middle fingers.  The cheesy, yet heartfelt words around the border read: "Really did not want to run.  Really.  Dragging ass, hurtin' here and there.  But the point is we ran.  These are the moments from which runners are born, where our determination is tested, and victory begins." 
Running is hard, and sticking with it was infinitely harder.  Looking back at my running log from that year, there were more bad days than good.  While I look back now and see only a happy story, the truth has something different to say.  Here are some of the highlights of the lowlights from that first year as a runner, taken from the running log I kept with each run. 
5/22/01: ABSOLUTE SHIT.  Horrible mood, hating everything, running angry and frustrated, and like shit.
7/22/01: Complete shit.  Awful running.  Stopped.

9/5/01: Running is a joyless, endless, crappy pursuit of nothing.
10/13/01: AWFUL.  It is time to make this a priority again.  My weekly mileage is a joke and my body is responding accordingly.  Want to be good at this. 
11/22/01: Freezing.  Had to heat up cold running shoes from my car with a hair dryer.  Really cold.  Decent run - but difficult and feeling tired. 
12/10/01: In the dark with my headlamp.  7:45 min miles.
12/27/01: Icy cold.  Lakes covered with a clear layer of ice - cold breath.  A difficult run with a lot of wind. 
1/11/02: Extremely painful first 10-15 minutes.  Ran by Jenn's to drop off wind breaker and I quit.  I chucked the apartment key on the ground, threw my jacket at the car, cursed and quit.  2 minutes after Jenn went back out I couldn't stand it so I started again.  Wound up running the whole thing and ran it well.  Hurting after. 

Running was the most difficult thing I had ever done, and it demanded a level of follow-through that was not my strong suit.  I cursed my way through entire runs, questioning why I was putting myself through something so miserable. On more than one occasion I punched a street sign and made what can only be called a habit out of giving people the finger.  But week after week, I managed to keep heading out the door.  To paraphrase one of my favorite poets: Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and I busted my ass running down one.  That has made all the difference.   To paraphrase Nike: I just did it. 

I am mostly happy these days.  I have mellowed, like a nice wine, with age.  Slightly.  I have done a lot of growing up, and logged a lot of miles.  It surprises me still to know just how low I felt back then, when I was getting drunk on cheap beer alone in my apartment on a weeknight.  There was a stretch of time when I hated what I saw in the mirror.  There were times when transitioning my addictive personality from cigarettes and beer to running and healthy eating felt nearly impossible.  There were back slides and failures and countless moments I fell short. 

I still have all the flaws I had when I started running nearly fourteen years ago, but running helps me keep the worst of them at bay.  And, running is still a great challenge.  The ads you see of people trotting along in their beautiful clothes and a big smile are crap.  Running is hard.  But after a run, I am a more patient father, a beer is just a drink I enjoy rather than an escape I need, food is fuel rather than a fix.  Running has taught me humility, and given me a place where the normal stresses of life drop away with every footfall. 

I hope to see you out there.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

An Open Letter to New Fathers

Dear New Father,

I am home from work today with my eight-year-old son who is currently in his thirteenth hour of vomit.  A little while ago, as I was helping him wipe his ass, yellow rubber gloves up to my elbows, I got to thinking, and wanted to share a few things I have picked up over the course of his young life. If you are expecting a child of your own, good luck buddy. Wave goodbye, my friend. Life as you have known it is over. Welcome to the world's strangest club.

Just over two months after closing on a new house, my first son was born.  Buying a house was nothing.  Fatherhood.  Now that is panic.  That really exposed me, like a doomsday prepper caught without his surgical mask and duct tape.  Just look at my face in that picture.  That was about ten minutes into his new life; the nurses were still taking care of everything.  But look, and you can see the fear, the bewilderment, the disbelief...that and the grin on my father's face.  "This is going to be hilarious," that is what he is thinking.

In a day, I would be taking that little pink-faced thing home with me.  I had fish as pets when I was a kid, I found myself thinking.  They all died.  Houseplants in my post-college apartment?  Dead.  I had no qualifications for this of any kind, no training, and no idea what I was getting myself into.  
So, here is the part they never tell new dads.  Ready?  You have no maternal instincts.  You are a caveman.  When your baby arrives your deep-seated instincts tell you to flee, get hammered on some mead or grog or whatever, and then "go hunting" for at least eighteen months.  We were not made for this, you and I. We are men!  Pass the beernuts!  Today, however, we are being challenged, or given the opportunity, to be nearly equal partners in parenting, despite being poorly equipped for the task.  You see, for weeks, as all manner of people told me how wonderful it all was, I was consumed by the fact that I had made some life-altering mistake.  I told everyone how excited I was, how much love I felt already, but in truth, I felt basically nothing for that kid.  I wanted so desperately to escape the crying and sleeplessness that was my life, but there I was.  Know this: deep bonds are formed through traumatic experiences.  Early parenthood is traumatic.  Don't shy away from it, sleep when he sleeps, muddle through.  You will learn as you go.    

I once caught my son's poop in my hand.  I had taken his diaper off, but did not have another one out of the drawer yet.  I was getting cocky, showing too much hubris.  So there I was, right hand holding both ankles, his tiny butt hovering three inches above the pristine yellow changing pad cover.  My left hand struggled to remove a new diaper from the plastic shrink-wrapped package, when the turtle poked its head out.  I remember looking at the poop peeking out, and thinking "well, look at that."  My left hand, sensing impending tragedy, swooped up, like some misguided hero of do-goodery, and cupped that poop with all the tenderness of fatherhood.  Like Satan's softserve, it spiralled slowly round and round in the palm of my open hand.  My son stared up at me and giggled, the little bastard. He locked eyes with me and giggled.  The sound was so beautifu I almost forgot I was holding his poop in my hand.

Another time, he ate my cat's vomit.  I was approximately nine feet away in our living room, talking on the phone.  It may have been a telemarketer, I was so happy for an adult voice.  I saw him eating something, and casually strolled over to find him pulling pieces off of a half-digested log of regurgitated cat food.   Turns out, according to the pediatrician's office, kids eating cat vomit is actually not all that uncommon.  I will spare you the story of when my son threw up into my mouth: just don't throw your kid in the air after he has had a bottle, no matter how much he loves it.

My point is this You will do revolting thiings, and years later look back at them with a fond smile.  Fatherhood, in its earliest stages is a shit show.  Literally and figuratively.  For the first few months, your new offspring, the person everyone else is gooing and gaaing over is a houseplant.  He is furniture, but worse, because on top of the fact that he does not make eye contact, or sit up, or speak, or laugh, he does poop, and scream, and wail, and wake up at all hours, and steal from you, at least for a while, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  Look at the pictures.  That was my brandnew cycling magazine, a connection to my past I would hide in the bathroom and read - he knew and so he destroyed.  Look at the bottom left -- as I try to calm him, he is peeing on my shirt.  Babies are terrorists -- you never know when they will attack, but you live in fear of their unconventional and ruthless tactics.

Despite all of that, you will someday find yourself cleaning up vomit, wiping diarrhea, and thinking how lucky you are.  You will find your lost youth, playing games you have almost forgotten existed.  You will laugh, and run, and play, and see the world through the eyes of a child, finding all the magic that mortgages and work have tried to wipe away.  You will amaze yourself with your ability to help and comfort your kids, just as they will amaze you with their resilience.  So, welcome.  This is going to be hilarious.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD

I have just finished teaching Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird to the seventy ninth-graders I have in class this year.  I love teaching that book.  I love it because it allows me to talk with thirteen and fourteen year-olds about what it means to stand up for beliefs despite overwhelming odds being stacked against you.  I love it because of the righteous indignation my students feel when Jem and Scout are stunned into silence by Tom Robinson's guilty verdict.  I love it because it presents an obvious miscarriage of justice, a tragic example of the failings of our justice system when prejudice overpowers prudence, when ignorance controls indictment. 

Tom Robinson's innocence is so obvious it is painful.  The injury to his left arm makes him physically incapable of committing the crime he is accused of committing; the testimony of his accusers is filled with glaring inconsistencies and contradictions.  Students gasp out loud when they read; they make angry annotations in the margins of their texts; they raise their voices in disgust.  They act as diligent jurors sifting through the facts.  The question of right and wrong in the book is as black and white as the defendant and plaintiff's skin.  Students are shocked, and many of them talk about this racial inequity as something from our distant past.  Then recent events in Ferguson and Staten Island turned the past into the present.

The case of Michael Brown is by no means as clear as the case of Tom Robinson.  Michael Brown may have just stolen a pack of cigarillos from a local store, possibly engaging in a confrontation with a store clerk.  Michael Brown may have, after being addressed for walking in the street, engaged Officer Darren Wilson in some form of altercation near his police cruiser.  There is conflicting eye-witness testimony regarding whether or not Michael Brown grabbed for Wilson's gun, whether or not he charged at Wilson.  Despite that, there is still a great deal about the grand jury's decision not to indict that is deeply troubling.

One of the most shocking moments in Harper Lee's story comes after Tom Robinson has been convicted (SPOILER ALERT.  I AM GOING TO TALK ABOUT THE END OF THE NOVEL.  IF YOU HAVE NEVER READ IT, STOP NOW AND RUN TO THE LIBRARY!).  Trapped within a "justice" system that has wrongly convicted him, debased and judged by the color of his skin rather than the facts, Tom attempts to run from the prison yard, trying to climb over the security fence that surrounds him.  Despite having only one good arm with which to climb, Tom is fatally shot by the prison guards.  This moment inspires insightful and impassioned responses from the students in my classroom.  Ninth graders can see, and are enraged by, the obvious use of excessive force. "Seventeen bullet holes," Atticus tells us, "They didn't have to shoot him that much." 

Well, Michael Brown was shot twelve times by Officer Darren Wilson.  Twelve shots fired at an unarmed man.  The released documents from the grand jury include descriptions of two wounds (on his forehead and the top of his head) that indicate Brown was bent over at the waist at the time the shots were fired.  While there is no clear definition of "excessive force," people agree officers should use the least amount of force necessary to control the situation.  These are, after all, people we have trusted to walk among us with firearms for the purpose of ensuring our safety.  I am not convinced twelve shots represents the minimum force necessary for Officer Wilson to protect himself from Michael Brown.  I don't claim to know every detail of the situation, but I would like to have seen it go through a trial so we could find out. 

Atticus, in his closing arguments, explains that "in this country our courts are the great levelers, and in our courts all men are created equal."  The grand jury's decision seems to indicate that is not so.  If a black citizen shot an unarmed white man, he would go to trial.  I wonder what would have happened if the officer was black and the unarmed victim white.  I am not sure if the treatment of this case, the unconventional use of a grand jury, is an issue of black versus white, or an issue of police versus citizens.  But I am convinced the field was not level.  It was not equal. 

Grand juries themselves are not normally used the way Robert P. McCulloch used the grand jury in this case.  Normally, prosecutors provide a grand jury with a charge or a range of charges to be considered, but McCulloch offered not a single charge against Officer Wilson.  Normally the potential defendant does not speak before a grand jury, but Darren Wilson testified for four hours.  The grand jury process is supposed to be controlled by the prosecution; the defense is not part of the process.  Despite that, Darren Wilson was given the opportunity to present his side of the story, to color the facts in his favor, to layer his story onto every piece of physical evidence.  I don't believe that is the intent of a grand jury. 

Today, I woke to the news that, even in the wake of Ferguson, another grand jury has failed to indict a white officer accused of killing an unarmed black man.  I am as troubled by the message that sends to black kids in my classes, as I am by what it conveys about our justice system. 

There seems to be less ambiguity in this case; all anyone needs to do is watch the video of Officer Daniel Pantaleo and the other police officers as they restrain Eric Garner.  If you have not seen it, you should.  It is unpleasant to watch, but important  to see. There is no doubt Eric Garner is agitated and argumentative.  He had been illegally selling cigarettes.  He resists being handcuffed.  But Garner never makes a move toward the officers before they attempt to subdue him.  Garner never attempts to flee the scene.  The force used by police is significant and sustained, even as Garner repeatedly protests that he can't breathe.  Shouldn't a court of law decide if Officer Pantaleo overstepped himself by using a chokehold maneuver banned by the Police Department in 1993? 

Daniel Pantaleo, like Darren Wilson, was given the opportunity to present his side of the story to the grand jury, telling them he did not intend to choke Garner, and expressing remorse for his death.  His statements have somehow overpowered the obvious video evidence that should have led to an indictment.  Watch the video and count the number of times Eric Garner says he can't breathe.  The city's own medical examiner declared the death a homicide resulting from Pantaleo's chokehold.  How is there no indictment?  How does that man not even face a trial?

At the conclusion of To Kill a Mockingbird, as Jem explains his disgust and exasperation with Tom's guilty verdict, Atticus tells him something that concerns me more now than ever.  "Don't fool yourselves," he says to his son, "it's all adding up and one of these days we're going to pay the bill for it.  I hope it's not in you children's time."  When I look at the civil unrest in the wake of these two decisions, I am concerned.  As I have taught that book over the years, I have had such hopes that we would continue tracking toward a society that looks back at the story it tells as some cautionary tale of distant history.  Now, instead, our nation is again focused on the conversation of civil rights.  The deep rifts of history are cracking open in protests around the country.

I find myself understanding why people are taking to the streets.  I understand why people are yelling.  While I don't condone the violence, I understand why tempers, and even fires, flare.  I hope the Justice Department's promise of a civil rights investigation provides better results.  I hope people can embody Atticus' level headedness and combat this issue with protests and conversations rather than riots and fists.  I hope that next year, when I study this novel with eager young students again, I can still tell them how much progress has been made, how far we have come, how distant that ugly chapter of history really is.  I hope the emerging pattern of injusticies toward black young men in this country gets the consideration it could not hope for in 1930s Alabama. 

Shortly after I wrote this piece, I read a letter written on the subject that had been published in The Courier Post.  The racist undertones were disturbing to me.  Here is the letter I wrote in response.  Courier Post Letter