In defense of the schmaltzy

After I’d been running regularly for several months I still often had days where I could hardly bear to bother. One cold December morning in Georgia (it seemed cold then–I’ve lived in New England for 2 years today and I’d probably think it was shirtsleeve weather now) I felt that way, but I was in a good groove of soldiering on through. No matter how unappetizing a run might seem, I was going to do it, regardless. So I did.

I ran mostly on trails then and by the time I was a mile in to the run I was feeling a little better, but still blah, unenthused. Then I passed from where those woods close in like fairytale thickets hiding monsters to a broad stretch of trail where you can see pretty far through the trees. I was listening to “One Day Like This” by Elbow, at the time (see above, a really fine performance). I turned a bend in the trail, and 20 feet away stood a white-tailed deer.

I stopped, and for an immeasurable moment, the deer and I regarded at each other. I was breathing heavily, my breath clouding the air in front of me. Then the deer snorted, wheeled and bounded away, majestic leaps through the woods until it faded into the dim. Right about that point, in my earbuds, “One Day Like This” launched into the big chorus, “Throw those curtains wide/One day like this a year would see me right…

I began to laugh. A strange, surprised gout of laughter that welled up from my center. Tears streamed from my eyes. And I began to run again, faster than I’d probably run in years, laughing and crying all the way. I sailed over roots I’d worried about tripping over and busting my face. I bounded up hills, ping-ponging along the sides of gullies the rain had carved in the center of the trail.

I looked crazier than a shithouse rat and it felt wonderful, even though I would’ve likely scared anyone who passed me then.

I still can’t entirely make sense of the moment, either. Because absolutely nothing actually happened, yet I will never forget it.

It was also a really schmaltzy experience. I knew that right away. I have a maudlin streak a mile long and I always have, and I find it embarrassing. But in that moment I was in thrall to the feeling and I didn’t care. I posted about it on Facebook later and I think my post was kind of, “I know, I know, corny old Steve…” I sold it short, sounded like I was writing it off.

But you know what? Hell yes, I can be corny. That was a corny, cheesy, inspirational poster of an experience. It was exactly the sort of inner wellspring of joy kind of moment I thoroughly enjoy joking about when I write tweets parodying a typical Twitter “life coach” on @LIFECOACHERS.

That cold morning moment taught me that there’s something to be said for corniness, for schmaltz. It’s worth joking about, sure–but there are times it happens to you, and when it does, it’s actually far more powerful than any airbrushed or photoshopped high-res poster with a bullshit “inspirational” saying could ever begin to convey.

That encounter was nothing and everything at once. It was a turning point, somehow. In hindsight, it feels like I passed some sort of milestone, and after the explosion of emotion that had me suddenly half-flying along the trail with joy, I was a little different.

It also taught me that you don’t have to be rock-ribbed believer in some higher power to suddenly experience the sacred. You can be muddling along, worried about the noises your stomach is making or that twinge in your knee, and something will happen that transforms it all, entirely.

My defense of schmaltz is this–whatever it is, it’s about feeling, and feeling deeply, to your core. No one should ever be sheepish about that. As for me, I’m never going to be tired of that Elbow song, nor afraid to let an amazing feeling bubble up and over, when it comes. That morning it was just that deer and me and the quiet, listening woods and I didn’t stop for a moment to worry about what was coming out of me. I’m grateful it happened. I almost feel lucky that I can’t help but be schmaltzy.

 

Supposed to be

Summer, 2010
Summer, 2010

After you turn 40, you’re supposed to graciously give in to gravity. Let the pounds accrue and let your ass gently carve curves in that one special corner of the sofa. After you turn 40, you’re supposed to let the young folks take over and forge ahead and sit back and reflect and plan the rest of the slide. After you turn 40, you’re not supposed to care anymore. After you turn 40, you’re not supposed to give a damn.

Not everyone receives these messages. I won’t claim they are universal, not these days. I can only claim I received them, and by the time I was 42 I’d taken them on as an unconscious philosophy of living. I was doing some things I liked with my life–writing for a living–and my depression could wait. My high blood pressure would succumb to medication, as soon as I found time to get to the doctor.

Then we took our summer vacation trip to Salem, Massachusetts (from Georgia, where we lived at the time) and my wife and I took a lot of photos and videos. We got home and I looked at those videos and I saw the shambling, red-faced, nearly 300-lb fat man in them and thought about how I woke some nights sick from reflux and how a mile walk in 80-degree heat almost made me pass out and I thought, maybe I’ll completely give in. I’ll make it look like I’m trying to fix things and hope the effort kills me.

So the first time I took a walk in the summer heat aimed at ‘starting a program’ I actually hoped I might die. I’ve written this before elsewhere and told people, but I’m convinced their reaction is to think I’m being dramatic. I’m not. I shuffled along those pretty wooded trails in that hilly park by our home in Georgia and by the time I reached a ridge where there was a slight breeze and the peaceful rush of the Big Creek below, I thought, very clearly, hopefully I’ll die here. A man the size I was at the time, with my uncontrolled hypertension, well, I was supposed to die in that situation.

I didn’t, so I tried again. And again. I skipped days and then tried again.

I never even vomited from exertion. I kept dropping weight, and I started feeling, well, better. The exertion, by degrees, began to feel good. I slept better. I made conscious efforts at watching what I ate, then found myself occasionally just naturally gravitating toward the better choices. Somewhere along the way, I stopped hoping I’d die on that ridge with the wind and the creek on either side of me and began enjoying them for what they were.

I encountered condescending, much fitter young people on the trails who gave me smarmy “encouragement” as they dashed past, but sometimes I saw other guys, my age, grinding along like I was. We’d nod grimly and keep moving.

Somehow, I just never stopped. Running and careful eating carved a good deal of the weight away, but at some point after I’d lost maybe 90 lbs. I realized I wasn’t just a runner. My curiosity took hold and I began to study exercise, in a way I’d never really even tried before. I grew fascinated with whatever steps one could take to never have to join a gym. I’m not anti-gym (there’s an old-style gym in the city where I live now I’d still like to check out–“old-style” meaning it caters more to large, solemn men bent solely on lifting very big weights than suburban moms looking to knock off the holiday pounds) but embracing exercise again taught me that I am at heart, like my dad, a born do-it-yourselfer.

With dad, this manifested in various construction projects around the home, some so successful and novel they bordered on genius, others perhaps less successful but still interesting. With me, it began to manifest in figuring out just how much I could do alone.

Today.
Today.

With kettlebells, body weight exercises and (a bit less) running, I dug in, hard. I’m digging still. Here is where I am today. I have never used a trainer, and haven’t joined a gym. I don’t have workout partners. I did this by myself, using excellent online resources like FitnessBlender, articles by kettlebell gurus like Mike Mahler and Pat Flynn and a motley crew of Youtube fitness lunkheads and weirdos, and I’m doing it still.

I haven’t fully conquered everything. Not sure I will. I still fight my weight. It turned out that accumulating 100 extra pounds of fat between the ages of 28 and 43 or so resulted in some pretty damned tenacious fat. There are legitimate (as in I know it’s not just my perception) things about my body I’d still like to change, in general. I still get depressed because depression is an integral part of my makeup and slack–though I’ve found that exercise has become such a hardwired habit for me now that even when depressed, I usually end up doing something.

But whatever I do, I’m going to do it without killing myself. I went from hoping a 2 mile walk on a hot day might put me out of my misery to feeling most alive when I’m buried in a long run or slinging a pretty huge volume of sweat with a 70-lb kettlebell in hand.

I might look angry in the “Today” photo, but I’m not. I’ve learned a different way of looking at things, and mostly taught it to myself. I’m determined. That’s why I wrote this, even though I’ve blogged many of these things either on my Tumblr or in this blog before.

I don’t know what this time of life is really like for other men and women. For some, I suspect the gradual beginning of a certain slowing down is exactly what they need. My own father had worked damned hard, mostly with his hands, by the time he turned 46. It was perfectly okay for a man who’d worked like that to want to walk in and sit the hell down and not move at the end of the day. But my time is different, the world has made a different set of demands on men in my generation. I don’t want to rest yet. I haven’t earned it. I’m pushing ahead. I think that’s how this is supposed to be.

Note, 6/16/2014: I’m grateful WordPress featured this post on Freshly Pressed. I’m also grateful for the comments I’ve received. I don’t often write this kind of thing–my professional writing has mostly been about current events, particularly dark subjects like crime and cyber crime, with some satire on the side–so the idea that this post would be of positive benefit to others is pretty gratifying. Thanks for reading.  

100 Days

This is a real kettlebell. Those ridiculous little plastic kettlebells you see at Target are not kettlebells. This is the business.
This is a real kettlebell. Those ridiculous little plastic kettlebells you see at Target are not kettlebells. This is the business.

On April 17, in one of the several little notebooks I scribble in daily so I don’t actually pester the internet with all my bullshit, I unofficially began a 100-day fitness challenge. It’s unofficial because I’m figuring it out as I go, I guess. I have two goals so far: variety and no rest. That is, I’m not going to skip a day, for 100 days. I typically take 2-3 days a week off. That’s out the door, for a few.

Now, if I was going for 10 mile runs or doing heavy duty kettlebell/strength stuff for 2 hours each day, that’d be an utterly insane goal for a man my age, with some of the medical challenges I’ve had in the past. I’m not that crazy.

I’ll work out at least once a day, and no routine will be shorter than 12 minutes. That may mean 5 straight days of 12-15 minutes of something, each day, but that’s better than nothing. To keep myself honest, I’m noting what I do on paper. That’s also a way to organize the effort and keep it honest on the variety end of things. I’ve found that since I went from just running or walking to body weight, dumbbells and kettlebells, I have favorite exercises and will stick to those if I don’t think too hard about it–when my body might be better served by a wider variety of lifts and moves.

I suppose I just want to see what, if anything will happen. I don’t necessarily feel I’m at a plateau right now or anything, but I do feel a bit slowed, somehow. And there’s something charming in the 100 Days concept, even if I get tired of seeing “inspiring” 100 Days videos posted on Facebook (hell no, I’m not going to make any videos, ew). That’s not the fault of the people using the challenge to achieve something, it’s the fault of our forced inspiration/whimsy internet culture. Which is another subject, entirely.

Exercise and related annoying stuff

Running is fun for everyone, even little sign guys.
Running is fun for everyone, even little sign guys.

To make this blog what I want it to be I have to admit a desire to occasionally write about things that may be of little interest to some. Any blog is going to have that but I’m in the process of changing my mindset about this kind of endeavor. It’s called Writing Whatever the Hell I Want to Write and You Can Read it or Not.

In this case, the subject is physical fitness. I’ve battled my weight since I can remember. When I backed away from just blogging about crime in 2009, a few years spent parked at a computer seemingly nonstop had assisted me in ballooning to almost 300 pounds, with a 46-48 inch waistline. Since 2011, when I finally got truly sick of the situation (my insanely high blood pressure helped me get there) I’ve lost over 100 pounds of fat, dropped 16 or so inches from my waist and gained about 20 pounds of muscle. I did that by making diet and exercise a vital, central part of my daily life. I’ll never go back, either. I know that because every time I skip a day running or working out–or both–I get a junkie’s knee-shake and have trouble sleeping. Exercise feels good, it’s a habit, and I love it.

What I really discovered, which I didn’t know as a kid (I thought I’d conquered childhood weight issues in my teens, when I ran and worked out almost daily, but back then I did not do it in the wisest or safest way), is that it’s easy to, I don’t know, turn into kind of a geek about fitness. There is much more to just about any fitness pursuit as well as to nutrition and dieting than I’d ever dreamed of. Realizing how deep and complex the subject was, realizing that I could nerd out about it–this may have contributed heavily to me sticking with everything until certain good practices became habitual.

So–I’m gonna write about it. What I write may be–especially if you’re the increasingly rare reader who liked and followed my crime writing (which I haven’t totally abandoned, don’t worry)–boring as hell to you. If so, skip it.

And I wrote this post tonight because my plan was to write about my workout and I ended up concluding I wouldn’t work out because I’ve had some muscle strain that I should be a little careful with.

Honestly, the workout would’ve been more interesting. Either way, I’m gonna talk about jock-y stuff and if you see the fitness tag and that’s not your thing, just skip the post and weight for the “crime” tag to pop up.