Saturday, January 3, 2015

Anger Is A Gift

"Your anger is a gift." - Zack de la Rocha

The music coming though my headphones at the gym is usually the same music that I was listening to as an angst ridden adolescent. At home or in the car, my music preferences have broadened significantly over the years. There's still some metal here and there, but it's no longer a staple in my music diet.

But at the gym, the music is loud and aggressive. Sometimes there's a swagger. Sometimes there's a chip on the shoulder. But there is always a sense of certainty about it. I put the playlist on shuffle once it's going, but it always starts with Hell's Bells. I love walking out of the locker room and up the stairs with those bells in my ears. And that opening guitar riff just oozes inevitable destruction. Then Brian Johnson's scratchy opening lines. "I'm rolling thunder, pouring rain. I'm coming on like a hurricane." There is no second guessing oneself when you're a fucking hurricane.

When I was 22 years old, I lived in Houston Texas. I had an apartment in a pretty rough neighborhood near Hobby Airport. That apartment was furnished with a sleeping bag, a pillow, and a small stereo. I had a pet rabbit named after Huey P Newton. And I had a job making copies of legal documents at an office downtown. From 10 pm to 6 am, I stood over a Xerox machine listening to music on my Walkman and making copies.

I'd come to Houston, via New Orleans, from Denver.

I was a ninth grade dropout. In Denver, I was drinking heavily and I was doing drugs more and more often. Fights were commonplace. I'd lost a few friends to violence. And I'd seen plenty more sent to prison. I'd had numerous scrapes with the law, but I'd managed to avoid any trouble that would stick with me long term. And then, literally in an instant, I just knew I had to get out. In one lucid moment, I saw the pit that I'd sunk into, and I knew that if I didn't get out immediately, I might not ever get out.

A couple of months later, I got a one-way ticket to New Orleans. I had a backpack full of clothes and $450. New Orleans didn't last. I couldn't even find day labor work. And $450 didn't last long. So I used the $35 deposit on the room that I'd rented for a bus ticket to Houston. I had an Aunt and Uncle there, and they were gracious enough to take me in.

I got the job making copies. Then I found the apartment. The job didn't pay much, so with no friends and limited options for my free time, I started making good use of my library card.

I can remember where I was the first time I heard Rage Against The Machine. I'd already found plenty of music that gave expression to my anger and frustration, but never so perfectly as Rage. That was exactly how it felt. I didn't always understand the references in the lyrics. They were clearly a well-read bunch. And I clearly was not. But the music grabbed me by the gut and gave clarity to my feelings.

On the inside sleeve of Rage's second album, there's a picture of a pile of books. Early on in that first year in Houston, I took that picture to the library. And I discovered a whole new world of people that were as angry as I was. And they'd found a way to direct that anger. They'd found a purpose for it.

There's a line in a Rage song that always stood out to me. In a song filled with screams that come from deep in the gut, one line is whispered quietly. "Your anger is a gift." I was finally ready to take that idea to heart.

I made a ten point platform for myself, modeled after the ten point platform for the Black Panther Party for Self Defense. Ten promises to myself. Things that I was going to change. Not just my actions, but my thoughts and feelings too. I wanted, needed, to end the self destructive ways of thinking and being that I'd developed throughout my adolescence and early adulthood. I needed to stop hurting others around me too. And I needed to start making a positive impact on my world. I needed to take my anger and make it work for me, rather than against me. I spent the better part of the next decade wrestling with those changes on an almost daily basis.

Today, I don't have nearly as much anger as I did at 22 years old. I get angry, but I don't generally walk around with it. I get sad too. And frustrated. Lonely. Afraid. Confused. Uncertain. And I know that those feelings are also gifts.

About seven years ago, I discovered that I could take those gifts to the gym and transform them into something entirely different. With running and lifting and swimming, I can turn fear and anger into peace. I can take uncertainty and confusion, and create strength and confidence. And while so much else has changed over the years, the soundtrack of those transformations remains the same. And I like that. It's a nice reminder of where I've been. And a wonderful suggestion of where I can still go. 

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Slow Education

"When god was young - He made the wind and the sun - And since then - It's been a slow education" - David Berman

I've been going to the suburbs a lot lately. Sometimes on my own, just to explore a new area. Other times for my second job, doing beer tastings for an importer.

The suburbs that I knew, growing up in and around Denver, felt bland and dull. A wasteland of fast food chains, strip malls, gas stations, and pawn shops. I remember a suffocating lack of imagination that numbed the senses.

But some of these suburbs, outside of Chicago, feel different. There's a definite cosmetic difference. Many of them have the look and feel of a lively small town. They have a main street with shops and bars and cafes. The sidewalks are filled with people. It feels like there's life being lived there.

And as I visit Libertyville and Lake Bluff and Geneva and La Grange, I wonder if maybe the suburbs never were as terrible as I remember them. Maybe I'm the one that's changed. Maybe I was suffocating from my own lack of imagination.

I turned 40 this past summer. I've been a late bloomer in a number of ways throughout my life. Another way to put it is that I'm a slow learner. And after years of working in restaurants and bars, I'm just now preparing to make the shift into a professional career.

I'm excited about the challenges in my immediate future. And it feels great to know that I'm setting myself up for a wide range of options down the road. I'm excited to know that I'll have a chance to help hard working small business owners grow their dreams. And I'm excited to know that I'm moving towards a point in my life that will include more financial stability than I've known in the past.

And while none of that is inevitable, the likelihood of the transition and the new found confidence that I have in my long term future, probably plays into my changing perspective on the suburbs and the things that I've always associated in my mind with suburban life. And while I don't know whether I'll ever find myself living in the suburbs, I suddenly find myself considering a lot of what I'd for so long written off.

Home ownership won't happen this year. But in five years? Probably. And then there's the big question. The question that I've always been too scared to really honestly ask myself. Do I want a family?

I've been scared for a couple of reasons. I knew that, as a server, I didn't have the financial security that I would want to have for my family. And I didn't want to get locked into a restaurant management position that I'd feel obligated to stick to for the sake of knowing that the bills were paid.

I was also scared because nothing in my romantic history suggested that anybody was in a hurry to create a family with me. And nothing in that history would suggest that I was even capable of a long term relationship. As of my mid-thirties, I'd had only one relationship that lasted more than a few months. And that lasted only a year. Not exactly enough time to build a foundation for a family.

But I feel different now. I've had a relationship that lasted three years. Most of that was wonderful, and even the parts that weren't wonderful were incredibly illuminating. I know myself better today, than I did even a year ago. I still have plenty to learn. I'm still clumsy with my emotions. I still get frustrated and scared. But it all feels manageable.

So now I'm starting to ask myself that big question. Do I want a family? I think about my age. But that doesn't have to be an obstacle. If I take care of myself, there's no reason I couldn't be a healthy and active part of my children's lives. Of course, since I'm single, there's also the question of a mother. But those are secondary questions. The first question is whether I want to have children.

I went home to Denver last month. I have nieces and nephews ranging in age from 2 months to 19 years. As I spent time with them, I wondered how I, for so long, associated suburbs only with fast food chains, strip malls, gas stations, and pawn shops. How did I forget the kids running through water sprinklers. The awkward adolescent dates at bowling alleys. The soccer games and summer barbecues. How did that well of life seem bland and dull.

I've been a late bloomer in a number of ways throughout my life. Another way to put it is that I'm a slow learner.

Friday, December 26, 2014

The Hunt

"The heart will always stay one day too long." - Carl Newman

"He not busy being born is busy dying." - Bob Dylan

"Problem solving is hunting. It is savage pleasure and we are born to it." - Thomas Harris

"I used to be the antelope. But now I'm the lion." - Wise 5th Grader

Everything around me feels old. Not old in the comfortable and familiar sense. But old in the sense of dead. Maybe that's a better way to say it. Everything around me feels dead.

My home doesn't feel like home. It feels like dead skin that I've waited too long to shed. I'm living in dead skin. Have been for a while.

My job is something that I stumbled into at 23 years old. I'm 40 years old, and just now moving on. I feel a little bit more dead inside every time I walk through that door. I let that happen.

My cat is 19 years old. I thought she'd be dead by now. She moves slowly. She pukes up her dinner often. She's not dead. But she's a constant reminder of the death all around me. A fitting companion for this moment in my life.

I've stayed in relationships after they died too. Sometimes they die after only a couple of dates. Other times it takes months or years. Either way, I've always stayed too long.

But I'm getting better about that. In my most recent round of single life, I've done a better job of recognizing death and walking away from it. I've also seen women instantly recognize the death in me and choose to walk away. Fair enough.

I'll have a new job soon. One that will be genuinely new to me. One with work that I can feel good about. New challenges. Plenty of room for growth. Without that room for growth, it's too easy for death to find room to squeeze itself in.

I'll soon find a new home too. New skin. Skin that fits me as I am now.

No telling how the long the cat will hold out.

And the relationships... Well, I'll try to keep walking away from death. The slow death of compromise and guilt and shame and fear. I'll walk away from any relationship that doesn't allow all of me to live. But I'll try to do that with an open heart. An open mind. Without fear. I'll try not to assume rejection before it happens. That's all quite a bit more tricky than a new job or a new apartment. But the more I make conscious and confident decisions, the more simple it becomes. Maybe it's not as tricky as I've led myself to believe.

I feel good right now. I feel healthy and alive. Everything around me feels dead. And for the last couple of years, I was dead too. A dead man. In a dead home. Working a dead job. Living with a dead cat. In a dead relationship.

But I'm alive now. I'm itching to shed that skin. Eager to run. To dance. To celebrate. To hunt.


Saturday, December 20, 2014


"Not forever. Just for now." - Jay Farrar

I walked into my apartment at 1:00 am. My thoughts were swirling and jumping through a mix of anxiety and comfort. Frustration and ease. I was thinking about work, and family, and love life, and friends. Thinking about what I do and don't have in all of those realms of my life. Thinking about how I got here. My stomach was a little knotted. I was aware of the knot, but mostly okay with it. I could see the knot, but I wasn't in any rush to untie it.

I fed my cat. My needy, cranky, 19 year old cat. Her food placated her for a bit. But it wasn't long before she was back to her never ending search.

I poured a beer and sat down at this laptop. Ready to write about those swirling and jumping thoughts and feelings. Ready to finally sort it all out and make sense of it. Ready to turn the corner. Finally take that big leap into a giant pool of understanding and peace.

I checked Facebook first though. Maybe I had some new Likes. I'd like some Likes. Then email. That's fair. There could have been some important news there. Something I really wanted to know. There wasn't. I glanced at the basketball scores too. Nuggets win.

The knot is gone. It slipped away while I was distracted. I still remember what it looked like. But I don't know that I could pick it out of a lineup of similar knots.

I was thinking about all of the changes in my life right now. Big changes. And I was thinking about a text from my old friend Glenn.

It's been almost a year since my ex-girlfriend and I broke up. It was our third break up. Pretty sure she'd call it our second, but that's another topic. A topic related to our breakup, and our relationship too, but not exactly related to the topic here. Though I don't know that I've really established a topic here.

Big changes. And the little details in between. Topic and subtopic. Or maybe the other way around. The breakup was one of the big changes. Whether we agree on the number of breakups is one of the little details in between. So that detail isn't on topic. But it's on subtopic. Or maybe the other way around.

It was a good relationship. Even with all of the difficult, painful, ugly, and unhealthy aspects of it. On the whole, it was still pretty wonderful. And so is she. I don't regret it for a second. But I don't regret the fact that it's gone either. I can't imagine going back to it. It was time. We both knew it, but she called it. I knew it, but I couldn't say it. She's stronger than me in that sense. So I left the heavy lifting to her.

My friend Glenn sent me a text tonight. Following up on a text that he sent two days ago. One that I didn't respond to. Am I going to make it to Austin in early January? I'm not. I can't.

That's what got me thinking back to the breakup.

I was thinking about all of the more current things swirling around my head. Work being front and center. More big changes. Hopefully. The very thing that makes it impossible, or at least incredibly irrational and irresponsible, for me to go to Austin. And I was thinking about how much I'd like to unload those thoughts, and a million others too. I was thinking about how Austin is exactly where I could go, to find the people that I needed to talk to. Old friends. People that could hear my now story, without needing any back story. They already know the back story. They were there for a lot of it. And I was there for a lot of theirs.

So then I thought about how I got to this place. This place where nobody in my day to day life knows my back story. So I walked it back. First stop. One year ago. Break up. The Final Episode. No potential for a part four. Just dead bodies on the ground. Nothing left. And both of us finally able to see that.

I didn't have anybody to talk with then either. Just the ex. And she's the one that I'd created that carnage with, so maybe not the best ear to bend.

Jumping forward. Last June. I was in Alton. Grandma. Mom. Little sister with her family. We had a good visit. But when it was over, and I pointed my car north for Chicago, I felt this immense gulf between me and my family. I didn't feel closer because of the visit. It just reminded me of the distance between us. Miles. Years. Lives.

Last winter, when I didn't have anybody to talk to about the breakup, I looked back on the relationship itself. I considered the ways in which I'd let some old friendships drift away, as I made a new best friend with the woman that I was in love with.

But as I drove away from my family in Alton, the broader view of my life and my relationships came into view along with the wide open plains of central Illinois. This has all been here for years.

So I'm here now.

I spent several wonderful hours tonight with a delightful woman. I still smell her. She's soft and thoughtful and beautiful and vulnerable and strong. Our lives, on the surface, couldn't have taken more different paths. But there's an underlining commonality to it, that feels warm and comforting.

I practice yoga now. I went to my first yoga class about seven or eight years ago. But this year, it changed. I don't so much go to "a yoga class" as I do just practice yoga. Sometimes in a class room. Other times in my car or at work or at home.

Running is coming back too. I feel strong again. It's been a long time since I've felt strong. This running experience feels a lot different. It's not like before. But it's familiar. Comfortable. Like coming back to a childhood home. Sleeping in your old room. You can't have a second childhood, but you can still come home. You can still be at home.

I'm alone through all of this. I'm alone in my life right now. I don't say that with sorrow or self pity. I'm not sad. I'm just alone. Not forever. Just for now.

Friday, March 21, 2014


   We owe. We all owe. We owe ourselves. We owe others. Our lives are intertwined with so many other lives. We exchange thoughts, feelings, abuses, affections. All of our interactions involve an exchange. And all of our dealings with ourselves involve deals and compromises. The ledger is created before we can even imagine its' contents or purpose. But it's there none the less. And so we owe. All of us. Nobody gets a zero balance. Not while breathing anyway.

   All that we can decide is who to pay, and who to ignore. Which collection calls go unanswered. Which calls do we acknowledge.

   If I focus too much on what I owe myself, I choose to ignore the needs of others. I choose to look inward. And the price I pay is the loss of others. The experience of others. I fall into myself. I fall away from the warmth and comfort of companionship.

   If I focus too much on what I owe others, I choose to ignore my needs. I lose my anchor and I'm set adrift. I can enjoy the companionship and affection of others. But I pay the price of knowing that the person receiving that affection isn't really me.

   Maybe the best that can hoped for is a balance of debts. To owe as much to myself as I do to others. Seems at once disheartening and peaceful.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Chutes and Ladders

"What is needed, rather than running away or controlling or suppressing or any other resistance, is understanding fear; that means, watch it, learn about it, come directly into contact with it. We are to learn about fear, not how to escape from it." - Jiddu Krishnamurti

   When I experienced my first significant running injury, I was able to shrug it off pretty easily. I'd been luckier than most of the people that I knew that ran comparable distances. I'd gone from couch sloth to my first marathon in 9 months. And I'd continued to pile on miles and speed from there, with no major setbacks, for several years. But my luck had run out. I was running on the lakefront on a cool fall night and something popped in my ankle. I'd felt similar sensations in my ankle before, but nothing this severe. Running another step wasn't an option.

   I had no insurance. So I decided to trust, that with a little rest, my body would take care of the healing on its' own. In my mind, it was nothing more than a minor obstacle that might require a little patience. I'd still run the marathon in Memphis that was just a few months away.

   I didn't run that marathon. That was two and a half years ago.

    I've spent a good deal of that two and a half years thinking back to that injury and everything leading up to and following it. The injury happened in the fall of 2011. I'd started running in the spring of 2008. So my mind has had plenty of ground to cover.

   Discovering running changed me in ways that went far beyond fitness. For the first time in my life, I'd found a passion for something that was all mine, from start to finish. I'd been influenced and inspired by others along the way. But I owned the miles that I ran. I owned the process of lacing up my shoes, day after day, and building. Building strength and speed. Building confidence. Building purpose. Building a connection between my thoughts and actions, and the flesh and blood of me that was moving and breathing down the street.

   For a long time, I looked at that ankle popping on the lakefront as the moment that I began to lose that connection. I saw that moment as the moment that all of those things that I'd worked to build, began to crack and falter.

   One of the biggest frustrations of the two and half years following that injury, was the confusion and uncertainty about what was actually wrong. There were days and weeks on end when I felt fine. Even good. And then out of nowhere, that same pop. It went on like that for a year and a half. And as I write this, it's hard for me to understand why I didn't find a way to see a doctor. But I didn't. And little by little, slowly over time, I got weaker and slower, and my will and my confidence withered as well. It happened so gradually, that I never really noticed it. One day I was confident that I'd work through everything. The next I was wallowing in self-pity and despair. I felt like the guy in an old cartoon from my childhood. I remember him being sound asleep as a river carried him miles away, only to leave him confused and abandoned and full of fear, in a foreign land.

   I did have moments of hope and respite in that first year and a half as well. I signed up for two marathons in 2012, and I was able to finish the second one. And I felt good about that, even though it was at the slowest pace I'd ever run. But then the bottom dropped out.

   In early February of 2013 I had a hamstring strain that dropped me completely on my ass. I couldn't walk. I couldn't sit. Even laying down was painful. I finally went to the doctor. But that was only good for immediate relief. I still had no insurance, so he gave me a two minute examination and determined that I just needed pain killers and rest. I took both and I sank. I wasted away on my couch. I couldn't work, so I fell behind on bills. I was embarrassed by the state I was in. I was depressed. And I only got worse.

   In late May, I hurt the same hamstring. This time even worse than the last. And at the same time, several other parts of my life began to unravel. Some directly related to the state that I'd let myself fall into. Others well outside of my control. All of which I'll choose to leave out of this post.

   The cumulative weight of it all was crushing. The one thing I most wanted to do to work through it, was run. And that was out of the question. I'd owned my miles. But I'd had no idea of the extent to which they'd owned me. It was as if I'd never known another positive outlet.

   The bottom's most useful quality is also its' most devastating. Time. It moves like a snail through molasses. I spent most of my time at home alone, or on a bar stool in varying degrees of solitude. Lost in my own thoughts and feelings, I had no choice but to search through the wreckage. I felt my way around some pretty dark places. Picked up the things that I found. And I tried to get to know them.

   I thought about what I'd been getting from running while I was healthy and I tried to consider how I could find that in other ways. That's not to say that I ever gave up on getting back to running. I didn't. But I had to reconcile myself to the fact that losing it was a possibility. And as frustrating and frightening as that was, I had to consider what that might look like. I considered other physical releases that might create less stress on the body, like swimming and yoga. They didn't excite me in the way that running does, but they can help fill that void a bit. I also considered the challenges available in my personal life. I considered the ways in which I'd failed to put everything into, and therefor get everything out of, my relationships with those closest to me. And I considered the challenges and potential fulfillment from investing my energy into my work, in ways that I've never really tried.

   I considered those things in part, so that I could begin to see a way forward. But also to see more clearly where I was already at. To understand what it was that I'd been so afraid of in the first place. And I still don't know that I fully understand that. I have some abstract notion of a fear of loss. A fear of losing what I love. A fear of losing love itself. A fear of my clumsiness with my passions and loves.

   But there is a fear too of putting myself into the world as I am. Flaws and weaknesses and all. And while running has helped me build so many positive things, it's also helped me build something to hide behind. And when I lost that cover, I cowered in the corner.

   This past October, I flew down to Austin to visit some old friends. By then, I was in a better place mentally and emotionally and, for lack of a term that feels exactly right, spiritually. But that trip seemed like a significant turning point. I didn't run one step, but I felt more light on my feet than I'd felt in ages.

   I spent my afternoons swimming through creeks and under waterfalls in the Texas hill-country sun. I spent my nights in outdoor beer gardens. Enjoying tacos and beers and easy conversation with friends that seem like they've always been there and always will be. And they seemed as happy to see me as I was to see them. People whose company and wisdom and care had carried me through other rough times. It was a long overdue trip home, and one that helped push me forward out of the malaise that I was finally leaving behind.

   When I came back to Chicago, I set to work on getting back into shape. Slowly, and without putting the weight of my peace of mind on the results. I started with lifting weights, in the hope that I'd be better equipped to handle the miles when that time came. And little by little, I began to find comfort again on the yoga mat. And now, the miles are coming back.

   For the most part, I've stayed true to that slow and steady pace. For the most part, I've stayed true to running and working out for the joy of the movement. I've also used it to weather a few storms, and I'll allow myself that. But I'll try to remember too, that I have other things to fall back on when I need them. And I'll try to remember that I've got friends to fall back on too. Though I still have a lot to work on, when it comes to letting that last one happen.

   I was supposed to run ten miles this evening. But I strained my back earlier today. I told myself that I could run through it. But once I laced up the shoes and ran a few steps, I knew I was in too much pain. I don't know how it'll feel tomorrow or the next day. I still hope to get that ten mile run in this week. But if that doesn't happen... well, we'll see. This is still a work in progress. But for right now, sore back and all, it feels good.



Wednesday, October 3, 2012

A Few Blinks

   A few weeks back, I received a Facebook friend request from somebody that I hadn't seen in roughly 15 years. We'd been close friends as teenagers and young adults, but our paths eventually diverged after I moved out of state. After reconnecting on line, we exchanged a couple of brief messages, but that was it. I'd love to sit down and hear about what the last decade and a half have been like for him, but it feels like something that has to be done in person.

   Since that initial exchange, it has been interesting to read his posts and to see his picture. It's interesting to see how much of the young man that I knew is discernible in the middle aged man that I can see now, albeit through a limited lens. But it's not something that I'd given a ton of thought to. Until tonight.

   When I logged on tonight, I noticed that today is his birthday, so I clicked on his name, thinking that I'd wish him a happy one. But I never got around to that. Instead, I started scrolling through his posts, looking mostly at his collection of memes, and then I clicked on his friends list. And it was there that I saw dozens of middle aged versions of young people that I'd once known. Some people that I'd been friends with. A couple of guys that used to push me around. A couple of gals that I'd had a crush on. And plenty more that aren't much more than a familiar name to me now.

   But seeing them all gathered in that space, struck me. It took the process of aging/changing/growing/shifting, a process that I tend to think of as slow and gradual, and made it seem very quick and sudden. I was filled with the feeling that 38 years of life had gone by in a few blinks. And I don't mean that in a remorseful way. I'm more than happy with the way that most of that time has been spent. But right now, at this moment, it just feels like it's happening so fast.

   Maybe that'll pass. Maybe it won't. Maybe I'll blink a few more times and be 76. Time appears to pass without any notice of my perceptions or preferences. But I notice time. And tonight I can't seem to notice much else.