Thursday, July 28, 2011

Connected in disconnect

Jayden was only 6, but he was already showing signs of addiction.
We thought about "Intervention." Instead, Kate had him color three strips of paper.
They were his tickets.
They were tickets to anything electronic.
He needed them.
Before the tickets, his morning could be full of cartoons, or sometimes I'd have to pry my cell phone from his warm, sweaty hands.
NO! ANGRY BIRDS! he'd yell, as if I'd yanked the needle from his arm just before the heroin was delivered. When I got home, rather than a hug, I'd be greeted with, "Can I do your phone?"
In between, maybe he'd do the computer, such as a NickJr. website or a site.
We knew it was bad. But here's the sad part. The dangerous part. I thought it was also nice.
It kept him occupied, and a quiet, occupied young kid = quiet, occupied parent actually doing something for himself or herself.
Like, you know, playing with my iPhone.
Still, the girls keep themselves occupied by using their imaginations. They play with each other, with themselves, with toys.
Jayden relied on us for his entertainment. It was like he had forgotten how to play. To be a kid. To go outside and run around and poke bugs.

What was worse was we are not freaky parents who wondered why our babies weren't crawling at three months, but we had contemplated looking into ADHD for Jayden. He could not hold still, even telling us, at one point, "I want to but I can't." Kate had to ask him 10 times to put on his shoes.
When we instituted the rule, meaning a half hour plugged into something electronic, he gave us a ticket. And we noticed something almost right away.

He was focused.
Now he would sit with us and do homework. He wanted to read more books. He wanted to go outside more (even if the weenie does come right back in because of mosquitoes and 95-degree air).
He is in our face more.
A focused Jayden means I have to be Dad more. He makes me put my iPhone away. The iPhone is one of the best things that's happened to me in the last few months. It's also one of the worst.
I'm not alone. CNN just did a story on people who obsessively check their smart phones. The study said, on average, people checked their smartphones an average of 34 times a day. That's 34 times a day! A day!
My nose was in my smartphone so often that my kids sometimes would say, "Daddy!" to pull my attention away from it. When I wasn't checking it, I was playing Angry Birds or Tiny Wings or Words With Friends.
Jayden comes by it rightly. A diversion like that is like a trough of queso and chips to someone on a diet.
Disconnect is my biggest problem as a father and a husband. It's a serious weakness.
I need people for my job, and yet people drain me, and when I get home, I'm desperate for a recharge (much like my iPhone at the end of the day). Burying my face in my phone is a recharge. My family bears the brunt of that.
So I've tried to be better about it. I talk to the girls, play with the kids and wrestle with them at nights now. I still play my phone too. I wish it weren't an effort to interact. But it's the way I am.
Jayden really needed those tickets.
Turns out I did too.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The longest mile

"How much can you know about yourself, you've never been in a fight?"
— Tyler Durden, "Fight Club."

How much do you really know about yourself, after all, if you've never fought something? It seems like an arrogant question because the person asking it surely DOES know the struggle and wants nothing more than to tell you about it. But the reason I'm asking it is it's the exact question I asked myself three minutes before the start of the mile. And I am going to tell you about my own struggle, at the risk of sounding like that arrogant bastard, because you need to hear it.
You need to hear it because many times the person wielding the question is NOT arrogant. At least he or she is not nearly as arrogant as you might think when they ask that question. And the reason they want to tell you about the struggle is because they are proud, and because they want to possibly inspire you, but mostly, they want you to relate to them because everyone struggles, in relationships, at your job, at parenting. 
And I know all this because I am that person.
• • • 
I have blogged about my running quite a bit. You've read about half marathons, trail runs, runs up mountains, tough 10Ks, 5Ks and even a couple marathons. And I will tell you, right now, nothing tells me more about myself than the mile.
It's the mile, just a mile, that challenges me the most. It's by far the hardest thing I do during a season. When I tell people I'd rather run a half marathon, they don't believe me. Seriously. I'm not kidding. Because an hour and 45 minutes of mild suffering is far more agreeable to me than four minutes of pure hell.
If you do them right*, races don't get easier as they go down in distance. They get harder. 
* When I say "right," I mean as a runner who trains hard and takes it fairly seriously, like me. I would never do anything but encourage anyone who enters a race, even if you do a 5K twice a year because you want to ease the guilt of overeating before the 4th of July or Thanksgiving. I want everyone to lead active lives, and, to be blunt, I can't talk down to you anyway because there are runners out there who make me look like a squeaking mouse. 
Those races get harder, at least they do for me, because there's no reason to hold back in a 5K. It's three miles. That means running hard, really hard, in fact. Some people find this fun. I do. Now. But when I started, the intensity of running was the hardest adjustment for me. I'd climbed more than 150 peaks and repeated more than a few, but I'd never felt the lung-burning misery I do during a 5K. It took me years to banish the trolls, the ones constantly telling me to slow down, from my brain. One reason I've improved so much this year is because the trolls are quieter.
I'd mostly gotten over my secret hatred of intense races that made me miserable.
The mile was my last hurdle.
• • • 
I texted one of my running partners two hours before the race.
"I'm trying to look forward to this tonight," I said, "and not dread it. Failing!"
Dread will kill you before a race. If you already believe it will hurt, how can you banish the trolls when it's actually hurting? You can't. And yet I couldn't shake the dread. I KNEW how much the mile would hurt. 
The mile, as you've probably guessed, is as close to a sprint as you can manage for a mile. If 5Ks hurt, the mile REALLY hurts. In the last half mile, you can barely breathe, your legs turn to lead, and your heart booms like a bass drum. Your throat burns. I went to the doctor a few years ago and discovered I had a touch of exercise-induced asthma and acid reflux. I use an inhaler only before a tough race, and I take a mild form of medication for the reflux. Both have helped immensely. But the burn, the fire, really, still visits me for the mile. Only for the mile.
• • •
Positive, I told myself. Think positive. Smile during your run. Think positive. My goal was to go under 6 minutes. I'd only done it once, two years ago, and by the skin of my teeth, at 5:58. Still, I'd run well this year. If I didn't go under 6, it would be a disappointment. Positive. Positive. Positive! 
"30 seconds," our coach said.
The first minute, when I would still be able to think clearly, was crucial this time, I thought. I told myself to stay with one of my running partners. She's smart and won't go out too fast.
I've gotten much better about gassing myself before the finish line. It's one reason why I enjoy the races more. But in the mile, it's hard not to go out too fast because it's balls out from the start, and seconds count. There's no room for a bad quarter. So I tried to hold back and run hard at the same time. It's harder than it sounds.
As we turned the first corner, a steep downhill awaited me, and I was already panting and fighting the trolls.
The trolls really come from deep inside your brain, and what your brain says to you is, "You sure?" You sure you want to do this? After all, it IS hard, and the risk for injury is pretty high, as even a slip would probably mean some serious road rash, and you are maxing your heart rate, which isn't good for you for long. I tried to think of excuses for me to quit. I couldn't think of any. So I relied on bargains to quiet the trolls.
I know this hurts, I said to myself. But this is downhill, so let your legs carry you and relax. I have long legs. It's my only athletic gift. I tried to use it as I ran downhill, but I started really breathing hard, and this is when the dread starts to settle in, because you know it's not getting any better, and probably it will get worse.
The third quarter is always the toughest. You aren't close to being done, and yet the furnace is really burning at this point. It was all I could do to breathe. It's actually kind of scary at this point because your heart feels like it might explode and the air scalds your lungs. I once got an EKG during a physical because I was worried about the pain I felt during the hardest runs. The inhaler helped with that. But that's also just the way it is. I also began to see tiny pink stars, which would be cool if I was at a Pink Floyd concert and not killing myself.
I slowed a bit on this quarter, I know I did, and so I started searching for people to pace me. Pretend you've got a rope attaching you to the person, I told myself. It's a neat trick because it works.
The third quarter ended, thankfully, and it was time for the stretch home. At this point I was so miserable that I made another bargain with myself. I told myself I would dog it if my time was just OK.
I glanced at my wrist. 4:15. 
Do NOT slow down, I told myself. You're going to PR if you keep it up. 
It helped, but I needed something more. I began to listen to the others around me.
• • •
The collective breathing sounded like the wind that rattled my windows the night during an angry thunderstorm, and I recalled a talk I had with others before the start.
Some runners close to me in ability asked me if I was going to run the first wave of faster runners or the wave of runners that were just over a 6-minute mile. I was going to run the first, I said, because I thought I could go under 6. 
And it was then that I was honest. I wanted to get it out of the way, I said. I didn't want to go second because I didn't want to dread it any longer.
Yeah, they said. Me too.
Others were going through exactly what I was going through, I told myself. They were hurting, barely able to breathe, even probably fighting their own trolls. Everyone was going through a period of discovery, about how much they could suffer and still fight to the end. That seems obvious, and yet, when you're suffering, you really do feel as if you're on an island. No one could possibly be as miserable as me right now, you think. It's not true. There are many out there. And that's why it's not an arrogant question to ask how much you really know of yourself if you've never been in a fight because those who DO fight are scared before it. We are nervous. We don't want to feel the pain and the misery and we don't relish the battle. In fact, as soon as it starts, we really just want it to be over.
I dug deep, way deep, even as I wished for it to end, and ran as hard as I could. It was not as fast as some. It was faster than others. At that point, it didn't matter. I heard my time, "5:48," as I approached the line. I knew something about myself. This was my own fight. And finally, I was winning.

Monday, July 11, 2011


I started obsessing about the barbecue a good three weeks before I made the trip out to Kansas.
I don't think I'm alone in missing the little things when I think about home. Home, for me, is Kansas. It's where I grew up. It's where I went to school. It's where I worked my first job. It's where I said I would always stay, until I left.
I always come home for a week every year. My excuse is so my parents can see the grandkids. That is true. But the real reason is much simpler. I need my fix.
That means barbecue, Tippin's French Silk pie, running on a trail through the woods, catching lightning bugs and even sort of liking the strange stuff, like that film of humidity that stays on your skin at the end of the day.
Part of that comes from the fact that my parents are divorced. It is what it is. It was better for the both of them. I love seeing them, and they are great to my kids. That still leaves me visiting semi-strange neighborhoods rather than the one I lived in as a kid. I rarely get to see it anymore. I didn't this year.
I got lost, for instance, on one of my runs at Dad's. I took a wrong turn, and that turn forced me to run eight miles a day after a PR in a 10K.
(Quick brag: That 10K was a PR by two minutes. Sea level is really nice, but I think the stifling humidity cuts that advantage in half by the end of the race. The base training I've enjoying from the marathon just keeps paying off).
So, with my childhood home gone — something that isn't uncommon among us almost-40-year-olds — I have to hang onto the little things.
That means flying insects that flash like traffic lights when it gets dark.
Lightning bugs are fascinating to me, even if, really, all they are doing is saying LOOK AT MY BUTT! NO LOOK AT MY BUTT! I'LL DOUBLE BLINK YOUR BUTT TO THE GROUND! The kids had a ball snatching them up and putting them in a jar.
I watched them for hours in Kansas, but we don't have them in Colorado, at least not in Greeley. I miss the calls of the cicadas, but I miss the lightning bugs a lot more. I let them go once the kids went to bed. I can't keep beauty like that locked up.
I went to Kansas determined not to overeat. One thing that struck me on this trip was how easy it is to eat too much every day. I'm hardly overweight, and I'm not on a diet. But I have to watch what I eat every day, just like all of you.
It was a constant battle. And part of that reason is the French Silk.
When you order French Silk anywhere else, you get a mushy, pudding pie, which is sort of like comparing Schlitz to a Fat Tire. Tippin's French Silk is a buttery, milk chocolate masterpiece. There's nothing else like it. I don't really even like pie all that much.
Tippins was a restaurant with several locations, but it eventually went out of business, as the market for fancier versions of truck-stop food wasn't strong, and the pies were't enough to keep it going. Now Tippins sells pies out of a grocery store chain (or the chain bought it, I'm not really sure) for $12 a pop.
I had a piece of French Silk every night after dinner, and obviously, if I did that every night, I'd probably be at least ten pounds past my racing weight. I'd have a ponch, even with all the miles I run. And then I'd probably want a snack every night, like I had at my parents, and I'd eat more candied walnuts and much extra-large lunches and....
And I found myself having to really balance all that out with breakfasts of grapefruit and little else and other lunches of salads and fruits. It's SO easy to go overboard. I can see why this country is so fat. Calories are accessible, and most people don't run them off.
I don't think I overate on this trip, but I did gain a couple pounds, and I ran 30 miles that week in a sauna. So easy.
But then again, I may have gained all that weight Friday. Friday was Gates day. In my completely professional and totally unbiased opinion, Kansas City and the surrounding area serves the best barbecue in the world.
You have to pick your alliances early on. There are four or five major brands here. I used to be a KC Masterpiece guy, but in the last few years, I've turned to Gates. It's spicier than I want, but the meat is So Fucking Good. Smokey good. Imagine tender, smoked meat drenched in sugar, spice and molasses. You get the idea.
I ran 12 that day through that trail through the trees, and I ate a small bran muffin for breakfast and three servings of fruit for lunch, and then we went to a big pool all day. My body was ready for calories.
I ate most of a short end of ribs, probably 20oz of beans, most of an order of burnt ends, a serving of sausage, a few fries and probably something else. It's by far the most food I've eaten since, well, probably since the last time I had Gates, a year ago. If I could have injected it into my veins, I would have.
Alas, eventually, the meal has to end.
My body, or the stomach, anyway, seemed to realize how special this was, as I got away with this bender. No issues (I do not need to elaborate, I'm pretty sure) and just some mild heartburn that I extinguished with some Tums. Perhaps the humidity helped me sweat it through my pores.
Ah, the humidity. I said I may have missed it. I did miss it for a few minutes. Then my next thought was, "OMGOMGOMG HOW DO YOU STAND IT?" I felt like a hot dog dunked in water and then thrown into the Joey Chestnut furnace. At my race I dumped two cups of water over my head and ran through a sprinkler. On my "lost" run my shirt was soaked through. After I ran 12 through the trees I believe I lost five pounds in water weight. And every time it started before 7 a.m. Brutal.
On our last day, when we stayed at a cheap hotel in Goodland, KS, dark clouds loomed in the distance, and a kid at the hotel's pool from Minnesota kept staring at them in worry. They're nothing, I told him. Don't worry.
A couple hours later, a thick mass of green-tinted, pissed-off vapor gathered over our hotel roof and spit out lightning like raindrops. Then the sirens went off.
I even miss the thunderstorms, the ragers that we just don't get back home. But the kids freaked on us, despite me telling them I'd been through dozens, if not hundreds, of tornado warnings with nary a scratch. This storm wasn't even that bad, with some driving rain, strong winds and a lot of thunder but no hail, really strong winds or, you know, a funnel. I'm not sure why the sirens went off. Maybe for old times' sake.
I stared out the window as the rain settled down, and, even if I miss it, I was grateful this was a fun event, an unusual thing, something we do once a year, like eat BBQ or catch lightning bugs.
The things you miss, I've found, seem to lead you back to the places we are lucky enough to now call home.