Categories
Exercise Health Journal

The Strength Within

Ever since high school where many of the all-male students used to test each other’s maleness by beating up the weaker students and competing in he-man sports like wrestling and basketball (the most popular and highly funded sports in the school) to bolster up an image of glory and dominance, I’ve disliked, even hated, sports that emphasized one person’s preeminence over another. I’ve steered away from gyms where the odor of male sweat and the sight of men sizing up one another both intimidated me and made me feel scornful. And, after, the bench-warming days of the high-school soccer team, where winning the matches played a more important role in the existence of the team than the enjoyment and participation of the sport that every team member had signed up for, I have rarely gone to mass spectator games or found much interest in the super-hero athletes that so many boys get all starry-eyed over. All of it was annoying and pointless, with too much weighted toward crooning over men who spend their lives kicking or throwing a ball, rather than giving equal respect and praise toward those who might prefer to use their minds. I have nothing against people who do amazing things with their bodies and take care of their health in a balanced way; I just have little patience for people who spend too much time thinking about winning and losing.

I guess these are some reasons why, ever since I can remember, the equally physically demanding sports like hiking and mountain climbing, bicycle touring, and kayak touring have always held such great appeal to me. They don’t require that you compete against anyone but yourself, and they rarely come with rewards other than the accomplishment of reaching a peak or simply being immersed in the elements, feeling alive. I still have high school classmates who snicker when I tell them I love backpacking, thinking that what I do is somehow not cool or that it is wimpy. But that’s the thing about such activities: I have nothing to prove to anyone. And so their comments slide off, sounding silly and ignorant. I doubt most of those former classmates could keep up with me on the hills.

Over the last few years I’ve let my body run down, though, and for the first time in my life I’ve gained weight. This is due mainly to the amount of insulin I have to take, which causes me to gain weight even on modest amounts of food. With my desk job and distance from the mountains (the nearest mountains are two and a half hours away by express train and those are not even the real mountains I love walking in… it takes me at least four hours to go to the bases of the nearest higher peaks and about six or seven hours to the places I’m most interested in… all of which makes it hard to get out to where I want to be on the weekends, especially since I’ve still got to climb those slopes!) it is harder now to get the mountain training I need, but I’ve also slacked off from sheer laziness. Depression had me lying about too much, getting soft.

Back in January, though, I, and some of my university colleagues, got together to learn and train with Crossfit, a training regimen that focuses on all-around fitness by concentrating on intense, short workouts that vary day-to-day, and are scaled according to one’s level of fitness and abilities. It is quite demanding and never easy, but the results have been astonishing. My muscles have grown and the strength of my twenties is slowly returning (though recovery is taking considerably longer). I surprised myself the other day by being able to do 53 pull ups without overly straining myself. And last Sunday I did a 10 kilometer run during which the old rolling, smooth glide over the ground, where my legs feel as if I am flying without gravity, something that I hadn’t felt since 1997 when I used to run every day, returned. The fat has yet to really come off, but that is only a matter of time. When I visited my diabetes doctor last month she announced that my blood hemoglobin (the measure of the severity of the diabetes, with 6 being normal and 10 to 12, which I had been at for over seven years, being close to dangerous) was better than it had been in seven years. At this rate I will be able to scale the more difficult peaks this summer, something I had almost given up on in the last few years.

The funny thing is, I enjoy heading to the gym now. Having those young, annoyingly fit judo fighters and gymnasts from the university pumping weights alongside me no longer bothers me. For the first time I see their world a little bit more from their point of view, and it isn’t so different from mine. Maybe it’s just Crossfit, which discourages too much competitive comparison with others, or maybe it’s because I feel stronger and competent enough to challenge those youngsters should I desire to.

Whatever the reason, it’s just good to be in shape and feeling good about my body. If only they had taught this back in high school!

Categories
Journal Musings

Taking the Leap

Shetlands Puffin Beating Wings
Northern Puffin frantically beating its wings as it launches itself from a cliff and tries to make a soft plummet to the sea below, The Shetlands, Great Britain, 1995

I guess it was bound to happen. After years of uncertainty and longing to make changes in my life the pebble under the boulder that had been holding inevitability back finally let loose and the whole mess has started to come crashing down. It’s been two months since I was laid off from my ten-year teaching job, and very coldly at that. In hindsight I realize now that I’ve been a fool to hang on so long there; where I’d thought that I actually meant something to the upper level others I was working with, came the blow between the eyes that I was nothing but a convenient cog. It’s quite sobering to wake up to your own delusions.

On the same week I lost my job God played another hand, brushing away the rust from the spinning circle of doubt in my relationship with my wife. And, as such things inevitably go, with it came a torrent of pain and guilt, things which have orbited my life for far too long. The divorce now waits upon our convenience, which somehow never really seems to be the right time. How do you finally lay down the ultimatum to someone whom you still love and respect, and whom you never wanted to harm or, to be brutally honest with myself, abandon? Fourteen years. It seems like a lifetime.

That same week my diabetes took a bad turn for the worse, with blood sugars reaching into the stratosphere. I woke up one night with a pain in my stomach so bad I couldn’t walk. I kept retching up food and couldn’t stop coughing. This being Japan, with a two-month wait until my doctor would have an opening to see me, I was utterly terrified about attempting to go see the doctor for help, and, with the experiences I’ve had until now, just being given the same useless runaround about how to deal with my diabetic issues. So I decided to clamp down hard on myself and just do what had to be done. First I looked up possible diabetic complications with my symptoms and found information on gastroparesis, a result of neuropathy, or diabetic nerve damage from too much prolonged high sugars. I immediately cut out all sugar, excessive fat, high glycemic index foods, coffee, alcohol, and any snacks, and upped my intake of vegetables. I ate only what was necessary and no more, always going to bed slightly hungry. I started exercising, running every day, doing lots of stretches, weight lifting, and relaxation exercises. I completely stopped going to restaurants and instead of taking the train all the way from one place to another started getting off the train early and walking home.

The results are astounding, for me, and inspiring. I’ve lost three kilograms so far, gained some muscle, and can run ten kilometers again without huffing and puffing. The gastroparesis has completely disappeared and when I visited my doctor last week I was informed that for the first time in about a year my blood glucose levels have fallen halfway to the ideal level.

In the meantime I managed to secure a new job at a university out in the country. It’s not quite in the mountainous area I was hoping to start living in, but the job seems interesting and respectable, with quite a few more challenges than I’ve had until now. It’s a chance to finally start moving in the direction I’ve been needing to go, to pay off debts, to gain some valuable experience, to do some traveling, and perhaps meet some interesting people and make much-needed friends.

So I’ll be moving in September, making the break from this awful apartment I’ve been railing against for four years. And most likely a separation from my wife. That is the part that shakes my confidence and resolve. I don’t know if I have the courage to do it. Or the meanness of spirit. Or the blinders of a selfish fool. I know lots of people have gotten divorces, but I honestly don’t know how they manage to survive it or even know in their heart of hearts that they are making the right decision. After all, my wife is a kind, gentle woman who loves life and likes herself. I’ve learned a lot from her. I can’t imagine life without her.

But life has to feel right, I guess. I can’t forget myself or stop trying to find my personal balance. It’s been unbalanced for so long that I no longer really know what balance it is that I am seeking. I keep looking back at old memories of when I was happy and try to work them into who I am now and find that they just don’t go far enough. I need to challenge myself with new goals and new ways of perceiving. And to find some kind of nourishment that will wipe away my growing cynicism. I sense strongly that a much more rigorous connection with the natural world is imperative to my sense of fulfillment. But the question is “How?” How can I be close to the natural world and make a living at the same time? Must it always be an unacceptable compromise? Must I always be where I don’t want to be? Must I always settle for jobs that, as my mother recently stated, “most people in the world are not happy with”.

What is it exactly that makes up a satisfying and meaningful life? Is it still possible to reach the end of my life and say, “Yes, I lived my life fully and as best I could.” and to die with a full heart? Is the modern template for what constitutes a “successful” life the only option? For so much of what I see seems completely insane to me. So much of what so many people think of as important seems dull and without imagination, apathetic and blind to the world around.

I look out of my window and watch a bumblebee gather nectar from the flowers in the garden. The flowers bend under its weight and tip back their petals in perfect conformance to the bumblebee’s act, as if genetically everything was dancing to the same tune. A robber fly makes passes at the bumblebee, but turns back, perceiving the danger. Hoverflies and skippers flit among the fronds, whizzing through one another’s trajectories and circling these islands of green. A sulfur butterfly flutters along the ground, laying eggs. And beyond the houses come the electric buzzing of cicadas and the throaty calls of jungle crows. And I don’t know why but so often when I see such simple things I want to start weeping, as if I recognize that I am no longer a part of that world, but I need desperately to get back to it. It is a world that exists in and of itself, all components and members sharing in the workings of its web. Humans are part of this, I know in my head, but the presence of people always feels like a jarring off key note. I keep asking myself, “Where do I fit in? Why do I feel so unnatural?”

Perhaps that is why the teachings of the Buddha ring so much more relevantly with me than those of Christ. They talk of reconciliation with this world rather than the next. They say live today, here, rather than tomorrow and there.

Ah, a black swallowtail descends from the rain clouds into the garden like a dark angel, beating her filmy wings above the reaching hands of leaves. Then she is followed by a tiger swallowtail. And I have it. This one place, like all places, offers food for the gods. To find your own place, you have but to make your own, unique offering. It is the thanks that makes life worthwhile, not the satisfaction.

Categories
Exercise Health

Howl!

Moonlight Moosehead Lake
Full moon over Moosehead Lake, Maine, U.S.A. 1991

For the first time in almost two years the strength in my body broke through the accumulation of inactivity and slow muscles. For four weeks now I’ve been keeping up a regular succession of exercise, in part to prepare myself for less encumbered mountain walking this summer, but also to take control of my diabetes and to just plain feel good about myself. With all the heavy events and responsibilities of the last two years, turning 41, then 42, and now 43, seemed to weigh down upon my sense of vitality, as if all the voices had pummeled me into submission and I was about to join the flocks of flabby-midriffed housebounders. So many people my age seem to have given up. They want life easy and handed to them on a plate. They feel they have earned the right to rest and atrophy.

But I miss the mountains. I miss swinging my legs and feeling the air fill my lungs and my legs propelling me along the ridges. And I miss waking with a jump out of bed. I feel that piece by piece the elation at being alive is blowing away on some temporal wind, like dandelion seeds. That’s not how I want to grow older. I don’t want to succumb to cynical newspapers, closed curtains, and packages of potato chips. The engine that drives me… that drives us all… yearns for hope springing eternal. Again and again.

So I’ve embraced this physical promise of reawakening the muscles, bones, lungs, and eyes, talking myself into rhythms, tweaking a defiance against gravity, pushing and pulling at the immovable. It is a kind of dance, and the more often I reincarnate this resistance against entropy the more the movement reinforces itself and my body awakens. It is just sleep that incapacitates us.

Tending my core with Pilates workouts, yanking gravity with weights, bending branches with stretches and calisthenics, and touring my neighborhood with long loping runs and walks, all leave a feeling of occupancy, of claiming my place in space.

The effort has begun to pay off. This afternoon the weights lifted with less pull. My head inched closer to my knee. I breached the pull up bar five extra times. And most of all the run felt like bouncing, allowing me to spend more time acknowledging the glint of sunlight on the river’s water than on the crashing of my feet.

On the way back to my apartment I passed a house where a huge German Shepherd occupied a metal cage (Japanese have a bad habit of buying dogs too big for their tiny homes and often leaving them locked up in cages). Right as I paced by, the nearby kindergarten’s 5:45 chime went off, a loud, canned version of Big Ben’s bells. At the same moment the German Shepherd began to howl, sounding for all the world like a wolf. I stopped and watched him, his muzzle raised to the air, eyes shut, lips pursed, and hooting at the sky. With my rediscovered muscles bursting with energy I wanted to join in, to call to the horizon and regain paradise, the pack rolling over the hills and taking me away. Something was singing in me and I wasn’t alone.

As if a silent start gun had gone off my legs resumed their walk home. This is just the beginning. The cage will melt away, and I will heed the calling of the wild.

Categories
Exercise Japan: Living Journal Nature

Evening Rhapsody

Took a run this evening along the river near the apartment. Twilight had overcome the earlier fiery sunset and it had gotten cool enough to need a windbreaker as I ran. It had been a long time since I felt so light and agile and, deciding to take the run slowly, it seemed as if the passage of concrete and soil beneath my feet slipped past without effort. Something about today seemed to awaken the animals, too. As I left the path that followed the river and descended to the overgrown trail next to the river itself, the air was filled with bats swirling about my head. Some passed close enough to hear the soft batter of their wings. Spot-billed ducks watched me warily from the water and everywhere cats stalked among the tall stands of grasses.

It was a perfect blend of tranquility and energy. A whisper of the world long before we plastered over it.