Monday, July 3, 2017

30 days to a new life

Taking a break from politics to mark a personal milestone.

If I were to tell you how much I used to weigh, you would probably be shocked.

If I were to tell you how much I weigh now, which is officially 80 pounds lighter than my highest point, you would also probably be shocked.

It's not information I'm ready to share.  Maybe someday.  But you don't need that information to understand my post today.

I have always been heavy.  There isn't a time I can remember where I wasn't the biggest person in my cohort.  Despite that, I was in relatively good health and decent shape through the middle part of my 30s, when things began to break down.

My life has consisted mostly of long periods of gradual weight gain, punctuated by the occasional drop of 30-50 pounds or more, precipitated by a diet commitment that eventually wears off.  I have been rather consistently disappointed in myself for that reason.  I've never quite been able to get over the hump by transforming a short-term effort to lose weight into a long-term pattern.

Over the years, aside from the obvious issue of weight, I've developed bad knees.  With the intervention of Synvisc (an injection of fluid into my "bad" knee every six months), cortisone, NSAIDs, gabapentin, physical therapy, and ice, I've been able to deal with those knees.  But I have seen my ability to move around diminish significantly.

About 7 or 8 months ago, however, something changed.  I started spending time with the 13-year-old son of a good friend.  Eli and I hit it off sort of immediately.  We have similar interests, like sports and science and politics.  He's really smart, and observant when he wants to be.  He's got an amazing memory—better than mine, and my memory is semi-photographic even though it's not quite what it used to be.  We get along like old friends, even though he's not old enough to be anyone's old friend.

Unlike me, however, he's in tremendous shape, and he likes to move around.  So he would cajole me into playing football with him.  We started by throwing the ball to each other, and that's progressed to more physically demanding play, like running actual plays.  We have a game where he runs a route, catches a pass from me, then turns around and tries to get around me.  The first time we played this game, it was rough:  My task was to tackle him.  We played this without pads, and I nearly fell on him and crushed him.  So we modified it to something more than touch football, but less than tackle—my task is to wrap him up without tackling him.  It works, and it's very strenuous, at least for me.

Suddenly I have had a motivation I've never had before—the motivation to be in shape enough to move to make my "tackles," for bragging rights.  Lately I've been able to get him about 50% of the time.  I'm not sure if he's taking it easy on me or not, and I don't care.  I know that at 41 I have no business being able to keep up with a fit 13-year-old for a couple of hours of football, but I am perfectly willing to try, and to pretend that I can, and if he is pretending, too, I can live with that.

Mostly I value the time we spend together.  But being able to get up off the couch and do these things, whether it's the heat of the day, or raining, or close to dark—that's what enables me to spend time with him.

I don't have kids, of course.  We haven't entirely closed the door on that, but being with Eli has made me realize that there is a part of life that I had been missing.  I'm not his parent and don't pretend to be (except for a couple of times when it was just easier than explaining things), but playing with him has reminded me of when I was his age.  Much of my interaction with my own father was through sports, and I cannot help but think that his commitment to be there for me in that way was one of the most important influences in my life.  If I can pass that on to Eli, that will be a good thing, I think.

*   *   *   *   *

A bit over thirty days ago, I agreed to help Eli train for football this fall.  I'm not sure if he asked outright or just hinted.  For various reasons, he didn't get to play in 7th grade, so I knew he would need a leg up if he wanted to get any playing time as an 8th grader.  On Sunday, June 4, the day before the first Monday of his summer vacation, we played football for a couple of hours in the park and made plans to find a gym to work out in. I wasn't sure of his commitment, so we decided to take advantage of a free 5-day workout at a local health club.

I mark that day, the long day of football, as the first workout of my new regime.  Monday came, and I got us signed up for the free trial.  Eli wanted to learn how to lift weights, so we headed to the free weight area.  We spent a couple of hours there the first day as I showed him the proper form for lifting and began to teach him the principles of building muscle in a balanced, methodical way.  I knew that if he started out by pushing himself, he would get frustrated and probably quit.  He likes science, so I took the scientific approach to our workout, explaining to him how motions plus weight affect the various muscle groups.  I introduced him to the concept of progressive microdamage, through which muscles are repeatedly damaged (slightly) so that the body can repair them and strengthen them in the process. I taught him to listen to his body for pain, soreness, and fatigue, and to respond appropriately.  We have talked about nutrition and the roles that protein, carbohydrate, and water play in an effective bodybuilding regime.  And through all of this I began to remember it for myself.

*   *   *   *   *

That first day, Michelle decided she wanted to train, too, so she and I went a second time.  And we've kept going.  Sometimes it's just Eli and me, sometimes Michelle and me, and sometimes all three of us.  And somewhere along the way I realized that it had become a habit.  I was enjoying myself despite the exercise.  I began to see changes in my body:  I exchanged a good part of my "moobs" for actual pectoral muscles that hadn't been seen since I was a teenager, if at all.  (For a few days, I couldn't do anything but beg people to touch my pecs. It was weird, but I'm not ashamed.)  My biceps grew and puffed out all the way to the crook of my elbow.  My abs became hardened.

For the first time in many tries, I have managed to string together 30 days of consistent workouts.

At first I didn't understand what had changed.  This was by far not the first time I've joined a gym.  I'd been a member of the YMCA in Charlotte; of Planet Fitness in Concord, NC; and of the Jim Dailey Center in Little Rock.  In none of those instances had my commitment to get in shape lasted more than a few days.  Every time I went, I was filled with dread.  I literally hated exercise and would use any excuse not to go.  And now I look forward to going to the gym every day.  How can this be?

It's probably a combination of factors.  Being there to train Eli has helped, but because he gets a hard workout four days a week in football camp, we only train together 2-3 times a week at the gym.  Seeing Michelle enjoy herself on the Nautilus machines or exercising in the pool helps as well, and having her motivate me to get up early to go to the gym has been a major factor, too—in fact, probably more significant than Eli's role.

But the tipping point was something different.  Every time I've joined a gym in the past, I have headed to the treadmill, the elliptical runner, or the stationary bike for cardiovascular exercise.  My theory was that to get in shape, I needed to lose weight.  After all, nobody my size could possibly be an athlete, right?  And cardio is best for weight loss.

And as it turns out, that's just wrong for me.  I hate the mindless activity that cardio represents.  Some people can put on a playlist and lose themselves in the music and put mile after mile behind them.  I just can't do that.  And in the last 30 days, I've spent 10 minutes on a treadmill, none on the elliptical, and maybe 1000 spins on the stationary bike.  I have added pool walking a couple of days a week (I'm up to 1500 yards), which is sort of mindless exercise, but it's tolerable because it's in the water, which I love enough to counteract the drudgery.  (My favorite technique is to imagine myself installing computer software and seeing the progress bar...1/30, 2/30, 3/30, etc.)  If I set a goal for myself in terms of the number of laps or the speed, I can do that.

This time around, most of my exercise--apart from football--has been focused on weightlifting:  bench press, shoulder press, rowing under load, crunches under load, leg press, curls, squats, hip adductor (I can't quite fit in the hip abductor machine, but that's ok).  The variations are endless.  And I can do a light weight and many repetitions, or I can max out, or anything in between.  It's fun, and the results are dramatic.

*   *   *   *   *

No one would call me Adonis.  I don't have a perfect body, or even a good body.  When, on a break during a hot day of football, I take off my shirt in front of him, Eli begs me to put it back on.  Although I don't hear snickers in the locker room, I'm sure there have been side-eye glances from other, more fit guys, wondering what I'm doing in there.

And it's only been 30 days.  Perhaps we should see if this routine sticks more firmly before we rate it 10/10.

But I have confidence that this time it's different.  After all, the hour before a workout isn't filled with dread, or with my inner angel pleading for me to go against the inner devil that tells me to stay in bed. I actually want to go.  And when, at the end of my workout, I've showered and dressed and I'm walking out to my car, and the guy at the front desk wishes me a good day, I'm already thinking about what the next time will be like.

And smiling like never before.

*   *   *   *   *

Am I obsessed?  Maybe.  But it's a positive obsession, I think.

*   *   *   *   *

I'd like to think that I have the heart of a teacher, but most of my qualifications in this sphere come from doing the wrong thing consistently.  If there is a lesson to be learned here, however, I think it's this:  If you are unhappy with your life, you have to change it.  You have to change something about the way you do things.  You can't do the same thing again and again and expect a different result.  I've known that rule for a long time, but it took me far to long to apply it to this situation.

I might yet fail.  I'm in uncharted territory, a stream full of unseen shoals, a place of many perils both visible and invisible.  But I have already gone farther than even I expected, and it has given me confidence that I can keep going for whatever piece of forever I have left.

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