O Captain, My Captain

Robin Williams’ death has affected me deeply. I and countless others grew up knowing and loving his impressions, his characters, that sunny smile that projected so easily. You could believe what he told you: a trusted adult among children. He was a constant presence in my media as a child and teenager, and it’s not just that familiarity, that sense of distant family, that I mourn when I think of him. It’s the hammering heart and stuttering breath of someone who has narrowly missed being hit by a car. Those stumbling, rapidly blinking moments of numbness that stretch into minutes as you stand frozen on the side of the road, the car long since gone. A near miss, and you’re not sure if you’re relieved.

As a fellow human being living with depression, when I heard he had committed suicide, a wave of desperate, intimate despair smacked me down into the surf. I know what it is to feel alone.

That word.

Alone.

It does little to convey the abyss that those of us face when living with depression. It’s solitary confinement in a crowd. It’s drowning incrementally while holding your husband’s hand and looking at the menu for the little Mediterranean place y’all frequent. It becomes a suffocating state in perpetuity. Even days where the load is lighter are still steeped and inky in places. It’s a struggle to be happy, to be grateful, to see the silver lining, even when you have full, logical knowledge that your life is good.

Calvin & Hobbes frequently poked fun at modern art, and Calvin titles one of his grotesque snow sculptures “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.” This is darkly humorous, for the eponymous novel sought to challenge Nietzsche’s theory of eternal recurrence with this phrase, that the life we live and the choices we make are not heavy, as Nietzsche implies, but light and fleeting, impossible to hold. Calvin’s temporary snow sculptures were the perfect vehicle to explore such concepts.

Living with depression is, for me, like living with Nietzsche riding piggyback on my person, constantly talking to me about his theories of nihilism. This is not a discredit to the man, but the best metaphor I can conjure at present. (Academically, I appreciate and even agree with many of his controversial philosophical stances). Depression is constantly telling me about the meaninglessness of my existence, discrediting my aspirations, mocking my inability to find motivation to rise above a survival state.

The majority of modern comedians live with a variety of mental illnesses. It is no surprise that people who upend and analyze the truths of our human existence suffer from the dark side of those very truths. The Pagliacci story from Watchmen is circulating in conjunction with Robin’s death, and it’s all too fitting for a man open about the struggle to live with addiction and depression. People have said: “How can a man that brought us such joy kill himself? He had fame and fortune; what drove him to death?” Those people do not see the dichotomy of life as starkly, as sharply as creative people. Or worst, exercising empathy for others is more difficult than spouting half-baked, incendiary commentary. Robin’s senseless death reminds us of our shared humanity, that the materialistic trappings of our world do nothing to soothe the soul.

All the above is to say that I know, in my own way, a sliver of how Robin felt, and I am desperately sad that in his final moments, he was more alone than you can imagine, bereft of the love he knew his family, friends, and fans felt for him. It is impossible to explain if you haven’t been sucked into that undertow yourself. Depression is a liar, and after stalking Robin his entire life, it finally succeeded in taking a brilliant, genuinely magnanimous human being from our midst, and we are the poorer for it.

I hope you are at peace, Robin.

LatePost: BP MS 150 2012

Wow, I couldn’t even be bothered to update what happened after I actually finished my first BP MS150? Damn. Well. Better late than never.

I completed every mile in my first BP MS150 in 2012. I did not use every rest stop, nor did I dismount and walk any of the hills (which was overwhelmingly tempting in the hills of Austin). I only had Clif bars, Clif goo (carb gels), and 2 sport-top water bottles that rode on my bike frame. I rode with PWC, and I was one of the last riders on the team to cross the finish line in Austin around 5pm. My incredible, supportive husband was waiting for me, and he drove me and my friend back to Houston that night. The official pictures from that ride are fucking awful, because I looked the exact opposite of an athlete. Every picture featured my round, rosy cheeks, and my brow eternally set in my “thinking/effort” expression, which looks to outsiders like I’m plotting their doom.

I cried many times during that ride: when the heat was buffeting up off the black asphalt of SH-71 in waves, when I’d look ahead of me and see the pack I’d been riding with outdistance me easily and disappear over the far hill, when those riders twice my girth and weight inexplicably overtook me. I cried because of the psychological pressure I had cultivated. I cried because I was still raw from the death of my mother-in-law, and all the problems that had arisen from that in the following months.

I had told myself on every training ride and every dollar spent on gear that I needed to complete this ONE thing. I needed to prove to myself that I existed, that I mattered, that even in a world where I am constantly powerless in the face of someone else’s grand design, I could choose to take on a challenge that other people would not or could not face. The ride started out as an idea of accomplishment, a large goal I could reach that was appreciable not just in the application of my hard work and training, but as evidence that my life was still moving forward. That I had purpose.

When I was arduously ascending those low, rolling hills blanketed with wildflowers, sweat dripping from my eyebrows and irritating my contacts, my left foot cramping, my odometer reading an excrutiating 5 mph– I saw my desire differently. It was no longer an act of proof for others, but an act of defiance for myself only.

My body was (and still is) overweight. It’s lumpy in the wrong places, and I don’t know if my double chin will ever go away. My breasts are too large for my liking (always have been), and I have to tame my mane of frizzy, coarse hair into something that is “appropriate” for current societal expectations of sleekness. I am not a woman of willowy grace. I have a barrel chest, and I’m built for strength. My self-image is that of a knobbly sweater, a mug of hot tea, and a slice of coffee cake. I identified with Laura Ingalls Wilder when Pa called her his “little stout French horse.” That’s always been me, and that will continue to be me.

For the first time in my life, laboring up and down those hills on that second day, I marveled at the strength of my imperfect body, that I was witnessing this incredible act of physicality that I had always assumed myself unsuited for since I adhered to the ethos “brain over brawn” in most instances. I watched my thighs pump up and down methodically like slow pistons; the hem of my bike shorts cutting my thighs into half moons only accentuated this vision. Every 30 minutes I changed my grip on the handlebars, flexing my aching hands and rotating the wrists a few times, amazed that I possessed such extraordinary tools. I wondered at the structure of my body, that I had figured out the secret of fuel so exactly that I could complete 10 miles on half a Clif bar and 3/4 of one bottle of electrolyte-infused water. That my imperfect, oversized body was capable of this level of effort and perseverance.

I am not ashamed to say that I pulled over to the side of the road after this revelation. I stared into the Bluebonnets dotted with Texas Paintbrush, Indian Blankets, and Black-Eyed Susans and wept into the bandana that had come in my MS150 registration packet. I was humbled by the beauty of my body. A true first. I wept for the years of abuse I had heaped on my body, for every piece of garbage I had ingested. It was a transcendent experience.

The best piece of advice I received during my training was from a fellow rider I met on one of Bike Barn’s sponsored rides. ” My advice? Don’t bring a radio or earbuds. It clouds your judgement. You can’t listen to your body if you’re listening to the next track. Focus on your body, and it will respond. Be aware of every second of effort and pain–it will make you wiser.”

The majority of my training was during the previous year in 2011, and it still remains the worst year of my life. I was laid off from my teaching position, my self-esteem and purpose took a nuclear blast as a result, I spiraled in and out of depression while I hunted fruitlessly for another job, and my mother-in-law died that December. I rode my bike faithfully each week, regardless of my emotional state. It had become the one thing that I was still doing right, and I could not afford to FAIL in any sense of that word. It forged in me perseverance and clarity, and it took the MS 150 for me to make sense of that dry, joyless year. The maxim that dominated my internal landscape for so long–you can accomplish anything if you work hard enough–was tested, and it rang true, but in a different way than I expected. It’s not about being able to work hard enough to do anything conceivable. It’s taking a risk, and pushing beyond to a greater challenge if your risk succeeds.

I completed the 2013 BP MS150 with a different friend, and it was much harder than my first time. I walked several hills. My body made a pointed display of how unprepared I was, how lazy I had become in the face of new obstacles. The 2014 BP MS150 is in a few shorts months, and I am once again challenging myself. I don’t know what to expect, but I do know one thing: I won’t be wearing any earbuds.

The Heavy

This blog is about my foray into cycling. But as I’ve struggled to make myself write engaging posts for this blog, I’ve come to realize that this blog is much more about me and my negative self-image, my disastrous relationship with food, and my inability to hold myself to any real goals. But isn’t that what happens in blogs? It’s never *just* about cycling, or decorating, or art. The author inevitably shines through, and it’s this human element that draws us to any story.  I have several posts backlogged for this blog. One about wind and why it is my greatest enemy, one about the absurd joy of buying “real” biking clothes, and one about the last 40+ mile ride I took, which whipped both my physical and mental fortitude. This is still a blog about cycling.

But today’s (2 months) tardy post is a state-of-the-union address. I haven’t felt like posting about cycling because I am so incredibly discouraged that I can hardly stand the sight of my bike. I feel like I’m supping with Judas every time I take Roheryn out, because while I feel that he has utterly failed me, that tiny little voice inside my head whispers that I have really failed myself, which is the pattern my life has taken. While each one of my cycling friends has either maintained or lost weight, I have only gained. I’m overweight for my height and age to start, so the fact that I gained more weight while everyone else lost weight is not a startling epiphany. It only affirms my discovery of my body’s extreme hatred of change, and my blithe indifference to it.

I’ve never been one for exercise—I’ve established this in an earlier post. But I did stay in relative shape in high school due to the rigors of being on the dance team, captained by a raging bi-polar woman who nurtured us toward our dreams with equal parts manipulation and hysteria. I also worked out in the mornings before school. Between academic foibles and an appreciable exercise regimen that I would not have maintained had I not been peer pressured into it, I enjoyed a decent body image throughout high school. Various factors contributed to my weight gain in college, but I still maintained an upbeat attitude about it, as if the next round of Weight Watchers and kickboxing would certainly do the trick this time around. I had the illusion of time on my side, which shattered the day after I graduated. Looking back, I can’t pinpoint exactly which moments contributed to my current weight. My body has the regrettable talent of distributing weight evenly, at least, evenly compared to many other women. The downside here is that I would look in the mirror, and see that I had gained weight, but I couldn’t point to my growing belly and proclaim “That’s where that extra 5 is hiding out, the bounders!” I still resembled the “me” I’m faced with every morning, but just…rounder, and unable to fit into clothing that I had purchased mere months ago.

Rinse, repeat, rinse, repeat, and here I am now. My body protested mightily to my shitty eating habits, super-charging my acid reflux so that every evening the fucking Battle of the Somme was re-enacted in my intestinal tract. It was trying to send a message. Shouting it, really: “Chex Mix and gummy Coke bottles for dinner? You’re fucking joking. Let me know if Haribo offers to buy your jellied organs for research when you turn up dead one morning from your candy addiction, a garlicky miasma hanging around your body from all those bloody rye chips.”

Even after heavily modifying what I eat, giving up soda and a turbulent love affair with breakfast cereal that lasted 23 glorious years, I still can’t lose weight. And like musical chairs, you wander around to some stupid piper’s tune until  you divine your culprit’s identity if for no other reason than there’s only one fucking chair left. After blaming my weight on everything from birth control to eating habits, the solution is maddeningly simple, and it shouldn’t have been the epiphany that rocked my world in the wee hours of a fresh Thursday morning.

The problem is me.

You’re all thinking: well of course the problem is you. It’s always like that. The problems in your life come about from your own unique brand of fuck-uppery. And I won’t disagree, except that I felt I was making significant changes that warranted placing the blame elsewhere. I was willfully blind, a victim, as most people are wont to be, and I couldn’t handle paring away yet one more rotted facet of my personality, which more resembled a moth-eaten blanket than one of those gorgeous faux-fur throws from Pottery Barn. I’m tired of changing. I’m tired of being thrown into a room with my poorer qualities, surly belligerents all eye rolls and violent posturing, with nothing more than a vague notion of how to ‘reform’ them.

But there’s also a sense of relief that comes with this revelation, like the kid that shits in your pool during your son’s birthday party. Now that your quest for perfection has been utterly wrecked upon the edges of the resilient brown floater lapping the pool ladder, you can take a deep breath and regroup. Everything’s been properly obliterated, and you’re forced to start from scratch. The cold water at rock bottom soon begins to warm. You know what needs to be fixed. You’re staring down the grad school application. Make yourself reach for that pen. Or, more appropriately, you’re unloading the bike for another long, grueling ride. Plant your nether bits on that seat and seize the fucking day.

White Girl Troubles

It’s been too long since I last posted! The last Harry Potter movie and related activities kept me busy last week.

A few exciting things happened in the last 3 rides:

My husband snapped the chain on his bike going up a hill. The guys at our local bike shop said that this rarely happens, and patched the chain free of charge. Yay!

Thank God we were close to the car when it happened!

Toast poses as Travis exhibits his chain. We’re really breaking these bikes in! I don’t know if that’s a good thing.

I also fell off my bike, but I wasn’t going very fast. My “wounds” were too small to warrant a photo. I managed to get my gears out of alignment when I fell, but another quick trip to the LBS made Roheryn right as rain.

Anyway, onward to the subject of the post.

I don’t believe I can call myself an athlete at this point, but I’m fast approaching it. Humor me, if you please. Based on my body type and past activities, I am definitely built more for endurance than sprints. Finding a rhythm to my pedaling has been instrumental in helping me complete our 20 mile rides without feeling dead tired at the end. I prefer cycling over relatively flat terrain for a longer distance than cycling for a short distance up and down hills. (I’m looking at you, Terry Hershey!) My riding pack has taken to calling that particular route the TH Hills of Doooom! I utterly hate them with every fiber of my being, but I’d rather struggle through a challenging bike ride than engage in any activity that requires me to haul my bulk around without the aid of a machine.

I can’t run. Period. I’ve no coordination in that area. I always told my students that the only reason I would run is if a pack of zombies was chasing me. I can’t find a cadence in the slapping of my feet on the pavement. My hatred of running is strongly affected by my perception of it. When I have reason to run or jog, all I can picture are the excess rolls and folds of my body flopping about obscenely in a pathetic parody of exertion, mocking me and my desperate desire to look better.

When I look at all I have, I am supremely blessed. I am married to my best friend that supports me and loves me even when I’m unlovable. I have a beautiful house with nice things, 2 wonderful dogs, a new car, and now a new road bike. The only thing I’m lacking at the moment is a job, which I know I will find in time. I am overwhelmed with material and spiritual wealth, and yet, I hate my body, and this simple fact often drives joy from my life. (White girl problems, I know.) I have finally realized that I am shortening my lifespan and degrading my quality of life by perpetuating poor eating habits. It’s not just about my eating habits and exercise level, though. I think I have to learn to love myself–a concept to which I am unaccustomed and also resistant towards.

I have been overweight for about 6 years now, and its no coincidence that it started in college. My undiagnosed acid reflux caused me to eat to alleviate the symptoms, and I packed on about 20 pounds during freshman year. This only got worse as time went on, and now I look back on my high school pictures wistfully, hardly believing that I sustained myself on junk food and still looked pretty great. I know I’m not alone in that sentiment. Americans everywhere gain weight in college and struggle to lose it after the fact. I knew that T and I needed an active hobby, since our nerd hobbies involve being sedentary for hours, with only our hands and wrists moving. I want to be a healthy weight for the right reasons as well as the superficial ones. Musik and T have already lost weight, while Toast and I commiserated that we had lost not one tiny ounce. One of my greatest flaws is my lack of patience. I know weight loss and true change cannot happen overnight, but a little encouragement would be most welcome at this point. >_<

On a related note, the main barrier to children for me and my husband, besides finances, is our weight. I refuse to be the overweight, struggling mother. Once you have children, your window for self-improvement shrinks drastically. Since I aspire to MILF status, I have quite a ways to go.

I am also starting to read/work through A Course in Weight Loss by Marianne Williamson. In her book, she posits the true reason people cannot lose weight, despite exercise and dietary changes, is because the cause of excess weight is fear, in the form of mental barriers. Just speaking for myself, I already agree with this premise, because I don’t love myself, or admire anything about my body. I’ll keep y’all posted on it.

Tackling the TH Hills of Dooooom again tomorrow!

Total miles since last post: 55.36

The Road Goes On And On

I gotta get this post out of the way right now because tomorrow is my 1 year anniversary and I do not want to have this latest ride hanging over my head.

I just rode from 7-9 pm in George Bush Park with the usual peeps: Pete, Musik, Toast, and my hubby T. I’m so glad I have a group of people to cycle with; it’s always easier to do something challenging if you have other people suffering with you. This was the longest ride we’ve embarked on yet–20.5 miles, give or take a few feet. The wind was against us the entire way–down to the halfway mark and back again to the car. It sure made pedaling an exhaustive proposition, especially since our route was mostly flat with only a few low, rolling hills…which translated into pedaling continuously. This was a change from the route we had been doing at our other location, which had plenty of dips and hills.

The wind against us was truly a daunting proposition, more so on the ride back to the car, after we had already completed over 10 miles. When you’re riding with friends, though, conversations about the (apparent) “cop-out” of the Harry Potter epilogue and other nerd subjects help block out the sharp, numbing pains coming from your feet and lower back. Maybe that was just me.

I really wanted to push myself tonight, to see how far I could go. Maybe I could have gone farther than 20 miles, but I have to remember that even though I’m mentally ready to ride more than 20 miles, my body is not. I have to be patient (my greatest struggle) and train my body to accept a more rigorous workout.

I am very proud of what I accomplished tonight. Toast wanted to turn around at one point, and I don’t blame her, because I did too. But, despite the temptation to quit, we all finished the route strong, and I think it’s encouraging that we weren’t out of breath or falling-down tired. It’s the kind of tired that descends once you have pushed yourself past the doubts and the whining, and made yourself feel the ache in your muscles. Afterwards, though your body is tired, you find yourself mentally alert, your head is clear. It is a good exertion with a purpose, something you can take pride in.

It may only seem a small step, but it was exactly what I needed to bolster my resolve. The days of being envious (and thus, critical) of athletes is at an end. Always I would watch athletes and sneer at their physical prowess, confident that my mental adroitness was a more desirable and sophisticated set of traits. I was raised in a family that valued exercise, but I became so antagonistic towards athletics as I grew older that my parents (wisely) stopped trying to encourage me. It’s a miracle I was on my high school’s competitive dance team–I still don’t know how I managed to scorn athletes when I was very close to being one. And I married one to boot! Ah, the universe and its ironies…

No longer shall I scorn. Though my aim is modest, I intend to be one of them. It will be a milestone in my life, for I have never ventured far beyond the boundaries of my nerd sphere. Even though I’m tired, I’m looking forward to my next ride!

Total miles: 20.5

I Must Not Fear

(I am convinced that I am not supposed to live in Texas. I was born and raised here, and yet I have always hungered for the snow drifts and mild summers of the Northern states. People tell me that I’ll soon come to hate the snow as much as the heat, but fie on them! I know what I like.)

T and I decided to go for a bike ride on the 4th of July, before we met up with our parents later for dinner and fireworks. This sounded good in theory. (Doesn’t it always?) However, we ignored the most glaringly obvious rule of performing outdoor exercise during a Texas summer–1. Thou shalt not exercise in the heat of the day, after 10:30 am or before 4:30 pm. Doing so shall result in dehydration, paroxysms of swearing, and fits of tears.

I’m not sure why we decided to start riding at 11:30 am. I knew full well how foolish it was, how hot it was going to be, even as I did the velcro straps on my shoes. It nearly took an act of Congress to stack the bikes in the back of my car, and by that time, I was sweating and blowing like a quarter horse. (C’mon, you love my Texas imagery) It’s like the weather conspired to be lethal just because it was Independence Day.

When we got to Terry Hershey Park, there were lots of other people there biking, rollerblading, jogging. This further reinforced our foolishness, and as we mounted up and started down the path, I felt imbued with a sort of exercise piety; here I was biking with my husband, while other, nameless Americans sat on their asses in the dim interiors of their houses, drinking beer and eating potato salad. I was determined to do the full 11.89 miles-nothing was going to stop me from jumping headlong into my quest for the BP MS 150.

Betrayals usually occur from an angle you’re expecting, and in my case, I was not disappointed. At the 4 mile marker, my overweight body betrayed me utterly. I had been having difficulty breathing and was just amazed at how fucking hot it was. Even the air I was sucking into my lungs was hot. Even though I had completed this very course a few days past, it had morphed into the rocky slopes of Mount Doom, where the only things missing were the rivers of lava, two hobbits, and a Gollum.

Marathon runners all speak of The Wall, a mental and physical block that each person must overcome to finish a race. It usually occurs towards the end, when your body is convinced that you are finished and cannot take another step. I’m sure some version of this exists for cyclists, and I’m also pretty certain that The Cyclist Wall does not occur at the 4 mile marker. But it did for me.

Me: C’mon! Pedal faster! T is way ahead of you! You’ve barely ridden at all today!

My Body: Fuck this. I indulged you a few times, but this shit is becoming annoying. I’m stopping now.

Me: No! My heroic fitness goals!

My Body: Might be a good time to unclip those shoes. You’re about to fall over b/c I stopped pedaling.

Me: *close to tears* But…it’s exercise. It’s good for you. I can’t quit…

My Body: *stretched out on ground* Yeah, we kinda already quit. It’s okay. A few hours of Fallout:New Vegas will make you forget all about this silly marathon business.

Humor aside, I was horribly embarrassed and angry about physically having to stop and turn around. The heat had sapped all of strength, and my body was refusing to go any further. T was hot and tired too, but not nearly as much as I was. It’s a new feeling, coming up against a physical wall. Usually I avoid situations that may remind me that I am overweight, or underpowered, etc. I knew starting on a training regimen would be difficult. I have not really been in shape since high school, and that was over 6 years ago. I knew all about the problems that would come to light once I started to seriously exercise, and yet, I was still surprised when this happened. I’m calling it Beginner Hubris.

The kick in the ass is that we still had to ride back to the car. The last hill was coming up–a minor one by hill standards, but steep enough to loom theatrically in my vision as I approached. I considered getting off and walking my bike up the hill. It wouldn’t be the first time I resorted to the “shame walk.” I was fearful of the hill, and what I would think of myself if I could not conquer it. I suddenly had a vision of Paul Atreides reciting the litany against fear (from Dune by Frank Herbert).  

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain

As a young reader, these words struck within me a powerful chord. It seemed as real as reciting a prayer to one’s god (which would, of course, be blasphemous!) Just thinking of the words gave me the will to push over the last hill, and as I crested the top and rode the slope down to the car, I was glad that I had not quit.

Total miles: 8.00