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Nine and a Half Weeks.

12 July 2017

Except less in the way of Mickey Rourke and more in the way of me, constantly exhausted.

I have nine and a half weeks until the half-Ironman, and the training distances are ramping up. Yesterday I did a 42 mile ride, which I took easy. Several long stops to refill water bottles, and check work email, since I was riding during the day. Cutting out those, I did 42.2 miles in about 2:42. That’s still a touch slow, but I’m ok with it. The overall pace without the long stops was 15.6 mph, which is very much within striking distance of my goal speed.

I’ve gone over to SPDs, or clip-in pedals for the X-wing, and even though I’m not faster – or wasn’t yesterday – they definitely feel like they make me a bit more efficient, and distribute the work around a bit to more muscles than just the big ones I use without them. I also discovered there’s a water fountain about 21 miles away from my house on the route I like to ride, so that makes me feel better about my hydration on long, hot rides.

After the ride, I had an hour at the gym, but I took it pretty easy. Nevertheless, today my entire core is beat up like I was the side of beef in a boxing film.

I’m nervous about the distances involved but I’m beginning to think I’ll be able to do it. To crawl across the finish line, anyway. It feels nearly incomprehensible right now. That half-marathon at the end… well, ugh. That’s a long way to run on the best of days. After an hour in the water and three and a half (or more) on the bike? It’s going to be grueling. But I think I’ll be proud when I’m done.

As a ridiculous, stupid, silly tune up, BB and I are running a 5km bouncy castle race the weekend prior. It’s going to be absurd and awesome.

Shaming and Positivity.

5 July 2017

There’s a debate that rages about whether kids should be taught self esteem, and that then that will make them want to achieve because they want to live up to their potential, or if kids should be taught to achieve, and then they will gain self esteem. I’m not going to weigh in on parenting: I was only briefly a (step) parent and I wasn’t very good at it. So I’m not going to pretend to have good ideas about how to tell people to raise their kids.

But I do have some ideas about what self esteem is, how to earn it, and what it helps us do, or not. Because I think it also relates to the current wave of anti-shaming shaming. Basically, whenever anyone says anything about a person (or a group of people, or a theoretical group of people, and sometimes even only about themselves) that can be considered negative, they are often attacked for “shaming”. Shamed, as it were.

One of the most frequent of these is so-called “body-shaming”. Now, this is certainly a thing that exists. Insulting people for being overweight, or (less commonly) too skinny, and using how someone looks to bully them is an extremely common abusive tactic. Other forms of ugly and bullying shaming include poverty shaming, disability shaming, sexuality shaming, slut shaming, etc. etc..

Shaming is, as near as I can tell, bullying with faux-morality attached. “You’re fat because you’re weak,” “You’re poor because you’re lazy,” “You’re lonely because you’re a slut.” And shaming is bad because it is designed to make a person feel inferior for things which are either matters of choice without a moral aspect (like not caring about one’s BMI), or outside of their control (like needing a wheelchair). Shaming is an attempt to control someone else’s behavior and feelings by weaponizing negative self-esteem.

And so generally – though I certainly think shame can be a useful emotion, and can be deployed to good effect in limited circumstances – shaming is about trying to make oneself feel better at the expense of another. Thus, generally frowned upon. It’s emotional colonialism; an extractive mechanism designed to conscript emotional wealth. We therefore discourage it.

Unfortunately, like many things, the concept of anti-shaming has metastasized beyond its useful origins. It becomes attached to many things, and has obtained a political penumbra which allows it to be used for its own type of bullying and community-enforced behavior modification. And it can be used to support falsehoods designed to make us feel better but which do us harm.

One of the examples of this is at the extremes of “body-positivity”. Normally the perfectly appropriate concept that one should not bully people over what they look like, and that no matter what a person weighs they should be treated like a person. I totally endorse those statements. But body-positivity runs into dangerous ground when it asserts that “everyone is fine the way they are”. Well, it depends on what one means by “fine”.

If a person is happy with what they weigh and how they look, and they are willing to bear the health consequences of that weight, then by all means, none of my business and I support treating them well regardless. But it is outright false to simply tell people that the only difference between BMI 32 and BMI 24 and BMI 16 is waist circumference and vapid societal approval. There are specific, known, proven, and dangerous health consequences of the first and last of those numbers. Sometimes deadly ones (certainly so at the level of public health).

But, unless a person is asking me specifically for advice, or I am their physician (I am not a physician), it’s probably inappropriate for me to comment on the potential health consequences of someone’s physical fitness choices. And it is inappropriate to use medical terms to describe a specific person’s weight in a public setting. But when speaking in the abstract, or about myself, discussing the health consequences of weight in scientific terms is not “shaming”, nor is it in opposition to “body-positivity”.

I talk about my physical appearance a lot with respect to weight. I do not want to be obese. I want to look a specific way that I find appealing and that I hope others do too. Specifically, that I hope my partner does. I also want to be lighter because it will help me race faster and do less damage to my joints. When I talk about myself, I am not shaming anyone. If someone feels shame based on how I talk about myself, that is coming from inside them, not from me*. I have goals around my body and my weight, and yes, some of them are aesthetic goals and I am 100% ok with that.

Fundamentally, my fitness goals are about not getting type II diabetes. It runs in my family, and it destroyed my father’s life when he would not or could not do the things required to successfully manage the disease. But I have secondary goals around capability, fitness, and appearance and I don’t have to apologize for any of that. I’m not shaming anyone by saying, “I would like to lose 10 pounds and add some muscle to my back.”

Self esteem comes from inside. It comes, for me, from setting goals that are challenging but achievable, and then working towards them. I do this in my work, in my fitness, in my hobbies, in my relationship. I tend to succeed because I know to set reasonable but ambitious goals, and I know how to work towards them. I fail sometimes. Sometimes it’s because I set a goal badly. Sometimes it’s because I didn’t do what it takes to achieve it. Sometimes it’s just luck.

But most of the time I feel pretty good about myself. I have worked very hard at making good decisions since I got sober, and even though I often fail, I succeed more than not. I am positive about my body: I have trained it to do some pretty amazing things in my own estimation. But I also recognize that I could be better in many ways.

Life is a project. The experiences I want to have require a body that hits some significant fitness benchmarks. My medical history requires that I work hard to maintain basic health. I like to talk and write about my journey. And I like to encourage others, because I believe that fitness and the experiences I’ve had earning it are good and widely available. I don’t believe any of that is shaming.


*Bearing in mind of course that there are ways to pretend to be talking about oneself when actually making broad and cruel social commentary, like, “I’m sure glad I look better than all those people who refuse to work out.”

Lifestyle Expectations.

27 June 2017

I had an interesting conversation with several 20-somethings in my office Friday. They were taking a break and looking at real estate and bemoaning how they would never be able to afford anything. Between their student loans and their rent, they said, saving up for a down payment is impossible. Their generation, they said, is excluded from building wealth and the dream of home ownership.

Now, I know that lots of younger people are struggling with poor job markets and low-paying career paths. Especially in this blog’s readership, among whom postdoctoral wages, for example, mean that making more than about $50,000 a year is unlikely prior to about age 32 or so. I know many live in more expensive housing markets. I know that many people don’t have the privileges that the people in my office have. But for the remainder of this post, I want to talk about the behavior and thought processes of people who do have them.

Because there are a lot of those people. Young, educated professionals with average student loan debt (about $37,000 upon graduation), a degree, and a well-paying professional job. As of now, huge numbers of millennials fall into this category. I would estimate that about 30% of the employees at MECMC do. The specific individuals I was speaking to make much more than the median salaries of college-educated millennials.

The starting salaries of people in my office is generally between $60,000 and $70,000. For people who join us with no professional experience but promise and a good degree and recommendations. The people I was speaking to have been here a few years and are all making between $75,000 and $85,000 a year. None have children, or family they are caretakers of. Some have partners also working.

As this group was looking at real estate, I mentioned that they ought to be able, if they wanted, to save $1,000 a month. At that rate, a down payment for a modest starter home should be manageable in 2-3 years. And they openly laughed at me. I was told that saving a thousand dollars a month is “impossible”.

I didn’t press. But it is worth noting that a couple of them live alone in two-bedroom apartments in downtown ECC. Those sorts of places go for around $2,200 a month. They all talk about the nice restaurants they go to weekly. They go on international vacations once or twice a year. They own cars in a city where car ownership is as much a hassle as a liberty.

Now, I’m not deriding their priorities. People are allowed to spend their money however they like, and if these are the choices they’re making that’s totally ok with me, and also it’s none of my business. But I don’t understand how someone paying $2,200 a month to live alone in a huge apartment, and another $600 a month to own, park, maintain, and insure a car in a city where that’s totally unnecessary can argue that saving is “impossible”.

We have created a lifestyle expectation in the USA that in inaccessible to almost everyone. People without dependent family – making around $80,000 a year – in an affordable city feel pressured to maintain a lifestyle that doesn’t allow them to save anything. They’re not (just) entitled shits. They’ve been trained somehow to feel inadequate and socially lesser if they don’t appear to be incredibly wealthy.

It drives unhappiness.

And I know, I know, I’m one to talk. I have all the things I’m criticizing them for wanting. But that’s just it. I’m not criticizing the wanting. Nor am I criticizing the priorities. I’m saying, recognize choices. I’ve said this before about the academic career path, and other things. We often make choices that we feel are forced upon us when in actuality they’re about picking what we want.

Many people don’t want a roommate. But having a roommate for a few years will propel a person who has a good salary toward financial independence very rapidly, if they’re conscientious. It’s a choice people make, and it has lifelong consequences. Owning a car in a major metropolis is a choice. Living immediately downtown in the expensive district is a choice. Eating out at fancy restaurants is a choice. Having a short commute is a choice. All the choices cost, or save, money.

They’re not all like this. My own analyst has a roommate and lives in a less expensive part of town. No car. Walks to work. Makes toward the lower end of the spectrum I’ve discussed because he’s new still. I don’t know his saving habits, but he doesn’t discuss spending any money ever, really, except a once-a-year weekend skiing trip. Cooks at home.

He’ll be rich.

Triathlon Recap.

26 June 2017

Well, my friends, I am no athlete. I never was and I never will be. But I had a pretty good day for me out on the race course yesterday. But before you read it, I want you to pop over to my friend MC’s page. At 66 years old, she just had her first podium finish in a triathlon. Worried she’d finish dead last, she crushed her event. I’m so, so, so proud of her.

My day was ok. Sadly, the swim was canceled. Heavy thunderstorms Friday night and Saturday morning in ECC and north of us resulted in the river we planned to use for the swim being swollen, choked with debris, and with a fast current. There was no safe way to swim in it, and the race directors made the right call in canceling the swim.

So, the race was still broken up into three pieces. We did a 2 mile run, followed by the 24.8 mile bike, followed by the 4.2 mile run. I think the courses were a tiny bit short, but not enough to make much of a difference.

The first run I went ahead and ran hard. It was cool in the morning, I’d had a 4 mile ride to warm up, and I figured the day wasn’t going to be as hard as I’d planned given that the swim was out and the run was dissected. So I did the 2 miles at an 8:30 pace, pushing pretty good. It was a bit warm (about 70), but the humidity wasn’t oppressive. I felt good about that pace.

My first transition (to the bike) was uneventful. All I had to do was don gloves, helmet, and glasses. And my Japanese dragon bandana. The bike course was tough. It was much hillier than anything I’d trained for. The first mile included a 200 foot ascent. Three more steep uphill sections really challenged me, and that was only the first of two loops.

My goal going in was to keep up a 16 mph pace, in order to test my fitness for a longer ride. I figured if I could keep up 16 mph on a hilly course for almost 25 miles, then I ought to be where I need to be to do 56 mile at 16 mph on a flat course in a few months. (Depending, of course, on the weather.)

On the second loop, going up the third steep hill, my chain came off when I tried to shift into my hill gear. Because I was already in my hill gear. I forced the derailleur, the chain slipped between the gears and wheel, and shredded the plastic wheel guard. I hopped off the bike, assessed that it was something I could probably deal with, reset the chain, hoped the plastic guard wouldn’t catch on anything, and kept going.

It worked. I charged back into the race, up the hill, down the other side, and back into transition in 1:29 and change. 16.5 mph. I’m quite happy with that.

The final run was 4.2 miles. I did not try to match my earlier pace. I went out at a slightly sub-10 minute mile, and held that for four miles. I finished in 41ish minutes, at a 9:48 pace to finish in a total of a bit over two and a half hours. I was really happy with my pacing, and even had the energy for a little sprint to the finish line.

I didn’t finish last. I didn’t even finish last in my age group. Though I was down toward the bottom. Recreational triathletes tend to be a pretty athletic bunch. And so comparing myself with them makes me look pretty sluggish. Sixty-some men in my age group finished ahead of me. Less than 10 finished behind me. Overall, almost 600 people finished ahead of me, and only about 200 finished behind me.

I wish I were faster and better and stronger. But I only have what I have. I can only give what I can give. Yesterday, I did a weird franken-race of an Olympic Triathlon. I finished healthy. I’m proud of myself. When I compare myself against others, I am pretty damned piss-poor. But when I compare myself against what I used to be? It’s kind of amazing.

So I’m happy. And I think I’m on track for my half-Ironman.

Great Tune-up Run, and Jury Duty.

21 June 2017

I had a great run yesterday after work. It wasn’t fast, but I felt really good throughout. Well, not quite. I had knee and hamstring and quad issues. But that’s also probably just a case of the taper crazies. Right before a race, anxiety and anticipation combine to make many runners, including me, fabulate phantom injuries. I’ll be fine.

The run was really spectacular. Even though it was 88 degrees out. Even though I haven’t been training as hard as I feel like I should. I’ve gotten enough work in. I’m not in perfect shape, but I’m in “finish an Olympic triathlon” shape, and that’s all I need. I did 10 km, which is the distance I’ll have to run Sunday. I did the second 5 km faster than the first, and my fastest mile was mile 6.

That tells me I can pace well, and I can maintain. My fitness is decent for the distances I’m going. I’m a little nervous about the hills on the bike course. But the run course is dead flat and shaded. It’s not supposed to be too humid. It’s not supposed to be too hot. I think I’ll likely have ideal conditions. I’m excited.

The other thing that happened this week is that I had Jury Duty. I was not selected. I was impaneled for a murder trial (which was not a death penalty case), but when the time came to speak to the judge, she didn’t like what I had to say about my opinions of police biases. But the real bullet I dodged was the fact that jury selection that day was also for a major political corruption trial which would have dragged on for weeks.

The great thing to come out of that though, was that I made a new friend! Another jury member is an assistant professor at UHR, in health policy and economics. He’s also a runner, and a triathlete, and has an eerily similar background to me from a political and religious perspective. We hit it off immediately and are having dinner this Saturday.

I also learned about a local olive oil and vinegar shop. So so far, this week has been a major win.

Taper Week for the Olympic Triathlon.

20 June 2017

Sunday I go out for 51.5 kilometers of triathlony goodness. The bike course is hillier than I’d like. The swim has 250 m into the current (out of 1500 total). The run will be at about 85 degrees. It might be humid. I will do the best I can with what I’ve got. My fitness is so-so. My anxiety is middling. My bike is in good shape. I own running shoes. I can do an Australian crawl for hours at a time. I’m as ready as I’m gonna be.

I figure the swim for 40-45 minutes. 5-7 for transition 1. 95 minutes for the bike. 5-7 more for transition 2. And then 65-70 minutes for the run. So, I’m figuring 210 minutes total. Three and a half hours. I have to be done in 4.5, or I am not allowed to finish. There are intermediate cutoffs for the bike, etc., but I don’t think I’m at risk of transgressing those.

So I’m nervous but excited. It will be a solid opportunity to test myself, accomplish something new, and bring home a cool finisher’s medal.

Making Excuses.

16 June 2017

Being an alcoholic means being a practiced hand at making excuses. Both for myself, and to myself. There are all kinds of reasons I can’t do this, or didn’t do that. Why I failed or haven’t finished. I can come up with millions of them in an instant. And I used to believe them. Feeling stymied by life is a pretty universal condition, alcoholics have no exclusive claim to it. But we are usually really good at it; at declaring that we are unable to succeed because of forces allayed against us we cannot compete with.

There’s only one problem. It’s mostly bullshit.

In order to recover, we have to quit seeing these supposed nefarious forces – usually family, legal, cultural, educational, or bureaucratic – as impossible obstacles and start seeing them as the general condition of life that everyone has to deal with. When we drink, people stop helping us. People stop trusting us. We drop out of school. We don’t pay our bills. We get in trouble with the law.

Recovery means stopping fighting those systems and starting to engage with them. Clear our names. Regain our trustworthiness. Recover our credit. Pay what we owe. And stopping the excuses. We need to own what we did wrong. We need to own what we do going forward. We own our mistakes and our deficiencies and we need to correct them ourselves.

I wonder how useful this advice is outside the program. I see so many people who look at the world and say, “See, all the forces aligned against me, no wonder I can’t succeed.” And then they don’t even try. So much self-defeatism prior to even really engaging with an attempt. Or abandoning efforts after early setbacks.

But it’s also true that different people face different challenges and there really are forces aligned against some people more than others. Privilege is real. But it is not at all insurmountable. A glance at the rooms of AA will prove that. Healthy, happy, sober people from all walks of life who’ve achieved personal contentment and professional stability. People with far less privilege than I have.

In AA, we achieve that by taking on the responsibility for ourselves, and looking at those cultural forces which may thwart us as things we cannot change, but things we can confront. Personally, of course, I have little in the way of privilege deficits. But I am co-traveler of the road of recovery with many who do, and who succeed despite them.

Much too is about how we define “success”. Is that achieving a high-status job in an important field at a fine institution? Is that becoming a wealthy entrepreneur with our own business? Is that being out of debt and having a roof and three daily meals? Is that having children with college funds? Is that finishing a degree? There are many ways, and how we define it will influence how we pursue it.

But we have to pursue it. Step by step by step. Recovery – and this is among its greatest gifts – teaches us to be relentless.