Inertia

Inertia

January 2

“You can’t cross a large canyon in two short jumps”

Life exists in channels, dad used to say to me. When you’re happy you call them grooves, when you’re sad you call them ruts, but those are just synonyms for the same phenomenon, the physical manifestation of habit, a series of tracks that we move through in life. Human beings are powered by habit, and so the development and maintenance of good habits are critical to a long and healthy life. Dad knew this better than anyone.

This is the first day of the boot camp I planned for myself: an intensive week designed to overload me physically so that next week, when I settle into what will be my workout routine for the year, it’ll feel like much less volume. Today: A five-mile run followed by core circuit #1 in the morning, and a weights session in the afternoon.

I started off great, really flying. I had such energy, almost youthful energy. I slammed out that first mile in something like eight minutes I think. I just had the words in my head: You can’t cross a large canyon in two short jumps. I came up with other forms of the saying: You can’t putt your way out of a sand trap (implied that you need a wedge). You can’t hop your way out of a rut (implied that you need a leap). Obviously, none of these were as good as the original that dad used to say, but they had that same empowering effect. I thought Yes, this is the way to change, leap up from your rut into a groove. I thought of that Gandhi quote, you know the one.

By mile two I was huffing and puffing, almost wheezing actually, and I was so pleased with my performance thus far I allowed myself to stop and breathe. Boy, this really did feel like boot camp, I thought, which was a bad thing to think, because the justification began.
Well: What is the point of boot camp if not to make you sweaty and out of breath?
Mission accomplished, you can call it a day.

Then my greater sensibilities responding: No, the point of boot camp is to do more volume than an average day’s workout, thus making regular workouts seem easier. After the justification came the self-doubt: You started the run off too hard. Or, you started the whole year off too hard. Or, your workout plan dramatically overestimated your capacity for physical exercise, thus you have in fact done a boot camp workout, you’re just way weaker than you thought you were. Mission accomplished?

Post self-doubt is bargaining: If you go home, do the core, and then do the weights tonight, that counts. That won out, and I walked home wiping my sweat.
___
January 3

“Argue for your limitations, and sure enough, they’re yours.”

Every good boot camp needs a ramp-up. It wouldn’t make much sense to start out on the hardest workout of the week—much more sensible to give my body a primer yesterday with that mile sprint, then today hit it hard. Today’s workout: 5 mile run plus core circuit #2, then in the evening 20 minutes of running stairs. That first half mile had that same youthful, excitable energy, but then I thought about it concretely. Thought: I feel so youthful, so exuberant! And then something shifted.

Thinking about the concept of youth, and the nature of its energy, just as a song came on my workout playlist from that time in my life, something that evoked a feeling of high school nostalgia so powerful as to overwhelm me. I stopped and scrolled through Facebook to find the image, scanned from the original glossy photo paper: I was outside of a Starbucks, wrestling with a friend, and even in the glare of the camera you could still make out our grins as I hoisted him up. He was only a few inches above the ground as of that photo, but I distinctly remember that he ended up over my head, across my shoulders, and I walked with him for ten feet before his pounding on my shoulder blades convinced me to relinquish him gently. It was testosterone strength, pubescent strength increased tenfold by too much caffeine on a Friday night after a football game.

Of course, I realized that energy I felt at the start of the run wasn’t youthful, it was just regular energy that I hadn’t felt in a long time; I’ve lost my benchmark for what energy feels like that any amount of it that reenters my life I immediately classify as youthful. The real youthful energy, I can hardly even fathom how somebody arrives at that kind of energy. How does someone get the idea, completely sober, to lift his friend off the ground and carry him?

I mean, imagine being an adult with that kind of energy! You see them every now and then, they go running past you with real muscles and no sweat (or the kind of sweat you know has been building for two-plus hours of constant exercise), and not the skinny muscles that runners have despite the fact that they’re clearly running with the practiced grace of a runner. And probably when they get home and finish their lifting circuit and drink their smoothie or whatever, they go to their day job where they wear suits and ties and say things like “value add.”

You know what? It’s those channels. In high school, everyone’s in a groove, in a high energy orbital. If you keep that energy, you can stay in that groove, but as soon as you drop down into a rut, you stay there from shame and embarrassment. That guy who says “value add” has a major Type A personality, probably—he hit that groove in high school the same as me, but his attentions are so varied and adaptable that he was able to stay in that groove through college, and momentum took it from there. Me, life just got in the way. Understandable. Forgivable. Genetics: I don’t have the same wide focus as Mr. Value Add.

Absentmindedly, I found myself again at my door. I’d walked home after jogging a little less than a mile. The cycle started again, only this time skipping “justification.” My compromise was that I’d make up the workouts tomorrow.
___
January 4

Can’t think of a good quote for today, but I don’t think I need one. Woke up feeling excellent, and ready to not only do today’s workout, but to make up some of yesterday’s workouts, too! First, I do the lifting circuit from Day 1 that I didn’t do, then my morning five miles, then my core circuit. This afternoon I do the stair running from yesterday.

Ignition, liftoff!

After the lifting, my arms and legs were burning, but if I remembered anything from my actual youth it’s that a light jog gets the lactic acid out and makes the soreness go away. I did the first mile, quick but not too quick, then the second mile, slower, but still going.

At the halfway point I did some quick mental calculus at how much more I still had to run (50%), and then how much of the workout I still had left if you include the core circuit (60%), and then how much of the day’s workouts I had left if you include the afternoon stair running (70%).

Then I realized that it was January 4, less than 2% into the new year. Did I start out too hard? And I don’t mean start out the run too hard, I mean start the year out too hard. Eventually, there would be a plateau—there had to be—and when that happened what would I have left? I’d grow demoralized, stop. Or maybe I’d grow content, stop. Either way I’d stop, and this would be in something like March maybe, and then the rest of the year I’d do nothing, and there’d I’d be, in late December, wheezing as usual, making the same resolution for next year. A year was a long time, and there was plenty of opportunity for life to step in and make me forget about all that I had planned.

The song “Australia” by The Shins was playing in my ears, and I heard the lyric: “Your nightmares only take a year or two to unfold,” sung in an upbeat poppy tune, bouncing along without a care, insidious in its meaning.

I didn’t make the conscious decision to stop the run; the thoughts just slowed me to a walk, and then I took a sip of water, and my body, without agency, turned around and walked home.

After breakfast, I must have tricked myself into somehow thinking that I’d done more work than I had, or at least that I’d done enough work to see some small tangible result. A tenth of a pound, maybe. I stepped on the scale and saw two more pounds that weren’t normally there, and I sat down in frustration. Impossible. What was I doing? Was the amount of running I’d done the past two days still within the margin of error for a day’s usual work that I would see no results whatsoever? But of course that would have meant breaking even, and I didn’t break even. I went backwards. My brain said: In that case, you should stop what you’re doing. Maybe you’ll just keep going backwards the more you work out. The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.

If there’s anything I knew intimately, it was that devil and how soon he could arrive.Inertia

___

Then it was Sunday, my rest day, and even though I didn’t really deserve it, two factors conspired:

1) My optimism that the next week would be complete and proud, and that if I did in fact run on this off day, then the next week of perfect, completed workouts would make me exhausted.

2) My pessimism that my body would do whatever it took to grab an opportunity to not run when it existed, and it existed.

Thus I didn’t run on Sunday, my rest day, even though I should have.

“What brings you back today?” asked Dr. Alston. Her office was cold, made more so by the cold leather of the table and my lack of shirt. There was something about doctors’ offices—they always walked in when you’re in the most compromising position. With your shirt off, sitting down (not even standing where you can suck it in!), or there with that ridiculous little smock that leaves your back and butt cold. Maybe it’s a way of lowering your defenses, or just a reminder that you’re mortal. Not only mortal: A supplicant. Fragile in the face of the doctor’s obvious superiority.

The healthy, thin, financially solvent doctor.

She says back with what I detect is an overtone of contempt. Yes, I’d been to her office three times in the past two months, but for obvious reasons.

“I can’t seem to lose weight. I’m afraid I might have some kind of thyroid thing, or maybe I’m retaining water because my kidneys are dying or something.”

“How much do you exercise?”

“I’ve been running every day.”

She reached behind her and grabbed a set of calipers, put her glasses on. “And how long has this been a problem?”

“All week.” She stopped, sighed, took her glasses back off.
___

I started a cycle. Even after taking that song off my running playlist, about a mile in I ran right into that same headspace as before, the cycling thoughts of fatalism. The crushing reality of the length of a year. The nature of genetics in health. The understanding that genetics ultimately can’t be to blame for lack of energy, lest you concede that there was some dramatic evolutionary change that occurred between the early nineties and today that caused the decline in health of all Americans. Blaming genetics anyway.

I searched for a quote from Dad to put at the top of this entry, but I couldn’t find one that fit. The closest was “Toast to all who wish us well, and all the rest can go to hell,” which admitted some form of fatalism in its essence, some kind of relinquishing of agency or responsibility, but was too upbeat for my mood. His sayings were only upbeat.

I stopped the run after a mile, and I compromised with myself by agreeing to at least jog back.

I didn’t run the next day or the day after. Each time something got in the way: life, maybe, or just disappointment. I could feel the pressure of the rut compelling me backwards, or at least holding me in place. I thought about that photo where I’m lifting my buddy over my head, and I want to be that guy. He’s got his whole life ahead of him. He can be calm and cool because he’s energetic, strong, fit. He has the power to take on the world at that point. He’s going to become that guy that runs every day well into his forties, who has real muscles even though you only ever see him running, that says “value add.”

Then it was my birthday, and I turned as old as my dad turned when he died too young.

***

“I think I’m depressed,” I tell Dr. Nanjiani. I’d been seeing her since I began the grieving process suddenly and without my consent. “Or maybe it’s just low self- esteem or overthinking, I don’t know. But either way, it feels like depression.”

“So close to your birthday?”

“You know what birthday it is. He used to say life was all habits and grooves—you had to lock into a good groove and stay there. I had one when I was young, you know. But then life just got in the way, and I fell down into a rut, and now I’m stuck there. I think I’ve missed my opportunity to leap back up into a groove, and now it might be too late.”

“Listen,” Dr. Nanjiani said, “you were just a kid when he passed. You barely remember him.”

“I remember his sayings.”

“You put a lot of stock in his sayings, but have you ever considered the possibility that he might have been simplifying them for you because you were a child?”

I hadn’t considered that. He used to say Anything that can’t be reduced down to a saying—

“I said things like that to my kids when they were young. Just pithy little aphorisms—they give you hope and direction, but they’re not equipped to handle the nuance of adult life,” Dr. Nanjiani said. Unlike Dr. Alston, her office was warm. It had warm colors, wood and forest green, not white and powder blue, and I could wear my own baggy sweatshirts and blue jeans instead of the chilled scratchy smock.

“Life isn’t grooves,” she said. “Or, I should say, if it is grooves, they’re not grooves that are at different levels that you jump into. It’s more like a series of tracks, all parallel in a plane. If you jump up, you’re just going to land where you were. You need to split off and gradually make your way over to the other track, little bit at a time, and then merge with it like a train.”

“That’s not how it felt when I was young.”

Dr. Nanjiani laughed. “It’s not a binary outcome. Let’s look at the first three days of your journal: You run two miles on the first day, then you run a mile, then you do a lifting circuit and run two miles.”

“Yeah, and then nothing since then.”

“Right, because you kept failing these ridiculously lofty goals you set for yourself. You considered those first three days failures, and yet you did more work on each of those ‘failed’ days than you did in the subsequent days when you stopped trying. Just because you don’t make your goal for the day doesn’t mean you’ve failed the day. You had three solid days of routine exercise—you’re on that path to the other track.”

I looked down at my toes. She said: “Life has inertia—you can’t shock it into position. Work your way up. Set smaller goals. Every Olympic medal is the culmination of a thousand little victories along the way.”

“If his quotes are just pithy aphorisms, as you say, then what do I do with them?”

“Use them to inspire you. Use them to remember him by like you do now. But don’t hang on their lorem ipsum—take the truths they offer and not the utopic realities they profess.”

I sighed. “Small goals.”

“Little victories.”
___

March 3

Every Olympic medal is the culmination of a thousand little victories along the way.

Primary Goal: Run two miles

Secondary Goal: Just run.