Running Into Umbrellas (October 17, 2014)

I gained almost 15 pounds this past summer, owing to two conflicting influences.

The first was sort of an existential, indulgent temper tantrum over the life changes dictated by my hands. Although the miracle of daily beet juice is controlling the pompholyx eczema to an amazing degree, some of my routines will never be what they were. My two favorite forms of exercise, vinyasa yoga and Russian kettlebell drills, are now a part of the past. The friction is just too much for the delicate, raw skin of the palms. I’ve learned over the years that even if I’d prefer to speed the process, mourning is a course that runs on its own schedule. And so it was that three months elapsed before I finished stomping my internal feet and endeavored to formulate a new plan.

The second and far more pleasant reason for the weight gain revolved around summer fun: travel, outdoor festivals, family gatherings with tons of delectable food, office outings, champagne. After the torturous slog that was Chiberia 2014, I grabbed ye olde summertime by the balls. No regrets.

But now it’s fall. The weather has turned colder and with the recess of summer’s frivolity came a long, hard look in the mirror. A step on the scale confirmed that I weighed more than I have since dropping 60 pounds over 10 years ago. I’ll never be 25 again, but it’s also clear that I can do better than self-defeating eczema protest and unchecked hedonism.

And so in recent weeks, the gauntlet was thrown. What’s it going to be Rebecca? I chose pants that fit.

A three-point exercise strategy developed that involves minimal use of the palms: Tae Bo (I love the 90s!), Pilates (minus The Teaser as the tailbone still can’t handle a full body weight load) and running. The third of these activities I have always practiced in fits and starts. But without the yoga and kettlebells, my muscle tone evaporated. So portfolio diversification it must be.

It’s been a rainy fall in Chicago thus far, the kind of season that breeds lethargy, hot cocoa and fireplaces. But it’s one of my conflicted character traits that once resolve is formed, I’ll let nothing short of death or dismemberment get in the way. There’s no jail or societal prohibition big enough to contain the will. This personality feature is the reason I made it out of childhood intact, yet it’s also proved trying for those who dare to love me. I’ve come to accept the tradeoff. The committed ones have too.

Last week was a more precipitous one than usual in the city. But my favorite way to run is outdoors. The treadmill will do for the winter, but I want to people watch and soak up that precious Vitamin D as long as possible. And so early on a drizzly Monday evening, I tied my laces and hit the streets.

Years ago I told my friend Kelly that the first two blocks are always the hardest. The desire to quit infuses every plodding step. It gets easier when a regular stride develops and the breathing pattern settles. Until then I’m half choking, red faced and irritated. This passes and I become steady, sweaty and single-minded. The finish line. Nothing better break my cadence.

As I approached a familiar crosswalk, I saw the back of a man ambling slowly through the drizzle, carrying a large umbrella. It was apparent from a half block away that I had to slow down and maneuver around him. Failure to do so would result in a human fender bender. There was plenty of time to adjust.

But I didn’t. Not one whit. And we know what happened next. I collided with the rear edges of the gentleman’s parasol. There was no doubt this was purposeful. I’d viewed it as a calculated risk worth taking to protect rhythm. After blinking for a few milliseconds to shake transferred water droplets from my eyelids, the man paused briefly to turn and look at me. Still jogging, I braced myself for a deservedly irritated comment.

Instead, there was a surprise. He said, “Goodness. I am so very sorry.” This did it. The single-mindedness was broken. The stranger was owed something for his decent humanity.

I replied honestly. “You have nothing to apologize for sir. I’m the one who ran into you.” This was the truth, and a wave of shame washed over me, soaking the soul more than the rain ever could. Had I really been rude and fool enough to plow into an umbrella on purpose? Was the delay of two seconds to change pace and work around the man’s personal space more abhorrent than practicing courtesy and common sense? Seems so.

As I resumed running, chastened and more deliberate, it became clear that the scene of moments prior offered an appropriate metaphor for most of my adult life. I’ve been running into umbrellas forever.Seeing collisions approaching with obvious clarity has been no deterrent. Earlier this week, I repeated to Dr. T the questions I’d wrestled with since the incident forced a reckoning. Was I a person destined for road blocks, as I once believed of a seemingly cursed existence, or did I smash into them by choice, despite a variety of clarion alternatives?

There’s no doubt I was born holding an unlucky hand. I’ll allow myself that much. I had no decision in parents or they way they took care (or rather, did not) of my sister and I. But I allowed circumstances to determine the future for far too long. I grew comfortable in the role of long-suffering martyr, the fixer, the burdened, the only adult in the room (even when I was 12). That’s who I was. Woe was always going to be me, right?

Wrong. I had, and have, other options. I don’t need to be the dependent control freak who tries to save other damaged people from themselves. As Al-Anon tells people like me, get your own house in order – with love.

Automated survival mode served me well as a youth, but it’s just stupid now. The threats have long been neutralized. So I am going to leverage that dead-eyed resolution toward something more positive. I will shed that 15 pounds this season, along with a bad habit of running into umbrellas.

37 Summers (September 1, 2014)

Today, Labor Day 2014, marks the unofficial end of my 37th summer on the planet. I don’t remember much about the first given that I was just a blob of drool and other bodily functions, having been born in early August. During the second, I was trying to get a handle on that walking and talking stuff. Many cognitive psychologists believe that memories won’t fully develop until one has the language to describe and store them for later recall.

And so it was during the third summer, shortly after the arrival of my baby sister Jennifer, that seasonal reminiscences began to coalesce. Another August child, my first strong recollection is of being pulled from a friend’s backyard pool to visit little Jenny. Then, as now, I did not like the party to start or stop without me. If you’re now envisioning a 1980’s toddler precursor to Ke$ha, well that’s embarrassingly accurate.

Happily, my father knew how to manipulate my stormy baby moods and let me have control of the radio on the way to the hospital. I had strong (positive) opinions about the canon of Christopher Cross as a young lass of two years and three days old. Thus I belted out “Ride Like the Wind” through drying tears, sort of a joyous prompt for the complete awe that would dominate when I finally beheld the newborn girl. That summer I learned that it might not always be a bad thing to get out of the pool before you’re ready.

Summer is my favorite season, for a multitude of reasons. The hardened Chicagoan’s stoic survival of harsh Windy City winters begets frenzied exultation at three months of beaches, sidewalk seating and outdoor exercise. The melancholy writer struggles with seasonal affective disorder and craves Vitamin D furnished by 14 hours of daylight. The anarchist within adores the sense of limitless possibility. And for the student of life, there are always lessons and wisdom to absorbed as people literally and metaphorically throw off their coats.

It was during the summer of 1984 I learned that the arbitrary work of a moment, a face first implant into a living room radiator, could affect every moment thereafter. Self-esteem, opportunity, even the literal shape of a jaw went on another trajectory after an accident that took 25 years from which to fully recover. I also learned that even if I’d been born cute, I might not always be so. Looks can go at any time. Decency, intelligence and hard work became unconscious driving forces as the meaner kids mocked my crooked teeth and thick glasses.

During the post-Communism heat of 1994, I left the U.S. for the first time, and learned that the world is a large, diverse yet strikingly level place. Journeying to Russia and Poland on a cultural goodwill tour with the Chicago Children’s Choir I added the following essential truths to my life book: underage traveling without parents is awesome, there is no amount of dirtiness or fatigue that can prevent a teenage crush and everyone likes Ace of Base.

I wrapped up high school with another CCC tour in the summer of 1996, this time a five-week sojourn to Nelson Mandela’s South Africa. It was there I became aware that family can be chosen, appearances can be deceiving and that the summit of Table Mountain is a great place to use a pay phone.

Ensuing summers taught tougher lessons. 2009 was the summer of prematurely burying friends and coming to understand that desire alone is not strong enough to open a heart that’s closed. The warm months of 2011 were the season of illness that doesn’t make you appear sick and the crippling realization that two people in love can be genuinely, horribly toxic together.

But as I move into my late 30s, the conclusion of my 37th summer, the instruction remains poignant, and the circle is opening more fully. This was the season of horse back riding, wedding singing in Spanish, running races in Canada, hiking, outdoor music, bike rides through the forest at dark, murder mystery theater, new friends and fedoras. It was the summer of saying “yes” to everything external after Chiberia 2014’s confinement and discovering the joys of other terrain besides the concrete jungle.

It was also the season of writer’s block. Or was it? Is the living I’ve done over the last three to four months fodder for more exciting, experiential work? Perhaps I’ll find out next year. Because another lesson my 37th summer has taught me is that I don’t need, or maybe even want, all the answers today. The rewards is in the search, not the explanation.