Monday, May 22, 2017

On Turning Forty-Four

My birthday is this week, and as you might’ve guessed from the title of this piece, I’m turning forty-four.  I spent the weekend feeling old and fat and slow, and I’m not gonne lie, I was legitimately upset about it.  I don’t know if it got quite bad enough to be called a “depressive episode”—I just learned that term from Twitter and have no idea what its technical definition is—but I was really blue most of the weekend and maybe a little more sullen than usual, so much so that I know that it bothered my wife quite a bit.
I don’t know what to tell you.  I feel like I’m struggling with this whole “mid-life” thing, and you can say whatever you want to about it.  I’ll just say that it’s true.
Wearing my birthday present.
So much of my life has been justified by athletics.  Not because I was the greatest but because I’ve always felt like I’ve been my best self through sport.  That’s mostly been through swimming, the only times I’ve ever felt “graceful”, but even running, where I am at best mediocre, or on the bike, I feel like I’m generally the best version of myself in those moments, physically.  When I was in high school and miserable because we’d just moved again or maybe just because high school can be such a mundanely miserable experience regardless, I would often sit and daydream about training, of being my best self in the pool because I knew that it was only through swimming that I’d find my best opportunities to improve my life.  Likewise, during Beast Barracks and the first semester of my plebe year at West Point, I often felt like a complete fuck-up in the ways of the Army.  But I ran well when I got the chance, and I was reasonably comfortable humping a rucksack.  I swam well with my teammates and wound up putting together one of the best races of my entire life at the Army-Navy meet my plebe year.  Even later, after I’d put in my papers as a captain in Korea, I still trained every day with my buddy Joe as he was preparing for the Special Forces Selection Assessment course.  Running the rice paddy trails of Munson, South Korea, with Joe was probably the best part of being overseas.  And when my dad died…  
I’m honestly not sure how I’d have survived that had I not discovered triathlon at about that same time.
Me and Joe as captains in 4-7 Cav, Munson, ROK.
So it’s been unusual for me of late that I’ve been feeling successful professionally but less so in my personal and athletic life.  I think that this is because we’ve been so busy these past few months.  There hasn’t been time for anything, and it’s taken a toll on me in every way, but of course, I have to make time for work.  I’ve picked up a lot of responsibility at the office over the past few months, and that’s good—I feel like I’m contributing—but in most other ways, I am barely treading water.  
We’ve been schlepping the kids around all over creation, and I helped launch the boats at the boat club last weekend.  I’ve seen both girls perform at least one musical concert at school, and they did their gymnastics show over the weekend.  That stuff is great.  However, there hasn’t been much time for physical training, and even when I’ve managed to get out there, it’s all I can do just to maintain a steady, even pace over time.  I can do slow and steady and even, but nothing I do has any pop to it, and I’m not sure what I’m even accomplishing out there.  
With time, this feeling has started to bleed over into my everyday life.
When my father was my age, he was on the brink of madness, though you wouldn’t have seen it at the time.  At forty-four, he was still at the height of his powers—or very nearly so.  He was still a colonel in the Marines, though by then he was actively contemplating retirement.  He looked like he had a long life ahead of him.  

My dad was 45 when we took this picture.  I was 20.
He died of alcohol poisoning, chronic and acute, just fifteen years later.  This came after a long decade of slowly fading away.  By the time he died, Dad was alone.  He’d pushed everyone away.  I don’t know if that was the very saddest part of it, but it was certainly one of the hardest parts to watch.
I’m not under the impression that I’ve got a mere fifteen years remaining.  However, I will admit that I’m coming to a point where I’m not sure what right looks like for a man my age.  For a long time now, I’ve had my dad’s example to follow.  Despite his end, he was a good husband and a good father and a successful man.  He was a stern taskmaster, but he also walked the walk.  He lived a disciplined life, and he taught me to do the same.  In this, he prepared me for a world that’s not as far removed from the jungles as we in civilized America generally like to believe.  But dad’s been dead for ten years now, and I’m coming to the point where his example is no longer one that I can follow.
What now?
As a high school swimmer, I had
legitimately rock hard abs.
It’s clear that I’m not going to be able to keep rock-hard abs for very much longer, if at all.  I mean, I probably could, but it would take hours and hours of work each week and a diet so regimented that it was likely drive my family crazy.  That sort of thing just isn’t worth the effort anymore.  It might pay dividends in vanity, but there’s a reason I’m not still competing, and it’s because my life simply has to have different priorities.  True competition takes dedication that borders on madness, and I have neither the time nor all that much left to prove to myself athletically.  Those days are gone, for better or worse, and honestly, I need to find a way to make it be for better.
It strikes me that I need to find a way to make myself a little happier.  It’s good to matter and to work and to be involved in one’s community.  But I also feel like I’ve been running frantically for weeks on end without much in the way of time to find peace or peace-of-mind, and that’s not my favorite way to live.  If I have one secret, it’s that I’ve always been pretty good at taking the little breaks that keep me operating at something like peak efficiency.  That’s been a differentiator more times than not.  Now though, I feel scattered and out-of-control, insufficiently focused save for in the office, and none of that has me acting like my best self.  I’m struggling with insomnia, and I can’t even get enough consistency day-to-day to get into the routines that would allow me to break the cycle.
All of this reminds me a bit of what it was like to leave the Army, of the challenges associated with finding new ways to live and to be happy, and then as now, I wasn’t sure what right looked like.  I know that I’ll find my way in time, but for now I just feel unsettled, uncertain, and unsatisfied.
We went to Bridgeport’s Adventure Park last night with the kids from my daughter Emma’s class at school, and though I didn’t push myself particularly hard, I still enjoyed being up in the trees with the kids.  The Adventure Park is a high ropes confidence course organized along the lines of a ski resort, with greens, blues, black diamonds, etc.  I stayed mostly to the blues, but I felt good up there, and I didn’t have any trouble keeping up with the kids.  The experience made me feel a little less like the fat useless poof I’d been most of the weekend, but it was also tinged with more than a little nostalgia from confidence courses I did back in the Army, and I have to admit that I want a little less nostalgia, except maybe during Army football games.
At a recent Bridgeport Bluefish game.
I suppose that I need a new challenge, but I’m not sure what that would be, nor have I got the first clue how I’d fit anything new into my schedule.  I wish it was a “challenge” to go drink beer and watch baseball, but alas, I haven’t even got time to do that of late.  I’m not sure that watching baseball and drinking even more beer would necessarily make me feel better about myself, either, but it would at least be fun.
I could use a little fun.


  1. I like that you wrote this. You spend a lot of time thinking about your Dad. I wonder why? He isn't you, after all. He was him and he did his thing, and now he's moved on to another plain of existence. Maybe he's a point of reference for you? And you are sailing further and further away from that point of reference... while at the same time, approaching some "idea" of what he was. Hmmm. That is really tough.

    I really love Pema Chodron (a Buddhist nun). Everything she says makes sense to me. She writes:
    "If we see our so-called limitations with clarity, precision, gentleness, goodheartedness, and kindness and, having seen them fully, then let go, open further, we begin to find that our world is more vast and more refreshing and fascinating than we had realized before. In other words, the key to feeling more whole and less shut off and shut down is to be able to see clearly who we are and what we’re doing." -- Pema

    Well, that's what you seem to be doing... looking at your life with curiosity. It's so painful to feel out of sorts. And I can tell by the way you look backwards at your old self that you imagine life was better then. And yet, you say you are happy with your professional life now, and the your family is cooking along pretty nicely too.

    Life is pretty busy, with the kids and all. It's tough to "make time" for everything (especially with the dumb commute!) Fortunately you DO have that train time to write and think and be alone. That's good.

    Seems like you are going through a transition. Keep writing through it and remember you are you and no one else.

    "Both the brilliance and the suffering are here all the time; they interpenetrate each other. For a fully enlightened being, the difference between what is neurosis and what is wisdom is very hard to perceive, because somehow the energy underlying both of them is the same. The basic creative energy of life … bubbles up and courses through all of existence. It can be experienced as open, free, unburdened, full of possibility, energizing. Or this very same energy can be experienced as petty, narrow, stuck, caught… The basic point of it all is just to learn to be extremely honest and also wholehearted about what exists in your mind — thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations, the whole thing that adds up to what we call “me” or “I.” Nobody else can really begin to sort out for you what to accept and what to reject in terms of what wakes you up and what makes you fall asleep. No one else can really sort out for you what to accept — what opens up your world — and what to reject — what seems to keep you going round and round in some kind of repetitive misery." --Pema

    1. Thanks Elizabeth.

      I definitely WAS NOT happier before. I apologize in advance for the following reference, but it’s the only way I know how to explain who I used to be and who I was TRYING to be. Using the idea of the Platonic Ideal, it goes like this:

      “In the mind of Sylvanus Thayer, the Father of the United States Military Academy, there is an ideal cadet. He/she is unfailing in his/her military duty, absolutely studious in academics, and perfect in physical form and function.” That’s the way West Point teaches, not just academics but to the whole person. It suited me perfectly and is in many ways the way I try to approach my life still to this day. Which is to say that career success is fine, but it’s just one facet of a well-lived life.

      What’s unique about West Point, and to a lesser extent the Army in general, is that there’s so much that you DON’T have to worry about as you try to optimize yourself for the future. They feed you. They give you a place to live and a uniform. The place even comes equipped with its own moral code. All you have to do is learn everything ever, survive endless physical training sessions, manage your time to the nanosecond, and maintain faith in yourself through four years of directed adversity.

      Real life is not like this in the same way that swimming to compete in a triathlon is not like swimming to race against other swimmers in a 200 yard butterfly. Sure there are similarities, and being good in one can only help you with the other, but being a swimmer with an event is being a specialist. Being a triathlete is about managing three disciplines plus yoga and nutrition, all in balance. For me, real life isn’t about being a good athlete or a good engineer or even just being a good father. It’s about managing everything at the same time and finding balance, peace, and joy.

      I’ve been struggling, and therefore feel a little out of balance. Still, I have faith that I will eventually stick the landing. However, as I told Sally this afternoon, sometimes you have to tap a vein and let the poison out.

      That’s why I write. I’ve felt a lot better since framing my thoughts. Now I need to move forward.