I get why people move to moderate climates. It’s easy to get sick of cold weather. That’s especially true when you like to spend time outdoors.
These last weeks of May and early weeks of June are special here in Illinois. The weather may go up and down from cool to hot but the days between are amazing at times. We’ve sat outside to have dinner several times and the temperature was near perfect.
All around our house the irises are in bloom. There are deep purple and light, yellow and Japanese iris all in full regalia. As some of the yellow ones tipped over with the weight of wind and rain, she clipped them to bring a bunch inside. I’m so grateful for that. They stopped me in place to look them over today.
On the other hand, I also love the energy that comes with better weather. This past weekend I cruised through another ten-miler with Sue. At one point she turned to me and said, “I feel good.” Which is wonderful to hear from a person for whom running has not always been easy.
My own running has improved this year after 2019 turned into a debacle with a bike accident early on and health issues later in the year due to a tooth infection. Then a dog at the park ran into my left leg and tore the medial collateral ligament. As a result, I got heavy and slow and frustrated over the winter. But I’ve shed ten pounds and am back running healthier again.
It was hot as heck yesterday afternoon with temps in the high 80s and a thick wind blowing from the southwest. But I put on the triathlon gear and went for a five miler in the late afternoon sunshine.
I didn’t go fast, but neither was I slow as last year. My average times have been dropping steadily in the last month. My Garmin keeps telling me, “You Set a New 5K Record!” or “Your Longest Run!”
All I can say about that is I’m grateful. Just to be running again. And at my age, to be running at all. So many folks get bad knees or have other issues to take them out. I’ve survived my share of strange maladies and have kept going.
There is even hope of a couple races this summer. But we’ll play that by ear. It’s tough to find anywhere to swim right now. But we’re plotting trips to open water at lakes and the few pools open.
For now, I’m happy with the sights, smells and sounds of spring.
And if you’d like to see some of the other stuff I do, here’s a video of my citizen science adventures birding in the prairie. If you ever have a bird you can’t identify, or get an iPhone pic that you can’t distinguish, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll do my best to tell you what it is.
It’s a great time to get outdoors. Iris it could be like this all year round.
This weekend while perusing Facebook I commented on an MSN story and the observation drew more than 270 replies, including one that stated, “Christopher Cudworth you are irrelevant on the world political stage.”
On the surface, that made me chuckle about several aspects of my life. I tried pretty hard to be a national class runner, and succeeded only at the level of a journeyman with no influence on the running scene as a whole. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth it at all to train all those miles and achieve what I did. The world relies on all our efforts to experience the fullness of life.
Nor as a writer and artist can I claim to have yet changed the world. But I’m trying.
I’m hoping to do so with the new book I’ve just completed. It is titled “Rescuing Christianity from the Grip of Tradition: What Jesus’ Revolt Against Religious Authority Teaches Us Today.” It is a collaborative project with a Professor of Religion from Luther College, Dr. Richard Simon Hanson. The new book sprang from a gesture by that professor who sent me one of his manuscripts after reading my first book titled The Genesis Fix: A Repair Manual for Faith in the Modern Age(2007.) He liked the message of the book and told me: “If you ever want to write a sequel, you can use all or part of this.” Enclosed was a typewritten copy of a book he’d written titled “Religion From Earth,” that perfectly aligned with the message that there is an organic baseline to all of scripture that enables us to metaphorically resolve all conflicts between ancient truth and modern knowledge.
But the book had other goals as well. The predictions I made about the divisions in culture driven by a combination of authoritarian politics and religious legalism are all coming true. The Genesis Fix examined the roots of racism and its relationship with religious literalism. Then it also warned that the nation is at risk of a new form of Civil War, one built around Red State and Blue State politics. That war would be backfilled by conservative religious desire for power. This is an excerpt from the book:
“The current-day battle between liberals and conservatives carries the same stridency and stubbornness that marked the American Civil War. The difficult question we must face is whether we can anticipate the rise of a new form of “confederacy” in the modern age.
The original, Southern Confederacy stemmed from dissatisfaction with the state of the Union and the future of government. It might seem easy to assume that the Union was 100% on the right side of political issues in the Civil War. But no matter how correct the Union cause might appear in retrospect, the Confederacy was not by definition without virtue. As a political entity it may well have been justified in defending itself against economic and military aggression by the Union. And in spite of the notion that the ideology of the Confederacy was purged through the Civil War, the personal and political freedoms advocated by the South are alive and well today in modern society, woven into the politics of libertarians and other conservatives who contend that the best government is that which governs least. These principles the Confederacy sought to defend, and the sense of pride in defending moral principles has never been lost on the South.
However unfortunate it may have been for the Confederate South to secede, one can admire the determination of the movement as symbolic of the American revolutionary spirit. But there is a dark side as well. It may still be possible that partisan politics will produce an America divided over ideology, geography, oligarchy, or all of the above.
Perhaps the most likely scenario is the formation of a “neo-Confederacy” around “doctrinal states” or politics focused on “Red” and “Blue” states. Proponents on either side of the political fence have begun to see the value of the “winner-take-all” approach. We are not far from a moment in history when battles over doctrinal authority could lead to a new secession in the hands of the “neo-Confederates” and the states they represent.
But there are other issues afoot as well. The next Civil War may be fought not in the fields and forests of America, but in courtrooms where armies of lawyers battle over the rights of corporations to control America’s life and politics. Corporate lobbies and revenue now influence every facet of American life. The largest corporations and the individuals who run them have more money and power than many countries in the world.44 It is not a stretch to say that one cannot become a governor, senator or representative without the backing of corporations. A neo-Confederacy of corporate largess already exists in America, and it is not limited to the Republican side of the political fence. It may not be long before the power vested in corporations becomes a self-fulfilling mandate and America will be forced to choose between its original model of a democratic republic recorded in the Constitution and a new, corporate society that is ruled by companies who run the business of America. Whether we have the courage to resist this takeover of American life is a question for our age.
Corporate largesse has a close relationship with the power of doctrinal politics. Any government owned and run by business will obviously favor the interests of business over that of individuals. When religion adds to the clout of corporate government by giving its stamp of approval to something so profound, powerful and self-fulfilling as the military-industrial society, then a nation has lost its grip on democracy and turned itself over to commerce as rule of law.
Part of the reason doctrinal politics, economic aggression and triumphal religious language make such a potent combination is that all three appeal to a sense of personal pride.”
That’s where we are today: trapped in a wicked cycle of transactional governance run by greed and self-interest. It is tied together with the populist racism infecting all of society, and favored by the fascist instincts of fearful rulers such as Mitch McConnell.
So that miserable little troll trying to insult me on Facebook is dead wrong. So is Mark Zuckerberg for trying to ignore the disinformation coming from the Trump administration.
And just as it matters whether we form our character by doing hard things like endurance sports, it matters whether we do hard things like stand up to bullies on the Internet and at the top of all the government. These are hard times and that calls for hard decisions on all our part. Some will run and hide, as our President did last night by turning out the lights at the White House and hiding in the bunker of his self-absorption.
But we cannot let that burrowing, conspiratorial mole and his legion of shallow gravediggers triumph on the national or world stage. Some of us, when called to action, choose to run toward trouble. I know you have it in you as well. Do not run away. Run over the tarsnakes of false information and lies being used to gaslight this nation and the world into submission.
These are critical times. Be critically committed to the cause of social justice in this world. It is both politically and religiously honest to do so.
I’m leading off today’s original thoughts on running, riding and swimming by asking readers to consider a question: How much do you value your college experience?
And then I’ll follow up with a confession. Perhaps I’m one of those people that has valued it too much, but will never apologize. I’ll explain why.
I ran for a Division III school in Decorah, Iowa, called Luther College. While there, I received an education that challenged me to think about many things. Religion. The Philosophy of Existentialism. The Psychology of Adjustment. Art. Biology. English. Even Communism. But that was the product of an extra-curricular movement on campus led by a professor named Oliver Cornell. It was the early 70s. Nixon had just resigned. The Vietnam War had exploded America’s national image. The nation was exploring what comes next.
Through all of that study, I ran and ran and ran. Typically 800 miles just during cross country season alone. Then came indoor track. Then outdoor track. Then summer mileage done alone in June, July and August. Then it was back to campus for another go. Another season. Line up and wait for the crack of the gun.
Between all that came January terms in which I drew nudes for six hours a day the first year, traveled to the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology for an internship the second year, painted four 4′ X 8′ murals for a nature center the third year and frankly, I can’t recall what took place during January of my senior year. But I was in love with a girl and that was enough, in any case.
When it was all over I fell into a job as an Admissions Counselor for the college and met my quota, but it was a time of disillusionment. The Admissions office was in a period of great transition and the college was facing enrollment pressures. When I popped out the other side I had learned a thing or two about office politics and the realities of the world and money. Frankly, I was embittered.
But I was still loyal to my friends and memories of the college experience. Perhaps a bit too much, as years later my wife finally complained that I talked too much about it all. So I put the edit feature on and realized that yes, maybe romanticizing the college experience was a bit much as you grow older.
That said, Decorah, Iowa has always been a lovely place to visit. It was an enormously beautiful place to train. I’ve probably been back (and I don’t want to exaggerate) nearly one hundred times over the last forty years. To run. To ride. To cross country ski. To canoe and kayak. To have sex in the woods. It always reminded me of the hills in Upstate New York where I was born and returned many times as a child.
Now I’m even collaborating with a retired Luther College Professor of Religion on a new book in review with Literary Agents. It is titled Rescuing Christianity from the Grip of Tradition: What Jesus’ revolt against religious authority teaches us today. So the college of ideas and contributions to the world never really ends. It changes. Undergoes metamorphosis. Matures.
I’ve held art exhibitions on the Luther Campus several times. I often visit my art professors when back in town. And recently, I dropped in to visit a former biology professor to view a collection of frog drawings that I’d done for field biology. He’s always supported my work, and it was fun to see those highly detailed renderings of the frogs I’d studied and painted all those years ago.
And last year I joined one-hundred other former track athletes for a big reunion. It was fun to meet other Luther tracksters, both men and women, that had competed over the years. We covered many of the same roads together, and in separate eras. There’s a bond in that too. I’ve turned some of those experiences into art.
Sometimes I’ve pondered the meaning of those four years against many other friendships and experiences. I’ve had several jobs that lasted twice as long as the Luther experience, and the people I’ve met there are still friends. That’s a good thing.
Yet those college bonds remain something special. And now that we’re “up there in years” in the eyes of society, we all kind of laugh about how long ago we ran together. All those miles. All those stories. All those accomplishments, failures and experiences.
They do matter. They still matter. They were formative. They were shared. They took hard work to achieve. They built loyalty and bonds, both personal and institutional.
And because there is considerable history and tradition behind the idea of “giving it the old college try,” many people do maintain loyalty to their college or university. That’s why big time college sports is so popular. It means something to have a “family” of sorts to which one claims to belong.
In our case, we were able to place second in the nation in cross country, and there were several trips to track national championships as well. That senior cross country season was something of a fluke because one of our best runners was hindered with a bad back, another had a toe injury that limited training and racing. But other people stepped up in the wake of those difficulties and it all came together on the right day. Everyone that ever ran for the program contributed to that achievement. A few years later, another Luther team placed even higher, winning a national cross country title in 1985.
That sort of magic only happens a few times in life for most people. Some never experience it at all. But it is the moments in between that make up most of our lives, and college tends to be a foreshadowing of all that eventually takes place in life. That includes happiness and love as well as sorrow and loss.
So we celebrate the college colors…the Blue or the Red, the Orange or the Green or the Black or the Brown. And once in a while we stumble on a photo of those old college friends and give it the old college try once again. And smile.
About two months ago, a flock of hummingbirds gathered near the shores of the Yucatan peninsula on the East coast of Mexico. Their goal was to fly across the Gulf and arrive somewhere on the shores of Texas.
“Untold numbers of migrating ruby-throated hummingbirds fly non-stop 600 miles across the Gulf of Mexico from the Yucatán Peninsula and Central America each spring and fall. Even to experts, it’s amazing to think that a tiny bird weighing no more than a nickel could fly 18 hours straight across the Gulf without resting or refueling.
Although modern radar studies and other research bear this out, ornithologists at one time struggled to see how such tiny creatures could be up for the journey. One theory had them flying over land across Mexico, making refueling stops along the way. Some even thought they perhaps flew piggyback across the Gulf, picking up a ride from ducks and geese. Even that was easier to picture than a non-stop flight.”
Unbelievable, yes. But they do it.
That’s called efficient use of fuel. We can only assume that hummingbirds go Old School to accomplish this endurance feat. They know what to eat and when. Then they choose a southern breeze and make a run for it. They’ve been making the journey for tens of thousands of years as climates moderated and provided habitat suitable for summer breeding in North America.
This morning I was talking with a neighbor when she pointed to a naked limb behind me. I spun around with the camera I was carrying to take photos of the Ruby-throated hummingbird that comes to her flowers and feeder. The bird was silhouetted against a bright morning sky (see photo at top) to gather nectar. The tongue inside the bird’s head protrudes to such up the sugary substance.
Hummers also capture insects in mid-air. I’ve seen them flycatching and while they don’t plunge out of the sky in a stoop like a peregrine falcon at 190 mph, they are nonetheless merciless in their pursuit of food.
They are also competitive little buggers. If you live in an area with a multitude of hummingbirds, the fights around the feeders can get rather vicious. They may be small birds, but they’re tough.
On cold nights they hunker down and go into dormancy, lowering their metabolism like some sort of Superhero to save energy. Even the Ironman Tony Stark would be quite impressed with that biological technology. And all those Ironman athletes trying to spread their nutrition out across a ten or twelve or fourteen hour day could probably learn a few things from a tiny bird capable of flying six hundred miles straight over the Gulf of Mexico. Yes, a hummingbird kicks your ass in the endurance department.
Perhaps all these determined attributes are why the group Modest Mouse chose to place the shadow of a hummingbird between arrows that had obviously missed their mark. It seems to symbolize there is hope in even the smallest bit of resistance to being targeted in this world. That is why the green bleeds pink.
Or maybe being a hummingbird in this world is about standing up to something far bigger than ourselves. It might even be about the fact that the powers controlling this world aren’t as perfect as we’d all like to believe. Consider these lyrics from the Modest Mouse song Bukowski:
If God controls the land and disease, Keeps a watchful eye on me, If he’s really so damn mighty, My problem is I can’t see, Well who would want to be? Who would want to be such a control freak?
The Bible suggests as much when it quotes Jesus in saying, “The meek shall inherit the earth.” But perhaps the meek are not so powerless as some like to think. Perhaps there is a hummingbird effect in this universe in which the beating of a billion tiny wings ultimately changes destiny. So many people love to clamor toward the supposed power and elegance of an eagle, but they are ponderous and weak by comparison to the super-fueled grace and agility of a hummingbird.
So be careful where you place your trust in the true powers of this world. As endurance athletes know, it’s not always the biggest or strongest that win the race, but those who can outlast and even outmaneuver others. In the end it may just be a hummingbird that kicks your ass. Or you could be the hummingbird this world needs someday.
With the weather warming up here in Illinois and a three-day weekend ahead of us, my wife and I planned out a bit of cycling and running. It actually started on Friday afternoon with a 55-mile ride in windy conditions. We both rode our tri-bikes in aero, and toward the middle of the ride I felt great and she was supposed to stay in Zone 2 for the entirety, so I asked if she’d mind that I went ahead.
“Go for it honey,” she smiled.
So off I went. The ride wound up being just above 18mph in pretty stiff conditions so that was a happy day. She noted my exuberance to her coach Steve Brandes and he texted back, “You need to give him some little wins now and then.”
I love that kind of humor. Because it’s true. We all do need little wins of one kind or another. The next day I went to the track and did a set of eight 400-meter repeats at 7:14 pace. That’s a major hurrah in my book of late. My running sagged so badly last year due to a string of injuries and one major health problem with an infected tooth that I didn’t think quality would ever come back.
The next morning I rode another 36 miles on my own, again with some stiff winds blowing me about, and took a tour through the little town of Big Rock way down at the southwest tip of our county.
Next time I’ll be heading even further west, out to Plano where one of the Superman movies was filmed. That’s also near Yorkville, Silver Springs State Park and the famous Farnsworth House where I have tried on two occasions to lead some bird walks but they kept getting rained out. At any rate, that led to my producing a poster of the Birds of the Fox that turned out pretty well. It’s pretty territory out there.
That’s what I do this time of year. Alternate between birding, biking and running
Come Sunday it was time for a run with Sue. We queued up by the Fox River in North Aurora where the parking lot was full. The trails were busy too. Some people wore marks and others did not. It was hot and humid, and I cannot imagine trying to wear a mask to run in conditions that thick. So we didn’t. I just made sure to give everyone plenty of space.
And I ran ten miles, which is a big notch for me, as my weak hips and sitting in a desk chair all day have kept my longer runs to seven miles. But I decided to stretch my luck and wound up doing 9:03 pace for ten. Which isn’t bad on a hot Sunday morning with two decent bike rides in my legs already.
Then we rode again Monday morning, this time a slow 36 miles together on tri-bikes, wisely choosing to go mostly East and West to avoid having to grind into a solid 20mph southern breeze.
Monday afternoon we both took short naps with the air conditioning on. I spent a couple hours watching a documentary show about the origins of World War II, how it all got started and how those fascists in Europe came into power. It all sounded really familiar with labor strikes and recessions, speculative investing, the Roaring 20s and the stock market crash fueling a worldwide upheaval while Japan and Germany each eyed expanded territories to feed and fuel their societies. Economic upheavals drove countries mad while authoritarian leaders clawed their way into power. Mussolini cartoonishly took over Italy and turned his sights on Africa while Spain fell under the spell of fascist rule as well.
It wasn’t that long ago, and yet the film was all colorized footage in a speciall called “The World War II in Color. Recently I also watch a big portion of the Ken Burns special on the Vietnam War. And in person, I once ran across the field at Gettysburg where Pickett’s Charge took place. So damned many people have died in all the wars fought by Americans. Some of them here. Many of them overseas.
Civil War redux
About that Civil War here on our soil. It’s feeling more like those old Confederate issues have roared to the forefront of society with selfish states acting like they don’t have to play with others and racists claiming their rights are being impinged upon.
And yet the statistic that shocks me is that more Americans have died from gun violence on American soil than all the soldiers killed in foreign wars combined. It always strikes me that we have a day to memorialize the sacrifice of those soldiers yet nothing is done to acknowledge the lives of the innocent sacrificed for the right to claim selfish ownership of lethal weapons in our country. That is the ongoing Civil War in which we’re all engaged. And recently, those gun zealots even took over a state capitol to prove the point they are a militia under no one else’s control. That’s a breach of the Second Amendment, which clearly states, “A well-regulated militia, being necessary for a free state…” And yet we let these priggish morons walk around toting weapons?
Let’s stop tolerating these abuses. They are terrorists in violation of our Constitution.
The carnage created by the twisted version of the Second Amendment we now abide is a direct result of that perversion of law. I think Memorial Day is an incomplete holiday without some mention of that. It was Memorial Day Weekend, and I think about these things while running and riding those miles. When will our country figure out there’s no such thing as freedom when someone can walk into a church, a concert, a store, a college or a mosque and kill dozens of people at will? That’s not freedom. That’s a sickness of mind to think so. Memorial Day celebrates the freedoms earned through sacrifice while ignoring the selfishly vigilante instincts and rabid brand of fear that dominates so much of America.
And the supposed man in charge calls those “good people.” Let’s all remember that for once. And for all.
There are plenty of habits than can turn into addictions. For example, food is meant to be a form of sustenance, but in many ways it is also a source of comfort. That’s why it is possible to fall into the habit of “eating our feelings.” That’s particularly true in times of stress or anxiety.
The goal is always to balance these potentially bad habits with good ones. In part, that’s why we exercise. It’s a habit that helps us maintain a healthy weight, cope with stress and build a positive lifestyle. But in excess, even too much exercise can become an addiction. I’ve been there. I know. Along with other excesses, such as…
Too much desire for sex can produce the same problem. What is normally a joy can turn into an obsession. Then there are acquisitive habits like shopping, or owning guns, that aren’t typically characterized as addictions. But I would argue that they’re no different than any other form of habit turned into a dependency that can lead to addictive mental attitudes.Whatever we crave too much or think we cannot live without is a potential source of addiction.
Recently it is addiction to social media that has grabbed cultural attention. I’ll confess to having a difficult time with this issue. I’m a rabid attention-grabber with a strong need for approval and it’s difficult to avoid over-posting to social media. The repartee itself is addicting. But so is the intense emotion that comes from arguing on the Internet. As a competitive person by nature, it is all I can do sometimes to pass by a comment that seems to beg a response.
I also like the feeling of doing something new every minute of the day. Of course, Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and even Linkedin all know that this is how users get engaged and addicted to their platforms. Then they have you. Your brain soon becomes “wired” to the chemicals released when strong emotions enter your brain.
But when it comes to brain chemistry, the most obvious form of addiction is to drugs and alcohol. Those substances have uniquely addictive qualities because they flood your brain. That’s why they qualify as pure, unadulterated addiction.
My parents were never frequent drinkers, so my upbringing was relatively alcohol-free. I didn’t even have my first beer until junior year in high school. After that I learned to party and eventually, even as an athlete, had a few episodes in which drinking got out of hand. It was the risk-taking freedom of being drunk that often appealed to me. But there was also coping with anxiety.
In particular, I recall a cross country party after my freshman season in college. There was a big vat of what was called Wapatuli that had grain alcohol or some other high-proof contents mixed in. Thirty minutes into the party I was wiped, but kept on drinking. I wound up being carried back to the dorm room and left to sleep it off.
Except I nearly didn’t. The next morning my kidneys and liver hurt like hell. It was a stupid choice to drink that much and I could have died quite easily from alcohol poisoning. That would have been the end of me. Done. Finito. Bye-bye.
Over the years I’ve learned how to moderate my drinking and enjoy having drinks of one kind or another with meals and such. Wine. Beer. Long Island Ice Teas while out on a Friday night.
And whisky. I’ve learned to like whisky. Most of all, the taste of Jack Daniels Tennessee Fire (cinnamon) and Honey Jack. They are fun to drink when poured over a glass of big, thick ice cubes. That’s habit-forming. I used to mix Coke with Maker’s Mark and always drank Jack and Cokes at weddings. But the straight-line consumption of Jack Daniels was not on my menu until about four months ago.
Anyway, I got into the habit of having a glass of Jack probably 4-5 nights a week. If I were to answer those questions at the doctor’s office about how much I drink on a weekly basis, they might ask, “Can you go a night without drinking?”
Reeling it in
That’s the question I asked myself last Saturday afternoon when, about halfway through the day, I began to look forward to that evening drink. And I thought, “Okay, that’s not normal.”
To be honest with myself, I have been self-medicating a bit. The stress of the Covid crisis and the politics that go with it have been affecting my mood. Then there are concerns for my kids’ well-being, and other family issues. Money. Making it. Managing it. All the things that everyone else in this world has to deal with. I’m nothing special.
But I’ve dealt with habit-forming addictions before. While going through eight years of cancer treatment as a caregiver for my late wife, there were times when the stress got to me. Doctors prescribed Lorazepam, an anti-anxiety drug, to help me deal with the pressure and also to get some sleep. It worked. But then I forgot to stop taking it. Finally a physician took a look at my charts and asked, “Are you taking this drug for a reason?”
I explained the history and he said, “Well, you’re really not supposed to use that long-term.” So we began a withdrawal period. Slowly I cut down the size of the pills, which were not that large to start, and within four weeks I’d eased out of usage.
But even in that waning period, I could feel that drug in my brain. I could feel it. could sense it going to work, easing off the anxiety. Letting me have my noggin’ back. So I appreciated its benefits. But it was time to let it go.
These days I take a stable dose of Citalopram, an anti-anxiety medication that also has anti-depression aspects. It is managed through visits every two years to a psychiatrist, the physician who recommended it. Years ago in place of the Lorazepam I tried a drug called Zoloft on the recommendation of my doctor. That drug made me agitated to the point of panic. As the doctor prescribing it later acknowledged, “Not every drug works for everyone.”
“YOU THINK?” I blurted to myself after hanging up the phone that day. He hadn’t warned me in advance that things like that could happen. And so we learn about our body and brain chemistry.
So I took stock of my alcohol use this past Saturday and decided that I’d leaned into a habit of self-medication. It’s easy to do. Relaxing with a drink every night is a comfortable deal. It struck me while watching the Michael Jordan documentary The Last Dance that he hardly appeared in an interview scene without a drink by his side. All that emotion and confession isn’t easily done for a man of his stature without a bit of booze to ease you through.
And that’s the lesson here. None of us is bullet-proof when it comes to self-medication. So while we all try to get through the stress of quarantine and Stay-At-Home orders, it is fine to enjoy the arts of fine drink responsibly. But be smart, and do an inventory of your brain chemistry now and then. Self-medicating is not the way to go.
This pandemic anxiety and the economic worries that come it it make the world feel as if it is locked in worried state and unable to get out. Perhaps there is something to be learned from this era, because the world at large is experiencing some of what it’s like to live with anxiety when it’s a condition inherent to the mind rather than a broad circumstance wrought by disease and money fears.
In other words, welcome to the world of anxiety, world. We’re all a form of Bruce Wayne right now, living what seems like a double life as we’re wracked with the desire to go outside as we wrestle with inner demons also aching for release.
The invisible flame
Anxiety is like invisible flame of the mind that flickers constantly and burns off rationality without heat or smoke. If you’ve ever stood near a fire yet far enough away from the warmth to just witness its effects, it’s quite fascinating to watch the curl of smoke, the crumbling blackness of cardboard and the wrinkling disappearance of paper as it all vanishes into carbon, leaving only ashes behind.
And those ashes are what chronic depression feels like. A world made gray with ambivalence and equivocation.
If that seems overly dramatic then perhaps you’ve not experienced what it’s like to battle a form of chronic anxiety and depression rather than a situational form. It’s not an easy venture. For those with the most severe conditions, such as bipolar disorders, the world flips back and forth from a joyful state to a severe battle with life itself. The people I know with that condition see the world through completely different eyes than the rest of us. It’s not much fun. Without medications to manage those conditions, its often difficult to function.
Fortunately there are ways to learn to cope with much of what the brain can dish out. For some people it’s a revelatory period of self-discovery that helps. It might be a realization that events or conditions of the past accentuate one’s native anxiety or depression. Cognitive therapy can help. For others, it takes years of practice and learning how to recognize triggers and find healthy ways to counteract the invisible flame of anxiety and the ash-laden psychic state of depression.
There are also other conditions that contribute to anxiety, such as attention deficit disorder (ADD). An anxious mind that has problems focusing can be quite the brain to manage, and create even more anxiety and even OCD, obsessive compulsive behaviors that manifest themselves in a desire to control the immediate world around you. But even those with conditions such as these can learn strategies to help deal with distraction and the dysfunctions associated with them.
Exercise can help
Exercise can help. Just like the drug Adderal overstimulates the mind to get it to settle down, activities such as running, cycling or simply walking help wick off the invisible flame, or least get it down to a low level. Even as a child I recognized how important it was for me to get out to recess and work off the anxiety built up by sitting in class and being told to concentrate. I’d release those pent-up feelings by playing kickball or baseball, or run around playing tag in the rain or the sunshine. It didn’t matter to me. I just knew I had to move.
Nothing has changed about that over the course of my life. I moved from playground games to competitive sports. And while I was good at most of them, what emerged was a life as a runner. With some success, I kept at it through high school and then college and beyond. I even ceased working after losing a job in my early twenties and lived off the justified severance income while training and living in the City of Chicago. I won races, earned sponsorship from a running store and wrote and painted all day in my Lincoln Park apartment.
But that didn’t mean that anxiety entirely went away. There were still feelings of inadequacy, a strong need for approval and a desire to prove myself that fed the angry campaign to defeat other people in races. My self-esteem was deeply wrapped into those efforts. At times I wasn’t even happy after I’d won a race. So many athletes are like that. Their success stands in conflict with their expectations. That only creates more anxiety, pressures on the starting line and crushing angst when one doesn’t win.
Yet through all those experiences we learn to cope with our emotions. We hopefully mature and grow aspects of our mind to focus on new and better things. We marry perhaps, get solid jobs and make a life for ourselves.
That other issue
If anxiety is an invisible flame, it feeds on the oxygen of other urges as well. Sexual energy can be a real distraction. This is often the case with younger people, and a healthy sexual release of any sort can help an anxious, overactive mind, as long as guilt doesn’t enter the picture and make things even worse.
That guilt cycle has its religious roots, and fear of sin is a major factor in mind control, especially in the repression of those feelings. Yet no matter what the priest or pastor or psychotherapist with issues about sex has to say on the subject, much of the world has discovered that sexual release is a good thing, and there’s no going back now.
But those of us who run and ride and swim have a relatively guiltless tool to help us cope with anxiety in an anxious world. As long as we don’t get so obsessed that the other important things in life get ignored, a daily dose of exercise is a place to open up the mind, find perspective and perhaps most importantly, get the fuck out of the house.
It’s been said that exercise is the cheapest form of therapy. But with $150 running shoes and $4000 bikes, that’s not exactly true, now is it? So let’s change that around a bit and say that exercise is an investment in good mental health. That’s a bit more realistic and honest. So don’t worry yourself about it.
Yesterday during my attempt at a three-mile run, I met up with flooding at an intersection where a road managed by a local township connects with streets within the jurisdiction of our village. The roads were completely underwater. Flooding from nearby farm fields poured over suburban lawns. And the rain kept coming.
It was all headed downhill toward the street drains, but those were under two feet of water and sucking hard to keep up. It was a classic case of lack of “downstream” consideration in which everyone shucking water off their land seemed to suffer from lack of concern for where it all might end up.
Every gutter in this world has a purpose, but there is a need to coordinate those purposes or someone down the hill gets to pay the price.
A resident of the neighborhood where the flooding rushed toward homes told me that before he’d moved in, the people living on his cul de sac had once been able to kayak around the circle. It was approaching that level yesterday. It was a Noah and the Ark moment. These patterns are repeating themselves.
Watered down excuses
I turned around and went home because my path at that intersection was blocked in all three directions. Actually I was glad to ditch the run because my body was pretty tired from riding 55 miles the day before in enormously windy conditions. Plus my watch was dead for lack of a charge and it all seemed to be telling me to bag it for the day.
Back home I walked behind our property and was impressed with the water levels rising out of the wetland. There’s a beauty to prodigious amounts of water as long as it’s not in your basement.
The first year we moved into this home there was perhaps a week or so during the seasonal cycle when flooding took over the bike path behind our house. Now that condition lasts all year long, every year.
People walking, riding or running on that path are now forced tocut across the grassy expanse of quasi-Park District property outside our lot. But right now, that entire floodplain is covered in water as well.
But here’s the funny part. That’s how the floodplain management is actually supposed to work. The engineers who planned the landscaping around our neighborhood built a series of culverts that transfer water from one type of wetland to another. It works in a stairstep fashion. There’s a big pond to the east. That’s all open water and probably ten or fifteen feet deep in the middle.
But when heavy rains come, that pond has a culvert that dumps overflow to the west into the swamp zone. That’s where most of the wildlife lives. We have wood ducks and blue-winged teal, sora and Virginia rail. An osprey even visited our cottonwood trees a few weeks ago, and there are great blue herons, great egrets, green herons and killdeer hanging out every day in search of a meal.
We love the wetland, and the bike trail was installed to give people a nice view of the water beyond the rim of willows and cottonwoods that line the edges. The trail bends its way around this swamp and wetland zone. It’s at water level however, and cyclists and runners largely now come to a halt because the path is covered with water all year. Some elect to ride through, but most either turn around or cut across the often mucky ground that borders our property.
From what we can ascertain, that bike path was installed without much consideration for the overall floodplain engineering. It was planned for aesthetics but not practicality.
100 year rains
I well recall the rains we received in this area back in 1996. Entire neighborhoods were immersed. The basement of the home I owned back then was filled with water. Some friends found their basement two feet deep in water. Their television was floating in the middle of the room.
Sometimes we hear about “100-year rains” and these are apparently the calculations used by hydrologists to predict what water levels will do depending on how many inches of rain fall in a given timeframe.
But those calculations are probably based on what one might call “normal” data and weather records from the last one-hundred years or so.
Yet in that one-hundred years, the human race has completely changed the climactic dynamics. Industrial pollution and other sources have altered the 100-year perspective in almost precisely that amount of time.
Now we’re seeing the effects of climate change in rising temperatures. Warmer global temperatures are melting ice caps and carving chunks off Greenland and Antarctica.
It might be wise to revise those ‘100-year’ predictions and consider what’s really taking place on our planet before it’s too late.
Landscape and topography
But here’s the problem. The human race tends to be so focused on the “way things are” we seldom seem to take into account the ways things once were, or could be in the future as climate changes. We have clear evidence from the fossil and geological record here in North America that our continent was once divided into thirds by giant seas. These teemed with life and the deep layers of limestone on which we live our lives, plant our crops and run or ride across hill and dale are the product of millions of years of forces far beyond human control.
Yet now we’ve become so populous and impactful our waste products have changed the composition of the atmosphere on which all life depends. CO2 emissions from a spectrum of human activities are holding warmth from the sun inside our sphere. Honestly we could see some sort of return to that former continental flooding if sea levels rise as predicted due to climate change.
We are seeing more intense weather events. Sometimes these changes seem counterintuitive, such as the polar vortex of cold air pouring down from northern climes. How could global warming cause colder temperatures? It’s cause and effect, you see. When ocean currents warm and shift, the atmosphere is affected as well. Air masses get pushed around.
We’ve long known that El Nina and El Nino changes have massive impacts on climate systems. I can’t help believe that the water lapping at the slope in our backyard is not somehow related to changes at the global scale as well.
I’ve lived sixty-two years on this earth. I’ve watched massive changes in wildlife populations and behavior. Some of those are good, especially when human beings take measures to restore native habitats. The wild things come back. The same thing happened with reductions in certain pesticides fifty years ago. Bald eagles, osprey, peregrine falcons and water birds all made a comeback.
The error of our ways
So it’s not impossible for us to correct the error of our ways. Some speculate that pandemics related to viruses around the world may be more common due to climate change. Even here in North America, back when people did not understand the relationship between mosquitoes and disease––and wetlands were far more common the landscape––malaria was a problem for many.
What we need to realize is that these changes are a constant part of life on earth. Evolution describes them and our science and medicine respond to them. But we may also need to consider how we “engineer” everything from our climate to the land and water upon which we depend for a living.
We’re long overdue for an overflow of consideration on that topic. The climate change deniers of this world are finding out the hard way that whether it is a flood of water or a flood of disease, denying the problem is not the way to fix it.
Today I’m in the company of someone having a procedure at a hospital. The facility is massive and beautiful like so many others that I’ve visited over the last fifteen years. During all my duties as caregiver to family members I’ve spent many days and nights finding ways to keep a calm head and heart in hospitals much like this one. It hasn’t always been easy.
Today I walked to the edge of the building to look outside. One of the interesting features of the architecture is the layers of smooth stones used to cover the roof just outside the windows. There are thousands of these stones resting in place and yet their patterns also suggest movement.
Qualities of stone
I’ve always loved stones and have collected many of them over the years. I don’t believe they possess magical qualities or emit forms of energy or healing as some people suggest. But their presence is still magical in terms of consideration and they do depict a form of energy in this world. That’s how I look at them anyway.
I used to have a small zen garden with an inch of sand and some favorite stones in it. It was pleasing to drag the small rake around the surface to create patterns around those stones. Some were rust red. Others were pale or dark gray. A few were black or white. They were fun to arrange. It was fun to do.
Our garden outside our home has a collection of smooth reddish stones gathered from the shores of Lake Superior. Some are nearly a foot across and flat. Others are slightly round and robust. They are arranged like a waterfall down the incline of the garden edge. On rainy days they shine like dull gems.
We pulled many of them from an iron-tinged stream that trickles into the lake from the steep hills beside the Porcupine Mountains. Others we dug out of the warm sand along with bits of smooth driftwood. All these we piled into the car and brought back to Illinois over several different trips to the Upper Peninsula.
Those stones have always reminded me of time out of mind. Moments when there was no hurry to do anything but pick up objects that catch your eye. That is the height of calm to me. Being absorbed in some activity that doesn’t have a specific goal other than to enjoy the moment is one of the great pleasures in life.
Keeping calm alive
It feels like those stones on the roof of this medical center were put there to bring people into a contemplative state, to keep calm alive amid the deadening silence of a waiting room. The stones represent some non-transactional form of wealth that comes to us principally through the spirit. Like stars in the sky, we take comfort in the fact they are there.
I get the same feeling many days while out on the run or riding in the country. Just taking in the sights while moving along. Not counting footsteps or feeling any sense of acquisitive need, because those moments are the experience. These days they often show up later as data, but that’s incremental too.
Last October we traveled by cruise from the west to the east of the Mediterranean Sea and back. Along the way there were plenty of shore excursions but by the last couple days I was feeling a bit strung out from all the food, the booze, all the running around amid the ship’s floors and quarters.
So I left the family and walked down to the shore of a French city. There were people scattered around the beach like bits of colorful paper. When I sat down, it was pleasing to find the entire surface of the shore was composed of millions upon millions of smooth stones.
Immediately I felt calmer. I put my hand into the stones and lifted a few to feel them. There were gray beauties and pale lovelies. Some held patterns. Others were gloriously plain. The entire history of the earth seemed available to me through those stones.
I gathered a few and put them in my jacket pocket. They were coming home with me. Now they rest on the oak table next to my writing desk. They remind me to keep calm, and that is how they speak to me.Listen to what the stones are there to tell you.
In the spring of 1982, the President of the company where I worked walked into my office and said, “We’re going to consolidate marketing in Philadelphia. We need you to move out there to be with the rest of the staff.”
That came as a shock. But not totally. I’d already flown out to Philly from Chicago a few times for meetings, and the VP was ramping up promotions for the investment banking firm that was growing fast thanks to the aggressive establishment of investment trusts across the country.
That summer my friends held a goodbye party. In August I moved east 750 miles from my home outside Chicago to a town called Paoli on the train line west of Philadelphia.
That move meant leaving behind a girlfriend that I’d met the previous fall. We were growing closer and the relationship would ultimately survive that move to Philly. We got married three years later. But first, we’d endure a long-distance romance without email or social media. We wrote letters mostly, because long distance phone calls were expensive.
The story of the benefits of moving to Philly has much to do with meeting a bunch of guys in a club called Runner’s Edge. Training with them from the running shoe store a block away from my apartment in Paoli was actually a life-changing experience. A trio of brothers was involved, with Richard, Peter and John Crooke all leading a group of some of the best runners in the Philly suburbs. So there are no regrets there at all. I learned quite a bit from them all and my times improved.
But then the job came to a crunching halt. I saw signs along the way and wondered what the heck to do about the situation. One morning on the train into work I sat next to a friend from Chicago that had also been moved to Philly as an addition to the wholesale investment team. He turned to me and said, “I don’t know what you guys are doing over in marketing. We’re not getting anything we need to sell.”
I was admittedly young and naive about the investment world. But I understood that warning loud and clear. I could also see the reasons why it was true. The man and woman running the department seemed more in love with the notion of marketing than its execution. Plus they were at least flirtatious and possibly fucking the daylights out of each other. In any case, it was a major distraction from the job at hand.
We’d gotten a bonus check of a couple thousand dollars at Christmas, so we knew the firm was doing well. But come April, the Big Boss pulled me into his office and slid an envelope across the desk. Inside was a severance check for $7,000. “We thank you for coming out here,” he told me. “But we’re cleaning house in marketing and starting over.”
Knowing what I thought I knew, I couldn’t blame him. Sadly for me, that company went on to do great things. Had I somehow shifted over to writing rather than graphic design, perhaps I’d have survived the shakeout. Instead I walked out of the office that day a bit confused but also relieved.
And then I went on a road trip. As people are wont to do when life around them doesn’t make sense.
Down the eastern coast I drove. All the way to Assateague Island. While walking through the pine woods I was startled and overjoyed to find large Lady Slipper plants blooming in the shaded soil. It looked like a fantasyland. There were migrating birds singing in the trees and nature seemed to welcome me into its arms.
I went for a long run up the largely empty shore and stripped naked to go swimming in the large waves. Another couple was splashing naked in the water as well.
When I got back to Paoli I packed up a batch of my stuff and drove back west to Chicago. A month later I flew back out to Philly, rented a U-Haul truck and stuffed everything I owned into the back of that stupid truck.
Before leaving for the road trip down the coast, I’d plucked a jack-in-the-pulpit from a nearby woods in order to do a painting. It was still sitting in a large vase the day that I returned to clear out the apartment. The plant had absorbed so much water it stood more than a foot tall. I wasn’t sure what that growth symbolized, but it felt like an act of defiance to leave it there, vase and all.
On the way home the engine of the U-Haul van stalled on a long incline in the Pennsylvania mountains east of Pittsburgh. I’d driven a few U-Hauls before, but nothing like this had ever happened. Rolling backward on the turnpike is not a good feeling. Still, I kept my nerve and gently pumped the brakes between attempts to start the damn truck again. Finally it fired back into action and I drove up and over the pass with an emotional sigh of relief.
Stopping in Toledo for the night, I parked the truck and locked it up tight outside the motel. Then I stepped out into an open field and watched fireworks lighting up the night. It was the Fourth of July. An Independence Day of sorts. But from what?
I guess it was independence from thinking anything is ever secure, forever. Not a “situation” as one might call it. Not a relationship or a home. The only thing we have is our brains and some determination. That’s all that keeps us moving or brings us back to whatever we call home again.