By Christopher Cudworth
We tune our mental and physical engines through exercise, stressing our bodies in a positive way to wick off the stresses we face every day.
Yet we still try to get by on less sleep while doing more work. It can become a pretty confusing mess.
Stress, as they say, is a human response to tense situations. That’s a broad definition for an unfocused problem from which you cannot get away. Our “fight or flight” mechanisms get turned on and life feels like a “do or die” battle between that which we can control and that which we cannot.
Stress is constant but we do not always recognize it. Just ask any Type A personality asked to sit alone in a room with nothing to do. That’s the most stressful situation that person can imagine.
The Lollipop Guild
Hence the invention of iPhones. We like to think they are designed to help us communicate but in fact they are a technological response to stress. If you can’t do anything else when you’re in fight or flight mode, at least you have your phone. We truly do resemble those characters from the the Lollipop Guild in that respect. All doing our song and dance with muffled voices, talking out of the sides of our mouths and into our phones.
Red Slippers and other inventions
Those of us who run and ride depend on a delayed response to stress in order to cope with its mental and physical effects. We go out and breathe heavy, sweat profusely and cover ground the best way we know how in order to help ourselves to peace.
It doesn’t always work. It’s more like we’re on the Yellow Brick Road. A new stress is always waiting around the next bend. We travel from Munchkinland to the Emerald City wearing $140 shoes that might as well be Red Slippers. So sparkly and shiny and nice. Hope your orthotics fit in those.
Friends in Oz
If we’re lucky we have some traveling companions, also known as Training Partners, that help us on our way to the Emerald City Marathon.
You’ll be surprised upon examination how closely these people in your life tend to resemble the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion. It’s almost universally true that we have one training partner who fancies him or herself Pretty Smart, who’s always tweaking the training routine and pointing with both hands which way to go.
And like the Tin Man, there’s always one training partner who’s in constant need of oil of some sort. They’re the ones who carry every imaginable training aid with them on their long runs and rides. And yet, their physical maladies seem to hold them back or knock them out of training on a regular basis.
Finally there is the Cowardly Lion training partner in your group. The one who’s always afraid to go the extra 10 mile on the bike, or who hates races because they give him or her the willies. They’ll stand their braiding their tail at the starting line. And yet they’re loyal. They’ll go anywhere with you except the Open Water Swim. Cats hate the water.
Follow the Yellow Brick Road
You travel the Yellow Brick Road with these folks and collectively deal with the stresses life throws at you. Sometimes those friendships last years. The Yellow Brick Road never ends. But often the road comes to an end when one partner or another gets a transfer to the Emerald City (otherwise known as New York) and you have a hole to fill in the training partner roster.
It’s a long and stressful journey we’re all on. The Yellow Brick Road winds on and on.
They symbolized stress, those unanticipated events that seem to descend out of the sky. If you’re not careful, you can even get carried away.
And what was more stressful than the scene in which the Scarecrow had is straw set on fire? Later we see the poor dude lying on the ground with his innards strewn across the ground. Only his head is still functional. That’s how stress feels. The same scene was actually reprised in Star Wars when C3PO gets disassembled in that robot junk factory. His head gets put on backwards. If that doesn’t epitomize the feelings we get when under stress nothing else does.
Real Life Dramas
The hardest part about dealing with stress is that we often don’t know when it’s going to end. Last year during the end of my wife’s life there was one stress after another dealing with hospice issues, family needs and finally the Memorial Service. It all went as well as it could go. But there was hardly any time to run or ride.
In February and March last year people kept telling me to “take care of myself.” But that’s easier said than done. I’d started a new job just three weeks before she passed away. That meant I simply had to deal with stress the best way I know how, taking quiet moments when possible knowing that sooner or later I would get back to working out, and perhaps find some peace. But first came grief tinged with sorrow mixed with relief. It was a confusing, often stressful period of life.
By the time I started running and riding again it was apparent my entire system was wrung out from weeks of being the center of caregiving and organization. It would take a while for running or riding to truly act as a stress release. We make it through events like that and discover there is a cost. Our best method in those circumstances is to hang on to hope.
But life has a way of intervening even then.
Ring My Bell
When it all finally settled down and spring arrived for sure one April morning, I was getting the car ready to go to work at my new job when I ran back into the house to pick something up. It took a few minutes to find it, and while I was in the house a sudden rain shower came along. It soaked the passenger side of my vehicle. It took 15 minutes to get back outside and by then the water had soaked into the seat. That was bad.
I turned up the music and opened the windows. Anything to deal with the stress of that constant alarm. The car dealer suggested a hair dryer to get rid of the moisture likely causing the problem. Finally, after 10 days, the alarm stopped sounding. I literally parked the car next to the road and listened to the engine quietly humming. It was as if I’d fallen asleep in a field of poppies. Sometimes the Pause button on life gets hit when you least expect it, and most need it to occur.
When are you gonna come down?
When are you going to land?
I should have stayed on the farm
I should have listened to my old man
You know you can’t hold me forever
I didn’t sign up with you
I’m not a present for your friends to open
This boy’s too young to be singing the blues
Those lyrics from the Elton John song capture that sense of regret we feel at having lost some aspect of ourselves by trying to deal with stress and failing badly.
And here’s why. The strange thing about stress is that we often feel guilty about feeling it. We figure we’re the only ones that have trouble dealing with life, work and relationships. All these stressors kick our ass, knock the stuffing out of us and cause our joints to rust from the tears falling from our eyes onto the tin we call our bodies.
But you’re not alone. Life is hard and stressful for everyone. The fact that we have a fight or flight response is an indication that deep in our evolutionary history we have been wired to recognize danger. Our brains sense it. Our ears redden and our neck tightens in response to an approach of danger from behind. It’s nature’s way of making sure we’re not caught unawares. That look on Dorothy’s face each time she faces a stress she doesn’t know how to handle? We’ve all been there.
Evolving notions of stress
We’re still animals, and yet we’re not. This social structure we call culture has subjectified the dangers and funneled them into obtuse gestures like the weird signals we’re getting from our boss, or the not-so-quiet complaints of strained relationships at home. Potential stress is everywhere.
That is why, when we’re out on the Yellow Brick Road like Dorothy (a female hero, by the way) we have the urge to dance our way along that road when things are going somewhat well. It’s our release, a celebration of being alive even when we’re going through suffering. Damn that’s good stuff.
The Wicked Witch of the Stress
We know the Wicked Witch of the Stress is always in pursuit. We watch for her horrid figure crossing the sky. We even notice the foreshadowing of her presence in this world in that scary Miss Gulch on the bicycle leading up to the Kansas tornado. That music alone was enough to scare me as a kid. And her frenetic pedaling. At least she knew the importance of a high cadence. Her rockin’ bike was not exactly a Time Trial Cervelo. But it seemed to get her where she needed to go.
Perhaps she could have used some Spandex in that wind. Oh wait, that might have been really scary. We don’t want to know about the body underneath those billowy garments. She might have looked like one of those hyper skinny former Hollywood starlets with the bad liposuction jobs.
The Wizard Must Die
The Tin Men might render the Good Witch to pieces with one swing of his axe, just because her voice was so annoying.
The Cowardly Lion would devour a few Flying Monkeys and the Scarecrow would viciously stuff straw down the throat of a few guards at the entrance to the Witch’s castle.The witch would melt again of course. That part would not have to change. It was gruesome enough, in its way.
When the four of them break down the door to the Emerald City, all hell would break loose. The movie would conclude with an epic Kill of the Wizard with the sharpened broomstick of the Wicked Witch. We would see the blood streaming down the Green Curtain as Dorothy turned to the camera with a gleam in her eye to say, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.”
That’s how we release stress these days. Our movies do the Dirty Work for us, while another strong heroine survives to see another day. Talk about a Stress Reliever.
On Wizards, Stress and International Politics
The fact of the matter is that despite the romantic notions of Hollywood Classics, the Wizard often doesn’t have all the answers. Not in the magical way we might hope, anyway. I mean, who knows where the poor old Wizard dude went when his balloon took off without any control?
For all we know, he drifted into restricted airspace and got shot down by China or North Korea. Or perhaps that new ruler in North Korea is actually the Wizard in disguise? The Wizard was, after all, some sort of Dictator in the Emerald City.
I’ve wondered how ex-Presidents (like former Wizards) must feel when they leave office and what is quite obviously the most stressful job in the world?
We do know that Bill Clinton engaged in Oval Office stress release that ruined at least one blue dress. And George W. Bush simply laughed off the fact that he could not find weapons of mass destruction. The first President got impeached for his transgressions while the other faced no consequence for his cynical dereliction of duties and lies to the American people.
How is it that Bush can joke about not finding WMD’s when thousands of lives have been lost and billions spent in name of that pursuit? It turns out that phony Wizards are way more real than we might think. I don’t know about you, but I get stressed about such things. Social justice and political verity is not something to take lightly.
It seems Americans sometimes stress about all the wrong things. We prosecute a blow job and let a political snow job get off for free. Then we heap the whole last 16 years of Presidential folly on the next guy in office.
It’s no wonder so many Americans and people around the world feel stressed. Our leaders act with such ill vision they ignore even threats of terrorism staring them right in the face in favor of pursuing an ideology in a place like Iraq.
But sooner or later the truth comes home to roost. These lyrics from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road seem prescient relative to the tenure of GWB and Obama:
What do you think you’ll do then
I bet that’ll shoot down your plane
It’ll take you a couple of vodka and tonics
To set you on your feet again
Maybe you’ll get a replacement
There’s plenty like me to be found
Mongrels who ain’t got a penny
Sniffing for tidbits like you on the ground
Yes, It’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
Sometimes the best we can do is to keep moving. We’re all just running and riding to get back to the Kansas of our minds and souls. In the waking world, we trade Yellow Brick Roads for flat gravel paths and a ditch full of singing birds, and keep our eyes out for tarsnakes. Then we run or ride past listening for echoes of that wonderful world that exists inside our heads.
We come full circle from our 15 mile runs and 70 mile bike rides and collapse on soft beds muttering to ourselves and anyone else willing to listen, “There’s no place like home…there’s no place like home…”
That’s a fact we all like to stress.