No anthems. No nations.

Our Spanish II teacher, a woman we all knew was not to be messed with, ordered us into our daily ritual of citing the Pledge of Allegiance. This must have been our first class together now that I think about it, because it was on this day a moment of tension ensued. We stood, cited the pledge, in spanish I believe, and then sat, unthinkingly, as we always do. One of us, however, didn’t. The teacher addressed her at her seat towards the back of the room.

“Ms. Campbell. Why aren’t you standing for the pledge?” she pointedly asked.

In a response with no degree of excess, she replied, “It is against my beliefs.”

To be honest, I don’t remember my fellow student’s name, but I can tell you she wore skirts, had long hair braided down to her waist, and couldn’t have been anything else but Penecostal. She didn’t often speak to anyone and we didn’t often speak to her, keeping the divide between our cultures firmly established. I remember a certain air of superiority and judgement about her, that may have been true or may have just been my perception of religious moralism at the time.

The teacher pushed back. “And what exactly are your beliefs?”, more a dare than a questioning.

“We give obedience to our god, not our country.” she replied with no more convincing, as if this had all been scripted before.

The teacher could say nothing, though she could also not hide the tension of her authority being undermined. The rest of the class sat in the tension, waiting for an escalation by the teacher or some sort of relief to this interruption. The silence hurt. The teacher relented, I think, for the moment, maybe saying something about addressing this at another time, and then went about the business of pulling us through the struggles of a foreign language.

I remember sitting with that moment, feeling a sort of defensiveness, a who-does-this-girl-think-she-is kind of defensiveness, but also a camaraderie. In the instinctual battlefield of student versus teacher, we found our commonalities in odd places, so when this fellow student was able to override teacher authority and demand, with her physical body even, by citing a rational, untouchable ideology (even if it was based on religion) I couldn’t but help feel a sense of jealousy and even affection towards this individual. I think, even back then, I felt this resistance to external ideology, conformity, and groupthink, but lacked the intellectual, rational basis to explain it.

Along the way of personal development, into my college years and onward, I did begin to find that intellectual, personal, ideological, individualist basis for my feelings, to reject nationalism at its foundation, to reject groupthink, to be very very skeptical of authority. I was influenced by the screaming passions of punk bands and their introspective, politicized lyrics. I read into the words of Howard Zinn, Thoreau, and all the authors that broke through the abstract constructs of the human animal, both it’s mist of ideologies and it’s concrete borders. More and more I escaped the binds of the borders drawn by others, rejected the associations of nationalism, of having no other agency than the fortune of being born within pre-drawn boundaries. The very idea of drawing historical, immediate, and future cultural divisions between individuals became not only rationally and intellectually absurd, but downright bigoted and tragically problematic for the push towards freedom and cooperation.

These ideas of rejecting association to god or country or culture were, at this time, primarily intellectual. I had really not had my resolve tested as my fellow student did in facing the demanded Pledge of Allegiance in Spanish class. In a culture of demanded subservience, of a self-stated “greatest country on earth”, in the fervor of a continuously polarized world, that time would obviously come.

I told my girlfriend (at the time), “Just so you know, I don’t stand for the National Anthem, the Pledge of Allegiance, or any of that stuff.”

We were going to a public 4th of July celebration, attended by thousands and thousands, watching the symphony go through a program of compositions related to history and nationalism. I was looking forward to the music, but not the patriotism and nationalistic fervor that defines our culture. I expected some degree of tension should I not stand, not fall in line, not “pledge my allegiance”, and didn’t fear it, but also didn’t want to cause tension for my girlfriend and her family with whom I would be attending.

I reaffirmed my resolve. “Just so you know, I don’t stand for any of that stuff. I don’t want to create any problems, but I just don’t. I’m just letting you know ahead of time.”

The symphony played really beautiful music and I enjoyed it deeply, but the brass and percussion would soon give way to celebrations of each branch of the military. As the conductor called out an individual force, everyone who had served in that branch would stand and be applauded deeply, followed by the next, and then the next, until after all four services were recognized, the national anthem was played and everyone was to stand and sing. The thousands and thousands, in unison, without exception, sang words of pride, intertwined with words of war, marked by unthinking obedience, and soaked in christian righteousness.

I didn’t stand. Respectfully, I sat, enjoyed the music, clapped for the orchestra, and said no more.

An older man in front of me, who had stood as an ex-army serviceman, who had leaned over to his wife after the conductor pointed out that the writer of the national anthem was a frenchman and said “Pshh…figures.”, and who had noticed that I was not standing for servicemen or the anthem, turned, while everyone sat back down, faced me, also seated, put his hands on his hips, stared me in the eye, and shook his head back in forth in absolute disgust. Saying nothing, he turned and sat. Unable to let that slide, I immediately leaned forward, got as close as I could to whisper and not make a scene, and said,

“Sir, if this is truly a free country, then it follows that we are all able to hold our opinions and be free to express them in any way we see fit.”

He turned to me, paused, and stated, “Yeah? Well, I FOUGHT for this country, so go SIT DOWN.”, as if to imply that his decision to fight in a war trumped a completely simple, basic argument of individualism and freedom of expression. To be honest, I expected nothing more. I assumed this sort of tension would likely happen, even through the most simplistic act, admittedly during a public expression of ultimate nationalism and patriotism. Maybe I was rolling the dice, holding a populace that expresses the idea of ultimate freedom to the test. But I also assumed they would fail, despite wanting no confrontation. More so, beyond this proof of assumption, I was affected by the aggregate nationalism, by the thousands of individuals standing in unison, reciting the national anthem, in a time of global tension and countries plotting war against each other. It wasn’t that I saw blood thirsty individuals, but rather a mass of well-intentioned people coming together to reaffirm the rightness of their position, of their place in the world, of their associations by least common denominator, by the chance occurrence of being born within pre-established boundaries. What I ultimately saw, were the good germans. I saw the premise for authority to enact it’s own interests, no matter how nefarious, no matter how short-sighted, no matter how violent, with the well-intentioned, but relatively unthinking subservience of it’s citizens, who can’t see to even question the validity of their nationalist declarations, of their pledges and allegiances, of where their pledges and allegiances might lead. To be honest, I saw how the Nazis were able to bring a populace to put their neighbors into ovens. I saw how Hutus were able to slaughter Tutsis. I saw how aggregate obedience creates a culture where dissent and disagreement is criminal and how even the citizens are brought to keep each other in check. I don’t know if I’d say I was scared…but I was truly affected.

Never have I felt the need or rationalized the argument for nationalism, for patriotism, and all it’s potential violence, all it’s immediate divisions. I stand on the line at running races and wait for the ritual of the national anthem, knowing this is an unquestioned part of any public proceedings. At its worst, it’s followed by a prayer, most insultingly “in jesus’ name”. I play my own role, quietly walking away from the line and giving everyone their space. Or if the option to walk away is not available, I kneel down, head bent, silently. I’ve never done this for show, as an act of conscious protest, but to simply live my values, to not continue unthinking patriotism, to not give false allegiance to borders and nations and ideologies. I do this in the same way I feel no need to bow my head to a god that doesn’t exist during prayer. I do this in the same way I avoid all other expected rituals to ideologies I do not harbor.

Kaepernick. Obviously, I’m writing all this in response to this current event. I stand with Kaepernick, or kneel, or whatever, almost fully. Almost. I’m adding one more voice to his act and his protest because in this cultural moment, the best leverage we have is turning up the volume on those of us that dissent, that don’t give obedience, that don’t follow ritual, that actually consider the words of what is being sung and said instead of just appeasing each other with our obedience. Personally, I find it laughable that people are LOSING THEIR MINDS  because an individual dares act his conscience, that an individual dares express the freedom that all the patriots and nationalists hold to the utmost regard. WE’RE THE GREATEST, MOST FREE COUNTRY ON EARTH! IF YOU DISAGREE, YOU ARE NOT FREE TO SAY IT! It’s truly, unreservedly laughable…if it wasn’t so frightening. It is this reaffirmation of nationalist identity, of self-righteous fervor, of unquestioning that leads to the most horrendous atrocities, that leads citizens to act unthinkingly, that leads to armies and red scares and black lists and good germans.

But still, people are losing their minds that Kaepernick, a publicly visible individual, a celebrity hero to some, is essentially “biting the hand that feeds.” They are losing their minds because he is not only expressing his resistance to groupthink and subservience, but is acting on it. He is physically not falling in line, which is the ultimate rejection of the processes of authority. Free speech is one thing. Free action is something entirely different.

But again, to Kaepernick, and my “almost” full support of his action. The problem with Kaepernick’s action, and I think another reason why people feel so offended by it, is that he is essentially “using” the national anthem as a form of protest. His act of not standing and respecting the national anthem is not to protest the national anthem itself, but to bring attention to the unjust treatment of people of color in the United States. His act is capitalizing on this important moment of the Black Lives Matter movement, of pointing to the hypocrisy of the United States and the expressions of some it’s most coveted rituals, in order to change the treatment of people of color for the better. This should, of course, be supported without reservation. If the expression “liberty and justice for all” isn’t being carried out through the institutions that claim “liberty and justice for all”, then there is no need to continue reciting these words, or paying lip service to the ritual. The problem arises, however, in that the interpretation of the national anthem by individuals, who stake their own claim to it’s fundamental meaning. For some it’s about unthinking obedience. For others it’s a support of the military. For others it’s about the sentiment to make the country better. The problem, then, lies in the varied interpretations and offenses people feel on an individual basis. Kaepernick is using the national anthem to bring light to the issues facing people of color by his own interpretation of the poem’s statements as literal. He is saying that until the words are carried out to their most literal extent, we should question their usage.

Kaepernick is also black.

This means that people are going to freak the hell out because he’s also rejecting the comfort white people feel in the statements of a national anthem that supposedly includes freedom and justice for all. He is pointing out white hypocrisy. The problem, for me, in fully supporting his act, is that his protest of the verses and verbiage used are a singular protest. They are related primarily to liberty and justice for all people of color, it seems, which leads me to believe that if he feels his grievances have been resolved for people of color, would he then stand for the anthem again? What about liberty and justice for everyone based on sexual preference? On theological ideology? etc.? In part, my resistance to fully supporting Kaepernick is that his act isn’t a rejection of nationalism and patriotism at its foundation, but rather it is a singular issue protest that is making the conversation difficult, because the majority of his critics are probably unthinkingly responding to his rejection of the national anthem (and their personal associations and interpretations) instead of the issues regarding people of color.

On the other hand, no matter his individual intentions, I fully support this act of openly refusing to take part in the ritual of the national anthem, if only because it is a rejection of group think, nationalism, and all their tragic outcomes. Kaepernick, right now, is directly experiencing the emotional and psychological pressure that comes with stepping out of line, of thinking for oneself, of rejecting the status quo, of spitting in the face of authority, of taking an action for justice and against oppressive authorities and institutions, but being admonished by those not in power and not of institutions. He’s being told by the good germans to keep quiet, do what you’re told, or else you might end up on the train too.  So even though he may end up standing for the anthem again, right now, he needs all the backing he can get.

For me and my friends, we don’t have the public exposure that a sports celebrity does, but I can tell you that we’ve been NOT standing for the pledge or the anthem all our skeptical, rational, thinking lives. We don’t stand for the anthem or pledge to anyone except ourselves, our loved ones and our self-created ideologies because we are individual, human animals at the core. We don’t live by abstract constructs of imaginary boundaries, by fabricated ideologies, by rule and guides not of our own making. We reject the national anthem and it’s ritual not just because we find it’s words hypocritical, but simply because it is a ritual, because it is an act of obedience, because it is an act of subservience, because it is part of a cultural aggregate defined by economies hell bent on growth, built on the backs of others, always trending towards war and conflict. We reject acts of nationalism because we reject nations, and gas chambers, and walls, and borders, and the willful obedience that makes them all possible.

We pledge allegiance to nothing and reject the anthems of nations because we know a world without them is not a vacuum of dignity and security, but quite the opposite. We know cultures comprised of free-thinking, rational, intellectual, and skeptical individuals are actually cultures of cooperation, justice and genuine freedom.

Untouchable

Growing up I was never a confident child. It took years and years of finding my way through moments that tested my idea of strength and confidence to get me where I am as an adult, but even then I often found myself subject to the opinions of others, wanting their acceptance, and diminished in their ridicule. I didn’t view my physical body as attractive nor my grasp of the world stable, which meant when the validity of either was questioned, I could not respond. I could only defend the insults with exaggerated verbal defensiveness and outward confidence, but really harboring an inward vulnerability.

At some point, however, I transcended both, through the understanding that neither mattered. Finally breaking from the idea that physical attractiveness has an external definition and that only experts are privileged with intelligence, I was able to find the confidence in myself to pursue living on my terms, to create my own definitions of attractiveness and to find a comfort in not knowing. To let go of imposed definitions, imposed parameters, morals and ideals not of your own making, is to offer yourself a blank slate with which to create your own guides, your own interests, your own defenses against a culture that demands not only subservience, but the insult that you must feel broken should you not meet their expectations.

To let go of all that is to become untouchable.

The weather had finally broke from it’s wet blanket of summer humidity and a cool air snuck under the covers, waking the morning with a refreshing bite and chill. I drank down my morning coffee slowly, enjoying both the wake and the warmth. I pulled on my shorts that are barely there and tied my running shoes snug. Going through the warm up motions of crossing arms and gentle leg swings on my porch, I gave the grey light a few more minutes to yellow the tint of the surrounding houses and trees. I started off down the street slowly, gently letting the pace increase by the tension of muscles letting go from the restriction of sleep and lack of movement. By the time I had made it out of my neighborhood, my legs were turning over easily and quickly, compelled to bounce off the ground and glide over the sidewalk more than pushing myself forward with intention. My lungs stayed at ease, no need to work against the gentle chill in the air keeping my body temperature stable.

A mile up the road I started passing groups of school kids waiting at the corner for the bus. Either too early for harmless, child-like mocking or I was too fast for words, they stared at me with an amusement displayed through the looks on their faces, something as fascinating to them as hilarious. A white dude in short shorts, running shoes, bright blue hat, and nothing else, running down the sidewalk on a newly chilled morning. I could understand their expressions.

Running, I found, has made me untouchable, in the same ways I consciously let go of everything that I allowed to injure me before. The opinions of others, while in the act of running, no longer matter. It is the focus that involves moving forward with considerable momentum, stabilizing the muscular effort of propelling 140 pounds with the measure of lungs inhaling and exhaling at a rate that pushes one’s boundaries but keeps you from going over the edge. There is room for little else in that effort. There is only room to be untouched, to move past it, and keep going.

It is also the recognition that most can not do what one is doing in the act of running. For those throwing insults and mockery, it is likely always the act of jealousy, of knowing they can only keep up with words, in that short moment, and never with their physical bodies. Legs and lungs would burst into flame just trying to begin the effort. To then add, personally, the awareness of my physical struggles with cancer, to know what I have come through, to know what I’m going through, to have the scars and implants bared out in the open for all to see, is to make any attempt at mockery, well, not even laughable…but just not even worth consideration. I run through them, untouchable.

But still, they try.

I continued down the sidewalk with a stable swiftness and fluidity I hadn’t felt in quite some time, over tilted concrete, ducking under branches like an elusive boxer, regaining the rhythm after each momentary break. Along the houses still dark with sleep or abandonment.

I passed by one awake. I heard the words, barely.

“Puh onna iir”.

Not breaking stride I continued onto the next block, letting the syllables form in my head.

Oh. “Put on a shirt.”

I kept running…untouchable.

A little context. I had heard this before, from this same house. And I hadn’t forgotten. I hadn’t forgotten because the first time it happened the altercation was a little more direct, with a response. The declaration to “put on a shirt” came from a man, a muslim, with a haircutting “business” he has established on his porch. He wears a white tunic that touches the ground.

Let me first clarify. The absurd delusions of believing in a god aside, I have zero problems with an individual’s religious associations…until those moral guides they have accepted for themselves are applied to others. Then, well, go fuck yourself.

So, when he told me, the first time, to “put on a shirt”, I was in the mood to respond.

“What?”

“Put on a shirt!” he demanded.

Going the intentionally naive, surely-there-is-nothing-wrong-with-this-so-what-is-wrong-with-you route, I responded with a simple, “Why?”

“Look at you.” he said with as much clarification.

I broke and taunted him back. “Yeah, look at me. You jealous?”

This altercation, by the way, was all done in movement. Me not breaking from my run, except to turn around and gesture towards my body in a “fuck your modesty” kind of way. So when he responded after my statement, I was too far away to hear or care. But I always marked that house in my mind, as a point of potential conflict.

This time, when he said, “Put on a shirt.” I won’t say it touched me, but the repetition of the demand sat with me and I had another mile or so to consider my response upon my return when I was going to pass by his house again. I’ll admit, I was sort of relishing this moment. I thought about so many potential responses.

I wanted to insult him, to shame and break his arrogance in dictating morality to others. I wanted to call out his belief and spit on his god. “Say it again you delusional fuck. Tell me to put my shirt on. Fuck your patriarchal, frightened morality and your embarrassing idea of a god. Go ahead, try and shame me you pathetic piece of shit. It will never work.” My adrenaline was high.

And I wanted to guilt him. I wanted to take the high road, calmly and kindly. “I’m sorry you feel broken and unhappy. I’m sorry you want to bring others down to your level, down to your sadness, but it doesn’t have to be that way. You can let go and find happiness in your own life, so you don’t have to resort to trying to ruin others…because that won’t help.”

And I wanted to ignore him. I wanted to run right by, expressing just how untouchable I was in action, by that horrible sensation of feeling like no one even knows you exist, that tightened tension when your admonishments aren’t even heard, when you are a ghost, despite your best attempts to let the world know just how right you are. But you are ultimately nothing.

I wanted to let him know, in some way, that his delusion, his faith, his morality, his religion, his arrogance, could not touch me. No one’s can anymore.

I kept running, and with all these responses competing for space in my head, while I tried to keep the intensity and positivity in my heart, I heard someone else.

“Hey, runner man!”, a young girl called out from across the street, trailed by a group of her friends walking to school.

I smiled internally, threw out a hand for acknowledgment, and offered a “Good morning girls.”

I allowed to be touchable in that moment.

Another potential response grew. I imagined actually stopping running and turning to face him on his porch, “You know what? I run by here every day. EVERY DAY. And I run buy all sorts of people, in their cars, on their porches, walking to school, and you know what? No one says anything, except for some of the kids I pass, and you know what they say? They say HI. They say GOOD MORNING. They choose to say something nice and positive. Except you. You don’t say anything of value. You decide to tell me how to live my life, someone you don’t even know. So yeah, what does that say about you?”

I hit my turnaround point, feeling as strong and as smooth and as untouchable as ever, gliding over the sidewalk, powering up the hills, and sensing no mounting fatigue. Back across the intersection and down the hill with a longer stride, the air chilling the sweat beading up on my exposed skin. Running over stretches of grass precariously hanging on to the morning dew, my shoes absorbing the moisture and then letting go as I merge with traffic before bounding back up onto the sidewalk. I begin climbing another short hill while the lines of cars stretch outward to drop off their children at school. To the right I see a group of girls in uniforms walking up a hill. One of them calls out again.

“Good morning again Mr. Runner man!”

I am, apparently, a part of their morning routine now. I smile and shout back.

“Good morning again girls!”

The sidewalk levels out and I concentrate moving forward with the same fluidity as when I began, moving closer and closer to the man who tried to admonish me on the way out. I feel a flutter in my stomach as I get closer, an unavoidable fight or flight response. Quickly going through my options, weighing my emotional state of his words against the school girls, feeling positive and yet determined, I decided to be in the moment, to not script my response, to, well, see what comes out. To go with the honesty of the moment.

But I also had no intention of slowing down. No moralistic asshole is going to break my stride. Not on a day like this. I neared his porch, continued moving with intention and listened…but nothing. I kept running. Untouchable.

This morning, I ran by his house again, in the same chilled air, with the same strength and fluidity. I saw him sitting on the porch a few houses away as I neared. He was in his white tunic, slumped into a couch, reading a book. I set my eyes on him and kept running, as I got to the edge of his property he looked up and we locked eyes. I kept running. I kept my eyes locked on his and as I moved past I turned my head so as not to break my gaze. I was daring him. Say something. Go ahead. Tell me to put my shirt on.

He said nothing. I kept running. Untouchable.

Our Hen House

bit.ly/OHHEp348

My friend Jasmin hosts the intelligent, consistent, and passionate podcast, Our Hen House, (in my opinion one of, if not THE, best vegan podcasts available) and despite her best judgement she decided to have me on at the beginning of the show linked above for the “banter” portion, where we casually discuss a number of subjects related to my running, the Strong Hearts Vegan Power Ragnar teams, cancer, social media considerations and most importantly, veganism. I could go on with self-deprecation, but I actually think our short discussion was good and I hope you gain some valuable insight or broadened perspective regarding veganism and activism.

I have such deep respect for Jasmin and her turb0-charged work ethic, in regards to both her personal drive and the impact she has on building the culture of veganism. Do give the episode a listen, roll through the archives for past episodes, and keep checking back for new discussions.

Running Towards Nothing

Last weekend Laura asked me, “So, how are you doing without competitive running?”

Almost cutting off her last word I responded, “Good.”

And I am. Sure, if I’m surrounded by runners talking about workouts or watching an event on TV, I can get a bit longing for 800 repeats and progression runs, maybe even momentarily imagining a resurgence of dedicated training…just to see what happens. Of course, reality comes crashing in and the physical strains of my job, restrictive obligations outside of work, and the compromised ability to reach my potential wakes me from those daydreams abruptly.

That’s ok. I’m content with my running now…mostly.

Admittedly, I’ve been struggling the past four or five months, and it’s less a struggle with my running than it is something of an existential crisis and how that affects my motivations and behaviors to, well, everything.

Ever since my doctor gave me the illusory all clear, or maybe more fittingly, “go ahead” (I’m not MEDICALLY all clear…just enough to pretend I am until we discover growth with my cancer) I’ve struggled to find a purpose, but not just the abstract idea of a purpose, but a continuous, fulfilling, reliable purpose. Or reward. Or goal. Take your pick.

With the “go ahead” (and live your life as if you don’t have cancer…right) I found myself staring at a new start of sorts, in part because everything I had before cancer, that gave me this sense of daily purpose, was irreparably harmed. Namely, my running. I know I can’t rebuild my training anymore, especially with a job that leaves me more sore than a string of 10 milers, so that sense of purpose has been stripped away.

Running, for me, was a multi-faceted fulfillment. I genuinely enjoy doing it, so every time I was out the door for a run, I knew in some way I would start with a purpose to create an immediately satisfying reward and come back with a sense of accomplishment and calm. I would have completed a moment that was initiated by an initial purpose. But it wasn’t always fun. Sometimes the miles compounded upon miles. The workouts piled on top of each other. And the general creative energy that is necessary to continue on would be like a drained well, but, there was a greater purpose, a greater compulsion, that kept me going. If it wasn’t in the moment, it was that promise for the competitive moment months away, which compelled me to keep turning my legs over and over when my mind needed to rest. That interplay of immediate and long-term purpose and reward is unparalleled, and I think it’s something many of us seek to find in our lives.

I also think that purpose and reward is a direct expression of our evolutionary development, of our drive to survive through a sort of selfish benefit. The human animal has difficulty carrying out tasks of which it doesn’t gain direct benefit. We see this, probably most likely, in our work, which is interesting because our work is a benefit to the individual, but it’s a different sort of selfish benefit than what I’m referencing with running. In performing work for someone else, the labor itself is not often beneficial to the individual, but they still do it, because the labor generates the reward of a paycheck (our survival in a capitalist economy). But the labor itself, well, is not always so rewarding. It is a necessity to our psychological stability that we find value in the labor, selfishly, in some way, if we are to continue on doing this long term. Even with the paycheck as a sort of carrot and stick reward, the labor itself is more valuable to the individual than the reward. We can see this in the flood of individuals trying to make careers out of their physical activities and lives in general via social media platforms. As much as these people and the selling of their narcissism make me cringe, I also understand they are playing out this dynamic of sustaining themselves through a very personal reward, in both economy and selfishness.

I’ve been thinking about the importance of having this interplay between purpose and reward in something of pre-industrial, survivalist terms, of the CONFINED and DIRECT value to our labor (“labor” used loosely to mean most anything physical) existing for the majority of our time as developed primates. This is how we have most often lived, directly, for our own survival. Not through some sort of mediated, abstract labor that afforded us the privileges of survival based on someone else’s dictates, but rather a very direct existence. The purpose was / is to survive and the labor directly achieved that, whether it was securing shelter, forming social bonds, finding food, and so on. This dynamic is something many of us have trouble creating in the modern world of mediated relationships, labor for the objectives of others, and even physical activity for the sake of “exercise” and not purpose. Ask any individual who has spent time building…well…anything, with their own two hands, for their own needs, if there is a distinct difference in the value and reward and purpose of doing so against doing the same but then having their product or accomplishment serve the purposes of someone else in exchange for some other type of benefit (monetary, etc.). Ask them which experience feels more satisfying. The modern world of mediation has robbed us of a very primal connection to our lives, our survival, and our selfish enjoyment. The modern world has made finding purpose and reward tragically difficult. It is an insult to our autonomy.

All these considerations, however, haven’t erased my own existential crisis and the difficulty of finding a reliable sense of purpose and reward in the context of modern civilizations trajectory towards escalating chaos, exponential population growth and resource scarcity. (Stay with me, I’ll get back to running) I’m still struggling to regain a sense of grounding and purpose to my days, continuously feeling inspired to being one project or another and then discarding the attempt in frustration or a “what’s the point” moment of clarity. And that’s the question that really drives most all of us. WHAT’S THE POINT? For me, the mostly subconscious, evolutionary, biological recognition that SURVIVAL is the point poses the most difficulty, because in a social ecology where the individual has very little agency regarding issues that have now grown and become institutionalized and global, what’s the point of striving to create a more stable and cooperative social ecology when you recognize that the dominant forces have set in motion environmental mayhem.

This is not hyperbole.

I hate resigning myself to being a collapsist, but when you are more than anything else, a realist, how do you deny our trajectory towards collapse and the brutality that comes in moments of sudden social vacuums? History proves our rightful fear. And should this crisis drag on longer into the future, I fear the same difficulty my son or his children will have to face going forward. If this seems weighty and horrible and “why would you ever want to think about this stuff”…well, I wish I could stop.

This is my problem, that the distraction I once had from singularly focusing on competitive running is gone and has now opened me up to all the deeper considerations of how best to live in the face of crisis, and how to find appropriate purpose and reward in the face of such an ugly future. Evolutionary behavior has dictated that I have no option but to find purpose and direct reward in my daily life, and as long as a physical body is in motion, it will instinctually find that reward in even the smallest forms possible to keep moving forward.

Today I ran four miles and it felt fucking great. This was after four miles yesterday that also felt fucking great. Admittedly, my running lately has been dictated morning by morning, literally. I wake up, think I want to run, and go do it. Or I wake up, realize i don’t feel like running, and don’t do it (and then psychologically kick myself for not running the rest of the day). It’s weird to transition from running SO MUCH every day, without an end in sight, as if stopping running would mean stopping breathing, to then just not even worrying about it. It leaves one feeling disconnected, aimless, without purpose. But it feels like I’m getting ground under my feet again, not at all via my considerations about how best to live in the awareness of a building social chaos, but at the very least through the direct reward of running.

I know that for no matter how short I go out, I will play out the necessary physical release that has comprised our existence since before we could record it. I will, in some way, use my physical body as a survival mechanism, to remain strong and engaged, and maintain my ability to do physical work and provide for myself (and laura and august and the cats) as is physically necessary. I won’t be heading out to gather food (run commuting to the grocery story just wasn’t practical) or scout for enemies (not today anyways) or communicate with distant people…but the purpose of the run may not be as important as the reward of the run itself at this point. Right now, four miles run is just four miles run, because it feels good, it wakes me up, it affords me the privilege to watch a golden sun break the horizon and cast my shadow behind me, it surfaces deep thoughts and positive emotions weighted beneath the fatigue of a previous days stresses, and it reaffirms the conscious experience of just being alive and able.

None of this, mind you, eases my discontent with reading between the lines of our society’s messages, mapping the trajectory of a really ugly end coming our way (or our children’s way) in a handful of decades, and watching a populace dance and sing and cheer the spectacle while Rome burns around them, with only a handful of my friends gathering to express our sadness.

Yeah, this got dark. And I wish I could turn it off, I really do. But when the only thing that truly matters before your survival mechanisms fail is how you spend your days, figuring out the best way to spend those days, while ensuring the best possible conditions also exist for your children to spend their days, is definitely all that matters. So until…IF…we collectively see the trajectory of our civilization and start destroying the mechanisms of our subjugation and destruction of the land, there is no other recourse but to enjoy our days, simplistically, selfishly, and personally responsibly.

If for nothing else, there is still the unmediated, unweighted, directly rewarding act of running a few miles in the morning. It’s purpose may end when my legs stop moving, but that doesn’t take away from the moments of the act. Maybe there is a lesson in there for navigating this unprecedented tension in human history.

A Certain Victory

There is a certain victory in running. Though it’s not so much just in running as it is in being physically active, engaged, capable. For me, though, that victory shows itself specifically through running, and the opposition to those not. It’s not a position of compassion or empathy, but on the surface level, there is something very poignant and immediate about running down the street past nameless others, many in visible states of either physical or emotional struggle. In the area I live, it’s not always manifested as morbid obesity, as the usual narrative goes, but rather bodies frail and thin, bones visible and protruding from, most likely, a drug-induced distraction from eating. The sadness and dejection on their faces conveys the same struggles of their decaying bodies.

There is a personal victory in juxtaposition, of being able to run by these individuals with self-created capability. And yet, it’s not as basic as “putting in the work” versus a life that didn’t involve physical struggle, but instead the emotional foundation that leads one to see value in creating a life worth living. Before any physical degeneration takes place, an emotional one usually precedes.

For me, then, the victory is not just in the physical act of running, of being capable despite the odds, but that all the experiences I created for myself leading up to this moment in my life enables that physical capability. Running is just the physical manifestation, the physical expression of my internal emotional state, and my internal emotional state has been crafted through a lifetime of reasoning, consideration, and education. There is a victory in that.

I often weighed the values of the cerebral pursuits against the values of the physical pursuits, as if they were two separate entities able to coincide without ever crossing paths. One could, theoretically, engage fully in an educational or philosophical practice at the neglect of the body and reach a peak quality of life. Similarly, one could devote themselves to a practice of honing their complete physical selves, while paying no attention to intellectual considerations, and equally thrive. As my life circumstances tended to shift between these two seemingly separated dynamics, I definitely reaped the benefits of concentrating on one or the other, but as the excesses of each fell away, the interplay between the two became wholly apparent.

Specifically, when cancer came crashing in, the strengths of both were challenged beyond anything I had encountered prior. When I found myself facing down mortality in a truly immediate sense, the fear that seems to consume most wasn’t present, stifled by the reasoning and perspective I had developed over years and years of reading about evolution, religion, lives of quality, and the subsequent confidence that develops through an understanding of our world of complexity. The intellectual work I had put in faced what some would see as the ultimate test, but that confidence allowed me to absorb the experience and move through it with relative ease. There was, then, the physical obstacles of a body wasting away through disease and treatment, yet, the patterns of physical work and routine I had established leading into the surgeries enabled me to reverse the degeneration, get stronger and stronger, build back the lost capability, and enact the lessons of physical resiliency I had learned along all those countless miles.

The value of those coupled dynamics, however, is not simply in moving through this experience of cancer with perspective and relative ease, but rather in moving through life itself with perspective and quality. There is a certain victory in knowing that with or without the test of threatened mortality, the quality of a complete life, developed through both the intellectual and physical pursuits is experienced on a daily basis, against the constant reminders by the nameless others who visibly suffer in physical degeneration and, likely, emotional desperation. Or those physically destroyed individuals laughing away their abbreviated lives, alongside the physically primed, but internally depressed beings lost to the difficulty of our confusing civilized complexities.

There is a certain victory in, not necessarily “health”, but capability, of having the ability to navigate the physical stresses of our world, and being able to do so through the emotional and intellectual stability that allows us to persevere and find value and comfort in so much difficulty that is not of our own making. The greatest victory, however, is knowing the interplay between the two create a unique peak of quality that can’t be met through either alone. There is a specific value that can hardly be described, but really only experienced, when the psychological and physical mechanisms are working in concert, unseparated, as one. Others find that interplay by their own interests, but I’ve always experienced it through the act of running.

That is a victory, daily, that transcends all the absurdities of our lives. No matter how impossibly we struggle against economic schemes, structures of domination, the complexities of civilization….the discovery of a self-created, repeatable act of physical and intellectual interplay is our greatest victory over all the excessive, daily facades.

ReRouted AKA Not Dead Yet version 4.0

Everything was going great, the type of run we seek, when the body feels smooth, the legs strong, lungs relaxed, and you can just tell your form is fluid and powerful. I turned my legs with a perfect rhythm, flicking past each other in a way trained over years of countless miles, moving in memory of what seems has always been their only purpose. Everything was going great, aided by a drop in humidity that brought an ease of effort I hadn’t felt in quite some time, so long in fact that I started to doubt it ever existed, or that maybe, tragically and finally, it was long lost to the degenerations of age. But it wasn’t. Everything was going great, as it once always had, a road of expectations laid out before me. And then I heard the train whistle.

It was close, but the tracks were in sight, and there was a chance it wasn’t THAT close. I hesitated, debating the playful excitement in racing to the tracks to see if I could beat the train. I thought about my old teammates and knew, without a doubt, we would race towards the train to see if we could beat it to the crossing and stay on course, more out of the challenge and danger than the need to keep on track. I debated doing the same, giving the now idling cars a bit of excitement for their mourning commute…but didn’t.

I saw the train coming and could tell that if I did make it, it would be close. Real close. Too close. And I turned 40 today, so maybe, just maybe, if this wasn’t a conscious act of maturity and compromise and settling, then maybe it’s the more inherent, unavoidable outcome of the process. If you don’t mind, I’d like to believe I realized I couldn’t make it in time and resigned myself to backing off out of survival and not age.

I waited at the crossing for a couple seconds, bouncing in place, when I counted three engines roll by and looked down the track to see an endless line of cars turning around the bend. Rerouted.

Not wanting to lose the fluidity and strength I was feeling to this point, I instantly turned and ran a new direction along the train cars rolling past me, the string of idling commuters deciding to do the same (weird, I guess they WANT to make it to work). Normally, I would feel a sense of tension and discomfort with a route change, now unable to determine just how off my mileage I would be for the day. I could estimate, sure, but the Type A dictate in me would be eaten up by the lack of PRECISION. What if I only ran 7.84 miles instead of a complete 8 miles?! This might ruin my entire path of progress I’ve worked for years to build! At least, that’s sort of what goes through my head. This time though, without consistency, without a defined goal, without the need for progression, I just went with it. And it was real, real nice. In fact, everything was right back to great again. I ran down a stretch of road that, I quickly realized, I hadn’t run since just before I was diagnosed when I pulled a really strategic move, my favorite to date, during a small 5 mile race and left my competitor desperately seeking more oxygen as he dropped further and further off my back, securing me a solid second place just a few seconds behind the winner. It felt great to put myself back into that space, partially physically and partially mentally.

The stretch of road ended, however, and I needed to decide my next reroute, which I quickly sketched to a turnaround and back home. And isn’t that an apt analogy for my life now, being rerouted and having to adjust for some sense of security and expectation. Going for a run on your 40 birthday will do that to your thought process, make something like a simple change in course help you analyze your life trajectory.

That is precisely what happened to me just before diagnosis, when all the expectations I had for myself were suddenly met with a metaphorical train blocking my path, forcing me to reroute, well, everything. And it wasn’t just one train really. First there was the divorce train, then the unemployment train, then the financial train…and finally the cancer train. It was like a full train yard of endless cars passing in front of every goal I had set for myself down the road, leaving me no choice but to either lay down and wait for them to pass (whenever THAT would be) or to turn left and keep going.

I turned left, but to be honest, I’m still trying to figure out where this current road is going. For awhile, during treatment, it was like I was running around the same few blocks, seeing a lot of new stuff I hadn’t seen before, but really getting no closer to completion. Then after my oncologist told me to essentially live as if I didn’t have cancer, I might have found my way back to the route I was initially running before all the trains blocked my path. It even seemed like I might get to the end of my run, or at least remember where I was going, but to be honest, I’m not quite convinced of all that. I’m not convinced because right now I’m still running that route, but it’s not as easy as it once was, and I’m not even sure why I’m running it anymore. Maybe I’m not rerouted. Maybe I’m lost.

A friend of mine asked me at my birthday party, “So, what’s your ten year plan?” It was impossible to stifle a laugh.

This reroute became so long that although I found a part of the original course, I’m not entirely convinced it’s going where I want it to anymore. So a ten year plan? I’m not even sure I have a ten MONTH plan. I’m just trying to find my way back to objectives that are simple, sustainable, and enjoyable. Then again, maybe that has always been my ten year plan now that I think about it, to find that sense of a good, simple life, and hold onto it despite all the reroutes I encounter along the way.

But, of course, easier said than done. With all the necessary responsibilities of taking care of my son, financially, there are other obstacles I must overcome, that don’t necessarily lead to a simple life, and turning 40 maximizes the pressure of meeting those responsibilities exponentially. I can hear the unstated admonishments from here. “Shouldn’t you have figured this out by now?” “What have you been doing for the last 10 years?”

But all this flagellation makes me feel rather absurd, as if I’m succumbing to the cultural standards of turning 40 and wondering why I haven’t made anything of my life at this point, when up until now, I’ve always rejected the idea of what counts as “making something of your life”. I’m actually quite excited with what I’ve experienced and overcome and accomplished, while still knowing I’ve made mistakes, gone off route, or was forced to take a different course. I don’t actually FEEL 40….at least not in the ways our society pretends 40 year olds are supposed to feel.

I remember quite vividly when my dad was thrown a surprise 40th birthday, complete with gag gifts, black balloons, and weird “over the hill” cards. I might have been 12  at the time (I actually don’t remember), but now I can’t help but wonder how he actually felt. Did he feel old? Did he feel mature? Did he feel bored? Admittedly, having two daughters (before ME) must have taken it’s toll on him, so he could be excused for feeling old (yeah, I know you’re reading this dad).

But, holy crap, if anyone tried to throw me a party with black balloons and gag gifts…I don’t even know how I would take that. Actually, yes I do. I’d probably challenge everyone in attendance to a 5k race.

There is something else though, that is keeping this post from being a triumphant, call-to-arms, spit in the face of expectations of aging type of manifesto. Cancer rerouted me 3 1/2 years ago and although I’ve found my way down a different course, I know I’ll never shake the worry that I’ll be rerouted again, no matter how far I can see in the distance. Maybe this is what prevents any sense for a ten year plan. And lately, the worry of that reroute has come back in small, nagging, physical ways that I’m trying not to fret out of proportion. The hard nodule around my belly button is protruding, which was a primary point of concern the first time around. A sickness a few weeks ago lingered and lingered and lingered. My eyesight has been compromised from the sickness in the same way it does after my surgeries, blurring everything I try to read or focus on for more than a couple seconds. And an MRI scan is scheduled for September 1st.

These worries are expected, as any cancer patient will tell you. Nothing is minor or can be “waited out” after a diagnosis. So add all these little physical abnormalities, to a persistent diagnosis, coupled with a birthday that society marks as a point of degeneration, and the considerations become more difficult to rationalize. All that will be dealt with later, however, and yet this all continues to reiterate the rerouted course I’m continuously forced to navigate.

But that’s ok. We all get rerouted through life. We all have expectations that shift, change, or meet unavoidable obstacles not of our own making. What would our existence be if we found a path of least resistance, if we had nothing to overcome, a routine that never ended and became as predictable as the rising sun? That’s not a life I want to lead. The challenge, as always, is encountering obstacles in our course, and making the decision to either stand in place and wait it out or take a turn and see what’s down the road. Maybe, just maybe, there is a better course. Maybe there are new epiphanies, new relationships, new experiences…and maybe there are more obstacles, more hardships, more trains blocking your path. But, for me, at least I’ll find out.

I don’t know where this course is taking me yet, no matter how long I stay on the path, whether that is 30 years or 40 years or more, but I still don’t see the point in hitting a train and sitting down to wait it out. Hell, I haven’t even given up on racing it to the crossing.

Social Media Will Tear Us Apart

I stopped telling social media about my runs. I stopped cataloging every mile, detailing the weather, photographing my shoes or low angle action shots. I quit telling everyone about every workout I was completing, but not because I was consciously avoiding the narcissistic expressions social media enables, but rather because I just lost the compulsion to do so. I’m not entirely sure if there was a definitive breaking point, or knife edged thought change, but maybe more just a slow withering of desire to advertise myself. Maybe, that narcissistic dwindling was a product of the same dwindling in ability and drive to compete after my last surgery. I don’t know, but whatever happened, I just felt…too self conscious to advertise my running.

There were a couple moments that I mentioned my running, when I realized friends and connections were genuinely interested in my well-being, often marked by my ability to run and train, so I made a couple posts, but even those felt weird. And yeah, it’s weird I’m even writing about this, except that for so many years this was my main focus for social media. It’s primarily what I found myself expressing more than anything else, more than veganism, more than politics, more than the absurd ideas and jokes that come to me on long, boring car trips. So, in a way, it’s telling that I even feel compelled to write about NOT writing about running.

I think, ultimately, I just felt over the self-absorbed expressions that related to what is just a hobby. Sure, a very rewarding, fulfilling, obsessive hobby, but still just a personal endeavor. Then there has been that shift to focus my efforts and privileges for the benefit of others over the past handful of years, which when you find yourself acting on others behalf, in much less fortunate circumstances than your own, all your individual hobbies seem selfish and inconsequential. It’s hard to spend time talking about your latest ten miler when you could be putting out ideas or sharing information that aids someone else. But, of course, the inherent compulsion of social media is about the individual, the ego, the self-advertisement.

Which brings me to the now, where my expressions are finding a more detailed release in this blog, as I’ve cut myself off from social media completely. No Facebook. No Instagram. Just like that. I wasn’t planning on cutting myself off, where I counted down the days to a defined separation, but rather…just stopped. Just like that. It was a handful of days ago on vacation, and I’m not entirely sure what prompted me to do it, but I did. I tried to delete my accounts, but they make it so hard that I put up some sort of temporary halting, even though I’ve deleted them in my mind.

Regardless, I think I cut myself off due to the self-inflicted annoyance of my narcissistic tendencies coupled with “the crush of humanity” to use a phrase I’ve lifted from elsewhere. And since then, despite the blink of an eye time I’ve been away, it has really been a unique experience. In the past I’ve stepped away, but more just from Facebook, rationalizing some lessened negative aspect of Instagram. This time, however, I’ve cut off both, and it’s made all the difference.

I told myself I was going to devote all the appropriate time I could to my son while he was with me this month, and maybe the break was an extension of that idea, but doing it was something else. When I did, however, the effect was immediate. I found myself continuously engaged with both him and Laura, not just when we were around each other, but when I was off by myself as well. I found that my thought patterns slowly drifted from sketching expressions designed for a wide audience on social media, to a more immediate consideration of their needs and our time together instead. When we are in each other’s company, my mind isn’t elsewhere. I’m not daydreaming or out of mental focus or lost in that realm of distraction and haze that it is so easy to slip into through social media or any non-present media. There was something very immediate and physical about our time together, and ultimately, very comfortable.

I’m not trying to romanticize this or present anything that most would respond with a resounding “duh” as magical, but it’s been so long that I’ve allowed my continuous daily moments to be as simplified as they were prior to social media that it’s a wonderful reminding of that reality, of that simplistic enjoyment of just being around those closest to me in my life, both mentally and physically. I lost the compulsion to grab my phone in lulls, to post a thought to a removed, unanswering audience, and to instead just be ok with the immediate.

Admittedly, it’s not without some degree of concern that I’ve just cut myself off from a degree of communication with a wider circle of friends, considering our world has very rapidly come to embrace the ease of this communication as default. I’m not trying to practice a deliberate neo-luddite ideology or anything, so it is with a little apprehension that I’ve cut myself off from people that I’ve shared a certain reliance upon and with over the years. I can’t help but wonder if this psychological relaxation I’m experiencing is preceding a painful shooting in the foot. Right now though, it seems worth it.

On the other hand, the change of pace I’ve established in my running practice, which I wrote about recently has also fostered a change in identity of sorts. If not a change in identity, then at least a change in expression of identity. If social media is about any unspoken or unrecognized intent, it’s the continuous expression of our personal identities, our associations, our moral parameters. Some of them based in reality and some of them what we wish to be true. One of my greatest fears in quitting running in the past was the shift in identity. When you’ve spent so many years dedicated to one act, day in and day out, the fear is not in stopping this act, but rather how you perceive yourself once you stop doing what you DO. When you no longer do the thing you do, who are you as a person?

This is the dilemma so many face when they find they can’t physically do what they love, suddenly, whether that comes from disease, physical impairment, or any unforeseen change of life circumstance. It’s not the reality of impairment as it is the mental difficulty in changing and adapting to a new reality. I see this often in members of the military, old and way beyond their military engagement, but expressing their rank with such great vehemence. Or the cancer patient, who found themselves identifying as a fighter and survivor, only to be diagnosed as cured and now fighting to retain their recent identity that has been abruptly taken away. I’ve seen so many competitive runners struggle with the same difficulty, recognizing their diminished physical abilities and fighting so hard to remain the runner they’ve always been. They simply don’t know what else to be if they don’t have running.

For me, to abandon social media is to, in a way, abandon my identity as a competitive runner. Or, to have reconciled myself as no longer a competitive runner, but just a runner, the desire to express that identity has quickly waned. But, as I was mentioning before, there is a certain absurdity in the professed importance of our identities, of our narcissistic expressions towards others, of our self-absorbed involvement with social media while others are forced to navigate the world with so much less, or struggles of so much greater importance. Ultimately, that 10 miler we did today…who cares? And I don’t say that as a critique of other’s expressions on social media…really just my own, because I’m fully aware that my narcissism runs rampant (he says on his blog) and I’ve spent years talking about every little thing I’ve done with running.

And maybe I burned myself out with my own ramblings, but it feels so nice to shut the hell up about my running, my narcissism, my self-absorption, and to escape the “crush of humanity” we’ve found ourselves in, and to instead just enjoy the quiet, the minimal slow of information, but most importantly, the time spent with those around me, both mentally and physically.

I still have my amorphous identity, my considerations and thoughts, my act of running, but not just a little less complicated, a little less loud, and a lot more immediate and personal. Now, excuse me, I’m going to spend some more time with Laura, in that sort of immediate, rewarding, present way we all used to spend time with each other before social media.