Social Media Will Tear Us Apart

I ruined my social media, sabotaged it even, on purpose. With purpose. I can’t pinpoint any specific moment for you, but in fits and starts I finally committed to getting away from the most prominent form of communication that has taken over our lives, I say without hyperbole. The reasons are many, but I do remember a few breaking points related to singular social moments that expanded like a big bang into the social mediasphere, causing explosions of emotion and debate and exaggeration and dismissal and, well, just a mess of human expression. A black man killed by a cop. A group of people killed by a religious zealot. And less pertinent moments. A new flavor of ice cream. An off-color comment by a politician.

The “crush of humanity” as i’ve heard it called, just became too much. Everyday it was a new issue dragging everyone into an emotional debate ending only in some manner of catharsis before being dragged into the next a day later, or just hours later, only to repeat the process again and again. The pattern became all to predictable. A moment explodes. Everyone screams into their screens. Nothing changes the conditions that created the moment in the first place. We all move on to the next. We aren’t even actors in a play anymore. We’re the audience writing reviews after the show is over, buying tickets for the next episode.

As someone who finds solace only in actually effecting change, getting pulled into these debates and “having my say” left me feeling empty, self-served, frustrated and…suckered. I don’t like knowing those that pull the strings in our society get to shoot first and laugh later while the rest of us yell and scream about how wrong the shooting was, only to wait for the next one, which we always know is coming. We yell. They reload.

Those moments, on the other hand, are the larger societal flash points, while the rest of our time on social media involves filling in the gaps, by detailing every thought, action, and moment of “feeling myself”. The camera live streaming EVERY. SINGLE. MOMENT. of our days is barely removed from the obstacle of bandwidth. It’s coming. Not as an anomaly, but a norm. Narcissism wins. The affirmation of our existence, of which we all agree upon, is always in jeopardy if we aren’t constantly reaffirming it over and over and over.

It’s all so painfully absurd.

And I willingly played my part, for a while unaware of my own narcissistic absurdity, until the mirror of others showed me just how ridiculous, unimportant, and CONSUMING my expressions were. I was increasingly embarrassed that as a grown ass adult I was playing the game of youthful narcissism. At what point was I going to get over myself? 40? (made it) 50? 60? Sharing stupid old man thoughts and grey haired selfies, uncomfortable in my dying age, still looking for affirmations from others even as I neared the end of my existence?

The inconsequence of my moments (of most people’s moments) also emotionally wore on me. The problems of the world are brought into our lives as a continuous stream – a testament to this communication I critique – narrowing the geographical gap between the lives of the privileged and those ravaged by economic inequality, but we speak to each other from our own positions on the ladder of privilege, letting each other know how many miles we ran today, what we did with our hair, how awesome our dinner was, and all the THINGS of our days. Meanwhile, people drink poisoned water. Meanwhile, people take apart toxic computers for a living. Meanwhile, people are shot in the streets for demanding freedom and safety.

And to not be too cynical, at times we use these constant streams of communication and connectivity to affect these more important, less cynical issues in one way or another, to varying degrees of effect.

On the whole though, I felt swamped, by others and by myself. Ultimately, I log on every day. I scroll through. I click and respond. But when I took the time to step back and sit with myself for awhile, or more importantly, to sit with my surroundings, or sometimes run with them, the connectivity was broken and I could see the mediasphere more clearly, or with less of a veil of inevitability. When I could come up and take a breath of air above the flood of communication, I was able to evaluate my role in the smothering, the crush of humanity, and really assess the ratio of actual living versus the talk of living.

The thing about social media is that it is fundamentally abstract. It is very rare that it brings about physical action, or direct experience, or an immediate awareness to ones surroundings. The more I sat in that realm, the more I realized my ideas (these ideas) were confining me to that realm, and neglecting actual action, physical reality, and direct change. The realm of society is built and destroyed on a physical level, not through the hopes and wishes of what we say. I found it increasingly futile to discuss and critique issues that I didn’t address physically, while remaining emotionally tied to these frustrations. I craved the physical experience more and more.

I also remember the days before the internet, before the crush of humanity, when the world I knew was the world I interacted with on a daily basis. I miss that world, but I’ve been trying to get it back. In a nod to zen buddhism, I just wanted to experience what I could affect and respond to in my immediate realm. I wanted to know what I could only know right NOW.

I started by sabotaging my Facebook. I deleted all my friends. ALL my friends, except Laura. Confirming my decision to do so, I received some really angry messages from people who felt hurt and betrayed that we were no longer digital friends. Instead of deleting my Facebook account though, I just deleted all my friends as an attempt to “start over” at zero, and over time I slowly built a list of people I enjoyed, going from 30 to 50 to 80 to…all of a sudden I had hundreds of “friends” again, and the weight of all that information began weighing on me again, but worse, I found myself checking Facebook in every moment of pause and boredom. The addiction of my narcissistic tendencies was over powering, and although I was less engaged, that wasn’t enough. I had to go all in..or, all out. I deleted everyone again, except Laura. This time I had deleted so many people and groups that any draw to log on “just to see” essentially showed me nothing that would keep me coming back. I had cut the cord. It took losing any of the potential satisfying experiences of Facebook to kill the motivation to even check anymore.

But I still had Instagram. I have too many records of times with August and Laura and cancer experiences that I don’t want to completely eliminate, so I’ve retained it as something of a digital photo book, but I did make one effort to delete everyone that I imagined I would never see in the next year. I figured if I won’t actually see someone in person, there is no compelling reason for me to stay connected via social media either. I want to know the world around me, the world I can affect. I think I got the number down to 80 people, which again reduced my desire to even check in and see what was going on. Like a weaning, I found myself not only uncompelled to check the lives of others, but also enjoying small moments of my own in a new way. Nothing was interrupted. I remembered the calm of paused moments. And overall I felt less emotionally pulled and twisted and burdened by the lives and difficulties and successes of others. I only had the world in front of me to manage and experience, and that is enough.

And yet…

With so much more to be said, I can’t help but wonder how much positive effect I may sacrifice in regards to animal activism (and anti-authoritarianism in general) by cutting myself off from the stream of communication (outside of this blog). Activism, when I was younger, was very much about “direct action” and being involved DIRECTLY, and although the parameters of what constitutes “direct action” have changed, I also can’t discount the massive spread of veganism through these forms of communication and modern activism. A part of me definitely wants to critique what is called “clicktivism”, but the other part of me remembers struggling to relate to others about veganism and bringing the realities of industrial agriculture to people’s consciousness in a meaningful and impactful way. With the spread of so many videos and communicating the many facets of what comprises veganism and plant-based diets, it’s more than negligent to deny the positive effects such communication has had on furthering animal justice.

As activists, we were always striving to communicate veganism continuously and keep the consideration of animal lives on the front burner, but the infrastructure to do so wasn’t built. Now, with the ability to communicate continuously, we CAN do that, and I debate whether that should be part of my strategy. On the other hand, the ease and convenience of constant communication can lead to an inevitable comfort and form of apathy. If one can constantly repost vegan memes and videos and what not, they have the safety net of “doing their part”, all the while this, as previously described, ABSTRACT activism leaves the oppressors to safely carry out business as usual. If vegan activists leave themselves to the compulsions of the internet, reposting dinner as veiled propaganda, and sacrifice pressure against the institutions and businesses of animal exploitation, then I fear the stagnation that animal justice will face.

Make no mistake, the internet has enabled veganism to come a long way since the days of holding signs on the street corner, but we should not be deceived by the exaggeration of algorithms and self-created cultural bubbles that “we are winning”. We aren’t. That isn’t to say the internet is a useless step towards animal justice, not at all, but if we skew the ratio of activism towards one method, I fear we limit our potential for the rapid progress that is necessary to bring about the elimination of industrial animal agriculture and animal exploitation.

Of course, I say this as someone who has almost entirely broken from social media, primarily for personal emotional reasons, so I’ve limited my own involvement in this new form of activism. All these considerations are written as a positive critique of the movement for animal justice, but also written by someone who continues to wrestle with my own objectives for animals, my own involvement, and what exactly constitutes the project for liberation, not only of non-human animals, but all beings.

I have little to offer as a concise summary to all this, as a framework for solutions, but to simply offer an example of breaking from the stream. I can tell you that in some ways breaking from the stream of communication feels like burying my head in the sand, while in others it feels like seeing the world for what it truly, physically is and recognizing the limits (and potentials) of my actions. I know, above all else, that I wasn’t enjoying the stream of narcissistic expressions, that I don’t think we are ready to process this explosion of communication as a species, that I doubt the positive impact of it’s existence, and that in my most critical moments I genuinely believe we would be better off if the internet somehow just broke and we were all cut off, forced to see our days for what they are around us, and adjust as necessary.

In all these considerations, I keep trying to figure out how we’re going to expand the possibilities of liberation for all beings. And seeing the prison of exploitation our economic and hierarchical system has established, at the very least, I think it’s worth breaking from social media surveillance to literally break cages and set each other free.

Social media will bring us together…and it might also tear us apart. Meanwhile, the machinations of social exploitation continue with business as usual.


 

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A Heads Up

There was a time when I wrote on this blog incessantly, essentially every day, because I really had little else going on, but running, and it seemed like the blog was more a personal journal than a forum to communicate to others, which meant I didn’t mind the narcissistic nature of the process. Over time, as I realized my “audience” was growing and growing, I felt more and more confined, more restricted, and more accountable to what I was putting out to others. This writing psychology has both it’s benefits and drawbacks, but I’ve found myself becoming more crippled than focused, and I wish that wasn’t the case. I also found myself losing focus of what matters with what I was trying to communicate. Yes, this blog was really about my running more than anything else, EVERY LITTLE DETAIL, if I’m being honest, but my intent was always to push veganism in both direct and subtle ways through my own experiences with running. When cancer entered the picture, things got a little off track in regards to those parameters. Don’t get me wrong, this is a personal blog, so I don’t regret sharing my experiences with cancer, but as the days blend into others I continue to consider how I can keep veganism and animal justice at the forefront of my communication. If I’m being blunt, sharing my experiences about cancer is really for my own catharsis and no one else. If I’m being more than blunt…my cancer doesn’t matter. It’s my own burden to manage and should mean little else to others. What really matters, when all is said and done, is how each of us relate to everyone else. And when I say “each of us” and “everyone else” I mean everyone, every animal, being, every human and non-human being on this planet. If someone found inspiration in my words and actions and that helped them build a better life for themselves….I don’t know, great? Good for them? If, however, someone finds inspiration in my words and actions and this compels them to treat others with respect and to stop being complicit in the enslavement, domestication and suffering of other beings…well, THAT is what will be the measure of our existence when the physical body falls away.

Where I struggle with putting veganism at the forefront of my writings is that, often, I don’t know just what to say. The crisis of our current relationship towards non-human animals is so immediate and so severe that it feels wrong to put anything into the world that isn’t as convincing and as deeply considered as can possibly be. To simply say, “Go vegan” feels insulting to the necessity of actually going vegan, to conveying the physical and psychological torments that animals are currently experiencing within the confines of industrial animal agriculture, and to the moral imperatives and intellectual depths that are grounded in the value-based constructs of the cognitive human experience. On the other hand, saying nothing feels worse than insulting. It feels permissive.

I lay out these personal difficulties because going forward I plan to write posts that deal very little with running and cancer and, rather, solely with veganism. If you come to this blog for something other than veganism, I don’t know, sorry? But not sorry. It’s my blog, I do what I want! (he says like a spoiled child). I will, of course, write about running and cancer and all that, but those are personal experiences that really have little to do with anyone outside of myself, whereas veganism is pertinent to everyone, whether you recognize it or not. I hope to be able to find ways to fold animal justice into my discussions on running and cancer, but I guarantee nothing…just that I plan on thought vomiting on here and if it feels weird or different to you, this was your heads up.

Oh…and this may be off-putting to some, which is not my intention, but I’ll be disabling comments. If you feel more than compelled to respond to anything I write on here, feel free to email me.

To close all this out, or open it up, whatever…tomorrow I’m running the Dances With Dirt trail marathon. I signed up for this marathon a couple months ago because I wanted to test myself out at this distance, but with no stress and primarily for the funsies, of which both are possible at an absurd race like Dances With Dirt. DWD is one of those trail races where the course is routed through the most ridiculous of terrain, making any sense of pace and consistency a non-issue. I’m not sure anyone has even completed this distance under 4 hours, if that tells you anything. I ran this as part of the team relay back in 2012, and remember sections of stairs that seem to climb forever, running down a ski slope, trouncing through 1/2 a mile of thigh high water, and other absurdities my brain has probably protectively repressed. And those were just my portions of the course. Who knows what the full 26.2 entails, which is exactly why I signed up for this. I just wanted to get into the woods and have some fun.

Tomorrow will be 3 weeks out from the Carmel marathon and if I was a smart runner (spoiler alert…I’m not), I wouldn’t even run this and would have taken more time off from the race, but I didn’t. So here we are. My right leg is a little sketchy from a hip alignment issue that has always been the plague of my running existence, which has caused some intermittent tightness and soreness in a tendon behind my knee, that has me a little concerned for what it might feel like deeper into the race. On the other hand (or leg?) trail running tends to stress my body significantly less than a simple road run, so here’s to hoping everything is a non-issue. Aside from all that, I’m excited to put in some climbing and descending (and ducking and scrambling…and probably falling) over the coming 26.2 miles. There are four other distances (10k, 1/2, 50k, 50m) and a team relay going on at the same time as my race, so the crazy is going to be at it’s highest volume and I’m really looking forward to sharing the course with a bunch of other runners instead of just being out by myself. I have no idea what sort of competition this race brings, so I don’t know if I’ll be running alone or trailing anyone else, but I’m also not so concerned with that either (he tells himself over and over again).

It may seem of little consequence to everything else, but I’m actually really excited to be running in my “Artie” t-shirt from Tamerlaine Farm Animal Sanctuary, of which I am a board member. I designed the shirt for their farmers market booth where they sell all their products to create revenue that goes back into helping take care of the animals brought to the sanctuary and to also educate the public through vegan awareness campaigns. I, rightfully, cut the sleeves off the shirt and WALLA! a running jersey. The race itself celebrates a “hog roast” for all the participants when the event is over, so cognitive dissonance (cognitive disgust if we’re being truthful) fully recognized, it feels appropriate to represent veganism and one of the beings rescued from such an insulting, fucked up fate that will be the animal killed for this event. In my own way, this is intertwining a bit of activism into my recreation, and adds motivation to finding my way as far as I can to the front of the field, training willing.

So here we go, in all the ways laid out above. With always more to say, and in the most effective way possible, for now, go vegan.

rescue_shirt_mockup_BLK

Carmel Marathon – Race Report

Every runner carries a story. For some it may be as simple as the competition of the race, against others or themselves. For others, it may be something deeper, like disease, death, loss, or even more positive expressions of celebration, redemption, thrilled excitement. The stories are as varied as the participants in any given race, but first, it takes actually completing the distance to see the stories come out in their many expressions.

Race morning brought a drop in temperatures that had every experienced marathon runner sighing with relief, knowing the uncontrollable circumstances of heat and humidity would be absent and all efforts would be determined by the physical preparation and mental strength of the runners alone. This would be an honest race. Running best in colder temps, I was thrilled to see grey skies hovering over a 45 degree atmosphere all morning. Anxiety levels were, well, typically pretty high despite my best attempts to remain calm and pretend this run was just a physical litmus test. I TOLD myself I was just seeing what sort of shape I was in. I TOLD myself this wasn’t a big deal. I TOLD myself I was just going to have fun with the distance. I TOLD myself all this, probably because I was avoiding potential disappointment, while also trying not to burden myself with the emotional weight of what this race meant to me deep down.

Admittedly, I had signed up to run the race about 12 days prior, but I did so because I had knocked out a handful of 20 milers at 6:30 pace and I wanted to see if I could hold that through the full 26.2. Oh, and there was that whole thing about the race being held on the four year anniversary of my diagnosis and first surgery. It felt right, and important, to celebrate where I seemed to be at this point, considering all that had happened in the past four years, to me and to my friends. It also fit in well with my routine of doing something somewhat challenging soon after my periodic scans, one of which I had just completed. A few days prior, my oncologist assured me that tumors were still present and mucin was likely also present, but that we were still holding stable and it was advisable to hold off another 9 months for a scan and determine then if we should take more drastic measures for treatment. Coming to terms with the realization that I will likely never have a “You are cancer free” moment, these 9 month breaks between surgeries are the closest I get to living outside the stresses of cancer. That’s reason to celebrate.

One more thing. I had kept this marathon secret from most people, but I had run into my old coach (now new coach again) prior to the race and word spread through my running friends. We began some texting back and forth about race goals and I had learned that a group was being unofficially paced to a 2:50:00 finish, which was my exact goal. This initially gave me a dose of relief as the work I would have to do would be carried by others for a portion of the race and I could just sit in for the ride until I needed to take over. I also heard word about 15 to 20 mile per hour winds, which although wasn’t encouraging, was going to be less of a big deal if I could tuck in with a group of runners. The greater concern arose when my friend said the following,

“This is going to be a race for second.”

“What do you mean?” I inquired.

“Jesse (teammate who wins the race every year) signed up and so the pack is going to be racing for second.”

“Surely there are other 2:30 / 2:40 guys in the mix right?”

“Dude, I put my finishing time as 2:50 and I got number FOUR on my bib.”

Well shit, cue anxiety skyrocketing. We joked about race strategy a little more and I envisioned all the scenarios that could go down if that prediction of a pack of 2:50 guys racing the last four miles came true. It was mildly exciting and I tried to find the fun in it, but I also know how marathons tend to break everyone down over the miles and couldn’t imagine everything being so cut and dry. Well, come race morning, as we warmed up around the start area, I found the unofficial pacer and confirmed that he was leading us through 2:50, and he hesitated and explained that because of the winds we would probably be going 2:52 to 2:55. Right then I bailed on the plan. Wind or no wind, I knew there was a very strong chance I could hold 6:30 pace through the finish and I didn’t want to compromise that 2:50 goal. I was feeling good and decided to go it alone. Ultimately, I had nothing to lose.

The countdown began as I lined up next to my old teammates and toed, literally, the start line, though this time I was back at the front and I felt legitimate being there. Even though I hadn’t dedicated training to this race and wasn’t planning for full on race mentality, I knew I had enough fitness in me to warrant being on the line with everyone else, even if they all ran away from me when the gun went off.

At the sound of the air horn we leaned forward into the course and pushed directly into a wind that wasn’t overbearing, but definitely noticeable. With fresh legs and open lungs we moved through the first mile to settle into a groove that, if all went well, wouldn’t fluctuate too much throughout the distance. Jesse and some half marathon runners moved out ahead immediately and the 2:50 pack was forming somewhere behind me. I knew I would likely be just ahead of that group, but decided to go by feel before really settling into either a pace or using other runners. As we strung out into the first mile I hovered around two others runners that put me in 8th place to begin the effort. Flying blind into this course, I didn’t even know if there were going to be mile markers at each mile and relied only on feel. At this point I was very, very comfortable and seemed to be cruising at a solid 6:30 pace, which is when I heard one of the other runner’s garmin beep out the first mile location. I looked at my watch and it flashed back, “6:10”. Welp, that was fast, but I notched it up to race start anxiety and freshness and decided to let the pace settle as we moved ahead.

As more distance fell behind us I remained tucked in with two other runners following the string of leaders out ahead. I didn’t know the status of things behind us, but that wasn’t a concern really. I was more concerned that pacing was suited to fitness and that I wasn’t being too ambitious so early on. I always tell my marathon runners, run not how you feel the first five miles but how you WILL feel the last five miles. This distance is about patience, a slow burn, and managing all way to twenty miles when the effort really starts. I FELT like I was running at a pace that I could hold past twenty, but I wasn’t yet convinced that I had settled back into 6:30’s. Not having mile markers didn’t help.

After the initial long stretch of the race and a few turns I got a sense of which directions the wind would be an issue and which ones it would help. It was definitely a noticeable factor during the race, but I didn’t figure it would really kill an effort that day, and overall things would eventually even out with tailwinds. I considered using the headwinds to my advantage if necessary even. Moving into one of those headwinds I saw  the signs for the first half marathon split where the shorter distance runners would peel off and the marathoners would continue ahead. I was interested to see if the two runners I was keeping pace with would continue on and we could keep working together. As we neared the split the leaders came our way, one of which was a teammate I gave encouragement to, and as we passed the split only three had cut from the line. That left 5 of us taking the marathon out. I got a little excited about the prospect of making top ten for this race, but wasn’t about to get comfortable only a handful of miles in.

We continued on at this rather pedestrian pace until we finally passed the first time clock of the race, which flashed back 30:00 flat…at 5 miles. My math isn’t always so good during races, but this calculation was easy. That average had us at 6 minute miles, a considerable cut from the 6:30s I was hoping to maintain. Here’s the thing though, I didn’t panic. I felt so calm and in control that internally I was just like, “Well, ok, this feels good, let’s just see how thing go at 10 miles then.”

Somewhere ahead Jesse and another runner had run out of sight leaving the three of us to follow in their wake, with who knows what playing out behind us. I didn’t hear anyone off our back, but I had no inclination to check either. Continuing ahead, one of our three started to back off, or maybe maintained as the other runner picked up pace. I’m not sure how it played out, but I moved past the runner in our triad and picked up fourth place as he slowly dropped off the back of us. That left the two of us to keep eating up the distance as the course weaved through neighborhoods and down long stretches of two lane roads. I still felt completely in control, but did notice the runner in third was pulling away from me ever so slightly, though I could tell it was because he was picking up pace and not because I was falling off. Periodically I found consecutive mile markers and hit my watch, surprised to see the averages hitting at 5:59, 5:57, and still hovering around the 6:00 mark. Sometimes as we ran into a long stretch of wind or up an incline, the pace would drop to 6:05 or 6:07, which boosted my confidence as I could still feel comfortable moving at a pace significantly faster than my expected estimate as the miles piled on top of each other. The other comfort gauge was my ability to move through aid stations without issue. I was pulling fuel packets pinned to my shorts with ease, ripping the tops off between my teeth and grabbing water without faltering. The surprise at how I was moving through this distance increased my positive thoughts and resolve to maintain this pace and…OH FUCK IT…LET’S SEE WHAT HAPPENS!

The course turned off the road and onto a winding, curving rail trail through an isolated park and although the runner ahead was putting space between us, I was holding around 6:00 to 6:05 pace and still had him in sight. As we made a sharp 180 I was able to catch the first visual of runners behind me, of which I couldn’t make a good estimate of just how far behind they were, but I was not interested in keeping ahead of them as a goal. Just maintaining this pace, well below my 2:50 finishing time, was significant enough victory for my preference. I could get passed by 10 runners and if I maintained this I would be ecstatic.

We came out of the winding path of the park and into a less turn heavy, muscle taxing portion of a neighborhood, nearing the 12 mile mark. It was then I had a small moment of panic. The Wednesday before the race I had put in my last preparation run, of which could have been a simple 6 to 8 miles of easy running, but I decided to do a speed work tuneup by throwing in a handful of 2:00 on / 1:00 off efforts, which left a muscle (tendon?) behind my leg overworked and worryingly sore. The last thing I needed was a potential muscular grenade waiting to go off in my body late into this race as the stresses built. I felt it’s subtle presence even during race warmups, but hoped it would loosen up and not become an issue at all. However, nearing 12 miles I felt it and not in any small way. It was really becoming apparent and a sort of embarrassing dread increased all the same, as if I had made a huge mistake and I was going to have to actually DNF, hang my head, and explain away why I actually thought I was capable of running / racing a marathon again. And then…it went away. I don’t know what else to say about that, but damn was I relieved.

I reset my focus as I looked ahead and saw a mass of runners coming out of a neighborhood and realized that we were about to merge with the half-marathoners again. I was somewhat invigorated by this as I would have something to break the mental monotony of the effort by moving through these other participants. I quickly started flowing past the back of the packers and picking the lines that didn’t have me dodging and weaving excessively, but trying to maintain a straight line and expend as little effort as is necessary. We all turned into another neighborhood and as I looked ahead I realized I had lost sight of the third place runner in front of me. I had another short moment of panic, wondering if I had missed a turn for the marathon course and had inadvertently jumped in with the half marathoners, but with longer stretches ahead I would momentarily see the jersey of third place moving faster than everyone around him. He had now made considerable distance between us. I figured he was either motivated by the dynamic of being around other runners or was playing out a move he had figured into a race strategy. Either way, he was totally running away from me.

I stayed patient as I worked up some undulations in the neighborhoods, working against the wind as much as I was using it when possible, while trying not to put too much of a burden on my legs, knowing the effort still lay far ahead into the course. The efforts at this point still felt completely in control and when I crested one rise or another I let my breathing settle and checked myself by taking one deep breath, affirmation that I wasn’t putting myself into an oxygen debt I couldn’t climb out of. Passing aid stations, I was still able to grab cups of water and still keep enough fluid in to aid hydration. The accumulated efforts brought me through the halfway point where I looked at my watch to gauge overall pace, which read out 1:18 and changed. Feeling somewhat incredulous at what was happening, I laughed at myself, realizing I had just beaten my post-diagnosis half PR (previously 1:20:02) that I had run at the Runner’s World half before my most recent surgery. Something crazy was happening this day, but I wasn’t about to back off at this point just because I hadn’t determined if these were warning signs or positive affirmations. I was banking on the latter.

I settled into the second half, breaking up the distance into 5 mile increments and resetting at each one, finding my way to 15 miles and looking forward to the race at 20. I was warned about a twisting rail trail section further into the race, and when I got there I understood why it was a less desirable section of the course. Not only did the twisting and turning of the course build more effort and strain on the legs, but the limited trail space had to be shared with the half-marathoners, making even more bobbing and weaving unavoidable. I did my best to keep a straight line, while trying to run the tangents, but it wasn’t easy, and I sighed relief when we exited the trail and were able to pick a more unbroken line of effort.

As is usual in a marathon, the effort was taking it’s toll silently and it was only in small moments did I realize the trajectory was evening out and about to arc downward against which I would need to start fighting. The first moment came as the course took us straight down the Monon trail and I caught sight of an aid station ahead, somewhat congested with runners and volunteers. I was trying to keep a straight line through the other competitors while running a solid 2 minutes faster per mile than most of them and also preparing to grab some water. As I snagged a cup from someone’s outstretched hand I looked up to see a wall of people yelling and pointing up the road, 90 degrees to my right. I was almost running straight past the course and had to pull up quick, skid as I turned and regain pace as the other thousands of runners stretched out ahead. I let out a “Oh shit!” as I heard spectators chuckle at my mishap and correction. Fortunately, the momentum wasn’t completely lost and I wasn’t shaken too much, able to get back in line and begin passing runners as we moved up a long, inclining piece of road.

Somewhere during this relative mayhem with the half-marathoners we had moved through 17 and 18 miles, at which many less prepared people will start to feel the building effects of the distance. I was hoping to make it to 20 or even further before I started to feel those distinct pains and struggles, and so far I was still holding on. It was encouraging to have the cheers of other runners (and sometimes shocked expressions) as I passed them along the way, helping occupy my mind moving into the real effort of the course. At the top of that long incline nearing 20 miles we turned and the runners thinned out, giving me a longer line of sight, at which point I was somewhat surprised to see third place in view yet again. And although I could sense small moments of failings in myself – spilling water at aid stations, more difficulty taking down fuel – it was also apparent to me that third place was in “striking distance”, that is to say that if I maintained this pace and he started to falter in the last five miles, I would likely overtake him. He was far enough ahead, however, and this was more a mental consideration than an aspiration or strategy, that I didn’t give it much more thought. I had my own battle to keep winning at that moment and that was really all that mattered to me.

We then broke away from the half marathon course yet again, and it’s at this point that a lot of the memories start to get a little lost in the effort. It was also this point that we passed the 20 mile clock, which read out 2:00:47…or something. I don’t know…I just know it gave me that 6:00 average again, I was feeling in control, and the “halfway” point was about to begin. This is the point that the human body has expended all it’s stores of energy and everything is an increasing struggle to endure through oxygen depletion, but primarily, muscular degeneration. This is where the pain builds. This is where the marathon becomes the marathon. This is where races are won and lost.

This is also where I saw the runner in front of me and…damnit…I think he was coming  back. We moved up the road, alone in our efforts, but into a headwind and small, but noticeable incline. I told myself that each stable push into the wind will be an advantage against anyone letting it wear them down. I figured if I could keep tension and intensity into the wind that I’ll have the best chance of maintaining pace and making distance on the runner in front of me. We pushed into another portion of the course consisting of a curving trail and sharp turns that tested our muscular stability, bringing our crossing paths close enough to give us a more exact gauge of how far apart we were.

Still not sure of what mile marker we might be near I concentrated more on keeping the runner ahead of me in sight and visually measuring whether he was actually coming back or not. He was still in striking distance, but was also far enough out that he could hold on to the finish if he was keeping a measured pace. At that point, however, probably 22 or 23 miles, we turned directly into the consistent headwind and down a long stretch of road. He had nothing but road to chase and I had him, which can make a significant difference in effort that deep into the distance. With each short stretch I watched his back get closer and closer and realized I was going to run him down, and likely overtake him. I’m not sure if just thinking about it helped me tighten the screws or the distance was really showing itself in my legs, but I started to feel focused points of pain in my quads, first in my left, then my right, then my calves…but then I was right on him.

I moved up behind him, started to pass, and tried to offer a helping hand…or pair of legs, “Let’s go buddy!” I hoped to bring him along, help him help me, or whatever. The end of the marathon is horrible and all help is appreciated. He had fallen off though, likely going out past his comfort level early on and paying for it now, which is the greatest learning experience of the marathon distance. Patience.

I ran past him and had only road to run with ahead, which carries it’s own sets of challenges, because the worst thing I could do now was relax. I now had to go inward again to keep pushing, to run through the increasing pain, to hold pace and find my way to the finish, because believe me, the marathon isn’t in the bag until you cross that line.

With that said, the mental encouragement of moving into podium position was no small thing and a new realization started to come over me. “Is this happening?! Am I running 6:00 miles when I wanted to go 6:30? Did I just overtake a runner in the final miles? Did I just run into podium position?!” Truly, I did not expect any of this and I was caught off guard by just how perfect everything was going. I let that excitement build, but didn’t let it get the best of me, as I looked ahead to see the half-marathoners stretched at where we merged again for the last time, and realized it was into a headwind and up a long stretch of road. This was no small final effort. By now the pain was full body and everything hurt. I had been here before and it was no less shocking or easy as I noticed my legs on auto-pilot, pushing off the ground, but almost as if on their own volition and not by my effort. I felt my face tighten and grimace and I had no idea what mile I was on.

I felt slow, like crawling, even though I was still passing the half-marathon runners, and all I could do was repeat to myself “PERCEIVED exhaustion. PERCEIVED exhaustion.” This is the state where you FEEL horrible and you FEEL slow, but in reality you are likely running close to the same pace you have been all race. Like a prayer I decided to believe in this unprovable fiction, just to get me through the inclining road, into the headwind, with these stabbing pains in my lower body. I had now broken the race down into individual miles, desperately looking for mile markers to work towards. I think I remember seeing 24 miles and hitting my watch, hoping so much for 25 as soon as possible. I tried to keep my mind occupied, unwilling and unable to look behind me for coming competitors, as the pain continued to consume me. The course finally turned, still into the wind, but downward before slightly rising and turning again towards a finishing stretch. I gave myself the permission to look at my watch and it read 8:46, which was a massive relief because it meant we had passed 25! LESS than one mile to go.

We made another turn away from the wind and I started to feel the finish excitement build. Despite the consuming pain in my legs and the grimace on my face, the thrill of holding on, of running this distance, of pulling this motherfucker off started to take over. I craved that finishing effort and started to let myself go. I looked up to run past an “800 meters to go” timing mat and knew it was over. Maintaining the pace was all I could do to hold on and that was all I needed. Cresting the final small incline I made the final turn and with the wind at my back ran past the chute of spectators hearing my name yelled out by friends along the way. Somehow, despite the all encompassing pain I was able to open up a bit, aided by the downhill finish and push all the way in. I heard the announcer yell out my name over the PA system, something I hadn’t heard in so long, and ran past the finish line throwing a punch in the air to myself, unable to contain the intensity that got me to that point. I caught a final glimpse of the clock as I came in, 2:40: and some seconds I couldn’t register.

As I put on the brakes and struggled to stay upright against my momentum something else began to take over. As if being chased by an emotion all the way in, I became consumed. I stopped completely, putting my hands on my knees as a volunteer wrapped a heat blanket over my back. I lifted my head up in disbelief, put my hands over my face and then fell to my knees. Huddled under the heat blanket my head fell to my forearms and something came over me like I’ve never experienced before.

I’ve never understood “tears of joy”. I’ve heard about it and watched professional athletes cry after championship games, but honestly, I always thought it kind of ridiculous. Like, what are you crying about? I tried to empathize and tried to understand what crying out of happiness would feel like, but it just never made sense. I realized something though, the term “tears of joy” isn’t correct, because that’s exactly what happened to me and they aren’t tears of joy. They are tears of EVERYTHING.

I began sobbing, uncontrollably. My whole body was shaking under the heat blanket and no one could really see what was happening. But I was crying, and I wasn’t crying out of some sort of sadness or desperation, but also in a way I was. I was crying out of everything. At first I tried to stop. I heard voices around me.

“Oh dude, you don’t want to do that. Laying down is the last thing you want to do right now.”

“Hey man, you’re going to want to keep moving.”

I knew this. But I couldn’t. I sat up on my knees and came out from under the heat blanket, my face now covered with tears and saw the volunteers kind of stop. I got to my feet and walked a bit, but crumbled back down right away and started sobbing again.

Honestly, it felt good. It felt great. It felt fucking amazing. Because they weren’t just tears of joy, they were tears of everything. What everyone probably sees are the tears, but underneath all that is so much more. There are also smiles, eyes bright with excitement, a heavy sadness, and a calm relief too, but maybe everyone only sees the tears. Really though, it’s a full emotional experience that can’t be contained, that was building and building and just comes spilling out without control…at least, that’s what was happening to me.

And this is my story. This is what everyone around me in that finish chute couldn’t understand. What they saw was a grown ass man sobbing like a little boy who just watched his puppy get hit by a car, and it was probably a bit uncomfortable for them. But for me, it was everything. It was a redemption. It was an overcoming of everything I had experienced over the past four years. It was, in some way, having that “you are cancer free” moment, because it was winning in a very physical, measurable, emotional way. It was an affirmation that I have come through so much. There are so many who have gone through so much more than me, but I can admit that, by most people’s standards, I’ve definitely been through a lot the past four years. This moment was my redemption over all that. It was coming back to this same spot four years later and saying, “Fuck no, chance and circumstance, I’m not beaten.” This was recognizing my friends and family, for losing Denver, for losing Chelsea, for losing Cari, for losing John, and for my friend, Shane, recently diagnosed. This was knowing that the worst of three surgeries, of losing all muscle, of all oxygen, of all will…comes back. This was feeling the permanent damage of chemotherapy and saying, that’s cute…watch this. This was saying to every person who offered support, donated money, gave encouragement, and was there for me the past four years…thank you. This was a moment for myself, to prove, against all the deepest perceptions I had of myself…you’re not done.

So many cancer patients have such little hope, understandably. It seems they are most caught off guard when the scans come back blank. When the followup with their doctor is met with a “You are cancer free” instead of a “Ok, this is what we are going to try next” or “It’s back” assessment. Those are the scenarios we most crave, of course, but are often such distant hopes, and I’ve resigned to the stable comfort of knowing this isn’t my future, so in the finish chute of the marathon last weekend, I was caught off guard, and this feels like my “you are cancer free” moment, or the closest I’ll get to it. So, I think, the accumulated emotional baggage of the past four years – the fear, the frustration, the excitement, the struggle, the sadness, the hope, the everything…spilled out of me in that one final moment. With no hint of romanticization, I won. And the moment was bigger than me as everything spilled out.

I got back to my feet, trying to walk through the finish area, looking for Laura, but I had to keep stopping, leaning on the barricades and feeling the emotions pour out over and over again as my body shook with sobs. I heard my name and turned to see laura squeezing through through barricades and I walked over and fell into her arms, letting it all come out again in her comfort. I was consumed, yes, but it was with the most thrilling relief I’ve ever experienced in my life. When I toed the start line that morning I had no idea what was about to happen. I had no illusions of running outside myself like that again, of reaching that level of ability, of getting that close to where I was pre-diagnosis, of…in a way…a comeback. I don’t pretend to know what’s coming either, but even though that race has finished, and even though in my own personal race it feels like I’ve already won, in another very real way it feels like a brand new start.

Now…watch this.

Sort of Secret

I wasn’t even going to tell Laura I signed up for the marathon, and for a few days I didn’t, but she caught me looking at the website and teased me about considering the idea. Little did she know that consideration came and went, when a certain espresso fueled night of inspiration had me clicking the “submit registration” button…eleven days before the actual race.

Commence swarm of butterflies.

I haven’t told anyone else I did this either, save three other people, mostly strangers (and now anyone that reads this). I’m not trying anything big with this race, but just trying to get my feet wet with the training I stumbled into the past few months, and with as little anxiety as possible, which is no small feat. I should mention, I actually signed up for ANOTHER marathon previous to this one, which takes place in May. Even more absurd, it’s a trail marathon with ridiculous elevation changes, scrambling and a course that makes the effort more about finishing than displaying fitness. That seemed the perfect sort of race to enter where I could simply enjoy the absurdity instead of getting mired in anxiety and feeling “on display”. I don’t really want a lot of that right now…I just wanna see what I can do in a race setting.

Once I signed up for that first marathon though, the compulsion to REALLY see what my body can do had me signing up for the next one. It’s a local marathon of which I have yet to run, so I can’t measure expectations against past performances, which is what I really need right now. I continue to struggle with suppressing my past running self in an attempt to create a new set of aspirations and expectations, but that’s not easy. For now, I’m just seeing where this stretch of training has taken me, and what I can do with it, while keeping anxieties as low as possible.

I do have expectations though, sort of. I’ve been knocking out 20 milers around 6:30 pace through the past couple of months, so if I have any measurement to consider, it’s that. I would be plenty happy to continue that last 10k at that pace and come in at 2:50, which is actually what I put down for my “expected finishing time” during registration. Even if that meant not throwing down and not redlining any significant portion of the course, I’d be happy. I respect the hell out of the marathon distance, so to just finish consistent would be a victory and push towards the next level with current fitness. My mind, of course, wanders to other “what if’s”, of faster finish times, and even disasterous finishes, as tends to happen, but I’m trying to remain level and stable and keep anxieties low…as I keep repeating as a mantra to myself.

There might be more to this. I say might because I’m not sure if this was a subconscious act, of running this marathon, or if the idea was more front and center and I’m only absorbing it after the fact, but this marathon essentially marks 4 years to the day of surgery. I remember standing on the sidelines cheering on my teammates in 2013, an abdomen full of cancer (apparently ridiculously close to death), and waiting out the last day until I checked into the hospital for the first of three surgeries. It was my last pre-surgery, pre-chemo, pre-everything running event to participate in through some small gesture, as a spectator.

I’m not trying to make a bigger deal out of this than I genuinely feel, but maybe this is some sort of personal celebration of being where I am at this point, not only living through the past four years, but also remaining dedicated to staying functional, to actually living, and to do so primarily through running. Maybe this is some sort of anniversary affirmation. It seems fitting to, in a way, start, where I last finished.

It also seems fitting to, personally, acknowledge the friends I’ve lost to cancer over the past four years. Specifically, I’m acknowledging my friend Denver who succumbed to her cancer a bit over a year ago, by wearing the shirt she created for a benefit in her name. Unfortunately, I’m also running with the thoughts of another good friend newly diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma last week.

These thoughts and gestures will be positive affirmations for me, and I’m fortunate to add to that positivity with another 9 months of non-treatment as relayed to me by my oncologist this week. My most recent scan showed “areas of calcification (tumors)” and “what might be mucin…it’s hard to tell”, but no tumor growth or metastasizing from the previous scan, which means we’ll continue another 9 months of doing nothing until the next scan. No surgery, no chemo, no nothing but engaging in that continued human pursuit of chance existence and emotional depth.

For me, that means opening up the potential to take this marathon affirmation tomorrow and capitalize upon it, to create a new baseline of performance and experience, determine how to proceed from there and then go for it. I can’t commit to what sort of shape that will take as I tend to be somewhat fickle and fragile in my motivation as of late, but with the right amount of espresso, the best expression seems to formulate into deep run training. Of course, I’m not trying to get ahead of myself here. I’ve still got 26.2 miles to complete before I go any further. Let’s get past those first and see where we end up.

See you on the start line.

Suppressing Fear

I didn’t know I had it in me. I really didn’t. Hell, I wasn’t even planning on training seriously again, but as seems to be a case of groundhog day with me, patterns keep repeating themselves, especially with running.

There was that one moment though, months ago, when the fire burned hot, a flood of emotions filled my stagnant body, and I became fully committed to marathon training once again. High mileage weeks. Long runs. Two speed workouts per week. The whole shebang. I was ready to wake at 6 am, 5:30 if necessary, and put in the work no matter the weather, under sleeping skies…whatever it took. I just wasn’t done. Two weeks later and my aspirations burned to ashes with a hamstring that tightened so violently I was lucky to make it through a work day, let alone a work out. I relented back to periodic jogging and admitting defeat to cancer, slowly internalizing the truth I wanted to pretend didn’t exist, that cancer had taken running away from me. Even with renewed psychological and emotional aspirations I wasn’t quite sure my body was up to the task, with the various offenses it had endured, the lingering numbness in my feet, the compromised lungs. All of it. The tightened hamstring was less a muscular tension and more a punch to the stomach.

I kept running though, quietly, calmly, with no other motive but to finish the mileage I started and begin the day accomplished, relaxed, and with the confidence only covering a certain distance can create. It was, again, my catharsis, my therapy, and not a lot more.

Of course, the slope of running tends only to run downward, compelling one to pick up speed, cover more ground, and experience the body changing towards some matter of positive progression. Each week tallied more and more miles. Long runs became longer and longer. The feelings of accomplishment piled on top of each other to become increasingly irresistible, demanding a greater and greater experience with each effort. The sum of these efforts, of course, add up to the great “what ifs” embedded within our competitive nature. What if I raced a half marathon? What if I raced a marathon? What if I could break my post-cancer Half PR? Hell, what if I could tap into my PRE-Cancer half times?

The slope had pointed downward until it veered dangerously close to vertical. I found myself suddenly timing my easy runs, returning with surprisingly quick efforts. I added an interval workout for the sake of variety and to play with the joy of running fast and breathing hard, which is like (I assume) taking “one small drag” of a cigarette after quitting for a year. I had, obviously, started training again. Because soon after I was keeping track of weekly mileage and planning for future weeks, then committing to two workouts a week, while building long runs to efforts that required a significant post-run recovery time. And I was eating a lot. Like, a lot a lot, and remaining hungry.

I was scared though, not just because I was training without a definitive purpose. I TELL myself I’m just being prepared for the next Ragnar relay I’m doing with my friends in June, but I know that’s a ruse. I TELL myself I want to be in shape to run well during my July vacation in Ocean City this year, which is a genuine desire, but definitely doesn’t require 80 mile weeks and speed workout progressions….and the psychological struggle that comes with both. I was scared, because I didn’t know what abilities lay within me anymore, and I’m scared to find out. I don’t know if I want to find out how far I can take this. I don’t know if I want to find out that my barrier of potential isn’t very deep, isn’t very fast. I’m scared to know that if I find myself on the starting line of a local race again, that I actually won’t be on the starting line. I’ll be tucked back in the 6 minute milers (no offense), and I won’t handle the frustration of not being able to get back to where I once was, to feeling defeated, to essentially punching myself in the stomach.

I’m also scared to find out that I might be much faster than I imagined. As wonderful as that can be, I’m scared what my type A mind will do with this information, with this need to play out the abilities within me, when I know the obsession can get out of hand. I don’t want to lose myself in the need to progress like I have in the past, and yet, I also don’t want to let potential go untapped. I’m scared, also, that I might find the physical potential to really get down, but no longer retain the psychological strength to keep pushing when the usual nerves and apprehensions come into play.

I have the excuse to quit and I’m scared I will use it.

I say most of this in past tense though, because although it is all true, I have ALREADY tapped into abilities I thought were lost to the ravages of surgery and offense of chemotherapy. The first timed workout I did using mile repeat measurements was a 1, 2, 1 effort, and although I was strained during the first mile, I never in my mind thought I could touch anything below 5:40s…but I hit my watch to read 5:23. Seriously, I had NO IDEA this was in me. I followed that up with a consecutive 5:40 and 5:39, then a final 5:24 for the last single mile effort. The fear was somewhat overwhelmed by my excitement to see myself hitting 5:20’s again for the first of my speed workouts, which, I hoped, meant I could only drop these further.

I was scared, of course, but less about not being able to tap into previous abilities and more with where I could take this. If I ever felt like I clawed back a part of my life from treatment, these numbers are it. But one workout is essentially a fluke that needed verification. Over the past couple of weeks I ran a 4 mile progression, then 5 x 1 miles, then alternating miles, before throwing down on another 6 x 1 mile workout this morning, trying to verify this fluke as genuine ability.

I found a flat stretch of trail marked by wheel-measured 1/4 mile increments, psychologically prepared myself for the workout, and did my best to suppress the fears of finding out what exactly was in me…what was STILL in me. Wherein some of the past workouts I was so fearful that I almost didn’t start them, resorting to an idea that i’m “doing enough”, this time I wanted to be ready to put in full effort from the start. The weather cooperated at 50 degrees, the trail was flat, and when I passed the finish mark for the first mile…my spirits dropped. My watch read 5:11.

5:11.

No way that was right. These markings had to be off. This couldn’t be a true mile. I wasn’t sure I’d ever drop below 5:20 again, so to dip into 5:11? No way. My workout had started, however, and I just told myself that the strained effort was going to reap physiological rewards regardless, so just go with it. After a 3:00 active recovery I started in on the next mile, crossing in 5:13. Then 5:15. Then 5:18 and 5:18 and 5:18. And I half started to wonder if maybe the distance was accurate and my fears were unfounded and I had tapped into a part of me I thought gone and what comes next and how fast can I go and what if I signed up for a race and…

I couldn’t leave those numbers just hanging there in doubt, of course, so when the running store that applied the markings opened later in the day, I walked in to confirm that, yes, these were actually measured by wheel and not the unreliable method of GPS calculation. I had actually run a 5:11 mile and then followed that up with five more within the range of 5:18. What the hell. I had no idea these abilities lay dormant within me, somewhere, just needing the time between surgeries and coaxing out through sustained training to show themselves. But, at least during this workout, here they are.

I’m not going to say I’m not scared of where this might go. I’m not going to say that I won’t be fearful of starting each workout, wondering if I can maintain this physical effort and keep pushing against that wall of ability, where it currently lay. I’m not going to say I’m no longer fearful of putting my ability on the line in a race. For now, however, I’m going to ride this wave of satisfaction and excitement for as long as I can, letting it suppress the fear that preceded my efforts.

Right now Ima see how just how far I can take this again, before biology or treatment does it for me.

Present

I’m just here to mop the floors.

The world seemingly gets crazier and crazier, though I admit to using “the world” as a lazy phrase. The world is not getting crazier. Human societal complexity is actually the only component of “the world” that is getting crazier, the problem being that our self-created mayhem is now affecting the spaces of true freedom and wildness in unavoidable and potentially irreparable ways. Being humans, however, we view “the world” and our societal complexities as the only component of existence that matters, that has relevance, that is worth considering, when we could do so much to step outside of ourselves and take the lessons of the wild, of animals with egos subdued, of anything that just isn’t ourselves. The problem being that the exaggerated ego within in us demands self-preservation of “the world” around us, of our absurdities, and the rationalization of our ridiculous slow suicides. It’s all we know and all we care to know.

So we end up with representative democracy, industrial capitalism, recycling, factory farm efficiency, presidents and congresspeople, apps, uninvented savior technologies, and a trajectory that is going nowhere good and gives us nothing of valuable experience while we travel towards that nowhere goodness.

For some of us, we have the privilege of residing in the eye of the storm, in a delusional state of comfort, either with the ability to pretend that all is quiet and sunny, or to at least bury our heads in the sand with little fear of negative consequences as the storm comes closer and closer. Where I want to pretend that this head burying mechanism is a disgusting privilege and the exposed necks should be severed post haste, I write this from beneath the sand myself, if only because I recognize both that I CAN bury my head with little consequence and also the storm is coming whether my head is outside or not. We aren’t stopping this.

The greatest human centric delusion is that we think our ability to have agency over personal situations means we can change the direction of the greater storm. We can’t. The chaotic momentum has been built and it will only halt when it is broken upon impact. Our sense of security and safety is the obstacle to be hit.

But this all will pass, in the span of seemingly infinite existence, we are nothing but blood and bone and chance and circumstance. We are just here, weighted with the curse to be conscious of our past and future. And I just want to be present. Truly present. Zen-like present. But maybe a little less selfish than just sticking my head in the sand. I don’t want to give up, I want to let go.

I’m just here to mop the floors. There is something so comforting about having an immediate task, even if that task is dictated by the drudgery of capitalist dictates, to absorb oneself within. To point an immediate focus and consider nothing else – the coming storm, the chaos built prior to the storm, those hiding behind the walls of sand built to protect their disappearing security – and to just mop the floor. For something I once felt such an inherent disgust towards, it’s fascinating to me that I now just want to mop the floors, head down, and with nothing else pressing in upon me. Back and forth. Fill and Rinse. Just mop the floors.

The truck dropped off more garden soil that I had anticipated ordering. The pile sat in front of my house in the street, needing shoveled into the wheelbarrow and then pushed to the back yard where an empty garden plot lay empty except for the borders to contain the soil. The sun was bright, but the February air bit through my gloves as I began shoveling and wheeling. Shoveling and wheeling. Shoveling and wheeling. My mind wandered, but the repetition became almost mechanical and I found myself counting each wheelbarrow full. 1, 2, 3…17, 18, 19, 20. Wheel back and dump. Shovel 1, 2, 3…17, 18, 19, 20. Each barrow filled with 20 scoops then wheeled back again. Hour after hour I shoveled, wheeled, dumped. Repeat. All external thoughts exited and I was left with the simple task of moving the pile of soil to the backyard, with no need to consider issues of “the world”, or debate the abstractions and complexities created around me. Politicians continue to build illusions. Religions extend fabricated ideologies. The very REAL world lay before me. As a pile of soil, the world and the task of moving that world is all that mattered. Bombs fall. Papers are signed. Bullets fly. Seeds grow.

I’m here to mop the floors. I’m here to move the soil.

Each workout starts out with a warmup before the task of building the physical body really sets in. I reset my watch at the bottom of the hill, look towards the top and lean into the first effort, pushing off the ground with muscles tensed but relaxed. Seeking a certain rhythm and strength, the mass of blood and bone and muscle moves forward. Lungs expand against a heart that beats in song. I reach the top and turn to find my way slowly back towards the bottom, giving rejuvenation to all the processes that enabled the first effort to succeed. Thoughts drift on the way down, the ease of the effort letting the abstractions spin and weave and confuse themselves. I reach the start and begin back up, this time with a rhythm enabled by muscle memory and the physical world within me synced to a certain momentum and velocity, powerful and personal. The top meets voluminous breaths and muscles taught. I turn and relax back down, the thoughts coming in, broken again, trying to take me elsewhere when the hill remains static, waiting. I turn back at the bottom and push again, the weight of myself pulling me into the angle of the earth. Lungs contract, legs fight against the gravity, and the mind disappears. Down again. Up again. Down again. Up again. Until presence is the only force that compels me to continue. I’m here to run the miles.

The moments that matter is the moment that exists. Without past and without future, this is how riots are birthed. They are not planned and they are not justified. They just are, as responses to conditions forced upon us. There is no need to debate “the world”, to entertain ourselves with complexities and illusions and absurdities and exaggerations and abstracts. We are the blood and bones of animals, cursed with self-awareness, while harnessed by gravity and the drive to survive come what may. All else is fabricated value systems and attempts to rationalize our discontent.

I just want to be here. Really here. I just want to mop the floors. Move the soil. Run the miles. I want the moments that allow nothing else but the moment, that put me in concert with gravity and grounding. I want the moments devoid of abstractions and distraction, that are nothing more than blood and bone. I want the moments that are so intense, so painful, so joyous that one can’t even consider how intense and painful and joyous they actually are, but are left with only the option to experience them. Sometimes those moments come while merely tending the garden in silence, and sometimes they come when forcing mile repeats into territory of tremendous suffering, of pushing towards a physical edge.

“The world” is elsewhere, as the internet, as religion, as politics, as value, as manifest destinies. The world is here, as experience, as gravity, as the storm, as the riot, as the moment.

For this moment, I’m just here to mop the floors. I’m just here to move the soil. I’m just here to run the miles.

It’s About Consent, Honey.

I’ll spare you the details of the various and recent instances where I’ve heard “the honey argument” come up in both vegan circles and pop culture, but suffice to say it has happened so often that I feel compelled to lay out my thoughts in an effort of finality on this matter. Where the conversation around vegans eating or not eating honey can rely on hyper-detailed concerns about the farming practice, complete subjectivity, or grey areas of concern, I will firmly undercut all the hemming and hawing by stating, HONEY IS NOT VEGAN.

“Veganism is a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.”

That is, by the parameters of the vegan definition listed above, the ingestion of a product created by animals and the relationship to those animals is in direct opposition to the very idea of “use”, encompassed in the terminology of “exploitation”. It is really, truly, that simple. With that said, my gripes surrounding this issue aren’t confined to justifications by non-vegans (and vegans) in order to use bees and eat honey, but also to vegans who frame their arguments against honey on both disingenuous and insufficient platforms. It is the latter which I intend to address in greater detail, with the hopes that drawing the philosophical line with this issue will help clarify the most powerful promise of veganism in general, no matter the issue or animal or product in question.

THE GROSS OUT FACTOR

In discussing any issue regarding animal products, not just honey, vegans often rely upon being persuasive by appealing to one’s sense of visceral disgust. They tend not to engage in the seemingly abstract and more intense philosophical considerations of the issue and instead play to the low brow dynamics of the “gross out factor”. I have certainly been guilty of this approach for longer than I’d like to admit. The gross out factor involves detailing the presence of “puss” in milk, calling eggs “chicken period”, highlighting traces of feces in meat, and defining honey as “bee vomit”. The idea is that getting one to accept animal products as “gross” or causing one to develop a visceral rejection of these products will undercut all the important and necessary work of changing one’s mind, of shaping an ethical framework, or slowly eroding ingrained traditions, religious beliefs or cultural values. It seems much easier to “lift the veil” and just get one to feel repulsed by animal products, to view them not as food, but on par with non-ingestible substances such as feces and poisons.

The fundamental problem of this approach is that it is entirely subjective. Not only does trying to convince someone that honey is viscerally repulsive because it is “bee puke” go against the visceral enjoyment of honey precisely because it is sweet sugar, it also demands that one immediately reshape all their positive associations with eating and enjoying honey for as long as they have been consuming it. There is no fundamental truth in the subjective response to honey as repulsive, because subjectivity is entirely personal. Just as other cultures might try to convince the Western world that eating crickets and grubs and worms is NOT repulsive, that doesn’t change one’s attitudes about these creatures being unappetizing. All the same, just as the more extreme health foodies (too many vegans included) might try to convince us that sugar is poison and food colorings are repulsive, it changes very few minds (not to mention ACTUALLY changes visceral responses to these ingredients) towards these subjective statements. Personally, I am not repulsed by the flavor of honey nor the way honey is created by bees, but of course, relying on these subjective statements is not my reason for avoiding honey or using bees.

I would argue that most vegans are actually not viscerally repulsed by the experience of eating animal products, even knowing how they are produced. I have never met a vegan who accidentally ingested animal products and burst into uncontrollable vomiting, myself included. In part, that’s because we recognize that most of our childhood involved eating animals and that in our current lives we watch the eating of animals as normalized. We watch other people eat animals every day without having to choke them down out of duty. Further, vegans acknowledge the (tenuous) notion of a “natural order”, that is to say, a biologically determined set of eating parameters defined as herbivorous, omnivorous and carnivorous. For this very reason, no vegan would ever tell a lion that eating a gazelle is “unnatural” or “repulsive” or somehow abhorrent. For most vegans, and pretty much everyone, we view animals in the wild as biologically determined, as following a set of dietary parameters shaped by evolution and not to be messed with. So to watch other omnivorous human animals eat animals or animal by-products and make a statement that it is fundamentally gross is disingenuous. It is a subjective statement that isn’t applied to animals in the wild and holds little argumentative water. If I’m being blunt, to say that eating honey is gross because a bee puked it or whatever…is just being flat out hypocritical.

Even acknowledging, however, that one may have psychologically shaped their perceptions to view eating animals as gross or repulsive, (admittedly, this is part of establishing culture and acceptable boundaries of behavior) suggesting this repulsion to others is not only ineffectual, but philosophically empty. It is empty because subjectivity loses any argument to experience. If the opposition concretely states that they are NOT repulsed by the way honey is produced by animals and that they enjoy the sensation of eating it, not to mention its’ benefits to their health, than one has completely lost the argument. There is nothing more to say. If, to your best efforts, you fail to convince someone that eating honey is viscerally repulsive, you have no other basis to convince them otherwise. Subjectivity loses the argument. Just as someone telling you how repulsive brussels sprouts are, if you experience otherwise, there is nothing left to be said. Just as someone telling you that there are chemicals in the ground and dead insects in the dirt and that eating anything grown from those elements is repulsive, if you don’t feel the same, the discussion is over.

Further, relying upon the argumentation that eating an animal is gross or eating honey is gross is a purely selfish, human-centric perspective. In no part of that argument does it recognize the animal’s role in the experience, except as physical body. The argument essentially states that if one doesn’t see eating the animal as gross or doesn’t view the creation of the product by the animal as gross, then there is no problem. As in all issues related to veganism, by definition, the primary problem involves the exploitation of the animal. To rely on personal subjectivity is to completely ignore the perspective of the animal, which is central to our ethical framework. To say that one should not drink milk or eat honey or eat meat or wear leather because one doesn’t enjoy the experience plays into the anthropocentric perspective that puts human animals’ needs above all other needs, be they non-human animal or environmental. It reestablishes the hierarchy of importance wherein humans are on top and all others are subservient. Although tactically simplistic, the appeal to human experience when it comes to eating animals and animal products is deeply flawed in philosophy and just as selfish. As vegans, let us do away with trying to convince others that their eating habits are “gross” and rather appeal to a more fundamental and universal ethic.

VEGANISM AS CONSENSUAL RELATIONSHIP

What the definition of veganism intricately describes is a RELATIONSHIP. It acknowledges the “other” – all non-human animals – and then establishes parameters of behavior regarding those others. It, above all else, recognizes a relationship. In terms of relationships and acceptable behaviors for relationships, humans rely on an idea of agency, free-will, and most importantly, CONSENT. Between human animals, the parameters of consent essentially define all the ways in which we interact with each other and in which they shape the restrictions we place upon our interactions. We ask for consent in the physical realm and the psychological realm. Breaking these parameters of consent amount to rape and abuse. In an act of incredible hypocrisy or willful blindness, we have broken the sacred notion of consent when it comes to non-human animals. It is this acknowledgment of the agency of the “others” (non-human animals) and their emotional and physical well-being that comprises the vegan ethic and which lays bare all the weak and ineffectual arguments for not eating animals and their products (honey in this case).

Where all the subjective arguments against eating honey (and all animal products) fall short, it is the essential definition of veganism predicated on the relationships of consent that is inarguable. This idea of veganism as a relationship dynamic is what seems to get lost on most non-vegans (and vegans too). The value of veganism is often lost in the absurd discussions of plant-based diets (“dietary veganism”…blech) and nit-picky details about the treatment of animals, of which I’ll discuss in a bit, instead of the fundamental idea of an ethical relationship with animals predicated upon consent, of which we equally establish as our guide for relating to other humans. So when opponents start throwing around details about how bees are treated, or how they are “free”, or the health benefits of honey, or how bees aren’t killed, this matters nothing to veganism as an ethic, as a definition of a relationship predicated upon consent. In almost no producing relationship with animals do we establish a basis of consent, or assumption of consent in regards to a communication barrier. In all our conversations regarding animals, we must continue to cut through the “buts” and “what ifs” and reaching details with the unmovable foundation of consent.

To get into the specifics of consent itself, it is ultimately about allowing an individual to establish their own needs for the goal of personal safety, comfort, appeasement and agency. To be self-directed, whether human or non-human, is a right born through existence. To take away from one’s consent (grey areas of protection exempted) is to step immediately into exploitation and oppression. Veganism then, simply extends this consent to creatures also of consciousness and sentience. Whether it is males, females, cows, birds, spiders or bees, veganism demands an assumption of consent before proceeding with a relationship, and it is this consent that is the barrier to exploitation.

The understandable problem with relationships between humans and non-humans is the barrier of communication, and it is this communication obstacle that leads to relationships of great exploitation. It is often the justification for using and blatantly abusing non-human animals at all levels of engagement, leading to ideas of animals as machines and insentient physical bodies. Unable to communicate their desires explicitly, we write the stories for them and place them in our narratives as means to our own ends. Animals were “put here for us”. But this is just mental appeasement to do what we wish with others, as we all recognize animals as being able to communicate needs. They feel physically and emotionally and their communications with us are broken only by the specificities of human language. They are able to communicate pain, joy, fear, sadness and the full experience of self-directed existence. Although the experience of sentience and communication is grounds for an application of consent, even the areas of communication that lead us into confusion and doubt do not justify exploitation. Where doubt of sentience (or degree of) exists, our safest route for respect of one’s agency and experience is within consent. To use an exaggerated sexual analogy, we don’t assume a passed out inebriated individual is offering themselves for sexual use. We utilize the measurement of consent, of which non-communication establishes NO CONSENT, to leave the individual alone…anything else is sexual assault. In the case of bees, where our understanding of their emotional and intellectual experience is not as defined as, say, a dog’s, the value of consent inherent in the vegan ethic will still define our actions. Even excepting the very knowable sensory experience of bees in this consideration, the vegan ethic of consent can not be discounted. It is no matter that we choose not to recognize a bee’s attempt to communicate towards us (if they even do that), it is our responsibility to establish consent with all relationships, and in that responsibility we are to leave bees to their own activities. We are to let them create their own products and use them for their own purposes while we are to let the process take place and carry out our own activities for ourselves.

CONSENT AS A BRIDGE TO SOCIAL JUSTICE

Beyond the issue of honey, consent is our connection and bridge to all other issues, predominantly human-centric issues. Consent in all acknowledged and respected concerns of social justice (race, gender, etc.) is inarguable, and it is our responsibility as vegans to highlight our conjoining ethic. The terminology of consent is, unfortunately, tied into specific issues of social justice instead of applied throughout all campaigns for equality and a fundamental respect for other’s agency. It is rightfully applied directly to the issue of sexual assault for obvious reasons, but consent shouldn’t be viewed as a momentary application and rather as a consistent, all-encompassing ethic. Veganism as an ethic is predicated on this idea of consent and it should always be the first and fundamental consideration in all discussions and behaviors, but also as a connection to the many social justice issues that fail to embrace the agency of animals in their practice and perspective. When vegans rely upon relationship consent as our driving force, we immediately build bridges to other movements seeking a sense of equality, freedom, and social justice. Where consent is fundamental to an ethic, veganism can not be disregarded by other movements and individuals. Consent as an ethic is outside the parameter of species specificity, and exists as an ideal itself, therefore can and must be applied to all beings where applicable.

Consent as an ideal is fundamental to egalitarian relationships, and therefore also acts as a force of power on the side of the oppressed. Where one is gaining an advantage or forcing an advantage at the expense of another, consent is the force that not only establishes the disparity, but also levels the playing field. Viewing relationship dynamics throughout the looking glass of consent helps define where disparities lie and which player in the relationship is in need of assistance. This necessary exposure of power dynamics is critical when it comes to our relationships with non-human animals and consent tends to be an underutilized concept in our strivings for social justice for animals.

THE GREY AREAS

To bring this discussion back to the intricacies of the honey issue, it is worth acknowledging some of the absurd “grey areas” posed by the critics (proponents as well), while continuing to base our responses upon the ethic of veganism as a relationship. Next to the subjective “gross factor” argument by vegans, the TREATMENT of animals is often central to discussions around animal use, again both by vegans and non-vegans. The obvious problem with focusing our arguments for veganism solely upon the treatment of animals is that it has a limited endpoint. For instance, the argument posed by critics for honey is that the bees “aren’t killed for their honey” and are even perceived as being free and wild, left to fly and return at will. In that limited, uninformed argument it is worth pointing out that there is a degree of domestication and manipulation of bees for their honey, but also a necessity of killing in order to continue hive population and production. Beyond that obvious problem with honey production, for vegans, to concede to the idea that it is ok to consume honey because “they aren’t killed for their honey” leads to the necessary acceptance that it is ok to consume milk because the cows “aren’t killed for their milk”. If one accepts A then they also accept B, or if one rejects B then they must also reject A. But the bigger problem with relying SOLELY upon the treatment of animals to make one’s argument, whether they are cows or bees, is that the solution then falls upon rectifying the treatment of the animals. In these parameters, bees can still be used and their honey can still be consumed if we find a way to treat them well. Expanding this argument, we then begin to justify backyard chickens, free-range cows, anesthetized killings, etc., all under the umbrella that their treatment up to the point of death was acceptable. Veganism, however, doesn’t allow for acceptable treatments, because treatment itself is a negation of consent. It assumes the needs and desires of the animals, while veiling the end benefit for the human animals, instead of presupposing that an animal’s existence is to be conducted by it’s own agency, in it’s own environment free from imposed restriction. In the acknowledgement we give to our own agency and desires to live by our own accord, it only follows the same for all other animals, despite fair treatment, despite allowing bees to fly away and return on their own accord. Veganism demands not a kind life or an appeal to welfare on behalf of animals, but an ultimately liberated existence without our interruption.

It is worth pointing out here, as an aside, that in this discussion there is sometimes an interplay between the context of civilization and wilderness. It is a legitimate consideration to view veganism in the context of both, but I admit to working from the context of civilization, the dynamics of that context and the way it necessitates relationships with animals. There is an obvious sort of contradiction in dealing with animals in this context, namely via pets, domesticated animals, and similar situations, but in regards to veganism, we always seek to remove animals from our domesticated relationships while re-building and expanding the context of wilderness and/or wildness. I say this to keep focus upon the agency of animals when they are left to their own devices, in environments they have developed within throughout the processes of evolution, and not in forced confinement and alternative environments created by humans for human benefit. Specifically, in regards to honey and bees, there is absolutely no compelling reason to have a continuous relationship with them or use the products they create for their own benefit, lest that relationship is creating habitat that multiplies their populations against the concerns of colony collapse and other die-offs.

THE HIERARCHY OF CONCERN

Among the other reaching reasons for justifying the consumption of honey, by vegans as well, is an unstated recognition of bees as “lesser” creatures. In a very simplistic perspective, there is an understood emotional disconnect and hierarchy of care when it comes to animals of varying species. Probably due to evolutionary reasons, humans tend to favor human animals, and even humans of similar appearance (tribalism / neo-tribalism?), then non-human animals of close association (pets), those in close genetic approximation (primates), animals of intellect (dolphins, horses, etc.), animals of size (elephants, lions, etc.), and then the dissolution grows from smaller animals (squirrels, birds, etc.) to less attractive animals (snakes, moles, etc.) then into plentiful, nuisance creatures (wasps, mosquitoes, etc.) all the way to creatures so small as to be impossible to acknowledge (mites, bacteria, etc.). This sort of hierarchy is both understandable in evolutionary terms and practicality terms. I get this, and I do think it informs the care (or lack of) towards bees and honey. The sort of inherent apathy humans feel towards insects and bees, creatures they struggle to relate to, will drive a lack of motivation to consider them within their spheres of relationships, and bring them to discard any ideas of consent. This may be a sort of biological and psychological reality – to feel little empathy or concern – but by the ethical mandate of veganism there is no sort of loophole or tendency to accept this hypocrisy. The practicality of not consuming honey and / or not establishing a direct relationship with bees is so simple and easy as to be almost inherent. It takes more of an effort to become a “beekeeper” than it does to just let them exist. And to come back to our premise, the mandate of consent will still drive the relationship between humans and bees, of which that mandate is to allow them an existence free of our intrusion in any way possible.

HONEY IS NOT CONSENSUAL. VEGANISM IS.

While we should continue to assert, without reservation, that honey is simply NOT VEGAN, we should also continue to follow that assertion up with the explanation that veganism is about a consensual relationship with non-human animals and therefore there is no need to measure the treatment of the animals, no need to recognize the benefits to our health, no need to debate the subjective nature of how honey is produced, but to rather state that the relationship is fundamentally exploitive because it is fundamentally not consensual. In the majority of discussions I have about veganism, or hear about veganism, there is a shocking lack of consideration of the animals themselves. With the rise in plant-based diets and health conscious vegans, a confusion has developed which has muddied the conversation. This confusion is based in an anthropocentric consideration of veganism, of the intricacies of the lifestyle only in how they apply to humans. Considerations of veganism are subject to how the non-vegans feel, how veganism fits into cultural sensitivity, how veganism affects one’s health, instead of how veganism applies to the relationship between both humans AND animals.

In discussing veganism as an ethic of relationships, as a premise of consent, the animal is not made invisible or even secondary to the conversation, but is primary to the considerations. A relationship is not a relationship if there is only one individual involved. Veganism mandates at least two players in the discussion, dictating an admission of consent and so it establishes a baseline of understanding and acknowledgment for all creatures. Veganism doesn’t confine itself to subjective interpretations of what is gross or not gross. It doesn’t confine itself to the limitations of welfare. It doesn’t confine itself solely to the interests of human animals. Veganism demands a relationship of non-exploitation between humans and cows, humans and cats, humans and, yes, even bees.

It’s right to say honey is not vegan. It’s also right to say honey is not consensual. Veganism, fundamentally, IS about consent.