Soundtrack

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I listened to the rain fall heavily through the night, I knew my running partner was out of town, and I was aware that my training schedule wouldn’t be seriously jeopardized if I skipped the six-mile run slated for this morning.  I had every reason to spend a quiet hour lounging on the couch and sipping coffee instead of slogging through the storm.  There was only one thing that got me out of bed, suited up, and running: music.  As I lay in bed contemplating all the reasons I should skip my run, I remembered I had recently loaded my MP3 player with some albums I hadn’t listened to in a long time and was looking forward to hearing with fresh ears.  The promise of a good soundtrack inspired my decision to put one foot in front of another a few thousand times.

Many years ago, a friend suggested that I pick a theme song for myself.  It’s an interesting thought experiment, but I’ve never settled on a single song that appropriately represents me.  I recall a time in high school, when I was becoming increasingly obsessed with rock and metal music, I thought the song “Let the Music Do the Talking” by the Joe Perry Project was my personal anthem.  I appreciate the sentiment of the title, but, upon reflection, I realize I like talking too much to let music have all the fun.  Nonetheless, music is enormously important to me.

While I haven’t selected a theme song, I often turn to music to capture a mood or moment.  For example, given my favorite genre, I have a long list of metal songs that work well when I am pissed off at someone, some thing, or some institution.  Overkill’s “I Hate You,” Machine Head’s “Game Over,” or “Exodus’ “Salt the Wound” are all good  anthems to anger that make me feel better when I shout along to the chorus while driving away from whatever encounter left me incensed.  A year ago, feeling disconsolate about my job situation, I was enamored of a song by Death Angel called “It Can’t Be This,”  which includes these lines:

Don’t know what I want

But I know it can’t be this.

Another restless soul about to lose control

Of a life that I just won’t miss.

While I wasn’t as depressed as that last line implies, I found shouting along to the chorus while out on my lunch time run helped improve my sour mood, like listening to the blues.  It gave me enough strength to go back to the office and face the rest of the day.

In addition to providing a healthy outlet for my occasional anger and misery, I find heavy metal, particularly the thrash metal sub-genre, to be a perfect antidote to overthinking.  My new job is expansive in scope, and it can get busy in my brain, a sort of mental Grand Central Station of noisy ideas getting on and off different thought trains.  My version of a calming meditation these days is to go for a run and dial up something speedy on my MP3 player, maybe something by Slayer, Testament, or Exodus.  The loud and frenetic music matches the volume and tempo of my thoughts and, thereby, silences them, like a super-charged version of white noise.  When the run is over and I turn off the music, there is a moment of pure silence, with no sound and, blissfully, no thoughts.  It’s fleeting, as the busy-ness of my brain soon resumes its processing, but the thoughts come a little slower, at a pace that I can manage more comfortably.

This morning, as I ran through the incessant rain, I listened to music by Danish heavy metal band Volbeat.  While they could be considered a rock band with metal tendencies, I confess their music is one of my guilty pleasures.  The metal-ish riffing grabs my attention, and the bombastic, soaring vocals of front man Michael Poulsen demand that I sing along with his broken English lyrics that express feelings more than any particular meaning.  It’s, dare I say, happy music, and that’s how I’ve been feeling these days.  Running the six soggy miles with Michael and the boys playing “Sad Man’s Tongue,” “Fallen,” and “A Warrior’s Call” made my heart swell.  Is it too sappy to say it feels a little like falling in love?  I’m not giving up on Slayer or Cattle Decapitation, but I’m going to enjoy this moment of positivity and be grateful for all the gifts in my life, including this cool job that sometimes makes my brain a little too busy but also makes me put a twist on that Death Angel lyric: I may not know what I want, but I think it might be this.

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Aside From That, Mrs. Lincoln, How Was the Play?

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It’s Easter Sunday, and I’m getting ready for the annual neighborhood Easter Egg Dash, in which a swarm of kids will sprint around our park screaming and picking up over 1,000 candy-filled plastic eggs.  The entire event lasts about four minutes,  and for the past 14 years, I have been the organizer and emcee, supported by my family who does the work of filling the eggs.  The event is always successful and the air is filled with the delighted squeals of happy kids, even on the days when the rain falls.  I now suspect that my success as leader of the Dash can be attributed to the fact there is no technology involved.

Last week, my boss was going out of town and asked me to take over for him.  He runs the IT division for our agency, which meant, for three days, I would be responsible for the work of 250 software developers, architects, business analysts, and network and database administrators who ensure the successful operation of all the technology in our agency.  Putting me in charge was an ironic choice, since I still require the assistance of my teenage son to change the settings on my iPhone, but I told him I would be happy to step up to the challenge.

It started out great.  I brought in home made scones and jam to feed the troops and used my authority to declare Friday “Aloha Shirt Day.”  I haven’t written a line of code since I was 14, when a friend and I would try to make his Apple IIe run basic programs that often resulted in a disappointingly infinite loop, so I decided baked goods and novelty shirts were my best chance to relate to the technologists under my command.

All was going well until the third day when, at 8 a.m., I was informed there was a problem with our agency’s primary system.  It was bad enough that by 9 a.m. we decided it was necessary to shut the system down to stop the technological bleeding and work on a solution.  As a result, the entire worker’s compensation organization for the state of Washington was brought to a screeching halt.  Several hundred staff spent the day catching up on their email instead of serving their customers, since they were unable to use the software on which they depend.  My third day of IT leadership was not off to a good start.

Later that day, I was told that, for still unexplained reasons, Microsoft Word had stopped functioning.  That’s right, in addition to breaking the workers’ comp system, I had somehow managed to destroy Bill Gates’ bread and butter application.  To cap it off, later that evening, another software implementation, unrelated to injured workers or electronic correspondence, also failed.  It was a trifecta of technological devastation.  I considered baking more scones, but there isn’t enough flour, cream, and sugar in the world to get the bad taste of these failures out of my mouth.

Friday morning, I was reflecting on the damage with an old friend who reminded me that, thirteen years ago, I had overseen the implementation of a software application that went terribly wrong.  It was the first time I had responsibility for making the “go/no go” decision, and, at 4 a.m. On January 19, 2005, I said “go.” Shortly thereafter we had to shut it down, causing our agency’s electrical inspection program to resort to paper and pencil processing for three days.  This was not a happy memory, and my friend pointed out that I appeared to be the common denominator in all of these failures.  In gambling parlance, I was the “cooler,” an individual who’s mere presence causes all the other players to experience a string of bad luck.  We got the giggles thinking about it, and I laughed almost until I cried.

Tomorrow, I’ll return to my regular job and hope that my boss forgives me for my less than stellar performance.  The damage has been repaired, thanks to some truly impressive technologists who took the initiative and worked through the night to get our agency back in business.  As is my usual approach, I will stay out of their way and focus on what I do best, which is encouraging them to do their best and have some fun along the way by, for example, wearing Aloha shirts,  eating scones, and laughing about that time when everything went wrong.

When I was a kid, my dad told me I needed to learn to laugh at myself.  If I could take a step back from my failure and see the humor in it, life would be much easier.  He was right, and I’m grateful for that lesson.  It’s the reason I tell you these stories.  There’s a lot in life to beat yourself up about, but it’s more fun to laugh about it with friends.

Well, I need to get back to my preparations for the Easter Egg Dash.  I’m confident it will be a success, but if this event is ever goes horribly wrong, it’s probably going to happen on April Fool’s Day.  That would be hilarious.  Wish me luck.

Middle Aged Test Anxiety

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I suffer from test anxiety.  That may seem unusual for someone who’s been out of school for more than 25 years, but it’s true.  It happens, for example, whenever I go to the eye doctor, and he straps me into an elaborate set of diagnostic binoculars.  When he asks if the eye chart is clearer with #1 or #2, my blood pressure rises.  I worry I will give an incorrect answer and end up with the wrong eyeglass prescription.

I have a similar reaction when it’s time to get blood tests, but the stakes seem higher, as blood tests can provide evidence of a wide range of life-threatening conditions.  A few years ago, after having spent 90 days improving my diet (i.e., no alcohol, less fat, and more veggies) my blood test revealed high cholesterol.  Upon receiving that news, I proceeded to fail my blood pressure check and ended up with two new drug prescriptions to help manage both conditions.  Instead of doubling down on my dietary efforts, I decided to wash down my new medications with beer and pizza along with the green smoothies I had been drinking.

This year, with another blood test in my near future, I decided, again, to try cleaning up my dietary act, especially since I’d gained weight and my pants were reaching their structural limits.  I’ve read that the main factor in losing weight is actively changing your diet; it doesn’t matter which approach you take.  I decided to try “low carb” based on the experience of a friend.  She had seen a nutritionist who wanted her to increase the amount of fat she was consuming, and that sounded just ludicrous enough to work.  She offered me some recipes and suggested I start my day with two strips of bacon and three fried eggs, and I was eager to get started.  The trade-off was no carbs, and I admit it was hard to say goodbye to toast, but drowning my sorrows in bacon and eggs was a good salve.  For almost eight weeks, I persevered, limiting my carbohydrate intake drastically, while increasing the amount of protein I consumed.  I also reduced the amount of alcohol, but I was no teetotaler.  Sometimes, a beer (or four) is what I crave, and I rationalized that liquid carbs were preferable to toasted ones, but I knew I was cheating.  After 53 days, I had eaten a lot of bacon and eggs, had a fair amount of beer, and hadn’t lost much weight.  Needless to say, I didn’t anticipate getting an A+ on my blood tests.

From past experience, I knew that once I had my blood drawn, it would be only a few days –  perhaps just hours – before I would receive email notification from the lab that my results were available for viewing.  I would know before my doctor whether I was near death.  While eye exams get me worried about whether I would get the right glasses, blood tests make me worry if I will live through the night.  It was Friday afternoon when I submitted to the tests, and I vowed to not review the results until the weekend was over.  I had every intention of living it up for a couple days, presuming I would get a batch of bad news.  There were four tests in all, including, for the first time, a PSA test to determine whether I might have prostate cancer.  Delightful.

The email notification arrived Friday night, but I avoided opening it.  Instead, I focused on severals delicious IPAs.  However, by Saturday night, I could no longer resist, and I opened the email about the swill of bacon, eggs, and beer swirling through my veins.  The email provided my numerical results along with a comparison to the normal range of data.  My attention was grabbed by the fact that the acceptable range for PSA was from 0 to 4.  I don’t remember the units, but that didn’t seem relevant.  What fixed my eye was that my result was a 5.  That is, I was one more than normal, and I understood that, in this case, being above average was not a good thing.  I closed the email, and decided another beer was exactly what I needed.  For the next 24 hours, I thought a lot about prostate cancer.  I’m not 100% sure what a prostate is, but I was growing increasingly concerned that mine was one more than it should be.

I didn’t sleep well that night.  I imagined a difficult conversation with my doctor about the next steps for me.  I worried about telling my wife, and I couldn’t imagine telling my children.  I kept it to myself and waited for the follow-up email from my doctor that would, inevitably, tell me I needed to schedule an appointment to talk it over.  At the height of my anxiety, I went back to the test results to learn more about my situation.  I wanted to know exactly how bad it was to be a 5 instead of a 4.  I looked again at the normal range: 0 to 4.  Then I looked again at my result and noticed a decimal point.  I was .5, not 5.  That’s almost a zero.  I was on the low end, the good end, of normal.  It might even be an A+ as PSA tests go.  For the first time in 24 hours, I exhaled.

In addition to the great review of my prostate, the rest of the blood test results showed my blood was within normal ranges for cholesterol, triglycerides, and a number of other factors.  Apparently, I will live at least until next year’s blood tests, assuming I don’t get hit by a truck.  Ironically, my friend who had recommended the bacon and egg diet got a bad result on her test.  Her blood sugar was too high.  This seems impossible as she hasn’t consumed a carb in months, and she was understandably annoyed with me.  C’est la vie.

My test anxiety increases with each year that goes by, and I know many people who don’t get such good news when the results come in.  Life is too damn short.  I have friends who are currently struggling with life-threatening illnesses.  Their numbers are outside the normal range, and there is no reading of the fine print that will make it all better.  I am grateful that my numbers are good now, but I don’t pretend that I’m guaranteed of a long and healthy life.  There are other tests I haven’t taken that might reveal some bad news, and things could change.  The bacon diet may not pay off.  This living thing isn’t easy, and the instruction manual is confusing at best.

In the meantime, I’ve been celebrating my passing grade by enjoying some of life’s simple pleasures.  On Saturday, after watching my son compete in the state high school Knowledge Bowl tournament (Go Bears!), my wife, daughter, and I went out to raise a glass in honor of St. Patrick and, in the process, I reunited with two childhood friends after almost thirty years (who happen to own the tavern we visited).  On Monday, I went to a metal show with old friends and wallowed in the music of the great German band Accept, performed by the legendary Udo Dirkschneider, who, by the way, is holding up well as a 65-year-old metal front man.  Seeing my kids pursue their interests, spending time with family and friends, and listening to live metal music make me appreciate my test results even more and brings to mind a few items for a to-do list I offer for your consideration:

1. Take the tests.  It’s scary as hell, and the news isn’t always good, but it’s better to know and try to do something about it.

2. Love your family.  They are the ones that will be there when the test results aren’t so good, so keep hugging them.

3. Appreciate your friends.  As I said in my last post, I’m grateful for my friends who prop me up and commiserate with me.  I’m especially delighted I was able to reconnect with one of my oldest and best friends and increase the circle of support.

4. Go to a metal show.  Or a country show, Comic-con, a play, a quilting bee, or whatever type of cool tribal gathering works for you.  Spending time with others who share your passions is good medicine.

Taking life’s test can be daunting, and it helps if you don’t have to go it alone.  To my friends who are struggling, I’m thinking about you, I love you, and I always have a batch of fresh baked cookies ready for you.  Keep fighting.

Friendship Confirmation

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I was 14 when I was confirmed in the Lutheran church.  I have no specific recollections of the confirmation ceremony, but I do remember there was homework required before the big day.  My pastor gave me cassette tapes of a few of his sermons and asked me to outline them.  I wasn’t excited about the task, as listening to his sermons on Sunday mornings was tedious.  This was not merely the opinion of an easily bored teenager.  There was general agreement in my family, if not the entire flock, that our pastor, while a good man, was not a good public speaker.  I shuddered at the thought of concentrating on the recordings enough to outline the main points.  Despite my reluctance to repeatedly rewind and replay his remarks, I found the exercise enlightening.  I discovered that, while he couldn’t hold the congregation’s attention through his oratorial acuity, he had some thoughtful things to share with us.  I learned his sermons were not mere recitation of scripture followed by random ramblings but were, in fact, a carefully prepared argument.  I realized he had written his sermons, carefully crafting them to make whatever spiritual point he was trying to convey.  I employed my outlining skills to document his theses, main points, supporting evidence, and insightful conclusions.  The exercise illuminated the meaning of his words, and I was fascinated by the craft of language.  My pastor had encouraged my love of the written word.  He was probably hoping I would develop a specific affinity for the words in the Bible, but I wasn’t interested in stopping there.  I was on a path to learn more about  appreciating a well-composed piece of writing, regardless of subject matter, and creating my own structured arguments, often in defense of decidedly sacrilegious matters such as heavy metal music.  He inadvertently taught me the joys of the largely solitary process of reading and writing more than he taught me the joy of sharing the peace with my fellow churchgoers.

My attendance at church these days is limited to weddings and funerals.  Yesterday, I attended the funeral of a woman with whom I had worked.  She was a delightful character, and I was saddened when I learned that she lost her long fight with cancer.  We weren’t particularly close, but I knew many of my friends and colleagues would be in attendance, and I wanted to show my support for the family.  While most people in the small chapel were contemplating their loss and grief, I admit I was contemplating the composition of the chaplain’s sermon.  His thesis was about working through our sadness by relying on friends and family.  He artfully described, through beautiful verbal illustrations, the importance of leaning on each other to get through the difficult times.  His words were simple, clear, and compelling.

After his sermon, the family exited the chapel and formed a receiving line.  I waited my turn to greet them, feeling increasingly awkward as the line advanced.  I didn’t know her family, and I wasn’t sure what to say.  I hadn’t taken the time to write down my remarks, and therefore felt completely unprepared for the moment.  When it was my turn, I told her husband that I had worked with his wife and that she was a great lady.  He shook my hand and thanked me.  I moved down the line and shook hands with her son and sisters, and each of them thanked me for coming.  To each of them, I replied, inexplicably, “Thank you.”  Ugh.  I’m not great with spontaneous human interaction.  I do much better if I can write down my thoughts in advance, like a pastor preparing for a sermon, and practice what I will say.

After I made it through the receiving line, I gathered with friends and co-workers.  We shook hands, hugged, shared stories, and laughed together.  The chaplain’s sermon – which I had critiqued and outlined in my head like I did 35 years ago listening to my pastor’s cassettes – quietly unfolded in front of me.  I saw and heard the connections that existed between my friends.  They know each other well, they have shared experiences, and they are there for each other.  They lean on each other.  It was a beautiful thing.

Most of the people in my life seem to think I’m a pretty nice guy, but I feel like I’m not always the best of friends.  For example, it takes me a long time to learn about someone’s personal life.  It’s not that I’m uninterested, but I feel awkward asking a lot of questions.  I love learning about their lives, but I don’t like to inconvenience people, and asking personal questions feels like an imposition, as I don’t assume they want to share their stories with me.  I don’t mind when people ask me questions about my life, but I don’t take for granted they want to hear the long version, so I tend to keep my answers short unless I get a clear sense they want to hear more.  Of course, I’m most comfortable telling stories I’ve already written down in one of these posts or my books; stories that I’ve carefully outlined and edited.  As a result, it can take a long time for me to get to know someone and for someone to get to know me.

Before the funeral, I had gone for a run with one of the people who’s put in the time to get to know me over the past ten years.  Our runs together are therapy sessions when we can vent our frustrations without any polite filters in place.  We ran nine miles, the farthest I had run in more than a month, and her presence at my side helped me stay upright and moving.  We were running together, and we kept going for each other.  That’s a good friend to have.

After the service, another friend I’ve gotten to know well over the past fifteen years, asked if I wanted to join her for a beer at a nearby pub.  We sat in the sun, sipped our porter (her) and IPA (me), and shared stories of work and family.  We know some of each other’s joys and pains, and the conversation came easy.  We lean on each other, and, for that, I am grateful.

I appreciate the people who have managed to break through my tendency to keep answers short and gotten to know me.  When they share their stories with me, I feel I’ve been given a gift.  These long-term friendships are among my greatest treasures.  In those moments when I’m feeling particularly alone with my reading and writing, I think about those people running or sitting beside me, asking when the next post or book will be done, listening to me whine, and propping me up.  I hope they know they can lean on me as much as I lean on them.  Ideally, they’ll give me time to write it all down first, but I’ll be there.  Thank you.

Was Blind, But Now I See

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I had every intention of watching the show from behind the circle pit on Thursday night, but when Exodus opened their set with the seminal thrash metal song “Bonded by Blood,” I was swept up in the excitement and found myself in the front row, pressed up behind a long-haired headbanger who was pinned against the stage.  Home sweet home.  Some people have a photo of a beach scene hanging in their work space to help them remember their favorite place on earth.  In my cubicle, I have a picture of an enthusiastic crowd at a heavy metal show.  That is my happy place, and I visited it on Thursday.

Exodus is a legendary band in the thrash metal genre, making music since 1980, never compromising their bludgeoning style, and influencing generations of bands.  Exodus was the first thrash band I saw in concert, back in 1989.  Almost thirty years, and ten albums, later, they are still playing high-intensity music and whipping crowds into a frenzy.  Thursday was no exception, featuring a sold-out crowd that was all too happy to shout along with every lyric, mosh, stage dive, and form a wall of death (Google it) to bring the proceedings to an end.  As the song goes: good friendly, violent fun in store for all.* For the entire 90-minute set, I was up at the front, feeling the bodies of my metal brethren and sistren compressed together yearning to get closer to the stage.  Notably, this was thrash metal at its purest, with no barricade or security staff between the crowd and the stage.  It was intense and fun, and it’s the one place where I can escape my own thoughts and surrender to the joyful ferocity of the moment.

My plan was to stay out of the fray at this particular show.  I knew it was likely to be intense, and I have recently come to accept the fact that I’m old – and perhaps wise – enough to want to avoid serious physical injury.  Yes, that is a real, if rare, possibility at a thrash metal show.  I have personal experience, having suffered a compound fibula-tibia fracture  at a show when I was twenty years old.  In the band’s and crowd’s defense, I made the decision to climb on, and subsequently jump off, the stage, landing badly and spirally fracturing my leg.  It resulted in a lengthy recovery, including the installation of a device called an external fixator that appeared to be a medieval torture device as much as a therapeutic treatment.  (Google “external fixation” if you are curious AND have a strong stomach).  I fully recovered, of course, such that I started my running career after the incident, whereas I had been a dedicated couch potato before.  In the many years since, I have not shied away from mosh pits, though I abandoned any thoughts of stage diving again.  My biggest concern is that I might fall down in mid-mosh and experience more conventional pain and suffering.  I’ve had many hematomas over the years from fists, feet, and floors that have made forceful contact with my frame, and, last year, I decided to retire from moshing in circle pits, as it increases the likelihood that I will make injurious contact with an errant body part or concrete floor.  Standing still at a thrash show can be challenging enough, but running in a circle with arms flailing adds a degree of difficulty that I am no longer willing to attempt.  I’m 49, and the aches and pains that come from hitting the floor are a younger man’s game.  I don’t see any 49-year-old skaters in the Winter Olympics attempting triple Lutz jumps.

There I was in the front, banging my head along with my metal brother, Sean, and several hundred other headbangers.  I decided it would be safe enough to stay there, since the swirling fury of the circle pit was transpiring behind me, and I wouldn’t get caught up in the whip as long as I stood my ground.  My biggest concern was that I was wearing my glasses, which are not a wise fashion accessory at a metal show.  I usually wear contact lenses at shows, but I ran out last year, and I haven’t re-stocked my supply.

I wore a sports strap to help keep my spectacles affixed to my skull, but it didn’t help when a stage diver chose a flight path that used my head as part of his runway.  His torso and legs dragged across my dome, and after I was done carrying his weight, Atlas-style, I looked up and realized everything was out of focus.  My glasses were gone.  I decided that panic wasn’t a good option and, instead, used every bit of my strength – thank God for those daily circuit-training workouts – to push backwards and create enough space for me to squat down to the floor and begin feeling blindly for my lenses.  I found them just behind me, and when my fingers wrapped around the metal frames, I could feel they were bent, but not broken.  Such relief.  My fellow headbangers grabbed me and pulled me back to my feet, and, with just two songs remaining, I held the crumpled glasses in my hand and resumed my headbanging revelry.  I felt someone tap my shoulder, and I looked back to see who it was.  Being legally blind, I couldn’t see him with any clarity, but I heard him ask if I found my glasses.  I smiled and shouted over the music that yes, I got them, and it was all good.  I was back in my psychological happy place, and I was not alone.

I imagine it’s difficult for those who don’t appreciate the metal arts to understand that while the crowd at a show looks like a full blown riot, that crowd is full of people who want nothing more than to have a good time and be sure that everyone else is enjoying themselves, too.  Aside from the occasional asshole – and every large gathering of humans includes at least one genuine example of the type – metalheads understand the fundamental truth of humanity: we are all in this together.  As a result, we should help each other.  If someone loses their glasses in the middle of the pit, you make sure they get them back.  If somebody falls down, you pick them up.  No matter your musical preferences, keep that in mind.

 

 

*That’s a line from the Exodus song “The Toxic Waltz,” an ode to moshing.

Knowledge Matters

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It’s playoff time.  Regionals are in two weeks, and the state tournament comes two weeks later.  I’m getting excited.  Another disappointing football season has come to an end, and baseball is over a month away, but Knowledge Bowl is just heating up.

For the past four years, my son has participated in Knowledge Bowl.  I didn’t know anything about it until he told us he had joined the team, and we went to his first tournament.  I was immediately smitten.  As a person who spends a lot of time in his own head – a head that is full of minutiae interspersed with worries and sarcastic remarks – the idea of a sport in which people like me could excel simply by knowing answers to questions was the coolest thing I could imagine.

1. There are more than 9,000 species of grass.  While many only grow a few inches high, what kind may reach 100 feet or more?

Knowledge Bowl is a high school activity in which teams of four compete by attempting to answer questions about history, geography, literature, science, math, and other academic subjects. The competition begins with a written round, in which teams answer multiple choice questions, followed by three oral rounds, during which three teams attempt to be the first to answer questions asked by a “reader.”  Each team has a buzzer bar they use to ring in, much like a TV game show.  After 45 questions are asked in each round, the correct answers are tallied and winners are declared.

I graduated from being the parent of a competitor to an official reader in KB tournaments.  I am the Alex Trebek of high school Knowledge Bowl, sans mustache.  Last year, I was a reader at the state tournament.  I was assigned to the lower-ranked schools.  Just as in football or basketball, high school Knowledge Bowl teams are ranked – more or less – according to the size of the school.  Big schools have a larger number of students to draw from, so they are able to identify more kids who have a proclivity for retaining and recalling obscure information.  Smaller schools have smart kids, too, but they are fewer in number and tend to struggle against the big schools.  To use a basketball metaphor, the smaller schools have fewer tall kids with great ball-handling skills to choose from and are overmatched by schools that can field five giants with great jump shots.

2. What is the value of p if p/20 = 10/50?

I love being a reader and presiding over a competitive ceremony in which a bunch of kids who have little interest in basketball gather to out-think each other.  They are funny, clever, and thoughtful.  They are proud “geeks,” and I love being around them.

The things they don’t know are fascinating.  They don’t know enough history.  My teacher friend who coaches his school’s teams blames the Common Core standards.  He may be right, but I am always disappointed when they get an answer wrong by hundreds of years.  I am also aware that they aren’t too well read, but I get excited when I think about how much they will have the opportunity to read if they pursue English in college.  That’s when I was exposed to a world of literature and ideas that have served me well.  In terms of pure game strategy, the less-experienced teams also haven’t learned the tricks of the game.  For example, they don’t know that any question that asks for a “grammatical mood” should be answered with “subjunctive” or that any question about a swamp should be answered with “Okefenokee.” Those aren’t always the correct answers, but they are statistical safe bets if you’re not obsessed with sentence structure or wetland ecosystems.

3. What nickname was given to the First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry, the most famous of all the units that fought in Cuba during the Spanish-American War?

The things they do know are amazing.  Some kids have deep expertise on obscure subjects, and it’s delightful to see a kid’s eyes light up realizing that she knows that the vascular tissue in plants that conducts sugars and other metabolic products downward from the leaves is called “phloem.”  Personally, the ability of some kids to perform complex calculations in fifteen seconds blows me away.  It would take me the better part of a weekend to figure out what is the smallest whole number which has a remainder of 4 when divided by 5, a remainder of 3 when divided by 4, a remainder of 2 when divided by 3, and a remainder of 1 when divided by 2.  It’s 59, by the way.

Their interest in knowledge is magical.  I have had several occasions, after a round, when a player will want to discuss an answer to be sure they understood the question or why I didn’t accept their answer.  It matters to them, and they are not shy in seeking out the truth.

4. The highway on top of Boulder Dam connects what two states?

Last year at the state tournament, my son’s high school team* made it to the championship round but lost by one point.  There was controversy, including a concern that some of the teams in the competition may have been seen some of the early-round questions in advance, and, in the championship round, a debatable ruling by the reader resulted in another team taking the trophy from our kids.  The  team’s coach and I were their chaperones, and the long drive home was filled with anger, frustration, and disappointment.  This was their moment, and it felt like they had been cheated.  They cared as much as any team of high athletes would if their moment of glory had slipped through their fingers.

That is what I find most beautiful and inspiring about the experience: they care deeply about a competition based on knowledge.  Dozens of teams gathered at the state tournament to show off their brains, and our team was convinced they knew more, and were better players, than the others, that they were more skilled at learning, retaining, and recalling information.  It was important.

5. The medusa is the free-swimming stage in the life cycle of a coelenterate. The sedentary stage is called the … 

Knowledge matters.  Facts matter.  Truth matters.  As I sit at home watching the news, I can get stuck in my head worrying about the decline and fall of knowledge in this country.  Misinformation and disinformation are alarmingly common in political discourse – if you can even consider tweets “discourse.” But I remain hopeful that this new nadir of national disgrace, too, shall pass.  I have seen a brighter future in the eyes of these kids in that moment when I’ve asked a question, and they look up, flipping through their mental database searching for an answer, turn to their teammates to compare and confirm, and call out their response with trepidation in their voice.  They want to know the truth, they want to speak it, and they want to be right.  We’re going to get through this, and the children shall lead.

 

 

*My son wasn’t on the championship team. His school fields several teams, and only the senior-dominated group qualified for State.  I’m hoping this is his year to take his physics-filled brain to victory.

Answers: 1. Bamboo, 2. 4, 3. Rough Riders, 4. Nevada, Arizona, 5. Polyp

Note: the photo is of The Oly Roman Empire team from Olympia High School who were “robbed” at the 2017 state tournament.  Amazing kids, all.

What Fresh Hell Is This?

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My physical therapist tells me I should be glad that I made it to age 49 before experiencing significant back pain.  I am not glad.  I am annoyed and hoping this isn’t a harbinger of more frequent lumbar misery to come.  It started last Saturday morning after completing an unexceptional six-mile run.  I felt fine until I got out of the shower and started dressing for the day.  My back began spasming enough that I involuntarily audibilized my discomfort, and by the time I had dressed and walked downstairs to the kitchen, I decided moving was not a great idea.  Each step was breathtaking, as I felt the pangs surge through my torso, causing me to stop, try to remember how to exhale, and wait for the agony to subside.

I didn’t know what caused my pain, but I was relatively certain, despite the presenting symptoms, that these were not contractions related to childbirth.  I decided to sit on the couch and hope the pain went away.  Stillness provided relief, but it isn’t a long term solution, so the rest of my Saturday was filled with pain whenever I rose from the couch and hope that it would subside after a good night’s rest.

By Monday afternoon, I was feeling better overall, but the pain was still present.  I hadn’t worked out since it started, and when I ran a few steps in place to test my road readiness, I felt my back tense up.  I messaged my physician to inquire whether it would be appropriate to make an appointment.  She recommended a visit with a physical therapist, and I scheduled it for Wednesday afternoon.

While I had eschewed exercise for three days, I decided to give running a try before I went to the appointment, thinking it would provide additional data about how quickly I was recovering.  The results came quickly, as each stride on the pavement brought a small wave of pain.  I managed to cover 1.5 miles at a reduced pace, but I didn’t enjoy it.  I knew the physical therapy appointment was not an event I should cancel.  The road to better back health was longer than I anticipated, and I needed a guide.

The physical therapist was a stocky thirty-something man with facial hair and a kind face.  He shook my hand and invited me into his exam room where he had me take a seat.  After a series of questions, and related data entry on his part, to establish exactly why I was seeking his services, he asked me to stand and face the door.  He had me bend to the right and lean back, which was pain free.  I figured I was acing this test until he asked me to lean to the left and back, which sucked.  At this point, I presumed he would suggest a few stretches and exercises I could employ to work out the kinks, but I was mistaken.  Instead, he asked me to lay down on the exam table.

I have no personal experience with massages, chiropractic therapy, laying on of hands, or any other practices in which strangers apply physical pressure to my body.  I grew up in a loving family, but we were not demonstrative.  After about age ten, there was very little hugging happening in the Baker house.  My body is a temple, and it’s closed to the public.  Being unaware of my expectations for personal space, my physical therapist felt no compunction and spent the next fifteen minutes grabbing, bending, and pulling my arms and legs while laying across my body.  It was a gentle bear mauling, which is why I mentioned his facial hair.  I recognized his intent was to fix the problem, but I considered the possibility that my anxiety at being kneaded so forcefully might be aggravating the condition.  Whatever the reason, he was unsuccessful cutting my Gordian Knot and told me what I could do to help untie it on my own.  He gave specific instructions, but, as I was still reeling from having been, literally, manhandled, I forgot to ask some questions.  For example:

  1. He told me not to sit longer than 30 minutes.  I should have gotten clarity about how much standing  is required between seatings.  I made an assumption that he intended me to alternate in 30 minute intervals, but I discovered standing for 30 minutes is a long time even under ideal conditions.  Since the appointment, I have been trying to stand for at least five minutes at a stretch.  As a result, I have been that guy rising from his seat with a pained expression and looming menacingly in the background of meetings at work.  At home, I set a timer so that I don’t, ironically, spend the entire weekend in a seated position while watching the world’s greatest athletes compete in the Olympics.  I have also begun to wonder if this is a prescription for the rest of my life, or if the 30 minute limit will be extended as my back improves.
  2. He told me to avoid running.  I refuse to accept the possibility this is a permanent change, as I am addicted to running.  He said it is too jarring and causes the problem to worsen.  I forgot to ask if any other workouts are verboten, but I’m assuming cardio is not a good idea for the same reason.  Weight lifting might be an option, but there is often a back-component involved in raising heavy objects from the floor.  For now, I’m going full couch potato, but for no more than 30 minutes at a time, until I can get some clarity from my therapist.
  3. He told me to walk a lot.  I am trying, but as a long-time lunchtime runner, walking feels like cheating.  I am not opposed to walking, and it provides a bit of same the mental relief from intellectual activities, but I hope I can pick up the pace soon.
  4. He told me to use cold or hot pads as desired.  According to him, it doesn’t matter which as long as it feels good.  This seemed arbitrary and capricious.  How can both be equally useful?  I would have expected a more definitive ruling on which approach is more therapeutic.  He also told me I had a problem with what I heard was a “fa-SET” joint in my spine.  When I Googled it later, I discovered the word is “facet,” (I.e., “FA-set) the same word for one side of a many-sided thing.  I was concerned he was mispronouncing it, indicating he really didn’t know what he was talking about.  Combined with his indifference to hot and cold therapy, I have lingering doubts about his qualifications, but I will follow his instructions; just not happily.  If it doesn’t improve, I will be checking his credentials before I allow him to hug me again.

For now, I’m grounded, and it’s frustrating.  Not being able to exercise makes me realize, and appreciate, how much I enjoy it.  The good news is I’m feeling much better, and I suspect the twinges of back pain I’m feeling at the moment are mostly a result of my heightened awareness of my back.  That is, I’m thinking about it so much I may be worrying over what would otherwise seem like normal aches and pains associated with aging.

I’m scheduled to meet with my ursine therapist again on Wednesday.  I’m not sure I will wait that long before going for a trial run, but whatever happens, I will be bringing a list of questions to the appointment.  I am not going gently into the good night of my advancing age.

Deleting Yourself

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My son is producing a documentary about the cinematic history of science fiction, from its inspirational roots in ancient Greece to the 1902 film A Trip to the Moon by cinema pioneer George Méliès to The Matrix and beyond.  He and a friend have written the script, recorded narration, filmed interview segments – with my son playing the expert – and are weaving in film clips to illuminate their thesis.  I’ve seen the rough cut, and it’s well-written, well-performed, thoughtful, insightful, compelling, and fun.  And it’s too long.  The movie is a project for their Film Lit class, a delightful elective course available at their high school, and is required to be no more than seven minutes in length.  The current running time is closer to 30 minutes.  They asked the teacher for an exception to the seven-minute rule due to their passion for the project, but the teacher held firm: the assignment is a seven-minute film.  My son, and his co-producer, will have to sacrifice much of the content to satisfy the requirements, and they are in the throes of editing, in which the artist is forced to decide which of their children to give up or which limb to remove.  It’s not simply an intellectual challenge, it feels personal and emotionally taxing.  While my son has railed against the arbitrary limitation, I appreciate the teacher for offering an important lesson: Brevity is the soul of wit.

I wrestle with that lesson whenever I sit down to write one of these posts.  It’s up to you to decide if I successfully pare my musings down to the essential core that entertains and enlightens without becoming a burden.  I am sure some posts are more successful than others, but I do try.  Next weekend, I will be faced with another editing challenge, as I receive feedback on the manuscript of my European journal, copies of which I gave to my family members – those who traveled with me to Europe five summers ago – as a Christmas present.

It shouldn’t have taken five years to write the book, but I spent much of the time dreading the editing process. The first draft was frequently plodding, and it took months to figure out how to cut it down to a literary size and shape that someone outside the family might enjoy reading.  That process involved two challenges that wounded me.  First, I had to decide which of my witty remarks about sightseeing in Europe weren’t really all that witty and then delete them.  It’s never pleasant to be told your jokes aren’t funny, and I can assure you, it’s equally unpleasant to give yourself the news.  Second, and with more reluctance, I had to decide which parts of my life weren’t worthy of being published.  Writing memoirs involves a certain degree of arrogance that assumes people would care about my life story, so the notion of deleting some parts of it from the narrative is not unlike deciding which of my fingers I don’t need.  After five years of writing, self-flagellation, and metaphorical finger removal, I was ready to have my family tell me how well I did capturing their European adventure through my eyes and keyboard.

I know my fellow travelers will be the easiest audience, as they will naturally enjoy the written reminiscences of our grand tour.  I hope they will let me know of any factual, grammatical, or attributional errors; any essential anecdotes I neglected to include; or witticisms that fell flat.  With their feedback in hand, I will begin the second round of editing in an effort to get closer to the metaphorical “seven minutes” of essential content, though I assure you it will take more than seven minutes to read.  After that, I will turn the manuscript over to my beta-readers – close friends who I trust to give me honest, and occasionally brutal, feedback on my writing.  That will result in more finger-removal and, hopefully, a final draft that is worth publishing.  Brevity may be the soul of wit, but it’s a long, dangerous road getting there.

My son and his classmate are planning to meet their seven-minute requirement by scaling back on the overall scope of their history lesson, but they aren’t giving up on their masterpiece.  They plan to complete the full version of the film and label it “The Director’s Cut.”  I suggested they also release a version with producer commentary as a DVD extra.  As a writer, I don’t have the luxury of DVD extras, just this blog.  I hope I didn’t blather on too much.  I didn’t have much time to edit.

Uber Squats

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I could blame Sally for my crappy run last Saturday, but I won’t.  She’s my regular Saturday morning running partner, and last weekend she opted to run an Elvis-themed 10K instead of running with me.  I could have run the race with her, but I am not a big fan of Elvis fan or entry fees, so I skipped it and decided to run nine miles alone.  Choosing to run that distance was a bit surprising, since there was no pressure to do so.  Without Sally there to decide how far to run, I could have opted for just six miles, four miles, two, or I could have just stayed home and binge watched season 2 of Travelers on Netflix.  Instead, I decided to challenge myself by running long, even if I had to keep myself company.  Running longer than I wanted to is part of my New Year’s Resolution to try old things in new ways.  It’s also part of my fervent desire to fit into my pants more comfortably.

In addition to the long runs, for the past three weeks, I’ve been eating a high protein, low carb diet – not counting the pizza I had tonight – and I’m not entirely pleased with the results to date.  I’m excited about the process, as I love having bacon and eggs every morning even if I can’t wash it down with toast, but I was hoping the dietary changes would result in pounds tumbling away from my frame in a more rapid manner, like a brick facade in an earthquake.  So far, the weight loss progress has been agonizingly slow, not unlike my nine-mile solo run on Saturday.

It’s possible my less than stellar running performance was due to physical exhaustion.  Continuing my Resolution theme, I’ve changed my morning workout routine by trying out circuit training programs I find on Pinterest.  Based on the names – including the “Brazilian Butt” and “Bikini Shape Up Circuit” – and accompanying photos of yoga pant-clad women, most of the pinned workouts appear to be geared towards females.  While they are every bit as strenuous as male-oriented ones, they generally don’t feature a lot of heavy weight lifting.  Instead, they focus on core and leg work, and, a result, I have done more squats in the last two and a half weeks than I have in all the previous years of my life.  I had no idea there were so many ways to lower oneself to the ground.  I’ve done goblet squats, split squats, walking squat lunges, sumo squats, wall squats, lateral squats, and squat jumps.  Hundreds of them.  I would have thought I had mastered the act of sitting down after 49 years of experience, but now I whimper in pain when I plop down on the couch at the end of the day.  When I headed out for that nine-mile run, I think my legs were worn out from two weeks of vigorous crouching.

The first two miles felt great, but the third mile was a struggle.  Once I started the fourth mile, I thought I had broken through “the wall” and would have a good finish, but that positive attitude lasted two minutes before fatigue washed over me.  I was just over four miles in, and I was exhausted.  I told myself to keep running for ten-minute stretches and take a one-minute walking breaks, but I rejected the idea.  Alternatively, I suggested five minutes of running between walk breaks, but my body was in the mood to haggle.  My final offer was two-minute runs, but my body was firm on no more than a minute and a half at a time.  I considered pulling out of the negotiations and just calling home to have someone come pick me up along the route.  I even contemplated the possibility of calling an Uber to hide my failure from my family, but that would have been raising quitting to a whole new level of shame.  Instead, I gutted it out and alternated running for 90 seconds and walking for 30 seconds for the last five miles.  It was a long run when I started, and it felt even longer when I shifted into the lower gear.  While I kept my phone handy in case my metaphorical wheels fell off at some point, I was pleased, and somewhat surprised, that the miles went by and I remained upright, arriving at my door only about fifteen minutes later than I had originally planned.  Surviving those lonely miles was a good reminder of two classic aphorisms:

1. Don’t quit.  Carrying a smart phone during long runs gives me every opportunity to call for help, and it was tempting to phone home to be rescued, but I’m glad I didn’t.  I would have felt worse about stopping than I would have if I had to walk the entire second half of the run.

2. Don’t sweat the small stuff.  Instead, I recommend the following to help you feel better about a bad run:

  • Be happy with what you do accomplish.  When I finished and arrived at my door, I felt great.  I’ve had enough crappy runs over the past twenty-something years to know that it’s not fatal.  I finished, and the next run will feel better.
  • Pick an excuse and stick to it.  While I considered the possibility that my new diet wasn’t giving me the proper fuel for running, I quickly abandoned that hypothesis, as I don’t want to give up eating bacon every day.  Instead, I’ve decided the tired legs thing is what slowed me down, and I will start mixing up my circuit workouts a bit more.  As much as I hate lifting heavy objects with my arms, it’s more conducive to running than lowering heavy objects, specifically my torso, via squats.
  • Run with a friend.  You can encourage each other through the tough miles, and it decreases the odds you’ll tap the Uber app on your phone.

By the way, Sally, I can’t run on Saturday, so you’re on your own.  Good luck.

Hot Sauce and Vulnerability

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The locker room at work was noticeably empty leading up to the Christmas holiday.  For weeks, when I would go there at noon each day to change for my daily run, it was just me and steadfast runner Ron.  We discussed how the absence of others was unusual, but we expected the new year would bring in several people full of resolutionary zeal.  We also expected that the newbies would clear out by February, which is about how long New Year’s fitness resolutions seem to last.  It’s been five years since I made a exercise-related New Year’s Resolution, when I added a morning circuit training workout to my daily routine.  In fact, the last big resolution of any kind I made was three years ago, when I decided to eat better, and for 90 days, I added veggies to the menu and cut back on everything else.  Over those three months of two-a-day workouts, green smoothies, salads, and a dearth of salty snacks, I lost twenty pounds and felt great.  I figured I was in the best shape of my life, but, unfortunately my doctor disagreed, informing me that I had developed high blood pressure and high cholesterol.  I added two new medications to my regimen and swore off resolutions for a while.  I was bitter, and I had no interest in resolving to do anything but eat more salty snacks, even if just for spite.  Finally, this year, I decided to give it another try, but in a very moderate way.  My resolution this year is about trying old things in new ways.  I got some practice for this in the week after Christmas.

A couple days after Santa’s visit, I partook of a new hot sauce.  I love hot sauce, and there are very few dishes I don’t add it to, but even that has become routine.  I use Tabasco Garlic Pepper Sauce for pasta dishes and pizza, Thorp’s Hell’s Kitchen Habanero Sauce for burgers, and Yucatan Sunshine for everything else.  This new sauce is called The Last Dab, and it was given to me as a present by my brother-in-law.  It came with a warning of sorts, in which the manufacturer asked consumers to post video on social media of the first time they try it.  That’s a hint that the sauce tends to evoke a memorable response.  All three of my go-to sauces are relatively hot, but I haven’t challenged myself in a while, so I was eager to try this fresh hell.  I also received corn chips for Christmas, but this was no ordinary bag of chips.  My brother gave me a bag of Paqui brand Haunted Ghost Pepper Chips, purportedly among the hottest chips available on the market.  When my friend Sean, who – in addition to being a metal head – is a fellow chile head, joined us for dinner, it was the perfect opportunity to give these new culinary treats a go.  After I went live on Facebook, Sean, my son, and I started with the chips, and we were not impressed.  Yes, they were spicier than your average Dorito, but there was nothing painful in the experience.  My daughter suggested adding a bit of the new hot sauce to the chips, and my son placed a small dollop of the thick sauce on each of three chips and handed them out.  We popped them into our mouths and, after a moment of calm, like being in the eye of the storm, during which we noted the good flavor of the sauce, worlds collided and stars went supernova.  We traveled to the sixth circle of the inferno to suffer with the heretics.  Beer offered no comfort and milk’s salve was fleeting.  Only ice cream offered some moments of relief before the flames returned to torture our palates.  We survived with the only permanent damage being to our psyches, and I am stronger for it.  Of course, I will return to my normal menu of hot sauces, and The Last Dab will remain sealed in the refrigerator, like a bottle of drain cleaner kept under the sink.  Should the need arise, I have it available, but I hope I never have cause to open the bottle again.

The next day, we took our annual Christmas-time day trip to a town called Poulsbo, which maintains a Scandinavian theme in the downtown area.  According to the analysis of a gob of my spit, I have a lot of Norwegian DNA knitting me together, so visiting Poulsbo feels like a homecoming.  Being very Scandinavian, Poulsbo doesn’t offer much in the way of hot sauces, but it does have a plethora of coffee, pastry, and viking-themed merchandise, and I like to think I come from good viking stock, albeit the near-sighted, asthmatic branch of that family tree.  While we go almost every year to wander through town, stop into gift shops, and load up on coffee and pastries, we tried to change things up a bit by trying a different restaurant for lunch.  On the drive up, the kids searched the Internet and found a place called The Slippery Pig, a brewpub that offered various sandwiches, including haute cuisine-style grilled cheese.  As we perused the menu, I noticed an older couple was getting up from their nearby table, preparing to leave.  My wife asked my daughter what she was going to get, and when she said the pulled pork grilled cheese sounded good, the woman I had seen turned to my daughter, looked her in the eye, and, with no humor in her voice, said, “Don’t get the pulled pork.  Or the soup.”  Her proclamation struck us like a witch offering a prophecy of doom, and we took it as a sign that, perhaps, this new restaurant was not the best option.  We quickly retreated to the familiar confines of JJ’s Fish House and enjoyed more reliable fare.  I give us partial credit for trying something new, even though we didn’t taste the offerings of The Slippery Pig.  According to my literature degree, when a crone offers a warning, it’s best to heed it.

The second attempt at something new in Poulsbo was caffeinated coffee.  It had been nine months since I had caffeine, but the eye condition that necessitated giving it up had resolved itself, so I wanted to treat myself.  Our favorite Poulsbo coffee shop, Hot Shots Java, offers a delightful brew called “A Shot in the Dark,” which is a cup of drip coffee with shots of espresso added.  The larger the cup you order, the more shots you get.  I opted for the 16 oz double shot, to ensure I would feel the rush, and hoped I wouldn’t overdose.    I sipped the black nectar and let the warmth flow into me, and the rest of the afternoon’s meandering through shops passed blissfully.  I did have some trouble focusing on any of the merchandise in the stores, as the caffeine felt like an electrical current humming through my body.  This was a much more pleasant new old thing than The Last Dab.

On New Year’s Eve, I tried to firmly establish a new tradition at home.  Last year, we invited friends over to ring in the new year by standing over our backyard fire pit, raising glasses, toasting the year that had passed, and praying for the year ahead.  We had a grand time, and I wanted to make the New Year’s Pyre an annual event, at least until the next presidential election.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to generate a conflagration as much as a smoldering heap, so I gave up, and we drank effervescent beverages around the kitchen table.  While the fire didn’t work out, I was glad to have given it a try and happy to be surrounded by old friends.

On January 2nd, I made a more overt effort to try something new.  I’ve been following the same morning workout routine since that resolution I made five years ago, and I decided to mix things up to see if I could get some better results.  The bathroom scale provided increasing evidence that I had reached a point of diminishing returns with my old workout.  I logged onto the Internet and learned that, in addition to party decorations, recipes, and crafts projects, Pinterest is a great source of brutal workout routines.  I found one that appeared challenging but not too much more so than what I’ve been doing for the past five years, so I figured I could handle it.  The workout included five repetitions of a circuit of five different exercises, each performed for 50 seconds, with ten seconds rest between each.  It started out well, but by the fourth round, I could barely remain standing for the 50 seconds of bent-over rows.  My legs quivered like Santa’s belly, and I am pretty sure I was weeping, though it was hard to tell due to the sweat pouring down my face.  I was experiencing the calisthenic equivalent of eating that hot sauce.  Hurts so good.

After the savage workout, I started another new twist on an old thing.  I’m consciously changing my eating habits for the first time since that resolution three years ago.  This year, I’m trying a paleo-ish diet in hopes of slimming down a bit.  My pants have been feeling snug enough that I wasn’t comfortable putting my phone in my pocket for fear that I would overtax the seams and experience a “Bruce Banner turning into the Hulk” moment.  So far, I’m loving eating eggs and bacon for breakfast.  I’ve already lost a couple pounds, but that may just be a reflex reaction to no longer shamelessly consuming vast quantities of cookies and crackers during the holidays.  I’m hopeful the trend will continue so that I don’t need to do any clothes shopping for a while.

Of course, the biggest new old thing in my life is my job.  I recently started a new position in the same agency, working in our technology division.  I admit, I have been confronted with a number of challenges.  For example, I spend a great deal of time using Google to look up technology terms that get dropped like cracker crumbs around here. I’ve been involved in IT projects for many years, but I am now in a full immersion language course.  I’ve been quieter than usual in meetings, as I don’t want the locals to discover  exactly how technologically illiterate I am.  The bigger challenge, however, has been determining what I’m supposed to be doing every day.  I’m learning a lot of new words, but I haven’t figured out what exactly I’m responsible for yet.  I confess, I’m a little bit scared, but it’s a good kind of scared.  I haven’t been the new guy for a long time, and it’s exciting.  I’m aware that some of my colleagues are readers of this blog, so I’m feeling a bit uncomfortable divulging my confusion. However, I’ve long believed that a bit of vulnerability is a good thing.  As researcher Brene Brown taught me (Google her TED Talk), being vulnerable isn’t weakness, it’s strength, and I hope that strength will get me through this bewildering time.  I’ve already found that confessing my ignorance to my new colleagues has helped me build some relationships.  I’m making new friends, and I’m beginning to feel accepted into the tribe.  They’ve even given me some ideas of what I should be working on.  While I’ve got a long way to go before they teach me the secret handshake, I think it’s going well.  I am grateful for the opportunity, and I’m eager to put my old skills to work in a new setting.   While the pulled pork grilled cheese was potentially deadly, the hot sauce was painful, and the workout made me cry, I have higher hopes for the job because I have really cool people around me, ready to help.  It’s like working with tubs of emotional ice cream.

So far in this new year, the locker room at work remains empty.  There aren’t a lot of New Year’s Resolutions crowding up the place, and it’s still just me and Ron.  If you are among those who haven’t committed to a New Year’s Resolution yet, or are considering changing the one you chose because exercise is hard, I encourage you to consider being vulnerable from time to time.  Tell somebody what scares you.  In my experience, people will help you.  Then again, it doesn’t have to be confessing your fears to co-workers if you’re not ready for that.  Being vulnerable is just about being willing to take a risk that may not work out.  For example, you might try a dollop of The Last Dab hot sauce.  You can borrow my bottle.  Just be sure you have ice cream handy.

Happy New Year.