Core Competencies

From a reader comment at InsideHigherED:

“In the business world, it’s common to outsource certain roles and functions in order for your business to focus on its “core competencies.” You want to focus on what’s important, which makes sense. But what does it say that universities outsource labor for what should be one of their major functions: teaching undergraduates?”

One of my first thoughts on reading this was an early Dilbert comic strip in which it is announced that management is going to start outsourcing the the operations it doesn’t do well. The punchline was along the lines, “Wait…they aren’t very good at knowing what they aren’t good at.”

So I’ve been thinking about this a lot. It’s clear to me that a lot of people don’t seem to be aware that they really aren’t very good at the things they are doing. I think I might have always assumed they just didn’t care. Now it just seems more likely that they just don’t know that they simply aren’t good at what they do. Often though, they express great confidence in the rightness of what they are doing.

It seems like self-assessment should be core competency. We need to be able to accurately assess what we are competent at, what we are not, and what we are willing to invest our time and effort into to learn. We can’t do everything ourselves, and once we are no longer toddlers we can’t expect to have everything outsourced for us.

How do we teach self-assessment when it seems most people won’t even engage in self-reflection?

There have been a number of conversations around at work lately about recognizing our own biases. It’s a tough nut to crack. First, one has to grant the possibility that bias exists in our thinking and/or behavior. This is generally not a comfortable exercise, I think, for most people. The next step is to simply pay attention to yourself and critically assess what you do, questioning the reasons for your choices. Perhaps the most important thing is to question the choices for which you feel have no reasons.

So, I’ve lost nearly a hundred pounds and clinic has kicked me out of the weight-loss program into maintenance. I’m not exactly thrilled with this. I feel that that I have a more to lose on my belly. However, I’m told that it is just “loose skin.”

I have serious doubts.

I can tell the difference in layers, what’s skin, what’s muscle, and what’s in between that’s not either of those things. There is still fat to lose.

So, there are two explanations as I see it. One, is a combination of liability and counting a success. A weight-loss clinic loses credibility if it’s clientele get sick (especially if they die) and moving someone from an unhealthy BMI to a healthy BMI is an easy measure of success. On a straight BMI chart, I am just inside the healthy range. Further, looking at various BMI charts adjusted for age and gender, I am either safely in the middle or at the 25th percentile.  In this context, I can see their point.

On the other hand, having heard this loose skin explanation on two consecutive days from two different types of providers, I looked at them and thought, “Really?” It seemed like rationalization to me. One, the likely payoff for their practice was minimal.  Another five or ten pounds wasn’t going to make me any more of a success. Two, admitting that there was still a layer of fat to lose would require them to honestly admit the same truth for themselves.

I admit to the possibility that I am being unfair in my assessment. I may be somewhat obsessive about weight-loss, but given how much I have eaten this week, I don’t think that’s really the problem. I am sticking to healthy balance of calories in and out. I also may be wrong in thinking I can achieve the look I want, but I don’t think I am wrong in wanting to try.

Bringing this back full circle, how can I know what my core competencies are until I create adequate patterns of success and failure? What constitutes enough experience?

 

Critically Examining Life Advice (advanced self-care)

So there was this:

One of the dumber, non-political articlesI have seen this week.

I guess one can say that perspective of the person advocating this nonsense is that  success requires focus, commitment, and intense time management. This is fair. But to suggest that one simply can’t have all five things is somewhat ludicrous.

My biggest problem with this is that it ignores too many possible efficiencies. For example, fitness activities do not have to be done solo. Family members and/or friends can be part of your running, walking, biking, or other fitness activity. Further, fitness is a scalable thing with different levels of participation and effort. I go to the gym with my wife, I play golf with my sons and some of my friends. There is overlap and possible efficiencies.

The fact is, at the moment, I have all five of these things in abundance. And yes, it is hard work, but that’s the nature of a good life. It doesn’t just happen. You work at it, and you use what privilege you have to make it work.

I love my job and what I do. It is surprisingly intense for long periods of time. There are days lately that I feel that I just haven’t ever worked as hard before. But these are good days and nothing to complain about. Plus I have finally learned to go home and NOT work all evening. Unless there is a deadline, the work stuff stops when I leave the office, save for what I consider the requisite effort to maintain a career and profession: ongoing reading, study, and practice. I simply don’t allow those to overtake my evenings or weekends, unless I am having fun or something.

I spend time every evening and weekend with my wife. We have radically different schedules, interests, and abilities, but we make time. After 29 years next week, we are finally learning how to do this somewhat well.

Fitness takes time, especially while I have been in weight-loss mode and working out as if I was actually training for something. I’m not training. At least, I don’t think I am. But there are still a few races I would like to run and last weekend I learned that the nearby state park recently hosted a trail marathon. It would be nice to do another, and nicer still not to do one in the mountains. And as I said earlier, I play golf with friends and this year we are adding hiking into the mix of the activities.

I sleep. Not always do I sleep the full seven or so that I want, but that reflects the fact that I generally like to move slowly in the mornings, so I cut the sleeping just a bit to accommodate that.

Now there are other choices made interweaving these things as they don’t account for all the 168 hours in a week. In fact, there is still a fair amount of slop. I lead a pretty relaxed lifestyle. Our children are grown and gone so I can be more relaxed.

So, what’s my point? That you can have all these things?

Nope.

My point is really that one of the best forms of self-care is to be really critical about any advice you are confronted with. Evaluate the life and lifestyle of person giving advice. Do they live it? Is it consistent? Most importantly, does it appear to lead to the quality of life you want for yourself?

I mean, for all the possible allegories of hell, don’t take my advice if you don’t think my life is working.

Newspapers, magazines, and .com websites exist to make money. No matter what claims they make in the subheading (such as “to help you live a better life”), their first objective is to take money – whether by directly selling something or selling page views for advertisements. As long as this is true, crap lists of what to do, lists of what choices to make (since you clearly can’t have it all), and a bajillion promises to make your life better if you do this one weird thing, will always be around.

However, one thing really is true. There is only so much time in a day, a week, a year. You have to make choices about how to use that time. Those choices will determine if you can have sleep, work, friends, family, and fitness. Of course, the secret to having all five is choosing to do so, and then making the daily choices that allow you to have those things.

Beautifully Human

A friend checked in tonight to say hi and see how I was doing.

“Beautifully human” was my response.

I’m not sure exactly what I meant, all I know is that felt good. Happy. Relaxed. I had just returned from an evening yoga session and everything felt loose and stretched in a way I don’t remember experiencing.

The simple fact is it is getting easier and more natural to feel this way.

A lot of work over the last 16 months has gone into getting this point. Weight-loss, counseling, learning and investing self-care, and working with a healthy lifestyles coach on stress reduction, have all been part of rebooting my life. I’ve lost nearly a hundred pounds and, as of today, am off of blood pressure meds.  (Actually, if you go back to when I started on the meds, I’ve lost more like 125 pounds.) My resting pulse rate is typically in the low 50s, occasionally in the 40s. My cholesterol is great, in fact, all of my numbers are good.

So, I’m healthy and happy. I look good.

***

Personal change happens through choice and action. In November, 2016 I made a choice to get healthy. I also took some decisive actions. And each day for the next 16 months I reaffirmed that choice. It wasn’t always easy, but it got easier to reaffirm the original choice as each day went by.

It’s often said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” (There is lot of misattribution as to the source.) I was guilty of this behavior around my eating habits for years. I quit taking a serious look at quantity and calories, or really any look at such things. I think about just how easy it is to have 1500 calories or more just for breakfast and still be hungry a couple of hours later.

Even after 15 months it can be challenging not to fall into the habits again, if only in minor way. Food can be comforting.

***

I’m often surprised at the realization that people don’t really know who I am. I mean, I do play lot of different roles, and at work (outside the confines of my office) I keep my politics to myself and play to the center. When I was a scout leader, I generally did the same thing and the same was true once upon a time a church leader. However, this last week I was twice assumed and declared to be on the opposite side of that center line. In one case it amused me greatly and I put it down to role-playing. In the other case it damn near broke my heart.

So it has me thinking about the necessity of playing different roles and how that can hide the authentic, evolving self. I admit that for years I was closed off to most everyone. Disdaining vulnerability  I rarely let anyone in to my life, as far as my beliefs. So it is unsurprising people that people don’t know.

On the other hand, it is bothersome that who I really am is not always apparent by my actions. And this matters to me. For example, you would never hear/see me declare myself a feminist because if you can’t tell by my actions then it isn’t real and likely just a hollow statement or a con. Actions matter. But there isn’t always an audience for my best work.

***

In yoga classes I am learning that there are places in my body that I never thought to stretch. This sometimes makes me chuckle. Especially in the advanced beginner class…I chuckle a lot. It seems insane the way parts of me are made to stretch. I find it calming though. The basic beginner class has fewer of these chuckles but a bit more sweat. (I simply show up for whatever classes are available in the building.)

I’ve also noticed that my flexibility is bilaterally different. With the exception of my face and jaw (which are opposite), my right side is noticeably stiffer than my left. There are also directions in which I am very flexible and their opposite in which I am not flexible at all.

If I am honest, I admit this same tendency exists mentally. For many things, I am eminently flexible, for others, well, rigid might be the appropriate word. Sometimes inappropriately rigid and I really to have work to find a needed flexibility.

***

None of this is either particularly hard or particularly easy. It’s just part of being human – being beautifully human – in stretching myself in new ways. Trying to be the me I want to be.

 

 

 

 

A second meditation on freedom

When I was trying to write Meditations on Freedom, I had a fragment of song stuck in my head. I could never figure it out. All I could recall was one word (freedom) being belted out in the chorus. I finally recognized it when “The Blues Brothers” was playing in the background. It was Aretha Franklin singing “Think.”

You better think (think) think about what you’re trying to do to me
Yeah, think (think, think), let your mind go, let yourself be free

Oh freedom (freedom), freedom (freedom), freedom, yeah freedom
Freedom (freedom), freedom (freedom), freedom, ooh freedom
–“Freedom,” Aretha Franklin & Teddy White (songwriters)

I said in the last post, “Love limits freedom. When you love someone, truly someone, your hands are truly tied. Freedom dissipates not only with increasing responsibility, but with loyalty and the conviction to do what’s best for the both of you (or the family).  I’m not trying to suggest this is a bad thing, only that it is truth. We are bound in love to not act freely irresponsibly, or without consideration,  instead are bound to the opposites. Or should be.”

I stand by this, but is only one side of the coin. The lyrics of “Think” tell the other side. To truly act in love is to let your mind be free, to be open to the possibilities of sharing, of equality. Yes, to be considerate (“think about what you’re trying to do me”) does place constraints (such as not to be an ass), but to be considerate and treat the other as an equal offers only possibilities and greater freedom.

You need me (need me) and I need you (don’t you know)
Without each other there ain’t nothing people can do, yeah yeah
Think about me (what your trying to do to me) till the fall of night
Think about it right now

Oh freedom (freedom), freedom (freedom), freedom, yeah freedom
Freedom (freedom), freedom (freedom), freedom, ooh freedom

Yes, more is possible as a couple. More possibilities, more freedom to be vulnerable and open with each other. It seems contrary to the freedom of being alone and that’s because it is contrary. Not all freedoms are the same or provide the same things. More hands, more eyes, more voices, more thinking, more is possible than one alone. It’s also having someone to help bear the burdens, help face the fears, and to simply share in the effort. Working together beats working alone, whether cooking dinner or saving the world.

Freedom is an act of love. It is self-love that allows one to love another and allow them the freedom to be who they are. In practicing this, we learn that we are never diminished by another’s success and well-being. This leaves us free to be our own best.

Meditations on Freedom

I know some folks that are so task-focused that, not only are they unable to see the forest for the trees, they don’t even know they are in a forest.  And even though they only see the trees, they all look the same to them. They can’t seem to distinguish between any two trees as different without a great deal of coaching. It’s fine to be task-focused and to be unconcerned with the big picture, I guess, but it sure isn’t my choice.

You see, they just don’t seem to like being burdened with responsibility beyond the task at hand. It seems to me that they are finding a form of freedom. “Just tell me what you want, as specifically as possible, and let do it. Don’t expect more than that. Don’t expect me t anticipate the future or even worry about it. Just let me do what you tell me.”  This attitude creates a freedom from greater responsibility, freedom from thinking too hard, freedom from all but the minimum expectations.

People like this are not leaders. They can be solid workers, reliable and sturdy, but little more than drones. But they are free from challenge, especially once they leave work. It’s a contextual freedom that works for them.

 

But I swear by this song
And by all that I have done wrong
I will make it all up to thee.
I saw a beggar leaning on his wooden crutch,
He said to me, “You must not ask for so much.”
And a pretty woman leaning in her darkened door,
She cried to me, “Hey, why not ask for more?”

Oh like a bird on the wire,
Like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free.

-Leonard Cohen, “Bird on a Wire”

***

Loss can be freedom. You only truly own what you can carry with you at a dead run. Ownership ties you down and restricts your freedom. Further, responsible ownership often requires that you do maintenance activities and protection activities to care for your stuff. These things eat into your freedom.

A house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it. You can see that when you’re taking off in an airplane. You look down, you see everybody’s got a little pile of stuff. All the little piles of stuff. And when you leave your house, you gotta lock it up. Wouldn’t want somebody to come by and take some of your stuff. They always take the good stuff. They never bother with that crap you’re saving. All they want is the shiny stuff. That’s what your house is, a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get…more stuff!

George Carlin, “A place for my stuff

The more stuff you own, the more you need a place to keep it. A house, an apartment, a room, a safe, dry, warm place to sleep and rest, is a good thing. Unfortunately, stuff can get in the way, stuff can take over, and then it seems a home really is just a place to keep your stuff. Stuff that ties you down. But having a safe place to keep your stuff gives you freedom, to move about, to work, to play.

 

Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose,
And nothin’ left was all she left to me,
Feelin’ good was easy, Lord, when Bobby sang the blues,
And buddy, that was good enough for me.
Good enough for me and Bobby McGee.

Kris Kristofferson, “Me and Bobby McGee”

When you lose everything, or lose “enough” whatever that might personally be, it’s easier both to fight for freedom or to give in just to hold onto what little you have.   When the conversation is about “stuff” I think this line becomes pretty clear to most people. When it is about something intangible, like freedom, it gets to be more difficult. How do you know when you’ve lost so much that there is nothing left to lose?

***

Love limits freedom. When you love someone, truly someone, your hands are truly tied. Freedom dissipates not only with increasing responsibility, but with loyalty and the conviction to do what’s best for the both of you (or the family).  I’m not trying to suggest this is a bad thing, only that it is truth. We are bound in love to not act freely irresponsibly, or without consideration,  instead are bound to the opposites. Or should be.

I’m not a river or a giant bird
That soars to the sea
And if I’m never tied to anything
I’ll never be free

I wanted magic shows and miracles
Mirages to touch
I wanted such a little thing from life
I wanted so much
I never came close, my love
We never came near
It never was there
I think it was here

Stephen Schwartz, “Finale from Pippin

“Pippin” is the story of the son of Charlemagne, Pippin,  who has just graduated from the University at Padua and is lacking direction in his life. The play is a series of vignettes of Pippin trying to find himself. At the end, he is living on a farm, in love with a widow with a small boy. Throughout he gone to extremes attempting to find glory in war, importance in royalty,  and joy in in hedonism, and ultimately fe finds love. He finally rejects temptation offered him to step into fire a become a glorious light himself, if only for a few moments. At the end he is asked:

CATHERINE:
Pippin:do you feel that you’ve compromised?

PIPPIN:
No.

CATHERINE:
Do you feel like a coward?

PIPPIN:
No.

CATHERINE:
How do you feel:?

PIPPIN:
Trapped:but happy:
which isn’t too bad for the end of a musical comedy. Ta da!

Pippin, Stephen Schwartz.

This is probably the ideal for relationship: happy and trapped. It’s in this perspective that we recognize (or should) that our choices are constrained in order to allow happiness, to cause happiness, for who (or those) we love. The constraints are by choice as we give up our freedoms willingly. (Although, it can be argued that falling in love is not necessarily a voluntary process, but rather a biochemically-induced form of temporary insanity that allows relationships to form, and lead to breeding; but when I say that, I find people get really upset and reactionary). Anyhow, most will agree that when love is present, we stay in relationships willingly. It’s a choice, perhaps a daily choice, that restricts some freedoms, but I think opens up more.

Love opens us up to being truly vulnerable. It is easier to show ourselves as vulnerable when we are with someone we trust, someone that we know loves us. The freedom to be vulnerable can be compelling, once one learns how. (Once I learned how.) This can be especially true in times of stress and worry. When this happens, it seems to open up the conversation to allow more effective communication. In other words, the vulnerability allowed in love creates greater freedom to communicate.

***

It seems to me as so many people prattle on about their imagined freedoms and many more others just seek to be acknowledged, to be equal, the economic and social structure in which we live is impressively organized to encourage us to limit our desire for responsibility and personal growth, to acquire stuff , and have relationships, all of which reduce freedom and create constraints.

Living freely, but comfortably, is about learning to live within constraints.  To be truly free, disappear into the woods with no more than you can carry, and drift from place to place. See how much you like it. Not many do. They want permanent shelter. They want comfort, multiple tools to make mundane tasks easier and briefer, temperature control, food storage.  The list goes on.

Heaven knows I was just a young boy
Didn’t know what I wanted to be
I was every little hungry schoolgirl’s pride and joy
And I guess it was enough for me
To win the race? A prettier face!
Brand new clothes and a big fat place
On your rock and roll TV
But today the way I play the game is not the same
No way
Think I’m gonna get me some happy
-George Michael, “Freedom”

***

Real freedom is freedom from pain. Freedom to move. Freedom to love who you love. Freedom from seeing your love in pain and disarray. Freedom to be recognized as human.

Freedom is also not being owned and constrained by belief systems that devalue others. Such beliefs are just a heavy set of chains that reduce one’s freedom to find happiness as they create false limits for relationships and the possibilities of love. Relationships drive all things, all successful commerce, why constrain their potentialities with dumbass beliefs?

Freedom is knowing the limits of freedom and accepting them with grace.

Photographs and Memories

When we traveled over the holidays, as a concession to my wife,. we listened a lot to the Garth Brooks channel on SiriusXM. It’s not a huge concession, while we don’t share the same tastes in music, I do like some of Garth. As is typical with artist-specific channels on SiriusXM, the playlist includes selections of music that the artist likes to listen to.  In the process I rediscovered Jim Croce.

Most anyone in America that listened to FM radio from the late sixties on would recognize at least three or four songs: “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,”, “I’ve Got a Name,” “Operator,” “I Have to Say I Love You in a Song,” and the song that shuts my ears down for some reason, “Time in a Bottle” are probably the most familiar songs. I kind of really hate that last song. It’s not that it is bad, just maudlin and represents the worst of seventies soft rock. My wife tells me it is song that tells us (me) how we are supposed to feel about love.

It’s a song that tells me that even the most talented artist can go too far.

For good or ill, I spent my early teen years in Northern Virginia listening to WASH-FM when it was an easy listening/soft rock station in the mid-seventies.  I really think much  of the music of the seventies was garbage. Whiny, too wistful. There was lots of good stuff but lots of really, really bad stuff. Songs that I still know the lyrics to when I really shouldn’t know the songs at all.

Croce was brilliant though. His songbook includes a variety of topical genres, with absolutely masterful examples of each, especially the “break-up” or “kiss-off” variety. Some of these I had forgotten, especially “One Less Set of Footsteps.” This is truly a great song.  It’s cheerfully upbeat with a pleasant melody, and lyrics the tell you all you need to know:

We been runnin’ away from
Somethin’ we both know
We’ve long run out of things to say
And I think I better go
So don’t be getting’ excited
When you hear that slammin’ door
‘Cause there’ll be one less set of footsteps
On your floor in the mornin’
and later:
But tomorrow’s a dream away
Today has turned to dust
Your silver tongue has turned to clay
And your golden rule to rust
If that’s the way that you want it
That’s the way I want it more
There’ll be one less set of footsteps
On your floor in the mornin’

 

This last bit what gives lie to the cheerfulness. “If that’s the way that you want it,
That’s the way I want it more”  that’s the scream into the maelstrom of a person desperate to convince both parties that they are”okay.” It’s brilliant.

***

Growing up in the seventies also meant different television viewing options. Of course, by different, I mean “limited.” As a child, visiting grandparents on the wrong day and time could mean having to sit politely by during “The Lawrence Welk Show” (shudder) but earlier on Saturday, it was roller derby, which rocked. I loved watching the Los Angeles T-Birds with my paternal grandparents.

And I was just about old enough to really appreciate Raquel Welch in “Kansas City Bomber.” She was awesome.

Gonna tell you a story that you won’t believe
But I fell in love last Friday evenin’
With a girl I saw on a bar room TV screen
Well I was just gettin’ ready to get my hat
When she caught my eye and I put it back
And I ordered myself a couple o’ more shots and beers

Jim Croce’s “Roller Derby Queen” is one of his songs about larger than life characters like “Bad, Bad, Leroy Brown” and “Rapid Roy (that stock car boy).” These are rollicking songs that are kind of fun and crazy. They are also somewhat cartoonish, but they work. Just kind of adjacent to these songs is the truly great, “Working at the Car Wash Blues.”

Well, I had just got out from the county prison
Doin’ ninety days for non support
Tried to find me an executive position
But no matter how smooth I talked
They wouldn’t listen to the fact that I was a genius
The man say, we got all that we can use
Now I got them steadily depressin’, low down mind messin’
Working at the car wash blues

This is really a song for today. So many people on social media and elsewhere declaring their genius when all else is evidence to the contrary. Unfortunately, such people are either not working at something that suits their abilities or angry and resentful that their “genius” is not being recognized. In some cases, in some communities, the latter may often be truer than we think, but they are not who I am thinking about.

***

My wife has been going through photographs lately.  She is preparing two photo albums, one of which is for our son and his future bride. When he moved out of state last year I had given him an album that was mostly our scouting and other outdoor trips together. Over the years of these trips, I have generally taken at least

DSCN0482

one on the way home of him sound asleep in the passenger seat. I hope that when he has a tween or teen of his own that we can go on a fishing trip together and he can get a picture of me sleeping the ride home. Lord knows, I will need the rest by then.

 

 

Looking at old photos can be melancholy. I look though, and remember those little boys and how much fun they were, and how innocent their laughter was. I look at pictures of me that span range of different sizes and weights. There is approximately 150 pounds of variance across the last 36 years. Perhaps more.  There are memories of family and dogs long gone. And more recently gone, like Lucy, who’s been gone a year this month, and Monty, who’s been gone a few years longer.

IMG_erl34z

Lucy

DSCN0318

Monty

 

 

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But there are also pictures of a mix of emotions. This is from eight years ago this weekend. It is from two nights before brain surgery when we shaved our heads together. That look on Zach’s face would be there for days, not knowing what to expect. He certainly was not expecting to spend a full day and a half waiting for me to come out of surgery.

Of course, this all ties to another Jim Croce song, “Photographs and Memories.” It’s a sad and wistful song, not quite as maudlin as “Time in a Bottle.” It’s a sweet song and to my ears, more pleasant to listen to than the other. It’s really about wanting to go back to the way way things were.

Photographs and memories
Christmas cards you sent to me
All that I have are these
To remember you
Memories that come at night
Take me to another time
Back to a happier day
When I called you mine
Jim Croce, Photographs and Memories
It’s a good song, but doesn’t hit the way John Prine’s “Souvenirs” does.
I hate reading old love letters
For they always bring me tears
I can’t forgive the way they rob me
Of my sweetheart’s souvenirs
Memories they can’t be boughten
They can’t be won at carnivals for free
Well it took me years
To get those souvenirs
And I don’t know how they slipped away from me
-John Prine, Souvenirs
It takes years to earn the souvenirs we find in life, and then they slip away as memory fades. I guess it is just best to treasure them all while we can.
***
I can’t imagine the song “Which Way are You Goin’” ever got that much airplay. Certainly not when I was listening to the radio way back. It’s another song that feels so very relevant today.
Everyday things are changin’
Words once honored turn to lies
People wonderin’ can you blame them
It’s too far to run and too late to hide
Now you turn your back on all the things that you used to preach
Now it’s let him live in freedom if he lives like me
Well your line has changed, confusion rings
What have you become
Your olive branches turn to spears when your flowers turn to guns
Your olive branches turn to spears when your flowers turn to guns
I think we all need to listen to a bit more music. More singing and dancing, fewer parades.

Vanity, Mortality, and Choices

1 The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.

2 “Vanity[a] of vanities,” says the Preacher;
“Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”

3 What profit has a man from all his labor
In which he toils under the sun?
4 One generation passes away, and another generation comes;
But the earth abides forever.
5 The sun also rises, and the sun goes down,
And hastens to the place where it arose.
6 The wind goes toward the south,
And turns around to the north;
The wind whirls about continually,
And comes again on its circuit.
7 All the rivers run into the sea,
Yet the sea is not full;
To the place from which the rivers come,
There they return again.
8 All things are full of labor;
Man cannot express it.
The eye is not satisfied with seeing,
Nor the ear filled with hearing.

9 That which has been is what will be,
That which is done is what will be done,
And there is nothing new under the sun.
10 Is there anything of which it may be said,
“See, this is new”?
It has already been in ancient times before us.
11 There is no remembrance of former things,
Nor will there be any remembrance of things that are to come
By those who will come after.

–Ecclesiastes, 1, 1-11, New King James Version

Some of the best conversations are those that never really end. They are conversations between friends that may take place in both the physical and the virtual, and may vary across the synchronous and the asynchronous. It’s a conversation about something shared that allows for multiple threads of thought. Sometimes one of these threads takes a startling turn.

“Vanity is an interesting companion to morality. ”

Indeed it does. On the other hand, my minor dyslexia has caused me to read this as “mortality” for two whole days. So that’s the way I have I have been thinking of this conversation. Vanity and mortality.

Contextually, I was thinking about mortality and a scene in fantasy novel where one of the antagonists admits that it was his vanity that got him in the end. More directly I was making a link between weight and typical aesthetics. There are some things I do strictly vanity’s sake, but to only a small degree, because too much could be risky or counter-productive.  My thoughts rambled further, thinking about a delicate balance between vanity and mortality, that we’ve upheld certain ideas of fitness and wellness that sometimes look like vanity, but really they are just personal pride in looking a certain way and achieving or constantly striving to achieve a peak level of fitness.

Back when Billy Crystal was on SNL doing an impression of Fernando Lamas, one of his catch phrases was, “It’s better to look good, than to feel good.” This is kind of the ultimate in the vanity of the aesthetic. Perhaps an example of the other end of the spectrum is the runner who really obsesses over running and does little else, while becoming so whittled down,  any standard sense of a traditional aesthetic has vanished. I’ve known a person like this and he was not healthy.

Sometime around 2004 or 2005 I was in Clearwater, FL for a meeting and I went out for a morning run. About three miles in, I ran into an old guy coming towards me. He asked how far I was running and if he could join me. Told him I had done three and planned another nine miles. He looked me up and down, “I’m impressed. You don’t look like quite that fit.” (I was weighing about 250 at the time and had done a couple of marathons, three successful ultras, and a couple of failed ultras.) I looked him up and down, “I’m impressed  that you’re out here running in flip-flops.”

“Oh yeah, they’re good enough and they only cost about a buck apiece.”

Right.

We ran and talked for a couple hours. He was certifiably nutty. Nice, but nutty. Retired and lived in a one room apartment and did very little but just run everyday, all day. He’d carry a spoon and a little bit of cash to buy ice cream along the way to eat while he ran. Sometimes he would just carry a bag of sugar. He claimed he usually ran a full 50K (about 31 miles) and never less than 16 miles each day.

Every day it was all he could do to just get out of bed, he said. It just hurt. Every part of him hurt. Especially his feet and legs. He’d wake up, struggle to a sitting position, sit until he felt he could stand, and then do it all again. He had no discernible fat on his body, nor teeth. He admitted sometimes to spending the winter up north with his family and trying to get “fat” and then return to Clearwater to run it off.

I have no idea how long someone can keep that up.  I don’t think he was as old as he looked, and he really did not look good to my eye. He looked like he was in the process of being consumed. Whatever level of fitness he might have once been trying to achieve he seemed to have taken it too far to a fairly dark place. You can take anything too far.

***

And conversations continue.

“The challenge with deciding to live, not just accepting the body’s deteriorating condition, is really about why.”

While we are young, we feel immortal. Even when someone in our age cohort dies it may shake us, but it seems like we don’t really start feeling mortal until age 30 or so. I remember when one of the guys in our Infantry company died. A popular guy, he took a fall off a cliff while rappelling one weekend. While the guys were pretty shaken, since beer and pot were involved, invincibility and immortality was back in less than a week.

By the time we comprehend and accept, or at least begin to accept, our mortality, our bodies have long since begun to deteriorate. One might stay fit and train at the highest levels, but the fact is the body is aging and wearing.  This is all in the early stages of deterioration for most people, it’s generally not even noticeable. It is the time of life where late night hours are spent in childcare or the endless work cycle of trying to get ahead. Things change though. Harry Chapin touched on this in the song, “There Was Only One Choice.”

When I started this song I was still thirty-three
The age that Mozart died and sweet Jesus was set free 
Keats and Shelley too soon finished, Charley Parker would be 
And I fantasized some tragedy’d be soon curtailing me 
Well just today I had my birthday — I made it thirty-four
Mere mortal, not immortal, not star-crossed anymore 
I’ve got this problem with my aging I no longer can ignore 
A tame and toothless tabby can’t produce a lion’s roar 
And I can’t help being frightened on these midnight afternoons

 

So we age. Our attitudes age along with our bodies. We begin to recognize the costs of choices we made in our youth and we likely become more cautious, more conservative in our choices. Less recklessness, greater thought for the future.

Because there is less of it, the future. Less of it for us as individuals. We know the future is not some far distant point in time. It keeps getting closer. A friend talks about how small children see time as taking so much longer – a year from now is just so very far away. For a five year-old, a year is 20% of the time they know. For a 50 year-old, it is only two percent. The days run out as we want to do more, to be more, to achieve more, because we finally feel like we know what we want to do, what we can do.

But we grow tired. We tend to be heavier. Our choices have begun to maximize comfort over fitness. We have perhaps actively chosen this, or just accepted the default. Either way, have we chosen to live, or to just continue? And why?

***

Back to the intersection of vanity and morality.

In Oscar Wilde’s, “The Picture of Dorian Gray” we get a morality lesson on vanity. The title character is so enamored of his  portrait and recognizes that every day he on he will be less beautiful than he appears in the portrait, that he offers to sell his soul if only the portrait would age instead of himself. It does not go well. That sort of vanity never does end well. The weakness in Dorian that expresses his willingness to sell his soul is the same weakness of character that leads one into all kinds of debauchery and unsavory activity, activities that affect both physical expression and the aesthetic appearance of the face. These qualities become apparent in the portrait as Dorian’s behavior and soul grow darker and more cruel.

Vanity, narcissism, too much of sense of self over others, are problems. When the inner dialogue is the only dialog that matters. When we never hear the words of others if they are anything short of praise for the self. This is not only bad, it is evil. It is a turning away from society, from community. We don’t exist alone.

***

How do we choose to live with the deterioration of our bodies?

Either following my diagnosis, or following surgery, in my researches, I read that events like heart attacks, brain tumors, cancer, can cause one to to feel that our body has betrayed us. That it has attacked us. This can be devastating to someone trying to find the energy and will do the work of recovery.

It seems to me, looking back, there was no defining moment in my case where I said was going to get through recovery. There were instead of thousands of little decisions to keep trying, to try just one more time, to take one more step, or to forgive myself one more time for not quite taking that next step. Eventually it became a habit, the same way I became obese, the same way I got older. I kept making certain decisions out of habit, a choice to keep to going. And then I made a choice to get healthy again, and this time I would do it right. I would avoid injury and real self-abuse. I would learn from the past about making thousands of little choices over and over again, including choices of self-forgiveness.

In fact, I made the choice to be much more forgiving to myself and stop with negative habits toward a poor sense of self. I accepted that failure in little things, was to be expected, and that success did not, does not require perfection, only commitment and practice.

In the end, there was really only one choice – to live each day, to be present each day that is left. But like the Preacher says, there is nothing new under the sun.