Happy New Year: An Exorcism and Onward to 2016

Tree & Cloud
Tree & Cloud

Goodbye to 2015, a year which seems, Janus-like, to present opposing faces as I look back on it.

Navel gazing advisory: the following is entirely personal and most likely of no great interest to you, dear reader, so consider yourself duly warned and advised. I write this, selfishly, for my own exorcism, and share it here because that’s what this blog is, for better or for worse—a selfish undertaking, with some obscure, vague hopes of selflessness imputed somewhere in the offing. A mundane and transparent and unscientific bloodletting, with some already lost dream of connection underlying the catharsis.

Took me some time to process, but I’ve finally recognized a psychological barrier greatly weighing me down at the close of this year. Two thousand fifteen. Overall, the year has been quite good. Quite excellent. But something occurred at the outset of this school year (September, for you non-public-school folks) that entirely sapped my mojo. I’ve avoided talking about it, or even fully grappling emotionally and mentally with it, because it never has had full closure. So now this, disclosure.

I was offered a position, in a very untimely manner, to a district-level role that would have not only significantly bumped up my salary*, but provided me an opportunity to utilize the skills and knowledge I’ve gained in my experience in education thus far, and see how I can share and apply them across hundreds of different schools. I was quite excited about the new role, but it unfortunately was offered at an extremely inopportune time—i.e. 2 weeks before the start of the new school year. I did everything I could to make it happen, including arranging as many interviews, phone and in person, that I could, attending hiring fairs, sending out emails to everyone within my professional network, sending out email blasts to listservs, emailing professors at graduate programs, and so on. And the really frustrating thing is that I had the full support of many others in my efforts.

Essentially, in order for me to take the position, I had to arrange for my own replacement. While there is much talk of teacher shortages, especially in special education, here in NYC it did not apply at the time that I was looking. Those few I was able to interview were either too unskilled, lacking proper certification, or were entirely incompetent (i.e. didn’t have the skills to email properly or even arrange for an interview), for the type of school and role we were seeking. I wasn’t merely looking for a warm body—this is a great position and school to work at.

I will abstain from detailing the interviews that did occur. I can regale you with them over crumpets and tea some time one-on-one, if you’re interested.

So once the school year commenced, and it was clear there was no amazing teacher waiting somewhere hidden in the wings, I washed my hands of the matter and got back to my work—or so I thought. Internally, I was sorely chafed, and it has been a rough transition, emotionally speaking, for me to get my head screwed back on straight. I’m not exactly someone attuned to my emotions — it took me 4 months to get to this current point of awareness, to the point of being able to talk somewhat honestly about it. With unnecessary rhetorical flourishes, of course. Partially, I think, because the position has still been (hypothetically) there for me, in the case I was able to find a replacement, so a part of me kept looking and hoping.

This has been damaging to my motivation and well-being.

So as I look back at 2015, even though the year up until that point had been quite fantastic, really—a busy and productive close to the prior school year (obtained my School Building Leader license), a wonderful and invigorating trip to Ireland and Scotland, and an energizing bit of additional work to close out the summer with an online curriculum company and a geeky study of NYC education history with a nonprofit—I was left with this very negative feeling in the dusty corners of my being. And that’s ridiculous! Absolutely ridiculous, and petty, and insufferable. Which is probably why I’ve refused to fully look upon it, in all its puny, grotesque, childish glory.

This has made me recognize a damaging hubris of my character. I apparently feel this compelling need to justify my existence via a feeling of progress which is gained through the recognition of others. How superficial! But that’s how I am. And so I shut down when this opportunity didn’t pan out the way I hoped it would. I stopped writing articles. I turned down (or simply ignored) opportunities outside of my current school work. And I’ve been just a wee bit depressed, really. As I’ve mentioned before, there’s probably other elements involved, like existential notes of loneliness and getting older, but this may be the underlying factor that really squeezed me behind the gills.

So, taking a deep breath, looking at it honestly, and putting a fork in it. And forcing myself to open my eyes to just how incredibly fortunate and lucky I am to have what I have. To live in an apartment next to two beautiful parks here in upper Manhattan. To work in a great school with a professional and hardworking staff and wonderful students and families. To share this existence with my beautiful, hardworking, loving wife, who has been undergoing her own trials and tribulations to finish out an incredibly difficult nursing program (only one semester left!!!). And to come home every day to four vibrant birds (we took on two additional parakeets), who fill our apartment with endless chatter and color and life. To be in good health. To be part of two very different, yet complementary, families, both my wife’s, and my own.

That’s why there is shame involved here, to even be putting this out there. Shame in looking at this and articulating this out loud. Because there’s absolutely no good reason to be feeling this way. But there it is.

So, exorcised.

2016 stands untrammeled before us. Let’s do this right, people. Let’s do this honestly, and embracingly, and joyously. Happy new year.

*An aside on salary: (why do I feel the need to justify this? Why can’t we talk honestly about the importance of salary? This is NYC! Perhaps because I recognize that no matter how much I might pretend to be dancing around that thin red line, I can see all around us so many more in much more dire straights? Yes. That’s probably it.)

A letter from beyond the walls

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It’s been a while since I’ve scribed anything of any sort over the last god-knows-how-long. I wonder sometimes if I’m experiencing the addictive satiation of social media that everyone with a smartphone seems to be so haply skewered by, whether it’s reducing my cognitive and spiritual capacity. As of late, I feel often unfocused, tired, and unwilling to engage in much beyond the reading of newsfeeds, science and education articles, because there’s always something critically important just beyond the next scroll downward.

Perhaps I’m simply getting older. It’s harder to get myself out the door for a run (it is “winter,” if you can call what NYC has been experiencing thus far as such, but still). It is harder to feel compelled to respond to emails from anyone asking for my time and energy for things that don’t relate to what I need to get done tomorrow. Or maybe I’m just simply depressed.

Full disclosure: last month I discovered myself standing in the middle of my living room weeping, not entirely certain why. When I examined the blubbering’s antecedent, I had just gotten off the phone to my parents. So I guess I realized just how much I miss my family, way out there on the West Coast. I’m not a sentimental sort of person, so this was surprising to me, this missing of family.

And maybe I just felt overwhelmed and stressed at work, because Novembers in any school year are always hard.

Or maybe I was just feeling old. I’m nearing what statistically speaking could be determined as the median of my life’s parabola.

Perhaps it was also that I realized, 8 years into living in NYC, that I’m lonely. I know people, but I don’t know people. Hell, I don’t know myself anymore.

All of those things.

So I’m growing a beard. The un-manicured kind. It now feels like a ginger mat of fur splayed out my chin, which is fun to rub.

I furthermore obtained a set of tabla drums, and assuming I can force myself to haul them downtown on a Thursday night, I’ll begin taking lessons. I’ve decided that my brain has been getting too set into narrow ways, and I need to wire some new connections.

Teaching is certainly a rewarding profession, but I’m missing having any sense of self or capacity that extends beyond the work that I do. Which brings me back to this.

Writing.

The toughest damn thing in the world.

If it was easy, I would have written that book I was supposed to write 4 years ago already. Writing a blog post that nobody ever reads is hard enough as it is.

I know enough not to make myself any promises, but it’s clear that when I fail to write regularly, I lose an essential connection to myself. It is through this mundane connection that I no longer feel alone.

Here’s to continued future scribblings of the soul.

Smoothing Out the Kinks

The Path

I’ve sustained an injury that has prevented me from running most of this summer, and in some ways, the story of that injury serves as an adept allegory for larger issues ongoing in my life.

First, for those of you (i.e. ALL of you) who haven’t been following this blog since 2005[1], I’m a runner. Not a marathon running-check-my-heart-rate[2]
kind of runner, just someone who runs. Because it brings joy and fosters well-being. I don’t run far, but I run fast, and I like running alone and somewhere peaceful, like by the water or in the woods.

I had major shin splints in high school while running track and cross-country, and discovered (thanks to a well-informed employee at my local shoe store) that I was over-pronating, so I got a shoe that fixed me right up and has served me well in the 15 or so years since, such that I haven’t ever sustained ANY injuries until now. Pretty amazing for a runner, apparently. That shoe is the Brooks Adrenaline GTS, and I highly recommend it if you are a runner and require more support in a shoe.

Two years ago, I got swept up in the barefoot running craze, as I have documented on this here blog, and shucked my ample GTS cushioning for the unsupportive, callous inducing barefoot lifestyle of running. Not completely barefoot, mind you — I’ve been running in Vibram FiveFingers. It was rough at first–it took me a whole summer to adapt– but once I broke in my feet and adjusted my form, I fell in love. Not only does barefoot running appeal to my philosophical biases for self-sufficiency and natural principles, but it also just feels really good, as it seems to better stretch and work out your feet and legs during a run.

The injury that has reared its evil head is a muscle strain in my right leg, which tells me that something has been wrong for some time in the way my right foot has been striking the ground. The symptoms are inflammation right under my kneecap and–especially–on point of my hip. When this started up, I first tried to run through it, but it only got worse. So then I gave in to the inevitable and stopped running to see if some R&R would make it go away.

It didn’t. I tried running after a break of 2 weeks and it flared right back up, as if it had never subsided. The frustrating part about this is that the summer is the one time during the year that I can finally run consistently almost every day and get myself back into shape. What happens when I don’t run? Beers go straight to my belly. It’s disconcerting how quickly my gut begins to protrude. Now, yes, I COULD go to a gym, but that goes against my aforementioned philosophical bias for self-sufficiency. Plus, I just think they are nasty and don’t want to be around a bunch of stinky strangers when I work out.

So my belly has been slowly distending as I’ve been waiting, fruitlessly, for my injury to subside. I finally realized that I had to do something about it. But I’m wary of doctors, and I’m skeptical of the ability of a doctor to tell me much that I don’t already know. I decided that I would find a good deep tissue massage therapist, instead. I like getting deep tissue massages, and I get them for myself as a treat once a year or once every 2 years, depending on my budget. I see it as a necessary “defragmenting” of my body, a way to purge built up tensions and knots that accumulate over time. But I’ve never gone specifically to a masseuse for the purpose of physical therapy for an injury, so I wanted to make sure I got one who was decent.

I found one via a quick Google Maps search for “deep tissue massage,” and after checking out her website and seeing that Trey Anastasio had given her a positive review, I figured she must be aight. She was. She pinpointed some major knots in my back I wasn’t even cognizant were there, as well as introduced me to the incredible pain that is the IT band massage.

She informed me that as an active person, I should really be getting a massage more frequently. When I delicately let her know that I can’t afford such luxuries, she charitably gave me an insider tip about using a “foam roller” to give self-massages[3].

I don’t know about you, but I’d never heard of these things (probably cuz I’ve never gone to the gym). Given my proclivity for self-sufficiency, it certainly seemed right up my alley, so I went ahead and ordered me one. They’re cheap.

I’ve started using it, and let me tell you, rolling around on your IT band is no joke. It’s incredibly painful[4]. It brings tears to my eyes. But it’s made it fairly apparent to me that my right IT band must be getting strained and perhaps at the heart of my injury, because there is major pain all along it. I’m thinking that if I continue to iron it out, it should do much to alleviate the strain keeping me from running.

So I ordered me a new pair of Brooks Adrenaline GTS 12. I’m not giving up on barefoot running completely, nor do I blame it for the injury, though I think it played its part (I’ll get more into that in a moment). I plan on easing back into running with daily foam rolling as physical therapy, and the increased cushioning of my running shoes to help to ease the strain. Once I’ve gotten back into rhythm, I want to go back to my Vibrams, though I might never go back to full-time barefooting. I’ll see how it plays out. All I care about, at the end of the day, is that I’m running.

What are the causes of the injury? Is barefoot running to blame?

There’s a number of factors that could have played into it. They are as follows:

  • During the school year, I run more and more inconsistently as the year progresses, due both the shortened days and coldness of winter, and because of an increasing exhaustion. Teaching special education in the South Bronx, in case you didn’t know, is demanding work
  • When I did go out for a run, I was most likely going out harder than I should have, given the time that might have elapsed since the last run
  • I wore old dress shoes with heels to work intermittently, and I had a bit of a walk from the train station. I generally tried to wear a barefoot style shoe that I have, but they look kinda funny, so when I wanted to look good for whatever reason, or if there was ice on the ground, I wore my dress shoes
  • I am getting older. I know 33 isn’t that old, but I ain’t no spring chicken anymore, neither. I may not be able to get away with the same level of body stress I once could
  • A few months ago, I sliced open my big toe on my right foot, had to get 7 stitches, and apparently severed some kind of nerve, because I can no longer bend the toe completely, which may have subtly altered my running form
  • I think either my legs are different lengths, or my hips are askew[5]

Any or all of these factors, combined with the reduced support of barefooting, could have easily resulted in the strain that I have incurred.

Well, OK, so now that I’ve thoroughly bored you with the details of my diagnosis, how does any of this serve as an allegory for other life issues, as I suggested at the outset of this post?

Basically, it has to do with the principles of myofascial release that I’ve learned from my massage therapist and from foam rolling. When you hit a point of stress, you press on it until it relaxes, then you iron it out through the length of the muscle, kind of like rolling out dough. It’s akin to exorcism. By calling out the point of stress that had been hitherto unnamed and stepped daintily around, you then force it to abandon its temporary abode. The longer that you’ve ignored this encroaching negative spirit, the more painful it is to dispel.

How apropo this concept is to our emotional lives, is it not? In terms of my own life, I’ve been under a lot of stress. This year in my job was easier in some ways, but harder in others. This is something I’m still trying to work through and write about. And I’ve been letting many of my feelings remain unvoiced. And over time, those feelings began to get knotted, and embedded, and tangled, and then began to seep into and infect other areas of my life, such that eventually all I knew was that I felt tired, unsuccessful, unsensual, unmotivated, and uncentered.

This dim feeling and lethargy has pervaded even my summer, and in this way, my injury serves as its allegory. As if the strain in my leg embodied the strain in my heart. I had gotten to a point where I felt as if I could no longer write, no longer run; in short, I had lost my mojo. This wasn’t any form of overt depression, by the way. It was more like something that lurked behind every day, but was easily subsumed behind the hustle and bustle of my busy mind and life. In this way, it gathered. It gathered, and I ignored it. This is how storms gather in our bodies and in our hearts.

And so the allegory of this injury is the allegory of an emotional life. We must go to our points of pain, and we must lay them bare, push them down until they run. And that alone is not enough. We must then pursue them, all the way down along the path from which they’ve mounted, until we have pushed them out, evicted them, banished them. But we must be ever vigilant, for each new day brings new barbs of tension, and the longer we ignore them and wish them away and pretend, the deeper they embed themselves. Until we find ourselves, one day, in that place of hopeless despair, and must reach for help from another, and others reach down their hands to us and help us back to our feet, and then inform us, gently, that the path to healing is our own, and we must go back to that place of darkness alone, but here is a gift of knowledge to support you on your journey.

Here, this is my gift. Thank you for following me thus far.

1 Before blogging, I sent out emails of my writing. I have most of those logged here as well, dating back to 1998

2 I did purchase a heart rate monitor recently, but I’ll post more on that later

3 Just as a side note, now that I’ve found her, I will certainly go back to her when I am able to afford it. I highly recommend her if you’re in NYC.

4 Painful doesn’t quite do this feeling justice. It’s not quite pain, so much as being extremely uncomfortable and wanting it to stop. It reminds me of the feeling of sitting in an ice bath up to your hips. Our gym at my high school had a giant ice bath, and after a few minutes, right before you go numb, the same feeling of burning discomfit hits you. You have to force yourself to stay in until it goes away.

5 Interestingly, I haven’t really thought about it until now, but when I was younger, I ran to jump over a tennis court net, and my foot got caught in it, so I landed right on my hip. I was too embarrassed to tell my parents about it, and though it hurt for a while afterwards, eventually it went away. That’s the exact hip that is hurting now. Possible I may have fucked it up that long ago and it just showed up now after moving to unsupportive shoes.

People Living Lives of Quiet Despair

In general the epidemiological data show that only 20 percent of Americans are flourishing. The rest are either languishing or just getting by. Maybe they remember a time in their lives when things were coming together easily; there wasn’t a lot of self-concern, self-scrutiny, or self-loathing because they were focused outward and contributing to the world. But now they’re just doing the minimum necessary to get by. This “just getting by” mode is not depression or mental illness. It’s merely people living lives of quiet despair.

Barbara Fredrickson, in an interview on PositivityRatio.com

What You Have Left Behind

When all of the known world crumbles around you, your instinct compels you to curl into a defensive ball. Nothing comes in, nothing comes out. Life slips around you as you settle down to the bottom, drifting with the current, until you get stuck in the way of traffic. Then you become a problem, to be pushed to the side, to be pulled from the water, to be heaved into a pile and left to decompose.

There is no place of safety, nowhere you can unleash the burden of your soul, no human depth of compassion that could dig into your despair to resurrect you.

No. That’s not true, that last sentence. The truth is that if you relinquish your pride and allow yourself to give voice to your shamed pleas for understanding, then quickly, oh so quickly the wide fecund embrace of the cosmos sweeps in to supplant your barren fields with renewed life.

When you stand up and away from the door to death, your legs quivering like that of a newborn foal, you feel as though you have finally shed everything that once clung to your formative self like houndstongue seeds. Finally, you think, I am wholly my own, a rebirthed creation, a self-made man.

But you are merely setting yourself up for greater suffering, to be knocked down again and shattered. As you examine the shards of your visage glinting on the night floor once more, you realize that you have only come closer to your original begetting. You are like your mother, like your father, like your self as a young child. You are your genes, your place of birth, your upbringing. You can’t escape yourself.

The farther you travel, the closer you are to what you have left behind.

Et Tu, Brute?

Brutus caved in to the unspoken demand in his soul for idleness. His brain told him, take a look at your schedule. You must do this. You must do that. But his soul called out to him for mercy, and he could not find it within him to do much beyond the simple boiling of tea. Perhaps, he thought, this is some form of depression. A lack of motivation, a juvenile internal form of rebellion against the adult demands of the external world. Just let it all go. Let it all slide by. What did it matter?

Brutus required a consistent stream of friends to force him out the door. Otherwise, he would forget who he was, and he couldn’t fathom how he could face the world without any deep set conviction. If someone were to challenge him out there, on the street, how could he muster the passion to reply?

Obviously, he had somehow managed to pull himself together enough to craft the illusion of some kind of put together adult life. He was a fairly successful manager at a bank located so close to his apartment that he could walk there in 20 minutes, and he did, every single morning stopping at the cafe on the corner for his chai. He went out with a loose affiliation of friends from business school and his workplace every weekend. Sometimes they would go out to a club and dance; usually, they took a booth at their favorite bar, Muskee’s, and drank one too many martinis while trying–largely unsuccessfully–to hit on women. He would wake up on Saturday mornings hung over, beset with an inexplicable feeling of guilt and impending doom, which he could only shed after going to the gym and eating breakfast at a diner, where he would sit drinking coffee and reading The Economist until he felt ready for the oncoming week again.

But this weekend had been different. Brutus excused himself from the Friday night outing, on the somewhat legitimate claim that he had extra work he needed to finish over the weekend. But he hadn’t touched the work. He had sat listlessly in his apartment, so idle that he couldn’t even bring himself to put on a CD to break the silence. He sat there in his boxers, drinking his tea and staring at the floor.

So he elected to give in to it. He allowed it to overtake him. He sat there in the darkened gloom of the impending evening without turning on the light. The extra work could plausibly be extended into the week; it didn’t have to be finished this weekend. This felt like a throwback to his undergraduate days, when he would skip class and waste the day playing video games or drinking beer, doing absolutely nothing in some kind of child-like defiance to the demands of the inhumane strictures of the civilized world. It could also have been called laziness, but it was more than that. Something inarticulate and hidden. Something so unlikely to find its way into expression that it fizzled out instead into impotent idleness.

Was this his natural proclivity, perhaps? To drift purposelessly in some limbo of spirit? And the illusion of his daily life was only some type of caving in to the pressure of normalcy? Too many questions. It was better simply to sit, thinking nothing.

On Depression

Change is underway in the heavens as in the heart; summer hath terminado, fall’s begun. It’s great. I look forward to not knowing the future, with only the assurance that it will be as good as it is now. I trained my new staff on how to clean the shit out of toilets.
The only glitch in the system being that my ear is fucked up and I’ve somewhat lost my sense of balance as a result. Hopefully the inner ear will heal and I can get away with not going deaf.
When everything around you is beautiful, you’ve gotta climb to the top of the highest mountain so that you can see it right. Got to keep yourself in perspective. Stop and breathe and look down.
I’m getting older, I can feel it, and I love it. My life only gets better from where I’ve begun. I dragged myself through the mud to get to where I am, and I know what the sun is.

Which reminds me of a topic I wished to explore. I was thinking the other day of how depressed I was in my formative years, and of how I no longer ever feel that way any more, and I then thought of how there’s so much shit out there on the market about self-help and what not, such that it’s quite apparent that in a lot of people’s lives there is a lot of depression and anxiety, and I thought maybe if I figured out why I no longer get depressed, it might help other people.

I want to addendum that statement with the fact that I am not saying that I live like in some steady state of bliss or anything. I get very moody and I feel down and lonely some days, a lot of days. But it never gets in the way of my thoughts and my self-image the way it used to when I was depressed. Which may be the point to which I am leading: my own conceptions of what it is to be depressed have shifted, not necessarily the fact of “feeling down.”

First of all, let me tell you something: depression is NOT a disease. That’s some new age psychiatry bullshit. Depression is a state of mind by which you are letting yourself in on the fact that something ain’t right with your life, or your perception of life. Depression is you telling yourself you need a change in your situation, in your mentality. So even if you take some drugs that makes you feel happier, you’ve still got the root causes of depression laying all around you like snakes in the grass, just waiting to be stepped on. Which isn’t to say that you shouldn’t take drugs to make you feel happier. Just to realize that drugs serve a certain function, but that they can’t make you change–they can help you change, but they are not the change.

To be always happy is unattainable, and in fact not even desirable. To go up and down like waves is the way of life. We pulsate. We learn, we move, the current flows. We see things from high and low. To be low is not unnatural. To keep yourself in that state of mind, however, certainly is.

When I was in junior high and high school I had a lot of problems with my self-image. I was shy and introverted and kind of awkward socially. It wasn’t enough to keep me from making friends or anything, but inside of me it affected me greatly. I was extremely self-conscious and didn’t really feel like I could express myself around most people. Which later in life I’ve come to realize is a form of vanity. But beyond my basic social anxieties and feeling of inadequacies around cute girls, there was something deeper that came in the form of constant depression. I had a feeling of hopelessness. Like it wasn’t just me, it was everyone, it was the whole world that wasn’t good enough. Like people were just kind of hopeless as a species. Like all of life was kind of hopeless in general. It was just ugly, bitter violence and stupidity.

I thought about suicide and all that kind of stuff. But never very seriously, because at some level I realized that people did love me and care about me and that it would be just vindictive selfishness to take my problems out on them like that. And believe me, I can tell you for certain that that is what it feels like when someone you know kills themselves. Go read what I went through and you’ll know. If you’ve ever thought about it, even for a second, listen to me: it’s fucking selfish and if you really are hurting so bad that you can’t see a way out of it, do this: sell everything you own and buy a plane ticket to South America. Go to the Amazon and immerse yourself in the deepest darkest jungle. Then think about it again and see how the idea appears to you at that time.

My first year of college, I was so unhappy after a break-up and being in a place that I hated, that I would just walk from my dorms to class with one sentence running through my mind: “i want to die.” It was kind of scary. I was nearly to the point of going to seek professional help or drugs, but I decided that at that point, having already been through a lot of depression, that it would be a cop-out to give in then. I felt like if I could just get through that darkest period of my life, then I could get past it.
And I did. That was the worst time in my depression, and it was like I let myself get so low that I finally saw the way out, and the only time I’ve ever felt like that again was when my friend Toby killed himself, and he brought back all of those feelings in me for a little while.

Look, those feelings will always be there in some part of you, and they will come out in times of pain, when someone you love dies or goes away, or when something inside of you changes. It’s impossible to smooth out a steady happiness and contentment without destroying some essential part of your mind or soul. Pain is how you adapt to change. To change is to grow. To grow is to expand your capacity for suffering–you channel out in so many ways that even if part of you is up in flame, another part is embedded in water.

So for me what has become key is never feeling like all of me is low. Part of me might be down, but part of me is already moving ahead. That in fact, to be “down” doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with me. That it is a part of my existence. If I am down all the time, then what it means is that I need to change something.

2 winters ago I was down for a while, and I could tell that it was starting to affect my mentality and the way I treated others. So I sat down and drew up a list with what was wrong with situation and then set a plan on how to go about changing it. Even just the simple act of making that list made me feel better. I had to shift my mentality. The low is to make you appreciate where you need to swing up to next to get to where you need to go.