Someone Who Works Out

Those of you who read Kyle Cassidy’s blog or twitter feed have followed his gym adventures and running milestones over the last few years. He has inspired many, myself included. Part of Kyle’s motivation came from watching as Neil Gaiman started running and eating healthily back in 2011.

I kept thinking to myself that if Neil and Kyle could do it, so could I.

I finally made the commitment, along with a few friends, to begin working out in December 2013.

In the beginning, I despised it.

The first morning we met at the tiny neighborhood gym, I was grumpy. So grumpy.

This may have had something to do with the fact that I had:

1. Gone to bed at 2am
2. Woken up at 6am
3. Not consumed any coffee before working out (hoping that coffee as reward would be good incentive)
4. Forgotten how much I disliked treadmills and gyms

My friends were more chipper than I, so I put on my headphones and tried to listen to an audiobook. After all, Neil had successfully run while listening to Dickens’ Bleak House with impressive results.

I already love audiobooks, so I chose Ellen Datlow’s Naked City. The stories and narration are wonderful, but I couldn’t enjoy them while running. It made me feel more agitated and reminded me of the time I could be writing but was instead running in place like a hamster in the dark, noisy gym. I hated the monotony of running in place. I wasn’t fond of the televisions or the loud music. I wanted coffee.

Had I been doing it alone, I likely would have quit that first week; but the commitment I made to the ladies held a lot of weight. In addition to the treadmill, we did a rotation on some of the machines and some floor exercises. We were in it together, and that pulled me along.

I’ve always been active, but that’s not the same as being fit. After three children and a lot of time spent sitting at a desk in front of the computer writing, I could feel that my body was not as strong as it had been. I missed having muscles with tone. I wanted to enter into my 40s as someone who cared for her body, as well as her mind and spirit. So I stuck with it.

I made some changes, and they were exactly what I needed to keep going:

1.) Enjoyed one small cup of coffee in the morning before going to the gym
2.) Switched to music while running, more specifically the kind of music that would have gotten me on the dance floor at Neo in the 90s
3.) Set goals for myself on the treadmill to give me challenges to overcome
4.) Created an exercise nemesis about whom I could create ridiculous stories in moments of exercise-induced grumpiness, usually involving slow and painful deaths

Meet Nemesis:


He doesn’t have another name, he’s just the sadistic, angry robot who hangs around the gym, sabotaging the equipment and cultivating an air of discouragement. I will you spare you the stories of his castigation; they are gruesome and not for the faint-hearted.

Those four things helped. A lot. The coffee made me feel less like a troll in the morning. The music helped to motive me and keep me moving. Achieving small goals gave me a feeling of progress. And Nemesis…well it was fun to destroy him daily with my mind.

After two months, I still didn’t like working out, but I began to feel stronger.

Around the same time, Neil wrote in his blog:

“In truth, I have not changed that much. I’d still rather read than go outside and run. But…

I like how running makes me feel afterwards.

I like the way it clears and unclutters my mind, and, sometimes, leaves room for new things to come in, like stories.

And I like the idea that time I spend running is Free: it doesn’t come out of the hours of my life, but it adds to them instead.”

That helped.

At the end of January, Kyle came to town to run with Peter Sagal in a marathon around the lake. I saw him after his run and complained about still not enjoying the process. “Stick with it,” he told me. “It gets better.”


He was right. Sometime in April, I missed a few days of working out, and I actually missed it. I missed the way I felt immediately after. I missed that time spent clearing my head and being in my body. When I came back to my gym, I actually nodded and smiled back at the person next to me on the treadmill. I was almost enjoying myself. I didn’t love it, but I no longer hated it.

A few more months have passed, and I still don’t approach running with the kind of consuming determination that Kyle has. I don’t think I’ll ever be someone who runs marathons. I occasionally need to remind myself of something Kyle wrote after running the Philly Marathon last November:

“Which reminds me — I wanted to say something. Occasionally people will say “It’s great that you love running” or “it’s great that you found something that you love to do” and I want to point out I don’t like running, it’s kind of awful. I had a conversation with my nephew about this a few months ago, he’s a real runner, like the cross country type with .02% body fat, and he said something along the lines of “successful running is just distracting yourself from the pain for as many fractions of a second as you can” — and that’s kind of it. It hurts, you see a lake you think “lake! I wonder if you can rent a canoe here” and hey! you’ve distracted yourself from the pain for like half a second and then it goes back to sucking again . . . I don’t like running. But I like being someone who runs.”

For most of my life, exercise happened when I was doing something I loved: Ukrainian dancing, belly dancing, Argentinian tango—basically any kind of dance that allowed me to joyfully lose myself in the motion of my body. I don’t love running or working out, but I like being someone who does.

I like feeling stronger and healthier. I like watching as muscles slowly reappear on this 40-year-old body. I even enjoy the familiarity of my dark, noisy, neighborhood gym with its cast of quirky characters.

Once in a while, when the right song comes on Pandora, my heart does a little leap. In a perfect synchronization, my stride matches the rhythm which matches my heartbeat, and the whole experience comes really close to dancing. For a few minutes, the world melts away and all I am is movement and music. Because I spend so much time in my head writing, that’s a delight. It didn’t happen the first few weeks, but it happens now, and it helps to keep me going. It’s a touchstone.

I’m a firm believer in the importance of touchstones. They remind us of what we are building in our lives. We can hold onto them when we feel like we can’t go on–whether in fitness, work, art, relationships.

Sometimes it is a physical talisman, like a running medal or a card or a pendant. A touchstone reminds us of what we have accomplished, what we have overcome, where we are headed, and the support we have along the way.

Sometimes touchstones are people in our lives; dear friends who believe in us, whose eyes reflect back to us the image of who we are or wish to be.

Sometimes a touchstone is a song that captures so perfectly a feeling or a moment, or a work of art that gives form to a dream.

Sometimes touchstones are memories–powerful enough they don’t need a physical manifestation, and strong enough that they form a foundation for something to come.

Whatever the touchstone, the important thing is that it keeps us going.


Virtual Authenticity

I’ve been thinking a lot about authenticity, about what is genuine.

It’s something I look for and love about the people in my life: give me honest grumpiness over false pleasantries. I think that’s why I sometimes have a hard time with sarcasm–if I can’t tell what’s true, it makes me uneasy.

I’ve recently had a few conversations with friends about the internet and authenticity–the ways we portray ourselves and the quality of our online relationships.

Just last weekend, I was at a baby shower for a dear childhood friend, sitting at a table with my sister, my oldest friend, and others from the neighborhood. The conversation turned to the love-hate relationship many of us have with Facebook.

My sister refuses to join Facebook, while the rest of us use it to varying degrees. She teased me about some of my posts, brought to her attention by my cousin, who asked if I really do the things I post about (especially with three young kids).

The things I post about really do happen.

But it got me thinking.

When I post a photo or an anecdote about some small instance of joy, like dancing in the kitchen or enjoying coffee under canopy of trees or laughing with friends by a campfire, it’s not to point to them as examples of my everyday life.

My everyday is filled with a rather unexciting routine of kids, coffee, writing, kids, cooking, coffee, housework, relationships, writing, wine, frustration, bickering, procrastination, overcommitment, deadlines, and so on. The everyday is pretty typical. It’s messy, and I’m generally ok with that.

This is my dining room right at this moment--a mess of homework, Halloween, and the ever-moving piles of paperwork.
My dining room at this very moment–a mess of homework, Halloween, and the ever-moving piles of paperwork.

Sometimes I will post about the everyday, usually if I think it’s funny because I think it helps to know that other people are dealing with ridiculous moments of child stubbornness or homeowner frustration, but nobody wants to read about the everyday every day.

So most of my everyday posts are about coffee or wine. Because the sharing of those seems to be a recognizable symbol for “the routine”–a shout out to everyone else, as if to say “Cheers! We’re in this together, this grind of everyday”–without having to specify the details. It’s like a nod of recognition.

Those other moments: the ones that are silly or playful or creative–they are exceptions and exceptional. They are the moments that make me stop and feel gratitude, they remind me to keep perspective, they show me what the everyday is for.

When I share them, it’s because they are outside my norm, because they are not everyday or typical. I feel like they’re a  gift, so I share them.

I’ve been reflecting about why I post the things I post: on Twitter, on Facebook, on Tumblr, on the blog. Each one is different, a different tool.

This past year I’ve been trying to write as much as possible: fiction, short fiction, poetry, comic book script. Making a  commitment to writing means that I spend a lot more time at home alone on my computer.  When I take a break, I pop online. I read a post or some tweets. Then I go back to work.

Twitter? It’s about community for me, the larger writing/arts community, many of whom are not in Chicago. That’s where I can wave to friends who are also writing at 2am, learn about a new poem someone published, or give congratulations for an award or good review. It’s also where I get most of my news.

Tumblr? I post photos and stories that I find interesting and quotes that strike me as compelling. Much of what I post there if for myself, a sort of bookmark for the future. (I tend to use Google+ in a similar fashion).

Blog? I process the world by writing. When something is really important and I’ve been giving it a lot of thought, I often write a blog post. It’s my way of working things out and also inviting a conversation from people I don’t get to see in person.

Facebook? This one is trickier.

Facebook is good for long distance friends and family, for birthday greetings and other milestones. I periodically check-in on people, pick a few folks I’m thinking about and read their posts, skim their photos.

But what about the things I choose to post?

There are the interesting articles and links. I try to only post things I think are compelling or important.

The rest?

I think it comes down to connection.

In her TED talk on vulnerability (and also in her book), Brené Brown says, “Connection is why we’re here. It’s what gives purpose and meaning in our lives.”

I think she’s right. Of course, connection means different things for different people. For some people it’s the close friendship of a handful of trusted friends, for others it’s crowds of fans and followers. Most of us are somewhere in between.

I think at its best, Facebook can be about those little nods that tell us we’re not alone. Especially when we are alone so much of the time.

That’s how I see “likes,” as nods, not in agreement necessarily, but in acknowledgment: I see you, I hear you. In this moment, you are not alone.

Of course, we are. Alone. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s what I loved so much about Louis CK’s talk on Conan.

Louis CK said:

“You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something. That’s what the phones are taking away, is the ability to just sit there. That’s being a person. Because underneath everything in your life there is that thing, that empty—forever empty. That knowledge that it’s all for nothing and that you’re alone. It’s down there.

And sometimes when things clear away, you’re not watching anything, you’re in your car, and you start going, ‘oh no, here it comes. That I’m alone.’ It’s starts to visit on you. Just this sadness. Life is tremendously sad, just by being in it…And I go, ‘oh, I’m getting sad, gotta get the phone and write “hi” to like 50 people’…then I said, ‘you know what, don’t. Just be sad. Just let the sadness, stand in the way of it, and let it hit you like a truck.’

And I let it come, and I just started to feel ‘oh my God,’and I pulled over and I just cried like a bitch. I cried so much. And it was beautiful. Sadness is poetic. You’re lucky to live sad moments. And then I had happy feelings. Because when you let yourself feel sad, your body has antibodies, it has happiness that comes rushing in to meet the sadness. So I was grateful to feel sad, and then I met it with true, profound happiness. It was such a trip.”

I think Louis CK is  right. We need to be able to just stand in the way of moments without the distraction of the phone or the filter of the camera. We need to be able to feel them fully, to be present.

But after? After those moments?

After that profoundly sad moment happened, Louis CK shared it on live television, and it has been archived and passed all over the internet.

Maybe somewhere in there lies the balance?

We need to experience genuine moments–moments of joy or sadness or revelation. But after? Afterwards we can share them.

Facebook can never be a substitute for a face-to-face talk, a hug, the energy of a lively dinner conversation, but the internet does give us a starting point from which we can further connect.

I think it’s always important to remember that the virtual is only part of the whole.

When I raise my mug of coffee in the morning, know that I’m probably setting it down on a large pile of papers to be sorted. Just because I don’t mention them, doesn’t mean they’re not there.

When I’m singing to the Beatles in the kitchen, it may to be to drown out the sound of the kids complaining about homework or fighting over who gets to use the cool, sparkly pencil.

And when we’re dancing in the living room–I often close my eyes not to see the clutter –because sometimes it’s better to just be present in the moment. The rest of it can wait.