Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Falling In Love with Me

I never liked my body.
I dig some parts of it, my forearms, for example. And my hands. I know, I know but a girl has her favorites.
But the rest of it, not so much. Most of my life, I could barely look at myself with clothes on, much less with them off. Mirrors were not something I had around the house.
My secret was that I was a walking contradiction.
Deep inside, I thought of myself as a beautiful, sensual woman.  Yet, every time I would looked at myself or a picture of myself, it would crush my soul. I don't want to give the impression that I wanted to be too perfect or too thin or that my vision inside was of Gisele Bundgen. I know and appreciate that we all come in different shapes and sizes and that the general view of women and how we're supposed to look is sincerely fucked up. And yes, our society puts unhealthy and unattainable expectations on us. Any trip to the local mall or newsstand confirms all of that.
But my view of my body was and has always been my own. I don't have any body role models. For me, it's matching the woman on the outside to the woman I was convinced I really am.
For years, though, I buried her, deep, deep inside. I gained weight. I used excuses for not working out and I endured those trips to the mall when I could not find anything that fit me, when trying on clothes was an exercise in humiliation. It was on those trips when I'd feel regret, when I'd wonder to myself why I wasn't doing something to change my life, when the girl inside would scream "let me out!" But time marched on and she tumbled ever deeper into the abyss, far away from clothing stores and mirrors and from any kind of serious self-assessment,  landing far, far away in a place where it seemd there was no return.
With each passing year, I knew I was losing her to the rolling tide of my life. It was as if I was on the bank of a wild rushing river holding onto her hand, trying not to let go, but knowing it was inevitable, that I could not hold on forever. My girl was slipping from my grasp. Could it be that she wasn't really me?
It was during a trip to Europe in 2009 that she started to talk to me again. Three weeks of eating and drinking, of the kind of general debauchery that accompanies a vacation with food and wine people took a major toll on me. Looking at me in the photos of the trip, I look awful,  my face is sallow and tired looking. I seem older than my age and while I'm outwardly smiling, it's forced, chagrinned, like I know better than to think the world is mine. I was facing serious marital problems then, a pain inside that I have yet to truly understand or measure, drowning in a sea of someone else's relentless negativity. And, ugh, I am unbearably heavy  -- more than 200 pounds and, I didn't quite appreciate, also adrift and alone. While I loved that trip for the time  spent with my friends and for seeing Italy for the first time, the memory that endures of that trip is of the nightly stomach aches, how walking the streets of Venice should have made me feel more alive, but instead I just felt old and slow. How the song in my heart those days was so deeply and seemingly irretrievably sad. It brings tears to my eyes just writing about it now.

I had not only lost that girl, I'd lost me too.

The first place I went when I got home was my doctor. He suggested an elimination diet to see if I could figure out the stomach aches and general fatigue. I started looking around but it wasn't until the spring of 2011, when a friend sent me The Ultra-Simple Diet book by Dr. Mark Hyman. Let me stop here and say I am not a follower. I do not have gurus and I hate doing anything in a group. I believe people should find what works for them and that not everything works for everybody. But this diet changed my life to the point where I can draw a line in the Story of Me on the calendar at August 8, 2011 -- the day I forced myself to stand in front of my bathroom mirror so I could memorialize my out-of-shape, over-weight, tired old self for all-time.
I post that photo here with with a lot of hesitancy. because it makes me uncomfortable to look at that girl now. She's not me anymore. Which is also why I keep it around --  as a reminder of how far I've come. And it's motivation, too, for where I'm headed. At any rate, it's over there, screen right.

It's a picture that speaks for itself, clearly, but let me give you some more perspective:
209 pounds, 45 percent body fat, 47-inch waist, clothing size: 2X. 

Let those numbers sink in. Twenty fucking years of mistreating my body. How the hell was I going to fix that?

I started that day, following the new diet plan, which required me to eliminate coffee, alcohol, wheat, gluten, dairy, eggs, Nightshade vegetables, red meat, processed foods, sugar and predator fish.

It sounds like a lot and it is. As determined as I was, I wasn't convinced yet. I did not believe.  I wasn't sure I could stick it out. I knew I had to try. And so I did. And honestly, that was the first of four major revelations -- which is not to look too far in the future. One day at a time. One step in front of the other. 

My plan was to stay on the diet for three weeks and then re-access based on my progress and my discipline. I made it through the first three weeks and then went for another three and then another. Roughly eight weeks in, I took the second photo and, yes, I'm wearing the same shirt as the first shot.

The progress, if not remarkable, was evident. More important,  I was hooked. While I've modified the Ultra Simple plan over the ensuring years, I've pretty much stuck to the idea. I keep my distance from gluten and dairy and, while I enjoy my liquor, I have all but given up beer. I eat as regularly as possible and I avoid processed food anything. I don't eat fast food. I try not to eat after 8 p.m. at night and I practice portion control. When I eat out, I stick to vegetables when I can, keep away from butter and cream sauces, skip dessert. I find I like vegetables a lot and I don't really miss my old eating habits. 

While the weight-loss was a great barometer of my progress, I came to my second revelation: I began to realize that my stomach aches were not only gone but I suddenly realized that I had always had them, that this was the very first time they were not a daily part of my life.

The third revelation came while on a visit to San Francisco with friends, all much younger and fitter than me, when we were all running to catch a Giants baseball game. To get to our seats, we had to climb the back steps of AT&T Park, which is a hill of concrete steps, close together, and straight up. A lot of fucking steps. In the past, I would have taken one look at it and taken the elevator. It was an easy choice because I could blame my shortness of breath on my having lost a lung to Cancer in my 20s, but the truth was that I was an overweight couch potato who had let herself go. That night I hurried up the stairs without thinking, realizing at the top that I was breathing more freely than I had in years. And my knees and back didn't hurt either. That moment I became a true believer.

Revelation four came when I added exercise to my routine. I started to ride my bike. I got serious. I fell. I got back up. I suffered to get through 10 miles. Then I got to 15, then 20. I avoided hills, and those I did attempt to climb would usually end in my getting off and walking my bike up them. But I persisted and then I was getting up bigger and bigger hills.Two weeks ago I completed my first 50-mile bike ride with 2,000-feet of climbing -- with one freaking lung. A week later, I did 42 miles with a head cold. In the last 12 months, I've ridden 1,500 miles and covered 10,000-feet of climbing. I've come to enjoy the hard stuff, to welcome the challenges. I'm not surviving them anymore, I'm taking names and kicking ass. Two months from now, I'm planning to ride my first century -- or 100-mile bike ride. I have no doubt I will do it. Since the beginning of the year, I have added cross-training to my exercise routine. My knees and back don't hurt anymore. I do things I never imagined. I'm in the best shape of my life.

The numbers? They are hard for even me to fathom.

But they are real: 50 pounds lost, 12 1/2 inches off my waist, five inches off my thighs and three off my arms. I am at 20 percent body fat. On my last trip to the mall, I tried on size 10 jeans and they were too big. I can bench press 45 pounds on 15 reps. I can do 10 real pushups. I can curl 25-pound weights in both hands. I can run three miles without stopping. I can plank for a full minute. And I look like this:

And I ain't done yet. The woman inside me has shown herself but we've come to an understanding, we two. We know it's only the tip of the iceberg. She wants more. I want more. And I won't stop until she's all the way out.

And here's something else, I like my body now. I like the way clothes hang on me and I like going to the mall just to try stuff on. I like looking at myself in the mirror. Call it vanity, addiction, whatever, but it feels good to be in shape. It feels good to bust my ass in the gym, to sweat, to be able to climb mountains on my bike. It feels fucking great. 

And you know what? I'm happy. I can't wait to find out how I'll surprise myself tomorrow. All I know now is that I'm up for the challenge. Any challenge. So seriously, bring it on. Bring. It. On.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Gone Louie Gone

It's a pretty eye-opening revelation when you get to my age and you realize your best friend was a half-blind, deaf pug named Louie who died in your arms on a cold and rainy spring morning, breaking your heart into more pieces than you've been able to pick up.
He was in my lap when he died, the same spot where he first lay when we drove him to his new home as a rescue six years earlier. Only this time when I passed him to the vet, his warm, soft body was a dead weight. It was real. He was gone. I still cry thinking about it. I'm crying now.
I could tell you how special he was but it's not the same as knowing him and that's okay. Take my word for it. The Tibetans believe pugs are descendent from monks. If you knew Louie, you would not find that idea farfetched. He would often sit at my feet as I worked. Sometimes when I would get stuck for a word or a thought or I would just feel lost, I would look down at him and it would help. I don't know how or why and I don't expect everyone to believe, but just looking into his face made the whole world seem okay, no matter what.
He came into my life during a difficult period. Looking back now I know that it was the beginning of the end of my marriage, even though it took me years to figure that out. Give Louie credit. He kept us together, or tried to. I had some really bad days back then, but it was easy to hang out with my pug and think they would pass. It wasn't until I let him go finally that I started to see the light. The changes I've made in my life since began that rainy May day. If I look back, it's only to remember the warmth of his fur and those big bug eyes because I don't ever want to forget anything about him.
Louie built up my heart and when he left me, it broke and even though I didn't think I could ever live without him, I'm still here. And I'm stronger than ever. 
And, I think, that giving love is the most important thing you can do, even if forever turns out to have an expiration date. Our hearts are not always in the right place -- we're human after all -- but never lose faith in it.
Once a day like clockwork, Louie would lose me in the house. He would run around, his nails click-clicking on the floor at a frantic pace until he found me, and then his curly tail would wag something fierce, his chin would tilt up and he would slump next to me, leaning on my leg like my only purpose in life was to hold him up.
The truth is he was holding me up. And he's still doing it now. Louie showed me the way. It just took me awhile to follow.

Friday, January 17, 2014

The Road and the Sky

I wake up alone, at dawn, streams of the first light of the morning reflecting across my bed, the one that seems so big now. These days, my first thought at the beginning of the day is that I’m on my own. The second is fear. And then sadness and guilt and then a flood of a hundred other things I should and shouldn’t feel. I have to cover my head with the pillow to keep the train of emotions from boring into my brain and paralyzing me. Because really all I want to do is go back to bed and forget all of it.
I fight it because I know I should get up. And because I want to ride.
I’ve already prepared myself. Last night, I picked the route and ran through it in my head, promising myself as I fell asleep that I would climb some hills, put some miles on my bike, get out and just do it. But lying in bed, I can’t move.
My cell buzzes. I’ve been keeping it on vibrate lately. I want to feel when someone calls or sends me a text or email but for some reason, I don’t want to see it. Sometimes, I don’t even answer it anymore.
I look at the screen. It’s my sister-in-law calling to see how I’m doing. It’s unbearably sweet how she keeps checking in on me. Three thousand miles and three hours and three little children and she still makes time to call. I want to tell her how much it means to me but before we can start, my mom calls. That’s a call I have to answer.
Mom’s mad at me about something. I don’t really blame her even though I feel it’s not entirely in my control. Hell, I’m mad at myself, too, but how do I explain what I’m going through? That I can’t possibly keep my life in order when it’s splitting apart at the seams. How do I explain to my Mom how hard it’s been here, when she is all the way on the other side of the country alone with Dad, who is really not Dad anymore, not entirely. Jesus. More guilt.
The phone call is hard. We fight. She yells. I’ve “disappointed” her.  Moms know where the soft spots are and she has said the absolute worse thing to me she could ever say. I course I feel awful about it. I know she’ll always love me. But now I’m the Child Who Disappointed Her. Ouch.
I hang up. I want to cry but I don’t and I don’t know why.  Instead, I call back my sister-in-law and we talk and it’s nice but I start to get anxious again. I’m still in bed. The sun is out now and it’s one of those January days that makes living in California the best place is the world. Blue sky, a slight wind and that feeling that spring isn’t months away. Maybe we’ll hit 70 today.
I know I have to get outside so I beg off the call. “I’m going to get on my bike,” I say, though I say it half-heartedly like I don’t really mean it. Like when I was talking to my Mom. I gather my bike gear. The week has left me stiff and sore.  A new workout regimen to start the New Year is kicking my ass. I find I’m starting to enjoy the pain a little like maybe I’m real cyclist now, but three days in a row and a night of drinking in the middle has left me feeling my years. Like all of them.
I don’t think much about having one lung but today, it’s on my mind. Why? Because it’s an excuse and it’s one I’ve used for years to keep from pushing myself. Over a few drinks the other night, my friend posed a question to me: why do we have one heart and two lungs? He asked that of someone who only has one of each which is crazy because, all things considered, I make it work somehow. One big lung, one big heart is how I see it. I wonder now if maybe what we really need is two hearts and one lung. Can you imagine? Human beings with two hearts? As if one isn’t enough. Talk about being road kill for your emotions. No, come to think of it, one is more than enough.
I think maybe my friend is convinced science doesn’t have all the answers. I used to think that was a bunch of bullshit, but now I’m not so sure. I’m clearly thinking too much.
Maybe I won’t ride today. Maybe I’ll listen to the voices in my head that are saying “you’ve done enough this week” and “take it easy”. I think about a blog a friend wrote recently about the same thing – how tough it is to get up and go exercise, the excuses we pile up like firewood to make ourselves feel better for skipping the hard stuff. It’d be so easy to say no.
But I’m not listening. I am in fact pulling on my tights and shoes, filling up my water bottle, stuffing a banana and some Hammer Gel into my back pocket. And then I’m out on the road, pedaling. My lower back is complaining, my knees are aching and my head is not clear. Not at all.
And it’s a burn day so the first mile the air is peppered with the thick, sooty smoke of the vineyard fires burning around me. I push on anyway, even though I feel like shit and my heart rate is pushing its limits and my hands are tired and shaking.  I feel every little pain on my body, like the bruise on the instep of my left food, the one I got tripping over a friend’s coffee table in the middle of that night of drinking. I’m starting to think this isn’t my day to be out here. Even on this perfect afternoon as I spin along a spectacular two-lane that’s winding through the now-dormant vineyards against a blue, blue sky.
I get through the first few miles and I’m suffering like a stuck pig. These are rollers. In bike speak, that means these are supposed to be easy. The climbs ahead, they are going to kill me. I should take a day off. Give up the ghost. But instead, I coast down the short hill before the first climb and I start spinning. Nice and easy, my heart not into it.  I go on up anyway. One hill. See if I can do it. A moral victory before I run back home, tail between my legs. It’s just as hard as I think it’s going to be but I just take it one stroke at a time, try to breathe evenly, find “my pace” as my friend always tells me.  I know I’m not going to break any personal records on this ride. Today is about surviving.
The climb is a slog and my heart rate is too high and I start to think about all the reasons why I should go home. I have to quell the panic attack that’s brewing in my gut. The whole negative “you can’t do it” vibe that’s festering. I manage to clear my head just enough to concentrate on the climb. I’m almost half way up the hill now and wouldn’t you know it, but I get a second wind. I start to pedal faster and before long, I’m not just surviving this hill, I’m actually climbing it. Yeah, my legs are sore, the muscles are shaking and I keep thinking I’m going to cramp up but I go on anyway and I gain a little speed and I don’t cramp up. Wow. I ride past the turn I was thinking of taking home, the short cut. The way back. Instead, I head down the other side of the hill, pedaling for speed, feeling the wind on my face as I descend. I’m committed now. Six miles behind me. Twenty-four or so more to go.
It’s still not an easy ride. On the frontage road next to the freeway, I’m pedaling like my bike is going through mud not rolling on pavement. I feel every bump. The freeway traffic next to us is loud and there’s smoke and fuel in my nose. I know I’m trying to find excuses to stop, to call someone to come get me. My legs are feeling every pedal stroke. Damn, I thought I was in better shape than this.
Then I’m facing the Last Big Climb of the day. I ride up, sure I’ll never make it, stealing glances at the road ahead that’s sloped upward without an end in sight. But weirdly, I find another gear again. My breath is steady and easy. In out, in out. Huff, puff. I pedal faster. I pedal faster uphill.
At the top, I feel like shit but I’m over it. It’s pretty much all down hill from here. Still a good 15 miles from home but the big climbs are behind me. My legs are jello. The air so warm, I’ve unzipped my jersey and the tails flap in the wind behind me. I can see my 
shadow keeping pace next to me, elongated like I’m tall and thin and lithe and graceful.
Grace is never the kind of word that would be associated with me. Except out here on the bike. Out here, I fly. Just like the wind.
I watch my shadow and I smile. I wonder if that’s really me or just what’s left of the me I used to me. Those last few miles are almost unbearable. My legs give in around mile 22 but I’ve no choice but to keep pedaling. It’s the only way home and anyway, it’s way past giving up time.
I keep up a pace and I feel it. In my legs, in my chest. My heart beats a steady rhythm again, I can hear it out there on the road like it’s just me and the bike, click, boom, click, boom. Almost thirty miles done on a day I could have stayed in bed.
I push the pedals harder. I’m almost there. Almost home. I keep my feet moving, my eyes focused ahead on the vast open sky, my thoughts buried somewhere deep inside my gut, too far away to make sense of, like their buried underwater.
I want to keep pedaling now. I want to ride right to the edge of the horizon and beyond and never stop, not ever.  I think it's where I belong, where the road meets the sky, where my heart will be free.