Eleven

Since Thanksgiving, I’ve managed to hit the gym eleven times.  That’s eleven more times than I went all summer long (apart from the one-off from time to time) and eleven more than I was expecting.  While I realize that I still have a long way to go with regards to my fitness, I have been finding myself gaining back lost strength since the last time I was hitting the weights regularly.  I feel my legs and arms swelling, growing muscles yet again.  It feels good.

I’ve also noticed that my body is definitely aging.  I’ve got a creaking right shoulder, stiff neck, and other parts of me that aren’t functioning as they once did.  I am definitely noticing the effects of my sit-down/stress-laden job of bus driving.  I have been reading over and over again just how bad my job is on a person’s body, with repetitive motion injury, stress, constant high levels of cortisol and the like.  The gym, much as it always has been, is a proving ground for all of these things, and also an antidote to it, I hope.  I hope it’s not too late for me to regain what I’d given up the moment my right knee gave out just under a year ago.  I hope I can continue with this streak of going-and-doing the exercise that my body definitely needs.

Movement, as it always has been for me, is a method to sorting out my thoughts.  I still don’t fully understand the chemistry or biology of it all, but I know that once I start putting my body into motion, suddenly, I can feel my thoughts stretching out into palatable lines of comprehension, rather than remaining a lint-ball of cross-purposes within me.  I can take one idea and follow it to a logical and reasonable conclusion.  I can ask myself the questions and do the reasoning that fully thinking something through requires, all while walking a fifteen-minute-mile on the treadmill, or bench pressing a few sets.  I think it’s this dual purpose of exercise – not only to gain strength and stamina, but to also help process my thoughts with an added level of clarity – that keeps me going back.  Sure, I’d like to once again be the skinny pretty man that I have been from time to time, but that might need to just be a by-product of it all, rather than the sole purpose.

It’s nice to be back there, back at the gym, back staring at the weight racks and noticing the fellas around me with the massive chests and multi-faceted arms and legs.  It’s nice to feel my own personal power growing again, to allow myself the surge of endorphins that comes from a set well done.  I’ve already got my eye set on the conditions outside so that I might make a return to running.  I do need to purchase a couple of new pairs of sneakers – one for the gym, one for running outside – so hopefully I can find some good deals once the holidays are over.  I want to get myself some new gym clothes too.  It feels good to have something to focus on that I have complete control over, all while the political world that I find myself now inhabiting seems to be burning down around me.  The gym is a respite from all of that, and I’m realizing that fact more and more these days.

 

 

On a Walk

Today was the first lovely spring day we’ve had in a very long time here in Portland, OR.  This winter busted lots of records with regards to rain and damp, and as you all know, I’m way too much of a princess to go out in the rain and get my move on.  That, coupled with the knee injury last month, has really, really set me back in terms of my fitness.  I was already on a downward slope from the place I was a few years ago, just before I met Ray, but as of today, I really have hit a point I am not proud of.  I’m as heavy as I was at my heaviest last year (circling around 240 pounds), and for me, that’s way, way, way too much.  My body feels just out of control, and even though I’ve been somewhat good about my diet, and somewhat good about exercise, clearly it’s not working the way it once did.

Today, after a nice chat with my pal Andy back in Denver, it sank in that I’ve arrived at my middle-age.  This means, in terms of weight and food and all the rest, that I will never have the same level of metabolism that I once did, even just a few years ago.  Decadence and indulgence now doesn’t mean just a few more reps at the gym, or even another mile of walking or movement.  Now, it means another tick up on the scale, needing a *lot* more effort to correct.

The other factor, though, that has come to light while I have been arriving at this little place in my life, is the comments that I get from those around me who have seen me change over the last two plus years.  Things like, “you look so much happier/healthier than you ever did before” are coming up in conversations across many of my friends, none of whom talk to each other.  I find this striking, considering that when I thought I was at my sexiest, I was also at my leanest and meanest I’d ever been.  What is the x-factor there that they’ve seen grow and develop even as my waist has expanded and my energy level is coasting at best?  What is that thing that they see when they look at me that I simply cannot see when I look in a mirror or catch my reflection in a passing storefront while I’m out walking?

I set off on a short jaunt this morning – about two and some miles – because it’s just so damn lovely outside and my vitamin D levels have been tanking for so long.  Out there, wandering through the neighborhood and taking in all of the glorious spring flowers and smells that come when the sun shines on land that’s been forever soaked by deep rains, I had a moment of epiphany.  Yes, another one.  YES, I know that these often come while I’m out moving around, and I know know know that they are the things I need to keep discovering as I meander along on this little path of mine.

Beneath this exterior flesh of mine, beneath the curves and stretch marks and dimples in places other than my face, there is a beast.  He’s hairy, he’s powerful, and he’s always been there.  For some damn reason, all this time, I’ve been really afraid to let him out.  I did see glimpses of him just before I met Ray, when I thought I was looking the best I’d ever looked in my life, but again, he’s slipped back into the shadows, back beneath the surface.  I wonder, perhaps, if he was revealing himself to me then as I was bracing to embark on a very, very solo journey, and preparing to have to take on the world all by myself.  Like some sort of protective shell, looking powerful and strong as an outward avatar of myself meant that I wasn’t going to take any shit from anyone, that if you approached me on the street, you might think twice about talking to me, or that you might see me as a person who was very self-involved, and therefore not needing your intervention, or your commentary.

The fact is, though, when I was at that point, I was at one of my lowest emotional levels in my life.  I had gone from living in a gorgeous house, with a man I had fallen in love with, and had this actual life of a big back yard, a full-size garden, a home to make my own, and was watching my dreams come true-to-life, to living in the back bedroom of a friend’s house who took pity on me, and wanted to help me find my feet again in this town of mine.  I had given over so much of my life to the will of another person that I had no idea who I was, or what I really wanted for myself.  My life with the now-ex-boyfriend wasn’t my life.  I was a mere accessory to his life, and facing that all down as he and I split up was gut-wrenching.  Of course, being me, I took it all out on myself – and my body.  I ran and ran and ran.  I hit the gym like a fiend.

I had given up on ever finding a person to share my world with, especially considering just how much of a mess it was – I mean, really, who could possibly want to be with a man who was only making about $1000 a month and couldn’t even really afford his own groceries, let alone a nice dinner date or a trip to the movies?  At that point, I had resigned myself to needing to be ultra-self-sufficient, and having to just say no to everything else but work and my bills.  I needed to protect myself, I needed to look strong, and I needed to wear the armor of a muscled man just to face the day.

Then, of course, I met Ray, and I was able to let down my guard.  In the process, I also let down my rabid need to wear the aggressive solo muscled look.  Ray re-introduced me to the world of eating pleasurably.  He supported us both, taking us out on dates, out to the bars and restaurants around Portland, and allowing me to enjoy cuddling up with him rather than one more hour at the gym, or even one more mile on the road.  I gladly accepted the offer to get lazy because, let’s be real, attaining a muscled, chiseled body takes *lots of effort*.  It also can be super consumptive of one’s time and mental energy, and Ray constantly reminds me that there needs to be a better balance in my life than being so obsessed about one thing or another at any one time.

So, while I am not blaming Ray for the extra pounds I’ve put on since knowing him – about 60, if I’m totally honest – I am saying that he’s helped me get to where I am today.  I am happier.  I am more contented in my life.  Instead of having my dreams given to me, I’m having to earn them the right way.  I am still carrying around that inner beast – the protective, muscled, furry, foxy man that I had started becoming as an act of defense.  What I need to do, and what I think is the health journey before me now, is to find a way to let that side of me out, without feeling like I’m doing it as an act of personal protection.  I don’t need the rock-hard chest, the powerful thighs, the narrowed waist to defend me.  What I’d like, though, is all of that as a statement of defiance against the demons of my past.  I want to have that kind of look as a way of saying I have overcome things and I have achieved a better, stronger life.

I know this is rambling, and I know it probably makes no sense, but it’s what I’m feeling, and it’s where I stand today.  I do have a massive health journey ahead of me, but I now know the goal.  I now know what it is I’m seeking.  IMG_3287

Control: Money

Any of you who know me personally, and have known me for quite some time, know that I’ve never, ever been good with money.  I usually am broke, and usually am struggling to make ends meet.  For years, especially during my twenties, I maxed out and over-extended myself time and time again in order to acquire things, and what I thought was status, among my peers.  I used money as a means of escape through spending way too much at the bars and clubs, or on clothing and dining out, in order to add meaning and value to my life.

When I was with Nathaniel, I basically turned over all of my income into his hands, and relied on him to pay the bills and tend to the responsibility of making on-time payments to all of our mutual debts, including rent and the utilities, along with groceries and everyday living costs.  I used to just ask him, “Can we afford it?” and he’d tell me yes or no.  I never questioned him or his judgement, but in doing so, I actively removed myself from any fiscal acuity in our relationship, and simply assumed everything was going along smoothly.  For the most part, it did, though I recognize that this meant I lost touch with the cost of things, and how much it really took to sustain a life that was worth living.

After he and I split, suddenly, I was left holding the reins to my own fiscal life.  I had no checking account.  I had no debit card or credit card.  I didn’t even have a phone.  I had a paycheck, but nowhere to put it.  At first, I turned to check-cashing store fronts to convert my income into a form of money accepted everywhere.  It turned out that I had some old bank accounts that had gone into overdraft years ago, and until those were paid off, I couldn’t open another account.  I managed to do that, and for the first time in years, marched my butt into a local bank and opened my first account.  It was a basic checking account.  I got my first debit card, set up my direct deposit from work, and suddenly found myself staring at the requirement to keep myself in check.  It was up to me to pay my own bills, buy my own groceries, keep a roof over my head, and obtain and activate a means of communication.  At the time, it felt like learning to ride a bike again.

Along those first few months, I had a few hiccups.  I overdrew a couple of checks due to my bad math, and quickly learned that $32 in fees per check added up quickly.  I had to come up with a means of organizing my finances that would work for me, and it was then that I first learned the art of creating a budget.  For me, after the debilitating crush of a destroyed relationship, a relocation, and having to find my feet again, gaining some sort of control over an aspect of my life back meant the world to me.  Once I’d set up a plan and could see both how my money was being spent, and how I should be spending it going forward, that rush of adrenaline from a surge of confidence became addictive.  I wasn’t perfect, but I made it work, and over time, it all became natural to me again.

When I moved to Denver, though, it all fell apart.  Suddenly, I was back to my old habits of spending too much on going out and keeping myself distracted, that bills began to pile up again.  I was borrowing – this time, from payday loan lenders – at a rate that was unsustainable.  I fell into the trap of having to borrow from one place to pay off the debts of another.  This went on for a few months, and all I can really recall from that period of my life was a never-ending surge of anxiety that wouldn’t go away.  While, at the time, I saw the necessity of having access to quick money to pay the rent so that I could have a roof over my head, the amount of time – some up to six months – it took to pay off that small debt, was insufferable.  It got to the point where I had to finally just stop, say no more, and reel myself back in.  Phone calls from collectors, setting up payment plans, and the like, was something that became a constant problem in my life, but eventually, I managed to find my way out of that hole, with a vow never to return.  It was ugly, and it was dark, and it was not how I wanted to define myself.

It was a move in with my bestie, Amanda, that helped me come to terms with a lot of that anxiousness.  With her, I was comfortable in the home we shared, and didn’t feel the pressures to go out as much and spend money I really didn’t have just to escape the darkness that was at my previous home.  I also got to have grown-up conversations with her about finances, and it was with her as a guide, that I managed to get back on a budget and get myself back in order.  My credit score had been obliterated, but I still had a bank account, I still had my cell phone, and I still had an income.  I had a means to move forward, and that is what I did.

Being jobless for eight months upon landing here in Portland, Oregon was almost a complete setback for me and my finances.  I’d cashed in a retirement plan from my previous employer, and even though it seemed like more than enough to sustain me, inevitably, it wasn’t.  This time, though, money wasn’t being spent on going out and being dumb.  It was spent on groceries, on home improvement projects that my ex-boyfriend and I were working on.  I bought a bike.  I spent money on some workout clothing.  I did take myself out from time to time for a drink, though rarely, and I did spent an inordinate amount of money on coffee in cafes as a means to not have to be tied to the house so much.  It was a slow drain that, by the time I landed my current job, had wiped me dry.  Somehow, and through the generosity of others around me, I managed to pay my bills, and keep up with most things.  Still, some things slipped, and once again, my credit score took a pummeling.

When I finally did start work again, and secured a very reasonable place to live with Bil and his partner Brandon, things finally were able to turn around again.  Though I was making very little to start (and had just met Ray at that same time), I still was able to pay the rent, and pay my student loans.  Slowly, and over time, I was able to start to feel those glowing embers of satisfaction one gets when stuff gets paid on time.  I relished making payments to my debts, and once again, was able to set up a budget that worked, and that I could see grow and change over time.  I secured a credit card in order to help me rebuild my credit, which has been helping immensely.  Occasionally, I can take Ray out on a date and drop a few coins in that fountain, but not often.  He, for his part, has been super supportive and really patient, as I get my finances back in order.  Now that I’m almost two years into my job, my pay has reached a level where the budget is really starting to look very rosy.

I’m terrible at spreadsheets, but being able to build one that helps me see into the future, including when things get paid off, how much my savings will be able to grow, and how a “snowball” payment plan towards the debts I do have is working, makes me feel insurmountable.  Confidence is oozing through the columns and rows, and for the first time in my life, really, I feel like I have this.  Like, totally, utterly, have this.  I’ve figured it out, and I’m making progress.  I recognize where I’m spending silly still, but I also know how to prioritize my spending in a way that at least ensures all of my obligations are tended to.  It feels good.  It feels grown-up.  It feels like I can trust myself to make the right decision and stick to a promise to myself (at least in the fiscal arena).  It feels like pride and increased self-worth. By the end of the year, my two credit cards will be paid off.  By the end of the year, I will have a savings account for us that should contain at least $1,500 (downpayment on a new apartment).  By the middle of next year, I should be sitting quite nicely on a sum of money that will help me buy something that I’ve always wanted (more on that later).  I’m really, really excited to see this all unfolding before me.

Over Eggs and Bacon

It is a *perfect* day here.  After a stormy evening last night, the air is fresh, the grass is damp, and after the morning mist burned off, the sun is shining in a brilliant sky of blue overhead.  I started my day with some affections with Ray, and after he took off for work, I set to prepping my bedroom for my mom’s visit.  She’ll be taking my bed, and I’m going to set up shop in the basement guest room.  After a bit of cleaning, dusting, and vacuuming, my room feels like a pristine respite from the world.  I decided, while I started another load of laundry, to take myself out for a plate of eggs and bacon and fruit at the Country Cat Cafe, a local hot spot in my neighborhood.

As I was finishing my breakfast and sipping the remainder of my coffee, two women sat down at the bar with me.  After a few pleasantries, we got into a discussion.  One of the women is a social studies teacher for a local middle school.  The conversation led into teaching and such, and I revealed to them that I had aspired to be a high school English teacher not too long ago.  I still have all of the credentials, and could still step foot in a classroom today and teach a lesson.  As we talked, though, it dawned on me, in a way, that perhaps I am happier doing the work I’m doing now than I would be in a classroom.

As a teacher, when I was in England, it was two years (my first two years of teaching) that was spent fully immersed in my job.  I spent upwards of eighty hours a week in work mode.  Grading, planning, prepping, parent meetings, IEPs, teacher workshops, student well-being – all of these things consumed my life.  Then, it was a source of joy, for the most part, but I was young to the profession, and younger as a person.  I was thrilled to have a career, even though I didn’t have much of a life.

Today, while I still am capable of teaching, I am not.  I’m driving a bus for the local public transit company.  I work around thirty hours a week, and after a few months of scrimping by, I’m now making enough money to support myself and my life.  Because of the nature of my job, when I park that bus at the end of my day, I get to simply leave it all there and walk away.  I don’t take any of it home.  The most work I do outside of my actual job that still pertains to my job is make sure my schedule is posted on a shared calendar between Ray and I so that he and I can scheme and plan what we’re going to do outside of our work hours.  In this job, I have a life.  I have a balance in my life that I didn’t have in my early teaching years.  Sure, if I’d stuck with it, not only would I be years into my career, but I’d also have the rhythms and patterns down.  I’d have a reference library full of lesson plans and modifications to meet the needs of my students.  I would have a stockpile of things to fall back on, and would probably, just at this point, start having a life outside of work.

It hit me, over eggs and bacon and fruit and coffee, that maybe I’m contented with what I do to sustain my life.  Sure, it’s not glamorous, but it is a job.  It pays enough to keep me happy (and my creditors happy).  I don’t have the things that other near-forty-year-olds have (house, car, plenty saved for retirement), but I do have a smile on my face.  I had no idea that I’d be driving a bus at this point in my life, but then I didn’t know that being contented might take the shape that it has in my life.

Old Demon

Ray is proving to be something totally extraordinary.

Yesterday, he took me to a place here in the Portland area that I had already decided I hated.  Along the northern reaches of Sauvie Island, where we did some fantastic picking of summer berries – blackberries and raspberries by the pound – there is a quiet nature reserve that also has a sandy beach along the shores of the mighty Columbia.  Part of this beach is clothing optional, which is the part that I least wanted to know about. I knew, however, that he would go there from time to time, and really enjoyed being in a quiet natural setting in a quiet, natural state, simply enjoying the sun on his skin.  I knew this was important to him, and that if I wanted to experience this kind of thing with him, I’d need to put aside my own judgements and take the plunge.

It was cloudy, verging on rain, and being a mid-week day, there wasn’t a soul out there to bother us.  He suggested we take our picnic there, the one I had planned earlier this week.  In my backpack were some deli crackers, two types of cheese, and a bottle of wine.  I enjoyed the ride there, snapping some photos of the farms and fields, and keeping up a lively, happy conversation with him.  Still, as we drew near to the parking spaces for this beach, all empty, I felt my throat tighten and myself go a bit dizzy.  Something was not right about what we were about to do, and Ray could visibly see that I was in distress, on the verge of panic.

“What’s the matter?” he asked.

My reply became something I’ve never shared with anyone prior to that very moment.  I told him what had happened to me the last time I had visited a clothing-optional beach.  An older man had been rather aggressive with me, and had crossed a very personal line that left me feeling really, really scared, vulnerable, and rotten.  I managed to get out of the situation, and fled home, upset and disturbed, but never spoke of my experience to a soul.  Ever.

As I told him this, the look across his face went from concern to sadness.  As I explained why this thing was standing between my enjoyment of a very beautiful, very natural setting with a very wonderful, very beautiful man such as him, and myself, I could see him, full of grace, take a very gentle and very peaceful turn of behavior.  We didn’t have to stay.  He was sorry this had happened to me.  I insisted that we go to the beach, so long as we kept to ourselves.  There was absolutely no one there, from what I could tell.  I was not in danger.  Ray was there to protect me.  That thing that had happened in my past was not going to happen again.  He promised me this, and I believed him.

When we got to the waterline, there were a couple of people also enjoying the breaks in the clouds, but they were far off, almost out of eyesight and totally out of earshot.  It was clear that I could simply ignore them and remain present, with Ray.  We did manage to enjoy a kiss of sun on our skins, but the clouds grew thick and the afternoon wind blew up the river, forcing us to leave a little earlier than we had planned.  Still, we’d managed to sip a little wine, and along with the food I’d brought, plus some of our berries, an experience that I dreaded and feared because of this old demon turned out to be something beyond romantic.  Yesterday was transformative.

Ray gave me back a part of me that I’d lost.  When I was a young boy, growing up on a rural farm in Maine, I used to always shuck off my clothes and play in the streams that ran near our home without any regard.  I was a boy in the summer enjoying a swim.  Innocent, relaxed, happy.  I have never been comfy in my skin, but when I knew I was safe, when I was alone, when I knew I could put down my armor, I was always able to enjoy myself and the kiss of sun and wind on skin that is usually covered under layers of cloth.  As an adult, and in that moment of darkness on that beach in my past, that innocence and purity was taken from me.  No longer could I expose myself that way.  No longer, and never again.  I simply shut that part of me off, and ever since then, have really shunned nudity in public spaces, distancing myself from spaces where it is either encouraged or simply allowed.  I forgot how nice it felt to simply be a human being in nature, being in my own flesh, being both exposed and unhidden – an honest visage of myself.  Yesterday, under his careful watch, Ray allowed me to find that part of me again, and for a short while, I was just a human boy in the woods along the river again.

Another demon has been slain.  Another part of me has been restored.

Bodily Changes

I took the photo you see here at the gym on Thursday. I don’t look that different than I ever have. Maybe a few more wrinkles, more grey in my beard.

Well, except one thing: my neck.

I see a thicker neck, perhaps bent just right in the photo, but it looks stronger to me. I feel less like a bobble-head.

All over, actually, the changes that eight consistent weeks of working out have brought about are, for lack of better phrasing, intriguing. So far, my arms and shoulders are bigger. I have back muscles. My thighs are less squish and more stocky. I have a shape to my butt that is not flat.

I still have the curves of my frame around my midsection, but my trunk feels stronger, more solid, even if it does still remain under a layer of fat.

A good friend has pointed out that if I change my stance a bit – feet shoulder-width apart, and stand up taller – that my profile becomes noticeably better. I appear more confident, perhaps “better,” when I stand as he suggested.

In all, it’s just strange to see the changes my body has been undergoing. It’s physical. It’s also emotional and mental. I do not hate myself any longer. I do not wish I could change but lack the ambition to do so. It’s a slow, incremental shift, but tonight, I definitely feel like I’ve made progress. I’ve got years ahead of me as I continue to improve and rediscover just what sort of biology I am capable of. For now, though, I have a good workout habit, with no intention of breaking it.

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