Not-Running

Over the years, I’ve posted a lot here about running, from chronicling my marathon training to pondering my deep ambivalence (if not flat out reluctance) about the act. Like writing here, I’ve stopped and started and stopped again, and issued myself new directives to get going once more.

This is a different sort of post, in which in which I am trying not to make myself do anything but instead to accommodate myself to the current situation, and to motivate myself to make as much of it as I can. It’s attempting what Tara Brach describes as the start of a process of recognition and acceptance, a moment of looking around and saying, “Oh, it’s like this.”

The situation is this: my left knee has been acting up for the last several months, mostly in a mid-grade way but at a couple of points acutely enough that I took to my bed with an ice pack, pretty worried that I might have actually damaged something. I finally persuaded myself to go see a sports medicine doctor and get it checked out. And of course, just like when you take your car to the mechanic, it wouldn’t make the noise. Or, rather, it did make the noise (“wow, that’s a lot of crackling,” my doctor said) but it didn’t hurt, it didn’t stick, it didn’t threaten to buckle. So she pushed and prodded and said that there didn’t appear to be anything structural wrong with it, and she sent me off for x-rays.

Which, as I should have known to expect, showed a bunch of arthritis. She sent me a prescription for physical therapy, and she advised me to lay off the high-impact exercise, at least for the time being. “I’m not saying you can’t run ever again,” she said. “But for now.”

My physical therapist, however, was a good bit more solidly in the running-is-over camp. And I’m finding myself there as well. It’s partially because the thing going on in my knee seems to be degenerative, and as the PT said, it can’t be reversed or even really stopped. But it’s also partially because it gives me permission to stop bashing my head against that particular wall. Deciding that running is over lets me stop feeling bad about not running, and about not wanting to run, and it opens up some space for me to focus on doing some other things.

So for the last few weeks I’ve been all about the stationary bikes at my gym, and I’ve even taken a few spinning classes. (I’ve also been advised to back off on those until we strengthen things around my knees a bit — but that feels like something to look forward to.) And I’m doing my PT and working with a personal trainer to try to strengthen more generally.

I wanted to write about this today because it feels a bit emblematic, capturing something about how I’ve been trying to approach change over the last few years, finding ways not to fight the things that can’t be fought, ways to hold onto the meaningful parts of the past and to let go of what cannot be. It’s a mode of being in the world that I’m trying to bring to my work as well: recognizing, for instance, that whatever writing I’m doing is likely to go way more slowly than I want it to, and that my wanting it to go faster won’t change that. And that recognition — “Oh, it’s like this” — is the first step toward figuring out how to make the most of the slowness.

Must

There are the things you know you ought to do, that are hard to do, in part because the “ought to” of them is pretty abstract, especially when they are surrounded by so many other pressing, concrete demands. For me, a whole lot of stuff has long fallen into that category, and particularly things that have to do with taking care of myself. I ought to eat a little better. I ought to drop that five pounds. I ought to get more sleep. I ought to exercise more regularly. I know all of those statements are true, and I really do try to do the things they urge, but it’s often easier to let those things drop when competing demands arise.

And honestly, when don’t competing demands arise.

But I’m finding myself squarely in front of one of those moments when the world sends a no-kidding message: That “ought to”? You should maybe interpret as “must.”

Last week, right near the end of the DH conference, I started getting some pain in my left shoulder. I’ve got some kind recurrent tendonitis in both my shoulders, and with all the hauling of suitcases and carrying around of laptops, I figured I’d triggered it, which promised an aggravating few days ahead.

A week later, however, things had not gotten better. In fact, they were much worse: the pain was no longer localized in my shoulder, but was radiating both up my neck and down my arm. My small stash of Aleve was running out fast, and weirdly, given the range of things you can buy OTC here in Paris, naproxen is unavailable without a prescription. So R. talked me into seeing a doctor, and got a friend to make an appointment for me.

My experience of the French medical system is not the point of this post, but I should note how good it was: I got an appointment with a very good doctor for the very next day. She discussed the problem with me, did an examination, explained her diagnosis, and wrote me three prescriptions. The cost of the examination, for someone who was for all intents and purposes uninsured, was 50 euros. The cost of the three prescriptions, 15 euros. The doctor also said I should go get an x-ray, which I’m going to do while I’m here, both because I’m here for another three weeks and because it’ll be cheaper to pay out-of-pocket for it here than it will be to handle it through my insurance back home.1

What I need the x-ray for is more to the point of the post: the doctor diagnosed me with a pinched nerve in my neck, almost certainly produced by une arthrose — cervical osteoarthritis.2

My first response to this was annoyance. I am way too freaking young to have arthritis in my neck.

My second response was something much more akin to terror: if it feels like this in my mid-forties, what will it feel like in my sixties? My eighties?3

And following fairly quickly on the heels of that was a fairly predictable conviction: I have got to start taking better care of myself.

What this means, however, is turning all those ought tos into musts. In particular, I must make more time for more regular exercise, to become as strong as I can in preparation for whatever the coming years are going to bring my way. And this is going to require two things of me:

First, I must reprioritize. It’s useless to say “I have to get more exercise” when my calendar and my to-do list simply cannot take more being crammed in. Something, in other words, must go — and it can no longer be the things that have always seemed too (literally) self-centered. What that something will be, I’m not entirely sure — but I am starting to recognize that where ambition or accomplishment gets in the way of basic physical health and well-being, maybe it deserves a little more critical examination.4

And second, I need some kind of accountability, a means of ensuring that I actually follow through on what could turn out to be no more than a whole lot of good intentions, particularly once the pain fully recedes. So I’m hoping that maybe my internet friends will help hold me to these changes, and maybe even come along for the ride. If you use Runkeeper, I’m kfitz there. I’ll try to post some here about how I’m doing as well.

I’m determined to be that wiry little old lady still running in the park when I’m 80. And I’m weirdly grateful, I think, for this last week-plus, which has made abundantly clear that that absolutely is not going to happen without some really determined decision-making on my part.

Reluctant Is Just the Word

Boone captures something here that I really needed to have drilled into my head: that if I’m going to get over my recent dread w/r/t running, I probably need to (a) know something about how hard the running I’m doing really is (rather than how hard I think it ought to be), and (b) make it way less hard, so that I feel less beaten up afterward. Heart rate monitor obtained, and now used for two days. The resulting info was highly instructive, and I’m feeling pretty motivated, which is a decided improvement.

Pulled Pork, The Remix

We are finally, finally, in the thick of spring — the sun is out, at least some of the time, and the windows are open, at least part of the day. And the ability to stand being outside for more than ten minutes at a time has me pondering the things that sustained me through this miserable winter.

In a word: Pork, and lots of it.

One of the best things I did this winter was develop a variation on the famous ProfHacker pulled pork recipe, engineered away from barbecue and towards carnitas. In the spirit of the commons, I now want to pass this on for further experimentation and remix.

One note of not-exactly caution: I invariably pretty much eyeball the spices, so the rub is totally much a YMMV thing. That said, I have yet to have this turn out anything less than awesome.

* * *

Ingredients:

2 large or 3 medium yellow onions
6ish cloves minced/crushed garlic
coarse kosher salt
Morton & Bassett Mexican Blend spice mix
oregano
paprika
olive oil
5ish-lbs bone-in pork shoulder or pork shanks
2 fresh jalapenos
1 tub hot salsa (of the pico de gallo sort, usually found in the produce section)
1/2 cup chicken stock

Very coarsely chop the onions and cover the bottom of a large-size slow cooker with them. Mix the garlic, salt, spice mix, oregano, paprika, and olive oil, which together should form a nice thick rust-colored paste.

Wash the pork and pat dry. Rub it thoroughly on all sides with the spice mix, and place on top of the onions. (If you use a pork shoulder, place it fat side up.)

Clean and chop the jalapenos, and scatter them on top of the pork roast. Pour the tub of hot salsa over the roast, and then add the chicken stock.

Turn the slow cooker on low, and… let it do its thing, for something on the order of 10 hours. I sometimes start this early in the morning, so that it’s ready for dinner. But even more often I start it after dinner and let it cook overnight. (The house fills with the smell of amazingly good pork, which produces really interesting dreams.)

In any case, the roast should be utterly falling apart by the time it’s done. Pull it out of the slow cooker a chunk at a time, cleaning away the fat and shredding the meat.

Because we tend to use the meat over the course of several days in things like tacos (soft corn tortillas, cheese, good salsa and guacamole), I store the meat in a large container, adding a bit of the cooking liquid that the roast leaves behind to keep it moist. I also totally recommend straining the rest of the cooking liquid (and removing the thick layer of fat from it), which leaves behind a super-rich gelatinous broth excellent for doing things like cooking greens.

And that’s how I made it through the winter. That and a series of chicken roasting experiments. But that’s another post entirely.

The Tree

Mom & me, next to the tree (December 1967).

I hunted through the cabinets where I’ve stored the old family photos to find this one this morning. It’s probably my favorite Christmas picture.

There are so many things about this picture that I’m haunted by, my mother chief among them. She’s barely 23 here — quite mature, by the standards of the time, to have had her first baby, and yet I can never see this picture without focusing on how unbelievably young she is. I want so badly to reach back through the image and help.

I also can’t help but focus on how tired she looks: I’m about to be four months old, and it looks like it’s been a pretty eventful four months. Her wrists are so delicate, and her skin is so pale. And yet for all that superficial fragility, she would hold everything together a few years down the road, when it all must have seemed like it was falling apart.

Youth aside, exhaustion aside, in this picture is my most intense connection to my mother. But for a slightly different nose, the girl holding the baby could perfectly well be me. My life, just starting in this picture, could have circled around to this point with no effort at all.

So much of the path I’ve taken — that she helped me take — has been different, and yet it all for me starts here, in the open-mouthed wonder of it all. How did they get this thing in here? And what for?

Merry Christmas, and happy holidays.

Engage. Disengage. Repeat.

I believe that I have caught myself just this side of a major case of burnout.

If that sentence is an exaggeration, it’s not by much. A few friends who had the dubious pleasure of talking with me just after I arrived at THATCamp Leadership last week can attest that I showed up with an attitude that was in need of a little adjustment. Whenever I was asked how I was, I’d find myself starting out by saying “things are great,” which I meant, but which gradually gave way to a Five-Minute Complaint. I kept trying to stop myself, but it kept bubbling over. I’d hit some kind of limit, and my self-censor was just gone.

It wasn’t that I was unhappy about being where I was; I was very pleased to be back at George Mason, to be seeing my friends, to be participating in an event that promised to be both important and energizing.

It wasn’t that I was unhappy about where I’d just come from; I’d had an excellent, if action-packed, visit to talk with faculty and administrators at an institution thinking seriously about its digital initiatives in the humanities.

It was more that where I was and where I’d just come from were on the tail end of five solid weeks of travel and committee meetings, involving eight cities (not counting New York) and more planes, trains, and automobiles (and one unexpected van) than I can count.

It was thirteen nights in eight hotels over a five-week period, capped off with a musty room with two double beds (rather than one king) on a low floor (rather than a high one) with an industrial rooftop right outside my window (rather than pretty much any other view possible from that building).

Something about that room was the last straw, the thing that sent me right over the edge into a bitter litany of complaint aimed at anyone who would listen. But it wasn’t the room, and it wasn’t the trip: it was everything I’d gotten myself into over the previous month and a half, and — especially — knowing full well that I’d done it to myself. That no one was responsible for where I was, or for the mood I was in, except me.

I’ve spent the week-plus since trying to how to rectify this situation, how to pull myself back from the edge of complete flaming disaster. (1) Because, of course, my major projects did not grind to a halt in the office while I was traveling. Nor did the deadlines for the writing I’ve promised people this fall get any further away. It has become painfully clear that something has got to give — or that something will be me. And so, after a lot of thought, I think I’ve figured out what I need to do in order to make things better.

Less.

I need to do less.

* * *

You would be fully justified in rolling your eyes at this point. Because, yeah, duh. But this is a lesson that I have had to teach myself over and over.

I can read about the importance of significant downtime and totally get it. I can even go so far as to write about the degree to which stress has become the contemporary sign of our salvation or about the role of goofing off in the most important, most creative work that I do.

But I somehow cannot internalize it all enough to refrain from over-scheduling myself. Or at least I have not done so. And even when I think I’ve done a good job of protecting myself, of determining what’s enough and trying not to go beyond it, I manage to cram enough tiny things in around the edges that I end up just as over-scheduled and exhausted as ever.

* * *

If I’m going to be completely honest with myself — and this is hard — a huge percentage of this over-scheduling is about ego. People like my work enough to want me to come talk to them, and they’re nice to me when I get there, and that feels awfully, awfully good. (2) There’s of course also a general people-pleasing aspect to the difficulties I have turning down requests. And as long as I’m at it I’ll acknowledge that I’ve also fallen under the spell of competitive busyness; every time somebody says “I don’t know how you do it” about my travel schedule I get a sad little boost.

Ha, I don’t know how I do it either.

I feel as though I’ve been able to do some good out there in my travels — as though I’ve been able to help some departments and institutions jumpstart some much-needed conversations, and as though I’ve been able to help demonstrate some of the possibilities for the academy’s future. But I also know, when I’m willing to look at it squarely, that I’ve gotten a lot out of just feeling important. But that’s finally wearing thin, and the toll is beginning to make itself known.

* * *

It’s perhaps not a coincidence that during this same period I’ve found myself withdrawing from the various venues where I engage with colleagues and other folks online. I haven’t been very present on Twitter, and I certainly haven’t posted here. Some of that withdrawal has been about not having enough time or space or whatever to devote to figuring out whether I had anything worth saying. Some of it has been about a level of conflict of late that I haven’t had the energy to face.

In any case, for someone whose job is focused on fostering productive online engagements, this withdrawal has not seemed to me a Good Sign, and it’s been one more thing that’s had me worried.

But I’m now thinking that the withdrawal is in part about the conservation of energy, and as such may not have been such a bad thing after all. Total disengagement would be a problem. But disengaging enough to restore oneself, in order to be better prepared to re-engage, is utterly, utterly necessary.

It’s like sleep. It’s cyclical. And you’ll go crazy without it.

* * *

I’ve been reading a fair bit of self-help type stuff of late, partially (3) because I’m interested in the genre, in how it can describe and shape lived experience, and in the purposes it might serve in a scholarly context, and in part because I have felt myself in need of something that might help me personally figure out a better path. A more manageable way of being in the world.

Among the things I’ve read lately is Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz’s The Power of Full Engagement, which, if they’ll forgive me, is a rotten title for a very important book. (4) The key lesson in the book — heck, it’s in the subtitle, but if you’re interested, read farther than that — is that our belief that the resource we are shortest on, the thing that if only we had more of we could do what we need to do, is time, is dead wrong. In fact, the resource we are shortest on is energy, and we resist many of the things we need to do in order to conserve and restore our energy because they look to us like enormous wastes of time.

However, it’s clear that those wastes of time are precisely the things that allow us to step out of the barrage of the urgent long enough to discover, focus on, and make room for the important. In order to be genuinely engaged where it most matters, in other words, you have to find regular, routine ways to disengage. And to somebody as completely inculcated into our always-on, more more more culture as I am, that disengagement does not come easily.

Or at least it doesn’t come easily in a productive form. But it’s becoming clear that if I don’t figure out some better strategies for managing productive disengagement, a few much more damaging modes of disengagement are lurking just around the corner.

* * *

So, doing less. It’s not just a matter of saying no to more things. I keep trying to find some quantitative limit for how much I can do — no more than one trip every two weeks! no more than three major service commitments! — and yet it keeps not working. The over-extendedness just gets worse.

I finally realized something about why last week. In talking with my coach (5) about the issue, it suddenly became clear that the problem is the nature of the quantitative itself. If I set a limit of four trips per semester, it becomes very hard to distinguish between four trips and four with one little add-on. Or five, for that matter. With maybe one small side thing tucked in there too. And something local, because that’s not really a trip. And next thing you know, I have a calendar filled with five solid weeks of three-city trips and am railing at my friends over cocktails.

It’s the nature of the more more more culture: if you can run two miles, isn’t it better to run five? If you can write an article about something, isn’t it better to turn it into a book? If you can speak in four places this semester, isn’t it better to add on just… one… more…?

The quantitative will do you in every time, precisely because so much of how we operate is all about finding our limits and pushing past them. So it’s becoming clear to me that I’ve got to turn my attention to the qualitative, if I’m going to change anything, even if it’s not entirely clear what in this context the qualitative might mean.

* * *

One key to the qualitative, I think, is figuring out how to determine what’s important, and how to separate it from what’s just nice, or ego-gratifying, or adding to the frequent-flyer record. But the real challenge in that is that I don’t mean “important” in some externally-defined sense: what’s best going to further my career goals, or promote my organization, or what have you. I mean what is most important in a very personal sense: what’s most in line with the things I value, the things I want to be, the ways I want to live. What’s going to support me not just in getting more done, but in doing what I most want to do, and doing it better.

What am I doing it all for, is the question I keep asking myself.

* * *

As I’ve been working on this post, I’ve been hoping that some conclusion would present itself to me, some anecdote that would cheerily illustrate everything I’m pondering here. I’m not sure that anything can; I’m not sure that concluding, in fact, is the right way to end this line of thought. As the links above might suggest, I’ve written too many times before about the need to recalibrate and reshape the way I’m living, and yet. Here I am. Again.

I had, however, a near-perfect day yesterday. I did a bit of work in the morning, and then went and got a fantastic haircut, and had a great lunch with a friend I haven’t seen in eons, and then headed back home. And on a whim, I told R. that I wanted to take a walk in the park. Rather than push it, though, in the ways that I usually do (surely you can go a little faster!), I let myself just… walk. A bit faster than a stroll. Kind of an amble. It only took about five minutes longer than usual to make the loop of the park, and in the process, I got to do two really important things. I got to spend the hour really talking with R., and I got to look around.

And the trees. If it’s not peak leaf around here yet, at least a few of the trees are there: flaming reds and yellows mixed in amongst the still-rich greens. It was absolutely gorgeous, the best moment of my favorite season.

It’s uncomfortably obvious (see footnote 5 above) to point out that it will all be gone in the blink of an eye. But it will be. And I’m grateful, really really grateful, not to have missed it.

That’s what I’m doing it for. That’s what I want to keep my eye on. How the things I elect to do can better contribute to my ability to engage with the here and now, and, when I need to recover, can let me gently disengage.

I do not know how. But I do know why. And that’s at least a start.