Sunday, May 11, 2014

How We Spend Our Days

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.
Annie Dillard

This week I begin my second year of retirement from the mainstream business world. Although we are much poorer and may finish our lives in the Pythonesque luxury of a cardboard box at the side of the road, I can’t help looking back on the past year with something like satisfaction. A new job has a learning curve. So does the loss of one.
Whereas my lunch hour 6K run used to be a welcome escape from the sometimes tedious tasks I was engaged in at the office, nowadays a workout session is something I can do when I am ready; I need no escape routes. On weekends, I used to feel slothful for not making the most of my free time and getting my run or bike session done early and earnestly. Today the concept of the weekend—and what has to be squeezed into it—is somewhat less distinct than it once was. Efficient and effective squeezing is not required.

After nearly thirty years, I have finally admitted that I hate exercising early in the morning; now I don’t have to get the workout done early make to way for my day. A workout is part of my day.
(I’m actually terrible at everything when I first get up: this morning I poured my orange juice into my coffee cup. This hypnogogic ineptitude extends to writing as well; unlike many writers, I rarely produce anything coherent or sensible until at least noon.)

 The difference between how I allocate my time now and how I did it a year ago is that when I was at the office all day, I had to make the time to train and write. Now, I choose the time.
How to spend a  day

In fact, being retired from a nine-to-five job is like being handed a whole book full of blank pages. Unlike the early days of parenthood and mortgage-paying work responsibilties, there is now more choice among which pages to fill in and which ones to leave blank.

This freedom of course comes with its own pitfalls. I could end up staring out the window all day or straightening my sock drawer for hours. For this reason I’ve always found it easier to plan my time well when I have a goal, whether it’s to deal with the dandelions or to finish an Ironman.

To this end I went and entered my first race of the year, an Olympic distance triathlon in Guelph in June. The last race I did of this distance was the Muskoka 5150 (now sadly no more), and it was a great warm up to the season. The distance is just right to get all the right parts moving, but is not destructive or debilitating to those parts.

Entering a race is like buying a new hat. It offers new possibilities and places them squarely on my head. It makes me decide what training steps I need to take in the next six weeks. It gives me something around which I can plan other activities and obligations (and they do exist). I have home improvement projects. I need to earn some dollars working at various professional projects. To top it all off, this spring I have been somehow talked into singing in a small concert in June, my first such outing in years.

Me in The Magic Flute, 1987
Singing, writing about singing, athletic training, and improving the cardboard box we call home. The pages of my days are filling in, but in the past year they have become my pages and my days. How good to have finally recognized, now that I am in my sixties, how I always wanted to spend my life.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Three Tales of the Tape

“Begin as you mean to go on, and go on as you began...”
Charles H. Spurgeon

Several years ago, when I was wondering whether I was an alcoholic, I learned the phrase “play the tape all the way to the end.” It’s a quaint, almost archaic image; I don’t think it works with digital technology. But it's useful. I take the metaphor to mean that however attractive an idea might seem at first glance, we should look at the end consequences before charging in with all guns blazing.
I have always hated labels, whether on clothing or on me, and I do not know whether I was an alcoholic or not. Organized, anonymous alcoholics themselves might say not, because it was apparently so easy for me to quit and never start again. Whatever the label, one day I simply decided I had had enough, and I never drank again. Maybe, like Ringo Starr, I was just tired of waking up on the floor, and when I played the tape to the end, that is precisely where I saw myself.

In other areas, I am not so successful at playing that tape through to the end. It’s an exercise that can be difficult and unpleasant, because it forces us to look not at delightful prospects and happy fantasies, but at the reality of what deep down we know is going to be an unhappy ending. Who wants to spend time doing that? Who wants to contemplate the long-term effects of a Tim Hortons apple fritter? Who wants to think while basking in the desert sun that one day a blotchy bump will appear on your nose that will require surgery?
But playing the tape works two ways, I have found. On a chilly morning when I wake up with stiff and sore legs, usually the last thing I want to do is go for a run or get on my bike. (I am finding that this reluctance is more insistent the older I get.) I have finished a boatload of endurance events in my life, I tell myself; surely I don’t have to prove anything anymore. But if I search further along the tape, I feel muscles warming up; I feel my feet propelling me across the earth; I see the almost imperceptible misty spray of spring green appearing on the branches of the trees over my head. And when I picture myself arriving home, I feel a body that is tired but fulfilled; a body that has been well-used, and that responded to the challenge I set for it; I sense a mind that is at peace for having made the decision to get up and get out.

Something new just around the corner
Make that three ways the tape can work: When I start an endurance event, there is no way that I can know what is at the end of the tape, because this one is blank. Goodness knows I have had my share of surprises over the years; challenges and showstoppers that have sprung at me out of the forest at the side of the path, unexpected and unwelcome like wild things from Maurice Sendak. If I had known the outcome of some of those events before I started, I might never have started them at all.
The first tale of the tape helps highlights the folly and futility of doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

The second shows me that it is sometimes a good idea to begin with the end in mind, as Stephen Covey taught, and to let that vision carry me forward.

The third one celebrates the uncertainty and anticipation that comes with heading down a new road; this is a large part of what motivates me to do what I do. As all athletes know, every race is truly a new road, a chance to roll the tape back to the beginning, erased and ready to record. That part of the road hidden just around the corner is what makes us look forward to discovering what awaits us. It is what reminds us that we are alive.