Saturday, March 23, 2013

Blogging vs. Journal Keeping

Three years ago, I wrote a post about the nature of blogging as I'd experienced it. In it––amidst some rambling speculation about the human condition in time and space––I touched on some reasons why I preferred keeping a blog to keeping a journal. More specifically, I talked about why I'd sworn off journal keeping altogether in my mid teens. The reason was basically that when I wrote just for my own eyes––without an audience to maintain appearances for––I tended to become extremely introspective and depressed. So, since I was sixteen, I'd never written another word in a journal. Until ten months ago.

Finishing college put me in a somewhat retrospective mood for a few weeks, during which I started to wish I had some better record of the things I'd done in the past few years. Sure, my blog had the actual events, but I started to wish I could recall what smaller events and decisions caused them to happen, what I thought in the time leading up to them, where I thought they might lead... etc. I also figured I was old enough now to be able to not project my emotions into it too much. So, with the commitment to write faithfully for a year and remain as objective as possible, I went to Barnes & Noble and bought an Italian leather-bound journal.

That was May of 2012, and in just two months now, I will have a year's worth of entries. I also feel like I've been at least somewhat successful in not letting my entries be controlled by my emotions in the moment. And you know what?

It's still really freaking depressing.

At first I didn't understand how this could be. I'd been careful not to let how I felt dictate what events I included, and while I hadn't completely omitted all reference to my emotions, I'd gone out of my way to include some positive things to balance the negative.

Now, it's possible I've just had a really bad year, but I feel like there's more to it than that. Today I was reading an old post from my blog, and it caused me to think about what a hugely different experience reading old blog posts that I've written is from reading back in my journal. Just jumping into my journal anywhere leaves me feeling disillusioned and depressed within a few pages. Reading my blog, on the other hand, tends to have a very re-focusing, confidence-restoring, if not quite up-lifting effect on me.

Why is that? I was asking myself that yesterday afternoon after finishing up at work, and I had a thought that I don't think I'd had before. Even though my journal and my blog are both about my life, they offer completely different perspectives, and so completely different narratives of the same thing.

When I write in my journal, I tend to record things that I'm working towards. Things that I'm hoping to do. If I'm planning on going on a vacation, I'll write that I'm making plans for a vacation. If I'm applying for a job, I'll write that I'm applying for a job. If I meet someone and hope to get to know them better, I'll write that I'm hoping to get to know them better.

Contrast that with my blog. When I write about my life on my blog, I write about events, aka things that have already occurred. When I climbed a mountain two weeks ago, I didn't write a post about how I was planning on climbing a mountain; hoped I'd climb a mountain, had expectations for climbing a mountain. I didn't even think about writing something on my blog about climbing a mountain until while I was on the mountain.

So basically, and without my conscious intent, my blog and my journal become two very different stories about the same thing. My journal becomes a records of my life as I'm trying to make it; my life as I hope it will be; my life as I plan it. My blog becomes a record of my life simply as it has been.

The problem with the first record is that––for me anyways––it inevitably leads to despair. Most of the things that I work toward, plan and hope will happen just don't happen. So reading about them in the present, when I can see how they didn't happen, not to mention see what happened instead (which often tends to be insultingly ironic in light of what I'd hoped) is really depressing.

When I read the second record though, i.e. my blog, I see only the progression of events that have actually happened. When I see that progression––completely removed from the fact that most of it's not what I expected, planned or hoped for––it doesn't seem nearly as bad. In fact, it's almost easy to look at it as some kind of great and terrible adventure.

Failure, it seems to my anyway, only exists within the context of expectations. And the same life that looks dismal in light of what I'd hoped it would be actually looks pretty grand by itself. I'm not saying I understand how that can be, but it seems it is.

And that's why I'll probably stop the whole journal thing at the one year mark in a couple months. The blog, I think will stay around a bit longer.

I want to remember my life––but only from a certain perspective.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

No Blame, No Change

On Saturday I got the results of some blood work that I'd had done Monday. 

After four months of weight training, binge eating, and an overly publicized five week fast from caffeine did nothing to help raise my body mass index above 18, I was somewhat worried.

After reading one of my blog posts, a friend who has Celiac Disease had asked me if I'd ever been tested. It's apparently an auto-immune disorder that is triggered by eating wheat gluten. One of the many symptoms is inability gain weight. It also apparently has a genetic component, and I know of at least one person in my extended family who has it.

So, incurable hypochondriac that I am, I scheduled a doctor's appointment (apparently you have to schedule those things a month in advance now days) and basically insisted that he give me the test, even though he said I looked generally too healthy to be suffering from untreated Celiac Disease, and that my weight and build are just "a part of who [I am] genetically." He also ordered a test for my thyroid function and a few other things. So they took my blood.

And then I waited.

Now, on the one hand, I thought it would really suck to have Celiac Disease. It's easily treatable, but that treatment is completely cutting all gluten out of your diet. I'm a huge fan of bagels, pasta, hamburger buns, beer, pizza crust, pretzels, bread and just everything that is made of gluten. Giving up all that would be annoying.

Throughout the week though, I started to think of all the pros of actually having a disease.

First, it would mean, that there was a concrete reason for the way that I am that could be changed. I'd just alter my diet or take some sort of medication, and all of my problems, or at least things that people tend to perceive as problems would go away. I'd get stronger, clothes would fit me, I'd no longer look like a poster-child or anorexia whenever I take my coat off––not my shirt, just my coat.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, I'd have something concrete to blame how I am on. It may not seem like a big deal, but I really get tired of people dismissing how I am as being some lack of effort on my part. People telling me I look like I need to just eat more, or just work out harder. What am I supposed to say to that? That for the last four months I spent three days a week benching my weight 24 times, doing innumerable pull-ups, bar-pushups, squats, NOT running, etc, and then eating so much protein and fat that I had to crap five times a day? Invariably, they will be quiet for a moment, and then say something like "Well that's something... but I'm sure if you really tried you could gain weight." That's how it always goes.

So, Saturday I got the letter with my results. Everything was normal. No Celiac-Disease, no hormonal imbalance, no blood disorder.

And even though I knew it was messed up, I found myself disappointed. I was hoping for something to change––or something to blame. And I got neither. 

Don't get me wrong––I'm really very, extremely, extraordinarily thankful I don't seem to have anything seriously wrong with me. I'm sure there are many people out there who only wish their biggest problems were  not being able to lift someone who is half as tall as them and looking like a Holocaust survivor at the beach. Health is a wonderful and fragile gift. I'm young, and even something as simple as not being able to eat gluten would have put a serious damper on a lot of things I may have the opportunity to do over the rest of my life.

Still, I couldn't shake a bit of disappointment. There's nothing to change or blame. It seems I just am who I am.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Mountains Beyond Mountains

This morning I went to the doctors for a yearly physical. I'm not sure if "yearly" is an accurate term since it's been much longer than that since I had one. But at any rate, I was in the doctor's office, and my dialogue with the nurse went something like this:

Nurse: "Do you have any pain anywhere?"

Andrew: "No.... er... well, actually everywhere. I have pain everywhere––but it's okay––I went mountain climbing on Saturday."

 Indeed, mountain climbing. And not just any mountains, the Adirondack Mountains.

Now, I'm not a serious mountaineer, athlete, or even really outdoors-person for that matter. Thus, waking up at 2:30am on a Saturday morning in mid-winter, driving seven hours north, summiting multiple mountains for seven hours, and then driving back isn't something that would naturally occur to me to do. I have these friends though, for whom all the above mentioned behaviors are a normal routine. And they occasionally invite me to come.

So it was, that this past Saturday morning, my friend Alex and I awoke at 2am, drove an hour north to rendezvous with his sister, Beth, and then drove the remaining six or so hours to the deep, dark heart of the Adirondack State Park.

At eight thirty we arrived at the Ausable Club––a ritzy golf club that owns the lands at the access points to several of the Adirondack peaks and is kind enough to let hikers cross it––if not use their parking lot and restrooms. Then it was about a three mile walk on a no winter access road to the trail. Shortly after getting onto the actual path up the mountain side we donned snowshoes. That was a completely new experience for me, but I ended up really liking them once I learned to trust them. You're kind of like a penguin. A super mountain-climbing penguin.

You couldn't have asked for a better day for the hike. The air was crystal clear and cold and completely still. The sun was hot and bright. There was about four feet of snow, but even though there were only two people ahead of us on the peak it was packed hard, so going was pretty easy. That is to say––at first, going was pretty easy. 

We reached the summit of Colvin on time and feeling great. The view was spectacular and we enjoyed it as we ate lunch. Then, spirits high, we headed for Blake––the adjoining peak.

After a deceptively mild descent into the col (a term I only learned the day before yesterday––means the lowest point on a ridge between two peaks) things took a turn for the less enjoyable. The ground suddenly dropped out sharply, and we found ourselves staring up at the towering mass of rock and pine trees that is Blake. It suddenly looked like the climb was going to take a good bit more than the seven hours we'd been hoping for.

One thing I forgot to mention about my friends: They are dedicated to becoming 46ers. That is, people who've climbed all 46 High Peaks in the Adirondack range. So, while staring down the steep drop into the col and up the side of Blake was the moment I would have probably turned back, I don't think it crossed either of their minds. 45 minutes later, we were huffing and puffing up one unbelievably steep incline after another. It got so bad that even with my spiked snowshoes, the only way I could keep from falling down the trail backwards was pulling myself by twigs and branches along the edge of the trail in this awkward sort of sideways crawl. 

And then, all at once, I got to the top of the incline, looked out, and there it was. Another incline. So it was another lung bursting, muscle straining, tendinitis inflaming drag to the top until finally we reached––another incline. So came another capillary popping, joint grinding, finger lacerating effort. Then the ground leveled, and there, before us, was another incline. So it continued for a good hour.

It's a funny thing with mountains––in my very limited experience––that however much you think you can possibly do, it always asks a little bit more. Okay, so I guess most of life is like that actually, but on mountains the time-frame is compressed, so it's easier to see. That was the thought going through my somewhat clouded mind when we finally made it onto the summit.

The view honestly wasn't all that great, and the only marker was a tiny symbol hacked into a tree. We wouldn't have ever even noticed it had we not met a woman who pointed it out to us––she along with her partner were the only other people we met on the trail to Blake. But painful price and underwhelming reward aside, we'd accomplished our goal. My friends had squared away another victory on their quest for 46 High Peaks, and I sat down to enjoy enjoy an Advil washed down with RedBull and a gummy-bear chaser.

It was on the way down from Blake that we discovered the most terrific thing ever: Those steep inclines that were so terrible to climb up work as sledding paths. With the snow packed hard and our snow shoes strapped to our backs we swooshed down hill for twenty to sixty feet at a time, walked a few yards, and then swooshed again. I feel like there's some grand analogy about life in that too. The hardest times in your life... make for great sledding on the way back. Okay. That one needs some work. But it was fun. 

By the time we made it back down into the col and up the incline to reach the summit of Colvin again, I was beyond the point of exhaustion. It felt good though. It'd been awhile since I'd been there, and every now and then, it's nice to find out there is still in the same place, or a better place than it was before. And reaching the summit again, it was as beautiful and clear as before.

Our progress down was slowed slightly by two nice French Canadian ladies, but once we passed them, it was back to sledding and sliding the rest of the way down Colvin. Things were going along so easily that we completely missed our turn off for the road, went half a mile two far, and had to take another goat path incline called Indian Head Trail. It turned out to be the steepest of the day.

By the time we got back to the three miles stretch of snow covered road that would take us back to the Ausable Club, I was beyond the point of the point beyond exhaustion. Beth did her best to keep me sane by asking me happy open ended questions about things like work, and my opinion on physician assisted suicide. I was starting to lose it though, and I'm a little worried about what I may have said.

On the road we started to see a good number of hikers for the first time that day. It was getting dark so everyone had to get off of the several peaks the road leads to. When we finally got to the trail head and were waiting to sign out on the trail log, we overheard a group of very extreme looking hikers talking about what they had accomplished that day. "We did Colvin, Blake and Indian Head," one of them said, and we were like: "Yeah, we did that too. What up?" Okay, we didn't actually say that to them. But it may have been said.

So it was that after what I think was 16 miles of hiking over eight hours that we walked the mile back past the glitzy golf club, the ritzy lodges, the parking lot we couldn't park in, peeled off our hiking boots, and immediately began the seven hour drive back to Corning, the highway illuminated by the darkly ironic glow of "Sleep Awareness Week" billboards on every overpass.

7:30am came early the next morning. I felt worse for Alex, who had to immediately go resolve some fairly typical disaster with our Church's setup trailer. But I felt like I'd climbed a mountain the day before too. And that was when I remembered––I did.

And it was awesome.