Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Lesson From the Gym: Habits Can Be Good or Bad

No really, that's me now - only without a tan.

I have a confession; I'm developing an addiction. No joke. It’s costing me $100 per month. That might not sound like much but to me it’s huge. Not so much the dollar amount though; it’s more the toll it’s taking on my body.
               This growing habit is also taking up time from other stuff; cutting into important activities. At least it feels that way. So it can be a problem sometimes. Especially since there are only so many hours in a day.
               But I'm not complaining. Instead I'm celebrating. See, the habit I'm developing is going to the gym. Though I’m still a ways from defining myself as a gym rat, I am starting to feel the fitness bug. That’s a good thing; a healthy thing. I've been in and out of this habit, working out, for most of my adult life. FYI, in my youth it was called ‘playing.’
               Problem is, the older I get, the fewer chances I seem to have for this wellness pass time. Yet I know being in this particular habit is probably the best thing in the world for me. Not only does it help me physically, it also affects me mentally. Emotionally too.
I'm in this photo somewhere, I swear.
               Being in shape tends to bring out my best side. I’ve got more energy and a better attitude. But it’s hard. The getting in shape part, that is. That's because when I'm out of shape I excel at concocting a thousand other reasons (i.e., excuses) why I should be doing something, anything other than pumping iron in the gym or running outside until I'm so nauseous I feel like I’m going to be sick.
               When I'm not in shape, just thinking about going to the gym or doing anything strenuous is depressing. I think about all the hard work it takes: the sweating, the soreness, the time away from other stuff, any stuff I would prefer to do instead, like reorganize my sock drawer or watch paint dry. Or ordering a double Whopper, heavy ketchup, no onions, cut in half.

That's my leg, right there - see? 5th bike back.
But it’s no plea that I’m copping. Instead it’s funny; my mind always knows how good my body will feel when I finally get into shape. Yet it’s the ‘getting there’ that is a problem. Seems my priority for achieving proper physical conditioning for some reason tends to be a low priority. That is, until I reach that special threshold. I’m talking about the point at which working out starts to feel more important than anything else. That’s what’s starting to happen with me now.
               Currently, I’m closing in on that psychological frame of mind where I can't not go to the gym, take a run or go mountain biking. It's as if my DNA is being somehow altered. It feels as much a mental thing as it does a physical one. Life activities and responsibilities magically re-prioritize in my mind, with being fit and eating right bubbling to the top of my daily list of things to do.
               Habits are a funny thing; they can help or do harm. For instance, when it comes to be being a better person in other ways, like respecting those different from me, habits can be especially helpful. Trouble is, there are also bad habits. They creep in when I least expect it. Frequently, I don’t even notice them – no matter how well intended I believe myself to be. Bad habits like making assumptions and depending on stereotypes.
               It takes dedication to make and break habits. It also takes practice. However, I find the more I work at it, the easier it becomes.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Students Aren't the Only Ones Who Pay When a School Closes

Another one bites the dust. Who pays?
I’m grieving. Recently, the board of Albion Public Schools in Michigan approved a measure to lay off its high school teachers and paraprofessionals at the end of the school year. Simultaneously, for budget reasons, plans continue in the direction of city residents losing their high school and busing the institution’s students elsewhere. Among the places is neighboring Marshall, one town over. As this transition continues to unfold, it seems conversation locally and across the region is all but forgetting a couple important groups of folks lost in this lack of adequate funding mess. At the top of the list are teachers.
               While it’s true students must weather the impending transition from one school to another, teachers bear the brunt of this change. They are being cast adrift during a time when finding meaningful work is no easy task. But this is not an attempt to cast blame on decision makers. Nor is it a commentary on what led to this gut-wrenching decision. It is a recognition of something worse.
               It’s a familiar scenario; an entire workplace shut down. This time a high school. An entire workforce summarily dismissed. A community stripped of a significant and (dare it be said) unifying community symbol and in the process, families traumatized by job loss with few prospects for re-employment. Those with the right connections will land on their feet sooner or later. For others the path is less certain.
The road ahead is uncertain...
               Another school closing. (Sigh.) This time Albion High School. Home of the Wildcats. What must this feel like to alumni and longtime residents of Albion? What must the wrenching of a venerable institution like a high school do to the spirit of residents in a place? What type of psychological hit is taken among long time locals by so dramatic an event?
               But the city is not dead. It’s not all doom and gloom. The community will survive, even if one of its most important centers of influence does not. Some might think closure of a school consisting of some 150 students and 15 or so teachers is no big deal in the relative scheme of things. Maybe. Then again, losing a place where over the years thousands of young people cut their teeth on memories that can last a lifetime is nothing to sneeze at. If the folks in Albion are anything like me, they’re no doubt lamenting the passing of a place with a storied history; one that holds a legacy of graduating mothers, fathers, doctors and lawyers, machinists and farmers; proud persons of any number of vocations – made possible through the benefits of obtaining an education at this particular high school.
Our youth must and will prevail.
               Yet this is no sappy, sentimental commentary. Rather, it’s a respectful shout out to the people of Albion and the lifting up of a place close to the hearts of graduates everywhere. It’s about remembering teachers, coaches, administrators, janitors and fellow students in a place where standing ovations, spirited debates, valedictorian speeches, homecoming courts, fourth quarter touchdowns, walk-off home runs and last second jump shots have buoyed many a heart. It’s about activities and accounts that are forever etched into memory – a history made. It’s about the pride of being a part of something that runs deeper than the size of your wallet or location of your home or model of car you drive. It’s about kids. Yours, mine and ours. And about the people who mold them.
               The path for Albion High School students and their parents may be rocky but so is the future for its teachers. Let’s not lose focus on that, even as we all move forward.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Man Bags and States of Independence

Batman wears a fanny pack
Recently, somebody was ragging on me because I had a small stylish bag slung on my shoulder. Man bag, he called it, and his clipped quip carried more of a moral judging tone than one rooted in fashion. His comment was, to say the least, annoying but not for obvious reasons.
              That he was critical of my professional accoutrement was not much of an issue for me; the bag was a business-casual alternative to my usual briefcase and carried an electronic tablet (think iPad), business papers and other portable office necessities. Besides I had carried man bags before, in other cities where quite frankly the subject never came up.
              Here’s the rub: if Batman can wear a utility belt in his line of work and no one barks, why can’t a yokel local like me carry a utility bag and not get harangued? Does Batman get a pass because he beats up bad guys? The Caped Crusader is into criminal justice; my thing is social justice, so what’s the problem?
So does Chuck Norris
              For that matter, why can’t a middle-aged father of four on family vacation wear a fanny pack for his stuff at Disney World and not get teased about it? Sadly, I’ve seen it happen more than once. Furthermore, in my case with the bag, I wasn’t the one sporting a business suit and wingtips with no socks.
              Granted, this griping is ultimately irrelevant and borders on petty. However, it raises a larger issue – one that carries higher stakes with potentially more damaging effects. And that is the excessive compulsive disorder affecting much of mainstream America regarding its obsession with the need for conformity. That is, everybody looking and doing the same thing the same way at the same time. The ironic thing is that we, as Americans, pride ourselves on being unique, individual and independent.
              Yet, it amazes me just how prejudice and judgmental we can be toward each other. This prejudice includes all manner of social and cultural oppression but is particularly harmful when it comes to the physical looks of another human being.
              We crack jokes about women who have really short hair or men who are balding, then make fun all the more when they don hair extensions or toupees. We laugh at people who are overweight.  We gawk at females who possess hard, muscular features; we castrate males bearing softer physical traits. Speak with a lisp? Watch out. Have a visible disability? Prepare for the stare. All are subject to mean-spirited ridicule.
Urban tool carrier
              Why must it be this way? What is it about places and people in American society that we are programmed to insist on physical conformity among individuals? Interestingly, the question itself is convoluted. Individual? Independence? Conformity? That does not compute.
              In America we value uniqueness. At least, we give lips service to it. It's the American way, right? Folks are adamant: “I’ll play whatever kind of music I want” or “I’ll decide how many guns I need” or “You can’t tell me not to buy a low MPG SUV.” Why then is it offensive to a so-called individualist for a person to look or act different?
              Think about it; the Declaration of Independence specifically speaks to an individual’s unalienable right to the pursuit of happiness. Yet time and again we find ourselves under attack by fellow Americans who are not only intolerant of a person’s difference; they bully, intimidate or otherwise coerce conformity. Granted, that revered historic document was probably referring more to a citizen/government dynamic than one at the person to person level. Nevertheless, shouldn’t we as a people lift up that important value wherever/whenever we can? For me that truth is self-evident.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Being Denied of Personal-Pride Stinks

For crying out loud

One of the hazards of writing this column in the middle of the night is that even when virtually the entire city is asleep, seismic events can occur that derail my intensely focused thought process. In this instance, my 14-month-old daughter was to blame, bless her wailing heart. She was helpless and in trouble. Mommy was sleeping; daddy was not, so the decision was simple: get in there, quick.
Her high pitched distress call was legitimate. It wasn’t a nightmare, just a diaper full of poop. Well, no nightmare for her at any rate. Not for me either, as it turns out. See, I have a condition that impairs one of my five senses. I can’t smell a dang thing. Been this way for 15 years or more. Do I consider myself disabled? Good question. I’ve been pondering that a while now. Not because I wondered if I’d qualify for some kind of support but for a more important reason.
The answer is no, I don’t consider myself disabled. Why? Initially because I feel like my disability, not being able to smell, is a minor thing compared to other conditions more commonly associated with the term – like being blind. Or deaf. Or paraplegic, Or affected by some other physical or mental condition I consider more serious. By comparison, mine borders on insignificant. There’s a problem with that way of thinking I fear, but let’s set it aside for a moment.
Pop quiz
After undergoing some education and enlightening self-work on issues related to persons with disabilities, I’ve come to consider myself an ally. They may not think so since my awareness and knowledge only scratches the surface of an issue that runs deep as it is complex. Still, I advocate for them publicly when I can but more importantly I continue to do my own inner work to broaden my personal understanding of what it means to be disabled in a largely non-disabled world.
Do I still say or do the wrong thing sometimes? Guilty as charged. I continue to have my share of misfires, particularly around language and what the preferred terms are for folks with various conditions. In fact, there may even be hell to pay for some of the words and phrases I’m using here. That’s okay. By ‘okay’ I mean if I get corrected, I’ll consider it a gift. It’s one I’ll readily accept because the correction I receive helps me learn more concerning disability issues. For instance, the concept known as Disability Pride.
I first heard the phrase a few months ago. It was artfully defined and referenced by an Allies for Change facilitator named Melinda Haus-Johnson during a group session centered on disability issues. Afterword, I uncovered a more formal definition, one espoused by disability rights activist, writer, and speaker Sarah Triano for the Encyclopedia of Disability (Sage Publications):
Popular vocations disabled persons excel at
“Disability Pride represents a rejection of the notion that our physical, sensory, mental, and cognitive differences from the non-disabled standard are wrong or bad in any way, and is a statement of our self-acceptance, dignity and pride.” There’s far more to the definition. Part of it goes on to state, “…that our disabilities are a natural part of human diversity, a celebration of our heritage and culture, and a validation of our experience.”
If all this feels a little militant and counter to your way of thinking, it’s probably because you’re non-disabled. Despite the light-heartedness that started this conversation, disability rights are a serious matter. So is honoring and giving those with disabilities nothing less than the complete respect they deserve as human beings.
Oh and regarding baby? She's sleeping again and I'm smelling sweet with the scent of peace and quiet.