Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Sisyphus Smiles

A few days before this school year started I read a book that my father gave me as a "housewarming" present, Buddha in the Classroom, by Donna Quesada.  It is her memoir of being a burned-out community college professor, returning to her learnings as a Zen practitioner to find a renewed passion for her work.  The book had collected dust for months, and I had simply picked it up as a means to not doing anything to actually prepare for the fast-approaching school year (burned out high school teacher much?).  It is a shame I let the book sit for so long, because there have been many lessons and ideas from it that have brought a renewed passion to my work.  Chief among them was a profoundly simple, yet incredibly powerful, image that has stuck in my head: Sisyphus smiling.

Several years ago I became fascinated by the Greek myth of Sisyphus - the king punished by the gods for his hubris and made to push an enormous rock up a hill only to watch it roll back down and then compelled to repeat the process, for all eternity.  It made me feel smart knowing the story.  I felt even smarter when I would glibly use "Sisyphean" in conversation.  There was nothing positive about Sisyphus's chore.  He was wretched.  The task was pointless.  It never ended and was always repeated.  It sounds a lot like training for an ultra (minus the endorphins and shiny new belt buckle at the end).  Misery comes to mind.  Until you picture him smiling.

The idea is so simple: here is Sisyphus, the wretch, interminably pushing his boulder up the hill, watching it roll down and repeating.  In my mind he was always completely defeated, hopeless.  And then, as I read this short passage, everything about the picture changed.  Imagining Sisyphus smiling, embracing his situation as his reality, not wanting a different past or a different future, but accepting the present, the scene totally changed.  He was no longer hopeless, but happy in his acceptance of the situation.  I discussed this image with my students.  They said things like, "Maybe he's happy because he's getting stronger," or, "It's kinda fun to push rocks down a hill." The point, for me at least, is that there is something to take joy in, to find happiness in, from almost any situation, if we simply accept it and smile. (A little aside here: the idea of imagining Sisyphus smiling originally came from the French absurdist/nihilist,  Albert Camus.  This past weekend I was on a run with some TARC friends and met a guy doing his graduate work in theology, Paul.  I brought up this idea created by, "Al-bert Cam-us," said just like that, with a nice American accent.  Paul was gracious enough to wait until later (when I suggested that I had butchered the name) to tell  me (very politely and with no pretension) that it is actually "Cah-moo."  I went home and also found out that his first name is pronounced, "Al-bear" with a sort of rolling r sound.  Freakin' French.).

Should I ever get a tattoo (no plans to), I think it would be an image of Sisyphus smiling (maybe an emoticon instead?).  I have thought about it nearly ever day since coming across it in the book.  I have used it in my classroom when conferencing with students or trying to explain an assignment (for the 7th time).  I have used it while running when the legs feel leaden and tired (or fleet and spry!).  I have used it when I find myself wishing I were somewhere else than were I am (after-school meetings, stuck behind that insanely slow (I mean 10 mph slow) driver all the way to the Y).  I'm sure that I'm missing much of the nuance of the philosophical reasoning with my simply interpretation, but I'm okay with that because right now it makes sense to me.  It has helped me rethink situations and find deeper joy in tasks and activities that just weeks ago I struggled to get through (running and, to a certain extent, teaching).  Picturing Sisyphus smiling through his labor, I stopped wearing my GPS on every run.  With no watch, all of a sudden runs were not being judged "good" or "bad" based on a time.  Some are faster and at a greater effort because that is what happens at that time.  Some are slower.  Some I try to get lost on.  Some are direct to/from school.  I've come to embrace every step.  No run is good or bad, but it simply is and I am content with that.  It's amazing what a little change in perspective can do.
That's more like it.  Nice shades too!
Yeah, doing this once looks pretty awful.  Don't worry, only all of eternity to go . . . 

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Aye! Tunes!

Beginning the new school year there was one thing that I dreaded more than anything: my daily run to and from school.  While I love running, this run is not the most scenic.  It follows a nearly arrow-straight, main-road through Somerville, MA.  There is no great way to avoid it on quaint side streets.  There are no great urban trails within more than a half dozen miles.  And I run all 7.5 miles of it every school day.  Twice a day.  Sometimes in the dark.  Both ways.  By my reckoning, I ran nearly this exact route close to 340 times in the 10 month school year.  I was gearing up to do at least that many times again.

So it was on the first day of school that when the alarm clock went off for the first time since the last day of school, I was a bit apprehensive about beginning my daily routine.  I was no longer in love with this route.  The completely sluggish feeling I had nearly every time I traced these steps at the end of last school year was still fresh on my mind.  My lackluster summer of running was even fresher.  My mind was totally defeated before I even started lacing up my shoes.  It was well before the sun woke up and I opened the door to begin a new school year.  Little did I know, my wife, Liz, had given me two incredible gifts, which have resuscitated my running in great measure.

Liz and I just celebrated our 9th wedding anniversary yesterday, on September 14.  We met during orientation week of college, so this time of year also marks our 15th year of sharing our lives.  Just as she continues to surprise me, the gifts she gave me, helped me find new joy in (what I used to refer to as) my daily "slog" (now happily called commute or run) to work.

The first was a bit silly: a rice cooker for my classroom.  It sounds odd, but, by committing to schlepping groceries (oatmeal, rice, various seeds, and other sundries) to school once a week on my bike, my morning runs are now freed from the burden of carrying each day's food on my back (I eat a lot).  Not only does this make the morning run easy, I'm eating a heck of a lot better at school (I'm making a very strange form of sushi rolls every day and have more variety than my old daily staples, cold oatmeal and 6 or 7 pears).  This makes the afternoon run that much easier - I actually have energy at the end of the day (it's amazing how key nutrition is). But the real game changer came in a package that weighed less than 0.5 ounces: an iPod shuffle.

I have considered myself a runner for eleven years (since finishing college).  Not once in those years did I ever listen to music on a run.  People would ask me what I thought about the idea of listening to music while running, and I would always have some verbose response that went on too long and likely made little sense (funny, that's what most of these blog posts are like . . .).  Then, this summer while we were up in New Hampshire, I kept talking about how I should try out listening to music (it seems like all the runners I know now listen to tunes at some point, and I cow to peer pressure all the time), especially since the new (I have no idea if it is new or not) iPod shuffle was so light and could hold all the music I own (about 6 songs).  After much hemming and hawing, Liz made the decision and surprised me when she went out one day (she is very thoughtful and probably knew I would never have spent the $35 myself).  I tried it as soon as I could.  In my fantasy I pictured myself floating through the woods with a Jerry Bruckheimer-worthy soundtrack playing.  In reality I found it infuriating.

My ears are large and, I discovered, lack the requisite cartilage to allow ear buds to rest in them (I'm not joking about either of these things).  I tried five different styles and could make it no more than a mile before the cursed headphones fell out.  Even the ones designed by an "Ironman triathlete and guaranteed never to fall out." They made it 3/4 of a mile.  Laughable.  I finally found a cheap pair at Radio Shack, the kind that wrap behind your head and literally squeeze the speakers into your ear canal.  Aside from the over-the-ear model I tried from the Dollar Store, they were the cheapest I tried.  Despite my poor expectations, they work brilliantly, never so much as budging or fading (even through one of the hardest rain storms I have ever run through).  And they have totally changed my daily commute.

That first morning of school, there I was: no eight pound pack full of food and water on my back, cell phone tucked perfectly into my handheld's pocket, iPod clipped to my shorts, t-shirt tucked into the waistband, headphones securely in ears, dreading that run down Broadway, until . . . a remix of Flo Rida's Whistle came on with that first step.  It was like crack to my groggy mind.  I flew up the little hill at the end of our street.  The first miles of this all-too-familiar route disappeared in a soundtrack of pop and hipster songs that would have made my two boys dance on our counter tops (it doesn't take much).  I got to school feeling happy.

I've since learned how to create playlists in iTunes.  I've since ripped many great songs from YouTube (and, yes, I may have "borrowed" a few songs from Timothy Olson's Western States Playlist because, well, I'm that lame).  I've since started to enjoy my runs to school (it's amazing how fast one can run to Little Lion Man by Mumford and Sons.  And try not sprinting at full tilt while listening to the Dropkick Murphys Going Out In Style - seriously, try to.  It's not possible).  I've since PR'd on my run to school by about 2 minutes.  I've since run the 0.3 mile hill near school nearly 15 seconds faster (while doing 10 repeats, instead of just running up it once) than I was "in shape" for Western at the end of last school year.  I've since stopped wearing any sort of watch because I no longer feel the need to know exactly how many miles I've gone (I'm taking a few more detours now).

Do the tunes completely shut me off from the people I see on the streets?  Yeah.  Do the tunes make me feel like I am "cheating" some how while I run?  A little bit.  Have the tunes recharged my running and put a new vigor into my training?  Without a doubt.  So I must thank Liz, again, for continuing to surprise me and make me a happier (and better) person after nearly half our lives together - now, whenever asked what I think about listening to music while running I will have a simple, two word response: AYE!  TUNES!