Monday, February 28, 2011

Taming the Tan (how I learned to love running)

I’ve never been a ‘runner’ as such. I love playing sport, and am competitive as seagulls after a chip. Throw a ball out in front of me and I’ll chase it mindlessly like a dog, but put me on a running track and I’d just ask ‘Why?’

I tried a few times over the years, got up and ran around the block at Mum and Dad’s – maybe a kilometre at most – once or twice. Problem is, I get out there and my mind is immediately tracking way ahead of my feet. I’m prone to thinking too much, and running in itself didn’t distract me enough. I’d constantly just feel like stopping and walking – what was my reason to keep going? Yeah, fitness, but I mean short term. It was bullshit, boring exercise.

Yet playing sport, basketball or a casual kick of the footy in particular, and you couldn’t stop me. I’d wear myself out, and then instinctively tear away after the ball or an opponent in a 20 metre dash. My focus was purely on my target; with some thoughts maybe on trying to impress others with my ability, though often failing.

I moved to Richmond a few years ago and started heading to the Tan – the 3.8km running track around Melbourne’s Botanical Gardens. With the part jog, part walk to and from the Tan it’s 7km all up.

Starting the Tan run at the Anderson Street hill climb and heading around clockwise, my initial efforts left me panting and buggered about 300 metres into the run, where I’d stop for a drink at the Moonlight Cinema entrance.

My expectations were, from then, naturally low. I tried to run a little further each time, and eventually got to the point where I could run about a third, then walk a third, and run the final third. I can’t remember why I started doing this, maybe I’d stacked on a few kilos, but I was uncharacteristically committed to it, despite my intense dislike of running, and made it a new years resolution for 2010 to run a full lap.

Around the same time I was standing near the bar at Transport one night, watching the footy while I waited to meet some friends, and I got talking to a couple of girls. Again, I don’t really know how we got talking and it’s rather unusual for me to find myself in such conversations. We got onto running and I talked about my inability to run the Tan.

‘Sure you can,’ one of the girls said, ‘it’s all about your breathing.’

She didn’t give me any specific instructions on how I should be breathing but I thought about that the next time I went out onto the track, breathing slower and deeper.

Just a few weeks into 2010, with this in mind, I ran past my previous furthest point and kept going. See how far you can go, I thought. I made it through the section I usually walked and to where I would start running again. By that point I was thinking, well you’ve come this far, just keep pushing.

I finished. A goal for the year ticked off just a few weeks in! Now I knew I could do it I had no reason to stop and walk.

I started listening to music and found it spurred me on a bit, took my mind away from the boredom of running, and even helped reduce my times a little.

Later in the year I discovered yoga. This revolutionised the way I thought, or at least dealt with those tiny, distracting anxieties that pop into your head and grow with a watering of attention. It also flowed into my running. Thinking too much when I run properly drains my energy and is painful. I too often get stuck dwelling on such thoughts, and previously they’d probably be enough to stop me in my tracks. But I was learning to give them all the attention they deserved – none; because it was too difficult while running.

So my runs became a form of meditation where I could clear my mind and narrow my focus. Afterwards I feel not only better physically, but mentally too. Sometimes, if you need to find energy, you have to exert a little first.

Recently I’ve been forced to run without music. The earphones I have won’t stay in my ears while running – heck they barely stay in while I sit at my desk. But that was kind of a relief. I’d been using the music as a distraction to keep my mind from slowing me down. I feel strong enough now that I not only don’t need that distraction – but I’m stronger without it.

My good times are around 18 minutes. In October a friend and I raced each other. It was a friendly affair, and a few others came to watch – and celebrate afterwards. While there would be no bitterness either way, we both wanted to win. He’d never run the Tan before so I had a mild advantage. He took the hill hard early, leaving me behind and a little nervous about gaining the ground back, but I just ran my own lap, making sure he didn’t get too far ahead. I gradually gained on him and we entered the final stretch neck and neck. I won by about two seconds, at a time of 16 minutes 4 seconds, about a minute and a half better for both of us than our previous bests over the same distance.

I did have music that day, but I barely remember what songs played. Most of the time I could hear it but I wasn’t listening. I was purely focused on the path directly in front of me, and the pair of shoes pounding it that I wanted to catch.

I used to hate running. Now I’d almost say I love it. I can certainly say I love what I get out of it, and that’s enough; and I can’t go two days without some form of exercise. Eighteen months ago I’d have struggled to motivate myself to go two days in a row with exercise.

Ten songs for running, or ‘Songs that get inside me and make me move about’ (no order)
‘Abel’ – The National
‘No Cars Go’ – Arcade Fire
‘Feel It’ – The Brian Jonestown Massacre
‘So Alive’ – Ryan Adams
‘Too Young To Love’ – The Big Pink
‘There She Goes, My Beautiful World’ – Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds
‘Tomorrow’ (live) – James
‘Superconnected’ – Broken Social Scene
‘Stale Thoughts’ – Ground Components
‘Gunslingers’ – You Am I (dedicated to my friend and rival)

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Ten years since - a 'sliding doors' moment

A little over ten years ago, on a sunny January afternoon, I was bullied into a decision that shaped the decade that followed like no other moment.

Starting out at Monash University, I showed up at enrolment day having been warned by a friend, Brad, about the overly enthusiastic students running the Host Scheme orientation camp who would do everything they could to get me along.

I wasn’t keen. I don’t make friends easily and back then particularly, had a cosy comfort zone, that I was – regrettably – determined not to step out of. Brad had managed to slip through their clutches, but was happy to come along if I got pressured into signing up.

Pressure was right. They seemed to be there at every turn, waiting to ambush me as I navigated the unusually quiet, ghostly campus. But I was on my game, staying a step ahead and out-manoeuvring the hippy socialites and their guerrilla tactics, as I found my way to the appropriate buildings and enrolled and nominated my first semester subjects – chosen a few hours earlier upon the shock discovery that was the primary purpose of the day.

As I strode with relief and satisfaction towards the final enrolment checkpoint and the exit behind it I spotted them. I had no way of passing this bunch.

I could have said ‘no’, but if the only thing that would put me out of my comfort zone in that moment more than the idea of spending a weekend with strangers – many of them undoubtedly far cooler than I – it was engaging in the conversation that would follow my negative response. So I took the courageous decision to attend one of the camps and ‘put myself out there’ – it would be good for me and a great way to make new friends after all. Of course, I put Brad in it as well.

Oh, if I’d known then how much of the next ten years could be traced back to that moment. Sure, I could trace back further to my decision to actually attend Monash or something before that, but I like to choose this event because I resisted it and I think that makes it even more significant. You never know where opportunities will come from or where they will lead you.

I’d be somewhere else now, quite literally, if I had strolled out of that building smiling with relief at not having to spend a weekend forcing myself out of my shell, engaging in small talk and social hell.

Incidentally, at 18 and having never had a girlfriend, I had made ‘getting one’ a goal for that summer of 2000/01 – as if they were fish and I just had to play the sport right. There was a girl I worked with at McDonald’s – commonly known to me and my friends as ‘Hotcakes’, no need to explain – that I was trying to build up the courage to ask out. The camp was held just before Valentines Day, when I was scheduled to work with her and, I told myself at least, was going to ask her out.

On 9 February 2001, at Uni camp, I met Helen; a talkative and lively, yet somewhat shy – her nerves just pushed words out of her mouth, while mine kept them in – blonde girl. She took a liking to me, and I took a liking to female attention from a reasonably attractive, fun girl. Brad told me I should make a move. On 10 February, after a few drinks, we kissed. My first real kiss. One of the student organisers slipped a condom into my pocket. ‘Not tonight,’ said Helen. Well, part of me was a little relieved I guess – I’d only just gotten the hang of kissing.

I slept for about a day when I got home, woken by dad eventually to take a phone call from Helen. ‘Who’s Helen?’ he asked. No one he needed to know about, I figured. As much as I’d loved having her sit close next to me, falling asleep on my shoulder, on the bus on the way home from camp, I wasn’t sure I had strong enough feelings for her. A few days later she met my friends, one of whom I told that the relationship wouldn’t last the week.

It did though. It lasted six years.

And 18-24 were six of the most formative years of my life. I learnt a great deal from her, she influenced my outlook on life, perspective on politics and appreciation of arts. She had strained relations with many of my friends at times, especially Brad, but I never withdrew from the group at all as a result.

Yet, the relationship itself was not the only significant imprint left on my life’s journey; the ripple affect can still be seen in my daily life in many ways.

With both of us keen for me to move on from working at McDonald’s while I was at uni, Helen found an ad for work at Dan Murphy’s. It was still retail, it would be a pay cut, but it was a change. There I made some fantastic friends, had lots of fun and developed socially.

Five years after quitting Dans, I continue to see friends from I made there. Through one of them, Jack, I scored a room a couple of years ago in a great house in Richmond living with his then-girlfriend, Lee – the best housemate I’ve ever had. At the time I was living in hellish share-house in Brunswick and desperate to get out.

Through both Jack and Lee in particular, I’ve made a bunch of good friends, and through the Dan Murphy’s group I fatefully met a girl last year called Emily. We struck up a quick, intense, turbulent and unfortunately short-lived friendship. She herself has left in indelible mark on my life. No one else has ever exposed me too so much culturally and philosophically in such a short timeframe, and she inspired me at a time when I felt like my life was stalling. But that’s a different post entirely.

Helen also supported me through the toughest period of my life, when anxiety issues I’d carried for over ten years deteriorated to a critical point. I couldn’t face it by myself; I couldn’t even tell her outright, dropping hints and comments for a few weeks until she twigged. There was no one else I could have opened up to then.

Despite my uncertainty, I did grow fond of Helen, though I’m still not sure I ever fell in love with her in the way I needed to. It ended amicably and I hoped to remain friends, but it didn’t work out that way. I’ll always love her in a way and appreciate the influence she had on my life.

If I’d not gone on that camp … Would I have asked Hotcakes out? Would I have found a girlfriend during those six years? Would I have dealt with my depression differently? Where would I be living now? Who would my friends be? I’ll never know the answers to any of those questions, and some I don’t want to know.

I would have been exposed to many different people and experiences, and I could be a somewhat different person.

Of course, it’s not all circumstantial. I made my own decisions along the way; Today, ten years later, I’m remembering her and the positive things she brought to my life; I’d like to think she had a passing reflection of that time and appreciates the memory, but it’s okay if she didn’t. I chose to engage in all these developments – applying for and accepting the Dan Murphy’s job, making friends with various people, moving in with Lee. But a single, seemingly innocuous moment opened up all those opportunities – putting my name on a sheet to attend one of five Monash University Host Scheme Orientation Camps.

You never know what’s around the corner, or how the small choices you make now open up opportunities for the future.

As Paul Kelly sang, ‘from little things, big things grow’.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Being free is being me

So many of us spend so much time trying to project an image of ourselves that isn’t a true reflection, just to impress or even repel people we shouldn’t be concerned with in the first place.

I had a friend who once referred to herself as ‘non-conformist’. Ok, at the time I was fairly smitten with this girl. She’s a headstrong woman and I tried to draw on that myself. At the time I was receptive to the idea, even seeing it as an attractive quality.

But it’s not; rather it’s a negative way to seek to label yourself I think. In her rebellious intent think she had idealised non-conformity when what she probably wanted was to express her individuality and self discovery. But when you have an intense desire to set yourself apart, for whatever reason, you can be lead astray.

I should really use the term ‘non-conformism’, so I can quote John Lennon/Ferris Bueller – “I don’t believe in ‘isms’, I just believe in me.’

I mean, really, non-conformity is a silly notion; the “refusal or failure to conform to accepted standards, conventions, rules or laws”. I’d go as far as to say it borders on childish narcissism, and it surely takes a truly dedicated, lonely person to pull it off properly.

American writer, Eric Hoffer put it neatly:

“Nonconformists travel as a rule in bunches. You rarely find a nonconformist who goes it alone. And woe to him inside a nonconformist clique who does not conform with nonconformity.”

We should question, or even reject if one so wishes, particular social norms. But to flatly reject some or all of them is different to questioning.

People demonstrate their non-conformity in various ways – clothing, make-up, music, art. Ironically it often creates sub-cultural communities with their own norms and identifying features, with brooding members who deride those who accept don’t share their contempt for the masses. Ok, I’m generalising a bit – but only because it’s generally true, right?

I came across the website, The Art of Non-Conformity, which promotes ‘unconventional strategies for life, work and travel. The secondary concept I take no issue with – we should explore and celebrate unconventional ways of thinking. And sometimes there is a case for being different just for the sake of it – proving that there are alternative ways of living that deserve consideration and acceptance. But there’s nothing ‘artistic’ about non-conformity. Again, maybe just a misuse of the phrase.

Non-conformity can even show up in small instances of taste. I’m a long-time fan of R.E.M. Big in their day, but pioneers of the indie rock scene, and now so uncool they are cool. Since the release of the album Reveal, I’ve shunned the song Imitation of Life, dismissing it as simplistic pop. For someone who likes to think of their music taste as mature and outside the mindless mainstream, it was a bit too catchy and glam. Recently I found myself enjoying it. I realised it wasn’t the song itself that made me uneasy, but the fact I could like something so simple and childish. Music doesn’t have to be serious to be enjoyable. And I don’t say childish in a derogatory way. When you go on about how crap pop and chart music is, it can be tough to admit – to yourself let alone others – that you like something everyone else likes. You want to assert your individuality.

Not that everyone liked Imitation of Life! But I do.

Whether other people tap into something you like, be it before or after you do, shouldn’t directly affect your experience. If it does you just limit your own opportunity for enjoyment, or even deeper experience.

Individuality, on the other hand is exploring, discovering and being yourself without desires to fit in OR be different. For all of us, that’s tough.

Non-conformity is a negative ideal; being against things. Belief in non-conformity isn’t a belief in anything. It informs what you reject, who you are not. But what do you want? Who are you? In essence non-conformity is refusing accepted standards, so by being non-conformist you’re still being defined by those very standards.

Conforming to some extent, or maybe social negotiation, is necessary to belong to a community, be it group of friends or the wider community.

We all need to belong, but there should be room for difference, and individuality within our communities, our family, our friends for unconventional thinking and behaviour – within reason of course – and celebration of our individuality.

My ‘non-conformist’ friend asked me, one of the first times we met, what my drug of choice was. When I responded that I didn’t use drugs and never had she was shocked. I didn’t fit her expectations of the kind of person she generally hung out with. I wasn’t conforming.

Maybe the non-conformists have unresolved tensions with elements of society that drives them to rebel. But there is no peace or real happiness in non-conformity.

I guess my point is this: seeking to be non-conformist is just as harmful to finding yourself as following the trends of wider society. Be yourself and find people who share your passions. Experience things, learn about, and express yourself.

Find the life you truly believe in and live it, regardless of how many others – genuine or phony – are living the same way. Focus on who you are, not who you are not. Then you’ll find happiness.

“Happiness is when what you think, what you say and what you do are in harmony” – Mahatma Ghandi