Saturday, December 31, 2011

#381: Peeking Around the Bend


What's around the bend in Pennsyltucky?
In a way, it's a pity that we celebrate New Year's Eve by getting drunk. This is such a great day to be awake; to be mindful. 2011 was full of things worth remembering for me. And next year is so rich with possibilities.
In some ways, 2011 was a hard year, but even through the pain, we were blessed. We lost a lot of people we love, particularly our beloved brother Doug who fought cancer with such courage and faithfulness. Near the end of his battle, he spoke the words that just may go on my tombstone. He was lying in the hospital when he was told of a friend who had given his heart to Jesus in church that morning, Doug wept and whispered, "It's all going to be worth it." And so it is.

We lost our house, after a long game of chicken with Wells Fargo. The experience was sometimes painful, more often, it was just a pain, but we were blessed to have the support of our friend Donna, a realtor and a saint, (yes, it is possible.) I also have to thank Judge Scorsone who stood between us and the bank's lawyers long enough for us to complete the short sale of the property. And most important of all, our brothers and sisters, Bob, Bobbie, and Paul, who helped us to find a new "place for our stuff." We lost a house, but thanks to them, we were able to keep our home intact.

Me and my little licensed head-shrinker.
After delaying her studies for almost a year, while she was busy keeping me alive, Mrs. P finally got the chance to prepare for her LCSW, the credential that would make her a fully licensed clinical social worker. She lost weekends and nights of sleep with her head in the books. We even took DVDs with us on road trips so she could study in the car. Mrs P loves her kids and their families, and spends hours writing reports, assessments, and care plans for them. She drives hundreds of miles some weeks to visit them. All that study had to be crammed into the few cracks remaining in her regular schedule. And when the moment of truth came, she aced her exam. She's got a new title, and a new sheepskin for the wall. We have to get her new letter paper, but it's worth it.

Taz is as close to a lap dog as we're likely to get.
Our family grew in 2011. Maggie and Kizzie love our new house. They have thier own suite of rooms that we call "Cat Land." They are free to roam, lounge, and eat without canine harassment. Jake, our 10 pound puppy, turned in to a full grown Golden this year. He's a big boy now, but he can still break my heart with those brown eyes. Clare came to us from a family that should never have taken her in the first place. She runs her big brother ragged, and they frighten the neighbor children with their fierce wrangling, but we have high hopes that as she continues to grow, she may eventually develop a brain. Taz came just after Thanksgiving. He is a Blue Heeler, the smallest of our pack, but the toughest. Taz likes to yell when Jake and Clare are wrestling. We aren't sure if he's telling them to stop, or urging them to kill one another. We do know that he is sweet natured and the most athletic of all of us. He taught Clare to jump the baby gate into the Cat Land, so now we have two gates stacked on top of one another. And of course, there's Brady. He isn't our dog, but he's an honorary member of the pack. He's a thirteen-year-old Golden who spends most of time sleeping, or barking hoarsely for reasons we can never really make out. He grew up being treated like an actual dog, but in his retirement, God sent the Pennsy family to spoil him. We do our best.

With Erin. 30 years and still a beauty.
We traveled to Pennsylvania twice this fall. It was my first time home since I got sick, and I didn't realize how much I missed the forests and hills of Western PA. My 30th college reunion was full of joy and tears with old friends Jeff, Joellen, Marcia, and Erin. So was my first, live Steeler game for which I am ever grateful to my old high school classmate, Skip. He gave me a day I will never forget, and can never repay. I got to taste Mum's cooking again, to sleep in Gramma's house, to hold my sisters in my arms, and to run the dirt roads we used to walk when I was a child.

2011 was the year the doc told me I didn't have cancer any more. I resolved to live the life we had all fought so hard to save. I croaked and strangled pretty girls in No Way to Treat a Lady, my first musical in years. Played a melancholy old queen in the world premier of Stephen Metcalf's The Happy Hour. Returned to my beloved Actors' Guild in Glengarry Glen Ross, and End Days. And I got to play in the park again, with a turn as William, Lord Hastings in Richard III. I got my first gig as an acting teacher at our community college, which I loved. I'll act again in the spring, right after the marathon.

Jake and the Fat Man.
Oh yeah, that. The Fat Man is running the Pittsburgh Marathon on May 6. The reality of it hasn't quite set in, yet. I'm not sure it will until somewhere around mile 18 of the race. This time last year, I walked a mile and felt like I had won a gold medal. I ran a 3K in March, a couple of 5Ks in the Spring, then my first 10K on July 4. I got it into my head that I could finish a half-marathon, and in October, Mrs P cheered as I crossed the finish line. While I trained for that race, people contributed over $3500 to One for the Five, a project to honor fallen cancer fighters, and to raise money for the Markey Cancer Foundation. Soon, I'll be launching two more projects, one to help Actors' Guild, and one to help fund LIVESTRONG at the YMCA.

I never went to the YMCA when I was growing up. I was a Boy Scout. When I heard about a program at the Y to help cancer survivors improve their fitness, I jumped at it. I was expecting a free gym membership for three months. I got much more. The Y gave me what it has given so many people over the years: a place to exercise; a chance to meet friends; a way to discover a sense of purpose and value. I can say without shame or sentiment that I love the people I have met at  the Y. Love them so much that when my program was over, I went to the boss and asked for a job. For the first time in my life, I'm actually a little disappointed when I wake up and realize I have the day off.

What's next? I'm going to start studying to become a trainer at the Y. I'm going to run another half, and my first full marathon. I'll be playing in a production of Camus' Calligula this June. Mrs P and I are finally going to get rid of all the extra stuff we've been storing in boxes since we moved from Brooklyn. And of course, I'll be fighting any and all impulses to adopt any more animals. (On a related note, we'll be replacing the carpet in the den, as soon as Clare gives us the go-ahead.)

With some of the LS@theY team for the Reindeer Ramble.
So, in all sobriety I can say I'm the happiest Pennsy I've ever been. I love my wife more than ever. I have work that excites me. I have passion that makes me look forward to ten miles of asphalt on a chilly Bluegrass morning. I can't stop thanking God for giving me this second (or third? or fourth? or umpteenth?) chance to live.

2011? It was a very good year. 2012? Gonna be even better. Let's love it together, huh?

Peace,
Pennsy

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

#380: A Runner's Circuit Strength Workout

Today's workout.

Exercise Set 1/Set 2 Duration Rest
Squat 38/34 (72) 1:00 0:15
Pushup 40/30 (70) 1:00 0:15
Lunge (Right & Left) 12/11 (23) 1:00 0:15
Plank 1/1 1:00 0:15
Swiss Ball Leg Curl 31/31 (62) 1:00 0:15
Russian Twist (upper body) 26/32 (58) 1:00 0:15
Pull ups (Assisted) 9/9 (18) 1:00 0:15
Dips (Assisted) 20/21 (41) 1:00 0:15
 

Swiss Ball Leg Curl 
Here's how the circuit works. 5 minute warm-up on the cross trainer machine. I did as many reps of each exercise as I could in 60 seconds with a 15 second rest between exercises. When I finished the circuit, I did 10 minutes on the cross trainer, then repeated. Finished up with another 10 minutes on the machine, then a nice easy walking cool down on the treadmill.


I like this workout for a couple of reasons.
  • It's fast. Each circuit only takes 10 minutes. 
  • It's comprehensive. You get a complete body workout in a very short time.
  • It's easy to track improvement. Just shoot for more reps than you were able to complete last time.
  • It's functional. These are movements from life, not just stuff some gym rat made up to make your muscles bulge.
  • Nearly every movement places demands on the core muscles of the abdomen and lower back. 
  • It's a good workout for the muscles above the waist that support running.
  • These are all body-weight exercises. No special equipment required at home besides a swiss ball. (Dips can be done on a stool. Pull ups... I'm working on that.)
  • I managed to keep my heart rate in the 120-130 range through the whole thing, so it's a pretty decent cardio conditioning exercise, too.

Russian Twist
I love the weight room, but as my marathon training gets rolling in earnest, I want an efficient workout plan that isn't going to leave me too tired to run the next day. I'll try this three times a week for four weeks, and see if I like the results.


Peace,
Pennsy

Sunday, December 25, 2011

#379: A Christmas Day Run

Nephew.. keep Christmas in your own way, and let me keep it in mine. - A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens.


So here's how I kept Christmas this year:

32° 10.01mi/2:07:47 @ 9:15. AGL/ParkersMill Loop. Adidas Grey. 5:00 run/0:45 walk. Splits: 12:53 12:11 12:12 12:15 12:33 12:54 12:55 13:17 13:18 13:10.. Once you're off the highway, this is a beautiful course. Hills, farms, horses, South Elkhorn Creek. Perfect Christmas run.
It was still dark when the dogs woke me. I let them out and bundled up next to Mrs P for a few extra minutes. Before long, Clare started yipping and a smoke alarm started the chirp that tells you it's time to remove the battery and forget to replace it until the time changes again. I got up and fumbled with the thing for a while, then let the dogs back into the house and gave them breakfast. Put on a pot of coffee. Pulled on the running clothes I had laid out last night. Made some toast.


Even under the best circumstances, it's a bit of a chore to get Mrs P up and moving on Sunday morning. Of course, last night we were at church until late, then we came home and made our final preparations for Santa's arrival, (just in case, you know?) I was pretty confident she would be sleeping in this Christmas. The dogs returned to their naps, and I opened up mapmyrun.com to find a route for the morning. There is a road near our home I've been wanting to run, but it's pretty narrow and I worry about traffic. I figured Christmas morning was likely to be a low volume time, so I laid it out. 10 miles. Rolling hils. Country roads. Just my style.


While I was there, I did a search and checked out the route for the Pittsburgh Marathon. Man, it looks so brutal. There's a nearly 200 ft climb from mile 11 to mile 12. That's steeper than anything I've ever tried to run. I'm going to need to spend some time in the mountains this winter.


Once the sun had come out and the temperature had risen to a balmy 32°, I put on my warm-up suit and reflective vest and hit the road. The morning was just beautiful. The steely gray sky gradually warmed to clear blue as the day warmed my face. The first 3 miles are along a highway that I have driven many times. It's such a different perspective when you run. At one point, a bunny loped along ahead of me, by the side of the road. I'm not sure if he was running away, or trying to coax a tortoise into a race. We had fun for a few yards, anyway. My route took me past my beloved Actors' Guild, then turned toward farmland. This little road follows the banks of South Elkhorn Creek for a while, then climbs up toward Bluegrass Airport. Running past horse farms on a sunny morning is heavenly. Doing it on Christmas morning defies any language I can put together. I can't explain this, but when I'm running, I find the smell of horse manure in a field to be so exhilarating. It smells of earth and life and it's just so... I don't know... pure, you know? 


It got me thinking about Joseph. Poor, old, quiet Joseph. He had to walk a long way, a lot longer than I ran this morning. He had a young finance who had turned up mysteriously pregnant. He had a dream telling him he should marry her anyway. Now, he had the Romans calling him back to Bethlehem for a "census," whatever that meant. Probably more taxes. This was no way to start the winter. Then, when he finally dragged his little family into town, they couldn't find a bed. Wound up sleeping in the barn. Surrounded by animals. The smell of horse manure. I wonder if the carpenter from Nazareth took any comfort from that. Sitting there awake while his wife delivered somebody's child in the straw. Smelling the animals. Hearing their breathing and shuffling feet. And once it was all over, and Mary slept with the child on her breast. Did Joseph put his head down in the straw and look up at the stars, breathing in the earthy smells of the stable, wondering what just happened, and what it would mean for him and his bride-to-be? Before long, Joseph would be walking again, the Gospels tell us. This time, he walked all the way to Egypt while Herod hunted for the little boy hidden in swaddling clothes, riding in his mother's arms on a donkey laden with gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Myrrh. Just what a newborn needs. Maybe he could sell it when they got to Egypt to buy some tools. I wonder if Joseph had any hope in his heart, in the midst of all that confusion. He was doing his best to do the right thing, and it was turning out to be more difficult than anyone could have anticipated. He would marry the girl. He would raise the boy. He would pretend nothing was wrong, that he couldn't hear the snickers, that it didn't hurt to know his wife had been unfaithful. He did it for the sake of the child; for the sake of the woman. He did the right thing. And in a way, Joseph taught his son how to do the right thing; even when it hurt; even when it made no sense; even when it cost more than anyone could have imagined. 


I made it home just as Mrs P was wrapping the last present. She got a set of Harry Potter DVD's. I got two books on marathons by Jeff Galloway and Grete Waitz. We went out to Hunan for dinner, but didn't have the Chinese Turkey. Now, as I type, three dogs are stretched out on the floor, Clare is curled up in my chair, Kizzie is sleeping on a blanket in front of the heating vent in our bedroom, and Maggie is rolled up in a ball on our bed. Mrs P is reading. It's as perfect a Christmas as I can imagine. I hope old Joseph got to enjoy one or two in his life. That's the best part about Christmas. It's the night Hope was born.
He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms.
Peace, and Merry Christmas
Pennsy

Saturday, December 24, 2011

#378: The Law of the Pack

Mom always tried to get me to write thank you notes. For reasons I cannot explain, I resisted her efforts. Wicked child. I didn't know what to say. As if "Thank You," just wasn't original enough somehow.

I've always wanted to be impressive. Umpteen years ago, this blog started under the title PennsyltuckianI started blogging to share my deep insights into God, the Universe, and Everything with a world that was starving for my wisdom and eloquence. The more I wrote, the less impressed I grew with myself. The more words I typed, the more I realized how little I really had to say. The truth is, I didn't know squat about God, the Universe, or Anything. Fortunately, God's wisdom had a course of graduate studies in mind for me. I'm still not nearly as original, wise, or insightful as I want to be, but I do have a PhD in Gratitude. Here's an extract from my dissertation.

I am grateful for the Pack. I live in a world that idolizes the lone wolf, the man who can stand on his own two feet. He think for himself, takes care of his own, minds his business, and keeps his own counsel. I tried so long to be that man.

Maggie
We had cats for years. Lions live together, but most cats are lonely people. Given her 'druthers, Maggie and Kizzie would spend their whole lives curled up in a warm spot, purring quietly, contemplating the mysteries of the universe and occasionally taunting the dogs through the baby gate. Their encounters with each other can be civil and affectionate, even tender, but they always carry a tinder-box in their back pocket.  They will hop up onto the bed when the mood strikes them, but neither is much for hugging. You can love a cat with all your heart, but the cat will always her limits.



Leader of the Pack?
Dogs live in the Pack. They hunt together, sleep together, raise their pups together. The dogs in my life have shown me how to love without limits. We play in the rain. We run in the grass. They have welcomed me into their world, though I can't do a thing for them except scoop dry nasty chunks of food into a bowl a couple times a day. It's a poor substitute for the game they were created to hunt and share in the wild, but they are grateful. I love all the creatures who share my home, but I will never be "one of the cats." The dogs have taken me in as one of their own. They even let me think I'm in charge from time to time.

Humans are slow, weak creatures. Compared to our brothers and sisters in the wild, we are not fast or strong. We can't see our food or smell danger. Our claws are short and brittle, our teeth flat and dull. The one advantage a human has is a brain. We're smart. And our ancestors were smart enough to realize that the only way for us to survive was if we lived together. We learned the law of the Pack. Mrs P likes to tell me, "Everything we do is better when we do it together." As always, she is right.

"We are the Duck!"
When I lost my job, I found a group of people struggling together to make it in the world. We traveled in small groups, trying to sell insurance to people who, for the most part, didn't want to see our faces, let alone buy our products. It could have been a lonely, depressing life - and the truth is, I sucked at selling insurance - but I found a pack who cared about one another. We understood one another's struggles, and when one of us was in trouble, the rest of us were willing to come to their aid. A few succeeded in the business, most of us didn't, but all of us found strength and love in that strange, wonderful Pack.

Stolen image, but this is what crazy feels like.
When I lost my mind, Mrs P knew she couldn't pull me back to sanity by herself, and that I couldn't help myself, either. She took me to the nut house. I spent 10 days there, taking pills, walking the halls, living without shoelaces or a belt. Afterwards, I was in an outpatient program for a month. I met with shrinks and counselors and social workers and big burly types who always showed up when one of us got out of hand. Those people were great. But the most important part of my healing happened in the big room in the middle of the ward, when all the professionals were in their offices doing paperwork, and the nuts would sit together and share our stories. We were depressed housewives, battered lovers, broken-hearted soldiers, grieving orphans. We had been fired, raped, dumped on, cheated on, and born with wired crossed in our heads. Most of us knew what it was to face the choice between life and death, and many of us had tried to choose death. Some of us had days when the pain of getting out of bed was just too great. One by one, we would stop by their room, like a little den, and offer to listen. We didn't have to ask how they were doing. We knew. All we could offer was our presence. The safety of the pack. There were no miracle cures in the nut house. We all went in crippled, and we all came out limping, but we were all a little stronger for the time we had spent together.

If you've been following FMR, you know my cancer story. I'm always blabbing about it. I wonder if people get sick of hearing it. But then I think of the people who might need to hear: the people who stare at the ceiling in the dark, worrying about a cough or a lump or a spot of blood that shouldn't be there; the people waiting for the results of tests that will change their lives; the people who haven't yet decided whether to fight or give up; the ones whose hope is fading; the weary cancer fighters who feel like old lions, left behind to die; the ones who love people with cancer, who don't know how to help and don't know how to keep fighting. Most of the people who hear my story won't need to hear it, but some will. That's my job. They are my Pack.

The Strong Eight - cancer warriors
My Wife. My Mother. My sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles. The friends who call and pray. The strangers who weep and nod in recognition. The church that never gave up on me, when I gave up on it. The theatre who played on my behalf and welcomed me back when the time was right. The Head and Neck Support group who shared my whole healing journey with me, from puking and oxygen tanks to my first half-marathon. The men and women at the YMCA, some vets of the cancer wars, some simply people who loved us, who came together to sweat and laugh and cry for joy at the life we have been given. The lady at the gas station who told me she was having a great day because "I'm a ten year breast cancer survivor." The man who had just had his prostate removed and was afraid he would never make love again. A guy who won the Tour de France seven times. A woman who had just been told she had started her third relapse of ovarian cancer. The people who take the time to read FMR. They are my Pack. You are my Pack.

And so this is Christmas: The Feast of the Incarnation. Believe what you want. Celebrate how you like. In my house, we celebrate the day God turned to creation and whispered, "You are my Pack. I am one of you. We are more whole when we are together. You are the source of love in my life, and I am yours. We each have our own stories. We live our own lives. But our lives are better because we are together."

Emmanuel.

God is with us.

And we are with one another.

The Law of the Pack.

Thanks be to God.

Peace,

Pennsy

Friday, December 23, 2011

#377: Don't Wait Till You Get Cancer

Don't wait till you get cancer,
To decide why you want to stay alive,
To live as if you mattered,
To embrace what is precious.

Don't wait till you look Death in his unblinking eyes,
To start living,
As if every moment were a chance,
To help a miracle happen.

Before you need an army standing by your side,
Fighting for your life,
As if your life were worth the trouble,
Start fighting for yourself.

When you wake up in the morning
And the day begins, no matter how much you dread it,
Trust that there is something wonderful in it,
Just because you woke up.

Sweat the small stuff,
A friend's broken heart, A stranger's tear,
As if you were meeting the most important person in the universe,
Because that's just what you are doing.

 Being broken is not a sin,
Staying broken is;
Find your portion of strength
And healing will follow.

Pour yourself out to the world,
And you will be an empty vessel;
Fill yourself to overflowing,
Become a fountain of blessing.

God created everything and called it good,
Take Him at His word;
You are a beloved creation,
Made in the image of holiness.

Don't wait till you get cancer,
To stop hurting yourself,
To ask "Why?"
To pick your battles,
To dance your dance;

Choose
What you want to love,
Where your heart will be,
What you want to become,
Whom you will serve;

Take
Life from your Maker,
Humility from your victories,
Compassion from your suffering;

Give
Hope to the fearful one,
Comfort to the sufferer,
Company to the lonely,
Courage to the battered.

Cancer changed my life;
I am a better man than I have ever been;
I know now what I have always known;
I've stopped living as if there are more important things than love.

Don't wait till you get cancer,
To live;
Don't waste another second of your beautiful life;
Every moment is a chance,
To help a miracle happen.

Peace,

Pennsy

Monday, December 19, 2011

#376: You Only Get One Chance at your First Marathon


Pennsyltucky dreaming...
I now have 26.2 reasons to look forward to the new year. I sent the money in, and I’m registered to run the Pittsburgh Marathon on May 6. It is a long way, but then, so was 13.1. And 6.2. And 3.1. I thought 1.8 was going to kill me. And then there was that morning I had to stop and rest after crossing the street. A full marathon is a long way. But I know I can run one step. I’ll just keep doing that. Am I nervous? Yeah. Do I have a plan? Also, yeah.

I’m using a program from Galloway TrainingPrograms. It’s designed to prepare a first-timer to finish the race without injury and without swearing to never run another one. No speed records. No near-death experiences. No puking. After all, since it’s my first, no matter what time I get is going to be a personal best.

I’m doing two training runs a week to build strength and maintain conditioning, with a Long Slow Run (LSR) on the weekends. That will give my old joints plenty of time to recover between workouts. On Monday and Wednesday, I’ll be cross-training (XT). XT is the work you do because you’re too crazy to take a day off, but you don’t want to kill yourself. At least that’s how I understand it.

I have a lot of options for XT: weight lifting, circuit training, swimming, spinning, body-weight training, Pilates, TRX. I intend to mix them up to keep things interesting. I have three goals in cross-training.

1.      Continue building my endurance. Nothing matters more in long distance running. It doesn’t matter how fast you can run if you can’t keep going all the way to the end.
2.      Build core strength. Not just my abs. The skin around my belly is so stretched out, I don’t ever expect to see a six-pack, but I do need a strong center. That includes the whole abdominal girdle, stomach, sides, butt, and lower back. It’s important to give the running muscles a recovery day, so I won’t be doing so much leg work while I’m training for the race.
3.      Dump some ballast. I want to get my weight down about 15 pounds. When I’m climbing up that hill to Oakland, I don’t want to carry more than I have to.
4.      Get pretty. This is my vanity goal. I want to look better in a tee-shirt. I tend to overlook bench presses and curls and such movements because they’re so isolated. I’m going to take the opportunity to focus more on my upper body: arms, shoulders, chest, and back. I confess, there is a macho man hiding inside me, longing to come out and kick sand in cancer’s face.

I also have the Run the BluegrassHalf-Marathon tucked into my calendar on March 31. That fits nicely into my schedule as a tune-up for the big one. There’s also something poetic about running races in Kentucky and Pennsylvania this spring that warms my Pennsyltucky heart.

I’m planning a major fundraiser to go along with this race. I’ll have more to tell you about that later. I’ll only get one chance to run my first marathon, and I want to make the most of it. As always, FMR will be a big part of that journey.

I look forward to traveling with you.

Peace,
Pennsy
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