It’s a little before six a.m. and I’m out for my early morning run inside the walls of the quiet subdivision where I live in Central Luzon in the tropical Philippines Islands. It’s a balmy morning, with clear skies and calm winds. I’m dressed in black swim trunks and a grungy gray tank top that I should have tossed in the trash months ago, but I hate throwing things away, what can I say? I’m not a hoarder or anything. I just have a mild aversion to spending money and all. I’m wearing cheap running shoes, too, with holes in the toe guards, and socks which could use a little darning. I’m no poster boy for GQ or Runners World either, not in this getup, and not with my Dustin Hoffman-like face and features. I have my iPod with me and Sony headphones, the volume cranked up to the max. I use music during my runs and workouts to dull the monotony. On some mornings, I listen to classic rock from the 60’s and 70’s—Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising” is a great tune for running to (give it a listen and you’ll see), or Fleetwood Mac’s “You Make Loving Fun,” Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer” and any upbeat tune by the Beach Boys or Bruce Springsteen. I also like listening to film scores from movies I’ve enjoyed such as About Schmidt and True Grit.
I must confess, though, I am not a big fan of running. To me, running is a tedious chore, a practice which requires discipline, will power and maybe even having my head examined.
In any event, in conjunction with my morning run which covers between four and five miles, I do a forty-minute boxing workout five days a week in the afternoons, followed by some yoga. I’m in my mid fifties now. I’m trying to stay in decent shape. I’m not quite an old geezer yet but that’s not too far off. What is true is that I am closer to the end of my life than to the beginning, there’s no hiding from that.
My motivation for exercising is not quite what it used to be, at least not totally. And yet, deep down, I guess it hasn’t really changed. Some things don’t seem to change much. And though I may sound flip or a bit hoity-toity, the truth is I’ve got a few hang-ups rooted in feelings of inadequacy.
Why is that? Well, the thing is, I’m noticeably undersized. I’m a small fry, a munchkin, and it’s been a mental hang-up for me for as long as I can remember and something I’ve battled to overcome.
I grew up playing sports—Little League and Pop Warner football, and a couple of seasons of basketball and flag football, too, at the First Baptist Church on Kester Street in Van Nuys in the San Fernando Valley in L.A. (You didn’t have to be Baptist to join which I always thought was a nice thing for the Baptists to be doing for us non-Baptists until I began to sense I was being proselytized which I really didn’t mind as long as I could play sports and get a free uniform out of the deal.) I was always one of the top players on my team. I was Mr. Hustle, full of grit, tenacity and raw determination. In grade school, I was a bully, full bluster and bravado and a big, big mouth. It was a classic case of overcompensation, the early signs of a Napoleon complex.
As I entered my teenage years, being short became an even bigger issue for me. I discovered girls and the cold hard fact that being short was not a great asset. In the world of girl meets boy, boy meets girl, I found out quickly that being vertically challenged was a big downer. I felt rejected. I felt inadequate and my personality changed. I became mildly withdrawn and overly self-conscious, and my previous bluster and mouthiness evaporated. I watched as my friends and others move smoothly into adolescence as I sputtered to a crawl. I felt like a kid on the bench riding the pine. I became a spectator.
In college, I changed tactics. I enrolled in ballet and modern dance classes. I figured being around a group of limber and attractive young females could only improve my social life. I also figured I’d have less competition, since these classes had only a small number of guys in them, and most of these guys had no interest in girls. I reckoned getting a date and finding a girlfriend at long last would be much easier, but things didn’t quite pan out that way. What I failed to take into account, I suppose, was the fact that the playing field was not confined to the dance studio. There were still over three thousand guys on campus I was up against, not to mention the entire girl-chasing male population of Santa Cruz, California. Once again, I came up short, saddled with frustration, bemoaning my fate. And it gave me little solace that the gay guys in my dance classes seemed to take a shine to me. Maybe I was putting out the wrong vibe, who knows, but I was missing the mark at every turn. But after years of taking dance classes, I had developed a wonderfully sculpted body. But my awkwardness around women did not subside. At five feet four in height (and that’s stretching it) I was still lacking in poise and confidence. Eventually, I travelled overseas and lived and worked in countries such as Japan and South Korea, and later the Philippines, where I hoped being short would not be such a detriment. But wherever I lived, I knew I had to maintain the one thing I had going for me—a good body.
In Korea, I started swimming. I built up my stamina, and after a few of months of it I was doing over two hundred laps in an Olympic-sized pool—a two-hour swim, seven days a week. I started doing taekwando classes, too, and though my flexibility and strength were somewhat diminished (I was now approaching my late thirties), I soldiered on, doing the best I could.
Eventually, I moved to the Philippines. I found a girlfriend there and then suddenly I found that I’d lost my main motivation for staying in shape. My girlfriend, it seemed, valued me not so much for my sleek and awesome physique or my Dustin Hoffman-life features (she didn’t even know who he was or that I resembled him slightly), but rather I think she went for me because of my propensity for scratching on the 8-ball whenever we played pool together, or the blind eye I turned whenever she cheated at cards, or that I never objected to all the junk food she ate or the cigarettes she smoked or the mountain of ashes she left all over the house, or the fact she spent most her time sleeping or watching cartoons. It was not a relationship destined to survive the cruel test of time. But during that period I got lazy and began to slack off on my workouts, which was odd because pent-up frustration is an excellent trigger for getting a good workout in, which was what I should have been doing, but I was doing the opposite and simply vegetating. I was in my early forties by then. I began to put on weight, and drink a little more than one might consider healthy and medicinal. I was waking up in the morning feeling groggy and stiff, laboring to make it to the bathroom, like a guy closer to the grave than middle age. And then I pinched a nerve in my lower back that touched upon my sciatic nerve, and for the first time in my life I was beset with persistent, nagging pain that consumed all of my attention and left me totally depressed. It took a number of weeks and a couple of setbacks before I had fully recovered. And when I finally had, I decided I had to get back into shape, shed the extra weight and clean up my act, and find a new relationship—a woman, a non-smoker, who at least knew who Dustin Hoffman was.
It was then that I started running. I was now in my mid forties. It took a little time to get into it since I had to first overcome a longstanding aversion to this kind of exercise. But in time, I trimmed down and got back into pretty good condition. I had my boxing workout also, and I was doing a lot of stretching which later evolved into practicing yoga. By the way, I go to Bali a couple times a year to do nothing but yoga. I particularly like the ratio of women to men in these classes. It’s about ninety percent female. Sound like a recurring theme?
Obviously, I don’t have the body I did in my twenties, but when someone tells me, “Hey, you’re in good shape!” it does give me a boost and a little extra motivation. I am still somewhat of a competitive guy. I do like to win and I still feel like I’m in a contest that I can win. But for me exercise is work, and I get no thrill out of it.
Why is that? Why do I find no pleasure in exercise?
I envy guys who tell me they enjoy working out, whether it’s running or whatever. To me, it’s a struggle, a matter of mind over body. If my body alone was the one calling all the shots, I would probably just sit around and stuff my fat face and do nothing that required physical exertion—well, almost nothing … if you catch my drift. I’d be one of those guys who became so obese you would hardly recognize me. I’d be like, say, Marlon Brando who, incidentally, and this is my proudest accomplishment in life, we shared the same birthday (April 3rd).
Keeping oneself in shape cuts to the very core of what makes a person tick. It’s rooted, of course, in the desire to stay healthy and active, and stay in the game for as long as possible. Yes, it requires motivation and dedication. And it helps to have a full and joyful life. It helps to have things that bring you pleasure and satisfaction or things that fuel your commitment to higher causes, such as saving the planet or just getting a darn date or maintaining your looks for that special someone. As for me, I am still chasing that elusive carrot, like Elmer Fudd in his familiar hunting clothes with his trademark whisper, “Be vewwy, vewwy quiet…I’m hunting wabbits!”
But even as my ammunition of energy dwindles with age, my purer pursuits and better habits remain intact. And it’s in these pursuits and habits that one’s existence is given broader meaning. And by doing things which are life-affirming and health-promoting, one’s life becomes more than just a monotonous run, devoid of joy, filled with frustration. It becomes a thing alive with wondrous possibilities.
What grows in my mind is the awareness of my own silliness and self-destructiveness, too, much of which can be dubbed as “misguided but necessary” in the process of seeing the light. That said, the plain and simple truth is, I suppose, life is fleeting, and success and failure temporary, as is all the silliness and seriousness of what happens in life. But I suppose, too, we runners are all running for our lives, running toward a finish line which has everything to do with guiding our own fates and discovering the True Grit of our own minds.