The increasingly parochial observations of a casual runner in his fifties. Was "serious" about "the sport" until personal and sociocultural inevitabilities prevailed.

Monday, July 13, 2020

This won't make it stop, but anyway

In February 2018, I reconnected with a University of Vermont college teammate who now lives a few hours away. When we met for coffee, he told me that, by happenstance, his sister's husband was in the employ of another former teammate who'd gone on to become the CEO of a Vermont insurance company. This gratifying success story was Michael, a boyish and polite fellow I'd lived and spent a lot of time with back in the day, but hadn't talked to since before my first marathon.

After I met my local friend at a Lucky's in Boulder, he passed along a photo of us there to his brother-in-law; in return, we got a photo of Michael and Eric, another teammate, flanking our now-retired coach. Michael -- and I keep wanting to type "Mike," but in a non-annoying way, he just never went by that diminutive even at 19 if he could help it -- was 48 when this was taken, but looks about 30.

Two weeks ago Thursday, I got a text from Crested Butte. Michael had been found dead in his home that morning.

His obit revealed that he was thoroughly prosperous and as generous in his professional life as he'd been three decades earlier as a road-trip partner, fellow sufferer on a galactically bad (but worthwhile) D-1 team, and true friend. He had run a 5K in the high 18's within the past five years. He had two young adult daughters. His wife was a friend in college and fellow math nerd; they'd been together for 30 years.

"No one saw it coming" is too much of a cliche to invoke other than in passing. Yet Eric, who spent parts of every summer with Michael over the years, agrees that it's the most stupefying thing he's ever seen in his life, and he's a solid judge of how people around him are doing.

It has become more clear what the proximate sources of anguish were, but nothing in the mix seems proportionate -- as if anyone ever gets anywhere trying to rationalize the unforeseen taking of a life by its owner.

Between the mid- to late 1990s and very recently, I was in contact with only a small handful of people from my college years. This is typical enough for a 50-year-old, but maybe less so for one who'd played a sport -- albeit as a spotty performer on a lackluster team -- at the collegiate level and then made that sport a major part of his life well into his thirties. I thought about reaching out to some of the guys at times over the years; not coincidentally, this was always in the shorter and shorter periods when I or something about me appeared to be thriving, and I never acted on it. There's also the inevitable inertia that accompanies the idea of blindly reaching out to even a dear friend of old when the "of old" has become sufficiently musty.

By the time I was 40 or so, having helped build and then abruptly leave or otherwise ruin a number of meaningful relationships with people and institutions, I was contemplating the reality that I had no basic life plan other than surviving on gig work, endorphins and ever-more-frequent alcohol benders, and hoping, maybe, that falling in love with something other than whimsical notions of personal redemption would motivate me in some way. Accordingly, most of my ideas of connecting with the old gang had evaporated. In my daily life with the friends I'd made -- some of them longtime friends even by then -- I was often in good humor and for good reasons.

But every time I took a mental trip back to my undergrad years, I was just ashamed. Not just of having fucked up most of the important things in life for the better part of twenty years, but of the fairly predictable ways in which I'd done it. Even now, for the most part completely happy with where I am given my proclivities and inevitabilities, I often have a hard time knowing that a time existed when I was unaware that I could and would destroy my own life despite various sources of resistance. My college years fell within this period, so those memories -- a lot of them revolving around kegs and track-team parties that at the time seemed purely fun despite my excesses -- are tinged with the melancholic sense that I somehow could have made wider choices even then. Actually, that's more masochistic than melancholic; if I didn't quit until 2016, I was clearly committed to the substance despite its various adverse consequences, and ultimately also because of them.

I had no means of knowing this in 1984, but on the basis of my perceptions and unbridled euphoria in my very first experience with drunkenness at age 14, I was destined to have a forced reckoning with alcohol at some point if I continued to drink it. I'd managed to get into fairly serious trouble with it once before I turned 16, at which point I tabled (mostly) my then-illegal behaviors in favor of not being kicked off various sports teams of which I was a captain and contributing member.

At UVM, my freshman-year dormitory floor was a party zone, and many of my new teammates were enthusiastic beer-mongers. I had developed a blackout drinking habit and the onset of a well-hidden eating disorder by the time I was done with my first semester of college, during which I also carried a perfect GPA and ran a few respectable races. But the only thing keeping me externally above water was a great deal of natural academic ability and a penchant for both all-nighters and picking my spots when it came to the boozing. And, at times, I was still having a lot of fun, with or without the carousing. But by the time I was of legal drinking age, I was drinking alone, sometimes for days on end. Most of this was packed into my senior year, which was essentially a formality since I'd gained early admission to medical school. All of this was on the strength of extraordinary front-loading; my grades had been great and my running at least a thing for the first two years, but by the time I graduated from the University of Vermont I had made near-complete use of the GPA cushion I'd built in my first four or five semesters, and apart from my enrollment at Dartmouth I was a budding sot.

Still, on the surface, I was a guy off to an Ivy League grad school with tuition paid by the government in exchange for military service, whereas most of my graduating teammates were business and marketing majors applying to entry-level positions in money-management jobs, or heading back to mom and dad's for a spell. It's not that my plan was better, it's that I had one and that it was not only firm but the biggest step yet toward entering the career I'd had my sights on since my early teens. I actually felt bad for my peers who were facing uncertainty.

Well. Despite great grades overall, a stellar performance at officer basic training as a newly commissioned 2LT at Fort Sam Houston after my first year, and being sober for over two years at one point, I finally wound up on a leave of absence that eventually became a withdrawal when I in effect chose a lifestyle that would let me do as I pleased over applying for a waiver for the medical condition that ultimately cost me my Army scholarship. Drinking only helped knock me out of medical school; what it really did was give me a choice other than returning and finishing. I could be a wannabe writer for the rest of my life instead, starting at 26 or 27! (If nothing else, I reached a stable enough equilibrium on that score.)

This is not a good time, and there isn't one anyway, to litigate the matter of whether anything I've done since dropping out of med school is worth much to anyone. It sounds like a rationalization, but even if I had cleaned myself up in my early twenties and continued on my expected path, I don't think I would enjoy working as a doctor these days except in a research setting, given my undeniable palette of (albeit mostly repressible) prickly traits. In spite of this, I still want to deride some and often all of what I've done since the mid-1990s instead, despite putting some solid effort into some of those things and getting decent results. All in all, I very freely hold myself, although now mostly my past self, in brazen contempt, and if you're a close friend you've heard it all up close more often than you wish you had.

But self-contempt is just a less pitiful name for self-pity. And I really, really don't like anything connected to self-pity; it's a purely banal mindset that removes all impetus for self-improvement, and often cheapens the labors of others in the process. But if I don't own up to experiencing it and incurring the costs of not fighting it, I'll experience more regrets exactly like the ones I've been dogged by in recent weeks. I regret not reaching out to Michael over the years. I'm sanguine about the likely effects such an exchange might have had on the operation of the greater cosmos. But I do know we both missed something as a result. I know this just from the various conversations I'be had with people I hadn't talked to in years as a result of his death.

Michael was an unusually decent human, especially but not only for a college male in those days, especially one from a family as well-off as his was. His dad was a high-level business executive with humble roots, and humility was one of his more outstanding -- in every sense -- traits. He would get up to the same stupid shit as the rest of us when he was in his cups, yet he was always the first to put the brakes on and show real regret on a collective bleary morning if any of us, including him, had done something truly out of bounds. I got to know him better shortly before we both graduated, spending a low-key spring break with him at his family home in Northern New Jersey. He was just a sometimes-goofy, Depeche Mode-loving, Flock of Seagulls haircut-having (okay, only at first) young man who looked for the best in people and, when he got more serious about his own running in his last year as a Catamount, helped his teammates get better too. As my friend in Crested Butte said to me the other day, a look of real curiosity in his face, "I don't think I ever heard anyone use the word 'jerk' to describe him." This is true; I remember a few desultory blow-ups on team vans and with our roommates, but Michael never left anyone with a bad impression lasting longer than seconds. You just knew he didn't have a deceiving heart and couldn't hurt anyone on purpose given any level of motivation. It's my loss that I didn't reach out to him in the 28 years since we left school, which an ever-more dextrous Internet makes easy as hell. But I get to remember him as he was, and he was pretty awesome, despite one really ridiculous pair of bowling shoes.

Michael was a producer extraordinaire, and although I can't account for everything that happened to his inner self over the years, I knew for certain, and really always did, that he would have been the last person to pepper me with any more derision than I deserve for my various missteps, and in fact would surely have been more forgiving than I am. And the same goes for our other friends from those sometimes inglorious but literally unforgettable days. That's what sometimes makes this hard; it's easier when I was when you can get people to join in, or at least co-sign, your own self-flagellation, which makes it all the more excusable to not give a shit about anything. But my friends never do that, because I seem to be down to genuine friends.

I'm obviously piggybacking on a tragic event to burble about myself here. I suppose no apology is necessary since this is my blog, but more than that, maybe a little burbling now and then can help prevent the same cascade of decisions that just claimed a life with an extraordinary amount of real and metaphysical value. The details may differ, but I haven't been immune to suicidal thoughts, and plans, over the years. Those subsided once I stopped drinking for good and assembled a life that may be humble but bears no specter of shame, and shame is the most acute mental hell there is, in my experience. But it doesn't mean I can't or won't "go there" even in sobriety and with relatively long-term security and a comprehensive support network.

A blog is a great excuse for not doing real work. Flipping that idea on its head, I've pitched and submitted two articles to Podium Runner in the past week or so as part of a broad effort to avoid finishing this post. I've had a harder-than-usual time keeping up with my modest joblike responsibilities since Michael died, and although I have been running every day, it's not been a bucket of fun (I'll save that for later in the week). But I feel better for having churned my way through this. I'm sad for the world and especially for his family that someone of his loyalty talent and worth ethic is gone, but I remember almost entirely good things about him, and so that's how the animation is going to run in my mind forever. But God, I wish we humans could magically see each other bending and intervene before any of us reaches the breaking point.




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