Sunday, April 21, 2019

I Was Doing Fine, Napkin Ring Glory, The Miracle of Focus

I hadn’t been thinking much about my dad’s death. To me, it seemed like an intense but strangely distant experience; a loud, full-color, orchestral occurrence that played and replayed in mind like a high-def movie, but one that I remained steadfastly detached from. Over the years, I have developed a strong stoic streak. I think it’s in me genetically--I come from a long line of poor Swedish farmers. I had work to do. Lots of it. I was doing fine.  So fine that I felt guilty about it. So fine that I figured I must have pre-mourned him over the last few years when I knew his heart wasn’t doing well. I got lots of work done over these last seven weeks. I went to the range every week and signed up with my trainer and started working out all of the time and keeping very, very busy, and I was perfectly fine. Then one of my sisters posted pictures of my Dad on Facebook in honor of his birthday, and I realized he wasn’t going to have any more birthdays. For the first time since his death, I understood that he was dead. And I completely lost my sh*t at the very inconvenient time of 6:00 a.m. on the morning that I was due to be at a mandatory work meeting. I underwent three straight hours of savage, sobbing, ugly, exhausting, helpless grief. Then I had to pull myself together and get through the  intense all-day work meeting with red, swollen eyes and bouts of crying in the bathroom. Then I came home and immediately resumed the process of falling apart. It went on until that evening, when I fell into bed exhausted. I remain shocked at the intensity of it.

Once, Mr. Typist and I went fishing at Fish Lake really early in the morning. I was much skinnier back then, and it was really cold and wet, and as we headed back to the car, I started shaking violently and uncontrollably. It was weird and terrifying and kind of fascinating. I lost complete control over my body as my hypothalamus swooped in and took command to generate life-saving heat. This was kind of like that. I didn’t get to decide anything. I didn’t get to control it or push it away or drown it in work or novelty or hysterical replacement activity. It seized total control of my emotional territory, and I could only thrash around helpless in its jaws. For now, it has retreated. But I am waiting for the black beast to return again and give me another good shaking. Maybe, if it does come in waves as they say, this next one won’t crash me against the shore quite as hard. My apologies for all of the mixed metaphors--it’s been a long week.

I told you I’d update you on the BSE (Big, Stressy Event), so here goes: It was glorious. Everything looked exactly as I had envisioned: Shimmery, creamy, gold, white, black and very elegant. Every minute of obsession over those napkin rings was well-founded—they pulled the room together beautifully and picked up the soft gold of the centerpiece vases perfectly. The guitarist did a beautiful job, and the singer dutifully sang the song I had asked him to, but then he asked if he could do one more song, and I said sure, and he busted out with his true, luminous self on “Stand By Me,” and every once clapped and cheered and danced in their chairs. Then I speeched my speech and brought up my other speakers and read all the names and cheerled and fake-extroverted like a pro, then came home and spent a sleepless night trying to detox from the massive amounts of stimulus and adrenaline coursing through my veins. Aside from how everything looked, the most important thing is that everyone really had a great time and felt appreciated. It’s done for another year. Around this time next year, you’ll be treated to an earful about my obsession with the exact shade of silver of the seafood forks.

Finally--I promised not go on and on about my range experiences, but I just have to share my excitement. Last week, when I said that I had that moment of focus and silence and complete attention? Today, my entire day at the range was like that. I watched a video by an ex-Navy Seal sniper on focus over and over again this week, and it really sank in. Almost every one of my shots was on target consistently, and even more exciting—Mr. Typist challenged me to do a speed drill, where you move from target to target at high speed without stopping between shots, and I was shocked that I did very well at that, too. The practice of shooting continues to give me confidence and courage and strength. And I have a feeling I’m gonna need it.

--Kristen McHenry

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Electricity Shamed, Unorthodox Meditation, Sprucin’ Up

The other day, Mr. Typist and I received a passive-aggressive notice in the mail from the electric company. Apparently we are using waaaay more electricity than our neighbors. Way more. 80%, to be exact. It had a colorful graph, along with helpful hints on how to keep our bill down and stop being such hell on the environment with our out-of-control resource usage. After I got over my initial umbrage at being electricity-shamed, I remembered that our last few power bills were higher than normal, for no reason that I could discern. Our “lifestyle” such as it is hasn’t changed any, we haven’t bought any new appliances, and we’ve carried on as normal as far as we both know. So now we are on the hunt to figure out what the heck is hoovering up so much power. Mr. Typist suspects it’s dust on the refrigerator coils, but I would prefer a more exciting explanation, like a family of elves hiding behind a false wall in our closet, or aliens.

I’ve mentioned before that shooting is becoming something of a meditation for me. It’s been a struggle, but no matter how frustrated I get, I feel drawn to keep going back to the range. It pulls at me, despite the difficulties I’ve had, or perhaps because of them. The challenge keeps me focused, and I enjoy the feeling of gaining mastery over a powerful tool that I used to be afraid of. Today, I was struggling mightily, getting all of my shots in low, and allowing my frustration to highjack my mind. I wanted to impose my will on the pistol, and the more I tried to gain control, the worse things got. Mr. Typist kept saying “Don’t worry about the shot, just focus on the front sight.” Finally, after my 100th round, I stopped overthinking every single thing and just let the instruction in. Even though bullets and brass were flying all around me, everything went silent and still. My mind let go, and all that existed in the universe was that front sight on my target. My shots hit the bullseye in quick succession, and I was flooded with pure joy at the elegance of it all. Finding that moment of perfect attention and focus felt like magic. Everything vanished except the exact moment I was in and the task that was before me. It’s a feeling I have had sometimes while doing things that require total focus, like stage acting, but I’ve also had it when simply walking along a lake or standing in line at Burger King. I know better than to chase after it, but I sure would like more of it in my life.

The BSE (big, stressy event) is this week, but I am ready for it, fancy napkin rings and all. The event is a prime motivator for me to do things like get my shaggy hair snipped, get my brows waxed and have my nails done (nails are a once-a-year affair for me.) So I’m getting all cleaned up (thank you to everyone who said nice things on Facebook about my new ‘do!), and I should soon be presentable enough to stand in front of a bunch of people and yap for a few hours. I’ll report in next week about all the BSE goings-on, and how good those napkins rings looked.

--Kristen McHenry

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Word Cloud of My Life, Napkin Holder Angst, Meat Shed

If I was going to do a word cloud of my life over these last few weeks, it would have the word WORK in giant letters, surrounded by a medium-sized “gym” a medium-sized “range,” and not much else. Every year around this time, I reference the Big Stressy Event I do for work once a year, and it’s looming again, necessitating a few weekend days in my office trying to get caught up on the avalanche of my regular work, and make sure that I didn’t leave someone off the recognition list. In between obsessing over which exact shade of gold the napkin holders should be and going seventy-four rounds with our circuitous AP department to make sure my musician gets paid, most days I’ve managed to grind out the lower-body exercises my trainer gave me. I have a balance ball and a yoga mat in my office that have lain dormant for the last three years and have been recruited back into service, so the lower body is easier to get in. My arm situation is a different thing. There is a very specific machine at the gym that I have to use for Arms, and it’s hard to get to since it’s very popular. I marched off to the gym a few days ago, naively thinking it would be wide open, and ended up sitting awkwardly the weight area while one after another grunting hard-body loaded up the weight and proceeded to build their slick-muscled meat castles, their eyes glassy with concentration and their jaws set in a grimace. It was very intimidating back there. Even the women were scary, with their tanned, flat-tummied hyper-crunches and side…thingies. I tried to blend in by pretending to lift on some of the machines that were open, but they were either too bewildering to figure out, or I was literally too weak to do anything on them. Eventually I just left.

That’s the thing with trainers. I don’t think that they fully understand that some people actually do completely lack athletic ability and don’t how the machines work, or how their own bodies work. I like my trainer a lot—he’s patient and he explains things well—but I’ve always harbored a sneaking suspicion that trainers go into that line of work because they’ve been naturally athletic their whole lives and fully believe that everyone else could be too, if they just worked at it, which is not true. This whole working-out-with-a-trainer thing has dredged up a lot of pain about my own lack of athleticism, and never finding any sport that I was any good at. I was a very tall kid, so for a while people thought I would be good as basketball, but I was not, and I hated every second of it. I don’t like any  sport where people are next to me. I’m hearing a lot of people lately extol the virtues of Jiu-jitsu, but I’ve watched videos and it looks horrifying to me. I took Tai-chi in college but the instructor kept yelling at me about my sub-standard Cloudy Hand, so I lost interest pretty fast. Yoga never took. The only thing I really like to do is fast-walk and dance. I am good at fast-walking and terrible at dancing. (Some theorize that tall people are bad at dancing because their limbs are too far from their brains.) But…I did get okay at it when I was taking NIA classes. Maybe I will take another NIA class.

But I’m not going to do anything until the Big Stressy Event is to put to bed for another year and I can breathe again. Don’t get me wrong; I love doing the BSE. It brings me a lot of joy. I take a great deal of care to make sure everything is beautiful, and I love fussing over the shade of the napkin holders. I get to indulge my inner artist and think about beautiful things and the beautiful people I am throwing this glittery shindig for. But, it is big and stressy. And afterwards I will be taking vacation time, during which I will edge my way into the weight area and work on building my own meat castle…although at this point it’s really more of a shed. Or perhaps a bird house.

Or maybe I’ll try my hand at this:

--Kristen McHenry

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Movements for the Middle-Aged, Straight-Up Range Brag

In my ongoing effort to not completely come apart at the seams physically in middle age, I had my second session with my personal trainer last Monday. This one was much more in-depth. At the initial consultation, we had a non-argument in which I told him that I can’t do squats, and he calmly but immediately contradicted me. This session…we did squats. Which I was extremely anxious about. But he was patient about it. He’s turning out to be a good trainer for a feeb like me. He’s soft-spoken and thoughtful in his approach and hyper-attuned to my comfort level. At some point, I must have winced or something, because he stopped everything and told me, “There will be no gutting it out in these sessions. You have to tell me right away if there is any pain at all. In fact, over-tell me about your pain. We are going to do everything safely and slowly.” This was very comforting to me. It gives me a small but satisfying sense of security to know that once a week for an hour, another human being is fully looking out for my physical well-being; far more than I look out for it myself.  

He taught me a series of simple but powerful lower-body exercises, which just about killed me the first time I did them. I was shocked and saddened to realize how weak my entire lower body is. I walk and swim on the semi-reg, but both are a fairly haphazard affair, and I realize that because of my knee injury, I’ve been operating for years with compensating habits that have caused all sorts of imbalances and weaknesses. But I have a spark of hope now. I did the exercises faithfully almost every day this week, which my trainer will think is too much, but I went a little overboard because was I excited at the first hint that they may be actually working. It might be my imagination, but I feel like my gluts and quads are getting a bit more sinewy and my core is feeling a little more…core-ish. I also noticed that once I started working those muscles, there was definitely some emotional pain stored in them that is being released by the activation of long-dormant muscle fibers. A few times upon finishing a set, I felt waves of what seemed like very old sadness and grief. It’s dissipated more and more with each set, so it’s just a passing thing, but I found the phenomenon interesting. (I’m not going to tell the trainer about that sort of pain, though. He has enough on his hands with me.)

Alright, folks. I’m not going to humble brag here. I’m not going demure and deflect and act like I’m not excited about this. I’m just going to straight up brag: I kicked ass at the range today! Now mind you, that was after I blew out not one, but two binder clips, and had a terrible first hour during which I almost cried. But…thanks to Mr. Typist’s keen analytical skills, we fixed my grip, and it was straight-up miraculous the difference it made.  Precision is a theme in my life these days, and it turns out, grip precision matters. A lot. For the first hour, all of my shots were coming in super-low, despite my aim being on target. Mr. Typist kept saying I was dropping my hands on the trigger pull, but I couldn’t feel it. Nothing I was doing was helping, I was rattled by the booms from a .50 caliber shotgun in the lane next to me, and I was beginning to lose hope. But the minute I was able to get my left hand higher up on the grip and re-positioned to a more stable angle, I had it. I actually had it! The photographic evidence is here:

Bad Grip: My shots are low, all over the place, and scattered to the four corners of the Western Hemisphere.

Good Grip: HA! I killed it, baby! (Except for those low ones. And the ones in the gray. But hey, I'll take it!)

I was super-excited, but also immensely relieved, because I was beginning to think that something was seriously wrong with my vision, or that I was incapable of accurate aim due to early-onset Alzheimer's or something. My arms were tired and achy, but when I saw those groupings, I couldn’t wait to put more rounds through, and had similar groupings on my last target sheet. I left the range for the first time with my head held high, feeling elated and proud and confident. Then I cried when I realized my Dad would be proud of me. I hope he was watching me from his desk chair in heaven as he smoked cherry tobacco from his wooden pipe.

The gist is that I now know I can do this. I can achieve competency, and, with a lot of work and practice, maybe even get good. I feel excited about going back to the range, instead of the usual gnawing anxiety and tinge of dread. I am definitely miles ahead of my first shot in that beginner’s class back in October, where I was shaking so badly the instructor had to put his hands around mine to keep me from blowing my own eye out by accident. So…onward…to lower body strength, precise shooting, and an able body in middle age.

--Kristen McHenry

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Divine Dissatisfaction, Precision Appreciation, A Little Excitement

I’ve been unpredictably weepy lately, and the most recent thing that got me was, of all things, comedian Bryan Callen on the Joe Rogan podcast. I’m not familiar with Bryan Callen’s work, but in the interview, he seemed keenly intelligent, well-rounded, and well-read. I was enjoying his long-form chat with Joe, when Bryan pulled out from nowhere a letter that famous dancer and choreographer Martha Graham wrote to Agnes DeMille:

“There’s a vitality, a life force, a quickening, that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. If you block it, it will never exist through any other medium, and will be lost. The world will not have it. And it is not your business to determine how good it is, or how valuable it is, or how it compares to other expressions. It’s your business to keep it yours, clearly and directly, and keep the channel open. You don’t even have to believe in yourself or your work. You only have to keep open and aware of the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatsoever at any time, there is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”

I rolled back the podcast numerous times to re-listen to that through my tears. What’s so amazing about those words is that they don’t just apply to artists, or self-defined artists. They apply to warriors, to healers, to parents, to executives, and to anyone who is doing the work they are supposed to be doing on this earth, whatever that is. There should be a restlessness in us, a chronic dissatisfaction and hunger that pushes us onwards to higher achievement, that “blessed unrest” that drives us to do more, to try harder, to never be complacent. Yet there is also our self-doubt--I spend a great deal of time trying to determine how good my writing is, how valuable it is, and more than anything, how it compares to others. So there is a dichotomy there between the doubt and the belief, the open channel and the constant questioning of the worth of our work. I don’t know what the answer is, I only know that the hunger is good, the unrest is good, and that a lack of satisfaction is a spiritual path in and of itself. I feel it constantly, and I am glad for it.

Speaking of wanting more—my regular gym jacked up their drop-in rates to over double what they were a few months ago, so in a fit of temper, I joined a cheaper, less bells-and-whistles joint just down the street from them. Part of my membership included a discounted package with a fitness trainer, so in a moment of recklessness, I decided to sign up for a “consultation” (sales pitch) to see if I wanted to commit to the training package. I met with the trainer armed with an agenda: I have a bad knee and therefore I will under no circumstances “do squats,” I have no athletic ability so you can’t expect anything from me, I’m only here to strengthen my upper body so I have more stamina at the gun range, and going to the gym is really boring and you can’t force me to like it.

I don’t know what I expected from a personal trainer—I sort of envisioned an annoying, ripped young college-aged jock-dude jumping around and yelling “get after it!” as I panted on the treadmill—but what I got was different. My trainer is a slight-bodied, calm, self-possessed older male with a strong sense of focus and a very methodical approach. He pushed back swiftly on my “no squats” decree, and he was visibly wounded at my declaration that the gym is boring, but once we got past that, he seemed to understand my agenda and get on board with it. The entire first session was bewilderingly sedate—he was hyper-focused on “form”, and took me through a series of very low-key warm-ups wherein he asked me to do rudimentary movements and “focus on how my body feels.” At first, I was puzzled. Why on earth would I want to know how my body “feels”? I spend my entire day avoiding that sort of knowledge for my own survival. But once I did the warm-ups, I did get some valuable information; mainly that my left shoulder really hurts, and that I can actually do very shallow squats without knee pain. He showed me how to use a free weight machine for upper-body strengthening, and how to be precise in my form, which I appreciate. (More and more in life, I am coming to value precision.) He was quietly encouraging. I’ll see him every Monday for the next eight weeks, so we’ll see how it goes. If he can make the gym even slightly less dull for me, I’ll consider it a victory.

And, I miss my dad. I really miss my dad…I was just complaining to him not too long ago about how obsessed personal trainers are with squats, and he scoffed right along with me about it. He would think it was funny that this trainer insisted that I do squats. My dad was not a reckless scofflaw, but nor was he a fan of authority. In future blog posts, I’ll tell you some stories…some of which involve military police pulling guns on him. Let’s just say my dad needed a little excitement every now and then.

Here is every online workout brag-video ever. (You can skip through the annoying ad at roughly the one-minute mark.) 

--Kristen McHenry