Getting Fuzzy: Our First Trail 50k

As we embraced at church, Matt whispered the following into my ear: “You fucking asshole…”

Not your typical Sunday morning greeting, no.

What elicited Matt’s observation was his realization I initiated the hug just to dig my finger into his right quadricep where he ached the most. At least that’s where I guessed he hurt, having done a little jaunt with him the day before. Well, it wasn’t a jaunt exactly, and one could better describe the soreness in our legs as throbbing pain.

We took on the Fuzzy Fandango 50k, a 32-mile trail run through the hills of the Mohican-Memorial State Forest. With a starting line aiming us straight up the ski slope of Clear Fork Adventure Resort and more than 4,000 feet of total elevation gain, the Fuzzy took us eight hours, fourteen minutes, and change to complete. If you imagine running from San Diego, California to Tijuana, Mexico while climbing up and down all 102 stories of the Empire State building nearly four times, that should give you a sense of the challenge we and 66 other runners paid to face on November 10, 2018. That also happens to be the first day we got snow this season as the temperature only climbed to a touch above 30 degrees Fahrenheit.

If this sounds miserable to you, don’t stop reading. I tell you this not to alienate you, but to get you to understand that choosing to go through that pain and cold for all those hours while moving over that distance was one of the worst experiences of my life.

It sucked so much!

It was also transcendent.

Mohican-Memorial forest is one of my favorite places. At 4,525 acres, this preserved woodland in Ashland County would easily swallow up the nearby county seat; Ashland, Ohio. For whatever reason, upon hearing the word, ‘forest,’ my mind retrieves an image of a flat plain with trees. Probably because I grew up in the glaciated portion of Ohio.

Mohican is unglaciated, which means the topography rolls like a bowling ball with one flattened side. We’re not talking hills and valleys with whispering streams. Yeah, it’s got those, but it also has towering granite formations, drop-offs that’ll kill you, channels of water large enough to sweep you away, and an aid station where the guy handed me a shot of bourbon. It’s a wondrous place, and when we ran it, the forest floor was blanketed with newly-fallen leaves beneath trees still ablaze with color. In other areas, even as the scent of pine pricked your nose, your ears strained to pick up familiar sounds now dampened by the brown needles below and the green ones everywhere else. We passed boulders adorned with icicles and a waterfall plummeting more than two stories. I know, because I climbed the several flights of steps that took you from the base of the cascade to its pinnacle.

Laura, wife-for-life, wanted to have two children, a girl and a boy, but desired twins, so she would only have to experience pregnancy once. She knew the toll it would take on her body, that it would be one of the most difficult things she’d ever choose to do, and she was correct.

We did have two children, a girl and a boy, but they weren’t twins. Laura went through pregnancy twice to get what she wanted. As one incapable of sacrificing my life to allow another to gestate within, I can’t describe the discomfort, emotional trauma, and pain my wife went through to allow our children to live. I can communicate what I witnessed her face and what she shared with me, sometimes in tears. And it was hard, soul-wrenching, tearing pain. But then each time it was over, and she held this helpless, wailing, flailing life that needed her like no one else. And there was healing in the holding — all the pain forgotten in joy. Even ten years later, there’s nothing Laura wouldn’t do for Maggie. To keep Asher safe, Laura will fight anyone and anything to her dying breath.

No, I’m not comparing running an ultra-marathon to giving birth. Are you nuts?!? I’m just illustrating how going through pain and sacrificing for something you desire changes you, creating unbreakable bonds.

Think about your closest friends. Likely, you know them from work or school. Maybe you grew up with them. I challenge you to identify one friend with whom you did not go through some shit. Name someone you hold dear that did not see you through difficulty in your life.

Please. Allow me to go one step further. Identify someone you hold dear, your best friend or even the family member you love the most, and think about all the trauma the two of you faced together. Is it a significant amount? I bet so.

My best friends are the people with whom I run on a regular basis. When you spend hours at a time with someone on the trail, you end up sharing what’s going on in your life. Not only do you face the miles and the hills and the temperatures and the weather and the sleep deprivation together, you face the trouble you’re having at work. You share how you’re trying to fix the condo after the pipes backed up and sewage flooded your basement. You share trying to get your MFA while working full-time and how you’re not sure you’re going to make it. You ask if it’s normal to yell at your wife about weeding the flower beds then breaking down in tears. That is normal, right?

Running the Fuzzy Fandango 50k showed me I can do something most perceive as impossible, but I did it with my good friend, Matt, pictured above, who cussed me out in church. He’s my friend who’s seen me through all the moments I listed above along with innumerable others over the last five years.

Yeah, there were points in the race where we descended slopes like little kids, allowing gravity to pull us forward, arms windmilling, trying to step fast enough so we didn’t fall and giggling as our stomachs achieved weightlessness. There were other moments, though, where we hit a series of switchbacks ascending a slope we thought would never end. These weren’t amiable switchbacks either. They were the sort where you put your head down and dig into it like a kid trying to get through a plate of brussel sprouts, the only option being to keep trudging.

I could say I took up running nearly a decade ago because I hit my early thirties, and they hit me with a slowed metabolism. That was a motivating factor, but the SOLE reason I took up running was because my friend, Josh, challenged me to run a half-marathon with him. This hobby that’s now core to my identity started as a challenge from a friend with whom I still see multiple times a week to accumulate mileage.

Having spent the majority of my existence running from challenges, my pursuit of ultra-running makes little sense. Teenage me thought it quite clever to tell others I was “allergic to pain.” Afraid I wasn’t good enough to do them well, I always put off assignments until the last minute, making them that much more difficult. Despite this, I got good grades, graduating summa cum lauda and going on to earn two master’s degrees.

I’m good at running. It’s one of the few things in my life I no longer put off or avoid, and I keep elevating my goals, such as breaking a four hour marathon or choosing tougher races and longer distances. Maybe I’m still trying to prove to myself I am good enough. Maybe I enjoy doing my best when things get toughest. Maybe I only like to do what I’m good at, and I use running to avoid areas in which I think I’ll fail. You know what? Let’s go with Option D: All of the above.

Matt and I spent all day traversing the trail. Day dawned as they bussed us to the starting line, and dusk settled as we crossed the finish line. Our saving grace? The aid stations where volunteers greeted us with cheers and the smell of hot ramen noodles. They refilled our hydration packs and made us PB & J, grilled cheese sammiches, and quesadillas so fresh, they were too hot to eat. At one stop, I enjoyed a Gatorade slushy.

Crossing the finish line, friends offered celebratory beer and pats on the back. Inside the warm lodge, a stranger bought me a sticker featuring an illustration of the race’s mascot in red; a smiling, cartoon puffball with hand lifted in greeting and fairy wings. We ate warm chili heaped high with corn chips, shredded cheddar, and sour cream. I downed one beer while walking the ten steps to get my chili, then enjoyed another as I replenished my calories. Friends we’d just met, known for months, and acquired on the trail regaled each other with stories. I changed into warm clothes and headed back outside to join the impromptu finish line party gathered around a fire pit. We cheered the last of the runners then met up for dinner later that evening.

At one point along the course, Matt’s stomach turned sour, and he told me to go on ahead. I refused and slowed to match his pace, as we had agreed to run the Fuzzy together weeks before, so we walked several miles through the pines before arriving at the aid station with the grilled cheese. Both of us ate, and Matt bounced back, running through the finish.

Friends help see each other through the shit, and Lord willing, we’re going to face even more together, because moving forward with friends strengthens your heart, and the more confidence you gain through putting one foot in front of the other, the more of life you can face, heads held high.

Calf

This is me after completing a three-mile run. The smile’s there, because one week prior, I couldn’t play tag with my kids without my calf screaming. If you imagined a pre-pubescent Holstein lowing for all it’s worth, you’ve got the wrong idea. See, I strained the calf muscle in my left leg, and due to that injury, pain-free running eluded me a number of weeks. Cycling provided cardio and worked my legs without exacerbating the pain, but I only rode on weekends, reducing my exercise regimen from three or four times to just once per week.

I missed seeing my buddies on the weekday runs and sharing what’s been going on in our lives, missed the rush of endorphins that buoyed me into work, and missed how my stomach maintained its shape instead of increasing in diameter and oozing over my belt.

Back in February, I wrote of how depression and anxiety caused me to lose my appetite and drop pounds, but now I’m putting on weight. I tried one anti-depressant before switching it out for another one, but I no longer take any medication. I thought I was no good as a teacher and risked losing my job, losing my way. Then Mark, my counselor, reminded me of something essential.

“Jake, the majority of female clients come in for counseling when it’s something relational, but more often than not, men come in when it’s work-related.” He shared about a time when he thought his job was on the line and how through that he learned he had no control over whether or not he kept his job. Sure, one can do the best work possible, but if your employer decides to let you go despite that, you have to look elsewhere for work. Mark helped me realize I was beating myself up over something that laid outside of my control. He reminded me, “God’s the one who grants you favor with others. He’s the one who meets all your needs, so even if you lose your position at Centerburg, you’re going to be just fine.”

Others shared similar advice. Even our superintendent reassured me, “The chances of you losing your job are so small, it’s not even worth worrying about.”

Things didn’t change overnight. I’d deal with a student discipline issue one day and gag over the toilet the following morning, unsure I handled things correctly and worried I’d have to do it all over again that day. It took me a while to accept someone much higher up managed my career, but once I did, fear no longer held me captive, and I gained confidence throughout April and May.

As a result, my teaching improved, which in turn boosted my confidence. I felt more like myself and looked forward to seeing my students. Realizing it wasn’t my responsibility to keep my job shifted my trajectory from a downward spiral to an upward one. I know I have my position at Centerburg this next school year, and if God wants me to continue teaching there, I’ll find success. Yet if it’s time to move onto something else, I’ll have my résumé or curriculum vitae ready to go, and the right opportunity will present itself. No matter what direction my career takes, I trust God’s taking me where I’m meant to be, so ruminate on that.

The Compliment

Someone at work noticed I’ve been losing weight and mentioned it to me as I waited for him to finish up using the copier. “That’s great, dude. You look really good.”

“Thanks, man.” My colleague smiled on his way out the door, and I got things ready for my students, but my mouth formed a line firm as the lump of dread pulsing behind my sternum. Back when I loosened my belt and counted calories, this compliment would’ve made my day, but the only calories I’d been counting the previous few months formed the food for which I no longer had appetite.

Worry has the same mass and energy as a car battery. It sits in your stomach, filling all the empty and weighing you down, so eating becomes something you force yourself to do instead of something you savor doing. Meanwhile, worry’s terminals connect direct to your arms and legs, hands and feet, providing them the current to quiver and shake, move and bounce independent of thought, so that by day’s end, instead of spending time helping your children with their homework and tickling them on the carpet, you’ve retreated to the couch for yet another nap, because all the strength you had has been sapped away.

Life changed for me mid-January around my birthday. I got a Nintendo Switch and some new clothes, I’d grown a beard, and my first pair of eyeglasses arrived. I also went on antidepressants, and I no longer knew how to teach.

My entire life, people would watch me interact with kids and wonder at how I seemed to know just what they were thinking. More than a few compared me to the Pied Piper of Hamelin, noting an air of delight about me and how I could get little ones to follow me anywhere. I never could form a rat parade, though, and every time I leave town, none of the kids ever get sealed up within a mountain, so we’ll call that win-win.

The guidance counselor at school said I’m “one of the good ones, and we don’t want to lose you.” The children’s ministry director at church stated I have a gift and invited me to get more involved. Before that, the curriculum director showed me my students’ value-added data for the previous two years and how they weren’t making the necessary growth in my classroom. He volunteered to come alongside me to help increase my scores, mentioning that if they stayed low, the state would mandate he help me the following years, and that if things didn’t change within a year or two beyond that, I risked losing my job.

I thought I knew what I was doing. Students marched into my classroom with their heads held high, declaring, “I’m here to work hard and learn, Mr. Lees!” and the grades they earned evidenced that they were. Of course, some kids did their darndest to avoid working, but I could usually wheedle something out of them.

With my job on the line, though, I lost any confidence that I knew what I was doing. What I thought worked before obviously didn’t, so I scrapped that, leaving me to figure out the right material to teach and how to teach it. This too is the first year I have students who look through me. Some watched my floundering and despise me. Without my confidence, I allowed them to get away with things I wouldn’t otherwise, treating other students and myself with absolute contempt.

Perceiving this compounded failure, I lost hope. I wasn’t doing my job, I couldn’t get the kids to learn, and every time an instance or an interaction confirmed that, I took it as gospel. Never mind more than half my students still walk into my classroom every day, smile at me, and declare, “I’m here to work hard and learn!” I only believed the ones who treated me like shit.

Dread — that’s what Sunday evenings held — weekday mornings, too. Months after receiving the news about my scores, I no longer cared about keeping my job. I didn’t want to do it anymore. I couldn’t handle it. Family and friends encouraged me to seek counseling, and I made another appointment with my doctor, because the anti-anxiety pills she’d prescribed just made me sleepy.

I even scheduled a meeting with the superintendent. The first year I got hired at school, he was hired on as principal, and I spent a lot of time in his office that first year getting advice, confessing my concerns, and discovering we shared the same boat. After hearing me tell about my struggles, my boss and friend affirmed my authority in the classroom, pinpointed that I needed to concentrate on walking in it, and encouraged me that the odds of me losing my job there were so small, the possibility wasn’t even worth considering. “Get ahold of the classroom management first, and your scores will follow.”

He also shared how in his early years of teaching, he faced a similar situation in his classroom, turned in his two-week notice, and walked away, because he lost his desire to teach, only returning to the field of education years later. “Jake, teaching is a high calling, and you need to figure out if the spark you had is still there, because without it, there’s no reason to be doing this job.”

I turned that over in my mind for more than a month afterwards.

I still don’t know whether this will be my last year as a school teacher, but I think that spark that got me started in this business still burns inside, because six weeks, three counseling sessions, eight sick days, and one switch from Lexapro to Prozac later, I have yet to update my resume.

Did I consider giving my two weeks notice and becoming a copywriter, working at McGraw-Hill, teaching at the college level, or even slinging beer at my favorite brewery? All of the above, but God only knows where my career path goes.

What I do know is that I’ll finish out the last 11 weeks of school, and in that time, I’ll decide what to teach, learning from the curriculum director better ways to not only discover what my students know but also ways to deliver the content they need to know, and as the antidepressants do their job improving my mood, they’ll enable me to do my job.

Sure, I still get to deal with students who view me as a pushover, but now that I no longer place my confidence in the work I’ve done in the past but in my God-given ability to do the work that’s in front of me, those kids will discover Mr. Lees is rooted to a firm foundation, and he’s not near as shaky or willing to take shit as he used to be.

Plus, they may notice he’s been packing on a pound or two.

Responding to the Mass Shooting in Vegas

At least 50 dead with over 500 injured? What possesses someone to check into a hotel, arsenal in tow, and fire into a crowd from an upper story window? Hearing about this atrocity feels like a gut punch, rocking us back on our heels to leave us on hands and knees, desperate to breathe normally again.

It hurts, but we’re going to be okay… We can do this… Just breathe… Take it slow. Together we’re going to get through this.

Yes, there’s a lot to deal with right now, and we’ve been through enough loss already without somebody deliberately firing assault rifles at a crowd. It’s one thing when a hurricane devastates several communities before another decimates entire islands, but when someone in the shadow of all the rest sprays bullets at innocents, you can’t help but struggle for purchase: What happened? Why would anybody do that? How bad is it? Oh, my God! Why is this happening? What are we going to do about it?

Some answers we’ll find, while others will elude us. Meanwhile, social media erupts with outrage and backbiting. People scream about gun control and the NRA, while others argue about why this man is not being called a terrorist. We want fixes for a problem we know exists but feel has no solution: How do you stop evil?

You overcome evil with good.

How does one counteract greed? With generosity. How do you stop injustice? By acting justly. Stealing is undone by restoration, and hate cannot stand in the presence of love. Fear loses its power in the face of courage, and there is no room for contention in the hearts of peacemakers. Yes, we humans have a huge capacity for doing wrong; we’ve seen it for centuries, but we have just as much capacity for doing good.

Open your hands to the poor and needy. Look for the helpers and join them in their work. Stand with those who mourn. Comfort the lonely and afflicted. Donate your time and money to efforts that drive the darkness away.

Turning strangers into friends may not absolutely solve the problem of evil, but it will stunt its growth, enriching the lives of others in the process. We see how misshapen this broken world has become, so let’s participate in the work of healing we all so desperately need.

Gooooooooaaaaaaaaallllllllllllll!!!!!!!!!!!

Normally, this would be the point where I mention blowing the dust off my keyboard since I haven’t updated my blog since April. Thing is, I don’t have to do that as I spent the last month working on a fiction piece as well as transcribing interviews from our trip to Arizona over spring break, which resulted in about 10,000 words. Excuse me while I stand on my chair and celebrate with my own hearty congratulations.

Ooh, bad idea. The desk chair rotates as well as rolls. Lemme get down before I brain myself.

Thing is, I can’t take the credit for accomplishing what amounts to a monster level of writing for me. Ask any of the professors from my MFA, and they’ll tell you there’s no way Jake accomplished that much work by himself. I didn’t; I stole an idea.

Every month, there’s this very nice lady who creates an event in Facebook where the invitees post mileage and other fitness goals for themselves then provide posts, documenting their progress in achieving these goals. Because those who participate in the group are wonderfully generous themselves, whenever anyone posts, they get flooded with positive support along with a modicum of ornery banter.

In addition to the support I receive from this crew, I also gleaned ideas such as running twice in a day, setting a mileage goal for cycling, and adding whole body exercise routines to my repertoire, things I wouldn’t consider myself, which results in me feeling better and being far more confident than I ever have before.

So I stole this idea of doing a monthly mileage challenge on Facebook and created a monthly writing challenge after discovering one of my fellow runners is also a fellow writer with a similar need for accountability. I set it up, invited other writers, and set a goal of writing 25 hours in June.

Which I did.

After skipping a bunch of days.

You see, I figured I could write for an hour each day. (We were less than a week into June when I created the challenge.)

I found it was harder to carve the time out than I first assumed.

Which meant I had to up my daily production.

Forcing myself to write for two hours and forty-five minutes some days.

Which sucked.

And because I created this group challenge, there was no way I was going to miss my goal, so I kept at it.

And I learned something. Three things, actually.

  1. I learned that setting a goal and sharing that goal along with progress made in achieving it with others working toward similar goals nets you many cheerleaders.
  2. I learned that slacking off early makes more work for you in the end.
  3. I learned that spending time doing something important not only creates progress, it also reveals the person I want to be more often.

So if there’s something out there you want to do, procrastinating will get you nowhere. I should know.

Set a goal, share it with others pursuing similar goals, and root each other on till the end. You might not cross the finish line first, but you will move further down the road.

Pen/sword

If asked about their favorite Star Wars movie, most would say Empire Strikes Back, because Hans Solo is a badass. When shit goes sideways, and Leia confesses her love, he responds, “I know.” But for me, Return of the Jedi is superior. Many hate the Ewoks, but I delight in the heroism they show when overcoming blaster-wielding stormtroopers with not much more than rocks and sticks. When you add in the speeder-bike chase on top of that? Mama mia!

What’s true of the original Star Wars trilogy holds true of the other trilogy in which Harrison Ford starred. Where most say Raiders of the Lost Ark reigns supreme for its iconic opening scene as well as the face-melting ending, I have to confess that for me Last Crusade trumps the other two. (Kingdom of the Crystal Skull doesn’t count.) Many moments in Last Crusade elicit giggles and gasps from me despite numerous viewings, but there’s only one reason it’s my favorite Indiana Jones anything. The scene that makes the movie for me, where Indy sets out to rescue his father, Henry, and his father’s friend, Marcus Brody, is special not because Indy takes on a tank with nothing more than a horse and a rock. What sets it apart is the moment when Henry, fighting for control of the tank, uses a pen to squirt ink into the eyes of his attacker, and Marcus, ever the academic, pauses to point out, “Well don’t you see? The pen is mightier than the sword.” My mother explained to ten-year-old me Marcus’ line was more than just a nod to how Henry defeated the Nazi; it possessed deeper meaning. To this day, at 38 years of age, I’m still realizing the significance of the metonymic adage (Thanks, Wikipedia!), the pen is mightier than the sword.

As a middle school English teacher and husband, I know firsthand the power words possess. Just this month, one of my students threatened others via social media and is my student no longer, finishing out the year at an alternative school. The other week, I placed my wife, Laura, in a situation where in jest, a friend threw out the word ‘stupid,’ opening up a wound in Laura stemming back to childhood when her mother, frustrated when she felt Laura took too long to answer, demanded, “What’s the matter with you; are you stupid or something?” Realizing how upset Laura was, I helped resolve the issue and in so doing was reminded that while calling Laura ‘asshole’ will make her laugh, calling anyone ‘stupid’ in Laura’s presence will deconstruct her calm like dynamite razing a skyscraper.

Words can devastate, but unlike an explosive, words can also restore, building others up and healing psychological wounds. Mentors who birthed the greatest positive effects in me all produced growth through words of encouragement.

Flaming with pleasure, my face refused to lift to meet the eyes of my third grade teacher, Mrs. Mann, as she told me that in over thirty years of teaching, I was her favorite student. Hearing these words marked the first time an adult who wasn’t family helped determine my value, and over subsequent years, Mrs. Mann insisted on reiterating my worth again and again, much to my embarrassment and great delight.

The victim of bullies and inept in social interaction, the high school me viewed himself a good student and well-loved at home but felt few in the wider world would call him ‘friend,’ a self-fulfilling prophesy reinforced through seclusion. My one saving grace and the first place I experienced community with others my age, our church’s youth group allowed me to thrive in my faith, functioning as a forum where I could ask all the difficult questions I wanted and still express myself as the adolescent I was. That was the first place anyone called me ‘cool,’ a descriptor I thought reserved for those with the right clothes, the right attitude, and the right amount of money in their back pocket — three things I did not possess. Our pastor, Matt White, looked straight at me with a big smile and said, “Jake, you’re cool.”

“What?”

“I said, ‘You’re cool,’ Jake.” I can’t recall if Matt went on to explain, or if he left the compliment where it was, clapped me on the shoulder, grabbed some snacks, and headed back to the circle of teenagers. Shocked anyone would view me that way, I found it difficult staying upright. Even though Matt meant what he said, my brain refused to comprehend, but as the time he invested in us stretched from months to years, the more comfortable I became, and the more I grew into the person Matt perceived. As life continued, many others came alongside, saw something worthwhile, and named it. Their life-giving words empowered me to thrive, and because of that, I have the opportunity to encourage others and help them grow.

Traditions tell that words possess enough power to alter the physical world. The Ancient Egyptian creation myth holds that Ptah, the patron god of craftsmen, produced the gods and other things once he uttered the ideas developed within his heart. The Torah says God spoke all of creation into existence. He conceived it, uttered it, and it was. Because Wiccans believe in the inherent ability of words to influence the universe, it’s encouraged that spells should have verbal components, and when Jesus healed people or cast out demons, all it usually took was a word or two to transform the lives of the victimized. Though some words spoken affect great change, most of what is said drifts away like snow before a gale.

We are leaky vessels, only capable of holding so much, and much of what we do grasp ends up dribbling from between our fingers. Some spoken words we can’t contain; others just don’t penetrate as we are occupied by other matters. We forget and move on.

Where spoken words are wild and free, ideas incarnate flying forth on wings of expression, the written word matures, condensed ideas diced and blended together to create new experience. The written word endures. Even though it often exists as no more than stains on paper or bits of data uploaded to a server; it sets the course for culture as citizens consume it, evaluate it, ruminate on it, digest it, develop from it, and produce new written work springing from the old. Hebrews 4:12 says, “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” The written word moves and breathes, cutting to our very cores and changing us. That’s why the pen is mightier than the sword. Where the sword of war alters culture, bringing death and destruction, the pen develops and disseminates ideas, enabling civilization to thrive. If no one had written the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, America would never have been established, nor would it have long endured.

So I write, wielding my pen/sword as best I can. My words may not reach many, nor may they be as clever as others’ or as beautiful, but I live my life, making mistakes and learning from them. I have stories to tell and ideas to share. That’s why I’m traveling to Arizona for spring break. I go to gather stories of the cult my grandfather helped establish 50 years ago, to speak with those who left the church and those who still cling to the decades-old promises as dusty and empty as the bomb shelters below them. I go to discover why my grandfather left his family and to uncover the kind of life he led apart from us. By putting pen to paper, I hope to close the void my grandfather left in my life, and through the means of my healing, perhaps others will find healing as well. No matter the pain, I draw the sword of contention from my side and exchange it for the pen of understanding to write the best part of my life’s trilogy, a feat worthy of Harrison Ford armed with a rock.

Trials and Errors

I just finished reading Run the World by Becky Wade, a former collegiate runner who in her first marathon, beat out the rest of the women in a touch over 2 hrs and 38 mins, launching her professional career.

What’s her secret? How’d she do it?

Concocting a plan to travel the world, Becky visited star-producing countries that shatter speed and endurance records to run with their elite, averaging 75-mile weeks and learning their dietary and cultural practices.

That’s the elevator pitch.

How’d she really do it? She worked for it. Earned it. Struggled. Fought for it. Deprived herself. Sacrificed. She tried herself. Found out of what she was capable.

I teach middle schoolers, and there’s a divide yawning between my kids who succeed and those who fail: their willingness to jump. This week, I assigned a certain number of lessons students had to pass in order to net the full credit, and the ones who did were the ones who failed and tried again and failed and learned from their mistakes and passed. The ones who earned none of the credit were students who failed the first lesson or two and stopped.

Thing is, I am those students who failed, and I’m not just talking academics here. I’m talking about any moment where one can risk or not, whether it’s sports, social situations, or even dealing with spirituality. Spending much of my life afraid of change, I took few risks, which stunted my growth and limited my options. At 25, I weighed about 165 soaking wet and worked a full-time job to which I commuted from my parent’s house. I couldn’t afford to move out, because I had yet to save up for a car.

At any instant where growth can occur, there has to be momentum, forward progress. To learn to swim, one has to let go of the ladder. To be a parent, one has to bear responsibility; producing a child is not enough. To succeed, one has to fail, and one can’t fail if they don’t jump, letting go of whatever makes them feel safe, propelling themselves into a space where guts move independent of the rest of the body, and landing well or falling. We don’t leap forward because we’re afraid to fall.

Within a year, I bought a car and moved out on my own, taking a flying leap.

I read Becky Wade’s book because I’m a runner; I’ve fallen too many times to count. I’ve sustained injuries and frozen extremities. The reason I keep running is because it propels me forward; I get to explore my physical and mental limits. I learn what works in various situations because I risk running with ever-changing variables, whether that’s weather, distance, surface, time of day, location, or even physical condition. Because every run changes, I have to change with it, causing growth. Change causes growth.

It’s January 6th, and I have yet to make any resolutions. Well, time to change that. Because I want to continue developing mentally, physically, spiritually, and socially; I resolve to embrace change. Expect to see more frequent blog entries; look for announcements about my memoir and the novel I’m writing; anticipate my teaching a new class; and prepare yourself for such minor adventures as new friendships, improvements to the house, and a trip or two.

If there’s something you know you need to do, but you’ve been afraid to do it, do it. Risk failing/falling, and if you do, pick yourself up, dust yourself off, assess your injuries, and try again.

The Unexpected

Cycling 30 miles with a friend is much easier when both tires hold air. That’s how inner tubes function, remaining inflated to provide a cushion upon which you can fly down the road with grip and precision, so imagine my frustration when at 5:30 this AM I discovered my rear tire was flat. Simple fix. I’ll just use my handy bicycle pump here and fill up this…Why’s it not inflating? Do I need to change my inner tube? What is this, the third or fourth time I’ve had to take my bike apart in the last few months to replace that piece of faulty rubber? Shit.

Called my friend; explaining the issue. “No problem,” he said.

Thirty minutes, much blue language, and approximately three gallons of sweat later; my brand new tube nestled within the tire, the tire perched upon the rim, and the wheel whirred upon the bike. All I had to do was fill it with air. No dice. Each time I pumped, the inner tube expanded then went limp as a politician’s promise.

At a complete loss, I implemented that age-old mental tool utilized by athletes and generals alike: visualization. Drawing in lungfuls of air, I stifled my urge to scream, shut out the world, and pictured my next move.

If I were another person, this would’ve been my MacGyver moment. Taking only spit, vaseline, and a container from my garage workbench marked with an indecipherable chemical formula, I would’ve combined all three agents with a furrowed brow and a quick stir, producing a single puff of blue smoke. Then, while the concoction continued to boil, I’d give my flat tire a spin with my free hand and pour with my right. Defying physics, every drop of the viscous liquid would rush into the gap between the tire and rim, and as a gaggle of neighbor kids gaped in amazement, their notifications of uncaptured Pokemon forgotten, my tire would reinflate with a bang to thunderous applause.

But this is me, so I visualized going back to bed and called my friend, resigned to my fate.

Turns out, Matt was already on his way to my house.

Whip-quick, he had the wheel off my bike and the tire off the rim. Matt diagnosed the cause of my trouble, tried to file the issue smooth, and resorted to duct tape, tearing it in long, thin strips to prevent the gouges on my inner rim from further puncturing my inner tube. Fitting my tire back in place with care and focus, having provided the spare tube he brought with him, he had me road-ready within the hour. We didn’t get in the full 30 miles as planned, but Matt resolved a problem that overwhelmed me.

Shootings, outrage, protests, murders, hangings, bombings, atrocities, coups — the last few weeks have overwhelmed, and we stand lost, not knowing how to fix the world. Some express frustration when others post about prayer in response to these situations, reasoning real solutions will effect change far better than sending mystic vibes at the sky, but when I pray, I’m calling out to the God who listens to my needs and resolves problems.

After being observed by my principal and given a poor review the spring of 2013, I was placed on a one-year probationary contract and told if I did not improve my methods, my contract would be terminated the following spring. I spent the remainder of that school year and the following summer praying I’d keep my job, and each time I asked God what to do, I felt He assured me He’d take care of it.

The following school year, a retired teacher came alongside and mentored me, spending time in my classroom, observing, modeling good teaching, and helping me plan lessons. The right person came to help me at just the right time, and this year, myself, my co-teacher, Greg, and two others won awards for exemplary teaching for our portion of Ohio. I didn’t know how to fix my teaching, so I asked God for help, and He saved my career.

Prone to ear infections, nine-year-old me spent one Saturday feeling as though someone drove a spike into the side of my head, and without Urgent Care, my best hope was Mom giving me Tylenol and waiting for the doctor’s office to open Monday. Given the option of staying home from Sunday service, I chose to go despite the throbbing. Nothing unusual happened that morning until the man who prayed for me following the sermon placed his hand on my shoulder. As he spoke, a stillness settled into my chest and the pain in my ear receded until no trace remained. Unsure how to process what just happened, I staggered back a bit as the man let out a whoop of joy when I confirmed the pain was gone. God is not my uncle who during family volleyball games attempted to hit the ball every time it soared over the net no matter how many of his team members stood in the way; He’s a gentleman, intervening when invited.

I have numerous examples of answered prayer and can confirm God concerns Himself with the troubles that concern us even when things don’t turn out the way we wish; I prayed religiously for family members and friends who died of disease and begged God to improve tough situations only to see them get worse. Even when things went sideways, those times I didn’t think I’d make it through, God stood with me, bringing me out stronger and wiser than when the trouble began.

Whether it’s a flat tire, race riots, or someone running down children celebrating a holiday, calling God for help isn’t wasting your breath, it’s placing a problem into the most capable, loving hands one has ever known.

An Adult’s Letter to Saint Nick

Dear Santa,

As you’re aware, I am a 36-year-old man with a receding hairline, expanding waistline, two kids, as many mortgages, and no business whatsoever writing you this letter. First off, I don’t believe in you.

I eat the cookies and carrots my daughter leaves out. I ferry that infernal elf on the shelf from place to place each night. I even impersonated you the time the wife and I forgot to move that creepy little doll, texting everything was fine so our first-grader wouldn’t worry her little brother ruined Christmas by touching the naughtiness deterrent.

Look, I know you don’t deliver presents; that’s the realm of FedEx and UPS and the postal service. You’ve never made it magically snow on Christmas Eve; that only happens in the movies. You don’t hold eight tiny reindeer along with an entire race of elves captive to do your bidding; PETA and the UN would have been all over you like needles on a spruce tree decades ago.

You are nothing more than a once-historical Catholic saint mashed up with European pagan traditions Americanized, commercialized, and broadcast all over the world to such extent, you’re almost as well-known as Mickey Mouse. You, sir, are a myth; occupying the same plane of pretend-land as King Arthur, the Loch Ness monster, and economic stability.

That’s why I’m writing you this letter; I need something to believe in.

Taking my daughter to her school for Pancakes with Santa, I witnessed Magnolia’s giddiness when ushered into a strange man’s lap. Despite his fake beard and padding, our little girl was so overcome with awe, she couldn’t find the words when he inquired about her good behavior and desire for gifts. After their one-way conversation and obligatory picture, Maggie found her tongue and started wagging it nonstop, “I know he’s the real Santa because he asked what I wanted for Christmas, and when I couldn’t tell him, he said, ‘I’ll bet I know what you want: a tablet.’ And, Mom, that’s exactly what I want! It’s him; he knows!”

Maggie doesn’t question a reality where science meets magic, where those things we can’t see are just as important as those we do. Wonder is her worldview. Happenstance serves as teleological proof. Others may dismiss her as naive or simple, but I won’t begrudge my child’s instinctive faith. Disappointments haven’t worn her down, nor have people caused her callousness. She is an open book, coloring her pages with brilliant iridescence.

Santa, I want to see the world like my daughter does. I want to wonder at everyday occurrences and trust my future is an unwritten adventure. I’m tired of worrying what others think of me, of avoiding tough situations, and missing opportunities. I want to stop rehashing the past, overanalyzing the future, and ignoring the present.

Stress persists. As Maggie started first grade, my mother began a series of hospitalizations. She pulled a muscle in her back, for which they gave her medicine, but then she started throwing up, and they couldn’t figure out what was going on. The throwing up threw off her salt levels, which affected her reasoning, so she ended up back in the hospital over something minor. They found a problem with her gallbladder, so they scheduled surgery. Then Mom’s fear of the surgery upset her stomach, which led to more throwing up and further problems with her salt levels. Afraid of throwing up, Mom avoided eating, which put her back in the hospital. They removed her gallbladder, chock-full of gallstones. Mom didn’t recover from the surgery as expected, experiencing sharp pain in her abdomen, so she went back to the hospital. They discovered a single gallstone blocking a valve and asked her not to eat in preparation of eliminating the interloper. Not eating threw her system out of whack, and her body temperature plummeted.

Thank God, Mom’s been fine for months, that is, until this week. Crazy what a stomach bug can do. She returned home from the hospital today, and we will celebrate Christmas at my parents’ house, but you can understand how whenever my sister contacts me, something inside catches in anticipation of more bad news. Experience changed me from a fresh-faced kid with a song on my lips and a spring in my step to a weathered coot mumbling to myself as I limp along.

All the skin cream in the world can’t transform who I am on the inside. It may erase fine lines and wrinkles, but it won’t wipe away the resentment I hold against those I envy. Beautiful, successful, confident, deft — perceiving these qualities in others elicits judgement in me. Because of my lack, I believe they’ll see me as inferior, so I sit in judgement first, hoping to waylay my exposure as less than worthy. Firing this first mental salvo feels harmless, but it negates my interactions with others, isolating.

Santa, I need a new heart. Mine’s two sizes too small. You may not exist, but someone out there does, and though cracked, I can be repaired.

Heed the cry of a man bent and broken. Stand me tall and set me straight. Restore my spirit of wonder. Exchange the stinginess for generosity, the judgement for love. I want to be Charlie Brown and Ralphie and George Bailey and Ebenezer Scrooge and Phil Davis and Clark W. Griswold all rolled into one.

All I want for Christmas is restoration. Is that too much to ask?

Enjoy the cookies,

Jake Lees

Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Hope

Looks like Vader left his mask on the floor again…

If I’ve told that Sith once, I’ve told him a thousand times to not leave his mask lying around. I get that he feels claustrophobic behind that thing, anybody would, but his asthma gets to be a real problem without that mask.

That’s it, I’m sending him to his pod!

My son knows who Darth Vader is. Asher is three years old, and he knows who Darth Vader is. Well, not really. Whenever he pushes the button on the side of the mask and James Earl Jones announces, “I find your lack of faith disturbing,” Asher laughs, repeating what he hears, “I find your face is dirty.”

My son isn’t the only one who has a thin grasp on Vader mythology. My cousin shared how his boys got into a debate at school over whether or not Darth Vader died, and Mark educated them by pulling up the climactic scene from Return of the Jedi where Vader laid down his life to save Luke. Mark and I joked about how he now has to further spoil the original trilogy for his sons by showing them the scene when Vader tells Luke, “I am your Father,” or when Luke realizes he’s Leia’s brother.

Having grown up sleeping on Star Wars bedsheets and playing with pretty much all the original action figures and playsets, Mark had to do something. He tried years ago to sit with his sons and watch Star Wars, but the boys were too young and had too much energy to make it through even the first film. As a teenager, Mark collected the toys that came out in connection to the prequels, and his entire family has pre-purchased around 20 tickets to see the Force Awakens together.

Tickets in hand, Mark’s inviting his three sons to experience a cultural milestone, and he doesn’t want them missing out on the full experience, so he plans on watching at least the original trilogy as a family in the next few weeks.

According to Deadline Hollywood, analysts project the Force Awakens will earn $185 – $210 million opening weekend alone, and scuttlebutt says Episode VII will break Avatar‘s $2.7 billion box office record.

What is it about Star Wars that has people clamoring to see the new movie?

It’s about hope.

Upon its release in 1977, Star Wars: A New Hope revitalized the sci-fi genre. Audiences were used to seeing dystopian futures on film such as prior years’ Logan’s Run, Soylent Green, The Omega Man, Westworld, Rollerball, and the Planet of the Apes series.

Watergate disenchanted the American public, breaking our faith in an infallible President. If we couldn’t believe our elected officials held our best interests, what future could we expect? So we wallowed in stories confirming our worst fears until Star Wars showed us something different: even the poorest orphan has the power to face down the unknown. Light will overcome darkness. We are not alone; the Force is with us.

There is hope.

We wanted to hear that story of hope again with Episodes I, II, and III of the Star Wars franchise, especially after the events of September 11, 2001, but were sadly disappointed to see computer-generated, digitally-shot stories about how the future was set in stone and things will go wrong despite the best efforts of the most powerful Jedi.

Especially after the Paris attacks and shootings in schools and ISIS and violence and murder and rape, we want to hear that it’s going to be okay. We want to have hope for the future. We want to place our faith in the fact that we are not alone in this world, that even the poorest orphan has the power to overcome the unknown. I want to know that I’m going to make it, that my uncle facing radiation and chemotherapy will be cured of his cancer. I want to know that my seven-year-old daughter will never be sexually assaulted. I want my marriage to last a lifetime and that friends will not leave me.

That’s too much pressure to put on one movie. Sure, the Force Awakens will utilize practical effects and be shot on film and J. J. Abrams proved with Star Trek that he can revitalize a space-faring series, showing us through lens flares that anything is possible, but one movie cannot guarantee anyone’s future. Only a self-sacrificing god can do that.

Look at Jesus, a poor man of questionable parentage, who shook the political and religious leaders of his day with selfless answers and self-sacrifice. He exercised power to heal the sick and raise the dead. He spent time with children and touched lepers. His greatest teachings were about humility and self-denial. He showed us how to love the disenfranchised, the marginalized, and betrayers. He laid down his life for his friends and took it back up again. He died so that we may live.

I put my hope in Jesus, knowing he has a plan for my life, and if my uncle dies of cancer or my daughter is assaulted, if my marriage falls apart or my friends abandon me, even if my worst fears come true, Jesus will not leave me desolate. He is ever-present; his Spirit lives in me, which means he can work through me in power. I prayed for the sick, and they were healed. I was laid off with no prospects and got a better job. I was so overwhelmed with fear, I couldn’t make it through a day at school, and now I teach school. I messed up my leg so badly, I couldn’t walk without crutches, and now I run faster and farther than I ever could before.

Do I plan on taking my family to see the Force Awakens? We wouldn’t miss it, especially since we’ve sat down and watched the original trilogy together. I hope it affirms the story that light overcomes darkness, that we are not alone. Darth Vader may have died, but he laid down his life so his son would live, and he continues to live on.

I have hope for the future.