The Sad Lad Shave

Every morning, I shave, just like every other sad lad in the Army. But unlike every other sad lad in the Army, I shave with a safety razor.

Don’t let the name fool you. A safety razor is a hammer head device with two incredibly sharp blades at either end, and if you’re not extremely attentive, you’re bound to nick your skin – if not outright slice it. It so happens that this very fact is a compelling one in my decision to shave as I do. I enjoy a good challenge.

Look at them teeth!

Look at them teeth!

I am a morning person, one of those “the sun’s awake, so I’m awake!” kind of people (no, this is not a veiled Frozen reference). Granted, in Bavaria this time of year, there isn’t much sun to be had, but I’m still up and at ’em with the first peal of my alarm (we won’t see the sun again until March, but after three iterations of six months of total darkness, I’ve got it figured out). I’m also the kind of guy who likes to set just one alarm for the latest moment possible to facilitate my timely arrival to the workplace – a blade runner of sorts, if you please. I haven’t been late to work in years, but sometimes (increasingly), I have to change from my street clothes into uniform with a quickness before the morning formation. I keep my two worlds separate, and it’s worth the price of a few minutes more at work. Plus, it’s another thrill. I thrive on cheap thrills.

Being a morning person, however, does not guarantee a smooth shave. A smooth shave is the product of a myriad of factors – the brush, the soap, the steady hand – but most important is a steady and attentive mind. This mind likes to wander. Last Friday, I found myself thinking about one of my Troops driving back from a training mission, but only after I sliced a very fine line the length of a blade into my neck – vertical. This past Monday, I nicked a fine line about a centimeter in length just above my cheek bone – horizontal; I was thinking about another Troop’s participation in an international soldiering competition that morning. I am responsible for resourcing five Troops on a daily basis, both planner and executor; these Troops are ever on my mind. And, well, the styptic pencil was created for just such circumstances. Men, If you don’t own one, I highly recommend them. I definitely own three.

After an epic outward journey, how could I not think of these guys on their return?

After an epic outward journey, how could I not think of these guys on their return?

My soldiers and peers alike poke fun at me for my practice – attacked by a feral cat again? And I’ll joke along with them, silently swearing to outdo myself tomorrow, and vocally endeavoring to sell them on the merits of my chosen shave (it is one of the closest shaves you can get, and you get to use a shave brush for something other than cleaning the star chamber of your rifle!). It’s almost cyclical at this point. We’re ramping up for a major movement (my bread and butter) and I’m starting to slide back into my multitasking mindset, so I’m not surprised. I could be an emergency dispatcher in L.A., and I could wet shave, but I don’t think I’d be wise to attempt both enterprises together… not until I master the ability to dwell in the present moment. This environment I’m in provides the perfect training grounds.

IMG_0362

Wares of the Wet Shave… Zen.

This pursuit of the present moment is precisely why I apply a razor sharp blade to my face five minutes after I stir from my slumbers. It’s why I haven’t bought a disposable razor in years – well, that, and safety razor blades are about 8000% less expensive than Gillette Fusion blades, and they last longer too. It’s also a personal challenge to shake myself awake, without the aid of stimulants of any kind. It’s a personal challenge to still my restless mind – a goal I generally only attain while running or playing the piano. To initiate either of these exercises is to step onto a well-trod path, but one which demands an active mind rather than allowing a passive mind: they are meditative turns inward. This is the state I seek to achieve with my morning shaving ritual – active mind, focused mind. It’s also a state I seek to achieve in my writing, surrounded as I am by a myriad of distractions of my own devise. The end game is to apply this mindfulness meditation to everyday acts, every day.

This.

I won’t always be a soldier, and for that, I am infinitely grateful – but I will always carry with me the signs and symptoms of a youth spent soldiering, the most salient of them being a magnification of my natural proclivity for extremes. I’m working on reining it in, or at least on planning wisely with appropriate gear for the enterprise. I must say though, I do enjoy my scars, scattered across my face and body by a young adulthood spent pursuing greater and greater heights and depths. They’re proof that I’ve tried to outperform myself – and the day I stop doing that is the day I start withering away.

Let that day never come.

James

PS: I didn’t cut myself today!

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A Month of Monumental Change

It is Sunday, October 18, 2015.

In the past month, I have run a marathon; met a boy; fallen in love; moved in with said boy; flipped my bike without a helmet; sought medical counsel for the aftermath of the aforementioned; reconnected with my musical roots; run a second marathon; been notified of my second non-promotion; spent four days in Rome; sought medical counsel for the aftermath of Marathon 2.0; submitted my formal resignation from the Army; bought Christmas airfare to see my family reunited for the first time in three years; planned a New Year’s trip to Paris; and spent one weekend road tripping through bucolic Bavaria with my boy, with whom I would be perfectly content to spend the rest of my days.

In short, it’s been a wild ride, and I’ve learned a thing or two in the process.

First, back-to-back marathons, when your goal is to break a record (and mine was to qualify for Boston, coming out of my first one with a 3:11:27 – just had to shave a few seconds off of each mile), are really not good for you. Professionals recommend running two such marathons in one year, or three in two years. And there are detailed training plans at my fingertips too! Two weeks is actually the minimum threshold your body needs to recover from a marathon before starting another training cycle, not the refractory period between two of them. Turns out that running a marathon is actually quite traumatic to one’s body, and the symptoms may or may not surface. That being said, your body is capable of so much more than you can possibly know without pushing it to and beyond its limits. And I will run another marathon in the spring. I’ll break 3:00:00 too.

Second, when it comes to the outside world, there’s a lot to be said for human kindness, but it pays to be self-reliant. The good folks who orchestrated the Freundschaftsmarathon in my hometown very thoughtfully placed energy gels at intervals along the entire length of the course. The good folks who orchestrated the Cologne Marathon two weeks later did not… but I did not find that out until I was well committed to the race, my one energy gel consumed, and struggling to run more than 400 meters in a stretch. And let me tell you, the crowd support in that race was amazing. So many people reached out to me, shook my hand, gave me a high five, and gave me words of encouragement… but they didn’t have the energy gels my body craved. I eked out a 3:17:20 and emerged more wounded in pride than anything else- but I learned a lot from veteran marathoners from mere observation, and I have a mind to retain what I learned. Next time, I’ll be prepared.

Third, I’ve learned the importance of taking recovery seriously. Emerging from my second marathon, I had blood blisters on two toes, a nail I felt sure I’d lose, a painful right instep, a painful right hip flexor, and a left knee with which the experience of descending stairs felt a bit like wrapping a tendon ever tighter around an axis… and in the midst of that pain, I learned to appreciate elevators and escalators, rather than to look upon them with disdain. I also learned how to listen to my body – long distance runners run with the pain, not to drown it out (that means no headphones). Five days after my second marathon, I was touring the Vatican, a lifelong aspiration. Three hours in, standing in St. Paul’s Basilica, my only thought was of alleviating the pain wracking my body. I found a Thai massage parlor on Google inside the Basilica, and was at an appointment within the hour. I took naps every day of that trip. I’ve officially hit the two-week mark, and I am still adjusting to my newfound mortality. Lots of stretching, biking, and this sweet exercise called the clamshell. My attitude towards the elliptical has slid from disdain to tentatively inquisitive too. It would seem that injury, like travel, is detrimental to prejudice.

Ahm nom nom

Ahm nom nom

Fourth, helmets are more than just fashion accessories. And I have guardian angels. I flipped my brand new bike on a curb 600 meters away from my house… and miraculously landed on my right hand and left collarbone and side, completely avoiding trauma to my head. In a bit of a daze, I picked myself up, dusted myself off, hopped back on my bike, and rode, blood dripping down my right hand, to my boy’s house. Though I had a key, I was in too poor a condition to use it, so I rang the doorbell and stood there cradling my damaged hand in my whole one, until he answered and whisked me to the bathroom to put me back together. It’s probably for the best that the guy I love also happens to be a medical professional. After I bend my bike back into shape, I may procure a helmet. I do quite like my brain.

Synergy!

Synergy!

Fifth, I know what lies beyond the Appalachian Trail. I’m going to move to wherever the Army sends my boy (we’re jockeying for JBLM), and once there, I’m going to set up shop. I am going full tilt into the humanities. I like self-actualized people, and I like being the spark that gets them going. I want to work in youth advocacy, for every boy who’s ever felt like putting a gun to his head because he doesn’t belong, for every kid who’s never had a parent give him the affirmation that he needs to succeed. And I’m going to work my ass off to share the beauty and wonder of this magnificent world with all who will listen… and in doing so, also do my bit to contribute to a conscientious and principled citizenry. My long game is to go into classroom education, but I’m in no hurry to get there. When the time feels right, I’ll do it. One thing’s for sure: I’m absolutely done pursuing another man’s agenda. Life is just too short to waste it chasing money in hopes of a more stable future. Just live.

Sixth, that inspirational quote about our deepest fear being that we are powerful beyond measure? It’s true. Every word.

Challenge Accepted

Challenge Accepted

Seventh, no man is an island… and life is so much richer when it’s shared with somebody you love. Three months ago in a Buddhist monastery, I took an oath to limit my sexual relationships to those made known to my family and friends – a personal challenge, as I negotiated through a pivotal point in my life that led me to embrace myself fully. One month ago, I met a boy whose companionship so fills me with joy that I wanted to shout it from the rooftops – so I did. I’ve never felt more unified in purpose, more enlivened, more sure that who I am with is right for me. I have a stable pier upon which to moor my errant soul in the stormy seas of life. I have a life partner who is kind and strong and good, who anticipates my needs and gives license to my every aspiration. He even takes back seat when I sit down to my keyboard, which he so graciously moved to our common home when I was in Rome – but he will tell me when it’s time to turn in, lest I bust my Army bedtime. And he’s great at all the things that lovers do. His name is Loc Dang, and I love him to pieces.

My beau - he's a keeper!

My beau – he’s a keeper!

Which leads my eighth life lesson: the richness of life is reserved for those who are open to new experiences in both heart and mind. I’m a bit of a new age idealist – I keep the Holstee Manifesto on my bedroom wall, and I once memorized the Desiderata of Happiness – and I totally believe that adage about finding the love of your life not in looking for him or her, but in doing what you love. I did, and I couldn’t be happier.

Oh, and asserting my own will to define my future for the first time since I chose my duty station as a 22 year old in college was way awesome. Cut the umbilical cord, burn the ships on the shore, whatever: come 1 May 2016, I can doff the damn uniform and speak my conscience without reserve. I’m happily investing the time that remains into getting to know my partner and reviving my passions, but when the hourglass runs its course, I’ll be ready.

FREEEEEEDOMMMM

FREEEEEEDOMMMM