Any relationship that is heavy into the physical but lacks mental stimulation runs the risk of familiarity, repetition, even ennui. Sweat, heavy breathing, enhanced heartbeat, and using little-used muscles only go so far. There’s always down time that must be accommodated. Whether one ponders a sexual liaison or a jog through the neighborhood, balance is required in the body/mind dichotomy. Visits to the gym or rec center without corresponding brain exercise may develop a good pair of biceps, but the weight-lifting routines won’t fill all the void. On the other hand, too much thinking (or watching TV or eating or you fill-in-the-blank) from a sitting position is an invitation to several sorts of trouble, usually related to the heart.
Back in December of 2010, I posted a piece entitled “Things I am pretty sure of …” Among the things I listed were “Watching my father rehab from his stroke reminded me of the importance of balance in all things, not only for standing up.” I believe this more now than when I first wrote it and my father was still alive. The man who lived an intensely physical life as a construction worker, primarily, and who accomplished amazing feats of strength, agility, and coordination, was betrayed by his body at the end. His final days were filled with physical torment and frustration. His brain also was damaged, which contributed to the physical collapse and also limited his emotional attachment to life. He rarely laughed or lost his scowl, but when he did his smile lit up the nursing home. To get to that smile, I had to engage his mind with music, jokes, stories about his sons, memories. His balance was gone, in more than one way.
Here I am – retired, enjoying a fairly comfortable life, still writing the fiction I want others to read, still reading the fiction I hope to read forever. I keep the brain on edge with writing, reading, creating.
I’m well into a novel that features two protagonists from earlier novels. I’m writing it under the banner of a fortune cookie phrase that found its way to me shortly before I began the book: “You will take a chance in the near future and win.”
I’m also trying to develop marketing for my upcoming short story collection, The Skull of Pancho Villa and Other Stories, which will be published by Arte Público Press at the end of March. I don’t like pushing my stuff on other people but I do want them to read what I write, so I have little choice. Time for blurbs, business cards, postcard notices, email blasts, public appearances, and other forms of self-conscious self-promotion.
Another project is a short story due in a couple of months that I was invited to submit to a proposed anthology. So far, all I’ve done on the story is think about it, watch a relevant movie, and read a relevant book from the seventies -- forms of research for the fiction writer, essential to the writing process.
In other words, I keep the old gray matter churning.
Sometimes the edge cuts two ways. Occasionally, I don’t get the few hours of sleep I need to function at max potential. I’ve learned that my type of insomnia is mostly self-imposed, but knowing that doesn’t mean I can stop it. I don’t think I’m over-stimulated but I certainly can fret and worry about trivial things that don’t require either. Interrupted sleep is not that big of a deal anymore.
Since my retirement I’ve become a regular at a local rec center that also serves as a senior center. Yeah, bunch of old-timers hanging out, playing pool or bridge, enjoying the company and diversion. Striving for balance, my wife and I participate in the yoga classes, and I use the weights and ellipticals. She also indulges her quest for physical activity with Zumba, and cardio. She’s thinking about belly dancing.
But I work up the most sweat by jogging. I run wherever there’s a trail – my neighborhood, any of Denver’s great parks, bike paths along the High Line Canal or the rivers and creeks. Denver is one of the country's premier running cities.
I’ve run in several cities, from Chicago to San Marcos to Seattle. I’ve rushed past impressive public art and depressing urban blight. I’ve been passed by men and women older than I, and I've tried to keep up with mothers pushing baby strollers. I take my running shoes with me on every trip.
I am not aiming for a marathon, nor do I expect to run in any form of competitive race. There was a time when I trained for the local El Grito 5K run, but I developed tendinitis in my ankle and that was that. The injury may have been a sign that I am not meant for such competition, if I believed that the sign-maker paid attention to my insignificant ups and downs.
I'm a short man, living out the short life we all share. I run short distances, usually measured in kilometers. I try for at least five, and regularly get to that point and then some. That suits me, keeps me in balance.
At one point I ran every day. My knees protested, loudly, and I have cut back considerably. Balance.
It’s difficult in winter to maintain a regular schedule, and I can make up imaginative excuses for not running on any particular day. I hate running in the wind, and I will fool myself about how cold it really is. That’s when the rubber hits the road, as they say, and glib talk has to be replaced with the clunky process of putting one foot in front of the other. When it is deep winter bad outside, I try to get in to the rec center and use one of the old, noisy, and shaky treadmills. It’s not the same as running in the sun, of course. The machines remind me of myself.
But when I do run, and sweat, and the pain cruises through my system and then out of my body, and my legs burn, and I keep at it for more than a half-hour, and the music in my ears is doo-wop or Los Lobos or Neil Young or Ramón Ayala or Sonny Rollins, and my brain floats along with my feet, and my breathing slides into a meditative rhythm, and the ideas for the next chapter slowly wiggle around my head, then I know I have learned all I will ever need to know about balance, and I think about my father.
I'll wrap up with reprinting a piece of ficción rápida I first presented on La Bloga back in 2009.
He ran at 6:30 every morning. At least thirty minutes. Several blocks around his neighborhood; winter, summer, spring, fall. He ran into the rising sun or the cold wind. His face soaked up sunshine or dripped raindrops or melted snow. As he ran, his heavy breath roughed up his throat and ignited his lungs. The pavement beat his legs and twisted his knees. Pain dotted his muscles. The first few months he sweat off pounds that had hung on his body for decades. When he had no extra weight to lose, he exposed ribs and cheek bones. His clothes swirled around his body like blankets in the wind. He ate less food. He drank less alcohol. He slept fewer hours. His friends worried.
“I’ve never felt better,” he said. “But then, I’m a poet.”