How to Run a Marathon

This comes from someone who’s only completed one, in an awful time no less. And I hate running. So take it for what it’s worth.

Break down a marathon into three parts. For the first 8-10 miles, it’s important to be fully human because this helps let the adrenaline flow. This is a special sensation that’s conspicuously absent in your training sessions. For the first leg of a marathon, you are unbelievably part of the human existence. Vibrant bodies surging forward, seeking ways to distinguish themselves as individuals and for individual causes. I ran for my grandmother. Others run for breast cancer awareness, their favorite charities, and personal demons to exorcise. It’s a tearful exercise in being human and it shouldn’t be missed under any circumstance.

In the middle portion of the race, miles 10-20, it’s important to morph into a machine. It helped me to repeat a mantra again and again: I am a machine. I am a machine. I am a machine. The crowd has thinned out, and you are more or less alone to your thoughts. Thoughts are largely unhelpful, especially thoughts regarding doubt and length of distance. Reduce your complexity to the singularity of your goal, the finish line. One goal and one thought: I am a machine.

In the last leg, return to you. This is the hardest part because you won’t find the same exhilaration and joy you felt the last time you were human. Instead you’ll get what Jesus got in the desert after 40 days of fasting, which is surmountable despair and agony. Here is the burning temptation to quit…just don’t. Why should we open ourselves up to this? Because this, as much as it was with the adrenaline, is what it means to be human.

Runners always say that running is a metaphor for life and this is true to an extent. We don’t have the luxury of segmenting our lives into neat 26.2 subdivisions. But there are times when joys need to be fully felt and times when we need to confront ourselves with dogged endurance. For me though, the most insightful reminder has been to say, from time to time…Shut it out. Right now, I need to be a fucking machine. Reduce, singularize, but make sure the goal is worth the sacrifice.

This much is true.

My time, the rank I attain, my outward appearance — all of these are secondary. For a runner like me, what’s really important is reaching the goal I set myself, under my own power. I give it everything I have, endure what needs enduring, and am able, in my own way, to be satisfied. From out of the failures and joys I always try to come away having grasped a concrete lesson. (It’s got to be concrete, no matter how small it is.) And I hope that, over time, as one race follows another, in the end I’ll reach a place I’m content with. Or maybe just catch a glimpse of it. (Yes, that’s a more appropriate way of putting it.)–Haruki Murakami

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How Do You Say…

Do you remember that one Seinfeld episode where George discovers that if he’s eating something while having a conversation with someone, he comes off as cool and casual? That really stuck with me.

For me, it’s coffee. When I’m meeting with new people, I feel just a little bit naked without it. When I’m oh-so-cooly sipping on my latte, I imagine myself to be a young Ernest Hemingway; I transform myself into the untouchable urbanite. My armor, black, no cream or sugar.

So in most new social situations (i.e. dates, job interviews, etc.) I find myself dipping into a Starbucks first, almost like a prize fighter psyching himself up for battle.

Like tonight, I had my first Korean class, and for whatever reason I was nervous–butterflies on your first day of school sort of thing. I think it’s to do with the fact that I had to dust off my Korean which has mold growing on it from lack of use. As anyone who’s forced to speak a language they’re uncomfortable with can attest, it’s a pride-swallowing, unnerving experience to have to speak it in front of strangers. In other words, if I’m going in…I’m going in Venti.

As it turned out, they placed me in the wrong class for this week. Instead of Intermediate Native, they put me in Intermediate Non-Native which meant that for today, at least, I was a god among mortals. The teacher would ask the class (in Korean):

Class, what’s the word that you use for someone who is senior to you?

(Silence)

Chris?

Sun-bae!

Correct! Class, how about someone who is your junior? 

(Silence)

Come on…we learned this! Anyone?…ok, Chris do you know?

Who-bae!

Right again!

Now look, I KNOW I really have no right to feel all superior. I’m the only Korean in the class…But honestly, this is how I felt inside:

Let me tell you….I was a Straight. Up. Boss. For the first time in my life, I was the smartest kid in class…the teacher’s escape valve when she was looking for someone to answer. I’VE ALWAYS WANTED TO BE THAT GUY.

Now that I had it, though, I wasn’t about to relinquish it, you know? This ended up putting me in a difficult spot, this…maintaining my aura of genius. The Venti coffee caught up to me pretty quick and for the life of me, I couldn’t remember the proper way to ask the teacher’s permission to go to the restroom. To make matters worse, the class ended up being 2 and a half hours long and toward the end of it, my focus had shifted entirely to devising discreet ways of peeing into my now empty Venti cup.

Despite this, I held on. Like. A. Boss. I would not shame myself or risk my newly-minted reputation as  Mr. Korea to bumble my way through something as basic as asking to go to the bathroom. I just wouldn’t let it happen.

Mercifully, the teacher wrapped up. Do you have any questions, class?

Just one.

How do you say, My urinary tract infection was totally worth it?

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Motivation By Any Means Necessary

Mom: Why do you want me to send the picture anyways?

Me: The weather’s better so I plan to work out hard this summer.

Mom: What does the picture have anything to do with it?

Me: Well, he showed me pictures of himself when he was my age. He was so much skinnier than I am.

Mom: Yeah, he was in the Army back in Korea.

Me: So yeah, it’s a good reminder that I can end up like that if I don’t start building good eating/exercise habits now.

Mom: <laughing> Ok. ok. But don’t post this on your blog. He’s a respected Elder in the church now. It’s better if no one saw him like this.

Me: No problem and don’t worry…no one’s going to see it but me.

Image

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The Names We Write on the Wall

When she was ending things with me, she was gentle and sweet in the way she always is. There was nothing left to say because she wasted no words. It was done by the end of lunch. Then, she pulled out items from her purse that gave away that this was planned to a dot; how characteristically considerate of her, I mused.

It was my “stuff”. We didn’t last long enough for stuff to become sentimental stuff. Just an umbrella I gave to her when it was raining, gloves to keep her hands warm on a really cold night, and iPod earphones I’d accidentally left over at her place.

Like I said, it was short but it’s remarkable how quickly our iconography intrudes into the life of another. We’ve evolved from the days when great men would etch their names on the sides of buildings. Now, we’re content to leave our legacies strewn on the relationship lawn, happy to write ourselves into another person’s life through the stylus pen that is our stuff. Like those great men of history, we just don’t want to be forgotten.

It’s important not to write your first draft in permanent ink though. We sketch in pencil and then do our best after that to draw inside the lines. If there was a silver lining, it’s that my pair of gloves wasn’t a couch, or earphones my college hoodie. My umbrella was not an engagement ring. Sometimes I wonder how people can muster the verve to return such things and how hard it must be to get them back.

Taking stock of what I got back, I realized that I didn’t have anything of hers to return. Not much to read into, sure, but perhaps the universe has a way of whispering the signs to you, if you’re only willing to listen.

Anyways, these were the thoughts that kept my head low as I sauntered back to my apartment, a bit beaten by the day. All of a sudden, a car screeched to a stop at my feet, almost hitting me. The driver, who obviously had no consideration for my emotional state of mind, rolled down the window and screamed,

Hey Fuckstick, keep your head up when you’re walking!

What a shit ending to a shit day, I thought. But before I could respond with that finely-tuned New York sass, a smile betrayed the irony of the moment and I had to laugh. If the universe has a way of whispering its age-old advice, it can certainly shout its encouragements at the most appropriate of moments, if not in the strangest of ways.

Keep your head up. Keep walking.

Fuckstick.

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We Could Be…

It may come as a surprise to many of you when I say that I love romantic comedies. But until just recently, I had instituted a strict, self-imposed ban on these kinds of movies. Because as it turns out, I may love them just a little too much.

The greatest lie that Hollywood ever told the world was that it was real. I’d like to think that we’re all mature and aware enough to know the difference between the movies and real life. That kind of overt dichotomy is not how Hollywood gets you.

It’s more subtle than that. Certain snapshots, pickup lines, sweet notions and scenarios, fall leaves falling here, nostalgic music playing there, all of it creeps and blends and mingles into our sub-conscience until the lines between real life and the dream world of the movies are blurred. That’s how Hollywood distorts our reality.

If you happen to be single and you ingest these cinematic candies on a regular basis, you can slowly poison yourself. One thing that happens is that you begin to long, and longing can make you feel pathetic, especially when you find yourself watching these movies by yourself on a Friday night alone with a bottle of Chianti, laughing uproariously with a mouthful of Doritos chips (I’m not speaking from experience here. I’m not.)

What can also happen is that you start regurgitating impossible lines and harboring impossible expectations, holding yourself and others to impossible standards. Without even knowing it you’ll find yourself saying things like:

  • “Stop. Just Stop. You had me at Hey.” (“You had me at Hello.”—Jerry Maguire)
  •  “You make want to be a better me.” (“You make me want to be a better man.”—As Good as it Gets)
  • “I’ll never let go.” (“I’ll never let go, Jack”—Titanic)

How many times have we seen in movies the confident guy walking into a bar, approaching an attractive girl, saying the perfect line and ending the night at her place? Now, what percentage of the time do you think this actually works in real life? Would you say 10% of the time?

The answer is zero. 0% of the time does this actually work. In the movies, you can banter playfully with each other at the bar, each character setting the other up with perfect lobs and spikes. In real life, you battle 70 people to get the bartender’s attention, pay $17 for her cranberry vodka and watch sadly as she parties the rest of the night with everyone but you, her free beverage in hand.

If your answer was anywhere north of 0%, your reality has been distorted to some degree by Hollywood unreality. I recognized that my number was embarrassingly high and I quickly instituted an embargo on all things sappy to bring my head (and my heart) back to Earth.

And it worked, but I think a little too well. I stopped believing that lovely things could happen, and worse, that I should stop trying to do lovely things. I developed a coldness toward romance, when before I let it charm and mesmerize me. For a while, I attributed this to “growing-up”, but it was something altogether different. A part of me wasn’t being fed any more, and looking back now, I didn’t like the jaundiced look that this starvation produced.

That was a long-winded set up so let me get to the point. I, like everyone else, has that one friend who lives life comfortably within the blur of the movie world and the real world. Unapologetically, they live their life to a soundtrack, blending soulful tunes with times of great reflection, mixing beats of rhythm with the beats of life.

How often do we roll our eyes at these dreamers? We dismiss them as not being serious people. This would be fair if we’re also willing to acknowledge that, to them, we’re taking ourselves way too seriously. Who’s to say who’s right?

Last week, I had the honor of watching my college roommate propose to his girlfriend in front of hundreds of strangers. In the back, all his loved ones and all her loved ones were gathered in happy anticipation. On stage and on his knees, ring out, in front of the woman he loved, the crowd serenaded them with the chorus, “We could be amazing.” The mood was light and festive.

In that moment a thought occurred to me that made me smile…that this could be a scene straight out of a movie.

Whether we roll our eyes or not, I think even the coldest calculators among us need that friend who moves the needle to a place more playful than the world we currently occupy. They remind us time and again that we could be amazing if we just believed.

I can go on and on, but isn’t that a fitting and far-too-corny ending to this post?

We could be amazing. I mean, why not right?

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This is Serious.

Brought to you by Kraft, makers of Mac and Cheese.

Please, give what you can. These kids need our help.

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Akini

Of all the things I’ve tried to send via the postal service, American beer has proven to be the most difficult. It’s more than likely that I’m going to renege on the promise I made to Akini, who’s never had American beer. But he does love beer, particularly Tusker, a brew made in his native Kenya.

Akini is the fifth of 12 brothers and sisters that grew up in a rural village in the Kenyan countryside. He was the only one to go to school. He moved to Nairobi where he got married and had two daughters. He received a loan through Equity Bank (an important micro-finance institution in East Africa) to buy a small fishing boat. He grew his business and he now employs 5 people. For supplementary income, Akini engages in a variety of odd jobs: He’s a supplier of antiretroviral medication to the largest HIV/AIDS clinic in East Africa; he manages an education fund that provides support for promising students; he takes rich white people on informal tours of Nairobi. Every bit of income he earns, he uses to support his family in the city and back in the village.

I knew Akini on paper before I met him. Academia sings the praises of microfinance and small-medium enterprises (SMEs), often propping up Akini’s story as the shining beacon of hope in a bright African future. But there are many things that these papers can’t tell you.

Like the way he checks out/flirts with every woman that crosses his path, while preaching about the moral importance of monogamy. With one side of his mouth, he’ll wax poetic about his Christian faith, and with the other he’ll curse to hell the driver who just cut him off.

In other words, Akini is just a person, and I mean this in the most flattering of ways. He’s capable of extraordinary acts of generosity and subject to the same moral failings and temptations as the rest of us. But the West will cast him as the Mother Teresa of East Africa, a remarkable man who doesn’t know exactly how remarkable he is. And I am rich Westerner, one with compassion in his heart for the downtrodden, off to save the world one life at a time.

This is what societies do to people. They take the idiosyncrasies, the nuance and the brilliant complexities of individuals and cast them into a single, dull narrative. From a people to another people, we compartmentalize, judge, categorize, simplify, dismiss, and at times deify in the laziest of ways. From person to person, we understand that it takes more effort to understand what really makes us tick.

As  I was breaking bread with Akini, talking about this and that, sharing a beer–him with his Tusker, me with my Bud Light–I was thinking  how horrible we must look as a human society, always lowering our common denominator, and on the flip side, how redemptive it can be to meet each other face to face.

I’ve heard it said often that God meets us where we are, and that precise spot is where we are most vulnerable. I believe this to be true.

So Akini, cheers to you my friend, and here’s to hoping that God meets us as people rather than as nations.

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