I don’t understand the partisans on either end of the “Bigger is Better” campaign.
People who are hung up on appearances are engaging in a limited love. They are only loving with their eyes.
Only when the other senses come into play, and the spirit turns to encounter another, does the heart know what is needfully beautiful.
I’ve noticed that folks who are inclined to say blunt, insensitive, and incendiary comments are also inclined to liberally wave their First Amendment rights around, whereas folks who are inclined to say penetrating, critical, and thoughtful comments are not.
The latter are like people who possess the number of a good lawyer on hand, just in case they get into a spot of trouble.
The former are like people who take that lawyer with them everywhere they go: content with getting into trouble, seeking a legal escape, and - after the fact - content with doing nothing to change their ways.
Since July 10th, I’ve:
- Lost 22 pounds.
- Read 20 books.
- Written a history of my grandfather’s service in WWII.
- Written a poem a day.
- Continued loving the most amazing woman on the planet.
- Set up my classroom and finalized my lesson plans for another school year.
On June 9th, 2012, I proposed to my girlfriend Priyanka. Up to that point, I’d climbed mountains, squared off against opponents in sparring tournaments, and swum with sharks. And yet, nothing I’d done before that June evening filled me with as much excitement. She said yes, and our wedding plans were in full swing.
Priyanka and her family are from India. She was born there, and she moved to the States when she was in middle school. Our wedding ceremony, then, is to take place in her hometown - the ancient port city of Surat. As per tradition, the groom (that would be me) is to ride to the ceremony on a horse.
This is unequivocally awesome.
But weeks later, when posing for some pictures with my bride-to-be, I became self-conscious. I looked at photos and saw myself for who I was: 26 years old, 5’9”, and nearly 180 pounds. I was, in a word, soft.
The thought of riding in on a horse seemed less noble and more opulent. I didn’t want that. I didn’t want come off like some mounted Maharaja’s son slouching toward his promised bride. I wanted to be, well, more dignified. I wanted to look like a man who could take his bride by the arm, swing her over his saddle, and ride off on his steed.
Things had to change, and they had to change fast.
Now I’m no stranger to exercise, but I’m a stranger to physical follow-through. Give me an essay to write or a book to read, and I won’t do anything else until it’s been written or read. Give me a workout routine, and I’ll toy with it for a few days, then I’ll find an excuse to get out of it.
I had to break free from that habit, and my liberation came from the most unlikely of sources.
Over the past year, I’d taken to reading up on Theodore Roosevelt. TR was a man of many hats and many accomplishments; he was a president, an author, a rancher, a naturalist, a soldier, a Nobel laureate, and many other things. He was also consistently physically active throughout his life. Having been born intelligent, yet frail, Roosevelt was determined to build his body to match his mind.
As you can see, he was successful. He preached living, not by
“the doctrine of ignoble ease, but [by] the doctrine of the strenuous life, the life of toil and effort, of labor and strife; to preach that highest form of success which comes, not to the man who desires mere easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil, and who out of these wins the splendid ultimate triumph.”
Lofty, sure. Powerful, absolutely.
So I set out to live strenuously. Taking my cue from the young TR, I bought a small notebook in which I’d document my progress. Seeing my model was a true renaissance man, I didn’t want to limit myself. I arranged my notebook so I could keep track of my mental and moral progress as well as my physical transformation. Here’s a sample page:
I challenged myself to do these things every day: to complete three physical activities, to learn three new facts, and to learn a new lesson about life. In this way, I sought to take care of my body, mind, and soul.
My workout evolved from what I’d done before, and from what I’d known TR did: he swam, I swam; he lifted weights, I lifted weights; he boxed, I boxed; he hiked, I hiked. Following such a varied routine has kept me engaged and challenged. And doing these activities in the morning has given me the necessary energy for my day. While he served as president, TR would get up early, exercise for an hour, then tend to his official duties. As a high school teacher, I have no excuse for skipping a workout - I’m not nearly as busy as the President of the United States.
Over the course of his life, Roosevelt read over 10,000 books and penned over 35 books and hundreds, if not thousands, of articles. As an English teacher, I’d always been an avid reader, but my reading had been focused. In my effort to live strenuously, I challenged myself to pick up books outside of my field: politics, history, science, current events, business - all were fair game. Witnessing the peripheries of my knowledge expand has been encouraging, and it has led me to more deeply respect those who work in different fields.
Finding a lesson for each day can seem quaint and antiquated. We live in a post-postmodern world with no easy answers wrapped in neat little sententious bows. Yet there’s something to be said for daily self-reflection. Finding a lesson at the end of every day has had less to do with becoming a 21st Century Aesop and more to do with being forthright about my daily successes and failures. Living strenuously is living honestly.
Now nearly a month into this routine, I’ve noticed a few changes. I’ve lost 15 pounds, I’ve been reading more, I’ve been more focused in my work, and I’ve gone to bed every night feeling as though I’d “sucked the marrow out of life.”
When I started on this path, I had no idea its effects would be so profound. But that’s the thing about finding the woman you love - she makes you want to be the best version of yourself.
And if you decide to make a certain historical figure your life’s ringside coach, who am I to stop you?
Dear President Obama,
On behalf of the internet, pundits, and too many Americans, I apologize for the disgraceful way we’ve treated you over the last four years.
Disagreeing with policy and practice is one thing, but engaging in despicable character vilification and making racist statements from behind a thin veil of false Tea Party-ism, Take-America-Back-ism, or other, similarly feeble fronts is not what you deserve.
I haven’t always agreed with your decisions, but I’ve done my best to keep in mind that you’re only a man who is bound to err and must stand up for what he believes.
You are our “man in the arena” right now, and I respect you for it.
P.S.: Additionally, I’d like to apologize to those who fervently supported former President George W. Bush, especially if I had done unto him what others have done unto President Obama. I now know how it feels to have the man you thought was right for the job dragged through the mud, and I empathize with your past frustrations.
We stand positioned around the base of some impossibly large mountain.
Our paths are varied and far apart.
As we make our way up, we see our landscapes change.
By the time we pass the tree-line, our paths are similar.
Ascending higher, we begin to see the others; people who were perhaps miles and mile apart at the base are within shouting distance.
As we climb higher still, we partner up and make pleasant conversation.
In the end, we are all on the same summit.
Chance brought me here the first time. I was accepted into Teach for America, and I had offered to be assigned “wherever a high school English teacher was needed.” Apparently, high school English teachers were needed in the Rio Grande Valley, the southernmost region of Texas. Once there, I put my best efforts into my work, and I learned to love it along the way. I loved the earnestness of my students. I loved celebrating their small victories over English, their second language. I loved leading classroom discussions on Dante and Homer, editing a research paper filled with bold and idealistic claims, and witnessing the spark of knowledge kindle into brilliant understanding behind a student’s eyes.
This was not meant to be permanent. My time as a high school educator was time spent in the trenches. I was earmarked for officers’ school - a graduate department, a teaching fellowship, and, eventually, a professorship. My students were bright, but they operated at a level lowered by low-performing schools and even lower expectations; I had to slow my pace and my thinking. I thought the work I was doing with my students was good, but far from interesting. I wanted interesting. So, after two years, I resigned from my post and headed up north to continue my studies in Boston.
There I was, insulated from the northern chill by a towering book-fort. I read voraciously - more than I had ever read before. I felt atrophied synapses snap back to life, my writing flower into something more ornate and beautiful, my seminar comments laced with allusion and critical heft.
And yet, there was something amiss. Holed up in an old brownstone, my soles began to miss the hard caliche of South Texas. I began to forget the ground’s firmness and yearned for the unguarded comments of students whose cynicism had yet to calcify.
I continued my studies, but I was only going through the motions. When I was told I was not admitted into the Ph.D. program, I felt no disappointment; let some tireless and dedicated soul climb the tower I had already begun to abandon. I had no place at such heights. I set my sights on returning. What energy I had, I directed toward my applications. Eventually, I accepted a position at a charter school, located less than five miles away from the first school at which I taught.
There were some who saw my returning to the high school classroom as a step down. They still saw me as that officer-in-training, already decorated and ready for advancement. I was not that man. I was bred for the outpost and shod for the trenches. I thirsted for the struggle I shared with my students; our grappling of English - man wrestling with things higher and more lasting than himself. We may have won, we may have lost, we may have gotten hurt in the process, yet it was beautiful and noble and true. Yes, I wanted my work to be interesting, but I needed it to be good. Chance brought me here the first time, Fate brought me back.
Trail Marker at Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge - Alamo, TX
“Became a teacher. Got an education.”