Rookie

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Rookie was my dog, and my dog once almost hung himself from a 20-foot loft, so I shouldn’t be surprised that we ended up here eventually.

But still.  Damn.  To borrow a closing thought from Stand by Me: I’ve never had a friend like my 18-year-old dog.  Jesus, does anyone?

I have euthanized a dog before.  Or put him down.  Put him to sleep.  Whatever flowery language is supposed to best massage the fact.  I was too scared to be with him for that one, but then, he wasn’t my dog.

Rookie was my dog.

He made it to 18.  I know I should be thankful for that.  That’s long.  That’s damn long for a little dog.  That’s damn long for a little dog who did so many impossibly stupid things throughout his life, who was afraid of so many things, who would have lasted all of five seconds in the wild.

Still, I feel cheated.  Don’t we all?

When you put your dog to sleep, it’s one of those things people get but they don’t really get.  And I’m glad they don’t try to, because, I mean, I’m rambling here, but you didn’t know Rookie, so you couldn’t.  Rookie wasn’t a story, or anecdote.  Rookie was an 18-year-experience, beginning the same time I started the fourth grade.

Rookie was the dog who woke me up if I slept in too long.  He was the dog who ate my Pop Tart crumbs while I scrambled to start the homework I never did the night before.  He was the dog that was always so unfailingly there, and happy, and curious, and loving.

Rookie was the dog I brought in to show-and-tell in elementary school, winning major style points with the rest of the class because he was just so…damn…cute.

Rookie was the dog who was there when I moved in seventh grade, and didn’t know anyone in my new city and school.  No matter how anxious I felt that first semester, how much I worried about finding a seat at a lunch table or not walking cool enough or whatever dumbass things a 13-year-old boy worries about, he was always there when I got home in the afternoon, waiting to be walked, wanting to play, genuinely thrilled I existed even if it took a few months for anyone else to warm up to the fact.

Rookie was the dog who barked at all my friends as we started up Halo sessions whose duration only seemed governed by the soda and pizza fueling them, but never bit one of them.  Unlike my other dog.  Who bit everyone.

Rookie was the dog I probably ignored too often in high school, as I (d?)evolved from the 13-year-old struggling to enter some new orbit, to the teenage philosophy that the world did, indeed, revolve around me.

Rookie was the dog who was there when that philosophy was disproven by the astrophysics of junior year.  He was unfailingly loyal when so many of those people once considered friends were anything but.  Dogs have a funny way of avoiding high school drama, and being your best friend when your best friend won’t be your best friend.

Rookie was the dog who was happy to see me when I came home from college, who remembered me no matter how long I was away for.  Made no difference to him.  He still jumped onto the chair next to my bed, then onto my bed, and curled up next to me all the same.

Rookie was the dog who didn’t understand anything about the world I dreaded entering every day when I was post-grad and had a meaningless, soul-sucking call center job while I was looking for something more in line with my degree (or ambition to, you know, want to get out of bed every morning).  I loved him for that.

Rookie was the dog who spent my first day of work at Bleacher Report with me, waking up at the foot of my bed, following me in the office and to the kitchen for every break punctuating the day.

Rookie was the dog who a vet once told us, stone-cold serious as cold be, was probably retarded.  Not in the offensive, caustically-used derivative of the word, but the medical sense.  He was the dog who would get his head stuck in things, or find himself cornered by a paper bag, or completely surprised by an oak tree in his path.

Rookie was the dog who licked everyone and everything, the latter part probably making that reality quite unfortunate for the former.  It may have been out of fear, or anxiety, or a desire to “friend” everyone in existence so as to render them an ally.  I choose to believe he really just operated with a purity that reads totally foreign to human counterparts.

Rookie was the dog that could never be house-trained, so wild in his ways.  But everything that made him so frustrating, so destined to ruin carpet or tip over trash cans, also made him beautiful in that same way.  The way he was just an ever-present life force, a simple energy announcing himself every day, no matter if that was the best or worst day of my life.

Rookie was the dog who eventually got a cough.  One that could be managed at first, with enough medication and veterinary bills.  But eventually, one that wouldn’t go away, and kept both of us awake at night.

Rookie was my dog.

God, I miss my dog.

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Collin’s 2014 Film Year in Review

Hey, it’s the blog I write in, like, twice a year!  Neat!  Let’s have some fun with that.

Usually, I do my year-in-review film awards ahead of the Oscars.  But going through each category seems like a lot of work, so this year, I’m just going to provide some random lists, numbers and thoughts.  Because focus and organization is for the people actually making these movies.

1.  2014 was one of the more remarkable years for directing than I can remember in some time.  While I didn’t think the overall quality of all films was stunningly great, the direction was consistently awesome.  I mean, where to start?  Richard Linklater’s work on Boyhood, which is a work of once-in-a-generation-of-filmmakers genius.  James Marsh’s transition from “guy who made breathtaking documentary film” (Man on Wire) to “guy who made breathtaking biographical film (The Theory of Everything).  Jean-Marc Valee making a “find yourself through triumph over nature” film I actually found myself invested in (Wild).  Bennett Miller’s superbly-realized Foxcatcher, or a story about the drive to be a great musician (Whiplash) which somehow managed to be the most riveting and suspenseful film of the year, or the only post-Life Aquatic Wes Anderson film yet to be released (The Grand Budapest Hotel) which brought a consistent smile to my face.  I mean, damn, one of the throwaway films of 2014, the Keanu Reeves shoot-em-up John Wick, had one of the most gorgeously-directed action sequences I’ve seen since The Raid: Redemption (and this to say nothing of Joo-hoo Bong’s work with the overrated but gorgeously-realized Snowpiercer).

2.  Choosing a Best Picture, this year, is like choosing a NFL MVP this year.  There is probably a winner, but it entirely depends on what you look for from this award.  If you want the most impressive overall film, in terms of construction and execution, it has to be Boyhood.  If you want the most moving, art-inspiring-reaction film, it has to be The Theory of Everything.  If you want the film that inspired the most personal recommendations from me, in a “damn, you gotta see this” sense, it has to be Nightcrawler.  I wouldn’t know where to start unraveling the riddle of what “Best Picture” means this year, so my advice: just see all of these films, and you will be better off no matter your opinion.  There is something wonderful to appreciate in all of them.

3.  Though the film itself is entirely unspectacular and has a woefully-rushed final act, you have to catch Bill Hader in The Skeleton Twins.  It was a top 10 performance for me this year.  Incredible range.  Memorable, in a film that’s anything but.

4.  I went in to Foxcatcher not wanting to buy the hype on Steve Carell, but after seeing it, how can you not?  It’s a truly remarkable performance, in that it’s not just about delivery or defying standard genre expectations of Carell or liberal use of makeup and prosthetics.  It’s a physical performance for the ages.  The odd parallel I’ll draw is to David Cross as Tobias Funke in Arrested Development.  Tobias is an incredible character because of the physical comedy performed by Cross in that role, just the slight mannerisms that so uniquely define who he is as a man (or the man inside him, rather).  Carell’s performance is similar, but replace “comedy” with “horror”.  Carell’s portrayal of John du Pont is legitimately one of the most consistently unsettling performances I have ever seen.  Maybe there is a Ralph Fiennes performance somewhere in there, or Willem Dafoe.  But just the way Carell moves, and so painfully tries to blend in to normalcy; it’s something to truly appreciate from an actor with more talent than most ever realized.

5.  As great as Carell was, as great as Eddie Redmayne was in The Theory of Everything, as much as I appreciated Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game … my best actor performance still has to go to Jake Gyllenhaal for Nightcrawler.  That was one of the rare performances that made me want to immediately re-watch the film just to see it on display again.  It’s freaking absurd that he isn’t nominated for this one.  It was flawless.  It helps that Nightcrawler easily had one of the best scripts of the year; too bad it apparently went over most folks’ heads.

6.  Seriously, like I said above, this gun-fu scene from John Wick … simply gorgeous.

7.  I will never understand what anyone expected from The Interview, for it to be met with the dismayed reviews that surrounded its release.  It’s a freaking Evan Goldberg comedy, starring Rogen and Franco.  What did you expect?  I went in expecting a Goldberg comedy—not some genius political statement—and saw one of the funniest films of the year.  Finding that this film lacked the satirical bite you expected is such a Boromir opinion to have.

8.  Speaking of comedies you guys expected too much from: 22 Jump Street.  It was funny, self-aware and still directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who can do no wrong.  It also featured the best credit roll you will ever see.

9.  I know it’s cool to swing the pendulum the other way and lament about the unspectularness of Boyhood, but I’ll just go off my first reaction, which was to come out of the theater speechless at the execution of the art piece I had just seen.  “I just thought there’d be more” (paraphrase Patricia Arquette’s character) is the point.  I don’t even really think you have to appreciate what went in to making this film to appreciate this film.  It’s the best of Linklater, in my opinion—philosophical but not masturbatory, a keen eye for the finer details of the moment, and always open to greater possibilities.  I was fascinated, and despite everyone telling me the film was overlong, I didn’t want it to end.

10.  Film that most surprised me this year—Wild.  I thought it would be a patronizing tale of “young woman no one expects to be tough defying the odds and finding her inner strength”.  Instead, it was a layered, intelligent exploration of the human reset button.  Though she was entirely too glamorous for what the character was ostensibly doing, I loved Reese Witherspoon’s betrayal in that her realization of the character was the embodiment of a complete, flesh-and-bone character.  It wasn’t some unnecessary statement on femininity which would take away from the greater realism, but at the same time, it was a genuinely strong female character whose femininity was clearly part of the identity (just not all-assuming in aforementioned patronizing way, as tends to be the case in 99 percent of female roles written by men).  She was a troubled but brave, strong-willed woman doing what she had to do.  I respected the hell out of how much the filmmakers really seemed to get this character right, instead of make this character a statement that detracted from the overall film.

11.  Film that most underwhelmed me this year—A Most Violent Year.  Sure, Oscar Isaac was very strong in it.  I don’t understand the hype for Jessica Chastain at all; what a completely average, marginally-involved performance that was!  This felt like a film aiming for Coen Brothers subtext, but lacking any of the interesting elements of a Coen Brothers film. What was left: an extremely boring portrait of the marriage of violence and capitalism at a specific point in time, and characters you were strained to give a damn about.

12.  J.K. Simmons needs to play more bad guys.  If you ever saw HBO’s Oz, you were not at all surprised that he managed to be such a bastard in Whiplash.  There are a dozen or so “character actor” performances each year that make me think wow, we’re really lucky to have this guy in the industry.  This was one of those performances.  (Related to HBO and an above item, W. Earl Brown’s very small role in Wild was another one of those performances; just obligated to relate that!)

13.  Snowpiercer was incredibly stupid in too many ways to dissect, but you can’t deny the genius of the choreography and cinematography that went into so much of the second act in particular.

14.  Film I most hated that you probably most loved—Birdman.  Look, I’m a huge fan of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.  Biutiful is one of my favorite films ever made, and I was that artsy kid in middle school who rented Amores Perros on VHS from the local library.  But damn, I hated this film.  One of the more pretentious films you’ll see, and what bothered me most was how clever I thought Inarritu thought he was being with the STATEMENTS he was making about ART and EXISTENTIAL QUANDARIES and THE INDUSTRY FORCES THAT DRIVE VALUATION, when this was a film and message that’s been made so many times before, so much better before, in so many more palatable iterations.  This industry is markedly better for Inarritu’s presence in it, but this was a really weak effort, and I’m shocked so many find it so brilliant.

15.  This year’s indie film to come out of nowhere and kick ass is almost certainly Predestination.  Well-scripted, well-thought-out, and tremendously well-acted, especially considering the film basically hinges around just two performances—those of Ethan Hawke and Sarah Snook.  Major credit due for Snook; I’d never seen her prior to this role, but she absolutely made this movie work.  Very difficult role to pull off (explaining why would spoil too much of the movie), but it was in a similar light to what I’ve seen Tatiana Maslany ace in recent years.  My biggest takeaway: if we haven’t already been keeping an eye on the Spierig Brothers, after the far-better-than-it-should-have-been-in-theory Daybreakers, we absolutely should be now.

16.  I’ll admit, I couldn’t make it through the first 20 minutes of Mr. Turner.  Just couldn’t.  I love British film.  I love that entire cast (note: hire Nina Gold to cast your everything).  But nothing can get me into this film, and I’ve tried a couple of times.  Sorry.

17.  Speaking of Brits, look out for Jack O’Connell (also in Unbroken, which I haven’t yet seen, honestly).  He’s been brilliant in a few things, including one of the only interesting performances in the Skins (UK) series we don’t like to talk about.  But his performance in Starred Up was next-level.  It was Tom Hardy in Bronson good.  That’s a weird comparison, but I’m going to stick with it.

18.  This is the first year I really agree with all of The Hobbit criticisms.  In past years, I just thought Tolkien worshippers were expecting too much in terms of loyalty to parent text.  It’s the same thing we went through with Rowling fans and the Harry Potter series, or the continual struggle to get George R.R. Martin fans to stop bitching about Targaryen eye color.  I thought the first two Hobbit films were exactly what they should have been: fun to watch, fun to look at, entertaining and not afraid to try their hand at a few clumsy-but-exciting action sequences.  The third Hobbit film, though?  Everything about it just felt so obligatory.  Here’s the obligatory exit from this love triangle.  Okay, here’s the obligatory stubborn protagonist.  Okay, here’s the obligatory speech or action that changes the heart of the stubborn protagonist.  Here’s the obligatory battle.  Here’s the obligatory hero scene.  This was one of the most by-the-numbers films I have ever seen.  I never thought I’d see a Middle Earth film where I was bored to tears, but alas, we got The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.

19.  American Sniper was just OK, if you ask me.  It felt oddly-paced and the last 15-20 minutes were just baffling in the greater context of the film.  I do like what Bradley Cooper brought to the role, even if I don’t consider it a top 10 performance.  It would have been easy to basically be Jeremy Renner 2.0 and copy the same blueprint as The Hurt Locker.  Cooper went a different route, and I thought the film was much better off for it.

20.  I really, really liked The Imitation Game.  It sounds like I’m ignoring it so far, I’m sure, but it falls in a weird place of “just” being the second or third best in most categories for me.  It was probably the third-best film released in 2014, probably featured the second or third best male and female performances, etc.  Fascinating story, though.  I knew the ending going in, courtesy late-night random history reading, which actually made it all the more riveting.

21.  It was really nice to enjoy a Wes Anderson film again.  I’ve long maintained Rushmore is in my Top 10 ever, but I’ve felt most of his films have been on a downward trajectory since (though I’m a bit back-and-forth on The Fantastic Mr. Fox), hitting bottom with Moonrise Kingdom, which was one of maybe two or three films I have ever considered walking out on in theaters.  But clearly, The Grand Budapest Hotel was a (big) step back in the right direction for Anderson.  It wasn’t twee for the sake of twee.  It was outrageously funny, and M. Gustave is by far one of Anderson’s best characters.  Of course, Ralph Fiennes’ impeccable performance really made that possible.  I’m not-so-secretly hoping for an Anderson film that’s nothing but Ralph Fiennes and Bill Murray playing off each others’ comic timing.

22.  I have an unpopular view of Selma, I suppose: I thought it was too unfocused to be considered a snub in this year’s awards chase.  I mean, great writing, great performances, an actual freaking human representation of an imperfect man who is (rightly) regarded as a hero, and it brought something new to the biopic table in that it didn’t just paint a life by numbers but rather showed the difficult choices that could have branched off in different directions at every point.  That said, I never really felt like this film had a handle on who or what it wanted to spend time on.  As a result, I felt like the movie was basically MLK and a bunch of characters you would be hard-pressed to remember outside of how often they interacted with MLK.

23.  I usually get geek hype, but Guardians for the Galaxy didn’t do much for me.  Maybe it was just overhyped by the time I saw it, but…I don’t know.  I didn’t think it was really all that fun, or funny, or memorable.  It was a really standard, predictable Marvel plot.  I don’t really even evaluate superhero movies by that metric, even if it’s my least favorite part about superhero movies (seriously: watch every hero vs. villain fight in a superhero movie; they all play out exactly the same, which is why something like The Dark Knight gets applauded for upsetting the formula).  Just felt like, for the budget and cast, it could have been a lot more entertaining.  This coming from a guy who thought Serenity was tremendously entertaining, mind you.

24.  Did anyone actually see The Equalizer?  Did anyone actually realize that someone made a movie in which Denzel Washington was an ex-assassin working at Home Depot, in which he used Home Depot tools in an elaborate Home Alone trap to maim and kill the bad guys in the climactic final battle, which took place in Home Depot?  Really?  Did anyone else know that this was a thing that happened, and a script that really netted a profit?

25.  My genre-lovers only pick of the year: The Guest.  You have to have a soft spot for 80s slasher flicks to really tolerate the insanely dumb twist and ending, but damn, this movie was just a blast, and Dan Stevens was tremendous in something that probably should have just been pure camp.

26.  My go-to activity on cross-country flights is watching movies, because 1.5 movies will get me from Indianapolis to San Francisco without my brain eroding.  I, then, almost have to applaud This Is Where I Leave You for being so incredibly dull and lifeless—with such a spectacular cast, nonetheless—for actually making me pine for the sound of a jet engine hum.

27.  It won’t win any writing or acting awards, but from a pure visual/technology perspective, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was the first film to make my jaw drop since the Avatar IMAX 3D experience.  Just incredible, what that film managed to do.

28.  I’m glad everyone else loved The Babadook.  I didn’t.  No, you don’t have to explain the allegory to me.  I get it.  It was just a grating watch.

29.  The award for Most Condescending Film Ever has to go to Men, Women and Children.  Even if you’re not a fan of Jason Reitman, I think you’d agree that compared to his earlier work, he absolutely fell off a cliff with this one.  It was like Ed Wood setting out to direct an episode of Black Mirror or something.

30.  You could do a lot worse than watching Chef for an easy, light watch.  But add this to my list of movies this year that completely botched the last 20 minutes (or in this case, felt like the studio demanded the film cut 20 minutes off its run time, and the script condense accordingly).  I almost wonder if there’s a director’s cut of this anywhere, because that version could legitimately be a top 10 of 2014 candidate for me.

31.  Brad Anderson’s directing career will always baffle me—you began with Session 9 and The Machinist, for God’s sake!—but Stonehearst Asylum was batty (if entirely clumsy) enough to make me smile.

32.  By far, my weirdest viewing experience had to be They Came Together.  As anyone who knows me is already aware, I am a huge David Wain fan.  Wanderlust did nothing for me, but I love everything else in his filmography: every film, every series.  I don’t quite know how to describe TCT.  It was almost the closest thing I’ve seen to Wet Hot American Summer humor since, well, WHAS.  But since it wasn’t quite there, and wasn’t quite the same, it mostly just had an uncanny valley effect in which I felt like I should be laughing my ass off, but wasn’t quite there in terms of peak hilarity.  This is entirely my fault, as a viewer, for expecting a certain brand of comedy when, clearly, Wain has continued to evolve.  But every time it came close, I waited for a certain payoff that never quite happened.

33.  Movies I still haven’t seen as of publish, but intend to as time allows:  Inherent Vice, Unbroken, Still Alice, Kill the Messenger, Pride, It Follows

Gun to head, you’re gonna make me rank my top 10 films of 2014?  OK.  Loaded question.  I’m just going to rank on what I felt were the films that delivered the best overall experiences.  Not chasing awards.  Not standing the test of history.  Just my overall satisfaction at the end credit.  Here goes.

  1. Boyhood
  2. Whiplash
  3. The Imitation Game
  4. Nightcrawler
  5. The Grand Budapest Hotel
  6. The Interview
  7. Predestination
  8. The Theory of Everything
  9. 22 Jump Street
  10. Wild

Gun to head, top 10 performances of the year?  Fine.

  1. Jake Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler
  2. Steve Carell, Foxcatcher
  3. J.K. Simmons, Whiplash
  4. Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game
  5. Ralph Fiennes, The Grand Budapest Hotel
  6. Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything
  7. Sarah Snook, Predestination
  8. Bill Hader, The Skeleton Twins
  9. Keira Knightley, The Imitation Game
  10. Reese Witherspoon, Wild

Minus 50.

I suppose, for most people trying to lose weight, there is some moment of epiphany.  Maybe I’ve seen too many episodes of The Biggest Loser (editor’s note: I have seen zero episodes of The Biggest Loser), but I have to imagine, for most people, the decision to lose a lot of weight is kind of a big deal, yo.

I can’t really say the same.  Honestly.  I can’t.

So how I’m sitting here, 50 pounds lighter than I was 98 days ago, is somewhat of its own epiphanous moment.

Trippy, huh?

As far as I can remember, it really was as simple as this: I didn’t feel like I had as much stamina as I could once claim.  So, one day in April, I decided to dust off the ol’ bathroom scale and hop on.  I was expecting—well, dreading—to be somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 pounds.  I mean, my driver’s license may still say 120 pounds (shout out to learner’s permit stats), but we all know the truth.

I stood there, preparing myself for 200.  Or 205.  Or Nelson Muntz to improbably appear in the scale’s digital face, mocking my man boobs.

Finally, the scale offered its own opinion.  It wasn’t a very flattering one.

222.2.

It didn’t even have the courtesy to be coldly scientific about the revelation.  It had to be cute.  You know what’s even more obnoxious than realizing you’re obese for the first time in your life?  Having your obesity measured to the perfect numerical flush of four 2s.

I tried to process that, 222.2.  That was a number for fat people, at my size anyway.  I wasn’t a fat people.  Was I a fat people?  Oh God, I thought, maybe I was a fat people!

Still, I felt no urge to curl up in bed and cry my way through the night.  I didn’t really feel anything about it at all, except the shockingly dumb understatement of “oh man, I’m 20 pounds fatter than the fat I already thought I may have been!”

And fat is a sneaky thing.  It really does sneak up on you.  I mean, you know you’re not skinny, you know you jiggle a bit more than you’d like, but some part of you still convinces yourself you’re average.  You like food.  So what?  A lot of people like food.  If food wasn’t meant to be liked, Culver’s would not exist.  And Culver’s is an American treasure, so disliking food is entirely unpatriotic!

But all of that justification kind of just sneaks around to kick your ass when you go up the stairs one day and realize you’re trying not to let company know you’re actually a little winded.  From going up stairs.  One flight of them.

So, in the most anticlimactic matter possible, thus began my journey.  I wish I could say it was a cool, classic journey, complete with sword, shield, steed and ancient artifact in need of retrieval.  But this one mostly just started with me attempting to run a mile at the onset and puking up a lot of Chef Boyardee in the process.

(Dinosaurs & ABCs, if you were wondering.  Yes, I’m an adult.  Technically.)

****

50 pounds later, I do ask myself where the journey started.

It’s not like I drew up a gameplan, so there is no legible proof of my plan.  It just kind of fell in place, the same way welp, I guess I need to clean out this closet turns into spring cleaning.

As with all things weight loss-related, it started with diet & exercise.

The diet, surprisingly, was very easy.  I didn’t read up on any diet tips, because that would require committing to something, and I’ve always been deathly afraid of committing to a plan only to fail and feel really bad about it.  So I suppose my strategy throughout has just been “make your own plan, and make it work”.

For my diet, then, I started by cutting out soda entirely.  Switched to water.  That’s an easy 10 pounds.  Good, what’s next?  Salads?  Sure, those can replace mayo-ejaculating sandwiches.  Ben & Jerry’s?  More like I Don’t Care-ys!  Right?  Right?  Okay, I’ll sit down.

(And admit that my reward for 165 will be a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Peach Cobbler.  Lawdamercy, do I miss that sweet, sweet Deadhead nectar!)

One of my co-workers and main sources of support throughout my journey—I won’t name names just in case, but thanks, dude, it’s meant a lot—told me, if he were to write a book about losing weight, he would title it Don’t Eat Like An Asshole.

And you know what?  It’s surprisingly easy to not eat like an asshole.  Which isn’t to say everyone’s journey isn’t different, and some folks have different obstacles, realities and barriers than others.  But, when you break it down, when you really look at the basic concept of eating—it’s not very difficult to eat right, and still eat enough.

Personally, I found it pretty simple.  I don’t eat breakfast; I never have.  So it was a matter of not eating stupid things at lunch, and not snacking after.  Boom.  Cut that out, and you get to dinner with a goodly amount of calories to spare.  Learn not to interpret that as “make up for all of your dieting by eating a huge, obnoxious dinner”, and you’ve figured out how to eat healthy and responsibly.

(Obligatory reminder that I am not a dietician or nutritionist—you should consult those if serious.  I also cut out a ton, like, almost all, carbs from my diet.  That’s not necessarily the best approach, because there are good carbs and good carbs = much-needed energy for the Part II of this plan.  But, yeah, that’s what I did, for full disclosure.  Learn to love chicken.)

Soon enough, I found that I could get by with 1,200 calories, I often didn’t need more than 1,500 calories worth, and even my worst “cheats” were around or slightly below 2,000 calories.

Obviously, you don’t want to reach the point of hunger pains, ever.  And I believe too much calorie-counting obsessiveness can lead to eating disorders.  But as long as you have a healthy and realistic understanding of how calories work (bolded: you always consume more calories than you realize, and you always burn less calories than you realize), you should be able to set yourself up for a nice ballpark approach to calorie management.

*****

The other part, then, was exercise.  Still is exercise.  Oh, the exercise.

Now, yes, technically, you can lose weight on diet alone, provided you maintain the proper caloric differential.  But there is no realistic way that is a winning long-term strategy.

So, get used to exercising.  I did.

Frankly, I knew it was going to suck getting to that level of serious exercise again, so I started simple.  I went down to the park to kick some soccer balls around.  I mean, I could at least do that, right?  If you do something you enjoy anyway, and exercise in the process, it’s just a bonus.

Next up was cycling.  60 minutes, high resistance, every morning.  Just pop on some Netflix in front of the bike and, boom, world’s quickest hour of exercise.

All of this worked, and worked well, but served to underscore my biggest hesitation: running.

I knew, eventually, I would have to start running if I was going to get really serious.  And I hate running.  Always have, even when I was skinny and athletic.  Always will.  Those endorphins that serve as the testimony of everyone you know who has a pair of running shoes?  Yeah…I’ve been running for a while now, and I still don’t get those.

Running is hard.  Running is not fun.  But running is how I was able to establish such an insane caloric deficit.

I started with some light running at the soccer park—chasing the ball if it went over the goal, some full-field sprints here and there.  That evolved into trying to run a mile (which resulted in aforementioned Chef Boyardee purge in my first encounter).  Then a mile really became a mile, which became two, until I figured out I had the stamina for five.  And that’s been my mark ever since—at least five miles a day, six days a week.

And I will say this: running sucks.  But I’ll be damned if I’m not practically operating on jet fuel when I start working every morning now.

I try to run different routes, around different places.  And I’ve kept a two-a-day regimen too, which has recently transitioned into a ~6-mile hike/walk with a heavy backpack and medicine ball.  Sometimes I just take trails into the wood, get lost and hope I can navigate my way back before sunset.  It’s great.

*****

I’m not done yet.  I don’t really have a goal weight, but I know I’m not there yet.  My soccer fighting weight was always around 160, so another 10 pounds would make sense.  We’ll see.

My main goal from here is to tone up a bit.  Not looking to get omgswolebro, but just respectably toned.  I started an ab workout over the weekend.  It’s by far the worst 10-15 minutes of my day, but then no one said hanging upside down from an inversion table, holding a medicine ball toward the ceiling and keeping your back straight was ever going to be fun.

But I can look back and say I’ve done the following things, which I didn’t think were possible before I began:

  • I lost 50 pounds in less than 100 days.  That rate of loss is kind of impressive.
  • I went from a waist size somewhere between 38-40, to a waist size between 30-32.  Yup.
  • I can consistently run 5-6 miles.  I never ran more than 2 consecutive miles before.
  • I have notched myself out of my favorite belt.  That’s bittersweet.
  • I bought a medium size shirt online.  It fit.  Well kind of; I have broad shoulders which stretch it tight on top, but that’s not really weight-related.

Since 50 is a milestone, I will take a moment to gloat about those.

But just for a moment.  Because I’ve got at least 10 more, and starting sometime around September, I get to begin my journey of learning to lift and realizing how embarrassingly weak I really am.

On My Grandfather’s Passing…

Normally, beginning a story is easy for me.  Hook ’em with something good, something memorable, something that fits the larger theme.  Something catchy.  Something they can’t ignore.

But I’m not quite sure how to summarize what I want to say here in one or two enticing grafs.  As if any of this could be summarized in one attention-grabbing hook.  Maybe it can by a better writer, or someone more detached.  For me, now, though, it’s a series of disjointed thoughts.  A greater truth constructed out of the glue-flooded macaroni paintings of a six-year-old.

My grandpa is dead.  He shouldn’t be.  But he is.  That’s a fact.  It’s not a fact about me, but in a way, in spite every modicum of sensibility I possess telling me this is just about an external fact, a legacy, an obituary clipping, it’s my story too.

So I’m going to tell it.  Raw and unfiltered, not stopping to borrow the thesaurus from my dust collection.

I suppose it starts with a 3am phone call.  I hear it, but don’t answer in the fog of my interrupted sleep.  What does register, though, however fleeting and soon dismissed by a return to rest, is that no 3am phone calls are good.  And when I hear the voicemail tone, I know it’s something bad.

Upon waking up, further review reveals it’s my uncle Scott, asking for my dad.  I figure a grandparent is dead.  When I get a hold of my dad, two hours behind in Wyoming, this is eventually confirmed through early morning phone tag.

Grandpa.  Heart attack.

It doesn’t really sink in at first.  I suppose I had always prepared myself for the inevitability of a grandparent passing.  And I’d always told myself the same thing—I don’t want it to happen, I want to pretend like it won’t ever happen, but when it does, it won’t be my sadness to incur.  It will be my parents’. And I will be sad for them, but never myself.  Never personally devastated.  Just the soldier, the rock, the good son.

This was my thought.  Tragic, untimely, sudden.  But not my sadness.  My dad’s.  I would just be there to support him when he got off the plane, when we drove out to his mother’s, when we saw the body.  But I would always just be there.

On the day we learned of my grandfather’s passing, it was my responsibility to get necessary items organized in order to make the trek out to Ohio—which sounds close to Indiana in passing mention, but we’re talking Ohio-bordering-West Virginia.  Hotel was in the latter state, actually.

Of course, I still had more than a few items to wrap up at work as well.  Preparation for the next week, assignment schedules, notices to various teams that I would be out indefinitely pending further instructions on funeral services.  Trying to do this while communicating with a dad still trying to catch a last-minute flight in from Denver by way of Montana by way of Wyoming, trying to find available hotel rooms (turns out, natural gas boom—the good kind—had almost every decent place booked from Ohio to Pittsburgh) and trying to figure out what to do with a 14-year-old dog who had never before been boarded was quite the challenge.

But somehow, all these items were handled.  And Indianapolis was in the rearview…well, long in the rearview given construction delays on I-70…the next day.

The six-hour trip out provided plenty of time for headphone-fueled reflection.  As I listened to Fang Island’s latest album, I thought about how weird this whole situation was.  My dad’s side of the family isn’t particularly close.  I hadn’t seen my grandparents since November 2006, Thanksgiving of my freshman year of college.  Schedules just never worked out for anyone, it seemed.  Hadn’t seen any of my uncles or cousins since I was 12 years old.  Just generally had never been too close with these people, other than exchanging phone calls and e-mails with my grandparents, and yet I was destined to spend the next 72 hours commiserating with them, sharing misery over a million casserole dishes of oven-ready condolences.

I was related to these people.  Blood.  We shared the last name.  Somewhere in my childhood, we shared camping trips, cookouts, miniature golf outings.  And yet, I didn’t really feel like I knew them.  Their world had been turned upside-down, and I was just walking in the attic door like I earned a spot on the new ground level because I was in some old photos, because everyone mispronounced my last name the same as theirs.

I was an intruder to their grief, welcomed by last-name only.  And I feared that idea more than anything.

When we arrived at my grandma’s house, this idea resonated strongly.  My uncles shook my hand.  I wondered if they even recognized me to some extent.  But when I saw my grandma, I felt foolish for even going there, for ever harboring so much self-doubt.  Because this wasn’t about me, or the awkwardness, or the unfortunate family reunion.  It was about the empty space at the kitchen table and the kind of pain that can only be etched into the reddened, hollow eyes of a woman married 52 years who hadn’t slept since she’d heard the news she never wanted to believe.  It was about all the moments leading up to a hug and two hours of near-silence polishing off six glasses of ice water in the corner.

It was about my grandpa.  And how I kept expecting him to walk in the room and ask what the hell everyone was doing, what I thought about the Steelers’ offensive line, if I had a girlfriend.  All while the hallway remained vacant, and everyone searched for appropriate distractions, things you say in those shared moments of grief.

That’s when I started to realize how much I missed him.  And how past circumstances don’t necessarily dictate emotional entitlement, like the extent of my reaction could be pre-determined by something as arbitrary as the amount of football games we had watched together over the past decade.

I guess I had always figured that I would just feel bad for my father when the time came, but not necessarily feel personally-wounded.  So that emptiness, the expectation of some Houdini act, came as a surprise to my system.

Could this be more than I had mapped out in my head?

I was six, and waking up to a toy lightsaber under the Christmas tree.

I was 10, packing for my first-ever camping trip.

I was 12, rubbing sleep from my eyes at 5 a.m. while balancing a fishing rod against the edge of an outboarder.

I was 18, and playing Tripoly on the eve before high school graduation.

I was over-stuffed from mashed potatoes, turkey and fried oyster (a family tradition), lounging on a leather recliner as the Cowboys stomped the Lions for the millionth time in a row, adapting a certain ennui to Joey Harrington’s mortal suffering.

And he was there in all of those moments.  But not in this one.  Even though I was sure he would be eventually, providing the Ohio Valley with the GOTCHA moment of the century.

But that never happened.

Instead, there was just silence and sadness, and more hurt than I’d planned for.

And anger.  Lots of anger.  Gritted teeth and dagger eyes when my uncle told us how it all happened, never quite answering that cosmic WHY lingering in the communal fog of froggy throats and stinging eyes.

It had started Thursday, when he had been in for a routine cardiac catheterization.  Put simple: grandpa’s heart hadn’t been in the best shape for quite some time.  So I suppose in some sense, this was inevitable, and we all thought this, but we didn’t agree with it, and certainly didn’t assign it to the present tense out of some existential probability—a card game of second chances and dying breaths.

After the procedure, he went home to rest.  But something was wrong.  It would take a lot for grandpa to admit that, to really show any signs of panic, but he did.  He hurried to the kitchen, clutching his chest.

“Something’s wrong,” he told my grandma, “I have to go back to the emergency room.  Where’s Scott?”

My uncle was out picking up some medication.  Couldn’t say for whom, don’t rightly recall.  But in any event, my grandma quickly attempted to reach him, and succeeded in doing so.  He hurried back home.

“Something’s wrong.  My chest hurts.  We have to go back.”

So my uncle dialed 911.

“Tell him to take nitro.  One pill every [I forget the detail here] minutes, hold it under his tongue.”

Grandpa did.  And that didn’t solve anything.

“We have to go.”

So my uncle took him, and he was quickly treated by an emergency room doctor.  The E.R. doc said he was having a heart attack, that the EKG supported this.  Assured he would be admitting my grandpa to the hospital, he contacted his cardiologist first and shared the results with him.

But the cardiologist didn’t agree.

“His EKGs are always out of whack.  That’s normal for him,” the cardiologist claimed over the phone, not physically viewing these charts, mind you.

The emergency room doctor wasn’t sure about that.  He maintained my grandpa was having a heart attack.

“No, that’s normal,” the cardiologist insisted, “tell him just to go home, get some rest and follow up with me in the morning.”

Resigned to this, the E.R. doc passed along the news.  And because the cardiologist overrode the E.R. doc, my grandpa was not admitted to the hospital.

An 81-year-old heavy-set man with a history of heart ailments and more stints than you could count, who had just had a procedure done earlier that day, not admitted to the hospital.

A father of three, grandfather of three.  Loving husband.  Dear friend.  All of those descriptors that sound so cliche yet prove so accurate.  War veteran.  Caretaker.  Avid golfer—could have gone pro.  Woodworker.  Car aficionado.  A good man, a good man who raised and inspired a plethora of other good men, a man whose name has been passed down for three generations now.  Not admitted to the hospital.

My grandpa.  Not admitted to the hospital.

Which was, essentially, a death sentence.

Within minutes of my grandfather returning home following the cardiologist’s refusal to admit him, he collapsed and died.  In front of my uncle and grandmother.

And all anyone asks in the wake of it all is WHY?

“Why?  Why did this happen?” my grandma asks the cardiologist, who didn’t beat the ambulance, who couldn’t quite hide the shame and guilt in having missed the cadaver his negligence may have created.

“I don’t know,” he answered.  “I just don’t know.”

None of us ever will, of course, and that will always be death’s lasting sting.  The whys, the not knowing.  Those split-second decisions and mundane moments that all added up before our eyes while we were busy observing the laws of normalcy, all those day-to-day routines and machinations.

Could it have been different?  Would it have been different?  What made the final difference between living and dying? Where did the margin collapse and the balancing act give way to the shark tank below?

I don’t know.

But the truth is, the angry eyes don’t always care, at least in those first stages of bloodletting.  And so the fury was felt, the fire passed down the line and bottled up inside that next man with clenched fists and a flushed face.  Our five-alarm family reunion.

The next day was easier somehow.  Where the magma once coursed, now came the memories.  Good ones.  Bad ones. Real ones, in any case.  The kind that make you human, prove you really existed.  Memories from Pittsburgh, from Roanoke and Rockville and Peoria and Indianapolis and O’Fallon and St. Clairsville.  Memories of Muskegon, of 15-cent hamburgers at the Eat’n’Park and the Board of Education at the backside of pestering progeny.  My memories: my first dog being chased around the garage with a broom for having gifted excrement to the living room, an open reel rod that almost hooked a procession of unintended targets, being the only boy to walk away from the battered masses with a copy of Goldeneye 64 within the first weeks of its release.

That day was easier.  Better.  More conducive to healing.

The funeral, though, that was tough.

Prior to my grandfather’s, I had only been to one funeral in my life.  It was for my great aunt.  I remember thinking that it was sad, and it was my duty to look and act serious, but I was entirely unaffected by it.  Someone had died that I had never really known.  Her body was openly presented in the nave, and it just didn’t look real.  To me, it wasn’t real.   It wasn’t someone I knew, it wasn’t something alive.  It was my uncanny valley of emotional distance—just off-putting, and nothing more.

(I was also 14 years old, so it wasn’t as if I had a firm grasp of these feelings to begin with.)

My grandfather’s funeral marked a few firsts, for me.  First time I really knew, and knew well, the person being laid to rest.  First time I would be there for the viewing, service and entombment.  First time I would be there in the days leading up to it all.  First time I would be asked to be a pallbearer, to transport casket to hearse and eventually to final resting place.

I woke up that morning too early, with one helluva stomach ache.  Guts were tied in a sailor knot, stomach rolling like a canoe swallowed by a hurricane, clinging to the apex of every hundred foot wave to lash at the unsettled Atlantic surrounding.  I was sick, and maybe it was the ice cream before falling asleep or just the lack of sleep begin with—would have cost $250 to opt out of sharing a hotel room with parents, and for just a few nights, I wasn’t going to bite down on that bullet—but the day started out with intestinal mutiny and a dress shirt one neck size too small (I never was one to perfect the art of formality…)

The hotel room was suffocating, and I had to get out, even well before we were ready, so I wandered into the lobby and out toward the parking lot and the panoramic view of Appalachia from the other side of the Ohio.  I could breathe out there, surrounded by mountains, fog swirling down the declines and collecting in the valleys below, masking whatever wildlife calls West Virginia home.  Outside, I didn’t feel as sick.  And I didn’t feel sick in the first place for any particular reason.  It was just for all of the reasons, all of the ways time and anger and loss and sleep had toyed with my routine, my standard biological cadence.

Breakfast was a glass of water I sipped at Steak ‘N Shake while excusing myself to occupy the handicapped stall and stuff my fingers down my throat.  I just needed to empty, without getting too gross.  But there was nothing but bile, and a reddened face for the trouble.

When we finally arrived at the funeral home, it was every bit as stiff and awkward as you would expect.  I say that with no real negative connotation—the place was wonderfully-appropriate.  Consoling, but not overbearing.  No cheesy decorations suggesting that everything is directed according to a greater universal plan.  No organ music recycled at children’s haunted houses every October.  Just kind folks who held doors open, largely stayed out of the way, and arranged a mutual grieving space.

I accompanied my dad, mom and grandma into the viewing room, where the service would be held three hours later.  And there he was, readily visible, the focal point of the room.  Just there.  Unmistakably there.  My grandpa.  Or some lifeless imitation of him, anyway.

We walked down the center aisle, everyone approaching the casket as if we were still waiting for that one last magic act.  But at the end of the walk was still the sight the mind expected and the heart rejected.  Grandpa.  Pasty complexion, same haircut, concave chest.  Everything eerie and amiss, but still him.  The final truth presented.

There isn’t really any accurate prose for that.  For my grandma approaching the casket, squeezing his hand and asking why he had to go.  It’s every grieving widow you’ve ever seen in the movies, but so painfully unique in that moment.  Until it’s your family, your moment, your reality, you don’t realize that’s someone’s husband of 52 years.  You don’t know those moments everyone reflects upon when they stare down into the casket, projecting life on the pale surface just to re-experience those final synaptic firings of something shared.

And any combination of words that could accurately describe that moment when your dad, who just lost his father, comforts his mother, who just lost her soul-mate?  And both are standing there, in that moment of anguish, the most sharpened sense of loss?

Man, that’s tough.  That’s the kind of thing that has you standing to attention three paces behind, squeezing your middle three fingers behind your back for all the tensile strength your bones can handle.

I was next to view the body.  But I don’t remember much about that.  I mean, I can remember exactly how he looked.  Equally similar to the man I remembered and totally foreign.  I mostly just remember thinking that I didn’t know what to think, and trying to silently apologize for not making it out there more often, for just assuming time would…allow, permit, accomodate.  I learned a thing or two about time over these past few days.

The next few hours proved that there exist seconds within seconds and a half-hour of meeting cousins and cousins of cousins for the first time, in such circumstances, can feel three centuries longer than a clock would have you believe.  That’s not meant to read overly anti-social or anything, it’s just difficult to pretend the moment is anything other than what it really is.  And it’s not a social hour or bonding experience.  It’s a farewell.

Unfortunately, the eventual clock strike of the ceremony was hardly the climactic moment anyone anticipated.

Maybe the worst part about this whole tragic ordeal was the sermon, or whatever you call it.  If I could get beyond the fact that the woman butchered my great-uncle’s name, my mom’s name (Jenny?  Really?), kept calling my grandpa and uncle “James” when they had never been referred to as that their whole lives, suggested my dad was a step-son and generally seemed to have no fucking clue who my grandpa was or what his family was like, despite attempting to stuff a presidential debate’s worth of facts in the presentation…I would still be faced with the “everything happens for a reason” motif.

Yes, things happen for a reason.  Medical incompetence was the reason my grandpa died.  Congratulations.  You solved life’s greatest mystery, lady!

It was, quite simply, the most misinformed, trite collection of words anyone could have put together to describe my grandfather’s life.  I cringed quite a bit during it.  I was angry after.  But as I was a pallbearer, I didn’t really have much time to dwell on it.  Just viewed the body one last time, watched my uncles place a pitching wedge in his grip as they said their final goodbyes and waited outside the room with my dad, uncles and cousin, each trying to mask their pain in their own unique way: sunglasses, dry jokes, fidgeting with breath mint wrappers.

Everything from there, or at least from transportation of casket from funeral home to hearse, seems to lose significance.  There’s a long drive out into the country, rolling fields of flowers diving into reflective ponds and ornate mausoleums.  There’s a reception afterward with sweet sausage and honey-glazed ham, where it still feels awkward to eat at the same table I ate some six Thanksgivings ago and talked football with my grandpa.

There’s a certain air of relief: he’s at rest, we’re here for you, we can smile and tell stories now, but the truth that stays behind is that there’s a lingering hurt, something far less anesthetized as the cars begin heading toward the highway.

Of course, there is also the truth you take with.  Or truths.  Plural.  And those are what are most predominantly on my mind.

My family is strong.  My grandma, my uncles, my dad.  Those are some strong people.  They don’t just act tough.  They are tough.  That’s one lesson I take away.  I know my family better now, and I’m better for it.  The example has been set for dignity in the face of such sudden tragedy.  I know, when I face similar challenges, I can always emulate my family.  And more importantly, I can lean on them, and they will steel my resolve in return.  I will be tougher for knowing them, and having them support me.

My support network and my friends matter.  A lot.  And I need to be better about reminding them of this, and being a better friend, son, relative, etc.  The biggest regret I hold, and it’s hardly a unique thought, in the wake of my grandfather’s passing is not better expressing how much I loved him while he was alive.  That’s always an easy sentiment to express in death, not always so much in life, when we take heartbeats for granted.  People can and do die.  Every day.  Again, more obvious cliche there, but it’s true…people die, and the worst feeling in the world is to know you’ll never be able to express your appreciation for them when they’re gone.  Things left unsaid and undone have a nasty tendency to remain unsaid and undone.  No sense in sitting on the truth there.

My grandfather mattered.  His life was cut short unnecessarily, but he still lived a long life.  His funeral was attended by representatives from Rhode Island, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Indiana, Tennessee, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Missouri and California.  People loved him.  He had an impact on so many people.  What he did mattered.  His life mattered.  It wasn’t just me losing my grandpa, it was the world losing a truly great man.

I’m glad to know these truths, and more unmentioned, even if revealed through such unfortunate circumstances.  As much as I wanted to reject any possession of this, the legacy left behind then becomes my story, and my opportunity to learn, to grow, to impact the people that mean the most to me according the example left behind.  The loss will always linger, and it will still take me a while to realize he’s gone, realize just how much he meant to my life and realize exactly what it all means versus what I always thought it would mean.

But I’d like to think the structure my grandpa built throughout his life, out of his love for family, the example set for his sons in turn set for their own sons, lives on.  Maybe that’s cheesy.  Maybe that’s on a Hallmark card somewhere in some quaint beachside town.  I don’t know.  I just know that I miss him more than I ever realized I could, and I better understand the finality of things, our mortal obligation to make life mean something, make the people in our lives that we love and cherish realize that they mean something too.

I always thought I would just be there.  That this would just be a thing that happened, and it would be sad, but it would just be a thing in the end, an event, something to get over.

Now, I realize being there (for my grandma, for my dad, for my friends and family and everyone that matters to me) has far more dimensionality than I originally realized, and that’s exactly what my grandpa would want me to do.

Normally, this is where I would end the story with a cute callback to the hook.  But I’m not sure this story calls for that.  And I hope that this story is more than a story.  I hope that my story can maybe become yours, and you can write a letter to someone you haven’t talked to for a while, call your mom, let your best friend know how much they matter, or tell your son how proud you are of him.

My grandfather’s passing was tragic.  Still is.  Your grandfather’s passing probably was too, or will be.  That hurt will always be there.  It cannot be prevented.  But the regret of not injecting meaning in life, or letting your loved ones know how much they mean, can absolutely be prevented.  So I suppose that’s my call to action.  Embrace the things and people that are most important, live for them, love them, cherish your time with them.  Don’t hesitate to say you love them.

Because in the end, you never know.  You can’t know.  You can only react and reflect.  Death may be a cold inevitability, but if the life preceding means something, to you and others, maybe it’s a hard truth we can all learn to accept in time.

I love you, grandpa.  Miss you, and hope I can do right by you in my time here.