Thursday, November 26, 2020

Still Not Unfixably Old

I hope you still feel small when you stand beside the ocean

Whenever one door closes, I hope one more opens

Promise me that you'll give faith a fighting chance

And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance

I hope you dance

I hope you dance

Buried deeply within my diatribe about how mastectomies are bad (they still are), I once casually mentioned how the morning before my 32nd birthday, I decided that I wasn't unfixably old. Eight years later, I think, "Ugh, 32 was so young!" However, at the time, when I reflected on my life, I just saw a future with little to look forward to and a lot of time left to kill. I felt old because I had reached an adulthood that didn't suit me, but I felt stuck in it. 

Right now, I imagine people with kids scoffing at my privilege of having so much time for self-reflection and so little responsibility. While it's true that caring for small humans might have grounded me and helped me grow out of the child I still am sometimes, it would have been really bad for everyone if it didn't work out that way. 

I mention this because the last couple of years and my recent 40th birthday have caused me to begin feeling unfixably old again. The feeling isn't unwarranted, considering how many fewer of my original body parts I have now than when I turned 30. The past decade has indeed inflicted some damage to my body that I can't undo, but I know that I can restore it to better function than its current state, which is 30 pounds heavier than when I won the West Virginia Enduro Series in 2017. Two major surgeries and a global pandemic can do that. If declaring myself not unfixably old and ditching my binge eating habit at 32 taught me anything, it's that fixing my life and fixing my body are inseparable aspects of the same challenge.

It's the fixing my life part where things start to get interesting. I have mentioned a few times in the past year or so about how I have become too focused on my career. As I think back on the past few years, I realize that late 2017 marked a transition from unexpected and effortless career growth during my first few years at Penn State to fruitless grinding, where I began working harder and rarely seeing it pay off. At least in 2018, I had my newfound love of riding ALL THE BIKE PARKS to distract me, but 2019 and 2020 weren't so kind. At the beginning of 2020, I came frustratingly close to getting my dream job in my dream town of Bellingham, WA only to have it fall through.

Even a casual toe-dip into the mountain bike YouTube-verse will likely expose you to Bellingham's hundred or so miles of a gorgeous loamy, steep, and amply jumpy singletrack. There are also multiple pump tracks and dirt jumps scattered through the town, and Whistler is a mere three hours away. 

Beyond the mountain biking, the whole place just makes me feel like I'm embraced by the warm (okay, cold and damp) hug of Mother Nature's wonder. On the other side of town from the lush, mossy green fairy forests of the mountains is the dark, moody Bellingham Bay dotted with rocky islands. As someone who is resolutely not a beach person, it's the kind of ocean I can get into. Plus, porcupines were cool and all when I moved to State College, but I'm yearning to see a whale that isn't at Sea World.

Finally, when I visited Bellingham for my interview at Western Washington University in January, it felt like home in a way I haven't felt since I left Bloomington. It's hard to explain other than to say that the town has a personality. Within my first week in State College, I ran into another former Bloomingtonian who joked, "Yeah, there's a lot fewer crust punks here." I don't think I necessarily need crust punks to be happy, but it spoke to the diverse spirit of Bloomington vs. the upper-middle class football-obsessed homogeny of State College. I'll forever be grateful to Rothrock for turning me into a real mountain biker, but this town has never been a good fit for me. 

Plus, I'll never get good at jumping while I live here, and my ability to progress as an athlete has become more important to me than my race results. 

When the job at WWU fell through, I did my best to resign myself to living my best life in State College, but COVID-19 had other plans. The possibility of any career advancement was shut down, as Penn State and the handful of PNW universities I'd been watching all went into hiring freezes. There were no races to race, and bike parks weren't even an option until June. Then my accident in July killed what was left of 2020 for me. I realize that 2020 has still been great compared to many others', but it has been hard feeling helpless for so many months just when I had hoped to get my life back on track.

Well, do you find you like to fall in love with people that you're never gonna meet?

It's easier than breaking up and crying in the street

Do you curse the happy couple?

Do you cringe at wedding bells?

Do you drink up all the punch while you wish 'em all to hell

At some point in August or September, I watched something on TV about people looking for orcas in the San Juan Islands, and I reached a breaking point. Yes, it was the freakin' whales and not the mountain biking videos that got me. I wanted to be THERE and have those experiences before I was too old to enjoy them. Afterward, I listened to Alkaline Trio's "Love, Love, Kiss, Kiss" a bunch of times and cried. I know that sounds like a weird choice, but it's a song about wanting something so badly that comes seemingly effortlessly to others. Believe me, I listened to it many times before I met Frank when I could take the words more literally. When I declared myself not unfixably old at 32, romantic love was the thing I was missing, and I mustered the strength to repair that missing piece, even when it meant tearing down my life and starting over. 

That is when I started to see the silver lining in COVID-19. It had already become clear that I would likely never have to go back to work in person at my current job unless I wanted to. Frank had also mentioned he would probably be able to continue teaching online for Penn State if I were to get a job somewhere else. I realized that nothing was really stopping us from moving to Bellingham and working remotely for Penn State. The challenges would be the higher cost of living on the same paychecks and the fact that moving to full-time remote would likely kill my hopes of career advancement at Penn State. I also realized that maybe it was time for those hopes to die, as they had caused me so much more misery than joy in the past three years. The money part would be more challenging, but we could handle it.

Ultimately, we decided to buy a lot in Sudden Valley, have a house built there, and move when it is complete in about a year. That means we will be riding bikes on the East Coast for one more season, and I am okay with that. I still have to wait a bit more for my Bellingham dream to become a reality, but I will still get to spend most of my 40's in that magical place. I will probably benefit from the extra time to refocus my energy and rebuild my body before heading out there, anyway.

When I was 32, I realized that I been unsuccessfully and unhappily focused on my career to cover up a big missing piece in my life. I somehow manage the strength to pull myself together and find that missing piece despite the risks it posed. The events of 2020 have shown me that I've reverted to using my career to cover up other missing pieces in my life. I couldn't have named my missing piece at 32, and I can't exactly name it now. I've just realized that when my mind starts to hate my body instead of taking care of it, and I blame it on my body, the truth is that neither my age nor my body is the problem. The beautiful thing is that the risks I took last time I felt unfixably old led me to the love of my life, and now I have a wonderful partner to join me in whatever comes next. Such a big change is scary, but so is growing unfixably old. 

Why would you live anywhere else?

Why would you live anywhere else?

We've got the [mountains], got the [bay]

Got the [loam], we've got the [lake]

This is the only place for me