Letters Back to Strangers.

lettersLately, thanks to some new voices that have entered my life*, I have been spending inordinate amounts of time discerning my own emotions– at times they might constitute a thinly manufactured facade of self-absorbed ego stroking, and others a healthy, genuine pride in my own accomplishment. I am legitimately saddened by the largess of the former, as well as the abject shortage of the latter.

My default assumption is that I am the center of my own universe. That I am lord over this speck of a manor that my spirit inhabits. But, like all of my assumptions, this one is wrong too. Reality is, my rank doesn’t even crack the top three. A matter of fact, it turns out, is that the me of my world is the least significant of all. Especially considering how much of my own esteem is built up in the opinions that others have of this me. This is a bad.

But, here is a good: There’s an infinite possibility the moments of my life that I am most proud of, are those that you would never know about. I could tell you what they are, but a apprising you of their existence would cease to make them special.

You have moments like this too. So sweetly simple that they probably slipped past you the way a cloud’s shadow sprites virtually unnoticed over a meadow. And, if you’re like me, it didn’t even hit you, this subtle yet impactful act, until days later when you’re sitting in you car maybe thinking about such random events as the parcels mistakenly delivered to your house. And that once you discovered them you quickly hand delivered them down the street, to their intended recipient. And then, much later, maybe you thought that one of them might have contained check for badly needed food , a letter from a son or daughter serving in the military overseas or the final approval forms for an adoption a year in the making. Are these outcomes likely? No. But are they an impossibility? No again. Matters not, because these were alternatives never considered by you when you thoughtlessly did what it was you had done. You just delivered the mail because it was the right thing to do. Because this is the kind of world we live in. And because we, despite our own misgivings on the matter, are great people.

I am learning that this acknowledgement of good deeds done for the sake of simply doing them and not because others could ever know why or even if they were ever done is the essence of being humble. And that this solemn, unspoken regard for humility is of critical importance to our universal happiness. So much of our joy resides in our need to get these letters to strangers. Because we really do care. And, better still, we so often care without even thinking about it.

Humility, they say, is thing one you lose once you’ve claimed to have had it. But if you truly think need it, you probably don’t. I’m not sure where I stand, yet. But I know I admire with awe those who quietly possess it. And look forward to the day when I can claim it as my own default emotion.

*David Foster Wallace– brilliant man. Youtube his famous Kenyon commencement speech “This is Water.” It will change your life.

Dogs And Cats are Very Different

magstellToday’s contribution comes from Guest Blogger, Madeline Ann Lycke, age 10.


Cats are the United States of America’s most popular pet. They snuggle, take care of themselves and even sleep for two-thirds of the day! Did you know that the first cat launched in to outer space, Felicette, a French cat, was in 1963?! Cats also rub against your legs– that tells you they’re saying “YOU’RE MINE!”

Dogs are a friendly, playful companion to have with you. It’s hard to be mad at dogs because they have their own special way of saying “I’m sorry.” Don’t worry, there are different kinds of dogs, so you don’t need to have a dog that looks like your neighbor’s dog. Dogs will always to be a loyal, honest friend.

They say cats and dogs don’t like each other, but that’s a myth! Dogs and cars are fine with each other, they are just carnivores. Cats and dogs are very, very, very different, but I bet your cat or dog, or both loves you very much!

I Do Nothing Alone

11 monthIn June of 2012 I issued myself a challenge: That I would pour myself into healthy pursuits with the same vigor as I did with those that were injurious to me. Eleven months later, I learn from this journey the invaluable lesson of a lifetime– I do nothing alone.

Today I am the recipient of an eleven month sobriety coin. The coin, naturally, is symbolic of a system of decisions that have benefitted me greatly. Beyond any possible expectations, to be exact. Never would I have guessed the extent of what could be gained by giving up just one thing. I still, to this very day, am unsure of the nature of my relationship with alcohol. Doesn’t matter. What I am unequivocally sure of is that my life is just better without it. And the fact that I am a Type II Diabetic and shouldn’t be boozing it up anyway, pretty much seals the deal. In thirty days I expect to celebrate a full year of sobriety, marking the completion of my greatest challenge to date, but, more importantly, fulfillment of the prophecy that my spirit is capable of incredible things when it is given a chance to soar unfettered by unnecessary distractions. But I do nothing alone.

Along the way I have given to a few special people one of my coins as a talisman. I know it may sound kooky, but I truly do believe these coins possess a certain power: To provide a warming sense of protection to others as I feel they have for me. I have also given them out of sincere gratitude to people who have played key roles in my life– those who have persuaded me to zig at times when my own nature compelled me to want to zag. My eleven month coin will be going my mother and father-in-law, Melanie and Ed Kera.

I must transport myself back in time, all of 33 years, in order to adequately illustrate my admiration for Suki’s parents. At an age when I would have consumed myself with damaging pursuits, these two young Air Force Captains entertained children at an orphanage in South Korea. It was at this same orphanage that they found and fell in love with my wife. Which then set in motion the miraculous chain of events that make me her grateful husband and father to her magnificent daughter today. The history of my relationship with my in-laws is lamentably checked with an unfair share of tumult. As you might imagine, there were circumstances of my youth which didn’t exactly make me an ideal son-in-law. And I, for many years, engaged in a policy of avoidance with them– sharing their daughter with them on little more than an occasional holiday. And then, eleven years ago, my father died.

Funny how tragedy betrays a person’s true nature. As I have said before, my father didn’t leave this Earth in the manner I would have preferred. While I am grateful for having had the experiences he and I had over the last years of his life, a part of me is still searching for a means with which to share with him the perfect goodbye. I will never get this chance. Despite the influx of shock and confusion over the days immediately following his death, I bore witness to the ascension of two stars, whose light shone brightly, and served as an unexpected source of comfort when one was desperately needed. Within a moment’s notice, Ed and Melanie packed up their van and ventured north, to attend with Suki and me the last minute funeral of my father. They covered 1000s of miles and endured great personal sacrifice in order to be with me while I said my own version of a goodbye to my Dad. How do you pay down the debt of gratitude incurred by moments like this? I don’t think you can. Over the years since his death their presence has filled a void left by my Dad’s absence. And with remarkable reliability, their unwavering support of Suki and my little family has been nothing short of breath-takingly beautiful. I truly do believe we are rewriting the rules relating to the son-in-law/father and mother-in-law dynamic. And I am blessed to have them in my life.

As a note, tomorrow will mark the official eleventh month of my sobriety. I stand before you this day a better person than I was 333 days ago. But I am a work in progress. I have recently availed myself to the fact that recovery is not a destination, but, rather, a process. And that it really doesn’t have an end game. BTW, don’t over-think the word “recovery.” Please. Recovery is really just an acknowledgement of a problem, and taking productive measures to correct it. Change is good, right? I’m now involving myself in some new things, the sort of things that I would have once ridiculed. And I’m liking the results. Last night, for the first time in at least a decade, I slept for nine hours. I spent my morning shopping for a new cape. THAT’S HOW GOOD I FEEL!!

But I do nothing alone.

To my friends: I thank you. To my wife: I love you. To Ed and Melanie Kera: I respect you immensely. The vast majority of our best days are ahead of us. And I look forward to proving to you all, once again, that there is no limit to what can be achieved by the human spirit!


Familiarity softens hard lines.

soft lines2It should come to you as no great surprise to learn that I am a country bumpkin at heart. My siblings and I grew up in the countryside, on a little patch of Heaven called Covered Bridge Estates, in very rural Belleville, Illinois. Our youth comprised of little need for shirts or shoes and oftentimes this lack of attire would have applied to my older sister as well. The locus of our activity was often the lake attached to our property. Bear in mind, this was no bucolic “Lake Wobegon” type lake, but, rather, a seven acre man-made hole walled up on one side by an earthen dam. And it was chocked full of large mouth bass, muskrats and Copperhead and Water Moccasin snakes. These last two are significant, as they represent two of the more venomous snakes in southern Illinois. A haven for the moss and algae that grew there in abundance, and which routinely served as a burr in his saddle, the lake’s resiliency to my father’s chemical warfare was more than just impressive. Even the copper sulfate, which he applied liberally, and which is deadly to many fish species, failed to provide positive results. EJ was frustrated, so much so that he pitched to his two young sons the following offer: Manually remove all the offending moss from his lake utilizing any means possible and my brother and I would be rewarded with a week-long stay at an expensive basketball camp. Curt and I were probably about 11-years-old at the time. We were lucky to keep shit out of our pants, much less mastermind a way to extract tons of moss out of a creepy lake. Oh, and here comes the important part– WE WERE TERRIFIED OF THAT LAKE. Regardless, the draw of spending seven days away from home learning how to become the stellar basketball studs that we would never actually amount to was too much of a draw.

The plan was as unsafe as it was simple– get in our john boat, row out to the center of the lake and pull out as much algae as a single summer day would allow. My sister played some sort of managerial role, apparently, but the dirty work would be performed by my brother and me. It would take about two weeks, roughly a 100 or so trips from lake to land and a lifetime’s worth of anxiety to remove all the moss from that lake. In those first few days we dallied with the notion that our basketball camp dreams could be fulfilled by dangling our limbs from the side of the boat and pulling moss a single strand at a time. The lake was too big, and the moss problem too severe for this to be an efficient use of time. Eventually my brother and I would sling ourselves over the side of the boat and heap gobs upon gobs of moss up into the boat with our arms. Terrifying, at first. But, over time, the squish of the mud, caresses from occasional no see-ums, mosquito bites and abject mortification of not knowing what lay below the water line became commonplace. We made pretty tidy work of cleaning up that lake, and the basketball camp reward is a favored childhood memory. But it is now, as an adult, that in the years after we cleaned up that lake that it had transformed itself: No longer was it a receptacle of fear and mystery, it had become a container of joy– a place where my brother and I, along with the neighbor kids as well, would spend hours upon hours splashing away hot summer days.

Familiarity softens hard lines.

You really can’t effectively address a difficult problem until you have fully immersed yourself into becoming an active part of the solution. Over the last 39 years of my life I will admit to having used the following words: Queer, dyke, homo, porch monkey, beaner, polak, gook, camel fucker, retard, and more. I did not have a meaningful relationship with a person of color until I was in the seventh grade. Never knew a single gay person until college. No special needs children. No adherents of any religion outside of Christianity either. And now, almost 40 years later, I find myself lovingly surrounded by the people I would have once used these terms to describe as a younger man. I don’t recall a time ever when I have been more contented with the people who comprise my world. So what about my life changed?

I became old. I also became a father.

Having recently performed a “moral inventory” I have learned about myself the following: I want my world to be one where the default response to any given situation is love and understanding. And I more than just want this world for my daughter. I am crafting it with her. I believe there is a reason why organizations like United States Armed Forces tend to be more racially tolerant than most– that distinctions of difference become blurred once you are forced to work side-by side with someone not matching your definition of “normal.” We all want normalcy. We all want to be loved. We all want to be understood. I remember the day I stopped using the word “retard.” It was the same day the mother of a special needs child told me that her daughter would occasionally cry herself to sleep on days that she would hear this word. I can’t be a part of that problem. So I chose to be a part of the solution. While I am no bleeding heart liberal, don’t embrace the concept of political correctness and absolutely abhor groupthink, I want those around me to feel as good about themselves in their lives as their presence in my life makes me feel about mine.

The fear and indifference of a murky lake can become a joyful place when the unfamiliar is made familiar. And the fostering of love and understanding in this gift we call life can become the default reaction to our everyday experience. If we want it to.





Story of a Spirit Runner:  Gina Ceylan

On her right wrist Gina Ceylan wears a tattoo of the chambered nautilus.  This seashell begins its life as a small, single chamber, which the creature inhabits.  As it grows, it takes in minerals from the surrounding seawater and processes them.  These resources are then used to create additional new chambers in a spiral pattern.  This process is repeated until the creature has created a breath-taking, multi-chambered shell.   According to Gina, the chambered nautilus is “the perfect symbol for the development of the self:  Because we take in our environment, process it and grow.”  Positive growth, for her, requires acknowledging the limitless potential of the future, without forgetting the painful lessons learned from the past.

My first encounter with Gina took place three summers ago, on Columbia’s MKT trail.  She sped towards me at the Twin Lakes junction, just west of the Forum Trail Head.  Gina is what I and other running mortals refer to as a “gazelle”– Her stride looks effortless, and her gaze propels her forward with the confidence of a jet fighter pilot.  A few days later I was imbibing at my favorite watering hole, Bengal’s, when a woman identical to the one I had just seen on the MKT entered the patio section of the bar.  Uncanny in her exact likeness, including a very distinct tattoo on her left knee, but with one very significant difference—this person was aided by a cane.  The sort ordinarily reserved for the blind. 

It took several years and a steady diet of serendipity before I could confirm that these two people were indeed one in the same.  My friend Misty became familiar with Gina’s story through a video she had seen about people living very productive lives despite serious physical or mental disabilities and was able to confirm her name.  I learned that Gina kept an office at MU Disabilities Services and forwarded a carefully-worded email to their general delivery address.  Serendipity struck again no fewer than four minutes later when my email was responded to by none other than a past Couch to 3.1 group member, Traci Ballew!  Traci assured me that Gina would receive my request for an interview amicably and that she would forward my contact information on to her.  By day’s end, Misty and I had secured a meeting with the very riddle of the running world that had managed to capture my imagination for so many years.

As suspected, there is nothing ordinary or unimpressive about Gina Ceylan, and our meeting with her buttressed this expectation.  We were scheduled to meet at Ragtag after Misty and I ran a frosty four-miler near Flatbranch Park.  While Misty carped about where to park her land yacht, I managed to lose both of my pinky fingers.  Neither of us thought about bringing a tape recorder.  We should have.  Gina was waiting for us at a table with her husband, Suvesh and their friend.  She began our discussion by detailing for us her academic background:  She started college at the age of 16, graduated from the College of Charleston with an MS in marine geophysics (undersea volcanoes) and is currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Missouri, studying science education, working on improving inclusion in college science education for students with diverse students, especially those with diverse abilities.  She hopes to one day teach earth sciences at the college level.  Her travels and life experiences have taken her to all parts of the globe, oceans included—where she has probed the deepest and darkest of Earth’s waters observing aquatic life in a submersible vessel conducting research as a marine biologist.   Given the nature of her disability, exploration of dark unknowns serves as the perfect metaphor for a blind person possessing such an adventurous spirit as Gina’s.    

Our questions immediately took a turn to her retinal degeneration, and how she became an avid runner.  At this point in our interview Misty and I huddled around our interviewee as if she were a campfire and our faces warmed themselves off of the flames of her words. We were captivated!  It’s important to note that Gina isn’t just legally blind.  Gina is as blind as bat.  Born with a rare genetic retinal condition, which was accelerated by the presence of oxygen delivered to her during her neonatal care as a newborn, her vision loss began at the birth.  She was pronounced legally blind at the age of 12 and rated 20/2800 (140 times worse than a person possessing 20/20) by the time she hit 20.  Now 27, Gina’s vision has diminished so much over the past seven years that it can no longer be rated by any standardized visual acuity chart.   

My burning eagerness to ask this question must have been obvious, as Misty would remark about it later.  “What do you see when you run?” I asked.  Prior to our meeting, I was trying to get in to Gina’s head during our frosty Flatbranch run.  It was night, so it was very dark and I had not packed a headlamp.  I wondered if this darkness was a fair representation of what her sight permits her to perceive while she is running.  Not even close. Gina explained, “When my eyes are open I see a bright, flashing strobe light.  It’s a constantly pulsing beam of light, with a blue tint to it.”  It’s actually quite painful for her to run using her eyes.  And, incredibly, she doesn’t need them anyway.   The outdoor places that her running takes her have all been committed to memory:  The MKT Trail, the MU Recreation Center, even downtown Columbia.   And she runs a lot—five to seven miles each day, usually seven days a week.  She’s quite the speedster too:  Usually averaging an 8 to 8:30 minute/mile pace, depending upon the type of music she’s listening too.  She runs fastest to punk rock.   

Gina doesn’t run with her eyes.  Gina runs with her spirit, and harbors no bitterness about losing her vision:  “I actually quite enjoy it.  I appreciate non-visual perception, thought and understanding, and I wouldn’t trade it for 20/20.  Although I still have some light and motion detecting ability, if I attempt to ‘see’ anything it causes intense pain, so I avoid this as much as possible.  My condition is degenerative, so I used to have better vision, and I’m aware of colors and other visual concepts that many people attach great importance to.  Eventually, I’ll be totally blind, and I’m looking forward to it.”  Gina loves running, and she uses it and her non-visual senses to transport her mind to the sort of gorgeous places that the physical body cannot go.  Oftentimes I am too literal, usually to a fault.  Being all-too-familiar with the perils of running on the MKT Trail, I still couldn’t understand how all of the traffic, potholes, tree limbs, dogs, people and numerous other dangers omnipresent in our community didn’t keep her running somewhere safer, like a treadmill.  So I asked her, “How do you continue forward?”  Her response was simplicity personified: “I fall a lot.”  Running, for Gina, is the “art of staying vertical.”  While the scrapes on her body were proof that her running was no masterpiece, the purity of what drives her onward could not be questioned:  Gina is a spirit runner.

In addition to her own adventurous spirit, Gina also credits her community with helping her overcome the challenges presented by her disability.  “Humans have amazing ways of compensating for weaknesses.  Changing those you surround yourself with can expose you to creative new ways of thinking about what you are capable of.”  For Gina this meant introducing herself to other disabled people who held shared passions, made her feel valued and provided her with support.  Obviously, this concept of community applies marvelously well to our own running community—as long as we can continue to show up for one another, support each other’s progress and see everyone through to the finish line, that this rising tide of community spirit will lift all of our boats.

On her left wrist, Gina wears another tattoo.  This one a quote, written in Greek:  “Hope without fear without regret.”  For as long as I can remember we have been preaching to our teams that the majority of our own limitations are entirely self-imposed.  And I know that many of us, Misty and me included, go through the motions of buying in to this mantra, but in the back of our minds we still have questions lingering about what we are actually capable of accomplishing.  This is why a person like Gina Ceylan is so crucial to our athletic endeavors, and why an accurate telling of her life is so critically important:  Anything is possible when you permit your spiritual mind to triumph over your physical body.  Training for distance isn’t so much about preparing your body for the taxing rigors of long miles, but, rather, preparing your mind to put your body in a place where it is tough enough to endure them.  There are a number of smart ways to address this:  Adhering to the principles of commitment and sacrifice, listening to your body and knowing when to give yourself a break when it needs one and supporting your fellow teammates with your kind words, deeds and actions.   

It is very right and natural for you to envy Gina Ceylan, as her spirit has elevated her to heights that some of us may never achieve.  She runs on a trail she cannot see, while smelling flowers surviving only in her memories and hearing the songs of birds that those of us possessing sight might have ignored.  And she does this fearlessly.  Gina’s life illustrates the vastness of your potential while reinforcing the fact that there is nothing that cannot be accomplished by the human spirit.  If you think you can, you probably will. If you think your can’t your probably right.  And always remember that our running is a gift.  So let’s savor it.