Thursday, November 17, 2011

On becoming a man of merit

I often joke with my friends that I’m having a mid-life crisis. The year before my 40th birthday I took dramatic steps to get back into shape. I lost a total of 160 pounds. I started and maintained a five-day-per-week gym schedule, getting back the strength I’d lost and then some. And I found myself a soul mate – an amazing, beautiful person 12 years my junior who is the perfect complement to my revitalized, youthful outlook on life.

The week before the big 4-0, we quit our jobs and set out together on a two-week trip, driving up the eastern seaboard, visiting family and a variety of friends I’d not seen or heard from since childhood, en route to Massachusetts, where we decided to stay for a while as we prepare for our next big move.

Once we’d doused the burning cake to avoid what could have become the epic fire of August 9, 2011, I realized it wasn’t enough for me to simply be fit at 40. I needed to find something to do with my newfound fitness. I’m not in it for the looks, that’s for sure. That ship sailed long ago! No, I needed to find a constructive and entertaining activity that would help me maintain my fitness level so I could keep up with my feisty 27-year-old collaborator for many years to come.

I considered joining a rugby team, but that idea lasted all but two seconds. I found out that beer and drunken mischief played as big a part in the rugby lifestyle as the sport itself, and I wasn’t willing to substitute my former food addiction for alcoholism, thank you very much! So I began to scour my memories for the passions of my youth.

As a kid, I remember spending every waking hour that wasn’t spent in school outside riding my bike and hiking through the woods around my rural-suburban Virginia neighborhood. I’d walk and ride for hours, getting lost, and then finding my way back home. Once home, I’d read maps and try to find connections between the places I’d been and the places I wanted to go. And I’d dream about the day I’d finally have the freedom to set out on my own path, blaze my own trail and become the man I wanted to be.

I was what I’d call a social loner. I loved my time alone, reading and wondering, and wandering. But I was also externally focused, desperately seeking approval from others, while not always getting the passing grade. I was a Boy Scout, though not a terribly successful one. And I was a youth leader in the YMCA, working as a summer camp counselor throughout high school and during the first couple of years of college.

But as most adults will know, youthful passions are often times squelched by the competing new demands of young adulthood. Before starting out on my career in journalism, I spent several weeks backpacking across central Mexico, from Cuernavaca to Puerto Vallarta, exploring Michoacán and other hidden Sierra Madre mountain towns and countrysides along the way. But by the time I got back to the states and got to work, there was less and less time for exploring. And as I bellied up to my desk day after day, my belly grew, and my appetite for adventure, while not satiated, had somehow slipped away.

So if this is a mid-life crisis, hooray! Because it’s a mid-life crisis that’s reminding me of the boy I once was and the man he wanted to become. These past 15 years spent indoors haven’t been a total wash – I’ve built leadership skills, earning a master’s degree in education and teaching English and life skills to hundreds of adults, who, I hope, are further along their own paths to lives of self-sufficiency and happiness because of my efforts. But now is my time to focus on me, to continue to develop the outdoors skills I need in order to do the kinds of things the kid in me is yearning to do.

This blog will follow my mission to become a man of merit, a man worthy of his place in the world, a contributor. The beginning of this journey will have me finishing some of the goals of youth I once left behind but never forgot. The first of these goals is to do what it takes to earn a few Boy Scout merit badges I never got a chance to complete – particularly the ones in hiking, backpacking, camping and emergency preparedness.

Not that it's a regret, but I quit scouts much too soon, primarily because I was struggling with my identity as a young teen, and the Boy Scouts in the mid 1980s was just too repressive for me to handle. But with the awkward struggles of youth well behind me, I can now focus on the skills instead of the scandal. And I'm ready to accomplish some things that should have been accomplished long before now!

So here goes! I’ll start with the merit badge for hiking. Planning and carrying out several long-distance hikes – including a 20-mile hike in a single day – is cornerstone of this badge. And tomorrow I’m setting out for my first 10-mile hike, along the Skyline Trail in the Blue Hills just south of Boston. I’ve been working up to this point, having hiked at least 20 miles per week for the past month. Still, my longest hike to date has been just over six miles, so I’m prepared, but anxious to set out on the trail. I’ll blog again post-hike to let you know how things go.

But this is just the beginning, a start to a book that's yet unwritten. And there's lots of ink in the pen! I hope you'll read and encourage me in my journey. It's no fun to go it alone!

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