One set of workout clothes, one empty mayonnaise jar, one plastic garbage bag, one slightly-crazed helping of enthusiasm. This is my plan, probably minus the mayonnaise jar (I use an actual water bottle) and the plastic garbage bag (too crinkly and distracting). Starting this morning, I kicked my Tastykake habit to the curb and began my early-morning sessions at my local Y. I set my alarm for 4:15 am, turn on the coffee, slip into my gym clothes, and am on the indoor track, with some Radiohead in my ears by 4:45. I run/walk for 45 minutes, do some planks, relax in the sauna and head home by 6, to wake my sleeping family and get ready for my work day. This has been my habit on and off for the last five years or so, but winter, especially around the holidays, always seems to knock me off course. The body wants to hibernate and pack on the pounds for a long sleep, but we have to resist the urge. I quit drinking almost six months ago, and had an overly-optimistic idea that this fact alone would allow me to magically shed weight. But I made up for my steady diet of wine and beer with other substitutes, namely root beer, pizza, and slice and bake cookies. And the occasional box of swirly frosted cupcakes.
But as I watched Silver Linings Playbook for about the fourth time a few weeks ago, I realized that it doesn’t take much to change your life’s course. One of the reasons I think I’m a Buddhist is that I don’t really believe in the soul. I’ve never been convinced that there is some kind of inherent, untouchable me-ness to me. I seem instead to define myself simply by my likes and dislikes. In this age of self-curation, this is what most of us do, I think. The ever-present facebook “like” is the defining gesture of our day. I’ve always had a weak sense of self, easily swayed by other’s beliefs and actions, which may explain why at such a young age I believed that drinking would make me cool. I followed other people’s examples and twenty years went by, unthinking. I’m still swayed by three-star reviews in Rolling Stone. Almost any criticism of a work of art that I love will make me second-guess myself. And yet, works of art can inspire me for my own good. My weak self also responds to motivation. Like the kid I was who actually believed he was Han Solo, so I also, even in adulthood, find it easy to take on the character traits and motivations of others. Bradley Cooper’s character in Silver Linings, with his minimalist approach to better health, inspired me to put down my bad habits, don the metaphorical plastic bag, and get out on the road. Or at least the indoor track.
The larger theme here is really: what makes us who we are? If our true self only materializes when it bumps up against things we either like or not, then might we be less fixed than we think? But if we are more than our likes and dislikes, then where is that immutable core of our self? If one day I’m sitting on the couch eating an entire pizza and drinking three A&Ws, but the next day I’m in workout clothes running before the sun comes up, which one is the real me? Or do we refine our life as we live, burning off the excess baggage until we become a fine-tempered instrument, beyond birth and death? Maybe the reason I’ve always been drawn to the details, fictional or not, of other people’s lives, is my belief that if I just adopt a few utilitarian rules, I can finally refine myself. Maybe I think a pair of old gray sweats, a water bottle, some running, and a little enthusiasm will be enough to turn the corner on my lethargy and self-sabotage. Or maybe it’s late, and I should just go to bed. The coffee is ready to brew, and 4:15 am comes early.