The Penguin Chronicles: Junkyard Dogs

It's never easy, but the climb to better health is always worth it. Illustration: Neil Numberman

Taking control of your life and making changes to improve yourself is the way to go.

In the old days there were junkyards. Acres of cars in various states of disrepair. If you needed a new starter for your car, you could take the old one off and head to the junkyard. A man in oil-stained overalls would point you in the direction of a car similar to yours, and you would exchange your starter for one that you were pretty sure worked. It was recycling before we knew about recycling.

Of course, at some point all of these dilapidated cars were brand new, and at some point all of these cars were purchased by people with great hope and enthusiasm. Now, they sat in a sea of forgotten vehicles.

It made me wonder what makes people give up on their cars. Is it when a headlight burns out and you don’t replace it? Is it when it just won’t start and you don’t have the time, interest or money to find out what’s wrong? And when do you finally say it’s time to send that car to the junkyard?

And then I wondered when do we give up on ourselves? When do we stop having hope or dreams and send ourselves to a physical, emotional or spiritual junkyard? Is it when we hit some weight threshold? Is it when we get to a certain age? Or is it when we feel like life has put too many miles on our spirit?

RELATED: The Penguin Chronicles: A Body In Motion

As I look back at my journey from eager, ambitious young musician to jaded, middle-aged university administrator, I realize that there wasn’t one moment at which I gave up on myself and my dreams. It wasn’t a cliff. It was that slippery slope that everyone talks about.

When I couldn’t get into pants with a 34-inch waist, I bought pants with a 36-inch waist. Then, 38 inches. Then, 40 inches. Could I, at 36 inches, have said that I wasn’t going to allow myself to keep gaining weight? Of course I could. Did I? No.

When I went from smoking a few cigarettes a day to a pack of cigarettes a day to a pack and a half a day, did red flags go up and alarm bells sound? No, I simply stopped buying cigarettes by the pack and started buying them by the carton.

I had accepted that my days of dreaming were behind me. I had accepted that by my 40s I was settled into the life I would have forever. To paraphrase the great philosopher Popeye, “I was what I was and that’s all that I was.” And, I thought, all that I would ever be.

Then, I took my first steps toward a new life. I walked some. I ran some. It didn’t feel great. It wasn’t a monumental leap back. It was a slow and sometimes painful climb back up that slippery slope. There were days, weeks and years of going three steps forward and sliding two steps back. There were successes and failures. There were moments of exhilaration and desperation. But through it all I had a clear sense that I was going in the right direction.

Like someone who finds an old car and lovingly restores it, I was restoring myself. I thought I was only restoring my body. I thought I was making my body healthier. I discovered, though, that the changes in my body were nothing compared to the changes in my soul.

I had hope again. It might seem modest to some people, but I hoped I could run an entire mile. I had dreams again. I dreamed of the day when I could run a 5K. And I had ambition again. I wanted to be able to run a 5K in less than 30 minutes.

It’s sad to give up on a car. It’s sadder still to give up on yourself. It takes more than a couple of wrenches from Sears, but we all can restore ourselves with just our own two feet.

RELATED: The Penguin Chronicles: When I’m 64

This column first appeared in the September 2013 issue of Competitor magazine.

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