Top 5: It’s Not a Phase, Mom

According to the Census Bureau, the average American spends six hours per day pursuing a hobby or leisure activity.

For me, it’s more like 24.

You see, my entire life has consisted of a series of phases. I’ll develop an interest in something, learn about it, and then spend every waking moment incorporating that thing into my life. It’s not enough for me to just do the hobby; I need to become the hobby.

I wear hobbies like personas, and these personas are constantly changing. I loved costumes as a kid; I’d spend all week walking around in my dad’s old Boy Scout uniform or wearing a plastic badge and aviators pretending to be a cop. Then, when something else caught my attention, I’d take that thing on with my full being.

The thing is, I didn’t grow out of this never-ending game of dress up. I’m almost 35 years old and I still do it. It’s embarrassing to admit, honestly, but people who have been close to me long enough know my secret.

“Ah, I see we’re in Hemingway mode today,” my wife will say when I come out of the bedroom wearing a linen fishing shirt and espadrilles, or “looks like I’m going to dinner with Lumberjack Sam” when I emerge wearing a Filson waxed jacket and Red Wing work boots.

As I’ve aged, the changes have become more subtle. Some hobbies stick — like hunting and writing — while others fall away after a brief and intense affair.

Here’s the Top 5 most hilarious phases of my adult life. If you knew me during these times, you probably saw them.

5 – Gym Rat (January 2007)

I didn’t have much going for me after I graduated from college. I couldn’t get a job as a newspaper reporter, so to make ends meet I worked as a guitar salesman in Rockville, Maryland. The pay was shit and the hours were long, and I spent most of my free time feeling awful about myself. I subsisted primarily on beef jerky, Hot Tamales, and Red Bull, and was down to about 145 pounds.

I decided I’d join the gym because it would give me something to do other than lying in bed watching The Notebook and moping.

Along with my three-month membership to Golds, I purchased two books: Weight Training For Dummies and Sly Moves – My Proven Program to Lose Weight, Build Strength, Gain Will Power and Live Your Dream. Yeah, that’s right. That second one is by Sylvester Stallone, because obviously my fitness icon is a fictional boxer with a learning disability.

I went to the gym every morning for two hours before work, but my obsession didn’t stop there. I jettisoned my beef jerky and Red Bull and ate grilled chicken, brown rice and broccoli for every meal. Every. Meal.

I also spent a buttload of money at GNC buying supplements: Muscle Milk protein shakes, some pre-workout called Red Line that made me feel like I could tear apart steel girders with my bare hands, and of course, Creatine. I knew absolutely nothing about Creatine other than it tasted like shit and it helped Mark McGuire hit home runs. But I didn’t have to adhere to MLB drug policies, so why not?

Even when I wasn’t at the gym, I’d exercise whenever I could, stopping in the middle of a conversation to rip off 30 push ups or doing squats on my lunch break. I carried around a 25 lb dumbbell with me so I could do curls during down time, the way I carry a book with me now.

All of this stuff worked. In two months, I gained 20 pounds of muscle and was in what continues to be the best shape of my life.

But a 15-hour-per-week gym routine isn’t sustainable in the long run, and I burnt out pretty fast. When it came time to renew my three-month membership, I let it expire. By then, I’d already moved on to another thing to distract me from my miserable life.

I’ve tried the gym again since, but have realized I much prefer watching Rocky to actually working out.

4 – Vegan (August – September 2017)

Let me make one thing clear: I love meat. I love all manner of meat. But you know what I love more than meat?

Cheese.

For the longest time, I couldn’t imagine a meal that wasn’t slathered in some form of cheese; shredded, sliced, or canned. A favorite afternoon snack was a plate of Goldfish crackers topped with melted cheddar.

But all that cheese, combined with a slowing metabolism and a new job with unlimited access to craft beer, started to make me feel awful. I decided I needed to make a change and give my digestive system a break.

Did I cut back on the fatty foods, incorporate more fruits and veggies and develop a more balanced diet?

Hell no. I swung the complete other way. I went vegan.

I have to say, it really wasn’t that bad. I solicited advice on recipes and meatless alternatives from my vegan brethren and managed to avoid all meat and dairy products for a full four weeks. The only thing I couldn’t manage to choke down was slices of tofu, the consistency of which is so slimy and spongy it left me reaching for a block of Kraft Singles.

My veganism came to an abrupt end the weekend of Labor Day when I attended my friend’s annual barbecue contest. I tried for a few hours to remain vigilant, but the intoxicating scent of a dozen smoked pork butts proved to be too tempting. I caved like a copper mine in Chile.

I haven’t completely turned my back on meatless products. I’m very much looking forward to the day more fast food joints will offer Impossible burgers on their menu. But best believe I’ll be ordering one with two big ol’ slices of cheese on it.

3 – Fixed Gear Bike Hipster (April 2007)

Remember how I said I abandoned my gym rat phase because I’d moved on to other interests? That alluring mistress was the sexy frame of the fixed-gear bicycle.

Fixies came into vogue in the mid-aughts among the urban hipster set, who’d use these absurd death machines to traverse the streets of Brooklyn and Richmond. I’m told they provide some sort of advantage over free wheel bikes, but I still have absolutely no idea what that advantage is.

I bought a used fixie from my friend Chris on a whim because he needed money. It was a rickety piece of shit, but it was painted baby blue and looked cool as hell.

I had no idea what I was getting into, other than the fact that cool kids were riding this specific kind of bike. I learned pretty quickly that fixies turned the phrase “like riding a bike” into an ironic simile of death.

For the unaccustomed, a fixie is a bicycle whose propulsion mechanism (the chain and sprockets) are “fixed” to the rear wheel. Unlike a free wheel bicycle, which is the kind you have rusting in your garage right now, a fixie’s rear wheel only turns when the pedals are turning.

“Where’re the brakes?” I asked Chris when he wheeled out my new toy.

“You don’t need brakes,” he said. “Brakes are lame.”

“I don’t understand. How do you stop?”

“You just pedal slower.”

Duh, of course. Pedal slower. Why didn’t I think of that?

The whole no brakes thing didn’t seem like a big deal until I rode around the neighborhood and tried to coast down a hill for the first time. The pedals bucked beneath me and slapped me in the shins. And then I veered off the road, slammed into the curb, and flew over the handlebars.

Fortunately, no one witnessed the first bike accident I’d sustained since I was four, and I picked myself up, wiped the gravel out of my bleeding elbows, and tried again. I wasn’t about to give up on my $150 investment on my maiden voyage.

I thought maybe I’d enjoy my new bike more if I committed more fully to the fixie-owner aesthetic. So I bought a big-ass bike lock, a hundred dollar messenger bag and one of those dorky-looking racer caps. I walked around with one pant leg cuffed to show everyone I was worried about it getting stuck in my chain.

I did everything except, you know, ride the thing. Traumatized by my fall, I kept most of my bike journeys to the night time on hill-less routes, when I was less likely to lose control and go careening into traffic.

Chris put my misguided foray out of its misery when he asked me three weeks later if he could buy his bike back. I made it seem like I was disappointed he more or less used me as a pawn shop, but was secretly relieved I could end my fixie hipster phase without losing face.

I still have a bike that I occasionally ride with the kids, but it is a free-wheel model so I can coast whenever I please. I never roll my pant leg up when I ride it, and you know what? It’s never once gotten stuck in the chain.

2 – Golf Guy (Summer 2007)

If you’ve been a loyal follower of my site, you know I’ve written about golf before in my essay “Obviously, You’re Not a Golfer.” In that story, I recounted my experience as a high school golf coach who attempted to hide my lack of ability with color-coordinated golf outfits and excuses to not swing the club.

This was actually the second time I went through a golf phase. The first time was way more pathetic.

Back in 2007 (it was a rough year, okay?), I decided any suburban man worth his salt should know how to play the game of golf. It started as kind of a joke, when my friend Rick took me golfing and all I brought was a hockey stick and a 30 pack of Keystone. But I found I enjoyed something about the experience. The joy of being outdoors and feeling the sun on my face, the beauty of the course’s architecture, the unspoken challenge of drinking a beer per hole. Recently scarred by my attempts at weight training and cycling, I decided golf would be my new recreation.

The thing about golf is that, like most masculine recreational endeavors, it is an endless money pit. Golf doesn’t have a high start-up cost; it has a high everything cost.

I was a smart (read: broke) consumer, and I knew there must be more cost-effective ways to accumulate gear than plopping down a grand at Sports Authority for a set of clubs. So I did my research and bought a used set of Titleists on eBay for a couple hundred bucks.

I spent the rest of my money on clothes. Because duh, I didn’t want to go out to some course looking like a novice in a regular cotton polo shirt and a pair of shorts. I needed golf-specific clothing. I mean, you wouldn’t play football in a baseball jersey, would you?

My downfall in the clothing department was that I drew my sartorial inspiration not from average-looking golfers like Phil Mickelson or Jason Day; I decided I wanted to dress like Tour-newbie Rickie Fowler.

Over the years, Fowler has toned down his look, but back in ‘07, he dressed for every tournament like a pack of highlighters exploded in his wash. His typical Sunday attire was day-glo orange, head to toe.

This was the young man I decided to base my fashion decisions upon.

Have you ever been somewhere and spotted the poser in the group? He’s the guy with the boating gear that still has the tags on it, the fresh North Face tent he has no idea how to assemble? That was me whiffing on the first tee.

My goal should have been to blend in as much as possible, to hide behind whites and grays. Instead, I was the asshole you could see from four holes away, hunting for his ball in the woods wearing a matching lime green hat and shirt.

After a few hundred dollars in green fees that summer, I did get better, but I found my golf prowess was never enough to warrant my absurd wardrobe. It ended up in the Goodwill bin where it belonged…at least until I dusted off my clubs in 2016 to coach a group of high school boys how to play a game in which I was barely proficient.

1 – Wannabe WASP (2009-2014)

This was the longest of my sartorial obsessions, extending through my final years at the guitar shop and into my first few years of teaching. I’m not exactly sure how it began, but I fell in love with preppy clothes.

I decided I wanted to start dressing like a villain in an ‘80s teen movie. Seriously. I’m talking pink polo over green polo, both collars popped, v-neck tennis sweater around my shoulders. I wasn’t just the president of Summer’s Eve, I was also a client.

I had a lot of fun curating my wardrobe. Many of the pieces were thrift shop finds: original Harris Tweed sport coats, a bright red Gloverall duffle coat with toggle fasteners, Brooks Brothers oxfords in more colors than Jay Gatsby. I could play any preppy character I desired, from stodgy Harvard professor to Jack Kennedy on the water in Hyannisport. Not surprisingly, my soundtrack consisted almost exclusively of Vampire Weekend.

Two things happened that shifted my focus from becoming the Absolute Prep:

1 – I realized the thing I loved about preppy clothes was not wearing them, but finding them. Within three years, I had more or less accomplished my mission of accumulating every possible piece of preppy ephemera within my price range. You can only buy so many striped grosgrain belts and madras bow ties before you realize the reason you’re coveting the one on the J Crew mannequin is because you already have two just like it. One day I looked in my closet and discovered I owned five white Brooks Brothers oxfords and four blue ones. Like most things in life, once you attain your goal, there’s only one way to go, and it ain’t up.

2 – Over the course of my quest, I made big changes in my life. I left the guitar shop and got a teaching job. I ended unhealthy relationships and found a partner who was right for me. I was happy and fulfilled for the first time in years.

Now, this would suggest the reason I stopped helping Ralph Lauren renovate his estate was due to some lofty revelation; I found happiness in work and relationships instead of possessions.

But that wasn’t why. The truth was, it’s because I got happy and started eating more than just beef jerky and Hot Tamales. All those clothes, those teeny, tiny slim-fit smalls didn’t fit me anymore.

Once, I split the crotch of my favorite J Press khakis at school and realized I wasn’t a well-dressed waif anymore. I was just a normal-sized teacher in a meaningful relationship, and it was okay to dress like it.

I have a lot of jeans and t-shirts now, and I’m fine with it.

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