Decades

January 16, 1998, is a significant date in my personal history. That date marks a dramatic change in the trajectory of my life story.

Prior to that date, I was on course for disaster. I liked to imagine that the disaster looming on the horizon would be dramatic and sensational, but in reality it was more likely to be simply mediocre and sad.

But I went in a different direction.

Since that time, I recommitted to living life without the use of drugs, and all sorts of new possibilities have arisen. As I look back at the twenty-year journey, it’s convenient to think about it in terms of five-year segments.

In the first five years, I finished high school, left my small hometown of ~5,000 people, and began my post-secondary studies at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois. I studied English for Secondary Education, imagining myself becoming a high-school English teacher and having summers off to write. But I found it difficult to be a “normal” college student, and I convinced myself that I needed to live off campus, have a car to drive, and so on. Soon, the life expenses I had outside of school became such a priority to me that I was working more than attending class. I eventually realized, with the help of some guidance from an experienced friend, that it would be wise to leave the expensive private educational institution and consider a more affordable public institution. I moved closer to home–to Champaign, Urbana–and spent a little time repaying some debts that had accumulated during my time in Peoria. I began taking classes at the local community college in order to have enough credits to transfer to the university. I began work at Espresso Royale, which played a pretty significant role in my life over the years to follow.

Shortly after I reached 5 years clean, I transferred to the University of Illinois. I continued in my pattern of working too much to be as successful as possible at school, which meant I spent more time and money at the U of I than I needed to, and my GPA also suffered. But I completed my bachelor’s degree in 2006. I had been involved in service to the organization that helped me remain drug-free, and I learned of a job opening within the organization that was perfectly matched to my skills and experience. I left my coffee-shop job of half a decade and left the Midwest, arriving in Southern California with about 8 years clean and a long-distance relationship with a woman in Illinois. Once I got my feet under me at the new job, I paid off my car, bought a motorcycle, and enrolled in a Master’s program in English at Cal State Northridge (CSUN).

I spent my 10-year anniversary in the hospital. I had crashed the motorcycle: I broke my left wrist, fractured my right elbow, cracked a rib and had a laceration on my liver, and had a few stitches around my right eye. Prior to that date, I’d never broken a bone or had a stitch. I guess I was making up for lost time! It took a few months to fully recover from that accident, as my brain had gone a little soft for a while there. The symptoms of that were pretty scary to those around me, but I thought they were just being dramatic. When I viewed video evidence later–which I still have a hard time viewing–I realized they were right to be worried! I ended up getting back to work and back to my classes at CSUN, and a couple years later I had a Master’s degree, a long-distance marriage, and a divorce under my belt. The belt was also a larger one, as most of the reading and writing I did in support of my master’s degree took place at Denny’s. (For real.) I weighed nearly 250 pounds when I crossed the stage to collect my master’s degree.

Mom came to California to see me walk in my graduation ceremony–she had been losing weight and said it had something to do with cat-scratch fever she got from one of the strays living in her garage or basement. Six months later, we learned that it wasn’t cat-scratch fever. Mom had stage 3 breast cancer. The prognosis was supposed to be reasonably good, but Mom kept acting like her own nurse and ended up with an infection. I had the privilege of bringing my nephews home to Illinois to visit for Christmas that year. She was always happiest when she was spending time with her grandkids. We flew back to California on January 1st, and Mom’s infection ended up spreading to her blood later that week. She passed away on January 7th, 2012.

By the time I reached 15 years clean, I had recently finished working with my brothers and sisters to get the home we grew up in prepared to be sold. Between the sale of the house and a modest life insurance policy, we each got a small inheritance from Mom’s passing. Knowing my own spending habits, I knew that it would be easy to nickel-and-dime that money away very quickly if I didn’t do something smarter with it right away, and so I became a first-time homeowner in 2013 when I bought a condo in Canoga Park, California.

After Mom’s passing, I had also renewed past efforts to get fit, and so I had joined a marathon training group. (I wasn’t sure whether I really intended to run a marathon… I was just tired of stalling out in doing the “Couch to 5k” training on my own.) Around the time I bought the condo, I also completed my first marathon, and then first half marathon, and then second marathon, and then … and then… and then. I also started teaching part-time at the local community college to supplement my earnings from the nonprofit. In the following few years, I served on the board of directors for the running club that made marathons possible for me–the L.A. Leggers. I served as a pace group mentor, as the newsletter editor, and as the club president. I am deeply grateful for the gifts they gave me–and they keep on giving. With some nudging from a fellow Legger who served as a mentor with me, I signed up for an Ironman in 2014. As I had done with the marathon, I signed up first, and I worried about getting ready next. In Cozumel, Mexico, on Thanksgiving weekend 2014, I swam 2.4 miles, biked 112 miles, and ran (and walked) 26.2 miles to collect an Ironman finisher’s medal after 15 hours and 44 minutes of exertion.

By the time I finished my second Ironman in October 2015, I had gone on several dates with an incredibly fascinating woman named Aisha. We took a weekend trip together to Rosarito, Mexico, in early November. As with the marathon and Ironman, I decided to sign up first and worry about getting ready next. We became parents of the most amazing human being I have ever met, Eugene Robert Corning, on August 3rd, 2016.

As fate would have it, I was offered a full-time, tenure-track teaching position at the community college starting the same month Gene was born. After ten years of wonderful, difficult, joyous, challenging, uplifting, and heartbreaking years of work with the nonprofit, I said my good-byes and switched over to full-time teaching.

Gene was just a few months old when my dad called from Illinois to tell me he had been diagnosed with leukemia. Within a few weeks, we were in Illinois for Thanksgiving, and Gene got to meet his Grandpa Corning in the oncology unit at the same hospital where I’d been born. After a few months of intense treatment, Dad appeared to be free of the cancer cells. Then, in May, he called again and said they’d been mistaken. I don’t know whether Dad was optimistic or in denial, but each time I talked to him, it sounded like he had plenty of time to work with. Then, in July 2017, my Aunt Vicki–Dad’s sister–called and told me to come home. Aisha, Gene, and I were able to get home by the next morning, adn I spent the majority of the next several days at the side of Dad’s hospital bed, letting him know that it was okay for him to go. In the early afternoon on the 4th of July, I held my hand on his chest as he took his final breath. My family, once again, was an incredible source of support and strength as we proceeded to bury him and say our good-byes.

Because education seems to factor so much into the thread of the narrative of this 20-year journey, it only makes sense that I enrolled in a doctoral program at CSUN in the fall of 2017. As of the time that I reached the 20-year mark of abstinence from drugs (including alcohol), I am one semester into a 3-year educational doctorate (Ed.D.) program. Just like with the marathon and ironman, and now parenthood, so long as I stay above ground and keep moving forward, everything’s going to be okay.

I didn’t really mean to write this much. And when I stopped using drugs, I really couldn’t imagine being blessed with this much. As a teenager, I was burning every bridge I could find and slamming shut all the doors of opportunity. I had no idea how privileged or fortunate I was, until I stopped shutting out the privilege and fortune. Since getting clean, life has been incredibly good to me. As I continue on to the next 5-year, 10-year, 20-year period of living and enjoying life without the use of drugs, my goal is to continue looking for ways to carry that goodness forward to help others. For all of you who have been a part of this journey, Thank You. For those of you who are not yet part of my journey, how can I help?

Posted in Blog Entries | 5 Comments

Good Bye, Dad

On Tuesday, July 4th, my father passed away.

Here is what I read at his memorial service:

Dad and Odie

Dad and Odie

When I was a child, my dad was my hero. I suppose that is true for many children. We envision our fathers being strong like Superman, brave like Batman, and inspiring like… Superman and Batman. Like so many other children, I built a pedestal of epic proportions for my father to stand on. As those of you who know and love dad know all too well, the archenemies he fought were epic in their own right. These enemies were powerful enough that I was still just a child when they managed to knock dad from the pedestal I had created for him. But we all know what happens in a hero’s tale–in spite of the setbacks, the hero will win in the end.

I knew my dad was strong when I was a child because he could walk on his hands. He could hold my sister up on one hand while she stood proud as wonder woman, arms out at her sides. Dad gave us piggy back rides and taught us “dog pile on Spencer!” Dad could pick us up in the pool and throw us to the deep end like we were rag dolls. Later, I saw how strong he was in how he endured setback after setback. Sometimes, the mistakes were his own doing. Superheroes who go looking for their archenemies aren’t always well prepared for the fight that follows. There were other times, though, when the enemies showed up unannounced, and they brought kryptonite. After every battle, he got back up again. With his scrapes and bruises, he picked up the pieces and trudged on.

That was how I saw his bravery. No matter how badly he’d been injured in his battles, he got up again, reached out to his close friends and family, and asked for help to move on. Fighting with enemies takes a great deal of courage in itself; crawling back to your family and friends, cape in hand, and asking for support requires an entirely different sort of courage. Some of his battle scars never went away, and other wounds took years to heal. All too often, the people who loved him and supported him most were also injured in the crossfire. Sometimes his bravery showed in how he ventured off on his own, changing jobs and changing cities like he was retreating to a fortress of solitude.

Through all of this, dad served as an inspiration to many. During my childhood, he inspired me and my siblings to dream big and chase those dreams. Especially in those times when he was able to soar, he made us believe we could fly. Dad inspired others, too—he made friends everywhere he went, and nearly every person who knew him could say that he made them believe in themselves, even when he struggled to believe in himself. Dad was our father, but he was a father figure to many others, as well. Dad was a brother to his sisters, who loved him deeply, and to his brothers, who were also his closest friends. But he was a brother to many others he met along the way. People who knew Dad were able to see both his struggles and his successes—he had plenty of both, and he would tell just about anyone about his life if they’d listen for a minute… or an hour. Dad’s troubles and triumphs inspired the people who knew him, and helped them believe they could overcome their own challenges and achieve their own dreams.

I must admit, when Dad got sick, it had been a lot of years since I had let myself see him as a hero. Those final days in the hospital, though, proved to me that he still held on to the same qualities I admired so much as a child: strength, bravery, and ability to inspire. No matter how hard it was for him to breathe or even sit up in bed on his own, he had the strength to insist on coffee at 2 o’clock in the morning. He showed his bravery, insisting that we take him outside for one final look at nature–his grandson playing in the grass, and his dog Odie coming to lick his face one last time. Sure, I know he was really just trying to get outside so he could duck back behind a corner and smoke a cigarette. Last, but not least, he also served as an inspiration in those final days at the hospital. Each time the hospital staff changed shifts, a new set of nurses and technicians who knew him well would come in and joke with him like they’d known each other for years. That was just how he was–no matter where he went or what he did, he was a father, a brother, and a friend. His hero’s journey was completed early in the afternoon of July 4th, and Dad finally achieved the freedom every hero deserves. Dad is free of his enemies and free of his suffering. His strength and bravery can inspire us all–not just to fight our own enemies, but to be good fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, and most of all good friends to the other heroes we meet on our own journeys.

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

A Lot Can Happen in Two Years

It’s been just over two years since I posted here, and quite a bit has taken place in my life since then. Around the time of that last blog post, I had recently completed my first Ironman in Cozumel, Mexico. In the year that followed, I completed a term as president of the L.A.Leggers, I made significant progress on a book project for the organization I was working for, and I trained for and completed a second Ironman event (this time in Louisville, Kentucky).

Right around the time I did that second Ironman, I had recently started spending time with an awesome woman, Aisha. She called and left me a voicemail the night before the Ironman, and out on the course, whenever my willingness waned, I simply thought of her voice on that message.

A couple months later, we were on the road to becoming parents together. My book project was finished, I was in the process of applying for a full-time teaching gig, and we were trying to figure out how long we would be able to make her one-bedroom condo work for the two of us and the baby on the way. That was December of last year.

Fast forward another year. Baby Eugene is almost 19 weeks old and passed the 19 lb mark sometime last week. Aisha and I have been married since April. I’ve got one semester under my belt as a full-time, tenure-track English professor, and we’ve been living in a 3 bedroom 1 bathroom house in Reseda since early November. A reality tv personality is headed to the white house. I’m running 2-3 times a week, sometimes pushing Gene Bean in a running stroller, and I’m signed up to do the LA Marathon again in March 2017.

And I’m blogging again.

Overall, life is good. Stay tuned.

Posted in Blog Entries | 1 Comment

Keep Moving

Capture

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Corndog vs LA, round 2

2014-03-09 06.14.30

You can watch a video of my limping across the finish line here.

I showed up to Dodger stadium nervous but determined. I didn’t know how my ankle was going to feel once I started going, but I was willing to try it out. For about 14 miles, it was good and so was I. I was on pace for a personal record and beating up the LA course the way I wanted to last year.

But then the adrenaline wore off, and I began feeling the discomfort in my calf. Continue reading

Posted in Blog Entries | Leave a comment

Recap of 2013

Rocky

I did it! I made my 1000 miles in 2013 goal, in spite of the late-year bout of plantar fasciitis, which nearly knocked me out of the running. (groan) A few of the miles were on a treadmill, and a few were on an elliptical machine, but every mile counts in my book.

Here are some other accomplishments from the year:

  • Ran my first marathon. Then a second in my goal time of under 5 hours.
  • Raised over $2000 for Camp Kesem by harassing my facebook friends endlessly.
  • Ran my first half marathon. Then a second in my goal time of under 2 hours.
  • Bought a condo.
  • Was elected to the board of my running club.
  • Ran every single day in August, including some Rocky-inspired running on the streets of Philadelphia.
  • Went to Europe, crossed the Mediterranean on a ferry (with my passport), and went to Africa.
  • Started teaching English at my local community college.

I suppose that’s enough for one year, don’t you?

Posted in Blog Entries | Leave a comment

An Absent-Minded Professor

2013-09-05 14.54.06

August was a long month.

And it wasn’t just because I decided, at the suggestion of a running buddy, to run every single day in August.

Or, having announced to the Facebook world that I made a commitment to run every day in August, I was coerced into setting a goal for myself of running 1000 total miles in 2013. (And by coerced, what I mean is that someone made a casual suggestion and I jumped right in…)

No, in August my workdays were growing longer as each day brought us closer to a convention of roughly 20,000 members in Philadelphia, PA. And, back in April or May (before I’d made my first mortgage payment), I’d purchased a ticket from Philly to Spain, where another smaller convention would take place afterward. One of the selling points for that trip was my friend from Spain telling me, “Chris, you can take a nearby ferry from where I live in Spain over to Morocco. You will have a chance to visit Europe and Africa in a single trip!” How could I argue with that?

So in early August, I was preparing for our convention, and preparing for my vacation, and running every single day.

Continue reading

Posted in Blog Entries | Leave a comment