Monday, November 24, 2014

Becoming Gluten Free

I grew up in a home like many Americans. Middle class. Suburban. More well-acquainted with "dinner from a box" than "dinner from a garden." Most of the meals we sat down and ate as a family were cooked with extra love by my mom, but also contained extra fat, sugar and preservatives. By no means do I blame her (mom, please don't feel bad!). Feeding a family of 6 is basically a full time job, and since she already held one of those, the food we bought had to last in the pantry until we got around to preparing/eating it. Basically every meal was boxed or canned and included wheat flour. Dinner rolls, cinnamon toast crunch, pop tarts, bologna and cheese sandwiches on "healthy" whole wheat bread. They all contained copious amounts of (what I would come to know this past year) as gluten. Gluten is the binding agent in wheat flour. It's the wonderful reason why bread is so fluffy and soft. It is also, as scientists and the population at large are realizing, a huge problem for a lot of people.

My relationship with gluten, as I mentioned earlier, started a long time ago. As a kid, and well into my teenage/post teen years, I was always kinda chubby. None of my siblings (2 brothers and a sister) were overweight at all. They were fit, athletic and ate whatever they wanted. I was overweight, slower and could gain 10 lbs by looking at a chocolate cake. I also suffered from, what the doctor called, IBS (irritable bowel syndrome). To them it was a catch-all for my "bad stomach". To me it meant that, like clockwork, I would be sitting on the toilet within 10 minutes of every meal, praying to God that if he let me live through this particular bowel movement I would never sin again. I struggled with inflammation around my belly, chronic stomach aches and embarrassingly frequent gas. As I got older I began to notice more concerning signs of bowel issues, for which I had to undergo some pretty crappy butt procedures (no pun intended). These still yielded no definitive prognosis, so I was left to assume that I was just one of the defective ones. That guy at the party who would ALWAYS ask to use your bathroom. I say these things in such honest terms to dissuade you from thinking my new gluten free lifestyle (and inevitably someone's you know) is part of some stupid and passing fad. I wrestled with these body issues for a long time, and until I stumbled into eating GF, I thought it would be my lifelong battle to fight alone. 

So how did I decide to stop eating gluten? Well, like all great men who make decisions, my wife told me I should do it. She had been voicing to me for a while how she thought I might have a gluten issue. As I said before, I grew up with a taste (more akin to an addiction) for wheat flour and all its tasty/sugary/fatty partners in crime. The thought of a life without Krispy Kreme donuts, chocolate croissants and even ham sandwiches was too much for me to handle. Every time I had one of my gut-busting episodes, I would get defensive and chalk it up to eating things in the wrong combinations. Soda and anything deep fried. Milk and breakfast pastries. Alcohol and wedding cake. I was rationalizing away the common thread that all these things share. Gluten. It wasn't until my wife was instructed by her wholistic doctor to cut out gluten from her diet that I even seriously considered eating GF. Her doctor recommended it as a possible solution to her thyroid problem, so out of marital solidarity I figured I'd try it for a week. 

I expected so little. Maybe I'd feel a little bit better (mostly about my ability to "sacrifice" something I loved), but surely not good enough to make it a lifestyle! Yet, within 7 days of not eating gluten I felt like a new person. My energy level was higher and lasted all dat without need for a nap. All of the aforementioned stomach issues were non existent. I was INCREDIBLY regular (and as a side note to those guys who think pooping 4 times a day is "regular"...it's not!) It was as if I could feel my body repairing itself after years of tearing it down donut by donut. Mentally and physically I knew that this was a breakthrough for me, yet still I was hesitant to admit that it was a "real" problem. The little devil on my shoulder would whisper, "it's all in your head." So after a week of purging my gut of gluten, I decided it was time for a reintroduction to test whether it was fact or fiction. 

Sitting down in front of a big juicy burger is something that usually sends the serotonin coursing through my veins straight to the part of my brain that feels happiness. Some of that is all of the memories associated with burgers: cookouts, 4th of July, the smell of charcoal fires. But the other part of that is a more scientific one. Gluten, as scientists have discovered, is the one substance most suited for carrying nutrients and toxins directly to the brain. In fact, they are trying to figure out how to use gluten as a transmitter to direct Alzheimer's medicine to the brain more quickly. So as I sat down in front of that burger, basically drooling with anticipation, one of two things would happen. Either I would eat it and feel the wonderful bliss of its nourishment, or I would feel only the pain of not being able to digest the gluten (in the form of both gut pain and brain fog). Sure enough, within minutes of eating the otherwise delicious burger, my body began to tell me that the prior week was not a fluke. My stomach cramped up and I could feel myself losing focus on anything except how bad I felt. I realized that my body really does prefer a diet free of gluten, and that its consequences are not a figment of my imagination (as plenty of people have told me since). 

I love food. My wife and I have traveled all over the place eating and drinking just about everything we could get our hands on. We enjoy good stuff and bad stuff, rich tastes and bland tastes, both popular and exotic. For me, the choice to cut gluten out of my diet was not something that I did flippantly or without plenty of pause. It was only when the overwhelming evidence was presented that I decided my long term health was more important than the short term satisfaction of eating that buttery flaky ticking time bomb. I could go into the long frustrating rant about American food integrity and processing, but nobody wants to hear that. It's too big of an issue to tackle in a dumb blog post. But I will say this. The 2014 baseball season was the best of my life so far. Was it solely because of my change in diet? No, of course not. But did it affect my performance on the field and on a daily basis? Absolutely. It improved my quality of life. It reinforced discipline. It made me more resourceful. Sure, I was called a hippie, a tree hugger and high maintenance. For anyone who doesn't struggle with the issues you do, it's impossible to expect them to exactly understand your struggle...and that's ok. I would just encourage any of you who do struggle with similar things, you only get one life. No one else gets to live your life and no one else reaps the consequences of how you live your life quite like you. If living the way you see fit is hard, embrace that! Know that you're not alone in it. Maybe we don't share the same struggles, but we all struggle. 

Is it easy now, on the other side of gluten? No, hardly. I still have to run past the bakery section at the grocery store and sometimes I have to leave the room when yellow cake with chocolate icing is served. I've had to educate clubhouse managers, hotel concierges and waiters about what I can eat and why. Like I said before, I love food. That won't change. But it gets a little easier each day, each season. The holidays are just around the corner, and I'm sure it will present its fair share of challenges. It always does, and perhaps it always will. But I'm not afraid of it anymore. My gluten allergy is real...and really beatable.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

#UnleashMyCreative

It's been said that pitching is an art. Tom Seaver wrote "The Art of Pitching" and Greg Maddux, for all intents and purposes, took the reigns and came as close to perfecting that art as any of us have ever seen. Growing up in Atlanta, I saw him carve up hitters more consistently than any other pitcher of the last quarter century. It literally was like watching a painter methodically work his way across a canvas. You could see the creativity in all of his pitch combinations and speed changes. His imagination and the execution of that creative mindset baffled hitters for the better part of 20 years, yet very few people would call baseball (even pitching) a creative occupation. In fact, when making analogies to baseball, people most often reference war or racing or some other brute activity. This frustrates me. I like to believe that all people in all endeavors (paid and unpaid) have the ability to be creative...not just the "creative community".

My wife works in a collective studio/office space in Atlanta. She, a letterpress printer and calligrapher, shares space alongside photographers, film directors, bloggers, graphic designers and comedy writers (see Aaron Chewning). The motto of the collective is "Home of Atlanta's Creative Citizen", which makes sense considering all of the people working there would be classified as "creatives"...meaning they all get paid to use their creativity. But sitting in the studio, watching all of them be creative, I found myself thinking about creativity in different spaces. For instance, in a crowded floor of cubicles on the 20someodd floor of a tall building downtown, there are accountants using all of the creativity God blessed them with to figure out my taxes (which must be filed in 17 states for 2014...what!?). Down the road from there, a firefighter might be looking at a mangled car imagining all the possibilities to get a young girl out safely. At my favorite restaurant spot, there is an amazing chef who everyone would agree is part of the "creative community", but the real creativity lies in the gluten-free/dairy-free/soy-free suggestions that my waitress keeps whipping up out of thin air.

I believe that, all too often, people are either encouraged or discouraged from exercising their natural creativity based on the job expected of them. Interior designers are expected to imagine a room, brainstorm about its Feng Shui and create it, while mechanics are expected to rotate the tires, change the oil and get it finished quickly. On the surface, those seem like fair descriptions of their jobs, but when you dig a little deeper, both have their creative side and their transactional (get stuff done) side. The mechanic has to use his imagination and creativity to troubleshoot that weird sound my car makes when I turn the wheel to the left, and the interior designer has to drudge through a few days of sewing pillows and hanging curtain rods. At times both share residence in the "creative community" and at other times, neither do.

Baseball is no exception. I truly believe that baseball players can be as creative as anybody in any other profession. Their duty in the game might not always call for the most creativity or ingenuity, but seeing a 9 hole catcher with cement in his shoes lay down a perfect drag bunt for a base hit...that is as creative to me as my wife's perfect calligraphy. Perhaps I am a bit biased towards the creative. My brothers are graphic designers, musicians and film majors, while my sister is a singer/songwriter living in Nashville. Being the "dumb jock" of the family, I made it a point to exercise my creativity in any and all outlets at my disposal. I began to write at an early age and picked up guitar, saxophone, clarinet and drums along the way. Just because I was good at baseball didn't mean that I would allow myself to sell out to the game at the expense of my other talents and attributes. At this point in my life, writing is my creative outlet, but I'm also experimenting with other creative endeavors. I'm learning how to cook (mostly gluten-free & paleo) and cultivate a garden (my succulent collection is getting pretty impressive). I'm also toying around with the idea of different iphone photography projects and the long term goal of possibly writing a book. Some old-school people might say that doing all of these things might hinder my baseball playing. That a ballplayer should play ball and not clutter his mind with frivolous activities that don't affect the game. My official opinion, however, is that all of my creative outlets do affect the game. Every time I practice thinking outside the box, every time I strum a guitar, plant a flower or sit at a keyboard and contemplate how to express what's brewing inside my mind, It prepares me to execute well on the mound.

It's the 8th inning of a one run game. We have the lead and they have 3, 4, 5 coming up in the lineup. I've already faced them three times that day and dozens of times over the course of a season. There is a way to get them out, there always is, but it's up to my imagination to figure out what the answer is on that given day. I've practiced my fastball, curveball, cutter and changeup thousands of times, but how often have I flexed the creative muscle required to attack these hitters on this day? I believe in living a holistic lifestyle where work, food, creativity, faith and leisure are all interconnected. If everyday I can work on all of these things, then when that moment comes I won't have to worry about being prepared. Simply living my life and cultivating all of the talents/passions that have been entrusted to me will prepare me to succeed. I refuse to be a dumb jock. Life (baseball life, particularly) is too short to pigeon-hole myself into what a stereotypical ballplayer has evolved into. It doesn't matter what you do for work or play, YOU ARE CREATIVE. Let's flex our creative muscle and see what we happens!

I will be starting a series on Instagram (@cmchugh) using the hashtag #UnleashMyCreative. Whenever you use/see creativity in places/people that aren't stereotypically "creative" take a picture of it, write a caption and hashtag #UnleashMyCreative. It's all around us, everywhere we look. Go out, be brave, be creative.




Monday, November 3, 2014

Baseball Takes

The season ended, the last pitch was thrown for the Astros, and we boarded our 43rd plane of the year. It was roughly 11:15 pm as we descended over Atlanta, and all I could think about was how much I missed that place. I missed the trees lining the freeway and the familiar skyline rising into the warm, late summer air. I missed how the roads have no discernible patterns (thanks Gen. Sherman) and how, if you time it just right, you can beat the traffic by cutting through the east side neighborhoods. I missed my family and friends and familiar faces. I missed birthdays and weddings and holidays. As I was thinking about the things I missed (longed for nostalgically), I began to realize all the things I missed (out on) because of baseball. Don't get me wrong. I'm not trying to conjure up some great sympathy for professional baseball players. I was just keenly aware of the things that have already, and must continue to be, sacrificed at the altar of the game. One fact of our life is tried and true. Baseball takes.

It's been a month since my season ended, and home has really started to take shape...starting with an actual home. We bought a house towards the end of the season (after seeing it one time for 15 minutes during our 3 day all star break, naturally). Baseball takes our free time. There are no such things as weekends during the 7+ months of the season. Days become a blur of alternating homestands and roadtrips. 10-15 days at a time without an off day. No Holidays either. We play on all the major holidays from Valentine's Day to Labor Day. Baseball even takes a normal dinner time and moves it to 11:45 pm. I'm not gonna say that baseball makes me eat Taco Bell at midnight...but, it kind of does. Being home and seeing my friends follow their normal work schedule reminds me that baseball takes the 9-5 workday and makes it 1-11. These things are inconvenient, sure, but baseball demands relational sacrifice and that pill is much harder to swallow.

I remember a few years back when one of my buddies was getting married. It was going to be a perfect summer wedding on the beach in South Carolina. I, of course, would be playing ball all summer and thus unable to attend. Knowing this, he still invited us to the wedding and even asked if I could be a groomsman. I had to regretfully decline both of the invitations, and my only contribution to the wedding was a super nice wedding gift (my wife has a gift for picking out fancy kitchen tools). As the rest of our friends started getting engaged, there were no more groomsman invites. No more holding out hope that I could "get away" for a couple days to celebrate the biggest day of their lives. Baseball takes Spring/Summer weddings, birthdays, graduations (including my own wife's), etc. and makes them novelties of the past for me. The only remnants of these special events are pictures and status updates via social media. I scroll through my Instagram feed (@cmchugh) and facebook wall and feel myself falling a little further out of touch with the most important people in my life. It becomes more than a crippling case of FOMO (fear of missing out). It's closer to FOFOOTF (fear of falling out of touch, forever). When the offseason comes it's wonderful to see your loved ones' faces you haven't seen in over half a year, but sort of horrifying when you meet the 8 month old cousin that didn't exist when you left. True story.

Not only does baseball take other people's important events away, it also dictates when we can have ours. Thinking of starting a family? If we have a baby in the middle of the season I get 3 days to fly from wherever I am (based on our history, let's assume it'll be as far away as possible), see my wife give birth, hold my first child and be back at the park ready to play. Not ideal, obviously. For that reason, giving birth in the offseason is clearly preferable. To do this, however, there is roughly 3 months from new years to opening day (april 1) to conceive. Baseball takes what should be a natural and organic process and shrinks the timeline into a stressful sprint to parenthood. Some players get lucky and nail to the schedule perfectly, for others (like so many) it isn't that easy and the 3 days during the summer is all they get.

On the subject of wives, baseball has taken my wife's business on a winding journey through 18 houses, countless cities and far from the consistency that she would have if I had a normal 9-5. Only because she is a BOSS has her business survived (even thrived at times), but my decision to play baseball has pulled the E-brake on her enterprising too many times. Baseball puts money in my wallet and takes it out of hers.

Once again, I don't want this to sound like I am complaining. I've taken chartered flights all across the country, stayed in 5 star hotels, eaten at the fanciest restaurants, discovered the best hole in the wall places, met celebrities, met the best fans ever and enjoyed making a living playing the greatest game on the planet. I love it. It's worth it. But standing around our newly built firepit yesterday with my closest friends in the world, I saw all of the things it takes to play baseball and all the things/people baseball takes in return. Sometimes I wish baseball wasn't so jealous and that she shared more of her time with the other important things in my life...because I miss them. Baseball won't last forever, that is a fact, but the people crowded around the fire, drinking beer, sharing stories and inside jokes, will be around long after the game is over for me. My 4 months of offseason is down to 3 now. Here's to investing in the things that last.