The Night Before The Big Day

Re-posted from willstegemann.com

The day before we were supposed to get married, Nina and I packed up everything we would need for the next few days and started driving from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. What we needed consisted of five cases of wine, some clean clothes, my $89 suit, her $119 dress and wedding rings we had bought online. After we filled the gas tank we had $60 to our names. We had a lot of things to be happy about that day but having money was not one of them.

We were broke but I wasn’t overly concerned about that. We had enough gas to get where we were going, our families were on the way to Las Vegas, our room was paid for and I had a paycheck coming my way at the end of the week. All I had to do was not do anything dumb and show up to the wedding chapel on time; if I did that everything would be fine.

The idea of being fine and getting married seemed impossible six months earlier; for starters I had yet to meet Nina. I was still in the process of rebuilding my life after a long period of unhappiness, depression, physical illness, poor decision-making and financial difficulties. For a long time it felt like my life was in an irreversible downward spiral but over time I made some changes and things began to turn around.

While making my way back to the life I wanted to live Nina and I met and I knew that she was the one for me almost immediately. After spending so many years making the wrong choices I knew the right choice when I saw it. My only problem was that I couldn’t keep the fact that I knew we had stumbled into something good to myself.

On our second date I told her that I thought we should get married. Sure this was exactly the kind of ridiculously impulsive decision-making that had nearly ruined my life but this was the smart kind of impulsive. I wasn’t making a desperate decision in an attempt to cover up some void in my life. I was telling someone that my life was never better than when she was in it and I didn’t want her to get away.

Nina was smart enough to turn down my second date wedding proposal but a month later she asked me if that proposal was still on the table; it was. Five months later we were actually going through with it.

In the time between announcing our engagement and driving to Vegas to get married we took care of a few important things: We started living together and I met her parents. Meeting my parents was going to have to wait. I wasn’t hiding my family from her, it was just too difficult to get my parents to Los Angeles as a result my future wife would be meeting my parents the night before our wedding. If she was at all nervous about this, she didn’t let on.

The plan once we got to Vegas was as follows: We’d get in around 2:00 PM, check in and then head downtown to get our marriage license. At 7 PM the families would meet for dinner, then after dinner was wide open. We arrived on time and checked in. While waiting for a car to take us downtown our plans changed. As we stood on the curb a cab pulled up and my family stepped out. Despite being divorced for 25 years my parents had traveled together along with two of my sisters and one of my brothers. Nina was ready to meet my family, she just hadn’t planned on doing it at a taxi stand and my family probably felt the same way but it worked out fine. Everyone was too surprised to be nervous and we exchanged hugs and introductions as their bags were being unloaded onto the curb.

Just before Nina and I got into the car that would drive us downtown my father puled us aside and handed me an envelope saying:

“It’s not much but I wanted to give this to you guys before the wedding.”

I thanked him, put the envelope in my pocket and got in the car to get my marriage license. In the car I opened the envelope. Inside was $1,200. My family is not a rich or even financially comfortable. The cost of airfare and hotels was not insignificant so I was happy that they had made it. The gift was an unexpected surprise. My father, knowing that we spent all that we had to get to our wedding day, wanted to make sure we had fun. While we weren’t married yet I handed half of the money to Nina and put the rest away. I now had some spending money and less than 24 hours until I was to get married. I felt pretty great.

The process of getting a marriage license in Nevada is quick and easy. Within an hour from the moment we ran into my family, Nina and I were back in the hotel getting ready for dinner and talking about what the rest of the day would hold. Nina was curious as to what I had in mind for my last night as a single guy. I hadn’t made any plans for that night. I didn’t see getting married as the end of anything. I wasn’t being sentenced to marriage; I was pretty excited about it. I just wanted to get through the night without any problems. I was too anxious about the fact that my family was about to meet Nina’s family to think about what would come next but I wasn’t worried about it because I was in Las Vegas and everything in my life was going great; something would come up.

As we made our way down to dinner with our families we were nervous but things went very well. Everyone got along just fine especially our dads who hit it off pretty quickly and remained inseparable for the rest of the trip. After dinner we broke off into smaller groups to have drinks, gamble or just hang out. Nina and I hung out with our brothers and sisters for a while but since everyone had just spent most of the day traveling it was mutually agreed that we should call it an early night before the big day tomorrow. We’ll everyone agreed but me, I decided that I was going to stay up for a while. After walking Nina back to our hotel room I promised Nina I wouldn’t get in trouble and headed out to see what Las Vegas could do for me on the night before my wedding.

It was probably around 11:00 PM when I started making my way back down to the casino floor. While there were endless possibilities for a guy looking to do dumb things in the city I wasn’t going to go far. I’ve never been a strip club kind of guy and I was alone so the stereotypical bachelor party activity was out. I considered tracking down Nina’s brother but decided that I’d rather play poker. Since I had gotten some unexpected cash earlier I figured I could gamble a little.

As far as activities go poker was literally the safest bet for me; back then I was playing regularly and was good enough to hold my own in a poker room. I sat down to play but the cards weren’t coming and the room was kind of lifeless. It was the lack of activity in the room that was bothering me. I was about to take the biggest step of my life and I wanted some excitement so I decided to go look for it. Shortly after 12:30 AM I cashed out from the poker room and found I was actually up a few dollars.

Outside of the poker room I looked at my options: With a little over $600 in my pocket I could do a lot of things but I didn’t want to spend all of my money. I found a $10 blackjack table, ordered a drink started to play. I felt great. The last six months of my life felt like the greatest winning streak I had ever been on. I had gone from leading and aimless and unhappy life to feeling focused and as happy as I had ever been in my life. Sure I was still broke but Nina and I would find a way to make it work. For tonight I had cash in my pocket and a bright future ahead of me. I traded $100 for chips and placed a bet. It was almost 1:00 AM on my wedding day and everything was great.

Twenty minutes later I had gotten a free drink but I was out $100; another way of looking at this situation was that I paid $100 for a Jack and Coke. Blackjack moves fast and it moves even faster when, like me, you don’t really know how to play. Sure I understood some of the game but not enough to maximize my chances of winning. My lack of knowledge may have had no impact on the hands I just lost but it certainly didn’t help me any. I assumed however that this was just an unlucky bump in the road. I still had over $500 and a good feeling so I bought in for another hundred and ordered another free drink.

The second hundred dollars didn’t go as fast but I had no better luck with it. At one point I even went on a little winning streak but it didn’t last. At this point the time was approaching 2:00 AM, even in Vegas very little good ever happens after this time of night. If I were smart that night I would have packed it up and gone to bed but I didn’t because I foolishly held out hope that the universe cared that my 7 year losing streak had finally been turned around. How could the casino not understand that I was finally a winner? I put down another $100 and lost it.

Things had taken a bad turn but I still had half of my money left and I was getting married the following afternoon. It was then that I decided to stop gambling…at that blackjack table. I found a new table that felt lucky to me, sat down, and put all of the money I had left down on the table. Something in my mind had snapped and I was making a bad situation worse.

Here’s the thing about $600. It’s not a lot of money, unless it’s all of the money you have in the world. When it’s all the money you have in the world the smart thing to do is to stick it in your pocket and consider yourself lucky to have it. When you’re getting married to someone you met less than six months earlier and you only have $600 to your name you would be smart to try and prove to your future spouse that you posses common sense or at the very least you stick to the things you are good at when you’re gambling. These are things I wish I had considered before I traded all of the money I had left for chips and compounded my losses by increasing my bets. I was a lousy player at $10 per hand so at $50 a hand I was 5 times as bad.

I hung in there at the table for a little bit but despite several opportunities to put the money I had left in my pocket I chased my losses until I was broke. It was now approaching 3:00 AM and I was holding a losing combination of broke and stupid. I took my free drink and sulked away unsure of what I was going to do.

While I was losing Nina texted me to ask how it was going and I of course said that it was going fine. At the time it was true, as I hadn’t really gone off the rails at that point but in the hour since things went very badly and it was my fault. I found a quiet spot to try to compose myself and finish my drink before heading up to my room.

When I got back to the room and sat down at the desk. Nina sat up in the bed and immediately knew something was wrong when I continued to sit there quietly.

“How did it go?” She asked.

“I lost.”

“That’s okay, you didn’t lose all of it.”

“Umm”

“You didn’t.”

“I did.”

“You are the dumbest person in the world. That was all the money we had.”

She was right, at that moment I felt like the dumbest person alive. She knew my past history of bad decisions but believed that those days were behind me. Now, hours before we were supposed to be married I had done something to make her wonder if she was making a mistake. I quietly asked:

“Do you still want to marry me?”

“Yes, but I can’t believe you did this. Go to sleep.”

The next day Nina had a full day of pre-wedding activities planed and I was just trying to stay out of trouble.  Luckily I was broke so my options were limited.  I wandered the hotel, hung around and had lunch with a friend who had come in for the wedding and mostly worried if Nina was going to reconsider this whole thing. Six months earlier we hadn’t met yet and now we were about to get married. I wondered if she thought this was all crazy, if like a gambler, I was just doubling down because I didn’t know when to quit. I could understand why someone would feel this way but I was certain that we could make this work.

With two hours to go until I was supposed to get married I put on my suit and waited in front of the chapel, where I hoped that her answer would still be yes.

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A Challenging Thing I’ll Probably Do Again: Will Runs The LA Marathon Take Two

In late 2010 I was in the worst physical condition of my life thanks to steady diet of whiskey and cake coupled with a lack of physical activity. That September I went to see my doctor; after a physical and some blood work she called me with the bad news I expected. In addition to being overweight my blood work indicated several early warning signs for future health problems. Since my father had passed away from heart failure at age 54 the previous year I decided that I was going to try to turn things around while there was still time.

My doctor had a few recommendations but the one that seemed most reasonable to me was getting regular exercise.  I decided to try running even though I had not so much as jogged since childhood. I bought a pair of running shoes and track pants and then I headed out before dawn one morning and ran. I ran as fast and as long as I could and 23 seconds later I was out of breath on the sidewalk. Somehow, years of eating poorly and smoking had not prepared me for athletics.

Despite my lack of early success I stuck with it, eventually completing the Couch to 5K program (which I highly recommend). In early 2011 I ran my first official 5K and over the next year I continued to train ran several more races including 2 half marathons. I continued to train and run longer distances, then in March 2012 I took it even further and ran the LA Marathon.

My first marathon was tough, I had pulled a muscle late in my training that bothered me the entire race making it difficult and painful to run. After mile 19 I was unable to run at all but I kept going. Slowly and with my wife and friends walking beside me for the last 4 miles I finished. Sure it took me nearly 6 and a half hours but I finished a marathon. I was proud of what I had accomplished but for months afterward I wondered how the race would have gone had I not been hurt.

In late 2012 I started training for the 2013 LA Marathon with two goals in mind: Get in race shape and more importantly get to the starting line injury free. After training for several months I didn’t quite feel in race shape. Thanks to getting sick twice in the last month of training I missed several key training runs leaving me feeling less than confident but I was not hurt so I was already ahead of the previous year.

Yesterday I woke up at 3 AM, got dressed for running, parked my car at the finish line and then took a bus to the start of the race 26.2 Miles away. The LA Marathon starts at Dodger Stadium and ends at the Santa Monica Pier so imagine that you’re going to a Dodger game and you have the worst imaginable parking spot but you absolutely have to make it back to your car and you understand what the marathon is like.

If you’ve never run a big marathon the scene at the start is hard to imagine but picture 24,000 crazy people all looking for a bathroom at once before dawn and you’ll get the idea. Once all of those people get lined up it’s time to run but getting 24,000 people across the starting line takes time. The race began, then six minutes later I cross the start line and started to run at an easy pace out of the stadium complex, into the streets of LA and followed the crowd downtown. For the first five miles I took in easy, stopping to walk the steep hills and picking up the pace on the downhill and flat sections. Five miles in and no signs of pain or difficulty.

Many races allow runners to personalize race bibs so I chose to put the words “Likes Cake” on mine which let to spectators yelling “I like cake too!” as I went past.

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I continued to keep a steady pace through mile 12 when I spotted my wife and some of our friends waiting to cheer me on.

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At mile 13 another friend slowed me  down long enough to take this picture.

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After 13 miles I was getting tired; my right knee and both hips were tightening up but I kept moving as fast as I could taking only brief walk breaks for hydration and a quick protein bar until mile 16 when I stopped to stretch my legs to loosen up the tightness.

By mile 17 I had been running for more than three hours and my best running was behind me, I walked and jogged the 17th mile and this was the point where for me, the race became more of a mental challenge than a physical one. I knew that I could continue to move my body towards the finish line the only question was would I and at what speed. Up until this point in the race I had been listening to podcasts but at mile 18 I switched to a music playlist and adopted a walk one song, run one song strategy which kept me going through miles 19, 20 and 21. On the walk breaks I was checking in with my wife via text messages as she dealt with public transportation problems cause by road closures on her journey to meet me at the finish line. I also discovered that the updates that should have been going out as I crossed select mile markers weren’t happening. On a walk break I quickly tweeted: “Mile 22, beat but still moving.” and kept going.

On the next walk break I checked my phone and saw people encouraging me via Twitter and text message, this was a big help. I also saw messages from people who had been on the course to cheer me on. At mile 24 I got another boost of encouragement from a friend and her baby who were there to see me pass by.

At mile 25 I turned off the music, reached into whatever physical and mental reserve I had left and started to run; slowly at first but then a little faster. At about 25.5 miles I went around the last turn into the final stretch. I ran faster and soon I could see the finish line. The crowds along the sidelines got bigger and much louder as every runner pushed themselves towards the finish line. Someone on the sideline yelled “three minutes until cake” to me and I kept on running. I was going to make it.

Just before the finish line I heard my wife yell my name and saw her running down the sidewalk along with me. Then I lost her in the crowd. At 50 yards to go I looked up at the finish line and and ran as fast I was still able to until I finally crossed it, a little more than five hours after I started. I collected my finisher medal and went to find my wife.

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So how do I feel today? Well I’m sore but not injured. I will never be the fastest runner but I am proud of the fact that I’ve gone from being unhealthy to being a two time marathon finisher in 2 and a half years. Cutting more than an hour off of my previous time also feels pretty good and my official time of 5:12 gives me a new goal of a sub five hour finish next time because there will be a next time. Only 365 more days until the 2014 marathon.

Thank you to everyone who supported and cheered me on yesterday. I could not have made it to the finish without you.

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Replacement Players With Matt Callan: Episode One – The Rick Camp Game

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My friend Matt Callan is one of the brightest and funniest guys you’ll find anywhere and he’s got a new project that I’m super excited about called Replacement Players. The premise is this: Matt has an amazing archive of old sporting events and he’s inviting his friends to re-watch games they watched in the past to see how their memories hold up. Along the way they will also make fun of commercials, old uniforms and crazy things that used to pass for entertainment.

I am honored to be Matt’s guest on the first episode where we discuss one of the craziest baseball games of all time and Matt shares his super-villain origin story. The game we discuss is a Mets/Braves game from 1985 that I remembered very well but not as well as I thought. I’m really pleased with how this came out and i look forward to hearing future episodes.

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Wrapping Something Up

You probably know this already but for all of 2012 I have been listening to and writing about the life and work of Billy Joel as part of a project called A Year of Billy Joel.

I began the year as a Billy Joel hater and I’m about to wrap it up as something else. There’s only a few days left so don’t miss the finale.

Thanks for reading.

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Talking About Practice

This is the first photo ever taken of my wife Nina and I together. It was taken six years ago last night prior to what was at the time referred to as a practice date.

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Most people have never been on a practice date, I never had before this one and I’ve never been on one since, but it was our attempt to minimize the risk of going from being friends to dating. We agreed that we would go on a casual risk free date and if it didn’t work we could abort the whole idea and continue being friends.

In retrospect, the fact that I was in her home prior to the date and we were posing for photos should have clued me in on the fact that she might have been leaning towards things working out between us.

Last night my wife was working and I wasn’t feeling well so I went to bed without realizing that on that same evening in the past, seemingly a lifetime ago, we posed for this photo and then left the house with no idea what we were starting.

Note: That thing behind us is Daisy J. Dog’s crate.

Secondary Note: She paid for the practice date, I paid for the first real date.

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Positive Signs

Over the last few days I’ve been pulling on the thread of unhappiness, trying to unravel what lies at the heart of it and what I can do to fix it. I haven’t discovered exactly what it is but I feel like I’m already doing something to fix it just by talking about things.

I also went out for a 10 mile run on Saturday morning and the act of getting some distance under my belt in a relatively short time was good for my confidence. That plus seeing friends on Saturday night and a relaxing Sunday has me in a better mood today than I was on Friday; it is not as dark as it was before. It is not the end of this, but it’s easier to build on a two good days than two bad ones.

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Spilling It

A few months ago I decided that I wanted to resume posting on this blog, which had been dormant for about a year after being active since 2003. Before I started what has become a very sporadic posting schedule I went through the archive and realized that I didn’t like a lot of what I was reading. There is a reason for this; for the first few years that this thing was a going concern I was dealing with depression and not dealing with it well at all.

I did a lot of things wrong during that time but one of the primary mistakes I made was making my world small. I withdrew from people and pushed other people away until I found myself alone and more miserable than I have ever been in my life. Even today it is hard to describe how I felt back then but the best way I can describe it is that I felt a heaviness on my life, like a sad weight that I carried around with me everywhere for years until I was unable to do the things the right way anymore.

The heaviness I used to carry with me feels like ancient history, so much so that after reading through the past I found it hard to recognize myself. Because of this I decided to archive the first few years worth of posts. The are not erased, they are just hidden where they can’t make me angry at myself.

I was thinking of those hidden posts tonight as I stood over spilled hot chocolate in a restaurant. I had gone out to get food and hot chocolate because for the last few days I’ve been feeling the heaviness again. When I feel bad I like to eat take out food and drink hot chocolate, actually I like to do these things all the time but even more so when I feel down. Today I really needed these small comforts and one of them ended up on the floor. This was not the end of the world though thanks to having learned a little bit from my past. Earlier in the day I had done something that old me would never have done: I told people that I was feeling down. So as I stood there holding my dinner in a puddle of spilled hot chocolate I didn’t feel alone.

The heaviness will not bring me down again. I will out-think this thing faster and easier than I did before. The fact that I am telling you about it without having to dismantle my life first is a positive sign. The fact that I laughed over seeing my favorite beverage on the floor is another good sign.

I’m going to be fine. Thanks for listening.

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