Today I strolled out to the open grass between our base gym’s track and the four co-located baseball fields. I visited places where my wife and I spent hours when we were dating, and the wide spaces I went to on my own when I wanted to be alone and think about life, and God, and myself, and maybe just watch the stars.
Twenty years ago, a small concrete bridge made a way across the drainage that splits the field. During our long nighttime walks, Jami and I would often sit there and talk.
The bridge is gone. It has been for years now, in fact. But there used to be a patch of lighter concrete where you could see its absence. Even that is gone now, the whole drainage ditch a uniform moldy-looking shade of dark grey.
Buildings are long gone that once marked the start of our relationship: a solitary dormitory where one of our mutual friends lived on the opposite end of the fields, and the H-style dorms where Jami and I first met, torn down and replaced with better, newer, four story facilities. The hills look roughly the same, places where we laid in the grass on the slopes and watched the clouds or stars, depending on our shift schedules. The stone bench I’m sitting on, under a tangled mess of trees, still stands and sees occasional use, judging by the trash left beside it.
Me from twenty years ago came to this spot and looked forward, uncertain what “a few more” years of military service might bring, and what new experiences might follow afterward. That young Airman moved with youthful energy, some combination of strength and naïveté, a blissful ignorance and hopeful expectation.
He never would have guessed that I’d be sitting here one day, looking back at him.
Nearby stands one tree which looks more like five twisted together, all on its own on the slope of emerald and caramel and sand-colored grass. Trunks and roots bent and cracked, body slumped over as if halfway broken by a typhoon–a crippled and damaged thing, reaching for blue sky but brought back to earth by the weight of its limbs. Vibrant leaves blossom from every branch; this tree is alive, without a doubt. But it looks broken and scarred, burdened with past trauma, a fighter knocked down, resting on one knee with a gloved hand on the mat for support, catching his breath, straining to rise again but wobbling with the exertion of staying upright.
I wonder, is there healing for that tree? Is there some path to restoration, some hope that one day it will stand–perhaps not upright and firm, but at least a little steadier, a little less bowed, a little more whole…?
Or are there experiences that, though we survive the ordeal, no, contrary to the popular wisdom, they do not make us stronger? Things that leave their scars and cracks in the thickest of bark, that rend and tear and splinter the sturdiest and freshest of young wood?
Can a gnarled, hunched, and wearied thing like this at least become something reminiscent of former glory?
One of the jokes in the Air Force flying community is that Flight Surgeons love to hand out Motrin / ibuprofen like it’s a vitamin or daily supplement. “Vitamin M” is the nickname, and the 800mg horse pill is the most common form.
My recovery from surgery is going great; following X-rays this morning, I was released by the orthopedic surgeon. The two screws embedded in my foot are in the right place, and the bones are fusing together.
I’ve started physical therapy as well as my own personal workout routine, and for the most part, those are relatively painless.
So today, as I walked down the hall, sucking breath through gritted teeth and wincing with each step, I thought, “What is wrong? I haven’t felt this bad in weeks!” My legs are sore from extra exercise on Monday, but this was more than aching muscles.
Then I realized I haven’t taken any Motrin today. Normally I pop a dose with the Vitamin D supplement my surgeon put me on, because there’s always a constant buzz of pain coming from that left foot.
Today was a good reminder. I don’t need the Motrin. I am getting better. I’m not back to 100% yet, but I will be soon. I’ve walked around all day, accepting some discomfort, and forcing my foot to cooperate.
That said, now that I know I don’t absolutely require a pain-killer, I’m probably going to take one tomorrow… Because I can choose to, not because I have to.
This morning I forced myself out of bed to honor a commitment.
My swollen Frankenstein foot is healing. I’m attending physical therapy sessions to strengthen it. But my whole body needs exercise. My speed has to improve, and my waistline must shrink so I can pass a fitness test.
Time to move.
The first hundred feet powerwalking feel like running a motor with no oil. Like trying to get my tires out of mud or gravel, and they’re spinning with no traction.
It’s like my old 10-speed after a long winter. I’d pull it out of the garage once the snow melted, and spray WD-40 over the chain and gears. But it still took a few minutes of pedaling to shake everything loose. Grinding metal. Sudden jolts as the chain stuck and snapped loose. Frequent rattling. Then finally, it became reliable.
Even then, when I shifted speeds, the chain would sometimes slip off. I’d have to stop, put it back together, get the chain back on track, and start up again.
Effort is the oil in the engine of greatness.
The Chinese understand this. Their word for “to add oil; lubricate” ( 加油 / jia you, pronouced “jah yo”) has the figurative meaning of increasing effort, pushing harder, stepping on the gas.
With this foot, I’m never going to be a marathon runner. I’ll probably never sprint very fast. I won’t be an awesome basketball player.
But I will regain and surpass the speed I once could achieve on this foot. And I will be able to shoot hoops with my daughter again. And who knows, maybe even I’ll go back to running a fitness test instead of merely walking.
Because I will wake up on cold mornings, spray some “oil” on that ankle, suck it up, and start walking. I will get on the bike, strap my feet in, and turn up the resistance. And when it gets easy, I’ll add another level or two.
What matters isn’t where you’re at now. Where you were before doesn’t matter either. What matters is where you’re headed, and what you’re willing to do to get there.
Writing–really, any creative effort–is similar. I used to say writing was a hobby. But I’ve put in effort and study to improve my craft. I keep doing so. I call myself a writer, because writing is what I do, what I will continue to do.
In fact, I call myself author, because I’ve written numerous short stories and devotionals. I’ve put over a hundred thousand words into a manuscript and I have composed over 150 songs. Maybe soon I will self-publish. With some hope, maybe I will one day have work printed in a publication or published by a professional company.
All I know is that today I will sit down at the keyboard and turn words into sentences, phrases into paragraphs, passages into chapters. Then I’ll edit and revise until it’s the strongest work I can produce today.
And I won’t be content with that, so I’ll make myself do better tomorrow.
I’m not saying I’m great. I’m saying I’m not satisfied.
What commitment to yourself are you going to honor today?
This little gem is one of my workout favorites; it’s like a motivational speech put to song. And it’s just what I need.
(I gather it’s a Calvin Harris song, and maybe there’s some other version of it, but this is the one I like.)
I don’t count myself as a fitness guru, but I blog about it sometimes because the perspective of a fat guy striving to improve at the gym is probably very relatable. And also, it’s part of what’s going on in my life.
Right now, I am just starting getting back to the gym after bone fusion surgery. It’s challenging and painful, but I know it’s part of the healing process.
I get disappointed while hobbling around, or easing myself onto a bike, or gingerly trying out the elliptical. It’s frustrating to watch the fleet-footed runners on the track, gliding as if on the winged feet of Hermes. It’s hard not to try to keep up with the cardio crazies on the machines, pushing and pulling the arms of the elliptical in sprints that seem to last half an hour. And I miss Spinning, with its jumps and hills, isolations and single-leg work.
Part of me wants to look back and think, “I was once a Spin instructor.” I was able to hang with those guys. I could powerwalk a sub 12-minute mile (no easy feat for a fattie!) and own the cardio machines for hours.
I wasn’t gritting my teeth back then, lurching around the track like Frankenstein.
The song reminds me, “It’s not about what you’ve done, it’s about what you’re doin’. It’s all about where you’re going, no matter where you’ve been.”
Part of me looks to the road ahead and sighs, ready to give up. Physical therapy sessions, strenuous exercises, strict dieting, pushing to increase speed just to get back to where I was before… the future looks like hard work.
But the song keeps me in the now. “Let’s go. Let’s make it happen. Make no excuses now, I’m talking here and now. Your time is running out.”
Today is what matters. This workout should be my best. Yesterday’s done, nothing I can do about that. And tomorrow’s problems can wait until then.
What’s your motivational song? When everything inside says “take it easy,” what kicks you into action? Let me know in a comment, so I can go get some more music.
Side note: If you’re in the Omaha area and need some screws drilled into your feet, or any other kind of orthopedic care, Dr. Jon Goldsmith is the guy to see.
I have a foot again I have a foot again I get to walk and put weight on it and walk and shower or even put my foot in the bath and I have a foot!
So the pain is pretty intense, as my foot adjusts to the process of holding up my ponderous bulk instead of hanging in the air behind me as useful as a second appendix. I have a walking support boot (the one from earlier this year with the sweet Reebok Air pump action), and I have a cane.
And motrin. Lots of motrin.
But I get to actually walk.
And there was great rejoicing… because I also weighed myself this week and learned that convalescent leave and laying around post-surgery do wonders for my figure, in a bad way.
So here’s to starting the physical recovery once again.
Today was an exciting day for me. I finally got the cast off my right foot.
Here are my top ten reasons to celebrate:
10. The foot is healing well. The screws are in place, and the bones seem to be growing together into one mega-bone of awesome invincibility.
9. I get a sweet inflat-o-boot that has a pump like the 80s Reebok shoes. I’ll be slam dunking basketballs in no time.
8. Just took a bath and got my foot wet, and I didn’t even care. (Actually, I did care, because if you aren’t familiar, after wearing a cast for a while, you get all this dry, dead skin that you’re very eager to remove. Sorry, it’s super gross.)
7. I can show off my Frankenfoot. I had a huge scar on the right side, but now I have a a train track across the heel and a white-picket-fence of scar tissue on the left side. Super creepy! I’m ready for Halloween.
6. No more crutches.
5. I don’t feel guilty for putting weight on my foot. Over the last week or so, the foot has felt so good that I have occasionally set it gently on the ground in the cast, for added balance. Don’t tell the doctor!
4. My cane is stylish and makes me feel like House. Maybe I’ll develop his hypersarcasm too. Fingers crossed, here’s hoping!
3. I can start walking again to work towards actual exercise. That means Nike+ Kinect and Dance Central 3 are right around the corner!
2. One of my classmates needs ninjin’. Every morning, as I clomp clomp my way into the building on crutches, I hear him call out, “HERE COMES DAVE.” Now I will be silent, swift, and deadly, with my inflat-o-ninja-boot and assassin cane. Brace yourself, Erik, Monday is coming!
1. Driving. That’s all I’ll say, lest my wife assume I’m implying something. Which I’m totally not. At all. Promise.
Hope your weekend is starting as well as mine did.
If I try to structure my blog posts at all, then Saturday is when I post a “Storyline.” Usually it’s a piece of creative writing or something related to the books bouncing around in my head.
Today, I’m going to share a bit of my story. It’s late, but it’s still Saturday. And I’ve backed off from rigidly following that daily structure in these posts. And it’s my blog so I DO WHAT I WANT!
Specifically, I’m thinking about the upcoming surgery I have scheduled on March 5th, and the recovery process that will follow. And I ask myself if this is really necessary.
For almost twenty years now, I’ve noticed occasional stiffness and pain in my ankle after high-impact activities. It was usually a short ache or a feeling like the joint locked in place and simply needed a good pop. I’d pop the ankle and massage the joint, and move on with my day.
About 2000, I realized it was gradually but steadily getting worse. I soon learned that some of my favorite sports were out of the question. No basketball, no racquetball, no volleyball… I had to quit doing anything that called for pivoting the ankle or making fast movements and changes of direction. I was never very good at any of those sports, so it didn’t feel like a big loss.
Not long after that, the Air Force revamped the fitness program, pushing for more running. Squadron fitness sessions followed suit, and I spent two or three days a week pounding pavement around Kadena. The next day following the run would be full of stiffness, constant aching, and sharp stabbing pains. My ankles would sometimes give out, and I’d stumble. Or the pain would be such that I would slowly work my way down the stairs, eliciting comments and questions from my coworkers.
Imagine you’re walking along and someone raps your ankle with a hammer – not hard enough to break anything or make you fall over, but enough to grab your complete attention for a minute or two until the pain subsides. That’s how it feels most days after I run.
I tried checking with the military doctors, but they were convinced I was not stretching enough. Or I weighed more than I should, and the problem was just the excess weight. They taught me exercises to mitigate the effects of plantar fasciitis, and they suggested diet programs. But the answers boiled down to “Live with it.”
So I did.
I’m not the doctor. I don’t have the medical degree on the wall. I assume they know what they’re talking about.
This went on for a few more years, until the day that I had to crawl around my house rather than put weight on my feet after a simple walk through the Commissary for a grocery shopping trip. My wife got me to re-attack with the doctors, and this time, I got a referral to a podiatrist who ran a CAT scan.
He pulled me into the office and pointed out several noticeable problems with my foot and ankle structure. Then he called attention to the various shadows in the ankle bones, and explained, “That’s advanced degenerative arthritis. It’s much worse than it should be for someone your age.”
Way to make me feel old.
The good news was the doctor had a plan.
The bad news was, so did the Air Force. It took nine months to align dates so that I could get surgery, but I finally got it. We had to work around military education, mission needs, a new office, and squadron deployments. The plan was to get the right foot fixed, then give me time to recover and return to flying duties. After a few months back on flight status, we would get the left knocked out.
I had surgery on my right foot in 2010. The surgeon went in through the right side and carved off some excess bone which was pushing other parts of the ankle out of place. Then he stuck a titanium screw up through my heel to fuse together two of the bones in my ankle.
The recovery process took about five months. By then, increased demands on the squadron got in the way of the original plan. First I needed to fly local sorties, then I was sent on a deployment. By the time I returned, it was time to start preparing to move to a new duty location. I did not want to try to move my family of six across the world while on crutches wearing a cast. Needless to say, the left ankle never got done.
Sadly, the bones didn’t fuse like they were supposed to, so now instead of fixing the left ankle, we get to revisit the right and try to do it “right” (Ha ha). The doc has to take out the old screw, graft in some bone, and put in a new screw. Second time’s the charm, or so we hope. We’re going to help the odds a bit with an infusion of vitamin D and an ultrasonic device meant to stimulate bone growth and recovery.
I know this is going to be a long and difficult process. I have to watch my diet while in a cast, because I will not be able to exercise or be anywhere near as active as I am now. I have to throw myself into physical therapy and personal exercise as soon as that cast comes off, because I will have my next fitness test coming due.
I need a sweet action-movie montage where the hero gets into shape for the big battle against the forces of evil (or the fitness testing cell). I have a story to write in the next few months, but not with words. It’ll be with sets of push-ups and planks, hours of spinning on a cycle or elliptical, weeks of tracking every calorie consumed or burned, every pound gained or lost. It’ll also be dealing with the looks or unspoken judgments of those who don’t know all the details – accepting that some people will assume instead of ask, condemn instead of encourage.
I know I can write this story, because I did it three years ago.
But I’m not looking forward to it.
Stories resonate so well because everyone has one of their own. There’s a drama going on in every life that you and I may not be privy to. It’s easy to jump to a conclusion, but just like any good book, if you do that, you miss the most important details.
The movie montage seems so nice because it shortens all the hours of suck into a few minutes of hard work, set to a driving beat. Of course, life has no such short-cuts, and achievements do not come so easily.
I know I’m not the only one who has a similar story of long, hard work to recover from injury or achieve a difficult goal. What kept you going when it would have been easy to quit? What did you find inspired you to push harder, work longer, and succeed?
Today has been a bit of an off day. I don’t mean a vacation. I mean crazy schedules.
Nonetheless, I still have to work out, so I walked into the gym today, feeling stiff and sore from my last workout, knowing I was about to make those same muscles cry once more. But I had a day to rest in between, so I had a chance to recover a bit.
That’s the kind of off day I want to talk about.
Last week, I recounted a mantra one of my favorite Spin instructors would repeat almost every class. “Your mind gives up before your muscles do. Be strong.”
I would always give another reminder at the beginning of class. “If you feel discomfort and soreness in muscles from being challenged, great. That’s where we want you to be. If you feel pain and discomfort in joints, stop pushing yourself. That’s not safe.” Sometimes you get people who are new to cycling, or people who are so eager that they are pushing themselves too far beyond their present limits.
There’s a balance between these two statements, an comfortably uncomfortable and somewhat challenging place where you are pushing yourself beyond your present fitness level, while maintaining your overall health and wellness. You’ve got to be strong at times, breaking through the “I give up” in your mind. You’ve also got to be smart, able to identify when enough is enough for a day or two.
Your body needs time to recover, to adapt to everything you’ve done to it. Your muscles need to repair themselves so you can get stronger. This is of course why you see people rotating through major muscle groups when they go to the gym. “Today is legs, tomorrow is arms, next up is abs and core,” and so on.
Cardio exercise is similar. Repetitive motion with no recovery leads to those joint issues I mentioned earlier. Sticking to the same exercise over and over with no breaks is a risk to your body.
You’re not a robot. You need a rest day.
You’re not physically made for long durations of constant repetitive motion every day like some automated factory machine.
You’re not mentally or emotionally made for repetition either.
Give yourself a rest day from the menial tasks, the unending cycle of mundane labor. We are not made for monotony. Take time to let go of the mental weight of responsibility now and then. If you’re in a position where playing hooky is not an option, like a single mom or a caregiver for a close relative, then see if you can at least coordinate getting a break from a friend who can help. You’ll come back fresh, renewed, ready to take on the challenges once more, stronger than you were before.
I’ve had coworkers who simply will not stop until all their tasks are accomplished, no matter how overwhelming. My friends and I have tried to explain our concerns, to no avail.
Discipline is great, but be smart about it. When you work constantly at a task – physical or mental – you begin to slow and tire out. You start missing important steps. Your form becomes sloppy, if it’s physical activity. If it’s mental, your product ends up with flaws. This all starts small but builds up quick.
A boss reminded me about this today:
“Slow is cautious, and cautious is fast.”
It takes time to do a thing right. It takes even more time to go back and fix something when you’ve made mistakes. In physical exercise, you risk hurting yourself and derailing your efforts to improve. In mental exertion, you may end up creating more work for yourself, or failing to accomplish the goal you set out to achieve.
Stop, catch your breath, grab a cup of coffee. Take some time off from that particular task. Then jump back in, ready to give it another shot.
You’ll probably have less of those chaotic off days once you schedule some restful ones.
The home of David M. Williamson, writer of fantasy, sci-fi, short stories, and cultural rants.