Wednesday, September 28, 2011

I Almost Forgot

I almost forgot that I needed to hop to the bathroom, at 3am or so last night, fresh off a dream where I was running sprints at a long-ago basketball practice that never happened.

I almost forgot that the back of my leg has been busted and crafted back together when my friend screamed at the tv after an amazing run by his team's running back. I wanted to run to find out what happened.

I almost forgot that the ten minutes it took to get ready for a date now takes thirty.

I almost forgot that food can be poured or cooked at one location and then carried to another. It does need to be eaten in the same place it was dispensed, while I'm leaning against the sink or the kitchen counter.

I almost forgot. But only for a split second.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Remember When

On one of the latter episodes of "The Sopranos," Tony Soprano and his lieutenant, Paulie "Walnuts" Gualtieri, take a trip to Florida to escape police pressure in Jersey. As the two need to remain anonymous on their escape from the law,Tony continues to worry about his partner's talkativeness, as Paulie chats up bellhops, businessmen, and other strangers. When Paulie tells stories about him and Tony engaging in some not so-legal behaviors to some young women they are dining with, Tony gives Paulie the evil eye and excuses himself from the table, making the cryptic remark that " 'Remember when' is the lowest form of conversation."

If Tony is a sage, then I think that the 30s are the start of a downward spiral. You might even argue that the end of college is the beginning of this downward spiral, as the days pining for very little responsibility, very little accountability, and an astonishing amount of independence often start hours after graduation.
In an oxymoronic way, my good friends and I started missing the carefree college life before we graduated. Aware that college was but a four-year stop, a vacation of sorts in the middle of a working life, we reminded ourselves on a regular basis, especially during senior year, to savor this time. How do you do savor something? Is it possible to actively do this?
An extreme example of "Remember when" inhibiting one's adult growth is Uncle Rico of "Napoleon Dynamite." A thirtysomething groveling for work and seeming to live out of a van that would make Matt Foley proud, Rico is not above mooching steaks off Napoleon's family and hawking questionable Tupperware to naive buyers. Sneaking peeks at his flexed biceps whenever he can, Rico is stuck in 1982. While sitting outside with his nephew showing off his quarterback's arm, Rico talks about his coach's inability to put him in during the fourth quarter of a key high school game.
"We coulda won state that year if he'd played me," Rico says, gazing into nothing and speaking more to himself than to his nephew.
In case anyone doubts his prowess, Rico carries around a tape of himself, some twenty years after high school, dropping back and throwing the football. Ready to show the video at the slighest show of interest (or disinterest, in his nephews' case), Rico is an easy target as a joke.
It has been said that behind every joke, there is a seed of truth. We all know our own Uncle Ricos.
Just don't call me "Rico Flaco."

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Steppin Out

"You mean like walk walk?" I asked the doctor, making sure that when he told me to walk, he meant to like, you know, walk. My left foot had not touched the ground in six weeks and approximately three hours, and the thought of putting pressure on the foot, even when ensconced in a walking boot, was enough to make the timid six-year-old in me come out.
Yes, he meant walk. Pulling the Band-Aid off all at once, I took the awkward first step as if there was a fly under my boot that I didn't want to crush...success!
No crushed Achilles. No shooting pain. The feel of the first step was like that first sip of cold water on a hot day-no, I'm playin, this was a small step for the body, and a giant step for the psyche. The feel was of those slippery steps taken in Dad's "boats," those penny loafers that sat idle some days when he wore the dress shoes with the shoelaces.
"Just heel to toe, heel to toe," said the doctor patiently, practiced enough even as a youngish orthopedist to know that despite my fears, I would be all right. His comfort lay in the repetition of heel to toe, mine in the fact that he was comfortable.
I will be in the walking boot for two weeks, then I have a Shoe Appointment.
"Bring the left shoe with you next time," the doctor said at least three times. "We're gonna fit you, and you'll be walking in a shoe in a few weeks. Hobbling, I should say."
In three weeks, physical therapy begins, then some other followup appointments, and then...a long road ahead, I know.
Is it too corny to say that I have to take it one step at a time?
Speaking of corny, I held up my left foot today, sporting some new Chuck Taylor(s) after weeks of rocking the infamous Polo shoe that was on my foot when the Achilles was ruptured.
"Hey, look," I said, pausing for emphasis, "I got new shoe. Get it? Singular?"
The pitying laughter of the class told me that, wonder of all wonders, I was now That Guy. The teacher who made jokes so corny that students felt sorry for him. The teacher we all had, the sophomore computer teacher I had some fourteen years ago.
Time flies when you're telling shoe jokes...

Text Message Exchange Regarding How Old is too Old to Play Pickup Basketball (with Undergraduates)

My friend Mikey: "Is 30 2 old to play pickup basketball at the college rec center with undergrads? Thanks."

Me: "30 is not too old. 30 years and exactly six months is. At that age, you will rupture your Achilles tendon on a harmless jump shot."

Mikey: "Buzzkill."

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Before and After

A few nights ago, I watched Dodgers outfielder Juan Rivera running all-out in his approach of a foul ball near the right-field stands. As he approached the ball, he ran uphill on the opponent's bullpen mound. As the ball dropped strangely with the wind, I yelled out, "Watch out!" while my friend yelled out, "Dive!"

A bit embarassed, I looked away from my friend, his gaze on me, and I clapped for the catch, an awkward one where at least Juan didn't get hurt by that darn pitching rubber that could so easily end a season or a career...

A partial list of things that are different after my injury: airport announcements asking for a wheelchair or volunteers to wheel a passenger around are listened to with greater concentration; an increased awareness of, and head nod/smile for, fellow airport crutch carriers and people in wheelchairs. An involuntary cringing watching Shaq's highlight films in which his 330+ lb. body goes flying into the stands (cringing for him and the fans); noticing more acutely the difference between a football player down with a cramp or a temporary pain and the player who's not getting up without help from another person or stretcher; recognizing the telltale hand wave that shows a teammate's sense of urgency for the trainers to check on his fallen comrade. Noting Rafa Nadal's constant changes of direction on the tennis court, his near-splits when reaching for a short volley. An even stronger sense that the shelf life of a boxer (Bernard Hopkins and George Foreman aside) and a running back--the Niners recently expressed satisfaction that Frank Gore will "retire a 49er" after signing a contract that ends at age 32-and a tennis Zeus (Federer) is very short in relative terms.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Sympathy and Empathy

Sympathy and empathy. Similar, but not synonymous. Less and less so every day.

Chris had torn a ligament in his knee as an eighth grader, before I'd known him. I first worked with him the following summer, in June before his freshman year. A tough, hard-nosed player, he played all-out until he hit the floor, where he cringed and writhed as if he were on fire. It took about a year before this habitual writhing ceased.
It was the next summer when he told me, unsolicited, "Coach, I feel whole again."

As hard as I had tried at the time to feel my player's pain, to get to know him on his level, it was not possible.
Today: empathy.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

See You at the Crossroads (No, not the Bone Thugs n' Harmony Type)

The proverbial angel and devil are on my shoulder 24/7. Do I hang 'em up? Do my basketball shoes collect dust (my Polo shoes definitely will)? Do I spend my Monday nights watching football instead of playing in the men's basketball league? Do I spend my Sundays eating hot dog after hot dog instead of taking the bike out for a ride? Do I talk trash from the sidelines instead of playing in the annual Students versus Faculty basketball game?

The devil (or maybe the angel) on my shoulder echoes the advice, no command, of my friend--"Don't try to play ball again, man. You're gonna get hurt."

The angel or the devil tells me, "Use this as fuel. You know what it's like to have been active, and you cannot give that up! You can't put the toothpaste back in the tube (my angel/devil has a firm command of figurative language)!
Let me say this -the fear of spending another period of multiple weeks/months off my feet, virtually helpless, unable to even shower without a Herculean effort, is quite real. The fear is real, yet I wonder how long it will last. Part of this fear is healthy, I think, that which kept me concentrating with each "step" on my crutches, loath to make a misstep that would lead to a fresh tear of my balloon-fragile, newly-rebuilt Achilles tendon.
About a week after my surgery, I made my way to my usual sitting room perch, a comfortable couch with a good view of the television. As I spun around to allow myself to lay down, backside first, I made a misstep that made my weight lean forward. In a feeling that I can liken to those agonizing seconds when the wind is knocked out of you, there was a moment (who knows how long exactly?) when I felt that the next logical step was me stumbling onto my bad leg, that it was inescapable.
I uttered a pitiful cry that didn't sound much different than the Tarzanlike cries I usually exhaled in a joking fashion when I stretched out on the couch. My sister and cousin, extremely solicitous and helpful in my recovery, must have figured that things were normal, and thankfully, I regained my balance, having seen the abyss below.
As I stand (so to speak) now at this crossroads, I wonder if this tenderness, this avoidance of injury, will stick with me for a long time, will infect my brain, will cause unnecessary worry.
Will I be emboldened by this injury, quick to resist the malaise that would keep me home from a workout? Will I run to the tennis court without hesitation, savor the back and forth that I missed for many months?

"Good news is," says my uncle who suffered the same injury at the age of 31, also playing basketball, "my repaired Achilles has never given me a problem in the twenty years since. Shoot, it's better than the other Achilles. I've played a lotta tennis, even to this day. Played basketball for years, too."
"And the bad news?" I say.
"Bad news is, they tell you six months until you can exercise, but it was almost a year before I felt right. You know what I mean by 'right.' Feeling like you can cut on that leg, plant on that leg, go up in a crowd and grab a rebound. The physical will be fine. It's the mental that is the hardest part.

Will I be gung ho about my first basketball game and my first tennis match, or beg out due to the possibility of reinjury?
With apologies to Robert Frost, is it possible to take both paths?

Life's Milestone Markers and 2Pac

Our life's milestone markers go from the most serious-Where were you when the second tower collapsed?-to the more specialized and trivial-Where were you when the Sox finally won The World Series? Our parents' generation had the Kennedy assassination, "The Shot Heard 'Round the World," Ali/Frazier; our grandparents-Pearl Harbor, D-Day, Black Friday
Though not the defining event of my lifetime, nor my generation's, I do remember very well the shock of the death of Tupac Shakur.
Amazing. Amazing to me that yesterday marked the fifteenth anniversary of his death. My students wear t-shirts with his face and the line THUG LIFE in Olde English writing, and they talk about him as a hero of "old school" hip hop. It came to me yesterday that my students were born in 1996, the year he was born. A few of them-the late birthdays-were not even alive at the same time as him. Wow.
Tupac has been dead for about half of my life.
I feel old.

Get Away From Zero

A high school history teacher of mine used to impress upon his students the need to "get away from zero." What he meant was that partial credit, half credit, whatever it took to get away from zero percent was crucial to one's grade. A fairly obvious statement, it may seem, but it stuck with me throughout my academic career and is now a big part of my lectures to my students.
In the same vein, my immediate plan, a day-to-day sustaining plan, is to get away from zero. While I will obviously be staying away from calf raises, running, and the like for a while-the doctor has thrown on six months from the surgery date as a target date-I want to feel like I am in some increasing strength.
One of the things I have missed the most during my convalescence has been the ability and the freedom to work out, to lift weights. Until today, I had not lifted weights in a little more than five weeks.
There is something in the thirty-year-old psyche that sees any "day off" from exercise and strength training to be a loss. There is no neutral in the thirty-year-old plus psyche. There is only reverse, and a day that does not feature a machine in Drive means a step backwards.
As hard as it is to gain strength and definition at my age, these five weeks off have clearly shrunk my muscles. We have the human need to stave off the spiderwebs, to start that line on the graph in its proper trajectory-up and to the right, baby!
That's why, today, "Storage Wars" on in the background, it felt so dang good to do sixty reps with the left, sixty reps with the right, a simple military press. Yes, the dumbbell was fifteen pounds.
Fifteen? It's more than zero, right?


"It's ironic," said TV's Tony Soprano, discussing his post-bullet-wound recovery, "You lose muscle, not fat."

My cell phone camera and my dad's nice Kodak are full of injury milestone pictures. The first: there's me in my little booties and hospital gown about ten minutes after my surgery. The picture was my idea and not my dad's. I remember feeling very, very cold and having a horrendous sore throat (from the breathing tube that had been inserted and removed during and after surgery). My head was covered with the kind of hat cooks and ladies whose hair will soon be in rollers wear.

Why the picture then? Part of it was probably my post-surgery loopiness, yes. But I must say that part of me wanted to immortalize this moment, maybe as a reminder of a low point, as I lay there with a freshly-constructed and incredibly-fragile Achilles tendon. I was, in many ways, starting over again.
A little over four weeks after my surgery, four weeks with no measurable exercise, and man, my muscles have morphed. Atrophy has set in, and as Tony said, it does attack muscle and not fat. Though I have very little fat outside of a mini-gut, I still wish the atrophy would have happened in my neck or foot-ha!-somewhere that is not as visible.
Upon uncovering my hibernating left leg from it's four week cast, it has been quite obvious that both of my legs, the left one more visibly, have morphed to childlike proportions. I've always had chicken legs, but dang! The affected left leg hides inside its cavernous home, a boot which at least allows me some freedom to move. Four or so times a day, per my doctor's instructions, I take off the boot to do some basic flexibility exercises. As I do about ten reps, moving the foot left to right, and up and down, I see that something is missing. The telltale widening of the calf about halfway up is not there.
Though I cringe even picturing any weight being borne by my weakened left leg, I'm sure that a left leg calf raise would show very little, if any, of the characteristic plumping of the back of the leg.
In many ways, with the leg and certain parts of my life, I'm starting over. Starting over is often that wish we address to that invisible genie we desire, but in this case, I'd love to have skipped the starting over. Now, how about this, how about I start over with no Achilles tendon injury instead of starting over with muscle development? Deal?

The two embedded videos show my boot in all its glory, as well as a comparison of my two atrophied legs. Enjoy, and blame my partial-Mediterranean heritage for the hirsute legs. I also would like you to observe the award-winning television that is on in the background. There is some really, really bad television on the airwaves. Yes, I was watching "Jerseylicious." For the uninitiated, it is a "reality show" that follows the trials and tribulations of the employeees of a New Jersey beauty salon.
I know-you're sitting there judging me.