Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Back Attack

Sunday morning I got up from my desk to refill my coffee cup. My dog, Sammy got up from his strategic location right behind my chair ready to escort me to the kitchen. But first he stretched as he always does – the “downward dog” as we say in Yoga class. I told him he should try the cat stretch where we bend forward and “blow up” our back. I demonstrated for him and he looked at me quizzically but didn’t attempt it. Then, as I straightened up, I was stabbed with a searing pain at the base of my spine, sort of like what I imagine it might feel like to be tasered.

This seems to happen to me about once every year. It never happens when I’m doing anything athletic – it’s always something routine, like tying my shoes. One minute I’m feeling great, ready to run five miles and the next I can’t even move.

By Monday morning I still had difficulty standing straight and my whole back ached because all my muscles where tensed. I decided to go to spinning class anyway, just to get some exercise. I made it through the class, being very careful on the transitions from sitting to standing. I tried swimming, but it hurt to kick, except when I swam on my back so I gave up after a few laps.

I called my chiropractor, Tony Breitbach who runs the Wellness Revolution  in Evanston. Tony’s a triathlete also and that perspective is really helpful in treating endurance athletes. He understands our motivations.

After a few minutes on their mechanical massage table – I’m sure that’s not the right term – it’s a table with a roller built into the mat that rolls up and down the spine. It helps to stretch out the back and feels great, although not quite so great after being tasered.

After the table workout Tony worked on my back with various stretches and adjustments and by the time he was done, I was much more upright when I walked out of the office. He told me that every two hours I needed to lay on the ground and work on arching my back as much as I could tolerate, which I’ve done. Today, I am much better, but it still takes me about three times as long to tie my shoes.

With Tony’s help I hope to be back to normal workouts by the weekend.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Swimming: Can Old Dogs Learn New Tricks?

When I started this blog back in July, I wrote that one of the purposes was to chronicle my efforts to achieve a top-ten finish in the USAT Age Group Championship in 2011 when I inexplicably turn 60.

Soon after that I competed in the 2009 National championships in Tuscaloosa. I figured that would be a perfect way to frame my quest. When I triumph in 2011 I could point back to 2009 and show how much I’ve improved. In that sense I guess the 2009 race was a huge success, as I have amply demonstrated how much improvement is needed since I wasn’t able to even finish that race.

My problems all started with the swim. It was in the Black Hawk River – a lovely eight-four degrees and eighty percent of the course was swum against the current looking into the sun. I had expected (maybe hope would be a better word) to finish in thirty-four minutes. It took me fifty-eight. My legs started to cramp from dehydration before I finished the swim and by the time I got off the bike I couldn’t run.

If I am going to be competitive in two years I have to make huge improvements in my swim time.

In October I resumed taking Masters Classes at the Y. Each week we would work on different drills. A couple of weeks ago the drill was “one-arm freestyle.” Nobody liked that drill until the following week when we did “no-arm freestyle.”

Actually both drills are much worse than they sound. I figured waterboarding might be next so I stopped going to the classes.

Instead, I’ve been doing research. My tri coach, Craig Strong has written a series of articles called “Take Your Swim to the Next Level.” As I read the articles I found myself nodding my head as he described various problems. It turns out I am the perfect “before” swimmer: Float-challenged, poor balance, no rhythm, weak ineffective kick, improper breathing technique. I’m not even sure I’m wearing my goggles correctly. Maybe they’re upside down?

So next week I’m going to go back to the pool. The first step will be to learn how to float. According to Craig everyone can float. He says the key is to become               
                                                                                     a kayak:

not an iceberg. 

We'll see.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Basketball and My White House Fellowship

In 1982 I applied for a White House Fellowship. The White House Fellows program was established by President Johnson in October 1964. The mission of the program was "to give the Fellows first hand, high-level experience with the workings of the federal government and to increase their sense of participation in national affairs." White House Fellows typically spend a year working as full-time, paid special assistants to senior White House Staff, the Vice President, Cabinet Secretaries and other top-ranking government officials. Each year there are over a thousand applicants for the nineteen fellowships. Approximately 100 of the applicants are selected by regional panels of prominent local citizens. Based on the interviews the finalists are selected.

I survived the first cut and was invited to participate in the Midwest regional interview process. Each candidate met with a panel of five questioners. My interview was rolling along until one of the women panelists asked me what was the most traumatic or life-changing event of my life. I immediately, without even thinking, said, “When I tore up my knee playing basketball at the Y.” I can remember the look on her face as she tried to not roll her eyes. “Basketball at the Y? Did this affect your career? You’re not a professional athlete are you?” I’m not sure if she asked those questions or I just thought that’s what she wanted to ask. It didn’t matter. I was so flustered that when the next questioner tried to bail me out by asking me about my avowed interested in working with the CIA, all I could do was babble incoherently.

I didn’t make it to the finals. Ronald Reagan had to rebuild America without my help. Too bad, because I could have really helped them in the CIA. For years I beat myself up for giving such a stupid answer, but eventually the kids came along and I had other things to think about.

Last year at Squaw Valley Writer’s Conference I was part of a “finding the story” in our lives seminar and the question came up again. I had a second chance and a day to think about it, before I gave my answer to the class.

And when I had time to think about it, I realized it was a good answer, just poorly explained. All through college I played intra-mural basketball. And after graduation for the next ten years I played in local leagues, and pickup games at the Y. We’d play for hours. I was getting better every year. Then, when I was 27, on an all out fast break drive to the basket, I was hit just as I planted my left foot. My leg buckled and I can still remember the sick feeling as the top half of my leg turned outward in a totally unnatural movement. I can also still remember the pain, so much so, that it hurts to write these words. I crawled off the court.

I had torn my ACL. That was 1979 and I had never heard of that injury. The orthopedic surgeon explained that repairs of the ACL were iffy and it was unlikely I would have the same stability I’d had before the accident. I was in a leg cast for eight weeks and it took me a year to recover. The knee was never the same.

As I prepared my answer for that writer’s conference, I realized, with the benefit of three decades of hindsight, that the reason it was such a life-changing event for me was that it was, literally, the end of my youth. I was in my prime, each year getting faster, stronger, more skilled. And then it was over. There was a new world order. I had to be careful, take care of my body – work harder just to stay even.

Of course, even if I'd had the insight to give an articulate answer during that interview, my interest in the CIA probably would have killed my chances anyway.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Football Hero

In my last high school basketball game we beat Penn Yan on their court by ten points. I fouled out of the game in the third quarter. It was a fitting way to end my career.

I was going to title this post: “Basketball – the Not so Early Years,” but I got sidetracked with college football. The basketball saga will continue in a few days.

I had more success in high school playing football. I was voted to the 2nd Team Greater Rochester team and even got my picture in the Democrat and Chronicle. It was a huge thrill to be there with all the stars from the big Rochester high schools. I decided I was good enough to play college ball.

I applied to three schools: Miami of Ohio, because my sister had gone there; Cornell, because my parents were alumni; and the University of Rochester because the freshmen football coach invited my Dad and me to come up and have lunch with him.

I was accepted at all three schools. It took me about five minutes to make my decision. I chose Rochester because I thought I could play football for them and they said they wanted me. Who says you can’t trust eighteen year olds with important decisions? Maybe my thought process wasn't so great, but it turned out to be the right decision.

I met my wife at Rochester and I got a good education, too. The football part – that didn’t work out so well.

Freshmen year I played one game and then got pneumonia and missed the rest of the season. Sophomore year I was the third string wide receiver, but I did get to play on the kickoff team. Because I was reasonably fast, but couldn’t tackle worth a lick, I was given the important assignment of being a “wedge-buster.”

It was my job to race down the field and hurl my body at the blockers who formed a wedge in front of the runner. The hope was that one or more of them would waste their time disposing of my body and that would allow someone who could tackle to get past them to the ballcarrier.

Fortunately we didn’t score a lot and I only got in about thirteen plays.

For my junior year, either because of my stellar play as a wedge-buster or because I could never remember the offensive formations, they moved me to defense. Preseason practice started two weeks before school began.

August in Rochester. It was hot and humid. The dorms were not air-conditioned and I had a roommate that snored. After three days of double sessions my body felt like one huge bruise. Defense was a lot more physical than offense. On offense we just ran patterns and pretended to block. On defense we had to hit each other. All the time.

That third night I lay in bed, soaked in sweat, listening to my roommate snore and trying desperately to go to sleep. After three hours I wanted to suffocate him with a pillow, but instead I got up and went to the Bungalow, a local bar. The place was packed with kids who didn’t care whether I played football or not. Most of them had probably never gone to a game.

As I walked back to the dorm, I had an epiphany: I didn’t have to play football. It was one of those slippery-slope thoughts. Once I allowed myself to imagine how much fun it would be to not have to go to football practice there was no turning back. Another one of my carefully reasoned decisions.

The next morning I told Coach Stark I was quitting. He tried to look disappointed, but he was never much of an actor.

I never consciously regretted the decision, but even after thirty years I still have dreams every once in awhile that I have returned to the team and I’m practicing again. It is always the same: I can’t remember the plays and I still hate practice.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Letting Go - The Short Story

My short story, “Letting Go” has been published by Annalemma Magazine, which is a literary journal with both print and online publications.

This story was an excerpt from my novel, but as I start the fourth rewrite of that novel, it looks like the novel will end before this story takes place. So I guess this is an excerpt from the sequel to my yet to be completed first novel.

I had submitted several other stories to the editor, Chris Heavener, and he gave me very nice rejections so I kept sending stuff to him and finally something stuck.

Persistence pays off.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Basketball - The Early Years

I was going to title this essay, “Basketball – My First 50 Years” but I got caught up reliving the glory of high school basketball and so I decided to stop there, for now. I’ll revisit the subject later.

Basketball is my favorite sport. As a kid I loved playing baseball—it was a great way to spend lazy summer days. When I was in high school, there was nothing that could compare with football. Organized, sanctioned violence—could there be a better sport for teenage boys? But basketball is the one sport I’ve been able to play regularly for my whole life.

The first trophy I ever won was for 2nd place in a free-throw shooting contest at the old Canandaigua YMCA. I was eight years old and the trophy was a small silverized plastic cup mounted on a little black plastic stand. Inserted into the base of the stand was a black plastic tab. Written with silver ink on the tab were the words, “Second Place.” That was of course, totally redundant. We all knew that the first place trophies were made of gold plastic. I really wanted one of those, but I still cherished that award.

I grew early. I was six feet tall by seventh grade. On our junior high Y team I was the center, usually surrounded by five footers with squeaky voices. I learned to play in the post position, back to the basket, never venturing more than eight feet from the rim. I was all ready for that next growth spurt that I was going to get in high school. The one that would catapult me to six-three or even taller. But it never happened. I stopped at six feet and one half inch (that half inch was important as it distinguished me from all those 5’11” wannabee six footers who rounded up.)

Some times we get typecast. I was considered the “big man,” even though by sophomore year most of the squeaky-voiced guys were taller than me. All that meant was that they could launch their shots from twenty feet with impunity, but if I ever took a shot past the foul line I’d get benched.

We didn’t have a great basketball program at Canandaigua Academy in those years. My sophomore year the Varsity got off to a slow start and was 1-5. They brought me up from the Junior Varsity to help them out (they needed a big man.) We lost the next twelve games and finished 1-17. The next year we had a new coach, and in his first meeting he vowed that we would not go 1-17 again. After twelve games it looked like he might be right, because we were 0-12. Then we won a game. By one point. Then we lost the next five to finish, once more, 1-17.

I've endured tough times as a business owner, been married for decades and survived the turbulence of three teenagers, but the only time I’ve had trouble sleeping was after each of those twenty-nine losses during those two torturous seasons.

My senior year, our coach, after an offseason of careful study, concluded that the one common element in both losing seasons was me. So I didn’t start as a senior and we won eight games. I didn’t mind not starting. I just wanted to be on a winning team.

Losing does not build character. At least it didn't build my character.Whatever character I have was built elsewhere. The one thing those two awful seasons taught me was that losing all the time totally sucks. Especially when you’re sixteen years old and (with the exception of girls) winning a game is the most important thing in your life.

But I got over it.

Sort of.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

"Casualties" Nominated for "Best of the Web" Contest

My short story, Casualties, which was published last month by the Short Story Library, has been nominated by the magazine’s editor for consideration in Dzanc Books  “Best of the Web for 2010” contest.

There are a lot of nominations, hundreds probably, so this isn’t exactly a career-changing event. It’s just a little pat on the back, which we all need every once in awhile. And a nice thing about this contest is that I don’t think they announce the winners until January or February so I can enjoy the good feeling of being nominated for at least three months.