Friday, December 31, 2010

#293: My Friend, the Beautiful Lunatic

My friend Alan ended his fight with cancer today. He had been in a coma since before Christmas. He had a stroke and never fully recovered, though our friend Alycat was with him in Nashville, and is sure that he heard and understood when she told him how much we loved and were praying for him. It's a happy day for him, a sad one for us. But as much as I want to be sad, I can't help smiling every time I think of him.

He was the doctor on duty when our first cat, "Uh-Huh" collapsed on the examination table. He held her in his hands and gave her CPR for several minutes until it became clear that he would not be able to restore her breath, even with his own. He was there again when little "Mo," the eternal kitten, arrived at the back door of the hospital. Our little man was gasping for breath and his mouth was turning blue. This time, Alan was able to bring our cat back from death. In the years to come, he would do that many times, for many people's animals. One cold afternoon, we took turns with the shovel in our backyard digging a grave for a cat who had to be euthanized, but whose family could not bear the thought of strangers disposing of her little body. We stood around the grave and prayed for the spirit of our fellow creature. One winter morning, he heard a terrible scream from under the hood of his car when he tried to start it. A cat had crawled up underneath for warmth and was horribly wounded by the turning machinery. He took her to work with him, performed reconstructive surgery, nursed her back to health, and shared his home with her for the rest of her life. Another night, standing in his bathroom, he heard a forlorn meeowling coming from the tree outside his window. He opened the sash, stuck a litter pan out into the rain, and in jumped little Maggie the crazy Southern Gothic cat who lives in our attic and howls out the window to frighten passers-by on sultry summer evenings. How can you be sad when you remember a life like Alan's?

After his painful divorce, he lived with us for a while. Though he eventually moved out, he would come and go in our home like one of the family. He would show up with a six-pack of beer and a goofy grin and we would all get drunk and play scrabble. Once, he accused Mrs P of being a witch because of her uncanny ability to quiet  and communicate with even the most furious animals. Also her ability to consistently whip our tails at that infernal crossword game. Another time, after a bottle of wine or two, we laughed ourselves silly as Alan lifted Mo up in his bony hands and gently tap tap tapped his little kitty head to the ceiling of our living room, over and over again. Trust me, had you been there, you would have found it funny, too. Mo has forgiven, but never forgotten this event. He still refers to our friend as "Bloody Alan." Then there was the night in our living room when he taught Mrs P's boss' nine year old son to roll up his pants, raise his knees, tuck his hands under them, and make farting noises by kicking his feet up and down. I have never been able to duplicate this. If I had not seen it, I would not believe it possible. Maybe it's something you learn at camp like whistling through your fingers or spitting through your teeth. I never saw Alan do either, though he could thwack a watermelon seed across the yard with uncanny accuracy.
Alan asked me to read at his second wedding. I used to do this all the time, whenever anyone asked, but since nearly every wedding I have graced by intoning "The Greatest of these is LOVE," has resulted in an unhappy divorce, I've given up the practice. His may have been the last. He never had any kids of his own, but he loved his step children and he loved being a dad to them. It brought something holy out of him that just didn't show when he was sitting our our back porch flicking beer caps at the back of Mrs P's head.

One night, on the feast of St Francis, Alan came to St. Martha's to participate in the blessing of the animals. Though he was not a member of our parish, or even an Episcopalian that I can remember, he moved reverently among dogs, birds, cats, and one very puzzled pony. He laid his hands on each head, just as the priest did, and blessed them as brothers and sisters. After the service and the obligatory pot luck supper, (always an adventure when the parish hall is full of animals,) Alan spoke about what it meant to minister to the suffering of animals and the people who loved them. He talked about the painful decision to end the life of a creature you love, and the kindness inherent in that decision. He read one such story to us from the book by James Herriot that he said inspired him to become a vet. Though he was one of the silliest men I ever met, he treated his work as a holy vocation to serve God's most helpless children. Alan could be exasperating, but he was a very difficult man not to love.

I hate that he died fighting cancer. God forgive me, but there are a lot of other people I would rather see dead. That's not my call, I understand. Cancer doesn't choose us any more than we choose cancer. We just sort of bump into one another and our crazy story plays itself out. I don't try to make sense of his death. I grieve for the laughter I will never be able to share with him again. Not in this life, anyway. I grieve for the families who will not know his tender touch when it is time for them to decide when their beloved pet has suffered enough. I want to be sad about all this.

But then I look into Mo's kittenish eyes, now 15 years old and usually tired, but still afire with the life he once came so close to losing. I stroke Maggie's back as she sleeps on my lap in  her chair by the attic window. I glance at the spot on the ceiling where a pair of pointy ears once tap tap tapped until we were all weeping with laughter, (all of us except the cat, of course.) I know I should be sad. But whenever I think of my friend, the beautiful lunatic, I can't help smiling.

God bless you, Alan. You loved all creatures, great and small. Some of them you delivered from death's door, others you helped tenderly along to heaven. I know they're all glad to see you tonight. I can only imagine the scene when you arrive at the gate and all those cats start rubbing your legs at the same time. I can't wait to see you again myself. I'll bring the Rolling Rock in green long-necks. We can lean against the wall and flick caps at the back of St Peter's head while you teach me that leg-farting thing.

Till then, my brother...


Wednesday, December 29, 2010

#292: Come a Long Way in 2010

You talking to me?

I just reread my New Year's post for 2010. What a long, strange trip it's been. There are parts of last year's Pennsy that I hardly recognize. At the same time, I can see how the events of '09 were preparing me for a new adventure in ways I could never have anticipated.

The year started out with a new job. I was working at the service desk at Meijer. That's a place I never imagined myself, but much to my surprise, it was a real source of peace for me. I worked with lots of young people who had big plans, full of hope and promise. They worked hard, (most of them) and treated me like a strange, funny old man. I enjoyed being there, even if I was making minimum wage and spending most of my earnings on pain killers for my aching back and feet.

I was still bitterly angry at all the people who had "slighted" me over the years. I think that shows up in my New Year's meditations. I still hadn't recovered emotionally from the lay-off in '08, and I had failed at two sales jobs in '09. I felt as if I had been abandoned by people I cared about. I also felt as if I had abandoned myself. I wanted to die, and spent about a month of '09 in a mental health hospital as an in-patient and a daily out-patient. The year used up nearly all of my retirement savings. Mrs P and I were in financial trouble and our marriage was growing more and more distant. As icing on the cake, the theatre company for whom I had moved to Lexington, the one I had given so much and made so many mistakes lost it's funding from the local arts council and seemed on the brink of disappearing. I had no present, no future, and no legacy. Depression and self-pity were my closest friends.

Honey? Does this look strange to you?
 Then one day in March, I noticed a swelling on the right side of my neck. It was a long time before I said anything to anyone about it. I expected it to go away. When it didn't, I finally asked Mrs P to feel it and tell me what she thought. I always trust her judgement in health matters because she spent a decade working in a small animal hospital and while I am a decidedly big animal, she is usually right about these things. She didn't know what the mass was, (I still remember the first time somebody called it a "mass" instead of a "bump",) but she knew it was serious. She made me promise to call the doctor, and eventually I did.

Why so many men hate going to the doctor, I can't explain. Me, I like suffering because I enjoy the pity of others, but I don't like being so sick that I need professional help. I suppose that in itself is a sign that I need professional help, but I'm getting off topic here. I finally made the appointment with a doc in our neighborhood, one I had only visited once before for an ear infection. It was a pretty short visit. She looked in my mouth and ears, felt my neck, and scheduled a CT scan. She also said she wanted to do a needle biopsy. Alarm bells went off in my head when I heard that. I was expecting to hear that I had mono. I had been sleeping a lot and was doing very little besides my job at the store. You don't test for mono with a biopsy.

Waaah! I have caaaan-cerrrr!
After the CT scan, there was a visit to the ENT, (ear, nose, and throat doc) who poked with his fingers, peeked with his flashlight, and shoved a fiber optic camera up my nose and down my throat. He didn't like what he saw. We cancelled the biopsy and scheduled a PET scan. Another test that has nothing to do with mono. The day we sat in the exam room with him and reviewed the images from that second scan was one that changed my life. Though it took me a long time to admit it, I think I knew that day what the real diagnosis was. Mrs P certainly did. The doc said we needed to get the mass out immediately. It had surrounded my jugular vein, was pinching my carotid artery, and had shoved my larynx almost an inch to the left. My "bump" was killing me. Two days later, I went into the operating room. Six hours after that, I woke up in recovery and out of the post-anesthetic fog I heard the doc telling me that they had found cancer. The cut out a tonsil. some, nerves, a chunk of my jugular vein, the muscle that helps you lift your arm straight up, and a cancerous mass the size of my fist. The cancer had metastasized from my tonsil into my lymph nodes. The doc said that they got all they could see, but that the tests showed that they did not get it all. I had cancer.

I found out that battling cancer is more than just fighting a disease. We had hospital billing offices to navigate. Insurance companies who didn't want to help. Collections agencies who thought we should care more about our credit cards than about my life. Mum drove down and set up camp on the futon. Mrs P started collecting notes and paperwork. We were a lonely little team dreading each phone call and the new bad tidings it would bring.

And then the most remarkable thing started happening.

Yippee! More company!
 There would be a knock at the door, and an old friend would be standing there with a bag of potatoes. Or the bell would ring and there would be a book to read or some music to listen too. The mail would come filled with cards and letters from family. They told me stories about my dad and how strong and kind he was. They shared things we had done together and how much they loved me, even though I hadn't been home to Pittsburgh for years. People called, just to talk. They had funny stories and gossip to share. They listened to me tell the same tales of woe over and over. They told me about their own battles with cancer and how they had won them. They prayed with me and for me.

Once more unto the breach...

I decided to start writing about what was happening. This blog had been around for a while. It started out as a place for me to write long, boring essays about religion, but whose real subject was how smart I was. A while later, I used it to tell the story of my journey from fat to fit. I blogged a lot then, sharing news of the gym and the road. Writing became as important a part of my exercise regimen as the treadmill or the bench press. I kept it up until the day I lost my job. In a panic, I turned all my energy toward finding a new income, a new career. Selling insurance didn't make me feel much like writing or working out. But when I realized that I was sick, that I might die, I decided to write it all down. I wanted there to be a record. If I was going to disappear from the earth, I wanted there to be something I could leave behind so people would remember me. Later, I came to understand that writing was a way I could help other people. Lots of folks are scared of cancer, and lots of them feel lost and alone. Telling my story was a way to show people some of the things I found during my journey through that dark cave.

Say hello to my
little friend.
 I learned a lot about the world in the next few months. There is more love and compassion and inspiration to be found in other people than I ever imagined. We really do heal one another, as much as the most wonderful drug or the most expensive radiology gizmo. We may go through our daily lives with blinders on, but when one of us is in real trouble, there are some folks who will go to great lengths to give comfort and friendship. God is present among us in the love of our friends, our neighbors, even the strangers we meet. No matter how much we may think otherwise, we are never alone in this life. Never.

So, how to wrap up this remarkable year? Well, the docs tell me that there are no signs of cancer left in my body. The shrink seems to believe that there is hope for me. Mrs P and I are preparing a new life as the bank takes our house. The mortgage did not survive the last two years, but after all we've been through, it seems much smaller a problem that it did a few months ago. My wife and I love one another more than either of us realized. I got to spend more time with my mother than I have since I left her house thirty years ago. And I'll be acting in front of an audience again in January. Against all reason, I have to say that 2010 has been a wonderful year.

Happy New Year!

I'm not glad I had cancer, not by a long shot. But I'm grateful for the lessons cancer has taught me. I won't forget them. And I'm grateful for the time and kindness that folks have given to this blog over the months. I look forward to spending many more years together as we share our stories. We have much to learn from one another.

God bless you and the ones you love in 2011, and always.


Friday, December 24, 2010

#291: Why I Can't Outgrow Christmas

"Nativity", Albrecht Altdorfer (1480-1538)
 I feel as if FMR needs a Christmas message. We’re not having much of a Christmas here this year. It isn’t that we don’t have anything to celebrate. It’s just that good old 2010 really took it out of us. We have plenty to Christmas about, just not much energy left to do it.

Mrs. P and I will have a quiet Yule together. No trips over the river or through the woods, much as I would love to be at Grandmother’s house, I’m just not ready for a trip that long, yet. No chestnuts roasting or otherwise. We’ll exchange gifts in the morning, (which always drives her nuts because she wants to open them on Christmas Eve. I insist on waiting. It’s the only time all year that she lets me put my foot down.) We’ll roast a turkey breast and some mushy vegetables. We’ll hold hands on the couch and watch sentimental stuff on television and love one another the best way we know how. There will be phone calls to friends and family who are far away and maybe even a surprise visitor or two. You never know what Santa may bring. We’ll spoil the cats and Jake as much as we can. There will be tears shed and laughter shared. With any luck, we’ll smile out the window while we watch it snow.

Parents have a chance to hold onto some of Christmas' wonder through their children's eyes. Because we have no children, Christmas has grown a little less magical over the years. But, I’m OK with that. I’ve always thought there’s too much magic glommed onto Christmas anyway. Especially when you think about that first Silent Night.

They must have smelled terrible. The long journey. Nowhere to wash. No fresh water but what had been poured out for the animals. No wonder the innkeeper didn’t want them inside.

And what a place to give birth. No mattress. No sheets or blankets. Just some cloth torn into strips to use for bandages and to cover the infant. An old carpenter for a midwife. A mound of straw for a bed. A feeding trough for a cradle. And the smell of dirty hay and manure hanging in the air.

Who came to see? Who cared? Nameless shepherds. Migrant workers whose hands stunk with the grease of their flocks. The child was welcomed into the world by men whose expertise was in pulling lambs out of bawling ewes. They came and saw. Maybe they even helped with the birth. And when it was finished, they disappeared back into history. None of them could write, and no one would listen to them, so their story died with them. They left the child mother and her strange, quiet husband in the straw where they found them. And the baby slept in heavenly peace.

The real miracle of Christmas, the real reason I still care, can’t help caring on this night when the stores finally turn their employees loose and the streets are empty of all but the gently falling snow. The real reason that this night is Holy is this smelly, filthy barn, in the arms of a woman who was little more than a girl, watched over by a mystified, silent father and a group of rough, ignorant farmhands. This is the place where the Creator of the universe chose to join the human race. Here amid the grease and the smell of dung, Almighty God became one of us. God from God. Light from Light. True God from True God.

The jolly fat man has his place during the season, and God bless him for it. I love the Grinch and the Drummer Boy and sweet, long-suffering George Bailey. Each of them has a role in the long Christmastide. But tonight, on Christmas Eve, when the moon shines on the breast of the new fallen snow, I don’t really care about reindeer. Tonight, there is no one for me but that baby. God stooped to conquer death that night. And for a moment, in that insignificant stable, maybe for the first time in history, there really was peace on earth. And that's reason enough to hope that it there might be peace again.

Welcome, Jesus. Life will be hard for you , but tonight, sleep.

And on Earth, Peace, Good Will Toward All

And to you, my faithful reader and friend, a Merry, Merry Christmas


Tuesday, December 21, 2010

#290: What Cancer Costs

I spent some time with Excel and a stack of medical bills today. These prelimary numbers represent expenses not covered by insurance. The figures are not complete. I'll update them as new bills come up. I'm sure there are lots of lessons to be drawn from all this, but I'm not sure what they are just yet. Maybe I need one of those copywriters from Visa to come up with a final line like, "Living to see another Christmas? Priceless."

CT Scans
Diagnostic Services
Emergency Room
Hospital Clinic Visit
Medical/Surgical Supplies
Nuclear Medicine
Observation Room (Surgery recovery)
Operating Room Services
PET Scans
Pulmonary Services
Room and Board (hospital stay)
Vaccine Administration
Current Total


Thursday, December 9, 2010

#289: Unscheduled Day Off

See what can happen?
This poor guy's genitals fell off!
 No workout today. Not happening. I woke up today with sore hips and they're still sore. Not achy muscle sore, but pounded joints sore. A lot of things can go wrong with a runner's hips. Especially an obese 50 year-old runner. I don't mind working till my muscles hurt. That's actually kind of the point. But knees and hips can go bad fast. My weight puts a lot of stress on joints when I just move around. That's my fault. I understand. But for the time being, it's a reality that I have to include in my workouts. A few pounds from now I'll be able to go harder, but today I need to listen to my body. I don't want to get hurt and I don't want to quit. So, I'll swallow my ego and fiddle around in the house. There's still laundry to finish and I won't lack ways to occupy my time. I think I can make up the missed day on Sunday, though I'll have to run outside. Looks like our temps may actually reach the 30's by then, so I may have to wear a shirt.

After all, Scarlett. Tomorrow is another day.


Wednesday, December 8, 2010

#288: Two Guys Naked

You come here often?
 The Things You Hear in the Locker Room

There's just nothing like meeting someone when you're both naked. "Locker Room" conversation gets a bad rap, I think. Maybe the younger guys are talking about booty and brews, but we gentlemen of a certain age are a bit more lofty in our conversation. More cerebral. There we were, two wet, naked men sitting on a wooden bench. Our discourse went something like this...

"Oh, man. That almost killed me."

"I hear you. I wanted to do an hour today, and I barely made it 30 minutes."

"I haven't worked out in so long."

"One day at a time."

"That's the only way to do it."


And that's how I met my newest friend. Turns out he had prostate cancer about five years ago. We told our stories. I told him about some resources I had discovered here in town, he shared some with me. We both laughed about how strange it was to complain about a hard workout was after the things we'd been through. I wonder if this is how it feels when old veterans meet. We may not have known one another, but there was enough to make an immediate connection.

My friend Alex left me a great story in the comments for yesterday's post. It's about a teacher in seminary.
The instructor walked into class, looked around the room and asked, "Who here has a fatal disease?" None of the shocked class raised their hands. Then the instructor put his hand up, to the surprise of the class. After a moments pause he said, "We all do. It's called Life."

Yes, having cancer makes us unique. But in another sense, we're all confronted by death every day. We don't know when it's coming or how, but we know it will come. We can all ask the questions, "What would I do if I thought I only had a few months to live? Why am I not doing that right now?" In a way, surviving is more of a responsibility than an achievement. I have a responsibility to live the rest of my life as if it was worth the fight.

Maybe that's what it means to be a Christian? If we believe that Christ's suffering delivered us from death, maybe we have a responsibility to live our own lives as if they were worth the fight he fought. As if there were a reason for us to be delivered. Maybe that should be the measure of the way we treat other people and take care of ourselves? I'll have to mull that one over a little more.

The Day at the Gym

I did not want to go to the gym today. I was tired and grouchy and sleepy. I felt like I had had a full day yesterday and worked hard the last two days and earned myself a day off. Then I remembered all the time I spent plotting out my routines for the next few weeks. Problem is, I put them all on my calender. Taking a day off today would have meant rearranging six weeks worth of workouts. I figured it would just be easier to go lift weights than to do all that paperwork. Once I started lifting, I was glad I decided to go.

I made just a couple of changes to the workout I did on Monday. I took a little bit longer breaks today, and paid a lot of attention to form. I finally put all those mirrors to use, checking from the side to make sure I wasn't bowing my back on some of the deeper lifts. Changed a couple of exercises. I got rid of the weight on the lunges, and used an exercise that John Izzo recommends for training your body to do them properly. Here's a video guide that I cited back in October of last year. I think it is going to help me get on the right track with lunges, though I did lose my balance again, at least I had the good sense not to fall into anything today. More on that later.

I also combined the crunch and reverse crunch into super sets. That's when you do sets of two different exercises back to back, without stopping. I ditched the Swiss ball for the crunches. The ball at the gym is pretty squishy. Under my weight it was less like exercise equipment and more like a bean bag chair. Don't get me wrong. I had some good times in bean bag chairs back in the 'seventies, but my goals have changed slightly since then. Going to the floor and combining the two movements seemed to work my guts a little harder. I could certainly feel them burning by the end of the last set.

Battered, but not Beaten
Oh, this little thing? Just an
old dueling scar, my dear.
Remember how I told you I fell into the dumbbell rack on Monday? I have the most awesome bruise on my right shoulder!

How cool is that? I am fascinated by the way blood thinners affect injuries like this. Now the truth is, I didn't fall very far and I didn't hit very hard, but this thing is really swollen and ugly. Even Mrs P was impressed, and she's seen some stuff. I haven't noticed any soreness or weakness, though it is tender to the touch. It's just nice to have an injury that's so harmless, and at the same time so impressive looking. It appeals to my under-developed sense of machismo. Of course it also reminds me how much I need to protect my head. This hematoma would not be nearly as much fun were it inside my skull. And I don't even want to think about what would happen if I cut myself very badly. Better to avoid hard edges.

Not a bad rule in life, now that I think about it. Avoid hard edges.


Tuesday, December 7, 2010

#287: We Are The Lucky Ones

I ran today. It was great. I did intervals, running for a minute, then walking for 90 seconds. That pattern repeats for 20 minutes. I got just over a mile in that time. I may have looked like I was crawling, but I felt like I was flying. While I was panting around the track, I thought of a quote from a book that has helped me so much this year:

You don't know it yet, but we're the lucky ones." my fellow cancer patient had written. I will always carry the lesson of cancer with me, and feel that I'm a member of the cancer community. I believe I have an obligation to make something better out of my life than before, and to help my fellow human beings who are dealing with the disease. It's a community of shared experience. Anyone who has heard the words, "You have cancer," and thought, "Oh, my God, I'm going to die," is a member of it. If you've ever belonged, you never leave. - Lance Armstrong, It's Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life
I've been realizing lately just how lucky I am. And just how big a community I'm a part of.

Elizabeth Edwards
Cancer Fighter
We, who have battled cancer are lucky because we have had the chance to look Death in his eye, and then spit in it. We have a chance to choose not to let our lives be taken from us. I just found out that Elizabeth Edwards died today.
On Dec. 6, 2010, she said in a Facebook posting: "I have been sustained throughout my life by three saving graces, my family, my friends, and a faith in the power of resilience and hope.These graces have carried me through difficult times and they have brought more joy to the good times than I ever could have imagined. The days of our lives, for all of us, are numbered. We know that," she added.
I saw an article yesterday about how she had discontinued treatment and was losing her battle with cancer. You can tell that the writer didn't know anything about this disease. Elizabeth fought cancer for years and chose the time when she would stop fighting. She took the reins. She made the choice, before death could snatch it from her. She is no loser. Her will and grace make her a victor, not a victim. And her courage makes her a hero. I am lucky to share my membership in the cancer community with such a woman.

We who  have known cancer are lucky because we know what it means to weigh every detail of life. We have discovered the treasures that surround us. The tender touch. The voice of the birds in our yard. The taste of pizza. The tears of a loved one. I once joked that I felt as if I had been blessed with the opportunity to attend my own funeral. People would come to me full of joyful memories of the best parts of my life. They took the trouble to celebrate the things we had shared and done together. They loved me, each in their own way. How lucky I am to have known how much people care.

We are lucky because cancer gives us a chance, as Armstrong says, to make something better of our lives. I was talking with someone today about going back to work. I want to do it, but I know I'm not strong enough yet. It's frustrating. He challenged me to think of this time as a chance to recover. I have a chance to reevaluate the way I live my life, to choose to spend my healthy hours on the things that really matter to me. To play. To write. To love my wife. When I am well, I will go back to work and do other things, but for now, I have a chance not only to make my body better, but to make myself better as well. That's not an opportunity a lot of people get. I'm one of the lucky ones.

Tonight was the Christmas party for the head and neck cancer survivor support group at Markey. We sat around tables and laughed. We ate. We listened. We cared about one another. Some of us are still in treatment. Some have been cancer free for years. Some volunteer to help other patients to get through the hard times. Some of us are still in the middle of those times. But all of us are lucky. We all have heard the death sentence, and we are all alive today. We have a chance. We have a choice.

God go with you, Elizabeth, my sister. You had hard choices, and the courage to make them. May light perpetual shine upon you.

And today, after spending much of the year afraid I wouldn't live to see another Christmas, I ran a whole mile. How lucky can you get?


Monday, December 6, 2010

#286: Workout With a Plan

I have two fitness goals for the next few months. I want to cut my Body Fat Percentage in half and I want to start running in organized races again. I think Body Fat percentage is a more useful number than just weight because it accounts for the changes in muscle mass that result from exercise. Increasing my percentage of lean mass and watching the way my clothes fit will tell me more than the scale can, as long as I keep working out. It may take quite a while to make that much of a change, but I can wait. As far as racing goes, I don't think I'll ever be a competative runner, but that's not why I run in the first place. I run cause I like running. Having a race on the calender gives me a goal to work toward AND gets me a cool tee shirt. I want to be ready to start in time for the Shamrock Shuffle 3K in March.

How To Get There

I'll be using Alwyn Cosgrove's New Rules of Lifting program to deal with the fat/muscle balance, and  I'm using the Couch to 5K plan to get running again. I have a pretty ambitions plan laid out for myself. The running plan is designed to get you ready to run in 9 weeks. I can start that tomorrow without any other preparation. Before I can start doing the Cosgrove workouts, I have to be able to execute some movements that are still difficult for me. I'm using December to improve my fundamentals on them so I can start lifting just in time for New Year's resolutions. Here's what today's workout looked like...

Dumbbell Squats352x30
Dumbbell Lunges351x20
Dumbbell Bent Over Row352x40
Pushups (bent knee)35Body Wt
Swiss Ball Crunches35Body Wt
Dumbbell Deadlift352x40
Step Up352x10
Shoulder Press352x20
Lat Pulldown3575
Reverse Crunch35Body Wt

(Isn't that a cool table? I found this web site called that has a tool that will generate the code for you so you don't have to type all the html tags required. I'm such a sloppy typist, it really is better if I don't try to type code. This makes things much easier.)

The workout took about 45 minutes, plus a brisk 6 minute walk to warm up and a very weary 6 minute walk to cool down. I didn't time how long I sat gasping in the locker room, watching the sweat drip down on the floor between my shoes, but it seemed like a pretty long time. I was in and out in about an hour, which is what the experts say is appropriate. I don't mind spending longer than that in the gym, but I'm trying to be more efficient with my time there. I have to remember that I'm training to live, not the other way around.

It Ain't Pretty, but It's a Start

I found a cheat that helped me to get through the lunges. I held only one weight, and used my free hand to hang on to a bench for support. In time, I'll have the strength to do them properly, but this is a way to start. I startled one of the other lifters when I lost my balance at the end of the last set and tumbled down into the dumbbell rack. It wasn't as dramatic as this famous guy, but it raised a few eyebrows. I smiled and got myself up quickly. I'm sure I'll have an exciting bruise where my shoulder hit. No other harm done.

I did some sissy pushups with my knees bent, like they used to let the girls do in elementary school gym. I didn't go down very deep, but I moved five times, so I counted them. They'll get better too. I hope so. I don't want to have to wear culottes and knee socks.

The last problem move for me is the step up. It requires the same kind of core and leg strength that lunges do. You're supposed to hold two dumbbells and step up onto a bench. Instead, I used one of those Jane Fonda looking step aerobic thingees. It was about 16 inches high. I'll graduate to the bench when I'm stronger. In the meantime, I may have to dig out my old leg warmers. I don't think I have any flesh colored tights in the basement, though.

Releasing Some Pressure

I saw my family doctor this morning. it seems as if I've seen every other doctor in Lexington besides her in the last six months, but she's the one who sent me to the surgeon in the first place, so I owed her a follow-up and a thank you. We talked about my adventure, and about my blood pressure issues. We're going to taper off on the pressure meds for a week and see if I get past these dizzy spells. Much as I hated passing out in the bathroom, I really don't want to do it with 40 lb dumbbells over my head in the gym. Of course, I do have to run over to Wal-Mart a couple times a day to check my BP on that insane little gizmo they have at the pharmacy. Every time I see someone sit down to use it, I have visions of this scene from Bevis and Butthead. Later tonight, that will be me, screaming for help while a gaggle of tattooed youths in blue smocks tries to figure out how to unplug the thing.

I'll let you know how it turns out.


Saturday, December 4, 2010

#285: Now THAT Felt Like a Workout

I was looking for something else, (don't remember what) when I found this workout last night. It looked like just what I needed to get into condition, so this morning, I gave it a try. I did make a couple of changes. I used dumbbells, of course. Since I don't have the strength to do push ups yet, I did chest presses from the floor instead. And my lunges looked a lot more like stumbles. Other than that, I used the framework in the video. I did three rounds the way big Eddie does in the video, and I added a quarter mile walk between each round. I probably didn't need all that rest, but four laps was such a nice round number, I stuck with it. Actually, four laps is a little less than a quarter mile. I'll live with the difference for the time being.

So how did the workout go? Man, it is a heartbreaker. That's ten straight sets, a long time to go without a break. It really gets your heart pumping. I'd say that there's plenty of cardio benefit, as well as resistance training in this routine. I did have to sit down for a minute after the last set of squats. They almost broke me, but I got back up, and finished the round. I used two twenty pound dumbbells. Not much weight for the lower body work, but just about right for the upper back and shoulder pulls. I didn't want to take the time to be changing weights, so I picked a pair that I thought I could use for all the movements. Eddie looks to be using about 95 pounds. I think I might be able to work up to that eventually.

I didn't think that I would get much out of the squats and deads using only 40 lbs, but including them into this long round seemed to multiply their effect. I'm sure old Eddie can deadlift three or four times what he is doing here, but this workout is more about conditioning and fat loss than strength and size. Where I really felt it was in the upper back, between my shoulder blades. Those muscles haven't done much for a long time. After all those months on my back, it's going to take a while before those hanging rows don't hurt.

I came out into the snow feeling great. I always start out sort of hunched over and tired, but by the time I get to the car, what I've achieved sinks in and I'm walking tall and proud again. Now for a hot shower and a drive out to the country with Mrs P. We have tickets to see Much Ado About Nothing this afternoon, and I'm looking forward to seeing some dear friends play the matinee.

Oh, one more thing. I hate lifting weights in front of a mirror. Maybe when I'm prettier and have more to admire I won't mind so much, but right now, all I see is a bad haircut and fake teeth. What's the deal with all the mirrors, anyway? You can feel if your form is off, and there just arent that many bodybuilders flexing and posing in most health clubs. Maybe it's just to make the room look bigger.

It kind of makes me look bigger too, I think. I hope. I wish. Maybe on Monday I can find a spot facing one of those motivational posters.


Thursday, December 2, 2010

#284: Mind, Body, and Mouth

Today started at the dentist. My mouth has changed a little bit, and we needed to adjust my dentures to even out my bite. These changes are partly because of the radiation and partly because of the weight I'm losing. Who knew my mouth was so fat? I'm hoping today's tune up will help me to keep my teeth in my head when I'm singing. Beth, the dental assistant suggested I might try to use a little powdered adhesive when I perform to help keep them in place. They're pretty adamant about not using stickum on a regular basis. If they slip, that means they don't fit properly and I need to go get them adjusted. I'm cool with that. The less chemical goo in my mouth, the better.

It took me a while to finally get to the gym, but I had a good workout once I got there.

* Warm up - 5 minute walk
Woodchoppers - 3 sets by 10 reps each side @ 50 lbs
Dumbbell Deadlifts - 3 by 5 @ 70 (two 35 lb weights)
Curl to Arnold Press - 3 by 10 @ 12.5
* Rest - 5 minute walk
Single Leg Press (seated) - 3 by 20 each side @ 80
Lat Pull - 3 by 12 @ 50
Dumbbell Row (Single) - 3 by 10 each side @ 15
* Cool down - 5 minute walk

The Deadlift. Do it right or you're dead!
I tried to work at a good pace, keeping rest breaks to a minimum. The exercise I had the most trouble with was the Curl/Arnold Press combination. Here's a link if you're want to learn how that movement goes. I had trouble getting my right arm all the way up. That's the side where they took muscle out of my neck, so I'm trying to strengthen whats left of my deltoids over there. I had to start over on the last set, but I did finish. We'll see how I feel in the morning, but right now my muscles feel good, no soreness or aching. That tells me I'm getting stronger and I didn't do anything to hurt myself. That's a big deal, especially when you do deadlifts, even at the light weights I'm lifting. Form is everything when you do this exercise. Do it wrong, and your back can be shot for a long, long time.

On the other hand, the fact that I'm not hurting  may mean that I didn't work hard enough. On the other hand, I've always been a member of the "No Pain, No Pain" school of thought. I think I'll leave the weight levels where they are for now, and try increasing my rep counts for the next workout.

I left squats out today. I considered doing them, I really did, but deadlifts and squats on the same day can really wear you down. The truth is, you could probably make a pretty good workout only doing one of these exercises. Both engage a lot of muscles at once. I don't feel bad about splitting them up on separate days. I'll get squats in on Saturday.

Driving home from the gym, I realized something interesting. I hadn't thought about my teeth the whole time I was there. Usually I am so self conscious about my mouth. Whether the teeth are in our out, I'm always running my tongue over them, making sure they're tight. Checking for sore spots. Being careful not to bite myself. Keeping them moist. In the weight room, I never thought about them once. I hardly ever thing of anything when I'm lifting weights. That is one of the things I love so much about it. You have to be so present when you're moving iron around, even the light weights I'm starting with. When you're doing it right, completing the movements takes everything you have, and that includes your mind as well as your muscles. It is such a great way to spend an hour.

Running/walking is different for me. Most of the cardio exercises, really. My mind tends to drift around when I walk or run. I take in what's around me. I count laps. I fantasize about running a marathon or scoring a touchdown. Sometimes I sing. Sometimes I plan the rest of my day. It's a different kind of relaxation, a more contemplative experience. I'm sure that if I were a real long distance runner, or a sprinter, I would experience the kind of intensity that I get from weight lifting, but I'm not really that advanced. For now, I'm happy with the two different states of mind. It's a nice balance.

On the nutritional front, we had a nice dinner today at a Chinese restaurant in our neighborhood. Lots of chicken and vegetables. Tonight I'm having a piece of thin crust pizza. The pizza commercials used to drive me crazy when I was on the feeding tube. It seemed like every ad was either about pizza or cheeseburgers. I don't over indulge, and I haven't even tried to get my choppers around a burger yet, but it's nice to have a slice now and then. Even if I do have to cut it up into little pieces. Still have to supplement with Ensure-type shakes though. Eating has become much more of a necessity than a pleasure for me. Considering my physical condition, that's not the worst thing in the world.

I haven't weighed myself since the last trip to the doctor. I know my new jeans are getting baggy and my belt is on the last hole. It will be interesting to see how my exercise affects the weight loss. It may actually slow down as I start to replace muscle mass, but I noticed in the locker room mirror that there's still plenty of fat to burn off. That's fine. Let it burn. Besides, my gums are getting thinner!


Wednesday, December 1, 2010

#283: Redeeming the Parts Cancer Took

Recovering from cancer means finding new ways to do old things. You can't lift as much or walk as far as you used to. You can't stand up as long or eat as much. It's tempting to look at the things you can't do in the old way and conclude that you can't do them at all. It's tempting to give up on activities you enjoyed before you were sick, because your way of doing them doesn't work anymore.

Tonight, Mrs P asked me to take out the garbage. This is bigger than it sounds. It's been about 8 months since she asked me to take out the trash. I think we both assumed I was too weak, too frail to lift and carry and drag the cans out to the curb. That sounds pretty pathetic, but it hasn't been too long ago that it was true. I would no more have tried to walk through the yard in the dark than scale the side of the house. Some days, I would barely have made it to the cans, let alone haul them to the curb. Before I was sick, I would fill my arms with recycling, trash, even old cat litter and haul them out to the cans in one big nasty-smelling load. .  When I tried to pick up the trash from my office and the recycle bin full of newspapers, I realized that I could not lift them both at once. In spite of lifting weights in the gym, I still wasn't strong enough to perform this simple household chore. for a moment, I considered giving up. I'm still too weak. I can't do it yet. My arms and legs won't do what I want them to do. But my bride is home sick today and she is in no shape to be hauling trash cans. She is not the kind of person who calls in sick casually. It would have been so selfish of me to expect her to do all that without help. Her head was aching and spinning at the same time. She needed me to help, and I was determined to do it.

It took me about 15 trips. A handful at a time. When everything was out in the big cans, I opened the gate and rolled them out slowly, one by one. Then I closed the gate and made my way back to the house. It wasn't particularly heroic. All I did was put the trash on the curb. But I had to do a couple of things that are going to pretty important to my ongoing recovery.

I had to admit that I couldn't do things the way I wanted to do them. I had to decide that the goal, (helping Mrs P) was more important than the obstacles. And then I had to come up with a new way to do this old, simple chore. That's the way things are going to be for a while. I can choose to give up on the things I want, or I can find new strategies for getting them. I can't put aside three hours to clean house, but I can work fifteen minutes at a time. I can't haul two armloads of groceries, but I can carry a bag, rest, then carry some more.

I couldn't go to the gym today. I'm still pretty sore from Sunday and Monday. I was determined to to go anyway, then I remembered not being able to finish my upper body exercises on my last trip. I had rushed things, and I can't push myself the way I used to. I was afraid I would get hurt if I tried to lift today. I decided to take another day to recover.

It felt like giving up.

Tomorrow is going to be a pretty big test for me. Will I get off my duff and go to the gym, or will I give up completely? After all, I can't lift the weight I used to. I can't run the way I used to. It's embarassing to be passed on the track by old ladies or to take all the plates off a machine before I use it. I wonder what all the young dudes who are doing 200 lb shoulder shrugs think about a fat old man who can't lift a 25 lb dumbbell over his head. I wonder if I'll ever be able to lift more than my own weight again.

I am determined not to give up. I will be strong and fit again. I will run farther and faster than I ever could before, and I will do it if it takes me two years just to get back to where I was. I'm going to do it because it's important to me. But to get there, I have to admit that I'm not going to be able to work as hard or as fast I used to. I won't be beating any personal bests anytime soon, maybe not even in a year. Recovering myself, redeeming the parts of me that the cancer took is going to take time. It's going to be embarassing sometimes. But I'm walking so I can run. I'm running so I can live. The goal is worth finding new ways to get there.

My teeth fall out when I sing sometimes. I won't say it's embarassing. I'm not performing for strangers yet. Everyone in the rehearsal hall knows my story and it's something we can all laugh about. But it is frustrating. I'm still learning how to make words with my mouth. Believe me, that has never been a challenge for me. Now it is. Now I have to practice. But if I want to act, I'm going to have to be able to speak with clarity and energy. I'll need to be able to project sound while retaining my upper plate. The doc will help me. I'll get lots of good advice and coaching. But at the end of the day, I'm going to have to find my own new way. And I'll have to be willing to take the time to get it done, no matter how frustrating it is.

Look, I know this isn't a particularly profound life lesson. The thing is, I've always been the kind of person who doesn't want to work hard at things I'm not already good at. This isn't a very admirable personality trait, and it has cost me a lot over the years. I think my life would have been a lot different if I had been willing to improve my weaknesses more. Now, I have so many of them that there isn't much choice.

It's challenging. Humbling.

And the prospect of doing things better this time? It kind of turns me on. I'm going to be a better husband and actor than I was before I ever heard of Squamous Cell Carcinoma.

Who knows? Tomorrow I may even volunteer to bring the cans back in from the curb...


Tuesday, November 30, 2010

#282: Cancer as a Reset Button

I have a Facebook friend who has just started a new blog. It's called ... and she's off! and it's about her journey as a woman and mother who is surviving divorce. She's a good honest writer, and has been a faithful online friend to me through my recent struggles, so I look forward to sharing her travels through her words.

She got me thinking about how rarely we have an opportunity to hit the reset button in our lives. There are certain moments that change everything. We lose a spouse to death or divorce. A parent is gone. A career is taken away. A house is destroyed. The judge declares us to be bankrupt.

Cancer is one of those moments. There were two points in time when everything that used to be true about me changed. First was the moment when the Surgeon confirmed that I had cancer. Then there was the one when the Oncologist burst into the exam room and said, "It's great news!" I was pretty numb both times. I was in the recovery room when they told me I had cancer and slipping into a deep depression when the told me I didn't have it anymore, but somewhere in my mind I knew that things had changed. First I was alive, then I was dying, then I was a "survivor." But that's not a big enough word for what I am. I'm not just surviving. I have a chance to start again.

Team Pennsy, irradiated and radiant.
I made the decision to beat cancer based on two things. I wanted to be an actor and I wanted to be Mrs P's husband. My therapist asked how things were going. I told him I was doing well. Writing. Working out. Rehearsing and auditioning. Getting things done. He asked how things were going with Mrs P. That was harder to answer. I'm not sure we've figured out just who we are now that we've both fought cancer and won. She fought as hard as I did and something big has changed for her too. Having your widowhood snatched away can do that to a person. The truth is, I don't think we're sure where we go from here. But cancer has given us a great opportunity.

So many marriages are about The Rut. Staying on the tracks. Staying together. We get up, go to work, vacations and holidays come and go. Gifts are exchanged. Bills get paid. Chores get done. We become one another's habit, our marriages become routine.

But cancer blows up The Rut. Suddenly the tracks are gone. There is no "normal" left. That's scary as hell, but it's also exciting. Catastrophe is one of the few opportunities we get in our lives to really start again. Everything changes, but that means you have a chance to make choices about what a lot of those changes will be. I can't will myself to be stronger, but I can change the way I exercise to accommodate my weaker muscles and diminished stamina. I can't choose not to be tired from singing, but I can choose to find new ways to sing so my voice will last till the end of a rehearsal or a performance. I can't undo the damage that years of auto-pilot have done to my relationships and my marriage, but I can change the flight plan. Thanks to cancer, there is no more auto-pilot. All routes have been re-scheduled. Now that my arrival times been cancelled, I have a chance to choose new destinations. I may even get off the plane.

Cancer did not kill our marriage. Nothing ever will. But thanks to our victory over a handful of cells that tried to give us the old "death do us part," we have a chance to start being married on purpose again. The way we did when we were courting, only with 21 years of experience behind us. Things don't have to be the way they were before I got sick. We can make them better.

My friend's blog is called ... and she's off! because it reminds her that the gavel at the end of her divorce proceeding  She was afraid it would sound like a shot that would kill her. But it turned out it was actually more like a starter's pistol. Not the death of her marriage, but the beginning of her new race, her new life. Living through cancer is like that. It's a new race. And we're off...

For weeks after they declared me to be in remission, I was haunted by the question, "So now what?" I felt lost in the limbo land between dying of cancer and the rest of my life. Like Scarlett, I didn't know what to do or where to go. How strange and wonderful to realize how much the answers to those questions were up to me. Up to us. Cancer has given me the chance to reorgainize my life around the two things I value the most, the things that kept me wanting to live: my bride and my art.

Plus, I got to lose all that weight.

Almost makes it seem worth the trouble...


Monday, November 29, 2010

#281: Hurts So Good

Have you ever exercised your legs so hard that it made your butt hurt? The cheeks, I mean. I love that feeling. It starts deep down in your hamstrings and runs right up into the small of your back. Nothing can make me feel that burn like squats. Yesterday was the first time I got up the nerve to work my legs hard. Well, not hard exactly. I did two sets of ten squats, dead lifts, and lunges in the living room during the Steelers game yesterday. I only lifted my own body weight. My balance is still a little iffy for dumbbells. When i had finished, I was left rubber legged and wooly headed, but today I feel super. There's just that slight feeling of tightness in my glutes. I'm not used to having kind thoughts about my fanny, but today it feels just as hard as a rock. At least from the inside it feels that way. I look forward to reality catching up with that sensation.

After I finished my workout, and the Steelers did their best to give me a stroke, I went to rehearsal. We are finally putting the show on its feet. What I mean is that we're finally getting away from the reading table and the rehearsal piano and moving around the hall a little bit. This is always such a liberating time for the company. The actors finally find out just how detailed a director is going to be, how much "tolerance" there is going to be for us to find our own way own way. Good directors know how to find a balance between letting the cast flounder aimlessly, and giving so many instructions that the players have no room to play. My favorite directors are the ones who can give you an idea of where the play is moving, then trust you as an actor to find the best way to get there. Thats just my preference. Some directors can't stand it, and it terrifies many actors not to have each move carefully planned and choreographed. Those artists generally hate working with me. My work is very disciplined, but it isn't the same approach they are used to. That's cool. We're better off apart.

Our director "J" is a good one, I think. I've always used this image for the relationship between actor and director: Actors are slalom skiers, and the director helps them to find all the flags on the hill. Together, the playwright, the designers, the actors, the crew, and the director work together to shape the course the production will follow. It's an extremely gratifying process, one that prepares performers and stagehands for the equally gratifying process of playing for an audience. At least that's how I see it. Some people hate performing, but love rehearsal. These people become directors. Others love performing, but hate rehearsal. They become waiters.

So, after a rehearsal during which my pleasantly sore legs and behind trembled like water balloons, I jumped in the car and drove downtown to an audition. Fortunately they were running late, so I had a chance to be seen. It was my first audition in a long time, and it was good to open up my old toolbox. Everything felt so familiar. The script in my hand. The other actors pacing, preparing to show their stuff. The little rush you get when the door opens and your name is called. And finally, there is the audition itself. The stage manager introduces you to the director and anyone else who might be sitting at the table. You smile, maybe shake hands. They might give you some instructions. And you're off. 

You're looking at a script for the first time, maybe reading for this director for the first time, and all you can do is tell the truth. Nothing else matters. You make snap decisions about who the character is, what they want, and how they're trying to get it, and then somebody says "go" and you play. You want the job and you want them to love you and the only way to make it happen is to put all that aside and play the role.

Auditions are my least favorite part of an actor's life. I think that's true for a lot of us. But this one felt like coming home. Its nice when someone just calls and offers you a part without having to audition, and it's flattering. But there's something I love about having to earn the part in an audition. It just feels more respectful somehow. I'm not sure I can really explain it. Maybe I just like competing because it feels so good to win...

The gym was brutal today. Not much of a surprise after yesterday's adventures. But I did take a lot of time off of my mile walk. I added some reps to my lat pull downs, but then I was pretty fried. I completed three sets of very light overhead presses, then after a handful of woodchoppers I was ready to call it a day. The right shoulder is the one where they removed muscles and nerves from my neck and it's going to take while to build up the strength around the hole. 

Nice to be making progress on so many fronts, though.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

#280: Loving Recovery Day

It's recovery day, and I'm pretty stiff. May just do a nice easy walk around the park with Jake later. I realize that yesterday's post may have been a little esoteric, so I thought I'd fill in some blanks for anyone who's interested. First of all, here's a link to the gym/church. I don't know much about this community, but I sure liked the people I met yesterday.

My time in the mile walk was not impressive at all, but I did feel good about a couple of things. I was able to keep good form the whole way. I left my teeth in, and they did not fall out or choke me. My mouth started to dry out at the end, but it only took a little water afterwards to put me back in shape. The best part was that I was able to go full-out the entire time. By that, I mean that I didn't have to slow down or rest along the way and my pace in the second half mile was not much slower than the first. The track is a balcony around a single basketball court and 17 laps make a mile. It takes a little concentration to keep up with the counting, but it's better than walking on a treadmill. I like running on them, but walking a mile on a belt is just a little boring, even if you do get to watch yourself in the mirror the whole time. I didn't measure my heart rate, but I broke a good sweat and felt like I had gotten a righteous first workout, so I'm not too concerned about that data just yet.

One bit of data that I am pleased about is my weight. I had a doctor's appointment yesterday morning and my weight was 319. That's 80 lbs lost since my surgery day. I know that a lot of that was muscle weight, but I can build that up again. It's the fat that I'm so pleased to see gone. Most of my clothes fit better than they ever have, and a lot of them are too big to wear at all. I'll keep the giant jeans for my before/after picture. An advantage of the weight loss are the reduced strain on my heart and joints. Another is my reduced blood pressure. Once I get the meds and hydration issues worked out, that's going to improve my performance and allow me to work a lot harder.

Here is the book I'm using as my guide for resistance training. Lou Schuler and Alwyn Cosgrove base the workouts in The New Rules of Lifting on the principle that what goes on in the gym should mirror the actual movements we perform in life. The "six basic moves" are Pushing, Pulling, Lifting, Squatting. Lunging, and Twisting. This is different from bodybuilding. It isn't designed to sculpt the body, but rather to improve overall fitness and strength. Working this way may not turn you into Mr. Olympia, but if the cover photo is any indication, it can make you very pretty.

The authors emphasize complex movements. You can curl a heavy bar from your waist to your shoulder, or you can clean and press a really heavy bar from the ground to over your head in a single movement. These complex moves involve more big muscles and have much more cardio benefit, as well as improving strength. So that's how I intend to work.

So what about all these strangely named machines? Well the Lat Pull Down is a pretty standard one.

This exercise does a lot of things, but I'm only using it for one reason. I want to build up my arm, shoulder, and back strength to the point that I can do pull-ups.

The next one I did was the Converging Inclined Press which is a mouthful for a pretty simple gizmo.

This machine works like a pair of dumbbells. Each arm has to lift independently. The big advantage over free weights for me at this stage is that I can't drop the weight on myself or anyone else. Since I was not at all sure about my strength, this was a pretty good choice for a safe beginning pushing exercise. The next step will be to progress to presses with dumbbells with the goal of doing lots of push-ups before I start work on the bench press. Push-ups are probably the better exercise, but the bench press makes you feel so macho that it's hard to give up.

The last move I worked yesterday was twisting. My favorite exercise for this is called the Woodchopper. It is very simple and effective. As you can see from the photo, this movement involves every major muscle group, from the arms and shoulders through the core, and down to the thighs and calves. It is a great workout and really gets your blood pumping. The biggest benefit is probably the way it strengthens those famous core muscles from the abs all the way around to the small of your back. A strong core girdle is essential for stability. It also helps protect you from injury when you do anything from moving the refrigerator to picking up a sock from the floor. There are other twisting exercises, and I'm sure I'll do them, but I enjoy this one, especially at the end of a workout. It feels great when you're done. And you never know when you might need to chop some wood.

The last apparatus I mentioned yesterday was the Smith Machine.
A lot of people hate this machine. The rigid linear motion is not natural, and it can put you in some pretty weird positions. I've never used one, but I've watched people using them and never wanted to imitate them. A free barbell engages a lot more stabilizer muscles and ultimately allows you to lift more weight safely. On the other hand, I guess I understand the liability reasons for not having free bars in an unsupervised weight room. If you throw your back out, that's your fault. If you conk someone's grandma with a 45 lb Olympic bar doing clean and jerks, somebody's gonna get sued. I'm still not sure how I'll integrate the Smith Machine into my workouts. I don't have a lot of alternatives for squatting. There are a lot of people on the message boards who say that it's impossible to do deadlifts safely using the Smith. The movement for a lunge is very similar to the squat, so I may try to do those. I'm afraid my deadlifts will be limited to dumbbells until I can get access to a big bar. That's OK. It is going to be a while before I'll need to do a lot of weight. Right now I'm concentrating on re-learning how to move without falling over.

Actually, today I'm concentrating on re-learning how to move without screaming in pain. Gotta love recovery day.



Monday, November 22, 2010

#279: Alive is Good

Walk... 1 mi...19:30
Lat pull downs...3 sets of 10 @ 50 lbs
Convergent incline press... 3 sets of 10 @ 50 lbs
Cable woodchoppers... 10 sets per side @ 50 lbs

Ahh, back to the gym at last. Well, back to a gym. We cancelled my membership at Promatx when I got sick. Mrs P has a membership at a local church's health club. The equipment is pretty minimal but in fantastic condition. Don't get me wrong. For a church, it's downright amazing. One of the most vibrant ministries I've ever seen. And because we joined through Mrs P's work, the cost is insanely low. I'm grateful to have the chance to work out in a place so well taken care of.

So what is there? There's a basketball court, a walking track, a studio space where there was a yoga class today. There are several bikes and elliptical machines and treadmills. The resistance machines are all Cybex, some use plates, some cables. There is a smith machine, curling bar, and some dumbbells. There's no free Olympic bar. It's going to take some creativity to do the kind of whole body workouts I want to do, but I'm sure I can make it work.

I don't want to do a lot of "bodybuilding," so I'm not looking to do a lot of curls and bench presses. Instead, I want to do big exercises that work lots of muscle groups at once. I'll talk about that more in due time, but for now I'm just glad to be back to work.

Tonight I feel that old familiar soreness that tells me I've been moving. It's a good soreness, the best kind, the kind you have to earn. I didn't lift heavy weight or run hard miles, but by the end of my last set, I felt as if I had just won the Olympics. My muscles were throbbing and my head was swimming. I sat on a recumbent bike pedaling slowly and sipping water for my cool down.

I felt completely, deliciously used up. I felt alive.

Alive is good.



Wednesday, November 17, 2010

#278: Learning to Love the Climb

I was going to write about the difference between "contentment" and "satisfaction," but nearly every dictionary I've found uses the words to define one another, so that's not going to work.

My friendly neighborhood therapist (oh how Mrs. P hates it when I call him my "head shrinker") has invited me to consider the role that contentment, or the lack of it has played in my life. I have spent so much of my life wanting "more". More money. More importance. More competence. More respect. How many jobs, how many relationships have I damaged because I wanted “more” than I had?

The therapist asked if I could remember a time when I was content. When I felt like I had “enough.” I’m not sure I really could. New jobs. New loves. New homes. New friends. They always seem to have satisfied me, but before long, I wanted more than was there. I would drift away, or worse, try to force some dramatic change that wound up costing me the very thing I loved in the first place.

What is the difference between being content with what you have today and being afraid that you’ll never get what you really want? Partly, it’s serenity. It’s accepting what you can’t change and changing what you can. But it’s more than that. Faust’s bargain with Mephistopheles was that his life would be over when he said, “I’m satisfied. This is enough.” We all want to be better today than we were yesterday. And we hope for tomorrow to be better than today. That’s just human, I think. But there’s a difference between ambition and frustration. You don’t have to hate where you are in order to love where you are going. You don’t have to give up on the goal because you hate where you are.

This isn’t easy. It’s sounding more and more like one of those twisty paragraphs St. Paul used to write.

We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. --- Romans 7:14-20
Doo-bee doo-bee doo. He seems to be working it out as he goes along, and I know the feeling. How to put this into words?

You can’t get to the mountain top if you hate climbing mountains. You will lose the trail. You’ll ignore the view. You’ll give up. Contentment means enjoying the climb. It means being satisfied with where you are, and knowing that you are on your way towards a new place that you haven’t seen yet. I may not like being ankle deep in mud, hidden from the sky in the cold shade of the trees. I may have dreams of the magnificent view and the breathtaking winds at the top of the mountain, but they will never be more than dreams if I can’t accept the climb. One step follows another. And each is good. Not just because of where I’m going, but because of where I am today.

Try to imagine what it would be like for an actor who had no patience for rehearsal. How would you learn who the character is? How would you know your role? Without giving yourself over to the process of rehearsal, how could you ever be ready to perform when the opportunity came? You wouldn’t. You couldn’t. And even if you somehow made it to opening night, you would not be an actor for long.

This is one of the secrets of depression. It isn’t just when you hate being only half way up the mountain of your life. It’s when you can’t believe there’s even a mountain top to reach. You start thinking that no matter how long you climb, you’re always going to be in the same place you are now. You lose hope. You might stop climbing. You may even want to get off the mountain altogether.

We all have mountains in our lives. We want to be more fit or healthier. To be better spouses, lovers, parents. We want to retire in comfort and feel valued for our work. The raise. The promotion. The diploma. The relationship. We want to be free of debt or a bad job or a destructive marriage. We all have challenges and the desire to be somewhere we are not. But the paradox of contentment is that we cannot get where we want to be until we accept where we are.

I am not doomed to stay where I am. The fears and anxieties that are slowing me down today will not slow me down forever. I am travelling on the road, climbing up the mountain of my life. I am not where I want to wind up, but the question is, can I accept where I am today? Can I accept that this part of my journey is necessary if I’m going to get where I’m going?

Fear makes me think that things will never get better. Giving up guarantees that they won’t.

Today, I am somewhere on the side of my mountain. I can’t see the top from here, but I want to get there. In the meantime, there are a lot of things good about being right where I am. There are things to learn that I’ll need later. And there are some things that are just pleasant to be around, things I won’t be able to enjoy once I reach the top.

I want to be content with today. I want to be satisfied with this part of my journey.

The trick is knowing how to doo-bee doo-bee doo it.

What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! – Romans 7: 24-25a
Maybe Paul is right. Maybe I should start by trusting the One who built the mountain in the first place. Then I can get back to climbing.


Photos are from our trip to Bachelor Loop, near Creede, Colorado.

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