30 January 2009

Time in a Book

In the past few months my life has flashed before my eyes. Perhaps flashed isn’t quite the right word, let’s say scrolled. With the extra time I’ve had while not running, I’ve been running a different kind of marathon, and it’s given me an interesting perspective of time and what we do with it.

A year and a half back, my beloved other half commented that if catastrophe were to strike our home, our biggest loss would be memories. Between us, we’ve lost three of our four parents, and all we’ve got are the photographs. We really should put a few away in the safe deposit box, she wisely suggested.

A wise – and innocent – suggestion, to be sure. But never say something like that to an engineer. We think about these things too much, and we get ourselves in trouble. In my case, it went something like this:

Thought One: Why not put a few photos in the safe deposit box?

Thought Two: Which ones? How many?

Thought Three: And if we pick our favorites and put them away, we can’t enjoy them.

Thought Four: So make copies, of course.

Thought Five: Uh, did you notice we live in the digital age? Scan them, you ninny.

Thought Six: Aha! Scan them and put the CDs or DVDs in the safe deposit box!

Thought Seven: See Thought Two, but now space isn’t much of a limit in the box.

Thought Eight: How will I ever pick out the ones to save?

You can see where this is going…

I issue to you a challenge. Pull out an old photo album – at least 10 years old. Page through it, and I’ll tell you to notice something you may not have noticed. You love the worst pictures. Admit it. That shot of Aunt Marge that’s tilted and has the thumb covering the corner of the lens. The overexposed image of Gramps holding your sister as a baby. They all trigger memories. Even the order in which they lay in the album plays games with the wiring of your brain. It’s how you’re wired. The albums are themselves part of your memories.

So which pictures are more worthy than others to survive the Insurance Event of the future? Or, if we’re fortunate to never experience said Event, what to choose just enjoy them online and easily accessible? Pick the best, and you’ll regret not having at least some of the rest. The fine art of drawing the line fails miserably here.

And so I made the policy decision that if I was going to do this, I simply wouldn’t edit history. If it was out there, it will be in there. Damn the torpedoes, scan ‘em all.

I knew this would be a monumental task. Between my wife and I, we’ve got close to sixty photo albums in the house, leading up to the time we finally went digital. With two to three hundred photos per album, that’s, well, a lot. And that’s before project creep set in. Those pesky slides from that odd period in my life when I thought slide film would offer artistic opportunities. Too bad that period spanned our honeymoon and therefore can’t be ignored. Those treasured old albums at mom’s house, precariously stored under a aged drain pipe (not to mention her smoking habit), thereby deemed ‘at risk’ and in need of rescue by scanning. Then a close relative passed away, we held the task of cleaning out the house, and found a few thousand pictures that we know we’ll never see once they pass to her estranged son. Do ‘em all. I want to leave a digital family legacy to my kids and grandkids, so they’re not looking at images faded by more and more generations.

It’s a marathon of a different sort, and if I didn’t have the runner’s marathon mentality, there’s no way I would ever finish. I spent a year working the project in fits and starts. Call that training. Then along came my forced vacation from running, and I decided it was time to finish this different kind of marathon. Call it the race. And it’s been intense. I’m pushing 22,000 photos already, with well over half that total done in the last two months. Each one removed from the album, scanned, trimmed, organized, titled, and returned.

It’s clearly a marathon, and I’m at mile 22 thousand, with the finish line projected ironically close to 26.2 thousand. And in this case, I’m feeling better with every passing mile. Like a marathon, despite its painful length, I’d do it again, just for the experience. Like a marathon, it teaches you a lot about yourself.

When you view every single shot individually on the big monitor, you see details you never saw in a small print. And when you cover the span of your life, and your parents’ lives – at that level of detail – in the span of a year’s work, you see the big picture of your life in ways that you never saw before. In most cases, it’s confirmation of things you knew about yourself, but you never really saw how pervasive, how obvious they were in pictures. Your passions. Your styles. What lit you up and shaped you. And in some cases, patterns you’d like to forget (or, more bluntly, what a dork you looked like in high school in 1980, at least when you weren’t running, or even when you were running but had sweat socks on your arms to keep warm). Oh, and by the way, they really do grow up fast. It’s amazing how recent and clear are the memories of my baby daughters when looking at every picture up close. And one’s now a teenager. Which makes you think how quickly, as Pink Floyd once noted, ten years has got behind you, and how you’d better pay attention to the next ten and use it wisely, if you’re lucky enough to get it.

On a side note, having take on the marathon version of saving a few memories, there is this aching fear in the back of my mind that had I just done the abbreviated version my wife had in mind and been done with it, those memories would be safely stored away already. As is, while I have the files backed up on multiple drives, they’re still all sitting here, meaning if Mr. Catastrophe visits us tomorrow I’ll lose not only the memories, but a hell of a lot of work. Pray for me on this one.

In a couple of weeks I’ll be largely done with this marathon. Then, in a couple of weeks more, I’ll be running regular miles again, setting off for the next ‘normal’ marathon. Both kinds of them have changed me for the better.

19 January 2009

Groundhog Day

It was like Groundhog Day come early. Six more weeks, he announced. Only it had nothing to do with the weather or the seasons, it simply meant I’m about six weeks away from being deemed healed. Meanwhile, I’ve been granted the sweet freedom of mobility.

There was no fat waddling animal (thank God, after last week’s squirrel in the house, no more animals, please!). And no, it’s not February yet. The event was a visit to Dr. Foot Doctor. And the verdict is good! I’m not there yet, but all signals indicate I’m on my way. I can’t yet bend Mr. Big Toe, mostly because he’s been cooped up so long he’s very stiff, but he is showing, to be technical, “excellent resistive strength.” Or, in other words, I can push down with him – far more important than bending him anyway – and I can keep him from going ff-thpp-thpp-thpp-thpp-thpp… when I put my pants on. Which may sound silly, but trust me, it was extremely annoying, and in and of itself constituted a strong argument for going through this ordeal.

So why Ground Hog Day? Because in six weeks, give or take five or ten minutes, I should be free from all supportive encumbrances. First, the good doctor granted me time off for good behavior and exorcised the crutches. Then he pronounced the six week plan: three weeks in the air cast effectively full time, then three weeks sloooowly transitioning to real shoes, via short walks only around the house, then – voi-la! – at six weeks I should be good to go. Or at least we hope. Fact is, I’m what he calls a “unique surgery”, so there are no real guidelines for how long this will take. Therefore he’s taking the conservative approach, lopping on extra healing time. I’m right there with him on that.

Most importantly, to steal a phrase from a certain airline, I’m now free to roam the country. (Bing!) Despite the six week additional sentence, I now have license to fly, but since that’s rather risky with all the geese around, I’ll stick to driving. Freedom!

Of course, then he proceeded to rip off all the scabs. OK, you take the bad with the good. Ouch.

On returning home, I quickly decided to let my poor neglected rust-bucket of a vehicle get a well-deserved claw-off-the-cobwebs ride around the neighborhood. Dr. Foot Doctor instructed me to trade the air cast for stiff-soled shoes only for driving. With great excitement, out came the hiking boot, and… well, that didn’t work so well. Even six weeks after surgery, my foot is still swollen and wasn’t going into any hiking boot without a fight, and I’m not about to make it fight. Not to mention that said foot insertion would necessitate bending Mr. Big Toe upwards. Nope, not going there.

And that’s why I limped slowly to my vehicle on a cold winter day in a (stiff) sandal. Perfect seasonal clothing.

And sadly, even that didn’t work so well, being not as stiff as I’d hoped. Experiment #2 was even more attractive and less weatherproof. Out came the surgical sandal they gave me at the hospital. Now this baby is pure fashion, all the way through. Blue nylon, two Velcro straps, attached to a glorified a chunk of wood. But you know what? Hot diggity, it worked pretty well. Road trip, baby!

Before closing, a few notes from my Groundhog experience. Dr. Foot Doctor has a rockin’ primary office. To date, I’ve only seen him at his satellite office in my town. Scheduling forced this visit to be held two towns over at his main digs. You could hold a small wing-ding in the exam room, with the built-in wrap-around couch snugged into the bay window of the grand old converted home, the big screen TV to entertain you while you wait, and a chair with more ranges of powered motion than a high-end Lexus. I’ll bet it was heated, too, though I didn’t ask. I was waiting for the waiter to arrive with the tray of champagne glasses and bacon-wrapped scallops (take note: a weakness, I can be bribed with food).

But, as with any grand old converted home, you work with what you’ve got, so the waiting room is, shall we say, intimate. Not that I spent a long time there, but enough time, and intimate enough, that it was hard not to fall over the other gentleman in the room who quickly enough figured out who I was. And he knew who I was because he was the rep from Pegasus Biologics, the firm that developed and manufactures the chunk of horse they used to patch me up.

Remember I said I was a “unique surgery”? I knew that Mr. Pegasus had been in the O.R. in part because I was a unique case. Just how unique was impressed on me by the fact that he showed up for this visit, and promised to be there for the next one. Frankly, I find that pretty cool. Knock another minute off my 15 minutes of allowed fame. Let’s just hope this turns out so well that they want me on their web site. Or at least a pointer to my blog!

12 January 2009

Hard Corners

Hard corners feel good. Take that exit ramp a few MPH faster than the recommended speed and feel the rubber bite (even on my rusty old rice-burner). Yeah… Make that final course turn in a hot sprint and put the finish line in sight. Sweet… And of course, roller coasters. Yes, hard corners feel good. And I took one this weekend. Very sweet, indeed.

Again, my body surprised me in what it can do and how it does it. Saturday morning, it was different. Just like that. Suddenly, my foot felt strong. Not like totally healed, but for the first time since The Big Slice five weeks ago, strong. And it hadn’t felt that way Friday night. Clearly, I turned a corner. And it was hard getting there. Call it a hard corner. And yes, it felt good.

I’ve been back in the leg armor, a.k.a. the air cast, for two weeks. Dr. Foot Doctor’s orders were to put progressively more weight on my beloved foot, starting at about 20%, and leading up to about 80%. OK, now, is that 20% of one leg’s worth, or two? And how does one measure said percentages? I made my best guestimate and went at it. And generally, it hurt. The air cast hurt. My toe hurt. The suture hurt. And it wasn’t pretty, either. A month later, still oozing (yum!). Since I’ve already shocked you with pictures of the surgery, pictures at this point are tame, so why not include them? It looked ugly enough to spur an email to Dr. Foot Doctor.

Side note: I love this guy. If your doctor doesn’t reply to email, find a new one. Many doctors don’t, and I can understand why, knowing the percentage of my day that is sucked up in reading, answering, and discarding the incoming barrage. But there’s nothing better to clarify instructions than to get them in writing, and there’s no easier way to get your doctor’s instructions in writing than with a quick email, written when it works for his schedule.

And so Dr. Foot Doctor replied with a very detailed email assuring me that no, it didn’t look infected, and no, those sharp pains weren’t a bad omen, just a sign that my body wasn’t thrilled with having stitches inside me (which a friend later confirmed, she having had the same thing a ways back), and most importantly, that things looked good because my toe wasn’t starting to stick up! Of course, since it was still taped, I didn’t really believe that, but I’ve since removed the tape and – whaddaya’ know? – still no Viagra toe! And while I’m still under orders not to curl my toes, I can definitely feel movement. Hey, this might actually work!

But, he cautioned, stay on the crutches till our next little get-together. And I wasn’t questioning that at the time. Until Saturday came, and I screeched around that corner. Woke up. Felt strong. Found that while I’m still supposed to use the crutches, (and by and large still do, doctor’s orders, after all), I really don’t need them for the first time in five weeks. Later that day I found myself downtown and felt like sprinting (on crutches and in the air cast, of course) down the street. Sunday I found myself standing up while playing in the church band, for the first time since November. It still hurts, and it’s still swollen, but less so. And it feels like a foot again.

The amazing thing is, it all seems so sudden. One day I really couldn’t. The next day I could. I feel like I’m around the corner. The home stretch is in sight. It’s still a long way off, but it’s in sight. Way cool.

Cute and Amusing Postscript: Life has continued to throw curve balls at me while debilitated. I think there’s a law against this, but nobody’s enforcing it. As if a massive historical-scale ice-storm coupled and a day-and-a-half power outage a mere week after surgery wasn’t enough, Mother Nature sent me a friend last week who took up residence in the ceiling over my office. I’d really rather deal with these things when mobile! Building a barricade to keep him out of the rest of the house, and subsequently climbing over it to reach the outside was not pretty while confined to leg armor and crutches. But I’m happy to say we captured little Theodore (so named by my daughter) and he is now living happily at one of my club’s favorite off-road running spots, a couple of towns away, safely distant from any memories of that warm dry spot over the furnace. Every time I run there, I promise I’ll look for you, buddy!

03 January 2009


It’s easy to be down right now. I’m not running. Indeed, I’m still on crutches. I still don’t know if my toe will work again. The economy is in the dumps. My own employer is teetering on quarter-a-share stock (down from, uh, you don’t want to know…). It’s ugly everywhere. But it’s time to celebrate, and not just because W is history and I don’t have a sub-prime mortgage.

In a couple of days I’ll celebrate a month since the Big Slice. Celebrate seems an odd word, but every day brings me closer to normalcy. You have to celebrate all that’s good in life, even the little bits among the bad, like one fewer day on crutches. But despite the horror show of my face-crushing, nose-cracking, tooth-bending, tendon-ripping, with a surgically induced cherry on top fourth quarter of 2008, this has really been an incredible year.

Sure, I’m still tethered to my aluminum props, but I’m making progress, out of the bandages and splint, back in the leg armor of the air cast, and putting a little more weight on my foot every day. Sure, I’m now getting ugly sharp intense sudden grimacing maddening pains from that four-inch suture, now that it’s getting stressed with some weight, but hey, it’s new and different pain, so I must be closer every day. (Yes, the logic is twisted: hit me on the head with a hammer, we must be getting closer. Hey, work with me on this.) Sure, my foot is still swollen and ugly (of course, you see, it was truly beautiful before, unlike your feet), but at least now I can unwrap it, appreciate the ugly, and shower.

Celebrate everything you can. Celebrate the fact that medical science can do this kind of stuff. Celebrate the fact that we have medical care at all, even if the insurance and payment system is screwed up. Celebrate the fact that we live in a society where we have the time to pursue a passion like running. Celebrate the fact that we have people in our lives like my wife, who I can never repay for the loving care she’s provided through this adventure, nor would she ever feel that I need to do so.

I’m not denying reality. I can’t deny that I’m feeling psychologically tortured because I still don’t know if this little repair job will do any good. My aching wish to curl my toes – just to see what happens – is up there on the scale of desire alongside nicotine fit and heroin withdrawal. Adding to the torture is the memory of a misstep on Christmas day, landing on – yes – THAT foot, not really hard, but hard enough to worry. I’d like to know I’ll be celebrating the return of Mr. Big Toe in all his glory, but I don’t, so I celebrate the fact that I’ll run with or without him. In the latter case, running will be harder, but after all, I did run my second-best marathon without him, so running won’t be impossible. I’ll just have to learn not to fall down.

After all, why get hung up about a little flesh wound at Christmas? Celebrate the joy. Celebrate having had the chance to play in the band at church on Christmas Eve, which makes Christmas so much more special. Celebrate the joy of seeing my daughters singing in the choir. Celebrate the fun they had decorating my bandaged foot for Christmas Eve Mass. Yes, we can turn lemons into lemonade, and big bandaged appendages into Christmas decorations. And then celebrate the fun we had at our annual running club party (negatives, or the digital variant thereof, available on request – what exactly was Jim doing in those Santa running shorts?). Joy goes both ways, religious and secular.

OK, so my foot hurts, get over it. Celebrate that it’s been a tremendous year running. At this time last year I was coming off the shock of turning in a 3:03 at the Baystate Marathon in the fall of 2007. In my dreams I wondered if I could break three hours by the end of the year. I never imagined it would happen a mere 4 months later at Boston. I couldn’t conceive that it would happen twice more before the year was out, and that I’d be sitting on a pair of 2:54s from Buffalo and Wineglass. Sub-three only three years after starting to run again? Celebrate? The word barely scratches the surface.

And celebrate the fun of getting there. The mystic odysseys of eight 20-plus-milers in prep for the big races, running joy that lingers as a state of mind. The shorter races, where 2008 brought me PRs at 5K and 5 & 10 miles. The tremendous camaraderie of my Highland City Striders club-mates, the fun runs, the track workouts, the relays, the bagels, the beers. The opportunity to serve them by helping to bring our club into legal existence. The fun of being interviewed by Chris Russell for his podcast, and the shocking honor of even being listed on the same web page as some of the legends he’s interviewed. And, at his suggestion, the fun of starting this blog

That’s a tiny bit of what’s been my year. 2009 will be very different. Easing back after this surgery, I might do some really strange things. Like run a marathon slowly. Stop in the middle and kiss my wife. Smell the roses, pick the daisies, that kind of stuff. Not set mileage goals. Not push for PRs. At least for a while, until it’s the right thing to do again. Celebrate the difference. Celebrate the adventure.

Now stop complaining, find a glass that’s half full, and celebrate.