Tag Archives: fitness

The View from 50

Making the Path

Today’s post owes itself to two exquisite poets.

Caminante by Antonio Machado

Caminante, son tus huellas               Walker, your footprints are
el camino, y nada más;                       the road, and nothing more;
caminante, no hay camino,               walker, there is no road,
se hace camino al andar.                    the road is made by walking.
Al andar se hace camino,                   Walking makes the road,
y al volver la vista atrás                     And to turn for the view behind
se ve la senda que nunca                     is to see the path which will never
se ha de pisar.                                        be tread again. 
Caminante, no hay camino,              Walker, there is no road,
sino estelas en la mar.                        only the wake on the sea. 


That’s my translation, and while it’s certainly not as poetic as Machado’s lyrical Spanish, it expresses the message.

I first came across this poem when I read Miles Horton and Paulo Freire’s book We Make the Road by Walking. Horton paraphrased  Machado as a way to express the importance of intentionality and awareness as we live our lives. It’s one of the most inspirational and affirming books I’ve ever read, told by two men who made an enormous difference in the world, both of whom were near the end of long, well-lived lives.

We all mark our lives in a series of milestones. Birthdays, especially the ones that indicate decades, assume a particular significance. Aging itself carries weight;  many cultures bestow status upon young people when they have been on the planet for a certain number of years. Civic privileges and responsibilities such as voting, legal independence, and military service are dependent on a person’s age. What would otherwise be arbitrary birthdays (13, 18, 21) take on a level of importance because of the stature determined by a societal norm.

Birth and death are the only universal life cycle events, and humans have honored  them throughout history and across the world. Other milestones– coming-of-age ceremonies, marriage, and religious rites–are often recognized or honored as well.

And then there are the unique milestones we achieve in the course of living our lives. What are they, and what makes them meaningful? More than that, what do these milestones contribute to our narrative?

I’ve been thinking about these questions quite a bit this summer. If there were a map of my life, this season would be represented by an amazing series of crossroads and bridges. From this vantage point in the path of my journey, I can see back over five decades. Some of those distant experiences are clear and shining; others are blurred. Looking ahead, I can hope that the view extends the same distance. I choose to believe that I am at the midpoint.

On this part of my map, there are some very flamboyant road signs. One says 50FIFTY50FIFTY50FIFTY50. Or maybe, just maybe, it is identical to every other tiny marker along the way. Maybe it simply says, in all lower-case letters,  “today.”

Getting to 50 meant passing 18,250 of those little “today” signs. Like my 50th birthday, each of those days only happened once. And as the path unfolds–as I make the path, all of the upcoming days will only happen once.

The milestones along the way are markers that I placed. Reaching 50, to me, is a chance to pause briefly and be grateful for all of the people and experiences that helped me shape this path.

Another milestone this season is the one that I recognize today. July 18, 2011 was one of my own personal markers. Today is the 2nd anniversary of my third spinal surgery. I’ve written about my back and about the gifts of tolerance, balance, and gratitude that accompanied my injuries, recoveries, and discoveries.

DICOM Frame 2

This morning began early, with open-air yoga in an idyllic space on Martha’s Vineyard. Every time I do yoga, I find moments of sheer joy and power. Every time I can achieve a deeper bend, a greater lift, a stronger extension, I am energized. Every time I can become entirely present in my breath, or hold a challenging pose for a few more seconds, I am more alive.


There is no road sign for that type of moment–or is there?

The Summer Day
Mary Oliver

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?




Marathon Monday

Yes, I know the post title says “Monday,” when it’s already Wednesday. Sometimes it takes a couple of days for a blog post to make its way from my brain onto my computer screen.

I did not run the Boston Marathon on Monday. Considering that there were *only* 26,000-ish people who did run the race, my non-participation is not particularly notable. Added to that fact is the reality that today marks exactly nine months since I had three of my vertebrae fused, and there really should be no surprise that I wasn’t one of the people in the insanely unseasonable heat making my way on foot from Hopkinton to Boylston Street. I haven’t actually run the Boston Marathon since 1995, but once it’s in your blood, the sense of connection never goes away. The last marathon that I completed was New York City, in 2007. The following year one of my lumbar discs, which had apparently been disintegrating for months, exploded dramatically while I was running a leisurely half-marathon in New Hampshire. Since then, my spine has continued to demand surgical attention, and the only road race I’ve entered was a Race for the Cure 5K in 2009.

I still miss it.

To the non-runners out there, this entire post probably sounds bizarre, but long distance running is one of the great calming activities of modern life, in my opinion. It is the “couch potato” option for over-achievers. I mean it. Once you’ve built up a basic level of endurance, a long run is incredibly relaxing and meditative.

I started running when I was 13, and I never gave it up. I fell in love with the rhythm, the pace, the breathing, and the opportunity to see familiar places from a different perspective than simply driving past them. Once I started road racing, I was completely hooked on the experience of seeing a location from the middle of the road in the midst of a pack of other runners. There’s an annual 10-mile race in my hometown that I entered for the first time when I was in high school. I ran that race every year for a very long time, as well as dozens of 10-Ks, half-marathons, 5-milers, a bunch of full marathons, and other events of varying distances. I was never fast, but I was steady. When I was in my 20s, I got up almost every day at 5:30 a.m. and ran at least five miles.  My morning jog defined my life for almost 30 years. Building up to longer distances  was only an incremental shift and a scheduling issue. Running 10, 15, 20 miles is really just a matter of planning and showing up. It is simultaneously self-indulgent and virtuous, which is a complicated combination of attributes for an overachiever. There is no question that claiming three hours out of a weekend for a training run could affect the other people in my life. Once I’d made my arrangements and gotten out out on the road, however, I was free to think about anything I wanted.  I used to keep a mental list of topics to consider at my leisure–what a luxury! I solved personal dilemmas, planned elaborate menus for parties, and balanced my budget on long runs. I composed most of my dissertation while training for the New York Marathon. I trained on the Boston Marathon route regularly, whether I was preparing for that race or simply going out for a challenging hill run. Living in the neighborhood of one of the most respected distance challenges in the USA had its impact.

And so, when Marathon Monday rolls around, there is a part of me that feels a pull. This year, we were in Portland, Maine enjoying a gorgeous long weekend with friends. That morning, I went out for a long walk, followed by a Pilates class. We only caught a few glimpses of the TV coverage of the race. A lot of people struggled through the heat. The winning times were relatively slow due to the weather. Hundreds (or thousands?) of folks crossed that finish line for the first time.

I had dinner with a couple of friends in Cambridge Monday night. As I got out of my  car, two runners walked past me, still wearing their race numbers. I felt a tightening in my throat, thinking of the fatigue and satisfaction and the last burst of adrenaline that was keeping them going. It was 6:30 in the evening–they must have finished the race a couple of hours previously and were making their way home after a very long day.

“I can’t believe you’re still on your feet,” I said to them with admiration.

“Neither can I,” said the woman.

I remember that feeling.

Cheers, to all the runners and all of the people who set goals for themselves just to see if they can achieve them.

7 Reasons to like winter, even if you don’t really like winter…

I hate being cold.

I know; making a statement like that at the beginning of a post titled “reasons to like winter” seems a bit contradictory. However, I’ve devised a variety of strategies to make winter more than tolerable. Here they are, in no particular order:

1) Wrapping myself in scarves and shawls. Every time I go to New York, I buy at least two faux pashminas from the street vendors. They’re about $5 apiece, which makes them a totally affordable indulgence. I have them in almost every shade. Over the years, I’ve collected a wonderful wardrobe of higher-quality wraps, too: beautiful prints, silky drapey ones, thick cashmere and woolly ones, lightweight splashes of color…they make me feel totally cozy.
2) Soup. Like they used to say in the Campbell’s commercials, “soup is good food!” It’s also a great way to use root vegetables and hearty spices, and to get vitamin-enriched foods into your diet when there’s not much fresh produce around. Today I made a big pot of potato-onion-cheddar. We’ll eat it later this week, with thick bread and maybe even some bacon sprinkled on top. I also made an herbed French lentil soup that we ate tonight with brown rice and a crusty baguette. We are warm all the way through.
3) The hot water bottle. For some reason in our house, we refer to the hot water bottle as “the pig,” partly because it’s an ugly tan color that looks like pigskin. it’s the real old-fashioned kind, made of thick rubber with a screw top. On really cold nights, The Husband fills it with the hottest water from the tap and brings it to bed to warm us up.
4) Flannel sheets. We have them for all of our beds, but we only have one set for each bed, which means that on alternate weeks, we have smooth crisp (chilly) cotton. When we change the sheets and put the fuzzy ones back on, we have a refrain: “Ohhh, the flannel.” Flannel is good.
5) Snowshoeing. I started this activity last year, when my spine condition sidelined me from skiing for the third winter in a row. Since I could use ski poles to balance myself on snowshoes, I was able to get outdoors and engage in some heavy-duty aerobic exercise without risk of further injury. I love it. Astonishingly, this winter we have had no real snowfall, so the snowshoes are still hanging on their hooks in the garage. I sure hope I can take them out soon.
6) Pajamas at dinnertime. In the summer, it feels totally lame to put on pajamas at 6:30 when it’s still light outside. In the winter, it feels completely fine to change out of work clothes and into pajamas as soon as I get home. Eating dinner in PJs, then settling into the couch for an evening is a perfect winter choice.
7) The smell of cold air. Do you know that smell? Crisp, and fresh, and clean? When The Boy comes indoors, his cheeks have that great scent. It’s irresistible. Sometimes, you need to send your favorite people outside just so you can sniff them when they come back into the house.

Outpacing Zeus

Cloud bank building in the hills

Today was our last day in the Hudson Valley. The week has been ideal in terms of family  companionship, relaxation, work time and professional reading, physical recovery, culinary fun, accommodations, and weather. We had a bit of rain, but it never got in the way of our plans. I went out walking on the beautiful rolling roads every day, building my stamina to four miles at a brisk pace. Today’s walk was the most exciting, because a major thunderstorm was brewing and I was determined to complete the loop before the rains came.

The photo above was taken at approximately the 3-mile mark. By that time, the rumbling in the sky was unmistakably closer and the wind had picked up substantially. I love love love the energy in the air in the moments before a summer storm; the smell, the temperature shift, the color changes in the sky, the literal charge—LOVE it. I stood there at the top of the hill trying to focus the camera on my cell phone, feeling absolutely giddy. With a mile to go, I figured I’d be perfectly safe, if slightly soggy, when I got back to the house.

Walking in the Dutchess County hills this morning, I was caught between the immediacy of the moment and a collection of memories from 30 years ago. For three summers in high school and early college, I was the aquatics director at the country club in my hometown on the north shore of Massachusetts. The club sat at the mouth of a tidal river, and I was responsible for closing the pool when there was a thunderstorm. My vantage point above the river and the knowledge gained from a lifetime of summers on the local beaches usually gave me an accurate sense of whether or not a storm would hit my location. I could watch the clouds build over the ocean and the marsh, gauge the way the flag moved in the wind, and smell the salt and ozone in the air. I would make my decision and spring into action, closing up the pool chairs, checking the chemical balance one more time, and locking the doors. Then I would jump on my bicycle and gamble that I could reach my house, which was four miles away, down a dirt road, up one hill, over a bridge, and then over another hill. Sometimes I made it; most times I didn’t. And on the days that the rains came before I got home, it didn’t really matter. How exhilarating is it to be 17, 18, 19 years old, riding a bike in the pouring rain down the wide main street of a rural town in the middle of the afternoon?  When you are wearing deck shoes, a bathing suit, old shorts and a T-shirt, who cares if you get wet?

Five minutes after I took that photo today, I saw The Husband’s car cruising down the road. He and The Boy had come to my rescue! Just as we pulled into the driveway, the rain started. For about half an hour, we were directly underneath one of the most brilliant, ferocious, torrential storms I have experienced this season. The power went on and off half a dozen times, thunder cracked like gunshots, and the water pressure from the rain made the drops sound like metal pellets. It was thrilling.

Rain pounding the deck. 1 p.m. and the sky is as dark as midnight.

We sat and watched for awhile. The Boy and I had an excellent snuggle during the loudest peals of thunder. Then we packed ourselves up and got ready to go home. As we were loading the car, the sun came out.

Same view, an hour later. Sparkling sunshine.

And now, here we are, back in our own house, listening to the crickets outside.

Extra brain space

Yesterday I electronically shared this picture of myself out walking with my son.

Country House Walk: 29 days post surgery; 3 miles at a brisk pace

Today, I spoke to a good friend who hasn’t seen me since before my surgery. “Your posture looks great!” he exclaimed in response to the photo. True, that. I’m definitely walking with more vigor, more verticality, and more vitality. Also, and I know I’ve been leading up to this statement in the past few posts, I am walking with no pain. I did not say “reduced pain.” I did not say “manageable pain.” I said, “NO PAIN.” When my left foot hits the ground, my brain does not send out warning flares to other parts of my body; my foot just rolls along in a natural stride. If I need to turn my head to speak to my walking companion, I do not lose my balance or experience a searing spasm through my quadriceps and gluteals. If I find myself walking down a hill, I can rely on every component in my lower left quadrant to comport itself properly, so that my foot actually touches the road exactly where my neurons are directing it.

I am only now realizing how much of my executive function in the past three years has been devoted to all of the above-mentioned scenarios, which occur, as you can imagine, countless times a day. I’m also coming to a deeper appreciation of a comment my surgeon made about a year ago. “You’ll know when it’s time for the fusion,” he said, “because you’ll realize how much of your daily activities are affected by the injury.” I think everyone has a unique form of response to chronic pain, and I can’t possibly judge others for their own choices. In my case, I continued to do almost everything I loved (except running), because I loved doing those activities, and they are part of who I am. Nonetheless, I was exerting extra brain energy in the form of pain management whenever

  • I went to a museum. The pace of viewing an exhibit was horrible. Three steps, stop to look at a work of art, three steps, look at another work, three more steps, and a full-on spasm would begin that I could not shake for hours. But, the visual stimulation and the new perspectives and the fun of seeing great collections is worth it. The pain goes away; the images stay. I can’t wait to go back to the new wing at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and stroll leisurely.
  • I sneezed. If I were lucky enough to feel it coming on, I could brace myself and hold on so that the rush of exhalation wouldn’t make me fall over. I sneezed three times today and nothing happened beyond the relief of clearing the itch in my nose.
  • I stood in the kitchen to cook. I got very good at using a stool to rest one foot while I stirred or chopped. Now I can stand for two hours and make a gourmet meal.
  • I needed to pick up an object from a low shelf or the floor. I could not rely on my leg to return me to a standing position if I got down too low. Today I squatted several times and got up easily, smoothly, and with the desired item in hand.
  • I sat in traffic. I haven’t tested that one yet, but I’m quite optimistic that my leg won’t start trembling if I sit still for too long in the car.

So now, I am expressing my gratitude to a whole chunk of my brain that has done its very best to keep me sane, functional, and productive for several years. When I spoke to my friend this afternoon, I told him that I hadn’t quite framed the language to explain the mental lightness I’ve been experiencing this week. I tried out the phrase “extra brain space,” and he said that was exactly the right way to describe my condition. With my return to full-time work next week, it’s the perfect timing to reassign some fun academic challenges to the cerebral material that’s been practicing perseverance and focus.

Back in the Kitchen, and Out on the Road

I don’t have a better way to characterize the past four weeks than by marking my progress in terms of fitness and cooking. 29 days ago, I spent nine hours in surgery having my spine reconstructed. It looks like this now, from the inside anyway:

Side view of titanium hardware and interbody fusion structures.

Today, I am relaxing in a beautiful spot in the Hudson Valley. Some of our dear friends own a vacation house here, and they’ve generously lent it to us for a week of R & R before I return to work next week. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been working on my physical endurance, in part because I’ve been looking forward to the hilly and spectacular 3-mile loop from the house. I’m pleased to report that I’ve walked that loop every day for the past 3 days. If you had a view like this, wouldn’t you want to get out there?

Dutchess County!

That photo was taken last fall, but you get the idea…

Besides exercise, I measure my mental state by my presence in the kitchen. When I got home from the hospital, I had NO appetite, and even less interest in cooking anything. Happily, my culinary self has re-emerged, and I’ve been delightedly cooking since the day after we arrived here. There was a big crowd with us for the weekend, creating a whole entourage for a Caribbean feast of goat stew, citrus black beans, crab-avocado salad, and almond cake on Saturday night.

I guess I’m in a Latin mood, because last night I featured traditional Spanish fare: stuffed piquillo peppers, baked goat cheese, and garlic soup.

Baked goat cheese and garlic soup

Stuffed Piquillos

I’ve been working, too. E-mails are flying, new documents are being created and edited, textbooks are being reviewed and selected, and agendas are being planned for courses and meetings. One week from today, I’ll be back at school and I think I’m totally ready to go.

For those who asked, here is a quick recipe:

Stuffed Piquillo Peppers with Chorizo and Manchego

1 dozen piquillo peppers, roasted. Remove tops, seeds, and ribs.

1 block manchego cheese (about 6 ounces). Cut half of the cheese into twelve 1/2 inch strips; dice the rest.

1 link chorizo sausage (about half a pound?), casing removed, chopped fine

1 large Spanish onion, chopped fine

1 ripe tomato, seeded and chopped

Spanish paprika, or other sweet-roasted paprika, to taste.

In a hot skillet, saute the sausage and onion until the onion has melted down. Add the chopped tomato and  paprika to taste. Reduce temperature to medium and allow the tomato to break down into the mixture. Stir in the chopped manchego and turn it in the pan until it melts into the meat and vegetables. Remove from heat.

Stuff the peppers with the meat mixture, then slide a strip of cheese into each pepper. Assemble the peppers in a baking dish and roast at 350° until the cheese is melted.

On balance…

Fezzik: You just wiggled your finger. That’s wonderful.
Westley: I’ve always been a quick healer. What are our liabilities?
Inigo Montoya: There is but one working castle gate, and… and it is guarded by 60 men.
Westley: And our assets?
Inigo Montoya: Your brains, Fezzik’s strength, my steel.

Westley: I mean, if we only had a wheelbarrow, that would be something.

Inigo Montoya: Where we did we put that wheelbarrow the albino had?
Fezzik: Over the albino, I think.
Westley: Well, why didn’t you list that among our assets in the first place?

I can wiggle my finger, too. And even better, I can wiggle the toes on my left foot, which I haven’t been able to do for almost two years. Just like Westley, I’ve always been a quick healer, and I surely am grateful for that.

I’m eight days out of spinal fusion surgery and full of super-strength titanium. So far, the only  new superpower that has revealed itself is excellent posture, but I think, as our heroes discovered in The Princess Bride, my assets outweigh my liabilities. I’ve been home for four days, which is in itself an asset. The Husband arranged two weeks of vacation/work-from-home time so that he could be with me last week at the hospital, as well as this week at home. Another huge asset: we both have jobs that allow us the flexibility to take this type of leave with no financial or professional fallout. I’m sitting in a big comfy chair in a beautiful windowed corner of my living room with a summer breeze blowing through. I can get up by myself, I can walk about half a mile (I’m working on increasing my distance every day), I can take a shower, and I can stay awake all day (although right now, that feels like a superpower). People are calling, sending flowers, cards, and notes, and they’re stopping by to visit. A great support network is a critical asset.

The liabilities are manageable: I have two long, deep incisions, one on my abdomen and one on my back. (If you want the gory details, Google “anterior lumbar interbody fusion.” I also had a bonus procedure: posterior discectomy along with the insertion of additional hardware from the back). The surgical wounds present challenges for nearly every sitting and reclining position. I fear that as they heal, the scars will present ongoing challenges for bathing suit selections. Admittedly, that’s a small liability. My activities are limited by doctors’ orders as well as overall fatigue and weakness: no bending, no lifting objects more than two pounds, no twisting, no driving, no swimming, no bathing. It’s amazing how many items weigh more than two pounds. For someone who’s accustomed to a high level of independence and daily productivity, these are indeed liabilities. However, they are short-term issues, just like they were for Westley, who regained his strength in time to save Buttercup one last time.

It’s possible, I might be bluffing. It’s conceivable, … that I’m only lying here because I lack the strength to stand. But, then again… perhaps I have the strength after all.
[slowly rises and points sword directly at the prince]

So, watch out, everyone. I’m on the way.