New Running Shoes, Perilous Decisions

Not many weeks ago I took the first uncertain steps to resume running after an injury interrupted a many-years-long stint; I wrote about it here. I have a new pair of running shoes to prove it, hard-won shoes begat by the sweat of my own brow and a little research, and a long drive to a neighboring state.

Posterior Tib 2A

In the intervening days and weeks I have undertaken a running regimen one of my colleagues reviewed for an online publication. It’s aimed at folks who are athletic slugs with a keen desire to exercise, but without effective strategies for starting and sticking with it. The typical scenario of failure, as the program’s creator describes it, is resolving to run, and then over-reaching the first time out, soon throwing in the towel when the body balks.

That does not describe me. I am the runner who once started each day with a quick swig of water, a leashed dog or two, and then covered no fewer than four or five miles at a respectable clip before the sun had fully breached the eastern horizon. I remember the first time I ever tried this, tiptoeing out the back door a few minutes past five a.m., opening a squeaky iron gate quietly as I could to keep from waking the neighbors, stepping off the curb onto the chilly pavement with two eager Siberian Huskies whose excited breath showed in the amber light of the street lamps. The only sounds were the dogs’ toenails against the pavement, the occasional soft clinking of their tags, and our collective breathing. Somehow I did this crazy thing again the next day. And the next, and for many, many years, with different combinations of family dogs. I came to love this hour that was sometimes the only peace in my day.

We were so easily spooked in those early mornings by whatever we imagined lurked in the shadows of neighborhood trees and hedges. (Human or canine, the mind plays sinister tricks on itself in the darkness.) Out on the main road rolled newspapers sailed over the top of the paper carrier’s car in the darkness, each one set aloft by his expert arm but still landing with a quiet thwap in one driveway and then another (this action sometimes evoked a low growl in the dogs); we could hear baritone radio voices muted inside passing luxury sedans pointed towards the big teaching hospital just across the river, the doctors on call starting their rounds; we could smell other people’s toast and coffee; more than once skittish urban foxes and coyotes crossed our paths; finally we witnessed the street lamps flickering off as daylight overcame dawn. Each day my dogs and I watched the neighborhood wake up; by the time we arrived back home they were tired out, our own house was stirring, there was a child who needed to be gotten up and readied for school, breakfast to be made, schedules to follow. My quiet time for the day was over.

This lifestyle continued unchecked for years and I honestly believe brought me a measure of sanity I could derive from nothing else. But soon after I moved to Vermont for a new teaching position, and shortly before I lost my beloved German Shepherd Clarence in early 2014, chronic posterior tibial tendonitis forced me into running retirement. It’s a mouthful but mainly describes inflammation in the muscle and its associated tendon that reaches down from the calf and wraps under the heel by way of the ankle bone on the inside of the leg. Mine is painfully distended and swollen in the region of the heel itself near the attachment, and behaves badly most of the time. It does not respond well to stress, which would include long distance running. It does not take a shining to classical ballet, either, and one movement in particular, called relevé (think calf raises)—a movement that occurs many, many times over the course of a single 90-minute ballet class—is particularly aggravating. And of course it does not respond well to the other kind of stress, either—the emotional kind.

Add afternoons of teaching ballet class for a three- or four-hour stretch (actively dancing and demonstrating relevé and lots of other body-challenging movement), to mornings of vigorous long-distance running, and a congenital heel deformity that adds wear and tear to the soft tissue, and then throw in a little happy weight gain just for good measure, and the body will finally protest so loudly you can’t ignore it another second. Dang posterior tibial tendon: an orthopedic surgeon diagnosed it as compromised many years earlier, but it was decent enough to allow me to keep on keepin’ on. Now it was throwing the worst imaginable fist-pounding, screaming, spitting tantrum. It certainly had my undivided attention, as nature intended.

Posterior Tib 9A

My foot looks normal every morning but by day’s end is swollen and tight and yellow; it does this whether I run or do nothing, but it’s worse when I spend the day on my feet. Lately it has sprouted new capillary growth I can see just under the skin. But in my professional life now I spend most of an eight hour stretch sitting: this has brought welcome relief to the offending foot and heel. And in the last couple of months…could it be? I swear I could feel actual healing in that foot. The rest of me has felt like a slug, like the wanna-be runners for whom this interval training app is intended.

People rebound courageously all the time from all kinds of trauma far worse than mine, going on to reach impossible training and professional goals. I decided the “baby steps” approach of this little regimen could be the salve I needed to ease back into running again, this time without all those damaging relevés, and sadly also without a dog at the end of a leash. The first couple of times out I was giddy from the old euphoria that for me comes only from running. Other pursuits have stepped up to the plate in the last year and a half in lieu of it—yoga, weight training classes, bicycling in summer and spin classes in winter, and even swimming. Nothing does for me what running does, but I concede some of them (yoga especially) help make running better, or even possible.

Significantly, I returned home from those first few jaunts pain free: nada. zip. nothing. No pain at all, at least nothing outside of what I consider “normal” pain. Rest must have been the thing that was missing, I concluded, the thing all the dance and sports medicine professionals insist is so important for soft tissue injuries, but is so elusive for driven athletes. I finally gave this tiresome injury what it wanted, or so I believed.

Slowly and surely the pain came back.

I’m soldiering on for the time being, nearing the end of the fourth week of the training program and skipping some of the modules that feel silly to me. Last week I researched running with posterior tibial tendonitis, thinking other runners who have the same problem would report the fix: there must be some cocktail of exercises, stretching, icing, heat, or other things to make this work. In truth I have tried them all in the past (and some I still practice), but held out hope there was something I missed.

Posterior Tib 1A

Instead I found this ominous warning: Stop running, and stop now. Do not attempt to push through the pain. You do this at your own peril, risking permanent damage to your foot, damage that will change its shape and ultimately change how you walk and move. Furthermore, the very instep itself is at risk, as the tendon is what holds it up, giving it the important structure it needs to do its job.

Terrifying advice that leaves me at yet another difficult intersection.

Run at your own peril. Don’t run at all.

There is a particular flavor of nightmare I hate, and it goes like this. You wake up in your own bed and familiar surroundings, and everything seems fine. It is time to get up and start the day. And then some awful thing happens, some terrifying thing, there is a menacing person you don’t recognize standing behind the open bedroom door, or whose shadow just stirred in the hallway beyond. Then you realize, I am not yet awake—this is a nightmare. And you try desperately to stir. You open your eyes again, thinking you’re in the clear, and then that shadow moves again. You are still in the dream, imprisoned by your own mind. Eventually you do wake up and pinch yourself just to be sure, and you start your day in earnest, feeling a sense of disquiet.

Every single morning for an entire year I felt like that, the year I lost everything that had meaning to me, the year before I left Tennessee to start life over in Vermont. Every morning I was caught up in the hope that what was happening to me was only a bad dream, and every morning I was disappointed. Things got dramatically worse before they got better, loss and angst following me right into my new home state, financial ruin, emotional turmoil along with it. I have likened this to being pushed into a deep hole, somehow managing to cling to the edge with only a couple of fingers.

And then I managed to get the other hand to the top, then all ten fingers dug in, and then an elbow, and another. Then one swinging foot found a toehold, bits and pieces of dirt still giving way under it, but in the end the toes won and the other knee made its way almost to the top of the hole.

Daily I reminded myself, you can choose to sink or to swim, advice I heard often growing up in a family with a strong line of matriarchs at the helm.

In the last few weeks I have felt better (in spite of the foot) than I have in the last two years, and not just physically. At first I could not breathe and a couple of times was caught up in comical bouts of coughing that continued over the course of a day. Then gradually my lungs cleared and I felt better. Muscles began settling into a shape I recognized and my clothing felt better on me. Even my head started working better, with  renewed clarity of thought and vision.

So here is what I think about this tricky situation. I could die next week, or tomorrow, or today, for some stupid reason. I could keep on battling middle age weight gain with inadequate tools in my bag, and all the unpleasant problems that sprout from that like obnoxious little tributaries flowing from a big, muddy river. Or I could take a risk, live dangerously. It could be a perilous decision.

Or it could be life-affirming.

As Mr. Balanchine said, there is only now. I choose to live in the moment, to risk peril in a new pair of running shoes.

Posterior Tib 6A

Swan Lake, You Rock My World.

Swan Lake 2 A

Prologue

I wish I could rewind a particular winter night about a dozen years ago at the Kennedy Center. I wish I could find all the people who were sitting in the right section of the orchestra at the opera house there, people who thought they were about to enjoy a memorable performance of Swan Lake, and tell each of them I’m sorry. I wish I could apologize to the camera man operating the large-ish equipment poised just over my right shoulder, one of several in the house filming a performance by American Ballet Theatre that would soon air on PBS. I wish I could say sorry to ABT’s Director, Kevin McKenzie, too, and to the cast. I would apologize to them all for the incessant squeaking of a particular chair in about the fourth row, for the slobbery gnawing on a rubber “cause” bracelet by its distracted young wearer, and for the unabated crinkling of a ballet programme’s pages, its inserts snatched up from the floor a thousand times over the course of a couple of hours.

Mainly I wish I could apologize to a particular boy, age twelve: I am sorry for dragging you into this venue, grand as it is, for a silly story ballet that’s a stretch for grown ups, too: you should be back in the hotel room watching a Harry Potter movie. Or doing something cool with your dad. I am guilty of cultural proselytizing, and I am deeply sorry. (But I still secretly hope some of it rubs off on you.)

Act I

Swan Lake was the first in Tchaikovsky’s famous Russian ballet trifecta, followed by Sleeping Beauty and the Nutcracker. If you had never been to a ballet and then watched those three sequentially, you’d see something emerge that feels awfully close to a formula that includes (among other things) national dances and what I like to call the Tchaikovsky Schmaltzy Waltz. Everybody on the planet is at least familiar with Waltz of the Flowers from the Nutcracker if only from the music looped through any mall’s PA system during the holidays: it makes me want to claw my eyeballs out.

Swan Lake mercifully gets it over with quickly, right at the beginning of Act I. Music evokes powerful memories, and that waltz is no exception. My Aunt Jane taught ballet technique on Saturday mornings when I was about thirteen at my mom’s small school in Memphis. She routinely dropped the needle on the first track of a Swan Lake LP and just let it play while she took us through a solid half hour or so of conditioning on the floor before we did the first demi-plié at the barre. Cross training for dancers was not talked about much in those days: it’s exactly what this ritual was, though, our core musculature protesting to the strains of Tchaikovsky. I have an involuntary response in my gut to the Act I waltz every single time I hear it, dammit.

Act II

It’s the closest thing I can think of to synchronized swimming. Acts II and IV are also called the “white acts,” for reasons abundantly clear when you see the ballet. In my youth I failed to appreciate the immense job set before the corps de ballet in a single performance of Swan Lake; nowadays I find this work exquisite, and that is all. If you’ve never seen this ballet but someday have the opportunity, do yourself a favor: sit somewhere higher than the orchestra so you can observe the geometry unfold in the white acts. Forget the story: a prince falls in love with a swan queen? C’mon. There is a tad more to the plot than that, but still. Instead, let the ballet wash over you. Like, say, a lake. A swan lake. Or, le lac des cygnes, if you prefer.

In spite of the truly breathtaking moments in the ballet’s second act, it always inspires a few giggles. There is another waltz, but it is far more sublime than the big one in the first act (in my opinion). I can never listen to it, though, without hearing my mom singing “Sweet Rosie O’Grady,” because the first line of melody in the waltz is exactly the same. It was something mom and her classmates at Canada’s National Ballet School routinely sang as a bit of a roast when they were learning the ballet’s choreography. They also practiced the very stylized head movements of the famous foursome of baby swans in Act II, or the cygnettes, on the Toronto subway, so she said. It’s a fun piece of choreography I’ve taught before. A nineteenth century pop song and baby swans—you get them both in the second act. And a beautiful pas de deux, and a wicked difficult swan queen variation, and more of the hard-to-swallow plot.

Act III

This is where classical ballet draws from the canon of character dancing that is so much fun. In fact, I have never heard a ballet student or professional dancer complain about taking a character class or doing one of these dances. (Go here to see an excerpt from a Vaganova Academy character class, where the music happens to be from Swan Lake Act III; you’ll see what I mean.) There is character dance in spades in Act III. And the famous Black Swan Pas de Deux, with all those dang fouettés danced by the Swan Queen Odette’s evil lookalike, Odile. By the end of Swan Lake’s third act you know unequivocally things will end badly.

Act IV

And this is why I would never recommend this ballet for a young child. (Or a twelve-year-old boy.) It still ain’t over. The music in the fourth act is worth the wait—if it is not trimmed in the interest of time, as it was the night I saw ABT’s version at the Kennedy Center. And you get more of that exquisite precision work from the corps de ballet. And a tragic double suicide. And the bad guy at last is finished. It’s classic Russian choreography, but there’s the rub: no two versions of the ballet are the same—it’s not like ordering a Big Mac anywhere in the world, where you can rest assured you’ll get a consistent product every single time (even if it’s meh). There are wide-ranging versions of the ballet with choreography that honors the original by Ivanov and Petipa, and others that take their leave of it. It’s a big ballet and some companies are hard-pressed to pull it off well.

Apotheosis

Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I watched American Ballet Theatre’s version last night on our Blu-ray; we made it through the third act before calling it quits at the end of a long work week. But I wanted to prepare him for an upcoming performance we get to see at Providence Festival Ballet in a couple of weeks. If he’ll consent to it, I might throw another completely different version at him before we go, one by Royal Swedish Ballet that has a decidedly darker and more Gothic feel.

It has been a while for me and I am pretty excited to be in the theatre for live classical ballet, and to see my young friend Gwynn who dances in the company, after we missed her last summer when we visited the rest of her family. We shall be on our very best behavior, no rattling of programmes, or chewing anything, or bouncing in seats, I promise.

But I don’t promise I will remain perfectly silent.  Sweet Rosie O’ Grady, laaaaah, la, la, la, la-la!

Swan Lake 1 A

Illustrations by Alice and Martin Provenson, taken from my copy of Tales from the Ballet, a childhood favorite.

Emotional Habits: Putting Sadness in a Box

Kitchen Table

In her book The Creative Habit renowned choreographer Twyla Tharp writes about her work process. She starts a new box for each new project; anything that serves as inspiration goes into the box, along with every other object that has some meaningful connection to the work. When the project ends she puts a lid on the box and off it goes to storage. Then she gets out a new box and starts another project.

I find that methodology so appealing in so many ways.

And while an emotion is not exactly a project in creativity, like a piece of choreography or a Broadway score, I’ve wondered whether you could take them—especially the difficult ones around an episode or event in your life—put them in a box, and after you’ve eviscerated them, processed them, and feel “finished,” put a lid on the emotional box and schlep it off to storage.

I knew there would be sadness in the wake of losing my family and my home nearly four years ago; what I did not anticipate were the waves of sadness that would continue to wash over me for years after my marriage ended, pangs of grief, maybe, that still catch me off guard when I least expect it. I don’t miss the unhappy marriage, but I mourn for the things that were important and yet were somehow deemed disposable.

Lately the sadness has centered around the house where my son grew up, where a handful of beloved family dogs lived and died, a house that was nearly lost to foreclosure, saved in the nick of time by an auction where a calculating buyer snapped it up for a fraction of its true worth. The white auctioneer’s tent on the front lawn was replaced only a day or two later by a big yellow Penkse truck stuffed with what could fit into the small rental awaiting me a thousand miles away in Vermont, a fraction of the sum total of my belongings. I had exactly two days to evacuate the house I loved and had every reason to believe I’d live in until I died.

If you wanted to orchestrate a fiscal and domestic disaster of epic proportions you could not score it better than the cacophonic sypmhony that unfolded on a particular corner in Knoxville, Tennessee in 2011. The location of our beautiful home already invited a fishbowl-like existence; it was not unusual for people to stop and photograph our prominent corner because of the centuries-old trees and beautiful Tudor Revival house itself—a house we were lucky to call home for about sixteen years, but whose care and upkeep grew to be too much in the face of a slow economy and a series of very bad decisions.

When everybody in a town and neighborhood already fond of gossip caught wind of the drama being played out on that corner, life in the fishbowl grew worse, at least it felt worse to me. As the house and grounds fell into neglect I became embarrassed and angry. I don’t miss those final days one bit.

But what catches in my throat when I least expect it are the detailed memories of the bones of the house during moments when I felt my life was in complete synch with it. And being a student of historic structures to begin with, I appreciated and knew every square inch of it, from the loose finial with the protruding nail at the bottom of the steps, to the 1920s stucco on the walls that would draw blood from your knuckles if you miscalculated their whereabouts with an overloaded laundry basket in your arms. Or the basement “stairs to nowhere,” as we called them, formerly a service entrance that had been capped over at some point during a courtyard renovation. Or the panel in the basement stairwell behind which a servant’s call bell was once stuck somewhat comically in “on” mode while we scrambled to undo the paneling and switch it off.

breakfast

I knew the damage on a living room floor vent that happened when our 140-pound Shiloh playfully slammed onto the sofa, sending it skidding across the slippery hardwood floor and into the wall. Just above that vent was window hardware left behind by the previous family, jury-rigged with a nutcracker in the top left corner; you could see it if you were looking for it, like finding Waldo in the familiar children’s books.

Next to that was one of two front doors (when you live in an ell-shaped house on the corner that is what happens), the main one that welcomed trick-or-treaters every year. And just on the other side of the door was a small built-in telephone cubby from the earliest days of the house, arched at the top, with a beautiful hardwood shelf for the phone. Underneath it was another stucco-ed hole for a very small phone book.

Teddy Blue

I know exactly the sound of the heating and cooling system cycling off and on, my son’s voice on the answering machine recorded when he was in kindergarten, the way the sun streamed through his west-facing bedroom window revealing every single cobweb and speck of dust that needed cleaning. If you sat in just the right spot in his sunny yellow room you could see the slate-roofed dormers from the adjacent section of the ell outside his window, and the copper gutters and flashing, transporting you to some Old World locale. It was the backdrop for all our read-alouds, the perfect evocative setting for Harry Potter.

I cursed under my breath every time I closed the door to the tiny bathroom just off the kitchen and observed where my child had carefully, over years, encouraged the toile wallpaper to peel as it rounded a tricky corner. With some success I had used white glue to repair it. And it was that same bathroom where he left the water running one morning at age three after he finished brushing his teeth, then turned around and stumbled over his own feet, taking a spill onto an unforgiving terra cotta tile step in the foyer, ripping the skin on his cheek right away from the bone; a day that began innocently with an anticipated play date resolved with plastic surgery to repair his face later that afternoon.

And it was that same unforgiving surface that every single dog who lived in our family loved so much in the heat of summer, because the stones remained cool to the touch. I can still see them—any one of them—sprawled on the wide stones in front of the open front door, the sun streaming in through the glass of the storm door on ribs rising and falling to the cadence of contented breathing, but instantly at the ready to announce every passerby or errant squirrel.

I knew every single lovely original casement window in that house, I could tell you which ones opened easily, which had to be cajoled (a bath towel and the palm of the hand is what it took). Some still had their crank apparatus—there were two old metal cranks floating around, one was bent—but the upstairs windows were all missing theirs because it made them easier to open. The massive old window sills were deep enough to display homeless casseroles and candles and all manner of other things. Later we replaced the old windows with their more efficient modern cousins, which I admit were also lovely and missing the annoying gloppy layers of decades of paint that burdened their forebears. No longer could you feel the winter blasting through them, but they emphatically lacked character, and they ate up those incredible oversized sills.

winter window

I know about the fire that happened long ago in the master bedroom, strangely, in one of the two window seats in the small dormers on either side of the fireplace. It had long been painted over, but if you lifted the bench to reveal the storage under it you could see the charring on its underside.

I also know a nine-year-old child died from tuberculosis in an upstairs bedroom in that house. And that one of two sisters who subsequently grew up there died in a drug-related incident in Atlanta. And that the eldest child of the family who sold it to us also struggled with addiction. And that the three families who ever lived in the house—including ours—had adopted children. So much sadness, and still so much hope.

I remember just about every single detail of that house. I will never go inside it again in my life, ever. I’m okay with that, I think. I hope the new people are giving a beautiful home everything it deserves. They have no idea of the stories that unfolded there.

I just wish I could make the lid fit more tightly on the box.

poolside