Reaching for Extremes

Not Made for Walking

Are you planning to watch the Olympics? asks the gentle practitioner of acupuncture as he jabs some more needles into me.

I can tell this is a sneaky tactic to try to divert my attention from the pain, right after reprimanding me (in a gentle practitioner of acupuncture kind of way) for holding too much tension during the insertions, which does not help, he suggests.

But this only makes me feel like an underachiever, especially since I’m already alone in my gathering feelings of disdain for these sessions, surrounded as I am by folks who seem only to extol the virtues of this ancient technique.

I digress.

There’s an American figure skater who’s had some ballet training and I may have to watch him, I manage to squeeze out through gritted teeth (I am also wincing, but he can’t tell because I’m lying on my stomach with my face in the donut thingummy). But other than that, nah, I have a hard time getting around the politics (especially in these Olympics) and all the doping and corruption and scandal.

Yes, he opines, it’s disappointing.

Later in the week I am listening to an interviewee on public radio, an expert weighing in on the doping and corruption. He concedes that it’s awful, but sadly probably here to stay, across various sports and disciplines. He names a bunch of examples, and for each one he explains what the athletes do, and why they think it helps. And what’s more, he goes on, these young athletes at the top of their game, in reaching for extremes, and in deciding to participate in doping—using dangerous substances to ostensibly boost their performance—will pay for it tragically for the rest of their lives (and some will in fact die young as a consequence).

Extremes is the word I’m stuck on. I roll it around and around in my noggin as I drive down the road to fetch one happy doggy from an afternoon at camp; most dogs know when enough is enough, I think. Extremes. Extremes.

Reaching for extremes is why I find myself allowing somebody to poke needles into me everywhere once a week, at least for the time being. It’s still an experiment, and so far is not helping. My early years of ballet training, when my young colleagues and I asked ourselves to do things we should not because of teachers who allowed or even encouraged it—I am paying for those early years now. I never used performance enhancing drugs, but I certainly pried my feet open at the barre to achieve what I hoped would be perfect turnout. Or made myself fall asleep at bedtime in some weird position I hoped would do the same. It never occurred to me at 10, 11, or 12, that I might be causing permanent damage to some joint or musculature somewhere.

The closest parallels I can draw between classical ballet and Olympic-style athletic competition are the ‘legitimate’ ballet competitions; these are not ‘dance moms’-style competitions, where there is always controversy swirling around age-inappropriate costuming and choreography, and where it seems trophies are handed out like candy to bejeweled young dancers dressed in their identical warmups repping their home ‘studio.’ That is another creature altogether, and truly outside my sphere, as they say.

Nope, these are elite competitions where one finds the most promising young talent emerging in the art of classical ballet across the planet. There are no trophies, but there is certainly cash. Arguably the most prestigious of these—the Prix de Lausanne—you can actually watch in real time via livestream, which I still find magical. And the thing I love so much about the Prix is all the coaching that goes on during the competition. That is, the young dancers who earn a place in the competition have the opportunity to attend classes and receive one-on-one coaching from renowned ballet mentors, opportunities worth their weight in gold. Even if you walk away without one of the coveted scholarships or professional company contracts, that alone made going worth your time and effort. And these days we hope the grownups in charge are a tad more concerned and vigilant about the health of their young dancers than my early teachers were.

Does doping go on at this level of classical ballet competition? I have to say I honestly don’t know, but I hope not.

Maybe a tad more concerning are the demands modern audiences make on young athletes: it’s quite thrilling, after all, to see these young people at the very top of their game, doing their thing better than they’ll probably ever do it again, so effortlessly, and reaching milestones one never would have thought possible. (The human body can do that? Wow!) We want it, nay demand it, and they rise to the occasion. There is no room for moderation in this paradigm. And so long as our expectations are there, my guess is the extremes will grow more and more pronounced.

When I was a young student in residential ballet school I studied with the celebrated Natalia Krassovska, among others, for three consecutive summers. Mme. Krassovska came out of an old Russian tradition that prized results at the expense of dancer health; it was the same style of training I had for the first five or so years of classes before that, and so it was familiar. But if ever there were a living example of the consequences, it was she, who by then already could barely walk. Each day she hobbled into the classroom, with her hair pulled into a perfect Giselle-style bun (parted in the center, covering the ears, and secured low, at the nape of the neck), and the long-sleeved leotard she wore under her teaching skirt gathered at its plunging neckline. After she tethered her tiny dog to a chair, she would greet the piano accompanist and hobble again over to the barre to demonstrate the first exercise of class.

When I could tear my eyes away from her expressive face and painted-on eyebrows, I watched her feet closely, in the pink heeled teaching shoes she wore over her classical pink tights. She could not execute every movement in the vocabulary, but she came damn close. And those feet—and I mean feet, not legs—stood always in a perfect fifth position. That, in a nutshell, was why she could no longer walk: I imagine every joint from her heels to her hips had suffered so much wear and tear through the years from the feet being torqued open to achieve that beautiful position, that her legs could no longer do what they were made to do, and that was simply to stand and walk.

And here I am now, in more or less the same boat, I am thinking as I look at the swirly patterns on the carpet through this donut hole, with my own special flavor of crippling discomfort.

In homage to the Olympics I shall not watch, I leave you with a winning performance from this year’s Prix de Lausanne, which ended only a few days ago; the dancer is a South Korean, and her technique is not extreme—it is merely beautiful. To all the young ballet competitors, and to all the young Olympians, I say this: while you’re doing your best to achieve the unimaginable, reaching for extremes, remember that one day you may simply want to stand and walk.

Why Do You Run?

Running Shoes
I am, therefore I run.

Why do you run?

The gentle, soft spoken man balances a clipboard on one knee, pen poised in hand, listening carefully while I explain my habits before going on to tell him the history of a badly compromised heel. He starts scribbling while I talk.

It gets me outside, I said. With my dog. It gives me a shot of feel-good, of course, I said. And I like the color that comes into my cheeks after a good run. And I feel energized by it for hours afterwards.

He is nodding and writing.

And where does your foot hurt when you run?

I tell him it is medial at the start of a run, but often moves once I get going, radiating around the heel to the outside of it, just under the ankle bone. So…lateral—I guess it also hurts laterally. He uses the end of his pen to point to various places on my foot to make sure he understands.

And would you call the pain an ache, or a throb, or is it more of a sharp pain? Is there a burning sensation when you feel it?


You mean, it burns?

No, I mean yes, all of those things you said: it aches, it throbs, or it is sharp. Or it burns. It can feel like somebody grabbed a bit of flesh with needle nose pliers from the inside, and then twisted. Hard. But I don’t have to be running to feel it; sometimes it can happen to me while I’m sleeping, and it is bad enough to wake me. Or when I’m sitting still at my desk, minding my own business. Sometimes I feel pain then, too.

Then he asks about the history of my bum foot.

Stress fracture to the calcaneus some number of years ago, I explain. Posterior tibial tendonitis, made worse by Haglund’s deformity, or the “pump bump” in common parlance. My orthopedist down in Knoxville said the tendon was fraying from friction with the bony Haglund protrusion. Pump bump is pretty funny, I quip, because I never wear heels. Ever. It took a ballet school dad, an ER physician, to finally point out the obvious: you may not wear heels, but you’re putting your foot in that position—with your heel elevated—hundreds of times a day in your line of work.

And you still run? asks the kind man.

Yes, I tell him unapologetically. In a perfect world, I explain, I would have the expensive, risky surgery (which of course would not come with risks in this fictional scenario) to fix the Haglund’s, if that window is still open in the first place—when the problem gets bad enough, no surgery can fix it—and then I would be booted and rest obediently while somebody brought me tea and finger sandwiches, and then I’d do physical therapy diligently. Et, voilà—the foot would be fixed. I don’t know that world, but I do know life is a balance. And speaking only for myself, of course, I have discovered I am worse off when I don’t run. Therefore I run.

This is what I tell the gentle practitioner of acupuncture, who is about to stick needles into me everywhere. He explains why he needs to stick needles in my back, even though I need help with my foot; it is something about cleansing. Maybe it will be like a bloodletting, I think: maybe he will exorcise this ugly foot demon out of me, right out of the teeny pinholes he is about to poke all over me.

But probably not. Somewhere in my head I can hear a wise person opining about a therapy’s being effective only when positive thinking goes along with it. I try to think positively when I am asked to inhale and exhale each time another needle goes in. When this kind practitioner, this gentle therapist, places a needle under my bum ankle bone, right on the outside where there is not much flesh, I feel a sharp pain, then nothing, and then another, sharper pain inches away in the soft flesh under my foot, a delayed reaction: I estimate it is somewhere between the third and fourth metatarsal. My eyes are watering and I am trying to stay calm. And positive.

The practitioner is reassuring, telling me this is all normal, but to say something if the pain does not subside. It finally looses its grip and I try to concentrate instead on the new-agey music and the fountain over in the corner of the room while I wonder, laying here like a human pin cushion, why feet can’t be swapped out, like hips, or knees.

*  *  *

Yesterday Vermont winter also loosed its grip. I had promised Scout for days we’d go find an adventure; I reminded him in the morning that we would. He paced nervously around the house waiting for me to finish baking biscuits for the church freezer, and setting up the stew in the slow cooker, and starting a load of wash, before I finally started pulling on my stretchy, wintry running clothes.

He yawned and whined in anticipation on the car ride to our new running spot, standing in the back seat and wagging his tail all the way there. Trembling with excitement while I leashed him, he told me I was a slow poke and really could anybody go any slower? The other dogs are already running, he lamented.

And then our moment finally came: down the dirt road the two of us bounded, stopping to mark piles of rotting leaves one of us, and maybe a few remnant piles of filthy snow from the last storm, to sniff some horse poop, to look in the treetops for those vexing squirrels, and sometimes to point. Scout, I tell him, you really are a gundog. You’ll have to make your peace with pretending, friend.

Powering up a long, steep hill, it dawns on me we have not run since a week or so before Christmas. It has been one thing and then another. Snow and more snow. Then ice. And unrelenting cold. We had flood warnings all over the place twice in January. But now we’re still in January thaw, and on this beautiful early Saturday afternoon in southwestern Vermont, it is unbelievably 54 degrees and sunny.

But my foot does not care that all is right with the world and lets me know unequivocally I won’t be completing this four-mile or so circuit at a good clip, at least not the one I prefer. So Scout and I power on for about three miles, stopping here and there to investigate a noise, or some movement in the woods, real or imagined. I shift to toe running from time to time to answer my heel, now shouting at me. We wave at the mailman and a few other passersby. Then we turn up the long dirt road that will eventually lead us back to the road where we left the car.

This particular road has turned to soft mud, the kind you can get stuck in without proper tires on your car: you expect this in March, maybe not so much in January. I glance at Scout’s underside and realize it is black as the night, from his pads up to his armpits. I just bathed him last week, and that is too bad. But this doggy is on cloud nine, and so is his human, even if we’ve dropped back to nothing more than a vigorous walk at this point.

By the time we get back to the road where we left the car we’ve slipped in the mud a few times, been taunted by one especially portly squirrel, and got within sneezing distance of a large, white horse giving rides to little people at a local winter festival. We can smell the wood fire where s’mores are being made hand over fist, and we cross paths with countless folks and other dogs coming and going. And then we are back to the car, almost, it’s just ahead, but Scout has now planted three feet and is pointing with his wrist: the dog is stock still, trembling in his tracks.

What is it—what do you see? I ask him.

And then even I, the deficient human, can see it: an enormous gray squirrel, about eye level, peering at us from a space under a fallen tree. The squirrel flicks its tail a couple times, taunting us.

Scout trembles.

The squirrel disappears and reemerges now on top of the log, comically dangling a tiny, airline-size liquor bottle from its mouth.

Scout is beside himself.

The squirrel drops the bottle, which goes clinkety-clink-clink onto something hard on the ground. He vanishes and then reappears, holding the bottle again by its narrow mouth as if he were about to tip it back to lap up a last drop, before skittering up a tree and out of sight. Scout is breathless with excitement, panting, and my cheeks are tickled pink on either side of my wide grin, a grin of disbelief at this spectacle. I wonder whether David will even believe this story. My foot is screaming at me, but I am euphoric on this exquisite late January afternoon in Vermont.

Call me crazy, but this is why I run.

Scout the Squirrel Dog
As If One Needed a Reason