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

Wisdom of Generations

IMG_20150510_193902

Last time I observed this vista it was late fall and Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I were headed to Brattleboro for a visit with his mum. Yesterday it was further afield for a celebratory sendoff in Massachusetts at the home of a sibling, whose daughter and her husband and young family will soon leave for a new life overseas. Big changes for everybody concerned. I tried to document the day as unobtrusively as possible, but I can’t pass up a chance for more storytelling.

IMG_20150510_194812

I’ve landed smack-dab in the middle of a very big family of very good people, traversing many generations. This is not the first time HCB and I have joined this extended group to celebrate with them, nor will it be the last. And it has never been precisely the same combination of people twice; people have busy lives and come from far afield. But where this particular multi-generational family is concerned, everybody tries their best to get there.

IMG_20150510_195310

There are lots of babies and toddlers right now. Which means lots of young parents. And some middle-ish ones. And grandparents, and even some great-grandparents. Big brothers, young sisters, nieces and nephews. Husbands and wives, widows and friends. Many generations in the same place, at the same time. For my part, I am still somewhat of an observer in this setting.

Yesterday I was thinking about a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote above the chalkboard in my tenth grade English classroom: The years teach much which the days never know. It occurred to me that this same bit of wisdom could hold true with a multi-generational family: there is love and enrichment to be found in every unit of a family, more still in the family as a whole. Young, sharp minds hold no sway over a lifetime of experience. Nor can that lifetime be complete without the tincture of youth to keep it alive. At least, that is what I would like to think.

IMG_20150510_194936

Seeing my own child from infancy through his adolescence—in spite of the time I spent chiding him about various things throughout his rough-and-tumble teen years—pushed me outside my comfort zone and gave me an edge I would not otherwise have possessed. (And as he steps into grownup shoes there are signs he was actually listening to me on occasion.) In short, he made me a better teacher and thinker than I’d have been without him. I could not have foreseen that when I signed on to parenthood.

IMG_20150510_195108

IMG_20150510_195821

There was talking and listening yesterday, some of it loud and boisterous, some whispered. And envelope-pushing and discovery. And good food and company. And chiding. And wisdom flowing in many directions. The thumbprint of the past was there, and celebrated. And hope for the future was everywhere, unmistakable.

IMG_20150510_194633

IMG_20150510_200225

The only thing missing today was actual face time with my boy, but we had a nice check-in with each other, as we do most every day. And this, from HCB and his going-on-thirteen-year-old:

IMG_20150510_130708

Surprise Mother’s Day geraniums, to keep me from stealing the ones outside a certain Vermont welcome center. It’s the kind of thing that is the domain of the older generations: if age bestows upon you the capacity to pick flowers out of other people’s gardens, as I have been told it does, then why not liberate entire pots of geraniums?

And anyway, there’s an attorney in this great, big ‘ol family, plus one in my own Tennessee family. So the way I see it, I’m covered.

Someday my grandchild will beseech me once again to tell about the time I was arrested for stealing the flowers. And I shall be happy to comply.

Somebody Please Hand Me My Oil Can

Dancers have such ugly feet.–Anne Bancroft, The Turning Point

IMG_20150130_193451

Handsome Chef Boyfriend looked at that photo and said, Your feet don’t look that bad in real life.

Cheeky.

I don’t really care how they look (a benefit of age and wisdom, I think). They’ve served me pretty well for most of my life.

Recently not so much.

I went to a conditioning class last Wednesday afternoon, nevermind which kind. It was the first time I had not been the person standing at the front of the room in more than a couple of years, when I was still living in Knoxville and teaching adult ballet classes with conditioning, along with many other ballet classes week to week. I was also going to the gym for conditioning classes and running about thirty miles weekly. I felt good approaching the mid-century mark of my life, with the exception of a nagging heel injury and an old running injury in my right knee that still flares up inexplicably from time to time. And I was about twenty pounds lighter than I am now.

October 2012 in NYC with   Ryan and Billy, two ballet besties
October 2012 in NYC with Ryan and Billy, two ballet besties

After I lost my teaching job in October I had to think on my feet. Which left very little time for me to use them. I tried to explain this to my doctor during a checkup a few weeks ago when she berated me for 1) gaining weight, and 2) not exercising. You are preaching to the choir, I said. She kept on going. You need to exercise at least three times a week, she said. (This was after I tried to explain where I was two years ago, that I was a ballet teacher, that I was super thin after my marriage failed, that I exercised for a living. And that my life had been through a lot of big changes in a small space of time. And that a chronic foot injury had continued to worsen for the past couple of years. And that my immediate concern was survival.) More pontification.

I find this preachy stuff insufferable. In 2011 I was still healing from a stress fracture in my left heel, a whopping case of plantar fasciitis, and posterior tibial tendonitis. To say my foot was badly compromised would be an understatement. I had pushed through all kinds of pain, until I could push no more. My orthopedist consented to cycling as a substitute for running, which I did for about six months while my foot got (somewhat) better. I bought a new bicycle and rode it 25 miles, every single day. And continued to teach ballet through all of it, because I owned a school and had no choice. I learned how to use a medley of tools to keep going–judicious use of Ibuprofen (abusive use on a bad day), ice baths, therapeutic stretching, taping, massage. Forget physical therapy: I spent hours and hours there, with little improvement, and much of what I was asked to do I was already doing on my own anyway.

So about last Wednesday. I knew I would be tight, sore the next day, all of that. And that my range of motion likely would have suffered attrition since October.

It was much worse than I could have imagined. In fact, it was horrible. A bit shocking, really.

As a young ballet student I think I believed I would always know how to move, that it would somehow be effortless. And when I got a little older, I fooled myself into thinking that this ancient, contrived art form would only serve me well as time marched on. I never truly thought I was possibly doing some things that were hastening the ageing process and that ultimately bone, joint, and sinew would uprise against me and declare mutiny. Damn them all.

I am not really sure where this leaves me. I spend my days at work in this new chapter of my life sitting, thinking, writing, which is a good thing. Standing up to take a quick break is difficult and painful. Conventional wisdom among practitioners of dance and sports medicine dictates that rest is important–probably the most important part of recovery from injuries. I have not had a chance to rest since I founded a ballet school in 2006. Time will tell. But I am not crazy about chronic pain, and I feel older than my years, by a lot. I have a burning desire to run again, which I emphatically can’t do right now. I am not even sure I can ride a bicycle (which is out of the question until April or May in Vermont, anyway).

So my plan is to go to a class a few times a week and try my best to just move.

I really, really need that oil can.

My Ageing Dilemma

Photo courtesy of Tom Atkins
Photo courtesy of Tom Atkins

A friend snapped this photo of me last month at an event in Cambridge, New York at the home of writer Jon Katz and his wife, artist Maria Wulf.

Confession: seeing it the first time gave me a little jolt. I think many of us carry around an idea of how we look in our mind’s eye which may or may not have anything to do with our actual appearance. I think I have a reasonably true mental self-image, but it’s maybe a tad less wrinkled and grey than that woman in the photo.

I am actually growing more comfortable with the idea of ageing. I am not Botoxified (not holding anything against folks who are), I don’t have any kind of implants, I have not had things removed from my person (except once where there was some concern about a malignancy), and some time ago I made the decision to allow my hair to grey naturally, as the color I had used for the better part of a decade to maintain the super dark brown hair I’ve had all my life was starting to damage it. The result was that I looked, well, older than I did without fake color.

And I’m getting spots.

I once investigated what it would take to remove the spots (you know the ones I mean—the little brown splotchy things that start showing up sometime in your 40s). You need a chemical peel, my doctor explained, where your entire face essentially turns bright red for a couple of weeks and melts off, but ostensibly the effects of age and sun disappear and you’re left with skin as smooth as a baby’s butt.

I’ve known two people who had a chemical peel. Each of them came down with a horrible case of shingles afterwards. One of them suffered so much damage that she ended up for months undergoing expensive repair treatments in a faraway city.

I know: the sample size is way too small to be statistically significant. (At least, I think that is what I remember from my statistics class in grad school eons ago.) Still, no thanks. I will take the brown spots. They are a monument to all those hours I clocked doing fun stuff outside with my boy during his growing up years. (Yes, I used sunscreen.) For an even better celebration of wrinkles, take a look at this Huff Post article about art photography made using centenarians as subjects. I love the idea of wrinkles as art-worthy.

I went to NYC in 2010 to sit for the amazing young photographer Matthew Murphy for my headshots which I needed for my classical ballet curriculum vitae; the makeup artist who worked on me that day quipped, “Love the granite!” This was in reference to my hair, and it was a new one on me. I love it, too, actually. (Granite = timeless and classic; thank you, Alex Michaels.) It definitely suggests age, though, no way around it. Even if you are not all that old. (Anybody whose hair is really dark knows exactly what I mean; the first grey hair you sprout sticks out like a sore thumb. My dad plucked mine from my head on my high school graduation day while I stood in the sun in my cap and gown, waiting for him to snap my picture. So be it.)

The upshot is, I am okay with my grey hair, and my brown splotches, and my wrinkles. We’re all going there, Botox or not, chemical peel or not, like it or not.

This peace with ageing is huge for me. I grew up in a world where appearance is everything, where you work mainly naked in a roomful of mirrors, as I like to say, where you are under constant scrutiny by a very few people who are looking at how you are put together and how you move and who have the power to decide your future, and where you learn to scrutinize yourself even more. Ballet is unforgiving, although I will say that over the last couple of decades it has granted admission to body types and physical attributes that in a bygone era would have been passed over as imperfect in some important way. It’s the evolution of the species, we hope.

This is not a commentary about the self-image of young girls, or advertising, or unimaginable standards of beauty, or retouched photography that glorifies the perfect female body. I will leave that discussion to others. This is more about longevity and the vessel that we carry with us into our aged lives. I won’t champion any kind of philosophy that says, it’s okay to eat what you want and be obese as some kind of antithesis to skinny girl American pop culture. It’s not okay, your frame was not designed to sustain it. You will march through your years with all kinds of physical problems that are tied directly to weight. Your personal vessel will not serve you well, and it may in fact simply give up long before it’s due. I’ve got science to back me up on that.

It’s not only that I want to live for a very long time, I want to feel good on the journey. I feel much older than my years, though, thanks in no small part to more than a decade of trying to model a perfect fifth position for my students every day of the week (long past the time where I could reasonably do that), and several years spent running more than twenty-five miles weekly on a badly compromised foot, because the euphoria I felt from that seemed worth it. All this concerns me, more than a little.

I feel lucky beyond measure to embark on a new life with an incredible man, an amazing companion, and I am ecstatic that we see well past each other’s wrinkles. I just want us both to be around for some time to come, to enjoy the ride together.

I think it is possible for most of us to age gracefully, as they say. I nod to my own mom, who has held up quite well, now into her 70s. I wanted to post a photo of her with her classmates at Canada’s National Ballet School in Toronto, at the school’s 50th anniversary celebration a few years ago. I could not obtain a copy of it but if you are of a mind, follow the link. When you open it, look in the sidebar on the right; scroll down to the box that says “Alumni Reunion Class Photos.” Clicking on the box opens a slide show; you’ll see mom in the first two pictures, front and center. She’s in the yellow shirt and she is totally rockin’ a plaid mini-skirt.

She’s also totally rockin’ her wrinkles.