Monday, April 16, 2012

PT in Pink

I’ve been going to physical therapy twice a week for the past month to rehab a shoulder injury, and even after 8+ hours of it, I STILL giggle seeing grown men struggling to lift teeny tiny pink one-pound weights – and that includes the man in the mirror: Me!

For those fortunate enough not to have had the pleasure, PT (physical therapy to the cool kids) offers very little in the way of privacy.  There are typically 5 or 6 other people, with various injuries/surgeries, working out at the same time, while several staff members flit about, calling out corrections and suggestions from across the room as they stretch out some poor patient’s newly replaced hip.

And there is nothing hip about the exercises. Most seemed designed by mimes using equipment found at a yard sale. When I tore my Achilles, I spent a lot of time picking up marbles with my toes - but only after perfecting the scrunching up the towel with my toes routine. I’ve seen people doing embarrassing things with pool noodles and averted my eyes at the ones asked to squat until their butt hits a bucket. It's like that "Minute to Win It" show, minus the hope of prizes.

I start my shoulder sessions with the Finger Walk, which is basically doing the Itsy Bitsy Spider with my left hand “climbing” up a post.  Then I sit in an old office chair and raise and lower a set of weightless clothesline pulleys for three minutes. Next comes some multi-colored rubber bands that I stretch and pull in various positions, each time flinching in fear of them snapping back at me. Then it’s on to the pink weights, which are seriously the size of a stick of butter, and utterly ridiculous looking. Fortunately, during my last session, I was told that I’d gotten so good with the pink one-pounders, next time I could move up the orange two-pound ones. I was so proud, I forgot the fact that by my 25th rep with the pinks, my arms were shaking so much I was actually looking forward to my table work. 

On the table, I’m subjected to several painful stretches at the hands of a very pleasant, but firm, therapist who assures me that she is restoring my mobility by doing something to my shoulder capsule that reduces restrictions. But, the words I want to shout as she manipulates my arm are for a restricted audience only. And the half-dozen others in the room.  Many of whom have no such qualms about voicing their pain and discomfort.

Once I’m stretched, it’s back to more exercise. The therapist likes to save this time to introduce new movements, such as last week, when I had to “write” the alphabet on the wall with a small kickball. At first, the hardest part was remembering how write cursive, but by the time I got to P, I was cursing like a pro.  Another time I had to stand on one of the large rubber bands and pull it up and across my chest until I was holding it aloft like a sword, as if I were some sort of Pilates Pirate.

Each session ends with the relatively relaxing rolling of a giant yoga ball back and forth across the table, followed by ten minutes of ice time, where I pretend to read old issues of People and Us Weekly while sneaking glances at the muscle-bound black guy struggling to lift his petite pink weights.

“Wimp,” I think. “Wait until you get to orange!”

Monday, April 9, 2012

Packing It In

I’m not what anyone would consider sentimental (semi-mental, maybe), so rare is the occasion where I feel emotional towards an inanimate object. It probably helps that I don’t hold on to things long enough to develop an attachment to them, nor do I buy stuff expressly for that purpose.  I don’t seek out souvenirs while on vacation. I don’t purchase concert shirts at shows. I throw out my son’s artwork with abandon and have no issue donating his used things to needy families.

My wife, on the other hand, won't even let me throw out the frozen pouch of breast milk that’s been in the back of our freezer for the past three years, and she is the reason our Christmas trees are in constant danger of collapsing because EVERY ornament we own is special and needs to be displayed.

That being said, I am having misgivings about parting with a particular item: the L.L. Bean backpack that I’ve had since 1991, a Christmas gift from a former girlfriend’s sister (a long story that has nothing to do with why I’m attached to it.)

And the legendary L.L. Bean workmanship and styling has nothing to do with it either, for while it is certainly serviceable, it is not exactly fashionable. But neither am I. And since it was the only one I had, I used it. For everything.

But after 20 years of daily use through all sorts of work and weather, it was starting to fall apart. And smell. Bad. So this Christmas I put it out there that I could use a new one, and my wife came through with the latest model from the Bean.

I was happy with my gift, and glad for the modern updates, but as I went about the task of transferring over the decades of bike tools and other “essential” items my old one contained, a funny thing happened. I started to feel sad.

Most of the stuff wasn’t even all that useful: a Quantas “survival pack” that consisted of socks, sleep mask, toothbrush, and tiny tube of toothpaste leftover from my trip to Australia ten years ago. A plastic army man found on the ground at a Dead show in Vermont. Several rocks from various beaches that I thought must have looked cool at one time. A half dozen dried up pens. About $5 in coins, remnants of a time when a payphone provided my link to home in an emergency. A bunch of beer caps. A pin commemorating Shea Stadium. And a permanent handicapped parking pass that I found on the side of the road and had always planned to turn in.

Not exactly a treasure trove or time capsule, and except for the bike tools, nothing that I felt the need to include in my new pack. Whatever had compelled me to lug that stuff around for the past however many years no longer seemed logical. But as useless as it all was, I had a hard time throwing it away.

And that’s so not like me.

Typically I would have tossed the whole thing in the trash without a second thought, but I just couldn’t do it. I tried. I opened the lid, lifted the smelly sack by its dry-rotted straps, and prepared to drop it in. But I just couldn’t do it. I eventually got around to discarding the crap inside, and have not felt any pangs of loss for my plastic army man. But the backpack is proving tougher to get rid of. I know I’ll never use it again, but I just feel bad about ditching it.

It has been with me on thousands of bike rides, hundreds of day trips, and dozens of vacations. It attended 10 years of college, without earning so much as an Associate’s.  It’s been under the bright lights of Vegas and in the shadows of Stonehenge. It’s been to the top of Mount Katahdin in Maine and the bottom of a volcano in New Zealand. It was with me and my brother on our road trip West, where we followed Historic Route 66 and hit all the hot spots in between. From the Grand Canyon to Grand Cayman, anywhere I’ve gone, it’s gone.

Hospitals. Book Readings. Graduations.
Canada. The Caribbean. Mexico.
Weddings. Reunions. Rehearsals.

From the times when I could leave it unattended at the top of the Empire State Building to the Post 9-11 world where it’s subject to search in a supermarket, it’s been there.

And now it’s done. The years of sun and sand and sweat have taken their toll, and not even the industrious elves from L.L. Bean can save it.

But I can.

Don’t get me wrong. I can’t fix it or restore it to its former glory. But I can make a place for it in the back of my closet. It’s had my back for so many years, it’s time to repay the favor.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Thar She Blows!

“Call me Ishmael. Some years ago--never mind how long precisely --having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off--then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”

So begins Moby Dick, Melville’s classic novel about a deranged captain’s search for an elusive white whale. And while I consider myself more an Ishmael than an Ahab, I have spent the past twenty years hunting a white whale of my own. Only my hunting grounds were the woods. And my prey was a ghost train…

I’ve been hiking the same trail my entire adult life, through all seasons and every type of weather, usually alone. There have been times where I’ve walked it daily for several weeks in a row, and others where it might be once every other month. On average, I’d say I’m out there about once a week. But the exact number isn’t important, so let's just say I’ve tramped that path at least 1000 times.

It’s a 5-mile loop through a heavily wooded area that features valleys, cliffs, nice views of the Housatonic River, lots of rock features, and a ½ mile section that follows some old abandoned train tracks near the Stevenson Dam. Or at least I thought they were abandoned…until the first time I heard the whistle of the ghost train.

I call it this because, while I've heard it many times, I’ve never actually seen it. I’ve spotted dozens of deer, tons of turkeys, a few fox, and even the occasional fellow hiker – but what I longed to see was the ghost train.

Many times I’ve been halfway up the mountain when I’d hear the mournful whistle, but by the time I scrambled to the top, within sight of the tracks, it would be gone.

Other times I’d be deeper in the woods, too far from the tracks to make a real run at it, but the whistle would ride the wind, haunting (and taunting) me from a mile away.

Some times I’d be past the train tracks when I heard it, too far to turn back. But most infuriating were the times when I was right there – a couple hundred yards or so away– close enough to send me sprinting through the woods, heedless of the branches whipping at my face and rocks threatening to twist my ankles, only to arrive panting at the train tracks with not a train in sight.

Which brings me to the weird part: other than the whistle, the train left no proof of its passing. In the winter, the snow-covered tracks would still be snow covered after it had gone by. Come fall, sticks and branches strewn across the tracks would still be there, unbroken, even though they were directly in the path of the train.

It was kind of creepy.

And until now, I've kept it to myself. For twenty long years, I silently sought the mysterious train. Deep down, I knew it wasn’t really a ghost. And I figured there was probably a logical explanation for its seemingly strange existence. But rather than ask around or research train schedules, I kept my solitary watch in hopes of a real sighting. Unlike Ahab, I wasn’t obsessed with my search. Just moderately preoccupied. But, as it turns out, I was like him in that I didn’t have a leg to stand on…

The mystery was solved just the other day, when I was actually walking on the tracks when I heard the whistle blow. Finally, I thought, as I calmly stepped off to the side and peered down the tracks for my long-awaited first look at the passing train. Let’s get a look at this sucker.

But there was nothing there.

Holy crap, I thought. For a fleeting second thinking it really was a ghost! But then I heard the whistle again. And that’s when I realized what it was.

Directly across the river from the train tracks is the Stevenson Dam. A large dam that holds back Lake Zoar. A large dam with floodgates that are routinely opened. The opening of which is signaled with a loud siren to alert those down river of the wall of water that will soon to be rushing their way. A loud siren that sounds sort of like a train whistle to an idiot in the woods.

So call me Ishmael. It’s better than Dumbass