The changing of a calendar year is the universally accepted time for people to make lists of goals that they’ll largely abandon by January 19th, leaving them 49 more weeks to think of new things to add to the following year’s list so that they can repeat the cycle. I’m not a year-end list guy. As December flows into January I feel no compulsion to take inventory of my life. The most significant activity that I undertake at year-end is figuring out which computer files from the previous year are deserving of inclusion in the new year’s folder that sits on my desktop.
I reassure myself that I choose the list-less path because I’m already doing everything I want to do. Therefore, charting my aspirations and goals in such an overt manner is redundant. That’s what I keep telling myself. But the perfectly balanced life I live in my head sometimes strikes me as an absurdist illusion built to avoid the fear and pathological inability to think about myself clearly that is the world I actually live in.
During a meeting last week with a friend and peer at work, he suddenly informed me that I’m simultaneously one of the most efficient and inefficient people he has ever had the (mis)fortune to work with. He disclosed this abruptly, probably having rocketed past his exasperation threshold after listening to me cover a 50-word topic in 39,472 words. Based on his comments and my own ability to imagine the torture that talking to me inflicts on others, I knew that his assessment was (a) accurate, and (b) shared by anyone who has ever had to deal with me for more than 10 minutes.
With this universal law now out in the open for all to see, I saw the future clearly: people at my company would light up our office instant messaging system, desperate to learn the identity of the brave and noble soul who exposed me for what I was at least 50% of the time – a tedious windbag; upon confirming his name, they would kneel in fealty to him; he would henceforth be known as “WordKiller”, a title so universally accepted that his email address would magically and without the need for public explanation become “wordkiller@[companyname.com].
But the revelation wasn’t identifying the binary nature of my communication style. I’ve known this about myself for a long time. Unable to improve upon it, however, I choose to deal with it through one of my most finely honed skills: avoidance. As I considered WordKiller’s disclosure more fully, as well as his imminent rise to cult hero status at our company for speaking what others could only think, I realized that my simultaneous skill/incompetence manifests not only in how I talk, but in what I choose to do (or not do). Startled by this revelation, I suddenly found an explanation for my obsessive and repetitive self-interrogation about a simple game taking place this week, as my company fields a team against the Wounded Warriors Amputee Softball Team.
Normal human beings would focus, first and foremost, on how much fun this would be. The WWAST plays only against able-bodied teams under the motto, “Life Without a Limb is Limitless”. The team has been featured on HBO’s Real Sports, myriad national and local newscasts, and in print media across the country. Their shortstop bears a faint resemblance, both in build and face, to Nomar Garciaparra, save for the prosthesis on his right leg. A softball game against a team of amputees from the military that regularly beats able-bodied competition isn’t something any regular person would soon forget.
But not me. As the date approached, my first and overwhelming reaction to playing in this game was fear, not excitement. Since baseball has always been my favorite sport, this makes little sense. I’ve played against individuals and teams vastly superior to me in the past and never felt fear. I played baseball competitively through college. I’ve coached it for more than 8 years as my kids have played, starting with tee ball and continuing all the way through Little League. I know how to play. I know where I’m supposed to be and what I’m supposed to be doing on a ball field.
My experience and expertise haven’t led me to an efficient, “let’s play 2!” mental resting place. Instead, I engage in the inefficient quagmire that WordKiller identified, asking myself the following question: “will I be able to play well?”, a general query that breaks down into a multitude of lesser, specific, and (for me) largely unanswerable questions.
Which prosthesis should I wear? (Answer: running leg, but see next question.) Can I swing a bat on my running leg without falling down on its much-less-stable knee than my everyday leg? (Answer: unknown; I could easily practice with the bat, balls and tee I have in my garage, but for reasons that make no sense even to me, I haven’t done that at any point since figuring out the answer to the first question.) Even with the running leg, can I run around the bases without ending up on my face? (Answer: unknown; I won’t be buying cleats for traction, both because I’m cheap and because it seems silly to buy something that I’ll probably never wear again after Monday night, so I’ll instead likely break my ankle wearing running shoes, making for an ignominious and unforgettable departure from the game, but also making for an enthralling future read.) Will I be able to field? (Answer: unknown; bending down for balls in play while moving doesn’t strike me as an easy thing to do, especially when moving from right to left (as a left AK).)
Instead of engaging in this pathetic internal dialogue, I could alternatively conclude that the very fact above-knee amputees play on the WWAST, standing alone, shows that it can be done and done well. If you watch video of these soldiers playing, anyone can see that they navigate the ball field just fine. But given my mental illness, irrefutable objective evidence counts for nothing.
And my sickness extends even deeper. In addition to these very specific, mobility-related questions, there are Big Issues out there also.
Can I even enjoy a game that I last played in college as a reasonably skilled, able-bodied athlete? Will I hold myself to my never-dormant able-bodied standards of performance? Will I do something on the field – fall down, trip, or otherwise screw up – that leads my able-bodied teammates to give me well-meaning words of encouragement that only cause me to further seethe at my inability to easily do what I once did?
Setting aside the merits of the labyrinthine and self-involved dialogue that rages in my head, one thing becomes clear: the way my mind works prevents me from doing things that I should be trying to do. And as I look back on my post-amputation life, I can think of only three things I’ve dared to try that took me outside of my physical comfort zone.
1. water skiing
I grew up spending one month of every summer on a lake in Maine. Our house – we called it a cottage for reasons I can’t fathom, but it was most certainly a house – sat atop a hill separated from the lake by 50 yards of woodchips that felt cool and soft on the soles of our feet when it rained, but that became tiny swords during dry spells. At the bottom of a hill a wood dock extended out onto the lake, complete with a motor boat attached to its left side.
Days consisted of long periods of relative inactivity – reading, jumping into the lake to cool off, more reading – that would abruptly turn into exhilarating, high-speed ovals traced through the bright blue ripples. Early morning and late afternoons were even better, as the ripples gave way to a glassy, pristine surface as the midday breezes that usually came up dissipated.
As a fourth or fifth grader I disdained water skiing with two skis. My uncle and my dad didn’t use two skis. Two skis were for losers and babies. Barely competent on both feet, I willed myself to slalom and quickly became good at it. I became familiar with the feeling of a hard cut across the wake, the spray shooting up against my ankle like a water cannon and a beautiful reverse waterfall rising up behind me (at least as I imagined it) as I pulled the handle in my hands towards my hip, accelerating me through the twin jets of water coming from the engine.
Maine is more a memory of the distant past now than a part of my life. I haven’t been there since college.
But I found myself on a different lake six years ago with family friends, ski on my sound foot, watching the line separating the boat from me spool from tangled to straight. After two failed attempts to get up, the water dragging my body in unusual ways that I couldn’t stabilize with my left leg as I once had, I pulled myself upright, balancing over the water at 30 mph again.
After initially holding on for dear life while attempting to understand what the limits of slaloming without a back leg were, I navigated outside the wake and was able to move back and forth, though with nowhere near the aggression or competency that characterized my younger self. Pulling in on the line while upright – something you can do without repercussions with two legs – now sent the water ski directly out from under me so that my back and head were abruptly parallel to the water, resulting in falls that had me skipping across the water on my spine.
But I had done it. Very few able-bodied people who water ski can slalom. So through my “able-bodied v. disabled” bifocals, this looked and felt like a victory. I was a success. And therefore, it was good.
2. snow skiing
Growing up in northwest Massachusetts, I spent winter weekends at a tiny mountain with two rope tows that hauled us up to the top so that we could ski back down in less than 5 minutes. The day I got my own gripper to clamp onto the rope tow, permitting me to leave behind the days of simply holding onto it with my hands as neophytes did, was one of the prouder moments of my young life.
As I got older, we went to the then-“big” mountains in the Northeast – Stratton, Sunday River, and Stowe, as well as smaller but locally-noteworthy areas (Brodie, Jiminy Peak) less than 30 minutes from our house. By the time I got to college, I was competent enough to successfully pass the necessary training to become a member of the Ski Patrol, therefore becoming part of perhaps the only community anywhere in the world where it’s not only required but cool to wear a fanny pack.
Then after college I just stopped. The cost and time snow skiing requires didn’t fit into my life. It wasn’t until the early 2000’s that I found myself on a mountain again. A group of children from the prosthetic facility I co-owned were participating in a ski clinic at Camelback Mountain in Pennsylvania. Not to be left behind, I rented cheap – read, inferior – equipment and found myself on a beginner hill for a course in how to navigate a mountain on only one ski and outriggers (i.e., ski poles with short “skis” on the end of them instead of pointed tips).
This was not the same activity I had mastered over the previous 20+ years.
The day consisted of short periods of standing followed by longer periods of grooming the mountainside smooth with my body. At the urging of my companions and willfully discarding any real connection to reality, I allowed myself to get escorted to the top of the mountain after 25 minutes of total training. What I had learned during that time was that (a) I couldn’t reliably stand on one ski, (b) I couldn’t understand how to use outriggers, and therefore (c) I wasn’t capable of skiing. Undaunted by these minor details, my journey down was reminiscent of the never-ending torment awaiting Sisyphus and those of his ilk in Hades. My clearest memory is of losing control and skiing into a young child who, I fear, still has nightmares about skiing that are magnified beyond the comparatively normal childhood terror of strange adults barreling into her on a mountain to the true nightmare scenario of strange limbless adults barreling into her on a mountain.
I haven’t skied since. I probably won’t ever try it again.
Unlike water skiing, which, post-amputation, roughly resembled my experience with two legs, snow skiing on one leg and with outriggers was like being “outed” as disabled. It looked different, it felt different, I wasn’t any good at it, and I couldn’t – or wouldn’t – enjoy it as a result.
3. rock climbing
About 20 minutes from my house there’s an indoor rock-climbing facility. Staffed largely by a small population of absolutely charming, Merrill-wearing, long-haired 19-24 year-olds who, I suspect, may enjoy the occasional date with Cannabis, this business supplements its income and funds its hardcore climbing clientele by hosting kids’ birthday parties.
We’ve hosted at least 5 birthdays there over the years. Unlike many kids’ parties, where the adults generally flee immediately after drop off, something about having one’s child suspended 40 feet off the ground, monitored only by one of the aforesaid Merrill-wearing, long-haired teens, acts as a powerful parental retainer.
Anyway, one of the opportunities a rock climbing party affords the adults who do deign to stay on site is the chance to climb with the kids free of charge. I had attended numerous parties there in the past and watched with a mixture of envy and self-loathing as other parents – usually fathers, who fell into one of two categories: (1) obnoxiously fit individuals who seemed intent on proving their fitness to the group I’m about to mention, or (2) guys who had let themselves go but who were convinced scaling a fake cliff would allow them to reclaim their lost youth and prove to the previously mentioned group that all that exercise and training really wasn’t worth as much as they thought – ascended towards the flourescent lights 60 feet above.
Egged on by my middle son, whose birthday it was this particular year, I consented to donning a harness and trying to climb. The first 10 feet consisted of self-consciously trying to figure out to control my body – in particular, my relatively-useless-in-this-context prosthetic leg – while staying attached to the wall. But then the large audience of kids and adults fell away. As I got farther and farther from the ground, I became completely focused on finding the next handhold, on getting my legs where they needed to be. The world narrowed to colorful pieces of vulcanized rubber on a vertical face and the spaces between them.
I later learned that rock climbing, when done correctly, is all about your legs, with your arms and hands acting as relatively minor supporting players. Whatever the appropriate arm-to-leg ratio is for people with all their limbs, my approach certainly was the inverse, as I relied almost exclusively on my upper body to navigate the ascent. When I returned to earth, my arms were shaking with exhaustion, but the excitement came off of me in waves.
In retrospect, my decision to participate in each of these activities had one thing in common: I didn’t engage in the mental equivalent of a 45-minute monologue analyzing what this revealed about the nature of the universe or me. I just did them. I was … efficient.
I don’t have a list for 2012, and I’m not saying anyone else should have one either. But at least once this year, be efficient. Don’t think about it; do it.