the (non) accidental tartan

The real McGill Tartan

The real McGill Tartan

The first prosthesis I ever received had a socket with a vaguely skin-toned hue to it. It was not an aesthetic triumph. But it wasn’t supposed to be. I had been an amputee for less than 8 weeks. My prosthetist informed me that I would receive a permanent socket a few months later after the size and shape of my limb stabilized. At that time I could hand-pick something specific for the socket.

The thought of being able to customize my prosthesis with whatever I wanted laminated over it was exciting for a guy who (at the time) had never gotten a tattoo or worn anything more daring than an occasional linen sport coat. As I mulled over my options, I remembered that I had a few square yards of our family tartan lying in a trunk in my attic. The McGill tartan is a predominantly red/green/yellow explosion that looks acceptable only two days out of every year: December 24th and 25th. But now, down a leg and thinking of how to decorate my socket, the McGill tartan finally became relevant.

My second socket left the tartan behind in favor of the U.S. men’s soccer team’s jersey, which at the time was a horrific simulated denim with white stars across it. What then followed, to the best of my recollection, was a series of superhero-themed sockets: Batman; Spiderman; a high-tech looking Superman logo; the Fantastic Four; The Avengers; Ironman; and Captain America.

I used to think that I whimsically selected socket designs based primarily on which franchise was then ramping up at the local cineplex. But as I stared at some old sockets lying around my house over the last few weeks, I began to reconsider that assumption. What if the underlying selection criteria were more subconsciously and psychologically based? The more I considered it, the more I found that explanation plausible.

Why would I ever choose the McGill tartan for my first permanent socket? All my life, the impossibly bright mashup of colors had been a punchline when my father donned his tie and my grandfather his (gulp) pants during the holidays. Even today, I have a McGill tartan tie in my closet (photo above), unworn since I received it. Neither aesthetics nor a positive historical/sartorial attraction to the nauseatingly vibrant colors should have led to my decision.

I have concluded, in retrospect, that out of the universe of possible options I chose this previously locked away swatch of cloth because it was the McGill tartan. It defined me, even with all its Yuletide garishness. It was a personal statement about reestablishing my identity. Never mind the fact that who I was looked suspiciously like the aftermath of a large Italian dinner seen while staring into a toilet bowl after a touch of food poisoning: the McGill tartan socket was my first post-accident stake in the ground when it came to showing people who I was.

In the year after my accident, I began coaching the same soccer team that I had previously played for. Soccer had been a big part of my life through high school and I came back to the game in an adult league in my mid-20’s. My  identity had always been impossibly and delusionally entertwined with my belief that I was a remarkable athlete. When viewed through that lens, the decision to select the U.S. men’s soccer team jersey as my second socket seems not only unremarkable, but inevitable. “Look – I’m still a soccer player [athlete] [normal guy]!”

As the newness of being an amputee began to wear off, I then went down the Marvel/DC socket wormhole. What does every superhero have? An origin story; a seminal event that defines who and what they are. For Superman, it’s the destruction of his home planet and the fact that he’s an alien living among earthlings; Batman arises out of the ashes of his parents’ murder; Peter Parker gets bitten by a radioactive spider; the Fantastic Four are exposed to cosmic radiation that fundamentally alters their biology; the Hulk is what’s left after a scientist gets exposed to what should be a lethal dose of gamma rays; Ironman (in the most recent movie trilogy) is born out of the trauma of a missile that leaves metal fragments on the verge of shredding Tony Stark’s heart but for the miniaturized arc-reactor technology that he incorporates into his body (and that ultimately powers his exoskeletal cyborg suit); and Captain America volunteers to become a (highly successful) lab experiment before getting frozen in Arctic ice for a generation.

Every one of these individuals emerges from the transformative experience stronger, more powerful, more remarkable than they were before. To a young guy who had walked into the middle of a road on a snowy night and woke up in a hospital bed two days later with virtually no memory of what had transpired in between, I suspect these stories subconsciously resonated with a unique acuity in the years following my accident.

Comic books and movies have been informing us for the last 65 years that the survivors of random, life-changing events morph from nerds, weaklings, or at most, ordinary people, into individuals who change the world. It’s a well-established mythology that’s so omnipresent we tend not to think about it.

As I look back on the superheroes who have graced my socket for the better part of 17 years, I have the sneaking suspicion that my attraction to them lay in more than how damn cool they look. As a person obsessed with tricking people into not noticing I’m an amputee, I navigate the world with an alter ego: the prosthetic-wearing Dave McGill that (hopefully) no one realizes is an amputee unless I choose to take off my mask. (Less colorfully described as “wearing shorts.”) Similarly, I construct my life around the conceit that I’ve emerged from my accident stronger and better than I was before. (“I am Ironman.”)

Perhaps this is an example of me creating a retrospective narrative to make random past decisions appear more logical. But then again, maybe the tartan was more than just a tartan.

bathroom fear

bathroom fear 1.22.15

Today I will admit in this post what I’ve not wanted to say but been thinking for a long time: I don’t get a warm and safe feeling when I imagine myself as a 70 year-old man with one leg. The tipping point came at 4:43 AM a few weeks ago … in the bathroom. (Predictably – and sadly – my  moments of great realization and insight don’t come when contemplating a breathtaking landscape or sitting in meditation, but rather, when half asleep in the john.)

*   *   *

A common question I get asked by kids is whether I wear my prosthesis in bed. The answer – unless I’m trapped on the redeye – is no. Between 10 and 11 most nights I climb up the stairs, go into the bathroom and remove my left leg. I use crutches from that point until I put my prosthesis back on again the next morning.

For most people, not many things happen between 11:30 PM and 5:30 AM. Pretty much the only event of note during that timeframe involves basic bodily functions. You wake up and have to use the bathroom. You lie in bed for a few moments, half awake, wondering if you can somehow just gut it out and go back to sleep for the few remaining hours without awakening to find yourself in a damp puddle of your own excretion. You conclude that the answer to the previous question is, “Probably not.” You stumble out of your bed, shuffle your way to the bathroom like a drunk, and try to circumnavigate the obstacles in the darkness with your eyes 90% closed.

As a one-legged person, that scenario plays out for me in largely the same way as it does for my bipedal friends. After I say to myself, “Probably not,” I sit up and reach for the crutches next to my bed. I stumble forward and shuffle (yes, that’s possible with one leg and crutches) to the bathroom like a drunk, my eyes 90% closed.

Following this process, I found my way into the bathroom at 4:43 AM a few weeks ago. As some readers may be aware, men have a choice when emptying their bladder: stand in front of the toilet or sit on it. I long ago made a choice that when not wearing a prosthesis, half asleep or not, I sit. I’ve found that as a general proposition – officially, General Proposition #1 – having your hands and arms occupied by crutches while trying to perform all of the machinations necessary to ensure that the fluid leaving my body actually finds its way into the toilet (as opposed to in the general area of it) militates against standing. (The rarely-stated-but-ignored-only-once-before-it-becomes-a-fundamental-principal-of-your-existence General Proposition #2 states that your physical and mental health may never recover from a fall into a pool of your own urine because your crutches slid on said urine after ignoring General Proposition #1. Helpful hint of the day for all males using crutches in the middle of the night, amputee or otherwise: never forget General Proposition #2.)

These golden rules [please tell me you got the pun] hold especially true after midnight. My ability to balance solidly on one leg degrades precipitously when I’m half asleep, eyes mostly closed. But it’s important to remember that sitting down when you use crutches isn’t quite the same as doing it with two legs.

The person with crutches has to complete the following steps: (a) do a 180 so that his back is facing the surface he’s going to sit on, (b) get close enough to the sitting surface so that when he lowers himself, he doesn’t miss the landing pad, and then (c) lower himself onto the seat in a controlled manner. Note: the uncontrolled “collapse” method in place of (c), while arguably ok when falling onto a soft, heavy chair or sofa, can have painful and, I theorize, potentially catastrophic consequences when toppling backwards onto a completely hard surface like porcelain … with your pants down … (I’ll let readers imagine the horrific outcomes that could follow therefrom.)

The layout of bathrooms further complicates things. Toilets typically sit within a foot of the wall on one side, leaving someone with crutches little space to widen their base of support with the wall-side crutch. And as you execute step (a), your ability to maintain stability equally on both sides is inversely proportional to the distance between toilet and wall. (For example, the crutch on my right side often makes contact first with the baseboard heating cover some 4-6 inches above the actual floor as I spin my body into position.) In short, performing The After-Midnight Excretion 3 Step is the equivalent of doing the Tango flawlessly while being attacked by a rabid dog.

All of which leads to this: as I tried to sit down at 4:43 AM while executing steps (a) – (c) – a process that takes less than 3 seconds from beginning to end if performed consistent with U.S. federal standards – I lost my balance for a moment, teetering perilously close to an uncontrolled fall. I caught myself at the last minute through a combination of one crutch and the wall, crashing onto the toilet seat with (through the grace of God) no damage to those body parts relevant to the activity for which toilets exist.

Now I was awake.

And the following thoughts flooded through my head: my balance isn’t going to improve as I get older; my reflexes aren’t going to improve as I get older; my strength isn’t going to improve as I get older; I’m not going to get less breakable when bouncing off a wall or landing on a hard surface as I get older. And most scarily: it only takes one bad fall …

Now, perhaps I’m overestimating the risks; dark thoughts have a way of seeming particularly sinister in the middle of the night. Perhaps as I age, I’ll force myself to open my eyes all the way in the middle of the night and be more cautious as I traverse the distance between bed and bathroom, thus lowering my injury risk level. Perhaps I’ll become so irrational that I’ll stop drinking fluids after 3 in the afternoon and sleep with a 5 gallon bucket next to the bed. Regardless, this is the first time I’ve had a vivid vision of life as an older person with a prosthesis – actually, technically, I guess I’m imagining it without the prosthesis – and it wasn’t fun. (I don’t even want to begin to consider the psychological implications of the fact that I can only imagine myself at age 70 in the middle of the night trying to sit on a toilet.)

I’ve actively avoided thinking about getting older for my entire adult life. But I’m finding that strategy harder and harder to successfully implement with each passing year.

forgotten laughter

forgotten laughter 11.20.14

The subject of how and why I use humor in less is more came up in a conversation I had yesterday. That got me thinking: how long did it take me to start laughing after my accident? After the trauma and displacement of waking up in a hospital one limb short of what I came in with, surely I’d remember the first moment of genuine brightness breaking through the gloom (and medication) that enveloped me?

I’ve never asked myself that question before. And the answer – after careful thought – is that I can’t remember the first time I laughed after my failed two-step with a car. And that strikes me as strange, although perhaps it’s no stranger than not being able to remember the entire incident that led to me becoming an amputee in the first place.

I can say with certainty that I wasn’t laughing while still in ICU. Well, I apparently did giggle a bit, though I have no memory of it. Cara tells me that I woke up at one point and she told me that an old family friend had stopped by to check in on her. In my medicated haze I apparently chuckled and said, “[Friend’s name], what an a#$hole.” (I have not disclosed my friend’s name because (a) I’ve never told him the story, (b) I don’t think he’s an a#$hole, but (c) I fear that if he learns I once said this about him, he’ll consider it a pharmaceutically-induced yet true description of how I subliminally felt about him. [Friend’s name], trust me – I’ve met plenty of people who are a#$holes. You’re not one of them.)

After it became clear that any mental problems I was having resulted from my everyday stupidity and not bleeding in the brain, doctors transferred me to a normal hospital room. I don’t remember anything fun about that either. I do recall getting fairly freaked out watching the show Millennium, a darker, scarier version of The X-Files. Medication, serial murderers and vaguely sinister plots about the end of days do not mix well when you’ve just lost a limb. It’s possible I cracked a joke about the fact that my father ate a box of chocolates that I received from the family of the young woman whose car I was pushing. I know it struck me as slightly absurd at the time. I have a body part amputated. I get a box of chocolates. The least I should get for my troubles is a good piece of chocolate with caramel or marshmallow inside it, no? But my dad ate them (while – I kid you not – I’m watching and getting freaked out by Millennium, as I recall). That box of chocolates was the closest I ever came to actual communication with the young woman whose car I was pushing. I’m sure I could create some kind of interesting metaphor around the symbolic importance of my father’s Godiva intervention, but I’ll refrain from trying to draw it here.

Before I left the hospital for a week stint at an in-patient rehab facility I got to cruise the halls in a wheelchair, which I remember finding amusing. But I don’t think I ever laughed while doing laps around my floor.

I definitely didn’t laugh upon arriving at Rusk in New York City. As I’ve discussed many times before, Rusk in 1997 hadn’t been refurbished in many years. It had a distinctly One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest vibe to it. Cara, especially, was not amused.

I’m assuming that I eventually did start smiling and laughing over the course of the next week at some point. I say that because (a) I can’t imagine not laughing or cracking some dark joke for two entire weeks, and (b) I distinctly remember having fun as my physical therapist worked with me. Cara confirms that Ann and I hit it off immediately and that my whole mood immediately brightened when she and I started working together. But again, I have no actual memory of a single humorous event.

I wasn’t laughing when I returned home and on my first night back fell down while entering a restaurant on crutches. I was in a black rage for the rest of the night. Watching people with two legs fall is hilarious. Falling when you only have one and are using crutches, on the other hand, is catastrophic.

Christmas flew by in a Percocet-induced blur. Very funny in retrospect, but not so much in the moment, which consisted of me being unable to focus on any conversations going on around me and nudging Cara every 15 minutes to ask her when I could take the pills next.

The days before getting fit with my prosthesis consisted of lying around my living room, watching TV, and listening to sports radio. I filled nights with reading to distract myself from the phantom sensations pulsing through the air below what remained of my left leg. I mostly remember this period as monotonous and boring, a dull lull between the unexpected excitement of waking up in a hospital on the one hand and learning how to walk on the other. That post-amputation/pre-ambulation epoch is a kind of limb-loss purgatory – you’re waiting for the ferryman to escort you across the river to your prosthesis. You understand the life you’ve lost and you’re dimly aware there’s more to come. You just can’t comprehend what it will be like.

If I had to pick the one day where I know I grinned and really enjoyed myself, it was the second day in my prosthesis. I’d been walking between parallel bars and trying to get a feel for the biomechanics of walking with an artificial limb. I dimly remember reaching the end of the bars and then continuing into the open space beyond … tentatively … awkwardly. I had set up my whole life over the previous 7 weeks around this moment – walking without any assistance. Cara’s hands went up to her face as she started crying. For the first time in nearly two months I felt something that hadn’t been there before: confidence that I’d be ok.

Hollywood memories

hollywood memories 09.09.14

I’ve written several times about the strangeness of having most of my adult life defined by an event I can’t remember. The moments that shaped how I now navigate the world, how I perceive myself, and what I do for a living exist in my mind only because others have told me what happened.

When thought of this way, I find it discomfiting that who I am arises out of emptiness, a void I’ve filled with other people’s stories and the unalterable fact that the space where my left leg used to be proves that I survived my accident. Without my own memories of that night, I fight conflicting impulses: to recover them – after all, they’re mine, even if locked away from my conscious memory – and to keep them safely stashed in the deepest parts of my subconscious. But since working towards either of these goals is impossible – I can’t remember what I can’t remember, nor can I bury what’s already entombed – I find myself periodically trying to fill the void with an imagined version of my own experience. However, the enormity of what I felt in the middle of a New York road 18 years ago eludes me; I can’t independently conjure it up because, for all intents and purposes, I wasn’t there.

* * *

Rarely and randomly, certain movie scenes have left me displaced, my heart racing and my mind foggy. I’ve previously described my reaction the first time I saw Band of Brothers and its depiction of Joe Toye lying in the icy woods outside Foy, his leg blown off, calling for help as the rest of Easy Company remains pinned down under a barrage of German bombing. While I can’t remember what it was like to lie in the middle of Northern Boulevard on a winter night, a mangled mess, I thought to myself while watching two-legged Kirk Acevedo act, “That feels like it could be what I went through.”

I went more than a decade before having this experience again, but then got hit with it twice in less than 6 months. It happened first when I watched 50/50, the Joseph Gordon Leavitt/Seth Rogen vehicle that tells the story of Adam Lerner (Leavitt), a twenty-something whose cancer diagnosis sends his safe, controlled life careening towards the reality that he may die. Adam has a complicated relationship with his mother (Anjelica Huston), who he tries to keep at a distance while going through his treatment. But she’s there when he has to undergo life-threatening surgery, and his cries to her as they wheel him away to the operating room threw me back into that place of combined terror and recognition with a sudden jolt.

Unlike Band of Brothers, which depicted a soldier violently losing his leg, Leavitt’s performance had no direct connection to limb loss or my personal experience: I’ve never had cancer; I don’t remember getting wheeled into surgery; and my mother died more than a year before my accident. But the sense of primal fear, of the mind disconnected from its moorings, casting wildly about for a way to understand events beyond its comprehension made me believe that if I could remember that winter night, this is what it would have been like.

This feeling swept over me again at the end of Captain Phillips. Having protected his crew, his cargo, and survived his experience as a hostage, the Navy extracts Phillips (Tom Hanks) from the small craft his captors held him in, bringing him onboard a U.S. battleship. As a naval doctor walks him into the examination room, Phillips – who has stayed in control throughout most of his ordeal – disintegrates. While the physician tries to assess him he breaks down, the enormity of what he has just lived through sending him into shock. The doctor keeps trying to coax him back to the present, to his injuries, to what he physically feels. But Hanks poignantly inhabits that space between connection to the present and becoming completely untethered, trying to answer her questions while uncontrollably shaking and sobbing, his responses monosyllabic and mechanical.

Unlike either of the other stories, Hanks portrays someone who emerges from his trauma physically intact. But as I experienced the same reactions to Hanks’ performance as the two preceding it, I realized that the resonance comes not from the facts but from the feelings. And it’s the feelings I’m looking for, as it seems like a violation of a universal law that I could endure a trauma so severe and not be able to remember how it felt.

I suppose each of these stories could have had exactly the same impact on me if I had never walked into that intersection. Perhaps being me means being uniquely susceptible to actors portraying these specific kinds of life-changing events, and perhaps I have always been that way. However, I suspect that’s not the case. I think these scenes overwhelm me because they’re the closest I can come – after the fact – to feeling what I think I should have felt that night. It’s a bizarre way to reconstruct one’s personal history – through the lens of able-bodied actors playing roles that in no way resemble my own experience. I’ve never tried to do this; it just happens. And I accept it, even though I’m not sure I understand it.

crutch hate

crutch hate 7.29.14

As part of the long-term project Be In Better Shape at 50 Than 40, I have committed to a workout regimen over the last four months that goes beyond anything I’ve done before. I lift weights three days a week. I’ve discovered the wonder of resistance bands, which provide a full-body workout that leaves me looking like I emerged from a swimming pool. And there’s always my old friend and nemesis, the treadmill.

Jumping atop the moving rubberized sidewalk to nowhere normally doesn’t damage me. And over close to two decades as an amputee, I’ve developed what I consider to be a highly sophisticated system of assessing and responding to socket discomfort that balances the benefits of being active against the risk of having to shut myself down for an extended period of time as result of injury. The operative words in that last sentence are, “I consider,” because they correctly imply that I’m exercising personal judgment. Unfortunately, as anyone knows who knows me can attest, the disconnect between my logic and actual logic is often vast. To wit: I found myself both surprised and chagrined a few weeks ago when my mind told me one thing and my body revealed another.

It was a long treadmill workout – 90 minutes. I pass the time watching old episodes of Louie on my Kindle Fire, a show I select because I think it reveals some sort of clever parallel between the futility of the main character’s existence and my unending walk to nowhere.

The first 45 minutes slid underneath me without incident. But as I closed in on an hour, I began feeling something that I generally classified as “not good”  at the end of my limb. I have felt this before. It is, in my view, the cost of being active when you encase part of your body in carbon fiber and plastic. I therefore usually try to push past the discomfort, secure in the knowledge that everything will be ok in the end based upon past experience. So, with close to 60 minutes already committed to this venture (and two episodes from Season 2 still queued up to see me through the end), I made the conscious decision to forge onward.

The discomfort increased to mild pain over the last half hour, but I forced myself through it, feeling that surge of satisfaction as I shut the treadmill down at the 90-minute mark. “Pain is all mental,” I reassured myself as I stepped off the treadmill to cool down. Except sometimes it isn’t. As I pushed my body back into motion to leave the gym, the sensation I felt at the end of my leg felt closer to “body part in open flame” than “mild bruise.”

I regularly have conversations with myself in my head when unexpected events occur. (I fear that as I get older, these talks will cross the threshold from silent to audible, at which point my children – seeing their dad muttering to himself all the time – will become well-acquainted with all the services that assisted living facilities in the greater New York area undoubtedly provide.)

Dave’s Brain: “Ow! Jesus. What is that?”

Dave’s Brain: [replying] “Whooooeeeee – not good. [Expletive deleted.] Maybe it’ll feel better with this next step – [sharp intake of breath] NOPE!

Dave’s Brain: “Maybe that decision to continue at the 55 minute mark wasn’t the smartest one I’ve made?”

Dave’s Brain: “I can’t have been wrong. I’ve done this before. It’ll all be fine when I get the socket off and re-don it.

I hobbled out to my car, into my house, up the stairs, and into my bathroom. Removal of the socket and liner confirmed – as usual – my stupidity. At the end of my leg I was now staring at a liquid-filled blister the size of two silver dollars.

Cursing myself, I grimly showered and gingerly put my prosthesis back on. I spent the rest of the day trying not to walk and, when I had to, tentatively loading my prosthetic side for a millisecond at a time. I went to sleep hoping that the next morning would reveal that I had Wolverine-like healing powers.

I do not.

*   *   *

While I’m quite adept at using crutches, it’s a skill I’d rather not have (or need). Over the course of the next day as a crutch person, I realized how differently I see myself when I’m not wearing my prosthesis.

When presented with opportunities to go out in public to run errands that I’m responsible for every day, I rejected them, choosing to stay in my house. When Cara offered to do them for me, I turned her down.

Dave’s Brain: “Just because you’re not wearing your prosthesis doesn’t mean you need other people to do everything for you. Suck it up.”

Dave’s Brain: “Flawless analysis. I’ll prove the point by sitting here like a block of cement.”

Even when I did have to go out – the boys needed me to run them to various activities late in the day – everything felt complicated and laborious. Getting into the car now required me to crutch past the front door, open the rear passenger door, toss my crutches in the back, close the rear door, hop back to the front door, open the front door, and slide into the seat. (In retrospect, I probably could’ve just gone in the front door and thrown my crutches into the back seat from there, but I’m not a crutch person, so nothing is intuitive. Also, I’m generally much smarter after the fact than I am in the moment.) As I climbed out of the car when returning home and a neighbor drove by, I asked myself (as if I were a brand-new amputee), “Did they see me with only one leg? What are they thinking if they did?”

One might think that after 17-plus years of life as an amputee, I would have gotten past these kinds of issues. Clearly, I haven’t. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. I do find it fascinating, however, that so many years later, a blister at the end of my leg can immediately jolt me back into the “new amputee” mindset.

finding flow

Many lives are disrupted by tragic accidents, and even the most fortunate are subjected to stresses of various kinds. Yet such blows do not necessarily diminish happiness. It is how people respond to stress that determines whether they will profit from misfortune or be miserable.

— Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow

I rarely read something and think, “Hey, I could’ve written that.” But that was my immediate reaction upon reaching page 7 of  Flow. Csikszentmihalyi has spent much of his career exploring this concept, “the process of achieving happiness through control over one’s inner life.” A more mercenary author would have likely named this book 10 Steps to Happiness, creating a “how to” manual that (falsely) promised a roadmap to achieving flow. But Csikszentmihalyi rejects that approach, instead summarizing years of psychological research in a readable, entertaining format to explain the science behind why some people can find flow (and by extension, happiness) while others can’t.

As someone who survived a traumatic accident in my late 20’s, I found Chapter 9 – “Cheating Chaos” – particularly compelling. In it, he describes the reactions of people trying to rebound from life-altering disabilities like paraplegia and blindness. Again and again, the words on the page mapped so perfectly to my own experience that it felt like I was the one being described. For example, a man paralyzed from the waist down in a motorcycle accident describes the experience as “like being born again.”

I had to learn from scratch everything I used to know, but in a different way. I had to learn to dress myself, to use my head better. I had to become part of the environment and use it without trying to control it. … It took commitment, willpower, and patience.

A woman who lost her sight at age 12 states that “it made me mature in ways that I could never have become even with a college degree … for instance, problems no longer affect me with the pathos they used to, and the way that they affect so many of my peers.”

Csiksgentmihalyi asks, “[h]ow does it comes about that the same blow will destroy one person, while another will transform it into inner order?” The answer, he posits, is what psychologists call “coping ability” or “coping style.” He continues:

The ability to take misfortune and make something good come of it is a very rare gift. Those who possess it are called “survivors,” and are said to have “resilience,” or “courage.”

But why certain people can do this and others can’t isn’t widely understood. Csikszentmihalyi hypothesizes that positive transformations from negative events share three characteristics.

First, people in these situations believe that they can control their destiny. Interestingly, however, “they are not self-centered; their energy is typically not bent on dominating their environment as much as on finding a way to function within it harmoniously.”

Second, these individuals tend not to focus obsessively on themselves, but rather, direct their attention on the world around them. “They are not expending all their energy trying to satisfy what they believe to be their needs, or worrying about socially conditioned desires. Instead, their attention is alert, constantly processing information from their surroundings.”

Third, people who positively cope with life-changing events “focus on the entire situation, including oneself, to discover whether alternative goals may not be more appropriate, and thus different solutions possible.”

*   *   *

When I consider my rehabilitation from limb loss and the three characteristics described by Csikszentmihalyi, the parallels are startling.

1: belief that you can control your destiny

As I’ve written about before, when doctors told me post-surgically that I would be able to walk with a cane within 6 months of my amputation, I rejected their estimates out of hand. I didn’t do this because I believed I was better than other above-knee amputees or because I had a built-in sense of superiority. In fact, I had no frame of reference whatsoever for making any estimate about when I’d be able to walk independently.

But I did believe that I could directly influence that timeline by focusing intensely on each element of my rehabilitation in an aggressive, positive way. I set small goals – i.e., I’m going to be home before Christmas – that I could achieve, over and over. This mindset forced me to put questions like, “why me?” in the background – I had a deadline to beat.

2: focus on the world around you

While I was admittedly self-obsessed in many ways after my surgery – How do I look? What will others think about me? – navigating the world first with crutches and then with a prosthesis forced me to look at my immediate environment in a completely different way than I ever had before. On crutches, a wet tile floor meant something completely different than it had when I walked over it with two shoes. (As I found out, violently, upon my first trip outside my house after returning home post-accident.) On a prosthesis, a slight uphill or downhill completely changed my walking dynamics, forcing me to monitor what lay ahead of me with careful consideration.

The world around me necessarily narrowed to those things that could threaten my stability and gait.

3. find new solutions

Before I even left inpatient rehab, I learned that something as simple as making a sandwich while using crutches required a different way of thinking than two-legged sandwich making. I had to think strategically if I didn’t want to drop a jar of peanut butter or if I aspired to pull multiple items out of the refrigerator simultaneously.

And I’ll never forget the afternoon when, unable to drag a large broken tree branch on my back lawn into the woods, I figured out a novel workaround that I never would have (had to) consider with two legs. I placed one end of the broken branch into the “V” formed by diverging branches of another tree and proceeded to step on it with all of my weight until it snapped into two smaller branches that I could more easily carry. The sense of achievement I felt from solving this combined mental/physical problem gave me as much pride as many key “professional” successes I’ve had over the last 17 years.


In the end, what makes Flow such a compelling read is its hypothesis that we possess the capacity to actively control how we perceive and respond to events around us. Shortly after losing my leg, I spoke to a group of teenagers on a religious retreat, and I remember saying, “Life is going to kick you in the teeth eventually. You can’t prevent that. It’s how you respond to it that defines who you are.” That’s not a novel or earth shattering concept. But I find it somewhat ironic that it took me roughly 15 years to find an explanation of why I see the world that way.



(im)balance 05.06.14

The carpeted floor rushed up and smacked my side. I lay there, stunned. Why wasn’t I standing? How had I gotten here so quickly? My anger spiked and I could feel my face getting hot while in a lower level of my brain I dimly registered that the thin maroon rug covered a concrete slab that was – son of a bitch – hard. As I felt my fingers shake from the adrenaline pumping through them I heard nothing. But I saw a face looking down at me. It was Max. And he’d just knocked me on my ass.

*   *   *

Every son remembers the first time he physically beat his father at something. For me, it was when I ran my 40’ish dad into the ground one winter day during wrestling season when, unbeknownst to me, I had transformed myself into the best shape of my life. For Theo Huxtable, it was when he beat his dad in a backyard basketball game on The Cosby Show. And for Max it was when he knocked me to the ground like he was pushing a toddler over. The events leading up to this life-altering moment were, like so much of my life, ridiculous.

I had returned home from CVS with candy for each of my three kids to consume while we all watched a movie. Jackson had scored some Reese’s, Caroline had gotten a Hershey’s chocolate bar and I had procured an impossibly large bag of Twizzlers for Max. After giving them the candy but before they finished it, I decided that it was appropriate for me to tax them for my efforts. As the person who had (a) volunteered his time to obtain said sugared goods, (b) driven his car the 1.1 miles to the CVS, thus using about 1/275th of the total volume of his gas tank, and (c) purchased the items, I unilaterally determined that a small levy would be appropriate. I therefore made known my intention to exercise the Paternal Candy Tax in a manner uncharacteristic of our current tax system: simply and briefly (i.e., “Max, give me a few Twizzlers.”).

I had not known before that exact moment that my son had Libertarian tendencies. But Max, like the proud men and women who built this Republic, clearly believes that big government – which, within the 4 walls of our home, he refers to cynically as, “Dad” – must be resisted. Implicit in his response – a shouted, “No!” as he clutched the bag containing 20 uneaten Twizzlers to his chest – was his well-thought out, experientially-crafted personal ethos that absolute power corrupts absolutely, leading necessarily to the conclusion that the only way to prevent such abuses lies in the active creation and support of states’ rights. (Which he labels, unironically, “me,” in daily conversation.)

Big Government stared at the revolutionary, aghast at the insolence – the arrogance – of his refusal to pay the tax that it had decreed necessary for the continued well-being of all its citizens. Jackson and Caroline – small satellite states – watched, enthralled by this real-life reenactment of the principles upon which our country was founded and that so many died for, no doubt realizing the nuanced philosophies and theories of power unfolding before them. Relying on my historical power base and perceived greater strength, I chose a policy of rapid, aggressive escalation. “Are you kidding me?” I asked, incredulous that 2-3 Twizzlers weren’t already resting in my Big Government hands. I got up from the couch and took a step in Max’s direction.

Faced with Big Government looming over him, hand outstretched, Max retreated. Hugging the Twizzler bag to his chest, he screamed “No!” in a mock falsetto, leaped up and slunk to the corner of the room, back towards me as he looked over his shoulder. Confident that continued pressure and brute force would result in submission and production of an ever-increasing number of Twizzlers with every second that went by, I stomped over to Max, hand still out, expecting payment.

I don’t know the precise moment when Max decided that there, on that day, he would break the chains of Big Government in defense of his candy. But I do know that the Great Twizzler War of 2014 will go down as one of the shortest and most definitive battles in military history. From his semi-crouched, protective position, Max suddenly launched at me and gave me a solid push, no doubt intending to merely back me off with a warning attack. But to his surprise and mine, I toppled over, my facade of strength and dominance crumbling in a single, irrevocable moment. Max stared at me, wonderment and fear blending together as he realized what he’d done. “Oh my God. I’m so sorry …” His voice trailed off. Jackson and Caroline looked on, dumbstruck. I swore, an expletive directed as much at the realization that Max could knock me down as at Max for actually doing it.

Jackson then broke the stillness, yelling at Max at the same time that he came over to help me up off the floor.

*   *   *

I’ve carefully constructed a model of myself that acknowledges no weakness or downside to wearing a prosthetic leg. I walk on ice in the winter. I run on a treadmill. I scale (small) mountains. I view the world as something I control while I interact with it physically. But given the fact that my 15 year-old son took me out with virtually no effort, it’s a lie.

After this happened, I kept thinking back to when I took karate, all the thoughts I used to harbor when sparring. My head filled with memories about how I believed that with enough training and skill I could hold my own physically if attacked by a human biped. Then they disintegrated, gone forever.

I don’t physically dominate the world; I just work harder than most people to always keep my balance while hiding the effort it takes to do so. That makes me weaker than I thought I was. But I think I’m ok with that now.