What Limb Loss Can Teach My Son About College

08.08.11 door opener

On September 1st, my oldest son, Max, heads off to college at Hofstra University. Given my Scotch-Irish-Welsh-English heritage, I shy away from discussions with him that my wife’s Italian upbringing encourages; talks about things like … feelings.

So rather than sit down with Max one-on-one to share these thoughts with him like a normal person, it instead strikes me as infinitely more logical to post my parental advice online for the entire world to see. Max – do with these what you will …

10. Don’t Stand in the Street

I failed to follow this basic principle 6 years after graduating college and 1 month after graduating law school. Education alone doesn’t make one smart. Enough said.

9. Ask Questions

College professors know a lot. And it is your job to pay attention to what they know. But more important, you have the opportunity to question them, to challenge them (politely).

If something doesn’t make sense, ask a question. If something strikes you as wrong, ask a question. If you think you have a new or better way of thinking about something, ask a question.

I emphasize this because when, at 27, I became an amputee, I knew nothing about living life with a “disability.” And that forced me to ask lots of questions in order to understand how I could get navigate – physically and mentally – my new reality.

But here’s the cool thing: when I asked these questions – even ones that I objectively classified as dumb – I learned something new. Over time, I was able to develop my own opinions and viewpoints about whether what I had been told was objectively correct, or whether it represented one person’s opinion or simply a long-held collective assumption. And that, my friend, is called “learning.”

8. Make Friends

It became obvious to me after my accident that we rarely accomplish anything of value all alone. I succeeded in my rehabilitation only because of everyone around me. A large team of people – your mother, our family and extended family, friends, prosthetists, physical therapists and physicians – made it possible for me to achieve my goals.

So remember that you’re not alone. Go to school and give as much of yourself as you can to other people. Be loyal. Be supportive. Be a great friend. You’ll get at least as much out of doing that as you’ll get back from them when you face challenges of your own.

7. Take Care of Yourself Physically

Pulling all-nighters, eating pizza at 2 AM and sleeping in … I did all of these things in college. Don’t repeat my mistakes.

Trust me – I’ve tried over the last 20 years to “gain” extra time during the day by sacrificing my physical well-being. It’s not worth it. And I think the effect of inactivity manifests itself much more quickly since I lost my leg than it did before. When I’ve lapsed into a sedentary lifestyle, I feel it almost immediately (especially in my lower back). Conversely, the hour I spend walking a few miles, lifting weights or swimming in the pool make a huge difference, both in terms of how much I accomplish the rest of the day, and how I feel, both physically and about myself.

You’re going to spend plenty of time sitting around doing homework, practicing your music and hanging out with your friends. But please, for the love of all that’s holy, carve out 60-90 minutes every day to do something active. (See # 3, below, for a related piece of guidance.) So make yourself an hour-long playlist of the songs you love the most, haul yourself out of bed to the fitness center and allow the music to wash over you as you work out. It’s a pretty cool feeling to look at your watch at 8:30 am, fired up by the Foo Fighters, Green Day, Biffy Clyro, and – in my case – Cheap Shots (available on iTunes and Spotify for your listening pleasure), and know that you’ve already completed the task of taking care of your body for the day.

6. Touch Base With Your Family Once a Day

McGill Family Group Text: trust me – it’ll save you the annoying, “we haven’t heard from you” phone calls. Enough said. (No – this has nothing to do with anything I learned from losing my leg. Consider it a bonus item.)

5. Find a Mentor

Following my accident, I connected with lots of different people who had survived limb loss. Their experience and insight dramatically influenced me and led me to re-evaluate what I wanted to do and ultimately did with my life. Some of those people I now only speak to once or twice a year, but those discussions still have a profound and important impact on me.

Find a professor who you like and actively work to establish a relationship that goes beyond any single class you may have with him or her. Talk about your goals, your fears and listen to what they have to offer you. The future you’re planning for yourself today  – particularly a performance-based one – is challenging. But you don’t have to face it alone: a professor who has walked that path him or herself will likely have unique perspectives that could make an enormous difference in your life.

4. Treat Everyone You Meet With Respect

Before I lost my leg, I was the smart-ass, judgmental, knows-everything college graduate who was quick to judge and dismiss others. Afterwards, I met people who shared nothing in common with me other than the fact that they too were missing a body part. And I found that they were almost all unique, interesting, helpful people who treated me with an understanding and respect that humbled me.

In college, you’ll get to meet people from all over the United States who don’t share your opinions, experiences or perhaps even your values. Treat them all with respect. We have enough divisiveness and polarization in the world today already. The only way that will ever change is one person at a time. You can (and will) make a difference.

3. Respect Your Time

Following my accident, the rehabilitation process forced me into a defined routine. I had blocks of time spent at physical therapy, blocks of time at the prosthetist’s office and blocks of time at home. I only had “x” amount of time to get things done within each of those slots, so I tended to work intensely for short bursts of time. In that way, my day became a series of short (60 minutes) but hard sprints, followed by quick breaks (10 mins).

If you’re studying 18 hours a day or 2 hours a day while at school, you’re doing something wrong. College isn’t just about studying, nor is it just about hanging out and fitting in some classes between marathon ping-pong tournaments.

To find the right balance, you have to relentlessly schedule your days and always respect that schedule. There are only so many hours in a week. People who are successful figure out how to manage those hours more effectively than those who are not.

2. Take Risks

Over the last decade, there are three things I’ve done that really stand out. The first was when I hiked up and down a small mountain in Arizona. The second was last year, when an organization I volunteer for committed to getting 100,000 signatures on a petition to protect amputees’ access to prosthetics. The third was a few weeks ago, when I spent a few hours navigating an up-and-down trail in Alberta, Canada.

All of these activities took me way outside my comfort zone. In each instance, willfully navigating into into a zone of personal discomfort and working through it made them memorable, positive experiences.

Over the next 4 years, you can sit comfortably in the areas you excel at and rarely move outside them. Or you can take a poetry class, join that club you’re interested in, or start something new on campus that doesn’t exist today. I promise you, it’s the risks you take that you’ll remember and look back on with pride.

Oh – and the bonus?

The risks of “failing” at these things while in college are almost nonexistent. College is the one place you can fail at this without the consequences having a profound impact on your life. So take advantage of the opportunity.

1. Live With a Sense of Urgency

The biggest gift I got from my accident was the stark reminder that the line separating the here and now from oblivion is much thinner than you think. One minute I was safely in a car with your mother; the next I was lying in the middle of a road, my body ripped apart with EMT’s triaging me as beyond the point of no return.

While that sounds grim, it actually freed me. Instead of staying at a job that seemed like “the right thing” to do and flipping my “life and career” switch onto autopilot, I became focused on finding opportunities and experiences that would make a difference, both to me and other people.

In some ways, you’re already way ahead of where I was at your age. You know what you want to do and you love doing it. You can spend the next four years working towards a very specific goal that you’ve already identified before you’ve hit 20. And you have a gift for connecting with other people that will serve you well on that journey.

But never take anything for granted. Treat every opportunity like it could be the big break you need. Treat every show you play like it’s the one where a single video of you and/or your band could go viral. Stay in the moment.

Don’t spend your life worrying about all the things you can’t control and that could happen to you. Aim for the target and launch yourself forward without hesitation or reservation. We only get to go on this ride one time. Make. It Count.

And have fun.

I couldn’t be prouder of you. Now, as a former boss once told me, “Go out there and kill it.”

the annual prosthetic awareness cycle

the annual prosthetic awareness cycle 5.14.15Caroline recently told me that she missed the good old days (she’s 9) when she would help me don my prosthesis most mornings. Technological advances in prosthetic design resulted in my daughter getting obsoleted a few years ago, an event that should prepare her well for working life in the 21st century. Now to be clear, putting on a prosthesis has never been a two-person job. I just enjoyed the fact that Caroline saw herself as an integral part of this daily routine. I don’t think it would have surprised her at all if she had looked at the component list and instructions for use for my prosthesis and seen a picture of herself as “Girl, 5” just below “Allen wrench” and just above “socket valve.”

(Step 7: Instruct Girl, 5 to screw socket valve clockwise into valve housing; Step 8: Instruct Girl, 5 to chase bouncing socket valve across room following unsuccessful attempt to screw it counterclockwise into valve housing; Step 9: Take socket valve from Girl, 5 and screw it loosely into valve housing clockwise; Step 10: instruct Girl, 5, to turn valve one rotation in any direction; Step 11: lavish praise on Girl, 5 for a job well done and screw valve tightly into socket housing yourself.)

Caroline has known no reality other than that in which one of the first things I do every day is put on my leg and one of the last things I do is take it off. It’s all she knows.

Max, who’s about to turn 17, heard Cara talking last weekend about how she had found some old photos of us when we were first married. I could hear the excitement in his voice as he asked to see the pictures, explaining that he hoped to obtain a first-hand view of me with two biological legs. He spoke the same way an ornithologist would if suddenly confronted with the opportunity to see a now-extinct bird. For him, his prosthetic-wearing father is normal, the pre-accident version of me exotic, a stranger.

Jackson thinks nothing of it when I stand at the base of our staircase and ask him to run into my bedroom to grab my backup battery. He passes me the fully charged lithium-polymer power source while I reach up and hand him the dying one. He presses the indicator button after grabbing it from me to confirm that only one of the 5 LEDs remains lit and walks it to my charger, clicking it into place.

I have three children, all of whom have grown up knowing that their dad (a) has never had hair as long as they’ve known him, and (b) has always worn a prosthesis to walk. When they come across old photos of me with two legs, their reaction is the same as when they see pictures of me with hair: “You look so weird!”

But as with all things, context is king.

Last week while I waited for Caroline to finish her gymnastics class, another student walked out of the gym to use the bathroom and narrowly avoided breaking his neck as his body went one way and his head the other as he tried to simultaneously walk past me while looking at the metal and carbon graphite gleaming dully at him below my shorts. If we were able to hack into his neural cortex and determine the precise words formed there but not spoken, our Thought-Translator 2000 would have flashed the words, “He looks so weird!” on its monitor.

My kids and everyone else’s reach the identical conclusion for opposite reasons. Max, Jackson and Caroline can’t imagine me without a prosthetic leg. Other children can’t imagine me with one, even when what they’re seeing eliminates their need to imagine anything.

I have an internal discussion with myself about these thoughts at about this time every year as I transition from 6 months of wearing long pants back to shorts. As sure as leaves turn green on the trees, so too does Spring mark the time when I get jolted into seeing myself through the eyes of people who either have never seen a prosthesis before or didn’t know that I use one.

For children who don’t know me, I’m a guy with a bizarre robo-leg who, because he’s different, is probably a little scary. But for my kids, especially Caroline, I am – or more correctly, my prosthesis is – something to show proudly to her friends. She has a body of knowledge that others don’t. Some kids like to demonstrate mastery by memorizing obscure sports statistics, spouting presidential history facts, or accessing cheat codes to the latest video game so that they can roam entirely realistic fantasy worlds with heads as big as prize-winning pumpkins. Caroline, on the other hand, gives tours of my prosthesis in much the same way guides do in museums.

“Can anyone guess what this button does? Look!” [Presses rotator button and swings my prosthetic knee and foot upside down so that the sole of my shoe is now facing the ceiling. She laughs while her friends try not to freak out.] “Want to see something cool?” [Turns off my prosthetic knee and extracts the battery, brandishing it like a bar of gold in front of her peers.] “Dad, you’re almost out of battery!” [Confidently places it back in the knee with a celebratory flourish.]

It’s a little odd getting objectified by your own child in this way. I suppose if I were wired differently, I might feel a bit like a sideshow attraction at a traveling carnival. Fortunately, she has refrained (so far) from charging admission to meet her dad, so she remains on the right side of the boundary separating interesting from sensational.

Come October I’ll start wearing long pants again and all of this will recede into the background. Until the cycle starts over again next year.

two amputees and a priest

two amputees and a priest 12.4.14

This Sunday will be the 18th anniversary of the accident that changed my life. I’m still learning new things about what happened to me then, even now.

While eating lunch with Cara yesterday, our discussion turned to the accident and its immediate aftermath. (Nothing makes better meal-time conversation than reminiscing about the physical (mine) and emotional (hers) trauma of my unsuccessful foray into car pushing.) In passing, she reminded me that an above-knee amputee came to visit me after I had been moved out of the ICU. “Nice guy,” she told me; 30 years old and a new dad.

I stared at her blankly.

“You refused to see him,” she continued. “Your were freaking out. You told me there was no way you were going to speak to anyone who was missing limbs. You wouldn’t even use the word amputee.”

I find this bizarre on two fronts. First, I don’t remember it. Given Cara’s description of how I reacted to the possibility of meeting someone else with limb loss, it seems almost impossible that this wouldn’t have remained burned into my brain, one of the clearest post-accident memories that I would carry with me over the next 18 years. But there’s nothing.

Second, I don’t think this is the first time Cara has told me this story. I have a vague recollection of her bringing this up several times over the years since the accident, but it wasn’t until long after our conversation yesterday had ended that I realized it. In other words, I’ve buried this story – perhaps multiple times – over the course of nearly two decades.

I’ve come to grips with the fact that my memory is an unreliable tool. I’ve written frequently about the strangeness of having the most significant event of my life – an event I was largely conscious for according to all accounts – wiped from the hard drive in my head. But after I got discharged from the ICU, I do remember most of what happened.

I remember the box of Godiva chocolates and the card attached to it that the girl whose car I was pushing sent me. I remember that my dad ate them. I recall being terrified that if I couldn’t figure out how to piss into a bedpan I would have serious complications (read: pain) removing the catheter. (The doctors had told me as much. Nothing motivates a man to pee more than the threat of excruciating pain in that particular body part. This, in fact, may be my clearest immediate post-accident memory – the abject terror that enveloped me at the thought of a brutal catheter removal. The fact that I no longer had a leg paled in comparison.) I remember a guy from my soccer team and my boss standing by my hospital bed, visiting.

But Cara asking me whether I wanted to talk to another amputee my age and amputation level? Me practically screaming at her to make sure that it didn’t happen? Gone.

But wait – there’s more.

Cara went on: “There were actually a total of 3 people who I really remember trying to visit you,” she said. “There was another amputee. A BK. He was a military guy – really young. You actually spoke to him briefly. He came in the room and you were polite but it was very quick.” I shook my head. This too may as well have happened to another person. How did these guys even know that I was in the hospital? Who were they? And why don’t I remember them?

“And then there was the priest. He was from my family’s parish – he had replaced Father Fred. You told me to keep him the [expletive] away from you. You made it very clear that you wanted nothing to do with him. So I spoke to him outside the room. I thanked him for coming but told him that you weren’t Catholic yourself and that you wouldn’t be receptive to him and what he had to say.”

The priest. The third member of my Amnesia Trinity. As Cara described my reaction to his showing up at my hospital door, at least it seems consistent with how I know I viewed the world at 27. I was not and had never been a “church guy.” Religion was something that people used to escape and justify why bad things happened to them, a tool of the weak. That’s what I thought then. So my “Keep him the hell out!” stance made sense to me as I stared at my bowl of pasta, listening to Cara.

But my behavior in response to the Mysterious Amputees Who Materialized at my Hospital Door feels strangely disconnected from how I think about myself (and by extension, how I think about who I was in December 1997). The more I turn it over in my head, the more bizarre my behavior with the other two members of the Trinity seems. I’m an above-knee amputee who  refuses to speak to another above-the-knee amputee who’s basically the same age as me. I push away a guy who can presumably provide real insight into what I’m going through. Shortly thereafter, I welcome a military guy considerably younger than me who’s the “wrong” level of amputation and I speak with him.

What the hell was I thinking?

Cara correctly notes that the Amnesia Trinity shouldn’t surprise me given the amount of stress and medication surging through my body at the time. Expecting myself to behave rationally probably holds me to a standard that I couldn’t possibly satisfy as I stared for hours a day at the empty space below my left knee.

My hyper-analytical brain – also generally known as my everyday operating system – posits more sinister psychological implications. I rejected the above-knee amputee because I couldn’t yet face what I had become. I welcomed the BK because he provided a narrow window I could peek through to get a glimpse of limb loss without getting completely overwhelmed – after all, he was different, having retained his knee.

In the end though, I just stack these stories about myself onto the pile of post-accident tales that interest me because I sit at their center despite the fact that they could have happened to a stranger so far as my memory is concerned. And they just sit there …

rock stops for nothing (not even phantom pain)

Max emerged from his band’s rehearsal a week ago, eyebrows raised and anxious. He had just learned that his lead guitarist couldn’t make their gig on Saturday. Over the next 48 hours he waited to see if the guitarist could extricate himself from work (he couldn’t) and if another musician he knew could substitute (he couldn’t). Thus it came to pass that late Wednesday night, I uttered these fateful words to my son:

“Listen, if you’re really stuck, you can try to teach me the songs. I could probably pick them up well enough to get through the gig.”

Having no other options and, I suspect, morbidly curious, Max agreed to my offer.

I have not played the guitar with any regularity for 15 years. I first picked up the instrument in college and took lessons on and off into my late 20’s. I never got good enough to do much besides learn how to play basic versions of songs I liked. Oh – and one other minor, niggling little point: I had never played guitar in an actual concert before. I regale you with this unremarkable history to emphasize that I wasn’t stepping in as some kind of ringer. It was akin to a 53 year-old endomorph offering to run a marathon with a 24 year-old who’d been training for a year to break the 3 hour barrier.

I sat down on a chair in Max’s bedroom as it approached 11 PM. Max probably learned two things about me very quickly that evening. First, I’m not a great guitarist. Second, I try to make up for my lack of talent through sheer relentlessness. Within 30 minutes, the four words he likely hated the most to hear from me were, “Let’s do it again.”

Before long, my fingers – soft from years of disuse – were burning from the steel strings, and my back ached as I hunched over Max’s Gibson. As we closed in on midnight, Max unknowingly paid me the greatest compliment I could have asked for. As I told him that I thought I had the basics of the song we’d been working on down pat and told him to teach me the next one, he exhaled loudly, blowing air out of his mouth like Dizzie Gillespie, and grinning. “What?” I asked. “Nothing,” he replied, followed by a short, laughing shout. “I am so relieved,” he said. “I really didn’t want to go through this show as a 3-piece.”

I knew then that I had passed this unofficial audition that he was holding for me. He thought it was going to work.

*   *   *

My old electric guitar, desperately in need of a full tuneup from a luthier, sat next to me during Thursday and Friday so that I could pick it up during any breaks from work and bang my way through one of Max’s songs. We rehearsed into the early morning hours both days: I went to bed at 1:30 AM Friday and 12:15 AM Saturday, the day of the show. As I hit the pillow Saturday morning, I thought I had prepared for everything. As usual, I was wrong.

At 1:19 that morning, my old friend, Phantom Pain, decided to make the rounds. Having left me alone for 4-5 months, apparently this was the night to reconnect. I suffered through the next 6 hours getting jolted awake by electric discharges through the foot I haven’t had for close to 18 years. I cursed my luck and wondered if the two over-the-counter sleep capsules I had taken to (unsuccessfully) block out the pain would impair my motor function later that day.

I woke up with a post-medication fuzziness and headache that left me irritable and nervous. The bassist and drummer came over for a 1-hour rehearsal that would constitute the entirety of our practice as a full band. We rattled through the set list and, my headache fading, packed the cars up to go to the club. Upon arriving there, we dumped our equipment backstage and waited for our turn to play. It was at this point that I realized I had a problem.

I had spent the previous 72 hours cramming every spare moment with those 7 songs. Between work and practicing for this, I’d done nothing else. Now, at 2 pm, I had to kill close to 2 hours at the venue while surrounded by people from the other bands on the bill, all of whom were 20 years younger than me and 100 times more experienced. As I looked at the other musicians swirling around me, I felt increasingly out of place. Skin tight jeans with a bandana around the thigh; shapeless wool hat (in 84 degree heat) over shoulder length hair; large white plastic glasses (definitely not prescription) swallowing up an impossibly skinny face; and me, closing in on 45 wearing blue jeans, sneakers, a black tee-shirt and a Wounded Warriors Amputee Softball Team baseball hat (backwards, because – you know – I’m hip).

When the bassist for the headlining act asked me if I worked for the club, I politely answered in the negative while freaking out inside. It was a logical question – why on earth would a nearly 45 year-old guy be hanging out backstage if he wasn’t working there? – that sent me spiraling down a rabbit hole of middle-aged angst.

I had to get out. I pulled my guitar out of its case, walked into the alley behind the club and sat on the ground, working through the set list to calm down. The act before us finished, and then it was rush onto the stage, plug in, power up, check the sound, and before I could process it, the curtain rolled to the side and the lights hit me. And in that 30 seconds between seeing the audience and Max launching into the first song, I felt everything speeding up around me, too fast. The thought, “I. Am. Scared.” went through my brain.

I spent the entire set looking either at the neck of my guitar or at Max, 10 feet to my left, as if he could save me just by being there. It felt like it ended 5 minutes after it had begun, and I was suddenly in the alley behind the club lugging the amp and guitar back into the trunk of my car.

I could think only of the mistakes I knew I had made on stage afterwards. I didn’t see or talk to Max until 30 minutes later, after he had made the rounds with all of his friends who had come to the show. “Were you happy with it?” I asked, which really meant, “Did I screw it up for you?” “It was great!” he answered. “Best crowd response I think we’ve ever gotten. They were really into it. I had fun.”

Then, and only then, did I relax.

what I write about when I can’t write

what I write about when I can't write 8.12.14

Roughly two years ago, I took the time to calculate the total number of words I had written in less is more since its beginning in September 2010. I followed that up with some online research about how many words appear on the page of a published book. My limited math skills notwithstanding, I estimated that I had already written somewhere north of 300 pages in total.

I emphasize this because now, with another two years of posts on top of that, I feel compelled to disclose that finding something to write about doesn’t come naturally or easily for me. More often than not, I don’t begin writing my posts until Monday night, finishing them Tuesday morning immediately before publication. And since I began this blog nearly four full years ago, I can count on one hand the number of times that I actually had another post finished and ready to go behind the one I had just published. In other words, I leave myself little margin for error. My emotional state while writing generally reflects this, beginning with initial nervousness, transitioning into mild panic, then  giving way to a feeling or relief as I begin to see the piece take shape in my mind.

My writing process generally follows the same pattern: more often than not, I sit in front of my computer for 15-20 minutes racking my brain for something to write about before a workable concept makes itself apparent to me. But sometimes, on rare occasions, the concept refuses to reveal itself. And this Monday night – last night, as you’re reading this – the concept isn’t just playing hard to get; it has fled the country to avoid extradition. Rather than fight it, try to will myself through brute force to think of something brilliant, I’m instead going to give you a brief journey into the mind of someone who’s suffering from writer’s block.

5:35 PM

I sit down at my laptop after a short break following the end of my professional work day. I feel confident. Though I spent spare moments in the day fruitlessly trying to identify a topic for this post, I think something will come to me now that I can focus my undivided attention on the WordPress “new post” page.

5:36

I press “play” on my laptop’s keyboard, intending for a quiet, soothing playlist to swell out of my speakers. However, for reasons I don’t fully understand, sometimes hitting play initiates songs from my Spotify playlists, while others it kickstarts iTunes. Instead of James Taylor (Spotify), I wind up with Max’s band, One Click Waiting, unexpectedly blasting away (iTunes). Althought I could easily navigate between the two programs physically to stop one and start the other, I insist on trying to resolve the issue using only the computer’s keyboard. I fail. One Click Waiting’s soon-to-be-released EP it is! (If you’re the father of the lead singer and songwriter, you get an advance copy.)

5:39

I conservatively estimate that I have listened to this EP 123 times since getting it 3 weeks ago. I usually put it on a loop while working out. Lifting weights doesn’t require any real brain power. Writing – even my writing, apparently – does. The music overrides any single thought that might help me in my hour of need. I tap my foot loudly and air drum during the chorus. I am not getting any work done but I’m nailing that imaginary snare and high hat. It vaguely occurs to me that this is why I didn’t get better grades in college.

5:50

Fifteen minutes have elapsed and I have no ideas. On the bright side, I have determined that the 4th and 5th tracks on Max’s album, “rock.” Nuanced analysis of any kind, even relating to the music I’m listening to, isn’t happening.

6:05

I haven’t typed a single word and I’ve now been staring at my computer for 30 minutes without even one idea. Max’s EP has ended and I’m now safely in “non-distracting music” mode. Unfortunately, that hasn’t awakened whatever twisted muse normally inspires me. I hypothesize that perhaps One Click Waiting bludgeoned my muse into submission via sonic shockwaves. And that is the closest thing to an inspired thought that I’ve had since sitting down. This is not promising.

6:15

I have to leave to pick up Max from a music lesson in 10 minutes. Worry – meet Panic. Panic – Worry is leaving now. Won’t be back until next week, same time.

Panic has entered the picture because after snagging Max, it’s straight to dinner with the whole family. I won’t get home until after 8. My foot is still tapping furiously, but there’s no music compelling it.

6:17

I theorize that I could write an entire post about how I can’t think of anything to write. I quickly discard the idea, labeling it a gimmick.

6:19

Now that I reconsider it with all of 120 seconds having elapsed since I first thought about it, writing about writer’s block seems like a brilliant idea. I conclude that it’s a postmodern deconstruction of the perils of artistic expression. It’s decided then. I type a quick few paragraphs and close my laptop and go to pick up Max.

8:20

I return home with Caroline and a friend in tow for a sleepover. Dinner was dominated by the discovery that Robin Williams apparently committed suicide earlier today. Now I’m panicked and depressed.

8:22

I let my daughter talk me into trying to start a fire in the back yard to roast marshmallows with her friend. Despite the fact that I  have no good firewood, no kindling to speak of, and only 200 words of my post so far, I agree.

8:50

The fire finally catches. I am nothing if not persistent. I know this proves that if I were ever in an actual survival situation, I’d be dead inside of an hour unless I happened to get stranded with a blowtorch and a package of logs soaked in kerosene.

I crack open my laptop and type in, “5:36.”

9:22

The most brilliant aspect of my deciding to write this post is the fact that recording a chronological list of events is easy, as is  mocking my own stupidity. Since my stupidity knows no boundaries, the words spill onto the screen. I congratulate myself. I’m nearly done.

9:24

I sit by the fire in my back yard getting bitten by mosquitoes, dimly aware that I’m probably contracting West Nile virus. I worry for a second but then conclude that it’s not all bad – a trip to the hospital for a real illness will provide some quality content in upcoming posts.

9:25

It is finished. No wait – I should probably read the whole thing again to make sure it’s semi-coherent.

9:41

It is finished. Really.

 

not my smartest idea

not my smartest idea 07.08.14

First, a quick apology. I failed to publish a post last week because of work commitments, an outcome I usually avoid by planning my writing schedule a bit better.

Second, I’ll be going on vacation the next two weeks, so less is more will also go on a brief hiatus during that time. I’ll be back with new ravings on Tuesday, July 29th.

With those formalities out of the way, please enjoy this week’s post.

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A few months ago I walked into town with both Max and Jackson. Unwilling to tackle the 8/10ths of a mile via normal locomotion, they opted instead for skateboards. To an overhead observer, I would have looked like an overmatched hunter pursuing two much faster targets who regularly shot ahead of me a safe distance, then allowed me to close the gap till I was tantalizingly close only to repeat the pattern again and again.

After grabbing lunch with them, I had either an incredibly brilliant or galactically stupid thought as we performed this chase and flee routine back to my house: why shouldn’t I try to skateboard? I’m a 44 year-old above-knee amputee: what could possibly go wrong trying to balance atop an unstable, constantly moving object? Swept up in the moment and reminding myself that many of my most memorable post-accident accomplishments initially struck me as stupid, I pulled Max aside and asked him to instruct me. Remarkably, he didn’t try to talk me out of it, which means I’ve done a good job of teaching him that (a) amputees can do virtually anything someone with two legs can, and/or (b) you should respect your elders, even when they try to do something that could result in their imminent hospitalization. (There may also be an option (c), which is that Max – being a normal teenager – just wanted to see what kind of hell would break loose if his father tried something moronic.)

My son started my tutelage, rather logically, with how to step onto the longboard. I watched him demonstrate the skill two or three times and then quickly shooed him away. This was a mere formality that stood between me and street surfing heaven. I put my right foot on the platform and lifted my prosthesis off the ground.

Now is a good time to emphasize that I am not now nor have I ever been an adrenaline junky. The thought of skydiving, going underwater in a shark cage, or attending a Jets game wearing a Patriots jersey doesn’t send shivers of excitement through my body. I’m not a fan of big surprises, particularly when we’re talking about physical activity.

So as I stepped atop the skateboard with my prosthesis, I experienced the shock of my brain going to Defcon 5 in the space of 17 milliseconds due to three separate but simultaneous realizations. First, as soon as my prosthesis left the ground, the board started to move forward. This registered as a distinctly “bad” thing. Second, the board flexed dramatically over the wheels, adding inversion and eversion to its already-alarming tendency to move in a linear fashion. Mild panic crept into my consciousness. Third, getting my prosthetic foot atop the platform and solidly in place wasn’t happening quickly enough to blunt the effects of the first two dynamics. The progression to full-blown terror complete, I jumped off and caught myself as the longboard flew down the street, seemingly ignoring the forces of gravity and friction as Max chased it down at a dead run, corralling it nearly 40 yards away.

He jogged back, took one look at my face, which must have faded to a color more commonly associated with slate than flesh, and suggested putting his sneaker in front of the wheels for my next few attempts. I silently took him up on his offer without argument. Over the course of the next 10 minutes, I learned that if you eliminate the concept of motion from a skateboard, the whole enterprise becomes much simpler. Unfortunately, it also changes the activity from “getting onto a skateboard” to “getting onto a step,” which isn’t nearly as sexy as what I had originally planned.

I eventually told Max to step away to let me try again without his intervention. After another 10 minutes of abject terror, I had progressed to where I could successfully get myself atop the platform about half the time. At this point, Max correctly pointed out that the actual goal of skateboarding involves forward movement. I therefore came to the uncomfortable conclusion that I had to figure out how to remove my prosthesis from the skateboard – repeatedly! – to propel me forward.

I started by using the prosthesis to push forward, leaving only on my good leg on the platform. When not pushing off the ground, I kept my titanium and carbon-graphite limb hanging over the pavement in the event that I needed to quickly eject and find two-legged stability. This happily led to forward movement, an overt sign of progress. However, with my right foot pointed straight forward on the platform and my prosthesis dangling in space, the longboard tended to yaw dramatically towards the left – I couldn’t steer effectively with only one leg.

This led to the realization that I needed to get both lower limbs on the skateboard simultaneously while already moving. My first few attempts resulted in quick jumps off the board. As I got braver, the prosthesis made it onto the platform for more than a split second and visions of cruising into town in less than 5 minutes lay tantalizingly before me. Then it happened.

As I stood atop the skateboard, both feet on the platform, I lost my balance and it shot out from under me. My upper body was suddenly behind my legs, and I could feel this nightmare sequence ending with my entire body parallel to the ground and landing with a horrifying “thud” against the pavement, bones (and skull?) fracturing under the impact. Somehow as the board exploded forward, I managed to get my sound leg onto the ground, barely catching myself and avoiding the ER-inducing smack of body against blacktop.

I stood there for a moment, amazed that I wasn’t lying in a heap on the ground. And then the adrenaline and fear broke through while the following question occurred to me: “What. The. F@#$. Are. You. Doing?” And thus ended my skateboarding career.

Perhaps I should’ve tried to tough it out, “get back on the horse.” No doubt, that’s what I would’ve told one of my kids if they had narrowly averted disaster. But I’m not a kid, and the consequences of wiping out on pavement today are markedly different from what they were when I was 12.

One of the great joys of my post-amputation life has been the discovery of all the things I can do with a prosthesis. But if I live to be 90, it’ll be because another part of me steps in and reminds me that “can do” isn’t necessarily the same as “should do.”

Monotasking

04.29.14 Monotasking

Before this week’s post, I just want to send congratulations and best wishes to my Amp’d co-host and fellow blogger Peggy Chenoweth (aka The Amputee Mommy) who, true to her blogging handle, has become a new mom for the second time. Peggy and I will continue to record Amp’d, though the early arrival of Timothy may delay future podcasts a bit. But never fear – having a second child should provide ample fodder for fascinating future discussions and Amputee Mommy blog posts (which, after all, was (I’m sure) the reason Peggy and Scott decided to have another kid in the first place.) Congratulations, Peggy and Scott!

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My kids think that they can multitask. So do many of my friends and professional peers. Unfortunately (for them), they’re all wrong. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that driving while texting is 6 times more dangerous than driving drunk. Apparently, I could more safely hop on the PCH in a borrowed Porsche with a bottle of Grey Goose intravenously dripping into my femoral artery than if I tried to text Cara, “This car is wicked fast,” while shooting up the California coast.

I love my iPhone, use both an iPad and a Kindle Fire, have an Apple laptop for personal use and a work-issued PC: I’m a “tech guy.” But I don’t have any illusions about my ability to multitask.

I was in the midst of a lengthy phone call yesterday with a peer from work. Jackson entered the room and signaled that he wanted to ask me something. I held up one finger to stop him. His eyes grew wider, his eyebrows lifted up, and he gestured excitedly with his hands. He knows not to interrupt my work phone calls unless it’s important, so his insistence led me to conclude that something momentous had occurred. Had he accidentally discovered a portal to a new dimension while playing Titanfall? Had Max suddenly (and silently) been eaten by a pack of rabid raccoons while lying in his bed?

I turned my attention to him, breathless with anticipation. Jackson proceeded to mime the act of buying a gyro and eating it. From this, I learned two important things: (1) my definition of important (wormholes into other dimensions; death of a child) and Jackson’s (“I’m hungry”) are not the same; and (2) I heard nothing my friend on the other end of the line was saying as soon as I started watching Jackson’s silent one-man show.

Research suggests that my experience is the rule, not the exception. Most disturbing, it suggests that people who believe they multitask the best are actually the worst at it. While I have a demonstrated (and near-pathological) need to be right and admit no weakness, I’ve never seriously contended that I could do more than one thing at a time. While I can’t definitively demonstrate that where this singular area of honesty about my limitations came from, I have a hypothesis: I believe it’s because I walk with a prosthesis.

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When I owned a prosthetic facility, I constantly saw myself walking. We had mirrors everywhere so that patients could get immediate feedback about what they looked like. In this small world of reflections, the act of evaluating my gait to the exclusion of everything else became easy. If I saw something amiss – vaulting up on my sound foot, dropping my shoulder down and back at heel strike – I could immediately self-correct.

This kind of physical self-monitoring soon extended beyond the walls of my office. When walking down the street I’d pay close attention to the angle of my knee at heel strike – was it slightly bent or fully extended? – or the length of my stride on my prosthesis compared to my sound leg. Was I rigidly holding my shoulders in place or relaxing them? What was precisely the right moment to let my prosthetic heel hit the ground?

The act of walking, something I had taken for granted the first 27 years of my life, now required attention. My focus on the tiniest details of gait biomechanics left no room for other activities. I became a serial monotasker, at least when putting one front in front of the other.

When I moved to my current job and found myself in a largely mirrorless world, I found (and still find) myself slipping into multitask mode. Usually, my walking suffers at the expense of the other activity. In perhaps the best illustration of my stunning inability to do two things simultaneously, I face planted on Capitol Hill a few weeks ago while walking and trying to enter information to download a new app for my phone. Nothing reminds you that you can’t multitask like visiting congressional staffers with ripped pants and blood pouring out of your hand.

While I find myself slipping into multitasking mode occasionally, for the most part I resist its pull. I’ve made all kinds of decisions to remind myself that “the other thing” I could be doing should wait. I have no audible alerts on my computer or phone to notify me when a new email gets pushed to my Inbox. I’ve disabled all pop-up notifications on every device I own. On my phone, I’ve eliminated push capability entirely so that I don’t see the red number of unopened emails climb the longer I fail to visit Outlook. In meetings, I usually put my phone in airplane mode and close my laptop. And most recently, I’ve started to limit my email consumption to only two daily visits: once in the late morning and once in the late afternoon.

I’ll admit that these monotasking safeguards sometimes cause me to panic. What if Medicare publishes a new policy that adversely impacts my company? What if someone sends me an emergency email and I need to get working on it right away? I’ve learned that these “what ifs” are largely hypothetical scenarios. Out of the millions of pieces of information competing for my attention every year, fewer than 5 (maximum) ever fall into these buckets. My professional life doesn’t go sideways when I climb on a coast-to-coast flight without wifi access, despite the fact that I’m not responding to anyone (or anything) during that 6-hour period. You don’t get fired for being unreachable while in an all-day offsite business meeting. What we think will happen if we don’t multitask doesn’t happen.

Mindful of this reality, and remembering that I only walk well when I focus on the act of walking, I will continue to monotask while the world around me checks its email for the 99th time before noon. I’ll take my chances.