Top 10 Things I Learned Monday Night

08.20.13 Top Ten Things I Learned Monday

Yesterday, I had the honor of being 1 of 4 umpires in the Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball Team’s game against the Boston Marathon first responders at Fenway Park. With that backdrop, the Top 10 List.

10: MLB umpires enjoy a spartan Fenway experience

The primary luxuries available to the men in blue appear to be (1) access to an unfathomable amount of Bazooka
bubble gum and sunflower seeds, (2) access to tons of disposable razors, and (3) a framed photograph containing the black and white headshots and names of every Major League umpire, presumably so that they can figure out who they are if they forget.

9: I’m not so sure about the Red Sox BIS department

Players in the locker rooms can access WiFi by punching in the appropriate password. I took a photo of the paper
taped to the wall with the password in the visitors’ locker room. Let’s just say that it isn’t the most crack-proof set of characters ever assembled.

8: everything’s better in the big leagues

I’m a lifelong Red Sox fan, so walking down the tunnel to the steps and seeing the field unfurl in front of me was one of the seminal events in my life. A quick scan of the memory banks leads me to the following list-within-a-list, The 5 Coolest Things That I’ve Ever Done:

5. Watched my daughter get born. (Sorry Caroline – you were number 3. Super cool and all, but I’d done it
twice before already.)
4. Watched my second son get born. (Sorry, Jackson. Same note as above. Done already.)
3. Saw Green Day live earlier this year (yes, they’re actually that good).
2. Watched my first child get born. (Cooler than marriage because you’re doing it with your wife (like marriage) and it additionally introduces a new person into your family..)
1. Umpired a softball game at Fenway Park.

After the game, we returned to the umpires’ room, which had 2 boxes of relatively cold pizza on the small circular table waiting for us. Even cold Boston pizza tastes better. Just because it’s the bigs.

7: don’t you dare give anything less than 100% against the WWAST

After the first responders jumped out to an early lead, the WWAST quickly started piling on the runs. Between the 2nd and 3rd, innings, the WWAST’s starting pitcher, Todd Reed, approached a particularly muscle-bound first responder near third base, and quietly told him (I’m paraphrasing), “You guys better not be taking it easy on us. We’d rather get our asses kicked then win because you guys aren’t going all out. You better give us everything you’ve got.” Mr. Muscle looked at him, seemingly confused. (Likely because, contrary to Todd’s suspicion, the first responders were going all out … and still getting killed.)

6: salt & pepper-flavored sunflower seeds aren’t as good as salt only

When I was in college busy warming the bench on our varsity team for 1 year, I became quite adept at putting huge numbers of sunflower seeds in my mouth, shelling them and spitting out the salty exteriors without choking. Armed with this critical and relevant experience, I took a sleeve of “major league seeds” from the umpire’s room and popped about 400 into my mouth when the game started.

I expected salty seeds. I got salt and pepper.

Pepper’s spicy. That’s what I learned.

08.20.13 WWAST Logo on the Big Board

WWAST Logo on the “Big Board”

5: my legal training always comes in handy

To get on the field, a Red Sox employee made us sign a waiver. Another umpire, Matt, who works with me, was getting dressed and asked me to tell him what it meant as he laced up his shoes. I replied, “Any injury up to and including death isn’t the fault of the Boston Red Sox.” This would prove to be highly relevant a few hours later.

08.20.13 Dave and Matt

08.20.13 Dave and Matt

Dave and Matt, before Dave realized that signing the waiver might have been dumb.

4: I don’t understand why it’s called “softball”

The WWAST’s first baseman, Josh Wege – the same Josh Wege who earned MVP honors at this year’s MLB All Star Celebrity Softball Game – hit a tracer that, had it been 24 inches higher, would have killed me. (That’s not a joke. My wife would have been writing the last less is more post for me posthumously if it had caught me in the head.)

As the neon green ball exploded off his bat towards me, I had the rather disconcerting feeling that (a) the ball was heat-seeking, (b) I really should be moving out of the — (c) “Mother@#$#$, that hurts!”

The ball blasted into my forearm, which I had moved to protect my chest. (Both the home plate and first base umpires later told me that it looked like I had gotten hit in the throat as my arm flew upward upon impact.) I saw Josh at home plate, shoulders lifted up into his neck, grimacing as if he had felt the impact himself. (For all I know, there may have been an actual blast radius.)

The first responder playing third base – presumably one with first-aid training of some kind – helpfully instructed me (once he realized I wasn’t dead), “Don’t rub it! You know you can’t rub it!” This advice, for the uninitiated, isn’t medical. The Code of the Game dictates that when you get hit with a ball you shake it off. Like a real man. (I’m not one, by the way.)

My immediate reaction was threefold:(1) “Damn, I really need to rub it”; (2) “Listen to him, he’s right. [Expletive  deleted] Code of the Game!”; (3) “Damn waiver!”

And so, as my forearm quickly swelled up to twice its normal size, I did the only thing I could do. I signaled that Josh’s rocket was a foul ball, prompting a sigh of relief from the crowd, which apparently thought that the poor cripple umping at third was on the verge of losing another limb. (Lest you think the first responders were of no help at all, one of their players, felling sorry for the wounded third-base umpire, slipped me a cool silver patch. I thanked him and put it in my pocket with the one hand I still had that actually worked.)

I did honor the Code, though – never touched my nearly-shattered arm with my other hand.

3: if you REALLY get hurt, you want to know guys on the WWAST

As medical staff tried to find me cold packs and ice to put on my increasingly grotesque-looking forearm, one of the WWAST’s players (who shall remain nameless so as not to implicate him) walked over to me and said, “Hey, [player name] has some Vicodin. We can get you half a tab and you won’t feel anything.” I thanked him for his thoughtfulness, but told him I unfortunately had to drive 4+ hours back to New York that night. “Oh,” he said. “Then you probably shouldn’t take that Vicodin.”

Shortly thereafter, Todd Reed brought me some ibuprofin. Hmm. Ibuprofin. Vicodin. I’ve never taken Vicodin before, but I’m betting there’s a difference.

2: the WWAST takes no prisoners

After falling behind 3-0 in the first inning, the WWAST outscored the first responders 28-8. Shortstop Matt Kinsey and the aforementioned Josh Wege both dented the Green Monster. (After Kinsey hit a warning track shot in his second at bat, I told him, “You got that one.” He shook his head, “Nope – didn’t get all of it.” After he deposited the ball halfway up the Monster in his next at bat I said, “You were right, you didn’t get all of the last one.” He grinned – “I got ALL of this one.”)

1: what happens after is the best part

After Kyle Earle made a fantastic running catch in the gap to end the game, the WWAST spent a solid 30 minutes hanging out with the first responders, signing autographs for all the fans, and taking photos. Greg Reynolds, an upper extremity amputee, stepped away from the small legion of friends who had come to see him (he’s a Massachusetts kid) and asked me how my arm felt.

Just for a minute, put yourself in my shoes. What the hell do you say to an Army vet who lost his arm in Operation Iraqi Freedom when he asks you about the arm injury you sustained.

When you got hit.

By a ball.

A softball.

The Correct Answer, if you’re confused, is, “It’ll be fine. No problem.” The alternative – [anguished voice]”It really hurts. You have no idea how much pain I’m in!” – is a non-starter.

Best part of the night for me?

I cornered Josh Wege after the game, got him to sign the ace bandage wrapped around the bag of ice on my arm, and we took a photo together. And that picture captures what makes the WWAST special. Whether they appreciate it or not, they’re incredible not because they beat the snot out of able-bodied teams (again and again), but because they connect very different kinds of people to each other.

08.20.13 The Wounded Warrior and the wounded

The Wounded Warrior and the plain ol’ wounded

Josh is a 24’ish ex-Marine from Fond du Lac Wisconsin who made the decision to serve in the military. I’m a nearly 44 year-old guy from the Northeast who made the decision to go to a liberal arts college.

Feeling cynical about the country we live in?

Take in a WWAST game and stick around afterwards. The coolest thing? You don’t need to go to Fenway Park to experience that.

For the WWAST’s schedule, click here.

an inconvenient truth

08.13.13 an inconvenient truth

Last year I bought the riding mower from the man who lived in our house before us. After I read the instructions from cover to cover, I blasted around the yard feeling a bit more like a man than normal. (The riding mower plus the chainsaw I bought after Hurricane Sandy brought me right to the brink of actual masculinity.)

I’m generally aware that including oil in an engine is a good thing. But knowing something, and living one’s life consistent with that knowledge are two separate things. And so, 10 days ago, I took the mower out for its weekly tour of duty.

Having added oil to the tank earlier this summer, I decided to skip “oil check” before firing up the beast. After spending some time surveying my increasingly well-manicured kingdom atop my grass cutting throne, I noticed, much to my consternation, the engine starting to slow down in an unsettling way. I cut the motor immediately and popped the hood to reveal smoke pouring out of the engine and, tellingly (once I removed the oil cap), the oil tank as well.

Unburdened by much knowledge of how engines actually work – beyond the aforementioned fact that they require both oil and gas (the former requirement looming particularly large in my mind at this exact moment in time – I walked to my shed, grabbed an  unopened quart of oil and poured it into the tank. The smoke soon dissipated and, now talking to my lawn mower, pleading for her to work, I turned the ignition. She responded with a sinister – albeit brief – sound that resembled nothing that I would normally associate with a functional engine.

I left the machine in the backyard, walked into the kitchen and announced to Cara that I might have fried the engine.

“What are you going to do?”, she asked. I then laid out my detailed, sophisticated strategy.

“I’m going to go to sleep, walk into the backyard tomorrow morning, turn the key and hope that it magically repairs itself overnight. That’s what I’m going to do.”

Remarkably (from my perspective), this strategy failed to pay off. Concerned that my holistic efforts in power mower self-healing hadn’t panned out, I called the local power tool shop, which picked it up the next day for professional examination. Shortly thereafter, I received The Phone Call informing me that, “Unfortunately, it appears that the engine was run with no oil,” and further, that I’d thrown a piston, making any repairs nearly as costly as buying a new machine.

My mower riding days had come to a sudden and final end.

*   *   * 

I may be a horrendous heavy machinery user, but I’m a brilliant optimist. I informed Cara that the riding mower had made me soft. Wouldn’t it be much better to get a push mower and enjoy the benefits of an hour or two of walking around my yard? Wouldn’t this constitute yet another form of exercise to keep me from lapsing into middle-aged sloth?

And so, Sunday afternoon, I sat on my couch catching up on the last 8 episodes of Breaking Bad while ordering our new Honda push mower off the Home Depot website. We received an email less than an hour later telling us that it was sitting at our local store for pickup. Cara and I drove there and walked in to Customer Service, where a friendly lady in her 50’s (who doesn’t use a push mower herself, she informed us, because she had recently undergone heart surgery), wheeled out the box containing our silver and red grass cutting baby.

Boxes typically consist of 4 walls, a top, and a bottom. This box arguably had those elements, but it looked like it had gotten into a fight with a cougar somewhere between Honda’s factory and this store. Heart Surgery looked at us and said, “Don’t worry, our guys looked at the mower to make sure everything’s ok. They took it out of the box and everything’s perfect, but they damaged the box getting it in and out, so that’s why it looks like this. If you have any problems, obviously, bring it right back here with the receipt and we’ll replace it.”

I’m an easy-going guy. Heart Surgery seemed to be telling me the truth. What the hell. I wheeled the mower to my car, leveraged the “box” into my trunk (while Cara chatted up Heart Surgery inside the store), and drove back home.

*   *   *

“You need help getting that out of the back?”, asked Cara.

“Yes please,” I answered. “On the count of 3.” And on 3, Cara and I lifted the box up.

Let me emphasize: the box went up. The lawn mower didn’t. It plunged straight through the bottom. Onto my foot.

The one that isn’t made of carbon fiber.

*   *   *

After screaming (very quietly) the obligatory obscenities that immediately leapt into my mind upon impact, I took stock of the situation. My foot hurt, but I could move all my toes. I didn’t hear any disturbing noises (like bones crunching). And, I thought to myself, did I want to visit the ER on my new high-deductible health plan and explain this pathetic series of events to a doctor? (If you’re confused as to why I wouldn’t want to do that, please stop reading, scroll to the top, and start over again.) Angry but resolute in my decision, I got back to the business of assembling the mower, which, despite its unsuccessful effort to fly, appeared to be in pristine condition and roared to life with a turn of the electric ignition key.

As I walked back and forth across my yard, restoring order to the sprawling overgrowth, a few thoughts went through my mind. And this is really the point of the whole story.

  1. Between my achilles issues and this latest near-fiasco, the mortality of my sound limb suddenly looms large in my mind. (This, after 17 years of Cara pointedly telling me, “Stop hopping around the house and use those damn crutches!”)
  2. The fact that I choose an active life today necessarily increases the stress on and risks to my right leg.
  3. Virtually everything I could do to protect my good leg today requires me to become more sedentary (and miserable), an option I refuse to exercise.
  4. As a result, I’m knowingly making choices that may lead to me becoming more “disabled” by age 60 than I’d otherwise be. (Absent profound medical breakthroughs, always the wildcard in this equation.)

I don’t have a profound insight about or solution to any of this. But I’m sure that this dialogue will become more prevalent over the next 17 years than it has been in my first 17 years as an amputee.

In the meantime, my yard looks good.

elliptical hell

08.06.13 elliptical hell

My life as a runner has ground to a halt over the last few weeks. While on vacation in July, I noticed some nagging pain just above my ankle after one of my outings. I stretched the area afterwards, but otherwise kept to my normal “every other day” schedule. The pain escalated as I continued to labor under the tropical sun, eventually getting to a point where I couldn’t walk pain-free.

I took the weekend off. The pain subsided. Declaring myself cured, I hit the pavement again and everything seemed to be going well. Until I crossed a street and hit the curb with my sound foot. And there it was again, a jolt of pain signaling that I had tweaked the original injury.

Swearing under my breath, I slowed down until the discomfort subsided slightly, and then continued. Telling myself that working through discomfort is a key part of running, I sped up, willing myself to close strong. But after finishing and standing still for a few minutes, I realized that the pain was now worse than it had been before I shut everything down for the weekend. This wasn’t going away.

*   *   *

Doing what any responsible person would under the circumstances, I began perusing the internet to diagnose myself. I concluded, quickly, that I have achilles tendonitis. The solution? Ice, non-steroidal anti-inflammatories, and no running.

And that leads me to the heart of this week’s essay: the joys of exercise that isn’t running.

*   *   *

We have an elliptical machine in our house. The first sign that using it must be a miserable experience comes from its name: the elliptical machine.

The machine you run on in a gym isn’t called a “running machine;” it’s a treadmill. The machine you bicycle on in a gym isn’t called a “cycling machine;” it’s a stationary bike. The machine you use to ascend imaginary buildings in a gym isn’t called a “stair machine;” it’s a stairmaster.

To put it simply, all of these devices either replicate normal human activity – running (on a treadmill); cycling (on a stationary bike) – or allow you to become an all-powerful superhuman – a “stairmaster” – albeit in a very limited domain. But then, sitting outside of this happy, traditional fitness universe is the elliptical machine.

We call it an elliptical machine because we can’t make it sound like anything that’s biomechanically normal. Moving your legs in an elliptical motion, sans impact, has the benefit of not destroying your joints on pavement, but it’s in no way a regular anatomical feat. You don’t hear stories about the ancient Ellipsis tribe, covering the savannah as they pursue their prey, their feet never leaving the ground while simultaneously moving their legs in wobbly circles in some kind of bizarre forward moonwalk. And that’s because moving your body in this fashion can only be done by using some kind of bizarre technology – a machine – that forces you to do so. It’s fundamentally unnatural.

Still, when you’re suffering from achilles tendonitis, subjecting yourself to this monstrosity seems better than doing nothing for 4-8 weeks, gaining weight, and losing all the benefits of the work you’ve done up to that point. And so, I now clamber aboard our elliptical machine virtually every morning.

I hate it.

*   *   *

Long-time readers know that I enjoy running because it allows me to unplug, to disengage. I intentionally don’t clock distance or time when I’m on the road. I just plot routes and finish them. The way I make running a sustainable activity requires me to shut off my competitive streak – “How fast?” “How far?” “What are you training for?” –  and simply do it for the sake of doing it.

But put me on an elliptical machine and the whole equation changes. First, I’m no longer outdoors. Instead, I’m trapped in a tiny room consisting of the mechanical behemoth I have to ride, some other fitness equipment, a TV, and a litter box for our cats to perform their daily necessaries. (Nothing highlights the awfulness of an elliptical machine like a box full of cat excrement.)

Second, once I’m using a machine – especially one whose sole purpose is to force your body to do things it doesn’t normally do – I can only measure what I’m doing in terms of a time and a (calculated) distance. Instead of unplugging, I’m now a slave to the digital sitting less than a foot in front of my face.

(Also, I find the whole concept of distance on an elliptical bizarre. Yesterday, I spent 45 minutes on the thing and covered 2.82 miles, as if there’s actually an analog for doing something that’s neither biking nor walking. Is the machine telling me that if I could somehow take it out onto the street and cover actual distance, this is how far I’d go? How did the people who design this figure out that algorithm? Did someone make a “mobile” elliptical and test it? Is there some kind of international elliptical distance standard I’m unaware of that allows for comparisons between different elliptical machines? (I think not, as different ellipticals have  differently shaped ellipses.) Or, as I suspect, does each manufacturer simply make it all up so people like me think they’re doing more than they actually are?)

Third, there’s simply no way that I can subject myself to this horrific experience without some form of distraction. On the elliptical, there’s only the wall in front of me, a digital readout, and the machine’s noise. In a (largely unsuccessful) effort to block it all out, I therefore don headphones and blast obnoxiously loud (and fast) music into my ears to make the experience slightly less horrific. (For those of you asking, “Why not turn on the TV?”, I have two answers: (1) unless the TV is directly in front of you (which mine isn’t), you end up with your body in one direction and your head in another for 30-45 minutes, which doesn’t feel so great; and (2) I can’t focus on the images and what’s being said while both sweating profusely and panting.)

In short, the elliptical machine violates every principle of exercise that I hold dear. I’d sledgehammer the thing if I didn’t disembark from it every day with my shirt soaked through, providing me the only objective evidence that I’ve actually done something with my life for the preceding 30-45 minutes.

On the bright side, my achilles feels better every day. And when I resume running, I’ll appreciate it a lot more thanks to this monstrosity.

a run in the rain

05.04.13 a run in the rain

It seems like only a few days ago that I completed my company’s wellness initiative, walking around with an unfashionable plastic disc attached to my belt for 3 months. I consistently upped my activity level over that time period, cracking 10,000 steps a day regularly the farther along it went.

And then it ended. Free from the burden of monitoring my activity, I became a lapsed tracker. Today, the plastic disc sits next to my bathroom sink, its blank face staring at me every morning, accusing.

My activity plummeted. Shockingly, from my perspective, my waistline expanded. I attempted to deny the undeniable, cursing at the mirror in my bedroom and refusing to step on the scale. I watched a photography video that showed me how to make my face look more angular when being photographed. (It works.)

But reality really hit when a shirt I bought online arrived and I tried it on. The phrase, “not even close,” fails to capture the gulf separating button from buttonhole. One would think that the horror of this event would motivate me to take immediate and decisive action. And it did. I made the decision to spend several weeks wallowing – easy to do at my then-current weight – in my own misery.

Memorial Day Weekend I hit bottom. After stuffing my face full of whatever happened to sit within my reach for 72 hours, I set three goals for the upcoming week. First, I pledged that meals would consist primarily of fruit, vegetables, and white meats; no fried foods, no ice cream, no candy, and no soda. (The recently-published study comparing the teeth of chronic diet soda drinkers to those of meth addicts helped with that last one.) Second, I set yesterday, June 3rd, as Day Zero, the day that I’d start running again. Third, I told myself I’d get new running shoes to appropriately kick off Day Zero. As any experienced runner knows, you can’t possibly start running again without new shoes.

Aside from the headaches that pounded through my skull for two days after abandoning diet soda, the food pledge proved relatively easy.

Acquiring the new running shoes was also simple, albeit entertaining. I entered the local running store with Cara. This particular shop has two separate entrances within 10 feet of each other, separated by a wall straight down the middle. I always walk into the door on the left, which deprives me of the opportunity to ever see what’s going on in the same store on the right.

The Staff on the Left, always helpful, welcomed us. For the first time in 7 years of shopping there, I asked, “What’s up with two doors, two stores, same name?” The answer, not exactly the exotica I had expected and hoped for, was that The Store on the Right was The Store on the Left’s “outlet store.”

Disappointed with this simple and obvious answer, I mentioned that I was looking for a minimalist running shoe. (For the uninitiated, this refers to a shoe that doesn’t have a 17-inch-thick foam sole designed to protect the user’s foot and body.) Cara, ever-supportive, immediately launched into a discussion with the 17-inch-thick-foam-sole-wearing salesman about how this struck her as moronic.

Her comments led to an animated discussion from Big Sole about the dynamics of running, the POSE method, and his personal experience using minimalist shoes. (Short version: not good, leading to broad statements of approval from my bride.)

But, ever the helpful salesman, he noted that he loved wearing minimalist shoes to walk around in, and if I dared acquaint myself with The Staff on the Right, a mere 10 feet down the street, I might find a pair at bargain basement prices. So, Cara and thanked him, walked out the door, and into The Store on the Right.

In no time, The Staff on the Right confirmed that they had not one but two boxes of minimalist running shoes in my size. After walking in the lime-green-soled shoes to the serenade of Cara questioning their lack of structural support – answer: “they’re minimalist shoes, luv” – I said I’d take them. The label on the outside of the box proudly proclaimed a price of $124.99, but I was in an outlet store. “How much?” I asked.

“$29.99.”

After quickly computing that current-year running shoes enjoy profit margins rivaled only by the drug trade, I told her I’d take both boxes in my size. Cara grudgingly admitted that minimalist shoes seemed a bit less stupid at $30 a pair.

Which brings us to Day Zero. Forbidding skies. Low 70’s. After waking up, driving Max to school, and working for 90 minutes, I followed Cara’s car down the street in my running leg, waiting for Caroline’s bus to pick her up. And upon its arrival and her departure, I cut in front of it to cross the street and began to run.

I felt like a million bucks for the first 200 meters or so. Sadly, my value dropped precipitously from there with every step.

The rain started coming down about 5 minutes into my journey. By the time I had gotten to the halfway point, I contemplated looking for a snorkel as I inhaled raindrops. The wind picked up, and I tried to lean into it – hard to do, it turns out, when you’re covering ground in time measures normally associated with land masses.

As I puffed my way up the last hill before my house, my increasingly-heavy shirt clung to my chest. My minimalist shoe, constructed to allow air to breathe in and out, took in water like a sinking ship. I could only hear my breath, asthmatic-sounding, as I inhaled.

And then it ended. (The run, not the rain.)

I staggered up my driveway and onto the porch, pulling my shirt over my head with a sucking sound. I leaned on the porch railing, sucking wind, watching the rain cascade down. I felt the water squishing inside my shoe.

And man, did it feel good.

the domino effect

the domino effect 02.19.13

Several weeks ago I wrote about how I summited a mountain in Arizona. It happened because my company gave all its employees the opportunity to participate in a wellness initiative, and this venture therefore seemed like a good idea.

These kinds of programs have become increasingly popular as health insurance companies search for health-based ways – as opposed to claims denial-based ways – to reduce how much they spend on medical care. And if you’re an Aetna insured participating in such an initiative, your wellness gets measured by the number of steps you take and the amount of time you exercise. (It can also be quantified by weight loss, but my team opted out of that metric. Our internal rationalization for that decision? We’re all in such great shape that there’s no weight to lose.)

You monitor the number of steps you take using a pedometer that Aetna gives you. With nearly half the people at my company participating in the wellness initiative, company events have a The Sneetches feel, some people having stars (pedometers attached to their belts or waistbands) and others lacking them. Those of us wearing our white, circular pedometers look like modern drug dealers or doctors, periodically checking the readout to see where we are versus our goals.

Aetna gives you the opportunity to set targets however you want. As I wrote last March, the average American amputee walks a hair over 3,000 steps a day. In contrast, healthy, active bipeds walk 13,000-14,000 steps a day. (The Amish, sans automobiles, walk 17,000+ steps daily.) Taking all of this into account, I set my target for an average of 5,000 steps a day, reasoning that when I worked out I could easily reach 5,000 steps, while on days that I didn’t I’d be largely desk-bound and sessile.

I find the data, and my response to it, fascinating.

*   *   *

We’re now nearly at the halfway point of this little social experiment. As of today, I’m a bit short of the 5,000 step daily average, logging in at 4,687 steps/day. In the magical Aetna scoring system, this places me on the low end of the “Moderate” category. However, ten days ago I was in danger of acquiring the dreaded “Sedentary” label, meaning that I expend roughly as much energy as a 19 year-old cat the day before it dies.

I considered my options. I could don shorts and quick-wicking shirts to formally work out more often and for longer. Alternatively, I could figure out how to log more steps within the context of my average workday. As I looked at my daily calendar, I realized that the latter approach had higher upside. Specifically, I came to the conclusion that a fair percentage of the meetings I attend by phone don’t require me to sit, at least not for the entire call. In addition, I realized that I tend to take quick breaks from my work every 60-90 minutes. What would happen, I wondered, if instead of checking out sports websites or technology blogs, I just … walked?

And so the experiment began.

I have learned that the distance from one end of my house to the other is 25 steps, give or take a step. I’ve learned this from the little 10-minute jaunts I started taking during my work breaks. As I pace back and forth across the house like a ghost condemned to walk the same path for eternity, I can log about 1,000 steps during each work stoppage. Do this five times a day and I make my number while having engaged in close to an hour of activity separate and apart from my actual workouts.

In addition, if I walk while talking on the phone during the frequent meetings I attend, the steps magically pile up without my even being aware of it. When the weather’s warm enough, I tend to do this across our front porch, as it allows others in my house to watch TV without me stomping past them 100 times while also preventing people on the other end of the line from hearing Sponge Bob in the background.

I suspect the sight of me walking peripatetically to and fro while talking to no one and waving my hands makes the neighbors nervous, but the results speak for themselves: last week, I averaged more than 5800 steps a day, despite the fact that I consciously devoted myself to doing nothing over the weekend, logging a mere 2800 steps for the two days combined. (That, my friends, is the definition of “Sedentary.”) And there’s still room for improvement – I haven’t run regularly since the end of the year, something that will change starting next week now that my prosthetist has made some needed adjustments to my running leg.

But viewing your life through a pedometer leads you to consider quantifying everything. For example, today I tracked how many times I got up out of a chair. The final tally: 38. Today wasn’t unusual, so assuming that I average 35 “chair exits” a day, that means I perform that activity 245 times a week, 980 times a month, and close to 12,000 times a year. (This suggests to me that prosthetic technology capable of helping me offload my sound side when standing up might have real value as the years roll by.)

When I look back at my weekly totals, the Monday-Friday step counts dwarf their weekend counterparts. I shut down on Saturday and Sunday. Doing anything on either of those days would significantly increase my totals.

On the other hand, certain kinds of activities – for example, the 3 hours I spent shoveling out of my house after the big blizzard a few weeks ago – don’t trigger the step counter, much to my chagrin. So despite the most active day I had since Scottsdale, the pedometer logged less than 800 steps. (I considered throwing the white device into the 30 inches of fresh snow but thought better of it, largely because my back was so sore that throwing anything might have led to temporary paralysis.)

I share this with all of you because this is teaching me that very small changes can yield significantly different results. For all the criticisms that insurance companies deservedly receive, initiatives like this one present real opportunities to improve your health. The power of the pedometer has surprised me.

see: unintended consequences, law of

01.29.13 law of unintended consequences

Our department at work consists of multiple people spread across the United States. The majority of us work remotely from home offices. So when I started receiving emails from HR about a wellness initiative (i.e., # of steps/day; # minutes/day spent exercising), I thought, “this could be a fun opportunity to build some esprit de corps.

When I raised the concept at a departmental meeting shortly thereafter – minus the French terminology – everyone enthusiastically agreed to participate. (I have found that one of the benefits of a remote workplace is that it gives me a great deal of leeway to interpret my colleagues’ responses in a light most favorable to the story I want to tell. Since all of these communications occurred by phone and email, it’s entirely possible that the affirmative responses I heard and read masked the voodoo dolls and burning of me in effigy for foisting this initiative upon them.)

One member of our team did get truly energized by this concept. “Dave, you’re coming out to Scottsdale in a few weeks,” said Linda. “You’re going to love it out here. We have to go climb a mountain! There are some great ones just a few minutes from where you’re staying.”

Now, agreeing to use a pedometer and to list the amount of time per day spent exercising is not the same thing as agreeing to ascend mountain peaks. But having proposed that we all participate in this wellness initiative, I didn’t see any way to legitimately avoid Linda’s invitation. That isn’t to say that during our departmental meeting, I didn’t try.

“A mountain? Well. Geez. That sounds distinctly unpleasant. [Long pause. No one jumps in to suggest that Linda’s suggestion is dumb. Precious seconds pass. Must. Respond.] But sure, Linda, you want to climb a mountain? I’m in. When I get out there, we’ll climb a mountain.”

This is how, at 2:30 pm MT last Thursday, I found myself on the L.V. Yates Trail, looking at it snake its way upwards towards the top of the Phoenix Mountain Preserve.

The first sign that I was in trouble came when Linda’s husband walked into the parking lot to meet us. I saw Patrick when he was still 50 yards away, but hadn’t yet clambering out of the SUV when he arrived to shake my hand. As we exchanged pleasantries, I looked up at his 6’4″-ish frame and came to the unsettling realization that he appeared to be genetically predispositioned to cover large amounts of ground quickly. (He would prove this twice on the ascent, letting me and Linda get 50-100 yards ahead of him on challenging terrain and catching us in a minute or two.)

01.29.13 Patrick

Patrick, accidentally snapping a picture of himself on the ascent.

The second was that Patrick quickly launched into a preview of the trail we’d be following with numerous references to the term technical” while describing it. As in: “It has everything, from a nice, gradual start to switchbacks to some nice technical sections.” As I soon learned, the word “technical” is a euphemism for “terrain that can can leave you bleeding in a canyon and waiting for a medivac.”

After a few minutes of  small talk, the three of us moved from the blacktop of the parking lot onto the trail. This would be the last time I would take a step without thinking for the next 3 hours.

The trail began with a gradual climb that unfolded over the course of roughly a mile. If you blew up a cobblestone street and then walked over the rocky shards left behind, you have some idea of the ground we covered. With Linda leading the way and Patrick walking at one-third of his normal speed due to my torpid pace, I managed to traverse this first section of the climb without incident, carefully looking at my foot placement with every step. As we came to a hard left in the trail, Patrick again used the word “technical” to describe the next section, excitement building in his voice.

We all have those moments where we realize that we’re in over our heads. And if, “Oh, sh#*!” constitutes an actual emotion, I was awash in it. What Patrick called “technical”  consisted of a steep grade, replete with a trail floor of sheer rock faces and loose stones. As I pulled my fruit-flavored vitaminwater from my backpack (thereby further cementing my status as a hopeless ninny), I came to the unsettling realization that this hike was about to transform into a full-body climb, at least for me. With Linda steadily marching forward in front of me and Patrick following me from behind, I tentatively moved forward, almost immediately needing to use my upper body as much as my legs to pull myself up, step by step.

My field of vision shrank to the three feet in front of me and the ground directly underneath my feet. My ascent consisted of finding a good foothold for my prosthesis, moving my sound leg upwards, and (more often than not), grabbing onto a boulder to pull myself forward so that I could repeat the process again. After about 10 minutes of this, we emerged on a round plateau. I was dripping in sweat and out of breath. I put my fingers on my wrist to take my pulse but gave up because I couldn’t count that fast.

The rest of the climb consisted of steep non-technical sections alternating with technical ones. Several times Linda encouraged me upwards, telling me that “We’re almost there.” I believe, in retrospect, that Linda was one of those parents who told her kids that they were “almost there” while still 3-4 hours away from their destination. But as I looked at how high up we were, I realized that she was right if (a) you could take a straight path to the top (we couldn’t), and (b) so long as you chose to ignore the fact that you had to use all 4 limbs to get there.

We climbed over a final section of rock and suddenly found ourselves atop the mountain. All of the sweat on my body dried immediately and I felt a chill as a steady breeze swept across the summit. Patrick, hardly out of breath, gave me a 360-degree tour of the surrounding landscape: the new highway built only a few years ago; the “inversion layer” that traps pollution between the ground and higher atmosphere; the major interstate that runs directly to Long Beach, California; the Diamondbacks baseball stadium; the Phoenix airport. He snapped a few photos of me and Linda together to document this successful mission.

1.29.13 Dave & Linda

The Summit.

While I felt a mild euphoria upon reaching the top, a nagging discomfort tugged at me while Patrick acted as tour guide. I couldn’t accurately identify it until Linda asked me how I felt. And then it hit me. I had expended a lot – a lot – of energy getting up here. Now I had to find my way back down all the same brutal sections I had struggled to climb over the previous 90 minutes. And I realized with increasing trepidation that going downhill with a prosthetic leg probably raised the degree of difficulty versus going up.

When ascending, the worst thing that could have happened was that I’d slip, a relatively minor risk since I’d been on all fours for the steepest sections. Put simply, when going up, I didn’t have far to fall.

Going down, on the other hand, could quickly transform from walking into plunging headfirst into cacti, or worse, any of the several million rocks that stood between me and the parking lot 2.4 miles below. If I had known the following fact before trying to descend, I might still be up there: the 2.4-mile trail from the base lodge to Mount Washington’s famous Tuckerman Ravine ascends 1850 vertical feet. We had climbed 80% of that vertical distance (1500 feet) on a trail just as long, virtually none of it with stable footing.

As we started down, I quickly learned that the stones underneath my feet seemed much more willing to move when descending than they had going up. After feeling myself veer more closely to the edge of the trail than I would have liked and catching myself by hopping multiple times on my sound leg to blunt my downhill momentum, I came to the conclusion that I would either (a) break my ankle, or (b) find myself at the bottom of the mountain more quickly than my skeletal structure could reasonably withstand. And so, at each of the many “technical sections” between me and the bottom, I turned around, lowering myself down a step at a time like I was going down a ladder.

As this continued, step after step, section after section, I realized that my sound thigh increasingly felt like a flaccid piece of rubber. forcing me to slow down even more. Finally, we found ourselves once again on the undulating, rock-covered road back to the parking lot. Exhausted, I stumbled towards the endpoint, thankful to stop to pet a woman’s dog as an excuse to take a breather.

As we got within a few hundred yards of the lot, Linda congratulated me and noted that this should be a “bucket list” item for me. I reflected on that silently. As we pulled out of the lot and back towards my hotel, I responded.

“You’re right,” I said. “This wasn’t a bucket list item when I started. But now that I’m done, I’m including it.”

If I had known exactly what I was getting into when I committed to climbing a mountain at the beginning of January, I never would have done it. But having finished it, I’m glad that I fell victim to the law of unintended consequences.

down a limb

12.11.12 down a limb

Our ancestors were hunter-gatherers, or so I’ve been told. I learned this first in grade school, then again in middle school and high school, and if I had taken any science classes in college I undoubtedly would have learned it there as well.

If you accept the hypothesis that we adapt to our environment, then I am more fully evolved than most people. In a country where everything – food, drink, information – materializes magically in front of you, my days spent in front of a computer ordering takeout meals serve as material proof that I am both better equipped and adapted to survive (and thrive) than my peers. However, Super-Evolved Dave finds himself at a distinct disadvantage when weather screws up the natural order, depriving me of my easy-to-access meals, libation, and data.

Such was the case when Hurricane Sandy blew through Long Island last month. While I and my family blessedly avoided virtually all of the damage that devastated so much of Long Island, Staten Island and New Jersey, the storm forced me to revert back to a state marginally closer to my original hunter-gatherer self. (How marginal? Roughly the difference in distance between me and the sun if I jump in the air.)

For example, I pushed an upside-down 14-foot trampoline out of the woods while trampling through the wreckage of multiple broken trees. (I said “marginally closer.”) I pulled a metal shed upright that had blown onto its back, secured it back to the ground and fixed its broken doors. Most tellingly, I went to Home Depot and purchased a chainsaw.

I have never used a chainsaw before. The extent of my chainsaw-related knowledge is that  wearing a scarf while using one is a bad idea. I’m also smart enough to know that most self-respecting men would recoil at choosing an electric chainsaw over its gas-powered  brethren the same way they would shy away from showing up at the Daytona 500 driving a Nissan Leaf. (Just using the words “chainsaw” and “Daytona 500” in the same sentence makes me 4.2% more manly than I was at the beginning of this paragraph.)

So I strode out of Home Depot, chainsaw in hand. I felt three inches taller and 9 pounds lighter. I had a full beard by the time I pulled into my street. I returned home to find closets full of flannel shirts and down vests. I had a gas-powered chainsaw and testosterone to fuel me through the afternoon.

However, because I am Super-Evolved Dave I also needed to read the instructions for my new purchase before using it. The reasons for this were twofold: (1) Super-Evolved Dave is more risk-sensitive than Hunter-Gatherer Dave; and (2) I had no idea how it worked.

The first sign that this was different from other things I’ve purchased at Home Depot in the past – lightbulbs, smoke detectors, garden hoses – was the instruction manual’s cover page, which features the word “DANGER!” in large print not once but twice. The first “DANGER!” warns me that “Misuse may result in serious or fatal injuries.” The second points out that “Chainsaw kickback can cause serious or fatal injuries.” My central takeaway from reading the cover? Using a chainsaw would likely result in me losing more limbs or dying. This was exciting!

I skipped over the next three pages of “SAFETY SYMBOLS AND WARNINGS.” These included important details like what “DANGER!” preceded by a triangle with an exclamation point mean versus “WARNING!” preceded by a triangle with an exclamation point. (The former refers to an act or condition that “WILL” lead to serious injury while the latter refers to an act or condition that “‘COULD” lead to serious personal injury. A non-chainsaw-related example? Telling my wife to “Make me my dinner right now, damn it!”, is a “DANGER!” preceded by a triangle with an exclamation point. Watching my wife unpack the groceries without offering to help is a “WARNING!” preceded by a triangle with an exclamation point.)

This brought me to the “KEY CHAIN SAW TERMS” page. This included things that sounded like what they were – “rotational kickback”; “linear kickback”; and “pinch” – and things that didn’t sound like anything at all – “kerf.” (“The grooved cut produced by the saw chain cutters.”)

Page 9 instructed me how to install the Kick Guard, which given the dangers of kickback listed on the cover, seemed to me to be a less-than-optimal way to protect users. Perhaps, just perhaps, screwing the metal kick guard, which consists of a small piece of metal and one screw/nut, onto the chainsaw before it leaves the factory might make more sense? (Yes, real men, I understand that the kick guard limits how big a piece of wood you can saw. But we’re talking about “DANGER!” preceded by a triangle with an exclamation point, for God’s sake. Also, given the complex one screw/one nut kick guard affixation method, presumably real men would just remove the thing after purchase, thereby limiting the chainsaw manufacturer’s liability? Just a free suggestion.)The chainsaw manual has 35 pages of this scintillating material, all of which lead to one unassailable conclusion: if you use this device, you will end up (a) an amputee, (b) dead, or (c) both.

This all culminated, ultimately, in my actual utilization of said chainsaw. It made the same cool noise that I hear when real men use chainsaws; it cut things; hunter-I reveled in this more primal state. (Hunter-Gatherer Dave.) But at the same time, I had the disquieting realization that because of my prosthesis, tree limbs closer to the ground forced me to put my good leg in front (i.e., closer to the chainsaw), which seemed like a decidedly bad thing from an overall risk perspective. (Super-Evolved Dave. Wanker.) Nonetheless, I managed to finish still missing only one limb – but imagine for a moment, if you will, how mind-blowingly riveting this post would have been if that were not the case – and placed the chainsaw in my shed, taking some pictures to document the fact that I’m not a total ninny.

I met my dad, a real chainsaw expert, a few weeks later and introduced him to Hunter-Gatherer Dave. And this man who used two-person chainsaws with his dad growing up, who I watched slice his own foot open with an axe when I was 6, and whose idea of a great time is breaking out the sledgehammer and wedges, says this to me: “Do you have any earplugs? You know, you can really damage your hearing using a chainsaw. It does a number on you.”