i don’t know why you say goodbye i say hello

As I opened my computer this morning and typed in my password, I realized that I hadn’t authored a single less is more post since September. That realization upset me. Writing this blog has always been a passion project. Every post – whether I personally loved it or not after hitting “publish” – means something to me. But I sputtered and stalled in 2015. After writing 40-45 posts a year for several years in a row, I fell off the writing wagon for large portions of the last 12 months.

As we head into 2016, I hope to return to the older pattern, posting once a week for most of the year. In the interest of getting reacquainted in the meantime, allow me to revisit 2015 with the “less is more Top 10 of 2015.”

10. The Beatles hit Spotify

Technically, this hasn’t even happened yet. But as of December 24 at 12:01 AM, the entire Beatles catalog will find its way to Spotify and other music streaming services. For those of you who dismiss this as “old music for old people,” or ask, “what’s the big deal?” allow me to share the following story.

My son, Max, had serially shrugged off every suggestion I made about the importance of listening to The Beatles. Last Christmas, armed with a few hundred dollars of iTunes gift cards, he took the plunge and bought their entire catalog. In early January he pulled me aside.

“I listened to The Beatles, everything.” He paused. “[Expletive deleted.] You were right. They’re [expletive deleted] great.”

Score 1 for the old guy.

If, like Max before this year, you’ve never “gotten” The Beatles, you have to give it a shot now. Here are the 5 albums you must start with: Help; Rubber Soul; Revolution; Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band; and Abbey Road. You’ll thank me.

9. i can still get nervous before speaking in public

MAC Public Hearing

Peggy Chenoweth and Your Humble Author at the Public Hearing

I spend so much of my professional life speaking to audiences of varying sizes that I’m largely immune to nerves. But that wasn’t the case this past August when I spoke for 6 minutes at a public hearing focusing on proposed changes to coverage, coding, and clinical care for Medicare beneficiaries. (See also, #1, below.) I haven’t been that nervous in years. Why? Because that speech, more than almost anything I’ve ever delivered, felt like it mattered.

8. college looms

The fact that in 2015 Max received his driver’s license and now has submitted applications to college is one of the great mind-benders of my adult life. The fact that 17 years have passed and he’s on the verge of starting a new phase of his life is something I still can’t fully comprehend. I can’t even write about it in a coherent way.

Anyway, it’s bizarre. And I’m happy for him but completely freaked out.

7. Amp’d ramps up

Peggy Chenoweth, my partner in crime and co-host of the Amp’d podcast, texted me two months ago. “Do you know how many people listen to our podcast?” As a proud web analytics agnostic, I quickly responded, “Nope.” When she gave me the number I couldn’t respond for a moment. The fact that for a given topic we have more than 11,000 people listening to us ramble is simultaneously thrilling and daunting.

Peggy and I have made a commitment that we’re going to try to increase our podcasts to a weekly (or near-weekly) frequency moving forward. Let me in advance apologize for the times we don’t meet this goal, because it’ll be entirely my fault and likely due to my travel schedule. But much more Amp’d to come in 2016! (In this case, more is more.)

6. Cheap Shots releases its first EP

Cheap Shots EP

Cheap Shots EP

Just as important as The Beatles catalog becoming available to streaming services was Cheap Shots’ release of its first EP in October. After losing his lead guitarist and bassist to college at the end of this summer, Max formed this new group. (He and I spent the better part of two weeks in Aruba tossing potential new band names around. Discarded names included Illysium and Kooster’s Last Stand, among roughly 830 others.)

Cheap Shots has played regularly through the fall and into the early winter, including a stellar gig at Webster Hall in New York City right before Halloween. The EP, The Things That Keep Me Up Late, is a blistering set of melodic pop-punk/rock tunes with a gorgeous acoustic ballad (“One More May”) thrown in for good measure. If you’re unwilling to submerge yourself in the Beatles discography, then commit to Cheap Shots instead. Actually – commit to them either way. If you want to hear soaring melodies and poignant lyrics that come right from Max’s heart, you’ll love Cheap Shots.

5. everything is impermanent

Back in March I wrote about the unexpected death of Phil Kreuter, my friend and the physical therapist who trained me to walk again after I lost my leg. Phil wasn’t old – only in his mid-50’s – but suffered a massive stroke that led to his death shortly thereafter. It shouldn’t take the passing of important people in my life or the near-misses in my own to remind me just how important it is to respect the time we do have on this planet with the people around us. But invariably, it does.

Be aware. Don’t sleepwalk through everything. We only get to climb on this roller coaster once, so enjoy the ride.

4. i have 3 amazing kids

In July, Cara unexpectedly wound up in the hospital for a week while we were in Aruba. It was a serious situation – she was admitted to the ICU, initially – and I suddenly had to spend the majority of my time in a foreign hospital. While she responded to treatment quickly and got out with enough time to enjoy the second week of our vacation, I had to depend on all of my kids in ways none of us could have planned for.

They were all, in their own ways, amazing. When everything around them was going to hell, they supported each other, me and Cara. I couldn’t have gotten through that week without them there. I don’t remember a lot of what happened over those 5 days, but I distinctly recall sitting with my kids around a dinner table and telling them how proud I was. “When the chips are down, families are supposed to pull together and look out for each other, no matter what,” I said. They did that and then some. Thanks Max, Jackson and Caroline!

3. your humble author cries

Eastman Theater

Eastman Theater

I’m not particularly emotional. But earlier this month, Max performed as a member of New York’s All-State Chorus. This is an honor afforded to less than 300 students in the entire state, all of whom qualify based on a formal vocal audition. As I sat in the packed Eastman Theater in Rochester and listened to the songs, I began to quietly cry.

It hit me that Max was moving on (see #8, above) to new opportunities in less than a year. I realized that while I’ll still be his father and always part of his life, I’ll be losing him, to some extent. The thought of 2:30 PM rolling around and Max not walking through the door to shoot the breeze with me about his day at school and the music he’s working on or listening to hit me hard.

In that moment I was filled with equal parts pride and sadness. Prediction: I’ll be a total mess when he leaves for college. Thank god for Skype.

2. New York’s one-limb-per-life restriction overturned for 2016

As an amputee living in New York, I found it particularly galling that amputees paying premiums for plans purchased through the state’s insurance exchange were subject to a 1-prosthesis-per-limb-per-lifetime restriction. As President of the National Association for the Advancement of Orthotics and Prosthetics (NAAOP), I helped support an effort driven largely by a friend and fellow amputee, Dan Bastian, to get that restriction changed.

First the good news: the Director of NY’s exchange added language that requires insurers to additionally cover prosthetic repairs and replacements beginning January 1, 2016. Now the bad news: it’s not clear that this language will carry over into 2017. Additionally, even though the NY House of Representatives unanimously supported a permanent legislative fix that would cover prosthetic devices whenever medically necessary, the Senate refused to bring that bill to the floor for a vote.

So there’s still work to do in NY in 2016, but at least amputees in my home state requiring prosthetic repairs or replacements during the next 12 months will get them.

1. amputees successfully thwart proposed national coverage changes

We the People Petition

We the People Petition

I won’t belabor the point since this was the subject of virtually all of my posts and Amp’d podcasts from August of this year on. Medicare’s contractors published a draft local coverage determination that would have fundamentally changed prosthetic clinical care, coding, and costs if implemented. NAAOP launched a successful campaign that led to 110,000 signatures in 30 days on a petition requesting that the White House instruct Medicare to rescind the draft document.

In October, the White House and Medicare issued joint statements saying that the proposal would be shelved for now in favor of a federal workgroup tasked with analyzing current prosthetic best practices. While we will continue to need to fight over the coming year to make sure that the workgroup possesses complete and accurate information, the decision not to implement a policy that would have returned prosthetics to an average standard of care worse than what I experienced as a new amputee in 1996 was a huge win for amputees across the United States.

It shows how powerful we can be when we speak together with one voice. Here’s hoping there’s much more of that to come in 2016.

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.

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.

growing a life

growing a life 06.17.14

Last Thursday I attended a retirement party for my father, who has spent most of the last 38 years as the Superintendent of three different public school districts. As I sat with my family at a dinner table watching school board members, principals, and teachers recount the impact he’d had on the district generally and them specifically, I thought back to how he treated me as a parent, and his role in helping me get to where I am today.

I don’t remember my father ever giving me a specific piece of career advice while growing up. Rather than point me towards careers or jobs, he instilled in me a single broader principle: our job – whatever it is – is to give back to others. He often talked about “fighting the good fight” and working “for the greater good.”

Shortly after my mother died of cancer, my father and I stopped having a productive relationship for nearly a decade. Fueled in roughly equal parts by the loss of a woman we both adored, complications in our relationship arising out of my accident just over a year later, and our temperamental disinclination to ever talk about how we felt, I largely disengaged from meaningful contact with him. These phrases that I’d heard so often growing up became punch lines, things to resist.

If I chose to attend law school because I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, I chose my first job out of a combination of desperation – it paid more than any other opportunities I had at the time – and my desire to stick it to my dad. It was, in retrospect, a pretty juvenile approach to career planning: “You want me to do something useful? You want me to help other people? You want me to give back? I’m going to take a job that pays me more than anything else I can find so that I can protect those poor, helpless insurance companies!” It was hard to argue that representing insurers in intellectual property disputes was either fighting the good fight or working for the greater good. And I didn’t even try. I had a job – nothing more.

My anti-paternalistic career plan – not the most well-thought out strategy to begin with – foundered after I lost my leg. Proving a point to my father no longer seemed so important. While I returned to the big law firm, I knew almost immediately that I wouldn’t be spending the rest of my career there. The work I did there truly had no meaning to me.

My next job at a medical malpractice defense firm represented an incremental improvement. I loved preparing doctors and nurses for depositions.  Despite my efforts to resist it, my father’s philosophy – work for the greater good, for others – gave me a sense of purpose. I enjoyed giving people the tools and skills they would need to navigate an unfamiliar and threatening system.

Realizing this and the associated reality that deposition preparation accounted for less than 5% of my time as a practicing attorney, I jumped at the opportunity to co-found a prosthetic facility. For the first time in my professional life, my job and my worldview clicked into alignment. A significant part of every day consisted of talking with amputees, learning from their experiences, and trying to help them get the tools they needed to achieve their goals. I was fighting the good fight, working for the greater good.

Today I work for a publicly-traded company that manufactures prosthetic components. I spend a significant portion of my time educating prosthetists and their staff about how to run their businesses effectively and build productive, positive relationships with their patients. My father’s original guidance plays a larger role in my life now than it ever has.

Happily, he and I stepped back from the estrangement abyss several years ago, primarily because of his efforts and secondarily because I grew up a little bit. All the stuff he told me that sounded pedantic and unrealistic to me 15-20 years ago now forms the foundation of my personal philosophy.

So I sat at a table with my family, my sister and her boyfriend, and my stepmother and father last Thursday night. I watched the accolades roll in for 16 years of service to Scarsdale. I listened to the people who had worked with him describe how he had made them better, how he had made an entire school district better. I looked at Max and Jackson, neither of whom have ever seen my father in a public setting, their jaws slightly agape at the disconnect between my father, the public figure, and the grandfather they’ve always associated with challenging discussions about school that they only partially understand.

My father closed the event with a lengthy speech. As he returned to the table, Caroline got up and gave him a big hug. I’m pretty certain she didn’t understand a lot of what he said, but she knew it was important, both to him and the audience that  was still on its feet, cheering. As he made his way back to his seat he had to walk past me. I followed Caroline’s lead, hugging him and saying, “Great job,” into his ear.

Michael McGill has spent his entire professional life – more than 40 years – fighting for the highest-quality education for his districts’ students. In an era where “teaching to the test” and “the common core” have become the status quo, he has forcefully and passionately stood up for principles that are decidedly less expedient (and popular) politically, but that, I suspect, will prove out in the long run.

He has fought the good fight. He has worked for the greater good. I’m proud to be my father’s son.

So Dad, fittingly only a few days after Father’s Day, let me wish you luck on the next stage of your life. As you’ve said to so many graduating seniors – including me, Cara, and Erin – over the years, as you walk down a new path for the first time since you were 28, Godspeed.

 

fear (revisited)

Fear 04.22.14

Several weeks ago I authored a post on fear. I used Caroline’s anxiety about competitive cheerleading as an excuse to describe my formative battle with this emotion as a young boy. I wrapped the story up neatly, suggesting that my late-night intervention with my daughter would lead her to a life-changing realization about and positive attitude towards fear – and all before the age of 9. The words, “Aren’t I just the most incredible dad?” implicitly lurked just beneath the surface of the words on the screen.

As this week’s continuation of the story will reveal, I am not.

*   *   *

It’s evaluation month at Caroline’s gym. All the kids on the team (as well as new kids vying for a position on it) audition for placement based on the specific skills that they’ve mastered. What I’ve learned over the last two years is that the word “evaluation” short circuits the neurons responsible for rational thought in my daughter’s brain. If I told her that I’d be evaluating her ability to walk tomorrow, I’m reasonably certain that she’d be lying on the floor, dragging herself around with only her arms – her legs dangling uselessly behind her – inside of 8 hours.

Despite that, following my late night heart-to-heart with Caroline a few weeks ago, my alter ego – SuperDad – naively assumed that he had given her a strategy to successfully overcome her fear. After this, he could turn his attention to bigger problems, like fixing U.S. health care and creating a self-sustaining clean energy source that would reduce the planet’s reliance on fossil fuels.

Then came what will go down in the annals of McGill family history as The Ride.

*   *   *

Caroline’s gym is in Ronkonkoma, which is anywhere from 30-60 minutes from her house depending on traffic. This usually gives SuperDad time to engage in all kinds of entertaining activities with her: listening to music; hearing her interpretations of what shapes the clouds have chosen to take on that particular day; getting regaled with the ongoing saga that is the life of a third-grade student. But on this day, SuperDad seized the initiative, bypassing all these benign activities and replacing them with Project Elimination of Scary Thoughts. (SuperDad, in addition to solving familial and world problems, frequently spends valuable time devising acronyms that strike him as clever initially, then decidedly less so the more he thinks about them.)

PEST strategy number one? Visualization. SuperDad, as part of PEST, had encouraged his somewhat skeptical wife to engage the services of a sports therapist to help their 8 year-old work through this anxiety. (Yes, the words “sports therapist” and “8 year-old” in the same sentence should send alarm bells off in your head.) And the sports therapist had suggested that Caroline visualize herself performing the moves that she had “lost” since evaluations started as one way to help deal with her anxiety.

Since SuperDad had previously suggested this to Caroline himself before retaining the sports therapist, he wholeheartedly agreed with this component of PEST. And as Caroline started to express mild anxiety about going to cheer shortly after leaving their house, SuperDad encouraged her to try visualization.

That’s when the fun really started.

“Visualization is stupid. It doesn’t work,” said Caroline. SuperDad smiled benevolently from the front seat.

“Little child,” he thought to himself, “thinking so small. Allow SuperDad to open your eyes to the wonders of reality.”

He glanced at his daughter in the rearview mirror. “Caroline, how can you say it doesn’t work if you’ve only done it a few times last night? It’s one of those things that you have to do over and over again before you know if it’s working or not.

“I don’t waaaannnnnaaaaa,” his daughter responded, the whine factor rising exponentially. “It doesn’t woooorrrrrrrkkkkkk. It’s stuuuuuupid.”

SuperDad didn’t miss a step. He re-presented his infallible logic, undercutting Caroline’s nonsensical reaction definitively and comprehensively. She responded with tears and the words, “I don’t wanna go I don’t wanna go I don’t wanna go.” The volume and speed of this mantra increased. SuperDad’s attempts to interject got cut off, dismissed, and drowned out.

In less than 10 minutes, SuperDad had abandoned PEST for an alternative strategy: “Shut UP! I don’t want to hear it.” He shouted at his windshield as he cranked the music up to jet engine levels in an effort to eliminate the sound of the screaming girl somewhere behind him.

By the time he exited the highway only 10 minutes from the gym, SuperDad was in bad shape. His hands on the steering wheel were shaking and white. He could feel the skin across his face, taut and rigid as his teeth ground together. His daughter’s histrionics overrode the nuclear explosion of sound through the car’s speakers, as if she’d tapped directly into his inner ear to broadcast her wails of anguish.

The moment required action. And the action SuperDad took was what he had previously warned his wife never to do under any circumstance when confronted with exactly this scenario. He turned on the left blinker. He pulled into an empty parking lot. He then turned on the right blinker, and pulled back onto the road headed in the opposite direction from which he had come. “There. Are you happy?” he shouted. “We’re going home. I’m not taking you to the gym like this. It’s a waste of everyone’s time.”

The sounds from the back of the car stopped. He turned off the music as he pulled back onto the LIE, retracing the path he had just carved out for the last 45 minutes. “I’m sorry,” said Caroline from the back seat, probably more shocked at SuperDad’s retreat than he was. “Whatever,” he snarled back. Just 30 minutes later, they were home.

*   *   *

I learned last week how much stronger fear is than SuperDad. If I were to create a word problem approximating this disparity, it would read something like this:

Fear is 3 trillion rabid jaguars with blood-flecked muzzles racing towards a tree in the desert. The antidote to fear is SuperDad, a single, one-legged human, tied to the tree they’re running towards, unable to move his arms or legs. What are the odds that the antidote to fear will defeat fear in this situation?

But while SuperDad can’t beat fear, perhaps his daughter can. On Sunday, Caroline came to me with her proposed solution. It involved her still going to cheer but eliminating the stressor that paralyzes her a full day before she even leaves the house for the gym. I spoke with her coaches last night, who agreed that Caroline’s approach made sense. We don’t know what this will mean in terms of Caroline’s placement on one or more teams next season, but we do know that her solution is better than the status quo.

I’m not SuperDad. I’m thinking, though, that my daughter could be SuperGirl. Or perhaps Dark Phoenix. Time will tell.

(im)balance

(im)balance 05.06.14

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

fear

Fear 04.22.14

There’s a one-legged man who authors a weekly blog. He has three kids: two boys and a girl. The daughter’s almost 9. She’s tough. Tougher than her brothers. She gets hit or knocked down in public and she doesn’t cry. Never. Has always been that way.

She’s the only one of the children who’s passionate about sports. She spends 4-5 days a week in a huge gym training for an elite competitive cheer team. Her time there consists of alternately getting thrown in the air and caught by others, throwing others in the air and catching them, or racing across the gym floor uncorking different combinations of flips and tumbles of increasing complexity the longer she’s there. She loves it.

But at the same time, she’s terrified.

After learning a new move and seemingly mastering it, she inexplicably (in her own words) “loses it.” The tuck that she had yesterday? Gone. The multiple back handsprings she threw casually last week? No mas.

This paralyzes the girl, envelops her in all-encompassing anxiety. It begins the night before practice with an innocuous question: “Who’s driving me tomorrow?” It escalates the next morning when she tries to pin down the exact time of departure for the gym. By the time she gets out of school, she’s in full-out battle mode, shouting, negotiating, pleading that she should be permitted to skip the mandated practice.

Watching the pattern not only repeat but intensify, the one-legged father sat down with his daughter on a Sunday night as the terror swept over her. He lay across her bed while she sat, hugging her knees with the sheets pulled over her, and admitted to him for the first time (ever) that she was scared.

“I don’t have it anymore. If I go to practice and I don’t have it the coaches will yell at me [not true] and I’ll feel bad [embarrassed].” As the conversation continued, she opened up a little more. “When I can’t do it I get disappointed with myself. I feel like there’s a spiky ball pressing on my brain because I’m disappointed.”

The one-legged father tried to listen without interrupting, a near-impossibility given his belief that he has All Answers to All Things. He remembered the time as an 8 year-old two-legged boy that he threw a rock at a neighbor who was taunting him. The rock missed the boy but hit the blue car behind him: Mr. Frank’s car. The neighbor immediately shouted, “I’m going to tell on you,” and raced to Mr. Frank’s front door to tell the old German. The two-legged boy ran into his house, up the stairs, and into the safety of his bedroom. He peeked out his window and saw the neighbor speaking to Mr. Frank and Mr. Frank walking over to his car to assess the effect of the battery committed against it. He imagined the awful consequences of his actions.

The boy’s mother quickly divined that something was amiss at dinner that night. The boy’s already failing facade crumbled completely, the words spilling out as he revealed The Tale of the Rock. His mother had him recount the story to his father when he returned home from work, leading to a prep session at the kitchen table for what was about to transpire next.

“I’m Mr. Frank,” his father said. “What are you going to tell me when you come over?”

Confused at first, then anxious as he realized what was about to happen, the boy stumbled through a brief statement with help from his father. He cobbled together a script of admission and penance while simultaneously (and unsuccessfully) trying to negotiate his way out of the face-to-face meeting.

And so it came to pass that at 7:30 in a summer evening, with dusk starting to fade into night, the boy found himself staring woodenly at Mr. Frank’s cheap metal screen door, his father’s hand on his shoulder both for support and to prevent his imminent flight. Mr. Frank, who looked 14 feet tall with yellow teeth and a wifebeater threatening to give way under the pressure of his gut, appeared before him.

“My son has something he’d like to say to you,” said the father. And the boy, looking squarely at the place that Mr. Frank’s belt presumably rested underneath all that flesh, unleashed a torrent of barely audible words. “Mr. Frank I’mverysorry I threw a rock and accidentallyhityourcar and if there’s any damage I’llpayforitmyself.”

Mr. Frank paused for a moment and the boy felt his entire life hanging in the balance. He was only 8, but he could feel the vast hole that would swallow his existence up yawing in front of him. Mr. Frank opened his mouth. And miraculously, the hole closed. Mr. Frank related that he had waddled out to his blue Oldsmobile Cutlass to check it for damage and had been unable to see anything – not a single scratch.

It didn’t compute. The boy couldn’t figure it out as he walked home, barely registering his father saying that he was proud of him for facing up to his responsibilities. How could all of the fear, all of the anxiety just … disappear?

The one-legged father shared The Tale of the Rock with his daughter. He said, “It’s ok to be scared. But you can’t let the fear prevent you from Doing What You Have to Do.” She would have to go to practice on Monday, but facing up to what terrified her, staring at it without running away was the only objective.

Like that night in the kitchen 37 years ago, he had his daughter rehearse speaking to her coach before practice about what was going on inside her head. She presented different response scenarios. They rehearsed those also. By the time they finished, it was 10 o’clock and she was yawning.

“What are the 2 things you’re going to do tomorrow that will make your day a success?” he asked her. She responded wearily from her pillow, “Going to practice without freaking out before.”

“Right,” he interjected, as she continued on: “And then I get an iPhone,” she finished with a grin. The one-legged father shot her a look and she sighed. “And talking to my coaches to tell them what I’m feeling.” He smiled. “And then I get an iPhone?” she queried.

The one-legged father picked up his crutches and hopped to his foot. “Goodnight, Caroline,” he said. And he lay in bed till midnight, thinking about Mr. Frank as a kid, losing his leg as an adult, and overcoming fear, one tiny step at a time.