Last fall I turned sixty years of age, and as I began my seventh decade on the planet, I had to wonder if it was true. The calendar doesn’t lie, of course, so I had to accept the truth, as difficult as it might be. A few weeks later, millions of Democrats around the country would have to confront an even more difficult truth, so mine suddenly didn’t seem like such a big deal. As of this writing, four days before Inauguration Day, many still seem in denial about that truth, but that’s not what I’d like to write about today. The truth I’m confronting is far more personal.
It hadn’t been that long ago, it seemed, that Sue and I flew down to Arizona to help my father celebrate his own 60th birthday. In fact, it was during that visit, over the first weekend of February in 1995, that we announced our engagement. And now I am the same age my father was then.
On the morning of October 21st, I didn’t feel any different. It was a Friday, and we had taken the day off. We would spend the day on the road, visiting some antique shops in Stillwater, Minn., then coming back across the St. Croix into Wisconsin to hike through Willow River State Park. First, though, I fulfilled a birthday pledge to myself by doing 60 pushups to conclude my morning yoga and stretching regimen. The birthday pushup challenge is one I carried over from my Taekwondo training; at our dojang in Rice Lake, it was a given that each month all students who would celebrate birthdays in the month would push ’em out for each year. When I started teaching at a new dojang in Hayward in 2006, I stated that instructors would participate, and that meant me. It also meant I had to start training months in advance to make sure I would not fail in front of the students.
Sue and I had a fine time in Stillwater and on our hike through one of Wisconsin’s many beautiful state parks. It was good training for us, as we are planning a trip to South America in June 2017, when we will be hiking through the Peruvian Andes. On this day, though, we were able to bring our Yorkie, Sophie, along with us. She’s always game for a hike, and this one was the biggest yet for her.
Less than two months later, on December 19th, I underwent surgery to replace my left knee. This would give me a matching set; I had the right knee done in February 2012. Both procedures were necessary because old basketball injuries had started the joints on the road to orthopedic distress, and years of martial arts training hadn’t made them any healthier. But the ’12 surgery turned out well, so I was confident my orthopedist, Dr. Branham, would make left knee turn out to be just as good as the right has been.
I had been warned before the first procedure that being in top physical condition going in was vital, as the rehabilitation on the other side would be strenuous. Well, as the title of my blog suggests, I am no stranger to the word “strenuous,” so I got after it then and found that, indeed, the rehab went well for me because I was physically ready for the challenge. I was also mentally ready, having been through rehabs for both knees years earlier after surgeries to repair torn anterior cruciate ligaments. People who haven’t prepared themselves, I was told, pay a price, and I was determined not to be one of them.
To prepare, I started adding specific leg-strengthening exercises to my gym workouts, where I go three mornings a week. Check out Olympic Fitness here: Olympic Fitness Two or three other weekday mornings are devoted to swimming at our municipal pool. That was something I’d started to do when rehabbing from the first surgery, and I quickly discovered that swimming is everything its enthusiasts claim it to be: one of the best damn workouts you can have. Unfortunately, I was unable to achieve one of my pre-surgery goals: swim the entire length of the pool underwater. I came about 10 meters short, but blamed it on the fact that due to an illness I wasn’t able to get to the pool for all of my planned swims in the month leading up to the big event.
Under the knife, again.
Just like every guy remembers his very first girl, an athlete remembers his first knee surgery. Mine was on November 1st, 1973. Two days earlier, during the first practice of my high school basketball season, I had blown out the right knee during a loose-ball drill. Lying on the hospital exam table in agony, with my dad and my coach both there to get the bad news from the doctor, I first heard the acronym ACL. After the surgery I was in a crotch-to-toe cast for six weeks. Two days after getting the cast off, I was in the high school gym, slowly walking laps around the floor and shooting free throws. After four weeks of rehab, the physical therapist and the doctor both pronounced me good to go. I returned to practice on January 7th, 1974, and appeared in my first game of the season four nights later. I’d been in only a few minutes when I leaped to catch a high pass, came down and twisted the knee. I limped to the bench. The knee wasn’t damaged, but my confidence certainly was, and it was another two or three weeks before I was ready to really get back at it. By the final weeks of the season I was healthy enough to make some meaningful contributions to the team, eventually appearing in seven of our 21 games. The following year, I played my entire senior season without missing a beat and was named all-conference.
That was the first surgery of my life, but would certainly not be the last. Over the next 39 years I would have two arthroscopies on the right knee and then the 2012 replacement, while the left knee would undergo three ‘scopes (you pick up the lingo pretty quickly) plus an ACL repair in 1987. My orthopedist and I knew the left knee, although not as bad as the right had been, was deteriorating and it was only a matter of time till it had to be replaced. Sue and I decided to have it done now and get it over with.
And so, it was. The “Joint Camp” team at Lakeview Medical Center in Rice Lake really know their stuff, and advances in the procedure itself since 2012 made the whole thing more tolerable. I began physical therapy the day after the surgery, was discharged on the afternoon of the second day, and began outpatient PT two days later. Since this was my left leg, I was able to start driving again 11 days after surgery and returned to work on January 9th, after taking three weeks of medical leave. Twice-weekly PT will continue for another week or two as of this writing, giving me a total of four or five weeks of therapy, and then I will be joining forces again with my personal trainer, Tony Bergman of 4everFit, as we work to get the knee back into martial arts shape and ready for the Andes.
My first lengthy convalescent leave.
After my 2012 surgery, I returned to work only a week after leaving the hospital. That would not happen this time. I had plenty of leave available and decided to use some of it, so I scheduled three full weeks, beginning with the surgery on December 19th. During this time I would still be busy, doing self-rehab regimens at home and going to my various appointments at the clinic. On January 3rd, I visited Dr. Branham, who removed the staples from my incision and pronounced himself pleased with my progress.
One of the best things about being home is spending time with our dog, Sophie, a joyously vigorous Yorkshire terrier who will soon be seven years old. Normally she spends most weekdays in the furnace room, but now with her dad at home every day, she was able to stay in the living quarters. To say she enjoyed it would be an understatement, and in fact we both did.
I was also able to test the retirement waters, so to speak, and found them to be pretty nice. It will be nearly three more years before I can do that for good, but this was a very enticing preview of coming attractions. Some days I went to nearby Birchwood to visit Ed’s Pit Stop, a combination gas station/convenience store/liquor store/restaurant/coffee shop/boutique, and enjoy some relaxing time with a cappuccino and maybe a sandwich for lunch. Writers seem to have a natural affinity for coffee shops and vice versa, as I am discovering. And speaking of living a strenuous life, when I stopped in at Ed’s on the mid-morning of January 6th, I saw hikers striding along the trail that flanks the highway leading to town. It was 14 degrees below zero at the time, but fortunately under sunny skies with no wind. At the store I asked what might be going on, and was told the hikers were participating in the Tuscobia Winter Ultra cross-country race from Rice Lake to Park Falls and back, 160 miles round-trip. Why in the world would anybody want to do this? Check out the story from the Rice Lake weekly paper, The Chronotype: Tuscobia Winter Ultra.
Every day the knee got a little bit better. After using a walker for the first week after the surgery, I gradually transitioned to a cane, bypassing crutches entirely. I returned to work on January 9th, as planned, and a couple days later forgot my cane at home. Sue texted me, asking if I’d need it, and I said no, I’d be okay. And I was. I continued with twice-weekly outpatient physical therapy at the clinic, once again working with George Metropulos and his excellent staff, who had worked with me on my 2012 rehab.
Sue and I are big proponents of alternative medicine, so we incorporated some of it into my rehab. Every night she gives the leg a massage with geranium oil, and also applies Elemis oil to the incision to aid healing. My daughter Kim had given me a certificate for acupuncture treatment as a Christmas gift, and as of this date I have had two treatments at Wildsong Wellness. The first one produced immediate, noticeable relief in the residual pain and swelling, so I was sold. I have two more treatments scheduled. Check them out at Wildsong Wellness.
This morning I returned to the pool. The Rice Lake Municipal Pool offers lane swimming and water aerobics on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings from 6-8am. I started swimming there six months after my 2012 surgery and have gone two or three times a week ever since. Swimming is great exercise and I found that it is also terrific for rehabbing orthopedic injuries and surgical repairs. Although I was certified as a scuba diver way back in 1998 and have done a fair amount of diving since then, my surface skills left much to be desired. They have improved a lot, thanks to all the practice I’ve had and advice from some of the more experienced swimmers at the pool. A couple have become good friends, and in fact this morning they heartily recommended the Salkantay Trek, which they did a couple years ago. One of them called it the most strenuous four days of his life, but he said it with a big smile. So to say I am excited about the trip is an understatement.
Nearly three months past my 60th birthday, I fully realize that I have been blessed. I have good health, a wonderful marriage to a beautiful woman, two fine kids, and my parents are still living and pretty healthy for people in their 80s. I have a good job to tide me over until I can afford to write full-time. But maintaining good health and a good marriage takes work, truths that many people don’t seem to understand, and trust me, I have worked hard at both. Once in awhile I sit back and say to myself, You’re almost there. And then I ask myself, Where exactly is ‘there’?
In search of the elusive “sweet spot.”
When you get to a certain age you start contemplating things more, thinking about things that are a little more important than simply finding a girlfriend for steady sex (in your 20s), putting food on the table, paying the bills and taking care of your kids (30s), or wondering where your career is going (40s). When a guy hits his mid-50s he starts thinking about where he’s been and where he’s going, not just in terms of his career but in life. At that age you start thinking that wherever it is you’re going, it won’t be long till you get there, so you’d better figure out exactly where that is and whether you want to go there, or try for someplace else.
I was talking about that with Sue the other day and referred to it as the “sweet spot.” When a guy reaches my age, he understands–and grudgingly accepts–that he’s no longer 25 and his body won’t let him do the things he was able to easily do at that age. Some things he can’t do at all anymore: shoot a jump shot, throw a fastball. Others, like hitting a golf ball, are much harder, or if not harder to do, he can’t do it quite as well as before. Generally, he’s much smarter than he was 30 years before, much wiser, and hopefully wealthier, although as people constantly demonstrate there are no guarantees for any of that. But I have found that regardless of their station in life, most men are searching for something. They usually can’t quite put their finger on what it is, but it’s out there. Maybe one day they realize that they must’ve found it, because they consider themselves pretty content.
About six years ago I read an article in Men’s Health about the actor Stephen Lang, who played the villain in Avatar, the most notable role (so far) of a long career on stage and screen. In his late 50s at the time, Lang talked about what it takes to stay in shape at that age so that when Hollywood is looking for a guy approaching senior citizen status who can still do the job as an action star, they call him: Mens Health/Stephen Lang.
The website Art of Manliness, one of my favorites, discusses all things manly and this search for meaning is one of them. It is a multifaceted quest, that’s for sure, as there are many aspects to a man’s life. There’s the physical side: your looks, your hair, your build. The social side, including family life; the professional side; and one that some men sadly neglect, the spiritual side. In this posting, AofM writer Brett McKay talks about seeking “mastery”: Art of Manliness/mastery.
During my convalescent leave I watched a little bit of TV, but I was pretty selective with my viewing. (I had found out in the hospital that daytime TV is a vast wasteland that has very little in it I considered worthwhile.) I saw movies and shows featuring men, and some women, in my age group. Sylvester Stallone showed how it’s done as Barney Ross in The Expendables. Stallone was 64 when he filmed that picture, the first in a series that will have its fourth and final installment in 2018, when the star is 72. In the third film of the series, Harrison Ford played a CIA agent turned dashing helicopter pilot. Ford turned 72 the year the film was released, and a year later reprised his classic role as swashbuckling space pilot Han Solo in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It was recently announced he’ll come back for another Indiana Jones picture, his fifth, scheduled for release in 2019, when Ford will be 77. (It will be interesting to see an Indy nearly as old as my father.) A few weeks earlier I’d watched then-73-year-old Sean Connery lead the action as 19th century adventurer Allan Quatermain in 2003’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. And this past Saturday night, Sue and I watched the comedy Out to Sea, which featured 60-year-old Dyan Cannon rocking a bikini in a way that many women half her age would be hard-pressed to equal. (Just to be clear, Sue will be 60 next summer and she can match Cannon. Trust me.)
Stallone and the rest are actors playing characters who are telling a story, sure, but they just don’t show up on the set and do their thing. To be a successful actor–and in the case of Stallone and others, a successful producer, director and screenwriter–requires dedication to one’s craft, hard work, and perseverance. None of them were born as movie stars. They did it, as the old commercial goes, the old-fashioned way: they earned it. They have blazed trails that the next generation of film stars will be hard-pressed to follow, but guys like Tom Cruise, Daniel Craig and Ben Affleck, along with women like Sandra Bullock, Kate Beckinsale and Julia Roberts, are giving it a good shot.
These men and women are not perfect, of course, but none of us are. All we can do is try to be the best we can be. And success isn’t necessarily going to be measured for any of them by the number of Oscar statuettes on their mantles or dollars in their bank accounts. Just as success for us isn’t measured by awards or money, either. Finding that sweet spot means you have gotten your life to a point where you are content with what you have done, but you’re not necessarily done doing it. You have done some good things and made an impact on your family, your community, your profession, but there’s more to do. There will always be more to do, and you’re one of those guys or gals who rolls up the sleeves and sets about doing it.
And when you find “it,” you will know.