The Final Deadline

I don’t know if it’s my age, or the fact that I’m just busier, but the days seem longer and fuller as I move along the journey of life. From the moment I get up to the moment I put my head on my pillow, my mind is constantly moving down the list of things I need to do that – interviews for work, errands, prescriptions to pick up, gym clothes and lunch to pack, emails to answer. It’s almost like I’m never really in the moment – I’m either thinking ahead to what comes next, or I’m thinking about what I should have done, in order to meet the next deadline, whether it’s a feature for work or a running workout or getting my car inspected.

When I passed the 4-0 mark last year, I started evaluating what I had done with my life, and what I really wanted to do with the rest of my time. Like everyone, I don’t know how long I’ll live, but I started thinking, if my eventual life span is 80, then I’m at the halfway point. Out of all the things I wanted to do, what will I regret the most if I don’t check it off my list? What are the things that I thought were important, but realize now that I’m happy never came to fruition?

To steal a quote from The Shawshank Redemption, I suddenly felt like I needed to break out of my rut and either ‘get busy living or get busy dying’. The dying part may seem overly dramatic, but in a way, it’s true. I once heard that we’re born dying (I think even in the biological sense we are dying as we live, our cells breaking down and die as we age), and it’s easy to think you have all the time in the world when you’re 20. But the gap between 20 and 40 almost seems like a blur now. Two decades is nothing, when you think about it.

The bottom line is, we spend so much of our time rushing around, trying to meet the various deadlines we are tasked with meeting, that it’s easy to forget about the biggest deadline of all – the final deadline. The deadline where we take our last breath and move on to heaven (or whatever you think the next stage is after we die). Unlike other deadlines, we never know what the exact date or time of this deadline will be. Will it come suddenly in an accident, or slowly as disease ravages us? Will the deadline come too soon, in our youth, or will we pass the century mark?

Like other deadlines, we should be thinking ahead about what we need to accomplish to meet our own final deadline. Did we accomplish everything we set out to do, whether it’s writing a book, running a marathon or climbing a mountain? Did we take time to show our families we love them, to let our friends know how important they are to us? Did we take the time to call our loved ones, to spend time with them while we could? Were we true to ourselves? Did we listen to our inner voice and take the road less traveled, or did we stay on the main path (and do we regret it?) Were we honest with ourselves about who we were and what we wanted? Was there that special someone who got away, or you were blessed to have found true love and a true partner in life?

It’s easy to get caught up in life and think, I can always do these things tomorrow. But the final deadline may be sooner than you expect – it may be tomorrow. So take the time to think about what you want – pencil it into your planner, if you think it will help. But as you plan your life around all the deadlines, make sure you’re working to meet the last and most important of all.

The Waiting Game

Earlier this month, I had a steroid shot in my lower back. The idea was to try and quiet the two bulging discs that my doctor believed not only have been giving me back pain on the lower left side, but have been causing all sorts of mischief in my left side. If one section of muscles isn’t angry, it’s something else – the IT band, the hip flexor and groin area, the lower back. Sometimes everyone’s irritated, and sometimes they’re quiet. It seems like it’s been one thing after another – an angry cacophony of muscles that won’t seem to shut up, and have stopped me in my tracks. Apparently, they’re fed up with me, and I’m fed up with them for not cooperating. I’m also getting fed up with the pool – if I spend much more time swimming, I swear I’ll grow gills! I don’t think that will be a good look for me.

Feeling old and achy is getting old, and the desire to be out on the trails as marathon training season starts up – and not feeling ready to do so – is frustrating. The seemingly unending rounds of physical therapy – first from my sports medicine doctor, then with the spinal specialist to whom I was referred – and the co-pays that go with them are mentally wearing, and just add more to my seemingly non-stop schedule. I just finished my second round of PT to go with the shot, and while there has been some improvement, I thought I would be feeling better than this. Monday, I’m consulting with a surgeon about possible surgery. I’m anxious to get things over with, but anxious about what he’ll say. Is surgery the answer, or is he just going to send me back for more shots and physical therapy?

During my last round of therapy, I started thinking about my journey to try and heal, to find the key that will literally unlock the angry muscles, is like a marathon in itself. It’s also like a game. I started thinking of Shoots and Ladders – the ladders where you make progress by finding the right doctor and the right treatment, and the shoots, where a relapse of pain or your insurance company saying you’ve reached your limit on the number of therapy visits they’ll pay for – sends you sliding back down. Some days, it’s a step forward, the next day, you feel like you’ve gone two steps back. Or you roll the dice and land on a space where you find out you’re getting a refund, or learn that you have a stress fracture and have to skip a turn. I’m wondering how many avenues I’m going to have to cross, on how many doors I’ll have to knock, to get an answer. And maybe there’s no one solution, and maybe the real solution is time, but the waiting game definitely does not appeal to me. Even with the 20 milers I’ve run, you always know the end is in sight when you’ve crossed back into Terry Hershey Park and are running the winding tree-lined trail back to the start. Who knows when this unwanted journey I’m on now will end.

For a long time, running was a way for me not only to exercise, but to blow off steam and center myself. I find myself now trying to de-stress and re-center myself in other ways. But nothing beats the running. At times, I think I used to take it for granted, but now, I would give anything for a bad running day – a humid day where I run low on fluids or have to make an emergency pit stop in the woods. I would embrace it all, even the blisters.

My mother – who still sends me home with coupons, newspaper clippings and articles with advice, and leftovers – gave me for my last birthday a copy of Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff. My mother, knowing that I’m being tested in a lot of areas of my life right now, thought it would help. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great book with some great gems of wisdom. But what do you do if there’s just so much small stuff? And what if the best way to deal with the small stuff is by working up a good sweat? I’m still working on that answer as the waiting game goes on.

Wine and Cheese and Frogs, Oh My!

In addition to addressing work-life balance issues in my life, I’m also trying to think outside the box more in terms of gifts. This is especially true for my husband, who is picky and difficult to buy for. Usually, if there’s something he wants or needs, he buys it for himself! For a long time, I thought there was something wrong with me because I had so much trouble picking out gifts for him (and especially since he gives such lavish gifts – one year, I got a baby grand piano!) But his mother told me that she’s always had a hard time buying gifts for him, which is why she mostly gifts him cash for birthdays and Christmas.

Other people I know – married couples who have been together for a long time – also have told me how difficult it gets each year to think of the perfect gift for Christmas or a birthday. And the longer you’re together, the more stuff you have, to the point where many, like my parents, are trying to get rid of stuff. Every time I’m at my parents’ house, my mother’s asking me if I want to take home a lamp or ceramic duck or something she’s trying to get rid of.

For Brad’s birthday, I decided it might be more fun for us to do something together versus buying him more gifts (and he’s got gift cards I’ve given him that he’s never used – he just gave me a gift card that I had given him several Christmases ago! He cancelled him gym membership, so he can’t use it). We receive catalogs from the Houston Arboretum for classes. I had attended a class there before on making chocolate desserts, of all things, and thought the wine and cheese and frogs event they held on a Saturday evening in late June might be something fun and educational. Something different from sitting on the couch, watching the same movies we’ve seen before on cable.

I was worried that Brad wouldn’t enjoy the event, or that we might be the only people there. But I was wrong – Brad did enjoy it, and there was a good turnout. We thoroughly enjoyed the wine and cheese (one lady enjoyed the wine a bit too much – I’m surprised she didn’t fall in the pond when we later went to look for critters). They also had cookies and chocolate, which I couldn’t resist.

The presentation kicked off after everyone had had some food and drink. There was a good overview of the Houston Arboretum’s founding and its mission before our speaker launched into the frogs portion of his talk. I found it quite educational – to be honest, a frog has just always looked like a frog to me, but there’s quite a variety of them, even on the Gulf Coast. Besides the American Bullfrog, there’s the Common Gray, the Bronze Frog, the Green Treefrog, and the Southern Leopard Frog. The speaker was funny – it definitely was a lively conversation, with people asking questions and laughing.

I also learned that the American bullfrog can grow to be quite large (think cat-size) and doesn’t just sit on a lily pond, munching on flies. Bullfrogs eat spiders, scorpions, birds – and even other frogs! I found out all this in the National Geographic video that was played during the presentation. It was eye opening! (and frogs can also regenerate not only their eyes, but other body parts – something I wish humans could do). I am aware that varieties of poisonous frogs do exist, but I had always assumed that the deadly versions of these creatures existed in places I will never likely visit, like the outer reaches of the Amazon rain forest. If I were really paranoid, it would be something else to worry over.

After the presentation, we were split into two groups and marched out onto the grounds to the first pond we would visit. Our guide played different frog calls, and we did hear some frogs respond back. Some people said they also saw a snake, but I couldn’t see much. Ambient light from Houston’s downtown skyline can be seen in the arboretum, but it was quite dark at the first pond, and being unfamiliar with the grounds, I felt completely disoriented. It got a little frustrating, trying to listen for frogs and see things. Our guide would shine light on trees, saying that a spider or some creature was there – I couldn’t see anything! Everyone else could (or said they could), and it made me wonder if my vision is even worse that I think it is.

I realize then that the National Geographic video (and nature shows on TV and Michael Bay movies) have spoiled me for actually experiencing nature. The nature shows present nature as very dramatic and savage – lions taking down zebras, great white sharks launching into the air off South Africa — and action movies in general seemed to have evolved into films that are thin on story lines but big on deafening explosions and death-defying stunts. It’s not enough to educate people anymore — you have to wow them with action.

After the National Geographic video – like I am after watching Air Jaws for the umpteenth time or Die Hard — I was revved up for action! I wanted to see drama! I wanted to see some of these dreaded bullfrogs leap out of nowhere and try to take out some of the snakes and spiders that we were supposedly seeing (or take out the person who kept bumping into the back of me).

Instead, there was no action (and no Bruce Willis chasing killer bullfrogs). Just a humid, surprisingly quiet Houston evening (it’s amazing how close the arboretum is to downtown and how quiet it is), with frogs chirping every now and then and creatures supposedly lurking around. I didn’t seem much of anything – I guess the arboretum’s creatures weren’t ready for their closeups. It felt very anti-climactic after the presentation and video. I was bummed (partly a letdown from the wine, maybe). I didn’t get to see nature in action. Granted, it was just an evening about frogs, but dammit, I wanted some action!

We had to wait back at the nature center to see the second pond (the second group didn’t follow instructions and charged on ahead.) People began disappearing as the evening came towards its end – some decided they’d had enough of stumbling around in the dark, or went elsewhere to drink more wine. I think one person got lost (or maybe a bullfrog got them). We stuck it out until the third pond. Our guide did show us a photo of a crayfish he’d snapped in what looked more like marsh versus pond. By then, it was almost 10:30, and we were tuckered out.

Someone recently told me that I have an adventurous side that I need to indulge every so often to break up the routine of work, gym and mundane chores. It’s true that I do have an adventurous side – a friend commented once that I was always up for trying new things – but the evening of walking through the dark, looking for frogs, sounded cooler than it actually was. Granted, my husband did have a good time (and wants to go back, but during the day), but I’m starting to wonder if the explorer side of me is mellowing. I still want to have adventures (I’ve got a long bucket list of countries I want to visit) but I find myself wanting to do things I didn’t use to do, like be in be at a reasonable hour or actually taking the time to prepare for trips into the woods.

I’ve always loved watching nature shows and travel shows, and have always said I would go out and visit exotic places. But given finances, geopolitics, and my increasing need for a certain level of comfort, I wonder if my grand tour of the pyramids or the rainforests will end up being from a LazyBoy in my living room.






The Long and Winding Road Back to Running

I set a personal record at the Chevron Houston Marathon in January, but in recent months, I haven’t run much due to ongoing issues with my left lower back, IT, or illiotical band and hip flexor. A recent MRI uncovered two bulging discs in my lower left back, the lowest of which may be pinching on a nerve on my left side. My doctor speculated that this might be causing all the issues on my left side. She referred me to a spinal specialist, who referred me for a physical therapy program that would help straight my back and pelvis, gave me a prescription for pain cream and a steroid shot in my lower left back.

Not being able to run has been particularly difficult for me, given that work has been hectic this spring. I haven’t had much energy to read for fun or socialize either, but the loss of running has hit me particularly hard. Like many runners, running is not just about the cardiovascular workout, but running is a way to relieve mental stress. That stress has been building up in other ways, including more frequent snacking in the work break room and just an overall feeling of edginess at times. I find myself getting more impatient with people around me, from drivers to pedestrians. (I swear, it seems like everyone at the mall the other day was deliberately walking in front of me!)

I never knew I had an IT band until I started running over a decade ago (running offers great lessons in human anatomy). For non-runners, the IT band is a ligament that runs down the outside of the thigh from the hip to the shin. IT band syndrome is when the IT band becomes tight or inflamed. I’ve dealt with it at different points of time in my running career, usually when I haven’t been diligent about strengthening the glutes and other muscles. Stretching the IT band is difficult. In this latest round, I’ve been dealing with a sore hip flexor on the same side and tightness in my lower left back. If one thing isn’t acting up, it’s another, which made me wonder if there was a tear.

I’ve always found that running helped me stay balanced mentally and physically, but given my issues, I’ve had to cross train more and find new outlets for stress. Now that work has slowed down a bit, my mind isn’t so weighted towards my to do list, so I feel like I can now tackle my IT band again. I’ve got even more incentive to run the Houston Marathon in 2015. This time, I’ll be running as a veteran, a status that a runner achieves after completing 10 Houston marathons.

The prep and wait for the shot was longer than the procedure itself. More paperwork to sign, vitals to be taken, IV inserted and discussions with the doctor and the anesthesiologist. I was given something to help me relax, but I was awake during the procedure and aware of everything – I had been warned to expect the ‘twilight’ experience. The atmosphere in the operating room was very casual, with country music playing in the background and people talking about upcoming plans for the Fourth of July. I was given time and cranberry juice to recover, then rolled out in a wheelchair to my husband’s truck. I spent the rest of the day recuperating and catching up on recordings in our DVR.

I think I was expecting to instantly feel better. My back is sore at the injection site (and will still be for a while). My back does feel somewhat better, but I was awoken early this morning with hunger pangs (I think my body was still catching up from not being able to eat after midnight the night before the procedure) and by a tight and painful IT band on my left. My hip flexor on the left side also was bothering, so I know there’s going to be more stretching and rehabbing before I’m completely out of the woods yet.

Just like balancing work, relationships and personal pursuits, I’m finding that it’s difficult to get my body back into balance. The ongoing weakness on my left side (my right side is stronger, not surprising since I’m right-handed, my physical therapist told me) is definitely a concern. The human body can do amazing things, but like any instrument with many working parts, there are lots of things that can go wrong. I don’t know if it’s age (or because I’m a runner) but I can see that strength training – and keeping both sides of my body strong – will be critical if I’m to have a future as a runner.