Patience is a Vertex

August 19, 2011

At the beginning of this year, I set two goals for myself under the heading “Physical Activity / Fitness”:

  • Ride FAR in September (5-day, 500 mile bike ride)
  • Chicago Marathon in October

In the spring, I learned Ride FAR wasn’t going to happen, but that a 2-day, 150 mile ride to support Phinney’s Friends would. In truth, this was a much more realistic goal for me, so I gladly swapped the two.

Last week, on my 15th wedding anniversary, exactly 1 month out from Phinney’s and 1 day shy of 2 months for Chicago, I wrecked my scooter, avoiding a less-than-aware pedestrian who stepped into my line of travel. Quick brakes on wet pavement sent me flying a couple of car lengths. I sat up in the gutter, shirt shredded, shoulder and neck immediately sore, what felt like broken ribs, a bunch of skin missing from my elbows and left hand, assorted odd shapes popping up on fingers, and the one thing I didn’t realize at the time, a pretty good bump to the head. A trip to the ER and a follow-up with my PCP resulted in the bad news – neither of my goals that I’d been working towards were going to be met now. I had no broken bones, but I did have a concussion.

This is now Day 9 of recovery from the crash. I was able to put my wedding rings back on this morning. My scrapes have almost all healed up. My shoulder and neck are still really sore, but I can move them more and more every day. On the outside, I’m looking and feeling pretty good.

Inside my head though, things are different. Writing these brief few paragraphs is taking way longer than I’m used to. I have to stop in between every few sentences to close my eyes or look away from the screen to, for lack of a better description, rebalance my head. I can look at a magazine or a book for a few minutes. I can watch television as long as I mute the commercials (okay I admit I always have to do that to prevent headaches) and I can just close my eyes and listen to follow along. In other words, giving attention to anything is still pretty hard.

Before this past week, I don’t think I could have imagined getting a bunch of days off to be home, a break from work, all the time I wanted to rest and nap… and hating it. I’d love to be lying around, if only it was my choice. And I’d LOVE a week home to DO lots of the things that I really enjoy doing; reading, writing, drawing pictures, watching movies. I could even take 10 days of not being able to go outside, go for a walk alone, go for a run, go for a bike ride, if only my head would quit reminding me that it’s not really my choice that I’m not up to any of those things yet. I have realized this week just how much I do not like my head not cooperating with the rest of me.

So patience is the peak attribute that I’m looking for right now. My doc – and more than a few friends – tell me it’s the thing I need most. I was flipping through the July issue of Competitor magazine this morning and saw a nice, 10-week training schedule to prepare for a 5K run. Starting over. I’m already plotting when I can begin, but knowing there’s another part of my brain that’s going to have the last say in that decision.

New Goal: Patience

Practice Makes Perfect Permanence

July 13, 2011

Two sayings, each with truth:

  • “Practice makes perfect.”
  • “Practice makes permanent.”

The first is familiar to most. We’ve heard it often. Anyone subjected to insert musical instrument lessons knows the answer to the question, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” Practice, practice, practice. The second, interestingly enough, I learned from a musical instrument instructor, a mandolin teacher I had once. His point – practice the wrong things, the wrong way, and you’ll end up permanently doing things wrong.

The common denominator of both sayings though, obviously, is that in order to get really good at anything (correctly or not) is to practice. A lot. Lots of people are richly talented. They come out of the womb with innate abilities to do things – draw, write, make music, understand quantum physics. We often see them perform or see the results of their talent and think to ourselves, “I could never do that.” There’s surely some truth to that saying, too. Sometimes. Talent is a gift to be thankful for and some are blessed with more of it than others. Still, I think sometimes we sell both ourselves and those talented people short in that we forget to recognize the really important role that practice plays in bringing out the full richness of one’s talent(s).

This morning, before getting out of bed, I finished Jeannette Walls’ memoir, The Glass Castle. I’ll not comment on the book here except to say it is, all at once, incredible and unbelievable, hopeful and infuriating. It’s definitely worth reading. But what I thought about as I closed the cover, got dressed, and took Zeb for his morning walk, was how Jeannette Walls became such a good writer. She had a story to tell, for sure, but she tells it well because she’s a good writer and she became a good writer by first reading and then writing. A lot.

As a child, she (as well as her parents and siblings) devoured books. She read and read and read. She describes fond memories of her family sitting together in the living room of some shack they occupied at the time, all reading together. They didn’t watch TV together – in part because they had no television, let alone any electricity to run one – but instead sat together, each in their own world of whatever story they were reading at the time. And she loved this.

As she entered high school, she started working on the school paper. She started editing and typesetting. She started writing. She wrote about everything. Hardly any other students wanted to work on the paper and so she wrote the stories of football games, class events and school board decisions. She left West Virginia as a teenager to join her older sister in New York City and soon found a job writing for a weekly paper there. She wrote and wrote and wrote, as she had read and read and read, and in doing so the talent that she discovered at 13 or so, developed and ultimately became her livelihood and her career. She is a writer.

The same story line can be traced for practically anyone who has become really good at what they do. How many millions of hours has your favorite musician practiced? What artist is ever found without a sketchbook in his or her bag? The Dean of the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences where I work always has a nice black Moleskin notebook with him whenever I see him (I have a thing for journals and take note when I see one), as do others I know who think a lot, ask questions a lot, and try to solve problems a lot.

Scientists do a thousand experiments that go wrong before they experience the “Aha!” moment. Julia Child likely went through skeins of twine before she could tie that chicken up just right. Really good baseball players “only” hit .300 and no one’s come close to a .400 season in a long, long time now. That’s a lot of strikeouts and a lot of ground balls and a lot of pop ups in between the singles and the homeruns.

I may never write as well as Annie Dillard, play the mandolin like Chris Thile, run a marathon as fast as Joan Benoit Samuelson, or even be a library director like Jean Shipman – all people I admire for how they do what they do. But to say one will never be something without putting in the practice is much different than saying so while at the same time, showing up every day and working hard at what you enjoy and want to do.

So now I’ll head to work in the library where I’ve an article to finish, knowing that I’ve primed my writing brain by taking some time this morning for reading and writing. I’ll draw some pictures during lunch. I’ll slog through another slow, slow pace as I put in the miles training for the Chicago Marathon this fall. And then I’ll watch the recap of today’s Tour de France stage while I practice over and over that little riff Howie showed me on my mandolin. And it’ll be a good day.

Here’s hoping you have the same.