“Good Shot”

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“Learn to say ‘good shot,'” my physical therapist suggested as I prepared to return to competitive tennis last fall. Her advice had nothing to do with sportsmanship. Rather, it was a half-sarcastic quip that reflected her assumption that I would not be able to reach balls that I was capable of tracking down years ago and a note of caution that it might be in the best interests of my back to not even try for them if I had any doubt.

She had a point, but only to an extent. Charging forward towards a drop shot, watching the ball fall for its impending second bounce, inching the butt of the racquet handle further towards my finger tips to take advantage of whatever length I can muster, I often think to myself, “Why aren’t I there yet?” Sometimes I forget I am a 40-year-old with a bunch of titanium in my spine. Then reality hits: The ball – just out of my reach – takes its subsequent plop on the court, my physical therapist’s advice echoes in my mind, and I glance up at my opponent and offer, “Good shot.”

While my back does not directly limit my game, it has an indirect impact. Managing my back means exercising intuitively, paying attention to the feedback my body gives me, and doing my best to balance physical activity with rest. Not being able to practice and exercise as much as I once did means that my fitness level has taken a hit and my game is not quite as crisp, which consequently has affected my level of play. My second serve, for example, which used to be as consistent as the sunrise, sometimes lets me down now and I just have to accept that. The upside, however, is that my back feels so good that I never worry that I am endangering myself by trying for every ball.

Both of my tennis leagues began in October and recently concluded. My overall record between the two was an even .500, a far cry from the three-year winning streak I had from 2003 to 2006, but I have always figured that if someone more or less wins as many matches as he loses, then he is playing at the competitive level where he belongs.

My level of play was at least good enough for me to rejoin the Amherst-based team that I played for when I lived in western Massachusetts during my nutrition studies. Sports are about more than exercise and competition; they are social experiences and opportunities to hold on to an aspect of playfulness that can sometimes get lost with age. When the season wrapped up, I emailed my teammates, namechecked the guys who remained from my first stint with the club over a decade ago, and told them, “You have no idea how much I missed being part of this team.”

Returning to the team marked a milestone of sorts for me, which reminded me that we just passed the one-year anniversary of another moment of personal significance: my first time back on the court since my operations.

Tennis has always meant a lot to me, but I never quite realized just how much until I went through the prolonged period of not playing, the uncertainty of whether I ever would again, and then ultimately my return. See, the thing is, walks can be interesting, swimming is okay, lifting weights is cool sometimes, bike rides can be fun, and running is great – but tennis, that’s what I love.

January 7, 2017

Gentlemen, the Ladies Do Not Hold a Monopoly on Weight Obsession

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Gentlemen, the ladies do not hold a monopoly on weight obsession. Us guys engage in diet talk and body shaming, too. You know that, right? Maybe not, actually, as such talk is so casual and commonplace that you might not even be aware (consciously, anyway) of its pervasiveness. Consider the interaction I had yesterday evening at the gym with a male acquaintance we will call “Brad,” whom I had not seen in a long while.

Brad walked past me as I was warming up on the Arc Trainer prior to a tennis match. He had just finished a spin class and stopped to say hello. Brad and I first met 16 years ago while taking a core-strengthening class together, but the only place I had seen him in recent years was when we occasionally bumped into each other at the local pub where he eats dinner every Friday.

“You’re in nutrition. What do you order when you go there?” Brad asked with a smirk. Although he did not specifically say so, I knew exactly what he was getting at: He wanted to know if I follow a strict diet or eat freely like a perceived hypocrite, hence the mention of my profession.

Pausing, I considered the various replies at my disposal. On one hand, this was an opportunity to reeducate Brad regarding both the nature of my work and the problems with a good/bad food dichotomy. On the other hand, this was also my free time, and really I just wanted a few minutes to myself to get loose before heading out to the court, not an obligation to broach complex topics when I had neither the time nor inclination to do them justice.

“I order what I want,” I finally told him. “I order what feels like the best choice for my body at the time,” and specifically cited the pizza and nachos, which are my salty favorites to replenish the sodium I lose during long runs. (Note: By no means am I implying that one needs to exercise in order to “earn” these menu items or any other food.)

Then I asked him if he has seen our mutual friend (Let’s call him “Gary.”) who resumed exercising earlier this year after a long absence. “He’s down 40 or 50 pounds,” Brad responded, “He looks great!” Again, I paused and internally debated my next move. At the very least, I knew there was no way I would echo Brad’s praise for weight loss, as I know the damage such extolment causes, especially without fully knowing how or why someone lost weight.

“Weight loss aside, I’m just glad he is taking the time to care for himself again,” I told Brad. Like me, Gary was an avid exerciser, which is how he and I met at the gym soon after I graduated from college, but the burden of his caretaking duties increased as the health of his parents deteriorated and he no longer felt up to working out. His mother and father subsequently passed away in quick succession, which left Gary to settle their estate and figure out what to do with his own life. After everything Gary had been through, I was just happy to see him caring for himself again and returning to the activities he enjoys, including exercise, regardless of his weight.

Unfortunately, Brad did not seem to follow the gist of my sentiments and continued talking about Gary’s weight loss, adding that he has seen Gary do this at least a few times before. By “this,” Brad was referencing Gary’s history of weight cycling: alternating periods of weight loss and subsequent regain. “But not like you have to worry about that yourself,” Brad offered, looking down at my abdomen. “You’re always in great shape.”

Great shape? One of the problems with judging people for their exteriors is that we probably have no idea about the makeup of their interiors, both metaphorically and literally. Too taken aback by Brad’s comment to say anything out loud, I silently reflected upon everything I have been through over the last three years and specifically turned my thoughts to the titanium screws and rods, artifacts from my third back surgery, buried deep inside the midsection of which Brad is apparently so envious.

As is the case for everybody, my size and shape are influenced by many factors, the most significant of which are out of my hands. Among those that are at least somewhat in my control though is my history of never having tried to lose weight, which would have put me on a path most likely to end at, ironically enough, weight gain. In that sense, part of the reason I do not have a “weight problem” is because I never viewed my weight as a problem.

Think about the diet talk and various mentions of body shape and weight that Brad crammed into a casual conversation that lasted just a few minutes. Comments and discussions along these lines are so prevalent that I overhear men talking this way at the health club on a daily basis. Another recent incident comes to mind in which some of my fellow tennis players – adults, no less – bullied another player for the size of his stomach.

The problems with such talk are numerous, including: the reinforcement of the ridiculous, offensive, and dangerous notion that people of certain sizes and weights are more deserving of respect than others; the exacerbation of bullying and unequal treatment that spills well beyond health clubs and into our homes, businesses, classrooms, government initiatives, and doctor’s offices; and the pressure to pursue weight-loss endeavors that most often result in weight gain and worsened health.

Guys, this kind of talk has to stop, and the first steps toward putting it to rest are acknowledging its existence and realizing the harm we are doing to each other through our words.

Day 795/326: Tennis

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Joanne and I are grateful for everybody who has recently joined us online by liking us on Facebook, following us on Twitter, and reading our blogs. Whether you have been with us for one day or several years, we thank all of you for being part of our virtual community.

For the new folks, let me get you up to speed on a theme that occasionally pops up in my writing: the three back surgeries I have undergone, including two in the last two years, and my ongoing recovery.

Generally speaking, I am pretty guarded when it comes to talking about my own life because self-disclosure can so easily do more harm than good. However, as I headed into my 2014 operation, I decided to make an exception and document my recovery because it can be helpful for patients to remember that while our specific challenges may differ, we are coping with similar themes:

  • weighing the pros and cons of imperfect treatment options,
  • coming to grips with the reality that health outcomes are never guaranteed and only partially in our hands despite our best efforts,
  • mourning abilities or characteristics once possessed that might be gone for good,
  • accepting our new identity and discovering new ways to thrive,
  • other story lines in human existence to which patients and practitioners alike can relate.

Those of you who have followed my recovery know that my ultimate goal is to play competitive tennis again. After playing for my high school and college teams and then in adult leagues, I have been unable to compete for nearly a decade.

On Sunday, 794 days after my second surgery and 325 days after my third, I took a significant step by returning to the tennis court for the first time in three years. Unsure of what my back could handle, Joanne and I began with gentle mini tennis, just tapping the ball back and forth as we each stood at our respective service lines. No pain, to my surprise, so we backed up a little bit more into no-man’s-land. All systems still a go. Five minutes after we got to the court, we were back at our baselines hammering ground strokes to each other almost as if I never had a layoff.

Muscle memory is a crazy thing, as is modern medicine. While Joanne and I exchanged forehands and backhands, my thoughts were with everybody who contributed to my recovery: my surgeon, Dr. Jean-Valery Charles-Emile Coumans, my outpatient physical therapist, Sue Bloom, the inpatient physical therapy and nursing staff at Massachusetts General Hospital (Sorry again for pooping in my gurney, guys!), my friends, and my family, including and especially my wife.

I cannot thank them enough for helping me to find my way back home.

Court

 

Healthcare For Some

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Yesterday I ran the Five College Realtors 10-Miler, which was my first event since last summer’s surgery and my first road race since September 2013. My time was well off my personal record for this course, which I set the last time I ran it in 2007, but I have been through quite a lot in the last nine years so expecting to pick up where I left off would have been unrealistic. Besides, it was just great to be able to race again regardless of what the clock said.

As I have written before, I owe a debt of gratitude to everybody who has helped me recover over the last two-plus years, but at the same time I think others who do not receive the same level of care from their own support systems, including their medical teams.

When I went to my primary care doctor in late 2013 complaining of back pain, I received orders for x-rays, an MRI, and a CT scan, referrals to see a physical therapist, a physiatrist, and multiple surgeons, and a collaborative discussion about the pros and cons of complementary treatments, such as acupuncture, chiropractics, massage, and neuromuscular therapy. Subsequently, I received a topical medication, oral medicines, injections, and referrals to more surgeons. Ultimately I required an operation, and then another one, more scans, and physical therapy that continues to this day.

When my “overweight” patients go to their doctors complaining of back pain, more often than not they report receiving one intervention and one intervention only, one that research shows is only achievable for a tiny fraction of the people who attempt to attain it and may not improve their condition even if they do: a directive to lose weight.

Are we not all deserving of thorough, collaborative, evidence-based healthcare, or just those of us who are thin?

Guarantees

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Nearly two weeks ago, I checked into the hospital for what was supposed to be a relatively minor procedure to address an “extremely rare” complication related to last year’s spinal fusion.

When the surgeon got in there, he unexpectedly discovered that my body had reabsorbed the implanted bone grafts while the rods and screws were loose and moving around. This happens in 3% of cases, he said, and he has no idea why it happened to me, as I do not have any of the risk factors for poor healing. As he delivered the bad news to me upon my awakening, he expressed surprise that I was even able to walk around in that condition.

In response to the situation, he had to completely redo the fusion, making for a much longer recovery than we anticipated. One planned night in the hospital became four. One week of missed work will now likely be three. One month of taking it easy now becomes a season, at least.

Twice I fainted in the hospital, and my blood pressure and pulse dropped so low for no apparent reason that they ran tests to see if I had suffered a heart attack, but really the hardest part of the whole ordeal has been coming to grips with the reality that everything I went through last year I must now do again.

However, the situation has been made easier thanks to the help and support of friends, family, an excellent team of nurses and physical therapists at the hospital, and of course my wife, who is now picking up the slack for me in every facet of our life.

Just 12 days before the surgery, I ran the Mount Washington Road Race and we celebrated at the summit. We thought we were at the top; little did we know we were heading back to the beginning. The lesson: I will never take days like that for granted, as they are never guaranteed to come again.

011

Day 458: Mount Washington

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In my mind’s eye, June 20, 2015 represented the end of an extensive journey back from a major operation. Long ago on the eleventh day of my recovery, I began keeping a log of the daily indicators of my progress, small steps all leading towards this late-springtime Saturday morning in New Hampshire when I would return to racing by competing in the Mount Washington Road Race and, upon reaching the summit, declare my recuperation complete.

Beginnings and endings make for nice stories, but they are sometimes just myths. Even as conditions improve and problems slip into the past, they still exist somewhere. Perhaps that is why alcoholics often still label themselves as such even after decades have past since their last drinks. My back will always demand my attention and vigilance, just as diabetics must continue to practice daily blood sugar management, as opposed to achieving their target A1C values and leaving their endocrinologists’ offices thinking they have wiped their hands clean of the disease. Not that I am complaining or feeling bad for myself; we all know that life could have dealt me a much worse hand.

Next week, I undergo a third back operation to correct what my surgeon terms an “extremely rare” complication related to last year’s procedure. Although I can run up the highest mountain in the northeastern United States, I cannot jog around the block or even go for a walk without significant pain. Go figure.

While this past Saturday was not the metaphorical finish line that I anticipated, the occasion still carried a significance. As I neared the summit, I remembered that exactly 15 months earlier I laid in a hospital bed unable to do anything more than slowly shuffle about the unit with my walker and a back brace. The days that I thought I would actually make it back to competitive racing were vastly outnumbered by the days I felt in my heart that I never would, but I always kept working and accumulating small daily indicators that I was inching back towards my old self.

Effort alone, however, is not enough, and I never would have gotten to this point without the help of many people, including my surgeon, Dr. Jean-Valery Coumans, my physical therapist, Sue Bloom, and most of all my wife, Joanne, who has experienced this saga from spending sleepless nights on a couch in my hospital room to waiting for me at the summit. Literally and figuratively, it was a long way back to the top of that mountain, and I could not have gotten there alone. We got this far, and will go even farther, together.

011

 

Day 366

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Today marks the one-year anniversary of my surgery. Because my spirits were so dismal in the days immediately following the operation, on day 11 I began writing a log of the small daily victories that marked my healing and recovery. While I was initially unsure how long I would keep it up, I have maintained the log to this day and have no plans to stop, not when I still have so far to go.

One year ago tomorrow, I strapped on my back brace, leaned on a walker, and shuffled slowly from my hospital room to the nurse’s station and back, flanked by my wife and a physical therapist. Due less to pain and more to my fear that the operation had not worked, I cried the whole way.

Going into the operation, I was under the impression that I would not need a brace. When I found out the surgeon was prescribing one, I angrily and defiantly informed the nurse that I refused to wear the contraption. Over time though, I became attached to it. While the brace was at first just a literal support, over time it took on a figurative role as well, sort of like my version of Wilson the volleyball. During the first two months of healing, my brace and I walked for hours and hours together, and during long walks when I was otherwise alone, unsteady on my feet, unsure of my present, and scared of an uncertain future, my brace was always there to keep me upright and give me the courage to keep moving forward.

On day 67, we walked the entire Boston Marathon route together. Shortly thereafter, my surgeon told me it was time to stop wearing the brace. Truth be told, I was sad to jettison my sidekick. Finding the brace by surprise in the house triggers a similar fondness to randomly running into an old friend in the grocery store.

My surgeon was astonished by how quickly I progressed in the first few months after the operation. “You will be back to your crazy workouts in no time,” my physical therapist told me last summer. Turned out she was way off. As I wrote on day 197, we are only somewhat in control of our destiny and life does not always unfold the way we might expect or wish for ourselves.

Setbacks have been plentiful. Activities that my surgeon said should be fine at the time, like swimming, remained intolerable until seasons after his timetable indicated. Some of the bone grafts were unusually slow to heal and for a couple of months we faced the legitimate possibility that they might never fuse. Once I got the green light to resume weight training, I hurt one shoulder, then the other, and had to leave the weight room once again while I rehabbed them. Raking leaves in the November twilight and rushing to finish before darkness, I swiftly walked into my leaf blower, broke my big toe, and ended up in a walking boot. My most recent MRI showed a bulging disk at the surgical site, a highly unusual complication, and the radiating pain down my leg has returned. What can I say, Robert Smith taught me a long time ago that life is neither fair nor unfair.

Before the surgery, I expected that my healing would plot out a linear trajectory with each week being better than the previous one, but quickly I realized that was unrealistic and a setup for disappointment. Real life has its downs, but thanks to good fortune, hard work, and help from many people, it also has its ups.

Although my ultimate goal remains to resume playing competitive tennis and I am working hard in a physical sense to make that happen, simultaneously I am doing my best to prepare myself emotionally for the possibility that it may never come to fruition. Although I remain light-years away from returning to the court, accepting the latter feels much harder – and much less likely – than ever achieving the former. Past opponents and fictitious foes have contract court time in my dreams and we battle it out several nights most weeks, and my wife does not know that I often tear up when I watch her own matches from the sidelines.

Recovery does not end once the surgical site heals. Despite all that has happened in the past twelve months, in some ways I feel like I am still at the beginning of the journey with a long and unmapped future ahead of me. One year ago, I was bawling on a hospital gurney awaiting my turn in the operating room. Today, I went for my first run outside in 18 months. It was slow, short, uncomfortable, and really, really difficult. And it was totally and completely awesome.

Ed

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Earlier today I found out that one of my former tennis partners, Ed, passed away. While I was at a conference (more on that in a future blog entry), a presenter made a comment that reminded me of Ed, so I took out my phone and googled his name thinking that perhaps I would find his Facebook page. Instead, I found his obituary.

When I was in the process of making my second of two comebacks following my initial back operation, Ed was one of a small handful of players who were gracious enough to help me integrate into the local tennis community. My game at that point was covered in rust and I would not have blamed Ed for distancing himself from me, but instead he invited me to become a regular in his twice-weekly games. He and I played doubles together on Wednesday and Sunday nights for years. No matter who won, we always had fun. Those nights comprise some of my favorite tennis memories.

Tennis aside, Ed had a greater influence on my life than he ever realized. In fact, I mentioned Ed in passing in a previous blog entry. Out of everybody I played tennis with, Ed was probably the skinniest. He also happened to be, at least to my knowledge, one of the sickest. He suffered a mild heart attack soon after we began playing together and I came to find out he was also diabetic. He later died of cancer.

Like many people in our society, I held a weight bias without even realizing it. How could a man so lean have diabetes and cardiovascular disease? Aren’t those conditions reserved for obese people? When Ed revealed his conditions to me, I had to reconsider the stereotypes I was holding, the first step of which was to acknowledge that they were, indeed, stereotypes.

My mind opened: Weight does not equal health. This notion has since been further compounded by many sources, including formal schooling, clinical experiences, research, and collaboration with colleagues.

But while many other influences came after him, Ed planted the seed, and I owe him a great deal of gratitude for that. Whenever I help someone shift away from weight stigma or I hit an unreturnable lob over my opponent’s head, I will be sure to remember Ed and say a quiet thanks for all that he taught me.

Day 197: Control

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“It’s hard to keep things fresh and not become a parody of yourself. And if you’ve ever seen that movie Spinal Tap, you’ll know how easy it is. It’s a parody of what we all do. The first time I ever saw it, I didn’t laugh. I wept. I wept because I recognized so much in so many of those scenes. I don’t think I’m alone amongst all of us here in that.”

– The Edge, U2’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction, 2005

 

To be fair, Grey’s Anatomy is probably not the worst show on television, but the overly-dramatized plots and scenes that are supposed to make me laugh but do nothing of the sort leave me wondering what so many other people see in the show. Its long run of prime-time success seems to indicate that my opinion is that of the minority.

Above my other criticisms, the aspect of the show that rubs me the wrong way is how themes in patient care just so happen to mimic whatever events are going on in the doctors’ personal lives. Every episode this occurs. My eyes roll. As if someone is telling me the same joke over and over again, I want to interrupt and plead: Stop, please, I get it already.

Then to my horror, I realize the joke is on me: They’re right. The themes running through patient care and my own life really do seem to happen with such regularity.

In the midst of a late-summer walk, the inspiration hit me to try jogging for the first time since my surgery. I broke out into a jog and slowly shuffled along before the pain in my back was so intense that I had to slow down and resume my walking. Maybe I had jogged 20 yards, roughly the equivalent of crossing a wide street. This occurred in early August. According to surgeons’ predictions, I should have been able to start running in June.

In both life and healthcare, only some factors are in our control. The rest of them? Who knows. That is why I am so careful about tying goals to specific outcomes that are only somewhat under our influence. Furthermore, it is why I am wary of predicting how my patients will fare in terms of weight, cholesterol, blood pressure, or whatever other outcomes they are attempting to influence.

One of the most influential lessons in my life happened in the span of a few seconds in the south Pacific. As I sat on the boat’s edge preparing to snorkel at the Great Barrier Reef, a wave came up and dragged me into the water. There is power, and then there is power. Mine was dwarfed by that of the ocean, which had its way with me. While I struggled to get back to the boat as the water pushed and pulled me with much greater force than I anticipated, I had an epiphany of humility: We do not have as much control over our lives as we would like to think.

Having only limited control does not mean we should throw up our hands and give up. It just means we need to keep perspective, accept our limited power as we continue our work, temper expectations, and adjust to whatever comes.

After five months of waiting, I was finally cleared to begin physical therapy in late August. With the help of my therapist, I am working hard to reclaim my conditioning and put myself in the best possible position for my desired outcome: a return to competitive running and tennis. Neither sport is a possibility right now, even though I had expected to be able to resume both activities months ago. Given that, I have refocused my efforts on outdoor cycling.

Getting on my bike again was fantastic. Riding produces no pain whatsoever. Although my cardiovascular fitness has plummeted due inactivity and I am not able to ride as far now as I used to, just going through the routine of prepping my bike, putting on my helmet, starting my bike computer, and setting off down the road is the closest to the old me I have felt in just about a year. It makes me feel, well, normal.

We only have so much control over what happens and when, but if we keep our expectations in check and adapt accordingly, we can still find ways to thrive. I’m sure there must be a Grey’s Anatomy episode about that.

 

Day 91: Progress (or Lack Thereof)

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Today was supposed to be my day. Circled on my calendar back in March, today was my three-month CT scan and appointment with my surgeon. Although full recovery from a surgery of this magnitude takes right around a year, three months is considered enough time for sufficient healing to take place that allows for a return to normal activities. My expectation was that I would come home from the appointment and go right out for a run, my first in nine months.

As it turns out, I will not be running anytime soon. The surgeon used bone grafts to build two columns in my lower back. The CT scan showed that the column on the right is healing as expected, while the column on the left is far behind schedule. The chunks of bone that he implanted on the left are still sitting there independently with only minimal growth around them.

The surgeon said this is highly unusual. Typically, people either heal well bilaterally, or they heal poorly bilaterally, but two different progressions simultaneously is rare. He has no explanation as to what happened. He tells me that on paper I am the ideal candidate to heal well: young, active, non-smoker, healthy eating habits, etc. “On paper,” therefore, seems to be the key term.

Instead of today being my last appointment with him, now I have plans to see him again in mid-August, at which time I will undergo more tests to check how the bone is healing. Perhaps the fusions will progress between now and then, or perhaps they will not.

In the meantime, I am feeling very discouraged and disappointed. There will be no bike rides this summer. My planned return to competitive running on the one-year anniversary of my last race is out the window. So much for playing ping pong with my nephews when they visit over Independence Day weekend. I will not be able to help pack, unpack, and set up our first house when Joanne and I move later this summer. When I pan across the horizon of my life, tennis is nowhere to be seen.

Instead, I have two months ahead of more of the same. Three months ago, I thought June 18th would never come. In reality, the time passed just as slowly as I anticipated it would. To think I was done and then find out I have to do it almost all over again, but with more uncertainty and less optimism this time, is quite disheartening.

The other day, a new patient came to me frustrated that his efforts to lose weight have gone nowhere. When I suggested that we try a different approach by focusing on making healthy choices, learning to love and accept himself regardless of his size, and letting his weight settle wherever it naturally belongs, well, he did not want to hear that one bit.

He looked down at my lean frame and explained to me that I do not know what it is like to be judged on appearance, that I do not know what it is like to feel uncomfortable in my own body, that I do not know how frustrating it is for my body to not respond the way I would like despite my best efforts, and that I do understand the apparent unfairness of seeing somebody with an attribute or an ability that I covet, but cannot attain, for myself. Yeah, clearly I cannot relate to any of those themes at all.

Everybody is dealing with something, and while the particulars are unique to each person, common ground exists underneath. No matter what our goals are, if we do the best we can to achieve them and we still fall short, then by definition there is nothing more for us to do except adapt and find a new way to thrive. When I wrote, “In this kind of defeat, you learn that there are incidents in life that are not up to us. We are only somewhat in control of our own destiny, and we have to roll with events and outcomes that do not go our way,” I feared that perhaps I was foreshadowing my own outcome.

Maybe that will prove to indeed be the case. However, I am not going to use that as an excuse to keep from doing everything I can, while still maintaining perspective, to meet my goals. Today sucked, but my bitching is over. It’s time to get back to work.