Sunday, November 02, 2008

I am Icarus

A handful of years ago, during Easter dinner, I had to sneeze. It’s not unusual since a lot of pepper gets thrown around at our family dinners, but since I was being polite and didn’t want to sneeze straight forward, hence towards everyone else, I turned my head and sneezed away from the table. I’ve never felt such pain, as it was the first time I had ever wrenched my back, and it was like someone had gouged me with a dull spoon; it was so bad that tears came to my eyes instantly and Kara had to drive us home later that night because I could barely sit up straight without wincing. I hobbled around for a solid week, hardly able to get up off the couch without blinding pain, and it was nearly impossible to stand up completely straight.

Since then, I have done that again on two separate occasions, each time, I’m reminded that the flexibility and elasticity of my youth is a thing of the past.

On Halloween, I was reminded of the fleeting mistress of youth yet again.

Sometimes Elsa gets out, and though she usually listens to what I say, the siren song of freedom and liberty is too much an elixir to quell in her canine brain. I’ve mentioned it before and it is usually no big deal when she does get out. She roots around the neighborhood for about 10 minutes, visits a few penned-in neighborhood dogs (avoiding the really barky ones), realizes that there are far more interesting things going on in the house and comes back. No problem. This time, it was Halloween and it was nearing dusk, about the time spooky kids and ghoulish beings inhabit the streets, along with parents not paying attention while they drive and not to mention lots of chocolate.

To avoid any problems this time, I decided to go after her, not that it would do any good, as “the chase” to her is all part of the game and it makes her go farther. What I wanted to do was to get in front of her and steer her back towards the house, kind of corralling the doggies, if you will, while avoiding any implication that this is a game and we’re having fun. I had a fog machine to figure out and fake spider webs to add to the porch.

I knew she would run across the street and pay a visit to Traveler, a little Corgi…or some similar ilk of smaller dog that barks constantly when his “parents” aren’t home. While she was doing this, I kept on down the sidewalk, walking past her, hoping to cut her off and convince her that she belongs inside… plus, on Halloween, she gets to go with us trick or treating, so I don’t know what she is complaining about.

Anyway, she saw me…and the game was on! She took off running and for some reason, so did I, even though I knew it was the worst thing I could do to convince her to return to the house. I didn’t have shoes on and the asphalt was rather rough, but my feet are pretty tough too and I didn’t notice that I was scratching up my feet in the process. As soon as I hopped the grassy parkway onto the sidewalk, Elsa and I were right next to each other, and she looked over at me with a playful look in her eyes, tongue hanging out of her mouth. Then she started to really run—tail straight out, ears back, mouth now clamped shut in concentration—with long strides and her head down.

For whatever reason, I poured on the coals and tried in vain to keep up with her, knowing full well that was impossible and she started to slip away.

Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy running, always have, ever since I ran cross country and track in high school, all of the competitions and the accolades therein. When you get good at it, which means you’ve passed the “I’m out of shape” phase, it becomes easier, something that’s almost relaxing and fulfilling. Rhythm and strides, breathing and hearing your heartbeat in your head and the pounding of your feet on the pavement, one foot after the other. You fill your lungs with more air than you ever thought possible and your brain begins to feel the extra oxygen stimulating it into a semi-euphoric state.

Again, I’m not sure what brought this on, but I started to run as fast as I possibly could, as fast as I knew how to make my legs work, which over short distances used to be about 15mph when I was in excellent shape (back when my quarter-mile time was always sub-60 seconds). However, who knows what an extra 50 pounds of fat has cost me over the years, but I was running pretty fast; I knew I couldn’t do it for very much longer, so I savored the moment. My arms were pumping high up into the air and my legs seemed to work on their own with long, quick strides; everything was quiet around me except for the slight whistling of the air rushing past my ears and the clapping of my bare feet on the sidewalk. Since I was concentrating on catching Elsa, who was continuing to pull steadily ahead, everything around me became a fast moving blur like looking out the window during a car ride.

For a few moments, I felt good, really good. I could start to feel a small burn in the backs of my arms and my calf muscles began to stiffen because, of course, I didn’t stretch before this impromptu sprint. But over all of that, above the physical strain of sprinting, of pushing your body a lot farther than it has been pushed in a great while, my mind felt good like I had suddenly escaped the daily pressures of life, the stress of the days and the worries of the nights. I had been liberated, not as if I was running from something but because I had something to run towards, like in those spiritually enlightened movies with the message that you can overcome any obstacle: There’s always a scene that has the main character running at top speed, with abandon, for no reason, and as he does so a brilliant white light showers down around him and the movie transitions into a new direction. That was me, surrounded by the brilliant white light of redemption, saved from the recidivism of old age and its inevitable doom.

Maybe I felt young again. Beyond all the gray hair and those love handles that came out of nowhere or the soreness in my back when I wake up or the fact that I can’t stay up all night, the morning be damned…I had become Icarus, donning my wings made of wax to escape the labyrinth. As we get older, our fathers don’t exactly tell us not to fly too close to the sun, but let’s just say that I don’t ever recall a time seeing my dad sprint at top speed, which should have told me something about becoming older.

Thirty-five is a magical age: I’m young enough to be guiled into thinking I can do anything, but old enough to realize I shouldn’t. It was right then, right in the middle of feeling invulnerable and untouchable, right before I could just reach out and grab my share of the white brilliant light of the sun, there was this popping sound that came from my right leg.

I felt it; I even heard it. It sounded similar to someone opening a bag of chips with their fist, ironically like the breaking of the sound barrier. I couldn’t stop fast enough, and with every decelerating step on that leg, the pain grew more intensely until I was hopping on my left foot and using my right toes only for balance. To hell with the dog. Let her eat some hapless trick-or-treater and end up in the pound. See if I care now. I started limping back towards the house, letting the dog figure it out on her own.

But then Elsa got into a fight with a Boxer she met a few weeks ago. I heard the snarls and the Boxer’s owner demanding that it heel. If there’s two things I’ve tried to teach her, it’s never to play cards with a Cheetah and never get in a fight with a Boxer. Damnit. I hobbled to the last house on the street and grabbed Elsa by the scruff of the neck while she was occupied with trying to get her jaws around the jugular of this dog, who was half her size I might add. It wasn’t serious fighting and I could tell the two dogs were just sparring, like puppies do. But still, I was pretty pissed off that I had hurt my leg, and not because I was doing something I probably shouldn’t have done, but because I was doing something I’ve done a thousand times without incident. That, and at this stage in my life, I’m beginning to feel mortal, far and removed from that immortality you feel when you’re 19 and that feeling that time will never take you, things will always remain the same and life will be full of the kind of adventure you’ve been preparing yourself for since you were 10.

Elsa had had enough too. I yanked all 90 pounds of her off of the ground by the back of her neck and she got the message and trotted home, maybe content that her adventure was so exciting. She saw some old friends on the street, got to go farther than usual, and got to see her master run like one of her kind… except he doesn't run very far, or very fast, or very good for that matter.

For the past couple of days, walking has been a chore. I can take a step as long as I don’t extend it too far forward or too far backwards. Forget about touching my toes, which makes it difficult to dry my feet after a shower, and there’s no way I can give the dog a swift kick for making me run after her.

Actually, it is feeling better today, despite the fact that it is physically sore to the touch, the whole area about the size of an open hand halfway up the back of my thigh. I tore it, ripped it, sprained it, pulled it, or strained it…I don’t know; I barely passed biology in college, but I do know this:

If you’re going to fly too close to the sun, at least wear sunscreen.

*The picture at the beginning of this page is me (surprise). It was part of the team picture for the Glendora High School Cross Country team in the Fall of 1988. I was 15 years old.


Tris Mast said...

That's a scary Halloween story, but what's even spookier is that your photo looks less to me like a 1988 image of you and more like a 2023 image of Matthew.

Grant's Mom said...

Ouch! I hope your leg is getting about mortality. I am afraid that Scott and I will have to join you in the fun of getting up with aches and pains. I like to sing the song "Old Man River" when we are moving is a song of the Mississippi, but definitely worth a good laugh when we feel the pain.


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