I came home from what is more and more the most fulfilling job I’ve ever had and got to work on a carpentry project I’m working on for Christmas. Take a gander.
I’m not great by any means but I’ve been taking stock lately of a few things. The thing I would most like to be proud of in my life is my vocation as husband and father. On that front all I can say is I am trying every day. I am a teacher and vice principal. After my family, in my adult life, few other things have brought me such joy. I am a writer who has never claimed to be much good although I do know my way around a few decent turns of phrase. I am a man who likes to challenge himself in the gym, not stopping or giving up until I’m satisfied. I will probably never be satisfied and that is just OK with me. It simply means I will always be challenging myself. And I think that goes for every aspect of my life.
On the writing front in particular, I have been reading old posts to my children. It is fun rediscovering our life together; but not nearly as much fun as seeing the joy and hearing the laughter from my children who really get a kick out of my writing. Also on that front, I have noticed that I have at seven separate times in the past few months started writing new posts only to save them as drafts. Perhaps I will one by one finish each post and publish them. I might even provide context.
Until then, the family is beautiful, school is wonderful, I am building back up in the gym and getting stronger, and Baby Jesus has a comfortable place to sleep in my garage.￼￼
I’ve been reading a lot of my older, archived posts to my son lately. It’s a fun trip down memory lane for both of us, except in his case he doesn’t really have a memory of most of it. The stories I’m reading him mostly happened when he was very young. Still I’ve observed some things.
Gosh, I’ve been having fun with this family of mine for a long time now. I look back and realize how much time has elapsed since these older posts were written and see how little has changed in the “Dad loves being Dad” department. It’s kind of like it was my calling or something.
My kids’ personalities were present even when they were super-small. Let me backtrack a moment. My kids were never super-small. Reading about their antics from 8 or 9 years ago I can clearly see large bits and pieces of who they are now and not even some kind of nascent, infantile hint of a trace. No, full on stuff here. Then again, I also see (to my chagrin since I strive to live a life of modestly false humility) that a certain someone who wrote those stories had a fat role in how their personalities formed. In other words, DNA strikes again.
I miss the old prompts. I started the writing of many of those posts as a response to a series of writing prompts. Granted I was always able to take those prompts in bizarre directions but that was a large part of the fun. Perhaps I’ll seek out new prompts.
Tonight I was wondering how I would answer this prompt I just made up (because I’m so clever)…
What are you doing right now?
I apologize to the Federation of Prompt-Writers because that one literally cried out to heaven for vengeance. But let’s go with it for a moment. Smile, sip, repeat. So what am I doing? Right now? Geez, so precise tonight. Oh wait, I wrote the prompt. I suck. OK, I’m sitting in my recliner, watching – wait for it – Nancy Drew. It’s the daughter’s choice. Yet somehow the four of us watched it. Actually, wife and son have fallen asleep and despite the fact that this cinematic gem features a leading actress who resembles Molly Ringwald (not an MR fan), daughter and I are invested in this nonsense. I’ve just finished grading a bunch of quizzes. I’m patting the head of my terrier who has come to sit by the side of my chair. He’s a good boy.
Ask me the same tomorrow night and you’d get a completely different answer probably along the lines of “Currently doing crazy” or some variant. One thing I hope to say tomorrow night at this time is that I jumped back into some semblance of a workout. Despite my recent posts and my insistence that I was just going to ignore every shred of medical “advice” and hit the weights anyway; a few things changed my opinion. I’ll let you in on a secret. Broken bones hurt. And they need time and rest in order to heal. Fortunately my night job hasn’t been too busy lately so that covers that half of the day. But even doing mundane tasks like standing (as I do when I teach) can put stress of the spine. I ought to know this by now.
And the truth is that I do know this. But I also know how dedicated I’ve been to lifting and how I hate being told not to do something. So that next day I mentioned – the one where I was going to get back to my weights? Yeah, I decided I didn’t need anymore painkillers so I didn’t take ’em, see? Yeah, see… And no one could make me either! You just read that sentence in your mind as Jimmy Cagney. Now read this next one as Cagney and Lacey. Harv, how stupid are you!? By 8PM I knew I had made a mistake and that I would simply have to follow orders and rest. So that’s what I’ve done. And it’s only been two weeks since the break. I tried some basics tonight to see what I could manage. Knocked out a few sets of pushups. A set for me is at least 40 pushups so I think I’m at least able to ease back into this. I’ll play it smart and not overdo it and all that. And I still have some of those lovely little Tramadol things they gave me in case I go too far. And I’ll get those gains all over again.
My dear mother commented on my last blog (but on the reposting of it on Facebook, not here). I had mentioned that I think I got my “grit” from her. I learned long ago, kids, that your grandma was one tough cookie. I also learned that toughness does not mean one has to be cruel or brutish or a boor. She’s also one of the kindest, warmest, and most loving people you’ll ever know.
Her comment simply read “I love your grit as well.”
The Rest Is Over
Inspired by these words, children, I think your old man has had about enough rest and recuperation. A compression fracture certainly isn’t the end of the world. Come to think of it, the doctor didn’t even put me under any specific restrictions. That could be because it was almost 6:00 on a Saturday evening and I was their last patient. Nonetheless I believe in the old adage of listening to one’s body as a guide to pain management. And this body of mine is saying “Go on now, old man, time’s running out. You’re not getting any younger and you NEED to do something.” I still have these nifty painkillers they gave me and I’ll continue to take them as needed.
But tonight I was called out on four jobs requiring me to move a few hundred pounds worth of medical shipments. I was leery but you know what? I did it. I figured it out. I didn’t hurt myself (at least the pain hasn’t set in yet) and I survived.
I’ll probably never look like this dude. My feet point in different directions. And I only have two of them.
You know what that means? I’m getting back to the gym tomorrow. And when you read this years from now you’ll see that your dad was nothing if not determined. He’s determined not to be sidetracked. He’s determined not to let pain rule his life. He’s determined not to get soft. And he’s determined to continue to go after the hard things in life. I still don’t think I’ll go anywhere near a trampoline anytime soon but free weights?
Never Give Up
I can’t let myself down. I’m going to get shredded if it kills me
I can’t let you kids down. You deserve a dad who can physically do all you demand of him.
I can’t let the high school athletes down. They look up to me. On this last point I’m mystified because if they could have seen me when I was their age they would have kicked sand in my face assuming we were anywhere near a beach.
Life goes on, my children.
And for everything else… say it with me. “There’s Percocet!”
My dad was fond of telling that old joke when I was growing up. In reality, I like some of Kipling’s work. The Just So Stories come to mind. But the focus on Kipling was not why I repeated it here. I opened Facebook this morning and saw a picture of my father (with my mom and me) and for some reason I thought of that line. Still that joke must have made an impact on me. Every now and then my son will turn to me and ask: “Daddy, do you like… Kipling?” We both laugh like little kids.
Where were we my faithful follower? Ah yes, I broke my back. I don’t want to beat a dead horse. That wouldn’t be fair to the horse and simply a desecration of its body. But this is significant. First, it hurts. Second, it really hurts. Finally, it hurts a lot.
Let’s get caught up, shall we?
Determined to do hard things I realized that lifting heavy weights wasn’t enough so I started doing bizarre gymnastics-like things called calisthenics then my wife went out of town and I gave in to the whims of my children and, having prayed to share in the Passion of Christ, did a frontal flip on a trampoline at the age of 41 with two spinal fusions under my belt (literally), and broke my back. This was followed up with a visit to an urgent care facility wherein two pit bulls had been shot and killed by police earlier in the day after mauling their owner to death. That sound about right?
In my last post I quipped that I must be pretty tough that I went almost 24 hours without treating it before being seen. You see, although I probably get my love of dad jokes from my dad (go figure) I think I definitely get my grit (if you can call it that) from my mom. I still vividly remember her when I was a child and a fall from a second story window in a house fire had left her in traction for weeks. She willed herself to get out of that hospital because, as she said: “I had kids at home to take care of. What was I gonna’ do? Lie there forever?”
This morning I walked into my classroom and was greeted by 18 of the happiest faces you could hope to see at 8:45 in the morning. They rose to their feet (as they always do, they’re very polite) and said good morning. Then, having already heard through the grapevine that I was injured they began asking with mouths wide open how it was possible that I was with them. I told my story.
Then it was on to my senior class who literally bowed down for me when I came in. They informed me that two of their classmates were out sick because they “didn’t feel well today”. They then told me they would be texting those two to inform them the the “legend” (their teacher) was a machine, a beast, and the most incredible human being they’d known because he didn’t let no broken back stop him from getting to work.
“Kids,” I said, “I had to demonstrate my toughness for you.” It’s an old teacher trick.
The juniors were last and just as mystified as to my presence. “Kids,” I said, “Who else was going to come in here today and have as much fun with you as me?” They appreciated my being there as much as I appreciated their presence. One of them in particular, an athlete, picked up on my fear of getting soft over the next few weeks. He offered me some advice on exercises I could do and diet tricks to keep in mind during the time when I wouldn’t be able to lift. Nice young man.
Back to the doctor’s office on Saturday, the doctor who came in to speak with me after looking at my X-ray asked me “Do you, um, like, do you lift weights or anything?” I gave a bit of a smirk, nodded my head, and said “Yes, yes I do.” “That’s what I figured,” she said. “It probably saved you.” She had just spoken with the neurologist on the phone because she was concerned with where the break was. It seems that a break like mine could easily have left my paralyzed but for my brute physical strength and charm. I tossed the “charm” in there for fun. But really, being in decent shape allowed me to thrust myself out of the dangerous position I was in and I’m glad that I can see a payoff for all the hours in the gym.
Tonight I’m back out making pick-ups and deliveries as part of my courier job. I’m hoping none of the parcels tonight are particularly heavy but as I previously stated “for everything else, there’s Percocet.”
I think Dad would be proud. I didn’t let a little thing like a broken bone get in the way of continuing to do what I need to do for my family. He taught me well. And Mom? Do I even have to ask? I think she’s probably wondering why it’s even a thing. After all, if memory serves, she broke several vertebrae in that fall. She’s probably reading this and thinking “When’s he gonna’ shut up about it? It was one bone!”
And my kids? Well, one day we’ll determine if we actually like Kipling.
I am sure the vast majority of men (indeed of all humanity) and particularly of Catholic men do not recognize the inherent sinfulness of laziness. St. Don Bosco is famous for chiding the young men in his care to remain physically active. “Laziness teaches us all kinds of vices,” the great patron of youth would say. Of course, he would say it in Italian but you get the point. As a further warning, laziness is enshrined as a capital sin under its more severe form called “sloth”. Also, for those in the know and as Fulton Sheen would attest, it’s pronounced /slōth/. With a short “o” we’re talking about the lazy, three-toed tree-hugger from Brazil.
Do Something, Anything, but Avoid Being Idle
Going back to that theme of doing hard things I had made it my quest to lift hard and heavy and often, to run, jump, and planche forward so that I could be better. I knew that laziness had no part in this plan and that it would, in fact, sink any effort to be more manly (in a truly Christian sense). I became cognizant of all the times I had given up time I could have been doing hard things in order to do no things. And I determined to do more of the former and less of the latter. Besides, I thought, being more active would set a better example for my ten year-old son who’s been exhibiting his share of wanting to “do nothing” lately. Hey, I was a ten year-old boy once. I get it. Doing hard things is, well, hard. But the payoff is huge – huge gains physically and eternal life ultimately.
Over the past year I started to notice myself getting physically stronger. This means nothing except that I would now have a benchmark so I would know I was progressing and progress is good. Stagnation is a benchmark of laziness. I noticed as well that my prayer life was improving. As I forced myself out of bed early simply to deny myself sleep I would use the time to pray. I prayed as I poured my coffee. “Dear God, get this caffeine into me NOW! Amen.” I prayed as I struggled not to get back into bed. “Dear God, the floorboards are so cold. WHY?! Amen.” I prayed as I got into the shower which, thanks to Exodus 90 is a cold shower. “Dear God, Take me swiftly into thine eternal light! Amen.” On that last point I often wondered as to the propriety of praying in the shower. I reasoned, of course (of course), that the Good Lord created me naked so He probably wouldn’t be too embarrassed. But boy was that water cold.
I came to embrace the sacrifices because I wasn’t merely giving things up – time, sleep, my body to the pain – but I was gaining. I gained time with Our Lord in prayer. I gained satisfaction in improving myself and setting a better example. I gained a few lbs. of muscle which was cool. Regarding that benchmark I mentioned, I noticed I was lifting heavier weights. When I started I struggled to do biceps curls with 25 lb. dumbbells. Now I start a “rack run” with 55’s. I feel good. But it must always be seen in context. I drop the weights and thank God I can do these things. I drop the weights and I ask God to strengthen me to protect my children. I drop the weights and realize my big foot was just a bit too far in front of my body. 55 lbs. of iron on a big toe really, really hurts.
Shedding one’s laziness is a lifelong endeavor, at least for me. A year into this mindset and I still fight the temptation, when offered a choice of doing something active or doing something sedentary, to force myself toward the active. Example: I come home from a long day of work (at my first of two full-time jobs) and, having picked up the kids from school, the question is posed “Daddy, will you go on a bike ride with us?” or “Daddy, will you do gymnastics with us?” or “Daddy, will you do flips on the trampoline with us?” What the children are actually asking is “Daddy, will you run alongside while we ride our bikes for three blocks until we get tired and make you carry the bikes and us back home?” or “Daddy, will you move furniture in the living room to put down the mat and do handstands for our entertainment?” or “Daddy, will you bounce on the trampoline while we sit in the middle of it and let your weight propel us high in the air?” The answers are yes, yes, and yes. The reward for this sacrifice of giving up watching the evening news is the joy of spending time with two awesome people who seem to think I’m Joe Weider.
A COMPLETE Idiot
So let’s talk about my progress with calisthenics. You didn’t think I mentioned the gymnastics mat and the trampoline for nothing, did you? About three weeks ago I set out trying the basic wall-assisted handstand. Like my experience with pull-ups about a year ago I knew that this would take a bit of time until it “clicked”. In other words, I had to figure it out by just throwing myself into a flip against the wall until I got closer and closer to actually doing it. When it clicked it would be a recognition in my body’s muscle memory and then I wouldn’t be able to “un-do” it. Think of toddlers learning to walk. They struggle but they don’t give up because it’s hard. And then one day they shed the last bits of their fear – in this case fear of not holding onto anything – and they take that step and Shazam! They don’t seem to ever forget how to walk after that. When I figured out pull-ups it was about figuring out which muscles to activate. And then I got better and better. Pushing past my fear of falling on my head I started tumbling headlong on the mat toward the wall in my living room. What stunned even me was just how quickly I “got it”. Within a week I was able to hold a handstand against the wall for 30 seconds. I’ve been working at it for about fifteen minutes daily the past two weeks now and starting to work in something that resembles a handstand push-up. And as for that trampoline? Here’s where you learn why I called myself out as a complete idiot in the title. Remember Aristotle’s definition of virtue and how it stands in the middle? Sometimes in life we gain so much confidence that we exceed the virtue and head right back into the realm of extreme vice (or in my case stupidity). Two nights ago, with my wife still out of town (she was winding down a week-long business trip) I picked the kids up from school and play practice. I was so enjoying the time I had been given with them that I took them for pizza (meatless, it was a Friday after all). We came home and were joined by my college-aged nephew who goes to school nearby. And then came the shouts of “Daddy! Bounce us on the trampoline!” One of these days I’ll get them to bounce me.
Standing on the springy blue “floor” of the trampoline I heard all kinds of things. I heard laughter. That’s beautiful. I heard music. I had brought a bluetooth speaker into the yard so we could have a dance party. I heard one of the kids implore me “Daddy, do a flip!” On a trampoline I’ve done these flips a hundred times.
But this time was different.
I thought about it. Let’s tie it all together. 1) Sacrifice yourself for the kids. 2) Do hard things and be a man. 3) Avoid laziness like the plague. 4) Make it a prayer.
“God, help me amuse me children and gain strength. Amen.”
I bounced. I bounced higher. I bounced even higher. Then I launched and lurched forward. But something was different. Normally there are only three of us on this thing. Today my nephew was on it too. I don’t know if I was distracted or simply not paying attention. I flipped and did not roll forward enough. I landed on my head. I heard the most ghastly snap like when a person cracks his knuckles. And then I lay motionless for 45 seconds while the kids and my nephew laughed thinking the old man was playing a prank. Finally my nephew was able to hear my gasps. “Help… Me… I… Can’t… Breath…” It hurt like nothing I’ve ever experienced. He cleared the kids out and helped me roll off the trampoline. I could stand and walk, though with much pain, so I knew I wasn’t paralyzed. I’ll spare you the details of the rest of the evening except to say that I took a painkiller left over from my last surgery and rested as comfortably as I could. The ER on a Friday night would not have been able to do anything for me.
The next day I finally decided to go to an urgent care center that only handles orthopedic injuries. I was still in tremendous pain. Because of the previous spinal fusions in my lower back I wanted to insure I hadn’t done anything too damaging. A X-ray revealed a pretty nasty fracture of a vertebra in my mid-back. Turns out the lumbar fusions prevented me from rolling out of that flip the right way, hence something had to give. And there’s nothing they can do for me other than painkillers and rest.
There you have it, kids. Daddy sacrificed his body for your entertainment.
I literally broke my back (albeit this time unintentionally). And believe me, God has given me the grace as a father to know just how to use this bit of information to guilt you guys into a virtuous life. “Son, you won’t take out the trash? I guess I’ll do it… Owwwwww! No, don’t worry, my boy, it doesn’t hurt that bad. It’s just a minor – ouch – inconvenience. Not like I didn’t do that back-breaking flip for you…”
But did I hit the goals? I already mentioned 1) having sacrificed my body. 2) A 41 year-old man with titanium hardware in his spine doing a flip on a trampoline counts as “hard”, so, check on that one. 3) I didn’t say no when they asked me to play with them so I’m good on the “avoid laziness” thing. And I even said the following: 4) “Jesus, are ya’ comin’ for me?” as I lay immobile on the trampoline so, prayer, done.
Sacrifice, Lent, the Passion, and True Joy
When I was growing up I was always captivated by the mosaic of the second station of the cross in our parish church in New Jersey. Jesus accepts His cross. In the tiled image Our Lord is depicted with arms outstretched and an expression of joy as the cross is presented to Him. He looks like a young man who has just encountered the woman he’ll marry and he recognizes the joy of love at first sight or like a parent, separated from a child at birth who is finally meeting that child.
This image of joyfully embracing the cross is the finally piece of the puzzle. Yes, I take physical pleasure in lifting weights and in laughing with my kids and in doing hard things and seeing hard gains. I thought of that image and began to ask God, naked in my cold, morning shower, to help me this Lent. “Father, if You will it, I can be made whole. I am a sinful man and Your Son sacrificed Himself for my salvation. I don’t fully understand what I’m asking but please, in Your mercy, let me suffer with Him.”
On this Lenten Friday, missing my wife, rejoicing in my genetic minions who grow more and more like their old man each day, grateful for all He’s allowed me to accomplish, striving for perfection, hoping in His grace… On this day He broke me. But He broke me because He loves me and He gives me a chance to feel that death I must undergo in order to rise to new life. I won’t overdramatize it; but this hurts. I will now have to sacrifice working out because I simply can’t if I want to heal. I’ll have to devote that time to even more prayer and meditation. I might lose those precious gains of which I was so proud and thus exhibit only three abs instead of six at the beach this summer and then I’d have to embrace humility. And it HURTS.
But I’m sure Our Lord’s back was broken under the weight of that cross and he received it with a smile.
There, I’ve said it. And you can take that to the bank.
Setting the Goals
Harvey Millican is also a dad who adores his kids. Allow me if you will to drift for a moment to a place in the not-too-distant past. I was in my late 20’s (41 now) when I really began to give up on the hope of ever meeting a woman who shared my faith, got my sense of humor, and was stunningly beautiful. While I figured there were still a few solid Catholic women out there who hadn’t joined the Nashville Dominicans and I was pretty sure there might be a handful of women who would find my absurdist rantings mildly amusing I was not sure that any of the beautiful women of the world would be willing to offer an act of supreme condescension and go out with me.
You see, I wanted a family. I had, just a few years earlier, been studying for the priesthood and had been prepared to make the sacrifice of giving up family life. When I left the seminary I was filled with the fleeting thought that perhaps God’s plan for me was now to follow in the example set by my wonderful parents and raise a family of my own. But whom would I marry; or rather, who would ever marry me? See above paragraph for the genesis of this conundrum. It’s a vicious cycle.
In my final act of desperation I turned in prayer to the patron of impossible causes – St. Rita of Cascia. I began a novena at her shrine in Philadelphia. Nine days later I met a woman with strong faith, a questionable sense of humor, and poor eyesight. Bingo! We got married at that shrine in due time and within the first two and a half years of our married life God had blessed us with a son and a daughter. I have no idea what happened after that. We promised to be open to children and we always have been. But I guess God had other plans for us. We started taking road trips with the kids. I started documenting these trips and a blog was born.
A few years later the ticking time bomb that is my spine exploded and life sort of came to a grinding halt for a bit. I had a second lumbar fusion. I got depressed for a while thinking of how I wasn’t being the kind of dad I wanted to be to my kids. I’ve never been athletic. I’ve never been really strong, agile, quick. Having kids highlighted these deficiencies. I really felt it the first time my kids wanted me to play Twister, ride bikes, and squat 450. They’re pretty demanding kids. But after a few years of doing nothing about it and gaining weight and starting to feel sorry for myself and remorseful for my wife who had to look at me every day I decided to do something. Anything at all.
Figuring It Out
I tried running like a co-worker was doing. He was pretty jacked. That was a disaster. Apparently “You can’t run that extra mile if you’re puffing away on those cigarettes.” I had to choose. I chose tar and nicotine.
I tried Greco-Roman wrestling like my older brothers had done in high school. They were pretty not-jacked but strong as oxen and impressive. Apparently this should not be done with strangers in the produce aisle at Kroger. Also, those singlets are obscene.
I tried that little paddleball thing you buy at the dollar store like my mom. She’s got phenomenal eye-hand coordination. Thanks to genetics, I was good at it but burned negative calories.
In fact I tried anything and everything until I settled on some advice I found from a most reliable source – a meme. Under a picture of a typical 98 lb. weakling listening to Charles Atlas was a caption that read “What’s that? You want to get huge? Pick up a bunch of heavy stuff, put it down, repeat.”
Identifying with the dork in that cartoon I determined that weightlifting would be my thing.
Quests and New Quests
And for the past 14 months I have been lifting weights. It wasn’t until I heard a sermon from an amazing priest, though, that I realized this needed to be a spiritual pursuit in order to be effective. In other words, I should not do this for me alone. I should do this for me AND for my wife and kids. Lifting weights isn’t about gettin’ swole so you can preen in front of a mirror (although that’s kinda’ cool). Lifting weights should be about God’s purpose for manliness and fatherhood. I should do this specifically because it’s hard. Doing hard things is the hallmark of true manliness. And we do hard things to discipline our bodies so we can discipline our souls. And we discipline our bodies and souls so we can give away our lives without thinking to our wives and children; so that the hardest thing in life to do – dying for the sake of another – comes freely, quickly, and with total love.
With that in mind, weightlifting became both a quest and a joy. I’ll admit, it’s fun. I really enjoy it in the same way I hated running. No lungs exploded. I could wear fairly comfortable clothes. I started to get swole. Heh. That last part was particularly gratifying. Again, see above paragraph about why any woman in her sober mind would have given me a second glance. And I say that only half in jest but I’ve certainly never thought very highly of myself and even there more from a desire to tamp down pride through a humility that is sometimes self-effacing but very often false.
Along the way as I was putting on muscle and burning off fat I began to look for more “difficult” things to do. Remember, doing the hard things because they are hard is good for us guys. I had to remind myself not to get too into this. There were nights I could have skipped the gym to spend more time with the family but I always thought I was doing this for them. As for those “gentle” reminders of which I spoke, believe me, on the occasions where I’d be super proud of my accomplishments and post a video or two of me knocking out a dozen pull ups in the gym or attempting some other such thing that I simply couldn’t do yesterday (and that 99.9% of men half my age can’t do today) I’d always get the one or two snide comments insinuating that it was “no big deal” or that the commenter “was able to do three times that many and with better form” and I’d find myself knocked down a few pegs. and it was all good.
But those other things? Well… I picked up a jump rope one day. Not knowing what this strange device was and unable to find a pair of shoes large enough to lace with it, I hit it against a rock. Then I looked up a Youtube clip and discovered a cool trick. Apparently you can swing this thing over your head and jump over it. I got really good at doing that.
I busted out my old trusty kettlebell. Remember that thing? Developed by the Pontifical Swiss Guard in the 17th century to punish heretics, the kettlebell is also good for building strong bodies. Again, thanks to Youtube (and in this case Instagram) I began to incorporate explosive movements into my workouts. I got really good at that as well.
And finally I discovered the thing I just spent 1,069 words to get to. Sorry for that. While scrolling through both Youtube and Instagram I began to notice a whole lot of posts about people doing calisthenics. OK, my first thought on hearing that word was of Jane Fonda in a ridiculously high cut leotard prancing about to Let’s Get Physical. Patently, calisthenics is not that. Not exactly. Calisthenics has to do with using bodyweight movements to build strength, endurance, you know, all that good stuff I was looking for. Remember, the whole point was to do hard things so I could be a better man and in so doing be the best dad I can be to the two saints-in-training God gave me. Hell, He only gave me two of them. He must have felt I needed the time to work on getting this right. Ultimately, though, what calisthenics looks like is not Jane Fonda but badass dudes who are certainly shredded but not in any kind of “Sammy Sosa on roids” way, doing incredibly difficult-looking things. The first time I saw a series of posts on Youtube of one of these guys doing handstand push-ups and planches I was sold. Sure, I didn’t think there was a snowball’s chance in hell of me actually doing these things what with my twice-fused lower spine; but if I’ve learned nothing over the past few years it’s that God’s grace is truly sufficient and for everything else there’s Percocet. So I prayed like the Dickens and had my pills at the ready.
“Father in heaven, I thank you for sharing Your gift of paternity with me, your humble servant. In St. Joseph, you have given me an example of a truly good man who cared for his family, for Your Incarnate Son and His Immaculate Mother. I pray through his intercession for a clean heart, a pure mind, and a chaste body. I ask for the gift of great physical strength that I might protect and provide for my family. Hitting the Powerball would also be nice. Amen.”
My daughter has a gymnastics mat and we have an 18′ diameter trampoline in the yard. I started to think I could tackle this. I watched dozens of videos on the topic. I set a few goals. While continuing to “lift heavy stuff” in the gym and “jump over the flying rope” I would attempt first to master a wall-assisted handstand. After that I would try the same but add in push-ups to the handstand. Then I’d try freestanding handstands. I didn’t know if any of this was remotely possible and I may have been consuming a glass of box wine when I dreamed this up. Lastly, I would try to nail a backflip by year’s end. I reached out to an old friend who informed me that I “probably know more about fitness now than he does” and the he “wouldn’t be much help”. He then said he had to wash his hair or something and take his daughter’s rabbit for a walk. I reached out to a newer friend who’s been part of my Exodus 90 prayer group. This guy was, of late, a gym teacher who specializes in calisthenics and in particular handstands. When asked if he could help me figure out the basic handstand his words to me were “No.” I think he might come round.
Where on earth is all of this going and how does it involve the Passion of Christ? I never said it did.
When I left off I had promised to tell you about what I achieved in 2018. I think it’s important to take stock of one’s life from time to time. It is important not simply that we look at our accomplishments but also at our failures. Since I do the latter every time I prepare to step into a confessional and I am therefore well aware of my failures (as a man, a husband, a father) I want to share with you some of my accomplishments from the past year.
Starting with Uncertainty and Fear
The year started off with great uncertainty and trepidation. I had just walked away (for the first time in my life) from a job. And this wasn’t just any job. It was the job I had been hoping for for a long time. In 2017 I had achieved one of my goals and been hired as a Catholic school administrator. I was a vice principal before I turned 40. I know that doesn’t seem like much to many people but to me it was the closest thing to recognition that I was actually good at what I do as I will come. This is how I saw it. I was a teacher for over a decade. In that time I started at one obscenely low salary and never really saw a measurable pay raise. I didn’t get a yearly bonus. I didn’t get ownership in a company. No stock options, nothing. In fact, I rarely even heard a word about my job performance. The usual plaudits of “Wow, we couldn’t function without your skill” or “Your leadership is vital to our organization” were things I never heard. At first this did not bother me but as I got older and noticed that I was more or less alone among my friends in this regard I came to regret my career choice. In fact, the only people who ever commented to me on my job performance were, ironically, the only one’s who really counted – the kids. And to those of you who do not know what it’s like to hear a 16 year-old tell you how much you mean to him or to have another tell you that her life is better because of her favorite teacher; I am sorry for your loss. Finer, more humbling words have never been spoken to a man like me.
But I still wanted the bonus. There was one “award” that came with a plaque and a check that a local Catholic philanthropy organization would hand out four or five times a year. It seems that every other teacher at the school got it except me – even newbies. And so I was almost eager to move on to a pasture where I thought the grass would be greener. “Surely, they will appreciate me,” I thought. And yet that job was not at all what I expected. And after six months I had to move on. Taking a total leap of faith I walked away.
I prayed to God that I wouldn’t have a significant gap in my employment. He came to the rescue with the most unexpected answer. A friend had a neighbor who ran a medical courier business. I knew nothing about the world of shipments and logistics and, although I’ve always played a doctor on TV, I didn’t even know what I’d be handling on a daily basis. I started January 2nd. God is incredibly gracious (and very funny).
I quickly learned the ropes. I also kept returning to a sense that I did not know where the future would take me. And I was scared. I was scared that I’d made the wrong choice. I kept thinking that I had been “brought low”. I never see shame in honest work but I couldn’t shake the feeling that this was a job for a college kid waiting for his big break. As a teacher I never made much money and that bothered me (especially considering that everyone around me did quite well in that department) but at least I had respectability. Who doesn’t admire teachers? We take your kids off your hands for 8 hours a day and turn them back to you as adults.
What Does Your Rock Say?
In 2018 as I began driving blood samples and cancer treatments all over hell and creation something amazing happened to me. God gifted me with time. I’ll never forget about two months in when I got called to drive a shipment of life-saving medicine from Dallas to San Antonio at midnight on a Friday. It’s a five hour trip each way. What else can you do in a car for five hours but pray? OK, I listened to an audiobook and broke my earlier resolution not to smoke and I drank a lifetime supply of black coffee. But about two hours into the trip I started a rosary. And then another one. And another. Each go-round I began to refine my focus and to ask God to keep showing me where He wanted me to be, what He wanted me to do. I had time to give thanks for my amazing wife and to ask courage and strength to be a better father to our kids. I had time to beg Him to give us just one more of those kids. I had time to contemplate that maybe this wasn’t His plan for us. And I had time to remember a tiny little rock I got on New Years Eve.
One of the things I brought with me from the job I had quit was a bag of rocks. I’m not kidding. I had been tasked with implementing a virtues training program for our students. I had a good one in mind and went all in to bring this to fruition. The principal, however, thought it would be “neat” to have the kids take small landscaping rocks and paint the names of virtues on them in order to decorate a “virtue garden” or something like that. This was the first clue that we weren’t on the same page. I expect a little more rigor. I never condescend to young people because I believe in their potential to come to the level where I am and exceed that. On my last day the environmental science teacher handed me a bag with about ten rocks containing the names of different virtues. I briefly contemplated finding a heretic or two and chucking the pebbles at them. You know, here’s someone who denied the faith! Let me hit them with a rock that says “faith” on it.
My wife had other plans. On New Years Eve we hosted a small get-together with a family we are very close to. Toward midnight my wife brought out a bag and asked each of us to reach in and pull out one rock. Those rocks, she explained, would represent a virtue we should each strive to work on throughout 2018.
I pulled “gratitude”. At first I was disappointed. In fact I was downright ungrateful that I hadn’t pulled something “better”. And I instantly realized that I really needed to work on a lot of things in my life – particularly giving thanks to God for every little thing I have. This started with being grateful for my job. I went forward into January with the attitude that this job might not be what I wanted and probably wouldn’t pay a lot (it wasn’t bad) but it was work and I was grateful. My boss proved a wonderful woman who looked out for me and took good care of me. I became friendly with the people I would encounter regularly.
I also decided to renew the goal of always trying to get in better shape. Regular readers will know that I’ve been bitching mildly complaining for a few years about my inability, no matter how much work I put into it, to get in top condition. I re-assessed my outlook. What did I want? I had a friend once who had tried training me. I commend him for his efforts and I learned a lot from him. But I had been looking to him to make me what he was. He had long ago achieved the level of “shred” as they call it that I always wanted. And the only person who can get me to that point is me. I would henceforth be grateful that he helped start me off. I have another friend put it in perspective. “At our age, I want to be strong, fit, have energy, basically to be in phenomenal shape. I want that so I can come in the door and do the things my kids expect of me like a bike ride after work.” What did I want? All of the above. I would begin by being grateful that I could get out of bed in the morning unassisted at my age. I came to see myself as being in “not actually that bad shape”. I’ll ALWAYS strive to get better and that would continue to be a goal throughout the year. But I’m not gonna’ lie. It was nice to hear a few friends compliment me as 2018 ticked by that I was looking great.
I decided to make the most of every minute with my family. The job provided lots of alone time as I would drive into the lonely abyss of the Texas panhandle in the middle of the night. So when I could catch a few hours and my daughter would ask me to read to her or my son wanted me to watch a documentary about abandoned amusement parks I would be happy that I had a son and a daughter who share my interests and craved my time. And I also came to appreciate more deeply that THIS was my true calling (and that I was sort of good at it).
Finally I decided truly to ask God every day to show me where He would lead me. And in that prayer I came to receive the gift of a new opportunity to return to the classroom and to school administration. For this I am truly grateful.
I finished 2018 truly happy (and grateful) that I had been given so much time to reflect. I had prayed more deeply than I ever had before. I had appreciated my family in a new way. I like to think I became a better husband and father. I got to remember how much I love little things like the incredibly humbling task of teaching my little boy how to become a man or the miraculous gift of having a daughter share my birthday to the minute when I lost my twin sister so many years ago. I plowed through a few different workout routines and came to understand the inside of the gym a lot better. I packed on some mass, stripped off some a lot of bodyfat, got noticably stronger and feel positioned to keep going AND I’m not discouraged but grateful for the breakthroughs and for my overall health. I learned a new set of skills and an entirely new industry. I made some new friends. I even heard my boss tell me on New Years Eve that she was grateful for my professionalism and that she couldn’t have run her business as smoothly without me. I got a chance to embrace what it means to not care what others think of me and to willingly sacrifice a bigger paycheck in order to do important work (and work that I love doing).
I quit smoking! But I went back to it after two months. Some things never change.
Yet through it all I am grateful.
We did the whole rock thing again a few nights ago. We used new rocks this time that my daughter lovingly painted with my wife. For 2019 I am to work on “generosity”. I think I might just have this one under my belt but there will always be new ways to improve. I will start by striving to be a better friend, a better son, a better brother, a better husband, and a better father.
And as always, I will start this year with a flurry of posts. Whether or not I get that book(s) published, a YouTube channel up and running, or my stats go through the roof I am grateful I have a few of you to read what I say right here. I will keep hitting the gym every day – lifting harder and heavier each time, getting shredded because it’s always been my goal and I WILL achieve my goal, and adding new stuff to get all-around fit. There was a time I couldn’t do a single pull-up. Now I knock out dozens at a time. In the new year I’m going to master one-armed push-ups. And I will probably write all about it. And I thank you for still coming back to read about it.
God bless each of you in 2019 but especially the three most important people in my world. For you, I am eternally grateful.
Folks, I got off all that social media nonsense a while ago. Sorry but I'm not on Twitbook, Facepalm, YouHu, WingWang or any of the others. Maybe an event will happen to make me change my mind like Peter and Paul coming down with flaming swords and commanding it be so. Until then, read the blog and if you feel a comment is in order or you feel like sharing a tip or suggestion for a topic, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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