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!”
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.
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.
Harvey is a funny, witty and interesting read. Want to know what's going on in the world of Harvey? Then make a point to subscribe to his blog! You just never know when those pesky Weebles will show up. Hmmm, speaking of Weebles - haven't heard from them in a while (wink). Seriously, you just never know what to expect and whatever you find, it never disappoints! -- Debbi Robertson @ Photos and Facets