Personal Narrative

Muscle memory and the passage of time

I live on a hilltop on a once-paved rural road. In winter, the west wind races uphill through open fields, driving snow before it, stacking drifts that challenge passage into my driveway. I like winter’s fierceness. I teach late and arrive home from university after dark. I’m a few weeks post-op from foot surgery. I walk on that road at night, but not as far as I did before surgery. Baby steps, the doc says, baby steps.

I like walking best when the mercury coldly congeals and the wind lashes at me hard, driving the snow into me. I remember, as I walk, fragments of my life spent above tree line in New England, Colorado, the Northwest, the Sierras, British Columbia, and Alaska. I am meeker now, less foolhardy, more fearful of injury. I walk east on the road with hiking poles. Headlamp, reflective vest, and an LED blinker ward off the rare car or pickup speeding by to get from somewhere to somewhere else. But nothing insulates me from muscle memory.

• • •

I am 16 years old. Coach Jim lifts me and I grasp the rings in a false grip, wrists cocked. Momentarily, I lower my head. Then the routine begins. Raise legs to an “L” position. Turn the rings slightly outward. Pull through an iron cross … but slowly. (The judges — and the girls — really like that slow, powerful pull.) Hold the pike. Brace forearms against the straps. Press through a planche into a layout to a handstand. Careful, careful, rings swaying slightly. Lock out the elbows, forearms away from the straps. Giant swing once; catch the handstand. Again. Lower to planche. Pull to an L. Drop, inlocate, kip back to an L. Press the handstand in a pike. Hold it. Drop, two swinging dislocates, then a double pike to dismount. Not quite a stick; a small, forgiven step. It will do; I win.

• • •

Another night comes; I walk. The headlamp reflects off wind-driven snow. It’s hard to see, like a car using high beams on a blizzard-swept highway at night. I don’t mind; I know every pockmark, every nuance of surface, every curve of the road. I have walked it in winter for years now, but usually farther and more often. I like the swirling snow, the tart, sharp scent of the cold. I climbed mountains for decades; I know how to deal with cold. I don’t climb mountains any more. Perhaps that’s why melancholy is a frequent companion as I walk. Life has become minimizing loss, not maximizing gain.

• • •

I am 18. Big meet against my prep school’s arch-rival Saturday. Thursday’s a taper. Coach says run light sprints on the football field, maybe 50, 60 yards. Build slowly to speed, then back off, he says.

Rick, Wayne, Dick, and I shed shirts, spikes, and socks. One at a time, maybe two or three at time, we crouch, begin to sprint and stand upright as we reach speed, covering each five yards between the freshly limed lines with feet barely touching the grass. It’s warm today. We break a light sweat and glisten. We are young men who can run blindingly fast. Abs flat, muscular chests, biceps full, calves rippling.

I am lightning across the field. There is no sensation but speed, even flight. It is not work; it is joy; it is miracle; it is—

What feels like a baseball bat slams into the back of my right thigh, crushing it. I crash to the ground, rolling, what the fuck happened, my mind in shock.

Torn hamstring, the trainer says. I leave the field on crutches. Season’s done. I set records my senior season and win a track scholarship to college, but running is never magic again.

• • •

The carbide tips of the poles click, click, click, click on the road. The cadence pleases, even mesmerizes. The doc said the poles would help with my posture, ease the aches in the back and shoulders. It’s only been a few weeks with the poles. So far, he ain’t right. The aches still ache. I detach from a tree branch an old Chouinard carabiner to which I had tied bright pink surveyor’s flagging tape. I carry it for another 100 yards. I attach it to another branch and turn back. The west wind hammers my exposed face. It burns, and not because of the cold. I measure progress in yards. It used to be miles.

• • •

Sometimes the unexpected permanently marks sense of self.

I am 18. Judy is 15. I’m in love with her. One day, with parents away, she makes tea for me. Somehow, in the shuttle of tea and diffuser, cups and saucers, and sugar and cookies, her arms end up around me. I kiss her for the first time. Her hands reach behind me and stroke my shoulder blades, then my youthful, powerful shoulders. She squeezes them and retreats an inch.

“Oh my god, your shoulders,” she says. I say nothing. She kisses me again, grasping my shoulders with gentle, slender fingers.

From that day, whether I appreciated it or not, my sense of power, of strength, of being a man, of facing risk and threat with less fear, resided in my shoulders. Rock climber: shoulders. Kayaker: shoulders. Gymnast: shoulders. Swimmer: shoulders. Man: shoulders. Decades later: Five shoulder operations and one impatiently waiting. So much surgical theft: Who am I now? What defines me now?

• • •

A small, green iPod shuffle keeps me company as I walk. It plays soft, solo cello. Heavy snow falls tonight, but less wind. I open my jacket to vent. It’s damn dark. No street lights line the road, only dim light from the few homes on my route. The poles click-click-click less distinctly; the big town plow with its mailbox-killing wing hasn’t passed yet.

The walk is addictive, but not because of the presumed exercise. It sometimes quietens the endless, roaring internal monologue so I can hear the signal in the noise. I listen, but I hear nothing. I sense only the rhythm of the poles. I suppose that’s enough. But the melancholy is there, ever present. I reach the carabiner and its thread of pink tape. The walk’s uphill now. I shrug, unclip the ‘biner, and walk another hundred yards. This is a far cry from trying to summit Rainier (and failing four times, despite the fact that several thousand people manage it each year).

I glance down, shining the headlamp on the ‘biner. It has my mark: green plastic tape wrapped around its shank. When Bruce and I climbed together long ago, that’s how we separated gear at the end of the day. Climbers’ gear gets intermingled from pitch to pitch, climb to climb. His tape was blue and yellow. But I’ll bet he has a few green-marked ‘biners; I know I have a few blue and yellows. After 40 years, neither of us cares much about who has what. That’s what partners are like.

I clip the ‘biner to a strand of barbed wire hanging low from an ill-kept fence. I’ve gained 300 yards on the walk over four days. I’m up to just over a mile. Call me king of post-op.

• • •

I am, I think, 25. A spring weekend foray to the Shawangunks, the rock-climbing mecca of the Northeast, with Tony. He is my climbing partner lately. We are evenly matched in ability, and that encourages us to tackle climbs a nudge above our common comfort. This day proffers a nasty 5.8 (a rank in a system of rating a climb’s difficulty in the days in which 5.10 was damn near impossible). I lose the coin toss, so I lead the first pitch. My hardest climb ever. For 100 feet, I never err, efficient and elegant in selection of handholds and footholds. I dance over the quartz conglomerate. Then a small overhang presents: I cup a bucket at its base, reach over the clifflet, and stick my hand in a hornets’ nest. I am stung repeatedly, including in my right eye. They say my screams still resound in nearby New Paltz. Utter panic: shameful behavior for a would-be Vulgarian …

Tony ties off the belay rope so I will not fall. Then — unroped — he climbs the same 100 feet, his hardest climb ever, to reach me and lower me to safety. The old ‘Gunk legends, Hans and Fritz, would be proud of Tony.

He took care of me. That’s what partners do. I still owe him. I pray often that Tony has had a long and happy life.

• • •

I have always believed that athletic performances — especially the brilliant ones, the ones that leave an athlete convinced he or she is above all others — emotionally and psychologically reside in muscle tissue. I have no research to support that. But coaches always told me: If you hit the finish line first, take a moment to embrace, to encode, the memory of the moment. That’s important, they said: The ability to be faster, stronger, more enduring than others fades quickly.

I can close my eyes and feel my old gymnastics routines on the rings and parallel bars. I cannot perform them, but I can do more than merely remember. My muscles fire encoded impulses to my brain. I sense the old rhythm and power more than just intellectually relive the moments. It is more than memory; it is physical sensation fused with history. That, I am learning, makes it less … frustrating … to have surrendered to time the physical ability to perform them.

• • •

I can swim far, and I know my pace. I am 26. Still in shape, kept there by master’s swimming. I swim my first 10K in my hometown YMCA pool. It’s a “postal race.” I do the swim and mail the time to a clearinghouse. My brother Scott, who would count the 545.6 lengths, asks how long it will take. “Four hours, 20 minutes,” I say.

Much later, I finish the last length, exhilarated. Scott stares at me, shaking his head. “What?” I ask.

He looks at the stopwatch. “Four hours, 19 minutes, and 50 seconds,” he says. That’s just over 41 minutes a mile.

Fred, my coach, helps me out of the water and leads me to the locker room past my three spectators, who cheer. Fred turns on a hot shower and pushes me into it. “Stay there,” he says, and leaves.

When he returns, he finds me on the shower floor, fetal, weeping uncontrollably. He says nothing. He waits. For almost an hour. It is as if … he knows.

He lifts me to my feet and hands me a towel. We walk to my locker. God, I am empty, spent, depleted … and relieved. I don’t understand.

“What happened?” I ask. Fred just shakes his head. Think about it, he says. Relive it.

Days later I come to understand. I believe we carry the stress and anxieties of daily life in our musculature. That’s why massage therapists make a living. That, it seems, is the lousy form of muscle memory. But I had swum for more than four hours. Everything in me, frustrations of work, life, love, is freed as my muscles expend so much energy in propelling me rather than inhibiting me.

Later in life, I swim more than two dozen 10K events and wildly insane open-water swims (rarely successfully completed) from my 30s to my early 50s. I think losing the bad muscle memory and retaining the good drives me.

• • •

More snow tonight. As I walk east, the blustery wind hits my back. I can take that. The poles click, click, click, click. Never thought I’d like using poles. But the cadence soothes. It coaxes rhythm. I like that. The road curves through woods. Shelter from the wind for a quarter mile. Quiet. I can think. I have written much of this, these muscle memories, in bits and pieces as I walk. I talk into a small recorder. I no longer depend on my memory, a journalistic habit born of a critical error as a young cub.

I don’t make the ‘biner and the tape tonight. I wimp out: It’s just too fucking cold. And turning west to home puts the wind in my face. It’s not far, and I’ve got my cell. But age dulls immortality felt when young. I fear injury; I fear pain. I cinch the hood around my face as best I can. I reach the driveway, pissed. I should have made it to the goddamned ‘biner.

In the shadows, my friends tsk-tsk: Let it go, let it go.

• • •

I am 28. Mark and I slog our way unroped across the crevasse field of the North Glacier route, stroll stupidly under a half-mile-long cornice cracked and weakened by August sun, ascend a ridge of loose rock, and then rope up along the summit ridge of Canada’s second-highest peak. The ridge is narrow, the cornice unstable. Our meek plan: If he falls to the left, I jump into space on the right, leaving us hanging over the respective 2,000-foot falls we’d each take should the rope betray us.

We reach the summit. A three-sided stone wind break shelters us. Two other climbers, French Canadians, pop up over the north face route. Chit-chat ensues. Then one asks: “You Americans?” We are, we say. “Well, you hear about Tricky Dicky?” he asks. No, we say. Been on the road. “Well, he resigned today!” he says, breaking out a battered metal flask.

The four of us drink and descend Mount Athabasca somewhat besotted, crossing the crevasse field in falling darkness, foolishly unroped.

It is August 9, 1974. It is a good day. Luck blessed our folly. Good journalism uncovered Nixon’s.

• • •

I have driven across the country, including journeys to Alaska, more than 50 times. When I was 21, about to go to Alaska for geology field work as an undergrad, Betsy gave me a locket she’d made of silver. It bears a sun, a mountain, a road, and a little four-wheel-drive LandCruiser with a heart on it. I’ve worn it for 44 years now. It is a talisman I’ve shared with others to wear when troubled or facing challenge. It has collected, over time, the best of the people I love.

I’m fortunate to be an American, and to have seen America in full scale from the wheel of my ‘Cruiser (and a great big green Dodge van and assorted pickups). It takes a long time to drive across Texas, or across the Midwest. Eastern Washington, not Kansas, is the flattest turf in the United States. West of the 100th meridian, water is more precious than gold. In Nevada, the drive to the market is hours, not minutes, so in summer clerks put the eggs, milk, and meat in a styrofoam cooler with ice; “plastic or paper” just won’t do. Highway 50 really is the “loneliest road in America.”

Those trips had brought perspective into my life for decades. Why is it that now, when I need it, I refuse to acknowledge it? Does aging bring me psychological and emotional tunnel vision, undoing years of expanding what I see and hear and taste and touch and smell?

• • •

I am 31. I have been kayaking in open water for a decade. I don’t like whitewater; I can’t react that fast. But I can paddle hour after hour, economically, minimal effort for best speed. I’m in Georgian Bay again, visiting Tim and Kathy, graceful, wonderful Canadians.

I put my Klepper into the Bay off Killbear’s beach and campground to paddle east into Parry Sound. It’s a five- or six-mile but easy paddle, I think as I set out, a gentle wind at my back. A few hours later, I prowl around the docks, embracing what I see and hear and smell. Afternoon beckons; I head back to Killbear, prowling past Wall Island, the tip of Mowatt Island, and tiny Patterson Island. It’s all mesmerizing. Then I round Killbear’s incisor-sharp point in mid-afternoon. Aqueous hell breaks loose.

Two-meter waves rumble toward me as far as I can see, driven by the afternoon winds. No one warned me about this shit. A rookie’s mistake, not doing his homework. I tuck inside Cousin Island and hug the coast as best I can. Waves batter the Klepper. I don’t know what the bottom is like. I need to stay in deeper water.

I’d bought the Klepper because it is stable in chaotic seas. Its chines hold on waves; its sponsons temper the temptation to overturn. But I had not faced the Klepper’s intended environment. The Klepper yawned its way through the rough water. I didn’t. Four hours to paddle the last two miles. For the first time, my shoulders ached so much the next day that I lay on the beach instead of paddling.

• • •

A black night. Cloudy. No moon, no stars. No wind, either. No snow. Just cold. I pull the pickup into the driveway. I don my heavy REI wool sweater, then the old orange EMS wind parka spattered with blue paint because forester Bruce tagged trees wearing it on a windy day. Headlamp, vest, LED blinker. I head out, poles in hand, to the road. Click, click, click, click.

I easily walk the mile to the carabiner and surveyor’s tape. I’m moving uphill over recent nights. I’m still only eight weeks’ post-op from removal of the neuroma. My right foot reminds me of that with each goddamned step. But I walk to the crest of the hill. I have to schlep through the snow, falling twice, to get to a tree to hook the ‘biner on a branch. I walk back home.

It is an unsatisfying walk. It has no challenge, no bite, no reason to fight through something.

Maybe that’s a message: What, exactly, am I seeking to fight through?

• • •

I am 33 years old. Dawn has hinted its coming as Lefty and I gear up for ice. We’ve got 7,000 vertical feet defying us, most of it a tiring one-foot-after-the-other, mindless march until we hit the glacier. We move steadily up the south slope and reach the ice, shorn of crevasse-hiding snow by the August sun. We rest a bit on a volcanic bulge, then try to thread our way among the crevasses, moving laterally until one thins enough to safely step or jump over, then up to the next, then laterally again. Time passes too quickly. We make poor route-finding decisions. We make too little vertical progress.

We retreat, losing the 2,000 vertical feet gained. We circle below the glacier, moving a third of the way around the peak, looking for a route up. We find one, free of ice. We foot-after-foot our way up, moving a helluva lot more slowly than we did at dawn.

Fatigue wins (after a total ascent of 9,000 vertical feet) and we collapse on our butts 600 feet below the summit. What? you say. You didn’t dig deep and crawl hand over hand up those last few feet? Nope.

As we share a tin of pineapple, we hear noise. A troop of Cub Scouts, roped together behind their leader, trots past us. “You guys been to the summit yet?” one little punk asks. Lefty just glares at him. Moments later, a white-haired woman easily in her 60s moves past us solo, planting glacier wands every few hundred feet. That impresses us.

We give up and head for the low ground, taking pictures of the great Northwest forest, a patchwork of clear-cuts, below and around us. The Back-off Brigade of the Dynamic Descenders Division of the Someday We’ll Learn Society claims another non-victory.

Nine months later, on May 18, 1980, at 8:32 a.m. local time, Mount St. Helens blows one cubic mile of rock 80,000 feet into the stratosphere, killing 57 people and lowering the mountain by 1,300 vertical feet. Sitting at my newsroom desk 2,500 miles away, reading the story as it comes over the wire, I shiver.

• • •

I have a degree in geology. Geologists, fundamentally, track change in the Earth’s behavior over time. What Nature constructs, it destroys. Wind-driven dust sculpts the hardest rock. Stream-borne sediment nudges aside bits of rock, inflating tiny rills to wide valleys to be eventually enraptured by a meandering, laconic stream. Occasionally, floods bulldoze everything. Eventually, all mountains bow.

I know erosion. It is insidious, constant, and inescapable. No rock is sufficiently competent to withstand it. Neither am I. It’s March 12, and I became 65 years old at 2:14 a.m. I hear the Borg: Resistance is futile. I reply: Bullshit. But it has become more a whisper than a defiant shout.

My friends say they find my reaction to, my fear of, this day to be worrisome. They say I am wrongly, foolishly focused on what I have lost more than on what the passage of time has granted me. They say I’ve accumulated experience in living, in understanding the human condition, in relating that absorbed wisdom to others — namely the sometimes feckless undergrads I teach. You’re a leader, a teacher, they say: Stop whining.

• • •

I am 38 years old. Sadly, I have become far more attractive to gravity than to women. Days have become weeks have become years running the copy desk at the newspaper, then the editorial page. Physicians threatened that I’d live a full, happy life — but it would end at age 45 if I didn’t shape up. I’d returned to swimming, obsessively so, to get tolerably fit and combat high blood pressure.

We don’t really know the distance by boat from Burlington, Vt., to Plattsburgh, N.Y. Sam, who would captain the rescue boat, a small, rented pontoon picnic boat, guesses I’d have to swim about 21 miles. Tina, who thinks I am crazy, will lifeguard me and provide food and drink en route.

I step into Lake Champlain before dawn from a dock just west of the town center. It’s August; water temp is about 68 degrees. But I’d be in the water for a long, long time, thus the 3mm of borrowed neoprene encasing me. I don’t remember much about the swim. Tina’s reminded me over the years I swam directly west across the long shaft of the lake — right across the ferry route to Port Kent. That would have qualified as crossing the lake. But I insistently turn north toward Plattsburgh, plowing along the New York shoreline past Wickham and Ausable marshes and along the west side of Valcour Island. Tina blows a whistle every half hour: I roll onto my back and she holds out energy bars and sandwiches and a water bottle so I can take a bite and, as the real athletes say, hydrate.

Extreme distance swimming is an exercise in fooling yourself that I feel no pain. After all, the freestyle stroke is easy. Eight-beat kick. Extend the arm. Drop the thumb into the water. Cock the hand. Roll slightly onto your side. Bend the elbow a bit, drawing past your midsection. Push to the hip. Recover, but drag the back of your fingers across the water. A full recovery costs too much energy. Repeat about 30,000 times over 20 miles.

Consequence: That form never allows the shoulder to fully rotate. The head of the humerus makes mincemeat of the labrum. Small muscles and connective tissue give up after a mile or two. Only the larger shoulder muscles keep everything intact. But over all the miles over all the years, the shoulders loosen and misbehave. Surgeons circle like vultures.

It doesn’t help that I screw up, swimming from east to west, directly into the afternoon westerly wind. Waves kick up. I swallow too much water. I thrash through winds and that fucking invasive Eurasian milfoil. I hit a drifting log with my head. I only breathe on my right side, so half my face is reddened to the point of blisters. I suppose being a right-sided breather explains why the arthritis in my neck afflicts the left side.

I begin in darkness; I finish in darkness. I never make the shore line in Plattsburgh. After I clear Valcour, the west wind drifts me toward Crab Island. My stroke is labored. Sam and Tina pull me out. I protest … but only a little. I’m shivering, slightly hypothermic. Tina wraps me in a blanket. Now she knows I’m crazy.

Martin Strel is crazier. Strel, a Slovenian, specializes in swimming the lengths of rivers. He’s done the Danube, Mississippi, Yangtze, and Amazon rivers — a total of 9,954 miles.

I feel so sane now.

• • •

I’m home early. No need for LEDs, blinkers, vest. Just the poles. No iPod; need to hear traffic behind me. As I walk, I reconsider what Joe Hartshorn, dear friend and geology prof, once told me. Geology, writ large, consists of two questions: How does the world work? Why does it work that way? Joe, of course, spoke of physical processes. When journalism shanghaied me, my newsroom godfather, Neil Perry, said journalism consists of two questions: How does the world work? Why does it work that way? Neil, of course, spoke of the processes of political economy.

Click, click, click, click. The rhythm of the poles clarifies thinking. As I age, I realize, my focus is less on physical processes than it is on cultural, political, economic, and social processes. Geology, generally, works on time scales of hundreds of millions of years. I no longer have time to consider that. Human processes, in the age of Facebook, Twitter, and deadline-less journalism, operate on a scale of mere seconds, rendering reflection obsolete.

Yet increasingly I reflect. I have time enough for that. Doesn’t the social construction of meaning, particularly personal meaning, depend greatly on reflection? I tell my students journalism consists of five verbs: observe, record, analyze, organize, and present. Well, so does analysis of soul and shortcomings.

I move the carabiner and the tape another hundred yards. Dusk approaches as I round the curve toward home. Does the loss of physical capabilities open doors to other capabilities underdeveloped … or underappreciated?

• • •

I am 57, and it is Sunday afternoon. I am in my university’s pool. I am in the habit of swimming two to three miles a few times a week still. But the large digital clock on the wall that dictates my pace isn’t working. I ask Casey, my friend and lifeguard, to fix it. I keep swimming easily, warming up. I reach the end of a length just as Casey flips the on switch. The clock reads 00:00.

Hydrodynamically, I am to water as a brick is to air. I have proven I can swim far, but I cannot swim fast. I know my pace: 41 minutes a mile. I am Johnny One Speed. Even though my university’s Division I swimmers can crank out a competitive mile in under 16 minutes, I have never gone under 40 minutes. That’s pissed me off for decades.

I kick off the wall. I am a slow starter. First quarter-mile split: 10:45. Second quarter split: 9:30. Third: 9:40. I reach the end of the 66th length and glance at the clock: 35:00. I am gasping. Only six more lengths. I swear I’ll make it under 40 even if I have to walk on the bottom.

Fourth quarter split: 8:28. I finish the last length, hitting the wall in 38:23. Several weeks later, I have surgery No. 2 on my left shoulder. Nearly 50 years in the pool. I never swim in hot pursuit again. But the splits sit in a small picture frame in my office. Minor triumphs are still triumphs.

• • •

I dread what’s coming. Soon, an orthopedic surgeon I trust will root around in my left shoulder to try to find out why it hurts so much. That will be surgery No. 4 on my left; I’ve had two on my right shoulder, leaving me with no achromium. Then there’s the surgery for lateral epicondylitis on the left elbow, the torn meniscus in the right knee, the four surgeries for torn and ruptured Achilles’ tendons, a bone fusion in my right foot, removal of a neuroma, and a few other odds and ends in my feet that ended my life as the fastest damn quarter-miler in New England when I was 18.

Actions have consequences, often unintended ones, I tell my students. Was I just too damn obsessive about swimming so far for so many years? For paddling tiny, fragile boats in open waters that scared me shitless? For climbing hundreds of feet up the vertical faces of geologic fractures or slogging thousands of feet up orogenic happenstance, placing one foot after the other, up mountains here and mountains there? Overcompensation for perceived inadequacies in other parts of my life? What was I making up for?

After the magic sub-40 mile that ended my life in the water, my co-best friend Laurie asks me, What were you thinking? After all, Laurie knows that surgeries Nos. 1 and 2 on my right shoulder are the unintended consequences of too many inlocates and dislocates, too many pulls up overhangs instead of bracing with the feet, too many miles in the water, too many strokes with a paddle, all earlier in my life. But hammering away at a mere one-minute obstacle at age 57?

Yep. I’d do it again in a heartbeat, I tell her. My other co-best friend, her husband, Bruce, just nods. He knows. Call it a guy thing if you wish. Call it vanity if you must. Call it sheer stupidity. I tell them that sometimes you want something so badly, something you’ve sought for so long, you’ll pay the price.

But I never tell Bruce or Laurie or anyone the real reason for my OCD approach to swimming: I swam so far for so long because the water, stroke after stroke after stroke, mile after mile after mile, is the only place I feel beautiful and graceful. Gymnastics as performed by me was merely power and strength: Broad of shoulder but short of stature, I am insufficiently lissome for grace.

Water obscures rigorous witness. Embraced by water, we are all beautiful and graceful. Swimming brought me that solace, that needed conceit.

• • •

Life beyond 65 will be less physical, a good friend tells me, but far more cerebral and intellectual. She promises I will find it satisfying. Perhaps. I have a brain; my university thinks it still works satisfactorily. I teach well; I write well. For the past six years, I have used my writing to regularly castigate the powerful and the politicians (they are not always the same) for their deceits and hypocrisies. I should do more of that, she says.

There will be no more swimming; only modest paddling on quiet streams and placid ponds, and walking just the distance time and wounded feet allow. I miss the swimming so much. But the paddling and walking, I hope, are becoming a voyage to thinking more broadly and empathetically rather than merely achieving physical goals once so cherished.

We age. We move on. But frame of mind matters. As much as I treasure muscle memory, I must consider its role in my blindness to possibilities yet to come.

That has a nice ring, doesn’t it: possibilities yet to come.

— 30 —

Photographs by Denny Wilkins

Categories: Personal Narrative

17 replies »

  1. Happy Birthday, Denny, and thanks for an absolutely masterful reflection on life so far. This is one of the best things S&R has ever published – I hope a few folks take the time to read it….

  2. Sam — thanks for alerting us to this…it is so poignantly beautiful I just don’t know what else to say, Denny.

    I had a particularly brutal massage this week, that was highly necessary, so this really spoke to me:

    >>Days later I come to understand. I believe we carry the stress and anxieties of daily life in our musculature. That’s why massage therapists make a living. That, it seems, is the lousy form of muscle memory. But I had swum for more than four hours. Everything in me, frustrations of work, life, love, is freed as my muscles expend so much energy in propelling me rather than inhibiting me.

  3. What wonderful clarity of thought and intense honesty. I was brought close to tears more than once. As a runner in my youth, I responded with an inward “yes” when you described the importance of the memory of winning a race — especially one particular race. And the muscle memory of what it felt like to run when you were 19 or 21. And how you wanted to continue to feel that same freedom and power at 40 and 50 and beyond.

    And then, of course, the gradual realization sometime in your 50s that you can’t, and that any effort to replicate that feeling will simply mean injury. And the sorrow that goes with that loss.

    Thanks for a moving testament to aging and memory — muscle AND brain. And Happy Birthday, Denny. May you live a long and happy life.

  4. Happy Birthday Denny. So extremely happy to have had such a brilliant professor to learn from each year at Bonas. Glad I could read and celebrate your life today. What an adventure — so glad you shared! All the best, ALWAYS! — Penny ’02

  5. Happy birthday, Dr. Wilkins!

    One day I hope to have enough life experiences to write a piece like this. Far as the writing skills, I’m sure you’ll beat me across the head with techniques and tips before I graduate to write poignantly like you did! Haha.

    My favorite paragraph of yours:

    From that day, whether I appreciated it or not, my sense of power, of strength, of being a man, of facing risk and threat with less fear, resided in my shoulders. Rock climber: shoulders. Kayaker: shoulders. Gymnast: shoulders. Swimmer: shoulders. Man: shoulders. Decades later: Five shoulder operations and one impatiently waiting. So much surgical theft: Who am I now? What defines me now?

    Surgical theft. So brilliant!

  6. At least you can console yourself with the thought that you engaged in enough athletic and adventure feats for a few lifetimes. I know what you mean about muscle memory, though. I can remember exactly how my body felt, and what it was doing, during peak athletic experiences of my youth.

  7. Happy birthday, Denny! And thanks for the birthday gift you’ve given to all of us who should spend more time reflecting … and realizing the potential of possibilities yet to come.

  8. Wow. How about this – if we ever get a chance to actually meet, we’ll take a walk before sharing a beer or two.

    And one of these days I’ll break an hour running a 10k.

    Happy birthday.

  9. Frankly, i’m speechless. Many more happy birthdays, even if they mark a life less adventurous than the earlier ones.

    And that beard from the old days…absolutely luxurious.

  10. Denny: To have had the privilege to learn from you for four years and the honor to now call you a friend, I am truly blessed.

    As you look at life past 65, I hope you will think of the gifts you’ve given your students, friends, family and colleagues over the years. There is so much more to Dr. Denny Wilkins than what you captured here.

    You aren’t just shoulders, Denny. You always have been and will continue to be so much more than that.

  11. Happy Birthday Denny – now get your sorry ass back in gear and enjoy the rest of your life.
    Live every day like it will be your last and make the best of every moment of every day. You will never grow old. Best wishes/ BL, Sam Dan, Tang Soo Do Moo Duk Kwan

  12. Oh, this is vintage Dr. Denny. Loved the entire thing, of course; it’s beautiful. My favorite part is all the possibilities yet to come…