2017, injury, learning, recovery, soccer, teamwork

The One Thing That Nobody Tells You About Recovering From A Sports Injury

“Okay, when the whistle blows, I want you to fly down the sidelines. You’re way faster than their midfielder. We’ll send it to you from the middle, then send it back across the goal.”

I was standing on the sidelines during one of our final high school soccer games for the season, and my coach was walking me through plays before putting me back in. As I listened, I felt a sense of pride. Not a pride that comes with self-importance, but a pride that comes with being a part of something bigger. It wasn’t all up to me, but I was an important piece in the 11-person tapestry that represented our school on the field.

Having started playing at age 5, I always considered soccer one of my favorite activities—despite the fact that it was probably the one that I was worst at (and I had a lot of extracurricular activities). Regardless of my mediocre skill, I couldn’t let it go from my life—even after graduating the world of mandatory physical activity.

Me as goalie for the Orange Tigers (circa 1997)

After college, I continued to find ways to keep soccer in my life, often begging coworkers to play pickup with me after work, and eventually joining a Sunday morning rec league that became a defining part of my identity (or well, my Saturday-night-I-can’t-drink-I-have-soccer-tomorrow identity). I felt a sense of responsibility to my team. Despite whatever stressors or lows were in my personal or professional life, the Sunday soccer field was always there to give me perspective beyond the bounds of my life. 

The new daily routine

When I tore my ACL during an unforgettable game last spring, I was concerned about how drastically my day-to-day would change, and how difficult the journey ahead was going to be. Not being able to play soccer for at least eighteen months was an obvious consideration, but at that point it was only because a significant part of my routine would be stripped.

For the first ten months after Surgery 1 of 2, my journey was long but unlonely. Family kept me alive immediately after; friends showered me with love soon after, and physical therapists motivated me to build strength for many months that followed. But after that, once I was visibly fine and mostly strong, there were no more check-ins with family, friends, or physical therapists on the matter. All that was left was the cold monotony of a leg press machine at the gym.

The longtail of gym selfies

Running has always been my solo sanity. My nerves and mind run wild while my body does. So at Month-3 after Surgery 1 of 2, I was elated to start running again. And with my sidelines full of cheerleaders, I felt well-supported.

Two months ago, seven months after Surgery 2 of 2, I started to feel light again—life was back to “normal.”

Sharing solo runs

As I went through my day-to-day, slowly embracing the pieces of my routine that had been cast away during recovery, I was happier. But still, something felt off. And it wasn’t just the occasional knee pain. It was a deeper, empty pain.

The most common advice I received on ACL surgery was to keep up with physical therapy. And I had done that. But none of the advice had mentioned this darker pain.

On a Sunday morning at the end of October, I went for a run. I passed by a group playing pickup basketball and some people clad in similarly-colored athletic gear. That was the moment it hit me—I was a part that was missing its whole. I needed a team again.

After in-depth internet research, I found and joined a running group. Our first run was the following Tuesday along the Embarcadero. We were told the route, and everyone started at the same time. One veteran of the group took me under her wing and ran with me for the entire time. Somewhere down the line, I was surprised at how much I was enjoying the company during my historically solitary activity.

Shared runs

When we got back to the starting line, we stretched and waited for the rest of the group. When everyone had made it back, we went inside to drink water and eat strawberries. It took me back to the post-soccer-game celebrations with orange wedges and Capri Suns. I mingled for a bit before going home.

One month later I saw a familiar face standing behind me in line to board a plane from Toronto to San Francisco. “Did I meet you in a running club?” I asked with uncertain certainty. It was him, and we bonded over the small-worldness.

We talked as we boarded the plane. As I wrapped my knee before takeoff, I felt something I hadn’t since before my injury. Finally, I felt like I was part of a pack again.

I always knew there was no “I” in “team” but through my injury and recovery, I’ve learned that unexpectedly, there is also no I without a team.

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2017, bias, friendship, learning, memory, museum

What A Cross-Country Flight Taught Me About Painting The World

I spent this past weekend with one of my best friends. We haven’t lived in the same city in eleven years, but we communicate in a multitude of ways and talk on the phone at least once a week.

Through our conversations, I’ve become intimately aware of her new routines, adventures, friends, and work. I’ve heard about her life in broad strokes and detailed marks. Knowing her, and using some general context, I painted a picture of her life in my mind, and applied each new story within its context. When I visited her this weekend, it was my first time visiting her in Philadelphia, where she has lived for the past two years.

Our time together was perfect — from a morning walk along the river to a spontaneous visit to the Philadelphia Art Museum to alone-together exercise time to a tour of her office, favorite grocery store, and go-to bars and restaurants — a testament to our compatibility despite any of our differences.

But this morning, as my friend drove me to the airport (at 4:30 AM!), I felt as if I was sitting next to two people: one who has stood by my side for twenty-six years and one that I had just met forty-eight hours prior. The second person made herself known not because my friend acted out of character, but because I had gotten a glimpse of her life from a perspective I’d never had before.

***

Last week, I started watching Abtract: The Art of Design, a Netflix documentary series that spotlights eight people responsible for common objects in our designed world. Episodes highlight people like a New Yorker cover illustrator, the mastermind behind the Air Jordan, and a designer of IKEA furniture. The episodes aren’t just about their designs or how they came to be, but instead about how they approach the world. How and why they think the way they do.

The “behind the scenes” approach wasn’t necessarily new to me. It is much like two of my favorite podcasts: Zach Lowe’s The Lowe Post for off-court basketball things and Alec Baldwin’s Here’s The Thing for unique perspective into the minds of artists, policy makers, and performers.

***

Of late, I’ve found myself increasingly interested in what’s invisible to the naked eye — the stories behind the spectacles. Perhaps because what is visible is sometimes so ludicrous that I am unable to take it at face value. This pursuit isn’t an easy one. Not because the information isn’t there, but because I have to travel the distance to find it.

This morning, what I recognized about my friend was only visible to me because I had given myself a new perspective. Much like her and my favorite Monets, the painting looked different up close than it did from afar.

If I am still adding to the story of this wonderful human who I have known since my brain started forming memories, I can only wonder what layers exist behind the rest of my vast world, in social spheres, in design, in entertainment, in government, in other countries—this, just a shortlist.

Hopefully, I am not alone in my wondering. Though it’s unlikely (impossible) for us to ever know it all, it is important now, maybe more than ever, that we approach what’s visible with the curiosity to learn and build rather than with the bias to judge and destruct.

And that we do so in the same loving way that we seek to learn more about a best friend.

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birthdays, learning, life lessons, needs, self-awareness, self-improvement, wants, wants vs needs

Why 28 Is The Year I Need To Do What I Want

Each year on my birthday, I reflect on the year behind and the year ahead, the person I am and the person I aspire to be. I don’t need to write anything down, but I like to. I want to.

This year, I drove two hours north of San Francisco along the coast to spend my day outdoors. Long rides always remind me of how I learned to plan my pees as a child. I was (am) obsessively compulsive about restroom cleanliness, and refused to pee in public restrooms if they did not meet my quality standards. Before we got in the car, my mom would always tell me to go pee.

“But I don’t need to,” I’d say.

“It doesn’t matter. I want you to,” my mom would insist. (She never wanted a repeat of our tour-de-India-hotels in which no restroom could meet my needs.) “I want you to,” my mom would explain, “so you don’t need to later.”

Starting with the days of planned pees, I’ve always struggled with prioritizing wants and needs. As an obedient child (a young adult trapped in a child’s body, really), I was always preoccupied with what I needed to do in a given moment— homework, piano practice, being punctual, getting someone a birthday present—and there was always something. It was rare that I considered what I wanted to do, mostly because there was too much I needed to do, and also because I couldn’t explain wants with any logical rationale.

Things are much more confusing as an adult, because there is less I need to do all the time. Most of my time is characterized by wants. But it’s more nuanced than that. It’s not that needs don’t ever come up. They do, and when they do, they appear as dire needs and I am forced to act more impulsively than I would like.

I hate this feeling.

Most of the time, my needs stem from wants that I’ve previously ignored. This is the adult version of needing to pee in the middle of the countryside because I refused to pee before getting in the car. These days, I pee when I want, and am more preoccupied with philosophical needs and wants. Over the last year, I grappled with three in particular.

1. I want to care for myself when I don’t need to

A Ricky-Ish Bench, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco

“Sit Awhile And Be Happy,” Golden Gate Park, San Francisco

As a part of a regimented fitness routine, the first nine months of this past year were characterized by my waking up at 5 AM to exercise. Barely even allowing myself to think, I would pop up with my first alarm, change, and literally run out the door. My runs weren’t all the same, however. Some days my body just couldn’t do it. But I forced it. You can rest later, I would insist, pushing myself. I was convinced that missing one day would permanently ruin my groove. Then, three months ago, I suffered the most severe physical injury of my life during a soccer game. Suddenly, running (let alone walking) wasn’t an option. Taking extra care of myself — sleeping in, asking for a seat on the MUNI, eating a feel-good snack, asking for help, slowing down —was a dire need. For the first time, I treated myself the way I would treat someone I love. And despite my physical pain, it was mental bliss. It made me wonder why I don’t more deliberately care for myself more often.

Even after I am fully recovered, I plan to go out of my way to treat myself whenever I want. Why should I reserve this for only the moments of critical need?

2. I want a partner before I need him

Relationship Goals

Grandparents at the Ferry Building, January 2016

I spent twenty percent of the year’s weekends at bachelorette parties or weddings, twenty percent of weeks seeing one partner, and eight percent weeks in dire need of a partner. From dissecting couples games to wedding speeches to conversations with single friends who needed to be married yesterday, I started to consider my views on partnership more profoundly than ever before. Am I single because I love being single or do I love being single because I am single? In those months when I wasn’t, I discovered that despite my abundant single life, I actually wanted to be in a relationship. Then, two months after it ended, when I had my soccer injury and couldn’t walk, I suddenly found myself in dire need of a partner — for basic things like helping me get into my apartment, laborious things like preparing food and running errands, and meaningful things like keeping me company. Of course, there are friends and family, and they were there for me, but there was no one person I could rely on all the time.

No, I am not the person who needs to be in a relationship right now. But I want to be in one with the right person, before the want turns into a dire need when the luxury of finding that person feels cramped. Of course, the impetus for this dire need is subjectively unforeseeable, but may be physical, emotional, intellectual, familial, financial, or medical.

3. I want to reach out when there’s no need

Antique Paper Show

Antique Paper Show, San Francisco 2016

Eighteen months ago, I spent the better part of a day with a close friend. Though we think of each other often, we don’t see each other frequently, nor are we in constant communication. In one another’s presence, it is obvious that our bond runs deeper than these particularities. That day, she and I acknowledged the truth about our friendship. I also told her about the handful of other people in my life that I think of fondly, and often. Reaching out to them was never one of my strengths. Whenever I wanted to, I couldn’t think of a reason I needed to. And so I would just wait until I needed to — like when I needed to tell them something or needed to coordinate a meetup. I spent this past New Year’s Eve with the same friend. That day, I gave her a handwritten letter because I wanted to, even though we’d be seeing each other and spending hours together anyway. Her eyes lit up when I handed it to her. She couldn’t wait to read it. In January, I started sending more “just because” notes to people. Some responded with surprise and delight, others with written responses, and others with silence. I continue to write and send monthly letters to various people in my life, whether they live down the street or across the world.

I never need to say anything in any of these letters. I just want to. It’s nice to feel wanted when you’re not needed.

It’s been a long ride since I learned how to plan my pees (with lots of stops along the way). I still have a long way to go. And so, as I start this journey through twenty-eight, I know one thing: This year needs to be about wants.

 

Read More

Recent birthday reflections

What Amy Winehouse Taught Me About Turning 27
4 Things I Couldn’t Admit To Myself Until Turning 25
Then Thoughts On Turning 25

Inspiration  

The Race Grows Sweeter Near Its Final Lap
Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person
Do Your Friends Actually Like You?
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
Tiny Beautiful Things
The Single American Woman

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camping, hobbies, learning, mastery, reading, real world, running, self-improvement, slowing down, soccer

How To Keep Running When You Can Barely Walk

I have a lot of hobbies. Some that I dabble in (camping, letter-writing, crafting, cooking) and others that I pursue with rigor (running, writing, soccer, mentoring). I consider any of these activities equally productive uses of my time. I’m more advanced in some than others, but I’m not “world-class” in any.

A Dinner Menu

I often question whether my smorgasboard approach is a good one. If I want to be a notable writer, shouldn’t I spend every free moment drafting, submitting, or agent-finding? If I want to be a runner, shouldn’t I enter and train for marathons? Why am I voluntarily straying off the path of mastery? Shouldn’t I pick one thing and run with it (figuratively, except in the case of running)?

Recently, two things happened that provided me with clarity around my approach that seemingly lacks strategy.

Thing #1: I got injured

Please Describe What Happened

I’m currently recovering from bursitis in my right knee after a collision on the soccer field. The (hopefully) 3-week process involves lots of rest (no soccer, no running), ice and aspirin, and rehab exercises. After serious “It could have been worse,” recognition and gratitude, I was overcome with a mild depression — the injury affects my favorite part of my daily routine. I go for a run almost every morning. Some runs are longer than others, and some are faster than others, but they all count.

The first morning after my injury, I woke up when I usually do and simply skipped Morning Routine Step 1 (the run) and went straight to Morning Routine Step 2 (get ready and go to work). Arriving at the office at 7 AM, I realized that, despite having enough work to do, this wasn’t a healthy resolution.

That evening before going to bed, I denied myself the self-pity. Instead of wallowing in the fact that I wouldn’t be getting up the next morning to run, I reminded myself what running means to me: Above and beyond the obvious cardiovascular benefit, it is a mental stabilizer. It allows me to tune in to my physical and mental health — Am I in pain? Am I anxious? Am I content? Am I strong? — before starting the day.

I then took inventory of my other hobbies to identify one that could temporarily replace running. When it came to writing, I recognized that, though it is not currently part of my everyday routine and obviously lacks the physical jolt, it helps me achieve a similar mental balance whenever I do sit down and do it. Writing became my chosen substitute.

For the rest of that week (and for future weeks through my recovery), I spent each morning running words across a page before heading to work.

Thanks to the existence of my buffet of hobbies, I was able to find an alternative when two were taken away. If I had previously written any off, the injury would have left me in a darker hole.

Thing #2: I read a memoir

What I Talk About When I Talk About Writing

I started reading Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running shortly before I got injured. After the injury, I considered putting his book aside until I was fully recovered. It’s painful to read a runner’s love notes to his sport when you are unable to participate. It’s tempting to hate him for writing passages like, “I’ve never had a time when my legs hurt so much I couldn’t run. I don’t really stretch much before running, but I’ve never been injured, never been hurt, and haven’t been sick once. I’m no great runner, but I’m definitely a strong runner” (Murakami 40).

But I persisted. I persisted because in many ways, it’s not a book about running. It’s a book about lessons learned from running that have helped Murakami shape his writing and his life. He explains, “Most of what I know about writing I’ve learned through running every day. These are practical, physical lessons. How much can I push myself? How much rest is appropriate — and how much is too much? [. . .] I know that if I hadn’t become a long-distance runner when I became a novelist, my work would have been vastly different” (Murakami 82).

Skills honed as a runner, such as focus and determination, are ones that Murakami applies when writing as well.

As I read, it was clear to me that I too have hobbies that intersect. Writing and running, of course, in all the ways described by Murakami. But others as well, like soccer and mentoring.

Whenever I sub out of a soccer game, I have the ability to experience the game from an entirely new perspective. I immediately see opportunities that were previously invisible to me (i.e., routine plays by opponents or open space for passing). When I reenter the field, I’m a better teammate and player, making deliberate choices based on what I’m seeing as well as what I wouldn’t have seen before. A few years ago, when I was struggling with the realities of mentoring high school students in a bad school district, I came to the conclusion that, even as a mentor, I needed to think and act like a soccer player on the sidelines. While I can’t change the game first-hand, I can observe from afar, helping students and teachers identify opportunities for improvement that they might not see while in the thick of things.

From Murakami, I learned that having multiple hobbies means I can improve on one while practicing another.

***

Camp, Glamp. Potato, Potahto.

Camp, glamp. Potato, potahto.

From both the realistic perspective (a hobby being taken away from me) and the creative one (hobbies informing one another), there seems to be no reason to eliminate any from my life. It’s nice to dabble, and mastery needn’t always be the goal. Perhaps my perspective would be different if I were truly brilliant at one activity or had specific aspirations as such. But then again, maybe not, if you consider running-enthusiast Murakami to be a great writer.

From marathon writing sessions to realistic mentoring goals, I’m choosing the circuitous path to extra-curricular enlightenment. To be great at anything, after all, you have to go the extra mile.


Ref: Murakami, Haruki and Gabriel, Philip. What I Talk about When I Talk about Running: A Memoir. New York, NY: Vintage, 2009. Print.

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learning, piano, self-improvement, simplicity, teaching, tutoring

“Simple can be harder than complex.” -Steve Jobs

Last Tuesday, a friend and I watched pianist Yuja Wang in concert at the SF Symphony. “I thought we could relive our piano days,” my friend said when she invited me. She and I started learning piano at very early ages, and when we met in high school, we immediately bonded over the hours of practice and obscene amount of stress that accompanied piano recitals and formal evaluations.

If you’ve never performed in a recital, what you don’t know is that by preparing your music, you will only be half-prepared. Other integral parts of rehearsing include choosing the right shoes (some shoes are better suited for the pedal), the right hairstyle (there’s nothing worse that hair falling into your face when you’re looking for E-flat), and the right pre-recital sanctuary (you need a clear, stress-free mind). A perfect performance is as much in flawless play as in your command of the stage.

When Yuja entered the stage, she was wearing silver stilettos and a tight red dress. My friend and I looked at each other in shock. Yuja flipped her hair and waltzed to the piano. She swan-dived into a bow, sat down, and took command of the keys. She swayed to the music, as if she were foxtrotting with the Steinway. It was as if she wasn’t even trying.

Watching Yuja play wasn’t like reliving my piano days. If she had relived my piano days, she would have made a forgettable courtesy, her fingers would have trembled when she placed them on the keys, and she would have stopped mid-piece having forgotten how to start a coda or something. Her non-piano-playing parents would have been shifting in the audience, praying that she, they, and the audience would survive the next ten minutes. No, these were not my piano days.

Recently, I started tutoring a high school senior. She moved from China two years ago and is looking to improve her written and spoken English. We’re starting with her college application essays (talk about plunging into the deep end). Our first meeting was a struggle due to the language barrier and I found myself questioning whether our relationship could help her. Within hours of our first meeting, she sent me an email. It was the draft of her personal statement.

The essay describes her move from China to San Francisco’s Tenderloin, the dismal living conditions of her insect-infested California home, and her determination to learn English and go to college so that she can one day support herself and her family. I cried the first time I read it. It was a visceral reaction to words so powerful in their rawness. This is definitely going to work.

“This is so perfect,” I told her when we met a week later to discuss her essay. She looked at me blankly, not because she didn’t understand but because she thought I was lying. “The words are too simple.” “What do you mean?” “It’s not impressive. My teacher helped me edit it. I have another version.” She pulled it up and watched me read it. This version had been steamrolled by a thesaurus. It was a bumpy read and when I got to the end, I felt nothing but relief to be done reading. “So? Which version is better?” she asked when I looked up from the screen. “Definitely the earlier version,” I responded without pause. “Why?” “It just is.”

She was unhappy with my vagueness, and I was annoyed at my inability to explain why.

As I listened to Yuja play on Tuesday, it dawned on me why the first essay was so good. It was good because it took something so foreign to most of us, and made it relatable with carefully-chosen everyday words. The power was in its seeming simplicity, the same way that Yuja took pages of overlapping notes and turned them into sooting melodies. This audience, unlike the ill-fated ones at some of my more horrific performances, could have listened to her play forever (as demonstrated by four encores).

Frederic Chopin once said, “Simplicity is the final achievement. After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art.” What may feel couterintuitive as we advance in our art, career, and lives, is that the true mark of proficiency is the ability to execute with seeming effortlessness. When you make something look difficult, it also becomes difficult for others to appreciate. Anyone who can read music can play a Chopin, but to play it as he would have, you have to think like him too.

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