Thursday, March 31, 2011

On Getting Old

When I was a kid in college during the revolutionary "counterculture" days, the dominant mantra across the landscape was "never trust anyone over 30." It seemed appropriate at the time given that we were all in our late teens and early 20s and people over 30 were making decisions about sending kids to war.

I remained skeptical of people over 30 until October 31, 1981, when I woke up to my 30th birthday. I spent the day hunting snow geese and ducks on a bay of Devils Lake in North Dakota. Returning home from the day's hunt my now-former wife and I and our two nestling daughters went out for dinner at a Mexican restaurant in Jamestown. I didn't really feel much different on my 30th birthday than I did the day before when I was still 29. Of course by now the dominant mantra was to "never trust anyone over 40" because people over 40 were your supervisors in whatever job you occupied. Not long after turning 30 I shifted my skepticism to 40 year olds. They were the new nemisis.

I went to the barber (actually her title was hair stylist) on my 36th birthday, October 31, 1987, and during the cutting of my hair the first gray one of my life cascaded off my head and landed lightly on the front of my shirt. The accuarial tables that were current in 1987 said that the average life span of a white male in the United States was 72 years old (which later turned out to be the age at which my dad died). Damn! Here I was half way to meeting the grim reaper and my hair was turning gray! What could go wrong next? At least I wasn't at the dreaded 40 years old and untrustable stage yet.

I woke up on October 31, 1991, in a Sheraton hotel in Denver, Colorado. Rather than bounding out of bed to greet my 40th birthday, I was unable to move from bed. I had no equilibrium and could not stand up. After basically crawling out of the hotel and being driven to a doctor in Lakewood, I was told that I had a middle ear infection that had come on strong overnight and it left me practically immobile. I was scheduled to leave in two days to give a paper at a meeting in Quito Ecuador. The doctor informed me there was no way he would let me on a plane with this ear infection; I had to stay home from South America.

Driven by a colleague from Denver back to Grand Island, Nebraska, I licked my wounds as the raging infection in my ear slowly died down (to this day nearly 20 years later I still have a high pitched ringing sound in my left ear - a remnant of that infection long ago). Now that I was the dreaded 40 years old, someone nobody could trust (at least the conventional wisdom of 10 years earlier said so) I was more interested in feeling like I was 20 years old again, rather than worrying about the people over 50 whom I was no doubt going to be told I could not trust.

However I quickly learned that there was no need to fear those over 50 because they were starting to fall apart at the seems.

Two weeks after my 40th birthday I went to a previously scheduled optometrist appointment. After the exam the doctor said, bluntly, "well, it's time."

I asked "for what?" and he said "bifocals."

I said, "Bifocals? Old people get bifocals."

The optometrist said "40 year olds get bifocals."

A week later my first pair of bifocals arrived in the optometrist office.

Two weeks after the bifocals arrived I went out to the Grand Island airport to catch a flight to Denver for the latest in a never-ending procession of meetings over the management of water flows in the Platte River. I purchased my ticket from GP Express Airlines and paid for it with my US government issued American Express card. Grabbing the ticket I turned to walk to the boarding gate and the ticket agent yelled at me "Craig, do you want to take your credit card with you to Denver?" I who had never been forgetful of anything it seemed had suddenly forgotten a credit card.

After this first month of being 40 years old and having an ear infection, getting bifocals, and starting to forget important things like a credit card, I made a vow to advise all people who were 39 years old to skip over 40 and go directly to 41 years old on their 40th birthday.

The approach of my 50th birthday was starting to give me lots of trouble. My maternal grandfather was 50 years old on the day I was born. I always thought of my grandfather as being old when we would hike around in the woods at the south end of his farm. When I was 6 years old and my grandfather was 56 he had already lost a bunch of hair on the crown of his head. This was even further evidence of how old you are at 50 or even 56.

Making matters worse, on March 6, 2001, when I was still 49 years old I had my first bout of atrial fibrilation. My heart rate went to 208 beats a minute and it took the cardiologist 18 hours to convert me to normal synus rhythm. The cause of this cardiac issue was overdosing on caffeine and basically burning out the electrical system on the surface of my heart. I've not consumed coffee or tea since that day. This happened when I was 49 years old. What else could go wrong once I turned 50?

Freaking out about my impending 50th birthday I decided that I would outfox Father Time and wake up in a time zone where he wasn't expecting me. Maybe if I did that I'd be able to stay 49 awhile longer.

My plan for this outfoxing was simple. On October 26, 2001, I boarded a British Airways 747 at Dulles International Airport and 6 hours later stepped off the plane at London's Heathrow Airport. There I connected to another BA flight and darted down to Madrid, Spain where Air Europa whisked me away to Tenerife in the Canary Islands. Now I was not only on an island off the coast of Africa but also six time zones ahead of Washington DC where I lived at the time. Certainly, I figured, Father Time wouldn't catch up with me.

October 31, 2001, arrived with me asleep in a hotel on the north coast of Tenerife not far from the airport. I sneaked out in the pre-dawn darkness and drove to the airport to catch a Binter Canarias flight from Tenerife to the island of Fuerteventura where I would spend the day hiding from Mr. Time and looking for the Canary Island Chat - a one-island endemic species. My plan for avoiding the inevitable was working nicely until I arrived at the airport and on checking in had to give my drivers license AND passport to the ticket agent. On checking my drivers license she smiled and in exquisite Castillian Espanol proclaimed to me and the others standing near me "Feliz cumpleanos, senor. Cincuenta anos edad hoy!" I already knew I was 50 years old today. She didn't have to tell the entire freaking world. I guess Father Time caught me after all. I was officially 50.

Back in Washington DC a week or so later I began noticing that I was having aches and pains in places I didn't know I had places. This was especially true when I was lifting weights and doing stretch exercises while working out. After one particularly painful workout I emailed John Spinks, my former Deputy Regional Director who at 10 years older than me, was retired and living on his home ranch in east Texas. Certainly being older and more experienced in matters of aging John would understand my plight and be compassionate in understanding my concerns with all these new aches and pains.

His return email was short and to the point. After all my whining about turning 50 and feeling all these aches and pains, John said, simply, "It gets worse."

It does.

In August 2002, while sitting in my office in Washington DC I had my second bout of atrial fibrilation. This time my heart went to "only" 180 beats per minute but it took 22 hours to convert me. At least I converted. A lot of people don't. This incident set me on a course of taking a heart medication 3 times a day every day for the rest of my life.

In February 2010 while working out in a gym in Sarasota, I decided that although my body was 58 years old, my brain was telling me I was 18. So, thinking like an 18 year old I added more weight to the leg lift machine than I should have and during one lift I felt something tear in my knee and suddenly I was overcome with pain. I had torn the medial meniscus in my right knee and on June 24 I had it repaired through arthroscopic surgery.

Before June 24, 2010 I had only been in surgery one other time - when I was 5 years old and my tonsils were removed. At that age I was lied to when told "you can eat all the ice cream you want after the surgery." I never saw a drop of it. Before going under the anesthesia on June 24, 2010, I mentioned that story to the anesthesiologist. She snicked and said "we stopped telling that lie ages ago. No ice cream for you today."

Recovery from the knee surgery went nicely and I no longer have any issues with that knee. I also don't over tax my knee when I work out either.

In November 2010, not long after turning 59 years old I went to a new dentist because of a persistent pain in an upper molar. Through x-rays which I was shown, along with digital images of each tooth, I was informed that almost all of my teeth are cracked in some form undoubtedly from clenching my teeth while sleeping. Because of that I have more than $10,000 worth of dental work including the replacement of 2 crowns and the addition of 4 more than need to be done.

My prescription for Propafanone which I had been taking since 2002 to keep my heart from going into atrial fibrilation was about to be renewed for another year. I asked my family practice physician if Propafanone was still the best thing to take. He suggested that I consult with a cardiologist which I did. The cardiologist did some blood work and learned that my cholesterol count was in the mid-200's with my LDL's (the "bad" cholesterol) at 160, and ordered me to a regimin of oatmeal breakfasts and no more cheese. For a Wisconsin boy the no more cheese order was difficult to take. He wanted me to come back in four months for more blood work to see if the cholesterol levels had dropped. The cardiologist also informed me that the Propafanone I had been taking for 9 years was the wrong medication and that I was damned lucky I never had a recurrence of atrial fibrilation. He promptly put me on a beta blocker to keep me from skipping beats. It also was to be useful in getting my blood pressure under control. Lastly he ordered an echocardiogram to see if there had been any thickening of the muscles of my heart (Isn't that redundant? The heart IS a muscle so how can the muscle have muscle?).

Next came the persistent pain in my right side that was diagnosed as a muscle spasm. After an ultrasound to rule out gall stones and a HIDA scan to test my liver and gall bladder function, the gastroenterologist said there was no issue with my gall bladder. However he noticed that a couple of liver enzymes were 4 times the level they should be and ordered a blood panel to look for Hepatitis and other hideous things. A couple weeks ago I learned that I have Hepatitis C. Because Hep C can lead to cirrhosis of the liver, the doctor told me to moderate my beer drinking or I could get cirrhosis more quickly. Eventually he said I would have to quit drinking completely.

First no cheese and now no beer?

A new drug is coming out this fall that is 90 percent effective in ridding the body of the hepatitis C virus. I'll start that treatment about the time of my 60th birthday.

Earlier this week I had to get new glasses. They are still bifocals and the edges of the lenses are starting to take on coke bottle tendencies. Plus I am noticing that I am not picking up some of the higher frequency notes given off by birds now. So, my ears are apparently going to hell.

And to top it all off, yesterday in my cardiologist's office I was informed that, yes, I have thickening of the muscles of my heart which, he said "is probably related to the atrial fibrilation." My blood pressure is not what it is supposed to be on a consistent basis so he's upped the dosage of Cardizem to bring that down. And now I have to do some over night oxygen consumption test to see how that might be related to my heart and its ability to pump.

All this stuff is going on plus I have a lot of "liver spots" on my arms from too much sun AND to top it off, it no longer takes as much time as it used to for me to get a hair cut because that once tiny balding spot that my sister noticed at Christmas time in 2001, is now much larger. Its not an open patch of bare skin - yet - but I can feel the skin tanning when I'm watching a baseball game.

The truly revolting thing is that all of these body parts are falling apart and I'm not even 60 yet! At least I can still get an erection on an as-needed basis and that's not even that often any more.

Someone once wisely noted that "getting old is not for sissies" and whomever said that hit the nail on the head. Now that I'm about to enter the "golden years" (and there is nothing golden about this age) I'm wondering what age group I can't trust now?

Maybe its my own?

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

On Catching a Foul Ball

This is a very simple game. You throw the ball, you catch the ball, you hit the ball.... Nuke LaLoush in the movie Bull Durham
There are 10 major league baseball teams that I have not seen play in person. The most important goal for myself in 2011 (other than to see 500 new species of birds in South Africa in September and October) is to see all 10 of those teams play in person. Between spring training games and trips to Tropicana Field to watch games with the Tampa Bay Rays, and trips down to Miami to watch the Florida Marlins, I should have all 10 of the missing teams under my belt by the time the World Series rolls around.

One of the teams I have not seen play in person is the New York Yankees, the team everyone loves or loves to hate. Despite my strong dislike for the word hate, I hate the New York Yankees.

Today the Yankees played the Pittsburgh Pirates in a spring training game in Bradenton Florida. Thanks to the help of a good selection of seats being available the instant I phoned the Pirates to get tickets for this game, I was able to secure a very good seat. The seat was not quite close enough to do any serious heckling of Yankee players. And besides the only Yankee I wanted to heckle was Alex Rodriquez who did not play today. Still it was in prime territory for catching foul balls.

I was a catcher when I played baseball as a kid. It was then and remains today the greatest position on the field. Other than the pitcher, the catcher is involved in every play on the field. The catcher is responsible for knowing what is going on every second of every game. If someone gets a single and decides they want to steal second base, its the catchers responsibility to throw his ass out. If someone wants to try stealing home, it's the catcher who stands there in his "tools of ignorance" protective gear and blocks the plate to get the runner. If there is a play at the plate, its the catcher who puts himself between home plate and the runner and tries to block the runner from scoring a run. I suffered my first concussion as a ninth grader when I blocked home as someone slid into me in an unsuccessful attempt to score on a tight play at the plate. When the runner hit me he did so with his right elbow square on the top of my head. I went down like a shot deer, but I held onto the ball and he was out.

Catchers love that sort of stuff.

For the 2010 Bradenton Marauders season I sat directly behind home plate which was prime heckling habitat. After mid May I started bringing a catcher's mitt to my seat every night. Although being behind a protective net, I used my catcher's mitt as a second catcher's mitt for opposing pitchers to use as a target. I viewed it as an advanced form of heckling. Although its quite a stretch I think that on more than one occasion last summer I pissed off an opposing pitcher enough that he threw the ball at me rather than at his own catcher. I'll never know.

Today at McKechnie Field I brought my catcher's mitt with me. I do this at all games when I'm not sitting behind the protective home plate netting. I do so in the very rare chance that a foul ball comes near me and I have a chance to catch it.

When I took my seat in Box 15, Row 5, Seat 5 at McKechnie Field I sat directly in front of a couple from suburban Pittsburgh who had come down to Bradenton for a couple of weeks away from the snow and ice of Pennsylvania, and to enjoy a Pirates game or two. With them they brought their handicapped son Mike. Unfortunately Mike is confined to a wheel chair because of a handicap. It might be cerebral palsy that is his handicap. Not sure what it is, but Mike is a Pirates fan and from what I could tell he was enjoying the game.

In the bottom of the eighth inning, Pirates hot prospect Corey Whimberly whom the Pirates obtained in a trade with the Oakland Athletics in October 2010, came to bat. The thing about Corey is that I think he is part deer. He is lighting fast running bases and is no slouch when playing at shortstop. He made it as far as the AAA level Sacramento River Cats before being traded to the Pirates. I have watched him in spring training drills and I've seen him in several spring training games and Corey is definitely someone that Pirates fans need to watch.

In the bottom of the eighth inning, with the count at 2 balls and 2 strikes, Corey smashed a solid foul ball on a line drive toward the left field seats. In fact he hit the ball directly at Box 15, Row 5, Seat 4 of the left field seats - one seat to my right and a seat that was not occupied. There was no arch to this ball. No lazy Texas league hit. It wasn't one of those high pop flies that seem to take forever before gravity takes over. This ball was hit and it was hit hard and it was coming directly at my part of the stands. The ball was following the law of mathematics that says the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. It was coming at us in a straight line.

This is the view from Box 15, Row 5, Seat 5 - prime foul ball catching habitat at McKechnie Field.

It had been 42 years since I last caught a baseball. Nearly half a freaking century. Still when I'm sitting in the stands holding my catcher's mitt, I almost instinctively move with every pitch. There is no other way to describe it. I guess once you are a catcher, then always you are a catcher.

That is how it worked today.

Corey's line drive came right at the head of the handicapped kid sitting behind me. My catcher instincts kicked in and I put up my catchers mitt and hit my glove and I caught it. Had I missed the ball, it would have hit this immobile handicapped person sitting behind me. At a minimum it would have caused him some pretty substantial pain. Worst case scenario, had it hit him in the head it could have killed him.

I was a lousy hitter when I was a kid. I held the conference record in 1968 for being hit in the head more times than any other batter. Opposing teams probably went out of their way to hit me in the head because of how thoroughly I heckled them from behind the plate. Still I was hit in the head 8 times and that caused me to not want to be close to the plate for fear of it being nine times. Although I could not hit to save myself I was pretty good defensively. Try stealing second base and your ass was mine. Try to knock me off the plate as you roared into home and chances are you would be the one walking away with a limp. Put a mitt in front of me and I would catch anything you threw at me.

Or in the case of Corey Wimberly today, anything hit at me.

I go to baseball games now because watching baseball is about the only reason that my 59 year old body can still feel like its inhabited by a kid. I heckle because it makes me feel young again. I watch incomparable Bradenton Marauder players like Brock Holt whom I am convinced will be starting for the Pirates in 2013 and they make me feel like I am a kid again. Seeing that screaming line drive off Corey's bat today, and then catching it, also made me feel like I was a kid again.

People around me after the catch applauded and some said "that was the best catch of the game." Others said "The Pirates ought to sign you." My first instinct was to look at Mike sitting behind me and make sure he was OK.

The ball hurt my hand like you wouldn't believe. I had a ruptured tendon in my left hand from high school (because that's where all these pitched balls would hit my hand) and wouldn't you know it Corey's line drive today was caught directly on that tendon. I can't count the number of Pirates employees who came up and thanked me for catching the ball, including my Bradenton Marauders usher friend. Everyone asked if I was OK and I told everyone who asked "I am a catcher. This is what we do."

Earlier in the game Mike had received a ball from the third base umpire so he was taken care of. Sitting next to his mother was a couple who had a handicapped grandson who loved baseball but was not able to come to today's game. I had heard that earlier in the game so I turned around and gave the grandmother the foul ball. I hope he enjoys it.

Today in my quest to make me feel like a kid again, I caught a line drive hit by a major league player. It didn't mean anything as far as the game was concerned, but for this former farm boy from the north woods of Wisconsin, it made me feel like I was behind home plate catching Rick Gates' exploding fastball or Terry Christopherson's hanging curve. If just for one more time.