Not long ago the back latch on my Volvo broke, making it impossible to open the rear hatch. Instead of paying a repair shop, I temporarily traded vehicles with my father (a retired heavy-equipment mechanic and current proprietor of a V-Twin motorcycle repair shop) so that he could fix it. Kelly made the switch while I was out of town and when she came to the airport to pick me up she was driving my father’s silver Chevy, a pickup with front seats that reach about six inches above the top of my shoulders. How exactly does a 28-year-old with quadriplegia get himself into a full-size pickup truck? With some practice.
I wheeled up to the passenger’s seat, lifted my left leg onto the floor of the truck and placed my left arm on the seat. Then I scooted my butt out to the edge of my wheelchair seat, reached my right arm up to the inside door handle, and pulled the door in close to my body. I paused for a moment to gather my strength and then heaved: my latisimus dorsi and teres major worked to pull the core of my body the first few inches off the wheelchair; when my shoulders were above my elbows the deltoid, pectoralis, and triceps took over the heavy lifting while the lats shifted their purpose to stabilizers, left side holding my body close to the truck seat and right side pulling the door in tight. As my arms straighten out my butt is hanging just above seat height and like a crippled gymnast I swing my hips to the left, my arms release their hold just as my butt clears the seat and comes to rest with a heavy but satisfying plonk.
It wasn’t always this difficult. Where I grew up, in Juneau, Alaska, physicality was a rather thoughtless necessity. There simply wasn’t much to do if I wasn’t playing outside. My father was in constant motion; I suppose that I didn’t realize that a sedentary lifestyle was even an option. During the winters I spent every available hour of free time skiing. When there was no snow I ran trails, mountain biked, and rock climbed, all activities that required a good deal of lower body strength. I had prominent thighs. Muscle jumped out hard and substantial where my vastus medialus connected to my knee, though at the time I couldn’t have told you what it was. I never thought about my body because I didn’t have to, it was simply a product of the way I spent my days.
Now, Kelly has a similarly prominent vastus, which comes in handy when she hoists me up onto her back to piggy-back me up a flight of stairs. My legs, on the other hand, have withered to the degree that my knees possess a greater diameter than my upper thigh. My body appears to have inverted. The bulk that defined my hips, thighs and calves has shriveled to skin slung over bone. From my ribs down I look both angular and droopy in the way that is usually exclusive to old men. This did not happen overnight. One might be surprised to learn that the process of atrophy can take years. Indeed, it has been eleven years since I broke my neck in a skiing accident, which left most of the lower two-thirds of my body as functional as puppet parts. My legs remained thick and heavy for years, perhaps reluctant to admit that they were simply along for the ride.
I remember the day, lying in my ICU bed – temporarily coherent and awake from a multi-week haze of opiates – when I realized that my paralysis was permanent. I sobbed for the loss of something I couldn’t define: physicality, innocence, the illusion of a carefree existence. I floated away on a cloud of morphine.
When I finally descended into lucidity I never deceived myself into believing I would walk again. Nurses, doctors, and therapists congratulated my relatively quick acceptance of my loss of function. They, however, viewed the belief that I would be physically independent as mildly delusional. I would quickly realize that the inability to walk was the least of my concerns. I remember thumbing through a spinal cord injury manual and reaching the sexuality and relationships section. The authors told me that I would have to lower my standards now that I used a wheelchair, basically: You’re a cripple now, be grateful for any loving you can get. Surprisingly I was not filled with sadness or pity, but rather righteous indignation. My self-image had not suffered the same injury as my body and I remained a confident (perhaps cocky) young man.
Upon returning home from the hospital I encountered a world I could no longer navigate on my own. I remember one evening I fell to the floor when attempting to transfer from the recliner to my wheelchair. Neither my mother nor I had the strength to lift my body from the floor. I had to wait in escalating shame as my father was called from a biker club meeting, along with a mustachioed man named Shiner, to lift me back into my wheelchair. I was, at seventeen years old – precisely the age one desires independence the most – suspended in a childish dependence that burned at the core of my being. I may have gone back to my room and cried tears of scared, impotent rage, but I never waivered in my sureness that these indignities were temporary. Perhaps the biggest delusion that my confidence engendered was the belief that I would simply relearn how to do things.
The first two years of living with quadriplegia were a lesson in effort. Everything was difficult: getting dressed, pulling my wheelchair into my car, wheeling down the street.. It was a year or more after my accident when I came to the sullen conclusion that nothing was ever going to be easy again. What I didn’t realize was that the things I valued in my life never had been.
A friend with quadriplegia has a theory that paralysis does not change one’s personality, but only strengthens what is already there. There is some truth in this. If you were lazy before your accident, you now have an excuse to be even lazier. If you were motivated before, you’re going to be even more motivated now because it takes that much more work to get anything done. In my case, paralysis gave me an extended reprieve from the real world, an excuse to aim my work ethic towards seemingly frivolous pursuits.
In lieu of becoming a productive member of society, I set about relearning how to enjoy to world. My first epiphany: if easy was no longer going to be an option, doable would have to suffice. My second realization was that doable was going to require an entirely different body. The upper body strength and endurance required to push up a steep hill, sprint between classes at the university, and lift myself back into my wheelchair after careening into a crack in the sidewalk were simply not present in arms that had previously functioned as accessory appendages. The work of turning my arms into a primary means of locomotion took years: weight lifting, wheelchair rugby, handcycling, and thousands of conscious decisions to push myself physically.
Somewhere along the way I became addicted to the training. I researched the science of athletic performance and functional strength. I modified my workouts according to the latest techniques I found; complex lifting and high-intensity intervals became a part of my day-to-day life. I devoured stories about athletes who had pushed their bodies to the far limits of human function. My father was, in addition to his other work, a Karate sensei, and possessed a considerable library of martial arts texts. I found a surprising mentor in my search for my own physical potential: Bruce Lee.
While he may be best known for his role as forerunner for the modern action hero, Bruce Lee was also far ahead of his time in athletic training. In the early 70’s weight training was seen as something for bodybuilders, not athletes. Muscular development was thought to make one slow and bulky and most serious athletes stuck to sports-specific training: runners ran, basketball players played basketball, martial artists kicked and punched. Lee’s transformative realization was that strength and speed were not mutually exclusive. He adapted bodybuilders’ exercises to develop functional power rather than muscular aesthetics. Methods championed by Lee in the late 60’s and early 70’s – plyometric lifting, circuit and interval training, active flexibility – have only entered into the mainstream of athletic training in the past ten to twenty years. The by-product of this revolutionary development of muscular power was one of the most awe-inspiring bodies of all time.
Looking at a picture of Lee from the time he was filming Enter the Dragon is like viewing an anatomy diagram. All of his muscles stand out in sharp relief, striated into their component parts. Most are muscles that the average person doesn’t even know he has: serratus anterior, sartorius, and brachioradialus stand proudly alongside the abdominals, quadriceps, and biceps. Lee had more defined musculature than any bodybuilder but moved with a coiled feline grace. His was the only 135lb body that would accommodate its host sending a 200lb man sprawling on his ass with a one-inch punch and impress audiences enough to turn Lee into the first Asian-American movie star.
Contrast this with the average American man of today, standing at 5’9,” weight of 191 lbs, with the muscular development of innervated bread pudding. He has a body perfectly adapted to moving from bed to kitchen to car to desk and back again. It’s a body that lives in a world where actual work – of the Force x Distance variety – is outsourced, either to machines or to those who live in frustrated awe of our opulence. The ironic thing is that as the average working life has become divorced from physical effort, physical fitness has replaced obesity as a status symbol. Just as milky white skin was once a sign that one didn’t have to toil in the fields, well-defined abdominals have come to symbolize that one has the free time to indulge in frivolous exercise.
The functional weakness imposed by my paralysis forced me to become mindful of my body. At the prime of my youth I was confronted with the choice between a sedentary, dependent life, or expending a great deal of effort to build the body I’d need to move through the world independently. It really wasn’t a choice at all.
Now, my entry into a world where the simplest of tasks required immense effort seems rather fortuitous. My injury striped my everyday life of convenience. By losing my most powerful movers – muscles that can support a life without a second thought – effort became a precondition of living. In modern society a lack of effort is, quite literally, killing us. The epidemics of obesity, diabetes, and hypertension are all diseases of convenience; byproducts of living a life that is simply too easy. The actual physical energy requirements for sustaining life in the modern world are far below the amount we consume. People complain about how their grandfathers ate eggs and bacon every morning, drank whole milk, had fried chicken and biscuits for lunch, and T-bone steaks for dinner, all while remaining as fit and healthy as the proverbial ox. The forgotten piece is that Grandpa woke up at five every morning but Sunday to spend ten hours lifting, walking, hauling, and hoeing to be able to afford that T-bone. Recent research by Eastern Kentucky University reveals that the average medieval peasant burned roughly 4,000 calories a day. Other energy assessments have put the daily expenditure of our more ancient ancestors at around 5,000 calories a day. About the only people burning those kinds of calories in the modern world are professional and Olympic-level athletes. We’ve inherited our forefather’s appetites while distancing ourselves from the labor that precipitated them.
The physical effects of this skewed relationship confront me nearly every day. When riding an elevator and a fat person gets on I’m overcome with righteousness: “Ihave a reason for being on here, you’re just lazy.” My annoyance quiets after a second or two because I know it’s elitist and petty, but some things are embedded deeper than reason.
I’ve now had eleven years of living with quadriplegia. The boundaries of my function are as defined as eroded stone. Traveling up from my jutting hipbones, my latisimus dorsi flares out from the ribs on my right side; this is the muscle that allowed me to ride my handcycle around Ireland. If I cross either of my arms in front of my body, place my fingers on my collarbone and flex my chest, the clavicular head of my pectoralis pops out and feels solid as a hold on a climbing wall; this is the muscle that helps me hoist my butt from the floor of a tent. When I flex my left wrist, stringy muscles jump out from my upper forearm before descending to skeletal thinness about halfway to my hand; these are muscles that coordinate to pass a rugby ball forty feet, and have taken me farther than I ever dreamed my legs would. This is the body that lets me live the life I want.
The modern world’s dirty little secret is that our bodies are a reflection of the way we choose to live our lives. Technology has taken us to a place where the effort required to sustain life is so low that obesity is fast becoming the norm. Flabby or fit, drowning in convenience or flush with vanity, we reflect a world where effort has become a choice.
I was lucky enough to have that choice laid out in the starkest of terms. Only years later did I find that effort, enjoyment, pleasure, and pain often saunter hand in hand. I realize that at the ripe old age of twenty-eight, I have arrived at what is essentially a curmudgeonly mindset: nobody understands the value of hard work these days! It appears that my attitude has taken the form of a grouchy old man, right alongside my sagging buttocks.