No Pain, No…Strain? Re-negotiating the Comfort Zone

I haven’t blogged about my back surgery in August, and I don’t really intend to blog about it now, even though, OK, I guess I sort of am.

My POINT is: as an athlete trained in the no-pain-no-gain, run-through-it mentality, recovering from something as dicey as being cut open (as opposed to good ol’ shinsplints or a muscle pull) is proving tricky.

As I work through my P.T. and get back into daily chores, I keep asking my body, When does “hurts so good” slide into “uh-oh”? (The answer, I fear is: About two seconds after you tried something you shouldn’t have tried.)

Case in point: yard work. It’s fall, and a big windstorm had dropped half an alder tree and a bunch of other branches into the woods my Mate is slowly turning into our personal park. This is a very well-cared-for chunk of woods, is what I’m saying. And since I don’t do chain saws, I thought I’d help him out, as in seasons past, by dragging some branches to the burn pile, using a tarp to give ’em a ride.

Ready for a tarp ride!

Understand, I was being cautious. This pile’s about half the size of what I’d usually drag.

But after three drags I decided to leave the rest for my Mate. Branches are heavy!

Hey, know what’s not that heavy? Leaves! Our big Japanese maple had dumped a ton into our yard. I raked up a couple of piles to tarp ’em out to the compost.

Notice how much more I could have loaded? Being a good girl here.

But once more, my back skeptical. It didn’t hurt so much as grumble a bit. So after two drags, I did something I HATE HATE HATE to do: left the job to finish tomorrow.


Recently I’ve been thinking a good deal about the term “Comfort Zone.” It’s generally something people try to get themselves out of: ruts of thinking, habit, even literal geographical location. After 20 months of COVID, many of us are having to redefine our social Comfort Zone–and finding it difficult.

So I feel like my back is reminding me: “No pain, no gain” only makes sense in very specific contexts or moments. Discomfort is something to be AWARE of, to LISTEN to, to LEARN from. It isn’t necessarily good, just as it isn’t necessarily bad.

Do I want to quit this exercise because I think it’s doing me harm, or because I just don’t feel like pushing?

Is that person on TV making me uncomfortable because I believe they’re wrong, or because they’re touching something in me I could maybe examine further?

This book I’m finding too painful to read–why is that? Am I satisfied with my own answer?

This friend I’ve dropped contact with: was that for my good, or theirs? Am I satisfied with my decision?

Pain? Gain? Strain? Some of each?

Obviously we shouldn’t overthink everything (hah–tell that to my brain!). I simply offer these examples as exhibits in the long-running show, “When We Say ___, Do We Really Mean It?”

I would love to hear your own exhibits in this show.

Working On Our Core: the Search for America’s Hidden Abdominals

As a woman who’s included “runner” as part of her identity since 1967 (true story), I’ve only recently joined the ranks of those smarter humans who treat their body as an entire vehicle, paying attention to all the parts–not just the ones that make me run faster.

Oh, 2013, I miss you so much. Those days are NOT coming back. (photo by Barb Mondloch)

I’m talking core. As in, that middle part of me that is apparently my secret weapon against the back pain that’s been messing with my routine. That part the rest of y’all have probably all been working on all this time, rolling your eyes at me for taking my body for granted. (Oh, sorry–that’s the Mate who does that, not you. Probably.)

Trying to remember the name of the muscles I’m engaging here.

Anyway, all this lying-on-the-floor-trying-to-get-in-touch-with-muscles-I’ve-never-heard-of stuff has me thinking about our country. Because, like “runner,” another identity I’ve taken for granted my entire life is “American.” And lately that identity, like the disc in my lower back, has started to fray, sending shocks of pain throughout my spirit.

Is this who we are? A nation of separate realities, separate truths? Is this 2020, or 1860?

You don’t need me to say more. You know what I mean. And you have probably been doing the same kind of wondering: where is that secret, hidden muscle we need to work, the one that binds us, keeps our body politic from falling apart?

Am I heading in the right direction? Reaching for the right solution?

I want to say that muscle is simply compassion–but how simple is compassion? In these days when each tribe thinks the other wants to destroy it? Can I make myself wish the best for, oh, I don’t know, a Michael Flynn, who urges a do-over of our entire election, or a Kelly Loeffler, who refuses even to acknowledge that’s what her leadership wants? Can I wish compassion for Trump or for people who scream his name without masks?

As I write this, I can hear John Lewis’s voice in my head:

“You are a light. You are the light. Never let anyone — any person or any force — dampen, dim or diminish your light … Release the need to hate, to harbor division, and the enticement of revenge. Release all bitterness. Hold only love, only peace in your heart, knowing that the battle of good to overcome evil is already won.” (from Across That Bridge: A Vision for Change and the Future of America)

I know, Congressman. I know. But it’s so HARD.

What “exercises” are you trying to strengthen your commitment to a “more perfect Union” in these fraught months? I would love to add them to my new routine.

Techno-Trep: Because Phobia is for Losers

My Stairmaster is testing me.

Bet you think this is one of those “Oh-no-I’m-already-breaking-my-New-Years-exercise-resolution” posts, huh? Nope–not that kind of testing. I’m hard-wired for exercise.

What I’m NOT hard-wired for is fixing things…especially anything hard-wired. (Whatever that means. I just like how it sounds.) I’m not phobic about technology, I’m just…trepidatious. I’m a Techno-Trep. Which is why I was OVER THE MOON two years ago when my beloved, ancient Stairmaster went on the fritz and I fixed it ALL BY MYSELF.

OK, not entirely by myself. I googled the problem: pedal drop (meaning you’re mastering those stairs like a pro and all of a sudden, bam–one pedal dives to the floor, breaking your stride and messing with your concentration as you try to anticipate how many more steps you get before the next jarring drop. The Co-Dependent Genie Google (thanks, Kristen Lamb, for that appellation) took me to a video by a nice man named Mark in Texas. Mark’s video said I had to inspect and perhaps replace my drive shaft.


But, for three dollars, Mark walked me step by step through the fix-it and even offered to connect by phone if I needed more help. I did. Mark was wonderful. He told me exactly what tools to get (needle-nosed pliers, some kind of clip-thing, and…hey, remember, I’m not good with this stuff), and told me, “You can do this.”

"You're MINE, Drive Shaft."

“You’re MINE, Drive Shaft.”

And…I did. I took that thing apart, saw that the bearings crumbled away at the touch, ordered a new drive shaft, and installed it. Stairmastering never felt so real to me.

Time passed. I used my machine. Then, one day, I moved it. Bad idea.
Stairmaster ANGRY.

This time, though, the problem was apparently electrical, not mechanical: the screen said “Program Error 1” and refused to say anything else.

Back to Google. Mark was nowhere to be found on this problem, unfortunately, but I did find an online manual which told me to check the voltage. So I bought a voltmeter, took the machine apart again, and tested the battery. It was FINE.

This is when I decided to apply the number-one strategy of the Techno-Trep: I waited to see if the problem would fix itself.

Hey, machine, you wanna pout ’cause you got all jostled when I moved you a few feet? Don’t you dare give me that “Program Error 1” look. You stay in your room till you’re ready to act like a piece of exercise equipment.

So, after two months of ignoring my machine (it helped that it was summer–who needs stair machines when there are sunny trails to run?), I went back in there, stepped up, and…

Machine: “Welcome. Please Choose Workout.”

Me: HA! YESSSS!! I knew you’d come around.

Now, a year and a half later, it’s cold and windy and I’m looking for an excuse not to have to run in the sideways rain. It’s Stair Time. Except…

Machine: “Program Error 1.”

Me: You’re kidding. What did I do? I never touched you!

Machine: “Program Error 1.”

Me: Is that it? You’re mad ’cause I’ve been ignoring you?

Machine: “Program Error 1.”

Me: Fine. I see how it is.

I’m not worried. I have a working strategy. In a couple of months, the pouting fit will be over. Who needs Mark in Texas? We Techno-Treps have it all figured out.

What about you? Are you a DIY fix-it stud, a caller-for-help, or a wait-and-see Techno-Trep like me? Or does it depend on the machine? I love hearing your stories.