The Cold Keeps the Riff-Raff Out

IMG_9548I probably should not admit this; under certain circumstances, I do give up. I give up on big things. Things I love. Things that define me to myself. A few months ago, I gave up on swimming at the YMCA.

Swimming is one of the few cardio-vascular exercises still open to me; as I explained in an earlier entry (That Which Doesn’t Kill You) I have to avoid raising my body temperature. Any time I get too hot, my multiple sclerosis symptoms rear their ugly heads. It gets kind of tricky to keep fit while also keeping cool. Exercise isn’t about keeping cool; exercise is about burning calories. “Feel the burn;” that’s the mantra. Problem is, when I feel the burn, it means I’m about to go down.

I’ve found all sorts of ways to work around this hitch. I can use the weight machines at the gym; I simply lift the lightest increments. I walk over to the water fountain after each machine, and take a drink to avoid overheating.  Then I go on to the next machine; perform my repetitions. Rinse. Repeat. My system works. I do get toned. I don’t get overheated. There is just one flaw. I do get bored.

I am not about getting bored. I am all about joy. Did I say exercise is about burning calories? That’s a boring way to look at it. Exercise, at its best, is about celebrating the body, at its best. Exercise is an act of joy.

For me, the most joyous form of exercise is swimming. My husband calls me a mermaid, because even on those days when I cannot walk, when I cannot put one foot in front of the other, I can still swim. Being in the water levels the playing field. The water exempts me from negotiating my balance. It exempts me from gravity. I know why the dolphin grins.

After all this waxing rhapsodic over swimming, you would think that nothing would stand in the way of me and a swimming pool. Let me introduce you to the women of the YMCA locker room. Gentlemen, avert your eyes.

My first impediment was an aging Southern Belle, who introduced herself by stating, “You’re not from around here, are you.” She asked me for my name, and my birthplace. I told her I was born in the Bronx.

The Southern Belle stiffened. I added, I thought helpfully, “Bronx, New York.”

“Oh, I guess that’s all right.”

A few visits later, The Southern Belle grilled me again about my birthplace. The first time she’d asked, she’d been poolside, looming over me as I backstroked. The second time, I had just stepped out of the shower in the locker room. The Southern Belle apparently felt very comfortable in the locker room. As she was asking me about my birthplace, she was languidly applying her hairdryer to her billowy private parts. Startled, I averted my eyes. I towel dried and dressed as quickly as possible. The hairdryer droned on. I could not help but notice as I passed The Southern Belle on my way out that she was still aiming her hairdryer where the wind should not blow. I checked the clock on the wall. Eleven thirty.

Let me tell you something about the daytime YMCA regulars. They are creatures of habit. I am not, and can never be, a creature of habit. I am not, and can never be, a “regular.” I am a creature with brain shrinkage. I could not be tethered to a schedule, even if I wanted one. When I plan, MS laughs.

This YMCA regular was getting in my way. I figured she couldn’t possibly linger at the YMCA all day. The Southern Belle had to eat. By the looks of her, The Southern Belle had to eat quite a lot. She would likely take a break for lunch. I would no longer go to the Y in the morning. I would go instead at noon.

This plan was brilliant. I encountered The Southern Belle on her way out.  We were both fully dressed. She may not have recognized me; she didn’t ask me where I was born. I changed and showered unmolested by her questions; and arrived at the pool—with all the other lunchtime swimmers.

I waited for a free lane. One swimmer was gracious enough to offer to share his lane. I accepted.

I like to lose myself when I swim; I’m pretty sure I’m not unique in that regard. I knew what he was giving up. I tried my best to be a good neighbor; to keep to one side, to keep a pool length between us. All that neighborliness was exhausting. The man was a shark. He never stopped moving. I often outlast fast swimmers. I figured, if I just held out, I’d eventually have the lane to myself. Then I noticed the waiting swimmers still poolside. Not a chance.

Maybe going to the YMCA at noon was not such a brilliant idea, after all. I remained undeterred.  I could always go in the early afternoons.

Little did I know I would encounter an even more terrifying locker room adversary; an adversary who could get into my head. I feel almost guilty introducing her to you, because she’ll get into your head, too.

But maybe she needs no introduction; chances are, you already know a version of her. Perhaps you are a version of her. She is The Suburban Soccer Mom. All she does is judge. And judge. And judge.

Oh yes, and one other thing; The Suburban Soccer Mom never shuts up.

My first early afternoon swim went…swimmingly. I’d had a lane to myself. I could shut out awareness of all the other swimmers, but better still, I could shut out all my own thoughts. Swimming is my moving meditation. My mantra is simple…I count as I stroke. One. Two. Three. Breathe.

I headed to the locker room showers, dripping and peaceful. And then I heard a strident female voice.

“He’s says the kids should be there to have fun. I’m sorry, but if my daughter were winning a game every once in a while she’d have a lot more fun. Correct me if I’m wrong. Is there something not-fun about winning? Isn’t winning the point? Am I wrong, here? Am I wrong?”

A second, softer voice responded eagerly; a voice so soft I couldn’t hear a pandering word.

I stepped in a shower and turned on the water, hoping to drown The Suburban Soccer Mom out. I tried to regain the calm I’d felt after forty-five minutes of laps, of forming no words in my head besides “one, two, three.” I lingered in the shower a bit longer than usual, giving the Suburban Soccer Mom ample opportunity to exhaust her case against her daughter’s fun-loving/fun-destroying soccer coach.

As it happened, by the time I was done with my shower, The Suburban Soccer Mom was done lambasting her daughter’s soccer coach. She’d moved on to lambasting her father-in-law.

“He expects me to feel sorry for him because he just had back surgery. Why should I? It’s his own damn fault he needed the surgery. He’s too damn fat. His spine couldn’t take it. No surprise there. He should have gone on a diet. He should have gotten off his fat ass and exercised. Instead he runs to a doctor. You want to know the real problem with health care costs in this country? People are too damn lazy. They’re too damn lazy and they’re too damn fat. They overeat, and then they transfer the burden to the rest of us.”

I had to pass The Suburban Soccer Mom on my way to my locker. I didn’t give her glance. I try to avoid looking directly at the other naked women, with the presumption they might extend the same courtesy to me. Even though I didn’t look at The Suburban Soccer Mom directly, there are things I can tell you for certain about her appearance. The Suburban Soccer Mom is blonde and trim, though perhaps no more trim than I am. I can also assure you she must appear perfectly, unassailably normal. She couldn’t possibly tolerate herself otherwise.

I could not help but look directly at The Suburban Soccer Mom soft-voiced companion; she was cowering in front of my locker. The soft-voiced companion was soft-bodied. Her eyes bulged out in terror at the sound of the word, fat.

Once again, I found myself changing into dry clothes as quickly as possible to make a speedy exit from the YMCA locker room. I pitied the The Suburban Soccer Mom for her malady; an unrelenting/unremitting chronic illness that was causing her to assume she is surrounded by inferiors. If only she’d leave off judging everyone, she could be a happier person. If only she was more like…me.

On subsequent visits I heard subsequent rants. When The Suburban Soccer Mom was in a good mood, she’d alternate her judgments of other people’s failings with reports of her own successes; the laps she’d swum, the triathlons she’d won. According to The Suburban Soccer Mom, the world would be a much better place if we would all be more…like her.

And that’s how I ran afoul of The Suburban Soccer Mom. One afternoon she happened to notice that I am not at all like her.

That particular afternoon, I was fighting against fatigue. Fatigue is one of the toughest elements to deal with in MS. It feels like a personal failure. The Suburban Soccer Mom in me told me to drive to the YMCA and do my laps, though The Henry’s Mom in me thought I should save my energy so I’d still have enough vigor to pick my son up from school, to snack with him, to talk with him, to walk the dog with him, and after all that, to make the family dinner. I compromised. I decided to still swim laps, but only for fifteen minutes.

As I stashed my street clothes in the locker room, I heard The Suburban Soccer Mom announcing to the assembled that she and her daughter would be going out for a jog. I happened to return from my fifteen-minute lap swim just as The Suburban Soccer Mom was announcing to those assembled that her daughter had just texted to cancel their jog.  Oh, Sububran Soccer Mom’s daughter, wherever you are, I took the bullet for you that time. Your mother looked up from her cell phone, and found a target in me .

“Well, that was the shortest swim I’ve ever heard of.”

That was it. That’s all The Suburban Soccer Mom said. Yet I didn’t go back to the YMCA for two months. The next time I felt fatigue, I stayed home. And so on, for almost three months.

I shouldn’t bother to spend any more energy dissecting what is wrong with The Suburban Soccer Mom. I ought to figure out what the heck is wrong with me. I gave up something I loved to avoid someone I hated. Maybe I ought to do a little less hating. Maybe the prescription I’ve been writing for The Suburban Soccer Mom is prescription I ought be writing for myself.

I’ll have you know that on Friday I did return to the YMCA. There was a notice posted on the front door, regretfully announcing that though the lifeguard was on duty, the pool heater was broken.

Perfect. I learned a folk saying back in the days when I lived with the good, decent people of Minnesota. The cold keeps the riff-raff out. Sure enough, the pool was empty. I could swim in any lane that I pleased, for as long or as short a time as I pleased. Better yet, the locker room was empty, too.

I’ve got to go. The pool is only open another hour. I’ve got to get in my fifteen minutes of laps.

author’s note: On the drive home from a cold, solitary swim, I heard this thoughtful discussion about judging the judger on NPR. Listen and learn: http://www.npr.org/2011/01/10/132809627/concrete-ways-to-live-a-compassionate-life

For my review of “12 Steps to a Compassionate Life,” the book under discussion on NPR that day, connect to Goodreads http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/144053847

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The Big Move

I know just the moment I backed away from updating my blog; I’d gotten no further from the NIH than the Dulles Airport when an update on my blood work from the visit popped up on my phone. There were five categories where my numbers were off. This was a dramatic made-for-blogging opportunity. I could create a post wherein I could freak out. My readers could freak out. I could then contact my doctor and collect information to put the off numbers into context and — BOOM! — that could be the next blog post. Yawn.

I will—I promise—resume this blog at some point. I’ve missed some real opportunities for reflection during this current dry spell. But I’ve been distracted. By the vicissitudes of chronic illness, yes, but also by the demands of my increasingly enthralling writing workshops.

Loyal followers, here is a link to a story that was first presented to me seventeen years ago in my workshop in Connecticut, and which has now been published by Adelaide Magazine. The Big Move is a spellbinding work by Maria Frangakis about a young Mexican girl who has the audacity to be curious.  I know you will enjoy it.

Buses and Automobiles

Thirty years ago, I was introduced to a guy at a party who said he was a writer.  Reader, I married him. His non-fiction sketch, Bus Portraits, got published this morning by X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine. The physicality  of this piece knocks me out. And yes, it does belong on a blog about disability.

Tom Grogan, a writer in my Tuesday workshop, recently wrote an eloquent essay about the pain and loss he felt when he gave up driving. It was published by the Cincinnati Enquirer.

As far as I know, the two men have never shared a bus ride together.

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An App for That?

This wide and wonderful planet is not as handicapped accessible as it could be. Which leads to all sorts of conundrums for travelers who are in wheelchairs, or on crutches, or who just have to pee—now.

Is there an app for locating free, clean, accessible bathrooms? I want one. Until that day, I will simply follow the Golden Arches.  Gas station restrooms can be dicey. Highway rest areas are, in my mind, the pinnacle of civilization, but are prone to closure during state budget cuts. Which bring me back to McDonald’s. Again, and again, and again. Specials shout outs to the McDonald’s by the Arc de Triomphe and the McDonald’s in Waimea. Home is where they have to let you in.

I have another request of the App Gods. I want an interactive, updatable app to alert travelers with disabilities of situations like this:

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I was shocked, as was the lady in the photo above, to see that the elevator was out at the Metro Station at the NIH (National Institutes of Health), of all places. We’d been lulled into the feeling that we’d reached Oz and all of our problems were about to be solved. And now this. While believe I pointed the young woman in the direction of a working elevator, that could have been wishful thinking. The sun had just burst out from under a cloud, raising my body temperature, frying my neurological wires. So I was distracted. I had to pee. But in my distraction, I did wonder: why couldn’t Google Maps have a little alert that the elevator was out, saving this lady the effort it took to get here…and a little flag indicating the location of the next closest elevator? And that’s when my app idea was conceived. It’s still not fully formed.

Is this app a layer on existing apps that a disabled user can opt into?

Or is this a separate app? I know I love to read blogs about other people’s (mis)adventures traveling with MS, like the Xanax tinged travails of MSGracefulNot.   Wouldn’t it be nice if all the testimonials were in one place? That’s what the fine blog The MS Wire has attempted to do. Ed Tobias has compiled travel tips from his years of adventures, and has invited his readers to do the same. He’s started with some practical tips about traveling New York, with the hope of adding more cities in the future. It would be great to have folks check in from Ontario and Topeka or their own home town, with their praises of well tended sidewalks and/or their condemnations of doors within hospitals that can’t be opened without buttons. (Major pet peeve!) It would be great, on entering a new city, to have the dirt on the dirty bathrooms (I know, I know, I’m obsessed with bathrooms) and broken elevators from people who get it. It would be great to have travel anxieties dispelled by the knowledge that our peers have our backs.

Thank you for reading!

If you haven’t already, consider voting for my blog at the WEGOHealthAwards.

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If This Callus Could Talk

I was moving my index finger back and forth from the tip of  Dr. W’s index finger to the tip of my nose—a rote task in a neurological exam—when Dr. W. caught my right wrist and asked, “What’s the story behind this?”

There was a callus between my thumb and forefinger.  “I got that kayaking.”

The story of the kayak trip is more than the story behind the callus. It’s the story behind my marriage. That’s my husband’s take on it, anyway.

The weekend before our twenty seventh anniversary, my husband and I decided to venture out to the west side of Cincinnati to kayak. We decided against the familiar lakes, with their predictable views, and opted instead to rent from an unfamiliar kayak outfit on the Miami River. Perhaps we didn’t read the description of the activity too carefully—or at all.  On arrival, I overheard my husband ask, “How will we know we are at the turning point?” I didn’t linger for the answer. I was heading for the Porto Potty. I figured my husband would receive all the information we’d need.

A very nice older man drove us to the launching area. A very nice younger man set us up with a two person kayak and two life jackets. And we set off down the Miami River.

The kayaking was bliss. Blue sky. Bird song. We spotted a Great Blue Heron, my favorite. I marveled at how easy it was for my husband and I to kayak together, how adept we were at paddling, how in sync in both movement and observation. The weather was cool for the first time all summer. We wouldn’t have to worry about overheating triggering my MS symptoms. As time went on, I took off my life jacket to ensure I wouldn’t overheat. My husband started splashing my neck. We laughed. We rowed.  We saw a bridge ahead. We knew we had two bridges to cross under before the end of the route. I was getting warmer. I asked for a swig of water. Not five minutes later, I had to pee.

An observant reader may be perplexed: didn’t Ms. Lab Rat just use the Porto Potty three paragraphs ago? What’s the deal with her having to pee? Is it MS, is it old age, is it childbirth? Maybe it’s all three.

In any case, we didn’t know how much distance was left between Bridge One and the turning point. We decided we’d reached our own turning point.  It was time to head back.

As soon as we dipped in our oars, we discovered that paddling upstream would be much more rigorous than we’d imagined while paddling downstream. We briefly wondered why the kayak outfit hadn’t pointed us upstream first, to conserve our energy for the tough stuff at the end. And then we quit wondering. We had to use all of our strength to  paddle. Some areas were difficult. Others…impossible. More than once, we experienced the degradation of getting  pulled backward while paddling all-out. We carried the kayak over one rough spot. My husband got up and pulled me through others.

At one point, I had to laugh. My usual work-out ethic has been tempered by multiple warnings from eye care professionals that my left retina is strategically poised to spring out the instant I over-strain. As we paddled upstream, I overstrained aplenty. It’s a wonder that retina didn’t pop. I kept catching myself making bizarre, grotesque facial expressions, as though baring my lower teeth plus rolling my upper lip plus flaring my nostrils plus straining my neck was somehow going move the paddle any faster. I’m going to hazard a guess that my husband also had his moments of unnecessary energy expenditure, like those times he was paddling so hard, he had the boat rocking side to side. As we rocked, I felt useless. Worse than useless. Like unnecessary cargo that could easily jettison.

As we rowed back up the way we came, we passed other kayakers, all of them blissful, laid  back. All of them paddling downstream. They were playing. We were working. Distances easily crossable on foot appeared nearly impassable by kayak. We studied the current, strategized our route—hug the shore here, avoid the rocks there. Toward the end, we agreed to cut straight across the river, and row toward the far side of an island. We made better progress than we anticipated. There on the island was a gathering of Canadian Geese. Spectacular creatures. They looked mildly surprised to see us, but not at all threatened. Yep. We were too pathetic to spook a goose. And too tired to wield a cell phone and take an Instagram. Instead, we focused on rowing steadily to the launch point, trying to make it look as though we’d been rowing steadily, in unison, all along. Oddly enough, there was no one on the banks to witness our show of fortitude. Our kayak nosed onto land unheralded. The very nice younger man was nowhere to be found. My husband pulled the kayak inland alongside its mates and threw our life jackets in the pile and called the number for the kayak rental outfit. They were as surprised as we were that no one was there at the end point to meet us. They told him they’d call him back. A minute later, my husband got the phone call that explained all. Apparently, we weren’t supposed to have turned around—the kayak route went one way only. If we’d just continued paddling downstream, we would have quickly and effortlessly made it to the end. A very nice young lady drove out to pick us up at the launch point. She said, “You must have worked hard.” We needed to hear that. “We’re so sorry. We must not have communicated very well.” We needed to hear that, too.

For me, the trip was a victory. I hadn’t peed my pants. I hadn’t lost my retina. I hadn’t been jettisoned. My bar for victory is comfortably low.

On the drive home, my husband suggested I write a blog post about the kayak incident. He saw it as a perfect metaphor for how we are accustomed to working harder than every other couple, because we are constantly pushing back against MS.

I see a different metaphor. He and I should relax, and go with the flow.

p.s. A big thanks to all the readers who have voted for me in the #WEGOHealthAwards. If you haven’t yet, there’s still time. Follow this link.

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A Day in the Life at the NIH Triali

Nothing ever goes exactly as planned in the NIH. This is an observation, not a criticism. Sometimes, a change in plans works to my advantage. When my husband and I arrived promptly for my seven a.m. appointment, I was told my eight a.m. MRI would have to be rescheduled. There weren’t enough technicians. My husband and I are adept at such situations. My body’s fickle insurrections have given us plenty of exposure to the changing of plans.

My first appointment was to review the revised consent form with the magnetically charming nurse Naomi. Within five minutes chatting over the forms she’d told me enough about life in DC for me to recommend Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah. As it turned out, Naomi had read that book and loved it, loved it so much she’d read it non-stop through a red-eye flight to Dubai, forgoing in-flight movies, forgoing sleep.

It was Naomi’s job to inform me that I would not be getting better care at the NIH than I could get at my local neurologist. I adore and admire my local neurologist. But I ask any of you with MS: does your neurologist have time to assess your condition for four hours? The level of care just does not compare. And more importantly, my visit to my local neurologist is designed to help only me. An NIH visit is designed to help multitudes.

Naomi told me I might be eligible to be paid $200 for my spinal tap. (There is usually no payment involved in a clinical trial, just reimbursement for food and travel.) I was open to this change of plans.

After I saw Naomi, I saw Dr. W. The last time I’d seen her, she’d been displeased by how easily she could push against my leg. She’d uttered one syllable, “weak.” I’ve been working  on my leg strength ever since. This visit, I gave her sufficient resistance. But she simply gave me a new area to work on. “You have shitty balance. You can improve that. Practice!” I’d improved my strength. You can bet I’ll improve my balance

Dr. W proposed a change of plans even more extravagant than Naomi’s $200 compensation. She noticed I’d just had a spinal tap the year before. She consulted the timelines of the studies I’m in, and declared I wouldn’t have to have a spinal tap this year, after all. This piece of news was an order of magnitude more exciting than the prospect of a spinal headache, and two hundred bucks. “I am your advocate,” she declared. We fist bumped.

Next came  the auxiliary scales. I performed the same battery of tests I always do—I did worse on some, better on others—all in all, it seemed a wash. Dr. W will be calling me next week when the data is in.

Further updates on this visit will have to wait until tomorrow. I am tired, my legs are crawling with electric pain, and my husband and I are planning to get up early and take the Metro into DC tomorrow to visit a museum.

Thanks for reading!IMG_0049

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