Intermission: In Anticipation of All the Pee in China, part 2

I’ve done the worst thing a blogger could possibly do: I have posted a part 1 of a story, and then neglected to post a part 2. 

I’ve had not one good excuse—but a string of good excuses: I’ve had a UTI, then another UTI, then another UTI. (Or maybe the same UTI?) This string of UTIs led to a string of antibiotics. Which led to c-diff. Which led to the bathroom. Just as I was delayed in writing Part One of All the Pee in China because I had to run off to do Number One all the time—I have been delayed in writing Part Two because I’ve had to run off to do Number Two. 

I’m used to going to work sick (I’m always sick—I have MS) but I’ve had to cancel all my workshops. I’ve had to skip my yoga classes, and my tai chi. I’ve had to step away from my public identity. This morning I got up and put on my wellness drag: I darkened my brows, lightened the circles under my eyes, applied moisturizer to skin that is dry. My body isn’t buying it. I had twenty-four hours without a fever, but I am still not well. I need to rest. 

Gentle Reader, we will have to wait a while longer for part 2. No doing is the best thing I can do. 

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All the Pee in China, part 1

I haven’t written any blog posts for a really long time. I’ve had a good excuse. I had to pee.

I mean it. I’ve really had to pee. Multiple sclerosis causes my bladder to be both overactive—so much so that I rarely go ninety minutes without rushing to the bathroom—and under-active—so much so I have to use a catheter to completely empty.

Unrelenting runs to the bathroom have been not so good for my sleep patterns, not so good for my clarity of thought, and not so good for my travel plans. But that didn’t stop me from making travel plans. My son lives and works with his girlfriend, MC, on the other side of the planet. When this adorable couple invited my husband and me to stay with them in Beijing, there was no way we wouldn’t go. I love my son more than all the pee in China.

In the weeks leading up to the trip, every time I announced, “I’m going to China,” I’d feel mildly surprised I wasn’t asked, “How the hell will you manage that?”

Twenty five years of living with MS has made me pretty good at bluffing good health, but even I can’t bluff my way through frequent bathroom runs.

Hadn’t my friends noticed I rarely can get through a whole movie without excusing myself to run to the bathroom? Hadn’t my workshop students noticed me having to take bathroom breaks in the middle of ninety-minute sessions?

My anxiety about my bladder permeated all of my travel preparations. When I switched my language of choice on my Duolingo app from Spanish to Chinese, the first word to pop up on the app consisted two figures: the figure on the left looked to me like a distressed lady crossing her legs because she has to pee, obviously—whereas the  figure on the right had its arms outstretched, blocking the distressed lady’s way. Yes, I have the magical power of turning a language app into an ink blot test.

The distressing ideogram was paired with a sound. My American ears heard the word: “how.”

How, indeed.

I wondered how I was ever going to travel through China—not to mention to China—when I always have to pee?

The flight to China would be an overnighter. On ordinary nights, I get up four to six times to pee. I kept picturing myself seated in the middle of a long row, squeezing past passenger after passenger after passenger, disturbing their sleep—“Excuse me, Excuse me, Excuse me”—every 90 minutes.

And that’s what I could expect if conditions were optimal. 

The sad truth is, I’ve been getting UTIs on a monthly, sometimes bi-monthly basis. For those of you who have never had a UTI: congratulations. UTI stand for urinary tract infection, or Unrelenting Torturing Incontinence. To add agony to the inconvenience, every time you pee with a UTI,  it stings.

Chances of my getting a UTI during a two week trip? Between 50-100%.

Air travel with a UTI? Been there. Agony.

And even if I did make it through the overnight flight, how exactly would I make it through China? Our son wanted us to explore a few cities while we were there.

What would the public restrooms be like in China?

Our son warned us most public restrooms featured squat toilets. He advised us to practice squatting. I practiced. Our son mentioned most facilities were BYOTP—Bring Your Own Toilet Paper.

My husband had to talk me out of packing a roll.

I called my capable mother to air my anxieties. She has answers for everything. Worried about a UTI? Get antibiotics. Worried about having to pee? Get diapers. “They make diapers differently now,” she said. “More comfortable.” More comfortable than the ones she’d pinned on me in 1967? And possibly—ahem—larger?

Gentle reader, I got myself the antibiotics. When I ran out of time to procrastinate further, I drove out of town—out of state—to buy myself adult diapers. For double protection, I picked out overnight pads as well. I reminded myself that astronauts wore diapers. Who looks down on an astronaut? Nobody. Diapers could be seen as elite-wear for the long distance traveler. As I approached the check-out counter, I noticed I was the only customer. The cashier had no one to focus on but me, and those diapers, and those pads. My astronaut justification started to wobble. Wasn’t there some crazy astronaut lady who wore an adult diaper on a cross country drive to avenge a love spurned? Everybody looked down on that astronaut.  I silently reminded myself that I had a longer trip ahead of me, and a better motive: a mother’s love.

As I set the items on the belt, I forced myself to make eye contact as I returned the cashier’s greeting. I hoped the cashier didn’t see a middle aged nervous wreck with MS buying diapers and overnight pads for herself, but rather a high strung, healthy woman performing the duties of middle age—buying pads for herself and diapers for her fragile old mother—a fiction that could only hold with a cashier who has never met my mother, who is generally the most robust woman in any room. The cashier conveyed absolutely zero shock or pity, enabling me to maintain my dignity. So I got through that purchase. How would I get through China?

I’ll tell you. China was nothing like I thought it would be.  Let’s start with the meaning of that first character that popped up on my Duolingo app, the character that sounded like the English word H-O-W. It happened I would meet a friendly native speaker at a Beijing art gallery who would tell me the actual meaning of the word “Hāo.” As you may have guessed, the word has nothing to do with a distressed lady being blocked from accessing the bathroom by an obstinate man with outstretched arms. Hāo, she assured me, means “good.” Hão was also a part of her name.

Was my ink-blot interpretation of the figures in that ideogram something other than an instance of preternatural second sight?

Not so fast. Gentle readers, on my journey I would indeed meet an obstinate man who would physically block my way to the bathroom when I was in acute distress and had to pee. But I wouldn’t meet this imposing figure in China. I would meet him in the Toronto Airport.

  • to be continued

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Hard to Swallow

Location: Elephant Walk

Time: Another Monday night after a weekend of mass shootings

My husband and I are in our local Ethiopian/Indian restaurant. The owner is from India, his wife from Ethiopia. We are the only diners.

We’ve been seated at our usual booth. The sky outside is a vibrant post-thunderstorm blue, which reminds my husband of the skies in friendly Hawaii. We are far from friendly Hawaii. We are in Cincinnati, Ohio.

I am not seated on my usual side of the booth, facing outward. I am seated on my husband’s spot, the side facing the television. CNN is reporting on the latest mass shootings in Dayton, OH, and El Paso, Texas. Not Houston and Michigan, Uncle Joe. Not Toledo, President Trump. Dayton. El Paso. Say their names.

Protestors in Dayton are drowning out the meaningless thoughts-and-prayers speech our governor is attempting. “Do something!” The crowd roars. “Do something!”

Anyway.

As we wait for our meal, I mention that our son, who is midway through a two year contract in China, has posted on Instagram that he is not looking forward to returning to the United States.

I confess that I’d considered writing, “Then don’t return. I’d rather you live somewhere safer than somewhere closer.” But I hadn’t. I was too afraid a reply like that would manifest a cosmic comeuppance, in which our son settles somewhere with sounder gun laws (that would be anywhere) and somehow ends up getting shot. I have a lot of spooky superstitions about the power of the words I write. I am fearful they will manifest in some dark fashion. I long ago came to the conclusion that Trump has far too little accountability for the dark manifestations of the hateful words he tweets. And now this.

I am the usual subject switcher in our marital conversations. But everything is flipped tonight, so it’s my husband who switches the subject. He asks me about my morning physical therapy session. I tell him it was quite a workout.

“What did you do?”

“I swallowed. Eighty times.”

He laughs.

“You mean you sat in a room with someone and she watched you swallow eighty times? That sounds boring.”

“Boring? It’s suspenseful. You try five dry swallows in a row.”

My husband is on the other side of the swallow spectrum. If offered a glass of water with his Tylenol, he will invariably turn down the water, and take the Tylenol dry—whereas I seem to require half a glass of water at minimum to get a Tylenol down. He blithely accepts my dry swallow challenge. His first two dry swallows go easily, as we’d expected. The third swallow is an effort. The fourth is a struggle. The fifth swallow is…as painful to watch as CNN.

“That wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be.”

“I tell you, it’s a workout.”

My husband is the reason I’m going to swallow therapy. I’ve gotten in the nasty habit of choking during our meals. When he’d told me he was considering taking a CPR class, I’d told him that my friend M., who also has MS, had managed to improve her swallowing through physical therapy. He was all for my signing up.

His appetizer arrives—five pieces of ayib begomen—which are usually stuffed with collard greens but today, opposite day, the ayib begomen is stuffed with cabbage and mushrooms. He invites me to help myself to a piece.

To qualify for physical therapy. I’d had to drink barium “juice,” eat barium “applesauce” and down a barium “cracker.” It was all very cinematic.  There was a doctor to film the process, a doctor to narrate the process, and a technician to be—I don’t know, be the “gaffer” or “best boy”—one of those roles that are far down on the credits. I, of course, was the star/villain. It was revealed that when I made the motions of swallowing, I was actually stowing quite a bit of residue in my throat. The narrator doctor, the David Attenborough of the whole production, concluded that my tongue was weak.

Ouch.

I’ve never been accused of having a weak tongue before. A sharp tongue, yes. Back in the day. Never a weak tongue.

To make matters more menacing, my tongue was deemed more weak on one side than the other.

Twisted.

I taste today’s version of ayib begoman: I am a big fan of the usual collard green filling, but I appreciate the how the substitute cabbage cuts a subtle counterpoint to umami goodness of the substitute mushrooms.

Thanks to swallow therapy, I am paying attention as I chew this food. I realize my habit would be to stash half of a mouthful in my cheek, like a squirrel, and then swallow the other half. Not this time. I swallow both halves: a nice, forceful swallow. I imagine my therapist saying, “You’ve got this!” Rather than chase the ayib begoman with a demure little sip of water, as is my habit, I swig a big hearty gulp of water. Then I pat myself on the back. Yes, I do that. If I achieve something that requires a little push, I give myself a little pat.

My husband looks at me quizzically.

“My therapist tells me to think of each swallow as a push up. I just did two pushups.”

He says, “Good job. You’re not even talking with your mouth full.”

I share my revelation about my chipmunk habit. “So technically, all these years I’ve been talking to you with my mouth half full.”

It would be terrifying to blame my difficulty swallowing on multiple sclerosis. So I don’t.

If I blame my own bad habits, I can do something.

The proprietor is staring at the protestors on the screen, who are chanting in Dayton, forty-eight miles away.

Do something. Theme of the day.

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Teetering on the Edge of TRAP-MS

On my most recent trip to the NIH, I was hoping maybe I would be disqualified for the TRAP-MS study, which evaluates four existing FDA-approved medications for their potential to reverse progression in multiple sclerosis.  I don’t like that I have disease progression, and therefore qualify for the study. But if I am someone whose MS is progressing, I like the option of being first in line to take an FDA-approved medication that might help.

This was my second six month check-in to establish a baseline on my status with my new MS drug, Tecfidera.

Before I flew out, Dr. W, my NIH doctor, told me there was a  chance I’d test out of the trial, since I didn’t have much progression to medicate.  I wasn’t as optimistic about my lack of MS progression. My fall this January didn’t just fracture five bones in my face—it fractured all the routines I’d set up to live as healthily as I could with MS. I’d only just started going back to the gym. I hadn’t yet returned, wholeheartedly, to the Wahl’s-ish diet I’d been following.

During my summer exam, Dr. W had clucked at my balance— “your balance is shit”—and the lack of resistance in my right leg:—“so weak.” What would my balance be like after two months of not daring to challenge it? What would my strength be like after two months of barely any dog walks and zero visits to the gym? Thankfully, this setback didn’t prompt an MS relapse. But if there was going to be a time when my MS might be progressing, it would be now.

I’d been instructed to “take it easy” before my clinic visit. But that morning, I had pushed myself to the verge of immobility.

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As I entered Building 10, my spirits rose.  Maybe it was the profusion of plants, or maybe the profusion of people. I noted there was new art on the wall.

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I noted there was still no additional entry in the display of Presidential Visits.

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Luckily, the first appointment on my schedule was at Phlebotomy, which involved sitting, first in the waiting room, and then for the needle. That gave me some time to recover from all the walking I’d done through the airports, the Metro, and the NIH campus.

When my number was called, I got the same needle master as I’d drawn on my visit the previous summer. I recognized the fan letter he’d posted about his ability to make a two year old smile while drawing his blood.

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The testimonial hangs strategically at eye level of the person waiting to get their blood drawn. It is terribly effective at arresting any impulse to cower or cringe. Nobody wants to come off as a bigger baby than a sick two year old.

Did I, like the sick two year old, leave smiling after having my blood drawn? I doubt it. I’ve not been known to smile until after I’ve had my second breakfast.  I soon discovered that my favorite cafeteria—on the second floor in the new building—was closed for remodeling. I found my way to the alternate cafeteria in the basement of the old building. I loaded up on greens and root veggies and proteins. The meal provided all the rejuvenation I needed. By the time I stepped off the elevator on the fifth floor and rounded into the clinic, I no longer had a limp.  Seeing Diane, a nurse I’ve known since my first NIH visit, put me in the mood to smile.

Since returning to real life after my big fall, I’ve become accustomed to being greeted with “Your face looks good!” If I chose to take “looks good” as meaning anything more than “not permanently damaged,” it is because I latch shamelessly onto the positive.

Diane obviously didn’t get the memo about the five facial fractures. Instead of saying, “Your face looks good!” she greeted me with a hug and a frank assessment. “We’re getting old!”

True enough! I, for one, don’t mind looking (or getting) old. I’ve earned my silver stripes. Besides, those strands provide an instant, socially acceptable explanation for a slow or unsteady gait. It’s not that I am MS closeted—it’s just that not every distressed person stuck behind me on the staircase really wants or needs an explanation of the ravages of autoimmune disease when an assumption about the ravages of age will do.

Diane didn’t look any older, and I told her so. Diane is remarkably stable. She just doesn’t change. Case in point: the day I met her, she had just won a prize in a weight-loss competition between nurses on her floor. Here’s the catch: Diane had won by losing a mere pound and a half.  If Diane has had any weight fluctuations since then, they have probably been within the same range. Diane has had the same haircut as long as I’ve known her: same bangs, same color, same length. Diane stays Diane. I wouldn’t want her any other way.

Jen, the other dear nurse I’ve bonded with from the start—swooped in to agree with Diane’s assessment, “We are getting old!” as she grazed my cheek with a kiss. Jen’s hair was red that afternoon—her hair is a new color, a new style, every time I see her. Jen tends to pretend she’s disorganized or absentminded or late. True to form, she crafted an overly-elaborate explanation for why she couldn’t linger as she dashed off down the hall on her sturdy Doc Martens.

Diane wondered aloud, “How long have you been coming here, anyway?”

I guessed, “Maybe nine or ten years.”

Diane pulled up my file.  “Since 2010. Nine years.”

When I’d first come to the NIH, I’d been chasing daclizumab, the only drug that had managed to stop my MS relapses.  After the NIH had requisitioned all the supplies of it, I was more than grateful that there was room in the trial of the drug for me. For the three years of that trial, Diane and Jen had taken my weight and my blood every month. Once that trial was over, I was permitted to continue to take daclizumab though the NIH “safety study” while we all waited for the FDA approval. I flew in every six months for monitoring and new drug supplies. Once the drug was approved, we took what may yet be a final group photo.

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Thanks to TRAP-MS, we were back together again.

While Diane was at her computer, she got a notification on my labs. She scrolled down two screens of data.  “Your labs look good.”

I thanked her, and told her how, the last time I’d visited, I gotten my lab results on my phone just as I was about to get on my departing flight. The cholesterol was marked in red, and looked way high. I was freaking out that the diet I was on was going to give me a heart attack. Doctor Google hadn’t been much help.

“Stay away from Doctor Google. You should call us when you have a question.”

Diane scrolled up, “Your good cholesterol is what’s really high.”

Then Linh, one of the graduate students, stuck her head in the office. She was ready to give me my tests.

We started with the timed 25 foot walk. Considering I had been limping just an hour or so earlier, I wasn’t optimistic about the outcome. Still, I’ve been conditioned to give these tests my all, so when it was time to march from one masking tape line to the other, I barreled along the hall like I was on my way to lift a screaming baby out of a vat of boiling water. Then I turned around and barreled right back. My fear of falling paled in comparison to my fear of failing. I did not fall.

I announced, “My healthy appearance is a flimsy veneer.” Like the NIH don’t know that. Test by test, I went all out, competing with my better-rested summer self.

As Dr. W. examined me, she seemed gentler than last time. She didn’t push as hard for the resistance tests. She didn’t chide me for being weak. When I messed up on the heel-to-toe test, she let me re-take it. Twice. Not that I did any better.

Overall, Dr. W was enthusiastic about my condition. She told me maybe the rest I’d had was doing me some good. Or maybe the Tecfidera.

When Dr. W. called a few days later with the results of my visit, she assured me the MRI looked stable. She told me I’d actually performed better on some tests, like the peg test, than I ever have. But overall, my numbers still nudged a bit in the direction of progression. As long as there is a progression of my disease, I will continue to qualify for the study,

Dr. W wished me luck in getting disqualified from the study when she sees me next time in six months. As much as I love this crew, I would love to be too healthy to see them.

Life Isn’t Fair

I am currently enrolled in the TRAP-MS trial, which tests four FDA approved medications as potential supplemental medications for people with Multiple Sclerosis (MS). My appointment was originally scheduled for January 3, but as it turned out, I’d had to delay this follow-up twice—once because of a nasty cold, and once because of a nasty fall.

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At 5:35 on the morning of my twice delayed visit, I rounded a curve on I-75 South and was greeted by a dense array of taillights. Oops. I hadn’t planned on a traffic jam so early in the morning. There was no way I was going to make it to the airport within the recommended sixty minute buffer before my seven am flight. I was mortified. Would the NIH have to cancel yet another flight? I’d heard the NIH doesn’t get charged for flight cancellations. I stayed in my lane and hoped for the best. After a tense twenty minutes, the traffic jam dispersed, and traffic returned to normal. I made it to long term parking at ten after six. I still had to take the van to the airport. When I approached the kiosk, I had little expectation that it would produce a boarding pass. On a previous trip, I’d been denied a boarding pass for being a mere two minutes late.  Just for the heck of it, I entered my confirmation code and—surprise—received my boarding pass. I joined the line to security. The line was not a line. It was a serpentine labyrinth the likes of which one usually encounters on the holidays, not on an early morning weekday. Lines are not my thing. I know they aren’t anyone’s thing, but since multiple sclerosis, my legs tend to get super tingly and ornery if I stand too long. This line, however, moved just enough so I wasn’t standing, just walking very very slowly. My legs have become all too fond of walking very very slowly, so they didn’t tingle overmuch. They didn’t collapse. They cooperated. For that I was grateful. A modicum of gratitude can work wonders on the body. Security went smoothly—I wasn’t asked to take off my sneakers. I chose to walk to Concourse B instead of waiting for the tram, and as it turned out, my unruly legs got me to the Concourse B escalator maybe 30 seconds before the tram. At that point, even a 30 second increment counted. I was the last passenger to board the plane. By far. My seat, 5B, had leg room to spare. Not only that, I was the only passenger on this flight with no seat mate. While I was by far the most delinquent passenger, I’d wound up with the best accommodations.

Life isn’t fair.

IMG_1354We made it to our destination early. I wouldn’t have to wait for the 10:30 van to the NIH. I could easily make the 8:30.

IMG_1353I consulted my email from the travel office, which instructed me to wait on level three between doors 5 and 6—on the far end of the airport. As I hustled in that direction, a uniformed agent asked me for my destination. When I said, “The NIH,” he directed me to wait between doors 3 and 4. I hesitated. Which to believe? The travel office or the guy on the ground? We locked eyes for a second. I figured that if I picked the NIH instructions over his word, I couldn’t come to him for help later. I showed him the instructions on my screen. He muttered, “Then do as it says.”

There was no one waiting between doors 5 and 6. I figured, if I’ve chosen wrong, I’ll at least be able to spot the familiar white van with the NIH logo as it passes—and possibly manage to flag it down. 8:30 came and went. I reminded myself that traffic in DC was even less reliable than traffic in Cincinnati—who was I to get ruffled if the van was late? A professional looking man—perhaps a doctor?— approached timidly—perhaps wondering if this was where one waits for the NIH shuttle. And then he scurried away, with an air of private mortification. That was the only time I took my eyes off the road. Was it then that the NIH shuttle went by? Or had the shuttle indeed been late? At 8:42 I called the travel office, just to check. They told me the shuttle had arrived on time between gates 3 and 4. They were unimpressed by my complaint that I’d been instructed to wait between gates 5 and 6. I still had the option of the 10:30 shuttle.

At this point I could go back inside the warm airport, get off my feet, and maybe write an entry for my long neglected Ms. Lab Rat blog. On the other side of the road, the metallic Metro streaked by. The NIH van had let me down once already. I chose to give the Metro a try.

The NIH has its own Metro stop. In the past, I’ve used it to optimize my visits, dashing off to a museum, or the zoo, if given a wide enough stretch in my schedule between a clinic visit and an MRI. I’d never had the occasion to take the Metro from the airport, because in the past, there had always been a cab waiting for me. This was my first visit since the research got shuffled to a different department within the NIH, and this department was stingy. It wasn’t paying for cab rides, or food stipends, or hotels, and probably wouldn’t reimburse my measly little Metro fare.

I didn’t care. Taking the Metro seemed a better proposition than loitering in the airport. I found my way to the station where a Chinese gentleman guessed I was in search of the map. I thought of my son, an American who lives in Beijing and has probably been assisted once or twice at train stations by helpful Chinese gentlemen. I saw that my commute would take only 44 minutes and would involve only one transfer, which confirmed my hunch that I’d made the right decision.

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I loved the ride on the DC Metro, loved the long Deco-like escalator that opened up to the regal white stone NIH station.

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I was in too good a mood when the NIH security guard handed me my temporary ID and asked, “Do you know where you are going? Do you know how to get there?”

I answered, “Yes.”

I should have asked, “Where do I wait for the shuttle?”

I had many memories of walking from Building 10 to the Metro stop. But on this day, I would build a new memory. A memory of getting about halfway to Building 10 when I started to limp. A memory of waving urgently at the campus shuttle, which drove on by.

Life isn’t fair.

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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.