…life on the synaptic firing range

Location: Los Angeles, United States

Bent but unbroken Southern California native seeks understanding, companionship, and resonance along and off the beaten path. Teresa plays well with others and makes every effort to perform to her potential. Usually. *processed in a facility that processes nuts and nut products

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

good doc, bad doc

My nerves are conducting information at a happy rate. This I learned yesterday from an unflinchingly nice physiatrist, which is a medical specialty I had never heard of but am pleased to add to my vocabulary.

Unlike, say, neurology, physiatry seems an extremely unsexy field of specialty, one where practitioners aren't likely to get huzzahs for breakthrough studies or found eponymously named disorders. But lack of glory aside, something tells me physiatrists sleep well at night. Theirs is a science of helping physically compromised people remain as functional and pain-free as possible. Isn't that lovely? I know there are plenty of doctors in other specialties who went to medical school to help people, but so many of the specialists I've seen seem to have lost that vision somewhere along the line, such that patients become nothing but the sum of their Immunoglobin-G indices and antinuclear-antibody ratios.

When I waitressed I often approached my shifts as marathon rounds of Whack-a-Mole, the arcade game wherein players wield giant mallets to pound moles as they randomly pop up from various holes. My mallets were breadbaskets, coffee refills, food, and—when simply sating the moles' hunger wasn't enough—comped checks or management intervention. And so I moved through my shift, knocking down mole after mole, which were in turn replaced with new moles, and so on until closing time.

Now I'm the mole, and I'm sent away for blood tests and imaging and physical therapy. When that's not enough, I see new specialists and subspecialists, most of whom approach me with an air of challenge: Why are you here? What are you doing in my office? How do you expect me to help you? Put on the defensive, I try to describe the past year as I've experienced it through a suddenly and inexplicably uncooperative body, and as I do I begin to stutter and stammer and sometimes even tear up, none of which persuades them to take me any more seriously as someone whose compromise may not be entirely psychiatric. They ask me the same questions other doctors have asked, sometimes glancing through my file as I respond, and, when no obvious answer presents itself, they declare me not their problem and bring the hammer down. By the time I change out of my hospital gown and collect my things, I, too, am convinced that I'm a waste of their time.

This physiatrist, she was different, in much the same way my GP is. Sincere and welcoming—without seeming at all undoctorly. Maybe the difference between her demeanor and that of other specialists lies in the fact that she administers her own diagnostic procedures—as I understand, only physiatrists receive the proper training to perform nerve-conduction tests and EMGs. The nature of her specialty allows her ample time to see her patients, and maybe as a result she wants to have a more personal relationship with them. Or maybe she was attracted to her field because she’s the kind of person who wants to interact with patients in this way. At any rate, she made me feel like the most important person in the room as she calmly placed the electrodes and measured the varying lengths of nerve to be assessed, as she asked how I was doing after each round and carefully wiped the conductive gel—which made me smell like a baby's bottom—from each area before she moved on to the next. If not for the electric shocks, our session might have been a spa treatment—such was the delicacy of her touch and the unhurried nature of her ministrations.

When she finished she gave me her preliminary report, that there didn't appear to be anything suggestive of a nerve disease or disorder, and said that she would write up a more detailed analysis for my GP. She said that she didn't need me to set up another appointment at this time but that I should stop by her nurse's station on my way out to pick up her card in case I wanted to see her in the future.

I left her office feeling cared about, which struck me as extraordinary, but shouldn't we always feel that way when we leave our doctors' offices? If we don't feel physically better, shouldn’t we at least feel emotionally better for having had our needs seen to?

Once my GP told me that he was going to leave my file on his desk to keep my case fresh in his mind, hoping that some previously unexplored avenue might occur to him. That idea alone was almost enough to heal me. Wouldn't it be something if some measure of kindness and unhurried personal care were all I needed to leap this terrifying divide between mental and physical wellness? If in being regarded as a legitimate patient I might at last accept that my illness is best treated by my mental health team? Isn't that treatment plan worth a shot, docs?

Saturday, February 25, 2006

once more into the breach

Wednesday night I passed out on my way to bed. Happily, I was standing face-to-face with my partner at the time, so she saw my eyes go dead and my face grow pale and caught me before I could fall, then laid me down on the nearby divan. (Doesn't that sound fancy? Divan? And now you might be thinking we're all regal and shit, but the divan is a piece of furniture my partner's parents shipped to us when we had their dog because, well, their dog really liked to lie on it. So our fancy divan, the one I just fainted on, is more properly a dog bed.) Then we slowly made our way back to the bedroom in a sort of waltz pose, my partner leading, walking backward with me facing her, my arms about her shoulders. She repeatedly called "H!" (short for "honey") and I repeatedly said "OK" to let her know that I was cogent despite my undoubtedly dusky appearance. She brought me a teeny glass of orange juice and cruelly refused to let me get up to brush my teeth when I finished it. And after she extracted a promise from me to call for an appointment with my doctor in the morning, she went to e-mail my friend G to cancel our breakfast plans.

This most recent blackout merely caps my frustration as I approach the one-year anniversary of "the precipitating event," a seizure on March 16, '05, wherein I lost consciousness for several minutes and awoke mentally and physically compromised in ways that persist, in their annoying waxing and waning fashion, to this day. Over 11 months later—after a head CT, two MRIs, a sleep-deprived EEG, a spinal tap, and enough blood draws to drain a medium-size child—the official entry on my chart is "possible MS" and the unofficial word in the doctors' lounge is "nine kinds of crazy." The latter pronouncement came in the fall, six months or so into my diagnostic purgatory, from a man I like to call "Dr. Malkinesis," a neurology subspecialist in movement disorder who spent every bit of 15 minutes with me before he wrote me off as having a conversion disorder. According to the National Library of Medicine, ahem:

"Conversion disorder is one of several types of somatoform disorders, in which psychological problems produce physical symptoms."

Here's the good part: "Risk factors include a history of histrionic personality disorder."

Isn't that utterly fantastic? I've been diagnosed as hysterical, a trait I'll emphasize by ending this sentence with an!

The good news about this diagnosis, as opposed to, say, "malingering," is that I'm not being called a big faker. Apparently, I would have no more control over CD than I would over MS. Also in the good-news department, the NLM emphasizes that the symptoms of CD can last "days or even weeks," so I'm really, really due to be over this thing any time now.

I was willing to believe I was a head case for a few months. I didn't like it much, but it was an explanation for the randomly relapsing and remitting symptoms, a pattern that, while a hallmark of MS, isn't enough for a diagnosis of same without objective evidence of demyelination, which was happily lacking in my brain MRI and spinal tap. "Mental" is way better than MS anyway, right? So despite my internalized stigma, I embraced the conversion disorder theory with as much gusto as I could muster and looked to my mental health team for a timely resolution.

That was about four months ago, and we have yet to answer the essential question: Why? A conversion disorder is classically a reaction to a psychological conflict which the symptoms help to resolve—i.e., paralysis of a hand before a piano recital in the face of extreme stage fright. If my syndrome is genuine CD, I should be able, with therapeutic assistance, to identify a root psychological problem, something that my subconscious is trying to help me resolve through physical compromise—in my case: a certain torpor of my left side that makes walking slow and labored, numbness in my extremities, mental fog, and a mild intention tremor in my right hand. If, as my psychiatrist suggests, my psyche is herein demonstrating impressive creativity in its approach to problem solving, I would have to insist that it stop being such a show-off and give the abstract expressionism a rest. We get it, psyche: You're very, very clever.

What with all the chirping of crickets on the psychological front, I'm not so much buying the CD diagnosis these days. I had a minor meltdown about it last Sunday, crying through lunch at PF Chang's, trying to pull myself together when the waitress uncertainly edged near to see whether everything was OK. No, it's not OK. It's very much not OK, but the dan-dan noodles are delicious, thanks.

Tuesday morning, just two days after that emotive lunch, I felt a big face-plant coming on as I stepped from the shower. I lurched the few feet between myself and the bed and lay down. I tried several times to get up and continue getting ready, but each time I met with that blood-rushing vortex that threatened to take me down. So I called in dizzy to work and went back to bed.

Then Wednesday night: the latest blackout.

When I saw my GP Thursday morning, he being the most likely doc to extend me any further benefit of the doubt that I'm not completely mental, he flipped through my now-voluminous chart and noted my "history of fainting since childhood." (Histrionic personality disorder, anyone?) No, I said, I had told the neurologist that I experienced exactly two fainting episodes in high school and no other losses of consciousness between then and March '05, more than 20 years later. "Oh," he said. "Well, that definitely makes these recent episodes more compelling."

We went over some of my less sexy symptoms—i.e., urinary urgency—and we talked about what kind of imaging had already been performed: the head CT and the brain and neck MRIs. He went back to his office to look at them, and when he came back he said, "You know, your neck MRI was soft tissue only; we've never looked at the bony structures."

Funny thing, my partner and I were just this week speculating whether there are different types of MRIs depending on what docs are looking for. Despite our scant knowledge on the topic—what we had seen on television—we tentatively decided that there is just the one kind of MRI that shows everything at once. But the inaccuracies of TV medicine are all too apparent to me when I see a whole team of neurologists on "House" hovering about the monitor during an MRI, solving the most baffling cases right there in the computer bay. Each of my MRIs were attended only by a wisecracking technician whose only concerns were whether I had any steel plates or pins in my head, whether I wanted the AC on while in the tube, and whether I was claustrophobic. No, no, and no.

"Do you think it would be worthwhile to do another neck MRI?" I asked my GP.

Yes, the answer was yes. In fact, he expressed surprise that my cervical spine hadn't already been looked at. Hallelujah! Someone still reserves a spark of faith that I'm not completely insane. Enough doubt that he's also sending me to a cardiologist—"just to rule out that kind of stuff"—and ordering nerve-conduction testing, wherein techs will insert needle electrodes into my muscles to measure their response rate when flexed and such.

The implied caveat is that when all these tests come back normal I'm going to have an awful time convincing anyone in the Kaiser system that I'm anything but certifiable. But still, each diagnostic avenue represents a way out of this Twilight Zone town Psychosomatia—and the roads can't all be cul-de-sacs, can they?

It's odd, this validation I feel over the promise of further testing. It has struck me that I'm declaring victory for a battle in a war I can't possibly win—the pyrrhic struggle between sick and crazy. My partner, bless her heart, pointed out to me that I CAN win, that they might find something wrong, though easily treatable, and return me to my former self. Then all of it—the symptoms, the stigma, the fear, the uncertainty—becomes nothing but a tale about my baffling year of sporadic disability, dead-end diagnostics, and the doctors who threatened to drive me over the crazy cliff.

I do so look forward to laughing about this someday.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

but she's my therapist!

For the second week running I've missed therapy because my psychologist is on jury duty. "Don't worry," she said when she told me several weeks ago that she had been summoned. "I never get impaneled."

"On the off chance you are, how long does Kaiser allow for jury leave?" I asked, an undoubtedly feral look in my eyes as I contemplated the idea of her being sequestered on a murder trial, unavailable to me even by telephone for months.

"Ten days," she said. "But it won't come to that. My experience with substance abusers and trauma victims scares off most attorneys, and the rest excuse me because I used to serve as an expert witness."

My first therapy-free week was cake. I was still flying high on my four-month psychiatric furlough. This week has been more difficult, though, and I didn't receive the chilling cancellation call from Kaiser until late Tuesday afternoon, so I was already several days into mental rehearsals for this week's session, scheduled as usual for a 9 a.m. Wednesday curtain.

The good people of the Los Angeles County Superior Court used to be much more profligate in excusing jurors from service. If you taught school or were an attorney or were self-employed, you got a pass. If your employer didn’t pay for jury service, you were off the hook. Most important, if you could demonstrate that no one but you could do your job—i.e. you’re a therapist with clients who rely on you to keep them sane—you were sent on your merry way. Angelenos who haven't been called to duty in the last few years laugh off jury summonses. "Tell them your dog's in surgery that day," they'll say, or "Just write 'deceased' on the summons and send it back; they never follow up."

Those of us who have been called since the "one-day/one-trial" system was implemented know that WE had better be in surgery that day, or that it would behoove us to be deceased should the jury police come knocking. Nobody eludes their civil responsibility anymore, not in this here County of Los Angeles.

Still, I can't help thinking that therapists should be excused in toto. No one wants to encourage criminality where it once lay fallow, least of all our county court system, and I can't promise model behavior in my therapist's absence. That's not a threat, just full disclosure.

Friday, February 17, 2006


OK, so my partner tagged me to complete this survey, and while I’m not in the habit of doing everything she asks of me, this seems an easy enough way to please her. Maybe if I do this, she’ll agree to have Thai food this weekend. (She won’t. She dislikes Thai food, so she’ll probably bargain me down to Chinese food, which is what I’m actually gunning for. But had I started with Chinese food, she would have tried to bargain me down to Panda Express, which is far less appealing. For Thai food, I have to wait till she’s out of town, at which time I generally get too inert to leave the house and make myself oatmeal instead. So I seldom actually achieve Thai food. Do you see how difficult it is being me?)

Four jobs I’ve had:
a) Waiter (That’s lead waiter to you, buddy!)
b) Purchasing manager at an independent record store
c) Copywriter
d) Copy editor

Four movies I could watch over and over

This is like asking me to choose four favorites from among my unborn children, or just four kinds of salad dressing (if pressed: blue cheese, bleu cheese, fromage bleu, queso azul). It’s very stressful, because, as regular reader(s) of this blog already know, I have trouble choosing a loaf of bread at the g store. Besides which, there’s a temptation to get all highfalutin and artsy to try and convince people that I’m complicated, and not just in a mental-health kind of way. Fine, whatever, here goes:

a) Sunset Boulevard
b) Quadrophenia
c) What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
d) The Philadelphia Story

Four places I’ve lived

Here’s where my colorful and varied past shines!

a) Long Beach, Calif. (my birthplace)
b) Garden Grove, Calif. (the OC!)
c) West Hollywood, Calif.
d) Van Nuys, Calif.

Four television shows I love

"Oh, I don’t own a television," she says disdainfully.

Ha! People who say they don’t own televisions are precisely the people who will housesit for you and soak up your 180 satellite channels like a crack addict on a post-rehab binge. Here are my ever-changing current faves:

a) Project Runway
b) House
c) Intervention
d) Rebuilt: The Human Body Shop (If you haven’t seen this new Discovery Health channel show about the staff and clientele of a high-tech prosthetics lab, check it out. It is at once fascinating and inspiring.)

Four places I’ve vacationed:
a) Yellowstone National Park
b) The Grand Strand, South Carolina (annual gig with the in-laws)
c) Cornwall
d) Belgium (headquarters of my family’s 1992 Great Bowling Alleys of Europe tour)

Four favorite dishes:
a) Coffee (That’s not a dish?)
b) Spicy string beans
c) Dark chocolate (That’s a dish, right?)
d) A bowl of stuff from Chipotle

Four sites I visit daily:
a) Salon
c) Whatever (on fire)—my partner’s blog
d) The forums at DBSA (Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance)

Four places I’d rather be:
a) At home
b) On my bike
c) Walking barefoot anywhere an ocean licks the shore
d) On a massage table

Four books I love

Again, this is a mean and stress-inducing question:

a) “Dreaming: Hard Luck and Good Times in America” by Carolyn See (my creative-writing mentor’s memoir)
b) “High Fidelity” by Nick Hornby
c) “Interpreter of Maladies” by Jhumpa Lahiri
d) “Cloudstreet” by Tim Winton

Four albums I can’t live without

OK, this one was initially “four video games I play,” but I don’t play any, and I was surprised there wasn’t a music question, so I’m having my way with this silly survey:

a) “The Walking”—Jane Siberrry
b) “Quadrophenia”—The Who
c) “Traffic From Paradise”—Rickie Lee Jones
d) “Eveningland”—Hem

Four bloggers I'm tagging:

Hmm, I don’t really know any bloggers except the one who tagged me, and those she’s already tagged, but wouldn’t it be funny if I tagged her back? Then we could just toss the potato back and forth, and each time we were tagged we’d have to answer the survey differently. Then we could be really self-indulgent, as if blogging isn’t already incredibly self-indulgent, and get all of our favorite movies and books and CDs out of our system, because it’s oh, so important that everyone understands how very diverse and complicated we are. For instance, I didn’t list any jazz CDs, so you don’t know how very much I like jazz and am therefore somehow cooler than people who do not like jazz. And that’s a shame, really, your not knowing that about me.

I do know one would-be blogger I can tag, hoping to spur her to action in her blog-in-potentia, which will be amazing when it evolves from its current zygote state. Grrrly Librarian, you are so tagged!

Thursday, February 16, 2006

behold the friendlies

My partner mentioned the mascots of the Turin Olympics in her blog and I realized that I’d seen neither hide nor hair of them despite a fair amount of Olympic viewing. Thinking back to the Los Angeles Games in ’84, Sam the eagle was everywhere—couldn’t get away from the freakin' jingoistic bird—but this Turinese pair Neve and Gliz I wouldn’t recognize were they to jovially greet me in the middle of a well-lit piazza.

At first glance, and even several glances later, Neve and Gliz look like they would be quite at home on a marshmallow package, such is the mystery of their white heads and decided lack of edge. It’s only in reading about them that we discover their true nature: Per the official ’06 Games site, Neve is a “soft, friendly, and elegant snowball,” while Gliz is a “lively and playful ice cube.” Could they be related to the Wonder Twins? “Form of: an elegant snowball!”

I far prefer Neve and Gliz's Paralympic friend, Aster the handicapable snowflake.

Aw, give ’em a break, you might say. Maybe the Turinese were so busy pulling together those opening ceremonies—constructing the fake ice-skating cows, disembodying all those shapely legs for the upside-down laterally bifurcated chorus line, learning how to set skaters on fire just so without immolating them—that they hadn’t any time left to create mascots. Except that the choosing of the official mascots, according to the site, commenced in May 2003 with 237 submissions. Wow! There were 236 proposals suckier than Neve and Gliz? Actually, to be fair, there were 236 rejected proposals; hard to say whether they were kicked because they were sucky or because they failed to adhere to the Olympic criteria for mascots: “They must be appreciated and usable all over the world considering different cultural contexts; they must express the values of the Olympic Movement, of participation, loyalty, respect and brotherhood; they must be easy to use commercially and be flexible for a variety of two- and three-dimensional applications.” Bearing all this in mind, Neve and Gliz seem like a gimme: Marshmallows are internationally appreciable and culturally inoffensive. Marshmallows are incredibly virtuous, embodying the very essence of the Olympic Games. And, finally, they’re way marketable—everybody loves marshmallows!

Olympic mascots have always seemed like a bit of an afterthought, never achieving the visibility of those shameless shills for college and professional sports franchises. We’re only likely to see Olympic mascots if we live in the host city, or are Olympic pin collectors, or make a concerted effort to look them up—as I did this morning at Remember Magique, the snow imp of Albertville ’92? How about Hidy and Howdy, the ’88 Calgary polar bears? You may remember Izzy from Atlanta’s 1996 Games, but only because he was the most confoundingly unappealing official mascot ever. (Schuss, the 1968 Grenoble Games’ little skier with the tumorously large and oddly inexpressive head, while less appealing, was technically an “unofficial” mascot, with official mascots first coming into play four years later in Munich.)

By the way, I haven't seen the film “Munich” yet, so naturally I’m wondering, did Waldi the dachshund, mascot of the 1972 Games, make it into the movie?

Izzy, which describes as an “amorphous, abstract fantasy figure,” was so unlovable from the get-go he began to morph immediately following his debut at the closing ceremonies of the 1992 Games, where he wrested the torch from Barcelona’s Cobi, a reasonably charming cartoon dog. Says of Izzy, “Over time he grew a mouth where only lips had existed, he added stars in his eyes, bulked up and gained muscles in his previously spindly legs, and eventually sprouted a nose.” No wonder Izzy won the mascot gig—clearly the big freak had supernatural powers. (It’s worth noting that I was briefly acquainted with the media voice of Izzy, and he was a lesbian.)

We have Izzy to blame, I think, for the proliferation of mascots. Since the Atlanta Games no host country has chosen but a single entity to represent their Games. Hate one mascot? How about three? Or four? Sure, a couple of previous Games had offered up pairs of mascots—the aforementioned Hidy and Howdy, plus Lillehammer ’94’s Haakon and Kristin—but those early aberrations were more likely nods to gender equality than any attempt to hedge bets. The real bet-hedging began in 1998 at Nagano with the introduction of Sukki, Nokki, Lekki, and Tsukki—because one snow owl is never enough. reports that the snow owls were slow to grow on people but that halfway through the games “all of Japan fell madly in love with them.” (Anyone who doubts the mad love of the Japanese need only consider the strange case of Hello Kitty.)

Nagano’s originally intended mascot was a weasel named Snowple. His withdrawal remains unexplained, but I like to think he resigned in order to pursue other interests. The weasel’s agent probably reminded him that Olympic mascots are notorious flameouts, nothing but fodder for VH1’s “Where Are They Now?”

Sydney rang in the new millennium with Olly the kookaburra, Syd the platypus, and Millie the echidna, and though few people knew what an echidna was, the trio was cutish, winsome even, mascots you wouldn’t mind being stuck in an elevator with.

And our luck held through 2002, when Salt Lake City gave us Powder the snowshoe hare, Copper the coyote, and Coal the black bear—a happy little wildlife triptych anyone could get behind. Things were looking up in the realm of Olympic mascots.

But those four years of relative mascot fat were to be followed by a mandated minimum four years of lean, commencing with the arrival of Phevos and Athena, the ancient doll–inspired icons of the Athens Games. Of them the official 2004 Games site says, “Phevos and Athena are two children, simple and joyful, full of vitality and creativity, perhaps mischievous and hence lovable.” (I am perhaps mischievous, and I'm not sure it necessarily follows that I am hence lovable.) With P and A’s distorted faces, stumpy arms, and tremendous feet, less appealing mascots may seem impossible to imagine. They’re sort of Izzy times two. Neve and Gliz are admittedly a mild improvement over the Athenian kinderblobs, but they’re still squarely in the years of lean.

So, following these four years of prophesied lean, 2008 should bring great things, right? Oh, so wrong. Behold the Friendlies, the five official doll (Argh! Enough with the dolls!) mascots of the Beijing Games, unveiled in November 2005: Beibei the fish, Jingjing the panda, Huanhuan the Olympic flame, Yingying the Tibetan antelope, and Nini the swallow. THEY were chosen from a staggering 662 entries. Gawdelpus. Less appealing mascots than P and A are not only possible, they’ve foisted their scary-ass selves upon us. Avert your eyes. Save yourself.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

be my…sports fan?

There was a fair amount of yelling coming from the bedroom this morning while I was getting ready for work. Toweling my hair I went to investigate and found my partner sitting on the edge of the bed, positively riveted by an Olympic curling match: Sweden v. Canada. Most of the yelling was coming from the guys on TV, but occasionally she'd let loose an "Oh!" or "Nice!" I tackled and pinned her to the bed in my own homage to sport, and once she had affected a suitable look of mock-terror I rolled off to the side and watched the match for a minute.

"Oh!" she yelled as the broom guys scuttled toward the target with the big pucky thing and it knocked some other pucky things out of the way. Gauging my blank look, she asked whether I wanted her to explain why that play was so extraordinarily cool.

My partner revealed her true self to me close to 11 years ago, only a few weeks into our relationship. I was in the impossibly small kitchen of her studio apartment and she was in the bedroom/living area. "THREE!" she yelled gleefully, and I couldn't imagine what that meant. I went into the other room and found her watching a UCLA basketball game. Good God, I thought. She's a sports fan.

We were both attending UCLA at the time, and, as I was quickly made to understand, it was a playoff game, a really big playoff game that, if won, would get them into the championships, so I was willing to chalk her enthusiasm up to school spirit, in which case it was really kind of endearing. Rah! Go team! I could get behind that.

But I was deluding myself. Her love of sport revealed itself to me in fits and starts over the next year, becoming fully manifest once we moved in together. And though that playoff game served as my early warning sign of the many athletic diversions to come, she’s not much into basketball as a rule. In fact, of the "big four" U.S. sports—which I would soon learn include football, baseball, basketball, and hockey—the only one she pledges allegiance to is baseball. Not that she's some fanatic who runs around thrusting a big puffy number-one hand in the air, but she grew up rooting along with her family for her hometown boys, an underdog Atlanta Braves team in its fallow pre-'90s period. A kind of passion resulted from that long courtship, followed at last by victory. I could relate to that, having grown up within spitting distance of the Anaheim Angels.

Other than baseball, her taste veers off the beaten base path: English soccer, women's billiards, sheep dog trials. Seriously, she used to watch a show called "One Man and His Dog" on BBC America—when the BBC was still trying to figure out what British shows Americans might cotton to—and it was like watching paint dry. Oil paint. On a hot day. But she loved it. And she has this talent for absorbing information in practically osmotic fashion, such that watching a man in a plaid tam play with his border collie for 30 minutes makes her an instantaneous expert in sheepherding skills. It's uncanny.

I took a shine to bicycling a couple of years ago, and within a few months' time she knew more about the sport of cycling than I'll ever know—even if I were to apply myself. The first time we watched the Tour de France together she quickly committed the team names to memory and gleaned the roles of the various riders, from sprinters to climbers to domestiques. Her zeal makes me a little lazy, because I know that I can just watch all the colorful jerseys and beautiful bikes fly through the French countryside while she keeps track of what's actually going on. I expect to tap her talents next week when we go to the South Bay to watch a leg of the inaugural Tour of California. I haven’t so much as glanced at a roster or route map, but my partner, if asked right now, could rattle off every European team committed to attend, along with the name of each team's star rider—"captain" in cycling parlance—and the distances they’ll be riding each day.

It occurs to me sometimes that she deserves someone with whom she can share her vast reserves of idiosyncratic information, someone who would feast on her knowledge of curling rules like a dog alone at last with a honey-baked ham. And while I really do try to digest why that curling play was so cool, what I'm really thinking, what I can't help thinking while she's explaining it to me is, You're so goddam cute when you're excited about something.

Happy Valentine's Day, sweet fan of mine.

Monday, February 13, 2006

neck class

This morning my primary care physician had me attend "neck class" on the theory that the neurological complications I've been experiencing for the past year are the result of mixed signals not so much from my brain as from my cervical spine. At least that's how I like to spin my presence in neck class. It's entirely possible that my PCP sent me there because he couldn't think of anything else to do or any more specialists for me to see and he's trying to distract me. "Look, over there, something shiny!"

I wouldn't call Kaiser's physical therapy department shiny. In fact, when I arrive at 7:15 a.m. it’s fairly dark. When I was admonished to arrive early for my 7:30 session my admonisher hadn't mentioned that the department wouldn't open until, well, 7:30. So I sit in the waiting room and read by the dim ambient light of the hall, something I wouldn't do in an ophthalmology department for fear of reproof. Here I merely sit up straight, with exceedingly good posture, my book held at an ergonomic angle to my sightline.

I think about these things when on the campus of my health maintenance organization, especially since my physical compromise has been so cagey, hiding its source from GPs and neurologists, plus one wacky ENT and a rheumatologist so freaky I prayed he wouldn't find anything just so I wouldn't have to see him again. Since doctors like to know things, my case has been a little irksome to mine, and I think they'd love to be able to write me off as a head case, someone who's making herself sick. I don't think anyone's headed down Munchausen Way: I saw a neuropsychologist in July who conducted eight hours of testing and determined that I seemed to have some subcortical brain damage consistent with stroke activity, so that cleared me of a broad spectrum of factitious-disorder allegations. Neuropsychologists are trained to sniff out fakers.

Still, none of my imaging backs up the stroke theory. More important, my symptoms relapse and remit, and stroke-injury complications should be constant. That note of discord might make any number of doctors peer longingly down Munchausen Way, thinking about how lovely it would be to send me down yonder, out of their exam rooms. I can't say as I blame them. I'm really the only one who should know for sure whether I'm the cause of my own symptoms, and even I wonder sometimes, when I'm in remission, whether I can just concentrate really hard on remaining able-bodied and thus make it so. I have a friend who's been known to insist that all illness is mental, that even wearing glasses is a sign of personal weakness—us myopic types only THINK we can't see that far horizon where cancer is cured by fairies playing hornpipes.

So I sit up straight, lest anyone think I'm subluxating my spine and have only myself to blame for whatever nerves are severed as a result. God knows I don't like having my integrity called into question.

Receptionists arrive and check folks in, after which a sunny PT named Sherry comes to fetch me and my three neck-class schoolmates, all of whom are women of a certain age, conjuring an image in my mind of a swimming pool full of seniors doing light aerobics. We're taken to a room full of padded exam tables—with pillows! Unfortunately, we're asked to sit in the chairs between the exam tables instead. Then Sherry rolls over on her doctorly stool and begins to engage us, three of us anyway; one woman is perversely resistant to any of this poppycock about minimizing disability and is bitterly rude to my sweet, sunny Sherry. Unless this woman can prove that Sherry has directly caused her pain—say, by misapplying a choke hold to her in a previous neck class—I am so ready to kick her ass at Sherry's bidding. Sadly, Sherry's too nice to ask for such a thing, so the rest of us are braced to cringe every time Ms. Acrimony opens her mouth.

Sherry explains that we find ourselves thrown together here not because Kaiser is in the habit of conducting cattle-call physical therapy but because a first session with any one of us would involve a brief explanation of the structure and physics of the CNS and an introduction to home exercises. After all, she says, necks (like happy families) are all alike. I can tell by the way Ms. Acrimony rolls her eyes that she very much doubts her neck is anything like ours. Nevertheless, Sherry notes that she'd be delighted to work with any of us individually after this initial visit.

So we go over some exercises, the kind my chiropractor has shown me any number of times while I'm waiting for him to get to the fun part, when he torques my head like a pneumatic wrench attacking a stuck lug nut. Gentle Sherry, as you may suspect, doesn't recommend chiropractic medicine, but she adds that she doesn't want to get in the way of any existing relationships we may have with our chiropractors. She's diplomatic that way.

It's when Sherry gets into discussing examples of spinal abuse that I experience a moment of horror. She's likening our heads to bowling balls—but that’s not the horrific part—and reminding us that the farther we hold a bowling ball from our body the less support we can give it. Likewise, a 13-pound head exerts more stress on the cervical spine as it moves away from its center of gravity. Then Sherry cranes her neck forward and cocks her chin upward, calling this position the worst possible combination of stresses. She means to demonstrate an office worker in a nonergonomic computing posture, but I see something else: road cyclist.

No! Mean Sherry can't make me quit cycling. I won't quit cycling. She and her fascist anticycling physical-therapist friends can go to hell if they think they're going to take that away from me. I slump in my chair and resolutely fold my arms over my chest while evil Sherry natters on about the use of home traction for headache and pain relief. She's dead to me.

At the end of class I politely thank her, because I'm like that—I can love my enemies. Now if you'll excuse me, I think, I need to catch up with Ms. Acrimony. We're going across the street to Coco's to talk smack about you over pie and coffee. Sherry gives me her card and asks if I think I'd like to come back and do some one-on-one work. "Perhaps," I lie, "but I'm afraid I may know what the problem is from listening to you."

"That's wonderful," she says. "Is it something you can correct?"

"Yeah," I pouted. "But I don't particularly want to. I do a lot of cycling, and the position you described as being the worst possible for your neck—that's pretty necessary to cycling."

She mimics a riding position to test my theory. "Yeah, you're right," she says. "But that doesn't mean you need to stop cycling."


"Not at all," she says gamely, beginning to melt the icy wall I hastily erected at her first intimation of attack. "Moving is good,” she says, “even when it puts stress on the body. What's terrible for the body is having poor posture while being sedentary. Do you work in an office?"

"Yes," I say, the earnest student returning.

"When do you get your migraines?" sweet Sherry asks.

"At work."

"Never while riding?" she asks.


"Keep riding," she says, smiling.

"Does this mean I should quit my job?"

"If you can afford it," she winks. "Otherwise, just make your company buy you some cool back stuff. Do you need me to write you a note?"

Sherry is my friend, my very good friend.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

chemical bliss

Something extraordinary happened yesterday morning at my psychiatrist's office: At the end of the appointment he said we could go four whole months before we see each other again. This is the longest leash I've been on since I started seeing him two years ago, and while I like the guy and therefore don't mind visiting with him, this vote of confidence does wonders for my mental health–esteem.

It's possible that he was merely trying to make up for the indignity he had just put me through. "Do you mind if I weigh you?" he asked. Um, like, just for kicks? I wondered. Then he heh-heh'd in his befuddled yet oddly soothing voice, which is so restrained it sounds a little like it's coming from the bottom of a well. (His social discomfort is obvious, and I like to imagine that he entered his field in large part to understand himself better.) "Seroquel is known to cause weight gain in a number of patients," he said, producing a scale from beneath his immaculate desk. "I think we should start monitoring that to make sure we're taking care of you on all fronts."

I attribute my four-month psychiatric leash to the miracle of Seroquel—which was added to my cocktail in late December—so I don't want to hear any bad-mouthing about it. I *heart* Seroquel. Since I've phased it into my daily meds I've felt balanced and calm and productive in a way I haven't experienced in years. Odd to think my psychiatrist thought I might be insulted when he first prescribed it.

Let me try to re-create that day for us: I had had an hysterical therapy session following a couple of weeks of mixed episode, a mood state in which depression and mania converge to make for a singularly unlivable frame of mind. My old friends despair and hopelessness had been joined by some cool kids they met on the rough side of town: constant agitation, paranoia, and rage. You can probably guess that this combination of forces might cause a person to feel somewhat self-destructive, or even obsessively so. And there I was, in session with my therapist, with that wild look in my eye that said, "I really, really need you to fix me. Now!" After offering up the Kaiser Permanente Behavioral Medicine solo getaway package—three nights accommodations, meals and meds included, at their downtown "care unit," within walking distance of Chinatown (if you could get past security)—which I declined, my therapist got me an emergency appointment with my psychiatrist that morning, and she reportedly even whispered the name of a medication in his ear: “Seroquel.”

Seroquel is neither an antidepressant nor antianxiety med—it's an antipsychotic that was developed to treat schizophrenia. It was this bit of information that my psychiatrist thought might be off-putting to me, but I just nodded—in the frenetic way becoming of my mood at the time. First off, as a person who feels that she has modern pharmacology and her mental health care team to thank for her current quality of life, I don't make value judgments about this mental illness versus that mental illness. Second, schizophrenia is the one mental illness that can be identified on MRI scans. Having had two MRIs just last year, I'm thinking my doctors would have mentioned it had it shown up. Third, while I was fairly paranoid at the time, I was pretty sure they were required by law to tell me if I were schizophrenic, so I didn't think they were trying to treat me surreptitiously for a condition I didn't know I had. Fourth, did I mention that I felt effing nuts at the time? I would have taken ground glass, or even my friend's placenta, had I thought it would help me.

They wanted me to try a low dose of Seroquel to see if we could get my hard drive to spin down a bit, to stop the racing thoughts and agitation that were not only dominating my day but disrupting my sleep. I was getting 4–5 hours a night at the time, and I was approaching total dysfunction.

My first week on Seroquel brought tempered highs and lows to replace the mixed mood. I fluctuated between hyperactivity and an intense sadness that nevertheless lacked the self-destructive impulses of the earlier state. By my second week I felt like a human being again, not just someone who was getting through the day but a person who had a future. Modern pharmacology rules!

So, yeah, go ahead and weigh me. I can't imagine that my new pal would betray me so, especially since she's given me so much more energy and ambition to actually live my life. Besides, she'll have to go head-to-head with one of her cocktail-mates, Wellbutrin, which has been observed to stimulate weight loss in about 25% of users and is currently undergoing clinical trials in an attempt to gain FDA approval for obesity treatment. Already prescribed to aid smoking cessation, Wellbutrin is an atypical antidepressant that works on "satisfaction" centers in the brain and delivers a bit of a stimulant effect, truly earning the moniker "happy pill." So, with both Wellbutrin and Seroquel in my system, it's hard to say which pill would win in a bitch fight over my weight regulation. I'm betting they cancel each other out as they get to know each other and become synergistic friends. And even if I do gain a couple of pounds, so what? It's probably just the weight of my soul, finally coming back home.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

fiscal aggression

I did something titillating this week: In choosing an investment strategy for my new 401(k) online I clicked "aggressive" and "submit" in quick succession, before I had a chance to change my mind. I'm not typically an aggressive person, so you'll understand why my adrenaline has been pumping ever since.

Full disclosure: There is currently just $103.84 in my new 401(k), which has been accruing for only one pay cycle. The smallish company I work for was acquired by a slightly larger company in the fall. On a scale in which Microsoft is a whale and your local copy store is plankton, think of us as a black crappie being swallowed whole by a chilipepper rockfish. I know that's probably not very helpful, but I'm pleased to have worked “black crappie” into a blog entry.

I had a 401(k) with my old company, but that company and its retirement plan no longer exist as distinct entities, so my old 401(k) is on hold, probably lounging on a beach along the Mexican Riviera sipping daiquiris, blowing all those tens of dollars it made during these last five robust years in the stock market. I haven't yet decided what to do with that balance; my father-in-law suggested that I roll it over into an IRA so that I can exercise greater personal investment freedom, but this is a man who subscribes to "Equinox Investments Newsletter of Undervalued Small Cap Stocks," someone whose wealth fluctuates daily in increments equal to my total net worth.

Even if I'm not an informed investor, I've always been a prudent saver. My entrepreneurial life started in the 4th grade, when I brought a pair of Ker-Knockers to school. Actually, they were a no-name Tijuana version of the brand-name Ker-Knockers, a toy you may remember as a pair of solid, oversize marbles suspended on even lengths of cord that were joined at the opposite end by a hard plastic ring. The goal was to bounce the marbles together until they achieved an even rhythm, then accelerate the pace to get them to swing farther and higher until the marbles traveled full 180-degree arcs to meet both over and under the hand in rapid succession. In addition to making an awful racket, a feature kids love, these were unbelievably irresponsible toys to give a child, making them that much more attractive.

We got a lot of attention, my knockoff Ker-Knockers and I, and kids kept asking me where I got them. "At the swap meet," I said. "Could you get me a pair?" a girl a thousand times more popular than me asked. Of course I could, and I quoted her a price of 75 cents, a 50% markup over my 50-cent cost. I took several prepaid orders that day, and come the following swap-meet Sunday I raided my Pringles can for an additional—somewhat greasy—$6 in seed money to buy a dozen extra units. I sold out almost immediately, and my success continued for several weeks until my market saturation reached critical mass—in this case the time at which there were enough children swinging hard plastic projectiles that the principal started asking questions. All fingers pointed toward me, after which I was called into his office and forced out of business.

I became a chocolatier next, following a candy-making demonstration in my 7th-grade home economics class. Intrigued, I rode my bike to the store owned by the ladies who had given the presentation, and there I bought a pound of confectioners' chocolate and a candy mold. Immediately recognizing the lunchtime sales potential, I invested in more molds and chocolate, plus packaging materials, carefully tracking my expenses. Eventually I was netting about ten bucks a day. I didn't really account for my labor, but a 7th grader with low academic expectations and no extracurricular obligations has nothing but time on her hands. My chocolate business grew until the principal again took note. I never bought his claim that parents were complaining to him about their kids using lunch money to buy chocolate instead of cafeteria food, but cease and desist I did.

At 13 I began my career as a bowling scorekeeper. My parents were big-time bowlers, so I had logged enough time at the lanes to understand how the game is scored, and I had a fairly quick head for numbers, probably as a result of my schoolyard profit analyses over the years. I charged the going rate, a buck a head, so with two five-member teams to a pair of lanes, I netted $10 for two and a half hours’ work. Four dollars an hour was more than minimum wage at the time, and I was too young to get a real job, so I figured I was doing OK—if you don’t factor in all the second-hand smoke.

At 15 I agitated for a job at the drive-thru dairy my brother had worked for when he was 15. I thought it would be cool, wearing jeans and tees to work, running out to the cars in line to find out what folks needed, and having their order ready just as they pulled up. But the owner didn't hire girls.

At 16 I talked my way into part-time work at my favorite used record store, and I do mean talked—I basically pestered the owner into giving me a day a week. When a full-time job opened up a few months later at another record store, I mentioned it to him. Recognizing an opportunity to unload me he said he'd act as my reference and talk me up, exaggerating my experience. I got that job, and I spent the next nine years working in music stores, the last seven of them as the head buyer for a store that opened with the crazy idea of selling no vinyl or cassettes, only CDs. It took off, and I watched my little 900-square-foot store grow sixfold. Over time I realized that, unlike the thrill of childhood capitalism, growing someone else's business was a hollow victory.

At 25 I decided it was time to try that whole college thing.

Post-college I still work for the man, of course, start-up capital being what it is today. Six dollars will no longer get a girl's entrepreneurial foot in the door. But "the man" tells me that even when I don't have much in my Pringles can, wise investments will secure my future. So I went to the Merrill Lynch seminar my company arranged and listened to our liaison. And just when my head was spinning from all the qualifiers, caveats, and disclosures, he brought up the Merrill Lynch GoalManager, a program in which a person like him puts together diversified collections of stocks and bonds so that a person like me doesn't have to bother learning about them. What a person like me does have to do is decide what level of risk she's comfortable with. Financially? None. No risk. I'm totally willing to skydive, but not with money in my pockets. But I'm young, he says, and isn't it sweet of him to think so? Personal wealth management is one of the few areas in which a person just this side of 40 is still considered fresh and dynamic, in terms of assets, anyway. With 30 years to go before retirement, he says, I should invest aggressively. And it is true that I don't want to be labeled a conservative, not even a fiscal one, because that's just a slippery slope.

So, aggressive I am, with every penny of my $103.84. Not even nervous about it. Nope. Though we'll see, when it comes time to roll over my existing 401(k), whether I'll be as bullish as all that.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

emotional incontinence

I heard this term "emotional incontinence" on last week's "ER" and was compelled to find out more. Googling the words, with quotes, returned 10,500 hits—reliable evidence that the condition hadn't been made up by some smirking television writer. Approximately 1 million Americans afflicted with neurological diseases (notably ALS, MS, and Parkinson's) and brain injuries (stroke, trauma) experience E.I. as uncontrolled crying or laughter that is divorced from actual feelings of sadness or joy. Its medical terminology is "pseudobulbar affect," but E.I. is so much more expressive, don't you think?

A pharmacological fix called Neurodex is in the pipeline and appears destined for FDA approval in the coming year, and before anyone starts to think, "Oh, good lord, they'll make meds for anything these days," I should say that I am totally down with the issues faced by the emotionally incontinent.

I can state from experience that exhibiting emotion out of proportion to cause is: personally embarrassing, disturbing to those around us, and in some quarters likely to brand a person as downright un-American, unless the impetus for the uncontrolled crying is in fact listening to Lee Greenwood's magnum opus, "God Bless the USA."

I've always been an easy crier, an inconvenient trait to harbor around my brother, a domestic terrorist whose sadistic impulses to hurt and humiliate fuel on raw emotion like it's high-test gasoline. For instance, say my brother builds a coffin, your standard pine box in the classic shape, and he invites my neighborhood friends, in turn, to get in. They do, and he closes the lid but opens it a brief while later, and everyone is entertained. Then he asks me to get in, and everything in my body screams no as my eyes zero in on the hinge closure that enables locking from the outside. But the neighborhood boys are watching, waiting to see if I'll wimp out, and my brother is taunting, "C'mon, I'm not gonna do anything. Don't be chicken." And who wants to be chicken? Especially in front of friends, friends who are boys to whom I have to prove everyday that I'm not such a girl. So I get in, and the lid closes, and I hear my friends giggle conspiratorially as my brother clicks the padlock. And I don't know how long I'm in there, but I know that the louder I cry the longer my captivity lasts. Still, I can't help myself. I cry until I'm exhausted and broken, at which time the key turns at last and the lid is flung open, and my friends can only laugh at my red face and tear-soaked hair because, when given the choice, it's always better to be on my brother's side.

If my brother couldn't break me of crying, no one could. I cry on cue at movies, during obviously manipulative heartstring-pulling moments, happy or sad. I cry during "great moments in sport," however hackneyed, even though I take little interest in sports as a rule. I cry for damn near 50 minutes every Wednesday morning during therapy. But those aren't inconvenient times to cry. The worst times are when I want or need to be heard but can't bring myself to state my case, because once I acknowledge a passionate feeling I've cracked that suitcase of vulnerability wide open.

And so I've lived all my life avoiding conflict, knowing that the slightest provocation produces this outsize reaction that can't help but change the dynamics of any situation. How can I approach my boss for a raise knowing that I'll tear up the moment any criticism is leveled at me? How can I join a writing group if I'll start to cry when the insufferably arrogant guy who just sold a screenplay tells me that he finds my protagonist tedious? How do I ever ask for anything I really, truly want, being unable to face the specter of rejection?

When I met my current therapist she asked what my therapy goals were. One of my primary stated goals was to get my emotional response under control so that I could live more freely. "Oh," she said breezily. "The meds will take care of that." But they didn't. A few sessions ago I asked her why, two years later, I was still crying at the proverbial drop of a hat. This time she said that there are just people who wear their emotions on the outside, and that I'm one of those people. There was no more talk of meds performing a miracle. I was an emotionally incontinent lifer.

Is it wrong to wonder, when Neurodex is approved, whether it could help me, whether I should go down Mexico way and explore the self-medication racket? Is Neurodex even something Tijuana pharmacists would stock, what with the teeming markets for Rohypnol and Vicodin? If not, could Neurodex eventually gain FDA approval for mainstream use? After all, a patient base of 1 million is miniscule in the pharmaceutical world…

Sunday, February 05, 2006

sports, being bad at them

So I'm in the backyard picking undersize oranges from our dwarf tree—for a time I was leaving them attached in hopes they would attain their proper orange size, but they've now started to leap from the tree en masse, indicating a certain ripeness that forestalls any plans for future growth—while my partner is playing ball with our dog, Biscuit. This is how that goes: My partner lobs a tennis ball with a thingy called the Chuckit, a curved piece of plastic with a cup on the end that not only sends the ball sailing with precious little effort by the thrower but saves her from having to bend over and pick up the increasingly slimy ball with her bare hands. Biscuit takes off like a shot and tries—oh, how she tries—to track the ball and catch it before it lands and rolls to a stop. She never achieves this goal. Instead, she most often gets the ball tangled in her legs as she overruns its rolling trajectory and kind of stops it with her body as if she's throwing herself on a grenade. Then she picks it up in her mouth and trots around the yard with it, generally dropping it 20 feet away from my partner to segue into chasing her tail or scratching an ubiquitous itch, quickly forgetting that she was playing a game she enjoys.

It strikes me from my vantage point high on a ladder that our dog is not good at sports. There are breeds of dog, of course, that take no interest in playing ball, but judging from Biscuit's appearance it's in her genes to retrieve: Our best guess is that she's the product of a cocker spaniel–golden retriever love match. And she certainly seems to be attracted to playing ball, but her enthusiasm greatly exceeds her talent.

It makes sense to think that there are dogs possessed of natural athleticism, just as there are people who are paid millions to play sports and millions of less talented people who'll pay to watch them. Of course, less athletic dogs could give a fig about watching their superstar peers on Purina's Incredible Dog Challenge—a televised event my partner has been known to watch, you know, casual-like, maybe when she's waiting for me to finish showering and getting dressed so that we can begin our Saturday errand spectacular—but I think the corollary holds nevertheless. There are sporting dogs who outrun Frisbees and twist 180 degrees as they leap to nab them in midair with every bit as much grace and skill as Willie Mays* in his famous over-the-shoulder catch. (*I had to ask my partner whose catch that was, she being the baseball historian in the household.) Then there's Biscuit.

I can relate. I've never shown a lick of talent for sports. I was the last one picked in P.E. throughout my school career. Been hit in the face by just about every kind of ball there is, usually while trying—and really, really wanting—to catch it. I'm not sure why, of all my failures, I should remember this one the most clearly: I'm in the 7th grade, playing flag football, and the ball is coming right for me. I watch it sailing through the air and I think I have a bead on it; somehow it seems so catchable even though I've never caught a football in my life. I'm backing up, practically tripping over myself to get into position, and my teammates are screaming at me—I'm not sure what they're saying because I'm in the zone, right up until the ball glances off my nose and I fall at the feet of Kristin Yamamoto, who was right behind me, who was good in sports and would undoubtedly have caught the football had I not gotten in her way, which is probably what the other girls were screaming at me, to bug out. I probably remember that moment because it was the last time I thought I could be the hero; afterward I knew that I was just the easy out, the warm body taking up space on the field.

In the 8th grade I went out for cross-country running, largely because it would get me out of P.E. While the other girls played volleyball and softball I ran around and around the perimeter of the schoolyard. I wasn't any more talented at running than I was at other sports, but I had decent endurance. I could push through pain, and I always finished my races, even if I never placed better than average. Best of all, there was no one relying on me to catch or hit a ball to help the team. There was no one screaming at me.

As an adult I discovered cycling, first as a way to get in some kind of shape, then as a way of being in touch with my physicality in a positive way. I'm not a fast cyclist, and I'm not at all competitive. The one time I tried riding with a cycling club I drove to Pasadena to meet with a group called Different Spokes, a gay and lesbian cycling organization, for a ride listed on their website as "easy," a level they described as maintaining a "social, conversational pace." I arrived at the meeting place early and rode around the parking lot at the bottom of the arroyo until I saw bicycles start to arrive. I went to greet them and received a lukewarm response. The ride started on an incline out of the arroyo; the group took the hill with more verve than I was accustomed to, but I hung in, huffing. As the ride continued I felt panic setting in over the pace they were keeping, and seven miles into it I bugged out, feeling like a miserable failure as I retraced my tracks to the arroyo and my car.

Since then I've ridden alone, always alone, just as I had ridden before the cycling-group debacle. I'm happier that way, I think, with no one pressuring me to take the hill aggressively or keep up with their pace, with no one making me feel bad for not being able to do more than I can do. I've found that, just as in cross-country, my legs will take me far when I value distance over speed, when I take in the scenery instead of leaving it behind in a blur. My cycling style will never put me on a podium, and that’s fine by me.

Maybe Biscuit has the right idea, then. Run after the ball if you're so inclined, but don't forget to chase your tail when the mood strikes. Let all those type-A dogs on the Purina Incredible Dog Challenge soak up all the glory. Biscuit and I think it's a shame they'll never know the private joy of aimless distraction.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

dumped update update

Omigod, someone stole our pile of crap! Or, more likely, "large dead animal pickup" finally followed through on our month-old report of illegal dumping. At any rate, I came home from work Friday night to find the mess gone—poof!—like a pile of money on a windy Las Vegas day.

This was a couple of days after the couch, which served as the foundation of an unneighborly heap of trash on the fringes of our property, appeared to have been hit by a car: It had been pushed 15 feet or so up the block and abraded on one end severely enough that its cheap prefab foam core was bleeding out. For so long it had been stuck at merely ugly, and in one traumatic impact it had hurtled past hideous and arrived at tragic.

If my use of the word "tragic" seems to connote some feeling of wistfulness or loss, don't get me wrong—I'm delighted it's gone. Still, once upon a time, perhaps several owners ago, that couch was new. Its first people may even have considered its purchase a splurge, a brand-new sofa to replace the unforgiving futon they had been using as a "couch" since college.

I remember when my partner and I bought our first couch—and, years later, when it took on the sad status of trash. Before we moved in together I lived in a studio apartment with a kitchen nook so small my refrigerator invaded my living area and a bathroom with a doorway narrow enough that most folks had to turn sideways to enter. God, I loved that apartment, all 400 or so square feet of it, probably because it was the first place I ever had to myself, post–bondage daddy roommate and all. Needless to say, the cramped space didn't admit a couch—the only obvious place to sit was on my bed, which helped with the ladies. *wink*

My partner, indeed, brought to our new living arrangement a futon-couch, which we decided to replace immediately. We haunted the Ikea "as-is" department until an inoffensive khaki-denim-covered unit came through, a customer return that was marked down from $900 to $600. It served us well for a respectable stretch; after seven years in our first shared apartment it made the move with us to our first house. When it started to look shabby we camouflaged it with throws, then a slipcover, then, when I tired of forever adjusting the slipcover—which never fit right even though I heeded the advice of "Real Simple" to tuck the seams deep into the couch's contours with a wooden spoon—we decided to treat ourselves to a new sofa, a hot little number we'd been courting at Plummers. Whereas the Ikea couch said "recent grads," the Plummers couch implied that we were now adults who valued style and function in equal measure. It said "homeowners," a title we were still trying to convince ourselves we deserved.

The day our new sofa was delivered we moved the Ikea couch to the garage and called our favorite thrift shop, a queer-run outfit called Out of the Closet that benefits AIDS causes. When the truck came the driver shook his head at the couch. "Nah," he said. "Couches take up a lot of space in the stores, so we have to be pretty picky about the ones we accept." I understood his reasoning, but that didn't lessen the sting of a thrift store rejecting furniture that until just the week before my partner and I had found perfectly serviceable and not aesthetically out of place in our living room.

We moved the Ikea couch to the edge of our driveway and propped upon it a large cardboard sign with a smiley face and the word "FREE" in giant letters. We live on a fairly busy thoroughfare and had in this way dispensed with many unwanted items, ugly, broken things that seemed utterly spent—but after just a few hours at the curb they could be seen bobbing down the avenue in the arms of their new owners. The couch was too heavy to be carried away, but plenty of people zoomed past our house in pickups that would accommodate it for a short move.

The sun set, the couch sat, and it remained undisturbed for several days before we threw up our hands and called large dead animal pickup. We'd have to pay for this call since the reason was "oversize pickup," not illegal dumping. Yeah, sure, we could have lied, but that stuff has a way of coming back on you. Kinda like when I was a kid and faked sick so that I wouldn't have to go to school on a day when I was supposed to give an oral report, then I'd actually become physically—or, more likely, psychologically—ill, as if to teach me a lesson. If we call in an illegal dump to avoid the oversize-pickup charge, what's to stop the pestilence of honest-to-god dumped couches from descending on our property?

Friday, February 03, 2006

not about me

Today I'd like to take a break from talking incessantly about myself—however much that's a blogger's prerogative—to tell you a story about a woman named, say, Pout.

On Pout's way to therapy Wednesday morning, which is the same day I have therapy, which is how I know her, she was very excited—grinning even. This despite the fact that she was listening to NPR, which was a lot more satisfying to listen to before W took office, back when there was occasionally good news to report. KCRW was also having a pledge drive, which made Pout's NPR experience extra-sucky. But she was still happy. Today she was going to tell her therapist about her new blog, an enterprise that represents a milestone to Pout as it marks her return to some form of creativity after a long depressive drought, and she expected her therapist to be proud. Pout likes making her therapist proud.

Pout plopped down on her—hmm, it's not a couch so much as it's…you know that office furniture that came into vogue in the '70s that sort of combined aesthetics of wood grain and upholstery, so you have sofa-like seating areas with individual seats separated by wood-frame demarcations?—sitting thing, which Pout has diss'ed before, asking her therapist, whom we'll call Rosarita, why she doesn't have a big swallowy couch like all the other therapists, with fluffy pillows to hold on to when the going gets rough. (To be fair, Pout's therapist, like mine, has no control over the office furniture provided as they are not in private practice.) The sitting thing is uncomfortable to Pout, with a ramrod-straight back and insufficient padding in the seat. Plus, since it's a "loveseat," there's this whole unused sitting area that gives the illusion of space but is basically dead to the solo sitter because spreading out would mean straddling the woody demarcation down the center, which would make the sitting thing doubly uncomfortable. Pout tried to change things up once by sitting on the other side of Rosarita, with her back to the window instead of facing it. Rosarita observed that no one had ever sat there before, and it seemed to freak her out just a little, but who is Pout to say Rosarita's discomfort was illegitimate? Pout's afraid of mail.

"Well, kiddo, how are things going?" Rosarita asked.

It's fine with Pout that Rosarita sometimes calls her kiddo; she's more than a generation Pout's senior, and she has beautiful silver hair that gives her a warm, and very, very wise, grandmotherly air. Plus, Rosarita's not at all condescending to Pout.

"Terrific," Pout enthused. "I feel satisfied, centered, hopeful, creative…all cylinders firing."

Rosarita smiled for real, with her eyes. "That's so wonderful," she said, leaning forward and crossing her hands over her tailored-skirted knees. "So, tell me what you're doing on a daily basis to keep it up."

That's the thing about therapy: When we're full of anxiety and fear about the past or the future, our therapists tell us to live in the moment. But when we tell them we're feeling effing fantastic, they want us to provide a prospectus for future wellness—nothing elaborate, a basic PowerPoint presentation suffices. Seems like a bit of a double standard, Pout and I agree, because it would be a hell of a lot easier for us to map out why our futures are doomed than how they will maintain their current sunshine-and-lollipops veneer.

"I started a blog!" Pout announced.

"Oh," Rosarita said, smiling, but with a vague uncertainty. Pout saw that her therapist was going to need some convincing that this was the best thing that's ever happened in their doctor-patient history.

"Blogging's great, because it provides me a low-stress place to write, and I'm posting almost every day. It's kind of a combination of microfiction, journaling, and…blather."

"Well, it's wonderful to hear that you're writing again," Rosarita said with more neutrality than Pout was looking for. "How does that feel?"

"I'm really enjoying it."

"Good, good," Rosarita said in her transitional tone. "I think the whole time I've been seeing you…how long has it been now—"

"Two years," Pout offered.

"Goodness, has it been two years already?"

"Yup," Pout said, thinking, truth be told, that the time hadn't really passed all that quickly.

"Pout, way back in the beginning of our therapy together I remember talking to you about writing a story, something about you but also not about you," Rosarita said gently. "Do you remember us talking about this?"

"Of course."

"I think it would really help you to write such a story, because I think the act of placing your thoughts and experiences in another character could be very freeing. You might start to see yourself more objectively through this character, and you may be able to relax these very rigid constructs of reality you impose on your world."

"Mm-hm," Pout nodded.

"Do you think that's something you might be willing to do?" Rosarita asked.

"I could give it a shot," Pout said.

At the end of their session, Rosarita stood and said, "Pout, I really shouldn't say this, but you're truly my favorite patient I've ever had in all my decades of practice."

"Aw, thanks, Rosarita," Pout said. "I think you're pretty special too."

On her way out, the rather androgynous but not unhandsome Pout gathered a handful of the dark chocolate Godiva truffles Kaiser Permanente offers in all their waiting rooms (except the obesity clinic) and proceeded to the parking lot. Scanning the lot, she briefly panicked that her car had been stolen, until she spied a tremendous red bow on the hood of a fully restored espresso-brown 1969 Karmann Ghia, retooled to operate entirely on solar energy. Attached to the bow was a tag saying: "Happy 100th therapy session, Pout. Here's a little something to celebrate your newfound conviction that you deserve nice things! Love—Kaiser"

"Awesome!" Pout shouted, mentally unlocking the car and sliding into its shiatsu-equipped driver's seat. The Ghia roared to life and asked where she'd like to go. "Um, New Zealand?" Pout answered hopefully. And with that they began their journey, Pout and her Ghia. On the way Pout heard on NPR that W had been impeached and convicted for his war crimes, which made her very happy, though she sent her psychic condolences to his family because, despite everything he had put her country through, she still believed summary execution was wrong. Nevertheless, such was the will of the new president, Pout's cat Scooter. As she continued hovering toward New Zealand, Pout couldn't help musing over what wonders and shortcomings a feline presidency might bring, but then she reclined a bit, selected the "vigorous" shiatsu cycle, and decided that there was nothing wrong with living in the moment.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

children, my not liking them

I was in the waiting room this morning at my therapist's office, which is actually a vast waiting room for many therapists' offices. As my appointment time approached a very adorable baby was brought into the glassed-in receptionists' area, after which secretaries and off-duty therapists gathered like cats to a can opener and commenced to cooing all about him. As my own therapist passed by the area on her way to retrieve me, she too was arrested by the sight of the small human and stopped to pet his kitten-soft hair. I was pretty taken with the sight myself, and so it was that my therapist caught me staring and came out apologizing for getting sidetracked. "This is what happens when grandmothers find themselves in the presence of babies," she said. "Isn't he adorable?"

"He is," I affirmed.

"Oh, but you don't care for children, do you," she said, more a statement than a question.

I'd like to set the record straight on a pervasive misconception about me. Though I have a complicated relationship with children, I like them very much. They are often very cute. Besides which, they are our future. I hope that clarifies the issue.

I've been told a number of times how I feel about children, always with a negative slant, and I'm not entirely sure how this rumor about my distaste for young people grew legs. Yes, it is true that I'm uncomfortable being left alone with children under the age of, say, 25, largely because I don't know what to do with them and they don't know what to do with me, which makes me feel like a big freak. But that's about me, not them. I'm worried that I'll somehow corrupt children young enough to be impressed by adults, and I'm terrified that I'll break children young enough to be held. Children old enough to elude the above categories are frightening for reasons all their own.

It's also true that I've gone on rants about poor parenting. When a child, in full view of his parents, runs squarely into me, responding if at all with a nasty glare as though he had been cleared for takeoff and I was just so much debris on his runway, and nothing is said to the child about apologizing to the weird lady or watching where he's going, that's poor parenting. When a child walking with his mother sucks down the last of his Slurpee and casually tosses the cup into my yard and he's not immediately told to go pick it up and hold on to it until he encounters a proper place to dispose of it—like maybe atop the abandoned sofa at the corner of my property—that's poor parenting. But it is the parenting I fault, not the child. As much as I would like to live in a world where children have an innate code of values and ethics that compels them to search their young souls to determine right from wrong—and come up with the correct answer every time—I know that children rely on their parents and mentors and juvenile caseworkers to instill such values in them. It's therefore hard to fault them entirely when the little nubbins light your hair on fire; they don't know any better, until you light their hair on fire back.

This is all ever so easy for me to say since I don't have children of my own. And I've never wanted any, nor have I so much as engaged in teenagedom's oldest profession: babysitting. Long before I realized I was a lesbian I remember telling my mother that I didn't think parenting was in my future. "You'll change your mind," she said. But I never did. And after I came out I thought I was off the hook, but now that spawning and adopting babies is all the rage with the gays even my partner and I sometimes feel the pressure to procreate. It was easy enough to derail my own mother from looking to us for grandchildren: All I had to do was gleefully tell her that if I were the one holding the turkey baster, I could be listed on the birth certificate as the legal father! Having her own deep issues regarding my gender identity, she never spoke of childrearing with me again. My partner's mother still lobbies us from time to time, but even she realizes that we're aging ourselves out of the market. Biological-clock issues aside, even adoption starts to get sketchy after 40, unless we wanted to adopt a teenager—and, really, are you kidding?

Friends of ours replicated in the fall, and confirmed childless couples like ourselves sometimes panic that such an event can't help but change the dynamic, that from now on any social life with the new parents will center on the baby, or, worse, that they'll start to feel more connected with their babymaking friends—and less connected to us.

The dynamic has changed. Whereas we used to go to restaurants, we now order in. And where we might once have gone to see horrifically bad local storytellers perform, laughing about the event for months afterward, we now chat in front of their plasma TV, which they bought when they thought they were never going to have a baby and therefore deserved nice things. As we chat, the new mother nurses, and I've gotten to know her breasts a lot better than I did before. I've also gotten to know her placenta, which is in her freezer for reasons all her own.

I like the new dynamic, and I like that Baby J's kitteny hair can be manipulated into a widow's peak or a fauxhawk and stay that way until you smooth it against her innocent forehead. And I like her teeny hands and her teeny feet, and she has the most inebriating smile I think I've ever seen. And sometimes, when I've asked my 42nd question of the night about how her developmental stages are going or what their Yorkie thinks of her, I get a vague sense that the new parents wish our whole social life didn't have to center on their baby.

Just in case you're wondering, I haven't changed my mind about having children. It's just not my destiny. But I'm awfully glad to have friends who are willing to do it for us.