Sunday, May 24, 2009

Boxing Gloves For Sale (Almost)

...In the clearing stands a boxer
And a fighter by his trade
And he carries the reminders
Of ev'ry glove that laid him down
Or cut him till he cried out
In his anger and his shame
"I am leaving, I am leaving"
But the fighter still remains...
(The Boxer, by Simon and Garfunkel)

I was born fighting. I don't remember my birth of course, but knowing the surrounding circumstances I can say with complete confidence that I came out fighting. For a time, it was probably a good thing, since that very energy protected me from harm during my childhood. I was able to defend myself.

I was also able to defend others. I was unafraid to take on bullies and actually felt like it was my duty to do so. We moved a lot, and soon after starting 5th grade in a new school, I found myself protecting a 6th grader from playground bullies. Her last name resembled the Spanish word "feo" which means "ugly." She looked different from most kids-- very pale, dark glasses-- so you can imagine how they taunted her. I listened to it for about five minutes and realized she had no idea how to defend herself. I jumped in with a verbal assault that laid those kids low. I have no memory of what I said. I remember their mouths hung open like dead bass, so it must have been quite cutting.

There were many times like that where I felt the fighter in me did some good. But looking over the past 45 years, I see how it's made life difficult for me, too. The thing is, I never knew how to stop fighting.

When I got diagnosed with Wegener's, I did the only thing I knew to do-- I fought it. "The tests are wrong," I told my doctor. Okay, so the fact that I was laying there half-dead with hemorrhaging lungs helped convince me he was right, but I still fought it down deep. I fought that it was happening to me. I fought every new drug they put me on, every procedure, every complication. I always had good reasons-- a new drug was not necessary, a procedure was redundant, the doctors really did mess up, etc....

I couldn't see what was really going on : A fighter must always have a fight.

Having a serious illness means I get to meet a lot of fellow fighters. People with cancer often refer to their cancer as "The Beast" and use fighting words to talk about it. Some people with illnesses talk about beating their disease into submission, triumphing over it, slicing it out of their bodies, etc.... They describe dying from a disease as "losing the fight." It's a logical reaction. Fear makes us feel weak, and anger makes us feel strong. I have certainly done it myself.

And yet, it's so... violent. We are turning on our bodies at their most fragile time, assaulting them with aggressive images and harsh demands. We are propping them up for battle when they're trying to recuperate from disease and drugs and stress. It takes enormous energy to fight, and few of us have any to spare.

Little by little, Wegener's is taking the fight out of me-- not out of resignation, but out of surrender. It's showing me how I've engaged endlessly in this cycle, and how that will only lead to more of the same. Some days I can put down my boxing gloves altogether, and other days I put them down only to pick them right back up. It's slow going. that's for sure. But eventually the new habit will outweigh the old, and I will turn in these worn-out gloves for good.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Canidae Symbiosis

This story was on today. In case the link expires, here it is :
Dog dodges traffic to help fellow canine

BRONX (WABC) -- In the dog eat dog world of New York City rush hour driving, throw in an actual dog, two, really, and you have quite a tie-up.
Just before 6:30 a.m., a 9-year-old female yellow lab chow mix ran onto the Major Deegan Expressway and was hit by a car at exit 3. That's when another dog, her son, ran to the rescue, right there on the busy highway. The dog wouldn't let anyone near, barking at traffic and police officers, even as they tried to help.

At one point, police tried to coax the dog into a cruiser, and they got an earful.

The Deegan, normally buzzing at that hour, was slowed to a trickle. Drivers tried to maneuver around the scene, and the dog let them have it.

Finally, officers got close enough to lift the injured dog onto a sheet and place her gently inside a cruiser.

When police tried to get to the other dog, that's when the great pooch protector took off.

There was a slow-speed chase, then a high-speed chase. The dog dodged vehicles, changed direction and ran head-on into traffic.

Police backed up the highway, not sure which way the dog was going to break next.

Finally, after about 45-minutes, the dog was given a police escort onto an exit ramp, and traffic flowed again.

Meantime, the injured dog was on her way to help.

The dog was brought to animal care and control in East Harlem, where they gave her pain medication and made her comfortable. Then, a vet looked her over.

"She was alert," Lisa Ortiz said. "She picked up her head, she knew she was getting help."

She suffered a broken leg and is expected to recover. She also wore no ID, but her owner saw the drama on TV, went to the vet center and whisked her away to an animal hospital.

The owner told animal control that the other dog, who he also owns, is home now.

Ortiz says the relationship between the dogs explains a lot.

"It was heartwarming, they look out for each other," she said.

I adopted my dog Patch almost a year before I adopted Lotus. Patch is a highly sensitive dog who had lived in a violent home before finally running away. Outwardly he was social and affectionate. But after spending just a few hours with him, anyone could list his many fears. He was a real puzzle. He didn't have the typical slinking look of fear, but he'd sit there and just come unglued inside. It took me months to figure him out. He's tenderhearted and has the quiet, hard-won courage of a survivor.

Even as Patch shed countless fears, over time it became clear that as a submissive dog he'd never be happy without an alpha buddy. I prayed to find the perfect friend for him-- a leader, but not a dictator.

Within a couple weeks, Lotus appeared in a local shelter where I was volunteering. As is typical, most of the dogs were either barking, cowering or engaged in neurotic behavior. But there sat Lotus, perfectly still and perfectly calm. From the moment I brought Patch to the fence to meet her, they became inseparable.

As far as I can tell, Lotus has never known hard times. She's the least traumatized dog I've ever seen. Right out of the pound she was deeply affectionate and cuddly, and yet she had no idea humans were communicating when they made noise. She took 3 months to learn her name. The first time she came when I called her, she was as shocked as I was.

For a long time I believed Patch needed Lotus more than Lotus needed Patch. As the years go by and I watch her curl up into his belly or look for him when it's time to eat or go outside, I see that it's mutual. They have never once squabbled. They share everything--beds, bowls, me. She leads and he happily follows. She never abuses her power, and he always retains his dignity.

My kinda people.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

East Coast Tents

Yesterday afternoon I was looking out my window into my tiny backyard. There's a wooden deck and a large overhanging wooden deck above. Beyond the deck is a patch of muddy weeds fenced in by a 6-foot wooden fence. In case that all sounds nice to you, consider that yesterday it suddenly morphed into a scene from "Night of the Living Dead." Or something.

We just got through a long spell of rainy days. I lost count, as one rainy day rained into the next. After awhile, you start to measure time by how deep a puddle you have to stick your feet in to enter your house. Before the rain, we had one week of very high heat-- in the 90's, with East Coast humidity. (I was conveniently hospitalized the entire week, so my delicate constitution never experienced anything but purified, climate-controlled air.)

So combine record-breaking heat followed by enough water to ripen seeds from King Tut's tomb, and you have the perfect recipe for the scene that unfolded in my yard : hordes of caterpillars. At first I only saw a couple. I was intrigued and went out to take a peek. And then, while I was a very far 5 feet from the safety of my door, I noticed they were everywhere. Everywhere. On every surface. Dangling down from the deck above. FALLING DOWN from the deck above. Rising up from between the deck slats. There were parades of them all along the fence. They blended in with the wood and the mud so well, that just when I thought I could take a step, one appeared or dropped down. It...was...nightmarish.

I'm not afraid of caterpillars (though after this description you probably have serious doubts about that statement). I don't think they're cute as bunnies, either. Like artichokes, maybe. I'm not afraid of artichokes, but I think they're a little icky looking. So if I suddenly found myself surrounded by wiggling, creeping artichokes and they were popping out at me and falling on me, I might have the same reaction.

This morning, much to my relief, the caterpillars were gone. I figured they had marched on to another yard, having tasted the weeds in my yard and decided this restaurant was definitely "Two Thumbs Down." But on returning from the temple this afternoon, I discovered they had returned, too. And maybe brought friends.

Nevertheless, I am an intrepid blogger and felt obligated to get pictures to share. Please forgive my lousy camera phone :

This one reared its head up to me like a savage beast only moments after I snapped it :

Also participating in this adventure was my dog Lotus, who is not really wearing sneakers, but is being headlocked into observing "Do not kill."

And because the biologist in me insists on labeling them as something other than "icky," "nightmarish," or "artichoke-like," I felt obligated to determine what kind of caterpillar they are. I don't know how tricky caterpillar-typing is, but as near as I can tell, they are the Eastern Tent Caterpillar. ET's (oh for Pete's sake, how perfect is THAT) prefer cherry trees, and there's a nice big fat one just a few feet from my yard. If they all spin cocoons, this place is gonna look like a mummy crypt pretty fast.

Now, an interesting thing happened when I was trying to take the pictures. I had to get really close for my lousy camera to get any detail, and while I was nose to nose, I noticed that they have pretty cute, fuzzy little black faces. I thought, "Wow, I guess I've really been working on seeing the Buddha in all beings." And then, as if to smack me out of any hint of a prideful thought, a caterpillar that was dangling from the deck above came whizzing right by my ear and plopped down onto the deck. Cute and fuzzy-wuzzy maybe, but I ran back inside my house like a little sissy girl, making the kind of sound that comes out entirely involuntarily, "Eeaahhurrkkeeahh."

And inside is where I shall remain until they crawl away for good. It's cool-- I've got enough food for at least a week. Just enough time to figure out how to use Jedi Mind Tricks to say, "Go to the cherry tree next door. Nirvana awaits you, oh fuzzy-faced ones."

Unless of course that plan backfires, and the cherry tree ends up filled with escaped hamsters instead....

Saturday, May 9, 2009


I’ve always had a pretty good sense of humor. It’s been with me this entire life, along with the banana bread-shaped birthmark on my leg. Few people escape a conversation with me that doesn’t entail laughter at some point, even if it’s just a joke about how un-funny our conversation is.

One day Ani Alyce Louise and I were sitting in an ER discussing how I had just added to my list of diagnoses. I said, “Wouldn’t it be funny if I died from something that wasn’t even on the list? All this time spent worrying about this condition or that, and someday WHAM! A banana peel takes me out.” She hesitated for a moment—most people do when I joke about death—and then broke loose laughing.

Several weeks ago my doctors suspected I had new blood clots in my legs. The best way to tell is a leg ultrasound. During the test they use a lot more pressure than a typical ultrasound, since they have to compress the veins. For whatever reason, ever since I got the first clots in 2006, the test is excruciating—like my veins are filled with chopped glass. I can take the first compression or two, but as the test proceeds I squirm up higher and higher on the bed, feeling like I’m backing out of a shark’s jaws. This goes on for about 30 minutes and the whole time I’m usually seeing stars and begging to pass out.

And, I’m laughing. Because minus the pain, the whole scene is actually pretty funny. I mean, I walk in just fine, chatter back and forth with the tech, and then in the midst of our happy little conversation I’m suddenly begging for mercy. And once it‘s over, we’re back to chatting and off I go. Just like a little “Interlude from Hell” in an otherwise okay day.

The tech who did the test this time was so compassionate. She kept saying, “I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry.” I was laughing and screaming at the same time. At one point my “ha-ha’s” and “ow-ow’s” began to merge into a bizarre-sounding “Ha-eow Ha-eow Ha-eow Ha-eow Ha-eow.” Like a cat holding onto a ceiling fan.

When we could both form coherent sentences again, she explained how touched she was by my ability to laugh even while I was in so much pain. She asked if she could share it with her little girl as an example of how to cope with difficulties. I said "Of course," but I left there scratching my head as to why on earth my sense of humor was of any real value.

It wasn't until I began aquatic physical therapy a couple weeks ago that I started to really contemplate this little gift of mine. We're a mixed group of people in the pool-- everything ranging from mild to serious injuries or illnesses. I've discovered that it's impossible to guess the severity of anyone's condition just by their attitude. The least injured might be the most somber, while the critically ill might be the happiest. I can't help but think that those with a lighter attitude about their suffering probably feel less pain.

Splashing around in the pool has been a catalyst for me to understand what so many friends have told me my whole life. I see that I’ve completely taken this gift for granted, thinking of it as a nice little add-on, just good for entertaining others. I never thought of it as something that actually helped me. But seeing how life’s woes go all the way to the bone, I’m grateful that my sense of humor does, too. It has saved me from sinking into deep depression and has been a reliable reprieve from the “storm du jour.” As I wade through all the levels of chronic illness—crisis, recovery, rehab, rinse & repeat—I see that finding the humor in things is the lifeline I throw to myself. It keeps my head bobbing on top of the water, able to see that the waves are just waves (even when they're really really big), and that eventually I’ll wash up on the shore again.

And when I do, I sure hope I look better than this :