Pictures of my life, Part IV

Girl, you have no faith in medicine.
Is there a way to find the cure for this implanted in a pill? 
Is it just the name upon the bottle That determines if it will? 
Is the problem you're allergic to a well familiar name? 
Do you have a problem with this one if the results are the same?
-- Jack White, The White Stripes


In black and white, I’m on  a regimen of crap that I hate. The pills get stuck in my throat. The one I take at night sometimes makes me nauseated. I resent the idea that I need these things to feel/appear normal. Sometimes they don’t work at all. I’ve prided myself on being medication-free for years. I told myself that it meant I was healthy. Was I? Am I now? Today I heard a common-sense talk about wisdom and knowing when to let go of control. Wisdom is knowing when to take the medicine. Wisdom is knowing there isn’t a fix at a nearby big-box store for every problem in life.

In the world of color, I added some red to my hair.

Still haven’t mastered the art of self-portrait photography



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Today I stand at the crossroads.

My Girl from the East, who was a mush and Cheerios eater when I started this blog four years ago, (yeah, there was an anniversary here recently) graduated preschool last night in a ceremony that was so sugar frosted my teeth ached by the time it was over. Who can resist 20 five-year-olds singing with hand-made mortar boards on their heads? No one.

I’m at the end of one thing and the beginning of another. We are in the twilight of our innocence. My girl and I connected in a smoke-filled room in China almost five years ago and haven’t been apart more than a day or two since then. Stay-at-home motherhood  was not what I expected. I hated some parts and loved others. I have no regrets.  I was there for the first words, the first wobbly steps, the potty training, first friendships and preschool experiences. And all along the way I was at her side or close enough to catch her fall. Once she gets on in the world without me for seven hours a day, it will change. No longer will I be the all-knowing, omnipotent center of her universe.

In three months Girl from the East will  board a big yellow bus, wave to me,  and in a rumble of diesel exhaust leave me behind to figure out a new way to fill the hours of the days of my life.

Which brings me to the next  big thing: my health. I am not better. I am not worse. I am the same in a way that I don’t want to become the new normal. I’m on the dark side of a divide, one in which something about myself will be learned once I step into the light. Maybe I’ll have to give up certain foods or household products. Maybe I’ll have to get on medication. I don’t know, but I suspect a life change.

I’ve been forced to slow down. I’ve started saying no to things without hesitation. I’ve been reading and resting a lot. I’ve let things go, particularly my gardens. They will survive. Nature is tough.

Today is the end of one thing and the beginning of another.




I've got red on me — again

No, not The Hives ...

... but these hives


Allergies are hell.

They killed my father.

I’m not sure why, unless it’s psychosomatic or a hell of a coincidence, that a (suspected) severe allergic reaction has colored the last 12 days of my life. Each morning I awake to a new batch of itching, screaming hives, an angry mob swarming somewhere on my body. By noon, if I’m lucky, the swelling calms to an angry skin flush. I look like I fell asleep in the sun.

Nothing has been spared. Nothing. Today my whole face is swollen and hot to the touch.  My husband and I noted that I would not look good with those coveted collagen-injected lips so many women of Hollywood are sporting.

I’ve been to the doctor twice.

I’ve had a cortisone shot.

I’m living on anti-histamines.

I have an appointment for a full line of tests. But that’s not until next week.

I must wait.

Suspecting the lavender-infused laundry detergent I bought a month ago, I’ve been washing and rewashing everything.

Suspecting certain foods, I’ve been eating cautiously, making note of everything that crosses my lips.

Suspecting my overgrown yard and all its pollen and mold spore glory, I’ve not set food outside to tend to any of it.

I’m inside, slightly drugged, with ice packs where they need to be.

What a life.

Allergies are hell.


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By ClickFlashPhotos / Nicki Varkevisser’s photostream

This was written several months ago; things are better now.

Right before I took the Buddhist precepts last year, after months of preparation, study, and personal reflection, the founder of our Zen temple visited our group and imparted to us such simple advice:

Trust yourself.

You have all the tools you need to protect yourself from what the world throws at you.

You have all the tools you need to protect the world against what you throw at it.

How often have I ignored my gut feelings to spare someone else, to avoid an ugly scene, or a uncomfortable moment? How often have I pushed away the clear idea that a person or an action was wrong and should not be pursued?

I spent much of the first third of my life saying and doing as I pleased, with little regard to how it affected those around me. At the same time, I ignored an inner voice that said: run. tell someone. don’t believe it. Instead, I painted flowers over pictures of rotting corpses and rewrote scary stories as funny fables.

Later, when I became aware, really aware of that lack of filter, I overcompensated in the other direction. I kept quiet for the sake of peace and harmony and to further the idea that I was a nice person on the outside as well as the inside.

Often I felt like that repainted picture: a flower to the world, a rotting corpse underneath.

I mention this in the context of the last few months. If you’ve been reading here long enough you know I’m trying to do some deep writing, some exorcising, some healing. (Not much of it sees the light of the Internets.) What’s resulted is that if I open myself wide enough to scrape the contents of my soul, I become physically ill. I have been sick three times in five months. Flat-on-my-back-and-slow-to-recover sick. Aside from a weakened immune system, which has led to less time at the gym and out and about in general doing healthful things, I’ve been on a bit of  a downward spiral.

I’ve been haunted by a frank conversation I had this winter where I blurted over tea, “I need to be in therapy. I know I do. I’m just too cheap.”

Ouch. That was my excuse. I’m too cheap. Therapy is not cheap. But somewhere along the way I decided it was too expensive for me. I talked with a few close friends who kindly suggested: What about your husband? your children? Don’t you owe it to them at least to help yourself to be a better partner and mother? Think of yourself: In order for you to launch a job search (which is all about self-esteem and selling yourself) and move forward with our life, you need to be healthy and stong. Think of it as an investment.

Really, I couldn’t argue with that logic. So I contacted a therapist recommended by a person I trust.

It did not go well.

It’s hard to say what went wrong. Was it me, so resistant that I found fault with everything about the therapist? Was it the therapist, who just struck me as too harsh, especially for an initial consultation? I don’t know. I haven’t been in therapy in 20 years. And then? It was a kindly older woman, who always seemed on the verge of serving tea and cookies on a silver platter.

This appointment was more like going to the principal’s office after being caught throwing a sloppy joe at the lunch monitor’s back. By the time the appointment ended and I was alone I found myself on a train without brakes hurtling toward despondency. I cried all weekend long. I was totally alone. My husband was away on business. I came up with excuses not to attend two social gatherings because my poker face was at the dry cleaners.

For days I wrestled with my thoughts, pushed away the self-blame and pity and anger and frustration and finally I heard the faintest of whispers. The smallest of voices, like a pure musical note, cut through cacophony of chain saws, bulldozers and dusty, swirling debris:

Trust yourself.

So I did. I canceled my next appointment.

I didn’t cancel the idea of therapy.

Just that therapist.

This I know: What lies beneath is no different from a swelling tumor. My denial and lack of trust feeds its cells. Listening to my heart, trusting myself, speaking up, telling the truth, and not allowing myself to be led down dark paths, that’s my chemotherapy.

I won’t give up.

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Lenten muffin reduction

Remember the good old days when a little round of depression* had the nice side effect of weight loss?

Not so much anymore. I’m sure the government, right about the time it yanked pseudoephedrine-laced cold medications off the shelves, decided to cut the weight loss advantage out of all-American depression. You want weight loss? It’s extra. Fill out the forms. We’ll be sure to reject your claim.

What can I say? It happened. Specifically, illness, a long winter, and about of the blues happened. Now, I have extreme muffin top.  I’ve written about this enough lately, with folks waving me off as crazy when I say I’ve packed on a few pounds, but I have. So, I’ll spare you all details except this one. I went to Target today to buy some new workout clothes, in the sizes I always buy (the first sign of denial), by the maker I always buy. Since I know overseas clothing manufacturers are not shrinking pattern sizes, I had to face the truth: my sickly, piggy ways have led me to this place.

So, here’s the plan. It’s Fat Tuesday.

I am not Catholic, but each year I take up the Lenten practice of giving up something. Generally I give up what I call the cookiescakespiesanddoughnuts. I don’t really eat any of those things in great quantity. It’s just the code for the crap I do eat: tortilla chips and other salty snacks, trail mixes, and  those chewy granola bars, which are really glorified candy bars with a few nuts, seeds, and dried fruit thrown in for good measure. I love anything salty. In addition to the carbs and calories, I’m sure the salt intake has every cell in my body retaining water. I think my retained water is holding water.

So, no cookiescakespiesanddoughnuts for six weeks. Maybe longer.

The first week is always hell. After that it gets easier. By the time Easter dawns, I’ll have lost my urge for chocolate and overly salty snacks. Go ahead, wave an easter basket stuffed with candy under my nose. I’ll not flinch.

Also, I’m returning to my working-out-every-day routine. Some time last fall, around respiratory infection No. 1, I started slipping. If I didn’t skip a session, I went through the motions like a zombie. My lungs burned and seized up when I pushed too hard. My head spun from the medications. I decided I needed to get more sleep and take care of myself. That turned into a long winter’s nap, two more respiratory infections, and more medicine.

Now, I’m starting with a two-minute maximum run time on the treadmill, which is dreadful considering I used to do 15- 30 minutes when I was in good shape. I still don’t have full lung power, but I’m toughing it out, using interval training as a method to ease in.

If the mirror and a dresser full of clothes that do not fit aren’t enough motivation, there’s always my search engine search phrases:


This blog is proudly sponsored by grandma boobs


* I know I sound flippant, but I’m really not. I’ve suffered from depression all my life. I don’t wish it upon anyone. But, I’m still ticked off that it no longer knocks me down a dress size or two when it’s over.

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C what I mean?

by stevendepolo via creative commons

This post is brought to you by the LETTER C as in codeine, which stops the hacking long enough for me to talk and to sleep a bit and which wraps my world in a warm, fuzzy of blanket of calm.
C also stands for Christmas, the day on which my robot battery pack failed. After nearly two weeks of scrambling to shop, clean, keep up with everyday stuff, shop, attend holiday concerts and events, wrap, stress, shop, cook and stress some more, I gave in on the 25th.
C also stands for clammy sweating and chills. I faked it through the 23rd and 24th. I went roller skating on aching legs and ignored the creeping malaise. I pushed one of those ridiculous wonky carts through IKEA, past all those inviting couches and beds, whose siren songs had an almost irresistible pull. I sang Christmas carols at a candle light service on the 24th in spite of a raw throat and watery eyes. I skipped sleep one night to scrub my guest bathroom clean.
On the 25th we hosted dinner. So I downed some NyQuil, used some nasal spray and throat spray, put on extra makeup and a big smile and carried on.

“Are you sick?” one of my relatives asked post-dinner, when we were sipping tea and munching on home-baked cookies.

“Me? Oh, no… allergies, I think.”

Denial. Why the denial? There’s a family history.

By the 26th I was flat on my back. No more faking or denying. I missed two holiday parties. I missed an opportunity to go ice skating and sledding and to get together with friends over coffee.

C also stands for common sense, which is in short supply around here. I finally realized that practicing medicine without a license never ends well.  So I went to my awesome doctor, the one who treated me two years ago after I mixed the NyQuil/Benadryl/nasal spray/throat spray denial cocktail — along with real cocktails and outdoor swimming — on a trip to Las Vegas. I didn’t come home with a hangover. I came home with pneumonia in my left lung. My doctor is a swell guy, and he spared me a lecture this time around because this time I came in before I started coughing up blood. He just gave me the much-needed pills and cough medicine. He also gave me a copy of my chest X-ray on CD.

The good new is that my X-ray is clear. No scary dark spots. Just a bacterial infection of the respiratory system. That does not begin with C.


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Ah, sleep

Photo by Domenico Salvagnin via Creative Commons

I’m doing something different. I’m getting sleep. Real, glorious, soak-the-pillow-with-drool kind of sleep.

It’s been amazing.

I’ve never been a champion sleeper.

One of my earliest memories is of awakening in my dimly lit bedroom to the sound of  a squalling monster. I recall slipping out of my bed and padding over to its cage on the other side of the room. Inside was a smallish, red-faced beast with curled fingers and toes, leaking profusely.

My next memory is of my mother rushing in, flipping on the light switch and actually touching the creature, which, as it turns out, was my little brother. I recall sitting on my father’s lap in the living room as he explained babies and crying to me. The late news flickered on the TV screen and cast a blue glow around the room.

As a teenager, I went through a sleepwalking phase. I was known to walk from my bedroom down to the kitchen, turn on all the lights on the first floor, then open the side door leading to the driveway and garage. I’d lean out and look for someone or something. That’s when I would wake up.

As a young woman out in the world, anyone who slept next to me complained that I tossed and turned, sometimes shouted, sat up and carried on one-way conversations, and then *gasp* snored my way through the rest of the night.

I guess I’ve settled down in my middle years. If I snore, I get a poke in the shoulder to turn over. No more reports of conversations or late-night wandering.

Most of the time I’m adrift, seeking the distant shore of unconsciousness.

But this past week, thanks to the wonders of NyQuil, I slept the blessed slumber of the very young and the achieved the stillness of the dead.

Speaking of dead, I’ve been advised and warned for more than a year now that my sleep deprivation habits are going to kill me. I didn’t really believe it until I tried to lose 20 pounds. No matter how much time and effort I put in at the gym, no matter how much I dieted, I was not losing a pound or shedding an inch anywhere.

I kept reading studies and hearing reports about belly fat and lack of sleep and mortality.

I thought back to a friend of mine who died of cancer early this year.  I recall her telling me that as a single mother, she never got more than five hours of sleep a night. She did this for two decades. I wondered if she ever kicked that habit, or, if the damage had been done.

I’ll never know but the memory scared me.

So, a respiratory infection, followed by a three-week cough, followed by the common cold felled me like an old oak in a light breeze. I realized the most important thing was to get some sleep to get better. Night after night I just went to bed and slept until my body woke me.

It was amazing.

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Other things of nature

Photo by MZ

I had two pieces that should have been posted by now. Rather than publish, I killed them.
They sat around so long they gathered moss. One was about how a visit to the chiropractor ultimately predicted the illness I am now trying to cure. I went on about how I thought I was in such good physical condition, what with all the exercise and personal work I’ve been doing, I thought for sure the chiropractor would ask me to pose for X-rays for a brochure on spinal health.

Instead, the chiropractor asked if I’m being stalked by a scythe-carrying man in a dark cape. (Maybe I should have mentioned my five-hour-a-night sleep routine. I know that puts me to the front of the line to see the Grim Reaper.)

In a state of denial, I shrugged him off, proclaiming myself to be in good health. I paid my bill and cartwheeled out of his office. Two days later chest pain, headache, and a deep, phlegmy cough sent me crawling to bed.

Bad timing.

Perfect timing.

Sometimes nature places a banana peel in my crazed path, forcing me to slow down. Meanwhile, leaves plummet to the earth, stripping the trees of their pretenses. The season shifts, suggesting the time is now to get certain things done before snow covers the landscape.

So I’m thinking, as I prepare for a string of days that will physically and mentally challenge me, that I need to better manage the other things of nature, the ruts, the holes, and the bees.  I need to be stripped of my pretenses.

I’m taking a break, a really intense break free of books and computers and televisions and cell phones. For five days. So that I can sit in peace and face the mirror that is me. And hopefully, when this is all done, I will know how to accept the reflection rather than reinvent it, cover it up, or ignore it altogether.

I think the hardest thing to be is who you really are when you cannot hide behind props.

How brave are the trees to stand naked all winter.

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I’ve been fascinated with gym culture ever since my first visit to a Vic Tanny exercise facility in the early 1980s. On that evening I saw women walking around in Jane Fonda inspired leotards, leg warmers and terry cloth head bands. I saw guys with permed ‘dos sidling up to the juice bar to flirt with the aerobic dance instructors.

My boyfriend at the time had a lifetime membership to Vic’s and dragged me along in hopes that I’d sign up, too. That way we could be joined at the hip for yet another activity. While I was naturally svelte at the time, in no way was I in shape. I learned this as quickly as it took my smoker’s lungs to deflate under the unrelenting demands of my Nazi training instructor. I regretted every drag I’d ever taken on my Marlboro Lights as she  kicked my sorry little ass — clad in a club-issued and very pilled navy blue leotard — around the stations. If she was trying to get me to sign up, she was failing miserably. I avoided health clubs for a few years.

Eventually I came around.  I’ve had memberships in just about every type of facility:

  • the women-only places that have monthly food parties (I know, right?)
  • the recreation center aerobics classes
  • a Punk-rock fitness club that meets in bars and encourages you to bring your own hula hoop
  • the co-ed places where the men and women work out on separate days
  • the co-ed places where the men and women work out together but are so hopelessly crowded it’s more like the men and women stand around together waiting for the treadmills.
  • one of those new no-frills 24/7 operations. This is where I go now.

No matter where I crunch and curl and do my cardio thing, I see the same stereotypes:

Hans and Franz: The tag team workout buddies usually show up after their tanning appointment. They wear some variation of the Borat unitard. They show too much nipple and have perfectly waxed brows, backs and chests.  They hold court in the free-weights room, emitting a constant stream of grunts, groans and wet gasps before letting loose 200 pounds of metal, which always drops with a  thunderous crash to the floor. If you close your eyes, they sound just like a porno soundtrack.

The  sidecar: Most often it’s one of Hans’ or Franz’ girlfriends. Sometimes it’s another guy. Either way, the sidecar arrives with his or her bulked-up partner but does not exercise. Sidecars position themselves close enough to hand their partners towels and bottled water. They may get up periodically to have a smoke break, buy a fresh bottle of power juice from the vending machine, or  look outside to monitor weather patterns. Mostly, they cast looks of admiration and approval at the partner’s bulging muscles.

The marathoners: Found running indoors in the colder months when outside running is too treacherous. There is no dilly-dallying with these folks. It’s all business, which is generally an hour or more on the treadmill.  They wear all the right gear, including their commemorative T-shirts from charity runs. They are totally free of jiggly body fat. Sometimes they do crazy things like run backwards — or skip sideways — on the treadmill just to show off. Their cars have 26.2 sitckers on the back window.

The New Year’s resolution newbies: They arrive in droves and in earnest, with super large water bottles and  iPods loaded with motivational tunes. They’ve just chugged a shot of wheatgrass and bought a box of Power Bars in bulk. They carry a fitness journals and make notations after each activity. They have a look of desperate determination in their eyes. They’re all gone by February 1st.

The escapist: This type wanders in looking bored, most likely seeking refuge from the wife/husband/ kids/cats. Their workout attire is as half-hearted as their somnolent pedaling on the recumbent cycle. Their visit usually ends within 30 minutes, 25 of which were spent at the magazine rack. It’s also possible these people are trying to make good on a gift membership.

The clueless: They are at the gym as a guest or on a one-day pass. They show up in totally inappropriate exercise clothes, try to run on the treadmill in Crocs, lift weights in surfer shorts and flip-flops, and screw around with the machines and equipment until something jams or makes a loud noise. Eventually they give up the ruse of exercise and  claim a piece of equipment as their personal props and dominate it for 30 minutes while recapping the latest episode of “Battlestar Galactica.”

Finally, so as not to appear all high and mighty, I’ll throw in my own category:

The middle-aged housewife who fancies herself as some kind of exercise nut but who should really ditch the shorts for a pair of exercise capris because have you seen how her legs look in that flourescent lighting? That’s me, guilty as charged.

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Why can't I say good-bye to you?

Photo by MZ

One of my friends is dying.

I think.

Doesn’t that sound odd?

I don’t know what is going on for certain. I rely upon e-mail and Facebook updates. My friend is a former co-worker, someone with whom I’ve worked off and on over the course of two decades. We kept in touch after I left my job. Until she got sick. Then she went underground. Or her family sequestered her for their own reasons. Whatever the story, I can no longer reach her by phone or e-mail or Facebook or through written requests sent by U.S. mail.

At first I was hurt. Then I brushed away my feelings, realizing that I was being self-centered. What did I know about terminal illness? Would I want a parade of visitors, no matter how well-meaning, filing past my sick bed or the sick bed of a loved one? Would I feel added pressure to somehow put on a brave face, have coffee and snacks available to feed my guests, worry about my house being a mess or about how everything appears to the uninitiated? My only experiences with death so far have been of the swift-moving type. Here today, gone tomorrow.

However, I know how comforting it was to have friends and family and acquaintances stop in to visit, drop off a cake or send a card after our family’s loss. So, I project this feeling on my friend’s situation. If I were dying and  no one called or wrote or tried in any way to visit me, wouldn’t I feel even worse? Maybe I wouldn’t know. Maybe the sharp edge of pain or the dulling effect of medication would keep me oblivious.

If  a long, wasting illness is how I exit this life, it will be my call how to handle it. This is her wish, or by proxy, her family’s call.  I must accept it no matter how much it tears at me.

Cancer isn’t discriminating. It sharpens the arrow and aims it toward any moving target. There aren’t any bull’s-eyes on the bad folks any more than there are protective shields on the good guys. I’ve watched as so many good-hearted, clean-living, health-conscious people in my life have stepped into its trajectory. I also marvel how others who seem to have a death wish just chug along, dodging all of death’s fast-moving arrows.

As crazy as this sounds, I sometimes dread logging on to my Facebook account and seeing that I have a message. The last one said: “She’s in hospice. It could be any time.”

How the hell am I supposed to react to that? My urge is to find her and rush to her side, to give her hand a squeeze, to tell her how thankful I am that she took me under her wing when I was a cub reporter, that she had my back, that she played a motherly role in my life when I needed it the most, that she made me laugh harder than just about anyone else on Earth, that I think she is one of the smartest, toughest, most caring and diplomatic people I’ve ever known.

I suppose the next time I see her will be at her funeral. I hope I’m wrong.

One of my friends is dying and I’m sorry I didn’t have one last chance to tell her how I feel.

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