Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Dear Dipika

Last month, a virtual friend, with whom I had a brief encounter nearly 10 years ago, sent me an email.  This is nothing new, mind you.  She started sending out an enewsletter some years ago and I have been a subscriber.  The enewsletter is introduced by an email that is usually personalized.  But when I got this latest one, I was taken aback.  The personalization was in the subject line:  "Do you write, or want to Anna?"  Was she writing just to me?  And more importantly, does she have some sort of extra-sensory perception that she would ask such a pointed question?  In the email she wrote:  "Would you like to join me in a co-journaling project? I've been dreaming about this for a little while. Perhaps you have an idea in mind for a story that you've always wanted to share. Maybe you're looking for a chance to connect with other people that are also here."

I pondered it for a couple of days and then, I finally sent her the following:

 What a loaded question!  My first response was an unrestrained "yes!" but the more I contemplated it's meaning I began to doubt myself.

I have written, a lot.  I started a blog a couple of years ago (one of about 7 now!) called "I Am a Writer in My Mind" (iamawriterinmymind.blogspot.com) and I entitled it such because I find that I do my best writing in my mind.  Unfortunately, what actually gets to paper (or virtual paper) is only a small fraction of my writing.

Which led me to more questions.  Do I, indeed, want to write?  If it is so difficult for me to actually do it, maybe I only want to want to write.  Or do I not write because I want to write for the wrong reasons?  Do I want to write something others will read and if they aren't going to read it am I less inclined to write it.  If a tree falls in the forest…

But back to your question.  Do I write, or want to?  And would I like to join you in a co-journaling project?  I have to answer with a qualified "I think so (?)"  (I really am a writer in my mind, aren't I?)  Among the ruins of my blogs is one called "A Woman is the Full Circle." (awomanisthefullcircle.blogspot.com).  It was intended to be a co-journal among a private group of close friends whom I felt were among my wisest (I have sent you an invitation to join).  The inspiration for the title and the idea came from this quote:  "A woman is the full circle. Within her is the power to create, nurture, and transform. A woman knows that nothing can come to fruition without light. Let us call upon woman's voice and woman's heart to guide us in this age of planetary transformation." Diane Mariechild. And the blog was created at a time in my life full of great change and uncertainty.  I called upon the voices of close friends to help guide me.  Oh, little did I know what lay ahead for me. 

Unfortunately it was a time of great upheaval for many of my friends too and the last time one of them posted was in March 2009.  We seemed to all lose our voices then.  But oh!  How I miss those voices!  Why is it so hard for women to share that "power to create, nurture, and transform" with a louder voice.  Because we are all busy using our power in our own circles, hoping to cause a ripple effect?

Ripple effect.  It brings me back to "an idea in mind for a story that you've always wanted to share."  Ripple effects.  Chance meetings. Do you remember how we met?  It seemed so random at the time and yet, time has revealed that perhaps it was not so random as we might have thought.

I love to tell that story.  Dave, Sean and I were standing in line behind you in the ticket line for the first short sci fi film festival in Seattle.  It must have been 2004?  Sean struck up a conversation with you and I thought he already knew you.  Then he introduced me to you, as his partner.  You must have been a bit surprised, though you didn't show it.  You calmly turned to me and asked how Sean and I had met! We have had many laughs about that since.  He always struggled with explaining that while I was his mother I was also his business partner.

But you and I remained connected by this fine, shimmery, silken thread.  And here we are, nearly 10 years (!) later.  "Talking" about writing…perhaps together.  Ripple effects.  Who knew?  Who knows…Now because of you I am traveling to distant places I have never--and will never now--travelled. 

Thank you for inspiring me to pull the thoughts from my head and put them to "paper."

And yes, I'd like to "talk"' more!

And so...the co-journaling begins...

Friday, August 30, 2013

My Life as a "Poor" Person

I feel like I'm living in the middle of an experiment.  I have heard of writers "embedding" with their subjects.  I have read "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America," by Barbara Ehrenreich and recently started to read (had to return to the library before I was done; I hate that!) "The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee's, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table" by Tracie McMillan. But these are authors who took on their embedding by choice.  I'm in it and I didn't choose to be.  

I only wish it was experiment.  The truth is, like 11.8 million people, or 7.6 percent of the American labor force (as of 8/1/13) we are part of the capable but unemployed ( U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics just released its monthly Employment Situation Report which includes the headline unemployment rate. Headline, or U-3, unemployment is a measure of how many members of the workforce— defined by the BLS as the set of Americans who are both eligible and willing to work — are actively seeking employment).

Actually, that is not entirely true.  Having a small business, we do bring in a paltry bit of money which technically puts us in the category of  U-6 "which counts not just those job seekers included in the U-3 (headline) rate, but also those who are marginally attached to the workforce (underemployed) and people working part-time for economic reasons. This measure of unemployment hit 14.3 percent in June, half a percentage point increase from May but down from a peak of 17.1 percent in April 2010." (http://wallstcheatsheet.com/stocks/how-many-americans-actually-have-full-time-work.html/?a=viewall) My boldface emphasis included.  So, we're really like 22.2 million people.  But that's just one statistic.

There are more grim ones.  According to the Huffington Post, economists estimate that on average, just 35 percent of the jobless have collected benefits over the past 22 years. We are now a part of the 65%.   Politicians like to make headlines by spouting off about ES fraud and claim that many unemployed workers choose just to stay on unemployment benefits rather than look for work but the real truth is that if you can qualify for and receive unemployment income you are still limited as to how long you can receive it.  And, based on the stats, that's a big "if."

"No wonder people turn to crime." 
"I don't know what you mean by 'turn to crime.' It seems to me that this is a crime and you are in the middle of it."
European starling (Sturnus vulgaris)

Sleeping with the Enemy

Okay, I know.  European starlings, as a species, are much maligned, at least by Americans.  Starlings were purposely introduced to the country in the late 19th century for, get this, literary reasons!  That's right, some homesick Europeans wanted to bring the bird species of none other than Shakespeare to Central Park in New York.  And the rest, as they say, is history.

Turns out that European starlings took to America like, well, any species would who arrived in a place where they had no natural predators.  They flourished.  A bit too well.  Now, as the Washington Dept of Wildlife's "Living with Wildlife" Web site puts it, they are ubiquitous.  Probably ranked somewhere between pigeons in the city and gulls at the coast.  The good news is that, although they were brought here under quite false pretenses, it turns out that one of their favorite snacks is the larva of the leatherjacket or marsh crane fly, which is also a non-native (and for that very reason deserve to be eaten!).

So why do we hate the beloved bird of Shakespeare?  Why indeed.  I mean, just because they tend to crowd out other song birds, including stealing their already occupied nests for starling eggs.  Just because they are messy housekeepers and small flocks can desiccate fruit and young veggie crops.  Just because older, more established roosts are breeding grounds for diseases unkind to humans.  What's not to love?

In spite of all that I know about starlings I must confess that all that is dimmed by their voices.  I love the starling calls, described by "Birds of the Puget Sound" as a "continuous series  squeaks, squawks, including mimicry of other species."  But this limited characterization doesn't begin to do justice to the artful array of sounds of which these birds are capable.

I know this because I sleep with them.  Well, I mean, not literally.  They are more like "roommates."  You see, there's a nest of them under the eaves of our famous cupola and during the summer months, since we keep our windows open up there, we can hear everything our roomies are saying--in the early morning hours when they are getting ready for the work day and in the evening when they come home from work and are settling in.  I know it amounts to eavesdropping (I'm talking more about what I do, listening to them not what they do, making quite a mess of their room) but I can't help but smile to hear them twitter, caw, chortle, cluck, click, chatter, chuckle, tweet, and guffaw.  Sometimes we'll mute the TV so as to hear their bantering all the better.
 Listen,  I know they’re a nuisance; I know we need to get someone up there after this second batch of chicks is gone to get rid of the nest and debris but in the meantime, I’ll enjoy the free concert for a while.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Definitely NO!

Learning to say no, again

For the past two-and-a-half years I've been a party to teaching my granddaughter the meaning of the word "no."  I have also tried, with limited success, to teach my dog and my cat the same word.  I spend the better part of my life teaching four children the same word.  One would gauge, based on my experience, that I have a full understanding--and appreciation for--the word and that I would excel at applying it in my own life.  But, as they say, "those who can do, and those who can't, teach."

I am learning again the meaning of no.  No, I can't climb that.  No, I can't carry that.  No I can't do all of that.  And, no, I can't/won't eat/drink that.  I have never been accused of being too thin.  Since young adulthood I have battled off an on with my weight--specifically how much I can eat based on how much I am burning. 

Then I entered into that most revered status: perimenopause.  All bets were off.  I didn't necessarily gain a great deal of weight but my body reverted to its once familiar state: pregnancy.  I lost what little there was of my waist altogether.  I adjusted.  I got rid of two-thirds of my clothes.  I learned to live with elastic waistbands or pants that sat below the waist.

But then, the stroke and post-menopause and a broken hip.  I'm fairly certain now that my body doesn't burn a single calorie for anything.  I just got rid of two-thirds of what was left in my closet.  I weigh more than I ever did at full term.  I have to learn to say "no" again.  No, thank you, no wine for me.  No, thank you, no toast for me. No potatoes, no pasta, no, no, no.  In truth, I do not like the word.  No, I do not.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Okay, maybe not everything

But nearly...

And Therein Lies the Problem

Why do I seem to have so much trouble writing?  Why can't I seem to form the habit?  I might have found the answer in yet another movie quote. One of my favs is the not-quite-old-enough-to-be-a-classic, "Throw Momma from the Train."  Perhaps it is because I can somehow relate with the protagonist, Larry.  Not because he is a frustrated divorced literature professor but because he has serious writer's block.  The movie is funny and has many memorable lines but the one that sticks most often in my mind and haunts me regularly is the one spoken by Larry (played by Billy Crystal) to his class of misfits: "Remember, a writer writes."  And therein lies the problem.

I wouldn't say I have a great imagination but I have a fairly active one.  I imagine all kinds of scenarios such as me fifty pounds heavier or what I would do if I won the lottery.  I imagine myself walking again.  I imagine craft ideas or sewing projects.  I imagine myself a published author.  The problem is, most of the stuff I imagine never makes it out of my mind and into reality.  Granted some of that I have no control over.  But a great deal of it I do.

If a writer writes then I am not a writer because I don't actually get most of what I think or "write" down on paper.  I mean, sometimes I do because obviously I'm writing now but most of my really creative stuff stays stuck in my brain, inaccessible at the moment that I sit down at the computer.  I can sometimes access it through voice recording but the super good stuff stops short at the connection between brain and fingers.  And the real casualty in this is you, dear reader, because you will never know what you're missing.  I am, after all, a writer in my mind.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Exclusive! Book Excerpt!

Fish Out of Water

From the start the staff at the rehab center didn't know what to do with me.  They have a pretty standard playbook that is designed with the elderly in mind.  I know they have the occasional younger patient (I heard of two patients while I was there who were women in their 30's who suffered strokes) but they didn't do much to bring down the median age.  Even at 54 I was a young 'un.

Add to that the fact that I have many friends and friends of friends and my room came to be known as the party room.  It was literally a revolving door of visitors, the likes of which most of the staff—who had apparently spent their entire careers with geriatric patients—had never seen.  The majority of the other patients had few—if any—visitors.  They spent the bulk of their spare time watching reality television or napping.  They did not have laptop computers or cell phones; they did not entertain guests regularly.

At meal times, most of the patients were wheeled—or self-propelled—to the "dining room."  This was for most of them the only real "socializing" many of them did outside of their therapy sessions.  I was asked nearly every day if I planned to take my dinner in the "dining room" and every day I demurred.  This confounded the staff.  Remember they had their playbook.  I'm sure there is a section in there about the importance of patient socialization for maximum recovery.  The other reason was that many of the stroke patients unfortunately had choking issues (one big reason why our food appeared to be "pre-chewed" and mushy) and it was easier for staff to keep watch over the flock when they were herded safely into the paddock at mealtimes.

Don't get me wrong.  I certainly appreciate that their rules are based on years of experience with the average stroke patient.  But I was definitely not average.  I had a laptop computer and a Nook and a cell phone.  Once I was mobile enough to get myself up and into my wheelchair I set up my field office which meant that I needed more than the one standard-issue hospital room table; I had two.
And then there were the flowers. Not just flowers; it was as if a complete florist's shop had been set up in my room.  I don't think I ever took a final count but I know that there were at least five orchids alone!  There were arrangements of every size and color and flower combination.  There were single plants and whole planters of plants.  They crowded each other on my rather large and wide window sill.  They spilled over onto the floor.  There were overflow flowers crammed on top of my "dresser."  It was a fulltime job just to find room for them all and keep them watered.  And I loved it!

So did the staff.  Frequently I would have visits even from staff who didn't work my room.  Apparently news about me traveled far and wide and they all came to see the "woman who had many friends."  They came to see the flowers, to meet the dog, and to chat.  It was as if I was some celebrity holding court.  And apparently they had never seen the likes of me before.  They had never seen so many flowers—and greeting cards (which were plastered all over my inadequate bulletin board)—and they had never had a patient who had so many visitors (sometimes three groups in a day).  I was a regular side show!

They also came to talk to me.  I could carry on a conversation, talk about books I was reading, discuss environmental issues, share recipes.  I even had several attendants who confided deep secrets and personal tragedies.  I don't mean to brag, but I think I even inspired a little bit of jealousy on the part of staff members who were not assigned to my room and my treatment sessions!  I earned their trust enough that they began to share little known secrets such as the fact that I could have more say about my meals and they would also commiserate with me on frustrations with the "system."

And the real reason I didn't opt to go the dining room?  To be honest, it was downright depressing.  I had the occasion to stop in there to get some of my own food from my stash in the refrigerator.  Trust me, it would have done nothing for my emotional recovery.  Most of the patients were not only much older but in pretty bad shape.  I had compassion for them but I just couldn't sit and eat surrounded by them.  I was much happier to eat alone in my room with my book.  And I promised not to choke.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

At the center of a nutmeg pod


The other day my daughter complained that every time she uses our pepper grinder--which has three settings for grind size--"someone" has changed its grind size to coarse and that she wished people would return it to fine when they finished using it implying, of course, that fine is the normal setting, the status quo.  Any other option is a deviation, translated "wrong."

I realized then that in our household at least, there exists in other instances this same group think.  There is a "normal" setting such as this for the toaster, dishwasher, clothes washer and clothes dryer.  This setting is so accepted that if someone (i.e. me) changes the setting for a particular load (because that choice is more appropriate) others using the same machine go on using that new setting without questioning even if it is not appropriate for their purposes.  This is because, in their minds, there is a "normal" setting that is "always" used; why would anyone deviate?

This thinking often spills over into other areas like positioning of the driver's seat and mirrors.  What is normal for me is not necessarily normal for you.  Yet,if I was the last person to drive the car you might expect me to reposition everything so that it was perfect for you the next time you drive (presuming that your setting is right and normal; mine is the aberration).   It's easy to see why you might think this if you drive the car more often than I.  You might see yourself as the main driver and therefore your settings as the accepted normal.  But the status quo could quickly change if I suddenly started using the car "more" than you.  You begin to see how "normal" is truly arbitrary.

In 18th century America it was "normal" to own slaves.  In most of the 20th century it was normal to smoke in restaurants and on airplanes--even doctors might smoke in their examination rooms.  Group think--often the accepted definition of "normal"--is not necessarily right, not necessarily what's best.  It is true that in nature sometimes wires get crossed and something "unusual" happens in a species; but sometimes that "unusual" thing starts happening more and more until what was abnormal is now quite normal. 

In reality, what I think of as normal, is often what I have decided I am comfortable with, what works for me, what fits my view of the world.  I might find like-minded people who agree with me but this does not necessarily mean that I am right, that there is, in fact a "normal" and then there is the "abnormal" and the world should side with me and my supporters.

The smaller the world gets and the more connected its inhabitants get the more we need to be open to rethinking "normal."

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Exclusive! Book Excerpt!

Remember how early on in the book I talked about the "creeping paralysis" that had taken place that fateful day?  Strangely, a year later I have noticed an odd physical event: sometimes I'll have a persistent itch either at the joint when my right leg joins the abdomen or actually up on the right side of my abdomen and when I scratch it my right leg and foot twitch and jump.  It is as though they have some bizarre new connection.

Years ago an employee of the phone company came to our neighborhood to do some work on the phone lines.  About an hour after he left, my phone rang.  The caller had the wrong number but what was weird was that she was attempting to reach one of my neighbors!  Odd coincidence I thought.  A while later the phone rang again.  Another wrong number.  Another caller looking for the same neighbor!  And then it happened again!  "A coincidence?" I thought.  I think not!  Turns out that in fact while disconnecting and reconnecting our phone lines the phone company lineman had plugged them in backwards!  I wonder if that can happen in the brain.

And why is it that it can work around some damage (I can use my hand and arm normally again) but not other damage (i.e. this darned leg!).  I made an appointment to see my stroke neurologist. 

At the doctor's office, after catching up, we pulled out the old photo albums and reminisced about my stroke.  I wondered aloud why I had managed to regain use of my upper extremities and looking at my "pictures" he noted a plausible explanation: my brain had apparently reached the limits of its capabilities.  (Not the first time, mind you.  I've had that experience frequently over the years.  Especially when it came to algebra.)

It seems that my cavernous malformation[1]  is located along the left frontal lobe’s “motor speedway” (or for those of you brainiacs, the corpus callosum).  According to the Oregon Health and Science University Brain Institute (my italicized comments added), “The corpus callosum (Latin for “tough body”—ironic, isn't it? Not so tough as you thought you were, huh mister?) is a broad, thick bundle of nerve fibers in the entire nervous system, running from side to side and consisting of millions and millions of nerve fibers. (not just millions, but millions and millions!) If we cut a brain in half down the middle, (Why would ANYONE do that??!!) we would also cut through the fibers of the corpus callosum.” (Duh!)  I prefer the motor speedway image. 

The corpus callosum is in the middle of the brain just above the brain stem running, basically, front to back.  Just a smidge above that is one end of the primary motor cortex which runs side to side perpendicular to the corpus callosum up over the cortex.  Are you with me here?  This primary motor cortex is otherwise known as the "homunculus” or Latin for "little man."  The homunculus is called that because it—sort of—resembles a little man lying on his stomach with his head twisted around facing outward, as if over a large round rock, only this guy is draped over the motor cortex of the brain. [2]  It actually doesn't seem very comfortable, at that.

Anyway, this homunculus is thought of as the “body within the body.”  As the blog site io9.com puts it, "We all know what bodies look like from the outside. This cortical homunculus is how your brain sees your body from the inside."  There are actually two of them, one over each motor cortex.  "Every part of the body is represented in the primary motor cortex, and these representations are arranged somatotopically[3]-- the foot is next to the leg which is next to the trunk which is next to the arm and the hand. The amount of brain matter devoted to any particular body part represents the amount of control that the primary motor cortex has over that body part. For example, a lot of cortical space is required to control the complex movements of the hand and fingers, and these body parts have larger representations in M1 (the homunculus)[4] than the trunk or legs, whose muscle patterns are relatively simple."[5]  

In lay person's terms, this little dude is pretty strange looking!  His head and hands are much larger than—and out of proportion with—his legs and feet and correspondingly the sections of the brain that control those motor functions are also out of proportion.  That's because your hands are much more intricate machines than your dumb old legs and feet!  To put it in perspective, the sections of the motor cortex that correspond to the feet and toes (each with only one section) are only about a third as big as those which correspond to the hand, fingers and thumb (each with its own section).

(Can I just say that in researching for this book I have encountered some pretty weird stuff out there on the Internet?  For instance, there seems to be a whole community of homunculus followers out there—like some strange cult—who have written about this weird little man, created at least one Facebook page for him, even created animated videos about him!  Some people just have way too much time on their hands!)

Anyhoo…all this is to say that upon closer examination of my MRI it seems that the cavernous malformation lays alongside this homunculus on the left motor cortex of my brain. (Remember…the left side of your brain controls the right side of your body.  Confusing to say the least!).  The bleed must have begun at Homunculus' feet (hence that's where I felt it first) and spread "eastward" past the legs, trunk, shoulder, arm, hand, and fingers stopping just short of my middle and forefinger and thumb.  Which explains why those were the only appendages I could move by the time I reached the hospital.  Another way to look at this is to imagine a paint can spilling: the paint might pool right at the point of the tip over and then depending on the terrain might spread out from there, getting thinner as it spreads until it finally stops.

What does all this mean?  Well, the paint spill started at my foot.  That means the greatest part of the spill was there and caused the most damage to my foot and leg. And quite possibly, this damage is just too great[6] for the super muscle known as the brain to fix.  In other words, the circuitry there is fried.  Specifically, the nerves controlling my peroneus longus and my flexor digitorum are toast! This renders those muscles weakened and unable to win the tug-o-war with the opposing muscles.  Consequently, the outside muscle of my calf that pulls against the inside muscle of my calf allowing me to keep my leg straight when I walk and the bottom muscle of my foot that pulls against the top muscle of my foot allowing me to flex and extend my toes (and wiggle them in the sand) can't pull their weight any more.  Of course, there are probably other muscles—and tendons—affected which all-in-all makes "walking" impossible and "getting around" a chore.

[1] Did I mention before that months down the road from my stroke, when we had learned of this little appendage in my brain, my darling husband still thought it was a large hole?

[2] Turns out those brainy folks who studied and named all the parts of the brain that we know something about can be somewhat imaginative as well.  It's a little like ancient people seeing a face in the moon.

[3] Organized in a point-to-point representation of the surface of the body.

[4] My insertion

[5] www.brainconnection.positscience.com

[6] Or perhaps, not important enough to bother with, as far as my brain is concerned.