- Mark Gunther, Medical Mystery (5/13/2019)
I have radiculopathy, pressure on the spinal nerves, caused by stenosis. Except my symptoms, weakness in the calves and feet, do not match the evidence seen on the MRI. Calf weakness should be driven by the nerves that exit from the L5/S1 area, and there is no stenosis there. So the surgeon sent me to a neurologist. The neurologist says, “Yep. Weakness in the calves. That’s unusual. But it’s gotta be the stenosis, I mean, what else could it be?” So he recommended surgery. But the surgeon wants me to get more epidurals because the last ones were totally ineffective. Maybe these, in a different location, will be effective. And maybe Trump will resign.
Yes, my cynicism is rearing its ugly head. So it drags on. The doctors are experimenting on me. Every appointment takes a month. I could have had these shots a month ago instead of a month from now. I’m doing what I can to fix myself. Work with my wonderful chiropractor Lance von Stade is aimed directly at my defensive postures, the unconscious body habits I’ve developed over years to protect me from the stenotic pain. Freedom from these postures allows the work in Barre class and Foundation Training to strengthen my spinal muscles. But I still walk like a duck. Can I retrain my nerves by myself and restore full function to my legs? I hope so. Tune into the next exciting episode of Stenosis Journal to find out!
Monkeys by Susan Minot
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I’ve been a huge fan of Minot, but this one didn’t touch me so deeply. It doesn’t have the sophistication of her later works, although the core of her style is clearly apparent. She does a bit of the time-shifting here that she utilized to great effect in Evening, although I did lose track of where I was a few times. That said, her skill with characterization and dialogue, using character to illustrate other characters is her strong suit. This is a family of seven children with a father who is a genial drunk and a mother who keeps everything together. The reader sees the constant balance between the various characters, the girls and the boys each constrained by social expectations as modeled by their parents. Even their rebellions fall within these parameters. Where Minot is brilliant is in how much is left unsaid. She lets the reader ask the questions that are unanswered in the text, and to her credit seems fully at ease with letting the reader draw her own conclusions. This was some of my frustration, I think; there is not a message to derive, she asks only that we empathize with this family as they are. And perhaps in this era of heavy-handed, complex and message-driven fiction, not such a bad thing at all.
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- Stenotic Cycling (5/1/2019)
The theme of this experience with stenosis is definitely a fragility-of-life/transience-of-experience thing. While I’ve derived much of my purpose in these early years of my retirement from physical competence, I can’t deny the slow decline of these capacities. In the studio I stopped jumping, yet still was able to dance with passion and precision. On the bike I couldn’t force repeated hard efforts, but I still could ride my fixed gear bike (a 74″ gear for you nerds) on the 80 mile round trip to Point Reyes Station. I thought the decline would continue gradually, but stenosis has pushed me off a cliff.
But I still can ride my bike. (Check out “Measure Twice, Cut Once” on my writer page for my theory of cycling). In my preferred cycling position my weight is on my sitbones, and the reach of my chest forward helps position my spine properly, relieving the pressure on the nerves, so its pretty much pain-free. The joy that I feel when I get in the saddle is so good, I hardly even care that I only have what feels like half the strength I had just a few months ago. Or that my coordination is compromised enough that my right leg can only pedal in squares. This is more obvious with gears than on the fixie, which has become physical therapy. My left leg can help force my right leg to relearn how to pedal in circles. I practice with diligence; the jury is still out on whether it actually will work or not.
Two hours is more or less my limit, before my right leg starts to malfunction, but those two hours still are a place of relief, of introspection, of directed work, of immersion in the beauty and/or challenge of the day. I hope I will recover, enough for a deep commitment to training perhaps to reemerge. I visualize this, replaying memorized images of past victories–pushing big weight in the gym, turning myself inside out on hard climbs, endless hours pushing my limits down deserted roads that extend into an infinite distance. Depending on the day these are either inspirational visions of a reconstituted future or the lunatic ravings of an aging fantasist denying his present. I don’t really care, though, because for now I can ride. I can ride!
The Crack Between the Worlds: A Dancer’s Memoir of Loss and Faith by Maggie Kast
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Intrigued by the title, I came to this book through the combination of my own bereaved parenthood, spiritual engagement, and dance. I found the subtitle a bit misleading; it is more autobiography than grief-focused memoir, with a greater emphasis on the experience of faith rather than the experience of loss. Engagement with Catholicism and its reflection in her personal and professional lives forms the core of her story. Married at 21, bearing five children, losing one at 3, finding the church out of an avowedly secular upbringing; yet the mindset and passion of the dancer (I began calling her ‘Miss Kast’ in my head) shine through. Her studies with Martha Graham yielded possession of “Martha’s physical impulse, a tiny bit of her sacred self.” The book takes the form of a traditional memoir; “Kast-as-narrator” is far more developed than “Kast-as-character.”She recounts and analyzes her experience, rather than immersing the reader in the felt experience of the key moments of her life, as is more popular today. She constantly doubts her calling to dance, her passion, her skill as a choreographer, yet continues ti dance and to make work well into her forties. Yet as with most bereaved parents, the moment of loss is ever-present, and even at the end of her story, the simple admission that “there was nothing she could do” is a painful reminder of the limits of life, no matter how well lived. And this life was well-lived, indeed. Maggie Kast is an admirable woman and I am pleased to have been able to spend some time with her in this memoir.
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- Living with Half My Back (4/24/2019)
I’ve discovered, in my journey with stenosis, that I take my back for granted. This seems to me an absurd thing to say given the large number of episodes of spasm and soreness and stiffness I’ve had over the past 39 years, but in the midst of all of my intensive use (some might call abuse) in the studio and on the bike, all the strengthening and stretching, all the yoga and chiropractic and PT, the basic deal we’ve had is that it can make all the noises it wants but will keep operating more or less normally. But it turns out there was no deal–I made the whole thing up.
The posterior half of my lower body, lumbar spine through feet, is not working. First, I can’t quite stand up straight. I get ready, sit on the edge of the chair, lift my spine, pull my head back and over, stand, breathe deeply, center my weight to let the natural curves form . . . . but they don’t. My lumbar spine moving to its proper curve sends shooting pain down both legs. So my autonomic interlocutor, Proprioceptive Body System 2.0, uses its standard algorithm and generates a supremely normal reaction to pain: “Stop!! Don’t do it! Stay hunched over, man.” “Well, I’m gonna do it anyway!” says the aging-is-a-state-of-mind part of my brain. Ahh, defiant humanity! “Hmmm,” says PBS2.0, “it’s your funeral,” and lets loose with the lightning bolts. “It’s only pain,” I say, “a signal, not curse.” So the visualization begins. “Let the curve form, lift that midsection, open the space the space forming, let those posterior muscle carry the weight.” I try every trick I’ve learned over nearly fifty years of dance and athletics.
None of which work. So the very things I need to do to get better directly confront the condition. There also is a neurological component; my calves don’t work properly, so I can’t rise to half-toe, can’t push off my foot when I walk and tend to tip backwards on stairs, so I have to put my whole foot down all at once. “Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum,” I come clumping . . . like Abiyoyo. So much for sneaky romantic interludes with my sweetie. On top of it, remaining in what primarily is a defensive (pain-preventing) body posture twists me into psychophysical knots–that is, I get depressed and mournful. And I am unclear whether pursuing these things is improving the spinal environment or merely exacerbating the condition. It may be that surgery (next check-in, May 13) is the solution. But at best surgery will buy me some time. My stenosis is congenital. Dr Paul says he has seen these things resolve by themselves in six to 24 months, and I’m a bit short of four, so that not encouraging. My posterior spine is being held hostage, and the negotiations are delicate and ongoing.
Less by Andrew Sean Greer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Arthur Less is a man with whom I can empathize, if not necessarily identify. A commitment to a self-abnegating vision of everything that happens to him sets him off on a globe-trotting voyage, not of self discovery, really, but of self-affirmation, that he truly is as wretched as his self-perception. So despite Greer’s mastery of language and form making for a number of entertaining asides, entry into this novel was sort of boring–another voyage of middle age self discovery. But the brilliance of this novel is how Greer contrasts this narrative with the views we get of Less from the other people in his life. The character that emerges is quite different. Certainly we see Less’ dorkiness, which seems to be his principal self criticism, but we also see a man perceived as successful–handsome, erudite, thoughtful, desirable, lovable. Watching Less struggle to maintain his existing self-perception againts the gradually accreting evidence to the contrary is the principal joy of this book. This leads us to the end, where the POV suddenly changes from the close third of the narrative to the first person of another character–we escape from the confines of Less’ mind. Does he?
The Pulitzer committee certainly appreciated Greer’s artistry in pulling this off with such grace, but to me this book is a lovely diversion. Worth reading, certainly, but I like my award-winning books to be a more demanding.
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- Stenosis. (4/13/2019)
Three simple syllables. Those three s’s make it sibilant, a small reverberation as the tongue forms the s off the palate. One can imagine Thoreau sitting at Walden rolling the word around in his mouth, or Frost on his wall using the word to drive his phrases forward. Unfortunately, the word belongs only to the poetry of pain, a tool for the poet for whom self-laceration is the key modality of expression. That’s not me any more; writing Without Jenny cranked most of that s–t right out of me.
While public complaint is not stylistically elegant, and my affliction is not uncommon, the stiff upper lip seems to be well out of style in the social media age. A reason I’ve been quiet here these past months is that I am becoming progressively more disabled due to this condition, which vastly limits my capacity to stand and walk, much less dance, hike, or work out at all (I have been able to ride the bike gently for an hour or two). My strength and my control both are severely compromised. My legs scream when I stand, or even lay flat on the floor; walking is a painful shuffle in which a full step moves me forward maybe eight or ten inches. My daily challenges now involve planning my trips up and down the stairs and deciding which external activities are worth taking a Vicodin for. What an awesome drug! It can take me to Hamilton on Thursday as long as I’m prepared to spend Friday pretty much immobile. Quite a comeuppance for an athletic fellow like myself. Thank G-d I at least can sit without pain.
The good news is that after dicking around with PT, chiropractic, acupuncture, rest, diet, Foundation Training and epidural interventions, surgery is the next option. I meet with the surgeon this coming Wednesday and hopefully embark on that process ASAP. Hooray for science!
- Retreat (2/26/2019)
It shouldn’t surprise me how deeply day to day life can interfere with the creative process. For months I’ve been stuck on the next book, a fictional portrayal of a rather bent near term world while my days have been full with work on my Alliance for Girls and Beth Sholom projects, with travel, exercise, and most recently a couple months of back trouble that sapped much energy from everything else. I need distance to do the real work of creating. Editing, revising, backfilling–that can be done during regular life
I’m away now, on a three week retreat in Whistler, B.C. I’ve been looking forward to this since August. Write and ski, cook and sleep, read a book or three. Its working! Here’s the evidence.
I did this same thing with Jenny. This wall is a color-coded transcription, to a timeline, of notes formerly scrawled haphazardly on five poster-sized sheets of Post-It paper, embellished by the steady massage of my imagination. There is an iterative process between what I write and how that ends up in the structure of the book. It seems cuckoo, sometimes to do it this way, but I’m comforted by the words or Elizabeth Bowen, who says, “Plot is what’s left when all the extraneous bits have been chipped away. ” On this project, I’m still early in the process of creating all the extraneous bits.
- Montreal (7/29/2018)
Anne and I have been enjoying this most Canadian and international city the past couple of days. Although proudly Francophone, everyone we meet speaks English and, with typical Canadian empathy, switches to it immediately on figuring out our incapacity with French. We are staying in the Vieux Port, or old port district, which is sort of a a combination of Sausalito and Pier 39 gussied up with cobblestones, car-free zones, and remodeled 200 year old brick and stone buildings. Across the street, by the St. Lawrence is a carnival with games and booths and a ferris wheel to match the London Eye. On the next pier down is the Montreal Museum of Science. The entire zone absolutely packed with tourists. Good for Montreal, certainly, but a bit claustrophobic!
The city has a large amount of public art. Murals, projections on the side of buildings, museums. There is a “Festival zone” in the downtown area covering a couple dozen square blocks and incorporating open plazas, informal amphitheaters, stages and pedestrian blocks peppered with street food, games, and performers, with music scheduled on the stages free early evening. There is a Comedy festival happening now. We saw an extraordinary exhibition at the Musee de Beaux-Arts on the relationship of Picasso to the art of Africa and Oceania. He was surrounded by this art in his studio and a lot of his work makes sense now in a different way. Quite extraordinary.
Yesterday we got out of the tourist zone by having a Jewish day. We went to shul in the morning; our former rabbi from San Francisco, Aubrey Glaser, has returned home to Canada and assumed the rabbinate at a large Anglophone Conservative synagogue here. At the post-service lunch a conversation with a long-time member showed they are facing the same sort of issues that our synagogue is facing–stable but older membership, primary support from a handful of stalwart families, and a changing set of values among younger Jews. We followed this up with a walking tour of the Plateau district led by a young curator from the Museum of Jewish Montreal. “In the Shadow of the Mountain” traced the engagement of Jews in the arts and politics of the city. Jews have been integrated into the growth of Montreal as an international city from its earliest development (more like L.A. that N.Y.) and haven’t seemed to face the endemic discrimination so characteristic of our engagement in other places in the world. Plateau reminded us of Brooklyn, with young people, young families, arcane eateries and a lot of coffee spread among long established hardware stores, repurposed buildings and Schwartz’s, serving the best smoked meats in Montreal (as the long line out in front perhaps could attest).
WE have two more days here then off to the countryside, after the tandem, which was due here on Friday, arrives tomorrow as promised by Fed Ex. It is here in Montreal but has to clear customs before delivery. Why it’s so complicated to send your personal property back and forth across this border is another of those mysteries of modern society.
- Eva’s Twentieth Yartzeit (7/13/2018)
Tonight begins the twentieth yartzeit for Eva, marking twenty one years since her death transformed our lives. Yartzeit marks the Hebrew date of her death, the 2nd of Av. Yartzeit is Judaism’s way of remembering the dead, but it is for the living. Like so much Jewish practice, its a simple thing. Each year, we light a 24-hour candle at home. At the synagogue we stand and say a prayer. We are seen; the community remembers our loss, acknowledges our pain, and supports our life today with love and respect. On this day we remember the Eva of the past, and experience her absence in the present. Its sad, what we have missed, what we are missing –yet the overwhelming feeling is one of gratitude, for the love we have today and for the privilege of having been Eva’s parent. It is what it is.