The Return of the Skewer of Death and Other News: Day 83 of Medical Leave

A while back, when I was trying lamely to explain what fibromyalgia pain feels like, I mentioned that I almost always felt as if there was an invisible metal skewer piercing my right ankle, making a nice little ankle kebob for me to carry around in case I need a snack. Well, like most of my body pain, that skewer has been gone since mid-March or so. Until about an hour ago.

I noticed the presence of the skewer when I got up from reading and started to get ready to go return some library books. How odd, I though. The skewer is back. Then I dropped my keys on the way out the door and bent down to pick them up, and Oh my holy hell the skewer the skewer holy shit! That was some serious pain. As I walked down the stairs to the car, the pain was so bad that I actually felt nauseous.

The strange nature of this pain is that it completely disappears when I am not moving. When I’m sitting down as I am right now, I can’t even make it hurt by poking at it. But if I were to get up and walk the three feet to the refrigerator right now, I would be in agony. And like all fibromyalgia pain, it doesn’t come along with any discoloration or swelling or anything to make people believe you when you say it hurts.

On that note, I would say that overall my last week has been one of backsliding and setbacks. Last Monday I was so exhausted for no particular reason that I couldn’t get out of bed to go to my doctor’s appointment at 3:30 pm. Granted, I didn’t really want to go back to this doctor anyway – the one who routinely makes me wait between one and two hours and then enters into her computer that I’m constipated. If I thought I might have been able to get some actual help, maybe I could have gotten out of bed. Then by Thursday my neck, arms, shoulders, and chest all ached, just like they did back in the old days. On Saturday, I told my acupuncturist that I was having increased pain, and she made some adjustments in the placement of the needles. About an hour or so after I got home, I sank into an incredible depression. The whole world slowed down, and I just stared out at it from behind my eyes with a constant and implacable sadness. I wasn’t sad about anything – if anything I was grateful for the nice spring weather and the fact that I didn’t have anything I had to do – but just intransitively, existentially sad.

And then today, the skewer.

In other news, I will be returning to work on a limited basis beginning next Monday. Next week, I’ll come to school from roughly 8 am to 3 pm to work in my office, catching up on book orders and other paperwork, beginning to look at resumes for an opening in my department, and working ahead on lesson plans. The goal is not to get any specific tasks done, really – just to reacquaint myself with the routine of being at work all day. Then from May 7-15 I will be administering AP tests in the mornings and some afternoons. In no case is this hard work, but again, it’s about seeing how my body can handle the demands of living on a schedule again.

Is News Item #1 a direct consequence of News Item #2? Of course it is!

Posted in Fibromyalgia | 5 Comments

The Age of Innocence

Yesterday I heard someone use the expression “party like it’s 1999” – and unless I was grossly missing something, she meant it without irony. Back when this expression was in common use, of course, 1999 was in the future, and I always associated it with the abandon and debauchery of the ultimate New Year’s bash. During my childhood in the ‘80’s, the year 2000 seemed impossibly far away, and the way we would celebrate it when it did arrive took shape in many people’s minds as a sort of Platonic ideal of a celebration – an ideal that no flawed human partier could ever expect to live up to. But of course it also meant something else: the way one celebrates right before the end of the world. While the end of the world has been foretold with such frequency that it has started to seem comic, there was a true strain of fear and hope within some religious traditions, especially fundamentalist Christianity, that Christ’s second coming would begin shortly after the beginning of the third millennium after his birth. I wouldn’t have known about this analogy as a child, but now the expression “party like it’s 1999” reminds me of a hurricane party – the old New Orleans Cajun tradition of drinking and celebrating on the levees during hurricanes in defiance of both civic authorities (which would have issued evacuation orders) and divine wrath. In 2005, of course, the entire world watched as many of these hurricane partiers paid for their hubris with their lives.

If I had to identify a single year as the best of my life, it would be 1999. I was twenty-three and in graduate school in the Arkansas Ozarks. At the outset of the year, I lived in a two-bedroom apartment in a complex near the university in which the cockroaches blended in perfectly with the faux-wood paneling. I was often awakened from sleep by my downstairs neighbor berating and/or beating his wife and children. I took the abuse seriously and called the police when it got violent, but I also wrote poems about these neighbors – good ones. If offered a deal in which my downstairs neighbor would undergo a complete change in personality and never hit or scream at his family in exchange for my never being able to write well again, I know which one I would have chosen – and the choice does not reflect well on me, I’m afraid. In addition to taking classes at the university, I taught two sections of freshman composition each semester. For the most part I was happily ignorant of what a bad teacher I was. At every opportunity – in the department office, in coffee shops and bars, over the phone, at parties – my friends and I read snippets of our students’ essays to each other, in which they referred to the “Salivation Army,” identified Satan as the primary force behind gun control in the United States, and listed a local preacher on their Works Cited page as “the world’s second foremost authority on Communism.” One of my classmates spent most of the year spiraling into a psychotic break for which she was eventually hospitalized; to me, her declining mental health was nothing more than a series of anecdotes to tell and retell at parties. Once at a party to honor a visiting novelist, this classmate provoked the guest of honor into an argument about whether bisexuality was a legitimate sexual orientation and – when he said it wasn’t – proceeded to lambast him with details about her own sexual encounters with both genders. At the time, I thought I would never grow tired of laughing at that memory.

When I moved to northwest Arkansas at the end of 1998, this guy was running for mayor of the town up the road. As we waited for a chronically late professor to come to class, my classmates and I passed newspaper articles around and hooted at the absurdity of a mayoral candidate who wanted to build a wall around his city, close the public schools, educate children in single-sex camps where they would learn survival skills, and cane homosexuals in public. I do think I would have found the situation less funny if I thought this man had a chance to win the election – but still, my fundamental reaction was delight at sharing the world with such fabulous absurdity.

During that same year, a graduate student a couple of years ahead of me began dating a professor in the department. Over the Christmas break, she traveled – alone – to visit her parents at their home on an island in the Pacific. Her professor-boyfriend couldn’t accompany her because the island where her parents lived was somehow strategically important to the United States government, and no one could set foot there without a high-level security clearance. (Her parents were dentists. We always put air-quotes around that word when we told the story.) Immediately upon her return after New Year’s, she and the professor got married. (After we learned that it only cost $30 to get a marriage license in the state of Arkansas and another $30 to get a marriage annulled, it became a joke within the first-year class that we should all go out and marry each other. We thought it would be a great joke to be known as the MFA class that all went out one day and got married.) Shortly thereafter, they announced that she was pregnant. Then, in May, the news spread that she had stabbed him in the hand while he was sleeping, and he subsequently shoved her through a plate-glass window. At that point, her professor-husband went into hiding and a group of professors who sided with the student in the dispute split up and went looking for him vigilante-style, with guns.

Long story short: they reconciled eventually, the baby was born full-term in August (but you already did the math on that, didn’t you?), and the student eventually divorced the professor, leaving him to care for the child of some stranger whose security clearance was higher than his. But these details were not the important ones. What mattered was that she stabbed him in the hand! While he was sleeping! And he shoved her through a plate-glass window! While she was pregnant! And the professors were driving around with guns! A group of my classmates actually made up a song about it, which we sang every time we passed her house.

Why was 1999 the best year of my life? Apparently because I had not yet taken on the responsibility of being kind.

What else happened that year? My friends and I went here, often in the middle of the night. After dark during the Christmas season, this place set up a drive-through Nativity scene made of Christmas lights. Laughing hysterically the whole way, we drove slowly from station to station: first the angel appeared to Mary, then Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt, then they were told there was no room at the inn, etc. At the end of the circuit stood a skinny, shivering man, smoking a cigarette and holding out a bucket for donations. We couldn’t get enough of it.

We also went here, where an eland with an upper respiratory infection wiped its snotty nose on my windshield and we found severed emu feet in the parking lot when we got out of the car to explore the petting zoo. Once, by accident, we discovered the Jerry Van Dyke soda fountain – not to be confused with the Jerry Van Dyke film school, which was next door. I found references to both online but no current website to link to, unfortunately. Apparently Jerry has moved on to other endeavors since 1999. Once, a classmate asked me to cover one of his freshman comp classes for him while he was out of town, and here’s what he offered in return: “I’ll buy a bucket of chicken, and we’ll eat it in the car while I drive you to the Jerry Van Dyke Christmas parade. We can throw the bones out of the sunroof.” To this day I think I would do almost anything in exchange for that reward.

On another occasion that year, I went to Hot Springs, Arkansas with a classmate to teach poetry to elementary school students through our university’s Writers in the Schools program. We received a stipend for the trip, but we were expected to pay our expenses for the two-day trip out of our own pockets in advance of receiving our checks. My companion on this trip was an older woman in her fifties who had lived in the area for years and had just quit her job as a nurse to return to school and study poetry. I had absolutely no money as we set out for Hot Springs – and as it turned out, neither did she. And I mean that we had no money – we couldn’t even have pooled what we had to pay for a cheap hotel room. Credit cards maxed out, everything. I remember thinking that it was okay that I, at twenty-three, had no money, but Christ, what was this woman in her fifties doing gallivanting around with a completely empty bank account? On the drive, we discussed our options. It turned out that while my travel companion didn’t have any money, she did have connections in the Hot Springs area. She made a few calls from a pay phone at the side of the road and arranged for us to give a poetry reading at a coffeehouse and pass the hat for donations. We ended up making about $22 total and managed to eat off those dimes, quarters, and singles for the remainder of the trip. It was the first time I had ever read my own poetry in public – and, while I would never want to do it again, I do like the fact that I can say I once gave a poetry reading in exchange for food money. After the reading, my classmate arranged for us to stay overnight with a friend of hers. She slept in the house with him (did they “sleep together” or only sleep together? I don’t know, but I have my guesses) and I slept in a defunct van in his front yard, covered by dirty blankets that smelled like donkeys. Her friend had no electricity or running water. For the next two days we taught in the local elementary school and gave ourselves sponge baths in the restroom of a local Denny’s.

Also that year, I disobeyed the town’s tornado sirens and climbed to the roof of a seven-story building with a few others (mostly professors) while campus security was herding people into the basement, and we watched through binoculars as the tornado cut through the countryside and touched down about four miles from where we stood. I learned to bet at the racetracks and became an aficionado of Jack Daniel’s. I won awards for my writing and felt like a total badass – at a time when I thought that feeling like a badass was the best thing that could happen to a person. One late afternoon, when a classmate and I were waiting in my office for a student who never showed up, a man walked in with a backpack stuffed to the brim and asked us, “Y’all write poetry? Short stories?” We said that we did. “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.” Then he proceeded to unpack his backpack, which was full of porno magazines dedicated to oversized male breasts. He began to pass the magazines to us and point out his favorite images while we dissolved into hysterical laughter and ran out of the room and up to the department office – not to get help or call security but to tell the story of what happened. That’s what 1999 was about for me – stories. It didn’t matter if bad things happened to real people with real feelings; all that mattered was the chance to arrive at the bar or the party with the juiciest story.

During a hike with friends at Devil’s Den State Park, I slithered down into a cave between two nondescript rocks only to find that the cave went on seemingly forever. When we finally reached the sandy bottom of the cave, where we could lie flat on the sand with the cave’s rock ceiling just an inch or two above our noses, we counted to three and turned off our flashlights, letting ourselves lie in silence in a place that seemed to have no reference points: no up, no down, no exit signs. I remember feeling as if I were in space.

Over the long Martin Luther King weekend at the beginning of 1999, I drove with three friends to New Mexico and visited the Roswell alien museum, Carlsbad Caverns, and other sites. On the last morning, which happened to be my 23rd birthday, we woke up before dawn and drove to White Sands National Monument, the site of the explosion of the first nuclear bomb. The place was empty in the early hours and extremely cold. The combination of the freezing temperatures and the pure white color of the gypsum sand made me feel as if I were standing on an enormous snowbank. Once the sun began to rise, we took pictures of ourselves jumping off low cliffs and sliding down sandy hillsides, our bodies casting grotesque shadows in the surreal light. Somewhere I have a picture of the numerals “1999” carved into the sand. It was finally here: the year that we had been told all our lives would end in an enormous party and possibly the end of the world. We didn’t really believe that, of course, but here we were in the impossible cold in the place where the first nuclear bomb was ever exploded, and it was fun to pretend. I remember thinking that the awe we felt at the year “1999” was similar to the way drivers feel when their odometers get ready to click over from 999999 to 000000. During those young-adult years I spent an enormous amount of time in cars – my own and those of others – and on several occasions I was present for the great switchover from a row of nines to a row of zeroes. While capable of being caught up in the excitement of these automotive milestones – and I’ll even admit to a butterflies-in-the-stomach feeling when my own Toyota Tercel reached its hundred-thousandth mile – I also often wondered why we were so captivated by this process of resetting. Was it that we wanted to be tricked into thinking our cars were new again? Were we in awe of how far we ourselves had traveled? I finally concluded that we are simply a zero-loving people. We love the idea of starting from scratch.

While I was watching tornadoes and writing poetry and running away from perverts and singing songs about domestic violence, several factions in the world as a whole were preparing with gusto for the arrival of the third millennium. What I found so fascinating about the whole Y2K phenomenon was the way it so perfectly merged the obsessions of religious fundamentalism and the secular cult of technology. I lived about an hour away from the town of Harrison, Arkansas, which was popularly referred to as the nationwide center of the fundamentalist Christian millenarian movement, which taught that the year 2000 would herald the beginning of the apocalyptic battle between the resurrected Christ and the Anti-Christ as foretold in the book of Revelation. What this meant in real terms was that religious wackos from all over the world were flocking to Harrison and to a number of other tiny mountain towns nearby to stockpile propane and toilet paper and wait until the end of the world. The stores in the area ran completely out of canned food, flashlight batteries, and other items essential to survivalists. At the same time, though, people who understood (or thought they understood) computers – some equally as fanatic and extreme in their beliefs as the fundamentalists – foretold that because computers had been initially programmed to process years in two digits (just 99 instead of 1999, etc.), the transition from 1999 to 2000 would be read as a transition to 1900 (since the computers were programmed to think of “19” as the prefix for all years), and since computers were not yet invented in 1900, they would do some kind of crazy sci-fi short-circuiting thing that no one really understood but everybody feared. Among the many possible catastrophes that we were warned might happen were the disappearance of all financial records including bank and credit card balances, the disappearance of everyone’s medical and birth records (since everyone younger than 100 would be assumed not to have been born yet), and (my favorite) the automatic firing of all of the world’s nuclear weapons. I always pictured it as a global version of any number of scenes from Back to the Future in which Michael J. Fox runs around in a panic trying to avoid having sex with his mother as a teenager and checking to see if his hand has disappeared.

To be honest, I kind of liked the idea of waking up and finding myself in 1900. Post-bubonic plague and Spanish Inquisition, but pre-almost everything else that’s bad. And think of everything we would know to do differently the second time around. Triple the security detail around Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Get Alois and Clara Hitler some basic family counseling so little Adolf could have a decent chance of growing up feeling loved. Find the young Stalin a nice job as a fry cook somewhere. If any century deserved to have its reset button hit, it was the twentieth.

I also didn’t mind the idea of the world’s financial records disappearing. Thinking myopically, as twenty-three year-olds are apt to do, I was more than happy to trade my bank balance (probably around $400) for the disappearance of all my student loan and credit card debt (somewhere around $70,000). I silently vowed to keep my mouth shut and take one for the team if that particular catastrophe took place.

On December 31, 1999, I was at my parents’ house in San Francisco. I had some kind of bad cold or mild flu and camped out on a couch in my mother’s den watching television. I had driven to San Francisco from Arkansas, covering some of the same roads my friends and I traveled that January, revisiting some wonderfully-named New Mexico towns like Cloudcroft, Las Cruces, Alamogordo. That December trip changed who I was as a driver forever. While once I was fearless and indefatigable and liked to do things like play the William Tell overture while driving down rural highways at a hundred miles per hour, on this trip I became permanently afraid. I can explain some of the reasons for this fear: in Arizona my car was hit by a tumbleweed in a windstorm, causing me to swerve off the road, and in California in the same windstorm I crossed I-10 from Blythe to Indio as sand blew in waves across the highway, obscuring the lane markers, and semi-trucks swayed and swerved on all sides of me for over 90 miles. Taken rationally, though, I don’t think these experiences were enough to permanently make me a fearful driver. I think something more happened on that trip – but I don’t know what, exactly. I remember telling a class of sophomores once that people don’t “grow up” in meaningful instants the way TV and movies and some literature would have us believe; what happens instead is that when these meaningful instants happen, we become aware of how much we have already grown – during the time when not much of any importance was happening. And I think this idea comes close to explaining what happened on that car trip. I became aware that I could die. I lived in a world where nuclear bombs explode in beautiful places, where emus sometimes have their feet mysteriously severed, where both college professors and evangelical Satan-fighters both sometimes roam the world with guns. Sometimes people find themselves without money or a place to stay, and no nice hippie with a van appears to provide lodging in exchange for sexual favors. Some perverts are not as harmless as the one who visited me in my office, and psychotic breaks are really not as amusing as I thought they were when I was twenty-three. Someday, the sum total of all the mileage I have traveled in my life will reset itself to zero, and I will not be exempt from this inevitability just because in 1999 I was young and smart and happy and good at writing poems.

I watched the world reset its clock on the west coast of North America, in one of the last time zones to experience the year 1999. This just in – it’s 2000 in Sydney and the ATM’s are still working, I heard a newscaster announce when I woke up. I opened the window and listened to the silence of the world: no errant nuclear explosions. The year 2000 hit Beijing, Moscow, Athens, Paris, New York – and nothing happened. That’s what I did that day: I sat on my mother’s couch blowing my nose, watching on a TV screen as this specter we had all feared for months, this monster, this – let’s face it – this totally nonexistent, arbitrary abstract concept – swept like Superman around the globe and did nothing.

Posted in Autobiography | 2 Comments

Progress? – Day 78 of Medical Leave

Yesterday I remembered in a gigantic flash of insight that earrings exist. And then today I put some on. That’s progress, right?

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Weird Confessions Wednesday – Week 1

So I am inaugurating a new tradition here at Six More Weeks: Weird Confessions Wednesday. Every week on Wednesday (except when I forget, am incapacitated by an acupuncture hangover, or am too busy reading Diana Gabaldon novels) I will tell a story about something quirky that I do or have done. I will not be divulging anything especially dark and deep – nothing that would prompt Rick Santorum to add me to his novena list – but will in fact be deliberately keeping things rather trivial. If anyone likes this idea and would like to join me, either by adding your own Weird Confession in the comments section or by writing one on your own blog and then linking to mine, please feel free.

Early in her novel Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison characterizes the protagonist’s aunt Pilate – a self-exiled misfit and semi-magical wise woman – as follows: “She and her daughters ate like children. Whatever they had a taste for. No meal was ever planned or balanced or served. Nor was there any gathering at the table. Pilate might bake hot bread and each one of them would eat it with butter whenever she felt like it. Or there might be grapes, left over from the winemaking, or peaches for days on end. If one of them bought a gallon of milk, they drank it until it was gone. If another got a half bushel of tomatoes or a dozen ears of corn, they ate them until they were gone too.” Every time I read this passage – and I’ve read it more than a dozen times, first as a student, then as a general reader, then as a teacher – I always stop and feel a little guilty. Wait, I say. Is this bad? Are people not supposed to eat like this? Because I do, often. Pretty close to all the time, actually, when I’m at home.

Recently I’ve resurrected a childhood obsession with raw carrots. When I was a kid, from the age of three or four until I was old enough to not often be home in the evenings, my mom made me a plate of raw vegetables to eat in front of the TV in the hour before dinner (in the hour that my parents are old enough to refer to as “cocktail time”). This plate often included raw string beans and bell pepper strips, cucumber and tomato wedges, radishes and mushrooms – but the centerpiece was always five or six raw carrots. I couldn’t get enough of the things. I ate them from the outside in, peeling away and eating the slightly bitter outer layer first before marveling at and then eating the sweeter, veiny, rootlike center. If in this process I accidentally mauled the center with my teeth, it kind of ruined my day.

For as long as I can remember in my adult life, I’ve been buying baby carrots, which I ate either plain or with hummus. And I like them just fine. But recently, in an attempt to patronize a small local vegetable market instead of the supermarket whenever possible, I’ve started buying real carrots again – the long skinny gnarled kind. The first night I peeled and ate three. The next night it was four. Peelings piled up in the sink, and occasionally I found a peeling affixed to the wall somewhere around the sink on nights when my carrot preparation process took on a frenzied exuberance. Now I’m up to six, every afternoon at four o’clock. I eat them in front of CNN.

But there’s more to this story. All throughout my childhood, the raw carrots that I consumed with such gusto gave me the hiccups. Not every single night, but often. Two or three bites into the first carrot, I would feel a certain desperate pressure in my upper abdomen, and a moment I would gulp out my first hiccup. It hurt, but I didn’t especially care. The last thing I was going to do was to give up my nightly carrots.

I told my mom that carrots gave me the hiccups, and after the period of requisite is that so, dears that were her standard response to anything I said, she began to get worried. She doubted that the carrots were really causing the hiccups, but she watched me for several nights and finally concluded that I was right. She developed the theory that I had some kind of strange allergy to carrots that resulted in the hiccups, and at some point she took me to the doctor to get his opinion. I was too young to be aware of whatever dubious look the pediatrician must have given her (which is too bad; as an adult I am a connoisseur of dubious looks from doctors, and I’m sure this one would have been a great addition to my collection), but we went home assured that I was not allergic to carrots and that if I wanted to eat them and didn’t mind the hiccups, I could still eat them.

My parents watched me closely and sought the advice of friends. As I got older, I also examined my own carrot consumption and began to ask what I did differently on the nights I did not get the hiccups. Finally, we concluded that I got the hiccups on nights when I dug in to my carrots SO enthusiastically that I forgot to breathe. If I was feeling more subdued and/or was deeply captivated by an episode of Happy Days or Three’s Company, I ate my carrots more slowly and did not suffer any gastric consequences. Eventually, I figured out that if I gave myself a little pep talk before I ate carrots (Remember to breathe. In through the nose. Out through the mouth. That’s it. Nice and slow. Keep it up.) I could stave off the hiccups most of the time.

Which brings me to my Weird Confession. Everything that I have described above still happens. I am 36 years old. I have two college degrees and a rewarding career. And when I eat carrots I get so fucking excited that I forget to breathe. And you know what? I’m okay with that.

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Self-Control: Day 76 of Medical Leave

On the to-do list for today: Restraining self from performing moxibustion on cats (because HOW COOL would a blog entry on that topic be?)

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Caution to the Wind: A Moxibustion Story

When it comes to taking precautions, I tend to either take almost none at all (like the time in college when I set out on a cross-country drive with only about $200 to my name – or the time last fall when Hurricane Irene was about to hit my town and I looked in two or three stores for flashlight batteries, found that they were all sold out, shrugged, and went back to my Mary Doria Russell novel) or take way too many (like the time in high school when my parents went out of town and I went out at night to babysit leaving EVERY SINGLE LIGHT on in the house and all the blinds not only open but PULLED UP – you know, so it wouldn’t seem as if no one was home. When I returned to the house around midnight, I was pretty sure you could see our house from space). So when I set up my little moxibustion laboratory in the guest room this afternoon, I did so with the idea of balance. If balancing my qi was one of the goals of the moxa treatment, then I would aim for a little bit of extra credit and exercise a normal amount of good old-fashioned adult good sense without going crazy.

The cautions that came along with the moxa pole were as follows: 1) Burn the pole in a well-ventilated area because it often emits THICK BLACK SMOKE, and 2) to extinguish the pole, wrap it in A DOUBLE LAYER OF ALUMINUM FOIL and then wait SEVERAL MINUTES until it completely stops burning. The instructions specifically state that while it is possible to extinguish the pole by dipping it in water, this process will make it impossible to ever light the pole again. Water and mugwort do not mix, apparently.

So first I obsessed for a while about WHERE I would engage in this ancient art. The obvious choice was the sunporch, but I saw two problems with that option. First, I would need to take my shirt off for the treatment, and while I could have sat on the floor and been mostly out of sight, even a small amount of public nudity isn’t really my thing.  The second problem is that one of my smoke alarms is located right inside the door that leads to the sunporch from the kitchen. I wasn’t sure exactly how much THICK BLACK SMOKE we were talking about here, and I decided that I didn’t want to explain my moxibustion proclivities to the neighbors and the landlord.

By the way, MOXIBUSTION is my new favorite word (replacing INTINCTION, which is the official name for what it’s called when you dip your communion wafer in the wine instead of drinking from the chalice. The things you learn when you teach at a Catholic school during a swine flu epidemic). Come on – say it, you know you want to: MOXIBUSTION. You can also sing it to the tune of the Alleluia Chorus if you want to. Not that I would ever do anything so silly.

And also by the way, I was not unaware that appearing shirtless on the sunporch and setting strange objects on fire would, if anything, actually elevate my status among the neighbors. We’re a topless, fire-loving kind of community here in Webster, as the recent warm weather is reminding me yet again. But stubbornly I cling to my roots.

The kitchen and living room were out because there are smoke detectors in those rooms, and the bathroom was out because it only contains one small window that doesn’t open. So I cleared a space among all the clutter (only SEMI-flammable clutter) in the guest bedroom and prepared to moxibust. I carried the following items into the room: 1) a candle (the instructions urged me to light a candle first and then use the candle flame to light the moxa pole as moxa poles are hard to light – this turned out to be quite correct; 2) matches; 3) aluminum foil; 4) the moxa directions; 5) a huge roasting pan full of water, just in case the whole situation grew out of control and I decided that I didn’t care if the moxa pole could never be lit again; and 6) my cell phone – for the timer function.

My concession to NOT being overly cautious: I left the fire extinguisher in the kitchen.

I opened both windows in the guest room to let in a really wonderful springlike sixty-degree breeze. My favorite weather is the kind just like we had today: warm enough to open all the windows but cool enough to still wear sweats and wrap up in blankets on the couch. You know: San Francisco weather. I closed the door to the guest room to circumvent any feline intervention. I lit the candle and watched its flame flicker and dance in the breeze. I doused the match in the roasting pan full of water, and then I held the moxa pole up to the flame and tried to light it. And then I tried to light it again. And again. The instructions weren’t kidding when they said that moxa poles are hard to light.

I should mention that except for its color, the moxa pole really does look a lot like a cigar. I have smoked about five cigars in my life, all under extremely memorable and usually amusing circumstances. So I did a lot of chuckling while I was repeatedly sticking the moxa pole in the flame, remembering the unique cast of characters that has populated my cigar-smoking life. But that’s a story for another day.

Eventually I noticed that while the moxa pole did not appear to be on fire, it had gotten quite hot. I decided to set the timer for five minutes and go for it. I used the instruction sheet to locate the first acupuncture point – halfway between my solar plexus and my navel. Fortunately, the pole did not emit nearly as much black smoke as the instructions warned, and it was definitely on fire, because that little thing was HOT. I was supposed to hold it half an inch from my skin, but I couldn’t keep it there for the whole five minutes without taking occasional breaks from the intense heat. I don’t even WANT to know what’s involved in the SCARRING type of moxibustion.

So five minutes passed, and I went to re-light the moxa pole. At that moment a gigantic gust of wind swept through the room and extinguished both the candle and the pole. Crap. So I lit another match and tried to re-light it. No luck. I could barely re-light the candle in that wind, let alone the pole. Finally I got the pole lit and repeated the whole process with the second acupuncture point, which is located an inch and a half below my navel. Then the process was over. I wrapped the pole in two layers of aluminum foil and stared at it for the ten minutes it took to cool down. I dumped out the water in the roasting pan and apologized to the cats for leaving them out of all the fun. Then I was tired. I lay down on my bed for a nap as the wind carried the smell of fresh-cut grass into the apartment.

So have my energy levels risen? Not really. I did put a lot of work into blogging today, but I think that had more to do with the pot of coffee I drank in the morning while psyching myself up to moxibust and singing the moxibustion song. Maybe I should give myself another lesson in controlling my variables.

More tomorrow.

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Sometimes a Moxa Pole is Just a Moxa Pole

I think I’ve written before that my Tae Kwon Do school was located in Hemet, California and that I lived about a half hour up a nearby mountain in the town of Idyllwild – a quirky town of artists, old hippies, and other misfits. At the center of town in Idyllwild, there is a large wooden building that locals call “the fort.” It’s supposed to look like some kind of Old West outpost, but really it’s the center of the town’s tourism, with souvenir shops and places to buy outrageously high-priced hiking boots. I remember similar enterprises in towns like Virginia City, Nevada, which I visited often as a child.

At some point after I started sparring seriously – and therefore started carting around serious bruises – my teacher took me aside to tell me that one of the stores in Idyllwild’s fort was a front for a Chinese apothecary. The store itself sold incense, wall hangings of waterfalls and Chinese calligraphy, little green Buddha statues, and faux-silk blouses with Mandarin collars. On the back wall were two doors: one led to a dressing room, and the other, according to my teacher, led to a dark musty room where a toothless old woman – the mother of the woman who ran the store and dealt with the tourists – futzed around with various powders and liquids and herbs and would sell you a concoction to cure whatever ailed you. But only if you knew that she existed.

“First you have to pretend to browse around in the store,” he said. “If there is anyone else in there, just keep pretending to look at the crap they have for sale. But as soon as the store is empty, tell her that you want to go in back. You can tell her that Frank sent you.”

I was twenty-nine, and for the first time in my life (and, dammit, I hope not for the last) mentioning the name Frank would get me access to underground businesses in dark back rooms. I had arrived.

“Tell her that you want some of the patches for bruises,” he continued. “You take them home, you put some water on them to make them sticky, and you put them on your bruises overnight. The next morning your bruises will be gone. It’s some kind of miracle medicine.”

“What are they made of?” I asked.

At that point my teacher’s face transformed, morphing from a friendly big brother figure (not to be confused with his unfriendly Orwellian Big Brother persona, which was another one of his alter egos) and putting a look on his face that clearly said I know a special way to kick you so your liver will pop out of your anus before your brain even knows you’ve been kicked.

 “NEVER ask a Chinese person what’s in their medicine!” he roared. “Goat vomit! Monkey semen! Horse pus! How the hell do I know? All I know is that it WORKS!” He shook his head, glared at me, and picked up a Star Wars comic book – his standard signal that I was dismissed. “Asking what’s in the Chinese medicine,” he muttered behind me as I left.

So anyway. Seven years have passed, and once again I am wondering what is in the Chinese medicine. My acupuncturist thinks that my energy levels, which are still quite low in spite of the fact that I am sleeping well and have much less body pain, will benefit from a Chinese herbal treatment called MOXIBUSTION. (Wait, Moxibustion? the academic in me asks. Like combustion? Are ancient Chinese herbs supposed to have Latinate names? I’m thinking too hard about this, aren’t I?) Moxibustion is a treatment that involves burning MUGWORT (and if that doesn’t sound like something out of a Harry Potter novel, I’m not sure what does) and placing the stick of burning MUGWORT next to various acupuncture points on your body. There are two types of moxibustion: the SCARRING KIND and the NON-SCARRING KIND. My acupuncturist has recommended the non-scarring kind. Making a note to get her an extra-special Christmas present this year.

And what happens when you heat your acupuncture points with burning mugwort? Why, it balances your qi. Which is apparently what all Chinese medicine does. What is qi, you ask? As far as I’m concerned, it is a highly convenient Scrabble word. Especially if you can manage to put the Q on a triple-letter-score square.

So I’m sitting here, holding this stick of MOXA in my hand (correction: a POLE of moxa. It’s called a pole of moxa – you know, like a murder of crows). Inside its wrapper, it is the exact size and shape of a super-absorbent tampon. The wrapper is stamped multiple times with the word HOIST (the brand name, I guess?), which because it rhymes with MOIST is an inherently gross word. There is also a good bit of Chinese writing on the package, which I suspect translates as GOAT VOMIT! MONKEY SEMEN! HORSE PUS!

(I should mention that this moxa pole – which my acupuncturist says should last me about a week of daily treatments – cost me $2.13. That’s some seriously cheap monkey semen. I could buy 21.13 moxa poles for the cost of a CO-PAY for one month’s worth of ONE of my prescription medications. But I digress.)

So now I am opening the package. What’s inside is jet black and looks like a cross between a cigar and a piece of sidewalk chalk. I am intimidated by it. I mean, who wouldn’t be intimidated by a flammable black tampon-cigar-shaped thing that Chinese people have been burning over their acupuncture points for centuries and that isn’t going to make one single pharmaceutical executive rich?

So I’m going to burn the darn thing and wave it over my abdomen for ten minutes per day and see what happens to my energy level. I’m not going to start right this second – probably this afternoon – but when I do, I will tell you all about it.

By the way, I never tried the bruise patches from the underground apothecary shop in Idyllwild. I got by instead on arnica and tiger balm (and raw steak. And lots of gin and tonics.). I think I was honestly a little worried about what might be in the medicine – and I was also a little afraid of exactly what might happen if I used my mercurial Tae Kwon Do teacher’s name as a password to get into some dank cell-like room that no one else knew existed. But I regret backing away from his advice. I don’t think there is any one definitive rule of thumb about how to live one’s life, but I do think that if an intriguing-if-creepy person with a specialized skill set tells you to do something, you should do it. If only because someday you might have a blog, and your readers will want to know how the story ends.

Posted in Fibromyalgia, Martial Arts | 5 Comments