The Good News Is: I’m Not Paralyzed

I had an MRI Tuesday on my neck. Which is to say, I was buried alive for 25 minutes.

I’ve done this before, so I knew what to expect, which is helpful. I feel like you’re less likely to scream, cry, kick your feet, wet yourself and relentlessly pump the panic bulb if you’ve already been buried alive once before.

Not only had I had an MRI on my neck previously; I had done it at this very place. So I knew that some very clever and kind nurse-type person had climbed into that gigantic contraption with the iiiiiittttty bitty space for a human in the middle and drawn a purple smiley face right at the spot where you would see it if you opened your eyes during your scan. But I didn’t see it this time. I didn’t see it because I decided that the wisest course of action would be to close my eyes before they slid me into that thing and not open them until they slid me back out.

Generally speaking, I’m not claustrophobic. I have two weird caveats to that: I’m not claustrophobic unless it’s also dark inside the small space. So I wouldn’t do well inside trunks of any kind, or locked in a non-walk-in closet, or in an airplane bathroom during a loss of power. Though I’d expect we’d have bigger problems at that point, and then at least it’s good I’m near something that will keep me from soiling my pants.

The other caveat is that I’m somewhat claustrophobic in MRI machines.

You might, then, see what’s coming. If I have my eyes closed, it’s dark. And I’m in a small space.  But if I have them open, well… it’s impossible to pretend I’m anywhere other than in a super-small space because my eyes go crossed trying to look at that smiley face that’s only like three inches from my nose.

Conundrum.

Adding to this is the fact that my head is lying in a kind of cranium cradle, buffered by padding on either side to keep me still. There are plugs in my ears. Also there’s a brace of some sort bridged over my neck. All of this, I guess, was so that if whacking my head on the top of the machine’s tunnel didn’t do the trick, these things would keep me from escaping. This is exactly the sort of thing you want rigged up when you remember, whilst lying in the cocoon, that your father (a sizable man) got freaked out during his MRI when he started wondering what would happen if the machine caught fire. Because you never thought of that possibility, but now that your father has shared his thought with you, it’s in your head.

I immediately began a reasonable pattern of full, calm breaths and sort of vaguely thought about a beach somewhere. Happily, there’s something to distract you during an MRI. There’s amazingly loud and almost unrelenting noise. It’s particularly great because it’s booming in your ears while they’re plugged up, which makes it harder to hear the tech tell you from the other room that the machine has caught fire.

You’d think that with all the science and whatnot, they’d figure out how to quiet the thing down.

I remembered that there was noise, but I didn’t quite remember what it was like. When it started this time, I was immediately struck by the notion that it reminded me of something (besides the last time I had one of these things). It didn’t take me long to figure out what it was.

IIIIII AAAMMMM IIIIROONNN MMMAAANNNNN.

This was a less-than-awesome realization for me for one basic reason:

That song scared the crap out of me when I was a kid.

So I lay there all confined in my little tube of horrors, listening to all the pulsing and pounding rhythms of the MRI machine and thinking through “Iron Man” in its entirety. If you’re a believer in “immersion therapy,” the theory that one should directly confront that which one fears most, then this is your ticket. Just lie there in your tiny wormhole of noisy hell, listening to the screeching metal and pounding drums and creepy autotune of “Iron Man” by Black Sabbath (who, when I was a kid, may as well have actually been the devil), imagining a vengeful, wrathful metal man and wondering quietly to yourself how you would extract your body from the machine were it to suddenly go up in flames.

But since I’m a total nerdy nerd, the other thing I thought about, besides imminent death and immediate subjugation to evil unhumans, was what the films would look like. I mean you see these pictures in science books and stuff and you’re all, “Huh, that’s kinda cool,” but then when it’s actually your spinal cord and brain and stuff that you see, it’s totally amazing. I’ve been the same way with near-death CT scans and what-the-hell-is-your-problem ultrasounds. So my happy place turned out to be a series of films in my head, showing degrees of disc degeneration compared to the last set.

The answer: the disc that was messed up 4 1/2 years ago is still messed up, to approximately the same degree. No real surprise there. The “bummer” about it, as my chiropractor put it, is that there are two, maybe three other cervical discs that are also bulging and rudely intruding to some degree into my spinal column. In case you’re wondering, you only have six cervical discs, so we’re at at least .500 here. Plus there’s some calcification in the joints, for fun. Now, as it was explained to me, it is possible in these goofy creations we call bodies that the disc that looks the worst is not actually the one causing the most problems. This is apparently why spinal surgery is often a failure. Exciting information, no? But also, it seems that we could put any one of you people in that MRI machine and find discs out of whack, even if you don’t feel any pains anywhere. I don’t plan on having surgery if I can avoid it, since cervical spinal operations require someone who very likely had a drink the night before to literally slit your throat and go tunneling through the front of your neck, around minor things like your carotid and jugular arteries, vocal cords, these sorts of things, to get at the pesky problem all the way in the back, there.

No thanks.

I’ll take the chiropractor. And physical therapy.

And Black Sabbath.

****
Hey, wait, don’t leave yet! Turns out, I’m up for a Major Award over on Peg-O-Leg’s page. Now, there are four other totally deserving bloggers there, like k8edid and Renee Schuls-Jacobson from Teachers & Twits, and Darla the Maineiac and Misty of Misty’s Laws.

But my thing’s better.

Go vote for it, please? Thanks. You’re swell.

You can leave now.

What? Go already. Sheesh.

Aurora

I don’t have to write many words to describe the thoughts we’ve probably all had about what happened in Aurora, Colorado just after midnight Friday morning. The only word I have to write is “Why?”

But whomever may answer that question one day will need many, many more words. Any belief to the contrary serves no purpose except to dismiss the horror and find comfort in that dismissal, if nowhere else.

We have likely all imagined – whether it was for a moment or for hours, once or several times over the last few days – what it must have been like to be in that movie theater. To be disoriented by the booming sound of the movie mixed with the booming sound of the gunfire. To be stunned and scared and spurred on to act. To be frozen. To be wounded. To lay dying, with the surreal images of a comic superhero looming large somewhere nearby, casting the only light into what has become an unfathomable kind of darkness.

We have likely all imagined what it must have been like for the families of the people in that theater when they learned about what had happened, when they got a call that one of their sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers had been shot. When they sat beside the hospital bed trying to make a doctor’s words into some sort of syntax they could understand.

We may have even imagined what it was like for the police, the SWAT team, the paramedics to show up at a scene so chaotic and unexpected that it’s a miracle they managed to react as well as they did.

Did we imagine what it was like for the gunman?

No one wants to do that. No one wants to put themselves in the shoes of someone who would carry out carnage so horrific, so brazen, so indescribably savage and callous and wrong.

No one wants to think that it could ever, ever be them.

A year ago… ten years ago… twenty… do you think James Holmes thought it could be him?

Nothing I say in this post is meant to excuse or absolve his actions (and herein, I assume his guilt). I do not believe that is possible. Nor do I intend any moral relativism. I want that to be clear. It’s not that I don’t think he’s guilty. It’s not that I don’t think he deserves to be locked up somewhere. It’s that I think he is unwell, and there is good reason the unwell should not be regarded as anything less than human.

At this point, there is much we do not know about what happened in Aurora. We know even less – almost nothing at all – about what was happening in Holmes’ mind. It is tempting to think him a monster, a cold, cruel, heartless, evil being devoid of humanity or courage. Those whose lives have been forever altered by his actions have every right to feel that way about him.

But it doesn’t mean it’s true.

Once, he was a child. Once, he was a college student. Once, he was a son.

This is not the writing of a bleeding heart, but of a broken one. Because it is in our trashing of humanity that we show our inhumanity, and that works in more than one way. The calculated killings of 12 and woundings of 58, the careful traps and triggers laid out in Holmes’ apartment, are not the only symptoms of a disregard for life that will come of this tragedy.

Because there will be many of us who will dismiss him as a demon. A misfit. A coward. A rogue. A psycho. And never again think about his humanness.

Because it’s so, so much easier that way, and isn’t this hard enough as it is?

As a nation, every time a mass murder happens, we talk for days about what’s wrong with the country. What’s wrong with its young people, what’s wrong with society, what’s wrong with the laws. And then we do almost nothing. We put up crosses and teddy bears and floating balloons and we light candles and we leave the victims and their families to deal with the hole in their lives and the vacuum it’s created in their sense of what’s ordered in the world. And then it happens again. And again.

And again.

We could talk about gun laws, and I personally believe there is good reason to talk about that, because I believe they’re insufficient and I believe that any logical 2nd amendment protector could agree that no one needs assault weapons and no one needs six thousand rounds of ammunition, much less someone who’s never owned a firearm or been hunting before. We could talk about violent video games and violent movies and a lack of discipline from parents and from teachers. We could talk about drugs. We could talk about a thousand things.

What we should also talk about is the nature of mental illness and personality disorders, and how to deal with them.

But when that subject comes up, suddenly, we all get very, very quiet.

Again: we do not know what went on in James Holmes’ head. And it’s understandable that some of us can’t abide the implied degree of forgiveness that comes with acknowledging an issue of mental health. But today I saw the full video of Holmes’ hearing, and though I’m not an expert, my sister is well-trained, and she thinks the same thing I think: this is a man who is mentally ill or has a personality disorder.

My sister is a licensed clinical social worker with years of experience treating the criminally insane. She worked with men who were locked up not in a prison, but in a criminal forensic psychiatric facility, because their crimes, though grave, were spurred by mental illness or personality disorder. One of the most important reasons that people with these conditions should be in a psychiatric facility instead of a prison is that, if their condition is not treated, they will likely become more dangerous even to other inmates or correctional officers, and more dangerous to society if their crime did not carry a life sentence.

There are those who would argue that someone who’s crazy couldn’t have plotted out their attack so carefully as Holmes appears to have done. That’s not true. Psychosis of some kind – schizophrenia, for example – can drive an unwell person’s judgments and actions for as long as it lasts. It is entirely possible that psychosis dictated Holmes’ months of calculation, including ordering his ammunition and chemicals, and buying his weapons.

There are those who would argue that if he were truly that disordered, there would have been some sign, but so far we know of none. Also not necessarily true. Holmes happens to be at the right age for what clinicians call an initial psychotic break. It is possible that the break began, and thus his plot began. There are numerous cases of vicious crimes – though few as vicious as this – committed by someone in their early 20s with absolutely no criminal or psychological history prior to the crime. My sister alone has treated several such criminals. She treated someone who was undergoing electroconvulsive therapy – ECT or shock therapy as it’s commonly known – and saw him slowly begin to realize just how disordered he was. She was a witness to his horror at who he had become.

Holmes fits a psychotic profile in another way: he was a graduate student in neuroscience who recently faced what the University of Colorado called an “intense” oral exam. Significant stress can trigger a psychotic break in a person in their early 20s who has never shown signs of mental illness before.

It also wouldn’t be surprising if Holmes says he doesn’t remember what he did. When we do something traumatic to this degree, the brain shuts down the memory-making or memory-retrieval system. It does so to protect us, so we don’t have to live with what we’ve done. It’s simliar to blocking out bad memories of something that happened to us in childhood. It’s inconsistent, but again, my sister worked with someone who had forgotten part of what he’d done. He wanted to see surveillance video because he couldn’t remember a specific part of his crime. (She didn’t allow it – she knew it might have fulfilled a fantasy for him.)

When we forget, or refuse to acknowledge, these very real things about the nature of the human mind and disorders, we ignore part of our humanity. When we dismiss someone as a nut or a monster, we remove their humanity. That is what allows crimes like these to continue. When we ignore the reality of mental disorder, we ignore what causes mass murder. Just as a criminal may disregard humanity in favor of killing, so too do we disgregard humanity in favor of a simpler, more satisfying, less painful answer to a deeply disturbing question: how could a human do such terrible things to other humans?

The answer, however complex, however dark, however impossible it is to put into words, lies in all of us.

Just like it lies in James Holmes.

One Day In My Head: A WTF Post

That second part of the title should be in script font, underneath the first part. Like an after-school special titleboard.

SO. Today is Friday, my day off, and I am all over the place. Bud over at Older Eyes once asked me, very very early in my blogging “career,” whether I’m really as neurotic as I seem. Um…..

…Yes.

Well, kind of.

I do play up the comedy a lot of times, but mostly I really do spool out thoughts until the end of the roll, unraveling all sorts of terrible and tragic possibilities along the way. You know. Just in case. So I’m ready. Prepared. Because I don’t like bad surprises. Which is dumb, because obviously nobody likes bad surprises.

By the way, the spool always, always ends with me dying alone in some godforsaken house or apartment in a recliner in front of a television (which for some reason is always a model from like 1978 with rabbit ears), wearing a terrible nightgown and not being found for days. But Darla at She’s A Maineiac points out that this is a good reason to maintain the blogging. So that people will notice they haven’t heard from me in a while.

That said, I didn’t post for two weeks and nobody checked on me.

So.

Anyway. I thought, given today’s mental gymnastics, I thought I would just let you in on what it’s like to be in my head. Note: I thought about the serious stuff seriously. This isn’t intended as flippant.

First I thought about coffee.

When that was taken care of, I saw the news about the shootings at the movie theater in Colorado. I imagine my reaction was the same as anyone’s. I went from the incapability to even register the information to the anger about it happening before settling in on how awful, how indescribably awful, it is. My historical perspective kicked in and I realized it was easily the worst mass shooting ever. God, all those people. I wondered if they even realized what was happening at first, or if they thought the noise was somehow related to the booming audio from the movie. Even as I sit here typing these words, I’m shaking my head.

Of course, that put me on the road to thinking about guns. I suppose it’s possible that we don’t hear the stories about when guns do good things. I respect responsible gun owners, but I just don’t get the need unless you hunt for food or protect your family from wild animals. (No, seriously, that’s valid, I get that.) I certainly don’t see the need for semi-automatics and assault weapons. Nobody needs those. Ever. For anything. My father was telling me the other day that my cousins had visited relatives on the other side of their family in New Mexico and wound up firing AK-47s in the desert.

…Why?

I thought about all the terrible things that have happened in my recent memory because of guns and disturbed individuals. And you can’t protect the people you love from that. You can’t do anything about someone who snaps.

Unless you keep them from ever getting their hands on a gun.

I thought about the Colorado shootings a lot today, here and there, interspersed with things like going to the grocery store and trimming flowers for a vase and watching Darla Maineiac’s second-anniversary vlog post, which was freaking fantastic. And she made me think about baton twirling. Which I did when I was a kid, with a baton that looks exactly like hers.

She also made me think about Green Day’s song “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life),” which sent me back to two things: my college days, and my friends’ wedding. Which sent me to my (fictional) wedding.

Which ended in blankness.

I went from the chiropractor (where I thought about bulging discs) to the post office (stupid, stupid construction traffic patterns that jam up ev. ery. thi. ng. Also stamp designs.) to my therapist’s office.

Well, what didn’t I think about at the therapist’s office, right?

Then I went to the car shop to have the oil changed and tires rotated and some other stuff checked, and I thought about the inability of some younger women (they’re actually women now) to speak a sentence without throwing in the word “like” five times. I do it, I admit, but not this much. And not every one of my sentences ends in a question mark.

And I know that it’s not really okay to have four different kinds of tires on a car.

Which made me think about how I have to think about not making faces in front of strangers as I listen to their conversations.

I thought about the house I almost made an offer on until I found out yesterday that there had been a triple shooting on the corner the week before the seller listed the house. Oh. So that’s why he’s moving. Got it. You know, I loved that house. I did. But I was looking for clarity on the neighborhood, and I guess you could say I received that.

Which, of course, led me back to guns and Colorado and stupid, senseless things. And drugs, and what I will and will not put up with in order to prove that I believe in a community.

Which got me thinking about “The Wire” on HBO, which I’m only now starting to watch, courtesy of BIL 2′s willingness to let me access his hbogo.com account. It’s a fantastic show and I’m only eight episodes in. But it’s so, so sad. It’s not sad content, not intentionally. But I know it’s real, the places are real, the boarded up houses and projects are real, and it’s at once both a great and terrible thing to know that. Great because we tend to shelter ourselves from those things, and when we don’t see them we forget that they exist, that real people live there, that children are growing up in that environment and there will never be hope for them until we stop pretending they’re not there. Terrible because real people live there and children are growing up in that environment. And we haven’t found a way to fix it.

And then I thought about how Dominic West (“Jimmy McNulty” on the show) can’t do a proper regional accent because he gets tripped up on his Britishness, and yet you’d never know Idris Elba (“Russell ‘Stringer’ Bell”) was British. Dude can throw a phrase around like he been ballin’ American-style since birth.

And then I thought about listening to Prime Minister’s Questions on C-SPAN and practicing my British accent in the car on the way home from work the other night.

As I was carving up a quarter of a watermelon I’d bought at the grocery store, I was smacked in the head with the idea of using it to infuse some vodka and create yummy delicious refreshment. I finally canned my own fruit. Mason jar and everything. Like a prairie woman. What’s that you say? Prairie women didn’t fill their fruit jars with vodka? Pfft. I win.

Just now I thought about how I really have to call the pathologist’s office from when I had my endoscopy and tell them why I haven’t paid them a single penny of the $476 the insurance company says I owe them. (I’m in a fight with the insurance company. Unsurprisingly.) I just talked to the anesthesiologist’s office about the $797 the insurance says I owe those jokers. I’m trying to buy a house. I don’t need bills going to collections.

Now I’m thinking about all these things, and all the stuff I thought about at the therapist’s office, and also dinner.

And nail polish.

And Syria.

And how fish oil caplets are made.

By the way: while I was at the car shop not rolling my eyes at the stupid chick, I came across an article in the July 9th issue of Time Magazine that dovetails I mean almost exactly with my last post, Keeping Track. I swear, I had not read the article before I wrote that post.

Now I’m thinking about housing starts.

It never ends.

Keeping Track

“By the looks of the loads on the trains, housing starts are up,” my father said to me. “There’s more lumber. That’s a good sign.”

That was last month. Today the report came out from the Commerce Department: Housing starts were up in June 6.9% over May. They were at the highest number since October 2008.

No, my father is not a psychic. He’s a railroad man. He’s retired now, but he spent 38 years working in the freight rail industry. Now, he and my mother live in a house that’s only three lots down from a train track. When they looked at the house, he was afraid the trains would drive him crazy. Six months later, they often don’t notice the sound (and I can personally attest that the ones that come through in the 4am hour sound like they are tunneling into the living room).

Those tracks carry commuter trains too. They come lighter, less thunderous. But when a freight train comes through, my dad can tell what’s on it just by the vibration of the ground, the sound of the rails under the weight.

“Intermodal,” he’ll say.

All those years in the rail yards have taught him a lot about what comes through when the economy’s good, and what drops off when it’s not. I’d guess that for at least 30 of those 38 years, Dad could predict a mild uptick in construction before the construction industry could. He knew when the automotive industry was falling off – not just from deliveries of cars but from parts and tires. He knew when the weather had been bad somewhere along the line because shipments would slow down or back up. When Katrina hit in 2005, he wound up in a helicopter surveying the 20+ miles of track his railroad had lost to flooding, and eyeing the train cars that had been lifted and moved by the water, sometimes finding high ground a mile or two from the track. When the economy went bad in 2008, the trains got a lot lighter.

The country could learn a lot from guys like my dad.

The railroad industry is one of the least appreciated in the country, I’d suspect. It’s taken for granted. Sometimes people barely seem to recognize trains are even there. Unless they’re griping, complaining about waiting at a crossing, complaining about an accident at a crossing as if it’s somehow the train’s fault, complaining about hazardous materials coming through their towns.

The truth is, when railroads stop, the American economy stops too.

If it weren’t for trains, there would be exponentially more heavy trucks on the highways, leading to more crashes, higher fuel costs for everyone and higher sales prices at Wal-Mart because it costs more to ship the goods over land. There would be shortages of food, dry goods, paper, cleaning solvents, coal for electricity, cattle… almost anything you can think of. And yes, lumber.

This country is criss-crossed with train tracks. The connection of east to west with that rail was one of the finest hours in American innovation, paid for with a lot of actual blood, sweat, tears and broken backs. I grew up listening to one side of phone calls about shipments from one yard to the next, hearing my dad get up and go to a derailment at any hour of the night, drawing on the backs of pages and pages of intermodal routing printouts. For my first 18 years, the railroad impacted me directly. For the next four, it helped pay for my college education. And as an adult, I’m lucky to be a little more aware than most about all the things railroads do.

And if I forget, the housing start statistics… and the distant sound of a horn… will remind me.

******

Now on my bookshelf:
The Sense of An Ending – Julian Barnes
The O’Briens – Peter Behrens

 

The Doughboy and the Cat

Pillsbury crescent rolls may have saved my life.

Not really.

Like about three million other people, I lost power Friday night when the drunken, pissed-off, wife-beater-wearing grandpappy of all thunderstorms tore eight states a new a-hole. It came out of nowhere and whipped itself up into such a frenzy as to compel me to turn on the news to make sure death was not raining from the sky. I had come back from futile attempts to see out my living room windows, and the weatherguy had just finished saying that winds were 70 miles an hour, when every source of light and coolness in my apartment went dead.

I’m not one to complain much about power outages. It doesn’t happen that often where I live, and I figure I’m healthy, relatively young and not a mother of small children, so I can deal. Plus I work a lot, and work has generators. Every morning since the storm, I’ve gotten up, called work, they’ve told me to come in ASAP, I’ve taken a cold shower and then gone to work, returning around midnight to find that, unsurprisingly, the power had not returned.

On Sunday, with all hope of refrigeration lost, I opened the fridge door to start cleaning out the more heat-sensitive items. Reaching half-blindly, my hand found something sort of sticky and spongey.

The crescent rolls.

The crescent rolls had functioned as a kind of turkey timer, popping on their own when the temperature inside the fridge had reached a higher-than-ideal range. Though there was still some amount of chill, I found this to be a handy reference. I supposed it meant all dairy and meat must definitely go, but there was still hope for the condiments, juices, and my blessed dozen bottles of wine I had stored in there to shield them from the merciless heat. The bread, peanut butter and jelly were still viable. I lived on them.

I got home from work at midnight-thirty Sunday night/Monday morning to find a new use for my wine thermometer. It’s the only way I knew for sure (confirming tactile perception) that it was a full 90 degrees inside my home. Using my cell phone for a flashlight, I found the cat (she’s black – not helpful in the dark). She was panting like I’ve never heard her before. I hauled her into the blacker-than-space bathroom to baptize her with cold water from the sink faucet. She was not happy about it, but I think it helped.

With my cell phone dying and work my only access to the internet, and I quickly found that all my friends are pains in the ass who complain too much. Sure, it sucks to be without power, but these are first world problems, people. If you’re young and healthy and bitching from your hotel pool, you should reevaluate your life circumstance vis-a-vis your right to complain about the temporary lack of a utility.

You know how I said I’m not usually one to complain about a power outage? It’s true, I’m not, but I decided I could conquer the damned world for want of three things:

A battery-operated fan
A battery-operated hair dryer
A battery-operated coffee maker

These three things, people. When sh*t goes down, they’re all I really need. I could tame the wild frontier if I had these three things.

Sadly, I did not have any of those three things.

Returning from work late Monday night, I noted how many more streetlights were on; how many more traffic lights were working. And I kept telling myself not to get my hopes up. From work, I had checked my power company’s color-coded outage map. I was still red-bad, meaning my area’s concentration of outages was higher than any other. But as I pulled to the curb, there arose above me my building, glowing golden light.

Power!

By the power of Grayskull! IIIII haaaaave the powwwaaaaahhhhhh!

The A/C was roaring. The thermostat said it was 79 degrees. The cat was not in renal failure – nay; she was yelling at me as I came through the door, declaring our victory, practically doing the conga with a party hat on her head. The television was on. The cable! The cable was working! There was light. There was the hint of refrigeration! The vodka in the freezer was chilled enough to drink!

F*&k the wild frontier!

I slept without the aid of a wet towel. I took a hot shower this morning for the first time since Friday. I made myself coffee (albeit with the rinsed-out previously used filter, because I ran out, and without half-and-half, because, well… all my once-refrigerated foodstuffs live in the dumpster now). I wanted to hug a transformer. I still had peanut butter and jelly before I left for work, but that’s because I didn’t have time to go grocery shopping.

Finally, being at work is no longer better than being at home. And the 13 hours of overtime I’ll have will fit nicely into the real estate fund.