MS. MS. MS. MS.

So this will be short, because I am doing five things at once, and I am mostly preoccupied with two of them, neither of them being the NCAA tournament, which is all my 15-year-old son cares about at the moment, which, given the variety of activities out there today, I suppose I am quite happy about.

MS. MS. MS. MS. These two letters have Continue reading

Exercise? Who Needs Exercise?

I always thought it was a scam. And now I have proof. Sort of.

The New York Times devoted its entire Science section to electronic gadgetry last Tuesday, and looked at all of those gizmos some of us are tempted to fondle at the local Apple store, Best Buy, or even a well-stocked Rite Aid.

You’ll have to read the section for yourself if you want to know how the desktop treadmill works, and how the various sleep thingamabobs handle things. As you can imagine,the newsroom staff had a pretty good time with the entire project.

The idea of trying to write while on a treadmill made me want to <<CAUTION!! DISGUSTING WRITING AHEAD!!>> lurf all over the place, and by that I mean vomit. I think that’s because I have such a poor sense of balance that the thought of trying to look at a computer monitor or a piece of paper while at the same time moving my feet rhythmically is not at all pleasant and I might lurf now just thinking about it. Let’s not think about it. <<END POSSIBLE LURFING AND DISGUSTING WRITING>>

What I thought was a scam, and what I now have proof of, sort of, and who needs exercise anyway, and I TOLD YOU SO! HAH! is found in an article in this Science section on page 2 called “Do Brain Workouts Work? Science Isn’t Sure.”

See? Hah!

I snarl Hah! because many people have very kindly and lovingly (and I mean this kindly) (and lovingly) suggested that I try one of the many online brain workout sites to try to get back some brainpower that I have lost since the stroke I had in August 2011. And I took their suggestions seriously and I tried them, and I don’t think I got any brainpower back. But I’m not sure either.

“Almost all the marketing claims made by all the companies go beyond the data,” said Dr. Murali Doraiswamy of Duke University, a neurocognitive disorders researcher quoted in the article.

Furthermore, the article noted that research has been conducted entirely on healthy individuals. One analysis of 23 studies concluded that if you practice game playing, you will get better at game playing—but only at that game, not at anything else. So much for Sudoku.

Marbled murrelet

Marbled murrelet

A study out of the University of Washington (known universally as “you-dub”)  shows that “older” “healthy” Americans can retain cognitive improvements for at least 10 years, if those improvements are attained via reasoning (listening to a lecture, for instance) or speed of processing (press the right button). The same study found that such improvements didn’t last if they were attained via sheer memorization.

And the sad news overall is that no matter how the cognitive improvement was made, the improvement didn’t carry over to any other area. So just because I listened to a talk on the marbled murrelet (Brachyramphus marmoratus), that doesn’t mean I’m now an expert on the Atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica).

Atlantic puffin

Atlantic puffin

They are both very cute, as you can see. And they could both use your help. The puffins are doing better than the murrelets these days, because they’ve gotten more attention.

This is one of the few times you will hear me cheerlead for anything on the Wrong Coast, which murrelets are, so if you have a spare check or a bank card crying in your wallet, now’s your chance.

Anyway, back to brain workouts. One little side note to this overall depressing article says that a recent study found that focusing on those falling objects in Tetris could calm your food cravings. No further information was provided. Such as: how far away was the ice cream?

There are more and more of these online brain train sites every week, it seems, and more and more of them want my money. That’s when I know I’m smart enough that I don’t need their games, and I move on.

Nevertheless, all of the hopeful entrepreneurs are gathering in San Francisco in May for a NeuroGaming Conference and Expo, no matter how unclear the research, to see how many dollars they can squeeze out of a gullible public.

Hey, we’ve been pushing buttons and squeezing triggers for years, just to make fake frogs cross fake streets and fake plumbers jump over fake mushrooms and fake candy flatten other fake candy.

“I’m not convinced there is a huge difference between buying a $300 subscription to a gaming company versus you yourself doing challenging things on your own, like attending a lecture or learning an instrument,” said Dr. Doraiswamy of Duke in the article.

Let me say it again: Hah! Really, what it comes down to is this: I don’t like those brain game sites. They are all sort of rosy and cute and invigorating. They go out of their way to not offend. They aren’t trying to teach me anything. They want me to stare at a little scene of a tree and a field and wait for a bird to appear and then click on the bird before it disappears. Depending on how fast I click on the bird, and how much faster I get at clicking on the bird each time it appears supposedly tells me how much “better” my brain is getting. Really?

Does this remind anyone of developmentally disabled kids stuffing envelopes for eight hours a day?

If this is cognitive improvement science at its best, I’ll keep going to talks on marbled murrelets. Shall I save you a seat?

On the Road Again

This has been a banner year for us with high school graduations: four trips down the aisle. Two nieces, one nephew, and one family friend. Not that we got to see them all, no, only one viewed in person by us, and that was the nephew’s, which was fitting, since we were present at his birth, and we plan to be present at as many of his life-changing events as he will let us.

There was the pomp and circumstance, the band tunes, the marching in, the speechifying, the mortar flinging, all the requisite hoopla you can imagine.

Uh oh.

<<CAUTION! ABSOLUTELY UNNECESSARY ETYMOLOGY LESSON AHEAD!>>Where does this word “hoopla come from anyway? Sounds vaguely Hawaiian in origin, but actually it is corrupted French, the real live etymologists think. “Houp-là!” you would say toyour child, “upsy-daisy,” or, “up you go.” Just a saying that accompanies a quick movement. The Brits turned it into a fairground game where you have to toss a hoop over something to win a prize; we Americans turned it into much ado about nothing, but in this case it was much ado about something. <<END ABSOLUTELY UNNECESSARY ETYMOLOGY LESSON>>

Although we loved every minute of that one graduation ceremony, especially the one minute where the principal of that high school actually mentioned our nephew by his actual name (WOW!!!) because of the great job he has done with GRuB in turning it into a national model, the two hours on exquisitely uncomfortably unpadded chairs completely ruined my partner’s back, so we had to skip the ceremony the following night in the same gymnasium (on the same chairs) for the family friend and the one the following weekend for one niece an hour away by car. The other niece lives on the other side of the country.

All right, all right, I hear you. Sorry, folks.

<caution. absolutely unnecessary etymology lesson ahead.>And I do mean unnecessary. The word “exquisite” is supposed to be pronounced with the accent on the first syllable. Really. Go back and watch some old M*A*S*H episodes if you don’t believe me, and listen to Charles. <<END ABSOLUTELY UNNECESSARY ETYMOLOGY LESSON>>

All etymology lessons out of the way, brace yourself for some timely newsworthy hoopla:

I have finished physical therapy due to rotator cuff surgery. Ta-da!

This means, in theory, that I have two functioning shoulders, free and clear to do things such as, oh, I don’t know, putting clothes in the dryer, typing, driving, stuff like that.

So I very gingerly went driving, just down to Target and back. No animals were harmed in the making of this blog entry. Except CF did turn her knuckles an ungodly shade of white when I made a rather sloppy left turn onto our road.

Therefore, she was not willing to let me drive one hour south to the niece’s graduation party. Party pooper. I drove two entire miles to Target and back, and only one tiny slip-up, and she won’t let me drive 120 miles at 65 mph! Sheesh. I mean, it’s not like we’d be driving my old wreck of a car. No, we’d be taking her nice, new car with all the groovy features on it, like a radio that works and everything.

I did notice something odd when I was driving those two miles, though. I had no idea where I was. It’s not a terribly complicated drive to Target. Down our street, turn right, go a little way, turn left, go a little way, turn right, and there you are. In its parking lot. Where you have to park.

(Did you see that cartoon in Sunday’s paper where the guy brings his own can of spray paint and just paints his own parking spot? Brilliant.)

And then you reverse your steps and go home.

But after being a passenger for over six months, my brain has scrambled the bits that held Olywa maps in place. They are gone. The maps from the town where I grew up are firmly in place. I can still count down the traffic lights on Bloomfield Ave. from the edge of town until you get to Central Ave. and you turn right to get to our house: Forest, Smull, Park. (I used to do this in the dark on the way back from my grandmother’s house.) Unless they’ve added one at Personnette St….

And the cow trail maps of Maine are emblazoned on my mind forever, especially the places where, for instance, the road to Durham from Freeport, called the Durham Road, crosses from Freeport into Durham, and becomes the Freeport Road, because there it’s the road from Durham to Freeport.

The Olympia map, however, was not to be found. I was a poor little lamb who has lost her way. Baa. Baa. Baa. Where’s my whiffenpoof? Oh, no, not another one! <<CAUTION! ABSOLUTELY UNNECESSARY ETYMOLOGY LESSON AHEAD!>> A whiffenpoof is not only the name of an absurd singing group of bawdy men from Yale University. It is also the name of an old-fashioned tracking gee-gaw, a big old log with a bunch of nails sticking out a few inches and a way to drag it behind you, so it rotates and leaves a trail of little holes from the nail heads. You leave the whiffenpoof in the woods and see if folks can follow the trail to find it. <<END ABSOLUTELY UNNECESSARY ETYMOLOGY LESSON>>

Once I made it home from Target, I rustled up my Garmin nüvi and charged it, ready for action. I can’t just plug it into my car battery, because my car is a 1997 Toyota RAV, and it has seen many better days. I remember the day that NF, still in diapers, experimented with a penny and shorted out the lighter, thus making it impossible to plug in any electronic device one might use via its handy port.

I was quite pleased with my Garmin nüvi solution to my map-free brain, right down to the crisp British accent of the unflappable woman telling me where to go. I mean, instructing my driving. I took my Garmin into the living room to show CF and she graciously listened to my enthusiastic explanation.

“You know,” she said, “you can get maps right on your phone. And they update as you travel. Just like that thing.”

“Oh,” I said, tossing the Garmin onto the stack beside me. Not much pomp. Not much circumstance.

The Inspiration of Junk Mail

When you sit in front of a computer all day like I do, the temptation to look at interesting websites is, well, tempting. And sometimes that temptation leads me to purchase items from those websites. And once you do that, they have to mail stuff to you. That puts you on their mailing lists. Then they send you catalogs. Forever.

And they sell your email address and your snail mail address to anyone they want to. So I get some odd stuff, and I get some interesting stuff: a catalog for “goddesses,” for example, featuring “vixen” clothing, not exactly my style, arrives the same day as one from JC Penney, also not my style, but which must have given our mail carrier a bit of whiplash.

I reached for the LL Bean catalog (more my style) tucked in the middle of all this and took in the comfort of its Caslon typeface and tried to feel the nap of the chamois shirt with my cheek—maybe because I miss Maine, maybe to shake off that goddess catalog.

But yesterday’s mail also brought another catalog from that place that offers great courses, I mean Great Courses, I mean THE GREAT COURSES. You know, you send them money, they send you DVDs or CDs of lectures by leading professors on the history of European art or the joy of astronomy or argumentation: the study of effective reasoning. All for a reasonable charge, of course.

This is what inspired me. No, not the reasonable charge. We’ll deal with that later.

It was the description of the courses that inspired me.

I was fired up to learn something. Old Testament? New Testament? The Art of Critical Decision Making? Einstein’s Relativity and the Quantum Revolution? These were indeed THE GREAT COURSES.

The various courses on brain matters (pun!) caught my eye. Your Deceptive Mind: A Scientific Guide To Critical Thinking Skills. Understanding The Mysteries Of Human Behavior. Understanding The Brain. Egad. How to choose!

Then I turned the page. There was the right course, the one and only course for me, the course that would challenge me, push me beyond all reasonable limits and at the same time give me a skill I could maybe someday actually use, not to mention bragging rights, and maybe homework help for my son.

Calculus.

Or, more precisely: Change and Motion: Calculus Made Clear. See, doesn’t that sound friendly? And the blurb that accompanies it compares calculus to Beethoven’s symphonies, which I understand fully.

The blurb (which is nearly a page long) also says: “…the course takes the approach that every equation is in fact also a sentence that can be understood, and solved, in English.”

Hey, that’s my language! I speak it every day! And I’m writing in it right now!

The blurb continues: “It requires only a basic acquaintance with beginning high-school-level algebra and geometry.”

O.K., stop snickering. Yes, I know I am defeated by long division, thanks to that blasted stroke, but that’s what calculators are for. And that’s not algebra anyway. That’s—that’s—fourth grade math, and dear Mrs. Monell taught it to me, and it’s gone forever, but I remember the concept at least, and I think that’s what is important here.

Algebra is a bit tricky. I had two years of algebra in high school, more or less, mostly less, because the second year was more of a social gathering than anything else. I’m trying very hard to remember what we were taught in that class, and all I can really recall is sitting around in a circle on cozy chairs and chatting about anything we wanted, but that can’t be right, can it? We were a hand-selected group of seniors, at a school that did not believe in “honors” classes.

The teacher was a tall, spectral man, given to long discourses on topics unrelated to mathematics. He had more than a passing interest in a girl a year younger than I; he ended up marrying her. If I learned anything in this class, I must assume it too was lost in the stroke explosion.

As for geometry, this was one class where I wish I hadn’t done so well. The teacher’s name was Mr. Sharpe, and most of the kids didn’t like him. I adored him. He was rather elfin, and strict. He would explain the topic, and we would work out the exercises, and he would wander among us, correcting our work and explaining further. Not to brag, but I excelled. I loved this class.

I did so well that Mr. Sharpe pulled me out of it and sat me in the back all by myself at a bigger table and had me compile his bowling league averages instead. Lots and lots of adding and subtracting and percentages. No geometry. I could do the geometry in five minutes, while walking down the hall.

I was too good for his class. He adored me.

See? I wasn’t always a math dolt.

So for a mere $39.95, discounted from $254.95 (wow!), I can learn, at my own pace, in 24 half-hour lectures, one of which is entitled, Owls, Rats, Waves, and Guitars, all about calculus.

Am I nuts? Maybe. Probably.

Downside: Blowing 40 bucks. Frustrating myself with something I cannot do.

Upside: Triumphing by reawakening my math brain. Learning calculus.

Inside: Fear and trembling.

Outside: Cloudy, chance of rain.

I Haz Cheez Stix!

It was official. I could not get to sleep. 3:00 A.M. My socks were hopelessly twisted around my ankles, and my feet were cold. Where was that cat who was supposed to keep them warm?

CAUTION! TRUE CONFESSION AHEAD! No, not an etymology lesson. In fact, this caution comes a bit late, since the true confession has already happened: I wear socks to bed. And a tee shirt.  (14-year-old child. Carefree manners.) END TRUE CONFESSION.

I decided the solution was two cheese sticks, fuel for my toes.I stumbled quietly down the hall, checking on aforementioned son, making sure his noise machine (iPod) was still silenced for the night (he likes to turn it on after he knows I’ve gone to bed), taking care not to wake him, the dog, or the assorted cats draped around him, including the traitorous one supposed to be warming my feet.

The cheese sticks were in a monstrously unopened bag fresh from the store, requiring me to manipulate wrong-handed scissors in my half-awake state. These scissors were hard enough to use when I am fully awake. Trying to use them against uncooperative plastic was like trying to force a pill down a cat’s throat.

CAUTION! LEFT-HANDED SCREED AHEAD! The majority of right-handed people do not understand the difficulty that left-handed people have with simple implements such as

scissors, measuring cups, computer mice, car controls, etc. We eventually adapt, but right-handed scissors never become easy. It’s not just a matter of the shape of the handle; it’s also the way the two blades come together SCRRKKKKKKKKKKKkkKKKKKKK

That was my screed being wrenched to a stop by the blog master. Sorry.

So I ate my two cheese sticks and started back to bed.

CAUTION! TRUE CONFESSION AHEAD! Another late confession. We eat those string cheese sticks. They’re good, easy junk food. We got into the habit when we were going to 107 baseball games every week, I mean every month, I mean every season. END TRUE CONFESSION.

I wondered if those cheese sticks would make me thirsty. I decided no.

Hark! What was this ungodly squawk? Could it be the sound of “music” gurgling from my son’s bedside? I tiptoed through the dark of his room, guided only by the green light of his iPod speaker and his fake sleep breathing to turn it off, not noticing the one cat who chose to sleep on the floor, until it let out a shocked shriek, which started a general cat rodeo, with dog as guest star, around me.

Back in the dark hallway, I heard the sound, the offbeat sound a cat makes when it is about to hurl an object of indescribable origin from its bowels into the atmosphere: eh-YUH! eh-YUH! eh-YUH!

My options here were few. I could chase down the cat in the dark and thrust a piece of newspaper under its recoiling chin, hoping to catch whatever repulsive object it was about to offer the world.

Or I could note the cat’s location for cleanup at a later, more light-filled time, if the cat was in an out-of-the-way place.

Or I could just ignore the whole—no, I couldn’t.

eh-YUH! eh-YUH! eh-YUH! I thrust the newspaper under the cat’s chin in time for the final gruesome ack! ack! and….nothing. The cat glared at me and stalked away.

The dog stood at the door hoping I would let her go outside, but I knew this was just a ruse so I would give her a treat. I ignored her and headed back down the hall. My son had cleverly not turned his music on yet.

Perhaps I was having trouble sleeping because I needed more clothing. I decided to add a pair of pajama pants to my nighttime couture. CAUTION! TRUE CONFESSION AHEAD! And this caution comes ahead of the confession. I don’t know about you, but I can’t wear pajama pants without putting on underwear first. END TRUE CONFESSION.

This is where things got interesting. This is where everything about multiple sclerosis, everything about the stroke, everything about rotator cuff surgery and all that physical therapy came together. Right here. In this dark bedroom at 3:15 A.M. with CF asleep five feet away. Right here with this pair of underpants and pajama pants.

CAUTION! TRUE CONFESSION AHEAD! I watch Grey’s Anatomy. END TRUE CONFESSION.

For some reason, I thought of Cristina Yang, one of the doctors on Grey’s Anatomy, and how she has to visualize the surgery she is about to do. So I visualized what I was about to do. Cristina Yang is an actress named Sandra Oh cutting into plastic. I was wobbling on one leg and then the other, groping my way into undies and then pajamas without falling over.

For the uninitiated among you, imagine standing on a large beach ball while doing this. While on a skateboard. That’s not what I visualized. I visualized solid ground. You should add the beach ball. I don’t need to, but you should. Do not add a scalpel.

Now I was thirsty. Back to the kitchen for a bottle of seltzer. Back to the bedroom to sit on the edge of the bed in the darkness to open it, why I do not know, where I cannot see the bubbles over-bubble onto my socked-in feet.

The water felt better in my mouth than on my feet.

CAUTION! TRUE CONFESSION AHEAD! I went to sleep with damp socks and feet. END TRUE CONFESSION.

Notes on Being a Fake

There are three ways to be a Fake:

  1. Unintentional
  2. Egregious
  3. Internally painful

For the purpose of this discussion, we shall dispense with the first two types rather quickly, since it is the third type in which we are principally interested, this being my blog and me being, unfortunately, the third type. Your opinion may vary, in which case you are a second opinion and you may write your own Note on Being a Fake, which you may send to me at your own expense.

Additionally, our discussion will be limited to Fakery as it refers to recovery from a stroke and/or life with M.S. and/or other such life-challenging situations. Fakery outside of this narrow field of health issues will not be considered.

Additionally additionally, I am giving my Observer to these discussions a Fake Name. I had to think for a while to come up with a name not likely to occur in human beings, and finally settled on Nilla, as in ’Nilla Wafers.

The Unintentional Fake
The Unintentional Fake is often not a Fake at all, but appears to be one by being over-enthusiastic about gains in health recovery, such as a gain in ability to walk, or speak, or even recover consciousness. The enthusiasm can be on the part of a patient or a caregiver or a health professional (doctor, nurse, etc.). The enthusiasm is genuine; the over-enthusiasm curdles it.

The Egregious Fake
The Egregious Fake usually has absolutely nothing physically wrong with him or her but wants you to know all about it. His cold is much worse than yours. Her knee is too painful to help carry those boxes into the house. He’s worried about his terrible headache—he’s had it for days. She hasn’t slept for weeks. But wait! Who’s that strolling out of the bookstore carrying an armload of books? Why, it’s your weak-kneed friend! And she’s with her friend who has overcome his intolerance to lactose and is enjoying an ice cream cone! The Egregious Fake is worrisome to be around until you realize that he or she is in fact an Egregious Fake and not For Real.

The Internally Painful Fake
The Internally Painful Fake walks among people every day, and she sees the judgment in Nilla’s eyes. Nilla sees my cane, and her eyes say, “The cane? Are you still using that cane?” Yes, the stroke was nearly two years ago, but I also have M.S., and the combination makes me stagger, makes me weak. It is internally painful for me to admit this, but whenever I leave my house I use a cane. It wards off other people, gives me balance, reminds me to be careful.

The Internally Painful Fake talks with Nilla every day, and she sees the judgment in Nilla’s eyes. She hears my hesitation, and she rushes to fill in the word I cannot find in my aphasic moment. She is thinking, “It’s been almost two years. I thought she was over all of that stroke stuff.” It is internally painful for me to admit this, but when I am speaking there are times when my mind becomes completely void of words and I cannot complete a sentence.

The Internally Painful Fake parks in the disabled parking spot near Nilla very often, and she sees the judgment in Nilla’s eyes. I don’t limp enough for her satisfaction, or use a wheelchair, or have enough missing limbs, or whatever her personal definition of disabled might be. She huffs at me to let me know that she considers me an Egregious Fake (about which see above), about which I consider acting like an Unintentional Fake (about which see above) to prove her wrong, but instead I just wobble normally into the store. It is internally painful for me to admit this, but when I park in a disabled parking spot, I am glad that I will be able to find my car easily afterwards because those lights in the store scramble my brain if I stay longer than 10 minutes.

The Internally Painful Fake is an amalgam of half-started, half-finished, half-baked disabilities. Nothing is right, but nothing is wrong. Doctors examine me and say, “Hmm, that’s not good.” Friends look at me and say, “Hey, you look great!” Family members look at me and say, “Wow, you look wonderful!” It is internally painful for me to admit this, but I feel awful. The truth is there will be effects from the stroke present in me for years to come: how I look, how I feel, how I think, how I act, how I talk.

What’s right? Nothing. That is one truthful answer from the Internally Painful Fake. Another truthful answer would be: I can read again. I can write again. I can usually remember to scribble down notes when I think of something good. I can usually remember to scribble down notes when I remember something important.

What’s wrong? Nothing. That is one truthful answer from the Internally Painful Fake. Another truthful answer would be: my eyes, my ears, my shoulder, my brain, my mood.

What is really wrong, actually, is that the Internally Painful Fake hates being the Internally Painful Fake. I would much rather be the Egregious Fake and have everyone discover my deception so I could just stop it all and go back to riding my bicycle everywhere and playing softball like I used to and taking long walks on Monhegan Island off the coast of Maine.

Except now that I am verging on old and decrepit, I probably can’t play softball anyway, and the walks would probably require at least a walking stick, and the bicycle might even require fat tires. We probably need to add a fourth kind of Fake: the Old and Decrepit Fake.