Friday, April 29, 2011

Thank you, Dr. Sarno

My partner and I decided to split up this morning after losing a quick 2-6 set. (Maybe it was 1-6 and I’ve blocked out some of the horror.) We had confessed to each other before we started playing that neither of us could move laterally today – a circumstance that is easily compensated for in day-to-day living, but one that is suicide on the tennis court. She was having gall bladder pain; I still have an ailing hip.

“Who do you want to play with…Hemorrhoids or Migraine?” asked one of the winners, as we readied to switch partners.

We’ve all gotten into this groove of starting off tennis by naming our Malady of the Day. It makes me feel a little better (that we’re all ailing) because often I assume it’s only me. I’m the oldest in the group and therefore it seems logical that I would deteriorate more quickly.

But today, as we delved more deeply into one player’s hemorrhoids (so to speak), it occurred to us that perhaps they were related to the fact that her son finally picked a college to attend next year and her concurrent realization that her oldest “baby” is actually going to be leaving home soon. She spent a few stoic minutes recounting the stress of it all – how her eye’s pop open at every day at 4 a.m. with that special variety of anguish that you can muster once you’ve become a mother.

We all quickly moved the conversation on to our own physical impairments, because those things we can laugh about. Kids leaving home, not so much.

Years ago, I started to suspect that many of my physical problems were about something other than structural atrophy. I’d suffered from back pain for years and have been going to a chiropractor since I was in my twenties. After reading a book by Dr. John Sarno (Healing Back Pain: The MindBody Connection) and actually going to see him as a patient, I came to understand that a lot of my problems were coming from my brain, not my spine, and with this realization, my back pain began to fade away.

But there’s always something there in its place. When one thing clears, another emerges. Carpal Tunnel … bladder infection … I spent all of last weekend thinking I had some fatal lymph node disease.

In fact, I don’t think I’ve felt good for a single day since the middle of February, shortly following a local tragedy where a teenage boy in my town died suddenly one morning before school. Hmmmm.

Dr. Sarno’s theory is that our brains create these ailments within us to distract ourselves from really difficult feelings – he says “unconscious” feelings. That when we must attend to our backaches or our hemorrhoids or our hives or our migraines, we are, in a way, protecting ourselves from the debilitating feelings that come with losing love. In whatever form that loss takes. Sometimes this explanation seems crazy and simplistic, except it’s really the only thing that makes logical sense: why are we all able to hobble onto the tennis court in various stages of duress and completely forget about our UTIs and our gall bladder eruptions. Is it maybe because tennis serves the same distracting role? That our malady is not needed for that hour and a half?

“Hemorrhoids or Migraine?” Hemorrhoids asked me this morning.

“Yeah, heads or tails?” said my partner, Gall Bladder.

I couldn’t choose. So Migraine led us in a Rock/Paper/Scissors type of game.

I ended up with Hemorrhoids, and we played ok. Gall Bladder and Migraine won, but not by much.

Afterwards, Hemorrhoids told me that she spent the in-between-points time talking to herself. She told her body that she appreciated what it was doing for her, protecting her from feelings that were both scary and unspeakably sad; from thinking about a situation that is both heartbreaking and inevitable. “Thank you,” she said to her body, “but it’s really not necessary.”

And just from her sharing that, my hip pain is starting to feel better already.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Five-Second Rule Retraction

I read an article recently, maybe in the New York Times, about how the Five-Second Rule should really be the Zero-Second Rule. Meaning, all of us moms who have been working under the assumption that any food dropped on the floor requires at least five seconds before it’s contaminated have been wrong; a quickly retrieved graham cracker is not fine to feed your toddler.

I’ve been abiding by the five-second rule long before I became a parent. With the possible exception of ice cream, I couldn’t imagine a single thing that could be so tainted by touching the floor that you wouldn’t just brush it off and eat it. But that’s where my liberal views about food safety begin and end.

I assume everyone thinks the way I do: M&Ms that have dropped on the floor are okay, while fruit that sports white or green mold must be eliminated. Apparently not. I was recently enlightened at the home of my BFF after we’d returned from a morning walk where she grabbed a pomelo off her counter, placed it squarely on the cutting board and then turned to grab a knife.

“What are you doing?” I asked. The alarm came through in my voice.

“I’m going to eat some pomelo,” she said. “Do you want some?”

I don’t know much about pomelos (aside from that they can pass for grapefruits) but I’m pretty certain they’re not supposed to be furry.

Her husband grabbed the knife away from her. “You can’t eat that. It’s full of mold.”

“I know. I was just going to cut the moldy part off,” she said.

Her husband and I looked at each other as if she were mad. A full quarter of the fruit was covered white and green. “What?” she said. “This is what I always do.”

At that point we repositioned ourselves. My BFF secured a new knife and halved her pomelo. I followed her husband to the computer where he looked up guidelines for eating moldy food. Most websites agreed: soft fruits and vegetables should be thrown away when they display mold.

“Is this considered soft?” my BFF asked. “It’s soft inside, but outside, where the mold is, is hard.”

It’s a wonder her family has survived as long as it has, I thought. Just today I threw away a newly opened container of hummus—a container whose expiration date was still a long time coming—not because it smelled bad or tasted off, but simply because I was getting a bad vibe from it.

From the USDA website: “When a food shows heavy mold growth, ‘root’ threads have invaded it deeply. In dangerous molds, poisonous substances are often contained in and around these threads. In some cases, toxins may have spread throughout the food.” A statement like that doesn’t even seem to me open to interpretation.

The pomelo was wrestled from her hands and tossed in the trash, but not before she defiantly slurped down a big, succulent, mold-free section. That was weeks ago and she’s survived.

This weekend, as we wound up our walk, she told me she’d come into her kitchen that morning to find a half-gallon of milk had been left on the counter. “It wasn’t there when I went to bed,” she said, “so someone must’ve left it out during a midnight snack.”

“I sniffed it and tasted it, and to me it seemed fine,” she went on. “So I put it back in the fridge with a note saying it had been out for maybe eight hours, drink at your own risk.”

Later that day I was in my own kitchen, popping a batch of popcorn on the stove and telling my husband (who believes everything in any refrigerator is potentially poison) about my BFF’s decision to let her family members choose for themselves whether to drink the milk. My popcorn maker is a little broken so when I pour the popped corn into a serving bowl a lot of it spills over onto the counter, onto the floor.

“That seems so reckless to me,” I said to my husband as I bent over and scooped up a handful of fallen popcorn near my feet. “And kinda gross,” I added, tossing the retrieved kernels into my mouth.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Open Mind Follow Up

I got a lot of response from that last post – An Open Mind is A Terrible Thing To Waste. Most people wanted to know what it was I’d changed my mind about. Some wanted me to talk about the process further.

Over the past month, someone told me that I’m the most opinionated person he’d ever met. Someone else pointed out repeatedly that I “always need to be right.” Neither of these things was said maliciously – more like fact. It was like they were saying, “Your hair is brown.” I honestly never thought of myself in either of those ways, so it seemed like something I should take a look at.

It was that inspection – why am I so invested in my perspective on such-and-such – rather than the subject of the article, that resulted in my change of mind.

The piece I had read was by Laura Zinn Fromm. The overall question was: should we let our children see us drinking? My thoughts about drinking are extensive (and not especially interesting), but they led me to quickly discount anything the writer was saying. From my perspective, it wasn’t even a question of whether her kid should see her drinking…I didn’t think she should be drinking in her example at all.

The reason I didn’t mention her piece in my original post was because I don’t feel like the point is what we change our minds about. I feel like the point is that we change our minds. How fluid and easy a process it is when you decide it’s ok to let go for a moment of things you “believe” in and allow yourself to walk in someone else’s shoes. How freeing that act is. How surprised you might be to find that you don’t lose any of your identity when you take another point of view, and in some ways maybe you become a happier “you” as a result.

I was afraid if I mentioned the piece, people would form an opinion about whether I was right to change my mind on it. Would focus, again, on the topic, rather than the process. But the fact is, the article could have been about legalizing pedophilia and the process would be exactly the same. Poof. I changed my mind.

It was in this headset that I watched myself (on a few separate occasions) get myself into a small huff about something that I felt strongly. One was the grumpy people in my school tour group. The other was about the article I’d read. A third, which I didn’t mention in my original post, was during a “discussion” I was having with someone about homeopathy vs. Western medicine.

In each of these cases, I felt the familiar agitation begin. I noticed myself stop listening – or at least listening only as much as I needed to in order to fuel my own opposing point of view. Formulating my response and position while I was in the process of collecting information. Not after I’d gotten it.

All of those places where I dig in trail back to some big deeply held belief, one that would feel really threatening if I discovered it to be “wrong.” “I send my child to the best school available,” in the case of the tours. So mind-changing sometimes becomes the process of saying, “I might be wrong about this; I’m at least going to give this other point of view the benefit of the doubt long enough to hear what the person believes.” But sometimes mind-changing is challenging on another level. Because you have to reconcile the fact that you’ve just spent an awful lot of your time defending and arguing (even if only in your own mind) a particular point of view.

The whole prospect is made out to be so distasteful that there’s even a horrible, disgusting term that sums up the experience. Who would actually sit and eat a crow? Not me.

I urge you to read Laura’s article, because she is an excellent and thoughtful writer and a topic worthy of consideration if you’re a parent. Then you can agree or disagree with her as you see fit. But what I really urge, is for you to notice the next time you find yourself agitated about what someone is saying to you and just take a moment to see what it’s like to change your mind about it. Not forever. Just for fun.


Monday, April 18, 2011

An Open Mind is a Terrible Thing To Waste

Not long ago I spent the week giving tours at my kid’s elementary school. This is by far my favorite volunteer position of the year, largely because I love the school so much but also because it’s the only time I can talk and talk and talk and talk and someone actually listens to what I have to say.

Since I’m organizing the thing, I usually have several other tour guides with me each day, and I send them out with a half dozen people as a group starts to amass. My tour goes at the end. It’s usually the group of “stragglers.” The people who show up late (sometimes very late). I don’t care how late they are though, because giving tours makes me so unspeakably happy.

However one of the days was not the exercise in unbounded ecstasy that I had hoped.

It was rainy. Two of the tour guides canceled and I was only able to replace one. So we had fewer people than we needed, and of course, that would be the day that more parents showed up. It seemed under control at first, but as I was starting my tour, my straggler group instantly doubled in size. Suddenly, I had far too many people, but that wasn’t the worst of it. My group seemed a little grumpy.

No one said anything outright grumpy, but, as my grandmother would say, there were a couple of people with a big puss on their face. (This, by the way, is something my grandmother would say mostly about me.) I wasn’t sure what the nature of their grumpiness was, but I convinced myself that some of the people in my group had already made up their minds that they didn’t like the school. And I could feel my bliss start slipping away.

I think one of the reasons the group’s mood affected me so much is because I do that all the time. I make up my mind about something before I even give it any thought and then I cling to that opinion as if my very life depended on it.

I didn’t even realize I do this until this thing happened the other day: I actually changed my mind about something. Not about something like What Should We Have For Dinner Tonight? It was more of a moral something – and it was provoked by column I’d read. I disagreed with the author in a knee jerk way and I felt more and more righteous as I read the reader comments, all of which agreed with the writer. I spent days mulling over how I might respond to the article. Whether I should be haughty or high-minded. Everything I composed in my mind seemed apt to make other people feel small.

And then this completely bizarre thing happened. I reread the original story and I thought the writer made a good point. In fact, I agreed with her. And all of a sudden, I felt my whole body lighten up, not from being swept into the mainstream (because her view was a typically unpopular one) but because I was able to relax my Always Having To Be Right muscles. And when I noticed how easy it had been – to do a complete 180 – the sheer act of it made me giddy.

During Tour Week I was so drained from what I perceived as the resoluteness of my group that one day that I came home and crawled right into bed. It wasn’t until the following week that I had my big mind-changing experience, and I spent a lot of that day marveling about how easy it was to do. Poof. Just change your mind about something. I think everyone should try it.

Or maybe not.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Out Of The Closet Tennis

I called Gina this morning to see if she wanted to play for me in our Friday morning tennis game. “Oh. I would. But I have an appointment.”

Gina (like most in my group) knows that if I’m looking for a sub, there’s something very wrong. In this case it was my wrist. I had some Carpal Tunnel type of thing going on and I couldn’t grip my racquet.

“Haircut?” I asked nonchalantly. I tease her about always making haircut appointments during our tennis times. I can’t understand why she does this – choose hair care over tennis – although she does always have a nice cut. Not one strand is ever out of place.

“Pedicure,” she admitted, although I know she didn’t want to.

“Pedicure?” Wrapped in my question was not only the message that she was breaking my heart by opting for toenails over tennis (especially in our newfangled climate, where open-toed shoes still seem months away), but also the slightest hint of mockery about being a suburban, pedicure-procuring BoBo, delivered in the way only a suburban, tennis-playing BoBo can.

I can completely relate to being coy about certain “commitments.” When I have to schedule any kind of medical appointment (for me or for my kids), my tennis time becomes “meetings.” As in, “I’m sorry, do you have anything in the afternoon? I have a meeting that morning.”

If I have to schedule a work meeting, my tennis commitments become “appointments.” “I’m sorry, I have to be somewhere at 9. Can we meet at noon?”

I just finished a week-long volunteer job at my son’s school which required my being there every day from 9:30 to 11:30. I cancelled all my tennis for the week except my Wednesday Clinic. The time conflicted completely with my volunteer commitment, but I asked someone else to take over the event I was running for all of Wednesday. I kept telling her I had to an appointment that morning that I couldn’t get out of. She didn’t press me for details and I didn’t offer any.

Finally, at the end of the week I confessed. “I had to play tennis on Wednesday morning,” I told her.

“Oh, I play on Mondays,” she said. “That’s why I showed up in sweats.”

Still, I continued with what turned into an apology. A needless one. “I play often, but if I miss this Wednesday Clinic, I’m depressed for the entire week,” I said.

I could tell right away that it didn’t faze her in the least that I had shirked my responsibilities to go play tennis. Or that I put tennis before a commitment to my child’s school. Yet I felt sheepish and ashamed. As if choosing to do this thing that I love somehow made me a lesser person.

So I continued to explain my decision to her. I told her how, if I don’t play tennis I’m mean to my family; how it’s my way to get frustrations out. How it’s like therapy for me – that important; I made it sound as if I might jump off a bridge if I didn’t play that day. I impressed upon her that what might seem like self-indulgence is really a long-term benefit to all of humankind.

She couldn’t have cared less one way or the other.

I don’t know how we’ve all become so hard-wired to feel bad for doing what makes us feel good. Why we can’t just say, “I can’t make it then. I play tennis that day.” Say it while looking the person right in eye and smiling like you feel like a million bucks.