Browsing "Physical Ed"

The least of these, my children

So, you might’ve heard a little something about the Supreme Court today. In fact, you’re probably sick of it by now.

Me, I’ve been waiting on Monday and Thursday mornings for almost three weeks for this ruling. With the state of my health and my son’s, our total family income, and my husband’s job, it’s pretty clear why I would be in favor of the Affordable Care Act (the real name for Obamacare, in case you’ve forgotten). We’re already beneficiaries of state-funded healthcare, and I’ve elaborated at length on why it’s so critical for me and my family.

I’m not going to go into detail today about the other mothers, college students, workers, grandparents, and desperate people for whom this ruling is the first ray of hope in a long, bad time. Instead, I’m going to show you the one reason I’ll sleep better tonight.

This is Griffin. He turned six in April. You can see that he just lost his first tooth. I don’t write about him as much as his older brother, but that’s my failing, not his. He’s weird, he’s wonderful, he’s so adorable it makes me spit.

And he’s perfectly healthy.

But because his mother has a history of fibromyalgia, Asperger’s, and depression, his brother also has Asperger’s, and his father has genetically high cholesterol and needs hella-strong glasses, I’ve worried every day of his life that, when the time came for him to go out into the world on his own strong legs and his own mighty soul, he wouldn’t be able to get health insurance. Despite his own good health, despite his own boundless energy, my own limitations might deprive him of that security.

And today, I don’t have to worry anymore. That’s what this decision means to me. That’s why I danced and cried in my living room at 9:15 a.m. CDT as the tweets scrolled up my screen and reporters scrambled on the steps of that majestic building.

If you don’t like this decision, if you feel it lessens your freedom, I frankly don’t care. Because tonight I’ll sleep sounder knowing that both my boys will have access to the care and security that good, steady healthcare brings.

Apr 29, 2012 - Physical Ed    13 Comments

For shame

I’m of two minds about shopping. I love seeing pretty, cool, interesting new things. Some of them, I even enjoy trying on or, if the stars are right, buying them. I also love seeing what Nightmares of Fashion Past are currently visiting themselves upon kids too young to have suffered them the first time.

On the other hand, we’re a lower-middle class, half-Aspergian family. We have young sons with voices that can shatter glass and the combined attention span of a brain-damaged goldfish. Big-box stores and malls not only stress the hell out of me, they often hurt me physically–cement floors are the bane of my existence.

And then there’s the fact that I’m fat. Clothes shopping is an exercise in frustration and self-loathing. Women’s sizes are frequently not available in stores, and when they are, those stores seem to think that plus-sized women are both color- and pattern-blind, and happy to spend another $10-15 for the same design in one size larger than the range they’ve decided is “normal.” My particular body shape further complicates things by being both tall and hourglass-shaped. Consequently, I’m forced to buy shirts a size bigger than I actually need them if I want them to button, and I’ve never once owned a pair of jeans that fit well at waist, hip, and length.

My boys at the Mall of America LEGO store last summer. The mech and helicopter behind them? Made of LEGO.

In any case, the underwire on my next-to-last bra broke suddenly this week, leaving me with one, count ’em, one bra to wear. This is not an Acceptable Situation. Since we’d already promised Connor he could pick out a new LEGO set as a reward for a week of good, steady progress in his program, and they didn’t have the Marvel Super Heroes LEGO at the local stores, we committed to making the pilgrimage to the Mall of America’s LEGO store. It’s pretty epic, and with a budget firmly established in advance, it’s a bunch of fun for all of us. I figured I’d make my own quick trip to Nordstrom, which is widely regarded as the best place to get fitted properly for a bra, and actually find one in irregular sizes like mine.

While the thought of a new bra or two appeals greatly, for practicality and pleasure, the thought of submitting to the handling and scrutiny of my gigantic bosom and scarred, lumpy midsection by a stranger with a measuring device appeals not at all. But I’d worked my heart and mind up to a place where I could tolerate the humiliation and inevitable revulsion I would face in that dressing room. I’d taken some Xanax to dull the psychic trauma of being in a place with so much ambient noise and stress. And I’d settled the boys comfortably, post-LEGO acquisition, so I wouldn’t have to take them into the highbrow hush of Nordstrom.

I went up to the the Lingerie section and spent a few minutes admiring both the lovely underthings and the signs that said “Sizes up to 44H.” A saleslady approached me and asked if she could help. I asked the general price range of their bras. She responded, “They go up to $200.” I nodded, more nonchalant than I felt, and asked again, “But the average price? Around $30 or 40?”

She laughed at me, a sniffy sound of disbelief. “Ah ha ha, um, no. They average around $60.” I thanked her for the information, and left with as much speed and dignity as I could muster.

Let me say that again: The Nordstrom saleswoman laughed at me.

I’d gone in there, ready to face shaming for my size and shape. I wasn’t ready to be shamed for my income before I’d even taken off a stitch of clothing. It was more than I could bear, and there were tears welling in the rim of my glasses before I even got back to the table where my boys were sitting. I didn’t trust myself to say out loud what had happened, so I typed it quickly on my phone so my Darling Husband would know: “Ever walk into a place and immediately feel like you’re not welcome, that you’re not good enough to be there and everyone knows it? She laughed at me when I asked if there were any bras in the $30 range.”

My sons saw the tears rolling silently down my face, and not knowing why, they still rose to press tiny, tight hugs around me. My Darling Husband, whom anyone who knows him is not quick to anger, got that tight set to his jaw, and walked silently into the store. When he came back, he told me he’d found the saleswoman and asked for her manager.  The woman’s response to the confrontation was that she certainly hadn’t intended it that way; he informed her that, when the effect was so horrendous, her intentions weren’t worth a damn. We both worked in retail for a long time, coming up, so he knew precisely the right words to invoke. He told them both that, in humiliating his wife, they had both failed utterly at customer service and managed to permanently lose at least two customers.

But I was wrecked, and the only passive-aggressive revenge I could manage at the time was to tweet my grief and horror. And as I told the friends on Twitter and Facebook who immediately rallied to me and suggested both solutions and unspeakable tortures upon the saleswoman, if I could find a bra as supportive as all those wonderful people, I’d be set for life. It wasn’t until today that I realized I have a teeny tiny platform of my own.

So let me say this. The difference between the haves and the have-nots has rarely been greater in this country. This divide isn’t just social or economic–it’s also geographic. There are places where people who don’t have much money are not only not welcomed, but where they will be humiliated for even daring to darken the doorstep. Don’t even breathe on the merchandise–your poorness might be catching, and we wouldn’t want that. I’ve already learned that, the fewer pieces of merchandise in a store, the less likely it is someone like me could afford anything in there. And if there are no price tags, don’t even bother asking–it’s out of your range.

The people who staff these places make snap judgments on the fitness of a patron in a split second, on purely superficial impressions, the very least reliable kind. That scene from Pretty Woman? It doesn’t only happen on Rodeo Drive. Apparently it happens in a Minnesota department store, too.

Want to know the saddest thing? Nordstrom has a discount sister store, Nordstrom Rack. I’ve bought clothes with retail prices in the hundreds of dollars for $20 or less at Nordstrom Rack. There is even, in fact, a Nordstrom Rack in the Mall of America (something I didn’t know yesterday). If that saleswoman was serious about the customer service reputation and/or the bottom line of Nordstrom, Inc., she could have easily directed me to that location for bras in my price range, and I would’ve left a happy customer likely to spend my hard-earned money on their merchandise. I might even have tweeted how pleased I was by the service I’d received.

But she didn’t. So I left her workplace feeling like dirt for daring to step outside Walmart with my grubby, contagious, working-class, overweight self.

So here’s what I have to say. Even if you’ve got the money to spend at Nordstrom–maybe even especially if you do–don’t. Unless you like that atmosphere that judges people, that says there’s a different America for those who don’t look right or make their money the right way. Give your money to the places that wait to see that your money’s as green as anyone else’s, or better yet, the ones that see a person first, instead of a class.

Mar 20, 2012 - Physical Ed    7 Comments

One Size Fits Most

It is, quite abruptly, spring here in Minnesota. It’s been that way for about a week now, and it’s utterly unsettling. Between the unseasonably warm weather, and the early Daylight Savings Time change, I don’t think we’ve eaten supper before 7pm in the last seven days. My boys have already collected a whole spring’s worth of scrapes and bruises–it looks like we’ve been beating them from knee to ankle.

It’s hard to complain about such beautiful weather, but I’m one of many people (especially women) for whom hot weather is an uncomfortable season to be dreaded.

See, I’m fat.

Not morbidly obese, but not just a little pudgy either. I’m tall (5’9″), but that only helps so much. I’ve got a classic hourglass figure, but they don’t really make jeans or shirts for that shape anymore. I can wear a 16, but I’m more comfortable in an 18. Most of my T-shirts are XL. My bra size is officially Not Small.

The best thing that can be said about this condition is that my kids like to snuggle with me because I’m cushy. Also, I’m perfectly healthy for my weight–blood pressure and sugars are normal. Certainly the extra weight doesn’t help my fibromyalgia, but I’ve been thinner and the pain wasn’t measurably better.

But when it gets warm, I sweat. A lot. I can’t wear a skirt comfortably without Spanx because my inner thighs get raw from chafing; along the underwire line of my bra, too. I like to swim, but between my year-long pallor and the rolls and ridges, I don’t just sit around in my swimsuit–I’m either in the water, or I’m covered up.

And then there’s the psychological side. My self-esteem has never been particularly strong. My mom used to bemoan the fact that, despite the lavish praise and compliments she used to shower on her kids, my sister and I both ended up with self-esteem as bad as hers. It wasn’t until I was 30 that I realized that it didn’t matter what she said about us–it was the fact that she never had a nice word for herself that got handed down to her children. Sexual assault didn’t help either. He was the first guy I’d ever let see my naked body. He looked, crossed the room, and turned out the light. That left a deep mark.

Sometimes, I think it’s not so bad, that I carry the extra weight well enough, that I’m pretty enough in other ways to let that slide. But what I see in the mirror doesn’t match what I see if I’m unlucky enough to get caught in a picture. Sometimes, I don’t even recognize myself–I squint at the fat person on film, until my breath catches and I realize that’s me. That my mirror is a funhouse mirror after all, but the kind that fools you into thinking things are better than they actually are.

And the culture finds all sorts of ways to remind plus-size women that they’re less than. Affordable plus-size clothes are made of cheap fabrics and rejected patterns that would never be found in the juniors or misses racks. It gets even worse if you need maternity clothes. Sure, companies like j.jill make nice, classic clothes from quality fabrics in “women’s” sizes, but they don’t carry them in stores where those women can actually try them on–we’re left with catalog roulette. And pretty lingerie? Only Frederick’s of Hollywood carries plus-size “sexy” underwear in their stores, and the fabrics are all tasteless and harsh against the skin.

Don’t even get me started on all the other ways fat people are shamed everywhere they go. The seats in airplanes and movie theaters. Booths at restaurants. Hospital gowns. Baby Bjorns and Boppys. The mean, greedy, gluttonous fat women in movies, TV, even comic books. The stares if you dare to wear something revealing for a date, or scamper around with your kids in your swimsuit, or dare to order dessert. I’ve left the house feeling pretty and sexy and appreciated by my Darling Husband, and come home so ashamed and unattractive that I change into dumpy pajamas in the bathroom, away from even his gaze.

I enjoy the feel of sunlight and warm air on my skin. I like to run and play with my kids, on the days the fibro lets me. I like silk and linen and soft, thin cottons. I like elegant dresses and swirly skirts and pretty tops.

Courage shouldn’t be a necessary accessory. It’s almost impossible to find in my size.

Jan 25, 2012 - Physical Ed    11 Comments

Fair Warning

I saw my psychiatrist the other day for my regular check-in. As we went over the list of meds I’m taking, both those prescribed by him and those from other doctors, I said that the anti-depressant I’m on right now is working just fine, and that the only real change since I last saw him was that my pain management docs were having me transition from narcotic pain relievers for my fibromyalgia onto tramadol, a non-narcotic.

He looked up from his notes with a sudden frown, and said, “Oh no. That’s not good.”

Since all I’ve heard from day one of being a fibromyalgia patient is that narcotics are bad, and I’m bad for taking them, and I might as well be a crack addict, his response startled me. “Why isn’t that good?” I asked.

“Have they warned you about serotonin syndrome?”
“No, I’ve never heard of it.”
“Well, it’s a fairly rare thing, but when you take more than one drug that affects your body’s serotonin level, you can get serotonin syndrome. You don’t know you have it until you become symptomatic, and once you’re symptomatic, you’ve reached the point at which there’s a 20% mortality rate.”

“My pharmacist didn’t tell me there were any contra-indications…” I began.

“Oh, no, it wouldn’t show up as a contra-indication because it doesn’t happen all the time. It’s just a possibility,” he replied.

“Yeah, but it’s a possibility that kills 20 percent of the people who get it.”

He nodded, and leaned forward to whisper, somewhat conspiratorially, “Really, the Vicodin is much safer for you to be on.”

I was stunned. Not once in the 12 years I’ve been taking various medications for my fibro and my depression has a single healthcare professional ever even mentioned the existence of this potentially fatal drug interaction.

And when I looked it up, I got even more alarmed, because you don’t even have to be that sick, or taking a bunch of medications, to find yourself at risk for serotonin syndrome. If you take any kind of SSRI or SSNRI anti-depressant or smoking cessation drug, and you take medicine for migraines (the triptans), some pain relievers, even cough syrup containing dextromethorphan, you are at risk. If you take an anti-depressant and anything else–over-the-counter or prescription, regularly or sporadically–I can’t urge you strongly enough to read up on this condition.

If the only way to know you’ve got it is to understand the symptoms when you show up, you kind of need to know the symptoms. If it’s caught early, 80 percent of those who get it survive. But if it’s left untreated for more than 48 hours, you rapidly arrive in that other 20 percent territory.

I don’t expect doctors to know every drug and every symptom and read me chapter and verse on every possible reaction to each drug alone or in conjunction. It’s not like doctors and nurses even have drug books or PDRs sitting around in their offices anymore; the Internet has pretty much put those publications out of the print business. But with drugs as common as the ones I’m talking about, and with a potential reaction with a not-inconsiderable number of deaths attributable to it, you’d think it would’ve come up with at least one of the dozen or so doctors and specialists I’ve seen over the last decade.

And it reminded me, yet again, that some doctors just don’t see a problem with withholding information from their patients. When I started grad school in 1997, I started getting absolutely blinding tension headaches. The doctor who saw me at the student health center prescribed me a tricyclic anti-depressant to manage them; it’s a not-uncommon off-label use. In the six months that followed, I put on somewhere around 45 pounds, at the same time as my husband and I went vegetarian and I was using an elliptical machine every day. I was frustrated and distraught at this inexplicable weight gain, and my self-esteem was devastated.

It wasn’t until two and a half years later when a female CRNP said, “Didn’t the doctor who prescribed it warn you that one of the most common side effects is moderate to severe weight gain?” I gritted out, “No, he most certainly did not.” She sighed sympathetically and asked, “A male doctor?” I nodded. She said, “They do that all the time. They just don’t think it’s a big deal. They don’t understand how women take that sort of thing.”

I’ve never managed to get my weight back down to where it was before I went on that medication, and that struggle takes a daily toll on my feelings toward my body, my self-worth, and my sex life. That a doctor wouldn’t think to warn me of something that major, because he didn’t “think it was a big deal,” makes my head explode. Just like it did the other day, when I was finally been warned of the risk I’ve been exposed to for so long.

I’d like to be able to just brush it off and think that it just didn’t occur to all those professionals that I’d actually be more comforted knowing all of the reasonable risks I’m incurring by following one treatment plan over another. I know it’s not the same for every patient, but it’s probably that way for more patients than they think it is. More and more, information is power, and people believe that doctors aren’t infallible and patients can’t abdicate understanding or control of their conditions.

Once again, I’m reminded and reassured that I really am my own best advocate. Sadly, what I’m most looking for in a physician these days is one who respects my knowledge of my own body, my medical history, and my research skills. It stings to pay someone with a prescription pad to just execute the treatment that I’ve found to be best. The least I can expect is fair warning if something either of us has come up with has potential side effects and risks. And when that warning isn’t given–when you discover the risks on your own or, gods forbid, through a close shave–it erodes your faith in the whole system, and every well-intentioned, well-educated professional who comes after them suffers the consequences of the mistrust that others earned.

Dec 16, 2011 - Physical Ed    4 Comments

How Sweet It Is: Reverb Broads 2011 #15

Dol sot bi bim bop. It tastes like it looks, not like it sounds.

Reverb Broads 2011, December 15: Did you taste any new flavors this year? Did you love or hate them or something in between? Will you incorporate these new flavors into your life? (courtesy of Bethany at

I’m a slightly weird eater. I adore ethnic food and exotic spices, but I hate a lot of the foods that most kids subsist on: graham crackers, peanut butter & jelly, chocolate ice cream, bananas, applesauce. I’ve also got sensory issues with some foods; for instance, I hate the dry-mouth feeling cranberries give me. And I’m convinced some tastes are genetically keyed, too — it’s the only possible explanation for my utter inability to tolerate blue cheese.

But I love new things, and I found two new favorites this year. I also discovered the best way to taste one of Minnesota’s great food treasures.

I have this strange ordering habit which crops up from time to time; it usually happens when I’m equally torn between two choices. When it’s actually time to order, I’ll suddenly blurt out whatever my gaze snags on as I look up at the server. This has been mostly disastrous. I once ended up with some Southwest egg dish, at a breakfast with brand-new friends, from which I extracted at least a full cup of fresh jalapeño slices after I reached the point where I could take no more heat.

But for once, it worked out, when I visited Sebastian Joe’s for the first time with my good friend Karin. As always, there was a long line, which gave me plenty of time to ponder the offerings. I had pretty much settled on the raspberry chip, but at the last moment, I asked for a sample of the salted caramel. Yeah, I know salted caramel is Old News to foodies, but I’d just never had occasion to try it. The tiny spoon went in my mouth, and as they say, that was all she wrote. My heart even sank a little, as I tasted something so good that I knew it would drive me to eat too much of delicious, unhealthy treats well into the future.

The second new taste I got hooked on this year has one of the funniest names of anything I can think of: dol sot bi bim bop. It’s Korean food: a rice, veggie, pork and egg dish, served in a hot stone bowl (the dol sot) that sizzles and browns the rice it touches, making a gorgeous, slightly crunchy crust that’s a little reward for patience and finishing your supper. My dear friend Lana, who has a Korean sister-in-law and therefore knew all the secrets of Korean restaurant ordering, has promised me a return to the fabulous Sole Café soon, and I can’t wait to go.

Finally, I went to the Minnesota State Fair for the first time this year, and that’s a place that’s all about food. We didn’t bother waiting in line for Sweet Martha’s cookies — it was a quarter of a mile long, I swear. And my experience of deep fried foods at the fair began and ended with the fried pickles (surprisingly good, actually). No deep fried butter or candy bars; this isn’t fricking Iowa.

But what made the trip truly sweet was how I spent that day. My friend Heidi is a nurse at a facility for disabled adults, and her clients look forward to their trip to the State Fair all year long. They pretty much need a one-to-one volunteer/client ratio for that trip, so she asked if I wanted to come help during the day, and get my hand stamped so we could go back that night for a girls’ night out. I couldn’t think of a better way to experience the fair (what, like I was going to take my family?! Just kidding; we went together later that weekend).

I was assigned to a young man in his 20s who had cerebral palsy. We hit it off right away; he has a hilarious sense of humor, and we totally cracked each other up. He had his eye on barbeque for lunch, so I helped him get his fill of Famous Dave’s baby back ribs. I had sauce all over my fingers (not all over him!) by the time I was done, and when I licked them clean, I had to agree that it was outstanding. Later, when we were getting really annoyed with the crowds that kept cutting him off — seriously, if you see a wheelchair, get the eff out of the way, please — we consoled ourselves with freshly made fudge that tasted like the best hot cocoa you can imagine.

I loved being with a veteran, and I loved being with a person who really wanted to be there. The whole experience made everything taste better.

Nov 5, 2011 - Physical Ed, Psychology    6 Comments

Queen of Pain

Pain and I are old friends. We go way back. I know pain’s facets and variations; pain doesn’t have too many surprises up its sleeve for me anymore.

And, as much as anyone can make this claim, I’m pretty good at pain. For years before I gave birth to my kids, I refused to claim 9 or 10 on that happy-face scale doctors use to have you rate your pain, saying I was reserving those two notches for childbirth. And as labor with my first son ramped up slowly and steadily over 12 hours, my midwife thought it was funny how I announced that yes, in fact, I had scaled my estimation of pain perfectly. That perspective helped me get through that delivery without any interventions, which is still a point of pride for me.

I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia in July 1999, possibly stemming from soft tissue damage caused by a car crash ten days before my wedding in 1996. I’d been prescribed amytriptaline for severe tension headaches that showed up when I started grad school in 1997 — tension? grad school? astonishing! — but apparently that’s a drug that occasionally just stops working. It’s also a drug that’s frequently used to treat fibro, and it seemed to have been masking the development of the syndrome’s symptoms, which all came tumbling out in an untidy pile that spring.

But without getting into all the problems of treating a disorder that nobody understands or knows how to treat, the long and short of it is that I’ve lived with all-day, every-day pain for well over a decade now. That means I’ve become quite a connoisseur. I know the nuances of it, from the flu-ache-like muscle weariness that characterizes fibro, to the silvery stabs that shake my whole body with convulsive spasms. I carry around the heavy, grinding knots that drag on my lower back, and lean away from the bright streaky pain that twists in the triangle from my temples to my jaw to my shoulders.

The irony is that, as good as I am at tolerating a daily level of pain that drives many people into the ER for relief, I can be a total wimp about new, unexpected pain. Sunburn? Toothache? Gallbladder attack? A fresh injury? I produce as much whine as the south of France. Imagine a baseball umpire who’s put up with the vicious insults and recriminations of players, coaches, and fans, only to burst into tears when a schoolkid calls him fat. It’s almost as if I’m only capable of managing steady, stable pain. The unpredictable spikes of acute pain seem to upset the delicate balance of tolerance and management I’ve established over the years.

I started a pain management program at the University of Minnesota. It follows the interdisciplinary mindfulness-based curriculum developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn and his colleagues. I didn’t have high hopes for the program, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by all the ways it’s defied my expectations. I’ve learned a lot about the physiology of pain, some of which I’m pretty shocked to have been hearing for the very first time, this far into the process. And I’ve worked with the pain psychologist there to start unraveling the messy relationship between pain, guilt, self-worth, and unreasonable standards. There’s a lot of work left to do, but I’m better now at staying in the moment with pain, rather than shoving it down and away to keep pushing through with what I think “needs to get done.”

Because of a snag with renewal, we’re currently uninsured, and that’s causing all sorts of problems, including having to go off all of my maintenance meds rather abruptly. While I’m very anxious about the potential for a depression relapse, one thing I feared hasn’t really happened: I’m not in a ton more pain. It’s still more than I can manage with just heat packs and ibuprofen, but I’m not laid up the way I have been in similar circumstances in the past.

This prompts a question: do I remember who I am when I’m not hurting? I’m not the same person I was before that car accident and all the things it precipitated. I haven’t been a married woman without pain. I haven’t been a mother without pain. I can’t say I’m afraid to step out from behind it, like a person who’s worn glasses their whole life faced with the option of corrective surgery. But it’s intimidating to realize that most of the important people in my life haven’t known me without pain. How would any of them treat me if it just weren’t there anymore? Would they be as forgiving, as willing to accept it when I have to say no to something? Would they require more of me, to make up for the years when pain gave them short shrift? Will they be disappointed in how many problems don’t go away, how many weaknesses turn out just to be me, not the pain?

It would be the biggest surprise of all if turns out that I’m more comfortable with my pain than I am with my true self.

Oct 31, 2011 - Physical Ed, Psychology    4 Comments

The Boo Factor

It’s Halloween, but there will be no horror movie viewing in the Banks house. At least, not for me. Because I can’t watch horror movies.

Please note: I said I CAN’T watch horror movies. Not “don’t want to,” but “can’t.” I love all the ghoulies and ghosties and things that go bump in the night. But if something goes BOO, it’s all over for me.

The best we can figure is that my startle reflex is seriously frotzed. If something jumps out at me — no matter how cheezy or predictable — it feels like I’ve been hit by lightning. Red cable, black cable, ZOT — 50,000 volts straight into my nervous system.

And, like you’d expect, this does not have a good effect on the rest of my body (or my mood). The initial impact is a distinctly electrical sensation, similar to the crawly, needley feeling of the electrical stimulation therapy that physical therapists sometimes use. I’m left with a horrid, plaguey feeling, with muscle pain that’s similar to the day after serious overexertion plus poor sleep, a vicious headache on par with a migraine, and nausea. This all sticks around for anywhere from an hour or two, up to I’ve had a chance to get a good, restorative sleep.

I haven’t always had this reaction. In fact, at my tween and teen sleepovers filled with pizza and nail polish, I was the one around whom all my shrieky friends huddled, as if they could absorb my bravery through osmosis. I began a lifelong love affair with Hitchcock movies in the darkened theater; my grandma took me to see classic movies on the big screen at Milwaukee’s great landmark theaters. I even saw Alien for the first time from a 70mm print — if you’ve ever been in one of those landmark theaters, imagine the screen AFTER the curtains have been cranked all the way back, then slap a frisky Giger monster on it.

And I’m not a nervous wreck about other things that leave folks reaching for the smelling salts. I’m the chief bug killer in our household, and in general, there isn’t anything in nature that does much more than just ook me slightly. And I’m crazier now for roller coasters and thrill rides than I ever was as a kid — you can’t tear me away from Tower of Terror at Disney Hollywood Studios, or the Hulk coaster at Universal Islands of Adventure.

But whatever enjoyment I might be able to get from horror movies for their stories or effects just isn’t worth my physical “boo response.” I know my limits: the tension and release of the final scenes of The Silence of the Lambs is about as much as I can take without triggering the backlash. I’ve got a few people who helpfully advise me on a Boo Rating for films I’m considering, and every once in a while, I give them a try, but that’s usually an abortive effort. I managed about 20 minutes of The Others before I vaulted off the couch like I was sitting a springplate. For the most part, it’s comparable to someone who’s allergic to strawberries giving them a whirl every couple of years. Like you’d expect, it usually ends with the phrase, “Yup, still makes me miserable. Next time I think this is a good idea, hit me, okay?”

I don’t know why I’m wired this way, or whether it’s from the fibromyalgia, or my sensory processing stuff, or a PTSD leftover, or my general psychiatric issues. I’ve never seen any research about this effect, though a woman at a fibro support group once said her fight-or-flight response had gone all wonky too. I’d be immensely grateful to hear from other folks who experience something similar, or who have read any research that might relate to this.

As a creative-type person, it’s incredibly frustrating to know there’s a whole genre of material that I’m excluded from. Sure, I may think that many of the current crop of horror movies are stupid and exploitative, but I’d like the choice to opt out on the material’s merits. Missing all the monsters because my body chemistry trumps my logical mind makes me nuts.

Oct 2, 2011 - Physical Ed    2 Comments

Why I Have Pink Hair

There’s a girl in my building who’s completely baffled by my hair.

“So, your hair’s pink now,” she says.

“Yup,” I reply happily.

“But before that, it was blonde for a little while,” she says, frowning.

“Uh-huh. I bleached it so the pink would be brighter,” I explain.

“Right. But before that, you just had pink streaks,” she says, growing uncertain.

“Yup,” I confirm.

“And before *that*, it was sort of red,” she says, her voice becoming more faint with each color on the list.

“Yup. I like red too.”

“But your real color is sort of brown.”

“Yeah, but it hasn’t been that in the longest time,” I say, smiling and wrinkling my nose.

“But…” she trails off into silence for a moment, before resuming, “… *why*?”

“Honey, my hair exists to amuse me. So it all goes horribly wrong. So what? It grows. I’ll get over it.”

To this, she can say nothing at all.

I’ve been doing strange things to my appearance since I was in high school. By my sophomore year, I’d been neatly enfolded into the clique known as The Squids, so called for the ever-so-’80s practice of shaving off all but a small, tangly, black-dyed mop a la The Cure/Siouxie and the Banshees. The apocryphal story goes that someone said it looked like dead squids on their heads. In the way of all good insults, we eventually reclaimed it as our own moniker, so The Squids we were.

The Squids were the punks, the skaters, the music geeks, the drama club, the yearbook kids, and the weirdos. We were also the intelligentsia. When the school administration threatened some of the guys with suspension if they didn’t take off the cannibalized t-shirt sleeves they wore as headbands, we responded by threatening to sue them under Title IX for gender discrimination, since girls were free to wear the very same headbands with no restrictions. We may have been weirdos, but we were smart weirdos not to be messed with.

Over the years, my hair’s been almost every color in the Crayola box. Ironically, the only color I’ve never dyed it is black, the color of choice for teenage rebels and college hipsters everywhere. It always seemed too (get this) extreme. A nice grass green suited me quite nicely, but bright magenta pink seems to be my true element. A friend who helped me attain that hue when my hair was down to my waist several years back once said, “I’d have never believed it if someone had told me, but you actually make me think pink is your natural hair color.”

And it makes me happy, which is the whole point. That’s not easy to accomplish, appearance-wise, these days. The most common comment by adults is, “You’re so brave! I could never do something so drastic!” But when chronic pain keeps me from transforming my body with exercise, and the medications that keep that pain from being even worse keep the very limited diet I stick to from making any difference either, you take your drastic effects where you can find them.

I spend so many minutes of each day cursing almost every quadrant of my body for non-cooperation. It really adds up. The 20 minutes in the morning it takes for the pain meds to kick in so I can start moving; the 20 it takes to find clothes that fit and don’t make me feel like a cow; the 15-minute bargains I make and renew again and again to stretch the time between breaks and naps and more pain meds; the 20- and 30-minute pieces I’m having to scare up for walks and meditation as part of the pain management curriculum I’m in. And then there are the unscheduled, unmeasured moments of despair, when the folds and bulges and sags and curves, and the energy and range of motion and lift capacity and standing strength, don’t match the person you remember being, and you get sucked down until all you can do is sit on the side of your bed, in your bra and panties, and be tired and worry and cry.

So if dyeing my hair pink, or whatever color strikes my fancy, every few months costs $20 and 2 hours, and confuses my kids’ school principal and the girl in my building, but lifts my heart when I pull it back in a rushed ponytail in the morning? It’s just paid for itself.

And every kid who calls down from the top of the monkey bars as I walk across the playground, “Mrs. Banks! Cool hairdo!”?

That’s pure profit.

Sep 12, 2011 - AV Club, Physical Ed    9 Comments

+2 Size, +2 Fashion, +2 Courage

If I’m going to be perfectly honest about how I got to be a geek, I’ve got to admit right up front that the fashion hooked me as much as the action. Mock the Cinnabon hair all you want, but Princess Leia’s white dress has got it Goin’ On, and her ceremonial garb at the end is even cooler. Jennifer Connolly’s ballgown in Labyrinth makes every Disney princess ever look like a bag lady, and when the demon in Legend turns Mia Sara all evil-looking, it makes you wonder who would want a Little Black Dress when you could have a Big Awesome Black Dress.

There’s only one little problem with all of this, and it’s not even the one you find about when you watch the DVD featurettes and learn that the actress had to stand for 14 hours because it was physically impossible to sit or fit through a doorway in that gorgeous wedding-cake confection. No, it’s the problem that doesn’t occur to you when you’re a 1st-grader in your Princess Leia costume, or you’re a 10-year-old swanning around the living room in a pirated nylon nighty pretending you’re Arwen or the Virgin Mary or whomever your role model is.

It’s that fantasy fashion is made for skinny women.

Sure, the best fantasy fashion is flowy and silky, or all princess seams and gravity-defying architecture. There’s no good reason why it shouldn’t be available in every size they make, or why it wouldn’t look great on almost every woman. But it is the gods’ honest truth that there are no Buttercup costumes in size 20. Not even in a 12. Trust me — I wanted to get married in one, so I looked *hard*.

In the rare instance, there might be a practical consideration why a plus-size actress isn’t right for the role. I mean, that iconic swing across the chasm on Luke’s little grappling hook wouldn’t make such a good poster if the shoelace snapped, allowing the two of them plummet into the Death Star’s HVAC system. But otherwise, as your dress size goes up, your choice of roles goes down, until all you’re left with is the bearded dwarven battlemaiden (emphasis on the maiden).

Geeks are pretty good at recognizing and giving respect for the hard work and creativity that goes into good costume-making, but nothing draws contempt and derision at a convention faster than a female fan who has the audacity to dress for a role that doesn’t “fit.” I’ve seen women posing for the battery of cameras that come out to capture the super-size Slave Leia or a larger-than-expected Invisible Woman. I’ve wondered and worried at how many of those picture-takers know (or care) how many hours of work went into making the costume, and how many more went into working up the gumption to wear it. And I’ve wished I had the nerve they had, even as I knew I couldn’t ignore the pointing.

Girls, of course, are no better. Even geek girls can be Mean Girls; in fact, sometimes it’s the first time they’ve ever been in the position to be Mean Girls, and it’s an exercise in power they’ve never had before. Just because they should know better doesn’t mean they can resist that temptation. Even once that phase has passed, geek girls have often been taunted for being different for so long that they’re reluctant to step between the critic and his or her object, even if it would save someone else a little of that pain.

So here’s my first challenge for Speak Out with your Geek Out week. Let’s rip out the seams on this stereotype and make room for more women to live out their sci-fi/fantasy dreams. I can’t make costume companies start selling Galadriel dresses in women’s sizes, but I can encourage all the geeks I know to start stepping up and giving honest props to good costumes when they see them. If they’re on a large woman, chances are she had to make it herself, or hire an artisan to help her, in which case it’s even more worthy of your encouragement. And who knows? Maybe if more statuesque women start owning the classic fantasy roles for themselves, writers and directors will let us kick ass in the pretty dresses for a change.