Running Into Umbrellas (October 17, 2014)

I gained almost 15 pounds this past summer, owing to two conflicting influences.

The first was sort of an existential, indulgent temper tantrum over the life changes dictated by my hands. Although the miracle of daily beet juice is controlling the pompholyx eczema to an amazing degree, some of my routines will never be what they were. My two favorite forms of exercise, vinyasa yoga and Russian kettlebell drills, are now a part of the past. The friction is just too much for the delicate, raw skin of the palms. I’ve learned over the years that even if I’d prefer to speed the process, mourning is a course that runs on its own schedule. And so it was that three months elapsed before I finished stomping my internal feet and endeavored to formulate a new plan.

The second and far more pleasant reason for the weight gain revolved around summer fun: travel, outdoor festivals, family gatherings with tons of delectable food, office outings, champagne. After the torturous slog that was Chiberia 2014, I grabbed ye olde summertime by the balls. No regrets.

But now it’s fall. The weather has turned colder and with the recess of summer’s frivolity came a long, hard look in the mirror. A step on the scale confirmed that I weighed more than I have since dropping 60 pounds over 10 years ago. I’ll never be 25 again, but it’s also clear that I can do better than self-defeating eczema protest and unchecked hedonism.

And so in recent weeks, the gauntlet was thrown. What’s it going to be Rebecca? I chose pants that fit.

A three-point exercise strategy developed that involves minimal use of the palms: Tae Bo (I love the 90s!), Pilates (minus The Teaser as the tailbone still can’t handle a full body weight load) and running. The third of these activities I have always practiced in fits and starts. But without the yoga and kettlebells, my muscle tone evaporated. So portfolio diversification it must be.

It’s been a rainy fall in Chicago thus far, the kind of season that breeds lethargy, hot cocoa and fireplaces. But it’s one of my conflicted character traits that once resolve is formed, I’ll let nothing short of death or dismemberment get in the way. There’s no jail or societal prohibition big enough to contain the will. This personality feature is the reason I made it out of childhood intact, yet it’s also proved trying for those who dare to love me. I’ve come to accept the tradeoff. The committed ones have too.

Last week was a more precipitous one than usual in the city. But my favorite way to run is outdoors. The treadmill will do for the winter, but I want to people watch and soak up that precious Vitamin D as long as possible. And so early on a drizzly Monday evening, I tied my laces and hit the streets.

Years ago I told my friend Kelly that the first two blocks are always the hardest. The desire to quit infuses every plodding step. It gets easier when a regular stride develops and the breathing pattern settles. Until then I’m half choking, red faced and irritated. This passes and I become steady, sweaty and single-minded. The finish line. Nothing better break my cadence.

As I approached a familiar crosswalk, I saw the back of a man ambling slowly through the drizzle, carrying a large umbrella. It was apparent from a half block away that I had to slow down and maneuver around him. Failure to do so would result in a human fender bender. There was plenty of time to adjust.

But I didn’t. Not one whit. And we know what happened next. I collided with the rear edges of the gentleman’s parasol. There was no doubt this was purposeful. I’d viewed it as a calculated risk worth taking to protect rhythm. After blinking for a few milliseconds to shake transferred water droplets from my eyelids, the man paused briefly to turn and look at me. Still jogging, I braced myself for a deservedly irritated comment.

Instead, there was a surprise. He said, “Goodness. I am so very sorry.” This did it. The single-mindedness was broken. The stranger was owed something for his decent humanity.

I replied honestly. “You have nothing to apologize for sir. I’m the one who ran into you.” This was the truth, and a wave of shame washed over me, soaking the soul more than the rain ever could. Had I really been rude and fool enough to plow into an umbrella on purpose? Was the delay of two seconds to change pace and work around the man’s personal space more abhorrent than practicing courtesy and common sense? Seems so.

As I resumed running, chastened and more deliberate, it became clear that the scene of moments prior offered an appropriate metaphor for most of my adult life. I’ve been running into umbrellas forever.Seeing collisions approaching with obvious clarity has been no deterrent. Earlier this week, I repeated to Dr. T the questions I’d wrestled with since the incident forced a reckoning. Was I a person destined for road blocks, as I once believed of a seemingly cursed existence, or did I smash into them by choice, despite a variety of clarion alternatives?

There’s no doubt I was born holding an unlucky hand. I’ll allow myself that much. I had no decision in parents or they way they took care (or rather, did not) of my sister and I. But I allowed circumstances to determine the future for far too long. I grew comfortable in the role of long-suffering martyr, the fixer, the burdened, the only adult in the room (even when I was 12). That’s who I was. Woe was always going to be me, right?

Wrong. I had, and have, other options. I don’t need to be the dependent control freak who tries to save other damaged people from themselves. As Al-Anon tells people like me, get your own house in order – with love.

Automated survival mode served me well as a youth, but it’s just stupid now. The threats have long been neutralized. So I am going to leverage that dead-eyed resolution toward something more positive. I will shed that 15 pounds this season, along with a bad habit of running into umbrellas.

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30 Days of Gratitude: 2013 Edition (November 26, 2013)

Yes, I have seen this meme work its way across Facebook over the course of November. I thought about participating, but my brain is usually too stream-of-consciousness for that level of daily content commitment, and I refuse to violate my personal rule of one status update per day (any more than that and I run the risk of the dreaded newsfeed “block” by bored connections). So with that in mind, here’s a month’s worth of people, events and phenomena for which I am grateful over the course of 2013, all in one shot.

1.Occupying the top spot with good reason, I am grateful for April’s reconciliation with my sibling and her family. Life is a lot less funny and loving without my baby sis.

2.Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, recently described by funny man Stephen Colbert as a “possessed Cabbage Patch doll,” I thank you for two things: reminding North America that the USA does not have the monopoly on mentally challenged local politicians, and for instilling waves of nostalgia for the comedic stylings of Chris Farley.

3.Early summer period of unemployment: I salute you. Were it not for the unexpected job loss, I would not be happily ensconced as a Marketing Manager with a wonderful company in downtown Chicago.

4.I am grateful that pompholyx eczema, while challenging and painful, has thus far limited itself to my hands. In many cases, the feet are also affected, ushering in a whole new wave of debilitating restrictions.

5.Early Fall welcomed Act III with the love of my life. We’re making it work this time, applying the lessons of the past with strategic guidelines for a balanced future. That might sound more business jargon than romantic sweetness, but I’ve finally learned that hard work and commitment are every bit as important as passion. And we’re lucky enough to have that too.

6.I’m grateful that the Illinois Woman’s Press Association chose me as their 2013-2015 leader. Together we’ve grown membership by 20 percent in six months, introduced dynamic new programming and collaborations with other communications organizations. The era of siloing and membership bleed is over. This makes me proud.

7.Thank you to the rollerblading ukulele player and singer who often greets me as I alight from the Red Line stop near my apartment. The sight of you gliding in circles with perfect tune and pitch never fails to put a smile on my face.

8.I cannot stress enough how much I love my de facto stepdaughter Amber and four year-old grandbaby Chloe. I leapt right over motherhood into a full and diverse family life as unexpected as it is treasured. Our growing bond is a source of continual joy.

9.Dr. T: You with your string of pearls, pale blonde hair and Stepford Wife looks. You may not have been the ideal of how my perfect therapist should appear, but when you echo my angry “f” bombs, I never feel more understood.

10.Salt Lake City: As an atheist from an all-business metropolis, I never expected to find your exceedingly friendly locals, natural cultivation and Mormon-culture appealing, but your $4 beer and shot specials, clean streets and sincerely helpful citizens won me over.

11.Breaking Bad: Thank you for five seasons of jaw-dropping storytelling and acting. I held my breath, I cried and I was angry. You shall never be duplicated. Thank you as well for leaving the party long before you got stale.

12.Mr. Roger Ebert: Your April death provoked a sense of public loss I had not experienced since the 2008 premature passing of NBC’s Tim Russert. My sincere gratitude for your thoughtful, diverse body of work and the opportunities to bond with a father who was and remains, mostly incomprehensible.

13.Thank you soft, black doughnut cushion (February 2013 – August 2013) for making hours of sitting bearable as my poor, busted tailbone slowly healed. Thank you also for doubling as a comfy Metra train sleeping pillow. I apologize for carelessly leaving you behind in the Salt Lake City airport. I like to think you are enjoying a second life comforting the buns of another injured soul.

14.Epsom salts: I just wrote about you last week, but it bears repeating. For your affordable, diverse ability to treat and soothe so many conditions, this Bud’s for you.

15.My growing adoration for the NFL, despite its imperfections and the perennial so-so-ness of the Bears, is the reason I do not entirely succumb to Seasonal Affective Disorder each Fall.

16.The Republicans behind the late-Fall government shutdown: grazie for providing a much-needed, if temporary distraction from the abominable rollout of Obamacare.

17.President Obama: Thank you for breaking with eight years of W’s “Cowboy Diplomacy” to show the world that we are capable of talking and negotiating our way to a more peaceful world. Thank you also for being tough enough to stand up to warmongers who love to try to settle scores with bombs, yet failed to learn from the Iraq and Afghanistan examples that getting in is a lot easier than getting out.

18.I regret the coming conclusion to PBS’s Downton Abbey, but am grateful for the modern-day Austen void this society drama has filled.

19.Red wine: You’ll be on this list every year, you angel/devil, you.

20.The Boston Marathon bombing was tragic, frightening and a terrible blow to the assumed security of community events, but it taught the nation a couple of critical lessons: don’t assume Islamic terrorists are brown-skinned folks from distant lands and most of all, DON’T mess with the Boston PD.

21.Pope Francis: Like I said I am an atheist, but I am a huge fan of the compassion, good sense and humility you’ve unleashed on the Vatican thus far. There may be hope for a modern, relevant Catholic Church yet. I still can’t believe you made it through the Conclave given your radical ideas about poverty and tolerance, but I’m glad you did.

22.Not a fan of Edward Snowden, but I’m grateful for the public conversations about privacy and surveillance his shenanigans invited. It can easily be argued that we would not be having them otherwise.

23.Paul Krugman: For keeping Keynesian economics alive and mainstream and for standing up to destructive austerians and “deficit scolds” on the regular. Your brilliance, approachability and determination demonstrate why they don’t hand out Nobel Prizes to just anybody.

24.I thank the National Federation of Press Women for seeing fit to bestow my second first place national writing award in four years. The fact that my 2013 prize was for last year’s work on this very blog makes the victory that much sweeter. This page is me.

25.I am grateful for my diverse, eclectic neighborhood of Rogers Park, and the multi-faceted benefits of lakefront living.

26.Zipcar: Thanks to your affordable membership prices and pickup location plentifulness, I don’t miss vehicle ownership one whit and shall never purchase an automobile again.

27.I don’t know whose decision at CNN it was to allow Newt Gingrinch to assault the airwaves on a weekday basis, but thank you. I now have a place to channel my sweaty hate whilst running on the treadmill.

28.Much love to PK and his painful, awful craniofacial massage techniques that have helped the Great Migraine Crisis of 2012 seem like a distant memory.

29.Wendy Davis: Your June, 11-hour filibuster badassery in the Texas Senate may not have killed the State’s assault on abortion rights, but your honey badger determination announced a new leader for women’s issues – and spiked sales of pink sneakers.

30.Last but not least, I am grateful that I have been given another year on this planet upon which to reflect.

Flotsam and Epsom (November 22, 2013)

Several months ago, when the burning, itching, growing blisters on my palms were diagnosed as chronic pompholyx eczema, I lapsed into a funk. I wasn’t ready to accept all the lifestyle changes I had to make, and what’s more, I needed some time to metaphorically stomp my feet and shout “It’s not fair!”

A notorious gym rat with fixed routines that melded strength and cardio training, my two favorite workouts were Russian kettlebell drills and power yoga. However my ravaged hands could no longer handle the friction and metallic contact offered by kettlebells. Likewise, the pressure applied to the palms by balancing my body weight against the floor in yoga practice became too painful. There were some obvious alternatives to these cherished favorites that would allow me to maintain my physique while giving my hands a break (running, Pilates, etc.) but I didn’t care. I wanted things to go back to normal.

Entrenched in this frame of mind, I stopped going to the gym or stepping on the scale. I worked with my dermatologist to test a number of topical steroids and creams to mitigate outbreak symptoms, while adopting an intense drug regiment to try to combat the problem from the inside. To date, there is no cure for pompholyx eczema and these remedies have offered mixed results. But through a period of trial and error, I have learned to adjust to hands that alternate between blistering, cracking and peeling. I’ve become inured to people’s rude but generally benign questions and the consistently “off” appearance of my extremities even on good days. And most importantly, I am coming to understand that my life is not over or without pleasure just because it is different from what I knew. These revelations might sound patently obvious, and I was always able to grasp the words I heard from friends and loved ones. Believing them was an entirely different matter. I still have frustrating, uncomfortable days and know that will be a feature of battling a chronic condition henceforth, but for the most part, I’ve completed the move from mourning to acceptance.

About the same time that acceptance took hold, I looked down one morning as I readied for work and noticed a wine belly beginning to obstruct a view of my feet. It was time to get back in shape. For the last three weeks, I’ve exercised two or more hours per day, at least five times. When I started my new job back in July, an excellent fringe benefit was presented in the form of a gym membership on the second floor of the company’s office building. This 24-hour facility is stocked with cardio equipment of all varieties, as well as numerous hands-free weight machines that I’ve leveraged to try to rebuild my upper body strength. It is gratifying and liberating to witness the changes in my physique, empowering to be able to reclaim control of my physical fitness.

But of course, since I went from zero to 60 with warp speed, I am one sore mofo. And so the actual point of this post is to extol the therapeutic benefits of a product I once wrote off as a geriatric relic from another era – Epsom salts. It turns out that this timeless classic, originally discovered by an English farmer in 1618, has remained a medicine cabinet staple with good reason.

The ailments Epsom salts are purported to relieve are seemingly endless: they can be nebulised to treat asthma and pre-eclampsia, ingested to act as a laxative, prevent artery hardening and blood clots and make insulin more effective, and in my case, added to bath water to reduce inflammation to relieve pain and muscle cramps. This miracle product is also insanely affordable, available to all members of the proletariat for a couple bucks or less. Amazing.

As I said, when my beloved grandfather used to bust out the Epsom for his nightly bath, I scoffed. Poppa suffered from bursitis, arthritis and an unnamed rash in the armpits leftover from his time as a WWII POW. But he was after all, ancient and none of that would ever happen to me!

Ahem, so cut to 2013 and a grown 35 year-old woman afflicted with chronic migraines, a popping left hip and eczema-afflicted hands. While my partner JC originally picked up the Epsom as a bath additive to soothe my sore muscles, I have fallen in love with the soft, silky water effects it generates. Where I used to just wash, rinse and leave, I now linger in silken H2O until I prune. Epsom has also served as an unexpected salve for my palms at their most atrocious cracking and peeling stages. I emerge from the bath relaxed, supple and with skin soft as a baby’s bottom.

Poppa, you were right all along. Epsom salts are the TRUTH. And democratic – out of the reach of pharmaceutical “regulation” (profit reaping). It’s almost too good to be true. It’s a shame that snarky, ageist cynicism caused me to overlook this wonder treatment for so long.

A Holiday Wish for Closure (November 13, 2013)

“It’s no longer that I bitterly wish them ill for all they’ve done (or not done). Time, distance and therapy have resolved those feelings. It’s more that the longer they exist and go about their daily lives in unrepentant silence, the more impossible it is for me to absolve them with ‘Well, they did the best they could.’ Or, ‘They would have made amends if only they’d had more time.’”

This is a self-quote from my latest Skype therapy session with Dr. T., the brilliant, patient and empathetic expert with whom I’ve been working on and off for five years. I was 30 years old and in the midst of a full-blown, third-life crisis the first time I darkened Dr. T’s doorway. Emotionally stunted by a traumatic childhood and a series of toxic relationships that I later came to recognize as replicas of the dysfunctional, yet familiar rapport I experienced with my parents, Dr. T has long provided a safe forum for working out patterns and reaching alternate conclusions. This professional has helped me access and leverage the internal resources I didn’t know I had to chase (and in some cases, even capture) career dreams, eliminate pernicious influences (people) without guilt and begin to build a life that feels healthier and instills me with a pride that lay dormant beneath decades of shame.

Dr. T has also metaphorically (and patiently) held my hand as I learned that it’s far better in the long run to articulate and own feelings that might scare me, rather than tamp them down in favor of a faux moral high road. An observed correlation between a long history of emotional siloing, and the autoimmune diseases that have ravaged my body in recent years (chronic migraines, alopecia, pompholyx eczema) cannot be easily dismissed.

And so with baby steps I’ve learned to cut the bullshit and armor against the judgment of society, in order to set myself free. I’ve reached the point in my rehabilitation, however, where it’s no longer enough to come clean with one person staring back at me through a computer monitor. The holidays are barreling down upon us and they bring accessories with them:family get togethers and celebrations, gift/wish lists and hoards of cheesy, yet delightful decorations. Yesterday, I shared my annual holiday desire with Dr. T. Now I’m ready to share it with the world.

I want to be free of my parents and their long run of disregard for the messes they made. I haven’t seen my mother in nearly 13 years. My father and I have been estranged for five, a decision self-imposed for a number of protective reasons. Yet physical distance from these two architects of misery, humiliation and pain has not been quite enough to allow for proper resolution and context. The number of medications I take to combat the perpetual fight or flight response my body doesn’t comprehend as contemporarily unnecessary, tells the story. As does the frequency with which I see them in my dreams, waking up in a cold sweat while I breathe deeply and remind myself that the threat has been neutralized. And the renewed sense of loss and sadness I experience upon recollecting that they don’t expend nearly the same energy and resources thinking about the children they brought into the world, as those grown kids do in attempting to heal from their mismanagement.

My mother fled from the two young adults she raised without ever a second’s glance backward, leaving in her wake a trail of stolen identity, police reports and a mountain of debt. Occasional online searches (the power and tyranny of Google) turn up that she is alive and well in another distant down, living off the proceeds of a legal settlement that reeks of the fraud she perpetuated throughout our acquaintance.

My father is a slightly different case, less sociopath than a truly mentally ill person, incapable of viewing situations as a normally functioning person might. And thus unable to stick to a treatment plan. Thereby unable to make solid decisions about marriage and parenthood, making his choice of mate the more unfortunate for the helpless babies left to go it alone. Underfed, underloved and raised in the most physically and psychologically dangerous conditions, those little girls deserved better. Yet by clinging to each other with a shared tunnel vision of escape, the frightened youngsters that my sister and I once were grew into responsible, successful adults determined to break the cycle.

I’m ready for that story to be over. But can the book really close while my mother and father still breathe, still avoid responsibility for themselves and the lives they created? And what does it say about me that my annual holiday wish is to bid them a final adieu, to exhale the breath I’ve been holding for three decades? To be able to say “Well, they did the best they could.” Or, “They would have made amends if only they’d had more time?”

Life and Death and Language (November 7, 2013)

Issues of life and death have been at the forefront of many recent personal musings. As a writer and former aspiring singer/actress with a flair for the dramatic, I’ve become more cognizant of the ease with which I throw around mortality idioms:

“This pompholyx eczema is killing me!”

“Another roach in the apartment? I can’t live like this!”

“If the Seahawks take me out of my Pick-A-Winner football pool another year I’m going to murder Eddie Vedder! [Who is not, in fact, a Seattle native. But this is an easy way to get under the skin of my beloved, a dyed-in-the-wool Pearl Jam fan]”

Under more conventional circumstances, I accept my theatrical ways and allow myself a free pass to over emote in speech, well aware that my nearest and dearest understand when to parse actionable intelligence. But lately, people I love and respect have been grappling with way too much illness and death. I don’t wish to compound their anguish with careless expressions.

Within the last fortnight my boss has buried her father, my brother-in-law has lost a beloved uncle and my romantic partner is currently bereaved of his maternal grandmother, the last living elder on either side of his clan. No matter their respective beliefs on the afterlife, or the level of gratitude experienced by an end of suffering, the people I care about are hurting. The early stages of grief have little patience with rationality and big picture thinking. And as helpless as I feel at times to alleviate their collective distress, watching my mouth seems like an easy cherry to pick.

And that’s all I need to say about that.