Pumping Irony

Craig Cox, EL’s managing editor and resident geezer, explores the joys and challenges of aging well.

Monthly Archives: March 2012

Experience Life Magazine

I Hear Ya

I’m a great believer in the power of holistic medicine, alternative therapies like acupuncture, homeopathy and other approaches that treat the whole person rather than focusing on symptoms. But, I have to admit that sometimes conventional doctors really know what they’re doing.

For several weeks, I’ve been suffering from a frustrating loss of hearing. My ears felt plugged and nothing I tried would open them up. My acupuncturist stuck needles in them to no avail. The homeopathic remedy I took had no measurable effect. And I was beginning to think I would just have to go through life playing the annoying old man whose entire vocabulary revolves around the word, “Huh?”

Now, most people faced with this sort of problem would dial up their doctor and set up an appointment. No big deal. Let them figure out what’s up. But I’ve been of the opinion that Western medicine doesn’t have a lot of tools to offer besides pharmaceuticals and surgery, and I’m not keen on either one of those options. Something must be happening inside my body that’s causing me to lose my hearing, I figured. Some weird sinus congestion that’s causing some inflammation in my ear canal or maybe something connected to an overgrowth of candida albicans. These sorts of things defy Western medicine; they require a more subtle approach.

But at a certain point, even true believers like myself have to admit that the subtle approach isn’t working that well. So I eventually broke down and scheduled an appointment at a local clinic. I showed up in their waiting room on Friday afternoon with more than a little trepidation. After all, it’s been 14 years since I’d last set foot in a doctor’s office, and I didn’t really know what to expect. It felt like hostile territory.

Still, I signed the various forms and tried my best to reply to the questions posed by the receptionist without asking her to repeat herself too often. Then I took a seat and resigned myself to a long wait.

Only a few minutes had passed before a nurse called my name and led me into the doctor’s office, where she asked me several questions about my general health history (I’m still not sure whether one was “Do you use illegal drugs?” or “Have you used illegal drugs?” Either way, I figured, there was plausible deniability). Then she went off to find the doctor.

My physician turned out to be a nice young man of Indian descent who asked me several more questions before looking into my ears with his ear-o-scope, checking out my tonsils (still proudly in place) and feeling around under my jaw for some reason that I assumed was related to something glandular. Then he announced that Maria, the nurse, would clean my ears out.

“This procedure may cause some dizziness and pain,” he warned. “If so, just take some Tylenol and you should be fine.”

With that, he was gone, and I was left to ruminate on the various possible designs of a state-of-the-art ear-cleaning machine. Western medicine is highly attracted to large and complex technology, and I momentarily recalled the “artificial lungs” that were popular in my youth. I could imagine a large, but fashionably designed ear-cleaning helmet that might be lowered carefully over my head while a highly trained technician sitting behind a lead-lined wall flipped the switch that would send earwax-seeking neutrons on a search-and-destroy mission. It’s perfectly safe, as far as we know….

Before long, Nurse Maria returned with what appeared to be a quart-sized spray bottle connected to a narrow tube. The label on the bottle identified this piece of medical technology as “The Elephant Ear Wash.” It contained, according to Nurse Maria, “hydrosomethingorother in saline solution.” She repeated the doctor’s warning that this could make me dizzier than normal, instructed me to hold a small plastic receptacle beneath my right ear, stuck the tube into the useless organ and started pumping.

The solution flowed into my ear with a comforting whoosh sound and flowed back out with bits and pieces of wax in a sickly auburn-colored liquid that Nurse Maria deemed too “gross” for me to review. She went through a quart of the hydrosomethingorother, dabbed at the ear, and left to get a refill. I couldn’t tell if it had made any difference.

It wasn’t until she’d gone through another quart on my left ear that I began to notice a difference in the decibel level of the world. But it was subtle. I wasn’t completely sure until the doctor returned to check Nurse Maria’s work, consult his notes and turn to me with a grave look.

“Mr. Cox, you’re 60 years old,” he said, as if he’d just done the math.

“Yes,” I replied. “Yes I am.” My voice seemed slightly louder than I had remembered. I knew what was coming.

“There are some screenings we should . . .”

“Oh, I’m not really interested in those,” I piped in, hoping not to hurt his feelings. “I’ve done a lot of research and there are pros and cons.”

He smiled. “Yes, they’re a bit controversial.”

“Yeah. Really. I’m good. Thanks.”

“Would you like a tetanus shot?”

“Not really.”

He didn’t push it, and I didn’t deliver the lecture I’d prepared, complete with the results of randomized clinical studies and quotes from noted physicians. He shook my hand and told me a return visit would not be necessary.

I thanked him with what felt like genuine sincerity. Then I located Nurse Maria on my way back to the lobby and made a point to shake her hand. I was pretty sure I could hear again, but it wasn’t until I was back outside and pedaling my bike home that it really hit me. Springtime is really loud.

Experience Life Magazine

March Madness?

We’re having an unseasonably warm spell here in the Northland, and it’s really cutting into my TV viewing. Those of you who are basketball fans are no doubt aware that it’s tournament time. The top college teams are vying for a slot among the so-called Final Four, so there has basically been non-stop basketball on the tube for the past couple of weeks. This is like hoops nirvana for a guy like me, but I haven’t seen a single game.

Instead, I’ve been taking the dog for long walks, going on bike rides with My Lovely Wife and puttering around the yard like it’s the middle of June or something. I just can’t persuade myself to burrow into the TV room downstairs and ignore the most beautiful March of all time.

I feel like this is some weird anomaly (I love watching basketball) — and it probably is — but it’s also made me a little nostalgic for the March Madness of my youth. Back in the early ’60s, the NCAA tournament was small potatoes. It competed with the National Invitational Tournament for the top teams and got about as much coverage as the college World Series does today. Much more exciting for Minnesota basketball fans was the mid-March state high school basketball tournament. Back then, there were only eight teams — from large schools and small — and they played to full houses at Williams Arena for three days straight. The games were even televised!

My brother Gary used to take me to watch his high school team play (not out of any fondness for my company; a little grade-school kid attracted a lot of attention from the girls), and these players became my idols. Because I had actually seen them in action, I could mimic their play all winter in our basement, where I had nailed cardboard boxes on opposing walls for a full-court game. I eventually outgrew the low ceiling in the basement, though, and had to take my game outside — which was not always easy in March. One year, we shoveled a path out to the clothesline pole in the back yard, on which we had attached a makeshift backboard and hoop. We cleared the snow away and laid down a few large pieces of plywood and played until the air in the ball condensed from the cold and wouldn’t bounce any more. Another March, we put a hoop up on the inside of the garage. We had to shoot around the metal track that held the garage door mechanism, but at least there wasn’t any snow. We had to play.

I don’t feel the same urgency these days — whether it comes to watching the games or getting out on the court. I enjoy my Monday night games at Anderson gym (when my Achilles tendons aren’t killing me), but I’m just not as susceptible to March Madness as I was as a youth. Back then, I could dream of heroics on the court, play out those last-second buzzer-beaters all day long. Now I know my limitations. And I understand how fleeting a 70-degree day in March can be.

Still, as I was putting away some gardening tools yesterday, I happened to notice how my driveway and the alley combined to form a pretty nice space for a half-court game. All I would need is to attach a backboard and a hoop onto the garage and I could be out there working on my jump shot any time I felt the urge. Maybe coerce my son into a little one-on-one during one of his weekend visits, or reunite some of my old hoops buddies for a two-on-two tournament this summer.

Madness? I know. But it is March.

Experience Life Magazine

Can You Say ‘Healthy Brain’ in French?

Last spring, My Lovely Wife persuaded me to attend a community education class so we could learn to speak French together. The idea, as it was presented to me, was that it would be helpful for the next time we visit her sister, who lives in Brussels. With a bit of French, she reasoned, I wouldn’t have to always shrug and mumble “Je suis désolé; je suis Américain.” whenever someone asks us a question. Besides, we could treat it like a weekly date night.

I know that when MLW has her heart set on something it does nobody any good to debate the pros and cons (such as the fact that half of Belgium speaks Dutch), so I signed on and a few weeks later we bicycled over to Theodore Roosevelt High School for our first class.

My high school years, I should note, were not a particularly constructive chapter of my life, so I was not entirely comfortable as I took a seat toward the rear of the classroom. But our teacher, who was young enough to be our daughter, quickly put us all at ease. Slowly and methodically, we worked our way through the basics over the course of several weeks, and I found the entire process to be quite invigorating, so much so that we signed up again in the fall.

I’d like to say je parle Francais trés bien, but that would be a lie. At a party last winter, I found myself trapped in a tiny kitchen with a friend of a friend who, upon learning that MLW and I were taking French, smiled and rattled off a series of unintelligible questions in what I assumed was perfect French while I stood there, dumbfounded, unable even to spit out a feeble parlez plus lentement, s’il vouz plait.

But fluency is not really the point; it’s the effort that counts. The aging brain, like any other part of your body, needs regular exercise in order to stay healthy. And learning a new language is quite a workout. Researchers aren’t ready to say that such activities will necessarily delay the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s, but it can’t hurt.

According to William Jagust, a professor of public health and neuroscience at the University of California, Berkeley, people who are more “cognitively active” throughout their life build more efficient brains. And these more efficient brains may generate fewer of the amyloid deposits that are associated with Alzheimer’s. “Older people seem to activate or bring on line brain areas that young people don’t use,” Jagust told the New York Times in a recent article. “They have to work their brains harder. So people who stay cognitively active may use their brains more efficiently.”

And learning a new language, while not easy for the aging brain, is one of the best-preserved skills as we grow older — especially if we’d learned a second language earlier in life. That’s because our brain tends to retain its ability to grasp new rules of syntax and grammar.

So I guess I should continue to slog through my French lessons as best I can — whether or not they will someday allow me to carry on a conversation. It’s like Monday night basketball: I’m never going to play as well as Kobe Bryant (who, coincidentally, speaks Italian and Spanish), but at least I’m getting a good workout. Oui?

Experience Life Magazine

My Achilles Heel

When I decided to get back on the basketball court a few weeks ago, my main concerns involved sprained ankles, blown-out knees, dislocated fingers and minor heart attacks. I had no idea that my Achilles tendons would capture so much of my attention.

Out on the court the last three Mondays, these tendons — which run from the heel behind the ankles up to the calves — have just been killing me. It doesn’t affect my ability to run and jump (such as it is), but any running and jumping is accompanied by a sharp pain just above my heels. And the pain lingers for three or four days afterwards.

It’s not the kind of pain that demands a trip to the ER or anything. I’m pretty accustomed to the delayed-onset muscle soreness that comes with strenuous exercise. But, I gotta say I’m a little worried about pushing it. I’ve heard about people rupturing their Achilles tendon, and it doesn’t sound like a pleasant experience: The tendon basically detaches from your heel and rolls up the back of your leg like a cheap window shade and leaves you writhing on the floor in what I assume to be great agony.

So, I’ve been doing a little homework on this condition in hopes that I can avoid that result, and what I’ve discovered is not particularly surprising: Tight calf muscles can lead to a tight Achilles tendon, which can lead to Achilles tendinosis, which is apparently what I’m suffering from. The remedy is relatively painless, though: a little rest, while stretching and strengthening the calf muscles. The experts here suggest taking a week off between bouts of tendon-challenging exercise — an easy remedy, given that I’m only playing hoops once a week — while stretching your calves for 20 minutes each day and doing some regular calf raises to shore up the muscles in there.

A little massage is not a bad thing, either. I don’t have a foam roller at home, so I grabbed the rolling pin from the kitchen this afternoon, eliciting a quizzical look from My Lovely Wife, who does all the baking around here. “That’s no way to get the cat off your desk,” she said.

“It’s for my calves,” I explained. That took a little while to sink in. I laid the wooden cylinder on the rug in our office and was just about to roll it up and down along my expectant calves, when I heard her say, “I use that on food, you know!”

I promised to wash the dog fur and whatever else it might pick up from my massage experiment and spent the next several minutes trying to iron out the kinks. I can’t say I could tell if it made any difference.

Massage is kind of like stretching, in that I’ve never aspired to master either discipline, but I’m thinking now that I’m going to have to start taking these maintenance techniques more seriously. My weekly yoga session is certainly helping on the stretching front, but I’m a real neophyte about this stuff. It’s never really been necessary.

I’m not that bright, but I’m beginning to figure out that aging is all about bumping up against the limitations of your body and mind. And each of us gets to decide on these occasions whether we’re going to give in or push through. Going for it usually means we’ve got to learn something new or do something that’s never been part of our repertoire — without knowing whether any of it will work to our advantage. So, I guess I’ll learn how to stretch these grumpy old calves and see if that doesn’t make my Achilles tendons happier.

The other option, after all, is to put away the basketball. And I’m not quite ready for that.