2008 Reflections: May: In the Attic under the Sky

January 5, 2009

“The pains we inflict upon ourselves hurt most of all.” — Sophocles (from my journal, May 25, 2008)

“AAAGH! I just dug myself a deeper hole! [Referencing social ineptness. Next to this is drawn a circle, filled in with blue ink. An arrow points to the circle and is labelled "My Hole"]. (From my journal, May, 2008)

“Kea born today. The hospital: there this time for a good sake. Vancouver. Cowfish. Thunderstorms.” (May 24, 2008)

Someone New

Set aside all I’ve said about sadness and self-loathing and picture a field in high late spring as we pick across it looking for slight archaeological scars. To the west above the reconstructed fort wall there is a humid sky more like August than May and something is happening with the clouds up there. But it is still sunny down in the field. Dandelions and clover have taken up defensive position against the outlines of former foundations. Around the perimeter, whitewashed clapboard buildings–all, sadly, reconstructions. Bees and other heavily buzzing things emphasize the weight of waiting. Time is going slowly in Fort Vancouver, where we have come to beat down the flames of my passion for local history. David and I decide to leave, to beat the inevitable things happening in the sky. We get on the motorcycle and ride back to Portland.

We decided to stop and shop for a cowfish at the eponymous pet store on Northeast Broadway, which is a random, simple thing to do when one is waiting. My phone rang then, and it was Aileen. She sounded normal, which is in so many ways surprising and improbable that I assume at first that nothing has happened. Indeed, though, she said their daughter was born about twenty minutes ago and would I like to come see her?

Imagine then, as the late spring day heats to the breaking point, Mr. Pencil and I arriving at the maternity ward, carrying helmets. We are giants compared to the baby. She is enormous compared to us. I’m not sure which is the truer statement.

In Which I Have Body Image Problems

Aileen was pretty much back to her (willowy) pre-pregnancy weight–the scamp!–within four or five minutes of giving birth. Something like that. Meanwhile, I was inflating. Corticosteroids have the charming tendency to lay down fat deposits on your face, your neck, your upper abdomen. To make up for this insult, they also make you ravenous. I watched the angles of my face disappear, I grew a slight double chin, I ate like an elephant, I felt lumpen. Bodily processes were altogether too erratic to stick to any sort of meaningful exercise routine or a reasonable diet.

When my girlfriends came over for a slumber party (in the ironic, light shit on fire, heavy-drinking sense of the term) in mid-May, I had to beg out of the “Naked Ladies” part of the evening (roughly, a real-time clothing swap, useful for disposing of unwanted garments). I couldn’t stand the way I looked in anything. I couldn’t stand to look at myself. As the weather grew warmer and I had to wear less clothing at any given time, I grew tenser and more disgusted with my shape. It wasn’t a monstrous outward change; people weren’t pointing and snickering, but it seemed like an additional indignity I shouldn’t have to bear. I desperately needed some new clothes, but buying something in this current size would admit the permanence of it. Still, we girls had fun: we drank and slept all together in the attic.

But at least the steroids were working. Until one day in mid-May, when I was co-working at Higgins’ and watching a hummingbird* outside his window and suddenly I had to bolt because my insides mutinied. This was the beginning of a malaise that did not end by itself. The doctor said it was time for something new: 6-Mercaptopurine.

Chromosome 18q

One, but not both, of my parents passed a gene to me that leaves me unable to metabolize 6-MP correctly. The other gave me a normal gene in this regard. I’m not sure who to blame. Specifically I lack the Thiopurine s-methyltransferase enzyme. From Wikipedia:

This gene encodes the enzyme that metabolizes thiopurine drugs via S-adenosyl-L-methionine as the S-methyl donor and S-adenosyl-L-homocysteine as a byproduct. Thiopurine drugs such as 6-mercaptopurine are used as chemotherapeutic agents. Genetic polymorphisms that affect this enzymatic activity are correlated with variations in sensitivity and toxicity to such drugs within individuals. A pseudogene for this locus is located on chromosome 18q.

As a result, dosing me with 6-MP is an action-packed adventure. When 6-MP doesn’t get metabolized correctly, it hangs out in your body. Sometimes it likes to weasel its way into your core bits and give you bone marrow toxicity, which sounds bad because it is. It can kill you, so it’s better to avoid it. So, for me, the new drug meant biweekly stabbing trips to the clinic such that I could be monitored, very carefully, for the lurking death. Not to jump ahead, but everything went fine. The pharmacists gravely handed me my pills, shaking their heads in sympathy (“It’s strong stuff,” said one. “Lots of severe possible side effects.”). It’s hard not to feel nervy taking a drug that’s used as a chemotherapy drug for leukemia and non-Hodgkins lymphoma. It has a list of adverse reactions that fills pages.


In May, I waited for the other shoe to drop (it didn’t) and collected layers of fat. To pass the time, I laid around in our attic: I read twelve books. It became evident that my yearly goal of 50 books wasn’t going to work out. I was going to blow by that. I busied myself with the Athenian tragedians, Steinbeck, local history, this year’s Booker- and Pulitzer-winners. In the interstices I studied math. I had signed up for calculus at PSU’s summer session and needed to be ready.

In my insomniac throes (thanks, again, steroids) not directly occupied by other mental exercises, I thought and thought and thought. I reflected continually on my boorishness. I mused about how I could try to be kinder, more thoughtful. I chewed on my difficulties like cud.

While being introspective in the attic, I even started thinking about flying again, my ironic Achilles heel (ironic in that travel is pretty much my favorite thing). Grounded, grounded! Always grounded! My sweet friends and family asking how soon  now, when can I, how am I doing, have I made progress. No! No! If only yes! I call around, trying to drum up insurance coverage for a specialist. No dice. I fret. I reminisce. I who got to England once by boat, to live there**. My journal entries, between notes of duller things, became rant-ish:

[Regarding England]: Everyone spoke of going home for the holidays, of toing and froing internationally as if this were possible; not for me. For me, I waited for them to come to me. Immobile; a blur of drunken things that passed for experience… I have not been back. How could I? As if by irony my bed there under pitched slate in my aerie apartment in that divided 18th century mansion: directly underneath the approach to Birmingham International. Storms all that winter, always wet, me sleeping right under that roof right under the planes. Screaming sounds of turbojets. In the night waking from one nightmare into the nightmarish sound of low-flying aircraft fighting gales. To the pub, to the pub! A pint for sanity! Such names–see! I want to go back!–The Green Man, The Newt & Cucumber, Gun Barrels, various Swans (White or Black), the same with Horses. The dawn before I left I’d been up all night and we–Matt and Jon and Faisal and I–were on the grounds of some frosty country house at dawn and I saw my first English robin. It was a friendly bird and it followed me, hopping, and sang. I want to go back.

Here I am eight months later and still grounded. No breakthroughs. Still stymied, still frustrated. Not everything resolves. Not everything ends.

* Higgins lives four blocks with me and is beset by, practically plagued by, hummingbirds. I, however, have never seen a single one on or near my own property.

** The saga of England, getting there, graduate school, being stuck there and the correlated damage are beyond the scope of this post. Perhaps another time.

  1. I call them Hummy and Hummer, and they do spend a lot of time just, you know, hummingbirding around. The lady downstairs has a feeder and I think they got that memo.

    Also, your health problems are admirably science-y and blogworthy. Keep it up! (Mine are just, like, stop drinking so damn much.)

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