Some tiny creature, mad with wrath,

Is coming nearer on the path.

--Edward Gorey

Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S. Outlying Islands

Writer, lawyer, cyclist, rock climber, wanderer of dark residential streets, friend.

Monday, June 12, 2006

What Cost Passion?

"I'm not claustrophobic," I reassured myself as I slid into the surprisingly slender white plastic tube, the whirr of the servos piloting my pallet silky and subdued. On my left shoulder rested a white plastic triangle no less mysterious to me than Bones' magic diagnostic handset in Star Trek, a tube snaking from it into the bowels of the machine.

On the inside of the tube, perhaps six inches from my eyes, two plastic rails, backlit, ran the length of the tube, and my unspectacled eyes reluctantly drew into focus the fine-grained texture common to molded plastic components in the clinical setting. Gently inserted into my ears by the technician, ear plugs muted the commencement of an indecipherable pattern of clicks and snaps signaling the machine going through its paces. Attending the insertion of the ear plugs, the tech explained to me that the machine was loud, something like a jackhammer. But once it began it sounded more like a failed hybrid of Aphex Twin and Nitzer Ebb.

Very quickly, my breathing became labored, the tech's injunction to inhale only shallowly complicating my efforts to stay my left arm's sudden desire to twitch and tremble to ensure a clear image of my damaged shoulder. "I'm not claustrophobic," I again reminded myself, but I couldn't rule out the possibility that I was claustrophobic-phobic. My increasingly ragged breath suggested as much, and I began to lose my faith that I could get through this.

I have had at least one severe, and perhaps two or three moderate anxiety attacks in the past few years; identifying them as such, I have come to accept that my general ability to work through irrational fear is not complete; there are limits.

In my right hand, the rubber panic bulb adhered to the skin of my clammy palm, and I massaged it, surprised to find myself seriously considering squeezing it, my means of escape no more complicated than that. Just a moment outside, the inside of the tube now familiar, my fear suggested, would enable me to brace for a second attempt. Do over, please.

"But I'm not claustrophobic," I remembered, and held on for a few more seconds, focusing on my breathing, closing my eyes, steadying my grip on the odd rubber wedge the technician had placed in my left hand to stabilize that arm.

An hour or so earlier, in the waiting room of Montefiore Hospital's radiology department, the only item in the Pittsburgh news cycle on June 12, 2006, (a date that will live in ignominy in Pittsburgh Steeler's lore), ran constantly on the only television, which was tuned to KDKA's special coverage: Ben Roethlisberger, sans helmet, was in "serious but stable" condition and in surgery after a head-on collision between his motorcycle and an oncoming car propelled him, face-first, into the other car's windshield. In honor of the occasion, ESPN republished excerpts of Big Ben's May 2005 comments concerning his helmetless riding, and he sounds like precisely the 23-year-old (now twenty-four) he was at this time last year:

It's just like anything else, the more risk you put into something, into whatever it is ... Just like gambling. You're gambling. The more money you want to put into something -- you can lose, or you can win big, so you take gambles with things and you can get burned.

* * *

You can get injured and killed in a car, too. You can get killed walking down the street. You have to know what you're doing, and I'm not saying anyone didn't know what they were doing, but it's a risk and being in life is a risk.

Last night, after a two-day charity ride on the fixed gear totaling nearly 150 miles and a few recuperative hours on the couch, I stood to find that nothing worked right. My hamstrings were tuned tighter than a violin's, my wrists and injured shoulder ached, my back felt molded by cement into the fanciful shape of a harp's arc, and my knees murmured in their orbits of a certain future on the operating table, serpentine arthroscopes probing and refining their striated inner surfaces, their masticated cartilage and mottled bone.

In the past few weeks, a congenital heart problem, a simply arrhythmia I've been aware of for a decade or more, has reemerged with a vengeance. Now, instead of a single missed beat every few months, my heart momentarily racing to restore its proper rhythm, I feel a lowgrade discomfort for hours of virtually every day. It's possible that I've simply aged; my father wasn't much older than I am when his cardiologist monitored his heart and enjoined him from freely consuming caffeine. And in any event, that he's had problems like this off and on for thirty years suggests nothing dire is happening. We age. Things work less well today than they did yesterday. We adapt and proceed because there's nothing else to do. But the pressure in my sternum has continued in the wake of the first awful day, and I cannot disregard the possibility of a correlation with my intense training in the past four months or so, my aggregate distances on the bike increasing virtually every week to spike last week at just over 180 miles.

And it's not all present injuries and today's training. My hands sometimes throb without immediate insult, and the obvious etiology is five years of bouldering now two years' remote, hanging my body weight from two or three fingers at a time, cramming my small feet into smaller shoes and channeling the full power of my then-powerful core in a line from, for example, the first two fingers of my right hand through left big toe, all of my weight suspended like a cable drawn taught between the friction between skin and rubber and a few square inches of textured plastic or grainy sandstone in two small unyielding patches six feet apart. Everything along that path, the line like lightning corkscrewing through my body in white heat, trembling and compressed at the ragged edge of failure. Gravity taunting more insistently with every progression up the rock face, every additional foot and yard of open air between my body and the ground.***

Always the nascent risk. Like Big Ben, I agee that the risk isn't really the point. The most difficult thing to explain to people outside the relevant communities, especially with climbing but also to a lesser extent with urban cycling, is that adrenaline isn't the object. Sometimes it comes, and often it is not unwelcome; surely, adrenaline furnishes the purest, most powerful chemical high the body has to offer, and it has its virtues, practical and aesthetic. But if adrenaline becomes the point, as it does for those rare individuals, like any other drug its demands become progressive. Last week's sufficient rush this week is passe, and the addict moves on to the next thrill and the next, each more hazardous than the last, each with the inimitable frisson of novelty.

Very few people believe me when I say I'm risk averse, but I am, and incredulity doesn't make it otherwise. Big Ben says he rides to relax. I believe him.

But the bitch of it is that even those of us without significant others and children have responsibilities, if this world we have is to have any sense of community (and what Hobbesian nightmare awaits us in the absence of community). We have, if we are fortunate, friends and family who care deeply for our well-being and who depend on us as members of their inner circle, whether simply in virtue of our presence, our inclination to pick up the phone when it rings in the darkest hours of the night, our ability to divine the glower hiding behind the smile donned for appearances, our shared memories of experiences positive and negative and every permutation thereof, or as a consequence of those tangible acts we can perform. Our knowledge of those people, our people, makes them more whole, just as their knowledge of us completes us. Our loss works a diminshment on everyone who knows us, as their tangible worlds depopulate by one. We are selfish, comes the suggestion, when we play with mortal risk like a toy with sharp corners.

And what of the ineffable responsibility to the human enterprise writ large, the question whether it is embracing mortality to endeavor risk or insulting to the magic of our inception to rush into the teeth of danger. By what high arrogance, the question runs, would I insult the blessing of my life by smoking, rock climbing, riding my bike in traffic, or a hundred other activities calculably more dangerous than their myriad, more prudent alternatives? And I have no answer. The question, ultimately, is rhetorical, unless one's morality is so pre- and proscriptive as to make a mockery of any notion of human agency. Frankly, I'm more terrified of the prospect that there is an objective answer to that question that I've been missing than I am of the next car that heedlessly crosses my path on a workday morning, or of the possibility that the flake from which I'm hanging might peel off the rockface and send me tumbling toward the rocky ground in a mortal tumble, or of the idea that my hobbies are working into my joints and bones to gnaw.

The equally pat answer to this challenge is that we can only achieve our full flower, with all the blessings full realization of ourselves enables us to bestow on our people, by embracing those things that animate our spirits. We must be who we are, or some such piffle, or we are no one, and our true natures cannot be denied, only suppressed, at incalculable cost to our innermost selves. But this answer is insufficient. Its predicate selfishness defies the sacrifice that underlies the notion of community. But I have no answer to offer in its place.

Finally, counting breaths, something I've never used in the past as a calming exercise, brought me slowly back from the brink of low-grade panic. In the first position, arm placed rigidly at my side and strapped down, I began counting, without consciously choosing to do so, perhaps three minutes into the scan, and I reached 400 breaths, most of them more even than those at the beginning. My mind wandered to the seed of this very post, and I further calmed myself by imagining the complex images formed by blasting my shoulder, injected a half-hour earlier with a cocktail of agents designed to create contrast in the presumptively damaged soft-tissue of the joint, with varied magnetic pulses, a high-powered computer processor somewhere in the bowels of the control room translating data into a diagnostically robust set of outputs.

After I was withdrawn from the machine and repositioned with my hand above my head, the magical triangle resting precariously over my armpit, I counted another seventy breaths, but by then being inside the tube was more an inconvenience than a problem, my breath-counting a background tic newly acquired, a vestigial impulse rather than anything critical to my serenity. Indeed, toward the end I had to fight my body's impulse to doze, recognizing in the incipience of slumber the likelihood that I would move as I went under thus fouling the data. My hand falling asleep made steadying the arm challenging, but the fact of the tube itself was an inconvience with which I had made my peace.

On the way home, I called my general practitioner for a cardiologist referral. Perhaps the simple answer is to do what one must with as much responsibility as can be reconciled with the adventure, compromise being, in one form or another, the best solution to most problems, simply knowledge authoring the most prudent, if not always the most cautious, decisions. I'm not claustrophobic.

*** Just writing this undermines my occasional conviction that I'm done with climbing. Boy on a Bike understands.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wish you a speedy recovery _ and stronger hands and arms to write and to cycle.

4:26 PM  
Anonymous May said...

The bike accident that occurred to you seems to be having a larger impact than expected on your life - and here I am not referring to the physical injuries. It is as if it brought to the surface an uneasiness that was hidden somewhere. Although you may be risk averse as regards everyday actions, for what concerns the mind realm I have the feeling that nothing could stop you if you decided to take a certain direction. Which could be a good choice since, as you say, a person's true nature should not be denied. I believe, though, that being aware of it is not enough. One's dark spirits should also be put to trial and tested on the outer world. The heavy treasure case could turn out to be nothing else than a box full of stones. And those around you, they may be acquire a more relevant role in your life than the one of occasionally be reassured about your health.

2:04 PM  
Anonymous christophrawr said...

i enjoyed this.
do recover soon, my best to you.


3:26 PM  

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