Category Archives: women

two pictures, old hope

Images  found this week at the Swarthmore College Peace Collection, now in dim photocopies.  I’ll scan both as soon as I can, and provide substitutes in the meantime:

Stokely Carmichael in Alabama, 1966

Stokely Carmichael in Alabama, 1966

#1: June 30, 1966.  A room at NY Community Church on 35th Street, filled to bursting for a press conference. To the left of the table, a reedy and still-handsome David Dellinger, WWII conscientious objector and staff member at War Resisters League, and Stokely Carmichael, about to become chair of the Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee (SNCC), looking almost exactly as he does at right.

musteday1Seated just behind Carmichael is pacifist icon A.J. Muste, who had just returned from a visit to Vietnam (looking just as he did in the iconic photo with Dorothy Day, left). Then at the table itself sit Army privates Dennis Mora, James Johnson and Robert Samas, also known as the “Fort Hood Three,” announcing their intention to refuse deployment to Vietnam– flanked by Lincoln Lynch, of the Congress on Racial Equality, and the ubiquitous Staughton Lynd,  co-chair with Muste of the Fort Hood Defense Committee.

In some ways, it’s a picture of the anti-war movement before it fractured into a million little pieces. When the priests, the poets, the politicos and the pranksters who demarcated the movement had yet to manifest themselves, and most simply thought of it as an extension of the struggle for civil rights, three years after the March on Washington.  The letterhead of the Defense Committeee lists, as members and sponsors, such seemingly-disparate pairings a Dorothy Day and Noam Chomsky, both civil rights veteran leader Fred Halstead — soon to run for president on the Socialist Workers Party ballot — and the libertarian journo Nat Hentoff.

This was a moment  just before  Carmichael  went down to Alabama to organize the Lowndes County Freedom Party, whose symbol was a black panther, and long before he came to symbolize Black Power both to SNCC and the FBI;half a year before Muste died at 82, leaving behind a movement already beginning to shred; before the GI antiwar movement had multiplied, until there were imprisoned GIs, more “defense committees” charged with everything from conspiracy to murder, than anyone could count. It’s a serious photo, but somehow hopeful. No one in that room imagined that the war was in some ways just beginning; there’s none of the rage, exhaustion, Dadaist darkness  of even the Chicago Seven protests two years later.

wpaphotoImage #2 was on the cover of WIN Magazine in January 1981. It’s from the November 1980 Women’s Pentagon Action (left). But the image in front of me now is of two college sophomores, not yet nineteen years old, openly grieving after having marched to the Pentagon from Arlington National Cemetery. Ronald Reagan had just been elected, and the next war felt imminent. The crying was part of an innovative, emotionally structured sequence in which the demonstration went through stages, starting with grief and ending with defiance (civil disobedience). One of the girls in that photo is my heart-friend Julia Kay. And two rows behind those two is a girl in braids, looking forlorn and stubborn at the same time.

To my eye, none of those girls looks older than twelve — including the one in the braids. I was only four when those brave boys came forward at Fort Hood, and knew nothing of them when I wept at the Pentagon 15 years later.

Tomorrow is my birthday — god help me, I’ll be forty-seven. (No one told me when I celebrated 40 that it would keep going forward!) But working on this book has brought me closer to that girl in braids than I ever expected.

mille grazie, Shirley de Lucia.

I know it’a been forever since I posted here. I’ve been way too busy not finishing the book, AND completely recreating my other shop, from a blog into an actual online magazine. For which I wrote the “news item” below:

Grazie, Shirley de Lucia.

civicassociationThat’s what I kept thinking last night as I watched TV reports about the Hero of Binghamton — the woman in the small city of Binghamton, New York. She worked as a volunteer, in a center that helped legal immigrants study English and study for their citizenship exams, until one sociopath walked in and shot her in the abdomen on his way to killing more. As Ben Sherwood summarizes in the Huffington Post:

Shirley DeLucia was the 61-year-old receptionist on Friday morning when Jiverly Wong walked through the door. “Hello, how can I help you,” DeLucia asked. The killer pulled his weapon and opened fire, hitting DeLucia in the abdomen. She dropped to the ground while Wong shot the other receptionist. DeLucia played dead while the attacker shot his way through the building. At 10:31 a.m., DeLucia somehow managed to call 911. Police responded within two minutes and found 13 people dead, including the other receptionist. The Binghamton police chief believes DeLucia’s quick thinking and action made a big difference. “She’s a heroine and I believe she saved some lives,” says Chief Joseph Zikusky.

Full disclosure: I spent seven years living in Binghamton, arriving as an undergraduate and staying through most of my first marriage. I spent much of that Friday afternoon glued to TV reports of the standoff. Still-familiar streets, now flooded with SWAT teams: how could this be? I didn’t yet know that those teams had been called in by a daughter of immigrant, perhaps those same Italians that landed in Binghamton straight from Ellis Island in the 1910s, holding flyers handed out at Ellis Island that advertised jobs at Endicott Johnson’s shoe factories. (They said “Which way EJ?”, or so the story goes.) But I wasn’t surprised when I learned that so many lives had been saved by a 61-year-old woman. As de Lucia described Jiverly Wong and his weapons to the 911 operator, she enacted Ernest Hemingway’s maxim about “grace under pressure.” We all wonder if we could do that: I don’t know if she’s proof that we all could, or that it takes a post-menopausal daughter of immigrants to take care of such business.

bingomensclubLearning about de Lucia, I thought of the way my grandmother, Christine Solanto, told me stories of struggling with English when growing up in Connecticut; about the way my immigrant students at La Guardia Community College described their own journeys, as I tried to browbeat them into writing correctly. The Ellis Island experience may have been as distant to de Lucia as to me, but that distance is not very much in one’s heart.It was that immigrant,”which way EJ?” spirit she was honoring as she said hello to people from Russia, from Vietnam, from Haiti who sat in those classrooms and struggled with this weird old-new language called English.

The news also reported last night that de Lucia rolls her eyes when told in the hospital that she’s a hero. But I want her to tell her own story, now. Captain Sullenberger got invited to the White House when he landed that plane safely; President Obama can do no less for a woman, exactly the age of his Secretary of State/former primary opponent, who taught us all this week what courage is really made of.

I wrote thia having cried all Friday afternoon,watching the small town of my college years struck by tragedy. I still don’t know if I was also crying for my youth, or for my tough immigrant grandmother now lost to dementia. But I know I’ll try to live out the rest of my life with a tenth as much grace.

poetry friday a day early

cause that’s how it feels sometimes.

The Author to her Book

Thou ill-form'd offspring of my feeble brain,
Who after birth did'st by my side remain,
Till snatcht from thence by friends, less wise than true,
Who thee abroad expos'd to public view,
Made thee in rags, halting to th' press to trudge,
Where errors were not lessened (all may judge).
At thy return my blushing was not small,
My rambling brat (in print) should mother call.
I cast thee by as one unfit for light,
Thy Visage was so irksome in my sight,
Yet being mine own, at length affection would
Thy blemishes amend, if so I could.
I wash'd thy face, but more defects I saw,
And rubbing off a spot, still made a flaw.
I stretcht thy joints to make thee even feet,
Yet still thou run'st more hobbling than is meet.
In better dress to trim thee was my mind,
But nought save home-spun Cloth, i' th' house I find.
In this array, 'mongst Vulgars mayst thou roam.
In Critics' hands, beware thou dost not come,
And take thy way where yet thou art not known.
If for thy Father askt, say, thou hadst none;
And for thy Mother, she alas is poor,
Which caus'd her thus to send thee out of door.

call me “minor but influential?”

My journalistic ouevre is not as deep as most. But for ha-has, I did an ego search on Google Books, and found myself cited in more books than I expected (and quoted,too). I irrationally went, “Woot!” I’m also deeply curious what piece of mine falls under “restricted’ content.

Now I have to go back to getting my *own* book to join them there.

The Rule of Law in an American War

Military Justice in Vietnam: The Rule of Law in an American War‎ – Page 209

by William Thomas Allison

See also Chris Lombardi,”The Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act of
2000: Implications for Contractor Personnel,” ….

Media Perspectives on Sexuality, Gender, and Identity

Sexual Rhetoric: Media Perspectives on Sexuality, Gender, and Identity‎ – Page 45

by Meta G. Carstarphen, Susan C. Zavoina – Social Science – 1999 – 304 pages

Chris Lombardi, spokeswoman for a group of former servicewomen who say they … top training official as saying possible remedies for the military’s sex …

Militarism and Blowback in the Era of American Empire

Masters of War: Militarism and Blowback in the Era of American Empire‎ – Page 308

by Carl Boggs, Ted (FRW) Rall – Political Science – 2003 – 371 pages

Military…Chris Lombardi, Women’s Enews …

An Evaluation Guide

Child Maltreatment Risk Assessments: An Evaluation Guide‎ – Page 217

by Sue Righthand, Bruce Kerr, Kerry Drach – Social Science – 2003 – 216 pages

…that only decisive action by military leadership at all levels can break the
cycle …Chris Lombardi, Correspondent. Women ‘s E-News, New York City THE

Neurologically Based ...

Psychological Trauma and the Developing Brain: Neurologically Based …

by Phyllis T. Stien, Joshua C. Kendall – Psychology – 2003 – 270 pages

[ Sorry, this page’s content is restricted ]

Strategies for ...

Simple and Complex Post-traumatic Stress Disorder: Strategies for …

by Mary Beth Williams, John F. Sommer – Medical – 2002 – 408 pages

[ Sorry, this page’s content is restricted ]

Politics and Public Policy with Research Navigator

Social Welfare: Politics and Public Policy with Research Navigator

by Diana M. DiNitto, Linda K. Cummins – Political Science – 2006 – 562 pages

[ Sorry, this page’s content is restricted ]

A Guide for Helping Trauma-exposed Children and ...

2008 was the REAL Year of the Woman

From my right-hand sis Elizabeth Willse, a New Year’s hail.

Among the menopausal mamas she hailed were some I’ve not yet noted here:

This week’s  Newsweek Magazine notes that Oprah Winfrey’s influence on the 2008 presidential campaign is still being debated: “She’s denied that Obama is giving her a job, but we know she already has his ear.”

The Audacity of Race: For many, the election of Barack Obama
“was more than a political victory, it was a personal victory.”  But,
as Mattie Francis observes, “We cannot pretend, as I heard some
morning-after political pundits say, that we are ‘a colorblind nation’
at this time in history.  This is a myth.”   Writing for the Point Reyes Light,
she uses her own interracial marriage and motherhood to examine the
questions of race and identity that will color politics, into the new
year and the new presidency.

If ever there is way for a white girl from the Midwest to comprehend not only intellectually but also
viscerally that race is a social construct with no biological basis, it is for her to give birth to a brown baby. Stephan Thernstrom, a professor of history at Harvard University, said that the United States is the only country in the world in which a white mother can give birth to a black child but a black mother cannot give birth to a white child.

Sniffling on the Stairmaster?
A midwinter cold got you coughing
and sneezing?  Although doctors and exercise physiologists are mostly
“stumped” and don’t yet have the final word on exercising with a cold,
Gina Kolata of the New York Times points to studies showing it may be
time to sweat it out.  Instead of languishing on the couch, read about these two studies,
and maybe cinch up your sneakers instead.  One study revealed that having
a cold had no effect on lung function or exercise capacity.  The other
found that, even though exercisers and non-exercisers had symptoms for
the same length of time, those who exercised ‘in some cases, actually
felt better.’

If you’re going to exercise, though, take it easy
until you feel better.  The consensus from the studies seems to be
that, in most cases, exercise will help ease a cold where there’s no
fever or chest congestion.  And you’ll be back to full strength, and
full workouts, in no time.

Modern Love, Modern Healing
It was “déjà vu all over the X-ray screen.”  When Sally Hoskins,
neurobiologist and science educator, was diagnosed with breast cancer
for a second time, she thought she knew what to expect.  She planned to
go it alone, no support group.  She knew the drill.  She thought she
didn’t want the “instant support group” of the other women “all
first-timers” wearing hospital gowns and awaiting their treatments.  Accepting another woman’s offer of a Xanax breaks the ice for a conversation, and, much needed support, Hoskins admits. “Yes, I was buoyed in part by my Xanax-filled water wings. But what
really kept me afloat was the one thing I had mistakenly believed I
could do without: the loving care that flows freely among female
strangers even in short-term groups like this one, established within
minutes and disbanded just as quickly, only to re-form with a whole new cast in the next waiting room, and the next.”

Debra Winger is digging in a little deeper
Debra Winger has taken time away from Hollywood to teach a course at
Harvard, have a baby, write a book, run a farm, and take a handful of
smaller film roles, well away from the public eye.  Now, she’s back, and being interviewed by Rachel Cooke about her small role in “Rachel Getting Married.”  Of the film, Cooke
says: “Rachel Getting Married has won Winger rave reviews – ‘devastating,’ ‘magnificent,’ ‘too long between films’ – for a part you could miss
completely should you succumb to a sudden urge for popcorn.”  Winger plans to keep a sense of perspective, and a strong activist voice as she returns to the screen:

You have to make a concerted effort to keep yourself alive, to be able
to feel pain, to stop yourself from getting distanced from things by
technology. Some 250,000 protestors walked up Broadway to protest the
war in Iraq, and the next day it wasn’t in the papers. But will that
stop me from marching next time? No, I will be counted.”

(Elizabeth W.)

If you’re mad about Rick Warren, get out tomorrow and light up the night.

I was going to try to write about  Rick Warren being  asked to give the inaugural invocation, which yesterday pulled me from my bookwriting stupor back into that November 5, no we can’t! fury. And as you see above, I wasn’t alone:

As Michelle Goldberg puts it so pleasantly in The Guardian: He is a man who compares legal abortion to the Holocaust and gay marriage to incest and paedophilia. He believes that Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and other non-Christians are going to spend eternity burning in hell. He doesn’t believe in evolution. He recently the social gospelthe late 19th- and early 20th-century Protestant movement that led a religious crusade against poverty and inequalityas “Marxism in Christian clothing.

Or as Linda Hirshman noted on the WAM listserv (I’m posting this with her permission):

Rick Warren’s site for educating preachers,, has a long essay on why women should submit to their husbands. Here’s the money line: “The Greek word for ‘submit’ is hupotassoHupo means “under” and tasso means “to place in order.” The compound word hupotasso means “to place under or in an orderly fashion.” Paul didn’t dislike women, he liked order! He advocated order in the church, order in government, order in business, and, yes, order in the home.

Then I remembered what gave me hope after that, and decided I was better off pushing this event for tomorrow.

It’s not just a vigil and food drive: it’s us giving notice that Obama better mean what he said yesterday, that they’ll push for a quick repeal of DOMA and eliminatinn of DADT.  And we’ll press that case in Washington on January 10th, just before the inaugural. Just in case.

the WAC of my dreams

It’s a voice I hardly remember not having heard: the writer in the edgy science-fiction anthologies, the voice cool as ice, the material borderline radical. How many times did I read “The Girl Who was Plugged In” (turned later into an episode of Paradox), whose plaintive cyborg “Delphi” predated Blade Runner by decades?  Or the moment in “The Women Men Don’t See when the steely narrator tries to reassure a woman that she matters:

“Come on, why doomed? Didn’t they get that equal rights bill?”

Long hesitation. When she speaks again her voice is different.

“Women have no rights, Don, except what men allow us. Men are more aggressive and powerful, and they run the world. When the next real crisis upsets them, our so-called rights will vanish like—like that smoke. We’ll be back where we always were: property. And whatever has gone wrong will be blamed on our freedom, like the fall of Rome was. You’ll see.”

Now all this is delivered in a gray tone of total conviction. The last time I heard that tone, the speaker was explaining why he had to keep his file drawers full of dead pigeons.

“Oh, come on. You and your friends are the backbone of the system; if you quit, the country would come to a screeching halt before lunch.”

No answering smile.

“That’s fantasy.” Her voice is still quiet. “Women don’t work that way. We’re a—a toothless world.” She looks around as if she wanted to stop talking. “What women do is survive. We live by ones and twos in the chinks of your world-machine.”

“Sounds like a guerrilla operation.”

Frankly, I was never the HUGEST fan of James Tiptree, Jr, despite the Hugos and Nebulas and the knowledge that it was a pseudonym for a woman writer. I was kept at a distance by that detached voice, the same one that long convinced famous male writers like Robert Silverberg that the mysterious writer couldn’t be female, “for there is to me something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree’s writing.”  I’d never thought to buy the 2005 biography by Julie Phillips – I confess i didn’t even go to the extent of reading about it.

If I had, I’d have known that I’ve been looking for her for a long time.

allidaveyNot that she hasn’t already been in front of my face. In the 1945 manifesto from the American Veterans Committee mentions a “Captain Alice B. Davey, WAC, Armed Forces Advisory Committee” on its list of leaders. But it wasn’t till that hissy fit last week that I started trying to track down if she were someone worth writing about. The answer of course, was more than yes: Major Alice Bradley Davey Sheldon, who her mom called “Alli,”  was more of a kindred spirit than I imagined.

I’d been looking for, as I said to friends, “a WAC vet with complex thoughts.” In Alli I also found a writer, a dreamer, a bisexual who described boot camp in her diary:

the long grey-green lines of women, for the first time in America, in the rain, under the flag, the sound of the band, far-off, close, then away again; the immortal fanny of our guide, leading on the right, moved and moving to the music—the flag again—first time I ever felt free enough to be proud of it; the band, our band, playing reveille that morning, with me on KP since 0430 hours, coming to the mess-hall porch to see it pass in the cold streets, under that flaming middle-western dawn; KP itself, and the conviction that one is going to die; the wild ducks flying over that day going to PT after a fifteen-mile drill, and me so moved I saluted them.

Of my characters from this war, she belongs more with John Huston, who withdrew to Mexico in 1980, than with Howard Zinn or William Kunstler or Philip Berrigan. Most of her stories only whispered their social critiques. But she lays it out pretty clearly in “The Women Men Don’t See,” a few exchanges after the one above:

“Men and women aren’t different species, Ruth. Women do everything men do.”

“Do they?” Our eyes meet, but she seems to be seeing ghosts between us in the rain. She mutters something that could be “My Lai” and looks away. “All the endless wars …” Her voice is a whisper. “All the huge authoritarian organizations for doing unreal things. Men live to struggle against each other; we’re just part of the battlefield. It’ll never change unless you change the whole world.”

Alli, you were half right. Thanks for your muscular telling of the paradoxes you saw.

(Many thanks to Julie Phillips, for working so closely to bring her to the world. If I can convey 1/10 of what you have, I’ll consider myself lucky.)

Diversity begins at home.

You’d think that someone who started out her interest in military-GI issues advocating for women in the military, working hand in hand with  the likes of Linda Grant de Pauw, Rep. Patricia Schroeder and  Captain Barb, who therefore knew about women in every war fought by the U.S, would have women as characters easily laced throughout the history I’m writing.

You’d think that a dyke who loved being able to give  Walt Whitman’s boyfriend voice in my Civil War chapter would be on the alert for the gays described by Allen Berube, who dissented in their very presence in World War II — and not have to had thown at me the compelling example of Guadalcanal vet Paul Moore, a running buddy of William Sloane Coffin. (Below is a clip of his daughter Honor, who wrote a book about his double life.)

And you might even think that a girl who is obsessed with Bayard Rustin and led her earlier chapters with dissenters of color —William Apess, Lewis Douglass, W.E.B. duBois— wouldn’t draft a chapter with a nearly all-white cast, with the exception of Medgar Evers. That a girl who squinted at and photocopied stuff from A. Philip Randolph’s Committee Against Jim Crow in the Armed Services would have naturally devoted a few lines to the NAACP’s 1942 “Conscientious Objectors Against Jim Crow.” That she’d at least have included 73-yr-old du Bois sighing that ‘ We fight for democracy not only for white folk but for yellow, brown, and black…We fight not in joy but in sorrow with no feeling of uplift.”

Nope: as currently drafted my World War II chapter, like the war itself, features an  all-male, nearly all-white cast. I slapped myself upside the head last night when I realized it. Better now than later, when Cynthia Enloe and Linda Bird Francke would do it more publicly on reading the final product.

To use the kind of language we used in the 1980s: I know I’m twisted by white privilege, but when did the frigging patriarchy decide to colonize my thinking?

Superman vs. the VFW?

In the department of stuff you come across while looking for something else, I found this radio show (the link brings on streaming audio). Click, and you can listen to a “thousands of GI’s” protesting “racial discrimination in state hiring,” and a kind of unusual ally has their backs: Superman, who flies in to stop the state troopers ordered to fire on the vets. Not unusual, it turns out, for the Superman radio show of 1940-1951, whose stories never appeared in comics and which also featured Superman vs. The Clan of the Fiery Cross (also known as the KKK).

This is all old news to true geeks, and doubtless other better writers than I, like  Michael Chabon. But I stumbled across it while poking around for something almost no one remembers (sort of my specialty): the American Veterans Committee.

AVC was a short-lived World War II veterans’ organization whose slogan was “Citizens First, Veterans Second.” And that story about the veterans protest was grounded in the same reality that gave AVC nearly a million members at its start.

By mid-1946, when that story ran,  literally 12,000 active-duty soldiers were busy protesting at bases around the world, accusing the Truman administrationof dragging its feet in getting them home. One famously told Truman, “Give us our independence or go home to yours!”  AVC, founded by the fellow below (who is not, as he seems, Orson Welles), had on its board civil rights icon Medgar Evers and Howard Zinn, among others. Many were writers, like Benjamin Bradlee and E.J. Kahn, and doubtless others found their way to that Superman show. In September of ’46, the AVC issued a special commendation to the producers of the show for its quiet linking of veterans with “social tolerance.”


Actually, the VFW had issued a similar award the month before, though it was for promoting “the American way” – code for crushing “commie” stuff like those  “tolerant” Superman shows, which shut down in 1951 in favor of the commie-busting TV version.  No place in the new Cold War for such thoughts — or for a veterans group that saw itself as composed of angelic troublemakers (e.g.  sleeping in L.A. streets as a housing protest).  By the time the 1954  Senate Subcommittee Hearings on Juvenile Delinquency tamed Superman completely, the AVC had mostly collapsed under a not-unfamiliar perfect storm of personality clashes, sectarian-left noise (snooze) and McCarthyism. Leaving veterans of that war to choose between the American Legion and the VFW, as odious to them as to many OEF/OIF vets now.  Its founders basically did neither, choosing instead journalism, or film, or think tanks like the Carnegie Foundation for International Peace.

What happened next is still happening: some will be in the book. Stay tuned for some character sketches.

But I wonder if it would be too much of a cheat to lede my “necessary war” chapter with that fictional scene of “thousands of GIs.” (What do you think?)

Dancing with chronic illness, or when a mouse is your role model

Another cross-post, but of  work dear to me: a personal essay I first wrote a couple years back, when asked for something in the category “strange bedfellows.” You get to decide who the bedfellows are. (And if you click on the second page, you find out who the mouse is – with video!)

A blast from the recent past: Queens Boulevard had its usual martial look after a snowstorm. City snowplows had made quick corridors, long since finished off by relentless traffic, while sculpting on each side massive walls of hard-packed snow, some shaped like the cars they’d buried. On each corner, pedestrians stomped the snowdrifts into slush, occasionally even breaking the ice underneath. Great, I thought as I descended the subway stairs. Two great problems that taste great together.

Wrapped in a down coat that made me look at 41 like an overgrown toddler, I also carried a hefty backpack, the kind that turns into a rolling cart on clear ground. All of which made crossing the street a comic challenge even for a normal person, if you could really call normal a community college instructor who carried reams of paper on her back like some demented Sherpa.

The first corner took me about seven minutes, using my sight to find the first place to step and then trying to manage each slide across the bulk, hurling my pack across at the last moment. On the second corner restless students passed me, as if I  were a tree that had come half-unmoored. At the third, and mercifully last before I  got to the school doors, the drifts were smaller, but icy patches made it treacherous, passage still slow. For a normal person, navigating that snow would be tricky. But for me, whose feet felt wrapped in cotton wool on good days and almost numb on bad ones, it was asking a deaf person to sing a subtle tone poem, with broken bones the penalty for getting it wrong.

Suddenly, to my right, a petite woman of about 70, hair and lips a defiant orange, reached for my pack and offered a shoulder. I  nodded gratefully and let her lead me across the ice, letting go at the other end so quickly she  barely allowed time for me to thank her.

I waited till I  got to school to start laughing, not at the unexpected good Samaritan but at myself. This is what MS means, I  thought. You’re so slow, ladies 20 years older than beat you down the block.

I  suddenly wished some of the people who told me, “I wish I had your energy” had seen that. Being outwardly Type A had its uses – especially in the department, which thought little of piling on more classes for me to teach (an advantage for an adjunct). I  didn’t necessarily want to remind them of the limits to that energy, and they might not get why I  was laughing. Hire the handicapped, they’re fun to watch.
If twenty years of this hadn’t given me a sense of humor about it, I  thought, that fact would be a tragedy worth a telethon. Or something.
*   *    *  *

I’ve stopped teaching since then, at least for now, but mornings like today — when the mercury is teasing with near-frost –make me think of that week in Queens. Unlike most people with multiple sclerosis, my symptoms don’t get worse in the heat: it’s lower temperatures that turn my body numb, make my fatigue worse than ever, make my handwriting even more like shorthand than before. It happens indoors, too, sometimes with air conditioning: I still don’t know what Manhattan’s Community Board Five thought when they first saw this reporter drag herself along the wall of their meeting room because she couldn’t feel her legs (“Is that girl drunk?”)  When you’re diagnosed at 22 with a chronic illness, you feel life just handed you a big, sour lemon. But the key to getting through it for 20 years has been, at least for me, making lemonade (or maybe lemon martinis?) out of that lemon.

A bit of history, first: the lemon’s, and then a bit of mine.

Multiple sclerosis means, literally, many scars — a name coined in 1868 by Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot, the father of neurology, after the death of a woman who had come to him with tremors and slurred speech. In her brain,  and those of patients like her, he found lesions smaller than a fingernail, threaded and knotted through the gray matter. He tried strychnine, electrical stimulation, injections of liquid gold, but nothing even helped.
Even for most of the twentieth century, all researchers were able to accomplish was to learn more about how the disease operates: the body’s immune system jumps up and attacks for no apparent reason the myelin sheath, the mix of proteins that line the nerves. The disease flared without apparent warning, and often receded, though each flareup often left patients worse off than before. And throughout most of the century, treatments were few and far between.  Physicians were thus, understandably, cautious in their approach. Right up until the 1980’s, many MS patients were discouraged from exercise, or regular employment.

When Olympic gold-medal skier Jimmie Heuga came down with the illness in 1970, his doctors advised him to stop training and rest. But when staying sedentary didn’t help him improve, Heuga took their advice and flipped it 180 degrees, going back into training – if not at Olympic level – and starting a center for people with MS to devise structured exercise programs. In 1987, his center also began to fund research to challenge the conventional wisdom and promote a rehabilitative model for MS, one that employed exercise and physical therapy as equal partners with medication. Meanwhile,  one December night back then, I was hurtling to Manhattan frommt home in upstate New York in the middle of the night, hoping to learn what was wrong with me. As the car raced down Highway 17, the darkness was pierced in places by bursts of holiday lights, some towns decking their halls early and sending bits of red and blue across the relentless green of New York highway signs.

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