Slingshots, Anyone? : Growing Pains

There I lay, writhing on a pool table in the venue’s empty green room. Yes, I had been here before. No, I don’t mean this particular bar in Austin. I mean trapped within this pitiful melodrama: whining, pleading, trying to mount an exorcism of the arthritis from my riddled body. The tacky bar fixture hung above me like an interrogation, prodding me to reveal… exactly what I’m not sure. Maybe my innermost secrets? Or a column worthy for the world’s eyes? I will try, dear readers. But I offer no guarantees.

We had driven through the night. While my companions caught up on sleep at some guy’s apartment, I rode the bus down to a spot I visit without exception whenever I’m in town: Barton Springs, where the water is always around 60 degrees and punks in town for Chaos in Tejas bathe in all its delicious splendor. Picturesque as this may be, the real allure is the pedestrian bridge, looming formidably over the water. I remember one day riding in the car with my mom when a song came on the “90s Nooner” show on 106.7 The End called “Wear Sunscreen.” In it, an orator dispenses advice to a graduating class and one of those tidbits is “Do one thing every day that scares you.” Even as a kid, I really took this to heart. So with an opportunity clearly presenting itself, I climbed atop the hot railing and gazed into the placid water below. There’s nothing like those seconds before a jump, heart pounding, defying that raw fear and that ultimate rush in surrendering to gravity…

With this obligatory exploit taken care of, I rejoined my companions and headed to the venue. Thou, my brethren, were up first and they killed it—as always. I’d almost forgotten how much fun tour is. Bryan and I shot the shit behind the merch table through a couple of bands, reminiscing and commiserating like olde times. Mounted bear carcasses around the premises presented prime targets for vegan culture jamming…

Then there was Ceremony. You know that line from Gorilla Biscuits about the “rebirth of hardcore pride”? Well, that was those 30 minutes for me in a nutshell. I’m gonna go ahead and say they “knocked my dick in the dirt.” Yup. My little weenie—bam! Like a worm slithering through the soil. I was impressed by how unabashedly they transitioned between jangly guitar riffs one moment and these classic breakdowns the next. Unsurprisingly, my NOLA friends Candice and Andy, of Mystic Inane, hated it; leave it to these two elitists to cry “rock star” just because the guitarist wants to get his groove on! Gosh, so hard to please, those two!

Late in the evening I got word that Gun Outfit was playing inside. They’re this three-piece from Olympia I saw once at a house Uptown. Their Chaos set was cerebral and stoic. It’s funny when you’re watching a band in this intimate space and you want to move around but no one else is so it feels awkward. It’s pretty crucial for me, if standing for protracted lengths, to at least shift footing to lather up those joints. But because I was all self conscious, my attentiveness began to feel more like a stress position. After they finished, I retreated upstairs to the green room to recover.

As I succumbed with some outrage to my present predic’, I thought about the degree to which a “disability” can affect one’s life. At age twelve I was diagnosed with a rare spine condition known as spondyloepiphesial dysplasia. (Don’t worry; I’m not even sure I can pronounce it.) From what I only recently learned during physical therapy, it’s characterized by a compression and fusion of the vertebrae—which smooshes the nerve endings in between, thus causing pain. Boy, what a crappy day at Children’s Hospital that was! I’ll never forget: my parents checked me out of school and I had to poop really badly but at the time struggled with this kind of serious phobia of public bathrooms. So I’d been holding it in. Hours of testing went by, until finally a doctor pointed out my, er, dilemma during a viewing of an abdominal x-ray. So embarrassing! Anyway, I was scrutinized by a number of doctors that day and eventually the diagnosis came back: I had this spine disorder that would, in short (har har), prevent me from growing any taller or ever having a girlfriend (ok, they didn’t really say that last part). Additionally, I would start to experience the onset of arthritis in my spine during my teens. I can’t really mark that day at Children’s as having necessarily altered my life. I mean, my parents were devastated, though they shielded me well, but I continued to live and do all the things I already did, only with this vague notion that my body was different. It wasn’t until adolescence, and now early adulthood, that the implications gradually began to hit home.

Case in point: I’d been squirming for a half hour on the pool table like a dog trying to find a suitable position, when I couldn’t resist it any longer. The wistful melodies of Pygmy Lush, performing just below, swept through the room; and slowly, I lifted my rigor-mortis-like torso from the pool table and scuttled to the door. Just a few steps down sat Andy, and I took a seat next to him behind the banister to behold our Sterling buddies delivering their intense performance. It was just what the doctor ordered. My senses overwhelmed, there was no room left for sulking or even indignation. Only a somber contentment, a subdued elation…

One afternoon a few weeks ago, I drove my grandmaw and myself to Kim Son, this bomb-ass Chinese/Vietnamese restaurant on the Westbank. Our luncheons have become this little tradition between us. Reared on a standard southern diet and very much set in her ways, I have to commend her exceeding tolerance of my veg-friendly restaurant selections. She even stuck it out during our Ethiopian dining foray, bereft of utensils but for that trusty injera bread. It’s a nice bonding experience and good for her personally, I think, as well; after all, her lifestyle is a bit restricted these days: she’s 75 and after a recent auto incident, doesn’t drive herself out of “Da Parish,” as we Chalmations so fondly refer to it. Over the years I’ve seen her mobility decline and each visit she tells me about heightened pain in her shoulders, neck, back, legs. “I’ve probably got arthritis all over my body,” she told me the last time we met, wringing her hands.

We don’t always see eye to eye, but I truly cherish these outings with grandmaw. Besides a to-go box of outstanding sesame tofu, it also brings home a sobering reality: the body I inhabit—like her own, suffering the hallmarks of aging—is marred by a degenerative physical ailment. Degenerative—such a harsh, unforgiving adjective. But an accurate one, no less. Pain for her is a constant, inertia a given. Even had she not grown up in a circumstance that relegated her destiny to one of dutiful humility like so many other southern belles of the 1950s, she is no longer physically capable of traveling the world or hiking in some idyllic setting even if the urge possessed her. I’ve said before that everything I do in life I undertake in spite of chronic discomfort and—what so gracelessly segues into—pain.  Arthritis has become my ever-present companion, lingering there when I awaken and with me as I crawl into bed at night. Despite my best efforts, from daily core strengthening workouts and weekly swimming to beginning to pay more care to my diet, I have to face that I will one day not have the same quality of life I do now—and sadly, this day will come long before I’m a septuagenarian.

It’d be harmfully self-indulgent to dwell on this, especially considering many battle against far greater adversity with valiant optimism; but it does behoove me to consider from a strategic vantage point. Suddenly, in the fading vigor of youth, existence takes on this profound urgency. For those seeking justification for living as fully and ambitiously as possible, inhabiting a body whose prime is rapidly on its way out isn’t a bad one. Spun with enough finesse, it could even rationalize why one should do all in one’s power to forgo a life of wage toil to instead pursue a destiny of their own making. (I wonder: does the 3.1 million reported cases of nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses include long term side effects? And: is retirement actually retirement if one is too gnarled to fully enjoy it?) Of course, every individual fighting to free themselves from oppressive drudgery is also an avid dreamer—and for those with moderate physical limitations to begin with, a higher ratio of daydreaming to pitched street battles is to be expected.

Andy commanded the van eastward over the spillway following another all-night drive. Notebook in hand and searching for a fitting literary device to accentuate my thoughts, I pictured the laptop handed down to me by my mom years ago. It’s an outdated PC whose monitor no longer functions, and I’ve been meaning to pull the data off it before the machine—as my friend so eloquently put it—“shits the bed.”  Driving into the sunrise after Chaos, I contemplated how struggling to live a life worth living in the face of physical setbacks (or mortality in general) is kind of like that, only in reverse: trying to accrue as many memories, skills and life lessons as one can before their time expires. An analogy more kitschy than clever, but so be it. I scribbled these declarations down just as another popped into my mind. And at great risk of sounding overly “CrimethInc.,” I want to share it here. I think it cuts to the heart of a lot of what I write about and it is simply this: Accept the inevitable, but demand worlds more.