At times, writing is an Olympic event requiring the mental and physical stamina of someone hurtling down the ice chutes of the bobsled. To stay in writing shape, I’ve learned I have to leave my desk a few times a day and actually be physical and exercise. This is tough for someone who loves the out-of-body experience of disappearing into a story, whether writing a story or reading one. Never mind shaving, eating, or dressing. I love to leap from a night's rest (one dream state) to writing (another dream state). Too much of that, though, and one becomes a fried Twinkie on a stick.
I was reminded of the mind/body division last week when I was hobbled with a headache that didn’t go away. After four days of it nonstop, I went to my doctor who told me, no, I didn’t have a brain tumor. I had TMJ. I must be grinding my teeth or clenching my jaw, he said. Use a hot compress every three hours for fifteen minutes.
This seemed odd to me. After all, I’ve been rewriting a novel that, while I paint myself into a corner occasionally, I then fly through the air triumphantly. I haven’t been tensing my jaw. However, when the doctor pressed a certain spot on my jaw, yeow!
While I was coming to accept that I had TMJ, my wife, Ann, the next day noticed my forehead breaking out in a rash. Having been through a TV binge of House watching, she declared I had shingles. “You should look it up,” she said. Right. Shingles. Nixon had that, and I had no compulsion to say “I’m not a crook.”
After a few hours, my rash became pink bubblegum on a hot sidewalk, so she looked up “shingles” on her laptop and showed me pictures. They looked like stills from driver training movies. She also read that if the rash was near an eye as mine was, eyesight could be compromised or lost. Faster than you can say “Bobsled,” we belted ourselves in the car and bolted to Urgent Care.
Ann was right. I have shingles, and it plays with my nerves, which is why I have the headache and the TMJ. I take ibuprofen, Tylenol, and an antiviral every four hours except when I sleep. The blisters are deflating, but the headache remains like a drunken yodeler, louder when the medicine wears off.
This all reminds me to not take health or the ability to write for granted. I felt too lethargic last week to do any exercise, but I’ve started up again. This is my first writing in ten days, and it’s taken me two just to write this—pathetic on one hand, exciting on the other. I’m fighting my way back. I tell myself I need a metaphor. I am a salmon rushing against the cold rapids of a rushing river. It's the "habit" I seek again, which is to say avoid eating the flies and just swim.
Too tired to read last week, I instead watched hours of Breaking Bad, where high school chemistry teacher and cancer patient Walter White, in trying to provide for his family after his demise, makes meth and stays under the radar of his DEA agent brother-in-law Hank. At one point, Hank gets shot up by members of a Mexican drug cartel. Hank spends episodes recovering. I can empathize. For our minds to whirl at their usual pace, we have to stay in shape.
One smaller lesson from this: if you’re over fifty and you had chicken pox as a kid, consider getting the shingles vaccine. Another lesson: avoid meth.
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