How It Began, pt 1

It begins with my toes. It’s November 24th, 2008. Monday morning, 5:15 a.m., and my toes are beyond my reach. I stretch every day before biking down the western edge of Manhattan to my job at New York Public Radio, WNYC, but this Monday I’m awake in the ink-stained dawn, sitting on the living room floor, and I can’t reach my toes. The backs of my legs are tight, like lines holding sails in a stiff breeze. Taut, even when I lean against them. There’s no way I’m getting there.

Puzzled, I push a little and then sit back. There’s a faint electric tingle in my toes, but other than that, the only unusual thing is this sudden lack of flexibility. I shuck off my biking clothes, change into jeans, and take the train south, down the island.

The radio show on which I work, The Takeaway, is preparing for Thanksgiving by guiltily pre-recording a few segments. Our format, normally entirely live, gets fudged a little on holiday weeks when staff are short and guests are harder to pry out of bed at oh-god-early: none of our listeners ever seem to notice or be upset by this, but there’s a vague sense that we’re getting away with something a little naughty when we do it. But this Monday, looking down the foreshortened slope of a short week, we’re all a little giddy. The show’s been on the air for just about seven months at this point, and the coffee-drenched early morning schedule has become routine, if not pleasant.

At my desk, though, I’m looking at the morning’s news and considering my back. Some years before, my friend Josh had suffered from a herniated disc in his spine, and the signal that he’d ignored for months before getting diagnosed was an inability to stretch down and touch his toes. In hindsight, he’d said, ignoring it had been a mistake.

So every so often I try stretching, just to see if the tension was transitory, or if my walk to 145th St and my seat on the A train had loosened me up at all. They have not.

I have a vague sense of foreboding, at realizing this. “What if I have a herniated disc,” I wonder. Back surgery? At 35 years old? But I’m already jotting myself a note to call Josh at some humane hour, later, and get a more detailed description from him of the onset of his problems.

I don’t particularly want his answer. I would like to believe that whatever it is will clear up on its own: that I’d merely slept on my back in some unconventional way the night before, and that it correct itself as I do nothing more rigorous than curling tight that night around my wife, Kate, and drifting off to sleep, anchored surely and floating on the rising tide of the coming winter.

Late November, 2008. President-elect Barack Obama is picking Cabinet members; Citigroup is receiving $20 billion in rescue money. Former New Jersey governor and EPA chief Christine Todd Whitman talks on our show about how the GOP has allowed itself to be pigeonholed as unsympathetic. Other guests talk about economizing and canceling unnecessary luxuries. I sit, type, call, jog to the reception desk, copy, paste. “This will pass,” I think to myself. It’s easy to ignore.

And why shouldn’t it be? My mom has always called me “disgustingly healthy.” Rarely sick, always skinny, loving my leafy greens at dinner and my steel-cut oats and yogurt for breakfast. But I’ve got an inkling, somewhere deep down, that I’m in denial – that a physical problem that doesn’t show improvement in 24 hours is not going to be trivial.

Up until this point, my adult life has largely been comprised of the extended adolescence available to a lot of high-tech workers in the late ’90s. I graduated from college, rode the internet boom long enough to pay off my student loans, and then kept on riding it, skipping from one technical job to the next more-technical job. I bought luxuries unheard of in my spartan childhood: a brand new car, sushi meals out, faster and faster internet access, sharp knives and motorized kitchen tools and obscure ingredients. Jaggery. Black salt. Wakame. Asafetida.

I taught myself to cook my favorite Indian dishes from my favorite Indian restaurants, and then moved on Ethiopian stews and Italian paeans to ingredients and time. After college, food and the time to cook it became two of my favorite pastimes; my bookshelves groaned under the weight of Paul Prud’homme, Madhur Jaffrey, Christopher Kimball’s bowtie and the multiple generatons of cooking joy from the Rombauer family.

The very first meal that I shared with Kate, the woman who would become my wife, was a collaboration on hand-made pasta with her sister and brother-in-law, hosted at my apartment in Somerville, Massachusetts. The very first meal I made for her and her alone was spaetzle and a bottle of Riesling, hosted at her apartment in Philadelphia one month later. (The spaetzle maker and the bottle of wine clinked against each other in my bag on the way down to Pennsylvania; by the time I went home the wine was gone and I was already considering what to make for her next.) Cooking for Kate comes as easily to me as looking at her.

Thanksgiving, however, was to be a rush job in 2008. New at her hospital, Kate would be working on Thursday and the day after; new at my job, I would be, too. We had agreed that we’d spend Saturday making a toned-down feast. Kate’s yen for turkey and mashed potatoes matched mine. My family would be home in Wisconsin, and Kate’s family traveling on Thanksgiving weekend, so it would just be the two of us, thankful.

And thankful we certainly would be, this year. Both of us employed, even me in my newly-minted journalism career; living in New York City, the navel of the world; and after a summer of breathless attempts, we had just two weeks previously hit the jackpot: Kate was six weeks pregnant with our first child. No Riesling this weekend, but nobody else would be at dinner to notice that it was missing.

I rode the subway home, Monday night, planning the weekend’s menu and absentmindedly rubbing my fingertips together, feeling the tingling and pricking of my thumbs. Surely a solid night’s sleep in a reasonable position would set me right.

Tuesday morning, however, brought no improvement. My hamstrings burned and sang as I tried to stretch them, and the numb spots on my fingers were just as prominent as they had been Monday. I rolled my shoulders around, feeling for any sign that our pillow-top mattress, less than a year old, was to blame. I stretched as much as I could, glanced wistfully at my bicycle, and decided to ride the train to work again.

That morning, the show featured an interview with Dr. Cary Cooper, professor of Psychology and Health at Lancaster University in the UK, on the subject of “cyber-chondria.” Learning a little bit about one’s medical symptoms online, he says, leads people to conclude that they have the worst potential ailment. A headache becomes an imagined brain tumor, and stomach-aches impacted bowels. I decide not to worry so much about my tendons.

By mid-day, though, my resolve flagged. With my symptoms unchanged, I had figured out what was wrong: clearly my back had gone out of alignment. A simple trip to a (non-quack) chiropractor would certainly set me right. It being Thanksgiving week, I’d probably need to hustle to find an appointment, but it would be worth it. I dug around online for various recommendations, found a chiropractor on whom it’d be easy to stop in, and called for an appointment. “No appointments,” the man said on the phone. “Just walk on in: you’ll be fine.”

Wednesday dawned clear and cold. The Takeaway featured a pre-Thanksgiving story about “Holiday Foods You Won’t Touch,” which only made me wistful for Thanksgivings past and sad that we couldn’t justifiably cook a million dishes for just the two of us. For the last several Thanksgivings I’d made some dish with Brussels sprouts which I was sure would overcome Kate’s hatred of them, and every time my hopes were dashed as she gamely sampled them, grimaced, and set her fork down. I’d promised her that there’d be no more attempts to convert her, and this year’s lack of family and friends meant I’d have nobody else to justify making them.

On the way down the subway steps that morning, I’d had a strange almost-stumble. My feet felt a little strange, but it had been one of the muscles across the tops of my legs, my quad, that had buckled momentarily. The weakness passed almost immediately, but I’d clutched at the handrail nonetheless. The rest of the trip I looked quizzically at my legs, but they seemed fine.

After work, around 3, I rode the train uptown to the office of a chiropractor I’d found online. This was the first time I’d experienced what’s actually pretty common in New York: a doctor practicing medicine out of a residential apartment cum office. The address led me to a brick apartment building full of regular apartments, and I wondered if I were in the right place. When I hit the buzzer on the wall, the door rang open seconds later, with no voice. I walked down the hall, feeling like an interloper.

The living room of the apartment held four people waiting ahead of me, but nobody’s session lasted longer than about 10-15 minutes, so I tucked into that month’s Atlantic and waited. The walls held bland, inoffensive landscapes, and the lights in the waiting room were dim, making it easy to not meet anyone else’s eyes. Nobody was obviously injured or in pain, but the people leaving the back room seemed looser, more fluid in their movements… or maybe that was just my (and their) wishful thinking. I hadn’t decided whether I considered chiropractics real or hokum, but with twinges now starting to show up in my shoulders, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to try.

When it was my turn, the chiropractor welcomed me into his office. He was a cheerful, bearded man in his early 50’s, happy to answer my questions and take notes on my symptoms: tingly arms, tight hamstrings, numb spots. He asked me about our mattress at home (“aHA!", I thought) but discounted it as a potential cause. I lay myself carefully down on an impressive motorized table and let him work his “adjustments.”

Doctor friends of mine always wince at discussing “adjustments,” but they felt pretty good to me that day as the chiropractor compressed, flexed, and rotated my neck, shoulders, and spine. No immediate sense of relief, but the movement felt good. Surely if there was a pinched nerve or stubbornly spasmed muscle, it would take a little while to relax. I paid the man (in cash, contributing to the vaguely illicit sense of the whole thing, like buying a watch on the street) and left, still walking carefully, into Thanksgiving eve. Wednesday.