Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Michigan's Upper Peninsula

Last week I traveled to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Commonly referred to as the "U.P." My cousin is a neurologist in Iron Mountain, MI. She had provided me with three subjects to interview for this book. Combining work with vacation, I packed my car, headed up to Canada, and crossed into Michigan through Port Huron.

Marquette, MI -Lake Superior
Michigan is comprised of two peninsulas. The lower peninsula which contains two-thirds of the land mass is on the eastern side of Lake Michigan. This is where you will find Detroit and the other larger, well-known Michigan cities. The upper peninsula is on the western side of Lake Michigan. It is bounded by Lake Superior on the north, and Wisconsin on the south.

Mackinac Bridge
I entered the U.P. by crossing over the Mackinac Bridge. One of the longest suspension bridges in the world, the Mackinac Bridge crosses the Straits of Mackinac to connect the two peninsulas. Residents of the U.P. refer to themselves as "Yoopers" (U.P. -ers). They refer to the lower peninsula residents as "Trolls"--those who live "under da bridge."

The upper peninsula is heavily forested. The eastern portion, where I entered, is bounded on the south by Lake Michigan. The terrain is flat, sandy, and swampy. Characteristic of the whole region are large forests dominated by evergreens and birch trees.

One of the first things you notice after entering the U.P. is that you can purchase "pasties" every 100 yards. Be careful how you pronounce this! Large, doughy, meat turnovers, "pass-tees" not "paste-tees," are a regional staple. They were brought by the Cornish miners and adopted by all in the U.P.

As you move farther into the U.P., the land remains heavily forested, but the terrain starts to show gently rolling hills. To the north, it becomes more rocky. The U.P. is interspersed with numerous lakes and rivers, but be careful when you're hiking. The ticks are ferocious. I was crawling with them after hiking in the Lake Fumee Natural Area.

Big Lake Fumee
Because of the harsh winter climate, the U.P. is not suitable to agriculture. The primary industries are logging, tourism, and mining, although most of the mines are now closed.

In the early part of the twentieth century, Ford Motor Company had an Iron Mountain Plant. In the 1920s and 30s, significant amounts of wood were being used in the construction of conventional and steel-bodied cars. According to Henry Ford in his 1926 biography, "We used about a million feet of lumber a day."

The U.P. comprises one-third of the state's land mass but only 3% of the population. This remote, cold, and beautiful place contains warm friendly people. Mining attracted the Finns, Swedes, Danes, and Norwegians. To this day there is still a large population of Finns along with the only Finnish language station in the United States.

In the following weeks, I will be posting excepts from interviews with my three interview subjects from Iron Mountain, MI.

Monday, May 23, 2011

A Little Kindness

Becoming my parent's primary caregiver over the last year increased my stress and increased my fatigue. I started to wonder how do others deal with fibromyalgia? Are their symptoms like mine? Are they worse? Are they better? Have they found any treatment that is geniunely successful? Those thoughts were the premise for this book.

Fibromyalgia is a strange condition. For me, it is more annoyance than anything else. For others it affects every aspect of their lives. I've lived with the diagnosis of fibro for over 10 years, but I never paid that much attention to it. I'd get tired, I'd get achy, and sometimes my gastrointestinal track launches a major offensive. The bouts of IBS occasionally lay me flat, but the pain and fatigue I can usually work through if needed.

For those who are completed debilitated by fibro, there are often other problems as well. I have interviewed people with severe back problems, lupus, narcolepsy, and psoriatic arthritis. For them, fibro is just the icing on the cake. Their other problems are much greater.

It is so easy to say to yourself, "look at what that person eats. Look at how lazy he is. No wonder he has problems." To some extent that might be true, but the thing about fibro is if you could prevent it through proper diet and exercise, I wouldn't have it. It's like the old chicken and the egg argument. Are they overweight and out-of-shape because they hurt so much they can't exercise, or did they get fibro because they are overweight and out-of-shape. I do believe that proper diet and exercise keep my symptoms at  a minimum.

Often fibromyalgia is thought to have a triggering event such as a major accident or illness. Does that mean you're doomed to get fibro if you're in a serious car accident? A friend of mine worried about this. She feared another friend would develop fibro because she had a bad skiing accident. The problem with this logic is that millions of people experience these types of events and never develop fibro. Fibromyalgia only affects 1% to 5% of the population, so obviously there is something else involved.

Although there seems to be more and more evidence pointing to fibro as being a neurological dysfunction. The medical communty is still unable to determine a definite pathology. Before judging another person's appearance and lifestyle choices, we need to realize that fibro is not something easily preventable. It affects everyone differently. Unless we can occupy another person's body for awhile, we really don't know what anyone is feeling. We need to be kind to one another and listen.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Human Barometers

I once told a friend I can feel the weather changing. His response, which is his basic response to everything, was "You're full of #$*@."

I do feel the weather changes. I can't tell you what it is going to do, but I can tell you the pattern is changing. I think this is pretty common for anyone with chronic pain. Joints swell, the rheumatism acts up, and old injuries throb.

I bring this up because this weather is making me crazy. After a bitterly cold, wet, and dismal spring, I greeted the beautiful weather last week with enthusiasm. I cleaned the porches on my vacation rental house, I washed the siding, I started cleaning up some of the flower beds, I finally got out for a ride on my bicycle, and I took an invigorating hike with my dogs.

Just as a snake's metabolism speeds up, I basked in the sun, relishing it's joint loosening warmth. When I wasn't exerting myself, I enjoyed a meal or read a book from my deck overlooking the lake. Dermatologists may chastise me, but nothing makes my body aches feel better than the warmth of the sun.

Although Friday was still a gorgeous day, I felt the low pressure system roll in as a stabbing pain right between my eyes. As the thunderstorms arrived that evening, the sinus headache abated. By Sunday it was pouring rain, in the 40s, and the lethargy struck.

Am I tired and lacking ambition because of the fibro, or am I just sick and tired of cold-cold rain in mid-May? My body isn't really aching much, but I am listless and bored. Even though I have a huge list of indoor things that I need to do, I am ready to slither back into my nest and go back into hibernation. I'd nap all day, but I don't even feel enthusiasm for that. To all my fellow human barometers, my sympathy goes out to you.

Monday, May 9, 2011


For the last few days, I have watched a crazy male cardinal who is determined to defend his territory from his reflection in the window. Despite the fact that he crashes into the window over and over and must be quite bruised by now, he continues his assault. I hung up a towel to mute the reflection, but he continues on his mission.

Like the cardinal, it is easy for those who have fibromyalgia to also deny its reality. No one wants to have something that is difficult to treat. It doesn't help that there are many who don't believe in the syndrome either. Fibromyalgia is such a nebulous condition. There are so many things that share similar symptoms, which is why fibromyalgia is usually diagnosed by eliminating the obvious.

Recently, I had a physical. I went to the doctor hoping that I would have hypothyroidism. Why would I wish to be diagnosed with a chronic illness? Once again I was in denial, and I was looking for an easy fix.

Hypothyroidism shares many of the same symptoms as fibromyalgia, such as fatigue; increased sensitivity to cold; constipation; muscle aches, tenderness, and stiffness; and depression. The difference is that there is an easy fix for hypothyroidism, which there isn't for fibromyalgia. I was hoping that all I had to do was take a replacement hormone for the rest of my life and my symptoms would be gone. But alas, it was not to be; turns out I am revoltingly healthy.

Misha, like myself, tries to maintain a normal lifestyle. She hasn’t made drastic changes because she doesn’t want to. Misha considers herself an active person, she wants to be able to do things, and if it means she suffers a little, so be it, “for a while there I did cross-fit kettle bell training. If you’ve ever seen P90X (Extreme Home Fitness program), it’s kind of like that on crack − very fast paced. It’s really just 30 minutes of hell. Sometimes, I wouldn’t be able to walk afterwards. My point of view on it was I caused the pain. I’m the reason. I’m in control of that pain. I’d rather have that pain then the flare-up so it’s kind of a weird way of thinking maybe.”

Although Misha and I may not always accept our condition, we are a little better off than
that cardinal. At least we both eventually acknowledge the reality of the situation rather than continuing to beat ourselves up.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Excerpt from Heather's Interview

Heather is inspired by people who do great things and who really live life each day trying to make a mark and help other people—people who give whatever resources they have without worrying about the money. “Our whole society has just become so money crazy. We’ve lost sight of a lot of the more important things in life. So when I see on the news a really good story or something sad it inspires me.”

Politics and unfairness inspires Heather to write. “I really should have been a journalist because I have a thing about unfairness. So I’ve written letters to the editors and stuff like that. I would like to be a writer and editor. Ultimately I hope I can get into that.”

Her girlfriend is one of those inspirational people, whose selflessness helps Heather to cope, “Despite being on disability, she takes care of her home, helps her parents, and volunteers at the dialysis center at the Des Moines Methodist Hospital. Her kidneys stopped functioning. She went through years of dialysis and eventually got a kidney from her own mother.”

Another method Heather uses to cope is to stay busy. “This week I have been off from school. I really think that that’s the key—having things to do. If I wasn’t doing stuff this week, I would probably have laid around the whole time, gotten depressed. I’ve been applying for jobs in Des Moines so that keeps me pretty busy.”

Heather feels her fibromyalgia is not as severe as it can be for others. “I do think people get it in different degrees. But I also think it’s the effort. I push myself to try to do things, even if I don’t want to.”