Thursday, January 26, 2017

Where I Come From

Try to tell me a West Virginia joke I haven't heard. Go on...I'll wait. It's hilarious; I get it. How do I have shoes? And teeth? And I married someone who isn't my brother? These jokes are so novel! I proudly went to West Virginia University and bleed old gold and blue. No, I've never burned a couch. It's just too easy for you, isn't it? 

Last week I finished the J.D. Vance's brilliant book, Hillbilly Elegy. It is an insightful look at hillbilly culture. But before reading it I would vehemently argue that I am not a hillbilly. Despite having a lovely, safe childhood in a town that was idyllic in a lot of ways, I've fought back against where I come from. It's not because I'm not proud of it, but it's because from the time I was a child I thought I was more. Ultimately that's what hillbilly parents (and all parents) want for their children: more than they had. I was raised by two kick ass parents, a coal miner and homemaker, who worked their tails off so that our lives were easy. My three siblings and I all graduated from college. Two of us have advanced degrees. Even now that I objectively know my parents struggled financially at times, I didn't want for anything. 

Reading Vance's book felt equally familiar and unfamiliar. We did call our paternal grandmother "Mamaw", something northerners do not do. I still call an El Camino a "car truck" because, for real, what else would you call it? I spent summers playing in the woods behind my grandparents' house climbing trees and playing in the creek catching crawldads (crayfish for those of you who don't speak Redneck.) It still takes effort to say the word "dog" like it doesn't contain the letter 'w'.

I am a master at what I'd call hillbilly loyalty. Loyalty is like trust; it must be earned. I have two speeds of loyalty: I will throw myself in front of a train for you, or I'll carelessly cut you and laugh while you're bleeding. There is no in between. If I have not been loyal to you, it is because you did not earn and do not deserve my loyalty. It's quite simple. 

Like Vance and those who leave their Appalachian hometowns, I am sure there are those who think I've forgotten where I come from, and to some extent they are right. But I loved growing up in West Virginia, and after more than a decade in Michigan when I talk about "home" I do not mean Lansing, Michigan. I mean West Virginia.

My parents moved from my hometown of Hundred, WV to Morgantown (where I went to college and law school) in 2006, and I've only visited my hometown a handful of times in the last eleven years. Hundred feels foreign to me, like a place I used to know. And I've forsaken it for sure. When I go there I get a little (okay a lot) Sweet Home Alabama, where I channel my inner Melanie Carmichael and think "How do y'all live like this?" It's not very charitable. 

Downtown Hundred,West Virginia
My dad is buried in my hometown. His funeral was there. At the funeral home friends I hadn't seen since high school showed up to pay their respects to my family. I was reminded that while I've made a beautiful life here in Michigan, and while I visit Morgantown regularly, neither of those places are where I'm from. 

I'm from the middle of the giant lilac bush on my grandparents' property where I used to hide as a child. I'm from the cherry tree I'd regularly climb into and get stuck. I'm from the back pew of the Hundred United Methodist Church where I'd sit with my friends, talk too much, and get dirty looks from my mom. I'm from the front porch of the house in which I grew up where we'd sit for hours on the porch swing in the summer. I'm from the sidelines of the high school football games where my love for the Hundred Hornets shone through in my cheers and constant smile. I'm from the greenhouse and meats lab behind the high school where I spent at least one class period a day in the FFA. 

It's easy to look at my life today as a lobbyist rocking 3-inch heels every day working a room of "important" people and forget where I come from. When I'm running or visiting a new city, Hundred, WV doesn't come to the forefront of my mind.  Despite being from a tiny town, I adore big cities and consider myself a big city girl. I live in an urban downtown. I'm obsessed with things like public transit, walkable communities and pubic art, things I didn't think about growing up. But that doesn't mean I have to be only a big city girl. In the words of Don Henley, "somewhere back there in the dust, that same small town in each of us."

For me there was still more than Hundred, West Virginia, but that doesn't mean it is a bad thing for those who stayed. It's filled with hardworking, awesome people who are good humans and good neighbors. They are passionate about family and community. The school is close knit and it's a town where everyone knows everyone else (at least that's how it used to be. I hope that's still the case.) I am a city girl, but I am acutely aware of how I got here. 

Monday, January 23, 2017


Life is full of diversions that distract us from what's important. There are thousands of shiny things to divert our attention from the things in life that actually matter. I was like a dog chasing a squirrel in 2016 letting unimportant and negative things take my attention instead of focusing on the important things in my life. That is changing in 2017.

Last weekend I went to visit my siblings in Norfolk, Virginia. I love Norfolk, and even 11 years after moving away it still feels more like home than Michigan (a state where I have lived for 11 years, and I only lived in Norfolk for two and a half years).  Visiting my siblings is not about what or how much we do but rather seeing these people I love so much and making sure my son gets much needed quality time with his cousins. 

Because toddlers and doughnuts are always a good idea. 
We spent the weekend relaxing, visiting the Virginia Aquarium, eating, drinking and just talking. It was perfect. My son loves playing with all three of his cousins (although he was slightly jealous when I was holding my 5-month-old nephew). Being in Virginia is always a good reset for me, and it was exactly what I needed to ignore life's diversions.

On our way home our plane was diverted to Fort Wayne, Indiana (we were on our way to Detroit). The fog has been crazy in Michigan, and there was zero visibility in Detroit. We sat on the tarmac in Indiana for about 90 minutes, and I was traveling along with my toddler. He slept the two hours from Virginia to Fort Wayne and was a champion while stuck on the plane, and even with that I found myself in tears at the announcement that our flight was being diverted. There was something so disconcerting about being sent to an entirely different place, and the sense that everything was entirely out of my control was overwhelming. 

That's got me thinking about life's diversions being like my flight yesterday. If we focus on them diversions are disconcerting and overwhelming and can take us down a negative path. As many challenges as 2016 had, focusing on them would merely be a diversion. In 2016 I watched my beautiful son grow and become a wonderful, sassy toddler. I watched my husband be the best dad and supporter of our family, and I fell more in love with him. I spent quality time with friends and family. I achieved professional goals and had people I respect and admire affirm the advocacy work I've done since I moved to Michigan more than a decade ago. The other stuff - the negative, the focus on health challenges, the drama - were simply diversions from a year that had some really amazing parts.

As I begin running again in earnest I will use that time to reflect as I always have. No music, no noise, just me and the sound of my (heavy) breathing and feet pounding the pavement. It will help drive out the many diversions and let me focus on the beauty and the positive that is everywhere if I only take a minute to look.  

Monday, January 16, 2017

Crohn's is Tough, but I am Tougher.

I'd hoped for a different running year in 2016. After my fastest year ever in 2015 I had high expectations, and Crohn's had other plans. My husband bought me some great running gear for my birthday (in August), and I realized this morning that I have not worn one of the shirts yet. I've run that infrequently the last eight months. It's been pretty challenging emotionally, and my clothes are clinging in all the wrong places. Something has to give. 

Last year was challenging because it was the first Crohn's flare I'd had in 14 years. I had a lengthy hospital stay in 2014, but it was sort of Crohn's adjacent. I had a hernia repaired (elective surgery.). The hernia was the result of Crohn's scar tissue, and the resulting bowel obstruction was also from scar tissue. The subsequent blood clot was a surprise. But my actual Crohn's disease was in remission, and it allowed me to heal quickly.

The past nine months have been a huge struggle with my health. I passed out at the doctor's office in May and ended up spending a week in the hospital. Several months of steroids, a half a dozen courses of antibiotics and lots of sleepless, painful nights meant running (and exercising in general) was on the back burner. 

I'm about to get pretty TMI with my Crohn's, so if you don't want to know all these gory details stop reading now. If this is like a train wreck and you can't look away, I apologize in advance. Crohn's affects the entire digestive tract from mouth to anus. It's super sexy. This year I struggled significantly with mouth sores. Sometimes I'd have 5-6 at a time, and they'd be huge. Antibiotics and steroids would help, and then they'd come back. Thankfully since I switched to Humira in October it's kept the mouth sores at bay. There were times when I couldn't even kiss my husband. Brutal. 

My Crohn's was focused entirely in my colon (which was toxic and removed in 2000) and rectum. That means my small intestine is free of disease (thus far - knock on wood). That also means a ton of rectal inflammation. It's REALLY fun and really makes me feel like doing things like running (the sarcasm is coming through right?) 

When I ran the Detroit Half Marathon in October I felt so good. I felt like I was turning a corner. I registered for three half marathons in 2016 that I ended up not running. Not running a race for which I've registered is like a kick in the teeth. Running Detroit felt like I was back. I felt great during the entire race. Having an abscess materialize in the next week was so frustrating.

This is the first time I'd had an abscess drained, and it was as fun as you might imagine. I ignored it for a few days following the race because I thought it was chafing. Runners have lots of chafing in weird places, so I chalked it up to that. By the weekend after the race I knew it was more. I knew it was an abscess, and I went to the ER like a boss (because when you're a Crohn's patient you know your care better than ER doctors. Always. I am not being sarcastic.)

When the surgeon came in I told him I had a situation, and he laughed and said, "Well I'm the guy they call when there's a situation.." I knew he was the right guy because 99.9 percent of surgeons have no personality. I like to joke with them to see the blank stares I'll get. He wanted to drain it while I was awake in the ER, and I refused. I've suffered through procedures while being awake because I felt like I had to, and I won't do it anymore.  

I went into the OR around 2 pm, and we picked up my son by the end of the business day. You know, typical day with Crohn's. To drain the abscess they inserted what's called a seton, essentially a little rubber tube to drain it. Mine was attached in three places (all really, really uncomfortable places), and my doctor at the University of Michigan said it was by far the most complicated one she'd ever seen. Unfortunately one of the connection spots was right by my bikini line, and it was super uncomfortable and frequently painful. While I was cleared to run, it was always pulling that drain and did not feel good. I finally had it removed last week after two months, and I went for my first run the next day. I am the most out of shape I've been in years, but I'm building it back up. 

Now comes the fun part of running again: picking races. I'm registered for two 5ks and a 10k in the next six weeks. Baby steps. My original 2017 goal was a half marathon once a month, but that is not feasible until my health improves. Last weekend I went for several short 3-mile runs. They weren't fast, and they weren't pretty. But they felt amazing. I felt strong. That's the goal.

Although my health has been a challenge this year, it does not get to define me. It's obviously a huge part of me, but I'm so much more. I'll get through this rough patch, and I look forward to feeling strong again. One mile at a time...

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Scrapping the Schedule

I like schedules. I mean who doesn't right? Schedules are imperative for a mom of a toddler, but my commitment to the calendar began long before my son was born. I can remember in high school balancing school, cheerleading for fall and winter sports seasons, track season in the spring, plus all the other extracirricular activities in which I was involved. I remember cheering for boys' basketball games on Friday nights, getting home late and getting up early on Saturday to drive an hour one way for tumbling class. I wrote columns in two local newspapers. I was a four-time state FFA champion (in parliamentary procedure, public speaking, extemporaneous speaking and the best - meat judging), and I competed in numerous competitions that didn't result in state titles. My agenda was full.

Cheerleading sophomore year
1995 state champion meat judgers. For real.

Fast forward to college. In the days before spreadsheets I kept an evolving document that listed the courses I needed to take. I would substitute a class for a requirement that fit the schedule and shuffle the whole thing around. I could've easily graduated in three years even after changing my major. I went to the gym five days a week at 6 am. I worked several jobs: waiting tables at a sports bar/restaurant, at a jewelry store and in the business office at the school paper. I was on the debate team my senior year and spent ten weekends away in tournaments during one school year. I partied with my friends a lot. Even as a college student the schedule ruled my life.

Legislative internship my senior year of my spare time.
The summer I graduated, 2000, was when it threatened to all came crashing down. I was sick the spring of my senior year, and I had my colon removed on July 20, 2000. I started law school one month later. I was so skinny and weak I could barely carry my books. I had a bowl reconstruction over Christmas break in December of 2000 and my illeostomy reversed over spring break in March of 2001 - all during my first year of law school. I studied, made average grades, balanced a tumultuous long distance relationship and made some of the best friends of my life. I didn't miss a beat of my tightly scheduled life. 

As a non-student adult my calendar looks like a game of Tetris. My husband and I have full-time, busy jobs, a colossal Victorian home to manage, three pets, and a toddler. Oh and our marriage. NBD. I somehow fit in running and exercise (although less so the last few months). We also have one of the busiest travel and social schedules of anyone I know because we love it. My life is ruled by the schedule. 

Quality time with the hubs seeing John Oliver in Detroit.
While there's no way I can eliminate the schedule altogether (because that's madness), my 2017 goal is to ignore it sometimes. I want to have more free weekends, more time at home, more spontaneous dinners with friends and quality time with my boys. I want to be bored. Over Christmas break I napped several times during my son's nap time (unheard of) and slept in past 8 am at least twice. Madness. 

Watching TV in bed (sans makeup!) over Christmas break
I want to lace up my running shoes and log the miles, but I will give myself a break when I need one. And it will be okay. I will focus on being strong (mentally and physically) and surrounding myself with positive people instead of overscheduling my life. I will take more deep breaths. 

Relaxing before our annual Christmas party instead of running around.
Having a routine and a schedule is critical, but being flexible is also important. In 2017 I will practice the art of being flexible. If you call me and want to have drinks, I'll have room on the calendar to say yes. Who am I kidding...text me, don't call. I don't have that much time on my hands.