Tuesday, February 24, 2015


I have a lot of stories from my years in the Peace Corps. I have a least a dozen stories that involve all sorts of shenanigans, from the campaign to get Eddy Urbina front teeth to the time my mom hopped on a random stranger's horse and rode away, bareback.

But no other story holds a candle to the one involving two large men, a small cat, my living room, and a Spanish book of yoga poses from 1972. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

I've gotten more and more into storytelling this past year. Having a blog will do that to you. And just as I'm getting into writing stories, the Northern California Returned Peace Corps Association (NorCal) starts up a storytelling series, the Story Jam. Over the past year, Story Jam has consisted of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers getting up on stage and telling their stories. I'd been meaning to attend a Story Jam for months. Because before I knew it, I was standing on stage telling my tale of lost love. Below is my story.

Or you can listen to the audio version of the story here: http://picosong.com/2ycF/
And the video version is available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_bPu6U7_QVY&list=PLHcV3zsz2X9w7cZJTFHj34FpY97j64Csa

In my home in Gualaco, Olancho, Honduras I had mice. They would pitter-patter every night on the side of my bed, trying to crawl into it with me. So I got a cat. I didn't have mice anymore. 

Instead, I had a best friend. This was a very special cat. "Mi Primer Mascota." My first pet. I named her Bella, bathed her, put a flea collar on her, brushed her fur, let her sleep in the bed with me, potty trained her, and even bought her Gati, special cat food only found in the capital of my department, over two hours away.

The kids loved playing with Bella

Everyone in the village knew my cat; my special gringa cat (pink and white striped "gringa" flea collar and all). I loved this cat with all my heart and soul. When you are the only person living in a small village without your family, you have two choices: you can either miss your family inconsolably. Or you can make your own family. Bella was my family. I named her after my Aunt. I would take pictures of Bella and send them to my mom. I had never had a pet before and Bella was 100% mine.

Meanwhile, I was a new Peace Corps volunteer, always looking for something to fill my time. Around the same time I left for my two plus years in Honduras, my best friend decided to quit her job and move to a yoga retreat in Hawaii. Despite my reluctance to accept yoga into my life at the time, she had sent me off with a deck of yoga cards. I couldn't think of a better project to occupy my time than translating the yoga cards into Spanish. Frequently people would see me around town, at the school using the copier machine, or at the internet cafe, translating the instructions into Spanish. It took up a lot of time.

My yoga deck of poses

One of the very best things about living in my village was the Sierra de Agalta National Park that surrounded us. A group of Gualacans (my people) were "guides" who knew the park like the back of their hands. They would lead me to the Caves of Susmay any time I wanted. They helped me climb La Picucha, the tallest mountain in our department. These guys had day jobs, but being guides was the thing they were most proud of. I spent countless days with these guys; they became my closest friends.

So it wasn't too surprising when I got a knock on my door at 9pm one night. I was almost in bed. But Moncho (real name Ramon) and Eddy were at my door and they were super excited; they had just found a book, in Spanish, of yoga from 1972. And they couldn't wait share this information with me. What the hell, I thought, yoga hasn't changed in a few thousands years, what's another 20? Their poses should be the same as mine.

Moncho asked me if he could show me what he'd been working on. I didn't see why not. It was late, but they were already here and they were so excited. So Moncho quickly swept my living room floor clean and started one of the most difficult poses in all of yoga; he would attempt to do a tripod, leading into a head stand. 

Here's the thing about Moncho Belis: Moncho is a great guy, heart of gold, but also a former alcoholic always one step away from falling back off the wagon. His years of drinking had begun to catch up with him and he was what Hondurans refer to as "panzon." He had a literal beer gut. This guy weighed at least 200 pounds.

Moncho & Eddy

So to watch Moncho attempt the headstand was nothing short of miraculous.  But, along he went: elbows on the ground, legs on his arms, legs heading straight up in the air, and then legs coming down faster than you could imagine. But that's when I saw it. I gasped in horror as Moncho sat up. I was the first person to see the blood that completely covered his back. Then I saw my cat. Bella then started running around in little circles, blood shooting out the side of her head. Finally she dropped down dead and I just took off running, screaming and crying. I woke up the entire town. "What's the crazy gringa going on about now?" they started asking each other.

Where I went wasn't all that much of a mystery. I went to the home of my then Honduran boyfriend. I banged on the door, screaming for him. He was the only other person in the town who could even fathom how much I loved this cat. I woke him up. I also woke up his entire family. I screamed, "Moncho la mato, Moncho la mato!" - "Moncho killed her". And that's when things went from bad to worse. See, my boyfriend's brother's name is also Moncho. So his mom and dad thought either a. someone had killed their son Moncho or b. their son Moncho had killed a girl. Either way, it was looking bad. Everyone was upset.

And then my boyfriend had to explain a completely foreign concept to his parents; Karen was inconsolably upset because Moncho Belis had just killed her cat. Relieved their own son Moncho was okay, they started to stare confusingly right at me. At that point they knew I was crazy; how could I get so upset about an animal? Animals were meant to be kept outside, literally at arm's length all the time. It's not like a family member was gone.

Once I had mostly calmed down, I knew I had to go back home, to confront the scene of the crime. I headed home. Moncho was gone, but Eddy was there waiting for me. The floor was mostly cleaned up, but it still looked like the scene of a very bloody crime. And it was beginning to smell like one.

Eddy told me that Moncho had gone home. That's when I realized what my running away had done; it had told Moncho that I couldn't look at him ever again. But that wasn't true.  It was a freak yoga accident that killed my beloved cat. It was absolutely an accident.

I knew I had to talk to Moncho right away, so I went right over to his house. He was so sad, I just couldn't be mad at him. He very apologetically told me, "Karen, I am a lover of all animals. I could and would never hurt your cat. My children can attest to this fact. I have never harmed another living creature in my life!" 

Remember I mentioned these guys all had day jobs? Well, Moncho was a fumigator. The emotional side of me knew it was just an accident; the logical side of me knew we'd have to some day revisit just what it meant to be a fumigator by profession.

Back at home we put Bella in a box. I apologized to everyone around me for my crazy outburst that night, but my period of mourning had already begun. I put a sign on the door. "Hubo un accidente, no hay clases hoy." There was an accident, there are no classes today. I wasn't about to start telling everyone what Moncho had done. 

But I lived in a small town; everyone already knew. By noon the next day, Moncho already had the nickname "Matagato." Cat-killer. The cat was out of the bag. Everyone knew Moncho Belis had killed my cat.

We ended up burying Bella in my backyard. Eventually I accepted what had happened to her. And what about me and Moncho? I really did forgive him and we ended up becoming great friends. Even if he is a matagato.

Watch out for the cat-killer!

Sunday, February 8, 2015

charcot marie foot

"Symptoms, then are in reality nothing but the cry from suffering organs"
-Dr. Jean Martin Charcot

Ever since I can remember I've suffered from mid-sleep charlie horses. If you're not familiar with the term, I get cramps in my calves while I'm asleep. Yes, I said while I'm asleep. In complete and total pain is a very jarring way to wake up.

So you can imagine my surprise when, halfway through my very first marathon, both my calves started actively cramping. Calf and foot cramps, until that point, had been reserved for laying down and/or sleeping. But instead I found myself running (for over two hours) through the active cramping in my lower legs. When I finally finished the race, medics put ice bags on my calves. While that helped relieve the pain a bit, removing the ice resulted in two of the worst cramps of my life; charlie horses so painful I dropped to the ground, screaming and swearing uncontrollably and scaring the medics who had circled around me and my family. All I could think was, "I haven't had a calf cramp this bad since I was fifteen years old." And I probably hadn't.

Running a marathon (and smiling) while my legs are actively cramping

If you've never suffered from a calf cramp (or in my case, many many calf cramps), you are lucky. They are painful. I'm never sure when they'll start, I do not know how best to ease them, and I absolutely do not know how to prevent them.

I wasn't the only person in my household with this mysterious midnight pain. My brother also suffered from mid-sleep calf cramps (and was the one who first used the term "Charley horse" and taught me its meaning). Most of my memories of Dave's calf cramps were during his high school years. Despite being two and a half years younger than Dave, we would both suffer leg pain at the same time, often during the same night. While I would always choose to instantly grab my leg (or legs) and try to massage out the cramp, Dave chose another treatment; he'd try to stomp them out. Dave would suddenly jump out of bed and start stomping down on his leg. Once he was satisfied he'd gotten the cramp out, he'd fall right back onto his bed and into sleep. The number of times I woke up to the sound of Dave stomping his leg are too numerous to count. It was a typical occurrence in our home.

And clearly I still continue to get these cramps. What's interesting to me it that there is very little known about WHY I get searing pain in my calf muscles that wake me up. I have been told about any number of possible causes of my distress, but none of them make any sense. Everyone seems to offer up an unsolicited solutions to this problem. First up, lack of potassium. Sorry friends, but I am absolutely 100% not potassium deficient. It's not the culprit. Trust me; I have my potassium level checked every six months (an unrelated concern). More potassium will not eliminate my cramps; I could eat all the bananas in the world and not get better.

The suggestion that dehydration is to blame for my charlie horses is much more believable. I don't drink enough. I try, especially with all the running I do. But I am always thirsty, most especially in the middle of the night. So I drink a lot. And I pee a lot. And I drink a lot more. But I never feel hydrated.

During my post-marathon calf cramp fit, my mom offered up some life changing information; calf and foot cramping is a symptom of Charcot Marie Tooth disease. Charcot Marie Tooth (CMT) comprises a group of disorders passed down through families that affect the nerves outside the brain and spine; aka the peripheral nerves. I know, it's an odd name for a foot disease (actually it's foot and hand). But it's named after the three doctors (Charcot, Marie, and Tooth) who discovered it. Several members of my family suffer from CMTX, the x-linked form of the disease.

After the marathon I had truly reached my breaking point. My feet had been hurting so bad for so long I had to finally see a podiatrist. Four days later I had the official diagnosis; I have Charcot Marie Tooth. I wish I could say I'm not devastated. But I am. Why else would I have avoided the podiatrist for twenty years? Up until last week I had still hoped I'd hear, "new shoes will fix your chronic foot pain." But they won't. Foot pain is a part of me. Most of the people close to me know my feet hurt every single day. Some days I run with the pain. Other days I run through the pain. But most of the time, I run despite the pain.

Packing for a marathon includes lots of 2nd skin bandages

So what does this mean for a (now official) marathoner? Of course I had to ask my doctor about the running. Would I have to give it up? The short answer is no. With lots of orthotics. And maybe surgery. But first orthotics, lots and lots of orthotics. And new shoes. And stretches. And special exercises. And the frozen water bottle under the foot trick that I promise alleviates plantar fasciitis.

Many people prefer to keep their CMT on the down low. In their defense, the symptoms can become very dehabilitating, especially for men. But I'm putting it out there; I am a marathon runner with CMT. Because I want you to know. And to understand. If we're out walking together, I'd like you to slow down. And when we're out on a hike, the pain might become so unbearable for me we have to either stop for a while or immediately turn back. But the pain won't stop me. I will continue to go out and run. And maybe even hike once and a while. And maybe, just maybe, someday I'll run another marathon. After all, "few things in life match the thrill of a marathon." (Fred Lebow, runner and founder of the NYC Marathon). Mr. Lebow, I completely agree.

I'm already thinking about my next marathon...