Out On Two Limbs

Posted on July 11, 2011


When my daughter was four, she went to a daycare center several days a week. The facility housed a health club that included a large pool, so the kids got to form their own swim team and took part in competitions, although who their opponents were, I can’t remember. What I do recall is sitting at the top of the bleachers in the back of this enormous, chlorine-infused steam bath and trying to pick out my daughter as she and her teammates lined up at the water’s edge. Her group consisted of boys and girls, but except for the bathing suits, it was impossible to tell them apart. For some reason, kids that age are all exactly the same height, and they all wore bright red bathing caps. As they stood shoulder to shoulder, their spindly legs pressed together under their twiggy little bodies and their heads all red and smooth and round, they looked, through the mist and from that distance and altitude, exactly like a large book of matches.

It may be hard to determine what, if anything, is interesting about that little story. I don’t think I ever saw actual swimming. I sat among a couple of dozen mothers and heard a lot of splashing and high-pitched squeals and the echoes of coaches’ whistles and shouts of encouragement bouncing off the walls. But for the most part I remained focused on that seat, its corrugated aluminum surface pressing lines into the backs of my legs and offering the same level of comfort as a highway guardrail. I tried not to stare at the clock, the one that told me how many more seconds I had to wait before I could stand up and restore the circulation of blood to my feet.

Anyway, that’s really what I wanted to talk to you about. My legs.

I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with my legs. I realize that sounds a little peculiar. Okay, love-hate is too strong. It’s more of a sense of remoteness, as though they weren’t really attached to my body. I walk all over the place, but I don’t feel myself moving my legs, or even deciding to move them. They seem to just propel themselves, as though they had a mind of their own. If I ever get arrested for trespassing, I’m going to say, “It wasn’t me. It was my legs.”

When I walk down the stairs, for example, my lower extremities perform stunning calculations of speed, direction, distance, and momentum — calculations I’m sure I couldn’t comprehend if they were explained by a physicist. My legs even have a rhythm I’m unaware of on a conscious level. They also raise or lower me when I need to reach for something, at the same time causing me to do a strange grimacing thing with my face. I don’t know what the grimace is for. It doesn’t seem to help me reach farther, or find the glass bowl I’m looking for behind the stack of plates. And it isn’t my arms that cause the grimace, because when I’m seated and reaching for something, I don’t do it. This is some direct legs-to-face connection that has yet to be discovered.

Driving requires still another orientation. I’m seated in the car, just as when at my desk. But now my legs have to extend forward and move around in a confined space, pressing and releasing pedals I can’t even see. They do this without effort.

My legs are tireless and versatile. I guess that’s what I’m trying to say. They do things that would become difficult if I had to really think about them. I have these thoughts about the stairs sometimes. I try to pay attention to what my legs are doing and to determine how they’re doing it. And this is when I have a problem, when my brain tries to get in the middle of the action and says, “Hey! I’m the brain. I’m in charge here. So, what are we up to?” At that point I will inexplicably take two consecutive steps with the same leg, trip over three stairs, and jam one foot into the floor as though I were attempting to put out a small paper fire. A second later, someone from the other side of the house, hearing the commotion and thinking perhaps that I may have snapped my spine, will yell, “Are you all right?” And I’ll say, “Yes. Why?” Then I’ll go into the bathroom, close the door, look into the mirror, and demand an explanation. But as long as I stay in a non-thinking mode, I can walk or run down a flight of stairs I’ve never been on before. How does that work?

I have no idea how it works, and most of the time, I don’t care. My legs are like a refrigerator. They just keep running and doing their job, with almost no acknowledgment. They go about their business, performing an incredible variety of activities with little attention or appreciation. There are parts of my legs I’ve never even seen. I probably have little marks and spots on the backs of my thighs, and if someone showed me a picture of them, I wouldn’t know whose legs I was looking at.

Now here’s the strange part. In the middle of the night, when I should be resting, my legs all of a sudden decide to cause trouble. They’ll want to move around when there’s no need to. This, I have recently learned, is a real condition called Restless Leg Syndrome.

I found out about RLS through a television commercial. Apparently, the pharmaceutical industry had run out of legitimate ailments, the kind that could get you a week off from work or at least a little sympathy from the people you live with, and so they had to invent a new complaint based on vague and senseless symptoms. What they came up with is the most pathetic disorder in the history of humanity. Simply put, I can’t sit still. My legs want to be noticed, demanding to go for a stroll, like a crazed dog itching to run in the park. It happens when I’m seated on an airplane, wedged between the window and a man who, if he were any closer, we would be sharing a few internal organs. It happens during staged performances, when I’m required to remain motionless and watch for long stretches of time — and sometimes it happens if I just think about that word, stretches. It happens during haircuts, teeth cleanings, and eye exams. It happens while listening to life insurance salesmen discussing, in a dry monotone, my accidental death and dismemberment. Or while watching in-store demonstrators present the features of an amazing new lint brush or non-stick spatula. Or opening the front door to find a thirty-year-old guy pretending to be a high school student who needs to sell only one more magazine subscription to win a trip to Barbados.

It happened once at a drive-in theater. I had made it through the first of two movies with only mild fidgeting. But the second film was boring; I think it was about a dental hygienist who goes door-to-door selling lint brushes and magazine subscriptions. Anyway, I’d been sitting behind the steering wheel for almost three hours and it was starting to get extremely unbearable. I turned every possible way, but failed to stem the flow of nerve impulses that were revving themselves up in my lower half. When I couldn’t take it any longer, I put my feet up onto the dashboard in order to get myself into a completely different position. This worked well for a few minutes, until I mindlessly moved my right foot over one inch and pressed the hazard light button. The horn started honking and the headlights began flashing, drowning out the sound of the film and alternately filling the screen with unwanted brightness. For just a moment I thought, “Who’s the idiot?” And then, as I often do, I realized it was me.

A second delightful thing that happens in my sleep is the leg cramp, a sudden, out-of-the-blue sensation in one of my calves, similar to that feeling you get when you’ve been run over by a passing steamroller. However, it differs from the steamroller-type pain in that getting up and walking around somehow relieves the agony, producing a bewildering combination of happy surprise and sleep-deprived irritation. (The distinction is an important one, I think: after being flattened by road construction equipment, I usually prefer to lie still and just hope the crows don’t see me before the ambulance arrives.)

The effortless movement I marveled at a while ago is balanced by yet another maddening experience that occurs in my dreams: trying in vain to run, or even walk. During sleep, my legs turn to bags of bricks, making forward motion ponderous and exhausting. It happens just when the dream requires me to climb a long hill, usually while fleeing from some predator, such as a runaway refrigerator or a life insurance salesman who’s chasing me with a non-stick spatula.

Psychiatrists would explain this recurring phenomenon by saying that I feel powerless or overwhelmed by life, and maybe that’s true. But sometimes I wake up from the dream with a more likely explanation: I’ve fallen asleep in the living room, on the futon couch, whose metal frame has horizontal bars that press through the cushion and into my thighs. My feet are numb, and for a few minutes I’m transported back to that misty indoor swimming pool. I’m surrounded by whistles and splashes and the echoes of women yelling “Go, Dylan!” and “Kick hard, Tiffany!” In fact, those corrugated aluminum bleachers could once again be leaving lines on the backs of my legs. But I wouldn’t know. There are still places that are hard to see. And as I make my way down the stairs to the bedroom, I’m careful not to think too much about what I’m doing. I just let my legs take me where they want to go.