Text and photos © Robert Barry Francos
Recently, a cousin said to me, “You know why you’re no good at sports? ‘Cause your father was a lazy fuck who wouldn’t take you to little league or some other organized kid’s sport.”
Maybe. As a young’n, I remember running a lot and playing tag kinds of things, though my favorite game was called Skelly, which was sort of marbles with bottle caps played on the sidewalk in a field drawn out of chalk. There was skill, but no real physicality other than being on your knees to shoot the caps.
Sure, I watched professional wrestling in my early teens, but I was never into organized sports, whether in a gym class or watching it on television. Sometimes I would be amazed at hearing kids talking about batting averages and the like, reeling off numbers. To me, it was like a foreign language.
By the time I got to high school, I had no coordination or sports acumen at all. I was bad at basketball, football, baseball and softball. In all the time I played on the (cement) baseball field in gym class, I hit the ball perhaps twice, and never made it to first base. All the other kids on whatever team I was on hated me for this, so eventually, when I was forced to play, the gym teachers created a position for me: I would stand outside the fence and retrieve any ball that went over. And I played the same position for both teams. Basically, I got to hang out and play “fetch.” My last year, the teachers gave up on even that, and they let me basically run around the track for three miles each class.
Meanwhile, though not a follower of sports, my dad would occasionally get tickets to hockey, basketball or baseball games through his work, and I would always enjoy going. It was the whole zeitgeist to the spectacle experience that would appeal to me; what was going on in the stands was always as intriguing as whatever was happening on the field, ice, or boards. Once I even took in a professional soccer game and saw Pele play with the Cosmos, but all I really remember is the literal pain in the ass from sitting on the cement seats on Randall’s Island, and that it went into triple-freakin’-overtime.
When I got to college and had to take PE credits, I went for karate (taekwondo). I had taken it once before as an early teen, in a community center (the JCH). The week after I bought the correct clothes, the instructor, who was twice my size and more than double my weight, said, “Throw a punch at me.” So I put my arm up and half-heartedly threw out my fist, figuring he was explain to me slowly what to do. Instead, he full force blocked my arm (I thought he had broke it in that instant), picked me up, and threw me over his shoulder and across the room, as I skid on my knees across the canvas mat. “Learn how to fall,” was all he said, and walked away. I looked down at my painful knees, and the friction had burned right though my expensive karate pants, and my knees were bleeding. “Fuck this,” I thought, and limped out. I had blisters for weeks.
But I decided to try again. At the end of the first year, I had attained a yellow belt (the one after the white; the teacher/instructor said to us, “Congratulations, you now know enough to get yourself killed” (meaning by overconfidence, believing we knew more than we actually did… I did not have that problem).
The second year of it (and the final athletics credits I needed), I was 19 years old). It was somewhere in this year, while we had to run around the gym backwards to build up our calves, that my ankles started to hurt. Then they began to really hurt. I didn’t know what the hell was going on, and the instructor, idiot that he was, had no sympathy. He yelled two inches from my face, “Little kids in Asia can do this, so don’t complain!”
I knew I most likely had flat feet, so I went to a podiatrist. He confirmed that condition, and gave me these Frankenstein’s monster-type shoes that weighed a ton and were ugly as anything (and very costly). Also added to it were these metal insoles that were unwieldy and kept me off balance.
Soon, they both hurt my feet more than without them, so I stopped using them. And yet, the pain was still there, and reached my knees. After a while, it started on my hips, and worked its way up over time to my neck. There it was particularly strong, and I couldn’t turn my head without extremely sharp agony. To get out of bed, on those days, I had to put my hand behind my head and lift it manually while my body rose. The muscles in my back began to spasm, especially when I would laugh. I just couldn’t breathe, and had to stand still until the spasm passed. My whole body was screaming.
At age 24, I went to a doctor who specialized in arthritis and finally nailed it down, and it had a name: ankylosing spondylitis (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ankylosing_spondylitis). It was not a great thing to have, but just knowing what it was, was a relief. Still, I was not sure what to do about it. This doctor, who was a big macher on the Arthritis Board, gave me a prescription for Indocin, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug commonly used to reduce fever, pain, stiffness, and swelling. It works by inhibiting the production of prostaglandins, molecules known to cause these symptoms. More potent than aspirin, it had some strong side effects, giving me severe stomach cramps. The doctor didn’t tell me it would eat away my stomach lining and could cause ulcers. After about a month of taking this crap, I didn’t renew my prescription. Over the years, I’ve relied on either ibuprofen or acetaminophen, when I needed it.
My family was supportive, and about a year after my diagnosis, I received a phone call from my brother’s friend, Pete Ceuter. I’d know Pete since my brother met him in college, and they had become good pals. Pete started out working in medical clinics, and now he was graduating as a chiropractor. He told me that he wanted to check me out. I didn’t pay much attention, figuring he was just trying to drum up new business.
The pain was there every day, in some form or another, and because it was a spinal thing, it could show up in any joint at any time, but the muscle spasms behind the lung were among the harshest. Over time, my back began to twist and curve, as is standard with this disease (hence my wonderful posture). After running into Pete again at one function or another, I finally agree to see him professionally.
Pete was a good guy. Very honest and very blunt, with a sharp sense of humor, and so I trusted him. After examining me at an intake, he told me point blank that he would never get me standing straight, as no one could, and if anyone told me otherwise, they’d be lying. He had researched the disease for a while since he heard about my condition. What he did say was that he would do what he could.
I started seeing him for three times a week in the ‘80s, as the treatments were partly covered by my work plan (only 60%, for a limited amount of visits per year, and the rest was to be paid in full by me). After a couple of years, it went down to twice a week, then once a week, then once very two weeks, where it stayed for years. By the time the ‘90s came around, I had less steady pain, more movement, and had gained a full inch on my height. He didn’t straighten out my spine, just as he claimed, but he made it straighter.
I continued to see Pete until his death a few years ago, of lung cancer. The man never smoked – anything – in his life, ate only healthy foods, and exercised regularly, but he grew up with two parents who were chain smokers, and he was second-hand smoked to death. I’ve seen a few other chiropractors over the years, but no one has had his touch, or has been as effective as Pete. Next week I start some sessions with a local chiropractor (thanks to insurance due to an auto accident) who is supposed to be one of the best in town. I’ll reserve my judgment.
This may sound like a digression, but hold on: in the company I used to work, they wisely had an area where people could put things they didn’t want, and anyone could just take them. One section was for books, which were mostly crappy romance novels or Mary Higgins Clark-type tripe, but every once in a while something semi-interesting would show up that I may not normally read, but since it was there and free, why not?
One of these books was the autobiography of Slash, and even though I never cared for Guns n’ Roses, I read that, and the tome was okay. Another was Motley Crue: The Dirt - Confessions of the World's Most Notorious Rock Band by Tommy Lee, Vince Neil, Mick Mars, and Nikki Sixx. Again, I’m not a fan of the band at all, but it was there and free, and it was about musicians, so what the hell. At some point, I’m reading a part written by guitarist Mick Mars, and he’s talking about some pain he has, and how it started. I’m thinking, wow, this sounds just like mine, even starting at age 19. And sure enough, yes, it is ankylosing spondylitis. His condition, though, is far worse and further progressed than mine, including hip replacements, losing three inches in height, a more fused spine, and constant pain.
That could have been me, if it weren’t for the due diligence of Pete working on me for all those years. Yes, I still have pain right now, even as I type this, and especially when the humidity level either rises or drops sharply, but I’m a lot better off than I may have been. It could be me that is as bad as Mars, and I’m grateful that I’m not disabled like him. I shovel snow (slowly and carefully), vacuum as necessary, and even packed up my old apartment and unpacked into our new house.
I’ll never be able to run long distances, and putting on my left sock is an ordeal (that side is particularly stiff, especially clipping that foot’s toenails – yikes, TMI). Walking up and down stairs a lot gets to me, but I’m moving, and I even climbed a 10-story pyramid in Mexico three years ago. The biggest effects that I find, other than the semi-regular flare-up of pain (which is not as bad as it used to be), is that my hip extension is not as wide as it was, so I take smaller steps (which means most people walk faster than I do with less energy output), and the other is my rib cage is tight, so it is harder to draw deep breathes, which means I get winded faster.
What I find amusing is the list of famous people that have this condition in Wikipedia. There’s Mick Mars and Ed Sullivan, but most of the others are athletes. How do they do it? I’ll never be an athlete, but I’m okay with that, because I probably wouldn’t be anyway, as my lack of interest in sports predates my AS.
But all things considered (see, I told you I read Slash’s book), I’m proud to say that in all these years, I’ve lost only one day of work to this thing, and that was in the late 1980s.