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Awkwardness, Arthritis, and the Iditarod MAG
I have always been awkward. There is something about me, which I still can't pin down, that seems resolutely incongruous with the rest of the world. It doesn't make sense; on close examination, there seems to be nothing wrong. I have a strong intellect, a good moral compass. I'm not bad looking. But none of this negates the awkwardness. I think that somehow, intrinsically, it's just the way I am.
When I was in sixth grade, my friend Laura moved to a little town in Indiana where everyone was on meth. We didn't know that at the time, and I feel sorry for her now, condemned as she was to live in a place where most people didn't care about school and didn't have any teeth. But then, it was a glorious revolution. She was finally leaving.
Laura had been my unremitting critic since third grade. In addition, she had a lot of brilliant ideas. One of them was to make everything about dogs and horses. I have always questioned little girls' fascination with dogs and horses. It doesn't make sense – there is nothing inherently cuter or more interesting about horses and dogs than, say, hedgehogs and belugas. In fact, in many respects, baby belugas and hedgehogs are much cuter and more interesting than canines and equines. However, it seems in America, girls between the ages of eight and fourteen must be obsessed with dogs and horses.
The first games we played, in third grade, were about farming. Laura would be the horse or dog, not surprisingly, and my other friends and I would do the yard work and cooking. Our role was considerably duller than Laura's. She barked and panted, while we weeded and mixed mud. Eventually, all of my friends had become yappy canines in need of constant attention, weeded yards, and mud to eat.
This trend continued into middle school. For children in my town, middle school is fourth, fifth, and sixth grades. In fourth grade, we began the game of “sled dogs.” Thankfully, this was before we read Call of the Wild, which would no doubt have spurred dozens of spin-offs played out at recess. The game's mechanics were relatively simple. Namely, we pretended we were dogs. But first we had to decide what kind of dogs. These negotiations lasted several intense minutes and often devolved into arguments. I usually ignored both Sadie and Laura, as I had no idea what an Alaskan Groove Brown Eyed Husky (or some such nonsense) was. I have made it my mission never to find out.
When the negotiations were complete, there came the culmination: run in little circles, over and over and over and over. Doesn't that sound exciting? If you said yes, you are clearly a girl between ten and fourteen. If you said no, you would have been cast out to the monkey bars, like me, as your friends hurtled around and around the playground for an entire forty-minute recess.
Yes, this was the “sled dog” game.
After two days, it became clear that I could not run as fast as Laura and Sadie. I had no intention of running fast. I didn't like running then, and still don't. I sound like Darth Vader having an asthma attack after jogging less than a half mile. But I was not about to admit defeat. If there was one thing that meant a lot to me in the sled dog game, or life in general, it was fitting in.
“You can't run as fast as us,” Laura would say, stating the obvious. “You just aren't a good runner.”
“Yeah, I know,” I said, and picked up the pace, feeling my lungs being torn to tiny pieces, “but I have arthritis.”
This was true, I did have arthritis, and there were weeks when I had to walk with a cane.
“You're just not as good as us.”
“I have arthritis!”
Finally, I came up with a brilliant solution that would save me both the humiliation of being a dog, and gloss over my inability to run: I would be the human.
Sadie approved immediately. Laura was harder to win over. In the end, after an argument about levels of importance in dog society, I was deemed the official Sled Master.
The game was much more enjoyable after this. I held onto Sadie's sweatshirt and was dragged along the perimeter of the playground. It was not wonderful, but it passed the days. Eventually, the end of the year crept toward me, and I seized it with both hands. I remember walking out the doors feeling like I could float.
That summer was filled with more dog games. Laura tightened her restrictions and rules and, to my dismay, every attempt I made at looking intelligent or pretty or not a waste of space was in vain. I was always too fat, too Jewish, too geeky, too sweet, and always intrusively human. I think my middle school experience would have been greatly improved if I had been a lovable mastiff.
Now that I am older, the details of middle school are growing fuzzy; I mainly remember the awkwardness. It lingered in every corner of every room. I swapped one bully out for another, and my high school experience was worse than middle school. “Sled dogs” was replaced with insipid fantasy books that I didn't want to read and inside jokes I was starkly on the outside of. The awkwardness, the not fitting in, was present no matter where I turned.
As my senior year began, I was looking forward to the prospect of leaving this part of my life behind. I expected to spend my last year hiding in a book or a sketchbook, ignoring everything. School would be easy, and social life purely optional.
But something I did not expect happened. People turned out to like me. Suddenly I was on the inside of jokes. It no longer mattered that I was human, or hadn't read Pellinor, or anything else. I am fine just as myself. It's wonderful.
When winter began, I went to see a rheumatologist for the first time since middle school. As it turns out, some people grow out of rheumatoid arthritis as they age. There is nothing wrong with my joints any longer. The disease has evaporated.
I have hope now that before long the awkwardness will evaporate from my life as well.