Needling My Butt

A few years ago, I went to Chiang Mai for three weeks. And, like most people do while in Thailand, I went to get a Thai massage.

I’d never gotten a Thai massage before, but from the way it is always presented – in curvy, exotic-looking letters often accompanied by lotus flowers or other symbols of meditative peace – I assumed it would be a relaxing experience. I was vaguely aware that some sort of stretching is involved, as promotional photographs always depicted a woman smiling serenely as her masseuse appeared to pull back her arms. That was the extent of my knowledge.

After some research, I’d found a reasonably priced place that was recommended by enough people on the Internet to lend it sufficient credibility. I walked in, was instructed to change, and learned what a Thai massage feels like.

It started with stretching and manipulation of my legs and ankles, which felt pretty good. From there, it eventually escalated to sitting up with my hands behind my head, my arms interlocked with my masseuse as she swung my upper half around first to the right, then to the left.

“Oh…my god,” I thought.

thai pic.jpeg

Like most Japanese people, I have almost perfected the art of pretending any uncomfortable reality is not actually happening. In the middle of a humid Tokyo summer, I can sit in a train car that has suddenly turned into my private hell due a homeless person sitting directly upwind of me, as if nothing is wrong. When a drunk man rolled off the train seat onto the floor, unconsciously inebriated at my feet, I’ve simply moved back 30cm, keeping my gaze purposely fixed elsewhere.

So, I kept my cool, pretending like being contorted was an absolutely normal part of a relaxing massage. Then, the masseuse planted her foot in the middle of my back and braced her weight back while holding my arms behind me.

“Wai—,” I started.

It was too late. I imagined irreparable harm to my back as she almost bent me in half.

Like most uncomfortable situations, I’ve somehow been able to think back fondly on that massage, going so far as to tell people it felt good, that I’d go back. That’s not a lie, but unfamiliarity with the process lent a fair bit of discomfort that I wasn’t prepared for.

I was reminded of that massage a few weeks ago when a chronically tight and painful lower back forced me to seek out acupuncture treatment.

japanese stuff

Unlike in the U.S., acupuncture is readily and widely available in Tokyo. Suggestions to go to an acupuncturist were fairly common at my gym, but the idea of someone jabbing me with needles – however thin – remained a terrifying concept. It didn’t help that most of the people suggesting acupuncture were male and capable of enduring the pain of prolonged exercise. They’d assure me that “it doesn’t hurt at all,” but the phrase immediately seemed suspect given the source. It’s like when people say “oh, but it’s nothing compared to childbirth,” which only gives me a vague metric of “not painless but definitely better than the experience you haven’t had of a small human body squeezing through your cervix.”

 But when a good friend recommended her acupuncturist and told me that it wasn’t that bad, I was curious.

“They give you a massage, first, of the places they’re going to needle you,” she said.

Somehow, this gave me some reassurance. If they cared enough to go through the pretense of trying to relax you first, didn’t that mean they were good people? Didn’t that mean that, should I ever have the courage to ask them to stop, that they would?

By this point, my glute pain had spread to my lower back. Front squats hurt. Back squats also kind of hurt. Sitting was beginning to hurt. I was getting close to being forced to do something to actually address this problem.

I made an appointment online that week and walked into the recommended clinic for my first ever acupuncture experience.

feet on the train

As this was my first appointment, and my first time getting acupuncture, my acupuncturist, N-san, poked and prodded at my lower back and hip, and pressed and massaged the sides of my back and shoulders while asking me questions about pain and soreness. He told me that my issue was definitely due to my glutes and hamstrings, not my back, and that he probably couldn’t fix me in one appointment. He spent time explaining how acupuncture can feel different to different people: some people just don’t like the tingling feeling of acupuncture, others find it super relaxing. Some people find it more painful than relaxing. It just depends.

After the massage, N-san chose a fleshy part of my hip for my first acupuncture needle. He tapped the needle in, twice, and other than something much less than a pinprick, I felt nothing.

“This is what it feels like,” he said, “is that ok?”

I told him it was, because it really wasn’t painful at all, and he tap-tapped more needles into my right hip and glute. After the sensation of the double-tap, I eventually started to feel the “vibration” that people often talk about. You know the needle is going into one place, but it feels like an entire area is released of tension. It’s a weird, half-numbing sensation that feels like trigger point therapy on steroids.

After inserting a bunch of needles, N-san then used a small box to pass a weak, electric current between the needles. It feels like a deep, trigger point therapy massage; you can’t call it relaxing, but it’s not unpleasant. After about 5 minutes of this, I went home feeling a bit sore but better, with advice to come back in about a week.

needle marks

The next week, I went back for more treatment. This time, there was a short massage of my hamstrings and calves, then the acupuncture started. From my ankles to my knees, N-san started inserting needles to fix some muscle imbalances. N-san would probe my lower legs, find a knot, and promptly insert a needle into it. This time, I felt the entire range of possible sensations when undergoing acupuncture: some pinprick pain, tingling, a weird numbing feeling that spread over my foot at one point, the releasing sensation, and some discomfort. I also felt like a human pin cushion.

“What is happening?” I thought.

By the time N-san finished with my right glute, all I could do was cling to the body pillow used to elevate my leg as I lay on my left side, my butt-cheek twitching from the electroacupuncture, seriously considering N-san’s advice to maybe just lay off the lifting for a while.

But like that Thai massage from a few years ago, once it was over, I felt renewed. Or maybe I’m discounting the effect of an electric charge to my butt-cheek. In any case, high on my own self-congratulations for doing something that was not completely awful to my body, I asked when I should come back on the way out.

in limbo

To be honest, it was sort of hard to even look at my track bike the past few days.
It’s more than a little embarrassing to admit, but this time last year, I hardly knew what a derailleur looked like. I naively thought that only things with cogs and lockrings mattered. Sure, I had friends with road bikes, but those never seemed to get ridden. It was fixed or nothing.
Ironically, it was when I decided I wanted to put some decent miles on my legs that I suddenly found myself in an uncomfortable limbo. I was hanging out with roadies, but given their inability to go less than 30mph on “easy” rides, even if they were female, I’d never be able to keep up. Solo rides on a single speed were [and continue to be] my destiny. Sure that meant I got to go at my own pace, at whatever time I wanted, without worrying about being categorized as “deadweight,” but that’s not to say that I didn’t get more than a little discouraged or lonely last summer.


For the record, people did offer to ride with me. But I didn’t want to be a pity case; I never want to be a pity case. So I politely declined and went it alone, but tried to absorb as much from competitive cyclists as I could. And between the talk that didn’t involve bikes, but pieces of our lives, it almost seemed like it didn’t matter how much I couldn’t ride. They asked about my bikes and answered my never-ending train of questions; I asked about their girlfriends/wives/fiancees and was even seen in their presence with no eyeliner on. But then, in a response to an honest email I sent which was really only meant to inform about my own current cycling-related battles, came what felt like an electronic bitch slap:
“If you spent 15-25 hours a week training and racing and immersed in the side of cycling that I'm in I could see why you'd [think that]...”


To be fair, the email did tell me to just be myself, but it stung more than the last time I had to spray Bactine onto a knee that was clearly missing flesh. In hindsight, I should have just told the respondent that I never got the memo on how to be his friend, and left it at that. In reality, after a further snarky exchange, I managed to [electronically] spit back that if 15-25 hours of training was required to win his [or anyone else’s] respect, that I didn’t want it. And if he chose his friends based on their training programs, I honestly didn’t care if I didn’t make the cut.
I know, aren’t I immature?
To his defense, I still think he’s a nice guy. But it was a harsh reminder of my perpetual status in limbo [or lack thereof?]. There’s nothing I’d love to do more than ride on a banked ‘drome and try to get dizzy in the corners, but simple enthusiasm doesn’t really get you anything. And when the only sport I’ve competed in involves wrapping my legs around a one ton animal and trying to hang on, maybe he was right when he said that I’ll “have to work hard to dig [myself] out of that hole.”


That email scrolled through my head again a few days ago, as my attempt to crest a hill with gusto tapered off into out of the saddle climbing, face screwed up in an effort to complete the pedalstrokes. It was snowing, and as usual, I was ill-prepared for the weather. A man drew up beside me: a super commuter, the kind with more than one shade of neon on his back, lights on both his helmet and bike [front and back, mind you], and a bundle securely fastened to his rear rack. He told me he was headed to Natick, “from here, only about 11 miles,” and shamelessly drafting off of him, I went down that hill faster than I would have ever tried it alone in those conditions, and pedaled faster through snow than I probably should have.
It wasn't an ad hoc race, or a competition of any kind. He knew I was behind him, but made no effort to drop me or prove what I already knew: that despite his pretty dorky attire, he was a better cyclist. None of that mattered, because we were both precariously balanced on two wheels in weather that most people try to avoid walking in. Yeah, we weren't about to win any UCI points, but that was okay. We were having fun. And in the end, that's what it really should be about, anyway.

speaking in letters

Every year, a typed sheet of paper will arrive in a tri-colored air mail envelope, my address inscribed with my father's well-handled Mont Blanc pen. A jumble of Japanese mixed in with the occasional English word, he’ll even sometimes provide the odd phonetic pronunciation of a simple Japanese character while somehow leaving the harder ones for me to stare at.
I always seem to allot half an hour to reading those usually one-page letters.
They’re simple, for the most part. Kind of a Dad-created beginning-of-the-school-year ritual where easily comprehensible words disprove my theory that my father is a voluntary space cadet and blissfully oblivious to my largely self-centered confusion at what in the world I’m doing in life, much less law school. They’re written with the kind of honesty that would end up sounding slightly awkward and embarrassing when said in person, and more comfortable with stoic, unemotional reactions from both my parents, the kind of honesty I wouldn’t know what to do with.



After all, having Asian parents meant that affection came in the form of demanding better results. It’s not that they were constantly disappointed with me (well, maybe they were, but I did okay for a kid with epilepsy), they merely believed that my sister and I could do better. Making our parents happy quickly translated into getting excellent grades. When the pressure increased, my sister retaliated by sneaking off school grounds to smoke; I responded by hitting the books. When my SAT score came back with a 99 percentile verbal score, my father gave me his first unqualified "I'm proud of you." I was too shocked to cry.
He said it again to me when I graduated college. He’ll probably say the same after I throw my cap along with the rest of my law school class in May 2010.
All I have to show for it, though, are two single-speed bicycles, a blog, and the ability to fix a flat and tension a chain.


The embarrassment and shame at being the indecisive, less talented daughter is all mine, and a familiar one. Guilt at being unable to fulfill an unspoken, assumed promise is a newer one, and one that I personally abhor. So when I told my father several months ago in halting Japanese that maybe I wasn’t cut out to be a lawyer, I braced myself for the fall out. Merely thinking about it would paralyze my tongue as empty panic dropped heavily on my shoulders, resulting in the inability to even tell my closest friends about what was really going on. Instead, I lost sleep and rode my bike a lot.
My father responded via a letter - two pages this time - and didn't disinherit me as I had feared. The economy sucks, but just keep looking, the letter said, a legal education doesn't mean you have to practice law. In the meantime, don't forget that friends are your life treasures, and it's better to be happy, than to be right.
And finally, "apologies for causing you worry; I'm not that sick, I'm getting better."


That letter still makes me cry. It uncovers all the feelings of the guilt of trudging through classes, taking too much time to contemplate the jump away from a legal career, mixed with the futile desire to be smarter and better at everything I do. And in its stead, I'm choosing to bike indoors and out, not quite sure if I'm pedaling in place or gaining ground or just plain staying with the pack.
I feel like I should be leading the breakaway, or at least staying with it, but the uncertainty of whether my legs are up for it is stretching the hesitation. It doesn't help that my vision is blurred by the shameful tears that it would take an ailing father's letter [but one that, even verging on 70, can still outrun me] to make me realize the intensity of parental love.
I'm not sure I'll be much of a lawyer. I'm not sure I'll ever be much of a cyclist, really. But Dad, I can't wait to show you what I can do on a bike.
[I even managed a Rapha Scarf Friday this week. Now wish me luck on the MPRE. Because I'm going to need it.]

sniff, roll, cough

These days, a cough, sneeze, or sniffle is enough is send me running. Preferably outdoors.
Like trains, buses, and crowded public areas, classrooms are cesspools of bacteria and germs. I made a vow this year not to get H1N1. Not so much because I heard that it sucks more than having your impacted wisdom teeth torn out of your mouth without anaesthetic, but because I simply can't afford it. November means my sights are set on the goal of finals. I don't have time to have sickness derail me.


Of course, even with all the time I spend indoors, away from people, apparently the internet can carry diseases too. Because when Competitive Cyclist reported on his "lung-clotting cold" and mentioned me in the same breath, I somehow started to sniffle. And sneeze.
Okay, that girl in my class who was hospitalized with H1N1 and double pneumonia might have had something to do with it. As well as the guy who sits next to me in tax class and probably doesn't shower on a regular basis. The end result is, however, the same: I am sniffling my way through intervals on the rollers. Total suck.



And because these things are quite contagious, the Bianchi hasn't been feeling much better. Crusty brake pads, rims coated in a layer of grime, and a chain that's as stretched thin as my sanity these days. Being a negligent bike mom, I hadn't addressed my ailing two-wheeled wonder until last night. Rims finally got wiped down, the underside of the downtube de-crusted, chain lubed, and the saddle even got some Proofide treatment.
It was like dirty therapy. Hands oily and black, I couldn't be happier. Or feel more productive.
Apparently a clean bike didn't do much for my cold, though. I'm back to clutching my cup of tea as if that's going to make this runny nose go away. But hey, I'll at least look good biking to the ER if I do end up with H1N1...

sequins and stress levels

What's a girl to do when a law journal implodes in her face, dragging friendships down the drain with it, and mashing on the rollers in frustration just isn't cutting it?
She gets out every sequined whatever out of her closet, tries them all on with every high-heeled shoe she owns, then sits on her bed, clothes strewn about, reading On Writing by Stephen King or re-reading bits and pieces of Ten Points [by Bill Strickland] or perusing through the November issue of Bicycling Magazine [again]. And when that doesn't do the trick, it's time for a makeover.
Not the kind involving a perm or manicured nails, but a bike-over. The bar tape has been slowly unraveling on my Bianchi, but in true scatter-brained fashion, I decided to concentrate my efforts on the kept woman that is the Dolan.


Because the Dolan might be flashy, but she prefers to stay indoors and fan herself in front of the TV [or, in my case, Hulu]. The deep track drops were sexy but inhibited outdoor ventures, and like most trophy wives/girlfriends scantily clad boobs bars can only get you so far. The white saddle was [literally] an intolerable pain in the ass. So I put my foot down.
I was going to fully wrap those bars and smack on some hood brakes and switch out that stupid saddle even if it ended up looking like me wearing mismatched sequined clothes and too much eyeliner after a stressful day. Because while it might not be kosher, if that was going to get me riding more, and longer, then I didn't care about breaking THE RULES. I'd rather get run over by another cyclist on the track, rather than get hit by a bus on the way to the track because I couldn't properly maneuver that skitterish Dolan with track drops on it. Besides, the track drops can be strapped to my back, and road drops would open up the possibility of riding the Dolan in places where this concept of "wind" was less forgiving than in my apartment.


The saddle went first, replaced by the [totally awesome] leopard-print, porn-star saddle that came stock on the Bianchi [as Kanye would say, "they don't make 'em like this anymore,"...jealous?]. The bars got pulled off, and with the aid of a bestie [a.k.a. M1], the road drops got the full bar wrap treatment.



I know, I know. You're all scrutinizing and judging just how those bars got wrapped. I actually debated writing about it because it's the one thing that can elicit volatile displays of emotion from the most stony-faced of mechanics. The thing is, while I do care about how my bars look and feel [and I think they turned out pretty slick], I realized that in the process, half of me really didn't. It wasn't sheer laziness [okay, there might have been some of that], but as long as it stayed on my bars until spring, and as long as I could ride the damn thing hard and long, and, okay, as long as it didn't look heinous, I didn't really care. I could try to find the perfect white women's saddle [why are those so hard to find?!], and I could wipe down my rims and buy whiter tires. I could even switch out those cheap black toe straps for white leather ones. Or, I could forget about how it should look and ride it.
Because like the sequined ensembles I throw together on a stressful whim, how good my bike looks [or not] won't do me an ounce of goddamn good if I can't pull my shit together. Which, as applied to the bike, means being able to pedal that thing fast and hard. So that's what I'm doing - riding - and, of course, hoping the slightly confused mishmash of parts, patterns, and colors will get my legs to Chris Hoy proportions by spring.