Monday, September 7, 2015

The Butterfly Effect

This is a post not necessarily related to Asperger's. It's more for fun than anything else.

What is the Butterfly Effect? It is a metaphor that is often used to describe how seemingly inconsequential actions-- such as a butterfly flapping its wings-- can potentially trigger a chain reaction whose end result is quite significant-- such as a tornado brewing thousands of miles away from the butterfly. This is hyperbolic-- of course a butterfly flapping its wings will not contribute to a tornado, let alone one thousands of miles away. But you get the idea. 

We all experience a Butterfly Effect of sorts in our own lives. For example, perhaps you missed your train and had to wait an hour for the next one. In that time, you sat down next to someone. With time to kill, you struck up a conversation. You hit it off immediately. You talked even more on the train together. You exchanged contact information and… forty years later you are still happily married with two kids, one of which is now in her late thirties and who has just won the Nobel Prize for finding the cure for cancer. In short, if you hadn't missed your train forty years ago, there would be no cure for cancer today. 

That is, of course, an extreme example. But you get the idea. Here's an interesting one from my own life:

If my family had not moved to a new town in 1987, exercise would not be an important part of my life. Wow, that's reaching, right? Or is it? Let me explain:

For the first almost-seven years of my life, my family lived in a suburb immediately outside of Philadelphia. It was getting too congested and the public schools didn't have the best reputation. My parents wanted to move to a suburb that was less congested and in which there were reputable public schools. They found a house in a suburb twenty miles away. 

Okay, but what do wanting to go to public schools have to do with being an exercise fanatic? Do the schools have a renowned physical education program? 

Not quite.

My family is Jewish, and my mother wanted to bring my brother and I up as Reformed Jews (Scenes of her trying to get Dad, my brother and me to go to synagogue on the High Holidays are a lot like scenes of Marge trying to get the family to go to church on The Simpsons, but that's another story altogether). We joined a nearby synagogue. 

A few years later, Mom wanted to send my brother to overnight camp, and she wanted to send him to a Jewish camp. The first one she looked into was too expensive. In the days of no Internet, Mom had to search for another, less expensive camp. Mom asked the Rabbi, who recommended Camp Negev. My brother went there and loved it. I started going there a few years later-- in 1995-- after I was too old to go to the arts day camp I'd been going to since 1989. 

Oh, so Camp Negev has a renowned sports program?

No! Stop being so literal, and let me finish! No, not at all. There was one one-hour sports period during the day, and that was it. The rest of the day included work projects, discussion groups, swimming, electives, free time, and more. 

Having had undiagnosed Asperger's Syndrome, being fourteen years old and having just completed 8th grade-- another year of bullying, the worst so far-- I was so used to grudgingly accepting myself as someone who would have this horrible effect on people. I was convinced that the bullying was my fault, and I didn't even call it bullying. I thought it was a "normal" consequence of me being me. I was so used to this treatment that it was all I knew. Coming to camp, I imagined the usual middle school drama: I imagined girls putting on globs of makeup in the morning. I imagined girls whispering and giggling, and then when I would ask what was so funny, they would laugh and say, "Nothing!" I imagined people hating me, ostracizing me, and excluding me in every way,  no matter how hard I tried. And why wouldn't I think that would happen? It was all I knew.

The first two weeks didn't go so well. I was constantly on the defense, and I assumed the worst about people's intentions towards me. I had Asperger's-style crying meltdowns practically every other day. One of my counselors, Jonas, saw that I was struggling and reached out to me. He listened when I needed to talk. He didn't pass judgment on me, telling me I was immature or that I needed to "get over it", like my (misguided) parents and teachers did. In the throes of adolescence, he was someone I could talk to. He was the friend and mentor I needed. I developed a crush on him-- he was my first crush-- and he knew, but he was generally okay with it (unlike the later crushes, but that's another story, and another blog post). 

When I became more comfortable and at ease it was easier for me to make friends in my group. I discovered that Negev was a very progressive, left-leaning and accepting summer camp. Most of the girls didn't put on makeup. They thought that it was cruel to ostracize others for being different. In fact, many of these kids came from same-sex parent households and some of them were even openly gay or bisexual (unusual for kids in the '90s). They didn't get me at first, but when you're with people around the clock, it is easier for them to get to know and understand you. And they did understand and appreciate me. And I made friends with some of the boys, too. 

I had only been signed up for first session, but I suddenly wanted to stay second session. I almost wasn't able to do it because my parents didn't think they could afford it, but back home, my brother-- who lamented never having been able to stay second session-- convinced my parents to find a way to do it. So I stayed second session.

This has what to do with exercise?

Patience, patience! 

Camp Negev had a special day each session called Revolution, in which the CITs would kick out the counselors and run the camp for a day. Revolution was centered around a theme, such as history, a movie, animals, and more. The theme of Revolution second session was the time-travel movie Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. During one activity, we pretended that we went back in time to the era of prohibition. In a game similar to Capture the Flag, people were divided into teams and had to steal the other team's "beer" bottles, while also guarding their own. 

My team was deciding who got to guard and who got to try to steal the other bottles. I was always terrible at sports and terrible at running. Sometimes I wished I were good at sports and could kick total ass in soccer, baseball, etc, and the tomboy in me wished I had the strength to wrestle. But because I was bad at sports, I hated them. During this game, for once I wanted to be on the offensive and try to steal the bottles. I ran across the field to try to get a bottle. A girl on the opposite team spotted me and tagged me. I tried to stop too quickly. My right leg crossed over my left, and down I went . I felt a familiar surge of pain in my left ankle-- I had broken my left finger and my right hand over the past two years-- and I knew instantly it was broken (I could swear that I heard a CRACK when I went down, but I realize that was probably a false memory). I had to go home from camp five days early. And that's tough when every day at camp is like a week. 

After the cast came off, the muscle on my lower left leg had atrophied. It was difficult for me to walk at first. Dad explained to me that this happened because with my leg immobilized for seven weeks, the unused muscle broke down. So every day after school, I went for walks to try to rebuild the muscle. At first, because of the stiffness in the tendons around my ankle, I could only walk down the street and back. As the muscle regrew and the tendons loosened up, I increased this walking route until ultimately I mapped out a two-mile loop. After a couple months, I began jogging. I wasn't very good at it, of course. But I did it.

After a few months of this, Mom suggested I join the track team in the spring. I thought she was out of her mind. But I did it anyway. I always came in last at track meets, but I still enjoyed doing it. I got stronger, not just physically but mentally: the endorphins helped my self-esteem and gave me the strength to stand up to the bullies. I continued running track throughout high school.

The End. 

Or not.

I was very skinny growing up, and I thought it would be impossible for me to become overweight. But it happened. I got into some horrible eating habits in college, and I wasn't running regularly. I struggled with being overweight for several years. Finally, in the summer of 2012, on one particular hot day, I went to the pool (instead of swimming in the ocean, as usual). What was I supposed to do? Just stand there to cool off? Boring. I started swimming laps to give myself something to do, and I realized that I enjoyed it. Over the course of several months, I made swimming a regular part of my life. I adjusted my diet, and the weight fell right off, at a rate of about two pounds per week (although I've gained some back, I'm still within normal limits and am working on taking it off again). 

To this day, three years later, exercise is still an important part of my life. I alternate between running and swimming (though lately it's been swimming because last year I injured my knees while running, which I'm still not over yet) and cardio/weight machines at the YMCA. But I can tell you had I not had that history of running track it would not have occurred to me to take up swimming. I just would have gone to the pool that hot day in 2012, splashed around a bit, and gone home. I had been meaning to put exercise back into my life, but it was so difficult without someone to coach me. Finally, I just made myself do it, and that would not have happened if I had not had a history of exercise to look back on.

So let's go over this Butterfly Effect:

In 1987, my family moved, and we joined the local Reformed Synagogue. My mother wanted my brother to go to a Jewish camp. The one they were looking at was too expensive, so the Rabbi recommended Camp Negev. My brother went to Negev and loved it, so I decided to go there after I "outgrew" my arts day camp. It was tough for me at first because I expected to be bullied, but Jonas reached out to me and made me want to stay second session (and, of course, come back in years to come). During second session, I broke my ankle. After the cast came off, I began daily walks to rebuild the atrophied muscle. After the muscle was restored, I began jogging. Mom told me to join the track team, which I did. I loved exercising, but being human I got into bad habits in college, ultimately putting on weight. At my worst, I was very close to clinical obesity. Years later, on a hot day, I went to the pool to cool off, but ended up swimming laps. It occurred to me that this would be the answer to getting me back into an exercise routine. I did just that, and I'm still in this routine today. 

So yes, moving in 1987 indirectly made exercise an important part of my life.

Could my parents have found out about Negev through a rabbi in our old town? Possibly, but even if they had, there still might have been a huge difference in my experience at Negev. When my family moved, they had me repeat 1st grade to give me "another year to mature". They never would have done this in the same school (kids latch onto that). So if I hadn't moved, I wouldn't have been held back. The age groups at Negev were based on what grade you were going into, not your age. And Jonas-- an important role in this Butterfly Effect, as you've seen-- wouldn't have been one of my counselors. 

As an addendum, with Jonas as an important part of this equation, he had his own Butterfly Effect of sorts that got him to Camp Negev. He and his ex-girlfriend had been working at a different summer camp. But they broke up, and (if I remember correctly) they thought it would be awkward for them to be at the same camp. So she continued working at the same camp and Jonas went to Camp Negev (or they both agreed to go to different camps; I don't remember). Had he not broken up with his girlfriend, I never would have met him, I wouldn't have stayed second session and… you get the idea. No exercise routine for me today.

Yes, that's the effect of the metaphorical butterfly flapping its wings thousands of miles away.

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