Red Flag Warning


Here on the shores of Lake Michigan, at a state park right on the dunes, all is peaceful after a line of thunderstorms whipped the lake into a froth of foamy breakers.


As each five-foot wave recedes, it takes with it a hiss of sand that whisperes: “Riptide, Riptide….” that terrible current that will suck the sand from under your feet, sweep you up and before you know it, you’re bobbing around beyond the surf line, wondering how you got there.

A red flag with a “No Swimming” symbol on it cracks in the wind at the top of the flagpole.  Parents watch their children playing in the undertow, arms folded, chatting.  I bite my tongue, wanting to run and shake them and point to the red flag. 

The past few weeks have been frightening.  I’ve been swimming through the cloudy seas of dissociation since….well, ever since I turned my back on the beautiful West, where I feel grounded and relaxed.  That’s been a while.  Since the end of June, I think.  I remember it was beastly hot in Northern Arizona.  I came through Colorado, a lovely cool break, and headed for Michigan, where I picked up my new rig and camped in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula before schlepping all the way to North Carolina to get it registered there.

It was on my way back, via West Virginia and Virginia, that I realized I could only drive a couple of hours a day before becoming completely exhausted and having to stop for the night before mid-afternoon.

This is crazy.  I’m one of those fanatics that likes to see if I can break my own long distance driving records (that is, if I really want to get somewhere rather than noodling along enjoying the scenery).  I wanted to get back to the West, to high altitude, to the beautiful mountains and forests of conifers with their resinous fragrance.

I’ve been having bouts of exhaustion that come and go, for years now.  But this was beyond anything I have ever experienced.  I felt as if I were struggling with all my might just to hold on in the same place, as if some force were dragging me down.  The stifling humid heat.  That has something to do with it.  Any heat, anything warmer than 80°F, totally wears me out.  Add humidity, and I’m body slammed.  Can’t move.

I’ve been having spells of extreme muscle weakness, muscle wasting despite living outdoors…hard to do.  Muscles going into spasm, cramping up, having to stop whatever I’m doing to wait for the cramp to ease up.  My life.

I decided to make a stop at the Cleveland Clinic, to check this out

Like most medical encounters, this one involved several hours in the MRI scanner, many tubes of blood, referrals on to other departments, and I think by the time I get finished it will already be winter.

Since I had a few days in between appointments, I came up to Michigan to enjoy the late summer peace and quiet of the State Parks.

I remember another day, in 1992.  A bright blue day on the island of Maui.  My Pediatric Trauma conference had happily chosen the beautiful town of Lahaina as our meeting place.  The conference venue itself turned out to be a sprawling 1960’s vintage resort with a golf course, etc., beach frontage, etc., and it cost a bloody fortune.  I booked a room in a Colonial era inn, graciously furnished, with a crystal clear swimming pool lined with handmade ceramic tiles–and at half the price of the awful resort. I was an habitual swimmer back then: I put in an hour every morning before getting my son up and off to school.  Thank God.

In those days I did not know I was bipolar.  All I knew was that I always felt restless and jittery, and was often depressed and sometimes suicidal.  I managed all of this-not very well-by exercising to the point of exhaustion every day, often swimming, running, weightlifting, and dancing in the course of 24 hours.  Sleep was an infrequent visitor.

So I swam in the beautiful pool in Lahaina, and took my spare suit to my conference meetings in my backpack, to swim in the resort pool at the lunch break.

Our Big Social Event for that meeting was to be a Real Hawaiian Luau (groan).  I was disappointed in the organizers’ cultural insensitivity (tourist attraction: Hawaiians!).  Maybe it was that I had just completed my Master’s Degree in Cultural Anthropology a few years earlier.  But it was the big networking opportunity of the year: attendance essential.

I arrived at the conference center’s private mile of beach a couple of hours before the luau was to begin.  I wanted to savor some solitary beachcombing while the other attendees were out with their golf and tennis.

Red flags whipped and snapped in the stiff breeze that churned the tall breakers into foam as they thundered onto the beach.  There was a storm in the South Pacific, but here in Hawaii the sky was a dark blue crystal dome.

I mostly grew up by the sea in New England, where the people and the waters can get downright crusty.  I took a look at the waves and decided that swimming was out of the question; so I shifted my shell collecting mission to the highest tide mark, a span of dried and decaying sea-leavings far up the beach.

The sun hung low over the western horizon, glaring straight into my eyes.  I put on my brand new $100 Bollé shades…my first expensive purchase “just for me” since landing the new job.  Ah, they fit perfectly.  Now to find the ultimate cowrie shell!

A cloud covered the sun.

A very sudden cloud!  Perhaps the storm…I looked up from my shelling.

I just had time to grab a breath and clap my hands over my brand new sunglasses when the wave, towering at least three times my height, crashed down on me.

Years of martial arts training saved my life then.  My body instinctively became liquid.  I went with the wave, flowing with it.  I knew if I fought, it would break me.  The wave had the force of the whole Pacific Ocean behind it.  I made like the seaweed that flows and floats and survives.

I tucked into a ball.  The sea bounced me across its floor.  I still hung on to those glasses.  If I was going to die, it would be with my new shades on!

At last, an eternity later, I bobbed up to the surface and gulped air.  I looked around in astonishment: I had come up behind the surf line, out where the boats were moored.

The swells were huge.  It felt as if I were floating up the sides of mountains, sliding into valleys.

Worse, so were the giant catamarans that took people on whale watching tours…hundreds of people at a time.  They bucked like gigantic steeds against their mooring ropes, their bows rising, enormous pontoons clear of the water, then crashing again as the rollers went by…

All around me, these juggernauts strained at their ropes, sending sheets of water over me with each crash so that it seemed every moment I was blinded again.

I finally drew a bead on the shore and struck out for it, body surfing whenever I could to conserve energy.  I swam up the back side of the waves and surfed down the front, over and over and over…why did the shore seem no closer than before?

The tide was going out, is why.  And it was taking me with it.

I swam harder, finally got to where I could touch bottom, and ran like hell for the beach.  But just as I reached knee high, my legs were sucked out from under me, and the sky clouded over once more…I grabbed a breath, and my glasses, and crash….I collapsed, rolled into a ball, bounced across the sea floor, and came up, an eternity later, right between the pontoons of a sea-going catamaran…about to crash right over my head!  I dived, and the shock of the boat crashing into the trough of the wave sent me rolling again, but this time to my advantage, as I was a few waves closer to the beach.  I started again, strong but pacing myself, knowing that I could get free of this rip current by swimming parallel to the beach…if only I knew how wide the current was!  It could be miles wide.  And I couldn’t afford to get caught in the shallows where the waves breaking would break me too…

I reached the beach and dragged myself through the sucking sand.  There it is!  The beach!  I was there.

Then the sun went out again…

This happened five times.  I lost hope of actually living through this thing.  The sea had a bead on my life, but I refused to go down without fighting to the last.

After the fifth wave, I caught a good one in to shore.  I rode it as far as the knee deep mark, hit the sand running and ran right up the beach to the hotel sidewalk and kept running until I hit the pool, where I floated on the calm water and washed the sand out of my hair, my boobs, my butt crack…my teeth…

I wondered that I was still alive.  Or if I was still alive.  Maybe I only thought I was alive, like those ghosts you hear of that don’t know they’re dead yet…why would I have been alive?

And I still had my expensive sunglasses.  Maybe that’s what saved me: I was damned if the sea was going to get my Bollés!

My waterproof geeky Casio calculator watch said it was time to go to the luau.  I dragged myself out of the pool and threw on shorts and Hawaiian shirt from my rental car.

By this time I was feeling it.

But if you’re a Pediatric Trauma specialist, you ain’t allowed to feel.  So you just open that gate and walk into that courtyard with the kitschy tiki lights and the very decent Hawaiian band and the luscious brown dancers with the coconut shells over their boobs….you eat the poi and the pig…doing battle with the sea is hungry work.

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  1. It’s so weird… I know I liked this post yesterday, but for some reason, it didn’t take. It appears that WordPress is having some problems with “like” options.

  2. Well, not yesterday, but very early this morning. But since I took a nap after that, it’s like yesterday to me. 🙂

  3. Okay, I see you posted this twice. The only conclusion I can make is that you’re trying to drive me crazy. 😀

  4. Midwestern Plant Girl

     /  September 14, 2016

    You can have my sunglasses, if you can pry them from my cold, sandy hands… 😉
    Holy crap! What an experience. I have been to Lahaina Beach and seen those waves. You’re blessed to have survived! 😇

  5. Oh how interesting! I posted this twice. The first time it saved itself as a draft, so I published the draft, and now look.

  6. I have respect for big waves and nasty undercurrents. I routinely walk in thunderstorms, was on a roof trying to get a better view when lightning hit a generator 50 feet away from me, and had the pleasure of standing under a funnel cloud once. The thought of getting sucked out to sea terrifies me at a very deep level, despite loving the water and being a good swimmer. And I’m with you when it comes to humidity – I grew up in a desert, with a clear and regimented sense for day and night, aware that the sweat on my body would evaporate quickly. North Sea climate is the opposite of this; and while the ebb and flow of the sea is calming after a fashion, I miss the stillness that I often experienced in my younger years.

    Red flags, snapping in the breeze of distant storms … a very potent symbol.

    • That’s crazy. Lightning! Forces of Nature are so overwhelming and powerful. I have been on the water several times since the Maui excursion, and I’ve been wading in a few places, but I have no wish to get back in the ocean.

      The North Sea…isn’t that, like, cold and damp? Whatever brought you there?

      • What terrifies me about the ocean, and not by other forces of Nature, is the death process itself. Hit by lightning? Chances are, if I don’t survive it, I’ll die pretty quickly. Tornado? About the same. Getting swept out to sea, though – that would be different. The dark, crushing depth is one thing; while the fact that death would come by means of giving up and taking a breath under water is perhaps what I find most hideous. Training or not, someone who survives what you did is someone I have immense respect for – while you wrote of not fighting a current you couldn’t beat, you still did not give up, despite odds you probably were aware of because of your training. Perhaps this post of yours bears even more potent symbols than what appear at first glance?

        The North Sea can get cold, to be sure; but the climate here is more mild than one might imagine. This week, we had 30 degree temperatures (Celsius), with humidity and little wind. Today, happily enough, it would seem Autumn is coming to us – with great pleasure I watched a veritable school of fallen leaves swim down a street on a fresh stream of wind today. That, in my opinion, is what balances the oppression of sweltering, humid Summer days here (all six of them, lol): the Autumn season here can really be quite magical 🙂

        • To tell you the truth, when I was out there among the crashing catamarans, it was pure terror. The rest was mostly survival instinct. At the time I was in peak physical condition. If that were to happen to me now, I’d have plenty of time to savor the experience of slow death by drowning in the Southern Seas…I’m amazed that nothing hit me over the head while I was being dragged around on the floor of the Pacific.

          Yes, I’m with you: lightening, tornado…tree fall…anything sudden and quick and final.

          30° is too hot for me. My ideal operating temperature is 22.

  7. Incredible post. You kept going when others would just give up.
    I was stationed at Cherry Point, NC. I understand the bit about humidity and heat.

    I depend on physical activity to keep going also. Then I sleep for hours. The only time I feel like myself is when I run.

    I hope things work out for you medically.

  8. My mom always said never turn your back on the ocean, tourists always got sucked in. She was from Paia. Lake Michigan has been deadly this summer for drownings too.

  9. Hi Laura. Are you a doctor?


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