Friday, January 29, 2010

Amphibian Encounter

Mt. Diablo looms above the clouds.

Unusual "champignons".

You know you're getting a little new-agey when you accidentally step on a cow pie during your nature walk and feel a flash of pleasure at its squishiness. This happened to me today. It's Winter in Briones Regional Park, and that means it's been raining for days. The hills, which I had gotten to know in their yellow, dried-out summer incarnation, have turned emerald green. Erin go Briones – I wouldn't be surprised if a Leprechaun tapped me on the calf.

Finally, the forecast says we just might get through a day without downpour. My butt's getting numb from sitting at my computer and I'm determined to go hiking. I've stashed a waterproof poncho in my backpack just in case the rain returns. It's in the upper fifties and the mist is everywhere. I'm walking through it, breathing it, feeling its coolness on my face. The fog-filtered hills roll out in ever paler greens until you're not sure if you're looking at a distant crest or a fully saturated cloud. Quiet reigns. The only people out today are humidity freaks, and we are a rare breed. One passes by me on his way back to the staging area. "Perfect weather for a walk", he remarks. I nod and we look at each other like a couple of fetishists acknowledging our common perversion.

As the trail starts to climb, things get a little challenging because the land is unstable.The shifting Briones landscape is defined by mud flows, sink holes, vernal pools and large cracks in the ground. Although we are in earthquake territory, these fissures are not fault lines: they are places where the water-saturated earth is starting to slip down the hill. I trudge up trenches of slick mud, doing my best to avoid puddles and nascent streams. Had I worn my sneakers instead of hiking boots, I would have a hard time staying vertical. I have my eyes locked on the ground, trying not to slip, when I notice a slimy, merlot-colored amphibian - the unimaginatively named California newt, known to scientists as Taricha Torosa.

Shitty shot off yours truly's cell phone

Beauty shot off the web

Don't let the lizard body fool you. Newts are not reptiles, but amphibians, and members of the salamander family. This particular specimen was likely out looking for love: mating season runs from December to early May. Prior to the annual booty call, the newt is technically an "eft", living on land and hiding under logs or fallen trees. When the Winter rains begin, the eft becomes nostalgic for its watery origins and heads back to the pond of its birth to make new newts. This involves an aquatic mating dance which culminates in the male mounting the female and rubbing his chin on her nose. She releases a thick mass of seven to thirty eggs, all stuck together in a hard, toxic gel which attaches to some hard surface in the pond – roots, rocks, debris – whatever sticks.

Winston, my super-sized Yorkie, appeared completely disinterested in the newt, so I figured I could safely take a picture. I fully expected the creature to skitter away once I started hovering over it with my cell phone, but it kept crawling along at the same leisurely pace, as unconcerned with me as the dog was with it. Perhaps the sluggish newt was sick or injured? Later, I learned why Taricha Torosa was so laid back, and it had nothing to do with being from California.

Glands in the skin of this species secrete a toxin hundreds of times more deadly than cyanide: tetrodotoxin. This is the very same poison found in fugu, the puffer fish that, when improperly prepared, kills between seventy and a hundred thrill-seeking Japanese gourmands each year. Tetrodotoxin works by blocking the transmission of nerve signals from the brain to the muscles - including those signals from the autonomous nervous system that remind your heart and lungs to keep going. The California newt is so lethal that it has no natural predators, at least until someone introduces it to a sushi chef.

It's not a good idea to pick up Taricha Torosa. The creatures are fragile, and although the toxin has to be ingested to be lethal, you could be exposed through a cut in your skin. Still, you really have to go out of your way to experience death by poisonous newt. But it happens. One drunken young man in Coos Bay Oregon swallowed a California newt on a dare. Despite emergency hospitalization, he died the next day of heart failure. A victim of tetrodotoxin, alcohol and a form of stupidity unique to the male of the human species. (Yes, I know women who are stupid. I know women who are drunks. But I'd be hard-pressed to find a female who would swallow a live amphibian just to prove her moxie).

So there you have it, my latest Briones adventure. I did finally have to break out the rain poncho, about 20 minutes before making it back to my car. Poor Winston got completely drenched and left perfect muddy paw prints all over the front seat. Next time, I am going to veer off the trail a little and go check out some of those ponds up close. Maybe I'll even take a real camera and see if I can get pictures of some live newt dancing.

This diagram shows limb regeneration in a newt. Not only can these amphibians grow new limbs or a tail, they can also regenerate damaged parts of the heart or liver!


Do not disturb!

Friday, January 15, 2010

Female Trouble.

Men, what more can I do to dissuade you from reading further? What I am about to relate will make you squirm and alter your image of the eternal feminine. I bid you go watch football and we'll catch up later.

Ladies, now that we are alone, let me say that I have endured much biological unpleasantness of late. I had been having breakthrough bleeding since Christmas, for going on three weeks. This happened to me once before, a year ago. Back then, my doctor prescribed a progestin to right my waning cycle, and it jolted me back into another year of normal, relatively regular menstruation. This time around, my doctor was off when I called and I was rerouted to a nurse practitioner whose training apparently empowers her to prescribe medication. I know all about these nurse practitioner types from writing pharmaceutical advertising. Several of my clients won't let me use the word "doctor" in their marketing materials because so many people don't end up seeing one when they come in for a check up. Instead, they see a "healthcare practitioner." Could be a doctor, yes, but could also be a specialized nurse, or, who knows, a shaman. Thus the catch all phrase, "Just ask your healthcare practitioner if (INSERT DRUG NAME HERE) could be right for you."

As it turned out, this healthcare practitioner had no bloody clue - OK, poor choice of words - what was right for me. I described my situation over the phone and she agreed to phone in a prescription for a once-a-day progestin. "Wait a minute," I said. "The last time, the doctor (as in the person who actually went to medical school) put me on something that I had to titrate." "Oh no," the "healthcare practitioner" replied with chipper confidence. "I'm looking at your chart now. This is what we gave you last time."

Well, what do I know? I'm perimenopausal. My brain's getting fuzzy. Sometimes, I call my son by the dog's name. Sometimes, I tell the dog he can't have the car keys. Recently, I lost the car keys. Permanently. So I figured my recollection was faulty and started taking the medicine. Within a matter of hours, I began bleeding to a terrifying degree. After day two of hellacious blood loss, I called my doctor. She thought it was weird but suggested I give the progestin another day to work. I gave it three because I was too busy. I couldn't really leave the house, for fear I'd find myself too far from a bathroom, and I was working on three radio spots I had just written for– are you ready for this?– a gynecologic surgery group. So I holed up in my home office, bleeding and looking at estimates, bleeding and rewriting, bleeding and casting, bleeding and making music selects.

By the day of my recording session, my hands and feet were a little tingly and my energy level was way low. I took the BART to San Francisco, but rather than attempt to walk the ten blocks to the recording studio, I sprang for a cab. Once the session was underway, I managed to remain totally focused on producing the spots, coaching the voice talent on the proper way to say "laparoscopic hysterectomy", patching takes together and wringing my hands at the difficulty of finding the right music, all the while hemorrhaging non-stop.

I went to the bathroom and called the doctor's office, leaving a message that I was bleeding to death but please not to call back 'til after two so as not to interrupt my recording session. (The doctor later told me that when she got the message, she thought "This woman is crazy." But hey, we had a media buy and a budget and you gotta do what you gotta do.)

My i-phone, which has crap reception indoors, never rang, but I eventually noticed that my doctor had called back and left me a voicemail stating, essentially, "Get thee to a hospital."

I resolved to go to the emergency room as soon as I finished my spots. My session was going over - over an hour over. I had originally asked for five hours of studio time, but I had also pressed for a reasonable quote. The studio rep had probably cut the time back to four hours to get the quote down, assuring me that four hours would be plenty. Against my better judgement, I had agreed. Ultimately, the poor engineer had to finish the mix on his own time, after completing the session that followed mine. Two lessons to learn from this: 1. Don't let anyone else tell you you can do the job in less time than you are comfortable allocating. And, 2. Don't skimp on the charm. A few choice comments like "If there's one thing I've learned, it's trust the sound engineer" and you have bought yourself a reservoir of good will. But I digress.

At 3 pm, they kicked me out of the studio - the next client had arrived and they needed the room. I took another taxi, dragged my increasingly anemic carcass onto the subway and eventually made it home. My husband and I went immediately to the hospital, where I spent five hours getting examined, IV'd, catheterized and ultra-sounded. Eventually, the ER doc called my doc to confer, and they decided to try a different progestin rather than do a D&C. I took the first dose before I left the hospital, with instructions to see my doctor the next day. My husband and I stopped to pick up a takeout burger, medium-rare, e-coli be damned, to boost my dwindling iron levels. I got home in time to listen to my spots and email the sound engineer instructions for some last minute tweaks. (The guy, bless his heart, actually came in an hour early the next day and made adjustments on his own time without billing me).

By the time I got to my doctor's office at 4:50 the next day, my radio spots were safely trafficked in time for airing, and the bleeding had subsided to a trickle. As we formulated a plan, the doctor assured me that she had made a note not to put me on that other progestin ever again. Turns out synthetic hormones are like anti-depressants: How you respond depends on your body chemistry. "Strange," I said,"That drug worked so well the first time around". At which the doctor, who was adding my recent travails to my electronic health records during our conversation, suddenly exclaimed,"No wonder. Looks like the last time, I prescribed the same thing we put you on at the hospital."

Which brings me to that darn healthcare practitioner/nurse/witch doctor/slacker/cow. Obviously, she never looked at my chart. Worse, she lied to me over the phone when she claimed she was looking at it as we spoke. I realize there are corner cutters and competent folk in every field. I apologize in advance to all the healthcare practitioners out there who would have actually read the chart. But the moral of the story, ladies, is get your prescription from a doctor. Period, no pun intended.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010


You've heard of dysmorphic individuals. People who pursue an impossible body aesthetic which they can never attain. I have a dysmorphic family. But their dysmorphia is not self-directed. It manifests itself in deconstructing the appearance, and more importantly the weight of everyone they encounter.

I am French, Jewish and Armenian. As far as the Jews and Armenians are concerned, a cushy little reserve of body fat might be a good thing. When a raping, pillaging hoard of saber-wielding Cossacks or pitch-fork bearing Turks descends upon your village, there's only one thing to do. Disappear. Hole up in a cave. Head for the hills. Melt into the woods. Be thankful for that bit of extra padding - it's survival of the fattest.

The French have less tolerance for body fat, although that is changing with the influence of immigrant populations and the spread of fast food. My Parisian grandmother, who passed away in March of 2009, was a lithe little thing and my grandfather liked his women slim. Occasionally, he would comment humorously on some chubby lady's girth, a part of their marital ritual that my chic grandmother visibly enjoyed. The fact that she was a size two and therefore superior to those weak-willed, corpulent Amazons, was a given.

My mother, like her mother, is a petite, fine-boned woman. She monitored our eating habits with laboratory precision. When I was five, I was invited for a play date that included lunch. Upon returning home, I made the mistake of telling my mother we'd had PB&J and ice cream. She called the other mom and lectured her on what a fatty dessert ice cream was, and how an apple would better balance out the meal. Never mind that my mother was right: that little girl never invited me over again. After that, when asked what I'd been fed at another child's house, I edited out the taboo foods and substituted apples.

I had a tendency to overeat and my mother was on me all the time. One summer when I was 12, we were in Paris visiting family. My great aunt had a tea for the children of some of her friends. While the adults were chatting, the kids sat around the dining room table enjoying soda, juice and pastries. I quickly gulped down four mini fruit tarts while my mother's back was turned. Unfortunately, the tarts came nestled in cute little paper linings. I steeled myself when my mother saw – and counted – the telltale evidence on my plate. She let loose and shamed me in front of the other children, pointing out that the other girl my age had eaten only one fruit tart. That girl grew up to be a model - no joke.

My childhood summers alternated between going to France with my mother and my grandparents visiting us in the states. Over the years, we made several family road trips in a rented van, criss-crossing America at various latitudes and looping into Mexico and Canada. Inevitably, we would encounter obese people. Sometimes morbidly obese people. This would fire up my family like a smoldering cigarette in the tall, parched weeds. "Oh my God, it's not possible. Look at that fat thing." "Monstrous. Monstrous." "No, I think we've seen worse." "Are you kidding? She's by far the fattest yet." If I my adolescent attitude was up, I'd occasionally point out that they had seen overweight people before and should know by now that the hinterlands are full of corn-fed folk. Invariably, I was told that the current discussion was justified due to the exceptional heft of the chunky person in question. As long as some imaginary fatness record was being broken,commenting was perfectly kosher.

There was much motivational weight talk as I progressed into adolescence. I remember we were on a family vacation in Rome, dining at the terrace of some Trattoria. Standing in the front of the cafe across the street were two stunning young Italian women, in tight white pants and pastel summer tops, waiting for their beaus. As I stared at them in awe, my mother murmured conspiratorially "If you lost ten pounds, you'd look just as good." Now that was a high order compliment. My father, who is not French at all, also liked to hit me with the occasional inspirational spiel. When some comely but zaftig girl would walk by, he'd point her out and murmur "Too bad. If she lost...(hesitation as mental calculation is made) ...twelve, maybe fifteen pounds, she'd be quite good looking."

The message was clear. No one will call you baby 'til you shed your baby fat. I worked at it, briefly flirting with bulimia until I found out all that puking could rot your teeth. Even without kneeling before the porcelain throne, I got pretty small for a while. 5'5, 120 pounds – 114 at my teeniest. I took up aerobics and found a man who loved me despite my fleshy thighs. Eventually, I had two kids, which, as my parents still like to remind me, is no excuse for weight gain. I moved to Cleveland, stopped working out and put on about twenty pounds. In the Summer, I would take my kids to see my family at my parents' Cape Cod cottage. The first family beach outing was always mildly traumatic - I wasn't trim enough, I could never be trim enough. And I knew the scrutiny would never cease. I remember passing on blueberry pie at dinner, telling my beloved grandfather I was watching my figure. He shook his head sadly and replied "It's a little late for that." It was kind of late: I was forty years old.

My children had their own pre-pubertal weight issues, especially my son, who was exceptionally unathletic with couch potato tendencies. His sweet tooth was insatiable. At 13, he was thirty pounds overweight and wearing extra-large men's T shirts. I regularly searched his room for contraband candy and once chased him halfway around the block to retrieve a movie theater-sized package of skittles. 780 calories according to the nutritional label, not that there's anything nutritional about skittles. I purged the house of all sweets. I asked restaurants for calorie counts on their menu items just so I could prove to junior that he was about to devour an entire day's calorie allotment in one sitting. I had sworn not to micromanage my children's eating habits but I found myself getting increasingly frustrated, angry and bitchy as the kid kept shoving sugar into his face. Eventually, puberty hit, vanity kicked in and the boy started working out. Of course now he delights in reminding me how evil I was to him and claims to be scarred for life. As he says to his sister, "It's mom's fault I go to the gym all the time." Let me hasten to say that he has never taken my advice on any other subject.

As for my daughter, she outgrew her baby fat. She is healthy and lean and doing yoga. She lives in the same city as my parents and has dinner with them at least once a week. Her grandparents' preoccupation with her weight is a source of great amusement to her. One week they tell the girl she's underweight and her thinness emphasizes her wide hips. The next week they protest that she's eating too much. She reports back to me with the latest fat forecast. It is but a section of a more detailed critique involving my daughter's hair, eyebrows, lipstick application technique, clothing, speech patterns, excessive avocado consumption and hobby of going out at night with her girlfriends.

Once the checklist has been covered, they converse.