Saturday, July 21, 2012

Greek to Me

When I was a girl, my father had a phrase he used to shrug off a minor set back – things like going to the theater on the wrong night, missing the last subway or getting rained on at the beach. A verbal reset button helps put life's little snafus into perspective. "It is what it is," serves that purpose for a lot of people, but for my father it was, "The best laid plans of mice and men aft gang astray."

He said it was  from a poem by George Burns –  the 18th Century Scottish bard, not the comedian. He would explain repeatedly how "aft gang" was Old English for "often goes. Alas, I looked it up for this blog and it's actually "gang aft a-gley," (which is, in fact, Old English for "often goes"). "The best laid plans of mice and men gang aft a-gley."

The verse, which John Steinbeck borrowed as the title of his novel, Of Mice and Men, is from the poem To a Mouse. It tells of how Burns upturned a mouse's nest while ploughing a field. The poem is an apology to the poor critter, whose efforts to build a snug den have come to naught:

...But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane [you aren't alone] 
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft a-gley, [often go awry] 
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promised joy...

Oh how I wish I could read this with an actual brogue.

But on to the best-laid plan.With my daughter interning in San Francisco this summer, and our 19 year old son is still living with us, I was pondering some kind of family night out, something more special than the nearest cineplex. This is challenging. Junior doesn't do theater, and there is little hope of our various musical tastes coming to a harmonic convergence.

Then I got an email from my old friend  Ticketmaster.  Coming up, Al Green at the Greek Theater.  Al Green. Old school R&B. Great songs, great singing. What's not to like? Junior would get his snark on,  but I knew he'd enjoy it on some level.

Part of the UC Berkeley campus, the Greek Theater is a classic outdoor amphitheater next to the sports stadium. Both venues sit atop the Hayward Fault. We learned the hard way how uncomfortable the theater's cement bleachers are. Tech companies put their logos on foam butt pillows and hand them out for free at the ticket entrance but your rear is still numb by the time the opening act leaves the stage. Better to buy lawn seats and arrive strategically early. You can get close enough to see reasonably well, the acoustics are just fine and you get to sprawl out on your blanket and have a picnic. Dinner with Al Green! A rare evening of non-dysfunctional family bonding!  I made menus up in my head. Roast chicken. Pasta salad. Maybe I'll bake.

I reminded my son of the date, a week in advance. That's way too early for it to stick in his mind and normally, I would be reminding him again three days before the event. Except I forgot, because I'm ADD too.  And so it was that the boy and his friends bought tickets to an all-day Batman marathon, culminating in the screening of the latest sequel at midnight. The show was – you guessed it – on the same night as Al Green.

Oh well, I rationalized. The kid probably would not have become an instant Al Green fan anyway. I knew I could sell the ticket at the gate.  I'd revisit the menu for more grown up tastes. We could get some prosciutto, pâté and stinky cheeses and enjoy the music with our daughter.

Except daughter is traumatized by a deluge of articles about unemployed law school grads. She's worried she won't find work and she's trying to make a good impression. Of course, she got a last-minute assignment the day of the concert and cancelled on us.

Such is life, I told myself. Easier to sell two tickets than one. The picnic got paired down to prosciutto and melon, bread and cheese. Our family outing had morphed into a date night.

We got to the Greek Theater in plenty of time and readily parked above the theater. The lot was almost empty, as was the payment booth. We scrambled down a grassy hill to the ticket area. We were first in line: no one was there. And I mean no one. The concession stands were unmanned. There were no venue employees to be seen. I knew the date was right – I had gotten a reminder email the day before. Then my husband spoke up. "Maybe it's at the Greek Theater in LA." I grabbed my phone and googled. Yep. Right venue, wrong city.  Glad I could make a contribution to Al's retirement fund. At least our kids weren't there or I'd never hear the end of it.

There was still some daylight left and we decided to go find a spot to eat outdoors at nearby Tilden Regional Park. We stopped the car by a meadow. The remaining patch of late afternoon sun had already abandoned the lone picnic table. We sat in the shade, chilled by an insistent breeze. We'd be dining al-fresco-your-ass-off. I poured us some iced tea and wine. When I pulled the prosciutto out of my bag, I realized I had left the melon at home.

We packed it in and went home to join the melon. "The best laid plans of mice and men gang aft a-gley,"

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Pain, It's Plain, Comes Mainly From Your Brain.

Years ago, we relocated from Los Angeles to Cleveland for my husband's job. The culture shock, like the winters, was extreme.  The city had just one of everything - one art museum,  one independent movie theater, one Japanese restaurant, one Mexican joint. When we told our neighbors we had come from LA, they looked at us as though we had just admitted to sacrificing goats in the basement. I had to retire my fabulous vintage wardrobe lest I be branded a weirdo. I even received an irony-free invitation  to a tupperware party.

We were barely moved in when I began to have stomach symptoms. At first, the nauseating hunger made me suspect that I was pregnant. Then my father, who is a physician, diagnosed me over the phone. You have a beginning ulcer, he said. Sure enough, when I found work, a diversion from my despair at being mired in the midwest, the ulcer went away.

Several moves later, I find myself in the Bay Area.  Over the past eight years, I have been dealing with a family situation that can best be described as death by a thousand cuts. I now have a visceral understanding of the Janis Joplin song, take another little piece of my heart. Picture my heart, sliced paper-thin and fanned out like carpaccio on a bed of arrugula. But I have a talent for compartmentalization, and so I soldier on. Still, it seems all that stress, anger and sadness I sublimate needs a place to go, which is why, at one time or another, I have had the following conditions:

• Panic attacks, in which I forget to breathe.

• A cricopharyngeal spasm - literally, the feeling of a lump in your throat. Except it goes away when you eat or drink.

• Occular migraines, during which my vision blurs for 20-30 minutes.

• Sinus migraines, for which I was needlessly fed antibiotics for years, until I was enlightened by an eccentric old ENT.

• Sudden unexplained itchiness of the face, hands and even the feet.

• Hip pain that was diagnosed as bursitis.

• Lower back pain and sciatica.

•A disc issue in my neck, with muscle pain in the shoulder and arm, and occasional numbness in the fingers.

At this point, you are thinking one of two things: This woman is a mess, or this woman is a nut job. But I can assure you, I am not a hypochondriac. I don't go running to the doctor all the time. I just take stress out on my body. I'm like a garden hose with an air bubble in it - you push the bubble out of one place and it pops up somewhere else. Now, if I get a weird symptom, I look it up. Chances are, there's a stress connection. But enough about me. Let's talk about you.

I believe there's a good possibility you just recognized yourself, even if your repertoire of ailments is less varied. Maybe it's "all in your mind" but your discomfort is real – even acute.  Dr. John Sarno, whose book Healing Back Pain I have just finished reading, says this pain is physiologically real, but it's caused by the brain. It's the subconscious mind's strategy for deflecting attention from anger and anxiety. Your brain tells your nerves to light a fire under that tennis elbow, which diverts your focus from unpleasant emotions. But the pain really exists. It's not in your head; it's caused by your head.  The theory is that the  brain wrecks its havoc by reducing oxygen flow to the affected areas. Dr. Sarno calls this Tension Myositis Syndrome, or TMS. He believes disc pain, bursitis, tendonitis and a host of other minor chronic ailments are all manifestations of TMS. Sometimes, the TMS relocates in a new place. You finally lose the sciatica and your shoulder starts talking to you.

If you read this book, and you buy into the good doctor's theory, you can put that nagging sports injury, bad back, sore hip etc. to rest. Acknowledging that your brain is literally ordering your nerves to fire and cause you pain – viscerally understanding this – could make the pain go away. You've outsmarted your tormentor, the unconscious mind. Dr. Sarno gives his patients a list of Daily Reminders. I'll just reveal the first one: "The pain is due to TMS, not to a structural abnormality." I could reproduce the entire list, but I think a guy whose medical advice is to stop spending money on back treatments and realize that you are just TMS-ing deserves to sell a book or three. (Although I'm sure he has a thriving practice. I actually know someone who took his advice and didn't have neck surgery, and she is now a yoga teacher and pain-free.)

Garden variety back and neck pain are the least of it. Dr. Sarno suspects a host of ailments could be manifestations of TMS. Fibromalgia, plantar fasciitis, eczema, even acne. There is a lot in this book that is highly speculative, and I don't have the scientific background to vouch for it. However,  Dr. Sarno's expertise lies in back and neck problems and he has many satisfied former patients.

As I write this, I am sitting at my desk without a trace of discomfort. No sacroiliac issues, no mid-back spasms, no aching trapezius muscles, no stiff, clicking neck. Of course I still occasionally wake up with a sore back, or over rotate my neck a bit and feel a twinge. Only now, I immediately stop and remind myself that it doesn't have to get any worse if I don't let it. If I'm honest with myself, I can usually identify the emotional issue my brain is trying to pawn off on my body, and once I figure out what's really ailing me, the pain goes away. Try this next time your bad back/sore hip/trick shoulder starts acting up. Especially if you've already tried everything else.

Friday, May 4, 2012


If this blog isn't your slice of pizza, I have another one. Check out my snide side. You might like it better. Or maybe it'll be a toss up.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Mac Hawk Down

Right when word of the new Mac trojan horse came out, my machine started going loopy. The timing was not great, as I was rushing to get a long edit out to a client so she could read it on the red-eye back to DC. Strange warnings unintelligible to non-geeks kept popping up on my screen. I got hit with slo-mo operations, email glitches, the dreaded spinning pizza and – the scary part for a copywriter – word crashes. Was my computer infected? Had my machine been turned into a zombie bot, using my good name to hook my friends up with Canadian mail order drug companies? I was so rattled, I pasted my 15 page document into an email to my client, just in case the attachment was corrupted.

Time to call the mac guy.

I use a service that makes house calls and they just happened to have a tech in my neighborhood when I called in my request. I never know who they're sending, but they all do a fine job. This time, I got a former ranger.

No, not this kind of ranger.

And definitely not this one.

THIS kind of ranger.

Special ops, baby. 75th Ranger Regiment. An elite fighting force groomed for challenging and often top-secret missions. The fittest of the fit, strongest of the strong, bravest of the brave. Their slogan is "Rangers Lead the Way" and boy, do they deserve a more manly motto. (Which I would gladly provide, for my usual hourly rate, but I digress, which is also usual.)

You would never know from the fellow's placid demeanor and well-fed physique that his boots were on the ground during our ill-fated forray into Mogadishu, Sudan. He was chatty from the get-go, informing me that he was having a good day, as indicated by the fact that his previous customer had tipped him, which "Doesn't happen very often,". Hint, hint.

Of course, I immediately decided that I would tip him too. His is one of those professions, like dog grooming, where customers don't necessarily think about giving a gratuity. (Years ago, I had my consciousness raised by my mother in law, who always tipped hotel maids. "Why would you give three bucks to a guy for taking your bags up on a wheeled cart and ignore someone who makes your bed and cleans your bathroom?"  I have tipped hotel maids ever since, except for the time I found the previous occupant's pubes in the tub.)

Ranger Mac got to working on my machine, and soon called me over to show me something. (Since it had to do with the workings of my computer, I have forgotten what it was.) Rather than shlep back and forth with my broken leg, I sat down on a stool next to him and hovered while he worked. He was a talkative chap, and told me lots of war stories. Not the metaphorical kind: Actual war stories. He didn't go into too much detail about the battle of Mogadishu, other than to say that he was part of "Task Force Ranger", the first group of ground forces to enter the city. Their mission: to capture Sudanese warlord General Aidid. Ranger Mac was one of the 73 American wounded in that ill-fated venture. He showed me the bullet wound scar on his leg, which earned him one of his two purple hearts. "October 3rd 1992," he declared,"was the worst day of my life,".

Sudan wasn't his only combat experience. Ranger Mac was part of the invasion of Panama, code name "Operation Just Cause." ( Just Cause. Shock and Awe. Desert Storm. I have often wondered who names these things. Probably a civilian dweeb with a windowless office in some forgotten corner of the Pentagon.) I learned that prior to the official invasion, we were already fighting a covert war against Panamanian cocaine processors. Ranger Mac flew on several secret sorties in which he and his brothers in arms bombed coke labs deep in the jungle. But the most startling yarn involved a 23 year old soldier from Nebraska. The Ranger unit was on a stealth operation through the Panamanian jungle. My computer guy was walking ten feet behind Nebraska boy when the kid was hit with what looked like a "a bolt of lightening" coming up from the jungle floor: the deadly and rabidly territorial Fer de Lance snake. It latched its jaws onto the young soldier's hand and bit down so hard, it broke two of his fingers. Five minutes later, the poor lad was dead.

Ranger Mac's last deployment was to Afghanistan. He didn't go into a lot of detail, and I was afraid to pry for fear of appearing ghoulish, or bringing back memories he'd rather not revisit. What struck me most was when he remarked that he understood why Robert Bales snapped and went on a shooting rampage in Afghanistan. You go into a village one day, he explained, and are greeted by smiling villagers and throngs of  curious, laughing children. You return the next day to find the streets eerily empty and all the doors and windows shut, a sure sign that the Taliban are around and a fire fight could break out any second. It's impossible to tell the "good guys" from the "bad guys." After a while, this messes with your mind. Indeed, Ranger Mac confessed that he too had experienced PTSD. Fortunately for his wife and child, his manifested itself through depression rather than violent rage and he managed to work through it.

Despite his hero status and  three stints  "fighting for our freedom" on three continents, Ranger Mac didn't see the point of any of the conflicts in which he had taken part. In fact, he sounded like a typical East Bay liberal. He had enlisted to get his education paid for, and he had paid for it in spades. Ranger Mac was a gentle, outgoing, intellectually curious guy. Besides his military service, we covered several other topics - Oliver Sachs books, our favorite hiking spots, and his baby daughter, whose photo he proudly showed me. After he left, with my $20 tip in his pocket, I had a sudden pang of guilt that I hadn't "thanked him for his service." I don't think he minded - he's a different person now.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Cheese Wheels

Long before I broke my leg, I shelled out for two tickets to the Artisan Cheese Festival in Petaluma. Four hours of gourmet grazing with an occasional pause to sample a wine, port or microbrew. There was no way I'd get through this on crutches. My son put it succinctly: "Mom, you suck at crutches." No argument here. Not only would it be challenging – and exhausting - to navigate the show, it would be impossible, with both hands pressing down on the crutch-handles, to feed my face.

We decided to rent a wheelchair.

The show was held under a big white tent outside the Petaluma Sheraton Hotel. Le tout-fromage Californien was there: Cowgirl Creamery, Laura Chenel, Point Reyes Blue and many smaller, but no less inspired cheese makers. There were pungent blooming rinds, feisty blues, camembert wanna-bes and brie-manqués, old-school cheddars wrapped in black wax, new-school tomes coated in coffee grinds, goat crottins rolled in lavender and thyme, mini-mozarelles marinating in extra-virgin olive oil, crunchy parmesan crackers, delicate mini cheese cakes and unexpected luxury chocolates. If you wanted actual lunch, you could get gourmet pizza made fresh in a portable oven or crepes, your choice of ham and cheese or, for the true philistine, PB&J. The crowd consisted mostly of foodies, with the occasional cheese monger or specialty food buyer schmoozing and collecting brochures.

At first, the wheelchair experience was disheartening. We arrived around lunch time and the place was packed. I had a hard time learning to control the chair because I have a hard time learning to drive anything. Cars, sailboats, rowboats, ATVs, mopeds, wheel chairs... it's all counterintuitive to me. So I advanced tentatively, with my face just above the level of the average person's butt, stopping the chair with my good leg every twenty seconds or so in order not to run over anyone's feet. Getting close to a vendor display was a challenge, but if I managed to push my way in with my wheelchair, I was usually rewarded with an extra large sympathy sample.

The crowd started to thin by mid-afternoon, just as I was beginning to feel the cumulative effect of all those small wine and beer samples. (Can you get a ticket for drunk driving a wheelchair?). The chair is an inexpensive model, the kind with smaller elevated inner wheels that you turn by hand. It's a workout. When my biceps would start burning, my spouse would push me for a few yards. Sometimes, he'd stop without telling me. At one point, I found myself hurtling down an aisle, on a collision course with a lady almost large enough to block it entirely. Only when I turned around to tell hubby to slow down did I realize he was still three tables back, hovering over the cheddar samples. Good thing I'd finally figured out how to work the brakes.

Clover Dairy's cheddar sculpture.

We're keeping the chair until my cast comes off. It allows me to make dinner, which is tough to do while standing on one leg. We've also taken it on outings. At the movies, I get to sit in the handicapped area - lots of leg room and nobody blocking my view. We brought the chair along when we went to see a terrific exhibit of British 19th century art, The Cult of Beauty. After my husband dropped me off and went in search of parking, a nice man volunteered to push me up the inclined path to the museum. Later, at the museum café, I pulled right up to a table and dispatched Hubbie to get us capucinnos and warm bread puddings. When he returned, I confessed that there are advantages to this wheelchair business. (Rather George Costanza of me, I know). He joked that we should keep the chair to get good seats at the movies. At precisely that moment, a couple walked by pushing a tiny disabled boy in a diminutive wheelchair of his own. Suddenly, I felt like an impostor and my inner George Costanza went back to napping under his desk.

Still, there's no denying the chair's magic. People offering me giant cheese chunks, holding doors for me, helping me negotiate curbs, and handing me paper towels in the movie theater bathroom – the last time random strangers were this nice to me, I was pregnant with my son, so it's been about twenty years. It's not that I crave the attention, or that it makes me feel special. I am fortunate that unlike that little boy in the museum, I'll soon be back to standing on my own two feet. It's just that seeing people go out of their way for someone they've never met makes me feel just a little bit better about humanity. And I needed that.

Cheese Samples

Fun Classes (My daughter and I have taken a half dozen of these)

The wheelchair of tomorrow is not a chair.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Break Dancing

I have always been sensitive about my shortcomings, most of which involve my mechanical, mathematical and athletic skills, or lack thereof. This makes me self-aware enough to know that I shouldn't fix cars, play poker, ballroom dance, ski or juggle chainsaws. Since I am a terminal klutz, I try to stay away from anything dangerous. As a result, I had only broken three small bones in my life:
• My pinky trying to catch a kickball.
• My big toe tripping over a vacuum cord.
• My little toe, executing a yoga lunge. (Told you I was a klutz.)

Note the use of the word "had".

As I type this, my right leg, (yes, the driving leg) is propped on a big blue exercise ball. My calf is straining against a tight plaster cast like a sausage about to burst from its casing. You see, a couple of weekends ago, I finally got my husband to go hiking with me. I am a fast walker and I march up and down hills with all the conviction of an invading army, but my old man has a 4 mile maximum, after which his knees turn on him. We agreed to try a gentler hike – he would push himself and Helen Redy here would reign herself in.

We decided to go to Black Mountain Regional Park, in the South Bay, where my husband lived back in his hippy days. Choosing comfort over common sense, I eschewed the heavy hiking boots and put on my old walking shoes with the worn out soles. The hike started out with great drama, as there had been a car and bicycle accident up the road. A rescue copter was idling atop a small butte behind the entrance to the staging area. We stepped aside to let two paramedics go by, carrying the unfortunate cyclist on a stretcher. I snapped a few pictures of the copter taking off and we headed down the trail.

It was T shirt weather and the sky was impossibly blue. We passed gophers, hawks and deer on our way up to the top of Black Mountain, where we were greeted by a panoramic vista of the South Bay, three other hikers and a chatty female ranger who told us all about the big controversy over the president of the California Fish and Game Commission's love of mountain lion hunting. We rested a bit, drank some water and headed back the way we had come. It was an uneventful descent until about a mile and a half from the staging area. The trail was dry and pebbly,slanting downward, towards the base of the mountain, as well as sideways, towards a dip just deep enough to call a precipice. In retrospect, the hiking boots would have been a better choice of footwear.

The first time I slipped, I didn't really fall. I skidded. I made like a surfer and adjusted my weight to stay upright. The ligaments on the side of my ankle strained as I regained my balance. It stung, but I sucked it up.

Five minutes later, I literally fell. On my hindquarters. It would have been embarrassing were my husband not used to it.

The third time was the charm. I tried to check myself the way I had before, but I couldn't stop my momentum. I went down, and this time, it hurt. A lot.

My ankle didn't feel broken. I was convinced I just had a bad sprain. I hobbled, butt-dragged and hopped the remaining mile and a half back to the staging area. Some nice hikers broke a branch for me to use as a cane. I reached the bottom of the hill just as my leg gave out. I plopped down on a log next to the fire lane while my husband went to get the car. As soon as he pulled up, a ranger appeared and asked us to move. When he saw my leg, he chided us for not calling for help. I said we hadn't thought of it, though actually, I had. I wasn't about to suffer the embarrassment of an airlift, and one always ends up getting billed for this sort of thing. Besides, now I can say I walked a mile and a half downhill on a broken ankle. I have earned my macho street cred for life.

Enough crowing.

I went to see the podiatrist the next day, and the X-ray showed an inverted V-shaped break in my lower fibula. I've gone from hard-driving hiker to the spaz with the cast. There are just enough steps in the house that I scoot and crawl rather than hassle with them. My dog is afraid of the crutches and is mad at me because I can't walk him. Bathing is a nightmare. The toilet is very close to the tub, so I sit on the seat and tape a garbage bag around my leg. The first time I washed, I straddled the edge of the tub and got in the shower with my good leg, letting the injured one rest on the commode. When I had cleaned up to the best of my limited abilities, I pivoted on my good leg, turning the bad one towards the tub, and lowered my butt backwards onto the toilet seat, which chose that precise moment to pop a bolt. The seat swiveled all the way to the side and I went flying. I fell on a half open drawer, bruised my behind and banged my broken leg on the tub. There I lay, wet, naked and pathetic on the cold, hard tile, crying like a little girl.

So much for macho street cred.