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Archive for December, 2015

Vertigo

A few years back, on a gorgeous October afternoon, I put on my running clothes, got in the car and started to drive to my favorite park for trail running. I’d only gone around the block when a sixty something year old Korean man ran a stop sign (his street ended at the straight-away I was on) and crashed into my rear end. I got out and looked at the back of my car – there was some body damage near the rear wheel well. The driver of the other car never got out. He gave me his license and I took pictures of both cars and the license. I felt fine, so I returned his information and headed off.

A few weeks later, on a longish run, I started to feel overwhelmed. I was listing to one side and everything felt like it was spinning. I bent over in the shade and took a few deep breaths. My first impression was that I was suffering some sort of overheating. I tried to stay toward the shade where I could. I was still about three miles from my car, but I made it back without incident.

Now we were getting into November. I’d made my preparations to make Thanksgiving dinner for my son. Despite the fact that it was just the two of us, I was going full out-turkey, potatoes, sweet potatoes, home-made stuffing, gravy, the whole nine yards. I only had to finish my day at work. I left a few minutes early and started to walk across the Columbia campus. I’d not gotten very far when the world started to feel a little shaky. So I sat on one of the concrete benches. The symptoms got worse. The world was spinning and I felt like vomiting. I had no idea how I was going to get to the subway, up or down the stairs or back to my apartment. I needed to lie down.

I staggered the rest of the way across campus. People made wide swaths around me – I realized I must appear drunk to them. Not my concern. I needed to keep moving. I used the handrails to guide me toward the train platform and kept myself as clear from the edge as humanly possible.. The train was packed with holiday sightseers, travelers, revelers, parade participants. It was loud and festive, but each lurch brought lunch to the back of my teeth.

I managed to transfer at Times Square and to make it to the bus stop in Flushing. The bus was a long time in coming. The line ahead of me was long and I simply prayed I would get a seat. I had inserted my Metrocard and gone about four steps when I felt the vomit rise in my chest. I turned and ran out again. Out on the street, the air was cooler and I managed not to hurl. But my Metrocard was spent – I had to walk home.

The walk was a slow staggering affair. I retched every few steps, vomiting up the remains of lunch and whatever liquid bile my stomach was using to digest it. I made it to my apartment and headed for bed. Once I laid down, the room started to spin. It was almost worse than standing up. I spent the rest of that night and most of Thanksgiving day trying to manage the five steps between the bed and the bathroom.

“Dad, are we going to have Thanksgiving dinner?”

I shook my head. Mistake. The room turned alternately right and left. I swallowed hard and headed for the bathroom again. By Friday I was in the emergency waiting room. Somehow 48 hours of tremendous disorientation is not an emergency – and I get it, I’m not bleeding all over the place, but I felt as thin as a wraith. I couldn’t eat and had puked or surrendered all of my bodily fluids (and solids) over the past two days. I was eventually settled into the hospitals “less-than-emergency” care unit. The doctors ran tests and gave me some medication to restore balance. The primary drug was a “blue” – valium. I thought – Jesus, are they trying to make me sleep? I’d only had valium once before, at the college infirmary when my back was in spasm. It didn’t help the back at all but it made me feel like one of those portraits that had water trickled on them from the top – all the flesh was running and dripping. I was moving in 3/4 time.

Weirdly, the Valium set the vertigo dial from intense to about 30 percent. The room had slowed spinning from 78 rpm to 33 & 1/3. I assumed that the rest would abate once the drug had run its course. I waited for release. But — and this is always a big PIA when I deal with medical staff — my heart rate was only 46. I tried to explain that I run marathons. A very low pulse is 100% normal for me. I usually clock it at 42.  But they claimed that the gaps on the EKG were too wide. I had to be sent to Emergency Care.

So I was wheeled into the busier and more medicinally scented Emergency room. Several doctors poked their head between the curtains. Most just looked. One asked what I’d been given. Valium. She nodded and left. I spent two and a half hours in Emergency, basically just lying in wait. Eventually, the nurse who wheeled me in told me that I could leave. She helped me to get my clothes and my eight year old joined me near the bed.

The dizziness never abated. It climbed to 40 or 50 percent and dropped as low as 25, but it was always a presence. By Monday of the following week, I’d decided to seek out an ear nose and throat doctor. I went through the provider book and searched for someone within walking distance. Riding a bus or subway made the vertigo (and nausea) climb. I found a young Asian doctor in downtown Flushing, who examined me and pronounced that the condition was not ENT related – he was pretty certain that I had a brain tumor and he had his secretary call a neurologist and insisted I be taken in as soon as possible. Unfortunately, the soonest I could be seen was a week from Wednesday. Now, not only was I dizzy, I had nine days to consider all the wonderful ways I might exit the planet before my son turned ten.

Of course, seeing the neurologist does not provide any results. It’s simply the step that initiates the testing – x­rays, CAT scans, artery scans, nerve tests. The neurologist gave me a prescription that first visit for Meclizine – a drug they give for motion sickness. Unfortunately, it had zero effect on me. By mid-February, a brain tumor had been ruled out. Carotid blood flow might be hampered, but it didn’t seem significant. Nerve response in the hands was near normal. A disk in my neck was squished – “like a marshmallow squeezing out.” I asked if it could have been caused by the accident. He said there was no way to say.

So after visiting the doctor two or three times a week for 10 weeks, he concluded all his tests and told me to schedule an appointment for two months later.

“But I’m still dizzy!”

“Take the meclizine.”

“It doesn’t work.”

“There’s nothing else I can do unless you have numbness in your hands. Do you have numbness in your hands?”

“No.”

The frustrating part of all this was that the way I deal with stress is to run. I’d been away from running now for 12 weeks and couldn’t even walk very far. I drove my son to school and at a stop sign, I’d look left. The world would spin from right to left. When it stopped spinning, I’d look right. The world would spin from left to right. When it stopped, I could no longer be sure that a car was not approaching from the left. It had been too long. Finally, one of Evan’s classmates’ parents helped me to get him to school in the morning.

One night it snowed. I love snow. It’s part of my youth and some of the happiest moments I’ve known. Evan and I went for a walk in Bowne Park. I had no idea how disoriented snowflakes could be. I fought it as much as I could. Evan was having a blast. I looked up at the snow falling through streetlights and fell on my butt. It was not the smartest move.

Eventually Evan’s mother suggested I see a doctor of Chinese medicine. She’d gone to see someone in Chinatown who spoke English well and spent most of his week teaching at the Albert Einstein School of Medicine. He only had office hours on Sunday. I had just looked at the insurance bill — they send it and ask you to confirm the charges. $12,000 worth of hospital visit, specialists, CAT scans and other tests – and I was still dizzy. I was willing to try alternatives.

The worst part of the journey was the subway ride. From Flushing to Chinatown on a weekend tallies in excess of one and a half hours of travel time. I left early and wandered past the herb store several times before I was aware of the place. Although the Kang Da Herbal Medicine sign was visible above the store, the glass windows seemed to look more like those of a hardware store. A middle aged Chinese couple were working behind a glass counter. The man was emptying packed boxes and his wife was putting the bags of herbs into drawers. I mentioned that I was there to see Dr. Huang. The man pointed toward two sidewalk variety kitchen chairs toward the back of the store. The surfaces of the chairs were littered with Chinese newspapers. When I lifted a stack, the chair beneath was made of red vinyl taped several times across the center with brown packing tape.

A woman’s voice came through the doorway at the back of the store. It was a step up and nearly impassible with the large leaning cardboard boxes that appeared pushed aside to make a passage. A man’s voice replied, soft and soothing. There is a scent in a Chinese herb store that is unmistakable – yet it passes description. Something like sweet dry leaves, or powdery hay, yet that’s not quite exact. I was a little apprehensive. I’d been to herbal doctors in the past and the results had not been documentable.

Like most herbalists, Dr. Huang’s hands were soft and fleshy, though he himself looked gaunt. He used a pad made of packing tape as a rest for my wrist and he put three fingers on the veins of my wrist. He tapped on the vein with his index finger, then waited. It appeared as if he were listening for the pulse to reply. Shifting his finger, he repeated the action -seemingly tapping out Morse code on my wrist- then waiting for the reply. With each exchange, he’d write Chinese characters on a notebook page. He went back and forth for several minutes between my pulse and the page. Then he asked me to open my mouth and he looked at my gums. He wanted me to go to the front of the store so he could look at the color of my eyes in the daylight. That was the extent of the exam.

While I sat in the chair, he looked at the figures on the page and wrote new characters beneath them. He explained to me that Chinese medicine requires a balancing of effects.

“What do you think is wrong with me?”

“I can only tell you in terms of Chinese medicine; I can’t translate them to Western medicine.”

“Okay.”

“You have too much wind in your intestines. It’s blowing the fire up to your brain -and this is causing your dizziness. What we have to do is to tamp down the wind, so that the fires subside.”

I nodded. I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about, but if he could stop the dizziness, I was game. He handed me the recipe, which I was to take in to the front room. I thanked him and gave the list to the woman. She had a small scale that she balanced on the curve between her thumb and forefinger. She changed the weight and added herbs, then scattered those herbs across six paper plates. The collection of herbs included long white strips of root, dried tangerine peels, bark, circles that looked like sand dollars, a heap of what looked like sea shells (mother of pearl glistening), grasses, sticks (like cinnamon, but bitter), dried flower tops. She moved quickly, going from one drawer to the next, dumping a heap on the scale, adding or subtracting based on how much the scale dipped and dividing the bulk across the six plates. Sometimes she’d stop and reassess what belonged on each pile. My job, should I chose to go through with it, was to boil one bag nightly and to drink the resulting tea. I was told you start with 24 oz of water and boil it down to 8 oz.

Evan’s mother, who’d studied Chinese medicine in California, encouraged me to make two batches – adding another 24 oz. of water and boiling the herbs a second time. Then I was to combine both batches and drink one when it cooled and the other the following morning. I’ve been asked a few times what the herbs taste like – I can only give a metaphor. Imagine running through a muddy field of leaves after a Fall rainstorm. Then imagine tripping and getting a mouthful of wet mud, leaves and grass. That’s as close as I can come. The aftertaste is often so bitter that one’s body has involuntary chills -one’s head shakes with distaste. Yet, I was desperate. I stayed with the program.

Day 1 – not much change, except the house if full of the scent of boiling herbs for several hours.

Day 2 – more or less the same. But I don’t give up hope.

Day 3 -I don’t know exactly when I became aware of the change – but at some point I noticed that my vertigo was gone. I more or less woke up from a dream, went to the bathroom, walked out to the kitchen to drink the morning version of the herb and realized the world was not spinning.

I boiled and drank the herbs until they were gone. The following Sunday, I should have followed up with the herbalist, but in the return to normalcy, I probably took on too much. I was exhausted. I slept in, then decided to spend the day with my son.

On Tuesday, the dizziness returned. I cursed myself for not getting the second round of herbs. Now I had to wait to Sunday. When I got back to Chinatown, I told Dr. Huang what had happened. He laughed.

“Chinese medicine is not like Western medicine. It’s much more gentle on your system, but it takes longer to work. But I cannot give you more than one week. The herb should have some effect-so the following week, I have to adjust the portion I give. For example, you have a lot of dampness in your stomach. But it does not cause the fire, but once the fire dies down, we can take care of that.” He nodded at me. I understood.

I made the herbs that evening and by morning the dizziness was again gone. I continued through the week and went back every Sunday for a month. The cost was $68 per visit. It included both the cost of Dr. Huang and the six days of herbs. If you count the expenditure by day, it cost $22.66 of herbal medicine to get past the symptoms of dizziness (and another $11.33 once it returned). That’s a grand total of $34.00. If you count all the money I spent at Kang Da, the cure was $340.00. Most likely less than the cost of any single specialist visit (and certainly much less than what it cost to visit the hospital).

I don’t say this as criticism of Western Medicine. When I break my arm or go into cardiac arrest, I’m grateful for what the West does well. Tend to emergencies.  I was also happy to learn that it wasn’t a tumor (although it was the doctor who thought it might be a tumor in the first place).  For anything else, I usually hit 19 Pike Street before I consider asking Western medicine to discern what the problem is. I’m more than willing to admit I have too much wind in my intestines and it’s blowing the fire up into my brain.

 

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Over the past few years, I’ve had the chance to travel to regions I would probably not have considered simply because I was working on a film. This past month I travelled to Lancaster, PA; last year I hit the chicken farm delta of coastal Delaware. Trips have also included Utica, NY, Greensboro, NC and western MD. I didn’t see much in Greensboro as we were shooting late at night and I was staying in a strip mall area by Sams’ Club and Walmart. Lancaster however was a reminder of so many things I’ve seen in the other places over the past few years.

We were shooting in the earlier part of the night in Lancaster. The owner of a 2016 BMW who’d agreed to lend the film-makers his car did not show. There was a burst of energy and suddenly the idea of a BMW was replaced with an actual 2016 Chevy Yukon. It’s a large vehicle. By the time I arrived at the parking lot, the crew had fitted the instrument panel with florescent lights and a camera rig was strapped onto the hood. I was asked to drive around the parking lot to get a feel for driving with the camera and lights. Very quickly I established that I had zero vision when turning right- if someone started to cross in front of the truck, the chance I’d see them was mighty slim. The director and his director of photography (d.p.) solved the problem by creating a convoy – I’d drive with people ahead and behind. My job was simply to signal when they signaled, turn in procession and stop when they stopped.

The scene we were filming was pretty short and something of a break-up. It starts nice and cozy and quickly deteriorates. It turned out that we could repeat the entire sequence three times before we got around the block. And so, for several trips around the block in downtown Lancaster, we went through the scene and returned again to the beginning, falling apart and quickly reset to smiling again. Somewhere in the middle rain started to hit the windshield. Rain was a problem, not only for continuity, but for sound as well. The director waved us in and said we had what we needed. They decided to take a break for lunch while the equipment was taken off the Yukon.

By the time we finished eating, the rain had eased. Rain hadn’t been in the forecast until the following day, so it caught us by surprise. Liza, the actress playing my wife and I climbed back into the Yukon. Now we had the director and d.p. in the back seat shooting over our shoulders and only a trailing car to give turn signals for us (the Yukon’s signal made far too much noise for the sound sensitive recording engineer). Fortunately we were only turning left around a single central block in downtown Lancaster. The re-circling began. After several trips with the fluorescent lights shining up at our faces from inside the truck, we started to attract the attention of some of the city’s nightlife constituents (especially those out smoking cigarettes on the sidewalks). More than once some well meaning Lancastrian knocked on the Chevy’s window to ask, basically, what the hell we were doing.

The final scenes were being shot outside the Fulton Theatre on North Prince Street. Since we were working with a five year old (who’d gone back to the hotel after lunch and taken a nap), we shot his scenes first. We’d learned preceding week how quickly a five year old can shut down when the nap was skipped. While the camera was resetting, a smattering of night-lifers came and went. We were just about ready to begin again, when a woman came to the corner of Prince and West King Street and began to howl as a man lifted her off her feet. “Get off me! Get off me!” she screamed. Tired as I was at this point (after 1 a.m.), I found it hard to discern if she was serious or whether she and her partner were trying to get on film. The man carried her out of our sight, but she continued to scream. The director and cast made a spontaneous group decision and gave chase. By the time they reached her, the man had bodily thrust her into the back of his car and was trying to close the door. Challenged by the group, he left her where she was, got in the front and started to drive away.

The woman leapt from the seat and the crew helped her to avoid falling. The director had the presence of mind to make note of the license plate. A few minutes later, the police were on the scene. The woman didn’t know the man – he was trying to kidnap her. I was glad that our film staff had been able to foil a kidnapping, but after an hour of police lights, I began to wish they would finish the report and turn off the lights. They were holding up the final shots and it had been a long day.

So yeah, that was the excitement.  The hotel the producer selected was elegant and only a few blocks from the shoot. I was not called the next morning, although Liza had to finish shooting her scenes as she would return to L.A. during the  ensuing week. I was awoken by the cleaning service at the crack of 11:00. Check out time. It took me a little while to gather myself and get out. The rain in the forecast had been mistaken. The world outside was bathed in a warm and glowing light. The leaves were changing colors and all was right with the world.  I had until the end of the day to retrieve my car and I desperately needed a cup of coffee before I ever considered driving.

I walked up from the Hotel Lancaster, past the parking garage, and before I’d reached the corner, I heard the sound of hooves and clacking wooden wheels. I half turned my head to see a young Amish man and woman coming up the street in a horse drawn buggy. I’ll admit my first impulse was to reach for the iPhone and take a picture, but a single heart-beat later a decent voice in my head told me they were just people and that I shouldn’t turn them into a freak show. My head had already swung back around to the front and I made a mental effort not to take a second look.

The front desk at the hotel had recommended the coffee bar and it was a popular spot. A couple of families dressed for driving to church in a Mercedes waited in front of me. I eyed the coffee cake muffin and hoped the crumble topping would be too adult for any of the kids. The wooden floor was old school —  wide pine planks that seemed to span a few centuries as well as the floor beams. The walls were plaster the tables wooden and, and, and WiFi. Yeah, it was a trendy coffee bar after all.

Walking down the street with my java and muffin, I tried to decipher the townscape. It looked quaint, like Sag Harbor or New Hope – would I run into a psychic outpost, a lesbian coterie or a crystal Shoppe? But the real estate belonged to lawyers, software developers and churches. Nothing eclectic. Nothing creative.

It wasn’t until I turned onto the street where we’d filmed the night before that I began to feel the heartland vibe. People sitting on the ancient courthouse steps with curled brown bags in their fists, the clothes that fit last year being worn over freshly inked tattoos and rolls of belly fat. Cigarettes in profusion, but behind the smoke a blank stare. This was a life lived in an out of the way town without much hope – not for change, not for improvement, not for love. This was a town the American banks and corporations had rolled up on, sending their blue collar jobs to Chennai, Guangzhou, Bangladesh. I wandered past a vagrant couple sitting on a bench outside a closed cafe, another vagrant twenty-something smoking against a brick pillar in the afternoon sun. I say vagrant as there was not a look of Sunday strolling in their eyes, there was no enjoyment in the sun and the bright Fall day. They simply looked as if they’d stopped because there was nowhere else to go – or no reason to go there.

I turned up a side street to a square that held a statue built in 1879 to demark the lives lost in the “War of the Rebellion.” I guess it wasn’t the “Civil War” just yet; it was still the fault of the South. A young man in a blue hooded sweatshirt slept at the base of the statue with a knapsack for a pillow. There were plaques added to the statue -for those who died in WWI, WWII, Korea and Vietnam (nothing yet for the Middle East). I walked past a row of closed restaurants – this was not a vibrant community downtown but the business place for lawyers and the court. Most everything except the churches was closed on Sunday.

The sidewalk was brick-face, but the park it walked beside was cement covered in that rubber adhesive they use under children’s swing sets. There were no swing sets, merely an open patch of rubber adhesive with two picnic benches off to one side. On the table top sat two men who looked like they were waiting for their case to be called. They wore poverty and drug use not just on their clothes, but on their skin. Beside them on the bench were three other people playing cards. The faces were a mix of black and white – the white bodies fatter than the black – but no one seemed to be living large. One of the black men headed off to one end of the park square (it was bordered by a spiked iron fence and opened at either end like a driveway). “I thought you said you wanted Bud Light,” he yelled. He slipped like a shadow across the road and disappeared between two buildings. It was only when I got near the corner that I realized it was the backyard to the Lancaster Hotel – the place where I’d stayed the night before. It seemed fitting, somehow- the façade of elegance in the front obscuring the drug­-stricken poverty behind.

I’d read some articles recently about the proliferation of heroin use in formerly prosperous places – there was even a 60 Minutes Report on the topic that included Rutland, Vt. While one report cited the increase in narcotic prescriptions for pain leading to addiction, I can’t help but think there’s some relationship between the lack of industry and the lack of hope. Places that once offered jobs – and with the salary a means of actually living (getting a car, buying a house, marrying, raising kids,) – are now centered in remote places like India, China and Pakistan. Not everyone is an Einstein. There are people who are good with their hands, people who formerly went to VoTech schools or followed their fathers into factories. With the factories gone and the newer automobiles requiring computer training, there are fewer and fewer places for people who are good with their hands. These are the people I see in the devastated blue collar towns – people whose best prospect of work is Walmart or McDonald’s -jobs that do not require their skills or attention. Jobs that give little respect and smaller prospects. The investment banks and their corporate partners have gutted the factory towns, broken the unions, shipped the jobs overseas and continue to blame the devastated economy on their being taxed -as if they actually paid taxes.

I’m an artist, not a politician, but it is the job of the artist to tell stories, to offer insight, to cast light on the dark places of the world in which he/she lives. This is a story I’ve seen in too many places lately. The heroin blight is just a symptom, one cause is the parasitic greed that continues to eat away at its host, the place in which it lives. I wish I could see the economic blight making a dent in corporate conscience, creating some sense of responsibility – but as long as the banks and corporations hold an antagonistic view toward labor (to them it’s merely a cost to be held down) they won’t see that the attempt to destroy the American working class doesn’t just give them cheap labor in foreign lands, it leaves a wake of hopeless and shattered lives across a large swath of their own soil.

 

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