Thursday, November 06, 2014

Out of the Half Silent Planet

You know that scene in more than one old Hollywood movie, the one of a doctor slowly unwinding a bandage from some beautiful girl's face, then carefully pulling gauze pads from her eyes?

"Now, open your eyes."

The beautiful girl blinks.

We get a point-of-view shot of a blurred ping-pong ball with a few furr-edged dark shapes on its surface.  In a moment, the ping pong ball resolves into the doctor's face, eyes, hair, nose, mouth.

The girl's jaw falls open. "I can see," she says tremulously.  Her eyes show no trace of ever having been damaged (and if the movie was made before 1967, are also carefully made up). The camera cuts to the face of her mother, who's standing just behind the doctor.  Her mother is wearing a Chanel suit and crying silently, for joy, into her gloved hands (if before 1967).

"I can see!" the patient exclaims.  The mother,  and a nurse with a heart of gold, move in for hugs.  "Oh Darling!" says the mother.  "Thank God!  Thank you Dr. _____!"

The Doctor is a modest man, so his only emotion is relief.  He issues a few instructions to the nurse and the patient and maybe a warning or two, depending on the plot.

Well, with a variation or two (or twenty) I played out this scene two days ago in an examining room in our local medical center.

First variation, a biggie, it wasn't my sight that was restored.  It was my hearing.  Well, some of my hearing - in one of my ears.  The formerly deaf ear which was operated on by an ear-nose-and-throat doctor (is that less glamorous than an ophthalmologist?) just one week and two days ago.

Also, substitute "beautiful girl" for "gone-to-seed nearly fifty-something."   And my doctor, though of perfectly nice appearance, was not exactly Cary Grant.  As a real, actual doctor who can fix things that seem unfixable for actual people - including gone-to-seed nearly 50-somethings - he was better than that.

Our scene also didn't include the drama of an unwinding bandage. It did, however, include an ear  examining tool, one that lowered from the ceiling of the exam room.  My Doctor inserted into this a very small suctioning instrument.  The miracle moment for me didn't include a bandage but a slurping out, very loudly,  of an ear canal full of clotted blood and gunky, week-old bacitracin. Also, we had no audience.  The nurse, who wore scrubs (long gone are white-capped and dressed movie nurses) was off helping someone else.

"The bacitracin jams the suctioning, hold on," he said.

The key part of that last bit was "very loud."

My right ear has been dying a slow death since 2001.  In our pre-op meeting weeks ago, my doctor had blown a puff of air into both of my ears in order to get a look at my ear anatomy.  I didn't realize that any sound accompanied the puff in my right ear until he administered the same puff into my still functioning left ear.

About the only thing my right ear was good for at that point was for picking up the rumbling of say, a jet engine, if I was right next to it.  So to hear loud slurping over there was a big change.

I have a condition known as otosclerosis.  As a result, my hearing fell away, year by year, from my right ear starting in my mid thirties.  I have written about it here a couple of times. I tried hearing aids and found them a nuisance that offered little benefit.  More on that in a minute.

I had consulted with this same doctor four years ago.  At that time, he pronounced me a good candidate for hearing aids (both ears, actually) and said the risk with surgery was that I could lose the hearing I had left in my right ear.  I went away and tried hearing aids, again.  Unfruitfully.

I once saw a hearing aid described as being a flashlight in the dark.  Better than nothing, but not the same as sunlight.  Sound  filtered through a hearing aid  has always struck me as if it has been  arranged by a particularly unskillful high school AV crew - a tinny microphone that helped, some, but that was nothing like real, natural ear hearing.  Also, for some reason, good hearing aids cost a fortune. Worse still, I'm not good with accessories.  I lose jewelry, hair bands, glasses, gloves, hearing aids.

By this year, my kids were increasingly functioning like service animals when we were out together.  "Mom, he asked you a question," my son or daughter would say with an embarrassed air.  I would turn and find a waiter or some passer by.  "She's half death," my son would then announce to the poor stranger whom I had ignored.  (At least that's what it sounded like to me).  People whose voices fall within a certain low register were nearly completely inaudible to me.  Something had to be done.

As you know if you've been paying attention here, I went to see Kate Bush sing in London at the end of September.  I was worried about what I wouldn't hear at the concert.   I got a new custom-made prosthesis for my powerful hearing aid before the event.  The audiologist who fitted it was full of praise for the surgeon with whom I had by then made an appointment.

Kate Bush went fine, but see aforementioned AV crew reference.  I took off the hearing aid part way through the show. It was loud enough that I don't think I missed anything important, though her banter was lost on me.  Shortly after getting back from London, I saw the Doctor.

This time, he said I had a 96 percent chance of improved hearing if I went under his little tiny knife.  He doubted my right ear could be corrected to be as good as the left.  But I had heard enough.  We scheduled the surgery to take place within two weeks of that pronouncement.

The surgery for otosclerosis has been around for a long time now.  It was first performed in 1956 on "54-year-old housewife," as per Wikipedia, who "could no longer hear, even with a hearing aid."  It involves cutting loose the stuck stapes bone - the "stirrup" you learned about in third grade - and drilling a little hole in the foot plate thereof and inserting a new prosthetic piston to carry sound waves.

I am writing this about 48 hours after my non-movie scene of gurgling suctioning.  My first week post-op, even my first moments post-op, offered me sounds I hadn't heard in years - a conversation from the next bed to my right, my own heart beat in my right ear etc. but yesterday was the first day with nothing left in my ear from the surgery, except some residual swelling.  I took the new ear for a spin.  After a few hours, I had to retreat to my bed.

I got a little sick to my stomach, maybe from the messed up middle ear, or maybe because I was overstimulated.

 I had been warned by my father, who has the same condition (as yet to be corrected but he's following along), that many people complain post surgery how noisy the world is.  Yesterday that was me.  This functioning, or even only half functioning right ear is going to take some getting used to.  When did dishes clatter so? When did car doors slam with such force?  Putting a jar in the refrigerator includes sound?  Who knew?  I went to a couple of grocery stores yesterday but then had to run home to my empty house and put some ear medicine and cotton ball into that new ear.  My God, even this Macbook keyboard makes sounds?  Everything, except speech, with which I am still struggling, seemed assaultive. I've been in a half silent planet for so long...

Don't get me wrong.  I'm not complaining.  I'm just trying to describe how startling it is to get back a lost sense.  I assume I'll get used to it and I hope that one day my grandchildren will be happy to see me - instead of dreading having to shout short conversations at an old lady.

On the day of my surgery, the nurse in pre-op who collected my glasses left a little card in the plastic bag with my glasses case.  It notes, for purposes of any future MRI scans, that I have a middle-ear prosthesis.  It's the size of a hair.  So, while my little restored ear story may not be movie material, and while Jesus himself may not have laid hands upon me an unstopped my ear, it is miracle enough and drama enough for me.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

We've Seen the Movie Version...

One problem with this Ebola outbreak is that this first part reads like an airport thriller by a not particularly imaginative writer.

Opening scene. A two-year-old suffers and dies horribly in an African rain forest.  A grief-stricken mother weeps over the body of her dead child, then, a few days later dies herself.  Next scene, French doctors are testifying to government panels all around the western world about what a disaster this outbreak really is.  They plead for help on CNN and FOX and BBC...  The doctor who knows the most about the disease in the whole world goes directly to a bureaucrat from [insert name of international organization or western government here] and tries to paint a picture of the terror that awaits.  The bureaucrat leans back in his desk chair and fiddles with a pencil smartphone.  The doctor does his best to persuade the bureaucrat that a lot of money needs to be spent and RIGHT NOW! "Terrible. Truly.  But Africa is far away, and those footing the bill, while sympathetic, don't really want to foot that bill."  The doctor pounds the armrests of his smaller chair.  Next scene: an apparently well man gets on a plane in west Africa and heads for a family reunion in Dallas.  Once in his seat, he flashes back to the dying daughter of the friend.  He sees again her face as he helped her from the cab back into her home because the African hospital had no room for her.  He also begins to feel just a little hot...

In the film version of this book, we all know the final scene.  It is Brad Pitt (or equivalent) leaning on a hoe behind a ruined McMansion.  Brad is wearing a dirty make-shift garment tied at his shrunken waist with a piece of clothes line.  Behind him, wraith-like children with wild, dirty hair, cringe and cower.  The more violent survivors  - the ones who always travel in packs and have teeth as bad as their morals - have come to take the potato crop that Brad's family has only just managed to store in what was once their home theater.  Brad tells the kids to get inside and brandishes the hoe...

We know this story, or feel like we do.  We've seen this plot over and over for years and this IS HOW THE END BEGINS. No wonder people are panicking.

Well, a few people.

Most of us here in the west are probably just a little bit worried.  I'll put myself in that category. True,  I would not have been happy to have been on that plane with the nurse who got sick right after she got off of it.

In my better moments,  however, I remember the actual, currently suffering victims of this terrible disease, and the bravery and goodness of those who have pitched in to help them.  That is the current reality - it is also, for the time being, the only reality.  So, note to self and anyone else who has been pulled through this same thought pattern: save your concern for those who really need and deserve it now.  Brad and the rest of us are almost certain to be fine.  In the meantime there are thousands of sick people who need help and helpers who need support.  Helping them would be actually useful, and also do a little something to foreclose the hackneyed ending we've been conditioned to expect.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

FitBit and Wild Bats

More on this is a minute...

I suppose that would be in contrast to tame bats?

Anyway, just stopping by on a Saturday morning to wave hello and to join the chorus of those extolling (or lamenting a little) the Fitbit.  David Sedaris wrote about his Fitbit experience here.

It's basically a pedometer with a wireless internet connection that tracks your activity.  I bought one, the lower-end model that attaches to clothing or can be carried in a bag, soon after reading about DS's experience.  I was, apparently, late to the game, however.  My secretary was there at my unboxing.  She yelled "You got a Fitbit?!"  My colleague in the next cube had, I learned then, been wearing one for months.  (She's a perfectly maintained individual, I might add).

My Fitbit has become in the last few weeks the Dragon Mother I never had.  It reports daily on my movements.  It makes happy faces when I am walking and sick faces when I am not.  The goal is 10,000 steps a day.  To get to that, I find that I need to take a proper walk, at least one, sometime during the day.

I think I have noticed at least a little health benefit.  I have more breath on uphill climbs, but the greater one has been the walking in weathers and conditions that I would have otherwise avoided.  My best walks so far have been in near dark and or in slight drizzle.  The wildflower situation here in Vermont is, at the moment, spectacular. And the Queen Ann's Lace and Goldenrod and all that, as well as all the green of the ferns and leaves, never looks better than in the wet and the gloaming.

Last night, it was nearly 8 PM before I got out of the house and that basically means "dark" at this time of year.  It was a proper summer night, though, with several neighbors entertaining outdoors, with porch lights lit, murmured conversations, campfire-scented air.  I saw the big moon reflected off the spine of a metal barn roof, the hills around the valley where we live silhouetted against a dark blue sky, and bats.  Lots of bats.  This was really good because we have been worried about bat populations here lately. They flapped around overhead in that mad bat fashion, as could only be traced by an autistic kid with an etch a sketch.

What a treat.  Thank you Ma FitBit.

And that was the second time this week where my Fitbit paid such a dividend.  The other day, when I dropped off Shackleton for his cross country practice in a mountainy-neighborhood on the other side of town, I walked instead of getting back into the car to run errands.  I had my iPhone with me and snapped a few pictures.  One is at the top of this post.  (File under, "otherwise I would have missed this").  Here are a couple of others.

Apparently you have to leave your couch to see these things.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Today: Cleaning Up the Summer and Thank God for Kate Bush

An ill-fitting window fan and a hastily (badly) installed air conditioner meant winged and crawly things had easy access to our house this summer.  So long as you were under an inch or so in diameter, it was come on in!  The air is ON.

So, today I have been sweeping up the bits of moths, spiders, lady bugs, wasps, etc. that survive when the rest of bug has turned to dust.  These bits collected in every corner of every room.  There was a thin layer of tiny, light-colored bugs on the living room floor in front of the window fan.  They were too small to be identified.  I think they must have tried to come through the fan blades.  This didn't work out well for them.  There is still a Daddy Long Legs hanging out (literally) over the dog's dish.  Hand-to-heart, the thing could straddle and Eggo.  It has been clinging to the side of the cupboard for days, still as stone.  It looks so delicate, though, that it felt like murder to sweep it away. I left it.  A proper spider, a miniature version of that one in the Lord of Rings, did not fare so well.  It scurried out from under a baseboard while I was sweeping and I stomped it instinctively.  I felt a bit bad about this but at least I was quick and it was trespassing.

I also cleaned my 13-year-old son's room today.  (He is now off at school and so unable to eject me as soon as I open his door).  I rounded up some items there for Goodwill.  I found two pairs of sneakers from last year, now two sizes too small for him and too dirty and torn for Goodwill.  These went into the trash in the kitchen.  One, a basketball shoe, sat disconcertingly on top of the pile and gave me the whim whams as I went to and fro, it looked so much like a disembodied foot.   I heard a news story recently about how feet in shoes tend to wash up on certain shorelines.  Apparently corpses in water tend to break apart at the ankles and the feet go drifting.  More cleaning ensued.  Now the shoes are covered by other trash and it's safe to get a Diet Coke.

My summer was short and lame.  I did not go swimming once.  This has never happened before in my nearly 50 years.  I had some surgery in mid July (just when the water temperature in our Vermont wild rivers might be getting tolerable).  Bathing was then forbidden for weeks.  No proper vacation either.  (See note re: surgery).

The good news is that I have a trip to England on my horizon now, and closing fast.  (I just called my doctor to get my "airplane medicine" and my credit card company to put them on notice).  The Infanta is my travel companion.  Why England in September?  Well, Kate Bush is, as you should know, giving a series of concerts in London in these next few weeks.  In a fraught moment last May, I managed to snag two tickets.  KB opened the shows this week.  I have been reading the reviews at every lull for the past 48 hours.  Every one has fallen in that narrow spectrum between glowing and "I"M WETTING MYSELF."  I can't wait.  My step mother is coming to stay with Shackleton.  She can be relied upon not to let the place go to wrack and ruin in the four days that we'll be gone.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Read This

Because it's fantastic.

It's an excerpt from a short Talk of the Town essay called "Howard's Apartment." It was written by Maeve Brennan, who wrote for The New Yorker as the "Long-Winded Lady" from 1951 to 1984.

This piece was published on November 11, 1967.

The setup: The Long-Winded Lady is house-sitting for a friend in a two-room Greenwich Village apartment on the third floor of a brownstone.  Her friend's apartment is in the rear of the building.  There is a party going on in the front apartment.  She hears the party in bursts, as the door opens and closes with each guest's arrival.  She is alone, listening to the party, and thinking of herself as a Goldilocks-style intruder in her friend's apartment when a rain storm sweeps in:

As the rose leaves fluttered, welcoming the downpour, the ailanthus trembled all over, and the flat red-and-black side of a large apartment building half a block away shone with color. Wherever the rain fell there was color, and the rain fell everywhere.  At the first moment of the storm, when the lightning flashed and the rain came thundering down, I stood up from the green velvet sofa where I am sitting and walked across to close the door to the terrace, and when I turned back, the room had become dim - nothing left of the brightness that had filled it all day. Now the room is vague and insubstantial and shows itself for what it really is - the accidental setting of an enigmatic but disquieting dream that I have dreamed before, in past rooms, and will dream again in rooms I have not yet seen.  It is a dream without people. The rain has gathered the room and me into the invisible world where there is no night and no day, and where walls and mirrors and trees and buildings are formed of advancing and retreating sound.  At this moment it is easy to see how mountains and oceans are created and erased by a shift in the light, and to understand that the solid earth may shrink without warning to the vanishing point underneath our feet.  The rain falls steeply, making cliffs as it falls, and its force has turned the room into a cave that is real only because it is hollow - a sounding place in which here is only one sound.  In the profound silence that rises here now, even echo and memory fade away.

A good friend of mine hunted down the 1997 reprint of the 1969 original collection of Brennan's Talk of the Town essays.  My copy, as per the publisher's note, includes a few essays that were not collected back in 1969.    I have kept the book next to my bed, along with Brennan's short story collection, The Springs of Affection (same friend).  The 1997 book is again out of print and there is no  e-book version.  This is proof that there is something really wrong with human beings.  

I have read both of my Brennan books in spurts, like you might eat some particularly expensive, complex cheese.  Each story or essay gives me so much to think about I can only manage a few pages before I have to stop and sleep.  In case you're wondering, this is high praise.

I'm not good enough at writing to put into words what makes these essays so good.  They are personal to Maeve Brennan, but also universal.  The incidents about which she writes are small New York incidents that are also common to us all.  E.g., a man on the subway offers her his seat and she, startled, says no thanks, I'm getting off at the next stop.  She starts thinking about what a nice, polite man he is, and how lucky his wife is, and then realizes she has two stops to go, and feels terrible because he will have misunderstood why she declined his offer. 

I find myself stopping at about every third sentence to wonder about Brennan's biography.  She came to New York with her Irish diplomat father when she was 17.  She became a New Yorker - to her toes - but not a fancy one.   (Although the Irish claim her, quite reasonably, as one of her own, q.v.).  From the essays you get the impression that she spent most of her New York time alone, on subways and sidewalks, in low-rent hotels, coffee shops, and bars. She was very beautiful, as the photo on the cover of my paperback shows, and she wrote about fashion at Harper's Bazaar before the New Yorker took her up.  Her romantic life was, however, a disaster.  She died alone, mentally ill, and camped out a lot of the time in one of the women's bathrooms at the New Yorker's old offices.   I visited those offices once, in about 1992.  I wish I had known she might have been lurking there. I wouldn't have known who she was, of course, and she might have whacked me with a shopping bag or otherwise terrified me, but I would treasure such an encounter now. Reading her essays tonight it occurs to me she was talented to the point of doom, like van Gogh.  If I was running the world, she would be as famous as he is.

I like to do you who stop by here favors sometime, and I am counting this post as one such.  If the excerpt I chose didn't blow you away, I hope you'll still look for the book.  It's full of other marvels, not quite so opaque, or that at least that you will come back here and look again some other time, maybe when things are strangely quiet.

Thanks to my friend who thought I would like Maeve Brennan.  Right again.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

In Which I Ponder Hummingbirds and Final Dissolution

Not so peaceful as it seems...
There’s a conflict situation at our hummingbird feeder. I suppose I am to blame since I hung up the “food” (four parts water to one part sugar.  Hummingbirds are mainly constituted of low-rent kool aid).  I think the birds themselves, however, must also bear some of the responsibility.  Probably actual flowers, which deliver less of hit, are more nutritious and maybe include IQ-boosting nutrients.

It’s funny/peculiar that this hummingbird conflict is between the red and the white – throated, that is.  Like the Lancastrians v. Yorkists, various Russians v. one another, Red Baron v. Snoopy, what have you. 

The red-throated hummingbird flies at the white-throated one as soon as white throat makes a move to the perch.  They wheel and circle one another at a fabulous speed, seeming to be made of liquid.  (Which, as noted, they are).  They don’t make contact with one another, at least not that I can tell.  Perhaps there is some evolutionary line in the sand that stops them at intimidation only.

I have read that a hummingbird weighs as much as a cork, as much as a penny.  They are in that category of real animals that ought to be fictional – like narwhals, luna moths, possibly giraffes, possibly people.

Nature makes me think about religion.  I have been thinking about nature and religion particularly this week, not only because of the hummingbirds but because I had surgery on Tuesday – an actual one, like in the movies where they wheel you down a hallway on a gurney into a room with a lot of people waiting for you with gowns and shower caps.  (“Ovary-free in 2014” is a slogan that keeps running through my mind, though where I would print it and what it might do for me.)

As luck would have it I have inherited from my father’s side of the family the now notorious BRCA2 gene.  This gene is probably why three of his seven sisters have had breast cancer… so far. 
 I was advised that having my ovaries removed drops nearly to zero my chance of ovarian cancer, which makes sense and which otherwise was statistically about one in three (although no one in the family has had that yet).  This is also supposed to cut my risk of breast cancer in half.  So, out they have gone.  Sadly, it now seems to me, without any ceremony. 

I learned years ago in my first serious job after college, in the fundraising unit of an engineering college in upstate New York, that most people (at least those people worth pursuing for fundraising purposes) spend the first half of life piling up money and possessions and the rest of their lives getting rid of them.  The key for the fundraiser is to strike at the right moment on the downhill side.  Assembly.  Disassembly.

It occurred to me that the same can be said about every other essential thing in life.  Half, maybe two thirds building up (kids, ourselves etc.) then the rest in launching or losing those things.  My kids are teenagers.  My daughter can drive.  I am often not sure if she’s even in the house these days.  I sent her a text yesterday asking her to get me some Altoids at the drug store (I’ve had a bad taste in my mouth since surgery) and she wrote back that she was still up in her room.  My hearing is more than half gone.  My eyes fading. I can’t read anything with small type without removing my glasses.  “Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans ovaries, sans everything.”   Well, not quite sans everything, yet, but any fundraisers out there might want to start their engines.

The thing is that we people, hummingbirds, giraffes etc. get only one spin of the wheel.  Once around.  At least that’s the only part we can perceive.  One up, one down, and out.  The wheel itself, however, keeps going.  Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, “there lives the dearest freshness, deep down things.”  All that used up leaf litter is not really at the end of the line, just the end of the line as a leaf.

Is this any help?  I don’t know.  I have to take my son to a guitar lesson now. There are, at least,  (mercifully) distractions.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Top Ten Witch Names

I was just reading the Guardian online when I came across an article about recommended debut books. The article was written by a young woman (as per her picture) whose first name is Hephziba.

Really? I thought.  Is it possible, that someone born in the last forty years could have been named "Hephziba?"  Even in England? Was there a curse involved? An evil fairy at the christening?

So, having had a completely useless, non magical day, I'm hoping to pull out a last-minute productivity save by compiling my own list of the top ten witch names.

10. Baba Yaga

9.  Hester

8. Tabitha

7. Joan Sparkfingers

6. Endora

5. Strega Nona

4. Luciferella

3. Glinda

2. Enya

1.  Hephziba.

I'm going to bed now. I may revise this. Let me know if you have suggestions.