Tuesday, February 18, 2014

One Angry Organ

Worth it?
 We don't know our own bodies until large parts of it rebel.

Such was the case last Sunday. I was in Del Mar, just north of San Diego, running the inaugural UT-California 10/20 race - 10 miles, 20 bands. Weather-wise, it was a perfect day - heavy fog which slowly burned off to a cozy cloud cover, out of the direct sun. The track wound through the Del Mar Fairgrounds, past empty horse stables and along Pacific Coast Highway, through Solana Beach with a turnaround in Encinitas. As promised, we enjoyed a different live band at nearly every mile marker as we took in the quaint shops, the San Elijo Lagoon and the rolling waves of the Pacific Ocean. Lovely.

Visually, that is. Physically, it was tough. Though I'd recently run as far as 5 miles in my desert training, I was not prepared for double that distance. My running coach and friend, Jaime, (who has a foot injury) had come along for support with her sister, Lisa, (who drove) and Lisa's daughter, Andrea. My pick-up time in Long Beach was 4:45 a.m.; the race began at 7:30 a.m. My attitude was pure zen. "I'll just do my best," I said.

I am no athlete, my body is more writer-shaped. I have zero competitive drive on the physical front; my ego lies somewhere in the arts. Tell me I am slow and uncoordinated (the truth, as such), and I will shrug. Tell me that I lack wit or intelligence and I will eviscerate you with my sharp tongue. Hence, my simple goal was to beat the garbage sweeper and to not die. In that sense, I 'won' the race at 2:30 hrs.

I ran most of the distance, about 7 miles, before switching to a walk/run approach. I had begun my menstrual cycle the day before and thought nothing of its effect on my performance. Other than keeping giant horsepills of ibuprofen on my person (600 mg. each), I made no allowances. About Mile 8, my uterus began to complain, so I downed a pill, with one of the many cups of water and/or Gatorade offered by volunteers. Mile 9 brought no change, so I took another. I had now taken 2400 mg. of ibuprofen since waking at 4:15 a.m., which, based on previous experience, should have done the trick. Turns out, I had still had a few things to learn about body chemistry.

Crossing the Finish Line was joyous, except that I was now in significant pain. Reuniting with my crew, I took in their congratulations, weakly showed off my new medal ("1/3 of a pound!") and quickly found a porta-potty, where I began to moan aloud. I then found a wood palette and laid across that, while my friends stood over me, concerned. Next, I tried - unsuccessfully - to throw up, while my friends stood nearby, more concerned. We made our way over to the beer garden to watch the award ceremony where, instead, I laid in a garden bed, behind a sign. The abdominal pain intensified and I had to marvel at how violent just one organ can be - she was REALLY expressing herself. I then moved indoors, laid in the corner of a large conference room and tried to die in peace, like an old wounded she-bear.

Physical pain is a form of transport and the most evil of meditational states. When a body is in searing pain, nothing else matters - not how you look, not the argument you had last night, not your financial status, not your social standing - nothing. All that matters is that your body is very angry and, like all acts of Nature, has no regard for your petty human concerns. Pain is the power of Right Fucking N-OW.

The first thing to go is ego. Initially, I was terribly embarrassed that my friends were seeing me writhing around in public so soon after witnessing my so-called victory. Quickly, I nearly forgot they were there. The second thing to go is sight; when the pain is so bad, we tend to shut our eyes. I did this. Not happening, not happening, not happening.

Next to go is hearing. Though I faintly heard exclamations all around me, "Heather! Are you okay?", "Lady, what's wrong?" and "Someone call the paramedics!", I could barely respond. I have 36 years of menstrual cramp experience but this…this was like birthing an enraged demon. If a red-eyed baby gargoyle had popped out, I would have been relieved - at least there would be evidence.

Next thing I know, an army of cute paramedic dudes are asking me things like, "What is your name?" and "Where are you?" and "What year is it?"  And the big one: "On a scale of 1 to 10, ma'am, what pain level are you experiencing?"

"9!" I barked.

"Is there any chance you could be pregnant?"

Oh god. I did the math. "Yes!" I heard a gasp, likely my own. Please Lordy of all Lords, don't let me have a miscarriage. Not like this. Not ever, in fact.

Of course, the "Where do you live?" question throws me even when I am fully cognizant and pain-free so I'm not sure I ever answered that one.

At this point, my moaning fills the cavernous room and I was vaguely aware of a crowd forming. They moved me to a chair though I was unable to fully sit up, the pain kept curling up my body like a pill bug. My face dropped down on to the arm of a paramedic. "That's….a….very….fancy….watch," I observed, between lava bursts of searing pain. It was too, some big silver Omega number with a burnt orange face.

"Thanks! I got it for my birthday." My friends laughed at this exchange.

As the pain escalated, I began to hyper-ventilate. Omega Man tells me they are going to set up an IV and I freak out further. He searches for a suitable vein but fails so he enlists the help of his co-worker. "Hey buddy, can you try her other arm?"

Welcome to my personal nightmare. After 25+ facial surgeries growing up, I have a deep fear of needles, hence, no tattoos or heroin habits for me, thanks. There were some unfortunate blood-drawing incidents in my youth and young adulthood that left me crying or passed out and at least one nurse so traumatized, she left the profession. Even the words "Blood Drive" cause me to feel faint. So now, I'm writhing in pain on the floor after running 10 miles and I have two big men wrestling and slapping my twitching, rubber-tied arms trying to open my veins and my head is rolling side to side in protest. Evidently, (I was told later), I yelled, "Noooooo! Stop it!!! STOP IT!!" but it was all in…er, vain. This exact scenario was as close to sheer torture as I ever hope to get.

After a hideous amount of time (5 minutes? 15? No idea.), somebody found a vein and the IV was in place. They brought a gurney and I must have protested because I recall the paramedic saying, "Trust me, lady. I've been doing this 20 years. You NEED a gurney." I handed my phone, sunglasses and the precious medal I'd earned all of 20 minutes ago over to Jaime.

Loading me onto the ambulance, I made a warbly, weepy deal with Omega Man. "Okay, but NO LIGHTS. I'm not gonna die or anything." Even then, I knew I would live to screw up another day.

"Okay. No lights."

Once in the ambulance, the pain worsened and my breathing became more shallow. My hands and feet were numb and I was shivering so hard, my teeth were chattering. My cute paramedic (aren't they all?) was a dark-haired hero named Tirq, pronounced "Turk." Even as he fussed over me with tubes and machines, he asked my name again and again. I didn't know if he had a bad memory or if was trying to keep me in the moment.

"So, here's what I think happened," he said. "Your body is dehydrated, low on electrolytes, which induces muscle cramping. Since you were already having menstrual cramps, it just escalated. Now the pain has a hold on you, it's put you into shock. One bad thing triggering another bad thing."


Tirq then put me on oxygen and hooked me up to another fancy machine.

"Okay, Heather, you are now breathing 37 times a minute. We need to cut that in half. That's why you are so cold and feeling numb."

"Ohhhhh-kkkkkkk-aaaaaay," I chattered.

"Take in a small breath and hold it for 20 seconds…..That's good, keep doing that," he said.

After a long, painful ride, we arrived at Scripps Hospital in La Jolla, where my nephew, Robbie was born 10 years earlier. I was wheeled in and the sight of a rolling fluorescent hospital ceiling brought instant flashbacks. I was still in a netherworld of pain and could hear professionals discussing my factual person. I was no longer fun-loving Heather, I was a 48-year-old female of a certain height and weight who was experiencing severe cramping, dehydration and a mild state of shock. Pain or no pain, part of me felt sheepish that my diagnosis didn't sound more life threatening but holy shit, did it hurt.

Initially, I was fussed over by doctors and nurses, all men, which normally would not be an issue but I was hoping for at least one woman who could sympathize. Eventually, a nurse named Elizabeth showed up with heated blankets and an even warmer smile. She also put some painkillers in my IV bag until eventually, the fog of pain lifted and I started to feel human. Lying there, wrapped up in those blankets, watching the emergency room staff run around, talking and laughing with one another, just going about their day jobs, I got that all-too-familiar recovery room feeling; there but not there. I thought about my mother and how I wished she were there like when I was a child and then I sobbed like a baby, while everyone bustled around me. I may have crossed a finish line but at that moment, I felt deeply, deeply beat.

Eventually, my crew was allowed to visit me bedside and I cracked some weak jokes. I looked straight at Jaime and Lisa and commended them on their birthing of four children. "If the pain of childbirth was anything like that, I am deeply impressed," I said. They smiled and Lisa shrugged, "Eh. You forget about it."

After an hour or so, I was allowed to leave. "See ya next year!" I said to the staff. Someone handed me my race bib and only then did I notice, it now featured a smear of my own blood, from a blood sugar test the paramedics had given me. I had to admit, it looked pretty bad ass. You hear the phrase "blood, sweat and tears" now and again but I know now the full depth and breadth of that term.

Please note blood smear across the '9'
Texting later with my buddy, Laurianna, an EMT in Albuquerque, I learned an interesting fact. "Actually, you were dehydrated the day before the race. On your period, you need to drink twice as much for race-prep because you are losing fluids." How can I be this old and not know this? How is this possible? Why is this information not in Runner's World magazine?

My next race is a 10K on March 8th, menses and other vexed organs notwithstanding.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

A Dirty Angelena Reflects

I awoke early at Susie's house in Central Los Angeles and strapped on my ravaged hiking boots. She generously handed me a huge glass of purple strength, a blackberry-banana-flax seed smoothie made that morning. I headed across town, just six miles to Crenshaw High School, to honor a man of peace, Martin Luther King, Jr.

On that day, January 20, I joined volunteers with LA Green Grounds, among other groups, to help the school clean up their garden and prep it for the 2014 growing season. The offering of my day seemed like the purest way to participate in the National Day of Service on MLK's birthday.

But not all my intentions were pure, in fact, they were downright filthy. Over winter, I become restless and antsy for acts of gardening; not unlike a cell phone, directly plugging in to the earth is how I recharge. At long last, I was going to get dirt under my nails!

The dig was informal and joyous. Several of us rehabilitated raised beds - we moved soil around, laid down mulch, soaked the layers, and pulled out any weed roots we found. 'Twas highly satisfying to get these beauties full and ready for seeds. I noted a group of young men water the hell out of one bed and I tried, in vain, to cease the soak. "That's way too wet, " I told them. "Soil should be like a wrung-out sponge, not mud." They ignored me. 

Soon after, a mini-powerhouse woman showed up, full of spirit and knowledge, and was more persuasive. "Woah! What are you doing? No! Stop adding water! It's too wet!" They stopped immediately. Guess I need to work on my Persuasive Voice. (She explained later that she was a teacher for many years and had cultivated an effective voice of authority. "I get a lot done that way," she said.)

This delightful woman turned out to be Florence Nishida, a Master Gardner who co-founded LA Green Grounds with my personal hero (and her former student), Ron Finley. She later taught some of us how to properly prune a fruit tree for a maximum quality fruit crop. She was a research fellow at the LA's Natural History Museum and now leads veggie garden workshops there on Sunday afternoons. So, now I have another hero.

Florence, sharing her pruning wisdom.
Crenshaw High's garden sits on the school's corner lot, at 50th and 8th streets in Los Angeles. Long metal bars fence in the property though it is easy to see from the street. The surrounding neighborhood boasts small, tidy Craftsman-style homes circa 1950s and impossibly tall palm trees, lined up with military precision, that have become LA's landscape trademark. As I shoveled a pile of leaves and branches into a wheelbarrow, I saw two young boys ride by, sharing a bicycle. One hops off the handlebars, walks over and puts his face between the fence bars, taking in the whole garden scene. I shouted to him: "You guys want to come pick up a shovel and help us?"

To my astonishment and delight, he shouted back an emphatic, "Yes!" Both boys, maybe aged 9 or 10, immediately rode in to the garden and when I left hours later, they were still there, planting. I couldn't help but think of Ron Finley's simple epiphany during his famous TED talk: "When kids grow kale, kids eat kale." Could the solution to our health and nutritional challenges - especially for kids - really be as simple as getting kids to garden? Yes. Yes, it can.

Finley, a self-described "guerrilla gardener", grew tired of seeing his friends and neighbors ravaged by heart disease and diabetes, so he took action in the form of plants. Worried about "drive-bys and drive-thrus", he realized that urban food deserts were killing his people with poor nutritional choices, especially the children. His tireless efforts have resulted in a local movement to transform wasteful lawns, abandoned lots and (famously) curb strips into vibrant gardens where community involvement is the protest and fresh vegetables and better health are the rewards. No corporate sponsorship or government hand-out required, thanks very much.

My fellow volunteers included a former teacher at Crenshaw High (business) and a former student at the school. The alumna's name was Courtney and she is now a student at UC Santa Barbara, majoring in Political Science and minoring in Black Studies. While talking to this delightful young woman, I thought, 'She needs to meet that young man over there, Trustin, who is running this dig. They would make the cutest couple." And then I asked Courtney how she found out about the dig.

Ah, young garden love!
"Oh, my boyfriend over there is running it…" Yup. She was way ahead of me. How cute are they? (At left.) Trustin was teasing her during the photo, "This is my wife!" and she giggled and protested, "Oh my god, no! No! Girlfriend!" They were all smiles and love, the kind of people that instantly made me feel better about the future.

Then, in the middle of it all, the mayor of Los Angeles, Eric Garcetti, showed up. In crisp black dress pants and a pristine white button-down shirt, he was not dressed for the task. I couldn't resist ribbing him about it.

"Nice of you to drop by, Mayor, but next time, bring some gloves and an old t-shirt or something so you can help out."

His sheepish response seemed genuine. "I know! I just came from the MLK parade so this is what I was wearing. I would love to help. Really! My wife and I had a garden but we couldn't keep one during the campaign. I really loved it. My family always had a garden growing up. We grew tomatoes, lettuce, beans, peas, corn, peppers…."

Hizzoner kept listing vegetables until someone (likely a PR person) tugged at his crisp, white sleeve, and pointed to their watch. Then, Garcetti gave me an impressively firm handshake and thanked me for my time at the school. All the dirty volunteers were then carefully arranged for a group photo (see below) with the very clean civic leader and, after a few goodbye hugs, he was off to the next event.

I'm in the back row, second from left. (Image credit: Jake Camarena, LA GreenGrounds.)
Since I don't live in Los Angeles full time, I didn't know much about Garcetti, other than his slight, handsome face greeting me upon arrival at LAX. After asking around, I discovered that the man was well liked. His last name is familiar to anyone who grew up here. (His father, Gil, was a former LA County DA, frequently quoted in the news.) Amazingly, Garcetti is also the city's first elected Jewish mayor and, at age 42, the youngest in more than a century. I liked him.

But the afternoon hours brought us the real celebrity. I was carrying plants when I overheard a woman exclaim, "You're the reason I'm here!" and I recognized Ron Finley immediately. A few of us girls gathered around him, gushing, and he seemed overwhelmed by the attention. I asked if I could take his picture and said, "As long as you don't say Ron Finley from LA Green Grounds." He explained that though the effort was something he'd helped start, he was heading up the Ron Finley Project and that's what he wanted to be linked to. "I hear a lot from people who say, 'I went to a Green Grounds dig but you weren't there. Why not?'" He can't make it to all the digs and didn't appreciate obligations put upon him. He worried aloud that people kept making the connection anyway and he wasn't sure why.
Ron "Plant some shit!" Finley with his gardening groupies.
"Well, you know your wildly successful TED talk that a gazillion people have seen?," I explained. "It's got the link to Green Grounds next to your bio. That's how I found out about it and yes, it's why I'm here. But I didn't really expect you to be here. No offense, but it's not why I came." He laughed.

Post-dig, I returned to Susie's, enjoyed yet another excellent Oscar screener ("Nebraska", which made me homesick for the Midwest) and then chatted with Susie's friend and temporary roommate, Roseanne, a successful costume director for the film industry. Evidently, she'd just wrapped up production on a fresh batch of Capital One commercials with Alec Baldwin. In professional gratitude, Baldwin sent Roseanne one of those famously decadent foodie gift baskets and we three spent the evening drinking wine, discussing men and feasting on truffle cheese, dried fruits, salted almonds, dark chocolates, olives and the most amazing caramel I have ever put into my mouth. It all tasted like celebrity money - heavenly.

I then drove back to Long Beach - 5 South, 10 West, 605 South - and luxuriated in zero traffic, just 29.2 miles of pure uninterrupted neon bliss under a glowing white bellied-moon. Fondly, I recalled my nights as a limousine chauffeur, back in college, when I ruled these freeways like Captain Cadillac over the high seas. Once rid of the night's batch of drunks, I cherished that drive back to the limo lot, usually around 2:30 or 3 a.m., when the bars closed. At that time, Los Angeles was velvet dark, fast and lovely and almost entirely mine. Certainly, it's when I love her best, when the commuters are sleeping or watching a screen at home.

In no time at all, I was back in Long Beach, my hometown. As the nightly helicopters chopped up the sky, I fell into bed, exhausted, and smiled - it was the most perfect LA day.