Yes woman

January 16, 2011

2009 had been pretty much a smoking crater for me — I lost my mind, almost died, closed my startup, totaled my car, lost friends, and tried dating — but I made no resolutions towards self-improvement in 2010. Instead I decided to re-engage with joyful life through the inspiration of a movie I never even saw: the Jim Carrey comedy Yes Man.

Basically I forced myself to act on anything that was sincerely suggested to me and not obviously shady. Join a football pool despite my utter ignorance of the sport? Yes! Give good wingman for my girlfriends? Yes! Drive the breadth of the nation from LAX to JAX in an ’89 Toyota? Yes! Volunteer to be a brain-research guinea pig? Yes! Watch World Cup every day for weeks? Yes! Re-activate 106 Miles bigger than ever? Yes! Attend a massive roots-music concert in Golden Gate Park? Yes! I didn’t have any money, but I didn’t have a job either so the two factors probably balanced out.

The main way I grew though was less about fun activities, and more about getting to know new people. It’s natural and normal to gradually narrow your social circle as you get older… but one day you wake up and realize you’re only hanging out with those who are essentially just like you. I think the problem can be especially bad in Silicon Valley because it’s pretty easy to convince yourself that “diversity” means you have work buddies who are geeky overachievers from Shanghai, Mumbai AND Caltech. But slowly you’re depriving yourself of getting to know sick old men, military servicepeople, the townie kids who make your sandwiches, bitter middle-aged types with drinking problems, witty Southerners, Marina blondes, stubborn Midwesterners, birdwatchers, and former college athletes. And if you’re like me, you’ll start to maybe treat these groups as stereotypes rather than individuals… and they’ll do the same to your geeky overachievers… and pretty soon America will suck just a little bit more for everyone.

This year, I am actually inclined to do something self-improving. I’m still not making resolutions, but I have a goal: to work on eradicating some mental habits that I think are holding me back. I think the key for me might lie in the realm of sports psychology — an idea that formerly would have made me roll my eyes in derision. I’m sincerely grateful to everyone who gave me some perspective on my own blind spots and lazy assumptions… and I can sincerely recommend the Yes Man technique to anyone who wants to shake up his or her own mind.

I am a lab rat!

June 15, 2010

Everyone likes to read about people who have had brain injuries, and what those pathologies have revealed about normal brain function. I mean, you can’t exactly go around tinkering inside people’s skulls to see what the various headmeats and glands do, can you? So the scientists have no choice but to lay in wait for people to have brain problems, and then snatch them up and take them back to the lab. Eventually the results of the study may help healthy people too, if they lead to better understanding of how the wetware works.

Today I got to make my own little contribution to Science [say Science in that Thomas Dolby voice!] by being part of a Stanford-Veterans Administration study of pituitary function after head trauma (including subarachnoid hemorrhage, I guess the blood leaking into your brainstem does your pituitary no good). The pituitary programs the other glands, and therefore controls a lot of stuff related to growth, metabolism, hydration, sex, and reproduction. People who have had brain traumas can experience subtle changes in their ability to grow muscle and burn fat, because the brain-body connection expresses itself through hormones as well as electrical impulses.

Which is where your humble lab rat comes in. It seemed like a noble goal to serve Science by volunteering, and besides I owe Stanford Hospital a lot so helping them out with their research seemed like a small downpayment. Even after a night of fasting, early morning appointment, mandatory pregnancy test, an hour of multiple attempts to slam a catheter into my scarred veins, and the drawing of approximately 40 vials of blood at half-hour intervals… still good. I reminded myself that I was also helping soldiers with brain injuries, and even “normal” people having trouble losing weight due to subtle hormonal problems.

But then I got to sample the joy of drug-induced hyperglycemia, and it’s not as much fun as it sounds. To measure Human Growth Hormone production, they gave me a common medication which also forces your liver to dump glucose into the bloodstream really fast — in fact, the stuff they give you if you’re in a diabetic coma from too much insulin. Not only were the symptoms unpleasant — vomiting, dizziness, feeling like my legs weren’t working, headache, sweats — but the whole experience was just a bit too reminiscent of my hemorrhage. The doctor did hold my hair back while I puked, which I thought was a nice improvement from last time. I reassured everyone that it was OK because I was suffering for Science… I think that nonplussed them :).

Somewhat to my surprise, I made it through the whole day of testing! The last bit was the most fun since it involved a full-body composition scan — e.g. lying on a moving table, lightly taped down, for 6 minutes — rather than blood draws. But I’m glad I gutted it out for Science! Not that I’d wish a brain injury on anyone, but it’s consoling to know that from the misfortune of a few can come knowledge for all.

For a long time I’ve had a life goal to visit all the National Parks… but lately that’s come to seem a bit shallow. For what profits a woman if she gains the whole National Parks list and loses sight of its soul? So this year I wanted to focus less on quantity and more on expanding the quality of outdoor experiences on my park visits… although ironically quantity increased substantially too.

Through 20% good planning and 80% dumb luck, I got to spend a whole month roaming around to national parks in the southernmost tier of the US, mostly just off Interstate 10. And due to the unusually cold rainy spring of 2010, all of these notoriously heatstroke-inducing spots were on the (relatively) cool side when I visited. I even saw a small patch of snow on the ground at one!

My warmup trip in early April was Death Valley. I’m not gonna lie: I’ve been there several times before, but like most visitors I was driving to Las Vegas and barely got out of the car. And let’s face it, it’s one of the least inviting parks of all time: huge, broiling hot or rainy all the time, strange, and just hard to wrap your head around.

But due to El Niño, spring was late and full of wildflowers this year in Death Valley. My mom and octagenarian aunt packed up some Korean rice cakes and Auntie’s Golden Age Pass and we actually managed a short but intense hike this time. I had been skeptical that a flat two-mile out-and-back would feel worthwhile, but the heat and frequent sandstorms in those canyons are no joke! It also makes me a tiny bit nervous to stand around in what is obviously a flash-flood path, which always makes me step a bit more lively.

Then in mid-April I took a road-trip across the nation via Interstate 10, giving me the opportunity to visit Saguaro, Everglades, and Biscayne National Parks. They’re very different from each other, and from the Pacific coast parks that I grew up with — Sonoran desert, river of sawgrass, shallow marine — but what they have in common is unrelenting heat and lack of hiking… you never really touch the ground in any of them.

Saguaro, in my opinion, does not meet the standard for a National Park and frankly smells like a John McCain boondoggle. It is not unique at all, and its functions seem to have been met perfectly well already by the state parks and Desert Museum next door. That said, the Sonoran desert was amazingly full of life, with the saguaro cactus blossoms just on the point of bursting open and being pollinated by bats. Everglades irresistibly reminded me of a giant coffee filter through which all of South Florida drains… after driving through the whole state to get there, one can’t imagine how polluted and foul the surrounding bays would be without the Everglades. Biscayne, unique in being almost entirely water-based, is pretty hard to visit if you get seasick (note to self: the middle of a bay in a 2-person kayak riding VERY low in the water is probably not the optimal time to find out your paddling buddy can’t swim). Do I love these parks and itch to return? Nope, can’t say that I do… but I’m glad I got the opportunity to see them.

Troutgirl National Parks Month was capped off by a Mother’s Day trip to Grand Canyon NP with my family. This was the very first national park we’d ever visited, when I was age 4; but I’d never returned as an adult, frankly because I thought the Grand Canyon was the most overrated, overexposed, cliched, touristy hellhole in the entire system. Luckily my parents had somehow conceived a desire to take the famous mule trek to the bottom of the canyon, giving their offspring the opportunity to tag along. My plan was basically to pick the most difficult major hiking trail and go until my shaky ankles gave out; then attend as many lectures and exhibits about geology as possible — sort of a Rocks for Jocks weekend. Not only did that turn out to be an eminently sensible plan, but there really is no better way to learn about rocks than walking through layers of them… it’s much easier to “read” them underfoot (“those light-colored rocks with the lizards”) than on the page (“Paleozoic limestone”).

I was so intimidated by all the warnings of DEATH, INJURY, and HUMILIATION scattered everywhere in Grand Canyon NP, that I grossly overprepared for what amounted to a fast, hard dayhike. My family relentlessly mocked my special snacks (Tanka bars, made by Native Americans from bison!), my six-packs of Gatorade, my hideously unflattering wicking baselayers (although in my defense I’m wearing a couple layers under there so it’s not ALL pudge), and of course my iPood hand-trowel. They pretty much showed up with a bag of flaming hot Cheetos, some gorp, and a liter of water apiece… but let’s just say that in the end she who has wet-naps on the trail wins all arguments.

Ever since getting back from Grand Canyon, I read books about southwest geology at bedtime and drift off to sleep dreaming of ancient seabeds. Along with Crater Lake and Redwood, which I visited last year, I’m now up to 17 national parks on my life list. But more importantly, I really ENJOYED my outdoor adventures and pushed myself a little past my comfort zone in terms of appreciating the beauty of a park… and that’s what Troutgirl National Parks Month is all about.

There’s a lot of actual scientific info out there about hemorrhagic strokes for anyone with a working web browser; but based on a sample of my acquaintance, the stuff that everyone REALLY wants to know goes unasked and even more unanswered online. So here’s the straight dope on brain bleeds from one exceptionally stupid but unbelievably lucky survivor.

Does a subarachnoid hemorrhage hurt?

Maybe an 8 on a scale of 1 – 10, right behind the eyes. (I’m not saying 10 on principle to give myself some headroom; and I’ve only had a 9 “hope to die” pain once in my life, this wasn’t it.)

In the months before the aneurysm burst though, I had a long series of almost continuous bad headaches — which may or may not have been connected to the event! — and in hindsight I wonder if perhaps this oddly enough helped me because I was so used to stabbing pain in the headmeats. I think if you suddenly and without any warning experienced pain like that, most people would be flooded with adrenaline and stress hormones that would make a brain bleed much worse; but I was pretty calm (and exceptionally stupid, let me reiterate) about the whole thing.

When did you know you’d had a brain aneurysm?

Not till two and a half days later, in the ER. l thought I had super bad food poisoning for the first couple days, and just did what anyone would do in that case: laid in bed trying to drink water and take aspirin (which luckily I puked right up, cause aspirin thins the blood and thus is one of the worst things you can do for any kind of hemorrhage… although puking isn’t so wonderful in these cases either).

In hindsight it occurs to me that perhaps my dreamy two-day slide in and out of consciousness alone was, you know, not a sign of high intelligence. So here’s my public service announcement, kids: if you EVER pass out suddenly, go straight to the ER and get checked out instead of laying in bed trying to nibble saltines!

Did they vacuum up the blood in your brain during surgery?

Do people think they have tiny little shopvacs for brains or what? My aneurysm was on a bifurcation point of the middle cerebral artery, which you can find on this picture — pretty deep in there, right? — and the blood (a couple Tablespoons worth) had spread out pretty good by the time they operated. The brain is as soft as tofu and all convoluted, not suitable for vacuuming.

Does brain surgery hurt?

Not at all. The part that hurt the most was having a big-ass catheter called a central line inserted into an artery in my neck by someone who had never done it before.

Do you set off the metal detector at the airport?

Nope. I have two clips in my head (aneurysm burst twice), and I think maybe some screws from the craniotomy… but they’re tiny and made out of titanium, so I’ve never had a problem.

Did you think you could die?

Never occurred to me that I would not get 100% better. The rule of thumb seems to me that the higher your odds of going out, the less they mention it to you. So if your doctor is telling you that your cholesterol is a little elevated and you could die… the risk is purely theoretical. But if everyone is super cheerful and keeps assuring you that everything will be OK, you might want to make sure your will is up to date. I had no real idea of the odds until 2 weeks after my surgery when I finally spoke to the lead neurosurgeon.

Did you see god or get religion?

Nope, although I really wanted to. In fact one of my relatives came to pray over me and declared in prayer that I had promised to become a Christian if I got better — I did no such thing, I can assure you — and I almost blurted out, “You think your god doesn’t know you’re lying?” The closest I got to a Higher Power was lying there in the hospital for a week with nothing but science and the love of others to sustain me.

Do you have a bad-ass scar?

Yes but it doesn’t photograph well because it’s pale and about an inch back from my hairline. Ask me in person and I’ll show it to you.

How much does brain surgery cost?

$300,000 más o menos. Did I mention I was unemployed and had no health insurance when all this went down? I avoided bankruptcy almost entirely due to the charity of Stanford Hospitals — in addition to avoiding actual death and disability by their hard work.

Have you had any personality or sensory changes?

I might not be the best judge of this one, but I think not. Certainly I seem to have avoided the “gross neural deficit” that afflicts 35% of aneurysm patients.

Did you do something that made an aneurysm happen? Did you have any warning? Did you do anything that improved your outcome? Are you likely to have another one? Does it count as a pre-existing condition?

Don’t know, don’t know, don’t know, don’t know, and don’t know. I was quite amazed at how little they know about the whole thing… but part of it unfortunately is that so few hemorrhagic stroke sufferers seem to make a full recovery. Plus you can’t efficiently screen people for aneurysms before they burst… so the only way you can find out is the hard way.

Have your priorities in life changed? Are you less prone to do startups for instance?

Ummmm… that’s probably a whole separate blog post.

Goodbye Billy

May 13, 2009

Billys dojo circa 1990

Billy's dojo circa 1990

As I get older I ever more value the friends I’ve had from my youth, the ones who stuck in there over many years. I always feel sorry for people who don’t have those old friends who can keep their heads from overinflating when things go well, or remind them of their innate strengths when circumstances turn downward.

The price of this love is how painful it is to lose one of these few longtime friends. Twenty years of constant caring and encouragement came to an end last month when Billy Hinton — he’s standing directly behind me in this photo, holding my shoulders — died after a long period of ill health. He went out like a man, exactly the way everyone who knew him would have expected from him, with a final display of courage and soul that was astonishing by any standard. He also had a few snide words for the Boston Celtics ;-), who at the time were locked in combat with his beloved Bulls.

I was so HONORED to have been gifted with his unstinting friendship for all these years. He was never afraid to challenge me to be better and stronger than I knew myself to be, and he had the power to connect me to an authentic self that sometimes felt long-lost indeed.

When Tim was 11 years old, his aunt Connie — a talented but unknown singer-songwriter — packed up her old VW Bug and drove off into oblivion, never to be heard from again. 35 years later, in quasi-miraculous fashion, her first album has been released due to the long-time devotion of two 80-year-old men and the energetic work of two new 20-something fans who happened to be in the music business.

Listen to the hour-long NPR feature on Connie (I take back every mean thing I’ve ever said about public radio) and read the SF Chronicle’s feature story (which uncharacteristically does not suck).

I’m SO thrilled for Tim and especially his father Philip, who at age 80 finally gets to discharge his duty as Connie’s artistic executor in the most lovely, serendipitous way possible.

Two words

April 5, 2009

I don’t even understand anyone who doesn’t like Kanye. Watch this and weep, haters. Anyone who’s lived in Brooklyn or the South Side of Chicago will get a little hit of nostalgia. Note the credit for “catering”.