…life on the synaptic firing range

Location: Los Angeles, United States

Bent but unbroken Southern California native seeks understanding, companionship, and resonance along and off the beaten path. Teresa plays well with others and makes every effort to perform to her potential. Usually. *processed in a facility that processes nuts and nut products

Friday, April 28, 2006

riding the rails

This week I'm just a little less crazy than I was last, thanks to a diagnosis that in three not-so-short words moves me swiftly from the psychosomatic column to the realm of medical legitimacy. The words are cervical spondylotic myelopathy, and while their ramifications don't thrill me, I may as well have a name for the symptoms that have clearly set up camp. Hell, they've pitched a tent, raised their little troop flag, built a fire in the pit of my stomach, and started to roast wienies—all very much without my consent. Which is why it has sucked so much wind for the past 13 months to be told I'm a head case.

Cervical spondylotic myelopathy is a fancy-schmancy way of saying I have spinal arthritis with neurological complications. I have bone spurs at C5 and C6, as well as a bulging disc, all of which cause swelling of spinal ligaments when agitated. The swelling of the ligaments narrows my spinal canal, which compresses nerves and disrupts their signals to the rest of my body, explaining the drunken-sailor walk, the slowing of my responses, and the numbness in my limbs—as well as the waxing and waning of said features. The narrowed canal also impedes blood flow to my brain, causing the dizziness, fatigue, and blackouts I've been experiencing. In fact, I had a blackout just yesterday morning to celebrate the diagnosis.

So, to recap, I've had a head CT, three MRIs (one of the brain and two of the cervical spine—both soft tissue and skeletal), a lumbar puncture (euphemism for the dreaded words spinal tap, a procedure I let the neurologist talk me into trying without anesthetic since he said it's easier that way to “hit the target”), a nerve-conduction test, eight hours of neuropsychological testing (after which I was pronounced cogent but "slow"), a sleep-deprived EEG (for which I had to pull my first all-nighter since college—total awake time prior to test: 30 hours), Holter heart monitoring (24 hours during which I was wired and saddled with enough equipment to make me look a little pregnant), an echocardiogram, and enough blood drawn to film the prom scene in Carrie.

At various times I've been told my symptoms were the result of panic, psychomotor retardation (a slowing of motor skills due to prolonged depression), and conversion disorder (in which emotional issues are avoided or resolved through physical disabilities).

We might have come close to answering the puzzle months ago, when my GP noted my positive blood tests for antinuclear antibodies and rheumatoid factor and sent me to a rheumatologist. But the rose-colored-bespectacled specialist felt up my finger, elbow, and knee joints and, finding no obvious swelling, dismissed my GP's concerns. My 5% chance of having a positive ANA in the absence of disease being exponentially decreased by the simultaneous likelihood that my RF reading is a false-positive, his careless dismissal of my case seems unconscionable to me now.

I didn't want this to turn into a rant, but I guess that worm has already turned.

When other explanations don't come easily, I think doctors find it very convenient to write off patients with psychiatric histories as having psychosomatic disorders. And I was just crazy enough that I was beginning to believe they could be right. It gets slippery, because the more a patient stamps her feet and insists something's physically wrong, the more crazy she can seem. Then every inconclusive test becomes yet another nail in her coffin of delusion.

Worse, when a neurologist who saw me for all of 15 minutes diagnosed me with conversion disorder, he proceeded to lecture me in a paternal tone that the sooner I accepted it the better my chances for recovery. He added that if I sought enough second opinions, I could probably find a doctor who'd be willing to diagnose me with something. In other words, his judgment was beyond reproof. Did I mention that he was about a decade younger than I?

Once he had entered his opinion in my file, getting further tests was, as my GP put it, a political game. He still believed my symptoms had a genuine physiological cause, but he had now been overruled by two specialists—the bug-eyed rheumatologist and my Doogie Howser neurologist.

Thankfully, my GP stuck by me and slimed me into a third MRI, which proved the charm.

I have no doubt that there are people who wait longer than 13 months for diagnoses. But take it from me, anyone who wasn't nuts to begin with who goes through over a year of diagnostics without any clinical findings, gawd help them, they're on the express train to certifiability.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

not dead

Ever start writing something about your stupid life and then get so bored with yourself that you can’t imagine why you’re worth writing about or how on earth anyone else could possibly be interested in what you have to say? Yeah, me too.

But since my mother, whenever I call, reliably greets me with, “Oh, we were wondering if you’d died or something!” I thought it would be best to head off that kind of thinking at the pass here. Because I know it’s only natural to think, Golly, she hasn’t written a blog entry in over a week. I wonder if she died.

I haven’t died. My partner and I were in Georgia—the state, not the country—Wednesday through Sunday to visit her parents and catch some of the northern stages of the Tour de Georgia. Road cycling being not such a big deal in the States, folks can get almost close enough to the pro riders at the TdG to lovingly stroke their sculpted calves. My favorite moment—easily besting my first glimpse of a motley contingent of Confederate reenactors standing cheek to jowl in Chickamauga with the cyclists, the soldiers’ dirty gray uniforms revealing almost as much pot belly as the bikers’ colorful Lycra jerseys revealed muscle—happened when we were wandering among the team vehicles after the finish of the Dahlonega stage and a Belgian rider from the Quick Step team stripped out of his cycling kit and stood in the middle of the parking lot just as naked as an eel chatting with his teammates while an assistant massaged his still-twitching muscles.

I wish I had been born in country with a less inhibited culture. I’ll bet Belgian bloggers hardly ever harbor anxiety over the worth of what they have to say—and they never have panic dreams in which they find themselves naked in the middle of a crowd.

Monday, April 17, 2006

who’s that?

Regular visitors to this blog may notice that I’ve only recently posted a picture of myself. This brings me more or less full circle: Having revealed my bloggermost thoughts a few months ago to friends who know me offline, I’m now showing my face to friends who met me online. I’m hoping that in neither case is it too much information.

I had always thought that if I ever published a novel, I’d politely refuse to supply an author photo. I’m not sure which notion is more far-fetched, that of me publishing a book, or of me, in the giddy throes of publication, not putting my face to my work. I mean, c’mon, we all want our pats on the back, don’t we? And while it seems romantic to be a Salinger or a Pynchon, living off in the woods without a PR care in the world, given the recent spate of literary shams—the unmasking of reclusive cult darling “JT LeRoy,” who turned out to be a middle-aged woman rather than a teenage prodigy who was rescued from a life of drug addiction, homelessness, and prostitution by the middle-aged woman who invented him and assumed his identity; the debunking of the more sensational details of James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces—it seems best to keep one’s hands where everyone can see them, if for no other reason than to assure the public that you’re real.

Not, by the way, that I imagine even in my wildest thoughts that anyone has any reason to think I’m not real. Good gravy, if I were making stuff up, I surely wouldn’t pretend to be a middle-aged copy editor with a mood disorder. We’re precisely the kind of people who need to make up personas in order to be at all intriguing to the marketplace.

Anonymity is a funny thing. We crave it mightily, some of us, but once granted it takes on a certain weight, flying in the face of the lightness we’d hoped to achieve under its protection. I recently edited an interview with Rauda Morcos, a lesbian of Palestinian descent and Israeli citizenship. When a national magazine outed her she became the most famous lesbian in Israel and Palestine—not an easy kind of notoriety to live with—but since the outing she’s agitated for LGBT rights in ways that would have been impossible from the safety of the closet, and she's pleased as punch about it.

This is a pretty lofty example, I know, to illustrate the simple act of posting my picture on my blog. I mean only to say that while I once thought it would be easier to talk about my life from a far-ish remove, I’ve come to understand that truth equals freedom. As I’ve begun to talk about subjects I once thought taboo, like mental illness and sexual abuse, I’ve felt my personal shame about them lifting, leaving me to marvel at how silence twists events so fundamentally that we grow to hate ourselves over events quite beyond our control.

Realizing that I have nothing to be ashamed of, and therefore nothing to hide, is so thoroughly exhilarating I want to start proselytizing everyone I meet. I’m not sure how well people will respond, though, to my accosting them on the street and imploring them to tell me their deepest, darkest secrets. “You’ll feel great!” I’d promise, a slightly feral look in my eyes.

Of course, there are still topics I’ve discussed only with my therapist and my partner—so far. But I don’t know that the silence accorded them here is about shame so much as my not quite having worked them out in my own head. No use cracking open cans of worms just to see them wiggle about. If you know anything about me, you know that I like to get my worms in order before I let them slither about in public. Especially now that you can pick the owner of said worms out of a lineup.

Friday, April 14, 2006

who you callin’ a six?

Wildflower season has come to Southern California! Botanical types are giving this year’s expected wildflower turnout only a 6 on a scale of 1–10, this because our rainy season delivered too little too late. But while last year’s crop—after a rainy season so relentless that the ceiling in our home office buckled and collapsed—more thoroughly painted the landscape in broad strokes of orange, yellow, and purple, the arrival of the class of ’06 is no less spectacular. Like any other native vegetation, poppy fields rise up amid spring showers, blooming as magically—and damn near as quickly—as a tin of Jiffy Pop. Seriously, does this scene strike you as a 6 out of 10?

A mountainside blanketed in wildflowers is one of a handful of sights—others being coastal Northern California and wine country—that puts me in a frame of mind to understand why people once thought my home state paradise.

My mother, having grown up in Iowa, came to California in 1958 with her family to visit her eldest brother, who had moved west only the year before and had been writing home ever since to exclaim, “You have to come see this place!” The story goes that after a two-week vacation they returned to Iowa long enough only to sell their farm and livestock, then moved to California en masse. Their acclimation was a bit Joad-esque in that my grandfather had lost his livelihood in the bargain and spent the rest of his days at a miserable factory job. And then there were all those sailors my mom and her sister picked up at the Pike, an amusement park near the Port of Long Beach. But such were the trade-offs for our temperate climate and dramatic landscapes—the beaches, mountains, and desert competing so fervently for one’s favor it’s difficult to see a downside.

But this entry isn’t about downsides. It’s very much about upsides, and the California poppy is living proof that land, left to its own devices, produces beauty beyond our most virtuosic attempts to improve upon it. I would scrap my plans for bricking in the cursed strip and instead liberally sprinkle wildflower seeds all about if I thought the delicate blooms would stand a chance against the trample of work boots as men cut across our property to get from their parked trucks to the high-density apartment buildings that flank the nearby boulevard. Wouldn’t it be grand, though, to turn our eyesore into a little slice of heaven?

’Course, though merchants are happy to sell wildflower seeds, I’m not so sure the show-offy little devils thrive in domestic situations. I almost never see them occupying orderly rows and beds—the kinds of defined spaces where marigolds and pansies muster in accordance with gardeners’ orders. I like to think that poppies and their untamed kin resist order, choosing to live chaotically and free, thumbing their stamens at the indignity of planters, serving as no man’s “lawn border.” There’s a reason, they remind us, that “pansy” is another word for wuss.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

the pall of the wild

We were wrestling grocery bags into the house Saturday when a stranger came to our gate and asked whether we needed anyone to take care of our yard. As he spoke he gestured at the front yard as if to say, “We can all see, can't we, that you do need someone to take care of your yard?” My first instinct was to make him go away, both because that's what I do when strange men appear at my gate and because I'm defensive about the state of our yard. Whenever I do yard work I expect neighbors to take the opportunity to approach and tell me that I'm a terrible homeowner, that our yard is a pox on their neighborhood. It's one of the reasons I'm afraid of mail: I expect upstanding families with manicured lawns to send letters rebuking me for bringing down their property values.

We've let things get a bit rangy. In truth, we've let things remain rangy. We bought a corner lot with too much yard, most of which wasn't landscaped when we moved in. And while people dream of big yards, the reality is that you're better off with a condo unless you're really into gardening. Gardening appeals to me in the abstract—being one with the earth, munching carrots so freshly pulled they still taste vaguely of dirt, wielding sharp implements—but it isn't something I want to dedicate every weekend to.

Having a big yard makes me understand my father's zeal for cement, which he's fond of calling “gray gold” in recognition of the amount of money he's paid contractors over the years to pave his world. The house I grew up in was gradually transformed from one with your standard lawn, both front and back, to one hemmed completely by concrete and brick and therefore hostile to child's play of all sorts. We had fruit trees and flowers, but they dared not overgrow their carefully delineated plots. To paraphrase Joni Mitchell's “Big Yellow Taxi,” Dad paved paradise and put up a parking lot.

Despite that early trauma, I've lately been agitating to brick a certain strip of land around the corner from our house, the upkeep of which we're responsible for even though it's technically city property. We can't even see the damned strip without effort—once a week or so we stroll over to assess the graffiti situation or pick up the trash that routinely gets dumped there: This is where you'll find your soiled sofas and such. And it seems to me that the constant weeding the area demands just adds insult to injury; actually, it spits on the already insulted injury. So, yes, bricks would be nice.

But Luis, the strange man who appeared at my gate, wasn't a bricklayer. He was a plumber, a plumber who had recently invested in some lawn equipment and was eager to get his landscape business off the ground, so to speak. After surveying our front and back yards he said he'd mow it all for $60. You might be thinking $60 isn't a huge bargain for lawn care, but such was the height of our lawn by then it was successfully camouflaging our medium-size dog. (Alas, it's not technically a “lawn,” but if you can get your weeds to cluster just so, then mow them, they approximate lawn.) This would be no quick mow-and-edge affair—this job stopped just short of requiring a machete crew. In fact, after we hired Luis I panicked that our “lawn” might kill his mower and I'd feel somehow responsible for threatening his livelihood.

We couldn't just sack out on the couch watching TV while Luis engaged in a death match with our weeds, so I mopped the kitchen and generally steered clear of looking at all relaxed. I did suggest at one point, both to myself and to my partner, that we shouldn't feel guilty about hiring “help,” as people say. Luis didn't approach us hoping we would say, “Thanks for offering, but we can do it ourselves. We're not the lazy privileged white girls you think we are.” (Not that we reek of success, but we are just two people living in an 1,800-square-foot house situated next to a building where multiple families share single-bedroom apartments.) Nevertheless, once the mopping was complete, I started to vacuum.

About an hour into his labors, Luis knocked on the door and asked whether we had any lawn and leaf bags. He had filled our city-approved green trashcan as well as a secondary can, and he had only quelled half the back yard. The necessary bags were acquired and he continued…for the next four hours. Yes, such was the piteous state of the land abutting our home it took a grown and quite able-bodied man five hours to tame it. But what a magnificent job he did!

I hadn't expected he would do much more than cut the weeds down to size such that we could once again move about our backyard, get to our fruit-heavy tangerine tree, locate the dog. I had fully intended to spend the next weekend pulling leftover, awkwardly situated weeds that sprouted between steppingstones and planters like hair from the ears of old men.

Luis had transformed our yard into more than a habitable environment: It was one gazebo and a jaunty border of pansies away from the pages of Better Homes & Gardens. I saw land I had never seen, ground around the side of the house that had been covered by rogue ivy since we moved in, jungle that had been used by generations of stray cats as a birthing environment and hideout for their young. Uncontracted by us, Luis had also attacked the cursed strip, leveling the weeds and manicuring our fence line. He had defunked the miracle oleander, so named because despite our paying zero attention to the bush, it grows like a teenager and continually spews flowers. (I guess the relative indestructibility of oleanders explains why every public school campus is lousy with them.)

Luis himself was a miracle, which is why we gave him a 66% raise his first day on the job. How could we pay the man just $60 after what he had done for us? He had given us back our yard; he had given us hope. He had given me the courage to look my neighbors in the eye and say, “Ha! How do you like me now?” To which they would undoubtedly reply, “About your trees…”

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

comma queen

I am the greatest copy editor in all the land! Or at least I was late last week, when a self-esteem boost arrived on the wings of a best-selling author—and just in time to thumb its nose at my sickening fears of brain atrophy.

I was given a book excerpt to copyedit, see, and typically excerpts are the easiest and therefore most boring lumps of text copy editors encounter. They’re generally perfect, since they’ve already been thoroughly copyedited by the authors, their editors, and their editors’ copy editors. Besides which, even if an excerpt is a flaming turd we’re not to change a thing, being that said turd is the property of the author and his or her publishing house. Speaking of flaming turds, I used to edit a regular column by a celebrity who is very much not a writer despite the fact that she has published a book. Her writing was juvenile, clumsy, and even nonsensical at times, but I was never to touch a word without written permission. The one time I bothered to ask to change something—because I really was trying to save her from exposing herself as an idiot—I was denied permission, in writing. Such was the unflinching perfection of her word vomit.

So my instruction with this excerpt was to compare our file to their file and ensure that we were publishing the work exactly as it would appear in the book, which really only entails making certain that all the formatting carried over from one file to the next: italics, smart quotes, blah, blah, blah. There are few tortures crueler than handing a copy editor a piece of writing and telling her not to edit it. Control-freaky inclinations and obsessive-compulsive tics are not just tolerated but cultivated in our line of work, and it’s tough to turn those filters off.

Happily, the text was worth reading. It was a chapter from a forthcoming book by the aforementioned best-selling firebrand author. I had read his previous books, and will likely be reading the new one when I get my hands on a review copy or, barring such luck, when it’s published. So I approached the assignment not so much as an exercise in futility but as an honest-to-god instance of getting paid to read. That’s the fantasy, after all—that copy editors are paid to do what they love: poring over all those wonderful words. But we don’t get to choose what we edit, and reading isn’t nearly as pleasurable when scrutinizing the kinds of insane details that are our livelihood: Is that period italicized?

Here we reach a narrative crisis in my triumphant story: The number of people in the world who are interested in reading a blow-by-blow account of an act of copyediting, however life-affirming, is small. That’s why there aren’t procedural TV dramas offering viewers a window on our world: the workaday trials and tribulations of a woman—with a tragic past, natch—dispensing righteous truth through the nib of her pen, correcting the punctuation and grammar of an ungrateful nation that will continue to make the same mistakes week after week, season after season.

Suffice to say that there was some punctuation in the celebrated author's chapter that struck me as…eccentric, paired with a couple of mistakes—explicit no-two-ways-about-’em mistakes—such that I ditched my pussyfoot instructions and contacted the big-deal publishing house directly, cc’ing the folks who had admonished me to resist my copyediting urges. I outlined the mistakes—both explicit and debatable—in a humble e-mail wherein I was careful to use language that left me completely open to the idea that the instances cited may simply be idiosyncrasies of the author, the kind of poetic license we might extend to a writer whose breakthrough novel spent 70 consecutive weeks on the New York Times best seller list. If my e-mail program had allowed me to dot my i’s with hearts and flowers, I might have.

You know where this is going, yeah? I mean, wouldn’t this be a crap story if the publisher had responded with a curt “please keep all punctuation and grammar intact”? Yes. Which is why it’s my relief to report that said big-deal publishing house replied asking that I make all changes cited, thanking me for catching the errors, and noting that they would alert their production department. Ha! The book was on its way to production when I swooped in like a copyediting superhero and saved it from everlasting embarrassment. Or at least I saved that chapter. Hey, shouldn’t they ask me to proofread the rest of the book? And then shouldn’t I be lovingly thanked in the acknowledgements?

I don’t blame the copy editors at the big-deal publishing house for missing what they did. I’ve edited books too. They’re difficult, unwieldy, and the deadlines are often insane. The best-selling author probably turned in his manuscript late, then his editor almost certainly took more than the time allotted to line-edit, and it was likely passed on to the copy editor with a demand for a one-week turnaround. And while everyone else’s deadline was squishy, the copy editor’s deadline was firm, because production and advertising were already lined up for an on-sale date that couldn’t be moved.

Copy editors may be the unsung heroes of publishing, but I have to sing my praises this time, if only to a small audience. My brain’s integrity has been in doubt this past year, and it still seems slow and laborious to me, like I’m constantly operating under the influence. And then there’s that neuropsychologist who pronounced my brain sound but said my processing speed was in the borderline-impaired range. That kind of stuff can screw with a girl’s head, especially when that head is already suspect.

So I’ve been terrified off and on that it's just a matter of time before I won’t be able to do this job anymore, and the terror alert last week was orange. I went to dinner with a friend Tuesday night, where we talked about our mutual career anxieties, each able to reassure the other but not ourselves. And Wednesday’s therapy session was all about how I had finally found a job I loved and here was my brain checking out on me. My therapist, of course, saw things differently, noting that if I had received no complaints about my work I was probably doing an OK job. But she gets paid to say that, and she lives in a head where people aren’t constantly talking behind her back.

At any rate, this particular copyediting assignment seemed suspiciously well timed. Were I a woman inclined to believe in a higher power, I might think she’s trying to tell me something. Then again, if I were to believe in this higher-power business, I’d want to know why I’m saddled with a brain that doubts its own integrity. Then there’d be a whole lot of talk about faith and mysterious workings and the like, so it’s probably better if I just choose to believe that everything is random, and I most of all.

Still, I am the greatest copy editor in all the land. This week. Next week the neuroses will surely come rushing back, so somebody needs to line up another mistake-riddled excerpt from a best-selling author soon.