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An Explosion of Blackberry Wine

Posted by O'Maolchaithaigh on May 16, 2014

IMG_0160 I feel like this is my last night on Earth. Almost one year ago I had a heart attack – on that day, I felt doom, oddly like the end of the world, or at least my world. I honestly felt like my life was finished, like I was going to die. If I hadn’t gotten myself to the heart hospital, I’d have been dead – so they say. At the hospital, I was shown an echocardiogram of my heart. The main right artery was nearly completely blocked. Only a trickle of blood was making it past the clot. The doctor convinced me that I needed balloon angioplasty, where they would break up the blockage with the balloon-tipped catheter and leave a stent in place. I asked about options. He said I could undergo drug therapy, but he didn’t recommend it. He seemed amused that I was unconvinced that angioplasty was my best option. I said to go ahead. They decided to insert the catheter via my arm, instead of my groin, after they shaved both areas. My groin may not have been the best choice since I hadn’t showered since the morning of the day before. They asked my if I’d taken Viagra. I had, on Saturday night – it had been a nice night of sex with a woman I knew at the time. It was then Monday. They probably thought I’d not showered since then. In actuality, I’d showered on Sunday morning, but masturbated Monday, that very morning, and washed up, but had not had time to take a full shower. I had had to rush off to pick my stepdaughter up and get her to work on time.
I felt fine that morning, and, in fact, donated a pint of blood after I’d dropped my stepdaughter off. My blood pressure was OK, and my pulse steady, and all seemed fine; my cholesterol levels have always been good. They told me to go eat a big breakfast. Taking them up on that, I stopped at a breakfast buffet. I had a pile of bacon, a little bit of scrambled eggs, some carne adovada, a small waffle, some fruit and coffee. I felt great. I went home and relaxed, played around on my computer: checking the status of things I had for sale on eBay, reading email, looking at my blogs on WordPress. I picked up a book and read for a while. It was then that I felt the weird pressure in my chest that wouldn’t go away and kept getting worse. Nothing I did helped. The feeling of doom crept in. Death. An ending. It’s over. All that went through my mind. No pain. No numbness. No nausea. Nothing but the most unusual sense of impending doom, and the pressure in my chest. I survived.
No heart attack now. I’m off most of the medications. I’m supposed to keep taking aspirin every day for the rest of my life. I’m still taking a statin drug to keep my cholesterol down. It’s lower than it’s ever been in my life. I also take a drug to fight off acid reflux. It helps. However, I don’t feel like taking any more drugs. I checked my blood pressure the other day, and it was higher than it’s ever been in my entire life! Way higher. I never had a problem with hypertension before. I started training for a half-marathon shortly after the heart attack, and ran it in October: 13.1 miles in three hours. Slow, but I made it. I had never run before. I’ve been running since, but not lately – I’ve had too many conflicts, what with work at a winery, and being on a movie set, and hiking sometimes in the mountain. Somehow I am busy, even five years after I retired from my day job. All is well.
Psychologically? I don’t know. I came back from visiting a friend who just had cancer surgery a few days ago. She had her thyroid removed, and her parathyroid relocated. We visited a bit, and she said she was tired, and wanted to nap. I left, but later saw that she was on Facebook, and at dinner with friends. She hadn’t mentioned that. I’d offered to take her out, or pick something up, but she’d said no. Well, that felt odd.
Watched a movie tonight: The Secret LIfe of Walter Mitty. Great movie. Easy to identify with the main character. Just before it ended I heard a muffled explosion from my kitchen. I was engrossed in the movie and didn’t want to get up. But then, I heard the sound of water running, and dripping, and I had no idea what it could be. I paused to see what the hell it was, and discovered my kitchen cabinet leaking. A bottle of Blackberry wine that came from the winery I work at, but had been opened by my stepdaughter, and recorked, had exploded and was pouring out over the countertop. She hadn’t liked it, and had given it to me. I grabbed some towels to mop it up, left them in place and watched the rest of the movie. Since then I’ve cleaned up a little, taken most everything out of two shelves and wiped up all the wine. I still need to wash it out. My whole house smells like wine now. It’s past time I should be in bed. I need to get up in 5 hours to drive to Santa Fé to work with the film crew. It’s the last day, day 13 of filming. It is a Sci Fi TV pilot. Whether or not it will ever be seen by anyone but ourselves, I can’t say. It’s an excellent concept, and everyone has worked hard. Very low-budget. Most of us worked for free. As extras and crew we’re not paid (except coffee, donuts, fruit, cheese, water and pizza). The actors are paid, although not much.
It feels like the end to me. Running through my head is the idea I can’t shake: that this is my last night ever, that tomorrow is my last day, ever. I don’t know why. I’m being melodramatic. I’m foolish. I know better, but not much inspires me to write anymore. This does. What if this is my last night?

Posted in depression, Life, medical, My Life, rambling, Random Thoughts, wine | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Sometimes it takes a good swift kick in the heart

Posted by O'Maolchaithaigh on June 11, 2013

There have been many times over the last five or six years when I thought I was ready for death. My life didn’t have much meaning, but it didn’t have to, I thought, since I had lived a good, and a long life already. I mean, what’s the point of just living? Life needs to be lived, and I mean lived, enjoyed, relished, savored. It doesn’t matter what the mix of good and bad is. A really good week makes up for a bad day anytime. An exceptional day makes up for a bad week.  However, since my days were one long string of bad, mediocre, or really crappy times, I couldn’t figure out why I was still alive.

Sometimes, I felt like I was dying. It seemed to me, day by day, that my life was winding down. Sometimes I had trouble hiking, and I could feel my lungs struggling to bring air in. Sometimes I felt pain in my chest. In my mind, I suspected I might have a heart attack anytime, or simply stop breathing. I was old enough. The idea didn’t bother me. We all have our time, and it seemed mine had passed. A few times, after I’d fallen asleep in my recliner, I’d awakened to find myself half dead, my brain fuzzy, my thoughts chaotic. It was as if I hadn’t been breathing for a few minutes. I would get up and walk around, but even though my lungs were moving, there was no oxygen in my brain. My brain felt dim, and dark, as though I was trapped underground. I mean, what is more symbolic of death than that?  I asked my doctor about it, and she said those were panic attacks. Well, you’d panic too if there was no oxygen going to your brain. I believe I actually did stop breathing each time, probably not for long, but long enough to trigger my body’s desperate attempt to reboot. I envisioned a time when I would be found dead at home, probably days or weeks after the fact. Who would check?

When my step-daughter had experienced her brain tumor, surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, and more radiation and chemo, that had been really troubling. I didn’t want her to die. She survived, and the joy I’d felt then had been true joy, unbelievable happiness.  However, my marriage ended shortly after that. There was no further contact, no hope of reconciliation. I had a friend I’d known for years, and asked her out. She was horrified at the idea, and gradually pulled away too. I retired from my job of twenty-five years. I lived alone. It all seemed pointless right then. Was I depressed? Sure. But, eventually that passed, but I could see that I wasn’t really living, I was just marking time. It was as though I was in a waiting room, killing time, only I was just waiting for death to tap me on the shoulder, even though I was occasionally having good moments.

stainless-steel stent

Stent

So, a week ago, I did have a heart attack. I suspected it might be a heart attack before it had hardly begun. I had felt something odd in my chest, a tightening, or pressure, on and off for months. It never lasted long, and I could simply sit down and rest a bit and I was fine. I don’t exercise enough, so I attributed it to my less-than-perfect stamina. Hiking in the mountains here, once a week, even for 5 to 9 miles, is not really enough to stay in good shape when you’re old. When the day came and the pressure wouldn’t ease off, and I felt anxious, was sweating like a pig, and foggy in my head, I thought, yeah, maybe this is it. For years, I’d believed that I would welcome it. I debated going to see my doctor, the newer one who had diagnosed exercised-induced asthma. I was breathing OK. I had no pain. However, something was wrong. At first I thought I would get over it. I took two aspirin. I tried to relax. Increasingly, I felt worse. Suddenly, I had to make a decision: do or don’t. I decided to act. Got help. Heart attack verified. Angioplasty performed. Clot destroyed. Stent placed in right coronary artery. Stent 2

For someone prone to hypochondria, this was actually vindication. I knew I was sick, and I was. More importantly, I made the decision to live. If I had just sat down, or gone to bed, I would have reached the point by myself, as I did in the cardiac lab, where my heart went into arrhythmia. I would have died, painfully, all by myself.

So, I had decided to live on. I took steps to get help. I survived. I am on drugs for a while to help get my body through this experience. I signed up to train for a half-marathon. It feels good.

Posted in health, Life, medical, My Life, rambling | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

And, Suddenly, a Heart Attack

Posted by O'Maolchaithaigh on June 8, 2013

Sandia view I hike in the mountains, nearly every week. Sometimes its a three to four-hour jaunt, sometimes six hours, with a lunch break. The elevation gain can be 1000 feet or 2000. I’ve done much harder hikes in the past, but found that I was having too much trouble keeping up with the other hikers. Instead of getting stronger with more stamina over time, I was having a hard time finishing 12 mile hikes up and down a mountain trail at all. So, I began hiking with a Meetup group, hiking just the three or four hours at a leisurely pace. I tried snowshoeing to the peak of one mountain, Mt. Taylor trail Mt. Taylor, at 11,301 feet. I had hiked it on two prior occasions, and snowshoed it once before, but didn’t make it that day. I had to stop to catch my breath a few times. Once I leaned against a tree and felt like I could fall asleep right there, standing up. I fell so far behind that the hike leader, tired of coming back to look for me and unwilling to wait for me in temperatures near zero degrees F (he was not warmly-enough dressed), relayed a message to me that I was to turn around. I had never failed to complete a hike before, so that was upsetting. I knew I could get to the top, but just needed more time. The hike leader had also cancelled our scheduled lunch break at the top, which is when I felt I could have caught up to them. I missed the wonderful sluicing through the deep powder on the back side of that climb. Well, so  it goes. However, on the way home by car, I had trouble breathing. My chest actually hurt upon taking a deep breath. That was very troubling. Back home, I saw my doctor and he said I had exercise asthma, and prescribed an inhaler. I used it a few times before hikes, and had no trouble. However, on several hikes with rapid elevation gain, I had felt strange and weak when we stopped for lunch.

Then, last Sunday, while puttering around a winery I help out at, I felt the same strangeness, more like a tightening of my chest or pressure on my chest. I had only been cleaning up, putting equipment away, and climbing up and down a short ramp when I felt it overtake me. I sat down in a chair with a  glass of cranberry wine and relaxed. I felt better after a short while, so I finished my duties and went home. At home I was comfortable and relaxed and slept well. The next day, however, was far different.

In the morning I awoke early, had coffee, and picked my step-daughter up from her home, dropping her off at her job. She doesn’t drive, due to a problem with her peripheral vision, so I take her to and from work most days. This day I also had a blood donation appointment, so I went there after dropping her off. The blood donation went well – no unusual blood pressure, pulse normal. Afterwards I stopped at a breakfast buffet, JBz and for $6.49 had bacon, sausage, eggs smothered in red chile, a bit of carne adovada (pork marinated in red chile), small slices of french toast, and fruit – hey, the blood place said to eat a big breakfast, so I did. I dropped off a package at Fed-X for my step-daughter and went home. It was a slow day after that. I messed around at the computer: reading news, checking blogs, Facebook, eBay, an art site (Deviant Art), and then sat down to quietly read a book.  In mid-afternoon, however, I felt that strange pressure in my chest. I used my asthma inhaler, but to no effect. I took two aspirin. I stretched out on my bed for a bit, but without improvement. I felt odd, perhaps a little anxious. I was sweating, so I turned on the evaporative cooler. I went back to reading. I still felt that something was wrong, and I still felt hot. I increased blower speed on the cooler. I began to worry. It was getting late, after 4pm, so I wasn’t sure if I could get to the clinic my doctor worked at before it closed. Suddenly I decided I was going to go anyway. Enough uncertainty! I had to find out what was wrong; I might even be having heart problems. I decided not to take the motorcycle, opting instead for four wheels, should I become weak or unsteady. However, I changed my mind as I was backing the car up, and went back in. Something was wrong and I was getting worse fast. I called 911.

It didn’t take the EMT guys long to get to my house, as the firehouse was less than two miles away, but they had to search for my house in this compound so I got up and flagged ’em down. They came in, asked questions, took vitals and decided I should go to the hospital. An ambulance had arrived after they came in their firetruck. By this time I was sweating profusely, felt weaker, and didn’t mind lying on their gurney. I’m not sure it was a good idea to attempt an IV while the ambulance was bouncing over the speed humps, but I got to the hospital OK. They sent me to the cardiac lab, and five or six guys went to work, taking pictures, repeating vitals and finally deciding that I was, indeed, having a heart attack. There were options, like drug therapy, but the best idea presented was to do an angioplasty, where they run an inflatable device up an artery into my heart to open the artery there. X-rays had shown that the artery was indeed almost completely blocked by a clot. Heart before

I agreed, so the team went ahead. I felt a pain after they began. I said “Ouch!” just as somoene was sticking a needle in me, and he apologized, but it was the sudden sharp pain in my heart that had gotten my attention. The pain increased, but, miraculously, as they worked and the catheter reached my heart, the pain subsided; the pressure that had been building stopped, and I felt great! They had used the balloon-like device on the end of the catheter to ream out my artery, Heart after and then released a stainless-steel tube from there that expanded to fit to the walls of the artery. It’s called a stent. stent It’s an odd, meshed device. To me, it resembles those old Chinese finger puzzles, but on a much reduced scale. The stent will remain with me now. Stent 2 I must take a drug for one year to prevent my body from rejecting the stent. Ha! I wish I only had to take one drug. I must also take aspirin, a small 81 mg dose, every day. I am taking a drug to lower my blood pressure, even though my pressure is normal. I am taking a statin drug to lower my cholesterol even though my cholesterol is not high. I am taking a drug to block blood platelets from sticking together and forming clots. I am taking a drug to lower the acid in my stomach. And I am taking a drug that lowers my heart rate, reducing strain on my heart, which was only minimally damaged in all this.

In short, I survived, and in good shape. I’m certain I do not need all of these drugs. My blood pressure is now lower than ever, at about 118 over 70, as I just measured. I already eat fairly well, so my cholesterol is not dangerous, but I welcome the assistance of the drug, for now. I think some of the others are a bit too much, as I would like to be as drug-free as possible. One drug can be interfered with by fish-oil supplements, which are in my daily multivitamins already. If the fish oil has the same effect, I don’t know why I can’t just take that instead of a drug.

Ah, well. I’m lucky to be alive, and damn lucky to have had that cardiac team work on me. They worked very quickly, efficiently and smoothly, each one performing certain vital tasks, and being watchful of changes in my status. Without them, I wouldn’t have survived. I need to take them some wine.

I received lots of messages from friends and family, and my step-daughter visited me while I was confined to the hospital for two days. My friend, who is “not a girlfriend”, declined to visit me in the hospital because, as she put it, “…hospitals freak me all the fuck out…”, but she said she wanted to see me to verify that I was alive. We went to a movie and had dinner Friday afternoon. Life goes on.

Posted in health, hiking, medical, My Life, wine | Tagged: , | 4 Comments »

THE JOY OF BRAIN TUMORS

Posted by O'Maolchaithaigh on March 14, 2011

I didn’t know I could find joy in
a brain tumor
I never really felt love before
the brain tumor
I never felt such fear
a brain tumor!?

We joke about it
It’s not like you have a brain tumor
We compare headaches to
brain tumors.

It’s my step-daughter that had
the brain tumor
I never knew such fear
– the all-day brain surgery
– the chemotherapy
– the radiation.

I never knew I felt such love
this young woman I’d known
thirteen years from girl to woman
I never knew such joy
– after the operation she survived
– still needed chemo she survived
– still needed radiation
gamma knife
– a high-tech magic bullet.

Damn brain tumor
fuckin’ damn brain tumor
dead brain tumor.

She survived
She’s alive
She’s healthy
She’s whole.

My chest loosened
I can breathe
My heart
is beating.

I never knew such joy before
the brain tumor.

Posted in family, health, Life, love, medical, poem, poetry, relationships | Tagged: , , , , , | 4 Comments »

What IS depression anyway?

Posted by O'Maolchaithaigh on October 26, 2010

Just what the fuck is depression anyway?  I tried researching it, after experiencing it for a few years.  Got medication simultaneously with counseling. I was definitely depressed.

Depression, which doctors call major depressive disorder, isn’t something you can just “snap out of.”

Symptoms

  • Agitation, restlessness, and irritability
  • Dramatic change in appetite, often with weight gain or loss
  • Extreme difficulty concentrating
  • Fatigue and lack of energy
  • Feelings of hopelessness and helplessness
  • Feelings of worthlessness, self-hate, and inappropriate guilt
  • Inactivity and withdrawal from usual activities, a loss of interest or pleasure in activities that were once enjoyed (such as sex)
  • Thoughts of death or suicide
  • Trouble sleeping or excessive sleeping

Major depression disorder, according to the Mayo Clinic, is when a person has five or more symptoms of depression for at least 2 weeks. In addition, people with major depression often have behavior changes, such as new eating and sleeping patterns.

Depression can appear as anger and discouragement, rather than as feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. If depression is very severe, there may also be psychotic symptoms, such as hallucinations and delusions. These symptoms may focus on themes of guilt, inadequacy, or disease.  It is thought to be caused by an imbalance of brain chemicals and other factors.

However.  Hmmph.  However, none of this says what depression is, or where it comes from. Obviously, trauma can bring it on: the loss of a loved one, a pet, a friend, or the end of a marriage, love affair, or even a job. Many things can trigger depression.  If it is caused solely by a chemical imbalance, then it would be entirely random, in my opinion.  People in all walks of life would be depressed for absolutely no discernible reason, whereas most of us can attribute those feelings to something that happened. Everyone deals with these things in different ways, and, in fact, it is common for everyone to be depressed at some time.  So, to follow the medical opinions, I should talk about major depressive disorder, that thing that just doesn’t go away for some people sometimes.

I think I know what it is, and where it comes from.  I’m not a doctor, neither an M.D., a psychologist nor a psychiatrist.

Now, Wikipedia says: “The biopsychosocial model proposes that biological, psychological, and social factors all play a role in causing depression. The diathesis–stress model specifies that depression results when a preexisting vulnerability, or diathesis, is activated by stressful life events. The preexisting vulnerability can be either genetic, implying an interaction between nature and nurture, or schematic, resulting from views of the world learned in childhood.”

Blah, blah, blah.

I think it is nothing more than our reaction to pain.  Pain, as many of us know, decreases in intensity after we suffer it for a time.  Runners, torture victims, accident victims, and victims of disease know what I’m talking about. There may be a variety of things involved, but we all commonly think about endorphins kicking in, numbing us to pain after awhile.

Endorphins (“endogenous morphine”) are endogenous opioid peptides that function as neurotransmitters. They are produced by the pituitary gland and the hypothalamus in vertebrates during exercise, excitement, pain, consumption of spicy food, love and orgasm, and they resemble the opiates in their abilities to produce analgesia and a feeling of well-being.

Well-being after sex, yeah, I know that one pretty well. I also like chile, red or green, and sure enough, a blast of really hot spicy food brings about a lessening of the hotness after a short time. I can then eat hotter chile, but I pay for it later.  So, one thing to notice is that this morphine-like substance we produce in our bodies doesn’t last very long. But, we can produce it over and over again, in response to various stimuli, including stress.  Some of us experience stress daily, so we must also be producing endorphins daily.

Here’s what I think: depression is our bodies’ response to psychological pain.  Depression is our psychological morphine, producing analgesia.  We go numb in response to psychological pain.  We cry, or grieve deeply, sometimes feeling an overwhelming crushing weight.  We can’t function that way.  We have to go to work, or continue our normal routines, so we have to push those feelings aside just enough to function.  Depression is the result.  If it was a relatively minor pain, we may work it out through continuing our normal routines.  Sometimes, however, the pain was severe, or was perceived as severe, and continues to recur. We may keep brushing it aside.  I think this is a normal mental defense, allowing us to continue our life until we can deal with the cause of the pain, similar to the production of adrenalin or endorphins, which give us temporary options for survival.

But, it has to be dealt with sooner or later.  Just as an injury can be ignored while adrenalin or endorphin pumps through our bodies, eventually the injury must be treated.  Depression is our temporary defense against psychological pain, but at some point, we have to deal with the “injury” that produced the depression in the first place.  How we deal with the injury is what our mental health industry is all about.  Alcohol and other central nervous system depressants slow normal brain function. In higher doses, some CNS depressants can become general anesthetics.  Temporary.  These measures are temporary, and can actually worsen depression.

An interesting tidbit I gleaned from the research literature is that endorphins attach themselves to areas of the brain associated with emotions (limbic and prefrontal areas).  Perhaps endorphins are involved in the onset of depression? I do not know, nor care.

Do I know how to “cure” depression? No.  Various treatments, combinations of certain drugs with counseling, are said to allow our minds and bodies to slip out of depression long enough to allow us to reprogram ourselves out of it.  The length of treatment, types of drugs and types of counseling vary widely. The results vary widely.

Having just come out of a three-year long depression (at minimum), I have some observations:

1.) Depression is temporary.

2.) It does not occur 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

3.) In all likelihood, we prolong our depressive state ourselves.

4.) Whatever caused the initial depressive response must be overcome.

Yeah, I hear you: Overcome? How? Beats me.  Drugs and counseling will help in some cases.

My best guess?

Here ’tis.

1.) Recognise that one is depressed.

2.) Trace the cause. This may take medical and psychological help.

3.) Eliminate the cause. This one is tricky.

I know that there are techniques often applied, common sense approaches, that may or not be accepted by all.  For example, I have read that grief cannot be overcome unless one goes through various stages, like denial, and anger, leading to acceptance.  I’ve found this to be true for depression.  One cannot wish depression away – that is simply denial. Accept that one is depressed. And then get angry.  Avoid violent solutions, because the depression will worsen, and be prolonged, but anger? Anger is good.  Get really fucking angry. Maybe one thinks it was all their own fault. Let me tell you, getting angry with oneself doesn’t do a whole lot.  What hurt you badly? What was the thing that drove you over the edge? Was it your boss, your spouse, your ex, your lover, your sibling, your parent?  Hate them. Your injury? Hate it.  Give it all you’ve got.  Hate your boss, your spouse, your ex, the negligent driver, the government regulation, the politician?  Hate them.  Hate, hate, hate, hate, hate.  Give into it.  Feel the vindication, the release, the shifting of the pain from yourself somewhere else.  When you’ve gotten the focus off of you and onto the cause, let it go.  Forget? No.  We can never forget.  But we can let the anger go, and the pain goes with it.  Then focus on change.  Get away from the source of the pain if you can, or confront it. Attempt to change the situation that caused the pain in the first place.  We all know what we have to do.  If we don’t, the pain will hit us again, and we will be depressed again.

In my opinion.

Posted in depression, health, Life, madness, medical, My Life, opinion, rambling, Random Thoughts, rants | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

A DNA Vignette

Posted by O'Maolchaithaigh on April 2, 2010

The synthesis order from Dr. Jella’s lab was taped to my lab door when I arrived, even though I was early. Science marches on, without regard for working hours.  After flicking on the lights, I dropped my lunch bag on my desk in the rear of the lab, under the sealed windows that let in light, but no air.  I turned my PC on.  I wanted a cup of coffee. I wanted to sit quietly for a few minutes, playing Solitaire.  But, I had unfinished orders from the day before, as well as these new orders.  I’d be lucky to synthesize all of ’em by days end. A long day ahead of me, probably ’till 7:00 pm.
I typed the first sequence into the machine: ACGCCCTATTACGACGAAGTTAC.  I could synthesize four pieces of DNA, or RNA simultaneously.  It would take almost four hours for the DNA Synthesizer to complete four oligonucleotides, then I could start the next four. Hopefully, they would finish in time to let me start another four before I went home. Those would run overnight.
I finished entering all the code letters for all of the syntheses, checked the level of the liquid reagents at every bottle position, and started the Pre Run.  Solenoids clicked on and off as current was applied to each one, moving a magnetic rod back and forth to allow the flow of gas or liquid for each step of the syntheses. Click, click-click, click, click-click, click, click, click, and occasionally the whoosh of gas as regulators adjusted the pressure of ultra high purity nitrogen that pushed all the liquids around.  After all the lines were purged of air and old liquids, and fresh liquid flowed from each reagent through all the lines, I started my first batch of the day.  I was happy that I’d had the machine upgraded from the original two-position one.  I’d never have been able to get this much done so quickly.  
I went for coffee, brought it back and sat idly in front of my PC.  I took a few sips while I stared out the window at a clear blue New Mexico sky, then got to work.  I entered the sequences I was making into my database, so I could keep track of them for billing purposes.  My lab was not directly funded by any grants or stipends.  I had to bill each researcher for the work I did, and then they paid me out of their grants.  It wasn’t a hard job.  The machines did most of my work, synthesizing DNA, or occasionally some RNA.  The RNA was tricky, as it required careful handling and sterile conditions.  There are enzymes that destroy DNA and RNA, but of the two, the RNA enzyme, RNAase, was the worst.  If contaminated with RNAase, the RNA I made would be useless, experiments ruined.  Time and money would be wasted.  I would lose credibility.  I was very careful in my work.
Besides the work synthesizing, I had other jobs: two of which were either synthesizing proteins or sequencing them.  In sequencing, the machine took each protein apart, one amino acid at a time and pumped it past a detector to identify it by its characteristic wavelength.  I didn’t have any orders for protein synthesis today, fortunately, because the process consumed a lot of time, and required constant monitoring. The final step in protein synthesis involved the use of a dangerous, highly corrosive acid in gaseous form: HF, or hydrogen fluoride.  HF is used to etch glass. Due to its insidious nature, it can splash undetected on your skin, and slowly eat its way to the bone. I hated working with HF.  People using it had lost arms, eyes, lungs and some had died.  I had to prepare a super cold bath of dry ice and methanol to cool the gas into liquid form for use.   When I opened the valve on the HF bottle, everything had to be ready: I wore a special apron made of acid resistant material over my lab coat, and wore similar gloves.  I had a special clear shield over my entire face, and the apparatus for using the HF gas was shielded behind a glass-sashed fume hood.  In theory, the gas flowed into my collection vial, liquefied, and cleaved my synthesized protein off of the glass beads it was attached to as part of the synthesis protocol.  Then it flowed through a trap of strong base to neutralize the acid. 
The first time I had tried the procedure, my boss at the time had worked with me. Dr. Latif was from an Arabic family, but had grown up in Trinidad, been educated in England, and had worked for the Mayo Clinic.  He was an interesting guy, full of stories about his parents and Trinidad.  Oddly enough, we were the same age, and liked the same kind of music, rock ‘n’ roll and Motown.  I needed music playing to get me through the day.  In today’s world, an iPod would have sufficed, but in those times, the music came from my radio/tape player and coworkers needed to like the same music for that to work.  Dr. Latif and I were suited up in our protective gear, and we switched on the gas.  All looked well at first.  The gas was cooling into liquid form, and flowing through the simple apparatus.  Suddenly the plastic container of strong base began to implode.  It made no sense.  We had followed all the instructions perfectly, and the pathway of gas was clear.  For some reason, it was back flushing, collapsing the trap.  We couldn’t just shut the gas off, because we feared the trap would either backflush into our protein mixture, or worse, rupture, spreading gas and caustic base all over the place.  Without losing our cool, we increased the pressure of a secondary gas, simple nitrogen that also flowed through to help keep the HF moving.  We opened the exhaust stopcock all the way. Success.  The plastic trap re-inflated.
After the experiment was over, we both let out of sighs of relief.  The danger had been very real.  We laughed too.  We were the only ones who knew the danger.  If the HF gas was released, and even if we’d gotten away safely, that floor of the building would have been in danger. Likely the entire building would have to be evacuated and sealed off.  We’d have needed a HazMat team, police and firemen.  It would have been a mess and created havoc.   We worked out our own procedure after that, and never had any further episodes.

Today, my first four oligonucleotides were finished synthesizing, and I took them off the machine; they would require a minimum of five to eight hours heating to be ready for purification next morning.  I was readying the machine for the next set of orders when Dr. Jella rushed in.  He looked anxious. He wanted to know if his DNA was ready.  I almost laughed.  Even if I had synthesized his orders first, it would still require heating and purification.   I told him that I could put his order ahead of the others I was about to start, and explained the time constraints.  He was so anxious looking that I told him that if it was for a critical experiment, and he needed it right away, I could stay late, even work all night to have it ready for him by morning.  He thought about that for a bit, but shrugged his shoulders, saying, “No, that’s alright. I can wait until tomorrow. It’s not, uh, not for anything real important.”  Turns out it was, but he didn’t want anyone to know what he was working on.
Later, I found out that reporters had been cold-calling various researchers, pumping them for information for a story.   Dr. Jella was working on the newly hot disease: hantavirus. The disease had flu-like symptoms, and people in New Mexico had died within days of showing symptoms of what everyone thought was a cold or flu.  A test for hantavirus was needed as soon as possible.  Researchers were working across the country to develop such a test.  Dr. Jella had the idea of creating a kit, using synthetic fragments of single-stranded hantavirus DNA.  If he had told me what it was for, I’d have gladly worked overnight. As it was, research is a highly competitive business.  Researchers across the country, especially at the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, GA, where also racing to develop a test. Whoever developed an effective test first would not only get recognition, but would be able to grab new research money to continue their work.  Dr. Jella didn’t want word to get out of the specifics of what he doing.  Someone else could take that information and receive the credit, not to mention future grant money to research other diseases.  Basically, his job and life’s work was on the line.   
I arrived for work an hour early next day, and purified Dr. Jella’s oligos first.  Needless to say, he was at my door soon after.  “Are they ready yet?” he asked, somewhat breathlessly, like he had run up the stairs.  I told him they were synthesized, and purified, but I would need another two hours, at least, to dry them down. A lot of water is used in the purification protocol, and I used a freeze-drying apparatus to evaporate all of the liquid. That made it easy to reconstitute the DNA to the desired concentration for experiments.  He looked very disappointed, but I promised him I’d bring the DNA to his lab as soon as it was ready.
Later, I found out that he was using the DNA I had synthesized for the hantavirus kit. It worked, and his kit is now used to detect hantavirus.  I got a mention in the paper he wrote describing the experiment.*  That was unusual. Most of the work I did went unacknowledged. Sometimes the lab itself was mentioned.  Most of the time, I went about my days synthesizing, sequencing, analyzing, purifying, and running the lab itself, buying materials, and billing the researchers. They paid me.  It was a good living.

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*(Rapid and specific detection of Sin Nombre virus antibodies in patients with hantavirus pulmonary syndrome by a strip immunoblot assay suitable for field diagnosis).

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Ocean City Took My Breath

Posted by O'Maolchaithaigh on March 26, 2010

Stopped breathing.  Just like that.  The ocean had been cold.  Much colder than I’d expected from a warm Spring day. It was early in the beach season.  The winter had been harsh. Cold currents still flowed past the Jersey shore where my parents had dragged all seven kids. Normally, in Summer, they dragged us out of our comfortable beds early on a gray Baltimore morning, drove us across the Bay Bridge and down to the Ocean City on Maryland’s coast. I had no idea there was another Ocean City in New Jersey, and I have no memory of why we went there.
Me and my brother John had run into the waves, let them knock us over, felt the water churning and rolling over our heads.  We never tried to swim in the crashing surf, just dived under the waves and tried to touch bottom. Felt the undertow trying to drag us out to sea. Tried to body surf our way back to the beach. That was our relationship with the ocean. The younger kids were still too young to play in the surf like that.  They were walking along the sand, sticking their feet in the frigid water and running away from the incoming waves.
Me and John were the oldest. We did what we wanted sometimes. We were always together:  walking to school, serving mass as altar boys in the early mornings, riding our bikes miles away from home, sledding down the steep city streets in winter, building a tree house, or carrying groceries home from the store down the road.
Sometimes, when fighting the wild bucking waves and swift undercurrent, I’d do my best to stay under water as long as possible. John and I were pretty good at holding our breath.  I always hoped to see fish, crabs or starfish on the ocean bottom.  I was always digging in it, hoping to find something.
I came up after a long dive and didn’t see John anywhere.   No big deal.  He’d probably gone in.  I was freezing anyway.  Even my frenetic play hadn’t warmed me up all that much.  I headed into the warm dry sand towards my father.   I still didn’t see John anywhere. I knew Dad would know where he was.  As I got closer to him, I felt funny.  My body had instantly started to warm under the 75 degree sun, but I felt hotter than that. My breath became ragged, uncertain. I sped up, saw my dad turn his head towards me, and that was all I saw.
I awoke on my back, but my hair was full of sand.  A crowd encircled me.  “What happened?” I heard a voice ask.  I wanted to know that myself. Another disembodied voice in the crowd answered, “I think some old man drowned.”  Old man? At 15, I could hardly look old.  My dad was there too, looking down at me.  He picked me up.  A beach jeep pulled up, and hands grabbed me, loaded me into the jeep. It flew along the sand, bouncing and twisting.  Suddenly we were off the beach, on the street. An ambulance waited.  I was hustled into it.  A mask was pushed onto my face.  Oxygen poured into my nose and mouth. It felt good.  I didn’t notice anything else, but I wondered where John was.
Next thing I knew, I was lifted onto a gurney, rolled into a curtained-off room.  “I’m cold,” I remember saying.  It was warm in the room; everyone was in swimsuits around me.  The air was humid, but I shivered in all that heat.  A thick wool blanket was dropped over me.  I shook, uncontrollably.  I just couldn’t warm up. “I’m still cold,” I said.  Another heavy, dark green blanket was draped over me.  I still shivered, amazed that I could be so cold, warm as the day was, and covered in heavy blankets.  I felt like a freak.  Well, I was, I guess.  Turns out my rare allergy to cold had been my nemesis. In recent years, after playing for hours in the snow, and coming in the house to warm up, I had developed swollen hands, fingers that wouldn’t bend, red blotches on my face.  But this was summer!  Somehow, the cold ocean currents had swollen the muscles in my throat, tightening around my windpipe, cutting off my air.  As I warmed up, my breathing slowed, and I relaxed.  My parents had my clothes. I got dressed.  I remember being back in the station wagon, surrounded by all the other kids, including John, next to me as always. Freaks need their families.

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Bitch, moan, grumble, gripe.

Posted by O'Maolchaithaigh on January 11, 2009

It’s a good thing I like to complain, because I felt like crap last night.  Had been to  a day-long meeting of statewide union execs, and felt funny.  It was a long, tedious legislative training session.  Parts if it were interesting, and in New Mexico, most of us public employees are entirely dependent on money flowing from Santa Fe.   But, I had a hard time getting lunch down, and couldn’t even finish it.  That should have been a warning sign, as I can eat, and eat, and eat like a teenager.  And, it shows.  Anyway, I keep feeling, first, pressure in my stomach, than a god-awful pain.  Every so often the pain would flare up, and it was intense.  Got home finally, and felt like crap.  Took a short nap, but woke up cold, shivering almost.  Then I felt feverish, like my face was on fire.  Then it seemed I was feverish and still cold!  Had to put slippers on my feet, and my winter vest, and I had the heat turned way up!  My head began to hurt, then my stomach too.  Sometimes it alternated, sometimes it was both.  I wanted someone to kill me!  if_flowers_could_talk_by_sqthreer Good god! that was painful! And, I couldn’t relax, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat or drink anything.  Tried to watch Hellboy II, but had to keep pausing it, as I couldn’t relax.  Wrapped myself in a blanket on the recliner.  Popped some vitamin C, drank a cup of ginger tea finally, but I had to force myself to drink it.  9:30 pm – I’d had enough – went to bed.  Woke up six hours later feeling better, surprised that I was alive at all.  Got up to pee, but went back to bed.  Didn’t want to get up at all.  Still hot. Then I realized I’d left the liquid-filled radiator heater on high all night!  Turned that off, and got back in bed.  My head still hurt, in fact, I couldn’t get comfortable anymore.  My neck felt like someone had pummeled it, but the worst part was that my whole head felt sore.  It hurt to be face down, sideways, or face up.  There was no position in which my head didn’t hurt.  And some acid had worked its was up my throat, so that tasted and felt horrible.  Finally forced myself up to take some Advil.  Feeling better now, but my stomach is still unhappy.  I wonder if I could have gotten food poisoning.  staph1 Sheesh. salscale2

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Trippin’ Through the ’70s – Chapter Eight

Posted by O'Maolchaithaigh on August 4, 2008

Sean had tried “acid” himself once, under different conditions, with different results.  He had moved into a house with several other guys including Jeff, the young, long-haired landlord. The landlord was from New York City, and played a keyboard for parties and such around town. He had a friend in New York who made the stuff.  Sean bought two tabs from Jeff and had one tested by a lab, a free lab set up for just that purpose.  The lab tested street drugs to prevent people from being poisoned.  Pushers are such creepy people.  They’ll use strychnine to imitate LSD, since it has hallucinogenic properties.  They’ll even put animal tranquilizers in bags of oregano or cheap weed, and sell it as “Acapulco Gold”, and shit like that.  Most often, people found that all they’d gotten in place of acid was powdered sugar and methamphetamine – “speed” – deadly stuff, and highly addictive.
Sean’s tab turned out to be really pure LSD-25, the real deal, so he tried it.  He’d heard all the hype about visions and suicides, but Lenny’s friend David had insisted that the pure stuff wouldn’t hurt anyone. Sean had researched the journals in the Hopkins Medical library, and that appeared to be true.  The pure, unadulterated drug got pissed out of one’s system in short order.  He wanted to see if this drug could really unlock his subconscious mind.  At first, he had been disappointed.  He could make images in a black-light poster on his wall appear to move, but there were no colored lights, no hallucinations of things that weren’t there.  I think I see it now; most of this is hype. People see what they expect to see, he thought. This says so much about expectations, and self-delusion, he had pondered, thinking he understood a lot more about the world. Suddenly he had noticed that he was thinking a lot, non-stop.  All at once, he seemed to be aware of different levels of thought.  He was thinking about the Clinic, about friends, family, and school, all at the same time.  He felt detached, felt as if he was observing his thoughts from a distance.  This is interesting, he had thought.  I wonder why people jump out of windows?  Oh, yeah.  The effects of LSD are like temporary insanity.  So this is what it feels like to be insane. He felt like he was on the edge, that he could go either way – back to normalcy, or over the edge, trapped in his own thoughts. Insanity was actually attractive, in a sense.  One could give up responsibility for one’s self, and the rest of the world could go hang.  He got a phone call.  “Sean, it’s for you,” Jeff yelled up the stairs.  It was Sean’s brother Pat, a military cop home from Germany.    Sean couldn’t figure out why Pat would call, especially now. He was having a hard time following the conversation.  Pat said he just wanted to say hi.  That was unusual, in fact, it had never occurred to either of them to call each other before.  Sean told Pat he was tripping.  Pat had been involved with drugs himself, and Sean had always suspected that the drugs Pat picked up readily in Baltimore to sell in rural Pennsylvania had been the trouble that had pushed him into military service.  He expected Pat to congratulate him for trying it, that they’d have something in common now.  However, Pat said, “Well you know, I don’t do that stuff anymore.  I gave all that up in the army.  In fact, I once busted my whole platoon for drugs.”  Weird. Who is this guy? Sean wondered.  “Well, you take it easy.  I was just calling to say hi.”  Sean was really puzzled now.  If was as if he had called on cue.  He couldn’t have known; I didn’t tell anyone I was going to do this.  The drug lab? Nah. The deal with the lab ran like this: you wrote down the serial number on a dollar bill, and gave it to them with whatever drug you wanted tested.  That was the only way to get people to trust the service.  Then you called the lab later on and gave them the serial number.  Sean had called from the Free Clinic. They couldn’t have traced the call to me, he thought.  But that guy he spoke with, he had told Sean that the LSD was pure, more pure in fact, than anything he’d seen there. “Can you get some more?” the lab guy wanted to know.  “Sean said, No. I don’t think that would be a good idea, and had hung up. It had made him nervous then, and his mind spun wildly now.  Could they have a tap on the Clinic’s phone, traced the call to me, called my parents, and they’d called Pat?” Conspiracy theories and paranoia are common to drug users.
Sean was really getting tired of this already.  He wanted to go to sleep, but couldn’t.  He wandered around the house, looking at everything.  He tried to study, but couldn’t concentrate.  He’d think about the texture of his skin, and marvel at its complexity.  He’d watch the patterns of light shift in the house.  He’d feel lonely, then afraid.  He’d feel nothing.  In the light of dawn he went outside to watch the rain falling, feeling it thud against his eyeballs. Later on he marveled at the drops of water hanging onto each blade of grass.  So much life in each drop of water!  But, he’d had enough.  When Jeff finally woke up, he asked him to help.  Jeff gave him a mega-dose of  vitamin B6, which didn’t help.  It felt as if every cell in Sean’s body was on fire, and even a cold shower felt warm on his skin, but eventually he managed to fall asleep after the drug ran its course.
Well, anyway, that was why he knew that the woman in the Clinic that night was going to be alright.  Most nights at the Clinic, things were pretty routine. It felt good to work there.  Sean had spent two years buried in the physics lab, literally, for it was underground with no windows, few visitors, and no other regular employees.  Contact with new people and new ideas was exciting.
One night, he was talking with a patient, Mary, who had brought a stack of the Black Panther Party’s newspapers with her.  The Panthers, after the initial organization of the Clinic, had dropped out.  They had decided to work alone, in the poorest, not coincidentally, blackest section of the city.  He argued with Mary about the politics of violence that the Panthers represented.
“How can we become a peaceful society using violence?  Would anything change if everyone had a gun?  How could we defeat the government if it came to a real contest anyway?”
“You don’t understand.  The police shoot and kill people in the Black community every day.  They must be able to defend themselves.”
“But that still won’t change racism.”
“Sean, what I think you should do is come to a study group.”

And what a strange bunch that study group turned out to be!  A research technician, a taxi-driver on the fringes of the Mafia, the wife of the Panther’s lawyer, an ex-prostitute who still stripped on Baltimore’s infamous “Block” to help support her family, a former cheerleader and debutante, and Ron, a neighborhood guy, and the only Panther in the group.  They studied the ideology of the Panthers, a strategy of struggle based on the writings of China’s Mao Zedong.  Sean learned of the Panther’s free breakfast and school for ghetto kids.  The Panthers were also involved in trying to coax irresponsible absentee landlords into maintaining and repairing their rat infested buildings.  Additionally, flaking lead paint was being eaten by children – they had a campaign going to eliminate lead paint and have the houses repainted.   The group learned of Mao’s “Long March” across China and his efforts to modernize a backward country.  Mao had wanted to organize the peasants, the poorest people, to improve their own lives, and such also was the philosophy of the Panthers.  One day the study group was interrupted by a loud banging on the door.  “Police.  Open up.”  They swarmed in like (dare I say it?) loose hogs.  They dumped drawers, turned beds over, searched everyone, and refused to answer questions.  They took Ron.  “It’s not unusual,” Mary told Sean, “Happens all the time.”
Ron got out later, although they never found out what the cops had been looking for or why they took him in.
“We were lucky,” Mary said, “Sometimes they don’t bother to knock, they break the door down and come in shooting.  A house down the street got raided once and the pigs shot two people.  Later they said that they had made a mistake.”
“But didn’t the cops do anything for them?”
“They didn’t even offer to pay for the damages.”
“I don’t believe the police would do that.  How could they get away with it?”
“Sean, you’re too smart to be so naïve.  This is racism.  This is how it affects people here.  Many of the police are out-and-out racists.  A black man’s life is nothing to them.”
Well, the study group would not be just idle armchair philosophers.  They picketed jails in support of striking prisoners.  Only their visible presence prevented retaliations against the strikers.  “The guards must go.  The guards must go.  Stop racist attacks.  Stop racist beatings,” and so on.
They attended trials and Sean saw, first hand, how poor people were railroaded into jail.  Police crimes went unpunished, white-collar criminals stole thousands and were given petty fines, but a poor man who stole $28.75 with a gun was jailed for twenty years. 

Then came the end for the Panthers in Baltimore.  As a group, they were accused of the murder of a police informer.  Sean joined a legal study group to help with the defense, and watched those trials.  Those trials were the worst mockery of justice he’d seen.  The paid witnesses would contradict not only each other, but themselves.  Everyone was finally acquitted of the murder, but one man was convicted of conspiracy, for driving the car that was supposed to have taken the victim to the park where his body was found.  That man eventually became the first inmate in the Baltimore City jail ever to graduate from college while in prison.
The study group kept going.  Sean had  a vision: the Vietnamese, Chinese, South Africans, Palestinians, Blacks and other working people of the world and the U.S. would unite in common struggle; they were in fact already beginning to do so.  Freed of their daily struggle to survive, The Wretched of the Earth, as Franz Fanon of Africa put it, could rapidly take control of their own lives, just as Sean had been learning that people could take control of their own health.
In reality, in the U.S., few people were willing to talk, much less walk, the same direction.  People still talked about racism, injustice, poverty, and war as if they were campaign slogans.  Not much seemed to really be “a changing”, after all.
Panthers all over the country were attacked in their headquarters by police who always claimed that they were “responding to an unprovoked attack.”
The War ground on.  “Dick Nixon before he dicks you,” was a popular slogan.  Nevertheless, Richard “I am not a crook” Nixon used the promise of ending the War to win election for a second term.  His “secret plan” had meant escalation: the mining of Haiphong Harbor, the carpet bombing of Vietnamese cities and farmlands, and illegal “incursions” into Cambodia and Laos.

There was only one thing to do, Sean believed,  Destroy the U.S. government, the war machine, and all entrenched institutions that perpetuated war, human indignity, and destruction of our Earth.  But that was not only improbable, but stupid.  Even if such a thing could be brought to pass, what would emerge?  How could petty dictators be prevented from setting up local kingdoms?  How would we insure the quality of life that we hoped would be everyone’s birthright?  No, that was not a solution. As much as he hated to admit it, Sean knew governments were necessary just to maintain civilization and protect everyone’s rights.  Obviously the world’s present institutions are inadequate to prevent war, injustice and poverty, but what would replace them?  And how?  I can’t see a solution.  No one is ready to agree on how a better society would function.  Sure, no racism, sexism, or nationalism.  No war or poverty or injustice.  That was the goal only.  How could it be brought about and maintained?
In the meantime, until solutions could be found, Sean decided, I will disagree, I will protest, and I would keep on keeping on at the People’s Free Medical Clinic.  That place is my only real hope for the future.  I will defend it against all attack.

Sean really enjoyed decision making at the Clinic. Once a month they all ate together, doctors, nurses, staff volunteers, and neighbors.  Everyone had a say in policy making, but first they shared their potato salads, rice, squash, homemade bread, casseroles, beans, meatloaf, Quiche, or funny little Swedish meatballs.
When you share your food, and your stomach’s full, most disagreements seem petty.  Arguments among friends have resolutions.  They found funding, doctors and supplies.  Patients found them.  They made their presence and their ideals known.  Word got around the city.  The Women’s Center, separate but connected to the Clinic – physically and politically – had founded a city-wide network of consciousness raising groups, and published a widely read magazine: Women: A Journal of Liberation, dealing with alternative life styles, social change, and sexual politics.
They had contacts in all the hospitals.  Sean found that he could make referrals with every assurance that people could get the treatment and support that they needed.  Some patients joined the Clinic staff, and others joined them on buses to demonstrations.
On a practical level, the clinic staff went door-to-door, asking for monthly pledges of fifty cents or a dollar to maintain the Clinic and pay the rent.  It worked.   But the greater part of society seemed unchangeable to Sean.  What could really be done to revolutionize the way our country, and the world, operated? That question would follow him everywhere he went, from Baltimore to North Dakota to Oklahoma to Arizona to Florida and about thirty-five other states in the nation.  He was anxious to see and learn more about how people were living and coping in the rest of the country.  But where to go and how?  My part-time job and student loans barely keep me alive.  I didn’t want to quit school, now that I’m finally a full-time student, and I would certainly need money to travel.  I’d tried hitchhiking to Chicago once.  What a disaster.  You could kill a whole day just waiting for a ride.

He remembered why he’d gone to Chicago.  He’d met a woman at the Clinic once, Marilyn Gans. She was pretty and friendly.  She volunteered at the clinic, and wrote for Women.  After a dinner and meeting at her apartment for the patient advocates, Sean had stayed to help her clean up, and they fell to talking until the storm hit.  Baltimore had suddenly been hit with another one of the tail ends of a hurricane, and flood waters had risen quickly around the city.  The streets were all overflowing with water, and the emergency warnings took over all broadcasts on radio and TV.  Everyone was ordered to stay off the streets and indoors.  Sean and Marilyn just stared at her TV in disbelief.  Sean had seen bad storms before, but never heard warnings like this.  Marilyn had told him to stay the night, so he did. She had made a bed for him on the living room floor with sheets and blankets.  “You’ll have to stay in here, OK,” she asked. “Can I trust you?” she wanted to know.  Sean promised.  He had no intention of getting into trouble with the clinic or the Women’s center.  She said “goodnight” to him from her bedroom. Sean was in love again.  He liked her a lot, even though he hadn’t known her before that night. He enjoyed talking with her, liked the way she looked.  He said, “Goodnight Marilyn”.  But then, he said, “I wish we could sleep together.”  There was no reply, and Sean wasn’t expecting one.  He turned on his side, ready to sleep.  They had stayed up for hours, watching the storm sweep down the streets, and talked, and talked.  Sean was dead tired.  Suddenly, Marilyn was there, under the blanket next to him on the floor. Sean was excited.  She said, “Let’s just hold each other, OK?” So that was what they did. Sean noticed she had a short top on and cotton panties.  His erection felt painfully unused.
Marilyn contacted Sean a few days later, asked him to help her take a group of kids on a field trip.  She was a teacher, and Sean had told her how much he liked being around kids, how much he missed his brothers and sisters.  But Marilyn was polite and reserved with Sean.  He didn’t know how to pursue this relationship.  The constant talk around the clinic about Women’s liberation, and sex roles, and male domination had confused him.  He held back, waited to hear from her again, but she went back to Chicago when the school year ended.  She told him to come visit.  That was why he had gone to Chicago, even though he had little money.
He had finally started walking, hitchhiking at first, through Maryland and a bit of Pennsylvania. When he arrived in Ohio, he found himself stuck.  All around, on the concrete and guard rails of this huge intersection of highways were written things like, “This place sucks! No rides! Been here three days!” etc.  He was there an entire day.  He struck up a conversation with a younger guy who showed up.  Bill was an ex-marine from Iowa City; he said he had lied about his age to get in early when he was 17.  They read the graffiti, decided it was hopeless, and  then walked across the entire state of Ohio.  Bill had all his belongings in a paper bag.  He said he’d had a fight with his wife and had just thrown stuff in a bag and walked out one day.  He was on his way home now.  He was packing a huge bottle of black pills.  Sean asked him about those.  “Oh, they’re not speed,” Bill said, “These are something called Texedrine, with a T, and they’re not harmful.”  Sean passed on those at first. He and Bill walked into a diner one night and drank all the free coffee they could get.  When the waitress stopped being friendly they left the diner and tried to sleep around back, but they were too wired from the coffee. They decided to just keep walking, but Sean was losing steam after a while, so he took some of Bill’s pills.  After finally passing the Ohio state line into Indiana, they were picked up by a trucker who told them a grisly story about dead long-haired hitchhikers being found along the highway. He said they had been castrated.  The trucker let them off in front of a barber shop. Bill had a buzz cut, but Sean had long since grown his hair long, and wore a big, green, floppy hat. He’d realized that his long hair was a factor in not getting rides, so he had tucked it up inside the hat. Inside the truck cab he had taken off his hat and exposed the long hair.
They walked through cornfields all day and into the night. They were shot at outside of Gary, Indiana, as they walked along a dark road past a never-ending cornfield.  Sean had been walking behind Bill.  Bill stuck his thumb out to try for a ride when they noticed lights coming up behind them.  The response was a loud explosion that lit up the inside of a VW beetle, which had slowed down, and Sean saw a streak of light bisect the space between him and Bill.  The VW sped off as fast as one of those could go.  They kept walking until they were exhausted and slept right on the shoulder.  A sheriff woke them before dawn; wanted to know what they were doing, said they couldn’t sleep there.  They had to keep walking.   Eventually, Bill took the road for Iowa City, and Sean made it to Chicago.
Marilyn invited him to stay with her at her parent’s home.  They fed him three different kinds of meat at the first meal he had with them.  Marilyn said that her parents had been in a concentration camp, and that afterwards they had developed this need to have tons of food available all the time.  Both were now overweight, but Marilyn was thin.  Sean went to a theater group she was involved with, and learned to play basic percussion, as part of an effort to involve people in music and theater.  She asked Sean to stay in Chicago, but she wouldn’t kiss him, wouldn’t sleep with him.  She told him he could get a job there.  Sean didn’t want to live in Chicago.  He still liked Baltimore, “What would I do here?” he asked her.  She told him he could probably get a job in a record store she knew about.  Sean didn’t want to do that. After that, Marilyn told Sean she had things to do, so she couldn’t show him around the city anymore, but she had a friend, Amy, who could.  Amy kept asking him what his intentions were with Marilyn, and did he want to come back to her place. Sean realized that Marilyn was dumping him, and had set him up with this girlfriend of hers.  When he saw her again, Marilyn had wanted to know, “So, how’d you get along with Amy?”  It was clear to Sean what was what.  Sean counted out his remaining money, and found out he could afford to take the train home to Baltimore.  Marilyn drove him to the train station, and asked him one more time if he’d stay and get a job there, but Sean said no.  They promised to write.

Sean wasn’t about to try hitchhiking again, especially without a specific destination in mind.

 

Posted in 1970s, Life, madness, medical, My Life, politics, race, relationships, Writing | 5 Comments »

Keratoses & Barnacles & Young Pretty Doctors

Posted by O'Maolchaithaigh on March 19, 2008

Actually, to be specific, Seborrheic Keratoses (seb-o-REE-ick Ker-ah-TOE-sees).

I found this thing on my ass, of all places. It was a mostly round, raised area, with a brown circle, almost like a cell nucleus off to one side, and the rest was red. I went to see a doctor over a month ago, and got referred to a dermatologist. The doc said it wasn’t cancer, so I guess that’s why there was no big rush. Of course, it’s also because the University is trying out this new managed care thing, and rather than have an employee stop by the employee health clinic and get seen right away, I guess it’s better to make appointments, and wait for those to come around, if I can remember to even go. But, I’m straying from the story here.

So the dermatologist, over a month later, takes a look at it, and she says right off what it is. I’ve got a nice pamphlet explaining it all. So, nobody really knows why these things occur, but they’re not cancerous, and they’re not from sun exposure. That is pretty obvious, especially if you saw how white my ass is. I’ve never had sun shining on that part of my anatomy for very long. Here’s the salient point from the brochure: “…almost everybody will eventually develop at least of few of these growths. They are sometimes referred to as barnacles of old age.” How nice.

barnacle.jpg

Real barnacles

“They become more common and more numerous with advancing age,” which is what my doc kept trying to say, without ever mentioning age. She said, “as we get wiser” and things like that, trying to be funny, I guess. I said, “You mean, as we get older and fatter?” She didn’t want to agree with that.

Anyway, my barnacle is irritated, probably by having my jeans rubbing against it all the time. Even though it isn’t dangerous to have one, these barnacles can itch or bleed, so they are often removed (among those of us with health insurance). Liquid nitrogen to the rescue! So I ended up having my ass frozen by Dr. Kim, a pretty young doctor. Not so bad.

Meanwhile, there are also actinic keratoses. The first doctor I went to noticed them on my forehead. They are little tiny hard bumps; they feel like a piece of sand glued to my forehead, and I’m always scratching them off. These I hadn’t given much thought to. I had felt them on my scalp before, and asked another doctor about them, but he tried to tell me they were just sand, and only after bugging him about it did he finally admit they were probably keratoses, which can be pre-cancerous. He dismissed it as insignificant and harmless, so I never worried about it. Hey, I’m getting old anyway, so who cares? Long story short, these are also called solar keratoses, because they are found on fair-skinned people who have had significant sun exposure; they are considered the earliest stage in the development of skin cancer (10% do become actual cancers).   How nice. actininc-keratosis.jpg

Again, treatment #1 is freeze ’em right off with liquid nitrogen. That was more fun. However, it’s likely I have more, and will continue to develop more around my forehead and slowly receding hairline, so rather than make regular trips to have my face and scalp spot-frozen the rest of my life (the doc gives me another 30 years), there are other methods. One is a topical chemotherapy lotion that really reddens the skin for awhile ( that’ll look really nice all over my forehead), and the other is another cream that promotes an immune-type of response (also possibly creating red blotches all over my forehead) for a much longer time. I have a prescription for that, so once these frozen ones fall off, I will start using that. After three months: fours weeks of treatment, four none, four treatment, I should be through with these little things.  The odd thing: the cream, Aldara, is also used for genital warts and actual skin cancers (basal cell carcinomas).  In my incarnation as a cancer lab worker, I used to give skin cancer to rats, then treat them with combinations of drugs and radiation, before those treatments were tried on terminal cancer patients.  Then I had to dissect them – skin cancer will eventually invade the entire body, organs, lungs, brains – not a pretty sight.

And, the moral of this story? Use sunscreen, especially when you’re young. The doc, the young pretty one, said I probably got these started when I was 18 or so. Actually, it was riding a bicycle around the country a few times in my 20s, but close enough. Never wore a hat much, and certainly never used sunscreen. Of course, my parents took us to the beach every summer as kids, and we always got sunburned, every single time. It wasn’t ’till I lived in Arizona for awhile, after bicycling in from the East Coast, and working outdoors there, that I ever had a sustainable tan of any kind. I told Dr. Kim that it was great: I was tanned and muscled for the first time in my life. She thought that was pretty funny, or wanted to me to think I was funny.

“Who’s that knocking on my door?” said the fair Young Maiden….”

Just call me Barnacle Bill the Sailor.

barnacle-bill.jpg

You should listen to or read the bawdy lyrics for Barnacle Bill the Sailor sometime.

You won’t believe it! (Barnacle Bill the Sailor song lyrics)

betty-barnacle-bill.jpg

A much tamer version: Betty Boop Cartoon

UPDATE: 4/30/08. I’ve started treatment for the actinic keratoses. Weird!  The first morning after treatment I could see more of the little bumps under the skin, and they stay visible.  No reddening of the skin yet.  I did wake up with acid reflux.  Felt like acid in my throat.  Later on, I felt so tired I was like the walking dead.   Drank an extra coffee to get me through the day.  I was unusually talkative, and even more unrestrained in what I said to people than usual.  Suddenly, about 9pm last night, I felt like I woke up.  My mind was clear, and I felt happy.  I even smiled, for no reason at all.  Odd.

UPDATE: 08/14/08. Finished treatment last month, but one area still itches.  Every place I saw raised bumps and scabs that itched like crazy during treatment, but only that one area still itches every day.  Odd.  I learned that 10% of all actininc keratoses become skin cancer, so I do wonder.

Posted in Bicycling, health, Life, medical, My Life, rambling, Random Thoughts, skin cancer, Writing | Tagged: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

 
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