Monday, February 25, 2013

Silence is a beautiful neurological thing

In Death Valley, given calm wind and no fighter jet maneuvers, it is oh so quiet. Relaxing.

Yesterday the headline Finding Your Own Cone of Silence in the New York Times caused an involuntary giggle. Because we're not in Death Valley anymore, Dorothy.

Let's work backward.

This morning while fleeing the house for Hacker Dojo, a tree-trimming crew one block away was yelling back and forth, probably due to a collective hearing loss from working near their own power tools. A sort of massive electric saw. Wow.

Friday was planned as a quiet day, for gathering thoughts and working on this blog. In an IM window Danny typed "hope you have a good quiet day". At that very moment a gas-powered leaf blower was screaming about 8 feet to my left. On the bright side, our neighbor's side yard is free of debris.

Monday (President's Day) took the cake. At 8:30am, the earliest possible hour allowed by the city, the unmistakeable sound of a jackhammer. Very, very close by. For three hours. Turns out the neighbor behind us is taking out his driveway. The bad news is, the job is only half done.

Ah, suburbia. Where people flee the noise of urban environments.

Of the categorization exercises in speech therapy, one of the most difficult was 'name 3 places that are quiet'. You might  say 'a church' but in churches I hear the cacophony of dogma. So I said 'a forest' and 'outer space'. Could not come up with a third.

Check out this short TED talk by Julian Treasure on the importance of sound in our daily lives:

For people like me who are sensitive to sound, the New York Times article recommends Headspace, a smartphone app to promote mindfulness.

Too quiet

Amboy Crater, an unpopulated place on Route 66
Last week was quiet here on Route 66, a journey. Too quiet...

All I can say is the outage was not planned. Maybe it's too much, a trip to Death Valley, a week of cycling, then intensive de-sanding of all gear. An all-day neuropsych exam. Followed by a 200k. With speech therapy and the lawyer thrown in.

Mental, physical, emotional exhaustion. Literally, I'm having trouble putting two words together. Working on it...

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Thrown for a loop

Yes, I know 30 miles is not a long way. A ride to Woodside, that's the basic thing to do around here. But I'm exhausted. Can't conceive of anything longer or more complicated. So Danny and I ride to Woodside, the Loop. For a reboot.

We see 3, that's 3 Tesla Model S cars along the way. One Model S for every 10 miles. Where else in the world can you get that? 

(Last time, it was 5 Teslas: 2 of the Model S and 3 Roadsters.)

We pass 2 full-bred adult German Shepherds. Nice doggy. And Larry Ellison's Japanese-style gatehouse on Mountain Home Road. Danny said, "We'd need an extra $10 million if you wanted to live on this road".

And I say "That's the great thing about biking. I don't need to live in any of these places. It's about feeling free, having everything you need."

Then we share a fabulous hot panini, tri-tip with garlic and cilantro aioli. In the sun outside Robert's, the country market with hardwood floors.

It's just the thing.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Insert patient here!

Today a phone call to Neurosurgery Clinic. It's been three weeks since Dr. S. ordered an MRI of my cervical spine. Time for a little risk management with Valley Medical. Danny monitors our incoming mail. Thus it's not clear whether they've scheduled either the MRI or followup appointment.

Unlike most brain injuries, a soft tissue injury in the spine will actually show up on an MRI. I'd like to show up for stuff that's actually effective.

Again, on hold. The voices protest that my call is important to them.

Then go figure, a dead competent woman comes on and answers all my questions.

From Dr. S. (a resident on rotation from Stanford Medical School) it sounded like the timeline was a couple of weeks. Try 3 months. They're still waiting for authorization from my medical insurer. This should take 6-8 weeks (!), which puts us at roughly the midpoint of that process. Assuming the MRI is a go, add 2 weeks to the followup with Dr. S.

She shares with me that lots of times an MRI gets scheduled and no one tells the patient so they don't show up. What a shocker... The King of Clubs can think what he wants about my brain; at least the idiot radar still works just fine.

It's OK if this process takes a long time; not looking forward to a hard call.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Another clue


My job is to remember three words. In a few minutes Debbie will ask for them back. It's my second chance. The first attempt was 0-for-3; given 25 minutes, I can misplace anything.

Attention issues are invisible. Which is good because no one has to know. Except the insurance company gets to keep all its coins. And a certain percentage of every day goes to chasing my own tail, circling back to pick up what got misplaced, dropped, forgotten outright. Discouraging. Not efficient.

Last week I asked Debbie if attention can get better. Does it help, to work on this? Yes, she says. Yes.

Now she's pressing for a strategy, a way to tie the words together. A sort of mental key to unlock a memory. Doesn't matter what it is, just that it works.

I close my eyes. There's a picture of a boy, dirty and neglected. Standing barefoot next to a shallow river. It's muddy and not ideal for bathing but way, way better than the squalor he has just escaped. With huge empty eyes he gazes into the camera. Shame and desperation lingering on his face. Poverty, lack of self-determination. They need washing away.

Somehow this image has significance, like a dream. It grabs on and won't let go. And like a dream the feelings it evokes are real. Empathy, compassion for another human being. Outrage at his suffering. Hope for something better. dignitywashcucumber. The words stick.

And a tissue box scoots across the desk. Perhaps it would help to stop debasing myself with neuropsych exams and 200ks.

It is not my favorite sort of experience, sobbing in front of a stranger in a generic office to remember three words. But here's the thing: emotion plays an important role in attention. It helps a lot with encoding. We track and remember stuff that seems deeply, personally significant. The image of the boy linked to a memory, we all work like that.

I used to be different. I had a detailed, cataloging memory others found amazing and frightening. No tools or tricks required. It meant survival in a large engineering organization. Sorting through a daily torrent of words in email and slide decks, big meetings and one-on-ones. In the flood of irrelevant details, locating one key piece of information. Nothing had to mean anything. On any given day it was irrelevant how anyone felt or who they were, and on some level that was a relief. It was a refuge from emotion.

Now only big things that are meaningful get stored. Not passwords, chaotic project details, the Context of the Moment. Ideas, strategies, people, connections. Emotion seems to be the key. Without emotion it is far too easy to be a spectator, disengaged, adrift. It's both a conundrum and a clue.

No idea what to do with it.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Overheard on a 200k

Dawn, pink mist over the Golden Gate Bridge. It's cold, in the high 30s. Rob calls everyone together. The ride leader gets to make a speech. He starts with a few routine items, then asks if these people are present:
  • Jim Bradbury 
  • me
  • Todd Teachout
  • Paul Vlasveld
Jim is right here, Todd is signing in at the truck, Paul is frantically getting ready at his car. We raise our hands for Rob. Did we do something wrong?

"These 4 people are the ones with the most experience here today. They all have RUSA numbers under a thousand." The crowd gasps (not really but hey it sounds good).

Jim turns to me and says "What, you never heard the We Must Honor the Ancients speech before?"

Calling out the 4 newest RUSA members in the crowd, Rob says "If you're lost, don't follow these folks - they don't know where they're going!" Neither do I, so I'm following Jim...

At the end of the speech Rob tells us all to raise our left hand, place the other over our heart, and repeat after him: "I, Insert Name Here, promise not to do Stupid Stuff!" So that we all finish of sound body, anyway.

First control at mile 43, which this morning is feeling like quite a long way. Peet's Coffee, Petaluma.

On the sidewalk, Jack Holmgren is looking fabulously radioactive. He starts cracking jokes (so unlike him) and introduces himself. We've met, I know who he is, a lawyer with a biking problem. He recognizes my name and says:

"You're the one, the one who said in Brest when I asked what was wrong that you're over an hour slower than last time. Of all the stupid things to say! I just couldn't believe it... I mean, we're four years older and still doing this! Rode through a 12-hour lightning storm yesterday! Words I really can't say come to mind, like one starting with a......."

 Last time we saw each other was 18 months ago in France.
Jack Holmgren, you took this photo...
Why is it people always remember you by the absolute worst interactions? Not that they owe that photo in front of the bridge to you, not that you laughed at their jokes...

Riding out to Two Rock with Jim, mile 58. Massive holiday traffic out to the beach. Not much to talk about except maybe the recent psych test thrown in with the neuropsych exam. MMPI, the holy-cow full-fledged thing, like 600 questions. All variations of each other, asked every which way to confuse the liars and psychopaths.

Here's one: "I get really annoyed when someone interrupts me when I'm in the middle of something". To which I answered No even though it has happened once or twice. Then, "I get impatient standing in a queue". The answer could only be Yes. Pretty much 100% of the time.

And No to "I like to tease animals". Really! Anyone in their right mind can see Bella needs to play... it's not teasing if she's the one driving.

Jim takes all this in. Who knows what he is thinking.

Later we're standing in line at the market Point Reyes Station. Today it's not so much a town as a disorganized swarm of Northern Californians, all in one place. Seeking sun and water on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon.  Turning to Jim I say "Did you know that I get impatient standing in queues?"

Kitty Goursolle and Paul Vlasveld fiddle with their bikes in front of the store in Valley Ford. Paul saying no, he never has figured out why he does these things. He's just on the automatic renewal plan... Kitty says "All the 1200k events this year are already full. I was looking at one in Siberia..." Paul starts to laugh. "What, it's probably beautiful!" says Kitty.

"Must be something going on in Marshall", says Jim. Marshall, population 400 or so. With approximately one business, the Marshall Store. A sometime control on brevets that also happens to be an oyster mecca. It's packed. And we're definitely in rush hour on Highway 1.

What's going on is a holiday weekend in February with extra-nice weather.

Mile 90, pushing toward Nicasio.

Jim: "Only 6 more hills to go! Those two in Nicasio, White's, Camino Alto, 2 hills in Sausalito. Then it's downhill all the way!

Mile 98, the first bump on Nicasio Hill. Thinking about that time, that 300k when Jim stood with me right about here in the pouring rain and darkness as I fixed a flat. He was in favor of just putting the tire right back on. Instead we stood there for 10 minutes while I diagnosed root cause.

The only time I've been wetter? That 12-hour lightning storm on the way to Brest.

Jim says "Remember that time? That was right around here somewhere..." It was so dark that night, neither of us can point to the exact spot. I offer to take a photo. But he does not want to stop. The memory is still painful 6 years later, and it's time to get on in.

The silence as I pedal across the Golden Gate Bridge for the second time in a day, despite past difficulties.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Brain dead

Yesterday was the neuropsych exam. I survived, sort of, but am totally wrung out. Right now I'm capable of staring into space.

Hopefully this was the last one. Its purpose was to determine whether Prudential has to pay out on the disability claim. Most of the tests were different, because they knew which ones I'd already had. Someone asked if there was a machine. Nope, just the King of Clubs and a set of tricks that seem very much like games and puzzles. The clubs fly this way and that until the guy with the PhD knows what my brain can do.

To make matters worse I woke up this morning full of self-loathing and retribution. Convinced my answers will be twisted and taken out of context. This is just the normal fallout. Feeling dirty, and exhausted.

In a perfect world it would be hysterically funny. Thursday he is trying to "decide" whether I have lingering effects from a brain injury. Friday I am running around the house madly trying to get to the gym. Can't locate keys, bike sandals, checkbook, sunglasses. Falling all over myself, late.

Hey if tests can't find something this obvious, you might need new tests.

Monday, February 11, 2013


Rudy Wolleswinkel, Cajon Pass, 16 April 2012
Back from Death Valley. Found a note in my Inbox from Russ Provost. Rudy died a week ago. Rudy and Russ were friends and roommates on the Route 66 trip. While working out at the gym he had a massive stroke.

Rudy and I met at dinner on the first night in Santa Monica. He sat to my right and didn't order dessert for himself but just stared at my fresh peach pie until he got half.

The day after this photo was taken Rudy and I were riding together, past Newberry Springs and Amboy. A strong, fast rider, he began to struggle in the heat and hills on the way to Ludlow. Probably due to the many medications in his bloodstream.

Rudy knew a thing or two about second chances. He survived a blood clot in his heart, cancer, a post-operative infection that almost killed him, and a bad cycling accident. The accident left him with a brain injury and broken bones. 22 days in the hospital. Mylar was holding his abdomen together. Laid off from his job, he worked for the rights of brain injury survivors. At times he was just glad to be alive. At times he wished the last 20 years had never happened. Oh, I know that feeling.

He still rode fiercely, like a racer, like a bat out of hell. He was abrasive and smart, with a raucous sense of humor and a huge heart.

At the bar at the Big Texan in Amarillo, he told about another kind of second chance. After an affair, he divorced his wife. Stayed with this new person right to the end. He thought Danny and I should get married, even with the bad blood between my folks. He said happiness is more important. It's everything.

Rudy was coming out to California in April to ride Highway 1 with Russ. Do a few rides as training beforehand. Rudy loved good food; we were planning to treat him right. I was going to ask him for an interview, his story as a TBI survivor. Now that story is gone.

Hopefully he's eating peach pie somewhere. Roaming beautiful roads and making new friends.
Looking across the Colorado River at the Needles

Friday, February 8, 2013

Eolian dream

After five clear, 80-degree days change was in the air. In Death Valley weather when it comes is hardly ever rain.

After dinner the breeze picked up. We lingered for a while, socializing. After dark it fledged into wind, more and more insistent, pushing from the south in waves. The campground at Furnace Creek lies in a huge basin, a former lake. Gusts sweep across the flats, collecting sand and dirt and mysterious powders. Redistributing the loot all over the valley.

We took refuge in tents. It was the only thing to do. The air became weirdly warm as the gusts grew stronger. Lucky for us a backpacking tent will flex under load, absorbing the force and springing back to its original shape. The alternative is turning into a tumbleweed and rolling away intact. When the ceiling of the tent collapses, brushing your face, you still hold your breath. It pops back up as if nothing happened.

8:42 pm. Long night ahead. We lay in the dark, facing the sky, trying to read by headlamp. Periodically a gust hit, flexing the wall of the tent. After a moment a huge puff of particles drifted past our lights. Right under the fly and through the ventilating mesh. 

Despite no real physical danger we were hostages. An involuntary baptism: borax, volcanic ash, silica, dust, salt, gypsum. Minerals. In teeth, hair, sleeping bags, clothing. Someone said the wind gave up at 3:30. At dawn everything was calm again.

All around Death Valley you'll find dramatic, ominous names: Dante's View, Badwater, Hell's Gate, Devil's Golf Course, Devil's Cornfield. Given by the white man, marking outrage or disappointment or both. We think things should be a certain way. Accommodating.

For five days we had our way. Great company and food. Beautiful roads with little traffic. Afternoons at the spring-fed pool. Palm trees overhead. Clean skin and hair, winter sun.

First thing I shook out the sleeping bags. Then it was the usual oatmeal and coffee. About two-thirds of camp packed up and left; we said goodbye. Cautiously headed for a canyon where wind has been working for thousands of years. Stared at the eroded rock and imagined how that was done. Waves of symmetry and chaos, merging. The waves looked soft and inviting, almost like bedcovers in red, gold, purple, beige. Not the dull plaster dust that settled on camp during the night.

But in fact, it was.