“How are you tonight?” The Nursing Assistant tried to calm me as he rolled my squeaking gurney down to the angiogram area. Pedestrian traffic dodged us as we barreled through the busy halls.
“Worried.” I said. Worried I wouldn’t make it through the night. I’d been belted in the ribs with a baseball bat and set on fire. Felt like it, anyway. Imagine my confusion – roused awake in the middle of the night with no recollection of being beaten or burned alive, feeling like Iron Man when Obadiah Stane snatches his electromagnetic pulse generator, leaving him dying on the concrete floor of his luxuriant workshop-garage.
Someone had my heart in a vice, squeezing the life out of me while drizzling my back with lighter fluid and striking a match to it. A heart attack can be like that, so they say. But these signs and symptoms don’t always indicate a heart attack.
“Maybe it’s a heart attack,” part of me thought before I ever got to the ER. I had my doubts.
I don’t like doctors because they tell me to slow down, and I guess I don’t like to slow down. Pain? I don’t feel pain like most people feel pain, so I ultimately can’t rank pain on a 1 to 10 scale. For me, pain is pressure, so I shouldn’t have ignored it when those bolts hit me. Did I go to the hospital immediately? Of course not.
“Hospitals are for weaklings,” I told myself. “I’ll wait it out like a man.” (I’m smart like that.) When the nausea hit, I couldn’t get comfortable – sitting, standing, laying down, walking around – nothing worked. “Enough with the macho act,” I thought. “If I’m gonna die, it’s not gonna be because I tried to outmaneuver a heart attack. Talk about an embarrassing obituary.” Stumbling to the garage, I eased into my little Fiat 500 and buzzed over to the ER.
“Have you ever had high blood pressure?” The young blonde nurse – taking my temperature and looking at my file – asked me. NOTE: They don’t let you actually see your readings. You have to crane your neck to get the details. And they maintain a decent poker face in the ER.
“No. Why.” I wasn’t really asking her why.
“Because,” she glanced at her colleague. Her plain blue scrubs wrinkled when she pointed at my reading without looking me in the eye. “You’ve got high blood pressure.”
What she didn’t tell me was that I had stroke-level out-of-control high blood pressure (183/134). Now, I’ve always had borderline HBP, but never out-of-control HBP, and certainly not life-threatening HBP. Never has any doctor advised that I go on hypertension meds.
Their goals for me as a newly admitted patient?
(a) Lower the BP and prevent a stroke,
(b) Rule out a heart issue.
What did they find after the angiogram? An Ascending Aortic Aneurysm – a bulge that weakens the aorta – not large enough to warrant immediate surgical action, and a condition that typically produces no symptoms.
“Aneurysms can be genetic,” one doctor would later explain, “and they can also be caused by extreme overexertion.” Out-of-control HBP can weaken an aneurysm and cause it to fray or burst. Death comes in minutes (think John Ritter or Robert Palmer). As a frequent weightlifter, I’d overexerted plenty in the past. Just not the recent past.
What did this mean to me? I would be making new friends in the forms of a thoracic cardio surgeon and a gastroenterologist, not to mention a new primary care doctor (our being new to the area). Of course I didn’t need surgery, but I did need to be monitored. My new team of experts would have questions, and so would I. “If the aneurysm and HBP don’t produce symptoms,” I asked while still in the hospital, “why do continue to I feel like this?”
“Your existing acid reflux can cause those symptoms,” the doctor said as he left through the sliding glass door of my tiny hospital room. Didn’t make sense to me – I know what acid reflux feels like because I’ve experienced it for the better part of 30 years.
“I don’t want this diagnosis to be life-limiting in any way,” the cardio surgeon later told me, explaining that we “caught the disease” – his word – “early.” Tugging at his sleeve to indicate the type of material of which a stent is constructed, he said “we shouldn’t replace one disease with another” (i.e., a mesh stent). “It’s like painting brick,” he said. “You’d be going from zero maintenance to a situation where you’ve got to repaint. Any questions?”
“So, limitations,” I asked, “if it’s not life-limiting, I can lift weights?”
“No. No weights. I’ve got a buddy who’s heavy into power lifting and he’s in horrible shape, what with his blood pressure and his aneurysm. But you can’t tell him anything, so….”
“You can run. Just slow it down.”
Slow down? One of the main reasons I used to run is that it’s fun to run fast. Slow running is shit. But it’s not life-limiting? Who does he think he’s kidding?
The confusing bit: HBP and Ascending Aortic Aneurysms typically do NOT cause chest and back pain. Actually, they typically have NO symptoms. You don’t feel it, and by the time an aneurysm tears or dissects, the mortality rate is 90% IF you’re already in the hospital when it occurs.
WebMD makes it clear: “Without immediate treatment, death occurs.” Beautiful. My blood pressure stayed highly elevated at the ER and later that night in my hospital room because the aneurysm did NOT tear. If it had torn, my BP would have plummeted.
When I left the hospital, my BP had returned to normal (thank you, Lopressor). Then came the rash – the day after my discharge I went to my new primary care doc. Now I had a rash on my back, which I attributed to my new cocktail of meds: “Side-effects include rash.” Seemed logical.
At the end of our short session I told her about the side-effects of the meds and said, “Here, I’ll show you.” As I lifted my shirt, she took a quick gander and asked me if I’d ever had chicken pox.
“Yup. Third grade.”
“Mystery solved – you’ve got Shingles,” she said, like that old AOL guy telling us we’ve got mail.
“What the actual hell is shingles?” I thought. I mean, I’d seen the commercials, but I tend to mute 95% of TV commercials.
She saw my confusion. “That rash is a band, and it’s not from the meds. It’s from chicken pox,” she said. “We’ve got a mirror in the bathroom – go take a look while I write your prescription and get you on your way.”
So, good news and bad news: I’ve got a mountain of new meds to keep me from blowing a gasket and get rid of the chicken pox virus, and not a dang one of them is mind-altering. What’s wrong with this picture?
As Scotland angles for independence from Westminster and The English Crown, I’ve just returned from the Highlands and Islands. Debate flourishes ahead of the September 18th vote. Scots say they want “a better deal” after their divorce from England. Well, I decided I would keep politics at arm’s length (er, mostly) and just enjoy Scotland for the week.
I buckled in for my 747 flight, direct to Glasgow – five time zones ahead – knowing I’d be knackered and cream-crackered my first day in-country. An elderly man next to me smelled of old baloney. In the row ahead, a guy in a striped Nautica shirt sat drinking red wine and eating a Pay Day bar from his carry-on. But enough about my delightful plane ride – here are a few need-to-knows about your own personal independence in Scotland:
Scotch Whisky: Know that “whiskey” is spelled without the “e” in Scotland. Know that Scots use “whisky” and “scotch” interchangeably, so pay no attention to the odd know-it-all who claims Scots never say “scotch.” That’s pure rubbish. Now, all manner of scotch lovers co-exist peacefully within our whisky community. We revel in our variety of shapes and sizes, and we enjoy smoky or peaty or toasty or musty notes without denigrating the opinions of fellow tasters. It behooves the scotchist to understand the personalities of whisky-producing regions. You may find the occasional scotch snob who looks down his nose at a blended scotch drinker, but that’s because he doesn’t yet realize his single-malt scotch has been cured in more than one barrel, effectively making it a blended scotch. Give him time – he’ll mature.
Isle of Skye: Know that Skye is one of the most beautiful islands on Earth, especially as the Sun breaks in the morning.
Coffee: Know that Scots enjoy their java. While a good cuppa can tingle the toes as readily as a wee dram, a decent filter-coffee is hard to find anywhere in the world. City coffee is a competitive business, so a better cup is easier to locate in metro areas than in the Scottish countryside. Know that Scots drink skim milk in their white coffee, so if you preferhalf & half – Scots call it “single cream” – in your Americano, request it apologetically from your barista. Be prepared to see him cock his head like a Highland “Koo” staring at a new gate, but you may be pleased to find single cream available. Edinburgh’s Maison Bleue still brews Scotland’s best coffee. Ask the owner (our friend Lyes Kechida) about his coffee-house days as punk rock burgeoned in London, and you’ll be in for more than a treat.
Castles & Cathedrals: Know that Scotland is rich with abandoned and fully restored castles and cathedrals. Visit Historic Scotland and Scotland’s National Trust. There you will find points of interest, and you can determine if a membership or pass would suit your needs. Short-term passes are well-worth the price, especially if you’re squeezing in many venues during your Scotland trip. My adventure took me from fabulous St. Mungo’s Cathedral in Glasgow to updated Stirling and popular Doune, to roofless Beauly Priory and spooky Knock Castle.
Food: Know that smoked salmon is Scotland’s national dish, but the flaky Scottish haddock is also tasty. As you might expect, fresh fish abounds almost anywhere in the country.
Currency: Know that the Great British Pound is fairly strong against foreign currencies. You don’t want to be stuck without cash, so be sure to purchase GBP at your home bank branch at least a week before you start your trip. Know that it will probably take a few days to get the GBP, so be patient. The exchange rates at the airport are too high, and you’re not likely to locate a favorable rate when you arrive in Scotland. Also, if you’re accustomed to US or Canadian Dollars, you can double the GBP number (while shopping for souvenirs) to get an idea of the price in your home currency. I say “double it” so that you’ll quickly get over the idea that GBP1,38 a litre for gas is cheap – that’s about USD9.00 a gallon. Touristy areas tend to be more expensive in all events, so let the buyer beware.
Duty-Free: Know that airport duty-free shops will bookend your trip. Duty-free “deals” are the biggest hoax perpetrated on the travel community since P.T. Barnum’s Cardiff Giant. I don’t believe I’ve overstated this.
So, look, you can sit here and read blog posts about Scotland, or you can go and see and do. So just follow the instructions on this sticky note I’ve tacked up for you: “Keep calm and escape to Scotland.”
I’ve watched enough Rick Steves on PBS to know when I need help with international travel. We just spent the holidays in Germany and we learned a few things. Perhaps you’ll see some details here that can help you on your next trip, especially if there are holidays involved.
Shoulder-to-shoulder with locals and tourists at the Frankfurt Christmas Market, we started our trip by drinking enough Glühwein to float a ship of sailors down the Main River. In contrast, we later felt that the whole of Aßmannshausen’s Hotel Krone was ours alone. Several songs (and at least one book) have been written about the Krone, so it was a treat to sleep there — even though it is haunted.
To be clear, I now live in the US, but I grew up in Germany. On our recent trip, my wife (Jennifer) endured my getting one last photo of “this view” or “that castle,” even though I’d already snapped forty-two other indistinguishably similar shots. In the end, as long as we trekked to the Cuckoo Clock Store in Wiesbaden, souvenirs would be acquired and marital bliss would be preserved.
So, listen — if you are going to Europe, you will need to know a few things, and here are some of them:
Know Your Roles. I generally do the overall planning, provide language skills, and execute on the travel plan. Jen collected this year’s awards for Best Packer of Suitcases in the World and Best Navigator of Germany. These skills are invaluable in a travel companion, for without a capable navigator the best laid plans fall flat. We shall discuss packing shortly.
Boots. If your feet are happy, your body’s chances of being happy are increased. Warm boots. Strong boots. Comfortable boots. You need them. I have these. Jen has these. Gauge your boot purchases based on the peaks and depths of your itinerary. If you will be around snow and slush, consider traction. During a snowstorm at Hohenzollern Castle, we saw a guy in slick streetshoes and a suede jacket, clearly reconsidering his wardrobe choices. Know that you will be doing some walking, and remember to pack your gloves and boots.
Gastronomy. Our trip was Germany-centric, hence the specificity to food here. Pace yourself to ingest the maximum amount of schnitzel, sausage, beer, and good German bread in the smallest duration of time. This usually means eating a hearty breakfast of bread, cheese, cold cuts, yoghurt, eggs, fruit, and your choice of unusual juices or common hot beverages. Your early meal should tide you over until dinner, when you will (of course) order your favorite style of schnitzel. Tailor this point to your target country’s cuisine.
Snacks. Pack snacks for the road. This prevents hanger. Hanger is a concept experienced by many, and which has been known to cause relationship friction. It can be defined as “anger exacerbated by hunger.” Woe unto you if your travel companion gets hangry.
Holiday Meals. Many restaurants will be closed on holidays, but hotel restaurants will typically be open for business. Secure your holiday restaurant reservations well in advance. You probably don’t want to find yourself hangrily glaring at Bratwurst and Bienenstich through a grocery store window with a brick in your hand.
Flights. In order to reduce risk and bookend your trip with positive notes, fly direct whenever possible. But unless you’re flying from a major airport – and this is true for any trip – you may not have direct flights. This means you will experience layovers between flights. Plan for these layovers. Consider whether an airline club membership would be worth your while. (NOTE: If you’re fortunate enough to be flying Business Class on an international flight, many clubs allow you free entry during your trip.) Also, understand that it’s a bonus if your flights depart and arrive on time. Be prepared for your flights to run late, but be sure you’re on time to the airport on the off-chance your flights are on time. Understand that you need to be at the airport at least two hours prior to your flight’s planned departure time.
Transportation. Well in advance of your trip, decide on your modes of transport (car, train, boat, or a combination thereof) while in-country. Comparing the US versus Europe, the US has extremely favorable gas prices. In Europe, plan on the equivalent of $8.00 a gallon for gasoline, depending on the strength of the US Dollar versus the Euro at the time of your trip. If you rent a car, understand the Rules of the Road; e.g., on the autobahn, know that it is illegal to pass on the right. Slower vehicles must stay on the right. For obvious reasons, you should become familiar with international road signs.
Google Maps. Yes, you will need paper maps, but Google Maps will save you untold amounts of time and aggravation on meandering entrance and exit ramps. Google Maps has legitimately saved 117 marriages in the third quarter of 2013 alone. This is a scientific fact.
Wireless and Other Electronic Devices. Change your call plan and data plan to international plans prior to embarking on your trip. Estimate your usage on the cautious side, and remember to turn on data roaming only when you’re using it. Use Wi-Fi whenever possible, as this typically will not impact your data usage. To keep your electronic devices juiced up, a battery pack is a must-have. I use the Jackery Giant 10400mAh. It holds a charge for a long time, so you can keep from draining your devices while you’re in the car figuring out how to navigate those long and winding European roads.
110 vs. 220. You probably know that Europe operates on 220-volt electricity. In the US, we typically do not use 220 – most of our hair dryers and electric razors are 110 volts. You will need a voltage converter kit with adapter plugs to ratchet the 220 down to your 110-volt devices. Get a kit that allows you to choose your wattage since your PC and your phone will probably require different wattage settings. When in doubt, select the lower wattage on the converter, otherwise you risk frying your hair-straightener. I use the Seven Star World Traveler Converter Kit.
Luggage and Bags. You will almost certainly need extra space in your case(s), so take an empty or half-empty case along with you – you won’t regret it. Double-bag your dirty laundry, as it tends to ripen over time. And on the off-chance you don’t need the extra suitcase room, use the case to segregate your dirty laundry from the rest of your belongings. This way, those souvenir Christmas ornaments and nutcrackers won’t have melted in the luggage compartment of the Boeing 767 on your flight home. Or wherever it is you’re going next.
Lotion. Central-European air is not terribly dry, but it can be quite cold at high altitudes. Lotion is a necessity, and even though your hotels will probably stock lotion, they may not stock the brand you prefer. It’s safer to bring your own. Use a three-ounce container for a carry-on bag, or pack a larger container in your checked luggage. Secure the top with strong tape, and pack the bottle in a plastic bag. Trust me on this one.
Lip Balm. You may not be prone to chapped lips. Still, invest in some lip balm. Somehow a lengthy plane trip causes chapped lips. This is another scientific fact.
Wear Black. Because it’s Europe. And because black is slimming.
Be Comfortable. Because you’re traveling. But bring along one semi-formal outfit. You won’t mind seeing yourself in “real” clothes at least once.
And finally – have a plan, but be spontaneous. Because it makes you a nice travel companion. Enjoy your time in Europe, and I personally wish you a gute Fahrt.
We are The Nocturnal. It’s who we are. The wheels in our heads turn at night. Whether it’s fast or slow or somewhere in-between, they turn and churn. And they don’t stop. Sometimes seems like they never will. If that sounds like a negative, my apologies.
These days I don’t bemoan my laying awake nights. I used to.
Thirty years ago I’d slip out (from under the covers) and drive to a coffee shop at 3AM and write on napkins. Don’t really need that milieu now, as I’ve come to like my own brew and milieu. But I still write at night. Yes it’s changed, and no it hasn’t changed. White coffee is an adequate companion.
I used to fret about it – if it can be said that I ever fretted about a thing. Point is not to torture ourselves by laying awake in bed. DO something, right. If you’re going to be awake, might as well do something. Doesn’t have to be productive.
If we lay in bed during these hours, there is almost nothing worse. But why continue to foist that misery upon ourselves. We can’t pry ourselves to sleep – that mindset seems to be at cross-purposes with sleep. Maybe it’s a bit like saying “try really hard to relax.” We only sleep when our minds are emptied. So, how do you do that without exerting energy?
I know I’m not depressed. Maybe I’m just persuading myself here. But hear me out.
If I were depressed I’d be in bed all day and all night. I mean, wouldn’t I? It’s a comfort, then, being up half the night – it’s not a distraction. You can sort through issues at night, as long as you’re not trying to rectify or sanctify or reconcile or whatever you call it when you’re trying to make something appear more noble than it really is. In answer to your question, yes I tend to do that. Don’t we all? Am I doing that now?
Should we be concerned that we’re “not like everyone else” – like everyone who has these perceived regular schedules that we should all submit or conform to. Or maybe we should realize that our insomnia is more common than most people knew before.
So, sure, I’m feeding my brain with data at night, but some of that data is social. I keep up with my celeb friends whom I imagine are real friends (most of them are not friends or celebs). I like thinkers. Funny people are thinkers. I like funny people, and I keep up with them.
You know, as far as fitting in, it’s not like most of us ever fit in anywhere. Do we all want to? Fit in, I mean. Would that be boring if it were all part of some homogenated or homogenized pack of lemmings? Again, the negative creeps in. I’m working on it. Like Chris Rea, I’m working on it.
Of course, you must realize that things somehow changed. At least they did for me. A few years ago I began to embrace my open-eyed nights. Not sure exactly if it was one thing or several inputs that changed my thinking.
Part of me wants to report that I now make the most of my nights, that I’m highly productive in these off-hours. Truth be told, I am probably marginally more efficient, but I also need this time as down-time for me. For just me. Throw my brain into Park – Neutral, even. There are many gears – we don’t always need to be in Drive. Maybe the other gears serve as a sleep substitute in some small way.
I understand that, maybe – possibly – we want to force ourselves into that schedule of “awake at day” and “asleep at night,” but is that really fair – for whatever our reasons – to us, we who are not committed (no other word) to that mundane routine?
The news. Maybe you follow the news – and I know people who don’t follow it at all, thinking that “if it’s important, it will bubble up to me” – the darkest hours are amenable to this keeping up with the news. You can go overboard with that. I am not saying you shouldn’t.
So you see things in the dark? Me too. Ever since I was a kid. Images in the closet. On the walls. In the windows. We look for structure, we look for the known. Even if you don’t believe in ghosts, you sometimes feel a presence when the lights are off. That’s fine. It’s totally imagined, right. Some people think there is no spirit world or afterlife, and these senses tend to make the forehead itch. Perhaps we have to be all right with that.
Back to the emptying process. Part of emptying the mind is this: not needing to be right. I have been surprised at how much time this frees up. But of course I’m no expert. Either about emptying the mind or about being right.
That internal struggle many of us are intimate with – that is fuel for us, so am I saying we give up that fuel? I know that I cannot do this entirely. If I were to let that go, I’d have nothing to write about. Or very little. If this seems contradictory, I’m apparently comfortable with that.
In fact, I’d be shocked if at least half my life didn’t turn out to be one big contradiction of terms. I would somehow be okay with that – I’d have to be. I’m human, and my feet are made of very soft clay.
Night thoughts can be mundane. There is no requirement that they be earth-shattering or philosophically original. They can be obsessive. In fact, it’s almost mandatory that they be obsessive. If they weren’t, we’d probably all be sleeping, then, wouldn’t we. (Maybe read that last sentence again, this time with some form of British accent. Makes it flow, somehow.)
Nighttime can be opportune for time-travel. Use this space wisely. No one wants a bad report card, so behave yourself.
I’m up early for a flight to New York. Actually I never went to sleep. For better or worse, these are some of the issues of one Time-Traveling Mapmaker. Somehow I realize that you relate. Perhaps these are the words that put us back to sleep.
© 2013 Mick Circeo
25th April, 1865 – from Prison
I’ve had Dreams of killing my father. Of cutting his head off and stuffing it in a Box and throwing it over a high Cliff. The White Cliffs of Dover perhaps. Or burying it deep in the Ground. Fantasies, that is all they are. Harmless Thoughts. Of course I would not deign to act upon these Ruminations. Sic semper tyrannis – yes I did say that — there have been Reports that I did not, but I inscribe it here and now, so that all doubt shall be remov’d; “Thus always to Tyrants.” I shouted it that night at a quarter past ten, almost laughed it, the very Moment before I placed the Barrel of my Shooter behind the Ear of the Tyrant and struck a Blow for every thinking Man in the Nonce.
Killing a Man, striking him down, must occur for the right Reasons, of course. It would have to be for the right Reasons. So what is it, that would or should or could be considered Just Cause to kill a Man? Mayhaps he threatens the Welfare of a Nation, the Common Weal, as it were. What if his Actions were so bold and so lecherous as to change the future Course of a great Country for the worse? Endanger its Citizenry. Destroy the Marketplace and our ability to function at the Top of the Bill on the World’s Stage. What if one Man – or a small handful of Men – put a Country at such risk?
Are we to stand idly by and watch the destruction of a Land that we, that I, have grown to love more than any living Man? I should think not. For I should be adjudged by History to be worse a Man than such Men, if they properly be called Men, were I to bear witness to these Acts of Waste now occurring, and yet do nothing. And that is why I killed the Tyrant, Abraham Lincoln.
Had Grant been in the Box with the Tyrant that Night, pursuant to the original Plan, I should have done him in as well. I will admit that it required a full hour’s worth of Whiskey to put me up to the Task. Of that I am not ashamed in the least.
I know that I am but youthful, but then I look at George Armstrong Custer and what he has now achieved in his Youth. As a practical Matter, we are both the same in age. People often say we look like Brothers, were I not already to have a Brother who could readily be called my Twin. That’s not accidental for Custer, so I am told. It is by Design. They say that he wants to look like me, with the Mustache and the Hair, believing that it will bring him good Fortune with the fairer Sex. Perhaps that is true, as I have seen him in the company of many a young Maiden. Without these newfound accoutrements of coiffeur and sartorial splendor, however, Custer is quite plain a Fellow indeed.
History will acquit me, even if the Courts do not, for I acted bravely, struck boldly, and retreated south to gather my Troops. My Army. My Southern Supporters who are with me in this Fight and the continued Rebellion. This Fight to preserve That which has made our Country great. The preservation of the Races. That which has allowed and enabled us to achieve the Reaches and Riches that no Nation has been able to attain in such a brief Lifespan.
Truly I have been ordained by God to lead the Children of the Revolution back from the Precipice of Defeat by the thinly veiled Freedom imposed by one Abraham Lincoln. May he never rest in peace. Figurative imprisonment by literal Emancipation, hence bringing low both Races – this is what the Tyrant has foisted upon our beloved Homeland.
And I shall not let That be done, nor could I have done so by inaction. What happens when such a Tyrant stands up in Society and proclaims himself God over the Races? He is struck down, and with permanency.
I did not hesitate. Would that my Colleagues had possessed the Courage and the Determination and the Bravado to have carried through with the selfsame Success I enjoyed that blessed Night. Alas they did not, and have paid the high Price for their Failures. But as I sit here in my Jail Cell, behind these cold Stone Walls and Iron Bars, awaiting the News of the men who decide my Fate, I say now that I do not regret a single Moment of it. When Tyrants act treasonously, they fall. And Lincoln fell. I remain proud to say that it was by my Hand.
If the Jury convict me, future President Davis has promised to pardon me and restore me to my true and apt Place in Government. No more will I be a Player on a Stage illuminated by Footlights, but I shall be acting in real Life, impacting real Persons. Yet I trust I shall be exonerated, no longer subject to endure the Shouts and Taunts of “Kill the Murderer!” And then the South will rise again, as Davis has promised. When I accept my Appointment as Secretary of War in the Davis Administration, I shall exact my Revenge upon Grant in further fulfillment my foreordained Destiny. That will be mine and mine alone.
I should think that it is a Relief for our Nation, and not a Burden, to have a true Leader occupy the White House. One pure of Mind and Spirit. Not a Warmonger or a political Animal. I must but rest now, though my Battle Wounds roust my Sleep’s Peace.
J. Wilkes Booth