Category Archives: adventure

the sequence of exothermic chemical reactions between a fuel and an oxidant accompanied by the production of heat and conversion of chemical species

So this is what we’ve been doing for entertainment recently:

My parents have a freestanding fire pit they bought last summer and never used, and so Elana, a sort of Ambassador Eagle Brownie Girl at heart, has been putting it to good use. For several nights running we’ve rustled up wood from the various scrap piles around the yard and gleefully set it ablaze. This has turned out to be quite good for family unity — having something to do, a low-key central activity around which to organize conversation, has led to more thoughtful and less awkward intergenerational talk. I don’t know why, but staring into the fire, you can ruminate on religion and culture and growing up in a way that is less likely in a torchiere-lit living room.

It has occurred to me, sitting there in the flickering dark, that fire-building is one of those important pieces of shit-hits-the-fan, End-of-Days lore that ought to be passed down from parent to child. Let’s be honest — I’m not good for much after the apocalypse. I haven’t been storing food, for example. I can shoot a rifle, but I don’t in fact own a rifle, and man, I suuuuuuuuck with an atl-atl.

But one thing I think I’m actually okay at is tending a fire. Elana, who is really good with fires, likes to tease me about not having done enough camping when I was young, but the basics are pretty simple, and in case this blog turns out to be the only thing to survive the coming catastrophe, I write the following for my son.


Some people will tell you about the “fire triangle.” This is very confusing, because you’re going to think it’s something practical, like, “arrange your sticks in a triangle,” when in fact what people mean is, “you need three things to make fire.” Those three things are heat, fuel, and oxygen. Heat and fuel are obvious; oxygen a little less so. Most of the actual technique in building and maintaining a fire has to do with getting oxygen into the process. More on that in a minute.

Part 1: Make It Hot

Starting a fire is not hard with modern tools. I highly recommend matches or a lighter. If you are actually reading this after the apocalypse, you may have to make do with less. Many metals are pyrophoric, meaning that very fine shavings of them will ignite spontaneously in contact with air. Traditionally a piece of flint was used to nick tiny pieces off of iron or steel; the tiny pieces would ignite as they sailed through the air, and a hot spark would land where you were trying to make a fire. This fellow, who sells specially formulated “firesteel,” demonstrates the process in a wood-clad hallway:

This video, on the other hand, assumes that you have access to soda and chocolate bars and yet for some reason still need to cook over an open fire. I suppose it’s possible. It also assumes you have fairly strong direct sunlight, an assumption that may not hold in certain post-apocalyptic scenarios:

Anyway, if you were smart enough to raid a convenience store for the Royal Crown and the Toblerone, I hope you also picked up matches.

Part Two: Little To Big

Once you’ve lit the match, you’ve got to set something on fire. What should you start with? People throw around a lot of terms for “stuff you set on fire” — they’ll tell you to start with “tinder,” then “kindling,” etc. — but the general principle is little to big. This is related to the oxygen thing — again, more on that later, but basically you want tiny pieces of flammable stuff surrounded by a lot of air. So pine straw burns better, to start with, than pine logs, and crumpled up shreds of newspaper burn faster and easier than a neatly folded sheaf. (Newspaper is something you won’t have in the future, post-apocalyptic or not, but you can’t burn your iBrain, so I don’t really know how to relate to you anyway, but… where the fuck was I?)

So, little to big: start with small bits of dry, flammable material, either crumpled or well-shredded so lots of air can get in. That stuff will burn crazy fast, but that’s okay, because it’s not the main fuel for your fire. You’re just using it to catch the spark of your match/lighter/firesteel/Coke can and transfer that spark to slightly larger fuel: small sticks are good. Then you progress to larger sticks, branches, and finally logs. Little to big.

Part 3: Everything Goes Up

I mentioned earlier that pine straw would burn better than a pine log, because oxygen has an easier time getting into a mound of straw than into a solid piece of wood. Solid wood, of course, only burns on its exterior surface, and so if you want to burn anything bigger than a dried leaf you’re going to have to get the maximum amount of oxygen possible onto that surface. Again, there’s a simple principle to remember here: everything goes up.

Look, fire is hot, right? And the hot gases that make up the visible flames are compelled upward by the comparatively cool and dense air around them. Or maybe it’s that fire, the substance of hell itself, reaches upward toward heaven in longing. I’m not really sure. But the point is that fire tends to go upward — if you hold a burning stick out in front of you, the flames point upward from the top surface of the stick.

So flame moves upward, generally, which means it needs to be replenished from below, and that’s where your oxygen needs to be. You need to get as much oxygen as possible coming up from below the actual flames themselves. This means that anything larger than the initial “tinder” — the shredded/crumpled stuff — needs to be carefully arranged so as to allow air to come in from the bottom. There are probably a number of good ways to do this, but the ones you want to learn are the “teepee” and the “log cabin,” because they will remind you of Indians and Abraham Lincoln, respectively, which will be good when you’re sitting around your post-apocalyptic fire telling your children legends about the great and terrible “America” which once was. You don’t want to leave out the aboriginal peoples — they’ve suffered enough without you slighting them — and of course talking about Abraham Lincoln gives you an opportunity to use the phrase “stovepipe hat,” which would otherwise fall out of use entirely.

Here, then, are the two configurations of sticks you are advised to use. The “teepee” configuration, in which the sticks form a cone and converge to lean against each other at the top, requires a little bit of balance but allows for terrific airflow and lets fire creep upward, as is its natural wont.

The “log cabin,” by contrast, doesn’t require a balancing act — you just lay two sticks on the ground, then lay two sticks across them, then lay two sticks in the original direction again, and so on, as high as you like. You can accommodate more sticks this way, creating a nice blaze all at once. Also, you don’t have to worry about random bits of flaming stick escaping your fire pit as they burn and crumble, which is a concern with the teepee. On the other hand, you do have to worry about looking like a guy who spends way too much time arranging sticks.

Whichever method you choose, the sticks will burn for a while and then collapse into the bottom of your fire pit. You’ll feel an inevitable sense of loss and dismay when this happens, but try to be philosophical about it — the dying sticks are transmuted into living, glowing coals.

Part 4: Bed Of Coals

This is the last thing you need to know, really: after wood burns with a flame, it goes into a second stage of burning as a hot coal. This stage is actually more awesome than the flame stage, not only because of the creeping orange glow, but also because when you’ve got a bed of hot coals going in the bottom of your fire pit, you can essentially keep a fire going indefinitely just by adding more fuel. You may have to arrange this fuel artfully so that, for example, air can still come in from the bottom. But you shouldn’t have to light the fire again — your bed of coals lights each new piece of fuel as it’s added.

And that’s it, really. Enjoy your fire, and if it’s cold where you live, be sure to keep in mind Jack London’s grim warning about survival in the wild:

[A]ll this—the mysterious, far-reaching hair-line trail, the absence of sun from the sky, the tremendous cold, and the strangeness and weirdness of it all—made no impression on the man. It was not because he was long used to it. He was a newcomer in the land, a chechaquo, and this was his first winter. The trouble with him was that he was without imagination. He was quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significances. Fifty degrees below zero meant eighty-odd degrees of frost. Such fact impressed him as being cold and uncomfortable, and that was all. It did not lead him to meditate upon his frailty as a creature of temperature, and upon man’s frailty in general, able only to live within certain narrow limits of heat and cold; and from there on it did not lead him to the conjectural field of immortality and man’s place in the universe. Fifty degrees below zero stood for a bite of frost that hurt and that must be guarded against by the use of mittens, ear-flaps, warm moccasins, and thick socks. Fifty degrees below zero was to him just precisely fifty degrees below zero. That there should be anything more to it than that was a thought that never entered his head.

Also, if there are zombies, aim for the head.

Love,

Your dad.

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more about fighting commies, less about health insurance!

well i thought about the army
dad said, son you’re fucking high
and i thought, yeah there’s a first for everything
so i took my old man’s advice
three sad semesters
it was only fifteen grand spent in bed
i thought about the army
i dropped out and joined a band instead

— Ben Folds, “Army”


My career options are limited. It’s not that I couldn’t get a job of some kind, if jobs were all that were wanted. According to the New York Times, even during this depression, white college-educated guys like me have seen basically no change in our employability, which is pretty much golden to begin with. (This is not, however, a good time to be a black man over 50 without a high school degree. If there ever is such a time.)

But as people rightly wondered about their returning soldiers at the end of World War I, “How Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down On The Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree)?” Or, to put in modern terms, can you really work at Wal-Mart after hunting terrorists in Baghdad?

This is the question posed by the most interesting Iraq war film so far, The Hurt Locker, about a talented EOD tech whose work is destroying his psyche but who can’t seem to tear himself away from it. Being a bomb tech is, of course, only the most extreme version of wartime military life in general — grinding and relentless and psychically wearing, but also, for the right kind of person, intellectually demanding and morally satisfying.

I detailed my own annoyance with a lot of things about military life here and here. But the truth is that the Army was the first organization to offer me a straightforward path to a professional career, the first to really channel my intellect to a useful purpose, the first to pay me an adult’s wages, and the first to provide me with work that I didn’t feel could be done by a talented orangutan. (Your mileage may vary.) And I know reasonable people can disagree about this, but I also found I was totally at peace with finding and catching insurgents in Iraq. How I would feel in a different war, especially if I were called on to fight conscripts, I can’t say.


When I came off active duty, I had some money saved up, and I was single, so I didn’t really care about making a decent wage. I thought I might head to Hollywood and try my hand at writing for TV. Sure, it was a long shot, but if I could get in, it seemed like potentially intellectually satisfying work, work I would be good at, and work that in a small number of cases is financially remunerative. Not that I cared about that.

Well, obviously, having a baby means the end of screwing around. Not just in terms of screenwriting, mind you. I have now effectively priced myself out of becoming a blacksmith, learning to drive Formula One, or starting a kung fu school — that is, I no longer have the luxury of poorly- or unpaid apprenticeships. The entire film industry is right out, but so are lots of other fields I might be just as interested in — journalism, cabinet-making, businessmanery, organic farming, competition barbecue, advertising, card-sharping, dog whispering, barbering, DJing for a hip-hop crew, zookeeping…. Anything that’s worth doing, apparently, is worth several years of living with roommates and eating rice for dinner.

No, I’ve served my apprenticeships already — a somewhat abortive one in film and photography, and one in government service. The weird thing about the one in film is that I was sort of on the cusp of making grown-up money (albeit doing something kind of boring like coordinating), but when I left it for seven years to go be a soldier, I essentially reset the clock to zero. I’d have to start all over again at the bottom as a production assistant and work two or three or four years just to get a dull job I don’t really want with (at best) a moderately middle-class income.

So that leaves the military or other government work. Certain kinds of government work, including the military, the police, and the fire department, are great precisely because they pay you enough to live on during the apprenticeship phase. I’m too old to become a cop in most districts — though, curiously, not in L.A. Of course, L.A. just dropped its starting salary for cops by about $15,000 as part of a negotiation between the union and a strapped city government. But still — a guy with a college degree and some military experience can make about $50,000 to start with. That’s not bad.


I’m probably not going to become a cop. I thought about it — took the exam, even — but Elana squirrelled out of me that the primary reason I wanted to do it was to take her back to L.A., at which she balked. She took me firmly aside and explained that if I had dragged her away from all that was holy and decent — or at least, all that was sunny and governed by Schwarzenegger — in order to have a baby, and if, therefore, God only knew when and if and how her writing career might recover (living in L.A. or not), then at least one of us was damned well going to move forward with a professional career doing something he likes.

Which is the other reason I can’t start a kung fu school.


Here’s something nobody talks about much when it comes to joining the Army: for some of us, it’s a form of suicide. That word is usually fraught with negative associations, like depression and aggression and Morrissey songs. But that’s not how I mean it. I mean that it’s a way of rejecting the bonds that hold us here to earth, of embracing danger, of questioning the notion that death is the worst thing that can happen to a person. In a society conspicuously lacking in vision quests, enlisting is the one definitive ritual for sticking a thumb in death’s eye.

Of course, after you enlist you spend the rest of your time building up your ability to stay alive. You learn how to shoot and how to use a gas mask and how to survive an ambush. You get in shape so you can run faster and you get stronger so you can carry more body armor. You do pushups so that you can push the enemy away from you before running away quickly and hoping that he shoots you in the body armor and not the ass.

Still, when you are deployed, you are starkly confronted with your own mortality, and you find ways to deal with it. I dealt with it by buying a burial ring and by engaging in superstitious rituals to create my own luck. I learned to smoke a pipe and I wrote a song about how comforting it is to think of dying of cancer rather than by enemy fire. I made myself ready for death, and death didn’t come.

Which is great. It’s a cool way to live, and if you die… well, you can’t say you didn’t see it coming.

On the other hand, it’s apparently nerve-wracking as hell for the people you leave behind. My parents, for example, were initially encouraging about my joining the military, but that was before Iraq started, and their enthusiasm waned considerably as it became increasingly clear that, four years after the initial invasion, my unit was going to be deployed. They dealt with it in different ways — my mother worried a lot and demanded to know what kind of snacks I wanted her to send in care packages, while my dad periodically got gloomy and argued with me over whether having a military was a good idea. It was a bummer. Recently, they ambushed me in the kitchen of their house as I was coming in the door, demanding to know whether I was planning to re-enlist. I tried to talk them down off the ceiling, but to be honest, I haven’t ruled it out.

Your parents’ claim on your emotional loyalties loosens somewhat over the years, but unfortunately in my case it’s replaced by the claims of my wife and baby son. Now that I’ve successfully reproduced, I feel I’ve basically fulfilled my filial obligation not to go around leaping into the abyss, but the same act of parentage has now bestowed on me additional duties. Hard as it might have been to detach myself from this world and live only in the moment (or the “mission,” as we call it in the Army) when I was only a son, it was still possible. But now that I’m a husband and a father, I find it nearly impossible.


I knew a girl in college who once told me that when she was young she often felt she was floating above or outside of herself. She had a theory that when we were young our souls still weren’t used to being in bodies, and that as you got older, you were gradually more tied to your body, until eventually you didn’t float away anymore.

I think I know what she meant, now.

So here’s to the end of childhood! I don’t know what I’m doing yet, but it’s not going to be this:

Maybe “coded” means, like, “ordered lunch in”.

As you may have gathered, they let me leave the hospital! I was super-gleeful about this, because HOSPITALS ARE TERRIBLE (don’t get me wrong, if you need your life saved, they will take care of that for you. But they are also sort of unpleasant places where doctors wake you up at 6:45 AM to tell you complicated things about the HOLE THEY PUT IN YOUR THROAT and how OH YEAH THEY MIGHT HAVE DESTROYED YOUR ABILITY TO SPEAK.) but then I started to realize that leaving the hospital has as its main downside that you expect to be Significantly Better and like Able To Go Shopping or whatever, when really at first you need 18 hours of sleep a day.

(Still better than being in the hospital, though.)

At this point, I am mostly all better: they took out the valve in my throat, and my voice came back, so I will just have a cool scar to freak people out with (after the hole closes up. YES! I still have a small hole in my throat. Jealous?) And they put me on medication for a while to make sure I don’t have any further bizarro incidents where my blood pressure becomes 900/500 or what have you… And antibiotics so I don’t get MRSA and die (I imagine.)

So ignoring minor issues like near-constant exhaustion and this thing where my memory suddenly doesn’t work (which better be because of the exhaustion and not because I blew a fuse in my brain, you guys!), I am pretty much back to normal. Aside from how I now have this baby.

***

When I first woke up, the day after The Dramatic Incident, I remembered essentially nothing*. So as I slowly regained consciousness, nurses and doctors would come in and talk to me and as hours passed, I slowly gathered the following: these people seemed to think that I was married and had been pregnant and had almost died and had just had a baby.

HOLY SHIT WHAT THE FUCK?!?

I did not believe any of this.

You guys! It was like one of those ’60s paranoid conspiracy thrillers, where a guy wakes up in an apartment he doesn’t remember and has a wife he doesn’t remember and then eventually it turns out that it’s all a ploy by the Russians to get the nuclear football or something. And exactly like that guy, the longer it went on, the more I started to doubt EVERYTHING IN THE WORLD.

The basic timeline is something like so: I woke up doped to the eyeballs on painkillers and sedatives, people implied that I had a kid, and then crammed me into a wheelchair and took me up a bunch of floors to see some tiny person who evidently lived full-time in an EZ-Bake oven.

“Here’s your son! Isn’t he beautiful?”

Riiiiiiiiiight.

I THINK I WOULD REMEMBER IF I HAD BEEN PREGNANT, LADY. NICE TRY.

Later, when Seth made his illegal foray into checking out the folder of records the NICU staff were keeping on us, the notation for my first visit was:

MOTHER HAS FLAT AFFECT.

This was pretty much the one thing about the hospital that actively pissed me off. Flat affect! Are you kidding? I was stoned out of my gourd, remembered nothing, and was UNABLE TO TALK. BECAUSE OF THE TUBE IN MY THROAT. That wasn’t “flat affect”, that was “skepticism”.

Grumble.

(The NICU nurses were actually really outstanding specimens of humanity. It was just that one thing that made me cranky. No wonder they won’t let parents look at their records.)

***

Seth has mentioned previously that hospitals are not necessarily as organized with the imparting of information about your care as you might think. I guess, insofar as I had ever thought about this stuff, I imagined that if you were in the hospital for something life-threatening and you were totally out of it, doctors would probably wait for your husband to be around before discussing complicated health stuff with you. (Particularly if you couldn’t talk to ask them questions.)

Not so! The doctor who crammed the tube through my throat, for instance (PS, I first met this guy in the ICU, and for quite some time I thought maybe he was someone I was hallucinating and had cobbled together from from The Simpsons characters.) liked to walk in at 6:22 AM and say things like “So we’re not totally sure your voice is going to come back! {jargonjargonjargonjargon} Some other doctor is going to {jargonjargonjargon}, okay? How’re you feeling? Good, good. All right, see you later! Oh, hey- don’t forget to {jargonjargon something really complicated involving breathing}.”

THEY WERE ALL LIKE THIS. I kind of thought that leaving the hospital would mean the end of this nonsense, but NO:

Today we took Henry (who has been allowed to come home from the hospital – Seth will probably update you on that later when we are no longer sobbing with exhaustion**… or I guess if you’re a parent yourself you can just think back to the early days and laugh at us for being SUCKERS.) to the pediatrician for the first time.

(He is totally fine and healthy and gets excellently angry when nurses try to take his pants off: OUTRAGE! VENGEANCE WILL BE HIS. But that’s not what this story is about. Sorry, baby-oglers.)

The pediatrician had one of those electronic readers she used to flip through our various hospital records. She said things like “Wow! What a dramatic experience!” and Seth and I nodded politely: we have figured out over the past few weeks that having full-blown, no-warning eclampsia makes you the obstetrics version of reality-tv-show-“famous”.

And then she tapped a new section of the screen and said, in awesome deadpan:

“Huh. So you coded on the table?”

And I said “I’m sorry?” and looked at Seth – you know, just in case he had been Keeping Things From Me – and he was shaking his head, “No, I don’t think so–”

And the doctor said, firmly and just ever-so-slightly dismissively – BE QUIET CIVILIANS, DO YOU THINK I DON’T KNOW HOW TO READ A MEDICAL RECORD OR SOMETHING?!? WHO’S THE EXPERT HERE? – “Yep, that’s what it says, all right. Coded on the table. Phew! What an ordeal, huh?”

You would think – or I would have thought – that this is something that maybe someone would have mentioned to me! BUT NO.

(???)

Of course I also recently discovered that the reason my midsection is crazy sore is not because I am having EXPLODING SPLEEN SYNDROME but instead because the two surgeons who saved me and my kid used that area to rest their heavier instruments while they were working. So I am starting to think that my standards for how doctors communicate is based on the wrong TV shows – E.R. instead of, say, Scrubs.

*You know… except for how I suddenly had all this insight into the true nature of reality and the universe and our immortal souls, etc. Which I guess is kind of par for the course if you CODE ON THE TABLE.

**I realized that I really needed to take a freaking nap and calm down when I found myself almost-tearfully wanting to argue with Facebook. My husband had updated his FB status to indicate that he had kicked me out of the bedroom to go sleep in the TV room for a few hours (he initially kicked me out onto the couch… but I could still hear the existence of other people from the couch, so I couldn’t sleep, because WHAT IF THE BABY WERE CHOKING OR BEING ABDUCTED BY ALIENS). And instead of just going “Yep. My husband is a pretty cool guy.” I started to get argumentative and upset because he said that I had had FIVE hours of sleep, when I was pretty sure it was no more than THREE.

Not-sleeping! It’s terrible and turns you into a loon.

in the blink of an eye it can all go awry

Since Elana and I have both written about our laissez-faire, play-the-numbers approach to birth and its attendant risks, I figure we should give equal time to the tiny minority of cases where disaster strikes, natural childbirth is impossible, and only high-tech, highly interventionist medicine can save both mother and child. To this point — the story of our lousy, amazing week, in which Elana and the Lentil both almost died.


Tuesday morning, Elana got up and announced that her vision was blurry. We knew that was a possible symptom of high blood pressure, which isn’t good for pregnant ladies, so we called the OB/GYN’s office and asked them if that was the kind of thing that, you know…. They told us we weren’t being paranoid and we should get in the car and come on in. While we were getting dressed, Elana asked me to help her to the toilet, because she thought she might throw up.

She still couldn’t see very well and kept bumping into walls, which was pretty funny, so I laughed at her a little and helped steer her into the bathroom. She seemed a little unsteady, so I put a hand on her back. She reached back and brushed at my hand with her own. At first I thought she just didn’t need the extra touch (you know, sometimes too much contact is annoying, first thing in the morning), so I let go. But there was something odd about the way her hand was slapping at her back. She turned towards me, and I saw her other hand starting to curl up like a weird clawed fist. Her mouth was open in a peculiar “O” shape, and she stumbled toward me.

From all this, I cleverly deduced that Something Not So Great was happening.


When you’re in the Army and you’re about to Go Off To War, they make you take a class called “Combat Lifesaver,” in which you learn how to do things like apply a tourniquet and put in an IV, and where they teach you acronyms like

Massive bleeding
Airway
Respiration
Circulation
Head injury

They also teach you how to do buddy carries:

Buddy Carry 1

Also works on drunks.

Buddy Carry 2

I think this one is about breast cancer screening.

Which is to say, the impression you get of first aid in the Army is that you should stop any obvious bleeding and then pick the person up and haul ass to the medevac point.

So when the EMTs have been in your house for twenty minutes already and there are seven of them trying to figure out how to move one gurgling pregnant lady out of the upstairs bathroom, you want to scream, “WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU??!! YOU TAKE THE LEGS, I’LL TAKE THE FUCKING SHOULDERS, AND WE GET HER DOWN THE FUCKING STAIRS!” But you don’t, because apparently these people are professionals, even though you saw one of them looking in the handbook under the chapter heading “Holy Shit — A Pregnant Lady Is Seizing!” And even when they later bump your wife into a wall and almost drop her on the way down the stairs, you resist the urge to punch anyone, because, you know, they’re saving lives here, so you try to be grateful.

Anyway, I’m pretty sure there’s more to real-deal, civilian emergency response than belt-dragging a guy to a helicopter, so I want to thank Kevin of the LaFayette Fire Department and all the other EMTs who showed up. (Seriously, it was like an ambulance convention on our street.) You guys rock.


Props, also, to my dad, who’s a registered nurse and was first on the scene. Not a lot he could do alone and without any equipment, but he at least knew what to tell the 911 operator.

Whereas I was all, “I think she’s having a stroke or a seizure or… something?” And then I thought about the time I was working on a reality TV show and one of the participants had a seizure. Or was it a stroke? Fuck.


I’m not usually a guy who falls apart in emergencies, and I didn’t fall apart right away there, either. I mean, I didn’t drop her when she fell, and I got somebody to call 911, and I corralled people and stuff out of the way while the EMTs worked. But somewhere on the ride to the hospital, I began this wave-upon-wave surge of crying that didn’t stop for several hours. I found myself crying in the front seat of the ambulance, crying in the ER, pulling myself together in the bathroom, then crying again when they showed her to me after the surgery. I kind of, sort of, usually managed to hold it together whenever she was awake — but then I’d cry again whenever I could get away. Jesus, the whole thing just knocked all the man out of me.


I mentioned “surgery.”

It’s funny — when you watch a lot of House, M.D., you sort of get the impression that they come to you and say things like, “We have to do an emergency C-section to save her life.” And you as the husband look grave and concerned and say, “Doctor, are you sure?” And then they say, “Yes, it’s the only way.” And you scrutinize them, trying to decide if you can trust them, and then you sign the clipboard and they sprint away to the OR to scrub in.

What ACTUALLY happens is your wife goes in one ambulance and you go in another and when you get there somebody makes you sign into the hospital and provide insurance information. Then you sit in another room for ten minutes, and then they come to you and say, “This is the doctor who’s going to take care of her — now why don’t you wait upstairs?” Then eventually some other people come to you and say, “Well, both mom and baby are fine after the surgery. We decided to put in tracheostomy in her throat, and she’s on a heavy sedative…” and about ten minutes later you realize that “surgery” means a C-section and that somewhere in this hospital is a baby with your name on it.

Then a sheepish-looking person asks you to sign some papers saying it was okay to do the stuff they already did.

And that is how those choices are made.


It turns out my wife had eclampsia, the very rare end state of the somewhat more common pregnancy complication preeclampsia. You can read Elana’s take on it here. Or you can read the always-funny Natalie Dee’s description of her experience. It’s a fucked-up, fucked-up thing, and scientists don’t know what causes it. Though there are some interesting theories.


We are all very well now, thank you. Somewhere in the world tonight there’s a beautiful baby boy named Henry who makes hilarious faces and eats like a champ, if you go by the neo-natal ICU staff’s encouraging words. He sometimes looks like this:

The Lentil

The Lentil, out of the womb and ready to rock!


In front of the Catholic hospital where they saved my wife and my boy stands this statue, dedicated to St. Joseph The Worker:

According to americancatholic.org’s Saint-Of-The-Day article about Joseph the Worker,

In a constantly necessary effort to keep Jesus from being removed from ordinary human life, the Church has from the beginning proudly emphasized that Jesus was a carpenter, obviously trained by Joseph in both the satisfactions and the drudgery of that vocation. Humanity is like God not only in thinking and loving, but also in creating. Whether we make a table or a cathedral, we are called to bear fruit with our hands and mind, ultimately for the building up of the Body of Christ.

Or, as Johnny Cash once said,

“If you were a baker, and you baked a loaf of bread and it fed somebody, then your life has been worthwhile. And if you were a weaver, and you wove some cloth and your cloth kept somebody warm, your life has been worthwhile.”

It’s hard for me to think of people that applies to more than the nurses who have taken such amazing care of my family in this hour of near-disaster. Also the doctors, for whose life-saving knowledge and skill I’m eminently grateful. Truly — what a miraculously gifted group of people.

But it’s the nurses who wash people’s helpless bodies and answer their questions and hold their hands and patiently gather the statistics that make scientific medicine possible. Nurses bring you juice and drugs and chairs for your visitors and say sweet, cheerful things about how good you look. Nurses are your first line of defense against parents and spouses and doctors and other patients and the bewildering changes in your normally reliable physical system and loneliness. There’s no more blessed job anywhere.

I want to bake them all cookies, but I am embarrassed by the smallness of the gesture compared to the magnitude of what they do. Maybe someday when I’m really wealthy, I’ll come back and donate a nice break room with a Wii and a 24-hour-a-day chair massage service. I don’t know — I’m just spitballing here.


POST SCRIPT: Yeah, yeah, I know — our story is a perfect illustration of how important health coverage is and how you could be ruined in an instant without it. My dad and I spent a few minutes idly calculating the total cost of this freak occurrence, and we expect it’s somewhere in the neighborhood of a quarter of a million dollars. Back when we first got pregnant, there was a brief period where we considered just playing the odds and planning on paying cash for the birth. As my sister pointed out, we would have blown that cash reserve on the ambulances alone. So yes, without government-sponsored, government-regulated health coverage, we would have been financially ruined. (Which would also have cost me my security clearance, and therefore every last one of my career options. Which would obviously have ruined us further.)

But shit, man… this blog ain’t always about why a single-payer health care system would be better. Sometimes it’s just about us.

i encounter the soul-crushing Soviet-style health care our nation will soon be plagued with… and there’s something awfully familiar about it

My wife and I decided to get vaccinated against the flu. Despite a great deal of media and internet hysteria, this is not only not mandatory but actually somewhat difficult to achieve, at least in central New York. Flu vaccine wasn’t available at any of the doctors’ offices we called, and the county, which had been offering vaccine clinics, wouldn’t let you sign up anymore. So we turned, once again, to the always-ready teat of Mother Army. We drove the ninety minutes up to Fort Drum, home of the 10th Muh-fucking Mountain Division:

10th_mountain

You know... because the swords make an X.

People at Fort Drum are very gung ho and kickass, and I even got some static from the civilian at the front desk of the Soldier Readiness Center for, as far as I could tell, having a beard. “What’s going on here?” he asked, gesturing in a circle around his face.

Anyway, we eventually ended up going to the “MTF,” or military treatment facility, to get our shots. Under Tricare Reserve Select, which is our glorious partly-socialized health care plan, you can get care in one of three ways: go to an in-network provider and pay 15%; go to an out-of-network provider who agrees to Tricare’s rates (plus an overage) and pay 20%; or go to an MTF. If you choose to go to an MTF, the treatment is, apparently, free. But it’s on a space-available basis, and Reservists are the lowest-priority group.

BUT. It’s free, and they have vaccines.

I was frankly expecting at every turn that there would be some bureaucratic snag — that someone would decide we weren’t allowed to be there, or that I wasn’t high-priority enough to deserve a vaccine even though my unit required me to get one. But actually the nice young man at the service desk told me he was in the National Guard himself, and if I would just go to the Medical Records desk and ask to be put in the system, he would see what he could do for us.

Ah-ha, I thought, here it comes. The inevitable Kafka-esque nightmare. This is the Army — undoubtedly there’ll be some 27b/6’s to fill out.

Sadly, though, my fears of an impassive and all-powerful gatekeeper at medical records never materialized. Instead a very polite young woman put me in the system in about 2 minutes and handed me my ID back. Then we went back to the service desk, where the National Guard guy put in a request for us to get vaccinated.

I shit you not — twenty seconds later a nurse burst out of the door and called out Elana’s name. We were amazed — amazed, dammit!

So we got our shots, and now we won’t get the flu. (At least, not the regular flu — H1N1 vaccine is still so hard to get around here that even the Army doesn’t have it.) But this sort of got me thinking about where I had seen prompt, efficient, friendly care like this before.

Surprisingly, it was NOT in the Army. Active duty service members have kind of a weird deal with the military — your dependents are covered by Tricare and get to go to the doctor at the MTF or off-post or wherever, but you go to the medics. They determine, by some arcane methodology that is the secret wisdom of their tribe, whether you are malingering or really in need. If you’re actually sick or injured, you get to see a physician’s assistant who is empowered to prescribe ibuprofen and to tell you to lay off it for a few days. If you’re a healthy guy like me, that’s as far as it usually goes. (If you’re really hurt, of course, they send you to the hospital — my buddy Travis broke his leg during combat PT and received excellent care at the Fort Lewis MTF.) It’s not a bad system — I’m sure it keeps costs down — but it’s a little unpleasant for the end user, because your initial conversation is always with someone who assumes you’re just trying to get out of doing PT.

No, what the MTF reminded me of, more than anything, was the year that I had Kaiser Permanente insurance. Kaiser is the country’s largest non-profit, and it’s had mixed reviews recently (most notably from Michael Moore, who in his movie Sicko accused Kaiser of dumping homeless patients on the street). But when I used them, I quite liked them, partly because they tended to emphasize good preventive care (when I went to Brazil, all my travel inoculations were free), but mostly because their system of organization was extremely clear and transparent.

Kaiser hires (or contracts) its own staff, it has its own clinics, and everything is self-contained; Kaiser is a kind of socialist state in miniature. There’s never any question of whether your insurance is accepted at this doctor or that, there’s no billing department, and there’s no anxiety that something you thought was covered will turn out not to be. If they’re going to refuse you care, they’ll do it directly, to your face, and not through letters and automated messages. But mostly you just show up, and they treat you. I found it a very satisfying experience for $89 a month.

Let me now anticipate criticism: the downside of such a system (or a single-payer system, which would be the same thing writ large) is that you don’t get to “choose your doctor.” You see, basically, whoever’s on duty at the Kaiser clinic you go to.

To which I say… “So what?”

Listen, I’ve had no insurance, state-sponsored insurance, employer-sponsored insurance, and private insurance. I’ve never had a personal physician. I’m an American under 40 — I don’t go to the doctor unless there’s something wrong with me, and there’s never been anything wrong with me. This pregnancy is the first time I’ve had to shop around for a medical provider in my life, and for all that I’m making an informed decision about it, I might as well be throwing darts at the list of Tricare-approved physicians.

Back when we though we thought that we might be paying out of pocket for a home birth, we interviewed midwives at three different practices before settling on one. Partly this was because home birth midwifery is a cash business, so unlike in most medical situations you can actually find out in advance what the price is. Mostly it was because a midwife is as much an advisor and companion as a medical practitioner, and so we wanted to find someone whose personality meshed with ours. And midwives themselves encourage you to do that. They’re unusually concerned with getting along and developing a rapport, even a friendship, that will carry them and you through the birth process.

But Syracuse essentially doesn’t have home birth midwives, and also we began to get a little bit nervous about our ability to pay cash. So we’ve been going through the process of attempting to “pick,” from an insurer’s list and a few hopelessly inadequate online reviews, our OB/GYN. It’s a stupid, pointless process. In the less than three months between our arrival in central New York and the birth, there’s no way we’re going to develop a relationship with “our doctor,” but even if we had been going to this practice from the beginning, look at the math. There are five doctors. You go to the OB for a number of visits during pregnancy — at first every month, then every couple of weeks, and in the last two months every week — but of course the vast majority of the work in each visit is performed by nurses and nebulously-defined “medical asisstants.” You see the doctor for seven to ten minutes. So you’ll meet each doctor, probably, but the actual amount of total face time you get with each one boils down to something less than forty-five minutes.

And then when you get to the hospital, of course, you have no way of knowing which of the five doctors in the practice will be covering your birth, but if you’re having a fairly straightforward birth it hardly matters, since, again, the nurses will do all the work and the doctor will come in right at the end to, uh, “catch”:

Ready.

All of which is fine, and that’s the way the system works, and incidentally, God bless nurses, who are the backbone of the medical system and without whom we’d all be fucked. But if that’s the way it is anyway, then why does everybody get all exercised about choosing their doctor? I don’t have nearly the information I’d need to determine if one doctor is vastly more (or less) qualified than another, so that leaves, basically, personality and philosophy. But 9 times out of 10 I’m pretty sure people are picking their doctors based on insurance anyway, so why bother with the pretense that I could find a doctor whose personal predilections, peeves, and peculiarities match up with exactly with mine? In this area, there’s exactly one practice that takes our insurance and does births at the hospital we want to go to. Sort of takes some of the surprise out of Christmas.

(And that doesn’t even take into account the fact that if I’m fussy about who I see, it’s naturally going to take longer for me to be served. Put it this way — do you want to be seen today by a doctor, or in two weeks by your doctor?)

All of which only pushes me further toward a socialized system as potentially the cleanest, easiest, most straightforward system of health care. Stop diddling me around with promises of “choosing my doctor”; I don’t choose my doctor now. And if that’s the way it’s going to be, I’d rather not go through additional irritants of dealing with billing and nobody quite knowing what anything is going to cost until they negotiate it with your insurer. Just get everybody under one roof and assign me to whatever doc is available next. If it’s as painless, efficient, and practical as either Kaiser or the MTF, I’m pretty sure I’ll be okay with it.

PIGS

HIBERNATION:

Seth has replaced the header with pictures of pigs being trotted around the ring of the Alameda County Fair. He did this not because we ourselves are especially piglike (hush!), but because we went to that fair and enjoyed doing things like “looking at pigs being trotted around a ring” and “watching in total amazement as a dad insisted his rightfully-concerned children cram their little fingers in pig mouths, all while saying ridiculous things like “Pigs don’t bite! WHAT ARE YOU AFRAID OF YOU PUSSY.””

HOWEVER, speaking of being piglike. Let me tell you something, people. You spend the first trimester being unable to eat (tragedy! because of how much you like food!), the second trimester feeling smug about your fairly sensible vegetable-to-bacon ratio, and then it all comes crashing down in the third trimester, when suddenly your brain gets very, very interested in food. Some of it must be hormonal (I am clinging to this belief, thank you) but I am also blaming this sudden-onset food obsession on the fact that we just arrived here at Seth’s ancestral homestead, where it is approximately one million degrees colder than it is in L.A. – so I think that my brain is all “HOLY CRAP! Winter is coming on with a fury. We better bulk up and prepare to hibernate.”

I like this theory because of how it explains both my sudden need to eat ALL THE FOOD THERE IS and to sleep 14 hours a day. Seth says polite things like “Well! You’re building a person from scratch. I’m pretty sure eating and sleeping a lot are okay, considering.” – but, you know. I think I’ve been awake about 13 hours today. I was ready to go back to sleep about two hours ago. And I have probably eaten about six times today. Embarrassing! Also I would totally eat like a grilled-cheese sandwich RIGHT NOW if someone handed me one. Like I said… EMBARRASSING.

RATTLESNAKES:

Here is a picture from our trip! It’s of the (so far as we could tell) Only Rest Stop In Texas. It was INCREDIBLY FANCY. It was clean and new and sparkling, like an airport restroom in a nice, non-crappy airport. It has tornado shelters! It had interactive displays! (It also had signs admonishing people not to “dispose of bags of urine” in the toilets… but I’m guessing that truckers get desperate, so not really the rest stop’s fault.)

IMG_1310

It was getting all twilighty, so I failed to get a picture of this, but the rest stop also included a really awesome playground surrounded in lovely rocks-and-native-plants landscaping. Signs inserted in the landscaping warned for rattlesnakes, and urged us to stay away from rocks and tall weeds. Such as those used to landscape around the playground. For instance. You’ve gotta be tough to survive a childhood in Texas.

WHINE ON YOU CRAZY DIAMOND:

We will have to find a new doctor here in the ancestral homestead. I find this process almost unbearably overwhelming. It’s like some kind of impossible Venn diagram. So imagine the following as overlapping circles, please:

“TAKES YOUR INSURANCE”

“AFFILIATED WITH NON-TERRIBLE HOSPITAL”

“RELATIVELY LOW RATES OF CRAPPY STUFF HAPPENING TO THEIR PATIENTS”

“NOT CRAZY: ISN’T GOING TO PLAY DEAD BABY CARD UNNECESSARILY*”

And somewhere in the middle is presumably one person who is not awful. I guess?

This is part of the problem with being a young person in a country that has a stupid healthcare system – I don’t really understand HOW ON EARTH you access medical care. And even now that I have this excellent socialized insurance (suckers!) via Seth, it’s still a mystery. We saw midwives in LA**, and only saw an OB-GYN for one visit to be sure that the baby had a head. And we picked that guy basically because his website was really silly and clearly made by one of his aunts. This is probably not really a good method for picking the doctor who’s supposed to meet you at the hospital in ten short weeks. Right? Right.

AHHHHH SO OVERWHELMING. One wishes it were possible to press a pause button and make everything start up again sometime next year, perhaps after one had taken some kind of class on How To Navigate The Annoying Waters Of Health Care In This Country.

BRIEF NOTES ON CHAIN RESTAURANTS:

Waffle House:

I don’t really understand Waffle House. I’m sorry! It seems like a dingier version of IHOP, only you can’t get fries, they will only serve you mildly depressing hashbrowns. Also (although I noticed this across the more Southern states on our route), the waitresses pretty much cut you off after two cups of coffee. THAT’S ALL YOU GET, LADY, MOVE ON.

Cracker Barrel:

What the eff is this place! They sell rocking chairs by the dozen! You have to walk through a totally bizarre “store” where they sell both chunks of ham and horrible Christmas-themed ceramics to get to the restaurant. The restaurant is dripping with memorabilia of a time that never actually existed – something (I gathered) to do with white people having a good old time in the 1920s raising prize cattle on the farm… and drinking Coca-Cola from glass bottles. Insane farm implements with sharp edges dangle from the walls. I think you could set a wild low-budget horror in one of these places.

Having said all of that, I was kind of impressed by the food. The pancakes were RIDICULOUSLY BUTTERY AND DELICIOUS.

But this waitress, too, cut me off after two cups of coffee.

*shakes fist*

Western Sizzlin:

Dear God, don’t ever eat here! It was THE WORST. Not only was the salad bar made exclusively of gelatinous dressings you had to serve with a ladle and a vat of sweaty baby carrots, it was expensive in that weird way really terrible restaurants sometimes are. Also, our waitress made me feel sad and cringey. She kept coming over to talk to us about how much she wanted to get out of her small town. I was worried we were going to find her in the back of the truck when she left. “TAKE ME WITH YOU, PLEASE I BEG YOU.”

*This is a thing! I am not making it up. Ask some ladies who’ve had babies and some of them will inevitably tell you a tale about how their then-doctor said that if they didn’t induce/get a c-section/eat fewer peanuts THEIR BABY WOULD DIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIE.

**Midwives are super-great because they always think that everything is totally fine. Your bloodwork: fine. Your blood pressure: goes up and down a little bit, but obviously fine. Your weight gain: fine. Your diet: fine. (Even if you have to lie to them a little bit about how many peanuts you’re eating.)

some more travel notes

Our love of chain restaurants, pt. 2.

After the massive disappointment of Western Sizzlin, we renewed our faith in non-fast-food chain restaurants with trips to Waffle House and Cracker Barrel. Actually, regarding the Waffle House, it might be more accurate to say that I restored my soul while Elana politely went along with me. If you’re from the north or the west, you may not understand this.

The thing about Waffle House is not that the food is great, but that it is so consistently good. That is a very hard thing to pull off. Every Waffle House I’ve ever been to, and I’ve been frequenting them for about 20 years, has served exactly the same margarine-soaked diner melange as every other Waffle House. Despite the fact that WaHo food is actually prepared by a team of short order cooks, it’s more consistent across 1500 restaurants in 25 states than either McDonald’s, which serves its food hot from the microwave, or Subway, which is JUST SOME GUY MAKING YOU A SANDWICH, MAN.

Cracker Barrel is a little more expensive than Waffle House, and you can buy weird gifts and Charleston Chews in the lobby, but it’s also basically diner food, albeit with “country-sounding” names for things, like Gran’-Pappy’s Biscuit-n-Lard Platter and The Hungry Klansman‘s Dinner. I may have made those up. But the fact remains that everyone I see in the Cracker Barrel looks suburban and middle class, and every last guy in the Waffle House looks like he’d be comfortable skinning a buck and running a trot-line. So.

Some local delights.

We would have liked to sample more of these, but we often got into the towns we visited quite late. Still, a few shouts out to places we liked….

Mike and Rhonda’s “The Place” in Flagstaff does fantastic cat’s-head biscuits — like fluffy, crumbly soccer balls, they are — and their ham seems to be real, honest-to-God ham, sort of smoky, sort of gamey. Also, I have never in my life seen waitresses with more hustle. I left something like a 35% tip. (Strangely, a few jackmongers on Yelp have claimed that the food here is actually bad. But they are wrong. So wrong.)

Flying Fish is on the highly gentrified President Clinton Avenue in what I assume is downtown Little Rock. But if you can clamber over the yuppies, I absolutely recommend the fried oysters, made “snappy” with some cayenne in the batter. Members of staff are fairly unfriendly, but they know what one thing they’re doing (namely, battering and deep-frying you some sort of water mollusk), and they do it very, very well. Bonus: after dinner, you can walk down to the shore and go up on one of the seven bridges over the Arkansas River. If this were L.A., a well-lit bridge with comfortable benches would be a haven for junkies and homeless hippies, but in Little Rock it’s a just a charming, scenic place to take your date.

Finally, some dear old friends in D.C. treated us to Rockville, MD’s finest Chinese cuisine, ordered in from The Seven Seas. There’s a mango beef dish that alternates nicely between desiccated, lightly fried meat and tart jolts of fruit, and the soups are many and wondrous. Even something as basic as wonton is made a little special by the addition of watercress.

Some thoughts on mid-price hotels.

Mid-price hotels are crap.

Here’s the thing — when you check into a $35-a-night Knight’s Inn, neither you nor the proprietor is pretending this hotel is anything special. They know, and you know, that you chose this hotel because it was the cheapest one available on Orbitz. If there had been a $17-a-night hotel, you would have chosen that one. So the internet may not work, and the “continental breakfast” may consist of three sad danishes and a gallon of vitamin-free citrus punch, but the price you pay ahead of time on the internet is a flat fee, and nobody tries to ply your feelings of middle-class inadequacy to get a few more bucks out of you, because they know perfectly well that there are no more bucks to be had.

On the other end of the scale, when you stay at a 5-star hotel, you’re paying hundreds or thousands of dollars a night, but the good news is that the price of everything else is practically invisible. A 5-star hotel would never do something as tacky as put a bottle of water in the room with a label telling you it’s $5.00 if you open it. They’d give you bottled water, of course, and they’d charge you for it, but the charge would be hidden from view. There’s no sense, in a top-flight hotel, that you are constantly dickering with the management over the little things.

But a mid-price hotel like the Hyatt Regency Bethesda (a minor indulgence for our last night on the road) is basically a money-making scam that rests on its guests’ sense that they don’t really belong in a nice place.

Things are elegant on the surface — the layout of the room is nicer and more humanizing than you’d find in a comparably-sized room at a cheap hotel; the linens are higher thread-count; there’s a small writing desk. And just like the 5-star hotels, they’d like to sell you all the little indulgences. But of course, since you’re only paying $80/night, they can’t assume that you’ll simply wave your hand at any and all costs. So you find yourself constantly nickel-and-dimed with little fees — $12 for parking; $9.95 for internet; $4 for coffee.

It’s not the money that really bugs me about this; the hotel can charge whatever it wants. But in a hotel where the wallpaper is peeling at the seams and the writing has rubbed off the buttons in the elevator and the room service menu misspells the word “delivery,” you don’t expect every little service or comfort to be a test of whether you’re good enough and rich enough. If you want to be that kind of hotel, man, just be upfront about it and tack everything onto the bill without asking. Don’t make middle-class people feel small because they don’t want to pay a la carte for things they could have gotten for free at a hotel that charges half as much.

Gay pride.

Our gay, lesbian, bi, and transgendered brothers and sisters organized a march on Washington, D.C. this past weekend. Good for them. I hope they get everything they want.

My wife and I didn’t know didn’t know about the march — we just decided to swing through town to catch up with my best buddy from high school and maybe see the Mall and the White House. Well, the White House was mostly obscured by a giant tent for some reason (maybe they’re fumigating?), and the Mall was full of college kids showing off their Homes of the Future at the Solar Decathlon, but at the other end, the Capitol end, a crowd of maybe 150 diehards politely applauded speakers so low on the LGBT totem pole that they were scheduled for 5 pm on Sunday. The speakers thundered and railed and demanded action from Congress. They were very impressive. We continued on to the Metro station.

Between the Capitol dome and Union Station, there’s a monument you could almost miss entirely walking by were it not for this fairly disturbing statue of cranes trapped in a tangle of barbed wire:

Yes, this is creepy.  Just like interning citizens for their race.

Yes, this is creepy. Just like interning citizens for their race.

Closer inspection revealed that it was the National Japanese American Memorial To Patriotism During World War II, which both celebrates the heroism of Japanese-American soldiers in units like the 442nd Infantry and apologizes for the dreadful mistake of sending people to concentration camps for potential disloyalty.

There are many fine things about this memorial, but the thing I liked best was the long, cylindrical bell at the northeast end of the monument. You ring it by means of a somewhat complicated mechanism involving a plunger. It rings, then reverberates for quite a long time. You can’t ring the bell again until the reverberations have died away, but it feels rude and wrong to walk away before that. So you stand there and you ponder what the gradually fading sound of a bell rung once might have to do with the effects of a single act of evil, or heroism, over the course of history.

And while you stand there, some moron wearing a rainbow flag for a cape wanders by with his friends, singing and giggling and wondering aloud what the hell this memorial is all about. He stares for a minute at the monument, not really taking it in, and then he scampers off up Louisiana Avenue. And that seems to be America’s history in a nutshell — serious men and women thinking deeply about our great ideals and how we can serve them better, and ignorant numbnuts in costumes storming the capital. It’s a grand and and weird and terrible country we live in.