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Sunday, February 24, 2013

Be Still, My Heart

It was a sunny mid-day during my freshman year in college.  I was lugging my books as I walked between classes.  I was in pretty good spirits as I recall - no serious stress or anxiety was troubling me.  As I walked past the gym, I suddenly felt very strange - like I was finishing a long sprint.  I put my hand on my chest and discovered that my heart was beating at about 4 times its normal pace - 4 beats a second!.  I sat on a bench, and started to sweat and freak out.  After about 30 seconds, my heart stopped racing, settled back into its normal rhythm and I felt fine.  "Weird," I thought.  By the end of the day, I had forgotten about the experience.

But this was the beginning of a lifelong condition.  By the time I reached middle age, the spells of racing heartbeat had become a recurring annoyance.  My heart would start banging away, without any warning, and then the episode would spontaneously resolve.  It didn't happen when I was exercising.  It was completely random.  Sometimes, it would kick off while I was in bed asleep.  I mentioned it to my doctor, but I never had a spell in the presence of a healthcare provider - until the middle of 2001.

I was at the office and my rapid heartbeat kicked off and wouldn't stop.  After about of 30 minutes of sweating and feeling light-headed, I decided to go to the hospital.  I drove myself (probably not a good idea, in hindsight).  I arrived and walked into the cardiac care department.  I told them that my heart was beating really, really fast.  The staff nearly gang-tackled me, shoved me into a wheelchair and rolled me at high speeds to the ER.  I was shifted to a bed, hooked up with the usual tubes and wires, etc.  The resident looked at me, listened to my heart and said "Ah - PSVT.  I can fix this easy"  They dripped something called adenosine through the IV and my heart down-shifted to a normal pace immediately.  I thought "Well, that was easy."  But the fast acting/fast dissipating medication went out of my bloodstream and the ticker took off at high speed again.  This led to lots of folks freaking out.  They gave me a dose of something stronger and that did the trick - my spell was over.  I spent several hours in the ER while folks monitored me (Borrring).  But I was fine.

PSVT stands for paroxsymal supraventricular tachycardia.  "Paroxsymal" means that onset and termination are abrupt and random events.  "Supraventricular tachycardia" describes the exciting experience of a 200 BPM pulse.  PSVT is basically a short circuit of the heart's electrical system which causes a very rapid heartbeat.  It isn't dangerous if the heart is otherwise healthy, but if can be alarming to the sufferer.  It is also hard to function when your heart is going lickety-split.  I think that if a PSVT episode were to go on for a very long time, the heart muscle could weaken and the heart could fail.

I have learned how to deal with this annoyance.  My doctor put me on a light dose of atenolol, a beta blocker that protects the heart and slows stuff down in general.  Since I have been on atenolol, my resting pulse hovers between 49-58 BPM.  My blood pressure readings are also excellent.  This might be partly due to my semi-regular exercise, but the drug definitely is a factor.   I also learned how to stop a PSVT episode using a bunch of techniques called vagal maneuvers.  Vagal maneuvers include coughing, holding the breath and tensing all the muscles in the abdomen - this stimulates the vagal nerve which can slow your heart rate.

It is possible to fix PSVT via a surgical procedure called ablation - basically a technique that breaks the abnormal electrical channel and ends the possibility of a short circuit.  There is some amount of risk associated with this procedure, so I have chosen to live with my oddball heart.

It is quite interesting to have a quirk like this, that can pop up at any time and force me to take a "timeout."

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Fight the Power - Or Not

I got lucky today.  I was able to lunch with an old friend, and we had a great conversation.  We used to work together at a medium-sized corporation.  It was a decent place, with the typical challenges - aggressive people, on the make, trying to advance their careers and so on.  We joined right in, with gusto.  But since it was a medium-sized company, it was kinda comfy.  People might be out to get you, but you knew them all personally and had some understanding of their motivations.  And many of our fellow professionals were kind and generous.  It was a pretty darn decent place, I realize now.  When my old friend and I worked there, we didn't fully appreciate its positive qualities.  Well, at least I didn't.

So I left about 17 years ago, and embarked on a career journey that ended up in a 3-man business.  I totally love my gig as a principal in a small firm, even though it is a bumpy, white-knuckling experience at times.  My old friend also left the mothership at about the same time and went on a different journey.  He landed at  Gargantuan MegaCorp. right before the financial crisis and recession hit. The huge company sailed through the crisis nicely, and my friend kept his job and its associated cash flow.  But, of course, a price is paid by anyone who works in a large organization.

Here is what happens in a large enterprise, no matter if it is a for-profit corporation, a governmental entity or a non-profit organization:  Individuals have insights, try to guide their bureaucracies to make a wise decision, and they get crushed.  The decision-making infrastructure can't accommodate individual initiative, and the best and the brightest face a disheartening choice - either salute and march down the wrong path or puff out your chest and put your badge on the table.  If you have a family, a mortgage payment, looming college tuition bills, etc. - well it is tough to lay that badge down, even when you desperately want to say "Take this job and shove it."  It is energizing to holler "Fight the Power,"  but it isn't much fun to come home and tell the family that you got fired for "insubordination."

So my old friend is trying to fit into a decent slot at Gargantuan MegaCorp.  He works hard and represents his organization honorably.  He is a brilliant fella with a kind heart.  He is a family man with 2 kids under the age of 10.  And he has gritted his teeth a few times when his very correct recommendations were rejected for reasons of expediency or organization politics.

In these United States, we tend to celebrate entrepreneurs and "rugged individuals" that bust out through sheer force of will.  I submit that the honest, hard-working types that are striving to convince major organizations to do the right thing are also heroes.  And  every once in a while, one of these anonymous organization soldiers convince their Leviathan to change for the better.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Donaldson Toussaint L’Ouverture Byrd II (aka Donald Byrd) - we lose another great one

Donald Byrd was an extremely great hard bop trumpeter.  A brilliant man, he studied hard to become a professor and taught jazz at major universities.  He wrote and performed Cristo Redentor, a jazz standard that has been covered by dozens of great artists, including blues harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite. But he really grabbed me when he "crossed over" to funk in the 1970's and launched the Blackbyrds with a bunch of youngsters.  "Do It, Fluid" was my favorite party tune when I was a young man. I remember that LP well - there was a reproduction of Van Gogh's "Wheatfield with Crows" on the cover.  I wore that damn record out.

Donald Byrd changed the game and he is revered by many people (including quite a few hip hop artists, who have sampled the hell out of his music).  Here is the New York Times obit.

The giants fall.  Will others fill the void?

Monday, February 11, 2013

A Brother's Birthday

Here is a picture of the last remaining members of the California branch of the Gillock family.  My brother (on the right) and I are shuffling into geezerhood now.  He is ahead of me by 8 years.  He is ahead of me in many ways - he is sorta retired, I am still working.  His kids are grown and gone, I still have 2 at home.  He is a successful husband; I am a 2-time loser in that role.  My brother John has always been awesome.  Today is his birthday, so here is the obligatory shout - out:  HAPPY BIRTHDAY, JOHN!!!!!.

John and I grew up in a classic 1950's/1960's family unit.  For quite a few years, dad worked, mom stayed home and the two kids did all those classic kid things - Cub Scouts, attend the local school, hang with the kids in the 'hood, etc.  But our dad had some mental health challenges - he eventually went on disability - and mom got her teaching credentials and went to work.  I stopped looking up to my father and started looking up to my brother instead.

Siblings often fall into the love/hate trap.  I was an annoying kid.  John didn't really want to hang out with me much when we both lived at home - the age difference was sufficiently large that we occupied separate realities.  And as I entered the school system, I kept running into a consistent response from teachers that knew my brother: "Oh, you are John Gillock's brother?  Well, I hope you are as marvelous as he is."  God, I hated that attitude.  It was especially aggravating to know that the teachers were right, my brother was marvelous, and I would always come up short when compared to him.  So I was annoying, but he was insufferable due to his marvelousness.

He was the star in high school - dashingly handsome, on the swim team, class president, outstanding grades, college scholarship offers, Eagle Scout -- well, you get the picture.

He went off to college and something interesting happened - we became closer.  I paid a lot of attention to him.  He was a man of strong opinions and integrity.  He fought tooth and nail with my parents over the Vietnam conflict; he hated the war on moral grounds and worked hard to stay out of it. Years later, my mother told me that she realized that John had been right about Vietnam.

My brother became a teacher, like our mother.  He worked in New Orleans, rural Washington state, Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, Abu Dhabi and Portland OR.  He has changed and molded many young people.  He is a master teacher.

John is a skilled outdoorsman who can quickly pitch a tent in the rain at midnight.  He is a dedicated hiker, and still hits the trail whenever he can in spite of the effects of Parkinsons Disease.  Yes, John is fighting this nasty affliction, but he has accepted it with grace and calmness.  And he isn't letting the disease define him in any way.

John took care of our mother when she was dying of cancer.  He has been incredibly kind and supportive as I have gone through some struggles over the past year or so.  And when I try to thank him, he just says, "This is what brothers are for."

I have had a lot of good luck, but one of the luckiest things in my life is having John as my brother.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Anxiety disorders

I am re-blogging something from Tumblr.  This piece is one of the best things I have read about anxiety disorders, written by an individual recovering from this disease.  Two of the most important people in my life are struggling with anxiety disorder.  I apologize to both of them for not always understanding what is wrong.  This piece has helped me figure out what to do.


Things that we are trying to do all the time:

1.  BE SAFE.

Things we can't help but do all the time:

1.    Second guess ourselves
2.    Behave impulsively and reactively
3.    Take everything personally
4.    worry
5.    worry
6.    worry
7.    have difficulty accepting complements
8.    have difficulty reciprocating friendly gestures
9.    have difficulty finding the courage to respond
10.  have difficulty not being suspicious of others' intentions
11.  make a huge deal out of the smallest thing.

Things you should keep in mind:

1.    we're scared of everything
2.    pretty much all the time
3.    it's an actual disorder
4.    it manifests as impulsive behavior
5.    you can't fix us with words
6.    telling us "worrying is silly" won't make us stop worrying
7.    it'll only make us feel silly
8.    and then we'll worry even more
9.    "oh god, am I worrying too much?  what if they call me silly again?"
10.   like that
11.   also, we wear a lot of armor
12.   cold, heavy affection-proof armor with spikes
13.   we constructed this armor as children
14.   we're fairly certain that you will never be able to pry it apart
15.   but there is a nice person under there, we promise.

Things you can do for a friend with an anxiety disorder:

1.    stick around
2.    ask them if they are comfortable in a place or a situation
3.    be willing to change the place or situation if not
4.    activities that help them take their minds off things are good!
5.    talk to them even when they might not talk back
6.    (they're probably too afraid to say the wrong thing)
7.    try not to take their reactions (or lack thereof) personally
8.    (the way they express themselves is distorted and bent by their constant fear)
9.    (and they know this)
10.   give them time to respond to you
11.   they will obsess over how they are being interpreted
12.   they will anticipate being judged
13.   it took me four hours just to type this much
14.   even though I sound casual
15.   that's because I have an anxiety disorder

Things you shouldn't do:

1.    tell us not to worry
2.    tell us we'll be fine
3.    mistake praise for comfort
4.    ask us if we are "getting help"
5.    force us to be social
6.    force us to do things that trigger us
7.    "face your fears" doesn't always work
8.    because -- remember -- scared of everything
9.    in fact, it would be more accurate to say that we are scared of the fear itself.

Emergency action procedure for panic attacks:

1.    be calm
2.    be patient
3.    don't be condescending
4.    remind us that we are not "crazy"
5.    sit with us
6.    ask us to tighten and relax our muscles one by one
7.    remind us that we are breathing
8.    engage us in a discussion (if we can talk we can breathe)
9.    if we are having trouble breathing, try getting us to exhale slowly
10.  or breathe through our nose
11.  or have us put our hands on our stomach to feel each breath
12.  ask us what needs to change in our environment to help us feel safe
12.  help us change it
13.  usually, just knowing we have someone on our side willing to fight our scary monsters with us is enough
       to calm us down

If you have an anxiety disorder:

1.    it's okay
2.    even if you worry that it's not okay
3.    it's still okay.  it's okay to be scared.  it's okay to be scared of being scared
4.    you are not crazy.   you are not a freak.
5.    I know there is a person under all that armor
6.   and I know you feel isolated because of it.
7.   I won't make you take it off
8.   but know that you are not alone.

Here is the link to the original Tumblr post: Here it is.

Friday, February 01, 2013

RIP, Sugarfoot

You can learn a lot from studying the masters, and today's music is built on the foundations of the past.  Real funk fans are still studying the output of key groups from the 1970's - Kool and the Gang, Tower of Power, Parliament/Funkadelic, Earth Wind & Fire and, of course, the Ohio Players.  When I was playing trombone in the Mystic Knights band during my college years, "Skin Tight" by the Ohio Players was one tune we covered on every gig.  It always got the crowd dancing.  And "Funky Worm," with its totally weird Moog synthesizer licks, is still being sampled by heaps of hip-hop artists.  The Ohio Players hit the airwaves with "Fire," "Love Rollercoaster" and "O-H-I-O,"  all crazed funk explosions.  I loved the fact that these fellas were from Dayton OH, not generally thought of as a hot-bed of acid funk.  The OPs could play!

Well, the leader of the wild and crazy OPs has shuffled off this mortal coil.  Leroy "Sugarfoot" Bonner sported a massive 'fro back in the mid-70's (you couldn't even see his eyes through the 'doo).  He was fond of  the double-necked electric guitar. He could sing his ass off.   I think Sugarfoot ranks with George Clinton; maybe they came from a different planet.

Sugar was 69 years old and lost his battle with cancer.  We won't see the likes of him again. Rest in peace, man.