Sunday, August 31, 2008


Because blogspot is very iffy about letting you embed video (and I'm too lazy to figure it out) I'll just post a link to this photo video I made with a cheap movie application. That's me singing folks.

The Stories We Could Tell

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Staphylococcus Redux (part 2)

Sometime that afternoon, after seeing very little life except macaws and possibly a monkey or two, we came upon a battered jeep that had been parked in the mud beside the road. We heard voices in the forest, and I determined that we should try to hitch a ride with whoever this was, because by this point my foot was screaming out in full distress. Swelling began to appear from the toe up to the ankle, and the area around my toes was beginning to show a fuchsia tint. At the time I was willing to beg for charity in any form we could get.

My companions, still less interested in my problems than I though they should be, gave uncommitted consent to my proposal. We trekked into the woods a way and found a man and a woman shooting a sling-shot into the trees. This did not seem odd to us; it was common practice for biologists in the rainforest when collecting samples. The slingshot, with fishing line attached, would send a weight over a branch. A chain saw blade would then be raised up and over the branch, and, by using ropes connected to the blade, two people could saw a branch off without leaving the safety of the forest floor. This practice required some trial and error but with practice a botanist could come away with some rare or uncatalogued specimens.

This was obviously what this couple were up to. I told them of my situation, but they were fixated on their gathering. They told us they could take us a few miles up the road, but they would be travelling in another direction once we reached that point. Fine, I thought, a few miles was better than nothing.

But they kept on gathering as my foot throbbed and burned. Putting pressure on it at this point felt like knives shooting through my shin. I found a stump on which to sit while I waited for the scientists and began pondering the wisdom of this trip to Costa Rica which I was dourly regretting at this point. What was I thinking in coming here? This was the most inhospitable natural environment on the planet. People weren’t meant to live in this place, the insects were in charge down here. I kept having an image from one of those time-lapse photography pieces, where it looks like the insects strip down the carcass of a horse in a matter of seconds. That’s how I felt, like that disintegrating horse, being eaten by something small and ruthless, returning me to the cycle of life and assuring I’d never walk in the Costa Rican mud ever again.

When the couple finally decided they were ready I struggled into the back of their Jeep. The ride was bumpy which added to my discomfort, but at least I wasn’t walking. For a few minutes anyway. The couple dropped us off unceremoniously, and as they drove away I saw very little hope indeed. We still had five or so miles to go until the next camp-site, and I was averaging about half-a-mile an hour.

There is no way of knowing how I made it that far. At some point we finally reached the coast. We had traveled roughly 50 miles in four days and may have made it back to the expedition’s camp that night if my foot hadn’t held us up. We never did make it to the intended camp-site for that last night however. By this time K. was becoming more concerned with my situation, possibly because now there were tears streaming down my face. She had also gotten a look at the foot which was in full purplish bloom. For the first time since I had met her she looked alarmed. We had only one option, and that was to stop at the quasi-resort run by the shady Texans.

We had met these folks earlier in the expedition when they zoomed up in a boat to check us out and let us know of their presence. There were three women, a mother and two daughters who had married Costa Rican men and came off as people who weren’t in Costa Rica to bask in the glories of the rainforest. Their activity had a reputation up and down the coast as not being totally legal, and they swaggered with an air of ex-pats who, for whatever reason, might not be totally welcome in their home country anymore.

But, they had beds. And they took travelers checks. This night was by far the worst of my life as far as illness and pain go. After a dinner where I could hardly comprehend any conversation I put myself to bed for a night of agony. Any sleep I managed was fraught with devilish images involving feet, toes, Texans, and mud. The Texans kept a party going into the night which made my visions even creepier, with loud cackling and drawling whispers. There was very little sleeping and a lot of writhing, cursing and not a small amount of praying.

By the morning I knew I couldn’t walk another step. The Texans came up with an idea; they would take me back to the expedition camp in their boat. I saw hope in this suggestion and actually felt optimistic for the first time in days. I began to like the Texans; they had saved me, I took back anything I’d ever suspected them of and realized that there is charity in this world, and, that humans, when need arises, are truly altruistic beings.

Then they told me their price. $100 for a twenty minute boat ride. Another $25 to cash a travelers check, plus what we owed for the rooms. Most of this came out of my pocket, although I seem to remember the other two chipping in a generous amount. I didn’t care how much it cost though, I just wanted to get back to camp.

The boat ride was horrific, every wave we hurdled brought with it unbearable pain. I spent the ride with my eyed slammed shut and my head buried in my shoulder. When we finally arrived and bid good riddance to the Texans I wanted nothing to do with my travelling partners, trekking, rainforests, sand, rivers or mud. I staggered to my tent and picked up the old guitar someone had sent the camp. I started plucking and found some comfort in my old friend music.

Soon I saw one of the expedition leaders coming out to my tent. K. had told her about my trauma, and since this team leader was a registered nurse it was her duty to check on all illness and injuries. I don’t know why I didn’t go to her first, I suppose I was in the mood to lick my wounds away from everybody. I was not in a very good place mentally at that point.

She took a studied look at my foot and determined that if I didn’t get to a hospital that day my foot would be gangrenous by morning. I complied with everything she told me and soon I was being helped into a boat for a three hour boat ride with the same characteristics as the fore-mentioned boat trip. Waves, pain, waves, pain…

Finally, at the hospital, I watched as they lanced and cut away whole parts of my foot. It wasn’t really a hospital in the American sense; it was more of a clinic. I was on my own here too, with no one to translate. At one point they injected me with something and, though I’ve always hated needles this injection was not bad at all, a small prick really. I realized soon enough that this was to test to see if I was allergic to penicillin. The real needle came out and I took it old school, bent over a gurney while the nursed admired my bare white ass.

The entire workforce of this clinic came from every desk and examination room to witness the cutting, lancing and dressing of this rag-tag gringo’s foot. After it was over I felt as if I’d been put through several wringers, but the pressure on my foot was relieved somewhat and the nurse told me I would have to stay off of it for a couple of weeks. This suited me fine. I returned to camp with these doctor’s orders and tried to pick out what novels to read while I convalesced.

Within three days the infection was back. I didn’t necessarily heed the doctor’s advice on staying off the foot. I cooked 4th of July lunch for the camp and the locals and in doing so aggravated the infection. After that, K. made sure I took my antibiotics regularly and every morning and evening she would change my dressing and wash my foot. Soon I was on the way to healing, and one morning one of the team members insisted that I return to work. I acquiesced.

It was an experience which will stay with me until I’m dead or in, what my father calls, the gaga garage. Why it was necessary to leave camp, which was uncomfortable enough, to go “rough it” in the interior still escapes me, but I’m sure it served some purpose if only to provide a long story written on a Sunday afternoon in the mid-Atlantic U.S. The episode didn’t kill me so, if the saying is true, it theoretically made me stronger. I don’t know about that. I’m also not sure about the “personal journey” theory where you find your inner strength through this sort of thing. I don’t see much in the story that indicates strength of any kind. All I know is, in retrospect, that I wish I had stayed on the beach that first day, basking in the sun, eating coconuts and reading novels.

Friday, August 22, 2008


I start classes on Monday, so it’s hard to tell how much I’ll be posting. I really want to keep up the momentum of posting regularly, so we’ll see…

Orientation for history majors took place yesterday, with information and an open house at the head of graduate studies house. Interesting. I almost walked through his screen door but caught myself just in time. Very dynamic group of people.

Hopefully I’ll rap up nailing down the Africa trip within a week or so. Christmas in Africa. Last time I did that was at Vic. Falls and we were on budget of three rand a day. We had Christmas dinner in a fast food place.

I’ll finish the staph-infection story this weekend, to all who want gory-details there’re plenty more on the way.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Staphylococcus Redux (Part 1)

It seems that my posts have all been about trauma and sickness lately. This is probably because I'm about to start a new challenge and I need survivor stories to bolster me and send me forward. Here's one of my favorites, the one about the purple foot.

Earlier this month I wrote about my summer in Costa Rica. One of the many stories which arose from this trip is the one I’ve told to friends and relatives countless times, so many times in fact that when I start the tale I sometimes catch a brief rolling of the eyes and almost, telepathically, perceive an “oh God, here we go with the staph-infection story again.” Rarely deterred, I launch in, and appropriately embellish where embellishment is needed and appropriately pause where dramatic effect might illicit the most sympathy and awe. When telling the story it’s best to look forward or up, but not directly at the face of the recipient, who might erode the illusion of total engrossment through a poorly concealed yawn or a snore disguised as a snort or chortle.

So let’s try it in writing for once. This way, the reader might react in anyway they please, possibly reading three convoluted sentences before surfing off to see how the US is doing in underwater synchronised kayaking in Beijing. Also it means that I can have it all down on paper for once, and at Thanksgiving (my favorite holiday for captive audiences) I’ll just whip this version out and read it as documented proof of the suffering I endured at the hands of tropical trench-foot.

There was a sado-masochistic ritual our troupe took part in during that summer in Costa Rica. This ritual was a required forced-march through the interior of the country. The criteria for this hike was not written in stone, but roughly the trek had to be three days to a week long, could not involve luxury hotels or anything labeled first-class, second-class, third-class or slightly bareable-class, and had to be with a small group, preferably people who would start to get on your nerves in, say, the first half-hour of the first day of hiking. The final, non-negotiable stipulation was when you returned you had to be covered in your body-weight with black Costa Rican mud.

My group consisted of three people. Eric, who was a bicycle courier in D.C., K. who I’ve written about before in this post, and myself, a self-proclaimed leader who felt leading was all about just walking ahead of the other two . At the time, a magazine reporter was at our camp doing a story on our work, and within the article there is a picture of the three of us starting out on the trek looking like seasoned hikers on a mission from God. We just looked that way for the camera’s benefit, we would of all much rather have been sitting on the beach reading novels and eating coconuts.

The first day gave us an idea of what we were in for. The hiking was hard. The entire day was spent trekking along a narrow beach which offered no solid surface on which to walk. At the end of the beach hike we were required to cross a river-mouth with a rushing current and rumored alligators swimming upstream. I literally had to carry K. across on my shoulders because, if not, she would have been swept out to sea. But beds and hot food awaited us on the other side, and soon our moods improved. The day had put a strain on my interdependence with K. who had trouble keeping up on the beach walk. We had three more days of this to go, and I wondered how she would do in the mud of the rain forest on days much longer than this one. It turns out that it was probably her that needed to be worried about me.

The second day had us debating on whether we should stay at the camp for the next four days and just “say” we went on the trek. But the camp, which was an eco-tourism station, charged for each night you stayed, and by that point I had used most of my funds on beer and, well, beer. Besides, we definitely could handle whatever was to come next. We’d had a good night’s sleep and were relatively buoyant by the time we set off that morning.

This day was equally as hard as the first but for different reasons. The trail followed the river into the interior of the Osa Peninsula, and the river, while shallow, had to be traversed literally dozens of times. The river-bed consisted of shaley sand and the traverses had us slogging through the water from shoal-to-shoal. We spent the entire afternoon doing this, and it was then I started to notice a slight scrape on the fourth toe of my right foot. I say “notice” because it was part of a series of uncomfortable maladies I identified on my body that day. Sunburn, muscle-ache, fatigue, and insect-bites all added to my discomfort, so the scrape from a piece of grit lodged between my toe and toe-nail was just a part of a long inventory of complaints. At the time I thought little of it.

It wasn’t until that night when I awoke to a persistent throbbing from my foot that I realized there might be a problem. I spent the rest of the night in a fitful sleep, my toe becoming the center of my dreams, shouting out for urgent attention, becoming a grotesque character who sent shock waves through my restless unconscious. When I awoke I wondered how I would walk that day, but a few tender steps had me believing I could go on. I alerted the others to the problem, but not knowing how bad it was myself, I had no way of gauging how urgent I should make the issue. Besides, abandoning the trek was nearly impossible, we were nowhere near any form of transportation and even if we had been, this would cost money which, as we know, had gone mostly for beer. I decided to see how it went, at this time there as no swelling to speak of and the pain was relegated to my toe only, my foot was still able to take the weight of my body. The toe, I was sure, would get better.

But this was Costa Rica. A small cut could become infected within a matter of hours in the humidity. One of the words we used often in the camp was “festering.” Infection was such a problem that once our the entire camp came down with conjunctivitis within a week. It was probably not the best idea to take a “wait-and-see” stance at this point, not in this climate, but there was really no other choice.

But pain makes you go looking for other choices when there are none I found out. The next day was the mud-day from hell. With every step we sank up to mid-calf in a thick brownie-batter of crud. The pain didn’t really start until mid-morning, and I remember reading a passage from “Sometimes a Great Notion” to my half-interested trekking partners in order to ease the monotony of the walk. But as soon as we hit the real mud, all I could think of was the pain which bulleted up my spine every time I sucked my foot up from the mire. By this time I was trailing far behind the others and it was my turn to shout “wait!” By the afternoon I had fashioned a crutch for myself and fancied myself a rebel retreating from Richmond. The pain was beginning to make me frantic and delirious.

(end part one)

Cool Link

Check out this link which grades your neighborhood on its "walkability."

I got an 83, not a bad score but you have to figure in the prostitutes and drug-dealers.But they're a lovable bunch once you get to know them. Well, not lovable in that way. Still proud of my hood though.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Ian's List of Worsts (Whine and Cheese)

Worst Concert: Grateful Dead in Charlotte, 1995. This show was devastatingly awful. With a terrible set-list, apathetic playing, a depressingly old looking Jerry Garcia and annoying deadheads everywhere, I have to say my worst concert was by one of my favorite bands. They redeemed themselves the next night in Atlanta though. Runner up: Toto (the tickets were free.)

Worst date: In high school I asked a girl to the homecoming dance. I spent the afternoon detailing my car. I decided for some reason to dress in sort of a grunge-meets-gomer outfit, with layered flannel shirts and old jeans with enormous holes in the knees. (What the hell was I thinking?) When I picked her up she was dressed to the freakin’ nines. I looked like I just got off work at Goober’s gas station. Luckily she had a change of clothes for the party after the dance and, believe it or not, the grunge/gomer look was kind of in, so she had holes in her jeans too.

Worst hangover: Don’t ever eat the worm at the bottom of a bottle of tequila. I’m just saying this because it's exactly what I did on my 21st birthday. I remember going out to eat the next morning. It was Sunday and all the church people were having proper Sunday lunches. I must have looked like an escapee from the morgue. I sure felt like it. I barely managed to hold down my eggs.

Worst roommate: The guy I lived with in Portland who spent the phone bill money on strip-clubs and drugs. He also gradually moved his wife, step-son and parakeet into our two bedroom flat. The parakeet would start chirping at three in the morning and pooped all over my couch. The wife chain-smoked Misty cigarettes and played solitaire all day. Runner up: The guy who would come home drunk and throw chairs at the wall. Bye-bye security deposit. He was a pretty decent guitar player so he misses first-place by a hair.

Worst illness: I had chicken-pox when I was about 37. You’re supposed to get chicken-pox when you’re a kid, that’s why they gave it that cute name. But I got it in my thirties and let me tell you…it was not cute! Besides looking like someone lowered a wasp-nest onto my head, my girlfriend mistakenly got the wrong type of antibiotic cream which made the symptoms worse. I spent a couple of agonizing nights with a wet washcloth over my face. Physically, I felt like I’d been steam-rolled. I remember watching the Elephant Man on TV and identifying completely. “I am not an animal!” Runner up: Staph infection in Costa Rica. Honorable mention: Whatever that thing was I had for the first month in Africa.

Worst meal: This is tough, I can’t really think of a really bad meal I’ve had although I know there has to be one. I got food-poisoning from a sandwich once, but that doesn’t really count. Oh yea, recently I went to a chain restaurant and ordered eggs-over-easy. The whites weren’t even close to being fully cooked. It looked like the eggs had been precooked and then dipped in warm water for service. Yow! Also, there have been times in my life when economy dictated I concoct meals out of what I had in the cabinet. This is usually a pretty sparse selection. I came up with some scary things during these times. However, I did discover the versatility of Top Ramen.
Actually there’s one more. I once ate a raw turnip on an empty stomach, (it’s a long story). Don’t ever, ever, do this. I won’t go into details as to why, just never, ever do it.

Worst book I actually finished: The Fountainhead. I know it seems like I have an axe to grind with Ayn Rand, but I just hate all that superior social darwinism crap. Problem is, and I don’t like to admit this, the writing was compelling enough to see me through to the end…and, sigh, actually made the book difficult to put down. There, I’ve said it. Moving on…

Worst movie: I learned not to completely trust the movie reviews in The New Yorker with this one. One of the reviewers, I don’t know if it was Denby, Lane or another one, salivated about a movie called Rangoon. Has anyone seen this film? I might have missed the point, but I found it excruciatingly dull and therefore list it as the worst movie I’ve ever seen. All I remember is everyone being very sweaty and damp through the whole thing (the actors, not the audience, well maybe the audience too.)

Worst try-out: In fifth grade I tried out for the school soft-ball team. We couldn’t afford a soft-ball-mitt so, true to fashion, my mother offered to see if a friend who had sons would let me borrow one. It sounded like an okay plan, but I was a little suspicious. The glove that I got was tiny, and looked like it was manufactured around the-turn-of-the-century. (that’s the 20th century young-uns.) Predictably, the try-out went badly. The other kids had their huge non-antique-gloves and were scooping up soft-balls and hurling them back to home-plate with ease. I, on the other hand, couldn’t have handled a golf-ball with that glove and, sadly, didn’t make the cut. Runner up: this wasn’t necessarily a try-out, but I once had the opportunity to play bass with Ben Folds (he had hits in the nineties, remember?) I completely choked, and couldn’t play a note.

Worst moment in a classroom: I went to community college for a while and administration talked me into taking a piano class. It was a good class, but I got the date for the recital wrong and came into it completely unprepared. About fifty people watched me struggle through hickory-dickory-dock and a few other pieces. The instructor had to point at each key before I played it, patiently whispering “that one, then that one, now the black one again” etc.

Worst computer mishap: I was working on the big research-paper that all history majors had to complete when the library lap-top I was using shut-down. When I booted it back up I went to the recovery function and accidentally deleted several pages of my final draft. I was in a library so I couldn’t shout expletives at the top of my lungs, but I really, really wanted to.

Worst job: My first job when I went to Africa was assisting a surgeon with just general daily tasks. On of these jobs was taking photographs of surgery, which was exciting and fascinating. But I also had to do clerical work which wasn’t so great. The worst task assigned to me however was collecting sputum samples from the TB ward. Yes, really, I did that. Runner up: Chef at the Diamondback CafĂ©.

Worst fashion choice:
I used to cut my own hair. ‘nuff said.

Worst bruise: I had a bruise on my hip from skiing that was the color of a black-hole and was kind of shaped like the Milky Way. Actually it was many bruises layered on top of each other because I kept falling on the exact same hip.

Worst airline experience: Flying from Transkei to Raleigh took four days. They had me on the wrong flight when I got to Johannesburg, when I finally arrived in Brussels there was an air-traffic-controllers strike, I missed the connection from New York to Raleigh by ten minutes and I was suffering from a malady which I won’t name but is extremely unpleasant to those who’ve experienced it. I had to start work at a summer camp on the same day I finally made it to North Carolina. It took me about a month to recover.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

13 Years

I'm running late already, and I'm supposed to be in Asheville sometime today, but I had to write a (very) quick post to commemorate the 13th anniversary of Jerry Garcia's death. If I had more time I would write a long statement that I'm sure would convert the most ardent detractor of this man's importance to the popular culture of the 20th century. But there just isn't time today, and there are far better articles, columns, and books that do justice to the legacy of this icon. "Icon" seems like such a trite word for this, but it'll have to do for now.

I have issue 717 of Rolling Stone right next to me. A very intense Jerry stares out at Herbi Greene's camera in salt-and-pepper magnitude, and all the top caption reads is "Jerry Garcia 1942-1995." My copy is worse for the wear, and when I opened it this morning I found that I had placed clippings from the NY Times, New Yorker, Time, and an editorial from our local paper inside the front cover. As I was flipping through it, I welled up. Dammit, not supposed to get weepy...buck up kid!

I've been listening to a lot of Dead this week. Not really consciously, it just happens that these phases come around every now and then. Now I realize that it is the August solstice, the 9 days between Jerry's birthday, August 1st, 1942, and the day of his death, August 9th, 1995. I've mostly listened to tapes from 1970 when the Dead were part bar-band, part transcendental oracles and part folk balladeers. Jerry drove the majority of these concerts with relentless, some might say endless, guitar solos. But listening to each tape I'm amazed at how many variations the man was able to produce with just five fingers and a dozen or so frets (oh, and yes, probably lots of inhebriants). He could be sweetly lyrical one moment and turn on a dime to produce scary crunchy fuzz, then riff off blues licks and decunstruct everything into feedback and wonking noises and then find his way back to the lyrical melody.

I don't really know where I'm going with this. I just know that I'm remembering this day particularly intensely this year. There is so much about the Grateful Dead that produces fodder for the morality police, not to mention the folks who want their songs to be about love and last no more than three-and-half minutes. Not knocking those folks, but if freedom of speech and expression is still a collective value, the Dead and Garcia proved how powerful that basic human right can be. Furthermore, to many of their fans, they also proved the profound transformative power of this practice .

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

igoogle (more cool vanity programming)

There's no doubt about it, librarians are cool. Because I work for a county library system, I get tech training every month or so. Last session we set up our own igoogle account which now opens on my work desktop. You can customize your homepage with literally thousands of options from tropical fish-tanks to stock quotes and video games. Being at work, I have to stick with book and research type options. Each box represents a group of links, so you can catagorize by subject. If you want a group of links to favorite sports teams, you can set that up or you can create a whole new page exclusivly for sports. igoogle also offers a tab called reference that already has, a language translator, wiki and other cool links built in. If this sounds like an endorsement, it is. I just happen to like this application a lot.

Here is my home page as it stands today.
more soon...