Monday, July 25, 2011

ugly fan nostalgia

This is a vintage Westinghouse fan from the 1950s. It doesn't oscillate. The base is made of heavy metal--like cast iron--painted a pinkish taupe. Weird colour. The motor heats when the fan is plugged in. The plug is the only on/off switch.
A few years ago my father found the fan in some back closet and asked if I wanted it. Since I'm the least obviously successful of his children in terms of yearly income and possession of a vehicle (I have two bicycles and a bus pass), he frequently offers me cast-off goods no one else wants. Old televisions. A weigh scale. Tools.
The fan's steady blow and drone take me right back to childhood. That weird colour too.
R and I have other fans, but at some point in the summer I grab this one and plug it in. R objects because the whirring blades are more or less exposed. Back in the 50s enough people hadn't had their fingers chopped off yet for the designers to understand that the blades should be enclosed in a grill. That still had to happen.
R worries that I'm going to forget the fan, which sounds like a rumbling truck and blows a domestic-size gale, and accidentally flap a hand through the blades. It's true I'm clumsy. I knock over glasses. Walk into door frames. Bang myself on edges. Not just at home. I do it at work too. People know better than to toss me anything. It will land on the floor.
But I figure that I got through childhood with that fan on an end table in the living room and I still have both  hands. It's not going to attack me now.  

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

prague 1990

A few weeks ago a friend returned from Prague. He called it storybook gorgeous.
I went to Prague in 1990. My first impressions, arriving in March in the evening, were storybook eerie. There were hardly any cars in the streets. Few pedestrians. Dim apartment buildings. Sooty walls. No billboards, neon lights, advertisements, streetlights.
It had taken us four hours to drive the 250 kilometres (155 miles) from Vienna, because the two-lane road twisted through villages of sagging houses and barns. We had to stop for sheep being herded from one muddy field to another. Large trumpet-shaped speakers were attached to poles and trees. Hello, Big Brother.
Several months earlier the Communist party of Czechoslovakia had relinquished power. The Russians were gone. The barbed wire—the Iron Curtain—between the borders of Czechoslovakia with West Germany and Austria were dismantled.
R and I had come with my Austrian uncle who worked as a building manager for one of the first luxury hotels to be constructed in post-Communist Prague. For the drive my uncle had stocked up on large bottles of Coke and boxes of ballpoint pens. When the police stopped him for speeding, as they did several times, he gave them Coke or pens. The only other make of car on the road was a Russian Skoda which had been fixed to go no faster than 50 k/hr—according to my uncle. He’d been working in Prague for a year and was generally cynical about the city and the country.
We stayed with him in his Eastern-European-ritzy apartment: velvet corduroy sofa, inlaid wood furniture, chandelier, gauzy curtains. The bathroom had a claw foot tub the length of a porcelain coffin, but water only dribbled from the faucet.
My uncle went to work and left us to explore the city. Morning sunlight warmed the clay-tiled roofs and made the city look more friendly. We wandered without a map because we couldn’t find one for sale. We saw more people—and saw where all the fashions overstocked and outdated in the West ended up. Elephant pants. Plaid jackets. In turn we got surreptitious looks for our peg-leg jeans. Talk in cafés was loud and animated. Walls were covered with posters of Václav Havel. People stood in clusters before bookstore windows where foreign books, forbidden up until a few months ago, were propped on lecterns.
We admired the architecture—the spires, cupolas, chimneys and gables. The long Gothic windows. The heavy Baroque archways. The towers with their fancy headdresses. A terraced cobblestone walkway. The Karlov Bridge. The broad Vltava River.
Of course, we noticed the decay. Flaking stucco. Crumbling stonework. Centuries-old architecture needs upkeep which had been neglected during the Communist decades. Soot covered the buildings and statues. People heated with coal. When I returned home after five days in Prague, the collar of my blond suede jacket was black.

Communism was over, but shopping was still Communist era. People stood at a counter to ask for the few packages or cans on the shelves. Beets, noodles, tomatoes, carrots. A shop assistant handed them across. Once the cans and packages were gone, there was nothing left to buy. The shop assistant stayed at the counter in front of the empty shelves, because that was her job. Or there might be goods on the shelf, but no shop assistant because it was her lunch break. People waited in line for her to return in half an hour.
Traffic through the pharmacy was controlled by the shopping baskets. There were only a dozen. You weren’t allowed in the store without a basket. If there were no baskets, you had to wait for a basket to be free—even if it was only to buy toothpaste. The colourful tiny boxes next to the cash were condoms which I discovered by buying one and opening the box. Tiny boxes for tiny condoms.
The lights in the National Museum flickered. Some were completely burnt out. When I asked, I was told that there were no light bulbs.
There was no coffee. What was served in the cafés was roasted chicory that settled in the nether murk of the cup. Black sludge.
I didn’t trust the water coming out of the taps which was rusty yellow or cloudy, but there was no bottled water. Beer was plentiful and cheap with a creamy head of foam, but at some point one begins to crave water.
My uncle took us to a restaurant where one could only pay in American dollars, English pounds or Deutsche marks. My uncle insisted we have the venison with lingonberry sauce. Several bottles of red wine were uncorked and set on the table. I begged the waiter for water. He reappeared with a bottle of Evian which he held out for my approval. When my uncle got the bill, he arched his eyebrows. He said that he hoped I enjoyed the water.
R wanted to buy his father a pipe. There were two styles in the store, both cheaply made. We asked in another store and were shown the same two models. The shopkeeper said, There’s no point going from store to store. These are the only pipes and they cost the same wherever you buy them.
That was Prague—what I remember of Prague—from twenty-one years ago.
Footnote: In June 1990 the first democratic elections since 1946 were held and Vàclav Havel was elected.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

rapunzel has a transesophageal echocardiogram

Well, NO, Rapunzel didn’t because the fancy doodad ultrasonic probe wasn’t in use for cardiac testing until the 1970s, and the Grimm’s brothers published their story in 1812.
At least being imprisoned in a tower kept Rapunzel isolated from germs. Smallpox. Leprosy. Typhus. Streptococcus.
If streptococcus isn’t treated with antibiotics, which hadn’t been discovered yet in once-upon-a-time, it develops into scarlet or rheumatic fever. (There were antibiotics when I was growing up, but that’s another story.)
Rheumatic fever scars the heart valves. And whereas some scars fade, rheumatic scars are aggressive. The valves get stiffer and thicker. They become stenotic—which is a great word: a narrowing constriction. I can think of relationships I’d call stenotic.
My understanding of the heart is very simple. I think of it as a pump that sends blood to the lungs to be oxygenated and then through the body. The valves are the tubes through which the blood flows. A damaged rheumatic valve isn’t as efficient as a healthy valve.
A cardiologist keeps track of how well the valve functions with an echocardiogram or ultrasound of the heart. This is a non-invasive procedure where a technician traces a probe across your chest. The probe picks up echoes of sound waves to form a picture. Sometimes the technician forgets that the object being examined is a human body and digs the probe into your ribs. That hurts. With all due respect for science, this test isn’t supposed to leave you with bruises.
A much better picture of the valves can be obtained with a transesophageal echocardiogram. That’s right, down the throat. The probe can get right behind the heart without any flesh, fat or ribs in the way.
Still. Down the throat. Ugh.
You lie on an examining table next to an expensive machine. For this test you need to sign a consent because it’s an invasive procedure (into your body) and something could go wrong. The most serious risk is a perforated esophagus, in which case you will need to be rushed to the operating room. When you sign, you acknowledge that you understand the risk—so, yeah, make sure someone explains it to you. Don’t worry though. The risk of perforation is minuscule—less than 0.05%. And hey, what choice do you have? Free will and self-determination won’t get you far if you don’t have a viable, functioning heart.
The technician will start an intravenous. If you’ve had tests or blood drawn before and know where you have a good vein, now is the time to share. You’ll save yourself a lot of painful poking. I’m not saying it won’t hurt anyhow, but one good stab as opposed to a dozen is eleven less stabs as I see it.
The intravenous allows immediate access to sedate you. I’ve had this test before. Twice awake, once completely knocked out. This time I thought I’d like to eavesdrop on what the docs were saying and so asked for a minimum of sedation. They thought that was weird, and in retrospect I agree. I couldn’t understand all the talk about gradients and they had to keep upping the dose because I was gagging on the probe. Sorry, if that’s TMI but this is a post about a TEE, not window-shopping on rue Ste-Catherine.
Next the technician gives you a thick fluorescent liquid in a cup to gargle with and swallow. I suspect it’s partly antiseptic (because hospitals like to use bright pink for antiseptic soaps) and partly numbs your throat. Though I didn’t ask. I was already in that Zen headspace I go into when I’m at the dentist’s. Do what you have to and let me get the fuck out of here.
Now that I’m prepped and lying on my side, the good doctor enters the room. I get a white plastic mouth guard shoved in my mouth—like hockey players wear to protect their teeth, though this one protects the probe. No one wants a patient chomping down.
A little sedation and the doctor begins to ease the probe down my throat. Two doctors and the technician discuss what they see on the screen, tap buttons, measure percentages, disagree on interpretation of the numbers, then decide to agree.
All very civilized over the prone misery of my body. The probe feels like the handle of a wooden cooking spoon stirring in my chest. A very weird sensation in a place where I don’t expect to feel movement. I’m not sure if being aware of it is worth being conscious. I distract myself trying to figure out how to describe how it feels.
Best, of course, would be not to have this test—or rheumatic valves—at all.