Friday, January 31, 2014

I Want to Kill Augustina Part 2

Two weeks ago you read my first installment of my noir tale of how I’m plotting to murder my lawn -- that yellowing bitch with the bald spots that I call Augustina.  I still wake up in the middle of the night and toss and turn thinking about how much she’s costing me.
            I am in the pre-meditation stage, which is more like ceaseless agitation.  As I proceed I still want to slay her, but flaws in my various plans are popping up -- plans that will either cost me money, or risk me terrible neighborhood embarrassment.
            However, I no longer feel ashamed for wanting to kill my lawn. In the last two weeks, the story of the looming California “mega-drought” has become almost a daily story.  The town of Willits, California, in Mendocino County, has less than a 100-day supply of water available, and this is the “rainy season.” Lake Cachuma, an artificial lake in Central Santa Barbara, is drying up. Los Angeles County currently has no problem, but that’s because we’ve been stealing water from Mono County near the Sierra Nevada range for decades.
            We’ll be fine for a few months here in L.A., so we can keep watering our lawns. The Central Valley farmers may not have enough water to grow crops to feed us or their livestock, which means our economy will crash and there will be food shortages, but at least we’ll have nice green lawns when the riots start.
            The powers-that-be are preparing us, however, with these stories. By summer, I predict that we will have a repeat of the California Drought of the mid-1970’s, when there was severe mandated rationing.  I remember that drought, and how we had to carefully plan our water usage for the week. It wasn’t that bad. We washed clothes less often, we only ran a full load of dishes, and we had timed showers. In Southern California they emptied their swimming pools, which skateboarders loved. In the movie Dogtown and Z-Boys, pro-skater turned filmmaker Stacy Peralta identified the two sparks that started the worldwide skateboarding craze in the mid 1970s -- good polyurethane wheels, and empty swimming pools in Southern California. I remember loving the cool photos in Skateboarder magazine of thrashers getting their board over the underwater light in the deep end of the empty pool. My parents’ high water bill did not register.
            What was hard was the building resentment within neighborhoods. Mandatory rationing came with heavy fines -- but there were people who had enough money to water their lawns and gardens and endure the fine, which angered their neighbors. We were being asked to work together, across class, and mandatory means everybody, or so we thought. Different counties set up “snitch lines” where you could make an anonymous call and turn in a scoff-law you saw watering his driveway. People would surreptitiously water their lawns at 3 a.m. to avoid detection, and neighbors would hear the hiss of the sprinkler system next door and place snitch calls to the County Water “Stasi” at 3:15.
            There was also a drought in the Western United States in the mid-80s, and I remember going to a decaying outdoor public pool in Los Angeles, a cement tank which had a large leak in the bottom, and to keep the pool filled they ran cold water from a 5’’ diameter pipe 12 hours a day. There was also news reports of old prisons and jails which had toilets so broken they never stopped flushing. Anyone who’d been fined for a high home water bill was outraged by the double standard, and tempers were short.
            All this is coming, and we should be ready for it.
            Which brings me back to Augustina.
            My murder-for-profit (or at least savings) has hit some stumbling blocks. Take notes, fellow homeowners:
            First, I am currently wasting water trying to revive a near-dead lawn that went without sprinklers for 4 to 6 weeks in autumn. I need to keep it alive so that it looks good enough in photos to qualify for a rebate, and then I can kill it.
              I fill out the form, take four pictures, include my water bill, and describe how much square footage of turf I am willing to remove.  I need 1) a high enough water bill, 2) a lawn with enough square footage to impress them 3) photos of a lush green lawn that is wasting water. If I get all three, I may get as much as $2400 back!
            However, my lawn is brown and yellow, so I may spend $300 in water to then find out that I don’t quite qualify for the rebate. They won’t pay you for a lawn that’s already dead.
            Lucky for me (I think), a solution appeared. A film location scout liked our fence and our front yard, and they offered us $1600 to shoot an Alka Seltzer commercial that features a postman with indigestion who gets bitten by a dog -- all featuring Augustina.
            “We love your fence, we love your yard,” the art director said, “but your lawn doesn’t look so good.”
            Yeah, we noticed.
            “Do you mind of we paint it?”
            We agreed, of course, and the art director sent crew guys to sprayed our 1500 square foot front lawn and walkway with green food coloring.

            I now take four more NEW photos, and my lawn looks lush and thirsty again -- and maybe alive enough to qualify for a rebate!
            Do I proceed? The truth is, however, that I am now engaging in deception. Potential fraud. I’m an Eagle Scout with Canadian roots, which means I’m as transparent as a pane of glass. I get caught cutting the dessert line. I get reprimanded for having 13 items in the 12-item line at Trader Joe’s. I will send in the rebate application with my new fake photos, and knowing my luck, I’ll get the one inspector come and takes blade samples, and I’ll be arrested for trying to defraud the City of Los Angeles.
            However, I do get a rush having a green lawn again, even if it’s green from paint. My neighbors all nod at me, and I feel their admiration and envy. I’m living a lie, but it sure feels good. This is one of the key character flaws in any good noir story, so I must proceed forward with hubris toward my own demise. I believe I can get away with it.
            And there is yet one more vainglorious plot that may backfire in my face. If it’s going to be a dry summer with mandatory rationing, why not replace Augustina with some artificial turf? That seems like it might be a good option. Then I can feel this green rush all summer long. Sure, it’ll be fake, but I’ll have the only green lawn on the street!
            The DWP doesn’t agree, it turns out. After examining their website, I couldn’t find a definitive answer as to whether they would give me the $2400 rebate if I put in the fake lawn. I called several days in a row, and got the “due to high call volume, your wait to talk to a customer service representative will be 45 minutes,” recording.  I finally got a very nice woman who kept me on hold for ten minutes, and returned to finally say that NO -- the DWP will NOT give a rebate to a homeowner who removes turf who then puts in an artificial lawn. 
            It’s not green enough. I would be putting down 1200 to 1500 square feet of petroleum-based rubber and plastic, which is a giant carbon footprint. It’s like setting fire to a stack of tires on your front lawn. Then, once it’s installed, in impermeable. Water doesn’t flow in to the beautiful sandy alkaline soil, increasing the water table of our dry San Fernando Valley, which defeats the purpose. We’re trying to keep the water that manages to fall from the sky, not divert it away. My fake lawn would send all the rainwater down the street and into the storm drains, just like every other paved surface in the city already does. I may as well lay down asphalt.
            My daughter wants a lawn though. Therefore, I am going to proceed with this plan as far as I can take it. I know I should be green, but I’d also like save some green, especially if I never need to water again. It may be more hubris on my part, but I want to know what kind of deal I can get.
            I found out a fake lawn could run me as high as $8000. The guys who spray-painted my lawn, however, are trying to hook me up. They know a guy, who knows a guy, who knows a guy...know what I mean? You have to spend top dollar for a fake lawn that looks real, but not if I go through Hank’s buddy, who runs a fake lawn place way out in Panorama City.  Hank warned me about how hot the fake lawns get in the summer -- hot enough to burn your feet. Unless, of course, you get the special T60 grass. Hank insists that I buy the T60 from his buddy, but then hire his other buddy to install it.
            I spent two hours on Saturday reading websites for fake lawn companies and I was ready to call for an estimate on Monday morning. This is the response I got:
            “The T60? You do NOT want the T60, not anymore. Trust me. But what I can do, for you, s to send one of our sales reps out next week with some samples, and he’ll give you a free estimate. We have a special, this week only. How does that sound?”

            I feel there may be trouble.
            After all, we’re in the second act of this Valley thriller.
            I’ll keep you posted.           


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Thursday, January 23, 2014

John Dobson Blew My Mind

John Dobson died in Burbank last week, and when I read his obituary in the Los Angeles Times, I remembered him as the first person to stun me with the size of the universe. My brief encounter with him changed the way I see the world, influenced what I studied at university, and it still affects me to this day.
            Dobson founded the Sidewalk Astronomers in San Francisco, an amateur group of astronomers who built homemade reflective telescopes out of whatever they could find, including gigantic cardboard shipping tubes, metal rings, and discarded timber.

I saw the planet Saturn for the first time through a Dobsonian telescope that was painted with whorls of bright colors, on the roof the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. John Dobson himself was hosting the viewing party, and I was twelve years old.

         I was interested in the cosmos, so my parents signed us up for a mid-winter, mid-week astronomy class. Every Wednesday we’d get in the car and drive into Golden Gate Park and attend a lecture at the California Academy of Sciences, in the Morrison Planetarium. It’s a round theater with a raised platform in the middle, on which stands a star projector, which recreates the stars of the night sky on the domed ceiling above you. 
The professor would speak --
            This is what the stars in the Northern Hemisphere look like on the first day of summer...
            -- And the machine would whir and click into place and project the exact array of stars in the sky for that night. I would stare at the mechanical marvel in front of me, and then stare at the projected stars above me, amazed by both.
            To this day, I still remember how to find the visible planets in the night sky, and I know some of the secrets hidden in the constellations, like the middle star in the three star dagger that hangs from Orion the Hunter’s Belt is actually the Crab Nebula.
            On one moonless Wednesday night, the professor invited us to climb to the roof of the Academy building, where the Sidewalk Astronomers had set up a 12-foot long reflective telescope pointed at Saturn. I loved that we were allowed up there on the tar and gravel, and I could see over a mile in every direction. I remember that there were several astronomers up there, including Mr. Dobson himself. He was a tall and lanky guy with glasses and long brown hair, sort of a tall hippie version of Bill Gates.

            It was finally my turn to put my eye up to the lens. When I looked inside I saw the planet Saturn, floating perfectly in black space. It looked like a Kodachrome slide from science class, it looked so perfect. As I looked in the lens, it seemed to be about as big as my thumb. The planet and its rings were mostly black and white but there was yellow and brown mixed in, and it was in sharp focus, and I could actually see the separate rings. I was convinced it was a trick, and that the man had just stuck slide behind the lens somehow. 
            This is an approximate recreation of my conversation with Dobson, from several decades ago:
            Is that really Saturn?
            Yes, it’s really Saturn.
            It looks like a picture. It’s so clear.
            It’s a clear dark night, and earth’s orbit is fairly close to Saturn’s right now.
            How close is that?
            About 900 million miles.
            How far is 900 million miles?
            I’ll show you.
            Dobson then gestured for my parents and I to follow him close to the edge of the building, which was about 600 feet long.
            Imagine that the sun is a ball about a foot in diameter, which is a little bit bigger than a basketball, and we put it on the edge of the building. The earth is about 100 feet away from that basketball, so that’s about 30 steps for me.
            My dad, my mom, and I then followed John Dobson as he walked his 30 steps, and we were about 100 feet away the edge, and about a fifth of the length of the entire building. John Dobson held up his fingers and made a pinching motion in front of us.
            This distance is about the radius of earth’s orbit, about 93 million miles, and our Earth is smaller than a pea.
            We were so stunned, that we could only giggle. He then pointed off into the distance, past the building, and towards the dark trees of Golden Gate Park.
            Saturn is about ten times further away, which is almost twice the length of this building. It’d be in those trees over there, and it’s the size of a small plum.           
            At this point, I was beyond words. I stared into the trees in the distance, imagining an orbiting plum out there somewhere. It didn’t seem conceivable that a plum would feel the tug of gravity and orbit a basketball a thousand feet away. Even more mysterious is how we, on our pea, could even see that plum. I think he saw that he was blowing my mind, and he smiled and then launched me into infinity.
            And guess how far away the nearest star, Alpha Centari, is?
            I shrugged.
            It’s a beach ball in Japan.
            To this day, it’s hard to conceive of scale this way. When I read his obituary, I fondly remember that night on the roof when John Dobson exploded my mind.

To explode your own mind, check out this website, and enter in some numbers of your own to get a sense of the scale of the universe. It’s courtesy of the Exploratorium:

I later learned that the distances between the atoms in our body (when you increase their electrons and nuclei to the size to plums and basketballs) are just as vast and empty. Go big or small, most of the universe is empty. Yet there are more cells in our bodies than in our own galaxy. They estimate we have 3.72 x 10(13) cells in our body (that’s 3,720,000,000,000,000 cells) and our galaxy has about 10 (12) stars. However, our universe as 10 (12) galaxies, maybe more. And if certain math and physics models are correct, there may be that many “universes” beyond our own. We may be part of a multi-verse. That’s a lot to think about, sitting on our tiny orbiting pea.
            Around the same time, I discovered what became another great influence on how I view the universe -- Monty Python. Life is silly, and the more you embrace that, the happier and wiser you will be. John Cleese and Michael Palin may be the absurdist comic geniuses behind some of their best writing, but the composer and lyricist for their best songs is Eric Idle. His Galaxy Song sums it up for me, and I have these words laminated and pinned to the bulletin board in my office at home. It’s a constant reminder of who I am, where I am, and how to put it all into John Dobson first did for me when I was 12 years old. Thank you John Dobson. Your sidewalk astronomy lessons worked on me.

THE GALAXY SONG -- by Eric Idle and John Du Prez
Just remember that you're standing on a planet that's evolving
And revolving at nine hundred miles an hour.
That's orbiting at ninety miles a second, so it's reckoned,
A sun that is the source of all our power.
The sun, and you and me, and all the stars that we can see,
Are moving at a million miles a day,
In an outer spiral arm, at forty thousand miles an hour,
Of a galaxy we call the Milky Way.

Our galaxy itself contains a hundred billion stars;
It's a hundred thousand light-years side to side;
It bulges in the middle sixteen thousand light-years thick,
But out by us it's just three thousand light-years wide.
We're thirty thousand light-years from Galactic Central Point,
We go 'round every two hundred million years;
And our galaxy itself is only one of millions of billions
In this amazing and expanding universe.

The universe itself keeps on expanding and expanding,
In all of the directions it can whiz;
As fast as it can go, the speed of light, you know,
Twelve million miles a minute and that's the fastest speed there is.
So remember, when you're feeling very small and insecure,
How amazingly unlikely is your birth;
And pray that there's intelligent life somewhere out in space,
'Cause there's bugger all down here on Earth!

Check out these two links on Mr. John Dobson:

Friday, January 17, 2014

I want to kill Augustina

I hate my lawn. I call her Augustina. She’s a drunk. She’s ugly.  She always needs something, always needs me to work on her, and then she never changes. She’s a St. Augustine turf, laid down in patches, some which never took in the shaded areas, and she turns half brown in winter. She’s like an old show girl with a tooth missing who forgets to dye her gray hair, and when you ask her to dance she stabs you in the bottom of your bare feet with a sprinkler head.
            She’s only eight years old and I’m plotting to kill her.
            All I have to do is turn her sprinklers off and let her...die.
            I’ve started to meditate on her murder. My wife Robin shrugs. She can be as brutal as me. “What is she good for? If she's a good-for-nothing, why keep her?”
            Lily, my daughter, loves the lawn, bare patches and all. I keep Augustina around for Lily, so she and her friends can do cartwheels and host dance contests, as they dodge the buried sprinkler heads.
            In most great crime stories of pre-meditated murder, the killer turns out to be a sap. In The Postman Always Rings Twice, when Frank and Cora set out to kill the Greek, you know that Frank is a dummy and will never get away with it. Yet, I love reading how these two craven fools screw everything up -- especially Frank.
            So as you read about me, plotting the perfect crime, feel free to laugh at me. I can take it, because I know what’s in your heart. If you’re like me, you’ve stood with your DWP bill in your hand and stared hard at your green mistress lying there.
            What? Does she think I’m made of money?
            I pay and pay...and you still look like crap. I get no respect.
            As I plan her demise, read and be entertained, but be warned. I may chart a path for you to eventually follow -- but there is a very good chance that killing Augustine may end up costing me a great deal. If that turns out to be the case, then consider this a cautionary tale, in serial installments.
            My neighborhood is perfect for a noir crime turf tale gone bad. Beneath the veneer of our white picket fences, there are termites eating away at the fence posts holding up this Southern California dream. The passing sirens in the middle of the night remind me that we are in a decaying American city.  After all, we just qualified as a “Promise Zone” in President Obama’s war on poverty. I love that double-speak description of our plight. We live in a city of such promise! But that’s not what they mean. It’s sunny in the daytime, but life gets dark at night. That’s when I toss and turn and imagine her demise.           
            In the mornings I walk outside to get the paper (I know, who still gets the paper?) and I stare at Augustine. What a thirsty ugly bitch. I see other men like myself, in robes and sweats, staring at their lawns, wondering why they pursued such fickle mistresses.              

We know why. Vanity. Keeping up with the Joneses. A healthy lawn is some strange validation, twisted proof of my success. But she’s just a devil in a faded green dress, and I'm the putz who fell for her.
            I hear a hiss and look across the street, and I see a fountain of water erupt from a broken sprinkler head, and I see my neighbor Steve holding his skull and stomping up and down on the sidewalk in front of his house. He just put that new sprinkler system in last month. Then, there’s Hank, our new neighbor who just bought the new McMansion three houses down. The contractor flipped the house so quick that Hank bought it before the turf they rolled out even took root. Patches died after he moved in, so his lawn now looks like a chessboard. 
             My affair with Augustine went south in early December, when I got our water bill. It and comes every two months in Los Angeles, and the water charges for October and December was $350 cheaper than it had been in previous months.
            At first I was proud of our little green household for saving so much! Granted, during the summer months we ran the hose to feed the double lane slip-and-slide for two hours straight every Saturday for Lily and the neighbor girls. Autumn itself creates a water savings, right? But $350 in savings seemed especially thrifty.
            Until I noticed Augustine. She seemed awfully brown and dry.
            I went to the front hall closet and discovered her watering system was unplugged. In October a handyman was fixing our fence and he needed to run an extension cord, and we had Halloween lights plugged in during October, and we dragged coats in and out of that front closet as the weather changed. During all this, the plug had either come out of the socket, or it had been pulled and never plugged back in. I figure she’d gone four weeks without water----six weeks, tops.
            Month after month after month for eight years, I watered her. Plucked her. Fussed over her. Worried over her bare spots in the dark corner that never gets sun. And then, in four fast weeks, she heads south.
            I started watering, hoping to bring her back from the brink. But it’s January, and nothing is going to grow. I have a choice...I keep watering, hoping she’ll come back in March when the Vernal Equinox brings Spring, or...I kill her.
            I can’t help thinking about the wasted money.  $350 to water the front lawn, every two months. Without the watering, we conserve enough that our water usage is in Tier 1 billing.  Water a lawn and you can jump into double and triple prices per gallon in Tiers 2 and 3. It can add up fast.
            That’s $1050 a year. That’s $8400 in just water since she was put in, and that doesn’t include gardening costs and fertilizer and winter grass costs. Then there’s my time, trying to repair her, nurture her. I’m the co-dependent enabler who has been feeding this thirsty aqua-holic, and we’ve hit rock bottom. The only way I can save her is to burn even more cash in the hopes that she comes back.
            Then there is something else that is looming -- for all of us. The water reserves for Los Angeles are at 20% of normal, and we’re already a month into winter. The Los Angeles Times has an article today about the looming “mega-drought” is almost upon us, unless we get a miracle month of rain. I could water like crazy, and there’s a good chance we will be rationing by summer and she’ll die again anyway. And while all this is happening, the water prices are going up.
            I have some choices:
            I could put in a new lawn, but I’d have to water her just as much.
            I could put in a fake lawn --but that runs about $8000 for a good one, and I hear they get steamy hot in the summer and you get a gruesome rug burn if you slide or fall on them.
            Can I get away with letting her die?  My worst fear is that I have a bare front yard that looks like it deserves a Chevy with no wheels up on cement blocks, and an inbred toothless banjo player in a rocker on the front porch.
            My second worse fear is getting lured into some artsy and creative vision that sucks ten thousand bucks from my pocket, and keeps sucking. Sunset Magazine is lurid pornography for homeowners, and like all pornography, it can create bizarre appetites that can never be satisfied in real life.
            Why am I worrying about this anyway? I should just plant a cactus garden in the front, and accept that we’re Arizona 2.0 in the making. Everywhere else in the country you grow your own grass. In Southern California, there are grass farms out in Oxnard where the fog and the nearby ocean keep the land cool enough to grow turf. We then cut it up and cart it into the San Fernando Valley where it’s 110 in September, and two days without water can kill any plant that’s left out in the sun. We’re insane.
            We’ll all be killing our lawns soon. I just have to be the brave one on our block and kill my Augustina first. I ‘ll get the broken down Chevy and the toothless banjo player next.
            I heard one rumor worth exploring -- that the DWP will pay me to kill my lawn and then help cart my dead turf away. But she has to be living. I can’t let her die, and then apply for the rebate and get the money. I have to lure her back from the brink enough to prove she’s still alive, and then we can kill Augustine together, and then they’ll give me money for my crime.
            It’s a little twisted, but I like having an accomplice, especially if I can get two bucks a square foot, which is for my lawn ends up being $3000. That’s a motive for murder.
            For now, I will water, and investigate my options. I will keep you posted, however, because I have crime on my mind.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Crime in LA # 4 : My Daughter Helped Catch a Killer

When Lily was five years old and at school in Kindergarten, she and two classmates helped the police nab a suspect wanted for murder who was hiding from police. The neighborhood streets were blocked off, her school was locked down while helicopters circled overhead, and news cameras crews arrived in time to see the perp led away by police in handcuffs. A local CBS reporter then interviewed Lily and her two friends. In the three years since it happened, it has become a family story that we remember at least once a year, and Lily is already tired of it -- and maybe for good reason. I’m proud of how she and her friends behaved, but it’s not the lasting memory of Kindergarten you want your kid to have.

            Lily was playing at recess in the sheltered Kindergarten play area, which is fenced off from the rest of the school in its own private corner. They have their own tricycles, balls, jump ropes, play structures and planter boxes, all behind fences covered with ivy and honeysuckle. In spring, when this incident happened, the kids had discovered how to pluck the honeysuckle flowers, and slowly pull out the long stamen from the bottom. If you do it just right, there’s a drop of honey tasting flower sap left on the stamen. It’s nature’s candy, which you can lick off.

            All this made her Kindergarten feel private, safe, and even idyllic. When I entered the gate to their classrooms, there was always a gaggle of happy five-year-olds playing and learning. It fit my nostalgic view of what Kindergarten should be like.
            The only disadvantage to this private little “children’s garden” is that it butts up against apartment buildings on one side.  Actually, It almost butts up against the building, but not quite. The apartment building has a walkway alongside, and then there’s a high fence right on the property line. If you jump that fence from the apartment buildings, you’re in a fenced open-air corridor that is about four feet wide, with the ivy and honeysuckle covered fence that frames the kindergarten area in front of you. This corridor is sixty yards long; there are trees roots, storage bins and some loose gardening tools back there.

            Lily was jumping rope with her friends on this fine spring day, and they noticed a man jump over the high fence from the apartment buildings, and he landed in this corridor between the fences. He immediately found a broom and started sweeping. They’d never seen him before, but he looked busy enough that they assumed he was a new janitor.
            Still, it was odd that he had jumped the fence like that.
            Then they noticed he had a gun in his front pocket.
            I can’t get more from Lily than that. Was the gun all the way in? What color was the gun? All she remembers is that it was a big gun, it didn’t fit all the way in his pocket, and that it was black. The man was wearing all black, so they didn’t see the gun at first, but he spent enough time sweeping back and forth on the other side of their fence that they spotted the pistol through the spaces in the ivy and honeysuckle.
            Or maybe they didn’t. Maybe they added the gun for dramatic effect, as children often do. There are enough posters of bad men with guns in our culture, that if a five year old describes seeing someone she thinks is a “bad guy,” she might throw a gun in to seal the deal.
            Lily and the others ran to their teacher and said, “Mrs. D, there’s a man with a gun on the others side of the fence!”
            Mrs. D. is an experienced teacher and a mother of two, and she has heard many invented dramatic stories of “bad guys” from children, and one of her jobs is to help them glean the truth -- but this was not such a teaching moment. There was already a helicopter-circling overhead, and when she called the principal, he was not in his office.
            “If you girls are lying, you will all be in big trouble with Mr. M.,” she said.
            “We’re not! We saw him jump over the fence!”
            That’s when Mrs. D. saw Mr. M. rushing across the asphalt of the main campus, holding a walkie-talkie, and everything lined up in her head. She rushed over to Mr. M., they spoke briefly, and then she rushed back and herded her kids back into the classroom, locked the doors and closed the blinds. The corridor runs right behind two Kindergarten classrooms, so although there are bars on the windows, he could have peered inside.

            That’s when the lock-down began. Students and teachers were sealed in their rooms, and the school auto-dialed every parent and notified them that their children were safe, but to stay at home until notified. The news spread across the city. The neighborhood was blocked off as the SWAT teams moved in. TV news trucks and helicopters arrived and hovered on the perimeter and started broadcasting. Firefighters went from room to room, checking on the kids as they handed out bottle water and snacks.
            Another crisis happened in mid-lock down. One of Lily’s classmates has a severe peanut allergy, and some of the packaged cookies the firemen handed out had nut traces in it. She went into anaphylactic shock, and Mrs. D. had to call for the firefighters to come back. They stabbed her with an ephedrine pen, and they took her away in a paramedic ambulance. She had a double adventure that day, and was the only one who got to leave the school early.
            The suspect moved around on school grounds for a while, and then jumped back over the fences and went back into the apartment complex. That’s when the circling helicopters and the SWAT teams tightened their noose and grabbed him.
            It took several hours to search the apartments, the neighborhood, and the school to make sure there were no accomplices hiding, and then the police gradually opened up the streets again. By the time the police finally led the suspect out in handcuffs, CBS news was in place they got the video shot that aired during the 6 p.m. news report.
            The suspect was wanted in a gang-related double homicide that had happened six months prior, and he’d been living underground ever since, moving from place to place. An ex-girlfriend finally turned him in.
            Then the news interviews began. Some moms, including my wife Robin, insisted that during the interview the cameraman only shoot the young heroes from the knees down, so the kids could not be targeted by any of the suspect’s disgruntled fellow gang members. All you see are her silver shoes. Check it out:

            The kids were supposed to be out of school for a half day at 1:30 p.m. that day, but they finally left campus at 5:30 p.m. The Kindergarten parents gathered in Bradley’s backyard for his late-starting birthday party and Spring Break kick-off.
            We stood around, drinking wine and beer and staring at our screaming kids, dazed, wondering what had happened to the world since we were in Kindergarten.

Friday, January 3, 2014

TBI : The Invisible Injury for the Forgotten Generation

The last U.S. combat troops will leave Afghanistan in 2014, ending America’s longest war. The Iraq war ended in December in 2011, with an official flag-lowering ceremony in Baghdad, in which Defense Secretary Leon Panetta declared that a free, democratic Iraq was worth the sacrifice in American lives.
            What about the sacrifices made by those who did not die?
            What lingering injuries and disabilities will plague this generation of veterans?
            And will we be able to even see them?
            It’s easier to accept that an entire generation of soldiers is damaged when you can actually see the injuries on thousands of men and women around you. The cost of war surrounds us in our daily life.
            In the Civil War, amputation was the lingering disability. Doctors sawed off injured feet, legs, hands and arms, to prevent the spread of infection and gangrene that they did not yet understand. Years later, when you saw a man with a missing limb, you knew where he’d been and what had happened to him.
            In World War 1, soldiers met mustard gas. These gas attacks not only seared a man’s lungs, they could burn his face off. In the 1920‘s in Great Britain, there were tens of thousands of veterans with brutal facial injuries, and it was declared the “worst loss of all,” worse than any amputation, since it robbed the veteran of his identity and humanity. The first advances in plastic surgery happened because doctors created the first modern prosthetics to give these veterans their lives back.
            In later wars, the injuries soldiers suffered became less apparent. The dioxin in Agent Orange, first sprayed in Vietnam 50 years ago, has injured hundreds of thousands of Americans. Yet, you cannot pick out the veteran disabled by Agent Orange from the crowd. This invisibility may be one reason why the Agent Orange Registry estimates there are still 500,000 disputed disability claims related to Agent Orange with the Veterans Administration.            
            And what about our current generation of veterans?  There are over two million veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. What is their most common injury?
            We have all heard of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. You do a keyword search for PTSD on the Los Angeles Times website, and dozens of articles come up about the disorder.
            Many feature articles have been written about veterans who can’t re-assimilate into American society. They may be overly anxious, easily frightened and quick to anger. They may have trouble holding jobs. They may be depressed, or feel an absence of emotion, so in order to feel anything they engage in risky behavior, like racing motorcycles at top speeds without a helmet, or they self-medicate with alcohol or drugs.
            Consider my own Uncle Ian, my mother’s brother, from whom I get my middle name. Once he returned home after being injured, he seemed to make a miraculous recovery.
            However, his personality gradually changed. He became more of a thrill seeker. He often had accidents -- car accidents, work accidents, sporting accidents. He was kind and loving, but sometimes he was inexplicably quick to anger. After one argument he went out on his snowmobile on a frozen lake and was speeding so fast that he flipped it tail over end and it landed on him, crushing his pelvis. Another time, he was helping a friend build a house and he climbed far too high on the scaffolding without a safety harness. The scaffolding collapsed and he fell and shattered his leg. He suffered from depression and anxiety, and compounded with the pain from his injuries, he finally committed suicide.
            It wasn’t until I read about veterans with PTSD did I recognize his behavior and realize it had a name. The only problem is, my Uncle Ian never saw combat. He never even served in the Armed Forces.
            He had something else that often leads to PTSD. He had TBI, or Traumatic Brain Injury, from a snow sledding accident at age 15.
            My mother’s family lived in cold Port Arthur, Ontario, Canada, a small town that grew into what is now called Thunder Bay. My uncle Ian was sledding on a steep and icy hill, when he climbed higher than the other boys for a more thrilling ride. His sled jumped the snow bank at the end of the run, and he flew into traffic. A car couldn’t stop in time, and its bumper slammed into his head. He was in a coma for over two weeks.             He made what seemed to be a miraculous recovery, and had no memory of the incident. His challenges didn’t start until months later, and I don’t think anyone ever linked his changed behavior as an adult to the TBI he suffered as a teenager.
            If he had lost a leg, or had his face burned off, we would have always remembered that he had been injured. The invisibility of his injury made forget that it was (I believe) the root cause of many of his problems. He did receive some rehab at the time, but once he appeared to speak and walk normally, everyone assumed that his recovery was complete. In fact, much more rehab probably needed to be done.            

            New studies are showing that our newest disabled veterans are not just suffering from the “stress” of PTSD. In many cases -- perhaps in most cases -- they actually have an injury, like my uncle - TBI -- Traumatic Brain Injury. It’s the TBI that’s causing the stress problems, and the PTSD is the name we give what we see.
            This, from both the Los Angeles Times (Dec. 3, 2013) the on-line University of California News Room (Dec. 11, 2013):
            In a novel study of U.S. Marines investigating the association between traumatic brain injury (TBI) and the risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) over time, a team of scientists led by researchers from the Veterans Affairs San Diego Healthcare System and University of California, San Diego School of Medicine report that TBIs suffered during active-duty deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan were the greatest predictor for subsequent PTSD.
            What are the symptoms and behaviors of PTSD? vs TBI?
            Let’s compare and contrast. These are the symptoms of PTSD, taken from, which is a PTSD support group:
1         Having nightmares, vivid memories, or flashbacks of the event that make you feel like it’s happening all over again
2         Feeling emotionally cut off from others
3         Feeling numb or losing interest in things you used to care about
4         Becoming depressed
5         Thinking that you are always in danger
6         Feeling anxious, jittery, or irritated
7         Experiencing a sense of panic that something bad is about to happen
8         Having difficulty sleeping

            Now, here are some of the symptoms of general TBI -- and not TBI related to combat. These are general symptoms of Traumatic Brain Injury. Blows to the head from falls, car accidents, getting popped with a baseball or a bat, or getting multiple concussions playing football. It also can happen from a lack of oxygen, from asphyxiation during choking, and near drownings. These signs and symptoms may appear immediately, or weeks after the traumatic event. These are taken from the Mayo Clinic, at
14      Fatigue or drowsiness
15      Difficulty sleeping

            What caused the TBI? While the Vietnam War had Agent Orange, the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq had the infamous Improvised Explosion Device, or IED, which caused 1/3 of all casualties in Iraq. Imagine explosions going off right next to your head, or the shock waves the rolls through an armored Humvee after it drives over a bomb. That sloshes the grey jello inside your skull that we call brain matter.
            The numbers are still out, however, about how many veterans had bombs go off near their heads. I believe that the number may be very high, and that PTSD may turn out to be, in fact, a bi-product of TBI.
            Why is the distinction important? Because it changes our approach to how we view them, and how we treat them.
             How do we handle a basketball player who endures a traumatic emotional event that prevents him from playing? We may send him to a psychiatrist or psychologist. We may even prescribe anti-depressants. We hope he overcomes his stress and gets back in the game as soon as possible. Ultimately, he is the one responsible for his recovery.
            What if he is injured?  If he rips his Achilles tendon and he is weeping in pain, or is angry, we don’t call his tears an emotional problem. We see it an an injury first.             One of the challenges of TBI is that it’s hard to know when a certain behavior is a  symptom. A person with TBI may lose memory and cognitive skills, but still insist they are “back to normal.” They may have trouble reading, and balancing a checkbook, yet not recognize the extent of their own problem.
            Let’s mention just two parts of the brain, that  will create new and different  behaviors in people if they are damaged.
            The amygdala is an almond shaped organ near the front of the brain that processes memory and emotion. You could call it the “ fear center,” because it reminds you of what is terrifying and when you should fight or flee.
            The frontal lobes are where we process information and make the executive decisions to get through our day. They also help us to control our impulses.
            Why is the veteran terrified when a car honks? It may not be just leftover stress he must work through. His damaged amygdala may be hypersensitive and recalling a minor stimulus as a terrible threat. What about the angry veteran who fights with his wife and then jumps on a motorcycle and tears off into traffic? He may need more than  counseling. He may have a frontal lobe injury that can’t process choice and conflict well, and he can’t control his impulses. If  it jumps to amygdala interprets an argument about the rent check as a life and death threat.
            These same reactions can be created in the laboratory, with lab rats. In 2012, Dr. Maxine Reger from UCLA was able to create PTSD symptoms in rats by damaging their amygdalas by giving them concussions.
            There are 2 million veterans from the Iraq and Afghan wars. Tens of thousands may have TBI and PTSD. How do we treat them?
            We must convince them they are injured, and then test for what specific injuries they have. Once we know their injuries, we don’t force them to do what they cannot do, because that exacerbates the problem. Instead, you remember they are injured and develop compensatory strategies to get through life. After you have your compensatory strategies in place, then also work on a fixing the injury itself.
            Consider the injured basketball player. You convince him to stop playing, even if he insists he can play through the pain. He gets tested. Is it a pull, or a ripped tendon? Once you know, you then give him compensatory strategies -- like crutches, or a bandage. Then you work on fixing the injury, with surgery and rehab.
            Some brain injuries can’t be cured. If a section of the brain is gone, it’s gone and won’t come back, just like the basketball player who loses a foot.
            But the brain can rewire itself. As long as we live and breathe, the brain can create new connections, at any age. Neuroplasticity -- the brains ability to adapt and change and rewire itself to face new challenges and stimulus -- is where the answer lies. Donald Hebb first said in 1949, that “cells that fire together, wire together.” 
            There are exercises for kids with TBI, dyslexia, visual processing problems, even autism, and these exercises force the brain to operate globally to solve challenges that one section of the brain can’t handle.
            For instance, when you are calling long distance, the phone connection will sometimes use three different satellites if it can’t make the connection with the satellite that is closest. The brain will work in the same way, if you encourage it to make the new roundabout connection.
            One of the most famous rehab “work arounds” after brain trauma was with Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, as she was recovering from gunshot wounds to her brain. She couldn’t say her name -- but she could sing it. Music works a different part of the brain than speech, and she learned to speak again by running the connection through the music part of her brain.
            There is another overall strategy for TBI and PTSD that is already working, and the Armed Forces have been using it for years -- Meditation. Some call it Transcendental Meditation, some call it by it’s new buzz word, “Mindfulness.”
            Enter these keywords into any search engine, and see what pops up:
            Meditation, TM, mindfulness, PTSD, TBI, Marines, Army.
            Since 2010, the Marines and the Army have found that meditation works for their veterans with PTSD and TBI. Enter just the keywords “meditation” and “TBI” and there are just as many articles about how meditation works to help the brain rewire itself after any kind of TBI injury, not just those in combat.
            I worry that there will be a generation of injured veterans who are angry, depressed, and addicted, and we will dismiss them -- There goes another angry vet speeding on a motorcycle after a bar fight because he doesn’t know the war is over.             We have to recognize their changed behavior for what it actually is -- TBI which requires rehab work, and not just counseling and medication.
            Rehab also costs, money, but it costs much less money in the long run because it doesn’t involve constant medical visits and medicine, and it can specific and targeted. And TBI will create much higher cost to society if it remains untreated.
For resources on how to recover and rehab after brain injury, check out the Brain Injury Association of California:
The article about the rats is: "Concussive Brain Injury Enhances Fear Learning and Excitatory Processes in the Amygdala" by Maxine L. Reger, Andrew M. Poulos, Floyd Buen, Christopher C. Giza, David A. Hovda, and Michael S. Fanselow Biological Psychiatry, Volume 71, Issue 4 (February 15, 2012), published by Elsevier.
Amygdala: An almond-shaped cluster of neurons in the limbic system thought to be involved in processing emotions and memory.
Frontal lobes: Area of the brain made up by the front portions of right and left hemispheres of the cerebral cortex. These areas are involved in memory, planning, organization, language and impulse control. These areas also have been linked to personality.