Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Piece of my Heart

On Thursday afternoon I am scheduled to have a procedure performed on my heart to correct a condition called atrial flutter. Some of my friends have been curious and some concerned so I thought I'd try to explain it as well as I can. The good news is that the procedure is very low risk, and highly likely to permanently repair the atrial flutter.

The Wikipedia description of atrial flutter is quite clear and seems completely consistent with the information I've received from my cardiologist.

In a normal heart, the atrium fills with blood and then an electrical impulse causes it to beat and force the blood into the ventricle. With atrial flutter, extra beats cause the heart to beat too frequently. This means that instead of a good strong "woosh" I get lots of half or quarter wooshes. It's kind of like a toilet that keeps running and never really flushes.

While the consequences of this aren't that dire, it does mean that my heart works harder for less effort. My resting pulse before medication was routinely 130 beats per minute, and I was getting out of breath with even small amounts of exercise because my blood doesn't get as much oxygen as it is supposed to get. In the long run, it's not so good for the heart, so it needs to get taken care of.

In my case, the atrial flutter (call it a-flutter if you want to sound like a medical person) is in the right atrium, the part of the heart that gets the blue, oxygen-depleted blood from the veins and pushes it into the lungs. The good news is that this is the low-pressure side of the heart, so it's easier and safer to work on.

The ablation procedure consists of inserting a catheter into a vein on my right side and sliding it up to the heart. This is done while I lie on top of a table with big magnets that make it possible for the electro-physiology specialist to see a 3D image of my heart as he works. It's scheduled to take about an hour to get the tip of the catheter to the right position on what's called the isthmus and then burn a small ridge that will interrupt the extra electric flow, stopping the atrial flutter and returning my heart permanently to a normal rhythm. This is all done under sedation, not a general anesthetic.

It's customary to say that someone is lucky when they have a health problem that's not too bad or easily fixed. Actually, I would say "lucky" would be not having atrial flutter. But I am grateful that I have a problem that medical science knows how to repair at very low risk.

I'm not looking forward to this but I'm really not too nervous. It will be good to have it over with! I'll try to post something on Friday about how it went.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Looking Through the Telescope at Griffith Observatory

Sunday was a beautiful day in Verdugo City so we ended up riding over to Griffith Park for a walk to take in the view. The Griffith Park Observatory is one of the places that I truly love in Los Angeles, and one of the few that, on the surface at least, looks much as it did when I first visited as a kid, perhaps 50 years ago. But in all the times I've visited, I've never looked through the telescope before.

Griffith Park Observatory was never a scientific observatory - it was built for public education. The unlikely-named Griffith Griffiths gave the land to the city, which I suspect coveted it mostly as valuable watershed. But from the beginning the park was dedicated to public recreation and education, with the Observatory as the most prominent landmark - not counting the "Hollywood" sign, nearby but not quite in the park.

Anyone who thinks that there aren't lots of people hungry and curious to learn about science need only come down to the Observatory. Create a beautiful and interesting place that's free and you can draw a crowd. I've probably been there at least 30 or 40 times, walked the grounds, toured the exhibits old and new and viewed the planetarium show, but I've never been there at the right time, on a clear night, to look through the 1935 12" Zeiss Refracting Telescope. By the time I had my look, 7 million people had beat me to it. This is telescope that more people have looked through than any in the world.

And what do you get after you wait in line for this purely analog scientific experience? You get to see the surface of the moon close up with your own eyes. That's the real sunlight reflected off the surface of the moon, bouncing off the ridges and crater edges, looking remarkably bright and hyperrealistic. You can look at all the photos you want and it will never look the same as the view through the telescope.

It saddens me that so many science museums are so rotten and boring. When I was growing up, the Griffith Observatory and the California Museum of Science and Industry (especially the "Mathematica" exhibit that I only learned later was created by Eames and Eames) changed my life - they motivated me to the ask the questions that framed my career and my interests. So many museums misuse media and digital technology in ways that remove children from science rather than drawing them in. When I was a kid, the most popular exhibit in the Observatory was the Giant Tesla Coil. Guess what everyone flocks to now? The same old Tesla Coil. Simply seeing a giant spark shoot out of the coil doesn't teach you how electricity works - but it makes you wonder! And that wonder is the root of the motivation that makes some of us try to understand the world for the rest of our lives.

Seeing a print of Van Gogh's "Wheatfield with Crows" is enjoyable, but seeing the painting can change the way you see forever. And you can learn a lot about the moon by looking at photographs, but seeing the moon in the sunlight reflected off its surface and passing 230,000 miles to be resolved by a telescope and your retina is a completely different experience. I feel very lucky to have had both experiences in my lifetime.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Who's Left?

When I heard that "The Who" would play halftime at the Super Bowl, I cringed. Jeez, I thought, do people really want to see two old guys from a once great band that had its last hit 30 years ago? Why would they be invited? Why would they do it, except for the money? Do they really need it?

I was tempted to not even watch, but I couldn't help myself... and it was worse than I had hoped. I knew Daltrey couldn't hit those notes anymore, but Townshend seemed to be having problems with his guitar too... and the attempt to cram 6 songs into 12 minutes was pathetic. I mean, they used to take a 2 minute song like My Generation and jam on it for 12 minutes. I would have felt bad for them, but hey, nobody forced them to do it. I reminded me why I've avoided going to see my rock heroes now that they're old.

For years, I avoided going to see the Who. I got my copy of "Tommy" when I was 13 and had no way to get to concerts. By the time I was going to concerts, Keith Moon was in bad shape, the Who weren't touring that much (and they really sounded pretty bad - I listened to a recording from 1977 today, and Moon was horrible.) I wanted to hold on to the sound I loved, from the raw energy of "I Can't Explain" to the humor of "The Who Sell Out"; the wonderful "Tommy", the awesome "Live at Leeds", and my all-time favorite, "Quadrophenia". I loved the sound of the Who, Pete Townshend's guitar moves, Daltrey's intense energy, Entwistle's melodic driving bass and Keith Moon's manic brilliant drumming. To me, the Who from about 1968 to 1973 were everything a band could be.

I could have gone to see them in the 80's or 90's, but I always wanted to remember how the original band with Keith Moon sounded - to me it just didn't seem like it could be the Who without him. Then Entwistle blew his heart out with cocaine, and I figured that was it, they were done. I would never go see Townshend and Daltrey - I called them the "Who's Left".

But when my 16 year old son told me about the VH-1 Rock Honors the Who concert at UCLA Pauley Pavilion in June 2008 and asked if I wanted to go, what could I say? My son wants to see the Who? I can't pass that up. And it sounded cool, a bunch of bands playing Who covers followed by a set from the Who. The good seats were $500, but I got a couple of nosebleeds at $25 and we went.

Through a couple of lucky breaks, we were able to "trade up" our seats and we moved from the second-to-last row, where you really could just about touch the ceiling of the basketball arena, down to seats 20 rows from the stage on the right. The first half of the show was fun but not really great - Foo Fighters did a decent job with Young Man Blues, Incubus played a nice set. But the Flaming Lips were terrible - I mean, if you are going to play a medley from Tommy for a live and TV audience, you don't have time to learn the words and chords? And Jack Black singing? Yeah, I get it, he loves the Who but so do I and I'm not up there embarrassing myself. Give me a break. But an amazing rock and roll moment was yet to come.

We got to our good seats just in time to see Sean Penn introduce (with a snarky swipe at MTV) Pearl Jam. And oh-my-god they were amazing. You can see it here and please do! Eddie Vedder made the entire audience feel like he was born and lived his entire life just to perform "Love Reign O'er Me" and "The Real Me" from Quadrophenia. This was true, transcendent, ecstatic rock and roll. My son and I were transfixed and transformed by two songs that seemed to last forever and be over in a moment. This was everything that was great about The Who, and Rock and Roll, and Pearl Jam, all in 9 minutes. I've had a few amazing concert experiences, and this was certainly one of them.

At the end of "The Real Me", Pearl Jam's guitarist tossed his Les Paul in the air and let it fall to the floor. It seemed totally appropriate, spontaneous, real. I saw in the YouTube comments some complaints about destroying a beautiful guitar. C'mon, this was a WHO tribute - someone had to do it, and Pearl Jam earned the right. Yeah it was sad and painful and violent. I loved it.

And then... The Who... Pete Townshend looked like an old college math professor, Daltrey like a botoxed tennis instructor trying to look under 40 so he could try to pick up college girls. Townshend was grumpy and angry and really, kind of cool. At one point he stopped a song in the middle, cursing and stomping about the sound, and started over. It wasn't great rock and roll, but it was fun, and Townshend played pretty damn well, a lot better than at the Super Bowl this year.

Sometimes the best rock moments come at 2 in the morning at a club with a band that you've never heard of and never will hear of again. Sometimes it's just a lick or a scream or the way the drum and the bass get in the pocket and drive the beat. It's almost never where you expect it.

When I heard the Daltrey sing "hope I did before I get old" in 2008, it didn't seem ironic; it seemed like a desperate plea to the rock gods that he could still bring it, that he could still rock. And there were moments when they still could. And when they sang "nobody bites back as hard on his anger", I could feel the anger and the pain and the frustration that Townshend expressed so well when he was 20 - and he's still sad and angry and frustrated, just a different set of frustrations. I'm glad I saw them.

But Pearl Jam - that was Rock. I wish they could play the Super Bowl now, not in 2035...