Exit, Stage Left
”…and you may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?” – Talking Heads, Once in a Lifetime
There was a time when I feared my life would become a boring series of redundancies. Granted, it’s been a long time since I felt that way, but this year has strayed so far away from “boring” or “redundant” that I find myself pining for some good old-fashioned routine. Back in January I had a routine, and it was mostly good. I’d get up early, exercise for a few hours, stroll into work around 10:00, work my eight hours, then read a book until I fell asleep. On the weekends I went skydiving. I was running just over twenty miles a week, swimming another three, and was a lean 180 pounds. Skydiving was fun, even though a number of my friends have drifted away from the sport and despite the precipitous slowdown skydiving in general has experienced ever since the economy started circling the drain. I had planned on forming a team for the year and fully expected to upgrade my parachute to a sportier model. I figured I’d probably do 350 to 400 jumps before the year’s end. (My record is something like 275.) I also wanted to tack on an extra six miles to my weekly running so that I could brag that I ran the equivalent of a marathon a week. So life outside work was pretty good. But my job… my job somehow managed to slowly suck the fun out of everything. I’d be running on the treadmill anticipating my next ill-conceived project or swimming laps preparing my defenses against arbitrary deadline assignments. Even Friday nights seemed depressingly close to Monday mornings. By the time I quit in January, my insomnia had become chronic. In short, the chunk of coal in my stocking was outweighing all the other goodies I had waiting for me.
Although I was actively looking for another job, I found myself trapped in a rather insidious catch-22. It goes like this: VBA was my only real coding skill. VBA, as a guy I knew once said, is totally pedestrian. It’s also virtually obsolete. Few people use it for anything beyond the most trivial applications, which means few full time VBA jobs exist. Further, I have noticed a distinct tendency among employers who hire VBA programmers to consider VBA above (or beneath, depending on your viewpoint) standard software development practices. Design? Plan? Bah! Just CODE! CODE! CODE! And hurry it up, will ya? Verbal brainstorming sessions were as good as it got. I think this is partially reinforced by the fact that you can get away with bloody murder using VBA and still have a running application, but that’s another topic. So there’s my job market: a third rate language, very few jobs, and a proclivity among the available employers to regard your code as a band-aid which can be peeled and applied to any problem with little, if any, forethought. I know what you’re thinking; I was thinking the same thing: Gotta expand my programming toolbox beyond VBA. I tried to do a little on-the-job learning using a “real” language (C#), but only managed to squeeze out a couple of small projects before getting roped back into VBA. Those brief flirtations with career growth felt much like the thirty minutes of mandated exercise prisoners receive when confined to solitary. The only escape, I figured, was to create an application of some substance on my own.
I guesstimated it would take about three or four months to get everything going. Three or four months, as it turned out, was about how long it took before the walls of my daily routine began to crumble. It took me about that long to realize knowing VBA, even as thoroughly as I did, only provided a fairly limited understanding of many programming concepts. C# required significantly different ways of thinking. On the one hand, I was very excited about that. Realizing how small Planet VBA is in relation to the entire programming universe reinvigorated my enthusiasm for coding. I had inklings of what was out there, but with no real vehicles to learn, I opted to just stick my head in the sand instead. On the other hand, I was totally overwhelmed. Deploying an Excel workbook with embedded code within a corporate environment where you only expect to have, at most, twenty users is comically simple compared to releasing an application online and hoping to make a few bucks in the process. Back in January I thought I was hot shit. Now I was just another struggling knucklehead with a pile of half read reference books on the floor. Like a small-town sheriff trying to make it in the LAPD.
Given that a skydiving team would have cost me between $10,000 and $15,000, I guess I should be thankful it didn’t come together. Sometime around the beginning of April I started jumping less and less. Then I began justifying shorter and shorter workouts each morning. I just need two more weeks of work before I can launch and get back into my routine, I told myself. Two more weeks, two more weeks. My mom started calling me Mr. Twomoreweeks. Back in January, my bedtime was 9:00. I rarely went to bed on time, but “late” meant I crawled into bed around 11:00. Slowly but surely, my post-employment bedtime crept later and later to the point that my “morning” workouts ended around noon or later. There was always “just one more” problem I wanted to solve before I went to sleep. Even if I solved the problem at hand, I would start tinkering with the next one on my list. Might as well get my mind wrapped around it now, I told myself. At a certain point it began to seem ridiculous drinking my morning coffee in the afternoon, so I gave up on morning exercise altogether. Better to just slam down a couple cups first thing and get some work done, then go to the gym. In order to save time, I completely forewent all weight lifting. Then my cardio was pushed back from early morning to mid-morning to late afternoon to evening. Other cutbacks quickly ensued. I went from exercising two hours a day five days a week to one hour a day three days a week. From at least twenty skydives a month to maybe five. Finally, about the same time things fizzled out with a girl I was seeing, I decided to put absolutely everything else on hold but my project. No skydiving, no gym, no dating. Two more weeks, I told myself. Just two more weeks.
I worked eighteen hours a day, seven days a week, for eight weeks. I stopped shaving, combing my hair, and even wearing deodorant. What difference did it make, I barely even left the house. I rarely saw anyone except my roommate and I’ve known him for twenty years, so he couldn’t care less about my grooming habits. Every day I was in front of the computer working within ten minutes of waking up. I resisted showering until late in the afternoon when I just couldn’t stand feeling greasy any longer. My only motivation to go to bed was when sunrise was imminent. One morning after trying to sleep for half an hour without success, I said the hell with it, took a shower, made some coffee, and kept on working. I stayed awake forty hours before finally lying down. About the only daily grooming habit I kept up was brushing my teeth and flossing. Despite all my bitching and moaning about the lack of planning at my last job, I decided to develop this project in a fairly free-form manner. I let myself go off on all sorts of time consuming educational tangents. I experimented frequently with programming features I had read about, but didn’t fully understand. I spent entire days reading books and message boards. This project was as much about creating practical software utilities as it was a prolonged programming boot camp. I was learning a lot, but at the expense of timeliness. Then one night, about halfway through my coding binge, my brain veered off the road and crashed into a ditch.
Part II: Me Crash. Go Boom.
It had been a normal day, having gotten up around noon and worked steadily through early evening. My roommate, Jeff, came home from work early that night, around 6:30. I remember because it’s unusual for him to come home before 7:30. Happy to get my daily dose of human interaction, I walked downstairs to greet him. As was my custom, I engaged in a few minutes of conversational foreplay, likely asking him about his day—a topic he rarely had anything of substance to share—before plunging head first into the trials and tribulations of my own workday. He’s a good listener and manages to grasp fairly well what I tell him despite a lack of technical background, which works out well because it gives me a chance to vent. But on this particular evening I can’t seem to verbalize a single coherent thought. I hunt for the words to express what I want to tell him… but they don’t come. I just end up with a series of sentence fragments which I realize after about eight or ten words don’t really make any sense. So I try again. And again. And again. But somehow I just can’t explain my frustration with the particular programming problem I was tackling that day. “I guess I’m more tired than I thought,” I muttered. I was genuinely confused; I had gotten enough sleep the night before and I felt fine not twenty minutes earlier. An awareness that I was feeling a bit light-headed suddenly struck me. How long have I felt this way? Did I go too long without eating again? Did I drink too much coffee earlier? Am I that frustrated over my verbal incoherence a minute ago? Jeff sat down to eat his dinner and watch some TV. A news program was on. Venezuela was mentioned. So was a guy named John McCain. I knew that name. But I couldn’t place it. I really should know that name. Dammit, why the hell can’t I remember who that is? And what was that country’s name again? Valensula? No that’s not right. Embarrassed to ask my roommate, I walked upstairs to google both John McCain and countries in South America that start with the letter ‘V’. Ah, okay, that’s who John McCain is. Jesus, that’s like forgetting how to spell “blue”. But as soon as I get up from my desk to walk back downstairs, I’ve already forgotten who John McCain is again. WTF! Back to google, oh, okay, senator, former presidential candidate, right, right, got it. And Valensula is the country. No, it’s Venezuela! Venezuela, Venezuela, Venezuela. It was like sticking a magnet to the refrigerator door, watching it drop to the floor five seconds later, picking it up and trying again, only to watch it fall right back to the floor. Forget it, I’ve just been staring at the computer too long. I just need a break. It’s Valensula, right? Forget it, I’ve got to go to the grocery store before it gets too late.
Back downstairs, Jeff is still eating and watching TV. I sit down next to him and mutter aloud—as much to myself as to him—that I just can’t seem to think clearly. I must not have slept as well as I thought last night. I should probably go to bed early tonight. Okay, I’m going to the grocery store, I’ll be back. On the way there, I’m struck by the vague sensation that maybe I shouldn’t be driving. I start talking to myself like a drunk teenager fascinated by his own intoxication. Except I don’t feel good, I feel strange. Something’s. Definitely. Not. Right. I drive the five minutes to the store, park, and walk inside. Immediately I am absolutely certain I shouldn’t have left the house. My vision has become slanted, somehow. Like I’m standing on a slope, looking into a mildly contorted funhouse mirror. The far end of the store seems too far away and things nearby seem much too close. Then I notice a distinct rainbow colored scintillation in the bottom right corner of my periphery very similar to this. Now I’m definitely concerned. I very nearly leave my cart where it is and drive home, but I’ve already gotten this far and really need some groceries. I guess as long as I’m able to walk around without falling over or knocking anything down, I might as well do my shopping. I want some plums. I walk over to the portion of the fruit stand where plums are normally stocked. They look like plums, the sign says “plums”, but I feel oddly uncertain. These are plums, aren’t they? They look like plums, and I’m almost positive that p-l-u-m spells plum, so they must be plums. Something doesn’t seem right though. And I can’t pinpoint the exact source of my confusion. This shouldn’t require so much analysis. I’m almost overwhelmed by the uncertainty of whether or not these fruits I’m looking at are really plums. Standing there, staring, I argued with myself for at least five minutes before finally deciding to just buy a few. In all probability, these are, in fact, the fruit I want, I’ll just take the chance so that I can hurry up and get home. Over and over I had this experience during my thirty minutes in the store. Is this salsa? I’m just not sure. It looks like salsa… forget it, it’s probably salsa. Meanwhile I’m walking so carefully that I’m a little concerned other patrons will think I’m drunk. But it’s better than accidentally knocking anything over or falling down and confirming their suspicions, so I continue right along. A song comes on the radio overhead. It’s one of my favorites. But I can’t remember who it is. I mean, I know who it is, but the name feels buried away from my conscious brain somehow. Instead of springing into my mind as I would expect it to, it Just. Won’t. Come. It’s there, right there, but it won’t come. It feels like I’m struggling to lift a very light stick from off the ground. I’ve got my hand around it, I’m bent over, but I’m too weak to stand back up with it still in my hand. I can’t wait to get home so I can try searching through my music collection to help me remember the name. Recognizing that my short term memory is completely shot, I begin saying the chorus aloud to myself over and over again so I don’t forget it before I get back home.
I finish shopping, carefully load my groceries into my car, and drive home. As soon as I park I feel a headache coming on. Still making a concerted effort not to forget the song’s chorus, I run upstairs to my computer. Eurythmics! That’s who was playing on the radio in the store. Jesus. Here Comes The Rain Again by the Eurythmics. I feel somewhat relived that it only took a few minutes to figure this out and head back to my car to unload my groceries. As I put my things away I feel my headache worsen rapidly. I start to hurry. I don’t know how much longer I’m going to be able to stay on my feet. I finish, and proceed directly to the couch. My entire head is pulsating with a dull throbbing, like an overstretched balloon being pumped with too much water. I couldn’t think at all beyond wondering distantly how bad I should let this get before I ask Jeff to drive me to the emergency room.
I woke up once during the night, feeling cold. All the lights were still on and I was still in my clothes. Nothing too unusual about that; Jeff and I both habitually fall asleep downstairs in that condition. He would have thought nothing of it had he seen me like that. Right away I felt my condition had improved at least slightly, but it was difficult to really tell since I was groggy with sleep. I grabbed a blanket and went back to sleep.
For the next 24 hours I felt unusually groggy. But the headache was gone, I knew without thinking who John McCain was, and felt confident I had bought plums and the correct salsa the previous night. A little research led me to believe I had had my first migraine. The other possibility is that it was a transient ischemic attack, which is basically a pre-stroke and very bad. I probably should have gotten checked out by a neurologist, but I never did. My risk factors for having a stroke are sufficiently low that I decided to wait and see if anything like that happens again. And so back to work I went.
Part III: My Own Private Itchy & Scratchy Show
In May, my friend Richard and I agreed to go hiking for a week. I initially suggested the first week of July, but later pushed it back to the first week of August. By that time I’d be guaranteed to have finished my project. Guar-an-teed. I rolled right through the beginning of July still going to bed at dawn and working 18 hours a day, but, alas, my to-do list was shrinking. By the time I flew up to Santa Rosa to meet Rich for our hike, my software had been in beta testing for a week and, barring any killer bugs that surfaced while I was gone, I expected to release my product the week I got back. Truthfully, I had neither the time nor the money for a vacation, and part of me wanted to flake out right up to very end. I still had a short list of minor bugs to fix, plus at least one more round of test installs before I would feel comfortable launching. But I justified the trip as a way to break out of my obsessive-compulsive work routine. The excitement long gone, I felt heavy and unhealthy. I had gained 25 pounds of mush and gone two months without skydiving. All my cardiovascular conditioning was gone and as I look over at my skydiving rig I wonder when I’ll end that sabbatical. But I have been on this rollercoaster before and know that in six months I’ll pretty much be back to normal. Finally, I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. In an effort to feel as clean as possible, I shaved off my beard, got a haircut, and cleaned my house. I then spent a couple days packing for the hike and overhauling my resume. It’s going to be an exciting week when I get back.
Rich and I planned a 40 mile loop through the Trinity Alps Wilderness. We knew going in that parts of the trail would not be well maintained, but we expected to find at least some semblance of a trail throughout the trek. We were wrong. Three days in, we had only covered about ten miles. The terrain was extremely difficult to navigate. Fallen trees, loose soil, steep slopes, and frequent stream crossings all slowed our pace to a crawl. Realizing we were not going to be able to complete the loop on schedule, we turned back.
Backpacking always involves a degree of discomfort. You tolerate it for the benefit of seeing sights you otherwise would only come across doing a google image search for new computer wallpaper. Historically, for me, the mosquitoes were the worst part. They love me. If you read that and thought to yourself “Yeah, they love me too”, no, not compared to me they don’t. In 2006 I went hiking with my dad and came home with 500+ bites covering every (yes, every) imaginable area of my body. (Okay, so I didn’t count each and every bite, but I guesstimated 500 after counting each and every bite on one arm. So there.) For this reason, I have to say that my backpacking discomfort is a tad worse than average. Also for this reason, I don’t go hiking more often than every couple of years. In 2008 I went hiking in the Angeles National Forest and unwittingly brushed up against some poison oak. A few days after I got back, the rash started to appear. At first I didn’t know what to make of it because poison oak had never been an issue before and I had been backpacking my entire life. But after a little googling it was pretty obvious what had caused it. It took more than a month to go away. From that point on, the mosquitoes became merely the second worst part of backpacking.
The rash caused by poison oak, ivy, and sumac is NOT fun. It may sound funny (“Ha ha ha…you’re all itchy…ha ha”), but it’s not. During my first bout with the rash, I had large patches just like this on my head, both arms, and both legs. The first few days, while it was still breaking out, the itching was tolerable. I could still work, I could still sleep. But it wasn’t long before it became maddeningly intense. I couldn’t concentrate on anything but scratching. It would keep me from sleeping and then once I finally fell asleep, it would wake me back up again. Like anyone else, the first place I turned for advice was google. Normally a solid move, sometimes it can (and did, in my situation) lead to further complication. This is because every yahoo under the sun has posted their magical home remedies, some of which I discovered causes more harm than good. For example, I read in several places that rubbing alcohol is good for helping the itch. This much is true, at least in my experience. The sting and cooling sensation seemed to alleviate the itch to an extent. However, apparently, rubbing alcohol also deteriorates your skin, making a skin infection that much more likely in the areas where you are scratching the hardest with your scummy, grubby fingernails. Wanna guess what happened to me next? That’s right! Secondary skin infection. About 15 days into my rash, I awoke to find the entire area between my left armpit and elbow swollen, puffy, hot, and flamin’ red. That finally motivated me to see a doctor. I also read suggestions to use bleach, which struck me as beyond ludicrous given the big, scary warnings on bleach containers. Others suggested burning any clothing contaminated by the plant, which is outright dangerous because inhaling the resulting smoke would deposit the poison1 directly into your lungs which is, well, really really bad. Simply washing your clothes with soap and water removes the poison.
Doctor visit number one resulted in antibiotics and this stuff called Zanfel. I was skeptical, but it worked. It worked really, really well. The itch was eradicated and I was on the mend… until two days later, when I woke up with dozens of painful tiny red bumps on my palms and fingers. Not blisters; raised bumps, more like pimples that hurt a lot. And, of course, it’s Saturday, so instead of skydiving as per my plans, I was off to the urgent care center.
At urgent care I was greeted by a rather acerbic young doctor, who reminded me a lot of a grumpy Doogie Howser. He was one of those doctors who never looked much beyond his clipboard or even talked directly to you; really, it was more like the clipboard was his patient. He informed me in no uncertain terms that my previous doctor’s advice is not (underlined twice) how you treat poison oak rash. Okay, but, you see, that’s not really the problem anymore. See, I have these bumps… (as I stretch out my arms to display my palms). After a few minutes of oddly argumentative exchanges, it was determined that we didn’t know if the new “rash” was a new poison oak outbreak, or an allergic reaction to the antibiotics I was taking. So I was switched to a different antibiotic and put on an oral steroid to kill what remained of my rash. I was pretty comfortable within a couple days, although I had areas of splotchy skin for at least a week longer.
So. What lessons did I learn? Next time I go hiking, I’m taking Zanfel with me. If I get poison oak, I’ll just wash it off with that and all will be well with the universe. So I thought.
As I mentioned, my most recent hike involved some pretty rough terrain. And, wouldn’t you know it, two days in and I already notice some poison oak rash developing amongst the scores of mosquito bites. No matter, I have Zanfel, the magic poison oak soap that immediately eliminates all itching. Except that this time it doesn’t seem to be working. By the time we decided to turn back, my arms felt reptilian. Tiny, hard, horribly itchy blisters covered damn near every square millimeter from my wrists to my shoulders. Then I noticed the same thing on my inner thighs, my outer calves, and along my waistband. Zanfel did not seem to have any effect.
I was very relieved to get out of the woods. I was miserable, and it was getting worse. The day after we got back to Santa Rosa, we were off to urgent care so I could get a round of prednisone, the same oral steroid I received last time around. By that time I was starting to resemble a killer mutant from an X-Files episode. My entire body from the tops of my feet to the bottom of my chest was flaming red with tiny oozing blisters, with areas along my waistline and butt that went a deep purple. Plus there was a patch directly beneath my right eye which caused it to swell ever so slightly shut. Although, thankfully, most of my back was spared, my genitals were not. (I’ll pretend I’m modest for a second and forego those details.) My lower left leg was solid purple, punctuated by a two by five inch scab, partially from the rash and partially from scratching. Over the next few days it would become so inflamed that my foot looked more like a cow hoof. As soon as I got home I went to see my regular doctor. Noting that this was the worst case of poison oak2 he’d ever seen, he told me to keep on the oral steroids and come back in a week if not substantially improved. The swelling was just due to inflammation, he said, not an infection. One small victory. For the next five days I didn’t leave the couch. The itching was an order of magnitude worse than in 2008. Twice a day I’d get up to eat. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t read, I couldn’t work. All I could do was scratch when the itching was overwhelming and distract myself with an endless stream of Netflix when it calmed down. My lower leg and foot eventually became so swollen that it scared me a little. The range of motion of my ankle and toes became inhibited. The rash seemed to be improving, but only at a snail’s pace and the itching never subsided for long. It worsened at night, allowing me only two to three hours sleep each night that week. The only substantial relief I got was from taking long, scalding hot showers which intensified the itching for a short while, but then subsided for up to a couple of hours.
After five days, I started doing little things around the house. I did laundry. Went to the grocery store. Brushed my teeth for the first time in a week. My left leg was still slightly swollen and overall I still looked like I had been in a motorcycle accident. A literal majority of my skin was covered by dense groves of blisters and ranged in color from bright red to deep purple. I couldn’t help wondering if my skin would ever fully return to its natural whitish-pink tone. There was improvement, but it came slowly. The itching, however, would not stop. When I finally went in for my follow-up doctor’s appointment, he was almost as disappointed in my progress as I was. This time I got a steroid injection and a prescription for atarax. Come back in five days if progress is still slow, he said. I only wish this was the treatment I received a week earlier because I finally saw marked improvement within 24 hours. The atarax was very effective at stopping the itching. I finally was able to sleep, even if it was somewhat fitful and I still woke up in the middle of the night scratching. Although I’m sure the sleep deprivation from the previous week made it worse, the atarax had a hell of a hangover. My thinking felt muddled even 15 hours after my last dose. Sleeping on 50mg of the stuff meant I had to crawl on my hands and knees to the coffee maker when I woke up. It took two weeks to the day after getting out of the woods before I could sleep through the night without drugs, although even now—five days later—I still wake up scratching for short intervals. I’d say I’m about 90% recovered at this point, but my skin still looks splotchy and I’m to the point of wondering if the itching will ever completely go away. The really scary thing is that the reaction to poison oak is an allergic one, which means that every time I come in contact with it, my reaction will be worse than the previous time. Without question, my second experience was significantly worse than the first. I hate to say it, but my backpacking days may be over… unless it’s in the desert, or something, and I’m positive there will not be any poison oak there.
And here it is, mid-August. It’s been seven months of obsessive work and constant research beset by killer rashes, wicked headaches, and a severe lack of sunlight and social interaction. I’m tired. I’m itchy. I’m fat. But, dammit, I’d do it all again, if I had to. (Minus the rash and the migraine—those were just horrible and unnecessary.) Next week my software will finally see the light of day, and my resume will have all kinds of new bells and whistles on it. No longer will I feel trapped in VBA prison. But I think now, at least for the remainder of this year, I’d really like to get back into a normal routine. You know, with consistent sleep and regular exercise and maybe a little excitement on the weekends to supplement my coding habit. Rollercoasters are fun and all, but after a while all you want is some stable ground to stand on.
I don’t know if urushiol, the oily substance found in poison oak, ivy, and sumac which causes the rash I describe, can honestly be described as a poison. It certainly meets the definition of poison that I found on dictionary.com, but I think it’s more accurate to call it an allergen given that the reaction people have to it is an allergic one.
It may have been the worst case my doctor had ever seen, but it definitely was NOT the worst case ever. This is an example of how bad the blisters can get.