The Sour and the Sweet

the ever-evolving blog of Sandra Vahtel

Oregon Field Guide

I know what I just said about Los Angeles, but being in Oregon for three weeks reminded me just how nice it is to step out of the big city from time to time.

My roommate and travel-mate, Noemi, had never been to Oregon before, which is rather strange given her predilection for camping and hiking and the outdoors. She’s a curious sort, so while I might have chosen to sit in front of the television all day on my own, together we explored the northern half of the state, having adventures I’d never had as a young girl growing up in the area.

Herewith, I give you a visual tour of our trip; mostly pictures of plants and rocks and water (there’s a lot of that going on in Oregon).

on hitting milestones

Milestone one, it’s my birthday. I guess that’s not really an accomplishment, except that fact that I’ve lived for 32 years. Although that’s not as impressive as living say, 92 years. I’ve got a way to go.

Milestone two is a bit more … milestone-y, I guess. I finished the fourth draft of my novel today. This is the draft I started working on when I got laid off from my job in January. I’ve been working on this book for two and a half years, but this is the first time it’s got a beginning and an actual end, so for me this a real, live accomplishment-accomplishment. Let me just pat myself on the back for a moment, if you’ll allow me.

Now it’s out of my hands and off with a few readers. They are trusted friends—some editors, some just avid readers—who will traverse all 390-some pages of completed manuscript and tell me all the ways it’s inadequate, so that I might make it right.

I got a little emotional sending it out, I have to admit. I don’t feel precious about the material in any way; I’m not even fully convinced it’s any good, all put together the way it is. That’s why I’m letting people look at it now, so that I can hopefully make it suck less. What I was getting emotional over I think was simply the burden of working being lifted off my shoulders. This story has been with me for a long time, nagging me, always tapping me on my shoulder when I take too long in the morning to get going or dawdle too long on the internet. It exerted a certain kind of mental pressure, and with the completion of this draft all that pressure dissipated as I sent it along as an email attachment; finished for now. Finished. Good work, you’re done, exhale.

Tomorrow, my roommate and I embark on a journey to Oregon. She for two weeks, me for three. I know that when I get back the pressure will start to build again as I begin to get feedback from my readers. It will be time to incorporate. It will be time to correct. It will be time to start draft five.

But for now, for the next few weeks anyway, I will enjoy my freedom.

ten years

It was a quiet anniversary, not particularly noted; but the end of May marked my tenth year of being an Angelino. Ten years feels significant. So many people come and go in that time. Some of my most cherished moments have taken place in this city, as well as a few of the worst days of my life.

When I arrived here, fresh out of college, I had aspirations to work in pictures, and eyes full of stars. Nothing could have prepared me for what I was about to face. The incessant car culture, an entire system built around automobiles and traffic with all the attendant rules, laws, tickets and fees in tow; the insidious health culture that would have you believe wholeness comes in the form of a green smoothie, two hours of pilates, and the perfectly sculpted body. Sure, I had gotten use to the idea of wealth-as-status, having spent four years in Dallas, Texas; but for a girl from a hick town in Oregon, it was all just a bit overwhelming.

Everyone’s transition is hard. It must be. Los Angeles is just not a natural state of mind. It took time to carve out a niche and find friends and feel settled. But the whole time I still resisted the city’s charms. It was so much easier to simply gripe about the traffic or the smog or the vapid industry types that seemed to populate every nook and cranny of town.

Then 2005 happened and that was a pivotal year. I thought for a time that I might end up living in New Zealand, but that didn’t happen. Then my dad got sick and I stayed in Oregon for a few months and considered moving to Portland to “start again.” But that didn’t happen either. So I came back to L.A. at the end of that year. I made my choice and I stayed.

After that I didn’t find it so hard to love this city anymore. I’d accepted her as my home and in return I think she obliged. My friend Corey acted as my sherpa, uncovering for me a host of hidden gems and uncharted territory. I learned a lot about Los Angeles during that time; my curiosity grew, and with it my heart overflowed. Sure, at times the sprawl seemed impossibly large and crushingly impersonal. L.A. lacked, and still lacks, the razzle-dazzle swagger of New York; nor does it possess any of the stately charm of Chicago, none of the awe-inspiring lushness of San Francisco. And while it seemed like a cruel mistress at first, she ultimately rewarded patience and dogged curiosity. I worked hard to earn her favor and L.A. opened up to me her vast, innumerable treasures.

Granted, it’s hard to find fault with a place when you find yourself sitting on an outdoor patio in the middle of the city, in the middle of February, sipping a beer and lemonade, while the sun shines down on you a perfectly balmy eighty degrees. Nor is it unpleasant to be in one of the cheap seats at the Bowl, surrounded by your friends, drinking wine and eating cheese, listening to the L.A. Philharmonic as they provide the soundtrack to the sunset, and you watch as the Hollywood Sign fades from white to pink to gray to black.

Palm trees silhouetted against an early morning sky; subterranean bars on the edge of Skid Row; the opportunity to dine at a world-class restaurant or a suspect food truck, or both on the same day if you want; movie premieres and Q&As with directors and actors and producers; Shakespeare in Griffith Park; having Venice Beach to yourself in January; the fragrant bouquet of eucalyptus and jasmine that assault the senses in the early spring. Korean tacos, movies in cemeteries, that drive along the beach from Palos Verdes to San Pedro, Sunday morning dim sum, reading a novel chapter-by-chapter at Skylight Books, catching a string of green lights late at night. I’m not ashamed to say that all of these things, and many more, have seduced me over the years.

That’s not even mentioning the vast array of people who have made Los Angeles even more amazing. Friends, roommates, artistic collaborators, fellow students, grad school professors, coworkers, even strangers. So many have taught me about movies and music and art and life and joy and sorrow; together they make up a diverse tapestry of life experience and philosophies.

And now it’s been a decade. I’m no longer in pictures. Now I write, furtively and often alone, burrowed away like a mole. And all the time I meet newcomers who have been here six months, a year, two years. I take pleasure in introducing them to the secret treasures I know and love. I relish the opportunity to pique the curiosity of others as they too learn to love this city. Love it or leave it, quite literally, is what ends up happening.

I still fantasize about leaving. I wonder about Portland on occasion. I imagine what it would be like to utilize that EU passport. I even toy with the idea of Missoula, Montana—maybe it’s a boring enough place to really concentrate on my work. But no, who am I kidding? Los Angeles is in me and I in it. And I have no plans to leave anytime soon.

second base

Blog stats are creepy things. Weeks will go by where nary a soul will take a peek at this blog and then suddenly traffic will spike for an unknown reason. Who exactly is Googling “Sandra Vahtel” 20 times? Do I want to know? Care to drop a line?

I’m up late, watching a DVD copy of Vanilla Sky that keeps skipping and pausing. I suppose that’s what I get for buying it used for like six bucks. I’m actually up late ’cause I’m helping my friend/landlord/roommate Helen edit together a book of words and images from her time in Argentina. We meet every couple of weeks to discuss progress, and I am not the most “on top of things” as I could be. This is because during our last meeting, we reached a kind of creative breakthrough and instead of capitalizing on the synergy, I coasted on the high of artificial achievement and have slacked off for the past two weeks. Ho-hum. Creative energy comes, creative energy goes, but one thing’s for sure, it’s much easier to maintain when you continue to feed it.

Anyway, I’ve been unemployed now for a month. I have yet to update my resume. However, I have used this time to make significant headway on my novel. Am I making progress? Well, I’ve been more productive this month than I was during all of last year, so I’d say, “yes, that’s progress.” Whatever I have left to write hardly matters compared to my burgeoning feelings toward the material. I’ve drawn closer to the project, and strangely I feel even more committed to it, as if we’ve reached a level of intimacy not previously felt. I like to say that me and my book are at second base.

Feelings of course are tricky and fickle and don’t usually reflect reality. My reality is that I’m unemployed and despite getting money from the State of California every couple of weeks, I don’t have any other kind of income stream; I don’t have health insurance. Sure I feel secure now, but what about when the money starts to dry up? I’m trying not to think about that right now, a decision that nags at the back of my brain as being irresponsible. Whether it is or not, I’m just trying to get as much work done on the book while I still can.

Despite all the uncertainty, no matter what I “should” be doing or “should not” be doing, I have learned something critical to my development as a human being, and that’s the importance of having choices and making decisions.

You want to do something and you do it. That sounds like a simple concept, but it’s a fact I missed during my 20s. I think I thought that things would just happen in life, be it a career or relationship or writing a book or whatever, but I’m beginning to learn differently. I spent an entire decade having fun but essentially floating about, waiting for things to happen to me, never realizing that I had a choice in my life’s direction. That’s not to say that I know what’s best for myself all the time or that I’ll get what I want, but I still pilot the ship. Me, not others or the outcomes of their decisions.

I could easily spend my days trolling job boards and emailing resumes, that’s an entirely valid choice, but one that’s counter to what I want to do at this particular moment. Right now I choose my novel, and with it financial uncertainty and a denial of some of life’s creature comforts. But at least it’s my decision and not anyone else’s.

the last year in images

2011 was weird. Weird, man, weird.

I didn’t write a whole lot last year, in any form, either on my novel or on this blog. I wrote plenty at work, but now that’s over and it’s a whole other story shaping up to make 2012 just as wild as 2011, but hopefully, please God, wild in like a fun and exciting way, not in a panic-inducing way …

Anyway, I was right in the middle of writing a lengthy post about it all, but I got sidetracked by my roommates and then I added another several hundred words to my lovely fiction manuscript (we’re cruising at about 85,000 words) and then I started looking at the photography of Jamie Beck, and realized I hadn’t posted a single image last year, so before we get to any words, here are some of my favorite visuals from 2011. Enjoy.

(click on the photos, they get bigger!)

New York, New York

The city so nice … well, you know how the rest goes.

Here’s some photos from last week’s trip. I took plenty of color photos as well (as evidenced below), but I dunno, the city seems to look better in black and white. The muted palate helps tone down the overwhelming energy, the glaring lights, the bright colors, the unctuous odors that envelope you like temporary cloaks as you walk down the sidewalk.

This trip took me further afield than 2009’s jaunt. Not to the outer boroughs or anything, but further west and further east and further south than I’ve been. Chelsea, the Bowery, Chinatown, all new territory for me, and all unique in their look and feel. And of course Central Park, which is singular in its scope and ingenuity of design and purpose. Thank you, Frederick Law Olmsted for imagining such a beautiful space and the loving detail with which you brought it to life. I’m sure you never could have conceived the immensity of the city that grew up around your park, but I’m sure you’d be happy to know that it’s still fully intact, over a century later.

Some pretty apartments along the High Line



This apartment building reminded me a little of the Fred and Ginger building in Prague

The Upper East Side and some foreboding clouds


Pretty, eh? Can’t believe this is nestled in the midst of one of the busiest, smelliest cities in the world.

The Dakota

An Update of Sorts

Hello? Is anyone still reading this blog? I know it’s been a while since I last wrote, and I also promised my friend Stephen a review of his new book, Trickster Stories (which you should totally spend the $2.99 for), which I have yet to get to, and maybe it’s all just an excuse, but these last few months have turned life completely on its head.

Since I last wrote, I experienced a few more weeks of feeling panicky and having a dread that death was just around the corner, that something, be it a heart attack or a stroke or brain tumor, was looming on the horizon. After a particularly bad evening, my doctor offered to prescribe me some short-term anti-anxiety pills. Blood tests were done and I was deemed healthy, at least from a physical perspective. My bad cholesterol was 109, and my blood pressure 140/90—elevated, but not dangerously so. My cardiologist referral was even denied, a piece of news that should have scared me but left me feeling like, hey maybe I don’t need to see one.

Instead, I started to see a therapist, and together we are being to piece together why I feel so scared and anxious all the time.

In the midst of all this, I have good days and I have bad days. Some days I am afraid to exercise and other days  I relish the release of adrenaline from my system. Some days I am overcome with dread and that life will never be back to “normal,” and others when I feel hopeful and that I can walk confidently through this process. Some days the physical symptoms of anxiety grip me tightly, especially dizziness and heart palpitations, that do not seem to abate no matter what. Some days I am so focused at my tasks at hand that I feel as if these last few months have ever happened.

There are parts of this that baffle me. Like the physical symptoms of anxiety. The jitters, the lightheadedness, the chest pains, the hand pains, the hard, rhythmic beating of my heart that I can hear and feel throughout my body. These come on even when I am not palpably scared, but when I’m sitting at my desk, trying to work. It’s like they are a constant reminder that there is something wrong with me. Something awful, something looming, and the fear that’s associated with it is like a dark, smotherey blanket.

Therapy doesn’t make much sense, either. It’s effective, don’t get me wrong, I love it, but if baffles me. It’s just talking. I just sit and talk for 50 minutes, sometimes I cry, and then when I leave I feel better. There’s some sort of magic that happens and I’m not sure what it is.

I tried tapering off my anxiety meds once, but the irrational fears returned in full force, so I’m back up to my full dose and am going to try a slower taper. Longer-term meds are still an option, and I am in the process of seeking out a psychiatrist’s evaluation. I have not been formally diagnosed with anything, but most likely I have generalized anxiety disorder, mixed with some panic.

And where did all this come from, anyway? And is it a true diagnosis, or one doctors give when they can’t figure out what else is wrong with you? I know that I am someone who does not process stress very well, and someone whose inner monologue is usually running at 100mph, and usually negative. I’ve always been an anxious person, and for me I always that was normal. Why it’s all decided to now explode, Vesuvius-like, is beyond me. But it’s here and I have to deal with it.

It’s still been very hard to accept that there is still not something else very wrong with my body, even though I am 30-year-old, have decent vitals, and have lost over 100 pounds in the past nine years. My risk for heart disease or cancer are very, very low. However, this past Monday I feel like I turned something of a corner. I got home from work and was waiting for dinner to cook that in dawned on me that I’m just so tired of being afraid, and I’m tired of trying so hard to fight against this disease and that I’m ready to just accept what comes, as counter intuitive as it sounds. So much Christian vernacular is very warrior-based, and taking captive every thought, but as an elder at my church who deals with similar issues said, you can’t control this. I can’t control this. Sure, I think that God has given me everything I need to be able to trust him, but like any discipline, it needs to be practiced and built up over time.

And that’s been the biggest sticking point for me. Throughout this process, I’ve been very afraid that if I ask God to help me trust him in this situation, that he was going to cause the bottom to drop out of the situation (i.e., death), so that kept me from really asking him that. It’s as if I needed to muscle my way through this alone. This has been a pattern with these types of “increase my faith” type prayers, and each time, something that I deemed very awful at the time happened. Yet a couple of weeks ago, it came to me that maybe trusting God with this situation meant believing that not only was he interested in doing what was best for me, that it did not mean meeting some catastrophic end, and that he did indeed have me on the right path with the correct diagnosis, etc.

So I looked back on the whole process and see how he’s provided. The fact that the word “anxiety” was introduced quite quickly into the equation, especially knowing that some who suffer from this disorder have to wait years before a doctor can see what it is. Or the therapist I got, or all of the people who have lived through similar experiences who have come alongside and said, “you can get through this, really,” and the crazy financial provision. Frankly, it seemed a lot like God was providing me with things even before I knew I needed them.

I’m learning to rest in that trust, and to stop struggling and worrying and expecting the worst.

Which is not to say every day is peaches and cream and puppy dogs and rainbows. Far from. But this is the first time that I feel confident that not only does God want to provide these things for me, but he wants to be involved in all parts of my life, like really, really, wants to be involved, and that kind if intimacy is a little scary for me, but slowly, I am opening up to the idea that this being, this creator of the universe, wants to actually have this relationship with me and it’s kind of scary but also it’s what I want. Despite the scariness, and the letting go of control. And letting my shackles fall and not wanting to run back in and slip them on again if what goes on outside the cell gets a bit too daunting.

Again, I know this is all a process. And what took 30 years to come to a head is not going to be resolved in three months, though I have been gaining headway in terms of therapy and relaxation exercises and just recently I discovered a real correlation between my food consumption and my physical symptoms, finding that they are relieved by avoiding sugar, caffeine, alcohol (all the fun stuff) as well as refined carbs. Eating smaller meals without these ingredients, at a higher frequency throughout the day definitely makes me feel better, almost as much if not more than the anti-anxiety meds. I am scheduled for a glucose tolerance test this Saturday to see if there is any hypoglycemia going on. In the meantime, I have lost seven pounds since the beginning of April and my blood pressure is down to 130/70, which is still a little high, but not awful.

Anyway, for whatever comes next, I will plow ahead.