The Sour and the Sweet

the ever-evolving blog of Sandra Vahtel

And I was afraid to go to sleep

Let me just preface this story by saying that I am a relatively healthy individual. I haven’t needed major medical attention since I was a premature infant, unless you count that time I broke my foot freshman year of college and got prodded by the on-campus doctor and an x-ray that showed my splintered foot bone.

With that said, I landed in the emergency room twice this weekend.

The first time was on Thursday morning. It was a morning like any other; quieter, even, than normal—not a lot of work going on. I was sitting at my desk when I felt what I can best describe as a “rushing” feeling, coursing through my veins and then a rush of blood to my head. Disconcerted, I got up, went to the bathroom, got a drink of water, all in an attempt to shake it off, whatever it was. I sat back down. My chest started to hurt a little bit and about five minutes later, I started to feel dizzy. That triggered what I now know was a panic attack, but at the time I thought it was a heart attack.

I stumbled my way to the front desk area where two of my coworkers were talking. The look on my face must have been one of horror, because it was reflected back at me through their faces. I mumbled something about needing to go to the hospital, and one woman, K, bolted upright, grabbed her keys and came around the desk. She didn’t hesitate. Lucky for us, there’s a hospital two blocks from the office, and by the time I found my way to the ER, I was shaking and breathing hard.

The two nurses at the front desk were as cool as cucumbers as I explained, in broken speech, that I thought I was having a heart attack and needed to see someone. They politely asked me to fill out a form, but I made it clear to them that I was in no condition to fill out any stupid form, and I was on my knees, practically begging them to take me in. One came around and guided me behind the desk, where he took my vitals and printed out a wrist band. I was then ushered by a different nurse into a different room and an EKG was administered. I apologized for my hairy legs and she just laughed and said, “oh, I’ve seen worse.”

Finally I was guided to a bed in a room that held an elderly woman and her caretaker behind a thin curtain. Told to get into my gown and onto the bed, I did as I was told, tying the gown tight enough in the back to cover the entirety of my ass. They gave me a blanket to keep warm, and my new-new nurse was so efficient that I barely noticed as she extracted five vials of blood from my arm and left me with an iv portal that was quickly filled with a bag of saline fluid. A chest monitor was hooked up and its number slowly went from 130 to 110 to 95 to 70.

A doctor came in and said my EKG was accelerated but not irregular. Then a financial-type came in with forms for me to sign and explained that my co-pay was $100 and asked if I wanted to pay that in cash or charge. Someone gave me a cup to pee in. Another nurse came with a portable x-ray machine. A couple of hours later, I was diagnosed with heart palpitations, was told to cut out caffeine consumption and try and reduce stress, given a cardiologist’s number as a referral, and sent home.

It was a scary experience, but it was alleviated by the nurses’ friendly, professional demeanor and the general breeziness of everyone I encountered. They were all like stewardesses:  trained to stay calm in an emergency, and their calmness kept me calm. The clean, well-kept emergency room helped, too. At the time, I didn’t know what had happened to me. I didn’t understand the connection between that lightheaded feeling and the panic attacks. All I knew was that I hadn’t had a heart attack, something that, along with being in a plane crash and major earthquake, constitutes a fairly irrational but very real fear.

Once I was home, I spent most of the weekend on my back, by myself, self-monitoring. Very closely self-monitoring. Every heart beat, every breath, every little ache and itch and throb registered and my over-stimulated brain processed them as potential threats. My chest felt tight, my arm felt tight, my fingers throbbed. I swore I heard my heart stop once on Saturday afternoon, a realization that caused me to jump up from the couch and grab the phone to call my roommate before it was too late.

I had another panic attack on Saturday. I cried on the phone to my Mom and then Molly and then talked to her roommate Madeline about taking deep breaths. She was very calm. I was still scared. It’s not like when you have a cold or the flu and you know what to do to take care of yourself. When you suspect your vital organs of misfiring, there isn’t anything to do, there’s no way to handle it yourself. What do you do when your heart malfunctions? I don’t know, lay down and just take it?

Later that night Helen and I went to an art gallery opening and it took my mind off my heart. But later, back home, alone, in bed, trying to sleep, all I could do was worry. It was midnight and I called Mom again and said, “why am I rationalizing not going to the hospital when something might be really wrong?” Earlier in the weekend she’d read off a list of signs to look out for when you’re experiencing a heart attack. Chest pains, pains in the arm, dizziness, shortness of breath. I was feeling all these things to various degrees, but again, a heart attack and a panic attack sound similar on paper. But I called Helen anyway, and she drove me to the nearest hospital, Hollywood Presbyterian.

I filled out the forms this time and took a seat along with a squadron of half-sleeping, would-be patients. Someone had puked in the bathroom sink. Mold caked the tile grout. The toilet paper and the paper towels were out. I scrubbed myself with antibacterial hand sanitizer. This was a very different hospital than the one on Thursday. A triage nurse finally saw me at 2:30. She took my vitals and administered another EKG. There was blood on the floor of the triage room and in the back, on the cot, I noticed a wastebasket full of bloody gauze. “I’m going to expose you,” she’d say with cold efficiency every time she pulled my gown down to slap a diode under my breast or on my arm. I just kept my eyes on the ceiling the whole time, listening to the constant thrum of the air vent as it pumped out it’s dry, cool-warm air.

My vitals were normal. She suggested I stay and see the doctor and he could decide if they wanted to admit me. Admit me? I didn’t think it was all that serious. She said she was concerned. The kind of concern that spread like an infection, but I thought I was annoyed with her because she wasn’t telling me what I wanted to hear. I asked her how long she thought it would be before I could see the doctor. There were two paramedic cases they had to attend to, so it would be two hours, tops. Two hours?! I sent Helen home and she said to call her when I was done.

In the waiting room, I felt another rush of blood to my head and my head went fuzzy. Another panic attack hit.  I found the triage nurse again and explained that I was having an episode. She offered me the bed where I’d been given my EKG and a Styrofoam cup of water. I laid down and sat up and got up and paced around the dingy room with blood in the wastebasket. I told God that I didn’t want to die there, alone, in the place with the bad florescent lighting and then told him I hadn’t prayed about this because I was terrified that if I told him to just do his will that he’d kill me, since death is no big deal to God, but that honestly I didn’t want to go just yet.

I calmed down enough to lay down but was still afraid to sleep for fear that I wouldn’t get back up again. To distract myself, I started thinking about everything that had happened. How each time I had that blood rush feeling, each time I got dizzy, nothing happened. There was no seize, no fallout, no attack, nothing. And that I had been diagnosed at the first hospital with heart palpitations because I’d gone in having a panic attack. I thought about the tightness I’d been feeling in my chest and arms, and wondered if I was working myself into a frenzy, that I was doing this to myself. As I realized this, my breaths got deeper, and my chest started to loosen up. I nodded off, snapping my eyes open each time, until eventually they didn’t. I dozed for about an hour. Allowing sleep to come was an epiphany moment. I finally relaxed.

A nurse came in and took the trash out. I opened my eyes, needed to pee. The bathroom was finally clean, too. I was about to collect my things and go when another nurse told me the doctor was ready for me. I got into another gown and explained my entire story to an RN, assuming, for whatever reason, that he was the doctor. His arms were covered in tattoos and he smelled of cigarette smoke. But it was almost 7:00 in the morning and my adrenaline was still going and I needed someone to talk to. Not twenty seconds later, the doctor pulls the curtain back and I told the whole story over again. He agreed with me that I didn’t need further blood work or another chest x-ray. “Looking at you, you don’t look like someone who just had a heart attack,” he said. He also said that my blood pressure was fine and my heart rate was good and that as a healthy person who’s 30-years-old, it would be extremely rare for me to be experiencing heart problems, even after I explained that my grandmother had had a heart attack when she was 35. He told me to get a cardiologist referral from my doctor, and sent me home.

On the way out I saw the tattooed RN again and he said he hoped I hadn’t waited too long. I said I’d been there since 12:30. “Ouch,” he said, “have a nice day.”

So I’m out $200, but am convinced I’m going to live. The tightness in my chest is gone, but my arm still hurts from time to time. I took a long walk this evening after work as a way to get my heart really pumping again, to reset the switch, so to speak. It’ll be interesting to see if the cardiologist has anything to say, or if anything else will come of this, but at least now I can say I’m no longer afraid to close my eyes and get some sleep.


Palm Springs Christmas

To follow up on my last post, I did indeed head out to Palm Springs over the Christmas weekend for a writer’s sojourn.

And it was lovely. You might think that spending two days in a hotel room by yourself would be lonely or tedious, but it was rarely ever either of those things. I stayed at the Ace Hotel, which is more affordable than the more traditional spa hotels in the area and geared toward a younger, hipper crowd, which I suppose I fall into.

My room was simple, clean and nicely-appointed with a mini-bar that was packed with tasty treats and good drinks—at a hefty price. I’d asked for a mountain view, and that’s exactly what I got, along with a tiny little balcony, perfect for one. I woke up Friday morning to this view and could not have been happier:

I ventured out mainly in search of food, forgoing the sights and sounds of Palm Springs and the surrounding desert in favor of some laptop face-time and the fulfillment of my whole reason for going out there in the first place:  finishing the first draft of my novel. I probably spent about twelve total hours writing over the two days, watching my word count climb from about 59,000 to over 75,000, my goal for this draft. At times it was hard to get the words to come out, but mostly they flowed in a kind of mindless succession of nouns and verbs and adverbs and adjectives and conjunctions.

How or if many of them will end up in the final draft is hard to say. The draft is not in any kind of finished, readable form. Scenes meander and cut short and veer from one thought to another. I’d say rather it’s a blueprint — all the ideas are there, now they need to be fully fleshed out. One big piece of the story that had been missing before fell into place during my first session. That was some good fortune, as I wasn’t sure before last weekend how the entire story was going to come together, but now I know.

While I wasn’t writing, I slept and took photographs and watched a Jeff Bridges double feature (Fearless and White Squall) and enjoyed the warm sunshine coming in through the double doors of my little balcony. It was, for sure, a non-traditional Christmas, but if the traditional doesn’t present itself easily at hand, who’s to say new traditions can’t be made? I for one would totally advocate for a desert Christmas in years to come. Maybe not by myself, and not cooped up in the hotel room the whole time, but there’s something so appealing about the washed out tones of that landscape, I’d love to explore it in more depth. And maybe splurge on a $40 spa manicure.

I accomplished a big goal I set out for myself this year, and that feels awesome. I haven’t touched the draft since last Friday and won’t until March or April, and then it’s onto a second draft and beyond. I am being realistic with myself when I say I want to have it published by 2015. Yeah, that’s four years from now, but, between a full-time job and the fact that I know nothing about the world of publishing and just life in general, I think four years is a decent amount of time.

In the meantime, Happy New Year and happy writing!


Writing, writing, writing, writing, writing, writing …

Yep. Writing. Is it stupid to write about writing? It sounds stupid, I dunno. I’m currently in the weeds of the first draft of my first novel, a place that even a year ago, I didn’t think I’d ever be. I don’t know what I was thinking I would do after grad school—write a few stageplays and call it a day? Try and get a couple of short stories published? Sure, I’m in the process of doing those things, but here I am, at the time of this writing, with a story that is 55,489 words long. Albeit, they are 55,489 messy, scattered and disorganized words, but still, they’re mine.

It’s my goal to get a completed draft done by the end of the year—yes, this year—or to 75,000 words, whichever comes first. I have even scheduled a solitary trip out to Palm Springs over Christmas weekend to try and hammer out what will probably be the final four or five thousand words. Wait, let me read that sentence again:  I’m going to travel, alone, on Christmas, out the middle of the desert, with my laptop, to try and write the remaining words of the first draft of my novel—a novel that might not even be very good, or amount to anything at all … I suppose this is more or less what being a writer is about. Maybe so, but right now it sounds crazy.

Today, just today, for some reason, the name of a guy I went to high school with popped into my head and I felt an overwhelming urge to Google him, which I did, because I knew that he lived somewhere here, in L.A., and I was surprised, shocked even, to discover that he was a partner in his own law firm in Century City. A lawyer? This guy was the biggest, dumbest jock in high school and he’s a lawyer with his own firm? In Los Angeles?

I know everyone carves their own path, sure, but I could not help, in that moment, no matter how much I told myself that he was certainly rich but probably almost just as unhappy, feeling just a little bit—not sorry for myself so much—but small and a little ashamed and totally under-prepared and ill-equipped for life. This guy isn’t any older than I am and yet he seems so much more together, so much more adult than I do. It stung, to be honest, since, you know, as a big geek in high school, your survival is due partly to the fact that you cling so tightly to the idea that those stupid jocks who make your life hell will one day end up hating life and serving french fries. Guess what? It’s not true.

So, I guess what I’m trying to say, other than ‘life is not fair,’ is that there are some days, like today, that the decision to be a writer feels like a bad one. A path destined for poverty and obscurity and struggle and being misunderstood. After all, isn’t it just so easy to write a book? A friend of mine’s family recently wanted to know why she didn’t just go write a story like Harry Potter ’cause that’s what that J.K. Rowling did, because, you know, it’s supposed to be so easy. People don’t know—you people don’t know. Hell, just finding the time and energy to write anything after a full day of work is hard most of the time. I find myself sacrificing a lot of social interactions and sleep and money to make even the smallest amounts of headway. And yet, I keep doing it? Why? Why? Why don’t I just go get a job at a law firm?

I don’t know. For the little victories, I suppose. Like this past weekend, when my former thesis adviser praised one of the pages I submitted in playwriting workshop as “one of the best I’d ever written,” though he was quick to follow it up by pointing out that the very next page was one of the worst he’d ever seen from me. I had to laugh. ‘Cause that’s what it’s like, all the time, this writing life. And yet, it’s here and I’ve chosen it and it’s mine. So I’d better go get to it …

la pomme grands

You know, I was going to write this big long post about my new job and how I feel like I have no time for anything else and how the adjustment back into full-time work after a three-year absence has been difficult … but I don’t feel like it. I just said everything about it that I want to say. Ever since giving up my Facebook account in January, my desire to fling all the details of my life onto the Internet has greatly diminished. And I’m happier for it.

In light of that, here is a photo I took in New York when Mom and I were there exactly this time last year. Man, I love that city.

Okay, here’s another one:

Another one? Fine, you’re pushy …

one hundred days

Chances are, if you read this blog with any regularity, you know that I attended the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference last week.

You may have also encouraged the telling of tales from the week, or the showing of photographs, the conveying of information—you want me to share, dang it!

Well, alright.

Confession:  I didn’t take one single photograph while in Napa Valley. That’s a shame, isn’t it? I intended to. I took along two cameras, even, but there was just no time for it. Maybe there was physical time to snap a photo, alright that’s true, but I lacked the space in my brain to try and cram one more thing, one more responsibility in, to be able to take any photos.

Besides, that’s what words are for. Put simply, the vines were green, and multitudinous in number. Often, they stretched from the roadside all way to the edge of the gently rolling brown hills, row after sentinel row of curling branches and purple-red fruit. The sky in the morning was gray and heavy, socking in all that green until the latter part of the morning, when the sun would burn through and the sky turned blue and then it got hot in the high noon of the day until the sun went behind the hills again, where its light would linger long into the evening, mellowing out the sky to a nice yellow and then back to black as the moon would rise against the other horizon and illuminate those vines long into the night.

So, it was beautiful, for sure. The conference itself was a lot of fun, and very useful, as well as exhausting and intense and other things as well. There were a lot of writers talking about writerly things, like craft and structure and empathy and “staying in the room” and other things, like potatoes and vodka and really, trust me, you don’t want me to get into it. You’ll be bored, possibly, and confused, certainly. Just know that it was a long week focused on one sole purpose:  writing.

Funny then, that I didn’t do any writing while I was there. I journaled, actually, so I guess that’s a lie—I did write, but more succinctly, I didn’t do any work on my “fiction manuscript” or any of my plays, not any creative writing. From day one, our fearless workshop leader voiced his concern that conferences of this nature have a shelf life of four days and that if we have any hope at all of making it as writers out there in the real world, that we needed to commit to writing every day.

So he challenged us. He challenged us to write at least one sentence, everyday, for one hundred days. “You’re not allowed to stop writing until Guy Fawkes Day,” he said, even though technically Guy Fawkes Day is November 5th, and to reach a hundred days, we have to write until November 7th … but I won’t quibble.

Anyway, so a sentence a day for one hundred days. I thought about this last Wednesday as I took the afternoon to myself and hiked around the Napa/Bothe State Park, and realized that my 14-week half-marathon training regiment last 98 days. Surely, if I can run for (approximately) 98 days, I can write for 100. And so far so good:  I got over that four-day hump this morning and am trying to write about 1,000 words a day, which only takes a half-an-hour, surprisingly. I probably won’t end up using half of what I’m writing, but I’m getting it all down on the page, which is the main thing.

I know, too, that it won’t always be so easy and that there will be days where I will not feel like looking at that manuscript again or put my fingers to my keyboard at all. But Ron told us that there are days when even he needs to get back up out of bed to write his sentence before he can successfully end his day. Get back up out of bed—as in, already probably sleeping, or close to it. That’s dedication. “Those are the days you’re a writer,” he said, “any other day, just forget it.”

why i’m a cat person

This is Annie, the monster dog I’ve been taking care of since Thursday. She’s cute, isn’t she?

Annie belongs to a grad school classmate who promised she’d be low maintenance animal.

Which is true, if you consider round-the-clock fetch, constant snuggling, endless begging and continual, “pay attention to me right now,” attitude low maintenance.

To be honest, I am really starting to resent this little 12-pound ball of energy. I know it sounds stupid to resent a dog, but to be affronted with all that whiny, pouty need, 24-hours-a-day, is taxing on the nerves, especially the nerves of a cranky introvert. I find myself often looking down at her and saying, “What? Can’t you go entertain yourself for a couple of hours?!”

Which is not to say that watching her has been all bad. She is insanely cute, as I mentioned, and her propensity toward quiet snuggling has its upsides, like at night, when it feels like I’m sharing the bed with loaf of baking bread. The way her little ears flop around when she sticks her head out the car window, that’s pretty charming, too, but I’d say, for the most part, these past few days have taught me that I am definitely a cat person. And that I can’t wait to wash my sheets.


One nice thing about having creative interests is the chance to use them to bless my friends. Recently, my former coworker Antoinette asked if I could take some photos of she and her fiance, Mike. They’re getting married in October, and even though they’ve been engaged for around a year now, they never had proper engagement photos taken.

Until now, that is.

Antoinette and I met at USC and while we didn’t work together for very long, we became friends and stayed in touch thanks largely to the power of Google’s email-based chat function. She did an amazing job making around 200 chocolates for a bake sale that Michelle and I did last winter as a fundraiser for our (or at least my) aborted half-marathon. These photos were a good way for me to repay Antoinette for all the hard work she put into those amazing sweets.

I think all three of us were nervous before we got started. I had never done posed, portrait-type photography and needed to hit up a friend to borrow some better, more versatile lenses. Antoinette fretted because, according to her, every photo of her ever taken featured her with a face that looked as if she was smelling something unpleasant. Mike? Well, Mike was probably the old pro, and he carried on throughout the day, unfazed.

As the day went on, all fears were assuaged. It was fun and surprisingly easy to capture their vibrant personalities on camera. I like Antoinette partly because of her sense of humor, the fact that she’s normally got a smile on her face and that a laugh comes easily to her. She and Mike are both a lot of fun, and that made them easier to photograph.

It helped, too, that they were, in essence, getting to play-act. Our photo shoot was a production, with about five locations and almost as many costume changes. As we roamed through Alhambra and downtown Los Angeles, we all relaxed and started to have a good time. Antoinette, as you can see, does not look like she’s smelling anything remotely unpleasant.

Mike works at the music center downtown, and because of that we had access to various parts of the building that aren’t typically open to the public, like this beautiful, chinoise-covered powder room at the founder’s hall of the opera center. Or this, the opera hall itself, which we found unlocked and unattended …

Where we got, quite possibly, my favorite photo of the whole day, when I ordered them to run down the aisles. Don’t you think Mike looks a little like James Bond here? Or pre-Superman Clark Kent? I can see it, totally.

As if Mike and Antoinette were not enough, old roommate Michelle recently asked if I’d take some photo of she and her husband Chris to commemorate their one-year anniversary. While we were only going to use one location with no costume changes, she still had a whole theme and look in mind, a jumping off point, if you will. Weeks beforehand I got emails from her with photographic inspiration—a poster for the movie, An Education, and several other visual touchstones. Again, I was a bit daunted by my ability to deliver on such a fully-realized aesthetic, but march over to Carlson Park we did, armed with a vintage tea set, a picnic basket, and a one-year anniversary cake.

Michelle was partly inspired by the Diana photos I posted previously, and their dreamy, old-school look. We shot a couple of rolls of 120 film, a photographic gamble that resulted in a lecture from the old Chinese guy who develops my film about how professionals hold their cameras versus the amateurs. Yeah, so you can guess they didn’t all come out so well, but this one did, I think very well, and it captures the essence of what we were going for that day.

But what these images capture, I hope anyway, is how in love everybody is, which is what’s truly being commemorated, right? It’s not really a chronicle of being engaged—who wants to document the crazed months of wedding planning?—or a couple’s first year, but rather the bond two people take on when they agree to a proposal of marriage or “I do” at the altar.

Whatever the point, both shoots provided fun and often challenging learning experiences, and a few more lovely pieces for my portfolio. I really grew to love the experience of bossing my friends around, and I would do it again, gladly.