Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Excerpt from "I'm Not Even on the List"

I'm still tinkering with whether or not I should do my memoir or not. So, I thought I would publish a chapter and see if anyone actually reads it. (Warning: there are minor errors in this as it's a raw copy.)

The Intrepid Writer on the Road and Vomiting on Airplanes

OK, so onward to my next job at the California Department of Water Resources. I have a lot of really fun and funny memories of my 2.5 years spent roaming up and down the State Water Project with my now long-time friend and photographer Dale Kolke. But before I tell you the most memorable moments of that job, I will give you a little bit of insight into what it’s truly like to work for state government and some of the less-than-satisfying moments working with what I would call today either crazy or inept.

Me posing for photographer Dale Kolke for Earthquake
Preparedness month.
As I mentioned in the last chapter, state workers are an odd breed of laziness and often craziness. How the state breeds such oddities can probably be attributed to the one fact that you can do anything short of “going postal” and kill your boss rather than be fired. So, job security and longevity often follows. You would certainly never be fired for incompetence or laziness – that’s not possible. And then you have the other factor of politics and political appointments ushering in any number of unqualified nitwits with no experience or background in the jobs they are given (“given” is the operative word here).

Whether qualified or not, people often find themselves appointed to very high-paying positions by virtue of having known someone in the right political party du jour. This situation, of course, led to my former office chief’s (we’ll nickname “Netty”) scenario where a degree in anthropology and practically zero background in public information and communications led to her appointment as the chief of what … oh, a public information and communication office. Now any questions about why someone incompetent is put in charge should have been answered.

Well, Netty and her sidekick, “Madge,” were absolute pieces of work.  I believe they were nicknamed “Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dumb” by disrespectful co-workers. I didn’t call them that, because I wasn’t nasty enough to, but many people more jaded than my younger self took great pleasure in those nicknames. Why? Because Netty and Madge were not qualified for the positions they held; so mayhem and ridiculousness that went on around there were not surprising given that neither person in charge seemed to know what she was doing.

Netty even allowed one co-worker we’ll name Filthy Francis to collect trash and debris in her 10 x 10 cubicle. I’m talking day-old sandwiches, half-eaten salads, candy-bar wrappers, half-empty coffee mugs, dried-up bread on the floor – you name it, Filthy Francis collected and let rot on the spot. I think today in our somewhat more enlightened society, we might call Francis a hoarder. Did Netty do anything to reprimand, insist on clean up, or chastise such blatantly disgusting behavior? No. When you walked passed Filthy Francis’ cubicle it smelled like decay and old food – truly disgusting!

I know every big organization or corporate culture breeds its fair share of crazy, but this was crazy layered in the bureaucracy of the moronic structure of government and stupid policies that resulted in the non-stop nonsense where student workers (I was a graduate student at Sacramento State at the time) did more actual work than the idiots who got steady paychecks, and enjoyed endless job security and benefits aplenty. How did I notice this disparity? Because as I noted earlier, I sat across from people like Bob who read the paper all day, casually sipping coffee, once in a while looking up, and nodding as I worked away – and people like Netty neither seemed to care or do anything about it.

I will also never forget that despite being in graduate school (not grammar or high school), I got treated like a child. Not a young professional fresh off her bachelor’s program where I got a degree … wait for it … in the actual area I was now working (public relations), but a “student” – and the stigma was ridiculous! I was 22 years old when I started – of legal drinking age, graduated from college not high school, and attending a graduate program where I was studying English with an emphasis on creative writing. But every time I was introduced not as the editor of the internal magazine DWR News, but as a “student,” the often paternal and condescending engineers would start talking to me like a 12-year-old neophyte.

“This is Michelle Gamble-Risley,” said my immediate boss “Joanne. “She’s a ‘student.’”

“Oh!” the engineers would say, stare and nod. “Can I get you your baby bottle?”

They didn’t really ask to serve me infant formula in a bottle, but they talked down to me just the same. It was a blast! I loved being talked down on a regular basis. And sometime later, we’ll discuss what it’s like to work with engineers and information technology heads but not now.

The "po" mouth student at work.
I also found it particularly enlightening to be treated like a poor-mouth “student” by the well-meaning office assistant “Ling-Ling” who at some point got it in her head that I was part of the needy and impoverished population and started bringing me her Salvation Army castoffs. Because you know, “students” don’t have any money. OK, to be fair Ling-Ling didn’t mean to come off like some insensitive idiot, handing off her black cardigans sweaters, but it was yet another offense taken while working there. I actually – despite my limited income – dressed very nicely and managed my money so that I could stretch a dollar and buy nice things at Macy’s on sale – and I always dressed professionally, clean and attractive, which made Ling-Ling’s offerings all the more objectionable. In fact, I am today still a true “fashionista” only now with a bigger wallet from which to spend – but I digress.

So as part of my student stigma, they (meaning the bureaucratic idiots that ran the place) decided that all students must be “chaperoned” while out in the field on assignment. Since about 50 percent of my job as an intrepid writer required I go see and interview people I was going to write about it, this ridiculous requirement that forced full-grown adults to be “supervised” meant that I traveled a lot with the photographer – and nine times out of 10, the photographer turned out to be Dale, who is still a dear friend.

Dale was a lot of fun to travel with. He is very easy going and funny, and he was also single at that time so we swapped dating stories. Dale is also one of these total “fun-facts” guys and could cite endless hours of trivia about the most seemingly obscure things.

“Michelle, do you know how long the State Water Project is?”

“Why no Dale, how long is it?”

“Seven-hundred and one miles,” he would cite these numbers with dead-on accuracy.

Yes, Dale knew those kinds of mundane and sometimes even useless details. And while some might find the endless deluge of details perhaps less than scintillating, I like that sort of thing and found it interesting, so we made great travel buddies. In fact, I didn’t like it when they assigned another photographer – one of the guys was a letch who pawed all of the women. I was quite grateful to see Dale’s name assigned to the job sheet – especially if it involved out of-town travel.

Needless to say, Dale and I took many adventures on that job. The most memorable and unpleasant was the trip to Los Angeles to Pyramid Lake – no idea what the assignment was – where I had an allergic reaction to a medication I was taking for a bladder infection. The drug built up in my system and led to toxic overload that made me very, very sick. At the time, I had no idea why I was sick.

So, I’m sitting in a rental car, and we’re driving to the airport – oh wait! Let me back up. I got sick and vomited in someone’s hotel room bathroom, and I don’t remember whose it was – and then we had to go to the airport. I’m sitting in the backseat in the middle seat all scrunched up. I’m feeling really nauseous and concerned I might hurl in the car.  The idea of puking on my boss Joanne who was sitting next to me was not on my list of ways to get a promotion. The sicker I felt, the more uptight I became – and I start feeling this strange tingling, numbness in my hands that go cold and clammy. Now I think I am having a heart attack and I’m truly alarmed!

“Dale!” I cry. “I can’t breathe! I’m having a heart attack.”

Dale, who is like I said the king of trivia, says, “No, you’re having a panic attack.”

“A panic attack?” I am thinking. “What the hell is that? Isn’t that some mental condition?”

Overwhelmed and now embarrassed because I’m having a “panic attack” – and I’m on some level a little horrified that I’m even having a panic attack at all, Dale proceeds to coach me this through this problem. And my boss Joanne encourages me to just let it go on the side of the road versus have a panic attack over it – probably good advice; but quite frankly I’m finding the whole situation totally mortifying, which all things considered is completely ridiculous.

And now what am I worried about? Getting on the plane and barfing – or not being able to control what now is building up on the “other end,” if you catch my drift. This whole scene is just awful. I am sick, and I want to go home. It’s one of those moments where you just want to cry, “I want my mommy,” and I might have broken down and actually uttered those words.

So the tale continues with me eventually making my way onto the plane. I’m still really sick. And now I’m confined in an airplane, and it’s about to take off. Of course, I sit down and immediately look for the barf bag. Dale is sitting in the aisle seat across from me. I’ve now got the bag open and ready for what is inevitable. The plane starts down the runway and ascends. You know you can’t get out of your seat in takeoff.

I turn to Dale and ask, “Can I use the bathroom now?”

“No, we have to stay in our seats,” he replies.

“OK,” I respond, turn my head back and proceed to vomit into the bag.

I remember sitting there and retching so bad that my feet in winter-white stilettos tilt sideways. And the poor gentlemen sitting to my left – can you imagine his misfortune sitting next to the young woman puking in the bag? It must have been quite unpleasant for him. I wasn’t oblivious to his discomfort, and at one point, I turned to him. “I’m sorry,” I uttered with a half apologetic smile on my face.

She pukes and apologizes; you know that is such a female thing to do. As if I could help it or wanted to throw up on the airplane; nobody wants to vomit on a plane I promise you. I look back at stuff like that, and I realize I spent a lot of time apologizing. You were mean to me, and I would apologize. I once had a lover who asked to have sex with me, and then implied I threw myself at him. He asked me. Don’t worry, though, I apologized. Heck, I think I even wrote him a letter of apology. Whatever … seriously and now I’m completely digressing.

So that story ends with a trip to the emergency room. The good news is it’s the first and last time I vomited on an airplane … knock on wood. Now it’s not the last time I got sick on a plane, and of course, Dale was there for that next stomach-turning adventure. This happened on yet another story assignment where I was going to ride in a two-seater airplane up and over Mount Lassen to Hat Creek.

Now before I realized that maybe a two-seater airplane wasn’t such a great idea (and we’ll get to that), I was completely excited. I thought it would be a blast to go on this adventure in a small plane. Oh, yeah! I begged for that assignment. I mean, I got up early and was completely sold that this trip would be so much fun. So, Dale and I drive the two hours up to Lake Orville to board this plane that is going to be piloted by a DWR employees who is also a pilot. I think Dale knew better … but of course, didn’t warn me of the perils of flying in small planes.

We take off. It’s all fine, but within minutes I noticed the plane feels almost like you’re in a motor boat in choppy water or a snowmobile breaking trail (if you’ve ever done that), and it’s kind of bouncing and bucking. It’s not like a jumbo jet that levels out and calms down. This unexpected thrill ride continues, and now I’m getting airsick. I’ve always gotten car sick, but never airsick. Oh, and I feel totally awful. Dale turns around and looks at me, because I’m so quiet.

“Oh!” he says a little alarmed. “You look green.”

Yes, I’m turning a healthy shade of green. What does Dale do? He’s a photographer remember, and he decides now is the time to memorialize the moment on film. Thanks Dale! So, he snaps a photo. If I talk to him before this book is published, I’ll see if I can have him dig up the shot. I looked terrible, but there’s this slight smile or disagreeable smirk. It kind of suggests, “Thanks a lot!”

So we get off the torture craft and I am so nauseous and miserable. Hat Creek is in the middle of the Lassen National Forest, which is actually called the Crossroads of California. We’re on the northern side of Lassen Park – and it’s a remote area where the lava of the Cascades and the Modoc Plateau, and the sagebrush of the Great Basin meet and blend to form these massive lave fields. It’s quite a sight. One thing though … there isn’t any real town, and as a result you won’t find a Rite Aide, CVS or pharmacy out in the middle of the wilderness. And now I’m realizing I’m going to have to get back on that two-seater aircraft to go home. I’m so sick to my stomach, I am now wondering what I can do to hitch a Gray Hound bus home or rent a car, because I’m not getting back on the plane without taking Dramamine. These thoughts are ridiculous. Again, no towns equal any bus stations or car rental places either.

Am I thinking about my assignment or the beautiful high country that I am now trekking around in? No, I’m completely and utterly obsessed with how I am going to get my hands on some Dramamine. I suppose I probably prattled on and whined about this problem non-stop to poor Dale, who was sympathetic and tolerant. I get like that if I’m dreading something I’m quietly running down a checklist of ways to avoid it in my mind.

Well, as we drove out to Hat Creek through this absolutely stunning forest to do whatever we were there to do, which seriously I can’t remember since it was probably a highly technical story, and it’s been almost 25 years – and it’s not very interesting anyway.  I spotted an odd little building in this very small town with (get this) a drive-thru pharmacy! Just remember, at this time in the late ’80s, drive-thru pharmacies didn’t really exist yet. Rite Aide was not sprinkling every corner of suburbia yet so that mere idea or suggestion of not only a pharmacy, but also a drive-thru pharmacy in this blimp of a town in the middle of the high country was just priceless. I made Dale promise to stop on his way back to the airport so I could buy some Dramamine, which now I want to tell you something else. I had never taken Dramamine before, so this story goes on.

We’re on our way back to the airport after visiting the Hat Creek site, which the whole country was so beautiful – and did I mention it was a clear sunny day with vibrant blue skies? I had never seen the lava fields either, and they were these rolling rock fields covered with shorter pine trees and sagebrush growing in the crevices. It was very unique and almost other worldly. It was also the beginning of my many work-related travels where I’ve been privileged to see so many places on my employers’ dimes. In fact, I wanted to write this book, because I’ve had this fortunate life full of really incredible experiences, but again, I digress.

We go, of course, through the drive-thru window, which by the way is really a window – you know the old-fashioned kind you can slide up since the pharmacy is originally someone’s house. Very funny that it’s an actual window. Window slides up, older lady passes out the packaged Dramamine, I pay, and we pull away. I’m so smiling right now, because I forgot until this moment about that window. The directions on the Dramamine advise you to take it 30 minutes before your encounter with whatever causes motion sickness. By the way, I am 5’ 9” and weigh about 125 pounds – a fact that has not changed over the years. So, while I’m tall I’m very petite. I proceed to take the suggested two tablets without any thought or concern.

We board the airplane without any problems, and soon we’re back up in the air flying through the chop and the plane is bouncing just as before. But hey, guess what? I’m not feeling sick … but then something strange happens. I suddenly realize I can’t hold my eyes open. I’m unbearably tired. I don’t understand. Why am I so tired that I have to sleep? I felt fine earlier. Soon, I’m hunched over completely asleep. We land and Dale wakes me up.

“We have to go, wake up!” he nudges me awake.

“Huh?” I say as I try with all my might to force my eyes open. You would think I was drugged … well, I was. Dramamine causes drowsiness. One pill would and still does knock me out – two pills do exactly what was happening and completely knock me cold. I somehow manage to drag myself into the car.

As we’re driving, I finally manage to conjure a semblance of consciousness and say, “I don’t understand. I can’t stay awake.”

Dale is completely laughing at me. “Dramamine causes drowsiness.”

I can barely comprehend the meaning of drowsiness. Who is he kidding? I’m not just drowsy. I’m completely drugged and passed out. I could not have kept my eyes open if I tried. Now mind you, I’m on the clock, and I’m supposed to be working. I tell you the state paid me that day to sleep.

Photos by Dale Kolke, circa 1990.
Another memorable trip found us backpacking up into the Minarets, which are a series of jagged peaks located in the Ritter Range, a sub-range of the Sierra Nevada and somewhat close to Yosemite National Park. They were renamed the Ansell Adams Wilderness, so you can imagine how beautiful and rugged the terrain. I grew up vacationing at my parent’s cabin located in the wilderness area outside of Sonora pass in the Stanislaus National Forest on the northern side of Yosemite. I was used to backpacking, and loved the wilderness areas. This trip sounded absolutely amazing to me. We were going to measure some kind of dam levels at 10,000 feet at a crystal-clear serene high-mountain lake. You could not get in by car, and it was only accessible by hiking or horseback riding.

OK, all of that sounds really fun, right? Horseback riding all day up into the high country … all right sign me up! Now I’m being sarcastic about these trips, but I totally loved parts of it, but there are so many things no one warned me about so I’m completely and ignorantly delighted about the trip. Plus, I had no money at this time, so these trips replaced vacations. I’m mean, oh hardship. I’m getting paid to backpack. Should I whine so more?

So, we stay the night at these old, rickety cabins, which is where the pack trip begins at the base of the peaks in a remote forest location. The tour guides pull out a string of pack mules. We were packing in food on the mules. OK, that was unexpected, but fine. I had borrowed camping supplies and a pup tent from my parents, and we’ll get to what happens when you borrow a tent and don’t know how to put it together. I’m introduced to my Palatino horse named Cora. As it turns out, Cora is the kicking horse, which we will get to that too.

Circa 1990 -- Me trekking around what is now Ansell
Adam Wilderness Area.
We loaded up and hit the trail. If you don’t know anything about the Sierra-Nevada Mountains, they are predominantly uplifted granite, which means we would be riding our horses across many granite pathways. Here is a piece of trivia for you: Horses hooves are smooth. Granite rock is smooth. Do you know what can sometimes happen when a smooth hoof walks up a smooth surface? You guessed it. The horse slips … backwards! Do you have any idea how scary it was to ride a horse that occasionally and unexpectedly would slip backwards? Oh, and I mentioned that propensity to kick. Yes, and she didn’t like other horses to close in too much on her hindquarters, so what did Cora do about every 10 minutes? Kick at the other horses. So between the slipping and unexpected kicking, I was scared I would say at least 50 percent of the time.

Here is another fact about the high country. In the summertime, thunderstorms can move in pretty consistently. We’re not talking a little sprinkle, but a heavy shower as you’re riding through the forest. We brought ponchos so it wasn’t that bad – and it was certainly better than the lower altitude where we were walking through dust so that you were covered in it. I much preferred the drench than the dirt layering my clothes. So, the first day we were rained on pretty consistently and toward the end of the day, a storm set in and wouldn’t let up. It began right as we were descending down into the lake as a slight sprinkle that soon erupted into a full-scale shower.

We’re being rained on and unpacking. I pulled out my powder-blue tent and had this unpleasant realization that the tubes used to construct it are missing. I have to confess, this situation is typical Michelle. I didn’t double-check my supplies and here I am – tent and no poles. Now I have essentially a tarp with no structure to hold it. It’s pouring and getting cold – and we’re all drenched. Good-guy Dale uses his ingenuities and suggests we string a rope across two trees to hold up my tent roof … good idea. Thank you Dale. Soon, I am all cozy and protected in my tent when I suddenly hear this cursing.

“Shit! God damn it!”

First, in the 25 years I’ve known Dale, I’ve never heard him cuss and only seen him really get mad once! This was it.

We are camped on a hillside. Did I mention that? No, so we have set up our camp on a slope. Dale found a sort of shelf to build his tent. And here is a fan fact. Dale’s tent is only a cover without a bottom, and instead the camper rests on a ground cover over the earth, which he did. I have to tell you, Dale felt pretty proud about this setup. It made for a lighter-weight tent and easier construction. But as the downpour continued for hours, it turns out that shelf sits in the middle of a kind of streambed – and a torrent of water now flows through the middle of Dale’s tent … with no bottom. And he’s soaked and cursing!

I can’t help it. I burst into laughter. Dale doesn’t think it’s funny. I don’t blame him. It’s not funny, but it’s, well, funny – and I’m laughing despite myself. I’m immediately offering assistance to help him move his things to a different location. After some shifting, we get the tent out from the middle of the flowing water. Then Dale settles in for the night.

We light a fire, and Dale announces he’s going to go fishing. We were camped mere yards from Mirror Lake, and the lake is stocked with trout. This suggestion sounds great, as I know what fresh trout tastes like. We used to catch Brook Trout at the cabin with our hands – and Mom coated them in corn flour and fried them – yum! So I follow Dale down to the shore. He indeed catches I think either two or three Rainbow Trout. I’m completely thrilled. He takes his lightweight cooking pots and utensils – and believe it or not, he brought some salt and pepper. You can’t say Dale doesn’t come prepared. So, he takes the trout, cleans them, and stir-fries them in the pan. He even brought some kind of olive oil to stir-fry them with. Good going Dale. And wow! Here is the truth – it’s the best trout I’ve tasted before and since. Who knew stir-fried fresh trout tasted so succulent?

The trip ends with a trek back down to the lower elevations where there are no thundershowers to dampen the ground. The dust is stirred up, as it’s very dry up there. I also forgot to mention something about riding a horse several days in a row. You get saddle sore. Yes, you’re nodding, right. I’m not talking a little sore. I’m saying my crotch and thighs hurt so bad I have to stand up most of the ride back home. What does pain mean exactly? I don’t know how to describe the chafing and soreness, but it was unpleasant. I was extremely pleased to get off that beast they called a horse. Bye-bye Cora, you kicking, sliding ornery four-legged creature. Then at base camp when I removed my sunglasses though, I looked like a raccoon. The dirt had coated my face. I felt dirty, dusty and ready to go home.

We eagerly drove back to town and stayed the night at the Shiloh Inn. I was never more grateful to find a shower in my life. And so ends the backpacking trip to the Minarets. 

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