Sunday, July 19, 2009

On Ambien

The piece below was generously contributed by guest blogger, Nan Kirkeby, my mom.

My daughter Alane’s friend Jess remarked recently that all her funny family stories begin with “one time Aunt Jeannie took an Ambien...” My recent travel to Australia prompted my own experience with this most entertaining and quirky drug.

I know I am not a drug addict or an alcoholic by the same litmus test I use for the “drugs” I am addicted to. Think yeast, sugar, butter and heat in one package. Think bakery. Think donuts. Think Homer Simpson. I have never been able to take it or leave it. I have never been able to take a half of some sweet yeasty item and not finish the entire dozen. That is not, however, how I behave when it came to liquor or recreational drugs.

Since I can take or leave them, I leave them. Simple. In my past I might have sipped on a Sloe Gin Fizz or even (yuck) a beer at a college party and left it alone after a few tastes. I could sit in a circle with friends, pass a joint and listen to Neil Young albums with the best of them, but I didn’t particularly care whether there was another joint coming, or whether I planned to do it again the next night.

In my 12 step recovery program (think Donutholics Anonymous) the use of recreational drugs (mind altering) or alcohol (liquid sugar) is verboten and I abstain from those substances, but it actually remains a non-issue out of lack of desire. I can remember a restaurant meal from 37 years ago in graphic and delicious detail, but I can’t recall the last drug participation or sip of alcohol other than a champagne toast at my daughter’s engagement. And, yes, that was a slip. So, I know that I am not going to abuse Ambien, but I am just the teensiest bit interested in what will happen the next time I injest that tiny little rest pill. Remember Mick Jagger singing about Mother’s Little Helper?

The first time I heard about Ambien was when some Kennedy goof off attributed his irresponsible behavior to the side effects of this “sleeping pill”. At that time, I considered the press release ludicrous and concocted out of blatant spinelessness. He claimed to have driven under the influence and didn’t know he had done it. Jeez, really, just how gullible do those Kennedy nephews think we are? Our parents may have bought Chappaquiddick, but I’m not falling for that one again.

The television ad for Ambien I heard just this morning mentioned possible side effects. Something about “eating under the influence” caught my attention. Reading between the lines, this begins to sound a lot like sleep walking, a vague awareness of action and yet a place of not being really responsible for one’s behavior.

Recently, I decided to ask my physician for a prescription of Ambien in order to adjust to a 14 hour flight and a 17 hour time difference in Australia. Qantas knows how to do their job and appears to follow an unwritten rule that once airborne, everyone is on Australia time. We might actually be somewhere over Catalina, but we were “Downunda” now. The dinner trolley came down the aisle relatively soon after takeoff, and never one to miss the opportunity to rationalize an extra meal, I ordered. “Chicken, please.” I had popped the Ambien on takeoff and remember discarding the roll and dessert from my tray. I may have taken a pill that caused some people to eat in their sleep, but I wasn't going to throw away my recovery program on such nonsense.

Sometime later I had an awareness that time had passed. The travel agent from Washington in the seat next to me peered curiously at me. She gently offered the information that she hoped she hadn’t offended me when she took the fork out of my hand and the meal from my chest. Evidently I had paused, fork mid air, while eating salad, and drifted off to dreamland. Oh yeah, I thought, something, something had happened, time had passed. What an odd experience. Rather like when I had my wisdom teeth out and asked the nurse if I had told any secrets while under. Also somewhat like post colonoscopy. You mean it’s over? Wow!

I looked down at myself and noticed the bits of salad that remained. Oil smudges darkened my favorite plum tee-shirt; the one I had dropped 40 dollars on. I have seen my own babies in high chairs fall asleep like this. They may have been eating Cheerios or melba toast, but when those little eyes blinked verrry slowly and they dropped their precious little heavy heads, they were down for the count. I headed for the lavatory and took off my damp, dirty, 40 dollar tee shirt, turned it inside out and put it back on. The matching plum jacket was zipped up a little higher, and I felt sheepish but presentable.

In that first rush of hugging and reunion joy, my daughter and I noticed that we had dressed in the same color and laughed. I told her the story of the Ambien eating and we laughed at the absurdity.

When we traveled to Canberra a few weeks later, I took another Ambien late one night after a marathon day of sightseeing, museums and walking. I don’t always sleep well in a hotel and felt this was a safe thing to do. My plan was to unwind with a little tennis on TV followed by a restful night in a hotel bed. The Wimbledon Championship is a favorite of mine and both Alane and Mickey follow it enthusiastically each summer as well. With London/Australia time differences, the high profile matches just get going around 1 a.m.

I don’t remember Wimbledon that night, I don’t really remember going to bed that night either. Reminiscent of my recovery friends who were formerly blackout drinkers, I asked the leading questions one does to find out just what had happened last night.
Uh, did I do something odd last night?
Uh, yeah Mom. (odd look)
Well you fell asleep with your head on your chest and we tried to get you to go to bed.
I didn’t go?
No, you said you wanted to "notch" Wimbledon.
Notch Wimbledon? What was I doing, carving it into my belt?
We let you go for it but eventually had to walk you into your bedroom to make sure you got in there okay.

Our roles were suddenly reversed. I remembered when this lovely, accomplished young woman was a toddler who fell asleep at play with her pretty “My Little Ponies” spread about her on the blue carpet in her room. Her splayed legs indicated she had been kneeling and simply leaned back and gently passed into that other place of consciousness/unconsciousness. That night I was the caretaker. I lifted her into my arms and placed her in her bed and smoothed the hair from her face. My precious daughter, I am not ready to be the child to her adult.

Before they expire in a year or two, an occasion of travel or insomnia may arise and I might choose to try Ambien again. I am going make my own prescription label though:
Take with water,
While in bed,
With jammies on,
Prepared to sleep.
Post toilette . (Friend Jess’s Aunt Jeannie reportedly had an Ambien sleep experience involving a toilet, a hotel, a locked door, angry roommates and security break-in)
Nighty night.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Canberra: Not as Boring as You Think

In preparation for our trip to Canberra, I instructed my mom to read Bill Bryson's chapter on Australia's notoriously boring national capital in In a Sunburned Country. She then passed it on to Tom and we all had a laugh over Bryson's cynical wit, but prepared ourselves for the worst: colder weather and getting lost.

Bryson goes on at length about how Canberra was planned; it was modeled after Washington DC with roads that loop and vantage points that lead the eye from one monument to the next. Had Canberra grown and thrived as it was meant to, such a layout would have made sense, but instead the city is too spread out for its own good and is marked by impractical empty spaces. Bryson joked that locals drive around in circles wondering, 'where the f$%k is my house?'

Mom found this particularly funny and we'd repeat to each other, 'where the f#$k is my hotel?' and giggle throughout the three hour drive from Sydney. We eventually located it without much trouble at all and found the city to be pleasant, but eerily empty. Parliament had just broken up apparently and you could feel the absence of energy.

Still, we enjoyed an informative tour of Parliament House, a modern building consisting of 4,500 rooms that only opened in 1988. We were dumbstruck by the number of people (four) milling around the outside of Australia's capitol building on a bright Saturday morning. Mom grew concerned for the Girls' Choir from Seattle who we learned were to perform in the foyer at 10:30. 'The girls came all this way and there's no one here to see them.' We stuck around though, clapped politely and watched as a small crowd came from out of the woodwork to watch.

The true purpose of our visit was to see Vanity Fair Portraits: Photographs 1913-2008 at the National Portrait Gallery and it was well worth the trip. Of course I was fascinated by the Annie Liebowitz shots of recent Hollywood A-listers, but also enjoyed the older portraits of authors I was familiar with, but of whom I had never seen photographs: Hemingway, Arthur Miller, Chaplin without makeup, etc.

We also stopped by the Australian War Memorial, a mega complex consisting of sculptures, lawns, museums with full-sized planes and more. Though war memorials aren't my favorite type of attraction, we could have spent the entire day there looking at different things. The highlight was the beautiful and very Australian mosaics, stained glass and ceiling in the Hall of Memory.

When dinner time rolled around and we began hunting for restaurants, we knew we were in the same city that Bill Bryson loved to loathe. He swore there wasn't a restaurant within miles of his hotel (The Rex) so he helplessly ate and drank there every night of his stay. We found a number of decent looking restaurants, but all of them, despite seemingly empty tables, were "booked." With hangic (hunger + anger + panic) quickly setting in, we opted for the local club/RSL.

For those unfamiliar with the Australian club/RSL (Returned and Services Leauge, as in veterans) scene, clubs are "members-only" restaurants and bars known for basic, unpretentious meals and plenty of beer at reasonable prices. Non-members are welcome to patronize clubs for a modest fee ($1 per person, in our case).

With an out of character "when in Rome..." attitude, I ordered a steak. This was a mistake as it was way overcooked, but everyone else seemed to enjoy their food. Mom's willingness to fit into the club scene served her well as she won $40 at the pokie machines before dinner.

The next day, we packed up our things and departed early; Sydney and the Big Merino in Goulburn beckoned. We enjoyed our one day in Canberra, but I can't say that I'm desperate to go back.

Saturday, July 04, 2009


I've been complaining since the beginning of the season that winter has nothing to offer Australia. In New Zealand, winter brings snow and all the winter sports that go with it. However, for most of this continent, winter means a bit of cold, wet weather and no Thanksgiving or Christmas to make it interesting.

That's why the ideas behind Vivid Sydney, a festival of light, are so ingenious. Artists from around the world designed light installations to illuminate different buildings and other public spaces. Then, festival organizers created a map showing tourists and locals alike where to find each. We took a delightful stroll through familiar neighborhoods (primarily the Rocks) which held a new fascination for us when bathed in a different light.

The most remarkable display was the ever changing colors and patterns projected on to the Sydney Opera House. Perhaps the most creative thing I have ever seen, the Opera House was transformed, becoming not only an Australian icon, but the world's most unique canvas as well. It wasn't Christmas, but it was a festive way for people of all ages to spend a chilly dark evening. I'm so glad that my mom was there to see it.

Most Unconventional Birthday Message

A couple of days before my birthday, my friends and I were gathered at the Fringe Bar in Paddington for the weekly trivia quiz. My mom, who was visiting at the time, encouraged me to go to the restroom, something she hasn't done much since I passed the age of four. I knew something was up and sure enough, the above message was chalked onto the bathroom wall. It was such a pleasant surprise! I then went around the table accusing different (female) friends of leaving such a clever message for me when I realized that it had to be Shannon. Thankfully, Steph took a picture. I'm truly grateful for my thoughtful Sydney friends.