Monday, May 16, 2005

A life thrown out of balance


Monday May 16, 2005

A life thrown out of balance
* When vertigo struck, he wanted a precise diagnosis. What he got was frustration.

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

At first I dismissed the slight dizziness, nausea and a stuffy feeling in my right ear as an oncoming cold. But walking to my car later that afternoon, the world looked off-kilter: People sped past in a blur, and the sidewalk surprised me by how quickly it rose to meet my feet. I stumbled and hugged a nearby traffic signal pole, intent on finding my bearings. Driving home, the horizon wobbled and everything began to spin.

"You look fine to me," my internist said that evening, as he stared into my ear canal. "Must be an inner ear infection. Take an antihistamine."

But the antihistamine didn't help, and two days later an ear-nose-and-throat specialist ordered some lab tests. A hearing test confirmed what I had already begun to notice -- a slight hearing loss in my right ear. An MRI ruled out the scariest diagnoses, such as a brain tumor and multiple sclerosis.

Finished with the diagnostic rigmarole, I sat waiting for the doctor to explain why exactly his face was swaying back-and-forth and making me feel seasick. When I'm ill, I yearn for a precise scientific explanation for what ails me. What I got instead was an answer steeped in ambiguity: I had Meniere's disease, my doctor said, a relatively rare inner ear disorder whose diagnosis can be confirmed only by an autopsy.

Meniere's, estimated to affect fewer than eight people per 1,000, is not life-threatening -- although incessant vertigo and nausea can make you wish for that autopsy. To anybody unfamiliar with vertigo: Hold a heavy book in outstretched arms, spin quickly for a few minutes, and stop suddenly. Now imagine that sensation coming on without warning and lasting indefinitely.

I prodded the doctor for medical certainties."So I have Meniere's?"

"I can't be sure you have Meniere's."

"Why do you think I have Meniere's?"

"Your symptoms match, and we've ruled out some other diagnoses."

"But you said earlier that Meniere's patients have ringing in their ears. I don't have that."

"Some have tinnitus, some don't."

Most doctors believe that Meniere's disease is closely related to a condition known as hydrops, an excessive buildup of fluid in the inner ear that causes the membranes to inflate like a balloon and damages delicate hearing and balance systems. It is not known what causes hydrops, but hypotheses include allergies, genetic flaws and autoimmune disease.

There is no single diagnostic test for the illness -- a diagnosis is given when doctors rule out diseases with similar symptoms such as Parkinson's or cardiovascular disease -- so many people go through a labyrinth of misdiagnoses before learning about Meniere's. And even when the diagnosis is given, there's little solace in its predictive power: Some people will experience only one episode of Meniere's while others will have occasional episodes, much like migraines. Or it may become the permanent lens through which you experience life. Meniere's sometimes remains confined to one ear, sometimes affects both. It may lead to deafness in the affected ear or ears, or hearing may fluctuate, or it may return to normal.

As I hobbled away from the doctor's office, my symptoms were my only certainty: nausea that seemed to turn my stomach inside-out and a frightening dizziness and lethargy. It's as if a curtain has descended between you and the world. That you're sick and scared isn't nearly the sum of it -- you're also severely and immediately alone.

I wouldn't have wanted to be on the freeway with me, but I made it home somehow, stopping at a drugstore to fill a prescription for the diuretic the doctor had suggested. A diuretic, or "water pill," combined with a drastically low-sodium diet, is the most common treatment for Meniere's -- a combination intended to lesson fluid buildup in the inner ear. Research suggests that a drug and diet regimen provides some relief in up to 80% of Meniere's patients. A variety of surgeries have shown some promise in terms of lessening vertigo, but an uneven rate of success and potential side effects such as deafness keep many patients off the operating table.

Eating a low-sodium diet is far more difficult than simply chucking the salt shaker. Dining out is especially tricky, because restaurants tend to salt pretty much everything. If you're preparing meals at home -- a difficult undertaking while having dizzy spells -- forget most anything that's processed, prepared or canned. No pouring a drink to calm your nerves: Most doctors advise Meniere's patients to avoid alcohol. No caffeine or tobacco, either. And amid all this, you're advised to try to alleviate stress, which is thought to be a trigger for Meniere's attacks.

By the second week, I was pretty much chained to the couch. Too nauseated and dizzy to read, watch TV or listen to music, I stared at the ceiling for much of the day. When the stucco danced and swayed, I covered my eyes with a blanket, but couldn't for the life of me fall asleep. The second week turned into the third and the fourth.

My answering machine was full -- bosses from work and friends wondering what was wrong. All were unfailingly supportive, but I never knew quite what to tell them. "I have Meniere's," I'd say. That's the easy part, but then they inevitably ask "what's that?" How do I explain something that I myself don't understand?

After a month of waiting passively for things to improve, I decided, like many Meniere's patients do, to seek treatments outside of conventional Western medicine. A friend suggested an osteopath, and I found myself lying on a table in his office, letting his fingers gently work their way around my head and neck. The problem, as the osteopath saw it, was that a bone surrounding the inner ear "isn't moving in alignment with the rest of the bones in your skull."

I spent hours on the phone with a renowned homeopath in Berkeley, talking as much about my physical symptoms as about the complex web of emotions surrounding them. I tracked down a tai chi teacher and met her in a parking lot in Chinatown -- and was pleased to find that my symptoms somehow allowed me to follow along and learn the form. (Exercise is often recommended for Meniere's patients.)

An acupuncturist with a wonderfully optimistic bedside manner informed me that "the ear symptoms are secondary to your feelings of exhaustion." He listened to my pulse, told me that my kidneys were weak. I didn't mind the needles.

I can't pinpoint exactly what helped, but somewhere amid all those treatments I began to feel a bit of energy rising up. And it's entirely possible, of course, that my symptoms just eased with time. A trip downstairs to get the mail no longer felt as if I'd run a marathon. Faces stopped wobbling, and I found I could drive again. Two months after the first symptoms emerged, I returned to work.

I'm not completely better. I still feel dizzy occasionally, and my right ear feels congested. But I went on a 5-mile hike the other day, even stopping to leap from a waterfall into chilly water beneath. I climbed out shivering and ready for disaster, but the world didn't go tilt. I grinned all the way back home.

Wise people have said that illness and suffering bear forth wisdom. Perhaps Meniere's has made me wiser, but I can't tell you how exactly, and maybe that's just it: I've become more comfortable with ambiguity. The likelihood that I'll never know for certain what's going on with my body doesn't terrify me as fully as it once did.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Off the floor, onto the walls


Thursday May 12, 2005

Off the floor, onto the walls
* With humble linoleum, block print artist Dave Lefner preserves iconic images from Southern California's past.

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

In the few hours before twilight, you can find Dave Lefner driving slowly through Los Angeles' sprawl, peering from the window of his black Ford Explorer, seeking out shadows. Mostly, it's signs that catch his attention: "Liquor!" and "Cigarettes!" and other exclamations written in the twists and turns of neon tubing. The signs are bright and showy in nighttime, but in daylight, rougher edges emerge -- the rust and graffiti of urban decay. Lefner captures it all through his Canon SLR, jotting down the exact time and place of each shot. Dozens of photos and Post-its litter the cab of his SUV.

Scouting and photographing is just the beginning. Lefner then returns to his 2,000-square-foot loft at the Brewery, a massive complex of live-work artist spaces in downtown Los Angeles, and begins the process of linoleum reduction printing, a century-old technique made famous by Picasso that in recent years has been widely abandoned in favor of large-format digital printing. In fact, few artists or printmakers still do linoleum reduction printing, says Richard Duardo, chairman of the Graphic Arts Council at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and himself a master printer.

"We're a dying craft," Duardo says. "Reductive printmaking is a time consuming, tedious process. In this day and age, people don't have that much patience. Artists turn instead to large-format printers, which are glorified Xerox machines. That's why when I see somebody that has mastered this craft, I'm flabbergasted. Lefner has gone beyond being a master printmaker. He's hands down the best linocut printmaker on the West Coast."

The process is mind-numbingly complex, but on a recent afternoon Lefner laughs and chats his way through a printing and makes it look easy.

"I start with a photo of a sign," he explains. "First of all, I look at the shadows." He copies the image by hand onto a piece of paper, then completes a charcoal tracing and flips it over. He rubs the backward image onto a gray slab of linoleum -- yep, the same stuff used as flooring -- and sprays its surface with fixative. He's ready to carve.

Using just two basic knife tools, one with a blade shaped like a V, the other like a U, Lefner slices away the linoleum, discarding pieces into boxes filled with thousands of cuttings. "The first thing I do is incorporate the white of the paper showing through somewhere," he says as he cuts. "I carve those areas away off the block."

When the first carving is finished, he mixes thick oil-based inks until he finds the right hue, which he rolls across the linoleum. Ink blankets the areas that haven't been carved out, and when Lefner hand-cranks the slab through a press standing a few feet away, ambiguous shapes appear on the heavy, cream-colored paper beneath. He prints the edition, rarely numbering more than five, and then the process repeats, each new layer superimposing upon the last, the image becoming clearer with each go-through. There's no room for error; instead of using a fresh piece of linoleum for each printing, Lefner gauges away at the same block.

After five to eight layers of color and two days of drying between each, he steps back to reveal stunningly detailed portraits of the Los Angeles that most of us forget to appreciate -- classic movie marquees, midcentury motor lodge signs, ornate liquor and drugstore facades that are faded, yellowed, marked by time.

People rarely understand the process at first glance, Lefner says. The prints are so realistic-looking that passersby typically assume either some type of photography, or the kind of mass-produced wizardry that pervades the printmaking world. But eyes widen as Lefner explains the laborious process, and this is part of his intent: to reengage the public's dwindling interest in this art by portraying the artist as imbued with the kind of physical know-how, patience and elbow grease that conceptual art and technology have rendered unnecessary.

"There was a day when the artist was revered as a craftsman," says Lefner, 35. "But artists don't do work anymore. I want to get back to that. Everything is so forward-thinking that we're losing our reverence for the past. You have to remember that Picasso could still paint like Rembrandt. In order to abstract, he had to learn that, first."

A typical 20-by-26-inch piece sells for about $850, Lefner says. Most people who collect his work are as intrigued by the back story as by the visual element. "What I love about it is the process he went through," says Stacey Shurgin, a New York real estate developer who owns two Lefner prints. "Once he carves and prints a color, there's no going back. It's almost like the opposite of peeling an onion: He's building the onion in reverse. I'm not someone who's into the arts. His piece was the second piece of art I've ever bought. But since then I've become more interested in what I put on my wall."

Shurgin educates her friends about the process. "If someone doesn't explain to you how it was made, you can miss it," she says.

Eric Lynxwiler, an L.A. urban anthropologist who owns a Lefner print, does the same. "People come into my house and say, 'Nice poster!' " Lynxwiler says. "I tell them, 'It's not a poster! It's a linoleum reduction print. I don't put posters in my house.'"

Lefner's work does more than merely embrace an age-old technique, says Matthew Butterick, an art collector and a student at UCLA law school. "Photographers can easily go to Yosemite and shoot 8-by-10 shots, just like Ansel Adams did," Butterick says. "The difficulty lies in taking the established medium and finding something new to depict. That's what Lefner does: He combines a wonderful old technique with a very modern subject matter and sensibility."

Beyond the rare marriage of an ancient process with a modern aesthetic, Butterick says, Lefner's work also serves as a tool for preservation. "You look at his art, and you feel like you've seen these things before. And you have -- everybody has been down Beverly Boulevard and seen the Spanish Kitchen sign." If you want to see it now, though, you'll have to visit the Lefner print hanging in Butterick's piano room. The original is no more: Of the fabled Spanish Kitchen sign, all that remains is "Spa," a reference to the new tenant's line of business. "Lefner chronicles decay," Butterick says, "but in doing so he's also preserving L.A. history."

This is part of the duality that runs through Lefner's art: He labors over linoleum blocks to create prints that are often misconceived as being birthed by a giant ink-jet printer. He searches Los Angeles for the right facade, the right signage, but the images he immortalizes are the things that most people never remember, except in that deja vu moment when spying a Lefner print.

There are echoes of this duality in Lefner himself. The San Fernando Valley native felt the irony of attending private college prep schools "when I knew that I wanted to be an artist. I felt bad." In high school he led one life as a football player on the state champion team, and another as a burgeoning artist and straight-A student. "Football in high school was the antithesis of art," Lefner says.

Even now when you first see him and his muscled physique and short gelled hair, you think: football player. But then you see that his black T-shirt bears the signature of Jean-Michel Basquiat, notice the art books on his shelves, and remember that first impressions rarely tell the entire truth. This is the case with his art, also. It is a critique of consumerism and vice, but it is also a celebration of urban beauty found where we least expect it.

As Lefner prowls twilight L.A., he notices that the "shadows you see don't look like the signs that cast them. Sometimes they almost look like medieval script." He's reminded of Plato's metaphor of the cave: We're all stuck in a cave that is this world, and we see shadows on the walls cast by the unknown "reality" that exists outdoors. If Lefner looks closely enough at the shadows, maybe he can depict their source? That's the idea. So Angelenos, if the black SUV in front of you is driving too slowly and stopping at every liquor sign on Melrose, don't honk.

That's just Dave Lefner, looking.


On display

Dave Lefner will display his linoleum reduction prints during the Brewery Artwalk, an open-studios event by the artist community at 2100 N. Main St. in downtown Los Angeles. The event runs 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Admission and parking are free. Information: