One month down, two to go . . .

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I really don’t like winter. While I appreciate its restful qualities after it’s reality has passed until the next year, I detest winter in the present tense. Why is it that everything seems harder when the weather is awful? It’s not as if I’m living outdoors. Actually, I am outside no more than is necessary.

Since I wrote last, I have endured the H3N2 flu that has made its unwelcome visit to so many homes this year. I did get the flu shot, so the illness was not nearly as awful as the last time I had the flu years ago when I become so delirious that I hallucinated I looked like a supermodel version of my myself when I looked in the mirror. While that symptom was not an unpleasant one, the chills and muscle aches of that flu are something I’d rather forget. I also had the benefit of Tamiflu this time around. I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly that medicine worked on my fever and congestion.

I am still waiting for my epidural shot that should help alleviate the bulging L3/L4 disc that is impinging a root nerve that runs along my left hip, thigh, and knee. Now that insurance has preapproved this treatment, my shot has been scheduled for the middle of February.

If you ever find yourself in need of treatment for spine issues, be prepared to wait in line behind an unbelievable amount of people. These issues are so commonplace I’m surprised that they are not standard fare for conversation, like predictions of winter storms and roll calls of who’s on statin drugs for high cholesterol. If this were so, I would not have been disappointed so many times in how long I’ve had to wait for spinal treatments.

In other news, I have faced a common struggle that plagues parents of teenagers, the age-old battle over school attendance. I have endured a few too many mornings convincing my daughter that every school day is important. I have gone so far as to tell her that attendance is the most important thing one learns in school. In college, I once heard the rumor that St. Thomas Aquinas had a vision shortly before his death in which he saw that all of his erudition was but straw compared to the reality of seeing the Almighty. Likewise, my adult experiences have made the values of my youth seem so trivial. Your grades and class rank have little value if you can’t be depended to show up at work.

In contrast, she made a bold yet shrewd choice in plotting the rest of her high school days. She has applied to join an automated manufacturing program at a local vocational high school. She was the only young woman who visited the open house for this program. Here is a sample of some of the work she enjoyed during her visit:

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I am so proud of this unexpected choice. She’ll graduate with all the classes she’ll need for college, but she’ll also have job skills that pay living wages. I sure wish that I had acquired actual job skills in my high school days. The only vocational skill I had was typing.

When she mentioned that she’ll be wearing a uniform for the work portion of the program, she said, “Maybe I’ll look like Grandpa.”

I replied, “Looking like Grandpa is not a bad thing.”

When I consider her choice, I can’t help but reflect on two truths. We stand on the shoulders of giants, and we are deeply influenced by our ancestors. In my family tree, that giant is my great grandma Nellie, who in the photo below was the only woman making school buses at Lima’s Superior Coach factory:

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A Fortnight and a Day

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Wake me when this mess of a winter is over. I really wish I could hibernate through this season. Having lived in Ohio for most of my life, I am accustomed to wide variances in weather. A 70 degree weekend in February is not impossible. I’ve also witnessed a two-inch snowfall in May. Still, recent weather has tested my endurance:

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These brief reprieves of warmer temperatures make it hard to acclimate oneself to the spells of ridiculous cold. Our average January high and low should be 33° and 19°, respectively, but it seems we hardly ever have a winter day that represents that average.

At least the crazy weather has afforded my daughter a few snow days to work on switching back her nights and days.

In other news, we have found a second guinea pig, aptly named Buddy:

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He is quite unlike our other guinea pig L’Orange in one way: he actually likes to snack on vegetables. I hope they do not develop a sibling rivalry with Buddy occupying the role of the child who better conforms parental exceptions whilst taunting his rival sibling in secret (btw, I was that sort of sibling when I was growing up).

It is too soon to tell how well the guinea pigs will get along. I’ve taken Buddy to the vet for assurance that he is not carrying infectious diseases, but I feel I should wait a bit longer to put them together in a large habitat. L’Orange just seems to be a mountain of a man compared to little Buddy. I did succumb to temptation and placed L’Orange in Buddy’s cage for a few minutes a couple days ago. What ensued was a comedy of errors wherein L’Orange literally dragged his ass around the cage while Buddy tried to make his elder a hobby horse. I suppose they can have another opportunity to sort out who’s the boss at a later date.

My vacation at home during the first week of the year was a misery of sciatic grade pain and frozen weather. I learned something important that week: spinal stenosis and sedentary living do not combine well. As much as I’d like to do so, it is a terrible idea for me to sit down and read for eight hours a day, no matter how engrossing the texts before me might be.

As for my back, it turns out that my L3/L4 disc is bulging to the point that it is impinging a root nerve that runs across my left hip, thigh, and knee. As a result, I have nerve pain along that pathway. I will be getting an epidural injection soon to help remedy this issue.

I had one of my periodic surgery follow-ups last week. It’s been ten months since my L4/L5 fusion, and my spine is fusing well:

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If only my lumbar degeneration had been confined to the disc that was removed. If so, I would be fairly trouble-free at this point with orthopedic pain.

p.s. Of all the Golden Age mysteries I’ve read recently, I highly recommend Agatha Christie’s The Pale Horse. I think that Christie’s body of work explores a lot of the anxiety of coping with a changing modern world. This theme is very apparent in this novel.

Frozen Again

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I am on vacation this week, and I have few plans other than drowning myself in Golden Age detective fiction. This morning I thought I’d advance toward the revelation of the culprit in Harriet Rutland’s superb Knock, Murder, Knock!, but I fell asleep not once but twice as I tried to read. These naps were of the dreamless variety, so even my subconscious mind didn’t help me in revealing further details of the plot.

I’ve been digging into these Golden Age (1920’s-1930’s) narratives not so much for their well-crafted plots but for period details. I’m not sure why I’m finding these fictional worlds so comforting. This was a time when meritocracy ran a distant second to lucky accidents of birth, and I have no wish whatsoever for the world to revert back to its socioeconomic terms (e.g., heaven forbid that dressing up for dinner become a trend again). Maybe in these pages I am finding some constants of the human condition amid the relatively baroque decor and fashion. No matter how many layers of clothing we must wear, the heart still covets and the will within may fail, yet we adapt and survive. In these fictional worlds, there is the hangman’s noose awaiting those who cannot remake themselves in the face of life’s defeats.

Onto the weather . . . another Alberta Clipper dropped a few inches of snow. Now that the snow has finished falling, the temperatures are drifting to zero degrees again. I tried shovelling some snow this morning, but early afternoon wind gusts undid my work. My husband ventured outside with the leaf blower to clear off some walking paths:

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The dogs next door were out just long to do their duty and bark at us:

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I think the hound on the right is asking me why I’m outside when my toilet, unlike his, is indoors.

Four Below

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As I drove to work in the darkness today, steam rose from every manhole I passed, and my car’s thermometer indicated that it was just -4º F outside. Like much of the northern U.S., our holiday season this year has been bookended with a mini polar vortex.

My route to work bisects downtown Lima, where plenty of evergreen garlands, red bows, and twinkling lights are still on display. The bloated outdoor Christmas ornaments of municipal displays remind me of the massive 10# canned foods used in institutional cooking. A foot-wide ball ornament appeals to me about as much as a 112 oz. can of chocolate pudding.

In the darkness, the frozen weather made manifest the slightly spooky melancholy of that twilight time between Christmas and New Year’s Day. The anticipation of the season is over and there is plenty of room for the ghosts of holidays past to creep into the mind. As I drove through downtown, I recalled the times I spotted either of my grandfathers walking around that area during dawn or dusk. Both of them were wont to walk.

Following the stream of consciousness, I savored the sound of “Locomotive Breath” by Jethro Tull while I was at work today. Since I am an oddball, I imagined what a feat it might be to learn the flute solo from that song. To what purpose? I suppose it could be a neat party trick, but how would I secret a flute into such a gathering? These musings are pointless considering how rarely I attend parties. I suppose the value of performance fantasies consists solely in their capacity to entertain oneself.

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Let It Snow

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I’m as ready for Christmas as I ever get. I approach the holidays much like I did test taking in my school days. After an initial fervor, I’d procrastinate until I had to cram the information, layering the re-reading of my notes with plenty of Hail Mary’s in hope that something, anything had embedded itself into my long-term memory. Despite these crises of confidence, my test results were usually good unless I didn’t bother to show up.

I have all the presents wrapped and ready to load for the trip across town to my parents’ house tomorrow. Of course, I feel like I somehow missed getting anything that anyone would actually like because my usual self-absorption has precluded me from telepathically receiving everyone’s wish lists. Nobody tells me what they really want for Christmas any more, even my daughter. Perhaps they have abandoned all hope that I would actually find the time and the wherewithal to brave the holiday shopping crowds to get what their hearts truly desire.

One year I got all the adults on my shopping list an As-Seen-On-TV item and a gift card. At least they were able to apply the latter gift toward something useful.

Today we had our first substantial snow of the season. We had mist and fog last night, so the tree branches were primed to grow heavy with fallen snow:

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I really wish I had some photos of last night’s fog. My daughter and I went shopping yesterday evening, and we took a road-less-traveled on the way home. My habit of alternative routing is very much based on avoidance of left turns except at traffic lights with a left turn green arrow and four-way stop signs. Anyway, there was a nearly-deserted overpass we took on the way home that looked quite magical in the fog. It was a scene I will not soon forget.

By the way, I’m still a little melancholy over the closing of this year’s garden. Where once were baskets overflowing with blooms are now just forlorn shepherd’s hooks:

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I struggle to appreciate winter, even though I know from experience that I need this downtime to ensure my serenity in the long term.

Back to the subject of Christmas, my daughter did take the time to inform me of one entry on her wish list. Her relating this wish to me isn’t really an exception to the cloud of unknowing regarding my loved one’s Christmas lists, for she’s been campaigning for this one since summer. She wants a companion for her guinea pig, L’Orange:

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We adopted him last winter, and he has given us unexpected joy. My daughter has a special voice that belongs to L’Orange. The timbre and spirit of this voice hearken to Louis Armstrong, raspy, witty and wise. I’m surprised by how much history L’Orange has learned despite his seclusion. Last week he told us, “The Doughboys fought in World War I. They were badasses!”

She insists that he’d be happier with a buddy, but I’ve delayed the acquisition of one because I’m concerned that keeping two boars happy could be a tricky business.

After doing a bit of reading online, I’ve learned that it is feasible to keep two males provided they have plenty of space. I challenged my daughter to make space in her room for expanding our guinea accommodations. I didn’t think she would rise to the occasion, but she did so just in time for the local supply of guinea pigs to evaporate due to  Christmas gift giving.

Perhaps we will acquire L’Orange’s buddy in much the same way we did him. He was a February surrender of a Christmas gift gone wrong for his first family.

Merry Christmas to all of my readers.

Ham and Bean Soup

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I haven’t written much about food lately. My love/hate relationship with this necessity of life has trended toward the latter in recent months. The root cause of this discomfort has been the intent to reverse the weight gain associated with my back surgery. At best, I’ve stalled that gain.

My husband started a diet around the same time with lots more success than I’ve had. When I mentioned this contrast to my family doctor recently, she told me, “Don’t despair about this. My husband could lose weight just by sleeping fifteen extra minutes a day.”

Right now my husband is resting. Sleep has been elusive for him this week because he had his second rotator cuff surgery in 18 months. I’ve heard that such a surgery used to be remarkably painful. Now there’s a 3-day nerve block that alleviates the worst part of recovery from the surgery.

Unlike me, my husband is practically a model patient, good-natured and oriented to reality. He is not grouchy or prone to confabulation. He wouldn’t complain loudly about the help then whisper that he’d given birth to alien twins that had been absconded moments after birth, which is exactly what I did once upon a time years before I met him.

I decided to make him some ham and bean soup today. Now that his appetite is returning, I thought I’d make him something to help him rebuild after the surgery. The soup was well-received, for he ate four bowls of it.

This soup has plenty of onion in it. Actually, both my husband and my daughter railed against the smell of the onions sweating in butter. My daughter hid from it, complaining that the smell would be bonded to her shower-wet hair. Then my husband asked me to open a couple windows to air out the house.

I suppose that they do not have the happy association I have with that smell. It is the scent that assailed me every time I arrived for a holiday meal with extended family while I was growing up. In my family, a good gathering began with the sight and smell of yellow onions sweating in hot butter or lard.

Ham and Bean Soup

Serves 6-8

  • One large yellow onion, finely diced
  • generous dash freshly ground pepper
  • 3 cups sliced carrots
  • 3 stalks celery, sliced
  • 3 T butter
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 8 cups chicken broth
  • 1 lb ham, cubed into 1/4-1/2″ pieces
  • 3 16 oz. cans great northern beans, drained

Melt butter in dutch oven over medium. Add diced onion and pepper to pan and cook, stirring occasionally until translucent. Stir in carrots and celery. Cover and cook for five minutes. Add remaining ingredients, cover and turn heat to medium-low. Simmer for 45 to 60 minutes until vegetables are tender. Serve with toast or garlic bread.

My vacation from blogging

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Our first snow of the season is falling outside, an inch-deep Alberta Clipper. I am long past the cozy enchantment of anticipating snow drifts and the like. I’d rather watch it through the safe distance of film or video than experience it firsthand.

I’ve refrained from writing posts for the past couple weeks because I thought that doing so would be akin to pouring salt on a wound. Now that the worst of the nerve pain that plagued me through late summer to mid-November seems to be behind me, I have been quite angry over what happened. I am mad that I waited so long for relief (which, by the way, came randomly with the pulling of a heavy drawer while bent over at an awkward angle).

I am not exaggerating when I say that this interlude of nerve pain was the worst thing that has ever happened to me. Maybe there is something in the nature of pain that inclines a person to believe that the latest acute episode is the worst one, sort of a photo negative of one’s love life, how often we hear that a person’s current lover is the best one ever. With that aside, I will tell that I really did feel worse than I ever had.

I am no stranger to pain. I had a radical mastoidectomy, wherein a damaged part of the skull that borders the ear is removed. I was in labor for 44 hours when I had my daughter, and I had no pain medication for 24 out of those 44 hours (and this was back labor). I would add this year’s spinal fusion surgery to this list, but the pain of that procedure and its recovery were nowhere near as bad the preceding two events in this paragraph.

I know that there are millions, if not billions, of people in this world who’ve lived through pain far worse than I have. I can only attest to my own pain, and I am mad when I think of all the effort I devoted to finding a resolution to my recent pain. I don’t think I was taken seriously because I could still walk on my own and keep a straight face while doing so.

It must be hard for orthopedic doctors to understand that the pain of a patient who can work and communicate as normal can be important. In any given day or week, they see patients who’ve been broken through traumatic accidents, people who arrive for their appointments in a wheelchair or on a stretcher. So when someone like me comes knocking, a patient who seems to walk with apparent ease and can report their symptoms in a near-clinical tone, they must be tempted to assume that such a patient is just worried but well. I was not.

After three months of asking for an explanation for why I suddenly felt so bad six months past my surgery, I learned a few things through an MRI and physical examinations. I am healing well from my L4/L5 fusion surgery. This does not surprise me because the pattern of my nerve pain was markedly different than what I experienced in the months leading up my surgery. Back then, I had numbness in my left knee and part of my foot, with flares of sciatic pain that struck at random. This time around, I had awful nerve pain in a band from my outer left hip to the inside of my left knee, only when I stood in place for more than a few minutes or walked more than a hundred yards or so.

It turns out that my L2/L3 and L3/L4 discs have degenerated more in the past year, but neither are in bad enough shape to qualify for more than conservative treatment measures. I also have bursitis in my hip and strain in a tendon that leads from my hip to my knee (ITBS, or iliotibial band syndrome). I’ve been doing physical therapy exercises for the bursitis and ITBS, but the aches and pains of those issues aren’t completely gone.

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I do not yet have clarity on what I can do to prevent further flare-ups of nerve pain. No one has offered me a prognosis or definitive reason for why my orthopedic problems continue. Last year, I heard that my lumbar degeneration is hereditary. This makes sense given that I have several close relatives with similar problems. However, there isn’t enough similarity between our symptoms and course of disease to model a course of action based on what has worked for the others.

I wish I knew if I there was something I am unwittingly doing that could be making things worse, that some qualified person could take me in hand and tell me that I should change my life in such-and-such ways because of my spinal stenosis. It seems I must draw that map myself.

I don’t think I have accurately conveyed how active I must be to lead the life that I do. Both my job and my life at home require all sorts of walking. Below is a chart of all the walking I’ve done since my surgery in March (from my Fitbit account, btw):

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I’ve discovered through long experience that the only sure thing that keeps my depression at bay is walking. I thank God that the chief prescription for my surgical recovery was walking. What would I do if my spinal stenosis progressed to the point when I couldn’t walk much at all? I’d practically need to remake myself.

I’ve watched far too many episodes of Agatha Christie’s Poirot lately. There was something Poirot said in the episode called “Appointment with Death” that is one of the most inspirational things I’ve ever heard:

“There is nothing in the world so damaged that it cannot be repaired by the hand of almighty God.”