P is for Passover, and also Panic

There are a lot of aspects of Passover that people panic about.  It’s worse than Christmas.  Much worse.

First there are the elaborate preparations.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

There might be people who are not familiar with the Jewish holiday that draws relatives, and any Jewish (or non-Jewish, for that matter) friends, visitors in town, complete strangers….to one’s home and table, to participate in an elaborate ritual celebration of FREEDOM.

The ritual is prescribed by the Hebrew Bible, which commands us to gather at the full moon of the Month of Spring (Aviv), which is the Hebrew month of Nissan, which itself is a variant of the word “nissim,” which means “miracles.”

At this gathering, we are commanded to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt, when, after ten dreadful plagues, Pharaoh begged Moses to get the Hebrews (whom Pharaoh had enslaved) the hell out of Egypt so they could have some respite from all the different kinds of badness that God was visiting upon the Egyptians.

The Hebrews jumped on this opportunity.  They had just mixed up a batch of bread for themselves, and since they were in such a hurry to leave Egypt before Pharaoh changed his mind, they just stuffed the unleavened dough into sacks, threw it across their backs, made sure it didn’t get wet crossing the Sea of Reeds (even though it split for them, you know how water tends to get into things), and we hear no more about that until we are commanded to sit and eat this stuff for eight days every year.

Since the words “mitzvah (commandment)” and “matzah” are spelled very similarly in Hebrew, Kabbalah teaches that eating matzah is the Number One mitzvah.

Actually, it’s the Number Two mitzvah, number one being “love your neighbor as yourself.”  Jesus learned that in Hebrew School.

Anyway.

What does matzah teach us, to gain such high status in Mitzvah World?

Simple.

That’s it.  Be simple.

What could be more simple than flour and water?

Of course, Jews have a way of making even flour and water complicated, but that’s for another post.

Let me just say that in Orthodox Jewish circles, the object is to cram as much of the Sacred Crunchy Cracker down one’s gullet as possible.

Now, I love matzah.  I mean, I really LOVE matzah.  I could eat nothing but matzah for the rest of my life.

Matzah with butter thinly spread on it, which is a feat in itself because it breaks very easily.

Matzah with horseradish and a sweet kind of relish made of grated apples, walnuts, and wine.  Heaven.

Matzah with pickled herring.  Don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it.

Yep, I can eat a whole box of matzah without even trying.  Munch, crunch!

In Israel, matzah is even yummier because it’s made by hand, very thin, and it’s round, and you can get it made from spelt, which is delicious.

No, there is no blood in matzah.  None.  That would spoil the whole thing.  Matzah that has any additive beside flour and water is disqualified.  So let’s get THAT blood libel off the table.  Literally.

Now, sometime between my becoming Jewishly observant and my second or third year in Israel, I became gluten intolerant.  I didn’t know what it was, at first.  All I knew was that on the Sabbath, we are commanded to eat at least three meals containing bread made from any of the five grains that grow naturally in the Land of Israel: wheat, spelt, rye, oats, and barley.  In my circle, spelt was the most common, and all women were to be found on Thursday night or Friday morning lovingly kneading their Sabbath bread.

Me too.  I often hosted 20 or more people on Friday nights, so lots of bread came out of my toaster oven.  No one has money for a “real” oven in Israel.  It’s amazing what a toaster oven and a hot plate can put out in a pinch….or every week!

Anyway.  I’m procrastinating.  P is for procrastination.

So I began to notice that every Sunday, which comes after our Sabbath, I was spending in the bathroom.  Since our Sunday, at least in Israel where there really isn’t such a thing as a weekend if you’re a religious woman..anyway, since Sunday is a weekday, and you go to work, I started having to cancel patients because I couldn’t get off the toilet.  Usually by Tuesday I’d be fine, but that really screwed everything up for both me and my patients.

But since eating bread on the Sabbath is the main thing, I ate it.  And if you eat a piece of bread the size of an olive (or an egg, depending on things too complicated to go into here), you become obligated to say a blessing that takes a minimum of fifteen minutes, possibly up to an hour if you make a meditation out of it (then you get extra Heaven points, for being extra holy).  It’s an obligation, and a privilege, to be done with concentration and love.

When Passover came around that year, I ordered my huge box of extra-holy matzah, and munched away for the first few days of the eight day holiday….then my munching came to an abrupt halt.  I was forced to realize the disastrous connection between the bread, leavened or unleavened, and the bathroom.

How could this be???  God commanded us to eat this stuff.  And commanded us to bless him for all the good things he does for us, and bread is the proof!

“Ve’ahalta ve’savata u’veirachta et Ha’Shem Elokeicha…”

“And you shall eat, and you shall be satisfied, and you shall bless the Name of Your God…”  The Blessing After Meals says this…so why couldn’t I say it?

And this is the core, the heart, of Jewish ritual observance…because Judaism isn’t something you THINK, it’s something you DO.  Our observance is centered around what the Children of Israel said at Mount Sinai when we received the Torah: “We will DO, and we will HEAR.”  This means that even if we do not understand on an intellectual level what the commandments are about, we do them anyway.

So for me, the paradox of being commanded to eat bread, but the bread making me sick, was incomprehensible.  Why would God command me to do something that made me sick?  Nonsense.  So I kept eating the bread, and got progressively sicker, lost thirty pounds, became anemic, ended up in the hospital bleeding from my ravaged guts and crying out unto the Lord who led us out from Egypt “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm….”  And when I got out of the hospital I realized that my God had either failed me or cursed me or both.

But there was one grain that didn’t contain gluten: oats!

Listen, bread made out of pure oats with nothing added is disgusting.  I did manage to develop a recipe for oat pita for the Sabbath that was edible when washed down with copious amounts of dry red wine.  Fortunately, Israel has a rich and ancient tradition of wine making, and therefore some rich and ancient vineyards that produce gorgeous vintages.  (A friend and I used to make pilgrimages to ancient wine presses, 3000 years ancient!  We always brought a bottle from that region to enjoy…and he brought bread, so he could make the after-blessing…)

Then I learned to make oat matzah, which is super easy, and my Passover blues were gone.

A lot has happened in the meantime, and we’re going to skip over it and fast forward to this year, and this night, which is the third night of Passover, in the year 5776 from Creation.

I wanted to celebrate Passover, so I looked around for a community Seder (the word “Seder” literally means “order,” and connotes the order of the fifteen steps of the Passover ritual celebration, and not just the meal that most people associate with the word).  There was one, so I signed up for it, and got my plans together for making my oat matzah on the grill.  No problem!

But then God got in the way again, by causing someone to steal my camp furniture, and me to ask the management what might have become of it, and them to put me out on the street, quite literally, on the night before the day I had planned to make my matzah, which was the day of the night of the Seder.  I guess I could have made it in the parking lot of the truck stop where I slept that night, but to be honest I was so rattled I didn’t think of it….

That is, until I walked into the huge hall filled with Jews from all over the world who had gathered in tiny Flagstaff, drawn from places like Sedona and Las Vegas, to eat matzah, drink wine, and do the annual spiritual pilgrimage to Egypt and back to Freedom of the Mind and Soul.

I was decked out in a muted version of my Passover finery, minus the outrageous headgear, shoes, scarves, jewelry…since I have lead my family’s Seder for the past ten years, my rule is “I’m running this show, so I get to wear what I want.”

It probably wouldn’t have helped.

The “ikar,” the MAIN THING, the WHOLE POINT, of the Seder, is to eat the matzah and drink four cups of wine.  If you do nothing else, eat the matzah and drink the wine.  And I had no matzah.

And suddenly, with that realization, I became aware of the noise…the smell…the presence….of all these people, all these Jewish people who were all going on a spiritual journey through the medium of BREAD AND WINE, and I was there, but I was not going…the train was leaving without me.

“DAH LEHEM OHNI…this is the Bread of Affliction that my Foremothers brought out from Egypt…” the leader intones while holding up a piece of matzah.

Ohni…an Aramaic word meaning “of affliction…”  but in Hebrew, it translates, “MY affliction.”

MY affliction.  The bread of MY affliction.

Suddenly I knew that if I didn’t get out of there, and NOW, I was going to throw up in my fancy fake silver plastic plate.  I took advantage of it being a point in the ritual where everyone is lined up to wash their hands from special lavers, and I snaked my way through the crowd and out the door to my van, which the rabbi had graciously given me permission to park in the Jewish Community Center parking lot for the weekend.

I am sorry to say that I wasn’t able to make myself go to the rabbi’s home for dinner the following night, either.  I felt terrible, because being invited to the rabbi’s home is a huge honor.  But the thought of dealing with people–ANY people–terrified me.  And especially–ESPECIALLY–the black-and-white Orthodox mode of dress, the segregation of the sexes, the hordes of properly dressed children charging around in a frenzied pack (Orthodox children are rarely disciplined, yet somehow morph into polite and kind young people at the age of 12 for girls, 13 for boys.  This is a mystery).

And, of course, I would have to answer thousands of questions.  No, no, and no.  I just couldn’t face it.

So I stayed one more night in the JCC parking lot, grateful for the stand of young trees in the landscaping, since the incoming cold front brought with it a roaring wind.

Now I’m back on the Coconino Plateau, feeling uncomfortably unwashed, since I didn’t have a chance to fill my fresh water tank before being ejected from the KOA.  I’ll be here another night, since there’s a high wind advisory for tomorrow too.  When that’s over, I hope to go Somewhere Else…hopefully to Canyon de Chelly, where I can talk to the Ancient Ones who built the cliff dwellings there….maybe they can tell me why my journey to my roots has brought me so much Bread of Affliction.

How Stigma Compromises My Medical Care

I don’t know what to do.

I can bet that most of you will say, “Just be yourself, Laura.  Fuck ’em if they can’t relate to you as the awesome human being you are.”

Well, yeah.  I appreciate that.

However.

I have this service dog, see, and she’s neither little nor cute.  Well, she’s cute to me, but a 75 pound Belgian Malinois is automatically not cute to most people, especially the uptight assholes that tend to go into “the medical field” these days.  Even my therapist does not think she’s cute.  Even when Atina climbed into her lap and gave her kisses, because she could see that the dear lady was clearly in distress, it did not help.  My poor therapist could do nothing except beg me to get the monster off of her, which I did, and Atina reluctantly obeyed but was still of the opinion that the lady needed her attention.

On the flip side, if Atina perceives that someone is potentially a threat to me, she stations herself sideways in front of me, giving the unsafe party the hard-eye, which is dog language for “come over here and make my day.”

This is why I have a Service Dog:

I have a perfect storm of Asperger Syndrome, PTSD, and Bipolar illness.  My judgement about people is shot to hell.  I lost it on April 22, 1970, the very first Earth Day, when I was drugged, dragged into a dark basement, and brutally robbed of my virginity.  That, and the prolonged months and years of running from one frying pan into another fire, robbed me of my ability to read people’s intentions.  I think it’s because I simply dissociate every time I have to interact with other people.  So now that I’m on the far side of sixty and no longer give a shit, I’ve stopped making myself do painful things, and aside from the inconveniences of not having friends, family, or a partner when I have a medical emergency, I feel much better.

Have you noticed that sometimes your fridge, washing machine, microwave, computer, and automobile all crash at the same time?  So now you have to get a ride to the Big Box store, to the bank to get quarters for the laundromat, and a ride back and forth to the laundromat, to the convenience store for ice until the new fridge comes, and while you’re on the phone with Tech Support your phone is giving your ear a second degree burn and probably giving you brain cancer as well….

This is what I call a Wear Cycle.  When everything wears out at once.  It generally falls out when you’re between jobs, or just before those gift-giving occasions, or your wedding.

So as some of you are aware, I am in the throes of a Wear Cycle of the most annoying sort.  My body is falling apart.  I thought it just needed a tune-up and maybe a brake job, but it turns out to be the transmission, the universal joints, the head gasket; and every time they fix one thing, another one turns up bad.

The result is a seemingly endless procession of doctors, PAs, Nurse Practitioners, lab techs, snotty Front Office People, sadistic MRI techs who put me in Positions Of Stress for upwards of twenty minutes while further damaging my hearing with the various hammerings and clangings of that infernal magnetic tube, being told that I need surgery for this, surgery for that, and they all worry about my blood pressure.  Surely not!

You must understand that my relationship with The Medical Field is a mine field.  The minute I leave my van in the parking lot of the doctors’ building, the hospital, the lab, I dissociate.  I am terrified.

But you’re a doctor, you say.  How could you not be comfortable in this oh-so-familiar milieu?

That’s just it.  I’m all too familiar with it.  I know exactly what goes on behind the scenes, and it disgusted me while I was in it, and it terrifies me now.

Because I am…one of those patients.

You know, the aging female with so many complaints it throws your schedule off, and she’s slight dotty, and might be amusing if you weren’t running so far behind, and of course–of course, she has to be a doctor, at least she says she is, and she does know the lingo…and she has Medicare and doesn’t seem to have a job, so she must be disabled, but for what?  She’s not saying, and if you ask, she’ll say something vague.

I know this, because I’ve been on their side of the white coat.

So imagine what the reaction would be if they walked into the exam room and there I was with my Service Wolf Dog.

The entire visit would revolve around whether the person who Works In The Medical Field was comfortable with the Doggess, and whether she thought they were Safe.

And of course she would pick up on my instant dissociation because I dissociate whenever I run into One Of Those People, because of the abuse I suffered when I was working In The Medical Field, and the abuse I have suffered as a patient dependent upon these people’s power.

And the shame of being disabled, which is, according to the ancient tenets of The Medical Field, weak; and even worse, crazy.

I just rediscovered a former mentor who was hugely influential to me when I was a medical student.  She was my supervisor in the Public Health Clinic.  We became good friends, and she helped me crystallize my medical practice world view, which is based on compassion and empowerment of the patient to take charge of her own health and well-being.

It turns out that this amazing woman had a terrible crisis, which lead to a suicide attempt.

Rather than supporting her and helping her to rebuild her life, the medical establishment brought criminal charges against her for lowering the esteem of the medical profession in the eyes of the public.

They drove her out of the profession.  It didn’t matter to them that this heinous act might push her over that very precipice she had dragged herself back from.

It didn’t matter that they were persecuting one of the finest physicians on the face of the earth, for the crime of being human.

All that mattered was that she had “failed” to complete her suicide.  If she had died, she would have been another tragic physician suicide; but since she managed to survive, she was pronounced a disgrace to the profession.

Fortunately she is a strong and resourceful woman.  She cleaned houses in order to feed her children.  She struggled her way back onto her feet, and reinvented herself.  Blessed be.

So I know very well what the result would be, even if the Doggess didn’t bite the Assistant (you hardly ever get to see The Doctor anymore):  “Did you get a load of that lady with the dog?  What a crock!”

Yes, fuck ’em.  They’ve no right, legally or otherwise, to prevent me from having my dog with me.  She’s Durable Medical Equipment, just like a wheelchair.

The only thing is…being mentally ill automatically discredits anything I say.  I’ve tried it both ways.  And unfortunately, whenever I’m honest and disclose that I have DSM diagnoses, I get my case dismissed.  No contest.  No service.  Goodbye, and put some ice on that.  It will feel better in seven to ten days.  No need for follow-up.

In awful contrast, when I have withheld my diagnoses, it’s all sympathy and MRIs.

Hell, I even got a few tramadol tablets for my torn shoulder, when I begged the doctor because my left wrist is in a brace awaiting surgery and my right shoulder is so painful that I can’t even get out of bed without fainting if I forget and try to push myself up with my right arm.  (How do I get out of bed?  By wriggling on my tummy until my feet touch the floor.)

You think she would have given me that prescription for thirty, no refills, if she knew that I’m bipolar?

Nope.  Bipolar people are categorically drug seekers.  Even though I asked for tramadol and not Percocet.  Drug seeker, no way.

I’m stuck.

I’m terrified of those places, and I need my dog.  But the presence of my dog would set off such alarms in the mind of The Medical Field Person that my actual medical issues would be eclipsed by Prejudice.  Stigma.

If I showed up in an electric wheelchair, they would be all ears.

But a crazy person with a dog?

Two is too many

It seems that I have been putting off writing this post until I can’t anymore.

The reason I have procrastinated so long is…well, there are two reasons: fear, and pain.

I came to Flagstaff several weeks ago in search of a hand surgeon.  I took a nasty fall over a log, as some of you might remember, and after waiting a suitable number of days to make sure it wasn’t just sprained, sought care at an orthopedic urgent care facility. 

There I met a young, arrogant, and completely disagreeable orthopedist, who humiliated me in numerous ways until his assistant hipped him to the fact that he and I share a first name, to wit: “Doctor.”  Then he became all cozy and collegial, remarking on the skill of the last hand surgeon’s handiwork, as we gazed at my Xray together.  I was musing how overexposed the film was.  He was burbling away.  I had dissociated long since and have no idea what he said after that.

But I picked up the hand surgeon’s card on my way out, and spied the spine surgeon’s as well.

The chirpy receptionist volunteered to make me some appointments if I needed them, right there on the spot, so I took her up on it.

Let’s see, hand surgeon, since that came first.  And my poor arthritic shoulders were killing me, especially after the recent acrobatic stunts.  I’d have an appointment with the non-interventionist arthritis doctor, please. 

And then there is my spine, bane of my existence since 1985.  A couple of lumbar discs ruptured back then.  In 1987, emergency surgery for a ruptured disc in my neck.  Oh, and that rupture occurred on the first night of my internship.  I drew call my first night, of course.  “Black Cloud.” 

Over the three years of my residency I would go on to rupture at least five discs.  The spine surgeons threatened me with putting metal rods on both sides of my spine.  I demurred, and opted for a custom molded hard plastic exoskeleton type of thing that extended from armpits to groin, to be worn 23 3/4 hours per day.  Fifteen minutes to shower, then back into the Plastic Maiden.

In the intervening 30 years, my spine has had its moments of freedom from having to drag me into its consciousness.  Curiously enough, my best years were when I had horses and rode daily.  The gentle rocking motion kept my spine well oiled, and the occasional eruption of a bucking episode provided any needed adjustments.

Then I got Rolfed by the former Captain of the Venezuelan Olympic Women’s Luge Team.  She was gigantic.  She was good.  It was excruciating.

My back didn’t dare go out if it meant going back to Alejandra.

After I returned from Israel to be with my father in his last years, my neck began to bother me enough so that I went to see a Physiatrist.

For those who are unfamiliar, a Physiatrist is an M.D. or D.O. who is trained in evaluating and treating musculoskeletal disorders non-surgically, with things like hydrotherapy and massage.  Sound good?

Actually, I did not choose this person specifically because she would be the most likely to send me to a Turkish Bath; it was simply a matter of Cut vs. Not-Cut.

Dr. Not-Cut did not send me to the Turkish Bath, nor even to Physical Therapy, but packed me off to her partner who does one thing exclusively: epidural injections.

Now, while I’ve had many a needle inserted into my spine at the lumbar region, I have never permitted such an intrusion into my neck, for the simple reason that it’s easy enough to prick a blood vessel by mistake, which can be problematic in the lumbar, but catastrophic in the cervical, because there is simply no room for anything like a blood clot in the spinal canal of the neck.

I went for it, purely because I couldn’t look down to tie my shoes for the pain.  My head felt like it was going to fall off at any moment, and at times I felt like beheading myself just to get it over with.

The procedure was terrifying.  It was painful.  It didn’t work.

Fast forward through several medication trials and much condescension on the part of Dr. Non, and at last I had an appointment with her Nurse Practitioner, who wisely prescribed a muscle relaxant, voila.  And a special hardshell collar to keep my head from falling off.  A wise and practical woman…And she even snuck me a small Rx for some tramadol, miracle!

And until the tumble over the log incident, that’s been keeping my neck pain down to a barely noticeable hum. 

Post-log-jam, things started kicking notches up the Pain Scale until I was hovering in the 8 range and started using my beastly hard surgical collar again.  This thing provides a tiny bit of traction, and it gets rid of the feeling that my head is falling off, but it digs cruelly into my flesh and is no fun.

I did not wear the collar to my appointment with the Instant Ortho Clinic. 

Two things you must never do, if you go to any kind of emergency services place:  do not wear a cervical collar, and never never never reveal that you have a mental illness; otherwise you will be instantaneously branded as a drug seeker, and no one will ever listen to you or even notice the bone sticking out of your leg at a crazy angle. 

And there is a third one, I have discovered, to my dismay:

Don’t be elderly.  You won’t count.

Time passes, and I get my turn with the Arizona Spine Specialist Dude, very highly Ivy League Specialty Boarded And Fellowshipped, all very nice to know.  Confidence.

He seemed like a nice chap for a surgeon.  Asked me why I was there, seemed to listen, actually examined me and discovered, dismal dismal discovery…I have lost virtually all muscle strength in my left arm.  I have no reflexes at all in my right arm, and abnormal ones in my left.  This must be why it takes me two hands to get my coffee cup up to my face.

It is no longer an issue of mere pain management.  It is an issue of preserving what function remains to me.

I need surgery.

The MRI could have looked worse.  It also could have looked better.  What is clear, is that the degenerative disease is crunching my spine like Pac Man.

I have had two appointments with the Spine Surgery People.  The first was with the actual surgeon, whom I liked, who treated me respectfully and did a good job of hitting the diagnostic nail on its head.

The second appointment was with the Physician’s Assistant.  I have no confidence in Physician’s Assistants, for the simple reason that in my opinion, there is some difference between the education of, for instance, my new Spine Surgeon, who had (after his Bachelor’s Degree) 4 years of medical school, 5 years of residency, 3 years of spine fellowship, and assorted certificates; whereas, a Physician’s Assistant has a grand total of 26 months of post-college training: the equivalent of a Master’s Degree, very nice, but not enough to develop much clinical experience.

So, with some trepidation, I met with the PA to go over my MRI results.  How could a person with so little training interpret advanced imaging and recommend treatment?

I was relieved to find out that she is, in fact, operating as the surgeon’s assistant and not as an independent entity, as so often happens today.

She had been thoroughly briefed by the surgeon on the MRI results, conveyed them to me, and explained the recommended treatment: spinal fusion at two levels.  She explained how this was done, and showed me an example of the titanium plate that would be installed, to stabilize things.

Any questions?

Uh, well, yes…what would happen if I opted to do nothing?

Well, of course, your disease would progress and those nerves would continue to lose function….

Oh.  Yes.  Definitely.  I see.

Any questions?  She gives me the crisp smile that is the equivalent of shooting one’s cuffs to glance at one’s watch.

Not at this moment, I tell her, but I’m sure I will have.

All right then, just call and let me know what you want to do.

We rise, shake collegial hands…

Several days later I realize I remember absolutely nothing about the visit.  Except the part about Surgery, and Fusing Vertebrae, and Possible Side Effects Including Quadriplegia…shit.

I called and left a message for the PA.  Two days later, she returned my call.

Yes, what was it?  Very snappish.  It’s five o’clock, poor thing must be hungry and tired…shit, there I go again making excuses for other people’s bad behavior. 

It’s that I have some questions about the surgery.

–I explained that in the office.  We place a tube down your windpipe, pull your windpipe and food tube to one side, and…(what is going on here?  She has my chart in front of her.  Why is she using the sixth grade description garbage?)

Yes, thank you, you did explain that part.  What I want to know is where, exactly, you place the titanium plate.

Exasperated sigh.  Again, with feeling:

–I told you, we move your windpipe and food tube…

Cheezes K. Reist, woman.  I want to know whether the plate is placed LATERALLY or IN THE MIDLINE???

–Midline.

Good.  How long will I be in the rehabilitation hospital postop?

–That depends on you.  She drops the phone.  Oh sorry.

How long until I am able to drive?

–That depends entirely on you.

What does that mean, exactly, please?

–That means however long you are on pain medication.  Could be two weeks, could be six weeks, depends on you.  Each patient is different.

Ah, now I have some useful information: they give you pain medicine postop!  What a good idea.

It really was like pulling teeth.  Look, if someone is going to do violent things to my neck bones, I want to know the details.  All of them.  Not the sixth grade version: for better or worse, I am a physician, and I need DETAILS.

So now I am spooked, very spooked, by the fact that the surgeon’s right hand woman is sidestepping badly.  It’s bad enough that I have to make a decision of this magnitude, without this person giving me the power trip.

I know I need the surgery.  I’ve investigated the surgeon and he comes up kosher. 

But what about this other person on his team, who seems to have enough power vested in her that she could cause me to suffer?

It happens that there is a branch of the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix, several hours from here.  I think I’ll mosey over there and see what it’s like.  I don’t believe there will be huge changes in my condition in the near term…I hope.  Maybe they have some other, brighter ideas.

And then…there is the first appointment with the Hand Surgeon to look forward to, in a week or so.  Something is very wrong with my wrist, because of the fall.  Very wrong. 

I wish I could get someone to order the MRI of my wrist BEFORE I see the Hand Surgeon, to save time.  I think I’ll call his office tomorrow and ask.  Can’t hurt.

I have waves of feelings of futility.  What is all this for?  The wrist, yes, that’s an injury and must be repaired, if possible.  But what about the spine?  I watched my father’s spine degenerate until finally he was literally a helpless bag of bones.

I must ask this surgeon, whose opinion I respect: what am I looking forward to?  How long will it be until another unstable section of my spine needs to be fused, and another, and another?  How much of this can the body endure?  Am I really buying time with this?  What sort of quality time?  How long till the wheelchair and the nursing home?  I need to know.  I will make another appointment.

Hello, Winter!

image

This is the view from inside my cozy camper.  It’s kind of like being in an igloo.  The layers of ice and snow help insulate and retain the heat inside, which is a good thing, because my propane tank only holds 8 gallons and it’s gotta last till next week, or till I can get out of here, whichever comes first.

Thankfully we still have electricity in the campground, which means I can run my electric heater and save the propane for when the ice takes the power out.  I’m pretty sure it’s going to be “when,” not “if.”  The governor of NC is pretty sure, too, because s/he (I don’t keep up on politics) has invited 500 Floridian power company workers to join ours.  I like that.  Hope Florida has enough left, because they had tornadoes again last night in the Panhandle.

Atina the awesome Malinois had a blast romping in the snow this morning.  Glad I got her out before it started sleeting.  I took a blast of sleet in the face (the only part of me that was exposed–mask, next time I emerge).  The Doggess stretched out and ran like a deer through the snow-blanketed field.

Now it’s howling and spitting icicles, to paraphrase Carl Sandburg.  Miss Dog is lying on my foot, sulking.  She wants to go out.

That won’t happen until it decides to snow again, or even give us a precipitation break.  Till then, we stay cozy and warm in our igloo.

I have a lot to do this afternoon.  I can’t decide whether to proceed with my project of going through everything and finding stuff I don’t need, in order to lighten my load a bit; or to start a new project making covers for all the windows and skylights out of Reflectix, a marvelous material resembling bubble wrap covered with Mylar.  It repels both heat and cold, so it’s good for both summer and winter climate control.

It’s clear that I need to start a new blog dedicated to my Roadtrek travels.  If the power stays on, I hope to embark upon that project this weekend.  Themes, themes, themes.  I need to find a really good photography theme, because I need to start seriously marketing my photos in order to finance my travels.  I haven’t even posted my “real” photography on this site, because I want to mostly stay on topic.  Anybody got good photog theme ideas?

Spoke with The Boy couple days ago.  Sheesh.  He is not at all sorry that he threw his mother out at Thanksgiving.  At least I got a better sense of where he’s at, and why he did it.

He’s angry that I am a nomad by nature, that I don’t have a house with a front porch with a swing and the aroma of baking chocolate chip cookies wafting on the air. 

He wants me to have a place where he can come and visit me, and have a cozy bed to sleep in, and not have to camp on a deck and pee over a cliff and crap in an incinerating toilet.

I reminded him that this was only the case because I returned to the States to take care of his grandfather, and was living in his Grandpa’s studio. 

And before that I lived in Jerusalem, in a three story house, had a full-time acupuncture practice, was a leader in my community…HAD a community, fer krissake. 

And despite many invitations and offers to pay tickets he wouldn’t visit me there.

“No, I WOULDN’T,” he said emphatically. 

I didn’t need to ask why not.

He didn’t approve of me doing such a radical thing, moving so far away (as if he visits me that often anyway), putting myself in danger…God in heaven, what did I do to merit having a child who has judged me and disapproved of my life choices since he was a baby, and expressed his displeasure by refusing to participate, refusing to enjoy the various adventures that could have been so much fun if only he had made the leap and decided to be a mentsch instead of a lead weight to drag around?

(A mentsch, for those who aren’t familiar, is Yiddish for “man,” literally, but in common usage means “a regular guy,” “a good person”.)

Hell’s bells, one time I schlepped (dragged) him out to Antelope Island, which sits in the middle of the Great Salt Lake in Utah, with his horse and my horse and the Corgi.

I unloaded the horses from the trailer.

“Saddle up,” I sang out happily.  I was looking forward to the four-hour ride on the island trail, where a herd of American Bison roam, as well as marmots, jackrabbits, coyotes, hawks, eagles, and many other interesting things.

He was about eleven, and much larger than me.  He crossed his arms and scowled.

“Saddle up,” I instructed.  No response.

So I saddled his mare for him.  Mine was already stamping impatiently, ready to hit the trail.

“Mount up,” I sang, ignoring the fact that I had saddled up for him.

No response.

“Well, I’m damned if I’m going to miss my ride just because you’ve stubbed up.  If you refuse to come, you can damn well spend four hours in the trailer with the dog.  And don’t you dare go near the lake!”

I unsaddled his mare, got the dog dish and water bottles out of the cab of the truck, tied his mare to the trailer, mounted up, and had a very pleasant four hour ride around the island.

When I got back to the truck he was sitting in the shade with the dog inside the trailer.   The mare was munching at her hay bag.  Without a word, he climbed up into the cab while I loaded the horses.  When we got home (to the real house) he took himself to his room and was not seen till dinner.

That’s been my life since he was a baby.  There have been times when I really wanted to give him away.

He got somewhat better after wilderness therapy and therapeutic boarding school.  In fact, I really thought the values he learned there had stuck, but I guess they’ve worn off.

Well, now that he’s 30, there’s nothing I can do but live my life on my own terms.  As they say in New England, “If he don’t like it, he can lump it.”

If It Ain’t One Thing, It’s Another

That’s what I always say.

Yup.

I’ve been stranded at this rather dull RV park for over a week now.  Maybe longer, I don’t know.  The days here waft from one into another.  There are benefits: the Catawba River runs through my back yard, and even though the ground is still soggy from last week’s flood, Atina revels in having a place to run.

It’s a joy to watch her stretch out like a greyhound–she has the deep chest, sucked-in belly, and long legs that eat up the ground.  She never lets me out of her sight, though, and after a scary misadventure getting stuck in briars chasing a squirrel (she can’t resist a squirrel!), she always comes to my call.

Today she even got to play with a short pudgy mutt who didn’t mind getting tromped all over by a puppy three times his size.

There are real showers, and an expensive but clean laundry room, and a restaurant where they serve breakfast and lunch for cheap.

In fact, this morning while I was in the canteen filling up on lousy coffee, Atina found the new bag of laundry detergent, the kind that is little pouches of clear liquid, and decided to sample the wares.  Imagine my chagrin when I came in and found the bag ripped open, with an oozing pouch, and a guilty looking pooch on the bed.

I know a bit about detergent ingestions, and although I am trained not to panic, I did, a little, then read the label.  It said to wash out the person’s mouth with water.  Do not induce vomiting.

First I checked her mouth, in the vain hope that she had perhaps just sniffed the material and realized it’s not a treat.

But oh no, her lips and gums were slippery!  Thank goodness, she was not foaming at the mouth…But I had to wrestle her mouth open to check it (just try prying a Malinois’ mouth open, I dare you.  They’re not called “Malligators” for nothing!)  Her tongue felt unnaturally slippery, and there was a faint but present aroma of unscented soap.

So I wet a shop towel and went to work cleaning her lips, gums, teeth, and tongue.  Guess I won’t have to brush her teeth tonight.

Remembering the olden days when my ER was also the regional Poison Control Center (with a red phone, just like the White House), I counted up the pods and was relieved to find that all were accounted for, and that the one she had punctured was mostly full.  That was reassuring.

I did call the vet just to make sure, and he said the worst that could happen is diarrhea (oh boy!).

This is a great place to camp for a night or two, rest and refresh, fill up the water jugs and dump the holding tanks and be on one’s way West.

However.

It’s not the amenities that keep me here, but the repair shop.  Sadly, I’m becoming a regular.

First it was the mishap with the waste water tanks.  I went over a steep spot in a parking lot driveway and bumped the underside of my rig.  Interestingly, I was on my way to this very RV park to do my weekly chores (real shower, laundry, dump tanks, take on water) when this occurred.  I discovered the damage when I opened the “black tank (aka toilet waste)” valve to dump it, and instead of going down the sewer pipe, the nasty stuff poured out on the concrete pad, right under my rig!  Shit.

This was right before Christmas.  I begged and pleaded with the service manager to get my rig into the shop, just to look at it and see if it could be quickly mended, but they were working with a skeleton crew and could not do.

So I hung out till the following Wednesday, when they were at least able to look at it and decide that they could fix it, which they did and I am glad.

I went back up the mountain to my own property for a couple of days, because they were going to fix something else on Monday and I wanted a break from here.

So, on Sunday I started back down the mountain, because I had to have the van in the shop by 8 and I am not an early riser, so I planned to camp here the night before.

What is this “down the mountain”?

The locals call it “Cox’s Creek.”

It’s the most dangerous piece of mountain road in the Eastern United States, and according to one truckers’ guide to mountain passes, the most dangerous in the country.

Marry up continuous switchbacks with grades ranging from 7% to 12% and you’ve got a recipe for trouble.

Signs warn:

“The ONLY runaway truck ramp,” and

“ROAD WORSENS BEYOND TRUCK RAMP”

…balm to the soul.

I’ve been having some issues with the traction control thingie, or at least that’s what I thought it was.

Nope.

As soon as I pointed ol’ Jenny’s nose down the mountain, something went very wrong.

The front end of the van started bucking like a bronco.  I tried to slow down, but couldn’t!

I switched over to manual and put her in third, and the thing over-revved so I had to slow her down by tapping gently on the brakes until I came to THE ONLY RUNAWAY TRUCK RAMP, where I pulled off and got out to check for a flat tire, but there was none.

So I crept down the mountain at 15 miles per hour, with a veritable parking lot honking at me from behind, but there was nothing to do about it.

Got down to the relative flat, said a prayer, went to the repair shop in the morning, got my whatever it was (I forget now) fixed, and headed out the park gate to go back up the mountain to get something done before having to be back here on Friday (tomorrow) to get the furnace fixed.  Ho hum.

But as I took the gentle left curve out of the park, my brakes locked up completely and I came near to sliding clean off the road and over an embankment.  I caught the fear in the eyes of the driver in the oncoming lane.

So, rather than going up the mountain, from which I could no longer come down, I went to Wal-Mart to stock up, since it’s clear I’m not going anywhere for a while.

Having arrived safely at Wal-Mart, I thought it would be wise to check the fluids.  I grew up with grease on my hands, and even though these newfangled vehicles are now foreign territory to me, they still have oil and transmission and brake fluids, so I checked ’em.

Sonofabitch but the brake fluid was low.  Very low.  That made sense!

I consulted the manual to see what kind of brake fluid this beast takes, since I was at Wal-Mart and all.  But it said DON’T top it off if it’s low, because being low means there’s a leak somewhere, because it’s a closed system.

And so forth.

But what luck!  The town I happen to be stuck in is home to the only Chevy dealership for miles around that has a lift that can handle a 4 ton van!  Yay!

So, after another weekend stuck in my RV park (which is not free), I get to haul ass over to the Chevy place on Monday.

I was really, really hoping to get the fuck rid of this van before shit like this started happening.  I can smell a lemon when I’m living in it.

My new “unit,” as RVs  are called, should be finished, um, next week.  I’m supposed to drive to northern Michigan to trade in this heap and pick up my freshly built one, with dual wheels and four wheel drive, yay!

However.

I am not at all sure that I want to make that trip, in the middle of the WINTER that I was not supposed to be here for, in The Lemon.

Tomorrow, while the furnace is being fixed, I am going to call the factory that made it (The Lemon) and explain all these things.  My aim is to have the new unit delivered to the local dealer, with a considerable upward adjustment of my trade-in allowance.  Or Else.  Something.

As for The Lemon, all I ask is that it gets fixed sufficiently to get me where I’m going next.

Wherever that is.

The Carrot and the Stick

My life hangs by a frayed thread.

I am a donkey who lives by the carrot and the stick.

The carrot hangs in front of me, just out of reach.  This gives me a reason to keep reaching.  It is valuable, because it means that someone else’s life depends on mine.

I had two carrots; now I only have one.  That one is my dog, Atina.  She cannot live without me, for she is sick and depends on my care to stay alive.

Actually some other benefactor could care for her, but I love her, and she gives me the only joy I have now.  So she is my carrot.

Then there is the stick that follows me, threatening to whack me if I don’t keep trudging along under my load.

The stick is the fear that there might actually be an afterlife, reincarnation, some consequence for taking my death into my own hands.

My life has always hung by this thread, and I have clung to the thread as a mountain climber clings to the fixed ropes, the lifelines that prevent the fall into the unknown, or rather, the certainty of death.

Before the doctor rescued me by cutting me out of my mother’s hostile womb, my tiny organism was flooded by the amphetamines she took to keep from gaining weight while pregnant.

My organism did not tolerate her labor.  My heart began to fail from lack of oxygen.  No doubt my attachment to her womb, my lifeline, was marginal because of the drug that caused constriction of the blood vessels.

I was “small for dates,” four pounds, and struggling to breath, so they took me away and stuck me in an incubator with plenty of oxygen.

My lungs were bad, I suffered withdrawal from the amphetamines, I was unstable, and in those days no one was allowed to touch a fragile newborn except for feeding and changing, so I sucked my thumb and watched the white forms padding on silent feet through the dim space that surrounded my plastic bubble.  This I remember clearly.

Childhood was searing pain, alien to everything, clothes tearing at my skin, terror of my mother, clinging to my father who always had somewhere to go or something to do, only my animals for companionship and love.

Teenage hopelessness, violent rape, runaway, street life, rape, rape, rape, pregnancy, abortion, alone, alone, alone.

Finally mentors, self esteem, push push push degree degree degree, marriage, baby, fell off the balance beam, paralyzing depression, no support, head of my class, medical honor society, residency, depression, mania, no support, ruptured discs, surgery, body jacket, divorce.

Son’s father refused to see him “because it was too emotionally hard” on father.  Really?  Your son cries for you every night and day.  How can you sleep at night?  How can you look at yourself in the mirror and say, “My emotional pain is more important than my five year old son’s”?

We went on, my son and I.  Life was rough, life was rocky.  He was angry, I was numb, except for the pain always there.  Work, the drug.  Work hard, work long, work better.  A nanny in place of a father.  Angry boy, angry boy.  Can you blame him?

Angrier angrier angrier.  Treatment treatment treatment.  Drugs, legal and not.  Go and live with father finally, maybe that will help.  Bribe father to take the boy.  Father likes money, I have plenty.  Used to.

Disaster.  Thrown away, street life, homeless shelter.

Mother now disabled by mental illness, bankrupt.

Son needs help, NOW!

Therapeutic boarding school, but how to pay?  Father and his family refuse to help.  I borrow money from my parents.  They get it by mortgaging their home, to save their grandson.

I leave my career behind, to help my son, no turning back after too much time away.  I am disabled, that’s who I am, new identity.  But I helped my son to save himself, so that’s who I am now, what, a sacrifice?  No, just a disabled person.  It would have happened anyway, in my downward spiral.

Now he is a big shot, finishing his Ph.D., and his father and his father’s family have taken him back, so proud.

His first scientific paper published in the world’s premiere scientific journal.  I am so proud.

But.

We “do” Thanksgiving together, he and I, and every year has been a blast.

This year, something different.

He invites me to his apartment.  Just the two of us.  Why?

Don’t you want to invite some friends who don’t have somewhere to go?  You remember, when you were a kid, we always had students over who couldn’t go home, or were Chinese, or for some reason would be alone.

No, he said.  Everyone already has a place.

I wondered.

The night before Thanksgiving I was invited, with great pomp and circumstance, to go out with he and his friends to a bar.  I was thrilled to be included.

But when I arrived, a five hour drive from where I stay, I had a migraine and felt sick, and just wanted to smoke some flower and curl up in my van with Atina, my dog.  I would feel better tomorrow.

So I said, you guys go ahead, I’m going to sleep off this migraine.

OK, he says, eager and relieved.  And ran out the door.  I’ll leave it unlocked he says, in case you need anything.

Morning late, I feel better, he’s hung over.  Coffee, cartoons on the big screen, I’m content.  He starts cooking.  Always happy when he’s cooking!

Dinner: a roast duck, fried rice, greens, cranberry sauce.

Not much to say, and it’s getting weird.  I feel a void, ghosts at the table, who are they and why don’t they come out and play?

So the pipe goes back and forth, and he is drinking more beer and more beer.  I go to bed early, he goes out with friends.  I wonder ?

Friday morning, coffee, and I am served a spoonful of leftover rice.  He gives himself a plate, not a lot, but a plate. ?

He goes to lab to feed his cells, I shower and try to get this migraine to go away.  I’m hungry.  I take a bit more duck, rice, a bit of everything.  Thanksgiving leftovers are the best.  I wish son was here to share, but I’m hungry and my head is pounding, so I eat.

He returns from lab.  I tell him I’m sorry I couldn’t wait for him, I had to eat.  He looks angry.  I feel the old ominous storm clouds.  Why?

I guess I’d better go now.

But I feel like crap, I don’t want to drive.

He’s already holding the door open for me to go out.

Um, listen, I don’t feel so well, do you think I could hang out for a while longer?

Um, sorry Mom, I need my space, he says, with irony face.

Oh, OK, I understand.

Beggar at the door, no place for you here.

What did I do?  Did I eat too much?  Am I too burned out?

I’m not successful like his father, the famous scientist, or his father’s father, the famous whatever.

I’m just a mentally ill disabled person, a failure at life, an embarrassment.

I’m skinny, I look ill, my hair is grey and frizzy, my clothes hang loose, my dog is nervous…

Can I at least use your internet to find a place to camp?

Oh sure, Mom.  Come in.  But please leave Atina in the van.

I thought he liked dogs.  Maybe now that he’s got new clothes and new furniture, he’s afraid she will…

I find a place, guess this is it, he’s holding the door….

Love you, honey….

Love you too, Mom…mechanical doll voice.  Grim.

I drive off, numb.  Can’t feel yet, I have to get there, too much traffic.

Get there, hook up, walk dog, collapse, convulsed with grief.

There goes my carrot.

Now I know that my leaving won’t make much of a dent in his life.

I stay here for him, thinking my exit would destroy him, but not so.

He has his father now, and his father’s father, and he is their prestigious prodigal son.

In some way, relief, that cord is cut, that fixed line down.

The plan has been in place for some time, yet I have held my hand because of Carrot #1.  Now Carrot #1 has shown me the door, out of his life and into ?

Carrot #2 snuggles against me as I write.  Precious baby.  But she is sick.

She may last months, or a year or a few.

When she goes, I go too.

Will I be punished?  Will I have to come back and do it over till I get suffering “right”?  Or, to quote Lewis Carroll, do we just go “poof” like a candle, when we go?

Already I am losing the use of my body.  My shoulders are too full of arthritis to throw a ball.  My left hand no longer works well enough to play my music, which has carried me through so much suffering all my life.

Something has happened to my blood vessels.  They break and bleed under my skin so that I go around with blue lumps simply from the trauma of living.

My skin comes off in sheets if I brush up against anything harder than a pillow.  The wounds take months to heal and leave hideous scars.

The cancer that I had in the 90’s once again inhabits my innards.  I hope it grows faster this time.  No, I’m not going to treat it.  That would hasten my death, and I don’t want to leave my dog.

But some days I can’t move, my bloated belly pushes down like a rock.  Other days, not so bad.  Some days only liquids, others, soup and rice.

I had this one carrot that kept the juice of life running through my broken veins.  Now that carrot is gone, eaten up by some other entity, and the sick carrot and the stick remain.

The stick doesn’t frighten me.  I can’t do anything about the stick.

My sweet Atina will drag me along until her own candle gutters and goes out, and I will follow after, poof, and at least this life will be done with.

I can only hope that the cancer takes me before I have to take myself.

That way I don’t have to worry about the stick.

 

 

A Coupla Bummers and A Miracle

Well, it was Thanksgiving in America, again.

A friend of mine calls it Shabbos Hodu.  (“Shabbos” is the Eastern European version of the Hebrew word “Shabbat,” or Sabbath).  “Hodu” is the Hebrew word for both “turkey (the bird)” and the imperative form of one of the many words for “to thank.”  Thus, “Shabbos Hodu!”

In Orthodox Judaism there is no “Thanksgiving Day,” because we formally give thanks to God at least six times a day, and sometimes more often.

The three daily prayers, which take up to an hour each, contain 19 paragraphs of blessing.  Each of these blessings opens and closes with a verse of thanks.  There is a separate blessing expressing thanks in general, and when there is a quorum of ten people, a special very beautiful paragraph is sung that describes the praises of the Angels.  There is a verse in every prayer beseeching the Creator to rebuild Jerusalem, our Holy City.

The other three “Thank you’s” are contained in the Blessing After Meals, said after any meal containing more than a certain amount of bread (the exact amount is part of Jewish Law), and a shorter version that is said after eating any non-bread product containing one of the five varieties of grain that grow in the Land of Israel: wheat, spelt, rye, oats, barley.  The long version takes me 45 minutes to say, because I say each word with concentration on its meaning.  I learned this from my teachers.

In these prayers also, the rebuilding of Jerusalem figures large.  Both sets of prayers were codified while the Hebrews were in exile in Babylon, after the Babylonian conquest had razed Jerusalem.

However, I no longer live in a Jewish community, let alone Israel; and to tell you the truth, I’m not really practicing Orthodox Judaism these days.

It was so wonderful living in our little country, being able to practice my religion in an unfettered way.  We could wear our special religious items–you know, the ones we are prohibited from bringing to the Temple Mount–right in the street, in the buses, anywhere, without people screaming epithets and other unpleasantries.

I once had a conversation with a black woman from New Orleans who had converted to Islam, married a Lebanese man, and moved with him to Saudi Arabia.  I met her in India.  She wanted to know why we Jews had to have our own country, when we could be Jewish anywhere in the world.

I was so taken aback by this question that I had to sit and think for a minute.  At last I got hold of my senses and asked her,

“Were you able to practice Islam in America?”

“Well, of course!”

“Then why did you move to Saudi Arabia?”

“Oh, because it’s an Islamic country!  Saudi Arabia enforces strict Shari’a Law, so it is the purest Islam…”

For a moment, understanding dawned in her eyes, but it faded just as quickly.  I developed something that needed my urgent attention, and left my friend wondering what went wrong.

Oh yes. I was talking about Thanksgiving in America.

Since I’m in America for the foreseeable future, I am doing some things American style, like Thanksgiving Day and gifts for Hannukah (our Festival of Lights, coming up next week).  In Israel, Hannukah is a time for celebrating miracles.  Gifts are not really a central theme.  It’s all about the light. ( More on that next week.)  The American practice of giving gifts on Hannukah seems to have arisen in order to keep Jewish children from being bummed out because of Christmas.

Since my son’s father is Christian, my son goes to him for Christmas.  For the past few years, my son and I have been “doing” Thanksgiving together.

While my father was alive, my son would come to my parents’ house and he and I would make a kosher turkey, and we would all get gorked on the usual T-day dishes.

Last year I was still in shock from my father’s death in early October, so my son and his then-girlfriend made a huge feast at his house.  People dropped by, roommates who had stayed in town for their own reasons cruised by and partook, we all smoked a lot of weed, and generally had a good time.  My mother was not invited, because she has made herself unwelcome by her delight in shaming me in front of my son.

This year my mother decided to fly to my cousins and have Thanksgiving with them.  I was not invited.  My cousins, who suck up to her for their own reasons, did not invite me either.  That being the case, I felt no pangs of guilt when I accepted my son’s invitation, party of one.

Then my mother decided to cancel her Thanksgiving plans, for her own reasons.  Since she knew my son had invited me (party of one), she got herself invited to one of her many friends, who has a big family, so my mom could feel really angry that her own family had not invited her.

For some reason my son did not invite anyone else to dinner.  His own reasons, I guess.  It was a little weird having just he and I, especially since he was in one of his dark moods, brooding and irritable.  I really wish he would start taking lithium again, but he angrily rejects the diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder that, in his opinion, was foisted upon him as a teenager.

So that was Thursday.

I slept in my camper van, in the parking lot of his apartment complex.  One of his neighbors, who had clearly been watching out for me, accosted me as I headed out to go to bed, demanding to know if I was visiting someone in the complex.  Surely he had seen me exiting my son’s door…

My nerves were already frazzled from dinner with my glowering son, so I fired back,

“Why do you want to know?”

“Because I think you’re just camping here.”  Whoa, let’s just get some holiday spirit of giving on here, hey?

I wanted to say to him, “Listen, Mr. Nice Guy, even if I was ‘just camping here,’ there’s a whole fucking empty parking lot because everyone has gone elsewhere for the holiday.  And what are you angry at, anyway?”

But I didn’t say that, because there’s always the possibility that a poor unhappy fucker like that will call the police, and I was already tired and tense enough.  So instead I said,

“Well, I am camping here.  This (pointing to my camper) is my bedroom.  I’m visiting ____ in Apartment _____.  Would you like him to come out and speak with you?”

As it turns out, this unfortunate fellow has seen my son, who is a weight lifter and quite muscular and buff.  So the sorry sucker subsided, and allowed as how that would not be necessary.  I also subsided, went into my spaceship and slept fitfully, as people constantly came and went, car lights and porch lights flashing.  My PTSD surrounding cops blazed like a tiger in the night.

Friday.  I woke up feeling like shit.  Depression.  Again. Still.

Went in and stood under my son’s excellent shower for half an hour while he went to work for a while.

When he came back, I said, “Listen, I’m feeling really disorganized brain-wise.  Do you mind if I hang out till tomorrow?”

The minute the words left my mouth I saw the twitch in his face that said, Oh No, Not That!

“Um…listen, Mom, to be honest, um, I really need my space.”

My heart hit the pavement.  Then I noticed the spiffy outfit.

Date.

Yeah, I was glad he was able to tell me no, but on the other hand I wished he had seen fit to be honest and say something more like, “Oh wow, Mom, I really wish you could, but since I thought you were leaving today, I made plans.”  That would have sent me off with a smile and a lighter heart.

“Oh, that’s OK,” I chirped, suddenly feeling like I’d been handed the bum rush.*

He graciously allowed me to stay long enough to use his internet to find a campground.  I found one pretty close by, said my goodbyes, and lit a shuck out of there.**

____________________________________________________

I called my mother today, just to see how she is doing, and I wish I had put money on the bet that I made with myself.  I would have won.  She barely spoke to me, and clearly had her victim act all planned out, in case I called.  I laughed.  Couldn’t help myself: it was all too predictable.

Now for the Miracle part.

My sweet Belgian Malinois, Atina, is most certainly an angel.

She sleeps in the right-hand third of my bed.  The left-hand third is reserved for all the computer-related shit that won’t fit anywhere else.

The only thing I had the energy to make for dinner was a cup of gluten-free microwave macaroni and cheese.  While I was mechanically going through the motions of making it, Atina was busy doing something in the bed.

She was pushing my duvet into a nest-like shape toward the pillow.  No, wait.  She was pushing it with her nose, straightening the edge up toward the pillow.  I thought, you cutie, you are making yourself a nest out of my duvet, and you know that’s my spot in the bed!  But I did not scold her.  My heart was brimming with love.  She pushed and pulled at my pillow, fluffing it and making it into a nice continuum with my duvet.  Aha, I thought, now I will see you plump yourself down in my spot!

But that’s not what she was about at all.

When she got my part of the bed all fixed up to her satisfaction, she plopped herself down–on her side of the bed!  She had made my bed up–for me!

I dropped what I was doing and hugged and kissed her for a long time.  By the way she reacted, she knew that I knew what she had done for me…she made a place for me to rest.  She did it with love and care.  As I write this, I am lying in the bed my dog prepared for me.  Her breathing is soft and even as she sleeps in her own third of the bed.

“Friends may come and friends may go, but your dog will always be glad to see you.”

_____________________________________________________

*”The bum rush”: A term dating from the Great Depression and possibly earlier, when many out-of-work men went “on the bum,” going from door to door begging for food, money, a place to sleep…if the man of the house took offense, the beggar would be chased off the place–“given the bum rush.”

**”To light a shuck” means “to leave in a hurry.”  It has its origin in the  Civil War, when dried corn shucks were used as fuses for light cannons and field artillery.  Once you “lit a shuck,” you had to run like hell because not only did the big guns recoil (and could run you over), but also sometimes the cannons would backfire, shooting cannon balls behind instead of in front of them.  The idiom is still in use in the Southern and Southwestern United States.  It is one of my favorites.

 

 

There’s something I need to tell you.

I’ve been procrastinating, but I must gather courage and do it.

I haven’t wanted to blog about it because it makes me feel defeated, bad, and like a lousy person. I am afraid that my readers will hate me.

I thought about making up some kind of fairytale story to cover it up, and I almost got to believing it myself. I have a lot of grief about it, and I have a lot of grief about a lot of other things, and there’s only so much grief a person can have before you start wanting to make some things disappear from the grief radar.

But it’s no good. I have to face the fact: Noga is dead.

She died just before Memorial Day.

She didn’t get sick, or get run over by a car.

I had her euthanized, and here is why:

I adopted Noga at age 8 months. She was the “ugly duckling” from a show litter, and had been cast aside and ignored, kept crated most of the time. She was not potty trained or socialized at all. She was a happy little girl, but also had a deep anger and resentment toward anything she didn’t like, and she expressed it in a particularly unpleasant way.

If, for instance, I left her in the car on a perfectly cool day in order to run into the grocery or the drug store, when I came back there would be a pile of poop and a puddle of pee on my seat.

I thought this was fear, so even though I gave her a stern lecture about it, I forgave it and went about desensitizing her by going places in the car that ended up in walks in the park, or other pleasant things. Little did I know that I was conditioning her to expect something special for her every time we got in the car!

Eventually she got so that she didn’t make a bathroom out of my car every time I left her, but as soon as I got back to the car I had to kiss and cuddle her and make a big deal of how good she was, which I was happy to do, but if for some reason I was in a hurry and had to make it a quick one, she would sulk in the back seat and ignore me for the rest of the day.

I posted about this on the Lhasa Apso group board, and the answer I got from one of the world-class show breeders was:

“Apsos are a self-serving lot.”

I nodded, shrugged, and went on.

Over five years she became my little buddy, and accompanied me through my dad’s dying, and during his last weeks she was the only one who could make him laugh. When he died, I had to physically remove her from his body. When she loved, she loved fiercely, and that was the root of the problem.

The tears are pouring down my face now, and it’s hard to type.

As most of you know, after my father’s death I bought a small RV, just a conversion van, really, and Noga and I hit the road.

She didn’t like it. She really, really didn’t like it.

Before The Road, when we were living in my father’s studio, she had me all to herself. In fact, she was my only diversion from the constant blackness of my father’s terminal illness and my mother’s terminal abuse of my poor helpless Dad, which I was powerless to stop because not one single person in Adult Services would believe that my “angel” mother, who was a Geriatric Social Worker and had actually trained most of them, could be capable of such a thing, and they all knew about my mental illness, so poor Dad suffered until he went into the nursing home and was finally protected.

And Noga came everywhere with me, and was a big hit with everyone in the nursing home. She especially loved the people with Alzheimer’s, and became the unofficial Therapy Dog of the dementia unit.

But on the other hand, she bit people.

Specifically, she bit anyone who tried to approach me, or my dad—the Hospice nurses, for instance. We thought she was being protective, and since she was only 12 pounds everyone thought it was cute. I made sure to grab her up when anyone came, and most of the time was successful. Occasionally she did get somebody, but we were in Appalachia and people there are used to dogs that bite. Dogs bite, right?

For some reason, she liked to attack children. I had a heck of a time walking her in places where children might run by, or run up and try to pet her; so I made a point of taking her places where it was only she and I. That was how she liked it. But if a child happened to come by, she would lunge at them and I had to be vigilant with the leash, to jerk her back before those sharp little teeth made contact.

Back to The Road.

At first it was OK because she got to sit next to me while I drove, and of course she was my Service Dog so we went everywhere together.

But then something terrible happened. I used my newly found mobility to go and visit dear friends whom I had not seen in many years.

Of course, Noga came too—why wouldn’t she?

But I’ve left out one piece. Rewind five years.

After I brought her home for the first time, she jumped up on my bed and peed and pooped right on it.

Of course I was horrified, especially since it was a furnished house that I was renting from one of my parents’ friends. The quilt was a fine antique. I was in a total state of panic. I assumed that the reason she had done it was simply that she was not potty trained, and disoriented to boot; so I quickly cleaned up the mess, had the quilt professionally cleaned, and put my own linens on the bed.

Then I thought, well, I’ve trained a few dogs, so what should I do? Naturally, the way we potty train puppies is with a crate. We put them in the crate, take them outside every few hours, and praise them to the skies when they do their business where we want them to. Then it’s playtime, and tired puppies go back in the crate for a nap.

But since Noga was used to using her crate for a bathroom, she obliged me by going pee in the yard, but she saved her poop for her crate.

So every day I had not only old towels to clean up and wash, but also a filthy dog.

Then I had a brainstorm: put “potty pads” in the crate and leave the door open. Sure enough, she used her crate for a bathroom. Then I moved the potty pads to a spot near the front door, and took the crate away. Yup, she continued to use the potty pads. Life was good.

Then my son came to visit. I made up his bed, he threw his duffle in the corner, and we sat up talking till late at night as usual. Of course he made much of Noga, and she adored him immediately. He is a dog magnet.

Finally we dragged ourselves off to our respective beds, but—

“Um, Mom?”

I opened my door to find him standing in the doorway of his room. On his pillow was a neat little present: A pile of dog shit. And to make it extra nice, she’d peed on his quilt, too!

I was furious. I grabbed her by the scruff and held her over what she’d done, screaming “No! No! No!” My son fled the room, convulsed with laughter. It was too bizarre.

OK, in this case, jealousy. But using excrement as a tool for expressing displeasure? No, impossible. She’s a dog, for heaven’s sake. A cat might do that, but a dog? It did not make any sense.

If I described every similar instance, every defilement of the bed of a friend who came to visit, or in whose home I was a guest, it would fill so many feet of blog space that you’d get bored and click away, if you haven’t already.

I spent $400 on a phone consultation with an animal behaviorist at University of Tennessee. She chalked it up to a behavioral issue due to a traumatic puppyhood, and gave me some suggestions that didn’t work. The only thing that did work was my undivided attention, which she got most of the time anyway because of my reclusive nature and the state of total isolation that I lived in.

I knew it wasn’t doggy IBS or anything like that, because she flew to Israel and back with me three times, 14 hours each way, sitting on my lap, and never had an accident. And of course there were the innumerable vet visits, racking up thousands on lab tests that showed nothing.

And so it was, that one morning, after I had made the drive to Rochester, NY, to visit a couple who have literally been parents to me when my mother sent me out of her life, I woke up in my van and smelled something. My covers were wet. There was a pile of shit at the foot of my bed, and my dear little dog had rolled in it.

She watched as I opened my eyes. She wagged her tail. I screamed “Nooooooo!!!!!” and she wagged it some more.

I jumped out of bed, dressed, wadded up my bedding and stuffed it into a garbage bag, with the dog shut up in the tiny bathroom so she couldn’t smear her shit-covered fur all over the place.

Before I washed her off under the hose, I took a sample to take to the vet. Maybe she had eaten something bad, maybe her monthly worm medicine didn’t work, maybe I had forgotten to give it to her.

Nope, perfectly normal poop. The vet looked grim and silent.

“What do you think it is?” I didn’t tell him about her long history of pooping on people’s beds.

“Dunno, maybe she’s stressed or something. Come back if it happens again.”

It happened again, that very night. I am sorry to say I lost my temper and hit her, then felt horrible. She didn’t seem to mind. She looked at me and wagged her tail. I guess any attention is good attention to some people.

That night I tied her up in the aisle of the van. In the morning I had to bag up the carpet runner and throw it in the trash, because she had shat all up and down it and rolled in it too. All I could do was cry and wash the dog again.

The next night I put her in the bathroom, which has a molded plastic floor, and lined it with potty pads (did I mention I had lined the entire van with potty pads, but she scratched them aside so she could get to the floor?) thinking perhaps that would at least make cleanup easier, but this time, instead of shitting, she went to work attempting to chew her way out, so that now I have something to remember her by—a totally trashed, formerly brand-new bathroom door. Got me again.

In the meantime, my friend’s husband caught her twice sneaking up the stairs, trying to get to their bed. Oh. My. God. My friend has a poop phobia, and vomits if she even smells it! And Noga snarled at him when he intercepted her. Who would have imagined???

Then I got a call that my aunt, who is 93, had been moved to New Jersey from Florida to live by her daughter (my cousin, I guess you could say), and her daughter needed to go to Florida to close up her mother’s house. That meant Auntie would be alone. I volunteered to Auntie-sit, so off I went to New Jersey, with one or two stops at Laundromats along the way.

Hell had descended upon me. My beloved little angel had turned on me, and it seemed there was nothing I could do about it.

My cousin made arrangements for me to stay at a campground very near the nursing home, so I could visit my aunt two or three times a day. It was a normal campground, full of kids running around and riding bikes. Noga bit two of them, not badly, but she bit them. Fortunately nothing came of it, except that I had to walk her in the nasty woods behind the campground.  I got two ticks.

I continued making daily trips to the campground Laundromat. This was getting very expensive, as well as being just, I can’t say it any other way, hell on earth.

I took another poop sample to a local vet. No parasites, pathogens, nothing. He was very sympathetic, and sent me to another vet who specialized in behavioral problems. He listened to me carefully and here is what he said:

“You know, there are two main classifications of behavioral problems in dogs. There are neuroses, like separation anxiety, that we can treat with medications and behavior modification. Then there are personality disorders, which in the case of dogs, are inborn disorders of the brain. We can try medications (listed them off) if you want…”

I mentioned that I had been giving her Ativan, in case of anxiety, but even though it did make her groggy it did not stop the shitting behavior.

“I thought not. What she is doing is expressing her displeasure. She is punishing you.” I nodded. I knew that. I just had not allowed myself to believe it, because she was my little angel and that just could not be true!

“You have choices. You can try medicating her. Or you can live with it.”

At this point I’m shaking, tears and snot are streaming down my face. Noga is strangely quiet. It’s as if she can understand what we’re talking about.

“I can’t live like this anymore!” I blubbered. “What about finding her a new home?”

He shook his head. No, she would just do the same thing, and then maybe she would end up in some shelter, and she’s adorable so someone would immediately adopt her, and eventually she would end up being abused, maybe sooner than later…I was shaking by this time. I knew where he was going.

“So the only good choice for her is to put her to sleep?”

“Well, it depends how long you can tolerate this. As I said, we can try medication, but frankly I do not believe that it will work.”

I searched inside my heart. I could not live this way. I had already been literally swimming in dog excrement for a month, with no end in sight. I handed her over to the vet tech and stumbled to the front desk, paid the bill, and blinded with tears climbed into my van and fell onto the bare bed, stripped for the thirtieth time, and laid there crying until it was time to go visit my aunt.

“Where’s Noga?! I thought you were going to bring her today!”

My aunt and I have always been close. She’s been much more of a mother to me than my own mother ever was. I blubbered out the whole story.

“Oh Baby, I’m so sorry. I had no idea. Well, you did the right thing. She would have had a miserable life, and she certainly made your life miserable. You’ll both be better off this way.”

I got the same feedback from other friends who knew what was going on. My son was really devastated, though he tried to hide it, but he knew how long I’d been trying to help Noga get over whatever this was, because I loved her so dearly.

And now she’s gone, and I have another dog, because I must have a dog to let me know what’s real and what’s not.

But there will never be another little sweet thing like Noga, even though things got so bad that it had to end.

Tales From The Roadtrek #1

My favorite essayist, E.B. White, would often begin a story with a wandering tale about what he was doing at the moment of his writing: lying in bed sick, listening to the pigeons on the ledge of his New York apartment; lying in bed sick–even though he was a very active man when he was well, he was often sick, having a poor constitution–at his home in Maine, listening to the mourning doves in the tree outside his window, and so on.

I am one-and-a-half days into a two-day reservation at Hamlin Beach State Park, which is in New York State due north of Rochester, on Lake Ontario. I arrived near dark last night, having taken a bit of a tour through my old haunts here in this town of bitter sweetness. Here I did my hellish residency in Pediatrics, got divorced, got my first job as Director of a Pediatric Emergency Department on the merit of my performance as a model prisoner of the hospital known as The Gulag, where residents who were out of favor with the Powers that Were and Are Now In Their Graves–which is too bad, because I would like to give each and every one of them a piece of my mind for punishing me for being sick—were sent.

It was meant to be a punishment, and for some it was.

As for me—I was right at home.

The Gulag’s other moniker was the Knife and Gun Club. It sat right in the heart of violent gang land. Crips ‘n’ Bloods. Each with their own highly honed style of maiming and/or killing members of the opposing gang, if they could; and they did.

It felt just like Chicago to me. Many nights in my Upper Clark St. apartment, lovely and cheap, we would have to creep around on the floor lest we meet the fate of those who are struck by stray bullets during yet another gang war taking place in the park across the street.

I had been banished to the Gulag’s Emergency Department for seven months, so I simply moved in when the existing director bailed out. The Gulag was just my kind of place. I stayed and played for another two years.

The campground—we’re back to Hamlin Beach now—is at least a half-mile from the actual beach. That is just fine with me, because several weeks ago I camped at an absolutely dreadful campground on the Jersey Shore (New Jersey, not Jersey in England). The place had all of the unpleasantness of Eastern beaches, except the beach itself—for that, you had to drive twenty miles.

But no need. The campground featured plenty of coarse and painful sand that blew into everything, causing normally decent food to become dangerous to the teeth. Sand fleas, sand flies, fire ants, and, I discovered in a most unpleasant way, a medium-sized member of the spider clan that is perfectly camouflaged to look like the sand it dwells in. Well, not all of them dwell in the sand; some have moved into my camper, and now it is a game of “I squash you if I can catch you before you bite me, you little bastards.” I have no idea how to get rid of them without poisoning all of my tiny premises.

Anyhow. We return to New York State. The Lake Ontario beach is at least a half-mile from the campground, as I have already mentioned. Today I set out on foot, with my big sun hat and heavy multipurpose walking stick (the one my father, of blessed memory, cut from a rhododendron branch that had been climbed by a vine, causing the stick to be shaped in a mesmerizing spiral).

I found some pretty trails winding around toward the beach, only some of which were carpeted with poison ivy. The rest were nice dirt trails covered with pine needles. [After-note: did you know that eucalyptus oil is very effective at quelling the itch from poison ivy?  Good thing I happen to have some.]

After a delightful meander, I found myself on the strand of Lake Ontario. I mused on the fact that even though I left Rochester in 1992, Lake Ontario still lay sloshing in its glacier-carved bowl in the Earth’s crust, same as if I had never left. Fancy.

I watched the early evening swallows swooping and scree-ing together, something I have always loved to see. The gulls stood fat on the water line, gobbling the bounty of lake mussels–a bad creature imported on the hulls of the great ships that make their way from the Atlantic into the Great Lakes by way of the Saint Lawrence Seaway, which have wreaked havoc on the lakes’ ecology by way of competition for nutrients. But the gulls love them. I was struck by how many more of them—mussels, not gulls—there seemed to be, judging from the mess of them on the beach, than there were the last time I was here, so many years ago.

My eyes kept straying to the water, and every time they did, I felt the familiar nothingness come over me.   Actually I didn’t feel anything. Only in retrospect do I realize what must have happened.

The breeze picked up as the shadows lengthened, and as the chill ran down my spine I turned to walk back to the campground.

I walked and I walked and I walked, and at some point realized that I had become disoriented in the process of trail-meandering, and had wandered too far to either the East or the West, I wasn’t sure. So I kept on walking straight, figuring that since I was on the road that bisected the park, I was sure to come upon a sign eventually.

Only problem was, my legs were tuckering out. Nowadays when I walk too far my legs start feeling stiff and weird, and they hurt. Well, they were hurting, all right, and I really did not want to keep on, and was thinking of sitting down in the grass on the side of the road; but since it kept on getting dark, that did not seem like such a good idea. It is better to be lost in the daytime than at night, don’t you think?

Not one single vehicle came down that road the whole time I was dragging myself along, grateful for my walking stick, which was by now doing yeoman’s duty by way of holding me up. I prayed and prayed for a park ranger, but unlike taxis in Jerusalem, which arrive if one prays sincerely, no park ranger responded to The Call.

At last the answer to my real-time prayers came along in the form of a Border Patrol Officer in a Jeep. I flagged him down and told him that I was looking for the campground. He grinned and pointed–the entrance, which was only a quarter mile away, in the very direction in which I was hobbling, appeared out of nowhere. Perhaps he was a wizard or a saint, and he either conjured it or performed a miracle.

Or, perhaps, had I simply kept on, I would have arrived at it in a few more minutes of agony and confusion, but Heaven sent this uniformed angel to relieve my mind.

(Still, I would have taken that Jerusalem taxi. At least I wouldn’t have had to walk any more.)

I still had a mile or so to negotiate until I arrived at my campsite, so I continued to put one foot in front of the other, trying to ignore the mounting pain and stiffness, until I finally reached my little motorhome and collapsed on the bed. My legs felt as wooden as my walking stick, although not nearly as useful.

Even now, hours later, if I try to move around much my feet go into painful scrunched-up spasms. One of these days I will get around to going to some doctor about this, if I can find one who is not a dimwit. if you are a fellow doctor who is not a dimwit, then a) this does not apply to you and b) please be in touch immediately.

Two Days Later

I think I must have had a bit of a hypomanic episode the morning I left Lake Ontario and headed straight south on Rt. 15 to pick up I-86 West. At 4:30 am my eyes popped open. I wasn’t sleepy.   Odd, even though I had passed out at 8:30 the previous night after the unplanned hike. My biological clock usually has me waking up between 8 and 9.

I have managed to wean myself off the dreaded Zolpidem (Ambien), and now instead of being forced to sleep for 12 hours at a stretch, my body seems to be tentatively investigating what her normal sleep pattern actually is. It’s delightful, really, to lie in bed with the lights off, listening to whatever is around me, whether it be tree frogs and whippoorwills, or semi trailer trucks roaring in and out of the truck stops I like to lay over in, like this one, two-thirds of the way toward the Western boarder of Indiana; and drift gently off to sleep, rather than literally passing out from drugs. Takes some getting used to, though.

Day before yesterday, I drove 400 miles, and enjoyed every bit of it. Blue skies, gorgeous mountains, farmland, Amish settlements, elaborate barns, simple houses.

Bivouacked at a truck stop, and was dismayed to find that unlike most of its kind, this Flying J did not have a special overnight parking section for RVs. Even the trucks were stacked up two to a space.

There were a few “regular car” spots over in a corner by the entrance of the truck lot. One space open there, better grab it. I pulled as far in as I possibly could, because my position was just beside one of the fuel lanes.

Yeah, OK, it sucked, but I was so tired from my hike and my long drive, I was grateful for the privilege of parking overnight without the dreaded 3 am knock on the door, lights flashing in the windows–fairly predictable if you park overnight just anywhere…so I’ll put up with a noisy, stinky truck stop where my sleep is unlikely to be rudely interrupted.

All evening I drifted in and out of sleep, frequently jarred awake by the ka-BAM, ka-BAM of the trucks running over a piece of broken pavement 5 feet from my van. I had to do some emergency self-NLP in order to abort the full-fledged panic attack I felt coming on.

Fortunately, the noise settled down and finally stopped at about 11. I learned something new about trucking: there are two kinds of drivers, the day ones and the night ones, and they change shifts at about 11 pm.

I marveled at the connection.

Before I had diagnoses and meds and sleep, I used to like to do my long distance driving at night, especially if the trip involved crossing deserts or long stretches of the Mysterious Midwest flatlands. One cornfield looks about the same as another to me, friends.

At night, the highways belong to the trucks. So many trucks come out at night: in places they’re bumper to bumper at 85 mph.

In a regular car that’s terrifying. It feels as if they don’t even see you–that they will just run right over you.

When I got my big Dodge truck and 33 foot horse trailer (with full living quarters) I got started with CB radio. Suddenly the highway exploded into a whole new dimension.

“Hey J.B. (J.B. Hunt is a trucking company), keep an eye on that four-wheeler (regular car) on your left lane. Looks like he wants to pass you.”

“Thanks, good buddy. You got anything good to listen to?”

“Wellll, just a couple o’ them Jeff Foxworthy tapes. He cracks me up!”

“Yeah buddy, he do! Hey, if I see you at the Flyin’ J you want to look through my tapes and see if you wanna trade for somethin’?”

“Sure thing, good buddy. Ten-four.”

“Ten-four.”

It never crossed my mind that there might be an entire subculture hidden from those of us who drive around oblivious in our four-wheelers. And then there is the overlay of a subculture of land-bound humans who sit up all night with their CB radios talking to the truckers. They have colorful “handles,” or nicknames, and each of them has a persona—and an agenda. Luckily, CB radios have lots of frequencies, some public and some that can be rendezvou’d upon by mutual agreement. Dialing my way up the channels in order to chat privately with a friend, I’ve also come across some highly illegal activities right there in traffic.

I did merit some special treatment from the truckers when I was pulling my horse-hauler. Since I always made sure to politely introduce myself, I was graciously received by the pack of whining 18 wheelers hurtling along around me.

“Hey, good buddy, OK if I slide in in front of you? I got to get off at this exit.”

“Ten-four, little lady, you go right on ahead.”

He flashes his lights when I’m far enough ahead to safely change lanes. I flash mine twice: Thank You.

I haven’t got a CB in this little rig yet. I feel kind of funny about it, being only 22 feet long, as opposed to the 120 foot length of your average tractor-trailer combo. I’m going to have to swallow my pride, though, especially if I keep on getting up while it’s still dark.

Today I felt like crap all day long. Maybe that’s because it rained so fucking hard yesterday that I had to bail out at the first truck stop I came to in Fort Wayne, Indiana. I had wanted to travel another couple hundred miles to an actual campground, get a really good shower—my rig has a tiny shower in it, but there’s nothing like standing under a stream of hot running water for as long as you want.

I saw a couple of little baby tornadoes forming in the clouds, and the barometric pressure was bouncing all over the place. What else could make one’s ears pop on solid flat land?  But I had the SiriusXM Radio pegged on Classic Vinyl, and if The Big One had dropped down out of the sky and swooped me up–well, I guess that would have changed my channel, all right.  But it didn’t, and here I am, still.

The only place I could find to park turned out to be right over a sewer drain, which was flooding a bit because of the rain, so I spent the night inhaling noxious fumes.

Maybe that’s why I feel like crap today.

Didn’t even make 200 miles. Didn’t even get out of fucking Indiana.

I’m on U.S. Highway 24, Westbound.  Flying J again.

Oh well. Isn’t that what this journey is all about?

Roll with the punches.

Enjoy Paradise.

Food Insecurity and….Foodies?

Look, I’m not out to harsh anybody’s Foodie buzz, but I gotta say that the first time I heard the relatively newly-coined term, “Foodie,” was from someone who had lost his multi-million-dollar mansion in Palm Springs in the financial crash.  He ended up being my neighbor in Loafer’s Glory, North Carolina.

I made his acquaintance because of the siren scent of steak-au-poivre wafting from his backyard grill.

If your house was on fire (and I fervently hope it never is!), what would you rush to save?  The contents of your safe?  Family photos (BTW, this takes #1 on most surveys)?  Your pets?  Your children?

How about your ultra-heavy-duty-gourmet backyard grill?

Uh-huh.

This guy, who is incredibly creative but not very bright, forgot to make a few payments on his gigantic mortgage.  He came home from his self-owned business one day to find other people moving into his house.

He also found his assets frozen, so hiring a lawyer was not on the table.

He grabbed his grill, threw it in the back of the minivan that he bought with the fire-sale proceeds of his Mercedes, and fled for the hills of Western North Carolina, where a former client had a house for rent cheap.

And what was he grilling on his precious grill?  Tube steaks?  Nope.  Porterhouse.  I priced them the other day, just for fun, as I was perusing the non-Kosher meat case.  Over $20 a pound, for a Porterhouse steak.  Mind you, these were the grass-fed kind, but that was the only kind this guy would eat.

His menu was worthy of any fine restaurant.  I won’t go into detail because I am feeling lousy today, on antibiotics, and my stomach really isn’t into food at all, but since I have to write this article I will give you the gist of the thing.

I met my first Foodie on my first date with my first husband.

We were both medical students.  We both worked, and had comparable poverty-level incomes.  Let’s start there.

I won’t go into how we met.  That is fodder for another post.  I won’t even go into the fact that he had a steady girlfriend at the time, who wasn’t me.  I found out about her about the time we proposed moving in together.

The important part is that he asked me to come by his place and pick him up for our theatre date.

As I mounted the stairs to his second-floor apartment, I began to salivate.  Something delicious was cooking.  My stomach growled.  I hadn’t thought about eating before this date.  I was too nervous.  And something had happened in the anatomy lab that had put me off food for quite a while.

I wondered who could be cooking this mouth-watering meal.

Meal.  I hadn’t heard that word in so long, I had forgotten all about it.  The word, and the meal, too.

At that point in time, I had never had an actual meal in a restaurant except for a few memorable special occasions.  My idea of restaurant fare was a cup of tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich, if I was feeling flush; or just the soup, if I wasn’t.  Or more likely, a cup of coffee and a donut.  But an actual meal, with a salad followed by a main course, and maybe dessert?

Less than ten times in my life, certainly.

As I approached my new date’s door the aromas intensified to knee-weakening levels.  I knocked.

The sound of a chair scraping back, footsteps, and the door opened.  He was wiping his mouth with a cloth napkin.

“Come in, welcome, I was just finishing up dinner.”

Veal in white wine sauce, green beans–the skinny, tender rich-people kind, not the hefty, tough Kentucky Wonder pole beans I was raised on–little potatoes drowning in butter and rosemary….and he never offered me a bite, let alone a plate.  I was dazzled and puzzled all at the same time.  And hoping the noises emanating from my now convulsing stomach would not give me away.

Wow.  A man who cooked entire gourmet meals, just for himself!  (And didn’t invite his new date to partake…but having been raised to never ask for anything, that part escaped me for a few years, like, ten.)

I had just made the acquaintance of a Foodie.

The term hadn’t been coined yet, but I noticed after a while that his priorities differed from mine in certain key ways.

For instance, on our first anniversary we made Duck With Forty Cloves of Garlic, a recipe that involved hours of tedium to prepare and mere minutes to eat.  The menu was extensive.  And since it was, after all, our first anniversary, it included a moderately expensive bottle of champaigne.

The air was filled with the electric excitement of anticipation.  I couldn’t wait for the food to be over and the real meal to begin–and end–in the bedroom.

As it turned out, he enjoyed his meal at the table so much, and ate so much duck, and drank so much champagne, that he literally fell asleep with his face in his plate.

I’m sure there are other men in this world who prefer food over sex, but I have never personally met another one.

Here in West Bumfuck, North Carolina (a step up from Loafer’s Glory), there are so many hungry people that the food assistance programs are stretched to their limits to try to keep the most vulnerable populations–children, pregnant women, and the elderly–from outright starving.

The people of these mountains have been proudly hard-working, and self-reliant, for almost three centuries.  When they first emigrated from England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales in the 18th Century, they disappeared into the hollows and coves.  They learned to grow corn, sorghum, beans, greens, chickens, pigs, milk-cows, and children.  The latter grew up relatively healthy except for occasional waves of measles, diphtheria, whooping cough, smallpox–giving rise to whole “baby sections” of the old cemeteries.

Things that could not be grown or made–gunpowder, saltpeter for preserving pig meat, salt, pepper, and tobacco–was got by twice-or-thrice yearly excursions over the mountain trails to the settled towns of Tennessee, leading mules laden with sorghum molasses, sourwood honey, dried beans, hams, and other tradable products, work of their hands and sweat of their brows.  And thus life continued until the coming of the roads in the early-to-mid-20th century.

With the roads came the mills and the mines, and with the new days of wages the “furriners” introduced the mountaineers to things that suddenly became coveted necessities–like ready-made clothing and shoes, printed calico fabric instead of natural-dyed homespun, patent medicines instead of the herbal remedies passed down the generations of settlers, and general stores full of all sorts of things that only people with paying jobs could afford.

But the paying jobs weren’t nine-to-five.  They were more like five-to-nine.  And there wasn’t time to raise a big garden and take care of things on the farm.  And the children had to go to school instead of minding the livestock.  So the family farm, and all its bounty, foundered in the wake of sudden prosperity.

Then came the Tobacco Allotment system.  Every family who owned land was guaranteed, by the US government, that if they planted a certain proportion of their land in tobacco, it would be sold at a predetermined price at the tobacco markets in Raleigh, Salem, and Winston, North Carolina.  Now you know where the cigarette names came from.

Tobacco became the chief sustaining cash crop for those who still clung to the old ways–raising a big garden, canning, preserving, “stirring off” a batch of apple butter in the fall–and tending their tobacco allotments all summer.  It was a poisonous job, not only because of the nicotine they absorbed through their skin (and mouths, and lungs, as they became addicted to the plentiful supply), but also because the pesticides required to fend off diseases peculiar to tobacco are particularly poisonous to people as well as to bugs.

I started coming to this mountain country in the 1970’s, seeking out the old ‘uns, the men and women already up in their 80’s, who remembered and still played the music of the pre-Bluegrass era.  I will put some of mine on one of these blogs sooner or later.

My parents eventually settled here, so I had more reasons to come down from the North during breaks.  The first thing I noticed, driving down from the Midwest, was the disappearance of the tobacco fields.  Then the textile mills stood empty with their windows gaping dark mouths.  Then the feldspar mines started laying off people, especially the mid-level engineers.

Where did it all go?

China.

In the place of the jobs and tobacco came first marijuana, a cash crop that grew well and fed families.  Then came the spotter planes and helicopters droning at night, looking for the characteristic heat signature of the marijuana patches, hidden in the hollers, just as its predecessor, the moonshine still, had been.  The crops were sprayed with Agent Orange and their growers, if caught, were hauled off to fill the penitentiaries, leaving their families in poverty and want once again.

Now we’ve got a new cash crop: meth.  It’s easy to make, I hear, and easier to sell.  I hear it brings in enough money to keep a family out of poverty, but there’s a hitch: the meth makers get hooked on their own product.  And the only thing a meth addict wants is more meth.  They will do anything for it, including prostituting their own children.  Including taking the food out of their children’s mouths.

See, the school teachers here noticed that more and more children were coming to school haggard, skinny, dirty, wretched…and their test scores were plummeting.  They were hungry.  They couldn’t learn.

They didn’t have the dollar it now costs for a school lunch, or the fifty cents for school breakfast.

Their parents were trading their food stamps for materials to make meth, and they weren’t hungry because meth takes away your appetite.  So there was no food in the house, and the parents didn’t care.

The community wanted to do something to help these children, so they started the “Backpack Program.”

Each Friday afternoon, the children get their school backpacks (donated, of course) stuffed full of nutritious food, to tide them over for the weekend.  These kids learn pretty quickly how to hide the food, even though they know it will buy them a beating, because otherwise their parents will trade the food for meth.  But at least the kids get to eat, even if they do come to school on what’s called “Black-and-Blue Monday.”

I didn’t really intend to go off on this tangent about the community where I currently live and can’t wait to leave, but there you go.  It’s where I live, and it’s what I see.  I don’t need to read USA Today to get an eyeful of the hunger situation.

According to the US Department of Agriculture, about 15% of Americans are “food insecure,” which literally means they don’t know where their next meal is coming from.

As a pediatrician practicing in this community, I have known whole families who subsisted on dry cereal, the sugary kind you can get in large bags in salvage food stores.  Without the milk, because milk was beyond their reach.  Not even the powdered kind that I grew up on, the watery blue lumpy liquid that I despised and was forced to drink, for my own good.

Lacking the most basic nutrients, the mothers were anemic.  The children were anemic.  The fathers worked two or three low-paying jobs, and were hollow-eyed and anemic.

So here we sit, a country that produces enough food to feed the entire world several times over every year–and one in six people are starving.

But not the Foodies.

Foodies, I have not written this article for the purpose of dumping on you, shaming you, or making you feel bad. You’ve earned your right to enjoy what you enjoy. It’s not like you’re harming anybody or taking food out of anybody’s mouth.

I’ve written it to highlight the truly unbelievable dichotomy between the haves and have-nots that is developing into something resembling a Dickens novel: “Please, Sir, may I have a little more?”

What would happen if, for every Porterhouse we grilled, we put aside 10% of the cost of the meat, to donate to a food assistance program?

How about doing like the religious Jews I lived with in Israel, who fasted one day a week and gave the money they would have spent on food for that day to one of the many food kitchens?  If that’s too radical, why not just donate the equivalent of the money you spend on what you eat for one day each week?

Foodies, and everybody else–when you’re in the grocery store, why not pick up a few cans of vegetables to bring to your local food bank, a bag or two of dried beans, some rice, dried potatoes–staples that will keep and not go bad–a few cans of canned chicken, Pork-n-Beans, stuff that you would probably never eat, but would fill some child’s hungry belly with protein and vitamins so they can grow and their brains can grow and learn and maybe even go to college and get a job and become…Foodies?