02 Feb

Wherever is your heart

Warning: Headcold post ahead, which means the road is slippery with syrupy introspection and woozy epiphanies. I recommend that you steer round it to the toe-tapping video. But if you’re still–OH MY GOD IT’S TOO LATE WE’RE GOING TO–

There are singers, songwriters, or composers who can lift you from the place where you’re feeling sick and set you onto a better path. Brandi Carlile is one for me. So it’s only a headcold. Life is verging on overload at the moment and the headcold feels fatter than Putin’s ego. It’s a happy moment to discover that one of my favorite singer/songwriters has something new and it reached me just when it was needed, like a hole in the clouds.  I also used it to help repair a bridge. Sometimes songs are medicines are bricks.

(Resisting all attempts to broach the symphonic topic of why what we call music can turn the best of us into toe tapping, swaying, arm waving puppets–where and when were those evolutionary channels dug?)

It may only last for 3:50, but there’s always replay.

28 Jul

Wavy Yellow Slide

My 73 year old Dad collapsed at our home today, repeatedly, before paramedics arrived to assess him and truck him to the hospital for evaluation. It’s possible the causes were heat exhaustion, dehydration, and stress from the fight he’d had with my stepmother before coming over-or a condition triggered by those stressors. By the time he left for Good Sam with the paramedics, he was joking with the response team. My stepmother met the ambulance as it was leaving our house–she and my Dad live only two miles away. Our local firehouse is the same distance in the opposite direction–it took them five minutes to arrive.

That’s the stage. This entry is more a note about emotional response. Even though it was my father on the floor, it seemed easy for Debby and I to be calm and methodical in helping him, fetching him a pillow and orienting his body, feeding him aspirin (in case of heart attack), and ignoring his weak shouts not to call 911. (You lose that right the minute you become the focus of a medical response). We were calm while the team was here–perhaps more talkative from stress than necessary. They left 30 minutes ago and now the stress is rolling in–not in breakers but small tidal surges. Life rarely crashes–that happens only in extraordinary circumstances. It presses and pounds, kneading away energy, washing away layers. Or, perhaps a better analogy is that I feel like I’ve been handed a large stone, large enough that I have to curl my body to hold it, and wonder if the burden will become the new normal, or that the stone will be absorbed. Forecasting, I think the reality is more that I’ll drop the stone sometime soon and without knowing it, but will often be looking over my shoulder.

Looking now out our dining room window at the play structure our kids have almost outgrown and its wavy bright yellow slide, I also think I may have other options.

30 Jun

False Starts

For most of us–I’ll talk for myself–for me, life is a series of false starts with a smaller percentage of completions, most habitual, some enforced, and a very few the result of self discipline.

People often say that 90% of getting the job done is just showing up; implying that once you’ve shown up for the task, personal ethics, peer pressure, or some other common human force will require you to complete your most important work. That’s bullshit. Starting is easy. It’s the extra 10%–and really the last 2 or 1%–that matters, and that is a hell of a gap. Two analogies (aside from “gap”): it’s like driving (or running) down a flat stretch or slope most of your way, then suddenly hitting a 60% incline (or greater). It’s like the ~1.6 % difference in DNA between homo sapiens and bonobos.

Writing is mostly false starts. Ideas are easy to come by. Writers, especially caffeinated writers, are easily excited and full of ideas. I have notebooks and, more recently, many blog entry drafts full of false starts.

Today, right now in fact, my wife Deborah is in surgery having her left thyroid and attached benign mass removed. It’s low risk, common surgery, as surgeries go. (What is it that we do to ourselves, how are we miscoded, that makes thyroid removal or irregularities “common?”). Her ENT doctor (also her surgeon, a youngish man in his late 30’s and not an ancient tree herder) is low key, articulate, experienced, confident, and cautious. And patient–with her, with us as a couple. We know the risk factors he quoted are gross percentages that doctors and medical writers use to generalize the outcome of an extremely complex method for calculating situational risks of surgical success  in a few simple comforting words laypeople (and some medical people) can understand. The number of factors that influence a positive or negative outcome make a real a priori assessment of risk almost impossible to describe and acceptance almost an act of faith. So we accepted the generalization and sandbagged it with our feelings about the doctor, his approach, and diagnostic and surgical history, especially with thyroid condition treatment (yes, we checked). That’s good–he’s cutting Deborah’s throat open and wielding a scalpel around nerve bundles, blood vessels, and vocal chords tucked against her thyroid glands.

I admire Deborah more than I can say. She didn’t have a false start. She had the lump identified on discovery and, when it was diagnosed as benign, put a long term plan in place to have it removed, scheduling months ahead around her dragon boat competition, Noah’s start of summer vacation, our family vacations, holidays, and our finances (we’ll be making payments on the deductible for a few years), and folded in her personal health goals dependent on the surgery, including weight loss that’s been hindered by an uncooperative thyroid. Her plan runs on for years. She plans like the ancient Mandarins.

Me, I would have dealt with it immediately or put it off indefinitely until, perhaps, people began to confuse me with Zaphod Beeblebrox (either you get that or you don’t), adding it to my long list of false starts and likely sliding me under the far slope of the risk bell curve where X is time and Y is successful treatment following early action.

That’s what I would have done. In the last few weeks, we’ve practiced a little of that “living in unspoken urgency” that precedes an impending interruption and possible (no matter how unlikely) end: completing key maintenance tasks round the house (from a mundane list most homeowners know), replacing some old kid and cat-worn furniture, taking more day trips with the kids, celebrating our wedding anniversary with a series of dates. We stopped each other in passing more often. Impatient with our cold spring rain, she colored her hair to match the summer sun. Waiting on her in surgery, I’ve had this opportunity to write myself this reminder about false starts. And, if you’ve read this far, inflict it on you.

Could I do this without her–run the house, care for the family, fill her role and mine in taking on the day to day critical tasks that keep our family stable? If anything goes wrong, there’s less room for false starts. If it all goes right, and it almost certainly will, then is there any damn good reason other than habit not to resume life with–not a sense of urgency–but the enhanced need to complete (together and individually), so that living in a way that matters becomes normal?

If  you want to exist, show up. If you want to live, and write, then complete the last 1%. And make it matter, however you measure that last word. I know I’m saying this because I’m worried and scared, regardless of the risk assessment. It’s classic for humans to fill the balloon with gas and then let the tank run out, the gas contract, and the balloon to deflate. I’ll need to leave a few reminders for when I backslide. I hope that Deborah’s presence is one. Scraps like this are another.

Postscript: Deborah’s just out of surgery and in recovery, one thyroid lighter. Dr. Kim said it had grown larger since the biopsy and was “sticky”–making the procedure last a bit longer than the scheduled two hours. During surgery, a pathologist ran a routine lab on the larger sample for cancer, with negative results to back up the earlier diagnosis. In a few weeks, Deborah will able to swallow without pain. For the next few days, she has a stack of novels and a couple of detective games for her DS next to the bed, a freezer full of popsicles, a husband with a week of vacation, and two young children who will be happy to see their mom and ready to run their dad happily ragged.

17 Jun

Pucker Power


Note: Well, the video above has been set to private till further notice, following recent findings that some brands of kombucha, fermented as it is, contains   a bit more alcohol than is probably safe for a child’s consumption. That’s too bad, on several counts–for the industry and for the video which, although it’s an early Broccoli and Banana, has some great lines, including–in our house–the oft quoted plaintive “no more so-da?” Pretend you’ve seen it before reading the following:

At our house we average a liter of “diet brown” soda a day. Debby says it beats the taste of our filtered tap water but she and I know we drink it out of habit. So last Saturday, taking our cue from high-browed Broccoli and his winsome sidekick Banana, Noah, 11, Sophie, 5, and I headed to Winco for some soda-replacement in the form of kombucha. (Debby had left for Dragon Boat team practice and was too far away to question our motivation.)

On the way well read Noah explained that kombucha, as you know,  originated in the 1001 Nights as a magical elixir drank by djinn. “Genies!” squeaked Sophie and giggled, nailing Banana’s voice from the video. And the next ten minutes turned into kombucha Marco Polo, Noah intoning “Kombucha” in his most ominous 11 year old voice while Sophie echoed “Genie!” Yeah, I was glad to see Winco.

We didn’t recall ever seeing kombucha at Winco (our weekly grocery stop with Costco), but when we asked a clerk, he pointed us knowingly toward the back wall of cold beverages, where it bordered the natural foods department. And there it was: the rainbow wall of kombucha. Fellow shoppers, a man and a woman, were scratching their heads over the selection, picking up one bottle after another, swirling the contents around and reading the labels. Noah quickly selected raspberry; Sophie, ginger. “I like ginger,” she proclaimed and set her bottle in the cart. “But not broccoli,” she warned me. “Check,” I said, “no fizzy broccoli drinks.”

“You know,” I said to the other two adults, “I’ve never seen this here before. It’s like it just appeared.”

Noah piped up, “I told you, Dad, it’s a maaagical elixir.”

The man snorted and the woman laughed a little. She said, “I think it’s like when you buy a car–all of a sudden you see cars just like your’s on the road when you can’t remember seeing them before.”

I asked if they’d ever tried it. I told them the Internet had sent us here to try kombucha instead of soda.

“My mom drinks too much diet brown,” Sophie warned them.

“Don’t we all,” said the man, smiling.

I picked a random bottle of plain kombucha–whatever flavor plain was–thinking there should be a control sample in our little experiment. As we turned to go, the woman whispered, “I didn’t want your kids to hear, but when my 8 year old tried it, I thought his face was going to turn inside out. Small sips.”

Great. $9 and 3 bottles later, home we went, my kids innocent to the pickled puckered fate that awaited them. Me grumbling to myself about the hit on our shopping budget. Then remembering the garbage bags of 2 liter soda bottles in the garage. And kicking myself for not returning them to pay for the kombucha. Oh well, being a parent is a constant game of catch up, and shrugging off yesterday to maintain sanity today.

At home I pointed to the label warning that read Do Not Shake Contents Vigorously. “You’ll awaken the djinni,” warned Noah. “Volcano!” squeaked Sophie.

Long story short, we tried small sips of ginger and raspberry kombucha. After I pulled Noah’s lower lip out of his mouth, we decided that maybe kombucha tasted better to grownups. “It smells like beer,” grumbled Noah. Sophie didn’t think she could try it again for twenty years, her current number for a future too distant to imagine. I kind of liked it–a little puckery, odor like fruit cooking, and a smacky aftertaste. I might drink it once in awhile.

So, kombucha, at our house, adults 1, kids 2. But they tried something new. And if we keep it around, maybe they’ll try it again in a few years. Maybe even sooner, they’ll sneak into it with their friends during a sleepover after we’re asleep. I’m all for stealth nutrition.

When Debby returned from practice, red-faced and tired, she was ready for a rejuvenating sip of something. She took a healthy swallow from the remaining bottle of plain-flavored kombucha, screwed up her face, and asked the kids, “So, who’s up for making exploding kombucha bread?”

Noah and Sophie whooped and raced off to the garage. Any excuse to wear safety goggles.

This was a “Voice of Dad” blog entry written for broccoliandbanana.com. We’re rethinking some of the site’s features, so I’m reposting some of my entries here.

15 Jun

My Health, a Reduced Portion

I’m 49 this year. Two and a half years ago my doctor told me that my HDL (aka “good”) cholesterol was borderline low (39) and my LDL (aka “bad”) was borderline high (140), and that even though my triglyceride count was low, she was concerned about the trend. I could improve those numbers using drugs or through diet, exercise, and other lifestyle changes. I don’t like creating a permanent change with drugs unless necessary, so I chose option B. A cardiologist I know said he wouldn’t settle for an HDL count of lower than 75, and I’d read that 60 is the recommended minimum (even though 45 is considered acceptable). So my 12-month goal was to increase HDL to at least 60 and continue the upward trend, and to get LDL under 100 and protect it with antioxidants (via supplements and foods).

My homework said the best way to increase HDL, short of prescription doses of niacin or newer cholesterol-effecting drugs, was through regular vigorous exercise, with some minor help from diet–some of the foods that help boost or maintain HDL also may lower LDL, so my new diet could work toward both cholesterol goals.

I was already reasonably fit, so it wasn’t too hard to boost exercise to an hour a day, 5 to 6 days a week—for me that meant running outside or on the treadmill, or using the handy elliptical machine at work. I dug into the oatmeal-for-breakfast routine, cut all but the occasional meat and starches out my diet, and ate more plants and soy and nuts. It wasn’t so bad, and after awhile I felt better and was able to stop coveting what my kids were eating and stare down the monthly pizza lunches. (I might have been brainwashed by then—I mean, turn down pizza?)

After a year, I’d dropped a bunch of weight (reaching a healthy BMI), lowered my LDL to 90 and raised my HDL to 60. My doctor’s office told me I was their new poster child for diet and exercise.

I figured it was the exercise that gave me the boost—the HDL molecules do the hard work and if I kept my diet high in antioxidants to protect the LDLs, I could start eating more of what I’d been missing.

Yesterday, I received blood work results from his year’s checkup: HDL, 45; LDL 120. Heart like a lion, but a bloodstream leaning toward a buttery scone. I swore a little, but suspected those results were coming. Our biochemistry is too complex to get away with staying healthy via a single solution like exercise.

So, it’s back to plan B, that combo of exercise and, more importantly, dietary changes, for the rest of my life. I’m glad I have a chance to supersize of the “rest of my life” on my terms. Luckily for me (in so many ways), my wife has independently made the same decisions about her diet. I hope I can stick with it. If you’re making similar decisions, I hope the same for you.

This entry will also appear in my employer’s upcoming “tell your wellness story” blog.