Saturday, December 27, 2008

Happy Holidays

Been very busy lately, have not had time to do much more than micro blog. Once the mad holiday dash is over, I will post some more.

Among news - our trip to Aruba was great, relaxing fun. It was difficult to come back to to the sunless cold of Chicago. Aruba an excellent place to go and enjoy a perfect climate and do largely nothing. We felt safe and well cared for by the Arubans and the Marriott Surf Club was well-appointed, clean and friendly. The pools were even more fun than the ocean (lots of sharp bits of coral in the sand). Floating on the "lazy river" pool was fantastic and I am afraid my tan is largely on my back... An amazing variety of lizards (french-fry stealing) and really cute yellow finches (sugar thieves) were also entertaining. This Dutch protectorate is very familiar to the North American tourist. Natives are not aggressive or hard-sell, unlike Jamaica. Everyone speaks perfect English, the electrical system is the same and the food at the hotels is remarkably familiar.

We did go during the rainy season. Like Hawaii, the rain generally came in short bursts or overnight. It meant that most places were always freshly clean and the flowers were in full bloom. Only occasionally brief flooding of streets was inconvenient. There were more clouds during the day time, which was probably good for us, as we did not burn much. Well, we did also always use heavy-duty sunscreen, even with cloud cover we were about 2 degrees above the equator.

One down side is that our travel companions were a bit younger and childless. They are fabulous friends, but lifestyle differences were immediately evident. We all stayed in a condo with a separate lock out for us. We did cook a number of meals together with food from the Ling and Sons IGA in Orangestad. Our companions were less prepared for a small desert island lacking major tourist draws as well as life with a precocious child. We worked hard to make sure Fi left them alone as much as possible and everyone agrees that she was an angel. Regardless, her incessant questions are exhausting - perhaps even more than the usual 7-year-old as they usually involve a high level of complexity. We found ourselves parting company more by the middle of the week, as Fi really needed to be allowed to be a child and I knew our companions were not prepared to deal with that. Fi made a couple of little friends and learned how to swim, much more than with her lessons here in a 4-foot-deep, cold-water pool.

Highlights included a trip to the rugged coast. Rocks in little piles as far as the eye could see (no doubt by the millions of tourists) inside a rough coral bank at the base of old gold-smelter ruins had a very Blair-Witch feel to them. At one tip of the island, a trattoria next to the California Lighthouse was a special treat, with the best Italian food I think I have ever eaten. The views were outstanding, too. Some of the rock formations inland also had a very interesting feel, but they were also sheltered from the 15+ mph trade winds so the air was too hot and still. Shopping was typical for Caribbean islands, with the jeweler-to-tourist ratio really quite high. We did find some nice Delft porcelain and hand-made tablecloths. We also had some decent Dutch pancakes at Linda's, a short distance from the hotel. Other food was predictably generic - largely the stuff you get at any North American tourist draw. Only one restaurant disappointed: Tulip on Eagle Beach had dismal service, no convenient parking, unremarkable decor, non-existent landscaping or views and blah food that was ill prepared. Even condiments, like sugar for tea were missing. Not worth the expense at all. The food had been advertised as upscale and elegant.

Had Fi been older and a stronger swimmer, we might have done more snorkeling or diving. Perhaps next time. Really, I did not miss it.

One small weird thing, when you leave Aruba, you pass through both Aruban and U.S. Customs at the Queen Beatrix Airport. This means you ought to get there about 3 hours early as it is a strange marathon of checking bags, recovering them for customs and checking them again before you reach your gate. You go through two sets of metal detectors, too. Your customer service at check in? Your airline flight crew. One funny? One of my companions really wanted her passport stamped for return to the U.S. The customs official rolled his eyes and stamped. At Miami, we realized that he never bothered to take the cover off of his stamp. He faked her out.

Once I get moved into my new computer, I'll post some pictures.

Monday, November 03, 2008

General notes

I find my nerves are raw over the upcoming election. I am not reassured that Obama will win. I am sure that 4 more years of the rebublican agenda is probably not going to be easy to deal with. Just the medical industry alone needs overhaul but not just deregulation. I have lost count at the doctors I know that are having a hard time making a living. Handing the industry completely to an out-of-control insurance or pharma industry is just going to make it worse. More republican restrictions on doctors, like their inability to negotiate fair compensation rates for themselves is not helping. I am certain that plowing more of the budget into pointless wars and more handouts to the ultra-rich are going to leave the great majority of us still struggling. A man who makes millions of dollars a year and calls himself a "poor republican" is so out of touch, that the truly poor and middle class would be screwed. Do the rich spend their windfall here in our economy? No, of course not, they spend it at their offshore shelters and their vacation islands in Dubai.

I should probably be working, but instead I am going to take a moment out to write an update. I left this blog behind with an emotional post.

It was a summer of upheaval. Arguments resolved, I am the sadder but wiser girl. I've come to learn that perhaps I ought to show more emotion around people I am close to, so that they have a clue when they are being destructive and I have a clue when a relationship is approaching unhealthy. I am by nature an analyst and by no means a cold person, but I guess I try to logically analyze too much.

Health challenges from the April smoke inhalation were amazing, progressing through kidney infections, anemia, a broken patella (fell while weak) and of course wheezing. I was diagnosed with "potentially fatal asthma." Despite all of it, here I am feeling whole and well again. New treatment plans have me stabilized.

Work has been challenging, with more medical writing projects than I probably should have accepted. They range from truly disturbing analysis of parasite treatment markets to new drug applications for biologics. Some are interesting, including innovative potential therapies for treating stroke and refractory cancer.

Fi is seven now. She is happily moving right along in school although we are faced with the same asynchrony. I am still home schooling, and I employed more help. The only gifted school that could handle her is over an hour away (probably two in traffic). The cost to take her there and back as well as the tuition makes it unlikely that we would send her there as a grade-schooler. I estimated the cost at more than $40k a year to us. With our son already in college (probably about 4 years to go), the cost is a bit prohibitive. The 9- or 10-hour day for her (not including homework) also seems a bit much for a little girl. Still, it is not cheap to homeschool, but I am able to work rather than drive 4 to 8 hours a day. Moving is not an option right now either.

Fi can easily read and understand books at the 4th to 5th grade level. At this point, her ability to comprehend has far exceeded her overall experience level and giving her books that might be somewhat simple is just a matter of filling in her knowledge gaps. Her developmental level is now ranging between ages 10 and 14. Her vocabulary is stunning and her science comprehension is almost frightening. She regularly uses words like "bilateral symmetry." Her writing and grammar are good, but once again we are trapped with her thinking 20 words ahead of her ability to legibly hand write each word.

On one occasion when we began employing an algebraic equation to help her understand how to visualize a story problem, she looked dismayed when I gave an unknown variable a "letter." She said, "If we use letters, we can only solve for 26 variables at a time." After pausing to digest her comment, I told her not to worry as we tend to try to break a problem down into segments, so we limit the number of unknown quantities. I did not go into symbols...

The local library donated a complete set of Brittanica encyclopedias to our home school, after a conversation with the librarian where she assured them about understanding about vetting the content of the books for accuracy (more than a little data is old by the time the book is published). I think she enjoys finding the Latin names of things more than anything else. The librarians are tickled with her and call her the 1,000-year-old child.

We are still in brownies and she is still able to socialize well with just about any age group. I also employed the moms and another troop leader to help me more this year, so I am not getting overwhelmed with hosting and organizing. We put off ballet and tae kwon do until January, as we took more time off to travel. We'll be in Aruba to stay with friends in a couple of weeks (she is enthusiastically learning Papamiento). All in all, she is well adjusted, with other moms calling her "confident and secure." I am always checking that we're still managing to do the right thing for her but these days her progress has me much more confident in our plans.

Life goes on. I should have some fun stuff to talk about post-election and with the Aruba trip.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Not posting

I know I don't post enough. I have not had a lot to say. In the past months I have been horribly hurt by a friend and it seems to have derailed a lot of my interest in a lot of things, including work.

The process of rebuilding after a betrayal by someone you trust implicitly is no fun at all. It has caused me to re-evaluate all of my relationships and the extent and boundaries they have been operating under. Among some probably very good people I have also mistakenly trusted unworthy people. Unfortunately, the good will have to wait while I decide that I can be a good friend again. It is possible to have friends I think, without depending on them too much.

Overall I think the damage to my self esteem was a gradual process with a harsh final blow. It occurs that I probably should have pulled out of this friendship a long time ago. I have been taking inventory, and I am not finding I am not nearly as lacking as I have been led to believe.

Not to worry, I think I'll be back, but it may take a bit.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Long-term happiness

We recently crossed our 16th anniversary. We've been friends for about 25 years business partners for 21, and very close for about 20. For the most part, our married life has been easy, even if life all around has often been difficult. We are nearly always together, even though we try to work separately -- if not to diversify our income/benefits, to bring new experience to the mix. We do tend to rush home to each other.

I sometimes worry that maybe I am too complacent. Can someone be too sure about their relationship? It makes me occasionally paranoid and I have that "waiting for the other shoe to drop" feeling. Aging in a society of youth worshiping does nothing to allay my paranoia. How is it that we're having an easier time? More compatible overall? I doubt it.

I have been thinking about the past years and what two people can get through. We've survived life-threatening diseases (remission for more than 20 years with one and 7 with the other). We've lost friends and family and had close calls. We've grieved through the separation from some other friends and family because of the inordinate stress those people created. We've had long layoffs. We've survived an unbelievably complicated pregnancy. One child is half way through his undergraduate work. Another child is prematurely on her way to completing grade school. No doubt there were other threats to our relationship that we each dealt with individually.

Recently a friend told me how unstressed and happy we appear and I was surprised to hear it. Without the example of a happy, long-term relationship in her family, she has been looking to us as an example. Are we that calm and happy? Well, I guess so, in public. I think in public we tend to be so lighthearted that we turn into the entertainment. More privately, we do have our anxious moments. I have been thinking about it ever since she said it. Over the years I think the hard parts helped us peel away what was unimportant, superficial. We don't argue the little things very much, unless a small argument is just the kind of release that is needed. We seem to reach a natural and fair consensus very quickly. I don't think either one of us can be called the loser. I think fundamentally we treat each other with more than a small amount of respect. When we fight, we no longer try to win points against each other. Really, there is no winning in taking down your partner, anyway.

In the early days we kept the house neat, we kept the schedule in our organizers, in pen. Over the years the schedule and the house can get a bit muddy and we're happy to go with it. Periodically we clean up. This leaves us feeling renewed and productive.

The marriage was the same way. Early on, we were overly careful, easily stressed, over-planned, over-prepared and worked too hard. Now we work on things when it is necessary, or to get a bit of fresh perspective and enjoy just being together. If you spend too much time grooming and cleaning, you never actually get to the living life part.

I was listening to a marriage counselor/sex therapist on a news program. She had come to the conclusion that long-term relationships are unnatural and that we are all really designed for serial monogamy. It was a reckless and destructive thing for her to say. Perhaps this might be true at a reptile-brain-stem level, but in a society where two incomes are necessary to attain financial security, who really benefits from the destruction of a relationship just past the point when the children have become somewhat self-sufficient? I wonder where I would be if my parents had self-destructed as soon as I hit moderate self-reliance? Their 57+years together means we have a solid foundation that continues to benefit even my 56 y.o. sibling. Not the least of the benefits is that they are self-sufficient in their old age, which apparently is becoming less common. I can't imagine a more shameful thing than coming to rely on my kids some day for financial support.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Home science

Home science is definitely a trip. Of course we engaged in all of the normal planting seeds, caring for a classroom pet (a betta fish), weather, properties of matter, basic biology, chemistry and physics. Now we have successfully hatched butterflies and a Japanese quail chick.

I actually learned a lot from the butterflies - the caterpillar growth curve is alarming, and the emergence from chrysalids is messy and involves lots of red meconium. Also, butterflies are not graceful. They crash land. They also seem to communicate not only with wing flashing but by tapping their front legs (legs that are normally tucked up to their thorax). I greet them by tapping fingernails on the table next to their habitat.

The quail has been harder and involved a steep learning curve. We only had one hatch, but the eggs were a bit old. Now two weeks old, the quail appears to be a female, so it looks like we're in for some (infertile, tasty) eggs. The little thing is strangely friendly and comes over to cuddle my hand when I reach into the brooder cage. We have to tap on things with a finger to emulate pecking and it gets the idea that we are kindred behaviorally. She developed really, really fast. Within two weeks we went from the size of a fluffy quarter to the size of a baseball with comically large feet. The adult feathers are also nearly already in. I expect it will be able to fly and roost in the top of the brooder in a matter of days.

On a related note: I recently found out that several of the moms that deal with my daughter at extracurricular activities came to my defense at a PTA meeting. Someone on the staff made a derogatory comment about homeschooling. The parents had used me as an example on how the local curriculum does not in fact address the needs of all of the children in the community, and probably omits a fairly sizable number. The moms explained that I had managed to teach Fi and the school would not have been able to do it.

The parents of other children may not think to hire their own psychologist or experts. Then their children are tested by the school with exams that are well known to "normalize" them by having an exceptionally low ceiling of measurement. Even the IQ test the school uses has a maxiumum score of 130, which means that a child may only score borderline gifted. This sets up untold numbers of highly capable kids for boredom and under-performance (especially if they are girls).

I would be delighted if the school did develop a program that accommodated children with accelerated skills and asynchronous development. I would certainly enroll her. I would also love to see them use more foreign language (We're currently soaking up Mandarin, Spanish, French, Korean, Finnish and Papamiento).

It was nice to learn that of those moms that were most speculative about my choices for Fi, many have become supporters after interacting with her.

Sunday, May 04, 2008


I think I have attended about 100 weddings ranging from the marriage of Shirley Temple Black's nephew to a Morton Salt/Sunbeam heiress to a small dinner at a diner. I have my fair share of weird bridesmaid dresses, too. Of that sample, none of the individuals that spent a king's ransom on the wedding are still married. All of the others that were nice but simple affairs - those marriages are intact. I can't say that as a guest or other participant I enjoyed lavish events more, or remember them all that much. Weddings tend to blend into a nebulous memory of ceremonies and meals. There are few standouts. Simpler events seemed happier and less forced.

Our wedding was at home. We did invest in the normal stuff like flowers, chairs, tents and tables. We were lucky that all of the food and cake were lovingly made by a host of talented chefs and bakers as well as a handful of Polish, Jewish and Finnish grandmothers. All of our friends were motivated to outdo each other and feed 130 guests until they burst. People still talk about the food. My mother is a professional seamstress and clothing designer, so she hand embroidered a gown. She also made the bridesmaid dresses - none of the girls had to buy anything but perhaps a pair of shoes.

My only nephew was married yesterday. I was dreading the event. I love the kid, and his new wife is wonderful. His parents (my brother) are the nightmare. My brother's wedding fell perhaps too far into the simple category - all the way into cheap. It was an event akin to going to church, but not a party. However, they are still married which is what counts. Both my brother and sister-in-law complained about the fuss of their son's wedding, even through they did not pay for it. I was downright worried that it would be an event with decades of debt to follow.

The wedding was none of those things. I was pleasantly surprised. During the rehearsal and setup we all pitched in to finish the final details, which was nice for all of us as we felt included. The church was a lovely, modern building in Lake of the Woods. Multiple aisles and a somewhat circular design lent itself to a more community event where participants and audience were all in full view of each other. There were a lot of bridesmaids and groomsmen, including my little daughter as the flower girl. The couple have a lot of friends, many of whom met through my nephew and were subsequently married. Although the groomsmen clearly had matching tuxedos, the bridesmaids were allowed to wear simple black gowns of their choice, as their body types would dictate. It was a small but refreshing change from odd costumes I have seen and worn. Black was a nice choice as the flowers were bright and happy and really stood out. The flower girl wore a white dress that was similar to the bride's very classic gown (giving her father a scary preview of things to come).

There was a photographer, but since we have a cluster of shutterbugs in the family, there were countless other cameras around (I brought 2 full bags of gear). The couple should have about 3,000 photos of their event.

The reception was a typical hotel dinner for 250 people, with the exception that all of the setup was put together by their friends (many of whom seem to work in the entertainment industry). Videos, slide shows, the DJ and lighting, the decor, table cards, monogrammed cookies, table games and wish cards had a loving touch that was stunning. With a simple meal and some of the regular events, we were treated to a very happy celebration. Fun events included the police "arresting" my nephew during the "dollar dance" for solicitation. Apparently the cop was a friend that also met his wife through my nephew. All of the details making sure the guests were comfortable did not add up to an expensive affair. Interestingly, there was not a lot of alcohol, and no one missed it.

I think I took 500 of those photos. Time to edit...

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Their psychopathic ways

Where I used to live, I had more neighbors, and better ones, too. Where I live now, there are several around the block, but they are far enough away that it is hard to socialize with them. We wave, or wave not. Some of our kids play together. For all practical purposes, I have to deal with two of them.

The neighbors across the way occasionally assault us with drunken parties with all of their friends - I think in a hot tub. Mostly I could care less, I only ask that the party and its accompanying music move inside around 3 a.m. Really, they are getting old for the Miller High Life; their livers or pocketbooks are going to give out soon enough. (Honestly, I don't recognize them unless they're holding large cocktails).

Next door, there is "Carl." Carl is a sociopath. This week, Carl started to burn leaves in his front yard. This normally does not bother me, but the smoke came to my house - literally. I noticed that I was coughing, but I had no idea the smoke was slowly seeping in until it was too late. I found out when I walked out the front door and took in a lung-full of thick, white smoke.

I have asthma. Mine is triggered by smoke. I called Carl (got voice mail) and asked him if I could please haul his leaves away at my own expense, as his smoke was entering my home. At least three members of my household have asthma, including my 6-year-old. I also know of other families with asthma on the block. Luckily, everyone else seemed to cough a couple of times, rub their eyes and stay stable. In my case, my asthma was quickly becoming life-threatening.

I started heavy-duty medicines as soon as I knew it was the smoke that made me cough. In spite of five drugs, I got progressively worse.

As it turns out, Carl lit another leaf pile and the smoke was again coming for us. I put on a NIOSH respirator and asked him in person to put out the fire. I asked if he got my message. He said "no." I said, "I wanted to offer..." and he said "No, you may not take away my leaves." Meaning to me that he did indeed get my message and was lying.

As I stood there dumbfounded, pleading for my health, he proceeded to rant about long-term habits and his right to burn leaves (in between drags on his cigarette). His argument was that he had done this every year, long before most of the houses in the area were built. He seemed completely to miss the point that now that there are other houses, there are also breathing families within those houses. I was coughing, literally gasping, but it just never seemed to register with him.

Rob came after me and brought me home, and got some photos of the fire.

At this point, my asthma was in full attack. I called 911. In the ambulance, they could not find my left lung sounds and fretted about my heart so they fussed over stabilizing me before we even left the driveway. The sheriff that came along asked Carl in terms something like "don't be an ass," to put out the fire. The sheriff recommended to Rob that we pursue a civil action.

I spent several hours in the hospital with IV steroids and inhaled medicines. I dislike hospitals. I learned very early in my medical training that hospitals and patient care were never going to be for me. We discussed my admittance several times. I talked the doctor into letting me come home since I have equipment here, too, and the fire is out. I have had the maximum steroid dose for 12 hours anyway. I finally managed to take deep breaths after my fourth full breathing treatment and the steroids started to kick in. The doctor said, relieved, "You are moving air! I can hear your lungs." My heart calmed, and my O2 levels rose.

I explained about the fire. The doctor was angered by the story, and it turns out he is a trustee for our town. He immediately e-mailed other trustees and said he was sure the leaf burning violated an ordinance agreed to by all the bordering towns, even for unincorporated areas. He even wrote a terse note on a hospital prescription pad to give to the neighbor, full of terms making it clear that Carl's actions "precipitated a life-threatening attack."

OK, so, the moral of the story is two-pronged. One, if you have asthma that is normally so well-controlled that you don't take a daily steroid, you have to be twice as careful to notice the warning signs of an attack. Paroxysmal coughing, throat clearing or light wheezing means "take action immediately!" For a patient with constant, chronic asthma, the attacks are not as violent and sudden so they are not as suddenly life threatening. Ironically, the well-controlled population, especially children, are at high risk of sudden death.

Two, think twice about burning leaves, even if your area allows it. They are always a bit moist, so the smoke is thick and cool. At very cold temperatures the smoke may well rise straight up, but in the spring and fall, especially during low barometer days, it is just as likely to hug the ground and injure people you do not know. Even brush fires tend to be hotter and less smoky (the smoke rises with the intense heat). Many towns and townships do offer some free composting options if you cannot afford to have landscapers take your leaves away. Some even offer free low-odor compost bins free or at a discount (leaf compost may well filter out sulfur compounds from wastewater and when mixed with coffee grounds decompose into a garden-rich mixture).

More and more people will get asthma, as pollution is making several cities (and downwind of power plants) danger zones for previously healthy lungs. This is going to be a problem more often, for more people.