Hating the Heat

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This is a re-post of one I wrote last September.  The heat is back.  Time to share the misery once again.

Living in Southern California (San Diego, specifically) leaves me so little to complain about when it comes to seasonal weather that it is downright discouraging.

I mean, how can I complain to people from the rest of the nation who year after year live through blizzards, followed by “mud season”, the spawning of Mosquitos of Unusual Size, and locusts for all that I know. Outside of my SoCal bubble, there seems to be a brief period of lovely spring-like weather followed by monsoonal storms, and then tornados, blistering summer heat, and mind-numbing humidity. I hear fall is nice, but can the beauty of fall colors get a person through the inevitable knowledge that the blizzards are on the way once again?

I get it. Even throwing in our occasional earthquakes and wildfires, my meteorological complaints can’t compare to those of the average Nebraskan or Upper Peninsula Michigander.

However, as the climate changes, a fact universally acknowledged by any everyone except the 30% of Americans who get all of their wisdom and opinions from Fox News, summers are getting longer, hotter, and more miserable here in paradise. For me, it means longer periods of frayed nerves, slothfulness, and despair.

If you aren’t from around here and you keep an eye on the weather pages, you might regularly curse the seemingly endless reports from San Diego of temperatures that never exceed 85 degrees. Please understand that those temps are being recorded on the coast, in the shade, and I suspect, in an air-conditioned room, so that San Diego will have an endless appeal to tourists. Each mile inland from that thermometer means a one degree increase in temperature, so that in my corner of the county, 85 on the coast usually means 100 degrees in my inland valley. The thermometer seems to be stuck there for long stretches from June through the middle of November. It is becoming increasingly popular to plan Thanksgiving as an outdoor picnic.

I try to adjust. I really do. I get up earlier, get my walk done before the worst of the heat begins or take late evening walks. I blow through my outdoor chores sometimes as the sun is just coming up. As soon as the sun goes down, if the heat has not beaten the life out of me, I try to enjoy the warmly comfortable evening out on my deck or at a nearby bar that features an outdoor, big-screen TV with endless sports coverage.

As summer comes on, I become obsessed by the daily forecasts. None of them accurately anticipates the suffering I’m going to feel the next day. I recently bought a digital indoor/outdoor thermometer so that I continually, throughout the day, can check the exact temperature so that I know EXACTLY how miserable I am and EXACTLY how much I should be able to complain about it. My family has grown weary of my constant updates as the heat climbs toward triple digits.

My self-esteem sinks on days like this as my motivation to accomplish anything wanes. Sweeping out the garage seems like a monumental task. Watering the roses?—Herculean. I stare at the phone but the idea of actually picking it up to make an appointment to have my car serviced is just too much. On such a day, can’t watching 5 episodes of Scandal be considered an accomplishment? My lethargy weighs on me.

Essayist Joan Didion described this phenomenon brilliantly in her essay on the effects of the Santa Ana winds, a weather condition that brings high temperatures and hot, dry winds howling through the inland valleys, frequently in September and October when the tips of the palm trees turn brown and we start to hope for fall. It’s good to read her words and know that my desperation at day-after-day heat is not isolated. She recounts the effects as the populace senses the onset of the super-heated winds: “The baby frets. The maid sulks. I rekindle a waning argument with the telephone company, then cut my losses and lie down, given over to whatever is in the air.” She further quotes Raymond Chandler who wrote about the winds saying, “On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen.”

It gives me comfort to know that external forces are toying with my actions and emotions. I know that I will rise again once our three weeks of winter begin some time in January. Until then, I wait in quiet desperation for the sun to go down. I give thanks for Netflix. I lie in bed at night waiting for the first cool breeze of the day to come drifting in my window, listening to the sirens wailing and the coyotes singing in the canyons.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oh, the Bitter Pill of Irony

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So, it ends up that four hours after I posted my previous piece on the pitfalls of hypochondria, I ended up in the emergency room with chest pains.  It was the perfect storm of chest tightness, occasional pain, a raised level of blood pressure, with a touch of vertigo thrown in that pushed me to my 6% threshold of uncertainty and led me to ignore my own certain wisdom and call the Kaiser “advice nurse.”

Once I got on the line with her, she prepared me for the 150 questions she was about to ask me, but I already knew there was only one that was important:  “Are you experiencing chest pain?”  The rest of the questions were all relevant but unrelated to my immediate future.  I was going to the emergency room.

9 PM on the Tuesday night after the Memorial Day weekend and it was SRO in Kaiser emergency, and a lot of these people looked profoundly uncomfortable.  In fact, just being around them made me feel more sick than when I had come in. “Chest pain” used to get you right in the door and into a room, but once they established I was stable, I was sent back out to the waiting area.  In fact, I half expected one of the nurses to come out and look at my chart and yell at me, “Your pain level is a 2?!  You call that pain?!  I’ll show you pain, mister!!  Man up and come back when it actually hurts!”

Sitting, watching the waiting room slowly empty out until almost midnight began to re-define the entire concept of an “emergency” for me.  Once, my name was finally called, I was ushered into a very nice, private observation room where the hospital protocols kicked in and in short order blood was drawn, my chest was x-rayed, and a series of nurses and doctors stopped by to ask me the same, exact questions, over and over again.

It took until 4 AM for them to decide that I was going to spend the night, although that ship had clearly already passed, and that I was going to stay with them until I got a cardiac stress-echocardiogram done, hopefully in the morning.

Somehow the word “hopefully” got past me.  My weary and long-suffering wife left me to go home, and I passed out, finding it easy to follow their orders to not eat or drink anything before it was time for the test.  By mid-afternoon, when they decided they could starve me no longer, they broke the bad news that there were no openings for the procedure and I would have to be admitted to the hospital to spend yet another night eating hospital food and watching re-runs of Law and Order SVU.

Around 9:30 PM a bed finally opened up in the hospital, and I was transferred out of my fairly comfortable private digs to a regular room, a room that came complete with a roommate.  After ten minutes in the room with him, I became convinced that the only reason the bed had become available was that the previous occupant had begged to be removed, offering to sleep in a closet or to be taken off life support—anything to get away from this guy.  A nurse came in to ask me my list of questions again and then threw in a new one.  “Do you ever have thoughts of harming yourself?” she asked.  “Not until just recently,” I deadpanned.

He was in pretty bad shape and hard of hearing so the nurses had to repeat everything they told him, loudly, and he talked loudly in return.  And he loved to talk.  Every nurse’s visit prompted a new story about his wretched physical condition or his adventurous life.  He had been a musician his whole life and owned hundreds of musical instruments, had traveled the world, and spoke lovingly of his wife. He veered horribly close to insulting both a Hispanic and Pilipino nurse and somehow managed to re-engage them, turn on the charm, and became nothing but grateful for their help.

I was almost starting to like him somewhere around 11:30 PM when he suddenly began trying to cough up a lung.  He hacked and spat and swore and then started all over again.  In deference to me, he went into the bathroom to hock up the other lung, but it was impossible.  I could hear everything.  I decided to give up on sleep for the night as he settled in to watch some late-night TV which turned out to be the perfect tonic. Before I knew it, I was sound asleep.

The new day brought an introduction to new modern miracles of medicine.  By 7:30 AM I was being whisked away for a 4-hour chemical stress echocardiogram.  This involves having pictures of your heart taken at rest to create a baseline and then injecting you with chemicals which stress your heart so they can take more pictures to see if your heart is functioning efficiently.  It seemed somewhat counterintuitive to me to mess with such chemicals, but since I was not feeling the whole treadmill thing, I went for the drugs.

When I was ready for them, I was taken into a room with a treadmill and lots of monitoring equipment.  I was told that I was going to get a “lexi-walk” which was a combination of actually getting me started on the treadmill and then administering the drugs that would give me the jolt.  I started my stroll on the treadmill, but couldn’t get the term “lexi-walk” out of my head.  I’m sure it was my sleep-deprived state, but it kept conjuring two competing images in my brain.  In one, I was strolling down the beach with an adoring young thing named Lexi on my arm, and in the other I was being forced to walk someone’s annoying poodle, whose full name was actually Alexandrika.  The images faded quickly when the nurse pumped two injections into my IV and suddenly I felt like I was running a marathon–badly.

After more pictures, it was back to the room.  My roommie had vacated temporarily, and my nurse was kind enough to have the nutritionist come in and let me make a special order for my lunch.  Oooh, the salmon sounds good and of course I want the mashed potatoes and gravy, and broccoli–not those nasty canned green beans from the night before.  How nice, I thought.  Personalized service! Peace and quiet!

Within the hour, my lunch arrived:  chicken, undercooked carrots, and a bread roll made from sawdust (gluten free, I’m sure).

The only thing remaining, besides getting over my disappointment over lunch, was the visit from a doctor to tell me the results.  He was effusive.  “A model heart!  Your heart sets the gold standard for how we’d like these tests to come out!  Yeah, we have no idea what was causing your pain or discomfort, but you seem to be feeling better, so you are good to go!!”

40 hours.  40 hours to hear that despite all of the symptoms and a bucket load of worry, I was just fine.  Better than fine.  A model that other 61-year-olds should aspire to.  It almost made me wish that nurse had come out and yelled at me 40 hours earlier.  “Call that pain?!  You come in hear and bother us with a level 2 pain complaint?!  You don’t know the meaning of pain!  You ain’t even coughin’ up a lung like that poor old guy in 5011B.  Now, that’s an emergency!”

 

 

“So, Hypochondriacally Speaking…”

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I’m not a hypochondriac.  At least, I don’t think so.

But at 61, I have several chronic conditions (TMJ, upper neck and back pain, anxiety) and then other issues that make guest appearances from time to time (vertigo, extra heart beats, random muscle pain and spasms). I go to the doctor if something seems unusual, or if I suspect they might have some treatment that will improve the chronic ones but other than that, I just try to enjoy the fact that basically, I’m pretty healthy.

However, if several of these symptoms show up at the same time, say vertigo, a restless heart, and a little chest tension, then, of course, my anxiety shoots up and I start getting worried—which makes everything worse.

I’ve had enough false alarms that I’m wary of rushing off too quickly to the doc. I have learned not to call the Kaiser “advise nurse” because no matter how benignly I might describe my symptoms, her solution is always to send me to emergency room hell. I also NEVER Google a symptom. There is no quicker way to be sure that you are dying of some heinous disease, than to plug in a couple of symptoms and let a multitude of websites guess at what you might have.

Because the neck pain drives me crazy, I take ibuprophen every day. I’m confident (because I’ve read the warnings on the side of the extra-large bottle) that eventually my stomach will explode because of it. So when I started to develop a chronic pain on the right side of my abdominal area, I decided to go in to see my doctor. I explained my concerns about the ibuprophen destroying my stomach, and he told me straight out that that was not the issue since my stomach is on the left side. The right side contains the pancreas, liver, and spleen. Great, I thought, now I’ve got three critical organs to worry about.

After reviewing my blood work and doing a physical exam, he told me that he was pretty sure I had something called “abdominal wall pain” which sounded like something that doctors say when they have absolutely no idea what is wrong with you. He reassured me that he had eliminated 95% of the “really bad stuff” and that this diagnosis really did make the most sense. To eliminate the other 5%, he could order up an MRI and blast me with lots of radiation. I decided that I was OK with 95%.

During the exam, though, he introduced me to an interesting bit of doc-speak. He told me that he understood my concerns and my desire for him to be thorough, and that every doctor has to evaluate his patient’s “tolerance for uncertainty” in making a diagnosis. I now know that my “tolerance for uncertainty” is 5% or lower. If I’m 6% uncertain, I’m going to want to full monty of tests, radiation be damned.

However, my tolerance was sorely tested on Christmas Eve this past year. After our usual wonderful meal and as the family celebration was continuing, I excused myself to go to the restroom. Imagine my surprise when I discovered my urine had turned pink. Blood in the urine! This can’t be good. Either my stomach had finally exploded or something was surely wrong with my pancreas, liver, and spleen now that I knew for sure where they were.

I could not rush off to the emergency room on Christmas Eve even if it meant having my kids watch their dad slowly bleed out as we drank beer and watched “A Christmas Story.” I calmly told my wife, and she agreed that I should monitor the situation and as long as I wasn’t in pain, we could get it checked out later. By noon the next day, the symptoms were gone and all that was left was that nagging worry that at any moment, I could go critical again.

I waited until December 26th to go in to see an urgent care doctor and recounted the series of events and my various theories, all of which he kindly discounted. In fact, he seemed intent on assuring me that he was in far worse shape than I appeared to be. He asked me a long series of questions, none of which led to a conclusion. Finally, he paused and asked, “Did you eat anything unusual?”

Beets. Mary had made a beet salad from fresh beets and I ate it to be polite and because I read somewhere that purple food is good for you. I don’t even like beets. No one had ever told me that fresh beets, eaten in large enough quantity, will color everything that passes through your body for about 8-12 hours. Sure, ibuprophen has warning labels, but not beets.

So, am I a worrier—yes. Possessor of a 5% tolerance for uncertainty level—absolutely. Anatomically ignorant—check. Hypochondriac?—Hmmm. Still not sure. I think I’ll wait until the next time I’m nearly killed by a vegetable to decide.

 

“Dish Bitch”

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This started way back.  Way back when apparently our dishwasher began to emit nearly lethal amounts of radioactivity.  I was the only member of our family unaware of it, and apparently the only one immune from it.

We all liked having a dishwasher.  We would have felt deprived with out one.  No one minded putting dishes into it, and I think there was a kind of satisfaction to be the one who would declare, “I think it’s time to run the dishwasher!”  No one, except me, seemed to understand that the appliance became essentially useless once it was sitting there full of clean dishes.

However no one, and I mean no one, would voluntarily empty the dishwasher. Except me.

I accept the idea that there are certain things that are “dad” jobs.  I understand the division of labor.  I knew that I maintained the outside of the house, and that it was my role to fix things (or make them worse at my discretion), to build walls, and dig up pipes.  As a modern guy, I didn’t mind splitting the household chores as well, and the whole family agreed that we were all better off with me not being the head cook.  For some reason though, bags of trash never made it farther than the middle of the garage, as if my two kids and my wife were incapable of the 7 extra steps it would take to go through the garage door and actually deposit them in a trash can.

And there was emptying the dishwasher.

On a Friday afternoon when my teaching friends were gathered at the local pub, celebrating the end of the week with a few beers, I launched into my lament, the unfairness of it all.  Stephanie, ever able to turn the phrase declared, “Oh honey, you’re just the dish bitch.”  Along with everybody else, I burst out laughing at the label.  “Damn,” I said, “you’re right!  I am the dish bitch.”

I went home determined to ditch my new-found title.  At this time the kids were still in their teens, and therefore basically indentured servants.  Chores around kitchen clean-up seemed to be split between “washing” and “drying” only.  Everyone was long gone by the time the dishwasher shut itself off.  It just so happened that we filled it that night and as I fired it up, I declared “Just so you know, when this gets done, I am not going to empty it.”

The kids (and my wife, I think) rolled their eyes, saying silently to each other, “Ah, dad’s having a thing” and went about their business.  The dishwasher sat full, the dishes cleaned, for another two days.  After all, we had other dishes.  If someone had a favorite glass, you could always pull it out.  Eventually, once I had reiterated my stand loudly and repeatedly enough, the kids broke down and split up the task.

And then things went right back to normal.  Every now and then, I’d try the silent, passive-aggressive approach.  After a week or so, the kids might notice.  “Oh, “ my son would say, “gone on strike with the dishwasher again, dad?” and then he would do the responsible thing.  He’d figure out a way to manipulate his sister into doing it.

Now the kids are grown, and it is just my wife and I and the appliance.  For some reason, she takes great care in making sure the dishes are positioned properly, frequently reorganizing them once I have put them in and occasionally pulling some things out and informing me that “these don’t go in the dishwasher!” although the rules about this always seem to be changing.

I knew I had finally lost the war when I returned from a 10-day visit to my sister in Hawaii and in the morning began to clean up my breakfast dishes and put them in the dishwasher.  “Hey,” she said, “the stuff in the dishwasher is clean.  I ran it right after you left.”

I was speechless.   She was busy getting ready for work, and said it so matter-of-factly that I checked myself from saying what seemed so obvious to me.  In fact, to save time, I just ran the dialogue through my head.

Me:  So, you ran the dishwasher and let clean dishes sit in the dishwasher for 9 days until I would return to empty it?

Her:  Look, when you’re gone, I barely cook, I use paper plates. I never needed anything from it.  I don’t even think about it.

Me:  (long silence, since I have no idea how to respond—this happens a lot)

 Game, set, match.  After all, what if Mary insisted we split up the cooking responsibilities 50/50?  She is nearly a professional chef, and I get confused when the recipe says words like “bake for 30 minutes”.  We would live in a culinary wasteland for half of each week.

So now, I embrace my inner dish bitch.  I am one with the dishwasher. I will make sure that it is cared for and well tended, like my vegetable garden.  Putting away the dishes will no longer be a chore, but my spiritual communion with the kitchen gods.  I will hear Rodney Yee’s voice coaching me as he does in my yoga videos. “Feel your sidebody stretch as both arms extend to put the big plates on the second shelf. Breathe…”