Thursday, October 29, 2015

Simple Hippie

The Internet says that an adult who gets mono might feel fatigued off and on for a year, whereas if a toddler gets it, it might just be a few days of a sore throat or being tired. The child’s parents might never even know their youngster has mono. I was kind of looking forward to having an excuse to sleep 11 hours a night for a year, take a nap whenever I felt like it, and sit around reading instead of going out, but must say I am feeling much betterin fact, pretty much perfect. Late in the mono experience, after I’d plowed through many of the works on my to-read shelf and on a day when I felt well enough to make the walk, I got a stack of books from the library and have been very happily immersed in Family Furnishings, selected stories of Alice Munro’s from 1995 to 2014.


I think I have mentioned from time to time the evident hoarder who lives next door. His back yard is almost always crammed with stuff, ditto the walkway alongside the building that his tenants would otherwise use for egress in a fire, ditto his car, ditto the lobby of the building, and ditto his garage. I don’t often get to see inside the latter, but now and then the door is open when I go by, and I have seen artifacts filling every square inch both horizontally and vertically. I can only imagine what his own apartment is like. I know it is quite a large place, because that building is a mirror image of ours. His apartment almost certainly has three good-sized rooms along with a dining alcove, a long hallway, kitchen, bathroom, and laundry room off the kitchen. Plus, being the building
s owner, he has the building’s whole basement at his disposal.

I have been told that every now and then someone complains to the fire department and he has to tidy up, though of course after a bit, things are again just as they were. He’s been in the process of cleaning up for several months now, sometimes in the middle of the night. After immense effort on his part, his back yard began to take on an uncluttered appearance, and I realized he was putting his extra-good stuff off to one side, which includes, I’m sorry to say, not one, not two, not three, not four, but five charcoal grills. Also quite a number of ancient chairs in poor repair. I think he must have the idea that he’s going to whip the place into shape and have friends over for a cookout, but Tom said there will never be a day when his yard is actually ready for entertaining—before it’s empty enough, it will fill up again, so there’s no point worrying about it.


The past couple of years, I’ve been saving as much money as I possibly can, to the point where I couldn’t afford to replace my toner cartridge, couldn’t buy a set of ankle weights, and so forth, let alone the new computer I now need, now that my browser is so far out of date I can’t get to my bank’s website or to YouTube or to the website for my long-distance service. I can’t upgrade my browser because my operating system is so old, and I can’t upgrade my operating system both because my disk drive is broken and also because system resources are insufficient, so I decided to give myself a raise via cutting back a bit on how much I save. Newly rich, it was time to have my kitchen knives properly sharpened.

I looked online, discovered the existence of a well-regarded cutlery shop two blocks from my place—I’ll probably see Zuckerberg in there one of these days—and took my knives down there. The place is called Bernal Cutlery.

I paid for rush sharpening service, and bought a honing steel, plus one of their cutting boards, after they explained that bamboo is bad for knives, as is plastic. This cutting board is made out of hinoki (a type of fragrant Japanese cypress), and it is really, really nice. It’s extremely smooth, and it smells wonderful, and it gives slightly under the pressure of the blade, and cuts in its surface kind of seal themselves up after the board is gently rinsed in cold water (now that I know it’s bad to wash a wooden cutting board using soap and hot water). Using a super-sharp knife to cut an apple on this cutting board is a treat for the senses: the smell of the wood and the apple, the sound and feel of the knife going so smoothly through the apple, and how the blade feels against the soft hinoki.

I was telling my mother all this, and she mused, “I like to think of you as being a simple hippie like myself, but every now and then, I realize it’s not the case.”

Now I’m racking my brains trying to think of everything I own that can possibly be sharpened. I took them my old lineman’s knife, from when I worked for PG&E, and while I was there, I bought a knife that is smaller than my big knife and bigger than my small knife. I wanted a 5” blade, which they didn’t have, so I bought a 5.75” Sabatier paring knife. The fellow there said Wüsthof probably makes something the length I wanted, but I’d rather spend my money at this lovely little neighborhood shop.

When I was a child, my mother had a Sabatier paring knife of which she was particularly fond, if I recall correctly. I’m sorry to say I broke its tip off while using it to pry something or other open, but she didn’t get mad. I remember being surprised by that. It was kind of her, or perhaps it happened when she was in a particularly philosophical mood. Afterward, she ground the blade down so that it came to a point again, so it was still a nice Sabatier paring knife, just noticeably smaller than before.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Hair Au Contraire

Before this whole mono thing, after making a haircut appointment, I showed F. some pictures of myself with haircuts I have liked in the past so he could choose his favorite. “This is nice,” he said of one.

“You think my hair looks good like that?”

“Oh, sorry, I was looking at the San Francisco skyline behind you.”

Of a selfie taken in my bathroom, he said, “Wow, this one is great—look how clean your shower curtain is!”

I ended up just having it trimmed, partly because F. really likes long hair. I also suspect that my hairdresser had been pushing for me to grow it out because she’s perplexed about how to cut such thick, bushy, wavy, coarse hair. It had gotten long enough that it could be put into a ponytail, and she averred that it was going to look very beautiful by the time it was down to my shoulders, but it was a good deal of work, all the various things that had to be done to it after I washed it, and after I started feeling lousy because of the mono, one day before stepping into the shower, I thought, “I just can’t do it” and picked up the nearest scissors and cut it off instead.

Every time I warned F. that I was thinking of having it cut short, which is how I personally prefer it, he lamented, “Don’t mutilate your hair!” Then I would explain that hair is dead. It has no capacity for physical suffering or aggrieved feelings. Henceforth, I refuse to serve as the life support system for a big wad of scraggly hair, and it’s OK if no one ever again thinks it looks pretty, though, oddly, the next time I was at the soup kitchen after that, I received a big surge of attention from our African American gentleman guests in particular, one of whom said he was feeling “miraculous” that day. He said, “If you keep working like that, I’m going to fall in love with you!” Then, leaning across the table toward me, he asked, “Are you married?” I told him I have a boyfriend, but said I’d warn him that a fellow who feels miraculous is in line right behind him.

Another man, older and white, noticed my haircut and recalled a conversation where I had said that people always want whatever kind of hair they don’t have. He said thoughtfully, “If I had hair like yours, I would probably wish it was straight.”

Friday, October 09, 2015

Garlic, Part Three

The next day, Friday, I had blood drawn for the third time and on Saturday, I used Dr. Duck Duck Go (which, unlike Google, does not track its users or their searches) to look up all the ailments that can elevate the liver enzymes, and found one that perfectly fit my symptoms: mononucleosis, which I did not have when I was a teenager or young adult. On Sunday, Tom drove me in a City CarShare car to Rainbow for my weekly shopping and, in the afternoon, to Berkeley to keep our date with Tom’s mother for lunch and Berkeley Rep. Normally we take BART, which would have been too much exertion, but going in a car and not speaking a word all day to rest my throat, it worked out all right.

On Tuesday Dr. C. called and said my liver enzymes were even higher: my AST now four times the top possible normal level, and my ALT nearly seven times the top normal level! I asked if what ailed me could be mono and she said, yes, it was possible this was an infection. She said she would check to see if some of the blood already drawn could be checked for Epstein-Barr.

In the meantime, she was focusing on the abnormality noticed in my large intestine and had signed me up for a colonoscopy on Thursday. She wasn’t worried I had colon cancer. She was worried I might have lymphoma (cancer of the lymph nodes). How a colonoscopy helps rule that out, I have no idea, but on Wednesday, I fasted and talked to my mother 95 times on the phone. She was very nice about keeping me company during this phase of the whole thing, having to not eat when I already felt extremely lousy.

It dawned on me that I was probably just going to barf the colonoscopy prep stuff right back up after I drank it—that which smells like something used to sanitize a porta-potty—and I called the colonoscopy doctor, who called in a prescription for anti-nausea medication, and Tom went to Walgreens after work and stood in line for an hour to pick it up. Drinking the prep liquid was totally horrible, but I reminded myself that many people were having to do the same thing that very afternoon, and that if I just kept taking tiny sips, alternating with sips of clear apple juice, it would eventually be gone.

Thursday morning I had to drink the other dose of the prep stuff. One bright spot in all of this was reading other people’s colonoscopy prep tips online, many of which are quite funny. One said something like, “After you drink the stuff, get ready to spend some time in the Oval Office.” You’re not supposed to chill the solution, but on Thursday morning, I added a number of ice cubes and used a straw to drink it while holding my nose with my other hand. It was definitely much more tolerable chilled, and I now have a complete colonoscopy prep protocol fully refined for future occasions.

I had the colonoscopy—no problems found whatsoever—and Tom, who has been a remarkable friend throughout this whole thing, left work two hours early to fetch me afterward and I came home and, per the advice to avoid greasy food, ate an entire pizza. It was the first time in weeks that I’d felt well enough to overeat, and I didn’t want to miss the opportunity. There weren’t any ill effects from that at all. 

(My colonoscopy doctor, who is a darling young woman, explained that, since the intestines are always in motion, a CT scan, taking a brief snapshot, often captures something that looks suspicious. She said that about once a week, she performs a colonoscopy on someone for this reason and it almost always turns out to be nothing.)
That evening, nearly two weeks after my evening in the emergency room, Dr. C. called to say it was (and is) mono! Which I figured out by looking online. She apologized for putting me through an unnecessary colonoscopy, but I told her all is well that ends well, though this hasn’t quite ended. Also, bills will probably be rolling in for weeks. My own responsibility for the facilities charge for the colonoscopy—not the doctor and not the anesthesia, but just standing in their building—was nearly $500. Plus there is the doctor, the anesthesia, the emergency room, the CT scan, and having blood drawn and analyzed three times. But that’s OK. I’m glad to not have cancer and almost equally relieved not to have an auto-immune problem. Dr. C. said I
probably” won’t have permanent liver damage.

My cousin, who, along with her husband, works in medicine, emailed me, “I’m embarrassed for the healthcare system that failed to look for such a common cause for your symptoms.” I do wonder how many more tests I would have had if I hadn’t suggested to my doctor that it could be mono.

I still have fatigue and dry mouth and mild headaches and minor itching, better or worse depending on the day. Apparently the older you are when you have mono, the more severe the symptoms are and the longer they can last, coming and going for a year or longer. My mental health professional was grumbling about how frightening this experience must have been, but it was actually not frightening at all. There was no moment when I felt scared. I think it’s scary, or highly worrisome and upsetting, when it’s happening to someone else, like your mother or your cat.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

Garlic, Part Two

The next day I happened to have my annual ob/gyn appointment. My doctor reviewed the electronic notes from the night before and exclaimed, “You have hepatitis!” I took a cab from there to the office of my primary care provider, Dr. C., and en route, I yawned and all of a sudden felt a stabbing pain in my throat, which ended up lasting for nine days.

I went over everything with Dr. C., who told me that one of my liver enzymes (AST) was three times the top normal level, and the other (ALT) was nearly five times the top normal level. She said I should have more blood drawn so they could determine what kind of hepatitis I had: C, which you get from the blood of someone who has it; B, which you get by having sex with someone who has it; or A, which you get by eating the feces of someone who has it. (I said “feces” because it sounds even more disgusting than “poop.”)

Of course F. and I both had STI testing done when we got together, and at that point, neither of us had any kind of hepatitis. Well, that is not quite true. We did have testing done, but it wasn’t in advance of, uh, spending quality time together. I figured (stupidly) that since neither of us had had a partner for a while and neither of us had symptoms of gonorrhea or anything like that, STI testing was more of a formality. Wrong, wrong, wrong! One of us could have had a dormant form of hepatitis and given it to the other. Should I have occasion to make that mistake ever again, I won’t. I am grateful to have avoided catastrophic results.

Prior to the exchanging of fluids, there must be full STI testing and there must be the seeing, with one’s own eyeballs, of a printout of the prospective partner’s test results.

Now, normally when I’m ill, I contact everyone I’ve ever met to tell them all about it so that they can worry and shower me with affection and so forth. However, I wasn’t exactly eager to announce that I had hepatitis. Oh, presumably this was hepatitis A, and how you can get that is by eating in a restaurant where a kitchen worker fails to wash his or her hands properly after visiting the restroom. My doctor said hepatitis A has been going around and that if people washed their hands after going to the bathroom and did their own cooking, there would be less of it.

Another reason I hadn’t already told a million people that I was having all these strange symptoms was that I felt kind of self-conscious about being sick again. I’ve had so many medical things over the years, including cancer, that I felt worried about my friends just getting tired of the whole thing. I felt that maybe I’d better just not say anything unless I got a firm diagnosis of something really awful.

So I had blood drawn on my way home from Dr. C.’s, and three days later, she called to say what kind of hepatitis I had: no kind. I did not have hepatitis. At this point, I might have started my communications campaign, but now was way too tired, having to lie down after every small exertion, plus my mouth was still horribly dry, my throat was killing me, and I felt itchy from head to toe, various areas at various times.

Dr. C. had taken a closer look at the CT scan from the emergency room and detected a thickening in my colon, possibly a touch of inflammatory colitis. She said the lymph nodes along my GI tract appeared to be swollen. Meanwhile, the lymph nodes in my neck were definitely swollen and aching. She said to go have more blood drawn, and if my liver enzymes were even higher, I would have another CT scan of my abdomen, to make sure nothing had been missed, and if they were lower, I’d have an ultrasound instead. She said maybe it was a gallstone that had already passed, or it might be an auto-immune thing, or one of any number of “weird little things.”

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Garlic, Part One

I am extremely fond of garlic and particularly enjoy greens sautéed with garlic and bouillon. Three or four times a week, I sauté a whole bunch of collard greens or dinosaur kale, using perhaps four cloves of garlic. This is a lot of garlic to mince, so I acquired a small electric grinder for processing the whole week’s supply of garlic all at once. It’s perfectly fine in a plastic container in the fridge; some like to add olive oil.

Then I read that it’s really best to eat garlic raw, and, for maximum health benefits, within 10 minutes of mincing or pressing it. A few months ago, I had a cold or some other symptom that the Internet suggested chewing and swallowing a raw clove of garlic for. I decided to give it a try and chewed up a whole clove of garlic, and, with my body screaming, “Don’t do it! Don’t do it!”, I swallowed it, to immediate and major ill effect.

That I will never do again, but after reading about the 10-minute thing, I decided to try mincing a clove of garlic and putting it on top of olive oil toast. This was not bad tasting and was tolerable to the stomach, but it also gave me a headache and a very dry mouth. I tried it again a couple of days later and the exact same thing happened. It actually seemed that this one clove of garlic had dried out my entire system, including my brain. I always drink a lot of water, but had to greatly step up my intake to try to ease my dry mouth.

So, raw garlic seems to be out, and it’s probably logistically impossible to eat garlic within 10 minutes of its being minced or pressed, since it takes me longer than that to prepare my scrumptious sautéed greens, but I figured it would be good if I minced garlic just before starting to cook my greens rather than to use garlic from the refrigerator that might have been minced several days prior, though I’m sure that’s still better than eating a doughnut.

Accordingly, I acquired a small version of an OXO chopper that I have found very satisfactory for nuts, and also a Garlic Twist, a really pleasing, very low-tech item made out of translucent plastic that you bang on your garlic clove to loosen the skin and then use to mince the garlic. This thing is brilliant and it works very well, but even freshly minced garlic was now seeming too strong.

Meanwhile, a fatigue had been creeping up on me, and for about a week, I had pain in my stomach after eating. Once that abated, I noticed a lot of bloating after eating and my appetite fell off markedly. Somewhere along in there, I had the two garlic-related episodes of dry mouth and headaches, and then I got even more tired, such that I could hardly get up a flight of stairs. I announced to F. that I was starting to look forward to getting a cancer diagnosis so I could lie in a hospital bed with a nice nurse to take care of me.

Then, on a Sunday afternoon when I’d drunk glass after glass of water still trying to get rid of my dry mouth, I noticed that my pee was pumpkin colored.

I looked online a bit and concluded that somehow I might have done something to my kidneys. I called my doctor’s office and got the number of the 24-hour nurse, who advised having it checked out that same day, either at urgent care or the emergency room. I went in a cab to the emergency room at Davies, which is a nice, calm place with no wait.

I felt unbelievably lousy and lying in a hospital bed with a nurse fussing over me was just as great as I’d pictured. The doctor came in and I told him my various symptoms. I could tell he thought I was a hypochondriac, which I am. He said the only thing he could really observe was perhaps a touch of malaise. They took a urine sample and pronounced it normal. I found out later that, despite the odd color, it was actually even better than normal, very dilute.

Then they drew some blood, and the doctor came in again, seeming much more engaged, and said there was nothing wrong with my kidneys, but there was something wrong with my liver. He asked if it hurt here or there in my abdomen, and if I’d noticed that the whites of my eyes were yellow. This I had not noticed, and in fact, the whites of my eyes and my skin were not yellow. The bilirubin in my blood was elevated enough to cause the weird pee color, but not enough to cause jaundice. The doctor sent me to have a CT scan with dye to see if there was a mass in my pancreas.

In the past couple of years, the father of a friend of mine died of pancreatic cancer, which has a poor prognosis. I lay on my comfy hospital bed reflecting that someone was going to come into the room and say either that I had a mass in my pancreas or that I didn’t. If the former, I was probably going to die, so I thought about what I needed to do before dying: make a will, so my sisters don’t pay a fortune in estate taxes. Find a top-notch home for Hammett. I’d want to spend my final weeks or months with my parents, lying in a La-Z-Boy in their media room. And that’s about it. I concluded I was ready to die, if necessary. Actually, I felt even a touch of relief at how simple life had (potentially) become.

Nonetheless, I was not displeased when the doctor came back and said I did not have a mass in either my liver or my pancreas and therefore I either had hepatitis or a gallstone. I took a cab home and called my father to report on the evening’s events. I was at the hospital from about 6 p.m. until 10 p.m. My father is up off and on around the clock and was awake when I called, though when I asked, “Are you awake?”, he answered, “Now I am,” because that’s the only correct answer to that question after a certain hour.