Thursday, April 30, 2009

Skywatch Friday: Owens Valley Skies

Every spring I inevitably get bit by the homesickness bug, and thought I'd show off why I get this way. The Owens River Valley in Eastern California is where my ancestors settled down at the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth century, and where my Grandma Clarice and Grandpa Ira's children (which included my father and the current patriarch, my Uncle Art) and I were born.

I've written many posts for this blog on the history of the area and my family's involvement therein, but I don't spend nearly enough time talking about how achingly lovely the place is. My focus is always on the area between Big Pine and Lone Pine, along U. S. Highway 395. Most people travel this road on the way to somewhere else: North to Mammoth, Lake Tahoe, Reno, or south to Los Angeles, Las Vegas, or even Death Valley.

The opening shot is related to one labeled on the Farm's home page as "The Auld Sod." This is the view from the back of the old Robinson house which, I think is the oldest house still standing in Big Pine, and built by one of our Chrysler ancestors after she and her husband moved to town in 1897. The ivy has recently been removed because it was quite literally pulling the place apart, but I was lucky enough to get this picture of the house during a family reunion. The photo of the Palisades was taken more recently, at the last reunion we attended before my father died.

The second Skywatch photo was taken along the Owens River, probably on the road leading to the highway from the old Reward Mine. There's a pond nearby, and I used a picture of it for my Earth Day 2008 post (Surviving Plutopia), but I also love this one with the sky behind the marsh grasses, looking almost directly south, with vague outlines in the background of the Inyo Mountains on the left and the Alabama Hills on the right:

This is where my mother's DNA mixed my father's (well, probably not right in this spot!) to create a child attached umbilically to this place, this valley, so strongly that it exerts an almost physical force that continuously draws me home. I may have to wait another year, but I'll get there.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Eating and Buying

In the first segment of this particular rant about food (Eating and Being), I offered up some suggestions about how to make our food consumption more meaningful. I see far too many people treating meals as if they were stops at a fuel station--a necessary pain in the pocketbook, that takes valuable time away from families who need to be doing other things.

Like what? Endless soccer practices and games where kids are exposed to bad sportsmanship on the part of angry parents? Extracurricular activities whose primary purpose is to pad the record of a college-bound teenager trying to get into Harvard? Cheerleading practice? This topic deserves a ramble of its own, but it also leads into the second aspect of the role food plays in our lives: purchasing the raw ingredients.

Readers of this blog will already know that I'm a firm espouser of "from scratch" whenever possible. There are myriad reasons for this, not the least of which has to do with our over-consumption of highly-processed, over-packaged foodstuffs. So I want to use this post to address a couple of issues that have to do with the declining economy and our ability to enjoy healthful meals. I've already discussed a little of this in previous posts, but not all that recently, and I'll try to bring them together here.

Some arguments against eating more simply and avoiding over-preparation are constructed around costs: Eating fresh organic food is more expensive than standard supermarket fare (or: A box of mashed potatoes is "cheaper" than buying whole potatoes and cooking them).

I thought of looking up a variety of foods and the boxed versions and comparing prices, but I don't have the energy, so my counter-argument goes something like this: A few russet potatoes (scrubbed to remove dirt and surface pesticides if they're not organically grown) cost maybe two bucks. Roast these in the oven sliced and seasoned with a little olive oil, salt, and pepper, and you've got a nutritious version of french fries. Or roast them with some garlic and then mash them with a little salt, pepper, and low-fat milk for an absolutely delicious side dish. Buy the packaged french fries (or even "oven fries") and you're paying not only for the potatoes and the energy it took to transport and cook them--but all this plus the packaging (a plastic pouch), storage (freezer), preservatives, additives, salt (by far more than anyone needs), and voila! It's not only cheaper to roast your own, but nutritionally superior and less environmentally impactful. A box of prepared mashed potatoes might seem cheaper on the shelf, but not when you analyze portion size, ingredients, processing, packaging, and advertising costs, and consequences to your health from eating foods with far more salt and other crap than is necessary. Add on a premium for buying the low-salt or low-fat version, and you, my friend, have been had.

The major problem as I see it is that Americans have lost touch with their food. They don't know where it came from, they know nothing about who grew it, they seldom note its country of origin (many organic foods, especially out-of-season varieties, are transported huge distances), and if they buy packaged foods, they're not very critical about ingredient labels and/or portion sizes. Food has become the equivalent of a human gas station where one goes to "fill up" rather than to enrich one's body and enhance one's life.

The good news is that many are now becoming more conscious of the problem. Recent online articles, like this one from Reuters, Agflation: The Real Costs of Rising Food Prices, are raising awareness about the real costs of feeding ourselves, on a global scale. This one's an eye opener because it discusses a wide variety of problems occurring both in the United States and world wide, as we try to find alternative forms of energy to fuel our automobiles--not our stomachs.

However, it's also our good fortune to live in a moment where alternatives to the standard way of doing things are beginning to emerge. The Slow Food movement encourages people to think about what they eat, and to take care and time in preparing it. Farmers' markets are popping up on a regular basis (our local market opened today for the season; I'm not quite up to the trek yet, but I'm hoping that by next weekend I can partake), Community gardens are sprouting like dandelions in vacant lots, and Community Supported Agriculture is keeping small farmers in business and allowing new farmers to make a more certain living by soliciting subscribers for seasonal produce, cheese, eggs, pastured meat, and other goodies.

We're also lucky to have a First Lady who's not afraid to get her hands dirty, and who understands the importance of food as sustenance for both the body and the mind. Her victory garden is starting to look great; I just hope she resists the complaints of the chemical fertizier industry who seem to be shaken by her insistence on an organic approach (the letter the MACA people sent her is posted on La Vida Locavore--a blog I highly recommend as a resource connected with today's diatribe). The White House Blog will keep us posted, and is the source of the picture:

This week's assignment: visit your local farmer's market, or at very least seek out the "locally grown" section of your supermarket. Even Safeway and other behemoth conglomerates are featuring options like this, and the only way to keep them going is to use them. Eating seasonally and locally not only insures food freshness, but allows us to rely less on the energy required to transport the food, and to support the local growers whose own livelihoods depend on our consumption of their products. And don't forget to plant what you can--even if it's only a few herbs in pots on a sunny window sill. If you've got space for a garden, grow what does best, and share or trade with friends and neighbors. Please make sure the kids involved; they learn more about science and maths in gardens and kitchens than in many formal classrooms. They also get the connection between land and food imprinted on their brains, and will remember the time they spent with mom, dad, or the grandparents out planting and harvesting veggies they're far more likely to love than if someone simply tells them to their carrots.

I know there are consequences to radically shifting our patterns of consumption; but these are times for radical change and it seems prudent to use the moment to reshape the market so that we have more to say about what we eat and how we get it. For every supermarket that goes out of business, or has to reorganize its priorities, there's another tapping into the recognition that we can't go on living on pulverized, packaged, over-salted, fat-infused mashed potatoes. In the long run we all win: our bodies are healthier, the growers get their due, what we eat tastes better, and our healthcare costs go down. What's not to love?

Photos: Farmer's Market in Lhasa, Tibet by Nathan Freitas via Wikimedia Commons. White House Garden photo from the White House Blog.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Skywatch Friday: Ancient Skies

In my travels to and from California, I make it a habit to stop at ancient Native American sites like Chaco Canyon and El Morro National Monument.

Living in the lanscape seems to be something of a lost art these days, but the ancient Pueblo peoples, their ancestors, and some of their descendants seem to have married their need for shelter and sustenance with what may be an even deeper need to acknowledge place.

These two shots were taken on the same trip in December 2003-January 2004. For the first, we took the loop south from I 40 at Grants, New Mexico, and were greeted by the remains of a snowstorm. El Morro was almost empty, and the snow about three feet deep. It was white, pristine, and quiet. I was primarily there for the petroglyphs, but the natural beauty of the place is really distracting--so I took almost as many pictures of the cliffs against the sky as I did of anything else. (The photo I used for my Earth Day post yesterday was also taken at El Morro.)

On the return trip, on New Years Day of 2004, we also left I 40 at Grants, but this time drove north to Chaco Culture National Historical Park. It's hard to get to, because the road isn't graded (and the turnoff is easy to miss), but well worth seeing. The second photograph is of the back wall of a small pueblo, Hungo Pavi. The day was cloudy, but I love clouds, and the dreary skies provided a terrific backdrop for pictures of the ruins. Because of the holiday, this park was also nearly empty (except for a van-full of archaeology students from Arizona), and the combination of striking views, ancient buildings, and sheer quiet was hard to leave behind.

Happy Skywatch Friday, everyone--and I hope most of you are getting over winter's chill and on into springtime--or enjoying fine fall weather in the southernmost part of the Skywatch range.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Taking Stock

It's hard to believe, thinking back to the earliest Earth Days I can remember (I have a poster I acquired in Philadelphia for Earth Day 1973), that it's taken us this long to recognize (on a large enough scale) the earth's fragility and our part in either dooming it or saving it. Not everyone is convinced, even now, but at least there seems to be a groundswell of recognition that we do in fact need to do something.

To some, "something" is ticking off the latest "10 Things You Can Do to Save the Earth" and then taking off for an Earth Day picnic in a mega SUV. Or attending and Earth Day event and then heading to McDonalds for a Happy Meal. Or something equally superficial.

Even though environmental issues are more visible, the issues themselves haven't been completely embraced as causes worth foregoing convenience for, or requiring any kind of meaningful sacrifice. Turn my thermostat up to 80 in the summer? Are you nuts? Redesign my lawn so that it doesn't require watering? My property values will go down! Etc.

I am, however, encouraged by the fact that more blue recycling bins are going out on the streets every Friday, sometimes even without the standard green bins next to them (our green bin goes out once a month if that). I'd like to set a goal of two blue bins a month and one green bin every two, and I think it's doable, now that I'm dead-set on not buying overly packaged products.

Last week's announcement that the Obama administration will allow the EPA to treat greenhouse gasses as pollutants is the best news this year. I'm thoroughly convinced that this economy can be restored largely by investments in lowering pollution (and devleoping the technologies that make this possible) and in alternative energy sources that will allow homeowners to increasingly produce at least part of the electricity they use. I'd love to see cities moving toward smaller, more centralized grids, but that may not happen in my lifetime. Still, I do see a glimmer of hope. Investing in the people and technological development to make these new possibilites work can go a long way toward reforming markets and providing a wide variety of new jobs requiring little re-training.

This year's Earth Day projects in the Owl household include expanding the kitchen garden, lining existing curtains and adding Roman shades with thermal barriers to windows that don't already have them. Our energy bills last summer and winter were already significantly lower than the previous year's, so it's clear that strategies like these can work even in an old, drafty house. We'll also need to have the fireplace looked at, so I'll be in the market for a fuel-efficient insert to make our cozy home fires cozier and less polluting. Butts to collect rainwater are also on the list of things to add--one for every downspout (although most of our gutters have finally been removed, we still have three or four downspouts that can channel water into barrels to help with garden watering when the rains don't come).

I don't really mean to belittle the "10 Things" approach, but we just can't stop at that. Real change requires real adjustment. We've grown lazy and spoiled, unable to handle the everyday realities our ancestors dealt with on a regular basis. The more we know about the food we eat and where it comes from, the more we particiapte in nourishing our own bodies, the more authentic exercise we get (yard work is really good exercise!), and the tougher we get about dealing with the discomforts of heat and humidity, the better off--and healthier--we'll be.

Happy Earth Day, Folks. Enjoy the festivities, but then go home, throw open your windows, and turn off the A/C until the temp hits at least 85 outside.

Photo: A snowy El Morro National Monument, New Mexico, taken in December of 2003.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Eating and Being

I think it's time to begin a series of essays that look at what we gain, and what we stand to lose, by adopting behaviors and practices that can help us all heal the world. Tikkun Olam involves continuous rethinking of how our being in the world affects its other occupants, and aims to address that impact with measures that heal rather than continue to harm.

Economists sometimes call this sort of examination a "cost-benefit analysis" but such a notion doesn't work here, because both the costs and the benefits are often hidden (we don't know what will happen, so we can't gather enough beans to count), and so we can't project numbers or statistics--and that's what's wrong with most of these analyses anyway. They're only interested in numbers. If something "costs" (in terms of money, mostly) more than it "benefits" (especially if these are long-term) then what's cheapest wins, regardless of whether or not it's good for us.

In harsh economic times, suggesting an expensive, though beneficially promising, alternative often lands us in the dust bin. We don't have any money to spend, so we sure as hell can't spend that much money now, even if it will clean up our air, our water, or make better food available to us in the long run.

So I thought I'd begin by looking at some of the issues popping up around us. Some come from the President's campaign promises, some come from common sense, others from my particular interests (permaculture, for example). All have been proposed by different people or organizations as means for cleaning up the mess we've made over the last half century or so. The first of these general topics I'd like to tackle is food in general, but I need to divide it up into food sources and food consumption: how we get our food, and what we do with it.

It was a bit depressing that my first trip out since coming home from the hospital had to be to the local Super Target, where I could get the best bang for my buck in terms of picking up most of what I needed to buy in one spot. I can get around pretty well, but I tire rather easily, and I was damned if I was going to scoot around on one of those electric carts (I'm probably still afraid of getting a speeding ticket). So, knowing that I could buy organic milk and eggs, and a few other basics there, as well as some arthritis-strength acetaminophen (onto which I'm trying to wean myself, away from the real narcs) Owlspouse and I sallied forth into the afternoon.

I'm not in the store ten minutes before I'm almost overwhelmed by the depressing amount of sheer crap that's available in these places. The level of food-processing alone represented in one section of Target says more about American gluttony and waste than one would ever need to learn. Every package (over-packaging is the first of many sins committed by food manufacturers in this country) hides a much smaller amount of food than appears on its cover photo, and every ingredient list contains up to hundreds of chemicals added to preserve "freshness" or "maintain purity." Except in parts of the "healthy" sections of the refrigerated zones, every label also includes sweeteners (mostly high fructose corn syrup), way too much salt, and trans- or saturated fats far above reasonable daily allowances. Some of these actually look like they might be pretty good--until you read the label and see the amount of processing that's gone into a simple idea, like lemon-pepper tilapia, or some kind of "Mediterranean" pasta.

In a way this exercise was good for me, because I didn't go home with a couple of frozen entrees like I had planned (so we could eat if I didn't feel up to cooking). I went home with basic ingredients instead: a couple of whole wheat pizza crusts (can't roll my own yet), some fresh mozzarella, and a bit of natural, minimally processed ham. I bought frozen berries to mix with plain low-fat yoghurt. I did spring for some organic ketchup and a new ligher mayo made from olive oil (it had some sugar in it, but no HFCS). At some point I'll get back to making my own of both, but for now (with no tomato garden yet) I have to get 'em off the shelf. So the fridge is now stocked with a versatile collection of dinner possibilities, and I got to leave the store before I needed another nap.

Another depressing element of the trip was noticing the vast number of clearly obese human beings who buy the most inappropriate foods. I'm hyper conscious about my weight now, since I'm progressing toward a point where I can get back to losing the tonnage I've acquired over the last three years of feeling too lousy to get any regular, meaningful exercise. I am painfully aware that my bad eating habits (rather than my diet itself) are to blame for both diabetes and some aspects of my ongoing heart disease. Diabetics need to pace their meals and eat frequently to avoid glucose spikes and shifts--but I had been going entire mornings without eating anything, and then having a quick lunch and then eating again only when I was starving. I know full well, that small, nutritionally dense meals to keep me away from drugs and insulin are what I need, and that effort has begun despite my current wonky taste buds (another reason to get off the narcs).

But many people, even (as I discovered in the hospital) nurses, fall into a similar trap: too busy to eat well. This an issue that needs attention on its own, and I'll probably attack it in future. But for now, we need to become aware--as a nation--that "fast food" almost always equates with "bad food" and because it's often cheap, we end up with poor people in bad health because that's all they think they can afford. There's probably a great deal of literature out there on "the starving fat" and we need more than one book or documentary (Fast Food Nation) to knock some sense into our heads. If the only stores around you are convenience quick-stops and Taco Bueno, it's hard to buy nutritious food; and I don't see a lot of Whole Foods stores opening up in marginal neighborhoods.

Eating habits simply have to change. But how do we do this, bombarded as we are with advertisements that make all manner of grandiose claims about goodness and freshness and giving us "more time to spend with our families," or by all the cutsy promos for animated films that come "free" with a cheeseburger Happy Meal?

Goodness and freshness can only really be achieved by starting out with minimal processing. That means no fancy boxes and cute plastic containers that "steam" your food for you in two minutes in the microwave. If you don't have a way to steam something at work, then take a sandwich and a piece of fruit. Or take a container of soup or leftovers if you want to eat something hot (most offices have access to microwave ovens these days--but we don't need to keep manufacturing ways of making them do what they weren't designed to do if it means increasing the amount of plastic heading for the landfill).

The counter argument to all this is that Americans demand these conveniences and innovations from industry. Baloney. We're taught to demand them! Every day we learn about some new "necessity" on TV that we didn't previously know we "needed." Do people really wake up every morning thinking, "Gee, I wish somebody would invent a way for me to steam food in a microwave because I really need to be able to do this"? The microwave oven itself manages to have won me over by the fact that I can actually save a good deal of energy by "nuking" home-made frozen soup, or cocoa, or last night's dinner for lunch. Even so, if the Environmental Apocalypse came and I had to give it up to save the planet, out it would go.

Human beings aren't stupid. Or we weren't until TV was invented. We've managed to cook food ever since the Paleolithic, and all we've done through all those thousands of years is to invent more complicated, more dangerous, and more expensive gadgets to cook in and on. Yes cooking on a natural gas range is better for the planet than cooking over an open fire. But I doubt if simmering your evening meal on a six-burner Viking industrial model will win you any points in save-the-planet heaven. Cooking out-of-doors seems to spring from some sort of primal recognition of our ancestral roots, but cooking in an "outdoor kitchen" seems to defeat the purpose. Nor have I figured out quite why people find charcoal-lighting fluid a tasty addition to the flavoring of their slabs of brisket.

Once again William Morris's education of desire come to mind: What do we truly need, and what do we merely want?

If all of the fancy gadgets and maximally processed foods available have brought us to the point of being a wealthy nation of very sick people, why is that a good cost/benefit ratio? Sure we have more stuff. Sure it might be easier to whip up a meal. But what do we gain? I mean, besides weight and larger body/mass indices?

So here are my suggestions on how to combat the advertising industry's assault on our brains and our waistlines--without unduly taxing our wallets or decreasing the amount of time we have to spend with family and friends.

1. Invest in a really good cooking magazine. I know this sounds silly, but magazine subscriptions are generally quite cheap, and a single magazine that comes once a month can provide endless inspiration--especially if you sit down and talk to your kids about potential menus, what sounds good, what's in season, etc. My favorite of these is Eating Well, but Cooking Light and others can also be helpful. When you're finished with the magazine, pass it on to your doctor's office or a nursing home, or to a friend. Or (what I end up doing) create notebooks with your favorite recipes and put the remains of the magazine in the recycle bin--after the kids have made collages out of the pretty pictures. Some of these magazines have high-quality websites, too, providing access to recipe archives.

2. Take stock of your larder (pantry). Know what's in it, and focus on tinned tomatoes and beans, plus whole grains in moth-proof containers, whole wheat pasta, a couple of bottles of good pasta sauce, olive oil, dried beans, and ethnic bottled sauces--as well as the food you put up yourself from your own garden, or from shopping at the farmer's market for in-season fruits and produce. Know what's in your freezer, too, especially if you have a chest freezer for keeping the results of bulk buys. Be aware of expiry dates so that you don't end up with stuff you shouldn't be eating but can't bring yourself to toss. (I've had a couple of pounds of fresh--then--tuna steaks since a friend's fishing trip about 6 years ago. I keep forgetting to put it in the trash bin, because that only goes out to the street about once a month.)

3. Most of my readers already know about our adherence to the Only One Thing rule regarding children's activities. If your kids aren't overburdened with lessons and sports outside of school, they can spend more time with you on the design and preparation of meals. At the weekend, prep veggies for weekday meals, bake bread and healthful cookies, make soup, bottle jams, jellies, and seasonal veg. Use the time to plant gardens if you have the space, and involve the whole family. There is nothing about gardening that's intrinsically difficult, and there's something everyone can do--even if they're in a wheelchair. Make sure you have an active compost heap or bin, and that all your vegetable waste, garden weeds, grass trimmings (if you dont' just mulch them), etc. go into it. Put someone in charge of compost care, and then switch off periodically.

4. Stop drinking soda pop. Of any kind, especially diet. There is no earthly reason--beyond addiction--to drink this stuff. It's expensive, it's saturated with high-fructose corn syrup, it's wasteful of raw and manufactured materials, and it doesn't do you any good. Instead of sweet fizzy drinks, buy mineral water by the case (Costco sells San Pellegrino Water for under a buck a bottle when you buy it this way). Then add a bit of lemon, fruit juice, ginger syrup, or other flavoring if you don't like it plain. It won't take you long to wean yourself from your Diet Coke habit. Depending on how badly you're addicted, stopping this one habit could save you piles of money and/or hundreds of calories every day. Or, make "sun tea" from fruit- and herb-infused tisanes--like those made by Celestial Seasonings, or Tazo, or any of a huge number of other brands. If you need these to be sweet, add a little sugar or honey--but try to do without, or wean yourself from "needing" sweeteners. These and both black and green teas taste quite nice with a bit of lemon over ice. The result: no calories (if you don't add sugar), plus some herbal and/or antioxidant benefit.

5. Stop thinking of dessert as a regular part of every meal. There is no eleventh commandment that says "thou shalt have dessert every night or be forsaken by thy god." Desserts should be two things: occasional and nutritious. Perhaps for Shabbat or Sunday dinners, a special occasion, a holiday, a birthday, etc. But not every day. A cookie or two with milk after school, a whole-grain fruit muffin for breakfast, a sweet rather than savory vegetable dish (glazed carrots and mushrooms)--all of these can add sweetness and flavor without huge numbers of calories. One alternative for dessert is a fruit course following the main meal, but there's no reason that fruit can't be part of the meal itself. If it encourages lingering for conversation, a bit of fruit and cheese with the last of the wine might be encouraged. But not the obigatory pie a la mode.

6. Watch the alcohol intake. The general rule with frugal eating and drinking is that the less you consume in quantity, the more you can afford in quality. So instead of buying two $6 bottles of marginal wine, check the sales for a bargain $12 wine (sometimes knocked down from $20 or more), and drink it slowly, savoring it rather than just getting snockered. A little alcohol seems to be good for us, but drinking a bottle a night just adds useless calories. Do you really have to have a glass of wine with your veggie chili? Good beers are generally cheaper than good wines, but again, moderation in all things. It might not be necessary to have alcohol with every dinner, but opt for a nice fizzied fruit juice or glass of mineral water instead.

7. Care about your food. You don't have to have an overly-sentimental attitude about cows to be concerned about how they're treated before they land on your plate. If an animal suffers unnecessarily, why would you even want to eat it? Complete, abstract detachment from food leads to factory farming, disgusting abattoir practices, and an instrumental disregard for the welfare of the animals with whom we share this planet.

8. Minimize meat consumption. If you can't afford free-range chickens or pastured beef, try saving up for it, and make the meat meal a special one, requiring deliberation and careful preparation. We take way too much for granted as it is, but if we make food derived from the deaths of other animals, it should certainly be something particular in our lives. Even if you're not a religious person, realize that a living creature died to make this meal, and show it some respect. If you find the idea completely distasteful, maybe it's time to give up meat altogether. But if you can cut the number of meat meals down to two or so a week, you can afford that happy chicken or happy pig, and you'll support the people who go to the trouble to raise their animals properly.

9. Think about what you eat. Learn about the chemical properties of what you consume, and how it reacts with other nutrients in your body to become you. It's astonishing how ignorant people are about the origins of herbs, spices, fruits and vegetables. So turn suppertime into an exploration of science and culture by discussing where tonight's meal came from. Prepare meals with an ethnic theme and learn about the culture that developed it. Learn to make simple cheeses, and build a meal around a ball of home-made mozzarella. Learn traditional spice combinations from other parts of the world. Preserve a few lemons and experiment with recipes that use them. Cure some olives. Encourage your children to invite their friends (and their families) over for dinner. If the friends come from somewhere else, encourage a recipe exchange.

10. Enjoy your food. There is nothing more basically human than sitting around a table sharing food. If your family has prepared the meal together, you've sacrificed nothing. Your time has been well-spent, and you're acting more responsibly toward both yourself and the planet than if you'd rushed of the Micky Dee's for a couple of Big Macs and a Happy Meal. Oh. And turn off the TV.

End of sermon for the day, but this will continue. Happy eating!

Image credits: Alanya Market, Turkey, by NobbiP. Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Skywatch Friday: Healing Skies

A week ago Thursday I was under the knife, and had been in the hospital for the better part of two days. I'm one of those lucky folk who lives in a fairly wealthy, fast-growing county in North Texas, where they pride themselves on showpieces: usually new football stadiums and the like. But this particular enterprise is a hospital, part of the statewide Baylor system, and dedicated exclusively to cardiac and vascular care. I jokingly referred to it as the Baylor Heart Hospital, Resort, and Spa before I went in (I checked in at the concierge desk, and could have been valet-parked; I ordered my food from Room Service) for my cardiac catheterization. I left calling it the Baylor Heart Hospital, Resort, Spa, and Place You Really Want to Be When You Need to Have Your Chest Cracked. Not particularly poetic--but very accurate. Even though my first room, on the fourth floor, had a less than stellar view (backed by the usual North Texas plain-ol'-vanilla-sky-blue), I whipped out the iPhone for a shot of the heart-hospital logo.

By the next morning (Wednesday), since surgery had been scheduled for Thursday, I was moved to the pre-op floor (3), and noticed when I awoke that the sun was beginning to peek up over the horizon. The room faced roughly northeast, and I was going to be able to enjoy the whole sunrise. Although both pictures I took were similar, shot only seconds apart, the first one (left) resembled a nuclear explosion more than a sunrise. That's what you get for two megapixels--but who am I to complain? At least I had a camera, and (this still astonishes me) it's in my phone, of all places. I'm only posting the one, because it was a bit more interesting than the other. But no white fluffy things showed up, so I didn't get much drama besides the potential for an alien landing poster.

During the day, the clouds began to gather, signalling what promised to be a stormy day for surgery, and things got somewhat more interesting. Well, not really. But kind of pretty. Remember, I thought I might be savoring my Last Day on Planet Earth, and everything looked really cool to me. Not only that, the food was even good. Not just for a hospital, either. I'd pay real money for some of the food I got at that place. This time Blue Cross picked up the tab.

Next morning I got up in time for sunrise, but no show. The weather was turning, and we were about to get some real rain. So I took a shot from the same spot as on the previous morning, looking out over the entryway (where the valet parking happens) and the parking garage. This time it would have been nice to have a real camera with me, but it's not something most people think to put in their take-to-the-hospital bags. They wheeled me out of that room for surgery at about 11, and for the next six hours I was having things inserted into various orifices, excised, or sewn in. I awoke in my last room, on the recovery floor (2), in my own personal ICU, feeling like total crap. But I was alive--a possibility about which I had gone into surgery completely uncertain.

One of the first things I did when I got up out of bed was to make this image of clearing skies over the main hospital next door.

And to end my blow-by-blow account of the week's heavenly events--gazing out at which is one of the true joys of life--I took one last look at the now-clear sky, with the waxing gibbous moon sliding by:

I'm really glad to be home, and to have the chance to put these up as a photographic memoir of a particularly important moment in my life. Especially since, contrary to what I had thought, I am not being continuously reminded of my new mechanical aortic valve's presence. I don't hear it. I just go on living, for what I hope now will be a long and bloggy life. Thanks for all the messages of hope, prayers, karma, and positrons sent my way over the last couple of weeks. Now it's back to the business of figuring out how to help make the world more worth living in--for everybody.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Resistance Is Futile

The big day is slipping into view; I'm scheduled for left/right cardiac catheterization tomorrow, to be followed (soon, I hope) by valve replacement surgery. Because of my age and the level of my infirmity, I'm pretty sure I'll be entering the bionic age with a mechanical valve, which will (at least until I get used to it) remind me constantly of its presence, by tick, tick, ticking away.

The sound is supposed to be reassuring rather than annoying (according to most of those who have one and report on it in the Valve Replacement Forum) and thus is much better, as they say, than the alternative. For some really cool pictures of valves and other heart-parts, see my post on the Cabinet, "A Brief History of the Heart: In Pictures," and for the saga of my previous adventures along these lines, see my December 2008 post, "Cardi-ology" here on the Farm.

Since aortic valve replacement is turning out to be the celebrity surgery du jour (with Barbara Bush, Robin Williams and Astros third-baseman Aaron Boone joining the ranks just last month), it seems to be more common than most people think. Other valves need replacing, too (mitral and pulmonary to name two), often because of congenital malformations, damage through rheumatic fever, and stenosis due to age and other factors. Anyone interested in the subject should go to the Mayo Clinic's page on Heart Disease and on aortic valve stenosis. Another valuable source is the American Heart Association, which also has a page on heart valves in general, with further information on each one. The aforementioned Valve Replacement Forum has a wealth of information and first-hand accounts by folks who have undergone a variety of procedures. I joined a couple of months ago, and there just aren't words to say how valuable the information and support has been.

So the upshot is that I probably won't be blogging for a bit, at least until I'm out of ICU, and unless they give me more time than I want between the cath and surgery. According to the numbers on sitemeter, some folks actually read this thing, so to those who do, I have one question: y'all gonna be here when I wake up?

Sorry; that was yet another lame Firefly fan-joke--a line from Mal Reynolds at the end of "Out of Gas." I do sincerely hope that I'm not. Out of gas, that is. And just in case one or two geeky science fiction references aren't enough, here are a couple more:

See you on the other side (as they say on the VR Forum), after assimilation . . . . on the way to becoming a proto-Cylon. I won't be running in slow motion like the Bionic Woman, I'll be walking. Slowly. But at least I won't be getting speeding tickets while suffering from angina. (That story is on the Cabinet, says she in shameless self-promotion--again.)

When I began this blog, I had in mind a focus on hearth, heart, and home--although I don't think I meant it quite so literally. But thanks for reading, and wish me luck.

Image credit: Diagram of heart valves, from Grey's Anatomy via Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Skywatch Friday: Ballpark Nights

I seem to take lots of photos of the sky at odd times, but this particular shot represents a prelude to a significant evening.

On June 20th, 2007, in one of baseball's more poetic moments, Sammy Sosa (former Chicago Cub, playing in a Ranger's uniform) hit his 600th home run against his former team.

Now, I'm one of those unfortunate folks (a Cubs fan) who lives in a state and a town in which their favorite team does not play. Not only that, but this particular town has an American League home team, and I'm a National League fan (for the most part; I grew up an Angels fan, and still wear Rally Monkeys to Angels games against the Rangers). So this was a special night in more ways than one. Anticipation ran high, and I took about a billion pictures, starting with the two included here, of the pretty crescent moon at sunset, and of right field with the sky behind the Home Run Porch, just as things got going.

Later that evening, Sammy, whether aided by prohibited chemical enhancements or not, hit the big 600, and the crowd went nuts--including me. In my excitement I got a shot of him at bat, and then another of him running the bases, but was jumping up and down too hard to shoot the actual hit. Most of the pictures I took were of the Jumbotron replaying actual event, and of his teammates jumping all over him.

But who cares. It happened, and I got sky pictures. So, since I will undoubtedly be in no shape to submit a photo next Friday (if I'm lucky; see my post on Monday, April 6 for that story), this one honors the beginning of another season.

If anybody wonders why this post is here, on the Farm, may I remind you of the late George Carlin's very funny routine comparing baseball and football. Baseball is, after all, about getting home:

In baseball the object is to go home! And to be safe! - I hope I'll be safe at home!

To my beloved Cubbies: Maybe this year!