Friday, April 29, 2011

As I Watch the Royal Wedding

I've been watching reruns of Prince William's marriage to Kate Middleton. I didn't stay up last night to see it, but I've let the BBC Highlights go round and round all afternoon. I'm not sure why it's so fascinating. Maybe it's the princess archetype, the procession of hideous hats, watching Elton John looking like a frumpy old man mumbling hymns, or maybe it's the trees inside Westminster Abbey.

No. That's not quite it. It's the story, really, beginning with the innocence of Diana as sunlight shone through her simple dress. Then there was her lavish wedding in which her elaborate dress hung back, tugging at her as that young girl pulled it gamely to the altar. But the Prince waiting for her seemed strangely stiff and awkward. And then there was the princess we loved to watch, the adoring mother, the philanthropist, her tragic rejection, her recovery, and then her shocking death. We didn't want her story to be over and now it is not.

In this wedding, we have a different beginning. During the ceremony, Prince William would catch Kate's eye and almost laugh.  Is that what we want to see to prove that the love is there, that it will last? Kate isn't royalty and somehow that reinforces that little-girl dream of becoming a princess. She was sweet to watch, elegantly dressed, and kept looking at William, not with wonder, but with familiarity, as if he was the anchor that kept her in place. Her dress didn't take over, but suited her small frame, a simple elegance in the ostentatious setting. Prince William looks so much like his mother, it made him fascinating to watch.

So, why did I go to a friend's house with tea and chocolate and watch this ritual?  Why did we make facebook names for ourselves?  (I was Lady Margie Pepper-Rock, a combination of grandparents, pets, and streets.)  Why did I bring my son in later, to watch men on horseback in armor with swords drawn? Why did I keep watching it again and again until my husband got hold of the remote control? 

I think it's because the princess archetype still lives.  The restrictions on virginity and royalty have been removed, but it's still a dream to imagine that walk down the aisle in a thousand year old abbey.  As a little girl, I'd put my stuffed toys in two short rows of folding chairs with an aisle in between.  I used a pillowcase as a veil and a wrinkled sheet waiting to be ironed over my shoulders as my dress and its train.  I would walk down that aisle and close my eyes and imagine my prince standing there, waiting just for me.

My own wedding was very different.  I was married in the open air at an Eagle Scout altar by the river.  The altar was hung with fuchsia baskets and surrounded by potted sword ferns.  I wore a simple white wedding dress but no veil.  We invited forty people, hired a justice of the peace, a bluegrass band played, and afterward, we had a barbecue with homemade ice cream and cherry pie. At the end, I went into a tent to change clothes, then my husband and I paddled down the river in our canoe.  We honeymooned on the Allagash River in Maine with our dog.  I loved our wedding.  It suited us and whenever I go to an elaborate church wedding, I am glad at the one my husband and I had together. I wouldn't have changed a thing about it.

Yet, I am drawn into this royal wedding between Prince William and Kate Middleton. I remember the princess I imagined myself to be.  I remember the prince.  I remember my dress, the flowers, the rows of pews with my favorite people in them, and the carriage.  Yes, the princess archetype is still alive in me, even now.  That must be why I'm so intrigued by all of this fanfare. 

And don't forget the crazy hats.

Thank you for listening, jb

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Built for Football

There's always a moment when I watch my boy run down the hill to catch the bus when I'm almost laughing out loud.  He swaggers.  It isn't a pretense.  He's built like a brick shit house and the swagger suits his broad shoulders.  I love to look out the window at him when he doesn't know I'm watching, and from a distance he almost has the movements and proportions of a man.

When my boy was two or three years old, grown men sometimes came up to him at the park and picked him up.  They usually talked about football.  My friends and I thought it was strange until we realized that these men were usually there with little girls and were probably more normal than they appeared.  Our clue that they weren't total creeps was the crestfallen looks on their faces when I told them we didn't really follow football.

There's a mom at the elementary school who just won't leave me alone.  She insists, vehemently and repeatedly, that I just have to put my son into football next season.  I keep telling her that we don't decide for him what sports he signs up for, that we let him decide for himself.  He's been involved in soccer, karate, gymnastics, baseball, orienteering, biking, hiking, and canoeing.  Personally, I like that last three, but I also get a thrill out of watching him practice karate.  When he starts swinging his nunchuks around, it amazes me.  He made it look so easy that I hit myself in the head with them three times before I realized that it takes some doing and I wasn't the one who should be doing it.  Right now, he tells me, karate is his thing, but that he does want to try football at some point.

That doesn't seem to satisfy this woman and she has absolutely nothing else to say to me. Now, I have to admit to you that I'm not all that easy going.  I wish I were.  I pretend that I am, but I'm not.  Finally, this woman said, "Jill, I know how scared you are of football, that he might get hurt out there, but you just have to get that kid into football next fall. There are even off-season sessions you could ...." I could feel my blood pressure rising. 

Sure, I know about the medical issues of post-NFL players and the fact that so many of them can't keep up with the costs of their medical care.  I know about the potential for brain damage with repeated concussions that can happen even in high school football.  But I knew an experienced canoeist who died in 18 inches of fast water when falling out of his canoe at a bad time and getting his ankle caught upstream.  I know the potential for bad breaks in gymnastics.  I've seen the bruises my boy gets in karate.  He's even come home with a bloody lip when some kid couldn't control himself. So what this woman was saying just pissed me off. "I don't have anything against my boy playing football.  It's that he just isn't that interested," I told her. When she started in again, I told her, "Look. I've considered what you're saying.  I get it.  My boy's built for football.  Okay.  But I want you to stop bugging me about this. Right now! Or my answer will become a complete and irrevocable 'NO.' Do you understand me?" Somehow, I had reverted to the mom voice I get in the sporting goods store when I haven't eaten and we're running late.

So we were in the sporting goods store the other day.  My boy's karate sensei kept telling us that he needed to wear a cup for practice.  Somehow, in the scheme of things, I never imagined myself telling some teen aged retail clerk that I needed to check out sizing for a cup.  There are lots of things I've done as a mother that weren't all that easy.  Don't even ask me about that stomach flu all of us got a couple of years ago when we couldn't keep up with the laundry because everyone was so sick to their stomachs.  That was 48 hours of sheer hell.  I even dreamed of being swept away in a sea of puke that second night.  But this, asking a young man for help sizing a cup, was its own special hell. And of course, my boy wasn't helping me.  I had hoped that he could ask for his own nine-year-old self, but no.  He was nowhere to be found.  After the clerk set me up with the cup that I needed to buy, I went searching for my boy in the rest of the store. 

He was looking at the football gear.  He's watched some football on television, but without the shirt over it, that gear looks an awful lot like what his character wears when he plays the video game Gauntlet.

"Mom, will you buy that for me? I want to sign up for football. Please, Mom ......"

Thank you for listening, jb


Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Hip Deep Muck

I was never good at dating. Years ago when I was still dating, I was asked to go to dinner by this guy. I was wearing a pink shirt and a white skirt and I managed to swipe a full gin and tonic onto my lap as I talked, probably too loudly, while waving my hands in the air.  The liquid turned both my shirt and my skirt instantly transparent, but he never laughed. That should have been hilarious and once it happened, I was willing to laugh at myself. But since he never cracked a smile, I got nervous and it probably looked like I did the whole thing just to be funny and show him my lacy bra and underwear set. I never saw that man again after that short wet night. It didn't go much better for me after I met a software engineer at work and fell in love, but I did figure out how to know if a man really loves you back.

It wasn't long after we'd begun to date that this man that I already knew I loved asked me on the most important date so far - a weekend canoe trip in the Adirondacks.  I knew about the kids in his high-adventure Explorer Post.  I knew about his love for Sabbatis, the Boy Scout camp in Upstate New York.  If we were going up there to do some canoeing together, I knew it was an important trip.  This was my chance to show him I could be cute and good at camping.

I packed my gear carefully.  He'd told me that he'd bring a tent and cooking gear.  All I had to pack was my own personal stuff.  I knew to wear real sneakers.  I had Keds.  I packed a pair of pink shorts, a pair of blue jeans, a sweatshirt, a poncho, and a white tank top.  I had my old flannel sleeping bag I'd used since I was five.  I knew that would impress him, and a tarp I'd throw my sleeping bag onto in case he didn't have one.  I didn't bother to pack the lacy underthings because I just knew that wouldn't fly on a trip like this with a man like him.  I kept it simple. Toothbrush, sensible underwear, brush, sunscreen, a bandanna, and a wide brimmed straw hat.  I managed to stuff it all into the denim backpack I'd used in college.  Oh, I was going to be cute.

We set off in an aluminum canoe that he'd borrowed from the Scout camp.  I had tried to impress the camp director because he'd sounded so important.  The man barely looked away from my sweetie as they stood and talked about the boys, the state of the cabins, and the number of kids attending that year.  But I was happy that we were really finally alone when we set across that first small lake North of the camp.

It didn't take me long to realize that things weren't going to go my way.  On that first lake, in the glaring sunshine, I started to get a headache and my stomach wasn't happy with the submarine sandwiches we'd just eaten.  The wind kept grabbing my big hat and tossing it into the lake until it was too soggy to put back on. I sat up straight and paddled, hoping that he didn't misinterpret my silence as disinterest.  I just wished for a quiet dark place to get rid of this awful feeling in my stomach. I'd forgotten my sunglasses, so I didn't even have a little respite from the glare.  By the time we pulled into camp, my headache was raging. I was unaware that I wore a gray aluminum stain on the butt of my pink shorts from the canoe. And my stomach just wasn't happy.

My sweetie had brought the ingredients for my favorite camping meal, buffalo burgers.  It was hamburger, seasonings, and vegetables wrapped in foil and dropped into the fire.  He set about making dinner while I laid on my slightly moldy sleeping bag trying to hide my eyes from the light.  Just as it was starting to smell done, I was at my worst.  I couldn't handle the smell, though on a normal day, I would have loved it. 

Fortunately for me, he held my hair as I tried not to make a mess of my sleeping bag.  I don't know how many times I barfed into the dirt, but this good guy buried it plus the leftover food I hadn't been able to eat. By morning, I was feeling better, even a little bit hungry.  As we were eating breakfast, a squirrel went running past us with a carrot in his mouth and a huge grin on his face.  He'd found the better of the two buried caches.

So I gave up trying to impress him.  It was a good thing too.  About the middle of the day, we pulled up to a take-out at the edge of a lake.  It was shaded by a large tree whose roots gave me some handholds as I got out, wet-footing it.  I knew no girl should expect to keep her shoes dry getting out of a canoe.  But I did expect to keep my shoes.  As I stepped onto what looked like solid mossy ground, I sank into muck up to my thighs.  The more I struggled, the deeper I got until I was clinging to a solid root, buried to my waist as this sweet guy sat in the canoe and laughed.  The little pink shorts had already bit the bullet.  So much for the little white tank top.

Even though I had a good grip on the root, I wallowed in that mud, slipping back down in at least twice.  I lost one shoe and got mud up to my ear trying to retrieve it.  My boyfriend grabbed my hand and helped me out of that bottomless mud hole and even reached down and found my poor little black shoe.  It had been mostly white before.  By then I looked like a Qtip dipped in chocolate. I rinsed off as well as I could in the lake, but I got mud up to my ankles getting back out.  I didn't have to worry about the aluminum stain now. I was mostly dressed in khaki colors.

That wasn't the end of my foibles.  I wish I could say it was.  A misty rain started to come down on us.  There was no use pulling out my green plastic poncho because I was already wet through and the afternoon was warm.  We portaged a long muddy trail from one lake, my boyfriend ahead wearing his large backpack plus our canoe balanced on his shoulders.  What a man!  I walked behind him with my tiny backpack, my sleeping bag in one hand and his in another.  I slipped in the mud and ended up hooked onto another root.  Those damn roots.  I was turtled, laughing at how ridiculous I must have looked as I was trapped in yet another predicament.

"Do you need me to put down the canoe?" he asked. "I could if you want." I knew how hard it was to get that thing back up onto his shoulders. 

"No thanks. I've got it," I said as I tried to twist to the other side to get out of my shoulder straps.  The sleeping bags rolled away from me.  Of course, it was his bag that rolled into the mud.  By the time I managed to loosen my straps and turn around in my backpack to see the loop hooked securely around the root stump, I'm sure I was a sight. Again. There was no end to the mud on my little pink and white outfit.  Mr. Cool said not a word, but it was mostly because he was laughing too hard.

By then, I was ready for the trip to end.  I was sure the tail lights to his Sliverado would be the last I saw of him.  But we weren't quite done yet.  Near the end of the day, we had one more small lake and a short portage.  I was loading my tiny backpack and realized that something was wrong.  I only had a sleeping bag in one hand.  We talked about it for a bit until we finally decided I must have left it at the take-out.  So we walked back across that portage.  It was a good thing my boyfriend had brought the canoe.  His sleeping bag wasn't there.  We paddled back across the lake.  No bag.  We portaged again. 

And there, at the take-out two lakes back was a lonely silver stuff bag lying half in the water.  What could I say? I tried "I'm sorry.  I really didn't mean to." He was pretty quiet on the way back through two lakes and two portages, but we did make it out of the woods. 

Two and a half years later, that man asked me to marry him, but I'd known something important long before then.  The day after our ordeal, he called me to see if I wanted to go with him to the next Explorer Post trip.  It was then that I knew that he loved me, even if I puked, even if I messed up his stuff, even when I was completely covered in mud.  And he loves me still.

Thanks for listening, jb

At the Junkyard

My dad loved junkyards.  At first glance, that didn't jive with the very intelligent engineer who built and analyzed electronics in his basement den, the man who worked for the Navy, the one who had a seismic experiment on Apollo 12.  But it all comes together when you raise this man by poor parents who lived through the depression and made do with their intelligence and a single acre of farm land. On top of that, my dad loved to make things work. 

There was a big junkyard by the old limestone quarry a couple of miles from our house.  Sometimes, on a Saturday, we'd all pile into the old pickup truck and go over there.  We seldom had much junk to bring, maybe some burned out tin cans at most.  Back then, it was common to throw food scraps onto the compost pile and burn the rest of our junk in a burn barrel. It was often my job to go burn the trash and I loved lighting the fire and seeing the different colors that burned.  So instead of getting rid of junk at the junkyard, my father found junk and brought it home.

My parents even brought our dog with us when we went there.  Now, why would you bring a dog and three kids to the junk yard?  I have no idea. But to be honest, I liked going to the junkyard for the same reasons my dad did.  You could find some neat stuff.  On top of that, we got to sit in the bed of the truck, the wind blowing in our hair on the way there and back.

Once we got there, my dad would walk around looking at things and say, "Look at that couch.  Somebody just threw that couch away.  Why, there's not a thing wrong with that couch."

"Except that it's been sitting out in the weather for at least a week and you'd never get the smell of the junkyard out of it," my mother would say, her arms crossed and a look of distaste on her face.  My mother did not like going to the junkyard. She usually stood at the edge of the huge pile, looking in and never once bringing anything home.

My dad would step up on old refrigerators and washing machines like a goat hopping rocks on a mountainside.  I remember him telling me to test to see if it would rock or move before shifting my weight onto it.  I liked to trail along behind him, stepping where he stepped, soaking in his excitement. I don't remember finding much to bring home, maybe an old plastic toy here and there, but it was fun hopping from appliance to appliance, trying to keep my balance.

"I'd bet I can get this thing working," he yelled to my mom as he held up an old vacuum cleaner. "I'd bet there's not a thing wrong with this but a broken belt and they threw it away without ever trying to fix it."  My dad had a great big grin on his face as though he'd just won a $100 lottery ticket.  My mom would be standing back at the edge with her arms crossed, trying not to breathe too deeply.

"It smells," she'd yell over to him. "What if it makes my carpet smell?"

"Don't get down into any refrigerators," my dad said as I wandered beyond him.  He was studiously ignoring my mother's last comment.  As if I'd get into a small, extra smelly place like that. Refrigerators that had been closed out in the heat with even one thing left in them smelled the worst.  I'd heard all this before, that refrigerators locked from the outside and if the door swung shut, I wouldn't be able to open it myself to get out. My dad was Mr. Safety.  He had built and installed seat belts in both of our cars, telling us that if the engineers designed it for the astronauts, then it was good enough for him. He also told us that the car wouldn't start until we buckled them.  He'd continued talking about refrigerators for a while when I was stopped in my tracks by a " ... DO YOU HEAR ME?"

"Yes, Daddy.  I'll watch out for refrigerators," I said hoping he hadn't talked himself onto a different subject. I wondered if I had to worry about Pinky, our dog, as she rooted through garbage led by the rich smells around her.  She loved the junkyard too. 

After about a half an hour of haggling, my mother finally let my dad load the truck with an old television with no cabinet around it and the vacuum cleaner that my mom was sure was going to make her new carpet smell like a junkyard.  I rode home with our free appliances in the back of the pickup truck with the wind blowing my hair and my mouth open in a way that probably looked a lot like Pinky's, face into the wind, eyes streaming tears and a big grin on my face.

After a day or two of fiddling, my dad got both the television and the vacuum cleaner going.  All he needed was a belt for the vacuum, like he'd said, and a vacuum tube or two for the television.  He had to scrounge for the tubes because of something he explained as solid state. The vacuum may have worked, but my mother never liked it, saying she had to pick every little thread off the floor first and then try to go over it with the vacuum to pick it up again.

The television gave us hours of family entertainment.  It was the only television we had until well after my dad died when I was thirteen.  There were no knobs on the front.  They were probably at the bottom of the junkyard pile with the cabinet the television didn't have.  I learned to use a pair of pliers to turn the little white post that came out the front.  Someone had to get up to turn that television on and again every time the channel was changed.  Are you old enough to remember life before remote controls let you sit on the couch? I was usually that someone and I also had the job of adjusting the horizontal balance.  Our television would be okay for a few minutes after you turned it on while it warmed up.  Then the picture would start to roll.  It was my job, like the guy on the roof adjusting the television antenna, to stand there while they told me what the picture was doing.  It was funny that I could actually see the screen as I did it, but somehow, the whole family would join in with "that's it, no, back up, a little more, stop!" Then, after I'd sat back down on the couch, the picture would start to roll again.  And on and on it would go.  Like I said, that TV gave us hours of family entertainment. 

So it is with a little sadness that I realize that no one is allowed to root through the piles at the transfer station, that Craigslist and thrift stores have taken over that function of trading used things.  I certainly don't miss the overpowering smell, but I do miss the excitement of hopping from appliance to appliance on a sunny day and hoping to find some small treasure to put in my pocket for the ride home.  Most of all, I miss that gleam in my dad's eye, the one that told me he could fix anything, that he could make treasure out of junk.

Thank you for listening, jb

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Google Logos

Am I the only one, or is there anyone else out there that loves the alternate Google designs?  There are seemingly small things in this world that become iconic: Disney animations from my childhood, Elton John from my youth, and Seinfeld quotes from the eighties.  Google designs are iconic too.  I've been looking at the 226th birthday of John James Audubon.  It's beautiful! It's brilliant because every time the logo changes, I search out the letters.  Oh Google, you are so smart to get me to spell your name every time I look at a new logo. I'm sure that has helped your name to become the verb that it is. I'll admit, I have googled myself and I didn't find me.  It was a little sad.

Am I a nerd? I've actually gone through Goggle archives and looked at all the old logos, more than once.  My favorites are Jules Verne's 183rd birthday, Pac-Man's 30 Anniversary, Cezanne's 172nd birthday, Cookie Monster, and the discovery of X-rays.  I wonder if there's a Google artist I favor?  There are more that I love, but just go look at them yourself.  Go to About Google on their main page, then click on Google logos.  I don't know why I was surprised, the first time I looked there, that Google did special logos I'd never seen for countries and their holidays other than the United States.  Oh, we do believe the world revolves around us in this country, don't we?

I once went to a gallery that had Disney art cels on display.  They weren't yet priceless, but I was amazed at how much they were worth, more than a year's salary for me at the time.  And looking at them made me so happy.  I wonder if those animators knew they were creating art history? I wonder if artists and artisans think about that when they do their work?  Have you ever noticed the art deco designs in some of the old bridges built in the 1920's, you know, the ones that really should have been rebuilt by now?  There is art in everything, but I think my generation in the United States has been the worst at just throwing up clunky work without putting finishing touches onto it.  Younger generations than mine seem to be recalling that art can be in our buildings as well as in our Internet searches. It's getting better.  Even cars look a little better these days.  Yup, there's art in the design of a car. 

So already, they have a way to make high-quality prints of a digital image, the giclee.  Does it affect the value that it will never be an original print?  I'd imagine that these people create most of their work right on the computer.  How could you sign a computer image? If it was my job to create a Google logo, I'd hide a signature in a few pixels of each work I did.  But anyone could print up a hundred thousand copies and then what would they be worth?  A hundred years from now, a giclee of one of those Google designs might be worth something, but would it be worth as much as an original cel of an old fashioned Disney animation?  Hmmm.   I wonder if the Google artists think about that?  Do they doodle on their napkins at lunch? Do they copy their best work onto ordinary paper?  Will they be like many artists and never receive the money that their work has earned?

Years ago, I was lucky enough to have worked at Bell Labs as a technical writer.  I loved that place, especially because they had an entire art department and a well-rounded library. I even got to work with those artists to do book designs.  It made me so happy to have that kind of creativity happening around me, to look at three or four different designs that I could choose from and know that my book was going to be beautiful.  What places do you know that value art and literature enough to put that into place for their daily work? Well, Google does.

Thank you for listening, jb 

Friday, April 15, 2011

Losing It

I think I'm losing it.  Again. 

Six years ago, when our boy got pneumonia for the first time, it really surprised me that my husband handled it so differently than I did.  After our son finally got better, my husband decided we should go to Disneyland.  I willingly went to Disneyland.  I love Disneyland.  Still, as I watched my two guys spinning on the teacups ride, I stood by the little houses built for people ten inches tall.  The guys were laughing.  I'd been laughing too when I went on the ride with them.  But one spin is enough for me and I sat the next two out.  I stood leaning on a fence watching them and suddenly, I could feel a side to me that had gotten dark and angry that I might lose my boy.  That spot remained dark in me for months after we went back home, even through sunny summer days at the lake. I had stood at the abyss, right there in Disneyland, and I didn't see God in there, just a big black empty hole.

When I was thirteen, my dad died.  He had cancer and he died from his chemotherapy.  The day before, the doctors had gathered us in the lobby and told us the good news: they had gotten all the cancer.  My dad died the next day, on April 2. It wasn't anyone's fault.  The doctors just didn't know as much back then about the limits of chemotherapy.  I'm sure it was lost on them that they had delivered the most devastating April Fool's Joke ever to an unsuspecting family. 

You know the drill after that.  We got together the whole family plus a lot of other people I didn't know.  We had four days of waiting in a room with the casket and lots of people.  We were dressed in uncomfortable clothes.  We had to cry in front of strangers. Then we went home and our lives were never the same again.  Still, even in those early days after my dad died, I sensed something.  Maybe it was simple need.  I felt like I wasn't alone, like someone was there carrying on when I couldn't move forward on my own. I went with that feeling.  I carried it with me for thirty-one years.  It was a relief to have that feeling in my darkest moments and, even after being out all night in NYC, I'd sometimes go to church the next day with my friends.  It didn't matter much which church we went to, which denomination.  It all seemed like a different flavor of the same thing to me.

But then, thirty-one years later, my boy was sick.  It was frightening.  Everyone I talked to told me their stories about going to the emergency room with their kids.  Our boy lay flaccid in a hospital bed for four days with an oxygen absorption of about 75%.  Even when you hold your breath until you're dizzy, you have trouble lowering your oxygen absorption below 98%. It was a relief when his numbers started to rise and he wrestled with the tape holding the oxygen sensor on one hand and the IV on the other one.  Something happened as our boy was sent home and I began to recover from the lack of sleep and the worry.  I realized what my life would become if I'd actually lost my boy.  It wasn't pretty.  I'm not sure I would have been able to continue breathing.  That never entered my mind when my dad died.  I was in pain back then.  It was hard to wake up and realize, after having forgotten in sleep that my dad had died, and I had to get up and go to school and act normal.  But it never occurred to me to give up and go with him. 

My grandpa died fourteen months after my dad died.  I watched him, a robust man, wither and die.  I was so mad at my grandpa.  I wanted to ask him 'What about me? I still need you.' But thirty-one years later, I can see just what happened.  His boy had died. He'd lost his sweet boy and he didn't know how he could keep breathing after that. I didn't even lose my boy six years ago.  I didn't lose him this month either, though that fear is still there, black and toxic in my heart.

As I get older, it seems more seldom that I feel what I've always called the holy spirit.  Whatever your religion, even if you doubt, you can stand at the edge of a forest sometimes, and breathe in the smell of cedar and ferns, and feel that sense of awe in the universe, that there is something more to it than what you can see.  Or you can feel it in your biochemistry class, a wave washing over you like a baptism, that the tiniest amount of a single chemical makes your life possible and that the balance, that amazing balance of chemicals, has to mean something special is going on beyond your understanding. 

But after waking up multiple nights to hear my boy gasping for breath on the couch next to me, I'm back to that dark place.  I could lose him and I wouldn't want to continue to breathe.  I couldn't imagine a world that warms, blooms, and turns green in springtime if my boy wasn't in it with me.  I don't have any idea how other parents have survived this kind of loss.  I know some don't.  How can I feel God in that?

As a grieving kid, I asked the question, "Why do people suffer?" I have never been given an answer that satisfied me.  People suffer.  Some people suffer incredible losses.  Children get sick and sometimes they die. Somebody told me that God never gives you anything you can't handle.  That's not true.  My grandpa couldn't handle losing my dad and he died too.  Somebody else reminded me of Nietzsche's corollary that whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger.  But is despair and cynicism in the living a sign of strength? Someone else told me that God doesn't cause the pain, but helps you through it.  Imagine that, an all-seeing, all-knowing God just sitting there and watching people suffer. Now, that just made me mad.

The best explanation I was ever given was about the yin and the yang, that there is no understanding of life without death, that suffering is connected with joy in the balance. So maybe I need to let myself have my moments of standing at the abyss.  Will that help the joy be all that much greater when it comes? I don't know the answers. I wish I did.

Thank you for listening, jb

Monday, April 11, 2011

A Kind of an Expert, Not a Professional

So, I'm still here at home, completely tired, with my sick kid.  I really don't want this to be another sick kid site.  I've been reading a lot of sick kid sites at 3am as I sit with my boy in the dark when he's trying to breathe.  These are poignant, sometimes devastating stories. They make me question my faith. Our situation at home makes me question the reasons that children should suffer.  Does anyone have a good answer for that?  I haven't heard many that move me.

This whining isn't what I want to do here.  I'm trying to be normal, to think of stories to tell, but my mind is right here, with my boy.  Do you want to know about viral-induced asthma?  I can tell you about that, the pharmaceuticals, the signs of distress.  I can tell you side-effects and benefits of different drugs. Usually being able to breathe is the big one. I like that one.

For us, viral-induced asthma is that we have a really healthy boy most of the time.  He is vigorous, athletic and seldom needs his rescue inhaler (Xopenex) when he's exercising.  Sometimes running through dust (like on a baseball field) will get to him. He takes a daily inhaled steroid, Advair or Flovent, usually after he brushes his teeth and as he's running downstairs with his backpack to catch the bus.  He looks healthy, with round pink cheeks and a gleam in his eyes.

Yet, when my boy catches a cold or the flu, his lungs will get irritated and suddenly, we're faced with a full-fledged medical emergency. We used to run to the ER every time he couldn't breathe well, but these days, we monitor oxygen levels, heart rate, and peak flows (how fast his lungs can move air) at home. One doctor told us that we have an emergency room right here and only needed to get advice when his breathing problems surpassed the doses we were instructed to give.  About a year later, another doctor told us that our boy did indeed have pneumonia again, but that he'd be more comfortable at home.  That was the first time I realized that I might accidentally give my boy toxic levels of his medicines at 4am because I was so sleep-deprived.  Have I told you this before?  It is my biggest fear during these ten-day marathons of not sleeping much.  Last week, my husband was sitting on the edge of the bed, wearily getting dressed for work and said "It's too bad they don't have a hospital where you can drop your sick kid off for 8 hours, just long enough to get a good night's sleep."

When my son's really struggling to breathe, he usually has a wheeze that I can hear without a stethoscope.  My husband is good with a stethoscope and usually can tell me "he's a little junky in the lower right lobe" when he's having problems.  He describes it as a crackling.  The problem is that when it's completely closed, there's no air moving and it gets quieter rather than louder.  I'm just deaf enough that I can't hear much besides a heartbeat or hearty bowel sounds when I listen through a stethoscope.  Maybe that's just an excuse.  I don't know.  I feel like I could miss something if depended on using them. 

There are other ways to tell that my boy's in distress.  When he's having serious problems breathing, his ribs do this thing called retractions.  The tiny muscles around the ribs will contract with each breath.  It looks like someone trying to impress me by contracting their abs, only higher, by the ribs.  We also use an oxygen sensor that my husband bought online.  When his oxygen levels get below 90%, we head off to the hospital. The doctors gave us a mechanical meter for testing peak flow.  My boy has to stand up and, without coughing, blow as hard as he can through it.  It measures how fast his lungs can move air. The numbers go way down when he's in distress.  We write these numbers down in his medical journal along with the medications that we've given him. Most of the time, we can see an improvement in his peak flow before and after a breathing treatment. I'm also pretty good at telling by my boy's energy levels.  He's an active kid and the steroids get him pretty jazzed up.  So when he's on all of that and he's listless anyway, I'm paying attention, getting my husband to listen to his breathing, checking his oxygen level, and his peak flow.  It's different, somehow, than general fatigue.  I'm not sure what that difference is.  It just is. 

Here are the drugs with which I am familiar:

Xopenex - a refined form of Albuterol, a rescue inhaler.  Chemical structures of the same name frequently come in a left and right version of each other, mirror images.  Albuterol has both left and right chemicals, whereas Xopenex has only one (I forget if it's left or right).  Xopenex gives better results opening the airways and has fewer of the undesired side-effects of jitteriness and high heart rate.  That said, a good dose of Xopenex will still raise a kid's heart rate and cause some tremors.  We watch his heart rate, especially since he's also on other inhaled steroids, like Advair, which also increase heart rate.  It took a while for me to know what a normal heart rate was for my boy, but now that he's older, it's almost the same as an adult's.  We've found that Xopenex is much more effective if delivered using a nebulizer instead of an inhaler. 

Adrenaline - a naturally occurring chemical also known as epinephrine.  When delivered naturally by the brain to parents due to external stimulus such as a sick child with asthma, adrenaline can help us stay awake for long hours, even days at a time with catnaps in between. Adrenaline helps a mom or dad to think more clearly when in an emergency situation, but at our house, we keep a notebook of medications and times administered anyway.  It can also prevent us from sleeping when the immediate reason for its release has been completed and the emergency is over. When my boy gets better and the adrenaline wears off, I frequently sleep for ten+ hours a night for a few nights in a row. 

Prednisone - an oral steroid.  When my boy was smaller, they gave him Prednisolone instead.  I'm not entirely sure what the difference is between them.  Prednisone and Prednisolone open airways restricted by inflammation. It also affects appetite and frequently, our boy is not able to figure out, after having a round of Prednisone, when he's full and should stop eating.  It seems like there's a guaranteed weight gain with every round of Prednisone.  Breathing vs. weight management.  We have always opted for the breathing.  Prednisone may also have side-effects if it is stopped abruptly.  I don't know what they are.  The doctors always taper the doses as my boy gets better.  One year, his asthma wasn't under control and the doctor said that if he had any more rounds of the Prednisolone, he might have a temporary loss of growth.  It was true.  My son didn't grow for a year, but he seems to have made up for it.  There are only three kids in his class taller than he is.  He does have the round face typical of someone who's been on steroids and it's not surprising that he has a weight issue.  The doctors say that he might outgrow this in his teens.  We'll see.  We still opt for breathing over weight management. 

Singulair - We used to be big fans of Singulair, a daily pill.  It opened airways and could be used with a rescue inhaler. It helped us get off the Prednisolone wagon for a while. We stopped giving it to him, though, when he started having serious depression and aggression. Those side-effects stopped as when we stopped giving him the Singulair.  It was a bummer because Singulair really helped with his breathing.

Advair and Flovent  - inhaled steroids, but not rescue inhalers.  We use Flovent when our boy is well and Advair the minute he starts to get sick.  We see a definite improvement on the number of times he needs a rescue inhaler when he uses Advair or Flovent.  Xopenex and Advair can be used together, though at higher doses, we separate them by about an hour to keep our boy's heart rate under control.  We don't see any other side-effects to them, but he's been on them so long now, how could we?  It doesn't seem significant in any case.

Flonase - yet another steroid used for inflammation, but for the sinuses.  This one helps our boy to keep a sinus drip from going down into his lungs and causing bronchitis or pneumonia.  When it's used together with nasal rinses, it's really prevented his issues from becoming emergent.  Sometimes, our boy gets nose-bleeds now that he's on Flonase, but they're minor and they get him lots of sympathy from the girls, the cool gross-out factor from the boys, and he gets to go down the hall to the school nurse.  The school nurse loves him.

Cefdinir - an antibiotic that's used for bacterial pulmonary infections, sometimes called secondary infections.  Hopefully, this will work for him this time.  (Who names these medications?  I tell you, the pharmaceuticals should have a talk with the car companies about naming their products.)  We've had good results with Cefdinir.

Azithromax - another antibiotic used for these secondary infections.  It has the benefit of taking only five doses with a ten-day effect.  Our boy has never responded to Azithromax.  We finally put it into his notebook so we won't try it again.  So whatever bacteria he's growing, it's already resistant to Azithromax.  This is a very good reason for all of you out there to remember how important it is to take ALL of your antibiotic once you've begun taking them.  If you take a little and then stop, you're actually growing a stronger bacteria, teaching the little suckers how to survive the antibiotic. 

Formoterol - We were prescribed formoterol fumarate for our boy just once a couple of years ago.  For the next 48 hours, he had a very high heart rate, 140% of normal.  Ironically, my husband was prescribed the same thing, Symbicort, within a month of my son's problem with it and he had the same response.  Boy those were a tough couple of days.  We had to strike that one off our list for good. The way I figure it, my husband and my son share enough similar DNA that an adverse response like this doesn't surprise me. 

Right now, my son is on five different medications that we administer to him seven times a day. Four of those are given through a nebulizer, a compressor that blows bubbles through the liquid medicine so it can be breathed in like steam (except that it isn't warm).  My boy is very patient sitting there for ten minutes each time.  I wish I could tell the people that design these things that he still uses the little dragon mask that they gave us when he was younger.  In the doctor's office, they keep trying to give us the thing that he has to hold in his mouth, like a pipe.  Who wants to hold a pipe in their mouth for ten minutes four or five times a day when you can relax and use a mask, playing video games the whole time?

I try to let my husband sleep during the week because he still has to go to work, but he takes over when I don't get enough sleep during the day and I hit the wall.  Sometimes, we're both awake because we're worried and our boy is lying there snoozing away.  This morning, I woke abruptly, hearing what sounded like a dove call, very quiet among the ambient house sounds.  It was my son, moaning in his sleep.  So, I can tell I'm still on the adrenaline ride.  Even talking about it sometimes, I get a shot of adrenaline.  So, at night, when I can't sleep because my heart can feel its effects, I read blogs.  Sometimes I still read the sick kid sites.  They make me cry, but if it's 3am and it feels like just one other mom is up somewhere in the world, doing just what I'm doing, it helps.  We are listening to our babies breathe.

Thanks for listening, jb

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Pausing to Breathe

I'm not prepared for my normal life.  I missed choir practice.  I missed picking up my new glasses.  I missed baking for the bake sale. I have 84 photos I'm supposed to be turning into bio pages for school-kids' books. Tomorrow, I'm scheduled to call people to support the school bond.  I'm supposed to be telling stories to you.  I can't right now.  I'm sorry.  I have a sick kid at home and that's the only thing in the world that matters.  My boy has pneumonia.  Again.  He's only ten and he's had it four times now. 

At least he's sleeping. My husband and I aren't sleeping.  We're listening for the cough, worrying through the silence in between.  I'm back to my tactic of checking to make sure my boy's ears are pink in the dim of his night light.  I started that when he was an infant and he'd finally gotten to sleep. Don't wake a sleeping baby.  The tradition continued when he had pneumonia the first time and the nurses assured me that it was a good way to make sure he was getting enough air.  Don't wake a sick boy either.

But I need to tell you this: I am blessed that my husband has the intelligence of a doctor, an interest in researching the pharmaceuticals, the ability to think clearly under extreme fatigue, and the intuition and ability to comfort of a mother. There are lots of reasons I love my husband (I'm so lucky that way), but these skills are so very endearing right now.  

Thank you for listening, jb

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Chocolate cake and Romaine

I was up until 3am with my sick boy, fell asleep while he watched TV, got up to get him food at 5am, and fell back to sleep until my husband wandered in after 81/2 hours of sleep at 8:30 am.  Then, I vowed that I'd sleep for eight hours.

Oh, damn, this is whiny!

I couldn't sleep.  I need to sleep!  Why can't I sleep?


My husband, under the guise of being helpful, went out to get away from the two sleep deprived crabbies at home.  And I think he wanted cake.  See, we don't keep cake in the house. It's my fault because I went all almost-diabetic a few years ago.  I tried clearing out the whole pantry of things that hurt me, but he revolted and now I have to negotiate through the Frito's, chocolate-covered pretzels, pizza, homemade pumpkin muffins, and yes, sometimes cake, to get to my romaine lettuce.  And we're out of romaine lettuce. 

I tried buying those multi-packs of romaine at Costco.  That way I'd have my requisite head a day.  Do I sound like a zombie, eating a head a day?  Well, I will be if I eat any more pizza this week.  So I bought the seven-pack of romaine and started eating it as soon as I got home.  Now, Costco has some amazing fruit.  Strawberries and raspberries out of season. Peaches and pears in season that drip down your chin in their lusciousness.  But believe me, they should not be known for their multi-packs of romaine lettuce!  That first day, my requisite head was wilted and had that sour smell that lettuce gets just moments before it liquefies in your vegetable drawer.  So I am reduced to receiving a single head of lettuce whenever anyone goes out to get away from us crabby people just to buy chocolate cake.


Thanks for listening, jb