Saturday, November 30, 2013

Lessons Learned the Hard Way: Cooking

A traditional Simpson birthday cake with 7-minute frosting.
My recipe
By the time I got married (at the ripe old age of 21), I thought I had learned everything I needed to learn about cooking.

I know.

Many a ruined meal later, I think it's time I shared some lessons I learned the hard way. Remember: this was in the days before the Internet, not to mention before Pinterest (where I have a whole board dedicated to "Food, Nom nom nom nom").

1. Master the basics first.
Home-made scalloped potatoes (the best kind!) are made with a basic white sauce.

In my youth I thought I was such a great cook that I could improvise freely with recipes. I do still enjoy adding a personal spin to my dishes, but I now know that you first have to get a good grip on the basics before you should start hotdogging:
  • Learn to make a sturdy (i.e., doesn't curdle) white sauce. Practice making it in both thin and thick consistency. White sauce is the backbone of many, many sauces, especially in casseroles. If you need to substitute, practice with different fats and flours until you get a reliable sauce.
  • Practice making fudge. The principles of making fudge properly apply to many, many desserts or sugar-based dishes (like caramelized onions, see below).
  • Pastry is a learnable art. Again, if you don't practice, you won't learn.
The common element in almost all of these is something which I sorely lack:

2. Have patience.
Home-fried potatoes need to be fried slowly and patiently.
My recipe.

From crisply fried potatoes to caramelized onions the biggest chef's secret is time. Rushing your dishes will only lead to burnt pots, curdled sauces, and wonky textures (like crunchy baked potatoes or rubbery beef).

I recently learned why my caramelized onions never worked: I expected them to take five minutes; they take 45.

I also learned recently that rushing a stew might result in meat that was safe to eat, but would inevitably produce a tasty sauce with chunks of shoe leather. Reducing the heat to a very slow boil changed the way the meat fibres break down, resulting in a tender stew.

Which brings me to the next thing I learned:

3. Cooking is all about science.
The structure of this gooey frosting is based on whipping egg whites and brown sugar while cooking them.
The calories in a raw potato are the same as in a baked potato, but the cooked one tastes far sweeter. Why? Here's the answer, from The Food Lab:
"Here's the deal: starch is made from sugar. More precisely, starch is a polysaccharide, which means that it's a large molecule consisting of many smaller sugar molecules (in this case, glucose). The thing about sugar is, unless it's broken down to relatively simple forms, it doesn't taste sweet to us. Our tongue simply doesn't recognize it."
Chemistry: If you melt chocolate and sugar together with a little fat, you end up with syrup. My first attempts at fudge resulted in chocolate syrup because I didn't have the patience to slowly bring the concoction to a rolling boil and keep it there long enough. As the sugar boils it reaches different "stages" as the structure of the carbohydrate changes.

Physics: Ingredients like protein (like egg white or wheat gluten) provide physical structure as they cook and how you treat them can make the difference between an omelette and a souffle. If you make a substitution, you need to think about what alternative ingredients can get you a close result. A good cook book or website can help you find the answers.

My very first cookbook - written for children - had a recipe for hot chocolate, made with sugar, cocoa and hot milk. I learned several things very quickly:
  • If you overheat the milk it goes yucky, even before it burns.
  • You can't "unburn" milk.
  • Cocoa will not dissolve in milk unless you first combine it with the sugar and a small amount of milk.
If you're interested in learning more about the science of cooking, you might enjoy visiting The Food Lab on Serious Eats. But I'll warn you: just knowing the science won't make your dish turn out right; I still need to practice their prime rib recipe (so far all it's done is make me very critical of restaurant prime rib).

And because of the science of things, you need to . . .

4. Respect the list of ingredients.
Your cooking will benefit if you occasionally try new or unusual fresh ingredients.
Make any substitutions with caution. For example, the recipe for pesto calls for fresh basil; do not try to substitute dried basil in the same quantity or you will end up with a dry, rather ghastly sludge. In a spaghetti sauce, however, dried is fine. (If you use fresh basil, you will need to use at least twice as much as the flavour is more concentrated in the dried version.)

If you have to make substitutions for dietary reasons, bear in mind that the chemistry might change as well and might result in a flop. So don't try your new approach out on guests the first time.

And very often the difference between standard cuisine and gourmet is using fresh ingredients rather than dried, canned, or frozen. 

Along with that . . .

5. Respect the recipe.
Really good cookbooks (the expensive ones) put as much detail in the how as in the what.
This is a snapshot of a page in The Joy of Cooking.

Recipes from friends and family are often little more than a list of ingredients, which is fine for one-pot or layered dishes. But if you're making something that involves chemistry and physics, you really need to pay attention to the instructions. This includes timing (what comes first, how long to wait for a reaction to occur) and actions (folding vs. whipping).

In the souffle example, if the eggs are not well whipped before being placed in the oven, the structure will collapse before the heat changes the egg white from bubbly liquid that collapses to bubbly solid that holds its airy structure.

6. Work with good tools.
Isn't that just the happiest little pot you ever saw?

When you can afford to, investing in good equipment and then taking good care of it is wise. Dull knives are not only frustrating; they are dangerous. Wobbly-bottomed pots and improvised double-boilers will lead to uneven results. In both cases, the more you use them, the more frustrating they will become.

A newlywed friend of mine received a bespoke kitchen knife as a gift from her new husband. I had no idea such things exist, but she was delighted beyond measure for two reasons:
  1. It is the singularly most awesome knife she has ever used.
  2. It demonstrated how well her husband knows her.
One of my favourite Christmas presents is the le Creuset casserole pot that Steve gave me. It's a large, heavy, enameled cast-iron skillet with a lid and it can cook stove-top or in the oven. It gives steady, predictable results and is a pleasure to cook with.

UPDATE: It just occurred to me that the pot would also make a good murder weapon, as would the bespoke kitchen knife. Yay for good tools!

7. The kitchen timer is your friend.
Just don't stray out of ear-shot!

Every cook since the dawn of fire has had to juggle distractions, whether they were crying babies or fussy pastries. Nowadays, we've also got captivating blogs (why, thank you!), video games, and TV shows to lure us away from the kitchen. I now set the timer every single time I leave the kitchen if I have something cooking, even if it's just for two minutes. (I've also developed a very acute sense of smell for something burning.)

If a recipe calls for something to boil for two minutes, set the timer because the result at four minutes will not be the same.

Those are the tips that come to mind off the top of my head, though I know I'll think of more as soon as I hit "Publish." What about you? What are your favourite tips? Please do share!

And, in case you were wondering, yes, Bronwyn, you inspired this post.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Fiction Friday: Methuselah - Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match!

For other posts in the series, visit the Methuselah page on this blog. 

Illustration of synthetic head, showing inner circuitry.
Agnes winked to close the comm channel with her mother. She slumped in her chair and gazed dumbly at the monitor for a few seconds. That may have been the least satisfying conversation she had ever had with Mara. Possibly worse even than the vitriolic exchanges they had had during Agnes’ adolescence.

Those days were almost embarrassing for Agnes, though she recognized that they were a normal, healthy stage of rebellion and separation. And she had to admit that, even when she swore her mother was the most flawed woman on the planet, she never for one moment doubted that Mara loved her.

But today . . . today felt even worse. There had been no harsh words or disagreement; there had just been a certain emptiness, a superficiality to their conversation that left Agnes feeling like she’d been shortchanged. Like she’d been given a counterfeit.

I wonder, she thought, if this is what people feel when they think a loved one has been body-snatched. I just spoke with her, but I miss her.

She placed a mug under the beverage dispenser and spoke: "Hot green tea." Moments later an aromatic brew filled her cup. Grabbing her drink, she went to the living room and picked up her browser pad. She’d been procrastinating about her retirement trip. It was time to make a decision.

She hadn’t heard from Glen since his infuriatingly lame e-mail. Mara was saying all the right things but somehow was not convincingly sympathetic.

Fine, then. Moving on.

She opened Mate-Match, “Where families begin,” as their slogan promised, and began her request. First was the usual scanning of her fingerprint, which populated a dossier with her basic curriculum vitae information: name, date of birth, adjusted age, address, annual income, academic profile, careers to date, interests.

She verified all the information, added some personal notes (although she’d spent one sesqui in the service industry, she had not enjoyed that career path as much as the years she’d spent in the creative arts).

She clicked "submit," and a female face was superimposed on the screen. It was an artificially intelligent Mate-Match agent, a bot with a matrix of programmed questions and interactions designed to draw out Agnes’ personality.

“You can call me Beth,” the bot informed her.

Even knowing the bot was not human, Agnes found herself wanting it to like her, to find her attractive and charming. She made a few witty replies and the bot obligingly laughed.

“So, Agnes, excuse me for sounding like a wizened old granny, but I have to ask: why are you still single? I mean, a nice girl like you – pretty, bright, charming, accomplished – you should have been snapped up sesquis ago!”

Well! That was unexpected!

“Well, until pretty recently, I was ‘snapped up’,” Agnes laughed. “We actually applied for a reproduction permit together, but he didn’t get his, at least not quickly enough, so I went ahead with my renewal and implantation. Then he kind of, um, buggered off.”

“Oh no! How awful for you!” The bot’s sympathy took Agnes off guard. Maybe it was actually a person, not a bot after all. “What a schmuck!”

“Yah. It’s been pretty shitty,” Agnes allowed, and felt her eyes well with tears. “This was going to be a big adventure together and now . . .”

“Are you sure you really want to do this, Agnes? I mean, I can tell you’re still pretty heartbroken. It might just be bad timing, maybe wait a few months or a year?”

Agnes’ tears spilled over.

“I can’t.” And she explained once again why time was of the essence. “I’ve already sat on this decision for weeks, waiting to hear from Glen. He’s gone; I’m moving on. It’s time to make a baby.”

“Clearly you do want that, but I have to say, Agnes, a lot of men will find your recent breakup – and that’s what it is, really – to be a strongly negative factor. No one wants to enter into a twenty-year commitment on the rebound. I just don’t know.” The bot raised its eyebrows and wagged its head slowly side to side.

Tears gone now, Agnes was on the defensive.

“Look, why don’t you leave that up to the men?” Agnes challenged. “I am a good catch – you even said so yourself. I’m ready to start a family, and I do understand what a family is, whether you believe it or not.”

“I’m not sure you do,” the bot, Beth, replied condescendingly. “I mean, you do want a child, but I think the family you want to have is with Glen. It’s hardly fair to put some poor bloke who’s ready for real love through a sham marriage.”

“Sham? We are talking about arranged marriages here, aren’t we?” Agnes felt she’d been led into a trap. Her cheeks flushed. “Are you trying to tell me that none of the men out there come with baggage? It’s a seller’s market and I’m the buyer?

“I have thought long and hard about what I’m getting into,” she continued. “Believe me. It’s not the way I had planned this to happen, but it can – and I hope will – be a very fulfilling and loving relationship. In fact, there’s something to be said for having someone objective looking at bringing two people together, rather than just leaving it to chance. It would be great to have the passion along with everything else, but some of us don’t have the luxury to be choosey.

"Right now, I care more about finding someone who will be a good father and a good partner and - what's that old word? - a helpmate. Helpmates are seriously under-rated.” She was on a roll now.

Beth let Agnes continue in this vein for a few minutes, then broke in abruptly. “Thank you. You’ve given me a good indication of your personality and of your motivation for following this approach. I have enough to go on to prepare a selection of potential mates for you and to prepare your profile reel. I should have something for you by next week. From there we can talk about a process towards your retirement location.”

Agnes was struck dumb. She’d been played. The bot had honed in on her soft spot and had prodded just enough to get a reaction. Agnes had accidentally given her sales pitch. She tried to remember everything she'd said. Had she made any wild declarations that a potential partner would find offensive or might hold her to?

“Good. That’s good then,” Agnes stammered. “Thank you. I’ll watch for a message from you. Thank you. That’s, yeah, that’s good.” She forced herself to stop yammering.

“Have a good week, Agnes, and thank you for using Mate-Match, where families begin,” the bot signed off courteously.

Agnes winked the app closed and took a long drink of her tea. Her cold and insipid green tea. She wanted something stronger, but it was much too early in the day for a glass of wine. Besides, she needed to keep all toxins away from her pre-pregnant body.

No. What she really needed, after a morning like this one, was some fun. She made herself a fresh, hot cup of tea and gathered her paint supplies and got ready to re-learn how to paint watercolours.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

How long has this been going on?

A beer "flight" - a tasting of several artisan brews.
About three weeks ago, I hit a low point, health-wise. It got so bad that I ultimately decided to quit my job so I could reduce stress, get some rest, and get well. It's a decision I'm glad I made.

Today I have an update for you.

For years now, my daily alcohol consumption has been at least one drink a day, often two. On special occasions I might have three. By my doctor's reckoning, that does not constitute a risky level of drinking and she dismissed it as a cause of my poor health.

However, at my last appointment, we both agreed that, since my liver was under-performing, it made sense to reduce the burden on it. We cut out a couple of pills, and I decided that I would stop drinking at home. I would only indulge if we went out to a restaurant for dinner, and then I would limit it to one glass. We dine out about once a week. So I've gone from 10-14 glasses/week to 1 glass/week.

That was three weeks (or 45 glasses of wine) ago.

Among the many things that were going sideways, health-wise, was a small bullet listed simply as "I've gained weight in the past four months." In fact, I'd gained 15 pounds over six months, most of it in the upper abdomen. I sometimes felt like I was going to explode, much like I had in the last months of pregnancy. This is a faster rate of weight gain than I have ever experienced.

Since cutting back on the alcohol, I've already lost seven pounds. (That equals the calories in about 200 glasses of wine or about 40 bottles, by the way, exponentially more than I have cut out.) My belly no longer feels bloated, and the mystery bruises have stopped appearing every morning.

These are bruises from my Victoza injection sites.
I don't think this is normal. None of the chat rooms
mention bruising as a side effect.

And, most miraculously of all, I've stopped sweating! I actually wore my hair down twice this week, and wore sweaters both times. This has not happened in 15 YEARS.

Same with the bruising, actually. I remember talking to my sister at least five years ago about random bruises that would appear on my belly and thighs if I drank more than two glasses of wine. Which is part of why I know I've kept my drinking below that threshold for the most part.

All of which leads me to believe that I've been sick and getting sicker for much longer than I realized.

Cutting it out has not been difficult, though I do miss my evening tipple. Mostly it's just been changing my habits. I now take a long, candle-lit bath to relax in the evening (it's good for my joint pain, too, which, by the way, has not been affected by the change in alcohol consumption).

I've tried to think of what else I've changed that might have this dramatic effect.

I've cut the cholesterol med and the Metformin (diabetes). (Surprisingly, my blood sugar has only gone up very, very slightly. No idea about the cholesterol.) I haven't changed my eating habits significantly, and I still am not sleeping very well. I wish I could say I was exercising more, but I'm not.

I've been working part-time for several weeks, however, so the extra rest may be making a difference. And I noticed my stress level plummet precipitously once I decided to quit, so that may be having a huge beneficial effect. Enough to produce weight loss and stop the hyper-sweating?

My non-expert conclusion is that, although my drinking did not appear to be problematic (from a statistical perspective), I seem to have some kind of metabolic intolerance to alcohol.

Isn't this fascinating? The human body, man. It's a puzzle.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

I may need a legal guardian.

In previous episodes:

  • I've recently quit my job for medical reasons.
  • I'm still working part-time to tie up loose ends and ensure a transition.
  • My liver is limping along.
  • My rheumatoid factor is slightly elevated and I am slightly anemic.
  • I am exhausted.
So, in all my wisdom, I decided to go through with an appointment I had scheduled for some dental surgery to address receding gums. I thought this was wise because my dental plan would terminate when I left this job.

As the surgeon injected the anesthetic into my gums I realized that this chemical might be metabolized by -- you guessed it -- my poor liver.

Did I stop him? Did I say something?

No. Because I am a Good Girl who Does not Inconvenience Others.

(The dental assistant had asked about any medications I was on, but didn't ask about any changes in my health, so it didn't occur to me to mention anything.)

So the procedure continued uneventfully, except for a slight difficulty with excessive bleeding because: liver.

Figuring that the damage, if any, was done, I went home, applied the ice pack to my face and slept for 5 hours, ate some supper, then slept for another 10 hours. I decided not to fill the prescription for super-duper painkillers and am instead relying on ice packs and sleep.

So, perhaps not a "huge" mistake, but certainly not a smart move. Feel free to smack me upside the head. But gently because my head kind of hurts right now.

Monday, November 18, 2013

This was not the plan.

Late last week, I had a talk with my boss about how I'm doing. It was a tough talk because, in spite of having cut back to half-time, I'm still exhausted and my joints complain loudly. "Weary to my bones," as Simon & Garfunkel sang.

I told her I needed to stop work. Trying to keep the boat afloat at work while allowing my body to recover balance was just not working; it was a disservice to my employer and to myself. If I'd been with them longer (years instead of months), I might have asked for a period of leave without pay, but they've already been great about allowing me to try part-time.

If I knew what I was dealing with (mono, say) and could anticipate a recuperation period, I'd be in a better position to negotiate. But I'm still living with unknowns.

And because of my values -- hard work, commitment, professionalism -- I was unhappy feeling that I couldn't give 100%. I knew I needed rest, but felt ashamed coming in late or leaving early. I felt apologetic, especially toward the team of people I supervise. (I don't like calling them "my employees" because I don't own them and I don't even pay them myself.) I felt disappointed in myself, like I'd let people down, people I care about.they deserve more.

So, today I tendered my official resignation, giving a few weeks' notice, during which I will continue my part-time hours.

And it kind of sucked, but I got through it. My colleagues and team were incredibly supportive and understanding.

This may end up being an early retirement, but I kind of hope not. I enjoy the mental challenge of work, and the social interactions. I hope to take on some consulting work or freelance writing, but if my health doesn't improve, then I'm not sure how well that will work.

Mostly, right now, aside from feeling tired, I feel so very grateful that this is even an option for me. If we relied on my income to pay the mortgage, then I'd keep plugging away. Instead, I have the luxury of stepping away for a period of time, restoring body and soul, and then looking at a different plan for my future.

For now, "I'm just trying to get some rest."

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Fiction Friday: Methuselah - Barfly

For other posts in the series, visit the Methuselah page on this blog. 

Sell Art Online
Glen stepped through the doorway, removed his sunglasses and waited for his eyes to adjust to the scant light that managed to make its way through the grimy windows.

The bar was long and narrow, with a scattering of tables and mismatched chairs and a couple of booths. The table tops had that look of ill-wiped stickiness that he loathed. He stopped at the bar to order a beer with a whiskey chaser, then made his way to the back, as he'd been instructed, and took a seat near the door to the kitchen.

He swung his messenger bag onto the floor and looked around while waiting for his drink. He rested his forearms on the table and felt the waxen surface grab his hairs. He frowned slightly as he lifted them off the table and sat back. He watched a couple of flies mating and swung his hand at them so they flew away.

He had a couple days' growth of beard and his clothes looked like they'd been slept in. They hadn't, but he wasn't in the mood for ironing. Or folding, for that matter. He hadn't washed his hair in days, so it hung lank in curls near the nape of his neck. He hoped that he fit in with this crowd, that no one would guess there was a million reals in cash in his bag.

At the table next to his, a middle-aged woman was doing something with fabric while she nursed a dark, cold drink, droplets of condensation dripping down its sides. Her hair was dyed that dull black that spoke of desperation to hide grey hair and she looked like someone who had once been stunningly beautiful. She was seated so that she had a clear view of the entire room and was watching the front of the bar closely.

At the front of the bar, nearer the windows, two men, tourists likely, were making eyes at a couple of barflies who were seated at stools by the bar, their bare legs extended in invitation, blouses clinging with desperation to contain their curves.

Finally one of the men approached the women and invited them to the table for a round of drinks. Party's on, thought Glen, as the women joined the men, and he found himself aroused despite his disgust at the exchange.

Moments after the bartender delivered his drinks, another man entered the bar and grabbed a beer. Hair slicked back, beard neatly trimmed, and wearing a leather jacket with clean jeans, he clearly did not care about fitting in. He strode with confidence to the back of the bar, nodded at the black-haired woman and sat down beside Glen, dropping his own messenger bag onto the floor between them.

"Hot out," he stated and smiled at Glen.

"Not in Alaska," Glen replied as he'd been instructed. "Did you bring my things?"

"Jesus! Give it a minute, would you? Pretend you know me. Smile, for Christ's sake."

Glen managed to squeeze out a nervous laugh. "So how're you enjoying your vacation?"

"Well, you know, the women are pretty damned sweet here." He glanced at the women up front and broadened his smile to show a row of perfectly white teeth. The foursome was getting increasingly raucous.

The black-haired woman walked up to the group and announced that the next round of drinks was on the house. Cheers erupted and the women celebrated by planting kisses on the men's cheeks.

Back in the shadows, Glen started to get into the groove of his conversation as it meandered  across manly interests like breasts, sports, whiskey, and cars.

His patience was wearing thin, however.

Finally the partiers arose, the men hanging on the shoulders of the women who, despite their four-inch heels were more stable than the men. They left the bar.

He glanced over at the older woman who was now smiling as she lifted her needlework. It was a child's skirt, a schoolgirl's uniform. Glen couldn't help huffing in disgust and shaking his head.

Only after they had left did Glen's companion cut to the chase. "The papers are in the bag. You can look in the bag, but don't pick it up yet."

Glen bent over and looked. He saw a passport and flicked it open. Looked legit to him, but he wouldn't know, really.

"It's all authentic," the man said, as if reading Glen's mind. "You won't have any problems."

"You can check my bag," Glen offered.

The man snickered and rolled his eyes a little, as if Glen were stating the obvious. The man, whose name Glen never learned, pulled an ultra-violet penlight from his chest pocket and flashed it over the bills as he fanned each stack.

"Yah, those dudes are in for a fun party," he concluded as he hoisted the bag over his shoulder and dropped a generous pile of bills on the table. "Safe travels."

Glen was about to leave when the black-haired woman approached him.

"You think I don't know you're judging me? You think you're some fucking god who can come here and judge me for my business? Listen, you fuck. You're white, you're a man, and you're rich," she glanced at his feet. "Nice boots." They were hand-tooled, custom-made hiking boots. He hadn't thought they would stand out.

"You own the world," she spat at him. "You don't get to judge people like me who make hard choices every goddamned day. So take your skinny ass out of here and don't come back."

Glen gathered his bag and left with a hangdog expression. He didn't know what his next step was, but he knew he had to get out of town.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

I trust my doctor.

Much as my previous health-related post was fun in an OCD, hypochondriac sort of way, I'm actually quite glad that I have a good doctor who is on the ball and whom I trust, rather than having to rely on "crowd sourcing" (where I ask the unwashed masses to weigh in) or on the vagaries of the Internet as seen through my own neurotic lens.

As for any official diagnosis, the jury is still out. But I did want to follow up on the responses to that post.

Comments on the post itself and on Facebook suggested that aging and autoimmune disorders were strong contenders, but also raised the question of possible gluten intolerance.

Meanwhile, three medical wannabes ventured to do the survey. Here are the results. I can't figure out what it means. Can you?

If my reading of this is correct (the lower the score, the higher the ranking)
then Lupus got the strongest combined score, and Fibromyalgia got the lowest combined score.
Of course, three answers (and one of those skipped the ranking question) is about as far from scientifically reliable as Sarah Palin is from the presidency. Which is to say, it might have seemed reliable at some point, but it's not.

However, the comments on the survey were interesting.
I was actually diagnosed with sleep apnea years ago, but I kind of rejected it for several reasons:
  • I felt that my daytime sleepiness was more likely related to undiagnosed diabetes (getting my blood sugar under control has helped tremendously with that!) 
  • I wondered if the oxygen levels in my blood (part of how they diagnose apnea) were a function of living at very high altitude.
  • The doctor who diagnosed me was kind of an apnea fanatic: apnea was the answer to every question.
But it's worth mentioning to my current doctor who doesn't seem to have a particular bias.

For now, I'm focusing on doing what I can to feel better. I've reduced my hours at work for a couple of weeks so I can rest and allow my body to heal. Some probiotics are on the menu. The exercise part is hard because I'm tired, but I do understand the importance both for the physical and mental benefits. (When I reduced my work hours, one of my plans was to take the dog for a good walk every morning. Hasn't happened yet, but it will.)

As a few of you commented, the depression is a priority. I'm combining traditional medicine as well as psychotherapy and light therapy (it's too coincidental that this coincides with shorter daylight and less skin exposure to sunlight).

But I will finish this post on a brighter note.

I am blessed to have many people in my life who fit this description: Steve, Pat, Winkie, my children, even my pets. I love them all.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Fiction Friday: Methuselah - What's wrong with Mara?

For other posts in the series, visit the Methuselah page on this blog. 

Mara rolled onto her side and swung her legs over the side of the bed. As she stood, she felt a tingling in her feet, like pins and needles. The pain of each step reminded her of the fairy tale about the mermaid whose "tender feet bled so that even her steps were marked," a price she paid gladly for love of her prince.

Mara, however, had no prince to join her as she muttered under her breath and made her way to the bathroom to begin her morning preparations, which, as of this week, included her first of three daily anti-inflammatory pills.

After declining to go through any more renewals, Mara was considered "palliative, do not resuscitate." Having chosen to live out the rest of her so-called natural life, she would not receive any curative or even life-prolonging treatments or therapies. The objective was to make the rest of her life as enjoyable as possible.

Fortunately, renewals slowed down the aging process, so, although she had an adjusted age of 77 years, her body looked and felt like that of a 60 year old. Her skin had thinned, her vision had weakened (for that she received surgery - it was considered palliative, not curative), and her joints ached.

Mara knew that, in other countries, where renewal was not available, people aged and became ugly and disabled. She'd seen pictures of gnarled hands and hunched backs. Skin so ravaged that it looked like ruching. Those images were the reason she'd accepted the agony of renewal every 50 years. It seemed a small enough price to pay.

But this last time, something odd happened to her as she approached the time for her next renewal.

She began to feel empty, disconnected. Except for a few relationships (Agnes, Glen, Martin, Lisa), she couldn't drum up any feelings for anyone.

Where she used to cry quite easily when she watched a drama about children or broken hearts, now she just felt bored and lacking in empathy. Angry, even.

"Oh, grow up!" she found herself talking to the screen, badgering a woman who'd lost her fortune to a scoundrel. "You deserve to be conned for being so gullible. Honestly!" Was she becoming curmudgeonly? Was this inevitable?

And lately, despite the show she'd put on for Agnes, even those close relationships were becoming more of an act for her.

That blasted Rugelach, for example. The last thing she felt like doing was baking. No. the last thing she felt like doing was giving away the treat that she hadn't even wanted to bake in the first place. But she did it, out of habit.

Besides, she had to keep Agnes on her side; who knew if Mara might need something from her. Best not to burn that bridge.

As she stepped into the kitchen and heard the coffee start dripping, she glanced at the comm-screen and saw that she'd missed a call from Agnes. Well, speak of the devil, she thought.

But she didn't call back because she wanted that coffee and -- now that she thought of it -- she wanted a pastry, too. Agnes could damned well wait.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Paging Doctor Google

UPDATE: survey closed.

Okay, folks, here's some fun for those of you who like to play Dr. Google. I'm going to list the currently known facts of my condition and you get to cast a vote on the diagnosis that you think is correct!!

There will (I hope) eventually be a correct diagnosis, but, for now, the possibilities are quite wide open.

And I know what you're thinking: Wynn Anne is bringing hypochondria to new heights lows.

While you are undoubtedly correct, I will put forth that one is not unduly paranoid if there is, in fact, an assassin aiming at your head.

  • Bloodwork: 
    • high (bad) scores on my liver function tests; these same tests were normal one year ago
    • slightly low iron, but not so low that the doc would worry if other scores were normal
    • blood sugar A1C is 6.6 -- very slightly high for a normal person, but quite good for a diabetic(A1C is the 6-month average)
    • all other tests (so far) normal, including tests for hepatitis and for good and bad cholesterol
  • Prescriptions
    • Refer to my Pill Poppin' post. The doctor has told me to cut out the claritin and wean myself off the Metformin as it is metabolized by the liver.
  • Mood and behaviour
    • I drink 1-2 glasses of wine per night (7-10 glasses per week); this has not changed in the past year.
    • I drink four glasses of water a day. I realize I could do better, but I think that's still more than average. (Sadly.)
    • I am currently depressed and have increased my antidepressants. They aren't responding as they usually do.
    • I've tried to increase my activity level a little, and have started using an SAD light for light therapy.
    • I am exhausted. On a typical evening, I come home from work, eat dinner, then lie in bed reading or playing on my iPad until bedtime. It's all I can do to get the laundry done on the weekend.
    • I've gained weight in the past four months.
  • Physical
    • After quite a while with minimal symptoms, my IBS is acting up. 
    • The joints in both hands are quite sore all day. The balls of my feet occasionally hurt, as do my hips and shoulders -- but nothing I would consider unusual for my age.
    • I've acid reflux for at least a year.
    • I'm pretty much through menopause. (O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!' she chortled in her joy.)
    • I am hot All.The.Freaking.Time. Today, for example, the temperature was slightly above freezing. I was comfortable in a sheer blouse and capri leggings. If I'd stayed outdoors longer, I would have put on my sweater. This has been going on for about a decade, but may be caused by Zoloft. It did get worse with menopause (because, why not?), but has settled down to a steady state of "move to Nunavut!"
    • Migraines are steady at about one a month, but (since about a year ago) now include vomiting either before or during. (I've had migraines since my teens, but never had the delightful spewing.)
    • I bruise very easily.
    • My liver does not feel enlarged.
  • Family history
    • Lots of cardiac, stroke, diabetes, and colon cancer in my family. I have an aunt with Lupus. 
Differential Diagnoses:

(You can tell I work with doctors, right? "Differential diagnosis" simply refers to the possible diagnoses to rule out.) The following links all go to Wikipedia.
  1. Aging: I'm getting old; I should just get over it. (Oh, come on. Have some fun with this!!)

  2. Rheumatoid Arthritis: an autoimmune disorder characterized by chronic joint inflammation - though it is systemic and can affect many organs. Think of those gnarly old-person joints. I do have some swelling and redness on my hands and feet, but nothing that would suit a Disney film.

    Fatigue and malaise are common with RA, but so is weight loss.

    There is a blood test for RA; I had that test done today.

  3. Liver disease: there are many, many diseases of the liver. According to consulting expert, Dr. Wikipedia, symptoms of liver disease "include both physical signs and a variety of symptoms related to digestive problems, coagulopathies [bleeding and bruising disorders], blood sugar problems, immune disorders, abnormal absorption of fats, and metabolism problems."

    Interestingly, this is the first time I've ever seen "overheating" as symptom of anything other than a drug reaction or menopause.

    Diabetes usually damages the kidneys, not the liver.

    I've been referred to get a liver ultrasound.
  4. Lupus: another autoimmune disorder, less well-known than RA. Like RA, it is systemic and can attack many organs. Lupus is often characterized by a unique rash on the face. Lupus used to be a really dreaded disease, but medical management has come a long way.
  5. Fibromyalgia: According to Wikipedia, "the term "fibromyalgia" derives from new Latin, fibro-, meaning "fibrous tissues", Greek myo-, "muscle", and Greek algos-, "pain"; thus the term literally means 'muscle and connective tissue pain'." [Who gave them permission to combine Latin and Greek? Hmm? Who?]

    So, basically, it just means: pain. But it also includes some neurologic and mood symptoms.
  6. Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: Honestly, I'm not sure how this differs from fibromyalgia, except that it doesn't have a cool Greco-Latin name. It usually starts suddenly with flu-like symptoms and, though it does cause some of the pain seen in fibromyalgia, it is predominantly a disorder of fatigue [Duh! - ed].
Okay, fellow hypochondriacs and medical junkies: start googling!

Sunday, November 3, 2013


In high school, I had one teacher who moved in a remarkable way. For a while I couldn't figure out what it was that seemed so odd. Then, one day, as she opened a door, I realized it was something about how she moved her hands.

She did so delicately, as if they were made of glass.

It was fascinating to watch, her fingers ever so slightly splayed, arms lifting as if she had butterflies wings.

I can't recall a single thing she taught, but I remember her hands.

Over the past several months, years really, I've come to appreciate what might have made her move like that: arthritis.

While we were living in Colorado -- so, about four years ago -- I developed pain in the large knuckle of my pinkie fingers. It was in both hands, but worse on the right. Over the past few years, the pain has migrated to other joints and, this year, it seems to have made its home in my top knuckle of my index finger, though both hands are in varying degrees of pain almost constantly. Sometimes an ache, sometimes a sharp jab. I can't do up a button using my right index finger. [I secretly curse people with "strong" handshakes!]

In terms of pain management, I already take three Ibuprofen a day for bursitis. Heat is soothing and helps me exercise my joints, but cold (ice) is really the best thing for at least an hour of relief.

What's bugging me about all of this is that I am relatively young, I think. I mean, I always figured that this kind of achiness was something I might face in my sixties or eighties.

Any suggestions or tips?

Friday, November 1, 2013

Fiction Friday: Methuselah -- Empty Apartment

For other posts in the series, visit the Methuselah page on this blog. 

Agnes pressed her thumb to the reader and then picked up her bag just as the door opened. She almost dropped the bag on her foot as soon as she saw the disarray of the living room.

Every cushion had been lifted off the couch, ripped open, and tossed aside. The desk drawers had been pulled out and their contents dumped. The place had been ransacked.

She backed out and, heart pounding, went down to the security desk without touching anything.

Minutes later, a police officer was on the scene. After an astonishingly cursory look at the apartment,  officer Jorge brought her back in to go over the damage with him. All of her electronics were gone, as well as her jewellery. Not that she had a lot, but there was the cameo she had inherited from her grandmother. She’d never see it again.

“Does anyone else have access to the apartment?” the officer questioned.

“My boyfriend, Glen. But I haven’t been able to reach him in days,” she answered. She suddenly wondered if something had happened to him. What if he was here when this happened?

“It doesn’t look like anyone forced entry, so we’ll have to see who entered recently.” Jorge pointed his forensic device at the print-reader. A series of melodic beeps confirmed that the data was downloaded.

“Let’s see: you, of course. Glen Eberhardt — is that your boyfriend’s name?” He continued after Agnes nodded.

"Mara Freund. Do you know that name?”

“My mother.” Agnes couldn’t imagine why her mother would have come to the apartment. She’d visited her at the recuperation centre, but there had been no reason for her to stop by the apartment. Unless she wanted to visit Glen, which was possible; they liked each other.

“Ana from TidyTown Cleaners. Were they authorized?”

“Yes. I hate cleaning, but I have allergies, so I can’t just let it go,” she always felt apologetic when she told people she had a cleaning service, like she was a failure at the domestic arts. Which, in many ways she was, but so was Glen and he never apologized for paying someone else to clean their home. “There may also have been a food delivery from Comida Paolo,” she added. “We don’t like grocery shopping either.”

“Yes there was. And Glen several times before that,” Jorge continued, as if he were accustomed to this soliloquy. “And then we have you, so that brings us back to the last time you were in the apartment. That would be about eight weeks ago?”

Agnes nodded again, with a puzzled frown. It didn’t make sense.

“Let’s just step outside and confirm that the print-reader is working correctly,” Jorge motioned to the hall.

They closed the door then tried to open it without reading any prints — it remained firmly locked.

They scanned Agnes’ finger again, and the door released. Again, they closed it, confirmed it was locked, then scanned Jorge’s print. The door remained locked, as it was supposed to unless there were an active alarm.

After reviewing the windows, Jorge sent her his contact information, told her she would have to come down to the station to file an official complaint but that, for now, he had all the information he needed. “You should do a thorough inventory before coming down,” he added. “Once your formal complaint is filed, you won’t be able to add any items you had overlooked.”

Well, Glen, Agnes muttered after she closed the door, thanks for being here for me. Asshole.

Fortunately, there was an unopened bottle of chardonnay in the fridge. She poured herself a glass then went to the bathroom and ran a bath while she dealt with the mess in that room.

She closed the door so that she could ignore the unbelievable chaos beyond, tapped the sound system to relaxation. She lit a few candles, sprinkled some oil over the water then undressed and sank into the water.

This had not been a good day, not by a long stretch.

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