Archive for June, 2008

How do you know it’s time…

Monday, June 30th, 2008

… to replace your old car? Is it when:

  • it’s rolled over more than 230,000 miles?
  • the metallic silver paint has lost its luster and is merely soft gray?
  • the AC keeps losing its freon, and you have to add cans of the Bad Old CFC-based freon to survive the summer, knowing that it will all leak into the environment, contributing to holes in the ozone layer?
  • the engine keeps burning oil, and you have to add quarts of “high-mileage” oil to keep from burning up the engine, knowing that it will tear up the exhaust system, contributing to air pollution?
  • the radio is broken, the cruise control is broken, and the back door only opens from the inside?

Or, is it when the auto glass company calls you back to say they can’t repair your car window tomorrow after all, because the big national supplier says there’s only one back window for your make and model left… in the entire country… and it’s in Harlingen?

I told them to order the part, but I’m increasingly cognizant of the environmental footprint of my trusty old car. I guess it’s time to get serious about shopping for a new one.

Not quite what I had in mind…

Sunday, June 29th, 2008

I read recently that couples who get out and try new things — creating variety in their lives — are happier than couples who don’t. Apparently, new experiences cause our brains to release happy-fying neurotransmitters. So I’m trying to have more new experiences more often. But what happened today is not what I had in mind.

Our friends Michael and Susan moved this week, and I went this afternoon to visit them at their new home in Bellaire. A thunderstorm was rolling in from the west and I hustled to get in the house as it began to sprinkle. The boys invited me up to the office to watch their Transformers game for a few minutes. Then Susan invited me out to the balcony outside the office, while Michael secured bookshelves to walls. As we sat out there for a few minutes, a lady in a Mini Cooper drove slowly past the house, plainly gawking, but we couldn’t figure out at what. Minutes later, a neighbor wandered out and inquired whether we were aware of the tree in the car. What?!?

wrath of tree

Mazda modified by tree

Apparently, in the scant 15 minutes I was there, a big tree branch in the front yard succumbed to the wind… and landed on my car. Sheesh! I hope it wasn’t an editorial comment about my visit!

Fortunately, I had my camera to document the event for insurance, and Michael was able to heave the branch away so that I could move my car into their garage to stay dry. We have the same insurer — USAA — which will help, too. Heck, replacing the windshield and vacuuming out all the myriad green glass cubes may not even require filing a claim. I’m hopeful that this event will prove to be more inconvenient than expensive. And it also makes me glad that I hadn’t bought a new car yet.

Note to universe: For future reference, when I ask for “new” experiences, I mean “new enjoyable” experiences.

Hello, pool season!

Saturday, June 28th, 2008

Two months ago, Elizabeth wrote about the beginning of festival season in Atlanta. My first thought was “that sounds fun!”, followed closely by a darker thought: “my life has become so monotonous I’m not really aware of seasons.” Sheesh. I obviously need to work on that!

Meanwhile, Bill and I have been hankering to get back into swimming. But we haven’t come up with any pools that are both nice and affordable. In a city this big and this hot, you would think we would have resolved this question long ago. But not quite.

Since I’m doing aquatic physical therapy for my back, my PT coach gave me a map of all the City pools in Houston. The few I’d seen seemed small and overrun with rambunctious tweens and teens, so I had never swum in one. But this morning, when my friend Nicole voiced a similar desire to swim, we seized the opportunity to suck it up, pick a City pool, and go get wet. I’m so glad that we did!

Love Pool

Love Pool (What a great name!) is close, clean, and long enough for laps. Since we went right when it opened at 1:00 pm, it wasn’t remotely crowded. We had the lap lane to ourselves! The lifeguards empty the pool at 50 minutes past every hour as a safety measure, which will mostly ensure that this white girl never forgets and stays in until I’m braised. I just LOVE this pool, and it felt wonderful to swim! I can hardly wait to take Bill when he gets home from NYC!

Love Pool and 37 others like it are open six days a week, from Memorial Day to Labor Day. I still have no idea when the next festival in town will be (perhaps the Fourth?), but I’m not likely to miss Pool Season again. Whee!

Power of the pet-person bond

Wednesday, June 25th, 2008

As you may already know, our eight-year-old cat Tibbs became diabetic in 2005. Injecting him with insulin every morning is surprisingly easy. However, taking him to the vet — a place which he clearly associates with the wretched week he almost died — is traumatic for everyone involved. So I was caught off guard and alarmed when the vet told me Monday that they wouldn’t prescribe any more insulin unless we brought Tibbs in for a checkup. Meep!

His appointment was today and I was feeling really, really anxious about it. Bill is in NYC this week and available only by phone. But I am pleased to report that two tricks really helped things go acceptably. First, I made myself take 20 minutes to do a concerted relaxation exercise right before the appointment, in hopes that I would not transmit stress to Tibbs. Afterwards, my pulse was still racing at 108 but I felt significantly more calm.

Second and more importantly, I took two stinky shirts that Bill worked out in this weekend, and placed them in the cat carrier before I inserted Tibbs. He fought getting in, as he always does, but then he rooted into Daddy’s shirts and settled down. It’s the only time in three years that he has been in the carrier and not cried. It’s like Tibbs knew that Daddy was somehow nearby to protect him and he didn’t have to panic completely after all.

To be clear, Tibbs did cry, hiss, and occasionally hyperventilate both in the car and at the vet. But there were also long moments when he was still, quiet, and merely guarded. It’s the best we’ve done in three years, and I attribute it to the strength of Tibbs’ bond with Bill and the powerful illusion of his presence.

Bob’s new laptop is on the way!

Monday, June 23rd, 2008

If you’ve known me long, you have probably noticed that I’m no fan of uncertainty. I really want things to be reliable. I’m also no fan of parting with large amounts of money. I really want to choose a cost-effective option. So when it comes time to make a significant purchase — like a new laptop — I am prone to “analysis paralysis”. With so many competing laptops on the market, what’s a girl to do?

Living in Houston, one is practically obligated to consider a Compaq, and living in Texas, one is similarly likely to consider a Dell. Both companies make great laptops. But ever since they revamped their keyboards to push the Ctrl key to the far left corner, they are out of my consideration set. I have been all about keyboard shortcuts (e.g. Ctrl-C, Ctrl-X, Ctrl-V) since the 1980s, and the last thing I need is a keyboard that will give me carpal tunnel. Feh!

I really liked my old WinBook laptop (right up until I drowned the keyboard), but their current model just doesn’t measure up. The keyboard is configured right but the build quality is cheap, the screen is shiny and glare-tastic, and the only battery option gives just two hours of charge. Not acceptable.

laptop criteria

Thank heavens for husbands and arbitrary constraints! While we were browsing at MicroCenter, Bill noticed a critical detail that I overlooked — Lenovo (formerly IBM) has a properly configured keyboard. And it turns out that Lenovo is the only company I was able to identify that makes a 4-6 pound laptop model that meets all of my criteria. My very own shiny new StinkPad (I’ve always been a little fond of StinkPads) is in production and will be here in early July. I can hardly wait!

ThinkPad T61

UPDATE 1 (June 24): I just received an email notice that my new laptop shipped Tuesday morning, which means it could arrive this week, much earlier than I anticipated. Whee!!!

Update 2 (July 1): It’s here! It’s here! And it only took 13 days. Yippee!!!

It’s really time to buy a new laptop

Saturday, June 14th, 2008

On Monday afternoon around 4:00 or so, I did an unfortunate thing: I sloshed about 10 ounces of water into the keyboard of my laptop, causing it go “phpt!” and turn off abruptly. Oops!

I say “unfortunate” rather than “tragic” because, frankly, the timing couldn’t have been better. This laptop was only $900 and has given me a yeoman’s service for 3 1/2 years. Its hinges have cracked and it’s getting loose around the edges. I have really gotten my money’s worth out of it! Bill and I were already planning to buy me a new laptop this month, quick before Microsoft retires XP on June 30th.

After the dousing, I mused that perhaps this was the Universe trying to tell me to “slow down.” Amy quipped that no, the herniated disc was the Universe telling me to slow down. Drowning my laptop meant, “I said, slow down!” Hee! Not having my computer has certainly facilitated thinking more critically about balance and how I spend my time. But more on that another day.

Bob's maimed laptop
The good news about my laptop is that it’s “not dead yet”; it’s only maimed. After drying out for three days it boots and runs fine. Only the keyboard is cooked. That effectively ends its useful service life since my work depends on portable computing. But a quick trip to MicroCenter and a $15 USB keyboard later, I again have access to my calendar, contacts, and documents, at least at home. That will make moving to a new machine a lot easier. Laptop shopping, here I come!

p.s. Have I mentioned lately that Firefox rocks?!? When I resurrected my laptop and launched Firefox, it invited me to restore the previous session, utterly unbothered that Monday’s session had been called on account of rain. What a great browser!

Working to organize myshelf…

Saturday, June 14th, 2008

My desk in our office is a marvelous expanse — 60″ by 32″ — of solid walnut. Or, it would be if it weren’t covered in papers. My desk is so overrun that, ten weeks ago, I fled and have worked from the dining room ever since. But I am determined to find a way to reclaim my workspace.

I decided the first (easy) step was to create some shelves, so that I could get books and other items I use frequently up off the desk. I needed a LOT more help than usual because of my back: huge thanks to Sharon for going to Lowe’s with me to carry the wood, and huge thanks to Bill for schlepping the sawhorses, running the circular saw, and cleaning up!

Running the sander reminded me how much I enjoy working with wood. (Note to self: make time for projects like this more often!) Running the drill-driver was a challenge. By the time I got the shelves up, my back was throbbing. But I got them up!

The second step — moving into the shelves — required still more help. Bill patiently moved the old scanner, CD player, speakers, and paper stackers into place. I had fun finding all my work-related books and gathering them in one place where they will now be within arm’s reach when I’m working. What a concept!

Bob's desk before Bob sands new shelf boards Bob's desk with shelves

The third (and hardest) step is to tame the papers. At first, I actually aspired to somehow miraculously tackle all the papers so that this blog post could include a nice “after” photo. But even after multiple attacks on multiple days, I still have a long way to go. The first day I managed to extract a grocery sack full of papers from long-ago endeavors that are clearly part of my past rather than my future. That was easier than I feared. However, when I started to parse through all the transportation-related papers I’ve accumulated these last four years, the going got a lot slower and harder.

Transportation projects spend years and years in planning, which means many of the documents from 2004 etc. are still relevant to my work today. I’ve got to come up with an easier filing system, decide it’s okay to have some information only in my head, or start scanning like crazy. I’ve got more work to do, and it’s probably time for a new scanner. But in the meantime, I really like my new shelves!

Do as I say, not as I do: protect your back!

Sunday, June 8th, 2008

Many years ago, I heard that most back injuries are enabled by weak abdominal or “core” muscles, and therefore can be prevented by routine strengthening exercises. My mom had the sense to take that advice and says she has much less back pain than she used to. Unfortunately, I didn’t.

I learned three weeks ago that I have a herniated disc in my back:

I would hope that the herniated disc will be treatable within a few months with anti-inflammatories and physical therapy focused on strengthening my “core” muscles. But the other issues are problematic. So my doctor wants me to see a neurosurgeon or orthopedist who specializes in spinal conditions before I do anything interesting.

In my head, the possibility of auto-immune spondyloarthropathies was the scary option, and a herniated disc was the “simple” non-scary option. But after my much-anticipated visit with the specialist Friday, the herniated disc turns out to be just a less-scary still-not-good option.

The neurosurgeon essentially said that we’re two-legged mammals who walk upright, and the L4/L5 joint in the lower back is the part of the spine that takes maximum abuse. I have apparently herniated the most common disc. He also said that spines are like teeth: “if you live long enough you will eventually have a problem.”

Well, I definitely have a problem:

  • Standing for more than several minutes, like to give a talk or to cook, goes from uncomfortable to painful the longer I stand;
  • Walking more than a few blocks, like to go to lunch nearby, causes burning/tingling in my left hip;
  • Bending over to brush my teeth, unload the dishwasher, or pick up a laundry basket is a challenge; and
  • I can’t easily pick up my cat.

And here’s what the problem looks like:
Bob's herniated disc
This is an image of a very-thin slice of my spine, taken by MRI. The vertical column of medium-gray squarish bits is my lumbar vertebrae (L2 – L5 and S1), the darker ovoid bits between them are the shock-absorbing discs, and the long gray ribbon that runs top-to-bottom at their right is nerve. Right in the center of the photo, you can see where pressure has forced my L4 and L5 closer together, causing the disc to extrude a blub of its contents, which is pressing on the nerve. That’s causing both my pain and the weird sensations deep in my left hip.

The doctor described my disc as “incompetent.” Even less reassuringly, he said, “I see plenty in your MRI to make you feel a lot worse than you’re describing. So either you’ve got a really high pain tolerance or you’ve adapted really well.” The answer is I’m really good at avoiding actions that hurt. Apparently the nerve pressure can cause excruciating pain, inability to walk, and loss of bladder/bowel control. I’m happy not to go there! But at the same time, I’m avoiding activities that I enjoy which is definitely affecting my quality of life (and forcing Bill to do all the heavy lifting).

The good news is he did not recommend surgery… for now. The bad news is that he clearly expects to see me again. He said they would keep my file and “monitor” my condition. He told me my job is to “compensate” and do the best I can, to delay making the disc worse. So my back isn’t likely to get much better if at all. And over time, it’s likely to get much worse. What a frustrating prognosis! As to the possibility of spondyloarthropathies, he said nothing conclusive. I got the impression he thinks a herniated disc is plenty.

He told me to “get on with your life, carefully” and “avoid moving refrigerators.” And he prescribed six weeks of aquatic physical therapy to help get me back into action safely. For some reason, I had expected the doctor to tell me to do thus and so and my back would heal — like a muscle strain or broken bone would heal. But in retrospect, I suppose that if my back were going to get better, it probably would have by now. So much for unrealistic expectations. Instead, it’s time to focus on being Adapt-o-Bob.

Iritis revisited, part 4: cleared.

Sunday, June 8th, 2008

Last week, my ophthalmologist checked my iritis again. Three weeks of steroid drops later, the inflammation is all gone. Yay!

She advised me that since I have the HLA-B27 gene (~7% of North Americans do), I shouldn’t be surprised if the iritis recurs. But now I know what to look for: pain in one eye and sensitivity to light are cues to seek emergency medical care immediately. Note to self!