Sunday, October 28, 2012

Hillbillies, Cats, and a Ruined Breakfast

My hillbilly neighbors are responsible for ruining my breakfast and starting my day in exactly the wrong way.   I have indisputable proof.

Earlier this year, the house next door to mine was rented by a family of hillbillies.

Because they are the kind of hillbilly who pays little to no attention to the condition of their home and grounds, …well, they pay little to no attention to the condition of their home and grounds .

Because they pay little or no attention to the condition of their home and grounds, they have not mowed their lawn, which is just outside my kitchen window, since July.

Because they have not mowed their lawn since July, the grass and weeds are at least two feet high.

Because the grass and weeds are at least two feet high, a number of rodents such as mice and squirrels have found it a pleasant place to hang out.

Because a number of rodents such as mice and squirrels have found it a pleasant place to hang out, the neighborhood stray cats have found it a pleasant place to hunt.

Because the neighborhood stray cats have found it a pleasant place to hunt, my three cats, all of whom are exclusively inside pets, are constantly irritated by the strays so close to their house.

Because my three cats, all of whom are exclusively inside pets, are constantly irritated by the strays so close to their house, they jump up on the windowsills, like the one next to the kitchen table, in order to monitor and threaten the nearby intruders.

Because they jump up on the windowsills, like the one next to the kitchen table, in order to monitor and threaten the nearby intruders, they eventually have to jump down in order to resume other annoying activities around the house.

Because they eventually have to jump down in order to resume other annoying activities around the house, they sometimes use the kitchen table as a step toward the floor.

And because they sometimes use the kitchen table as a step toward the floor, they can land with two of their four feet right in my just-poured bowl of Honey Bunches of Oats with skim milk, thus making a mess of epic proportions, ruining my breakfast, soaking my newspaper, and generally starting my day in exactly the wrong way.

Damn hillbillies.

Damn cats.

Somebody find me a mop.

After such an exhausting undertaking, a nap in a basket of clean laundry waiting to be folded was subsequently taken.

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Revenge of a Dog Named Ozzy

If you follow me on social media or have been within ten feet of me in person over the past couple of weeks, then you know that I have not been feeling great.  Being a typical male who does not do suffering well, it was pretty clear.  You see, first I incurred an injury, which was very painful, but for the most part tolerable.  That injury however, was followed-up by illness.  The illness was not even in the same solar system as tolerable.  In the end, it turned out that the two were related.  Since it really is true that misery loves company, I thought I’d share the details with you.


It started with a dog named Ozzy.  Ozzy is a mixed-breed, red-haired mutt of about 50 pounds, and a pretty good guy overall.  One segment of the population which might disagree with that assessment is the local contingent of porcupines, with whom Ozzy has had several encounters.  Twice before, Ozzy has been brought to our animal hospital bristling with quills, needing chemical sedation so we as a staff can painstakingly pull them out one-by-one.  Needless to say, there is no small amount of pain involved in this, and Ozzy has developed an association between the animal hospital and hurting.  Sadly, he has yet to make the connection between porcupines and hurting, which would solve a lot of problems.

Not actually Ozzy, but he looks quite similar.

This particular day should have been one of Ozzy’s easier visits.  He had just taken a nip at a porcupine, and had a single quill lodged in his gums between his front teeth.  We figured that we could just hold Ozzy and get the errant quill out with a quick yank.

Yeah, right.

Ozzy remembered his previous visits well, and resisted so violently that there was no way we were going to get the quill out easily, not even with three staff members and his owner holding him down.  Sedation was in order, so we took him to our surgery, which was unused that morning. 

Unfortunately, the surgery had been the site of Ozzy’s previous quill removal procedures, and he panicked when he saw it.  In order to sedate him, the veterinarian had to inject anesthetic into a vein, which means we had to get the dog onto the surgery table and hold him still for at least a few seconds.  We had a muzzle on his mouth, so biting was not a concern, but Ozzy had other tricks in his bag.  One of my coworkers and I lifted Ozzy onto the table, she taking the front half and I taking the back.  Our canine friend was savvy to the plan, and began to twist and bend and contort like a fighting marlin hooked on a fishing line.  Most dogs fear being dropped when lifted, and so resist very little. 

Not Ozzy. 

At one point in the struggle, his left hip slammed into the right side of my chest, and I felt a pop.  It hurt, but not a lot, so I stayed with it.  As always, we won, Ozzy got wrangled onto the table, the veterinarian made her injection of sedative, and the quill came out in short order.

Ozzy woke up none the worse for wear, but if looks could kill, my coworkers and I would be six feet under right now.


I get banged around a lot in my line of work, but usually I can shake things off quickly. This time was different.  The discomfort in my ribcage did not fade, but instead grew worse.  I could still get around well enough, but things like bending over, pivoting at the waist, or reaching over my head caused a sharp twang in my side.  Later in the day, while doing some cleaning of equipment in the lab, I sneezed, and I nearly fell to my knees it hurt so badly.  My fellow staff members thought I had been in some kind of lab accident when they heard my gasp of pain.  That was when I knew that I had broken a rib.  I had done it once before, back in college, during a pickup hockey game.  Most doctors will tell you there is not much to be done for it other than pain relievers and rest, so I just kept calm and carried on, trying to avoid  tasks that would exacerbate the injury, applying heat when possible, and taking ibuprofen at regular intervals.

As with most serious injuries, the pain was actually worse a day or two later.  It was not enough to keep me from work, but it slowed me way down in almost every aspect of life.  My car has great suspension, but driving on bumpy roads was like doing an act of penance with a broken rib.  Putting on deodorant was a chore, though of course I still did it for the sake of those around me.  Fortunately I have some very considerate coworkers who stepped up to lighten the load at work for me.  I ambled through as best I could with their help, and took my weekend of Sunday and Monday to lie low and mend.

I tried to look at the bright side as I recuperated: at least my rib had been broken by a dog with a relatively tough-sounding name like Ozzy, and not one with a handle like Sweetie or Sugar Pie.  Hard to live down, that would be.

I headed back to work the following Tuesday still sore, but not as bad as I had been.  Broken ribs typically take about three to six weeks to heal if given proper care, so I didn’t expect a miracle after one weekend.  My mobility was still limited, but I was more able to function than I was before having had two days off to mend.  I settled into what I thought was to be my lot in life for the next few weeks: work with a constant pain in my side that would come and go each day, but eventually fade over time as the broken bone healed.  

Popping ibuprofen during the day and getting up close and personal with my heating pad each evening, the first days of that week passed as normally as one would hope. I did get occasional odd looks from clients who saw me wincing in pain upon doing seemingly simple things, like lifting a kitten up from the exam table with my right arm, but I didn’t want to let on about my injury.

That Thursday, a week to the day after Ozzy and the quill, it all went downhill.

SICK AS A...(oh, never mind)

Thursday afternoons are typically quiet at work.  The veterinarian takes the afternoon off, and the only staff on hand are the receptionist and me.  We use the time to do inventory, get caught up on paperwork and do the occasional maintenance project that cannot be done during regular hours.  It’s quiet, and we like it that way.

That particular afternoon, I was knee-deep in reformatting an inventory spreadsheet, a project I had long put off.  Instead of moving around a lot like I typically do on the job, I was stuck in a chair, in front of a computer.  It was a pleasant autumn afternoon, and yet a chill kept creeping over me.  I put on my fleece jacket while I worked, and the receptionist knew then and there that something was not right.  After all, she’s the one who is usually cold, and I can sweat up a storm in the middle of a blizzard.

While working, I ran my hand through my hair, and I noticed that it kind of hurt.  Definitely not normal.  I was suddenly really, really tired, a headache was coming on, and my knees and back were starting to ache too.  Glancing at the clock, I was relieved to see that I only had about 90 minutes of work left in the day.  My plan was to go directly home, eat something hardy, maybe soak in a hot bath, and then park in the recliner.  I might even go to bed early.

By the time I got home, I was drained and freezing.  In spite of the chills, sweat was pouring from my forehead, and the aches in my joints were getting worse.  The sensitivity in my skin was increasing too.  One of the cats jumped onto my lap, and it may as well been a mountain lion for how it felt.  There was no getting comfortable.  I nibbled on a token meal of toast and juice, and headed right for bed.

That night was one of the most uncomfortable I’ve ever had.  I was cold, so I covered up in extra layers of blankets, and yet was sweating profusely.  I had to change my shirt twice in the night, I was so drenched.  Every joint was screaming to the point where no position was comfortable, and the pain in my head was as bad as any hangover I’d had in college.  I could not keep my thirst quenched, and I had to empty my bladder at least every hour.  My house was warm, but my chills were so bad that the journey down the hall to the bathroom was like walking across Antarctica.

Work the next day was out of the question.  I called in sick for the first time in over four years, and stayed in bed.  I was thinking it was an early-season case of the flu, and the best solution was rest, pain relievers and fluids.  The day went pretty much the same as the night had.  That is, uncomfortably.  Around 4:30 in the afternoon, I got up, took a much-needed shower, ate more toast, and tried to rejoin the world of the living.  Coffee eased the headache, thank goodness, but otherwise nothing changed.  I went back to bed around 9:00 and fell semi-asleep, having a night almost identical to the one before.

The next day was Saturday, and I was still in no condition to work, but I was able to get out of bed and spend the day vertical.  My symptoms had moderated, and I was hopeful I had moved from death’s door to death’s front yard.  Once I got back in bed that night, the sweating, freezing and aching amped back up.  The next day, I bounced back.  A cycle of crappiness was clearly emerging, where I felt so-so during the day, but fell completely apart at night.  This was no flu.

On Monday, I did what almost every medical professional hates patients to do: I googled my symptoms. Sure enough, the top hit in almost every case was flu, except that I had no cold symptoms.  Lyme disease was another that almost fit, except that I have not been bitten by a tick, and had no rash.  The vague diagnosis of “viral infection” was another top possibility, but that could mean almost anything. (Ebola?  Plague?)

By Tuesday, I was slated to go back to work.  While the nights were still rough, I had been feeling better each day, so I thought I could pull it off. It was quiet enough that day that I was able to work only three hours, which seemed like a good way to ease back into things.  I felt fine at work, but when I got home, I felt like I had been hit by a go-cart full of sumo wrestlers, and sleeping that night was harder than ever.  Something had to give.


Swimming up out of a pool of sweat the next morning, I did the unthinkable: I called the doctor.  Doctor-calling has never really been my thing, and fortunately I have had few reasons to have to do so in my time.  The fact that this creeping crud was lingering so, along with some of the scary things I had read about Lyme disease, which was a distinct possibility, and no small amount of pressure from friends and family, got me motivated to make the call.

My regular physician, Dr. Whatshisname, was not in that day of course.  He was at a “conference”, no doubt involving a bag of clubs and a small white ball.  When the triage nurse on the phone heard about my symptoms, she really felt that I needed to be seen ASAP, so she scheduled a 12:30 appointment for me with Dr. Whoeveritis, who also worked in the practice.  I was already envisioning a torrent of angry letters from my insurance company about my not seeing my primary care physician, but I didn’t care.  If amputating a limb would have made me feel better, I would have gone for it with no questions asked at that point.

Taking yet more time off from work, because my doctor’s office is in a distant city I’ll call “Doctorland”, I made the long trek, donned the traditional paper gown, and proceeded to get poked and prodded by Dr. Whoeveritis, an amiable fellow with a thick Indian accent, who appeared to be of about middle-school age.  Heart? Sounds good.  Lungs?  Sound good too. Pulse? Normal.  BP? Normal.  Temperature? Slightly low.  He poked.  He prodded.  Nothing unusual except the tender rib.


This was exactly why I avoided doctors.  Here I was, dying a thousand deaths, and no outward signs to show for it.  It was just my word.  He asked a thousand questions, and then pronounced his diagnosis: “Probably a virus.  Rest, pain relievers and lots of fluids ought to help.”  My heart fell.  All this time and travel, and nothing more could be done than I was already doing.  There’s no treatment for a virus.  All you can do is manage the symptoms and let your body fight that nasty bugger off.

“However…” Dr. Whoeveritis went on.

My heart rose again.

“I’d like to get an x-ray of that rib, and some blood drawn to check for infection.”

There was hope!  The rib x-ray probably wouldn’t help me much, but if it was found that I had a bacterial infection…well, there are drugs for that! For the first and probably only time in my life, I hoped for bacterial infection.  I trundled over to the lab and cheerfully let them poke me with needles and expose me to radiation.

The phone call from the nurse came almost as soon as I walked into the house upon return from Doctorland.

“Dr. Whoeveritis has just received your bloodwork, and it shows you have an elevated white cell count.  That means infection, probably from the rib, which is indeed broken, but knitting.  He’s prescribing you an antibiotic.”

The nurse must have thought I was unusually chipper to hear I had an infection, but I finally had an answer and it was something I could do something about.  I thanked her profusely and made a beeline to the pharmacy, where I picked up the antibiotic, which was in capsules the size of mini-submarines.  I didn’t care though.

Maybe it’s the placebo effect, but I slept better that night than I had in nearly a week, and was nearly back to full capacity at work the next day.  I’ve taken the antibiotics faithfully, and the symptoms have melted away.  Even my rib seems to feel better, though that is likely just coincidence.

I took a glance at the list of appointments we had scheduled for my first full day back at work, when a particular name jumped out at me. 


Yes, that Ozzy!  When he had come in to get the quill removed, we found out that he was due for a vaccine, and he was coming today to get it administered.  I held no ill will against him.  He certainly had not meant to hurt me in his struggles to get away from what he perceived as danger.  A vaccine appointment has an entirely different feel that one for an emergency procedure like a quill removal, and Ozzy was a good boy for the whole thing.  He even earned an extra cookie from the treat jar.
Ozzy was obviously feeling better, and so was I.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Gleaning: A Nostaligic Tuber Tale

A brisk walk, especially after several consecutive days of rain, always refreshes my mind and body.  One of my favorite nearby walking trails passes alongside a potato field, and on my most recent walk, the field had just recently been harvested.  The flattened rows were littered with dead vines, rocks, and many stray potatoes.  Some of the tubers were just too small for the machinery to pick up, some were rotten or green and tossed over the side by the workers, and some were perfectly fine ones that had fallen overboard from the conveyor belt on the harvester or from an overloaded truck.  It’s not uncommon to see some potatoes left behind after a field has been harvested.  Those heavily-laden trucks are also responsible for the small piles of potatoes that can be found along roadsides at this time of year. In making a corner with too much speed, a potato truck piled too high with spuds on its way to the storage facility can spill a few onto the side of the road.

I remember how much those roadside piles of potatoes bothered my grandfather when I rode around running errands with him as a kid.  It didn’t bother him enough to stop, get out and pick them up, but I think he considered it at times.  He and my grandmother were no strangers to hard times and going without, having been newlyweds during the Great Depression of the1930s.  As such, they both had an aversion to anything going to waste, despite the relative comfort they enjoyed in their old age, thanks to some wise savings and a mysterious thing the young me heard them refer to as “soshsecurtee”.

My grandfather had worked as a farm equipment mechanic until he retired, and my grandmother had worked in the actual potato harvest itself for decades.  Consequently, they were very plugged in to the local farming culture.  This was how they came to start gleaning the fields in their later years.  

For many years, most potato harvesting was done by hand. A machine called a “digger” would upend the rows, exposing the potatoes. A large crew of hired pickers would collect them in baskets, and then empty them into barrels, which were collected on a flatbed truck that passed by.  Each full barrel was tagged with the picker’s number, and the picker was paid by the number of barrel picked at the end of the week.  At this harvesting technique’s peak, a picker could earn fifty cents a barrel.  Potato picking was often the first real job teenagers in this part of the world ever held, though lots of adults took part in the annual harvest too.  I’ve heard many stories of young potato pickers packing the local dairy bar, bowling alley and movie house on fall Saturday nights, enjoying the freedom that came with having their own hard-earned wages to spend as they pleased.

How they used to do it:
N.C. Wyeth painting via

As automated harvesting machines staffed by a small crew of only four or five became more the norm in the 1970s, fewer and fewer actual pickers were employed.  The local farmers often commented on the fact that, while they were saving time and money with a much smaller crew and faster machinery, it seemed like some perfectly good spuds were being left behind by the new harvesters.  After they had both retired from formally working in the harvest, my grandparents and some of their friends, with the blessing of some farmer friends for whom it was just not economically viable to collect the missed spuds, would spend many pleasant fall afternoons gleaning the left-behind potatoes from the fields. As a child, I always spent a few days of every school break with my grandparents in the country, but during the three-week potato harvest break I spent a little more time, since I was an extra set of helping hands in the fields with them.

How it's done now:

This operation was “no small potatoes”, if you’ll pardon the expression.  A small cadre of a dozen or so gleaners, which included my grandparents and often me, could usually be found in the fields of consenting farmers.  On a good afternoon when both my grandmother and grandfather were feeling well and the weather was nice, they could pick upwards of 150 pounds of potatoes between them.  The haul was even more if their energetic young grandson, namely me, was along with them.  Granted, some of the potatoes were on the small side, but most were comparable in quality to those found at the grocery store.  My grandparents fully stocked themselves, my family, and almost all their friends and relatives with a winter’s worth of tubers, with no money changing hands.  My grandfather would become downright indignant if someone insisted on trying to pay him for the potatoes he was offering.

There were few things that garnered my grandfather’s admiration more than my picking a large amount of potatoes on a given afternoon.  He was kind of a gruff old fart, though I was quite fond of him.  It wasn’t easy for him to express his feelings, but his pride over seeing that I had outdone either of them was not to be hidden.  He especially enjoyed when I had gathered more than my grandmother, who was a prodigious picker in her day.  I can’t help but wonder if my involvement with this yearly tradition of theirs was intended to instill a work ethic in me.  If so, it worked over the long-term.

My potato-picking prowess followed kind of a bell-curve over time however.  When I was very little, my job was to help my grandmother fill her basket.  What I lacked in amount of potatoes picked, I more than made up for in enthusiasm.  Of course, my fascination with the farm machinery working on the other side of the field tended to interfere with my focus an awful lot when I was so young.  What I was able to gather myself probably made up the difference for what my grandmother was unable to collect due to having to keep one eye on her wander-prone grandson.  From the ages of about 9-12, I was in my prime and could outpick either of my grandparents in a given afternoon if I tried.  Once I hit my teenage years, my enthusiasm for the task began to wane and turn to other things, at the same time my aging grandparents’ energy level was beginning to do the same.  They stopped gleaning the fields at about the same time I stopped going out to visit every school break.

Gleaning the potato fields served several purposes for my grandparents, beyond the obvious benefit of supplying them with potatoes.  In their retirement years, it kept them connected to the potato harvest, which was an ingrained part of the Northern Maine culture, especially to their generation.  It gave them an opportunity to get outdoors and exercise.  They were preventing something from going to waste.  By collecting so many potatoes, they could provide something useful and substantial to their loved ones.  And, it was a common activity they could do alongside their grandson, while passing along to him life-lessons and a culture that was rapidly changing.

My grandparents had this very postcard on their refrigerator for years.

My potato picking grandparents are gone now.  My grandmother passed away seventeen years ago, and my grandfather twelve. I’m so grateful for the experiences I had with them, of which this was only one of many.  Maybe leaning over, picking dirty things up for hours at a time in a cold, muddy field for no monetary remuneration isn’t your idea of fun, and I cannot say that it would be mine nowadays either.  Nonetheless, it was one of those valuable things that ultimately left several marks on me.  It taught me about hard work and the satisfaction that can be derived from it.  It taught me about not letting things go to waste.  It taught me about giving.  And it taught me that “quality time” does not necessarily have to be all fun and games.  It doesn’t require batteries or chargers, keeping score, brisk action, or a lot of noise.  It’s much simpler and yet at the same time much more sophisticated than all that.

Thank you, Gramps and Gram.

In loving memory of:
Verda (1913-1995) & Mark (1910-2000)

***No copyright infringement is intended in the use of these photographs.  They will be gladly be removed upon request by the copyright holder.